Tag Archives: plot

When a Theater Nerd Writes Fiction: interview & giveaway!

The Mortification of Fovea Munson

Look what’s out in paperback tomorrow (June 4)! The Mortification of Fovea Munson by Mary Winn Heider. It’s LOL funny—the zaniest middle-grade novel I’ve read in years. Author Varian Johnson described it as “equal parts screwball comedy, coming-of-age story, and tearjerker,” and Adam Gidwitz called it “hilarious and disgusting… in other words, exactly what you’ve been waiting for.”

And I’m thrilled to have the author here for an interview! Plus, in celebration of the paperback release, I’m doing a book giveaway. Hop to the end of this post to sign up for a chance to win a copy of The Mortification of Fovea Munson, then come on back to hear what Mary Winn Heider has to say about writing her debut novel. Deadline to enter the giveaway: Tuesday, June 11, 2019, at 11:59 PM.

A.B. Westrick: Hello, Mary Winn! Welcome to my blog.

Mary Winn Heider: Woohoo! Thanks for having me!

ABW: I don’t want to ask the same questions you’ve already answered (I loved the interview Julie Rubini did with you at From the Mixed-Up Files), but we have to start with the bit about you having worked as a receptionist in a (cough, cough) cadaver lab. Okay, so clearly, that experience influenced this novel.

MWH: Oh, for sure. My cadaver lab adventure was the randomest. I ended up working at the lab by accident, and as soon as I saw what an absurd-also-serious-also-bonkers-also-fascinating place it was, it was all I wanted to write about. So I wrote the first draft (plus a few revisions) while sitting in that basement office, in between ordering body parts and assembling suture kits. Eventually, I wound up with more and more responsibility, and the version of the job where I had a lot of down time vanished. But for a long time, I was able to write at the lab, which was awesome for so many reasons.

ABW: Ordering body parts. Uh-huh. I need to pause on that for a second. Yeah. Ordering body parts. That part of the story was great!

Okay, back to the genius of your book—yes, I said genius—beyond the zany humor, which still has me smiling. I loved the way you brought all the details together at the end. You tied up ends I didn’t even realize were loose! For example: tampons in a drawer and frog guts in a middle school lab. You are a master at storytelling. So my question is: how many of these details were in your initial draft, and how many got added later, during revision?

MWH: Ha! So…I didn’t map any of it out beforehand. And in the end, there were a lot more setups and payoffs than I thought I was writing even as I was writing.

My favorite thing is when I’m writing a scene and a character needs something and I realize the answer already exists in the story. So, for example (this includes the mildest of spoilers)—when I was filling Whitney’s office drawers, I tried to make the detritus distinctively Whitney’s, instead of generic office stuff. I thought about everything she might want in her desk drawers, and I included a whole bunch of tampons just rolling around in there. Whitney didn’t strike me as a person who would hide her tampons or be delicate about them. And then, a little bit later when I was after some kind of incendiary material, I had my character look around, and hey presto. We were both pleasantly surprised to find exactly what we needed.

ABW: I was totally surprised. And in awe of your craft! Genius. Really. Not that I’ve ever set tampons on fire, but when I read that part, I could see them burning.

MWH: Details like that are the most fun! I guess really, it’s about mucking around and creating potential. Not necessarily with an eye to how I can come back later to whatever that particular detail is, but really simply, by honoring the world and the characters. If only I were better at plotting, I might be able to plan that stuff! As it is, it’s like a ton of little Chekhov’s guns that I’m tucking in everybody’s pockets and then I’ll see which ones go off.

ABW: Hahahaha. That’s great.

Mary Winn Heider
Mary Winn Heider
Popio Stumpf Photography

MWH: Total theater nerd here. But also, to be fair, some moments are definitely reverse-engineered. Sometimes I’d think, Hey, I can seed this organically so it’s not super random when it appears.

You also mentioned the frog from the science class. He came along in a much later draft. Early on, there were no classroom scenes with Fovea, and when I went to add one, I wanted to make it feel like it fit in thematically. I tossed in the frog, and I won’t spoilerize him too much, but I’ll say that he surprised me, too.

ABW: That frog—too funny. Not at first, actually, but in the end, I laughed out loud.

So it sounds like the novel went through a lot of revision. How different does your final version look from your first draft?

MWH: The final version is a lot longer but also way more focused. There was originally a wild goose chase sequence with food trucks that my wonderful beta reader Rachel Hylton gently suggested was irrelevant and ought to be cut. But Grandma Van wasn’t in the earlier drafts, and neither was the museum of holography—both of which feel like crucial parts of the story now.

I love cutting. I love breaking things open. They are the most exhilarating parts of revising for me.

ABW: I’ve never before heard a writer call the revision process “exhilarating.” I love that! And kudos to you for listening to your beta reader and taking her feedback to heart.

Now, let’s return to the early stage. When you set out to tell Fovea’s story, where did you begin? Did you do character sketches? What was your entry point into this whacky story? What was the first scene you wrote?

MWH: I’d decided I was going to set a story in the lab, and then I gave myself some space (not in front of a blank page) to think about how it would open and what the voice would be. And out of the blue, I heard Fovea’s voice, introducing herself as the bouncer of the cadaver lounge. That bit became the opening—but you haven’t read it because it doesn’t exist anymore! It wasn’t right, ultimately, but it was exactly what I needed to get into the story. It was all voice, and that set the tone for me.

