File:AWizardOfEarthsea(1stEd).jpgSachar - Holes Coverart.png

(image source: Wikipedia)

Last week I talked about voice in writing, and how important it is to “touch the mind” of your character. Now, admittedly, voice is a slippery term. If you look it up in M.H. Abrams’ famous A Glossary of Literary Terms, you might find yourself confused, because voice there is strictly about the author behind the work. He says: “We have the sense of a pervasive presence, a determinate intelligence and moral sensibility, which has selected, ordered, rendered, and expressed these literary materials in just this way.”

Well, yes. But for me, the word voice encompasses a lot more than just that. I use it to mean tone, too, and the atmosphere of the book. So, if you’ll allow me my less than rigorous definition, let’s explore why voice makes such a difference in a book.

Working with high school students a while back, I used to like to pull out great examples of narrative voice so they could hear how differently sentences can hit the ear, and how much that rhythm can establish the emotional feel of the book. Here’s an example:

From A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursual LeGuin:

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea.”

Compare that one to this:

From Holes, by Louis Sachar:

“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.”

Both of these examples open up books in which there’s some kind of magic going on. But LeGuin’s rolling, slow sentences reflect the waves of the island world she’s made, somewhere far away and filled with legend. She’s writing myth. Sachar’s staccato sentences and simple vocabulary tell us we’re going to be very much in the here-and-now, in a world where you’d better be a little bit cynical if you want to survive. His magic is going to come as a surprise.

So voice builds the world as much as it builds the characters and their points of view. That’s why it’s so wonderful, and why books, in my mind, will always be the best form in which to tell stories. Movies are wonderful, big, and full of things to enjoy, but movies are mostly about what you see. Books are all about what you hear. And since the dawn of time, stories have been taken in, first, through the ear. Next time I’m planning to explore a little more of why that might be.

Touching minds


Among the many things that stood out about my recent visit to the second grade was a comment by one of the students about perspective. She didn’t call it that, of course, but what she said was even more interesting. After our discussion about the five senses, and how writers try often to show, rather than tell, using those five, I read the class some excerpts from some of my favorite books. One was The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White. Another was the new book Timmy Failure by Stephen Pastis, a fellow Candlewick author whom I met in Kansas City. A funny book about a boy detective who thinks he’s awesome when in fact his name is all too descriptive, Timmy Failure opens with Timmy telling us how amazing he is, and how everyone else simply pales in comparison. After reading the first few pages, I asked the kids if they noticed any of the five senses used in the excerpt. Were there things Timmy was seeing, hearing? Were we, as readers, smelling anything with him? Touching anything? As a matter of fact, we weren’t. And I thought I might have stumped them. But one intrepid girl raised her hand and said, “We’re touching his mind.”

Wow. Just wow.

Not only was that a very accurate way of describing that first chapter, but what a beautiful way to put it!

Yes, we were touching Timmy’s mind all right, and finding out what it felt like to be him. And that takes me to the subject of voice, the hardest, and also the best, part of writing. To get the voice of a character, you need to understand his or her point of view, how he or she experiences the world. Getting to that place where you “touch his mind” is, for me, the way into any piece of writing. I sometimes start with ideas about plot, or theme, or even setting, but I’m never really launched until I’ve discovered what the minds of my characters feel like, and what their voices sound like. And isn’t that the essence of what it means to be a writer? Trying to touch your characters’ minds, and, through them, the minds of many others.

Cupcakes and Storytelling

Image courtesy of piyato / FreeDigitalPhotos.net"

Image courtesy of piyato / FreeDigitalPhotos.net”

Last week my niece, who is in second grade, told her teacher that her aunt is a writer, whereupon her teacher wrote to ask if I would mind coming in to talk to the class. I said I’d love to, but was a little stumped as to what to talk about, since Zebra Forest is not exactly right for second graders, given some of its darker themes. So she asked me to just talk about what it’s like being a writer.

What’s it’s like being a writer. Well, that’s a huge subject, and one I could probably talk about for a month at least, but for second graders, I decided it would be better to talk about what you do as a writer, since that’s at least more concrete and won’t likely bring me to tears of joy and gratitude (not appropriate for a second grade classroom).

First thing I did, though, was pass out cupcakes, because when I looked at the calendar, I realized I was coming in on my niece’s eighth birthday. For me, this was a most happy coincidence, and one that also made the kids especially receptive to my talk, since who doesn’t like cupcakes?

