Tag Archives: revision

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?

LG: I had a couple of things in mind as I refined her voice. As we know, writing is re-writing, and some of the best, most-nuanced stuff tends to come out in the 2nd or 3rd drafts for me. While doing those drafts, I reminded myself that Panda/Gray believes she is doing good, and she does not know that she’s wrong. That helped me craft a more haughty voice that is at times indignant. That mindset allowed for some very specific things in the passages you quoted. I wanted to romanticize what is, essentially, an extremely creepy peeping tom/stalker exercise. I wanted the reader to co-sign on this massive invasion of privacy. By alluding to popular supernatural tales (“I’ve haunted my school…”) and revered pop culture imagery (Jedi Ninja), I’m working to get readers on board, so they too are romanticizing with her. But I couldn’t have gotten there without that simple thesis…SHE doesn’t know better.

In terms of inspiration, Panda came from another story I was working on (and may return to in the near future). It was an urban fantasy, and she was a supporting character. The story wasn’t working, and when my agent (who is an awesome friend and collaborator) read it, she immediately keyed on Panda because of the backstory of her nickname, and asked “Can you do anything with her?”

It was an interesting challenge because her character probably took up a total of only 10 pages in a 300+ page manuscript. She was a yearbook photographer, so I decided photography should remain a part of the story, but how? The breakthrough came when I recalled an experience I had with a photographer years ago. I was getting some head shots for my website. During the shoot, the photographer mentioned his former occupation: Army Sniper. I asked what made him go into photography after such a career, and he said, “The skills are transferrable.”

Whoa!

I can’t always explain how I get to my final writing product, but Panda’s one I can summarize neatly: she’s a sniper without a rifle.

ABW: Whoa is right. I could feel the sniper element in her scenes, and now I get where it comes from. Excellent.

Now tell me about confidence. On page 85, Panda says, “Really, the key is confidence… Be bold. Belong.” Nice. On every page in Endangered, not only do I feel Panda’s confidence, but I feel your confidence as a writer, which is another way of saying that as a reader, I sense I’m in the hands of a master storyteller. So tell me—where does that confidence come from? Tentative writing doesn’t hook readers, but yours does. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who need a bit of that confidence?

LG:  You wanna know the truth? I rarely feel confident when I’m writing a first draft.

ABW: No way! You totally fooled me.

LG: Yes, really. There inevitably comes a point—usually in the middle—where I’m like, “THIS. IS. STUPID!” Or boring, or trite. I gain confidence from knowing the world will never see that draft. More confidence comes when my trusted readers tell me what parts are actually stupid, boring, and trite (not in those terms, my reader/colleagues are much more tactful) so I know what to fix.

Each subsequent draft builds confidence. So my message is revise your ass off. You should feel fairly confident once you’re sick of reading your own story. Notice I said fairly, though. If you don’t feel totally confident at the end of your revision process, it’s not necessarily a bad sign. As Panda alludes to, you must at least act like you belong. And if you can persevere through multiple drafts, then allow your work into the world, you’re not really acting at all.

ABW: Yes, persevering. That is huge.

Now, a recurring sentence in Endangered is this: “We’re all something we don’t know we are.” Oooohhh—I love that line. At what point in drafting Endangered did that line emerge as significant? I guess I’m assuming it emerged, but maybe it was there from the very beginning. Tell us about it, and about your decision to have the character repeat it a few times.

LG: Actually, that line was there from the start. In an early draft it was the FIRST line of the novel. I always knew I was dealing with a character who was not as observant as she wanted to believe. I repeated the line to press home the irony of Panda’s situation; this person, who’s made a sport of observing deplorable behavior from a distance, can not see the flaws in herself.  Each time it comes up, Panda’s inching closer to valuable (albeit painful) introspection, culminating with ultimate introspection when the story concludes. That line is my thesis statement, so to speak, and it guided character, story, and voice the entire time I was working on Endangered.

ABW: Well done. Panda’s voice is genuine (perhaps that’s the essence of voice—the honesty) and she’s funny precisely at times when the reader needs a break from the tension. For example, on page 108, Panda narrates: “I wonder if the Portside PD is made up entirely of men who look like fire hydrants. The new cop has two shades of walrus whiskers—gray and grayer.” Hahaha, So tell us—is there a little bit of Lamar inside this character named Panda? Is this your sense of humor? Where do you get your laugh lines?

LG: Yes, there’s a bit of humor in me that comes from a combination of being shy/awkward growing up, and discovering that if I said something funny when I felt most awkward, it made socializing a bit easier. There was some painful trial and error involved here, particularly during high school, when I hadn’t quite learned to filter, and wasn’t great at judging the most appropriate times to crack a joke. Frankly, I learned that too many jokes, or badly timed jokes, rubbed people the wrong way. No one wants to go to a 24/7 Kevin Hart show.

