Tag Archives: emotional truth

Crafting a graphic novel-memoir

Author-illustrator Cece Bell is coming to the James River Writers conference in Richmond, VA, on October 18-19, and how lucky am I, that I got to interview her ahead of time!

She’s the author of numerous books, including Rabbit & Robot, Bee-Wigged, Itty-Bitty, the Sock Monkey series, and more. She was awesome enough to mail me an advance-reader copy of her new novel-memoir El Deafo, just out this month from Amulet Books. Woot, woot, and welcome, Cece.​ I’d love to talk with you about the craft of writing…

 

 

A.B. Westrick: El Deafo is a great read! The story tugged on my heartstrings from the start, hooking me right in.

Cece Bell: Thank you so much for doing this interview, and for reading the book, and for saying you enjoyed it!

ABW: It’s a great story. And my first question is about El Deafo’s first chapter—a fabulous chapter. You let us glimpse your transition at age four from regular-kid to sick-kid, followed by this line (page 3): “I am pulled away from my parents… and taken to a room. Somebody sticks a needle in my back.” The hook is both figurative and literal—ouch! Then your hospital roommate gets ice cream and you don’t. Oh, the injustice!

I get that you wanted to start the story at the point when your hearing loss started, but you did more than that. You dug deeply into the emotional truth of your situation. My questions are: (1) was that opening always your opening, or did you change it during the writing-and-illustrating process, and (2) what advice do you have for writers who struggle to tap into emotional truths? You’re a master at it! Have you adopted any rituals or memory-tricks to help you resurrect what it felt like to be four… or five… or six years old?

CB: So, to begin…

1. That wasn’t always the opening. I was originally going to start the book during the moment that I realize that my very powerful school hearing aid is allowing me to hear my teacher wherever she is in the entire school building. The exact moment, in fact, in which I realize that I have superpowers. But it soon became apparent that none of that would make sense without the back story, the “origin” story. So I decided to start from the beginning. It’s much better this way—it hooks the reader, as you say (the origin stories of comic book superheroes are the best part of comic books, in my opinion)—and it gets the hard stuff out of the way early, so the book can be opened up to more humorous things later.

2. As to memory, my friends always tell me that I remember things that they don’t remember at all. So I might be blessed with a good memory. I was lucky, too, in that my mom had saved some correspondence with teachers and speech therapists and audiologists (you can see a lot of this at www.cecebell.com); she saved my superpowerful hearing aid, too. Having the correspondence helped me with the chronology, and having the hearing aid triggered lots more memories.

As to tapping into emotional truths—I’m glad you felt the book did that! In some ways, I still struggle from time to time with similar issues that I dealt with in childhood, so it was easy to tap into what things felt like—I often feel the same way now, it’s just lesser, or calmer.

What’s nice about the graphic novel format is that you can play with the placement and sizing and color of all the elements (i.e. panels and speech balloons and drawings, etc.) to make things as dramatic as you want. So I took the emotions that I know and experience as an adult, and I cranked them up visually so that they matched the totally bonkers emotions I felt as a kid. I know what mad feels like as an adult… and mad when you’re a kid feels MAD. You turn it up!

ABW: One of the joys of reading a graphic novel (or in the case of El Deafo, a graphic memoir) is that some of the story is told in words and some in illustrations. How do you approach your work? Which comes first, the language or the illustrations? When you’re stressed or stuck, do you tend to turn to one art form more than the other?

CB: Initially, the words come first. I try to map it all out in words (this happened, then this, and then this, etc.), as much as I can. Then I rough out each page in comic book form, and new or different words might develop. I keep on tightening up the drawings and the words until I have something good. To read a detailed post I wrote about my process, “El Deafo Extras: from outline to finished product,” click here.

With my other work (picture books and early readers), I tend to write and write and write until I get the writing as good as I think it can be, and only then do I start drawing. Doing the drawings usually leads to the discovery that the words weren’t really that good, were they? So I begin fine-tuning them—and the pictures—simultaneously. When I’m stressed or stuck, I often go back to the words first…or to the glorious art form that we know and love as television.

