Tag Archives: Vermont College of Fine Arts

Kill your Darlings: author interview and book giveaway

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

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

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

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

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Cori.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is some kissing in this chapter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CM: Thank you so much for having me!

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

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

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?

Lindsey StoddardLS: Robbie is holding onto much more anger than little Lindsey ever had to. I would have been mortified if ever called to the principal and I certainly wasn’t a regular in my guidance office. I used that punch-in-the-nose moment from my own childhood as my anchor because I believe most middle grade kids have felt that kind of rage. It’s an age when kids are really honing their sense of justice, what’s fair and right, and what’s not. That moment in my childhood when the neighborhood boy hit the bird nest out of the tree with his whiffle ball bat brought out that feisty side of me, and that’s where Robbie was born.

ABW: It fits with the adage, “write what you know.” But I want to ask about what you didn’t know. What parts of this story required research? Are you as adept at car repair as Robbie is? Are you a big baseball fan? Can you recite baseball stats as easily as counting to ten?

LS: I wish I knew as much about cars as Robbie does! Growing up my dad worked for Toyota and I used to love visiting the dealership and watching the mechanics in the service department work on cars. I always thought it would be such a cool thing to know how to do, so I gave that skill and passion to Robbie. It required a bunch of research and lots of calls home to my dad to make sure I got it right. I also grew up in a big Red Sox loving family, so I know baseball very well—not recite-stats-as-easily-as-counting-to-ten well—but well enough to know the game and the players, etc. I had to research and check each one of those statistics that Robbie knows so easily.

ABW: I noticed that when you needed a metaphor, you’d bring in images from baseball or car maintenance, and I thought the images worked beautifully in the story. They felt organic—true to Robbie’s character. Did these images come to you while writing your first draft, or were they part of the revision process? Or let me ask the question this way: when you write, do some elements of a scene come first and others later? Tell us a bit about your process.

Lindsey Stoddard + dogLS: The first part of a book for me is hearing the character’s voice in my head. I don’t even take out a pen until I hear it strongly and consistently and until I even start talking like her. Then I move to the notebook and write from her POV until it’s really clear. Then I start in. Those baseball and car metaphors are just the way Robbie thinks and talks. They were there from the first draft.

ABW: Oh, that’s great. You just gave me the title for this post. Love it!

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At its heart, Just like Jackie is a story of family and a child’s desire to keep hers from falling apart. You invite readers to glimpse multiple families in different configurations, facing various challenges. When you set out to write this novel, did you know the story would go in this direction? Or did you begin simply with a girl and her grandpa, and find that along the way, the larger theme of family emerged?

LS: It started with Robbie and Grandpa. I focused in on their relationship, what makes it special, what they share, how they communicate, etc. Working on that family made me ask the question of other families represented in the book. What’s below the surface there? As I began crafting secondary characters, I became engaged in their situations too, until it became a theme—family is who you get, but it’s also who you find and who you keep. And that all families, no matter what they look like, are built from the same stuff, love and trust, support and resilience.

ABW: Nice. I like how your theme emerged during your process. How long did it take you to write Just like Jackie? And what can you tell us about the novel you have coming out next year?

LS: I have heard it said that an author has been writing her first book her whole life. That is certainly true for Just like Jackie. When I sat down to write Robbie’s story it took me about a year, but the seeds were planted long ago when I was growing up in Vermont, sugaring with my grandpa, admiring my math teacher’s old Green Chevrolet truck, “CHE ROLE,” watching the Red Sox with my family, peeking into the service department at White River Toyota, and witnessing my Nana, Gloria’s, direct, clear, no-nonsense determination and manner.

Right as RainRight as Rain (coming in February 2019) is the story of a girl whose family is in the wake of grief and loss when they make a sudden move from Vermont to the Washington Heights neighborhood in NYC. There, Rain decides she has to fight to keep her family together in the only way she knows how, with facts and figures and research, and in the process, finds that she has a lot of people on her team.

Just as in Just like Jackie, Right as Rain is a book about finding your people, and hanging on to them no matter what.

ABW: Sounds great. Can’t wait to read it!

Let’s wrap up with words of wisdom for aspiring authors. What insights would you share with someone who aspires to write a novel?

LS: Every day is a writing day! Try to get your words in, try to get your butt in the chair, but know that if you don’t, it’s still a writing day. Listen. Remember. You never know what will spark an idea, or fix an issue mid-manuscript. Your process is your process until it has to change, which it will again and again. Before I had babies I was a notebook jotter, a scattered pages across the cafe table writer (and I’m sure I will be someday again!) but now, my time is tight and I’m drafting more in my head in anticipation of the moments I get with my laptop. It’s not easy to get your words in every day, it’s not easy to get your butt in the chair, and it’s not easy to have to revise your process to fit your life at that moment—but every day is a writing day.

ABW: So true. Yes! Every day. And take joy in the process. Thank you again for this interview, Lindsey.

Bookstock FestivalReaders who want to know more about Lindsey can check out her website, find her on Twitter, and head to Bookstock in Woodstock, Vermont, on July 27!

 

 

For a chance to win a copy of Just like Jackie, sign in and enter below:

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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

What’s an “objective correlative,” huh?

 

 

The other day while reading Raymie Nightengale by Kate DiCamillo, I hit a passage that from a craft of writing perspective was so good—so well written—it stopped me cold. I marveled at the technique, and knew in an instant I’d have to blog about it. So here we go. See what you notice in this excerpt from pages 5-6. We’re in the point of view of a young girl named Raymie who’s in a baton-twirling class with a teacher named Ida Nee. Standing next to Raymie is a girl who says…

 

     “My name is Beverly Tapinski and my father is a cop, so I don’t think that you should mess with me.”
     Raymie, for one, had no intention of messing with her.
     “I’ve seen a lot of people faint,” said Beverly now. “That’s what happens when you’re the daughter of a cop. You see everything. You see it all.”
     “Shut up, Tapinski,” said Ida Nee.
     The sun was very high in the sky.
     It hadn’t moved.
     It seemed like someone had stuck it up there and then walked away and left it.

Oh, my gosh. Stop. Isn’t that great? (Or do you think I’m crazy?) Notice what DiCamillo does. Or what she does not do. She does not follow Ida Nee’s rebuke with Raymie’s opinion about Ida Nee. She does not tell us Raymie’s feelings. Instead, she describes what Raymie looks at.

As a reader, what do you feel?

How do you think Raymie feels?

The brilliance of this passage is the way DiCamillo trusts the reader to get it. Read More

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.