Author Archives: A. B. Westrick

Hear the Character’s Voice: Interview & Giveaway

Just Like JackieWhat a great debut from Lindsey Stoddard! When I read Just like Jackie, I couldn’t wait to feature Lindsey and her writing on my blog.

In addition to doing this interview, I’m giving away one copy of Just like Jackie! For a chance to win, hop to the end of this page and fill out the form. Then come back, enjoy the interview, and glean some craft-of-writing insights. What Lindsey says about hearing a character’s voice is a fabulous tip. Deadline to enter the giveaway: July 25, 2018, at 11:59 PM.

I first met Lindsey at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Back then she was teaching middle school (my all-time favorite age group) while drafting stories and working on her MFA. She now writes full time, or as full as she can with two little ones in tow.

A. B. Westrick: Lindsey, welcome to my blog!

Lindsey Stoddard: Hello from Vermont!

ABW: Ah, Vermont… I’ll bet it’s gorgeous in New England right now—best place on earth in the summer. I guess maple syrup season is awesome, too, but we’ll get to that in minute.

First let’s talk about your feisty and oh-so-lovable heroine, Robbie. I read in your interview at Through the Tollbooth that part of your writing process involved channeling your anger as a child. Robbie’s anger comes through with honesty, and my question is: how much are you and your protagonist alike? Did you have to learn anger-management techniques like she does in the novel? Were you also a regular in your guidance counselor’s office? Where does the real Lindsey end and the fictional Robbie begin?

Lindsey StoddardLS: Robbie is holding onto much more anger than little Lindsey ever had to. I would have been mortified if ever called to the principal and I certainly wasn’t a regular in my guidance office. I used that punch-in-the-nose moment from my own childhood as my anchor because I believe most middle grade kids have felt that kind of rage. It’s an age when kids are really honing their sense of justice, what’s fair and right, and what’s not. That moment in my childhood when the neighborhood boy hit the bird nest out of the tree with his whiffle ball bat brought out that feisty side of me, and that’s where Robbie was born.

ABW: It fits with the adage, “write what you know.” But I want to ask about what you didn’t know. What parts of this story required research? Are you as adept at car repair as Robbie is? Are you a big baseball fan? Can you recite baseball stats as easily as counting to ten?

LS: I wish I knew as much about cars as Robbie does! Growing up my dad worked for Toyota and I used to love visiting the dealership and watching the mechanics in the service department work on cars. I always thought it would be such a cool thing to know how to do, so I gave that skill and passion to Robbie. It required a bunch of research and lots of calls home to my dad to make sure I got it right. I also grew up in a big Red Sox loving family, so I know baseball very well—not recite-stats-as-easily-as-counting-to-ten well—but well enough to know the game and the players, etc. I had to research and check each one of those statistics that Robbie knows so easily.

ABW: I noticed that when you needed a metaphor, you’d bring in images from baseball or car maintenance, and I thought the images worked beautifully in the story. They felt organic—true to Robbie’s character. Did these images come to you while writing your first draft, or were they part of the revision process? Or let me ask the question this way: when you write, do some elements of a scene come first and others later? Tell us a bit about your process.

Lindsey Stoddard + dogLS: The first part of a book for me is hearing the character’s voice in my head. I don’t even take out a pen until I hear it strongly and consistently and until I even start talking like her. Then I move to the notebook and write from her POV until it’s really clear. Then I start in. Those baseball and car metaphors are just the way Robbie thinks and talks. They were there from the first draft.

ABW: Oh, that’s great. You just gave me the title for this post. Love it!

-Back to top-

At its heart, Just like Jackie is a story of family and a child’s desire to keep hers from falling apart. You invite readers to glimpse multiple families in different configurations, facing various challenges. When you set out to write this novel, did you know the story would go in this direction? Or did you begin simply with a girl and her grandpa, and find that along the way, the larger theme of family emerged?

LS: It started with Robbie and Grandpa. I focused in on their relationship, what makes it special, what they share, how they communicate, etc. Working on that family made me ask the question of other families represented in the book. What’s below the surface there? As I began crafting secondary characters, I became engaged in their situations too, until it became a theme—family is who you get, but it’s also who you find and who you keep. And that all families, no matter what they look like, are built from the same stuff, love and trust, support and resilience.

