Last Saturday, February 22, 2014, CBW-LA was lucky to have middle grade mystery maven Kristen Kittscher, author of WIG IN THE WINDOW as its speaker.
After a short introduction (in which I struggled to read Kristen’s amazing bio from my smartphone’s tiny screen), Kristen immediately launched into the workshop.
Kristen began by reiterating that voice is a personal element, something that cannot be taught, but can be learned through experience. She set the tone of the workshop by inviting participants to actively explore the concept of voice with her. She asked participants to answer two questions:
- What do you think is voice?
- What are your fears about voice?
Participants gave a variety of responses. Some said voice had to do with perspective, or tone or feeling, others said it had to do with personality or knowing the characters very well, while others said voice is specific to the writer.
They also shared their fears about the concept of voice: having whiny characters or an unreliable narrator, of having to juggle too many voices within the story, and of having too much voice.
Kristen reminded us that despite our many fears, we do not have to worry about voice. She says:
“There is something in a person’s voice that is consistent in the background. You don’t have to worry about that because that’s in you already. It’s like worrying about your fingerprints. We want to demystify this idea that there is something outside of you that you need to learn today. Voice is already in you. This is something that only writing solidifies over time.”
She shared a favorite quote by Neil Gaman:
Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.”
Remembering this, Kristen says, will help us not worry about our fears too much.
“Worrying that the audience won’t like it is kind of like worrying that the people won’t like you, which we deal with on a regular basis over and over again, and that we probably should get over, because we are ourselves.”
Kristen chose excerpts from 6 different middle grade books as samples of the different voices across the middle grade genre. Participants were assigned two excerpts each, and paired off with a partner. Each person read their assigned excerpt and wrote down everything they noticed about the group. Once they were done writing down their observations, each person would turn to their partners and share their discoveries.
A class discussion followed afterward. Kristen wrote down everyone’s observation on the whiteboard and broke each one down for the group. She emphasized that if we put voice outside of ourselves, that’s where the fear comes in:
“Everything has a voice automatically. It’s just what kind of voice is it? Maybe it’s a boring voice that doesn’t grab you.”
Kristen shared some fun exercises to further illustrate voice.
A few participants shared their fun pieces, and some had the class rolling with laughter.
One of the things Kristen taught was the group was that one of the things that middle grade writers should be wary of, is using adult comparisons to describe an object.
To put participants back in the middle grade mindset, Kristen asked them to call out some memories from their childhood. A freewrite followed immediately afterward where participants wrote about a childhood memory. One tip Kristen gave in case participants got stuck was to write “I remember…” and finish the sentence with a childhood memory.
Towards the end of the workshop, Kristen shared her own personal journey to publication, along with tips and techniques on how to develop voice.
Here are a few of Kristen’s most inspiring thoughts:
“One of the most important things you need to do to get back to voice, is to not criticize yourself yet. Don’t look analytically at anything. When you’re feeling stuck—the beauty of writing is that nobody’s there in your room and nobody’s gonna see it. The other thing is that you don’t have a finite amount of material in you and it’s over. You can keep going and keep creating things. “
“A lot of people ask me how long did it take to write your book, and I don’t think I know the answer to that question. Because I would remember coming up with that idea, and then I took up golf, and then I played with my puppy and hung out with my friends. I feel like we call it time, we talk about having time, but writing has nothing to do with time (although it does take time). But we are making choices all the time about how to use it, and most of the time we’re worried. It has more to do with fear….It probably would have taken me nine months if I hadn’t wasted so much time. But I don’t like to think about it as wasting, but some of it was that I wasn’t in the right mindset. And the way to get yourself in the right mindset is to just practice over and over again, have rituals and just keep writing and keep on doing these exercises…”
“I like giving a voice to kids, giving them fancy words, because their emotions are bigger than what they can express. Part of what we’re doing in writing for children is giving names to things, and to do it in the way that it captures that wonder or excitement or confusion, but helping them give a name to it.”
“Kids see complexity, too. Even if the language is simple like in Linda Irvin’s Hound Dog True, the language is simple but the feeling behind it isn’t simple at all. If you can tap into those emotions and feelings, you’re never going to be out of date…Just take the things that you remember and find the equivalent. Like if you remember using blackboards, ask kids what they use nowadays—maybe a smart board with wires…”
The workshop ended with a Q & A, and a book signing session immediately followed. We even had a short photo shoot so we could have a souvenir of our fun workshop.
All the participants came away inspired and ready to write, thanks to Kristen’s wonderful workshop.
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