Category Archives: Author/Illustrators

Appelt and Westrick on Writing

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.


NOTE: It’s not too late to see wonderful speakers at the James River Conference! Sign up today!


Filed under A.B. Westrick, Author/Illustrators, Kathi Appelt, Kid Lit, Reasons to attend the conference, Speakers

Have You Ever Met a Dragon?

Today we drop-in on a recent QA sesh between Author-illustrator Troy Howell and JRW Board member, Gigi Amateau, about Troy’s new book, The Dragon of Cripple Creek. Troy will join us for #JRWC11 this October at the Library of Virginia.


In a recent post ( Mollie, me, & Ye) on his blog, Penchant, Troy describes how Cripple Creek began with this idea: Put a dragon at the bottom of a gold mine in Twenty-first Century America.

KidLit fans, I hear you cheering. Fans of the Wild West, listen up! And Dragon fans? Oh my gracious goodness, dragon fans come out come out wherever you are.

I’ve edited my interview with Troy to remove all spoiler alerts [the big ones anyway], but I’m jonesin for everyone to read Troy’s book, so we can talk about the new mythology of dragons that is The Dragon of Cripple Creek. Trust me, if you love dragons and dragon stories, once you discover the reason that Troy’s dragon, Ye, lives at the bottom of a gold mine in Colorado you will feel that his is the only and most natural explanation.

Go read the book and let Troy’s revelation wash over you. You may feel a momentary emptiness as you recognize the space within you that has been longing for this precise answer. You might put the book down for a minute, as I did, and just hold it to your heart and whisper to yourself, ‘of course, yes, of course, that explains everything.’ Troy’s intimately perfect explanation of why dragons love gold made me certain that Troy must know some dragons personally.

So when we met recently at Hyperion Espresso in downtown Fredericksburg near where Troy lives, I asked him.

Me: Troy, have you ever met a dragon?

Troy: Only this one. Ye kind of grew on me. I’m not a dragon person, but once an idea comes to you, you gotta let it take you where it needs to go. There are no stories of dragons in North America; I wanted to put a good name on dragons. Now, I’d like to ask the same question of you.

Me: I have never met a dragon in person. A few years ago, on a foggy August night in Vermont, I heard one out in the mountains surrounding the inn where I was staying. I waited for it to come out and when I got tired of waiting, and not having anything to lure her into the moonlight, I went into the tavern on the grounds and had a beer. So, that’s the closest I’ve ever come.

Troy: I love your foggy Vermont night encounter. Perhaps she generated the fog so you wouldn’t see her.

Me: Now that you mention it, the fog in Vermont was eerily gold in hue. [Here Troy and I talked for a long time about why dragons love gold, but I’ve cut that out so that readers may enjoy the unfolding just exactly how it should occur… in the story itself. Oh all right, I’ll give you a little whiff. We spoke of greed; we spoke of sacrificial love.]

Troy: [This response has been removed for spoiler alerts. Please see pages 61-68 of The Dragon of Cripple Creek.]

Me: So, how did you do that?

Troy: In the early draft, I had a climax that was just so big that I didn’t know how to end.

 [At this point in our interview, I sipped a mocha made with chocolate milk while Troy, who is an artiste, after all, drew a picture of his so-big climax for me, which I now share with you.]

Me: Wow. A plot mountain, that’s awesome. But then what happened? How did you know to [:-)  sorry 🙂  this portion of the question has been removed due to spoiler alerts. Please see pages 368 -385 of Cripple Creek.]

Troy: I saw how everything just sort of dropped and you know that just can’t happen. It took me a long time, but then I kind of mapped it out like this:

Me: I love how you answered my writing questions by drawing. Which was your first love writing or drawing?

Troy: Yes! Both! Really. I wrote and illustrated my first book when I was seven years old. Adventures in Coodietown…bugs in ten gallon hats.


At the 2011 JRW Conference, Troy will speak on panels related to the challenges and rewards of writing for children, writing believable dialogue, and developing characters who leap off the page and into your heart. #JRWC11


Filed under Author/Illustrators, Kid Lit, Reasons to attend the conference, Speakers, Troy Howell