For Writers

Interview with Heidi Lang: Drawing from Personal Experience

Imagine packing up all of your belongings and living in a van. Do you think you could do it? Author Heidi Lang did. And she used her own experience as inspiration for her upcoming novel, Wrong Way Summer. After enjoying this read myself, I had the opportunity to interview her and learn more about how her own life (including her own #vanlife) helped shape this book.

Thank you for sharing Wrong Way Summer with me. Can you give a short summary about the book?

Claire used to love her dad’s fantastical stories, especially tales about her absent mom—who could have been off with the circus or stolen by the troll king, depending on the day. But now that she’s 12, Claire thinks she’s old enough to know the truth. When her dad sells the house and moves her and her brother into a converted van, she’s tired of the tall tales and refuses to pretend it’s all some grand adventure, despite how enthusiastically her little brother embraces this newest adventure. Claire is faced with a choice: Will she play along with the stories her dad is spinning for her little brother, or will she force her family to face reality once and for all? Equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, Wrong Way Summer is a road-trip journey and coming-of-age story about one girl’s struggle to understand when a lie is really a lie and when it’s something more: hope.

A moving summer road-trip story for fans of Crenshaw and The Someday Birds.

What would you say was the spark for Wrong Way Summer? What came next? And what component organically fell into place later on?

There were a few sparks. For instance, I’ve always wanted to write a story about stories, something to explore my grandfather’s favorite motto. And then, of course, I fell in love with the idea of living in a van. But I’d say the real spark for this story actually happened before I ever heard of #vanlife. This spark hit me while I was listening to an episode of “This American Life,” where a woman recounted a childhood memory.

In this episode, the narrator talks about the day her parents gave her and her older sister painted metal tissue boxes for Christmas. At first she was devastated, until her older sister said the boxes had been painted by trained gorillas. And suddenly her gift went from being a terrible disappointment to becoming one of her prized possessions. Much later, the narrator found an old school report her sister had written where she’d talked about that gift. Only in that report, the sister said she’d made up the origin story of the tissue boxes because she knew her parents couldn’t afford gifts, and knew the boxes were something her dad’s friend had given as charity, and also knew what it had cost her parents to ask for that charity. And as she looked at her little sister’s tear-filled face, and looked up at her mom, and knew she was about to cry, too, this story about trained gorillas just spilled out of her. It saved the day, and everyone was happy. Except for this older sister, who went upstairs to her room and cried and cried. She wasn’t crying because of the gift, or even because of their financial situation. She was crying because she felt like, in that moment, she’d chosen to grow up before she was really ready for it.

That episode stuck with me. And I knew someday I wanted to write a story where a character is put in a similar position of “choosing” adulthood and all it entails in order to protect a younger sibling. But it took many years before I found the right way to tell that story.

You mention in your Author’s Note how you also lived the #vanlife. Did you know at the time that a story/book would form from your own Grand Adventure? If so, did you struggle at how to pursue it or was it obvious to you?

I actually became interested in #vanlife back in 2012, before I’d thought of writing Wrong Way Summer or even published my first book. My husband and I needed to get another vehicle for our dog walking business and started looking at Sprinter vans. From there, we discovered this whole world of people traveling, and even living full-time in their vans. I got caught up in watching youtube vidoes of DIY van conversions and reading blogs about boondocking, and when we bought our own Sprinter, we talked about converting it ourselves someday in the future.

But as we all know when it comes to social media, it only paints part of the picture. The romantic pictures I saw and the exciting posts I read were very different from what I began to notice right there in front of me: a lot of people living in their vehicles, just to get by. Most of them hadn’t chosen #vanlife for the fun of it. It was just the only way they could afford to stay in the area for school, or work, or family. And as rent in our area climbed higher, we realized there was a good possibility that if our landlord ever sold our place, we wouldn’t be able to find something affordable right away that would take our dogs. So the van went from exciting future travel vehicle to back-up home safety net.

