Last month I had the good fortune — and the great fun! — of hosting my fellow Darling Assassin Monica Roe with her sage writing advice about working in the NOW. Today, another VCFA classmate, Tziporah Cohen, agreed to share the wisdom she picked up with her MFA over the last two years.
Darling Assassins is the name of my Vermont College of Fine Arts class of January 2015. Recently I asked them: What was the biggest lesson you learned in Vermont? These posts are their answers, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
And here is our Tzippy!
WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT WRITING ANYWAY? ONE WRITER’S QUEST FOR CRITIQUING CONFIDENCE
by Tziporah Cohen
One of the ironies of writing is that the better you get at it, the worse you think your writing is. In the beginning, there is a lovely sense that everything you put down on a page is, well, lovely. Only later comes the unpleasant realization that your work only seems good because you don’t yet have the skills to assess it. And how are you supposed to build those self-assessing skills? You can put the answer at the top of my list of lessons learned at VCFA.
In my other life, the non-writer one, I’m a psychiatrist and a mother of three. I feel pretty competent in both those arenas. And heck, while I’m patting myself on the back, the last couple of years have seen me managing a psychiatry practice, family, and a Master of Fine Arts degree at the same time. No easy feat, believe me.
But put me into a workshop, also known as a critique circle, and watch my feelings of competence disappear like a hot dog bun thrown into a flock of pigeons. Workshops are a critical component of the program where I completed my MFA degree. Six to twelve students and one to two faculty meet for twelve hours over several days. Students range from those beginning their first semester to those just about to graduate. Their works in progress are a smorgasbord: picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, fiction and non-fiction, verse and prose.
Don’t get me wrong here. It’s not the being critiqued that has my palms sweaty remembering those early workshops. I’m lucky in that I generally don’t experience much anxiety when my work is reviewed. Perhaps it comes from being an older student, coming at this writing thing from the safety of an established non-writing career, or from having seen enough of life to know that a disappointing critique is just that, not a tragic event. Or perhaps it comes from knowing that the work will be better in the end with the input of others.
But critiquing someone else’s work? That makes me very uncomfortable. What if I send someone down the wrong path? What do I, unpublished newbie, know about writing, anyway?
I spent a lot of time listening in that first workshop, as others debated the writers’ choices of point of view and tense, discussed word choice and voice, and analyzed story arc and desire line, all about of which I knew practically nothing. It’s not an option to say nothing during twelve hours of workshop, though. So I started out, tentative, introducing each of my comments with an “I don’t know, but…” or “It could just be me, but…”
Before my MFA, I either liked a book I read or I didn’t. I didn’t know why. Sixty hours of workshop over two years taught me the why behind that snap judgment. And the real lesson? Workshop taught me that learning to identify the jewels and flaws in someone else’s work is important not just because of how it helps them, but because it is how we learn to identify the jewels and flaws in our own work.
When we leave the security of our writing programs and classes we travel from the safe sanctuary of the workshop circle to the much more challenging wilderness of self-assessment. Yes, we have critique partners, but they don’t want to see every page of every early draft. (They do have their own writing to do.) We need to have confidence in our own ability to see what works and what doesn’t on our own pages. And in submitting our own work to the critical eye we have honed critiquing others, we improve our own writing skills.
I still face every manuscript I critique with some dread, and preface my thoughts with a too-long apologetic paragraph about how unqualified I feel to comment in the first place. But I remind myself that I have as much to offer my writing friends as they have to offer me. And that the process will turn everyone involved into a better writer.
Thank you, Tzippy! I totally know the feeling!
Tziporah Cohen graduated in January 2015 with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is also a psychiatrist who works in the fields of oncology and palliative care. Hailing from New York and Boston, she currently resides in Toronto with her husband and three children.
A lot has been going on over here behind the Magic Mirror: some of it writing-related, much of it big and exciting life changes and I promise to explain more soon(ish) :)
In the meantime though, I wanted to reach out to my wise and talented writing siblings, my Vermont College of Fine Arts classmates, The Darling Assassins, to see if they had any writerly wisdom to share.
I asked them: what is the biggest “lesson” you learned in Vermont?
Now I am excited to introduce you to the powerful Monica Roe and her wise answer to my question. Read on, enjoy the views and see for yourself why I love her so.
Take it away, M!
THE PROBLEM WITH WHEN (AND THE CUMULATIVE POWER OF NOW), by Monica Roe
I’m just not feeling it today.
I won’t write anything good if my head’s not in it.
Today my schedule is crazy.
Any of these sound familiar? They’re familiar to me!
Hey, I like my sacred desk space as much as the next writer. But there are many days or weeks when that space is simply not available to me. When life gets in my way.
For about four months every year, I travel around the Alaskan bush as a physical therapy consultant for 16 schools in small villages off the road system. Think frozen tundra, -35 temps, the occasional bear or musk ox roaming through town. Four times a year, I remain almost constantly on the move for one month at a time—hopping from village to village on tiny planes, hauling a month’s worth of supplies in a backpack, sleeping on cots, bare mattresses, or sometimes on nothing but a spare gym mat in an unoccupied classroom, library, or closet. It’s wonderful, rewarding work.
