In reading literary reviews, or writing reviews in general, one note that commonly comes up how the author has found his or her voice. ‘This writer has found his voice…’ ‘She’s established her own voice…’ ‘His unique voice comes through loud and clear in his writing’. The problem with this note, for prospective writers in particular, is that it can be a bit vague – what does that mean? How can someone find their literary ‘voice’? Your ‘voice’ is your distinctive presence, your way of communicating a story, and in that sense, there’s not really any way a person can say ‘here’s how you find your voice’, because it’s unique, it’s who you are – and not only that, it’s who your characters are, the authentic voices of your story. It’s the voice of the piece needs to be reflective of the story and true to the reality of the world that you’ve created.
While I can’t tell you how you can find your voice as a writer, what I can tell you are some of the things writers’ often do that are counter to finding their voice. We’re all trying to ‘be writers’, all trying to do what writers do, as opposed to what we, normal-folk, do, and inevitably, that leads to us adopting some practices which go totally against the mission of finding one’s own unique voice. Here’s a few things to avoid, or think about, as you go about your writing work.
Not every detail has to be painstakingly poetic
This is probably the most common mistake people make, they’ll try to create epic, poetic descriptions of even the most mundane and irrelevant details of the scene in order to conform to what they believe is a literary approach. It’s one of the easiest traps to fall into – you get self-conscious about your writing, you think you need to make everything more stylised, more beautiful, and you end up wasting paragraphs on details that serve no purpose to the wider piece. The greatest stories have a flow to them, an effortless beauty, a sense that every word, every description, is rested right there, in it’s correct place. That sense comes from knowing the story, from having every detail relate back to the core of the piece. Everything you describe, every element, should all be adding to the wider themes and ideas of the world of the story.
For instance, I read a piece recently where a writer had spent sentences describing the details of the way a room was set out. The story had nothing to do with room detail, and the characters didn’t have any psychological predispositions to noting down such elements. The description was purely there because the writer felt like they needed to include complex description. Now, if the character did have a leaning towards being caught up in intimate details – if, for instance, the character was having a life moment and such details reflected a wider sense of his/her own position at that time, those details would be relevant, but painting literary embellishments without direct story purpose is often jarring and representative of your own lack of confidence in your writing. Every detail you note should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, cut it out, it’s just weighing down your prose.
Trust what you know
A big part of establishing your own literary identity is trusting what you know. Your voice is exactly that – your voice. You have to know what you’re trying to achieve with your work. You know how people talk, you know what interactions feel genuine. You also know, in your own experience, what makes people do the things they do, what life events lead to people being how they are. Your experiences on this front are totally unique – you’ll have seen and heard of people doing things for different reasons, and you know those sequences as truths, as things that have happened. Those understandings are what you need to reflect in your work – if something happens, if someone does something, it’s not just a random event. What made that person do that thing? What compelled them to act in the way they did? You know what would most likely lead to a person being in the state of mind they’re in, and that is the truth that you need to reflect and tap into in your descriptions. That’s not to say you need to go into every detail of their life, but you need to know your characters, who they are, what they do, what their motivations are. If you know that detail, you can ensure their perspective is reflected in every action – how they react is how they would respond in real life. And that’s based on what you know – that’s where your own authenticity comes from, not from movies or books or what you think other people might think. You have to trust your own knowledge and understanding and ensure that that honesty is reflected in your work. If something happens that doesn’t feel true to you, it’ll likely feel totally fake to another reader.
Your only obligation is to the honesty of the story
This particularly relates to the voice of your work – the way the characters speak, the way the story is presented, these details need to reflect what’s best for your story. You know the characters, how they talk, how they act. The way it’s communicated, in your words, should reflect the voice of the piece. If you want it to be slow and dreamy, read other writers’ who’ve written in that way and study what they’ve done that works. Use thematic images in your writing area and music to inspire your thoughts and get the words flowing through your head. But above all, ensure that the voice you use for your work is true to the story you want to present. If it’s first person, get in the head of your character and describe the world as he/she would see it. If it’s third person, understand the flow you’re going for, how distant or intimate you need to be, and ensure that perspective is maintained – but always be true to the feel of the story, the characters, the drive. How do you want the reader to feel when reading it? What elements will keep them glued to your words as they flow through the piece? Don’t write in the voice that you think a ‘real writer’ might go for, write in the voice of the story, of the characters. Write as if they’re telling the story themselves, how they would describe it. You have to inhabit the story, be part of it, see things from the interior of the book. Once you get in there, in between the words, you’ll start to see your own voice shine through and move from being influenced by other works to being contained within your own piece.
