Perfecting Your YA Voice (Part 2)

In Part 1, Editor Krista Marino explained how YA Voice is related to diction, perspective, dialog, interior monologue, and character. In this second section she explains what makes a young adult voice unique and different from an adult writing voice.

Let’s Talk about the Teen/YA Voice in Particular:

  • YA is specific in terms of voice.
  • YA is teen experience, outlook, and their limited life experiences.
  • YA is about teen beliefs, likes and dislikes, etc.
  • Think about how small your life was when you were a teenager. Remember when you believed in Santa? What did you believe when you were in high school? Did you think you were going to marry your high school boyfriend?
  • An adult looking back on the teen experience is an adult book.
  • “When you’re young everything feels like it’s the end of the world.” – movie quote. Teens have no reference to know that things will get better in their lives, where as adults bring life experiences with them.
  • Teens are not making stupid decisions. They are making their decisions because they have only been on the planet for 16 years and don’t have any life experience.
  • Teens have nothing else to compare their experiences to.
  • When you are writing you need to erase the worldliness you’ve experienced over the years.
  • Your protagonist can’t be simple.
  • Every teen is questioning how other teens view them.
  • Your character must evolve. Voice can change as a character grows and learns over the course of the book. Voice must change with the evolution and movement of the book.

Exercises to Get to Know Your Character:

  • Exercise: List three character traits about your protagonist (i.e. sassy, romantic, uptight) then push yourself to go deeper and find out who they really are under those traits.
  • Exercise: Write two pages that tell you something new about your character. These pages do not need to go into the manuscript. See what they will tell you.
  • Exercise: Go to a public place and eavesdrop on teens. Write down their conversations exactly as you hear them. Now try to use that conversation in a scene you are writing. Watch how your characters interact.

Telling about Character in the Writing:

  • Weave info about your character into the story, but make it invisible.
  • In the writing insinuate how a character looks without listing everything they are wearing. Pick a particular trait to embody a greater image of the character. Example: A character wearing skull rings.
  • You can’t assume the reader knows what is going on inside your character. You need to clue them in. Is the character tired? Excited?
  • Layer your characters actions. Stomping could mean a character is angry, but they could also be embarrassed. Sometimes more is more.
  • It’s better for someone to tell you to cut than add.
  • Beware of too much telling, it will sound like you (the author) are speaking to the reader rather than the character.

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.

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.

Five Things to Make Your First Page Shine!

The first page is your chance to make a strong impression with your teen reader! Don’t blow it! New York Times bestselling young adult author Rachel Cohn spoke at the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day event, and shared her list of the top five things you need on page one!

The Five Things To Look For In Your Opening Page:

1)     Voice

  • This is often said to be indescribable. “I’ll know it when I read it.” Is what we hear over and over.
  • Voice is the way you speak on paper.
  • Write as if you are talking to a friend.
  • Write honestly.
  • Don’t write logically. Follow the emotion.
  • Imagine a teen in your living room and you are telling them your story. How would you tell it to keep them engaged?
  • Read other books! Hear other author’s voices.
  • Some of Cohn’s favorite author voices are: Libba Bray, David Levithan, and Patricia McCormick.

2)     Tone

  • This is similar to tone of voice.
  • It is not what is being said but how it is being said.
  • This is related to the adjectives you use.

3)     World

  • You need to show the world your characters find themselves in.
  • This doesn’t have to be epic world building like Lord of the Rings or high fantasy or dystopian.
  • Worlds are smaller. Think about the world created by author Sarah Dessen as an example.
  • Communicate how your world works to your reader.
  • Think about how your mundane and ordinary world can be seen as extraordinary to a teen.
  • Your world needs to feel like paradise before you make it feel like a prison.

4)     The Plot

  • Outlining is good! It’s really helpful.
  • Plot is what happens in the story and the order in which it happens.

5)     Conflict

  • What is in your character’s way?
  • What does your character want?
  • Do the situations your character gets into get in the way of what they want?

Rachel shared the first page of three young adult novels which (in her opinion) contain all five elements — Voice, Tone, World, Plot, and Conflict. Pick up these books at your library and see if you agree!

Example 1: The Hunger Games by Susan Collins

  • Mention of the Reaping = Tone and Plot
  • Story with the Cat = Illustrates (show not tell) the bleakness of the world.
  • Establishes the protagonist is a hunter who provides for the family and is loyal.
  • The line about love immediately shows tone and conflict.

Example 2: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

  • We get the voice from the first line.
  • We get the tone from the use of slang and the sense of darkness and mystery. Yet at the same time it’s funny.
  • The prosthetic belly tells us information about the world.
  • Immediate Conflict = She must get pregnant.

