Finding Your Voice

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Yesterday I read a great piece by Lev Grossman (author of the Magicians trilogy) on finding his author voice through writing fantasy fiction (‘Finding my Voice in Fantasy‘). He admitted that he felt something was missing in the two ‘literary’ novels he had published and that, when he was producing those works, the writing came slow and hard as if he hadn’t quite found his ‘voice’ yet. For Grossman it was writing fantasy, and the liberation of writing against the literary expectations he had imposed on himself, that gave him the chance to discover his true ‘voice’ in his writing.

For Grossman “it was the most profound, intense writing experience I’d ever had. The icy grip of reality on my fiction cracked, and a torrent of magic came rushing out”. I love that line – for it encapsulates beautifully the experience of truly being in the writing ‘zone’ when your author voice takes over and allows the story to emerge. 

I’ve recently delved into the writing world of YA and middle grade fiction and what occurred to me was most surprising. I expected my YA voice would be an easier one to access (I still feel most days like I’m 16 after all…) but instead, it was the middle grade world that set my voice free. Maybe it’s because I feel attuned to my nine year old twin boys’ world, perhaps it’s because I still read aloud to them each night and these books tend to be for the most part middle grade fantasy novels…who knows? Whatever the reason I felt the exact sense of liberation that Grossman describes. 

I remember when I was writing my first book, Consequences of Sin, I certainly felt as if I was channeling the voice of my heroine Ursula Marlow – and when I returned to writing the third book in the series, Unlikely Traitors, that voice was inside me, ready to be channeled once more. I hesitated before deciding to write a middle grade book because I wasn’t really sure I’d be able to access that kind of ‘voice’ within me.  To my surprise the voice that emerged was just as strong as Ursula’s. 

The upshot of all this, is that I think many writers need to dabble in different genres to explore aspects of ‘voice’ which they may never have expected. I know plenty of writers who consider themselves ‘literary’ and, by default, superior to those of us who write commercial or genre fiction. For many of them the act of writing is a struggle (sometimes I wonder if they feel that the angst of it all somehow adds to the mystique). I wonder, if they allowed themselves the freedom to explore other genres, whether they would discover a new and more accessible ‘voice’ within them. I can only hope that others take Grossman’s lead and realize, as he did that: 

“Writing about magic felt like magic. It was as if all my life I’d been writing in a foreign language that I wasn’t quite fluent in, and now I’d found my mother tongue. It turned out I did have a voice after all. I’d had it all along. I just wasn’t looking for it in the right place.”

Isn’t that great?!

So tell me TKZers how did you discover your writer’s voice?

Getting Inside a Character’s Head

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I have just finished the first part of an online short story I’m posting on my website which requires a change of perspective. Both Consequences of Sin and The Serpent and The Scorpion incorporated a distinctly Ursula-esque POV but in the new story I have delved inside the head of another character – namely Lord Wrotham – which has opened up all sorts of possibilities (I can’t help but grin as I write that).

It does, however, also raise some challenges which go to the very heart of character development. You see I have only ever viewed him the way Ursula views him. Although I know his background (I created it after all), in many ways he’s as much of a mystery to me as he is to Ursula. Hence the fun in writing the story…and for those of you who have read The Serpent and The Scorpion, the story also offers some tantalizing clues as to what led to his arrest…

When I develop characters some of them appear pretty much fully formed in my head, whereas others take a while to ‘ferment’, as I ponder their past and what has made them who they are. Now I know many writers take offence at the prospect of characters doing unexpected things (aren’t we the ones in control after all?!) but I do find that many times my characters start behaving in ways I never intended – in a way rewriting themselves as the book progresses. For me, that’s all part of the fun of character discovery and development.

So how do writers flesh out their characters and what did it take for me to write this story from another character’s perspective?…You’d think it would be a methodical, well-organized process but instead I found myself:

  1. Rummaging through my old electronic files for the backgrounder I developed for Lord Wrotham then realizing that as I wrote both Consequences of Sin and The Serpent and The Scorpion I basically discarded most of it and reinvented him as I went along (bugger!!)
  2. Rewriting the bloody backgrounder from scratch only to find a couple of minor characters unexpectedly popping up in his past (Bugger! Bugger!) which meant I had to take a closer look at them as well
  3. As I am also working on the third Ursula Marlow book, Unlikely Traitors, I then sifted through that draft manuscript to check his story and then started playing the ‘what if’ game….(triple bugger, No!!!)

So what happened at the end of this process? Well, I decided I liked pottering around in Lord Wrotham’s head…In fact, I was discovering he was one complicated sexy man…then my husband stopped talking to me.

I guess that’s what happens when characters take over.

