Tag Archives: James River Writers

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

Editing for Emotional Impact

This week’s Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” presented by James River Writers, was like a cornucopia of craft tips, everything overflowing, spilling out, and the crowd eagerly eating it all up. I had a great time. Here are my favorite take-aways from the evening:

Sadeqa Johnson urged us to listen to our characters. Really listen. Be open to what they have to say. While writing a scene, she’ll pause to ask a character, “What’s up?” Time and again she finds herself surprised by her characters’ answers. She tries to figure out what makes each one feel vulnerable.

Anne Blankman stressed the value of understanding what the protagonist wants, then taking that thing away, or at the very least, threatening its safety. She told us to think of a novel like an amusement park ride; readers have bought tickets and will feel cheated if the ride doesn’t carry them up and down and make their hearts pound. Continue reading

Slush Pile Reading

I recently read and commented on a number of submissions for Hunger Mountain, Vermont College of Fine Arts’ journal for the arts, and James River WritersBest Unpublished Novel Contest, and it was really time consuming, but wow—so helpful! Recognizing shortcomings in the writing of others helped me identify shortcomings in my own.

Some of the submissions I read were good, and others were brimming with stereotypes—characters I already knew, or ones the writer assumed I knew. The football player. The cheerleader. The abusive boyfriend. Then there was the backstory. And the telling instead of showing. But you know what? It hit me that my stories used to sound like those. I received more than a decade’s worth of rejections before Brotherhood came out, and in the years since its release, I’ve gotten two more. I’m still learning. I appreciate that writing is hard, and these writers are trying hard. I applaud them for trying! I’m still trying, too.

I don’t have any sort of neat, simple how-to guide for writing fiction, but after all that reading, I suppose I do have a few tips…

slush pile

For what it’s worth, if you’re looking to dazzle an agent or editor or little old slush pile reader like me, my meagre advice is that before submitting your project, you take the time to revise it like crazy.

  • Begin in media res—in the middle of a moment that matters to your protagonist and helps the reader understand what the character wants.
  • If a scene doesn’t impact the protagonist’s desire line, let it fall by the wayside.
  • Cut as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.
  • Describe your characters’ actions in ways that allow readers to infer the emotions (without you naming the emotions).
  • Include sensory details (especially smells, tastes and textures).

Along the way, my hope for all of you is the same as my hope for myself—that we embrace the process. Love the process! I’ve found that I do love it, and I hope I keep loving it. If you haven’t fallen in love with writing, then find something else to love. Gardening, perhaps…? Puppies…? Getting Congress to… Okay, I think I’ll stop there. Happy writing!

Storytelling and Mythic Structure

Today’s post is for every fiction writer with a manuscript (like mine) that isn’t quite working. I’ve hit the two-year mark on this baby, including multiple (too many to count) rewrites of the opening five chapters, and a second draft of the complete novel, now told in alternating points of view (four different POV characters). The verdict is just in from two early readers: the manuscript still isn’t ready for my publisher’s eyes. Ugh.

But a comment from one reader has energized me. She said, “It’s one thing to be a good writer and it’s another to be a storyteller.”

Hmmmm. Read that line again. Mull it over. Let it sink in.

Both readers said my manuscript flowed easily—the writing was good—but the plot arc and emotional arc didn’t line up, and one reader found a secondary character more compelling than the protagonist (haha—that’s what I get for crafting new points of view). So I’m back to work, but I’m not writing, not yet. Instead, I’m analyzing this story. I’ve charted my characters’ desires (what my protagonist thinks he wants, what he really wants, what he needs, what he gets), and I’m rethinking the very essence of story.

I’ve turned to a book that’s sat on my shelf for years: Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which is something of a Bible for Hollywood screenwriters. I recall that when I first read it, back at a time when I didn’t have a complete manuscript and was considering Vogler’s ideas in the abstract, I felt disappointed with Hollywood for producing formulaic movies. Granted, these patterns are based on the work of Carl Jung and mythic archetypes, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is great. But still… you can sometimes detect the formula in a film, leaving you wishing you’d waited to watch it on Netflix.

This month as I re-read Vogler, I see my manuscript anew. I’ve spent two years getting to know a setting and a set of characters, and now each of Vogler’s chapters is providing insights: oh, so that character is the mentor… oh, so he’s the shapeshifter… oh, so a “refusal of the call” establishes a deeper commitment to the journey… oh, oh, oh…! My manuscript has elements that make for a good story, but in some cases they’re out of order, and in others they’re under-developed.

I’m about to launch into yet another complete revision, and this time I’m so excited I feel guilty that this is my job. It’s too fun. I’m going to keep mythic structures and archetypes in mind as I rewrite scenes and restructure the plot, not trying to force it into a formula, but using these insights about storytelling to align the protagonist’s desire with his journey—no small task. If I kill off a character or shred a few plot points en route, well, hey, it’s okay. It’s all in service to the story.

I’m reminded that early-on in my process on this particular novel, I blogged about writing in service to the story, about appreciating characters that take a story where it needs to go, and killing them off once they’ve served their purpose. When I look at this manuscript as it stood back then, and this manuscript today… wow. There is no comparison. The story has come a long way.

And it still has a long way to go.

 

P.S. – As I was about to go live with this post, I got an email from James River Writers promoting their upcoming Writing Show on… how coincidental is this?… Plotting the Hero’s Journey, a discussion of Jung’s mythic archetypes. I had no idea this would be the February topic! The folks at JRW and I are thinking alike. I will be there…


Plotting the Hero’s Journey
Wednesday, February 25, 2015

6:00 p.m.
Firehouse Theater, Richmond, VA.

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!

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.

 

 

 

 

Kathryn Erskine on historical fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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