Tag Archives: craft

Believe your Story (Goodreads Giveaway: WIREWALKER)

WirewalkerMary Lou Hall‘s debut novel Wirewalker came out in September 2016, introducing YA readers to 14 year-old Clarence Feather, a boy with a big heart and some big problems. He earns pocket money running drugs while grieving his mother’s death and longing for another way to live. The story is beautifully written and hard to put down, and after reading it, I just had to interview Mary Lou for my blog.

But before we get to the interview, note the title of this post. It’s not “believe in your story,” but Believe your Story. Read on to get to the distinction Mary Lou makes.

And meanwhile, sign up for the book giveaway! I tracked Mary Lou down, got her signature on a hardcover, and am doing this giveaway through Goodreads. If you want to enter, check out the Goodreads Giveaways page. Free, no strings attached. Deadline: July 20, 2017.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome to my blog, Mary Lou! I really appreciate your taking time from your busy teaching schedule to tell me a bit about what inspired you to write this gripping YA drama.

Mary Lou Hall: Thanks for inviting me to your blog!

ABW: Let’s start with where Wirewalker came from. I’d love to hear what the spark was that lit your imagination and compelled you to write Clarence Feather’s story.

MLH: During late college and through graduate school, I waited tables and tended bar in a swanky, successful restaurant. While I was there, I became friends with a co-worker who was six years younger than I was. At that point in my life, the age gap seemed significant. He was barely old enough to legally work. To me, he seemed like the quintessential innocent kid encountering the so-called real world for the first time. I was wrong.

Over time, as I got to know him, he shared his story with me. In the neighborhood where he’d grown up, his brother still worked as a drug dealer. Drug money largely kept the household afloat, and when my friend was eleven years old, his brother initiated him into that world. My friend ran drugs for his brother for several years before leaving to wash dishes in the restaurant where I met him. About a year later, his brother joined us there, taking a job in the restaurant’s kitchen, leaving dealing behind “for good,” he claimed.

My friend openly admitted that he was sometimes still angry at his brother for using him as a runner, and I watched his brother take that anger on. He owned it. Most of the time, though, I watched them joke and laugh with each other, and my outsider’s perspective couldn’t reconcile what I was seeing. I wondered how a boy—and then a young man—could get past that kind of betrayal by a brother, who for all intents and purposes, had functioned as a father in his life. Their story—and my unreconciled questions about trust and forgiveness—stayed with me long after the restaurant closed and we finally parted ways.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Wirewalker by Mary Lou Hall

Wirewalker

by Mary Lou Hall

Giveaway ends July 20, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


ABW: So your characters are partially based on real-life acquaintances.

MLH: Yes, partially. Years later, I lived in a formerly thriving community that was falling into economic decline. Drug dealing was becoming a visible presence in the neighborhood, as were the boys who played their parts, like my friend in the restaurant, in those dealers’ success. These circumstances made me think about my friend and his older brother, about how the lines between love, loyalty, and survival might fall in different places for different people. Little by little, over a long period of time, Clarence Feather—and his conflicted relationship with the men who are raising him—came to life on the page.

James River WritersABW: That is really powerful. And I appreciate your saying that the novel emerged over a long period of time. I recall that way back in 2011, I was on staff at Richmond’s James River Writers when an early version of your manuscript won JRW’s Best Unpublished Novel ContestRichmond Magazine published an excerpt in their July 2011 issue, and in a sidebar there, you said Clarence was eleven years old. Now he’s fourteen. Can you tell me a little about that change? Was it your idea or your editor’s, and how did the change affect your understanding of Clarence’s character?

Viking Children's BooksMLH: The age-change suggestion came from my agent and from Ken Wright, the publisher at Viking Children’s Books, who acquired Wirewalker. They both rightfully wanted the story to reach as many readers as possible, and an eleven year-old protagonist would likely exclude older readers. I originally based Clarence’s age on how old my friend was when he started running drugs. I wanted Clarence to possess the vulnerability and tenderness of a child, but with wits enough to survive. After spending a week with two of my nephews who were fourteen at the time, I realized that I could be true to the Clarence I was writing and agree to the age change. My nephews were still very much boys—kids—and their dispositions, actions, and general way of being in the world synched up naturally with many of the ways I’d already drafted Clarence. 

