A Brief Discussion about V-O-I-C-E and #writemotivation check in

One thing you hear so often from agents and editors about what grabs their attention most when they read a manuscript is VOICE.

They will even overlook plot problems and still offer you a book deal if you have a strong sense of VOICE. And yet ask these same publishing professionals to define this VOICE and…well, they know it when they see it.

So, stop fooling around! Tell us! What is VOICE? How do we get VOICE if we don’t have it?

Here are some of the quotes and comments from the SCBWI LA Summer Conference:

“If I’m picturing you at your computer typing away, it’s not an authentic voice. Take specific experiences of perspective of a character and translate them naturally.” Jordan Brown, editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books.

“That which makes an author unique – style. A reflection of who you are.” Laura Godwin, Vice President and publisher at Henry Holt. She said this is is a skill that you can hone. the better you know who you are, the better you will know who your characters are.

“Speak authentically. By knowing your character well, you’ll speak through them.” Farrin Jacobs, editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She said that she automatically rejects books that are “too voicey”.

(Are you kidding me? A manuscript can have too much VOICE?)

Elise Howard, editor and publisher at Algonquin Books, instead of giving a definition, read Dan Gutman’s faculty bio for the conference as an example of voice which starts out like this: “Dan Gutman was born in a log cabin in Illinois and used to write by candlelight with a piece of chalk on a shovel. Oh, wait a minute. That was Abraham Lincoln…”

Elise added onto Farrin’s comments about the manuscripts that are “too voicey” by saying that the major issue with Middle Grade manuscripts she is seeing is that too many of them are in first person with a voice that is too sophisticated for the age of the character they are portraying. she suggested changing the POV to third person which allows for a wider perspective than first person and can help fix the problem.

Still confused?

Me too.

Then I attended a breakout session with Linda Pratt, an agent from the Wernick & Pratt Agency, where she talked about readying your manuscript for submission. During this session, she discussed some of the main elements that you should take into consideration during your creative process. One of those things was VOICE. Here is how she defined it:

Voice is the element of writing that brings the reader into a conversation with the narrator or the characters. Voice is the key way for a writer to ‘show’ rather than tell. An authentic voice will use: inflections, word choices, and contextual references that ultimately tell the reader who that narrator and/or character is without specifically spelling it out.

She said that VOICE comes through in dialogue, the way the character speaks.

For me, this was the best definition of VOICE I’d ever heard. Linda went on to give some examples of how using word choices would effect the VOICE of a story. This is different from writing in dialect. Knowing where a person is from – knowing their background – should effect the word choices you make. People in Wisconsin talk differently than people in Arizona. Their daily experiences are different.

Here’s an example Linda gave:

When discussing the fact that her dog seemed to be in some discomfort because his, ahem, nether region was perspiring, she hypothesized how two very different relatives would respond.

“Why, Kim, I think Henry’s balls are chafing.” Her mother-in-law from Louisville, Kentucky

“Ya’ dog’s balls are sweating.” Her brother from NY.

Distinct differences in voice.

Keep this in mind when you are writing your manuscript. Listen for the distinct voice in your head that is your character. When you’re writing, think about your word choices. Knowing your character’s background, would your character naturally say the words that you are putting into her mouth?

I hope that helps clear up some confusion and gives you all a better understanding of the elusive animal that is VOICE. Let me know what you think.

Now for my #writemotivation goals, week two is cracking right along.

1. Finish revision suggestions for interested agent and send off my FULL manuscript as soon as humanly possible. I did start the final run-through near the end of the week. I have a ways to go.
2 .Finish up novel revisions on my Middle Grade manuscript for November workshop and mail off copies to my group. DONE.
3. Read through manuscripts received from my group for the novel revision workshop. No progress this week. I did buy some fancy colored flags to use for my notes. Forget expensive purses and matching shoes, give me sticky notes and highlighters. Ahhh! Office supplies. 🙂
4. Continue first draft of new YA WIP. I did write a new beginning pitch for this. Yes, I wrote the pitch BEFORE I finished the story. I’ve hardly started it, actually. (Thank you to the person who gave me this wonderful idea. I read it on one of your blogs, but I’m so brain dead right now, I can’t remember which one – if it’s you, please remind me so I can ping back to the post and share it!)
5. Exercise at least four times a week. Ummm…look! Dinosaurs! (Damn, that worked on my godson when he was three.) I only made it twice last week. 😦 Really need to drag my butt out the door more often.

Here’s to progress on most of the goals, wahoo! Here’s to getting that revision done soon, oh yeah! How are you doing this week?

