Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Author's Voice - a guest post by Nicola Morgan

There's a scene in Almost True when Ty thinks about what his life would be like if he'd never witnessed the crime that put him into police protection. What if his life had just stayed as it was. What would he have missed? Would his life have been better?
And I'm writing a book right now about a girl whose life is transformed by chance - by the random numbers she marks on a lottery ticket.
Chance, coincidence, destiny, free will - the tiny choices,random events that can change our lives completely are the subject of a new YA novel by Nicola Morgan, Wasted. It's a tremendously clever book which doesn't just examine the subject of chance - it givs the reader the opportunity to decide the way the story flows by the toss of a coin.
As a reader I was pulled into the love story of Jack and Jess, and ended the book feeling torn apart - tearful and a bit wobbly. As a writer I was stunned by Nicola's craft - and, indeed, sheer craftiness. It's a must-read.

One of the distinctive elements of Wasted is the voice, which I've seen described as 'teacher-like' and 'god-like' but which reminded me of an omniscient ninetenth century novelist. There are certain similarities to Melvin Burgess's powerful Nicholas Dane, a modern version of Dickens' Oliver Twist.
When Nicola offered to write a guest post as part of her blog tour for Wasted I suggested she wrote about that voice, and the tricky business of writing in third person present tense - an unusual choice.

So...over to Nicola...

Hi Keren and thanks so much for giving me a guest slot on your blog! As you know, I loved your When I Was Joe and have been lucky enough to read the proof of the wonderful sequel, Almost True. Gritty realism at its best!

You wanted me to talk about the unusual voice in Wasted and you commented that third person + present tense is a difficult combination. Indeed – and risky!

I don’t know about you, but I find that in many ways I can’t choose the voice – it kind of chooses itself. Yes, I know very quickly if it’s a voice I want to pursue; yes, I can control it once it’s got going. And yes, there are two aspects that I do choose – the tense and the person. (Though even those choices feel more like instinct or just trial and error.) But the rest of it is all a bit spooky.

So, why present tense for Wasted? I’m not a big fan of present tense – though it works brilliantly for your When I Was Joe and Almost True. It’s hard to say why it works or doesn’t, but I know that immediately after finishing Wasted, I launched into writing something else present tense and showed it to my agent. She said she loved it but not the present tense because it made it too “detached”. You’d think that present tense would make something feel less detached, but as soon as I looked into it I realised she was right. I think it’s because in past tenses there are more ways to describe the exact time-scale, so you can vary pace and tension, whereas the present tense can feel very same-paced. Present tense + first person (which is the usual combination for present tense) has the benefit that it gets you right into the MC’s mind, but present tense + third person gives a kind of languorous, dispassionate feel that you don’t always want.

Wasted couldn’t be first person, because there are two MCs and the story requires a narrator who sees into the minds of many of the characters, which no single person could do. So, third person was my only option.

Except it’s not so simple - because it’s not genuinely third person... The narrator is a distinct character in itself, speaking for itself and for us, and sometimes to us. Sometimes, the narrator even says “we”. The narrator is near-omniscient, invisible, and non-existent; dispassionate, uninvolved, interested but disinterested. Its only function is to guide what the reader sees, so, although people (myself included) have often described it as “godlike”, it’s not, in the sense that it does nothing to control or create. It simply guides the reader.

Its voice it is also sometimes sardonic, sometimes didactic, sometimes even patronising – all things that I knew some readers might hate, and which therefore made it very risky to write. It’s maybe like an actor who has a very distinctive voice or style – this can really annoy some people, even if others love it. Robin Williams might be an example: he has such an extraordinary (in the literal sense) voice, manner and style, that if you don’t like him you seriously won’t like him. I knew all along that Wasted would be a love-or-hate book and that it was entirely possible that the first people to read it could have hated it or put other people off.

So, why did I do it? After all, the last thing I want is for people to hate any of my books. I’m insecure as anyone.