ABW: Nice. I like how your theme emerged during your process. How long did it take you to write Just like Jackie? And what can you tell us about the novel you have coming out next year?

LS: I have heard it said that an author has been writing her first book her whole life. That is certainly true for Just like Jackie. When I sat down to write Robbie’s story it took me about a year, but the seeds were planted long ago when I was growing up in Vermont, sugaring with my grandpa, admiring my math teacher’s old Green Chevrolet truck, “CHE ROLE,” watching the Red Sox with my family, peeking into the service department at White River Toyota, and witnessing my Nana, Gloria’s, direct, clear, no-nonsense determination and manner.

Right as RainRight as Rain (coming in February 2019) is the story of a girl whose family is in the wake of grief and loss when they make a sudden move from Vermont to the Washington Heights neighborhood in NYC. There, Rain decides she has to fight to keep her family together in the only way she knows how, with facts and figures and research, and in the process, finds that she has a lot of people on her team.

Just as in Just like Jackie, Right as Rain is a book about finding your people, and hanging on to them no matter what.

ABW: Sounds great. Can’t wait to read it!

Let’s wrap up with words of wisdom for aspiring authors. What insights would you share with someone who aspires to write a novel?

LS: Every day is a writing day! Try to get your words in, try to get your butt in the chair, but know that if you don’t, it’s still a writing day. Listen. Remember. You never know what will spark an idea, or fix an issue mid-manuscript. Your process is your process until it has to change, which it will again and again. Before I had babies I was a notebook jotter, a scattered pages across the cafe table writer (and I’m sure I will be someday again!) but now, my time is tight and I’m drafting more in my head in anticipation of the moments I get with my laptop. It’s not easy to get your words in every day, it’s not easy to get your butt in the chair, and it’s not easy to have to revise your process to fit your life at that moment—but every day is a writing day.

ABW: So true. Yes! Every day. And take joy in the process. Thank you again for this interview, Lindsey.

Bookstock FestivalReaders who want to know more about Lindsey can check out her website, find her on Twitter, and head to Bookstock in Woodstock, Vermont, on July 27!

 

 

For a chance to win a copy of Just like Jackie, sign in and enter below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

-Back to top-

War as Setting: Books by Steve Watkins + GIVEAWAY!

Sink or Swim

Ready for summer reading? Hey, if you’re planning to vacation at North Carolina’s Outer Banks, or if you love historical fiction or war stories, pick up Sink or Swim by Steve Watkins. The story opens in the waters off North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island. It’s an especially good summer selection for middle-grade kids who claim they don’t like to read. This one is sure to bring them around.

And you could win your very own copy of Sink or Swim! Just fill out the form at the end of this post. Deadline to enter: 11:59 PM, June 11, 2018.  (Multiple entries welcome! You can enter once a day from now ’til then.)

Steve has published nine novels for young readers and is working on his tenth. Formerly a professor at the University of Mary Washington and currently a yoga instructor while writing fiction, he lives in Fredericksburg, VA. He and I have spoken on author panels and run into each other at school librarian conferences, and today I’m happy to feature him and his books on my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Steve!

Steve Watkins: Good to be here!

ABW: I loved Sink or Swim. The story hooked me right away, so let’s talk about your first chapter. Openings are always tricky, and yours is pitch-perfect. It’s 1942 and German U-Boats are picking off American vessels up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Twelve-year old Colton and his older brother Danny are fishing in small boats near Ocracoke Island when a U-Boat surfaces, catching Danny’s nets, entangling his boat, and throwing Danny overboard. As Colton struggles to rescue Danny, the Germans laugh at the boys’ distress. (I hated those Germans from the get-go.) It’s a great scene.

Was that always your first chapter? How did you decide to begin the novel there?

Steve WatkinsSW: Yes, it was always the first. I read a number of accounts of fishermen on the Outer Banks encountering submarines, or, more often and tragically, the bodies of victims of sub attacks on passenger and cargo ships going up and down the East Coast. Once I decided to begin the story off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the scene crystallized for me right away.

ABW: The bodies of victims? Ouch. I’ve read a lot about WWII but have to admit that before reading Sink or Swim, I didn’t realize how close the Germans came to our shores. Continue reading

Traveling through Time: Cold Summer

Cold SummerI met Gwen Cole two years ago at a fun author event (thank you, Richmond Public Library, for supporting YAVA -Young Adult Virginia Authors!), and really enjoyed her time-traveling teenager Kale Jackson. Cold Summer came out last year, and Gwen is here on my blog today for a little Q&A. Cold Summer: Debut novel. Time travel. Teen crush on the next-door neighbor. Summer romance. What’s not to love?

