Tag Archives: fiction

Kill your Darlings: author interview and book giveaway

Now a Major Motion PictureIs passion just an obsession with something you can’t seem to get better at, or is it the very thing you can get better at?

“Courage is simple. First, be honest. Second, don’t back down.”

These themes are two of many in Cori McCarthy’s latest YA novel, Now a Major Motion Picture, alternately funny, sad, wise, rich, and heartwarming. What a great read. And I’m giving away one copy! Hop to the end of this post. to enter the giveaway, and come back to read my interview with Cori. Deadline to enter: Wednesday, Aug. 22, 11:59 PM.

I met Cori on my first day at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and since then Cori’s writing career has soared. This is their fourth published YA novel, and along with partner Amy Rose Capetta, Cori has two books coming out in 2019 and 2020. Cori also writes poetry, has a picture book hitting shelves in 2021, and is now on the faculty of the MFA program at our alma mater. It’s an honor to interview Cori for my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Cori.

Cori McCarthy: Thank you! It’s my pleasure to be here.

Breaking SkyABW: Let’s talk craft! I just loved Motion Picture, and I want to start with the unique setting. Seventeen year-old Iris is behind the scenes on a movie set where her grandmother’s novels are being adapted for the big screen. How did you come up with this setting? Is this an example of “write what you know”? I’m aware that your novel Breaking Sky is being made into a movie; did you write this novel after glimpsing some of that production?

CM: The setting and characters of Motion Picture are a bit of a hodgepodge of my life experiences. The book takes place in Ireland, where I lived for a year when I was twenty. Iris is an aspiring songwriter, which I also was in college. I even have an all-black Martin guitar named Annie, like main character Iris. The story is also about filmmaking, and that comes from my time in film school, studying screenwriting at UCLA. So, yes, this is definitely a “write what you know” situation.

ABW: I didn’t know you’d also studied at UCLA! That’s great. Clearly, your experiences helped you write an authentic story.

CM: UCLA, yeah. For a long time, I yearned to be a part of Hollywood, but to be honest, I was chased away by the rampant sexism that has been—and still is—holding that business back. All of which makes it into Motion Picture, mostly via the representation of the powerhouse female director in the book.

While the adaptation of Breaking Sky has been delightful to witness, Motion Picture‘s premise mostly came from my childhood love for J.R.R. Tolkien’s world and the excitement of watching Peter Jackson’s films reach a much wider audience than the original fiction. We give J.K. Rowling a lot of credit for making fantasy accessible, but you know what? Peter Jackson deserves credit for making fandoms mainstream.

ABW: Oh, yes. The films were great. (The books, too, of course!) And in Motion Picture, the plot includes elements of an earlier novel you’d written, inspired by Tolkien. (I know this tidbit thanks to your Acknowledgements page and website.) Okay, so you wrote this earlier novel, Elementia, and it wasn’t ever published, but parts of it appear in Motion Picture. I’ve heard writers say that “kill your darlings” means saving sections for later rather than throwing them out. Is it fair to say that’s exactly what you did with Elementia?

Cori McCarthyCM: Yes, very much so. I spent five years in my early twenties writing the “feminist answer to Tolkien’s world.” I wanted something like Lord of the Rings—but with inclusive characters. This became the trilogy Elementia. When I went to grad school, however, I had to put the story away because it had far too much baggage to learn on/from.

Some writers are mildly terrified when I say I shelved something I’d worked on for so long, over several drafts, but it was the best thing I could have done. The darling was killed, so to speak, but it allowed me to make huge gains in my craft. New stories, new lessons. (One might say that new lessons mean new mistakes, and new mistakes are easier to learn from than older ones.)

ABW: I like that. I’ve thrown away a number of early novels, but like you, parts have drifted into later writings. How long was your original version of Elementia?

CM: About 120k words, and of that about 1k made it into Motion Picture, which seems worth it to me…after a great deal of hindsight. Nothing is wasted, dear writers.

ABW: You told me “this book was tough to birth.” How long did it take you to write Motion Picture? How many revisions did it go through?

CM: It was rather up and down, to be honest. This book had an average gestation (average for my novels) of about a year, first word to copy edits. I created the idea for the story with my beloved editor, who I did two of my other books with, and we had quite the exciting vision for it.

