So I am about halfway through the Writing For Children And Young Adults program now — another year to go! – and last week I wrote my last Vermont College of Fine Arts essay. The realization makes me feel surprisingly wistful. The essays, anywhere from 3 to 10 pages long, were meant to help us tackle craft topics we struggle with. The essays I wrote in my two semesters definitely helped me do that.
Here is how it worked: I would read a book or two – no more than that, usually – then re-read, taking careful notes on how the author handled a particular writing or story issue. Some of my classmates tackled examples of things that haven’t been working. I, on the other hand, stuck to the successes.
It’s been an incredibly useful tool. Some of the best writers have learned the craft that way. Jack London used to copy passages of his favorite books for practice — a literary equivalent of warm-ups or scales.
If ever you are stuck on an issue; say you struggle with middles, as a lot of writers do; or you want to explore how to make your villain more believable, or your character funnier, or more spunky, or whatever. Well, why not turn to the best teachers, authors who have already been where you want to go? Read their stories, then read them again. How did they do that? The answers are there, for everyone to see.
These are the subjects I explored and the books I used: (this is not an exhaustive list)
– Worldbuilding (Kenneth Oppel’s Frankenstein prequels, The Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent). Using imagery and strong sensory descriptions to build both the “real” and the magical worlds.
– Surprise not shock in stories with a twist (Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Named Verity). Placing clues and planting information that lead to a satisfying surprise at the story’s end.
– When to introduce magic in a fantasy story (Rohald Dahl’s Mathilda and Jennifer Donnely’s Revolution). The interesting thing about both of these stories is that, counter to the common advice to let the reader know as soon as possible what sort of story it’s going to be, both of these books introduce the magic really late. Or do they?
– Cause and effect (Louis Sachar’s Holes). On the surface it might seem like the story is laced with coincidences. Upon a closer look it becomes obvious that nothing here happens at random, that every single event builds upon the one before. My first semester advisor Tim Wynne-Jones used to say to me, the only coincidence that should be allowed in a story is one that launches the protagonist into her adventure. Everything else must flow from the character, the narrative and the story’s world. I wrote this essay to study how Sachar makes that happen.
– Language (Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath). How to make the narrative sing on the level of word and sentence. Kathi, of course, is a master at that.
– Dystopian beginnings (Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker). Okay, these are dystopian novels, and I chose them because they are particularly good at getting the reader into the story quickly, while having to introduce a lot of information about the rules and the world. But my discoveries about an effective beginning could apply to any book genre.
– A perfect blend of old and new (Karen Cushman’s Catherine Called Birdy). How to keep a historical novel true to its time period, while at the same time allowing the modern young reader to relate to the story. Using language to achieve both authenticity and relevance.
– The use of the present tense/first person narration, its pitfalls and opportunities (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games). Present tense/first person is such a fashion in YA. But it has to be done right, in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself, in a way that makes sense for the particular story.
– Flashbacks (A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz). I studied the seamless way she tied them to the main narrative, without making it feel like an info dump.
– Showing not telling (Martine Leavitt’s The Book of Life by Angel). Related to the above, I examined the power of restrained exposition, especially in the beginning of Martine’s gorgeous novel in verse. Martine is not in a hurry to reveal all. She carefully teases the reader.
– Yearning or protagonist’s desire (Cori McCarthy’s The Color of Rain, Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust). I wrote two separate essays on this, one on introducing both the external desire and the internal need of the protagonist before launching the story, and the other on expressing the character’s desire using the senses throughout the narrative.
– How to impart meaning in a short novel (Eugene Yelchin’s Breaking Stalin’s Nose and Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall). It always impressed and mystified me, the way some books manage to tell a rich meaningful story, yet stay so slim! I decided to investigate just how they do that.
Feeling curious about any of the above topics? I would be glad to share my discoveries in the posts to come. I think I’d like to start with beginnings. Looking back, I realize, many of my essays deal with beginnings, and I can see why. In a way, this entire first year has been about learning how to begin the right way. The right start can influence the entire journey.
In the meantime, what craft issues are you curious about as a writer? What do you wish to learn how to do better? Well, whatever it is, you can! Have you a book that just makes you swoon? (and which writer doesn’t?) Have you ever wondered, how did she do that? Well, re-read it, with a pen in hand. Many discoveries await you.
