Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

What I’ve Learned: MFA in a Nutshell, Part 1


diplomaHey 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?

Let’s see.

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.

how to be an artistIsn’t this the gist of what we do? Shouldn’t it be?

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

– language

-setting/physical detail

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.

5. Logic

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.

6. Language

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!


January 25, 2015 Posted by | Lists, VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , | 18 Comments

Long Promised, Not Yet Complete (But Definitely Getting There): List of Best YA Historical Fantasy

What do you get if you take history and fiction, and add a dash of magic? Fabulous reads rooted in history, filled with mystery and imagination. Time travel, other realms, the 19th century, the 16th or the 20th… possibilities are endless.

Below, I offer you the list of the best historical fantasy.

I will be working on this list in the weeks and months to come, adding more books as I discover them. In the meantime, here we go, in no particular order:

1. “Bliss,” by Lauren Myracle

Amulet Books, 2008

A horror story set in the 1960s about an innocent girl from a hippie commune facing dark magic and a foe who refuses to die. The history is woven subtly into this really, really creepy tale.

2. “Apothecary,” by Maile Meloy

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011

In 1952, the main characters black-listed parents move her away from Los Angeles to England where she discovers alchemy and, using magic,  tries to foil an evil plot that could result in a nuclear disaster. A fascinating take on the dark, paranoid times.

3. “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak

Alfred A. Knopf, 2006

During World War II, Death narrates a story about a German girl who steals books from Nazi burnings (and many other places), and whose foster family hides a Jew in their basement. One of those dark, transformative reads that meld fantasy and fact so exquisitely together, you can’t tell them apart.

4.”Revolution,” by Jennifer Donnelly

Delacorte Press, 2012

A dark and yet enlightening story where a modern American girl traveling to Paris with her father discovers a supernatural connection with a long-dead girl who lived in the times of the French Revolution.

5. “The Dark and Terrible Beauty,” by Libba Bray

Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2003

At the end of the seventeenth century, a willful 16-year-old girl is sent from India back to her native Britain to a Victorian boarding school, where she finds access to another realm and encounters both beauty and terror.

(The two sequels to the engaging, original and twisty story are “Rebel Angels,”2005, and “The Sweet Far Thing,” 2007, but I must admit I enjoyed the first one the most).

6. “The Cure,” by Sonia Levitin

Harper Trophy, 2000

The story starts off sounding like a typical dystopian book about a conformist society which punishes dissent by death. But then, unexpectedly, it takes the reader in a shockingly different direction — back in time to 1348 Strasbourg, France, the time of rampant anti-Semitism and widespread plague called the Black Death.

Still to read:

“Dreaming Anastasia,” by Joy Preble

“The Golden Hour,” by Maiya Williams

“The Gathering Storm” by Robin Bridges

“The Humming of Numbers” by Joni Sensel

April 1, 2012 Posted by | Lists, Writing Mirror | | 7 Comments

Best Contemporary Historical Fiction YA/Middle-Grade

1. “The Disappeared” by Gloria Whelan

Dial Books, 2008

(set in 1977, Buenos Aires, Argentina, YA)

Here is what I thought about it:


And here is my interview with the author: https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/09/03/no-country-is-safe-from-totalitarianism-an-interview-with-author-gloria-whelan/

2. “When You Reach Me,” by Rebecca Stead, this year’s Newberry!

Wendy Lamb Books, Random House, 2009

(set in the 1970s New York City, Middle-Grade)

A magical, elegant read!

3. “The Countdown,” by Deborah Wiles

Scholastic, 2010

(1962, the height of the cold war, Cuban Missile Crisis, etc. Middle-Grade)


Interview with the author:


4. “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd

Viking, 2001

(1960s south)

A dramatic account of a fourteen-year-old white teen and a black servant on the run in the racially and politically charged 1960s south. In this novel you will find much hate and fear, but also friendship, love and yes, even a budding romance. A great – and important read! One of my all-time favorites.

5. “Neil Armstrong is My Uncle, and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me,” by Nan Marino (don’t you just lo-ove the name – Muscle Man McGinty? You’ll love it even more when you meet the character!)

Roaring Book Press, 2009

(summer of 1969, a small town in New York State)

Somehow, we are transformed into a very specific time, and a very specific place, without feeling like we are being hit over the head with a HISTORY LESSON. This spare novel is all in the voice, and in the gritty sport of kickball, and in the bitter mix of feelings that keep torturing the mean protagonist, Tammy, who we mostly hate, but also can’t help love by the end of the story.

Interview with Nan Marino: https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/dreaming-big-in-1969-interview-with-author-nan-marino/

6. “The Wednesday Wars,” by Gary D. Schmidt

Clarion Books, 2007

A fun and insightful read for boys and girls, a well-deserved Newberry honor 1960s-set suburban novel, that dwells less on the Vietnam War and more on what it was like being a Presbyterian 13-year-old kid stuck between two big religions.

7. “All The Broken Pieces,” by Ann E. Burg

Scholastic, 2010



8. “A Corner of the Universe,” by Ann M. Martin

Scholastic Press, 2002

In the afterword to this amazing book, Ann Martin says the character of Adam is based on her own uncle whom she had never had the chance to meet. But, Ann Martin says, since she had never gotten to know him, this fictional character is probably totally different – an invention. Well, I am sorry, Ms. Martin, but I say he was real, because when I read your book, he was alive to me. This is one of those magical middle-grade stories that hold you by the heart, and remind you of what’s real and what’s important. I can’t resist quoting the book’s beautiful words that sum it all up better than anything I could possibly say here.

It’s all about changing what’s handed to you, about poking around a little, lifting the corners, seeing what’s underneath, poking that. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t, but at least you’re exploring. And life is always more interesting that way.

