Sunday, 16 October 2011

BLOG TOUR: Mantelpiece musings

The wonderful My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece has come out in paperback and it is with a WOOP and a cheer that I introduce Annabel Pitcher for today's stop on the Mantelpiece musings blog tour. She is going to reveal some of the secrets behind one of the most striking things in the book - Jamie's voice.  

To find out more about the book, click here.

Me, Myself and I: the secrets of writing in the first person

At a recent school visit, a boy asked me how I made Jamie, the ten-year-old narrator of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, seem so real.

‘I mean, you write stuff that my younger brother says all the time. How do you do it? Were you a boy yourself or something..?’ (Cue widespread hilarity in the auditorium as one hundred and fifty teenagers craned their necks to try to work out if I’d had a recent sex change).

Well, I didn’t used to be called Andrew. I have always been Annabel – very much a girl and most definitely a woman in her twenties when I started Mantelpiece. So, how did I write authentically as a ten-year-old boy? And how can you create a convincing character voice?

I don’t profess to be any sort of expert on first person narration, and I have never been to a creative writing class in my life. The following advice is merely a list of the things that I did, instinctively and without any formal training or reading any sort of book on the subject, so the tips may or may not be of use to you. They proved successful for me, but every writer has their own unique way of working, and you have to develop a system that you’re happy with.
Here’s my list, for what it’s worth:

1 Work out your narrator’s personality

After I’d scribbled down the first few words of my novel, I realised I had to really get to know my narrator if the voice was going to be in any way authentic. I stopped writing, and decided to brainstorm, putting Jamie on a piece of paper, and around that I put arty, emotionally reserved and matter-of-fact amongst many other things. Around each of these new words, I tried to analyse how that particular character trait would manifest in speech.

For instance, next to the word arty, I put Jamie is visual. He describes things using colour. He compares things to drawings he might have done himself. He can be quite creative/imaginative in his description of the natural world. In the novel, there are numerous examples of this:

‘...if I painted the buildings as people, I would turn the cottage into a crazy old granny, smiling with no teeth.’

‘...and all of a sudden, there was the sea, a line of blue all straight and sparkly as if someone had drawn it with a glitter pen and ruler.’

Next to the words emotionally reserved, I wrote Jamie can sometimes appear unfeeling in communication, particularly around sensitive issues. Again, you can see this in the novel:

‘Dead. Dead. Dead dead dead. Passed away is what Mum says. Gone to a better place is Dad’s phrase. He never goes to church so I don’t know why he says it. Unless the better place he’s talking about is not Heaven but the inside of a coffin or a golden urn.’

Working out Jamie’s personality and how that materialised in speech was the first important step in creating a believable narrator.

2 Work out your character’s idiolect

Once you have decided upon your character’s personality and how that manifests in language, you can begin to work out your character’s unique way of speaking (idiolect). Make some decisions. For instance, does your character...

· speak in long or short sentences?
· use simple or sophisticated language?
· speak fluently or with a lot of pauses and hesitations?
· have a favourite slang word or phrase? What is it and how often do they use it?
· use bad language? If so, when and how often?

How your character speaks is entirely up to you – but it has to be consistent with the personality you defined in point 1. For instance, because Jamie is ten years old, I decided to give him a rather limited vocabulary, consistent with a boy of average intelligence for his age. I cannot tell you how tough this was, because often I wanted to use words that a normal ten year old just wouldn’t employ in everyday circumstances, and trying to keep the text interesting within these limited confines was difficult. However, it hopefully helped to make Jamie’s voice more believable as a result.

3 Write down the Rules of Speech

Once you have worked out your character’s idiolect, you will know what types of words and sentences they will use throughout the novel. Create a strict set of rules, scribble these down on a post-it, and stick these right next to your computer screen or in your notepad. I found this so useful. As I wrote, I had a visual reminder of Jamie’s idiolect, so I could keep checking that I was writing within the boundaries I had set for myself.

For instance, on my post-it, I had the following Rules of Speech:

· Use ’cos not because
· Informal grammar – start sentences with and etc
· Short sentences
· Matter-of-fact tone, especially when talking about religion or death or grief
· Lack of punctuation – no question marks or speech marks
· Limit verb use – e.g. repeats the verb said to describe people speaking
· Use number one most best to describe his favourite things
· Use a lot of unusual similes
· Repetition of words for emphasis – e.g. really really
· Use of ‘all’ – e.g. it was all sparkly, it was all dark and scary

These are just a few on the list! I referred to my rules throughout the writing process, particularly at the start of each day, to ensure that I was maintaining the voice at all times.

4 Imagine you’re the character

Now you have your guidelines, you need to place yourself firmly in the character’s shoes. I mean this quite literally, and this is where it all gets a bit weird. Other writers have confessed to doing this too, so it’s not just me...

Stand up and pretend to be your character. Yes, that’s right! Embody them. Close your eyes. Literally stand in their shoes and imagine you’re in the scene you’re just about to write. Imagine that you’re a ten-year-old boy, or a ninety-year-old woman, or a thirty-seven-year-old dragon – whoever is telling your story. By now, you should know your character’s personality so you should be able to guess how they will react in any given situation. As you start to experience their feelings, and think their thoughts, sit back down and write quickly within the boundaries you have set yourself on your post-it note. Try to do it without stopping, for several minutes. I used this technique a lot, particularly at key moments in the novel (e.g. the football match, where it was vitally important to convey Jamie’s triumph in his own words, and during the talent show). It may have looked a bit odd, but it was worth it!

5 Edit

This, in my opinion, is the most important aspect of creating an authentic character voice. I cannot emphasise it enough. Even if you follow steps one to four, there will be moments (lots of them!) where the narrative voice slips. The words of the author rather than the words of the narrator will creep in, and it is crucial to cut them out. Be ruthless. Anything, anything at all that does not sound as if it is coming from your character, has to go. If you can’t bear to do it yourself, get a loved one to do it for you. Print out chapter one and ask them to draw a line through anything that stops them believing that the words are being whispered into their ear by your narrator. Trust them as a reader – and cut or adapt any sentences that don’t ring true. I deleted so much out of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, probably getting rid of a quarter of the manuscript, before sending it off to a literary agent. Nothing else really happened in the discarded sections in terms of plot, I was simply taking far more words to say the same thing – words where it was Annabel, rather than Jamie, doing the talking. Getting rid of them in a ruthless edit and presenting my agent with an authentic and sustained character voice was, I believe, the key to getting my book published.


  1. Hi, I loved this. I am writing an article on creating characters for SCBWI. Please may I quote you from this blog post in my article? Hugely useful piece and one of the few that I have read that I felt connected to and passionate about. Really great. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hi, I loved this. I am writing an article on creating characters for SCBWI. Please may I quote you from this blog post in my article? Hugely useful piece and one of the few that I have read that I felt connected to and passionate about. Really great. Thank you for sharing.