From the Desk of Clare Pooley:
Let me share a secret with you: The Authenticity Project is not actually my first novel. Lurking in the very bottom of a bottom drawer, is a bound, annotated and rather dusty manuscript of another book called Can’t Get You Out of my Head.
That story did the rounds of most of the literary agencies in town, and out of town, and gathered a full gamut of form rejections. I read and reread all the usual platitudes; we receive thousands of submissions, the market is extremely competitive, we hope you find the right home for your novel. I even had a couple of requests for the full manuscript, leading to weeks of refreshing my email inbox in feverish anticipation, composing the victory speech for my book launch in my head, before receiving a whilst there was much to admire, we just didn’t love it enough. Looking back at it now, I see that my first book had a pretty good premise, some interesting characters and a rollicking plot. What it didn’t have was a voice.
I’d heard publishers and agents talk about their search for a ‘unique voice’, but I wasn’t at all sure what that meant, if I had one and – if not – where I could find one.
An author’s voice, I learned, doesn’t come from their characters. Each character has their own individual way of talking, but lurking in the background, always, is the voice of the author, the storyteller. It’s their unique way of speaking to the reader that means that you can read just a few pages of a book, with no cover or blurb, and be able to tell it’s a Sophie Kinsella, a Lee Child, or a Maggie O’Farrell.
I’m rather short-sighted, but I’m in denial and rarely wear glasses. This can cause terrible embarrassment when someone walks towards me, waving, and their face is a complete blur. So, I’ve learned to identify people by their gait, their style and their general aura. The same is true when you’re identifying an author. It’s a combination of a number of factors, some obvious, some sub-conscious – a turn of phrase, a cadence, a rhythm, the choice of vocabulary or the use, or not, of punctuation.
But voice isn’t just about writing style.
Maya Angelou said “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” and this is true of storytellers too.
I read two or three novels every week, and I just don’t have enough mental filing space to remember them all. I have been known to get several chapters into a new book, only to realise I’ve already read it. I once even bought the same book three times.
I forget characters, I forget plots, I forget my own children’s names on a regular basis and call them by the names of my dogs, but I never forget how a really good author makes me feel.
I know that when I read a Stephen King I’ll feel unnerved, Jilly Cooper will make me feel like I’ve been included in a group of wonderfully gossipy friends, and Hilary Mantel will make me feel more educated and a little bit smug. That feeling, that you associate with the name of an author, is one reason why publishers are wary of writers changing genres. If I read an author because I’m looking for nostalgia and they scare the bejesus out of me, I won’t thank them. I also won’t have a clue what to expect from them next. The Authenticity Project is often described in reviews as ‘like a warm hug,’ which is why, I suspect, it’s done so well in this pandemic. We all need a good hug right now, don’t we? But if my next book delivers a stinging slap, my ‘brand’ is going to be terribly confusing.
I know what you’re thinking. If this voice is so crucial, then how do you get one? I’m not sure anyone knows the answer to that, but I can tell you how I found mine.
When I was writing my first, doomed to obscurity, novel, I spent an awful lot of time thinking about what agents and publishers might be looking for. I’d constantly re-read my words imagining what my future readers might be thinking. Was the prose descriptive enough? Or too florid perhaps? I’d mentally compare my work to stories that had gone before. Was my plot as gripping as Gone Girl? Were my characters as unique as Eleanor Oliphant? It’s not surprising really that the process was exhausting and the end result derivative and forgettable. After the fiftieth rejection, I put the manuscript in the bottom drawer and accepted the fact that I just wasn’t talented enough to make it as an author.
I didn’t write anything else for several years. I spent my time running around after three small kids and drinking. Drinking a lot. When I eventually plucked up the courage to count the number of empty wine bottles I’d consumed in a regular week, there were ten of them. I knew I had to quit.
I was far too ashamed to tell anyone what a mess my life had ended up in. I couldn’t talk to my family or my friends, my GP or AA. Instead, I felt the most overwhelming urge to write. I created a rudimentary blog called Mummy was a Secret Drinker and poured my heart out onto its pages, under the pseudonym Sober Mummy. I wrote every day. It was a compulsion, a new addiction, a therapy. I didn’t worry about my reader, because I wasn’t publicising it and assumed there wouldn’t be many. I didn’t think about agents or publishers because I couldn’t possibly imagine these humiliating words being published. I didn’t think about what I ought to be writing, I only thought about what I absolutely needed to write.
And you know what? After a few months of writing like that, I discovered that I had a voice. I’d also accidentally found a readership as my blog picked up hundreds of thousands of followers all over the world. After a year I found my courage too and stepped out from behind the pseudonym, publishing the words I’d once found so shaming as a memoir – The Sober Diaries.
I enjoyed writing memoir, but my real love has always been fiction, and I now had a story I was longing to tell, inspired by my own experience of exposing the rather grubby truth about my seemingly perfect life. The story of a little green notebook with the words The Authenticity Project inscribed on the cover, in which a lonely artist writes the truth about his life. The notebook is passed between six complete strangers who all reveal something in its pages, and in doing so change each other’s lives completely.
I didn’t know if anyone would want to read my story, but I’d learned to write like no-one was reading. I’d learned to speak in my own unique way and to create the same feeling that words had given me when I needed them most – a sense of connection and a warm hug.
So, if you’re struggling to find your voice, my advice would be to stop – at least for a while – writing for an audience, and write for yourself. Write about yourself – your dreams, your fears, your darkest secrets. Write not what you ought to write, but what you’re compelled to write.
And that’s where you’ll find it: your voice.
Find out more about Clare and buy her books here.
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