Tapping into childhood memories

One day when I was about eight years old and a friend’s mom was driving the carpool, she drove off without me. Her name was Mrs. Collevecchio.

I was at the swim club a few miles from home, and I remember seeing her station wagon pull into the lot. Within a few seconds, her car was beside our little crowd, and our group had piled in, and she was heading back out, and for some reason—had I forgotten my towel and run back for it?—I don’t remember, but I didn’t climb into the car, and Mrs. Collevecchio didn’t notice my absence.

To this day, I can see the back of that station wagon rolling away, see the dust in its wake, the matted grass and weedy gravel of the lot. With the memory comes a tight feeling in my gut. I wanted to yell, Wait!, but the thought of yelling brought shame, so I didn’t. There were other parents picking up and dropping off kids, and there was a teenager at the gate checking people in, and I couldn’t stand the thought of them or anyone staring at me.

I might have waved. Maybe I jumped up and down, maybe once. Then I froze. Mrs. Collevecchio had left me behind.

I felt my eyes tear up, and I sniffed and clutched my towel and tried to keep my composure. I blamed myself. Clearly, it was my fault that I’d missed the carpool.

I had no money for the pay phone, and no cell phone (this was long before cell phones). I could have gone to the office and asked to use the phone to call my mom, but I feared I’d cry, and anyway, telling would make me a tattle-tale, and I knew not to go there. It would be wrong to get Mrs. Collevecchio in trouble.

So I started walking.

There was a crummy asphalt sidewalk, and I was in flip flops, and I remember watching for uneven spots. I hadn’t ever walked alone outside my neighborhood, but I’d watched Mom drive to the pool often enough, and I was pretty sure I knew the route. I looked both ways before crossing streets and chewed my lip to keep from crying. I wrapped my towel around my middle, tying it into a knot so it would stay, which it did for a while. Then it slipped and I had to tie it again. I didn’t look at the faces in cars going by because I didn’t want anyone to see how scared I felt, or how ashamed. I told myself I could do it. And I walked. And walked.

A couple of months ago, I re-lived that walk in order to write a scene. I held back tears while my character held back his. I felt determined and scared as hell, and so did my character. He didn’t let himself look into the faces in cars going by. His guilt from everything he’d ever done wrong in his life came to mind, and he walked faster. The circumstances that had gotten him to that street were nothing like mine, but his emotional truth was the same. Writing fiction is all about tapping into emotional truths.

Mom tells me that when Mrs. Collevecchio got back and I wasn’t in the car, Mom zoomed off, leaving my brother and sister with her, racing to the pool, sure I’d be there, waiting. She spotted me walking along the road. By the time she picked me up, I’d made it about half way home. I don’t recall whether I cried with relief when I slid into the seat beside her, but I remember feeling relieved. For years afterward, Mom talked about what a determined kid I was. Maybe she said stubborn, too. I don’t think I ever told her how scared I felt that day. My character isn’t going to tell anyone that part, either.

Addicted to Writing

What’s an author to do when her latest revision is out with beta readers? I’ve cleaned out a filing cabinet, swept a patio, written thank-you notes, read a novel, done a Sudoku puzzle (more than one, actually), but lordy, after a week, I need to be back at my desk. Am I crazy? Why can’t I stop writing? Why does one morning producing the most mundane of sentences give me a greater sense of satisfaction than anything I’ve done all week?

They really are mundane, these sentences. First a blank page, then dribble. Starting from scratch. Again.

Used to be that I found math especially rewarding. The orderliness of it… the patterns… the equations and solutions and diagrams and 2-D illustrations of 3-D objects and later calculus and its functions and measurements of x as y approaches infinity… but I started to wonder, why am I doing this? The deeper I went into n-dimensional constructs with no interest in becoming an engineer or physicist, I got kind-of lost. Know what someone has said is the difference between philosophy and theoretical mathematics? Philosophy is a game with objectives and no rules, and pure math is a game with rules and no objectives.

