Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Cultivate your voice

Children's book author and freelance writer Julie Hedlund  from Write Up My Life joins us today to talk about voice.

By Julie Hedlund

Thanks to Stacy, for inviting me to celebrate PiBoIdMo with a guest post on picture books!

Julie Hedlund
About a month ago, I opened an email from The Boulder Bookstore announcing that none other than Jon Scieszka would be coming to give a talk and to sign books. After busting open the picture book genre with The True Story of the Three Little Pigs in 1989, he's gone on to write a passel of picture books, chapter books and books for toddlers. In 2008, he was named the first-ever National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Librarian of Congress. But the best thing about Jon Scieszka?  He's funny.  Really funny.  So he writes funny. And that brings me to my topic for this post - voice in picture books.

The kids and I settled into our seats that day at the BoulderBookstore, and Jon started to speak. Within minutes, everyone was laughing. My daughter leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Mommy, he sounds just like his books!"

That, my friends, is voice.

Last May, I wrote an entire post on voice. The cliffnotes version is that it is personal and unique to the author, and it must project authority and confidence in the writing. Andrea Brown, president of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, said there are only so many universal themes in literature. They’ve all been used – over and over again. She said there is no such thing as a fresh idea, only a fresh voice.

Take the theme of a child's anxiety about a new baby in the family. What separates On Mother's Lap, by Ann Herbert Scott from When I Was King, by Linda Ashman is voice.  Here are a few other examples:

Making Friends by Sharing
The Rainbow Fish, by Marcus Pfister
Mr. Duck Means Business, by Tammi Sauer

Giving Up Your "Lovey"
Knuffle Bunny Free, by Mo Willems
Owen, by Keven Henkes

Special Friendships
Cowboy and Octopus, by Jon Scieszka
Harry and Horsie, by Katie Van Camp

Time for Bed, by Mem Fox
Dinosaur vs. Bedtime, by Bob Shea

And the list goes on and on. Picture book writers have special challenges in projecting voice because a lot of the "voice" is in the illustrations.  If an author is not the illustrator, the words need to ooze with voice in order for the illustrator to truly feel the story and then add his/her own dimension. Also, with most picture books at far less than 1000 words these days, PB writers do not have the luxury of "finding" their voice in the first few pages. The voice needs to be clear from the very first sentence.

There's a reason why Mem Fox said, "Writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace in haiku."  Writing picture books with voice is an art form. I am still learning, but happily, my voice is becoming louder and clearer the more picture books I write. When I first started writing, I wrote like I thought picture books were "supposed" to sound. Now my books are sounding more like me. Here are a few of my strategies I use to cultivate my voice:
  1. Free-write the first draft. Just write it all down without thinking so you turn off the internal editor and give your voice free reign. Write way more words than you will use so you are not censoring your ideas or your voice. Dictate your story if it helps you bring your voice forward.  Speech recognition software like Dragon Dictation will transcribe your speech to a laptop or mobile device in real time.
  2. Evaluate your draft for voice. Is it showing up as tender, funny, silly?  Is there more than one voice? If so, does the story need more than one? Once you decide, pare down the manuscript to the theme and words that express your voice(s) the best.
  3. Then, build up the voice. Add more silliness, tenderness, humor, etc. Take risks.  Be as "you" as you can.
  4. Cut out every unnecessary word so the voice shines.
Do you have any special strategies for finding your voice in your writing?  Please feel free to share in the comments!

Julie Hedlund is a picture book author and freelance writer who left her "real" job in 2010 in order to pursue a career in writing.  She blogs about the craft of writing, publication, her own writing process, and "life" at Write Up My Life.  She lives in Boulder with her husband and two children, and when she is not mothering, writing or reading, she enjoys running, hiking, skiing, cooking, yoga, and savoring a great glass of red wine at sunset. 

Stacy here - So glad Julie stopped by. You can also find her on Twitter @JulieFHedlund


  1. Entertaining post. Enjoyed the links, too. Thanks, Julie and Stacy.

  2. Julie you are so lucky to have listened to a speech from Jon! I often wonder if you manage to hook the reader with a great voice in one book, and then you went on to write something slightly different, would you know it was from the same author. Jody Hedlund does it really well. I'd spot her writing anywhere. It's a really tough thing to manage. Great interview ladies!