When the cupcake eating was done, I started by asking the class what makes up a story. I got one really great response to the question, when a girl said: A beginning, a middle, and an end.

Yes, definitely!

I also got some answers that spoke more to the writing process than to the content of the story, for example, the kid who said: Brainstorming and editing. (This one was on a poster on the wall, and clearly something their teacher had been stressing, which was nice to see.)

But what I was getting at, and what eventually we talked about, was that a story will have a character and a plot. They knew the word character, not plot, but one person did offer that a story needed to have a problem, which I loved, and which is exactly right. Finally, we talked about how writers use the five senses to bring the story to life. We started out by coming up with a character – a girl named Sarah – and a setting – a farm. Then we began with the sentence “Sarah got up in the morning and went to milk the cows.”

From there, I had them embroider that little bit of narration with what Sarah might have seen in the barn. They came up with a red cow with a sore leg, a horse sleeping in a stall, and a bunch of chickens and their six new eggs.

And so the scene took on something:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame. The old horse still slept in his stall, and she shooed the chickens away to find they had laid six new eggs, bright as pebbles.

Next the kids thought about what she might have heard in that barn. They had a great list:

The cow mooing;

The horse snoring;

The chickens clucking.

So the scene changed again:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame, mooing softly. The old horse snored in his stall, and as she shooed the chickens away, they clucked and scattered, revealing six newly laid eggs, bright as pebbles.

From there, of course, we needed to know what Sarah might have smelled, touched, or even tasted. When we’d gathered those bits, we ended with this:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and breathed in the scent of fresh hay and old food, the stinky-sweet combination of the pig sty and the barn. She saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame, mooing softly. The old horse snored in his stall, and the chickens clucked as she shooed them away, scattering to reveal six new eggs, bright as pebbles. She sat down, fingering the rusty handle of the milk pail. Soon enough, the milk splashed, and she stuck her tongue out to catch a few drops of the warm, sweet spray.

We talked, then, about the difference between a scene like this, packed with the five senses, and our first sentence, which got us into the subject of the old writer’s rule: show, don’t tell. When you show, you feel like you’re in Sarah’s story, experiencing it with her. Of course, you can’t always show. There’s a place for telling, and I asked them what would happen if we decided to do this for every moment of Sarah’s story. What if she were going to go across the country to attend school in the city, where she’d meet a bunch of new friends. Would we want to feel her walking out of the barn, getting ready, going to the train station, buying her ticket, sitting on the train, looking out the window, arriving . . . . Well, no. That would get long and boring. And so the kids began to understand that wonderful balance of scene and narration that makes up a story.

After that, we had questions, some of which were great, including this one:

Do you eat sweet things to get you to think sweet thoughts?

Well . . . I definitely eat sweet things. Let’s leave it at that.

And finally, at the end of the week, my niece arrived with a packet of thank you notes and drawings for me. They were all spectacular, but here’s my favorite line:

“Dear Mrs. Gewirtz, Thank you for the visit. . . . I wish you could visit again. With more cupcakes.”


Last week, I got a surprise package in the mail – an early copy of the hardcover of Zebra Forest. I have several copies of the ARCs (advance reading copies), and so didn’t expect the thrill I got when I opened the package and saw my book in hardback for the first time. But there’s something about the real thing – dust jacket with embossed words, dedication in the front of the book, the whole shebang – that feels different. And the best part was getting to show it to the two people the book is dedicated to – my husband and my mother. People often say that writing is a solitary activity, and for the most part, it is. You need long stretches of silence and time to clear your head and think about things that are not immediate, that don’t relate to the logistics of life, that may end up as nothing more than a daydream. And in order to do that, you do need other people. People who give you the time, the support, and the space to think, to write and to rewrite. I have been blessed to have many people in my life who have helped me. They’ve shaped my thinking, given me thoughtful opinions, encouraged me, supported me. Of all of those, the two who gave me the day-to-day and year-to-year ability to write, and who kept that dream alive for the long time it took to come to fruition, are the two to whom Zebra Forest is dedicated. Getting to see their faces when they opened the book and saw the dedication for the first time was worth the wait.Image

Blog Interview with Blythe Woolston, author of Black Helicopters

black helicopters

Today’s special treat is an interview with Blythe Woolston, author of Black Helicopters, a brilliant new YA novel that tells the story of Valkrie White, an American teenager raised to be at war with the government. The novel, published by Candlewick Press and set for release on March 26th, explores the charged issue of domestic terrorism from the terrorist’s point of view. I had the privilege both of reading the ARC (Advance Reading Copy) and getting to spend some time with Blythe in Seattle. Blythe’s earlier book, The Freak Observer, won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, which celebrates “impressive new voices in young adult literature.” In Black Helicopters, Blythe puts that impressive voice to good use in creating the character of Valley, whose sense of herself and her mission are crystal clear, if terrifying.

