Au Contraire writing workshop – Juliet Marillier on Voice

I’m going to do a series of posts on what I learned in the writing workshops at the Au Contraire convention, in the hopes that I can shed a little light on my own writing as well as making a record of the events. This is the first one, which I attended first thing Friday morning. Please enjoy!

The facilitator for this workshop was Juliet Marillier.

She started the workshop by asking us to do a short free writing exercise on the topic of “Empty Space”, I think for ten minutes we did that. The idea here is that if you aren’t thinking hard about what you’re writing, if you’re just leaking words out of your pen so to speak, your voice will come through stronger. I’m not sure it worked for me, since I came out with something rather pretentious and odd. I hope I’m not pretentious. A couple of people including Sally were brave enough to read their pieces out loud.

Juliet talked then about some examples of strong voice, we read passages from famous books aloud and she recommended some spec fic titles that include strong voices.*

Then she had us break up into groups and talk about our childhoods, with special attention on what accents we may have been surrounded by, who spoke to us, what ethnicities were around us and what stories do we remember. Thinking back to look forward as it were, since all of these things must be informing our writing in some way. This was slightly depressing for me, growing up in a white wash of middle class Wadestown. However the stories thing was interesting. I was fascinated by myths and legends as a kid and I remember getting all sorts of stuff out of the Wadestown library: Anansi stories, book after book of English fairy tales (The Red Fairy Book series) , Greek myths and treasuries of stories from other cultures as well as Usborne books of ‘real’ monster and ghost encounters. Those have definitely informed me and my writing style.

Other questions to ponder if you’re playing at home, and my answers from the workshop: What are your favourite five novels of all time?
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Lola Rose by Jacqueline Wilson
The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins
Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (These were all off the top of my head, and I chose them because I frequently want to re-read them. Seems like as good a method as any.)

What was your favourite book when you were 12?
~ I’m pretty sure it was Alanna the First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

What writer or book in particular made you want to be a writer?
~ I always wanted to be a writer, way back when I was tiny, but the author that motivated me to do something about it was Neil Gaiman. The depth of characters and the rich mythological content in American Gods, in particular.

What book(s) do you wish you’d written?
~ This one was easy: Tithe by Holly Black. It’s about dark fae and teenagers, it’s exciting, rich, the characters are intriguing and it examines what it means to be human.
Also The Hunger Games. Because damn. That’s some awesome stuff.

When you examine your own writing, what do you keep on visiting? What themes keep coming up? What places? Time periods?
~ Gosh, I really don’t know. Ghosts? Monsters? Teenagers? People who worry a lot and are conscious of their breathing? I’d really appreciate it if people who have read a few pieces of my work could wade in here…

What do other people respond to most in your writing?
~ Again, quite tricky. I think I have a strong sense of character, and Sok said my pacing’s good in the last third of Rain. I think I have a certain knack for creeping horror. Again, suggestions from the floor are appreciated.

We did another writing exercise then. Write a scene from Little Red Riding Hood focussing on putting in a distinct voice. Suggestions for challenging yourself included using a different person than you would usually (2nd person?), having a character that speaks in dialect, or at least very distinctively, working on your own strengths as a writer (helpful if you know what they are.)

I wrote a piece about Red finding the wolf in her Grandmother’s bed which I’m quite fond of and may submit somewhere so I won’t share it here. I read it out to the group and got some very good feedback: the humour worked, the twist I put on expectations was good, I had good characterisation (Red as a cynical teen who still loves her Nana).

Some final advice from Juliet on the subject of voice: You have to get of any prejudices or assumptions about other people/ethnicities to write well. You have to inhabit your characters to give them true voices. Successfully using voice is half technique and half instinct. You have to use your intuition and your empathy for other human beings to make them real. That’s what gives writing real spark.

In the end you are a product of your experiences, your background and your personal history. You use those unique things when you write, so you might as well be aware of what they are and what you’re doing.

Au Contraire
Interview with Juliet Marillier.

* Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban
House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds


2 thoughts on “Au Contraire writing workshop – Juliet Marillier on Voice

  1. Neat! If I get a chance to make a more useful comment I’ll pop back. For now the main thing this post made me reflect on is that having a hazy (at best) memory of my formative years might have made some parts of the workshop a challenge for me 🙂

  2. Sounds like a great workshop.

    Here’s my two cents on your writing:

    From what I’ve read of your stuff, I’d say one of your strengths (that you haven’t already mentioned) is creating believable friendships between your characters – there are conflicts of rivarly or other tensions and often great humour arising from the friendship dynamic and dialogue, but I think there genuine sweetness and caring underneath that as well.

    I think you also do the Whedonesque elements of humour/likeable characters and genuinely creepy supernatural elements well, and the smooth shifting between them is something that keeps getting better in the Kiki -> WTWTCH -> Rain progression of drafts that I have read.

    I’d also say that common elements that arise in a lot of your writing are characters finding their own identity and place in a changing or ‘other’ world, and coming to terms with their own power or emerging power. Oh, and boys that are attractive and appealing but behave in confusing ways and have worryingly ambiguous intentions for the protagonist 🙂

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