Perfecting Your YA Voice (Part 1)

Editor Krista Marino spoke at the 2011 SCBWI LA Conference and shared the following insight on how to perfect your YA voice:

There are Two Types of Voice:

  • Authorial Voice – this is when you know a book is by a certain author. For example you know when you’re reading a John Irving or Meg Cabot book.
  • Narrative Voice – This is the voice invented by the author and the voice of the protagonist.

What is Voice?

  • Voice is illusive and hard to define.
  • Marino’s says voice is made up of: diction, perspective, characterization, and dialog.

Diction as Voice:

  • Diction is vocabulary choices and a style of expression.
  • Think word choice!
  • Marino used an example from The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. She pointed out how the author does not use contractions in the novel to reflect the “old fashioned” sensibility of the town/people, but when a scene started to pick up in pace the author would begin to use contractions (Cannot vx. Can’t).
  • Focus on your character’s distinct vocabulary or expression. This doesn’t mean slang. This will reveal how the protagonist relates to the world.
  • Does your character use cultural references (X-men, animal planet) to define how they relate to the world? This is part of his or her diction.
  • Beware of leaning on cultural references too much for your voice. That will become a crutch. Take a look at Frank Portman’s King Dork as an example of teen voice that feels current without using specific cultural references.

Perspective as Voice:

  • This is the mental view of the character and how it affects the storytelling.
  • This is not point of view.
  • How does the limited teen experience influence how they view the world and the way they speak? For example look at the movies BIG and 17 Again. In Big you have a kid in an adult body. How does this “adult” act and speak to reveal they are really a kid? Or in 17 Again you have an adult in a kid’s body, how does action/speech reveal that they are really an adult with an adult way of thinking?
  • How does the setting (historical fiction or futuristic) change the experiences of your character?

Character as Voice:

  • Voice can convey info about character, age, gender, hobbies, religion, motivation, ambitions, looks, etc.
  • You must know everything about your protagonist.
  • Everything in the book with be filtered through the protagonist.
  • Character driven books are amazing because the character feels real and you (the reader) will follow them anywhere. The secret is to have an amazing character and a plot to sell to a larger audience.
  • Think about the protagonist in your favorite book and write down reasons why you like them. Why did they come to life for you? Was it their speech? Actions?
  • A solid 3D character will come to life and have a believable voice.
  • You need to know your characters and you want to know them emotionally.

Dialog as Voice:

  • This is about the verbal exchange in the book (not interior monologue).
  • Dialog directly reflects a character’s voice and personality.
  • This is about more than just the words.
  • Dialog needs to feel real, not like on a sitcom.
  • Dialog doesn’t exist just hanging there in space. If they just say something but there is no context for it, the reader won’t understand who they are and what they are thinking.

Interior Monologue as Voice:

  • Interior monologue is what the character is thinking and gives context to the dialog.
  • The #1 thing that Krista Marino finds is missing in manuscripts is interior dialog or interior monologue.
  • Interior monologue is important, if not most important to conveying the feelings, reactions, and judgments of your character.
  • Interior monologue shows a character’s perception of a scene and their feelings.
  • Without interior monologue we lose the inner emotional stakes of the scene.
  • All dramatic irony is lost without interior monologue.
  • You need interior monologue to create empathy, rather than having the reader observe and make guesses about the character.
  • You loose back-story, sarcasm, and emotion without interior monologue.
  • We always want to know what a character (on the page) is thinking.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 – Coming Soon!

Krista Marino is a senior editor at Delacort Press where she edits and acquires young adult and middle grade novels. Books she has edited include King Dork, The Necromancer, The Maze Runner, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

Picking the Brain of the Brilliant Blume

This week I’m doing a series that re-caps the insights of the amazing JUDY BLUME who was a surprise guest at the 40th anniversary SCBWI Conference this summer! The following notes were taken during a Q & A session with SCBWI president Lin Oliver:

What are the changes in contacting your audience today than in the past?

  • Judy Blume says she’s addicted to Twitter.
  • She gets letters electronically now rather than snail mail.
  • The intimacy is in the pencil (snail mail). She misses that. Kids really bear their soul to you when they write a real letter.
  • The electronics change but deep down people don’t change.

Why Do You Write For Kids? Why Write at All?

  • “Who do you identify with in life? I identify with kids. Though that doesn’t make you the best mother.”
  • Blume was sick all through her 20’s, and after she started to write all that sickness went away.
  • She says it’s determination as much as any kind of talent that is going to get you there.

