Tag Archives: hook

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Opening Lines

I should complete a first draft before deciding on my opening lines. I know I know I know this, but I’m starting a new novel, and I want the first chapter to be really good, so I just spent a morning re-writing what I drafted yesterday.

You’re wasting your time. I scold myself, and it’s deserved. I don’t yet know these characters, don’t know where they’ll take this story. Write like your fingers are on fire, Kathi Appelt told me. Get all the way to the end before you revise, Ellen Howard told me.

I know I know I know this, but revision is so satisfying, and blank screens so terrifying.

And so I procrastinate.

I pulled a bunch of books from my shelves and poured over opening lines. I know these authors didn’t write these lines in the first week that they sat down to work on these books. I know I know I know this.

But still.

I want to write this well. Read these openings.

 

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

They took me in my nightgown.

Thinking back, the signs were there—family photos burned in the fireplace. Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.

We were taken.

 

Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone

When I was born, the doctor said, “I’m sorry.”

I had a full shock of dark hair and long legs like the rest of the women in Freddie’s side of the family, but no one noticed these things. No one saw anything but the wings, which were heart-shaped, crinkled like a paper fan. They were smaller than Freddie’s palm, slick with primordial ooze, compressed accordion-style against my back. The doctor whispered, “Some kind of birth defect.” Defect. “How some kids are born with tails and others with cleft palates.” He mopped his brow. “But I’ve never seen anything like this.”

 

Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer

Deep in darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the rocket and see the Earth. He could also see the moon sometimes, coming closer. The Earth rotated slowly and the spaceship moved slowly, relative to the things that were around it. There was nothing he could do now, one way or the other. He was part of a spaceship going to the moon. He wore white paper booties instead of shoes. He wore a jumpsuit instead of underwear. He was only human, or scant flesh and long bone, eyes clouded, and body breakable. He was off, launched from the Earth, and floating in space. He had been pushed, with force, away.

But in his mind, Maxon found himself thinking of home.

 

Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Everybody likes sugar.

Folks say, “There wouldn’t be any good food without sugar.” Like rhubarb cobbler. Blueberry Pie. Yellow cake.

But I hate sugar. I won’t eat it. Not ever.

“No sweets, just savories,” I used to tell Ma. “Corn bread. Grits.” Even nasty okra and green beans are better than sugar.

There’s all kinds of sugar. Crystals that turn lemons into lemonade. Syrup that cools into taffy. Or pralines, brittle. There’s even sugarcane you can suck until your lips wrinkle and pucker.

 

Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

I am sitting under the acacia tree on the ridge when I first see them: three men, in nice clothes, coming toward our house. Their shoulders are straight and their fat bellies strain against their belts when they walk. They are the image of power.

I wish I could see their faces, but my eyes aren’t good enough for that this far away. I peel off my long-sleeved shirt and my floppy hat with the cloth sewn onto the back and crawl to the edge of the ridge in nothing by my long pants. My skin burns so easily that I could never do this in the middle of the day, no matter how hot it was, but now that the sun is setting I can enjoy the feeling of the wind whispering over me. Our goats mill around me, eating their dinner; the breeze carries the smells of the evening meal my mother and sister are preparing up the slope. The three men walk to our door.

Hodi hodi!” the first man bellows.

 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.

I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
where
my great-great-grandparents
worked the deep rich land
unfree
dawn till dusk
unpaid
drank cool water from scooped-out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky’s mirrored constellation
to freedom.

 

Don’t you just feel hugged by the confidence in these voices? I do. Hugged. Embraced. Encouraged. Inspired. Ready now to go back and write like my fingers are on fire.

Crafting Nonfiction for Young Readers

I met Winifred Conkling in 2009 when we were students in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and today I’m thrilled to feature her reflections on the craft of writing. Winifred is the award-winning author of numerous books and articles for adults and children, and her newest book, Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery, comes out today from Algonquin Young Readers.

A.B. Westrick: Winifred, welcome!

Winifred Conkling: Thank you for inviting me, Anne.

