Tag Archives: VCFA

Crafting Nonfiction for Young Readers

I met Winifred Conkling in 2009 when we were students in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and today I’m thrilled to feature her reflections on the craft of writing. Winifred is the award-winning author of numerous books and articles for adults and children, and her newest book, Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery, comes out today from Algonquin Young Readers.

A.B. Westrick: Winifred, welcome!

Winifred Conkling: Thank you for inviting me, Anne.

ABW: Passenger on the Pearl is a heart-wrenching story that hooked me on page one. I can tell from the sidebars and source notes that you researched the life of Emily Edmonson and her contemporaries extensively. So my first question is how you distilled down what must have been a mountain of primary sources, and decided to begin the story where you did (with Emily’s mother’s fears about bringing children into the world)?

WC: I always struggle with where to start a story. You’re right, I started the process by reading piles of source material. I finally decided that the most natural way to frame the story was to focus on Emily’s birth into slavery and to end with her marriage and the promise that her children would be born free. In my background reading, I was devastated by the quote from Emily’s mother, Amelia, who had fallen in love but refused to marry, saying: “I loved Paul very much, but I thought it wasn’t right to bring children into the world to be slaves.” I am the mother of three, and I can’t imagine what it would feel like to know that my children would be destined to face the horrors of slavery. I know that young readers are familiar with the idea of slavery, but I wanted to make the suffering personal. Continue reading

Revision Is The Best Part

The worst part of the writing process is the blank screen, the white paper, the emptiness, the limitless possibilities. The best is revision. Once I’ve scribbled a few words, I’m onto something, and when I let myself revise those words—moving paragraphs around, deleting extraneous junk—it feels great. Like cracking a Sudoku puzzle. Hahaha. (No, really.)

These days, I’m deep into revisions on a new novel and my manuscript is a mess. I love working on it, although I often wish it wouldn’t take so long. I decided to look back at an early version of Brotherhood to remind myself just how far that novel came—how bad it was early-on, and how much it improved. This gives me hope. Here’s the 2009 version of my opening scene:

Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Somebody is banging. Bam, bam, bam. Somebody is banging so hard the walls are rattling.

“Mrs. Weaver?” a man shouts.

My head hurts. I open my eyes. I’m in my bedroom. The light is early. A chicken squawks. Peep-peep, is that you? Jeremiah is stretched out asleep in his britches.

“Open up! Official business of the government of the United States. Open up!” The voice is flat and nasal. It’s not from around these parts. It’s Yankee.

I hear shuffling in the house. Mama is up. Peep-peep and Poke are squawking. Shoot. Is somebody hurting our chickens? I should check on the chickens. I roll off the mattress. I run to the windowsill. I am not awake. Am I awake?

“Shoot!” I cry.

There’s a boy looking in my window! He’s wearing blue. Blue cap. Brass buttons. Blue uniform. Musket on his shoulder. “Going somewhere, Mr. Weaver?”

Ouch. Cringe-worthy. Choppy. This version repels me more than it engages me. While I like the way I was able to get inside the head of this character, I feel irritated by that closeness. As a reader, I don’t want to stay inside this head for three hundred plus pages.

Here’s the revision, completed in 2011 and published in 2013:

The first sound Shad heard was the squawk of a chicken. Then the thud of a fist on wood. Bam. Bam. Bam. The hollow walls rattled. A man’s voice. “Mrs. Weaver?”

The light was early yet, and Shad glanced beside him. His older brother lay asleep there in his trousers—right there on top of the white cotton ticking. Hadn’t even changed into a nightshirt. Shad nudged Jeremiah’s shoulder and heard his brother grunt, but he didn’t wake.

The thud came again. Bam. Bam. “Mrs. Weaver? Official business of the government of the United States. Open up!” The voice was flat and nasal—not Virginia-born.

Shad nudged Jeremiah harder this time, but still his brother didn’t rouse. He rolled off the straw mattress, feet on cool dirt, and headed for the window. But at the sill, he jumped back. “Lord!”

There was a boy maybe Jeremiah’s age—seventeen—maybe a tad more—blond like Jeremiah. He stood on the other side, only inches from Shad’s face. Navy blue cap. Blue uniform. Brass buttons. Musket on his shoulder. He said, “Going somewhere, Mr. Weaver?”

