Tag Archives: revision

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

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Stocking Stuffer for Writers

The Halfway House for Writers is a book I’ll read again. And again. And again. Like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, this new gem by Valley Haggard is all about craft and process and perseverance and not beating yourself up. I found it so affirming, I couldn’t put it down. Well, no, that’s not quite true. I put it down so I could write. It made me want to write!

For two years I’ve had an idea for a personal essay, and half way through Halfway House, the essay came pouring out of me. Then I read some more. Then I wrote free hand, stream of consciousness. Then I read some more. I went back and forth between the book and writing, and it was a glorious, productive morning.

The title is deceiving. I think Halfway House will inspire artists of all kinds, not just writers. It nurtures the creative spirit. Valley’s approach is fresh and honest and real—a new wisdom for a new decade. Here are some excerpts:

Sitting on the Edge of the Pool

Push gently against your comfort zone—feel out the edge and then give the tiniest little push. You do not have to burst that bubble, to reveal all of yourself at once. You don’t have to smear the guts of your insides all over your outsides the very first time you sit down to write.

I think of easing into the writing process as putting one toe into the shallow end of the pool and then getting your ankles wet and then your thighs, rather than belly flopping off the high dive—although you can try that, too. The only goal is to end up in the pool eventually, allowing yourself to be bathed and baptized in the full experience of water.

Experiment

It’s a good practice to experiment with the tools of tense and point of view. They can help change the atmosphere, mood and direction of the story you’re telling. Try telling the story from the perspective of one of the characters you are writing about… Can you write memories from your childhood as if you were once again a child? Even a subtle change in perspective and point of view can create big changes in how you see—and write—your own stories.

Valley Haggard

Valley Haggard

This little book is like a cornucopia—a container so small that the abundance of insight comes spilling out and fills you with gratitude and you whisper, “Thank you.”

The creative process is what it is—a process. And if you’re like me, sometimes you spin your wheels questioning yourself, thinking your work is awful. This book reminds me that my process isn’t stupid or wrong; it’s simply my process, inefficient as it is, and I’m not the only writer with such a messy way of doing things. Thank you, Valley, for giving me permission to belly flop off the high dive and play with tense and point of view and most of all, to stop being so hard on myself.

My children haven’t become writers, but they’re über-creative and this year I’m stuffing their stockings with this book. (Jane—sshhh, I know you’re the only one of the kids who reads my blog; don’t tell the others.)

You can find the book at lifein10minutes.com.

Beta Readers Rock

Over this past summer, friends gave me these comments on the draft of a new YA novel:

Jane Westrick, Untitled (detail), 2007

“I’m confused here. Are the characters sitting? Standing? Walking?”
“What is his motivation for doing this?”
“I don’t understand whether he sees his father as a hard-ass or a nurturing figure.”
“I can’t quite picture this character.”

These and other comments were unbelievably helpful! In some cases, I had quick fixes. A sentence here, a paragraph there. In others, I had to step back and rethink a scene or remind myself of the character’s motivation for doing what he did. But before friends called my attention to these spots, I didn’t perceive the problems.

Beta-reader-feedback is huge because authors totally fail at identifying all the places that aren’t working. Places where we “tell” instead of “show.” Places where we’re too abrupt. Or too wordy. Or use a metaphor that doesn’t work. Or whatever. These are the places that pull readers out of a story, and that need additional time, focus, and polish.

Last year I made the mistake of showing my agent a draft before it was ready, and this year I’m learning to be patient. The very act of circulating a draft requires tons of patience! I have to let go of my manuscript for months at a time, and the letting-go drives me crazy. Of course, I can work on a new story while a draft is out, and I can turn to projects people have paid me to focus on. But I have to admit that when one of my drafts is circulating, it feels as if my heart is circulating, too.

