Category Archives: Voice

Answering the Question: “Why Did You Write This Story?”

Recently, I sat with my marketing team at HarperCollins and discussed different ideas for promoting my novel, The Poet X. People often ask me what my novel is about (which is a question I hate! I don’t have my elevator pitch down and I often hem and haw my way through every plot point only to wrap up with, “anditisaboutslampoetryandloveandfaithanddaughterhood.”) but at this particular  meeting my publicist asked a question I wasn’t expecting, “Why did you write this particular story?”

I’ve been sitting with that question. I think I wrote The Poet X because as a teen Afro-Dominicana, spoken word was a place that I found I could express myself and question all of the roles that had been impressed upon me by my culture, and neighborhood, and school; roles that sometimes felt like too tight clothing I couldn’t breathe in.

I’ve taught everything from 8th grade English to creative writing in adjudicated youth centers to the award-winning cohort of youth poets, the DC Youth Slam Team, and time and again I was moved by the realization that many of the young people in my classes and workshops found poetry as an outlet to be their full selves. So many of these young people were also trying to stretch into the person they wanted to be. At some point in their life they’d been told they were too big, or loud, or black, or brown, or accented, or poor, or incarcerated, or dumb; and so The Poet X is for them. A place where young people who are “too much” can see themselves reflected back; a reminder they exist and are worthy of every piece of literature.

Between when I began The Poet X and when it sold, I wrote two other manuscripts. One was an urban fantasy novel set in the Dominican Republic and the second one was magical realism centering a teen mom who aspired to be a chef. I loved both those stories and each one of them taught me how to become a better fiction writer. In my heart I knew that I wanted my debut book to be a story that set a strong foundation for my career and if it was the only thing I ever wrote, I wanted it to be something that reflected the values and experiences I hold dear. So for writers working on their first project, here’s what I’ve learned while trying to answer the “why” that I think led to my telling the story closest to my heart.

  • Write with blinders on. That doesn’t mean to be tone deaf to current events, but it’s easy to want to write in response to a trend. I think about all the writers who wanted to write vampires or BDSM after those subjects became trendy, and it was clear what stories had been mulled over for years and explored and writtend irrespective to what was “hot” and the stories that were quickly slapped together to fit the times. If the story doesn’t nag at you, or tug on your heart, or make your palms sweaty that lack of rootedness will show. Write the story that feels urgent to you. Don’t chase a trend because what the market wants will change in a second, but what moves you will move others. If you return to an idea, it’s because you truly love it.
  • Give yourself permission to meander. I had to write a lot of different things before I could finish to The Poet X. Like a first time dater, I had a lot to learn before I could fully commit. I needed to play with other storylines, and try different styles and genres, so that by the time I returned to X, I was smarter, a better writer, and had a clear sense of why this was the story I wanted to be working on and putting out into the world.
  • Allow your book to be a mirror and a window. In The Poet X, I was intentional about how I deployed slang, and non-standard English, and Spanish, and Latinidad, and slam poetry, and urban imagery; I was mindful that not all of my readers would be familiar with ways to navigate those different experiences, but I trust readers will still be intrigued enough to peek in and stay awhile. For other readers, I imagine this world will feel really familiar and I’m so happy they will find a comfortable place to rest their head. Negotiating what needed context clues and what might require the reader to do additional work, was a tough balance to find, but I stayed true to telling my most authentic story.

My “why” will probably change as the release date gets closer and I keep mining the myriad of answers that spring up every time I think about my book. The heart of my answer will probably always be: Growing up, I wanted to find a blueprint for myself in stories but struggled to find a girl like me in books. So, I decided to write her. And so my last piece of advice: write into existence the story you most needed growing up; your younger self will thank you.

20131031-dsc_7508-copyELIZABETH ACEVEDO is the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from the George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over fourteen years of performance experience, Acevedo has toured her poetry nationally and internationally. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and has two collections of poetry, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016) and winner of the 2016 Berkshire Prize, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm (Tupelo Press, forthcoming). The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is her debut novel. She lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

 

7 Comments

Filed under Characters, Creativity, Diversity, Editing and Revising, Inspiration, process, Uncategorized, Voice

Taking The Leap

Because of the earth’s orbit and math, we sometimes get an extra day tacked onto February. Leap Day. It’s a sweet bonus, like those yummy after-dinner mints that (too rarely) come with the check. A chance to take a breath and look around. A chance to decide what’s next. Today’s one of those days, and it begs the question, what leap are you going to take in the year ahead?