I like objectives. I like thinking that my writing process might some day lead to another published novel or short story or essay. But I suppose that if I didn’t love the process, if I didn’t have to write in order to feel good about a day, if I could do something else and experience the satisfaction I get from writing, I would do something else. Problem is, I’ve tried a number of things (paralegal, teacher, administrator, community volunteer), and nothing fulfills me the way writing does.

writing down the bonesFor years now, long since abandoning math as a focus, I’ve started each day with pen and paper—old-fashioned cursive (Natalie Goldberg calls it “writing practice”)—and have seen little money come my way because of it. I don’t do it for the money. I do it because the process of stacking words (not numbers) on top of each other—letting them loose, running them across a page, sending them through a field or up a tree or into a moldy basement or down a river or around a bend—makes me feel whole.

Sometimes my writing is good and sometimes awful, but either way, it happens and the result is that a place deep inside me, a place I can’t put a name to, can’t find a word for, can’t grasp in a tight fist, seems to smile. Maybe a biologist would say that writing causes my body to release endorphins—life’s little stress-relievers. Maybe she’d say that bits of dopamine and serotonin and oxytocin are now swimming through my blood-oxygen. Yeah, well, whatever, right? To the nonscientific, the not-a-biologist here, those are just words.

But that spot deep inside me? It’s glowing. Pulsing. Breathing. I can feel it. I’m all gushy-warm inside, and the only thing I want is to keep writing. Just let me put down another word… another phrase… another sentence… another paragraph…

I’ve turned off the Internet and abandoned my cell phone somewhere in the house, its ringtone set to vibrate. I hope no one presses the doorbell, no one peeks through a window to see I’m still wearing PJs even though the sun’s been up for a while. Remind me later to eat, okay? Right now, all I want-desire-need-yearn for-salivate over-crave is more writing time. I guess I’m addicted. No apologies.

Get a flow going

Last month I posted about endings, then tried my own suggestion: I wrote a possible final chapter. Once I had it, of course I had to write the scene that would come immediately before it. Then I wrote the scene before that one, and on back, scene by scene, until my ending scenes connected with the chapters I’d written from the beginning.

I had a complete first draft. Finally!

And it was fun to write the story backwards. It was freeing. It was crazy, loose writing—a lot of dialogue—and I admit that the manuscript is now a mess. But a first draft is done. The story now has a shape (an emotional arc) and the characters have come alive, and I can begin to dig deeper into scenes and add sensory details and check for continuity, etc.

The best part is that along the way, I had fun! I got a flow going. I gave myself permission to let go. To relax.

I wrote the mess by hand. Longhand. In a spiral notebook with a gel pen that moves really fast along the page (no resistance). In one week, I filled three quarters of a notebook, and emptied one gel pen and half of a second one, and yes, sure, at times my hand ached. But the ache was worth it. The words flowed and my fear subsided—the fear that I’d never finish this novel, never publish another book.

I use Uni-ball .7mm pens

My favorite pen is the uni-ball 0.7MM

Next month during back-to-school sales, I’ll buy another ten or twenty cheap spiral notebooks because I’ve now used up the bunch I bought last summer. Do I save the notebooks after I fill them? Lord, no. I transfer the best parts to my computer and throw the notebooks away. The first time I threw one out (years ago), I winced, wondering if I was making a mistake. But then… nah. I let it go and wow—talk about freeing! A weight came off me. And in the process, I think a weight came off my prose, too.

How about you? What do you do to get a flow going?

Know your Ending

Once when I was young and read a novel with a fabulous twist at the end (I’ve forgotten the book, but I recall its effect), it hit me that the writer had to have known the ending all along. He’d planted clues throughout, but as a reader, I hadn’t put two and two together until the end, and when I did, wow. The story blew me away. Remembering the title would be a bonus here, but my point is that on that day, although I was only in elementary school, my wow moment had to do with craft.

Shortly after recovering from that wonderful wow, I recall that I felt sorry for the author. Poor thing. When you know your ending up front, doesn’t it spoil the story? Doesn’t it ruin the enjoyment of reading it? Of writing it? And when I realized that all authors would have to know their endings while writing their beginnings, I felt sad for all of them. Why would anyone want to become a writer? Imagine having to spend all that time writing a novel when you already know up front what the ending will be. The anticipation is lost. How dull. Why bother?

Okay, so I was a kid. I was impatient. I liked to write stories (nothing lengthy), and I never read books twice. As soon as I finished one, I was on to the next, excited to enter into a new world and find out how another set of characters would survive or thrive… or not.

As an adult I’ve developed lots of patience and have re-read plenty of novels, but the purpose of second go-rounds hasn’t been entertainment. I’ve wanted to study how writers do what they do, how they invite readers to suspend disbelief, how they merge ordinary worlds into extraordinary ones, how they pick up the pace, how they hook readers and make us care.

While drafting this blog post, I’ve perused articles about how to write endings, and I’ve linked to two that I thought were good. Click on the images above to read the articles; Lakin looks at literary fiction and Smith (Writer’s Digest) at commercial fiction. We’ve all heard that Margaret Mitchell wrote the last chapter of Gone with the Wind first, and according to this article, a number of successful authors, including John Irving and J.K. Rowling, have done the same.

In the month ahead, I’m going to take Lakin’s and Smith’s advice and draft an ending to my latest work-in-progress. I’m currently wallowing in the muddy middle, and it’s hitting me that if I want any chance of getting out of the mud, I have to know how this story ends. Once I figure it out, once I see and hear what the characters do and say in the final scene, I suspect that my newfound knowledge will cause me to rewrite the opening, too. But hey, it’s all good, right? It’s all about loving the process.

Do you know how your current WIP ends?

Happy writing, y’all!

Editing for Emotional Impact

This week’s Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” presented by James River Writers, was like a cornucopia of craft tips, everything overflowing, spilling out, and the crowd eagerly eating it all up. I had a great time. Here are my favorite take-aways from the evening:

Sadeqa Johnson urged us to listen to our characters. Really listen. Be open to what they have to say. While writing a scene, she’ll pause to ask a character, “What’s up?” Time and again she finds herself surprised by her characters’ answers. She tries to figure out what makes each one feel vulnerable.

Anne Blankman stressed the value of understanding what the protagonist wants, then taking that thing away, or at the very least, threatening its safety. She told us to think of a novel like an amusement park ride; readers have bought tickets and will feel cheated if the ride doesn’t carry them up and down and make their hearts pound.

Love in a carry on bag

Algebra of Snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ginger Moran reminded us that every story contains an element of mystery: there are details the reader doesn’t know and is curious to discover. Sure, yes, of course the author needs to figure out the backstory, but the place to begin is where the heart starts beating. She said, “Keep asking if you’ve gotten to the bone. Does the story hurt yet?” The hurting places—the vulnerable spots—are where readers connect.

Robin Farmer

Robin Farmer

Moderator Robin Farmer had clearly anticipated that the discussion might drift in an angst-ridden direction, and came prepared with a challenge from novelist Carrie Brown, whose article “The Difficult Art of Happiness” you can read at Glimmer Train. Robin asked the panelists how to ensure that stories include some degree of happiness, that characters exhibit a variety of emotions, not just tough ones. From that question came the suggestion to step back from a manuscript and color-code pages with markers or sticky-notes to glimpse whether you’ve written one shade of emotion or a rainbow.

The panelists and a member of the audience offered these titles for digging deeper into craft:
The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel by Robert Ray,
The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate, and
5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing by Lakin, et al. 

I was glad I’d brought paper and pen. From behind me in the packed Firehouse Theatre came the soft sounds of someone at a keyboard. I wasn’t the only one taking notes.