But it can be tiring.
From those of you who may not be familiar with itinerant bush travel, it is anything but fancy. Personal space becomes little more than a distant memory. You get used to sleeping wherever, often sharing bunk space with any number of other itinerant specialists who may also be passing through the village. By the end of a month on the road and in the air, I sorely miss my home, my husband, and my cherished and peaceful private writing space. I’m dirty and sleep-deprived and unbelievably tired of scraping together yet another dinner from the dwindling contents of my backpack. Worst of all, though, that constant upheaval of daily travel can also make it feel nigh onto impossible for me to maintain a consistent writing schedule.
I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a tough balance to strike.
My situation may be a bit more extreme than some, but I think this holds true for most of us on some level. We don’t always end up in the same place from hour to hour, let alone from day to day.
So what are we writers to do when life doesn’t allow us large chunks (or even small chunks) of time to sit at our desks and thoughtfully scan the horizon for a glimpse of that wayward, shiny-winged Muse?
I used to think that if I didn’t have that perfect space—both physical and mental—in which to write, I’d maybe just be better off waiting until I did have it. Until I was back home, until life calmed down enough for those perfect conditions to coalesce.
All of that changed abruptly when I entered the program at VCFA. Suddenly, I no longer had that luxury of putting off the writing until next week or next month. If I did not find some way to pound out those essays and generate those creative pages on the road, they simply would not get done. It was a tough transition to make, and I can recall more than one instance where I frantically finished writing an essay during a bumpy inter-village flight (including one memorable time when I also got airsick coming over a mountain range) in order to make a midnight packet deadline. It was not exactly how I’d envisioned working on my MFA.
But somewhere along the way, it finally sunk into my brain that my life wasn’t, in fact, two separate and non-overlapping halves of “writing” and “other stuff.” To put it bluntly, if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to be writing—regardless of which phase of my life balance I was currently inhabiting.
I’ll try again tomorrow.
When I have more time.
When I’m not dragging my backpack through three feet of snow to get to the airstrip.
When I can actually sit at my own desk.
The problem with when is that he’s a tricky little demon. Always dangling that carrot, promising that one day we’ll have the perfect time and the perfect headspace in which to sit down and pound out that masterpiece…or even that so-so first draft.
As an unexpected side effect of my time in the MFA program at VCFA, I have lost all faith in that sparkly and Puckish when.
I have gained a firm belief in the unglamorous and dependable now.
I am camped in a school and it’s evening open gym night. I will write 100 words now, even though I can hear the basketballs thumping right through the music from my headphones.
I am in my sleeping bag, lying on a mattress in a supply closet and desperately wishing to fall asleep so I can be at least somewhat rested in the morning. I will scribble one paragraph now, even though I cannot think of one interesting thing to say. Those nows, I have discovered, may be unglamorous and arduous at times. They may feel like throwaway writing, a waste of precious moments.
But those tiny little nows also do something amazing.
They add up. Become paragraphs and pages. Become chapters and messy first drafts. Even more important, they keep us in the game. The arduous, unglamorous, and massively rewarding game.
Stay in the game now. Get messy now. Even if it’s an airplane essay.
You just might surprise yourself.
Monica M. Roe is a graduate of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at VCFA. She also holds a doctorate in physical therapy from Clarkson University and works as a consultant on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. Her YA novel, THAW, was published in 2008 by Front Street Books (she’s a very slow writer!). When she isn’t traveling in Alaska, she can often be found in rural South Carolina, where she and her husband run Old Swamp Apiary, a small-scale farm and beekeeping operation.
And maybe some writers do. Okay, many do. Most.
I guess I did, too.
I enrolled in the program with that shiny goal in mind.
And then, after intense writing and reading and studying, one of the biggest lessons I got out of Vermont College of Fine Arts is the importance of … life.
The writing life. But also, the life outside of writing.
As I started to pay closer attention to the ebb and flow of my process and my creative habits, I discovered that the busier I was with other things, the more often I took time to step away from the keyboard, the more passionately I lived, the more productive became my writing output.
The less tightly I clutched my work in progress, the easier the words came.
The less the writing mattered in the big scheme of my life, the more I wrote, and the happier I felt about doing it.
I decided to try and build a new and meaningful professional career. In preparation, I committed to a one-year-long in-office literary agency internship, smack in the middle of my studies.
Did that new commitment affect my writing? Yes it did, in the best possible way!
Turned out, I had more to give to myself — and by extension, to my writing efforts — when I gave more to the world.
With this discovery, my real writing goal became not chasing publication, but building a meaningful and sustainable writing life.
Did that mean I’d stop submitting my work?
Not at all.
It’s simply about the shifting of the emphasis.
