Tag Archives: literature

Ruta Sepetys on Multiple Points of View

 

 

This month, I caught up with Ruta Sepetys, recently home from a two-month book tour for her latest historical YA, Salt to the Sea. It’s a gripping World War II story of a group of teenagers running for safety while the Russian army marches toward Germany and American bombers fly overhead. Set in 1945 in what is now Poland, the story leads up to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea, the greatest tragedy in maritime history.

 

 

In this video clip on Ruta’s website, we learn a bit about the family history that inspired Ruta to set her novel during WWII. Watching this clip is well worth four minutes of your time:

Ruta notes that “empathy is one of the greatest and most beautiful contributions that we can achieve through writing.” Empathy. Yes! So necessary when it comes to crafting a character, and especially when writing multiple characters and multiple points of view. I’m thrilled to have Ruta here to tell us how she did it.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Ruta. So glad you could share your thoughts about craft and process.

Ruta Sepetys: Thank you so much for having me!

ABW: Let’s start with that awful Alfred character—awful and oddly funny. The story is tense and Alfred provides a lot of comic relief in circumstances that are otherwise bleak. Was Alfred part of your early drafts, or did you weave him into the story later when you realized the need to lighten things up? How did you go about crafting him? To what extent is he based on someone you know? Continue reading

Salivation and Satisfaction

When I was a student in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I heard Jane Kurtz, the author of more than thirty books for young readers, give a fabulous lecture called “Salivation and Satisfaction.” The gist of her talk was that for a novel to work well, the reader must salivate (must care about the protagonist and hunger for more), and must feel satisfied at the end. The sense of satisfaction comes when there’s a match-up between what the writer sets up for the character and what the character gets. The protagonist won’t necessarily get what he or she wanted, but the questions the author has raised at the start need to be answered by the end.

This wisdom was on my mind one morning this past month, a morning when I woke feeling heavy. You know… it’s great when you feel rested first thing in the morning. It’s great to slip into your desk chair, take a sip from a steaming mug of coffee, and start writing, writing, writing. But I didn’t feel rested that morning. I had the whole dang plot of my novel sloshing through my head.

From years spent writing, I’ve learned that when I wake thinking about a particular scene, something is wrong. Continue reading

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley on Craft

Last week, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley won the Newbery Honor Award for her middle grade novel, The War that Saved my Life, and just this week she’s learned that it’s hitting the New York Times bestseller list. The book was also a co-winner of the Schneider Family Book Award, and the audio version won the Odyssey. Wow. Congratulations, Kim!

Kim and I “met” online after she blurbed Brotherhood (her lovely words appear on my book jacket and on the Brotherhood page of my website), and I was thrilled when she agreed to carve out time for this blog interview.

 

 

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kim! I loved reading The War that Saved my Life, and wanted to ask for your reflections on the craft of writing.

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: So glad to appear on your blog! Thank you for asking.

ABW: Let’s get right to the heart of The War that Saved my Life. Set in England at the start of WWII, it’s the story of ten year-old Ada, who was born with a clubfoot and whose abusive mother has tried to keep her hidden. As world events compel Ada out into the world, she must struggle both to understand all that she’s missed and to heal from the trauma of abuse. My first question is: how did you go about crafting Ada’s voice, so British and so real? Continue reading

Mistakes Writers Repeat

Oops, I did it again.

No, no, I haven’t broken a guy’s heart à la Britney Spears, but I’ve repeated the same mistake that earned me a decade-worth of rejection letters: writing from my head. Allowing my scenes to drift into the safe world of ideas. Into thoughts and concepts and heady stuff, and out of the dangerous world of feelings and sensory responses. I need to stop pretending that I have my act together and instead revisit the times I’ve felt vulnerable, insecure, embarrassed, and scared.

From Where You DreamThis month I’m re-reading Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream in order to shake myself up, wake up my writing, and dig deeper into each moment. I’ve challenged myself to craft a novel in alternating points-of-view (four characters), and it’s coming along, but lemme tell you… thinking is easy. Feeling is hard. People often ask writers where they get their ideas, and for me this question misses the mark. Ask me how I tap into emotions. (I’ll tell you I’m working on it.) Butler says:

… in order to get through childhood and puberty and adolescence and young adulthood, broken relationships and a marriage or two, or four—you have identified with your mind… you’ve got this self-conscious metavoice going all the time… That voice wants to drag you up into your head… [but] the only way to create a work of literary art is to stop that voice. Your total attention needs to be on the sensual flow of experience from the unconscious.

