A Writer’s Process (9)

And now from the ridiculous (see last post) to the sublime. Today on the blog is the chic and sensational Sandra Nickel, another good friend from VCFA. Get out your magnifying glass and your deerstalker, ’cause we’re talking about mysteries and ghosts. Mwahahahahahaha!!!!

Sandra at Shakespeare & Co

Sandra at Shakespeare and Company in Paris

El Space: Please share a few facts about yourself.
Sandra: I like to think that my writing is the reason my husband fell in love with me. Friends wanted to set us up, but he was living in Moscow, and I was living in New York, so I sent him an email every other day for three months until he was so intrigued, he hopped on a plane to New York so we could meet and have dinner. We did have that dinner, and I have lived a surprisingly European life ever since—two-and-a-half years in Moscow, four years in Paris, and now Switzerland. All because of those notes I wrote. The power of writing. See what it can do?

El Space: Wow! You must have sent some amazing email! Where is your writing taking you now?
Sandra: I’m working on my first middle grade novel, Saving St. Martha’s, a mystery set in a Swiss boarding school. A sort of Nancy Drew meets the first Harry Potter. I just received my critique group’s last comments, so I’m revising.

El Space: Please tell us about it.
Sandra: The heart of the story revolves around two twelve-year-old girls. Lorna is all logic, and Jeannette all mystical ideas, but when their parents ship them off to St. Martha’s to get rid of them, they become best friends; the school, their sanctuary; and Martha, the ghost of the former headmistress, their protector.

But the school is in trouble. Its old abbey is falling apart and the school is in terrible debt. A prized painting—the last gift from the school’s patroness—was never found. And worse, the girls discover that the hard-hearted Corbett Rast and his bank are going to take the abbey and shut down the school unless St. Martha’s comes up with $1,000,000 in 10 days. The girls and Martha vow to find the long-lost painting. But Corbett Rast wants it too . . . and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

Martha, the ghost, is quite snarky, so the story is fun—part mystery/part boarding school story, and a lot about friendship. The great news is that Saving St. Martha‘s has had a nice reception so far. It was named as a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize and Hunger Mountain selected the first two chapters to be published in its upcoming “Mentors & Tormentors” issue.

El Space: That’s awesome! What inspired you to write Saving St. Martha’s?
Sandra: A couple of things, really. First came the setting. My daughter used to go to school in this truly amazing place—a Swiss chalet that had been built for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris and then taken apart and rebuilt piece by piece on a hill above Lake Geneva. The chalet is all dark wood and tall, sloping roofs, and inside there is this gorgeous staircase worn smooth and glossy from all the girls that have run up and down it. The moment I saw that chalet, I wished I had gone to school there and knew it would be the perfect setting for a middle grade story.

Sandra and Olivia with Chalet

Sandra and her daughter at the chalet that inspired Saving St. Martha’s

At this same time, my daughter and her best friend were so taken with mysteries and hidden treasures, they formed their own two-member club, a sort of private detective agency that solved the small and large mysteries around them. I put the school together with their private detective firm, a hidden treasure, a mystery, and came up with Saving St. Martha’s.

El Space: What drew you to write for the middle grade audience?
Sandra: Well . . . I wasn’t drawn to write middle grade. Not really. That whole story of what inspired me to write Saving St. Martha’s was a someday, down-the-road sort of inspiration. A long, long way down the road. I could imagine writing for young adults—and I did—and I could imagine trying my hand at picture books—and I did. But middle grade? There was something eminently frightening about it. My own middle grade years hadn’t been wildly happy, and I had clouded over my memories to the point of remembering very little. How was I to write for an audience living out the years I felt least connected to?

But then, I was accepted into the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and someone—I don’t remember exactly who—tossed down the gauntlet of: “Why don’t you try writing a middle grade?” So, I did, mostly because I like to pretend I’m not scared of anything, other than heights and mice. I went through hypnosis to reconnect to my middle grade years. I hung out with middle grade kids. I read any and every middle grade book recommended to me. I wrote. And what fun it all has been!

El Space: Sounds like you were well prepared. What was the most challenging aspect of writing a mystery?
Sandra: In a way, mysteries are easier to write than other stories, because the broad arc of the story is already there. You set up the mystery, and then the mystery must be solved. Easy, right? The problem is that the small arcs that make up that broader arc can be tricky. New mystery writers—and this was certainly true for me—often believe they must hide the hints and clues and truth from the reader. But the opposite is true.

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Mystery writers must reveal every detail for the reader, but then use sleight of hand, distraction, or an unreliable character to make the truth difficult to discern. This is the tricky part, where mystery writers strive to hit the sweet spot of revealing enough, yet not too much. For this, having a critique group or beta readers is essential, since they are coming to the story for the first time. You want them intrigued, but not confused; you want them to have just enough information to keep reading, but not so much that they put down the book because they’ve already figured it all out.

El Space: What authors inspired you when you were growing up? Which inspire you now?
Sandra: There were so very many who inspired me. I was a big reader! But since we have been talking about middle grade, let me say: E. L. Konigsburg, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Roald Dahl, Louise Fitzhugh, Norton Juster, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis. As for now, this blog isn’t long enough to name them all. But I guess I can say: Ditto for all the above, and add a few of my “new” discoveries: Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Paterson, Louis Sachar, David Almond, and Grace Lin.