1. A regular writing routine
2. A story to work on
3. The next story waiting in the wings (this one’s maybe not a strict requirement, more of a nice bonus).
4. Setting aside some time for reading fiction
5. Being able to help support my family
6. Taking one day a week and/or occasional vacation time to just decompress and breathe and luxuriate in the life part of the equation
7. Giving something to the world, something else, something other than writing
As part of my studies, I read up on habits of writers, artists, thinkers and scientists, from Pablo Picasso to Jane Austen, from Ingrid Bergman to Sigmund Freud in a super fun collection of biographical sketches that deals specifically with the working habits of composers, choreographers, sculptors, filmmakers, poets and lots and lots of novelists. The book, which I highly recommend, is called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. What I saw in these entertaining sketches reassured me that there is no ONE right way to build a meaningful artistic life. Some of the greats wrote in bed for 12 to 14-hour stretches. I know I couldn’t do that — in bed or otherwise. Others (sadly) could not work without the help of some powerful chemicals. I choose not to do that. :) Some wrote 500 words and called it a day. (Hemingway, anyone?) Many had low-paying day jobs. Some built meaningful careers alongside but separated from their art.
What did all the greats have in common? A meaningful, consistent and productive artistic life. So, okay, maybe the #1 thing on my list is a must: a regular writing routine. Honestly, I’d say #4 also. Ask Stephen King, if you don’t believe me.
Everything else, though? You tell me.
What are the most important components of your meaningful writing lives? I’d love to know. But whether or not you share them here, I hope you take the time to answer that question for yourselves. And then follow through!
Sorry for the delay. Figuring out post-MFA grownup life is time-consuming business! That, and completing the revisions, of course ;)
But now, let’s continue the (quite ambitious) list of all the things I have learned during my intense two years in the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program. There may be more parts. We will see.
Over the last two years, I have really learned to pay attention to story arc. An arc means change. An arc is growth. Movement. In a good story, everything arcs. There is an external arc, and an internal one to mirror it. A good romance should have an arc. Every scene should have one. It might help to think of an arc as a journey. You know your story has a good, interesting arc when your character/scene/relationship/situation starts in one place and ends up somewhere different and when the reader looks back, she can see how things got to where they are.
8. A Scene is a Mini Story
We all know this instinctively: every scene is an entity in itself. But I’ve learned it really helps to think of each scene as a mini-story, with its own build, its own movement, its own momentum. For every scene I write now, I have a series of general points and questions I want to make sure that I hit. I have four sticky notes stuck to the bottom of my computer monitor, each featuring a mini list of elements to consider when writing a scene. There are 17 such elements for me. (Just counted). Hmmm, a list within a list. I am thinking, it deserves its own post!
I am sure I’ve talked about it here before, and more than once, too, but this post is about what I’ve learned, and desire was a big one. Through the study of other books, through essays and through my own writing, I saw it clearer than I had before, how desire drives story. Desire is the most straightforward way to create a narrative pull that would make the story irresistible. I have learned that a character’s big desire must be crystal clear. And very specific. That it’s better when it can be translated into something “positive” (something the character DOES want), as opposed to negative desire (something the character wants to avoid or run away from). By the way, the latter can be the key to the former. Another revelation: what matters is not only what the main character wants but why he wants it. As I write, I am now more aware of the interplay, the juggling act that goes on as I balance my protagonist’s internal desire with her external one. And in every scene, in every chapter, it helps to translate this desire into goals.
10. Plot is Made of Moments and Bridges
Working with novels in verse critically and creatively (not to mention, reading a ton of them, of course) made me look at plot in a different way. When I considered closely the way verse novels are structured, I noticed they are really a kind of a beautiful necklace made of brilliant moments, each moment like a pearl, with the poetry form acting as a kind of a string to tie it all together. For one year I re-envisioned my previously prose novel in this exciting form. It liberated me, writing out of order, not worrying about ways to connect the moments. Not at first anyway. In my last semester however, I felt it was time to convert the story back to prose. When I did that, I realized I needed to add “bridges” or transitions between my moments. Now, this is what I see when I look at a story: I see moments and bridges. In her craft book, Steering the Craft, the legendary Ursula LeGuin uses the terms “crowding” and “leaping” to talk about this. Scene vs. summary, pearl vs. string, moment vs. bridge, showing vs. telling. However the writer chooses to think of it, I am now convinced it’s important to be mindful of the distinction and to be purposeful about it.
11. Write What you Know, But Don’t
Life is full of contradictions. And so is art. Two totally opposite things can be true at the same time. I picked that idea up from Davis Jauss, in one of his wonderful essays on the craft of writing, called “Lever of Transcendence: Contradiction and the Physics of Creativity.” This applies to writing ALL THE TIME.
For example, Write what you know, some say. That’s how you get to the treasure that only you can offer the world.
No, no, say others. Truth constricts fiction! Look beyond your life: ah the freedom! The possibilities!
Both pieces of this advice are two sides of the same truth. Dig deep into your memories, to enrich your characters’ emotions, or to make your setting real. But in doing so, why limit yourself to the things you know? With the help of our imaginations, oh the places we will go! I am sure Dr. Seuss would agree :)
12. Break the Rules!
Here is another two-sided bit of wisdom: mind the rules. And break them! This can apply to anything, from grammar to archetypical characters to plot. So many books I’ve read over the last two years, plus a few wonderful lectures I attended, reminded me how fluid the rules in writing can really be. Margaret Atwood switches back and forth between past tense and present in Handmaid’s Tale, leaving the reader dizzy. Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda raises a HUGE central question that never gets answered, not even at the end. In Sarah Aronson’s Head Case, the story doesn’t have much of an external arc; most of the change is happening inside the main character’s head. And I am still on letter “A” in the cumulative bibliography of titles I have read while in the program! In each of these cases and many more, though, the reader can tell, the author is well aware of what he or she is doing. Good writers follow the rules. Great writers know the rules and break them for excellent reasons. They play with expectation and create their own reality.
