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About Devine Intervention

"Frequently hysterical ... devastatingly honest writing that surprises with its occasional beauty and hits home with the keenness of its insight." 

—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

 

"So much fun... an insightful story about seizing life for all it’s worth while you have the chance."

—Publishers Weekly


"It is a pleasure to read a writer who so delights in language, and who writes so captivatingly in a teen voice with such imaginative description."

— Los Angeles Times

“This is a love story. Not a romantic love story, but a story of the development of a deep caring relationship with another being. Humorous and sad at times, it brings us to ask ourselves what we think about heaven and how we get there. Believable and fast-paced, it keeps us reading to the end.”

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Photo by Emerald England.

Saturday
Nov162013

Elizabeth Wein, Part I: an #NY14SCBWI interview

Elizabeth Wein is author of one of my all-time favorite novels, CODE NAME VERITY. Set in World War II, the book is riveting, heartbreaking, elegant, emotional, and surprising, all at once. Seriously: It blew my mind. If you haven't checked it out yet, please do (and then pick up ROSE UNDER FIRE, its stunning companion).

I can't wait to hear her keynote at the upcoming national SCBWI conference in New York. She's not only a master writer, she's also generous with her wisdom. So generous, in fact, that I am splitting my interview with her into two parts.

If you haven't yet signed up for the conference, don't delay. It's likely to sell out. And now, please enjoy what Elizabeth has to say about her books and her process for creating them. 

You write historical fiction—how do you choose which era you'd like to write about, or more specifically, what made you leap forward in time to the 20th century? 

Elizabeth WeinI was pushed. My editor at the time asked me to write about something more mainstream than Ethiopia in the sixth century. After I got my own pilot’s license I’d been inspired to write several short stories about flying, but the one that was praised the most was set during World War II—it was about a girl who disguises herself as her dead brother so she can become a Royal Air Force pilot during the Battle of Britain. While I was doing the research for this story I’d uncovered information about the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary and the Special Operations Executive, and there was already an idea for a novel percolating in the back of my brain.  (The short story is called “Something Worth Doing,” and it’s available in Firebirds Soaring, edited by Sharyn November, as well as in Egmont’s “enhanced ebook” version of Code Name Verity. Theo, the main character, makes a cameo appearance in Code Name Verity.)

It would be facile to say “I don’t choose the era, it chooses me”—but to a certain extent it’s true. Code Name Verity isn’t the first novel I’ve written about the recent past, regardless of what the outside world sees. The unpublished novel I wrote after I finished The Winter Prince (1993) was set in New Jersey in 1936.  Also, if you look at my short stories, you’ll get a wider view of history than you do in my novels—I have published short stories set in Anglo-Saxon Britain, 18th century Jamaica, 17th and 19th century England, mid-20th century Pennsylvania and Kenya, and modern New York and Scotland in addition to World War II.

The bottom line is that I write about eras which fascinate me, but ultimately my stories are character driven.  My first five novels all stem from my teenage obsession with Arthurian legend, with a foray into sixth century Ethiopia. It was the possibility of a connection between the ancient kingdom of Aksum and Arthur’s Britain that I loved the idea of—but mostly, as I wrote, I was deeply enjoying playing with my characters and the loving, dysfunctional family I’d created.  When I started writing a novel exploring some of the roles women played in World War II, it was the individual characters who took over and drove the plot and ate my brain alive.

Your most recent two books are, I think, wonderfully distinctive in part because of the way you use POV and non-linear structure. How much do you know about the structure of your story as you set out?

My first five books are all exactly fourteen chapters each. I did that on purpose, for no particular reason; it felt right. I was talking about this recently and commented that “fourteen” is such a random number to have chosen for my chapter divisions, and the person I was talking to (I think it was the illustrator Kathleen Jennings http://tanaudel.wordpress.com/) pointed out that there are fourteen lines in a sonnet.  So maybe not so random after all. I thought a LOT about the structure of sonnets before I thought much about the structure of novels.