So how do you approach character development – are you better organized than me? Do you have it all figured out? Or do your characters, just occasionally, take you by surprise? Are there any writers whose characters you wish they would explore more – characters you wish you could get inside their head and have a bit of a rummage?

Toxic Writing Friendships

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Like most writers I rely on a group of friends and family to give me much needed support as part of my writing process. I have those who are happy to provide input early on in the drafting process, those who are great proof readers, and those who are just ‘cheerleaders’ from the sidelines. Last year, however, I discovered the dreaded ‘toxic’ writing friendship – and though it’s a sensitive issue to explore, I felt the need to investigate this insidious issue. (It could also be that the NyQuil I now need to function courtesy of my infectious disease incubator sons is kicking in and making me want to vent!)

When I wrote my first book, Consequences of Sin, I did so under a veil of semi-secrecy, because not many people outside my writing group even knew I wanted to be a writer, let alone that I was writing a novel. I had a few friends who were the ‘writers’ amongst our social group – unpublished and with plenty of horror stories behind them – and I felt a little uncomfortable when I got my offer from Penguin, simply because I had never been regarded as one of the ‘them’. They also considered themselves to be ‘literary writers’ so I thought hmmm…what am I going to say when the project I affectionately called ‘my bodice ripper’ had actually managed to get published?!
At first it all went smoothly (well, cool but smooth). I tried to be low key about it all – not wishing to offend ‘the writers’ and I found myself putting up with stuff that was just unbelievable. One such ‘writer’ actually distinguished us because she said (with a sniff ) that I was writing ‘commercial fiction’ not ‘literary fiction’ which somehow meant my publication didn’t rate quite as highly (and justified her failure to be published as well).

I suddenly realized I had a noxious writing friendship on my hands. So what was I to do now?? At first I was worried that I’d pissed off every friend I’d ever had by inviting them to book signings or sending quick updates on my latest book news. Then, after others reassured me that wasn’t the case, I started to wonder – was my experience typical? Was getting published a sure fire way to alienate my other non-published writing friends? Were there really ‘literary writers’ whose tortured souls somehow trumped mine?
I started to question the value of my writing – you know the kind of thing – ‘Oh, I guess, yeah, I only write mysteries…’ but thankfully, I soon had a WTF revelation and pulled myself out of it.

So what about you – have you had the dreaded writing friendship turn toxic? How did you handle it?

NB: Needless to say I have mentioned no names and hey, my ‘toxic’ literary buddies would never stoop to read my blog!

Just Released – The Serpent and The Scorpion!

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Well it’s blatant self promotion and birth announcement time! I’m so excited the second Ursula Marlow mystery, The Serpent and The Scorpion, comes out tomorrow and I can’t help myself! It’s hard sometimes to remember that it takes such a long time, 18 months typically, from manuscript to print, so for an author it’s like a very, very long pregnancy (and trust me I know what that feels like having had twins!) So now it’s time to celebrate – and I confess a few glasses of champagne have already been drunk (and the book isn’t officially in stores until Tuesday!)

When describing The Serpent and The Scorpion, Kirkus Reviews wrote “Pre-World War I England is a seething cauldron of conflicting ideologies as Bolsheviks, suffragettes, socialists and merchants of death battle for control.” I couldn’t have summed it up better – and reading this it’s obvious why I was drawn to this period in history!

All this month however I’m going to explore the themes in the book rather than the historical period in question – because I’m fascinated how, as an author, I find certain elements in a book suddenly coming to the fore. In my first book, Consequences of Sin, there were past betrayals and lost innocence. In The Serpent and the Scorpion, Ursula Marlow is still recovering from the events in Consequences and trying to make her way in the world as an independent businesswoman (a rarity in Edwardian English Society). The themes in this book are therefore a little different – the betrayals are more personal, the stakes are higher and Ursula is now older and wiser – yet still all too vulnerable. So I get to explore lust and greed, the pursuit of power and the cold calculation of those who relish the prospect of war with Germany. Whoever said history was dull and stuffy!

Next week I will be focusing on the theme of lust in my books: not just lust for another person but also lust for power, independence and revolution. The Serpent and The Scorpion is set in 1912 against a backdrop of socialist activism, militancy amongst the suffragettes and an escalating arms race. Oh and there are a couple of murders thrown in for good measure. My mother-in-law advised me when I started the manuscript for The Serpent and The Scorpion that I also needed “more sex…tastefully done of course!” and I’m pleased to say this aspect of lust is also taken care of. Ursula Marlow is named after a DH Lawrence character after all…

October is a big month for my fellow Killzone authors with Joe Moore and Kathryn Lilley having new books released as well, so it will be ‘champers’ all round for us here! Over the next few weeks I’ll be traveling on tour so I hope to meet some of you in person as well as in the blogsphere. For all the details about events, locations and times please visit my website at: