Speaking in Someone Else’s Voice

I’ve been thinking about voice a lot lately – specifically, the way the voices of the characters in my current project are developing.

As part of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve officially started my third novel. This novel is a standalone – not a part of a series or linked to any other project I’ve written – which means it’s a fresh start for me. New plot, new settings and most importantly, new characters.

As I started delving into this novel, I realised that my process of creating characters has changed dramatically since my first book.

When I wrote my YA fantasy novel (we are calling him Swordy McSwordface at present, just for shiggles), I was planning to make it the first in a series. With that series in mind, I wanted to get all my ducks in a row for continuity and thus set up this amazing, fully-thought-out universe.

When I say I wanted this, I think what I actually mean is that I felt I had to do it.

When I was growing up, I was so impressed with how J.K. Rowling had reams and reams of backstory on her characters (enough to create a whole website like Pottermore). It was amazing to see how, in interviews, someone would question the origins of some random goblin from Gringotts or one of Sirius Black’s relatives and she would just be able to rattle off their history and motivations and Hogwarts House and even their wand size (oh my).

rowling

As a reader, these interviews were exciting ways to learn more about the wizarding world I’d fallen in love with.

But as a writer, they had an unintended negative consequence.

When I heard that Rowling had all this extraordinary backstory on her characters, I figured this was the way a true writer creates their characters; that they have to know every single thing about them, because they invented them. That seemed to make sense to me.

Moreover, the impression I took away from this was that if I wanted to be a good writer with well-rounded characters, it was essential to have mapped their entire existence as a human being.

And consequently, if I didn’t do this, I would be a bad writer. Or an amateur writer. Or a lazy writer.

So, I thought I needed to know all the fine details. Hair colour and style, of course, but also my characters’ addictions and crutches, their weaknesses, their scars, physical or emotional. Who were they friends with in primary school? Why weren’t they friends anymore? Why do they wear that particular T-shirt? Why do they drink that brand of beer? What colour is their piss in the morning? (Okay, kidding on that one, but you get my point.)

With the exception of the pee example (usually clear, though radioactive yellow after a multivitamin), these are all things you’d probably want to learn about the characters in a book you’re reading. It gives you a better sense of who they are and why they behave the way they do; it also makes them more real.

So with this in mind, when I wrote my first novel, I first set about creating these extraordinarily long documents of character bios. I spent hour after boring hour agonising over the origins of nicknames, the hobbies, the favourite school subjects, until finally I had what I needed: a full dossier on all my main characters.

Now I’d like to tell you how many times I actually referred to that dossier.

It was zero.

Actually, that may not be 100% true, because I seemed to constantly forget basic stuff like eye colour and hair colour/style, so for purely physical stuff I did glance at the beginnings of the dossier at times, for continuity.

But after writing them, I never again referred to those dossiers for input on what to make my characters say or do. I didn’t consult them for guidance when I was stuck in a particular scene, or when a character had to make a particular decision. So much of those documents was never viewed again.

stephen king

The reason for this is that my character dossier, for all its statistics and descriptions, actually didn’t tell me anything about my characters as people.

My character bios were like swirling double-helix strands of Deoxyribonucleic Acid: they contained everything that made my characters who they were, and yet, I could have analysed them for a decade and still I would not have known how my character felt, or thought, or sounded, because I had never heard them speak.

This was a profound realisation. When I created characters in bios and dossiers, they were really just blueprints – a network of pins upon which I would hang the nerves and synapses of a real human. But the bio itself did not bring the character to life: it created a lifeless, faceless mannequin that had no autonomy, no presence and no voice.

When I wrote Invisible Boys, I didn’t spend hours and days on constructing meticulous character bios. I did have a bunch of brief character notes in one word document that I drew from, but what happened with that story was that the characters revealed themselves to me, rather than me creating them.

This probably sounds disingenuous. I’m not cray-cray (well, no more than usual): I do understand that ultimately it was my fingers spidering over the keyboard that brought these characters into existence.

But I do also feel that I didn’t grow these characters in a clinical way, like embyros grown in a petri dish. Rather, it feels like I talked to them. I asked them to tell me who they were, and so they did.

My characters told me, and showed me, how they felt. They spoke to me in their own voices, and I was the scribe, and I recorded that snapshot of their lives for them.

It felt like they already existed, and I was just doing the hard work of asking them the right questions and getting them to reveal more and more about themselves. In hindsight, this reminds me of Michelangelo’s famous quote about freeing his statues from the stone:

“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” – Michelangelo

I imagine a lot of writers can relate to that quote – probably not just with character creation, but when it comes to editing a draft, too.

And writing characters like this felt natural and organic. Sometimes they did what they were supposed to do, but other times my characters kind of went rogue and did stuff I didn’t fully expect. And that was pretty damn awesome to be a part of.

