Thursday, July 30, 2015

Friday Feedback with Selene Castrovilla: Voice - The Heart of Your Story


Me, in my other true element. 

Ah, dear campers,

Somehow, too quickly, this is the last "official" Friday Feedback of our 2105 Teachers Write! summer. 

How ridiculously unfair!

I will post an unofficial wrap up with gifts, advice, links and giveaways next Friday, and welcome as many of you who still have time and stamina to show up there! I also remind you to read through the comments on our "So You Want to Join a Critique Group" post and chime in if you want to make connections there.

Now, without further ado, today's pretty amazing guest author, Selene Castrovilla* author of several picture books including the award-winning REVOLUTIONARY FRIENDS, as well as several young adult novels, is here to talk about that ever elusive and ever important, "VOICE" in story. How to find it and what it means.

Selene's most recent YA novel, MELT, "a brutal love story," has sure got a strong one going throughout! I know because I've read it. More particularly, I tore through it, heart-racing, and you will too. 

MELT has garnered SIX honors and awards, and none other than Jacqueline Woodson (BROWN GIRL DREAMING) has said about Selene & MELT that Selene is ". . . a writer worth watching.


Jacqueline Woodson, so, I mean, it doesn't get much better than that.

p.s. the original post on voice sent to me by Selene was over 14 pages long! Um, FOURTEEN PAGES!! Too long for a blog post, but, gosh, don't you just love our guest authors?!? If you would like to read the entire post, with its many incredible examples, feel free to email me (g.polisner@gmail.com) and I will forward it to you for your reading pleasure! 

Now, here's Selene:

We often refer to voice in this most mystical sounding way: You found your voice! And while there is an ethereal aspect to writing which cannot be taught, voice is in fact something stemming from craft. Voice is not inspiration. Voice is the result of the writer transitioning inspiration into story using specific tools and techniques. Voice is the result of damn hard work and determination.

Patti Lee Gauch, one of the greatest childrens book editors, asks this question of writers: Did you go far enough?

Voice is what happens when you go far enough.

"Voice is the heart of your story. Literally: it is the mighty muscle though which our storys lifes blood circulates and flows. Figuratively: It is the core, it is the essence. It is the truth."

Voice is the heart of your story. Literally: it is the mighty muscle though which our storys lifes blood circulates and flows. Figuratively: It is the core, it is the essence. It is the truth.

Voice separates mediocre and even good writing from great. Voice is what makes you root for the hero, and even feel for the anti-hero. Voice leads to total immersion; comprehensive investment by the reader. If you put a book down without finishing, its voice did not compel you.

Voice is the way your story is told, in every aspect. It requires meticulous attention to details.

Everything we include in our story must circulate through voice.

Heres how:

Character

Character is, of course, where we start. Plot stems from character. Because it is your characters personality that determines where they will head, and how they will react to their circumstances. If Harry Potter had been a little jerk, things wouldve gone done differently at Hogwarts.

If you love a book you love the characters journey (even if they are anti-heroes, you can can still enjoy their ride to either redemption or ruination.) Your character is your voice, because your story stems through his perceptions and experiences and choices. But we must develop this voice carefully and completely.

How do we present our characters voice effectively? We must know it intimately. We must become this character.

Examples:

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing youll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I dont feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

What if it had been written like this: 

I dont feel like talking about my childhood. Especially not my parents.

It boils down to the same information, but it lacks the voice. See the difference!?

Setting

Its not enough to describe a powerful setting. This setting must be seen through the voice: the eyes and mood of your character. And if theres more than one point of view, you must accomplish this multiple times. This is the most commonly ignored element I see. Your setting is not just a description of a place because no two people see a place the same way. 

Examples:

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Somebody put a calendar on the bulletin board in my room. I guess they wanted to make sure I knew what day it was. I think I heard a voice say, You can make the days. Thats a funny thing to do with days. Mark them. Put an X on them. Cross them out.

What if it had been written like this:

There was a calendar in my room. They said I could mark off the days.

