A Tale of Three Trees

As promised, today I will reveal the winners of Halfway to Happily Ever After by Sarah Aronson and Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison. See this post and this one if you’re completely confused by that statement.

     

     

Before I get to that, in honor of the first day of summer, here is a photo (the one on the left) of three trees I pass every day. Okay, yeah. You can only see the the trunk of the tree at the far right. So, the photo at the right shows the tree you couldn’t really see in the left photo (though some of the foliage in the left photo belongs to that tree). Yeah. I know. The knot holes give it a creepy look. So, let’s call it Creepy Tree. Despite its appearance, squirrels and birds by the score are drawn to it and to the one across the street from it. The latter tree seems like a happy tree, with its fuller access to the sun’s rays.

 

Happy Tree. Even the branches seem like a smile.

The tree in the foreground of the picture on the left (same tree in the photo at the right) reminds me of a brush, so its nickname is—you guessed it—Brush. Brush is a haven for birds. I’ve seen cardinals dart into it from time to time, though they usually live in one of the larger evergreen trees nearby.

   

Brush has reached a lovely height.

Brush is a place that many birds visit, but don’t live in. Sort of like a Starbucks or a library—a place they go to hang out in or work. But Creepy Tree and Happy Tree are the homes squirrels and birds return to after a hard day’s work.

Creepy Tree is less creepy from this side of the street (the Happy Tree side).

What makes some trees more habitable than others? It takes a squirrel or a bird to know best, since trees are their domain. But as I asked myself that question, I couldn’t help thinking about stories—places we find ourselves inhabiting, even if the settings are completely made up.

There are some stories we visit. We might read them once and move on. But there are stories we call home—the ones that draw us back to their pages again and again. We become citizens of their well-drawn worlds, and gladly tread their well-worn paths.

In what story worlds are you a citizen?

Speaking of well-drawn worlds, time for the book giveaways. Thanks to the random number generator, the winner of Halfway to Happily Ever After is

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Nancy Hatch!

The winner of Every Shiny Thing is

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Marian!

Congrats to the winners! You know the drill. Please comment below to confirm.

Author photos and book covers courtesy of the authors. Tree photos by L. Marie.

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Check This Out: Every Shiny Thing

Today on the blog, you will find not one, but two of my incredible VCFA classmates: the marvelous Cordelia Jensen (left) and the awesome Laurie Morrison. They are here to discuss their middle grade novel, Every Shiny Thing, which was published by Abrams in April. Click here to read the novel’s synopsis.

   

Cordelia and Laurie are represented by Sara Crowe. After the interview, I’ll tell you about a giveaway of their novel.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Laurie: 1. I used to be able to hula hoop for hours on end, doing all kinds of fancy tricks. 2. I ran three marathons before hurting my knee while training for a fourth. 3. I think chocolate chip cookies are pretty much the world’s most perfect food. 4. I have a brother who can play the piano by ear, like Ryan can in Every Shiny Thing.

Cordelia: 1. I was a certified scuba diver in high school. 2. I was a camp counselor for eleven summers. 3. When I turned 39, I got my first cavity, my first dog died, and I broke my first bone. It was like I turned 9 not 39! 4. I have boy girl twins who are 12, now we all read the same books!

El Space: How did your premise—two middle graders who come up with what has been described as an ill-advised Robin Hood scheme to raise money for people in need—come about?
Laurie and Cordelia: We started with a vision for our two characters and the relationship they would form, and we thought it would be compelling if Lauren developed a compulsion to shoplift and Sierra felt like she had to cover for her. But Laurie, who wrote Lauren’s point of view, is terrified of breaking rules and couldn’t fathom why Lauren would shoplift until she thought of the middle school students she taught and how passionate many of them were about social justice. We thought: what if Lauren is angry about the inequality she sees in the world around her and wants to do something to make the world a fairer place, sort of like Robin Hood…but then she gets carried away and her well-intentioned scheme spirals out of control?

El Space: The book was written in prose and poetry. What was your process for writing? What was your favorite thing about working together?
Laurie and Cordelia: Laurie wrote Lauren’s sections in prose and Cordelia wrote Sierra’s sections in verse. We had a big brainstorming session before we began writing, during which we figured out the midpoint and ending, and once we had written a little more than half of the book, we met again to plan a chapter-by-chapter outline for the rest of the story so it wouldn’t run away from us. But for the most part, we just went back and forth in a Google doc, one of us writing a chapter, then the other building off that chapter to write the next one, and so on. We both found the process incredibly energizing because we could bounce ideas off each other and improvise with each other as we went. And it was pretty great to get immediate feedback on the sections we wrote so we knew right away what was working and what wasn’t. And we gave each other lots of compliments as we went, which was also very fun and validating!

