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Capturing Your Voice

Many years ago, when I was gainfully employed (and paid in money instead of love), I managed a large department store specialising in fabrics, craft goods and homewares. I had about fifty people working for me, each of them with their own unique personality and style. But, as time has gone on, many of them have blended together in my memory. It happens. But there’s one man who I still remember distinctly. Not because of anything he did, or his work performance, or because we socialised. No, I remember him because of his voice.

Paul* was a man in his early fifties. He was tall (slightly taller than my 6’2″), with great posture and distinguished grey hair. He grew up in London, but emigrated to Australia when he was a young man. Although he’d replaced his English accent with an Australian one, he still spoke in a slightly more… “plummy” way than most Aussies. And the way he expressed himself was priceless.

I remember one afternoon in particular.

I was due to finish work at 2:00pm, but got caught up with some admin work. At 4:30, I was just making my way through the store to the front door. That’s when Paul pounced.

“Ah, Jo,” he said as an opening line. I was running late, so I tried a quick smile and wave in order to escape. It didn’t work. Paul merely continued talking in his smooth, almost-English accent. “It’s quite a welcome coincidence that our paths should cross this afternoon. Does the day find you well?

“Yes,” I said. “I’m just heading home.”

“Ah…” he said, drawing out the vowel sound. “Well, it’s certainly a pleasant day to be leaving this establishment at such an early hour, and I would not like to come between you and a surely well-deserved afternoon off. However, since Fate has decreed that we should meet here amongst the aisle of our fair craft section, perhaps this would be a suitable time for me to consult you about a matter that has been weighing heavily upon my mind of late. If you would be kind enough to spare me a few moments of your oh-so-precious time, I would be most appreciative.”

He paused here and looked at me. Expectantly. I’m not going to lie, I had no idea what he was waiting for. It’s not that I was ignoring him — far from it. I’d listened to each and every word, and been lulled into a sense of peace by the smooth cadence of his speech. After a moment, I said, “Yes.” It seemed like the right thing to say.

“I’m ever-so grateful,” Paul went on. “I’m sure that a young lady like yourself has a great many plans, and a great many responsibilities resting upon your shoulders, and I am appreciative that you would be prepared to put them on hold for a few moments to hear what I have to say. And, in fact, it’s exactly the thought of plans and responsibilities that weighs upon my mind. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I have, in fact, been working for this company for quite some time. When I started, of course, things were quite different. There was a great deal less paperwork, for one thing. But it certainly isn’t my place to question the march of progress, and I have adapted to the changing environment around me as, of course, has everyone else.”

“Yes,” I said again. I had no idea where he was going with any of this, but all thoughts of actually leaving the store had vanished.

“Time changes us all, they say, and in my years I’ve come to think that they are right on that count. Perhaps my dislike of paperwork is merely a sign that it is I that needs to change. But I digress.”

He paused here. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was supposed to comment. I didn’t.

Paul went on, “As I said, it is the thoughts of plans and responsibilities that weigh most heavily upon my mind in these days. As you know, I take great care to ensure that my schedule is kept up to date. However, there is always the odd occasion where Fate or Chance steps in, and the best laid plans of mice and men, if you catch my drift.”

“Yes,” I said.

I didn’t.

“Ah, well then,” Paul said. “Perhaps then, it would be fitting to elaborate further upon the unexpected delight which occurred just last night. I received a phone call, you see, from my youngest daughter. I’m certain I’ve spoken of her before, either in conversation with you directly or with our colleagues as we ate lunch.”

He paused for an answer. “Yes,” I said again.

“Then it should come as no surprise to you that I was overjoyed to hear that she would be visiting us in the near future, venturing forth from her apartment in Sydney to journey here and spend some time with her parents. It’s always a pleasant thing when one’s children announce these things, especially where there is no great event to prompt said visit. However, the announcement has also left me feeling that I’m in quite a bind, as she has decided to arrive on our doorstep next month and I have, of course, taken no provisions for welcoming her home at this stage.”

I nodded. I still had no idea why he was telling me any of this.

“It would be quite a shame for her to come all this way, and to be forced by necessity to spend her days lonely and alone in our house, while–”

“Oh!” I interrupted. “Would you like to apply for leave?”

“Ah, yes, the inevitable application process that one must–”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Take as much as you like. Lorraine will give you the form. See you later, Paul!”

And I left.

Poor Lorraine probably had to listen to the entire story again.

I never asked.

My point here is not that Paul could string a simple query into a 30 minute exercise in frustration (although he could), it’s this: Years later, when I’ve forgotten everyone else I worked with, I remember Paul. I remember the way he spoke, the words he used, the sound of his voice.  I would recognise his speech patterns anywhere.

And that, my friends, is what people mean when they talk about an author’s voice.