Thoughts? Questions? As always I hope you find these helpful. And maybe inspiring, too!
Hey all! I am, of course, back from my final VCFA residency, a shiny new MFA in hand. It’s fun to look back on the incredible, enriching, life-changing journey this has been and take a moment to talk about what I’ve learned. First, let me quantify it for you: two years of learning, what exactly did it add up to?
Two years equaled:
– surviving five residencies
– attending/or listening to up to 50 faculty and graduate lectures
– completing twenty packets of one-on-one work with an advisor
These packets included:
– more than a dozen critical essays
– a 38-page critical thesis
– a 45-minute graduate lecture
– a total of 200 books read, analyzed and annotated.
And then of course, came the meat of it all, the creative pages. It would be impossible to try and figure out an exact figure at this point. But I’d estimate I have revised and generated a total of more than 600 pages of creative work through it all. Plus, “side writing,” “free writing” and exercises the length of which I couldn’t even begin to guess. There were so many!
Add to that a scattering of poetry, several new short stories, attempts to bring back to life two other novels, and three starts of shiny new stories in genres I had never tried before.
So, what have I learned through all this?
Allow me to present my list: the craft, the personal, the philosophical, all of it, broken into two (or more) parts. Of course, as always, I hope that my discoveries will be helpful to you.
This is Part 1:
1. Inhabiting Characters
In order to write authentic characters, I have discovered that I must inhabit them. I think this was truly the biggest lesson I’ve learned, and one I got plenty of opportunities to practice. If you have been faithfully reading my blog over the last two years, this might no longer be a revelation to you either — that even though characters are our creations, they cannot be our puppets. We cannot move them across our fictional landscapes as though they were made of wood or tied to a string, just for the sake of plot convenience.
I mean, sure, I guess we can, right? But if we do, we shouldn’t be surprised with the results: characters who seem lifeless or characters who simply shut down and turn away from us. What I’ve discovered is that writing has so much in common with acting. Think method acting. Let your characters breathe on the page, let your characters react, act, say things only they possibly could! Let your characters’ words and actions surprise you.
Be your characters. Walk across the page in your characters’ shoes.
2. The Other Arts
This last residency confirmed another wonderful discovery, how much the arts cross-pollinate one another. Looking at the graduate lectures presented by our class alone, we had four other arts represented. One of my classmates, Lianna McSwain, talked about using Improv Theater techniques to make writing more spontaneous, to loosen up, to be braver. Another classmate, David Rogers, shared a presentation on how some of the top names in YA literature, from K.L. Going to A.S. King to M.T. Anderson rely on music to fuel their stories. Melanie Briend, who is a professional dancer and choreographer, shared a talk on authentic and expressive body language in dance and in writing. And then, in my own lecture, I talked about my experience last semester in painting the truth of my main character. My point? When the well is running dry, and even when it isn’t, turn to the other arts. Writing can feel so cerebral at times, while so many other arts are richly physical. Every art can inform our writing work in the freshest, most marvelous of ways. Allow yourself to be surprised by it. For more on other arts and creativity, read Eric Maisel and Twyla Tharp.
5. The Glory of Making Mistakes
Creating is really all about facing our fears. We know this.
One of my classmates posted this chart during our first semester, and it’s still hanging in my office and inspiring me every day: How to Be an Artist. This sketch is attributed to a British artist Kate Holden.
In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler talks about the fear that prevents us from creating our best work. He invites the writer to defeat perfectionism by shutting down the conscious mind and getting into the flow state. Meditating, free writing and other arts are some of the ways I’ve tried over the last few years to circumvent and fool my inner perfectionist.
For my graduating residency workshop, I wrote 20 pretty rough pages, to share with two advisors and eleven other writers. I had no choice. The deadline was looming, and my final packet had to be submitted at right around the same time. Yikes! Boy was I terrified. I wondered, what would my fellow writers think of me? When during residency, it came time to discuss my submission, it turned out to be a real thrill. Sure, there were plenty of rough patches in those pages. But my fellow workshop participants also pointed out plenty of gems that seemed to delight them! If I had more time and allowed myself to try and make these pages more “perfect,” it is possible I wouldn’t have come up with the quirky, crazy details that surprised even me!
4. Paying Close Attention
But there is another side to the “letting go” coin. (So often two contradictory things are true, I have found.) At one point, I’ve learned, a writer needs to realize that sloppiness is deadly to a good story. Especially when revising, I have learned that it’s crucial to pay attention to the following on every page:
– cause and effect
I am sure I have mentioned this before. Now it’s time for me to say it again: read your work out loud! And not mumbling, either, read it loudly, really let your voice carry and resonate! During every one of my last four semesters, reading my pages out loud really helped me pick up on a lot of logic lapses and language inconsistencies. There is something about the sound of a sentence that just won’t lie. Yes, I know, it’s time-consuming! So often it feels like an extra step. I have learned to do it anyway. It’s been invaluable.
