Markus Zusak’s Use of Voice in The Book Thief

 An Essay

As promised, here’s an essay I wrote and shared at a talk recently. Voice can be tough, especially when you’re diving into a new work and trying to gain your footings. Markus Zusak nailed the voice in The Book Thief, and I enjoyed exploring how he did it…

Voice needs to come through powerfully in a piece of writing, or the writer risks the story falling apart or distancing the reader. When a writer sets out to tell a story, she needs to have control of a few important variables—point of view, heart, and perception.

When Markus Zusak began writing The Book Thief, he initially struggled with the first key variable, point of view, and he speaks about the turning point for the book in his 2014 TEDxSydney talk titled “The Failurist.” He explained his thoughts, saying, “Let’s imagine death differently. What if death isn’t macabre or sadistic, and enjoying his work, cleaning up all these souls, what if he’s actually vulnerable? What if he’s really tired and haunted by us? And he’s proving to himself that humans can actually be beautiful and selfless and worthwhile by telling his story.” Given this surprising change in perspective on the nature of death, or how death might be characterized, Zusak was able to write the story, the story flowed.

After Zusak achieved the right point of view for The Book Thief, he was able to go on and write five hundred plus pages compared to the two hundred pages that he wasn’t connecting with previously.

It can be difficult for writers to pick the right point of view for their stories, but when it’s accomplished, a unique lens is carried through and the writer’s voice begins to rise, just as we see when the narrator, Death, is introduced to us in The Book Thief. His voice begins to unfold for the reader in a few brief but important sentences: “First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try” (3).  This unique lens works for the reader because the reader is wondering why Death only sees colors first, then the humans. It’s a luring mechanism to see how and why Death sees colors, then humans.

As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that it takes a lot more than just point of view to achieve a strong voice. With the lines, “I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise” (5), we see Death attempting to focus on only the colors because it’s too painful for him to see beyond them and see humans. On rare occasions, though, he chooses to see past the colors, and he makes this choice in the opening of The Book Thief when we’re introduced to Liesel, also known as The Book Thief. This is where the heart of the story begins.

The heart of a story usually asks, “What is the story about?” It’s the central question surrounding a writer’s story, and it’s another key variable in achieving a strong voice. Heart is, in essence, the gravity that grounds the reader into a chosen point of view for a story. In Zusak’s story, Death’s voice is one of sharp simplicity and honesty. He has no reason to be coy as he explains, “It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors—an expert at being left behind. It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:

*A Girl

*Some Words

*An accordionist

*Some fanatical Germans

*A Jewish fist fighter

*And quite a lot of thievery

I saw the book thief three times.” (5), these lines contribute to the reader’s growing sense of Zusak’s voice.

As we walk with Death through Leisel’s story, we start to see how Zusak begins to accomplish a predominant voice with the use of the right point of view and heart. “His candlelit hair ignited the bed, and I picked both him and Bettina up with their souls still in the blanket. If nothing else, they died fast and they were warm. The boy from the plane, I thought. The one with the teddy bear. Where was Rudy’s comfort? Where was someone to alleviate this robbery of his life? Who was there to soothe him as life’s rug was snatched from under his sleeping feet? No one. There was only me. And I’m not too great at that sort of comforting thing, especially when my hands are cold and the bed is warm. I carried him softly through the broken street, with one salty eye and a heavy, deathly heart” (531). Through Zusak’s imagery, word choices, and what Death chooses to acknowledge, we’re able to feel something real and palpable on the page. Our hearts are lunged into this world because Zusak’s voice is a sincere and authentic one.

Zusak challenges a common human theme: death. He even gives death a name—Death, and shrouds him in humanlike qualities, and by doing this he spins his own ideals of the world into his work. He not only accomplishes this other variable of voice called perception through the use of Death, but he brings a new way of looking at things in nearly every aspect of his writing.

When it comes to perception, someone may see the color blue and black on a dress while another may see gold and white, but the new perception Zusak brings to his writing is something else entirely, which is the make-up of his voice.

There are several perceptions we see through Zusak’s work, and one of which is his ability to convey the rawness of human emotion, whether it be through death, love, or happiness. We see it in lines such as: “She did not say goodbye. She was incapable, and after a few more minutes at his side, she was able to tear herself from the ground. It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on, coughing and searching, and finding” (536). The fact that Death would not only be noticing the greatest of human tragedies, but paying attention to the living as well as they stagger on, is an incredible perception.

Another perception Zusak carries through his work is his use of language. His use of simile contributes to the strength of his voice in passages like, “He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world. She was the book thief without words. Trust me though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain” (80). In this passage, we’re shown so little, but given so much. In just a few lines, Zusak accomplishes the entire make-up of who Rudy and Leisel are, and his use of similes are able to function on a powerful level of voice.

