If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that my first book for teachers, REAL REVISION: AUTHORS’ STRATEGIES TO SHARE WITH STUDENT WRITERS, was released from Stenhouse this summer. I’ve been celebrating with a series of author interviews on the topic of real revision…the nitty gritty, make-the-book-better strategies that some of my favorite authors use when they’re revising a project. HOUND DOG TRUE (which comes out this week!!) is among my favorite novels of 2011, so I asked author Linda Urban if she’d stop by the blog to chat. Here’s our conversation about revision, especially as it relates to voice.
Hi, Linda! The voice in your middle grade novels always feels so perfect and effortless…but I know that most things that feel effortless to readers are the result of hard work on the part of writers. Could you talk a little about how you revise when it comes to voice in your books?
Here’s the thing about voice: It often presents itself without me having to sweat it.
The first few lines, the first few pages – it just spills. Beginnings are like that for me. I’m letting myself know the character or narrator, who she is, how she moves, the way she expresses herself. If she’s self assured, she’ll use energetic declarative sentences. If she is shy, that might show up in her speech. She might backtrack a bit. Her words might get twist-tangled around one another. Her level of education, the place where she lives, her general outlook on the world will come through in the language, tempo, and rhythm of her speech. And dang, if that isn’t the fun part for me!
But after that, maybe page 20 or 40 or even 60, I realize that a novel is not just about voice. There has to be story. Things need to happen. Then it becomes work. And sometimes when I’m making things happen, my effort is apparent on the page. It is clumsy and forced. That is when I need to work on voice. I look at a sentence: Then the bridge fell down. Okay. Fine. That’s what happened.
But what happened is so much different than what that happening means. Voice tells you what it means to the story, to the character.
So I back up. The bridge fell down. Did it snap? Did it collapse? Did it fail? Did it give up the ghost? The right word or phrase is the one that tells what happened and what that happening means. Likewise, voice has a rhythm. If the voice of the narration or character is a lilting, lovely descriptive one, and I tell about the bridge in lilting, lovely descriptive terms, then it won’t stand out as being particularly meaningful to the narrator/main character, or in the reader’s mind. If I break the voice pattern, though, and let the bridge collapse happen in short, terse terms, Whammo! It stands out. It means something entirely different.
That’s what I look for when I begin to revise. It is interesting to note how a book that feels like it doesn’t have enough emotional depth, or is too overwrought, might not really require a new set of plot elements. It might just require an adjustment in the way voice is used.
Do you read aloud when you’re revising?
I do read my work aloud. I do it at all stages, but it seems particularly important at the polishing stage. I try to read the whole thing aloud in one sitting, highlighting any words or phrases that stick out. Then I go back and fiddle with them, asking what other descriptions might be more consistent with the character/narrator I’ve created or the circumstances described. It can take a long time, but I it’s worth it.
Was there a character in this book (Mattie, her mom, Uncle Potluck, Quincy with her “plunking” tone of voice) that went through more revision work than the rest?
Mattie’s mom was the hardest for me. I tend to see the book through my main character’s eyes and for most of the book, Mattie’s perception of her mother is pretty one-dimensional. She is defined by a single sort of action (decisive and abrupt pulling-up-stakes and moving to a new job/town/home) and a single characteristic (which Mattie interprets as “strength”). While I understood at a conscious level that Mattie’s mom acted out of fear and a lack of confidence, as I wrote, I always adopted Mattie’s POV and the depth of Mama failed to make it to the manuscript page.
One thing that helped was to rewrite a couple of key scenes from Mama’s point of view. This writing was never going to be in the final manuscript, of course, but it helped me to understand better all the things that Mama was seeing and feeling. Once I understood this, I went back to all the scenes in which Mama appeared and looked for opportunities to give a small indication of her underlying self. When I could, I put a small gesture or word choice in – something that Mattie might notice. Mattie might misinterpret it, but it is possible that the reader would see things differently – if not in the moment, then in retrospect, once Mattie’s understanding of her mother grew.
What’s your favorite revision tool, tip, or strategy these days?
When a scene isn’t working right, I often write it from a different point of view, like I described above. Sometimes I use another character who is important to the scene. Sometimes I use a bystander (it can be really cool to have someone relate action without being able to hear dialogue – you get a really interesting perspective on the events of the scene – and you also learn if your characters are standing around talking too much). One of my favorite ways to do this is to let the scene be described by an inanimate object. That locket on your main character’s neck. That gun in that boy’s jacket pocket. That shredded love letter. That last piece of pie. They let you see things differently and can unlock a lot of mysteries.
Thanks, Linda, for your insight and for coming to visit!
For more on HOUND DOG TRUE, you can check out Linda’s website, or read my more detailed recommendation here. And of course, you can order your very own copy from an indie bookstore near you.