What is your beacon?

author David L. Robbins“What is your beacon? The light your novel will shine into the world?” asked author David L. Robbins when I ran into him at last year’s annual holiday Brew Ho-Ho (books and beer!).

I didn’t have an answer. I could have pretended I hadn’t heard him (after all, the room at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery was cavernous and loud). I could have drifted into the mob. But David looms large both in height (6’5″ I think) and personality, and anyone who knows him knows he’s not the kind of guy you drift away from. David has a presence in Richmond, a drive, a sense of forward momentum, an earnestness that unsettles—he’s a force unto himself—and on that day he was asking me to dig deeper.

“Why does your book matter? Why should anyone read it?”

Oh, my. I’d come for the fun literary scene and the fabulous beer (I love Hardywood’s Bourbon Barrel Sidamo) and hadn’t anticipated this challenge. But there I was with an intense man whose fiction has won awards and been adapted for screen and stage (his website includes excellent advice for writers, by the way), and he’d asked a simple question. I was tongue-tied.

Now, of course, my pause didn’t bother David. He likes an audience and when I failed to respond with a neat soundbite, logline, or elevator pitch for my work-in-progress, he talked about what he was up to (he always has a lot going on, from writing and teaching to sailing inland waterways and planning his next overseas adventure). When others eventually crowded around us and we turned to hear about their latest projects, I continued to mull over his question.

The Call of the WildThis week, nearly a year later, the memory of that afternoon resurfaced when I was in the car, listening to Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. It’s the story of a pampered house dog, kidnapped and forced to work as an Alaskan sled dog, and at its core, it’s an adventure story. But beneath the engaging prose—descriptions of savage injustices and Alaska’s raw beauty—the author clearly had something to say. Consider these lines:

It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool.

Was London talking to himself? Was he reflecting on the softness of people born and raised in educated, “civilized” societies? Yes, I believe he was. As his sympathetic protagonist (the dog, Buck) adapts to his circumstances, finding his way by learning to fight and steal food and eventually even kill, readers root for him and “his ability to flee from the defence of a moral consideration and so save his hide.”

The story is more than a great adventure. The Call of the Wild shines a light on what it means to survive—to be alive—and on what’s primal and instinctual in each of us. Has society tamed us into being less than we might otherwise be? If we’ve never been pushed to our limits, how do we know what our limits are?

I love that this book made me fall in love with an Alaskan sled dog while challenging me to think about so much more than Alaska.

What is my beacon? What light will my book shine into the world? While I think David was asking about my particular work-in-progress at that time, today my answer speaks to everything I’m writing. I hope my books, stories, and essays will encourage readers to question their circumstances. Question what they’re taught in schools and in religious institutions. Question remarks made at dinner. Question news feeds and political leaders. Question neighbors. Question God. (God can take it.) And by question, I don’t mean abandon or dismiss what’s taught or overheard or spoken carelessly or intentionally. I mean the opposite. Dig in. Dig deeper. Wrestle with assumptions and prejudices. Engage. Listen. Think.

Write 1,000 words a day

Clay McLeod ChapmanAt this month’s James River Writers conference, author, actor and screenwriter Clay McLeod Chapman told attendees his daily goal is 1,000 words. On some days he hits 1,000 within an hour and on others it takes all day.

Sounds like a lot, but 1,000 words is only 4 double-spaced pages. And the words don’t have to be beautiful, Chapman reminded us. They just have to be out of your head and onto your page or computer screen. You can’t revise a blank page, and we all know novels come together during revision.

Inspired and fired up to write, I tried the 1,000 words business on my first day back from the conference. Before this, my approach was simply butt-in-chair: show up at the page for 6 hours a day and your novel will (slowly) emerge. It’s worked for me, pretty much. It’s a decent approach.

But when I switched to doing 1,000 words, I loved it! Having to produce 1,000 words forces me to write fast—to loosen up and let go of details. I can worry about details later—scenes always require revision—and for starters just getting the draft done makes all the difference.

Victoria Christopher MurrayVictoria Christopher Murray agreed with Chapman on the value of getting that first draft done. “Think of your first draft like a newborn baby,” she told conference attendees. “It’s ugly. The only one who might think that slimy mess is beautiful is its momma, and the rest of us know the truth. It’s a mess and it’s gotta get cleaned up. It’s gonna take time, a lot of time. But you can’t even start cleaning until you push the thing out. You got to get that baby out of you.”

Murray had me in stitches—had all of us in stitches.