Perception is an important tool in any writer’s toolbox because it’s their distinctive view on the world. What they see and how they see it will help shape their voice.

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is an exemplary piece of fiction with a very distinctive and original voice, and it’s a shining example of how a writer can turn up the volume within his pages.

Works Cited

Markus Zusak. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Reprint edition (September 11, 2007)

TEDx. “The failurist: Markus Zusak at TEDxSydney 2014.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 14 June 2014. Web. 9 April 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-_8QIdm4hA

What David Foster Wallace Taught Me

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“What the really great artists do is they’re entirely themselves. They’re entirely themselves, they’ve got their own vision, they have their own way of fracturing reality, and if it’s authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings.” – David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, a literary genius we lost too soon, and although he’d probably hate anyone calling him a genius, it’s the truth. And I’m glad he left behind a footprint, a deep and palpable one. If you haven’t read any of his work, I highly suggest you pick up one of his books, especially the Infinite Jest, it’s 1,092 pages, but I guarantee each page will be well worth your time. If you’re a writer, he will unlock the blank spaces that seem to be missing in between your words because he will simply give you a new perspective and challenge you to fracture your reality.

For the past three years, I’ve taken a break from “publishing”, something I should have done a long time ago. Here’s what I mean, I’ve taken a break from feeling that need to be “published”, that push in essence. Sure it’s a great accomplishment to reach and if you’ve gotten there, an applause is well deserved. But most seem to go into writing believing that once they’re published, it’ll give them that confirmation that they’re “good enough” or “publishable enough” or “smart enough”, and once they’ve made it there, they’ve unlocked something, whether inside themselves, or outside of themselves. And honestly, I think that’s the crappiest thing you could ever do to yourself in any creative work, it puts too much pressure on our work and on us. So many creatives I know think that if they just work harder, pull out more hair, or create that commercial hook that their luck will change and they’ll get “in” (even if they are published). This way of thinking will only lead to that want of stepping up higher on the ladder, or needing to rip out more hair because you may not be there yet, and if you only rip out more hair and get less sleep that you’ll get there too because “so and so” has and that got them there, so why not you? But what happened to the idea of allowing our work to marinate; giving our words time to mean something—our stories, especially our characters?

If you think of your creative work as a relationship, and you’re always expecting it to be perfection, then your focus is going to be skewed, and that relationship may not last very long, and statistically, it will end faster than you can blink your eyes. Three years ago, I decided to think of my creative life as a relationship. I’ve been nurturing it with great books, contemplation, craft, friends, and most of all love. I never expect perfection; I only try my best, and in any relationship, that’s all you can do.

Passion is everything, but if we’re chasing something that isn’t true to who we are, how are we going to be true to ourselves and our work?

“I don’t think there’s a person alive who doesn’t have certain passions. I think if you’re lucky, either by genetics or you just get a really good education, you find things that become passions that are just really rich and really good and really joyful, as opposed to the passion being, you know, getting drunk and watching football. Which has its appeals, right? But it is not the sort of calories that get you through your 20s, and then your 30s, and then your 40s, and, “Ooh, here comes death,” you know, the big stuff. . .

It’s also true that we go through cycles. . . .These are actually good — one’s being larval. . .

But I think the hard thing to distinguish among my friends is who . . . who’s the 45-year-old who doesn’t know what she likes or what she wants to do? Is she immature? Or is she somebody who’s getting reborn over and over and over again? In a way, that’s rather cool.”

 – David Foster Wallace

As artists, it’s our responsibility to be true to ourselves. It’s not about style, trends, or marketability, it’s about our stories, our visions, our truths, and how we authentically tune into the world around us. And if it takes us a lifetime to be reborn again and again until we find what’s authentic to us, that’s okay. The creative process doesn’t end; it grows and changes, if you open yourself up to that change and growth. That’s what great relationships are made of. David Foster Wallace taught me that. He taught me to slow down and pull out a notebook instead of typing manically on my computer. He taught me to write the way I see the world, or simply, how I view the simplest of things in my daily life and how they can domino into something so much bigger, or deeper.

If you are running in a creative race right now, slow down. There’s no one behind or in front of you, it’s just you. Pull out your pen and breathe, turn off the noise, and be authentic to who you are because that alone may change someone’s life someday, maybe even your own.

 

 

My SCBWI Nevada News!

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As of late, I’ve officially become the new Co-Regional Advisor for our beloved SCBWI Nevada region. When I originally joined the SCBWI, Suzy Williams and Ellen Hopkins ran our region and have given me big shoes to fill. Cynthia Mun, my partner in Co-Regional Advisor crime, lives in Las Vegas while I’m in Reno, and we’re super excited to have each other in this new venture.

I not only have a passion for writing, but helping writers as well, so taking on this new role is a dream for me.

