by Zoë Sharp
When I pick up a book by a new author – one that’s new to me, I mean, rather than a debut novel – somehow I know within the first page if the book’s going to hold my attention or not. I think most of us, whether we do it consciously or not, make that same snap decision.
And although I’ve talked before on these pages about the importance of opening lines and of finding the right jumping-off point for your story, there’s more to it than that.
It’s the voice.
Every writer has their own distinct voice. You might think of it as their style, but there’s more to it than that. It’s something to do not just with the choice of words, but with the way they’re put together on a fundamental level, the rhythm and the flow of them. It’s the way the writer breaks up sentences, paragraphs, chapters. And it’s something that’s very difficult to assess in your own work.
An old friend from my old writing group has a wonderful lyrical style of storytelling. She could read out of a phone book and you’d sit entranced and listen. But whenever we would go to meetings and she’d bring along printouts of her latest piece of work, my comments would be the same. "It sounds brilliant when you read it out, but what you’re reading is not what’s actually on the page."
As the author, you know where the emphasis should go, the pauses, the inflections. I’ve often said that I’m a visual writer. While I’m writing a scene it’s like I’m watching a movie being played inside my head, and all I do is write down what I see. Then, when the reader picks up that same scene, I hope that they feel they’re watching the same movie I was, when I wrote it.
But how do you know?
Whenever I’ve given talks to writer’s groups and would-be authors, the piece of advice I always include is to read your work out loud. There’s nothing to beat it, not just for checking that rhythm and flow I mentioned earlier, but to pinpoint those sections of dialogue that just don’t quite sound like real words coming out of real people’s mouths, and those chunks of descriptive narrative that just go on for a teensy bit too long. On the page, there’s always the danger they can lurk unnoticed in corners, but out loud they really scream at you.
This week, I finally managed to get hold of a copy of SECOND SHOT in its unabridged audiobook version, read by actress Clare Corbett. I must admit that I put it on the CD player in the car not without some considerable trepidation. It’s a very personal thing, hearing your first-person character brought to life by a stranger. And one whose interpretation of that character is restricted, in a way, by exactly what’s written on the page and no more than that. I remember reading an interview with an author who’d read his own work for audiobook, and was not allowed to make any alterations to the text, even though he was the one who’d written it in the first place.
And then there’s the horror stories, of course. My good friend and fellow LadyKiller, Priscilla Masters, recalls how one of her novels went to audiobook with a Swedish character called Agnetha, which was pronounced as ‘Agg-neetha’ all the way through, when it should be pronounced ‘Ann-yetta’. Another, Chris Simms, was telling me he had described a character in one of his Nepoleonic War novels as a war veteran, because – although he was only in his thirties – he’d been a boy soldier. The narrator chose to do all this character’s dialogue in the voice of a crusty old man.
But Ms Corbett, I have to say, brought Charlie Fox to life almost exactly as I’d heard her in my head. It was quite something. And I’ve still no idea how she managed to do the voice of a four-year-old girl, Ella, quite so convincingly.
The only oddity was Sean Meyer.
Sean has been a mainstay of the series almost since the beginning. He was one of Charlie’s army instructors during her abortive Special Forces training, a rough diamond from a council estate in a gritty northern English city, who eventually left the army to move into close-protection and was driven enough, successful enough, both to start his own agency and then to be taken on as a partner in a prestigious New York outfit, taking Charlie with him. He’s got that killer instinct right the way through, intelligent and cold-blooded, but he loves her to bits, even if – sometimes – he’s got a strange way of showing it.
Yes, he’s a Lancashire lad by birth, but I saw him as having acquired quite a bit of gloss along the way, sloughing off a lot of his roots and, with them, toning down his speech patterns. But I’d never quite got round to actually saying that, on the page. So, Ms Corbett’s interpretation, quite correctly, gives him a noticeably flat northern accent.
And, once I’d got over the surprise, I realised I really quite … like it. And now I’m sitting here, writing the new book, and whenever Sean speaks, all I can here is that voice for him. I’ve even found myself subtly altering his dialogue so it fits better.
What I also found myself doing was trimming more words out than I was putting in. Hearing the narrative made me realise that, although I think I’ve been progressively tightening the books up as the series has progressed, there’s still plenty of room for improvement …
So, my question is, have you listened to an audiobook that really didn’t fit your interpretation of the characters? Did it alter your subsequent reading pleasure? Have you had your own books translated to spoken word format and, if so, how did it match up to the way you heard the story as it unfurled inside your own head? And has it altered the way you write?
This week’s Word of the Week sincere, which means pure, unadulterated, genuine, free from pretence, the same in reality as in appearance. The derivation of this word comes from cere, which means to cover with wax. If a sculptor was working on a marble statue and they made a mistake, they would fill in the error with wax to obscure it – marble being a very expensive material to simply throw away and start again. However, if a work of sculpture was completed without the necessity for this, it was sincere – without wax.
Also, I managed to have a complete brain dump when I put news of Mayhem in the Midlands on Twitter and got the dates muddled with that of another convention I’m attending next year, CrimeFest. Mayhem will, of course, run from May 21st to 24th, 2009, and I am delighted to have been invited to be the first Caroline Willner International Guest of Honor in this, their very special tenth anniversary year.