Tag Archives: SCBWI

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

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

Love your protagonist

This month I attended two writers’ conferences—James River Writers and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Mid-Atlantic Regional—and felt like I’d shopped in a gourmet food store. I came home excited to cook.

Speakers laid out the usual conference fare—how writers must learn to accept failure/rejection, cultivate resilience/perseverance, find their own unique (authentic) voice, etc.—a smorgasbord of advice.

When Lin Oliver stepped up to the podium, she gave a talk called, “A Ten Point Guide to Launching and Sustaining a Children’s Book Career.” During Point Five, she dropped a crumb that made me sit up, made my mouth water. Five was about studying the craft, and Lin peppered it with spices like letting the child solve the story’s problem and writing “in scene” and beginning on the day that’s different. Delicious stuff, all of it.

Lin Oliver

But the morsel Lin dropped—the one that got me to lean forward, Read More

Author Wendy Wan-Long Shang Talks Craft

What a joy to feature Wendy Wan-Long Shang on my blog today! Wendy is the author of the award-winning novel The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, and tomorrow (April 28th) her second book for young readers, The Way Home Looks Now, comes out from Scholastic. Welcome, Wendy!

A.B. Westrick: This is a fabulous book—not only beautifully written, but so compelling. At times it’s sad, at other times funny, and more than once surprising (but no spoilers here!). Let’s talk about the beginning. I’m interested in the way you chose to start the story, or as I like to think of it, the place where you invite readers to enter in.

We meet the protagonist, Peter Lee, as he arrives home to find something very wrong with his mother, but it’s a wrongness he’s come to expect. Readers don’t understand at first, and we’re curious, and by the end of chapter three, we get it: there’s been a death in the family. My question for you is this: was this opening always your opening? How did you come to settle on this particular scene for chapter one?

Wendy Wan-Long Shang: I had to go to my drafts folder for this one, and I’m so glad you asked because I had forgotten about some of my early drafts until now. In my earliest attempt, I tried to work completely chronologically, so that the death happens in “real time.” What I discovered, though, was that I wasn’t getting quickly enough to the heart of what I wanted to talk about—how Peter’s relationship with his father changes.

In Chapter One, Peter and his sister are locked out of the house, even though his mother is inside. I developed this opening because I wanted it to serve as a sketch of Peter’s situationhe is literally shut out of his mother’s life, and he wants very much to re-connect with her, while at the same time wanting to protect his sister from getting hurt. Continue reading

Restless Manuscript Syndrome

“Restless Leg Syndrome? Oh, that’s an electrolyte imbalance,” said a doctor-friend. “Just drink Gatorade.” I shrugged. Couldn’t hurt. So I downed a juice glass-worth of Gatorade and voilà—my legs stopped twitching. Thirty years of restless leg syndrome gone. Done. Relief! All I have to do is drink a little Gatorade every evening, and I sleep through the night. And for what it’s worth, let me just say that I really like that “cool blue” flavor, but if I get tired of it, there’s mango extreme, rain berry, lime cucumber…

If only writing were so easy. If only there were quick fixes for years of rejection letters, for the restless places in our manuscripts. If only finding the voice of a story were as easy as trying a new flavor.

Come on, we’re all about quick fixes, right? We have no shortage of elixirs for lowering cholesterol or losing pounds. Combine free Internet access with the ease of digital printing and everybody and their second cousin once removed has published a memoir or mystery or children’s book or dystopian fantasy. Publication promises immortality, right? What are you waiting for? Publish that baby! Now! Quick!

Ahhh… but if only every book or essay or short story were worth reading.

So the question is: how does a writer make a manuscript worth someone else’s time? Earlier this month, I attended SCBWI’s regional conference in Austin, TX, and heard author Matt de la Peña tell writers to slow down. “Let a scene play out… Let readers participate more… The micro-level of a scene matters…” It was just what I needed to hear. I returned home to my work-in-progress and made myself linger inside scenes. I paused to identify smells and sounds, to let my characters touch smooth surfaces and rough ones. I threw out scenes that didn’t matter to the emotional arc of the story, and dug deeply into those that did.

