Tag Archives: back-story

Craft Strong Secondary Characters: interview & giveaway

Speechless

After reading Adam P. Schmitt’s debut middle grade novel Speechless, I was… speechless. No, really. I was. Seriously. Toward the end, through a secondary character named Sofia, Schmitt crafted an unexpected turn, and I marveled at the story’s depth. (No spoilers here. You’ll have to read it!)

I loved this novel, so I went looking for Adam and begged for an interview. Turns out, I didn’t need to beg. He said, “Sure!” And that means—lucky you! One reader will win a copy of Speechless. Hop to the end of this post to enter the giveaway, then come on back to hear how Adam crafted such a great book. Deadline to enter: Tuesday, April 30, 2019, at 11:59 PM.

Adam, welcome to my blog! I’m so glad you could share some thoughts about craft.

Adam P. Schmitt: Thanks for tracking me down.

ABW: I want to ask about the wonderful secondary character, Sofia, but we’ll get to her in a minute. Let’s start with the unusual setting and comic voice. Most of Speechless takes place in a funeral home. Even though a kid has died, you manage to make the story funny. So here’s my question: the book jacket reveals that you got the story idea while attending the funeral of a former student. Was humor a part of your initial idea, or did you work in the funny parts later? (If I were to ask your students if you’re a funny teacher, would they say YES?)

APS: Oh, yes…humor was always going to be in the mix. I knew this was going to be a heavy-ish book for the middle grade audience and it was very important to me that the book had balance. I also wanted to reflect what I think happens at so many wakes—joy. While there’s obvious grief, there’s so often happiness and even laughter when families and friends are reunited. I think it’s important to feel comfortable being happy to see people you care about, even in that setting.

ABW: Good point. Visiting with family and friends is a huge part of what happens when someone dies.

APS: And yes, my students would probably say I’m funny. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Especially when I’m the only one laughing.

ABW: Hahaha. I had a sense I was going to enjoy this interview!

Okay, next question. The protagonist is an eighth grader named Jimmy and the Table of Contents is his list of what he is “about to learn,” including gems such as “Poor social skills can get amplified.” Almost every chapter opens with Jimmy and the body of his cousin Patrick in a casket nearby, then shifts to a memory of a disastrous (often funny) moment Jimmy endured with Patrick. When you first started writing, did you know you’d structure the novel this way (alternating between funeral home and flashback), or did the structure and chapter titles come later, during the revision process?

APS: I always knew the story would follow that structure. With the entire story taking place at a funeral home where people stood around and talked, I knew I needed to balance that with action the reader could follow. So each flashback was designed to be its own little story that could almost stand on its own. In the funeral home, it’s Jimmy’s show. But in the flashbacks, he becomes the narrator of Patrick’s life.

The chapter titles came a few revisions in. I always felt that wakes were uncomfortable for anyone, not just kids. The grieving part is expected, but it’s the other emotions and personalities you can’t predict. Those chapter titles were my cliff notes guide for anyone going into a wake for the first time.

ABW: That’s great. While reading, I wasn’t thinking about the flashbacks standing on their own, but I see that now. The structure works really well.

And the way you’ve created suspense works well, too. First we learn that the button on Jimmy’s pants will pop at any moment. Then there’s Mom telling Jimmy he’ll have to get up and speak during the memorial, leaving him fretting over what to say. Meanwhile, we turn pages to learn how Patrick died. Which of these plot elements came to you first, and which did you weave into the story later?

APS: Jimmy giving a eulogy came first. That was always going to be the plot. But I truly didn’t know what Jimmy was going to say until I started writing the end. Patrick’s death was something I wanted to keep from the reader for a bit. I wanted Speechless to be about Patrick’s life, and not talking about his death for a while helped me keep that focus. The pants almost popping came in later drafts. That was simply a product of my opening page being weak. I changed the first paragraph and it ended up being a great thread for Jimmy through the wake scenes.

ABW: It’s an excellent thread. I kept waiting for those pants to fall.

Now, let’s get to the secondary character who stole my heart. Tell me about Patrick’s sister, Sofia. She plays a rather small part in much of the novel, but eventually surfaces in a big way. Can you tell us a little about your process in crafting her? She’s deaf, and I’m wondering whether she was part of your initial idea for Speechless, or did her role get larger during the time you spent writing?

"She's the soul of the book."

APS: Her role definitely got larger. She’s the soul of the book. I always wanted Patrick and Sofia to have a special bond, but it would be overlooked with everything else going on. I wanted a character who could at the same time be invisible, yet command a room. I was very lucky how Sofia came to life on the page. It’s as much her story as Jimmy’s or Patrick’s.

