Shhh! On Writing ‘Quiet’

When the last copy was edited and the last proof was read and A Single Stone was finally off to the printers, I turned to my husband and said, “Well, that’s about as Bruce Willis as I get.”

He knew what I was talking about because he’d heard me muttering and ranting a lot during the writing process – Yes, but what actually *happens*? Raise the stakes! Back story over steaming broth is not a chapter!

And so on.

Things happen in A Single Stone. It contains actual plot. This may sound ridiculous, but for Bookontableme, forward narrative movement is the hardest thing of all. I like to sit in the small moments – as a reader and a writer … as a person, those are what I’m most interested in. As silly as it sounds, I have to remind myself that things do need to happen in the story – and not just inside my characters’ heads. Hence the muttering and ranting. Hence my self-satisfied glow when I thought about the cracking pace and tension and high-stakes plot points I had finally managed to achieve in this book. I am fast-paced action thriller – HEAR ME ROAR!

Hence my wry smile when reviews started coming in on Goodreads:

A beautifully written, quiet adventure …

This was a slow-burning, unputdownable delight.

In a way, it moves quite slowly but I couldn’t put it down.

Quiet. Slow. No matter what I do, these words follow me. And even though I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, the truth is that I’m quite happy to own them.

I have a new book out soon, this one for a younger readership. Shortly after Bella and the Wandering House went off to the printers, I was at an event and bumped into one of the editors who had worked on it. “Oh,” she said. “I just love Bella. It’s so quiet and lovely. It has this wonderful stillness at its centre, a sort of zen.”

Zengarden

At a zen garden in Koyasan. I would live here if I could.

These are beautiful words and I’m delighted by them. But they also elicit a wry smile. Because it was a very early draft of Bella and the Wandering House which evoked the following from a slushpile reader:

Lovely language … but can’t something more interesting happen?

This is a useful question for me, and has now become part of my internal editor. I heeded this advice when re-writing Bella and the final version has so much more story than that early draft. It is crammed chock full of interesting things, at least as I define ‘interesting’. But it remains, nonetheless, quiet and still.

So this is how I write, and there’s no escaping it, even if I wanted to. Which I don’t, no matter how people say attention spans are shrinking and pages need to turn quickly and you need to hook a reader and keep hooking them and just drag them through the story with a series of giant steel grappling hooks and …

I may be getting a little carried away. There are are many kinds of hooks of course. And perhaps quietness and stillness and a certain slowness of purpose can be their own particular variety.

Of course, not all readers say ‘slow but unputdownable’ or ‘quiet and beautiful’. Some just say This was so slow. It took so long for things to get moving. This book was boring from start to finish. What even happened in it? This could have been way more interesting/exciting/something-else-altogether.

My wry smile may be a little more strained when I read responses like that, but it’s still a Bellacoverhiressmile. Because those readers are not wrong; they’re not wrong or right – they’re just not my readers. And I’m most likely not a reader of the kind of books they enjoy. Recently, I heard a new book described as ACTION FROM START TO FINISH! and while others were enthusing Woo-hoo! Can’t wait! So exciting! my brain had already turned away, muttering, No, thanks. 

This is probably why I’ve written Bella and the Wandering House rather than Bella and the Zooming House or Bella and the Rocket Launcher. And as I prepare for Bella to make her way into the world, I’ll be reminding myself that her readers are out there. Sometimes they might be harder to spot, but perhaps that’s because they’re not noisemakers by nature. Perhaps they prefer to curl up in quiet corners, reading.

11 thoughts on “Shhh! On Writing ‘Quiet’

  1. Karen Comer

    Hi Meg, I have been described as quiet all my life. And recently my middle grade fiction book was rejected by a publisher because it was too quiet! I thought I’d thrown everything at my 11yo protagonist but apparently separated parents, new school, new friends, rooftop adventures at night, calling ambulances is still too quiet! It was so heartening to read your blog post today. Power to the quiet ones – both people and books! Surely there is a place for action and stillness in both people and books?

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    1. Meg McKinlay Post author

      Sounds like we are in the same tribe, Karen! Thinking about what you said – about having all those strong plot points etc but still being labelled ‘quiet’ – makes me wonder if maybe it’s something more intrinsic to the writing itself. I wrote some books for Walker’s Lightning Strikes series which included things like exploding hoses, skateboarding, even a fart joke, and still had (some) boys saying they were slow, not enough action etc. I think it’s unavoidable for me – maybe something to do with sitting longer in the small moments, making images work harder rather than moving quickly on to the next explosion or something. Still pondering…

      I’m glad you feel heartened. I couldn’t agree more with your last line, and doubt anyone would feel otherwise. I hope your work finds a home; one publisher’s ‘quiet’ may well be another’s ‘meditative and delightful’!

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      1. Karen Comer

        Thank you, Meg! I think you’re right – it’s about the way we write, not what we write, just as an introvert can talk just as much as an extrovert but in a more reflective way.

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  2. clareiswrite

    Just picked up A Single Stone at my local Sydney bookstore and am devouring it. Beautiful.

    I’m working on my first novel, YA, and love reading what others have done (satisfies two criteria, research, and a way to avoid my own work). Your book is inspiring. The page turn between Chapter 3 and 4 was masterful. I couldn’t have put the book down if I’d wanted to. And I did want to. I had planned to go make dinner for the kids but they had to wait until after Chapter 4

    Once I’m done with the book I’ll get my girls to read it and let you know what the teens-eye view is, but I love it.

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    1. Meg McKinlay Post author

      Hi, Clare. Thanks so much for this feedback; I’m thrilled that you liked the book and that I can now add ‘masterful’ to my list of self-descriptors. 😉

      I would love to hear the teens’-eye view, even if it’s just ‘meh’. Actually, I’m pretty sure I had a Goodreads review once (on another book) that said exactly that, and no more!

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  3. Penelope Ann Russon (@eglantinescake)

    I think quiet can be another way of saying literary, especially for kids and YA books. As a child I loved “quiet” books (Elephant Rock by Caroline Macdonald haunts me still, though I haven’t reread it since childhood). These books are often about internal journeys, shifts in perceptions, observations about states of change… all representing the intense subjectivity of experience.These books are often very compassionate, and invoke self-compassion, forgiveness, empathy, solace. They’re not “escapist”, but the very opposite: the books we read to feel, to bring us wholly into ourselves, and that’s what makes them my favourites and why we should be true to them.

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    1. Meg McKinlay Post author

      Thanks, Penni. I completely agree. The internal journey, the small shift in perception. To me, those are the large shifts, the big narrative arcs. They may read small or quiet but the resonance is so powerful. And to be true to that – yes. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I should write, and how, where to go next. It’s timely to hold this particular thought close.

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  4. Pingback: Kids Ain’t Kids | Meg McKinlay

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