Voice

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.

The Reading Rainbow

IMG_5485Our house is a book house, where everybody is reading something all the time. And the nice thing about that, aside from the obvious, is that we get book recommendations from each other. Many of the books I’ve read in the past few years have come from these recommendations, and sometimes even a book I’ve read before is brought back to me in a new way when one of the family reads it. This was true of Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo, which a few years ago became the Beautiful Dreamer’s favorite. I had read it long before, and remembered liking it, but Because of Winn Dixie stuck in my memory so much I think I passed over Tiger Rising until, out of curiosity about why my daughter loved it so much, I read it again. I discovered that it’s a small gem, painful and beautiful at once. So I learned something both about the Beautiful Dreamer and about rereading books.

Her older sister, let’s call her the Conductor, introduced me to the lyrical contemporary/historical fiction The World to Come, by Dara Horn,  and the Rocket Scientist brought home several fantasy series I had never heard of before, in addition to pointing me toward a fascinating discussion about philosophy and fantasy that I’m still chewing over. My youngest, the Castle Builder, showed me the hilarious The Name of This Book is Secret series, which changed the entire feel of footnotes for me, probably forever. Then there’s the fun detective novels that Superman reads in alphabetical order.

And today, the Book Princess quoted from a book of poems that reminded me how well words can capture the exact feel of being alive in a specific moment. Here’s the poem she mentioned, from a book called Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall:

“And the pomegranates,/
like memories, are bittersweet/
as we huddle together,/
remembering just how good/
life used to be” (p.129).

All I can say to that is wow. I think I have some reading to do.

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.”

The Book Princess Talks Shakespeare, Guest Post 1: Disguise

  “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid for such disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent.” ― William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night The tension between appearance and reality, between who we seem to be and who we … Continue reading

Ursula K. Le Guin

For years, I worked as a high school tutor, teaching kids how to structure their writing. But for the more advanced, we got to my favorite topic of all – voice. Ursula K. Le Guin, another of my favorite writers, was always part of the lesson. When I first read the opening of A Wizard of Earthsea, her voice swept me away with its magic and romance.

“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.”

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0547773749

Hers are the rhythms of fables, a sense of timelessness and deeds of import. I, for one, cannot get enough of it.

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.