El Space: Talk to us about your main characters—Sierra and Lauren. How are they different than or similar to middle grade you? What advice would high school you give to Sierra and Lauren about surviving middle school? Why is this important?
Laurie: I was conscientious and loyal, like Lauren is, and I had brothers I felt somewhat protective of. I cared about injustice, but not as single-mindedly as Lauren does. And I was a rule-follower, so I never would have stolen! I think high school me would have been overwhelmed by the misguided intensity of Lauren’s Robin Hood plan. There were a couple of times when I was in high school when I really wanted to help a friend but realized I was not equipped to figure out how to do that, so I went to a trusted adult—the guidance counselor at my school—to ask for advice. High school me would have gone to the guidance counselor to work out a plan to help Lauren, and I likely would have tried to help her talk to someone she trusted, like her Aunt Jill or her teacher, Mr. Ellis. I would have advised her that there are times when things get intense and hard enough that you may need adult reinforcements and sometimes you may want to turn to adults other than your parents, and that’s just fine.

Cordelia: I was definitely a caretaker like Sierra is, which is part of the reason I wanted to write this book. I would tell Sierra (1) you are safe now, let yourself trust in your new environment and the people who are caring for you (2) if you feel overwhelmed in a relationship, seek help and support. Dare yourself to ask for help even if it feels impossible. Feeling like you are the only person who can help someone can become an addiction itself.

El Space: Social justice is a big theme in society and in your book. What do you hope kids will take away from your book?
Laurie and Cordelia: The School Library Journal review of Every Shiny Thing says the novel may encourage some readers to examine their privilege, which we were thrilled to see because we definitely like the idea that the book would make readers stop to think about things in the world that aren’t fair and things they can do—without resorting to illegal measures like Lauren does—to make a difference.

In addition, if kids are struggling with an addicted parent, we hope they will see that there are resources out there that can offer help.

El Space: Please tell us how your passion for writing books for kids developed.
Laurie: I only began writing fiction after I began teaching middle school. There was something about my students’ passion, humor, creativity, and honesty that inspired me deeply. I also went through a lot of big life changes when I was in middle school and high school, and I very vividly remember what it felt like to be that age and deal with big revelations and relationship shifts. I feel a lot of empathy for my middle school and early high school self and am moved to explore some of the intense feelings I had at those ages.

Cordelia: I have always been a writer and even concentrated in Creative Writing at Kenyon College as an undergrad. However, I began writing for kids after working with them. Besides having an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I have an M.Ed in School Counseling. I worked as a counselor in my twenties and was also a camp counselor for a long time (see fun fact). Once I became pregnant with my own kids, I was drawn to write stories and poems for the kids I had worked with for so long. I felt I had a lot more to say to kids and teens than to adults.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Laurie: I’m finishing up edits on my next middle grade novel, Up for Air, which is a summer story about competitive swimming, self-esteem, fitting in, and standing out that will come out next spring, and I’m working on a couple of other projects that are in much earlier stages.

Cordelia: I’ve been working on a picture book, a MG novel, and a YA—all in verse!

Thank you, Cordelia and Laurie, for being my guests!

Looking for Cordelia and Laurie? You can find them at these locations.

Laurie Morrison: website, Twitter, Instagram.

Cordelia Jensen: website, Twitter, Instagram.

Every Shiny Thing is available at a bookstore near you and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound.

If you’re a teacher and need resources to teach about the topics in Every Shiny Thing, click here.

One of you will be given a copy of this book simply because you commented. Check back on June 21 to discover the winner. 

Having read Every Shiny Thing, Lippy Lulu and Macy Macaron are inspired to do something to help others in need.
What would you do?

Cordelia Jensen author photo by Marietta Pathy Allen. Laurie Morrison author photo by Laura Billingham. Hula hoop from keywordsuggest.org. Scuba gear from ladyasatramp.blogspot.com. Social justice image from stephenandmary.org.au. Google docs image from heavy.com. Robin Hood image from freepins.com. Middle school image from sites.google.com. Shopkins Shoppie dolls—Lippy Lulu and Macy Macaron—by Moose Toys. Photo by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Skyscraping

If you were around the blog last year, you’ll remember the cover reveal for Skyscraping, the young adult verse novel by yet another friend and classmate: the awesome Cordelia Jensen. Well, Skyscraping, published by Philomel/Penguin, launched into the world on June 2. And Cordelia is here to talk about it.

