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!
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:
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:
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.
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.
Then, build up the voice. Add more silliness, tenderness, humor, etc. Take risks. Be as "you" as you can.
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