By Tania Carver
A change of scenery. The chance to go somewhere different, see something we don’t normally see, experience something (or things) we wouldn’t ordinarily experience. And then, conventional wisdom tells, us we return refreshed, revitalised. Ready to go on, to re-engage with our world once more. Yes, we all need a holiday. That’s the way it goes.
And I completely agree. We all need it. But at the risk of sounding solipsistic or even selfish (heaven forbid!) I would suggest writers need it slightly more than most. And I’m not suggesting just a physical holiday either. No. I’m talking about something much more lasting.
July has been a busy month in the House of Tania. Work things like audiobooks and Harrogate, home things like the kids breaking up from school and getting a new garden installed. (We soon hope to have the only Aztec Gothic patio seating area around. Sitting right next to a shed I painted to look like a beach hut in Kent. We’re nothing if not eclectic.) But I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that. Let’s talk about writing, and that change of scenery.
And to do that I’ll start with the audiobooks. I’ve spent most of the month sitting in a recording studio in North London acting out three of the Tania Carvers. I enjoy doing it – it’s about the only time I get to flex my old acting muscles. And of course I think I know best about how they ought to sound. A view not always shared by the director, Garrick Hagon, but we got there in the end. It was fun. I would argue that all writers should do it to their own work at least once because there’s really no substitute for hearing your own voice read your own words. I know quite a lot of writers do that anyway, read what they’ve written at the end of the day or start of the next one, and that’s good. But this is a whole step up. And it makes you aware of just how bad you are. Sometimes how good you are, but mostly how bad.
I’ll run you through a typical day. You get to the studio, sit down and spread your pages in front of you. There should be no other sound in the room except your voice. And your voice should make the words live. How well you do that depends on how well you’ve written and how you can express it. So then you start. You work out which scenes need to be read slowly to build up tension, which to go fast with to speed the action along, which parts of the sentence to emphasise in order for the listener to get the most out of it. Which accent or dialect you need to use for which character. How they speak, the pitch and tone of their voice. If you fluff the words, you have to do a re-take. If you get a name wrong or speak one character’s words with another’s accent you have to go back. If there’s any noise on the track but your own voice, it’s back you go. And all the while you’re doing this, you’re making sure your diction is totally coherent and that the listener isn’t being shortchanged. It’s a lot harder than you might think. It’s not digging ditches but it is surprisingly exhausting work. You’re physically exhausted at the end of the working day. I know of writers who agree to do this thinking ‘How hard can it be?’ and vowing never to do it again.
And the main reason it’s so difficult, I think, is because there’s no place to hide. There’s just you and your voice and your work. It’s raw and naked and exposed. If something’s not right in the writing then it’ll show up. Unless you’re a damned good actor and you can hide it well. You’re right up against your own work and it can be very, very scary. You’ll be amazed at how many times you’ve used the same lines. Or scene set ups. Or the same locations. (Don’t worry, we’re coming to that.) Or the characters do exactly the same things. Or worse, behave completely out of character. Or even much, much worse, have no character whatsoever.
Maybe I’m just being too hard on myself but I don’t think so. We’re all our own sternest critics, or at least we should be. I have a long-standing lunch date with another five writers and one of the questions that popped up over food was: ‘Out of all the books you’ve written, how many do you think are any good?’ I won’t tell you the answer, but none of us got into double figures. Most of us didn’t get to use our other hand. And that’s a good thing. We should feel that way as writers. We should never be happy with what we’ve written. It’s how we push ourselves on to do better.
But I’m digressing slightly. Back to the studio. It’s a very sobering experience coming up against your own work like that. I remember several years ago while I was recording one of my own books I just stopped talking. The producer came over my headphones asking what was wrong, why had I stopped.
‘This is shit,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry you have to listen to this.’
He told me it wasn’t and asked me to keep going. I was having none of it.
‘Can we cut this? It’s awful.’
We couldn’t. We had to press on. And we did. But I never forgot that feeling, the response I had to my own work. And this was a book I had been looking forward to doing, one of the ones I had thought was good. I went back and looked at it afterwards. I was right. It was an awful section and I was embarrassed to have written but it was done, it was there and there was nothing I could do about it. Except learn from it and not be so boring again.
