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On Author Voice vs Editors


What is your author voice? How do you develop it and bring it to the fore?

It’s a tricky question and one many authors struggle with. I myself struggle to reconcile what I know to be good writing practice with injecting distinction and personality into my writing.

I went to a fantastic seminar at the Hay Festival earlier this year, which really helped me explore the notion. The crux of the seminar, hosted by the BBC Writer’s Room,  was “first, know yourself, then, put yourself in the writing”. Easier said than done, granted, but it’s a starting point. The goal is to achieve “specific” and “distinctive” writing, and avoid “bland”. Bland is bad.

What I’ve been trying to do to meet this challenge is go with my gut instinct a little more. Rather than strictly following the “rules”, I’m trying to go with what I feel works best, especially where I can pinpoint why I feel that way.

Red pen editingI felt like I was making progress on the concept of author voice vs technique, but recently I had a little setback.

I submitted a short story for a collaborative anthology and got some edits back to consider. Now, really, I ought to be happy with the fact there were only a few small edits per page. I know this. I should be ecstatic. Some of the edits were genuine mistakes and I was happy to accept these, but the rest, well. It almost felt like they targeted everything I’d purposely done to make the piece more interesting and more distinctly me. Here’s some examples:

  • There were a number of adjectives deleted as superfluous. I tend to use them sparingly anyway, so where I have used an adjective it’s because I wanted to enforce a point, make something stand out.
  • There was one particular place where I’d used “then” at the beginning of a paragraph, on purpose, to give a stronger sense of a break from what came before it. I could have gone for “But, then,” but I thought “then” was enough. What I didn’t want, as the editor has suggested, was to continue the action without that pause to actively draw attention to the difference between the before and after, and the fact that the after has alleviated the before.
  • What probably disappointed me most was the re-wording of a couple of past continuous sentences to past perfect. If I’ve used past continuous it’s because I want to convey a sense of continuous action or movement! The two tenses are different and one is not inherently better than the other.

When I first started out, these types of things could be found all over my early, amateurish work, and I learned to look out for them. In fact, I became quite hung up on them. I would strip out any adverbs that crept in, stick to past perfect unless I absolutely couldn’t see a way around using another tense and I would search my work for “was”, “then”, “just” and a bunch of other “banned” words. Passive voice? Nope, not allowed.

At first it was a great way to improve my writing, but after a while it started to turn my writing into something I didn’t recognise as mine. Obviously I understand the need not to flood my writing with such things, but everything was coming out the same and I didn’t know how to inject that sense of character or author voice into it. If we all rigidly stuck to the same rules all writing would be the same.

Which is where the advice from the seminar and my own realisations come in; I needed to relax and go with the flow. This piece was one of the first where I’d put that philosophy into practice. So, having the things I would previously have hunted out myself, but actively chose to keep in, picked up on by someone else undermined my confidence a little. Perhaps I was going at this the wrong way?

Thankfully, at the same time as wrong footing me the feedback gave me the opportunity to analyse the examples. No writer can ask for anything more than the chance to think things through from a fresh angle and learn from every setback. I took the story away and went through each and every edit in detail and found a way to improve the problem sentence or paragraph. I can honestly say the result was a better piece of writing.

UK-EU Referendum flagsI am not an expert on the UK-EU relationship. I don’t know whether we would be better of in or out in the long run. Most of the “facts” being bandied about are estimates, misrepresentations or vague guesses which makes it hard to know what to believe. There are both valid and stupid points on both sides which makes it hard to know what’s important.

The “facts” I have settled on to guide me in the referendum are these:

  1. Out of all of our democratically elected politicians, 471 back remain, 156 are in favour of leave. That’s 75% for remain. Almost all of those on the leave side are Tories. I am not particularly pleased about how that party is running the country so why would I trust them to guide me in a big decision like this? If you take the Tories out of the mix it’s 293 to 19 or 94% in favour of remain.
  2. The political party for which I feel the closest affinity unanimously backs remain.
  3. The MP for my constituency backs leave… I didn’t vote for him. The guy I voted for backs remain.
  4. The majority of business leaders seem to back remain. Businesses… collectively, also known as “the economy” and “employers”.
  5. Unison backs remain. Politicians and businessmen could have their own interests in mind, but unions are there to represent their members. It is the only thing they are their to do, and the biggest union in the UK says its members are better off if we remain.
  6. Politics and business aside, the list of other people who back remain contains far more people I respect than the list of people who back leave. What’s more, the list of leave backers contains some people I seriously distrust or dislike.
  7. But, more importantly, facts aside, I know this:

It is too simple to say membership of the EU is the root of all evil.
Leaving the EU will not “fix” all the things that people
in this country are dissatisfied with.

Many people are going to vote leave tomorrow because they are unhappy. They are unhappy with the way things are in this country, with the way it is run and how that impacts them. People want a good stable job with decent pay, a place to live and access to healthcare and education services of good quality. Many people are struggling with one or more of those things and feel that nothing is being done about it.

Those people crave a quick fix achieved through change and politicians in this country do not offer change. To them, change is risky, when every four years they are held to account in an election. Instead they work to maintain the status quo while promising reform that is never delivered. They tinker about with small scale things but never bite the bullet and make changes which people actually experience in a positive, definable way. They are too short sighted and self serving.