What Advice Do You Have for Writers?

  • “I don’t like to give advice to writers.”

How is it that You Can Write Dialog So Well?

  • “Dialog is the only thing I like to write. I don’t like the other stuff. I’m not good at descriptive writing or metaphor. I like what the character’s are thinking versus what they’re saying. The subtext of it. It’s what makes it muscular.”
  • “Dialog comes naturally and spontaneously to me.”

How Do You Make Your Books Timeless?

  • “I never think about the timelessness.”
  • It’s not a good idea to put in a way kids talk today, per say (slang etc.). Not if you want to write fiction that lasts.

Why Did You Write “Forever”?

  • My daughter said to me “Can’t there be a book where two nice kids do it and nobody dies?”
  • That was her inspiration, though she would never advise anyone else to write a book based on something their kid said to them.
  • In regard to edgy material – if it’s there it should be important to the character or the story. If it’s not then take it out. Don’t listen to the censor when you are writing.

Other Tid Bits:

  • “I get bored easily, so I could never write a series.”
  • Writing not only changed my life, it saved my life!

Judy Blume is one of the most widely read authors of juvenile and teen fiction. Her many books include: Tiger Eyes, Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, Blubber, Forever, The Fudge Series, and Just as Long as We’re Together. Her novels have exceeded sales of 80 million and have been translated into 31 languages.

How to Wow an Editor With Your Book

“This book needs to be read!” Assistant editor, Rachel Abrams, of Harper Collins shared her insight as to how to get an editor to say these very words, at the 2010 SCBWI So Cal Writers Day. The following is her recipe on how to hone your craft and make your writing the very best it can be.

Your opening paragraph needs to…

  • Grab the attention of the reader and hook them.
  • Be powerful and punchy.
  • Set up goals for the rest of the book.
  • Establish perspective and voice.
  • Introduce your protagonist.

Abrams shared the following three examples of strong opening paragraphs:

1) An Abundance of Katherines by John Green: This has a strong opening because it has a punchy first sentence which also tell us a lot about the main character. We immediately get a sense of the quirky voice of the book. We become aware of the conflict – that the main character has been dumped. Every detail is actually pertinent to the plot, including the bathtub, Archemedies, and the eureka moment (all of which come back later in the story). Everything is carefully planned and well thought out.

2) Gorgeous by Rachel Veil: We get a sense of an authentic teen voice right from the beginning. The setting is established, and the plot is introduced. Abrams was really pulled in by the snappy first sentence “I sold my cell phone to the Devil.”

3) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: This book opens with suspense, and immediately the plot is set into motion. Even though it has a somewhat ambiguous feeling you are still sucked into the mystery and the story. It also uses punchy, descriptive, plot driven words.

Finding your voice…

Voice is something that is very difficult to teach. As an editor, Abrams feels like she can’t teach you voice, but she can help you to hone it. Things that will help you to hone your voice include:

  • Know your market. Watch what teens watch. Read what they read. Get into your market’s head.
  • Find a unique perspective.
  • Get to know your characters.
  • In regards to historical fiction, know that the issues the characters encounter are similar – parents, friends, relationships. It is the setting that is different.
  • For the broadest audience, don’t use swear words.

Effective dialog will…

  • Reveal character.
  • Increase the pace of the scene/novel.
  • Add conflict.
  • Establish voice.
  • Reveal only limited back story.
  • What is not said is often more powerful than what is said.

Dialog pitfalls (to be avoided) are…

  • Revealing too much back story (aka: the information dump).
  • Characters who blurt out everything.
  • Chatty on the nose gabbing.
  • Adverbial speech tags – the emotion should be expressed in the dialog itself, which will make the speech tag unnecessary. (This is a personal pet peeve of Abrams’).

In regards to character development…

  • Character development is what Abrams really likes to focus on. In her opinion, plot is secondary to the characters.
  • Nothing should feel random or tacked on.
  • Detail does not equal development.  The details must matter.
  • Map out your character arc. Know how your characters will evolve.
  • Equip your characters with the tools to help them to get from point A to B and then to point C.
  • Know how the traits of your character affect the plot as it evolves.
  • Equip your character with motivation and a full set of personality traits.
  • Try and keep the number or characters in your book to a minimum.
  • Understand why your characters do things. This is about motivation, why do your characters act the way they do?