Notice that I added details to ground the reader in the setting. I revised from first person, present tense to third person, past tense, pulling the reader out of the protagonist’s head, and providing a welcome distance while staying true to the character. I slowed the scene down.

Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt

My publisher never saw that early version of Brotherhood. Before I queried agents, I’d already revised the whole shebang, adding details, changing tenses, cutting some scenes and digging deeply into others. I had help doing it, thanks to the MFA program at  Vermont College of Fine Arts. Instead of telling me to shelve the manuscript because it was so bad, my 4th semester faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, taught me how to approach revisions, how to dig deeper, how to turn a mess into a novel.

Re-reading my bad early version makes me feel good. Encouraged! My current WIP is messy, but it’s coming along. If I didn’t love the process, I wouldn’t keep going. But I do love it. I live for it. Spending my mornings writing fiction keeps me sane through my afternoons and evenings. And when I have something to work with—something to fix rather than starting from scratch—that’s the best of all.

Writing a Novel in Verse

Listen to these lines from the first page of Caminar, Skila Brown’s debut novel in verse:

Our village sat in the folded-between,
in that spot where you pinch something sacred,

to keep it still.

Our mountain stood guard at our backs.
We slept at night in its bed.

This book mesmerized me. Its lyrical beauty quickly transported me to the jungles of Guatemala with its owls and soccer-playing children and military men looking for older brothers, old enough for signing papers, and one day…

Soldiers Set Up Camp
That year before the rains began, they came
in jeeps, with tents for sleep,
set up camp outside our village.

I couldn’t put it down. I loved Carlos, the young protagonist of this story, and I just had to get inside Skila Brown’s head to hear about her process in writing a novel in verse. I wanted to glean tips for tackling this art form.

A.B. Westrick: Skila, thank you so much for doing this blog interview. Carlos’s story captivated me from page one, and stayed with me long after I finished reading. I find the idea of writing a novel in verse to be daunting. Can you tell me which of the poems you wrote first? What part of Carlos’s story became your starting point, and how did the story evolve during the course of writing?

Skila Brown: Anne, thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog! The first poem that came to me was “Guerilla Rain.” The poems that ended up following that one in the book came next. Often I would write 3-5 poems in a spurt, and on the next day, I’d write verses that would appear in an entirely different section of the book. Writing out of order is fun and frustrating—in equal parts. But Carlos’s story, for me, started with the arrival of the guerillas. I knew this was about a boy whose village got targeted simply because the rebels had passed through. Continue reading

#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…

Trust the Process

I’m pushing… pushing… pushing through weak writing to create new scenes before revising/perfecting the old. First drafts are always full of bad writing, and it’s oh-so-tempting to revise. But instead, I’ve pasted this message at the top of my Scrivener screen:  You do not yet know this story, so keep writing scenes, keep digging deeper into these characters, keep throwing obstacles in the paths of their desires, and see what transpires…TRUST THE PROCESS.

I have to thank Melanie Crowder for her blog post last month about trusting the process. And a thank-you to Sharon Darrow for telling me to think of adverbs as place-holders. We pepper them all over our first drafts. But later, at revision-time, it’s best to pause at each adverb. Take it out, roll it around, toss it up in the air, scatter it across a garden, and see what sprouts. Sharon didn’t say all of that, exactly, but you get the idea. Adverbs tell a reader what to think. Strong nouns and verbs take readers inside scenes and invite them to think for themselves.

I love revision-time. The blank page is what frightens me. Stalls me out. Chokes me dry. Just this week Kristin Swenson asked me about beginnings… how do I go about beginning a new project? I don’t have a good answer. I agonize over beginnings. Virginia Pye told me that between projects, she watches lots of movies, craving narrative, absorbing stories…

coffee cupI met Melanie and Sharon at VCFA, Kristin and Virginia in Richmond, VA. My writer-friends and acquaintances inspire and encourage me. They hold me accountable. Writing is hard! But at the same time, if I fail to begin a day by writing, I’m irritable. Some people begin with a cup of coffee, but not me. Before coffee, before breakfast, before daylight, I write. I pull on leggings, cozy socks and a sweatshirt, then flick on a space heater and a small desk lamp with a florescent bulb that starts dim and brightens as it warms. I pick up a spiral notebook and a smooth, fast pen, and I write stream-of-consciousness—at least three pages worth, thanks to Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” suggestion—a practice I began more than ten years ago when I read her book, The Artist’s Way. I throw away sluggish pens, and when the notebook is full, I throw it away, too, and start a new one. I rarely read my stream-of-consciousness rants. My first writing of the day isn’t about the words on the page so much as it’s about freedom and flow, breathing and release, waking and opening up to possibilities…