First, as I say, I have much less control over my books than I should. The narrator just happened, or that’s how it felt.

Second, I was bored and needed to do something different. There’s a bit in Wasted about Jess’s mother, Sylvia, saying that she is “creative and does things in ways that do not fit in boxes. It’s much safer in a box but there are no rainbows.” Although I am in every other way not like Sylvia – trust me! – I think that bit is me. I like unusual things, breaking rules, and I needed to do something on the edge. I’d been horribly busy for the previous three years and writing had become hard work instead of my passion. So, I started Wasted in a spirit of adventure and abandon. I told my agent I was writing something but that I didn’t want to show it to her yet, and I didn’t want the pressure of deadline or even a contract. Same to my editor. Then, when I felt comfortable, I showed my agent, saying, “If you think it’s rubbish, I’m still writing it.” She loved it. We showed my editor, and I was still in the “I don’t care, I’m writing it anyway” frame of mind. She loved it, too. And of course, I didn’t say no to the contract!

The fact that neither of them queried or doubted the voice gave me confidence. Actually, neither of them even mentioned it. Which is odd, considering just how strange and risky it was. Recently, my editor said, “The moment I read the first draft chapters for Wasted I knew that this was something special... ‘hairs-tingling-on-the-neck’ feeling…. I think it has to do with the originality of the tone and voice…”

I feel I haven’t said anything very fascinating or useful for you! I think that’s because voice begins so subconsciously. (Do you find that?) You know how people say that writing is x% inspiration and y% perspiration? Well, I think voice is much of the inspiration bit and the skill comes in controlling it after it’s actually on its way.

All I know is that, risky or not, I am so glad I did it. I don’t expect everyone to like it but I’ve now had enough positive feedback to tell me that it’s worked for many readers in the way I dreamt of.

Besides, since Wasted is all about risk-taking, it seems quite appropriate that I should have taken a risk in writing it. Let’s just hope my career survives!

Copyright © Nicola Morgan 2010

Nicola Morgan is an award-winning author for teenagers, with successful titles such as Fleshmarket, Deathwatch, Blame My Brain and Sleepwalking. She prefers to forget that she also used to write Thomas the Tank Engine Books... When she's not writing, she loves speaking in schools, and at festivals and conferences in the UK and Europe, She also enjoys messing around on Twitter or her blogs. Nicola blogs for writers here and has set up a special blog about her brand new book, Wasted - you can join the activities and contribute in lots of ways here.


  1. fascinating and useful - thanks!

  2. great to see nicola here! thanks!

  3. Very interesting. Especially the bit about the pros and cons of past/present.
    *Plentymorefishoutofwater - One Man's Dating Diary*

  4. I agree absolutely with Nicola on the tricky ratio between voice and skill--and though I'm not like Sylvia either, I very much recognise that phrase 'It’s much safer in a box but there are no rainbows.' Sometimes, as a writer, you just have to be brave and try something new. Sometimes it will work, sometimes not, but you have to try anyway. Putting a chapter into a different voice as an experiment is often very rewarding and can help you see the book in a whole new way. What an interesting post--thanks to you both.

    Lucy at

  5. Great post - I absolutely agree about needing to control the voice once you've got do it so well in Wasted it's an extraordinary book.
    It's interesting to hear you two in conversation - I'd like to hear more!

  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone, and thanks again to Keren for having me over here.

    Lucy, I do agree that it can be very interesting and useful to put a chpater into another voice as an experiment. I've just done that in my WIP, actually - not sure if I'll leave it in but it created an interesting extra tone.

  7. Interesting read, especially as a non writer, to hear about how writers approach their work.

  8. Madame, no one who has read your wonderful blog could describe you as a non-writer.

    I tried writing a chapter in Claire's voice when I was writing Joe; it certainly helped me get an insight into her mind. Wouldn't have worked for a moment in the book.