Tag Archives: amwriting

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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Authors on Craft: Sarah Aronson on Theme

When I first began to write stories, the first advice I received (that made writing seem doable) was this: put two characters in a room. Lock the door. See what happens. This advice made writing fun, but when it came right down to it, not all that productive. I wrote lots of great lines, but not a whole lot of story.

As I continued to study craft, I began to change my ways. I still believed in discovery, but now I had feedback to respond to. I also found myself having to answer questions I had never thought about before. Things like: what does your character want? Why? What do they believe? What do they fear? This feedback stretched me. It also made me think about my role in the process. At Vermont College of Fine Arts, I wrote my thesis on what directors can teach novelists. I was looking for structure, but also something else. Let’s call it the why. The juice. The motivation.

Or in other words, theme.

Right away, I got a lot of push back—and for good reasons. Theme too soon could make a story didactic. It could interfere with the spontaneous intuition that a writer needs to discover a story. And yet, the idea would not go away. I was a writer who didn’t feel as wedded to genre as what I wanted to say.

That’s when I heard Sara Pennypacker speak at Anderson’s Book Breakfast.

In that lecture, she talked about her lofty goals for writing her glorious novel, Pax, a story with big ideas about the consequences of war. For what it’s worth, it is also a book she took many years to write, that she didn’t always feel ready to write.

But she persevered.

Because she had something to say.

At this point in the lecture, I wanted to stand up, pump my fist, and yell, “YES.” (But I didn’t. I was trying to make a good impression!)

But even now, as I write this, I can’t help wanting to use exclamation points. My best work arrives when I know what I want to say—when the spark of inspiration—either through news or an image or a song or an experience—is accompanied by purpose.

It’s also how I feel about reading. The books I remember best, the books I loved the most, the books that might have even touched my soul or changed how I saw the world all had one thing in common: a strong universal theme.

Theme is the guts of story. It’s what comes from the questions that gnaw at the subconscious. It comes from obsessions and grows out of tension that comes from asking hard questions and exploring universal ideas THAT MATTER to the writer. Theme is the lens that helps me find the passion or conflict, the connectivity and the contradictions that drive the story forward. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, writes that theme involves emotion, logic, and judgment. Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, says, “It is the underlying conviction that makes the words matter.”

CONVICTION. I like that word.

When we know what we want to say, we know which well to go to for more inspiration. And that is important because face it: it takes so long to write a novel. It just isn’t worth it if the concepts or questions don’t mean something important. It’s also hard to deal with feedback when you are not committed to what you want to say.
John Gardner describes my process and goal to a tee: “The writer . . . broods on every image that occurs to him, turning it over and over, puzzling it, hunting for connections, trying to figure out–before he writes, while he writes, and in the process of repeated revisions–what it is he really thinks. . . . Only when he thinks about a story in this way does he achieve not just an alternative reality or, loosely, an imitation of nature, but true, firm art–fiction as serious thought.”

More important, theme connects us to readers. To their hearts. And for good reason!

Theme can help make a story speak to many generations with multiple experiences. When we have something big to say, the reader can feel it. I believe that more than good writing, it is the story and what’s behind it—the gnawing subconscious behind the impulse to write—that connects us to our readers and gets them attached to our characters.

So, are you ready to embrace the themes that matter to you?

Make a list. Ask: what is your story about? What do you want to say? What are the themes that constantly come up in conversation…that gnaw at YOUR subconscious? What do you want your reader to think about as you are writing?
Christopher Reeve once said, “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”

Today, summon the will. Don’t be afraid of what you want to say. Grasp it and write.

Sarah Aronson has always believed in magic–especially when it comes to writing. Her favorite things (in no particular order) include all kinds of snacks (especially chocolate), sparkly accessories, biking along Lake Michigan, working at her local soup kitchen, and reading all kinds of stories–just not the fine print! She loves working with writers at the Highlights Foundation, writers.com, or the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at VCFA. Sarah holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Evanston, Illinois. You can sign up for her weekly newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website www.saraharonson.com. Her newest book, The Wish List, the Worst Fairy Godmother Ever, comes out from Scholastic tomorrow!