But before we get to the interview, congratulations, Gwen, on the release of your second novel, Ride On. I hear that it’s coming out Tuesday, May 22, from Sky Pony Press. Two novels in two years! Fantastic.

And I love that you’re doing a pre-order giveaway! Hey readers—May 21 is the deadline to sign up for swag: postcards, bookmark and a signed bookplate. Take a moment to sign up, then come on back. Hop to the end of this interview for more about Ride On, and keep reading here for our Cold Summer Q&A. We’re gonna talk time travel…

A.B. Westrick: Welcome to my blog, Gwen!

Gwen Cole: Great to be here!

ABW: Cold Summer is a fun story, and I want to start by asking about your favorite reads. Have you always been a fan of time-travel books? [Why the hyphen? See my *Note to grammar geeks.] Did you begin Cold Summer knowing it would be a time-travel story, or did it morph into that along the way?

Ride-On pre-order giveawayGC: At first, Cold Summer was just a fun summer book, but then I got bored with it. I knew it needed something more, and during that time I was really into watching the HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers. That show helped me figure out exactly what I wanted to do.

I’ve actually never been a fan of time-travel books because most of them are usually too complex with the time-travel aspect. So I knew I wanted my time travel to be easy to understand. But I’ve been a fan of time-travel movies, like The Time Traveler’s Wife and Back to the Future.

ABW: I’ve also thought many time-travel stories were incredibly complex. Even stories written for kids, such as Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. I had to re-read that one twice in order to understand what was going on!

I’ve noticed that in time-travel books, writers seem to have a variety of rules for the road—triggers that cause characters to shift from one dimension to another, how time passes while they’re traveling, whether the characters’ clothing stays on, etc. In Cold Summer, the time-traveling character often smells like winter, and I love that he does. How did you decide on shivering as one of the markers that Kale Jackson would soon time travel?

GC: One of the first images that came to me for this story was of Kale in the middle of summer wearing a hoodie and being cold. I liked that this trigger was something that could be seen in the normal world and yet not be obvious to people who don’t know his secret. Shivering is a normal human reaction, but for Kale, it’s something he tries hard not to do because he’s trying to avoid time traveling. There’s a scene in the book when Kale is at the grocery store in the frozen food department, and just feeling that cold air from the refrigerator almost sets him off. I can’t imagine how he deals with winter. 😉

ABW: Oh, right. This would be a whole other story if you’d set it during the winter! Haha. Did you have to do research for the novel? If so, can you share a detail you didn’t know before you started writing, then added to the manuscript?

Gwen ColeGC: All my research had to do with WWII, for obvious reasons, but I went into this book knowing I didn’t want it to read like historical fiction. I didn’t want too many details bogging down the pace. I wanted a character-driven story, and for that, I focused on what Kale would being feeling, emotionally and physically. I also wanted a certain feel to the chapters while he was in the past. But as for research, a few of the things I had to learn about were WWII guns and what medics would carry with them.

ABW: You definitely succeeded in making the story character-driven and not bogging readers down in WWII details. Now, tell me about the secondary characters, especially the adults in the story. The mothers and aunts are either dead, widowed, or divorced and living elsewhere. The co-protagonists are teenagers—a girl and a guy—who interact mostly with the guy’s father and the girl’s uncle. It totally works. I’m just wondering if there was a reason why you chose to keep adult women characters pretty much off-camera.

 GC: This is a great question, but one for which I don’t have a good answer! For some weird reason, I always have the fathers and uncles present (even in other books). I have a wonderful relationship with my mother, so I can’t really pinpoint why that is. Maybe something I’ll have to be mindful of or think about for future books. But for Cold Summer, Uncle Jasper was one of my first characters, and he came naturally into the story as the “father figure” in the lives of both of the protagonists.

ABW: Right—both protagonists. So far we’ve only talked about Kale, the one who time travels. I enjoyed getting to know Harper, too, and I liked the way you developed their relationship. A neighbor-next-door romance but with the complication of time travel. Nice.