Agent Ted Weinstein

Agent Ted Weinstein

You’ve heard this adage before, and it’s worth hearing again, so here it is in the words of literary agent Ted Weinstein (not my agent, by the way; I just enjoyed reading this article in Writer’s Digest): There are no shortcuts and there is no substitute for doing the hard work of writing and revising and revising again.

Getting and responding to early-reader feedback is essential, and today I want to say, thank you.

Thank you to all of my early readers. Thank you to all the writers who participate in critique groups and take the time to read and encourage friends to polish their manuscripts before submitting to an agent or editor. It takes forever, I know! But the process is essential. And if you’re like me, you’re engaged in this writing gig for the sake of the process, anyway, right? (Okay, so there are other reasons, too, but process is big.) Polishing can make the difference between publication and not. Getting (and giving) beta-reader feedback is worth the time.

 

P.S. – A huge thank you to visual artist (and daughter) Jane Westrick for permission to include her art in this post.

Jane Westrick, Untitled, 37 in x 32 in, oil on canvas, 2007

So This is Voice

 

 

I’m big on beginning novels in media res (in the middle of things), meaning jumping into a scene before explaining who’s who or what’s what, no back-story.

But if you insist on starting with a character who talks to the reader, do it well. Make it fresh. Aspire to do it the way Lamar Giles does in Endangered. He’s mastered this sort of opening. Here are some of the lines in his first chapter:

 

 

      I’ve haunted my school for the last three years.
      I’m not a real ghost; this isn’t one of  those stories. At Portside High I’m a Hall Ghost. A person who’s there, but isn’t…
      Jocks don’t bump into me, and mean girls don’t tease me, and teachers don’t call on me because I don’t want them to. Hiding in plain sight is a skill, one I’ve honed. My best friend, Ocie, calls me a Jedi ninja, which is maybe a mixed metaphor and redundant. But it’s also kind of true…
      We’re all something we don’t know we are…
     

      My target is stationary, in a parked car, one hundred yards away. A quick lens adjustment turns her face from fuzzy to sharp despite the darkness. An easy shot. Which I take.
      Keachin Myer’s head snaps forward, whiplash quick.
      I shoot again.
      Her head snaps back this time, she’s laughing so hard. Odd, I was under the impression the soulless skank had no sense of humor…
      I rub my tired eyes, and switch my Nikon D800 to display mode… Keachin—rendered in stark monochrome thanks to the night-vision adaptor fitted between my lens and my camera’s body—belly-laughing at whatever joke the current guy trying to get in her pants is telling. Basically, Keachin being what everyone in Portside knows she is. Rich, spoiled, and popular. Nothing the world hasn’t already gleaned about this girl. Nothing real.
      I intend to fix that. If she ever gives me something good.
      Keachin Myer is as clueless about what she is as anyone else. And being unfortunately named is not the part she’s unaware of. If you let her tell it, her parents strapped her with such an ugly handle because, well, she couldn’t be perfect, right?

 

Maybe a mixed metaphor and redundant… An ugly handle. This is smart writing—tight, engaging, real. And I’m thrilled that the author is here to share his process in crafting such a compelling voice.

Lamar Giles burst onto the YA fiction scene last year with Fake ID, a finalist for the Edgar Award. He’s a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and now has multiple contracts with HarperCollins and Scholastic for forthcoming books. The guy is so busy writing, he couldn’t do this interview when I first asked. I had to wait a few months.

A.B. Westrick: Lamar, welcome! And thank you for taking time away from fiction-writing to tell us a little about your process. I read Endangered in two days—it’s the classic can’t-put-it-down.

Lamar Giles: Thank you for having me! I’m glad you found ENDANGERED unputdownable.

ABW: So let’s start with that voice. Would you talk a little about where it came from? What was your inspiration for this character, who goes by Lauren… or Panda… or Gray, depending on circumstances? 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!

Author Wendy Wan-Long Shang Talks Craft

What a joy to feature Wendy Wan-Long Shang on my blog today! Wendy is the author of the award-winning novel The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, and tomorrow (April 28th) her second book for young readers, The Way Home Looks Now, comes out from Scholastic. Welcome, Wendy!

