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Book 995: Ball Don’t Lie, by Matt de la Pena

Ball Don't Lie by Matt de la PenaBook Title: Ball Don’t Lie
Author: Matt de la Pena
Publishing Info: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (March, 2007)
Pages: 288 (paperback)
Genre: YA, Urban Fiction, Sport Fiction
Review Copy: Purchased from University Bookstore at local SCBWI event
Awards: ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults

Why did I read this book?
A few years ago I got the chance to meet Nathan Bransford at a local SCBWI conference. He critiqued the first five pages of my first novel. The two pieces of feedback he gave me? “A lot of novels start this way.” (One character upstairs, another downstairs, calling to each other.) And, “You don’t have a unique voice.”

Ouch. I thanked him and left. My 15 minutes were up. I spent the second half of the day mooning about and then—if you’ll excuse the decidedly non-feminine expression—manned up and marched over to where Nathan was sitting all by himself and asked if he could recommend any books I should read that had a good strong voice.

He did. Ball Don’t Lie was one of them.

And what did I learn from it?
Ta da! Voice!

Voice is the magic of a book. No voice and you’re likely to get a form rejection. Every agent and editor is looking for “fresh new voices.” Trouble is, voice is also nebulous, hard to describe, harder to teach, but, oh, so obvious when you read it.

Voice is a concatenation of writerly skills, techniques, and just plain individual style.

It is not simply point of view, tho I have heard some authors call it that. Point of view is fairly limited: 1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person; limited or omniscient. Voice is limitless. De la Pena uses an external first person narrator to tell an omniscient third person story about Sticky, the main character:

I could tell you a lot about this game… (page 52)

Oh, that name, the lady said in a voice so Sticky couldn’t hear. She moved under the game room door frame. We’ll have to do something about that awful name. (page 43)

Voice is not simply using slang or swear words or even dusting off your SAT vocabulary and busting out with words like septuagenarian or apotheosis. De la Pena uses street slang to describe street basketball:

It’s tied sevens and Sticky’s handling the rock up top. Back and forth with the left hand. In front of his glazed body. Rhythm pats. Type of dribbles that get you in the groove to cut and slash, body loose and quick to make somebody look like a fool. (page 44)

The ball is also called a “brick.” The hoop a “bucket.” Men are called “cats” and “fellas” and “guys.” Girlfriends are called “old ladies.”

Voice is not simply how the writer includes description: as solid blocks of fragmentary sentences or long flowing lyrical sentences. De la Pena does things a little differently using a colon to set off phrases of description:

Jimmy is: eyes the size of golf balls in thick Coke-bottle glasses, overgrown crop that starts a thumb’s width from his bushy eyebrows, old beat-up flea-bitten sweatshirt zipped up to the throat: ARMY FOOTBALL.

Voice isn’t repeating phrases over and over to indicate personality.

Sticky shook her off. Pulled out one pair [of pants], checked tangs twice (price and size) and then stuck them back on the rack. When the sticking-back sound didn’t sound right, he pulled them off and stuck them back again. Pulled them off and stuck them back. He started to panic inside. Started sweating. Last thing he wanted to do in front of this pretty girl was act all retarded. But he couldn’t stop himself. He pulled them off and stuck them back again.

Pulled them off and stuck them back.

Pulled them off and stuck them back.

Pulled them off and stuck them back. (page 81)

Voice isn’t even using italics for dialog:

Oh, damn, that was a nasty foul, Dave said, holding a fist to his mouth.

Jay had to slap em down, though, Sticky said. He had to let em know whose lane it was.

Fat Jay did just like this, Sin said, and he put his arm out clothesline style and swung it through the air. That’s the kinda foul that could set the tone. Like Sticky said. After Fat Jay did that, wasn’t no little number twenty-three flyin through the lane no more, right? (page 145)

Voice is all of these things. And a little bit more. Voice combines to create a story that could only be about Sticky, only be written by Matt de la Pena. You could pick this book up and read a few lines and know it wasn’t written by Suzanne Collins or Meg Cabot or even Chris Crutcher, another YA-boys-sports-issues-book writer. Voice is a unique blending of all these pieces. It happens through writing over and over and over again. Every day. Pruning out that which doesn’t fit, allowing to grow that which does. Voice is developed over time and with much practice of the basic skills in a writer’s toolbox.

Voice truly is more than the sum of its parts.


Bonus Books!
When I asked Nathan for books with a strong voice, he also recommended In the Break by Jack Lopez and The Secret Year by Jennifer R. Hubbard. Interestingly, all these books feature boy protagonists. I still can’t decide whether that’s simply what Nathan was thinking about and working on at the time, or indicates his personal preference. Regardless, both are excellent books worthy of a reading to learn more about voice.

Bonus Movie!
Ball Don’t Lie premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival and released to major theaters in 2010. Check out the movie site.

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