Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Westside Writers Schmooze meets to discuss "VOICE: The End-All Definition"

These books have it. Voice. So just what IS "it?"

Schmooze Recap: Part 1
Note: This first half of this Schmooze recap first appeared on Rita's personal blog at rhcrayon: The Blog! the morning after the October 13th Schmooze.

All right. So here's the promise Lee and I made to the world in our latest e-blast about the SCBWI Westside Schmooze.

Subject: The SCBWI Westside Schmooze -- Wednesday, October 13th at 7 PM

Does October mean thrills, chills, and suspense to you? Well, it should if you attend the next meeting of the SCBWI Westside Schmooze! Because on October 13th, at 7 PM, we will meet to unmask . . .

VOICE: The End-All Definition

That's right. Editors and Agents often say that while they can fix everything else in a manuscript, Voice is that one special quality a manuscript must have from the start, for them to fall in love. Yet when it comes to defining what Voice IS, even the greats flounder, with many falling back on the axiom "You know it when you see it."

What is THAT about? Are we in the business of describing things or aren't we?? At the next Westside Schmooze we aim to settle this mystery once and for all--AND come up with an End-All Definition--by showing great examples of Voice, analyzing WHAT IT IS, and sharing exercises that will help each of us find and perfect our own. For Picture Book through Young Adult, fiction and non-fiction. Let's do this. It's time.

Now, I'll admit I've been frustrated in my life lately, and I wrote this email with a mad gleam in my eye when the weather had taken a turn for the worse.


I think it's hilarious to set out to do "impossible" things--especially because (in my experience) 60-65% of the time, it totally works. Most of the time, the only reason anything is perceived as "impossible" is because it's unlikely you'll get enough people to back your vision. Once you have that, the thing itself is easy.

We had 41 people attend this Schmooze, and I really thought we were going to do it. Not come up with an "End-All" Definition like I'd advertised (that would be impossible!) but come up with a definition that we 40+ children's book writers could live with, which we would then throw down in cyberspace like a gauntlet to the world. I wanted to stir things up.

We had . . . an excellent discussion, full of impassioned, articulate insights. It's not true that no one knows what Voice is, or can define it in a few pithy words. Plenty of people can--and did tonight. It's just that every time someone put theirs out there, we all agreed with and then rebutted it. The spirit was willing, but the time ran out.

(Also, I think a lot of people like that Voice is an ineffable mystery and subconsciously sabotaged our efforts.)

I've been fed up lately with how no one can agree on what Voice "is," in a few blunt words, even though we do all recognize it when we hear it. Lee and I and Karol read examples from books tonight that gave everyone thrills and chills. Few people had the view of the room we did. 41 grownups turned into rapt little children, falling under a spell, every. Single. Time. Grr.


I had a vision of us gathering like tribal leaders that would go down in history.

Nathan Bransford, for your excellent post on Voice written May 10th of this year, I bow at your feet.


Schmooze Recap: Part 2

Here is a small sampling of the suggestions that came up during this night's impassioned discussion.

VOICE IS . . .

. . . authority. Letting the reader feel--through specificity of word choice and details used--that they are in good hands. That you, the Author, have Authorial Control.

. . . performance. Imagine your readers eating popcorn as your story unfolds.

. . . to writers what "Style" is to photographers: the subject matter you choose to show, plus "how" you show it. In photography, "'how" means camera/equipment settings. In writing, this means favorite writing techniques.

. . . soul.

. . . a figment of the Reader's imagination. It's what readers always SAY they like when--for any reason--they like what you've written.

. . . tone. (Which sparked a discussion on Mood as well, and whether these differ.)

. . . what makes your work unmistakably, recognizably yours, even when your name isn't given. (Examples abounded. David Mamet came up a couple times!)

. . . possession. That thing--the mysterious Muse--that takes us over as we write, for which we are merely the conduit.

. . . difficult to distinguish from masturbation--meaning: once you've found your Voice, how do you know when enough is enough? (From here we segued to the "Moderation" section of Nathan Bransford's excellent blog post on "How To Craft A Great Voice," which was an article we reference many times that night. Speaking of which, Rita also shared this comment Nathan Bransford wrote in the Comments section to that post: "I think voice is there when it's adjustable. Can you dial up or down certain elements? . . . [I]s it enough of an entity that you can think of it apart from the elements it's describing?")

