Tag Archives: setting

Kill your Darlings: author interview and book giveaway

Now a Major Motion PictureIs passion just an obsession with something you can’t seem to get better at, or is it the very thing you can get better at?

“Courage is simple. First, be honest. Second, don’t back down.”

These themes are two of many in Cori McCarthy’s latest YA novel, Now a Major Motion Picture, alternately funny, sad, wise, rich, and heartwarming. What a great read. And I’m giving away one copy! Hop to the end of this post. to enter the giveaway, and come back to read my interview with Cori. Deadline to enter: Wednesday, Aug. 22, 11:59 PM.

I met Cori on my first day at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and since then Cori’s writing career has soared. This is their fourth published YA novel, and along with partner Amy Rose Capetta, Cori has two books coming out in 2019 and 2020. Cori also writes poetry, has a picture book hitting shelves in 2021, and is now on the faculty of the MFA program at our alma mater. It’s an honor to interview Cori for my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Cori.

Cori McCarthy: Thank you! It’s my pleasure to be here.

Breaking SkyABW: Let’s talk craft! I just loved Motion Picture, and I want to start with the unique setting. Seventeen year-old Iris is behind the scenes on a movie set where her grandmother’s novels are being adapted for the big screen. How did you come up with this setting? Is this an example of “write what you know”? I’m aware that your novel Breaking Sky is being made into a movie; did you write this novel after glimpsing some of that production?

CM: The setting and characters of Motion Picture are a bit of a hodgepodge of my life experiences. The book takes place in Ireland, where I lived for a year when I was twenty. Iris is an aspiring songwriter, which I also was in college. I even have an all-black Martin guitar named Annie, like main character Iris. The story is also about filmmaking, and that comes from my time in film school, studying screenwriting at UCLA. So, yes, this is definitely a “write what you know” situation.

ABW: I didn’t know you’d also studied at UCLA! That’s great. Clearly, your experiences helped you write an authentic story.

CM: UCLA, yeah. For a long time, I yearned to be a part of Hollywood, but to be honest, I was chased away by the rampant sexism that has been—and still is—holding that business back. All of which makes it into Motion Picture, mostly via the representation of the powerhouse female director in the book.

While the adaptation of Breaking Sky has been delightful to witness, Motion Picture‘s premise mostly came from my childhood love for J.R.R. Tolkien’s world and the excitement of watching Peter Jackson’s films reach a much wider audience than the original fiction. We give J.K. Rowling a lot of credit for making fantasy accessible, but you know what? Peter Jackson deserves credit for making fandoms mainstream.

ABW: Oh, yes. The films were great. (The books, too, of course!) And in Motion Picture, the plot includes elements of an earlier novel you’d written, inspired by Tolkien. (I know this tidbit thanks to your Acknowledgements page and website.) Okay, so you wrote this earlier novel, Elementia, and it wasn’t ever published, but parts of it appear in Motion Picture. I’ve heard writers say that “kill your darlings” means saving sections for later rather than throwing them out. Is it fair to say that’s exactly what you did with Elementia?

Cori McCarthyCM: Yes, very much so. I spent five years in my early twenties writing the “feminist answer to Tolkien’s world.” I wanted something like Lord of the Rings—but with inclusive characters. This became the trilogy Elementia. When I went to grad school, however, I had to put the story away because it had far too much baggage to learn on/from.

Some writers are mildly terrified when I say I shelved something I’d worked on for so long, over several drafts, but it was the best thing I could have done. The darling was killed, so to speak, but it allowed me to make huge gains in my craft. New stories, new lessons. (One might say that new lessons mean new mistakes, and new mistakes are easier to learn from than older ones.)

ABW: I like that. I’ve thrown away a number of early novels, but like you, parts have drifted into later writings. How long was your original version of Elementia?

CM: About 120k words, and of that about 1k made it into Motion Picture, which seems worth it to me…after a great deal of hindsight. Nothing is wasted, dear writers.

ABW: You told me “this book was tough to birth.” How long did it take you to write Motion Picture? How many revisions did it go through?

CM: It was rather up and down, to be honest. This book had an average gestation (average for my novels) of about a year, first word to copy edits. I created the idea for the story with my beloved editor, who I did two of my other books with, and we had quite the exciting vision for it.

Unfortunately, she took a wonderful new job early in the drafting process. (I have since started publishing with her at a different house.) I was fortunate enough to work with two other great editors on this book, but there’s a sense of “magic lost” when you lose the original editor on a book. That can be hard to come back from. (Big sigh.)