This panel was James River Writers at its best. A gold mine. Now I’m headed back to my own mine, and it’s not gold—it’s more like a trench—but there’s a manuscript down there, yearning for me to lift it up and out and into the sunlight.

 

Ruta Sepetys on Multiple Points of View

 

 

This month, I caught up with Ruta Sepetys, recently home from a two-month book tour for her latest historical YA, Salt to the Sea. It’s a gripping World War II story of a group of teenagers running for safety while the Russian army marches toward Germany and American bombers fly overhead. Set in 1945 in what is now Poland, the story leads up to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea, the greatest tragedy in maritime history.

 

 

In this video clip on Ruta’s website, we learn a bit about the family history that inspired Ruta to set her novel during WWII. Watching this clip is well worth four minutes of your time:

Ruta notes that “empathy is one of the greatest and most beautiful contributions that we can achieve through writing.” Empathy. Yes! So necessary when it comes to crafting a character, and especially when writing multiple characters and multiple points of view. I’m thrilled to have Ruta here to tell us how she did it.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Ruta. So glad you could share your thoughts about craft and process.

Ruta Sepetys: Thank you so much for having me!

ABW: Let’s start with that awful Alfred character—awful and oddly funny. The story is tense and Alfred provides a lot of comic relief in circumstances that are otherwise bleak. Was Alfred part of your early drafts, or did you weave him into the story later when you realized the need to lighten things up? How did you go about crafting him? To what extent is he based on someone you know?

RS: Oh yes, awful Alfred was a main player in my very first draft. I think of Alfred as a study of visibility. What happens to a young man who is isolated, rejected, invisible for much of his life and then suddenly he is given a uniform and becomes visible…if only in his own mind? In my early drafts, Alfred was quite humorous and sad, but during revisions it was suggested that I take a darker route with Alfred, showing him as someone with a perverse sense of superiority, someone who feels entitled to possess beautiful, innocent things like butterflies…and Hannelore. I liked that idea. Readers who may be familiar with Hitler’s teenage years will find many direct parallels in Alfred. Hitler wrote letters to a girl and never mailed them, etc. Alfred is not based on anyone I know (thank goodness), but was partially inspired by John Fante‘s character of Arturo Bandini.

ABW: His creepiness really came through. I hated him, but I also laughed while reading his chapters, and I appreciated those moments of levity.

I found the alternating voices of your four protagonists compelling, and wanted to ask about your process in developing them. Each is unique. Which voice came to you first, and at what point along the way did you settle on alternating between these four?

RS: Alfred’s voice came to me first and Emilia’s voice came to me last. I decided on the alternating structure well before I wrote a single word. As I was researching the sinking, evacuation, and time period, I was fascinated that the same event when described by people from different countries could be so drastically varied. But of course we all see history through our own cultural lens. So I decided well in advance to present the story through the alternating POVs of four cultural lenses: Lithuanian, East Prussian, Polish, and German.

ABW: Nice. The maps in the end pages were great, too. They helped me keep track of the geography and the paths the characters were taking.

In the FAQs on your website, you say that you often write in bits and pieces, jotting dialogue as it comes to you, or recording thoughts during long drives. Can you say more about your process?

RS: I spend a lot of time thinking about a story before I begin writing. I take walks and think. I drive and think. I jog and think. I keep a journal for every novel, and that journal becomes my bible for the book. I write all of my plot ideas, random thoughts, emotions, comments, and dialogue bits in the journal and date each entry. When I’m on a research trip, I capture all of my research notes in a little spiral notebook.

ABW: Once you have all of these bits and pieces, how do you go about organizing them? How do you transition from pieces to a uniform whole?

RS: At the beginning of a project I may create an initial spreadsheet to keep track, but ultimately, I always go back to the journal. History provides a basic framework, but I don’t outline heavily and I never have the whole plot figured out when I begin. That’s true of my earlier works, too—Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy. I love the creative process and allowing the story and characters to emerge as I’m writing.

