By Mackenzie Reide
Award-winning YA author and writing instructor Nova Ren Suma spoke about voice at the final SCBWI Tuesday night professional series lecture of the season in June 2015. She emphasized three important tasks for writers: finding your own unique voice, taking risks, and being true to yourself.
The journey of being a writer is not an easy one. Suma explained how voice is deeply connected to that journey and often develops from hitting a low point, such as failing to find an agent or publisher or feeling your career has stalled.
She described a low point in her own career when she doubted her place in the YA publishing world. She no longer felt connected to her readers or her publisher. So in her next book, 17 and Gone, she tried to please everyone. This only created a feeling of more distance and she began to question everything.
“Should I take a break and write something else?” she asked. She was advised, “Embrace what is going on in YA right now, and write more commercial books.”
“Is this the way to carve out my place in the industry?” Suma wondered. “Should I actually try to be more commercial?”
After much soul-searching, Suma decided instead to write one last book that was all her own. She put together what she calls “a weird book proposal” doing exactly the opposite of all the advice.
“I wrote just for me,” she said. “I am weird, so I write weird!”
She left the large house she had been working with and submitted the proposal to smaller publishers. It was picked up by Algonquin House at a new literary imprint. So, Suma was starting over with a new house, a new editor, and a smaller advance.
She very quickly saw she had made the right choice. “I received wonderful support from the publisher, went to conferences, and got good responses to the book, including seven starred reviews and a review in the NY Times.” The Walls Around Us became the most successful book of her career to date.
Suma had spent many years ghostwriting middle grade books, chapter books, and media tie-ins. The Walls Around Us was the first book that was completely hers. However, she did learn a lot from writing other people’s characters, and working with editors, so that experience was not wasted.
So how does a writer stay true to her own voice? Suma suggests, “Look for a spark, make the reader connect. Use specific details to bring a place to life.”
In her writing workshops, she tells her students, “Take risks, let pieces of you filter into the story. Push yourself until the story deeply connects with you. If this was the last book you were going to write, what would you want to put in it?”
Her “impractical” advice to all writers: “Don’t worry about becoming the next John Greene or writing the next Hunger Games. Instead, be the first, unapologetic, original version of you.”
Mackenzie Reide is the co-editor of the SCBWI Metro NY Chapter newsletter and can also be found hanging out with the projector and other IT bits at the Professional Series. She is the author of a middle grade adventure-mystery trilogy called The Adventurers. Book one: Troll Creek and book two: The Mask of the Troll. She is currently writing the final installment.