When we sold our dog walking business in 2017 so I could try to write full-time, we decided the best way to afford that would be to actually try #vanlife living. So we moved in with my in-laws and began working on the van conversion. By that point, I did know I wanted to write a story about the experience, and I knew I wanted it to highlight both the good and bad of #vanlife living: the glamor and romanticism of being able to get away from it all and live a more free life on the road, as well as the desperation that often underlays that choice. The rest of the story formed pretty organically from my desire to show both of these aspects.

What is your connection with the dad’s storytelling? Are you a storyteller?

I would love to be a good storyteller! But I’m definitely much better at writing stories than I am at speaking them. However, I was fortunate to grow up around storytellers. My grandpep was actually the first person who ever told me, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I guess it was something his older brother used to say all the time, too, and when I was a kid, I soaked it in as our family motto. Maybe that’s why I decided to become a fiction writer.

I enjoyed traveling with Claire, Patrick, and their dad. How did you choose the locations where they stopped?

That was definitely the hardest part of writing this book! There are so many cool places to see, I could have written about a hundred more pages, so narrowing it down was really tricky. I wanted to have a variety of experiences for the characters in my book, but I also needed them to stop at locations that would make sense for a family on a limited budget. In the end, I picked places that I’d been to that were meaningful to me, as well as places that I wanted to go to, so I could live vicariously through Claire and her family. I also ended up taking a solo train trip back and forth across the country before I started drafting Wrong Way Summer as a way to really get a feel for the changing landscape and see more areas than I might otherwise have had time to cover.

How much of Claire do you see in yourself?

Originally when I sat down to write Claire, I thought about one of my cousins, and what she was like at twelve years old. Her personality became the foundation of Claire, but as with every character I write, Claire also reflects different aspects of my own personality. For instance, I’m definitely a rule follower. Even if it’s a rule no one else is following, I feel anxious breaking it. And like Claire, I’m also trying to figure out that line between fact and fiction, and I’m very interested in the different ways a story can be used to hide or reveal the truth, and to inspire or manipulate other people. But one of the wonderful things about writing is how characters take on their own life, and I definitely feel that Claire evolved away from my cousin, and from me, to become someone all her own.

What ended up taking more time that you anticipated when researching/writing/revising?

Definitely planning Claire’s route and deciding on her family’s stops along the way. But part of that was because I was having a little too much fun researching and revisiting these places vicariously, so I took my time with it.

How can teachers use this book in their classrooms?

When I was young I basically assumed everyone’s lives were more or less just like mine. Just as I thought something was either true or false, right or wrong. I was very much a kid with well-defined edges. It was only as I slowly wandered into adulthood that I became aware of all those spaces in between, and how different everyone’s personal experiences can be. I think that it’s in middle school when kids start to become aware of those gray areas, and from there that they start to question the beliefs they always took for granted. To me, that’s the most important use of any book: the ability to open minds and make the reader ask questions. I’m hoping this book can do a little of that.

When does Wrong Way Summer come out?

This book will be out in the world on April 21st, 2020.

How can we learn more about you? 

Devi Pride Photography

I share a website with my sometime co-writer Kati Bartkowski at www.HeidiandKatibooks.com, or you can find me on Instagram and on twitter at the same handle, @hidlang.

 

Wow, so fascinating. And can you imagine how intriguing this book will be for kids? It is such a great example of using life to write a story.

And if you can’t wait for the release of her new book Wrong Way Summer, check out her other books, including Rules of the Ruff, which is also inspired by her life as a dog walker.

Interview with Stephanie Lurie, Editorial Director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Are we in for a treat! A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Stephanie Lurie at a Florida SCBWI conference, as well as take a workshop she was giving. Besides being extremely informative, she couldn’t have been nicer.

If you don’t know her, she’s the Editorial Director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion, and I’m thrilled to feature her in the Editor Spotlight!

Hi Stephanie, thanks for joining us today!

JR: You’ve had a long, successful career in publishing. Could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor, and eventually working for Disney-Hyperion?

SL: Being a children’s book editor was a career choice I made very early on. When I was fifteen, a local bookstore owner asked me to review a book a townsperson had written for young adults. As I read the book, I thought, “Too bad this woman doesn’t know how kids really think.” It was an “aha!” moment for me: I could help authors make their books stronger. I’m not even sure how I knew such a job existed. . . .

