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I’m so happy to share with you my interview with our judge for the Can We Guess Your Character’s Age? Blogfest Contest, Gabriela Lessa, editor, literary agent assistant, writer, blogger, journalist, Brazilian, insomniac and word nerd. In addition to being an Associate Editor at Turquoise Morning Press and an assistant at a major New York-based literary agency, she works independently to offer editing and consulting for authors.
And welcome, Gabriela . . .
I’m addicted to coffee. I must have a full cup beside me as I write. Do you have any vices for your writing, editing, or that agent assistant gig you do?
GB: I actually have a terrible case of insomnia. So, since I don’t sleep anyway, I might as well just fill it with work! I don’t drink coffee at all. My big addiction is chocolate, but well, the extra pounds have proved that is not the way to go. So I just work with a bottle of water next to me. Wow. I think that’s the first time ever I actually have a healthy response for something!
Yeah, that’s healthy and no fun … just kidding. So you write, you edit, you consult, you’re a literary agent assistant, and you’re a journalist—how do you have time for it all?
GB: I’ve been asking myself the same thing! That’s why I’m taking a little time off writing, to focus on my editing and literary agency stuff. There are still four jobs, of course, but again, who needs sleep?
Sleep is overrated anyway. How and why did you become an editor and an agent assistant?
GB: I guess I’ve always loved editing. From my first years as a journalist I felt more comfortable editing than at reporting. During grad school I actually thought of interning at a publishing house. But then I focused on journalism and just let those dreams go. I didn’t think of the literary industry again until last year, when I went back to focusing on my novel and started a critique group. The more I critiqued, the more I realized I actually loved that more than writing. And I was good at it too! Finally my years of hearing my dad say I can never let one little mistake pass were paying off!
And then there was agenting. I saw all those tweets, read all those blogs and I fell in love with those writer advocates. And I realized I wanted more than anything to be a part of that. So I went after it. I emailed agencies and publishers, I learned the most I could and I critiqued. I finally had the guts to start my own business, and around that same time I snatched the assistant position with this amazing agent who I admire deeply and got the position at Turquoise Morning Press, a wonderful publisher that has been growing steadily. And that was that. I got involved in the editing process and there’s no way I’m leaving it. Every day I learn more and love this business more. Next year I’m hoping to focus a lot more on my editing and maybe grow a bit on the agenting side of things.
Way to reach for your dreams! Since our contest is about getting the age of our characters right, how does voice help us achieve that?
GB: Voice is everything. It’s how you bring your reader into your character’s mind. And once you’re inside someone’s mind, you have to be able to recognize that someone — and their age, of course — in every thought, every comment and every action. You can usually tell someone’s age by hearing them talk, right? Same goes for writing. I just wrote a post about that, if you want to check my blog at www.gabrielalessa.com/blog.
Excellent post, you all should all go check it out. So Gabi, are there any particular genres that tend to be difficult to get the voice and age of the character right?
GB: I think MG and YA are particularly tricky because kids change so much at that age. A 17-year-old will never accept being compared to a 14-year-old (God forbid!). When you’re talking about an adult, you can have a ballpark: someone in their thirties, in their forties, in their fifties. A 37-year-old isn’t that different from a 33-year-old. They have similar voices, similar views, similar goals. But in your teens, every year counts. I see that a lot: a YA that sounds like an older MG, or vice-versa. It’s an easy mistake to make. On the other hand, those ages have more specific voices. Trying to set a forty-something apart from a thirty-something can be quite challenging too. So, with younger characters, the goal is to get the behavior exactly right for that specific age. For adults, the goal is to find something specific to that age that will bring out your character.
How do you think not getting the age right affects the story?
In every possible way. Things stop making sense to the reader. It doesn’t sound believable. And that might be a real pain when it comes to selling your book. It makes it harder to fit on a bookstore shelf. It makes it harder for readers to identify with your character. To me, that would be a big reason for rejection.
What’s your advice on how writers can stay fresh and capture the voice and age of the characters they’re writing?
Know what you’re talking about. If you haven’t been around a teenager in years, you might not be able to portray one that well. If you’re in your twenties and you think thirties, forties and fifties are all one big thing, you might not be able to write a fresh character. And, once you know your characters, stay true to them. You don’t have to agree with their thinking or their actions. Things have to make sense within a context.
In your literary agent assistant gig, what are the biggest mistakes you see writers make in the opening pages of their manuscripts?
Too much description, too much background information and a boring voice. They usually come in pairs, actually. And they make you not want to read more. If I’m reading a query and, after the second page of the manuscript, I feel an urge to check Twitter, it’s usually not a good opening. It has to start right into the action and it has to show a voice that grabs me.
As a consultant, how do you help a writer develop a voice if one is lacking?
A voice can be lacking for many reasons. So the first step is to identify what makes it “voiceless”. The most common reasons are telling instead of showing and too much background information. Amazingly enough, another one is too much internalization. That opening punch line that puts us right inside the characters head is fantastic. But many writers go on and on with it, and that just takes away the voice. It feels like the character loses credibility if he/she doesn’t interact with the world.
In closing, what is your favorite book with an awesome voice that you feel writers can learn from the writing?
Oh, boy. It’s a tough competition for the spot of my favorite book. But I’ll pick one in each age group that really showcases this age voice.
For adults, I’d have to say The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. She manages to not only differ a man’s voice from a woman’s, but she has each character in different moments of their lives, and interacting with the other in a different age. It’s amazing how she does it. You can learn a lot about writing characters in their twenties, thirties and forties from that book.
For MG and YA, I would have to say Harry Potter. He starts as an 11-year-old and J.K. Rowling just migrates effortlessly from MG into YA. You can see him evolving and you can see how different an 11-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old really are.
Thank you, Gabriela for sharing with us today! I can’t wait for the blogfest/contest on December 8th. Don’t forget to check out Gabriela’s website and her editing services.
If you haven’t entered yet go to this post here and enter now!