When the inspiration for Code Name Verity hit me like a bolt of lightning, the dual narrative structure of the novel instantly suggested itself to me as well. But until I started to write, I had no idea how liberating and exciting it was going to be to be able to play with narrative form the way Verity does.  I had recently read The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace, and I was deeply impressed by how cleverly the “documents,” a collection of letters and subpoenas and newspaper clippings, all came together to form a coherent narrative and a mystery. So I was partly inspired by trying that out, too.  Code Name Verity was a very experimental book for me.

Maybe it’s no surprise, because my two recent books are not the first time I’ve used an unusual point of view for telling a story.  The Winter Prince, my first novel, is a second person narrative.  Throughout the novel the narrator addresses his interior monologue or whatever it is to “you,” a specific “you” in this case, his mother.  However, there is no context for the telling—is this supposed to be a letter? Is it actually written down? Is he speaking directly to the person he’s addressing? If written down, does his mother ever read it? The ambiguity of the context is part of the novel’s disturbing aura—the narrator is an ambiguous kind of guy—but in later years it bothered me as an author, and I inserted an explanatory line of context for The Winter Prince in my fourth novel, The Lion Hunter, when one character (not the one to whom The Winter Prince is addressed) mentions that she’d proofread the manuscript for the narrator!

With Rose Under Fire, I knew from the start that the book was going to be divided into three sections. I knew the names of those sections: Southampton, Ravensbrück, Nuremberg. I knew that the first would be a journal, the second a cathartic outpouring—an imitation of a survivor account—and the third a consciously structured article. I didn’t know what the transitions between the sections would be or how that would work, but I knew that there were three distinct stages of Rose’s life to be described in three distinct ways, and I wanted to show her emotional growth as a young woman and also her technical growth as a young writer.

I guess the answer to the question is that I have a broad outline in mind—like a sketch. I fill in the detail as I go along.

Next: 

Tips for researching historical fiction, what it's like to be a writer in Scotland, and a glimpse at what Elizabeth is working on next!

Be sure to visit Elizabeth's home page, which has links to all sorts of treasures for writers and readers.

Thursday
Nov142013

Jack Gantos: an NY14SCBWI interview

Jack GantosI once knew this celebrity journalist who, when she met George Clooney for the first time, started crying and couldn't get a word out, which is a problem for an interviewer. Finally, to break the awkwardness, Clooney kissed her. This is a genius way to get Clooney to kiss you, I suppose, even if you know he's never going to commit.

Jack Gantos is my George Clooney, although I'd definitely settle for a demure yet firm handshake next time I see him. 

Jack writes everything: picture books, middle grade novels, YA novels, adult novels. And everything he writes has this spectacular gothic sheen to it. He's funny, sometimes dark, deeply humane, and so darned elegant in his structure and style. Please do yourself a favor and read his books. All of them. 

It's no wonder he's won a Newbery (for DEAD END IN NORVELT), a Printz Honor (HOLE IN MY LIFE), a National Book Award finalist spot (JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWS THE KEY), and a Newbery Honor (JOEY PIGZA LOSES CONTROL).

There are more awards, but I'm crying too uncontrollably to type. Also? My hands are covered in paraffin because to do this interview with Jack, I channeled the spirit and hairdo of Miss Volker from NORVELT and its sequel, FROM NORVELT TO NOWHERE.

Jack is one of the keynote speakers at the SCBWI conference in New York in February. You won't want to miss him. Meanwhile, learn a bit about how he works, how he revises, and how he'd like to be remembered when someone finally does slip him a poisoned cookie.

Miss Volker

You didn’t turn out as badly as I feared. Probably because I cured your nosebleeds. You wasted a lot of time bleeding, you know. Speaking of wasting time, how do you avoid it and get your work done? As I recall, you preferred gunplay and the like. What’s a typical Jack Gantos day?