What Makes a Story Timeless? Emotional Truth

We all want our stories to be read forever. Nobody wants to be shuffled off to the dreaded out-of-print backlist. That’s worse than book death, it’s the purgatory, the nursing home of books; where they put you on life support and no one visits except maybe on special anniversaries or holidays and then they promise to visit more often but never do.

So what can we do to avoid this most horrible of endings for our beloved books?

In every article about him after his death, Sendak’s work was described as “timeless”.

There was much discussion about what makes a story timeless during the SCBWI LA Summer Conference. Many editors and agents were asked this question during panel discussions and most started by saying, “You know it when you see it.”

Arthur Levine even opened up the conference with a keynote address directed at just this topic. He reviewed books from his own list and discussed some of his favorites and what he felt made them timeless.

In the end, he said they all had, “love and connection with another human being.” No matter if he was speaking about The Once and Future King by T H White, The Rough-Face Girl written by Rafe Martin and illustrated by David Shannon, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J K Rowling, or Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathman; they all contain an emotional connection. They all showed an emotional truth.

This idea of emotional truth was a popular one.

Farrin Jacobs, executive editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, said during the Editors Panel that a timeless story was a story that contains the emotional truths of life. She then gave two good examples of this: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Elise Howard, editor and publisher at Algonquin Books for Young Readers, said during the Editors Panel that enduring stories have a core emotional experience that transcends any period of time.

Jordan Brown, senior editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books expanded on this idea: “Ones that contain core experiences like the realization that parents are not infallible/perfect. The tools or environments may change, but the stories don’t.” Those are the ones he connects with.

Laura Godwin, Vice President and Publisher at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, describes a more visceral response, “If I’m so excited I feel sick when I look at it – pleasure and pain.” This received some laughs, but she seemed fairly serious.

Lee Wardlaw, picture book author, responded when asked “What makes a classic picture book?” during the Picture Book Panel: “That’s so hard to say…authenticity that speaks not only to the child but to the adult reader. There have to be layers in it.”

The ever charming and eloquent author/illustrator Eugene Yelchin had this response to the same question: “You cannot NOT be a part of your own moment, but if your writing has the essential human quality.”

Illustrator and author Jon Klassen gave a less tangible response, but one that hit home to several on the Picture Book Panel:

“All my favorites I don’t ever fully understand them. They’re still walking just ahead of me. I still have a crush on them, but I don’t know why. They stay with you.” He gave two examples of these books: Good Night, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Go, Dog, Go! By PD Eastman. “These books don’t make sense, but I love them.”

It all seems so difficult to define and put into a calculated formula; if you have X + Y you’ll get Z, the perfect timeless book!

So what does it mean? Love and connection? Human quality? Authenticity? Core emotional experiences?

It all comes down to connecting through the emotions.

Emotional truth.

Ruta Sepetys, author of Between Shades of Gray (and don’t even think about getting it confused with the fifty shades kind) gave one of the most gut-wrenching, heart-felt speeches at the conference. And it was all about emotional truth.

You want to know about timeless? You want to know about emotional truth? Read this woman’s book. Study it. Read it again. Trust me. She’s the goods.

Ms Sepetys made me cry. And I hate to cry in public, as I may have mentioned, but I didn’t care; I couldn’t stop listening to her story. The reason she made me cry is because she asked tough questions and then gave hard answers. I had to dig deeper. I had more work to do.

She asked, “In writing the truth, what’s the price of admission? How much of yourself are you willing to give?”

She wanted to learn more about her own personal story. She knew she was Lithuanian, but she didn’t know what that really meant. She learned that some of her family escaped Stalin’s regime during WWII at the expense of the rest of her family members. When she found out what happened to them, the ones left behind – almost all tortured and killed by Stalin’s men – she wanted to tell their story, to experience as much of their lives as she could so she could tell the whole story. She even subjected herself to an unbearable experience that was supposed to simulate the conditions of the work camps in Siberia. While going through this simulation, she said instead of just finding the truth, she met her own savage self. She felt broken after this experience, but instead of stopping, she poured all out onto the page.

You have to be willing to turn yourself inside-out to reach a reader and bring them peace.

These are emotional truths:

What are you longing for?

What do you hide?

What causes you pain?

What do you wish would go away?

Bring these elements to a character. Make a partnership. There’s a reader out there that feels the exact same way.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. The more we open ourselves up and let our characters have full access to the rawest of our emotions, the better rounded our characters will be. It’s not easy to be that vulnerable, but it makes for one hell of a great story – maybe even one that will be timeless.