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Day 12 (Part 1) of May’s Voice Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentor Naomi Hughes

Tuesday, 17 May 2016  |  Posted by Heather Cashman

voice workshop

Welcome to May’s Voice Workshop with some of our amazing Pitch Wars mentors. From a Rafflecopter lottery drawing, we selected over thirty writers to participate in the workshop. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a 500 word sample that the writer chose from his or her manuscript where he or she felt they needed help with their voice. Our hope that these samples will help you with your work and that you’ll get to know some of our wonderful Pitch Wars mentors.We appreciate our mentors for giving up their time to do the critiques. If you have something encouraging to add, feel free to comment below. Please keep all comments tasteful. We will delete any inappropriate or hurtful ones.

And now we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Naomi Hughes

Website  |  Twitter

Naomi HughesBio: Naomi Hughes is an assistant editor at Entangled Publishing, and she also offers freelance editing services at naomiedits.com. She’s served as a mentor/judge in many writing contests (including Pitch Madness, Query Kombat, and the infamous Pitch Wars) over the past few years. She’s also a writer herself—if you want to find out more about her quirky young adult and middle-grade stories, you can check out her author page at naomihughes.net.


Naomi’s 500 Word Critique . . .

YA Contemporary

I stood in front of the Video Gamers Club sweating. The gamers were not my first choice of audience, but the bigger problem was plain old heat. The Digital Media Lab held so many computers it never cooled off. The sweat pouring off me that afternoon was unseemly. Good thing the lights were off. A lot of the sentences so far feel very similar in structure (short, single-clause), and that’s something that can make your voice feel drab and monotone. Luckily, this is a pretty easy fix! Varying up your sentence length and construction can easily make your voice and writing style feel more distinctive and easier to read. No one could see the dark spots I imagined forming under my arms or the way my cheeks burned.

I worked on the ten minute animated film that played on the screen next to me three days a week after school, plus all the weekend time I could fit around studies for my junior year at the Moran Upper School, where I was constantly being reminded that as one of the best and brightest I should be studying.

I was proud. This doesn’t quite feel like it fits. Single-sentences paragraphs can be a very powerful technique for introducing an emotion or thought that you want to have a big impact on readers, but generally that emotion/thought needs to be something that’s surprising or evocative or juxtapositioned against another point you made in the prior paragraph. Here, though, “I was proud” just feels like a natural continuation of your character’s earlier train of thought. It’s not surprising or particularly grabby, so using it as a single-sentence paragraph ends up feeling confusing and lacks power.

The short film ended with a bang. A fifteen second fireworks segment I must have spent eighteen hours on.

I jumped when the rockets burst. Again, the single-sentence paragraph doesn’t quite pack the punch it should—it makes it feel like readers should be getting more out of this statement, like it has some deeper hidden meaning, when in actuality it’s simply another way of showing us that your character is nervous/excited/proud. I really like that you’re using a physical indicator here to show that emotion instead of just telling how she feels, but I’d recommend tacking this on to the end of the prior paragraph so it doesn’t make readers feel like they’re missing something.

Ms. Bennett flipped on the lights at the front of the room. I sucked in a calming breath and began my presentation. Sweat, unintentional blush and all.

“My name is Renee Griffith and you just watched Goes Boom…

Giggles filtered up from the mostly male audience.

Not sure why that was funny. This is another single-sentence paragraph that doesn’t really merit its placement. The prior line (“Giggles…”), however, does! It packs a punch because it interrupts/contrasts with the paragraph right before it, and gives us interesting new information that makes us think about the scene in a new light. Quick, punchy sentences like that can add some nice pop to your voice.

I closed my eyes and centered myself again. The key to a good presentation was staying focused. If I could keep my head while the gamers tried to throw me, I could give this speech anywhere.

“It tells the story of a blue rocket who wants to be red…”

A low chatter started under the laughter. I raised my voice and kept going.

“She tried paint and sparkles, ribbons and glue—”

“Why does the rocket have to be a girl? Doesn’t being a rocket seem more like a boy thing?” Someone interrupted from the middle of the room.

I pursed my lips. I did not explain that the rocket was a girl because I was a girl. A girl who was trying to figure out how to be herself and fit in with the people around her. <—This feels a touch simplistic and trite as an introduction for what could be a rich, deep theme. It would make us feel more grounded in her head if you showed this motivation/struggle more gradually through her actions and the way she interacts with the world around her, instead of informing us of it in a single quick sentence that doesn’t really have much voice. People like the boys in the Gamers Club. Starting with the good… I’m not sure what she means here. Starting with the good people?

Wow, it’s really hot you game. <–I’m not sure what she means here? Come sit down.

But turning bad when I beat them. I’m not clear on how she “beat” them. Is there a rivalry between her and the gamers? I thought she was just making a presentation to them as practice for other presentations.

Shit, what’d you have to do that for. This is supposed to be fun. The italicized thoughts are a bit confusing here, and they don’t really add anything we can’t get from the rest of the internal narrative. They do add some voice (“shit”), but that’s something that you could easily slip in elsewhere. You really don’t need italicized thoughts at all unless you’re using them for something super voice-y and/or important—otherwise, you can slide the character’s thoughts into the narrative itself, which will actually make us feel even more grounded in their heads.

Because, turned out, it was only fun when the boys won. This is another great example of an impactful single-sentence paragraph! It gives us new insight into the way your character thinks plus a nice snippet of voice, and turns the narrative in an interesting new direction.

“But the ribbons and glitter aren’t what make her a rocket. It’s blasting off into space—”

“You didn’t answer my question,” the interrupter shouted again. Followed by a whacking sound. I searched out my defender in the crowd, but a couple of other voices joined in the razzing.

“Yeah! Why’d you do that!”

“Why a girl?”

My jaw clench.

“Why is it always about being a girl with you?”

My fight to stay calm ended with a rush.

“Shut up!” I hollered. “I’m trying to talk up here. I’d listen to you. I have to listen even when I don’t agree. So just shut the fuck up!” I really like this line of dialogue. It has nice strong voice that shows her frustration with the inequality of the situation.

Overall comments: Your voice feels believably teen, and YA can be a tough voice to nail, so kudos there! I am noticing a few techniques that are robbing some power from that voice, though. Unnecessary single-sentence paragraphs are one (they make the narrative feel choppy and can confuse readers), and uniformly short sentences are another (they can make your voice feel monotone and repetitive, kind of like a melody with only a few notes). I recommend you only use single-sentence paragraphs when you want a particular line to have a lot of impact on readers—usually when you’re twisting the scene or a train of thought in a new direction—and that you vary your sentence length for a more interesting narrative rhythm.


Thank you, Naomi, for your critique. Interested in more 500 word voice workshops? Come back this afternoon for another critique. And get ready! The Pitch Wars Mentor Wishlist Blog Hop starts July 20 with the Pitch Wars submission window opening on August 3.

We're thrilled at the different ways those in our Pitch Wars community are giving back—and we encourage them to do so. However, please keep in mind that Pitch Wars is not affiliated with any of these various contests, promotions, etc., including those of our mentors and mentees. Promoting any such opportunities via our social media channels doesn't imply endorsement or affiliation. We encourage you to do your research before participating.

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