I’ve been a busy bee getting everything in order for our eighth annual SCBWI Nevada Mentor Program, and so far there’s a wonderful line up of authors, and industry professionals who’ve signed on. I’m really looking forward to lifting the veil on our 2015/2016 faculty this April.

If you’re a part of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, I hope to meet you at an event soon, or just look forward to hearing from you by email, or social media—if you’re interested in anything our region has going on, or have simple questions, please don’t hesitate to email me.

We are dedicated to listening to your ideas and to bringing you the best support and programming that we can. Our region is as strong as our volunteers and members make it. Please feel free to contact us with questions, ideas, or to volunteer. You are warmly welcomed to join us at our Nevada SCBWI events no matter where you live. We hope to see you soon! – Our SCBWI Nevada Mission Statement

 Cheers!

 

Interview with Writer Lia Keyes


Lia Keyes was born in the basement of a house that no longer exists, in a part of London called World’s End. It’s no wonder she writes fantasy!

Lia is represented by Laura Rennert of AndreaBrown Literary Agency, is founder of The Sreampunk Writers Artists Guild, and Creative Strategist for the non-profit, VentanaSierra, founded by Ellen Hopkins.






Since this blog is about offering inspiration to writers, my first question for you is, do you have a favorite quote? If so, why is it your favorite?

Can I cheat and share a video of Ira Glass talking about the gap between your storytelling taste and your ability? Because I love that one and replay it often!


If you could go back in time, what piece of knowledge would you take back with you into the future?

Ooh, that is an interesting question! Early civilizations understood so much and it sometimes took us over a thousand years to rediscover the same knowledge—that we live in an atomic world, for one—but perhaps a simple appreciation for how to use time well is something we could learn from the past. Thanks to the marvels of modern technology we have more leisure time than ever before, but there is a persistent sense of unease in the rushed, materialistic society that has resulted; a loss of spirit and meaning and craftsmanship. So perhaps the knowledge that I’d bring back to the future is that building things of qualityin relationships, in what we contribute to the world, in what we take from it, and in what we leave behindis better than building disposable things in quantity. It’s a question of legacy. What kind of ancestor would you like to be?

 

Your specialty is fantasy. What bit of advice do you hear over and over about how to build a world of fantasy? Also, what’s one piece of advice you’ve heard on this subject that was rare and resonated with you?

Building an imaginary world that feels deep and unique is a huge task; you have to think about everything from geography to customs, trade, daily life, and social organization. There’s an amazing list of questions about this on the SFWA’s website.

But none of this is worth diddly squat if it’s just window dressing. During an interview on my blog with world-building guru Kevin Mowrer, he told me… 


“The thing that we all strive for in good storytelling is human authenticity. The world itself must be crafted to have meaning and metaphor that is aligned and contributing to all characters and themes in every way possible. The world births and shapes our characters.” 


That resonated deeply with me and informs every choice I make.

In your writing career, who’s had the biggest influence on you?  What did they do to inspire you to keep writing?

A tough question! Influence comes from so many quarters—from the books that carried me out of dark times and gave me hope for a better life, to my two children, who need proof that choosing a creative path doesn’t have to mean destitution, and my mentor, Ellen Hopkins, who offered me a home when I lost mine and demonstrates every day what it takes to be a successful professional writer.


If you could be any hero, real or make believe, who would it be and why?

If I’m being serious, the answer would be the incurably curious figures of history, who sought the truth of how the world works, despite religious or political oppression – Paracelsus, Galileo, yes, but really any seeker.

And if I’m being light-hearted, then Robin Hood, because he was unselfish, irreverent, merry, and valued his friends.
If you could pick a word to describe yourself, what would it be?

Scatter-brained. Wait, is that one word or two?

That quote by Kevin Mowrer is a powerful one, thank you, Lia! It was more than a pleasure to interview you, it was an honor! 

If you would like to find out more about Lia, please visit her website and check out all the wonderful things she has to say/share on Twitter.  

Interview with Author/Illustrator Peter Brown

Peter Brown has always loved telling stories. As a boy, he told stories with pictures, by drawing whimsical characters and scenes from his imagination. As a teenager, Peter fell in love with writing, and began using words to tell wild tales. As a student at Art Center College of Design, Peter’s love of both words and pictures led him to take several courses on children’s books. And before long he knew he’d found his calling.
After graduating from Art Center, Peter moved to New York City to be closer to the publishing industry. He was working on animated TV shows when he was hired to write and illustrate his first picture book, Flight of the Dodo. Peter quickly signed up his second and third books, and he’s published one book per year ever since.
Peter’s books have earned him numerous honors, including two E.B. White Awards, a New York Times Best Illustrated Book award, a Children’s Choice Award for Illustrator of the Year, an Irma Black Honor, and he has had three NY Times Bestsellers. Peter’s books are being adapted into children’s plays and short films, and they have been translated into more than a dozen languages around the world.
Since this blog is about offering inspiration to writers, my first question for you is, do you have a favorite quote? If so, why is it your favorite?
“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”
-Groucho Marx
I like this quote because it basically speaks for me. And it’s funny.
Your books are full of humor and so are you! How do you keep your creative spark burning?
I sometimes get tired of my own work. But there is SO MUCH amazing work in the world, that I never get tired of exploring other people’s creativity. 