The first thing I practice is leaving the house and going to the library on my writing days. This has been my routine for decades and it continues to work. If I stay home I am entirely distracted by the cats and mail and email and food and gardening and all manner of distractions (no more silly gunplay) that I foolishly indulge in. So I pack up my work/writing bag each morning and leave the house for a good eight/ten hour session of writing and rewriting and reading and research and chatting up all my favorite librarians. I try to push the book forward each day—even on conflicted days when I’m off speaking across the country or internationally. I take notes on the stray  thoughts that occur to me when I travel, and quite often it is these random thoughts which turn out to be the gems. Plus, I always travel with manuscript and can always find time to closely read through a handful of pages and mark them up—over and over—until they are fully decorated in red ink.

I’ve heard tell you write 100 drafts of your books. Why don’t you just get it right the first time? What are you hoping to accomplish by continuing to lurk around your manuscripts like some sort of Mr. Spizz? Why can’t you leave the poor pages alone?

I wish I could get it right the first time, but I’m not that smart, and I find that with each pass I find a way to pair up sympathetic ideas and images, or events and emotional responses, or improve the pace and crack of the dialog, and so much more. There are infinite improvements I can make to each book. We all have “blind spots” when we write—especially in the beginning when I’m just desperately trying to get the narrative action of the story to reveal itself. Once I get that physical surface of the story set, then the rewrites are just me spelunking Oh, look. The Gantos boy gave me a nosebleed, which only makes sense if you've read DEAD END IN NORVELT, and even then, only a little. But here's to nosebleeds. between each word, each thought, each crack in the narrative as I begin to layer in vertical depth to the action, themes, characters and décor. I love finding all the words that play hide and seek with me. 

What do you hope the first line of your obituary reads?

 “We think he is dead. But it is hard to tell as his books live on, and he always said he would run away some day and hide between the pages dressed in a costume of odd punctuation while crouching behind a shrubbery. “No one will ever find me,” he boasted. Thus far, those who know him are satisfied with this outcome.”

For more about the great Jack Gantos, please visit his website.

Here's an interview on Seven Impossible Things.

And a video on journaling, which is a big part of his writing process.

 

Saturday
Nov092013

Emma Dryden on plot: an NY14SCBWI interview

Emma D. DrydenHard to believe, but the annual SCBWI winter conference in New York City is fast approaching. Scheduled for Feb. 21-23 at the Grand Hyatt (which now sits atop a Shake Shack), the conference will feature keynotes by Jack Gantos, Kate Messner, Elizabeth Wein, and Sharon Draper, not to mention breakout sessions by all sorts of terrific editors, agents, art directors, and more. 

If you haven't signed up yet, you can do so here. But don't delay! These things sell out. 

One conference item that's sold out already is the one-day plot intensive featuring Sharon Draper, Kate Messner, Jill Santopolo, Elizabeth Wein, and Jane Yolen. But to make sure you're not entirely out of luck if you're struggling with plot, I interviewed Emma Dryden, who will be moderating the day's discussions.

A bit about Emma: Over her 25-year career, she's edited more than 500 books for young readers, ranging from board books through YA, and across the genres for each age group.

Books she edited, or were edited by a team she oversaw as a publisher, picked up starred reviews, appeared on bestseller lists, and won top awards. Among them: the Newbery, Newbery Honor, Caldecott Honor, National Book Award nominations, and Coretta Scott King Author awards and honors for authors and illustrators. (You can see the whole list here.) These days, she runs drydenbks, a premier children's editorial and publishing consultancy firm that provides editorial and strategic services to authors, illustrators, publishers, agents, and start-ups

In short, she's a total pro, and she's going to make sure that intensive session is a transformative experience for participants. Meanwhile, she has advice we can put to use now about plotting, about reading, and about whether seeking independent editorial services from someone like her is right for you at this point in your career. 

You're moderating the intensive on plot, which has been described as "the nemesis of all writers." Over your distinguished career, you've edited hundreds of books, and now you're working directly with authors through drydenbks. What are the most common mistakes you see writers make? 

