Knowing Yourself and Your Characters (Or Trying to, Anyway)

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I have a good excuse! Or, actually, a few good excuses. First I was busy with the end of the school year, then I was busy getting married, and then I was in Maui and Kauai for a glorious two-week honeymoon! But now I have returned to moderately calm, regular life for the first time in a while, and here I am back on the blog.

Since we’re in the midst of summer vacation, I won’t have any new student-author interviews for a while, but my students and I had a lot of fun doing the first six interviews (with Amy Rose Capetta, K. A. Barson, Lisa Graff, Trent Reedy, Tara Altebrando, and Maria E. Andreu—check them out if you missed them!). I’m hoping to line up another batch come September!

For now, though, I’m focusing on revising a middle grade novel (which started off as one YA novel and then turned into a very different YA novel before finally shifting into MG). In this revision process, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to know yourself and what it means to know a character.

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Us about to get married!

A few friends and family members who were there when my husband Mike and I got married at the end of June have commented that the wedding and all of the related details and festivities “felt like us.” It made me really happy that they said that. It’s incredibly exciting but not particularly easy to plan a wedding. I wanted the wedding to feel right to us, but I also wanted it to feel right and happy and comfortable for all of the people who are important to us. Ultimately, it felt like we were able to make the wedding a reflection of us as individuals and as a couple, and other people seemed to have a pretty good time, too (or were too polite to tell us if they didn’t).

Us on my first boat dive. Unsurprisingly, I was nervous the night before. It might be hard to tell with all of the stuff covering my face, but sure enough I was happy in the moment.

Us on my first boat dive. Unsurprisingly, I was nervous the night before. It might be hard to tell with all of the stuff covering my face, but sure enough I was happy in the moment.

People throw around phrases like “be true to yourself,” and being true to myself is always a primary goal for me…but I don’t think I’ll shock anybody when I say that it’s an ongoing process to get to know yourself. I like to think I’m a pretty self-aware person, but occasionally other people will surprise me by articulating something about me that I hadn’t quite realized. On our honeymoon, we did some scuba diving, which is something new for me, and Mike noticed that I tend to express nervousness or uncertainty ahead of time with new things but then blow past what I thought were my limits when I actually try the new thing as long as I don’t feel any pressure to do it. I wouldn’t have been able to clearly state that tendency, but I recognized right away that he was right.

As complicated as it is to get to know yourself, it’s even more complicated to get to know a character you’re creating, especially because a writer often has to understand more about a character than a character understands about him or herself. During my MFA program, I learned to ask myself what my main character consciously wants and what she subconsciously wants. I learned to break down what drives her actions—to ask what she believes about herself and the world that causes her to think and act as she does, even if she isn’t aware of the reasons for her behavior. I learned to consider what the character lacks—what kind of void she feels inside, and what early experiences or relationships have carved out that void.

These are all things that we might consider about ourselves and others might help us to realize…but they’re hard questions that would take us a lot of time and emotional energy to figure out. Sure, maybe the stakes are lower when you’re asking these questions about a fictional person, but when you’ve been thinking about a character for many years and are invested in telling that character’s story, it feels important to get them right.

What I find especially challenging about writing is that I can attempt to answer all of the big questions about a character early in the writing process, but many of my initial answers have to change as I get to know the people and story better (or, you know, as I completely overhaul the set-up of a novel a couple of times). So I have to come up with some tentative answers about why my character is the way she is and why she wants what she wants, but then those answers crystallize or shift or even completely change throughout the writing and revision process. If I cling too tightly to my initial answers, the story I’m writing loses its vibrancy, but if I don’t have any answers in mind when I begin, then I have no idea where I’m going.

And aside from all of that, it’s also tricky (but thrilling) to write from a character’s perspective when I know things about a character that she doesn’t realize about herself. One of the things I’m working on right now is making it clear to a reader why a really kind and wonderful boy is interested in the main character in the book I’m currently working on. Now, I love this character even though she is certainly flawed and has some unkind thoughts that she is quick to share in her narrative. I see her from the inside and the outside, so I’m not surprised that this boy thinks she’s special. But I need to make sure that readers see all of the amazing, endearing things about her even though she doesn’t see them in herself yet. Otherwise, they may get tired of her or wonder what the heck other people see in her. Difficult stuff!

Can anyone think of books that do this especially well—subtly help readers to realize things about a character that the character doesn’t yet understand about him or herself? Or has anyone realized important things about a character after spending a lot of time getting to know the character and writing his or her story? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Student-Author Interview 6: Maria E. Andreu

I’m excited to present the newest student-author interview, featuring Maria E. Andreu, author of The Secret Side of Empty. This is an extra special interview because Maria visited our school, so the student interviewers got to meet her in person and eat munchkins with her. In fact, here’s Maria with the gang, post munchkin-eating.

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Maria with her student interviewers (one was absent, so we had another student fill in). If you look closely, you can see that they made a welcome sign on the whiteboard while I was escorting Maria to the classroom.

Maria’s debut novel, The Secret Side of Empty, is loosely based on her own experiences. It tells the story of M.T., a high school senior with a wonderful best friend, an exciting new crush…and a very big secret. M.T. and her family are undocumented immigrants, and as her friends get more and more excited about planning their futures, she feels more and more alienated and lost.

Maria spoke to seventh, tenth, and eleventh graders at Friends Select, and her visit was a great success. The Secret Side of Empty is an important book, and I was thrilled that Maria could share M.T.’s story with students at my school. There’s some difficult content in the book, so it isn’t the right fit for all 7th and 8th grade readers. However, four mature and thoughtful 7th and 8th grade girls—Lydia C., Lydia S., Mary, and Lili May—were eager to read the book, and they had some terrific questions for Maria.