ABW: Oh, interesting. Thank you for sharing that. You’ve reminded me of a post I did years ago about a character who helped me get into a story, but later I cut her from the manuscript. It’s helpful to hear that you cut an early version of the opening. Good stuff. It’s all part of the process. What other insights or words of wisdom do you have for aspiring novelists? What might you tell them about the craft?

MWH: I’d tell them what I needed (and still need) to hear! The best thing they can do is keep trying to fail better. I didn’t really understand how to do that until I went to grad school at VCFA. I failed at so much there! It was the best.

ABW: The MFA program at VCFA is outstanding!

MWH: I think being cool with failing was the moment I actually became a serious writer. Because then it wasn’t about the failure anymore; it was about what I learned and how I could do better next time.

ABW: Oh, great answer. Brownie points! Yes, fail better. (And a shout-out to Samuel Beckett for first coining that phrase. “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”)

MWH: Heck yeah. Theater nerd to the death.

ABW: Haha. Okay, before we wrap this up, I have to ask about your parents. You open The Mortification of Fovea Munson with your main character bemoaning her parents’ dark humor, and I noticed that you dedicated the novel to your parents. So tell me… were they the source of your sense of humor? (Or the cause of some middle school moments of mortification?) How did growing up with Karl and Malie influence your writing?

MWH: Oh, there is so much of my parents in the book! They are sneaky hilarious, and my brothers and I all got a lot of our sense of humor from them—so many of my favorite moments are sitting around the kitchen table with them, all of us laughing until we cry. I’m sure there were also some mortifying parental moments in there, because that seems pretty essential to growing up, but the truth is, I was the kind of kid who really fixated on my own disasters, so the mortifying times that stick out to me now are the ones I was responsible for myself.

ABW: Some day I want to meet your parents. Okay, final question. How long did it take you to write this story, and what are you working on now?

MWH: It was six years from beginning to end. The first three and a half years were pretty focused, and after that, it was mostly copyedits and waiting. These days, I’m working on another middle grade book that takes place in the same Chicago-not-Chicago world.

ABW: Thank you so much for doing this interview, Mary Winn! I learned a lot and laughed a lot.

Readers who want to know more about Mary Winn Heider should check out her website, and follow her on facebook, twitter, and instagram. And if you do check out her social media links, be sure to say so in the Rafflecopter below. Each entry is a chance to win a copy of The Mortification of Fovea Munson. (You can log multiple entries by returning to the Rafflecopter on different days.) On June 12, Rafflecopter will randomly choose a winner, so be sure to enter by June 11, 2019, at 11:59 PM.

 

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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. 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

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

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

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

Get a flow going

Last month I posted about endings, then tried my own suggestion: I wrote a possible final chapter. Once I had it, of course I had to write the scene that would come immediately before it. Then I wrote the scene before that one, and on back, scene by scene, until my ending scenes connected with the chapters I’d written from the beginning.

I had a complete first draft. Finally!

And it was fun to write the story backwards. It was freeing. It was crazy, loose writing—a lot of dialogue—and I admit that the manuscript is now a mess. But a first draft is done. The story now has a shape (an emotional arc) and the characters have come alive, and I can begin to dig deeper into scenes and add sensory details and check for continuity, etc.

The best part is that along the way, I had fun! I got a flow going. I gave myself permission to let go. To relax.  Continue reading

Know your Ending

Once when I was young and read a novel with a fabulous twist at the end (I’ve forgotten the book, but I recall its effect), it hit me that the writer had to have known the ending all along. He’d planted clues throughout, but as a reader, I hadn’t put two and two together until the end, and when I did, wow. The story blew me away. Remembering the title would be a bonus here, but my point is that on that day, although I was only in elementary school, my wow moment had to do with craft.

Shortly after recovering from that wonderful wow, I recall that I felt sorry for the author. Poor thing. When you know your ending up front, doesn’t it spoil the story? Doesn’t it ruin the enjoyment of reading it? Of writing it? And when I realized that all authors would have to know their endings while writing their beginnings, I felt sad for them. Why would anyone want to become a writer? 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

Salivation and Satisfaction

When I was a student in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I heard Jane Kurtz, the author of more than thirty books for young readers, give a fabulous lecture called “Salivation and Satisfaction.” The gist of her talk was that for a novel to work well, the reader must salivate (must care about the protagonist and hunger for more), and must feel satisfied at the end. The sense of satisfaction comes when there’s a match-up between what the writer sets up for the character and what the character gets. The protagonist won’t necessarily get what he or she wanted, but the questions the author has raised at the start need to be answered by the end.

This wisdom was on my mind one morning this past month, a morning when I woke feeling heavy. You know… it’s great when you feel rested first thing in the morning. It’s great to slip into your desk chair, take a sip from a steaming mug of coffee, and start writing, writing, writing. But I didn’t feel rested that morning. I had the whole dang plot of my novel sloshing through my head.

From years spent writing, I’ve learned that when I wake thinking about a particular scene, something is wrong. Continue reading