Some Middle Grade Books That Have Inspired Me

Books that inspire Sandra

El Space: Do you stick to one project or work on more than one? What tools are helpful?
Sandra: I’m an immersion writer. I absolutely love submersing myself completely in one story-world at a time. That’s not always practical, however. Right now, in addition to Saving St. Martha’s, I’m working on a young adult Gothic ghost story and a storyteller’s poem about a female Paul Revere. When I need to quickly switch from one story to another, the best tool I have found is to freewrite my way into a character’s world. I start by having the character dress herself, noting every detail from the scratch of her wool skirt, to the cut of her socks’ elastic into her calves, then move onto other details like the woody-lead smell of her pencil and the squeal of a violin in the room next door. Five minutes of these kinds of specifics are enough. The wormhole is created, and just like that, I’m pulled from one story-world into the other and am ready to write.

Sorry, that about wraps it up! Thanks, Sandra, for being such a great guest!

If you have questions for Sandra about her book or her process, please comment below.

Magnifying glass from trenchesofdiscovery.blogspot.com.

A Writer’s Process (6b)

Photo on 2012-08-28 at 13.40We’re back with the sunny and splendid Jen Bailey. While I search for a chocolate scone (and of course, I’ll share), here’s a reminder for any newbies tuning in: This is part 2 of the discussion of Jen’s process. You can access part 1 here, if you haven’t already done so. (If you commented yesterday, thanks!) In part 1, you’ll find a synopsis of Jen’s work in progress. If you haven’t read that, you can’t pass Go or collect $200 until you do!

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All caught up? If so, let’s jump right in!

El Space: Would you consider your book magical realism? Straight fantasy? A blend of the two?
Jen: This is a struggle I keep having with myself, and so what I’m trying to do is just forget about these labels and just see what happens. All I know is that Norah’s birds keep flying away. But I am writing it from her point of view, so until she figures out what’s going on—this is the pantser in me!—I can’t truly answer this question!

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El Space: Fair enough.
Jen: I wonder if it is magical realism. Sometimes I ask myself if Norah is destroying the birds herself; other times I’m wondering if someone is stealing her birds. I think the answer will come out in the text, and I’m excited to find out what it is.

El Space: What else excites you about telling Norah’s story?
Jen: I would have to say it is the insane connections I have found as I write it! I see themes coming up over and over again—especially themes of flying, folding—and you know, it is like a mystery! I know it’s all going to gel eventually, but it is happening organically rather than because I have hijacked it with my linear thinking. So while that’s sometimes hard for me to let go and do, it’s fun and freeing when it happens.

El Space: I can relate to that. I’ve tried to control a story with my plot points, instead of allowing the characters to drive the story. So, Jen, what authors help fire your imagination? Why?
Jen: I am drawn to sparse, subtle, emotionally charged writing. Authors who blow my mind: Margo Lanagan (so raw!), David Almond (imagery), Benjamin Alire Sáenz (poetic language), Martine Leavitt (beautifully sparse and powerful), Hervé Bouchard/Janice Nadeau combo (wrote subtle but emotionally intense graphic novel Harvey), Kevin Henkes, and Mo Willems (again, subtle but intensely emotional).

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191113El Space: Good ones! What tools or techniques help you give shape to your character(s)?
Jen: I use a lot of freewriting to discover my characters. Once they’ve taken shape in my mind, I just kind of go with what it is they’re telling me about them. I try to hone in on how they speak, move, are, then get it on the page.

El Space: What kinds of books would you like to see more of for the middle grade or young adult audience? Why?
Jen: I’d like to see more stories that explore community and collaboration; stories that move away from the single-protagonist model. Every person’s story impacts that of another, and I am interested in the dynamics between people, miscommunications, and multiple POVs. I think stories like these help build empathy, even more so than do single-protagonist stories. I blogged a bit about the plural-protagonist model.

El Space: What’s the best writing advice you were given recently? How did it help?
Jen: “Just write a good story.” It helps me to remember that I should write the story I need to tell, and any other concern—e.g., audience, genre, publication pressure, marketing strategies—will work itself out later.

El Space: Very wise. What advice do you have for writers about shaping characters?
Jen: I would say to do a lot of freewriting to figure out how your character thinks. Put them in situations and see how they react—just for fun, not as part of your novel/story, necessarily. For example, I could take Norah and imagine her at an amusement park, and through her actions, thoughts, and words, I will learn about her. I suppose I don’t really shape my characters, I uncover them.

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Great advice. And judging by the theme music, that’s all the time we have. Thanks for being my guest today, Jen!

And thanks to all of you for joining us and pretending to hear the theme music that I mentioned. (Though if your imagination needs help, please click here.) If you have questions for Jen about her work in progress or her process, please comment below. Don’t forget: you can find Jen at her blog or on Twitter.

Grackle photo from Wikipedia. Book covers from Goodreads.com. Question mark from clker.com. Monopoly card from joecarr.us.