More love for THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY!

More love for THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY!

First, here’s what the students like most about THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY, with some commentary from Maria interspersed:

Lydia C: There are very few books that I can read in front of the TV while my sister is watching TV, but this was one of those books that I could sit in the corner and read and the TV was on and it didn’t phase me.

I love reading in front of the TV too!  Sometimes it’s the only way to hang out with someone when you don’t want to watch what they’re watching.  I’m glad TSSoE held your attention.

Lili May: I liked the fact that it was really well-written, so even at points when I wanted to stop reading because it was making me sad or nervous, it was really believable so I didn’t want to put it down. It was so suspenseful and I was so worried about M.T. that I had to keep reading even though I had homework.

I’m sorry I made you worried!  But I’m honored that you think the book is well-written.

Lydia S.: I liked that it involved biking, because I’ve found biking to be a good way of dealing with stress. I also liked M.T.’s relationship with Chelsea and how they could stay friends even though they’re in such different financial situations.

I like biking too!  And I love that she had Chelsea in her life.  Everyone deserves a good friend like that.

Mary: When I first looked at the book, I liked that the flap copy had a bunch of good things, like about the reasons M.T.’s life isn’t bad, but then the flap copy turned bad when it talked about her father and things like that. When I was reading the book, I liked the description the most.

Thank you!  I like closing my eyes and picturing things, then trying to put those things into words.

Now for some questions about the book:

Lydia C.: I’m curious about M.T.’s mom. I’d like to know more about how you got the idea for the mom character. Was she inspired by your mom? Also, what happens to her after the end of the book?

Definitely some of the inspiration for the mom character came from my mom the way she was when I was growing up.  But I’ve known a lot of women like that.  It’s hard to move to another country and not know the language and leave your whole family behind.  It leaves you isolated and vulnerable.

If M.T.’s mom is like most people who move here (and I think she is), after the years she spent being afraid of this new world she slowly started to try new things.  (You can see the beginning of that in the book with the job and the English classes).  I bet she goes on to do really great things.

I can share with you that my mom now owns her own house and has a business that provides jobs for about 5 other people.  She’s touched thousands of lives with it.  So I think there’s a lot of good things in M.T.’s mom’s future as well.

Mary: Did you ever have different expectations about M.T.’s future or a different outcome of the book?

Yes, I originally wanted her to get an amnesty, which means she would have been put on a path to citizenship.  I had some conversations with my editor and we agreed that it probably wasn’t realistic to end it that way in today’s political climate.  It felt like maybe today’s reader would consider it too much of an “easy” ending.  But I do still hope that she and others like her eventually get the chance to be citizens.

Lydia S.: Did you base the friendship with Chelsea off of a real friendship that you had?

A lot of the details of what she does with Chelsea are fictional, but I definitely had my own “Chelseas” growing up.  In high school, there were 3 of us that went everywhere together.  We are still friends today.

Lili May: I really thought of giving up on the book when M.T. started thinking about killing herself. What were your thoughts as you added that part? How did you decide to do that? Did you have any worries about how readers would react?

Thank you for not giving up on it!  I know it’s hard to read about that sometimes.  It’s difficult to imagine why someone would consider suicide.

I put that in for a couple of reasons.  First, I wanted people to understand the impact of how it feels to be living a life that seems to have no good options.  I wanted people to understand the damage that can do inside.  Second, I put it in because it was something I thought about as a teenager and young adult.  I don’t think I really ever wanted to go through with it, but when I ran down the list of how to fix my situation, it sometimes popped up in my head.  I’m so glad I found reasons not to do it because my life has been amazing.  None of this would have been possible if I had made such a bad decision early on in my life.

I guess the other reason I put that in is in case anyone knows someone who is feeling that sad and hopeless they will know to tell someone and ask for help.

Lydia C.: Did you have worries about getting to go to college like M.T. does because of your undocumented immigrant status?

I absolutely did.  Most of the years I was in high school I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to go.  (When I was in middle school I hadn’t started to worry about it yet, because my parents kept telling me one day we’d move back to Argentina and, anyway, no one in my family had gone so I didn’t even know what it was).

Even once I became a legal resident and later a citizen, it took me longer than the average person to go to college.  I had to work full time and go to school at night.  It was hard, but I loved every minute of it.

Lili May: Did you also have a “secret side of yourself” and not tell people about your immigration status?

Absolutely. I was in my 30s when I finally started to tell people about my story.  I was so scared to do it before then.

And finally, some questions about when Maria was in middle school:

Lili May: Did you always know you would be a writer? Did you always know you would write a story based off of your experience?

I did always know I wanted to be a writer, although, of course, I thought about lots of other things too.  I had a great biology teacher who inspired me to be a scientist for a while.  I can be kind of dramatic sometimes so I thought I might make a good actress :)  But writing always came kind of easily to me and I enjoyed it, so when I was twelve I wrote in my diary, “Most of all I want to be a writer.”

I never thought I’d write a story based on my experience of being undocumented, though.  Never, ever!  Remember, I thought it was an ugly secret to hide.  I’m glad I figured out it wasn’t.  The results have been amazing.

Lydia S: What were your favorite books when you were in middle school? Did any of those books inspire you later?

