Tag Archives: writing

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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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

Hard Work and Literary Dreams

Meg Medina

Meg Medina
Photo by Petite Shards Productions

Last month when friend, colleague, fellow Richmonder and partner in literary dreams Meg Medina won the Newbery Medal for her novel, Merci Suárez Changes Gears, I cheered. Then I cried. Then I danced around the house, giddy with excitement, planning how to break the news to my husband.

But the second he walked in the door, before I managed to say even a word, he announced, “You’ll never guess who I just heard interviewed on NPR!”

That night, we clinked glasses in honor of Meg and her whole family.

We don’t write in order to win awards, but when awards happen, we dance. And the whole family dances! For years, Meg’s husband and kids showed up at every one of her book parties. They hosted writers at their house and community events in libraries and book stores. When Meg had to be away from home, traveling to speak at schools and conferences, her family made do and cheered her on from afar.

Merci Suarez Changes GearsA decade ago, Meg and I were on staff at James River Writers, Richmond’s literary nonprofit, where we helped plan and present bookish programs and an annual writing conference. Meg was always something of a visionary while I was more of a nuts-and-bolts, details-and-logistics type, and together (and with help from lots of other writers and book-lovers in town), we pulled off some great programs. (Just saying!)

Meanwhile, we wrote like crazy. In 2013 when Meg’s novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, was about to launch, I interviewed her here on my blog. Meg taught me the value of bringing heart into my writing, of getting out of my head and into my body, of writing scenes that felt honest, even when honesty felt awful. Continue reading

The Humility to Keep Trying

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver
Photo by Annie Griffiths

In a recent essay in Publishers Weekly, “5 Writing Tips,” author Barbara Kingsolver said, “[Writing is] a project of balancing the audacity to do this work, and the humility to keep trying until you’ve gotten it right.”

The humility to keep trying.

I like that. And Lord knows, I’ve kept trying!

An unexpected value of blogging once a month is the ability to track the evolution of my writing. When I re-read my June 2013 post about killing a few darlings, I had to smile. Back in 2013, I remarked that I’d drafted 22 chapters. I can now report that after multiple darling-killing sessions, I’ve cut every one of those first 22. And I don’t say this to whine! I say it because it’s true and I appreciate that I needed to write them to get the story to a place that works; they don’t belong in the final version. Continue reading

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

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

Write 1,000 words a day

Clay McLeod ChapmanAt this month’s James River Writers conference, author, actor and screenwriter Clay McLeod Chapman told attendees his daily goal is 1,000 words. On some days he hits 1,000 within an hour and on others it takes all day.

Sounds like a lot, but 1,000 words is only 4 double-spaced pages. And the words don’t have to be beautiful, Chapman reminded us. They just have to be out of your head and onto your page or computer screen. You can’t revise a blank page, and we all know novels come together during revision.

Inspired and fired up to write, I tried the 1,000 words business on my first day back from the conference. Before this, my approach was simply butt-in-chair: show up at the page for 6 hours a day and your novel will (slowly) emerge. It’s worked for me, pretty much. It’s a decent approach. Continue reading

Collaboration: Do’s, Don’ts, and a book giveaway

Last year I asked a friend if she’d collaborate with me on a novel, and she didn’t say YES right away. She tilted her head and thought for a moment, clearly trying not to frown. “I don’t know what this collaboration would look like,” she said, and I said, “Me, neither! We’ll have to make it up as we go along.” Now three months and three chapters into the story, we’re making up lots of stuff. This is the fun stage.

But what if we disagree over the way the story should progress? What happens when we have to revise? I started wondering how others have made collaborations work.

Every Shiny ThingAnd that led me to co-authors Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison. Their novel, Every Shiny Thing, came out from Amulet Books earlier this year. It’s a great read—heartwarming and authentic—and I asked them to share some Do’s and Don’ts and tips about collaborating. They said, “Sure!”

But before we get to the interview, hey, I’m giving away one copy of Every Shiny Thing! Hop to the end of this post. to enter the giveaway, and come back for the interview. Deadline to enter: Tuesday, Sept. 18, 11:59 PM.

A. B. Westrick: Welcome to my blog, Cordelia and Laurie!

Cordelia Jensen & Laurie Morrison: Thanks for inviting us!

ABW: I want to pick your brains about writing Every Shiny Thing. Help me out! I hope my colleague and I can craft a novel as engaging as yours.

Let’s start with your process. You’ve told the story in alternating points of view, and I know from other interviews that Cordelia wrote Sierra’s chapters and Laurie drafted Lauren’s. Did you ever deviate from that set-up? Did you edit each other’s drafts, and if so, how did that go? If one of you read something in the other’s writing that didn’t sit right with you, did you phone? Email? Text? Make a comment in the margin of your shared Google doc? 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