A.B. Westrick: This is a fabulous book—not only beautifully written, but so compelling. At times it’s sad, at other times funny, and more than once surprising (but no spoilers here!). Let’s talk about the beginning. I’m interested in the way you chose to start the story, or as I like to think of it, the place where you invite readers to enter in.

We meet the protagonist, Peter Lee, as he arrives home to find something very wrong with his mother, but it’s a wrongness he’s come to expect. Readers don’t understand at first, and we’re curious, and by the end of chapter three, we get it: there’s been a death in the family. My question for you is this: was this opening always your opening? How did you come to settle on this particular scene for chapter one?

Wendy Wan-Long Shang: I had to go to my drafts folder for this one, and I’m so glad you asked because I had forgotten about some of my early drafts until now. In my earliest attempt, I tried to work completely chronologically, so that the death happens in “real time.” What I discovered, though, was that I wasn’t getting quickly enough to the heart of what I wanted to talk about—how Peter’s relationship with his father changes.

In Chapter One, Peter and his sister are locked out of the house, even though his mother is inside. I developed this opening because I wanted it to serve as a sketch of Peter’s situationhe is literally shut out of his mother’s life, and he wants very much to re-connect with her, while at the same time wanting to protect his sister from getting hurt. Continue reading

Write Me a Bed of Lilies

We live in a 45 year-old house just beyond the county utility lines, so we’ve got a septic tank out back, and a few months ago, the system collapsed. Here’s a December 2014 shot of guys repairing the drain fields. In the process, they plowed through a bed of lilies—one I’d planted in 1990 with ten bulbs or so. Over the years, those lilies multiplied a hundred fold, but the only photo I could find was one with our golden retriever, taken when the dogwood and red bud were in bloom (two months before the lilies opened). By June when the lilies blossomed, they’d stretch so tall they’d dwarf the dog, and she’d nap smack-dab in the middle of them.

In December when the guys filled in the trenches, well… let’s just say that this spring our yard is coming up lilies. Over the past few weeks, I’ve moved a bunch out of the lawnmower’s path, and although I keep watching for more to sprout through the mud, it might be that at this point, I’ve found all that are destined to survive.

I considered returning the survivors to the 1990 location, but when I realized that I could put them wherever I wanted, I got excited. I can change the landscape if I want to. Yes! I can change.

As I began to draft this blog post, it hit me that progress on my manuscript feels a lot like moving lilies. I’m landscaping a story. I’ve taken a bulldozer to many chapters, overhauling some, burying others. A few gems—a phrase here, a paragraph there—stuck in otherwise muddy scenes have managed to sprout, getting my attention by waving little green shoots in the slanted spring sunlight, and I’ve resurrected them, leaving the mud behind.

Soon we’ll spread topsoil and reseed the backyard, and by next year we’ll have forgotten the scattered lilies that failed to surface. Soon the revised novel will be ready for comments from trusted readers, and they’ll never encounter the story’s early but unnecessary characters, its deleted scenes, its buried bulbs. The new landscape will feature only the strongest bits, the most compelling.

Of course, the possibility for change existed before the backhoe destroyed the lily bed, but change doesn’t come easy. A complete overhaul is a lot of work. It’s hard to envision… hard to require that much from a landscaper, or from yourself. The lilies bloomed each year. The story moved along, and I thought it would work with four alternating points of view.

But once I stood back and mulled over the whole yard, I decided to plant the lilies in a new location. In the novel, I’ve deleted two points of view and re-envisioned the emotional arc for the two main characters that remain. If the new version flourishes in the way I hope the relocated lily bed will, perhaps it will captivate readers and their numbers will multiply a hundred fold, and every June when bees and butterflies swarm around our yellow-orange blossoms, I will smile.

Ahhhh… the dreams of a writer emerging from a particularly cold winter…

 

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.