ABW: Ha! That’s great. Okay, new question: the story in El Deafo appears in chronological order, but did you craft it in order? Which scenes/moments came first in your process?

CB: Once I committed to telling the story in order, I pretty much crafted it in order, too. The very first outline I created came in bits and pieces, though, and those bits and pieces were not in order at all.

ABW: You mention in your Acknowledgements that you sent editor Susan Van Metre a 2-page outline, and she “believed in El Deafo… and guided the book through every stage…” Please say more! Would you tell wannabe-graphic-novelists that the way to start is with an outline?

CB: I think every graphic novelist starts his or her graphic novel differently. An outline worked well for me. I also submitted to Susan an entire chapter, in color and very polished, so she could see what I had in mind. The way Susan and I worked together was like this:

  1. Draw up a chapter, roughly but clearly.
  2. Send to Susan.
  3. Susan sends comments back to me.
  4. Make some of the changes suggested by Susan.
  5. Send revisions back to Susan.
  6. Repeat process until Susan and I were both happy!
  7. Start next chapter.
  8. When all chapters are done, ink them up!
  9. Send final inks to Eisner-winning graphic novelist David Lasky to color. (He did an AMAZING job.)
  10. Color-correct what David sends back to me.
  11. Send final art to Susan.
  12. Go back and forth some more, fine-tuning and whatnot.
  13. Book is DONE!

It was grueling, to say the least!

ABW: Any words of wisdom for aspiring graphic novelists (or memoirists)?

CB: For the graphic novelists: this is my first time doing one of these, so I probably don’t have the best advice. One thing I can think of is this: Totally get a Wacom pressure-sensitive Cintiq tablet and hook that puppy up to your computer! It saves time AND encourages you to become better at drawing!

For the memoirists: Try not to worry, like I did, about whose feelings you’re going to hurt, or whether or not your presentation of your life’s story is 100% accurate, or whether or not your chronology is exactly right. It’s far better to attempt a portrayal of how you felt at the time that your story took place. That will get your readers interested. You can always do what I did, and add an afterword saying that you messed with the facts a bit to tell a better story!

ABW: Great advice. Thank you so much for doing this blog interview with me. Richmond’s writing community is looking forward to meeting you in October!

 

CB: I am really looking forward to it, too! Thanks for having me!

Kathryn Erskine on historical fiction

I was thrilled when James River Writers (JRW) asked me to interview Kathryn Erskine in advance of the JRW conference in Richmond, Virginia, October 19-20. Kathryn will be speaking on three conference panels, and on Friday, October 18, will lead a workshop entitled, “Getting in your Character’s Skin.” Kathryn is the author of numerous novels for young readers, including the 2010 National Book Award-winner Mockingbird. Her most recent novel Seeing Red was released by Scholastic in September 2013.

Welcome, Kathy! I’d love to talk with you about Seeing Red and the way you approach the writing of historical fiction. The story is set in the early 1970s and touches on all sorts of issues, from social unrest and the Vietnam War to racism, the women’s movement, domestic violence, and bullies. In more than one scene, characters note that “the times, they are a-changing,” a line from a Bob Dylan song that was popular at the time. Not only has the death of Red’s father wreaked havoc on his nuclear family, but Red’s family is in turmoil because the whole society is changing.

So my first question is: when you began this novel, did you begin with the character and later decide to set his story in the 1970’s, or did the historical time period come first? What did you set out to write about, and how did it morph into the story that it became?

Kathryn Erskine: Characters always come to me first, but I knew Red was in the world of the early 1970’s because of what he was seeing, what bothered him, what he cared about. What changed over time was a more direct approach to an issue I really wanted to address: racism in this country. When I first started this story years ago I was too tentative and only alluded to the problem. I finally gained the confidence as a writer to come out and say what I wanted. Some critics may not like it because it’s raw and honest. But I don’t write for praise (although praise is lovely!); I write to have people think about tough issues and talk about them.

