Tag Archives: writing

When a protagonist goes missing…

Evidence of Things Not SeenThis month I read a YA novel that defies literary convention. It’s a mystery, but not a mystery. There’s a protagonist, but he goes missing. Scraps of paper found near the spot where he was last seen refer to particle physics and time travel. Characters hint at one possibility after another, and in the end… no, no, no, I can’t reveal the ending!

When I asked the author to tell me about her writing process, she mentioned a number of people who helped her along the way—a testament to the strength of her writing community. The author is Lindsey Lane, the book is her YA debut, Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar Straus Giroux 2014), and today I’m thrilled to feature her on my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Lindsey, I’m so glad I caught up with you to talk about this story.

Lindsey Lane: Thanks for tracking me down!

ABW: I love the way you open this novel with a missing teen. Then you go into a series of vignettes, each with different characters, and the story arrested me. The structure brought to mind Elizabeth Strout‘s Olive Kitteridge, and I wondered if that book influenced you. Could you talk a bit about how you conceived of this story?

LL: Elizabeth Strout?!?! Really? What a huge compliment. But no, no influence whatsoever.

Okay so here’s what happened. I went to VCFA as a picture book writer. I wanted to expand as a writer, and my first advisor, Sarah Ellis, suggested I try some short stories. So like a dutiful first semester student, I did. I wrote short stories…Bad ones. In my third semester, I had this dream. A young boy was standing in the middle of a pull out. Hmmm, I thought…who are you? I kept writing into that dream, trying to figure out who this kid was and where he was standing. Many, many drafts later, that boy became Nino in the chapter I titled, “Comic Book.”

To be honest, I didn’t know I was writing a novel. For a long time, I was writing connected short stories around this interesting place: a pull out by the side of the road. Finally when I had amassed quite a few stories, I dumped them into the laps of my critique pals. One of them, Anne Bustard, said, “Ummm, this story with the boy who goes missing? That story has some legs.” That’s when I began reimagining the whole thing and weaving in Tommy as a missing person throughout all of the stories.

ABW: That speaks to the value of listening to your writing colleagues. Also, a willingness to experiment with structure.

Lindsey LaneLL: I like interesting structures. Years ago, I wrote a one woman play called The Miracle of Washing Dishes. Each character’s story was centered on washing dishes and having a kind of epiphany doing that simple act. It was based on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and the notion that one can find joy and meaning in the simplest act. So I wove a whole bunch of characters together through a sink full of dishes. (The actor was amazing.)

I like story structures that have space for the audience to enter in and make connections. Remember when sitcoms were one storyline? Now they have three or four. Look at Modern Family. Or Transparent. As writers, we can ask the audience to lean in and make connections. We don’t have to spell everything out. I think television and movie writing is changing the way we tell stories on the page.

ABW: I remember marveling at the multiple story lines in Seinfeld, back in the early nineties. (Okay, now I’m dating myself. Back to Evidence…) Because Tommy is missing, we get to know him through the other characters’ eyes. I expected Tommy would eventually emerge as the protagonist, but that doesn’t happen, not really. Along the way, I thought maybe the sheriff would become the protagonist because, after all, he’s the Sherlock Holmes figure, trying to solve the mystery. But then again, you don’t show us the sheriff! We hear characters answering his questions, and never see him in the flesh. Brilliant! So I ended up thinking that the book didn’t have a protagonist, and yet the story had me on the edge of my seat. Would it be appropriate to view the group of characters as a collective protagonist? Or do you see Tommy as the protagonist in absentia?

LL: In my mind, Tommy is the protagonist. Though he never appears, he drives the narrative of the story by making every one else’s story wobble. You remember I did my VCFA graduate lecture on Alexander Calder [known for inventing the mobile]? In a way, the structure of Evidence is very much like a mobile: the negative space defines the creation. Does that make sense?

ABW: Yes. And it’s fascinating.

LL: To put it in more concrete terms: what happens when you can’t find your keys? Think how that happenstance alters your day. Now imagine if a kid disappears from a town. I was trying to see what would happen with all the people whose lives Tommy touched. What happens when he is gone? What happens to the people on the periphery? Do their lives wobble too? I think when something dramatic happens in our lives, we feel it, even if we don’t know that person.

ABW: I definitely felt the wobbling. Everything wobbled in the wake of Tommy’s disappearance, including the sheriff’s investigation.

LL: Ahhh, the Sheriff. Yes, of course he had to be there. The confessor. The bringer of hope. For his role, I need to tip my hat to Janet Fox. She used a cop in a very similar way in Sirens and it worked.

ABW: How challenging was it for you to craft so many different voices? Were some based on people you know, and others purely from your imagination? Who was the hardest for you to write?

