Tag Archives: Southern fiction

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

Begin with the unbelievable

Carrie Brown

Carrie Brown

After attending an excellent James River Writers panel discussion (“The Writing Show”) and Master Class in April with authors John Gregory Brown and Carrie Brown, I went home and revised my novel.

The Browns gave the audience some great tips, and one that particularly intrigued me was this: take the most unbelievable moment in your story, and put it first. Right up front. The opening paragraph. The opening sentence. Just lay it out there. Readers enter into a story on the first line. It’s the place where they’re most willing to suspend disbelief, so don’t delay that suspension. Hook them and take off running.

John Gregory Brown

John Gregory Brown

John Gregory Brown noted that if Kafka had waited until page three to tell us that Gregor Samsa had turned into a cockroach, we might have questioned and dismissed that bizarre transformation. Here is Kafka’s opening line to The Metamorphosis:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.

We might quibble with other aspects of this sentence (waking up is oh-so-overdone as an opening, and the participle isn’t as effective as straight-on past tense, and passive voice is oh-so-distancing), but hey—the unbelievable happens right away. It launches us into the story. And that was Brown’s point: readers will accept the unbelievable when a writer gives it to them straight-up. If you wait to give it to them later, you may have missed your chance.

The Last First DayBut here’s the thing: most writers can’t know what their first sentence or paragraph or chapter will be until they’ve written the last sentence. If you’re worrying about your opening before you’ve finished the first draft, I think you’re wasting time. Sure, it’s part of the process, and you can pat yourself on the back for that. But I think you need to push yourself all the way to the end before stewing over the beginning. Figure out what your story is really all about. Identify the essential conflict. Identify the most unbelievable moment in the story, the one that will strain your readers’ credibility. Then put that moment first and see how the story falls out from there.

The other take-away from my April visit to this James River Writers’ program was the reminder of how good it is to be part of a creative community. Richmond is a fabulous town in which to be a writer. While I love spending hours alone at my writing desk, I find that getting out and engaging with other writers juices me up.

Audubons WatchJohn Gregory Brown teaches at Sweet Briar College, and Carrie Brown at Hollins University, and I don’t have to be enrolled in either of their esteemed institutions to encounter them and benefit from their insights. I just have to seek out opportunities in my town. There are a lot of them (from conferences to workshops to panel discussions), and if I glean so much as (or as little as) one tidbit from each outing, my writing benefits. It’s all good.

 

 

 

 

#MyWritingProcess

When I was a kid, I wrote letters. Real letters. By hand. Sometimes chain letters. Who has time for that anymore? (Besides the fact that stamps now cost 49 cents. Ouch.) I’ll still send an occasional handwritten thank-you, but I stopped saying yes to every chain that came along… until Marci Rich tapped me to participate in this Writing Process one. An invitation to talk craft? Yes, ma’am!

Marci writes the award-winning Midlife Second Wife blog, which has gotten over 70,000 hits since she launched it in August 2011. So well-written, some of her posts have been picked up by The Huffington Post. (Here’s her reflection on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.) So I’m honored Marci tapped me for this chain. And I’m thrilled to tap three more writers to keep the chain going: Mindy McGinnis, M.A. Hoak, and Laurie Morrison. Scroll down for more information about them and their writing!

And now… for the chain… here we go with the 4 questions:

(A) What am I working on?

I’m scrambling to complete the first draft of a new novel, scrambling because I promised my agent something in early April before I quite realized just how soon April would arrive. I made that promise three weeks ago when it was snowing in Virginia… again… and spring seemed unbelievably far away. At that point, I’d written thirty-seven chapters (well, fifty-something if you count the ones I’d scrapped), so you’d think I could wrap it up by April, right? But after I made the promise, it hit me that I didn’t yet have a novel, and I kind-of freaked out. I had characters and a setting and a lot of stuff going on, but no unifying emotional arc that would hold it all together. Thinking about my promise made me break out in a pinkish rash. It itched. I did yoga to make myself chill out.

I went into step-back-and-mull-it-over mode. What desire was strong enough to drive the wayward plot? I’d already revised chapter one multiple times, and it wasn’t working. It didn’t set up the trajectory of the story—a tale about a group of boys at a summer program for gifted musicians. During my freak-out, I questioned the whole thing and feared I’d have to tell my agent, sorry, no can do.