Unfortunately, she took a wonderful new job early in the drafting process. (I have since started publishing with her at a different house.) I was fortunate enough to work with two other great editors on this book, but there’s a sense of “magic lost” when you lose the original editor on a book. That can be hard to come back from. (Big sigh.)

ABW: I love the chapter headings in Motion Picture. Many made me laugh out loud (such as, “There is some kissing in this chapter”), and I wondered if you crafted them along the way or late in the process? Was it your idea to title the chapters, or your editor’s?

There is some kissing in this chapter.

CM: That was my idea, but my editor was a huge fan! This book was my first comedy—a romcom—and I found that, you know what? Comedic writing is A LOT trickier than dramatic action or thriller writing. This book took a lot of finessing, and I used those chapter headings to keep myself “zoned in” on the humor.

Several of the titles were there from draft one, like “I Don’t Mean To Alarm Anyone But There’s An Elf In Baggage Claim.” Others evolved as the story was revised. Example? “Philip Pullman Will Break Your Heart.” That one clicked into place at the very end…

ABW: You say it was tricky, but you nailed it. Motion Picture is full of laugh lines. Really fun.

Now let me ask about the story’s LGBTQ+ element. One of your secondary characters laments that being queer is “a big [effing] deal in this business [Hollywood].” I know you identify as queer, or as you put it in this interview at A New Look on Books, “nonbinary, pansexual, mixed race Arab American.” So my question is: how much of you is inside each of your characters? Where does Cori end and Iris begin? How are you similar to and different from Shoshanna?

You Were HereCM: When I am writing a character, I am always searching for what we have in common. That’s the ground where I plant my craft roots so the character can come to life via my own experiences. For example, my book You Were Here has five point of view characters and its working title was “A Tale of Five Coris.” Each character was a little piece of my personality at a different point in my life.

With Iris, I bonded with her struggle to understand sexism in the world and in her own family. I went through much of that struggle in college, the same time when I was also trying to amass the courage to share my writing with the world.

When it came to Shoshanna, I let my anger at being continuously marginalized take the wheel. I gave her a lot of the same problems I have had to face as a queer author, as a mixed race person, and as an Arab American. This was, actually, rather cathartic and helped me vent frustrations that are only spinning wheels unless you let them fuel characters and stories. J

ABW: Cathartic—good to hear. And honest. I love that you’ve put your frustrations into characters and stories. What are you working on now?

Once and FutureCM: Oh! I’m working on the sequel to my forthcoming space fantasy King Arthur retelling entitled Once & Future (March 2019). I wrote this book with my partner, YA author Amy Rose Capetta, and we have had A BLAST retelling Arthurian canon with inclusive characters and a wild outer space setting. We are in the early outlining stage at the moment for the sequel, and our excitement is currently building to the perfect first draft writing crescendo…

ABW: I can feel your excitement in your answer. Thank you so much for doing this interview, Cori!

CM: Thank you so much for having me!

Readers: you have lots of options here to enter the giveaway. Enter as often as once a day!

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If you want to learn more about Cori and their writing, check out Cori’s website, facebook author page, and Twitter feed. Good luck in the raffle! Come back later this month to find out who wins (the winner will be randomly selected by Rafflecopter).

Hear the Character’s Voice: Interview & Giveaway

Just Like JackieWhat a great debut from Lindsey Stoddard! When I read Just like Jackie, I couldn’t wait to feature Lindsey and her writing on my blog.

In addition to doing this interview, I’m giving away one copy of Just like Jackie! For a chance to win, hop to the end of this page and fill out the form. Then come back, enjoy the interview, and glean some craft-of-writing insights. What Lindsey says about hearing a character’s voice is a fabulous tip. Deadline to enter the giveaway: July 25, 2018, at 11:59 PM.

I first met Lindsey at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Back then she was teaching middle school (my all-time favorite age group) while drafting stories and working on her MFA. She now writes full time, or as full as she can with two little ones in tow.

A. B. Westrick: Lindsey, welcome to my blog!

Lindsey Stoddard: Hello from Vermont!

ABW: Ah, Vermont… I’ll bet it’s gorgeous in New England right now—best place on earth in the summer. I guess maple syrup season is awesome, too, but we’ll get to that in minute.