ABW: I assume that at some point while writing Salt to the Sea, you had the story figured out chronologically, then you started in the middle and wove in back-stories as the characters had reason to think about the past. But am I wrong about that?

RS: I wrote Salt to the Sea sequentially, just as the reader reads it, swapping and alternating the voice in each chapter.

ABW: Okay, wow. That amazes me—that you wrote the chapters in the order they’re published. The voice and point of view—the feel and cadence and sound—clearly switches from chapter to chapter, and the back-stories flow seamlessly through the narrative. Really well done.

In the video clip above, you mention the value of having a writing group. You’re fortunate to have met kindred spirits for the journey.

RS: Yes, I have a wonderful writing group and community of author friends who are so generous to brainstorm plot and story with me. I owe a huge debt to Courtney C. Stevens who sat at restaurants and hotels with me on tour, brainstorming details and backstory. Also, my brilliant editor, Liza Kaplan, gave me fantastic revision notes that made the story and characters feel very real. I love working as a team on a book. It makes the whole process much more fun.

ABW: And the process produced a fabulous book. Thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions, Ruta! It’s an honor to feature you and your writing on my blog. While you were doing the book tour, I was following the travels of my good friend and writing colleague, Meg Medina, who met up with you at the Tucson Festival of Books. Here’s to festivals and the book you’re working on next…!

Meg Medina and Ruta Sepetys at the 2016 Tucson Festival of Books

Meg Medina and Ruta Sepetys at the 2016 Tucson Festival of Books

For more about Ruta and her books, check out the author videos and more on Ruta’s website.

Ideas are Overrated

People often ask writers: where do you get the ideas for your stories? And I say: ideas. Blah. So overrated.

I’ve blogged about this before, but still find myself slipping into the idea-trap. Recently while reading slush-pile submissions for a literary magazine, I found that other writers slip, too. It’s a sure recipe for rejection.

On some level, stories will always be filled with ideas, of course, but when an idea is important, the reason it’s important—its value—is that beneath it, there is a deeply-held emotion. The idea matters on some fundamental emotional level, and it’s the emotion that readers connect with. The books we like most are the ones that speak not to our heads, but to our hearts.

When we think about things (ideas), we’re at least one and possibly many steps removed from the things, themselves. When we think about a moment, we’re interpreting it rather than living it, and when we write interpretations of scenes, readers feel the distance.

Keith Urban

Keith Urban

Recently I posted a quote on a pale yellow sticky note above my desk: “Raw is a good place for an artist to be.” On American Idol, I heard judge Keith Urban say those words to a contestant. Raw. His comment spoke to me as a writer: stop thinking about the song (or the character or story) and feel it. Live it. Sing (write) from your soul. Let yourself be vulnerable. Be real. Be raw. Urban and the other Idol judges do a good job of pushing artists to dig deeper, and in the process, they’ve pushed me.

Years back, when I set out to write novels for young readers, I had no idea that I would have to dig so deeply into my soul—into really raw places—to tell stories. As hard as this journey has been, it’s also rewarded me in unexpected ways. I’ve felt alive. Connected. A raw place is an honest place, and when it comes to writing fiction, honesty is everything.

Salivation and Satisfaction

When I was a student in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I heard Jane Kurtz, the author of more than thirty books for young readers, give a fabulous lecture called “Salivation and Satisfaction.” The gist of her talk was that for a novel to work well, the reader must salivate (must care about the protagonist and hunger for more), and must feel satisfied at the end. The sense of satisfaction comes when there’s a match-up between what the writer sets up for the character and what the character gets. The protagonist won’t necessarily get what he or she wanted, but the questions the author has raised at the start need to be answered by the end.

This wisdom was on my mind one morning this past month, a morning when I woke feeling heavy. You know… it’s great when you feel rested first thing in the morning. It’s great to slip into your desk chair, take a sip from a steaming mug of coffee, and start writing, writing, writing. But I didn’t feel rested that morning. I had the whole dang plot of my novel sloshing through my head.

