Writing Quietly (…While Surrounded by Loud Things), a guest post by Helena Fox
My second novel, The Quiet and the Loud, began, as all my writing does, with glimpses. A colour: Grey-blue. A visual: A girl rowing on still, morning water. A vibe: A Phoebe Bridger’s song called “Georgia”. A feeling: A yearning for peace and calm. An inspiration: The understated but devastating book Four Soldiers, by Hubert Mingarelli.
These glimpses first appeared in late 2019, after my debut novel How it Feels to Float came out. I covered big pieces of paper with them, wrote snatches in my notebook and on my laptop. At some point, enough glimpses had gathered that a character emerged: A quiet girl surrounded by noise, always moving, always trying to find solace somewhere.
Then I asked some questions. What was the girl’s name? Thanks to Phoebe Bridgers, her name was Georgia (George to her loved ones). What did she like to do? Run at night, move over silent water, paint, draw, be quiet, be quiet. What was she like? Helpful. An almost compulsively obliging people-pleaser. What was her life like? Loud. How so? She had a pregnant, demanding best friend, another friend deep in climate grief, a busy family clattering through a small house, and her past waking up. What was her past? Her father was a long-term alcoholic who had hurt George and her mother. Why was this past waking up? Her father was dying.
There it was. The story. All I had to do was write it. However, life didn’t stay obligingly steady. By the end of 2019, huge bushfires were charging over the whole drought-ridden east coast of Australia. Some enormous personal challenges had begun to rear up. And then…there was Covid.
So began the relentless noise.
All through 2020, 2021, and 2022, I walked inside loudness. Wrote with noise chattering and howling around and inside my life. I rode the noise, tried to breathe through the noise; I tried to find my character’s quiet, yearning voice and story in this noise.
It took a while to find my way. I wrote 20,000 words before realising my narrator’s voice sounded exactly like Biz from my debut novel. I started again. I thought about the understated narrative voice in Four Soldiers. I shortened my sentences. Used more declarative language. I found the voice of my book, but then, I struggled to find its path.
I began to tell people I was writing a “quiet book about loud things,” something that resonated with my own life, past and present. With this line in mind, I filled draft after draft with Loud Things. So many loud things—different people and storylines—that my main character got washed out. Conversely, I also put in too much quiet: so many introspective scenes that in numerous places the plot didn’t just stall, it practically went backwards.
What to do? I was addled by the chaos around me. I was anxious I’d never find the path of my book. I thought, “Is this it? Will I never find my way?”
In the end, I turned to Nina LaCour and the ‘intimate whisper’ of her acclaimed novel, We Are Okay. The novel begins with Marin, alone in a New England dorm room. Her estranged friend Mabel is about to visit from the West Coast. It is snowing. Marin is the only one in the entire building; everyone else has gone home for the holidays. Marin spends her days making ramen. Walking into town to browse the shops. Sleeping. The quiet in this book feels like floating—we spend long moments suspended above something we can’t see yet. Then Nina LaCour slides us into the past. And there it is: the enormous feeling Marin is trying to hide from, a past she can barely look at.
I studied this book. I read and re-read the passages, looking for how Nina kept her delicate, introspective, character-driven story alive. How did she weave in and out of the past? How did she keep the quiet a glowing, important part of the novel? How did she keep propelling the plot? It felt miraculous. The book, the craft of it, felt like a gift.
I also listened to Nina’s gentle podcast series, called “Keeping A Notebook.” One episode, on quiet writing and weaving plot into character-driven stories, is called All the Story You Need. It felt like a hand, reaching out. It is worth many listens.
The shape and structure of my book arrived after this focussed, quite singular study. In the fifth full rewrite of my manuscript, I found the path of my book. Noise still bellowed around me, but I found a way for the quiet in my book to emanate, to glow. I managed to propel my story forward. I kept many loud things, but didn’t let them drown my story out. I found (I hope) a balance of quiet and loud, as I’m trying to find in my own life.
The term “quiet book” has different meanings in the literary landscape—some think of it as literary fiction that doesn’t sell well, or as a book that deserves way more hype. Others, like Nina LaCour, it appears, see quiet books the way I do.
For me, quiet books are the books of my heart. In these stories it can feel like ‘nothing’ is happening, but everything is. Here, plot can live in incremental shifts in the emotional landscape of the characters. An understated moment can flip you, wallop you, affect you forever. Here, spikes in the plot graph can come from small but disquieting/ enchanting/ devastating discoveries—perhaps a remembered painful event, a finally-released secret, a feeling of new love, a simple acknowledgement of pain, or two friends talking about a mistake. And perhaps in books like these, the climax can simply be a character finally understanding that she can speak, that her voice matters, that she is loved, and someone is listening.
Quiet books offer the life-changing realisation that there is space for silence, for self-care, for introspection, for pausing and noticing, for feeling, and for love and compassion to happen, amidst all this noise. There is a place for quiet, always. And there is space for quiet ones like me—who feel so very much—to say what they need to say.
Meet the author
Helena Fox lives by the ocean on Dharawal Country in Wollongong, Australia. She mentors young writers and runs writing workshops to support mental health. Helena’s debut novel, How It Feels to Float, won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award and Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Writing for Young Adults in Australia, and was a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and Chicago Public Library Best Book of the Year in the U.S. Helena received her MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. She can be found mostly on Instagram @helenafoxoz, posting pictures of the sea and talking about kindness.
Link to website: https://helenafoxauthor.com/
Link to pre-order book: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/672087/the-quiet-and-the-loud-by-helena-fox/
Link to Twitter: https://twitter.com/helenafoxoz?lang=en
Link to Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/helenafoxoz/?hl=en
About The Quiet and the Loud
“A writer to be reckoned with.” —Kathleen Glasgow, author of Girl in Pieces and You’d Be Home Now
A heartbreaking, hopeful, and timely novel about holding too tight to family secrets, healing from trauma, and falling in love, from the award-winning author of How It Feels to Float
George’s life is loud. On the water, though, with everything hushed above and below, she is steady, silent. Then her estranged dad says he needs to talk, and George’s past begins to wake up, looping around her ankles, trying to drag her under.
But there’s no time to sink. George’s best friend, Tess, is about to become, officially, a teen mom, her friend Laz is in despair about the climate crisis, her gramps would literally misplace his teeth if not for her, and her moms fill the house with fuss and chatter. Before long, heat and smoke join the noise as distant wildfires begin to burn.
George tries to stay steady. When her father tells her his news and the painful memories roar back to life, George turns to Calliope, the girl who has just cartwheeled into her world and shot it through with colors. And it’s here George would stay—quiet and safe—if she could. But then Tess has her baby, and the earth burns hotter, and the past just will not stay put.
A novel about the contours of friendship, family, forgiveness, trauma, and love, and about our hopeless, hopeful world, Helena Fox’s gorgeous follow-up to How It Feels to Float explores the stories we suppress and the stories we speak—and the healing that comes when we voice the things we’ve kept quiet for so long.
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 03/28/2023
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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