Example 3: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

  • Creates a teen voice that is direct and immediate, yet artful and smart at the same time. “The sunset was like yellow cat vomit.”
  • We get the voice immediately in the first few lines.
  • World is futuristic.
  • Plot and conflict is established in the bit about her friend getting a surgery that the protagonist herself has not had.

Rachel Cohn is a New York Times bestselling Young Adult author. Her titles include: Gingerbread, Ver LeFreak, You Know Where to Find Me, Cupcake, Shrimp and Pop Princess. She has also co-authored with David Levithan the very popular books, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, Naomi & Ely’s No Kiss List, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which became a successful movie released by Sony Pictures. Rachel’s books have been “Best of the Year” selections by Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. The American Library Association has also named her books to the Best Books for Young Adults and Top 10 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list.

The Voice of Point-of-View

“I’m looking for great voice!” That’s what every editor and agent in the business keeps saying over and over. Yet, at the same time they have trouble describing voice. “I can’t describe it,” they say. “But, I’ll know it when I read it.”

But what is it? And how do we writers find our voice?

This is a complex topic. But I’ve discovered that one great way to discover the power of voice (and what it is for that matter) is to experiment with point-of-view. Choosing a point of view for your story will greatly influence the narrative voice of your novel. It’s a lot more than pronouns. It’s about perspective, and “who” is telling the story. The story of one event will be told differently depending upon the POV. Choosing to tell a story from inside a protagonist’s head (first person) or from an omniscient narrator is going to create vastly different voices.

Don’t believe me? Try the following exercise and see what happens.

Point of View Exercise:

Step One: Find two paragraphs of your present work-in-progress that includes an event with multiple characters and no dialog. (Or write two new paragraphs).

Step Two: Identify the POV you wrote those paragraphs in (i.e. first person, third person limited, omniscient etc.) and skip the step below that is the POV you originally used.

Step Three: Rewrite your paragraphs from the POV of your protagonist using first person.

Step Four: Rewrite your paragraphs from the POV of another character interacting in the scene using third person limited.

Step Five: Rewrite your paragraphs using dramatic POV.

Step Six: Rewrite your paragraphs using omniscient POV.

Step Seven: Rewrite your paragraphs from the POV of a character outside the action, who watches but doesn’t interact. Use the third person limited.

Step Eight: Now compare your paragraphs. What changed in each POV? How did the voice change? How did the diction and word choices change? How did the distance from the scene change? How does the narrator or character’s attitude change the voice?

Now tell us how it went!!!

Also, check out these other great links on voice and point of view:

Your Voice is Your Voice: Keeping It Real

An amazing voice is the number one “must-have” on every agent and editors list. So what is this odd and illusive thing known as voice? How do you find it? What does it sound like? Why is it so gosh darn important? Scholastic editor Jennifer Rees (The Hunger Games, Purge) spoke on this exact subject at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference. The following is her two cents on why you’ve got to have a knock-out voice and how to develop it.

The Importance of Voice…

  • Voice is the most powerful and prized possession in a writer’s tool box.
  • Voice is that amazing thing that taps you on the shoulder (the character) and asks you to come with them on a journey.
  • Great voice is not reserved for fiction alone. It can also be in non-fiction.

What is Voice?

  • When writing you are concerned about: What is the story? How do you tell it? What are you conveying? How do you maintain audience interest? Voice is what makes all of these things POWERFUL!
  • Voice is what the author has in common with all of their books. Rees sees a good voice as a sign that the author will be able to write other great books too.
  • Your voice is you. It is a reflection of you.  And you must write the story that only you can write.
  • You have a unique view of the world. Who is in your world and what do they have to say about it?
  • Voice is the writer’s presence on the page. (About writing with voice by Tom Ramano)
  • Voice is not concrete or tangible and yet it is the most important part of the book.
  • Voice is the hook that gets us interested from page one. It determines the audience and points back to the author.

Voice Example…

  • Complete this sentence:   When I was young in the…
  • The way in which you complete that sentence tells us about your voice. Everyone will complete it differently.

Voice and Character:

  • Voice is often talked about in the creation of your character. What is it the character notices? What is it that your character leaves out?
  • Characters need flaws. But what is their surprise? What will keep them on their toes?
  • In the book Purge it speaks to a specific topic (bulimia), it’s edgy, and the tension is high. There’s a lot going on in the book. But the surprise of the book is the humor. It’s a grim topic with a funny spin.
  • A voice will change depending upon the audience for a comment. For example if you quit your job. The way you tell this story will be different if you are talking to your best friend or talking to a future employer.
  • Character and voice are so interconnected! If the voice doesn’t work – is it fixable? It can point to a thin character. It might me a character that you (the writer) are not connecting with and thus the reader is not connecting with as well.
  • The voice of the narrator is not necessarily the voice of the book. There is more to it.

What I Learned As a Bookseller about Voice…

  • Rees spent years watching how customers would buy a book. Everyone will open the first page and decided if they will buy the book or not. That is the big ticket! This is stronger than the photos or back flap. It’s about the voice they see on the first page.