A.B. Westrick: Since Seeing Red was set during your own growing-up years, how much research did you have to do for the story, and how much came from your own memories? What sort of research did you do, and did you uncover details that surprised you (such as incidents you had not remembered)?

KE: Certainly the feelings of the era came from my own memories, and some of the products, too (I played Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Love’s Fresh Lemon was my first cologne, and I wore Dr. Scholl’s really uncomfortable wooden sandals) but since I didn’t live in the U.S. for part of my childhood, I knew I needed to do a lot of research. Some of that research could be done via books or on the internet, but some required visiting museums, historical societies, Rosenwald and historically black schools, listening to the music of the time, watching TV shows, movies, and documentaries from and about the era, and talking with people who lived through segregation and integration.

What I found that surprised me was the amount of land illegally taken from African-Americans after emancipation by cheating, intimidation, violence and murder. I was floored. I was also surprised at how we ignored African-American burial grounds, and still do. There was an incident near my house where a builder would have plowed one under if a neighbor, one of the descendants, hadn’t gone to court to prevent thatand observed the construction daily to ensure the court order was followed. I find that blatant lack of respect hard to fathom. Finally, I was completely stunned to learn how active the KKK still is. Really? Really?

ABW: We’ve all heard George Santayana’s adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” In Seeing Red, the characters wrestle with this concept during a history lesson, and on the board, the teacher writes, The truth will set you free. How do these themes inform or influence your own interest in writing historical fiction? Why was it important for you to include them in the book?

KE: Well, here’s an answer that may sound a little funny: I abhor waste. After seeing people with no clean drinking water in Africa it makes me cringe when people leave the faucet running. And that feeling extends to wasting any resources—time, energy, peopleso it really bothers me when we make mistakes as individuals, a nation, the world, and then don’t bother to learn from them, but keep repeating them. What a waste! To prevent that kind of waste we have to be honest about who we are and what we’ve done. We have to know the truth, and we have to make sure everyone knows that truth. Surely, then, at least some people will see the need to stop bad things from happening again. That’s the only way we can hope to prevent that wastewhich, in cases like racism, is also a horrific, immoral tragedy.

ABW: For young readers, Seeing Red is undeniably historical, but for many adults, the actions occurred in the not-so-distant past. Did you ever find yourself writing scenes that could have appeared in 2013, but on revision had to be tweaked in order to remain true to the historical setting? For you, how different is 2013 from 1972?

KE: People, good or bad, are the same over time. Our sensibilities change, often because we’re forced to confront issues we’d rather ignore, and then come to see that a different view is not so frightening after all. So, in a sense, 2013 is very different from 1972 which I happen to think is a good thing, but do we still have racism and intolerance? Absolutely. It may be covert or it may be directed against different groups, but it’s still with us. It was 2009 before Charlottesville, VA, officially apologized for closing schools and excluding blacks fifty years before. I just hope every generation improves our record.

ABW: What words of wisdom do you have for writers setting out to tackle historical fiction?

KE: Do your researchenjoy the researchbut make sure the story comes first. I have reams of research for Seeing Red but very little actually made it into the story. It all informed the story, though, because I wrote from an informed place, and that’s what counts.

Readers who want to know more about Kathryn Erskine and her award-winning books should check out her website and blog. In addition to participating in the James River Writers conference and Friday workshops, October 18-20, Kathryn will also speak at the Teen ’13 Book & Author Celebration on Thursday, October 17, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. at Richmond Public Library, Main Branch, 101 East Franklin Street. This event is part of the American Library Association’s Teen Read Week and the Virginia Literary Festival.

Thank you so much, Kathy, for taking time from your busy schedule to reflect on your process in crafting Seeing Red!

Interviewing Characters

I learn a ton when I interview my characters. Over the years, I’ve compiled a set of questions for them, such as…

What are your parents’ expectations of you?
Where do you belong? Feel most at home?
What do you deserve? What are your inalienable rights?
What makes you feel worthy?
What sorts of circumstances unnerve you? Describe one.
Tell me about a defining moment in your life.