This time, as I said, one of the things I noticed was how many times the same locations popped up. Obviously this is as it should be, to an extent, because the books are set in a specific geographical area and I do like to ensure the places in the novels reflect their real life equivalents. Either good or bad. But I think there’s a limit to the amount of times you can have the same characters saying the same things in the same locations. The writer gets bored with that and I’m sure the reader does too. It’s one of the pitfalls of writing a series – making each book fresh and vibrant and as good, or as original, as the first one. And we don’t always pull it off, not every time. But I believe we do try to do that. Or the ones worth reading do – and I hope to count myself in that number. But to my eyes and ears the locations began to stand out as the same ones coming round again and again. And while I do believe in protecting the environment I don’t agree with that kind of recycling. So something had to be done about it.
With this in mind, when I finished in the studio I set aside a day to go scouting for locations. I’m sure all writers do this. Take off in the car with a camera (or iPhone), notepad (or iPhone again) and map (or GPS) and see if you can find a place that’ll strike a chord, somewhere that speaks to you and tells you it wants to be used by you. In whatever way you want to. (OK, maybe it’s just me who thinks that way.) So off I went. Sometimes Linda and I do this together (and try to discover some good restaurants along the way) but this time it was just me. And I went to a couple of places where some of the action in the new novel could be conceivably be set. Looked good. I found another location that Linda suggested I look at. I did. Very atmospheric, very usable. Then another location I’d had in mind. Great place. But the wrong time to be visiting – the new novel’s set in winter. When I was there everyone was walking round wearing shorts and ill-advised tattoos and eating ice cream. Still, I got the feel of the place, the vibe. It felt right for what’s in mind. And then I went into Colchester, the central location for all the Tania novels. I’d deliberately kept this till last because I wanted to gauge my reaction to being there in light of what I’d discovered during the studio sessions. And I was right. The town just didn’t speak to me like it has done before. It didn’t invite me to set another novel there. I know this sounds twattish expecting this to happen, especially since I think those writers who talk about channelling their novels just deserve a good slap. But I honestly didn’t feel it.
So I came home and we discussed it. And Linda agreed. And we came up with somewhere else to set the new one. Somewhere different but familiar because Colchester is a place that means something to both of us and the new location had to as well. And once we decided that, plotting the book started to fly. Everything seems to be fitting together so much better. It’s not like a holiday, not in the physical sense. It’s something more than that. For the next few months the place where the book is set is going to be more real than the world around me. And it’s somewhere I haven’t written about before. Somewhere familiar but different. It’s refreshed, revitalised. We’re ready to re-engage with Tania’s world once more.
Before I finish, a bit of blatant pimpage. THE CREEPER is about to be released in the States. Obviously I’d say it was good but don’t just take my word for it. See what Publisher’s Weekly had to say here.
Hi, did you find that the character's dialogue and the setting seemed repetitive because it is a series or do you mean that this experience also happens within a stand alone? Thanks for the post btw, it was interesting and different.
Out of curiosity, how did you carry on in terms of regaining a solid voice tone that didn't reflect your disappointment? Can you tell when you listen to the book, where you became upset based on voice tone and, might an astute listener pick it up??
I'm returning to the venue of a previous book for the novel I'm writing, a kind of reionvention of my own hometown, and I'm finding it a bit of challenge in trying to make it real, in the sense you have, photos and all, and yet true to my vision of the place, which can get a little abstract and nebulous. The problem with made-up places is they can be anything, and keeping track of what you invent means essentially creating your own damn city, from sewers to sidewalks to weathervanes.
But to return to Colchester and feel it isn't speaking to you I find utterly fascinating. I would have thought it was the Colchester of memory that inspired you, not the one actually sitting there. Silly me.
Great PW review, congrats. And at least for today I refuse to answer the question as to which of my books are good. If I go there, I may never come back.
Wonderful post as always, Martyn. Can't wait to hear those audio books, no matter how much you kvetch about the process.