As I’ve discussed before, there’s no sure fire way to be a successful writer – if there was, everyone would do it. It’s a lot of introspection, a lot of observation and a lot of daydreaming, allowing yourself to get caught up in your imagination. Finding your voice is difficult – it’s something that gets thrown about like it’s a goal to aspire to. But more often than not, you find your voice by not specifically looking for it. Be honest to your work, to the world’s you’re creating, to the characters you’re building, and through that honesty and focus, your voice and style will develop all on it’s own.
I recently watched ‘Dom Hemingway’, an unusual, energetic and excellent film by writer director Richard Shepard. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it – I’d heard Jude Law’s performance was great – a cockney, over-the-top, gangster-type, like Ben Kinglsey in Sexy Beast. But the character of Dom Hemingway had much more to him than that, more than stereotypical characteristics and quotable lines. Shepard’s character had a real life to him, a real heart – definitely, Jude Law was great and this added to the character (also, no one owns male pattern baldness like Jude Law), but there was so much more to him, more than what was presented on screen. He felt larger than cinematic life, a character that demanded to exist – at times affable, other times offensive, all the time a risk, a liability unto himself. A time bomb with a blood alcohol level as a countdown. As such characters are in real life, he’s both frightening and exciting, making him fun to be around, so long as you can handle the inevitable crash.
In the first scene I wasn’t sure where it would go, an opening monologue paying tribute to his own masculine prowess. I thought it might go down the path of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Bronson‘, which I was not a fan of (while many were, I felt it rode too close to being over the top a little too often). But the scene ends perfectly, and you immediately get the title – the ill-educated but articulate street crim, hence ‘Hemingway’. The scene captures the essence of the character, the passion, the anger, the verbosity – then the charm and the carelessness that follows. I was definitely intrigued, but it was the next scene that was so great, yet so shocking – I can’t even talk about it without ruining it. It’s symbolic of the juxtaposition that underlines the whole film – yes, it’s funny, but there’s also serious consequences to being the guy who doesn’t care, who can’t keep his emotions in check. For every laugh, there’s a sorrow, and the depth of that emotion is what really brings the film into it’s own. Shepard could have made it lighter, could have played down the impacts of these moments, but he allows the viewer to dwell in them, just long enough each time, just enough to sink you beneath the water with no hope, seeing the sunlight shivering above the surface – and then we’re back, Dom moves onto the next option, taking the audience along for the next chapter of the ride (and speaking of chapters, I liked the text on screen dividers, which can sometimes fall flat or be pretentious).
The thing about Dom Hemingway is everyone wants to be him. Everyone wants to be as charming and witty and be able to say what we really think, just unleash with no consideration of the consequences. Even in the face of death, Dom still can’t resist telling it like it is, and it’s refreshing and awakening. We’d all love to be able to just let it go like Dom does and go on three day benders with no concern for our everyday lives. But we can’t. That’s why Dom exists, he’s the embodiment of that escapist streak. But to be Dom comes also with the downside, the failure, and Dom certainly feels that, over and over. In the end you just hope he’s taken in the lessons, that he’s going to stay on the level enough to remain present. But you know he won’t. And it’s heartbreaking, but beautiful at the same time. Dom Hemingway is the epitome of ‘larger than life’, the personification of rebellion and good times, and a reminder of why that lifestyle is something most of us leave behind.
It’s a complex, intelligent and thoughtful film and it’s stayed with me for days after as I’ve mentally noted the depth and the art of it. It has style, skill in it’s execution, and I can’t fault it on any level. The only criticism I have is that I wanted more – which is the probably best way to end a film about such a character. You’ll always want more Dom Hemingway, but you know, after everything, how it’s going to end. Maybe best to get off before the real tragedy starts to kick in.
In one of the writer’s groups I’m part of, they were recently having a debate about the old writing adage ‘write what you know’. There was a surprising amount of differing opinions on this, people taking it literally, people suggesting a more abstract meaning. I’ve never really been that tied up about writing what I know in a specific literal sense, but I also don’t think that’s the intended meaning of that statement. Write what you know does not mean, literally, write what you know.
If the intention was to take this in its literal sense, how many great science fiction and fantasy stories would never have taken form? Some things, you can’t know, but again, that’s not the intended meaning of that sentiment. The intention is to highlight the importance of honesty in your work, of writing from the heart – and not necessarily your heart, but the heart of the characters in the story you’ve created. When writing, you are beholden to the honesty of the story you’re presenting. If a character does something, you have to know why he or she did it. It can’t be that you need a plot device, you can’t have things happening at random, that’s simply not real. That is the essence of ‘write what you know’, that you write with honesty and remain true to the characters as you know them. As they would be in the reality of the world you’ve created.
