Tag Archives: kathi appelt

Signed Books Motivate Me to Keep Writing

I buy oodles of books. They pile up on shelves, and on a wide windowsill beside my writing desk. They collect dust in stacks on a braided blue rug, and from time to time I clean them off. Every year we donate one or two boxes worth to a library sale, clearing space for new reads. But I can’t bear to part with any of the books that authors have signed to me. To me.

 

These pictures show only some of the many signed YA and middle grade titles in my collection. I also have a slew written for adults—nonfiction, poetry, memoir, mystery, thrillers, and literary fiction. I’d like to say I’ve read them all, but the truth is that some sit in my to-be-read stack (which got three books taller after last week’s RVA Lit Crawl. Richmond, VA, is a great town in which to be a writer. Have I said that before? Yeah.)

 

It takes a long time to draft a novel, and even longer to revise it, and in my case we’re talking years. I’m currently in a stage of deep and messy revision on two novels, and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get them out into the world. Sometimes I feel discouraged.

 

 

Then I pick up a signed book, feel its weight, turn a few pages, and run a finger across the inscription. I picture the author who signed it. I try to recall the conversation we had on the day I got the signature. I remember getting tongue-tied when I met Lois Lowry because The Giver is one of my all time favorites and I couldn’t believe I was actually meeting the author. We were in Richmond in the bookstore formerly known as Narnia (now bbgb books), and for Lois it had been a long day. I think she’d done some school visits, and by late afternoon was probably ready for a nap, but there I was, eager and tongue-tied, and as I recall, I mumbled that I was writing a book for young readers. “Good luck,” I think she said. Or maybe, “It’s a rewarding job.” Or maybe I’ve forgotten her exact words, but I haven’t forgotten her encouragement, her warmth, her smile.

 

Sometimes when I look at my name handwritten in a book, I imagine the author writing a new novel, hunched over a desk or leaning back in an overstuffed chair with a laptop, sipping coffee, typing away. I always picture these authors smiling, but who knows? Maybe they cry while they write. (Nah. Don’t tell me that. And actually, come to think of it, one of these authors has passed away, so I have to picture her smiling from heaven.) In any case, the image of most of these authors hard at work on another book motives me to get back to my manuscript.

Every morning when I slip into my backless chair, the shelves above my desk like telephone wires full of birds chatting and singing, ready to take flight, I feel the authors smiling. I imagine they’re smiling at me. At me! And I pick up my gel pen and begin to write…

 

Make Your Protagonist Accountable

Kathy Steffen

Kathy Steffen

In this post by author Kathy Steffen, she talks about “giving your characters accountability.” I thought that was an odd phrase, and my first reaction was, whaaat? What does she mean?

As I read through her post, I got it. For me, the click came when I phrased her words differently. I’d say it like this: make your protagonist accountable to someone or accountable for something.

Accountability engenders sympathy. Steffen is saying that if you want to ensure that your readers will care about your protagonist—will sympathize with her and commit to turning hundreds of pages to find out how she fares—one way to do it is to craft scenes depicting her as accountable. Make other characters depend on her. Connect the protagonist’s actions to the welfare of others.

In Brotherhood I’d succeeded in doing this, but not consciously. I’d like to say I had an instinct for it, but no. I had help. While I was an MFA student at VCFA, faculty mentor Kathi Appelt suggested that I restructure my manuscript. In an early draft, on about page 180 my protagonist made a promise to his mother and set out to fulfill the promise. In response to Appelt’s suggestion, I moved that scene to chapter one, and the move made all the difference. In hindsight I get that it accomplished exactly what Steffen is talking about.

These days, I’m in the revision stage on two very different novels, and after reading Steffen’s post, it’s occurred to me that in neither draft have I made the protagonist accountable to or for someone other than himself.

Ugh. My writing instincts aren’t strong. I don’t know about you, but for me, writing doesn’t come easily. I don’t craft stories intuitively, but instead slog along, learning techniques, playing with possibilities, and seeing what works. Thank goodness I find the process rewarding. I mean, really—I could do this scribbling, this shuffling around of words, this editing and revising 24/7. Sometimes I forget to eat.

In 2017 I’m going to approach my revisions differently. I’m now doing a lot of free-writing from each character’s point of view. I’m drafting scenes that show their hearts. I’m rethinking what they feel accountable to or for.

What about you? To whom or for what is your protagonist accountable?

 

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.

Revision Is The Best Part

The worst part of the writing process is the blank screen, the white paper, the emptiness, the limitless possibilities. The best is revision. Once I’ve scribbled a few words, I’m onto something, and when I let myself revise those words—moving paragraphs around, deleting extraneous junk—it feels great. Like cracking a Sudoku puzzle. Hahaha. (No, really.)

These days, I’m deep into revisions on a new novel and my manuscript is a mess. I love working on it, although I often wish it wouldn’t take so long. I decided to look back at an early version of Brotherhood to remind myself just how far that novel came—how bad it was early-on, and how much it improved. This gives me hope. Here’s the 2009 version of my opening scene:

Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Somebody is banging. Bam, bam, bam. Somebody is banging so hard the walls are rattling.

“Mrs. Weaver?” a man shouts.

