Tag Archives: Authors on Craft

Authors on Craft: Lisa Papademetriou on Rhythm

A Beat of Her Own

“Rhythm underlies everything.” –Mary Oliver

I began my latest novel, Apartment 1986, with one goal in mind: I wanted to write a first-person narrator who sounded as unlike me as possible. That, it turned out, was much harder than I thought it would be. I hadn’t fully realized how internalized the beat of my own prose was. After years of trying to “write the way I talk,” I finally had to imagine a whole new pattern of speech—a brand new rhythm. And, of course, by rhythm, I’m talking about syntax. All writing speaks to the listening mind, and rhythms are foundational. Form and content are one thing. When we are trying to create an image in someone’s mind and a feeling in the heart, the image will dictate the rhythm we choose.

In-person speech is a rich mode of communication. If I were to stand before you and speak, you would see my gestures, my facial expression, you would hear the modulations in the pitch of my voice. All of these contribute to the clarity of what I am saying. If we were to communicate via phone, we would remove one layer of information. You could still “read” the pitch of and inflection in my voice, but you would not be able to see my face or gestures. The written word removes yet another level of communication, and that is why it is so important that it be clear. Anyone who has ever sent an E-mail that was taken the wrong way knows what I am talking about. This is why bad news is usually delivered in person. It’s so that the words can be conveyed, but the unspoken emotion, such as compassion, regret, caring can also be properly conveyed. As writers, our toolbox is limited to intentional grammar.

The narrator of Apartment 1986 is Callie, a middle-school girl who is feeling constrained by challenges at school and at home. She has a naturally positive outlook, but isn’t terribly sophisticated. Here, she explains why she sometimes disappears to the roof of her school, “Look, there are moments when a girl just needs a breath of air, and you can’t get it inside this stuffy school or anywhere in Manhattan when you are down on the street. The air down there isn’t air, it’s basically 80% exhaust fumes 5% heat and 5% dirt, which most of the time gets caught in your lip gloss which is ew. So if you want to breathe and maybe look at a few clouds, you have to get someplace up high.” Even from these few sentences, we get a sense of the character—and no one would ever mistake her for a 45-year-old woman. Callie’s tone is conversational, and the first two sentences ramble. But the syntax of the third sentence slows and presents itself more carefully. This is the part Callie wants the reader to understand and take seriously. The rhythm is a reflection of the progressing thoughts of the narrator, and the texture of the emotion.

Since reimagining the rhythm of Callie’s speech in Apartment 1986, I have begun to realize the intimate relationship between character and the rhythm of his or her speech. Throughout my current work in progress, I’ve made sure to experiment with writing from the first-person perspective of each of my characters, so that I have a sense of his or her internal rhythm. This has, in turn, made their dialog and interactions richer—I no longer have characters that sound similar to me or to each other.

Everyone, it turns out, marches to the beat of a unique drummer.

Lisa Papademetriou is the author of A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic (A South Asia Book Award Highly Commended Title), Apartment 1986, the Confectionately Yours series, and many other novels for middle grade and young adult readers. She serves on the faculty of the MFA program (Writing for Children and Young Adults Track) at Sierra Nevada College.


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Authors on Craft: Bill Konigsberg on Surprises

honestly-benI write for the surprises.

Now don’t get me wrong: I like the moments when it feels like I have some semblance of control over my story, and I know what I want in a scene, and it happens correctly, and the prose feels solid and evocative.

But the best is when something happens as I’m writing that surprises me. Because in my experience, those surprises are where the magic lives.

Here’s an example: In my novel HONESTLY BEN (coming from AAL Books/Scholastic, March 28th) I have two characters who are in love but struggling to admit it. One is a gay boy named Rafe. He has known he’s in love with Ben for a long time, but he also is aware that Ben isn’t gay, or doesn’t consider himself to be gay. They had a fling but it didn’t work for various reasons, and there was a lot of pain for both characters.

Now they’re trying to negotiate their feelings and their relationship, and in a scene I wrote for the middle of the book, I have them beginning to get closer, beginning to regain trust. I had them going for a late night drive to the ocean in frigid February in Massachusetts. I went into writing the scene with no real goal except for them to come away from the scene feeling more in tune with each other.

I thought they might run into the ocean naked together. Yes, that would be chilly! That was just a thought of what might happen.

Instead, as I wrote, I found Ben chasing Rafe in a joking sort of way along the hard sand.

And then: a surprise.

Ben leaps and tackles Rafe. Hard. On the sand. And they wrestle. In a serious way. I was not expecting that! I thought they’d dealt with a lot of their feelings, but it was so, so right, and I knew it as it happened. They quarrel verbally while wrestling, and when it’s done, they’re better.

That there is a surprise! As I was writing, my skin got all shivery.

