Tag Archives: fiction

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

Addicted to Writing

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

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

Used to be that I found math especially rewarding. The orderliness of it… the patterns… the equations and solutions and diagrams and 2-D illustrations of 3-D objects and later calculus and its functions and measurements of x as y approaches infinity… but I started to wonder, why am I doing this?  Continue reading

Get a flow going

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

I had a complete first draft. Finally!

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

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