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Cordelia is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc. Want to read a synopsis of Skyscraping? Sure you do. Click here.

El Space: Congratulations on the outstanding reviews you received for Skyscraping. Well deserved! I find it interesting that in Spanish mira means “look” and the book centers around something Mira [the narrator] saw. Was the name choice deliberate?
Cordelia: Well, in a way. I like that Mira sounds like mirror and that she is reflective as a person. And that there are a lot of reflection images in the book and, personally, that the story is sort of a distorted reflection of my own life. Her name used to be Lia, which was a part of my name CordeLIA. All the characters were named from parts of actual names of my family members. But somewhere in the revision, my editor suggested I change everyone’s names so I would have an easier time separating story from reality and, therefore, able to make more objective revisions.

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Cordelia’s June 6 book launch party at Mt. Airy Read & Eat in Philadelphia. Bandage on hand courtesy of a badminton accident. (Photos by I. W. Gregorio.)

I quickly chose Miranda as the name for the main character because my mom almost named me that. I also like that Miranda, like Cordelia, is a Shakespearean name. It is from The Tempest, which involves a charged father-daughter relationship as Cordelia has with her father in King Lear.

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My sister suggested Mira as a nickname, which I liked when I found out its meaning, which in English is “wonder.” This works thematically with the journey quality of the story. Furthermore, there’s a binary star named Mira, which is just perfect for the identity shifts in the book. For another name example, April used to be Jewel for my sister Julia, but I renamed her April because it means “open,” which is a defining part of that character’s personality.

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Mira

El Space: Also interesting is the fact that you mentioned The Odyssey in this book and Mira goes through a difficult odyssey of her own that I don’t want to spoil here. But I’d like to hear about the odyssey of turning what was once a memoir into a fiction story. How were you able to separate your journey from Mira’s?
MQpictureblackshirtCordelia: It was pretty hard to do at certain points. I first began fictionalizing my story under the advisement of the great Mary Quattlebaum [left]. Together, she and I constructed an arc based on some themes I knew I wanted to play around with: trying to stop time, safety/risk, running away/coming home. My talented friend Laurie Morrison actually was the one to suggest I frame the story in a year’s time, which was a huge grounding idea behind the book. It also is how I began to really fictionalize the book, because my own father was HIV positive since 1986 and was really very sick the years 1992-94, whereas Mira’s dad is sick for a relatively short period of time. Condensing the story is how I started to make it its own thing.

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Throughout VCFA and working with my excellent editor, Liza Kaplan, there were subplots that were cut or added; some characters are quite similar to the actual people, some very different. For example, originally the character of Adam was loosely based on my boyfriend at the time, but he became SO different as the drafts changed. I can’t say more without giving a lot away. BUT that is the beauty of fictionalizing something—you have that ability to have your story take unanticipated directions while maintaining an authentic emotional arc. At different points I had to take out all of the dialogue, cut two secondary characters. I started the whole book over and then in the final revision cut sixty pages from the beginning of the book. The odyssey of the revisions is hard to sum up! There were so many! Fortunately, Liza is so skilled as an editor and the book really is so much better from having made all those changes.

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Mt. Airy photo booth props from the 90s

El Space: Everything really works together! Mira chose the theme of space for the yearbook. And Mira gives herself space from her family and friends, which you show through the spacing used in these poems. How is space—on the page, emotional, or in the astronomical sense—important to you?
Cordelia: Playing with space is an essential component in poetry and in verse novels. Melanie Crowder just wrote a lovely blog post where she interviews many verse novelists on their use of white space. Here’s the link to that: http://cleareyesfullshelves.com/blog/melanie-crowder. I love how a poet can use white space in the way a sculpter uses it or a painter. This is something you really can’t do as much in prose and it adds a whole different layer of emotional depth.

The reason I chose astronomy as the theme for the book was because I actually took an astronomy class senior year. I wrote a few poems, including “Supernova” and “Something Stellar” and understood that it might make sense to write the whole book with this image system.

