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.
Or at least, well, that’s what I thought. Sort of.
When back in May, in my third semester, I finished a new draft of a novel I had been working on for…ahem…a lot of years, I was ecstatic. But the glorious feeling that yes, I got it, that I nailed it this time, lasted for about…oh, twenty minutes.
After that, doubts and questions flooded my mind. Was my main character active enough? What did she even actually do?
Still I sent it to my then advisor, and after getting back her insightful and encouraging comments I tinkered with the draft some more. Then I thought, I was really finished. Really, really. That one lasted a few months :)
I am just back from a family trip to the Italian Alps, so I can’t help but think in mountain metaphors. Because it just seems so similar! When you’re climbing and climbing for hours past all these clouds, bend by bend, turning and turning up into the gorgeous infinite sky, and your whole body is screaming SOS, I am so done here!, and it seems you will reach the destination just around the bend, but when you get there, new breathtaking views open up and show you the path keeps snaking on ahead, what are you going to do, turn around and go back?
Revisions can feel that way sometimes.
My new fourth-semester advisor read the draft recently. She had some things to say, she had sharp questions; she had more insightful comments. She made me see things that I can’t now un-see. I am excited about the possibility of drawing more connections through my work, of making the story even truer. But you know how we all have that small chicken voice in our head? Well, the voice in my head wonders scared, is it worth it? Will I ever be done?
The best way to shut up the chicken voice, in my opinion, is to focus on the work. But another fun way to do it is to write up a blog post about it. :)
Ray Bradbury and many others talked about the idea of 1,000 words a day, the idea that it takes that many failures to master anything worthwhile. Some writers come to that mastery through many abandoned books, first or second drafts, perhaps, that are their learning, their stepping stones. Beth Revis, for example, a NYT bestselling YA science fiction author, wrote ten “drawer” manuscripts before she got to THE ONE (Across the Universe, one of my favorite books).
Me? I have a few dead picture books in the drawer, a few false novel starts, a rough novel draft of maybe-something-we’ll-see. One fantasy YA manuscript I wrote was so bad I deleted it, with glee! But mostly, over the years, I have been revising two novels. Two stories of my heart that I just can’t seem to let go. This latest one has been getting better draft after draft after draft. There is no doubt about it: I have been getting closer.
But the busy worried little chicken wants to know, how can I know for sure when I do get it right? Will I ever know?
I am sure I am not the only one wrestling with such questions. So I figured that just for fun, I’d ask some others for their take on this.
Here is what they had to say:
From Trent Reedy, a YA author and a VCFA alumni:
“My dear Katia Raina, (almost) MFA, you are asking my all time favorite question. I used to ask this question ALL THE TIME. Seriously, I would ask every visiting writer at VC. I would ask it at every Q and A time at book shows. Because….if we accept that we as writers are always improving our craft, then it stands to reason that our current manuscript can be improved. How is a writer to know when to turn in the manuscript, when to submit it for representation and publication? My first novel, WORDS IN THE DUST is the only book I’ve ever sent to a publisher “complete.” With all others I have earned publishing contracts on partials, by sending up three chapters and an outline. How did I know WORDS IN THE DUST was ready to send up? I had, of course, the help of my VCFA advisors with that one. But even then, I graduated VC knowing that WORDS required at least one more significant overhaul and another polishing. I didn’t know what else could be done. I sent it to agents and one editor and one of those agents and editor rejected with the same, useful revision suggestion. I did that revision and tried again. It worked.
In short, for the writer to know when his manuscript is ready to submit for professional publication, he must read hundreds of books and learn all he can about craft. He must teach himself to understand how unready his previous manuscripts were. Then he must apply what he has learned about craft over and over again until he has exhausted the sum of his knowledge, until he has worked until he has dulled the tools in his writer’s craft toolbox. After that, he seeks out his writer friends so that he can use their suggestions to revise again. And when all that has been done, and the well learned writer has no idea what else can be done to improve the manuscript, then, MAYBE then, it is ready to submit for professional publication.”