Whenever I get bored with my work, I know that I need to change things up a bit. And so I’ll “add a new color to my palette.” Sometimes that may actually mean changing my color palette, or it might mean flattening out my illustrations so they’re more bold and graphic, or it might mean working on a SERIOUS story (for a change). It’s always different, but change is good, and so when I’m stuck I make changes.

What did you want to be growing up? Now that you’re an author/illustrator did this come as a surprise?
When I was a kid I thought I either wanted to work at Disney Animation, or I wanted to be some kind of biologist working in Africa. I LOVED nature specials and zoos, and I still do, which is why so many of my stories are about animals.
When you were in school, was there a teacher that had a big influence on you? If so, how old were you and what did they do?
Absolutely yes! My high school art teacher, Dr. O’Boyle was one of those teachers every parent hopes will cross paths with their child. He’s a life changer. My family life was pretty turbulent growing up, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself, and I didn’t always believe that I had any talent, but Doc never wavered, ever, in his belief in my abilities. He is an inspired artist and teacher, and he insisted that I apply to art schools that I had no business getting into. But I was accepted to Art Center College of Design, and the rest is history. I thought he was crazy, but I guess I proved him right. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m Picasso or Hemingway, but I’ve amounted to much more than I’d ever expected.
When you are having moments when nothing seems to fit, how do you find what you are looking for and make a story come to life?
As I develop a story, I spend about 75% of my time being absolutely panicked that my story won’t turn out. But I keep grinding away at it. Basically, when I get a little nugget of a story, I realize that a million things could happen in that story. And so I end up using flowcharts or story webs to map out every possible scenario. It’s grueling. Slowly but surely I begin to see which ideas work and which don’t. And the ideas that work are the ones that are innovative, quirky, wondrous, heartwarming, or funny.
In your career as an author/illustrator, who’s had the biggest influence on you? What did they do to inspire you?
This feels like a cop-out, but I’d have to say Maurice Sendak…like I’m sure everyone else says. The fact is Sendak was an unbelievable craftsman, both with his words and his pictures (not to mention that he had some pretty brilliant ideas). Every book that man ever published is a gorgeous work of art. Every little drawing in “A Hole is to Dig” is perfect. Every full spread of “In the Night Kitchen” is just right. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a Sendak illustration (or sentence) and said to myself “Well, I would have done that differently…” I’m inspired by his high standards, and I aspire to his level of perfection.
If you could be any super hero real or make believe, who would it be?
The Time Boss. Time goes by so quickly, and there’s so much I want to do. I’d love it if I could just control the passage of time.
If you could pick one word to describe yourself, what would it be?
Curious.

Love it, Peter! Thank you for giving us some wonderful insight into your creative magical world and sharing some amazing words of wisdom! 

If you would like to find out more about Peter, please visit his website. Also, Peter’s newest book, CREEPY CARROTS! (Written by Aaron Reynolds) hits bookshelves this month! August 2012! Check out the ever awesome video here




 

