Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Assassins, Not Liars

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Stephen King (On Writing)

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The name of my Vermont College of Fine Arts class is Darling Assassins. I will confess: when we were deciding on a name during the summer residency of 2013, I spoke up against it. I thought, must we as writers stand for destruction instead of creation? I supported the name of Liars & Spies, inspired by guest Rebecca Stead at our first residency.

And then, the next two semesters happened to me. Since last summer, writing has been all about killing.

It may sound harsh. But it’s been amazing.

I have been working on one manuscript for many years now (asking me just how many would be more impolite than asking other people their age!). Draft after draft, I have been creating, until the thing grew so unwieldy, I wanted to burn it altogether. So many times I seriously considered hitting “delete” — a fresh start! But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The story wouldn’t let go of me. Then I came to VCFA. With the (mostly) gentle prodding of my advisors, I have been pruning and hacking at my mess of a manuscript. Packet by packet, semester by semester, I have been letting characters go, eliminating subplots, (destroying an entire fantasy world!), zeroing in, chipping away at the block of marble, getting closer to the core.

And, incredibly, magically, all this killing has created room for the story to grow into what it’s been meant to be.  One week ago I finished a new draft . Yesterday I sent it to my advisor. The last time I completed a draft of this story was somewhere around 2011. Today, the story is so very different, and yet, so much closer to its truth.

Now I know, writers aren’t liars. (Though we may sometimes be spies, let’s admit 🙂 ). We tell the truth.

From the very beginning, I have been proud to belong to my plucky, generous, fun-loving, talented class. Now, even as I anxiously await my advisor’s response to my new novel, I am proud to call myself a Darling Assassin, a name I feel I have earned.



April 29, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , , | 10 Comments

Writing Out of Order

Yikes, it’s really been a while! Sorry!!!

This post may not be a revelation to many writers out there, but the following idea was quite a discovery for me: writing out of order.

Sure, I’ve heard about it before. Somehow, I always thought this method was reserved for wizards and other super-human types. 🙂 I thought my boring brain was too logical, my inner editor too bossy for such marvelous creative chaos.

And then in the middle of my semester, my advisor challenged me.

The beginning chapters of the manuscript I sent her were fraught with problems, she pointed out (quite gently). I yearned to try and work those out right away. But she said, “no. Leave the beginning alone. Send me some middle scenes instead.” She only wanted to see the scenes that explored a relationship between two particular characters. With the next packet deadline looming, I couldn’t afford to write in order. I had to try this crazy new upside-down way.  jigsaw

So I dove in, terrified (and a little excited, too).

Oddly enough, the first thing I started with was an ending. I wrote backwards from it for a while, then I jumped into late middle. Then I went kind of all over the place, in true jigsaw-puzzle fashion.

Only now, after more than a month of this work, am I allowing myself to return to the beginning again.

It’s been crazy how good it felt. Like play. Like candy. My bossy left-brain inner editor, totally disoriented, just gave up and left me alone to indulge. My characters, emboldened, seemed to come to life.

I used to think it was important to write in order so as to trace the main characters’ arcs, to watch them grow. But when I wrote out of order, I discovered things about my characters that I could go back and build toward instead. Now that I am looking at the beginning, I am amazed at how much better I know my protagonist and those close to her.

Part of the reason I enrolled into the VCFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program was to reconsider my process.  I had tried NaNoWriMo, tried to take longer with a rough draft, tried an online Holly Lisle class, etc. All this time, I have been seeking a deeper, more honest way to write. I believe writing out of order is a big part of the answer.

Writing out of order. Scary — and freeing. Have you ever tried it? Do you think you ever will?

April 16, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized, VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , | 11 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

Lucy Christopher: How She Writes

Lucy Christopher at VCFAFinally, I give you the long-promised post on Lucy Christopher’s fascinating writing process. Lucy shared this talk at the last Vermont College of Fine Arts residency, and I am posting it here with her permission. (Thank you, Lucy!) Lucy is a British and Australian author of three books for young readers. In her controversial first novel, Stolen, a Printz Honor Book, a British teenager is kidnapped from the airport and brought into an Australian desert, where she must deal with conflicted feelings of enchantment and revulsion for her kidnapper and for the land he expects her to love. Lucy’s second book, Flyaway, for younger readers, was actually the first one she wrote. And just last year, she published The Killing Woods, a YA thriller. Lucy teaches at Bath Spa University in England, as part of the Writing for Young People program. She came to VCFA last month as a visiting writer, to compare notes. She was a fun, gracious and curious guest!

While some writers may start a project with character, a spark of a plot, a theme they wish to explore, or maybe a conflict, Lucy’s entry point into any story is always a place.

“Generally, for me, it’s a wild place,” she said. Before she begins, Lucy doesn’t know who her characters are going to be. Once she has the setting that she “really [has] the urge to explore,” the question becomes, what could happen here?

Lucy approaches writing as a process of an exploration.

