Tag Archives: character

Anne Blankman on emotional truth in historical fiction, & YA ARC giveaway

Today I want to sing the praises of Richmond, Virginia’s writing community! I’m fortunate to be surrounded by poets, novelists, journalists, and nonfiction geniuses. Just a few minutes away lives Anne Blankman, and last year when I visited, her daughter snapped this picture of us.

Anne is the author of three YA novels, all published by Balzer+Bray: Prisoner of Night and Fog, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (a sequel to the first), and Traitor Angels.

A.B. Westrick: Hello, Anne, and welcome to my blog!

Anne Blankman: Thanks so much for having me!

ABW: Today I want to discuss your first novel, but before we jump in, I have to tell readers that I’ve got a giveaway here: an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of Traitor Angels, signed by you! Readers who leave a comment at the bottom of this post will be entered into a drawing for the ARC. The deadline to comment and have your name in the drawing is June 15, 2017.

Now let’s focus on Prisoner of Night and Fog. Set in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, it’s the story of 17 year-old Gretchen Müller, who adores Hitler and knows him as “Uncle Dolf.” When Gretchen learns that her father had been murdered, not martyred (as she’d been told), she sets out to find the truth.

So my first question is about Hitler. Readers might think they already know him, but you show Hitler in new and intimate settings. I particularly enjoyed the parts where you depict him interacting with close friends and family members. How did you go about crafting him? How did you come to imagine the way he might have acted in all these scenes—in parks, restaurants, his flat, etc.?

AB: I researched Hitler extensively before I wrote a single word of Prisoner. Biographies, social histories, and psychological profiles were helpful, but I found memoirs and diaries to be invaluable. Reading about people’s personal experiences with Hitler helped me form a more complete picture of him. A collection of interviews of so-called “Hitler children”—the offspring of Nazi leaders—gave me insight into how Hitler treated young people, particularly young females. I also listened to recordings of his early speeches to get a sense of his voice and speaking patterns, and I watched endless videos of him so I could study his gestures and gait. (And by the way, some of the Hitler children really did call him “Uncle Dolf”!) 

ABW: Awesome. Your research really paid off. In some scenes, you even manage to make Hitler come across as a sympathetic figure, and I found those scenes intriguing. (And disturbing.) Of all the real historical figures in the novel, which was the hardest for you to write, and why was that one so hard?

AB: Hands down, Hitler was the hardest. Not only is he one of the most evil people of all time, he’s also one of the most well-known historical figures in the world. Also, I felt a tremendous responsibility to his millions of victims to capture him as accurately as possible. It would have been easy to represent him as a caricature.

ABW: And you succeeded. Really well done. In your Author’s Note, you reveal which characters were fictional and which were real. Of the fictional ones, which did you enjoy crafting the most? What was it about that character that drew you in?

AB: This is going to sound like a strange answer, but I try not to play favorites with my fictional characters! I find if I like them too much, I’ll be too easy on them and won’t put them through the wringer—and, of course, we want to see characters work hard to reach their ending.

ABW: Haha. That’s great. Yes, you’re right about the need to go hard on characters. Putting them through the wringer speeds up the pace. And when it comes to pacing, you move things right along! Your plot moves really quickly (your book actually brought to mind The Bourne Identity—not that your plot is anything like that one—but I remember turning pages really fast while reading that one years ago, and again while reading yours). You’re a master at plotting, and you love to end chapters with cliff-hangers! Would you share a bit about your process in crafting this plot?

AB: Thank you, Anne! What a lovely compliment. I always write an outline before I begin drafting. An outline helps me keep the story focused and prevents me from drifting off in directions I don’t want to take.

ABW: Ah-ha! So you’re a plotter rather than a seat-of-your pantser.

AB: Yes, very much so!

ABW: Do you have any plot advice for aspiring novelists?

AB: I’d say that I think it’s important to remember that every scene needs to propel the story forward. If you’re unsure if a part is necessary, ask yourself if it advances the plot or the character’s emotional journey. If the answer’s no, then it needs to go.

ABW: Good point. How about revision? How many drafts did you have to write to get the manuscript ready for publication? How involved was your editor in your revision process?

AB: Oh my goodness! Many, many drafts. I must have revised Prisoner at least eight times before I submitted it to an agent. Being a newbie, I thought the manuscript was pretty much “done” when my editor at Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins acquired it. Little did I know that the hard work was just beginning!

My editor, Kristin Rens, writes wonderful, long edit letters, detailing everything she likes about your manuscript….and everything that doesn’t work. Instead of telling you what to fix, though, she asks you questions that force you to think about your story in new ways. Working with her was a lovely experience.

ABW: It’s amazing what a good editor can bring out in a writer. Okay, finally, last question: when it comes to writing fiction that includes real historical figures, what tips might you have for aspiring authors?

AB: Not everything that your real-life characters do in your story needs to be historically accurate, but it needs to be emotionally true.

ABW: Oooooh, I like that. Sometimes writers can get caught up in the details and lose the heart of a piece.

Thank you so much, Anne, for telling us a bit about your writing process.

AB: Thank you so much for having me!

ABW: Readers who want to know more can find Anne Blankman at her website, and also on facebook and twitter.

If you want your name in the drawing for a signed ARC of Traitor Angels, leave a comment below! Deadline: June 15, 2017.

In Traitor Angels, six years have passed since England’s King Charles II returned from exile to reclaim the throne. Elizabeth Milton, the daughter of poet John Milton, and handsome Italian scientist Antonio Viviani discover that Milton has placed an explosive secret in his masterpiece, Paradise Lost. A secret the king is desperate to conceal. Do they risk cracking the code and possibly tearing apart the very fabric of society…?

