Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Happy New Year! Off to Graduate!

A page from my plannerHappy 2015 my dear readers! May it bring you love and joy and beauty (not to mention, lots and lots of writing, of course)!

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. Another page from my planner

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]




January 8, 2015 Posted by | From the Other Side of the Desk: Adventures in Publishing, Personal Mirror, Updates, VCFA Adventures, Writing Mirror | , , | 13 Comments

Things Don’t Just Happen: On Cause and Effect, In Fiction Anyway

Do you believe in serendipity? Happy coincidences shaping your life?

Do things just happen to you? Or has a chain of decisions and actions brought you to where you are today?

A combination of both?

Randomness may have a place in real life from time to time — and even that we could argue about. But in a tale worth reading, setting and life circumstance exert increasing pressure on the characters, who then push the plot ahead through their own actions, creating a chain of cause and effect. In great books, every detail, every would-be happenstance is laden with meaning and purpose.

I have been reading a few too many manuscripts lately where too much happens suddenly. Holes cover

Suddenly a character goes from happy to angry; then just as suddenly, the emotional storm has passed.

Suddenly a character wants something she did not want before. Why?

Suddenly a protagonist in need is rescued by Deus Ex Machina.


For a great study on cause and effect, look no further than a children’s classic, Holes, by Louis Sachar.  The book is filled with surprising, unlikely happenings that include a waterless lake, two separate generations-old curses and survival in the middle of the desert. And yet, the reader believes every single event because it doesn’t just happen – it flows out of circumstance and character.

When Stanley Yelnats, finds himself at Camp Green Lake, a dried-up lake bed in the middle of a desert where troublesome youth are sent to rehabilitate themselves by digging holes, we learn that he is there for a crime he did not commit, as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It all seems so coincidental, doesn’t it? And yet, the reader finds out that everything about the story’s initial situation has a definite cause. The lake’s dryness can be traced back to a doomed romance of long ago, an event that eventually led to the digging frenzy, followed by the whole idea of Camp Green Lake.

Stanley with lizardsMuch goes on in the story that I don’t have room to analyze here. But you can go back to it on your own, pick out any event — anything at all — from the pair of stolen shoes falling on Stanley’s head “from the sky,” to his family’s rotten luck, to him finding the treasure at the end of the story — and you will easily be able to trace a cause that led to that event.

This is what I call marvelously tight plotting! As connections between various plot strands tighten, the pressure on the characters intensifies, and the reader’s fascination grows. Action builds upon action, each deeply rooted in character, until it all comes together in an exciting climax, where each wild and surprising event makes perfect sense.

Sure, great works of fiction, (as well as not so great ones), have been built on circumstance. Right now I am thinking of a young adult romance, The Statistical Probability of Love At First Sight, by Jennifer E. Smith (Little, Brown, 2011,) which is about a girl who misses her JFK flight and meets her “true love.” But even though the inciting event, missing the flight, is coincidental, the rest of the story builds on the characters’ evolving emotions, which lead to their decisions and actions and form the basis of the story’s plot. I don’t remember which one of our Vermont College of Fine Arts teachers said  — I am pretty sure it was Tim Wynne-Jones — that our stories are allowed one coincidence, which is the event that launches the adventuAfter that, let’s try our hardest to stick to cause and effect!

Sure, serendipity can be exciting. But in the end, books like Holes leave the reader with an optimistic, uplifting sense that everything we do matters. Maybe in real life we can’t make every action count, (though we sure can try!) But in creating fiction, we can – and we must.

June 6, 2014 Posted by | From the Other Side of the Desk: Adventures in Publishing, VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , , , | 6 Comments

The Realities of Slush

at workAfter more than a month “on the other side of the desk” with a literary agency, I thought I’d give you a bit of a scoop on the infamous concept of a slush pile.

Yes, it’s real, though in the age of email it’s not an actual pile, but an overflowing inbox of potential treasure. What’s treasure, you may ask? Treasure is fresh, powerful writing (ideally, coupled with an exciting concept!) that makes you pay attention in the middle of a busy day.

While some agencies in recent years have made it a practice not to respond to queries if they are not interested, the agency I work with takes responses very seriously. It’s a question of courtesy and respect. But reading unsolicited queries is only a small part of the work that awaits a literary agency each day. The agency’s current authors are always a priority, and they write manuscripts, then revise them, then revise them again. Those all must be tended to. Then there are pitch letters to write, editors to meet, contracts to negotiate, exciting phone calls with new clients. Because of these constraints it can sometimes take the agents longer to respond. And they hate that. Trust me. But those are the realities of the slush pile.

Given those realities, here is the way I read slush pile submissions:

Awesome” does not always mean “perfect.”

This should be sort of heartening to hear, I think. Sort of. The truth is, every manuscript is going to need some work. I am definitely a perfectionist. Still, if I sought perfection in the slush pile, I probably wouldn’t even bother. I am looking for “awesome,” not “perfect.”

But. That doesn’t mean that writers should relax too much and start getting indulgent. The more polished the project is, the more revisions it has been through, the closer it is to its own truth, its own authenticity. With too many imperfections (clunky exposition, passages that feel stilted, a too-busy plot, weird formatting or obvious lack of proofreading, etc.) there is always the risk that my view as a reader will be obscured by all the problems, and that I won’t get to the awesome at all. If the writer gives me too many reasons to say “no,” he or she will save me time, because it will mean a quick rejection. On the other hand, if both the voice and the narrative hook are making my fingers tingle, and the writer’s skill and talent really come through, I am not going to let an imperfection or two get in my way.

Maybe” means “no.”

I read quickly. I have to! I was offered this internship, I was told, because the agency was impressed with my knowledge and passion for the young adult and children’s book market. So, in order to maximize my reading time, I feel justified in relying on my own taste and gut instinct. The truth is, I could spend the entire day second-guessing myself. That’s what I did when I first started reading. I didn’t want something great to slip through my fingers! But you learn to become efficient, or you won’t get anything done.

At conferences, writers always ask agents and editors, what are you looking for?

I think the answer for every reader is, they are looking for “wow!” Book lovers just as you are, agents, editors and interns want to be bewitched by a story. And so they chase a feeling of magic, a tingly kind of this is it.

For me, if I request a manuscript, and then keep checking the inbox to see if the author replied yet, despite my crazy to-do list, that tells me something. It means that likely I am going to make time to read this one. And then,  if the rest of the manuscript is just as exciting, when I talk about it at the meeting, I am going to beg the other agents to consider it. That’s the kind of “yes” a writer should want.

Sometimes the writing is “nice” or “competent.” But I have learned “nice” and “competent” isn’t good enough. If, as I read, I find my mind wandering, and I find myself thinking, with some guilt, about all the other things I should be doing now, that’s not a good sign. But even if I catch myself thinking, “well, maybe this project could work,” I have learned from experience, that I might as well stop reading.

Does it sound harsh? It shouldn’t.

Think about it: do you really want a “maybe?” If we are not truly excited about the project, how can we champion it? How can we ask an editor to fall in love?

Such passion must start with the first reader. It starts with the slush pile.

Well — really, no. The kind of passion that fuels the most powerful of stories, it starts way before all that, doesn’t it? It starts on the writer’s side of the desk. But that’s a whole another post 🙂

March 28, 2014 Posted by | From the Other Side of the Desk: Adventures in Publishing | 13 Comments