Monday, 3 June 2013

Risk Taking and Finding Your Voice

by Emma Greenwood
guest blogger

Emma Greenwood is currently redrafting her contemporary YA work-in-progress (long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Prize 2012) under the mentorship of Imogen Cooper at Golden Egg Academy. Her urban teen-voice short stories have been published/listed by Cinnamon Press and her flash memoir has appeared in Mslexia. She blogs on ethical/eco issues and is the Green Columnist for Liberti magazine. You can follow her tweets about life and writerly stuff on @emmajgreenwood.

Every time I guest for Notes from the Slushpile I get cold sweats.

Not when I write the first version, the version I think I’m going to send, the safe version, the nice one, the polite and polished normal one. I don’t get sweats from that. It’s the second one that gets me hot-flashing like a middle-aged woman in peri-menopause.

The second version assaults me in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. The second
Wrestling crocs / wrestling plots:
both can be dangerous!
version I type at 2000 wpm under my duvet with one speedy finger on the backlit yellow paper of my iPhone Notes app. The second version’s where I ruin my career by likening Imogen Cooper to Steve Irwin and admit to thinking my plot is sh*t. The second version’s the one I read in the morning and decide I really really cannot, will not, send.

But I do.

I blame it on Alison MacLeod.

In Alison's essay on risk taking (published in Short Circuit, a collection of essays on short story
writing, edited by Vanessa Gebbie, which I wholeheartedly recommend even if you don’t write short stories), MacLeod states ‘I started this essay trying to be honest with you. So I won’t stop now.’ She goes on to tell me she’s in the bath, listening to Celine Dion, and scrutinising her nipples. She says ‘these are things I shouldn’t be telling you... but (we) need to move beyond polite conversation, (we) have to be real and at times explore what is supposed to remain covered.’

She’s talking to writers.

MacLeod’s my naughty muse. She helps me find my voice. Every time I think my character absolutely CANNOT say that or that or THAT, I think of MacLeod’s nipples (well okay maybe not but you get my drift eh?) and let my character say it anyway. And if it’s really bad I pull out the trick I saw on Jonathan Creek and change the text colour to white while I decide.
I rarely delete it.
Usually it’s the best stuff.
There’s power in the risk.

The other person who most helped me with my voice is Beverley Birch.
the Lovely Beverley Birch

Eighteen months ago I sat next to Beverley at a SCBWI Master Class in London, petrified yet enthralled, as she delivered her legendary line:
“75% of the slushpile consists of plodding pedestrian prose.”

Wake up and smell the coffee.

I’m sure Beverley didn’t intend it like that, but boy was it what I needed to hear.

How to stand out in the slushpile: don’t write like that!

Beverley went on, graciously, to say that the slushpile was full of good story ideas but that:
good ideas were simply not enough. Manuscripts had to have a strong, distinctive, and consistent voice from beginning to end.
At her Golden Egg Academy weekend workshop last month, Beverley delivered the ‘plodding/pedestrian’ line once more (along with a wealth of new material to challenge me and fast track me on again). I knocked it back like a shot of Russian vodka. Take that, Greenwood. You standing out yet?

Beverley’s line puts fire in my belly, puts a dangerous glint in my eye. Like Stoli Blue Label, it makes me slam down my glass, wipe my mouth on my sleeve, and wade into my prose fists up. It makes me write like I ought to write, pushes me on into risk. 
It dares me to write ‘nipples’ on the Slushpile blog, go beyond ‘polite conversation’, allows my characters to speak as they will, not just as dummies in some patronising ventriloquist act.
I used to make my characters do what I wanted them to do, say what I wanted them to say. I allowed them some freedoms. But there were boundaries. The boundaries of a middle aged hot-flashing woman in peri-menopause (gah I hate the truth). They were kids. I was the mum. And I didn’t trust them one bit. I didn’t trust that through all the mistakes and heartache and downright stupid decisions things would turn out alright.

When I was a teen I lived vicariously. I lived for the moment, for love, and danger, and
Teenage Emma!
the buzz. I left home for London and worked the West End clubs. I moved to Moss Side and worked nightshift in the 24 hour garage behind bullet proof glass. I went to raves, stayed up all night, two-timed and got two-timed back, entered wet T-shirt competitions for cash, worked as a bunny girl, told Paul Oakenfield to turn his music down, failed my second year at uni, dated a stripper, drank gallons of snakebite, and got kidnapped by Barts Hospital rugby team.

