As writers, we will all have our favourite novelists who we love to read for their style, their writer’s voice, their storytelling abilities. They may even have stimulated us to want to write in the first place. Maybe it’s for the language and for writing the truth about human nature as we see it, or it may be the gripping storylines that keep us guessing, and the sheer scope and intricacies of the plot, or simply for their amazing imagination. We read our favourite authors, not to imitate them but inevitably to help us to develop our own unique writer’s voice and to identify the standards and qualities in our writing that we set for ourselves as individuals.
But to what degree can we meet these standards that we so admire, that are bound to drive our writing in a certain direction, dictate which genres we write in, and the kinds of plots we can best engage with?
Maybe to begin to answer this question we should look at what made us want to write in the first place. For me it was studying literature, in particular the nineteenth century novel. I had no interest in reading contemporary fiction at the time. Coming to the nineteenth century novel as a mature adult, rather than having the merits forced upon me at school, was such an awakening experience. I revelled in the ironic tones of Jane Austen, the poetic language of landscape from Thomas Hardy, the Gothic Romance of Charlotte Bronte, and the highly realistic Naturalism and dark side of human nature with a vivid imagination from Emile Zola. Most of all, were their amazing insights on human psychology and life’s conflicts. So when I decided to have a go at writing fiction, it was these writers who inspired me and naturally enough I wanted to concentrate on the elements I so admired in these authors.
Now, obviously, time has moved on, with very different preferences in language and crafting in novels of today, and since the authors above I have immersed myself in plenty of contemporary fiction. And any contemporary fiction I read is kind of judged according to my originally conceived standards. So, for example, Ian McEwan provides me with abundant moment to moment psychological intensity and staggeringly impressive awareness of the workings of the inner mind and feelings of both men and women. Stephen King provides me with the unsavoury dark side of human nature, graphically visceral and illustrative descriptions and the free rein of the imagination, and Zoe Heller (Notes on a Scandal) and Margaret Atwood provide me with ironic tone and wonderful crafting. So these are my priorities and when I came to plotting, things got rocky, and I had to work harder on this until I discovered the delicious freedom of it, though it still scares me a little. For some people, telling stories is what it is all about, that is their priority and the story must progress at a pace. Maybe that’s why crime fiction is conventionally more about the plot than the language, with less depth to characters, while literary fiction seems to be about the language and the inner worlds of more complex characters?
To further identify your own preferences, and as a useful exercise in itself, after you’ve read a novel, it can be useful to make some brief notes about what worked for you both as reader and writer, and what you, as both reader and writer, didn’t like. (I got this idea from a writing course).
- Did the beginning grip you? Or was it a slow seduction? Or didn’t it work at all, and why?
- How was the language? Appropriate to the characters or too much authorial intrusion?
- How was the description? Original or received and cliché?
- Was there an overuse of adverbs? (excruciatingly common, I find, in mainstream fiction)
- Did you feel the tense it was written in worked well? Did it change for any reason?
- The use of setting? A novel can be so compelling to me personally for it’s setting.
- Point of View handling?
- How they handle inner thoughts? Stream of consciousness use?
- How much telling, how much showing?
- The overall structure?
- Engaging characters? Why?
- Did any necessary research weave in naturally or stand out unnecessarily in areas?
- How did you feel about the ending?
- Did the story keep you interested?
- How page-turning was it and why? (again, plot priority or characters’ conflicts?)
So you are all set to write to your selected standards and your favoured genre, and you probably can identify what your own strengths and weaknesses are and can appreciate your strengths, and work on your weaknesses. But how much can you write to the standards of what you love to read?
This is probably an impossible question to answer and it might be too difficult to judge yourself objectively…but yet it may be useful to keep asking yourself the question as I do…not to feel you are falling short, or that you’re not as clever as those you admire, but rather to appreciate the focus and the quality you are trying to achieve or maintain, which defines your own individual writer’s voice, so that ultimately we can write as naturally to our own nature as possible. Writing is hard enough as it is, how much harder to go against ourselves…like me even attempting to write crime fiction? So we can carry on trying to write what we especially love to read – what could be more natural than that? We may get there, we may not, but we will find our own writer’s voice and be true to ourselves.
(image courtesy of Pixabay)