Tag Archives: emotional truth

Don’t Shy Away from Conflict

If you read only one book this summer, make it Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County. Part memoir, part journalistic exposé, this sensitive and compelling book explores the history of a Southern town where local history wasn’t taught even though a suit filed on behalf of black students in the county was one of the five consolidated into Brown vs. Board of Education. Author Kristen Green alternates between memories of growing up there, enjoying time with her family’s black housekeeper, extensive research and interviews, and dreams for her own children, who are multi-racial.

I couldn’t put it down.

It struck me that in terms of craft, journalists can teach novelists a lot. So I caught up with Kristen (she lives in Richmond, VA—lucky me!) to get her insights into writing about tough topics.

 

A.B. Westrick: Kristen, welcome! And thank you for doing this blog interview. Your book has so many layers—such complexity distilled down to about 300 pages—that we can’t do it justice here. But we sure can talk craft…

You tell us how University of Mary Washington professor Steve Watkins (who happens to be a novelist now, just sayin’) helped you hone your journalistic grit. After you got “worked over” by a “nice” administrator, “‘The hell with nice!’ Watkins snapped. ‘Nice doesn’t mean good!’” (pg. 90). In another anecdote, you tell us that your former history teacher shut down your interview with the message “loud and clear: She’s done talking about this, and she thinks [you] should stop, too” (pg. 198).

So let’s discuss the born-to-be-nice problem. How do you handle tough moments like that? When an interview gets uncomfortable, what do you do?

Kristen Green: I think it’s like writing. Don’t give up too quickly. It’s tempting, when things start getting interesting, to pack up and say you’ve got enough information. But that is the time to push a little bit harder. I’ve been a journalist for a long time and confrontation is just part of who I am. I do not shy away from conflict.

I tend to keep asking questions, to follow a natural succession, to want to go deeper with each question. People expect writers to ask the hard questions, so my advice is just go for it. Assume that whomever you’re interviewing wants to talk about the tough stuff or is at least expecting you to ask about it. If you do it respectfully, and if you’re patient, you can get really good information you never expected to get. But don’t be in a hurry. And keep going back to the person over and over to ask follow up questions. New information will be revealed. One really great trick is to just be quiet at various points in the interview. Leave some space for the person you’re interviewing to fill—sometimes the interviewee will be so uncomfortable that they just talk to avoid silence. Continue reading

Mistakes Writers Repeat

Oops, I did it again.

No, no, I haven’t broken a guy’s heart à la Britney Spears, but I’ve repeated the same mistake that earned me a decade-worth of rejection letters: writing from my head. Allowing my scenes to drift into the safe world of ideas. Into thoughts and concepts and heady stuff, and out of the dangerous world of feelings and sensory responses. I need to stop pretending that I have my act together and instead revisit the times I’ve felt vulnerable, insecure, embarrassed, and scared.

From Where You DreamThis month I’m re-reading Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream in order to shake myself up, wake up my writing, and dig deeper into each moment. I’ve challenged myself to craft a novel in alternating points-of-view (four characters), and it’s coming along, but lemme tell you… thinking is easy. Feeling is hard. People often ask writers where they get their ideas, and for me this question misses the mark. Ask me how I tap into emotions. (I’ll tell you I’m working on it.) Butler says:

… in order to get through childhood and puberty and adolescence and young adulthood, broken relationships and a marriage or two, or four—you have identified with your mind… you’ve got this self-conscious metavoice going all the time… That voice wants to drag you up into your head… [but] the only way to create a work of literary art is to stop that voice. Your total attention needs to be on the sensual flow of experience from the unconscious.

You’ll need to read the book to grasp everything he’s saying, but for now let’s call it digging deeply for the unconscious physical responses that accompany the emotions we feel. Digging really, really deeply. An author who has mastered the ability Butler talks about is Patrick Ness. Right now I’m reading Ness’s latest novel More than This, and I want to show you the opening sequence so you can see the way he’s crafted a “sensual flow of experience.” Check this out:

more-than-thisHere is the boy, drowning.