I loved Judy Blume.  I probably read Tiger Eyes a little later in middle school or early in high school and absolutely loved it.  I also loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  She wasn’t undocumented or Hispanic, but Francie and I had a lot in common. And, of course, I just loved Anne Frank.  I thought, like millions of people, that if we had just had a chance to get to know each other we’d have been friends.

Mary: What was the longest book or story that you wrote then?

I wrote in diaries a lot.  I used to make up stories about what it would be like if I met my favorite singers and they fell madly in love with me or if the boys I liked from afar… also fell madly in love with me.  I wrote a lot about boys falling madly in love with me, I guess.

Lydia C: How much did you understand when you were in middle school about how it impacted you to be an undocumented immigrant, and how much did you not realize until later?

I didn’t understand a lot about it.  I knew we were undocumented, but I didn’t understand until later how it would impact my future.  When I was in middle school I still thought I would have to move back to Argentina.  I was twelve the first time I wrote in my diary that I didn’t want to move there.  But it wasn’t until later in high school that I realized that my options here were limited too.

I got my legal permission to stay when I was 18.  Even after that I didn’t think a lot about the issue of how being undocumented had affected my life and how many other lives it was affecting.  It took almost 20 years for me to “get it.”  I can be a slow learner sometimes!

——————-

Everyone, thank you SO much for taking the time to read the book and to put together your thoughtful questions.  I hope I’ve answered them to your satisfaction.  If there is anything that is still unclear or if you think of other questions, let me know! I hope I get to visit your school again one day soon.

Thank YOU, Maria, for visiting our school and for your fascinating answers! We hope we can have you visit again, too.

Student-Author-Interview 5: Tara Altebrando

When I was a kid, I loved books that felt real. Judy Blume’s Just as Long as We’re Together and Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson were two of my favorites because I could completely relate to the main characters. Tara Altebrando’s middle grade debut The Battle of Darcy Lane is just the kind of book I adored most back then because of the sensitive, realistic portrayal of twelve-year-old girls and their dynamics with each other, boys, and their families. Don’t get me wrong—I still loved this book as an adult—but I was especially excited to share it with three sixth grade girls because I could picture my sixth-grade-self sympathizing with the main character, Julia, and cheering her on throughout the story.

18079892In The Battle of Darcy Lane, Julia is looking forward to a summer of fun with her best friend Taylor, but a new girl named Alyssa moves to her neighborhood, introduces Julia and Taylor to a ball game called Russia, and criticizes everything Julia does. Pretty soon Taylor and Alyssa are acting like best friends, and Julia has to fight to be included. There is change everywhere Julia looks, so she throws all of her energy into the one thing she might be able to control: a giant Russia showdown where she’s determined to beat Alyssa once and for all.

Three sixth grade girls, Izzy, Nyeema, and Alex, read The Battle of Darcy Lane and had some questions for Tara about the book.

izzy nyeema alex.darcy lane

First, here’s what they liked most about the book:

Alex: I liked all the drama, because it felt really realistic. I liked when Julia saw her crush Peter with Alyssa and freaked out. I thought Julia and Peter were a cute couple.

Nyeema: I liked the Russia throw-down. I liked how we got to see Alyssa’s mom get so frustrated. It was funny but it also showed that Alyssa’s mom cares more about her daughter winning than about her daughter, which was sad.

Izzy: What stands out to me is how Alyssa sort of steals Taylor because it reminds me of things that really happen in middle school.

And now for some questions about THE BATTLE OF DARCY LANE!

Izzy: Will you write any more books about middle schoolers? How is it different to write books about middle school students versus older teenagers?

I’m really enjoying the experience of writing for middle schoolers so yes, I’m going to do it again. When I write for older teenagers, there is typically some kind of romance at the forefront of the story and it’s nice to be freed from that for a while. I remember my middle-school years as ones of big dreams and messy friendships and longing, before all the insanity of puberty and, eventually, dating, started, and I think there’s a lot of great material to work with in there.

Alex: How did you come up with the characters’ names?

I struggle with this! I usually end up going to the Social Security website, where they list popular baby names for each year. I read through the lists until I find a name that feels right for each character.

Nyeema: Will you write a sequel about what happens after? If not, what are you working on now?

I have so many ideas for different books that the notion of sequels has never appealed to me that much. I think I left Julia in a good spot and readers can imagine what the next few days and even years will be like for her. So I’m working on my next middle-grade novel, which is called My Life in Dioramas, and is about a girl who copes with moving out of her childhood home by making shoebox dioramas of her life there. She’s also secretly trying to sabotage the sale of the house.

Alex: How did you decide to include the game of Russia? Have you tried to play it and have you gotten all the way up to 13? We think it seems hard!

It is hard! But there was a time when I was great at it. It came through hours and hours and hours of practice. Would you believe when I shopped this book around to publishers it was called Russia? I thought that having that intense game in the book was a neat way to sort of highlight how friendship often feels like a competition. It really shouldn’t! And I don’t think it does when you get older, but in middle school totally.

Nyeema: Which character is which on the cover? I think it’s: Julia, Alyssa, then Taylor. Is that right?

Julia’s by the porch for sure. But Taylor’s the one in the middle. She’s described in the book as having super-blonde hair. Or wait, hmmn. Did that get edited out? I’m not sure! :)

And finally, some questions about when Tara was in middle school:

Alex: Did you have friend drama or play Russia when you were in middle school?

Yes and yes. Big time. The book is inspired by my own sort of toxic friendship triangle when I was twelve, and yes, we played Russia all the time. There was a never a big Russia showdown, but I definitely experienced a lot of what Julia’s experiencing.

Nyeema: Did you have a phone when you were in middle school?

