Setting the tone

I came across an article this week which really resonated with where I am right now with the novel. It was outlining Zadie Smith’s perception of the two kinds of writers, quoting from a lecture she delivered in 2008. Aside from making me realise that I really should read more of what writers I admire have to say about what it is we do, it got me thinking about the thorny issue of tone.


I’ve really struggled with the tone of this novel. I’ve known the main characters pretty intimately since they first appeared in my mind, and the plot – though it evolved in the writing of it as they so often do – has remained basically the same since my earliest outlines. I thought I knew what the novel was about too – on a big, important, thematic level – but that has all changed recently. And as it has I’ve started to see the cracks in my manuscript that had somehow remained invisible up until now.

According to Smith’s ideas, I am pretty solidly a Macro Planner. Not entirely – I can’t quite conceive of starting to write anywhere but at the beginning, can’t imagine flitting around my plan and shifting the structure as many writers apparently do. But I do need a roadmap of sorts – I couldn’t plunge into writing without a fairly detailed plan. At least I don’t think I could.

But there were elements of Smith’s description of her process as a Micro Manager which really appealed to me – not least her assertion that when she finished writing a novel she was actually finished, with redrafts being unnecessary. For her, everything begins with setting the tone – making the first twenty pages a crucial and lengthy process:

“Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters — all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows.”

This is pretty much the opposite of where I’m at right now. Four drafts in, I have a structure, plot, characters – but the tone which seemed to come so naturally on first writing (so much so that I didn’t really think about it at the time) suddenly doesn’t quite fit.

I think perhaps part of the problem is that I’m only now really beginning to understand what tone is. That might be a bit of a bold admission for an experienced English teacher to make, but for all of my ability to recognise tone, to use it effectively, to explain it through examples, I’m not sure I really got what it is all about. Now though the definition, borrowed here from Wikipedia, suddenly seems to make a whole lot more sense.

“Tone … shows the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work.”

It is here, I realise now, that everything starts to come together. My attitude to the subject (my characters, the story I’m trying to tell) meets my attitude to the reader (where I’m positioning myself in relation to them, the genre in which my novel sits). As I type this it seems far too obvious for me even to need to say it at all, but then it is sometimes the simplest lessons that are the most powerful.

So I will hold those things in my head as I make my way once more through my manuscript, creeping forwards through the words and sentences and paragraphs whilst darting back from time to time to tweak details that no longer fit. There are a lot of words to get through, but I believe it will be worth it.

And what of my initial approach, of the type of writer I am? Could I have avoided this quandary by micro managing, by manipulating the tone in the creation of those first twenty pages until everything else fell into place? I’m not sure, to be honest. So much of Grace’s story only became clear when I could see it from the outside – and actually crucial elements of her character were only revealed to me once I had taken her through her journey.

I guess like everything there is no black and white: whilst the two approaches Smith describes seem on one level to be mutually exclusive I suspect that most writers embrace elements of both.

As for me, I think I’m still working out what type of writer I am.

And I think that that’s ok.


Writing Bubble

6 thoughts on “Setting the tone

  1. Rebecca Ann Smith

    Thanks for this, Sophie, you’ve really made me think – I reckon I could apply a lot of this to problems I’ve had with my own writing: I *think* I can see the big structure from the outset, and the themes seem clear to me, but several drafts in I’m still grappling with what this thing actually is… It relates to a bit of a revelation I had recently (at that creativity workshop) when I wondered if I don’t allow myself enough time to play around with / get to know an idea before I jump in and start working on it. I’ll check out Zadie Smith’s essay and reflect some more…

  2. Mummy Tries

    Sounds like you’re making progress Sophie, even if it’s coming from things that don’t seem that obvious. Tone is so important, and I agree that it dictates the whole book. You’ll get there hon, and when you do you will have something truly magnificent on your hands, of that I have absolutely no doubt xxx

  3. maddy@writingbubble

    I read that essay too but couldn’t really put myself in either camp. I don’t plan it all out but I like to start writing and go for it rather than going over and over the beginning. The idea of doing one draft though?! I just can’t imagine it! bet you’ll figure it out – you have all the skills. Incidentally, as soon as I read about ‘setting the tone’ I started thinking about ER – that was the classic line passed from various main characters as they left the show. I then had to go and watch clips on you tube and now I’m all nostalgic… so you’ve certainly set a tone with me! (And I love a nostalgic tone) xx

  4. glasgowdragonfly

    This was a really interesting read. Thanks for sharing this. Tone is a layer of subtlety that is so important when reading. I guess I hadn’t analysed it. I have attempted some tonal variations on some of my short stories without really realising. I guess whether I was successful would require regular reader/critique group feedback on that specific point but I’m going to pay more heed to it in my writing from now on. Best wishes x

  5. Marija Smits

    Thanks for this Sophie. As you say, I’m sure the whole ‘2 types of writer’ isn’t quite as clear-cut for all writers, but I can definitely see myself more in the macro planner ‘type’. And the info. about tone is very helpful – although I’ve read about agents saying that ‘voice’ is actually the most important aspect; i.e. get the ‘voice’ right and then you’re a huge way to getting the whole novel right. Wishing you all the best for your novel – it’s all very exciting! 🙂

  6. Emily Organ

    I think Zadie’s approach is quite unique, I’ve never come across another writer who spends that much time worrying over the first 20 pages in order to get the rest right. I guess some do though. I find my tone develops with each redraft and I think tone is quite a subtle thing and it’s hard to recognise your own tone because you become so accustomed to the way you write. Putting work to one side for a bit and then returning to it can help I think. A thought provoking post!


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