Monday, April 30, 2012

Voice Lessons: Making Your Manuscript Sing

Heather Alexander's Intensive –
                     Voice Lessons: Making Your Manuscript Sing

Alexander is assistant editor at Dial Books for Young Readers.  She gave a writing intesive during the SCBWI weekend conference in Houston. 

Below is an excerpt from my notes on her lecture.  What makes voice?   
Diction – (vocal choices)   These could be cultural references.  You can make cultural references up , but use them sparingly and  thoughtfully.  It’s the personality of your story.
Perspective – It’s about setting, too (where you’re from or where you are).  Text that has great perspective can be found in these books : AU REVOIR, CRAZY EUROPEAN CHICK,  THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE, THE WEDNESDAY WARS.                              

Characterization - The character determines your voice.  Write down all the reasons you like a character. (You should pity the villain.  Feel sorry for him.)  All likable characters are incredibly independent.  Also, all your characters should be as fully realized as the main character. 
Dialogue – It has to feel real.  Never start dialogue like a real conversation.  Real conversations can drag the story down and make it boring.  Use economy of words to express what is actually being said.  Cut the crap, but keep the voice.

Interior monologue (im)– It is the best way to express character, to convey their feelings, to see a character being truthful or dishonest.  It’s in im that readers get the “Aha!” moment.  Without im we lose the emotional stake of the dialogue.  Text with great im can be found in: SHINE, A BEAUTIFUL BOY, FREAK SHOW
Interior dialogue (id) is needed to create empathy about the character.  You can have id if it’s in third person, i.e. what the character thinks.  This is also a great place to get backstory.  Without id the reader can lose dramatic irony (where the reader knows more than the character).  Id examples in text: SLAM, THE HUNGER GAMES

You want suspense in all your scenes. You can have that by using voice.  Voice is how the character reacts to the action or effect (no quirkiness in character). 

Voice is the way your words sound on a page. 
Voice is not constant.  It will change. – Our voices change dependent on who we talk to and where we are.  Your voice will change as you talk to different people, e.g., your boss, best friend, thief, baby, and your dad.

An authorial voice is the voice of the writer of the book or voice of the creator.
A narrative voice is voice invented by the author.  It’s the protagonist voice.

Exercises to help you define and improve voice.*:
Exercise 1
Heather Alexander had us do a voice exercise to help us see how voice changes are dependent on characters.  We were given 3 – 5 minutes to write a paragraph from each of four different points of view.

1. She had us think of the most beautiful place we’d ever been to.  Then, we were to describe it.
2. Second, we were to describe the same scene from the perspective of a high school girl.

3. Then we were to describe it from the viewpoint of a Middle School rural boy.

4. Lastly, we were to describe the same scene from the point of view of a six year old girl.
(If you would like to read my 4 examples, they are at the bottom of the post.)

Exercise 2: Go to a public place and see what kids are not saying: stomping, eyes rolling, fist making, etc.  Think of how you can use these to help you with voice. In this way, readers can get a clearer picture of your story.

Exercise 3: Write 2 different scenes.  One viewpoint from the kid being bullied.  The second, from the bullies perspective.  This exercise shows you that both characters can be unreliable, because neither knows the full story.

Middle Grade and Young Adult "Voice" – Characters have a limited perspective of the world.  They have a limited life experience. 
MG and YA readers like interesting characters.  For a young person, everything feels like it’s the end of the world.  Every day they are doing something new.  Everything shifts because of one new experience in their young lives. 

When writing for this age, erase all your adult views for the mc.  Text examples can be found in: THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER, OKAY FOR NOW.
Helpful Hints:

In dialogue use “said” or show the emotion.  Don’t use words such as: retorted, responded, remarked, etc.  in dialogue.
Remember,“your first idea is never your best idea” when writing stories.

My response to Heather’s voice exercises:
Describe the most beautiful place you’ve been to.

The warmth engulfed him.  His soft skin feeling the coolness of the water sent sensations like he had not know before.  Inside surged laughter, wonder, and pleasure until his inner world burst into the scene.  “Agua!”  He laughed.
Describe the same scene from the perspective of a high school girl.

A baby, nude!  Oh, no.  And his parents smiling as if they had somehow thought their nude kid on public property was such a clever idea.  Hideous!  It’s ruined my summer day at the beach.  Thank God my parents never put me through that.
Describe it from the viewpoint of a Middle School rural boy.

The ocean was unbelievable.  It went on and on, sort of like the spinach fields at home.  Water rippling in the wind just like my pa’s crops.  And the baby, pink as a pig, having the time of his life in a salty water hole.
Describe the same scene from the point of view of a six year old girl.