Jump!

Maybe this year you’ll lift your chin and start to call yourself a writer. Fellow EMU Darcey Rosenblatt has some thoughts on that: http://bit.ly/1Lokayk

Maybe you’ll commit to devoting a chunk of your precious time to starting or upping your word count. You might attend your first conference. Join a critique group. Seek representation. Start submitting manuscripts.

To my knowledge, there is no way to do this work without taking the big, scary, chancy leap at some point. When is that point? I think it’s when your work is as good, as powerful, as irresistible as you can make it. You have to honest with yourself. Outside opinions can be valuable, of course, but what ultimately matters is you. Your inimitable point of view. Your voice. YOU.

As writers, we are the midwives of emotion. We are called to pull the heartstrings, to summon the tears, to tickle the funnybone. Out of words and our own vulnerability, we forge a profound and mysterious bond of togetherness with our readers. We say to them—you are not alone. We both find this funny. We both find that sad. We both see this particular beauty right here and right now.

When you believe you’ve approached that point of connection, that point where you’ve done all you can, you should do it. Take the leap.

Gravatar About Hayley Barrett

I write for young people and live to make kids laugh. My debut picture book, BABYMOON, is coming from Candlewick Press.

 

19 Comments

Filed under Agents, Colleagues, Creativity, Inspiration, Publishers and Editors, Uncategorized, Voice, Writing, Writing and Life

Building A World

One of my favorite little worlds is this world created by Emilia Forstreuter. Take a minute and give it a look.

Isn’t that lovely–both oddly familiar and magically strange. I think about this animation quite often when I’m working on fantasy novels. How does this world manage to be something I recognize while still being full of surprises?

But picture books are little worlds too. One of the first things I got to do when I became an Emu was to interview the lovely Anne Wilsdorf about her illustrations for Sophie’s Squash. I asked her about her habit of doing illustrated endpapers and she said the reason that she does that is that “A book is not just something you consume and throw away. It’s a whole world. You enter into that world when you enter the book. So it has to be complete–from the cover all the way to the endpapers. I think when it is complete, it allows you to be in the world of that book.”(See interview here.)

wilsdorf_01

Anne Wilsdorf

I’ve thought about that as I’ve tried to create my own worlds in my picture books. What are the things a writer can do with the text to make that world between the covers of a book complete. And I think one of the most important things the text brings to that creation is voice–that hard to define thing that, within a few words often, lets you know “this is where you are.” This book will be funny or sweet or sad or wise or brave.

I’ve gone to my bookcase to give you a few examples:

1)”One day, a lion came to the library. He walked right past the circulation desk and up into the stacks.”

2)”A cow says moo. A sheep says baa. Three singing pigs say la, la, la!”

3)”Rock, stone, pebble, sand/Body, shoulder, arm, hand/A moat to dig, a shell to keep/All the world is wide and deep.”

4)”Everyone was perfectly fine with the way things were. Everyone but Mr. Tiger.”

Even without the illustrations (and if you know these books, you’ll know that the visual voice perfectly matches the heard voice), don’t you feel that you know exactly where you are, that in just a couple of sentences, you have a handle on the world of this story?

Voice. It’s a beautiful, powerful thing. Which picture books that you love  use voice to get you quickly into the world of the story?

mylisa_email_2-2Mylisa Larsen has been telling stories for a long time. This has caused her to get gimlet-eyed looks from her parents, her siblings and, later, her own children when they felt that certain stories had been embellished beyond acceptable limits. She now writes children’s books where her talents for hyperbole are actually rewarded.

She is the author of the picture books, How to Put Your Parents to Bed coming out February 9, 2016 (Katherine Tegen Books) and If I Were A Kangaroo (Viking.)

 

 

 

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under Picture books, Voice