Tales From My Writing Head: Tone (Part Two)

Prose that’s a vehicle not a road block

One thing that definitely cannot be faked is spontaneous creativity. Back on that life-changing date, if you want her to laugh, or be impressed with your verbal dexterity, or simply think you’re a genuine bloke, you’re going to have to be those things. You’re going to have to get inside your sense of humour, for example, and then take a leap into the unknown by saying something that may make her laugh or may make her think you’re the biggest creep she’s ever met.

But the alternative is much worse: to, say, tell her a rehearsed joke. That can only be a road block for any further movement.

Prose is like that. If it’s coming from a genuine love of your theme, coupled with you taking artistic chances, it’ll produce a perfect and attractive theme.

Authentic collusion with the reader, including genre etiquette

With this one, it might be easier to start by looking at inauthentic collusion between author and reader.

An obvious example is in children’s writing, particularly Young Adult, where the author attempts to ‘get down with the kids’ by having his characters speak in dubious street slang and find novel ways to deny their IQs.

In pop music, Cliff Richard is the classic example of inauthentic collusion with his audience in that he struts and pouts like a sex machine when in fact his daily routine is bound up with playing tennis, avoiding red meat and praying. Actually, this is more complicated than it looks, because I’m clearly wrong that Cliff does not collude with his audience: there are thousands of women of a certain age who make it very plain they would like to collude with Cliff a whole lot closer (even if their modesty is probably ultimately protected by his actual choice of collusion vehicle).

So, Cliff’s audience collude with him in his inauthenticity. Can an author do the same? Possibly, but as with Cliff, you’d hesitate to structure a training course in how to do such a thing.

No, the better option is to aim for genuine collusion, based around the etiquette of the genre in which you’re writing. Cliff ignores the etiquette of being a rock star, but gets away with it because his audience doesn’t really want all that anti-authority and sexual freedom stuff anyway.

So genuine collusion must include respect for the genre you’re writing in, even if your story in the event subverts some of its etiquette. The simplest way to achieve this is to love the genre you’re writing in. The more complicated way is to do it purely for money, which means a) copy-catting the authentic tone of writers who do love the genre, and b) writing without much love of what you do other than the money it’ll make you.


To round off this quick look at tone, I’m inclined to believe that the writers who have it in abundance are those who essentially love the relationship they can create with their readers. They want to provide the reader with a great experience, full of surprises, fun, thrills and revelations, both large and small. I don’t think this is anything to do with interactivity or audience participation – it’s still the author’s job to tell the story and the reader’s to simply listen to it. But the writers with great tone are, I strongly suspect, those who best love the reader.

It’s a bit like entertaining guests. A lot of hosts make sure they have good supplies of great food and drink; choose perfect background music; ensure that if they’re serving pineapple then a pineapple fork will be laid out for every guest along with all the other correct cutlery. In short, they will give the guests what they believe is best for them. This sort of host is perfectly adequate. If they were a writer, they would produce books that provide everything the author believes a reader should need.

But a truly great host does something quite different. They provide their guests with an experience that’s going to be special – on their guests’ terms, not necessarily by what they think is best. So, they’ll think of background music that these particular guests will feel at home with, or which will surprise them in the right way. They won’t provide damn pineapple forks if their guests are likely not to know what the hell they are. If they know their guests prefer beer to wine, then they’ll get in some great ales.

Which doesn’t mean a great host subjects himself to the will of the guests. He’s still the host, still in control. He is still going to put his own spin on the evening.

It’s just that adequate writers use their control to impose; whereas great writers use it to produce a tone that includes the reader in the experience, so they can own the story too.