Etc., etc. It goes on for a bit. Author Gigi Amateau told me that she concludes her interviews with, “Hey [character], I’m here for you. What do you want from me? How can I help?”

Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie

Last week I interviewed one of my characters, a teenage boy who has asked other kids at summer music camp to call him Dizzy Gillespie in honor of the great jazz musician. It was an awesome interview. The kid told me how he stands up to bully-types but feels nervous when he does, how his connection with a particular dog makes him think about reincarnation and parallel realities. I won’t necessarily use these tidbits in the novel, but it’s good stuff to know about him. He rambled and I listened, and my fingers flew fast over the keyboard.

When I ended with Gigi’s question, he surprised me. Dizzy said, “You can help by writing me into more scenes. Get me out of the background and onto center stage. I’m the character who’s bringing this story to life. Kids are going to read this book for me, and the sooner you recognize that, the better your book will be.”

Wow. I had to smile. I love this guy! Up until now, Dizzy has been a strong secondary character—a force to reckon with—and his actions have done wonders for moving the plot forward. But he’s not the protagonist. I’ve thought of him as laid back and cool, and haven’t noticed how intensely competitive he is. Now I get that if he doesn’t get his way, he’ll try to steal every scene I put him in. He’s dangerous, and I’m loving it. I’m having a blast writing this novel.

When was the last time you interviewed your characters?

Where to Begin a Novel

How and where is it best Come August, Come Freedomto enter into a particular story—which moment, which sounds and which smells should a writer introduce in the opening scene? When I first read Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau, I was fascinated by Gigi’s decision to begin the story the way she did. I asked her why she chose that approach, and am privileged to feature her answers here. I found Gigi’s comments as engaging as the novel.

A. B. Westrick: Come August, Come Freedom is the story of Gabriel, the enslaved blacksmith who organized a massive but ultimately unsuccessful rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. What I found intriguing was the way you chose to enter into Gabriel’s story. The first line is, “Ma believed,” and the chapter unfolds to show Ma nursing him when he was six months old. Why did you choose to begin the book with Ma?

Gigi Amateau:  As I read and studied about the institution of slavery during Gabriel’s lifetime, I learned (in a way that I hadn’t really integrated into my thinking about slavery before writing Come August, Come Freedom) that the crucible of slavery was the childbearing role of enslaved women. The laws governing a person’s status as free or enslaved were grounded in the concept of maternal descent—the mother’s status (not the father’s) determined a child’s status. So, the impulsion of the plot is maternal descent. Also, I wanted to create the character of Gabriel as a person who was not the first freedom fighter in his community or in his family, but one who was born into a tradition of resisting oppression and fighting for freedom. So, I surrounded him early on in the novel with men and women imagining freedom and rebelling against slavery.

ABW:  The opening chapter establishes a strong sense of place—a footpath, the creek beyond the fields, an apple seedling. While it grounds Gabriel and his story, literally and figuratively, it also sets a tranquil tone for a story that’s anything but tranquil. Again, can you talk about choosing to begin the story in this place rather than in, say, a blacksmith’s shop or marketplace, or some other place that Gabriel would have frequented? You might even have chosen to begin it with the scenes that became chapter two—glimpses of slaves treated harshly and slaves dashing for freedom—but instead you chose this tranquil tone. Can you say more about that?

GA:  First of all, thank you. Writing a convincing sense of place both in the countryside and in the city was important to me, as was conveying a feeling of tranquility and beauty at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. To me, it’s valid that Gabriel would have experienced beauty as well as terror. That’s the human experience, right? Even in the darkest days of our history, the human spirit fights for beauty, for love. It would’ve been wrong for me to write this book by dismissing the real suffering and unbearable oppression that was an everyday part of enslavement. All of history shows us how the human spirit insists on faith, hope, and love, so I think it would have been wrong of me to lead with anything but such a spirit.