However, the humor reflex is extremely useful when I’m in a room by myself staring at a blank page. I can take months to consider the value of a setup and punchline, then get a ton of feedback on what works and what doesn’t. I feel like there’s a recurring theme in all of my answers now. Revise. Revise. Revise. Make every line fight for its life. If doesn’t do what was intended, it’s gotta go. It’s not dissimilar to what stand up comedians do when trying new material: test it with a small crowd and make sure everyone’s laughing before selling tickets to the arena.

ABW: Making every line fight for its life—that is key. No wonder your books read so well.

While I’ve wanted to focus on voice in this interview, I just have to ask about Panda driving into that hurricane. How much of that scene was your imagination, and how much did you have to research in order to nail that scene? In general, how much research did this novel require?

LG: For the hurricane scene I didn’t do any research. Growing up in Virginia, and living in Hampton Roads for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen some rough storms come through. Mostly, there’s warning, and we’ve ridden the worst ones out at home. But I’ve been caught driving when a sudden, powerful storm hit, and know all too well how scary it is to pull over and wait because your wipers can’t keep up with intense downpour, and the wind’s bouncing your car’s suspension. So, Panda and Ocie’s excursion is probably more an amalgam memory than fiction.

Other parts of the book did require research: the photography stuff (special thanks to one of the best wildlife photographers in the world, C.S. Ling, for being so generous with her time and answering my questions there), and Panda’s use of social engineering and infiltration to get close to people and inside buildings.

There’s a book called Access all Areas: A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration by a writer/urban explorer named Ninjalicious (this is not a joke) that I found particularly helpful. For those who don’t know about urban explorers, they are people who explore cities the way a spelunker might explore caves. It involves going inside deserted buildings, or, in some cases, buildings that are in use, and exploring the lesser known areas. Basements. Ventilation. I’ve heard mention of explorers finding rooms with no doors or windows that can only be accessed through a vent, which is weird, and makes me want to write a story just about THAT. Most urban explorers do this with the intent of never disturbing the sites. They’re not vandals, and they don’t steal (though this hobby is still illegal for obvious reasons, not to mention dangerous…think of stumbling around in the dark and not noticing the empty elevator shaft you’re walking toward).

Anyhow, it occurred to me that Panda would find such skills useful, so I brushed up. I guess the next question would be: have I ever tried any of the urban explore stuff I wrote about? I’ll never tell.

ABW: Hahaha. I think we could go on for hours, but we should wrap this up. Do you have any other thoughts for writers who want to nail that sense of voice in their manuscripts?

LG: Consider the direction in which your character’s moral compass is pointing, and decide if they’re being honest with themselves and others about it. That will guide much of the decision-making about how they speak and interact with the world around them.

Also, if it comes down to over- or under-explaining something, go under. You’ll be amazed how powerful a few key lines can be in distinguishing your character’s voice from all the others out there.

ABW: Well said. Thank you so much, Lamar, for your insights here, for taking time away from writing fiction in order to do this interview, and for writing such great books. I’m looking forward to reading your next release!

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.

ABW: Nice. In the book, I really liked the way you showed his concern for both his sister and his mom. Early-on, I thought the book would be about grief, and while that theme is certainly a significant element, this story isn’t really about grief. It’s about baseball!

You reference baseball wisdom in almost every chapter, and it adds tremendous depth to the story. Can you talk a little about your decision to write a baseball book? Which came first for you—the baseball or the death in the family? Or let me ask it this way: what did you set out to write when you began this book, and how close is this final version to your early imaginings?

WendyShangWWS: Baseball definitely came first. I was inspired by an incident that happened when my father was coaching my brother’s baseball team, and I’d always wanted to write about it. In my mind the beginning of the book was about this incident; but of course, during the writing process, the truth came out. What I really wanted to write about was how this event changed my perception of my father.

ABW: Well, my perception of the father character completely changed in the course of reading the book. Well done! Much of this story is about relationships (within families and between friends and teammates), with a significant focus on father-son expectations. Where do you get your insights into family dynamics? How much comes from your own childhood? From your current family?

WWS: I am fascinated by father-son relationships, having two sons of my own and being a witness to many relationships around me. It seems like there are many intense feelings, but not always so many ways of communicating them. Even though the book is written from Peter’s point of view, I had a very clear idea of what Peter’s dad was trying to accomplish in every scene, even if Peter wasn’t aware of it.

ABW: You’ve nailed the dialogue, and I wonder what advice you might offer for aspiring writers who struggle to make their characters’ interactions ring true?

WWS: My advice to young writers (that I myself still struggle to follow) is to remember the dialogue belongs first to the character and then to the story. Be wary of having your character speak only for the purpose of advancing the story, if it does not serve the character’s own desire and personality.