There was a level, a layer, of passion that I did not understand until the tackle and wrestling appeared, and it carried me, it gave me a sense of momentum that would carry the book to its climax. Without the surprise, I simply don’t know how I would have moved forward.

Sometimes our best plans aren’t good enough, and we don’t know it. Not until a surprise appears.

And I guess my point is that when our novels take an odd turn, we have a choice. We can nix it. We can decide it doesn’t fit into our perceived ideas of what the book is, or what is going to happen. We can steer the ship rather than allowing the ship to turn on its own. That’s my prerogative.

But I tend to think that when a surprise happens, I need to have a little faith that it means something. That I should follow it, and see where it leads. Because to me, surprises are God-or-Whatever’s way of showing up and leading me somewhere.

And I’m going to follow!

konigsberg headshotBill Konigsberg is the award-winning young adult author of four novels. THE PORCUPINE OF TRUTH won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Stonewall Book Award in 2016; OPENLY STRAIGHT won the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in 2014; His debut novel, OUT OF THE POCKET, won the Lambda Literary Award in 2009. HONESTLY BEN, available in March 2017, has already received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal. Bill is Assistant Professor of Practice at The Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. He lives in Arizona with his husband, Chuck, and their Australian Labradoodles, Mabel and Buford.


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Authors on Craft: Jodi McKay on Voice

Let your VOICE be heard!

Discussing the concept of voice with the voices in my head.

“How can I let my voice be heard?”

“Will it make a difference?”

“What the hell is voice?”

You can nail down voice with a bit of practice and it does make a big difference in your writing, but first let’s talk about what voice is.

An Author’s Voice is writing that is unique to the writer. It allows readers to understand what type of writer you are because the the tone, word choices, rhythm, structure, the personality of the stories are consistent from book to book.

Think of Dr. Seuss’s books for a minute. They each have a similar lyrical style with silly characters, quirky words, and (for the most part) upbeat moods. His voice is loud and clear which makes his books easily recognizable. Readers who like that style will come back for more because they know they will not be disappointed and that makes a difference in a reader’s life, especially a young reader.

“I totally want to be the next Mo Willems.”

No you don’t, you want to be the next you. Sheesh, aren’t you listening? Clearly you need some practice with finding your author voice. Try these exercises:

  1. Describe your personality. How do these traits inform your writing?
  2. Ask other people to read your work to see if there are patterns in the way you write.
  3. Read a ton of books. Which ones do you like? Why? Which ones don’t you like? Why? How does your style of writing compare?
  4. Write a lot! As you are writing take a second to assess how it feels. Do you like what you are writing? Why? Do you feel good when you are writing or does it feel like work?

“I need more coffee for this.”

Fine, but then we need to move on to Character Voice.

“I’m back. Speaking of character voice, I have this character who is a real jerk. Does that mean that I’m a jerk because it’s essentially coming from me?”

Good question. Sometimes you are a jerk, but that’s not why your character is. A character’s voice is simply a view point portrayed with word choice, attitude, and rhythm. These show the character’s age, personality, beliefs, education, and feelings and makes the character believable. These do not have to be a reflection of the author.

Think of Stephen King’s, Carrie. Carrie is a 16-year-old girl whose naiveté and timid personality were a result of the unstable, overzealous, and tyrannical parenting style of her mother. Those are two disparate character voices, neither of which have anything to do with who Stephen King is as a person.

“Ooh, what if Stephen King really has telekinesis like Carrie?”

Focus, please. Again, the characters do not have to be an extension of the author. They do, however, need to be believable. The words King gave to his characters, especially that crazy-ass mother in Carrie, made them seem real and they evoked feelings that caused the reader (me) to want to keep reading. It’s important to really get to know your character before you start writing so that your story feels authentic otherwise readers will be pulled out of the story as soon as they feel like the character is unrealistic.

“You’re going to make me to do more writing exercises aren’t you?”

Here, have some chocolate and stop complaining. This is important. Getting voice down is essential to having your work stand out from the rest. It is your way of speaking to the masses and possibly creating change. You never know if one of your characters will be the catalyst for a child’s view on discrimination or a person’s willingness to change. Do the work, the readers deserve no less than the best!

Try this get-to-know-your-character chart. It’s a fun way to, um, get to know your characters.

“All right, I’m going to do it! I’m going to let my voice be heard and I’m going to listen closer to the voices of my fellow writers.”

What do you all think? How will you let your voice be heard?

13879203_10210761791699981_1471649385510257844_nJodi McKay is the author of the very voicey picture book, WHERE ARE THE WORDS (Albert A. Whitman Books, 2016), illustrated by Denise Holmes. You can find Jodi online at JodiMcKayBooks.com and @JLMcKay1



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