Interview with Agent Tracey Adams

Tracey Adams, together with her husband Josh, runs Adams Literary – a boutique agency exclusively dedicated to representing children’s and young adult authors and artists, including many award-winning and bestselling clients. She founded Adams Literary in 2004, after years with Writers House and McIntosh & Otis, where she was the head of the children’s department. Prior to becoming an agent, she worked in the marketing and editorial departments of Greenwillow Books and Margaret K. McElderry Books. Tracey speaks frequently about her profession and the children’s book industry at conferences across the country. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Association of Author Representatives (AAR), and a founding member of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) chapter in Charlotte, NC. In her free time, Tracey enjoys Taekwondo (she is currently a 2nd degree black belt), exploring the South (especially beaches), and test-marketing children’s books with her two daughters. 
Since this blog is about offering inspiration to writers, my first question for you is, do you have a favorite quote? If so, why is it your favorite? 
“Onwards and upwards!” because to me there is no other choice. Why waste time and energy thinking any other way? Anyone working with me will hear me say this. 
When you’re giving critiques, what piece of advice do you find yourself giving most to writers? 
Show, don’t tell. I want details. I don’t want to be aware that I’m reading–I want to be IN the book. What does this place look like? Smell like? Sound like? Put me there. Make me want to stay. 
In your career, who’s had the biggest influence on you? What did they do to encourage you? 
During college, I interned for Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow Books and later I worked for Margaret McElderry at Margaret K. McElderry Books. I desperately wanted to be like them when I grew up. Above all, I admired the relationships they had with their authors and the classic books which resulted. They encouraged me by having faith in me and including me. Susan took me to lunch with Jack Prelutsky, and I’ll never forget that. She would invite me into her office when Peter Sis came by with new artwork, to be a part of that awesome moment. Margaret pushed hard for perfection, but with her smile and a wink. She wrote me a personal check to take a course in children’s publishing when corporate denied my request. 
If at all possible, could you pick one book from your childhood that has deeply affected you? If so, what was it and what moved you about it? 
I have to choose Katherine Paterson’s BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, because I so clearly remember reading it on my bottom bunk, unable to put it down, and thinking “No, it can’t be.” It was the first book that made me weep, and it taught me the power of words. 
For the busy Mom’s/Dad’s out there, could you offer some advice on how you juggle family and work? 
*laughs hysterically at irony of answering this with children watching Diary of a Wimpy Kid in the next room* I love having the flexibility to negotiate a contract and throw in a load of laundry, to do good work and then run over to my kids’ school to read a book in a classroom. It is juggling, and I love the challenge of not dropping any balls. I’m happiest when this is all going well. But I also realize the tremendous value of turning off work for family time, which absolutely recharges me. 
If you could send a piece of advice to your teen self in one tweet, what would you say? 
To thine own self be true. (But rethink that black prom dress.) 
If you could pick a word to describe yourself, what would it be? 
Optimist. But not in a head-in-the-clouds kind of way. I believe good things happen when you combine hard work and passion–even if you have to hear “Onwards and upwards!” more than a few times along the way.

Thank you, Tracey! Onwards and upwards is something I’ve been needing to hear! And thank you for this interview, you are so much fun! 

If you would like to find out more about Tracey, please visit Adams Literary.

Interview with Author Kathleen Duey


Kathleen Duey has published over 90 books for children of all ages and for YA and adult readers. She has won many awards, including a National Book Award silver medal for Skin Hunger, the first book of her Resurrection of Magic trilogy. The Unicorn’s Secret, a series of books for young readers has won state reader awards and celebrates 12 years in print this year. Her fan mail is increasingly international and she is grateful for….everything.
Since this blog is about offering inspiration to writers, my first question for you is, do you have a favorite quote? If so, why is it your favorite?
“We write by the light of every book we have ever read.” ~Richard Peck 

           
Richard is a famous and brilliant writer and a lovely person who talked writing with me as though I were an equal when I was just a beginner. He still does, bless his heart.
In your career as a writer, who’s had the biggest influence on you?  What did they do to inspire you?
This is an impossible question for me to answer because I was a student of writing in fourth grade and I am still a student of writing. I’ve had the great privilege of meeting a few of the authors I grew up reading—and have since met many more authors whose work astounds me. So I have no “biggest” influence, but amazing writing always inspires me….by intimidating me, pushing me, daring me, proving to me that the people and places inside books can be as real as any other part of my life. Hundreds of authors have inspired me—by being inspired!!

If you could send your younger self one tweet, what would you say?

Start writing novels now!!  But don’t burn your poems. They aren’t that bad.  
If at all possible, could you pick one book that has deeply affected you? If so, what was it that moved you about it?
There are many books that have affected me but this was the first one: Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. She wrote it in 1877 when she was ill and dying. It became a best-seller, then a classic and still remains in print. Set in England, it’s a sad story of a horse’s life that includes all the cruelties of the times. Her story changed the way people looked at animals and inspired the first movement to end animal cruelty.  I read it in third grade. It was the first book that ever made me cry, the first book that made me realize stories could change hearts. 
When you are having moments when nothing seems to fit, how do you find what you are looking for and make a story come to life?
 
I often go outside carrying a shovel, a limb saw, and a digital recorder. I have an acre of land, a messy garden, overgrown trees and weeds. In the middle of physical work, almost always, the characters talk to me. I record the conversation. If I am stranded in a city at a conference, I walk, find a place to pace. Getting out of my head and into my body almost always works.

If you could pick a word to describe yourself, what would it be?

I collect words from old dictionaries and today I face an incredibly intricate scene in my book. So I hope to be a
flexuous writer.  **\FLEK-shoo-uhs\, adjective:  Full of bends or curves; sinuous.** 
Thank you, Kathleen! I love how you record your conversations with your characters, what a great idea! After this interview I’m off to purchase a digital recorder–genius! 
If you would like to find out more about Kathleen, please do visit her website and check out her fantastic blog

Interview with Eric Elfman

Eric Elfman is the award-winning author of twelve books, including three offbeat almanacs published by Random House, one of which, Almanac of the Gross, Disgusting & Totally Repulsive, was named an “ALA Recommended Book for Reluctant Readers” and is now in its sixth printing. Eric also wrote three YA X-Filesnovels for HarperCollins and two collections of scary short stories (Three Minutes Thrillers and More Three Minute Thrillers) for Lowell House. Eric is now co-writing Tesla’s Attic with Neal Shusterman, a series of three middle grade novels that will be published by Hyperion starting in 2013.