ABW: I love the chapter headings in Motion Picture. Many made me laugh out loud (such as, “There is some kissing in this chapter”), and I wondered if you crafted them along the way or late in the process? Was it your idea to title the chapters, or your editor’s?

There is some kissing in this chapter.

CM: That was my idea, but my editor was a huge fan! This book was my first comedy—a romcom—and I found that, you know what? Comedic writing is A LOT trickier than dramatic action or thriller writing. This book took a lot of finessing, and I used those chapter headings to keep myself “zoned in” on the humor.

Several of the titles were there from draft one, like “I Don’t Mean To Alarm Anyone But There’s An Elf In Baggage Claim.” Others evolved as the story was revised. Example? “Philip Pullman Will Break Your Heart.” That one clicked into place at the very end…

ABW: You say it was tricky, but you nailed it. Motion Picture is full of laugh lines. Really fun.

Now let me ask about the story’s LGBTQ+ element. One of your secondary characters laments that being queer is “a big [effing] deal in this business [Hollywood].” I know you identify as queer, or as you put it in this interview at A New Look on Books, “nonbinary, pansexual, mixed race Arab American.” So my question is: how much of you is inside each of your characters? Where does Cori end and Iris begin? How are you similar to and different from Shoshanna?

You Were HereCM: When I am writing a character, I am always searching for what we have in common. That’s the ground where I plant my craft roots so the character can come to life via my own experiences. For example, my book You Were Here has five point of view characters and its working title was “A Tale of Five Coris.” Each character was a little piece of my personality at a different point in my life.

With Iris, I bonded with her struggle to understand sexism in the world and in her own family. I went through much of that struggle in college, the same time when I was also trying to amass the courage to share my writing with the world.

When it came to Shoshanna, I let my anger at being continuously marginalized take the wheel. I gave her a lot of the same problems I have had to face as a queer author, as a mixed race person, and as an Arab American. This was, actually, rather cathartic and helped me vent frustrations that are only spinning wheels unless you let them fuel characters and stories. J

ABW: Cathartic—good to hear. And honest. I love that you’ve put your frustrations into characters and stories. What are you working on now?

Once and FutureCM: Oh! I’m working on the sequel to my forthcoming space fantasy King Arthur retelling entitled Once & Future (March 2019). I wrote this book with my partner, YA author Amy Rose Capetta, and we have had A BLAST retelling Arthurian canon with inclusive characters and a wild outer space setting. We are in the early outlining stage at the moment for the sequel, and our excitement is currently building to the perfect first draft writing crescendo…

ABW: I can feel your excitement in your answer. Thank you so much for doing this interview, Cori!

CM: Thank you so much for having me!

Readers: you have lots of options here to enter the giveaway. Enter as often as once a day!

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If you want to learn more about Cori and their writing, check out Cori’s website, facebook author page, and Twitter feed. Good luck in the raffle! Come back later this month to find out who wins (the winner will be randomly selected by Rafflecopter).

When a protagonist goes missing…

Evidence of Things Not SeenThis month I read a YA novel that defies literary convention. It’s a mystery, but not a mystery. There’s a protagonist, but he goes missing. Scraps of paper found near the spot where he was last seen refer to particle physics and time travel. Characters hint at one possibility after another, and in the end… no, no, no, I can’t reveal the ending!

When I asked the author to tell me about her writing process, she mentioned a number of people who helped her along the way—a testament to the strength of her writing community. The author is Lindsey Lane, the book is her YA debut, Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar Straus Giroux 2014), and today I’m thrilled to feature her on my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Lindsey, I’m so glad I caught up with you to talk about this story.

Lindsey Lane: Thanks for tracking me down!

ABW: I love the way you open this novel with a missing teen. Then you go into a series of vignettes, each with different characters, and the story arrested me. The structure brought to mind Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge, and I wondered if that book influenced you. Could you talk a bit about how you conceived of this story?

LL: Elizabeth Strout?!?! Really? What a huge compliment. But no, no influence whatsoever. Continue reading

Setting: a writing exercise

I want to pass along an exercise I led earlier this month at a high school Writers Fest. I asked students to explore setting in order to glean new insights into character. Like so many writing exercises, if you’re not in a place to sit down and do this now, bookmark this page and come back later. Thinking about the exercise and doing it will yield different results.