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Photo at left by Laura Sibson; photo at right by Jane Rosenberg

I think the feeling of being crowded and having no physical space and yet feeling so anonymous, like you have all this emotional distance from those around you, is also how I felt as a kid growing up in NYC. I felt simultaneously overwhelmed and unknown. I think Mira—who, unlike me, really loves NYC at the beginning of this book—suddenly notices space, the space up and around her as her life crashes. In the book we are closely connected to her as she reexamines all the spaces around her.

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El Space: How did you come to choose the verse novel format as the vehicle to tell this story?
Cordelia: I showed Coe Booth, my VCFA advisor my first semester, five of my “family poems” as I called them at the time. She loved them and introduced me to the YA verse novel genre. She was the one who suggested I write a memoir in verse. I compiled about sixty of these poems before I made the decision to fictionalize the piece.

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El Space: I’m curious about the phrase let the butterflies into your heart from page 10. Is that your own invention or was that something someone said to you? What does that mean for you now?
Cordelia: It is actually adapted from a line from one of my favorite picture books, If You’re Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow. I think as someone who is prone towards getting nervous, especially about new things or transitions, it is a saying I hold on to, so I liked the idea of the dad having that advice for his kids.

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El Space: Looking at two lines from your book—In just two days / we launch—I can’t help wondering what launched you into young adult books. You went to Vermont College of Fine Arts. But what made you choose writing for children and young adults?
Cordelia: I actually don’t think I would’ve gone to get my MFA in anything else. I already had a Master’s in Education in Counseling and I didn’t think I would get another Master’s. However, I had recently written a Middle Grade camp novel manuscript after being a camp counselor for eleven summers. Around that time I was standing in my kitchen with my author friend Dan Torday and he mentioned the MFA program at VCFA and I was like, “WHAT??? You can go to school to write for kids and teens?” My heart started racing and I applied that night. I love working with kids of any age and it is really the only population I am interested in writing for. Though of course that might change someday.

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Daniel Torday, author of The Last Flight of Poxl West and head of the creative writing department at Bryn Mawr College (where Cordelia teaches), introduces Cordelia.

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More photo booth props

El Space: Which authors inspired you when you were a teen? How do you, in turn, inspire the young authors you meet in your workshops?
Cordelia: I loved e.e. cummings’s poems when I was a teen. He taught me how you can play with words and still write “serious poetry.” I also loved the beautiful, sad, and haunting books by Pat Conroy. Loved that Southern drama! I was always into the family saga like The Thorn Birds and I, Claudius. It didn’t matter the decade as long as it was essentially a soap opera. I liked escaping into other complicated worlds.

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In terms of being a creative writing teacher, I hope I inspire my students to experiment with language and character, to let go of self-consciousness and just write. But really what I’m most interested in—and maybe this comes from my counseling background—is building confidence. I love giving caring feedback to young writers, pointing out their strengths and areas to work on. I also LOVE making up writing games and exercises. I do this with students—both young and undergrads—a lot.

El Space: What are you working on now?
Cordelia: I have two other manuscripts that are done—one a verse novel and another that is more of a mystery. The one I am working on now is sort of a ghost story/historical fiction. For the first time, I am trying to go slower with my first draft—doing lots of free writing in a notebook on the side. I also love writing picture books. I have a bunch of those that I work on sometimes.

El Space: Thanks, Cordelia, for being such a great guest.
Cordelia: Thanks for having me and being such a great host, Linda!

Searching for Cordelia? Check out her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Skyscraping is available at these fine establishments:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound
Big Blue Marble Bookstore

But I’m giving away some sweet swag that includes a signed copy of Skyscraping.

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Yeah, baby! Comment below to be entered in the drawing! You might share a memory from the 90s, since that is the era of Skyscraping. Winner to be announced on June 10.

Book covers from Goodreads. Skyscraping cover courtesy of Cordelia Jensen. Mira photo from xtec.cat. Mt. Airy photos and 90s props by Jane Rosenberg unless otherwise attributed. New York skyline from the 1990s from designsatire.com.

The Stanton Effect: Drama Is Anticipation Mixed with Uncertainty

6a00d83451b64669e2017c3652fef8970b-250wiI’d like to welcome back to the blog Laurie Morrison, who is an awesome teacher, young adult novelist extraordinaire, and a great friend from VCFA. You probably know her from her blog, which you can get to by clicking here. Laurie’s guest post is for the series, The Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk. You can find Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk here.

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After reading Laurie’s post, please stick around for a special announcement. And now, I’ll turn the blog over to Laurie.

Last weekend, I went to the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I got some very helpful feedback on the contemporary young adult novel I’m working on. Four other writers read the beginning of my work in progress, asked some great questions, and offered some wise suggestions.