Also a writing coach, Eric has worked with more than a hundred writers, many of whom have since had their books published (including four so far in 2012). For the past seven years, Eric has been on the faculty of the Big Sur Children’s Writers Workshop, sponsored by the Henry Miller Library and directed by Andrea Brown.
Many of Eric’s books have been optioned by Hollywood. His Three Minute Thrillersseries was optioned by Merv Griffin Enterprises, and The Almanac of the Gross has been developed as a magazine-style TV show for kids. Also a screenwriter, Eric wrote a movie for Intersound Pictures, and with Neal, co-wrote an adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It for Walden Media. Eric and Neal sold CLASS ACT, an original pitch based on a true story, to Revolution Studios. After they wrote the screenplay, the project was set up at Dreamworks with Halle Berry attached to star.
Since this blog is about offering inspiration to writers, my first question for you is, do you have a favorite quote? If so, why is it your favorite?
“Dream the scene.” It’s a line of dialogue from Pat Hobby: Teamed With Genius, a TV movie based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It starred Christopher Lloyd as a hack screenwriter teamed with a hot young British playwright played by a very young Colin Firth. “Dream the scene” is how the young playwright describes his writing process to the older screenwriter. Lloyd’s no-nonsense has-been has no idea what Firth is talking about, because it’s too poetic, too deep. But it always speaks to me: when I’m having difficulty writing a scene, I “dream” it, taking myself out of it and imagining the moment as fully as I can, watching the sequence of events between my characters and their environment. Only then can I write it down, describing the actions and exploring the feelings of my characters.
What piece of advice do you find yourself offering most to writers?
Aside from “avoid the passive voice,” it’s this: make sure your protagonist is driving your story. Time and again I read manuscripts from my coaching clients where the protagonist is, essentially, a passenger in the story. Perhaps this comes from the writers not fully committing to the stories they’re telling. Or maybe it’s because most writers are by nature observers, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of building a story around an observer. It won’t work.
The essence of story is this: your protagonist urgently wants something, and someone or something stands in their way. That’s it. That’s story. Drama equals conflict. If your protagonist simply floats through the manuscript, describing events around them and being handed the things they need — then you have a travelogue, not a story. Your protagonist has to earn the reward at the end of the road.
I’ve heard many rave about your world building skills. Could you take us in your mind for a moment and show us how you build a world?
This is hard to answer because every situation, every world, is unique. My writing partner and I were hired as World Builders (the actual job title!) for a Dreamworks film and a Disney project. And of course every screenplay, every novel, even those set in the “real” world, require world building.
It helps to have a good imagination, that’s for sure. If you’re creating fantastic other worlds, they better be fantastic! But it ultimately depends on how you layer in your details. As the writer, as the creator of the world of the story, you need to know that world in intimate detail — but you also have to decide which are the relevant details, the ones that best reveal the world to the reader. Because the realworld building occurs in the reader’s mind. (Oh, and remember your own rules for the world you create. Nothing shatters the reader’s delicate suspension of disbelief more quickly than violating the way you’ve told us your world works!)
In your career who’s had the biggest influence on you? What did they do to inspire you?
I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful teachers, friends and business relationships over the years. But I would have to choose my friend and writing partner, Neal Shusterman. He helped me get my first book contracts; we wrote a spec screenplay together, UNDERWHERE, which led to pitch meetings with every studio in Hollywood and three film deals; and now we’re writing our book series Tesla’s Attic together. Every time I sit down to write with Neal, it’s like taking a Master Class in creative writing. I am able to discuss story problems, characters, conflict with a master who understands these things almost instinctively. If the pace is sagging, we solve it by adding more tension; if the story goal becomes too easy, we add more obstacles. I try to take back everything I learn to my own writing.
If you could send your younger self one tweet, what would you say?
Be good in the room. Writing biz not just words on page, u also have to sell yourself.
If at all possible, could you pick one book that has deeply affected you? If so, what was it that moved you about it?
Wow. This is such a tough question! When I was in junior high, I was such a voracious reader it became a running joke that I would bring a different book to school each day. Usually mysteries. In all the books I read when I was younger, there are so many meaningful ones, from The Count of Monte Cristo to The Princess Bride to Winter’s Tale. (Ha! I slipped in a few extra!) But if I had to pick only one…it would be The Hobbit, simply because it was the first book that I quite literallydidn’t want to end — there was a sadness permeating my being as I reached the closing chapters, from knowing that I was going to have to say goodbye to people who had become friends of mine, a feeling that I still feel to this day when I think about it.
When you’re having moments when nothing seems to fit, how do you find what you are looking for and make a story come to life?
When my “dream the scene” technique above doesn’t work, or I’m having a difficult time working out a knotty story problem, I go for a run. It sounds almost too simple, but the physical and mental reaction as blood starts bringing much-needed fuel to my oxygen-starved brain — it’s about the closest thing I’ve found to actual magic. After a two mile run, I’m able to see my way through thickets of story problems that once seemed insoluble.
If you could pick a word to describe yourself, what would it be?
Another toughie! How can you ask a wordsmith for a single word (optimistic)? I waded through dozens (observant, persistent, patient), and I don’t know if this one is perfect (insouciant, supportive), but it will have to do: Happy.
Thank you, Eric! You’re definitely a skilled wordsmith and I completely agree with the one word you picked! Your happiness in life and writing spreads into many, thank you for that! 