Common Pit-Falls in Voice:

  • Teen Speak – don’t go overboard with your jargon. Jargon often has little or nothing to do with voice. Voice is only believable if the character would actually say it.
  • Uneven Voice – When you are not sure how to say something. The voice seems to wobble. Strong voice plunges forward despite knowing where one is going, or how to say it.
  • Describing everything – use of excessive language and detail bout almost everything is a problem. Choose what is interesting about the specific place.
  • Lack of Voice in your Query – you want to infuse your query and synopsis with personality! Otherwise it is boring.

On Developing Your Voice:

  • Be fearless with language. Write about what you are emotionally moved by!
  • Say the rude-truth. Don’t be afraid.
  • The choice between first and third person are a personal preference, and reflects the type of story you are telling. First person tends to be easier to start with when you begin writing.
  • When you find your voice! Send it to me! (Rees)

Specific Books Discussed in Rees’ Presentation:

  • Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
  • Wish I Might and Sunny Holiday by Coleen Murtagh Paratore
  • When I was Young In the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
  • The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins
  • Purge by Sarah Darer Littman
  • Finally by  Wendy Mass
  • Owen and Mzee by Craig Hatkoff

About Jennifer Rees and What She Looks for in a Submission:

  • Voice is the #1 thing that Rees responds to in book submissions.
  • Hook me on the first page with an unstoppable voice!
  • The voice of Katniss (The Hunger Games) was so powerful that Rees missed 3 subways and a bus while reading the submission.
  • Rees will read a submission until she gets bored and then stop.
  • She loves the work of Anne Lamott
  • Beware of “voice copies.” She gets a lot of these in her submissions. These are books that are copying the voice of another book on her list. This happened with the book Clementine. (Clementine is also one of her favorite books – ever!)
  • Rees has readers who go through her submissions.
  • She is looking for literary books! If you have one, send it to her!
  • The new book Purge by Sarah Derra Litman is one she is really excited about.
  • Rees does not work on series books.
  • If you want to query her you can send your submission to 557 Broadway, NY NY 10012. Write SCBWILA10 on it and mention that you were at her session. Just sent a query letter! If she requests the book then send a cover letter with the manuscript and include a SASE.
  • If you are an author/illustrator she likes to see a book dummy.
  • Feel free to send a SASE Postcard if you would like to know she got your submission.
  • Great non-fiction book that she likes is Chasing Lincolns Killer
  • Looking for: out of the box fantasy, and middle grade boy books.

The Difference Between Scholastic and Scholastic Press:

  • Scholastic publishes books like Harry Potter, Clifford, 39 Clues, The Magic School Bus. I didn’t work on any of those!
  • Scholastic press is the literary side of Scholastic. We publish things like: The Invention of Hugo Caberet, Rules, Drum Girls Dang Pies, and Mt. Anderson.
  • Out of the Dust was a book that really influenced Rees and Scholastic Press published it (before she was there.)

Editor Jennifer Rees

Books Jennifer Rees has Edited:

  • Picture Books: Chicken and Cat by Sara Varon, Swim! Swim! By Lerch, Winter’s Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again by Craig Hatkoff, and Jibberwillies at Night by Rachel Vail.
  • Middle Grade: Sunny Holiday and Sweet and Sunny by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, Forget Me Not and Wish I Might by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, 11 Birthdays and Finally by Wendy Mass, Elvis and Olive by Stephanie Watson, and Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson.
  • Young Adult: Sellout by Ebony Joy Wilkins, Purge and Life After by Sarah Darer Littman, After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick, Everlasting by Angie Frazier, Forever Crumb by Philip Reeve, and The Hunger Games trilogy by Susanne Collins.

Learn More about Rees at:

Jennifer Rees got her start in children’s books as a children’s bookseller in Ohio. Since then, she’s found great joy in working as an editor at Scholastic Press, where she acquires and edits fiction and nonfiction picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels. A sampling of projects she’s edited include The Hunger Games Series, Winter’s Tail, 11 Birthdays, Purge, and Girls and Dangerous Pie.

Quote of the Week: Tom Romano

“[Voice is] the writer’s presence on the page. It is the sense we have while reading that someone occupies the middle of our mind, the sense we have while writing that something or someone is whispering in our ear.” – Tom Romano (Writing with Voice, Article)

Tom Romano is the author of several bestselling books with Heinemann, including Clearing the Way (1987); Writing with Passion (1995); Blending Genre, Altering Style (2000); and Crafting Authentic Voice (2004). His latest is Zigzag (2008), a memoir of his teaching and learning lives. Tom has taught high school and college students for more than thirty years, and he currently teaches writing and language arts methods in the department of teacher education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio . In summer he often teaches in the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes at the University of New Hampshire .