Tag Archives: theme

What is your beacon?

author David L. Robbins“What is your beacon? The light your novel will shine into the world?” asked author David L. Robbins when I ran into him at last year’s annual holiday Brew Ho-Ho (books and beer!).

I didn’t have an answer. I could have pretended I hadn’t heard him (after all, the room at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery was cavernous and loud). I could have drifted into the mob. But David looms large both in height (6’5″ I think) and personality, and anyone who knows him knows he’s not the kind of guy you drift away from. David has a presence in Richmond, a drive, a sense of forward momentum, an earnestness that unsettles—he’s a force unto himself—and on that day he was asking me to dig deeper.

“Why does your book matter? Why should anyone read it?”

Oh, my. I’d come for the fun literary scene and the fabulous beer (I love Hardywood’s Bourbon Barrel Sidamo) and hadn’t anticipated this challenge. But there I was with an intense man whose fiction has won awards and been adapted for screen and stage (his website includes excellent advice for writers, by the way), and he’d asked a simple question. I was tongue-tied.

Now, of course, my pause didn’t bother David. He likes an audience and when I failed to respond with a neat soundbite, logline, or elevator pitch for my work-in-progress, he talked about what he was up to (he always has a lot going on, from writing and teaching to sailing inland waterways and planning his next overseas adventure). When others eventually crowded around us and we turned to hear about their latest projects, I continued to mull over his question.

The Call of the WildThis week, nearly a year later, the memory of that afternoon resurfaced when I was in the car, listening to Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. It’s the story of a pampered house dog, kidnapped and forced to work as an Alaskan sled dog, and at its core, it’s an adventure story. But beneath the engaging prose—descriptions of savage injustices and Alaska’s raw beauty—the author clearly had something to say. Consider these lines:

It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool.

Was London talking to himself? Was he reflecting on the softness of people born and raised in educated, “civilized” societies? Yes, I believe he was. As his sympathetic protagonist (the dog, Buck) adapts to his circumstances, finding his way by learning to fight and steal food and eventually even kill, readers root for him and “his ability to flee from the defence of a moral consideration and so save his hide.”

The story is more than a great adventure. The Call of the Wild shines a light on what it means to survive—to be alive—and on what’s primal and instinctual in each of us. Has society tamed us into being less than we might otherwise be? If we’ve never been pushed to our limits, how do we know what our limits are?

I love that this book made me fall in love with an Alaskan sled dog while challenging me to think about so much more than Alaska.

What is my beacon? What light will my book shine into the world? While I think David was asking about my particular work-in-progress at that time, today my answer speaks to everything I’m writing. I hope my books, stories, and essays will encourage readers to question their circumstances. Question what they’re taught in schools and in religious institutions. Question remarks made at dinner. Question news feeds and political leaders. Question neighbors. Question God. (God can take it.) And by question, I don’t mean abandon or dismiss what’s taught or overheard or spoken carelessly or intentionally. I mean the opposite. Dig in. Dig deeper. Wrestle with assumptions and prejudices. Engage. Listen. Think.

Hear the Character’s Voice: Interview & Giveaway

Just Like JackieWhat a great debut from Lindsey Stoddard! When I read Just like Jackie, I couldn’t wait to feature Lindsey and her writing on my blog.

In addition to doing this interview, I’m giving away one copy of Just like Jackie! For a chance to win, hop to the end of this page and fill out the form. Then come back, enjoy the interview, and glean some craft-of-writing insights. What Lindsey says about hearing a character’s voice is a fabulous tip. Deadline to enter the giveaway: July 25, 2018, at 11:59 PM.

I first met Lindsey at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Back then she was teaching middle school (my all-time favorite age group) while drafting stories and working on her MFA. She now writes full time, or as full as she can with two little ones in tow.

A. B. Westrick: Lindsey, welcome to my blog!

Lindsey Stoddard: Hello from Vermont!

ABW: Ah, Vermont… I’ll bet it’s gorgeous in New England right now—best place on earth in the summer. I guess maple syrup season is awesome, too, but we’ll get to that in minute.

