It's been over two weeks since the SCBWI-Carolinas conference, but not to late to share what I learned that weekend.
I was one of the lucky few to have registered early enough to come to the Speaker's Café on Friday night to hear Julie Strauss-Gabel, Joy Neaves, and Caitlyn Dloughy share their thoughts on what makes a good book. In one word, they all agreed it was a character's distinctive VOICE.
I sat there thinking. What is this elusive thing called 'voice'? Everyone talks about it, but how does a writer capture it?
After a thought provoking critique from Eileen Heyes, a few breakout sessions, and a challenge from my daughter Lori who is a Chapel Hill freshman communications major, I think I'm beginning to have some answers.
Eileen read the fifth chapter of my work-in-progress, a historical middle grade novel. After commenting on several sections she turned to me and said, "Have you written an autobiography for each character?" Ashamed, I admitted that I hadn't. Sure I had the birthdates, (some!) physical description of each along with their likes, dislikes, and some particular mannerisms. But I had never bothered to sit down and write in a character's own words about his life. With Eileen's prompting under my belt, I started doing that- in longhand since I had forgotten to bring the power cord for my laptop- and it was interesting to see how each character started to "sound" and talk different. Their words. Their sentences. I had to flip from one to another as their ideas about my story came popping out of their mouths.
In Julie Strauss-Gabel's session "If I wasn't an editor, I'd be a therapist" the next day, she handed out a worksheet entitled "Character Resiliency Interview." This long list of questions like, "Talk about something that has troubled you over time," and "Who should have helped you but didn't?" will be great ones for me to ask my characters and listen to their answers. I have a sneaky suspicion that if I take the time to do this, my characters' whining, despair, or anger will get voiced.
Lin Oliver's session on dialogue underscored all of the above. Oliver said that every character should sound entirely, exclusively like herself and should be distinguishable from the other. She suggested keeping information books for each character in which you record their unique language including key words and phrases. She is an unabashed eavesdropper and highly recommended the practice. Finally, we all wrote a line of dialogue for a character that we brainstormed starting with a physical characteristic, a mood or one word description of the person, and what type of person we were picturing (ie., pms'ing teenager, elderly grandfather).
I left the conference to take my daughter, Lori, (pictured above on moving-in day) out to dinner.
Excited about what I had just learned, I told her about writing my character's autobiographies out long hand. She upped the ante. "That's a great idea, Mom. You should also try changing their handwriting while you do it to really get a feeling for them." Great…more work! Then I upped the ante myself. My main character is dyslexic. What would it be like for me to write her autobiography out in longhand and struggle with spelling as she would have experienced?
Whoever said that writing a children's novel was easy, certainly didn't have a believable VOICE.