First let’s talk about your feisty and oh-so-lovable heroine, Robbie. I read in your interview at Through the Tollbooth that part of your writing process involved channeling your anger as a child. Robbie’s anger comes through with honesty, and my question is: how much are you and your protagonist alike? Did you have to learn anger-management techniques like she does in the novel? Were you also a regular in your guidance counselor’s office? Where does the real Lindsey end and the fictional Robbie begin?

Lindsey StoddardLS: Robbie is holding onto much more anger than little Lindsey ever had to. I would have been mortified if ever called to the principal and I certainly wasn’t a regular in my guidance office. I used that punch-in-the-nose moment from my own childhood as my anchor because I believe most middle grade kids have felt that kind of rage. It’s an age when kids are really honing their sense of justice, what’s fair and right, and what’s not. That moment in my childhood when the neighborhood boy hit the bird nest out of the tree with his whiffle ball bat brought out that feisty side of me, and that’s where Robbie was born.

ABW: It fits with the adage, “write what you know.” But I want to ask about what you didn’t know. What parts of this story required research? Are you as adept at car repair as Robbie is? Are you a big baseball fan? Can you recite baseball stats as easily as counting to ten?

LS: I wish I knew as much about cars as Robbie does! Growing up my dad worked for Toyota and I used to love visiting the dealership and watching the mechanics in the service department work on cars. I always thought it would be such a cool thing to know how to do, so I gave that skill and passion to Robbie. It required a bunch of research and lots of calls home to my dad to make sure I got it right. I also grew up in a big Red Sox loving family, so I know baseball very well—not recite-stats-as-easily-as-counting-to-ten well—but well enough to know the game and the players, etc. I had to research and check each one of those statistics that Robbie knows so easily.

ABW: I noticed that when you needed a metaphor, you’d bring in images from baseball or car maintenance, and I thought the images worked beautifully in the story. They felt organic—true to Robbie’s character. Did these images come to you while writing your first draft, or were they part of the revision process? Or let me ask the question this way: when you write, do some elements of a scene come first and others later? Tell us a bit about your process.

Lindsey Stoddard + dogLS: The first part of a book for me is hearing the character’s voice in my head. I don’t even take out a pen until I hear it strongly and consistently and until I even start talking like her. Then I move to the notebook and write from her POV until it’s really clear. Then I start in. Those baseball and car metaphors are just the way Robbie thinks and talks. They were there from the first draft.

ABW: Oh, that’s great. You just gave me the title for this post. Love it!

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At its heart, Just like Jackie is a story of family and a child’s desire to keep hers from falling apart. You invite readers to glimpse multiple families in different configurations, facing various challenges. When you set out to write this novel, did you know the story would go in this direction? Or did you begin simply with a girl and her grandpa, and find that along the way, the larger theme of family emerged?

LS: It started with Robbie and Grandpa. I focused in on their relationship, what makes it special, what they share, how they communicate, etc. Working on that family made me ask the question of other families represented in the book. What’s below the surface there? As I began crafting secondary characters, I became engaged in their situations too, until it became a theme—family is who you get, but it’s also who you find and who you keep. And that all families, no matter what they look like, are built from the same stuff, love and trust, support and resilience.

ABW: Nice. I like how your theme emerged during your process. How long did it take you to write Just like Jackie? And what can you tell us about the novel you have coming out next year?

LS: I have heard it said that an author has been writing her first book her whole life. That is certainly true for Just like Jackie. When I sat down to write Robbie’s story it took me about a year, but the seeds were planted long ago when I was growing up in Vermont, sugaring with my grandpa, admiring my math teacher’s old Green Chevrolet truck, “CHE ROLE,” watching the Red Sox with my family, peeking into the service department at White River Toyota, and witnessing my Nana, Gloria’s, direct, clear, no-nonsense determination and manner.

Right as RainRight as Rain (coming in February 2019) is the story of a girl whose family is in the wake of grief and loss when they make a sudden move from Vermont to the Washington Heights neighborhood in NYC. There, Rain decides she has to fight to keep her family together in the only way she knows how, with facts and figures and research, and in the process, finds that she has a lot of people on her team.

Just as in Just like Jackie, Right as Rain is a book about finding your people, and hanging on to them no matter what.

ABW: Sounds great. Can’t wait to read it!