“Try to avoid a mean girl as an antagonist because it’s predictable,” one told me. “There isn’t going to be a love triangle, is there?” another writer asked. “That guy doesn’t end up being the right one for the main character, does he?” someone else said. “And I hope her mom gets redeemed a little.”

I haven’t finished drafting this new novel yet, and these other writers’ thoughts helped me crystallize my sense of where the story is going. They confirmed what I had planned for some parts of the plot and encouraged me to reconsider others so that the story will be satisfying but not predictable.

As I watched the Andrew Stanton TED talk that L. Marie shared, the insight that stood out to me was the idea that drama equals anticipation mixed with uncertainty. I take this point to mean that readers should have an idea of what they hope will happen at the end of a story. If there’s a romance element, as there is in my work in progress, that romance becomes more compelling if the reader is rooting for a certain outcome. However, the reader should also feel some genuine uncertainty about how (and maybe if) that outcome will happen.

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With some kinds of stories, readers come in with expectations about the kind of ending that’s in store for them. If a book has a fairly light, humorous tone, as my stories tend to have, readers anticipate a happy ending of sorts. But the challenge, as Stanton suggests, is to balance that anticipation with enough uncertainty so that the conclusion of the story won’t feel too easy. The ending should feel inevitable but not obvious.

I’ve been reading a lot of great books lately, including Sarah Tomp’s My Best Everything, which came out recently, and Emery Lord’s The Start of Me and You, which comes out at the end of this month. Both of these books are contemporary realistic YA. Both are well written. And both manage to balance anticipation with uncertainty. But the two books have very different tones, and therefore they handle the anticipation-uncertainty balance very differently.

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In Sarah Tomp’s My Best Everything, I never took for granted that there would be a happy ending. The book has some lighthearted moments, but an ominous feeling pervades the narrative. The main character, Lulu, makes moonshine to earn the money she needs to pay her college tuition, and even though Lulu doesn’t always realize just how dangerous the moonshine business can be, Tomp makes its perils very clear to the reader. The ending has an inevitable feeling, since it capitalizes on elements that are raised throughout the story, but it definitely isn’t predictable. I wanted to get to the end of the book precisely because there was so much uncertainty: about whether or not Lulu gets to go to college, about what happens to her relationship with the boy she’s falling for, and even about whether or not that boy survives.

In Emery Lord’s The Start of Me and You, the characters deal with plenty of heavy stuff, but based on the tone and the way the book is packaged, I was expecting a happy ending. There’s a love story at the center of the novel, and I would have been very disappointed if Paige, the main character, hadn’t ended up with the guy I wanted her to end up with. Even though I anticipated something pretty specific from the ending, the novel has enough uncertainty to be very compelling. There are some believable obstacles that keep Paige from getting together with the right guy too soon, and Paige’s love story isn’t the only part of her journey—she has a lot of other important, satisfying relationships and goes through a lot of other growth. I wanted to keep reading to find out how close to the end Paige and her guy would get together and whether I would be satisfied with the way it all happened, and I also wanted to see how the other elements of her journey would turn out.

My work in progress is more similar in tone to The Start of Me and You than My Best Everything, so my challenge will be to make readers root for an outcome they’re pretty sure will happen while incorporating enough obstacles and surprises to earn a happy ending. As I keep writing and revising, I’ll definitely keep thinking about maintaining an effective mix of anticipation and uncertainty, as Andrew Stanton suggests.

Thanks, Laurie, for a great post! Other posts in the series can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Speaking of good books, I’m delighted to announce the winner of Breaking Sky by Cori McCarthy.

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Drum roll, please. . . .

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The winner is . . .

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Laura Sibson!

Laura, congratulations! Please comment below to confirm.

Book covers from Goodreads. Anticipation poster from redvinesandredwine.blogspot.com. Uncertainty sign from abouthydrology.blogspot.com. Drum roll gif from giphy.com.

Safe Spaces

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Space Series

As the mysterious “they” have said, all good things must come to an end. And that’s true of this series. I’ve been more than thrilled with the posts, and I hope you’ve enjoyed them as well. (The first post in the series can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, and the sixth here.)

Last but not least is this post by another friend from VCFA, the wise and wonderful Laurie Morrison. If you know Laurie, you know her awesome blog. I’ve been thrilled by her visits to this blog as well. You can find them here and here. Laurie is represented by Sara Crowe and is working on a humorous contemporary young adult epistolary novel the working title of which is Dear Baby. Doesn’t that sound great?! Until that book debuts, you can enjoy this post from Laurie!