I asked Blythe several questions about Black Helicopters, which aside from having a strong main character and powerful subject matter has an interesting structure – moving from the past to the present to show us what is driving Valley to do what she does.

Q: I loved the way you handled time in the book, bouncing between the past and present. What made you use that structure?

A: I have no idea how to handle backstory gracefully. This structure—with a single day’s events in alternating dialogue with the past—is my clumsy way of revealing what the reader needs to know to understand Valley’s motives  and background. 

Q: Many of the facts in the book are slippery. What Valley thinks she knows, she doesn’t necessarily know, and yet you were able to convey some of the truth in subtle ways. Did that take a lot of strategizing, or did it come naturally?
A: I suppose part of this is a reflection of how I experience and make sense of the world. I am my own unreliable narrator. 

It does bring up an aspect of my writing experience that may be very odd or nearly universal—who knows? I don’t strategize much. I never have an outline or any idea of what will happen in a story when I begin writing it. I just write in scraps, then later I piece them together, like a person making a crazy quilt. Like a person making a quilt, I notice patterns that start to emerge after a while. When that happens, it becomes a more intentional process. 

I don’t want the process to sound effortless. It isn’t. I spend most of my energy at the sentence level worrying over word choice. I let myself have a lot of latency time, and, as a result, I write very slowly. When I read other authors’ posts about word count, I sometimes feel ashamed of my lack of productivity and discipline. But this is just the way I have to work to make the stories I have to tell. 

Q: Your first book, The Freak Observer, is also about a girl in crisis. What draws you to such intense characters?

A: I can’t say that I’m drawn to intense characters, per se, but I do think that writing YA means stripping away the insulation and dealing with the raw current. YA is full of intense characters. It is the nature of the beast. 

Q: What’s next?

A: At this moment, I have another book out with my editor at Candlewick, Liz Bicknell. That book is an experiment—a departure—for me. It began as a short story I wrote while I was at Clarion West last summer. It isn’t a contemporary realistic story; it is historical and unnatural and may be an utter failure. While I’m waiting to hear back on that book, I’m working on a new book and on revising some short stories. 

Even though Black Helicopters is my third book, the whole publishing adventure remains unpredictable. That makes it interesting.

With much thanks to Blythe, I’ll end this post with my favorite thing she said, which is on the subject of talking about books in general.

“Imagine a potter selling a bowl. Once that bowl passes to the hand of the new owner, it could find many uses: It could be used for salad, or keys, or to hold water for a cat. The person who bought it may intend to give it to someone else or they many intend to take it home and smash it with a hammer so they can use the broken pieces to make a mosaic. Only a crazy potter would say, ‘This is how this bowl ought to be used: It should be filled with apricots.’

I feel that way about books. When I read a book, I am contributing my own imagination and brain cells to understanding it. Reading triggers connections and memories and ideas in me that are unique to me. There is no definitive reading.
Books may be made of pages, black and white, but stories worth thinking about are full of ambiguity. This is, I hope, true of Black Helicopters.”

Snow and Metaphor

Frosty Footpath - winter snow

Frosty Footpath – winter snow (Photo credit: blmiers2)

The first snowstorm of the winter came belatedly today to the Washington, D.C. area where I live, and got me thinking about metaphor. I woke up this morning and looked to see if the storm really had come as predicted, found it pouring down outside my window, and thought the sky looked like a sheet of grey paper. In that moment, the snow itself was thin as sawdust, spilling through the tree in my front yard. So I thought – metaphors. Metaphors are a writer’s most vital tool, fueling description and the themes that give stories meaning. I’ve always thought metaphor is humanity’s most vital tool too, because without the ability to compare one thing to the next (and I’m using metaphor in the largest sense of the word, here) we wouldn’t be able to think abstractly. The first user of metaphor was the first human being as we, I think, would recognize one, because metaphor is the source of language. Putting symbols to physical things is a baby step toward metaphor, and the next step is thinking about things we can’t see, and giving names to them. To take an example, if you know about a mother and child relationship, because you’ve experienced it, and you know about families, because you live in one, a more abstract step is to see other human beings you are not related to as part of the family of humanity, and treat them accordingly, creating rules about what you can and can’t do, say, to a traveler you’re welcoming into your home. And that’s the beginning of law and civilization. Without metaphor, we’d all be stuck inside the boundaries of each moment – what we could see, touch, taste, smell and hear. Metaphor flings open the doors to the universe (another metaphor – see?) So that’s my snow day thought. And now, as I write this, the snow has thickened, and my sawdust image has to give way to feathers.


