Monday, September 9, 2013

SCBWI Squam Lake Writer's Retreat - Day 1 - Voice Lessons

It's Friday, September 6, 2013. I'm here on the site of Rockywold-Deephaven Camps in Holderness NH for the SCBWI Writer's Retreat at Squam Lake, where On Golden Pond was filmed. I am deep deep in the woods. It's beautiful up here. It's dark out here at night. Really dark. No city lights, no street lights, no tv lights mucking up the sky. I forgot my flashlight. That nifty flashlight app on my phone helped some, but it's so dark here that the darkness has shadows.

Back in my room, writing this post, some animal is scritch-scratching on the roof over my bed. I'm too afraid to open my window and see what it is. I'll give it some time and pray that the animal settles down for the night or, even better, leaves.

Today we had an opportunity to submit a first page to be read aloud and then critiqued by the faculty: 
Scott Nash (illustrator & marketing guru)
John Cusick (writer & agent @ Greenhouse Literary)
Andrea Martin (associate editor at Harper Collins)

Wouldn't you know it, one of mine got picked.  This one was a page from The Other Side of Normal, my YA about a dead homecoming queen hell-bent on winning back her crown.

I received some interesting feedback from the panel. All of them said my writing is "very visual" and "sophisticated" (yay me!), that they "easily pictured the scene in slow motion," which they found "cool." John Cusick said "the images are fascinating." Andrea Martin said, "It sounds like this will be a fun book."

And then the shit hit the fan. 

3 out of 4 said that they wanted more voice so that they had a better sense of the main character. VOICE.  I was laughing (crying) inside. Voice? Immediately, my MC let loose a torrent of verbal thrashing in my head. Then suddenly, she stopped. She stopped because these panel experts were unanimous in their opinion and they weren't kidding.

So, what the hell happened?

1) Shock & Denial:
Uh, yeah. First draft - bound to be some problems. Don't sweat it. 

2) Pain & Guilt:
I am so embarrassed! Why did I ever put my page in there to be read? Why did I want my page to be read? Here I am thinking I'm a good solid writer and *sniff* I was so wrong. I made a huge mistake giving up my other career.

3) Anger & Bargaining: 
Wait a minute. This was so not my fault. Hearing what is written can be very different than reading what is written. If the speaker leaves out the pauses, skips the beats, doesn't emphasize italics, misses the taglines, and doesn't read it like I would... voice suffers. In other words, it wasn't the writer, it wasn't the listeners, it was the reader who didn't get voice - this was not my fault. It really wasn't.

4) Depression, Reflection, Loneliness:
This was not the reader's fault. This was not the listeners' fault. This was my fault. I now understand what they were saying and know for certain that this complete and total social and career embarrassment was absolutely, completely, and totally my fault. My page sucks. My writing sucks. I suck. Nobody likes the way I write. I'll never be a master writer. I'll never be a good enough conduit for these stories. And all these friends I made here? They're going to shun me.

5) The Upward Turn:
Okay, I've taken a breath. I've calmed down. I've admitted to several people now that my first page was read. They're still friendly towards me. Sure, I was rejected, but not completely rejected. I'm starting to take this in stride. I'm looking over my notes. Really, this wasn't a complete disaster. I have a lot of material to work with. My writing has even improved since I first drafted this material. Why don't I give this scene another shot?

6) Reconstruction and Working Through:
Oh, wow, this experience of having someone else read my work was damn near perfect instruction. It was like listening to an audiobook. I love listening to audiobooks. Someday my own novels will be available in that format. It's truly helpful to hear my writing spoken aloud BY SOMEONE ELSE BESIDES ME! I know how my characters sound. I can mimic their inflections when I say their lines. I can get their meaning and subtleties across just by the tone and rhythm of my voice. But random reader probably imagines a different voice than mine. She won't know my MC is an insecure schemer unless I show it on the page... and, gasp, even if I didn't do it here, I know I CAN DO THAT!

7) Acceptance and Hope:
Okay, so this was both embarrassing and informative. I'm going to use what I've learned this weekend about myself, about the craft, and about the market, to improve my writing. What's more, I'm going to pay it forward and share a few pointers on voice, just in case you, dear reader, one day are slapped with a cold fish of similar feedback across your bright innocent cheeks.

Basically, voice in a nutshell is the opinions and commentary of the POV character. Scenes should be filtered through this person's POV and emotions. Example: You know those annoying people who have an opinion on like EVERYTHING, yah well, ding ding ding, that's what the market wants. Especially include opinions on things that matter to the MC, the things she pauses and especially fixates on, those are key. EMOTE. Have feelings. In other words, show why your POV character is nuts.

What's next for me?
Well, that animal on my roof has settled down for the night. It's freaking freezing here in the woods, so I'm going to double up my socks and snuggle down in my bed with all the covers. I'll probably dream of highlighters finding all those places where my MC might show her particular brand of insanity. She's going to love that. I have a premonition that my readers will, too.

What about you? Ever get slapped in the face with a cold wet fish? In other words, do you ever struggle with voice in your writing?  How willing are you to wave your crazy flag?