Monday 19 September 2011

Finding your voice - a SCBWI masterclass with Beverley Birch

By Addy Farmer

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 rejected

Beverley 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 view

Well, 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
For a third person narrative angle it is important to keep the pov as close to the character as possible and that, as Beverley said, can be a 'technical battle'.

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?
The first person is more immediate but can be limited in terms of telling the whole story.  How to overcome this?

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 story

It 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)


  1. Brilliant!
    Thanks so much, Addy.

    Lesley M

  2. A great comprehensive list here - thanks so much!

  3. Great post. Very informative.
    Thanks Addy

  4. Awesome post! Loving it! Sharing it! Tweeting it!


  5. Thank Addy, that was actually really encouraging in terms of what I'm doing right, as well as the things I could be doing better. And isn't it strange how a voice has to be built to suit for every different book? I find myself rewriting the start of a book many times to get the voice just right.


  6. Wow, what a thorough explanation of what a great novel needs. Thank you!

  7. OMG how relevant this very morning, when I'm sitting here dithering over a well-plotted outline, whilst being knowledgeable about the YA characters and wondering whether to go for 1st person or 3rd or a couple of povs, and wondering if I can do the voice I hear in my head with the 3rd instead of the 1st. Or just give up writing...
    You must have been sitting in on my quandary - great post!
    And Nick - I have a feeling I may just have to resign myself to getting on and then revising the first chapter x number of times afterwards - or even deleting it!

  8. what a brilliant and comprehensive set of notes on the amazing Beverley's masterclass! Thanks so much for doing this, Addy! Now I'm slinking off because the character in my head is yammering at me to get her onto the page.

  9. Sound advice beautifully delivered.

  10. Wow - what a brilliant post - well done, Addy and thank you to Beverley. I loved Rift and I really hope you can find the time in your busy editing life to write another brilliant novel set in Africa.

  11. I was so sorry to miss this class. Many thanks for bringing us along with you, Addy! So many insights here.

  12. Great level of detail, really explaining and demonstrating. Thank you!

  13. Thanks, guys! Beverley was the brilliant one!

    So much of what she said chimed with me. I agree with you, Nick about writing your way into a book. You just know when a character stretches their legs and leads you and into that misty valley - very exciting.

  14. Finding my main character's voice had always been a struggle until I went to a David Almond talk and he mentioned how he listened to his characters. It was almost as if they were standing behind him awaiting their turn. So I went home and listened, and there they were! It worked like magic.
    Until then I think I had a list of structured events rather than a story based on characters.
    Thanks for the blog, very useful.

  15. Amazing, direct and pertinent advice. Thank you

  16. What really resonated with me was this quote "The writer is not writing a book about childhood but a book with the child at its beating heart."

  17. Great post, Addy, and what a great masterclass! Enjoyed it immensely, and (perhaps unfortunately) it has made me go back and tackle that MS again, with the 'I can do better' mindset! Beverley was fantastic, and very clever, and very sneaky... you don't realise what she's up to till the very last minute!!


  18. Hi, that sounds like a really inspiring workshop Beverley- and thanks so much for taking the time to report on it Addy.

    I recently had a really useful set of notes from an agent (who was rejecting me!) with just the same advice about making sure you imagined a camera on the shoulder of your MC to help maintain their PoV and keep in their voice, using appropriate vocabulary etc. It's really helped me.

    oh, and i love the way you phrase that 'characters knocking against each other'. That's a fantastic muscular image isn't it, and something that makes the whole character interaction stuff make sense.

  19. Thank you so much for taking the time to give those of us who couldn't be there such a comprehensive post, Addy. I really appreciate this and it's always great to hear new ways to think about finding the voice of the story.

  20. Addy If I'd realized what terrific notes you were taking, I wouldn't have bothered! For those of you who weren't at the workshop, these are almost like being there.

  21. Thanks, Addy! A great post to read before sitting down for my writing time. RIFT is a beautifully written book and Beverley's attention to voice shows on every page. Your detailed masterclass helps me to think I can do it, too.


  22. Great blog. Thanks for sharing. I heard Beverley talk several years ago and it's great to hear her comments (through you) again. Thanks.

  23. Thanks for posting. The thing that stuck in my head after attending this masterclass was Beverley saying the creation of character inside is more important than outside: so true!

  24. Thanks to everyone who commented on the workshop - been reading it all with interest and I am glad it was useful ... and thanks to Addy for her own very personal and pertinent slant on it all. The older and wiser I become as commissioning editor and as writer, the more I feel that nailing this elusive thing 'voice' is the key .... so many people have wonderful plot ideas. But it's the telling that counts ... Good luck all! Those of you at the workshop - you clearly knew what you were doing and what it takes to make a book work - and I have little doubt that you'll make it ... notwithstanding the rocky seas.


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