Lets talk about plot and pacing…

  • It is always good to fall back on a three act structure. Act One: Introduce characters, reveal characters, set plot in motion, establish setting. Act Two: This is longer and where the plot develops, the story becomes more complex, and you explore subplots. The act ends with a major event that helps to build to the climax. Act Three: climax and resolution.
  • Avoid episodic structure.
  • It’s a great idea to at least outline the major set pieces of your book. These are the big scenes that really affect the direction of the plot. Major set pieces are packed with a lot of emotion and are the scenes that your smaller scenes are leading up to.
  • Think of your scenes as mini stories with a beginning, middle, and end. There should always be a goal, conflict, and outcome.
  • Always push to raise the stakes of the plot!
  • If you are stuck in a scene try to throw in something that will raise the stakes. This is a great way to get out of writers block. Remember, you don’t have to keep it. Find out where the boundaries are by going past them.
  • There is nothing better than a good wrench in the plan! “A good story is only a good story because bad things happen” – ? What your characters do to get out of the situation is what makes reading the story rewarding.
  • Don’t bog down the plot with too much back story.

Ways to develop your own personal style…

  • The art is in the details. Editors want writing that sparkles. They want writing that will give them chills.
  • Dip into you. Look inside at yourself, and how you feel.
  • Editors will help you to make lovely sentences.
  • Weigh your words. Find the right word.
  • Details are a red flag to the reader which tells them to slow down and savor the moment. It tells the reader to pay attention. Therefore, details must be intentional.
  • Revealing sentences will tell the reader what they need to know.
  • “Fondle the details.” – Nabokov
  • Slow down and explore. Use as few words as you can to express as much as you can. A good example of this is the introduction of The Grey (a large horse) in The Graveyard Book. The author describes the horse has being 19 hands long versus using the word enormous. This has more impact.

Why it’s a good idea to get an agent…

  • An agent will help you to get a more experience editor for your book.
  • They will help your book get seen by more people.
  • They are the first filter for you, and will help you revise your book before you send it out.

Rachel Abrams is acquiring and she is looking for…

  • Mostly middle grade and young adult books. Also, a few picture books.
  • Paranormal and teen romance.
  • Middle grade series’.
  • Her favorite middle grade gooks are Walk Two Moons, The Wimpy Kid Books.
  • Her favorite young adult authors are Libba Bray and E. Lockhart.
  • Her favorite picture books include Spoon, Hip Hop Dog, and books that are quirky.
  • Editorial pet peeves include clunky dialog, adverbial tags, and underdeveloped characters.

Rachel Abrams is an assistant editor at Harper-Collins Children’s Books. Since joining the company in 2007, she has worked closely with authors Avi, Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket, Chris Lynch, and Rachel Vail, as well as illustrators Brett Helquist, Dave McKean, and Vladimir Radunsky.

Revision: What’s Wrong With Your Manuscript and How to Fix It!

So you’ve finished the first draft of your young adult novel. Where do you go from here? Well take a few cues from editor Anica Rissi, (from Simon Pulse) who shared her insights on how to identify what’s wrong with your manuscript and then fix it. She spoke at the 2009 SCBWI Los Angeles Conference. The following tips on rewriting are all based on Anica’s personal opinion and preferences and she assures you that there will always be others to negate what she has to say.

After You’ve Finished Your First Draft…

  • When writing a first draft always let it flow and let it all come out. Don’t worry about any of the following advice until you are ready to revise.
  • That said, Anica never wants to read your first draft!
  • After you’ve finished your first draft put it away for a minimum of three weeks. Preferably three months. You need to get some distance from the work. Then you will be ready to revise as you are able to see the work with new eyes.

Writing is About Discipline…

  • “If you think writing is easy, you may not be writing well.” – Rissi
  • Writing is about practice. Exercises will help you. Try and find a routine and use exercises to get your creative juices flowing.
  • When you are writing don’t stop when you are stuck or frustrated as you may not come back again the next day. Always stop when you are excited, so you want to write the next day.

