Thursday, September 30, 2010

Voice, defined


The words you choose.

It’s tone.

It’s mood.

It’s the way you structure.

You just know it when you see it, when you hear it.

I’ve heard writers, agents, and editors all try to explain this elusive concept of voice in writing.

At the National Book Festival last Saturday, I had the privilege to hear a presentation by one of the world’s best-loved illustrators, Jerry Pinkney. He stood up to speak late in the afternoon, when the tired crowds had thinned, but die-hard fans remained. He talked about his childhood, and the hours he spent with a sketchbook in his hand.

And then he answered a young girl's question.

“Mr. Pinkney, how do you draw pictures, so that they look like yours and not someone else’s?”

He paused a minute, considering.

“What I think you are asking about is called style,” he said. “But style is not how I draw. Style is how I see the world.”

Surely Mr. Pinkney’s simple description tells us something important about every creative discipline, including that intangible idea of writer’s voice.

We practice and practice to master the writer’s craft, until it becomes a natural extension of who we are.

And if we are brave enough, we are finally able to say something of our own unique experience, something someone else is longing to hear.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Contest of Unspeakable Evil Update!

Remember you have till tomorrow night (before midnight central time) to comment on the Speak Loudly post for a chance to win your choice of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, or Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. 

And, instead of picking one winner, we'll pick a winner for every ten people who comment. Thanks for all the comments so far, everyone!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bloggers Speak Out--and give away a bunch o' books!

For those of you who have been following the Springfield, Missouri book challenges and the subsequent overwhelming support (Twitter explosion, anyone?) for the authors, today's Springfield News-Leader printed some new articles about the controversy. 

Here's the newspaper's article, "Parents, Take The Opportunity to Discuss Issues Writers Raise," and editorials from authors Laurie Halse Anderson and Sarah Ockler

Bloggers Speak Out is a movement sparked by the article that got us all a bit riled up, "Filthy Books Demeaning to Republic Education," in which Dr. Wesley Scroggins advocated the censorship of books in schools, and specifically requested that the following books be removed from the Republic school system: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

I'm sure the response to the challenge was more widespread than anyone could have predicted. Those of us who love books get a little miffed when someone tries to take them away. So many writers and readers chose to speak out to show their support for these authors and fight against book banning and censorship. 

To make it easier to find all the contests, reviews, and articles, the awesome Natalie at Mindful Musings put together a list of bloggers doing giveaways and book reviews of the challenged books. (And here's Natalie's fabulous letter to the editor in the News-Leader!)

Remember you have till the 26th to enter our contest; comment on Sunday's post for a chance to win one of the three books mentioned in the article. 

Here's the giant list! Now go read and win some books!                                                                                         
Below is a list of links of bloggers speaking out against book banning and censorship--in the form of giveaways, posts, and reviews. Some are "officially" participating in what we're calling Bloggers Speak Out, and others are posts that we've found around the blogosphere. If you get time, you should definitely check them out!
Giveaways of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
**All giveaways will end on 10/3, unless otherwise noted**
Other Giveaways
**All giveaways will end on 10/3, unless otherwise noted**
Other Posts Against Book Banning and Censorship
Important Articles on the Subject
"Filthy Books Demeaning to Republic Education" (the article that started it all)
"Republic School Book Choices under Fire" (Springfield News-Leader)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Speaking Loudly for SPEAK + Giveaway

Bad things happen everyday. Hiding books that deal with the tough issues won't make the problems go away; it just gives those who have experienced them one less place to go to feel like they're less alone. Books allow us a safe place to see people who survived the unspeakable.

If you're a writer and you've been online today, you've probably seen the outrage over Professor Wesley Scroggins' opinion piece in his Springield, Missouri newspaper about the "soft porn" high school students are exposed to in their English classrooms. He gave Laurie Halse Anderson's National Book Award-winning novel SPEAK as an example. 

In case you're unfamiliar with the book, here's a description from the jacket:

"Speak up for yourself - we want to know what you have to say." From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows that this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication. In this powerful novel, an utterly believeable heroine with a bitterly ironic voice delivers a blow to the hypocritical world of high school. She speaks for many a disenfranchised teenager while demonstrating the importance of speaking up for oneself.

I won't ask how familiar our readers are with pornography, soft or otherwise, but I hope we'd all agree that rape isn't porn. I find it disturbing that Dr. Scroggins thinks it is.

On one hand it would be nice if everyone ignored Dr. Scroggins so he'd quietly go away without an audience, but then what? No one says anything, and any book he doesn't like will quietly go away too, removed from the library shelves--like Slaughterhouse Five--to avoid any unpleasantness. I don't want Dr. Scroggins deciding what goes in my library or anyone else's. The thought of bare shelves saddens me.