For instance, you need to know all the traits and history of your characters. You need to know that your main character was raised mostly by his mother, that his father never knew how to deal with him, that he took longer than normal to speak clearly because he didn’t feel confident around the other kids. That his first love never even looked at him, that he was intimidated by male teachers because of his absent father, that he was easily lured into trouble by peer pressure. That he didn’t want to go into the abandoned house, but the kids made him do it, then rode off on him, and left him scared and distressed when the police came.
This sort of summary, a basic rundown of the general moments in a character’s life, these details might never come up in your story, but they are the elements that will lead you to knowing and understanding how he will react in all situations. Now you know, no matter where you take the story, that the character is intimidated by older men. Maybe that’s a key plot element, maybe not. The point is, this is something you know, you’ve come to know this through your character development.
Normally I work in the opposite direction – I think of the major plot points then work backwards through the character’s history to understand what would have made him take the actions he/she did in order drive the story – but by doing that, as the story develops, the characters start to take on a life of their own, as you know all the things that have happened to them. You know how they’d react if this or that happened. Because you know them. They’re real, not plot devices. Ideally, you’d have this depth of knowledge with every significant character in your story.
The important thing to note about ‘write what you know’ is it’s not about what you know. It’s about what you need to know. You need to research, plot and learn your characters so you can know the information you need to communicate your story in an authentic and believable way. You need to be honest to the story, honest to each scene and each interaction – because people can sense fake a mile off. If your characters are inconsistent, that will jar in the reader’s mind. You need to be real, to see the scene in its reality, then present it in its truest form.
You can’t know what the scene would be like in the wake of a nuclear bomb blast. But you can research and know the detail of nuclear winter. You know what winter is like, you know what smoke and haze can be like. Based on what you’ve read and learned – on what you know – you can imagine the reality. Now feel it. Now write it down. That’s the essence of ‘write what you know’.
It should probably be slightly extended:
‘Write what you know, learn what you don’t’
And there’s never any limit on what you can learn.
Spike Jonze sets himself a tough task in his first feature film screenplay. He needs to make the audience believe that a man can fall in love with a voice. In ‘Her’, he succeeds, but goes even further than that. This is the best film I’ve seen in dealing with the heartache of breaking up and the wandering of loneliness. The attention to detail is amazing – the film is set in a not-to-distant future, but that’s never the focus, it’s the backdrop for the characters’ every day life. There is no time wasted on exposition, explaining the future, it just is. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent and is really coming into his own as an actor since that weird mockumentary film that never really worked. Amy Adams, too, once again proves herself to be a major talent worthy of significant roles.
I noted after I’d seen Her that ‘if you’ve never been in love and had your heart broken, this film might not be for you. For everyone else – must see’. I felt every emotion that main character Theodore Twombly felt, it had me from the start. And the subtle way Jonze plays the emotional notes, without ever overplaying or getting caught up in the scenery is pure genius. Jonze has a great sense of the romantic and can find simple, beautiful moments in the mundane. Just like real life, if you have a moment to take it in. His preceding short film ‘I’m Here‘ had similar moments that captured that perfect feeling of being so lost in love that you’d give anything for this person (literally, in that film). There are moments in Her that I found extremely moving, moments that made me want to be more open to the world. That’s the most any art can do, move you to open your mind and want to experience more of life.
I can’t recommend Her enough, an amazing film, well written, well acted, well executed. You should go see it, as soon as you can.
It’s the dream of almost every writer to have a book published. But close behind that is the dream of having your book turned into a Hollywood movie. I got somewhat close to having this, sort of. Here’s what happened:
When my novel ‘Rohypnol’ was published in 2007 we were contacted by a couple of groups interested in the film rights. I had no idea about this stuff, I still had stars in my eyes about having my book in Borders, so I took the advice of my publishers on what to do, who to listen to, etc. There were four groups trying to buy the rights to ‘Rohypnol’, which was awesome, and in my head, it meant it was definitely getting made. But the film world is incredibly complex, there are so many variables when seeking film funding – you’re asking investors (producers) to put up millions of dollars on the promise of a return, I can understand why there are many hoops to jump through.