“Once I have my settings, I really really immerse myself in them,” she said. “I jump into them physically and mentally.”

In her research Lucy delves deep, getting as hands-on as possible. For example, when she wrote Flyaway, Lucy got a job as a field guide for kids in a nature reserve. For Killing Woods, she actually moved! Stolen was based on her most personal childhood landscapes. Though she was never kidnapped like her heroine was, Lucy said it sometimes felt that way when herStolen parents moved her to Australia. But when she first approached the story, she had no idea a kidnapping would occur. She said, “I just wanted to write about the desert.” Even though she was intimately familiar with the landscape, Lucy did additional research and learned important things.

“I spent a lot of time in communities, working with some indigenous people. They don’t see land as separate from them. Land is them,” she said. “I made pages and pages of notes about the sensory details of the desert.”

Then, with setting details percolating in her mind, the first line of the story came to her.

“You saw me before I saw you.”

“And I was driving, and I thought, interesting. Who is watching her? A hot guy? Why? They’re in the airport. He’s about to kidnap her. Where would he take her? To the desert!!!”

FlyawayLucy often rewrites her stories several times, changing — everything. Her second book, Flyaway, Lucy said she wrote “ten times ten different ways.” From point of view and tense to the protagonist’s age and gender, nothing is sacred until the story starts to feel true. Lucy’s writing paths meander quite often. For example, for her third book — which was already under contract! — Lucy travelled to the rain forest, and did tons of research. But after she came home, even with the deadline looming, things just weren’t coming together. “I just felt like I couldn’t write about that setting,” Lucy said.

Around this time she moved to a home near the woods. Killing Woods

“[I realized], I do know these woods,” Lucy said. “I know them very well. I started to put the [original] plot into this setting, and it didn’t work. Then I asked myself, what would be the worst thing that could happen here? Someone could die. And what could be the best thing? Someone could fall in love. It was from there that the book started to come together.”

And thus a story that was supposed to feature some troubled kids in a reality TV show in the rainforest, ended up The Killing Woods, a novel about a teen, whose father is accused of murdering another teenage girl in the woods behind her home.

It takes courage, passion and trust for Lucy to immerse herself into her setting this way, and to then chase her stories’ truths, wherever they take her. And that’s Lucy’s advice to writers. Whatever our starting point is, be it character, theme or place, Lucy urges us to follow our passions, from yearning to wonder.

“When I wonder what it would be like, I have to write it,” Lucy said.

Just like Lucy and her characters, let’s be scared. Let’s be excited. Let’s take inspiration from Lucy to bring our own future readers on journeys to landscapes of terror and wonder.

February 17, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series | , , | 7 Comments

VCFA Discoveries: Know Yourself! (and More)

Okay, time to reveal the latest from the January 2014 Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults residency. Yes, it’s time. I know. Don’t look at me like that. I’ve been busy. 😉 I still am, so let me jump right in!

These are the lessons and discoveries that stuck with me, synthesized from faculty and graduate lectures, conversations with fellow students, workshops, my experience from the previous semester…just everything!

1. Reach for the metaphor   My Book of Life by Angel

A metaphor can be your magic wand. But not just in your sentences. Think: might your entire story stand for something (but not in a preachy way)? Might there be a metaphor — an object, a place, an animal, an idea — to perfectly symbolize your main character’s yearning? For a great example of this, read Martine Leavitt’s My Book of Life by Angel, where Angel, a teenaged prostitute, dreams and obsesses about angels throughout the book, in a way that beautifully lifts her spirit and contrasts with the dark street life in which she is caught. If you would like to try this metaphorical approach in plotting your own story, try this: take an abstract emotion and find a concrete manifestation for it. For example, Angel wants to get away from street life. What does that look like? Angels, of course! 🙂

2. Keep ’em vulnerable

Where are your characters vulnerable? Look through the cracks in their facades. Put them in tough situations. Destabilize them.  Then watch what they will do. And this doesn’t just apply to your protagonists. Does your antagonist have any fears? What about the best friend? Bring them out. After all, it’s through our stories that readers will learn to face their own vulnerabilities. And they can only learn it by watching our characters squirm. On that note, we must face our own vulnerabilities as well. In writing, both in the content and in the habits, look for the cracks. Know your weaknesses. Meet your demons. One of my classmates gave me this advice: get in touch with your dark side and watch your writing soar. I am trying! It’s harder than you’d think. When it works, it can be pretty liberating, actually. The craziest thing? Sometimes, facing your dark side turns you into a nicer person.

3. Know your own inner landscape and how it informs your writing

This was pretty much the theme of the residency. In between celebrating writing and honing our craft, we pondered where each one of us came from, physically and emotionally, in hopes that the understanding we gain would ultimately help us become better writers. We each have a rich landscape we draw from, resplendent with fresh, unique details, a place with which we are familiar in the most intimate way. What is the “setting” of your formative years? Can you spend some time there, in your memories, in your imagination? Might it contain a dusty jewel or two that you could polish up and develop into a story? Of course, I knew this before. I have already been mining the past, and it’s amazing how much more there is left to explore. Sometimes, I almost don’t want to — I’d rather escape, go ride on the dragons, frolic with aliens. But it’s like a compulsion to me. In poetry and in longer fiction, I keep coming back to my childhood and adolescent landscapes.