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I have a sign on my classroom door that is decorated with a rainbow and says Safe Space. The sign means that I want my classroom to be a comfortable, welcoming place for all students.

When I began to reflect on the idea of space for this guest post, I thought of that sign. Then I started to think about the spaces that felt safe and not-so-safe to me when I was my students’ age—in middle school—and then when I was a freshman in high school.

When I was in middle school, almost every place felt safe. I went to the same small, cozy school from kindergarten to eighth grade. My mom was a teacher there, my younger brothers went there, and I’d known most of my classmates for as long as I could remember. But when I started high school, I struggled to find spaces where I felt at home.

Nothing particularly traumatic happened to me. My freshman year would have made for very dull fiction. Nobody was overtly mean to me, and I later found out that one of the girls on my bus, who eventually became one of my best friends, was bending over backwards to try to befriend me, but I was so overwhelmed and out of sorts that I just didn’t notice. After feeling so at home in middle school, though, I didn’t feel comfortable or welcome at my bigger, louder, more competitive high school. Especially during some of my lunch periods, when I didn’t have anyone to eat with, and during a free block at the end of the day, when I didn’t know where to go.

i-love-french-class-131870186934Looking back, I realize that even though I felt out of place and disconnected, I found a couple of safe spaces during my freshman fall. One of those safe spaces was French class. A couple of my middle school classmates were in my French class, so I always had someone to sit with. Plus, the whole class routine was so much like it had been in middle school. We’d start each class by going over the workbook pages we’d done for homework; we’d listen to recordings and copy down what we heard; and we’d learn the vocabulary for an activity, like ordering food at a restaurant, and then have practice conversations together. My new teacher’s handwriting even looked the same as my middle school teacher’s handwriting, and she was always complimenting my accent or my memory. I loved going to French class.

princeton_university_house_flag_25798smaIn the book I’m working on now, the main character, Whitney, has just switched schools because her parents can no longer afford her private school tuition now that her brother has started college at Princeton and her mom is pregnant with a miracle baby. As I’m writing Whitney’s story, I’m drawing upon my own feelings of discomfort and alienation from freshman year in high school and magnifying them, because I’ve given Whitney a lot of obstacles to work against.

But in the past few days, as I’ve thought about the safe spaces that I found at the beginning of my freshman year, I’ve decided that Whitney should probably find her own safe spaces, too. I had already given her a couple without realizing it, actually, but until now I hadn’t stopped to think much about what her safe spaces look and feel like, and how she changes when she enters them. By thinking about the places where Whitney feels comfortable, I think I can enrich the setting of the book and make her a more endearing character.

17332968I read A.S. King’s new book Reality Boy last week and I noticed that her main character, Gerald, has safe spaces, too, even though he’s dealing with some pretty rough circumstances. He feels comfortable and welcome in his Special Ed classroom, and he creates his own imagined safe space—a place he calls “Gersday”—where he can go when he needs to escape. These safe spaces don’t detract from the story’s tension, but they help to develop Gerald’s character, and they give the reader some relief; I actually felt myself exhale when Gerald first walked into the “SPED” room, where people appreciate him.

I think safe spaces are important for everybody, real or fictional. So I invite you to consider: what safe spaces do you have now, and what safe spaces did you have when you were younger? What are the safe spaces for the characters you write or read about? What do those safe spaces reveal to you?

Space sign from GLSEN.org. Book cover from Goodreads. French class sign from ilovegenerator.com. Princeton flag from sportsflagsandpennants.com.

A Writer’s Process (11b)

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAHello! Please join me in welcoming to the blog once more the luminous and enlightening Laurie Morrison! I really, really, really wish I had a brownie like the ones Laurie wrote about in Rebound, her young adult novel. I could also go for a slice of pie! (Mmm. Pie.) Let’s move on, since I can’t get either one just now.

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If you’re reading this blog for the first time ever, welcome to you too. But I have to tell you that this is the second part of the interview with Laurie. The first part is here.