ABW: Passenger on the Pearl is a heart-wrenching story that hooked me on page one. I can tell from the sidebars and source notes that you researched the life of Emily Edmonson and her contemporaries extensively. So my first question is how you distilled down what must have been a mountain of primary sources, and decided to begin the story where you did (with Emily’s mother’s fears about bringing children into the world)?

WC: I always struggle with where to start a story. You’re right, I started the process by reading piles of source material. I finally decided that the most natural way to frame the story was to focus on Emily’s birth into slavery and to end with her marriage and the promise that her children would be born free. In my background reading, I was devastated by the quote from Emily’s mother, Amelia, who had fallen in love but refused to marry, saying: “I loved Paul very much, but I thought it wasn’t right to bring children into the world to be slaves.” I am the mother of three, and I can’t imagine what it would feel like to know that my children would be destined to face the horrors of slavery. I know that young readers are familiar with the idea of slavery, but I wanted to make the suffering personal.

ABW: Well, you certainly did make it personal. Her suffering drew me in—it’s an excellent opening. Now let me ask some more about those primary sources, and about research in general. Research can be mesmerizing, and at the same time overwhelming. Do you have any advice to help writers recognize which sorts of historical nuggets make for great stories, and which to leave behind? In so many words, I guess I’m asking: why this story? Why Emily Edmondson? What was it about Emily that made you decide to tell her story rather than, say, the story of one of her brothers? Or the captain’s story?

WC: My first draft of Passenger framed the story around Emily and her sister Mary—the Edmonson sisters—who remained together throughout much of their journey. The problem with this approach is that Mary died as a young woman and I wanted the narrative to continue to Emily’s work as a teacher in Washington, D.C., as well as her later marriage. By focusing on a single character, Emily, I was able to more naturally complete the story and end with the birth of the next generation.

We struggled with Emily vs. Emily-and-Mary when designing the cover art. The front cover of the book shows Emily in the moonlight with the Pearl in the background. The art wraps around to the back where we see Mary and others who were also making their way to the ship. The intent was to emphasize that this is Emily’s story, but she was not alone.

Also, the choice to feature Emily was based on the primary sources available. Because of the family’s association with Harriet Beecher Stowe, the lives of the Edmonsons are well documented; Stowe had much to say about them in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I’m glad you asked about the captain’s story. I loved his contributions, and we are fortunate that we have his autobiography available. (It was released by Project Gutenberg, e-book #10401-8.) His story is fascinating in its own right, but I had to resist the temptation to tell too much because this project was Emily’s story. I tried to share the relevant highlights and to let readers know what happened to him; he spent four years in prison as a result of his efforts to help seventy-seven enslaved people find freedom.

ABW: Through the first half of Passenger, I felt genuinely worried for Emily, and turned pages to find out what happened to her. I was totally caught up in her plight, and to be honest, I found the sidebars distracting. But somewhere along the line, a shift happened, and by the time I was well into the second half, I was lingering on each sidebar. So let’s talk about those sidebars! What went through your mind in crafting them? Were they part of your idea for this book from the start?

WC: I love sidebars. There are so many interesting bits of history and things to explore and explain that would slow down the plot but remain important for the reader to know. The main narrative tells the story—what happened to Emily—while the sidebars give the reader the background that deepens their understanding of context and history. Some readers will no doubt blow right past the sidebars to follow the story, and that’s okay. Others will stop and read them in order, which does slow the narrative flow, but helps to answer questions the reader may have along the way.

It’s not the just sidebars: The photos also interrupt the text, but I love them! The photos convey information and they remind the reader that this is nonfiction—these are real people and this is part of our shared American history.

I know some readers find sidebars distracting, but I think they serve an important function in nonfiction text. I didn’t set out to write a book with lots of sidebars, but as I wrote, they seemed inevitable.

ABW: Yes, and I admit that once I knew Emily’s story, I went back through the book and read the sidebars that I’d blown past on the first read-through. You have a lot of interesting tidbits there.

Now a question about proposals because I hear nonfiction writers talk about them: Did Passenger begin with a book proposal, and if so, what did that proposal look like? How long was it? Were the sidebars part of the first draft that your editor saw?

WC: I did not write a book proposal for Passenger. I knew I wanted to write about Emily—or Emily and Mary—and then I went to work. The structure changed several times in the process of writing and rewriting. The first draft I sent the editor did have sidebars, and we added some and deleted others along the way.