LL: I loved using my theatre background to write the first person direct address sections with all the different voices. They moved the story forward. 

The most challenging part wasn’t writing a particular character, but was believing it was okay to tell this story in such a different format. It was a risk. Many of the characters came from real life, both from my life and from my time as a journalist. (Karla Raye. Frank and Stella.) Others I imagined. (Alvin. Jake. Mary Louise.) They all seemed like kids who would go to that high school. I even put myself in the novel as a cameo. Who, you wonder? That girl who shows up in her blue truck in the pull out to buy a watermelon from Jake was me. In a former life.

ABW: Love it. Now I have to re-read that chapter with you in mind!

LL: That was fun to do. None of the characters were hard to write, but there is always a moment in the writing that is hard. For me, most of the hardness comes from my own self-doubt and wondering, “Can I do it? Is this character believable?” Then there is a moment when I fall in love with the character and I have to make them come to life. No matter what.

ABW: The setting emerges as a constant: the pull out on the side of a highway. The place where Tommy’s bike is found. The colors, sounds, and smells of the pull out with its cedar trees and fields beyond are now vivid in my mind. How did you craft this setting?

LL: Ohmigosh, the pull out. What a strange place, eh? I have to say the poet Julie Larios really pushed me on the setting. I listened to all those world-building lectures at VCFA and thought, “Oh, that’s for fantasy writers. I write contemporary realism. My world is the one we live in. I don’t need to worry about world building.” Au contraire, young grasshopper. Julie said, “Every writer needs to draw a map of their world. It must be detailed. So you know where everything is.”

Map of the pull out

Lane’s map of the pull out by the side of the road

So I drew a map of the pull out. I even made a legend for every tree. Finally, I shaded in all the divots and potholes of the pull out. I knew what it would feel like for Jake to walk across that pull out.

Setting is an amazing resource for a writer. Usually when I’m stuck, I can go to the setting and source a character’s memories and hopes. I may never use that material but it definitely deepens the character and I can usually move the story forward more organically.

ABW: Did you base this fictional pull out on a real place? A place that has affected you personally?

LL: When I moved from the east coast to Texas, I would see these strange little dirt patches by the side of the road. Sometimes they were empty. Sometimes people were selling watermelon or deer jerky. Sometimes cars were parked there with no one in them. It doesn’t have an address and yet people know the place when you say, “I last saw Tommy at the pull out by the Stillwell Ranch.” Immediately, that location is real. So I thought, “Hey, if I can weave together a play around dirty dishes, why not set a novel in a dirt patch by the side of the road?”

ABW: That’s great. And you did it! And I love the way you wove in tidbits about quantum physics and the possibility of time travel, and how you raised questions about assumptions we make everyday. It’s such a thoughtful novel. But don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves! No spoilers here. I’ll just add that I think the questions you and your characters raise are larger than the story, itself. They’ve stayed with me, and I want to thank you for that.

LL: Thank you, Anne. Quantum physics was such an essential part of Tommy’s character. It consumed him. I could feel how those concepts would set a teenager’s brain on fire. No wonder comic books weave quantum theory into their storylines. They are fascinating theories. As for the ending, I tried to create a novel that didn’t have a bow at the end. I didn’t want people to close the book and be at peace. I wanted them to wobble a bit as well.

ABW: And you succeeded. And instead of asking about the ending, I’ll ask: what are you working on now?

LL: Well, I’m revising my latest novel. I need to restructure the ending. It is about a girl who commits a murder. It’s loosely based on a woman I’ve been visiting in prison for the last two years. She’s serving thirty years. But what struck me about her case is her accountability. When she was eighteen years old, she turned herself in. Wow, right? How many of us would be brave enough to admit our crime? She seemed like a heroine in search of redemption. Of course, I didn’t write the novel in a straight linear fashion. Oh no. There are two timelines and they form a kind of infinity loop. It works but I need to restructure the climax so the crime feels absolutely inevitable and absolutely avoidable. No small task. It will depend on character. So while restructuring the climax, I have to infuse the main characters with more guts, sinew and heart.

ABW: Sounds like a lot of work ahead of you.

LL: I’m ready to dig in. I let the novel rest over the summer while my agent Erin Murphy read it and made brilliant comments. In the meantime, I revised a short story, which came from the world of Evidence. It is a thread that wouldn’t let go of me. It takes place about four months after the end of the novel. The main character is Sam, the boy who works at the Whip In. He’s about to leave for college, and it’s his last shift at the Whip In. When it’s ready, I will let you know where you can find it.

Snuggle MountainABW: Thank you. I look forward to reading it. And thanks again for granting this blog interview!

