Monday, July 25, 2011

Food For Thought

I am supposed to be on hiatus still, but I was struck by a number of posts I read this week and wanted to share them with you guys.

The first was by blogger Jonathan Fields and talked about hyperconnectivity being creative kryptonite. For me, the two most important takeaways that have been reverberating for a week now were these:

But when we fill in all the organic in-betweens with texting, e-mailing, DMing and updating, we unintentionally kill the a critical step in the ideation process—percolation and contemplation—and along with it go creativity, innovation and despite your opposite intention, productivity.


Hyperconnectivity gives us the perception of getting more done, it makes us feel like we’re doing more, because we’re using every free moment of every waking hour.

But the entire article is hugely worth reading. Check it out and see how it resonates with you.

This was followed by a fascinating experiment I read about conducted by author Monica Valentinelli, who signed off Twitter, FB, and IM, for a full 100 days. What made this experiment even so compelling was that she had a new book coming out during that time.

The results were fascinating. Again, you should really go read about the entire experiment, but here's a snippet:

The new release that I had hit a sales milestone on the retailer’s website, I continued to sell copies of my e-book, and I sold new stories. In terms of “success,” I encountered zero difference between being online-or-off.  

MY CONCLUSION: Good content is more valuable to a writer’s career than social interaction.

And then you know how it is, when something really sticks in your mind, you start seeing reinforcement everywhere. Late in the week I came across this most excellent blog post by Allison Brennan on the unrealistic pressures associated with social media.

One of the things I thought she said, but I can't find it now so maybe it was someone in the comment section, was that at RWA National, a panel of editors was asked if they would rather have an author who was able to write three books a year, but not have time for social media, or an author who wrote fewer books a year but was highly active on social media. Three out of four preferred the former.

(Also, it’s not just writers who get sucked into this vortex, singer songwriter John Mayer had some eye-opening things to say about his own experiences with social media, and what it cost him creatively.)

So what about you? If you use social media to unwind after a productive day, much like a glass of wine after work, that’s different and probably nothing in this post applies to you.

But if you’re chasing the social media/blogging brass ring with a sense of panic of nipping at your heels, then maybe you need to reassess. What could you accomplish creatively if you weren’t chasing the social media brass ring?

Does using social media dilute your need to communicate through your work? Is it interrupting the big chunks of percolating and fermenting time your work needs? Is it recalibrating your attention span?

Food for thought, anyway…

And now for the fun stuff! We have TWO winners for last weeks post because Deborah and Wiley & Sons are just that awesome. And the winners are...#20 and #18*! TheArtGirl and LauraC! Please email me** so I can get your prize out to you.

* (As chosen by Random Number Generator)

**(Note, if the prizes aren't claimed within a week I will draw a second round of names.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Flipping the Switch from “Introvert” to “Extrovert”

I am hugely excited to share today's wonderful post by editor Deborah Halverson. Not only is she founder of the popular Dear Editor site as well as a former editor with Harcourt, but she has written Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies.

What could be even cooler than that? We will be giving away a copy of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies! (See give away details at the end of the post.*)

Flipping the Switch from “Introvert” to “Extrovert”
by Deborah Halverson

I am an introvert.

Over the years I’ve surprised quite a few people by saying that. I don’t act like an introvert, they say—and they’re right. I readily step up to open microphones, I eagerly shake new hands when they’re offered, I easily sit down next to random strangers at publishing functions and make new friends. I’m certainly not shy. I’m just most comfortable doing my own little thing in my own little corner with my own little family. A wedding DJ once told my now-husband and I, “If you want your guests to dance, you have to dance. They’ll do whatever you do—you’re the life of the party!” We nearly canceled the wedding and bolted for the Little White Wedding Chapel in Vegas. When the option is there, I’ll choose Fly on the Wall over Belle of the Ball every time.

But the option isn’t always there, at least not career-wise. As an in-house editor and then a freelance editor, author, and writing instructor, my career has always required me to reach out to others and get them excited about the topic at hand. I must talk to kids in schools, to other writers, to bookbuyers and booksellers and librarians and publishers. I can only do my job if I put myself out there. So I do—with one quick flip of an internal switch. Bam! Extrovert Mode.