This is a follow-up post to my last rather embarrassing admission of not being a daily word count superhero anymore. Okay, maybe you guys didn’t think it was embarrassing, but I did!
Allow me now to present the other side of the issue. Because ever since the last post, I’ve been thinking…
It is true that when I take a day or two off — say a weekend – my writing generally benefits in some ways. I can feel it; I come back to the computer refreshed. And, as I said in the last post, I hate it when the word count quota looms over the story like a chore, as though words were dirty dishes.
On the other hand, I took last week off from writing fiction. I focused instead on getting all my other Vermont College of Fine Arts packet work out of the way — two essays, a new outline, a streamlined synopsis. When I returned to the manuscript yesterday and today, even while I felt refreshed, I realized my fiction writing muscles have softened. I was more relaxed, yes, looser maybe, which is good. I produced some pretty prose, and poetry too. But the pretty stuff refused to add up to a narative . I felt overwhelmed, disoriented. Suddenly I found myself looking around like a guest inside my own work-in-progress.
And now, Ray Bradbury’s 1k-a-day advice (from his Zen And The Art of Writing) keeps nagging at me. Apparently, Mark Twain did it, too, though it took him an entire working day to come up with his 1,000. Hemingway, they say, stuck to the more modest 500. But what of Stephen King, with his 2k-a-day sprints? (On Writing). And that all started back when he was still a teacher!
I know. I know.
Here is a cool, inspiring and funny post about famous word counts (or sometimes, lacks thereof): http://algonquinredux.com/daily-word-count-output-of-my-favorite-writers/
This post only proves what I still believe — it’s an individual game more than a game of numbers. It’s in some ways, a hopeless debate, isn’t it, like the benefit of plotting versus writing by the seat of the pants?
I am sorry to keep blogging about this. I guess I am searching for the answer.
I am now – and possibly forever – we never stop learning do we? — but especially now, a shameless student of writing. I am in the MFA program, after all. It’s all about figuring things out. Here is a new thing I’m wondering: is it possible to one day grow into a word count?
I know I am not ready for shackles of a daily quota. And I am not sure if I’ll ever be willing to give up my writing-free Saturdays, plus even an occasional vacation. For me, it’s important to step away, to be in the world — or writing will suck me dry, I have learned that. On the other hand, a writer must be careful not to step out too far.
This semester it was important for me to slow down. I imagine that if I didn’t give them up, the word counts would have interfered with that. But now that the semester is drawing to a close, (one more packet to go!), the idea of daily writing (except Saturdays), after some reflection, is one I would like to keep striving toward. Maybe not at once. Maybe this time, I’ll be smarter about it. Go slower.
But I can try again. And again. I can keep trying, can’t I? Until the day when whatever quota I decide on, feels like home.
Maybe it’s not about being a superhero. Maybe it’s more about training. Stephen King and Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury, they are champions. Champions practice. Lots. So can I.
I’ll keep you guys posted!
Daily writing goals are alluring. They keep the writing brain in shape. They keep the writer satisfied: “Hey, look at me, I’m writing!”, keep the writer with the story. They feed the muse.
It’s easy to feel productive that way — and to be productive, too.
WHY IT’S NOT FOR EVERYONE (i.e. why it’s not for me)
Some people are not superheroes. Sigh.
After trying it out repeatedly over the years, over and over, I have found that daily writing works. Until it doesn’t. Until it dries me up.
The danger of daily writing goals is: it can become all about the word count. The 1K a day, or even 500 words a day can become too much of a marker, encouraging an “are we there yet?” mentality.
I have found that with daily writing goals, more often than not my word count would become my cap for the day.
MY NEW TUNE
I still have to keep track of the pages for my VCFA packets, which still requires goals on deadline, which still might be a great good thing. But within those goals, I have loosened, allowing for both marathon go-go-go writing days and occasional days of no writing whatsoever. I love the marathon days, when word count ceases to matter, when the only thing that counts is getting lost in the storyworld. I equally love just being in the world once in a while. Looking around with my eyes wide open and just breathing.