Revise the Beginning…

  • As you revise your beinning you will want to start your book with conflict and tension. Start your book with something the audience can think about or ponder – mystery, a question, an explosion, action! You want to capture your audience so they will follow you to the next place you want to take them.
  • Start your book with a strong voice. Start with a question. Your goal is to raise questions in the audience to entice them to keep reading, to hook them in the first page, in the first sentence! Give the audience something to hold on to and want to explore.
  • Personal Pete Peeve: Do not start a story with a character that wakes up from a dream.
  • Write in the NOW! Start now. Don’t start in the past or in the future, be present!
  • Start you book with your character in a real situation. Introduce that character to us by showing us how they react to the situation. Don’t tell us who the character is. We want to meet the character in real life! Put your character in a situation that has forward momentum, so we want to see where the character is going. We want to see the character interact in everyday life and not see his/her resume. Show not tell.
  • Give some sense of where the story is going and what is at stake within the first few paragraphs or pages. What does this book/character care about and why? Show it!
  • Mistake Rissi often sees is too much back story and too little plot moving forward.

Think About the Overall Arc of Your Story…

  • Your story must always have two ideas to pull it forward. “One idea is not enough for a story, you need two ideas. You need two sticks to rub against one another to start a fire.” These two ideas or “sticks” should be the plot storyline and the emotional storyline. Together they intertwine and create the friction and tension and story.
  • Your characters MUST change!
  • Be sure to cross (interweave) your internal and external conflict.
  • You know when your manuscript is “ready” or “done” when you can explain what it is about in one sentence. You can tell the plot and emotional arc in one sentence.

Focus on Your Teen Voice…

  • Stay in the head of your protagonist! Don’t jump into the head of another character. It pulls one out of the experience/story. Don’t “look back.” Don’t be the adult looking back and reflecting on what has happened before. That robs the story of its immediacy and tells us that the character grows up to be said age of adult narrator. Teen lives don’t see that far into the future there is only the here and now and the immediate moment.
  • Emotions are universal. We all feel sadness, fear, happiness, etc.  How one experiences or feels those emotions are specific to the individual. This is part of voice and what shows the uniqueness of your character and makes an emotion feel authentic.
  • You are never allowed to tell the audience your character’s “good” or “bad” qualities. No explaining of emotions either. Show!!! Telling is boring. Being obvious is the quickest way to be dull. (Check out blog:

Revise Your Dialog…

  • Read your dialog out loud! Keep your dialog moving. Don’t put in meaningless banter. Show your character through gesture and word choice and avoid using adverbs.
  • He said – using the tag “said” is okay!! This is a word that starts to disappear. Other replacement words “explained”, “blurted”, “screamed”,  become more obvious and disrupt the flow. Ask yourself if you really need the other word.
  • Look out for curse words as they really stick out on the page. More may seem normal in regular dialog, but they pop out on the page.
  • Look out for “you know” or “like.” You also will probably have a word that you personally use all the time. Have a friend find it for you so you can get rid of it and use it less.
  • Your characters don’t need to smile, grin, or nod all the time. These also become repetitive. Trust that the reader can “hear” the smile in your dialog.

Respect Your Reader…

  • TRUST – trust yourself and your readers. They will get it.  Take out the specifics of how you want the reader to read a passage. Let the audience have and interpret their own experience as they read your book.
  • Beware of using a journal or blog as it is often a transparent device that does not work.
  • Don’t keep secrets from the reader if the character knew the secret all along. It create an unreliable narrator and a sense of betrayal at the end of the book.

Tighten Everything Up…

  • Everyone tends to either write too much or too little. Find out which one you are.
  • Tighten up every line. Ask yourself what does this sentence do that I don’t already know?
  • It is your details that will separate your story from any old story. Ask yourself what is different about your story. Identify what is different or individual in your scenes. Find out what makes your world/story specific and not universal. What is specific about the way you are writing it? This should be a story that no one else could ever write.
  • Symbols – be aware of your symbolic choices and your choices that could be unintentionally misconstrued as symbolic. Be aware of common experience and your character’s experience in regards to symbolism.

Working With Edgy Content…

  • Rissi likes to publish “edgy” books and she doesn’t shy away from topics like sex and drugs or heavy material. However, the “edgy” parts of the books must come naturally from the story and not be there simply because “edgy is in.” The story must be real.
  • Anica publishes books that have sex and drugs in them, but she also likes books that are sweet and clean. In regards to edgy content, don’t put it in to be trendy. If you use edgy content it must come from the story and be natural and truthful to your characters and world.

Anica Rissi is a senior editor at Simon Pulse and publishes young adult fiction. She used to be an editor at Scholastic before joining Simon Pulse. She likes quirky humor, smart writing, compelling stories, and characters she can’t get out of her head. Recent acquisitions include: Hallow by Jessica Verday, Crash Into Me by Albert Borris, Pure by Terra Evan McVoy, and Nothing Like You by Laurent Strasnick. Rissi does not accept unsoliceted submisions. You must have an agent to send her your work.