I’m curious about the editing and revision process you went through. (I assume you had to make some revisions along the way, but correct me if I’m wrong.) What was your experience with your editor like? What sorts of changes were you asked to make before the manuscript was ready for publication?

GC: I love my editor at Sky Pony, and I was so happy to work with her again on my newest book, Ride On. Nicole had great thoughts on ways to strengthen the story and also scenes I could cut. But because this was the book I queried with, and I’d edited it with my agent before submission, it was in pretty good shape to start with, so the edits Nicole wanted weren’t too heavy.

ABW: That’s great. Did you always plan to write fiction?

GC: Oh definitely. Fiction has been my favorite to read and write my whole life. There’s just nothing else like diving into a book and discovering a whole new world. And I’m beyond lucking to be the one writing those worlds. I just want to write books people enjoy reading.

-Back to top-

Ride OnABW: And you do! And you have Ride On coming out May 22. What can you tell us about it? 

GC: Ride On is my futuristic western. Something like True Grit meets The Book of Eli.

ABW: Ha! Oh, I love that. Publishing pros are always asking for comparable titles and mash-ups, and your image here is great.

GC: I had so much fun writing this book and I hope everyone enjoys it just as much when they read it. Here’s the summary: 

In the near post-apocalyptic future, the skies are always gray and people are constantly searching for the sun. For teenage outlaw Seph, it’s the only world he’s ever known. With his horse, his favorite pistol, and his knowledge for survival passed down from his dead father, Seph knows it’s safer to be alone. But after a run-in with a local gang that call themselves the Lawmen, and having been wrongly accused of murder, Seph teams up with Avery—a determined girl whose twin brother has been taken by the same gang.

After living in a small, rundown town her whole life, Avery knows nothing of the Wild—the lands controlled by nobody where travel is risky. With Seph’s help, they track down her brother but quickly find the tables have turned and they are now the ones being hunted. With rumors of mysterious dangers to the south and a safe sanctuary to the west, they’ve only got one option, but getting there won’t be easy with the Lawmen on their trail. The only thing that matters in the Wild is how fast your trigger hand is, but Seph doesn’t know if his will be fast enough to save them all.

ABW: Save them all. Excellent. I look forward to reading.

Chop Suey Books logoBOOK RELEASE!:

If you’re in the Richmond, VA, area, stop by Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary Street, at 6:00 PM on Tuesday, May 22, to meet Gwen and get a personalized copy of Ride On (plus giveaway swag)!

If you want to know more about Gwen and her books, check out her website, and look for her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Wattpad.

*For Grammar Geeks: My rule of thumb for hyphenating “time travel” was this: no hyphen as a noun or verb; yes hyphen as an adjective. Whattaya think? Agree? Disagree?

-Back to top-

Be Open to Rewriting (& Book Giveaway!)

Lily's MountainThis month I visited Alaska’s Denali National Park—not in person, but in prose—when I read Hannah Moderow‘s debut novel Lily’s Mountain. From grizzly bears to swarms of mosquitoes, frigid streams, rustic outhouses, a run-in with a porcupine, and a deep crevasse in the ice, the story takes readers on Lily’s quest to find her missing mountain-climbing, Scrabble-playing father. It’s a great read!

And today, in honor of bringing Hannah to my blog, I’m doing a BOOK GIVEAWAY! Scroll to the end of this interview for details on winning a copy of Lily’s Mountain and ALSO a book I mentioned in last month’s post: Get a Grip on Your Grammar by Kris Spisak.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Hannah!

Hannah Moderow: Thank you for having me, Anne. I think back so fondly to our days together as students at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

ABW: I loved meeting you at VCFA, and I can’t believe it’s been seven years since we graduated. Feels like yesterday. And look at us now—still geeking out over the craft of writing!

So tell me about the poem by Robert Service that you included in Lily’s Mountain. Talk about grounding readers in the setting! His words really drew me in:

Robert Service poem

What an engaging, lyrical poem. And my question is about your decision to have Lily remember this poem as her dad’s favorite. Did you plan to include the poem from the get-go? Was it in your first draft of the story, or did it emerge in a later draft? Continue reading

Grammar and Usage and Pie, Oh My

Things that Make Us [Sic]I love talking craft—character development, plot, point of view, pacing, setting, dialogue. But hey, when a reader can’t get into a scene because the grammar is funky, the writer needs to get back to basics.