Gigi Amateau

Gigi Amateau

As I studied the primary source documents related to Gabriel’s Rebellion, I saw that much of the recruiting and planning took place outdoors—on the river, at Young’s Spring, under the bridge at Littlepage. For sure, the blacksmith forge, taverns, and the cityscape were key, too, but the people gathered outside for worship, funerals, weddings, fish feasts, and barbeques. You know, I feel like the evidence suggests that the natural world offered Gabriel some refuge, a place where he and his men could speak candidly. Trial testimony shows that the men did discuss the rebellion at taverns and on the street, and in these places they often spoke in code: The boys on the brook are ready to do the business.  When they gathered outside, their words were direct: We have a plan to rise and fight for our freedom.  ­­

ABW: Writers are encouraged to begin a novel “in scene” rather than in back-story. You manage to do both: your opening chapter is very much a scene, and at the same time, it depicts Gabriel’s life before he set out to organize the rebellion. I think your approach works because of the sense of yearning, of desire, of feeling that emanates from the opening pages. In early drafts of the novel, was this your opening scene, or did you craft it later?

GA:  Hmmm…I always liked that beginning! When I look back at the earliest draft, the first line is: Ma believed. You know, I just feel like this is a story about a man who was part of a multi-generational rebellion, a freedom-movement that started well before him and continued, or continues, long after 1800. So, to me, the story had to start with a linking of generations and end there, too.

ABW:  How long did it take you to write Come August, Come Freedom, and can you tell me a little about your process in writing it?

GA:  Well, my first research notes are dated 2004. I thought a lot about Gabriel, saved clippings, and dabbled in the research before really starting to write the pages in 2008. My editor, Karen Lotz, and I went on a candlelight tour of Mount Vernon one Christmas… maybe in 2006 or 2007? There, we shared a profound moment while we were standing in the area where the quarter had been at Mount Vernon. The only way to describe it is that we experienced a lingering, a really deep encounter—for me and, I think also for Karen—with the history of our nation’s enslavement of men, women, and children. That’s about when I moved more into researching seriously. The research informed my writing constantly. I never stopped researching! I wrote, then researched more, then wrote more, then researched. It was a very circular and layered process.  I’m still researching the story. Who knows, I might stick around the 1800s for a while yet.

ABW:  Thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts and process in writing Come August, Come Freedom. I even enjoyed reading the comment Candlewick Press printed on the book jacket: “Gabriel’s story illustrates how one individual’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness can intersect with a nation’s pursuit of a more perfect union. Gabriel went all in for freedom. To me, he is one of American’s greatest patriots.” Thank you, Gigi, for bringing his story to life!

The bully character: when less is more

I’m so glad toYacqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass have had the opportunity to interview Meg Medina, author of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, coming out this month from Candlewick Press. It’s a tense, tightly written novel about surviving high school. Click here to watch the trailer, and read on to hear what Meg had to say about crafting her bully, Yaqui, and her protagonist, Piddy Sanchez.

A.B. Westrick: From the opening line, Yaqui Delgado’s threat carries the tension even though her physical presence is (relatively) minimal. Here, less bully makes for more bully. A brilliant story structure! What was your process in writing the story this way? Was that first line always your first line, or did it emerge in the course of revisions?

Meg Medina: The first line of this novel has never changed, and that’s not something I can say about anything else I’ve written. It was plucked from real life, which we’ll get to a little later. As an author, it provided me with a way to reveal the main problem of the novel in one crude and forceful blow.

Keeping Yaqui as a threatening presence, rather than fleshing her out was tricky. At first I wondered if I should develop her more. Readers would wonder, I thought, about what fills someone with such rage.

In the end, I decided to tell the story squarely from Piddy’s perspective and to let Yaqui loom in the way that a scary idea looms in your mind. It haunts you and crowds out everything else.

To help me do that, I wrote in first person present and was able to get far inside Piddy’s thinking, moment to moment through all of her frightening experiences. This made it Piddy’s story, the story of being on the receiving end of random abuse.

Yaqui would have had a very rich and probably sad story of her own. But I wanted this novel to be about how a strong girl gets undone and eventually survives violence like this.