It’s the combination of style and flow and rhythm and vocabulary and grammar and stuff that makes your writing yours. It’s the thing that people will remember about you.

You don’t need to find your voice. Or create your voice. You just need to capture it.

Because you’ve already got it. It’s right there, inside you. Release it on to the page, allow it to grow and mature (as you do the same), and then grab it with both hands.

Easy as a poke in the eye with a sharp pie.

 

* Paul may or may not be his real name. I’m not telling.

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BWF: The Journey of the Book

Session: Australian Writer’s Marketplace Industry Masterclass – Part 1: The Journey of the Book

Panelists: Linda Jaivin (Author), Gaby Naher (Agent), and Shona Martyn (Publishing Director of Harper Collins Australia)

The idea of this session was to look at the process of producing and publishing a book from three viewpoints – how the author writes the book, how it gets to the agent and what she does with it, and then what happens from the publisher’s perspective. It was a fascinating session, and one of my favourite of the Festival.

The first thing that struck me when this session began was, in fact, not what was being said. Instead, it was the overall appearance of the panelists. I’m not someone who generally judges on appearance, so please don’t judge me in return. BUT… Let me describe the scene.

I’m in an auditorium looking at three ladies seated behind a long table. There are no name-cards to indicate who is sitting where, and introductions haven’t yet been made. I don’t know any of the three ladies by name or reputation, and although I’m sure I looked at pictures of them online when I booked the session, I certainly don’t remember who is who. But it takes me about 3.5 seconds to make an educated guess.

The panelist on the left is wearing a knee-length, black dress with stockings and sensible shoes. She’s wearing minimal jewelry (only her watch was obvious from a distance), and no ornamentation in her hair. Her make-up is subdued and professional, and her nails look neatly manicured.

The panelist in the centre is wearing a very stylish grey pant-suit with heels. She’s got a cream-coloured silk scarf around her neck, a long, eye-catching necklace, and a sophisticated hairstyle.

The panelist on the right has bright orange hair which is pinned on top of her head in a messy bun, flamboyant make-up, and dangly earrings. Every item of clothing she’s wearing is a different colour, including purple, orange, green, blue, and pink.

Not surprisingly, panelist #3 is our author, #2 is our agent, and #1 is our publisher. I found the fact that I picked this so easily interesting because I’d never really considered whether I needed to have a “look” as an author. If I’m asked to chair a panel one day (fingers crossed!), what am I supposed to wear? Should I have a style worked out in advance? If I don’t look particularly flamboyant, will people assume I’m a business-oriented publisher rather than a creative author?

What do you think? Is it something you’ve considered?

Moving on to the actual talking bit…

Linda Jaivin got the session started, talking about herself, her books, how she got into the business of writing for a living, and so on. And I can honestly say that she was the most vibrant, enthusiastic and fascinating person I’ve ever heard speak. She was so full of life, I was fairly certain that extra bits were spilling on to the floor around her. (I hoped some would magically find its way to me, but that so far doesn’t seem to be the case.)

She told the story of how she read a book when she was a teenager, and had the sudden revelation that “books are more than just stories”. Words are magical things that can take you away from yourself, put you some place new, let you have an adventure and learn from it, and then take you home again. A novel is a gateway to something greater.

Linda hadn’t really considered being a writer initially. She went to work in a library because “she loved books”, and then decided to study Chinese history and Chinese language. Back then, China’s border were still closed and there was absolutely no point in studying about a closed country. So, why did she pick those subjects? “It was just one of those crazy things you do because it’s really interesting,” she said.

She wound up working in Taiwan, writing book reviews for a newspaper through a series of really unlikely events that could only happen in real life, because no-one would believe them if it was fiction. And from there she started to write.

Her advice to new writers included:

  • There are a lot of places that teach creative writing. Don’t do it. Don’t study creative writing. You can learn how to write on your own. Go and study something real. Study something you’re interested in. You’ll have more to write about and, if you’re lucky, what you study can also get you a job to pay the bills while you’re writing.
  • You have to be serious about every aspect of your career. That includes the boring parts like keeping track of what you’ve spent on writing-related things for tax purposes.
  • It’s the spirit of play that keeps us going. Don’t do a job that eats your brain.

Gaby Naher was next up. She was really interesting, and I found myself falling in love with the idea of an agent all over again. She was passionate, articulate, and talked to and about Linda as a business partner. She clearly loved the creative side of writing, but was very practical and realistic when it came to talking about the business side.

“Anyone who works in the arts community is always wondering where their next paycheck is coming from,” she said, and she clearly meant it. She left a position as a successful editor at a publishing house to work as an agent, and took a pay cut in the process. But she loves the freedom, the flexibility, and the chance to spend time with authors.