In these last moments, it’s not the water that’s finally done for him; it’s the cold. It has bled all the energy from his body and contracted his muscles into a painful uselessness, no matter how much he fights to keep himself about the surface. He is strong, and young, nearly seventeen, but the wintry waves keep coming, each one seemingly larger than the last. They spin him round, topple him over, force him deeper down and down. Even when he can catch his breath in the few terrified seconds he manages to push his face into the air, he is shaking so badly he can barely get half a lungful before he’s under again. It isn’t enough, grows less each time, and he feels a terrible yearning in his chest as he aches, fruitlessly, for more.

He is in full panic now…

Wow. These paragraphs draw me into the present moment of the story. I don’t know how the character ended up in the water—and it will be many chapters before Ness supplies the backstory—but already, I care about this character. I’m beside him in the water, and I’ll keep reading to find out what happens.

Years ago I read Butler’s book and it helped me understand “show, don’t tell” (I blogged about details), but this time I’m digging deeper than details. I’m going into places that feel dangerous, places where my characters feel vulnerable, places that are a whole lot harder than details to tap into.

All of this is to say that I’ve developed coping mechanisms to avoid emotional black holes, but these same mechanisms—the ones that keep me sane—block my fiction. They block a reader’s ability to connect with my characters on an emotional (subconscious) level. I need to let myself feel scared again, or angry, or embarrassed, or humiliated. Really feel it. Then I must write scenes without using words like scared, angry, embarrassed, or humiliated. I must write the sensory details of the experience.

(An aside: my sister is a nutritionist and dietician who specializes in eating disorders, and just last week was telling me that she’ll sometimes ask her clients to sit still—just sit for as long as they can, for an hour even, or two hours—and allow themselves to feel. To experience their own emotions. It can be a terrifying exercise, but she promises them they won’t die in the process. They might cry, tremble, rage, etc., but they’ll survive. The technique has helped some of her clients, and it got me thinking (oooh, here I am, thinking again): I need to tap into the place where I tremble.)

I’m guilty not only of writing from my head, but of repeating this mistake even though I’m aware of it. How about you? What are your mistakes? What is your comfort zone—your default button—the place you retreat to, where you pat yourself on the back for having penned another scene that sounds oh, so good when the truth is that it’s nowhere near honest? Not yet.

Kelly O’Connor McNees on Writing

When James River Writers (JRW) invited me to interview some 2014 conference speakers, I looked over the impressive list of who’s coming and jumped at the chance to interview Kelly O’Connor McNees. I love the fact that she’d founded Word Bird Editorial Services. When she’s not writing her own fiction, she’s editing other people’s novels, so I figured she’d be perfect for my blog—as much in love with the process of writing as I am. And I was right!

Kelly will be speaking on panels during the JRW conference, October 18-19, 2014, in Richmond, VA, and on Friday, October 17, will lead a master class on “Point of View: Who’s Telling and Who’s Listening?” You can find more information on the JRW website.

Kelly’s third novel, The Island of Doves, came out earlier this year from Berkley/Penguin. She’s also the author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and In Need of a Good Wife, which was a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award. I’m thrilled to share with you her wisdom on the writing process…

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kelly! I’ve just finished reading The Island of Doves, a beautiful novel set in Buffalo, Detroit, and the wilds of the Michigan Territory in the early 1800s, and I’d love to hear your comments on a few craft points.

Kelly McNees: Thank you for that very kind introduction! I am thrilled to be coming to Richmond for the conference and look forward to meeting lots of new friends and fellow writing geeks.

ABW: And they’re looking forward to meeting you! So let’s talk craft. I want to start at the beginning; usually I hate prologues, but yours drew me right in. You wrote it in scene, and I didn’t even notice that it was a prologue until five pages later when I hit the words, chapter one. At that point, the story had already hooked me. Very nice. Can you say a little about your decision to make that opening a prologue, rather than calling it a chapter?

KM: I think of a prologue as a snapshot of an event that came before the main action of the story, which is why it works to set it apart that way rather than write it as a chapter. But I agree with youtypically I do not like prologues. They can feel tacked on and melodramatic. Sometimes they make a big promise that the novel can’t live up to. I added this one in a later draft, after I had tried and failed many times to communicate the events it describes (in much more elaborate ways) through flashback in other parts of the novel. Eventually I realized that we didn’t need to know the entire history of this family up front. We just needed to know about this one very important event, the death of the youngest sister, Josette, because it sets everything else into motion. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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…