Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

HOW DID THEY DO THAT? Learning From The Best

my current (working) bookshelf 001So I am about halfway through the Writing For Children And Young Adults program now — another year to go! — and last week I wrote my last Vermont College of Fine Arts essay. The realization makes me feel surprisingly wistful. The essays, anywhere from 3 to 10 pages long, were meant to help us tackle craft topics we struggle with. The essays I wrote in my two semesters definitely helped me do that.

Here is how it worked: I would read a book or two — no more than that, usually — then re-read, taking careful notes on how the author handled a particular writing or story issue. Some of my classmates tackled examples of things that haven’t been working. I, on the other hand, stuck to the successes.

It’s been an incredibly useful tool. Some of the best writers have learned the craft that way. Jack London used to copy passages of his favorite books for practice — a literary equivalent of warm-ups or scales.

If ever you are stuck on an issue; say you struggle with middles, as a lot of writers do; or you want to explore how to make your villain more believable, or your character funnier, or more spunky, or whatever. Well, why not turn to the best teachers, authors who have already been where you want to go? Read their stories, then read them again. How did they do that? The answers are there, for everyone to see.

These are the subjects I explored and the books I used: (this is not an exhaustive list)


Worldbuilding (Kenneth Oppel’s Frankenstein prequels, The Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent). Using imagery and strong sensory descriptions to build both the “real” and the magical worlds.

Surprise not shock in stories with a twist (Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Named Verity). Placing clues and planting information that lead to a satisfying surprise at the story’s end.

When to introduce magic in a fantasy story (Rohald Dahl’s Mathilda and Jennifer Donnely’s Revolution). The interesting thing about both of these stories is that, counter to the common advice to let the reader know as soon as possible what sort of story it’s going to be, both of these books introduce the magic really late. Or do they?

Cause and effect (Louis Sachar’s Holes). On the surface it might seem like the story is laced with coincidences. Upon a closer look it becomes obvious that nothing here happens at random, that every single event builds upon the one before. My first semester advisor Tim Wynne-Jones used to say to me, the only coincidence that should be allowed in a story is one that launches the protagonist into her adventure. Everything else must flow from the character, the narrative and the story’s world. I wrote this essay to study how Sachar makes that happen.

Language (Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath). How to make the narrative sing on the level of word and sentence. Kathi, of course, is a master at that.

Dystopian beginnings (Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker). Okay, these are dystopian novels, and I chose them because they are particularly good at getting the reader into the story quickly, while having to introduce a lot of information about the rules and the world. But my discoveries about an effective beginning could apply to any book genre.


A perfect blend of old and new (Karen Cushman’s Catherine Called Birdy). How to keep a historical novel true to its time period, while at the same time allowing the modern young reader to relate to the story. Using language to achieve both authenticity and relevance.

The use of the present tense/first person narration, its pitfalls and opportunities (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games). Present tense/first person is such a fashion in YA. But it has to be done right, in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself, in a way that makes sense for the particular story.

Flashbacks (A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz). I studied the seamless way she tied them to the main narrative, without making it feel like an info dump.

  Showing not telling (Martine Leavitt’s  The Book of Life by Angel). Related to the above, I examined the power of restrained exposition, especially in the beginning of Martine’s gorgeous novel in verse. Martine is not in a hurry to reveal all. She carefully teases the reader.

Yearning or protagonist’s desire (Cori McCarthy’s The Color of Rain, Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust). I wrote two separate essays on this, one on introducing both the external desire and the internal need of the protagonist before launching the story, and the other on expressing the character’s desire using the senses throughout the narrative.

How to impart meaning in a short novel (Eugene Yelchin’s Breaking Stalin’s Nose and Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall). It always impressed and mystified me, the way some books manage to tell a rich meaningful story, yet stay so slim! I decided to investigate just how they do that.

Feeling curious about any of the above topics? I would be glad to share my discoveries in the posts to come. I think I’d like to start with beginnings. Looking back, I realize, many of my essays deal with beginnings, and I can see why. In a way, this entire first year has been about learning how to begin the right way. The right start can influence the entire journey.

In the meantime, what craft issues are you curious about as a writer? What do you wish to learn how to do better? Well, whatever it is, you can! 🙂 Have you a book that just makes you swoon? (and which writer doesn’t?) Have you ever wondered, how did she do that? Well, re-read it, with a pen in hand. Many discoveries await you.


November 25, 2013 - Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | ,


  1. Perfect blend of old and new. This is something I am working on – being true to language and sentence structure in keeping with the story’s time frame and still making it compelling for the reader. A challenge to be sure!

    And first person present – “in a way that makes sense for the particular story” So true. I’ve fallen into this without thinking about it too much and have found myself changing it in several stories. Eventually the story tells me that it isn’t working! But I can waste time while figuring it out!

    Congratulations on making it halfway! Such a journey.

    Comment by joycemoyerhostetter | November 25, 2013 | Reply

    • Joyce, if you read Karen Cushman, then I KNOW you’ll agree with me, that she blends relevance and authenticity perfectly. Right?? (Then again, I thought you did it beautifully in BLUE) 🙂
      Thanks for the congrats. Such a journey is right. I cannot believe how fast it’s flying!

      Comment by Katia Raina | November 25, 2013 | Reply

  2. Thanks, Katia–you’ve added some intriguing books to my reading list.

    Comment by ellenramsey | November 25, 2013 | Reply

    • Awesome! And, as bonus, as you read them, even while you enjoy the story, you can also appreciate it with a writer’s eye, thinking about the craft issue I have mentioned.

      Comment by Katia Raina | November 25, 2013 | Reply

  3. What a great reading list. How can you not learn a great deal by carefully reading all of these. They are great choices.

    Comment by Rosi | November 25, 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks Rosi. And this in addition to reading and annotating about 100 titles for young adults and middle graders so far, with a couple of picture books and adult novels thrown in there. I think you’re right; I think it’s impossible not to learn. I hope so anyway 😉

      Comment by Katia Raina | November 25, 2013 | Reply

  4. Of all these books, I’ve only read THE UNDERNEATH (yes, beautiful language!) and SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL (yes, very poignant). Being able to focus on these books in this way is wonderful. It sounds like you’re learning SO much that will help you be the best writer you can be 🙂

    Comment by writersideup | November 26, 2013 | Reply

    • Thank you. Yes, The Underneath sings, and Sarah Plain and Tall reads like a song, too, doesn’t it? And yet, they are both fully fleshed out stories, with plenty of dramatic tension and engaging plots. Anyway, I hope some of the other titles from my list have now sparked your interest!

      Comment by Katia Raina | November 26, 2013 | Reply

  5. What fantastic things to learn by studying books, not just reading them for enjoyment. Years ago I did this with a book at the request of an agent who wanted my plot to be more focused.

    I need to read more of these books.

    Comment by Medeia Sharif | November 26, 2013 | Reply

    • Yay! Go for it! It’s definitely something any writer can do on their own as well, no MFA required.

      Comment by Katia Raina | November 27, 2013 | Reply

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