For more information about Eric’s coaching, visit his site: www.ericElfmanCoaching.com

For Eric’s book: www.elfmanworld.com
He tweets (when he has something to say) at @Eric_Elfman

Interview with Author Karly Kirkpatrick

Karly Kirkpatrick is a YA author, avid reader, high school German and French teacher, and mother of a little artist. She has taken graduate classes in Writing and Publishing at DePaul University in Chicago and is beginning the screenwriting program at UCLA Extension. She lives in Elgin, Illinois with her husband, daughter, and two stinky Shih Tzus.
Since this blog is about offering inspiration to writers, my first question for you is, do you have a favorite quote? If so, why is it your favorite?
These are two that inspire me:
 
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. ~Mark Twain

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined. ~Henry David Thoreau
Being the first child in the family, I’ve always been torn between my practical side and my creative side. When I read these, I feel more confident about pursuing my creative dreams. I think they sort of remind me that I can take risks and not always be the practical one.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given so far in your writing career?
So many things. It’s super important to make sure you keep reading as well as writing. It makes your writing better. Oh, and never take critiques personally!

Is there a professor/teacher that has left an impression on you in a big way?  If so, what did they do that was so different from the others?    
I had a lot of great teachers from kindergarten through grad school. Some of them influenced me not because they were my favorite, but because they saw something in me that I didn’t realize was there. A choir professor in college really wanted me to go back to school for vocal performance because she felt I was better than the people who were majoring at our school. I thought I was decent, but not that good. Another professor in grad school was really impressed by a paper I wrote in a Latin American Poly Sci class and wanted me to present it at a conference. I had always been a decent writer, but that made me proud that he thought I produced something so important that others should see it.
Between being a mommy, going to school, and writing full time, how do you manage your time so well?
Great question. I actually work full time and unfortunately can only write part time. I teach every day from 7-3, and try to fit in writing work during my lunch. Sometimes I write, or revise, or read manuscripts from my critique partners. If I’m on a tight deadline, I’ll try to write an hour in the evenings as well and on the weekend. But it’s all about balance. I try to do no more than an hour of writing or revising work a day, because otherwise things get a little crazy. I just have to know my limits. As a result, it takes me longer to write a book and to revise, but I’ve sort of got my pattern down. It makes it easier for me to make it all work. I also have days off and we’re off in the summer. This summer, after I get back from a couple European adventures, I plan to write like it’s my day job, for 3-4 hours at least per day on the weekdays. I have two books I need to write before school starts August 23rd!
If you could send your younger self one tweet, what would you say?
Dream bigger. Take more risks.

If you could pick a word to describe yourself, what would it be?
Insane??? Okay, maybe just hardworking.
 Thank you, Karly! Some really great advice! 
If you would would like to contact Karly, read her blog, or find out about upcoming releases, go to http://www.karlykirkpatrick.com.

Interview with Author and Editor Lorin Oberweger

LORIN OBERWEGER is a highly sought-after independent book editor and ghostwriter with almost twenty-five years experience in publishing. Her company, Free Expressions, offers writing seminars nationwide with literary agent Donald Maass and others, as well as the acclaimed Novel Crafting Retreats–intensive story development weekends for writers in all genres of fiction.
Lorin’s students and clients have millions of books in print and have been published by imprints of HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, Scholastic, and other mainstream and independent presses. They have also gained representation with some of the industry’s leading literary agents.

An award-winning author, Lorin’s poetry, short fiction, and articles have appeared in well over one-hundred periodicals, including THE MONTSERRAT REVIEW, STORYQUARTERLY, and the bestselling regional anthology FRENCH QUARTER FICTION. Recently, an excerpt of her novel-in-progress, ITCH, was awarded “Best of Workshop” at Writers in Paradise, co-founded by author Dennis Lehane. She is represented by Tracey Adams at Adams Literary.


