Speaking at this year’s conference will be Kathi Appelt, the Newbery Honor Award-winning author of THE UNDERNEATH. In 2010, A. B. Westrick was Appelt’s student in the MFA program in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Appelt guided Westrick through revisions on a young adult novel, and the polished manuscript got picked up by Viking and will be released in 2012. Westrick recently caught up with Appelt via email…
A.B. Westrick: Kathi, how are you doing? With our October conference coming up, I think about you more than you know! I’d like to give our attendees a taste of the wisdom you bring to the writing process. Can we talk about craft a little bit here? Take the language in THE UNDERNEATH, for example. It’s mesmerizing. I assume you read your manuscript out loud while drafting that novel. Can you tell us a little bit about your process there?
Kathi Appelt: Yes, I always read my work out loud, regardless of whether it’s a picture book or a novel. Reading out loud allows me to check for pacing, rhythm, sound. And it’s also a great way to catch mistakes, both grammatical mistakes and things like unnecessary repetition. It really forces you to pay close attention. I usually do this late in the process. Once I’ve read and reread a manuscript a million times, I tend to zone out. Reading it out loud makes me “see” the story again.
ABW: I know you’re the Queen of Revision. We’ll talk about revision during a couple of the conference sessions, but for now — remind me — didn’t you tell me that you rewrote THE UNDERNEATH eleven times before it was ready for publication? Or was it fourteen times? What on earth was going on that it needed that much revision?
KA: Oh, if only it had been only eleven or fourteen times. I actually printed out fifteen drafts, but the real number of revised drafts was closer to 30 when all was said and done. I just kept pecking away at it. What was going on? Where to start? There were the characters that I wrote out of the story, an entire story line that eventually had to go. There was the chronology that kept getting out of whack. There were the extraneous subplots that needed whacking. Whew! And then there was just me who seems rather slow at times.
ABW: I read your post on the Pippin Properties blog. You noted: “where the heart cracks open is where our deepest longings lie, and that is what Story is all about. It’s where our characters ache for something that is missing…. Come on then, let’s follow. Let’s go there.” I love that, and my question is: how do you go there? How do you go about digging into that deep emotional space? Got any good exercises that would help a writer crack open his/her own heart?
KA: I don’t really have exercises per se, but I do know that if I seem to keep dodging something, if my character keeps avoiding facing something really difficult, then it’s likely that there’s something I need to consider at a deep, emotional level. I call it “filling the hole in my heart.” At any given time, we all have something that we’re missing, or someone who we’re missing, and if we listen to what our hearts are saying, then we can see that hole. Mostly, we tend to cover it up, but if we really take a chance and uncover it, then we’ll find a deep well of emotion upon which to draw. I recently heard Patti Gauch give a talk at Chautauqua and she called it “going to the well.” I find that listening to music can sometimes take me there. Then, I consider my character and figure out what it is that he or she is missing too, and go from there.
ABW: Let’s touch on plot structure. Fiction-writers learn to figure out what their characters want, and let the desire line drive the plot. You’ve noted that in addition to desire lines, a writer must know his/her protagonist’s controlling belief. For example, in your novel, KEEPER, young Keeper’s desire is to find her mother, but the plot is driven by Keeper’s controlling belief that her mother is a mermaid. My question is: aren’t there some perfectly good novels in which the protagonist doesn’t have a clear desire or controlling belief? Why are these so important?
KA: It’s likely there are some okay novels out there that don’t have a clear desire line or controlling belief, but story is all about desire and at the same time, facing our deepest beliefs. I can’t think of a “perfectly good” novel that ignores one or both of those. Even perfectly bad novels usually have a character who wants something and goes for it, and is propelled by something that he or she believes in.
ABW: You published THE UNDERNEATH and KEEPER after years of writing picture books. What is different about the process of writing a novel versus writing a picture book? And what are you working on now?
KA: The primary difference is that I can keep the plot and general idea of a picture book pretty much in my head. I can visualize the whole thing. But with a novel, I can’t keep all the various story lines in my head at once, so it requires much more in the way of planning and shaping. I always use some form of an outline with a novel, even though it might be a loosy-goosy sort of outline. It helps me find my way to the end. I’m working on several projects right now — a couple of picture books, a middle grade novel and a YA novel. Not all at once. I share my desk with them one at a time.
ABW: Thanks for considering these questions! Can’t wait for October…
KA: Me too. I’m looking forward to seeing you in just a few short weeks.
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