Interview With Karen Rivers

Karen Rivers is a friend and colleague, a neighbor, and a fellow writer who teaches. She is the author of The Girl in the Well is Me, which Kirkus, in a starred review, called “a brilliantly revealed, sometimes even funny, exploration of courage, the will to live, and the importance of being true to oneself.”

Here she is talking to me about her new YA novel from FSG, Before We Go Extinct. In praise of the book, the National Reading Campaign says:

Before We Go Extinct has no easy answers. Rivers’ characters are complex – sometimes cruel, and other times child-like in their innocence – and she does not condescend with a tidy conclusion that ties up all the plot threads.

Here’s Karen talking about the main character’s journey and the process of writing the novel.

Training Your Inner Critic

Originally posted back in 2012 on my old (now archived) blog.

Coe Booth says, in a wonderful post on the old VCFA faculty blog, which I am not sure is even accessible now:

The kind of self-talk that goes on during the fragile stage has so much power over the course of our writing.  Positive self-talk can be inspiring, keeping us motivated as we find our way with a new story.  But negative self-talk can be debilitating.  It can stop us before we put a word on the page, keeping us in an endless cycle of wanting to write but holding ourselves back, time after time after time.

kindalikebrothers

Coe’s terrific middle grade novel

That is so true–or at least it is when you’re at (or is it on?) that fragile stage.

I know all about fragile stages. I was the klutzy kid who, at 11, stepped on the only loose floorboard in a wooden stage during a dress rehearsal–and fell right through, perfectly in time to the high tumbling notes of Ariel’s song from The Tempest.

Oh, how I wish that I had possessed a smart, knowledgeable inner critic at the time! A voice of caution. A voice that might have warned, “Hear that creak? Step away. Fast.” Instead I stayed and fidgeted. Made the board creak louder and louder, until the fateful crash.

You may gather from this that I’m all for inner critics.

Coe’s right, of course. You can’t let the critic loose when you’re creating that first, fragile stage. That’s a structure you want to get across with quick, light steps, just barely managing to lay the planks down as you go. Pay no attention to the creaking. That’s normal.

It will be flimsy, of course. You want it to be. If you nailed it all down it would be secured way too soon. You want it changeable, with moveable parts many of which will need replacing.

But what comes next is the part of writing I love the most. Revision. Which is where I urge you, revive your inner critic. Tame him. Give her tools. Then put that critic to work.

When I have that first clumsy construction done, my inner critic and I can stroll around its edges, studying it, figuring out what fits, what doesn’t, and what was very definitely a misstep. I have to train my critic. She can’t go crashing all over that fragile stage. But I do need her to raise questions. Does that character belong? Do those two others need to be a single person? Does that motivation work? Is that premise too clever? Too neat? Too slight? What’s this really about? Whose story is it? Who should tell it and to whom?

Only my inner critic would dare raise such questions.

My creative self certainly couldn’t do this work. She’s so tired from having flung floorboards around that she thinks she’s done.

Some people think we should  ignore that questioning voice. I say, by all means challenge your critic when the drafty winds are blowing through those loose boards. But crush? Drown? Hmm, I’m not so sure. Put her on a plane, maybe. Send him away on vacation while you play with the puzzle pieces. But when you have a working version, bring that critic back, rested, refreshed, and ready to ask the tough questions.

A Sprig of Rosemary and a Paradox to Match

Courtesy of Books Around the Table (“A potluck of ideas from five children’s book authors and illustrators”) Margaret Chodos-Irvine writes about perseverance and self-doubt and the power of connections. All those things that are natural and inevitable in this strange business we’re in. And paradox, right? If you want to understand the landscape of your intention for a story, you don’t look at it directly. Instead, you examine the sprig of rosemary. Not once, but over time. And you trust that you will become the writer you need to be to tell that story.

official headshotIt reminded me of a guest post Sarah Aronson wrote for this blog in its last incarnation a couple of years ago: here it is again, still worth considering. Sarah Aronson’s novel, BELIEVE (Carolrhoda Lab), the story of a sole survivor of a suicide bombing, deals with the power of faith, the lure of fame, and the strains of friendship. 