So now that I am starting my third novel, I have made a conscious choice to not make any complex character dossiers. Instead, I’ve done up one-page bios on each of the five main characters, just to give me a factual reference point for stuff like what they look like, how many family members they have, etc. – mostly for continuity. But I’ve forbidden myself to write more than a page on each character.

I don’t want to tell them who they are and what they want.

I want them to tell me, in their words and their voice, who they are, and what their life is like, and how that feels for them.

characters off track

I don’t know if most writers work like this, or actually, if any work like this, but this is what feels right for me.

It does mean that, should someone one day quiz me in an interview about the full family tree of one of my characters, I may not be able to fully answer.

But at the same time, my gut response to that question is that I am not super interested in knowing everything about my characters. In fact, I would feel weirdly invasive telling a whole room of people what a particular character would do in a given situation. Unlike Rowling, I don’t think I’d have an answer prepared. I would probably have to write it as a scene and see what my character wanted to do.

I know I’m speaking about my characters like they are real entities with their own minds, as opposed to being figments of my imagination. But the reality is that I do see them as real, even while knowing they are fictional.

I see them as real because they are all, ultimately, fragments of my own self, expressed in different ways. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it:

Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. – F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Ultimately, that is what makes an authentic character for me: that they are a fragment of me each filtered in a slightly different way – like white light diffusing in a prism – and that they speak for themselves, rather than me speaking for them.

I don’t know if my process with character will change or evolve in the future. I’m certainly not dissing Rowling’s way, because frankly I’m still impressed and slightly envious of her control of character and world (not to mention for her success and wealth, but that’s a song for another day).

Ultimately, there’s no one way to do character, and every writer will have their preferred approach.

I’m just glad to have found mine.

Holden

What Self-Sabotage Really Looks Like

If I don’t write, I get sick.

I don’t mean physically sick in the guts. Although, that said, some of the overblown metaphors I’ve spun over the years have caused several readers to experience symptoms including head-spinning and projectile vomiting. (Exorcisms were needed.)

And I don’t mean the manflu that my partner accuses me of having every time a head cold knocks me for six and renders me a curled-up foetus watching old episodes of Pokemon and begging for cups of black tea. (“Please, baby, I’m too sick to boil the kettle …”)

The kind of sickness I’m talking about is more like a soul sickness.

A soul disease, maybe.

All I know is that when I spend too much time away from writing, everything goes to shit for me in terms of my mental and emotional wellbeing.

When I’m actively writing – whether it’s my blog or my creative work – there is an aliveness to my entire being – mentally, emotionally and physically.

Mentally, I’m stimulated as I reflect on my own experience and try to create meaning out of it (the blog) or dream up fictional characters and worlds and experiences (fiction).

Emotionally, I feel a certain level of satisfaction and catharsis at writing about certain topics. The actual act of writing itself is also deeply satisfying. Well, okay, sometimes the writing is frustrating enough to make you want to rip each individual hair follicle out of your scalp. But the point is, when a writer writes, we are in the process of flow, and we are doing the precise thing we were put on this giant blue marble for, and it makes us happy.

American poet Robert Hass probably said it best when he said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” Of course, to get to the state of having just written, you need to slog it out and actually fucking write something. So we’re back to where we started.

quote-it-s-hell-writing-and-it-s-hell-not-writing-the-only-tolerable-state-is-having-just-robert-hass-71-84-52

And when everything is in alignment mentally and emotionally, things work out physically, too: I eat well, I hit the gym the right number of times per week, I sleep enough, and my energy levels are high.

But when I don’t write, this all goes to hell.

And it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that I haven’t been writing this month at all. It’s only today, sitting at my laptop and forcing myself to do something, that I realise what happened.

This little mini-crisis started, essentially, because I am the kind of writer who likes to keep on top of the numbers. I have a number of writer friends who determinedly don’t want to know how their books are selling, but I can already tell I’m not going to be one of them. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a bit obsessed with rankings and charts and classifications and numbers. Even now, the moment I get into a new band, the first thing I do isn’t listen to the rest of their back catalogue: I find their discography online and study it with the intensity of Hercule Poirot. I need to know which singles belong to which album, which ones were certified gold, which ones flopped and in which territories. Only then will I explore further.

Yes, I am a geek of the absolute grandest kind.

And this geekiness translates to how I approach my writing career. I like to check in relatively regularly with my sales and downloads graphs on Amazon and Smashwords. While my short stories A MAN and THE BLACK FLOWER are not big sellers, THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR does occasionally have sales spikes, and when it had some particularly big ones last year, I was also interested to follow its chart positions on iBooks and Barnes & Noble.

I also keep track of my blog hits, and unfortunately, this is what began my unravelling during the entire month of June.

It started at the very end of May. I was looking at my blog stats for the month, and comparing them to previous months, to see how things are tracking. To my delight, things had actually been going really well: my blog hits had increased, month-on-month, since December 2017 – and some of the increases were pretty significant.

