What I’ve Learned: MFA in a Nutshell, Part 2

Hi all,

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.

7. Arc

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!

9. Desire

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!


16 responses to “What I’ve Learned: MFA in a Nutshell, Part 2”

  1. Katia,

    Again it is so great that you are sharing this great information with everyone. Remember, you promised to write something up for my blog after you finished school. I hope you are still willing to do that.

    Love ya,



    1. I did? 🙂 Well then, of course, I will be glad to! Let me think of something great for you. Love, KR


  2. Another wonderful post about sharing what you learned. I’m taking it all in.


    1. Glad to hear it, Medeia!


  3. I’m loving these notes of yours, Katia. I’ve heard most of these rules before, but you present them all so well and all in one convenient place. I’m bookmarking this post.

    While writing my first two novels, I struggled with the main character and the plot, until I read somewhere (can’t remember) that the protagonist has to want something badly (i.e. Desire), and that made me realize why my books were lifeless. I’ve also read recently that while the protagonist desires something, the antagonist also has to desire something and it has to be in direct opposition to what the protagonist desires! So yes, there’s a lot to remember.


    1. Desire is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest of these, right? I feel like as writers, if we get that right, we’re halfway there already. Oh, and, I might have said this before, but bonus points if we can turn desire into obsession! (A word of caution: this can’t be automatic and formulaic. It has to be right for our characters!) Thanks so much for your thoughts, Joanne!


  4. Great post – I am all about knowing the rules and breaking them… writing is such an individual experience 🙂


    1. Yes! Breaking the rules is so much fun, isn’t it?


  5. Reblogged this on Tangled Words and commented:
    Katia Raina is a blogger I can heartily recommend to both beginning writers and well-seasoned ones. She’s also incredibly generous, sharing the very best nuggets from her MFA course at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
    Enjoy! And check out her previous posts at https://katiaraina.wordpress.com


  6. What great points! Thank you for sharing what you learned.


    1. Thank you for reading!


  7. When you mentioned story arc I think rainbow, but I get your points all valid and hopefully I can start to learn and grow as I use your generous advice and tips. Thank you for sharing it with us.


    1. No, you bring up an interesting point: why is the arc the accepted term for a journey of transformation? Why this particular shape? I haven’t really seen this addressed or discussed anywhere yet. Anyway, thanks for reading and good luck with your writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I always love the gems you give us, Katia 🙂 Much appreciated! And — I happen to agree with them! lol I love the “moments/bridges” metaphor.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: