Finding my voice

So. The last book is on its way out into the world. Advance reader copies with yolk-yellow covers are being printed as I write. The proofs are on the hall table, waiting for one final read-over, to check for any lingering mistakes. The next book is plotted in my head, and I’ve told the opening section to my nine year-old over bath time, and he loves it. Now all I need is the voice.

As a writer, I find voice the hardest part in bringing a book to life, and by far the most important, and the most amazing when it arrives. Voice is the wind in the sails of my plucky little ship. Without it I have an interesting structure, neatly constructed, but no journey. When it comes, it’s like a breath of inspiration. It will take the story in new directions – not quite the ones I plotted on the map. I’ll battle to keep it under control sometimes, and sometimes I’ll just sit back and let it carry me along.

As a reader, voice is what pulls me into a book and holds me there. A great voice in a book is like the Ancient Mariner – it grabs you and holds on and makes you listen to the story, even if you think you’ve got better things to do. That first page is so important. Do I want to get to know this person, these people? Am I intrigued? Am I in love?

My name is Elizabeth but no one’s ever called me that. My father took one look at me when I was born and must have thought I had the face of someone dignified and sad like an old-fashioned queen or a dead person …

I’m coming off this plane, and I’ll tell you what that is later, and landing at London airport and I’m looking around for a middle-aged kind of woman who I’ve seen in pictures who’s my Aunt Penn …

Anyway I’m looking and looking and everyone’s leaving and there’s no signal on my phone and I’m thinking Oh Great, I’m going to be abandoned at the airport so that’s two countries they don’t want me in, when I notice everyone’s gone except this kid who comes up to me and says You must be Daisy. And when I look relieved he does too and says I’m Edmond.

These are extracts from the opening pages of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and by the bottom of page 2 I was hooked. Why didn’t they want Daisy in two countries? And what was about to happen to her? I really wanted to know, and though what happened to her was truly terrible, I stuck with her because by then I really cared.

On Friday, I visited some fantastic libraries in Medway. (What a service. So dynamic and awesome. The councilor who keeps them going deserves a medal.) I read some bits from various favourite books to a group of lively Year 5s, and one of these was Skellig. I still remember the first time I got lost David Almond’s prose, and the effect it had on me. He’s since said that the opening just came to him out of nowhere one day when he’d finished another story, as if it was waiting, and it was his reward. Fascinatingly, even though it was by far the most low-key thing I read to the Year 5s, it easily won their vote for the story they wanted to hear more of. It starts like this …

I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon. It was the day after we moved into Falconer Road. The winter was ending. Mum had said we’d be moving just in time for the spring. Nobody else was there. Just me. The others were inside the house with Doctor Death, worrying about the baby.

Great voices don’t have to be all-singing, all-dancing jazz hands performances. They can be quiet and still. But they are compelling.

I wrote 16 drafts of the opening of Threads before I found Nonie Chatham’s voice. The story isn’t really about Nonie – it’s about a girl called Crow, and Nonie’s just the narrator. But Nonie’s boundless enthusiasm for her world was what carried me through. She’s definitely more jazz hands than Michael in Skellig. This is how she started:

We’re standing in a fashion designer’s studio in Hoxton, admiring ourselves in the mirror. At least, Jenny’s supposed to be admiring herself in her red-carpet dress. Or she would be if it didn’t make her look like a cherry tomato. Edie and I are just tagging along, but the mirror takes up the whole wall and it’s hard not to take a bit of a peek.
Apart from the mirror, the studio’s big and bare. Lots of brick walls and tall windows and clothes rails. My mother would call it ‘industrial chic’. I would say it was in need of some love and upholstery.

Once I found Nonie, and she found me, I was off. Now I need to find a new voice. The story is waiting in its little story-bay, ready to set out to sea. I’m checking the skies to sniff out the wind … Wish me luck!

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