For the past few years, I’ve served as a judge for the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Contest. Out of the 25 to 50 books I’m tasked to read, one or two are to be selected to progress to round-two judging. Most are average, a few have buried potential, and more than a handful are genuinely awful. Sometimes it’s the idea that falls short. Most often, it’s the execution. Common problems are stereotypical characters, inauthentic dialogue, passive language, and shoddy editing.
But in a good year, there is the one – the book that shines. This year, that book was Figurines by Jamie Boud.* I don’t know how it will fare with the next judge, but it impressed the heck out of me.
Figurines contains all the visual hallmarks of a high-quality novel, including striking artwork, professional design, and impeccable copyediting. Boud’s day job is as an artist and designer, and his talent shows.
The true measure, of course, is the writing. Boud shines there, as well. His use of sensory description evokes emotion and draws the reader deep into the complex story. Events from the past are slowly and expertly revealed to the reader, in first-person by two narrators who become more engaging, authentic, and tragic with each chapter.
From the book jacket:
In 2011 New York, Rachel is one step away from becoming invisible. Half a century earlier, confined in the clean, white walls of a mental hospital, Anna wishes she could be.
Rachel and Anna’s lives are woven together—one desperate to be seen, to find out who she is in the bright sunlight of New York and the dark shadows of her family history, and one frantically trying to sort reality from the fantasy in her head, to be known as a person before she’s lost to dull hospital labyrinths and the sharp tang of medicine on her tongue. Figurines is a deep exploration of self, of family, of mental illness, and the thin line between invisibility and nakedness. Between desperation and madness.
Each year, my church's youth group works to raise funds for their mission trips, and I try to help when I can. Since the group is traveling to Peru for their mission this summer, I just had to get my friend and fellow author, Natalia Sylvester, involved.
Natalia was born in Lima, Peru and came to the United States at age four. Her debut novel, CHASING THE SUN, is set in Lima during a time of civil and political unrest, and was partially inspired by family events. Natalia has a generous and fun spirit. When I told her that I planned to assemble a Peruvian-themed Book Group basket featuring her novel for the annual Youth Mission Dinner Fundraising Auction, she was thrilled to contribute a personal touch.
For those who won’t be able to join the youth on the Peru mission trip, they can explore the distant culture through Natalia’s evocative novel. The Book Group basket includes:
2 hardbound copies of CHASING THE SUN, signed by the author
A personal note from the author
Skype session with Natalia when the book group meets to discuss the novel
Favorite Peruvian recipes from the author (3 handwritten recipe cards signed by Natalia!)
Seco de Res — cilantro beef stew
Picarones — sweet potato doughnuts
Chicha Morada — purple corn drink
Several recipe ingredients imported from Peru
$40 Target gift card (to buy more books or goodies for the book group meeting)
2 additional signed bookplates
Paradise Valley United Methodist Church (PVUMC) has an enthusiastic and active group of high school-aged youth. In the past, they have traveled to Mexico and the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona to lend a hand and share their faith. They have also served communities in Phoenix, Denver, San Francisco and Booneville, Arkansas during summer missions. This year’s fundraising dinner and auction will be held February 28, 2016.
You can visit the PVUMC website if you would like to learn more and if you would like to make a donation to help support youth missions.
an essay for The Writer magazine, I
share my thoughts on the meaning of “voice” and how those thoughts evolved when
my historical novel was made into an audio book. Scroll
down to read the article, or click here to read the PDF.
novelist struggled with her character’s audio book voice, until it brought the
story to life
love to talk about voice, don’t we? We’re obsessed with it. It’s a key element of
any written work and, arguably, the most important element of fiction. And
authors seem to speak of it in the most earnest and whimsical ways. “I write
only because there is a voice within me that will not be still,” poet Sylvia Plath
wrote. Science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury once mused, “I wake early and hear
my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of
bed to trap them before they escape.”
also refers to writing style. It’s the words an author chooses, the way she
strings those words together, how she says what it is she wants to say, that creates
a novel is produced as an audio book, this literary term gains a more explicit
meaning—it becomes an actual voice. How does it feel for a novelist the first
time you hear your writing being read aloud by someone else? For me, it was
disorienting and a little weird.
publisher had contracted a professional voice artist to read my debut historical
novel as an audio book and, of course, I was thrilled. Yet, when I listened to
the first sample, it was strange to hear my main character speaking to me in a
voice that was different from the one I had been hearing in my head.
novel, All Different Kinds of Free, was inspired by a true story, and I
had worked hard to create an authentic voice for the main character and
narrator, Margaret Morgan. An educated, free woman of color in the 1830s,
Margaret was kidnapped, along with her children, to be sold into slavery.
