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?

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!

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.

A.B. Westrick: Since Seeing Red was set during your own growing-up years, how much research did you have to do for the story, and how much came from your own memories? What sort of research did you do, and did you uncover details that surprised you (such as incidents you had not remembered)?

KE: Certainly the feelings of the era came from my own memories, and some of the products, too (I played Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Love’s Fresh Lemon was my first cologne, and I wore Dr. Scholl’s really uncomfortable wooden sandals) but since I didn’t live in the U.S. for part of my childhood, I knew I needed to do a lot of research. Some of that research could be done via books or on the internet, but some required visiting museums, historical societies, Rosenwald and historically black schools, listening to the music of the time, watching TV shows, movies, and documentaries from and about the era, and talking with people who lived through segregation and integration.

What I found that surprised me was the amount of land illegally taken from African-Americans after emancipation by cheating, intimidation, violence and murder. I was floored. I was also surprised at how we ignored African-American burial grounds, and still do. There was an incident near my house where a builder would have plowed one under if a neighbor, one of the descendants, hadn’t gone to court to prevent thatand observed the construction daily to ensure the court order was followed. I find that blatant lack of respect hard to fathom. Finally, I was completely stunned to learn how active the KKK still is. Really? Really?

ABW: We’ve all heard George Santayana’s adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” In Seeing Red, the characters wrestle with this concept during a history lesson, and on the board, the teacher writes, The truth will set you free. How do these themes inform or influence your own interest in writing historical fiction? Why was it important for you to include them in the book?

KE: Well, here’s an answer that may sound a little funny: I abhor waste. After seeing people with no clean drinking water in Africa it makes me cringe when people leave the faucet running. And that feeling extends to wasting any resources—time, energy, peopleso it really bothers me when we make mistakes as individuals, a nation, the world, and then don’t bother to learn from them, but keep repeating them. What a waste! To prevent that kind of waste we have to be honest about who we are and what we’ve done. We have to know the truth, and we have to make sure everyone knows that truth. Surely, then, at least some people will see the need to stop bad things from happening again. That’s the only way we can hope to prevent that wastewhich, in cases like racism, is also a horrific, immoral tragedy.

ABW: For young readers, Seeing Red is undeniably historical, but for many adults, the actions occurred in the not-so-distant past. Did you ever find yourself writing scenes that could have appeared in 2013, but on revision had to be tweaked in order to remain true to the historical setting? For you, how different is 2013 from 1972?

KE: People, good or bad, are the same over time. Our sensibilities change, often because we’re forced to confront issues we’d rather ignore, and then come to see that a different view is not so frightening after all. So, in a sense, 2013 is very different from 1972 which I happen to think is a good thing, but do we still have racism and intolerance? Absolutely. It may be covert or it may be directed against different groups, but it’s still with us. It was 2009 before Charlottesville, VA, officially apologized for closing schools and excluding blacks fifty years before. I just hope every generation improves our record.

ABW: What words of wisdom do you have for writers setting out to tackle historical fiction?

KE: Do your researchenjoy the researchbut make sure the story comes first. I have reams of research for Seeing Red but very little actually made it into the story. It all informed the story, though, because I wrote from an informed place, and that’s what counts.

Readers who want to know more about Kathryn Erskine and her award-winning books should check out her website and blog. In addition to participating in the James River Writers conference and Friday workshops, October 18-20, Kathryn will also speak at the Teen ’13 Book & Author Celebration on Thursday, October 17, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. at Richmond Public Library, Main Branch, 101 East Franklin Street. This event is part of the American Library Association’s Teen Read Week and the Virginia Literary Festival.

Thank you so much, Kathy, for taking time from your busy schedule to reflect on your process in crafting Seeing Red!

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.

ABW:  The opening chapter establishes a strong sense of place—a footpath, the creek beyond the fields, an apple seedling. While it grounds Gabriel and his story, literally and figuratively, it also sets a tranquil tone for a story that’s anything but tranquil. Again, can you talk about choosing to begin the story in this place rather than in, say, a blacksmith’s shop or marketplace, or some other place that Gabriel would have frequented? You might even have chosen to begin it with the scenes that became chapter two—glimpses of slaves treated harshly and slaves dashing for freedom—but instead you chose this tranquil tone. Can you say more about that?

GA:  First of all, thank you. Writing a convincing sense of place both in the countryside and in the city was important to me, as was conveying a feeling of tranquility and beauty at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. To me, it’s valid that Gabriel would have experienced beauty as well as terror. That’s the human experience, right? Even in the darkest days of our history, the human spirit fights for beauty, for love. It would’ve been wrong for me to write this book by dismissing the real suffering and unbearable oppression that was an everyday part of enslavement. All of history shows us how the human spirit insists on faith, hope, and love, so I think it would have been wrong of me to lead with anything but such a spirit.

Gigi Amateau

Gigi Amateau

As I studied the primary source documents related to Gabriel’s Rebellion, I saw that much of the recruiting and planning took place outdoors—on the river, at Young’s Spring, under the bridge at Littlepage. For sure, the blacksmith forge, taverns, and the cityscape were key, too, but the people gathered outside for worship, funerals, weddings, fish feasts, and barbeques. You know, I feel like the evidence suggests that the natural world offered Gabriel some refuge, a place where he and his men could speak candidly. Trial testimony shows that the men did discuss the rebellion at taverns and on the street, and in these places they often spoke in code: The boys on the brook are ready to do the business.  When they gathered outside, their words were direct: We have a plan to rise and fight for our freedom.  ­­

ABW: Writers are encouraged to begin a novel “in scene” rather than in back-story. You manage to do both: your opening chapter is very much a scene, and at the same time, it depicts Gabriel’s life before he set out to organize the rebellion. I think your approach works because of the sense of yearning, of desire, of feeling that emanates from the opening pages. In early drafts of the novel, was this your opening scene, or did you craft it later?

GA:  Hmmm…I always liked that beginning! When I look back at the earliest draft, the first line is: Ma believed. You know, I just feel like this is a story about a man who was part of a multi-generational rebellion, a freedom-movement that started well before him and continued, or continues, long after 1800. So, to me, the story had to start with a linking of generations and end there, too.

ABW:  How long did it take you to write Come August, Come Freedom, and can you tell me a little about your process in writing it?

GA:  Well, my first research notes are dated 2004. I thought a lot about Gabriel, saved clippings, and dabbled in the research before really starting to write the pages in 2008. My editor, Karen Lotz, and I went on a candlelight tour of Mount Vernon one Christmas… maybe in 2006 or 2007? There, we shared a profound moment while we were standing in the area where the quarter had been at Mount Vernon. The only way to describe it is that we experienced a lingering, a really deep encounter—for me and, I think also for Karen—with the history of our nation’s enslavement of men, women, and children. That’s about when I moved more into researching seriously. The research informed my writing constantly. I never stopped researching! I wrote, then researched more, then wrote more, then researched. It was a very circular and layered process.  I’m still researching the story. Who knows, I might stick around the 1800s for a while yet.

ABW:  Thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts and process in writing Come August, Come Freedom. I even enjoyed reading the comment Candlewick Press printed on the book jacket: “Gabriel’s story illustrates how one individual’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness can intersect with a nation’s pursuit of a more perfect union. Gabriel went all in for freedom. To me, he is one of American’s greatest patriots.” Thank you, Gigi, for bringing his story to life!

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?