I make it sound instantaneous, but developing that switch has been a life-long process. That’s no exaggeration. I realized my preference for the quiet side of life in late grade school. Figuring that anything I did in a future career would require me to step out of those shadows I so enjoyed, I very consciously set about making myself comfortable with activities that extroverts take for granted. For me, the secret to flipping the switch to Extrovert Mode is being comfortable with extrovert behavior. Here are six things I’ve learned to do to cultivate that comfort:

1. Be prepared. If you’re well prepared when you step out, you’re confident and thus more comfortable putting yourself out there. Preparation may mean writing your presentation well in advance, it may mean researching the people who will be present at a gathering, it may mean, on a grander scale, joining Toastmasters or volunteering for small speaking gigs in order to get used to having a roomful of eyes on you. Preparation equals comfort, and comfort helps introverts step into the spotlight and enjoy themselves while they’re there.

2. Make it personal. Engage with a specific person during every outreach. Being an introvert doesn’t mean you’re socially repressed; I love making new friends and chatting it up with people one-on-one. It’s reaching out to anonymous masses that feels yucky. Yet that kind of outreach is often what’s required in this social media-dependent world of ours. So, make the anonymous personal by aiming every outreach at a particular person. I designed my writers’ advice site with that in mind—all my posts there are direct answers to questions sent to me by specific readers. Similarly, if I write a guest post on someone else’s blog, I imagine I’m writing the post for one of that blog’s commenters, whom I’ll have identified before laying down a single word. When I write my books, I have specific young readers in mind whom I’ll imagine holding my book and laughing in all the right places. If I’m facing a roomful of writers at a conference or a crowd at a schmoozing event, I immediately pick out a specific person to talk to so that I feel I’ve got a friend in the room from that moment on. That makes me more comfortable about being there—and more likely to say yes when other presentation invites or parties crop up.

3. Lead with a question. Ask questions to drive conversations at gatherings and events. This takes the pressure to be enchanting off of you, the person you’re talking to will feel as if they’ve just had a great conversation because they’ve shared so much, and you’ll get more comfortable being at that gathering because you’ve just made it personal (see #2 above). Plus, you’ll learn the most fascinating things about people! That’s reason enough to get out and about.

4. Channel Miss Manners. Pushiness has no place in an introvert’s efforts to reach out. Embrace niceness instead—it works better, anyway. Catch more flies with honey, and all that. Be respectful about contacting people; having someone’s email address doesn’t mean you can use it carte blanche. When someone reaches out to you, respond quickly, if only to say that you can’t respond fully right now but will by the end of the week. I’m a nice person by nature, so being nice makes me comfortable about reaching out and thus more likely to flip the switch to Extrovert Mode when the time is right.

5. Make it worth their while. I feel more comfortable putting myself out there if I’m giving the people listening to me something for their time. And what I can give is information, so that’s what I do give—at school events, at writing workshops, on You can do that, too. As you learn about your passions (your book themes and subjects, literacy, the craft or business of writing), you’re collecting info that others would like to know. Share it. If people like what you have to say, they’ll tell their friends about you and buy your books. Your outreach will be successful, and you’ll feel happy that you haven’t abused anyone’s time in the process. Happiness equals comfort equals willingness to continue stepping out.

6. Be sincere. One reason introverts don’t like reaching out is that they feel like fakes when they shine the spotlight on themselves. So don’t be a fake. Only promise what you can deliver, only compliment when you mean it, don’t imply friendship if you’re just looking for a sale or a connection, and only ask others to do what you yourself would do for others. If you are genuine in your outreach, then you are comfortable with it—and being comfortable is how introverts flip the switch to Extrovert Mode.

My style doesn’t make for the most aggressive kind of marketing, but as an introvert I want no part of aggressive, anyway. I’ve seen websites where authors barter each others’ mailing lists, assigning value to their list of addresses based on the number of buys they scored with that list. Perhaps this helps them sell books, but such used car salesman tactics send the introvert in me scurrying to the dark corners. I know that the only way to get myself to step out of my comfort zone is to extend my comfort zone—and I am most comfortable when I am prepared, nice, curious, giving, and sincere.