No matter how bad the writing, it’s always a good morning when I begin with free writing… Then I sigh, make a cup of coffee, stare at a blank page, thank Anne Lamott for her Bird by Bird advice (shitty first drafts), and remind myself to trust the process…

Getting into character

During one of JRW’s twitter-chats (#jrwc12) with upcoming conference speakers, we were posing questions for Kristen-Paige Madonia, author of Fingerprints of You, and she tweeted that she’d spent four years getting to know her characters. Four years? Ouch. I’d hoped to have a second novel under contract before my first appears, but I’m not so sure I’ll meet that goal. I’ve been struggling with my next novel, wondering whether my story works, and fearing I might have to banish it to a drafts-folder.

But Madonia’s comment gave me hope. Rather than lamenting that sometimes it takes as long as four years to write a novel, I’ve felt relieved. It’s okay! I don’t have to beat myself up over the next one not yet working. I’m breathing deeply again. I’m not under contract. I can take my time. Pfew. If it takes my characters four years to reveal themselves to me, well then, that’s what it will take. Implicit in my deep breaths is a new confidence that it will happen. Getting into CharacterI’d been rushing the writing, and now I’m slowing down and re-learning how to trust the process.

This past week I’ve been reading Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins, an approach to novel-writing based on techniques in method-acting. I’m trying out her suggestion to interview my protagonist, and the kid is talking up a storm. Few if any of his ramblings will make it into the novel, but in absorbing his world-view, I hope I’ll be able to make his presence on the page authentic. Let’s see if I can do it… Let’s see if it takes me four years…

Voice and details

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron

My agent nixed the novel I finished drafting earlier this year, and it’s taken me a couple of months to process what’s wrong with it and how to fix it. I’ve been brainstorming new characters, a setting change, and a different plot direction, but it was while reading Tom Hanks’ recent obituary of Nora Ephron in Time Magazine that I stopped flailing for possible solutions and found my direction. Voice and details. That was the essence of what made Ephron’s writing so good. Okay, and she was really funny. But voice and details. That’s where I need to go.

What I find interesting about the critique-process is that readers can often tell when someone else’s writing isn’t working, but cannot always pinpoint exactly what’s wrong or why. Kudos to my agent for not providing direction other than telling me to try again. I’m guilty of giving writer-friends suggestions for ways to fix problems, and many times a critique-group buddy of mine (or a professor in the MFA program at Vermont College) has flagged a particular paragraph in my writing and offered suggestions–quick fixes. But often these sorts of suggestions don’t ring true because the problems run deeper than a sentence here or there. The take-away is that something isn’t working, and in my case, that something has a tendency to come down to voice and details.

If You Want to Write

When I’m enamored with plot, my characters tend toward the generic, toward derivations of characters the world of fiction has already seen. When I’m lost in the world of my characters, my plot suffers. So much must come together to make a novel work! In this case, I thought I’d crafted a pretty good plot, but the characters weren’t ready for prime time. In If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland wrote, “the more you wish to describe a Universal, the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular.” Voice and details. I’m headed back to my writing desk to dig deeper into my characters, listen for their voices, and let go of my plot. I need to let the characters drive the plot.

The writing process continues to humble me, and for that, I’m ever so grateful.

Starting from scratch

A few weeks ago I finished the first draft of a novel for 4th-5th grade readers, and set it aside (later I’ll return with fresh eyes and revise). While in this lull between projects, I’ve devoured books and added a few titles to my Great Reads lists. But I feel antsy. When I don’t spend at least a couple of hours writing each morning, I get cranky. At the same time, the thought of beginning a new novel overwhelms me. I know how long and involved the process is. How much writing gets thrown out. How the characters have ideas of their own—ideas that don’t always mesh with mine—and I have to be patient and listen, listen, listen.

socksRight now I sense the seed of a new story, but it hasn’t yet germinated. Like a burr in my sock, it’s rubbing, and it feels good to scratch at it, but I know I have to let it rub me raw in order to get at the emotions, desires, secrets and fears that will drive the next novel. (Geez, why couldn’t I have been born a comedian?)

