On Finding Your Voice – Guest post by Jenna Gavigan

“But without my voice, how can I…?” – Ariel

We just sold my first novel, Introducing Broadway Lulu. It’ll be published in the fall of 2018. (Fear not, this post is not about selling my novel.) I tell you this because I’ve literally had the idea for the book since 2004. I think I wrote my first draft a few years later because I was living in Los Angeles at the time and I lived there between 2005 and 2011. I’m sure the drafts were fine. I’m sure they were cute. I’m certain they were not the book we just sold. This is partially true because the book we just sold is a middle grade novel and the early incarnations were picture books. My now agent and then friend told me she felt there was far too much story in me for it to be a picture book. She was right. (Thanks Linda!) I had struggled for years trying to cram the story into a picture book and then I wrote the novel in about four months because I had the room to do so.

But greater than the transition from picture book to middle-grade novel was the transition in me from “girl who was always a good writer” to “confidently voiced, sharp, certain of myself woman writer.” Without going into too many boring details, I’ll just tell you that because of my other job—that of actress—I graduated from Columbia University in my late twenties, though I did actually complete my first year at nineteen, like ya do. Late twenties Jenna, unlike eighteen-year-old Jenna, was an adult. With experience. With confidence. With history and the ability to reflect upon it. More than all that, she valued her time at school because she actually wanted to be there and because of that, SHE LEARNED.

One of my favorite classes was called “Style and Voice.” Actually, I think it was called something else on the syllabus but on the first day of class the professor said, “By the way, this class is actually called ‘Style and Voice.’” We read a lot—a lot of essays, short fiction. An assignment to read Nora Ephron essays? Don’t mind if I do! And we wrote. A lot. We learned how to play around with sentence structure and word choice and even grammar to develop our own unique voices and make them distinguishable from others. (You know you’re reading or watching Nora Ephron when you’re reading or watching Nora Ephron, am I right?) I learned that the only thing I’ve got going for me that others don’t is that I’m me and they’re not. And not to toot my own horn, but I think I’m swell.

When I began writing the novel version of Lulu, I began with my own voice. (Yes, Lulu is slightly based on me. No, I’m not a child mouse.) Lulu’s distinct voice eventually emerged, as did the voices of the cast of characters who surround her; but beginning with my own voice gave me a way in. I—in case you couldn’t tell—am a bit sassy. I like parentheses and asides. (I’m sure you already noticed that, yes?) I am a big personality in a tiny body and it just so happens that there is no smaller body in my book than that of my protagonist and heroine, Lulu the Mouse. (“The Mouse” is her surname and, for that matter, the surname of all other mice in my land of make believe.)

There were times, though, as an author-writer-actress-human-female, that I squashed my uniqueness and the voice that came with it. I suppose I was afraid of it? Or was afraid of what others would think of it/me? I put my precociousness in my purse on dates. I did scenes as I thought the director or writer or whoever would want me to do them, rather than how I instinctually thought they should be done. I was timid with emails or phone calls, rather than being straight to the point and asking for what I wanted and deserved. I wrote some pretty beige first drafts of what is now a very colorful book.

My time at Columbia gave me some of the skills I needed to find my voice. My dear Linda Epstein suggested a way for me to create space to say all I wanted to say with that voice. And my dear little Lulu—oh geez, now I’m crying—my dear little alter-ego of a mouse taught me that my voice isn’t simply mine, it’s fabulous. It’s valid. It’s honest. It’s fun. It’s worthy. It took a tiny, fictional mouse (of my own creation) to remind me of something I knew as a child but somehow lost as a young adult: I can do anything and I can do it by being me.

So, if you’ve got something you want to write, go write it. And start with yourself. Stop comparing, stop looking at what others are writing or how they’re writing it. (Yes, you should read other writing and learn and grow from what you read but you shouldn’t try to replicate it, is what I’m saying.) The one thing you’ve got going for you is that you’re you and no one else is. Sure, I forget all this from time to time. I become fearful about sending an email, or starting a new chapter, or simply saying what I want to say. But then this tiny, sassy, strong voice in my head tells me to cut it out and I get to work.

Jenna Gavigan’s debut middle grade novel, Introducing Broadway Lulu! will be published in Fall 2018 by Running Press Kids. Jenna is a working actress, having appeared on over a dozen television shows (usually crying), half a dozen movies (often crying), and on stage (sometimes crying, sometimes baton-twirling). She made her Broadway debut at age sixteen in the Sam Mendes-helmed revival of Gypsy opposite Bernadette Peters, and most recently appeared off-Broadway in the world-premiere of Straight, opposite Jake Epstein (of Degrassi fame). Find Jenna online at iamjennagavigan.com,  and Twitter and Instagram @Jenna_Gavigan.