From years spent writing, I’ve learned that when I wake thinking about a particular scene, something is wrong. Maybe it’s a tidbit of dialogue or a character’s motivation for his/her action. Whatever it is—the scene needs fixing, and I end up feeling grateful to my subconscious for finding the problem.

But when I woke mulling over the whole plot…? Ugh.

Jane Kurtz

Jane Kurtz

Then Jane Kurtz came to mind, and I found my notes from her lecture. I asked myself: what questions did I pose at the beginning of this story? Have I answered them? What does my protagonist want most of all, and does the action in the climactic scene have anything at all to do with that desire? How sympathetic (or not) is my main character?

I got back to work.

I did a lot of free writing that morning. I set aside my computer and wrote by hand, stream-of-consciousness. I looked at the structure of the story and asked which parts were necessary and which could go. I pulled two full chapters and slid them into a might-use-later file. I wrote a new scene in which characters laugh at my protagonist, replacing a scene where the protagonist got angry. (Anger doesn’t engender sympathy the way humiliation does.)

Two months ago, I thought this novel was done. This month, it’s getting lots of work. It still needs work. But it’s getting better.

And to Jane Kurtz and Vermont College of Fine Arts, I say: thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for more than you know!

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley on Craft

Last week, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley won the Newbery Honor Award for her middle grade novel, The War that Saved my Life, and just this week she’s learned that it’s hitting the New York Times bestseller list. The book was also a co-winner of the Schneider Family Book Award, and the audio version won the Odyssey. Wow. Congratulations, Kim!

Kim and I “met” online after she blurbed Brotherhood (her lovely words appear on my book jacket and on the Brotherhood page of my website), and I was thrilled when she agreed to carve out time for this blog interview.

 

 

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kim! I loved reading The War that Saved my Life, and wanted to ask for your reflections on the craft of writing.

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: So glad to appear on your blog! Thank you for asking.

ABW: Let’s get right to the heart of The War that Saved my Life. Set in England at the start of WWII, it’s the story of ten year-old Ada, who was born with a clubfoot and whose abusive mother has tried to keep her hidden. As world events compel Ada out into the world, she must struggle both to understand all that she’s missed and to heal from the trauma of abuse. My first question is: how did you go about crafting Ada’s voice, so British and so real?

KBB: Anne, I’ll be honest, Ada’s voice was far and away the hardest thing for me to get right. I wrote the first few chapters over and over again, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third. Eventually I realized that I needed to be telling her story at a little bit of a time remove, so that she could describe all the things she didn’t know or understand, but have a vocabulary that included those things. You can see that on the third page: “The story I’m telling starts out four years ago, at the beginning of the summer of 1939…” We’re not getting a grownup telling the story, but we’re not getting ten-year-old Ada’s voice, either. As far as the British—I read so many stories published or set in England as a child that my vocabulary still contains words that puzzle Americans.

ABW: The re-writing clearly paid off. Lines like “I was ten years old (though I didn’t know my age at the time),” and later, “It was a pear, though we didn’t know it then,” made me curious. Why wouldn’t she know? (I had to keep turning pages.) And the British vocab was great—words like cheeky, and all that tea! I loved the way the story took me into another world, another time.

In your blog and in a post on School Library Journal’s Teen Librarian Toolbox, you discuss how your own experience of PTSD influenced the way you crafted your protagonist. Clearly, you pulled from your past a sense of resilience and infused Ada with it. For you, how cathartic was the experience of writing Ada’s story? What words of wisdom do you have for writers who’ve survived tough circumstances and are considering tapping into those memories to bring their fiction to life?

KBB: I didn’t think it was going to be cathartic—I went to pretty great lengths to have the specifics of Ada’s situation be very different from mine, and to have her reactions and life dissimilar to mine. But in the end it was more healing that I expected. I don’t think I could have written this book until I’d come pretty well to terms with my past. I had to write it from a place of healing.