I don’t like the word “mistake,” when it comes to writing—so I’m going to adjust the word to “oversight,” and say that the most common oversight I see writers making is not writing to the hearts of their characters and not allowing their characters to be the emotional and psychological heroes of their own stories. 

I read lots of manuscripts in which amazing, wondrous, exciting, memorable things happen to the characters, but what’s often missing from these manuscripts is how the characters, by the very nature of who they are and what motivates them and makes them tick, are changing and effecting things around them, how the characters are changing themselves, and how the characters are driving their own stories—and this is what I mean by the heart of the characters.

To my mind plot works on two levels—there’s the action plot and there’s the emotional plot of a story.  Emotional plot is much harder to define and much harder to express on the page, and yet it’s essential to creating a book that will thoroughly compel and engage a young reader.

What do you think participants in the intensive can hope to get from their day? And if someone was hesitating about signing up for one of these, what sort of encouragement would you give? 

The faculty guiding this intensive are some of the finest writers and editors in the children’s book business—not only are they consummate pros, but they are also kind, and they have themselves been in the very chairs in which participants are sitting. 

Writing is a lifelong process of learning, deepening and evolving craft—and the writing intensives are to my mind the very best way to assist a writer in honing their craft. Participants will not only come away with information, tools, (handouts!) and inspiration, but will spend time in the intensive actually writing--doing writing exercises, and tapping their creative wells in a safe, supportive space. This is a gift every writer ought to give themselves if they can. 

What are some of the favorite plot developments you've encountered as an editor and as a reader? In other words, what books should we all read to improve our understanding of plot?

I particularly love stories that have plots that offer surprises. I also best love stories that establish motives and goals in the beginning that are changed, deepened, and realized in some way by the end—but the caution here is that the structure of a plot is not something of which readers ought to ever be particularly conscious. Readers need to feel a story, which means the plot, informed by the characterizations, challenges, and world of the book, is the platform in which to allow readers feel as much as possible.

There are many fine writing and resource books about plot that writers can access, though I think an intensive or craft workshop is often the best way to hone in on some of the best techniques writers can employ to work on plotting.  

A few books for young readers that to my mind handle plot exceptionally well include HOLES by Louis Sacher, HARRY POTTER by J. K. Rowling, and HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh (a childhood favoriteand I include this title because it reminds me that the books we loved as children and that stick with us as we grow up are undoubtedly those that were a masterful blending of action plot and emotional plot that spoke to us on many levels when we needed it.) I just realized these are all “H” titles—not sure what that’s about! 

There are way too many excellent books for readers to read to experience great plotting, so the best I can suggest is for readers to keep reading consciously—really read with an eye towards whether you feel drawn along seamlessly on a journey or whether you’re feeling manipulated too much; whether you feel there are too many coincidences; or if the journey of the story itself feels somehow emotionally connected with the journey of the main character. This is but a few elements of a story that speak to successful or unsuccessful plotting.

How does someone know if they're a good candidate to work with you independently? Who tends to benefit most from your guidance?

I work with authors at all stages of their careers—and authors can get a good sense of my work ethic and work style from the drydenbks website (www.drydenbks.com).  Some authors do come to me at too early a stage in their writing careers, when they haven’t written enough and haven’t yet learned something about the children’s book world and about the basics of craft—and that’s when I will often suggest they join SCBWI, hook up with some critique partners, attend conferences, and learn a bit more about themselves as writers, about writing, and about the market before we work together.

More often than not, I find the writers who benefit most from working with me are of two sorts:  either the writer who has a good sense of the market and of their writing craft and goals and is seeking information about career strategies, writing strategies, and tools; or the writer who has been submitting to agents and/or editors, but who is getting rejections and needs to understand why their manuscript isn’t working. 

I do as much consulting as I do editing, so I am always open to a thoughtful query letter (NOTE: please submit according to the specific submittal guidelines on my website!) about pretty much anything a writer is concerned about their work, and I will work up a proposal that I feel best suits the situation and the goals of that writer. 

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