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?

#writemotivation month check in…and Things Beginning Writers Don’t Know

Header image and thumbnail photograph by Hugh Lee and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sahlgoode/

Hooray! I’m so excited it’s another #writemotivation month! Not just because I’ve got some serious goals to get through and I’m going to need a LOT of cheering and cookies to get through them, but because last month was wrought with pitfalls and illnesses and too much time away from these wonderful people who help me stay focused and laugh while keeping my outlook positive.

On to the goals!

1. Finish revision suggestions for interested agent and send off my FULL manuscript as soon as humanly possible. This is for my YA manuscript that I’ve been working on and submitting for the past few months. I had an amazing face to face critique in LA – just such a wonderful conversation with this agent –  I want to get it right and send her my absolute best.
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. Received the last one this week. Will take my time with these.
4. Continue first draft of new YA WIP. I want to keep working on something else once I’ve sent off my full manuscript so this will most likely be a goal I start near the end of the month.
5. Exercise at least four times a week – yeah, it’s time to step it up another day.

How are you all doing with your goals?

I’m also supposed to work on marketing ideas for my YA novel. The agent gave me some pitch idea homework I need to figure out. I’m constantly thinking about that, mulling ideas over in my head.  And a new title for my book. Apparently Institutionalized may not grab the attention of the average teen browsing the shelves. One should never get too attached to one’s working title. I’ve got some ideas I’m kicking around, but none that really wow me, yet.

This reminds me of some other things that I learned at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference that I wanted to share. A little segment I want to call…

Things Beginning Writers Don’t Know:

The first thing that beginning writers don’t know about how the acquisitions process works.

We all may know that it is hard to get published, but what beginning writers may not know is that even when an editor loves a manuscript and wants to buy it, they don’t always get to say “yes” right away. There’s this process called acquisitions that most manuscripts have to go through. Although each house is different, most publishing houses hold acquisitions meetings about twice a month. The editor must send out a proposal for the manuscript they want to buy, along with the manuscript, in advance of the meeting, as well as something called a profit and loss statement. This is “advanced algebra in a horrible excel spreadsheet” as Ari Lewin, editor at GP Putnam, described it and it spits a figure, projecting how much the house can expect to make on the book.

At the acquisitions meeting, everyone involved in saying “yes” gathers to review all the potential manuscripts. At some houses, this could be as many as twenty people including heads of imprints, editors, associate editors, the art director, the publisher, someone from marketing, sales, and publicity, etc. It takes a short time to say “no”. The books right on the edge are the hardest to decide on and may require more discussion and more meetings.

To learn more about acquisitions, I’d suggest reading Harold Underdown’s excellent article entitled “The Acquisitions Process” originally published in The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market back in 2010. He even shows what a sample acquisitions proposal looks like.

The second thing beginning writers don’t know is that they should be prepared to deliver EVERY YEAR after their first book is published.

Josh Adams, agent at Adams Literary, said this in the Agent Panel and went on to explain that there is a higher demand on writers; an increase on demand in social media, with school visits. You will also be expected to be active in marketing.

Jill Corcoran, agent at the Herman Agency, echoed this sentiment and added, “Books are coming out faster.”

Linda Pratt, agent with Wernick & Pratt Agency, expanded the discussion to talk about how second book choices for new writers are even more important than their first. Second book choices need to be weighed carefully. “You can’t always write the more obscure book or whatever you want – what you’re passionate about. You have to be a little more pragmatic. You have to consider your sales track.” Publishing houses are less likely to take a risk on an author whose first book sold poorly unless their second book shows more sales potential.

So think about how long it has taken you to perfect this current work that you are submitting to agents. Two years? Five? Do you have other projects you are working on while you are submitting? Are you thinking ahead about your next writing project? You should be.

The third thing beginning writers don’t know is how small the publishing world is, and that being unprofessional can close doors.

Josh Adams said during the Agent Panel that, “We see a lot of unprofessionalism out there and people burn bridges. The worst thing a client can do is close doors.”

Jill Corcoran seconded this: “You cannot bad mouth editors (or others in the industry) online. Be careful.” She suggested that you untag yourself from unprofessional pictures on Facebook or other social media and delete any negative content.

It DOES hurt to be rejected, but it happens to all of us. Remember that this is a business and conduct yourself accordingly. The publishing world IS very small; negative and unprofessional behavior does get noticed and word is easily spread.

The fourth and final tidbit of wisdom I am imparting to new writers is…you won’t earn a lot of money.

Shocker. But you’re not in this for the money, right? You write because you have to, because it’s your passion. If not…there’s your cue to exit.