I went to middle school a very, very long time ago. We didn’t even have cordless phones at home, and my parents didn’t let me have my own extension in my room until I was in high school. That must sound crazy to middle schoolers now! It sounds sort of crazy even to me and I was there.

Thank you, Tara, for answering these questions! We’re glad to hear you’ll be writing more middle grade novels!

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Book cover from Goodreads. Photo of Tara by Peter Lutjen, from taraaltebrando.com. 

Student-Author Interview 4: Trent Reedy

Welcome back for the fourth installment of the Student-Author Interview series! This time, I’m excited to feature Trent Reedy, a fellow VCFA alum and a prolific author who writes brilliantly across genres. Trent was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard and served in Afghanistan. Trent’s first published novel is Words in the Dust, a powerful middle grade story that honors Zulaikha, a girl he met during his time in Afghanistan. He then wrote a second middle grade novel, Stealing Air, before making his young adult debut with Divided We Fall, an action-packed novel that kicks off a thrilling trilogy and takes place in the US in the near future.

18114594In Divided We Fall, seventeen-year-old Danny has no idea what he’s getting into when he joins the National Guard. Danny is looking forward to spending his senior year playing football and hanging out with his girlfriend, but he finds himself in the middle of a major conflict that ultimately sets the stage for a second US civil war.

Three 8th grade boys—Saras, Jake, and Jacob—read Divided We Fall and had some questions for Trent about how he came to write this thought-provoking book.

boys with DWFFirst, here’s what the students liked most about DIVIDED WE FALL with some commentary from Trent interspersed: 

Jake: I really like all of the action. It felt like I was there right with Danny, especially during the fighting. I also like how Trent incorporates blurbs from the news throughout the book. The blurbs give a good idea of what’s going on in the big picture and show the conflict among American citizens. I thought those blurbs were really unique—I’ve never read a book that had something like that.

Trent: Thank you for your kind words.  I’m glad you enjoyed Divided We Fall.  As I write this, I’m also hard at work on book two in the trilogy called Burning Nation.  This book should be out in early 2015.

The blurbs you mention are what I call “media noise” sections.  I think they come in handy getting a very big national story across to the reader even though the story is told from the point of view of Danny who doesn’t care about big national stories that much.

Saras: I liked that there were so many feelings in the book but they often weren’t stated right away—you had to figure out how Danny was feeling rather than being told. I also liked that Danny had conflicted ideas and didn’t know what he should do so often, and I liked the Facebook-like posts that are incorporated and how you could see how many stars people’s comments got.

Trent: Saras, you bring up a good point about Danny’s conflicted ideas.  From the very beginning of my work on Divided We Fall I was determined to make a story in which not only the main character would be conflicted, but where the reader would also be a bit unsure of the right or wrong answers in several of the difficult situations.  I hope I’ve portrayed a fairly complicated scenario that readers will enjoy puzzling out for themselves.

Jacob: What I liked best is how everybody in the community has conflicted ideas, but people still come together and Danny’s friends have his back, even when they are shocked about what’s going on and might disagree with him. It’s interesting to see who is backing him and who isn’t in the blurbs and news stories, too.

Trent: You bring up a great point, Jacob.  I wanted Danny to have a rock solid group of friends.  I remember really enjoying that sense of loyalty, and a family-like friendship among many of the characters in the Harry Potter series, and I wanted to bring that sense of friendship to my own series.  I wish I had been blessed with such a great close group like that when I was growing up, but I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with all Danny must deal with.

Now for some questions about the book and Trent’s writing process:

Jake: How did you come up with the idea for this particular book? It seems like there are lots of things you could have written about involving the army, so what made you choose to set your story in the near future and have the country be on the verge of civil war?

Trent: Jake, I wish I had a good answer to your question.  The idea for Divided We Fall slammed into my head one day while I was driving.  Usually, I have to kick an idea around in my mind for a long time, maybe for years before I start writing.  But one day I just thought about a teenage Guardsman assigned to pull guard duty on the state line between Washington and Idaho.  For the next several hours, I could think of nothing else but circumstances that would make that state line standoff happen.  That very day when I returned home, I started writing the first lines of the book.  That almost never happens for me.  As I said, most of the time, an idea has to hang around in my brain for a very long time before I start writing.

But I also wanted to write about a country on the verge of civil war because I’m troubled by a lot of the things I read about in the news.  It seems like America is divided more now than it has been at any other time in my life, so it has been good exploring those concepts through the course of my work on the trilogy.

Saras: Why did you choose to set the book in Idaho?

Trent: I set the book in Idaho because, in general, Idaho is a fiercely independent-minded state.  It is a state where many people are passionate about preserving their rights to own and carry firearms.  More importantly, to make this story work, I needed a state where the geography provides some natural defenses against invasion.  Idaho has some beautiful and rugged mountain terrain.  I knew this would be important when my fictional Idaho National Guard set up its blockade to keep federal soldiers out.  So I chose Idaho for several reasons, but the most important one was the state’s geography and topography.

Saras: If you wanted to write about a soldier, why did you choose to write about a high school student and not an adult?

Trent: I wrote about a high school student, first, because I find the growing up years to be the most interesting.  Adults are boring!  Also, there is this idea that young people are supposed to be mostly at peace, going to school, having fun with their friends, and all that.  So putting this young person Danny Wright into the middle of this huge near-war feels even more jarring than it would have, I think, had I made the story about an adult soldier.

Jacob: Did you think of memories from your time in Afghanistan while you were writing this book and did your memories help you write this book?

