Selene Castrovilla

You have written both YA fiction and nonfiction picture books. How do you approach planning for each of these genres?

My YA fiction has an emotional spark. It wells from my gut and my heart. My characters spring up and tell me their stories. Then, when I know the “problem,” I do research so I know how to present it accurately. For example, The Girl Next Door is about a boy and a girl who have always been best friends, and when they’re seventeen he’s diagnosed with cancer. Samantha, the book’s “voice,” told me her story in a dream. I woke up and said, “Jesse’s dying.” Then I wondered, “Who is Jesse?” The dream came back to me then, and I started writing. However, I knew nothing about types of cancer (other than the basics), effects and treatments. I did extensive research, and plugged all that into the emotional story I was pouring out. It’s like mortaring bricks.

Saved by the Music was different, because I knew the setting and the initial problem well. The character Willow is based on me – though she is not me completely. She spoke to me when I was driving one day, long before I wrote the novel, ranting about how she hated her name and how her mother had given it to her in spite. I wrote her monologue down and knew it was important – but I had no idea why. Years later I was trying, unsuccessfully, to write a nonfiction thesis for my master’s degree about my experiences helping my aunt build a concert hall out of a coffee barge. My advisor told me it should be a novel, and therefore I needed to change my name. Bam! I realized, “Her name is Willow.”

“That’s a terrible name,” my advisor said.”

“I know. She hates it,” I told her.

Axel, the boy character (I write love stories, basically) was harder to pinpoint. I knew he was living alone on a boat called “Perchance to Dream” and that he was rich, and sad. Sadder than Willow, who proclaimed she was fat and ate a lot of carrots. (This I knew about, because it was what I did – when I was anorexic.) But Axel had deeper troubles. And in the end, he attempted suicide. So, while I knew very well how to write Willow’s anorexia and loneliness, I had to research the psychology of Axel’s problems (abandonment and molestation) and I also had to research suicide.

The real emotional complication came when I realized that Axel represented the darkest part of me.

Melt, a brutal love story about domestic violence, is based on the childhood of my boxing coach. I didn’t have to research that, because he told me everything that happened to him and I tell the scenes from his perspective. You can’t get any realer than that. This is a “close” novel—meaning that it is told intimately by Joey and Dorothy— so I purposely limited the landscape to mimic their bubbled, troubled world. I based their town on mine, so I didn’t have to research place. I did have Dorothy bring Joey to NYC once, dangling possibility both to him and to the reader. But I used a place I know well and love: the Monet room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I did investigate details like the kind of guns cop use. I wanted to his dad (a cop) to have a Glock because the word is heavy, and it “hits.” I’m very into word “texture.” Luckily, cops do in fact often use Glocks!

As for The Wizard of Oz aspect, a voice told me to do that. (I’ve written about this in detail at the end of my book and in my blog. Feel free to take anything I’ve written anywhere and use it if you’d like.)

So, to wrap this part of my answer up, the novels make themselves known and I start writing. I never “outlined” but I did jot down key points I knew would happen – and I always knew the end. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you get there? I’ve give myself permission to change the end if necessary. But I never have yet.

All that said, I did do a very rough outline for my work in progress, Signs of Life. That’s because it’s a bit more structurally complicated. Multiple voices, and back and forth in time. So I need some kind of guide.

In one line: “My YA novels are emotionally driven.”

The history books start with a jolt to my brain. I hear or read a fact that just zings me, and I know I want to research it. I started writing these books because a friend told me about a woman on Long Island using her laundry as signals to George Washington’s spies. I couldn’t believe I didn’t know that! I grew up on Long Island. So my research starts with a curiosity that takes hold of my mind and won’t let go. I start on Google (let’s hear it for technology!) and read every article I can find. Of course, I can’t rely on “facts” from these, because they’re secondary sources – and possibly biased to boot. But I find out the primary sources they used, and I read them. Wikipedia is great for finding primary sources – they’re all listed at the end. I also find any books that even mention my subject, and I study their bibliographies. So writing these is heavy on years of research – even before I write the first line. But I know my focus. It’s always the people. Why did they do what they did? This wonderment is what keeps me going. I find humanity fascinating, and I often say that my books are all similar in that they examine the human condition, and question it.

How can we get by, in a world we cannot control or even really know?

What will we sacrifice to achieve our goals?

Why do people hurt each other?

What’s in our hearts never changes.

You make your historical picture books so engaging by bringing the people from history “back to life” for the reader. What advice do you have for young writers that could help them think about how to make their writing more interesting for the reader?

Put yourself in the place of your characters. What would you do in their situation? Empathy with a character always makes him easier to write. Even if you’re writing about the past, the people are still like us inside. They have the same emotions [anger, jealousy, joy, etc.] and the same basic motivations [desire for freedom, money, love, etc.] Only the “backdrop” changes. (That’s where research comes in.)

You can even make a setting “double” as a character. Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is a great example in fiction, and in John Berendt’s nonfiction book The City of Falling Angels, Venice does everything but speak.

[For fiction]You are not your characters, so let them handle the situation their way – even if they make the wrong choices. If you’ve plotted your story out, be prepared to let the events unfold differently if the characters take a different turn. Ask your characters how they feel about certain things, even if these things don’t directly relate to your story. You don’t have to put everything in—some things are just for you.

[For nonfiction] Send them on their way, doing the things they did, with the focus of “why” in mind. Why are they doing this? Character motivation gives something for the reader to identify with, just as you identified with them earlier. And, it gives the reader something to root for (or, something to root against—as is the case with my next book about Benedict Arnold.) Never underestimate the appeal of the bad guy.

