Taking risks with usual styles, forms and points of view can make for a fresh and exciting way of telling a story. Cathy Faulkner, Tony T Taylor, Michelle Smith and Isobel Clara are four Boundless authors who have experimented with different ways of telling stories. Here, they talk to Jessamy Corob Cook about their discoveries, inspirations and challenges.
How have you used unusual or different storytelling techniques?
Cathy: I’ve written a middle-grade novel in verse, which is unusual for the UK, but to me it seems a great way of telling a story for younger and particularly more reluctant readers.
My work is written in free verse, but it’s also very experimental. There’s quite a lot of playing with the layout, the words, the fonts and the sizes; it’s quite visual.
Tony: I have a narrator and a main character. So, in the first half of the book my narrator tells their experience of the main character, and in the second half the narrator attempts to tell the story from the main character’s point of view – so it’s an attempt to get inside the head of the other person.
Michelle: I haven’t put any unusual stuff in my book itself, but I write verse poems, for younger children, that tell stories.
At undergrad I did a few experiments with second person. I took out chapters and experimented by telling them in second person and it was just really strange. It’s not a style I’ve seen very much.
Isobel: My narrator uses dialect, so apart from other people’s speech, it’s all written in this kind of unusual, historic dialect. She doesn’t have any kind of formal learning, so her whole life has been about processing things in the natural world; so, in describing something, she might say, “It has the wings of a swan or the strength of an ox.”
How did these devices help you to tell your story?
Tony: It’s a way of exploring the idea of empathy in writing, and the extent to which, through a novel, we actually get to the truth of another person’s experience. I was trying to explore the extent to which you can really know somebody else’s experience and the limits of that.
Isobel: I can only really answer in the sense that Bede, my narrator, just spoke to me. It’s quite a useful tool in that I think people make judgments about who she is by how she speaks, and often those judgments are wrong, so it helps me a lot with power dynamics, and being able to do surprising things with those.
Cathy: I wanted my book to be a real emotional rollercoaster, and I think you can do that well with poetry. The white space around the words helps to intensify the emotion. I’m a musician, and I would say that the rests are as important as the notes in music. In the same way, here it gives space for the words to be powerful. But also the space eliminates the need for unnecessary narrative, so if you want to add a little afterthought, you don’t need to explain that it’s an afterthought, you just leave a bit more space, or it can show that time is passing without having to explain that.
Also, I’m writing with very reluctant readers in mind, who often just get daunted by a whole page of text, and actually this is very sparse, it’s very economical and I think it makes my writing more intense.
Michelle: Experimenting with writing in second person actually helped me visualise Wrenna from the outside. Pulling out and looking at her interacting with her surroundings really helped me build up her world and the idea of how she interacts with it. I just did it as an exercise, but it was very useful. To me, it feels like studying a bowl of fruit before you paint it, looking at it from all different angles.
What were the challenges in using these devices?
Isobel: Consistency! Every time I workshop someone always circles like two words, and they’re like, “This is not in Bede’s voice,” and I’m like, “Damn, I didn’t get away with it!”
My other big challenge is that dialect is quite divisive: I have had people in workshops say this is the most exciting thing; I’ve had people tell me that I will definitely not be published; I’ve had people who love it, but don’t like the way I’ve used apostrophes. It’s so subjective.
I was really interested in what Cathy was saying, because I’m also a trained musician, and so the rhythm of everything Bede says is so important; if there’s one too many syllables in it for my ear it’s like an awful earworm that won’t go away. It plagues me!
Tony: I think the biggest challenge for me is taking my readers with me. It’s very divisive, just like Izzy [Isobel Clara] was saying – some people are up for that kind of a read, and other people aren’t. I think that’s been the biggest challenge, to make it accessible enough.
Michelle: After a while of experimenting with second person, I just decided that it’s not something I’m ever going to visit again, simply because I did miss the interiority of the character.
Cathy: It was the action scenes that posed the biggest problem for me. I dreaded writing them, but then I realised that’s where the music of the language came in, because I was relying on the rhythm of the lines and the alliteration and the repetition and the assonance and all that to make it fast paced, and again the white space where there was a pause in the action. I think it was the music of the language that got me through it.
What were your inspirations?
Michelle: Elen Caldecott! She said, “Now you must do your novel in as many different points of view as possible.” So, she is my inspiration, basically!
But for writing the book, that inspiration definitely comes from living on boats. I lived on boats for about 22 years and I met so many crazy characters and I’ve shoehorned them all into Wrenna Boe, so I would imagine if anybody from the boat community picked up that book they’d probably find themselves!
Cathy: Elen was the one that got me writing in verse actually! She was my manuscript tutor. She said, “Your writing really lends itself to verse.” And I had a go, and I absolutely loved it!
In terms of books that inspired me, obviously Sarah Crossan is a big one; Louisa Reid’s Gloves Off, things like that; but I’ve also read some American middle-grade verse writing as well, which has shown me that it can be done for middle-grade: Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, which is set in the Great Depression in Oklahoma, is incredibly emotional and powerful.
Isobel: I had this very vivid image of a girl standing alone in the middle of this massive circle of trees staring up at the moon, trying to squash it between her fingers. So I wrote this very hurried kind of prologue. I loved it, but I didn’t have any confidence. Then I brought it to a workshop and Jo [Nadin] was like, “This is the one!” But a few people were saying, “This is going to be too much; this won’t have a life.” Then I had my tutorial with David Almond, and that was the real game-changer. He said, “Would you mind if I use our session just to read it to you?” I think someone having the accent that I kind of imagine Bede might have just brought her alive for me.
There are two books that really helped me along the way. One was Bearmouth by Liz Hyder, which is interesting because it starts with a voice which I think is quite similar to Bede’s, but that character learns to read along the way, so their voice really changes throughout the book. And then Blood Red Road, by Moira Young, which is again written in a character that kind of speaks with an accent and has a dialect.
Tony: There’s a book that was published in the 19th century, called Le Grand Meaulnes [Alain-Fournier], in which the narrator tells the story of le Grand Meaulnes in the first person, but then when le Grand Meaulnes goes off and has his great romance, the narrator tells it as if he knows what Meaulnes is actually thinking and feeling; so that’s kind of like what’s going on in mine.
It’s interesting what Izzy said about David Almond, because I was beginning to think that this was just not a good idea at all, and then when David gave me his feedback he said, “Oh, you’re saying that you’re imagining what it’s like to be someone else – you’re acknowledging that the whole thing is a fiction. It makes it interesting, it’s something more than just a conventional narrative.” So I thought, okay, maybe it’s not too ludicrous a flight of fancy to go down!
There’s one other book, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, because that’s written in omniscient voice. Philip Pullman talks about the importance of omniscient voice in children’s fiction, because the narrator is the lens through which you see the world. In Beloved, it’s as if she’s stretching the bounds of what it’s possible to imagine somebody else is experiencing. I wanted to see, what are the limits?
Any final thoughts?
Cathy: It’s interesting to hear how people have responded to your work, and how it hasn’t always been positive, because I’ve had some very mixed opinions on mine. I had a similar thing with the punctuation, Izzy, because I made a conscious decision not to use inverted commas for speech, which is a bit weird for me because I’m an English teacher, but I just made that choice because I thought it wasn’t necessary, it didn’t add anything. But we’ve all chosen different ways of doing things, and of course you’re never going to please everyone, especially if you’re breaking rules.
Tony: It’s a little scary though, if you’re hoping to get the book published!
Michelle: I think with any of these techniques, it’s always worth trying them out in the first place, because then it gives you wider scope for how you write. The more you experiment the more scope you have.