Thursday, May 28, 2009

Voice example here-- opening-- C.P.

Here's something different, from an exercise we posted a long time ago, so don't flood us with more, everyone! I have to get back to paying work. :) But this is an opportunity to talk about voice, and I promise, I'll finish later my thoughts about voice being more about character and world view than word choice.

Thank you so much for blog! It's by far the most helpful one I've seen.
I would like to submit the opening of my young adult novel, Shifter, for dissection. It is posted below.
C. P. Dotson
I stood in front of the water-spotted bathroom mirror and shifted myself into a supermodel, a tall one with sexy lips and a juicily curving figure.

If there were other shape-shifters in the world, they would probably despise me for being so shallow. But I live in the land of cow patty bingo and weekly Two-Step Night, so I have to find entertainment where I can.

I like how quickly you got to the point and the intriguing aspect of shape-shifting. Now I'm wondering why she (he?) didn't know if there were other shapeshifters. I'd suggest making that a bigger point, which means maybe trying it as a separate sentence.
Also, you are in first-person narration, in a young adult novel, so I'd read every single paragraph aloud to make sure the voice sounds right. I'm thinking that your sentences might be a little long, with too many elements, for a narrative that is probably supposed to sound conversational. I'd suggest reading aloud, because the reader will be able to sense when a sentence is too long to be read in a breath. That doesn't mean that every sentence has to be that short, but I'm counting three sentences there, and they're all long.

So see if you can break one of those sentences. It's pretty easy when you have two-clause sentences like the last one (just a period instead of comma and conjunction).

First-person narration can be dicey because you have to decide how colloquial you're going to be. But of course, what counts is that this is the character's voice. A repressed George-Will-wannabe high school chessplayer might speak in long sentences and complex paragraphs. A Jane-Austen addicted teenaged poet might use high-flown constructions and poetic metaphors. Most YA narrators talk, well, like teenagers (only without all the "you know what I means" and "and, like, so I'm going I kinda love you, and like, he's going I sorta love you too, and then we're going kissy-huggy...." although actually, that might be kind of funny). If you establish that this voice sounds like your character, that's what's important.

However, IF you have a more verbose narrator, go with it-- don't just go with long sentences. Work on the diction too. What words would this person use?

It could be fun to vary the voice with the shape he/she has shifted into also. The supermodel shape probably has a different voice!

Anyway, let me parse your opening, at long last.
I stood in front of the water-spotted bathroom mirror and shifted myself into a supermodel, a tall one with sexy lips and a juicily curving figure.

In these crucial opening moments, sneak in information when you can do it subtly. Is it "my water-spotted mirror"? Or the water-spotted mirror in the Dew Drop Inn's bathroom? (Notice that going with shorter sentences lets you add more detail.) I think we need to get an idea quickly of where we are, where this mirror is, because-- and this could just be me-- by the end of the second paragraph, I've already decided this is a honky-tonk bar, and I'm not sure that's what you want me to think. (It was the Texas two-step that made me think honky-tonk, btw.) If you want to cut short my probably incorrect speculation, put some quick unobtrusive setting info in the first paragraph. And it doesn't take much. If you have "my mirror," I'll know she's in her home.

I liked that verb "shifted" and the ease there-- no big deal, I just shifted into a supermodel. The syntax is just odd enough to make me know that something unusual is happening, but not odd enough to confuse me.

Do supermodels have juicily curving figures? I have to say, I'm not sure how actual supermodels would go over in a bar in cow-patty territory ("I like a woman with more meat on her"). The word "supermodel" is instantly understandable, and that's good, but precision matters. Supermodels do tend to be thin and straighter than curvy, from what I can see in Vogue magazine. So you might have some young people read that and see if they're getting the picture you want them to get. For some reason, I'm thinking "cover model" and "curvy figure" fit together better. "Supermodel" connects in my mind (and I'm not your target audience, of course!) with "thin and angular".

Otherwise, the sentence works pretty well to draw me in, and the diction seems appropriate to the genre you're writing in. The sentence is long but not very complicated, so I didn't have to re-read and untangle, and that's good. :)

If there were other shape-shifters in the world, they would probably despise me for being so shallow.

Okay, this is probably the sentence that clinks wrong for me. The inverted opening there ("If there were") is not really conversational and indicates a narrator with a more sensitive understanding of English grammar than most YA readers will have. That does NOT mean you shouldn't use it-- only that you need to make sure that it suits your character (and I suppose that your character suits a YA novel). I am definitely getting the idea that this narrator isn't a typical teen-- well, I knew that, since he/she is a shapeshifter, as we can tell by your clever use of "other" there (nice subtle touch). And really, as long as the voice expresses the character, it can work in any genre, probably. (Lemony Snicket's books-- wildly popular with grade-school readers-- feature a pompous 19th-C-run-amuck omniscient narrator, and it's the perfect voice for the stories.) Just make sure that the voice I'm getting is representative of this character-- that he/she would use "despise" rather than "hate", for example.