El Space: Yesterday we talked about your antagonist. How did you go about crafting a “nuanced, realistic antagonist”? “A nuanced, realistic heroine”?
round characterLaurie: Hmm, that’s a good question. Once I decided to make Lissy’s dad an antagonist, I thought about her insecurities and considered how I could turn him into someone who would especially push her buttons. That involved turning him from a not-very-successful lawyer into an entrepreneur who takes risks, thinks people should look out for their own interests, and has never valued Lissy’s interest in baking. I did a lot of free-writing about Lissy and her dad’s back story, to figure out precisely when and how he had made her feel not good enough, but then I also figured out what her dad has going for him and why Lissy’s stepmother, Kim, fell in love with him. When I turned him into an antagonist, that actually opened up possibilities for Kim to become a rounder and more important character.

As for creating a nuanced and realistic heroine, one thing that really helped me was to free-write scenes between Lissy and each of the other key characters, both from the past and from the summer when the book takes place. Some of these scenes made it into the story and many did not, but I got a fuller picture of Lissy as I saw how she interacted with others and came to understand the relationships that have shaped her.

El Space: You’re writing a series of blog posts on first-person narration. (If you want to read them, start here.) What excites you most about this perspective?
11925514Laurie: I love the intimacy of a first-person narrative and the experience of trying to capture a character’s experience through her own eyes and ears, skin, etc. and in her own distinctive voice. I’m also excited about what I think of as the reliability spectrum for first-person narration.

I find it fascinating to read books with narrators who turn out to be quite unreliable, such as Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. But then I’m also interested in narrators who aren’t unreliable on purpose, but who aren’t unequivocally reliable, either, because any person’s perspective is subjective and in some ways limited. No narrator can attend to everything that is going on all at once or truly know where others are coming from.

307652Some narrators are closer to the wholly reliable end of the spectrum than others, but it’s still important to think about when those largely reliable narrators might not be seeing a character or situation accurately and what their blind spots or defense mechanisms might be. I love to write and read about characters who are relatable and engaging but also clearly fallible. I think it’s a powerful experience to love and identify with a first-person narrator while also understanding her limitations and rooting for her to grow.

El Space: Cool! I wish I could quote directly from the podcast interview I heard with Ally Carter some months ago. But she mentioned having a niche in the marketplace. She’s known for a certain type of book. I happen to love her books. What do you see as your niche? Why?
Laurie: If I continue to write the kind of stories I’ve been writing—and if, you know, people actually want to read those stories—my niche would probably be writing books for the younger end of YA readers.

Most of my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students read young adult novels instead of, or in addition to, middle grade books. The term middle grade is actually kind of confusing, because it doesn’t really correspond to middle school years. I gravitate toward writing stories that would be good for middle school students who are ready to read about teenage experiences, but might not be quite ready for all of the content in “older” YA books.

5819551That doesn’t mean that I censor myself when I’m writing or exclude certain things on purpose because I am trying to send a certain positive message. It just means that if I really think about my intended reader, I imagine myself at age 13 or 14 or one of the students I’ve gotten to know especially well, and my sense of that intended audience influences which stories I choose to tell.

El Space: What authors inspire you?
Laurie: Lots of authors inspire me, but here are a few. E. Lockhart and Jaclyn Moriarty inspire me because of their humor and their distinctive first-person narrators. Sarah Dessen inspires me because of the emotional depth of her novels and her multifaceted characters. Katherine Paterson inspires me because of the affection she clearly has for her characters and her readers.

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2839El Space: They’re all awesome. What writing advice, if any, have you received that electrified your writing?
Laurie: [VCFA’s own] Alan Cumyn taught me that it’s very compelling to watch a character who won’t let herself have something we know she really wants. Franny Billingsley taught me to identify a character’s vacuum—the longing or hole that the character is struggling to fill. Mary Quattlebaum taught me that if you give a character a driving passion, that passion can help shape your character’s voice and make it sound distinct. And Shelley Tanaka taught me that subplots need to enrich or mirror the central story, and too many subplots can make a story less powerful.

Thanks, Laurie, for being my guest! You’ve been awesome. But next time, please bring brownies.

Those of you who stopped by can find Laurie at her blog or on Twitter. If you have questions for Laurie, please comment below. You can also answer this question: Which antagonists have you read reacently which seemed “nuanced and realistic”?

Book covers by Goodreads. Pie photo from Wikipedia. Round character poster from mhaywood.blogspot.com.

A Writer’s Process (11a)

Remember your days as a freshman in high school or college? There you were at a new school, trying to make a good impression. Graduate school was no different for me. I felt like a “freshman,” starting my program. Thankfully, a great group of people started and finished with me. Laurie Morrison is one of them. Laurie is a fellow blogger and an author of young adult fiction. She’s here today and tomorrow to talk about her young adult novel, Rebound, and young adult fiction in general. Woot!