And from Amy King, better know to the world as A.S. King, multiple award-winning author of contemporary YA novels and a member of the VCFA faculty, who writes one new book a year:
“The answer to your question really depends on the book. A wise friend of mine says that you know that you’re done writing a novel when you’ve revised so much that you hate it. In my experience, this has held true. However, I’ve also had books that I don’t hate when I’m done. I just know I’m done because after so many revisions and printed manuscripts and reads, there isn’t one more thing I’d change.”
Finally, here is perspective from my own advisor, Louise Hawes:
“I’m never finished, I’m always revising. Because as I pointed out, via Graham Greene, in my lecture on openings, you’re not the same person when you finish a book as when you start. Or a week after you publish as two weeks after that. So I’ve never read a book of mine at a bookstore or school or conference, that I haven’t “revised” for that reading. As for when to quit “tinkering” with a manuscript and send it off to a publisher, agent, or competition, that’s another question. And the answer, of course, is different with each writer. For me, when I stop waking up wanting to fix this or change that, I know I’ve stopped living with a story. It’s time to send it out into the world to live with its readers!”
As for me, I love revision as much as I love the mountains. I am proud and excited and yes, nervous, too, to go back to the work, to see it again, with new eyes, then to delve in, and try to get even closer. That’s my learning. That’s the fun of the writing life. I guess it’s never really over. Like Louise says, at one point, you just let your book go out into the world and focus on the next one.
When will I know when I get there? I don’t have my answer yet. All I have is trust that one day I will. Meanwhile, the winding journey is scenic. I might as well enjoy the views!
“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.” Ray Bradbury
Totally wiped out, and yet, at the same time, it feels as though the well is filled to the brim, spilling with magic.
Ready to face my final VCFA semester. I think. :)
A bit nervous at the prospects of working with one of the most intriguing, insightful, and inspiring advisors, Louise Hawes, one of the original founders of the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program. But also feeling pumped, excited and blessed.
I am made of visions and ideas now dancing wild, now wrestling with fears.
What did I take away from the fantastical ten-day whirlwind that was this past residency?
Besides being reminded that I am now in my final six-month stretch? Gulp.
Here is a little list of topics some of which I hope to blog more about in the weeks to come (in between packet work, of course! Not to mention, the ongoing internship. And an upcoming family trip to Italy. Okay, so, yeah, you might have to bear with me, just a little.)
1. Stories’ Many Dimensions
Through the many wonderful lectures and conversations, I was reminded that writing transcends the 2-D of a sheet of paper of a computer screen. Because our work has more than one dimension. When we read out stories out loud, the physical act of passing the words through our mouths gives new physical life to the sound combinations we put together. Also, when we make the act of writing itself a part of the writing, we break down an invisible wall. Take for example Mo Willems’ unforgettable picture book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. The story is based on the main character — the pigeon — talking to the reader the entire time, and it feels as though the readers’ answers to the pigeon’s desperate bus-driving pleas will determine the story’s ending. Wild, if you really think about it! Meta-fictive writing can be a fun, mind-bending tool to add to our writing toolbox.
If we think of the act of writing, too, as multidimensional, we can see deeper into our stories, we can live them with our characters. Look for a list of writing exercises that can help us get closer to our characters.
3. Questions and Answers
Story construction consists of a careful layering of one question over another, with answers that are strategically placed in a way that keeps the reader turning pages. Questions and answers can be a wonderful way to help us keep the reader’s attention.
4. The Beauty of Now
Once again, I was reminded of the value of letting go. When we stop fretting about the direction of our story, its future and its past, our future and our past, when we let go of control and focus on one scene at a time, amazing things can happen.