Since this blog is about offering inspiration to writers, my first question for you is, do you have a favorite quote?  If so, why is it your favorite?

I’m a quote hoarder, so picking one is almost physically painful, but I keep a quote from Neil Gaiman pinned above my desk, and it comes closest to describing my ongoing desires for my own life and for those I love (and like):
May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”  Neil Gaiman

Everyone in the industry raves about your keen eye and editing skills! What piece of advice do you find yourself offering the most to writers?

Too often, I find that writers take an externalized, cinematic approach to their characters. They SEE them on the page, move them about like chess pieces as dictated by the mechanical constructs of the plot they’ve created. But they don’t truly live and breathe their characters; they don’t become their characters to the extent that they understand them on an instinctive, visceral level. This can result in episodic novels with oddly inert characters.

So, I urge folks to truly get inside their characters, to understand their motivations, their goals and desires. Understand, in as organic a way as possible, what DRIVES your protagonist forward in life. That desire should be something practical and observable (with a subset emotional desire, as well), and it should serve as the propulsive force of your novel. Without that driving force, that fire in a character’s belly, it’s really tough to create a dynamic, satisfying tale.

In your career as a writer and editor, who’s had the biggest influence on you?  What did they do to inspire you?

Putting aside all of the absolutely amazing authors who’ve taught me so, so, SO much and made me a fiend for the written word, AND putting aside my clients who impress and inspire me each and every day, I’d have to give a ton of credit to the late Gary Provost. (With props to the incomparable Don Maass who is a master instructor, as well.)

Gary was known as “the writer’s writer.” He wrote phenomenal books on craft (some of which are still available), and he was also a warm, inspiring, funny, and brilliant teacher. When in my twenties, I sought out a workshop and a mentor, he was the first I found, and he absolutely changed the course of my writing and professional life. And my personal life, too, as I’ve made some of the best friends of my life through workshops and editing!

Not only did he inspire me via a fantastic education in the nuts and bolts of fiction craft, but he and his wife Gail taught me so much about how to treat writers, how to help and inspire, not demean or bully. His accessibility, his breadth of knowledge, his warmth: all really inspired me, and still inspire me, to do what I can to support writers at all stages of their careers.

If you could send your younger self one tweet, what would you say?

Risk more, sooner.

If at all possible, could you pick one book that has deeply affected you? If so, what was it that moved you about it?

Ack! That is like the Sophie’s Choice of questions for a writer!  I already regret any answer I’ll give because I know I’ll want about forty-six “do-overs.”
BUT…I’m going to go way, way, back and pick the children’s book THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, by Norton Juster. I love everything about the story—its wit and wordplay; its characters; its wonderful illustrations by Jules Feiffer; and most of all its themes, which have everything to do with imagination and limitless possibilities.

I’m mumble-mumble years old, and I STILL try to read it at least once a year.  (Also, if anyone wants to bribe me for any reason, I still don’t have the special 50thanniversary edition. Hint, hint.)

When you are having moments when nothing seems to fit, how do you find what you are looking for and make a story come to life?

I try to drill down to two questions: What made me love this story in the first place, and where is the awesome?

Where the first one is concerned, that means getting in touch with what inspired the novel: Was it the world? Was it the character? Some thematic element? The voice? Some inherent mystery I wanted to solve for myself?

Then I take a look at the scene I’m writing and compare it to that original inspiration. I ask how I’m serving that kernel element. Have I gone too far afield? Or, conversely, am I serving that original element too slavishly when what I need to do is thank it for the inspiration and then jet off in new directions? I try to find some way to fan that initial flame and see what catches fire in the current scene. 

The second idea is a complementary one, of course. It has to do with looking at a scene or a section of the book and challenging myself to really BRING THE AWESOME!

This means daring myself to go further, dramatically, to push a character beyond his or her limits, to push the plot beyond my original, safe ideas for it. It means having my protagonist kick butt in some way or sink to absolutely terrible (but awesome) depths. It means having an antagonist force be absolutely AWESOME at being absolutely terrible.

Again, awesome can be a broad term, and it can apply to any aspect of a scene: character, action, setting, voice, etc. Awesome can mean awful; it can mean deep or fearless or wretched; it can mean astonishing or sexy or bizarre. But it has to create an excitement in me, an internal giddiness that tells me that the character, the writing, or the story is risking SOMETHING.

If you could pick a word to describe yourself, what would it be?

Avid
(Also LUCKY!)

Wow, Lorin! Thank you for doing this interview and sharing some truly priceless advice with us–you’re amazing! 

If you would like to find out more about Lorin, please do visit her website! 
You can also find her on Twitter.