In good writing, things have to make sense on every level, from sentence to physical setting, to plot. As I wrote and revised, I learned to ask myself such questions as, why would he do this? Why would he do this now? What caused this story event? What’s it leading to? I’ve become more aware of geography in my writing. Things like, where is everyone situated in relation to one another? Can I truly visualize the whole thing? If I can’t, then how can I expect the reader to do it?
A related discovery: the use of maps need not be limited to science fiction or high fantasy. By all means, map out your kingdoms and your planets! Actually, I really hope you do! But also, feel free to quickly sketch out the outlines of your protagonist’s room, for example. Don’t feel silly imagining, sketching or even role-playing the smallest of events. The more real it is for you, the more real it could become for your readers.
Since first semester, I have been on a mission to write with more precision. Grammar makes all the difference: I knew that even before the MFA, of course. But over the last two years I’ve learned to slow down and really choose my words, really craft my sentences. I started paying closer attention to the way my particular word arrangements added up to meaning. I got into a habit of asking myself: Am I saying what I think I want to be saying? You might think you don’t need to read a grammar book. I thought so too. Yet, I was glad I did. Shrunk and White’s Elements of Style is a very slim and basic volume. Here are a few other titles, for more grammar fun: The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite by June Casagrande, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.
Finally, working closely with poetry over the course of two semesters awoken me to the glorious sound of language. This awareness of sound is something I carry with me now into every sentence and every story. If you would like to cultivate it, you can start by reading lots and lots (and lots!) of poetry.
Whew! So much learning. :) Time for a break. But please stayed tuned! More soon!
The year 2014 has been pretty exciting. I completed the second half of my studies at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Learned up to my ears. Wrote a critical thesis delving into novels in verse. Finished a draft of a manuscript I’d been trying to figure out for years. Then finished it all over again.
Through all this, I reconnected with New York, the city of my American beginnings, happily commuting, blending right in with the the crowd as I walked the streets and the avenues with my bright orange briefcase (sometimes writing on the go!). As agency intern at Serendipity Literary and assistant to the amazing Regina Brooks, I worked with authors from “the other side of the desk.” The internship concluded just yesterday, but all the learning I have done will stay with me for a long time, as will all the wonderful new friends I’ve made, Regina included. She has been the best mentor anyone could wish for, and she, along with her colleagues, always made me feel positively brilliant!
What will 2015 bring?
Graduation, for one thing!
Tomorrow I am flying to Vermont for my final residency, during which I will present a lecture of my own (!) The following weekend my family will come to town, braving the crazy cold to watch me perform a reading of my own work. And of course through it all I will watch my classmates, my brothers and sisters-in-writing, my Darling Assassins, the class of January 2015, graduate with me. I am still in disbelief that this is happening. Two years just whizzed by, in one great big whirlwind of learning, reading and writing (and laughing and crying, and friendship and fear and love).
Do you make resolutions? Wishes? Goals? I do a combination of all three.
For 2015, my biggest aim will be to channel all my passion and education and knowledge into a start of a wonderful career. When I return from the final residency, I plan to network and job-hunt my head off.
As for the writing, this year will mark an important beginning (that’s how I prefer to think of graduation, anyway). After two years of working under the guidance of powerful advisors, I am going to be on my own again. My writing life this year will answer an important question: with all that you’ve learned, what can you do, Katia Raina? A few months ago, this question terrified me. Now, it seems more like a friendly taunt from the Universe, a challenge I am excited to embrace.
My writing plans for this year include concluding a revision of the novel that is my creative thesis, getting it off to beta readers, finally, then polishing it into submit-able shape. But also, I already have three new-ish story ideas I am excited about. This year I hope to get started on at least one of those. I am not going to worry about finishing it, of course. With these new projects, I only aim to play, play, play, to try things, and to write bravely and honestly and with joy.
Finally, in 2015, I want to continue to be there for my family. To make time for love and goofiness. To treat time like it’s no big deal. Occasionally, at least. To take some grown-up time, too, once in a while. But also, to be a good listening ear to my two kids who are growing up way too fast. I want to give them support and understanding, always, while having the courage to tell them the truth, too, even when they might not want always to hear it. Oh, and I want to remember to call my mom every week with some good stories ;)
So, how about you? What’s your biggest goal for this year?
May your 2015 be a great and shiny one! See you on the other side of graduation! [gulp]
Hard to believe Hanukkah is almost over, Christmas almost upon us, the year almost through, my very last MFA semester completed. As I am wrapping up the preparations for my final Vermont College of Fine Arts residency (!!), I think it’s appropriate to share one last lecture post I had promised you. This one comes courtesy of our lovely Margaret Bechard, VCFA faculty and YA and children’s science fiction author, and it deals with the use of questions and answers in building stories.