You’ll need to read the book to grasp everything he’s saying, but for now let’s call it digging deeply for the unconscious physical responses that accompany the emotions we feel. Digging really, really deeply. An author who has mastered the ability Butler talks about is Patrick Ness. Right now I’m reading Ness’s latest novel More than This, and I want to show you the opening sequence so you can see the way he’s crafted a “sensual flow of experience.” Check this out:

more-than-thisHere is the boy, drowning.

In these last moments, it’s not the water that’s finally done for him; it’s the cold. It has bled all the energy from his body and contracted his muscles into a painful uselessness, no matter how much he fights to keep himself about the surface. He is strong, and young, nearly seventeen, but the wintry waves keep coming, each one seemingly larger than the last. They spin him round, topple him over, force him deeper down and down. Even when he can catch his breath in the few terrified seconds he manages to push his face into the air, he is shaking so badly he can barely get half a lungful before he’s under again. It isn’t enough, grows less each time, and he feels a terrible yearning in his chest as he aches, fruitlessly, for more.

He is in full panic now…

Wow. These paragraphs draw me into the present moment of the story. I don’t know how the character ended up in the water—and it will be many chapters before Ness supplies the backstory—but already, I care about this character. I’m beside him in the water, and I’ll keep reading to find out what happens.

Years ago I read Butler’s book and it helped me understand “show, don’t tell” (I blogged about details), but this time I’m digging deeper than details. I’m going into places that feel dangerous, places where my characters feel vulnerable, places that are a whole lot harder than details to tap into.

All of this is to say that I’ve developed coping mechanisms to avoid emotional black holes, but these same mechanisms—the ones that keep me sane—block my fiction. They block a reader’s ability to connect with my characters on an emotional (subconscious) level. I need to let myself feel scared again, or angry, or embarrassed, or humiliated. Really feel it. Then I must write scenes without using words like scared, angry, embarrassed, or humiliated. I must write the sensory details of the experience.

(An aside: my sister is a nutritionist and dietician who specializes in eating disorders, and just last week was telling me that she’ll sometimes ask her clients to sit still—just sit for as long as they can, for an hour even, or two hours—and allow themselves to feel. To experience their own emotions. It can be a terrifying exercise, but she promises them they won’t die in the process. They might cry, tremble, rage, etc., but they’ll survive. The technique has helped some of her clients, and it got me thinking (oooh, here I am, thinking again): I need to tap into the place where I tremble.)

I’m guilty not only of writing from my head, but of repeating this mistake even though I’m aware of it. How about you? What are your mistakes? What is your comfort zone—your default button—the place you retreat to, where you pat yourself on the back for having penned another scene that sounds oh, so good when the truth is that it’s nowhere near honest? Not yet.

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.

 

 

 

 

Writing a Novel in Verse

Listen to these lines from the first page of Caminar, Skila Brown’s debut novel in verse:

Our village sat in the folded-between,
in that spot where you pinch something sacred,

to keep it still.

Our mountain stood guard at our backs.
We slept at night in its bed.

This book mesmerized me. Its lyrical beauty quickly transported me to the jungles of Guatemala with its owls and soccer-playing children and military men looking for older brothers, old enough for signing papers, and one day…

Soldiers Set Up Camp
That year before the rains began, they came
in jeeps, with tents for sleep,
set up camp outside our village.

I couldn’t put it down. I loved Carlos, the young protagonist of this story, and I just had to get inside Skila Brown’s head to hear about her process in writing a novel in verse. I wanted to glean tips for tackling this art form.

A.B. Westrick: Skila, thank you so much for doing this blog interview. Carlos’s story captivated me from page one, and stayed with me long after I finished reading. I find the idea of writing a novel in verse to be daunting. Can you tell me which of the poems you wrote first? What part of Carlos’s story became your starting point, and how did the story evolve during the course of writing?

Skila Brown: Anne, thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog! The first poem that came to me was “Guerilla Rain.” The poems that ended up following that one in the book came next. Often I would write 3-5 poems in a spurt, and on the next day, I’d write verses that would appear in an entirely different section of the book. Writing out of order is fun and frustrating—in equal parts. But Carlos’s story, for me, started with the arrival of the guerillas. I knew this was about a boy whose village got targeted simply because the rebels had passed through. Continue reading

Wanna write? Gotta read.