I went on to be a creative writing major at Oberlin College, and during the first semester of my senior year, I had an internship for college credit at Dodd, Mead and Company in New York (a publishing house that was ultimately acquired by Thomas Nelson Books). My experience working for a children’s book editor at Dodd, Mead proved to me that I had found my calling. Dodd, Mead offered me a job after college–for a whopping $8,000 a year!–in sales promotion and customer service. I learned a lot, but I wanted to get back to children’s editorial. I jumped over to Little, Brown, where I grew up from editorial assistant to senior editor over twelve years. After that I ran the imprint Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for six years. My next stint was as president and publisher of Dutton Children’s books at Penguin. In my ninth year there, a friend of mine who was working at Disney Hyperion talked me into applying for an editorial director job by saying, “How would you like to do what you are doing at Dutton but not have any other imprints competing for marketing and publicity attention?” That sounded pretty good to me, and over the past decade there I have enjoyed being part of a boutique publisher within a huge entertainment company.

 

JR: That’s some exciting journey! What was the first book you worked on?

SL: I had a generous boss at Little, Brown who allowed me to “cut my teeth” on manuscripts by their top authors at the time, such as Lois Duncan, Ellen Conford, and Matt Christopher. One of the first authors I acquired was Neal Shusterman, who has gone on to be a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Award winner with other editors.

JR: When you first saw The Lightning Thief, what about it appealed to you so much?

SL: Rick Riordan’s first middle grade novel, The Lightning Thief, was acquired at auction before my time at Disney. Rick chose to go with Miramax Books, which eventually became part of Disney-Hyperion. Jennifer Besser (now at Macmillan) edited the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I took over as Rick’s editor after she left, picking up on the Kane Chronicles trilogy. I was amazed by how he made ancient Egyptian mythology relevant to modern readers with exciting adventure, relatable characters, a healthy dose of humor, and a breakneck pace. He makes it look easy.

JR: What’s changed in publishing between the time you started and now?

SL: What hasn’t? I’m so old (How old are you?), I pre-date office computers! Yes, we had to type on Selectrics, using carbon paper. The biggest changes have come from: corporate buy-outs of family-owned companies, which necessitated more attention to the bottom line; the rise of chain bookstores; the Harry Potter phenomenon, which brought hardcover fiction back from the brink of death; the importance of social media in author promotion; Amazon’s dominance; and today, more focus on diversity.

JR: I grew up doing all my reports on typewriters. Slightly easier now. And by the way, I could’ve sworn I heard Gene Rayburn say the “I’m so old” part before you answered (How old are you?) But back to the interview. Disney has recently acquired a lot of new properties. Does that mean anything for the publishing division?

SL: Disney now encompasses several premiere brands, such as Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and Fox Entertainment. We can publish against all of these brands, from straight movie tie-ins to extension books that tell new stories based on the characters from the movies. It also means that there is more opportunity for intercompany synergy for authors writing their own IP (intellectual property).

JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

SL: I’m having a blast helping Rick curate the Rick Riordan Presents line of middle grade fiction by under-represented authors who want to write stories about their own cultures’ folklore and mythology. I send him submissions to consider, acquire the projects we agree on, edit the manuscripts, and collaborate with my colleagues on book design and promotion.

JR: All that sounds like a tremendous amount of fun. What sort of books do you look for?

SL: For Rick Riordan Presents, we want the same qualities that make Rick’s own books so popular, because the imprint was created to satisfy his fans’ craving for adventure based on mythology. We look for a funny, snarky teenage voice; a fast pace; an exciting, high-stakes plot; and a likeable but flawed protagonist who grows over the course of the story.

JR: The kinds of books I love! Are you very hands-on with your authors?

SL: I’ve always enjoyed helping writers bring out their story by asking pointed questions and making suggestions to improve logic, flow, and clarity. For the Rick Riordan Presents authors, my guidance may be a bit more involved, because there is a certain flavor we are trying to achieve while retaining the author’s own voice. It’s a delicate balance.

