Tag Archives: voices

Chaos Walking

I’ve just finished reading Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series. Wow.

Cover image: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking trilogy book 1)
Cover image: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking trilogy book 1)

I kept putting off reading The Knife of Letting Never Go, despite the rave reviews or perhaps in spite of them. I read the sample chapter several times but kept finding other books that were clamouring more loudly to climb up my To Read list.

When I did get to the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, I loved it. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Mr Ness has created a universe where men can hear each other’s thoughts, or ‘noise’, along with those of animals. This produces insights that can be comic, moving, tragic or horrific. It’s truly compelling, particularly when we learn women can hear male thoughts but men cannot read female minds. Unsurprisingly, the voices are unique – whether you like the characters or not.

The second book, The Ask and the Answer, didn’t wow me quite as much, although it did its job – setting the foundations for an epic finale. And man, does the third book deliver.

Monsters of Men takes the male-female human-animal-monster themes of the first two books and turns them up to 11. It adds an acute awareness of indigenous dispossession, environmental degradation and the consequences of war. It is a remarkable climax to the trilogy, even managing to introduce a new narrative perspective.

As an author working on creating my own new universe, I doff my cap to Mr Ness. He has set the bar very high indeed.

Starting over

When I scored a book deal for Game as Ned, I couldn’t bring myself to start writing another story until I knew all the GAN edits and rewriting were done and dusted. I kept telling myself that if I started imagining up new characters, I might stop hearing the voices from GAN – a bit like when you’re driving in rural areas and one radio station starts to fade and another overlaps with the frequency. Then again, maybe I was just procrastinating.

Book 2 has now passed from my agent to HarperCollins Publishers Australia, who brought GAN into the world. All being well, I might hear from them in the next week or so as to if they like it enough to print.

Interestingly, I do feel ready to start another story, even though the status of Book 2 is still up in the air. I haven’t started hearing the voice of the main character yet, although I do have a strong sense of his identity and what makes him tick.

Starting a story is the fun bit. I have a beginning and ending in mind but still need to find a middle. I’m planning to storyboard this plot more than I have in the past … so I better stop here and get on with it.

Hearing voices

One of the things that can make or break your story is getting the voices of the characters right. You’re ploughing through a book, enjoying the plot and then one of the characters uses language that just doesn’t fit (e.g. a five-year-old uses the word ‘loquacious’ or something equally unlikely). The whole story suddenly becomes less plausible. Things don’t ring true.

One wrong word or phrase can stick out like a disastrous casting decision in a movie. Months of research on your plot can go to waste if the voices grate.

So how do you get the voices right? One of the tricks is to listen. If you’re writing about children, talk to them first. Listen to how they blend, shorten, mispronounce or approximate words. My daughter recently told me a princess in one of her videos was named “Uriness”. It took me a bit of work to establish that the castle staff were actually calling the princess “Your Highness”.

You’ll also need to do your research. Because one of my narrators in Game as Ned has an autism spectrum disorder, I did a lot of reading on how this can affect thinking, speaking and relating to the world. Most importantly, I found books by authors with autism such as Dr Temple Grandin and Donna Williams. This helped me view the world through eyes that brought different perspectives to my own.

Another character in GAN, Mick, is an ocker raised on a farm and suffering post traumatic stress disorder after his tour of duty in Vietnam. I’d assumed I’d be safe for Mick to use typically Aussie ‘strine’ expressions such as “she’ll be right” and “no worries, mate” but these were queried by the publishers as potentially too recent for a character in a 1970s setting. So you need to fact check voices too. Phrases and slang have use-by dates.

For the record, my intrepid wife tracked down a linguistics professor who was able to carbon date and verify the phrases I wanted to use.

You also need a good sense of what make your characters tick. If you understand and feel the things that motivate them, you should start to sense how they’d communicate. Would they have oft-repeated favourite words or phrases? Their own idiosyncratic idiom?

And, when you have spent enough time with your characters you might actually start to hear them in your head. Rather than a sign of madness, this can be a breakthrough moment. Writing their voices is almost like dictation once you can hear them.

I began writing GAN as a teenager. After a journalism career postponed the project, it was more than a decade before I returned to my manuscript. As I read through my earlier work, everything felt wrong. It took me a while to realise that, just as I had aged, so had my characters. Their voices sounded too young. I had a lot of rewriting ahead of me. The story is, I believe, the better for it.

Incidentally, there’s nothing to say a five-year-old can’t use the word loquacious. But if it’s going to be plausible you’ll need to create a character who can persuasively and believably spit out all those syllables.