Then I scrambled, and you know what? Deadlines are good. I’d started this novel last year, but when Brotherhood came out in the fall, I couldn’t keep up my regular writing schedule. I was too busy with book release hoopla, then school visits. The April deadline helped me re-focus, turn down a few invitations, and postpone requests for editing services. Over the past month, the novel has started to come together. I think. Maybe. I might even make my arbitrary deadline. Not tomorrow (which—eeh gads—is April already), but soon.

(B) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Broadly, my genre is YA, and within that, my current work-in-progress falls into the sub-genre of LGBT literature. In many LGBT stories, the protagonist comes to terms with his or her sexual identity or gender orientation, but my novel will differ in that my straight character will struggle with his homophobia. My first novel, Brotherhood, differed from others of its genre (Civil War historical fiction) by focusing on the aftermath of the war (period of Reconstruction) rather than the war, itself, and doing so not from the viewpoint of the Union, but from that of the defeated South.

(C) Why do I write what I do?

My first novel wrestled with racism, and now I’m wrestling with homophobia. The new one (as yet untitled) also addresses issues of faith, and includes characters who run the gamut from fundamentalist Christian to atheist. So to answer this question, I’d say that I love to write about stuff that interests me—stuff I like to talk about! And I especially enjoy writing for teenagers.

I often think about the fact that kids aren’t responsible for their parents’ views or mistakes or successes, or the way their parents sought to raise them. They’re stuck. Or they’re lucky. They’re born or adopted into whatever family they’re in, and they get what they get. Around the time kids hit middle school, they begin to separate from parents, question authority, and contemplate a future that is self-directed rather than parent-directed. And I wonder how they do that. How did I do it? How does a kid raised in, say, a prejudiced home, overcome those prejudices? How does a kid raised to follow his father’s calling come to find his or her own? In some ways, maybe I’m still asking myself these questions, and I guess that’s why I write what I do.

(D) How does your writing process work?

My process is messy, as you might gather from my answers above. I write to figure out my characters and what motivates them. I don’t outline. I do pay attention to the details in a setting because until I have the physical qualities of a place and a sense of the time (year, month, day, hour), I have trouble making my characters take action. Once they’re in a specific place, I listen to them. I watch them. I feel them. I try to inhabit them and experience their world vicariously. I put one character into another character’s face and see what happens. I throw obstacles at them and duck when they throw things back.

In that sense, my writing process is something like method acting, except that I’m not finished when I’ve acted out a moment. I have to write it down. I have to describe the physicality of what just happened. The process is slow and messy and not exactly lucrative. But I love it, and I’d spend even more hours writing each day, if I weren’t hampered by the bother of having to eat, sleep, wash, etc. Once I learned to embrace my messiness (thank you, Uma Krishnaswami, for helping me accept my process for what it is), I came to love it. My best days are the ones when I write for hours… and hours… and hours… uninterrupted.

What are other writers’ processes like? Stay tuned! This blog chain continues one week from today with posts from these awesome writers:

Mindy McGinnis is the author of Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, as well as being a full-time YA librarian. She and I met online last year through the “Lucky 13s,” a group of debut 2013 authors who write for young readers. She blogs at Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire.

 

And talk about librarians! M.A. Hoak is a native Floridian (a relatively unknown species). She works as a Youth Library Assistant and spends most of her time up to her elbows in books, glitter, and glue. Her poetry has been published in The Saw Palm and Cantilevers Literary Magazine. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts (where she and I met) and her debut novel is forthcoming. She blogs at The Loudmouth Librarian.

 

And talk about Vermont! That’s where I also met the third writer I’m tapping for this blog chain. Laurie Morrison has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and primarily writes contemporary YA fiction. She lives in Philadelphia, where she teaches middle school English, and loves to read and bake. She is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Leave a message to tell me about your writing process, and check out the blogs of these three writers to see how they approach their craft. Happy writing, y’all…

Kathryn Erskine on historical fiction

I was thrilled when James River Writers (JRW) asked me to interview Kathryn Erskine in advance of the JRW conference in Richmond, Virginia, October 19-20. Kathryn will be speaking on three conference panels, and on Friday, October 18, will lead a workshop entitled, “Getting in your Character’s Skin.” Kathryn is the author of numerous novels for young readers, including the 2010 National Book Award-winner Mockingbird. Her most recent novel Seeing Red was released by Scholastic in September 2013.