Wow, the sun is so bright.  Everything looks pink with my new sunglasses.  Momma looks pink and Papa’s hair looks pink.  I love my new bathing suit.  It feels soft and the wind makes the ruffles dance.  My baby cousin is naked, and he likes it!  He’s too little to get in the real ocean.  I’m not.
*If you want to understand voice, do the exercises.  They will help.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Music Logo for a Music Producer

My musically talented brother, Max Aguilar (with a name like that you know he's an artist), made the music for a book trailer I was working on.  The music was funny and funky.  It fit right in with the life of the characters in my chapter book, ADOLFO AND ATHENA.  I had no idea music could make me laugh, but his had so much character I had to laugh.

Not long after that, I attended Houston's 2012 SCBWI conference and won a bid for a book trailer from Ink In Motion (IM).  IM is working on my trailer now.  I requested that they to put the name of my brother's company Sonic Puppy Productions on the trailer.  IM said they would need a logo and would use a generic one, if Max didn't have one.  Max had no logo.  So, I made him one.

Max laughed when he saw it.  That's the reaction I was looking for.   I hope it makes you laugh, too. 

Copyright: Brenda A. Harris

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How to Make a Storyboard Template

How to Make a Storyboard template:

A website that has a variety of FREE templates is Incompetech.  To begin, go to .  Select Graph/Grid Paper.  Click on Brick, Asymmetic, and Specialty and then, storyboard generator.  This window will appear.

Download it by clicking on Download PDF.  You will find that you have choices for making storyboards.  Experiment with these choices until you get the results you want - number of panels, heading, writing lines.  Now you have a story boardtemplate.

Adding text to your template:
   If you want to add text, select the paper and pen Icon.  To the right, under Sign Now window,  click on Add Text.   An Add Text bar will appear.  Now, you can type on your storyboard.  (I like to add page numbers and story text.) To delete or change text, place cursor on text and left click your mouse.  The text box will be highlighted and you can delete your text or click on it to reenter that specific text box.

Here is a 6 panel storyboard for a picture book I'm working on.


Print it.  Now, repeat the process for the next set of pages as needed.

Examples of a picture book storyboard I am working with.

Storyboard Printouts:  left: 9 panel.  right: 6 panel.

Other Storyboard Help:

A site for digital storyboards is .  There are 2 templates plus instructions.  However if you go to his commercial site, Jason Ohler (Technology Teacher/Speaker) lists an immense number of websites with resources for making digital storyboards.
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s article: “Submitting Digital Art for Publication: Advice From an Art Director” interviews Jill Shimabukuro, Director of Design and Production at the University of Chicago Press (UCP).  The UCP has set standards for authors who want to submit digital art for publication in UCP.  These guidelines are helpful for anyone wanting to include photos, art, and/or illustrations with manuscript submissions. 

Go to  and type – “submitting digital art”   into Search to find the article.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Susan Sherman Speaks at SCBWI Houston

At the SCBWI Houston 2012 Conference  Susan Sherman, the Director of Art at Charlesbridge Publishing , asked the question:

What makes a good children’s book?  

She responded by telling her audience that as writers we must understand our book's age range and genre fan.  Also, our book must speak on issues that relate to the specific age of the reader. 
     1. Questions to ask ourselves are: 
           -          Who am I writing this book for?
           -          Why am I writing this book?
           -          How does this book compare to other books in the market place?

  1. The main character (mc) should be a child or child surrogate.  Even if it’s an adult, the mc should have a sense of character
            -          Age should be appropriate to reader

-          Don’t insert adult perspective unless it contributes to the plot

-          No adult trumpet voice of reason

-          Keep age and maturity of character consistent

-          Don’t be afraid to make the child unlikable

-          Avoid a perfect character


"The author should have rich lively language in the story. 
There should be distinct
dialogue." - Sherman

What writers should avoid:
          No stereotypes – this is condescending to the reader
          No racial magical minority
          No great white hope. A hero can have any background!
          Don’t force multicultural characters and/or description

Resources for authentic multicultural characters: Stacy Whitman’s blog, and .   Whitman’s Tu imprint publishes multicultural sci-fi books.

Sherman went on to explain that real characters are complex, dimensional, and show growth. 
They have:
          Core emotions
          Realistic action
          Complex personalities
          Show growth

Sherman gave us more to think about as writers.  She stated that we should be able to make a point without being didactic or preachy and that redemption can be a powerful tool in character development.  She continued by stating that when writing we should use economy of language and structure.  The story should not be overt and repetitive – the main focus is the story not the moral lesson.  Our focus in key scenes should be on - dialogue and exposition (everything must contribute to character and plot) and that the story must never be predictable. 