It’s true what they say: to write well, you have to read well. And often. And widely, and not just in your own genre.  So when Lyn Miller-Lachmann tagged me for the WORLD TOUR BLOG (WTB), I took it as a reminder to carve out more reading time. (Thank you, Lyn!)

I’d already read two of Lyn’s books (here I am with her Gringolandia and Rogue), both character-driven, but worlds apart. The first explores the lives of family members displaced after General Pinochet’s 1973 military coup in Chile. In the second, we watch Kiara, a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, struggle to make—and keep—friends. Horn Book notes: “The depth of Kiara’s loneliness, her capacity for empathy (though she’s unsure of when and how to express it), and her persistence in her quest for true friendship make the book a substantive addition to the emerging body of youth literature about Asperger’s.” You can read more about Rogue here, and about Gringolandia here. Leave it to Lyn to tackle some tough topics! I love the many ways that her fiction sheds light on fact.

What authors am I currently reading? I recently finished Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, which was so compelling, I couldn’t put it down. The writing is spot-on, and the characters are so real, I knew them. I mean, I just knew them. The day Park met Eleanor, I felt as if I were meeting her, too. I was there. On the school bus. In the aisle. No seats. Too many eyes. Made me squirm so much, I could smell it.

My next project is in a messy first-draft stage. Between this work-in-progress and Brotherhood lies a whole other novel that will never see publication. Once Viking bought Brotherhood and that manuscript was making its way through the production process toward a September 2013 release, I finished a contemporary middle-grade novel with fantasy elements, showed it to my agent, and got a reaction from her that I’ll just call… tepid. Hard to hear, but yeah… she was right. I’ve shelved that one, and it’s too early to say much about my new one, as I’m still getting to know these characters, but I’ll say this: they’re at summer music camp.

As for taking a year to complete a novel then shelve it, well… I see it as part of my process. Sure, it’s great when people tell us our work is awesome, but I respect my agent for telling me mine wasn’t, and for sending me back to work. Writing is hard! For me, the hardest part is digging deeply for emotional truths. It’s draining. But emotional truths are the places where readers connect with a character or story. Wanna write? Gotta dig deep.

Last month I read Wonder Show, and today I’m tagging the author, Hannah Barnaby, to post next on this World Tour Blog. I fell in love with Hannah’s language. Set in 1939, the story emerges in three parts, and the setting for Part Two is a traveling circus. Fun stuff. (And some disturbing stuff about the ways people with “medical oddities” had no place to go at that time— no place to belong—except perhaps in a circus or traveling show.) Here are some of my favorite lines from the novel:

All of them would remember… the story starring Mister and his mysterious house, and they would shiver like dry leaves.

Promises are easily made—we toss them like coins bound for a fountain and leave them there, under the water, waiting to be retrieved.

One of them smiled. The other ducked her head so that her long yellow hair draped her face like water closing around a stone in a riverbed.

The air coated everyone like an extra skin.

And that’s only a few of the delicious sentences in Wonder Show. Between them unfolds a story like no other. If you haven’t read it yet, well, the paperback just came out. No excuses.

If you’re in Virginia this coming Thursday, Oct. 17, you can meet some of the authors whose books you’re reading. Fifteen—count ’em—15 authors of books for young readers will be signing books at Richmond Public Library, 101 East Franklin Street, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. during TEEN ’13 (check out the Facebook Event page here), one of many programs celebrating ALA’s Teen Read Week and the Virginia Literary Festival. Hannah Barnaby and I will both be there, and if you miss us then, you can find the two of us on a panel together at SCBWI-Mid-Atlantic’s annual conference on Saturday, Oct. 26. In between those two events, I’m speaking at the James River Writers conference, Oct. 19-20 in Richmond, VA. More authors, more awesome books begging to be read. I’m on it…

Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

Novelist Elmore Leonard passed away this month, leaving behind forty-some books and his “Ten Rules of Writing.” I agree with every one of his rules (if you disagree, leave a comment, and we’ll chat), and have printed them below. My favorite is his tenth, a tip I heard years ago: try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Yes, Elmore! Thank you.

But first, a caveat about Leonard’s rules: they apply to the polishing stage, not the drafting stage. While we’re working on a first draft, we should break these rules with abandon.