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Your Picture Book Manuscript Questions Answered

Let’s talk a little bit about picture books—specifically about word count and illustration notes. Shout out to @pamela_kindred on Twitter. She came through when I asked for suggestions about what to write about this week. So, I’ll tell you a little bit about picture books. But please remember, this word count info I’m telling you is applicable right now and might not be the same in six months or next year or something—because publishing changes.

When I first got into the industry, about ten years ago, the recommendation was that picture book word counts should try to be <1000 words. And now? I’d say most editors whom I submit to are looking for around 500 words ±. I sent a picture book out on submission a couple of weeks ago that had about 158 words in it and the editors who got it were absolutely thrilled because of the low word count. And yet… there are other editors I know who say, “I really don’t care about word counts! If I love the manuscript, I love the manuscript.” And, to be honest, it really does depend upon what you’re writing. I sold a picture book biography a few months ago that had 1,500 words.

Right now, what I’m seeing the most movement on in picture books are manuscripts geared towards the very young crowd. So, keep that in mind. Low word count… and very young readers… which means you should also be thinking about content that very little kids would be interested in having read to them and that they will understand. The other day I received a well-written picture book submission that had the right voice for little kids, and a low word-count, but the subject matter was all about single-celled organisms… which actually could be pretty cool, but the story, the laughable moments and stuff, all presupposed a body of knowledge that a three or four-year old child just doesn’t have.

Picture book biographies can often have longer word counts, as can other non-fiction manuscripts. But again, you need to take into account what aged kid you’re writing for, what knowledge they already will have, what they will already need to know to understand what you’re writing, and if a kid that age will still be reading picture books. All of which depends upon your subject matter, the voice you’re using, vocabulary level, etc… Good ideas are great (and, for the record, good ideas are a dime a dozen) but what you do with your good ideas is another matter. And you need to be thinking about all of these things to make a picture book work.

Ok, now let’s talk about illustrations. If you’re not an author/illustrator (that is, if you are only writing the text of a picture book) you don’t need to find an illustrator. As a matter of fact, unless you’re collaborating and writing a story with an illustrator, finding one is a rooky move. It’s not only not necessary, but it shows you don’t know how the publishing process works. Publishers buy text-only picture books all the time, and then they find the illustrator that they think will work best for their vision of the book. Did you hear that? Their vision of the book. Because when an editor buys a manuscript, they have a vision. Which leads me to illustration notes…

This is what you need to know about illustration notes: only use illustration notes that you must put in for somebody to understand your story—and the less the better. When I read a picture book manuscript, I want my imagination to take over, and so does an editor, and so does a potential illustrator. So, don’t tell me in an illustration note that your character, Gordo the Great, wields a golden sword, and has long blue dreadlocks, and always wears a bowtie, unless the sword, the locks, and the bowtie, are integral to your story. Because maybe the amazing illustrator that the publisher finds to illustrate your story will want to make Gordo the Great a fish. (It could happen.) My client Ruth Horowitz and I were oh so very surprised when we first saw the illustrations from Blanca Gomez for Ruth’s picture book, Are We Still Friends, because we had no idea that Ruth’s characters Beatrice and Abel would end up being a bear and a mouse! Go back and re-read that book, and don’t look at the pictures, and you will see that nowhere in the text does it indicate that they’re a bear and a mouse. When I sent Ruth’s manuscript out on submission it didn’t have one illustration note. And you know what? The whole thing works! There was plenty of room for Blanca’s artistic vision to complement Ruth’s text, and the result is a very beautiful book.

Ok, now one of the specific questions on Twitter was about word count when querying a picture book manuscript. The concern was that if a picture book manuscript has a high word count, and you’re not sure what to edit out because you love it all, do you submit it anyway and pray, or pull out the potential best part of it. Guess what? I can’t answer that question! How can I possibly know the answer to that? But people, listen to me: if you don’t have other folks reading your work, critique partners, beta readers, a mentor, classmate, etc… go and get some right now! In my opinion, you shouldn’t be sending out work that has only been seen by your own eyes. And then, go kill some darlings. The only things that should stay in a manuscript (picture book or any other kind) are the things that make the manuscript great. If the word count is high but nothing can be trimmed because it’s all brilliant, then don’t trim it.

Another question was about whether a submission would be rejected if it wasn’t quite right or if agents might suggest edits if it was close, and just needed “small repairs.” Every agent is different, but the thing to know is that no agent is going to take on a manuscript unless they’re in love with it. And if they’re really in love with a manuscript, whether it’s the story itself or the writing or voice or whatever (hopefully all of those things), then if there are minor things that need fixing it’s probably not going to make a difference to them. That’s how I am, anyway.

I’m happy to answer your general questions about picture books down in the comments.

And stop back for some terrific guest bloggers in the coming weeks!