Readers: if you want to know more about Lindsey Lane and her writing, check out her website and look for her on facebook and Twitter. If you’re buying for a teen this holiday season, hey—take it from me. Evidence of Things Not Seen is a great read! And for little ones, consider her picture book, Snuggle Mountain.

Dig Deeply for Truth

Sara Lewis Holmes.Wolf HourLast week I heard author Sara Lewis Holmes talk about school visits, then wondered what I would tell students about the story beneath the novel I’m currently writing. If this book ever gets published, what items might I bring with me when I visit a classroom? What images might I project on a screen? What is my truth behind the characters, setting, and interactions on these pages?

Now, of course it’s crazy to think about school visits before getting a contract on a manuscript, but what I’m really doing at this stage in my process is asking why I’m telling this particular story. Why does it matter to me? Why does my heart break for this protagonist? Why do I care? Continue reading

Eat Your Vegetables: Write a Synopsis

Stuff I Hate to DoWriting a synopsis sits high on my Stuff I Hate To Do list. It’s up there with writing blurbs for book jackets. Bleh. Ask me to craft a scene that draws a reader in, that sets you on the edge of your chair, that makes you feel something, and I’m in. Love the challenge. But don’t ask me to narrow a plot down to the basics and spoil the ending.

Synopses are spoilers. Nobody wants a spoiler, right?

Wrong. Agents want them. Editors want them. All the publishing pros want them. A synopsis tells them who’s who and what’s going down and whether the protagonist manages to get what she wants, and how she thwarts the antagonist, and… yeah. You have to reveal all of it, including the neat twist you thought up for the ending. Spoil away. Continue reading

Writing Outside Your Culture (& Book Giveaway)

One Shadow on the WallWhat a wonderful new book for middle grade readers! Leah Henderson’s debut novel One Shadow on the Wall took me deep into a Senegalese village and the story of Mor, a boy who desperately wants to keep his family together. Even though the setting is foreign (at least, it is for American-born-and-bred-me), the plot is the stuff of human experience: the struggle to stand up to a bully, the desire to prove oneself and make a difference, the love of family and home. It’s such a heartwarming story, I had to catch up with the author for a blog interview!

I met Leah at the 2016 SCBWI Mid-Atlantic conference in northern Virginia, ran into her again at the AWP conference in D.C. in early 2017, and attended her book launch party on June 6th in Richmond where YA author Lamar Giles hosted an insightful Q&A. Too fun!

Now I have a signed copy of One Shadow on the Wall here in my hot little hands, ready to give away to a lucky reader.

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

Leah Henderson: Thank you so much for asking me to stop by.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson

One Shadow on the Wall

by Leah Henderson

Giveaway ends August 31, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

ABW: I’d love for you to share a bit about your journey to write this story. Let’s start with the unique setting, Senegal. You give readers a glimpse into the people and culture of this “land of teranga (hospitality).” I especially loved the way you wove foreign words into the narrative. Jërëjëf (thank you)! In your author’s note, you talk about your travels. Please say more! When did you first journey there, and why Senegal?

LH: I have an insatiable travel bug, and before writing the novel I had been to Senegal only a couple of times. It is a place with a rich history and it had always been on my “Pack a bag” list that is miles long! Read More

Believe your Story (Goodreads Giveaway: WIREWALKER)

WirewalkerMary Lou Hall‘s debut novel Wirewalker came out in September 2016, introducing YA readers to 14 year-old Clarence Feather, a boy with a big heart and some big problems. He earns pocket money running drugs while grieving his mother’s death and longing for another way to live. The story is beautifully written and hard to put down, and after reading it, I just had to interview Mary Lou for my blog.

But before we get to the interview, note the title of this post. It’s not “believe in your story,” but Believe your Story. Read on to get to the distinction Mary Lou makes.

And meanwhile, sign up for the book giveaway! I tracked Mary Lou down, got her signature on a hardcover, and am doing this giveaway through Goodreads. If you want to enter, check out the Goodreads Giveaways page. Free, no strings attached. Deadline: July 20, 2017.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome to my blog, Mary Lou! I really appreciate your taking time from your busy teaching schedule to tell me a bit about what inspired you to write this gripping YA drama.

Mary Lou Hall: Thanks for inviting me to your blog!

ABW: Let’s start with where Wirewalker came from. I’d love to hear what the spark was that lit your imagination and compelled you to write Clarence Feather’s story.