JR: What’s the state of publishing right now, in particular, Middle Grade? 

SL: It can be difficult for a book—any book—to break out in this time when there is so much entertainment content for consumers to choose from and there are fewer retail outlets for print. Amazon is grabbing more and more market share, but the online site doesn’t encourage browsing. Buyers who shop there usually go already knowing what they want. This is part of the reason best-selling authors remain best-selling authors and new authors have trouble competing. Authors need to partner more with their publisher on promotion as a result.

JR: Probably more important than ever for authors to get involved in the promotion process. What advice can you give to authors?

SL: The best way to learn to write is to read, read, read, and write, write, write.

Remember that you are communicating with an audience and not just writing to satisfy your own ego.

A good concept isn’t enough by itself. Write the entire manuscript.

You may have to land a literary agent before you can land a publishing deal.

Choosing an agent and editor/publisher is like choosing any partner. Make sure there is good chemistry between you.

Be open to feedback but stand up for what is important to you.

Don’t expect the publication of your book to satisfy all your desires or change your life.

Writing the book is only 50% of the work; promotion after publication is the other 50%.

School visits are still one of the best ways to build word-of-mouth.

Support other authors on your way up, and they will (should) do the same for you.

 

JR: All of that is outstanding advice. In my experience, many authors have been extremely supportive of each other. I think strong relationships are extremely important in that regard. I read that Harriet the Spy was one of your favorite childhood books. I have a few friends who wholeheartedly agree with you. What did you love about it and what other books were among your favorites?

SL: I loved how honest Harriet the Spy was about a kid’s real life—I believe it was one of the first contemporary middle grade novels ever published. To this day I enjoy books in which a well-meaning main character makes a big mistake that causes them humiliation, e.g. The Truth About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. As a kid I also enjoyed animal-based fantasies such as Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. High fantasies such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings stood out, too.

JR: The Narnia books were also among my favorites as a child. Speaking of childhood, what’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could come back?

SL: My fun-loving dad. He taught me to always remain a kid at heart.

JR: Okay, that answer hit me. If there’s one thing I could wish for from then, it would also be to see my dad. How can people follow you on social media?

SL: For publishing news and comments, Twitter is probably the best bet: @SOLurie.

JR: Before we go, is there anything else that you’d like to add?

SL: Thank you for inviting me to answer these questions. I greatly admire authors—both aspiring and published—and wish everyone a fulfilling journey. Your book could be the one that makes a reluctant reader a forever reader, changes a kid’s perspective, and inspires someone else to be a writer.

JR: Extremely true. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today!

 

Well, that’s it for now, Mixed-Up Filers. I’d like to once again thank Stephanie Lurie for joining us! And if you ever see her listed to speak at a conference, I strongly suggest you go listen!

Until next time . . .

Chekhov’s Arsenal, Reloaded

Chekhov’s Gun

In my last article, I blogged about some notable writing advice from 19th Century Russian author and playwright, Anton Chekhov:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If a rifle hangs on the wall during the first act, it absolutely must go off in the second or third act. If the riffle isn’t going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

In this installment, we’ll be expanding our arsenal to include a variety of other narrative tools that look like Chekhov’s Gun but operate in different ways and in different contexts.

Chekhov’s Gun is a story element introduced to build anticipation, create narrative tension, or offer an explanation for events that happen later in the story.

As a reminder, Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t have to be a physical object, as in Chekhov’s example. It can also be a character trait, an aspect of culture, a setting, a relationship, or any other story element that’s introduced early in a story to create a narrative tension that pays off later in the story.

Red Herring

Red Herring

A Red Herring is a story element that offers an intentionally misleading promise to build anticipation, sends narrative tension in an intentionally misleading direction, or offers an intentionally misleading explanation for events that happen later in the story.

English journalist William Cobbett, in the early 19th Century, wrote about a boy who used a red herring to mislead the hounds who were following his trail. The Red Herring soon became a literary metaphor for intentional misdirection.