My head hurts. I open my eyes. I’m in my bedroom. The light is early. A chicken squawks. Peep-peep, is that you? Jeremiah is stretched out asleep in his britches.

“Open up! Official business of the government of the United States. Open up!” The voice is flat and nasal. It’s not from around these parts. It’s Yankee.

I hear shuffling in the house. Mama is up. Peep-peep and Poke are squawking. Shoot. Is somebody hurting our chickens? I should check on the chickens. I roll off the mattress. I run to the windowsill. I am not awake. Am I awake?

“Shoot!” I cry.

There’s a boy looking in my window! He’s wearing blue. Blue cap. Brass buttons. Blue uniform. Musket on his shoulder. “Going somewhere, Mr. Weaver?”

Ouch. Cringe-worthy. Choppy. This version repels me more than it engages me. While I like the way I was able to get inside the head of this character, I feel irritated by that closeness. As a reader, I don’t want to stay inside this head for three hundred plus pages.

Here’s the revision, completed in 2011 and published in 2013:

The first sound Shad heard was the squawk of a chicken. Then the thud of a fist on wood. Bam. Bam. Bam. The hollow walls rattled. A man’s voice. “Mrs. Weaver?”

The light was early yet, and Shad glanced beside him. His older brother lay asleep there in his trousers—right there on top of the white cotton ticking. Hadn’t even changed into a nightshirt. Shad nudged Jeremiah’s shoulder and heard his brother grunt, but he didn’t wake.

The thud came again. Bam. Bam. “Mrs. Weaver? Official business of the government of the United States. Open up!” The voice was flat and nasal—not Virginia-born.

Shad nudged Jeremiah harder this time, but still his brother didn’t rouse. He rolled off the straw mattress, feet on cool dirt, and headed for the window. But at the sill, he jumped back. “Lord!”

There was a boy maybe Jeremiah’s age—seventeen—maybe a tad more—blond like Jeremiah. He stood on the other side, only inches from Shad’s face. Navy blue cap. Blue uniform. Brass buttons. Musket on his shoulder. He said, “Going somewhere, Mr. Weaver?”

Notice that I added details to ground the reader in the setting. I revised from first person, present tense to third person, past tense, pulling the reader out of the protagonist’s head, and providing a welcome distance while staying true to the character. I slowed the scene down.

Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt

My publisher never saw that early version of Brotherhood. Before I queried agents, I’d already revised the whole shebang, adding details, changing tenses, cutting some scenes and digging deeply into others. I had help doing it, thanks to the MFA program at  Vermont College of Fine Arts. Instead of telling me to shelve the manuscript because it was so bad, my 4th semester faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, taught me how to approach revisions, how to dig deeper, how to turn a mess into a novel.

Re-reading my bad early version makes me feel good. Encouraged! My current WIP is messy, but it’s coming along. If I didn’t love the process, I wouldn’t keep going. But I do love it. I live for it. Spending my mornings writing fiction keeps me sane through my afternoons and evenings. And when I have something to work with—something to fix rather than starting from scratch—that’s the best of all.

The structure of a novel

In the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, John Stazinski (page 29) bemoans the tendency of MFA programs to concentrate nearly exclusively on the short story at the expense of the novel because it’s too time-consuming to workshop complete novels. Thank goodness Grub Street is now experimenting with a novel-revision class to fill the gap.

VCFA logoLucky for me, VCFA was not one of those MFA programs. In the first few semesters, there were limits to the number of pages I was allowed to submit for critique/review, but in the final semester, the complete draft of a novel was welcome. It was an intense final semester. My faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, required multiple re-writes of my novel—never mind line edits. The focus was on structure—on the intersection of the story arc and the emotional arc—on Big Picture elements of the craft.

Now I can’t read a novel without marveling at and dissecting its structure. Of course writers need to learn how to craft engaging characters and settings with mesmerizing descriptive details. But plot matters! A well-conceived story arc is just as necessary as beautiful prose.

Take John Green’s Looking for Alaska, for example. He intentionally deviates from the classic climax-and-denouement structure with brilliant results. Early chapters are labeled “before” and later chapters “after” and the life-changing moment occurs in the middle, leading to a denouement that at first glance appears too long. But no. The climax is not that moment-in-the-middle, but comes when the protagonist realizes he can’t live fully if he remains stuck on life “before Alaska” and “after Alaska.”  The structure Green has given to his novel is the very structure the protagonist is struggling to escape.

Or take Uma Krishnaswami’s delightful The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Her theme involves life’s coincidences, and she presents the story from the points of view (close-third person in alternating chapters) of one protagonist and multiple secondary characters. Readers glimpse a postal carrier here and a Bollywood movie star there, and in the end, of course, the characters’ lives intersect. But it’s the structure of the novel in multiple POVs that makes the intersection work.

It’s one thing to know the story you want to tell, and another to figure out how best to tell it. Such is my current quandary. Last week I completed the draft of a novel, and I’m now letting it rest so that I can return later with fresh eyes to ask: what structure—what sequence of scenes—will provide maximum dramatic tension for my readers? Right now I’ve got one viewpoint in part one and another in part two. But will alternating the points of view (the way Uma did) serve this story better? Hmm. Thank goodness I have early-level reader-friends willing to critique an entire novel, not simply ten or twenty pages at a time.