Jill Santopolo isn’t just a great editor at HarperCollins/ Laura Geringer Books. She’s also a smart, engaging writer and an incredibly fun hostess- evidenced by the Vermont College/Kidlit Drinks Night last November.
Jill’s middle grade mystery ALEC FLINT, SUPER SLEUTH: THE NINA, THE PINTA, AND THE VANISHING TREASURE will be out next summer. And she has a wonderful website- http://www.jillsantopolo.com
A few weeks ago, Jill made some comments about voice that set my mind spinning. Right away I knew what I wanted to talk about, and who I wanted to interview, when my next turn at the Tollbooth came up—
So everybody, say “hi” to Jill Santopolo.
Jill, you're an editor at HarperCollins, an author of middle grade mysteries, and a student in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College. You must be terrifically busy! Which came first? And what effect do these roles have on each other?
I am! Insanely busy. But I wouldn’t give up any of it—I love being an editor, a writer, and a student, and I think they definitely all feed off of one another. I started out editing, then signed a book contract, and then started the Vermont College program. A little backwards, I know. Once Scholastic bought my book, though, I wanted to make sure that I delivered the best book I possibly could, and I thought an MFA would help me do that. What I didn’t quite expect was how much the Vermont program would affect my editing. Now that I’ve studied the craft of writing so intensely, I think I’m a more thoughtful and articulate editor—and I often find myself parroting things I’ve learned in workshop or in lectures at Vermont in the editorial letters I write to my authors.
We're talking about voice and style in The Tollbooth this week. How important is voice to a manuscript? Can you define voice or is it like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity- "I know it when I see it"?
Let’s see…well, I’ll start by saying that I think voice is one of the most important things in a manuscript—it’s often what draws me into a story and makes it stand out as original or unique. It’s funny, I my mind I separate voice into two distinct parts—the narrative voice, which I consider the voice of whatever character is telling the story, and the authorial voice, which I think of as an author’s kind of “soul print.” With someone like Sharon Creech, for example, I think her narrative voices vary from novel to novel, but there’s something in all of her books that strikes me as particular to “A Sharon Creech Novel.” That Sharon Creech X-factor.
I’m tangenting slightly, though. What exactly is voice—that’s the question I’m supposed to answer. Mechanically speaking, I think voice is comprised of rhythm, syntax, types of imagery, repetition—either in sound, word or structure—and word choice. Emotionally speaking, I think voice is what comes through when people write from the heart.
Can a strong voice be developed in an otherwise promising manuscript or do you believe it has to be there from the start? Does a good editor have a role in shaping a novel's voice?
My honest feeling is that voice has to be there from the start. I think it’s something unique that the writer brings to the piece. Editors can help with plot, with story structure, with character development, with figuring out what lines should be cut or added…but I think voice is something that’s either there or isn’t. It’s like on that guilty-pleasure-of-a-TV-show Project Runway when Nina Garcia tells the participants that their clothing needs to showcase their points of view as designers. That’s not something Tim Gunn can help with—either the designer has a personal aesthetic or doesn’t. I do think, though, that when an editor helps with character development, that often leads to the manuscript having a stronger narrative voice—especially if the piece is written in first or close third.
Recently you told a story about your bio on the jacket of your new book ALEC FLINT, SUPER SLEUTH: THE NINA, THE PINTA, AND THE VANISHING TREASURE. Although the author doesn't usually write bio copy, an editor friend realized you'd written your bio yourself because she recognized your "voice." Do you feel you have an authorial voice that comes out in everything you write? Is it conscious or just "part of you"?
After I told that story, once of the professors at Vermont College said something about how voice in some ways has to be subconscious, because otherwise we’d be parodies of ourselves, thinking things like, “Part of my ‘voice’ is that I write long sentences. Let me make sure that all my sentences are long.” If we go back to my Project Runway analogy, it would be like if one of the designers said, “My thing is buttons. All my clothes have buttons.” And then went nutty sewing buttons all over every article they created. So I do think that my authorial voice, to whatever extent I have one, isn’t a conscious thing.
Until recently I actually hadn’t thought much about my own authorial voice, but to answer your question, I guess I’d have to say that I think I have different authorial voices for different types of writing—though I’m sure there are some similarities among them. There is a voice that’s there when I’m writing editorial letters to authors I work with. There’s a voice in the presentations I write to introduce titles to our sales force. There’s a voice in e-mails I write to my friends—and probably a slightly different one in e-mails to coworkers. And a different one in my fiction. I’m pretty certain, though, that anyone who knows me long enough would be able to read something I’ve written and figure out that it was me who wrote it. I know I feel that way about a lot of the people I communicate with in written form. Even the way people sign e-mails, I think, is part of their “voice.”
You mentioned the idea that voice is like an artist's "soul print." I love that term-so apt for authentic voice and style. Can you explain what you meant by the term? Do you have any ideas about how a writer can discover and develop her "soul print"?
When I think about voice as a soul print, I think about other artistic mediums (don’t worry, I won’t talk about Project Runway again). I went to Columbia University, and as a graduation requirement, all students had to take a course called Art Hum (the real name of the course is much longer, but I can’t recall exactly what it is right now). At any rate, in this class, for our final, we had to look at a piece of artwork we hadn’t seen before and identify the artist by our knowledge of the style, the color, and the subject matter of the piece. To me, that not-quite-definable thing we had to recognize after synthesizing all the information, was the soul print of the artist. And I think that’s the visual equivalent to voice in writing. The same way I can walk down the street and recognize the work of certain clothing designers or architects, I should be able to read a book and recognize the soul print of the author who wrote it.
I think the best way for a writer to discover and develop a soul print is by writing and writing and writing. At some point in the process, a voice will emerge that feels both unique and comfortable. I know when I wrote as a kid, I would write sequels to my favorite books, trying to mimic the voices of the authors who wrote them. But as I grew up and continued to write, my own voice emerged, separate from the writers who influenced me as a kid (though it’s quite possible that there are pieces of my favorite writers subconsciously woven into my own authorial voice).
Some writers aren't comfortable discussing new work, but can you tell us a bit about what we can expect to see from you in the future?
There is something slightly uncomfortable about discussing projects that may or may not make it into stores, but I’m going to be brave and jump right in. Let’s see…I have THE NINA, THE PINTA AND THE VANISHING TREASURE coming out this July, and then in some time in 2009 there will be a sequel starring Alec and Gina in another super sleuth adventure. I’ve also been playing around with two middle grade novels and a new edgy YA piece, which is a bit out of my comfort zone, and which is helping me develop a new YA type of voice. It’s all fun, though, experimenting with words and characters and figuring out what clicks. Hopefully some of those pieces will end up in bookstores, but if not, each one of them has taught me about the craft and about myself as a writer.
(And before I sign off—thanks to Tami for inviting me to visit the Tollbooth today! I think this blog is fab.)
Jill, all of us here at the Tollbooth think you’re absolutely fabulous too!
Happy New Year.
Happy New Year.
Here’s a little secret about Jill, in case you’re lucky enough to run into her in Vermont or New York, at a conference or wherever… her last name, Santopolo, is pronounced like Marco Polo, with Santo replacing Marco.
When you see her tell her Through the Tollbooth sent you.
Tomorrow, we’ll start looking at the elements of voice Jill listed- syntax, vocabulary, rhythm, imagery, heart- and deconstruct them with a bit of help from Charlotte’s dad, E. B. White.