ABW: How much did the age-change affect the plot?

MLH: The characters of Clarence and Mona (and their friendship) came first, then the plot, and then the age change. The age-change didn’t really change the plot at all, in the end.

ABW: In Wirewalker the narrative flow is fabulous. Your language rolls and rolls, feeling seamless, effortless. Can you tell me about your writing process? How much do you write by hand (longhand) and how much on a computer? How do you achieve a flow?

Mary Lou HallMLH: I think that what you’re calling flow starts to kick in, for me, when I really start believing the story I’m writing. Notice that I just wrote “believing the story” not “believing in the story.” Every writer wants to believe in their work, but for me, that belief has always seemed abstract and conceptual, like the popular self-help adage “Believe in Yourself.” I’ve never quite understood what that means in any concrete, practical terms.

But when we really believe something, that something becomes wholly real to us; it actually and unequivocally exists. I’ve found that my writing only flows when I start believing that my characters are real, when I find myself emotionally relating to them as if they are fully human and alive. I stuck with Clarence’s story—after writing two novels that I never sent out for representation—because early on in the writing process, Clarence became an actual walking, talking, feeling, dreaming boy to me and as I got to know him better, over time, his story quite literally flowed onto the page.

ABW: I love your comments about believing the story, and knew that had to be the title for this blog post. Thank you for the insight!

While reading Wirewalker I hit a few moments when Clarence’s situation reminded me of my own protagonist’s plight in Brotherhood. The settings are totally different—historical versus contemporary urban—but in both cases the boys join gangs where they’re pressured to do what they know is wrong. I found my bully character particularly hard to write, and I’m wondering what your experience was. Which characters came easiest on the page, and which did you struggle to craft?

MLH: Oddly enough, I didn’t really struggle with creating any of the characters. Once Clarence became real to me, the story started telling itself, for the most part, and all of the characters just seemed to show up and play their parts. There were, however, parts of the story that were emotionally difficult to write, when I hadn’t expected a particular thing to happen and then I suddenly realized that I had to write it.

The most potent example is the dogfight scene toward the beginning of the book. I knew that Clarence’s drug running would be played out against a backdrop of dog fighting, but I’d planned on it being implied rather than described. When I realized that the story needed Clarence to actually witness a dogfight, I literally wept, and I wept all the way through writing that scene. I’d already done my research on dogfighting, and while the actual “fight” part of that scene was brief, I had to viscerally imagine the details. As an avid animal lover and dog rescuer, the process was extremely painful. Thankfully, that was the only time in the story I had to directly touch that content.

ABW: The dogfighting scene was stomach-clenching material. It was very hard to read, and I was grateful you kept it brief. I’m not surprised to hear that it was hard to write.

Through how many revisions did you have to take this manuscript?

MLH: Talking about revisions takes me to the settings in which I write. I find that my writing process feels more intuitive and fluid if I work in different kinds of spaces at different times. For me, working on a laptop is essential. I sometimes write at home or in my office, but I often write in public places like coffee shops or cafes. The hum and energy of a shared public space bumps me out of my conscious (and often overcritical) mind and allows me to freely dream. In terms of a preferred mode of writing, working digitally allows me to seamlessly and continuously revise-as-I-go. This means that I move somewhat slowly through the first draft but have less revision to do once that draft is completed.

ABW: Nice. I wish I could say the same about my writing—that there’s less revision needed once a draft is complete! But no. Oh, well. Maybe with my next novel…

Thank you so much, Mary Lou, for sharing a bit about your process and for bringing Clarence Feathers’s story to life.

MLH: Thanks for asking, Anne!

ABW: I want to close by giving readers a few examples of your fabulous writing. There are so many places where the language is pitch-perfect that highlighting these few seems rather silly, but hey—here you go, readers. A taste. An hors d’oeuvre to whet your appetite. If you want to devour the main course, you’ll have to get your hands on Wirewalker:

“‘I’ll do it.’ The words flew out of his mouth on their own, and Clarence knew he’d spoken too quickly, too eagerly. He could feel himself smiling, exposing his teeth to the world. He had to bring the conversation down a notch, find some cool.”

“… he realized life was easier when he disappeared into corners, drifting silently through the house as if made of breath.”