When I was young, I didn’t appreciate the vast difference between first drafts and finished manuscripts. If my high school teachers understood writing as process, they didn’t let me in on it. They gave me writing assignments, and I gave them finished pieces. Period. Some were decent, and some not, and along the way, I figured I’d never make it as a writer because my stories didn’t measure up to my standards. As crazy as this sounds to me now, I used to think people were either born to write or they weren’t, and I wasn’t.

Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer

Now I know that writing can be taught. In a blog post this month, author Marion Dane Bauer refutes the old truism that “you can’t teach writing.” You can! Over the past decade, I’ve learned a ton from awesome teachers who are also writers of fiction. One difference between an MA program in literature and an MFA in writing is that in addition to critiquing fiction, MFA students must write it.

Many of today’s teachers get that writing is a process, and they’ll often ask to see a first draft. Later they’ll request a revised version, and some time after that, a finished story or essay. This is a good thing. When you let a piece of writing rest, your brain keeps working on it. What appears brilliant one day might sound awful a week later. Words you thought perfect, you later recognize as downright wrong (I used to confuse ambivalent and ambiguous, and rarely caught the misuse in a first draft). But no problem, right? We have computers. The problem comes when writers think they don’t have the time or fortitude to handle the revisions.

So I give you Leonard’s ten rules, but if you’re currently in the process of drafting new scenes, you should stop reading right now. Come back when you’re ready for the revision stage.

I found this version of Leonard’s rules on the website of St. Louis TV station KSDK. Leonard elaborates a little on each rule, so click here to read more. Happy writing, y’all…

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

IN SUMMARY: “If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.”

In Search of Perfect Sentences

Through the Osher Institute at the University of Richmond, from time to time my friend, Jan, teaches a class called “In Search of the Perfect Sentence.” Isn’t that just the best title?! I spend nearly as many hours reading as I spend writing, and often when I encounter a gem of a sentence or paragraph, I’ll pause to savor the words. Some stun me with their beauty or mesmerize me with their cadence, or just plain make me smile. And always, these writers challenge me to dig deeper to hone my craft.

From character-driven plots to organic settings and realistic dialogue, good books take so long to write that, come on, isn’t it nice when someone notices the effort? Here are a few of the awesome efforts that have recently kept me turning pages. In some cases, I’ve paused to read lines out loud. Try it. Try reading your own writing out loud. Does it flow? Will a reader pause and marvel at your word choice? Your phrasing? Your voice?

From Justin Torres‘ 2011We the Animals debut, We the Animals, which sings with a cadence all its own: “We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

 

From Sheila Turnage‘sThree Times Lucky Three Times Lucky, in which the language is real and funny and compelling: “Already I didn’t like him. Didn’t like the starch in his shirt, or the crease in his pants. Didn’t like the hook of his nose, or the plane of his cheekbones. Didn’t like the skinny of his hips, or the shine of his shoes. Mostly, I didn’t like the way he didn’t smile.”

 

From Virginia Pye‘s debut,River of Dust River of Dustjust out from Unbridled Books, in which the beautiful ending still haunts me: “As she continued to study him, a humming began in her head: a slight bothersome background murmur that was not altogether a noise but could grow to become one if she was not careful.”

 

From Robert Goolrick‘s debut, End of the Worlda memoir, The End of the World as We Know It, in which he plays with phrases in a most delicious way: “Now people wiped away tears when they imagined her sitting there again, so witty and pretty and chic, the way she had been before it all, or not before it all, but before it all got out of hand.”

 

From Louise Hawes‘ retellings Black Pearlsof fairy tales, Black Pearls: A Faerie Strand, in which classic characters from Rapunzel to Sleeping Beauty—characters we’ve taken for granted and thought we already knew—reemerge with cunning and complexity: “Yet clear as a stone dropped in a still pond, loud as the call of geese across the sky, I heard the music of my own heart. It played a stream burbling in the shade of apple trees, and the warm, solid thrum of waking bees.”

 

From Cori McCarthy‘s Color of Raindebut, The Color of Rain, in which she crafts the dystopian setting so organically that it’s oh-so-easy to suspend disbelief: “High above us, silver starships hang in invisible parking spots like stars lured too close to earth. Some are as large as skyscrapers while others are only big enough for a captain and crew, but they all gleam with blue light, the pulsing proof of their mighty engines… Engines that run the Void and weave between the stars. I’ve always been drawn to that blue…”

 

I’ve always been drawn to words and stories so perfectly crafted that the room I’m sitting in—or the airport or the screen porch or the treehouse—falls away and the literary magic transports me to another place. Ah, the encounter with perfect sentences…