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Authors on Craft: Heather Demetrios on Point of View

The Book Is The Boss of You: Using Second Person To Get To The Heart of Your Story

In my bedroom there’s a shelf filled with journals. Some are leather, supple and glowing. Others are faded prints. One is an unfortunate DIY project involving a pair of corduroy pants and a glue gun. Another has that Footprints anecdote – you know the one, where there’s only one set of footprints because Jesus was carrying you all along. The oldest is plastic and has hearts in primary colors scattered across the front with the word Diary. I started writing in it—my first journal—in Kindergarten. I have journals for every year of my life through my freshman year of college. I never re-read them, but in order to write Bad Romance I had to read the ones that covered the time I was sixteen until I graduated from high school. Two and a half years—the worst of my life—which were spent with a beautiful boy who cried, who wore his heart on his sleeve, who made me simultaneously feel like the most important person in the world and no better than old gum on the bottom of a shoe from Payless.

Bad Romance is a novel, but it’s based on my life, on those years feeling hopelessly lost and in love and hurt to the very core of my being. It’s a survivor’s story where my main character, Grace, goes to the darkest place imaginable, then emerges into the light standing on her own two feet. She doesn’t need a knight in shining armor, she doesn’t need this boy who tells her she’s only worth something if he says so. But in order to get there, in order to write the book, I had to first begin it as a memoir. I spent my late nights pouring over my journals, reconnecting to the old Heather. It killed me, reading what I put up with, what I went through. It made me angry and so, so sad—and more fired up than ever to write this book.

I eventually turned the memoir into a novel, mostly because I felt like I couldn’t say everything I wanted to. There were people I had to protect, whether I wanted to or not. So I turned it into a novel, but the transition was harder than I expected it would be, and my editor was amazingly helpful during the process. I was having a hard time seeing Grace’s story because it was so intertwined with mine. I figured out my way in when I began writing the book in second person, almost as though it’s a letter to Gavin from Grace. This allowed me to just go for it, to put words to everything that had happened to me, and the things that are happening to girls all over the country right now. (One in three teens is affected by teen dating abuse and it was so important to me that these girls (and guys) knew they weren’t alone, and knew they could get out. The tumblr that I created for the book is a great resource with tons of info, encouragement, and inspiration—plus a kickass break-up playlist to pump up the readers who need to get out of their own bad romances).

The choice of POV ended up sticking: what was initially a writing experiment to get me into the heart of the story turned out to be the way the story wanted to be told. I’m a big believer in the story being the boss of you, and I think when you’re in flow and open you’ll feel which direction you need to go. You can’t impose a POV on a story. Second person wasn’t too challenging for me because it was really the only way this story could be told—at least by me. I think if I’d tried to impose second person, it wouldn’t have worked. I can’t think of a book in second person that has ever worked for me as a reader, so this was a real risk. A good little mind trick for me was really thinking of the book as epistolary as opposed to second person. The book isn’t actually a letter that my main character is writing to her boyfriend, but it would be if I just wrote “Dear Gavin” at the beginning of every chapter (which I don’t). So that worked for me. Side note: my favorite epistolary novel is the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I actually re-read parts of that to get into letter-writing mode.

Another consideration with second is which tense to write it in. That is the subject of an entirely different post, but it will be the trickiest part of second person. I chose present, but it’s more like present tense with a retrospective twist. (Note: this was REALLY hard). My protagonist, Grace, informs Gavin (the boyfriend she’s narrating to in second person) that she doesn’t want to tell him their story from where they’re at right now in their relationship. She wants to tell it from their beginning. This was my way of letting the reader know that even though we’re in present tense, Grace has already experienced these things. I chose present because I wanted the reader to feel as though they’re going through Grace’s hellish experience as she’s experiencing it. I wanted them to feel her claustrophobia and powerlessness and fear and all the things she experiences in this relationship. I think it works, but I know that the retrospective element adds a layer to the narrative that might not work for everyone. But, again, the book is the boss so that’s how I wrote it.

I really didn’t want to write this book. It was not remotely fun, at all. But I think it’s vitally important – especially now – that we tell our stories. That we let our truth out, no matter how vulnerable it makes us. We can raise each other up, give each other strength. I think this is the power of literature, that we get to access this place of power through our empathy with characters—people we’ve never met. Stephen King once said that “Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” And he’s right. Though my memoir became a novel, it has just as much a chance of impacting those who read it because it is true. Pain and struggle is universal and the more we can show characters who triumph over darkness, the more light we let into our “real” world. Writing Bad Romance was incredibly cathartic, but, more than anything, I finally felt like there was a silver lining to what I went through. I can’t go back and change the past, but I can hopefully use what happened to me to change other people’s futures so that they can avoid some of the pain I experienced. Books are medicine. So if you’re feeling a tug to delve into your personal experiences for your next project, consider it as an offering to both you and your readers.

When Heather Demetrios isn’t traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, she lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her critically acclaimed novels include Exquisite Captive, I’ll Meet You There, and Bad Romance. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology of epistolary essays, Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors on the Dark Side of Love, which features letters from real teens. Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com. Tweet to @HDemetrios.


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