ABW: Was Passenger on the Pearl always the title, and if not, what were other titles under consideration?

WC: My original title was Ransomed: Emily Edmonson’s Escape from Slavery, but my editor didn’t like the word “ransomed.” (I liked it because to me it conveyed the idea that money was paid for the freedom of someone who was unjustly held captive.) We also played around with the title Forever Free, but we dropped that one, too. Titling books is tricky business, and I trust that the editors and publishers (and their marketing teams) have a better handle on it than I do.

ABW: Your 2011 book Sylvia & Aki (Tricycle Press) won the Jane Addams Book Award for Older Readers. Congratulations! It was also historical, but on the advice of your editor at that time, you wrote it as “fictionalized history,” explaining that your editor “thought it would be more engaging to tell the story in a novelized format.” Now that you’ve written Passenger as nonfiction, would you reflect on the differences? I’m particularly interested in your reflections on the craft of writing. How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction? Did you prefer the process of writing one more than the other?

WC: Thank you — and congratulations to you, too [on Brotherhood receiving the Jane Addams honor]!

If I could do it over again, I would write Sylvia & Aki as nonfiction. The story is true; the only fictionalized parts involved the creation of dialogue. For that book, I interviewed Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, the subjects of the book, and they both reviewed the text for accuracy before publication. The editor for that project believed that young readers would find it easier to relate to the story by presenting it as fiction with created dialogue.

Frankly, I struggle with this issue, and I think it’s an important question for authors to consider when writing stories that can be told as either nonfiction or fictionalized history (which isn’t the same thing as historical fiction, which I think of as a work of fiction set in the past). I don’t believe an author has the right to make up quotes. To me, quotation marks in nonfiction mean that the words—the exact words—can be traced back to a legitimate, contemporaneous source. That’s one of the main things that differentiates fiction and nonfiction; in nonfiction we don’t get to make up what was said or what happened.

When there are rich primary sources, I prefer writing nonfiction. It is an honor to be able to report and tell the story of history. That said, I also love historical fiction, especially when the historical period deepens and defines the character (like you did in Brotherhood). I don’t think one format is better than another; I think what is important is to be true to the format you have chosen as an author. Don’t leave the reader questioning whether a story is fiction or nonfiction.

ABW: Any final comments or words of wisdom for aspiring authors?

WC: Write the stories that haunt you. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, focus on the stories that captivate you. Those are the ones you’re supposed to tell.

ABW: Oooohhh, that’s just what I need to hear because my current work-in-progress is frustrating me, but I do feel called to write it—the story haunts me. So thank you for reminding me of that! And thank you so much for your insights today.

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!

Characters and Comfort Zones

My agent recently had this to say about my current work-in-progress: she couldn’t identify with my main character and couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to spend an entire novel with him.

Ahhhhhhh!

Now, I can pull out my hair, or I can calm down (which, of course, I’ve done because that’s what I do). And once I wrapped my brain around her comments, it hit me that I don’t like my protagonist, either. He’s a jerk. Really. And he’s so much of a jerk that he’s… boring. No one is that much of a jerk all the time. A character—especially a main character, but also an antagonist as well as a secondary character—has to have redeeming qualities. My character needs complexity… nuance… depth.

So I’m on a quest to make him more likable, or at least interesting, and perhaps somewhat sympathetic, and I’ve considered techniques such as opening with a scene in which someone mistreats him (cue the universal instincts to root for the underdog and fight injustice), or a scene in which he’s in danger (get the adrenaline going).

But I think the better approach (time-consuming, but better) would be for me to dig more deeply into his character. I’ve shown his warts, and the problem is that my character is okay with that. He likes his tough exterior. He’s in his comfort zone, and I need to pull him out. So it’s Walgreens time: I need a tube of Compound W to peel away his roughness, find his soft spots… identify his longings… touch his heart.

I got to thinking about books that don’t open with a hook, and hook readers nonetheless, and one jumped to mind right away: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Such a fabulous book! Sáenz opens with a waking-up-bored-in-the-summer scene and still manages to hook me. How? Why? His writing is that good, his dialogue spot-on, his characters so real.