ABW: More than once Yaqui’s posse delivers her threats. This felt very real. To what extent did this character and situation come from personal life experience, and to what extent from researching bully behaviors?

Meg MedinaMM: Sadly, the events were based mostly on an experience I had in middle school in New York. The opening scene is virtually identical. A girl I’d never laid eyes on approached me to deliver the news that someone was going to kick my ass. Like Piddy, I had no idea who she meant. I can tell you that those were two very long and scary years, and I was able to pull a lot from memory.

As for research, my own children were teens while I was writing, so I had the benefit of a front row seat to high school today. I paid close attention to their accounts of notes being passed, “slut folders” on people’s desktops, hateful comments during class, girl fight websites, and Facebook “drama.”  The girl posse, I’m sad to report, is alive and well.  I also did some formal digging into how schools are responding now, the rules for suspensions, and so on. My cousin, a retired NYC principal, was very helpful.

ABW: Many secondary characters, especially Joey, Lila, and Ma, emerge as complex, warts and all. How do you go about creating your characters? How much are they based on people you know, and how much comes from your imagination?

MM:  Every character I write is a compilation of so many of the imperfect and troubled people I have loved in my life: My mother, my old neighbors, aunts – parts of them are there. But there are plenty of characters that are completely fabricated.

The key thing about characters is that they need qualities that make them irresistible and revolting all at once. If they’re imaginative, they might be liars. If they’re loyal, perhaps they’re dangerously controlling. Or they might be generous but also thieves. What I love about the contradictions and flaws is that they force you to ask good questions as a writer. Why is this character like this?

I start with a general idea of the characters, an idea about the types of people who might populate the landscape. I look around and see who has shown up for auditions, so to speak. In this case, I filled my mind with old boyfriends and cops; a building superintendent; neighbors; the owner of a beauty shop, teachers, deans. As I wrote the scenes, the individuals stepped in and revealed themselves. It was in watching them deal with problems that I really got to know them better. Lila is probably my favorite character. She’s sensual and gorgeous, but she’ll brain you with a plunger handle if you mess with her. She has such trouble with being a responsible adult and yet she is a lifeline to Piddy.

ABW: You wrote Yaqui Delgado after having written a middle-grade novel, a YA novel, and a picture book. What is different about the process of writing a novel versus writing a picture book? Writing YA versus writing for younger readers? What are you working on now?

MM: I just sold my second picture book manuscript to Candlewick, so I am now working on that. It’s about a girl whose grandmother comes to live with the family. Only trouble is, abuela does not speak English, and my narrator speaks so-so español. It’s a story about how we create connections in family, how we cross divides and reach understanding.

Picture books are so joyous for me. There is no other way to describe it. They are little poems that you have to get just right. And even after my poem leaves me, it’s still fun. For example, right now, the team at Candlewick is doing the illustrator search. I go to sleep imagining how my part will merge into something entirely new through art.

But I do love novels, too. The biggest difference between writing novels and picture book is similar to the difference between Impressionism and Realism. In picture books, I am using dabs of story and dialogue to suggest a larger world of how the family works and how the child fits into that family.

With novels, I am taking the time to draw in the hard lines, to really explore and show my characters and their troubles, step by step. Also, novels take stamina. You could be working on a piece for years, after all. And more, if you’re writing a novel for teens, you’ll be exploring the hard questions we face as we’re reaching for adulthood. I tell you, it’s not for the weak.

ABW: Thank you again, Meg, for opening up about your process in writing Piddy’s heartfelt story. I’m looking forward to giving away the ARC!

And for Richmond, VA-area folks: Meg’s book launch party for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is this coming Saturday, March 16th, 2-4:30 p.m. at Art 180, 114 West Marshall Street, Richmond. I’ll see you there!

To win the ARC of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, signed by the author, leave a comment below. I’ll choose one winner randomly from the comments received. Deadline: March 25, 2013.