Deborah Halverson is the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies and the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth. Armed with a masters in American Literature, Deborah edited picture books and teen novels for Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years before leaving to write full-time. She is a frequent speaker at writers conferences and a writing teacher for groups and institutions including UCSD’s Extension Program. Deborah is also the founder of the popular writers’ advice website and freelance edits fiction and non-fiction for both published authors and writers seeking their first book deals. For more about Deborah, check out her website

*For a chance to win a copy of WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES, just leave a comment telling us:

A) what For Dummies book would you like to see out there on the shelves (That's kind of a no-brainer for me, Introverts for Dummies, of course!)


B) If  you could have an on/off switch that you could flip at will, what personal characteristic would it control? (Personally, I would love a clean-freak switch that I could flip once a week, then turn off once the house was clean.)

Monday, July 11, 2011

You Say Potato, Your Character Says Potahto...

Last week we talked about your core voice—that part of your voice that is uniquely you and flavors everything you do. Whether you are a Red Rose potato, a Russet, a Yukon Gold, or a yam.

Today I want to talk about the more conscious aspects of voice: story voice and how one's voice can shift from book to book, and then creating characters’ voices, which you can have many of in any given story. Essentially, what you're going to make out of that potato.

Some authors' voices remain fairly constant throughout everything they write. Often that consistent voice is a large part of their appeal. Alice Hoffman, Jenny Crusie, and Meg Cabot are some that immediately come to mind.

Then other authors create unique, individual voices for each of their stories so that you might not realize they’d been written by the same person. Jane Yolen, Tamora Pierce, Suzanne Collins, K. A. Applegate, Garth Nix.

If you're the former, then the story voice and author voice remain fairly constant and you don't have to wrestle with the idea of different voices for different stories. However, as I mentioned last week, voice confounded me for a long time because of this need to tell wildly different stories. Until I stumbled upon the idea that story voice is which aspect of your author voice you’re focusing on.

The thing is, we all have many aspects to our personality: funny sides, serious sides, dark sides, places where our deepest fears lay. To me, it makes perfect sense that our body of work will cover more than one side of ourselves, thus different flavors of stories.

However, while we might vary in whether we want to focus on humor or seriousness or hope or despair, WHAT makes us laugh or cry or hope or despair is part of the essence of who we are and that will very likely remain constant throughout the body of our work.

Whether it is center stage or backdrop is the variable.

If you are writing a scary story, you will be drawing on what frightens you, the terrifying moments you’ve experienced, your nightmares.

If you are writing a humorous or light-hearted story, you will probably draw on what parts of life you find absurd or ironic. A romance would focus on how you define love.

My teen assassins in medieval France book that comes out next spring uses a wildly different voice than either the Theodosia books or the Beastologist books. Not just older, but a wildly, completely different voice. And yet I still feel that it is very much my voice. But it is my seventeen-year-old voice versus my eleven-year-old voice. My coming-of-age voice rather than my still-firmly-rooted-in-childhood voice.

Another other big component of the story voice is the set of emotional truths and thematic issues you are exploring. They will greatly dictate the tone and feel of your book.

It is also my voice as seen through a medieval lens and worldview rather than an Edwardian one—two time periods with distinctly different flavors and sensibilities. The medieval world was obsessed with finding a path to grace and assuring a place in heaven, while Edwardians were just stepping out of a dark, somber, restrictive Victorian society and embracing a lighter side. Not to mention the beginning advent of modern technologies. If I’m doing my job in developing my characters, the flavor of those different times comes through.

Which segues rather nicely into finding your character’s voice

This is probably the most conscious aspect of voice, adjusting your voice to convey a specific, fictional character. It’s the part where you climb into the character’s skin.

One thing I need to understand in order to make my characters breathe on the page is what piece of me is in that character. What of my own core emotional truths does this character have? This is usually the key for me to an authentic character voice.

The truth is, pieces of ourselves show up in all our work. I have been surprised many times by unplanned pieces of me that show up on the page, usually spotted long after the book went to print and I acquired some distance from the story. Since this happens even when we don’t intend it to, we might as well consciously choose which parts we include and let them do some of the heavy lifting for us.

But how do we consciously develop our characters’ voice?

Well, if voice is an author’s core emotional truths and personal wisdom, combined with their use of language, then to evoke a real-seeming, authentic character we need to understand their emotional truths, personal wisdom, and use of language. And while some of ourselves will be in them, they will in large part be wildly different from us, not unlike how kids have some of their parents in them, but are also their own unique selves.

