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Day 4 (Part 2) of May’s Voice Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentor Jenni Walsh

Thursday, 5 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 Jenni Walsh

Jenni WalshJenni L. Walsh spends her days knee deep in words in Philadelphia’s suburbia. Copywriting, freelance editing, blogging for Kick-Butt Kidlit, mentoring for Pitch Wars, and authoring—she does it all, and loves every second of it.

Jenni’s passion lies in transporting readers to another world, be it in historical or contemporary settings. Becoming Bonnie (Tor, 2017) is her debut novel, telling the untold story of how Bonnelyn Parker becomes half of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde duo during the Roaring 20s.

Website | Twitter | Facebook





Jenni’s 500 Word Critique . . .

Young Adult Contemporary with a Science Fiction Element

I wanna start by saying that voice is hard. Really hard. It’s also very subjective. But you signed up to get my subjective opinion, so here we go! 🙂
I define voice as the “personality” of your MC and writing style.
And currently, the sentence structure and word use is making your writing style come across pretty formal for a young adult novel, which in turn is making your character’s voice formal and stiff.
For example, let’s start with the very first sentence:
I awoke to pounding at my door. “Awoke” immediately gave me pause. Why not “woke”. Better yet, begin with a more gripping first sentence that only your character would do/say.
In general, I think this excerpt can be expounded, which I think aids in voice. I find that when a scene is well rounded, the character’s voice follows naturally. It’s almost as if you step into the scene, making it easier for your characters to feel real. Also, having those extra details allows you to create a rhythm with your writing as you develop your character’s stream of consciousness. A natural cadence is huge for me as a reader. I want there to be natural pauses, a natural flow, and when I get to the end of the paragraph, I
want to feel a natural “stop” before diving head first into the next paragraph. Notice I said: natural a lot. In YA, the key is for your voice to feel real. Reading your book out loud is a great way to see if the cadence/rhythm is working.
At first I presumed I was dreaming as I answered it in a trancelike state. But when a hysterical Hannah flung herself onto my shoulders, and Aditi turned on the lights, I realized that I wasn’t dreaming, but Hannah was.
Let’s look at this second paragraph for ways you could potentially further develop it to better construct your MC’s stream of consciousness and personality: Hannah’s clothing (to give an idea if she came from home, night out on the town, etc)? Your MC’s initial reaction to the name Jake? Weird Hannah mentioned a boy (does she have a boyfriend already, just gone through a bad breakup? Not interested in men?) What are your MC’s emotional reactions to the scene? Who is Aditi /where did she came from? Weird that Hannah showed up unannounced? Is your MC surprised that Hannah is having a nightmare? Or is that common? Are they in one of their parents’ houses? Apartment? Dorm room? Sorority house?
Basically, what is the setting? What is your MC feeling/thinking and how is she reacting to these external elements? Answering those questions
could help give your readers a better idea of what makes your MC tick and her outlook on things, thus helping your MCs voice.
To hone in on one of those questions, when Jake is mentioned, does your MC think, “who on earth is that?”, “who the hell is that?”, “who the f***
is that?” Each variation gives off a slightly different vibe, and as a reader I want to know what type of vocab/phrases she uses.
For example, let’s look at these next two sentences. Something like the following “says” more:
Holy crap, Hannah’s a blubbering mess. [Insert something Hannah could have said, including the name Jake]. No, that’s not right. That doesn’t make sense. And Jake? Who the hell is he?
I think this gives a distinct vibe. I don’t have any clue if it’s right for your character or not. But if it’s not, that just goes to show the importance of voice.
She was sobbing uncontrollably. Most of her words were incoherent, but I kept hearing the name Jake. “She’s having a nightmare,” Aditi stated. “We need to wake her up.” I was on the floor, holding Hannah in my arms and simultaneously smoothing her hair, while Aditi kept repeating, “Hannah, wake up. You’re dreaming.”
After a couple of minutes, her tears subsided, and she began to blink and look around uncomprehendingly.  
“You were having a nightmare.It’s over. You’re here with Aditi and me.”
“It was horrible … (just a side note: ellipses are generally used when dialogue stops and goes in a new direction. It “shouldn’t” be used to dictate how the dialogue is spoken) I was at the beach waiting in line to buy an ice cream cone … but then Jake darted away from me.” I had to strain to hear; she was only half awake, and I’d never heard her mention a Jake before. “He was chasing something. He pulled his leash out of my hand and was running towards a busy street. I kept calling … but he wouldn’t stop.” She began crying again. “And then a beat-up, green car came flying at him. I knew what was going to happen. But he kept running … I heard the screech of brakes. It was like a
movie in slow motion. I kept screaming, and the next thing I knew, I was here on your floor.”
Something else you can try to build upon in your scenes is breaking up your dialogue a little more. Show reactions, expressions, instead of a ping-pong of dialogue. This is a hard balance to hit, though, because you don’t want to slow pacing or make the dialogue feel unnatural in an effort to expound.
“It’s okay. It wasn’t real.” Aditi soothed.
[Expression?] “But it felt so real.”
“I bet it was Caitlyn,” I said with disgust (telling). “She gave you a nightmare.”
“I don’t know … [Physical reaction] but I’m afraid to go back to sleep.”
“Do you want to stay here?” I asked. “You can sleep in my bed?”
“You can’t go back to your room,” Aditi said. “You’ll sleep better here.” 
“Alright.” Then she crawled into my bed and was asleep in a matter of seconds.
“Hannah has to talk to Mr. Robbins tomorrow,” Aditi said while I made up a bed on the floor with some extra blankets and pillows. “Caitlyn can’t get away with this.”
Hannah woke up in my bed. She was baffled as to how she got there. We went through the facts of the previous night, but she couldn’t recall the dream. She could only vaguely remember talking with us before falling back to sleep.
At breakfast, she told us she’d confronted Caitlyn, who adamantly denied sending her a nightmare. Instead she offered what sounded like fake sympathy, but Hannah believed it.
At our urging (telling. I’d rather see this back and forth to establish their relationships and interactions, which in turn will help establish voice), Hannah had promised to talk with Mr. Robbins. I noticed he asked both of them to stay after class today. I was dying to know what was going on.
Fortunately, Hannah stopped by our room less than thirty minutes later.
“What happened?” Aditi asked.
(Add reaction/expression) Hannah launched into a recap. She explained that Mr. Robbins listened to …
At the end of this excerpt, the reader still doesn’t know your MCs name, which makes it difficult to walk in her (I’m assuming she’s female) first-person shoes. This is affecting your voice, as well.