Try Something New

I don’t remember exactly when I met Erin Teagan, but I know it was through SCBWI‘s Mid-Atlantic chapter—either the annual fall conference or the novel revision retreat. It might’ve been as many as ten years ago, so in 2015 when I heard Erin’s debut novel had sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I did a happy dance!

The Friendship Experiment is a heart-felt middle-grade novel about a 6th grader who loves science and could use some help in the friendship department. It hit shelves in late 2016, and this month I caught up with Erin to ask about her writing process.

A.B. Westrick: Congratulations, Erin! And welcome to my blog.

Erin Teagan: Thank you, Anne!

ABW: I want to start by asking about you. Your bio says you’re a former research scientist. How much of you is present in your protagonist, Maddie, and how much of Maddie is pure fiction? Tell us a little about your process in crafting this delightful character.

ET: The idea of Maddie came to me when I was working for a biologics company and I took my mug to the dishwasher and found that a scientist had posted a very official and detailed standard operating procedure on how to use this everyday appliance. I immediately thought about this scientist’s life. Did he write SOPs and put them on his appliances at home? Did his kids have an SOP taped to their bathroom mirror to help them brush their teeth? This is how Maddie came to me.

ABW: Hahaha. Makes me think about the little notes I post at my house. But mine aren’t SOPs! They’re more like labels on leftovers so I don’t leave them to rot in the fridge. But back to Maddie. Say more about crafting her… Continue reading

Make Your Protagonist Accountable

Kathy Steffen

Kathy Steffen

In this post by author Kathy Steffen, she talks about “giving your characters accountability.” I thought that was an odd phrase, and my first reaction was, whaaat? What does she mean?

As I read through her post, I got it. For me, the click came when I phrased her words differently. I’d say it like this: make your protagonist accountable to someone or accountable for something.

Accountability engenders sympathy. Steffen is saying that if you want to ensure that your readers will care about your protagonist—will sympathize with her and commit to turning hundreds of pages to find out how she fares—one way to do it is to craft scenes depicting her as accountable. Make other characters depend on her. Connect the protagonist’s actions to the welfare of others.

In Brotherhood I’d succeeded in doing this, but not consciously. I’d like to say I had an instinct for it, but no. I had help. While I was an MFA student at VCFA, faculty mentor Kathi Appelt suggested that I restructure my manuscript. In an early draft, on about page 180 my protagonist made a promise to his mother and set out to fulfill the promise. In response to Appelt’s suggestion, I moved that scene to chapter one, and the move made all the difference. In hindsight I get that it accomplished exactly what Steffen is talking about.

These days, I’m in the revision stage on two very different novels, and after reading Steffen’s post, it’s occurred to me that in neither draft have I made the protagonist accountable to or for someone other than himself.

Ugh. My writing instincts aren’t strong. I don’t know about you, but for me, writing doesn’t come easily. I don’t craft stories intuitively, but instead slog along, learning techniques, playing with possibilities, and seeing what works. Thank goodness I find the process rewarding. I mean, really—I could do this scribbling, this shuffling around of words, this editing and revising 24/7. Sometimes I forget to eat.

In 2017 I’m going to approach my revisions differently. I’m now doing a lot of free-writing from each character’s point of view. I’m drafting scenes that show their hearts. I’m rethinking what they feel accountable to or for.

What about you? To whom or for what is your protagonist accountable?

 

Sailing Oceans with Padma Venkatraman

How’s this for serendipity? When I met conference keynoter Padma Venkatraman at the James River Writers conference in October 2016, she recognized my book. She’d read it! Turns out her book had also received the NCSS Notable Trade Book Award. We were award-sisters! And right then, I knew I had to interview Padma for my blog.

I’ve just read her multiple-award-winning novel A Time to Dance about a girl who dreams of dancing again after losing a leg in a bus accident. It’s intense, at times funny and sad, soul-touching, heart-warming—all in all, a great read.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Padma!

Padma Venkatrama: Hello! Thanks for having me.

ABW: Your keynote address was inspirational, and I’d love for you to repeat a bit of what I heard you say at the James River Writers conference. Would you please talk about “going method”—the way you approached the task of writing about a character who’d lost a leg? It was so interesting. What did you do, and how did it influence your writing process?

PV: I’d like to begin by sharing with your readers the incident that inspired A Time to DanceOn a trip to India in my late teens, I was bitten by a viper, one of the most poisonous Indian snakes.

ABW: Oh, no!

PV: Oh, yes! It’s a miracle I survived without having to have my leg amputated. That experience—of nearly losing life and limb—solidified my sense of spirituality (which isn’t necessarily bound to any religion). Continue reading

Love your protagonist

This month I attended two writers’ conferences—James River Writers and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Mid-Atlantic Regional—and felt like I’d shopped in a gourmet food store. I came home excited to cook.

Speakers laid out the usual conference fare—how writers must learn to accept failure/rejection, cultivate resilience/perseverance, find their own unique (authentic) voice, etc.—a smorgasbord of advice.

When Lin Oliver stepped up to the podium, she gave a talk called, “A Ten Point Guide to Launching and Sustaining a Children’s Book Career.” During Point Five, she dropped a crumb that made me sit up, made my mouth water. Five was about studying the craft, and Lin peppered it with spices like letting the child solve the story’s problem and writing “in scene” and beginning on the day that’s different. Delicious stuff, all of it.

Lin Oliver

But the morsel Lin dropped—the one that got me to lean forward, Continue reading

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.  Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading