Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Inspiration -- Cheryl Renee Herbsman

When I first started writing Breathing, I knew one of the elements I really wanted to work on was Voice. I didn't feel like I quite understood what the term meant until an editor (Ari Lewin) spoke at an SCBWI conference and read the first few pages of what was then a yet-to-be-released copy of a chapter book called Clementine by Sara Pennypacker.

This wasn't a book I would have ever picked up. I was writing YA. What did I care about a little kid book? But as soon as she read those opening pages, I got it. For the first time, I knew what voice meant. Because Sara Pennypacker does an amazing job of putting the reader right inside the mind of this unique, quirky, and engaging kid called Clementine. That's not to say that "getting it" suddenly makes "doing it" easy. But suddenly, I felt inspired! I knew what I was looking for -- a voice of a character who felt like a real live person to me.

So when the voice of Savannah started to speak inside my head during a writing exercise one night, I had a feeling she might have a story to tell. Then, it became my job to GET OUT OF THE WAY and let her tell her story. Sometimes I did. Other times I tried to hold the reins and the voice wouldn't come out quite right. Then I'd stop, read a few pages of Clementine to remind myself how important it was to let Savannah do the talking. And then -- whoosh -- I'd be right back in the story with Savannah yakking away in my head.

My goal was to write a novel in a voice that felt real and alive, about a character who seemed unique, quirky, and engaging. Hopefully, that's what Breathing turned out to be. It got me my first book deal -- a dream come true!

And sometimes I wonder if this story would've ever been written if I hadn't gone to that conference or met Pennypacker's Clementine. Kind of a scary thought. But I use that concern to stay open to learning new elements of craft and to taking in all forms of inspiration.

Look around. Keep your eyes and ears open. You never know where inspiration might be lurking. It might be in a movie or song or in a book in your genre or it might come from somewhere surprising :)


  1. This is a wonderful post! I haven't read Clementine, but I might add it to my to-read list for a little inspiration. Thank you for sharing!

    Quitting My Day Job

  2. I LOVE Clementine! I have read her story to boys and girls and EVERYONE loves her! I had not considered it as a tool for teaching voice though. Thanks for the heads up!

  3. Thanks for your comments! Clementine is my hero :)

  4. Great post, Cheryl. Thanks for the reminder to stay open to finding inspiration in unlikely places! :)

  5. Voice is such a tricky thing, but the uh huh moment is such a gift!!

  6. Awesome post, Cheryl. My characters talk to me all the time and I find when I put their words on paper rather than my interpretation, I tell a more compelling story!! Keep listening to those voices!!

  7. I love this, you've so perfectly summarized why I love certain books. Another great "kids" book that I fell in love with when my daughter started reading was the Junie B. Jones series. That girl has a voice that just could never belong to anyone else. It makes her absolutely jump off the page and become a real person.

  8. Love the phrase "get out of the way" when it comes to finding a character's voice. So true...