Saturday, April 10, 2010

It's All In The Voice

For a full list of the workshops, check out the SCBWI Eastern Pa website list.

From the SCBWI website:
Finding your voice can be an intimidating task, and yet it is one of the most important aspects of writing. Voice establishes the tone of your story, tells the reader what kind of personality your narrator has, and gives a feeling of time and place. But how does one find the right voice, and make it come across effectively? In this workshop, we will demystify the process through exercises and critiques, and you will be supplied with a plethora of advice to take with you on your voice-finding journey.

Hurray, a plethora of advice! Am I the only one that hears the word "plethora" and thinks "planaria?" (two very different things!)

Also, can you tell we've been live-blogging all day and are starting to go a little crazy?


So why is a strong voice important, anyway? Sometimes voice is the difference between making a story dull and making it interesting--your story doesn't have to be about the hot pterodactyl boyfriend if you've got personality!

The example we see is The Scrambled States of America, which is adorable and the voice makes it sound like a book I would enjoy reading aloud to my first graders.

Editors often say that voice is the most important part of a manuscript, because it's the one thing an editor can't fix. It has to be there from the beginning. It's what makes you want to read on, and it's super important to find the right voice for your story.

Definitions of voice:
--The feeling that a real person is talking to you, and they care about you
--The flavor of the story
--Really, it's the soul of your manuscript
--It's a unique tone--i.e. chatterbox, bossy, sarcastic, flouncy, fancy, laid-back, too-cool-for-school... you get the idea!

A fun exercise: Are you worried that your voice isn't strong enough? That you're going for tomboy and you're coming across Fancy Nancy? Read it out loud! Read a selection from your book to someone who doesn't know it, and then ask them to describe the personality of your MC. Does it match?

Also, sometimes it takes work to find the right voice. Sometimes a character pops into your head and you're off and running, but sometimes you really need to work to find the right voice. How do you know when you've found the right voice? It's when your manuscript is singing, rather than just talking.

We get a handout with five different voice elements. It's taken from Nancy's Dean Voice Lessons.

The elements are:

For each element, we get an example from a published work.
--Diction: Someday this Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron
We notice: arrogance, sarcasm, pain, disaffected, a little bit of narcissism. Even though he's not the most likable character, we agree that he's an interesting character and we definitely want to read more. The example is set in a dog park, and it's a weird juxtaposition between being really angry and being in a dog park, and that also helps set up the voice because, honestly, who's angry in a DOG park? Puppies are so cute!

--Detail: Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden
We notice that the details work because they show: longing, loneliness, wishing for something that is no longer true. The MC is looking out a window and it's raining, and it's a nice juxtaposition because the details of the setting mirror Annie's feelings and emotions.

--Imagery: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Why does "show, don't tell", matter? We're learning about Katniss without the narrator saying, "So, this and that and the other thing." Having her father joke that she's named after a plant by saying 'As long as you can find yourself, you'll never starve' says a lot about her role in the book and her importance without saying, "Guess what! Katniss is important!" Other plant imagery--"leaves like arrowheads" and "blossoms with three white petals" are both, quite literally, pointed shapes--shapes of weapons--whereas Katniss's strength (the blue tubers at the base of the plant) are the strength of the plant, hidden underneath.

--Syntax: The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han
Who cares about grammar? We're artists! But it's important and greatly effects your voice. Speaking in long, wandering sentences with lots of punctuation in between doesn't create the same character as writing in short, quick sentences. The way you speak represents your personality (or your characters, rather) on the page. You speak with your friends and family differently than you would write an email to them, but it's up the words on the page to bring your character to life, so you have to use every tool you can to make it feel real.

--Tone: Slam by Nick Hornby
Who's driving this bus, anyway? The tone lets the reader know what kind of MC they're dealing with--chatty, bossy, distant, Holden Caulfield, or Holden Caulfield wannabe? This example we're given is similar to the example for diction--we've got another too-cool-for-school guy. It's important for the reader to know what an MC is usually like, because chances are they're about to get to "the day that everything changes" and if the reader doesn't have a strong grasp on who's driving (or if the author doesn't, for that matter!) the voice can get lost inside the plot.

Writing exercise:
"Imagine you're riding a bus for the first time as a kindergardener."

Here's what I came up with:

It's loud. And bumpy. We're going down the street and then all the sudden there's this huge bump like the bus is jumping up and down on the road and I'm go flying off my seat and land back down really really hard. And then we keep going. I have to stay smushed to the side. The sun is really really hot. It makes the seat next to me white instead of brown. If I put my hand in the sun triangle, I know it'll burn my fingers right off. I want to look out the window. But I'm too short. All I can is the tops of boring brown buildings. I can't even see in the windows because we're driving too fast. Are we there yet?

Now: "Imagine you're riding the bus as a twelve-year-old."

If Billy kicks my seat ONE MORE TIME I'm going to turn around and hit him right in the face. I mean, I can't get in trouble for that, can I? Because I swear, I'm not riding this bus all the way down to Baltimore with him keeping the beat to whatever stupid song is playing on his iPod on my lower back. It's. not. happening. Not to mention Jacey Kendelson opened the window next to her seat, even though it's January--January!!!-because the wind blows her air like she's some sort of runway model. Whatever. She's not even that pretty.

Now: "Imagine you're the bus driver."

Watching that little red line droop like a wilting flower, Jacob realized he should have gotten gas before leaving for the field trip. He hadn't planned on getting lost. Longwood Gardens. Bartram's Garden. They sounded pretty similar. His cell phone had bad reception. It had been a simple misunderstanding. Why hadn't the teacher noticed him getting on the westbound highway rather than the eastbound? For that matter, why hadn't she let the kids bring something to do? They would not stop screaming.

So what about all of you? Which voice is easiest for you to hear in your head? How do you know when your voice is working, or when you need to go back and rethink things?

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