The graph looked like this:

Blog Stats Graph - Holden
Blog Hits: Because I’m a geek.

So, from January through April, I was pretty chuffed, because my reach was growing. In fact, I got ahead of myself and I was all like, “hey, maybe I am not a total sphincter of a human being!”

This is bad for a number of reasons, not least because my self-worth really shouldn’t have any correlation to how many people are reading my blog.

Anyway, it was the month of May that ruined me.

Because, as you can see in the graph above, although April and May look roughly the same, May actually fell short of April’s peak by roughly 20 hits.

Your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author – if he exists – would be like, “Gee, that’s swell! I guess this little blog is doing A-OK.” (For some reason, my mythical well-adjusted author talks in the same voice Eddie Murphy uses when he is parodying white people from the 1950s.)

But I am not your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author.

The fact that May fell just short of April was just not good enough. I had failed to continue to grow my blog. This meant not only was the blog a giant pile of steaming failure, but I was, too. The old hydra of perfectionism reared its multiple heads.

And so I self-sabotaged. Without fully realising I was doing it, I kept putting off doing my next blog post, which I had been writing weekly until that point. And suddenly two weeks, then three, then four had passed – and my brain would not let me even entertain the thought of blogging.

Around the same time, in early June, I received a rejection for a short story I’d submitted to a prestigious journal. Now, being rejected is absolutely not a new experience for me, but this one stung me more than usual for two reasons. Firstly, I thought that particular story might have been a perfect fit for that particular publication, and it wasn’t. Secondly, I was already in a vulnerable, self-doubty kind of space, so it just layered on top of that.

The outcome? Not only did I continue my blogging hiatus, but I now stopped writing fiction with my 5am Writers’ Club as well. I was nearing the end of a new short story titled CRUMBS, and I just left it hanging mid-sentence. And interestingly, I stopped on the 12th of June – the same day I got the rejection. So I stopped writing at all, and I stopped getting up at 5am to work.

And, like I said at the start, I got sick in the soul.

I was no longer writing in any form, and this persisted for three weeks. I was completely self-sabotaging my career as both a blogger and a fiction writer. It was the classic “if I don’t write anything at all, then there won’t be any way to be told that I’m not good enough”.

I’m not good enough. It’s a sentence almost every writer has said to themselves at least once, if not at least once a day.

This is paralysing for a writer, and it ultimately comes down to self-doubt: a perceived failure of my blog to continue to grow, combined with a rejection of my fiction, had me back to square one in the confidence stakes.

On top of this was the weighty gravity of expectation. I had recently had some positive feedback about my blog from multiple readers, and it seemed to be doing well. The resultant expectation I placed on myself was twofold: one, that I had to continue to grow without a single dip in monthly hits, and two, that every single blog post had to be fucking amazing and insightful.

The writing paralysis continued until this week. I attended the Penguin Teen Showcase on Wednesday night, which took place in Perth for the first time ever. During the Q & A panel at the end, authors Dianne Wolfer, Fleur Ferris and Emily Gale spoke about how long it takes them to write a first draft of a novel. Later, on Twitter, I was chatting to some authors about how I have written both of my first drafts in about 3 months each. When someone expressed surprise at how quick that was, my answer was simple:

quality tweet

It was only when I looked back on that Tweet today that I realised what has been missing from my writing practice: permission. That is, permission to write total horseshit. Giving yourself permission to write freely is extraordinarily liberating for a writer because it dampens the little spot-fires of self-doubt.

And frankly, giving myself permission to write badly is what made me become a serious writer in the first place. I spent all of 2013 – the entire year – paralysed with fear at the thought of starting my first novel because I was worried it – and consequently, I – wouldn’t be good enough.

When I gave myself permission to write whatever I wanted, with no expectation of quality, I churned out a whole novel, and then a second one, and then a regular blog and a whole litter of short stories.

So, now that I’m aware of what’s happened – and why I’ve been so frozen this past month – it’s time to make a change.

I’m giving myself permission again. Permission to write freely, in both blog form and fiction form. Maybe my blog will tank and become wildly unpopular, like the latest Sharknado sequel. Maybe my fiction will become utter drivel, like literally anything with the word Sharknado in the title.

But perception and reception are ultimately beyond my control.

What I can control is what I write, and how often I write. I can’t control whether or not people will like my stories, or whether people will enjoy every single blog post I put up, but I can control whether or not I do these things at all. And the reality is, I do them because I love doing them, not because of the feedback – positive or negative – that I receive.

So, it’s time for me to cowboy up and get on with it.

I’m committing to writing a regular blog again, so stay tuned for regular updates again.

I’m also committing to a regular writing practice again. And I’m kind of excited, because I’m about to dive into writing my third novel. So this is probably the right time to loosen the burden of expectations from my shoulders, and just write freely, and fast.

I have to remind myself that I am only human and I can only do my best.

And my best is good enough.

Holden