“He knew that the question she’d asked was bigger than the words she’d used to ask it.”

Now, isn’t that just delicious writing?

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…?

Writing about cancer: talking craft with Dean Gloster

This month, after devouring Dean Gloster‘s debut YA novel Dessert First, I just had to track down the author and hear a bit about the story behind the story. How did he come to write this poignant novel? Lucky for me, Dean is currently studying in the MFA program at my alma mater, Vermont College of Fine Arts, so I found him there, and he made time in between MFA assignments to talk craft.

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

Dean Gloster: Thank you for having me!

ABW: I want to start with a question about the funny-sarcastic parts of this book, but first I need to tell readers a bit about the story because a whole lot of the book really isn’t funny at all. From the title and cover art, readers might think the book includes a few recipes, but… no. Dessert First is the story of 16-year old Kat Monroe and the many issues in her life, beginning with her brother’s cancer relapse (leukemia), and including soccer girl bullies, a former boyfriend, and academic woes. Life is pretty rough, but Kat tries to keep up her sarcastic-funny side. So my first question is where this character and her sense of humor came from. Your bio says you’ve done stand-up comedy. Is it easy for you to write one-liners? Do teen characters bring out a natural snarkiness in you?

DG: Humor does come naturally to me and Kat’s voice came easily, in part because I channeled 16-year-old me. (Back then, I also had anger that came out as sarcasm, and that did not serve me well with peers.)

ABW: Ah-ha, so there might be other teen-you stories that you can resurrect for future novels. But sticking with Dessert First here, Kat sounds totally authentic. I’d love to hear you reflect on the challenge of writing outside your gender. You’re a guy and Kat’s a girl, and why did you decide to write this story from a girl’s point of view?

DG: Kat and her voice arrived before there was a story—I wrote one scene late in the book (the fight with Kayla) and then had to figure out what would lead Kat to that. Her bond with her younger brother, Beep, her struggles with her older sister, her trying to navigate her friendship/romance with Evan, her difficulties with other girls at school, and her being a partial caretaker for her family as a parentified child seemed to fit a female character better than a male one. It helped, in writing her, that she was an athlete—a soccer player—because I had coached girls’ soccer for many seasons, and I approach the world like an athlete. (My hobby is ski racing.) I got praise from my agent and editor and reviewers for how authentic Kat sounded, which was gratifying and reflected lots of editing and revision I’d done to take out what didn’t work.

ABW: You definitely nailed her voice. And thank you for sending pictures of you ski racing! I especially like the one you labeled, “What? Me worry?,” taken just after you’d lost a ski. Go, Dean!

Okay, now let’s get back to the book and talk about social media. I thought you handled it deftly in the story. Your characters friended and unfriended each other, cyber-shamed peers, communicated “I love you” online rather than in person, and even “attended” a prom via Skype. Social media platforms didn’t exist when you were a teenager. How much research did you have to do to get the social media piece right? How’d you pull it off?

DG: I liked the idea of how people can have different identities online—

ABW: Oh, yes! I kept wondering if people were going to figure out that Kat and this other character—her online persona—were the same person.

DG: Yes, that added plot tension, but it wasn’t part of my early drafts. When I started writing the book, there was no Facebook. In the first draft, Kat’s online experience was through the cancer forums, an online bulletin board. So I changed a lot during the writing and revising. Like a lot of introverts, I like social media, so I had personal experience, but I also did lots of research, including how cancer kids’ use of Facebook is often different from other teens. One problem with including social media in a novel is that usage changes rapidly, while the writing and publishing process is slow, so it can date a book. (In an early draft, there was a reference to Myspace, which would be like trying to include live dinosaurs in a contemporary novel.)

ABW: Agreed. I think you’re safe with Facebook. These days, even if some readers don’t use Facebook, they know what it is.

Now I have a question about books with similar themes. Although your plot is significantly different from John Green‘s in The Fault in Our Stars, in both books The Big C—Cancer—looms. (Readers: if you liked Green, try Gloster!) Your book comes at cancer from the point of view of a cancer sibling. Did the release of Green’s blockbuster in 2012 have any influence on you while you were writing Dessert First?