America by E.R. Frank

        “You have to watch what you say around here because everything you say means something and somebody's always telling you what you mean.
         Step off, I tell this nurse when she tries to get me to eat.
         You mean, thank you for caring, she says. Youre welcome.
         I need a lighter, I tell her, and she goes, You mean you want a lighter. Dream on, sweetheart.
         So I take their medicine and walk around in socks the ay they make you, and stay real quiet.

What if it had been written like this:

Im stuck in this hospital where everything is misconstrued. So I comply with their rules and stay quiet.


Sensory Details

The sensory details our character observes are totally dependent on that characters state of mind, which lends to voice.

Examples:

The Catcher in the Rye

Then she introduced me to this Navy guy.  His name was Commander Blop or something.  He was one of those guys that think theyre being a pansy if they dont break around forty of your ngers when they shake hands with you.  God, I hate that stuff.

What if it had been written like this:

She introduced me to her date, a Navy fellow. He had a strong handshake.


Precision of Language

 We have a rich language. So many words mean basically the same thing, but they possess different moods and shades. The texture of the words we choice weaves voice.

If you want your character to appear depressed or downtrodden, have them plod across the floor. If they are playful, have them scamper. When I wanted my character to be disdainful to the legal process (and in general), I gave him the line: The assistant DA rolls in. I couldve used strolls, but rolls says so much more. That sentence has voice.

Sensory words

I also like to use words that have a sensory feeling to them, in conjunction with the voice:

glints - shiny, but it feels sharp
stammers - struggles to get words out, but with a brutal, stamping feel

Gustave Flaubert famously coined the term le mot juste: the right word. He labored to find the precise word which would reveal the truth on the page. I, too,believe that we must search for le mot juste. In fact, I find great satisfaction in this thrill of the word chase. One of my great joys is using  my Flip Dictionary (by Barbara Ann Kipfer, published by Writers Digest books.) Its a thesaurus on steroids. Meant for writers, it will provide you with inspiration and aha! moments to enrich not only your story, but also you.

Heres an example of both precision of language & sensory words:

As I lay Dying by William Faulkner

Its because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where shes got to see him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else. I said Good God do you want to see her in it. Its like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung.

And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said If you wouldnt keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man cant sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldnt get them clean.

What if it was written like this:

Cash is building my mothers coffin right under her window. And the rest of the family sits in her room waiting for her to die.

Pacing

Never underestimate the power of pacing to influence your voice. Pacing runs side by side with word choice, because the words you use determine your pacing. Short, staccato word chains create a different pace that long, weightier words.

Play with words as you build your sentences!

stumbles vs. trips
collapses vs. falls
wounded vs. hurt

Shift in voice

Voice can also do a shift. It can be dark to darkest, as in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

In the beginning Macbeth says:

Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the darkest day.

In the end he says:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

It can be hopeless to hopeful, as in You Dont Know Me by David Klass:

In the beginning John says:

You dont know me.
Just for example, you think Im upstairs in my room doing my homework. WrongAnd I am not in this house at all. I am in the middle of a hurricane. Thunder is cymbal-crashing above and beneath me. Lightening makes my hair stand up. Winds are spinning me like a topYou dont know me at all.

In the end he realizes:

I look up into your eyes and I see the truth there, and I admit that I was mistaken all along.
So you do know me, Mom.
So you do know who I am after all.

But this shift must be a consequence of the characters journey. It can't appear out of nowhere. If that happens, the reader is at the least dissatisfied, and at the most disgusted. An unjustified shift of voice at the end is what makes us hate that book even if we enjoyed it to that point.

I hope this has helped you. (Oh, it has, Selene!! It has! It's a pretty extraordinary post!) 

