Tag Archives: SCBWI

Love your protagonist

This month I attended two writers’ conferences—James River Writers and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Mid-Atlantic Regional—and felt like I’d shopped in a gourmet food store. I came home excited to cook.

Speakers laid out the usual conference fare—how writers must learn to accept failure/rejection, cultivate resilience/perseverance, find their own unique (authentic) voice, etc.—a smorgasbord of advice.

When Lin Oliver stepped up to the podium, she gave a talk called, “A Ten Point Guide to Launching and Sustaining a Children’s Book Career.” During Point Five, she dropped a crumb that made me sit up, made my mouth water. Five was about studying the craft, and Lin peppered it with spices like letting the child solve the story’s problem and writing “in scene” and beginning on the day that’s different. Delicious stuff, all of it.

Lin Oliver

But the morsel Lin dropped—the one that got me to lean forward, Continue reading

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

Restless Manuscript Syndrome

“Restless Leg Syndrome? Oh, that’s an electrolyte imbalance,” said a doctor-friend. “Just drink Gatorade.” I shrugged. Couldn’t hurt. So I downed a juice glass-worth of Gatorade and voilà—my legs stopped twitching. Thirty years of restless leg syndrome gone. Done. Relief! All I have to do is drink a little Gatorade every evening, and I sleep through the night. And for what it’s worth, let me just say that I really like that “cool blue” flavor, but if I get tired of it, there’s mango extreme, rain berry, lime cucumber…

If only writing were so easy. If only there were quick fixes for years of rejection letters, for the restless places in our manuscripts. If only finding the voice of a story were as easy as trying a new flavor.

Come on, we’re all about quick fixes, right? We have no shortage of elixirs for lowering cholesterol or losing pounds. Combine free Internet access with the ease of digital printing and everybody and their second cousin once removed has published a memoir or mystery or children’s book or dystopian fantasy. Publication promises immortality, right? What are you waiting for? Publish that baby! Now! Quick!

Ahhh… but if only every book or essay or short story were worth reading.

So the question is: how does a writer make a manuscript worth someone else’s time? Earlier this month, I attended SCBWI’s regional conference in Austin, TX, and heard author Matt de la Peña tell writers to slow down. “Let a scene play out… Let readers participate more… The micro-level of a scene matters…” It was just what I needed to hear. I returned home to my work-in-progress and made myself linger inside scenes. I paused to identify smells and sounds, to let my characters touch smooth surfaces and rough ones. I threw out scenes that didn’t matter to the emotional arc of the story, and dug deeply into those that did.

Then I read de la Peña’s award-winning young adult novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, and loved it. No matter that I’m not into baseball and this is a baseball book. It’s well written. Period. I savored the flow of it, the way he wove memories into present-action scenes and orchestrated the unfolding of an unlikely friendship. And then there were the baseball moments. The pitcher. The batter. The wind-up. The challenge. The threat. The way he raised the stakes. Again. And again. And again. Not only did he have me on the edge of my seat, but a week later I found myself suggesting to my book group (a bunch of middle aged white ladies) that we read and discuss this book and get tickets to a Flying Squirrels game. (That’s our local minor league team. Great name, huh?)

By slowing down each scene in Mexican WhiteBoy, de la Peña got me to engage with characters whose world was foreign to me. He invited me to read as if I were a participant in the action… there on the edge of the baseball diamond… cringing, cheering, sneezing when the dust got too thick… I felt it all because he invited me in. No quick tonics. Lots of sensory details. Amazing dialogue. And the irony, okay? Is that he left me restless… eager to read his other critically-acclaimed novels.

Sure, I’d like to hurry up and finish my current work-in-progress, get something new to my agent, have a second book in print. But not if it means hindering readers from entering into the scenes I’m writing. I value my readers’ time, so it’s worth my time to slow down. Getting readers to participate in my characters’ lives is everything, and if I can pull it off, I’ll have penned a novel that’s worth their time. Thank you, Matt.

On listening

SCBWI logoMy debut novel will be released in 2013, so I applied for the SCBWI Book Launch Award—some extra funds to launch my book in an innovative way. And I won! SCBWI announced the winners yesterday afternoon, and I’m still processing the news. So excited!

But this blog isn’t about tooting my horn. It’s about craft—how to write more, write better, and fall in love with the process of writing. My hope is that the very activities I’ll do to promote my novel will get me to engage with students and teachers in ways that will enhance my writing. Ways that will encourage me to ask what matters… why I write the books I write… why I write at all… how my writing might make a difference…

Part of the marketing proposal that won the award was this:Podium Foundation logo encourage students and teachers to use my book as a springboard to create their own “Making a Difference” audio recordings. Partner with The Podium Foundation, a Richmond (VA) nonprofit which holds writing clubs in Richmond’s high schools; lead workshops in each club, guiding students to write, revise, rehearse and record stories of themselves or others making a difference, patterning stories after NPR’s “This American Life”; post the MP3 recordings on my website and Podium’s website.

While the students will be revising, rehearsing and recording their essays, I’ll be listening. I look forward to meeting teens with ideas, strengths and issues that are new to me. I’m excited to hear a variety of stories… to listen… to engage… to encourage… to question… to learn from them and stretch my writing in new directions.

While much of my own writing is for myself (I write stories that speak intimately to me), I also write for a particular audience—for young readers. The greater my ability to listen to kids, the greater is the potential that my writing will engage them. For whom do you write? And how do you go about listening to your readers?

Raising the stakes

At the mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference last month, keynoter Han Nolan said, “When a story scares me so much that I want to give up, when it’s so dangerous I’m scared to sit at the page, that’s when I know that I’m onto something.”

She got me thinking. As a young writer, my stories were … nice. The characters were … nice. I suffered from classic middle-child-itis, the desire for everyone to get along. And just yesterday, I was doing it again. While writing a scene, a new character appeared, and within a few minutes he had hijacked the story. He was fun. Writing about him allowed me to avoid writing the confrontation-scene I’d spent chapters setting up.

So I’m glad I realized the mistake this time, but I know I’ll do it again. What can I say—middle child that I am—my tendency to avoid conflict is pretty strong. I hate having to assert myself. But sometimes telling the truth means being assertive. It’s an uncomfortable place, but if my characters don’t go into places that are uncomfortable or scary or dangerous—if they don’t go anywhere that really matters—why read about them?

Danger. Conflict. Tension. They take many forms. We writers need to ask what the stakes are for our characters. Then we need to raise the stakes. That idiom comes from gamblers: when they raise the stakes—the bet—anyone who wants to keep playing has to pay up or get out. It’s not the same as upping the stakes, as in pulling up tent poles and moving on. A writer needs to up the ante, demand a greater investment, increase the risk, make it dangerous to sit at the page. That’s the sort of danger that keeps readers turning pages. Thank you, Han Nolan.