I could shelve my current WIP and begin a new novel. (My agent suggested as much.) But I’m stubborn. And I think this story needs to be told. And I believe in the value of perseverance. My first novel didn’t come together on the first draft, or the second, or the third. I just finished Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a marvelous novel that Doerr says took him ten years to write. (I have to wonder what his manuscript looked like at the two-year mark, which is what I’m approaching with my draft.) Like Sáenz, Doerr doesn’t open with an obvious hook. He opens with engaging prose and introduces his characters slowly, letting their stories unfold layer by layer by layer. We see them in their comfort zones before their worlds turn upside down, and it’s there—without comfort—when we get to know them best.

Sure, I’d like to race through my next draft, but hey—writing this story is going to take time. So, excuse me, but I’m headed to Walgreens. I have a character who needs a little Compound W love. In my current draft, you’d never hear him admit that, but in the revision, well, let’s just say he’s softening.

Begin with the unbelievable

Carrie Brown

Carrie Brown

After attending an excellent James River Writers panel discussion (“The Writing Show”) and Master Class in April with authors John Gregory Brown and Carrie Brown, I went home and revised my novel.

The Browns gave the audience some great tips, and one that particularly intrigued me was this: take the most unbelievable moment in your story, and put it first. Right up front. The opening paragraph. The opening sentence. Just lay it out there. Readers enter into a story on the first line. It’s the place where they’re most willing to suspend disbelief, so don’t delay that suspension. Hook them and take off running.

John Gregory Brown

John Gregory Brown

John Gregory Brown noted that if Kafka had waited until page three to tell us that Gregor Samsa had turned into a cockroach, we might have questioned and dismissed that bizarre transformation. Here is Kafka’s opening line to The Metamorphosis:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.

We might quibble with other aspects of this sentence (waking up is oh-so-overdone as an opening, and the participle isn’t as effective as straight-on past tense, and passive voice is oh-so-distancing), but hey—the unbelievable happens right away. It launches us into the story. And that was Brown’s point: readers will accept the unbelievable when a writer gives it to them straight-up. If you wait to give it to them later, you may have missed your chance.

The Last First DayBut here’s the thing: most writers can’t know what their first sentence or paragraph or chapter will be until they’ve written the last sentence. If you’re worrying about your opening before you’ve finished the first draft, I think you’re wasting time. Sure, it’s part of the process, and you can pat yourself on the back for that. But I think you need to push yourself all the way to the end before stewing over the beginning. Figure out what your story is really all about. Identify the essential conflict. Identify the most unbelievable moment in the story, the one that will strain your readers’ credibility. Then put that moment first and see how the story falls out from there.

The other take-away from my April visit to this James River Writers’ program was the reminder of how good it is to be part of a creative community. Richmond is a fabulous town in which to be a writer. While I love spending hours alone at my writing desk, I find that getting out and engaging with other writers juices me up.

Audubons WatchJohn Gregory Brown teaches at Sweet Briar College, and Carrie Brown at Hollins University, and I don’t have to be enrolled in either of their esteemed institutions to encounter them and benefit from their insights. I just have to seek out opportunities in my town. There are a lot of them (from conferences to workshops to panel discussions), and if I glean so much as (or as little as) one tidbit from each outing, my writing benefits. It’s all good.

 

 

 

 

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!

Loglines and “The Next Big Thing”

LoglineAsk a novelist what he or she is working on, and you’re apt to get a rambling answer because the process of writing a novel is often long and messy. Novels explore the lives of multiple characters, develop multiple plots and subplots—you get what I’m saying. Novels are complicated. So it almost seems unfair that if the writer hopes to query an agent with the completed masterpiece, it’s necessary to boil the whole thing down to a single sentence. Known as a logline (novelists have screenwriters to thank for this term), this one sentence gem can take weeks to perfect. But the time spent is worth the effort, as a well-written logline can lead to a quick sale.

To craft a logline, the writer must focus on the protagonist and his/her emotional journey, letting go of sub-plots and secondary characters. To read examples of loglines, take a moment to peruse posts in “The Next Big Thing” blog chain.