For those who are writer/illustrators, she explained that sometimes we may have to give the illustrating task to someone else.  She gave Nina Laden’s blog  as an example of when to allow another illlustrator to do the work if needed.
          Remember those loose plot endings and give them closure
          Keep plot fresh and original.  Keep things unpredictable- giving a clever twist.
          As author/artist create a completely credible book

If you would like to learn more from Susan Sherman's wisdom visit Steven Withrow's blog post:  Fieldnote #1 by Steven Withrow —Susan M. Sherman: Connecting Backwards and Forwards

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dan Yaccarino: Say, “YES!”

Dan Yaccarino identifies himself as a character designer.  He is an author and illustrator.  He has published 54 books in the past 20 years.  According to Yaccarino Studio, over 1.5 million books have sold.  His awards include the Bologna Ragazzi (graphic and editorial design), The New York Time’s 10 Best Illustrated (selected by panel of judges as 1 of 10 best illustrated), ALA Notable (American Library Association), and the Parents Choice Award (honoring best books for children).
Although many of us tell our children that they need to have experience in another field in case being an artist doesn’t work, Yaccarino said his success is due, in part, to the fact that he had nothing to fall back on.  To him, having only had experience in the Arts meant that he could not allow himself to fail.  He had to make his art career work.  He credits his successful career in the art field due to hard work and not being afraid to say “yes” to new challenges.

Yaccarino believes we should keep notebooks (writers) and sketchbooks (illustrators).  He talked of how, through the years, he has saved stacks of his sketchbooks.  “You need a safe place to dump all your thoughts out - even the mistakes.”  Yaccarino has often used his old sketchbooks to get his ideas from, as he works on new products.  He also collects toys. His favorite are toy robots.  He gets many character ideas from his toys. 

Lastly, Yaccarino implored us to say “yes” to new challenges and to create books about things that we are interested in.  He does.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Director of Art Answers Questions For Illustrators

My portfolio critique was with Susan Sherman (very kind and approachable), Director of Art at Charlesbridge Publishing.  When we spoke, I mentioned that some of the illustrators in my “12x12 in 2012” had questions for her and if she minded my asking her these questions.  She knew about the “12x12 in 2012” FB group (Yeah!) and was pleasantly surprised that I would ask questions for the group.  She asked how this came about.  I explained that I’d sought their help, because I thought many heads were better than one.  She chuckled and agreed. 
Below are the questions that some of the 12x12ers asked with answers by Sherman. 
Julie RZ What are the priorities of what a publisher is looking for in an illustrator: idea/concept (using their brain) , composition (most important), execution, drawing abilities vs. coloring (medium) skills?

All of them, but she looks to see which illustrators have the smarts (brains) to see the very best illustrations when they read pure story text.  She considers composition to be the most important when looking at an illustrator’s work.

Julie RZHow do they match writers with illustrators? LouiseN How do you (or do you) keep in contact with illustrators you like and might want to use for future projects?

They have many file drawers filled with  illustrators and their examples.  She says that she can find many illustrators with the style of art they are looking for to illustrate a particular book, but Sherman says she searches and looks for “the illustrators with brains”.  The ones that can look at the story and see the very best way in which to illustrate it.  So, she is very interested in looking at illustrator blogs to see what illustrators are thinking.

Julie RZHow do they search for illustrators, or do they just wait for submissions?  How do they prefer to view the work, what are they expecting as far as online presence?

Sherman can find illustrators at places like conferences, she looks at illustrator blogs, and she likes to receive 1 or 2 illustrations through e-mail or via postcard (one illustration on each side is the maximum). She says send your postcard or email illustrations 3 times a year (no more).  Make sure to have your contact information.  Include your website/blog.

LouiseN Would you prefer to receive a picture postcard to an email picture? 

Either is good, but she likes email pictures best (with contact informaton).

LouiseN Would you prefer a copy of a work or an original postcard made just for you? 
This question was not asked because from her previous answers I believe she would like illustration copies on postcards best.

Alison KH How many samples do you like to see on a postcard? 

One or two at the most.  If two, one on each side.

Alison KH Do you want b/w and color?

It depends on the illustrator’s style.

(FYI:I asked Sherman many more questions and took lots of notes when she spoke at the conference. If you're interested in reading more, I’ll be announcing that post ASAP!)