Usain Bolt in celebration about 1 or 2 seconds...

Usain Bolt in celebration about 1 or 2 seconds after his 100m victory at Beijing Olympics 2008, breaking the world record. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about the value of professional coaching. Written by a surgeon who wondered why more people in his profession didn’t employ coaches to help them keep honing their skills, he described two discrete attitudes about training: one found in sports, another in music. We expect athletes to have coaches because the understanding is that to sustain high athletic performance, you need someone who keeps you at your best. On the other hand, here’s what the author, Atul Gawande, says about how musicians train:

“The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. You can go the rest of the way yourself. This is how élite musicians are taught. Barbara Lourie Sand’s book “Teaching Genius” describes the methods of the legendary Juilliard violin instructor Dorothy DeLay. DeLay was a Perkins-like figure who trained an amazing roster of late-twentieth-century virtuosos, including Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, Midori, and Sarah Chang. They came to the Juilliard School at a young age—usually after they’d demonstrated talent but reached the limits of what local teachers could offer. They studied with DeLay for a number of years, and then they graduated, launched like ships leaving drydock. She saw her role as preparing them to make their way without her.”

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande#ixzz29TNw7RsL

Now, as a writer, I see the benefits of coaching every day. Not only do I rely on a small group of colleagues to help me “hear myself” better, but there is of course my wonderful editor, who offers another great model of professional coaching. But what this article actually made me think of first was parenting, and whether it’s more of a coaching-style role, or, as with musicians, a launching effort, where you get in all the training you can for a precious few years, and then your little birds fly.

It seems to me that American society has a prejudice toward the musician style of training for parents. I’m always reading one article or another about kids who fail to launch, with some vague sense of blame for their overindulgent parents. But as I prepare for the wedding of my son this summer, I’ve been thinking about this question – what is the role of a parent of adults?

My parents were definitely coaches. Though my father died ten years ago, I still think of some of the best advice he gave me, long after I was married and raising kids of my own. It still works. As for my mother, who lives close by, I’ll refer to her here as the Wise Admiral, because she’s wise, obviously, but also because she’s always known how to run a tight ship. She continues to be a font of very practical coaching for me as a parent and as a human being. The crucial thing about good coaching is, you know when to step back. As my editor said to me recently – in the end, it’s your story.

In the end, each person writes his or her own story. But that doesn’t mean that when you hit eighteen, or go off to college, or graduate, or get married, it has to just be: well kid, it’s been swell. Goodbye and good luck.

We can all benefit from a couple good coaches in our lives.

The Joys of Rereading

Cover of "To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Ann...

Cover via Amazon

There are certain writers whose voices never stop echoing in my ears. At the age of 12, I read To Kill A Mockingbird in the seventh grade, and realized, suddenly, that people could make magic with words. I’d always loved stories – my father used to sit in the doorway to the bedroom I shared with my sister when I was little, and read by the light in the hall. Sometimes he’d read mysteries – Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys – doling out chapters like candy — (just one more, please!) until either he or we fell asleep still wanting more. On the best of those nights, though, he would tell his own stories. And those stories planted the seeds of a writer in me.

But it was not until I read Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird that I learned the magnetic power of voice. That novel gripped me from start to finish, and I remember thinking, right when I finished it: Wow. I want to do that.

I never stopped thinking that. And that’s because something about Miss Lee’s voice just kept echoing and echoing. I loved it so much I returned to it again and again over the years. I think I stopped counting when I’d read the book about 13 times. I read it first just to be back in that place, with those people. She’d made them all that good. But after a while, when I’d begun to study writing in earnest, I read it to understand how she put things together, how she achieved what she did. I’ve never gotten tired of it yet.

I wish she’d written another book. But that one has kept me for a lifetime.