As Josh Adams said, “You shouldn’t expect that you can quit your day job.” He also said that you should look at your career long term. School visits and multiple rights that a good agent should help you maximize can add to your income.

Jill Corcoran also said something really important: “The advance is not the end-all. You want to get to the royalties.”

So what does she mean? Don’t we all dream of that big, fat advance?

The advance is just a promise.

A bet.

A bet against how many copies you will sell.

You don’t start really making money until you sell more than that original promise. And what about your next book? You have to think about your career long-term, remember? If you DON’T sell enough copies of your first book to meet that promise, that advance, you’re going to have a much harder time getting the second book sold. The goal is to sell enough copies to get to the royalties. That’s where things really start to pay off. That shows the publishing world that you are worth betting on; you are worth the risk.

To recap; publishing is slow, painful, it asks you to work your ass off without always loving you back, (It really IS like raising a child) and it doesn’t always bring you riches. You have to do it because you love it, because you’re passionate about it, and because you’re in it for the long haul.

Markets and Trends; Don’t let them run your writing life, but don’t run away from them either.

“Don’t Write to the Market.” So says writer turned agent Jill Corcoran during her break out session entitled, “Choosing Clients, Agenting their Work and the Evolving Market.

Actually so said just about every editor, agent, writer, and illustrator asked about this subject during the conference. Usually it followed with this next statement: “But be aware of the market”.

CONFUSED?

There is a very important difference.

Oh, yeah, I found some out there.

To be aware of the market, you should be aware of what type of books are currently being published (interpret this as another reason to READ, READ, READ!!!!) if for no other reason, so you’ll know which houses have acquired an abundance of vampire dystopian love stories and not make the mistake of sending your vampire dystopian love story to the house that already has ten on the best sellers’ lists. Give them something they haven’t seen.

You’ll only know this by knowing the market. And if you’ve been studying the market, you’ll know that editors are currently experiencing vampire/dystopian fatigue.

Why?

Because they’ve been flooded with too many manuscripts trying to catch the trends that have already ended. It’s not that they didn’t love these stories, they just probably bought all of the vampire/dystopian manuscripts they wanted years ago. Yes, I did say years ago.

That leads into why you should not write a manuscript slanted toward a certain genre or storyline just to cash in on a current trend you see that’s selling like mad.  Agent Linda Pratt of the Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency explained during the Agent Panel that it takes the average book 14 months to come out AFTER you’ve delivered the FINAL finished product to your editor. That’s over a year! And that’s not after you’ve signed your publishing contract, oh, no! that’s after all of your work on the manuscript is completely done. Talk about a heavy dose of reality. My good friend Barbra Lowell was sitting next to me and whispered to me, as I sat there stunned, that for picture books it’s more like two years.

So one can see that during the months – nay, years sometimes – that it takes you to write your initial first draft, revise it and revise it again, submit your completed polished manuscript to prospective agents or editors, receive that initial publishing agreement, work on the multiple edits for your editor, then finally reach that glorious release day you’ve always dream of, any trend you’ve tried to capture will be long gone.

Write what you love. Write what you are passionate about; write your own story. You have to spend so much time creating it, shouldn’t that time be spent on something you care about? Editor Neal Porter, who works at Roaring Brook Press, discussed in the Editor Panel that every time he’s published a book based on market potential versus really loving a project, “It’s been a disaster”. He suggests to writers that they please themselves and NOT write to the trends.

So what if your own story, the one that you’re truly passionate about, IS a vampire dystopian love story? I might suggest you put it in a drawer  and work on something else for awhile. If you just can’t bring yourself to stop working on it, or if when you come back to it, you still feel that passionate about it, then find a way to make it original. You can start by knowing the market and knowing what’s already out there and for heaven’s sake, do your research. Find that one agent who really, really wants a vampire dystopian love story; don’t send it out to anyone who isn’t asking for it. They’ll reject it so fast it’ll make your head spin and your heart ache.

Author/illustrator Antoinette Portis gave a good example of how to take inspiration from the market and create something new when discussing the market in the Picture Book Panel. She said to, “Be aware of new openings”. She said that when Mo Willems talked directly to the reader in Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus, “It was really abstract. He created a new opening – a new style. It’s great to develop yourself that way”. You cannot copy this, but you can find inspiration from it an adapt it to your own style.

What do you think about writing to the market? Are there any redeeming qualities that the editors and agents overlooked? Are you an avid reader in the genre you are writing?

To help you find some of your own inspiration to write that classic children’s novel, the next post will be about enduring stories and what makes a book timeless. Until then, keep writing!