Tag Archives: process

My Struggle to Write Girl Characters

I’m a girl who struggles to write girl characters, so what’s the deal, huh? I’ve asked this question for a long time, sometimes touching on it in other blog posts. This month I’m hitting it head-on.

I suspect that when I was growing up, if someone had happened to talk about gender identity, I probably would have tuned in. But in my community, the topic didn’t surface, or if it did, I didn’t hear it. What I remember was this: I wished I’d been born a boy. Now looking back, I think my discomfort wasn’t so much a rejection of my physical body as it was a desire to reject the expectations society put on me because of my physical body.

This month in an effort to understand my writing woes, I’ve tried to channel the girl I was growing up. I remember family members and friends assuming I’d enjoy activities like cooking and shopping, and things like clothes and make-up. But I didn’t. I tried but couldn’t bring myself to care about that stuff. (Still don’t.)

Nether Providence Junior High Girls Basketball circa 1969By 6th grade I was taller than all the boys except three. In 7th grade I tried out for cheerleading and didn’t make it. Chorus and didn’t make it. Basketball and made second string. Or third. Somehow I ended up as team manager, which meant that before each game I’d cut up oranges and put them in clear plastic bags. During half time when the coach was doing a pep talk, I’d give out slices, and after the players had sucked on them, I’d collect the spit-filled rinds. (Sports drinks might’ve been invented by then, but they weren’t a thing.) Back then, I could run fast, but was lousy at basketball.

The school dress code was skirts, which I hated. When it changed and I was finally allowed to wear pants—dress pants or a pants suit, but hey, at least it was pants—some of my self-consciousness started to melt away. I didn’t have to make sure my knees were always together, like in that b-ball team picture. (Can you find me?)

Back then, girls weren’t supposed to be good at math. But I remember mid-year getting moved from one math class to another, and it turned out that the new class was a few chapters ahead of the old. The teacher told me to get up to speed on my own and come see him if I had questions, and I don’t remember how I caught up, but I did. From then on I latched onto math because, well, clearly, I could do it, unlike basketball and chorus and whatever else I’d tried. But career choices seemed limited. Forget accountant or actuary or astronaut or engineer or financial expert, which my brother (also quick at math) was encouraged to consider. Along the way, the message I got—I’m not sure exactly where it came from, but I got it—was that girls who were good at math should teach school (boys would handle the other jobs).

Having a girl’s body meant a thousand mixed-messages. I was built like a girl but approached the world “like a boy,” meaning I was competitive (a positive trait in a boy, but I was called pushy), a leader (bossy), and smart (“you’ll never get a date if you let them know you’re smarter than they are”). I absorbed so many stereotypes about what girls were supposed to be (wives and mothers) and do (smile and act ladylike) that years later, as I’ve tried to write girl characters, I’ve written stereotypes.

When I attempt to go inside the heart of a girl and imagine what she feels or wants, I can’t do it. She isn’t real. Instead of a person, for me a girl is an idea—an image someone else thinks is the ideal, like a Stepford Wife. I haven’t liked most of my girl characters. And for many years, I didn’t like myself.

On the other hand, when I go inside the heart of a boy character, I feel free. He can do anything and be anyone. Inside him, I’m at home. I feel relaxed. Alive. Not contrived. As I write scenes, my boy characters speak or act in authentic ways, not how they should act because they’re boys, but ways that seem real just because they’re people—they’re kids at particular ages in particular places, dealing with whatever is going on around them. The story begins to come to life instead of falling flat.

This month as I’ve pushed myself to write on this topic, I’ve felt good about my decision to publish as A.B. instead of Anne. I’ve started to understand how and why I came to dislike myself, and how and why it’s taken me decades to heal from self-condemnation. I still have a ways to go. And I have many more characters to write.

When it comes to crafting fiction, each of us has different challenges, and I’d enjoy hearing what others are struggling with. (And where am I in that basketball team photo? Second row, second from left.)

Winter-writing Summer Scenes

In the two novels I’ve drafted over the past three years, one protagonist is in a place where he doesn’t belong, and the other lives where he very much belongs, but the neighborhood is crumbling around him and he’s powerless to stop it, and neither setting is one I’ve experienced directly.

crepe myrtle in snowBoth stories take place during summer months, but where am I writing? Seated beside a space heater in a book-cluttered office, looking out at the wind-whipped snow. On the January morning I’m drafting this piece, local schools have posted a two-hour delay (a typical response to snow in Richmond, VA; I suppose the thinking is that commuter cars will thaw the ice before children venture out), but in the fictional worlds of my two drafts, my characters are dashing through July thunderstorms.

Continue reading

Dig Deeply for Truth

Sara Lewis Holmes.Wolf HourLast week I heard author Sara Lewis Holmes talk about school visits, then wondered what I would tell students about the story beneath the novel I’m currently writing. If this book ever gets published, what items might I bring with me when I visit a classroom? What images might I project on a screen? What is my truth behind the characters, setting, and interactions on these pages?

Now, of course it’s crazy to think about school visits before getting a contract on a manuscript, but what I’m really doing at this stage in my process is asking why I’m telling this particular story. Why does it matter to me? Why does my heart break for this protagonist? Why do I care? Continue reading

Eat Your Vegetables: Write a Synopsis

Stuff I Hate to DoWriting a synopsis sits high on my Stuff I Hate To Do list. It’s up there with writing blurbs for book jackets. Bleh. Ask me to craft a scene that draws a reader in, that sets you on the edge of your chair, that makes you feel something, and I’m in. Love the challenge. But don’t ask me to narrow a plot down to the basics and spoil the ending.

Synopses are spoilers. Nobody wants a spoiler, right?