And, now, since it's Friday Feedback, let's share bits of our work that reflect a strong moment of voice. Here's a moment from SIGNS OF LIFE, the sequel to MELT, due out January 2016! And if you're new to Friday Feedback, don't forget to scroll to the bottom of this link to read THE RULES. 

xox Selene (& gae)



Joey Now

            I aint talked with her for almost a year.
            Scratch that. Shit. Grammar is a biatch. Do I get points for substituting biatch in for the word Id normally use? Doubtful. Mrs. Bakers not cutting any breaks for stuff like that. She would say it would be better for me to avoid all such terms. She would go, Grammar is unpleasant, Joseph. I believe that is what you meant to convey.
            Not go. Say. People say, Joseph. That's what Mrs. Baker would say. They speak.
            Right, Mrs. Baker. You're absolutely right. People speak.
            Except when they dont.
            Except when they cant.
            Sometimes they go, but it has nothing to do with speaking. Or leaving for that matter. Sometimes they go even when theyre here, and that sucks.
            Oh, sorry Mrs. Baker. I mean, that is unpleasant.
            But really, it sucks.
            I promised her Id graduate, and go to community college. Not Mrs. Baker. Doll. I promised Doll. I didnt think Id get in to the college, but she said Try, just try, and so I applied, and they took me. Go figure.
            

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Teachers Write: So You Want to Join a Critique Group?




So you want to join a critique group?

Often, during the summers, as our #teacherswrite campers start really writing and developing story as well as seeing the benefit of getting and sharing constructive feedback with like-minded others, they start craving a critique group, and we here at Teachers Write like to help you to do that if you so desire.

In the past, we’ve had several of our campers find members of such critique groups through Teachers Write and many of those groups are still going strong, and if you are one of them, we would LOVE you to chime in in the comments about how you found yours, what has worked for you so far, and what adjustments, if any, you've had to make, etc.

But first, in order to help you if you've never been in one, let’s talk about how critique groups work, and then we invite you all in the comments to make any potential connections you might want to pursue.

What they are and how they work:

(Please note: The rest of the following information is taken, in large part, verbatim from KateMessner’s Teachers Write! blog post from last year unless in pink font, in which case it is me, chiming in! 

To see Kate’s full post in its entirety, please click on THIS LINK):



"A critique group is a small group of people (usually 2-6) who write and agree to read one another’s work from time to time and provide feedback with the purpose of helping one another improve. Critique groups can happen in person — if you live close to some other writers, you might agree to meet once a month at the local coffee shop for this — or online, in which case you’d exchange pages of writing via email or set up a system with folders in Yahoo Groups or something similar.

Critique groups can be made up of people who are at about the same level (beginners, folks revising first novels, etc.), people who write the same genre (YA, MG, picture books, nonfiction, etc.) or people who write different kinds of work but have an appreciation for what the others write, too." Perhaps, as you’ve been sharing feedback and other notes in the comments these past weeks, you feel yourself gravitating toward a particular person whose writing continually moves you or who you feel you share common writing goals with. Each time their name pops up you feel happy or excited to “see” them and wish you could write with them in real life. That could be just the critique partner for you! This is the time to reach out to them, if you haven’t done so already.

"Sometimes, critique groups operate on a schedule (each week, writers take turns sending maybe five pages for critique by the others) and sometimes they’re more informal (people share work when it’s done or when they need feedback, and others critique as they can. This is more common with experienced writers, I think, who tend to have deadlines and less predictable schedules.)

"Sometimes, it takes a while to find the right critique group. People sometimes post about forming new critique groups or about openings in established ones at the SCBWI site or on Verla Kay’s discussion boards for children’s writers. Sometimes, you express interest in this, and someone else has filled the spot already or seems to be a better fit for that particular group. Do not take this personally or read anything into it at all. It happens. It happened to me numerous times when I was looking for a critique group, and if it happens to you, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer or a nice person or anything else. It only means that your “just-right” critique group is still out there.  And sometimes, people join a critique group and then realize it’s not a good fit, so they drift away. All of this is part of the process, and it’s okay.

"I’ve been in a bunch of critique groups over the years, all full of great people and talented writers. Some have been better fits than others. . .

"A few summers ago, I wrote a pretty detailed piece on how to critique a friend’swriting for the Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute. It uses one of my editor’s revision letters as a mentor text for how to critique someone’s writing in a way that’s constructive and rigorous without making that person feel sad or frustrated or so angry they want to shove their crummy manuscript up your nose.  You should read that here."