The Red Herring looks like a Chekhov’s Gun, and therefore evokes a reader’s expectation that it will resolve like a Chekhov’s Gun in a later part of the story–except that it instead leads elsewhere or fails to resolve at all, providing a satisfying misdirection for the author’s actual intent. Often, characters are “fooled” into following the Red Herring into a narrative cul-de-sac, bringing the reader along for the ride. The Red Herring is famously employed in mystery novels, but can be used anywhere to great effect.

Think of the Red Herring as a magic trick. We enjoy being fooled by a magician’s slight of hand. We enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out how the magician plans to fool us. We even enjoy knowing exactly how the trick works, while appreciating the skill it takes to pull off. 

Deus ex Machina

Deus Ex Machina

A Deus ex Machina is a story element that resolves narrative tension or offers an explanation for story events without being previously introduced.

In Ancient Greek theatrical tradition, an otherwise unresolvable plot could be neatly wrapped up by one of the gods, represented by a lifesized statue that would be lowered onto the stage by a mechanism from above.

The Deus ex Machina resolves narrative tension, much like a Chekhov’s Gun, but appears where and when it is needed without any advance warning. This device has fallen into disfavor, with many readers finding it to be an unsatisfying “cheat” on the author’s part.

All is not lost if you find a Deus ex Machina is your story. Planting a hint and suggestion earlier in the story can easily convert this element into a proper Chekhov’s Gun.

McGuffin

McGuffin

A McGuffin is a story element introduced to advance the plot, but which could be easily replaced by another generic item with little change to the story. Not to be confused with the fast-food sandwich that could be easily replaced by an actual breakfast.

At a 1939 lecture at Columbia University, English film director Alfred Hitchcock described a term used by his studio for an object that only exists to advance the plot. It’s the necklace in a crime story, which exists only to give a thief has something to steal, or the papers in a spy story, which exist only to give the two sides have something to fight over.

The difference between the McGuffin and a Chekhov’s Gun is that the Chekhov’s Gun has some inherent quality that creates narrative tension. In the classic example, Chekhov’s Gun is a weapon, creating a tension as to whether a shooting will occur. If the gun is used gets stolen and must be recovered by the protagonist, it has become a McGuffin.

McGuffins are necessary to drive a plot forward, but just because they can be switched out for other objects doesn’t mean they have to be entirely generic. The McGuffin can be magical, powerful, and memorable. Entire stories can revolve around them, and are often named after them, such as The Maltese Falcon or Raiders of the Lost Ark. While any old book or thumb drive can carry a cry for help from the captured princess to a retired general by way of a humble farmboy, we remember R2D2–so yes, characters can serve as McGuffins as well.

The Callback

Callback

A Callback is a story element from an early scene that reappears unexpectedly, without tension or anticipation, to link two scenes together, often used in humor or as a thematic symbol.

The Callback is distinguished from a Chekhov’s Gun because its first appearance doesn’t create anticipation that we’ll ever see it again. It’s intentionally planted by an author, like Chekhov’s Gun, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily draw attention to itself.

The power in the Callback is that we recognize it, and are surprised by it because we weren’t necessarily expecting to see it pop up again in another context. In humor, the Callback can be a joke that gets a larger and larger laugh with each unexpected repetition or variant. But it can also be a message of inspiration that a mentor character plants early, which pays off when it’s remembered by a character in need.

The Easter Egg

Easter Egg

Easter Eggs are story elements that allude to people or events in the real world, or in other stories, and are included as gifts for an attentive reader to find.

Video game developer Steve Wright used the term “Easter Egg” in referring to secret elements planted in a game for players. In the Atari 2600 game Adventure, a signature screen could be accessed by navigating the maze in a certain way.

Unlike a Chekhov’s Gun, the Easter Egg doesn’t impact the plot and may go unremarked upon by the characters, but exists for a diligent reader to discover and enjoy.

Conclusion

As useful as Chekhov’s Gun can be as a narrative tool, it’s important to distinguish it from similar narrative tools. And, having multiple narrative tools available, a writer can move a plot forward, manage reader expectation, create tension, provide humor and inspiration, or leave clever connections for the most diligent readers to find.