ABW: It really is her story. Sofia is a huge part of the unexpected turn I mentioned earlier. I particularly love the way her key scenes bring a nuanced meaning to your title. “Invisible yet commanding a room” is a description that sums her up perfectly.

Although I’ve focused on your treatment of Sofia, I should also say that by the end, I’d come to care about and understand a whole slew of characters, including parents, grandparents, and Patrick. And I have to add that the scene with the deaf community is priceless.

APS: That was the hardest scene for me to write. I wanted to show how tight her community was, but also respectfully represent them. I had the help of sensitivity readers for that scene. My editor really pushed me on that one, and it’s now my favorite part of the book.

ABW: Well, it’s a gem. What about writing some of the other scenes? Which were the easiest for you?

Happy 4th of July

APS: Some of the flashbacks were easier to write than others simply because the action was clearer to see. The scene at Grandma’s 4th of July party, and the incident with the sisters and their dog… those might be the only two that were largely untouched from the first draft.

ABW: That’s some really good first-drafting! I don’t think I’ve ever written a scene that has remained “largely untouched” from its first version. (In this blog, I’ve rambled many times about my messy writing process!)

What’s next for you? Do you have another novel coming out any time soon?

APS: I am working on something new, but it’s early in the drafting stage. I’m still getting to know my characters, but I really like where they’re taking me. It’s another middle grade fiction based in realism.

ABW: Great. I look forward to reading it. And I want to thank you again for doing this interview. I love to hear authors talk about their writing process.

APS: Thanks. I really enjoyed your questions.

ABW: Readers who want to know more about Adam P. Schmitt can check out his website and find him on Twitter and Instagram. If you do check him out, be sure to let me know in the Rafflecopter (below). Each social media visit earns you a chance to win a copy of Speechless! (You can visit multiple times, each on a different day, and log multiple entries.) Rafflecopter will choose a winner on May 1, so be sure to enter by Tuesday, April 30, at 11:59 PM.

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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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

Editing for Emotional Impact

This week’s Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” presented by James River Writers, was like a cornucopia of craft tips, everything overflowing, spilling out, and the crowd eagerly eating it all up. I had a great time. Here are my favorite take-aways from the evening:

Sadeqa Johnson urged us to listen to our characters. Really listen. Be open to what they have to say. While writing a scene, she’ll pause to ask a character, “What’s up?” Time and again she finds herself surprised by her characters’ answers. She tries to figure out what makes each one feel vulnerable.

Anne Blankman stressed the value of understanding what the protagonist wants, then taking that thing away, or at the very least, threatening its safety. She told us to think of a novel like an amusement park ride; readers have bought tickets and will feel cheated if the ride doesn’t carry them up and down and make their hearts pound. Continue reading

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Kelly O’Connor McNees on Writing

When James River Writers (JRW) invited me to interview some 2014 conference speakers, I looked over the impressive list of who’s coming and jumped at the chance to interview Kelly O’Connor McNees. I love the fact that she’d founded Word Bird Editorial Services. When she’s not writing her own fiction, she’s editing other people’s novels, so I figured she’d be perfect for my blog—as much in love with the process of writing as I am. And I was right!

Kelly will be speaking on panels during the JRW conference, October 18-19, 2014, in Richmond, VA, and on Friday, October 17, will lead a master class on “Point of View: Who’s Telling and Who’s Listening?” You can find more information on the JRW website.

Kelly’s third novel, The Island of Doves, came out earlier this year from Berkley/Penguin. She’s also the author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and In Need of a Good Wife, which was a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award. I’m thrilled to share with you her wisdom on the writing process…

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kelly! I’ve just finished reading The Island of Doves, a beautiful novel set in Buffalo, Detroit, and the wilds of the Michigan Territory in the early 1800s, and I’d love to hear your comments on a few craft points.

Kelly McNees: Thank you for that very kind introduction! I am thrilled to be coming to Richmond for the conference and look forward to meeting lots of new friends and fellow writing geeks.

ABW: And they’re looking forward to meeting you! So let’s talk craft. I want to start at the beginning; usually I hate prologues, but yours drew me right in. You wrote it in scene, and I didn’t even notice that it was a prologue until five pages later when I hit the words, chapter one. At that point, the story had already hooked me. Very nice. Can you say a little about your decision to make that opening a prologue, rather than calling it a chapter?