Self-Doubt

I’m scared right now. Scared that I won’t be able to write another novel, or at least, not one worth reading. Sure, I know that I can finish one—that I can sit for hours and days and weeks and months at a time with a handful of characters and a setting—I’m not scared about the discipline of the process. I love the process. (Ten years ago, the necessary discipline would have scared me, so at least I’ve made progress with the process…)

I’m scared about the content. The voice. The authenticity of the characters. Can I write a novel that keeps readers turning pages? One that matters? This past weekend I watched a movie that entertained me, but at times I could feel the writer trying too hard to make a scene work. He wanted to establish a character’s motivation, create tension, get a laugh… and his presence took me out of the story. I fear that I make the same mistakes with my own writing, and the fear is blocking me from writing anything worthwhile.

Philip PullmanWill people read my books? Will they re-read them? I need to get past the self-doubt! I turned to interviews with prolific author Philip Pullman for advice, and found some here. About one of his own works-in-progress, he says, “I read it all again and think it’s horrible, and get very depressed. That’s one of the things you have to put up with.”

In this pep talk to National Novel Writing participants, he says,

… page 70 is where the misery strikes. All the initial excitement has drained away; you’ve begun to see all the hideous problems you’ve set yourself; you are horribly aware of the minute size of your own talent compared to the colossal proportions of the task you’ve undertaken; that’s when you really want to give up.

Then there are these words from an interview with Pullman at PsychCentral:

… don’t listen to people (such as publishers) who think that you need to write what readers say they want. Readers don’t always know what they want… So the only thing you need to do is forget about pleasing other people, and aim to please yourself alone. That way, you’ll have a chance of writing something that other people WILL want to read, because it’ll take them by surprise. It’s also much more fun writing to please yourself.

Thank you, Philip Pullman! I needed to step away from my fiction to wrestle with my doubts and draft this post… needed to accept the depression and fear as part of the process. This part isn’t fun, but I’ve said my piece and gotten it off my chest. Now I’m ready to dive back in. Come to think of it… I’m working on a scene in a chapter that’s pretty close to page 70…

On Doubt

The blank page glares at me. Stark. Judging. Waiting for brilliance, not blather. The pressure is almost unbearable. First there is guilt—who am I to spend my mornings writing when there are children starving in China? Africa? Virginia? What a luxury it is to write. How indulgent. Then there is fear. What if the next story I write isn’t any good? But what if it is good? My inner critic won’t shut up. How arrogant to think that I might bring forth something out of nothing, offer form to the chaos, give meaning to the void. Ha! But I want to produce literature. The idea ushers in doubt and I languish beneath heady thoughts rather than digging deep into moments—scenes—details where a sense as simple as smell can trigger dangerous emotions.

Ron Smith

In December my friend, poet Ron Smith, in his Commencement speech to English Department grads at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that “all good literature is about what it means to be a human being—one who perceives through the senses, one who reasons, one who feels—and who intuits that these things are not really separable.”

Before VCFA I wouldn’t have fully understood what Ron meant. My writing earned rejection letters with lines such as, “I have not been able to establish an emotional connection with your main character.” Now post-VCFA, not only do I understand, but as the blank page beckons, I brace myself, knowing where my writing must go. Before me on the eight-and-a-half-by-eleven void—the whiteness so pure it could be snow or starlight—I glimpse a shadow. No, wait, it is sweat. See? There—warping the surface…

The Liebster Award

A little love came my way recently. Richmonder Marci Rich, who writes The Midlife Second Wife, nominated my blog for the “Liebster Award,” a recognition of bloggers by bloggers. A condition of Award-receipt is that I, in turn, recognize five blogs that I love—five blogs that each have fewer than 200 followers. It’s a lovely little way to encourage blog traffic while identifying blogs that shine and speak to us. Thank you, Marci!

My first thought was to award The Liebster to fellow craft-of-writing bloggers, but there’s a blog I follow that isn’t about writing, per se, and I just have to start with that one:

1. Written by Pam Watts, whom I met in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Strong in the Broken Places shakes me up and makes me think. Abused as a child, Pam decided to write her blog “to help the lives of children living through adversity. It’s about abuse and neglect and homelessness and any other number of really tough issues children face in our society today. And it’s about what we as children’s book people can do to help them.” Her posts remind me of the many ways literature can make a difference in a kid’s life—how the books we write really do matter. Thank you, Pam!

