Q and A – What do you read?

Today a question from L.R. Ryan, scriptwriter and author from Florida, who was kind enough to favourably review Song of the Sea God recently. You can take a look at Mr Ryan’s website and find out about his work here. If you have a question for me on writing, my book or anything else then please let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to answer in a future post.

I would like to know where your reading interests lie, when you are not busy writing such a good book as Song of the Sea God?

L.R Ryan, Florida.

780px-Carlo_Dolci_-_St_Catherine_Reading_a_Book_-_WGA06372Thanks L.R – great question. I think reading is a tremendously important thing for any writer – in fact I would go so far as to say that you should never trust a writer who doesn’t read!

I’ve always loved literature, it’s been a passion of mine since I was old enough to read. Since then I’ve read constantly – mostly novels and short stories with a little poetry too. I tend to go for literary fiction rather than genre fiction, it’s just my personal preference.

I also read non-fiction, often I switch to this more or less unconsciously once I’m working on a book – perhaps so the fiction I’m reading doesn’t too much influence the style of what I’m writing. During these periods I’ll read history, biography, philosophy, popular science books of different kinds – all sorts of things. Some just for personal interest, others because they are research for what I’m writing.

infiniteCurrently I’m in a fiction reading period and I’m tackling Infinite Jest by the late lamented American author David Foster Wallace. I seem to have been reading it for an infinite amount of time. It’s a mammoth tome, a thousand pages of tiny type before you get to the notes. The end is in sight I’m happy to report! It’s regarded as a modern classic and I am enjoying it – I’d describe it as brilliant in parts – there are sections which take your breath away, but it’s a long road.

I’d say the first set of books I remember affecting my writing style and making me want to write like they did were the novels written by the generation of American novelists now recently departed. I was very influenced by authors like Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, John Updike and many more. These were writers with a powerful and distinctive voice, a great sense of humour and a willingness to tackle big issues with flair and gusto. I wanted to be like them. At the same time, as a short story writer I was swept away by the brutal honesty and deceptive simplicity of Raymond Carver. I still admire all of these writers. But they are just the tip of a rather large iceberg.

In terms of books which influenced Song of the Sea God, it’s quite a wide group of novels I would say. People often compare Sea God with either Lord of the Flies by William Golding or The Wicker Man, which most people remember more as a film than a book. But my own go-to comparison for Sea God is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If I’m trying to impress posh interviewers I sometimes say I based Sea God on The Tempest. It has an island, magic, a Prospero, a Caliban.

439px-CarsonmccullersBeyond that though I know there are a whole raft of books which influenced me in various ways in writing the book. These would include The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, The Magus by John Fowles. There are key aspects in the plot, the characters or the telling of all these wonderful, luminous books which have made their way into Song of the Sea God.

Yet I don’t believe my book is too similar to any of these – I have taken something of their essence and tried to use it in my work. That’s the fantastic thing about reading – you are never alone when you write. You are part of a literary tradition. You produce an original book – but it depends on the wonderful work which has gone before it.

Hope that has gone some way towards answering your question LR – and thank you so much for asking it!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Tone of Voice

It’s not just what you say – it’s how you say it. Sometimes you can find your tone of voice in a single line I think, other times you can write for a thousand lines without ever finding it.

428px-Old_violinIt’s a crucial thing to have in a story or a book that distinctive tone of voice, a vital thing, but it’s also a slippery customer to pin down – hard to define. It’s how the story should sound – just the right words, said in the right way, to summon up a person or a mood or a feeling, something. A voice which gives the reader a way into the narrative and makes it ring uniquely for them. Like finding the right notes on a Stradivarius.

Thinking about tone of voice reminded me of a line from an old movie I once saw where a young intern at a big city newspaper was asked to define irony.

“I don’t know,” she said, “But I know it when I hear it.”

Though the formal definition of irony is a figure of speech where the actual meaning is the opposite of the meaning implied, I like her version. “I know it when I hear it.”

And that’s true of tone of voice – you know you have it right when it rings true for you. Stumbling across it can be something which happens when you find a phrase or a line which strikes you in just the right way.

I’ve rewritten whole stories once I’ve found that line – sure now that I know the way they ought to be written, sure of the voice which has to speak them.

Often I think it helps if I have someone in mind speaking as I write – a single person or an amalgamation of them, the memory of not just how they spoke, but how they rubbed up against the world.

The reason it’s so important to get this right is it’s one of the things which makes your book uniquely, distinctly itself – the thing which sets it apart from any other. In this sense, pretty much any famous book has great tone of voice, that certain quantity of specialness in the writing which picks it out from the crowd.

So here are a few examples of books I think have an amazing and distinctive tone of voice. I’ve included just the first few lines from each because I think that’s enough for us to hear how unique, how distinctive the voice is in each :

sfiveSlaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

vernonVernon God Little, DBC Pierre

It’s hot as hell in Martirio, but the papers on the porch are icy with the  news. Don’t even try to guess who stood all Tuesday night in the road, Clue: snotty ole Mrs Lechuga. Hard to tell if she quivered, or if moths and porchlight through the willows ruffled her skin like funeral satin in a gale. Either way, dawn showed a puddle between her feet. It tells you normal times just ran howling from town. Probably forever. God knows I tried my best to learn the ways of this world, even had inklings we could be glorious; but after all that’s happened, the inkles ain’t easy anymore.

nights circusNights at the Circus, Angela Carter

‘Lor’ love you sir!’ Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. ‘As to my place of birth, why I first saw light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed the ‘Cockney Venus’, for nothing sir, though they could just as well ‘ave called me ‘Helen of the High Wire’, due to the unusual circumstances in which I came ashore – for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no. but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched.

Share your favourite books with a strong tone of voice in the comments!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.