Then I read de la Peña’s award-winning young adult novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, and loved it. No matter that I’m not into baseball and this is a baseball book. It’s well written. Period. I savored the flow of it, the way he wove memories into present-action scenes and orchestrated the unfolding of an unlikely friendship. And then there were the baseball moments. The pitcher. The batter. The wind-up. The challenge. The threat. The way he raised the stakes. Again. And again. And again. Not only did he have me on the edge of my seat, but a week later I found myself suggesting to my book group (a bunch of middle aged white ladies) that we read and discuss this book and get tickets to a Flying Squirrels game. (That’s our local minor league team. Great name, huh?)

By slowing down each scene in Mexican WhiteBoy, de la Peña got me to engage with characters whose world was foreign to me. He invited me to read as if I were a participant in the action… there on the edge of the baseball diamond… cringing, cheering, sneezing when the dust got too thick… I felt it all because he invited me in. No quick tonics. Lots of sensory details. Amazing dialogue. And the irony, okay? Is that he left me restless… eager to read his other critically-acclaimed novels.

Sure, I’d like to hurry up and finish my current work-in-progress, get something new to my agent, have a second book in print. But not if it means hindering readers from entering into the scenes I’m writing. I value my readers’ time, so it’s worth my time to slow down. Getting readers to participate in my characters’ lives is everything, and if I can pull it off, I’ll have penned a novel that’s worth their time. Thank you, Matt.

On listening

SCBWI logoMy debut novel will be released in 2013, so I applied for the SCBWI Book Launch Award—some extra funds to launch my book in an innovative way. And I won! SCBWI announced the winners yesterday afternoon, and I’m still processing the news. So excited!

But this blog isn’t about tooting my horn. It’s about craft—how to write more, write better, and fall in love with the process of writing. My hope is that the very activities I’ll do to promote my novel will get me to engage with students and teachers in ways that will enhance my writing. Ways that will encourage me to ask what matters… why I write the books I write… why I write at all… how my writing might make a difference…

Part of the marketing proposal that won the award was this:Podium Foundation logo encourage students and teachers to use my book as a springboard to create their own “Making a Difference” audio recordings. Partner with The Podium Foundation, a Richmond (VA) nonprofit which holds writing clubs in Richmond’s high schools; lead workshops in each club, guiding students to write, revise, rehearse and record stories of themselves or others making a difference, patterning stories after NPR’s “This American Life”; post the MP3 recordings on my website and Podium’s website.

While the students will be revising, rehearsing and recording their essays, I’ll be listening. I look forward to meeting teens with ideas, strengths and issues that are new to me. I’m excited to hear a variety of stories… to listen… to engage… to encourage… to question… to learn from them and stretch my writing in new directions.

While much of my own writing is for myself (I write stories that speak intimately to me), I also write for a particular audience—for young readers. The greater my ability to listen to kids, the greater is the potential that my writing will engage them. For whom do you write? And how do you go about listening to your readers?

Raising the stakes

At the mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference last month, keynoter Han Nolan said, “When a story scares me so much that I want to give up, when it’s so dangerous I’m scared to sit at the page, that’s when I know that I’m onto something.”

She got me thinking. As a young writer, my stories were … nice. The characters were … nice. I suffered from classic middle-child-itis, the desire for everyone to get along. And just yesterday, I was doing it again. While writing a scene, a new character appeared, and within a few minutes he had hijacked the story. He was fun. Writing about him allowed me to avoid writing the confrontation-scene I’d spent chapters setting up.

So I’m glad I realized the mistake this time, but I know I’ll do it again. What can I say—middle child that I am—my tendency to avoid conflict is pretty strong. I hate having to assert myself. But sometimes telling the truth means being assertive. It’s an uncomfortable place, but if my characters don’t go into places that are uncomfortable or scary or dangerous—if they don’t go anywhere that really matters—why read about them?

Danger. Conflict. Tension. They take many forms. We writers need to ask what the stakes are for our characters. Then we need to raise the stakes. That idiom comes from gamblers: when they raise the stakes—the bet—anyone who wants to keep playing has to pay up or get out. It’s not the same as upping the stakes, as in pulling up tent poles and moving on. A writer needs to up the ante, demand a greater investment, increase the risk, make it dangerous to sit at the page. That’s the sort of danger that keeps readers turning pages. Thank you, Han Nolan.