Thank you to writer Virginia Pye, author of the 2013 debut River of Dust, for inviting me to participate in “The Next Big Thing”—a set of questions for writers about what they’re working on, or what book is coming soon. Here are my answers:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

Brotherhood

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A 14-year old boy struggles to protect a friend from the gang he has joined (the K.K.K. in 1867).

Where did the idea come from for the book?

This book began with a feeling more than an idea. As a young boy in the South in the 1930’s, my father felt stuck and vowed never to raise his own children there. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I would ask why he wanted out, and he’d duck my questions, shake his head, grow pensive and say things like, “You can judge people in any number of ways, but don’t ever judge them by the color of their skin.” Never the answer I expected. So I began to wonder what would make a shy, gentle white boy vow to flee the South. What did he see that he refused to talk about? While my dad never got involved with the Ku Klux Klan, I know that the Klan wreaked havoc in the South during Daddy’s growing up years. I began to imagine what sorts of influences would lead a boy to join a gang—a brotherhood—then yearn to get out but not be free to leave. The book grew from that sense of yearning.

What genre does your book fall under?

Young Adult

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

For the brothers, I’d go with Luke Benward and Sterling Beaumon.  For Rachel, the freed slave who becomes a teacher, Keke Palmer would be awesome, but if Hollywood waits five years before filming, then Willow Smith will be old enough for the role.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by Leigh Feldman at Writers House, and Brotherhood will be published by Viking/Penguin. My editor there is Regina Hayes.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About two years for the first draft, and another year and a half for multiple additional drafts.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson‘s historical fiction—books such as Fever 1793, and Chains, and Forge. If readers come to compare my book to hers, that would be fabulous!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

One of my boys is a reluctant reader, so I set out to write a novel that even a boy—my boy—would read.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

My protagonist (a Klan member) befriends a freed slave girl who’s spunky and smart. He must keep the friendship secret, as the year is 1867, a time when distrust smoldered between the races. While most post-Civil War books address America’s political landscape, my book is all about the people—about what it might have felt like to live through the tumultuous times that we’ve come to call The Period of Reconstruction.

I’ve invited debut novelists to participate in “The Next Big Thing” blog chain. Next week, look for blog posts from Melanie Crowder, author of Parched; Cat Winters, author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds; and L.R. Giles, author of Fake ID.

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…

Grounding the reader

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club Fight Clubbegins like this:

         Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

         The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says, “We really won’t die.”

Over the top? Yes. Gun in the opening sentence? Come on. Spare me. So overdone. But the novel starts to work in the third paragraph:

         With my tongue I can feel the silencer holes we drilled into the barrel of the gun. Most of the noise a gunshot makes is expanding gases, and there’s the tiny sonic boom a bullet makes because it travels so fast. To make a silencer, you just drill holes in the barrel of the gun, a lot of holes. This lets the gas escape and slows the bullet to below the speed of sound.

The narrative has stopped screaming, “Hook the reader on page one.” This is interesting. The gun that began as a gimmick now has a tongue on its silencer holes. Palahniuk has taken the reader to a new place. I’m intrigued. By page two, I’m in the moment with these characters and yes, I’m hooked.

What has hooked me? The details. In chapter one it’s guns and the nuances of mixing sawdust and chemicals into explosives. In chapter two it’s narrowly-focused support groups. Chapter three, movie projector reels, all from the perspective of a protagonist with insomnia. It’s intense. Disjointed. Engaging. No hand-holding here. Instead, it’s my job to keep up, and I cannot turn the pages fast enough. In scene after scene, I latch onto details that ground me in an otherwise chaotic narrative. I’ve suspended disbelief and clicked the seat belt. Now I’m leaning forward, gripping the safety bar, not feeling safe at all. I taste metal, smell tarmac exhaust, and hear the crunch of buttered popcorn on the theater floor.

In my own writing these days, I’ve made the switch from soul-searching and re-evaluating a novel that my agent nixed to revisions—major revisions. I don’t need a gun in the first sentence to wake up my story, but I need details. I’ve figured out what my protagonist wants. Now can I succeed in grounding readers so they’ll suspend disbelief and come along for the ride? If Palahniuk can do it, so can I.