Writing well is about the energy behind the words

Many years ago I faced a crisis. I know everyone does so I have no hesitation in admitting I am no different.

I had to decide what I was going to do with the next decades of my life because circumstances had taken away all my options. It felt like I had nowhere to turn and in that moment I turned to the only place left….inside. I had been avoiding that place all my life so it was a frightening prospect.

In that place I fearfully entered I found a shivering little bundle of terror. It hardly dared to speak. I had been shouting it down for so long it cowered from me.

But when a person has no options in the world outside of themselves they have to face those huddling frightened parts of themselves within and listen, for the first time, to what they have been trying to say for years.

As anyone can imagine, that process was like entering the sea with no life raft. Waves crash and I tumbled never sure if I would ever surface to breathe again. In that terrible place three states fought with each other: fear, depression and anger. Eventually the terrified little thing inside me began to speak. At first its voice was barely audible and I had to lean forward, hand cupping my ear to hear it.

Whenever it spoke I felt terror rise inside because what it was saying meant I faced a future of uncertainty. ‘I want to write’ that funny voice whispered.

So I began tapping on my keyboard….a keyboard more used to writing press releases, reports and performance appraisals….and I tried to tell stories. None of them were very good. My teacher gave them relatively low marks and I recall being told, ‘when you find your theme you will be a very powerful writer’ and being swamped by confusion. What could my theme possibly be?

I had no idea.

But I persisted writing about things that came to me. Sometimes they were frighteningly violent, other times cripplingly sad and then on others just plain flat and lacking energy.

Then one day the confusion cleared and I knew what my theme was. That theme is obvious in the novel that emerged from that time, Bend with the Wind.

I wrote it before I had developed the Style Guide™ but I put the preface and other parts of the novel through. The preface went off the grid as did others while still others were fine. I could see why they landed where they did and re-wrote those sections. Bend with the Wind is now out there, thanks to a generous benefactor, and receiving the most amazing reviews. ‘This is,’ I’m being told over and over, ‘a novel that everyone should read because it deals with important issues around cultural differences.’

Recently I was asked to gather together my stories for a collection. I had forgotten about the stories I wrote while I was coming to the decision to write. As my voice became clearer the praise for my stories grew louder but I never submitted them for publication or for competitions. They just did not feel good enough.

So with the request for the stories in mind I started putting them through the Style Guide™. Every single one fell off the grid into the area which I say represents the passive voice. And as I read them I understand why. They are flat. They lack energy and fire. And those that do have fire are overwhelmingly aggressive.

I now put everything I write through the Style Guide™ because it never puts me wrong. How can it? It is comparing what I write with successful pieces of writing that have attracted millions of readers. When my writing falls outside the grid it tells me that no successful writer has written in that style….therefore it is unlikely to succeed. That’s all I need to know to get me working on improving the writing style.

When we write we may not come out and say we are happy, sad, angry, not angry, depressed or full of optimism but the way we write captures how we are feeling. That is what style is all about. The reader senses that. The reader won’t know why but he or she empathises with the emotion that sits behind the words. They will either be drawn to the writing or repulsed. They won’t know why but they might dismiss it by saying, ‘I don’t like the style.’

Most readers understand emotion but struggle to cope with a level that leaves them struggling to breathe. And in my early days I was suffocatingly graphic. Now I have found a place which captures the essence of an emotion and I can convey that to readers so they empathise and understand but can also move on.

However, it is very satisfying when readers say, ‘oh I loved that story. I even cried’ because that means the themes I am now dealing with mean something to the reader and they understand that life is about joy/pain and by experiencing that through a character they are also learning something about the world they live in and I hope something about themselves just as I did.