In a way it is easier to stick with a word count goal, this external thing, to keep from drifting, to stay in line. But I have discovered recently, that drifting, floating, crossing lines, can be another important part of the writing life.
I am aware that thousands of writers are on Week One of the beautiful national madness that is NaNoWriMo (The National Novel Writing Month). You all are running a marathon. You’re ALL about the word count right now.
If it’s been working for you, just keep going. I am cheering you on!
But if — come next week – you find yourself dry-heaving and dizzy and a little bit lost, if you keep your eyes too closely on those numbers, if you notice you start doing more counting and less wording, then try something brave and dangerous — try taking a break. Try a little breather. So you can come back to the work fresher and stronger and more committed than ever before.
In the end, we each must find our own style. Writer and former literary agent Nathan Bransford discussed it on his blog last week so well.
What’s your style? What’s your tune? Are you a daily writer? A word count champion? What have you tried? What have you discovered?
If you are still figuring it out, look no further than your own page. What’s the quality of your writing like with daily goals — and what’s it like without? Sometimes the quality doesn’t matter. Other times, it tells you something.
On the other hand, are you able to produce enough without the external push of word count goals?
So, the whole slowing down and letting go thing?
It took just under a month, both a hard-work month and a vacation of a month. Letting go meant songs on the piano, meant Friday night candles, movies, nothing grand. Slowing down meant looking up, looking left and right, too, just paying attention. Playing meant new rituals (and some old ones too), little magic things like candlelit writing, timed writing, lemon water. It meant going back to where I came from; it meant poetry, lots and lots of poetry. It meant fewer pages, more crazy discoveries, and not just about writing, either.
But… now she wants more. More words, more pages. Wait, what? I thought we were taking things easy. I thought we were floating. I have settled into a nice new rhythm now. Now she says, remember how you talked to me about goals before? So yeah, it is time to get back to those. I’m going to need at least a new chapter from you soon; I am going to need 40 to 50 pages of new writing from you soon, I am going to need a novel beginning from you, after all.
Of course she is right, as always.
So here is the thing, the takeaway. Are you feeling comfortable in your life, your writing life?
Then consider shaking things up. Whether you’ve been working too hard, or floating, don’t get too used to it, maybe? Don’t allow yourself to settle, like the taste of lemon water, on the bottom of the glass.
I am re-reading a wonderful book, The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp, a dancer and a choreographer. The book aims to help artists of any kind take control of their routine (so that within their writing hours, they can surrender to their art even more effectively). In the very first chapter Ms. Tharp talks about facing down fears. Here is an example of a common fear she gives, then destroys with a simple argument:
The fear: “I am not sure how to do it”
Twyla Tharp’s reply: ”A problem, obviously, but we’re not talking about constructing the Brooklyn Bridge. If you try it and it doesn’t work you’ll try a different way next time. Doing is better than not doing, and if you do something badly you’ll learn to do it better.”
So obvious, but how many of us need that gentle reminder?
So now, my turn. On to my own fears. Currently, I have a very short list (which is a great improvement!). I present it to you, below, along with my own rebuttals.
When facing the blank page, I am afraid that:
1. It won’t come out well
It might not. But at least what does come out will clue me in to where a problem might lie. At least it’ll get me thinking. It’s like playing a song on the piano, when suddenly a note sounds false. So I go back to that spot. So I play around. What’s so terrible about that?
2. My advisor won’t like it
Then she’ll tell me so . Also, she’ll tell me why. Likely, she’ll toss in a brilliant suggestion for another fun writing exercise. (I have recently fallen in LOVE with writing exercises).
3. I’ll never get published
This piece might not get published. But the next one might. Or the one after that…Or the one after that…
What monsters lurk invisible behind your blank pages? And how would you argue with your fears?
If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, consider answering these questions for yourself!
I am smack in the middle of my second VCFA semester, and, along with a new essay, and the usual reading and writing, my wise teacher gave me the hardest, most impossible homework of all.
Not to stop writing, to stop working. So damn hard.
She told me to stop trying. To just come to a full STOP.
Do not plan, she told me. Stay in the present. This she said to the person whose planner is a jungle of criss-crossing to-do marks. All the planning, all the activity – it isn’t even so much about publishing for me anymore, hasn’t been for a long while now. It’s just how I am — I am all about moving forward, productivity. I’m a goals girl, a hard-work addict.