2. Almost every time I read Valley Haggard’s posts, I’m struck by the honesty of the writing. By her willingness to dig deep and speak truths I’d feel embarrassed to admit. I’m still working hard to overcome my mother’s mantra: don’t-air-your-dirty-laundry. When I read Valley’s writing, I feel exhilarated. It’s daring. Exciting. Freeing. Her writing invites me to loosen mine, to get real, to dig deep, to experiment on the page. Thank you, Valley!

3.  Another blogger whose writing helps me loosen up is Shann Palmer, author of the chapbook, Change. Her blog, Shann Palmer says, is all about poetry. Some of her stuff is fun, some serious, some playful, some hateful. Always honest. “If I can do it, you can do it,” she tells everyone. “Try a poem a day. Just try it!” Shann’s encouragement is contagious, and gets me to take off my critical-lit student hat and relax. Play with words. See where they take me. Have fun. Again—such a freeing blog to read. Is there a theme here? I love blogs that invite me to loosen up and experiment with my writing.

4. Then there is Lindsey Lane who writes The Meandering Lane “because a writer doesn’t always go in a straight line.” A playwright, author of Snuggle Mountain (Clarion 2003, and available as an iPhone/iPad app), and fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts alum, Lindsey is another writer who strokes my creative side. From Austin, Texas, she blogs about the writer’s life and how we have to face our fears and step out on thin, bendy branches to find a whole new point of equilibrium in our stories.

5. My fifth Liebster Award goes to Kristi Tuck Austin’s River City Fiction, a blog in a bit of a hiatus now, but soon to be back with book reviews and more. Kristi writes about her experiences connecting with readers, authors, librarians, and booksellers in Richmond, Virginia. Currently drafting her own novel, Kristi will be coordinating James River Writers’ 2012 professional development series, The Writing Show, a monthly panel of speakers waxing eloquent about the craft and business of writing. Stay tuned…

Thank you, all, for making the blogging world more fun, dynamic, and creative.

Emotional seeds for stories

This past Saturday while speaking on a panel at the James River Writers Conference, I choked up and found myself babbling an apology to the audience. The panel moderator, Meg Medina, had asked such a simple question: when you began writing your novel, what was your starting point? What was the emotional place—the germ—the seed—from which the story came (the story being the YA novel I recently sold to Viking—the story of a boy who struggles to protect a friend from the KKK in 1867—pure fiction, but with historical anchors).

In answer to Meg’s question, I began to speak about my Alabama-born father, and the words caught in my throat. I felt my father’s shame over the fact that our ancestors had owned slaves, his pain over present-day racial prejudices that continue to poison parts of the South. When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, Daddy ducked my questions about the South, avoiding the topic as best he could. But at some point, he gave in and told me in his soft, thoughtful Southern drawl that at a young age he had vowed never to raise his own children there. He’d gotten out as soon as he could (on the G.I. bill) and never returned. He taught me that “it’s fine to judge people in any number of ways—of course we make judgments all the time—but don’t ever judge a person by the color of his skin.” What I suspect he meant was never treat black people the way I saw them treated.

So there I was on a panel with Meg and the inimitable Kathi Appelt, and I choked up over the image of my daddy as a shy, gentle boy in the 1930’s. I imagined him suffocating beneath the weight of expectations that he become a man in the way manhood was defined by good Southern boys. What he witnessed, I’ll never know because he’ll never say…so while writing my novel, I imagined what it might have been. The novel isn’t about my father—it’s a story set sixty years before he was born. But the emotional seed came from my daddy’s yearning to get as far away from his roots as he could.

My editor and I are brainstorming titles, and I’ll post the release date when Viking decides… Meanwhile, tell me… what is the emotional seed of your story? What triggers unexpected tears?