Turbo Monkey Tales is a group blog focusing on the craft, production, marketing and consumption of Children's Literature. We are illustrators, writers, animators and media mongrels. We are readers! We are published, unpublished and self-published; agented and searching, and 100% dedicated to our Kid Lit journey, no matter where we are on the path. Join our Tribe and grab a vine. The more the merrier!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Slant, or Write Like You Mean It

by Sarah McGuire

By Eduard Friedrich Leybold (1798-1879)

For those who haven't heard, I signed with Tracey Adams of Adams Literary in April. (I still can't believe my good fortune!) Ever since then, I've been whipping VALIANT into shape before we send it out. In this round of revisions, I've been working on a) tightening the manuscript*, and b) writing on a slant.

What is slant? That's what I asked Patti Gauch last year when she told me I needed to write with it. Patti described writing on a slant as a wash of color over a scene. She made the point that if a character was feeling something, it would show up in everything: dialog, narration, description. I needed to write the scene like my character meant it.

Rather than bore you with all it took for me to finally understand what Patti meant, here's an example of the first time I intentionally wrote on a slant, from the first page of VALIANT.

Unslanted version:

The city lay against the far horizon, dark as a lump of coal in the morning light.

“Reggen is a fine sight, isn’t it?” said Luca.

I knew from Father’s description that the city of Reggen lay between a cliff and the Kovar River, and that it rose up, tier upon tier, like some elaborate pastry.

But I couldn’t see any of that. I went back to rolling up my frost-stiffened blanket.

“Well?” pressed Luca, his face creased with a smile. “What do you think of your new home, Saville?” He was too old lead his own caravan, but he didn’t wish to spend his last years in a city. So he tended the fires of this merchant caravan and drove the wagon that carried the food. These last few weeks, he’d been more of a father to me than Father was.

What did I think? I thought of my friend Elise who laughed even more than I did. She was going to be married to the boy with the serious eyes, the one her father had picked, and I would not be there. I thought of Mama’s grave, and how I used to sit beside it and tell her how Father had fought with the Tailor’s Guild again, how I’d finished two vests for him, though I hated to sew. And I’d sing to her: silly songs or the lullabies she’d taught me. It was only right, for she’d sung me to sleep as a child.

It wasn't that bad. It set the stage. It introduced Saville. It introduced the city she tries to save from a giant army. I wasn't ashamed to have Patti read it.

Then we had the conversation about slant, and I wrote this:

The city lay against the far horizon, dark as a lump of coal in the morning light.

I wanted nothing more than to turn around, right there in the middle of the road, with frost-twisted fields stretching away in every direction. If I had my way, I would have left Father and the merchant caravan taking us to Reggen.

I would have walked the full month back to Danavir. Back to my friend Elise who laughed even more than I did. I’d be there when she married the boy with the serious eyes, the one her father had picked. I’d go back to Mama’s grave and sit beside it like I used to. I’d tell her that Father had found a city without a Tailor’s Guild and that he could sew any way he wished– and that I’d never sew for him again. And then I’d sing to her: silly songs or the lullabies she’d taught me.

It was only right, for she’d sung me to sleep as a child.

But I kept walking towards Reggen while the wagons, all seventeen of them, groaned and creaked as if they were men too old to be walking out in the morning frost.

I remember sitting back after writing that and thinking, wow. And I've been doing a lot of that this round of revision– the writing on a slant part, not the 'wow' part.

I'm still new to this, but I wanted to share a few things I've learned as I write on a slant.

1) Slant often involves telling. The second paragraph in my story is telling– specific, detailed telling. And that's okay, because sometimes telling gets to the heart of what you feel. When I announced the test on verifying trig identities last month, my class told me exactly how they felt about it. Then I told them how I felt about it, and... well you get the idea. There's lots of slant to be had in proper telling. Don't be afraid of it.

2) Sometimes it just needs to go. If a scene is flat AND you don't need it, cut it. Slant only the scenes that you need.

3) For me, slantiness comes towards the end of writing. There are some scenes that I write slanty the very first time. But there are other scenes– the beginnings of chapters where I'm clearing my throat and making sure everyone's standing where they're supposed to– that are as exciting as a math textbook. (Believe me, I know.) I let them stay that way until I know what to do with them. The important part is that I recognize they still need work.

4) To slant a scene, I read the non-slanty portion and figure out what emotion should be coloring it. Then I open a new document and play with it. Normally, I spit out a few horrifyingly awful paragraphs as I try to figure it out. Finally, I get a few sentences or a turn of phrase that sets the tone for everything else. As you can see above, I didn't completely overhaul the passage. I just needed to get it started right, and then tweak everything that came afterwards.

We've all written on a slant before, but I think one aspect of becoming a great writer is being able to deliberately use the writing tools and techniques you have. As much as I love the serendipitous, bolt-from-above aspect of writing, I also want to reach the place where many (not all!) of the high points in my writing are there because I put them there, not because I lucked out. This way of thinking about emotion in writing has given me a way to approach boring passages and fix them, even if I wasn't inspired when I wrote them.

I'd love to hear techniques you have that help you write like you mean it!

(And I should say that even though Patti reviewed this, any mistakes I've made here are certainly my own. She also used the term slant in a slight different, but equally fabulous, way a few years ago. You can click here to read more about it.)

*I have kept track of how many words I cut from each chapter because I'm mathy like that.


  1. Sarah, this post and the link to Patti's article has my heart racing. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Marilyn! I feel like I learned so much- and that I still have so far to go!

  2. I remember a conversation we had over a year ago about writing beneath the surface and digging deep into your characters. This was wonderful, Sarah! I can hardly wait to read your book!

    1. I was thinking about that conversation too, Ellen!