Alison MacLeod I’ll see your nipples and I’ll raise you my teens.

At the same time I took sandwiches to the homeless, wrote poetry, visited the library, stroked stray kittens, was mortified when my friend stole some trousers from Top Shop, felt nervous on first dates, cried when dumped, blushed when Scott Cooper said I had nice hair, sleepwalked right out of our tower block, read Greek mythology, bunked off lessons to go to the Bristol Museum and walk through the galleries pretending I was Mrs de Winter, talked to James Ross in Physics when no one else would, and fell in love with Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.

I turned out OK (you may disagree!).

It’s not though, in my opinion, a case of turning out OK.

I was OK. Sort of. Just that weird kind of teen OK. A mass of contradictions: exploring, cocking it up, looking from the outside like not only was I off the rails, but I’d never even seen them. On the inside though, I was finding and writing my own moral code.

These are the teens I want to write about:
3D teens. Real teens. Teens who misbehave. Teens who cock it up. Teens finding and writing their own moral code.

Kirsty McLachlan, from David Godwin Associates, says in her blog post for Golden Egg Academy:
“(Children’s books) are brave and bold. They are fearless. (They) are continually pushing the boundaries with the writing, the content and characters’ relationships. They don’t sit still... They have no inhibitions... (They) are challenging and must defy expectations."

Writing stuff like that involves risk. Going back to MacLeod, it’s ‘exploring what is supposed to remain covered’. It's giving the middle of the night second version, a chance.
It’s messy.
It’s scary.
It gives me cold sweats.

This is the second version.
And, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going for a shower.


  1. Blimey! Well that woke me up too. Fabulous post, Emma and thank you!

  2. You watch Jonathon Creek? *shocked*
    Great tip though, turning text to white while you think about it is brilliant!

  3. Fantastic post - you are SO right. And ultimately, if we are honest in our writing and it never gets published I doubt we'll look back and say,'I should have tamed that down, I should have made it more run of the mill.' Will we? Maybe we will, aaargh - cold sweats....

    1. Thank you Kathryn. I find my risky writing always gets the most interest!

  4. What a wonderfull way to start my writing this morning. Especially as I write gritty short stories for teenagers and keep being told that there isn't much call for these days, unless their brilliant! As a new writer this gives me inspiration to persevere with what I want to do. Thanks

  5. Thank you Emma for being brave enough to post this version. Loved it and nothing quite like saying nipples in the morning to wake you up!

  6. Brilliant inspiring post. I'll put those quotes on my wall too!

  7. Screw the novel. Write your biography! Sounds like a best seller to me

  8. Thanks, Emma, that was a blast of (mostly) fresh air! Here's to imperfect characters and imperfect writers alike :-)

  9. Brilliant post Emma! Very inspiring on a Monday morning! thanks

  10. Yep, it all comes down to voice. You have to trust it enough to take its hand and jump of a cliff with with. Go for it!

  11. Great post and teenage pic, Emma. Looks like the one for your first book cover. Good hunting.

  12. Wow, perfect Monday morning wake up call. I bought Short Circuit a couple of weeks ago and can also recommend it to any writer. Brilliant post. Thank you.

  13. What a completely brilliant post! You do realise, however, that I'm now dying to meet these characters of yours - so hurry up, will you and enough with any self doubting! :-)

  14. Love it, Emma. Such a fantastic call to arms for brave writing (with the white text trick tucked up your sleeve if nerves get the better of you! Fantastic).

  15. Emma Greenwood I'll see your teens and raise you teenage circumcision (just wrote the chapter in my current WIP). Fabulous thought piece on voice ... totally agree about the staid first versions of our middle aged selves (just check out my totally snore inducing first blog post on NFTSP before I got the courage to allow any personality to shine through in my writing). But I have to say your teenage tales put terror into my motherly heart.

    1. Yes, as a father of daughters they had a similar effect!

    2. Re teens: I have nothing reassuring to add! It gets worse! I had to cherry pick due to word count ;0)

  16. Hey, I think I was present on at least one of the occasions you mention! Love You xxx

  17. mmmmm I think you must get it from your father, take risks and live life to the full, Love dad x


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