Note: much of this lecture was based on a craft book by Will Dunne, THE DRAMATIC WRITER’S COMPANION.
“Asking questions is what the brains were born to do.” And it is an activity readers constantly engage in. In addition to multi-dimensional and relatable characters and an authentic story world that feels alive, it is the curiosity and the wonder that turn page after page. Because, “Every book is a mystery,” and all reading “a kind of puzzle-solving.” This curiosity is something the writer can harness by purposefully planting question after question after question in the reader’s mind.
Remember though that questions need not all be intellectual or simply curiosity-driven. “From a technical point of view, the function of a story is to make a reader worry.” Some of the questions you might want your readers asking themselves include “will she make it?” “Will he love her back?” “How can they possibly beat that villain?” Sure, your readers might wonder, “who done it?” or “what had happened to make him this way?” But also, ideally, you’d want them thinking, “what is going to happen next?” According to Will Dunne, “Suspense is a state in which the audience is in two places at the same time: the present (what is happening in the here and now of the story) and the future (what might happen later in the story as a result of what is happening now).”
Tension in a reader is a state of “being stretched tight.” Introducing doubt then is part of that mystery-weaving process that keeps the tension high, and it can be done through a series of questions. Margaret (and Will Dunne) recommends to think of one grand story question that you as the writer know won’t be answered till the very end. In addition though, you are going to need to plant a series of smaller questions throughout the story. As you go along, you are going to have to supply the answers too, the answers your reader is going to need in order to understand and continue being engaged with the story, the answers that might provoke new questions in turn. If the reader is missing too many pieces, they will put the book aside in frustration. “Suspense is as much a product of knowledge as a lack of knowledge.”
Keep in mind however that as you answer each question, the tension will ebb, and the reader’s attention will momentarily lag. Unless, just before answering the question, you have introduced another one!
Like so much of writing, this too is a constant balancing act: introducing just enough questions, but not too many at once, alternately keeping the reader in the dark and illuminated with understanding, surprising the reader, but not shocking them with developments that come out of nowhere.
This is useful to keep in mind when creating exposition. When the flashbacks or explanations are unwelcome, they feel like “info dumps.” If, however, you have created a question in the reader’s mind first, the background will be welcome, as the reader suddenly craves those answers.
Through the story’s middle, as you build your chain of questions and answers, the more connected your subplots to the main plot and the story’s grand question, the more engaged the reader will be.
In crafting the ending, you can leave some of the questions unanswered. But generally, if you want your reader satisfied, the big story question should be answered. Of course, even as I am typing this, I am thinking of exceptions to the good rule: Lois Lowry’s Giver, anyone? Will Jonas escape to Elsewhere? By the end of the story, we still don’t know it. (Of course, we can probably have an interesting discussion about whether or not that is indeed the big story question, or is there another, even bigger one that had been answered, after all?)
Here are some questions from Margaret for you to consider, as you craft your stories and make your choices:
1. What is your story’s grand question?
2. What knowledge does your reader need to being asking this question early on?
3. What is your final answer? Can you express it as a “yes, but…?”
4. What must occur in the story to make this answer logical and truthful?
I thank Margaret for allowing me to share this with you guys, and I hope you find these questions and ideas useful in creating and sustaining tension in your own stories. Wishing you happy holidays, a happy New Year, and happy writing, as always!
We’ll talk again in 2015!
My teenage son was peeking over my shoulder, and when he read this title, he laughed. I didn’t ask him what was funny — that adults have value? — or that we are at a point of needing to blog about it? But we do. Need to talk about it.
During the summer residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults, one of our amazing advisors, Amy King, known to the world as A.S. King, presented a passionate and illuminating lecture — and a plea — about fleshing out adult characters. I just knew I had to share it! (Late as it is. Better late than never, right? Right? The good thing about these topics is that they are as timely today as they were back in July. See, this is why I am glad I am not a journalist anymore :))
Anyway, with Amy’s permission, here is the gist of her talk, in my own words. Mostly.
In writing books for young readers, of course we want to keep our young characters active. We want them to have agency (which, incidentally is the topic of my graduate lecture, coming up in a month and a half, omg). We want our young characters to make mistakes, to act, to shape their destinies, or at least try to, not just to watch or merely respond to adults and their drama. And we surely don’t want the adults to pull our characters out of every sticky situation, solve all of our heroes’ problems, or achieve nothing more than stuff the young characters with morsels of wisdom and knowledge and message — no, no, no. Of course not.
But can we sweep the grownups aside completely? Kill them off, immobilize them, shut them up, so our young characters can have room to make their own decisions and affect their own destinies? Shove them onto the sidelines, keep them shadow-like, in the background, to serve cookies, step aside, pass out in front of the TV?
If we do, we might be creating a flat, unbelievable story world. If we don’t develop our adult characters, we might rob our young protagonists of the chance to really grow.