Trent: Jacob, I have been home from my time in the war for about ten years now, and honestly, not one day passes when I do not think about it.  I’m trying to move on, to leave the war behind, but it’s been really tough.  Certainly my military experiences helped writing this book.  I hope my knowledge of weapons systems and military culture come through in Divided We Fall.  Also, during my time in the war, I spent a lot of time on guard duty.  I tried to convey what that felt like when I put Danny on guard duty.

Jake: Do you like football, and if not, why did you make Danny a football player in the book?

Trent: I have a complicated relationship with sports.  I was terrible at football in high school, but I do enjoy watching a good football game now and then.  I put it in the book because I wanted to establish Danny is pretty tough.  Also, as I said, football is pretty exciting, and anything can happen on any given play.  It has a lot of potential for drama, which is what you want in a book.

Jacob: What can you tell us about the next two books in the trilogy?

Trent: The next two books are intense!  I’m closing in on finishing Book 2, called Burning Nation.  As you may have guessed it is all about a civil war, and the characters don’t get through it without serious cost.  The third book will be called The Last Full Measure.  I have a lot more work to do on that book, but it is going to bring the whole story to a surprising end.

Saras, Jacob, and Jake: Who is your favorite author? Are there any authors or books that have especially influenced this trilogy?

Trent: Wow.  This question is very hard to answer.  Who is my favorite author?  Maybe Katherine Paterson because her books are amazing and really helped me out when I needed help.  Katherine is a wonderful person.  I read most of the YA dystopian books to prepare for writing Divided We Fall.  I enjoyed The Hunger Games, Divergent, Legend, and books like that.  I read those books to see how other writers dealt with a society that was holding on after the systems and rules that we now live by had collapsed.

Jacob: Was your decision to join the National Guard anything like Danny’s? It seemed like he joined because he wanted to be like his father and he thought being in the National Guard would help him with other things, like his mechanic job and football training. Did you also join because you thought being in the National Guard would help you do other things, or did you mostly want to be a soldier?

Trent: I joined the Iowa Army National Guard because my father was working hard and helping to pay for my college tuition.  I wanted my dad to be able to keep more of his money, so I joined the Guard to pay for my school myself.  Actually, I never dreamed I’d be a soldier before I wanted the tuition money.  I’d always wanted to be a writer.  That’s what it has all been about.  It turned out my time as a soldier helped both with college and writing.

And finally, some questions about when Trent was in 8th grade:

Jake: Was it your plan to join the National Guard back in 8th grade?

Trent: I did not plan to join the National Guard until after my second year of college.  When I was in 8th grade, I wanted to be a writer.

Saras: Did you plan on being a writer when you were in 8th grade?

Trent: I wanted to be a writer since I wrote this one fun short story when I was in the fourth grade.  Writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do.  It is the best job in the world!

Jacob: If not, what did you plan to do? (Or if so, what else did you think you might do?)

Trent: There was never really anything else I wanted to do besides writing.  I earned a teaching license, and was very involved in the rigorous demands of teaching high school English for four years, but during that time I was always working on my fiction or attending writing school at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  For many many years now, it’s been all about the books.

Thank you!!

Thank YOU, Trent, for these thoughtful and fascinating responses! We’re looking forward to the rest of the trilogy!

My Writing Process

Writing can feel like a solitary endeavor, so I’m always eager for opportunities to talk shop (whether virtually or in person) with other writers. That’s why I was excited when A.B. Westrick invited me to join the #MyWritingProcess blog tour!

Brotherhood-COVER.low-res-200x300A.B. Westrick is the author of Brotherhood (Viking/Penguin 2013), an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and winner of the National Council for the Social Studies Notable Trade Book Award. She has been a teacher, paralegal, literacy volunteer, administrator, and coach for teams from Odyssey of the Mind to the Reading Olympics. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Divinity School, Westrick earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She and her family live near Richmond, Virginia. You can find her blog, with her own #MyWritingProcess post, and more information about her first book at http://abwestrick.com/

And now, for my turn to answer the four writing process blog tour questions.

1.) What are you working on?

I’m finishing up a draft of DEAR BABY, a contemporary young adult epistolary novel about a fifteen-year-old girl named Whitney, who’s had her sights set on getting into Princeton since before she could spell her own name. Everything is on track, until her mom gets pregnant with a miracle baby and Whitney has to leave her rigorous prep school and start over at the local public school. When she finds out about a creative writing scholarship to an elite boarding school that could be her ticket into Princeton (and out of her baby-crazed house), Whitney resolves to turn herself into a real writer. She begins to write every day, imagining the least intimidating audience she can think of: the baby that got her into this mess.

The book is written as an extended letter to her soon-to-be sibling, and it’s a completely different version of a manuscript I was working on back in 2010-2011. The main character stayed the same, but pretty much everything else about the story changed when I started it over. Nobody but me has seen any of the manuscript except the very beginning, so I’m looking forward to getting feedback from some writing friends soon.

2.) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Most of my work is contemporary realistic young adult fiction, which is my favorite genre to read in addition to my favorite genre to write. I’d like to think there are a couple of things that make my work stand out within that genre.

First, my writing tends to be funny. Not riotously, over-the-top silly, but my protagonists make humorous observations and use humor to deal with difficult things. I’m grateful to the advisors I worked with at Vermont College for telling me, “Hey, you can do funny. Go with that!” because I think humor sharpens my characters’ voices and makes them easier to connect with.