Eudora Welty

About setting, Eudora Welty said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” [Bailey, pg. 165]

In this exercise, we’ll take Welty’s wisdom and observe the effect that setting has on character. Before we start, pick a character, any character… perhaps one in your current work in progress. If a particular one doesn’t come to mind, imagine a setting that has always captivated you—one you’d like to write about. Now put a character there.

Next, put the words BAD WRITING at the top of your paper or computer screen. You now have permission to write whatever comes to mind. Loosen up. Relax. Let go of expectations.

But before we write, I’m going to ask you to engage your imagination with a series of prompts; these assume that your character is human, but if it’s alien or animal or whatever, make your own modifications. There’s no right or wrong here. My hope is that you’ll come away from this exercise with some insights. If a friend is available to read these questions to you while your eyes are closed, great. If not, close your eyes after you read each prompt and take yourself into the moment.

Now take a deep breath, and we’ll begin, but don’t write yet. First, engage your imagination. Go into the setting. Become the character. The prompts will encourage you to experience your setting for a few moments before writing.

  • First, notice the angle of the light. What is the source of the light? From what direction does it come?
  • What color is the light?
  • What other colors do you notice?
  • What time is it right now in your character’s world?
  • What year is it?
  • What month?
  • What is the weather right now in this place?
  • What is the quality of the air? Is it clean or dusty, thick or thin (as in high altitude), smoky or foggy or salty like it’s coming off the ocean?
  • What is your character wearing? How well is he/she protected from the weather?
  • What is underneath your character? If standing, what’s under his/her feet. If lying down, what is the character lying on? What is the character touching?
  • Let your character reach for the thing that is underneath him or her. What does it feel like? What’s the texture? The temperature?
  • Now your character brings a fingertip to the nose. What is the smell of whatever your character just touched?
  • Now a breeze come up in this place, and on the breeze there is an odor. Identify that odor. Imagine what the source of the smell might be.
  • Now your character puts a finger into his/her mouth. What does it taste like?
  • Imagine that your character is really hungry and reaches for food. What food does he/she find here, and what does that food taste like?
  • What sounds does your character hear in the distance?
  • What sounds does s/he hear near by?
  • Ask your character: If you could change one thing in the world in which you find yourself, what would it be?
  • If you could have one thing right now, what would that thing be? What do you hope for, or long for?
  • What weighs heavy on your character’s heart right now?
  • Imagine that a particular sound comes up. Your character moves toward the sound and once there, he or she encounters another character. What is the sound, and whom does your character encounter when he/she moves toward it?
Writing workshop at ARGS' Writers Fest

Writing workshop at ARGS’ Writers Fest

Now write, letting your character spill out onto the page. Write in first person from your character’s point of view. Let your character engage with the place and with the new character who’s shown up. Include dialogue.

After at least five minutes (ten or fifteen is okay), stop writing about that particular place and character. Get a new sheet of paper or open a new word file, and again put BAD WRITING at the top. Take a deep breath. Relax.

Now go back into your imagination with this same character, but this time, there is a door or a portal or an archway or something that your character goes through. When s/he crosses the threshold, the character is in a setting that is the opposite of the place where he/she was before…

  • If the angle of light in the first setting had been high or bright, here it is low or dim, and vice-versa. Visualize the light in this new place.
  • Whatever colors your character saw in the first setting are not visible here. Instead, there is a different color palette. Imagine the palette…
  • Whatever year your character was in before, make it now a few years earlier or later.
  • The month is now six months different from whatever it was before – so if you were in summer, now it’s winter, and if it had been spring, now it’s fall.
  • What time of day or night is it? Make it the opposite of the first setting.
  • Whatever the weather was before, now it is the opposite, so sunny becomes rainy and cold becomes hot, etc.
  • What is the quality of the air that your character is breathing?
  • What is your character wearing? If he or she was well protected from the weather in the first setting, now take away that protection, and vice versa.
  • Continue through the same set of questions posed earlier, imagining each prompt differently from the first time around, and ending in a moment when your character encounters another in this new setting.

Now, again, write from your character’s point of view, letting him/her react to the experience in this new place. Add dialogue. Write for at least 5 minutes, preferably ten or fifteen. Then sit back and reflect on the way the setting altered the characters’ mindsets, the tone of their interaction, the tension and conflict in the scene. What did you learn about your characters or your story?

Thank you to Patty Smith for inviting me to participate in Writers Fest, to Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for hosting the event, and to Bill Blume for snapping this picture of me leading the workshop!