KM: I think of a prologue as a snapshot of an event that came before the main action of the story, which is why it works to set it apart that way rather than write it as a chapter. But I agree with youtypically I do not like prologues. They can feel tacked on and melodramatic. Sometimes they make a big promise that the novel can’t live up to. I added this one in a later draft, after I had tried and failed many times to communicate the events it describes (in much more elaborate ways) through flashback in other parts of the novel. Eventually I realized that we didn’t need to know the entire history of this family up front. We just needed to know about this one very important event, the death of the youngest sister, Josette, because it sets everything else into motion. Continue reading

In Service to the Story

This past February while writing a new scene, a character showed up, whispered to my protagonist, “We have safe houses for kids like you,” and disappeared. I nearly fell out of my chair. Of course, I had to run after her—had to figure out who she was, and what she wanted.

Shadowy figure2For months I learned cool stuff about her: she does music therapy with a therapy dog, a wonderful golden retriever named Calcutta. She happens to be writing a dissertation on kids raised in hate groups. My fourteen year-old protagonist develops a crush on her, the older woman, then squirms over the taboo nature of his attraction. So far I’ve written twenty-two chapters, and there’s a lot going on, but just recently it hit me that as soon as I complete my first draft and switch into kill-your-darlings mode, she’ll be the first to go.

She’s a great character! Problem is, every time she appears, the pace slows. Every time except her initial appearance when the protagonist sucks in his breath and takes off in a direction he wouldn’t have gone, not then. But once he gets where he’s going, she’s no longer needed. Now I see other factors that can propel him to get where he needs to be, and once there, these other factors matter more than she does.

So, yeah… I have to cut this therapist, and I’m already preparing myself for the day of surgery, grieving the loss of her, telling myself it’s for the best. You kill your darlings in service to the story, the greater good. I’m thankful for the role she played, and I imagine that in another novel, she might emerge with a story worth telling. But in this one, a boy is struggling with his place in the world, and it’s his struggle I’m telling, not hers. I’m still on the first draft, still seeking his story, wondering what he’s going to do. And who knows? Maybe he’ll run into her again. But if he does and if her presence doesn’t keep me turning pages, once again it’ll be, Lights out, lady.

 

Photo credit: mrhayata

Where to Begin a Novel

How and where is it best Come August, Come Freedomto enter into a particular story—which moment, which sounds and which smells should a writer introduce in the opening scene? When I first read Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau, I was fascinated by Gigi’s decision to begin the story the way she did. I asked her why she chose that approach, and am privileged to feature her answers here. I found Gigi’s comments as engaging as the novel.

A. B. Westrick: Come August, Come Freedom is the story of Gabriel, the enslaved blacksmith who organized a massive but ultimately unsuccessful rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. What I found intriguing was the way you chose to enter into Gabriel’s story. The first line is, “Ma believed,” and the chapter unfolds to show Ma nursing him when he was six months old. Why did you choose to begin the book with Ma?

Gigi Amateau:  As I read and studied about the institution of slavery during Gabriel’s lifetime, I learned (in a way that I hadn’t really integrated into my thinking about slavery before writing Come August, Come Freedom) that the crucible of slavery was the childbearing role of enslaved women. The laws governing a person’s status as free or enslaved were grounded in the concept of maternal descent—the mother’s status (not the father’s) determined a child’s status. So, the impulsion of the plot is maternal descent. Also, I wanted to create the character of Gabriel as a person who was not the first freedom fighter in his community or in his family, but one who was born into a tradition of resisting oppression and fighting for freedom. So, I surrounded him early on in the novel with men and women imagining freedom and rebelling against slavery. Continue reading

Bringing in the back-story

For a few years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a primary-level reader/judge for James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest.  We hold a large, quiet party.  Readers pull blind manuscripts from a pile and stretch out across sofas and chairs to score them while nibbling on sandwiches, sipping coffee… It goes on all day and sometimes more than a day, depending on how many writers enter the contest.

Every year without fail, the manuscripts that don’t score well are those that begin with back-story rather than in scene.  Back-story is the history a writer needs to know to create characters who ring true. But readers only need to know that today, now, in this opening scene, the character feels and wants something. The emotion hooks the reader, giving the author time to supply back-story later.

The challenge is to figure out which details are absolutely necessary for the reader to know, and when and how to bring them in.  Richmond writer Dennis Danvers gave me a great tip in this area:  introduce back-story as the protagonist needs to think about it, or as the past occurs to the protagonist, not as the writer thinks she needs to educate the reader. In other words, back-story is relevant only if it matters to the character.

Early drafts will run heavy with back-story, and so they should.  But in the revision process, as the right structure for a novel emerges, writers who focus on present-action scenes rather than back-story have the greatest potential to hook their readers and keep them turning pages.