Labeled as a runaway slave, she fought against all odds to prove and regain her
freedom. My goal was for her voice to be both strong and vulnerable, equally
wise and naive, sometimes despondent and yet always hopeful.
had read the complete manuscript maybe a dozen times as it went through the
many phases of revision, copyediting and proofreading that led up to
publication. A few times, I even read it out loud. It had a certain cadence in
my mind, a certain timbre and tone.
not that the voice artist had done a poor job of reading it. On the contrary, Mia
Bankston’s portrayal of Margaret was expert—warm and endearing, at times
gripping and heartbreaking. Still, it wasn’t exactly the voice I had come to
know in the roughly 10 years it took to research, write and publish my book.
shock of listening to that first audio sample was similar to the shock of
receiving the first round of serious edits on a manuscript. It’s a punch to the
system. Sure, you’re expecting it. You think you’re ready for it. But when the
blow lands, it still knocks the wind out of you.
what I’ve read, it’s not unlike the feelings experienced when novels are optioned
for film. As a new author, I had read a handful of articles about book-movie deals.
(We all dream of it, don’t we?) They were cautionary tales about how much your
book may change— characters may be added, plot twists removed or entire endings
rewritten. It makes sense. Film is a different medium with different rules.
an audio book, however, the voice artist reads the novel exactly how it is
written. Every contraction stays put, every comma in its place. Nothing changes.
Yet, somehow, it’s still different. My initial email to Bankston was
professional, something like, “Thanks for sending the sample. Can’t wait to
listen to it. I’ll let you know next week if I have any feedback.” Even as I
clicked on the send button, my stomach was in knots. Would I be able to provide
constructive, rational feedback?
let a day or two pass. I tried to occupy my mind with other projects, while I
nursed my literary laryngitis. Then I gave myself the same advice I always do
when I’m feeling the sting of edits or the weight of a tough project. Get
over yourself, Jessica. I took off my spiffy, new yippee-I’m-a-published-author
hat and put on my weathered professional-freelance-writer-and-editor hat. And I
listened to the audio file again with fresh, objective ears.
paused the recording at times, jotting down general thoughts and noting places
where the pace felt a little fast, where certain phrases or words needed more
or less emphasis, and when I felt the voice artist hit a comfortable stride. Bankston
had an expert way of changing her voice to reflect different characters in
dialogue. There was also a sincerity in her narration, a quality that made
Margaret feel genuine and alive. The more I listened, the more comfortable I
became with Margaret’s new voice and the way Bankston brought her to life.
and I corresponded a handful of times. I shared my feedback, and she listened
to it. She shared her thoughts, and I was impressed by her professionalism.
Several days later, she sent an edited recording of the original sample. It was
perfect. At that point, Bankston set about the task of recording the entire
book, and I plunged back into my own work.
the idea of voice nagged at me. Writers aren’t the only ones obsessed with it,
after all. I defy you to find any interviews with editors or agents that don’t
include some sort of quote about their desire to discover an author with a distinctive
voice. What does that really mean, anyway?
voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a
unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that
enriches an author’s oeuvre,” wrote literary agent Donald Maass in his book Writing
the Breakout Novel.
author John Grisham frames it in broader terms: “In life, finding a voice is
speaking and living the truth. Each of you is an original. Each of you has a
distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told.”
yes, the story. Voice empowers story. And isn’t that the most critical element in
many books have you read in which the writing, the language, the voice all
dazzled you, and yet the story itself somehow fell flat? The books that stay
with me the longest are, in fact, the ones that have both a distinctive voice and
a compelling story.
isn’t just on the page,” asserted Donna Jo Napoli, a prolific children’s and
young-adult author. “It’s voices in the reader’s head.”
the case of audio books, it’s also a voice in the reader’s ears—the voice that tells
the story in its distinctive way.
During the past year or so, I've strolled the beaches in Uruguay, explored the island of Puerto Rico and picked wild raspberries in Alaska. Novelist and literary critic Caroline Gordon said, "A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way." I couldn't agree more.
Curious about how authors and publishers create book trailers for their new releases? Mari Pfeiffer of Wolf and Redhood Media was, after viewing the trailer for my novel All Different Kinds of Free. She extended an invitation for an interview, and I was delighted to accept. Her questions were insightful and fun.
Jessica McCann has won the inaugural Freedom in Fiction Prize for her historical novel, All Different Kinds of Free.
The international prize recognizes the best unpublished work of fiction with the greatest potential for imparting the ideas of free markets, liberty and personal responsibility. The honor includes a $10,000 cash award. It is sponsored by The Mackinac Center for Public Policy (www.mackinac.org) and supported by the Rodney Fund.