ABW: I’m also wondering if your process is anything like mine: I tend to write lots of scenes that never make it into the finished story. What about you? What scenes were the earliest that you wrote, and did those early scenes make it into the finished book, or fall away during the revision process?

WWS: I think of myself as a writer who usually doesn’t cut a lot of scenes. When I’m working with my editor, Lisa Sandell, she usually asks me to add scenes. However, looking at my earliest draft, scenes were definitely cut! Here’s a little scene that, again, I had completely forgotten about (and, as a fellow baseball fan, I thought you’d appreciate!), where Peter shows his love of baseball by writing a poem about baseball for school.

      “I’ve titled it, Pitcher.” I cleared my throat.
                   I think that I shall never see
                   A call as beautiful as
                   STRIKE THREE!
      I waited for a beat. No one laughed. Rats.
      “Whaddya think?” I grinned, overly large.
      Mom smiled at me. “It’s like that tree poem, isn’t it? By Joyce Kilmer?”
      “Well, yeah, except it’s not about trees.” This was not the direction I wanted this discussion to go in: poetry analysis.
      “You could make it about birds,” said Elaine. I didn’t say anything, but I thought, yeah, if you’re a bird brain.
      “It’s pretty good, Peter. Though you might want to make it longer, you know, if you want to make sure you want a good grade,” said Nelson.
      I thought a minute. “How about, And nothing makes me so depressed, as a fast ball hit with zest.”
      This got me some smiles.
      “Or…a home run hit due…west,” said Mom.
      “A ball struck by a big pest,” said Elaine, pointing her finger in the air.
      “A line drive made well-addressed,” said Nelson, like a baseball announcer.
      “This boy with baseball is obsessed,” said Mom, wiping her eyes. “And he’s infecting all of us.” 

ABW: I do love baseball, and I love this scene! Sorry that you had to cut it, but at the same time, I think it’s helpful for readers to see that sometimes even really good (and entertaining) scenes do get cut. This is great.

Let’s talk some more about revision. How many drafts did you write before you showed the manuscript to your agent or editor, and once Scholastic bought it, did your editor want significant revisions? All in all, how long did it take to write The Way Home Looks Now?

WWS: Judging from the date stamp on my earliest draft, it took me about two years to write The Way Home Looks Now. I don’t really work in numbers of whole drafts per se, because I write slowly. I tend to work a chapter until I’m happy with it, and then I move on, so an individual chapter might get re-written several times. I did show about 50 pages to a few readers early on, because I was experimenting with verb tense. Once I had a completed draft, I got more reader feedback and made changes.

For Home, I was very fortunate to work once again with Lisa Sandell, my editor from my first book. It’s very nice to have that level of familiarity while editing, so it felt more like a conversation than anything else.

ABW: When (in your writing process) did this title come to you? Was it your choice, or Scholastic’s?

WWS: I always had it in the back of my mind that  I wanted some play on how the home plate looks like a house drawn by a child. It took a few tries to get it right, but I feel very lucky that Scholastic liked the name, too!

ABW: Well, I think the title is perfect. And the book is a fabulous read. The protagonist is a boy, but I wouldn’t call this a “boy book.” It’s got great cross-gender appeal. Thank you for penning such a great story, and for giving me the opportunity to interview you here.

Readers: if you’d like to meet Wendy Shang, she’ll be speaking on a panel (free and open to the public) and signing books in Richmond, VA, on Saturday, June 20th:

Inspiration to Ink:
Writing and Illustrating for Children

Saturday, June 20, 2015
1:00 – 4:30 p.m.
Richmond Public Library
101 E. Franklin Street, Richmond, VA

Sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators in partnership with Richmond Public Library

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.

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.

ABW: Well, you certainly did make it personal. Her suffering drew me in—it’s an excellent opening. Now let me ask some more about those primary sources, and about research in general. Research can be mesmerizing, and at the same time overwhelming. Do you have any advice to help writers recognize which sorts of historical nuggets make for great stories, and which to leave behind? In so many words, I guess I’m asking: why this story? Why Emily Edmondson? What was it about Emily that made you decide to tell her story rather than, say, the story of one of her brothers? Or the captain’s story?

WC: My first draft of Passenger framed the story around Emily and her sister Mary—the Edmonson sisters—who remained together throughout much of their journey. The problem with this approach is that Mary died as a young woman and I wanted the narrative to continue to Emily’s work as a teacher in Washington, D.C., as well as her later marriage. By focusing on a single character, Emily, I was able to more naturally complete the story and end with the birth of the next generation.

We struggled with Emily vs. Emily-and-Mary when designing the cover art. The front cover of the book shows Emily in the moonlight with the Pearl in the background. The art wraps around to the back where we see Mary and others who were also making their way to the ship. The intent was to emphasize that this is Emily’s story, but she was not alone.