Like many agents. her message about self-publishing and indy publishing was a simple “don’t believe all the hype about what they seem to say. It’s too early to tell what the future really holds.” But when talking about traditional publishing, she said, “It’s still no picnic.”

The final statement Gaby made was one that has stayed with me. She was asked about how she chooses the clients she’ll take on, seeing as she doesn’t get paid unless their book sells. Gaby talked briefly about needing to feel passionate about a project, and then said, “But it’s always a risk. I gamble for a living. That’s just what I do.”

Lastly, Shona Martyn, publishing director of Harper Collins, had her chance to talk. She talked about how, with limited budgets that publishers have these days, the marketing department often has a bigger say in whether a book will be published than the acquisitions team. If marketing doesn’t think they can sell the book, the publisher won’t offer a contract. Her point was that, from the moment a book is written to the moment it’s published, “It’s a long process of persuasion.”

In saying that, Shona made it clear that the books that really break out and make a lot of money are always the ones that no one expects. So don’t try to write for a market. Write something you really care about.

Shona’s parting words were also quite interesting from a business point of view, and something that I (and probably a lot of other authors) hadn’t really considered. She said, “If we give an opportunity to a book we don’t think will work, it means we’re turning down another book that might.”

Overall, this session was a fascinating insight into three different perspectives on the publishing industry, and a great introduction to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival.

Rated: 5/5

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Writer vs Author – Part 2

Back in July, I wrote a post titled Writer vs Author. In that post, I considered the difference between a writer and an author, and questioned how it’s possible to move from one state (writer) to the other (author). If you don’t want to go back and read the original post, let me give you the cliff-notes: I had no idea. I was really just working through my thoughts in an effort to come to some kind of conclusion and hoping that someone would comment with the Real, True, and Undeniable Answer.

While I did get lots of comments, they didn’t necessarily help.

  • Emerald agreed with me when I said:  You’re an author when you feel like you’re an author, and not one moment before.
  • Leanne said: A writer is an author when other people voluntarily recognize him or her as such.
  • Merilee said: I qualified as an author when I got paid for my first story.
  • But Merilee also said: To maintain my author tag, I need to keep writing.
  • Jody said: I guess my honest opinion would be that you are an ‘author’ when other people consider you to be one.

The thing is… I agreed with everyone. The definition of an author was still out of reach. But making that distinction between writer and author was still important to me. And, judging by the number of people every week who find my blog with the search term “writer vs author”, it’s important to other people as well.

Fortunately for me, my time at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival has given me the answer. Fortunately for you, I’m prepared to share my epiphany.

In thinking back on the BWF, the one thing that stuck in my head was that every presenter referred to us, the hopeful writers-in-attendance, as Artists. Sometimes jokingly (I know you artist-types need plenty of coffee), sometimes seriously (As artists, it’s your job to connect with your readers) and sometimes something in between (Trust me, even though you’re artists, you’ll still need to understand something about business and contracts).

It didn’t really register at the time, but a few days later, it hit me.

An artist is “someone who creates art”. Literature is art. Fiction is art. Poetry is art. Even some non-fiction is art.

An author is not just a writer, an author is an artist.

With that in mind, the difference between Writer and Author just got easier to define.

Writer: 1. One who writes. 2. One whose occupation involves writing, such as a journalist or author.

Author: 1. The composer of a work of literature. 2. A writer who creates art in the form of poetry or prose. 3. The creator of word-based art.*

(You will note that although all authors are writers, not all writers are authors.)

So, how do you know if you’ve progressed from Writer to Author? Simple. Are you an Artist?

To make that question easier to answer, let’s look at a semi-official definition of an Artist in Australia.

 An Artist:

  1. Creates works of art, AND
  2. Thinks of him/herself as an artist and behaves accordingly (ie. in a professional manner), AND
  3. Is recognised as an artist by his/her peers and/or the general public.

So, an Author:

  1. Creates finished written works. (Length is irrelevant — novels and haiku both count — but the keyword is finished. If you’ve got 37 different first paragraphs, you haven’t got a “work of art”. You’ve just got a lot of ideas and not a lot of stick-to-it-iveness), AND
  2. Thinks of him/herself as a professional writer and acts accordingly, AND
  3. Is recognised as an author by other professional writers, authors, and/or industry specialists. This recognition can come in many ways, including (but not limited to) having your work published (trad pub, magazine,  etc), good sales of self-published work, reviews on websites, short-listed in competitions, positive feedback from industry insiders, etc.

* Note 1: This definition of an author is from my head, and probably shouldn’t be quoted anywhere else.
** Note 2: Apparently the word ‘author’ is simply a term used in copyright law to refer to the creator of the work. This definition is way less mystical and romantic than my definition, so I vote we completely disregard it.

What do you think of this definition? Do you agree? Disagree? Does this change your mind/reaffirm your own thoughts?

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