Healing from any trauma is a long, drawn-out process, and I couldn’t have written this book when I was still experiencing a lot of personal pain. It’s very tempting to want to use our lives as material, but I wouldn’t have been able to use the material very effectively before this. It may have impeded my own healing. That said, I think every person is unique; I’m not sure I can offer anyone advice on their own journey except to say that the journey is possible, and worth it.

ABW: I really appreciate your honesty in talking about tough personal stuff. I can imagine that some readers will find Ada’s story so empowering that they’ll seek help for their own journeys. Ada’s determination is inspiring.

We’ve all heard the adage, write what you know, and I love how you took what you know well—both PTSD and horses—and used that knowledge to give depth to the story. But I’m also interested in what you didn’t know. Can you talk a bit about the research you did to make Ada’s story come alive? Tell us about your process in doing research.

KBB: In this case, I was enormously helped by Amazon.uk, the British version of Amazon.com. In England a ton of former evacuees have written and published accounts of their experiences; also, because this is taught extensively in British schools, they sell a ton of facsimiles of printed war materials. That was a good start. Eventually, however, I realized I was going to have to see Kent with my own eyes in order to be able to describe it through Ada’s.

In 2012 my family spent our children’s spring break in England. Highlights included the Imperial War Museum, where I could see actual Spitfires, boats that helped with the Dunkirk evacuations, bombs, identity cards, rations books, an Anderson shelter—all the stuff—and then driving around Kent, getting completely lost in back roads, and stumbling across the remains of one of the hundreds of airfields thrown up in England during the war. I also climbed to the top of Ada’s hill and looked out at the sea.

ABW: Sounds like a fabulous trip. While reading, I paused when Ada paused on that hill and looked out at the sea. In my mind, I could see it, too—that’s how caught up I was in the story.

I know you’re super busy, so I’ll wrap this up by asking how long it took you to write The War that Saved my Life? How many revisions did the manuscript go through?

KBB: I’m guessing about 2 1/2 years—I say guessing because I was starting the research while still finishing Jefferson’s Sons. The initial chapters went through about six revisions before I found Ada’s voice; after that, the entire manuscript went through six full revisions before copyediting. It’s the most-revised book I’ve ever written—and worth it.

ABW: Yes, very worth it! Thank you so much for this e-interview, Kim. I look forward to reading all of your books.

KBB; Thanks, Anne! I’m looking forward to your next book, too!

For more information about Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (she’s the author of 16 books for young readers, including the highly acclaimed Jefferson’s Sons, and For Freedom: the Story of a French Spy), check out her website and blog.

Welcome Ambiguity

My brother-in-law emailed me a quote from Richard Rohr, and I printed it on a scrap of paper, taped it above my writing desk, and now read it daily:

Richard Rohr

“…you cannot grow in the great art form, the integration of action and contemplation, without (1) a strong tolerance for ambiguity, (2) an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and (3) a willingness to not know and not even need to know. This is how you allow and encounter mystery…”

Ahhhhhhh. Read those words again.

In the early stages of writing a novel, so much is unclear. The characters’ motivations, the way the plot will unfold, the scenes that are necessary and the ones that aren’t—the writer has to sort out all of the details. The task is massive. The time it takes might stretch from months into years.

This early stage is the place where I find myself today. I’m creating new characters—nudging them, interviewing them, finding out what makes them tick, what they care about, what aspect of their story is worth telling. Little is clear, and I could despair about that. But Rohr reminds me to embrace the unknown. To forgive myself for the messiness and inefficiency of my writing process. To accept and tolerate ambiguity. To believe that somehow, somewhere along the way, a story will emerge.

If you’re embarking upon a new writing project as I am, post Rohr’s words above your writing desk. Hang in there with the ambiguity. No, don’t just hang. Embrace it. Welcome it. The story could go in any number of directions. Let yourself explore possibilities.

Let yourself encounter mystery.

Happy New Year!