During the High Holidays, Jews revisit one of the most complicated and disturbing stories of the Torah, The Binding of Isaac. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham does not refuse God. Instead, he brings his son to the mountain and prepares him for sacrifice. Luckily, an angel stops the madness and offers a lamb instead. It is a crushing story, and I am always troubled by it. I’m disappointed in Abraham for not standing up to God. I’m disappointed in God for inviting Abraham into this ultimate game of chicken. And I always spend time thinking about Isaac and how he lived the rest of his life. I think about how this penultimate incident changed him and affected every chapter of his life thereafter.

believeMy rabbi seemed to be reading my mind, because what she said next really made sense for the holiday as well as the writing process and plot development—things I’m always thinking about. She said, “Before we can look forward, we must look back. We must examine where we have been. Only then can we see where we are going.”

Look back. To look forward. Is that really all it takes?

First, a confession: If you know me, you know I’m a back story junkie. When I’m starting a new book, the character’s past is always the first thing that interests me. Sometimes, I find the backstory from a memory in my own life. Sometimes, it comes from an image or scene from the news—from the stories in our world that I can’t let go of. No matter what, the past gets me thinking. It speaks to character motivation. It reveals what Franny Billingsley calls “the default emotion,” or what a character will do when they are stressed out. When I know how my characters have behaved in the past, I can better anticipate their reactions to actions and situations in the plot.

This is what I do:

I start by asking the question, “Who are you?” I answer this question as many times as I can without making myself crazy (usually around fifty times). I start at the cliché level: sister, friend, and student. Then I go deeper. I think about who they are in terms of emotions: are they paranoid? Or superstitious? Are they angry? Or forgiving? And I don’t stop there. I try to think concretely. I try to find answers that the character would not want his friends to know. Is my character a chocolate lover, late sleeper, or obsessed with fashion? Is he loyal? Or does he blab at the first opportunity? Is he unhappy? Does she feel alone? All these traits help me anticipate and make the most of future conflict and themes. They reveal my characters’ controlling beliefs. Most important, they provide plot clues. By understanding how these traits have served my characters in the past shows me what they love and hate and where they draw a line in the sand—when enough is enough. It gives me clues about how they react to events in the plot.

believeconnectThen I examine connectivity. I look at allies and enemies: who sticks up for each other and then I determine sources of conflict. I look first at their pasts. And then at the events of the story. Here is one connectivity chart from a draft of BELIEVE, a novel whose inciting incident happens ten years before page one. In this chart, you can see that there are a lot of tripods. Each one is fortified by conflicting emotions. Seeing them on the chart showed me how to raise the stakes in the plot; it made it easy to see where the conflict was brewing. Once I understand how every character is connected—not just to the main character, but to the other characters on the chart—I can better predict who needs to be in the big scenes. I can anticipate who needs to be on the page to move the plot forward.

It may seem simple, but it works for me. By looking back, through character and connectivity, I can envision the future. I can understand where the hot spots will form and the plot will turn. Only when I know what happened in the past can I begin to think about what will inevitably come next as well as what will surprise.

Looking back has another benefit, one that is more personal. By taking the time to look back at our own writing pasts, we feel more accomplished and are better able to set goals for the future. When we give ourselves recognition for work accomplished, we are motivated to work harder in the future. Every time I start a new class, I insist that my writers.com students celebrate each milestone. We have a special topic called “Chocolate and Flowers,” where we cheer each other on when we figure out something new, send out a manuscript, or even get a rejection. (That’s an important step!) This is what my rabbi was hoping we would all do. She was not just saying, “Look back at this story.” She was urging us, “Look back. Celebrate where you’ve been. Resolve to do better.” It’s not just good advice for this time of year. It is important to take a moment to thank ourselves, our husband or wife or partner, our children, and our friends for supporting us as we discover made-up worlds and people. When we look back, we can also see how far we’ve come. By thinking about the past year, we can look forward to the next one and set new goals for our writing lives.

Thank you again, Sarah for being the dedicated teacher and writer that you are, and for showing so many other people the way along this complicated road.