Grammar. Got to know it. Got to use it right. Stop dangling those participles. Move those misplaced modifiers into place. Find agreement between every subject and verb. On split infinitives and prepositions at the ends of sentences, these days I hear we’re allowed some leeway. In Things that Make Us [Sic]Martha Brockenbrough sets us straight and fills us in on the reasons why such rules were adopted in the first place. Thank you, Martha!

 

 

Get a Grip on your GrammarIf your bugaboo is word choice, check out Get a Grip on Your Grammar by Kris Spisak and change further to farther when talking about measurable physical distances, okay? Continue reading

My Struggle to Write Girl Characters

I’m a girl who struggles to write girl characters, so what’s the deal, huh? I’ve asked this question for a long time, sometimes touching on it in other blog posts. This month I’m hitting it head-on.

When I was growing up, no one talked about gender identity, or if they did, I didn’t tune in. But I remember wishing I’d been born a boy. I remember wanting the freedoms that boys seemed to have. Now looking back, I think my wishes stemmed from not liking the expectations society put on girls. Wear dresses. Learn to use make-up. Enjoy cooking and shopping. Bleh. I tried but couldn’t bring myself to care about that stuff. (Still don’t.)

Nether Providence Junior High Girls Basketball circa 1969By 6th grade I was taller than all the boys except three. In 7th grade I tried out for cheerleading and didn’t make it. Chorus and didn’t make it. Basketball and made second string. Or third. Somehow I ended up as team manager, which meant that before each game I’d cut up oranges and put them in clear plastic bags. Continue reading

Winter-writing Summer Scenes

In the two novels I’ve drafted over the past three years, one protagonist is in a place where he doesn’t belong, and the other lives where he very much belongs, but the neighborhood is crumbling around him and he’s powerless to stop it, and neither setting is one I’ve experienced directly.

crepe myrtle in snowBoth stories take place during summer months, but where am I writing? Seated beside a space heater in a book-cluttered office, looking out at the wind-whipped snow. On the January morning I’m drafting this piece, local schools have posted a two-hour delay (a typical response to snow in Richmond, VA; I suppose the thinking is that commuter cars will thaw the ice before children venture out), but in the fictional worlds of my two drafts, my characters are dashing through July thunderstorms.

Continue reading

The Essence of Story

This gem by artist Brian Andreas exemplifies the essence of story. Can you feel the yearning in it? Hear the heartbeat? Imagine sailing away on a memory?(c)2017 brian andreas

That’s a sailboat, right? Or do you see something else? A kite? A fish? Whatever you see, whatever I see—when I read these words, I lean in. I feel a pulse, a purpose, a sense of desire. Continue reading

When a protagonist goes missing…

Evidence of Things Not SeenThis month I read a YA novel that defies literary convention. It’s a mystery, but not a mystery. There’s a protagonist, but he goes missing. Scraps of paper found near the spot where he was last seen refer to particle physics and time travel. Characters hint at one possibility after another, and in the end… no, no, no, I can’t reveal the ending!

When I asked the author to tell me about her writing process, she mentioned a number of people who helped her along the way—a testament to the strength of her writing community. The author is Lindsey Lane, the book is her YA debut, Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar Straus Giroux 2014), and today I’m thrilled to feature her on my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Lindsey, I’m so glad I caught up with you to talk about this story.

Lindsey Lane: Thanks for tracking me down!

ABW: I love the way you open this novel with a missing teen. Then you go into a series of vignettes, each with different characters, and the story arrested me. The structure brought to mind Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge, and I wondered if that book influenced you. Could you talk a bit about how you conceived of this story?

LL: Elizabeth Strout?!?! Really? What a huge compliment. But no, no influence whatsoever. Continue reading

Dig Deeply for Truth

Sara Lewis Holmes.Wolf HourLast week I heard author Sara Lewis Holmes talk about school visits, then wondered what I would tell students about the story beneath the novel I’m currently writing. If this book ever gets published, what items might I bring with me when I visit a classroom? What images might I project on a screen? What is my truth behind the characters, setting, and interactions on these pages?

Now, of course it’s crazy to think about school visits before getting a contract on a manuscript, but what I’m really doing at this stage in my process is asking why I’m telling this particular story. Why does it matter to me? Why does my heart break for this protagonist? Why do I care? Continue reading