Second, I tend to write for the younger end of the YA spectrum. That’s partly because when I think back to my own teen years, I can still feel the experiences of my freshman and sophomore years of high school most intensely. And also, I teach middle school. As I’ve said on this blog before, my 7th and 8th grade students like to read young adult books rather than middle grade books, and some of my 6th grade students do, too. Many of my students are ready for dark, edgy, older YA, but I see firsthand that there’s a need for slightly younger YA books, as well.

3.) Why do you write what you do?

In a wonderful interview with my friend L. Marie, author and teacher Martine Leavitt gives this advice for people who want to write: “Love the world, love the word, love your characters, love your readers, love the work. If you are not very good at loving any one of these things, you must change.”

I had never attempted to write creatively before I began teaching middle school English. I started writing young adult fiction because I love my students. I also love the characters I’ve created, and I love the uncomfortable fourteen-year-old version of myself that I often imagine as I write. I can’t say I love every moment of the writing process; I don’t love the challenge of finishing a novel draft when I have five hundred other things to do or the stress of worrying that a book I poured my heart into might not be marketable enough. But on the most basic level, I write young adult fiction out of love, and that’s how I know I’ll keep doing it even when it feels discouraging.

4.) What is your process like?

My process is still very much evolving. I don’t write every day, because there are times during the school year when I don’t have time. I write a whole lot during school vacations.

I’ve been trying to make writing more of a routine this year, and I’ve had the general goal of writing 500 words a day. Some weeks I really do write 500 words a day, and some weeks I skip a bunch of days and catch up on the weekend. It’s been helpful to have a specific but manageable word count goal, and I’ve kept track of my progress in a spreadsheet, which has given me some sense of control over the process. I find that comforting.

There are many parts of writing that I can’t control or predict. Sometimes I need to write longhand in a notebook, and sometimes I want to type. Sometimes I want to figure out exactly what’s going to happen in a scene before writing it, and other times I want to see what happens as I go. Sometimes I feel the very certain need to read back through the manuscript so far, revising and reconnecting to parts of it along the way. Some days I feel like I’m in a groove, and then I look back to see that what I wrote was garbage. Other days I have zero motivation and convince myself I just need to write a page so I won’t get too behind on word count, and then out of nowhere I’m on a roll.

My process is an imperfect blend of self-discipline and openness to what feels right to me.

And now I get to tag other writers so that we can all find out about their processes, too! Tune in on April 14th, one week from today, for #MyWritingProcess posts from Laura Sibson, Ellar Cooper, and Melanie Fishbane.

laura-sibsonAfter years spent counseling undergrads on career issues, Laura Sibson discovered a passion for writing novels geared toward teens. This passion led to an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2012. When she’s not writing, counseling or drinking impossibly strong coffee, you can find Laura running miles around her home in suburban Philadelphia, walking her dog or ingesting pop culture (along with great take-out) with her hubby and two teen sons. She blogs at http://laurasibson.com/

Ellar Cooper holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the life-changing,photo_00010 heart-stealing Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she does her best to respect the hood. Ellar may or may not actually be the name that’s on her birth certificate—but she does have a birthmark, so she can prove that she was born, should the need arise. Otherwise, you can find her happily rambling on her blog about writing, reading, creativity, Dystropians, VCFA, mountains, movies, the bass in her car, and probably baseball. (And Robin Hood. She kinda has a thing for Robin Hood.) The trick is getting her to stop. She blogs at http://ellaroutloud.wordpress.com/

melaniefishbane_1361122125_19Melanie Fishbane’s YA novel based on the teen life of L.M. Montgomery will be published under the Razorbill imprint in 2015. She has 17 years of experience in publishing, specializing in children’s and teen lit, and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She loves talking about writing, books, old movies, classic women’s lit and anything that amuses her. Melanie blogs at http://melaniefishbane.wordpress.com/

And I’d love to hear about your writing process if you’d like to leave a comment!

 

 

Reading Aloud in a Middle School English Classroom

The other day, I read Joe McGee’s powerful blog post about being the kind of hero who doesn’t need a cape: the kind of understated hero who reads books aloud to kids. I recommend reading the post in its entirety, but in one part of it, Joe describes reading to one of his three sons: “I sit at the bedside of my middle-schooler and read him a couple of pages of the Percy Jackson books he’s devouring. No, he doesn’t need me to read them to him (he tears through the books), but he just likes the experience of hearing my voice; of sharing a few minutes with me.”

As a middle school English teacher, I read aloud to my students, too, even though, like Joe’s middle-school-aged son, they can certainly read on their own. Reading to a classroom full of students is different than a quiet, pre-bedtime, father-son moment, obviously, but my students and I also enjoy the experience Joe describes: of sharing some time together in which we are all immersed in the same story. They know that I won’t give them reading quizzes or make them write essays about the books I read aloud, and it takes a long time for us to make it through a read-aloud novel, since I only read a little bit (between five and fifteen minutes) at a time. As a result, our read-aloud time allows us to savor a story in a way that most of us don’t have time to do when we are reading on our own.

In addition to the fact that my students enjoy read alouds (there is often cheering when I announce that we’re starting or finishing class with a read aloud, which makes me feel at least a tiny bit heroic), it’s useful for many of my students to hear how an experienced reader reads a text. I make sure to emphasize important words, I speak differently for different characters, and I pause to re-read a sentence if I don’t get the inflection quite right: all things that students can do inside their heads when they’re reading silently for better comprehension and more enjoyment. Reading aloud lets us appreciate the way a well-told story sounds, which can help students develop an ear for voice, that elusive but important trait that distinguishes wonderful writing.