DG: Not while I was writing it, because I wrote the first draft before The Fault in Our Stars came out, and then studiously avoided reading John Green’s wonderful book (and Jesse Andrews’ terrific Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Jordan Sonnenblick’s great Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie and Jandy Nelson’s amazing The Sky Is Everywhere about grieving the loss of a sibling) until I was done with revisions. Which is good, because those books would have been intimidating. I genuinely thought that no one in the publishing industry would be very interested in a funny, tear-jerking book about childhood cancer—sibling or otherwise. So John Green’s book created a market, and a possibility of publisher acceptance, for mine. (And for that, I remain eternally grateful.)

ABW: Yes, great timing. In Dessert First, I loved the sections written in “Mom Calmese”—your label for the voice of updates on cancer support websites. Nice detail. There were many, many details that lent authenticity to the story—so many that I wondered about your own personal history with cancer. How have you or your loved ones been affected by cancer?

DG: Wow. It’s hard to find a family that hasn’t been affected by cancer. My wife was a pediatric ICU nurse, and she took care of lots of young people with leukemia. Now she works in a children’s hospice. My dad had colon cancer. One of my brothers has had colon cancer, one of my sisters has had breast cancer, my brother-in-law has lung cancer, and my stepmom has had three separate kinds of cancer. It’s an awful, pervasive disease.

ABW: Good point. So let me ask it this way: what compelled you to write this particular story?

DG: My heart hurt for Kat, the protagonist, and I loved her voice and humor and fierceness. Once I started, I couldn’t not tell her story, so I had to figure out how to learn to write well enough to do her justice. That took lots of drafts, and after about the fourth draft I realized the story was also about learning to forgive others and yourself, which is a lesson I needed to learn, so I kept going.

ABW: That sense of forgiveness really comes through at the end.

Sam Westrick, the bass player in my family.

Okay, now on a totally different topic, I have to tell you that I happen to love bass lines and a certain bass player in my family, so I want to call you out on a comment deep in the novel. Hahaha. Yes, I laughed when I read, “… when we find somebody ignorant enough to play bass…” but hey, come on, what’s that supposed to mean? What is your beef with bass players?!

DG: I was only ever in a rock band for seven minutes. And that was during the seventies, so it shouldn’t count at all. And I was only in the band that long because the song I sang was seven minutes long. After my performance, except for my brother, all the other members of the band literally said they’d quit if I stayed. (I didn’t stay.)

ABW: Okay, I forgive you!

DG: So I’m exactly not the authority on what makes music great. Both my brothers, though, are musicians. Kat’s snark about base players, very late in the book, is meant to show that while Kat has mellowed, and learned forgiveness, and grown as a person, and is moving away from using sarcasm as the way to grapple with the world, she still has a lot of anger and a ways to go.

ABW: Yes, a ways to go. Kat’s not going to change overnight, but I like the way you got her to a hope-filled place at the end.

Okay, last question: how long did it take you to write Dessert First, and how many revisions did it go through before you submitted it to an agent or editor? How different is the published version from your first drafts?

DG: It took me approximately forever—seven years, anyway—because when I started I had no idea how to write a novel, and because two years into the process, my brother got diagnosed with cancer, so I had to put the book aside until he went into remission.

ABW: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that—but glad he’s now in remission.

DG: Thank you. So am I.

I wrote an entire through-draft to the end before I showed a word to anyone and went through many, many drafts and edits before sending it to an agent. Like a lot of first novelists, I struggled initially with the form, so the first draft was in the format of the massive make-up paper that Kat submits to avoid flunking out in all her classes—complete with footnotes, which Kat didn’t know how to use, so she just put the jokes in there. That first draft was entertaining, but remarkably terrible, so I had to do a complete rewrite. But it helped me to find Kat’s voice and to get the story down, as a starting place.

ABW: Ah, yes, I get the reality of remarkably terrible first drafts. Kudos to you for persevering, and thank you so much, Dean, for writing such a good story, and sharing a bit about your process.

Readers interested in more should check out Dean’s website at DeanGloster.com and follow Dean on Twitter. Oh, and go get a copy of Dessert First. Once you read it, you’ll understand the meaning of the title.

What’s an “objective correlative,” huh?

