Tag Archives: MFA

Writing about cancer: talking craft with Dean Gloster

This month, after devouring Dean Gloster‘s debut YA novel Dessert First, I just had to track down the author and hear a bit about the story behind the story. How did he come to write this poignant novel? Lucky for me, Dean is currently studying in the MFA program at my alma mater, Vermont College of Fine Arts, so I found him there, and he made time in between MFA assignments to talk craft.

A.B. Westrick: Hello, Dean, and welcome to my blog!

Dean Gloster: Thank you for having me!

ABW: I want to start with a question about the funny-sarcastic parts of this book, but first I need to tell readers a bit about the story because a whole lot of the book really isn’t funny at all. From the title and cover art, readers might think the book includes a few recipes, but… no. Dessert First is the story of 16-year old Kat Monroe and the many issues in her life, beginning with her brother’s cancer relapse (leukemia), and including soccer girl bullies, a former boyfriend, and academic woes. Life is pretty rough, but Kat tries to keep up her sarcastic-funny side. So my first question is where this character and her sense of humor came from. Your bio says you’ve done stand-up comedy. Is it easy for you to write one-liners? Do teen characters bring out a natural snarkiness in you?

DG: Humor does come naturally to me and Kat’s voice came easily, in part because I channeled 16-year-old me. (Back then, I also had anger that came out as sarcasm, and that did not serve me well with peers.) Read More

What’s an “objective correlative,” huh?

 

 

The other day while reading Raymie Nightengale by Kate DiCamillo, I hit a passage that from a craft of writing perspective was so good—so well written—it stopped me cold. I marveled at the technique, and knew in an instant I’d have to blog about it. So here we go. See what you notice in this excerpt from pages 5-6. We’re in the point of view of a young girl named Raymie who’s in a baton-twirling class with a teacher named Ida Nee. Standing next to Raymie is a girl who says…

 

     “My name is Beverly Tapinski and my father is a cop, so I don’t think that you should mess with me.”
     Raymie, for one, had no intention of messing with her.
     “I’ve seen a lot of people faint,” said Beverly now. “That’s what happens when you’re the daughter of a cop. You see everything. You see it all.”
     “Shut up, Tapinski,” said Ida Nee.
     The sun was very high in the sky.
     It hadn’t moved.
     It seemed like someone had stuck it up there and then walked away and left it.

Oh, my gosh. Stop. Isn’t that great? (Or do you think I’m crazy?) Notice what DiCamillo does. Or what she does not do. She does not follow Ida Nee’s rebuke with Raymie’s opinion about Ida Nee. She does not tell us Raymie’s feelings. Instead, she describes what Raymie looks at.

As a reader, what do you feel?

How do you think Raymie feels?

The brilliance of this passage is the way DiCamillo trusts the reader to get it. Read More

Write with wonder

Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma

In a July 2016 article in Toronto’s Metro News, writer Richard Crouse recounts a joke told by world-class cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a new documentary called The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble:

A little boy says to his father, “When I grow up I want to be a musician.”
“Sorry son,” the father replies, “you can’t do both.”

Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty mentor Jane Kurtz retold this joke during her January 2017 lecture, and lucky for me, I was on campus to hear it! For eleven days I worked as a Graduate Assistant, attending the lectures in exchange for helping make the residency run smoothly. I had a blast. Now back home, I’m digging deeply into characters’ emotions and trying to tap into more of my childhood experiences—into both a sense of wonder as well as uncertainty and disappointment. Growing up wasn’t easy. Would you want to have to grow up again? I wouldn’t. Read More

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

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. Continue reading

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.

Point of View

This month I’ve been drafting chapters with points of view (POV) that alternate between characters. This is a challenge to write. And a joy! And a frustration. Each day when I sit to work on a scene, I re-read my notes on that day’s POV character’s musings and backstory to get inside his head. Not only his head, but into his body. I get up and pace and try to imagine that I am he.

2 boysYes, he. I’m writing boy characters. One of these days I’ll force myself to wrestle with the reasons I find it so difficult to write girl characters. I probably need psychoanalysis to get at the root of it, and I’m not sure I’m up for that! In the meantime…

This alternating POV-business has great potential. It forces me to reveal only those things that the POV character knows. Not revealing other tidbits creates a sense of mystery. Switching points of view introduces dramatic irony; the reader learns facts from one character that another character doesn’t know.

I like this. And while I’m trying to remain patient, accepting that the rewriting will take a while, I admit that right now, the revisions feel endless! My tenses (present and past) are all over the pace, and I’ve shifted from first person to third and back again. It is one crazy process, lemme say. I’m not sure which points of view will survive the final edits, but for now I’m trying not to think about the later stages. Even though I’ve completed a first draft of the entire novel, this manuscript is still in an early stage.

If I hadn’t gone and gotten an MFA in writing a few years ago, at this point I might be tempted to shelve this draft and start something else. But one thing that the MFA taught me was that there are no shortcuts. At least, when it comes to my process, there aren’t any. Voice and POV can make or break a novel. Here’s hoping my revisions will make this one work.

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

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.”

Voice and details

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron

My agent nixed the novel I finished drafting earlier this year, and it’s taken me a couple of months to process what’s wrong with it and how to fix it. I’ve been brainstorming new characters, a setting change, and a different plot direction, but it was while reading Tom Hanks’ recent obituary of Nora Ephron in Time Magazine that I stopped flailing for possible solutions and found my direction. Voice and details. That was the essence of what made Ephron’s writing so good. Okay, and she was really funny. But voice and details. That’s where I need to go.

What I find interesting about the critique-process is that readers can often tell when someone else’s writing isn’t working, but cannot always pinpoint exactly what’s wrong or why. Kudos to my agent for not providing direction other than telling me to try again. I’m guilty of giving writer-friends suggestions for ways to fix problems, and many times a critique-group buddy of mine (or a professor in the MFA program at Vermont College) has flagged a particular paragraph in my writing and offered suggestions–quick fixes. But often these sorts of suggestions don’t ring true because the problems run deeper than a sentence here or there. The take-away is that something isn’t working, and in my case, that something has a tendency to come down to voice and details.

If You Want to Write

When I’m enamored with plot, my characters tend toward the generic, toward derivations of characters the world of fiction has already seen. When I’m lost in the world of my characters, my plot suffers. So much must come together to make a novel work! In this case, I thought I’d crafted a pretty good plot, but the characters weren’t ready for prime time. In If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland wrote, “the more you wish to describe a Universal, the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular.” Voice and details. I’m headed back to my writing desk to dig deeper into my characters, listen for their voices, and let go of my plot. I need to let the characters drive the plot.

The writing process continues to humble me, and for that, I’m ever so grateful.