Tag Archives: Vermont College of Fine Arts

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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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

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

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

What’s an “objective correlative,” huh?

 

 

The other day while reading Raymie Nightengale by Kate DiCamillo, I hit a passage that from a craft of writing perspective was so good—so well written—it stopped me cold. I marveled at the technique, and knew in an instant I’d have to blog about it. So here we go. See what you notice in this excerpt from pages 5-6. We’re in the point of view of a young girl named Raymie who’s in a baton-twirling class with a teacher named Ida Nee. Standing next to Raymie is a girl who says…

 

     “My name is Beverly Tapinski and my father is a cop, so I don’t think that you should mess with me.”
     Raymie, for one, had no intention of messing with her.
     “I’ve seen a lot of people faint,” said Beverly now. “That’s what happens when you’re the daughter of a cop. You see everything. You see it all.”
     “Shut up, Tapinski,” said Ida Nee.
     The sun was very high in the sky.
     It hadn’t moved.
     It seemed like someone had stuck it up there and then walked away and left it.

Oh, my gosh. Stop. Isn’t that great? (Or do you think I’m crazy?) Notice what DiCamillo does. Or what she does not do. She does not follow Ida Nee’s rebuke with Raymie’s opinion about Ida Nee. She does not tell us Raymie’s feelings. Instead, she describes what Raymie looks at.

As a reader, what do you feel?

How do you think Raymie feels?

The brilliance of this passage is the way DiCamillo trusts the reader to get it. Read More

Revision Is The Best Part

The worst part of the writing process is the blank screen, the white paper, the emptiness, the limitless possibilities. The best is revision. Once I’ve scribbled a few words, I’m onto something, and when I let myself revise those words—moving paragraphs around, deleting extraneous junk—it feels great. Like cracking a Sudoku puzzle. Hahaha. (No, really.)

These days, I’m deep into revisions on a new novel and my manuscript is a mess. I love working on it, although I often wish it wouldn’t take so long. I decided to look back at an early version of Brotherhood to remind myself just how far that novel came—how bad it was early-on, and how much it improved. This gives me hope. Here’s the 2009 version of my opening scene:

Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Somebody is banging. Bam, bam, bam. Somebody is banging so hard the walls are rattling.

“Mrs. Weaver?” a man shouts.

My head hurts. I open my eyes. I’m in my bedroom. The light is early. A chicken squawks. Peep-peep, is that you? Jeremiah is stretched out asleep in his britches.

“Open up! Official business of the government of the United States. Open up!” The voice is flat and nasal. It’s not from around these parts. It’s Yankee.

I hear shuffling in the house. Mama is up. Peep-peep and Poke are squawking. Shoot. Is somebody hurting our chickens? I should check on the chickens. I roll off the mattress. I run to the windowsill. I am not awake. Am I awake?

“Shoot!” I cry.

There’s a boy looking in my window! He’s wearing blue. Blue cap. Brass buttons. Blue uniform. Musket on his shoulder. “Going somewhere, Mr. Weaver?”

Ouch. Cringe-worthy. Choppy. This version repels me more than it engages me. While I like the way I was able to get inside the head of this character, I feel irritated by that closeness. As a reader, I don’t want to stay inside this head for three hundred plus pages.

Here’s the revision, completed in 2011 and published in 2013:

The first sound Shad heard was the squawk of a chicken. Then the thud of a fist on wood. Bam. Bam. Bam. The hollow walls rattled. A man’s voice. “Mrs. Weaver?”

The light was early yet, and Shad glanced beside him. His older brother lay asleep there in his trousers—right there on top of the white cotton ticking. Hadn’t even changed into a nightshirt. Shad nudged Jeremiah’s shoulder and heard his brother grunt, but he didn’t wake.

The thud came again. Bam. Bam. “Mrs. Weaver? Official business of the government of the United States. Open up!” The voice was flat and nasal—not Virginia-born.

Shad nudged Jeremiah harder this time, but still his brother didn’t rouse. He rolled off the straw mattress, feet on cool dirt, and headed for the window. But at the sill, he jumped back. “Lord!”

There was a boy maybe Jeremiah’s age—seventeen—maybe a tad more—blond like Jeremiah. He stood on the other side, only inches from Shad’s face. Navy blue cap. Blue uniform. Brass buttons. Musket on his shoulder. He said, “Going somewhere, Mr. Weaver?”

Notice that I added details to ground the reader in the setting. I revised from first person, present tense to third person, past tense, pulling the reader out of the protagonist’s head, and providing a welcome distance while staying true to the character. I slowed the scene down.

Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt

My publisher never saw that early version of Brotherhood. Before I queried agents, I’d already revised the whole shebang, adding details, changing tenses, cutting some scenes and digging deeply into others. I had help doing it, thanks to the MFA program at  Vermont College of Fine Arts. Instead of telling me to shelve the manuscript because it was so bad, my 4th semester faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, taught me how to approach revisions, how to dig deeper, how to turn a mess into a novel.

Re-reading my bad early version makes me feel good. Encouraged! My current WIP is messy, but it’s coming along. If I didn’t love the process, I wouldn’t keep going. But I do love it. I live for it. Spending my mornings writing fiction keeps me sane through my afternoons and evenings. And when I have something to work with—something to fix rather than starting from scratch—that’s the best of all.