Crafting Books for Restless Middle Grade Readers

Ask a middle grade reader if they would rather read a boring book from start to finish or shave off all the hair on their head. What do you think they will pick? Shaving their head of course! Yes, boredom is our biggest enemy when it comes to middle grade readers. Boredom is like punishment, so you must create the biggest punch in the smallest writing space and then continue your momentum!

Author Kathleen O’Dell, said the above at the SCBWI Southern California Writer’s Day this past weekend. The following are her tricks to keep middle grade readers turning the pages and hungry for more!

The Problem With Most Beginnings…

  • O’Dell finds that many books start with  what she calles “getting to know the gang.” This is usually a scene where all the major players of the book (or group of friends) are introduced in a quick, un-memorable way. The thought is that the reader needs to know who everyone is. The problem is that the reader has no connection to each character as they are introduced and forget them as soon as they meet them. Instead focus on the main character and his/her point of view.
  • Beware the character that wakes up in the first paragraph, then proceeds to admire themselves in the mirror. Oh yes, my lovely blond locks, my adorable dimple, etc. This is too generic. You need to spark interest. Plus this is very cliché!
  • Avoid the pedestrian set up. After all the News never opens with the weather.
  • Start with action in sentence one! You must wind up with action, and release it in the first paragraph. You don’t have to create something overly dramatic, just a sense of urgency. For example starting with the line: “I’m late.”

Find the Right Descriptions…

  • Be specific in your descriptions, but don’t be overly explicit. Find the right words and don’t go overboard.
  • Observe people in real life. Be nosy, and eavesdrop. Human behavior is very interesting. You will be surprised how much you can learn about two people with only a few cues. Watch couples, mothers and daughters, sets of friends. You’ll find you can learn a lot about them in how they dress, what they say to one another, the exchange of a glance, etc. You don’t need much – but you do need the right details.

The Deal with Dialog…

  • Dialog will always have a back and forth to it, but it doesn’t have to be tit for tat.
  • Listen to real conversations, in fact transcribe them as an exercise. People be-lie. They don’t really say what they mean. Instead they use other cues (body language, word choice, etc.)
  • Study bad dialog as a way to help you see what doesn’t work. Learn how not to write. Bad TV (soap operas, etc.) is a great place to start.
  • Beware the dinner scene! This is a personal pet peeve of O’Dell’s and yet she sees it in published books all the time. This is the contrived scene where the author gives the characters “meaningful business” in the form of eating in order to dump info on the reader. Often this doesn’t share anything about the character, and everything you write needs to tell us something about our characters, or move the plot forward.

Building Momentum…

  • You always want to move your reader forward! Don’t drain your character with too many subplots. Be careful of pulling the focus away from the main story to spend time with a secondary character.
  • Be careful of protecting your character like they are a child. You must give them conflict. They must make mistakes. They must make hard choices. This will push your story forward.
  • Don’t get carried away with pet enthusiasms. You must cut that three page description of the old haunted house even though it is the best thing you’ve ever written and you love it.
  • Fight the mushy middle! It’s that empty sea in the center of your novel where the wind has gone out of your sails and nothing is happening. Jump to something new! Be courageous and do something drastic – get the reader out of there! And don’t worry, you can go back and change it later.
  • Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you’re bored, the reader will be bored. You know what the bad parts are. Get rid of them. Put the book away, and then go back and re-read it with fresh eyes. It’s amazing what you will see when you’ve had some time away. Give yourself the space to recognize it.
  • You need to use concentrate not juice. Meaning you want to concentrate as much as you can – keep the intensity and the punch. You don’t want less info, just more per sip!
  • Don’t be lazy!

The Fear of Revisions…

  • “There is bitterness in rejection, there’s fear in revision.” – O’Dell on the revision process with editors.
  • When you disagree with an editor’s note the best thing to do is to at least try it. She does this and often finds that the change is not that big of a deal. You often have to make compromises or barter, such as – this change to keep that.
  • Don’t freak out when you have to change or re-structure your book. It will make the book better.

Kathleen O’Dell is the author middle grade and young adult novels including the Agnes Parker Series, Bad Tickets, Ophie Out of Oz, and  The Aviary.