But reading aloud does include some challenges. Sometimes it feels like one more thing to balance when I’m already trying to fit in a whole lot. The fact that it takes a long time to get through a read-aloud book also brings up two tricky issues: we’re not going to move on to another one for a while, which can be a bummer if a student isn’t into a book we’re reading aloud, and sometimes students get impatient and want to know what happens (which I can understand), so they get a copy of the book and finish it on their own. That can mean that they’re less engaged while we’re reading as a class, or that they give away plot developments to their classmates. I’ve been feeling discouraged by these challenges lately, but Joe’s blog post reminded me to stop and think about the tangible and intangible benefits of reading aloud.

When I choose read alouds, I do my best to think of books that will appeal to a range of students. Occasionally I offer different options and let students vote, but I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, because students whose first choice book doesn’t get chosen tend to take a little while to warm up to the class choice. Verse novels can be great for reading aloud, because they tend to include fewer words than prose novels and we can get through them more quickly. Books that have a mystery element and invite students to make lots of predictions also work well (although then if students can’t resist finishing the book on their own, they can’t participate in some of the conversations), and funny books are often a hit. Here are some of the books I’ve used, specifically with 6th and 7th grade classes.

222458Rules, by Cynthia Lord: This was the first read aloud I ever used. Looking back, I’m surprised I chose it because only girls tend to check it out from the classroom library, but the class loved it and it led to great conversations, so that’s a point in favor of good books just being good books, not “girl books” or “boy books.”

1835150Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate: A funny and poignant verse novel.

0-545-08092-4All the Broken Pieces, by Ann E. Burg: Another poignant verse novel.

17308183When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead: Both of these books have a great voice, a vivid setting, and a puzzle element for readers to put together.

324377Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay: A hilarious book with a lovable cast of characters, and the first book in a series.

17286690Capture the Flag and Wake Up Missing by Kate Messner: Both suspenseful and action-packed, with lots of opportunities for readers to make inferences and varied casts of characters.

556136The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt: Schmidt’s funny, emotion-packed writing really lends itself to being read aloud.

17349153Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson: At first I thought this delightful and humorous pirate adventure novel might feel too young for my sixth grade students (even though I, as an adult, adored it), but we’re reading it aloud now. It turns out, once again, that good books are good books, so I didn’t need to worry. Also, I let students take turns reading the fun letters, articles, signs, and excerpts that appear at the beginning or end of chapters, and they seem to love that.

What are some books you like to read aloud? I’d love to get suggestions from teachers, librarians, or parents about other books that work especially well.

 

 

Student-Author Interview 3: Lisa Graff

I’m so excited to bring you the next installment of the Student-Author Interview Series! This time, three delightful sixth graders and two delightful seventh graders have interviewed the similarly delightful Lisa Graff, who has even shared some special bonus content with us! Poli, Sophia, Sydney, Dasha, and MaryElizabeth all read Lisa’s charming novel A Tangle of Knots, which is set in a slightly magical world where people have special Talents. It features an orphan girl named Cady with a Talent for baking people’s perfect cakes; a powder blue suitcase; a lost luggage emporium; and so much more. If you haven’t read it yet, it comes highly recommended (both by me and by these enthusiastic students)!

First, here’s what they love most about A TANGLE OF KNOTS: 

Sydney: What I really liked were the Talents and how almost everyone had a special sophia.poli.syd copyone.

Poli: I liked that at first everything was a bit confusing and then at the end it all fell together. I liked Cady the best because she was sweet and gave off a “main character” vibe.

Sophia: I liked how it was from all of the different character’s perspectives.

Dasha: I liked that Cady’s Talent was making perfect cakes. It’s so random and happy. I also like the old man with the knot-tying Talent. I liked how at the beginning it was about this guy who seemed like he had a bright future, and then he ended up being the villain. I also like ME.Dasha copyhow the bad guy used his favorite Talent of floating all the time.

MaryElizabeth: I liked how everything came together and the diversity of people’s Talents—how they were all random, like spitting and knot tying. I liked the cleverness of the story and the happy tone. I really liked the character of Toby.

Now, here’s what they wanted to know about the book:

Poli: If you lived in that world, what would your Talent be?

I could only wish it would be a tasty Talent, like Cady’s Talent for cake-baking. But more likely I’d end up with something boring but practical, like closet-organizing (already a specialty of mine—at least it comes in handy!).

MaryElizabeth: What would be your perfect cake? Also, how old were you when you first started baking cakes? Was your first cake a disaster, or did it turn out well?

My perfect cake would definitely be a lemon layer cake. I have a recipe for one with black tea frosting, and it takes forever to make, but it is worth the effort. (This may say that I, too, am sweet and sour and a lot of work, but I’m fine with that!)

Here's seven-year-old Lisa, helping with her birthday layer cake!

Here’s seven-year-old Lisa, helping with her birthday layer cake!

I probably first got the baking bug when I was seven years old. In my family we have a tradition where, when a child turns seven, he or she has an enormous party with all the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and there is a seven layer cake, where every layer is a different color. No one seems to know where this tradition originated, but my family has been doing it for as long as anyone can remember, and it is a lot of fun. 

When I first started baking on my own, I definitely had a lot of disasters. Even trying out recipes for A Tangle of Knots, I made several cakes that didn’t work out at all, so obviously those recipes didn’t end up in the book! Baking can be a challenge, but I think that’s what I enjoy about it.

Dasha and Sophia: How did you come up with all of the Talents that seem so random? And how did you come up with the other random details, like the powder blue suitcase, ice cubes, and peanut butter?

A page from Lisa's brainstorming notebook.

