HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: Part 6 – The Final Mystery Ingredient!

July 8, 2010

The dog days of summer are here and temperatures are soaring. Early-morning mist hangs limpid over the meandering river. I could stare are the greens of the foliage all day and never count the colours. And even the dogs themselves – in this case, Greenhouse intern Wee Man – give up all frolicking in favour of a cooling snooze with a stuffed duck.
It’s time to drift off to sleep in a deck chair, straw hat clamped on head, frozen Marguerita in hand . . .

Or is it? Aha no, because the Greenhouse rarely sleeps, and the job of writing and revising, writing and revising, is never done for you writers looking to claim your spot in the publishing sun. In fact, what is clear is that since I was accepted as a member of AAR (the Association of Authors’ Representatives) a short while ago, even MORE of you are finding us and submitting to Greenhouse! A big welcome to anyone reading my blog for the first time who discovered us via the AAR website – great to have you with us.

You join us as we’ve nearly finished my mini-series of posts on the huge issue of ‘writing the breakout novel’, covering the need for an inspired concept, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes plotting, a deeply felt theme and vivid settings. If you didn’t catch the earlier ones, just scroll back and you’ll find them.

In theory we’ve finished. But have we really, because in reality there needs to be something else. A magical extra. An X factor. A ‘je ne sais quoi’ that will lift your story into another dimension and pick it out from the pack. What I wonder, could that extra va-va-voom be?
Can you guess? It’s the word I mutter constantly. And the word the Greenhouse Husband is so weary of hearing that he’s actually promised to thump me with a frying pan if I say it again in his presence.

Yes, it is . . .


Doh, most of you guessed it, didn’t you.


VOICE. VOICE. VOICE. VOICE. That elusive individuality which makes a story sing. Which makes the text run musically through your head as you read. Which apparently effortlessly evokes a sense of time and place, underscoring what kind of story you are reading. Lyrical and strange? Staccato and breathless? Folksy and rural? Gritty, tense and urban? Almost subliminally you absorb voice as you read and it can give a whole other level of meaning to the words that run along a page.

And here things get tricky. Because you’re going to ask me to teach you how to create voice – and I wish I could, but am not sure I’m able. What I CAN tell you, from many years of observation, is that I believe it has something to do with ear, and with listening acutely. I believe that some people have a natural ear for language and its flavor – what language is DOING and the why and how of that. And in some way I think this echoes musicality – some of us have great ears, naturally repeating any rhythm and melody – and some of us just find it much, much tougher.

But what I DO think is that we can all improve our ears as we practice listening! Try concentrating on a great sentence, how it rises and falls; its cadences. Sit back and listen to it as if you’re listening to Chopin or Lady Gaga, The Doors or the Jonas Brothers (look, I am trying to be eclectic!) .

Language is not a lumpen clod-like thing (unless you want it to be for some particular literary reason). It is beautiful, persuasive, agitating, breathtaking, melodious, and subliminal in its messages. What is the subliminal sub-text contained within the writing of YOUR story?

And here’s some homework for you. What books stand out to you as having a particularly strong and significant voice? Send a comment with any observations you have on voice and I’ll post it for the benefit of all. And if any MFA or MA grads are reading this, please feel free to give us the benefit of your wisdom on the subject!

I’ll start things off with suggesting WAITING FOR NORMAL by Leslie Connor (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins USA), which I just read and loved. For me the simplicity and naivete of the voice perfectly carried this wise, heartbreaking, courageous story of a girl’s struggle to cope with an errant mother and uncertain future. What a gem of a book, perfectly told!

So, voice.

Ears. Music. Listening. Capturing. Subliminal.

Keep your ears waggling and your heart on full alert to receive from the world around you. Then breathe it out, on to your screen, on to your page.

And here endeth our series of The Breakout Novel.

Enjoy this glorious summer and stay cool!