Look, she told me. Listen. Feel. Breathe. Play. Have fun, she said. That’s your most important homework. Ha! My dear teacher couldn’t have asked this A-type overachiever anything harder.
Still — Okay, I told my Jedi of a teacher. Okay. Thank you for telling me that. I needed to hear it. So…um…do you think my goal for this semester should be to come up with a solid beginning of the novel? How is that? Is that a good goal?
What? No! she said. Your goal for this semester should be to surrender goals. Your goal is NO GOAL.
Grit teeth. Sigh.
Here I go. Letting go. Trying to. It’s harder than you’d think, at least for me. Getting out of my head. Allowing myself to fall. To fail. To flounder.
But isn’t that what I’ve been doing anyway? I might as well have fun floundering.
I might as well enjoy the fall.
This is somewhat painful, so let me just dive right in and share it: effective this week, my book is no longer under contract with namelos.
Yes. I will let you digest this for a second.
Two weeks ago my (then) editor called me. She apologized and said she worried that after one year of work and three rounds of revision, things were still not coming together. She felt the narrative arc was still not in place, and she didn’t know what to do about it.
She left it up to me to see if I wanted to take the manuscript and reconsider it in some major ways, maybe put it through some workshops at VCFA before letting her see it again, if that’s what I wanted. She said she didn’t understand my vision, didn’t see where I was going with it. She said the romance was too distracting.
When she said that, I knew, immediately that she was right, she did not understand. Because — and I told her this right then – the story IS a romance. Sure, there is the mother-daughter tension, there is the world order collapsing, a 74-year-old dream of communism dying, there is that. But all of this is reflected through the lens of love and hate my characters experience. Without the romance, I told her, there’d be nothing left. Romance is the place the story came from. The romance, the pain of it, the confusion of it, what it gives my protagonist, and what it takes away — to me, that’s central to what the book is all about.
I am afraid I might not the right editor for this story, she said. And I knew, before I even hung up the phone, I knew in the relief that mingled with the shock, I knew she was right.
Cancelling the contract was no big deal, as no advance was involved.
You would think I’d be heartbroken.
Well, maybe I was a little bit — maybe for a weekend, maybe not even, just a day. But also — at the same time — even while I was on the phone with the editor, already I felt freer and happier than ever. I felt thankful. Am I weird or what?
I felt — I feel – stronger. I feel like, there are new possibilities opening up to me now.
Do I wish none of this happened? That I had never gotten that offer at all, that I had never dealt with namelos?
I am glad it all happened. The jubilant signing of the contract. One year of revisions. Then the breakup. Yep. Glad. (I told you I was weird!)
Last week I gave the manuscript — yes, let’s call it that again now, no longer a book, but a manuscript – to a couple of trusted friends. I heard from two so far — one who had never seen the thing before in her life, and one who had read it in gazillion incarnations. The feedback I received gave me hope that the magic of the story is still alive. Whew. More than that, some parts HAVE become better after one year of editorial back and forth. Some parts make more sense now. Yay! Now for the bad news: some parts have gotten worse.
Still glad it all happened.
More than a year ago, before I signed that contract with namelos, I was ready to give up on Castle of Concrete. Now, I am feeling oddly stubborn about it. I think signing with a publisher — even a small, innovative one like namelos, altered forever my ideas of what is truly possible. The experience made me realize that publishing didn’t just happened to Other People. Being published and being unpublished, these two states aren’t that different for a working writer, not really. You’re still a writer underneath it all. Theoretically, I knew that. Now I have lived it, now I really know it.
This year under contract taught me other valuable things as well. it taught me to trust my gut and my vision more.
It taught me this: do not idolize your editor.
It taught me that you cannot count on publishing to make a living. Well, at least I can’t. Too unpredictable. I gave myself a good long time to try it. Besides, let’s face it, I don’t write fast enough for that. A book a year? Just not happening.