Also, the choice to feature Emily was based on the primary sources available. Because of the family’s association with Harriet Beecher Stowe, the lives of the Edmonsons are well documented; Stowe had much to say about them in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I’m glad you asked about the captain’s story. I loved his contributions, and we are fortunate that we have his autobiography available. (It was released by Project Gutenberg, e-book #10401-8.) His story is fascinating in its own right, but I had to resist the temptation to tell too much because this project was Emily’s story. I tried to share the relevant highlights and to let readers know what happened to him; he spent four years in prison as a result of his efforts to help seventy-seven enslaved people find freedom.

ABW: Through the first half of Passenger, I felt genuinely worried for Emily, and turned pages to find out what happened to her. I was totally caught up in her plight, and to be honest, I found the sidebars distracting. But somewhere along the line, a shift happened, and by the time I was well into the second half, I was lingering on each sidebar. So let’s talk about those sidebars! What went through your mind in crafting them? Were they part of your idea for this book from the start?

WC: I love sidebars. There are so many interesting bits of history and things to explore and explain that would slow down the plot but remain important for the reader to know. The main narrative tells the story—what happened to Emily—while the sidebars give the reader the background that deepens their understanding of context and history. Some readers will no doubt blow right past the sidebars to follow the story, and that’s okay. Others will stop and read them in order, which does slow the narrative flow, but helps to answer questions the reader may have along the way.

It’s not the just sidebars: The photos also interrupt the text, but I love them! The photos convey information and they remind the reader that this is nonfiction—these are real people and this is part of our shared American history.

I know some readers find sidebars distracting, but I think they serve an important function in nonfiction text. I didn’t set out to write a book with lots of sidebars, but as I wrote, they seemed inevitable.

ABW: Yes, and I admit that once I knew Emily’s story, I went back through the book and read the sidebars that I’d blown past on the first read-through. You have a lot of interesting tidbits there.

Now a question about proposals because I hear nonfiction writers talk about them: Did Passenger begin with a book proposal, and if so, what did that proposal look like? How long was it? Were the sidebars part of the first draft that your editor saw?

WC: I did not write a book proposal for Passenger. I knew I wanted to write about Emily—or Emily and Mary—and then I went to work. The structure changed several times in the process of writing and rewriting. The first draft I sent the editor did have sidebars, and we added some and deleted others along the way.

ABW: Was Passenger on the Pearl always the title, and if not, what were other titles under consideration?

WC: My original title was Ransomed: Emily Edmonson’s Escape from Slavery, but my editor didn’t like the word “ransomed.” (I liked it because to me it conveyed the idea that money was paid for the freedom of someone who was unjustly held captive.) We also played around with the title Forever Free, but we dropped that one, too. Titling books is tricky business, and I trust that the editors and publishers (and their marketing teams) have a better handle on it than I do.

ABW: Your 2011 book Sylvia & Aki (Tricycle Press) won the Jane Addams Book Award for Older Readers. Congratulations! It was also historical, but on the advice of your editor at that time, you wrote it as “fictionalized history,” explaining that your editor “thought it would be more engaging to tell the story in a novelized format.” Now that you’ve written Passenger as nonfiction, would you reflect on the differences? I’m particularly interested in your reflections on the craft of writing. How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction? Did you prefer the process of writing one more than the other?

WC: Thank you — and congratulations to you, too [on Brotherhood receiving the Jane Addams honor]!

If I could do it over again, I would write Sylvia & Aki as nonfiction. The story is true; the only fictionalized parts involved the creation of dialogue. For that book, I interviewed Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, the subjects of the book, and they both reviewed the text for accuracy before publication. The editor for that project believed that young readers would find it easier to relate to the story by presenting it as fiction with created dialogue.

Frankly, I struggle with this issue, and I think it’s an important question for authors to consider when writing stories that can be told as either nonfiction or fictionalized history (which isn’t the same thing as historical fiction, which I think of as a work of fiction set in the past). I don’t believe an author has the right to make up quotes. To me, quotation marks in nonfiction mean that the words—the exact words—can be traced back to a legitimate, contemporaneous source. That’s one of the main things that differentiates fiction and nonfiction; in nonfiction we don’t get to make up what was said or what happened.

When there are rich primary sources, I prefer writing nonfiction. It is an honor to be able to report and tell the story of history. That said, I also love historical fiction, especially when the historical period deepens and defines the character (like you did in Brotherhood). I don’t think one format is better than another; I think what is important is to be true to the format you have chosen as an author. Don’t leave the reader questioning whether a story is fiction or nonfiction.

ABW: Any final comments or words of wisdom for aspiring authors?

WC: Write the stories that haunt you. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, focus on the stories that captivate you. Those are the ones you’re supposed to tell.

ABW: Oooohhh, that’s just what I need to hear because my current work-in-progress is frustrating me, but I do feel called to write it—the story haunts me. So thank you for reminding me of that! And thank you so much for your insights today.

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.