. . . the Holy Grail.

. . . trending towards the sarcastic and snarky these days.

. . . determined by your audience. (For example, do you write for just one person? How well do you know your audience?)

On this, Rita also shared M.T. Anderson's fascinating suggestion--from Lee's exclusive interview on Lee's blog this summer: M.T. Anderson said that he imagines voice going TOWARDS the reader in MG, but coming FROM the narrator in YA and adult.

. . . when an editor or agent says, "I want your book!"

Throughout the evening, the group also discussed

the Voice of the author vs. that of characters,

whether authors each have one "true" Voice or whether each of one's works possesses its own. (One nice analogy was made to actors: some actors are highly visible and dependable in what they deliver, and some disappear completely into each new character they play.)

the helpfulness of "tone" and/or "mood" in defining Voice (is there a

the distinction between Literary Writing and Commercial, and so much more.

Mary Kole's blog was also brought up as an excellent resource for us all, in addition to Nathan Bransford's mentioned above.

We ended the evening by sharing some thought-provoking exercises to take home.

We also tried THIS fun exercise during the last minutes of Schmooze itself--
which you can do now, too!

Every Schmooze attendee spent two minutes writing down their own opening line to "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." (The moment when Goldilocks is at the bear's door.)

As the final moments of the Schmooze ticked down, volunteers raised their hand to share their opening lines, and we all marveled at the truly spectacular, different Voices that came shining through--and at the wildly different tellings of "Goldilocks" that each next Voice promised!

Have your own insights on Voice to share, or your own first line to "Goldilocks and the Three Bears?" Please post them in the comments; we'd love to hear from you!

your Schmooze co-Captains

Rita Crayon Huang and Lee Wind


Please join us at our NEXT Westside Writers Schmooze on Wednesday, November 10th
at 7 PM, when we meet to learn more about

Library, School and Bookstore Author Visits with Ann Wagner, Elisabeth Abarbanel and Sharon Hearn.

Most authors don't make their full income from book sales alone. Many see author visits (to libraries, schools and bookstores) as a critical part of their career.

So whether you're already published or just planning for the road ahead, come hear our expert panel discuss "What makes a good author visit" and "how do you, as an author, get that opportunity?"

Our expert panel: Ann Wagner is a Youth Services Librarian at the main branch of the Santa Monica Public Library. Elisabeth Abarbanel is a middle and upper school librarian at Brentwood School, an Independent School in Los Angeles. And Sharon Hearn is the owner of Children's Book World, an independent children's book store in West Los Angeles.

Hear what works (and what doesn't), find out what they're looking for and learn how to set yourself up for success. For Picture Book through Young Adult, fiction and non-fiction.

Hope to see you there!


  1. I'll open things up with my own first line of the Goldilocks story:

    Goldi kicked in the plastic door, knowing from hard experience that bears feared the laser sword almost as much as she hated wielding it.

  2. Thanks as always for posting the Schmooze discussion. Lee, love your opening line for Goldi. It takes the story a whole new way. I hope others will post their first lines, too.

  3. I hope others post their first lines, too!

    Here, by the way, is a list of the books that Lee, Karol S., and I shared with the group that night--some of which were pictured in the post above.

    Show Way, by Jacqueline Woodson, illus. by Hudson Talbott (PB)
    Penguin Story, by Antoinette Portis (PB)
    The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by Jon Scieszka, illus. by Lane Smith (PB)
    Whales on Stilts (A Pals In Peril Adventure), by M.T. Anderson (MG)
    A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park (MG)
    The Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer, by Laini Taylor (YA)
    Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (YA)
    Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher (YA)

    We brought in many other books, too, but these are the ones that got read from that night, as befit the discussion!

  4. Hippity skippity bippity Bop
    Goldilocks barged through the door
    without even a knock

    It was a great and lively schmooze
    and a lovely recap

  5. "Aurica squirmed into the murky, fetid den with a flashlight and a pistol."

    Lupe F.

  6. Hey Rita and everyone! The amazing Linda Sue Park just gave the closing keynote at the 2011 SCBWI Winter Conference, and she shared with us her working definition of voice, and it's pretty darn brilliant!


  7. I love Linda Sue Park's definition. I've now put it up on my wall, to add to all of these others!