Wrong. Agents want them. Editors want them. All the publishing pros want them. A synopsis tells them who’s who and what’s going down and whether the protagonist manages to get what she wants, and how she thwarts the antagonist, and… yeah. You have to reveal all of it, including the neat twist you thought up for the ending. Spoil away. Continue reading

Writing Outside Your Culture (& Book Giveaway)

One Shadow on the WallWhat a wonderful new book for middle grade readers! Leah Henderson’s debut novel One Shadow on the Wall took me deep into a Senegalese village and the story of Mor, a boy who desperately wants to keep his family together. Even though the setting is foreign (at least, it is for American-born-and-bred-me), the plot is the stuff of human experience: the struggle to stand up to a bully, the desire to prove oneself and make a difference, the love of family and home. It’s such a heartwarming story, I had to catch up with the author for a blog interview!

I met Leah at the 2016 SCBWI Mid-Atlantic conference in northern Virginia, ran into her again at the AWP conference in D.C. in early 2017, and attended her book launch party on June 6th in Richmond where YA author Lamar Giles hosted an insightful Q&A. Too fun!

Now I have a signed copy of One Shadow on the Wall here in my hot little hands, ready to give away to a lucky reader.

A.B. Westrick: Leah, welcome to my blog!

Leah Henderson: Thank you so much for asking me to stop by.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson

One Shadow on the Wall

by Leah Henderson

Giveaway ends August 31, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

ABW: I’d love for you to share a bit about your journey to write this story. Let’s start with the unique setting, Senegal. You give readers a glimpse into the people and culture of this “land of teranga (hospitality).” I especially loved the way you wove foreign words into the narrative. Jërëjëf (thank you)! In your author’s note, you talk about your travels. Please say more! When did you first journey there, and why Senegal?

LH: I have an insatiable travel bug, and before writing the novel I had been to Senegal only a couple of times. It is a place with a rich history and it had always been on my “Pack a bag” list that is miles long! Read More

Believe your Story (Goodreads Giveaway: WIREWALKER)

WirewalkerMary Lou Hall‘s debut novel Wirewalker came out in September 2016, introducing YA readers to 14 year-old Clarence Feather, a boy with a big heart and some big problems. He earns pocket money running drugs while grieving his mother’s death and longing for another way to live. The story is beautifully written and hard to put down, and after reading it, I just had to interview Mary Lou for my blog.

But before we get to the interview, note the title of this post. It’s not “believe in your story,” but Believe your Story. Read on to get to the distinction Mary Lou makes.

And meanwhile, sign up for the book giveaway! I tracked Mary Lou down, got her signature on a hardcover, and am doing this giveaway through Goodreads. If you want to enter, check out the Goodreads Giveaways page. Free, no strings attached. Deadline: July 20, 2017.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome to my blog, Mary Lou! I really appreciate your taking time from your busy teaching schedule to tell me a bit about what inspired you to write this gripping YA drama.

Mary Lou Hall: Thanks for inviting me to your blog!

ABW: Let’s start with where Wirewalker came from. I’d love to hear what the spark was that lit your imagination and compelled you to write Clarence Feather’s story.

MLH: During late college and through graduate school, I waited tables and tended bar in a swanky, successful restaurant. While I was there, I became friends with a co-worker who was six years younger than I was. At that point in my life, the age gap seemed significant. He was barely old enough to legally work. To me, he seemed like the quintessential innocent kid encountering the so-called real world for the first time. I was wrong. Read More

Anne Blankman on emotional truth in historical fiction, & YA ARC giveaway

Today I want to sing the praises of Richmond, Virginia’s writing community! I’m fortunate to be surrounded by poets, novelists, journalists, and nonfiction geniuses. Just a few minutes away lives Anne Blankman, and last year when I visited, her daughter snapped this picture of us.

Anne is the author of three YA novels, all published by Balzer+Bray: Prisoner of Night and Fog, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (a sequel to the first), and Traitor Angels.

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

Anne Blankman: Thanks so much for having me!

ABW: Today I want to discuss your first novel, but before we jump in, I have to tell readers that I’ve got a giveaway here: an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of Traitor Angels, signed by you! Readers who leave a comment at the bottom of this post will be entered into a drawing for the ARC. The deadline to comment and have your name in the drawing is June 15, 2017.

Now let’s focus on Prisoner of Night and Fog. Set in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, it’s the story of 17 year-old Gretchen Müller, who adores Hitler and knows him as “Uncle Dolf.” When Gretchen learns that her father had been murdered, not martyred (as she’d been told), she sets out to find the truth. Read More

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

Try Something New

I don’t remember exactly when I met Erin Teagan, but I know it was through SCBWI‘s Mid-Atlantic chapter—either the annual fall conference or the novel revision retreat. It might’ve been as many as ten years ago, so in 2015 when I heard Erin’s debut novel had sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I did a happy dance!

The Friendship Experiment is a heart-felt middle-grade novel about a 6th grader who loves science and could use some help in the friendship department. It hit shelves in late 2016, and this month I caught up with Erin to ask about her writing process.

A.B. Westrick: Congratulations, Erin! And welcome to my blog.

Erin Teagan: Thank you, Anne!

ABW: I want to start by asking about you. Your bio says you’re a former research scientist. How much of you is present in your protagonist, Maddie, and how much of Maddie is pure fiction? Tell us a little about your process in crafting this delightful character.

ET: The idea of Maddie came to me when I was working for a biologics company and I took my mug to the dishwasher and found that a scientist had posted a very official and detailed standard operating procedure on how to use this everyday appliance. I immediately thought about this scientist’s life. Did he write SOPs and put them on his appliances at home? Did his kids have an SOP taped to their bathroom mirror to help them brush their teeth? This is how Maddie came to me. Read More