|The lovely Beverley Birch!|
How do you make Beverley Birch sit up straight? How do make a senior commissioning editor for Hachette Children's books, three times nominated Brandford Boase editor listen? You sing. You find your voice and you sing to her. Simple, right? Pick your tune, put the notes in the right order and belt it out. Well, of course not. Finding your voice and the voice of the novel and your characters is the difference between the x-factor and the fat lady. One may have modicum of unworked talent while the other has full on grafted, crafted worked.
It takes guts to work at something and Beverley understands the pain and passion involved in honing stories.
Beverley is a passionate defender of the writer. She is a writer herself. 'Rift' came out in 2006 and you know you are in the hands of a storyteller when you read the first page.
Leaving aside the many established authors Beverley edits, she has launched some 15 authors on their publishing careers and through writing conferences and continuing mentoring and editorial discussion, encourages several hundreds towards, hopefully, their first publishing deal.
|Marcus Sedgewick reviewed Rift in The Guardian and said of it,|
"Rift is that delightful thing, a book which holds you from the first page."
Why books are rejectedBeverley wants writers to develop their voice, this is, 'the difficult bit'. Good stories are rejected all the time, she says, not because of the story but because the voice isn't working. You could build a dazzling fantasy world with every last detail worked out but unless the reader engages with the characters inside the world, responds to their voices, believes their voices then the story won't really suck them in.
Beverley finds herself sending out the same comments many times:
There's a good story in here, with potential. But I do feel you need to focus your telling a lot more. My overwhelming sense is that you are still narrating from a very external viewpoint - not allowing the reader to discover the story through the characters, their viewpoint, experiences, how they knock against other characters, the situation, the predicament they find themselves in. It's still all too narrator based - a young reader really needs to feel sucked into the story, imagining themselves part of it. Essentially, I think, you need to find the 'voice' of the telling.
Part of this problem is that it leads to a great deal of setting up and scene-setting before any action or character perspectives, which means readers will drift away before they get there. You need to ask yourself the question 'why would a reader be interested in this when they are not yet engrossed in the characters?' When you look at it from that point of view, it helps to distinguish between what you, the writer, want to put there because at some point it will be important, but not yet, and what the reader needs to know NOW. Hold information for when the reader needs it and don't pad out the story with it before.
Jump us in to the narrative at a high point, and then gallop us through, threading information as part of the action, not outside it.
So where do I find my Voice?Ask yourself - why do I write for children? We came up with a few reasons for Beverley - adventure, escapism, to articulate inarticulate feelings. Of course what writers do for children is, in Beverley's words, "help them to try on other lives" and doing so in such a way that their readers can recognise the truth of what is portrayed.
You're tapping into a special time of change and uncertainty when readers want stories that reflect what they are going through. A writer articulates a reader's experiences or possible experiences. Obvious in theory but slippery in execution.
What is voice?A clear Voice sings out when the writer has a profound sense of who they are writing for. The writer is not writing a book about childhood but a book with the child at its beating heart. The reader will be drawn into the telling and identify with what is happening.
The world inside the story becomes the reader's world. How?
- be clear who your narrator(s) is and their world view.
- watch that the authorial voice doesn't hijack the story and mask the character perspective
- maintain truthfulness/authenticity of the character's point of view
The narrator and their world view.Spend time living with your hero. Character creation is not just what they look like; the inner self is as alive as the outer self. Dig deep and mine these people for everything they've got because it will make the telling so much more exciting. Your characters will make decisions based on who they are; their upbringing, experiences and outlook. Know them and you'll know your story.
Beverley told us of hearing Terry Pratchett describe his thrilling vision whenever he begins a new story. He compares it to standing on the rim of a misty valley and knowing that his character must journey to the other side. That he will walk his characters down into the unknown of the mists and he doesn't know how they will react until they're confronted with whatever dangers and adventures and characters are hidden there. It's an exploration alongside the characters - the outcome defined by the characters with all their faults and foibles
|The misty valley - an open book|
The authorial voice
A manuscipt may fail because the hero's voice is inconsistent and lacks authenticity. Beware the external authorial narrator unless there is a strong, purposeful role for them e.g. Lemony Snickett or Bartimeaus otherwise keep the external this voice firmly under control and allow your characters room to tell the story through action - their experiences, how they knock against each other or their environment, their dialogue and relationships.
The demon was close behind. Joshua barged through the doors of a Gothic church. Inside the pews were arranged in neat rows and pink and white roses were arranged around the altar.
Can you spot the problem? Course you can. No out-of-their-wits-scared-demon-chased child is going to stop and notice that the church is in the Gothic style, or even know this fact - let alone stop to smell the roses. There is, as Beverley said, no need for the guided tour. What would that child, in that moment with a demon on his tail, notice? I don't know because I don't know the boy; it's not my story.
|Don't think I'd pause to notice much if this guy was after me...|
Exploring point of viewWell, it's not all about point of view although that is part of it. It's not telling your story in the first person that gives it a voice.
- You can achieve a sense of the first person marrative even with a third person voice.
- A badly done first person voice can be very dull - to make it work, be sure it is delivering the pov that feels authentic and is creating that sense of conversational connection with the reader that is one of the main strengths of the first person narrative angle
Think filmically. Put a camera up to your eye and decide on how you'll film. Will you be the only eyes or will you sit on your character's shoulder and tell us what's happening to them and others around them? Will your camera view whisk up to give a birds-eye or distant view. Will it swoop back in to the characters again? It will need to keep us with the characters' perspectives.
|What's the story here?|
Older readers will enjoy some contemplative moments when more can be revealed. Retrospective memories can also be employed. The character can have a 'chat' with the reader. Or try introducing an older, experienced character who can provide essential plot nudges e.g teacher, grandparent and perspectives that a young narrator would not themselves have.
The writer MUST keep control of the voice because a breach will be obvious!
The third person allows greater range over story-telling angles but can walk a dangerous line where the author can take over the telling. So be careful about the authenticity of your vocabulary and the characters' viewpoint/interaction with others. Don't invest them with your grownupness.
You might have to work harder to get the action to deliver the conclusions the author has about the situation - but that's far more effective story-telling than great wadges of authorial comment. Think about delivering direct thought to the reader e.g 'What was he thinking, she wondered,' becomes, 'what was he thinking?' - a straight to camera technique that can give a first person feel to third person narration.
Ask yourself if you could help your story with supplementary pov.
Beverley offered us her experience when writing.
Siri tells the story of an English girl in the third person going to Africa and in the first person, a Portuguese historical character dying of the plague. As Beverley wrote she found that the girl's voice became odd, out of character. Why? Because it was the voice of another character - an African boy forcing its way through. Siri ended up being told by two characters in the third person and one in the first person! Then the technical battle is to differentiate them well.
THE RIGHT VOICE brings life to your storyIt makes it stand out. It marks it as considered and worth considering. Don't feel you have to rush. Don't be spooked by the market and how difficult it is to get a book noticed. Do be true to your characters and make their story special.
Then you can make someone like Beverley sit up and listen.
Want to read some great examples of voice? Beverley advises to check out awards short lists. Here's the 2011 Brandford Boase which includes the fab 'I am the Blade' edited by the fab Beverley. Then there's the Carnegie shortlist and what about the Booktrust/Blue Peter Book awards?
Write long and prosper.
You might also want to read:
Meg Rosoff on Finding Your Voice (The Guardian, 18 October 2011)