Tag Archives: writing tips

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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Writing for Kids: 5 tools for success

Join SCBWI. If you don’t know what that is, it stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It’s the professional organization for people who write or illustrate books for children. Here’s a link to their site. They are a national organization and there are regional groups. There are two big conferences yearly (one in NY one in LA) and many regional conferences. They can help you find a critique partner. You can support and be supported by other writers. There are so many benefits to joining SCBWI I could write a whole blog post about it (but I’m not going to). The membership fee isn’t that much, for what you get back. Just do it. Join.

Write. I mean, that seems obvious, right? But it’s not. You finished your manuscript? Cool. You’re sending it to agents now? Fabulous. Perhaps your agent is sending your manuscript out to editors? Awesome. Or maybe you’re waiting for your novel to come out? Amazing. But writers write. So… write the next thing. It’s what we do. It’s just what’s next. Do it. Write the next thing.

Read. I know you have a full time job. I know you’ve got <fill in the #> kids. I understand. Really, I do. But writers need to read. Do you write picture books? You’d better be reading picture books. Like, lots of them. Are you working on a mystery? Have you read mysteries? Do you love writing for teenagers? Please tell me you’re deep into reading YAs. You think you might have a chapter book series in you? There are lots of chapter book series for you to cut your teeth on. Do it. Read, read, read.

Hang out with kids. If you’re writing for kids, you need to talk to them and listen to them. You need to hear what their concerns are and how they talk. You need to see the world through their eyes. Your writing will be better and sound more authentic if you hang out with some kids. Do it. Don’t be creepy or anything. Just find some kids and hang out.

Take a walk*. According to a recent article in Psychology Today and another in Fortune magazine, taking a walk can aid in creative thinking. Can’t figure out how to end your story? Take a walk. Fresh out of picture book ideas? Take a walk. Wondering what your main character really wants? Take a walk. Summer, Winter, Spring, Fall. Doesn’t matter. Go for a walk.

*for those physically unable to walk, take a mental break from your task at hand and go for a virtual walk.

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