First let’s talk about your feisty and oh-so-lovable heroine, Robbie. I read in your interview at Through the Tollbooth that part of your writing process involved channeling your anger as a child. Robbie’s anger comes through with honesty, and my question is: how much are you and your protagonist alike? Did you have to learn anger-management techniques like she does in the novel? Were you also a regular in your guidance counselor’s office? Where does the real Lindsey end and the fictional Robbie begin? Continue reading

Be Open to Rewriting (& Book Giveaway!)

Lily's MountainThis month I visited Alaska’s Denali National Park—not in person, but in prose—when I read Hannah Moderow‘s debut novel Lily’s Mountain. From grizzly bears to swarms of mosquitoes, frigid streams, rustic outhouses, a run-in with a porcupine, and a deep crevasse in the ice, the story takes readers on Lily’s quest to find her missing mountain-climbing, Scrabble-playing father. It’s a great read!

And today, in honor of bringing Hannah to my blog, I’m doing a BOOK GIVEAWAY! Scroll to the end of this interview for details on winning a copy of Lily’s Mountain and ALSO a book I mentioned in last month’s post: Get a Grip on Your Grammar by Kris Spisak.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Hannah!

Hannah Moderow: Thank you for having me, Anne. I think back so fondly to our days together as students at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

ABW: I loved meeting you at VCFA, and I can’t believe it’s been seven years since we graduated. Feels like yesterday. And look at us now—still geeking out over the craft of writing!

So tell me about the poem by Robert Service that you included in Lily’s Mountain. Talk about grounding readers in the setting! His words really drew me in:

Robert Service poem

What an engaging, lyrical poem. And my question is about your decision to have Lily remember this poem as her dad’s favorite. Did you plan to include the poem from the get-go? Was it in your first draft of the story, or did it emerge in a later draft? Continue reading

Kelly O’Connor McNees on Writing

When James River Writers (JRW) invited me to interview some 2014 conference speakers, I looked over the impressive list of who’s coming and jumped at the chance to interview Kelly O’Connor McNees. I love the fact that she’d founded Word Bird Editorial Services. When she’s not writing her own fiction, she’s editing other people’s novels, so I figured she’d be perfect for my blog—as much in love with the process of writing as I am. And I was right!

Kelly will be speaking on panels during the JRW conference, October 18-19, 2014, in Richmond, VA, and on Friday, October 17, will lead a master class on “Point of View: Who’s Telling and Who’s Listening?” You can find more information on the JRW website.

Kelly’s third novel, The Island of Doves, came out earlier this year from Berkley/Penguin. She’s also the author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and In Need of a Good Wife, which was a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award. I’m thrilled to share with you her wisdom on the writing process…

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kelly! I’ve just finished reading The Island of Doves, a beautiful novel set in Buffalo, Detroit, and the wilds of the Michigan Territory in the early 1800s, and I’d love to hear your comments on a few craft points.

Kelly McNees: Thank you for that very kind introduction! I am thrilled to be coming to Richmond for the conference and look forward to meeting lots of new friends and fellow writing geeks.

ABW: And they’re looking forward to meeting you! So let’s talk craft. I want to start at the beginning; usually I hate prologues, but yours drew me right in. You wrote it in scene, and I didn’t even notice that it was a prologue until five pages later when I hit the words, chapter one. At that point, the story had already hooked me. Very nice. Can you say a little about your decision to make that opening a prologue, rather than calling it a chapter?

KM: I think of a prologue as a snapshot of an event that came before the main action of the story, which is why it works to set it apart that way rather than write it as a chapter. But I agree with youtypically I do not like prologues. They can feel tacked on and melodramatic. Sometimes they make a big promise that the novel can’t live up to. I added this one in a later draft, after I had tried and failed many times to communicate the events it describes (in much more elaborate ways) through flashback in other parts of the novel. Eventually I realized that we didn’t need to know the entire history of this family up front. We just needed to know about this one very important event, the death of the youngest sister, Josette, because it sets everything else into motion. Continue reading

Intuition guides a first draft

When you tell a joke, you have to remember the punch line before you tell it, or you won’t get it right. I know this from experience. And it’s embarrassing.