  3. Great post. As a new writer,this isomething I learning; voice is king in the novel world and picture book world. When I think of books for young people, I think of greats like Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, and Beverly Clearly. Each has a distinctive voice.

  4. Julie, I'm so glad you shared this. I'm still working on my voice in PB. I've found free writing the first draft typically gives me the best results.
    Thanks Karen, Catherine and TM for adding to the conversation.

  5. Julie, great post, especially the examples of how voice makes all the difference on similar stories. I too have found that the more I write the more I am confident in letting my voice ring out and the clearer the unique voices of my protagonists become. Being OK with sucky first drafts has been a big step forward for me!

    Thanks, Stacy.

  6. Fantastic post, great advice, thank you, Julie! (And thanks, Stacy, for inviting Julie to do a guest blog.)

    Particularly appreciated "the words need to ooze with voice" -- good image for those of us who write but rely on others for our illustrations.

  7. First, you are so lucky to have heard Jon S. speak!!! I hope I'll get to someday!

    Thanks for a great post, Stacy and Julie. I think voice is one of the hardest elements of writing. It's so hard to figure out. There are no real rules you can follow. You can read different examples of voice, but that doesn't necessarily help you find your own. In the end, it's really almost a process of trial and error. Thanks for all your helpful tips - I think they'll maximize the trial and minimize the error :)

  8. While not a children's book writer, I enjoy any and all posts on finding your voice!

  9. Thank you Julie and Stacy! Love the PB comparison titles!

    My college writing prof was big on voice. She had us submit weekly papers with a number, not a name. This helped her to read for voice as well as content, without being influenced by knowing the author from class discussions. On my final paper she wrote positive comments about my 'voice' but added, "I'd also know your work by the grammatical mistakes that you make repeatedly. FIX THEM!" LOL

    -cathy mealey

  10. Hi everyone. Thanks for all of your terrific comments, and thanks to Stacy for hosting me today!

    It really was incredible to see Jon in person.

    Voice is so difficult because it's the one thing nobody can teach is. We can improve our craft by reading books, attending lectures, and studying the works of others. But voice is something we have to find all on our own.

    Catherine, I do think voice can change book by book depending on the type of story so long as it is still authentic. Just look at Jane Yolen's body of work. I also think it evolves over time. That's why I refer to it as a "slippery little sucker." :-)

  11. I love 'hearing' the voice of authors, especially authors with a strong voice. Love your strategies, Julie. Thanks so much for the post! :)

  12. Hey Stacy just so you know, Fridays FFFF is being replaced from this Friday with that cool Picture Book Friday idea of Susanna's. I hope you don't mind!

  13. Great post! Thanks a lot. Loved the idea of writing script in long hand to find your voice. Think I'll use it next time. :)

  14. Hi Julie,

    Very interesting post. When I gave a friend my first MS to read, it at first freaked her out. As she read she kept hearing my voice.

    I guess that's what makes our stories so distinct. Our voices resonate from within the story.

    Thank you Julie. And thanks for all your visits, comments and support.

  15. I lost my voice for awhile - thanks to a critique group that I didn't know how to limit. such a naive woman to simply let them go ahead and change my stories and books and voice. It was part of the reason I quit writing for all those years. but now it's back and so am I. Because voice is the key to solid writing.

    thanks for a thought provoking post

  16. Thank you all for stopping by. @Louise - it breaks my heart every time I hear someone say that about a critique group. I'm so happy you found your voice again. Thanks again Julie for the great post.

  17. Stacy, I lovd the post with Julie. Voice is so important, and I appreciated Julies thoughts. I remember Jon was at SCBWI last summer. He certainly is a master with voice. I enjoyed the list of books Julie shared that show strong voice in different genres. Great post!

  18. Wonderful post! Jon Scieszka is sooooooooo cool! I wanna be like him when I grow up!

    Great idea Stacy! Thank you Julie. Voice is sooo voicey. *waving*

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