I’d like to welcome Darcy Pattison to the Mixed-Up Files! I’ve heard author friends rave about Darcy’s workshops for years and am thrilled to interview her.
Thank you so much for giving one lucky winner access to your online course: DEMYSTIFYING VOICE. Can you share a few voice tips with everyone?
I started seriously studying voice when an editor told a friend that her story was good, but the voice just wasn’t quite right. And, the editor said, you can’t teach voice. It’s either there, or it’s not.
Well, that was a challenge. Game on!
Turns out, that editor was wrong. You can teach voice.
As writers, we have three things available to us. In any piece of writing, there are words, sentences and passages (or longer sections of the work). By focusing on each in turn, you can learn a lot about controlling voice.
For example, words can be long or short, smooth or abrupt. They carry both a dictionary meaning (denotation) and emotional meaning (connotations). Words have different origins, which bring shades of meaning. The sound of a word is important in many contexts, so I encourage the study of phonics.
Words alone can and do bring meaning and joy to writing. They help create voice.
To emphasize the importance of words, I often ask students to write a piece following these rules:
- You can only use one syllable words.
- No sentence can be longer than 10 words.
You might think that would be an easy reader with very little emotional content. But it can be powerful and poetic if you let it.
Wow! I love that exercise. Thanks for sharing—it’s a fantastic tool for authors and students.
What takes a book from good to I-must-read-it great?
People read to connect, to find out how others think and live. Besides a great voice, a great novel has to provide an insight into the common humanity. We can laugh or cry through a novel and yet still not feel connected. Great writers give us relatable characters who tug at our heartstrings. My new book, The Falconer, sinks you into the character of an orphaned young woman who must leave her home to find a new life. Her only companion is a magnificent gyrfalcon that she’s trained to hunt for her. The challenge was to give her an emotional life that would connect with today’s readers. She battles against a negative mother and hopes to make a difference for the Heartland’s future. Readers empathize with her struggles for identity and meaning.
I’ve heard raves about your Shrunken Manuscript technique. What makes it so successful?
When I teach, I have two goals: to clarify information so it becomes actionable and to make things visual. We are people of the word. And yet, a novel is so long that we can’t keep in mind everything over the course of 50,000+ words. We need an easy visual way to SEE the structure of a novel.
The Shrunken Manuscript asks you to shrink your story to about 30 pages by making everything single spaced, removing chapter breaks, and reducing the font to 8 pt or less. Then, you decide on your 5-6 strongest chapters. On the Shrunken Manuscript, use colorful markers to put a big X on those chapters. Lay out the 30 pages on the floor in three rows of ten pages. Suddenly, you can SEE the story’s structure.
Here are some things you might see:
- The opening is flat. The first strong chapter doesn’t occur for a long time.
- You have a sagging middle. The strong chapters are close to the beginning or the end, with nothing in the middle.
- You didn’t write an ending. The last few chapters have no strong chapters.
In fact, there are many more things you can SEE about your novel’s structure with the Shrunken Manuscript technique. I did a webinar for Highlights Foundation on the Shrunken Manuscript and you can see it free on Youtube.
What a unique way to view the strengths and weaknesses of an entire novel. Thank you for sharing your Shrunken Manuscript technique—and your Highlights Foundation video.
How do you create a rich, believable fantasy world?
World building is a detailed, messy project. In my new book, The Falconer, it began with a deep dive into falconry. The largest falcon, the gyrfalcon, lives in the north country (think Canada). I was enthralled with the noble bird and decided to include it, which meant my setting needed to start in the north. Britt, the main character, is the granddaughter of Winchal Eldras, the main character of The Wayfinder, the first Heartland book. I had to go into the back story and figure out how Win wound up in the north country and why he stayed there. I also had to extend my mental map of the Heartland itself. This time, I drew a map (which made it into the book) and set about populating the world.
