Why did you write a historical novel and why did you want to write about fencing? This is a question from Ms. Maddy Black’s 8th grade class last week.
The truth is I had no desire to write a historical novel. I had no idea I had one in me. As I realized my story was going to take place in the past I even fought against it. I knew I would not be able to rely on my contemporary point of view for the novel and since I’d never worked without that before I grew overwhelmed by the concept of a historical novel very quickly. How could I possibly speak with confidence about what it was like to live in 1936 or 1942? I wasn’t even alive back then. And the more research I did the more overwhelmed I became. It seemed in order to be an expert on the era, or to feel competence in my knowledge of the era I would have to read an incredible number of heavy, thick, dry-looking books and microfiche newspapers.
But at some point my curiosity and interest in the period overcame my anxiety and I began to write. I even became so involved in the research that I overdid it and had to cut about half of what I looked up, out. I even found I enjoyed the details of life from that time period. I found it fascinating.
Also, my protagonist, Cid Wymann, was 7 in 1936 so I either wrote about him in 1936 or wrote about a different character. I’ve written before about the vision I had of a 72-year-old Cid dueling with épées on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel so I won’t go into it here – but those were my constraints. I either wrote about him when he lived or I wrote about someone else. but no one else haunted me the way Cid did. That image wouldn’t go away.
Andrew Smith (author of Stick, The Marbury Lens, Ghost Medicine, and In the Path of Falling Objects) says his stories come through him, as if he was a medium for a story that had to be told. I see writing very much the same way. The characters gnaw at me. They worry me like a dog with a bone until I start to tell their story. Writing for me is then very much a journey to figure out who the protagonist is and what his story is that needs to be told.
And why fencing? I have been in love with swordplay since I was a kid, fenced since college, and taught stage combat to actors. I find I write about things that I do, that I feel a passion for. And so the man on the roof of the Chelsea hotel was fencing and his tale began when he was 7 – when Aldo Nadi, the greatest fencer of the 20th century, perhaps of all time, came to New York City and gave a fencing exhibition at The Plaza and on the same weekend that Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood premiered. I guess you could say I had not choice. Open Wounds would be a historical novel and there would be swordplay in it.
Stick came out today, a new novel by Andrew Smith, the author of Ghost Medicine, In the Path of Falling Objects, and The Marbury Lens. These are three of my favorite books, each for different reasons but more than anything they are three books about the relationships young men have with each other, and more specifically, brothers. Stick is similar in that it explores this territory, Andrew Smith territory, but it is, like each of Andrew’s other books, different.
Synopsis from Amazon: Fourteen-year-old Stark McClellan (nicknamed Stick because he’s tall and thin) is bullied for being “deformed” – he was born with only one ear. His older brother Bosten is always there to defend Stick. But the boys can’t defend one another from their abusive parents. When Stick realizes Bosten is gay, he knows that to survive his father’s anger, Bosten must leave home. Stick has to find his brother, or he will never feel whole again. In his search, he will encounter good people, bad people, and people who are simply indifferent to kids from the wrong side of the tracks. But he never loses hope of finding love – and his brother.
This is a subtle book beautifully written, sensitive, and innocent. But what I like more than anything are two things Andrew does: 1) His uncanny ability to write from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Stick. It is his trademark as a writer – to be able to get inside the heads of these protagonists. There are no wrong turns in the story because Stick does what he needs to – nothing more and nothing less. This is an incredible feat of writing. The second thing that Andrew does that makes him stand out is write beautiful prose. Some writers write pretty words but you notice them because they write that way for the sake of writing that way. Andrew crafts every sentence and every sentence sings as part of a larger tapestry that is his novel. His prose seems effortless and his narrative flows without a hitch because of it. And this is not just the way he writes Stick’s thoughts, jumbled up sometimes and filled with holes another as if the words bang around inside and can’t exit – an ingenious technique he uses to show how Stick hears and perceives the world.
Here’s one of my favorites: “And none of what happened to us would ever make sense if I didn’t let the biggest monsters that swarm in my head come up and reveal their teeth there is no love in our house only rules.” When you read the context for this it will blow you away. In the land of realistic fiction for young adults, Andrew Smith is king.
Question two from CWPost students.
How do you start a blog?
This was asked by an older adult (not a younger 18-21 adult) returning to school and clearly enjoying herself. So she wanted to write for herself – “I like writing,” she said – “and knew there was this thing called blogging and wanted to know how to start one. “Can you keep your blog private or does it have to go out to the world and can you just ignore twitter and Facebook and stuff like that in your blog?” If I could ignore twitter and Facebook I believe I would but they are necessary tools of the trade. Blogging on the other hand is both fun and stretches writing muscles.
But seriously, when she asked me this question all I could think of is that I am so not the guy to answer these questions. Although I’ve started four blogs in my life so far and written for an equal number of other blogs, I’m not an expert in any way shape or form on blogs. I’m not disciplined enough (though I’m getting better) to write every day on mine, and I struggle with writing short rather than long. So I’m going to direct you to some great writer’s blogs and a blog on blogging that gives you a primer on how to start at the end of the post.
Matthew Rush’s The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment – because he has a number of great posts on blogs in general and how to use them for marketing. He also runs an incredible clinic on writing query letters.
Andrew Smith’s Blog Ghost Medicine because he has this terrific voice, keeps his entries short and weaves an ongoing narrative each and every day. Oh yeah, and he’s a great fiction writer to boot.
Cheryl Rainfield’s blog because of all the cool things she does on it with video’s and photos, and contests. And she’s a great fiction writer also.
How to write a blog that People Want to Read – it’s from about.com so it has to be good.
How to write great blog content – from Problogger (how can you go wrong with a name like that?).
How to Create a blog in 4 easy steps – again from about.com and very helpful/practical.
WordPress linkbecause I use them and I like them. Click the button that says get started here…
What I told this woman was the following. First I said you don’t have to pay attention to twitter of Facebook if you want to just blog for yourself. Second I said there are things called privacy settings that you can use so you blog only for yourself and no one else can or ever will see your work if you don’t want them to. Then I said there were two blogging programs to look at -Blogspot and WordPress and that although I’d used both I liked WordPress more because for me it is more intuitive and easier to use. She had tried Blogspot also and didn’t like it so she was excited at each of the concrete answers I gave her. I told her to follow their tutorials – they walk you through the process. That’s really all I’m qualified to say about blogging. Really.
But here’s what was so cool about talking to this lovely woman. She wanted to exercise her writing muscles. She wanted to see what she could do. It’s the kind of response to writing that is so hard to get from most people because I think most look upon writing as a chore and not a pleasant one at that. Writing is so much a part of the way I express myself I almost forgot about this aspect of writing. This woman had just discovered writing as an act of self-expression and it had turned her on. How cool is that?