I turn to my bulletin board of inspirational tips from faculty and trustees at Vermont College of Fine Arts:

I read and re-read these quotes, and I sigh and nod and free-write and day-dream and pace and say, “thank you.” Thank you.

The structure of a novel

In the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, John Stazinski (page 29) bemoans the tendency of MFA programs to concentrate nearly exclusively on the short story at the expense of the novel because it’s too time-consuming to workshop complete novels. Thank goodness Grub Street is now experimenting with a novel-revision class to fill the gap.

VCFA logoLucky for me, VCFA was not one of those MFA programs. In the first few semesters, there were limits to the number of pages I was allowed to submit for critique/review, but in the final semester, the complete draft of a novel was welcome. It was an intense final semester. My faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, required multiple re-writes of my novel—never mind line edits. The focus was on structure—on the intersection of the story arc and the emotional arc—on Big Picture elements of the craft.

Now I can’t read a novel without marveling at and dissecting its structure. Of course writers need to learn how to craft engaging characters and settings with mesmerizing descriptive details. But plot matters! A well-conceived story arc is just as necessary as beautiful prose.

Take John Green’s Looking for Alaska, for example. He intentionally deviates from the classic climax-and-denouement structure with brilliant results. Early chapters are labeled “before” and later chapters “after” and the life-changing moment occurs in the middle, leading to a denouement that at first glance appears too long. But no. The climax is not that moment-in-the-middle, but comes when the protagonist realizes he can’t live fully if he remains stuck on life “before Alaska” and “after Alaska.”  The structure Green has given to his novel is the very structure the protagonist is struggling to escape.

Or take Uma Krishnaswami’s delightful The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Her theme involves life’s coincidences, and she presents the story from the points of view (close-third person in alternating chapters) of one protagonist and multiple secondary characters. Readers glimpse a postal carrier here and a Bollywood movie star there, and in the end, of course, the characters’ lives intersect. But it’s the structure of the novel in multiple POVs that makes the intersection work.

It’s one thing to know the story you want to tell, and another to figure out how best to tell it. Such is my current quandary. Last week I completed the draft of a novel, and I’m now letting it rest so that I can return later with fresh eyes to ask: what structure—what sequence of scenes—will provide maximum dramatic tension for my readers? Right now I’ve got one viewpoint in part one and another in part two. But will alternating the points of view (the way Uma did) serve this story better? Hmm. Thank goodness I have early-level reader-friends willing to critique an entire novel, not simply ten or twenty pages at a time.

On Joy

A while back, fellow VCFA alum Lindsey Lane asked if I had a favorite quote about writing—and I did—and in January she posted mine in the “Quotable Tuesday” column in her blog, The Meandering Lane. After doubting myself and my writing last week, what a joy it was this week to re-read what I’d sent to Lindsey. My favorite quote comes from The Writing Life by Annie Dillard:

Annie Dillard

One of the few things I know about writing is this:  spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.  Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.  These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.

 

This idea that something more will arise for later… that creativity begets creativity in the same way that love leads to more love, that it’s a growing thing, not something to hoard but something to give away because in the giving, somehow it grows into something even greater than it originally was… this is what excites me about writing. It’s what gets me up in the morning—this sense that I don’t yet know what might come of today’s writing. When I approach my writing with a sense of anticipation, of joy, of vulnerability because I’m opening myself up without knowing what I’ll find… I fall in love with the process. Again and again, I fall in love. It’s not about the finished product (well, yes, it is in the end, but it’s not along the way), but about the process of getting there.

For me, something about writing is therapeutic. It is spiritual. The process gives me a great sense of fulfillment. Now, I’m not talking about the business of writing. I’m talking about the process of creating something from nothing, a story from a blank white sheet of paper. I’m talking about wonder. About awe. About possibility, itself. About grace. About allowing my body to become a vessel through which a story tells itself. No, I’m not smoking anything funny while I’m writing this! I’m talking about joy. When I read Annie Dillard’s essays, I feel joy. That is what I love about writing.