So I ask: what’s your process? Word counts or hours? Morning or night owl? I’m a first thing in the morning, PJs and coffee writer. After a while I take a break for cereal or an egg, which I eat at my desk six days a week (unless there’s a school visit on my calendar, in which case I shower first thing, thank you, yes, I know you’re happy about that). These days, I’m collaborating with a friend on a novel, and she’s a night owl. On the occasions when we get together face to face, we compromise: I tear myself away from my writing and she sets an alarm, and we meet late morning in a coffee shop. It’s all good, all part of the process.

James River WritersAttending an occasional writers conference is good, too. Sure, at this stage of my writing journey, after getting an MFA and now teaching in a low-res MFA program, you’d think I’d have heard every nugget of writing wisdom there is. But sometimes a same-old-same-old suggestion comes in a new voice. It makes me laugh. It makes me approach a scene in a new way, and the next thing I know, I’ve surprised myself. Or my character has surprised me.

Surprise is one of the joys of writing. I smell something today that I didn’t smell yesterday. My pulse quickens. My eyes widen. My fingers fly.

Even on days when my writing doesn’t flow and I’m not sure where my next story is headed and I’m nursing a rejection on a recent effort, even still and despite all of it—I like getting up in the morning and sitting at my writing desk. Today I began by birthing 1,000 words, and once done, I gave myself permission to switch gears and write this blog post. Fun! Tomorrow I’ll draft another 1,000 words of fiction. And another 1,000 on the day after that. And I look forward to every word, ugly or not.

Collaboration: Do’s, Don’ts, and a book giveaway

Last year I asked a friend if she’d collaborate with me on a novel, and she didn’t say YES right away. She tilted her head and thought for a moment, clearly trying not to frown. “I don’t know what this collaboration would look like,” she said, and I said, “Me, neither! We’ll have to make it up as we go along.” Now three months and three chapters into the story, we’re making up lots of stuff. This is the fun stage.

But what if we disagree over the way the story should progress? What happens when we have to revise? I started wondering how others have made collaborations work.

Every Shiny ThingAnd that led me to co-authors Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison. Their novel, Every Shiny Thing, came out from Amulet Books earlier this year. It’s a great read—heartwarming and authentic—and I asked them to share some Do’s and Don’ts and tips about collaborating. They said, “Sure!”

But before we get to the interview, hey, I’m giving away one copy of Every Shiny Thing! Hop to the end of this post. to enter the giveaway, and come back for the interview. Deadline to enter: Tuesday, Sept. 18, 11:59 PM.

A. B. Westrick: Welcome to my blog, Cordelia and Laurie!

Cordelia Jensen & Laurie Morrison: Thanks for inviting us!

ABW: I want to pick your brains about writing Every Shiny Thing. Help me out! I hope my colleague and I can craft a novel as engaging as yours.

Let’s start with your process. You’ve told the story in alternating points of view, and I know from other interviews that Cordelia wrote Sierra’s chapters and Laurie drafted Lauren’s. Did you ever deviate from that set-up? Did you edit each other’s drafts, and if so, how did that go? If one of you read something in the other’s writing that didn’t sit right with you, did you phone? Email? Text? Make a comment in the margin of your shared Google doc? Continue reading

Kill your Darlings: author interview and book giveaway

Now a Major Motion PictureIs passion just an obsession with something you can’t seem to get better at, or is it the very thing you can get better at?

“Courage is simple. First, be honest. Second, don’t back down.”

These themes are two of many in Cori McCarthy’s latest YA novel, Now a Major Motion Picture, alternately funny, sad, wise, rich, and heartwarming. What a great read. And I’m giving away one copy! Hop to the end of this post. to enter the giveaway, and come back to read my interview with Cori. Deadline to enter: Wednesday, Aug. 22, 11:59 PM.

I met Cori on my first day at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and since then Cori’s writing career has soared. This is their fourth published YA novel, and along with partner Amy Rose Capetta, Cori has two books coming out in 2019 and 2020. Cori also writes poetry, has a picture book hitting shelves in 2021, and is now on the faculty of the MFA program at our alma mater. It’s an honor to interview Cori for my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Cori.

Cori McCarthy: Thank you! It’s my pleasure to be here.

Breaking SkyABW: Let’s talk craft! I just loved Motion Picture, and I want to start with the unique setting. Seventeen year-old Iris is behind the scenes on a movie set where her grandmother’s novels are being adapted for the big screen. How did you come up with this setting? Is this an example of “write what you know”? I’m aware that your novel Breaking Sky is being made into a movie; did you write this novel after glimpsing some of that production? Continue reading

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? Continue reading

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? 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? Continue reading

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