Two great replies, thank you. Firstly Debbie, I'm not sure if the same thing would apply to a stand alone as I've only recorded the series audiobooks, all three of them. As for carrying on when you're not sure of the quality of what you're doing – the majority of actors would be out of work if they made those kinds of judgements on what they were saying. I've done audiobooks for other writers (who I won't name) that I absolutely hated. But I was being paid to do a job and the people who were going to be listening would presumably be fans so I had to put that aside and do the best job I could. And you have to remember, I'm hyper critical of my own work. As I should be. I should say I've also done audiobooks that I love. I did a Ray Banks one that was a pleasure to read. But he's so good.
And David, you may well be right. When I'm away fro it and writing about it at home it's the Colchester of memory that comes out. It's that thing that (I think) Wordsworth said about action reflected in tranquility. I used to go to Newcastle for the Donovan books, do my research, get into scrapes then come home and let it all percolate. Then write.
The trouble I have with memory is remembering somewhere as it was not how it is now. I try to keep up to date and can fall back into reminiscence which I always try to avoid.
And I do enjoy the process of recording the audiobooks, honest. I'm just, as I said, hypercritical.
And all your books are good. I can say that about other people's, just not mine.
Congrats on THE CREEPER. I am promoting writers with theatre backgrounds in a wip. I will write to you for an entry if it's okay.
This concept of writers reading their own work (for audio books, as different from part of the editing process) is fascinating to me. Also, scary. Not sure I could make a recording of my own work for others to listen to. Seems like asking too much that they should put up with my not very impressive voice as well as the story.
I was going to say I've never listened to an audio book, and that's true, but I did follow a link online and listen to Russell McLean read a story of his a while back. It was fabulous. He has an awesome voice. You must, as well, since people hire you to do this. Me, not so much.
But this also made me remember the staggering number of books I read to my kids when they were younger. I don't recall that they ever ran screaming from the sound, so maybe it helps to have the right audience. One without comparisons. It really can be exhausting. Especially the tongue twisters like Dr. Seuss.
I know, I know, this has nothing to do with the topic of location. But you covered that very well. 😉
Congrats and good luck on the new release!
Hi Kathleen. Sure, that would be great, thanks.
Hi KD, it is exhausting. And to be fair, not every writer is good at it. I'm quite lucky in that respect. I just think of it as trying to communicate the story as best I can.
If I'd given the matter more than a moment's thought before blundering into my comment I would have seen the obvious truth of your point: We need to revisit these places precisely because they change, and it's that change that reconnects us with the truth of the place, In contrast, as we used to say in the PI biz: Memory makes liars of us all. And relying on memory can often lead exactly to the problem you mentioned, relying on a particular place over and over, because that's what memory most reliably hands up.
And yet, and yet … the present Colchester you most recently re-encountered only too soon will become part of the Colchester of memory, as though it's a kind of island city sinking into the dark water all around it.
Never ends, this business.
I love this idea of revisiting — our work, the locations that move us, the way the words roll off our tongues when read aloud.
Familiar but different, different but familiar. I'm thinking about places like that in my own life . . .
An interesting train of thought. Thank you.
And congrats on the US release!
Hi Martyn. It's so great that your new location has kick-started the creative process. Sounds like you really did need that change of scenery 🙂
And amazing about reading your own books for audio books. It's funny, when I'm teaching I always tell my students to read their book out aloud, but nowadays I'm finding myself too time-crunched to do it for my own work. But reading this post has reminded me (again) how important it is. I know you're talking about reading and acting the final product opposed to reading out a draft, but still I totally understand what you mean about how reading aloud exposes the writing. Having said that, it IS hard when we (writers) never feel like the sentence/para/chapter/book is perfect, anyway. When do you stop editing? When the deadline is tomorrow!
I am so glad that you do this, that anyone does. I would miss out on a lot of reading if not for audiobooks. Thank you!
I listen to audiobooks most every day. Right now I am listening to Mountains of the Moon. It's always tricky figuring which books I want in hard copy, which in electronic, and which on audio. But it makes it easier to be "reading" all the time.
Oh my GOD, how intimidating to do your own audio recording! I would think I'd get totally lost in how I'd want to change the text.
VERY interesting thoughts about location. It sounds to me not so much as if Colchester has lost its magic, but more that it was telling you that this particular book is supposed to be set somewhere else. The next book might HAVE to be in Colchester.