 

 

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Revise & Resubmit: What’s Up With That?

imgresSo you finally get a response for one of the gazillion queries you’ve sent to all those perfect-for-you agents that’s not a “thanks but it’s not for me” and they want you to revise and resubmit. “What?! What does that even mean?” you might ask. Or, you might huffily think, “Why would I do a revision if they’re not even offering me representation?!” Or, perhaps you’re thinking, “I’ll do anything! I’ll change the whole thing if only they’ll represent me!” Or maybe your response is more like, “WTF is that crazy person thinking? They totally didn’t get what I was going for in this manuscript.” Or something else. What I’d like to do here is explain why an agent might ask you to revise and resubmit (or at least why I do).

I get so many queries every single day that my inbox is basically always overflowing. I have my intern (Hi Kimberly!) go through the queries to kindly decline the things that she knows I don’t want (like adult fiction, memoirs, romance, etc…). When we find something that I would be interested in, she’ll read the first 20 pages of a manuscript to gauge whether the writing is up to the standards of what I’m looking for. Then I will. If I’m still interested, we’ll request the full manuscript. Then I have her read it and write a reader report. Then I decide whether I’m going to take my time to read the full manuscript, too. When I do read a full manuscript, I always go in with my fingers crossed that it’s fabulous, with my eyes and ears open for things that aren’t working. And then one of three things happens…

I decline. “Thank you for your submission. It’s really just not for me” because on further reading I realize it’s really just not for me. Or “Thank you for your submission. I’m afraid the writing isn’t where I’d need it to be to make an offer of representation,” because it’s not, and for whatever reason (and there are many) I don’t feel like I’m right for the project.

I gather more information. Because sometimes I’m interested in the manuscript but I just want more information about you as an author before making a decision about offering representation. I usually want to know things like if you have other manuscripts already written (especially with picture books);  if you’ve been agented before; if you’ve submitted your manuscripts to publishers yourself; if you’ve ever self published anything. Things like that. After gathering more information, I might then ask for a phone call if I’m still interested.

I ask for a revise/resubmit. This might happen because…

  • love your story but I think it still needs more work.
  • I want to see if you know how to revise before committing to representing you.
  • There are some major plot problems but your writing is so terrific that I don’t want to just pass.

Now, when I request a revise/resubmit I’ll usually explain what I think needs work. If it’s just a general “the writing isn’t good enough yet” that means that I really dig your plot but you need to up the ante on the writing. Easier said than done, I know.

So what should you do? Well… it kind of depends upon what your situation is. Of course first you should thank the agent and let them know that if you decide to revise you’d be happy to resubmit to them.

  • If your manuscript is out on submission to other places you might not be inclined to do a big revision until you’ve heard back from the other places. I mean, what if one of the other agents makes you an offer?
  • That being said, if what the revise/resubmit is asking for isn’t a big revision, then what do you have to lose?
  • What if the agent didn’t get what you were going for and is asking you to revise it to make it something you’re not interested in writing? I say don’t do it. (But that’s just my opinion.) I personally don’t think writers should write to get published. I think writers should write what they want and if it gets published? Bonus! I don’t think gutting something just so you can sell it is a good career move.
  • But if you’re kind of hearing the same thing from all the places you’ve submitted? I say do it! Why not? Even if it’s a major revision, if you can get what the agent is suggesting and you think it makes sense and will make your manuscript stronger, I say go for it.

Let me tell you a story… When I worked for another agent, reading queries, we received a query from a middle grade author who I’d chatted with on Twitter. She was smart and was very funny and I could see the glimmer of something really special  in her writing. I gave her a lot of feedback on her manuscript but passed for the agent I was reading for. Two years later, when I just started being a baby agent myself, she queried me with the same manuscript. She’d totally re-written it, based on the feedback I’d given her. Although I felt it still needed work, I took her on as a client. You see, what I had found out about her from the revise/resubmit was that a. she really was a great writer, b. she could revise the shit out of her work, c. she was easy to work with and took direction well.

Hope this is helpful. Feel free to post questions about revising and resubmitting in the comments below.

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