But to draft a novel, you don’t need to know the ending up front. Or the theme. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says, “Theme is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it—initially an intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer.” Yeah, I get that.

In the revision stage, writers engage their intellect, stepping back from a story to ask what the characters are all about, and what’s really going on. Then writers cut scenes, restructure, and maybe change the point of view, etc.

I’m reminding myself of this because I’m thick in the middle of a first draft, and at the same time I’m writing nonfiction talks that I’ll give to students and educators now that my novel, Brotherhood, has come out. (Viking released it yesterday. Hooray!)

Six days a week, I write fiction in the morning and nonfiction (blog posts, speeches, letters, emails) in the afternoon, and I’m feeling a little schizophrenic. The two couldn’t be more different. With fiction, I focus on sensual details—smells, sounds, textures, tastes—and with nonfiction, I’m all about themes, motivations, and the big picture behind my novel.

It’s easy to forget that there was a time when I didn’t know where Brotherhood was going, what the characters wanted, or even who the characters were, exactly. Their desires emerged over a two-year period. Beneath their story was an anecdote my father had told me years earlier, an anecdote that motivated me to write about a boy who felt stuck in circumstances beyond his control. That anecdote found its way into the talk I gave last night at the book launch party, but it’s not part of the novel. Not really. Not consciously.

In drafting this new novel, right now I feel impatient. I want to know the theme already! I want to write the ending. I want to understand what these characters want. I want the process not to take so long. I want to be done with it, and have another manuscript under contract. So… what am I doing? I’m drafting scenes that are all over the place, and meanwhile, writing blog posts. It’s so much easier to write a blog post than a novel.

Lucky 13s: 2013 Debut AuthorsBut reading blog posts never gives me the sense of satisfaction I get from fiction. And I can pour hours into writing and giving talks, but rarely do I resonate with a talk the way I resonate with fiction. Yesterday I posted on The Lucky 13 blog that sometimes writing fiction is like playing the tuba. I live for that sort of resonance. (Click here to read that post.)

I can’t tell a joke to save my life, and I get what John Gardner means about intuition guiding a first draft. I have to trust that my intuition is finding its way into the novel I’m now drafting. I remind myself that the process takes a long time, and that’s okay. I don’t yet know the ending—the punch line, if there is one—and I’ll keep writing until it reveals itself.

Storytelling à la Pixar

Here is yesterday’s fabulous post from io9.com: The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar, written by storyboard artist Emma Coats, with an intro from io9 editor Cyriaque Lamar. This hits so many elements of the craft, I’m posting it on the bulletin board over my writing desk. Thank you, Emma, and thank you to io9.com, a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future. You can see the original article here, but in case it disappears from the cloud, I’ve pasted it below. And how fun—in the moment when I took this screen shot, it captured the fact that two of my Facebook friends also gave this article a thumb’s up. Go Clay and Clete!

Storytelling accoring to PixarStorytelling according to Pixarstorytelling according to Pixar

For the love of Vemont College of Fine Arts

Voice. Sympathetic characters. Narrative pace. Dialogue tags.  Emotional arcs. These are the sorts of topics we tackled at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  In January 2011, I graduated from the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults there, and I’m going through serious withdrawal.  Maybe blogging will help…

Vermont is a place where critique doesn’t mean line-edits, but means discussing theme and desire-lines and narrative structure and how a writer intensifies or slows the pace.  It’s a place where students are encouraged to play while being pushed to write the novel that comes from the heart—the one only you can write because it’s so you—the one so personal and particular that it touches on the universal—on what it means to be human.

Vermont changed me.  It changed my writing.  It changed the way I read.  During residencies, we called it our own little Narnia.  Such a magical place. In this blog, I’ll only skim the surface, and will apologize in advance for my “you had to be there” tone which is so hard to block, because, well… yeah…