Is this a sad realization? Actually, it’s freeing! I am now inspired to look for a great new job, something long-term, something good, something stable, so I can separate the art from the money in my mind once and for all, and proudly contribute to the financial well-being of my family, while doing something out in the world — something else — something I am good at (but something sane)
I realize now: I have been too much of a slave to my writing over the years. Writing stories is important to me, yes — okay, it’s crucial. But maybe my muses and I haven’t been in the healthiest of relationships. What I realize now is: writing can’t be my air. I want more than writing in this life. I want to hike more, for one thing. I love hiking! Over the Labor Day weekend I have discovered I love camping too! I want to travel again, and maybe not always with a laptop. I want to live more.
What about the story, you might ask? What’s going to happen to Castle of Concrete?
I plan to take another look at it, see if I am clear-headed enough to revise it again at this time. Maybe it won’t be my first published book, after all, as there are other projects I am working on now. But I am more determined than ever to see that story through. So many people who have read the story of the years, loved it, got it, cried for it, believed in it, some of them friends and loved ones, some of them industry professionals, once strangers. I will mention some of these people here now – Debbie Clarke and Fran Alexander, Adrienne Fieldberg, Linda Lavin, Stephanie Natale-Boianelli, my own mother, my agent Jessica Regel, who is eager to see the manuscript again. It is for them too, for these readers, that I will keep going.
Meanwhile, though, I will keep learning. Keep writing new stories. Keep talking writing to you on this blog, keep sharing the love and the learning. I’ll keep swimming, just keep swimming, like Dori (right, Linda?) Or better yet, I’ll keep FLYING. That’s what my wings-and-fairytales-obsessed protagonist Sonya Solovay would want me to do.
One of our VCFA teachers has her students write an essay about who their ideal reader is. She isn’t my teacher (I swear I wish I could have them all!), but I want to do this little exercise anyway. Just for fun.
My ideal reader is 15 years old. Medium build, medium height, and she gets average grades at school, but please don’t think there is anything average about her, inside or out. Her ears are shaped a little unusually. They are a bit elongated, like an elf’s. She is beautiful, and she is trying to believe it. She is brilliant, and she has no clue. She loves her baby sister fiercely. As for her parents? They mean well. She wouldn’t mind changing the world, if only she knew how. She is a secret modern art museum goer, though she hasn’t gone in a while. She wonders if her friends really know her: she wonders if anyone ever really knows anybody. She wonders a lot.
She’s a music junkie: anything from metal to pop and beyond; jazz and classical too, you know. She spends most of her days on the floor of her room, which is littered with books — lots of school drama and girl drama books, love stories, sci fi, fantasy, you name it, new stuff, and stuff that is old-to-the-point-of-embarrassing. There are also textbooks and tights, a long skirt, a guitar, a laptop, an old silver horseshoe souvenir from grandma, a horrendously bright temple T-shirt. Sometimes, on stressful days, or lonely ones, she smuggles ice cream and other snacks in here, so yeah, there’s also a stray wrapper or two.
This floor is where she lives: reading, playing, thinking, doing homework, listening to music, texting, talking on her phone. This floor is where once upon a time she giggled with friends at sleepovers, then, later, much later, tried a cigarette, shared a first kiss. This floor is where she will read my book, lose herself yet again, in a new way, leaving behind the sound of the train passing outside her window and that bio test next week, and the text from her swimming practice teammate. Her earphones are in her ears, as always, but she doesn’t hear the music as she reads. She is falling in love. She’s putting together the puzzle pieces. She’s on the hunt for connections. She’s trying to figure out where the fantasy starts and the reality fades. She is finding her way in another world; she’s a world traveler. She is exploring what it means to be human right along with me.
“A great book is great before the editor gets her hands on it.” Shelley Tanaka
Today come my notes from another incredible faculty lecture from this summer’s residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The generous Shelley Tanaka, who gave me permission to share this with you guys, is an experienced Canadian editor of young adult books and a children’s writer. Thank you, VCFA program office of Writing For Children and Young Adults, for your permission as well!
This lecture about the editing process is very timely to me, both as a writer and as an editor, someone who has been working on clients’ manuscripts all summer. The wisdom here applies to writers who, like me, are waiting to get the latest notes from their editor (or agent), and to those who are looking forward to working with a publishing professional one day.
