Her most recent honor was the 2009 Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award (Fiction).
What type of fiction do you write?
I don’t write in any specific genre, and have dabbled in just about everything, including sci-fi, picture books, and poetry, but my main interests are middle grade fiction, Young Adult fiction, women’s fiction (not necessarily “chick lit,” but fiction hinging on the POV of a woman), and literary fiction. It’s easier to relate the types of fiction I DON’T write–I don’t write mysteries, thrillers, horror, or Westerns. I don’t write in the genre of Romance, but some of my women’s fiction has romantic undertones. I have written fantasies and am currently writing a YA fantasy, but my fantasies are firmly grounded in reality.
I got a Master’s degree in Literature, and loved studying Victorian Literature. Charles Dickens completely swept me off my feet. I love his quote: “An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.” I can relate that quote to getting the voice right of a character. Sometimes I will get an idea for a story, and charge full-speed ahead, but more often the idea will percolate and simmer for months or even years before I commit one word of the story to paper. It’s the same way with the characters in each story. I want my characters to speak for themselves, and in order for them to do that, I have to LISTEN. I know writers who interview their characters when they’re stuck. I’ve done that a few times, but mostly I try to back off and let the characters breathe and grow.
Do you read other books during the first draft of new story?
It depends. I’m always reading something, but not necessarily something related to the story I’m writing at the time. If my story idea is strong enough, then nothing I’m currently reading will have any influence whatsoever on my story. On the other hand, absolutely everything I’ve ever read or experienced contributes to my literary voice. There is no getting around it. Your literary voice, for better or for worse, is YOU, your very essence. You can’t help but let it out.
Do you have any tips to help develop narrative voice?
I was getting in trouble for writing “novels” instead of doing class assignments when I was still in first grade, so I’ve been writing for a long, long time. Because I’ve been writing (copious amounts) since I was a small child, I write organically. I don’t ever think about “voice,” although editors have told me that mine is “fresh” and strong. I think you can pick up just about anything I’ve written, and be able to tell that I was the author, and that’s where “voice” comes in. I think all writers must develop multiple personalities–one for each character they create. In order to write in each character’s voice, a writer must thoroughly KNOW his/her character, inside and out. If you write organically (as I do), your characters will reveal themselves to you as you write. And each of them will have a distinctive voice. Yet, if you look at the work as a whole, you should be able to detect your OWN voice in the narrative thread. My #1 tip for developing that narrative voice is to write, write, write, and then KEEP ON WRITING! And my #2 tip is the exact same thing.
Do you have a technique for establishing a clear narrative voice, such as writing in first person?
I don’t really employ any techniques. Sometimes I write in first person (I love its immediacy) and sometimes I write in third person, and sometimes I even write in second person (makes your prose riveting, if you can pull it off). I write in both past and present tenses. None of that makes any difference at all, when it comes to voice. The real difference comes in being able to get INSIDE a character’s head and UNDERNEATH a character’s skin. You feel that character’s emotions, think that character’s thoughts, know what makes him/her tick. You become that character on the page, blood and guts and bones. You have to “get” that character; then you’ll get the voice right.
How can you tell when the voice of your WIP (work-in-progress) is off?
By the time I’m writing the story, I know what each of my characters is capable of, although sometimes they’ll surprise me. I can hear their voices in my head. I know that sounds insane! Writers have to be at least a little bit mad, especially when they’re engaged in stream-of-consciousness writing. I try not to be analytical as I write. I want to be completely immersed in the story and deeply involved with the characters, just as I was when I was a kid and was totally unself-conscious about my writing. I think I’ve lost a little bit of that along the way. I’m trying to find my way back.
Is there a particular author(s) whose voice you admire?
I’m an Anglophile and attended an English boarding school in London as a teenager, so I particularly relish British novels, especially ones written by women. I think Elizabeth Buchan is brilliant, and I also love the voices of Margaret Drabble, Penelope Lively, Elizabeth Noble, and a host of others. Among children’s book authors, P. L. Travers (who was born in Australia) and Noel Streatfeild had amazingly unique and wondrous voices. And did I mention Charles Dickens? No one could ever pick up a novel by Charles Dickens, and mistake it for a novel by anyone else. Talk about an inimitable voice! And Thomas Hardy’s voice was just as clear and distinctive.
How long do you let your new stories ideas percolate before committing words to the page? Do you consider yourself someone who writes organically, like Nancy? Do you spend time getting to know your characters before starting a story? Are you unself-conscious when you write?
Want to learn more from Nancy, check out some of her other online sites:
Thanks Nancy for the awesome interview!