For once we get the opportunity to choose and enact a big change ourselves so I understand why people are attracted to voting leave. It’s change, for better or worse, rather than faffing about not doing anything. I wish sometimes I could shake the government by the shoulders and say “do something! ANYTHING!”

Leaving the EU has all the appearance of the solution people desperately want. A substantial, decisive change which will address the problems in this country. But that is an illusion. This is not the quick fix you want it to be.

I will be voting to remain.

If you choose to vote leave, do it for the right reasons. Do it because you can identify a tangible way in which it will positively affect you. Do it because you agree with the principles. Do it because someone you respect and believe in supports it. But, don’t vote leave just because you are angry with life; it won’t make things better and it could make them worse, especially in the short term.

Stolon of a spider plant, close-up

Image by Eptalon via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Between the pale green, silver-spined fronds, round stems probe the air with tiny explorers at their tips. It’s pointless. The plant sits on top of a filing cabinet in an executive office on the fifth floor of a concrete box, yet it dangles its babies over the carpet in a futile effort to colonise.

“So, you’ll add those new elements to the proposal?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes.” I’m not really listening to anything the boss is saying, my mind is preoccupied. I admire the plant’s tenacity. Aren’t we all a little like that?

While the boss turns to his desk, I sidestep towards the plant. The tiny leaves of a baby pioneer tickle my arm. I twist a hand up behind my back and trace the cord to the mother plant.

“The new figures,” he says, holding out a sheet of paper.

I hesitate and he frowns. No good. I abandon operation liberate in favour of the offered paper and await another opportunity.

“Are you alright?”

“Fine, fine.”

Another frown and a slow shake of the head.

Then, in the brief seconds it takes for him to return to his desk chair, I make my move. A pinch of my fingernails snips the explorer free.

“You can go now.”

“Uh huh.”

I keep my passenger out of site. This is one office spider plant that will colonise new ground.


Thanks for reading. I have always harboured a secret urge to steal baby spider plants. What about you?

The man’s head protruded from the gutter and remained there, quietly taking in the world. The missing grill allowed him to pop up, but no further than his neck.

What a strange perspective to be at eye level with passing cars wheels, ear level with the slap of shoes on tarmac so close behind. A thin trickle of oily water dribbled down by his chin and he breathed in the tainted air.

Across the street, a coffee shop waiter did a double take before turning away at the call of a customer.

A throaty bus crawled by and the head descended below ground, thoughtful. What a view on the grubby sole of the world you could get looking up from the gutter.

Picture of road with white line and weed

Image courtesy of sritangphoto.

This story was inspired by mis-reading a writing prompt from Nancy Stohlman which said:
“Write a story about or featuring a body part. (Heads out of the gutters, people,
there are other body parts!)” 

At first glance, I took “heads out of the gutters” as an example. It stuck.

Is it Okay to Stop Reading a Book?

I am currently caught in a reading dilemma.

The book I’m reading isn’t very good. Or at least isn’t holding my attention.

Is it okay to stop reading a book? Logic says “of course!” and yet it feels wrong.

Book with glasses against the backdrop of a library

Image courtesy of pannawat

When I am enjoying a book I make time to read and rocket through the chapters to the end all too fast, but when the book I’m reading isn’t engaging me I tend to choose other things to do. I might have that book on the go for over a month, and not spend much time reading. So by forcing myself to keep going I read less over all and then I resent that. I want to read lots of books and this book is getting in the way!

Reading is supposed to be an enjoyable pass time; there must be something seriously wrong if I find myself procrastinating from it, right?

So why do I feel so reluctant to give up on a book?

There’s a part of me that wants to give the author the benefit of the doubt. The eternal optimist that believes that the next chapter is when it will start to get good.

Then of course there is the fear of missing out. What if the next chapter is where it starts to get good and I don’t give it that chance and I miss out?

If something doesn’t hook me within a chapter or two, I can put it back on the shelf on the basis that I’ll tackle it again at another time. Maybe I’m just not in the mood for that genre. I can justify that.

But, if I persevere and get a decent way into the book, by the time I begin to suspect that the author is never going to deliver what I want from the book, I’m already committed. I’ve already spent some number of minutes/hours reading. If I give in now that was wasted time and I also have to admit that I was duped or made a bad call, and no one likes to admit they were wrong.

There’s also a nagging fear that if I don’t finish it, it will sit there, unfinished, forever, constantly reminding me of my failure to read it. If I put it back on the shelf at this point I’m not going to want to try again. I’ve already come to the conclusion that it’s not for me. And if I won’t want to read it in the future, it’s now or never!

This is particularly a problem with printed books rather than digital. I struggle to part with books (okay, things in general, I confess) at the best of times. At least if I finish it I can part ways with it amicably as I donate it to a charity shop or drop it off at a book share, but how can I let it go if I haven’t read it? I chose it and bought it; I don’t want to get rid of it before I have had my money’s worth.

By this point I understand I sound like a crazy person.

Is it just me who feels this way?

… No seriously, is it? Leave a comment below and let me know how you feel about giving up on a book.

What do you do if you start a book and it doesn’t grab you? Do you persevere and struggle through to the end? At what point do you decide enough is enough and walk away?

Do you ever regret not finishing a book?


Over on The Great Escape I explore more about the implications of readers quitting on books in my article Fiction Industry News – Amazon and Pay-Per-Page

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