5. The Value of Adults
I got so consumed by the magic of the residency this time, I forgot to ask people’s permissions to share some of the insights from their lectures. But I plan to do it soon! One of the residency’s most amazing lectures came from Amy King (writing as A.S. King, author of Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Ask the Passengers, Reality Boy, and more.) In a passionate and insightful talk, Amy discussed the importance — and the value — of fleshing out the adult characters in stories for young adults. I hope to be able to share more details with you in the weeks to come!
In addition to absorbing all this wisdom, I reconnected with old friends, and especially my dear classmates, the Darling Assassins, who, more and more, are starting to feel like the siblings I never had. And I watched the previous class, Allies in Wonderland, receive their well-earned MFAs. The Allies, who were the ones welcoming us when we were wide-eyed first semesters, are the class filled with spunk and man, oh man, some serious talent. They held our hands (metaphorically speaking, for the most part), encouraged us, believed in us. They reminded us that we all are Allies, that we get to build portals for young readers, that Wonderland is our permanent address. They absorbed the program’s atmosphere of giving energy, and laser-beamed it back at all of us, multiplied. Now we got to see them off. Sometimes, because of all the tears, the picture got a little blurry.
Yes, the Writing for Children and Young Adults program is an incredible community, a magical home for everyone who dwells there.
But, in the end, we are all a part of a bigger community, we who write for some of the sharpest, most discerning, most open-minded and most passionate readers on earth, the young readers. In that mission, there is the magic that makes us all Allies in Wonderland.
So yeah, I am back. But, that’s the funny thing about magical places. You never really leave them, do you?
Fun fact: Once upon a time, at age 14, I sang this song, silly accent and all, and played it on the piano, on national Russian television. :)
Since then both the video and the audio of this little milestone had been lost in the craziness of emigration and moving and growing up and living. But sadder than that, when I sit at the piano now, all that comes to me are the song’s first two chords. (It was a unique arrangement, nothing I can find in sheet music, or re-create by ear). As far as the rest of it goes, beyond the two first chords, nothing comes or ever will again. It’s been too long. My fingers have lost the memory. I have no nostalgia for performing on TV ever again. But my fingers miss the song. I wish I could let my voice loose to those chords again, wish I could let my kids hear it.
This is what happens when you let go of something for too long — be it a song or a story. Right? You face the danger of losing it forever. Sometimes that’s just all right. Some stories deserve to be lost. But once in a while, you risk losing a treasure.
But there is another side to this “practice, practice, practice” coin. Once in a while, I believe we need to stop working on our craft so damn hard, stop completely. At least, I do.
It’s not easy either. Now that the semester is through, and I have finished writing and revising a novel I have been working on for (ahem) years, I am under strict orders from Shelley, my last semester’s advisor, to rest. I tried to resist at first. I kept going with some poetry, even though I could sort of feel it, my zeal and creativity grinding slowly to a halt. Now, before I go off to my next residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (next week!, OMG!) I am not writing. I am enjoying my family more. I am even becoming somewhat competent at our own crazy version of pool volleyball! (a HUGE surprise, trust me). Still, it’s hard. After the months of living my story, of my fingers flying over keyboard letters like they knew where they were going better than I did, not writing leaves a hole, an emptiness. Where had my super productivity and focus from the last six months go? My desk is a mess, I am waay behind on laundry, and I can barely go grocery shopping anymore without forgetting the sour cream and the hot dogs!
Look at this post, even, what am I saying here?
All of this only proves, of course, that I need this break, don’t I?
I am doing the best I can. Taking in the lazy-making swelter of summer, I try to just be, in the softest possible way, even if not writing makes me feel a little helpless, a little blind, a little lost.
This is all good, I know that. Seven days from now, I will be flying to Vermont. Before loading up with new inspiration, meeting my (last!) VCFA advisor and charging up with new ideas, I need to be as empty as possible.
So, cheers, guys. Here is to summer and to rambling. To emptiness, and to just being. Here is to floating. To memories of music. To making new memories.
Soon I will be writing my head off again, I sure hope so!
But today, I cheer for just listening.
Happy summer, my dear friends!
I will post again in late July when I come back from residency.