This is the sentence, anyway, that seems wrong and out-of-voice, but maybe it's not. It might work better if you went with two sentences that told more, like (just an example):
I didn't know if there were other shapeshifters in the world. But I did know they'd probably totally hate me for being so shallow. (My teenaged students would probably say "superficial," I think, but "shallow" says what you mean.)

or maybe:
You're probably wondering if there are other shapeshifters in the world. I didn't actually know, but I knew they'd probably hate me for being so shallow.

or if you really want to exploit that whole weird "who am I talking to" aspect of first-person:
Any other shapeshifters out there? Okay, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I was shallow and not a respectable representative of the shapeshifting community. Well, duh.

IOW, there are lots of ways to say that, different voices, same message. This is really about channeling this character, and I do mean this-- if your sentences are matching your character, that's what's important. I'm just getting sort of a writerly vibe there, so I want to emphasize that you need to make sure-- in first-person-- that the narration sounds like the character, that we understand more about who this character is by how he/she sounds.

But I live in the land of cow patty bingo and weekly Two-Step Night, so I have to find entertainment where I can.

I like your glimpse of "the land". Now you're using past tense throughout ("If there WERE"), and that's actually kind of important in a first-person narration. There is the past of the book time, and there's the present when presumably s/he's telling the story, and you don't want to get us confused. Like what I'm getting is that she's not telling us that NOW (in the present) s/he knows or doesn't know there are shapeshifters, but rather that at the time of this scene, all we know is s/he doesn't know then. That's good, because you don't want to tip your hand (s/he might learn in the course of the book that there are other shapeshifters). But really, the most effective way to do this is to cast pretty much everything in past tense, so you're not posing the question in the reader's mind. "I live? Does that mean that s/he still lives there after the events of the book are done? Have to find? So s/he still has to find entertainment-- she hasn't found any fulfillment in the book?" If you aren't meaning to make some specific point about "after the book events," put all your verbs in past tense, and avoid the issue. (Some writers put it all in present tense, but that means narrating the events completely as they happen, with no retrospective at all, which can be fun, but might not be what you want.)

I think what confused me is what you mean by "so I have to find entertainment where I can." First, what's the entertainment? You might need to go back and add enough to the first paragraph that makes us know a bit about what he/she plans to do in that supermodel body. We just don't have enough info here. For example, after:
I stood in front of the water-spotted bathroom mirror and shifted myself into a supermodel, a tall one with sexy lips and a juicily curving figure.

... try adding another line to that first paragraph, like, say, "The cowboys around the bar would love me." Or "The boys hanging around the prom punchbowl wouldn't know what to do with me." Or "I was going to totally intimidate all the other candidates for cheerleader."
That would help nail down the setting and situation more, and also set up for that "entertainment" in the last line.

Back to the final line:
But I live in the land of cow patty bingo and weekly Two-Step Night, so I have to find entertainment where I can.

"Where I can"-- "where" seems a bit imprecise, because presumably she's not talking about a place. "How I can?" "When I can?"

Picky, picky, but every word should be just the right word in the opening. Also be aware of what the target audience is going to get from this. I'm not your target audience. I'm not even an editor who acquires for your target audience. So I might be completely wrong here. I do teach teenagers, though, so I hear their voices ALL THE TIME, so I don't think the character sounds like a normal teen... but of course, he/she isn't a normal teen, so that's fine. I'd just suggest making sure the voice sounds like the character-- and reveals what you want to reveal about the character.

Very intriguing! I like the idea of a shapeshifter in the YA world. Wish I'd had that capability back at Blacksburg High. :)



MeganRebekah said...

Just FYI - there's a MG novel coming out called The Shifter.
Similarly names novels appear all the time, but it's something to be aware of.

Anonymous said...

If by The Shifter you mean the book Agent Kristin has talked about on her blog, it's not about shapeshifting.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, let me try that link again
The Shifter said...

Wonderful insights, I learned a lot simply by reading it.

Jeanne Ryan said...

I have no idea what this person looks like normally, so the shift to supermodel isn't contrasted sharply with anything.

I don't think the words "in the world" are necessary. The perspective here seems off. How much experience does this person have with "the world"? Sounds like they are from some little podunk town.

I would like to see more conflict in this character about being so "shallow" rather than just dismiss it as making entertainment.

I like the idea a lot. I would read on.


Elizabeth said...

I like this overall, and actually I don't think I agree with the suggested changes that have to do with voice. I read a lot of young adult, and I think this voice is fine.

I also think it's fine that we don't know, from these few sentences, just what fun she's planning to have with her model body; I would keep reading to find out.

I agree with the comments, though, on the "If there were..." sentence being confusing. My first thought was: how does our narrator know that hypothetical other shapeshifters would be different from her?

What about something along the lines of:

"I know that having an ability no one else does should give me a sense of responsibility. But I live in the land of..."

-- Conveys the same factual info (she's the only shapeshifter she's aware of) in the same slightly indirect way, keeping the focus on her plans to use her power for fun.