 

 

The other day while reading Raymie Nightengale by Kate DiCamillo, I hit a passage that from a craft of writing perspective was so good—so well written—it stopped me cold. I marveled at the technique, and knew in an instant I’d have to blog about it. So here we go. See what you notice in this excerpt from pages 5-6. We’re in the point of view of a young girl named Raymie who’s in a baton-twirling class with a teacher named Ida Nee. Standing next to Raymie is a girl who says…

 

     “My name is Beverly Tapinski and my father is a cop, so I don’t think that you should mess with me.”
     Raymie, for one, had no intention of messing with her.
     “I’ve seen a lot of people faint,” said Beverly now. “That’s what happens when you’re the daughter of a cop. You see everything. You see it all.”
     “Shut up, Tapinski,” said Ida Nee.
     The sun was very high in the sky.
     It hadn’t moved.
     It seemed like someone had stuck it up there and then walked away and left it.

Oh, my gosh. Stop. Isn’t that great? (Or do you think I’m crazy?) Notice what DiCamillo does. Or what she does not do. She does not follow Ida Nee’s rebuke with Raymie’s opinion about Ida Nee. She does not tell us Raymie’s feelings. Instead, she describes what Raymie looks at.

As a reader, what do you feel?

How do you think Raymie feels?

The brilliance of this passage is the way DiCamillo trusts the reader to get it.

T. S. Eliot

DiCamillo has used a creative writing technique with a rather obtuse name: the objective correlative. T. S. Eliot elaborated on this technique in a 1919 essay called “Hamlet and his Problems,” and when I was an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, author and faculty mentor Tim Wynne-Jones lectured about it. The essence of the technique is this: in order to communicate to readers what your character might be feeling, describe an object, situation, or set of circumstances that correlates with the character’s emotion. Don’t identify the emotion; let the reader infer it.

Eliot undoubtedly incorporated into his writing objective correlatives with more sophisticated language than what DiCamillo uses in Raymie Nightengale, but regardless of voice, style, or vocabulary, the effect is the same: the author stirs emotions in the reader without telling the reader what to feel. When done well, this technique is a highly effective tool in the show-don’t-tell toolbox.

If you want to read more about objective correlatives, I’d recommend this essay by a student at Carson-Newman University, and this explanation on the NeoEnglish website. See if you can revise passages in your current work-in-progress, removing words that name characters’ emotions and replacing them with objects or situations that communicate the mood or feeling in the scene. Write it well and readers will vicariously experience what the characters do. Good stuff.

Happy writing!

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

Write with wonder

Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma

In a July 2016 article in Toronto’s Metro News, writer Richard Crouse recounts a joke told by world-class cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a new documentary called The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble:

A little boy says to his father, “When I grow up I want to be a musician.”
“Sorry son,” the father replies, “you can’t do both.”

Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty mentor Jane Kurtz retold this joke during her January 2017 lecture, and lucky for me, I was on campus to hear it! For eleven days I worked as a Graduate Assistant, attending the lectures in exchange for helping make the residency run smoothly. I had a blast. Now back home, I’m digging deeply into characters’ emotions and trying to tap into more of my childhood experiences—into both a sense of wonder as well as uncertainty and disappointment. Growing up wasn’t easy. Would you want to have to grow up again? I wouldn’t.

But to wonder again? Oh, yes. To be playful? Curious? To live on the cusp rather than believing I’ve already arrived? For my fiction to work, my characters need to live on that cusp. And if they must go there, I must go, too.

Yo-Yo Ma celebrates his “access to wonder.” Crouse also quotes Ma as saying, “I’m drawn to what I don’t know versus what I do know.” I love that. Children spend more time not-knowing than knowing. They explore. They try and fail and try again. Some learn to laugh at their failures, and some cry, and I wonder how it is that some manage to shrug off disappointment while others wallow in it. I don’t have an answer. I’m giving myself permission to wonder, to play, to not know (and by the way, VCFA faculty mentor Martha Brockenbrough gave us permission to split infinities, and for more on that, you’ll have to read her grammar book). I’m going to sit with uncertainty and try to put words to what I feel, not unlike the way Yo-Yo Ma puts music to his feelings. Well, ha! My writing certainly won’t be anything like what Ma can do with a cello. But hey, I can try, right? And I can wonder and believe and practice and hope and…

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