Let’s wrap up with words of wisdom for aspiring authors. What insights would you share with someone who aspires to write a novel?

LS: Every day is a writing day! Try to get your words in, try to get your butt in the chair, but know that if you don’t, it’s still a writing day. Listen. Remember. You never know what will spark an idea, or fix an issue mid-manuscript. Your process is your process until it has to change, which it will again and again. Before I had babies I was a notebook jotter, a scattered pages across the cafe table writer (and I’m sure I will be someday again!) but now, my time is tight and I’m drafting more in my head in anticipation of the moments I get with my laptop. It’s not easy to get your words in every day, it’s not easy to get your butt in the chair, and it’s not easy to have to revise your process to fit your life at that moment—but every day is a writing day.

ABW: So true. Yes! Every day. And take joy in the process. Thank you again for this interview, Lindsey.

Bookstock FestivalReaders who want to know more about Lindsey can check out her website, find her on Twitter, and head to Bookstock in Woodstock, Vermont, on July 27!

 

 

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Be Open to Rewriting (& Book Giveaway!)

Lily's MountainThis month I visited Alaska’s Denali National Park—not in person, but in prose—when I read Hannah Moderow‘s debut novel Lily’s Mountain. From grizzly bears to swarms of mosquitoes, frigid streams, rustic outhouses, a run-in with a porcupine, and a deep crevasse in the ice, the story takes readers on Lily’s quest to find her missing mountain-climbing, Scrabble-playing father. It’s a great read!

And today, in honor of bringing Hannah to my blog, I’m doing a BOOK GIVEAWAY! Scroll to the end of this interview for details on winning a copy of Lily’s Mountain and ALSO a book I mentioned in last month’s post: Get a Grip on Your Grammar by Kris Spisak.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Hannah!

Hannah Moderow: Thank you for having me, Anne. I think back so fondly to our days together as students at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

ABW: I loved meeting you at VCFA, and I can’t believe it’s been seven years since we graduated. Feels like yesterday. And look at us now—still geeking out over the craft of writing!

So tell me about the poem by Robert Service that you included in Lily’s Mountain. Talk about grounding readers in the setting! His words really drew me in:

Robert Service poem

What an engaging, lyrical poem. And my question is about your decision to have Lily remember this poem as her dad’s favorite. Did you plan to include the poem from the get-go? Was it in your first draft of the story, or did it emerge in a later draft? Continue reading

My Struggle to Write Girl Characters

I’m a girl who struggles to write girl characters, so what’s the deal, huh? I’ve asked this question for a long time, sometimes touching on it in other blog posts. This month I’m hitting it head-on.

When I was growing up, no one talked about gender identity, or if they did, I didn’t tune in. But I remember wishing I’d been born a boy. I remember wanting the freedoms that boys seemed to have. Now looking back, I think my wishes stemmed from not liking the expectations society put on girls. Wear dresses. Learn to use make-up. Enjoy cooking and shopping. Bleh. I tried but couldn’t bring myself to care about that stuff. (Still don’t.)

Nether Providence Junior High Girls Basketball circa 1969By 6th grade I was taller than all the boys except three. In 7th grade I tried out for cheerleading and didn’t make it. Chorus and didn’t make it. Basketball and made second string. Or third. Somehow I ended up as team manager, which meant that before each game I’d cut up oranges and put them in clear plastic bags. Continue reading

Winter-writing Summer Scenes

In the two novels I’ve drafted over the past three years, one protagonist is in a place where he doesn’t belong, and the other lives where he very much belongs, but the neighborhood is crumbling around him and he’s powerless to stop it, and neither setting is one I’ve experienced directly.

crepe myrtle in snowBoth stories take place during summer months, but where am I writing? Seated beside a space heater in a book-cluttered office, looking out at the wind-whipped snow. On the January morning I’m drafting this piece, local schools have posted a two-hour delay (a typical response to snow in Richmond, VA; I suppose the thinking is that commuter cars will thaw the ice before children venture out), but in the fictional worlds of my two drafts, my characters are dashing through July thunderstorms.

Continue reading

The Essence of Story

This gem by artist Brian Andreas exemplifies the essence of story. Can you feel the yearning in it? Hear the heartbeat? Imagine sailing away on a memory?(c)2017 brian andreas

That’s a sailboat, right? Or do you see something else? A kite? A fish? Whatever you see, whatever I see—when I read these words, I lean in. I feel a pulse, a purpose, a sense of desire. Continue reading

When a protagonist goes missing…

Evidence of Things Not SeenThis month I read a YA novel that defies literary convention. It’s a mystery, but not a mystery. There’s a protagonist, but he goes missing. Scraps of paper found near the spot where he was last seen refer to particle physics and time travel. Characters hint at one possibility after another, and in the end… no, no, no, I can’t reveal the ending!

When I asked the author to tell me about her writing process, she mentioned a number of people who helped her along the way—a testament to the strength of her writing community. The author is Lindsey Lane, the book is her YA debut, Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar Straus Giroux 2014), and today I’m thrilled to feature her on my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Lindsey, I’m so glad I caught up with you to talk about this story.

Lindsey Lane: Thanks for tracking me down!

ABW: I love the way you open this novel with a missing teen. Then you go into a series of vignettes, each with different characters, and the story arrested me. The structure brought to mind Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge, and I wondered if that book influenced you. Could you talk a bit about how you conceived of this story?

LL: Elizabeth Strout?!?! Really? What a huge compliment. But no, no influence whatsoever. Continue reading

Dig Deeply for Truth

Sara Lewis Holmes.Wolf HourLast week I heard author Sara Lewis Holmes talk about school visits, then wondered what I would tell students about the story beneath the novel I’m currently writing. If this book ever gets published, what items might I bring with me when I visit a classroom? What images might I project on a screen? What is my truth behind the characters, setting, and interactions on these pages?

Now, of course it’s crazy to think about school visits before getting a contract on a manuscript, but what I’m really doing at this stage in my process is asking why I’m telling this particular story. Why does it matter to me? Why does my heart break for this protagonist? Why do I care? Continue reading

Eat Your Vegetables: Write a Synopsis

Stuff I Hate to DoWriting a synopsis sits high on my Stuff I Hate To Do list. It’s up there with writing blurbs for book jackets. Bleh. Ask me to craft a scene that draws a reader in, that sets you on the edge of your chair, that makes you feel something, and I’m in. Love the challenge. But don’t ask me to narrow a plot down to the basics and spoil the ending.

Synopses are spoilers. Nobody wants a spoiler, right?

Wrong. Agents want them. Editors want them. All the publishing pros want them. A synopsis tells them who’s who and what’s going down and whether the protagonist manages to get what she wants, and how she thwarts the antagonist, and… yeah. You have to reveal all of it, including the neat twist you thought up for the ending. Spoil away. Continue reading

Writing Outside Your Culture (& Book Giveaway)

One Shadow on the WallWhat a wonderful new book for middle grade readers! Leah Henderson’s debut novel One Shadow on the Wall took me deep into a Senegalese village and the story of Mor, a boy who desperately wants to keep his family together. Even though the setting is foreign (at least, it is for American-born-and-bred-me), the plot is the stuff of human experience: the struggle to stand up to a bully, the desire to prove oneself and make a difference, the love of family and home. It’s such a heartwarming story, I had to catch up with the author for a blog interview!

I met Leah at the 2016 SCBWI Mid-Atlantic conference in northern Virginia, ran into her again at the AWP conference in D.C. in early 2017, and attended her book launch party on June 6th in Richmond where YA author Lamar Giles hosted an insightful Q&A. Too fun!

Now I have a signed copy of One Shadow on the Wall here in my hot little hands, ready to give away to a lucky reader.

A.B. Westrick: Leah, welcome to my blog!

Leah Henderson: Thank you so much for asking me to stop by.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson

One Shadow on the Wall

by Leah Henderson

Giveaway ends August 31, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

ABW: I’d love for you to share a bit about your journey to write this story. Let’s start with the unique setting, Senegal. You give readers a glimpse into the people and culture of this “land of teranga (hospitality).” I especially loved the way you wove foreign words into the narrative. Jërëjëf (thank you)! In your author’s note, you talk about your travels. Please say more! When did you first journey there, and why Senegal?

LH: I have an insatiable travel bug, and before writing the novel I had been to Senegal only a couple of times. It is a place with a rich history and it had always been on my “Pack a bag” list that is miles long! Read More