Tag Archives: YA

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!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

-Back to top-

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).

My Struggle to Write Girl Characters

I’m a girl who struggles to write girl characters, so what’s the deal, huh? I’ve asked this question for a long time, sometimes touching on it in other blog posts. This month I’m hitting it head-on.

When I was growing up, no one talked about gender identity, or if they did, I didn’t tune in. But I remember wishing I’d been born a boy. I remember wanting the freedoms that boys seemed to have. Now looking back, I think my wishes stemmed from not liking the expectations society put on girls. Wear dresses. Learn to use make-up. Enjoy cooking and shopping. Bleh. I tried but couldn’t bring myself to care about that stuff. (Still don’t.)

Nether Providence Junior High Girls Basketball circa 1969By 6th grade I was taller than all the boys except three. In 7th grade I tried out for cheerleading and didn’t make it. Chorus and didn’t make it. Basketball and made second string. Or third. Somehow I ended up as team manager, which meant that before each game I’d cut up oranges and put them in clear plastic bags. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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

Sailing Oceans with Padma Venkatraman

How’s this for serendipity? When I met conference keynoter Padma Venkatraman at the James River Writers conference in October 2016, she recognized my book. She’d read it! Turns out her book had also received the NCSS Notable Trade Book Award. We were award-sisters! And right then, I knew I had to interview Padma for my blog.

I’ve just read her multiple-award-winning novel A Time to Dance about a girl who dreams of dancing again after losing a leg in a bus accident. It’s intense, at times funny and sad, soul-touching, heart-warming—all in all, a great read.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Padma!

Padma Venkatrama: Hello! Thanks for having me.

ABW: Your keynote address was inspirational, and I’d love for you to repeat a bit of what I heard you say at the James River Writers conference. Would you please talk about “going method”—the way you approached the task of writing about a character who’d lost a leg? It was so interesting. What did you do, and how did it influence your writing process?

PV: I’d like to begin by sharing with your readers the incident that inspired A Time to DanceOn a trip to India in my late teens, I was bitten by a viper, one of the most poisonous Indian snakes.

ABW: Oh, no!

PV: Oh, yes! It’s a miracle I survived without having to have my leg amputated. That experience—of nearly losing life and limb—solidified my sense of spirituality (which isn’t necessarily bound to any religion). Read More

Ruta Sepetys on Multiple Points of View

 

 

This month, I caught up with Ruta Sepetys, recently home from a two-month book tour for her latest historical YA, Salt to the Sea. It’s a gripping World War II story of a group of teenagers running for safety while the Russian army marches toward Germany and American bombers fly overhead. Set in 1945 in what is now Poland, the story leads up to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea, the greatest tragedy in maritime history.

 

 

In this video clip on Ruta’s website, we learn a bit about the family history that inspired Ruta to set her novel during WWII. Watching this clip is well worth four minutes of your time:

Ruta notes that “empathy is one of the greatest and most beautiful contributions that we can achieve through writing.” Empathy. Yes! So necessary when it comes to crafting a character, and especially when writing multiple characters and multiple points of view. I’m thrilled to have Ruta here to tell us how she did it.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Ruta. So glad you could share your thoughts about craft and process.

Ruta Sepetys: Thank you so much for having me!

ABW: Let’s start with that awful Alfred character—awful and oddly funny. The story is tense and Alfred provides a lot of comic relief in circumstances that are otherwise bleak. Was Alfred part of your early drafts, or did you weave him into the story later when you realized the need to lighten things up? How did you go about crafting him? To what extent is he based on someone you know? Continue reading

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? Continue reading

Mistakes Writers Repeat

Oops, I did it again.

No, no, I haven’t broken a guy’s heart à la Britney Spears, but I’ve repeated the same mistake that earned me a decade-worth of rejection letters: writing from my head. Allowing my scenes to drift into the safe world of ideas. Into thoughts and concepts and heady stuff, and out of the dangerous world of feelings and sensory responses. I need to stop pretending that I have my act together and instead revisit the times I’ve felt vulnerable, insecure, embarrassed, and scared.

From Where You DreamThis month I’m re-reading Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream in order to shake myself up, wake up my writing, and dig deeper into each moment. I’ve challenged myself to craft a novel in alternating points-of-view (four characters), and it’s coming along, but lemme tell you… thinking is easy. Feeling is hard. People often ask writers where they get their ideas, and for me this question misses the mark. Ask me how I tap into emotions. (I’ll tell you I’m working on it.) Butler says:

… in order to get through childhood and puberty and adolescence and young adulthood, broken relationships and a marriage or two, or four—you have identified with your mind… you’ve got this self-conscious metavoice going all the time… That voice wants to drag you up into your head… [but] the only way to create a work of literary art is to stop that voice. Your total attention needs to be on the sensual flow of experience from the unconscious.

You’ll need to read the book to grasp everything he’s saying, but for now let’s call it digging deeply for the unconscious physical responses that accompany the emotions we feel. Digging really, really deeply. An author who has mastered the ability Butler talks about is Patrick Ness. Right now I’m reading Ness’s latest novel More than This, and I want to show you the opening sequence so you can see the way he’s crafted a “sensual flow of experience.” Check this out:

more-than-thisHere is the boy, drowning.

In these last moments, it’s not the water that’s finally done for him; it’s the cold. It has bled all the energy from his body and contracted his muscles into a painful uselessness, no matter how much he fights to keep himself about the surface. He is strong, and young, nearly seventeen, but the wintry waves keep coming, each one seemingly larger than the last. They spin him round, topple him over, force him deeper down and down. Even when he can catch his breath in the few terrified seconds he manages to push his face into the air, he is shaking so badly he can barely get half a lungful before he’s under again. It isn’t enough, grows less each time, and he feels a terrible yearning in his chest as he aches, fruitlessly, for more.

He is in full panic now…

Wow. These paragraphs draw me into the present moment of the story. I don’t know how the character ended up in the water—and it will be many chapters before Ness supplies the backstory—but already, I care about this character. I’m beside him in the water, and I’ll keep reading to find out what happens.

Years ago I read Butler’s book and it helped me understand “show, don’t tell” (I blogged about details), but this time I’m digging deeper than details. I’m going into places that feel dangerous, places where my characters feel vulnerable, places that are a whole lot harder than details to tap into.

All of this is to say that I’ve developed coping mechanisms to avoid emotional black holes, but these same mechanisms—the ones that keep me sane—block my fiction. They block a reader’s ability to connect with my characters on an emotional (subconscious) level. I need to let myself feel scared again, or angry, or embarrassed, or humiliated. Really feel it. Then I must write scenes without using words like scared, angry, embarrassed, or humiliated. I must write the sensory details of the experience.

(An aside: my sister is a nutritionist and dietician who specializes in eating disorders, and just last week was telling me that she’ll sometimes ask her clients to sit still—just sit for as long as they can, for an hour even, or two hours—and allow themselves to feel. To experience their own emotions. It can be a terrifying exercise, but she promises them they won’t die in the process. They might cry, tremble, rage, etc., but they’ll survive. The technique has helped some of her clients, and it got me thinking (oooh, here I am, thinking again): I need to tap into the place where I tremble.)

I’m guilty not only of writing from my head, but of repeating this mistake even though I’m aware of it. How about you? What are your mistakes? What is your comfort zone—your default button—the place you retreat to, where you pat yourself on the back for having penned another scene that sounds oh, so good when the truth is that it’s nowhere near honest? Not yet.