Welcome, Kathy! I’d love to talk with you about Seeing Red and the way you approach the writing of historical fiction. The story is set in the early 1970s and touches on all sorts of issues, from social unrest and the Vietnam War to racism, the women’s movement, domestic violence, and bullies. In more than one scene, characters note that “the times, they are a-changing,” a line from a Bob Dylan song that was popular at the time. Not only has the death of Red’s father wreaked havoc on his nuclear family, but Red’s family is in turmoil because the whole society is changing.

So my first question is: when you began this novel, did you begin with the character and later decide to set his story in the 1970’s, or did the historical time period come first? What did you set out to write about, and how did it morph into the story that it became?

Kathryn Erskine: Characters always come to me first, but I knew Red was in the world of the early 1970’s because of what he was seeing, what bothered him, what he cared about. What changed over time was a more direct approach to an issue I really wanted to address: racism in this country. When I first started this story years ago I was too tentative and only alluded to the problem. I finally gained the confidence as a writer to come out and say what I wanted. Some critics may not like it because it’s raw and honest. But I don’t write for praise (although praise is lovely!); I write to have people think about tough issues and talk about them. Continue reading

Where to Begin a Novel

How and where is it best Come August, Come Freedomto enter into a particular story—which moment, which sounds and which smells should a writer introduce in the opening scene? When I first read Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau, I was fascinated by Gigi’s decision to begin the story the way she did. I asked her why she chose that approach, and am privileged to feature her answers here. I found Gigi’s comments as engaging as the novel.

A. B. Westrick: Come August, Come Freedom is the story of Gabriel, the enslaved blacksmith who organized a massive but ultimately unsuccessful rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. What I found intriguing was the way you chose to enter into Gabriel’s story. The first line is, “Ma believed,” and the chapter unfolds to show Ma nursing him when he was six months old. Why did you choose to begin the book with Ma?

Gigi Amateau:  As I read and studied about the institution of slavery during Gabriel’s lifetime, I learned (in a way that I hadn’t really integrated into my thinking about slavery before writing Come August, Come Freedom) that the crucible of slavery was the childbearing role of enslaved women. The laws governing a person’s status as free or enslaved were grounded in the concept of maternal descent—the mother’s status (not the father’s) determined a child’s status. So, the impulsion of the plot is maternal descent. Also, I wanted to create the character of Gabriel as a person who was not the first freedom fighter in his community or in his family, but one who was born into a tradition of resisting oppression and fighting for freedom. So, I surrounded him early on in the novel with men and women imagining freedom and rebelling against slavery. Continue reading

Emotional seeds for stories

This past Saturday while speaking on a panel at the James River Writers Conference, I choked up and found myself babbling an apology to the audience. The panel moderator, Meg Medina, had asked such a simple question: when you began writing your novel, what was your starting point? What was the emotional place—the germ—the seed—from which the story came (the story being the YA novel I recently sold to Viking—the story of a boy who struggles to protect a friend from the KKK in 1867—pure fiction, but with historical anchors).

In answer to Meg’s question, I began to speak about my Alabama-born father, and the words caught in my throat. I felt my father’s shame over the fact that our ancestors had owned slaves, his pain over present-day racial prejudices that continue to poison parts of the South. When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, Daddy ducked my questions about the South, avoiding the topic as best he could. But at some point, he gave in and told me in his soft, thoughtful Southern drawl that at a young age he had vowed never to raise his own children there. He’d gotten out as soon as he could (on the G.I. bill) and never returned. He taught me that “it’s fine to judge people in any number of ways—of course we make judgments all the time—but don’t ever judge a person by the color of his skin.” What I suspect he meant was never treat black people the way I saw them treated.

So there I was on a panel with Meg and the inimitable Kathi Appelt, and I choked up over the image of my daddy as a shy, gentle boy in the 1930’s. I imagined him suffocating beneath the weight of expectations that he become a man in the way manhood was defined by good Southern boys. What he witnessed, I’ll never know because he’ll never say…so while writing my novel, I imagined what it might have been. The novel isn’t about my father—it’s a story set sixty years before he was born. But the emotional seed came from my daddy’s yearning to get as far away from his roots as he could.

My editor and I are brainstorming titles, and I’ll post the release date when Viking decides… Meanwhile, tell me… what is the emotional seed of your story? What triggers unexpected tears?