Students often ask me why I place so much emphasis on ‘story’ and not on the way a writer writes. The answer is a difficult one to articulate in a short time because to answer truthfully means that we have to grapple with the very notions of why we write. I think the beginning of a writer’s ‘style’ lies somewhere very deep inside oneself. Seamus Heaney described it thus: ‘You are miming the real thing until one day the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into the waters that will continue to entice you back. You have broken the skin on the pool of yourself.’
A writer’s style is not just to do with the basic practical choices a writer makes about how to write, it is also to do with something more intimate, or even philosophical, than that. It is closely wed to notions of perception, personality, morality, and possibility; it is tied to the choices we make in life. In your writing, readers should be able to hear the contents of your heart, your mind and your soul.
So, if a writer’s ‘style’ is the sum and signature of their personality, then a writer’s true biography amounts to no more than the story of their style. And when we talk about a writer’s style, what we are actually talking about is their ‘voice’, which is something that a writer can only discover for themselves in, and over, time. A writer’s voice is the deepest reflection of who they are and this is absolutely not something anyone can, nor should, ‘teach’.
As a tutor, I can do nothing about the tone of your voice as you speak, but what I can engage with is what you say, i.e. your ‘story’. The elements of good storytelling are something that can be discussed, examined, tested, moulded, learned. Underneath any amount of layering of tone and texture there should be a rock solid story. A writer’s first business is to decide: what’s going to happen? To whom? When? Where? Once you have your story, you need to decide in what order you’re going to place those events. Putting them in different orders will create different effects.
Plotting is finding the desire lines in your story, the path of least resistance. By thinking through your story again and again, you become more and more familiar with it, knowing better and better for yourself how it should be told. And this is what we do on the six-month Writing a Novel course. We discuss, examine, test, mould, learn and I ask again and again: ‘Where’s the story?’ I answer this question as like standing in a stream—although you can’t see it, you can feel the current on your ankles, can’t you? You can see ahead of you how the stream flows. Getting to know the structure of your story is standing in a stream. Feel the direction of the current and go with the flow. Dip into the waters of yourselves.