I met with one producer and director combo in Melbourne. The director was Amiel Courtin-Wilson, who has gone on to do some fantastic short and feature film work in recent years. Amiel was a really cool guy and seemed really into the project, had a good vision, I liked everything about him. But there was one other group who had got in contact with us late in the piece which were pretty much the winner as soon as we heard them mentioned. The group was Seed Productions. Seed Productions was owned by Hugh Jackman, his wife, Deborah Lee Furness and their business partner John Palermo. They were working on a a couple of major films (Deception and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) so they had the contacts – and it was Hugh Jackman, of course he knew people who knew how to get a film made. Seed were the safest bet to go with – they had a clear funding plan, they wanted to get moving on the project straight away. They were the ones. So I signed the film rights over to them.
I started working with John, who had asked me to take a shot at writing the screenplay. I hadn’t written a screenplay before, but I’d read all the books and who’s going to say no to having at writing a Hollywood screenplay? We went through a few drafts, with John giving me regular feedback and sending me reference books and DVDs to help get the story down. By the end of that process I was reasonably happy with the screenplay. I was pretty sure it needed work, but it felt okay as a starting point – it didn’t feel way off. Seed then signed up a director for the project, Kris Moyes. Kris was best known for his music video work, but he’s always working on major art projects, amazing stuff. I was a big fan of his video for ‘Are You The One?’ by The Presets. In fact, when I saw that video had won the ARIA award for best video I thought it would be awesome to get that guy as the director of ‘Rohypnol’. And there he was. Kris is one of those guys who’s way cooler than you. Not in a bad way, he’s one the most down to earth, easy going guys you’ll ever meet, and I really liked him, but he’s cool in that he can, say, wear some outlandish kaftan in public and totally pull it off without looking like a douche. The sort of guy who you’ll run into in the strangest of places and it’ll seem completely normal that he’d be there. ‘Cause he’s cool, he can just do whatever and make it cool. His ideas were great, he was keen, everything was moving in the right direction.
Of course, this is over the course of a year or so by now. John was based in LA wo we’d go back and forth via e-mail and I’d write and re-write and wait for his feedback, like everything in publishing, things take time. After probably a year and a half we got to a point where we needed to get an expert to go over the screenplay and fix it up. Andrew Bovell was one of the names put up as someone who might be able to go over it, which was great – Andrew wrote the screenplay for Christos Tsiolkas’ book ‘Loaded’ (the film was called ‘Head On’) and ‘Lantana’ which was a great film. But that never came about, Andrew was working on something else and wasn’t able to do it. I met with Kris and John at Seed’s offices in Fox Studios in Sydney and we went over where everything was at then things got real quiet for a long time. ‘Wolverine’ was getting close to release so I figured they had a heap on, so no problem. Both Kris and I got VIP tickets to the cast and crew screening of ‘Wolverine’, which was pretty cool then after that nothing. For ages and ages.
Kris and I stayed in contact for a little bit, but he had other projects overseas so that sort of faded out and I’d heard nothing from Seed for months and months. Then one day I read on a news website that Seed Productions had shut down. The guys had decided to part ways, with Wolverine being their only major production credit. After I read this, I sent an e-mail to the Seed guys saying I guess this means the film is no go, and thanking them for their time and efforts and for giving me a chance to be a part of the process. Hugh sent me a polite e-mail back, wishing me all the best and that was it. By now the book was a few years old, no longer in stores – the ‘heat’ of the book was gone and the film offers had died down. It’s been under offer a few times since, but it’s never gone any further. It’s disappointing, but that’s how it is with film stuff, so I’m told. A whole lot of things have to align for you to get the green light, even if you are working with a major company or a company with major contacts. I still hold onto the dream that it might one day get made, but it’s pretty unlikely now. I never met Hugh Jackman. People always ask this, but no, I never met him. I think one time I was in the Seed offices just after he’d left, that’s the closest I got, other than via e-mail.
So despite the disappoinment, I really did enjoy the process. Being able to work with John and Kris and just the excitement of working on the possible film adaptation was amazing. John went on to produce the excellent ‘Drive’ with Ryan Gosling – which was interesting to see because after reading the book of ‘Drive’ I could relate the transition from book to screenplay to some of the advice John had given me as we went through ‘Rohypnol’. Kris is always working on something ridiculously amazing, living a life of creativity we can only dream of – you can see his stuff here. And Hugh Jackman is doing something, somewhere, I don’t know, he faded out a little bit after that.
And that’s the story of how my book nearly, almost got made into a real movie. I’d already imagined myself in a tux on opening night too. That’s how it goes.