Can you talk about your revision process?

[For all writing] You must decide what to leave out, and this can be painful. But it’s necessary. Think of gardening. When you cut back branches, a shrub will flourish (at least I think so – I actually hate gardening.)

[For nonfiction] It is essential to leave things out, because some of the things that happened simply aren’t relevant to your final outcome. I would advise you to start with your end, and work backward. The advantage to history is that it already happened, so you don’t have to make anything up. Your story’s skeleton has been handed to you – but you have to add all the rest so that it comes to life. Find your focus (usually a person or a couple of people) that will lead you to the satisfactory ending you want to share (possibly the thing that drew you to the story.) It could be a large victory, like escaping from the enemy. It could be a more personal victory, like saving a horse’s life. It could be both (as is the case in my book By the Sword.)

[For all writing] I advise you to read how others have tackled the type of story you’re writing, and take notes on the parts you like. The best teacher is a book that speaks to you. Notice sensory details and word choices. These are key, and deliberate. When you write your stories, don’t worry about those things right off the bat. Get your thoughts out. Later, when you revise, add sensory details and substitute more “perfect” words. Revision is essential. Do not despair that your stories aren’t perfect when they come out. No one’s are. But we keep going over and over them, until we are satisfied. Nothing is permanent until you say so. Write it all down, even if you think it sucks. Later, you may discover that it does not. If it still does, there’s always “delete.”

Do you have writing routines or habits that are helpful, regardless of the genre?

I like to write first thing in the morning, before life gets in the way. Also, I get a feeling of accomplishment that puts me in a great mood!

I write enough to fill a one-inch picture frame each day, even when I don’t have time to write more. (This is advice from Anne Lamott.) This takes the pressure off writing a “whole book.” I don’t think of it that way – it’s crippling. I think in scenes, usually (as though it were a movie) – but sometimes I think in paragraphs—or frames.

I celebrate a great sentence. I praise myself out loud!

I keep a notebook with me to jot down any thoughts that may come (also, I’m just starting to write notes in my iPhone – pretty wild!)

I always observe my fellow humans. They are the ultimate source of inspiration. Also, I am never bored! Everything is material J

My plots are not complicated. My characters are. I believe in a character-driven story.

I firmly believe in critique groups – or at least having a couple of trusted readers to let me know what they think. The best critical readers are other writers, which is where a critique group comes in. At the moment I belong to one small one, and one large one. I prefer meeting in person, but you can also find them on-line.

When you reread your work, what are you listening for or looking for? Do you look with specific purpose or “lenses” and read several times with just that purpose in mind or do you do a more “big picture” type of reread to see what you notice? Is it different for different genres?

I do the “big picture” more as I initially write. When I reread, I look for different things each time. I check to make sure I’ve used as many sensory details as possible (in fact, I make a “sensory detail” list for each scene: potential things that could be included.) I also do a word check – making sure the perfect words are employed. Even though many words technically mean the same thing, they have different connotations, and textures. I love a word that makes you “feel” it. My friends call me the queen of verbs, and let me tell you – verbs give a story zest. I use a super-powered thesaurus called The Writer’s Flip Dictionary to look for word possibilities. It’s one of my favorite things to do. When I find that perfect word, I feel like I’ve won the lottery!

I always read my word out loud. That’s how I really get a sense of its balance and rhythm. It’s essential that a story runs smoothly!

What is a tip or technique or exercise you could share with young writers to help them with their own writing process?

Interview your character. Find out what he/she really wants. Once, you know this, you must convey it to the reader. This is what makes the reader care. Then, you add complications. When you have a strong character, you don’t have to struggle for plot. It follows, in a natural sequence.

Don’t over-plot. (See above.) Strive for simplicity whenever possible. (Simple as in clear – not predictable.)

Reread books you love and study them to learn what makes you love them.

Try writing in different perspectives – maybe a different narrator, or more than one? Try writing in first, third or even (daringly and sparingly) second person. Each has a different feel, and you need to find the one that suites you. Second is rarely used, because it gives a feeling of total isolation. But maybe that’s what you want!

Know your setting! If you’re writing about France, you need to be secure enough about your knowledge of that country to make the reader believe they are there. If you don’t need to set a story in a place you don’t know, don’t do it. It’s extra, unnecessary work! But even if you’re writing about a kid’s room, you must use enough well-place detail to make us feel there. Furthermore, we need to see the setting through the characters’ eyes. Tone is essential.

Trust your instincts, but hone your craft.

Listen to all advice, but don’t feel obliged to take it unless it sits right with you. However, if several people offer the same comment, that might indicate that you’re not getting your intended message across. You have to keep going until you do, or take it out. Pick your battles!

Be flexible, be ready to cut anything if necessary to your story. The story comes first. Leave your ego behind.

Decide what’s important to you. If it’s writing, you must be willing to let other things go and concentrate. This is like any other skill – it requires dedication and practice. You can’t sit at a piano and start playing Mozart. Take it seriously, but also have fun.

Even if you don’t love writing, you should try to do your best at it. Why wouldn’t you? And who knows, maybe you’ll have some fun after all.

Everywhere you write, write well. Write creatively. If you Tweet, try to create a unique “voice.” Are you a serious type, or funny? Do you like to find out strange facts and share them? When you find your “Twitter” voice, you just might realize you’ve found your “story” voice as well. [And if you use Instagram, write captions with your pictures. You can also use a picture as an inspiration for a story.]

Ideas are everywhere. You just have to be willing to see them, and let them in.

What makes a story unique is your perspective: the way you choose to tell it.