In real life, adults are everywhere for the teens and younger kids to watch, emulate, learn from, detest, idolize, try to make sense of, make fun of. In deeply felt and richly imagined stories, young characters don’t come out of nowhere and don’t get handed down a world free of adult control or influence. Amy implored us to embrace the possibilities offered by adult characters in order to craft stories that would ring truer for young readers. Here are some questions to consider when developing adults in YA and children’s fiction:
1. Look at the teachers, the bosses, the neighbors, the celebrities, the heroes. Spend some time fleshing them out, the way you would your younger characters. Who are they? What drives them? What do they believe and why and how do their beliefs affect their actions? How does your main character feel about them and why? In what ways is your main character like them? And how is she different from them?
2. Get to know the parents on a deeper level, as “fully formed human beings.” Consider: young characters might have adapted their parents’ attitudes, or they might be rebelling against them. What is each parent’s gift, or legacy to the young protagonist? Ask yourself: “Are they distracted? Supportive? Yelling? Happy? Hardworking?” A combination of these? And, “Why are they these things? What is their connection with the protagonist?” Does anyone tell your young main character, “You are just like your mother?” And how would your main character feel about being told that?
Reflect on how your young character might try to fight against the legacy passed down by her parents or other adults. Alternately, how can your young character try and embrace it? How can she do both in the space of the same story and even the same relationship?
3. We typically think of parents or adults influencing the younger characters, but consider: inspiration and wisdom can flow both ways. How can your protagonist influence the adult characters in her story?
– In John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, see Hazel and August’s interaction with Hazel’s favorite author Van Houten
– In Nancy Werlin’s fantasy Impossible, the main character’s foster family are supportive, imperfect, empowering and wise. They make a tremendous positive difference in Lucy’s life, yes. But they learn from her, too.
– In Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, the young maid Griet is at first inspired and learns much from her “boss,” her master Johannes Vermeer. But in the end she proves to be a stronger character than her flawed and legendary hero.
– And let’s not forget Amy’s own Please Ignore Vera Dietz, in which the protagonist’s father is the one trying to keep his daughter from making his mistakes. But really, Amy makes adults matter in all of her books, from Everybody Sees the Ants to Reality Boy, to the just published Glory O’Brian’s History of the Future).
A. S. King is an award-winning, critically acclaimed author of six YA novels and short fiction for adults. She taught adult literacy in Ireland and now lives in Pennsylvania with her family and teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program.
Thank you, Amy so much for the inspiration, for letting me share, and for all those glorious books!
It seems crazy that I am only now getting around to sharing such a long-promised post, about a graduate lecture from the summer’s residency by a fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts now-alumni Joe McGee. Crazy, when I am now finalizing work on my own upcoming lecture for January! (Gulp).
Nevertheless, here goes!
Joe’s lecture, ZEN AND THE ART OF NOVEL WRITING: Stringing Your Story Together One Bead at a Time was one of my favorites from last July’s residency. It had a simple message, as most truths do. But it stuck with me through these last few frenetic months of writing, and I hope it helps you too.
For writers faced with the prospect of just starting a new novel, those mired in the mucky middle, or those trying to see their work anew after too many drafts to count, it can be easy to get discouraged, blindsided, lost, overwhelmed. That is why, Joe recommended, it’s so important for us to stay in the NOW.
Don’t think about all these scenes, don’t think about all these chapters. Don’t think about your readers, your agent or your dear friends on Facebook sharing good news. The trick is such a simple one, and yet it can be so hard sometimes: when you write, it’s best to “stay immersed completely.” What Joe reminded us back in the summer has always been true and will remain so forever: “the now is all we have.”
As you are settling into your writing space, “let everything go but the scene you are writing,” Joe said, and “write for yourself first.” He said: “Focus on the smallest particle,” just the action at hand. It’s “all about one good sentence placed after another.”
For each scene we write, Joe asked us to consider: “What is the quintessence of the moment?” Quintessence is “the most perfect example of a quality in its concentrated form,” in other words, the it-ness of whatever the it is.
So before writing, take a moment and figure out, “at its core, what is the scene REALLY about? What is its absolute essence?” He advised to “turn the scene over and over in your head and your heart until you’re sure of its quintessence.”
[I have been doing that in the past three months more than ever before, and let me tell you, it helps SO MUCH. Before writing each scene, I try to determine its role in the overall story design. In this lecture Joe referred to Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer, and it has become one of my favorite craft books (along with Robert McKee’s Story). As per Alderson’s advice, before writing each scene, I think about my character’s goal and the action she will take, the overall mood, her growth and the shift the story will take in the course of this scene. Thinking about all that before helps me stay “in the now” of the scene when I start writing, while allowing the plot to move forward.]
Joe invited us to think of each scene as a “pearl polished till it shines with its individual quintessence.” As you write, “don’t focus on the strand,” he said. “Just focus on the bead.”
“Think inside the box,” Joe said. “The scene is the box.”
Joe urged us to “retrain the brain to put blinders on to everything but the scene we are in, to write “as if the current scene is the only scene.”
I don’t know about you, but I am so big on the goal, the plan, the overall. I NEEDED to hear this. When we surrender everything we’ve got to the scene at hand, as though nothing else exists, our writing is likely to reflect that kind of focus and intensity. Our characters become more real. Our voice and our vision shine through, unobscured by worries, fears, or projections.
