Stuff in the ‘On Writing’ Category

4 September, 2013

Carving Out a Narrative from a Sea of Fascinating Details – On Writing History by Joseph Kelly

Joseph KellyAmerica's Longest SiegeI fell into this book sideways.  A long time ago, I wrote a short article for the Encyclopedia of the Irish in America, and I was hooked by the strange life of John England, the first Catholic bishop of Charleston.  Raised in Cork, Ireland, this prickly champion of Catholic emancipation stuck like a thorn in the side of the British Empire.  A nervous Catholic hierarchy more or less exiled him to the missionary church at the southern extreme of the United States.  He arrived on the Cooper River pier armed with a hatred of racism and a devotion to civil liberties.  He opened a school for black children.  He went to Haiti to negotiate a treaty between that black republic and the Vatican.  And yet, in his dying months he wrote a series of letters attempting to prove that Christianity condoned slavery.

How could such a champion of human rights end up apologizing for this crime against humanity?  Here, I thought, was the stuff of tragedy, and I was determined to find out the whole story.  But this was a different kind of writing for someone whose trade is literary criticism.  I’d written several articles and a book on Irish literature–James Joyce in particular–but no historical narrative.

Somewhat naively, I wrote a hundred pages on the life of Bishop England.  The thread of causes took me back further, and I wrote two hundred pages on the life of Henry Laurens, the second president of the Continental Congress.  I knew these “chapters” were far too long, but I was lost in the details, seduced by the drama of these lives, and I couldn’t see the real story, the important story caked in the dirt of all of this material.

I found an agent at Joëlle Delbourgo Associates who believed in what I was doing.  Molly Lyons helped me transform my ideas into a real proposal, which got us a lead at Overlook Press.  The editors there, first Rob Crawford and then Dan Crissman, coached me further, until that story emerged–a multi-generational tale of rebellions, torture, Machiavellian twists, duels, speeches from the Senate floor, and bloody battles.

America’s Longest Siege tells the story of slavery as it evolved in the American South.   It comes to a conclusion that common wisdom and most historians dispute:  slavery not only should have but would have withered away in the new republic, if not for the very hard work of a surprisingly few, greedy people from Charleston.  That story is as current today as it ever was:  even now we’re debating nullification; even today we’re torturing prisoners; the wagon wheels of today’s South still groan in the grooves of old Carolina roads.

There’s hardly a trace of literary criticism in this book–a dozen pages on the eminent novelist, William Gilmore Simms, but no more.  Yet I feel that I’ve been training to write this book ever since I set foot in graduate school.  This is a story about an idea, just about the worst idea ever promoted in America.  And ideas have to manifest in words–the stuff of literary critics–and the words have to come from the mouths of individual people.

Though I had to throw away most of those biographical pages, they were not wasted.  They taught me to write biography, and my book is first and foremost about people, those who invented and promoted the “positive good theory” of slavery, those who opposed it, and those who wanted to oppose it but failed.  What fascinated me about these people–people like Bishop John England–was their moral stories.  I hope that the lives I write about inhabit the imaginations of my readers as vitally as any character in fiction.

12 August, 2013

Story Telling vs. Story Trapping, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

JENNIFER ALVAREZ-headshotThe process of writing the first draft of book one of The Guardian Herd Series was magical for me. The story leapt from my head, fully formed, like Venus. There is something sacred about that, right? You don’t mess with a story straight from the muse, do you? I thought you didn’t. I thought a story’s first shape and form must be its best shape and form.

And then I met my editors.

Rosemary Brosnan and Karen Chaplin at HarperCollins Childrens Books know a thing or two about stories (and the muses they ride in on). When I received my first suggested edits for book one, I was perplexed and empowered. They unleashed my plot and revealed my characters without changing them. How could such significant revisions result in the exact same story—only better?

It was my librarian mother who explained it to me. “They are the advocates for the reader,” she said.

Oh yeah, the reader.Author Photo - Jennifer and horse

A first draft for me is not about story telling, it’s about story trapping. I am flying in the clouds with my pegasi, or galloping across the grasslands, or hiding in a tree while they battle with sharpened hooves and flared wings. I record what I see and try to stay out of their way. I am either covered in blood, or dripping cloud sweat, or crying over a fallen hero at the end of each writing session. The one thing I am not doing is thinking about the reader.

Not yet anyway.

Once the story is trapped, I’ve corrected all my misspelled words, and put away my thesaurus (yes I use one and I’m not afraid to admit it), I am at the end of my abilities to improve the story because I was there. I lived it. I know more than what I’ve written on the page. I can’t know what it’s like to view the manuscript without carnal knowledge of it.

This is when my editors come into play according to my wise mother, not to tame the story, but to frame it. Not to create a better draft, but to create a better read. My editors are doing this for The Guardian Herd Series as we continue to work on the first manuscript together.

My relationship with my muse remains intact. I’ve written the second book and a prequel to the series with the same gusto that infused book one. Knowing I have editors to help me wrangle my stories once I trap them has freed me to go hunting for more.

So the answer for me is, no. I don’t mess with the stories I receive straight from the muse, my editors do. And my books are gratefully better for it.

18 July, 2013

Guest Post from Debut YA Novelist L. Tam Holland

We invited Lindsay Tam Holland, author of The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong, (July 2013 publication, Simon & Schuster)to share what inspired her first novel.  Please also check out her website,

“I grew up in Hawaii,L.T. Holland a white kid in a predominantly Asian community. Most of my friends through high school were of mixed race. When I moved to California for college, I instinctively gravitated toward the group of Asian girls who lived in my dorm. It took me weeks to realize that they didn’t want to be friends with me. At all. They looked at me and saw a tall blonde girl, with loud water polo teammates, and assumed I had nothing in common with them. They were simultaneously intimidated by me – since they expected me to be loud and aggressive – and dismissive of me. Though the snub hurt, it also fascinated me. I realized that there was this huge gap between how I saw myself and how others expected me to be. My protagonist, Vee, who is half-Chinese, half-Caucasian, is going through a similar crisis, though I think high school nowadays is to9781442412644_p0_v3_s114x166ugher than anything I ever experienced. Walk through any cafeteria at lunchtime, and it’s obvious that ethnicity – or at least allegiance to a certain ethnicity – matters. It made sense to me to explore a character who’s searching for who he is by looking for what others expect him to be.  He doesn’t know whether he belongs in the honors classes with his Chinese friend Madison, or if he could date one of the blonde basketball girls, and his un-communicativeness with his parents further complicates his problems.

I wanted Vee’s relationship with his parents to be at the heart of his journey. Vee’s dad is similar to my own relationship with my father, who’s a supremely patient, gentle, and funny guy. As I got older, however, I realized it was sometimes hard to cut through the jokes to get to heartfelt matters. This desire to balance lightheartedness with genuine communication certainly influenced my development of Vee’s voice. Ironically, since I’ve started writing fiction, I’ve preferred a male voice. Women talk more (my husband will attest to this), and I like the tension that comes from what’s unsaid. Combine this gendered preference for emotional and verbal restraint with heaps of teen angst, and there’s a protagonist just waiting to combust, whatever his external triggers.

People like to ask, “Is Vee modeled on one of your students?” Absolutely not! And yet, I hope my students, and all teenagers (and anyone who’s ever been a teenager), can see a bit of themselves in Vee. I am inspired by teenagers – by their creativity and their quirkiness, and more than anything, by their unapologetic, energetic search for who they are. Remaining in this demographic in my career as a writer and a teacher keeps me humble and happy.”

–L. Tam Holland