Feedback is an art, not a science. . . and rarely perfect.

Also, remember that feedback, whether mine on Friday Feedback or elsewhere, or your critique partners’ in a group, is rarely perfect. As for shortfalls to look out for with critique groups, this recent piece by Jane Friedman can be useful.

And remember, we all have our own voices and styles and just because something is working – or not working – for one person, doesn’t mean it should (or doesn’t need to) be changed. One of my own personal rules of thumb for receiving feedback is this (and remember, this presumes that whoever is critiquing for me is already someone whose opinion I appreciate and want and whose voice/style/writing or writing acumen I admire):

  • ·      If one person takes issue with something, it is food for thought;
  • ·      If two or more persons take issue with the same thing, it is something I should definitely go back and reread and see if I need to rewrap my head around it and/or rewrite.

(Unless of course the one person is my agent or editor, in which event I will always rewrap my head around it, even if I don't ultimately change it.)

Ask for what you need:

On the latter note -- and this is just ME, but raises another point – if a critiquer believes something isn’t working, I prefer that information alone, rather than the critiquer telling me how THEY think I should fix it, unless I specifically ask for that. I often find it makes me anxious and overwhelmed when critiquers start telling me how they would write my book vs. just sharing with me that a particular scene or storyline isn’t working and letting me grapple with the how of it for a while on my own. 

When you are in a critique group, you should each make clear what information you are looking for and how you best work with constructive criticism. Also, be as clear as possible what information you are seeking from the critiquer from the broad, “Does this story hold your interest?” to more specific questions about character or scene. Don’t expect your critiquers to know exactly what type of feedback you are hoping for unless you tell them first!

And if you are the one critiquing, please, please, please don’t forget to share something positive you love about their writing/story FIRST!



My friend Carole Estby Dagg, author of wonderful historical middle grade novels including THE YEAR WE WERE FAMOUS and the forthcoming SWEET HOME ALASKA, who has hosted a fabulous post on strong beginnings on Friday Feedback in the past, and I were chatting about critique groups and she offers this very helpful suggestion:
Click on the photo to open it larger on your screen.

I believe if we asked ten other writers, some of the most common refrains would be: be specific, set some group ground rules, and let others know what type of feedback you need!

Okay? Ready, Set, Go!

So, if you’d like to start a critique group where you live, or an online group, leave a comment here with the following information:

   Your name

   Where you are in your writing life: (beginner, long-time poet, working on 1st novel, agented nonfiction writer, etc.)

   What you’re working on now or what you most want to write: (YA fantasy, MG mystery, picture book biographies, professional books, poetry, etc. Or you can say not sure – a little of everything.)

   Where you live if you’re hoping for an in-person group, or just “Online” if you think connected via email will work out better.  Or share both if you’re open to either of those.

If you’re intrigued by all this, but you’re not the kind of person who likes to start things, then you can just hang out and see if anyone posts a request for critique partners in your city, or if anyone who shares your passion for memoir is looking to form a group. If you see a comment from someone you’d like to chat with about forming a group, then reply to it and figure out how you’d like to continue the conversation from here forward (email, Facebook, etc.) to work out details. 

Then I’d suggest you arrange to swap just a few pages of something for a sample critique, so that you can see how it works out and figure out if you’re compatible in this way.

Please don’t get stressed about this, okay? If no one answers your request right way, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or that you smell like onions or anything else. We take things so personally as writers, don't we?! But sometimes it’s as simple as the fact that someone else is too intimidated, or simply missed your particular comment/request. If you don’t get any response here in the comments of this blog post, I’m also going to start a facebook thread and a twitter conversation under the hashtags #teacherswrite #critiquegroup

And remember: Critique groups have fits and starts, growing pains, and bumps in the road, so it may take a few tries before you connect with someone who is the right match. It’s worth it, though. You’ll get great feedback on your writing, you’ll learn a lot from critiquing your partners’ writing, and you’ll come away with some ideas that you can share in the classroom or library with kids who are trying to help one another improve their writing, too.

Ready to round up some critique partners?  Fire away in the comments!

Kate & Gae