A page from Lisa’s brainstorming notebook.

All of the Talents and details really just came from brainstorming. I kept a notebook when I was first working on this book, before I even wrote down a single word of the story, and I scribbled down every single idea I had about what might go in the story (whether I thought it was a particularly good idea or not).

notes 2

More from Lisa’s notebook.

I went through the notebook several times and crossed out ideas I didn’t like anymore, and added new ones in the margins, and asked questions about the ones that stuck, and then tried to answer them. I filled up an entire notebook this way—and that was before I even began to outline! This was definitely a change from the typical way I write. Usually I like to dive headfirst into a novel before I have any idea of what is going to happen, and learn about the characters and their stories by writing through them. But I knew that in this book, which I wanted to be so full of intricate, connecting details, I was going to have to decide on the majority of things before I started writing. It was a big challenge for me.

Poli: How did you come up with the characters’ names?

notes 3

Lisa’s name brainstorm. What fun to see the other name contenders that didn’t get picked!

This came from brainstorming too. It’s interesting to me to look back at my notebook, because I can see that most of the characters’ names I decided on right away, but a few of them, like Miss Mallory, had very different names (Delania Crisp? What was I thinking??)

I should also say that in my original outline, and for the first several drafts, there were two big characters that I eventually ended up cutting out of the story completely. The first was a fourth Asher sibling (Asher Arnold Asher IV), who had a Talent for playing baseball but desperately wanted to play the oboe instead, and a janitor (named “Mr. Epsilon” in my notes, but later called Juan), who had a Talent for fixing U-bend pipes, and was meant to be a love interest for Miss Mallory. What became apparent pretty quickly, though, was that I was simply dealing with too many characters and storylines, so these ones got cut—and I could tell they didn’t need to be there, because once I removed them, I didn’t miss them at all.

MaryElizabeth: What would you tell people who say they don’t have any Talents? What advice would you give them?

This was something I wanted to talk about in my book. I think there are plenty of us who feel like we’ll never be the best in the world at anything—and that’s perfectly fine, in my opinion. You don’t need to be the best in the world at anything to be a good person, or interesting, and being good at something doesn’t mean you’ll even necessarily enjoy doing that thing. Part of the reason I think I love writing so much is that I never felt like it came particularly easily to me—it was always something I had to work at, and because of that it still feels so satisfying when I hit upon an idea or sentence that I’m particularly proud of. So I guess my best advice, if you feel you are a person with no special Talents, is to find what you love, regardless of how amazing you are at it, and do it with gusto.

Sydney: What inspired you to write this book?

Several years ago I watched a television special about the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, where they buy unclaimed luggage from airports and bus depots and then sell the contents to the public. I thought this was the coolest, craziest thing I’d ever heard of, and I knew that I wanted to one day set a book in such a place. That idea rolled around in my brain for about three years, until I finally figured out the key to unlocking the story that should go with it—I’d had an image of a girl, opening a suitcase, searching for something inside, but all of a sudden I realized that the story would be so much better if there was something inside the suitcase searching for her. The story all fell into place around that one idea.

Sophia: How long did it take you to write the book?

Oddly enough, this was one of my quickest books that I’ve written to date. I spent three months brainstorming and outlining, then probably three months writing the rough draft, and then another two or three revising. Usually my books take anywhere from one year to two.

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Dasha: How did the cover come to be?

The cover, which I absolutely love, was all the brainchild of the designer and editor at my publishing house. They came up with the general idea for it, and then suggested a few illustrators whose work they thought might be a good fit for it (I got to weigh in at this stage and help pick the artist). I think the process was fairly simple for this book—sometimes these things can be pretty painful!

And last but not least, here’s what the girls wanted to know about Lisa in middle school:

MaryElizabeth: What was your favorite subject?

In middle school my favorite subjects were art and chorus. I really liked science too (and I still do!). I enjoyed reading a lot, but I never felt like I was a particularly amazing writer when I was a kid.

Sydney: Do you remember anything you wrote when you were in middle school, and if you do can you tell us about it? Have you ever taken an idea you had in middle school and turned it into a book, or would you?

I wrote for fun a little bit when I was in middle school, but I didn’t start taking it more seriously until I joined my school’s writing club my freshman year of high school. When I was in middle school I thought it was lots of fun to write fake diaries from fictional characters’ points of view, and to illustrate them. That might be the thing I wrote the most of. I’ve never turned one of my childhood ideas into a book so far, but I have a picture book that’s been rolling around in my brain since I was fourteen—maybe one of these days I will finally figure out how to make it work!

Dasha: What was your favorite book?2657

My all-time favorite book is actually one I first read in middle school: To Kill a Mockingbird. I also really loved The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. And I was obsessed with the Baby-Sitters Club books when I was in middle school too. I must’ve owned about sixty of them! I couldn’t get enough.

Sophia: What did you want to be when you grew up? When did you start wanting to be a writer—was it before middle school or after?

I decided I was going to be a pediatrician when I was four years old (no joke!), and I still thought that’s what I was going to do until my freshman year of college, when I realized I enjoyed writing more than anything else. It was very hard for me to let go of that childhood dream, because it was the thing I’d wanted to do for so long, but in the end I knew that there was another dream I hadn’t really considered before, which was going to make me even happier. Once I made the decision to pursue writing, I never once regretted it.

Thank you, Lisa, for answering our questions and sharing your adorable photo and fascinating notebook pages with us! We can’t wait until your next novel, ABSOLUTELY ALMOST, comes out in June!

Cover Images from Goodreads.