New Voice: Beth Ann Bauman on Rosie and Skate

Beth Ann Bauman is the author of the short story collection Beautiful Girls (MacAdam/Cage, 2003) and a young-adult novel Rosie and Skate (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2009), which Booklist named a 2009 Top 10 First Novel for Youth. From the promotional copy:

It’s off-season at the Jersey shore, when the boardwalk belongs to the locals. Rosie is 15, and her sister Skate is 16. Their dad, an amiable drunk, is spending a few weeks in jail while their cousin Angie looks after them in their falling-down Victorian on the beach.

Skate and her boyfriend Perry are madly in love, inseparable–until now, when Perry goes off to Rutgers. Rosie is shyer than Skate, but she’s drawn to Nick, a boy in their Alateen group.

What happens to Rosie and Skate in a few tumultuous weeks is deftly shaded, complex, and true. Readers will be caught up in each girl’s shifting feelings as the story plays out within the embrace of their warmhearted community.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I like this question. I’m both a plotter and a plunger. For me, writing is a marriage between the two and a delicate balancing act. Too much plotting, too much authorial control, and a certain lifelessness creeps in. Not enough plotting results in a wayward, unfocused piece.

It’s important to remember that when you’re telling a story you’re telling a specific story, you’re not giving all the pieces of a life. You’re sending your character(s) on a specific journey, fraught with trouble, that will alter them in some significant way. But how to send your character on that journey, how to work their specific conflict(s), is tricky business, especially in the long form of a novel.

I came to novel writing after having written a short-story collection, so the long form was pretty intimidating to me. What I did was to learn three-act structure, a playwriting technique. I find it really helpful because it gives me a way to see the larger story, and it gives destinations along the journey that work the conflict.

For example, at plot point one the plot thickens. This may sound a bit formulaic, but honestly, if done well, the reader isn’t paying attention to the structure; she’s simply engaged in the story and turning pages to find out what happens next.

But I don’t start with this. In the very beginning stages, I plunge. I explore my characters. I write, not knowing where I’m going, in order to generate some good, organic material.

After I get a sense of the story, which takes a while, I start to use three-act structure. I also teach fiction writing and encourage my student novelists to use it because they often bring in chapters with good writing, interesting characters, etc., but there’s no shape to any of it; it’s a piling on of more and more information.

Three-act structure is a good tool, especially for the beginning novelist, because it forces the writer to think about the specific story he/she is telling. I tell my students they don’t have to follow it exactly, that they can tweak it to suit their needs.

The bottom line, though, is fiction needs a structure, because a novel without a plot is like a mammal without a backbone.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

I have a nice story. I met my editor Wendy Lamb after my story collection Beautiful Girls (MacAdam/Cage, 2003) was published. I’d contacted her through a mutual friend to see if she used writers for hire. I had a miserable idea that I could write books based on someone else’s ideas.

Luckily, Wendy doesn’t use writers for hire, but she read my collection, which has a few teenage stories, and encouraged me to write my own young-adult novel.

What was so nice was that she mentored me in the genre, gave me books to read, and spent time talking with me. Very generous.

Slowly, I started my novel journey, and it was exciting and gratifying when, a few years later, my agent sent Wendy half the manuscript and she read it right away and made an offer. And what a good kick in the butt to have a contract and a firm deadline (okay, it wasn’t all that firm, but I treated it pretty firmly).

I’m happy to be published by Wendy, and I admire her books. On her list, some of my favorites include the delightfully quirky and touching When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009), the harrowing and poignant How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (2004), and the heartbreaking Would You by Marthe Jocelyn (2008).

Cynsational Notes

Beth Ann Bauman’s awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation and New York Foundation for the Arts. She teaches fiction writing at the NYU School of Continuing & Professional Studies, the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in NYC, and online at UCLA Extension. She’s lived in New York City for over 15 years, but is still a Jersey girl at heart.

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.