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El Space: Welcome, Laurie. As per my custom, I must ask you to reveal four quick facts about yourself.
dv512008Laurie: I teach middle school English. Although I’ve always loved to read fiction, I didn’t attempt to write it until after my first year of working with middle schoolers. I’ve lived in eight different apartments since I graduated from college ten years ago, but I don’t want to leave the current place anytime soon—just ask my fiancé, who knows to avoid saying the word moving. I get freaked out standing too close to the edge of a balcony but was okay going into a shark cage last summer.

El Space: I would have freaked out about the shark cage. Anyway, moving on, please provide a synopsis of Rebound.
brownie9Laurie: Sixteen-year-old Lissy loves baking and hates taking chances . . . until she finds out that her boyfriend was getting back together with his ex while she was home making his favorite brownies.

Humiliated, she takes off to spend the summer at the beach with her estranged, entrepreneurial dad and his replacement family. She reinvents herself as New Lissy—a strong girl whose heart nobody will ever break again—and scores a job as a pastry chef at a struggling restaurant.

The grumbling head chef doesn’t think she can handle the job, and neither does her dad. She’s not sure what to make of Jonah, the moody boy whose grandmother owns the restaurant, and she has no desire to bond with her perky, home-wrecking stepmom or her swimming-star stepsister. But no matter. If she can block them all out and save the restaurant with her dessert specials and advertising plans, she’ll prove that she’s no longer just a people-pleasing pushover.

But when Lissy finds out what it feels like to put herself before others and what her dad is willing to do to get ahead, she begins to wonder: are there different ways of being strong? Does she have to ditch her nurturing nature to become an empowered woman?

El Space: I love a moody boy story, especially one with dessert. Sweet! What inspired you to write Rebound?
301022Laurie: I started Rebound because I was stuck on the novel I’d been working on during my first two semesters at VCFA. There was a lot that I liked about that old novel, but it didn’t have a strong enough plot. And as I tried to make the plot stronger, I was losing my hold on the parts of the story I liked the most.

Just when I was feeling especially discouraged, I read this wonderful guest post on Cynsations by E. Lockhart. In it, E. Lockhart explains that her Ruby Oliver books, which I adore, came out of a “deep leftover sadness” about the end of her first love. She writes, “The ache in my chest told me there was enough there that I could make up all kinds of goofy characters and plot details, but the center of the story would be true.”

516182I decided to pay attention to an ache in my own heart and start a new project that would explore that feeling. I figured that if the “center of the story” was true, then I wouldn’t lose my hold on it as I drafted and revised. This was a little over two years ago, and I was soon going to turn 30 and move from New York to Philadelphia. I very much wanted to be in a relationship, but my last few relationship attempts had not gone well. I felt embarrassed about those last few relationship attempts, because I wanted something to work so much that I had tried to ignore things I shouldn’t have ignored and had put too much time and effort into things that just weren’t right. I worried that I wasn’t behaving like a strong, together woman. I decided I wanted to start with that feeling of deep embarrassment after a romantic relationship went wrong, and that’s where Rebound began.

El Space: And I must say that opening scene in Rebound packs an emotional punch. What character did you find easiest to develop? Hardest?
Laurie: The easiest character for me to write was Lissy’s eleven-year-old stepsister, Annabelle. As soon as Annabelle popped into my mind, I could picture her vividly, and I could see her through two different lenses: I saw her as Lissy would see her and from my own, more objective perspective. I knew that Lissy would be jealous of Annabelle and think she was just the daughter her dad always wanted. She wouldn’t notice Annabelle’s insecurities and wouldn’t realize that Annabelle might actually look up to her.

Lissy’s dad, on the other hand, was much trickier. Initially, I thought he would want to have a real relationship with Lissy but bumble along in trying to get closer to her. But in my first full draft, the second half of the novel was lacking tension, so I worked to make him more of an antagonist instead. It took awhile for me to figure out how to make him a nuanced, realistic antagonist.

Sorry. Gotta stop here. Tune in tomorrow when Laurie tells us more about nuanced, realistic antagonists. In the meantime, feel free to ask Laurie questions about her book or process. I assure you, she won’t bite. 🙂 While you’re at it, tell us your favorite dessert. (I have two: apple pie and brownies.)

Book covers from Goodreads. Brownies photo from thewifeofadairyman.blogspot.com. Shark cage from duckduckgrayduck.com.