Author Archives: A. B. Westrick

The Greatest of All: Love the Process

“To win the game is great, to play the game is greater, but to love the game is the greatest of all.” Last week, when I hit this quote in the middle of The Prodigy: A Novel by award-winning sportswriter John Feinstein, I thought, Yes! You could say the same about writing! And I went looking for the source.

Plaque at the Palestra in Philadelphia

Thanks to Feinstein, I found it right away at the Palestra, the University of Pennsylvania’s fabulous basketball stadium. This is a photo of the plaque that greets visitors just past the ticket booth.

Every month I search for blog topics related to writing, and this month—March—how serendipitous that I happened to be reading a sportswriter’s novel! Basketball lovers everywhere are celebrating March Madness.

And the Palestra? Tug on my heartstrings. I grew up outside Phillie and my brother was a starter on our high school team (back then, the Spectrum was the arena where high school basketball championships were played). But I’m getting off track…

Feinstein’s novel is about a teen golfer, not a b-ball player.

And I don’t play golf.

Or basketball.

But here’s the thing: Feinstein has crafted a sympathetic protagonist, a difficult dad, and a compelling plot. And I’m hooked. I’m turning pages because I care about the kid. Along the way, I’m learning a lot about golf and sports in general. And about the Palestra and the awesome plaque hanging there. Thank you, Mr. Feinstein!

Sure, I want “to win the game”—i.e. publish another book. That would be great. But meanwhile, however long it takes, I’m going to keep playing because I love writing—the first-drafting, the revising, the killing of darlings, the figuring out of characters’ desires and conflicts, the realignment of scenes to increase the dramatic tension—the works.

And why did I happen to pick up Feinstein’s book? I just finished writing a novel with a teen prodigy as the protagonist and Dad as an antagonist, and I wanted to make sure my book was completely different from a novel that’s already on the market. Whew! It is. No problem there. My book’s prodigy is a violinist, not a golfer, and his struggle to negotiate life with his father isn’t anything like the struggle Feinstein’s protagonist faces. But having to stand up to a father and make your own way in the world? That’s the stuff of kid lit. Writing for teen readers is pure joy.

Now excuse me while I check the March Madness brackets… My local team, VCU, is in the playoffs, but if they win their first game on March 22, they’ll probably have to face Duke on March 24. Tough games ahead.

To love the game—whatever your game—that’s the greatest of all…

Hard Work and Literary Dreams

Meg Medina

Meg Medina
Photo by Petite Shards Productions

Last month when friend, colleague, fellow Richmonder and partner in literary dreams Meg Medina won the Newbery Medal for her novel, Merci Suárez Changes Gears, I cheered. Then I cried. Then I danced around the house, giddy with excitement, planning how to break the news to my husband when he got home from the office.

But the second he walked in the door, before I managed to say even a word, he announced, “You’ll never guess who I just heard interviewed on NPR!”

That night, we clinked glasses in honor of Meg and her whole family.

We don’t write in order to win awards, but when awards happen, we dance. And the whole family dances! For years, Meg’s husband and kids showed up at every one of her book parties. They hosted writers at their house and community events in libraries and book stores. When Meg had to be away from home, traveling to speak at schools and conferences, her family made do and cheered her on from afar.

Merci Suarez Changes GearsA decade ago, Meg and I were on staff at James River Writers, Richmond’s literary nonprofit, where we helped plan and present bookish programs and an annual writing conference. Meg was always something of a visionary while I was more of a nuts-and-bolts, details-and-logistics type, and together (and with help from lots of other writers and book-lovers in town), we pulled off some great programs. (Just saying!)

Meanwhile, we wrote like crazy. In 2013 when Meg’s novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, was about to launch, I interviewed her here on my blog. Meg taught me the value of bringing heart into my writing, of getting out of my head and into my body, of writing scenes that felt honest, even when honesty felt awful.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick your AssMeg has worked really hard to arrive at the place where she is today. For years she’s inspired me and the rest of Richmond’s writing community, and in winning this award, I can’t help but feel like all of us have won.

My sharing-in-the-win feeling says a lot about Meg—about who she is, deep down inside. If you’re fortunate enough to spend time with her at a conference or book signing or library or wherever, rather quickly you’ll pick up on her enormous sense of generosity. One of her priorities—her instinct—is to include everyone. She’s always striving to build community and make the world—not just Richmond, Virginia, but the whole world—a better, more caring, more empathetic, more just and equal place.

Imagine someone walking in the rain, carrying an umbrella the size of a tent, gesturing for you to scurry underneath, saying, “Come on! Join in! Get out of the damp. There’s room!” And every time another person ducks under, she seems to make her umbrella a little bit larger. That’s Meg Medina for you.

Meg and me at a James River Writers program in 2015

Congratulations, Meg! Here’s to the joy of writing for young readers, to the hard work of crafting fiction, and to the celebration of literary dreams…

The Humility to Keep Trying

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver
Photo by Annie Griffiths

In a recent essay in Publishers Weekly, “5 Writing Tips,” author Barbara Kingsolver said, “[Writing is] a project of balancing the audacity to do this work, and the humility to keep trying until you’ve gotten it right.”

The humility to keep trying.

I like that. And Lord knows, I’ve kept trying!