I'm going to venture a guess that Dr. Scroggins hasn't read the books he objects to so vehemently. Maybe he heard about them from someone else, or at best he flipped through them to find sentences he could hold up as offensive. It's hard to imagine how he thinks we're protecting high school students by removing this book. If students don't read about a girl who was assaulted at a party, I suppose that will prevent it from ever happening to them.

People have been posting about this all day, more eloquently than I ever could, so I knew that much of my post here would include "Here are some awesome people and what they said." Laurie Halse Anderson wrote her own response on her website. It's so inspiring to see the support for her in blog posts and the flood of responses on Twitter (tagged #SpeakLoudly) from writers and readers.  

Most inspiring of all, though, are the writers who wrote about their own abusive pasts, their own trauma, and said "This book helped me" or "I wish I had this book when I was a teen." I can't imagine how hard it was for them to write about their experiences, and I'm amazed they've found the strength to do it. Here are just a couple of them:

Author Cheryl Rainfield, who has survived things I can't even bear to think about.

Author C.J. Redwine, who says, "I'm a Christian too, and a rape survivor, and I want SPEAK on the shelves."

I think the most powerful message was from the student who commented on Dr. Scroggins' post to say, "As a middle school girl, I was raped by a family member. I feel strongly that I might have made an actual suicide attempt if it hadn't been for a teacher who saw me where other teachers just let me fade into the background. She was the one who gave me Speak. There were no other books about being a rape victim allowed for girls my age, and Speak (in tandem with my wonderful, wonderful teacher) allowed me to understand it wasn't my fault, I could be okay. Since then, I have participated in many groups, and have found out that my story, sadly, isn't uncommon. There are far too many girls out there like me to take away one of the few books out there that speaks directly to us, tells us it will be okay, tells us that we have the right to fight for ourselves. This book isn't pornographic; it is a rallying cry for abused, raped girls who don't what to do or how to live. I thank God for Laurie Halse Anderson, that she helped me and that her book stands to help so many others."

Laurie Halse Anderson has heard from thousands of kids like her about how SPEAK has impacted them. Here's her poem about those letters:

That's who we should be listening to. 
Want to win one of the books from Wesley Scroggins' article? Leave a comment and I'll pick a winner next Sunday. Winner gets a choice of Speak, Twenty Boy Summer, or Slaughterhouse Five.

Also visit Sarah Ockler's blog (author of Twenty Boy Summer) for a chance to win all three books, plus chocolate! 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It's for research, I swear!

I love the news programs like 48 Hours and Dateline, and recently discovered ID-- that dangerous time-suck of a cable channel that's like a true crime marathon. I've watched enough of the shows to know that if someone's accused of a murder, the police will probably be checking their computer history. Each time, I'm amazed that the suspect hadn't thought of that. I want to scream at the TV, "Seriously? You Googled 'How to poison someone with antifreeze,' then poisoned your husband with antifreeze?! Didn't you think that would look bad?" That's one of those things that's hard to explain, isn't it? Not something most of us look into just 'cause we're curious. Your trial probably isn't going well if Exhibit A is poster-sized screen shot of your search history that includes "How to train ferrets to commit murder," especially if your significant other recently died in a tragic attack by assassin-ferrets.

But watching those shows does make me worry about the search history on my own computer. Not because I plan to kill anyone, but just in case I'm ever accused of a crime if someone close to me mysteriously dies or disappears. We know sometimes innocent people become "persons of interest," so it's possible, right? And writers have legitimate reasons for searching for some pretty weird things. So how incriminating would my computer's history look? 

I can see the interview now:

Detective: "Interesting. The coroner found that your neighbor died of botulism poisoning. You've been reading quite a few articles lately about botulism, haven't you? What a coincidence."

Me: "Oh. Right. Yes. I can explain that. It really is an amazing coincidence. See, I was writing this scene where a character is hospitalized after trying to make homemade Botox by sticking a needle into a bloated, dented can of peas and jamming the needle into her forehead."

Detective: "Uh-huh. And I suppose we can read this scene, in a book somewhere?"

Me: "Well, no. Turns out botulism poisoning isn't as hilarious as you'd think."

Detective: "I'm sure your neighbor would say the same thing. If she wasn't in the morgue, I mean."

Me: "Um..."

Detective: "And you were also searching for 'How to fake a kidnapping,' 'Faking own death,' and 'New identity.' Going somewhere?"

Me: "No! Really, it's all going to be in a book. Maybe. I haven't revised yet. It's not for me, personally. I'm not going anywhere."

Detective: "Yes, you're right about that. I believe you won't be going anywhere for a long, long time."

Me: "Can I have my laptop back, then?" 

So what weird searches have you found yourself doing as a writer? We'll be your witnesses. Just in case.