9. “The Red Umbrella,” by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

10. “One Crazy Summer,” by Rita Williams-Garcia

Amistad (HarperCollins, 2010)


11. “Bitter Melon,” by Cara Chow

Egmont USA, 2011

Set in 1989-1991, the story follows a Chinese-American daughter of a cruel, overbearing mother. Teenage Fei Ting is trying to find the courage to seek happiness on her own terms. A total page-turner!


12. “Inside Out and Back Again,” by Thanhha Lai

Harper, 2011

The last year of the Vietnam War turns out to be a turbulent one for ten-year-old Ha — a spunky girl from South Vietnam with a weakness of fresh papaya. In telling the story of Ha, the debut author mines her own memories of escaping from Vietnam to America and of her new life in Alabama. The lyrical and haunting novel in verse is a perfect find for middle-grade social studies teachers and their students!

12. “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” by Emily Danforth

Balzer & Bray, 2012

This one, I think, is the best of them all, so far. A coming-of-age novel set in the 1990s, it explores faith and identity, and really, human nature, through the eyes of a gay teenage girl, Cameron Post. Here is where I gush all about it: https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/the-miseducation-of-cameron-post-by-emily-danforth/

September 27, 2010 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History, Lists | , | 3 Comments

Best Contemporary Historical Fiction for Adult Readers

In bookstores and on amazon.com we have so many categories. Romance, mystery, historical titles, contemporary ones, etc. But as of right now, there is no separate category for recent historical fiction. So I am creating one, right here on this little blog.

After half a year of searching, sorting, reading and interviewing, I have put together a list of 17 great titles – eight adult books and eleven books for teens/kids. The books I have picked to be on this list are ones that are based in historical periods covering anywhere between the 1960s and the 1990s; the events that are still so fresh in our human memory, we might see them clearer, maybe in better detail.

[I will be updating this list continuously as I come across more great stuff. Incidentally, if you are an author or an agent or an editor working with a recent historical feel free to send me some ARCs!]

I have tried to define “recent history” here: https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/contemporary-history/

Like anything in literature, my list is partly subjective, and most of the titles here are the ones that have touched me, the ones that made me smile or tear up, or grit my teeth in anger. Still, I did try to include the most influential/buzz-inducing/major-award-winning books regardless of whether or not I was able to fall in love with them the way I had wanted.

I will be posting the YA/Middle-grade list next week. In the meantime . . .


1. “All About Lulu,” By Jonathan Evison, Soft Skull Press, 2008

Based in Santa Monica, California, and a little Seattle, from the 1970s to the 1990s) I have read and re-read this amazing book which is part coming-of-age, part love story, part philosophy. God, I loved him – the narrator, though throughout much of the story I wanted to yell, do you HAVE TO be such a loser?

Here is my interview with the author:


2. “In the Time of the Butterflies,” by Julia Alvarez, Plume, 1995

Based in the Dominican Republic, 1960s. The story of the mythical butterfly sisters, “las mariposas” and their resistance to the monstrous Trujillo dictatorship. Reading it, I remember thinking, how similar the life under dictatorship is ANYWHERE. China, Argentina, Siberia . . . People start to wear a certain brand of fear that I could recognize as I read. An amazing story of the human spirit.

3. “Matterhorn” by Carl Marlantes, El Leon Literary Arts, 2010

Okay, I will admit I was not actually able to get through this Vietnam War epic, but this speaks more to my reading taste than to the quality of the story that had the literary world buzzing. (I could not get through Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” either. I am just not a big reader of war novels for grownups, the ones with soldiers and lieutenants, chains of command all smeared in blood and dirt.) I have made a decision to include “Matterhorn” on this list, because thousands of other people (including best-selling authors and critics) not only read the book but spoke of its authenticity, its vividness, its truth and beauty and brilliance and pain.

Plus, a nice bonus is the amazing 35-year journey to publication this book has made, and the fact that it’s been picked up by a small publisher and was able to make such a splash — I love and wholeheartedly support that!

4. “The Lotus Eaters,” by Tatjana Soli, St. Martin’s Press, 2010

Another Vietnam war novel that generated much buzz, including starred reviews galore. Another book I did not fall in love with, but am compelled to include because of its influence. This story about war, love and obsession, is told from the point of view of an American photojournalist covering the war, who can’t seem to bring herself to leave Vietnam even after the U.S. troops pull out in 1975. [There are two other point-of-view characters, but I’ll let you discover them on your own ;)]

5. “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead Books, 2003

6. “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead Books, 2007

Two brilliant and sweeping stories set in recent Afghanistan, in turn beautiful and horrifying, uplifting and heartbreaking; both books are impossible to put down. And once you read them, they are impossible to forget.

7. “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett, Amy Einhorn Books (a debut book from a then brand new imprint!)/Putnam, 2009

Here are some notes I jotted down in my all-purpose journal as I read this amazing page-turner:

“The tension is giving me stomach cramps. The book has me scared out of my breath. It almost gets too much, and as I read, sometimes I have to put it away at the most tense moments. The three Southern narrators — two black maids and a white aspiring journalist/novelist — three brave 1960s women — are real. Their dilemma has no right answer, and maybe that’s why their story is so scary and feels so true.”

8. “How I Paid for College,” by Marc Acito, Broadway Books, 2004

The main character is graduating high school, but I can’t call this young adult, because of all the group sex and freakish language. I think it’s a perfect read for brave/intelligent graduating high school seniors (and up). This was one of the most amazing and original books I have ever read. One of those cry/laugh/call-out-in-shock-as-you-read titles, which happens to be set in 1983, in a  “bedroom” New Jersey community.

September 19, 2010 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History, Lists | , | 4 Comments