An unexpected value of blogging once a month is the ability to track the evolution of my writing. When I re-read my June 2013 post about killing a few darlings, I had to smile. Back in 2013, I remarked that I’d drafted 22 chapters. I can now report that after multiple darling-killing sessions, I’ve cut every one of those first 22. And I don’t say this to whine! I say it because it’s true and I appreciate that I needed to write them to get the story to a place that works; they don’t belong in the final version. Continue reading

Writing with Friends: the 85K Challenge

Writing is a solitary activity, but we don’t have to do it alone. I exchange 25 pages a month with a critique partner—a goal that motivates me to get scenes out of my head and onto the page. It’s a great relationship (every author needs a critique partner or writing group—just saying!), but in addition to our exchange, for 2019 I’ve signed up for…

85K90 logo

The 85K writing challenge: write 85,000 words in the first 90 days of the year. That’s approximately 1,000 words a day. Sounds daunting, but like I said in my October post, it’s only 4 double-spaced pages. Piece of cake. And the words don’t have to be beautiful. They just have to be out of my head. Later, I can pretty ’em up.

Unlike NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November, the 85K90 challenge continues through the year, encouraging writers to edit and revise after finishing the first draft.

Julie ValerieJulie Valerie, the founder of @85K90, says, “Our goal is to write 85,000 words in 90 days every January, February, and March.

“Our mission is to embrace the writing life throughout the year by advancing the practice of productive writing from the first word to the first reader. Writers who follow the five productivity cycles embedded in our 12-month calendar can easily produce one novel per year. Continue reading

What is your beacon?

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

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

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

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

Write 1,000 words a day

Clay McLeod ChapmanAt this month’s James River Writers conference, author, actor and screenwriter Clay McLeod Chapman told attendees his daily goal is 1,000 words. On some days he hits 1,000 within an hour and on others it takes all day.

Sounds like a lot, but 1,000 words is only 4 double-spaced pages. And the words don’t have to be beautiful, Chapman reminded us. They just have to be out of your head and onto your page or computer screen. You can’t revise a blank page, and we all know novels come together during revision.

Inspired and fired up to write, I tried the 1,000 words business on my first day back from the conference. Before this, my approach was simply butt-in-chair: show up at the page for 6 hours a day and your novel will (slowly) emerge. It’s worked for me, pretty much. It’s a decent approach. Continue reading

Collaboration: Do’s, Don’ts, and a book giveaway

Last year I asked a friend if she’d collaborate with me on a novel, and she didn’t say YES right away. She tilted her head and thought for a moment, clearly trying not to frown. “I don’t know what this collaboration would look like,” she said, and I said, “Me, neither! We’ll have to make it up as we go along.” Now three months and three chapters into the story, we’re making up lots of stuff. This is the fun stage.

But what if we disagree over the way the story should progress? What happens when we have to revise? I started wondering how others have made collaborations work.

Every Shiny ThingAnd that led me to co-authors Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison. Their novel, Every Shiny Thing, came out from Amulet Books earlier this year. It’s a great read—heartwarming and authentic—and I asked them to share some Do’s and Don’ts and tips about collaborating. They said, “Sure!”

But before we get to the interview, hey, I’m giving away one copy of Every Shiny Thing! Hop to the end of this post. to enter the giveaway, and come back for the interview. Deadline to enter: Tuesday, Sept. 18, 11:59 PM.

A. B. Westrick: Welcome to my blog, Cordelia and Laurie!

Cordelia Jensen & Laurie Morrison: Thanks for inviting us!

ABW: I want to pick your brains about writing Every Shiny Thing. Help me out! I hope my colleague and I can craft a novel as engaging as yours.

Let’s start with your process. You’ve told the story in alternating points of view, and I know from other interviews that Cordelia wrote Sierra’s chapters and Laurie drafted Lauren’s. Did you ever deviate from that set-up? Did you edit each other’s drafts, and if so, how did that go? If one of you read something in the other’s writing that didn’t sit right with you, did you phone? Email? Text? Make a comment in the margin of your shared Google doc? Continue reading

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? Continue reading

Hear the Character’s Voice: Interview & Giveaway

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

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

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

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

Lindsey Stoddard: Hello from Vermont!

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

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

War as Setting: Books by Steve Watkins + GIVEAWAY!

Sink or Swim

Ready for summer reading? Hey, if you’re planning to vacation at North Carolina’s Outer Banks, or if you love historical fiction or war stories, pick up Sink or Swim by Steve Watkins. The story opens in the waters off North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island. It’s an especially good summer selection for middle-grade kids who claim they don’t like to read. This one is sure to bring them around.

And you could win your very own copy of Sink or Swim! Just fill out the form at the end of this post. Deadline to enter: 11:59 PM, June 11, 2018.  (Multiple entries welcome! You can enter once a day from now ’til then.)

Steve has published nine novels for young readers and is working on his tenth. Formerly a professor at the University of Mary Washington and currently a yoga instructor while writing fiction, he lives in Fredericksburg, VA. He and I have spoken on author panels and run into each other at school librarian conferences, and today I’m happy to feature him and his books on my blog.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Steve!

Steve Watkins: Good to be here!

ABW: I loved Sink or Swim. The story hooked me right away, so let’s talk about your first chapter. Openings are always tricky, and yours is pitch-perfect. It’s 1942 and German U-Boats are picking off American vessels up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Twelve-year old Colton and his older brother Danny are fishing in small boats near Ocracoke Island when a U-Boat surfaces, catching Danny’s nets, entangling his boat, and throwing Danny overboard. As Colton struggles to rescue Danny, the Germans laugh at the boys’ distress. (I hated those Germans from the get-go.) It’s a great scene.

Was that always your first chapter? How did you decide to begin the novel there? Continue reading