Notes from the wood shed

You know what you want to say, but how do you find the right way to say it?

Finding the voice is one of the many challenges in writing both fiction and non-fiction. Get it wrong and your project might end up being postponed or, worse still, abandoned altogether (147,ooo words is a huge chunk from anyone’s canon, but that’s what happened to me!).

But do not fret. The great seers of modern literature tell us that nothing is wasted. The chapters you ripped up and threw in the bin yesterday may prove useful yet, even, if only, as practice for the next draft or the next novel.

Writing a novel requires a huge commitment. The writer begins with an idea, sets this down on paper, then spends the next few months/years looking for insight to enhance the material. The process has a strange parallel with police work. You start with a handful of vague suspects and launch an immediate investigation into all their activities, exposing more of their quirks and foibles as time goes on.

The more you write, the more you understand what motivates your characters. How they think, how they act and, most importantly, how they speak. When it comes to the final draft, the novelist’s own voice should be buried. His characters words are their own, inspired by the events that brought them to life in the first place, revealing them to the reader in intimate detail.

Viewpoint is largely a matter of feel. A first draft written in the third person might read back as being wooden and stifled, without any obvious reason why. To the novelist, having laboured so hard to make it work, this can be hugely disappointing. But the trick is to step back, put the draft in a drawer and come back to it later. Time often gives clarity to something that, at one point, appeared unworkable.

Once you have the voice, that critical element that invigorates your work and gives it authority, you know you’re on your way. Then it’s a matter of putting clothes on the skeleton and pencilling in the scenery. Real satisfaction comes when you can read a finished chapter months, or even years, later and experience a feeling of quiet pride at the way it turned out.

The only way to achieve this is through the tried and tested process of rewrite. Don’t listen to writers who say that rewriting a piece of work takes the sponteniety out of it. Remember Hemingway’s maxim – the first draft of anything is shit. Try it again, and again, and again, until you’re sick at the sight of the thing. Then one day, you can sit back and say – that’s it. That’s the one. Print to publish …

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