Tag Archives: setting

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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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

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

Setting: a writing exercise

I want to pass along an exercise I led earlier this month at a high school Writers Fest. I asked students to explore setting in order to glean new insights into character. Like so many writing exercises, if you’re not in a place to sit down and do this now, bookmark this page and come back later. Thinking about the exercise and doing it will yield different results.

Eudora Welty

About setting, Eudora Welty said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” [Bailey, pg. 165]

In this exercise, we’ll take Welty’s wisdom and observe the effect that setting has on character. Before we start, pick a character, any character… perhaps one in your current work in progress. If a particular one doesn’t come to mind, imagine a setting that has always captivated you—one you’d like to write about. Now put a character there.

Next, put the words BAD WRITING at the top of your paper or computer screen. You now have permission to write whatever comes to mind. Loosen up. Relax. Let go of expectations.

But before we write, I’m going to ask you to engage your imagination with a series of prompts; these assume that your character is human, but if it’s alien or animal or whatever, make your own modifications. There’s no right or wrong here. My hope is that you’ll come away from this exercise with some insights. If a friend is available to read these questions to you while your eyes are closed, great. If not, close your eyes after you read each prompt and take yourself into the moment.

Now take a deep breath, and we’ll begin, but don’t write yet. First, engage your imagination. Go into the setting. Become the character. The prompts will encourage you to experience your setting for a few moments before writing.

  • First, notice the angle of the light. What is the source of the light? From what direction does it come?
  • What color is the light?
  • What other colors do you notice?
  • What time is it right now in your character’s world?
  • What year is it?
  • What month?
  • What is the weather right now in this place?
  • What is the quality of the air? Is it clean or dusty, thick or thin (as in high altitude), smoky or foggy or salty like it’s coming off the ocean?
  • What is your character wearing? How well is he/she protected from the weather?
  • What is underneath your character? If standing, what’s under his/her feet. If lying down, what is the character lying on? What is the character touching?
  • Let your character reach for the thing that is underneath him or her. What does it feel like? What’s the texture? The temperature?
  • Now your character brings a fingertip to the nose. What is the smell of whatever your character just touched?
  • Now a breeze come up in this place, and on the breeze there is an odor. Identify that odor. Imagine what the source of the smell might be.
  • Now your character puts a finger into his/her mouth. What does it taste like?
  • Imagine that your character is really hungry and reaches for food. What food does he/she find here, and what does that food taste like?
  • What sounds does your character hear in the distance?
  • What sounds does s/he hear near by?
  • Ask your character: If you could change one thing in the world in which you find yourself, what would it be?
  • If you could have one thing right now, what would that thing be? What do you hope for, or long for?
  • What weighs heavy on your character’s heart right now?
  • Imagine that a particular sound comes up. Your character moves toward the sound and once there, he or she encounters another character. What is the sound, and whom does your character encounter when he/she moves toward it?

Writing workshop at ARGS' Writers Fest

Writing workshop at ARGS’ Writers Fest

Now write, letting your character spill out onto the page. Write in first person from your character’s point of view. Let your character engage with the place and with the new character who’s shown up. Include dialogue.

After at least five minutes (ten or fifteen is okay), stop writing about that particular place and character. Get a new sheet of paper or open a new word file, and again put BAD WRITING at the top. Take a deep breath. Relax.

Now go back into your imagination with this same character, but this time, there is a door or a portal or an archway or something that your character goes through. When s/he crosses the threshold, the character is in a setting that is the opposite of the place where he/she was before…

  • If the angle of light in the first setting had been high or bright, here it is low or dim, and vice-versa. Visualize the light in this new place.
  • Whatever colors your character saw in the first setting are not visible here. Instead, there is a different color palette. Imagine the palette…
  • Whatever year your character was in before, make it now a few years earlier or later.
  • The month is now six months different from whatever it was before – so if you were in summer, now it’s winter, and if it had been spring, now it’s fall.
  • What time of day or night is it? Make it the opposite of the first setting.
  • Whatever the weather was before, now it is the opposite, so sunny becomes rainy and cold becomes hot, etc.
  • What is the quality of the air that your character is breathing?
  • What is your character wearing? If he or she was well protected from the weather in the first setting, now take away that protection, and vice versa.
  • Continue through the same set of questions posed earlier, imagining each prompt differently from the first time around, and ending in a moment when your character encounters another in this new setting.

Now, again, write from your character’s point of view, letting him/her react to the experience in this new place. Add dialogue. Write for at least 5 minutes, preferably ten or fifteen. Then sit back and reflect on the way the setting altered the characters’ mindsets, the tone of their interaction, the tension and conflict in the scene. What did you learn about your characters or your story?

Thank you to Patty Smith for inviting me to participate in Writers Fest, to Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for hosting the event, and to Bill Blume for snapping this picture of me leading the workshop!