Thursday 26 November 2015

What does your book taste of? Finding your writer's voice

I’m waiting for my medlar to blet. Medlars are best eaten when they have started to rot. But only half of it is bletted. Will it be over-bletted by the time the other half has caught up?

Why am I doing this? Well, my inner reference library has a gap under medlar.

Good writing tastes of things. Shakespeare and Donne taste of medlars, quinces and sack. Quinces I have tasted. Sack is a near relation of sherry. Medlars I have yet to try. I imagine they taste of scrumpy and cloves, but I may be wrong and therefore I can’t fully step into Elizabethan literature, which is why I’m circling a medlar and considering its state of blettedness with a linen napkin tucked into my jumper.

Children’s books are tasty. Mary Poppins tastes of cough medicine and blancmange, the Famous Five books of bread and butter and a new laid egg (brown with a feather stuck to it). Oliver Twist is thin gruel.  The Borrowers tastes of cores and crumbs, Harry Potter of popping candy, Alice in Wonderland of tarts and toadstools, 101 Dalmatians of puppy steaks.

All of those classics have a distinctive taste that goes beyond food. Good writing has an inimitable flavour that pervades every sentence. It is prized by agents and publishers. They call it voice. It is part of, but not the same as, style. Literary agent, Donald Maass, describes it as ‘a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world.’ He says that agents ‘want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.’

So how to make your book like the medlar: a taste without substitute, essential reading, genre-extending? Many articles have been written on finding your voice. Most of them focus on accessing the subconscious by free writing, or finding your natural rhythm by writing as you speak.
To continue with the food-related metaphor here are some exercises to get you thinking about your personality, preferences and world view. The point is to recognise your creative drivers and allow your personality to dictate your expression, to give your books a taste that is entirely your own.

Write your own menus

Go mad with this. Write the menu you would have chosen as a child, the one you would choose on a beach in Bali, or after a long winter hike. Different menus suit different contexts, but give yourself permission to indulge your own specific tastes. Be a diva. If you want stilton and black pepper in your porridge go ahead (yes I do sometimes, and no I cannot possibly be pregnant). Do the same with your writing. Let it reflect your unique preferences.

(For me, much of the fun of writing Oy Yew was crazily food-related.)

Choose your eating style

Are you drawn to messy fingerfoods or the precision and ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony? Write as you eat, with control or plate-smashing abandon.

 Enhance your most interesting ingredients

Balsamic and black pepper bring out the flavour of strawberries. Exaggerated characteristics can work well in children’s books, but subtlety will add depth. Don’t smother your best ingredients with blandness such as ‘he got up and put on a checked shirt and black jeans.’ Who cares?

Experiment Fail Refine

Great chefs and Glaswegian chip fryers work this way. Be prepared to play with your ingredients. Put your own stamp on them. Someone has to be the first to deep fry a Mars bar.


As above, but with a dash of panache. Toss your crepe ceiling-ward then close your eyes, spin around twice and catch it with a flourish. Be unpredictable. Make the commonplace arresting with your own unique perspective.

 Light candles

Create an ambience. Any old candles will not do. Any old table setting will not do. The mood must match the meal. Give your book its own special atmosphere. The atmosphere of a restaurant is as important as the food. Locations can match or clash with the meal. I think a  full English should be eaten in a back street cafe with formica tables, crusty sauce bottles and condensation on the windows, but it might be interesting to eat it outside a Himalayan monastery.

Some of the best books have a sense of place so strong that it’s said to be like another character.  Lewis Grassic Gibbon has the most distinctive voice and every sentence drips with the atmosphere of the Grampians. I hang out in the pages just to experience the sweet wildness of it.

Don’t follow recipes too closely

If following an old formula don’t let it show. Improvise and add your own combination of spices. The magic is destroyed if the sauce spattered recipe book is left on the worktop.

Be inspired by the great stylists but don’t imitate. Be aware of tradition but not constrained by it.

 Invite clashing guests

Who would you love to put in a room together and why? Who would you like to see arguing the toss and over what? This should throw light on your own preoccupations. You will be spending a lot of time with these characters so you must find them interesting. Observe. Try to understand everyone’s point of view but feel free to be subtly or blatantly partisan. Whose cause will you promote? Whose demise will you engineer? Intervene and nudge. Introduce mischief and watch the sparks fly.

And for your third Michelin star:

All you need is genius and fairy dust.
There you are: go forth and indulge.

3 days later

My medlar is fully bletted so I’m about to eat it.

What does it taste of? Well, bruised apple and bland fig. The aftertaste is, as I had hoped, teeming: I’m getting pointed beards, ruffles, theatres, the rattle of bits, blacksmiths, hayfields, the unwashed, wood smoke, damp tapestry, thatch, Falstaff’s breath, iambic rhythms, and porcelain inkwells.

And that to me is a good description of voice: it teems and it lingers.


  1. Ana, of all the blogs I come across, yours is the one to be savoured and devoured. I wish I could say things so well!

    By the way, thanks for trying the medlar and for having the patience to wait for the bletting. It saves me having to go through it.


  2. Thank you, Helen. I can actually recommend them. The mouth squidge is unique.

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