Overall though, I think your voice may be at a disadvantage (and underdeveloped) because of word choice, underdeveloped scenes and emotional responses, and a bit too much telling. I tried to give at least one example of each, but I didn’t feel like I had a strong enough grasp on your story to really spell out potential solutions. I think/hope you’ll find that if you concentrate on improving the mechanics of your writing and storytelling, the voice will begin to spill out of you (and probably take on a life of its own in your head). Good luck!

Thank you, Jenni, for your critique. Interested in more 500 word voice critiques? Come back tomorrow for our next two critiques. And get ready! The Pitch Wars Mentor Wishlist Blog Hop starts July 20 with the Pitch Wars submission window opening on August 3.

Books by Jenni Walsh . . .

Becoming Bonnie

Part origin story/part epic crime novel, Becoming Bonnie tells the untold story of how church-going Bonnelyn Parker becomes half of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde duo during the 1920s.

Publisher: Tor Forge/Macmillan
Expected Publication: May 9, 2017

  • Christine Grabowski says:

    Jenni – Thank you so much for the critique. You gave me a lot of ideas to work with. I appreciate the honest feedback.

    • Jenni Walsh says:

      Christine, I think what ya got here is a great draft to get ya started. It looks like you’ve got the bones down on paper (answering the “who” and “what”), so now just add some meat (by answering “how” and “why”). I really do think that once you start to add details, emotions, reactions, etc, the voice will come alive. Best of luck, and way to put yourself (and your WIP) out there. That’s not easy 🙂

      • Christine Grabowski says:

        Thanks for the positive feedback. I need some of that to keep going. 🙂 It’s a competitive industry and I am working on thickening my skin. But putting my work “out there” seems to be the best way to get honest feedback.

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