One writing exercise I do with kids uses maps. The key is to name everything you put on the map. Is there a river? What’s its name? For me, naming generates images and ideas about the setting.
For individual scenes, sensory details are crucial to bringing a story to life. Things that you see, hear, smell, taste and touch (temperature & texture) create a fabric that’s believable and enticing for the reader. Choosing the right details to quickly evoke a mood is a skill to cultivate.
Worldbuilding in this case started with the needs of the story and character. But then everything had to tie together seamlessly to create a milieu in which the story would shine. The setting should enrich and uphold the story, but not come forward and take over.
How has publishing changed through the years and what do you think might be coming in the future?
I’ve been traditionally published with Harcourt, Harpercollins and Penguin, but I’m now happily self-published with my company, Mims House. This is only possible because of print-on-demand (POD) technologies and ebooks. Technology has put publishing within reach technically and financially for any writer who chooses. It’s an alternate path for a passionate author with creative business ideas. The explosive growth of audiobooks will be another frontier for enterprising storytellers.
As mobile-first users and voice-activated technologies take over in the next decade, it’s easy to predict that ebooks will dominate adult fiction and nonfiction. It’s harder to predict what will happen with children’s books. Many parents and kids still prefer print books. But apps like EPIC! point the way toward a wider acceptance of digital stories for kids. EPIC! has removed the barriers of cumbersome log-ins, added a gaming element and presents books in a smooth and easy experience. They’ve solved the technical and user-experience side of children’s digital books. It’s going to be interesting to see if digital books for kids spreads and how fast it will spread. Personally, I think it will always be a mixed experience for kids with some print books and some digital.
My favorite way to read is a physical book—but digital books can be helpful, especially when traveling. And if you ever have an unexpected wait, there’s always something wonderful to read.
Is there anything else you’d like to share, Darcy?
I’m more excited about storytelling than ever before. The channels for finding and connecting with readers has exploded because of technology. The next wave of technology will be artificial intelligence, mobile-first and voice-activated solutions. But humans will always need story that connects them to the world and to other humans. Our job is to adapt to the changing environment and yet keep our priorities straight. We connect people with themselves through well-told and emotionally moving stories. Storytellers—from the bards of old to the digitally adept today—will never be outdated.
Thank you for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files and sharing so many helpful writing tips—and how you believe that emotionally moving stories and storytellers will never be outdated. It’s also wonderful to know that voice can be taught!
Darcy has generously donated her online course: DEMYSTIFYING VOICE to one lucky winner. Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below.
Editors buy novels with a distinctive voice. It’s the single most important thing they are looking for. That means you need to understand voice and be able to control the voice of your writing. In this 30-minute lecture with PowerPoint, Darcy breaks voice into practical craft issues. Lots of examples make the concepts concrete rather than fuzzy. You’ll have solid ideas on where to start working on your own voice and will be a step closer to telling a powerful story.
The winner will be posted on August 1. Good luck, everyone!
Storyteller, writing teacher, Queen of Revisions, and founder of Mims House, Darcy Pattison has been published in ten languages. Her books, published with Harcourt, Philomel/Penguin, Harpercollins, Arbordale, and Mims House have received recognition for excellence with starred reviews in Kirkus, BCCB and PW. Four nonfiction nature books have been honored as National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade books: Desert Baths (2013), Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma (2015), Nefertiti the Spidernaut (2017), Clang! Ernst Chladni’s Sound Experiments (2019).
The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt) received an Irma Simonton Black and James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature Honor Book award and has been published in a Houghton Mifflin textbook. The Nantucket Sea Monster: A Fake News Story is a Junior Library Guild selection and a 2018 National Council of Teacher’s of English Notable Children’s Book in Language Arts. Pollen: Darwin’s 130 Year Prediction is a 2019 Junior Library Guild selection. Darcy is the 2007 recipient of the Arkansas Governor’s Arts Award for Individual Artist for her work in children’s literature.