One of the ways Joe recommended we train ourselves to approach the work this way is through meditation. For example, close your eyes and picture a candle lit in otherwise complete and total darkness. Can you watch that imaginary flame flicker for 15 minutes straight? During the lecture, Joe had us try it for just a few minutes: it was so hard! So you might want to practice, train yourself in increments. But it’s worth it. I am not quite sure yet what I am going to do with the short passage for my work in progress I wrote as part of Joe’s “be here now” writing exercise following that attempt at meditation. Right now I am actually thinking it might make a great ending — but it’s also possible that I won’t end up using it at all. The point is, that passage surprised me with its vividness and the strength of the main character’s voice. This is what happens when we write in the moment, we inhabit out characters. As Joe put it: “By immersing ourselves in the scene, we are inside looking out, not outside looking in.”
So, before you start writing your next chapter, consider your scene’s essence, focus on your breathing, surrender your chatty mind to the truth of the moment. Call forth some vivid sensory details and lose yourself in your story’s magic, while finding yourself in the wonderful adventure of NOW.
Happy writing, and hugs to all!
Joe McGee, who graduated from the program in July of 2014, teaches writing in southern New Jersey. Represented by Linda Epstein of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, he is the author of a picture book Peanut Butter and Brains, forthcoming from Abrams.
That’s what I have been doing, the reason you guys haven’t heard from me in a while (ahem): I have been getting closer to my characters. Especially the protagonist of my creative thesis, a novel for young readers, 75-80 pages of which I am to send to the MFA program office by December in order to graduate. Polished, submittable/potentially publishable, approved-by-advisor pages. Now you see why I haven’t been blogging more often in the past two months?
I find characters are just like real people, sometimes, in that they like to put up defenses. They wear masks; they like to give a certain impression. They hide things. Our job as writers is to lovingly, but also unflinchingly, get past their defenses. Once we get to a place where they are most vulnerable, once we understand their core, we will know our story. What are some of the ways we can do that?
One way is of course to write a draft. And then another. And another. Then there is the thinking, just mulling things over, the least effective method, in my opinion. Brainstorming with writer friends or others can be effective, to a point. Discuss your story too much with too many people, and you can find yourself in danger of losing hold of your own vision. Some writers swear by filling out character biographies and questionnaires between drafts. As for me, in my time at VCFA, I have discovered the value — and the fun! — of writing exercises, what one of our advisors calls “side writing.” I call it “low-stakes” writing. I also call it “getting closer.”
1. My current semester mentor Lou has me meditate on my character every single month. I imagine her in her own space, allow her to do what she will. This is not always easy, but almost always worth it. After a while of “watching” your character get out a piece of paper and a pen and just write down the things you saw him or her do.
2. Here is another one from my mentor. Again, get quiet, maybe meditate. Then call forth an image of your character doing something in her space. Once you allow her to get comfortable, ask her a question. Make it a simple question, not too deep (so as not to involve your left brain too much in the answer). For example, if you want to find out what she is afraid of, instead of going the direct route, probe carefully. Ask her about a scary dream, for example. Her answer might give you a clue as to what she considers scary.
3. This one I got from a lecture by one of our faculty advisors Amanda Jenkins, and it’s also something the unforgettable Rita Willaims-Garcia had us do in workshop this past summer residency: Put a timer on for ten minutes and come up with a list of words related to your character (or your story). Don’t think, just write whatever comes into your head. If you’d like, you could narrow down your focus a bit: for example, list words related to how your character feels about another character. Or list words associated with his or her feelings when she’s about to cross some important plot threshold.
4. Make art. All art intersects, don’t you think? Poetry, music, painting, pottery, might there be an art — another art — that is relevant to your story? Then use it, learn more about it, have your character use it! But even if your story has no connection to any other art forms, you can still put your pen down, and say, pick up a paintbrush. That’s what I am doing for my protagonist this month. Yep, it’s part of my packet homework. She is not even a painter, still I am asking my protagonist a question, then having her paint her answer. Try not to worry too much about the results of your work. Anyway, it’s not yours, it’s your character’s ;)
5. Do you have a weakness as a writer? Maybe you worry your characters are too passive, your dialogue stilted, or your setting too thin? Maybe you are trying to figure out the shape of your scenes or your chapters? Whatever it is you are struggling with, think of other novels, one or two, that do it masterfully, ones that make you jealous. Then post-it notes and pencil in hand, comb through the text and study how they did it. Based on your findings, create exercises to challenge yourself to do what your model authors did. For example, I am now preparing a graduate lecture on active characters in “quiet” books where most of the transformation happens internally. In analyzing Nancy Werlin’s YA fantasy, Impossible, I noticed how opinionated the main character was, and how her beliefs fueled and informed her actions. So I went back to my own protagonist, and had a little chat with her about her opinions. She wasn’t always forthcoming. Still, I learned a lot.
And that’s the point of these. To learn. To see your story in fun, new, deeper ways. To shut up the chatty, bossy left-brain editor for a while, long enough to uncover some secrets. And of course, most of all, to get closer to your character. As a bonus, you might end up with some material that will be usable in your manuscript! Better yet, you might hear your character’s true voice.