Don't Make it Read Like a Book

25th July 2003

I'm back into a sprint of full-time writing. My task for the summer is to effect a new draft of a novel, Look Who's Watching. This kickstarted itself a few Sundays back, when a sixteen year-old narrator dropped in to take over the story.

It now starts in the first person, and will return to that voice for the final section. The rest of the book should be able to stay much as it is, in a third-person narration, except a new antenna is at work. Any sentence that smacks of something literary needs to go. A literary sentence is a sentence you would only find in a book. It's a hangover English writers are especially prone to, steeped in the writings of their own literary canon. English writers tend not so much to write the way the world around them speaks; they write in the style and language of the writers they grew up with. Books were their refuge from a harsh world, dead writers were their peer group, and the books they subsequently write themselves appeal to those who have been shaped by similar reading habits. This is fine if you are content with a literary reputation among a shrinking group, but a lousy way to attract new readers.

Books have to compete with the thrills of video games, of the internet, with the news of the moment pulsing into mobile phones as text. They can do it, but they must appear new. They must be familiar rather than stale, and speak in a voice that attracts. Books might well devise brand new languages, which is fine, language on the street is constantly changing. A voice can be new, so long as it is direct. Readers must feel as though they are being spoken to. A writer can carry a reader down to hell so long as she/he is an entertaining guide.

In teaching these last few months I've kept asking my students, "What's the attitude in this piece of writing? Whose attitude have we got?" We've seen how the narrator filters his story through the blinkered gaze of Winterbourne in Henry James's Daisy Miller . We've enjoyed shifting inside a stream of different characters' heads in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. We've tracked the fierce and conflicting passions of Ursula and the senior Brangwens in D.H.Lawrence's The Rainbow. Everywhere we've looked, in all the books that have engaged us, we have discovered attitude. Successful writing must have a personality, a viewpoint, and a voice. We need to feel spoken to.

So my task for the summer is to filter out everything that doesn't belong to the narrator's voice, and to pump up the attitude. When I sense myself drifting off after a word or two of a new sentence, I shall know the narrator's gone lazy. He's making the novel read like an old book, rather than sound like himself.

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