Author’s Voice, And Spies: Can They Help?

author's voiceThis week, four things have conspired to make me think again about the author’s voice. First, a friend asked me a question about some editorial revisions he had received. Then I started the second draft of a new book and found myself uncertain about my own voice. Was it too – well – romantic? There will be romance in this book (actually series) but not for a long time after Chapter One.

Author's voiceOn top of that, a very good friend strongly recommended a novel. Excited, I bought it at once. I’m a great fan of her own books and we very often love the same authors. But I am really struggling to get into it. I admit I put it down and walk away a lot. Which pleases the cat. We will discuss it when next we zoom. AAARGH!

And then I started reading a book about spies.

Author’s Voice and Editor’s Suggestions

romantic novelist busy editingLast year, at NWS Report Season, I blogged a bit about Finding Your Voice. My basic advice, primarily aimed at people on their first novel, was relax and stop worrying. Voice is instinctive. Which is fine as far as it goes.

But what if you come across an editor whose suggestions amount to changing your voice? What price instinct then? The moment you start to think about that edit, analysing your own words, you get self-conscious.

So my very strong advice is DON’T TRY TO ANALYSE  YOUR VOICE. Analyse other people’s, by all means, if that’s your thing. But NOT your own. You have to avoid self-consciousness at all costs. That’s what makes things sound artificial.

So your editor asks for major editorial changes. You feel they undermine your natural voice. The very first thing to do is get out of wincing writer mode. Become a reader.

Go somewhere you normally curl up with a book. DON’T TAKE NOTES. Read good solid chunks of your book aloud. That may well be all you need to do because you’ll hear the necessary changes.

writing energy magic, book, bluebell woodOf course, maybe the editor’s just not on your wavelength and nothing needs to change. Or not much.

But maybe the editor is right and something needs to change. Only you’re not sure what to do next. It happens. Don’t panic. There are things you can play around with, if you need to, and I will blog about that in a couple of weeks. It can be a fun journey into the trees.

Can I Change My Voice?

Um. No. Well, not completely.

Your voice is who you are. It develops, adjusts with your story, and your perceptions, from book to book.

But the ways of thinking and the feelings that go into making your voice are a unique collection that has been fusing together since you were in the womb. There is no reset button. You just have to trust yourself.

Your voice is pretty much given. But your tone, that’s another matter. Heck, your tone can change from character to character and scene to scene.

Maybe that is what I need to do in the scene I’m worried about. [Response from my first best reader when consulted—tactfully put, but basically I’m talking tosh and I should just get on with it!]

An Awkward Voice

I’m not naming the book I’m reading, because I’ve only just started. The writer is clearly passionate about her  story. The premise from the blurb certainly sounds intriguing, quite apart from the fact that my friend enthused about it. I really want to read this novel.

And yet – so far, I feel I’m on the worst sort of country walk: cold, uncomfortable, a long, long way from home and wading through mud. Every step gets harder. Only tea keeps me going.

Why? Well, the author has clearly done a huge amount of historical research. So far – it feels like a marathon but I think I’m not even 5% through the book yet – there are so many details about physical objects and people I don’t know that I feel as if a house has fallen on me.

And it’s bleak. All I know about the character through whose eyes I’m seeing the first big scene is that she has painful knees and is probably prickly.  And it is all pouring out, unstoppably.

Maybe this is a voice I will get used to, as I get deeper into the story. But I suspect that wondrous research has crowded out the author’s voice.

Spies With Voices

As I said, thinking about your voice too much can turn you to stone – or, in my case, a gibbering lunatic who doubts every word she writes. Most fortunately, I had to stop gibbering and do some research on MI5 at the start of World War 2.

Just a littIe grubbing around the Internet took me to The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader and The Man who was George Smiley.

And both unexpectedly took me back to the novelist’s place of safety. The story.

SpiesThe Bedside Reader is a compendium of writing by British spies, collected by Michael Smith, himself formerly in military intelligence. Some of it is fictional, some of it not. In his intriguing introduction, Smith reminds us that spies and creative fiction go back a long way, at least as far as Christopher Marlowe.