This is where backstory comes in. Not because it belongs in the story—it doesn’t! Only the very littlest bit you can get away with. But the author needs all that backstory in order to understand what emotional truths and personal wisdom our character has acquired throughout their lives.

We need to know his formative experiences, emotional scars and wounds, hopes and fears, what sort of environment he’s grown up in, all those things go into creating our character. In order to get him to live on the page, he has to have a fully developed life of his own in order for us to be able to nail his worldview and, therefore, his voice.

I’m not suggesting we have to account for every moment of his life before he shows up on page one, but definitely the big emotional events that have shaped him.

Personally, I don’t find those character worksheets that ask what color his hair and eyes are, and what pets and hobbies and habits he has, all that helpful. What I need to understand is WHY my character has a ferret for a pet and WHY he has a constant tic under his left eye and WHY collecting boogers is his favorite—only?—hobby.

I often joke about not knowing what color my character’s eyes are because I’m too busy looking through them, not at them.

A key to getting this strong character voice is using deep point of view, going deep into the character’s head so that it is HIS perspective that colors the story.

But how do we get deep inside our character’s head?

For me it’s usually character journaling—creating a “journal” written by my character in which he confesses and contemplates his deepest thoughts. Almost like a therapy session. I'll often do a "therapy session" with the character on how he feels about the plot point that is about to occur in the story--that's where I find his emotional juice.

Whenever a story feels flat to me or has flat spots, I ask what is the core emotion the hero is experiencing in this scene? And why? Then, more importantly, have I managed to get it on the page?

If not, I dive back into the character’s psyche and try again.

This post is already beyond ridiculously long, so I’ve posted a sample worksheet/questionnaire behind the cut.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Finding Your Wild and Precious Voice

Right about now is normally the time we here at SVP take a summer hiatus. I have a big fat book due in a few months and am determined to have a complete first draft by the end of the summer, and thinking about marketing and promotion is SO antithetical to getting a first draft down. Plus, the kids are home from school, vacations are taken, and publishing practically shuts down for July and August.* Clearly life moves at a slower pace in summer. 
However this year, instead of going all radio silent on you, I thought I'd share some posts on craft. I can talk about writing craft and processes without yanking myself out of the first draft mindset. Plus, not only is writing craft directly tied into our Favorite Piece of Marketing Advice, quite a number of you expressed interest in talking about craft, so we're going to give it a try. 
(For those of you who aren't excited about that prospect, I DO have a couple of guest posts coming up, an interview with an industry insider about marketing and promotion and an interview with a very cool author. Coming soon!)

The truth is, I am a sucker for voice. That is the one thing that can pull me into a book faster than anything. It’s nice to have character development and narrative drive show up at some point, but honestly? If the voice is strong enough, I’ll read just about anything. If a book has all of those? I’m in love.

And I’m not the only one. At conferences and in interviews, time and again I’ve heard editors say they are looking for a great voice. The thing is, everything else—plotting and characterization tools—can be taught. Voice must ooze up from the very core of the author herself and because of that, takes time to develop.

The problem is, voice is difficult to define. It’s one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it kinds of things. It can also, like a favorite fragrance we’ve worn for years, be impossible for us to detect in ourselves. How then do we recognize it? Work on it? Strengthen it?

Some people claim you don’t have to find your voice because it hasn't gone anywhere; since it's part of you, it’s always there. That may well be true for some people. However, I also think we can lose our voice or become disconnected from it, either through misuse or because we’ve had it workshopped right out of us, or the (false!) belief that our true voice isn’t valid or unique enough. Also, I think a number of writer's are drawn to writing precisely because they haven't been able to find a voice in real life, so they turn to writing to say what needs to be said and learning to do that can take time. So some writers do need to go in search of their true voice; others may only need to excavate or re-discover theirs. I suspect this may be especially true when writing stories for kids—we have to be able to reconnect with our child’s voice.

Of course, that brings us to the question of what exactly is voice?

For me, voice encompasses not only the words a writer chooses and how they string their sentences together, but also the very subjects they choose to write about, how they view those subjects, and in fact, their entire world view: hopeful or edgy, tragic or matter of fact.

Voice is an author’s core emotional truths and personal wisdom combined with their use of language.

