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.