And my goodness, they are a distinguished – if very mixed – lot: Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Le Carré of course, not to mention Ian Fleming, Dennis Wheatley, Compton Mackenzie.

SpiesThen there was John Masterman, academic and author of two “Oxford mysteries”, who was interned in Germany during the First World War and chaired the Twenty Committee during the Second. And wrote a history of it in 1947 but was not permitted to publish it. He was Provost of Worcester College Oxford from 1946  to 1961 (apparently supported by his ex-Bletchley Park secretary Ann Mitchell until 1949). Then he was Vice Chancellor of the University from 1957-8, which got him his knighthood. Eventually he challenged successive governments’ veto by taking The Double Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945 to Yale University Press. There was a threat of prosecution but, in the end, 12 paragraphs were deleted at government request and the book was published in 1972. 

SpiesThere are a host of others, including Kenneth Benton, ex MI6, who became President of the UK Crime Writers’ Association and wrote spy stories in the 70s. The tradition continues right up to the present day, most notably with Stella Rimington, the former Head of MI5 and Alan Judd, author of the chilling Charles Thoroughgood series as well as “The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the Founding of the Secret Service”.  But for me, the most intriguing of them all is John Bingham, the man who inspired George Smiley. He sounds more compassionate than most of the spy writers I have read who, frankly, are a bit of a chilly lot for my taste on the whole. Bingham is top of my Wish List now.

What We Can Learn From Spies

Reminiscing on his own account, Michael Smith recalls, “The civilian intelligence officer who kept our military prejudices in check told me at the outset that a good intelligence report should be constructed in much the same way as you would tell a joke…  everything in the right place and as straightforward as possible to understand.”

word "clarity" with spectacles

And that set me thinking. If I wanted to rediscover my voice, without the distraction of possibly romantic frillery, I could just construct the next episode in my story in exactly that way. Forget sentence length, grammar, the inadmissibility of adverbs. Just do it. And however it turned out would be my natural voice. So far, it seems to be working.

Sophie Weston AuthorSophie

4 thoughts on “Author’s Voice, And Spies: Can They Help?

  1. Rosemary Gemmell

    What a fascinating post, Sophie. If I stopped to think of my author voice, I’d probably ruin the book I was writing! Isn’t it strange how often we start reading a book that someone else loves, only to find it doesn’t grab us the same way. I recently read a book from an author who writes the same type each time (and I enjoyed several of her previous books) but the last one I read bored me with all the characters who didn’t seem necessary to the storyline. I can’t understand why the editor didn’t intervene at times. However, we can’t see the problems in our own work as much as we can in other authors’ books!

    1. Sophie Post author

      I agree, Ros. Mostly I try to forget about things like voice while I’m writing and just rely on my subconscious to fit the tone to the character of the moment. This time I just lost my nerve for a moment, I suppose.

      As for relating to a book – a lot of it must be simple chemistry but I suppose some of it is timing. I’ve noticed I’m not particularly keen on very introspective stuff since the lockdown started. I want people I like who move the plot along. Have started saying to myself that I’m doing quite enough angsting on my own account, without having to do it for some blasted fictional neurotic as well.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    This is so interesting. I started to ghostwrite a story for a spy based on his experiences and had to change my style considerably, though my voice was still visible. In the end it proved too much a man’s domain (plus rather too violent)for me and I handed it over to a male writer to complete. But it’s a fascinating world, if horribly deceitful and pretty brutal.
    As to voice, I’ve noticed that regardless of the tone or style you use, the voice still echoes through. Finally, as to taste, it’s a lottery. Even the same loved author’s books don’t always resonate. Witness Georgette Heyer. Fans love and hate different ones of her novels, though all agree on the quality of her writing.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Gosh, ghostwriting for a spy! The very thought sends a chill up my spine. Take my hat off to you, Liz – and especially when you handed it over.

      Think I probably agree with you on voice and taste. At least, I do today.

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