A professional editor will usually look at the manuscript in stages. First, he or she will tackle global story issues, such as plotting, characterization and pacing, while keeping in mind the question of “What is the writer trying to do?” Once the narrative arc is in place and the big puzzle pieces are where they should be, the editor will zero in on the language or “line editing.” Closer to the end of the process, Shelley said, “every word is considered in relation to every other word.”
Of course, every editor has her own style, but the following is what Shelley looks for when she gets her hands on a manuscript:
The term can apply to anything from bloated sentences and unnecessary scenes, to extraneous character thought and description. “Giving up overwriting doesn’t mean giving up beautiful language,” Shelley said. “It just means saying something with it.”
In weeding out overwriting, Shelley looks for repetition. She advises the writer to cut it “when [it's] boring or pretentious.” A cute or funny little language trick can quickly go from “charming to self-indulgent to annoying,” if overdone.
In considering our potentially overwritten passages, Shelley urged us to ask ourselves, “Do you love something because it comes out of your characters or your story? Or are you just showing off?”
Shelley said, some writing mannerisms are easier to spot and potentially cut than others. When a writer’s voice shines, it’s that much harder for an editor to mess with his language. “A supremely confident writing is a kind of a fortress,” Shelley said.
In some ways, cutting overwritten passages — or killing our darlings — can be the hardest thing in the world for a writer. But it is also something we could really get into (speaking from my own experience as a writer here!) However, Shelley cautions to be careful with cutting. In some cases, the answer is harder, deeper than that.
“Cutting can be a lazy way out for both the writer and the editor,” she said. “It can lead to patchiness.”
As an alternative to cutting, a writer can consider moving her favorite or important passages around. Possibly, in its current placement, the passage ”draws too much attention to itself, or distracts,” Shelley said. Would it work better someplace else?
Voice and point of view
When considering word choice and sentence structure, Shelley said she looks for cliches, or anything that “feels tired, or overused, or ordinary.” She asks herself: is this first-person narration appropriate? Or questions timing – for example, why is the narrator revealing this particular information now? She also considers the “energy of the passage,” tries to prevent “moments of drift.” Once in a while, Shelley will mark a manuscript passage with a smiley face. Smiley faces mean “do more stuff like this. This little thing was worth the price of admission.”
An editor’s job, according to Shelley, is “eliminating the bad, so the good can be displayed to its advantage.”
Now, using the information from Shelley’s lecture and the knowledge gained from my own experience, I’d like to address four myths about editing.
Myth 1: Just cobble together a draft and send it off. Don’t worry about making your work perfect. That’s what editors are for.
Well, okay, there is a little grain of something real in here. Because you can never make your work perfect, right? But by God, that doesn’t mean that we writers shouldn’t give our absolute all and then some, before letting our work go out into the world. The harder we work on our manuscript, the more time we spend with it, the better we know it, the more ours it becomes in the end. Then, when your work lands in your editor’s hands (being good enough now for an editor or an agent to fall in love with it in the first place!), it will not be so fragile as to shatter under your editor’s suggestions.
Myth 2: Now that your manuscript is in the editor’s hands, your work is done. The editor will fix it all up you.
Ha! Editing a novel is a collaboration between the author and the editor. The editor marks up your manuscript, whether electronically, though track changes, or the old-fashioned way, on paper, like Shelley does. She will pepper your work with questions, wavy lines, cutting suggestions. It is then your job as a writer to take these and digest them, to really really think about them, to ask yourself a gazillion questions. What tripped her up about this passage? Why doesn’t she get what I am trying to do here? What if I did it this way instead? Would it help? It is your job as a writer to take your editor’s comments and run with them: to try and fail and bash your head against the keyboard a little, and try and fail and succeed.
Myth 3: An editor is a writer’s boss. You better do what she tells you.
Um, no. Let me say it again. Editing a novel is a collaborative process. You, the writer, is only human, and your editor is not a god, either.
“Do editors expect you to make every change suggested? No!” Shelley said.
On some occasions, a writer will know better what is true to her vision and what isn’t. And if the writer truly knows, a good editor will respect and even appreciate that. Just as writers sometimes have their writing mannerisms, editors often have their own editorial ticks, their own pet peeves or aversions. Someone might hate short, choppy paragraphs. Someone else might despise fragment sentences or foreign dialect. “Blanket aversions to anything are silly, and if you see that, you need to push back,” Shelley said.