And when writing for children or YA, it is critical that we try to reconnect with what our emotional truths were at that younger age.

One of the things that made voice so hard for me to grasp was that my voice changes pretty drastically (I think) from story to story. So how then, does an author’s voice and story voice fit together? Not to mention the shifting voices of our main characters?

A very brilliant writer and teacher, Barbara Samuel, gave me this extremely helpful analogy.

Think of your author voice as a potato. Your story voice, then, is whether you are serving that voice baked, French fried, scalloped, boiled, or mashed.

To stretch this poor metaphor even further (and this is me mangling it, not Barbara) then character voice is whether it’s plain mashed potatoes or garlic mashed potatoes; scalloped potatoes or au gratin, chili cheese fries or shoe string fries. (Lord, is anyone else getting hungry besides me??)

Your author voice encompasses your core stories, those thematic issues that you are drawn to time and time again. Perhaps it is finding a place to belong, or coping with great loss, being free of the past, or issues of trust. I know for me, finding one’s personal power shows up over and over again in my work and issues of power are very much a part of my core themes. I so remember being powerless as a kid—and that amazing feeling when I first learned I did have some power. In fact, I think that’s why I write fantasy—fantastical powers create such a great subtext for personal power.

I am also (clearly) drawn to historical settings, although I am unsure why that is. Maybe it’s a distance thing—maybe I need the distance of time to explore issues that would feel too painfully raw if I dealt with them in a contemporary setting? Or maybe that’s simply where I feel fantasy and reality meet in the most convincing way?

So how do we find or reconnect with our author voice? Well, that's the challenge, isn't it? Unfortunately, it isn't quite as simple as filling out a worksheet or answering a quiz. However, there are a number of things we can do to explore, identify, and strengthen our voice. 

1) Embrace your inner odd duck.

This is the dedication in the second Theodosia book, and something I talk to kids about all the time. Our unique, crazy self is our secret weapon—especially when we’re engaged in creative pursuits. It’s our strange, uniquely individual perspective, emotional truth, and acquired wisdom that makes our work stand out from others’. If you’re a smart ass, or have way too vivid an imagination, or are too sensitive, or have attitude to spare, or have a wicked temper, or always look on the bleak side, whatever it is; embrace that part of yourself and incorporate it into your work. The longer I’ve been writing the more I think that drilling down to this unique core view of the world we each possess is key.

2) Ask by what emotional authority you are telling this story.

And no, I don’t mean the church lady type moral authority. What I mean is, what authentic emotional route do you have into this story? You know that saying, Write what you know? It’s talking about the emotional truth of what you know, not whether or not you’ve ever been a fireman or in love with a vampire. But perhaps you have risked all for something you believed in, or have fallen in love with someone deeply unsuitable.
So what is your personal emotional connection to this story? Why are you the one compelled to tell it? What piece of you, what experience of yours, is your route into the story or the characters?

3) What is the favorite thing you’ve ever written?

Do you have one piece of writing, an essay, a novel, even just a paragraph, that you love so much you can’t even believe you wrote it? If not, do you have something that simply stands out from other pieces of writing in such a way that makes you sit up and take notice? What sets it apart from your other writing? Can you identify what makes it sing for you?

4) Try to get a sense of what sort of stories really call to you.

Make a list of your fifteen favorite books of all time, then your fifteen favorite movies of all time. What commonality emerges? Mine were from a wide variety of genres and tones and it took a while before I recognized that one factor was a strong voice (yes, even in movies). Another was that the stories I loved the most took the hero to the mat emotionally, the protagonist was truly reborn by the experience of the story. Big sweeping, redraw your entire emotional landscape, type stories.

5) Looking back in time, what were some of the most pivotal moments in your life? Your childhood? How did that betrayal, salvation, glimmer of kindness, moment of despair, shape you? Pick a couple of these moments and do a quick, five or ten minute timed writing. Timed writing means stream of consciousness, only you will see it, no editing, kind of writing. You’ll be surprised how much truth gets on the page.

Don't be afraid to experiment, look deeply (no, even deeper than that!) play, get angry, get sad, shout, scream, yell, laugh. Try each of those out and see how it feels on the page.  Remember risk is a necessary part of creating, and let yourself take some risks. All in the privacy of your own writing, of course. :-)

*That is not actually true, just a perception people have.