Sarah Lean on Voice

Charlotte Comely

Warm, friendly and amazingly down to earth were the comments from students after Sarah Lean came to give a pep talk to Creative Writing Students at Winchester University.

Author of A Dog Called Homeless, A Horse For Angel and The Forever Whale, Sarah fully understands how desperate it feels trying to get that first publishing deal. She was working as a primary school teacher while dreaming of being a writer, even after three books out and another two in the pipeline, she describes feeling worried, 'I can't believe it will last.'

So how did she get that foot hold?


Her tutor had praised Sarah on capturing a child's voice. Here's an example:

'I wasn't really listening. The tip of my green felt pen had gone inside the tube. I was trying to poke it out with a compass under the desk. We had geography next and you always need a green felt tip in geography.'
A Dog Called Homeless

Several thousand drafts later, getting it wrong, getting it wrong again, Sarah finally had a polished manuscript. Winchester University holds a writing conference every year and Sarah had been asked to show some of the agents around the building. Of course she had a copy of her manuscript with her, but when she handed it over her heart sank as the agent pushed it to the bottom of her pile.

'Remember your opening line. It was the only question the agent asked me.'

Students wondered if Sarah now had everything right and were comforted to hear that she is only human. 'My writing style is so haphazard,' she told us emptying her bag, and at first failing to find a small pad of paper. 'I desperately need to learn to be more organised and disciplined. I often leave the house without paper, so I'm forced to write ideas on scraps which I find again when I'm not expecting it.'

At the moment, Sarah's out of the classroom and writing full time.  Hero is due to be published at the end of this month and Jack Pepper for World Book Day on Thursday 6th March.

Hero is a story about a little dog with the heart of a lion:
Leo feels invisible – at school and at home. When he’s not doing homework with his one friend, George, Leo spends most of his time in his imagination. It’s easy to feel brave if he’s pretending to be a gladiator.

When an accident at school brings Leo overnight fame he likes being centre of attention, for once. But then Leo finds himself doing things he knows are wrong, just to impress his new ‘friends’. And George no longer wants to be friends with a liar . . .

Disaster strikes when a meteor hits the town. A little dog belonging to Leo’s neighbour is missing and Leo knows he must be trapped. If Leo can bring the dog home, can he make it up to the people he’s hurt? Can he be a real hero?

Jack Pepper is Sarah's World Book Day book and another chance for readers to catch up with this loveable four legged character.

Sarah's own loveable four legged character.


Voice is hard to define. There’s the author and the character, and both are unique. I suppose I’d say the author’s voice has to do with the way characters are written (style, maybe). Character voice portrays a recognisable individual in the story. needs to remember the limit of the child’s knowledge and experience

The story (circumstances that challenge the character) needs to draw on their entire psychology.Writing as a child is not less well-researched than writing as an adult, but one needs to remember the limit of the child’s knowledge and experience. Their habits, the way they move and react are all important but not more important than them as a whole:

Think about the wider environment in which they have been raised and how they have been nurtured. Their experience and their own nature work together. Answer difficult questions such as:

  • What newspaper does the dad read? 
  • What was the parents’ experience of education? 

All these things may be key to understanding the child. These answers are not for the story, they enable you (and therefore the reader) to connect with the character.

I always follow Egris’ tri-dimensional-character bone structure (The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egris) because it makes me address these questions. It is a challenging exercise, but rewarding. Draw on what you’ve heard, what you've read and think is good, and your own childhood. Experience as a teacher in the classroom was definitely helpful.

It’s more a question of revealing not building a voice

Be yourself, without force, but with lots of practice, which authenticates the voice; let the character be themselves. It’s more a question of revealing not building a voice. Practise restraint over authorial intervention; learn to hear the ‘false notes’ where you’ve lost contact with the character. I think it is a trap to write to order, what you think the industry or the reader wants to hear.

Maintain the development of the character until they seem to speak for themselves. As soon as you find yourself trying to get them to do/say what you want them to do/say (recognisable when things fall flat or feel complicated and stodgy), go back to the character analysis and keep working on it. Something’s missing in your understanding of them.

There's a kind of rhythm and flow when the characters are well formed: individuals speaking on a universal level.

Simplicity is key. That doesn’t mean not challenging the reader’s vocabulary, but the character will not spout purple prose (extremely unlikely anyway). It’s a balance. There's a kind of rhythm and flow when the characters are well formed: individuals speaking on a universal level. That’s what the reader recognises – someone in particular, and also themselves.

Thank You, Sarah.

Charlotte Comley creative writing group organiser and now self employed writer of educational resources. Her fiction has been published by Ether Books, Darwin Evolutions, Flash Flood, Chuffed Books, and 1000 words. Non fiction work has appeared in magazines such as The Green Parent, Take a Break, Woman's Weekly, The Motion Online and Grow It. Charlotte Comley was one of the writers and script editors of Express FM Conway Street, a radio soap airing three times a week for eighteen months. She came highly commended at The Winchester's Writing Conference competition for children's fiction.  In 2012 she read at The Umbrella Festival at The Groundlings Theatre, came third place at Alton's Book Festival The Pint Pot of Fire, at Wordsouth Havant and of course in the Portsmouth Book Fest 20 x 12. She was short listed for the You, Me and Everyone project in Portsmouth and has won various poetry prizes at poetry Cafes.


  1. Great report, Charlotte. I like the little detail about Sarah emptying her bag! I've been working on the voice of a character recently and I had a little lightbulb moment. You know you've got the voice when your character stops explaining his or her world to the reader and starts actually living in it.

  2. Thanks for sharing this report, Charlotte. Great tips from Sarah Lean!

  3. Just what I've been looking for,fantastic!


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