Collaboration, remember? If you as a writer appreciate that an editor is on your side, on your team, the process will be that much more productive, not to mention, satisfying. As Shelley put it, “We are on the side of the reader, and so should the writer be.”
Editing a book is a marvelous, joyous, difficult, rewarding process for both the editor and the writer. First, make your book the best it can be on your own. Then, dive in with your partner, and go deep. That’s where the treasures are.
P.S. While we are on the subject of editing, I just have to share this link to an interview with my publisher, Stephen Roxburgh, about his editing process with Roald Dahl!: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/58194-gobsmacked.html
Aaaaaah! How is it already August 20th? And how has it been a month?
How? How? How?
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, I bring you a long-promised nuggets-of-wisdom post from my last residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. While my first residency back in January got dubbed as “The Plague” residency, because pretty much everyone was sick (except for me!), this one became known as “The Summer of Love.” The lecture on voice by one of our incredible advisors, Martine Leavitt, was a huge part of the whole love theme that permeated our ten days. I am going to share the highlights from that lecture here with you guys — with Martine’s permission, of course. Thanks, Martine, for the wisdom and the inspiration. And for allowing me to share the love.
Voice. Such an elusive concept, isn’t it? We know when the author has achieved it. But how to grasp it? How to master it?
According to Martine, you need to think of voice as an integral part of the story. “Voice begets character and character begets plot.”
All right, but where does voice come from? What exactly IS voice anyway?
Here are Martine’s answers: Voice is…
– The author’s personality and worldview
– A combination of diction, sentence patterns, tone and point of view
– Author’s natural narrative tendencies
– What the author is writing about
– Appropriate and well-modulated mood
The way Martine summed it up was: “Voice is what you hear in your mind’s ear as you read.” Or, to look at it another way, Martine offered a quote from Eudora Welty: “The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth.”
WAYS TO IMPROVE VOICE
What can you do to find your voice as a writer? How can you strengthen it?
Here are Martine’s suggestions:
– Read the best books. “Figure out what makes you jealous. It is often a clue to what your natural tendencies might be.”
– Read aloud.
– Research primary sources. Read the stories and poetry and songs of the day.
– Try imitating. As an exercise, pick a passage or a poem you admire and try to write something with the same structure.
– Notice when you get it right and aim to sustain that.
– Relax! Dare to be dreadful! “A voice can’t be heard if there is no breath…”
– Avoid fancy words. Don’t overwrite. (Which is a whole another lecture).
– “Cower at cliche. Avoid hearts and stomachs and anything else that clenches.”
– “Use the language of the perceiving subject. Let the character talk and think in terms of his significant attachments to life, his desires and his history.”
– Choose your distance (from your character) thoughtfully. Think about the reason for this character to tell the story.
And after all these helpful suggestions, Martine revealed the true secret to voice. Ready? It is, of course love.
“Love for words, love for the reader, love for the world, love for the work.”
If we think about it, isn’t love the secret to pretty much anything?
Yep, that’s what Ray Bradbury said, too.
“Love is the answer to everything. It is the only reason to do anything.” Ray Bradbury
Below are some ways you can love more:
– “Think of your reader sitting next to you,” Martine said. “Think: I want to tell you a story.”
– Wait between projects, listen for a voice.
– Love your character. “Close your eyes and become that person. What does it feel like? What does he see? What does he do? What does he do next?… Never stop being that boy, as you write. Don’t think about the weather until he looks up at the sky.”
– Avoid sentimentality and mannerism. “Sentimentality comes from false emotion” and mannerism is simply “the author’s wish to distinguish herself.” Instead, Martine invites you to “imaginatively become your character.”
– Pay attention. Be here. Don’t be so focused on always taking “your own pulse.” Martine offered another great quote, this one from poet Ralph Angel: “By attending to things and beings… one forgets about oneself and travels some distance. Language becomes voice in that open space.”
– Finally, “Be kind,” Martine said at the end of the lecture. “This is what makes a great writer.”
Be kind. These words. From now on, I will take them with me everywhere I go. I hope you all do too.