MLH: During late college and through graduate school, I waited tables and tended bar in a swanky, successful restaurant. While I was there, I became friends with a co-worker who was six years younger than I was. At that point in my life, the age gap seemed significant. He was barely old enough to legally work. To me, he seemed like the quintessential innocent kid encountering the so-called real world for the first time. I was wrong. Read More

Anne Blankman on emotional truth in historical fiction, & YA ARC giveaway

Today I want to sing the praises of Richmond, Virginia’s writing community! I’m fortunate to be surrounded by poets, novelists, journalists, and nonfiction geniuses. Just a few minutes away lives Anne Blankman, and last year when I visited, her daughter snapped this picture of us.

Anne is the author of three YA novels, all published by Balzer+Bray: Prisoner of Night and Fog, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (a sequel to the first), and Traitor Angels.

A.B. Westrick: Hello, Anne, and welcome to my blog!

Anne Blankman: Thanks so much for having me!

ABW: Today I want to discuss your first novel, but before we jump in, I have to tell readers that I’ve got a giveaway here: an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of Traitor Angels, signed by you! Readers who leave a comment at the bottom of this post will be entered into a drawing for the ARC. The deadline to comment and have your name in the drawing is June 15, 2017.

Now let’s focus on Prisoner of Night and Fog. Set in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, it’s the story of 17 year-old Gretchen Müller, who adores Hitler and knows him as “Uncle Dolf.” When Gretchen learns that her father had been murdered, not martyred (as she’d been told), she sets out to find the truth. Read More

Writing about cancer: talking craft with Dean Gloster

This month, after devouring Dean Gloster‘s debut YA novel Dessert First, I just had to track down the author and hear a bit about the story behind the story. How did he come to write this poignant novel? Lucky for me, Dean is currently studying in the MFA program at my alma mater, Vermont College of Fine Arts, so I found him there, and he made time in between MFA assignments to talk craft.

A.B. Westrick: Hello, Dean, and welcome to my blog!

Dean Gloster: Thank you for having me!

ABW: I want to start with a question about the funny-sarcastic parts of this book, but first I need to tell readers a bit about the story because a whole lot of the book really isn’t funny at all. From the title and cover art, readers might think the book includes a few recipes, but… no. Dessert First is the story of 16-year old Kat Monroe and the many issues in her life, beginning with her brother’s cancer relapse (leukemia), and including soccer girl bullies, a former boyfriend, and academic woes. Life is pretty rough, but Kat tries to keep up her sarcastic-funny side. So my first question is where this character and her sense of humor came from. Your bio says you’ve done stand-up comedy. Is it easy for you to write one-liners? Do teen characters bring out a natural snarkiness in you?

DG: Humor does come naturally to me and Kat’s voice came easily, in part because I channeled 16-year-old me. (Back then, I also had anger that came out as sarcasm, and that did not serve me well with peers.) Read More

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

Try Something New

I don’t remember exactly when I met Erin Teagan, but I know it was through SCBWI‘s Mid-Atlantic chapter—either the annual fall conference or the novel revision retreat. It might’ve been as many as ten years ago, so in 2015 when I heard Erin’s debut novel had sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I did a happy dance!

The Friendship Experiment is a heart-felt middle-grade novel about a 6th grader who loves science and could use some help in the friendship department. It hit shelves in late 2016, and this month I caught up with Erin to ask about her writing process.

A.B. Westrick: Congratulations, Erin! And welcome to my blog.

Erin Teagan: Thank you, Anne!

ABW: I want to start by asking about you. Your bio says you’re a former research scientist. How much of you is present in your protagonist, Maddie, and how much of Maddie is pure fiction? Tell us a little about your process in crafting this delightful character.

ET: The idea of Maddie came to me when I was working for a biologics company and I took my mug to the dishwasher and found that a scientist had posted a very official and detailed standard operating procedure on how to use this everyday appliance. I immediately thought about this scientist’s life. Did he write SOPs and put them on his appliances at home? Did his kids have an SOP taped to their bathroom mirror to help them brush their teeth? This is how Maddie came to me. Read More

Write with wonder

Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma

In a July 2016 article in Toronto’s Metro News, writer Richard Crouse recounts a joke told by world-class cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a new documentary called The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble:

A little boy says to his father, “When I grow up I want to be a musician.”
“Sorry son,” the father replies, “you can’t do both.”

Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty mentor Jane Kurtz retold this joke during her January 2017 lecture, and lucky for me, I was on campus to hear it! For eleven days I worked as a Graduate Assistant, attending the lectures in exchange for helping make the residency run smoothly. I had a blast. Now back home, I’m digging deeply into characters’ emotions and trying to tap into more of my childhood experiences—into both a sense of wonder as well as uncertainty and disappointment. Growing up wasn’t easy. Would you want to have to grow up again? I wouldn’t. Read More