Of course, you may feel differently. But this advice goes beyond the simple “write what you know.” You can write about aliens, princesses and terrorists, even if you’ve never been one, or met one. But on the emotional level, facing our buried pain and our deepest obsessions could help bring out the best in our stories — yes, even in the stories about aliens — when we channel ourselves onto the page.

4. Remember to play  

Play with your children, play in life — and play on the page. Play with sound, use more verbs, go crazy places on a treasure hunt. Once in a while, lower the stakes. Explore the inner lives of your characters through writing exercises without aiming to add to your story’s word count. Or train your writing muscles with a short story, maybe a humorous piece that explores a dark subject, a poem, a God-knows-what. See what happens, but don’t expect anything.  Hooray for play!

For my poetry workshop during residency, I came up with a nonsense love poem, titled, A Peasly Huley Doo (inspired by Lewis Carrol’s famous Jabberwocky). It’s not all that amazing, honestly, it really isn’t. But some people liked it. And best of all, I had a blast writing it. I got to stretch and play. In the end, I was just kind of impressed by my own craziness.

The more you play, the looser you will be when you approach the work in which you might be more invested. Writing risks won’t feel as foreign or scary, after a good healthy romp with words. Whether you’re working on your novel, or just messing around with words for no reason, make play a part of all you do.

5. Tune your ear

What about the times when writing is not fun? Pay attention to those. They may signal something important. When you are feeling stiff and resistant as you write, when you yearn to return to Facebook and check up on what your friends have been up to in the last ten minutes, stop. Take it as a sign — nothing ominous, mind you, just a yellow traffic signal — or better yet, a “slow down, construction ahead” sign. Are you forcing your character into a wrong situation, only having her do something because “you need her to?” Is the logic off somehow?  Are you avoiding writing an important moment? Protecting your character — or your reader? Is your perspective authentic, or are you writing from a point of view of a condescending, removed, if well-meaning adult? The answers could be many; the important thing is to learn to ask the questions.  Tune your ear.

If you play music, you can hear it when your fingers hit a false note, or a singer is off-key. If you are aware of that kind of thing, you can feel it in a very visceral way, in fact, kind of like reading a badly crafted book, it makes you cringe.  It actually hurts a little. It’s good to cultivate that kind of awareness for our own work, as well. When your writing isn’t going well, how and where do you feel it, physically? If you pay attention, soon you will know, and your body will become in a way, your writing instrument, giving you important clues.

Important note: only do this when writing is going slowly. If you are in the zone, if you are flying, if your words feel like liquid fire, then please forget about all the rules, tell your inner editor you’ll see her later, and bon voyage! (You can always go back and look at it again, that’s what revisions are for).

But here is what’s been true for me when things start to slow down: every time I ignore my own little signs of trouble and just plow ahead, I end up tangled in a mess of problems that sooner or later bring me to a halt. When I rush, I always end up slowing myself down. But when I slow down, paradoxically, I surge ahead. I am learning to make my peace with that at last, and hope that eventually, I will build up the muscle necessary to handle higher word counts and faster progress. Of course, it may be different for everyone. Some people might prefer to plow through the draft NaNoWriMo-style, 3,000 words a day, a relentless marathon. And that leads me to the last and most important point that kind of sums it all up:

6. Know yourself

Not just your landscape and the place you came from. Know yourself as a writer, as an artist. Know your working rhythms. Know what sets you back, what helps you do better. Own the kind of writer you are.

(Next time, I will post about Lucy Christopher’s fascinating talk on landscape, her entry points into her own stories, and her process in general. By the way, she definitely knows herself — and owns it!)

February 7, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , | 10 Comments

I’m Back!

My HogwartsThe latest residency expanded my mind, filled my writing soul with new color. I have learned so much once more, both about writing and about myself. Much of the residency dealt with the inner life of an artist. So, in a way, it wasn’t just Montpelier, VT that I have  traveled to. I visited my own inner landscape.

Some of the big highlights this residency:

— As per a great VCFA tradition, our class (January 2015) announced its name. We are the Darling Assassins!

— I finally had a roommate. And she had been worth waiting for. Despite our uncoordinated sleeping schedules, sharing a room with her gave the residency an extra sparkle. I hope never to inhabit a single dorm room again!

— I was enrolled in a special poetry workshop. We met on the highest floor of the College Hall building (see picture). Up there, at the top of our own “astronomy tower,” my fellow poets and I got to play and generate and go crazy with language, sound, line space, imagery, humor, nature…

— The VCFA sorting hat has done right by me once more. My new rock star advisor for the semester is Shelley Tanaka, a Canadian editor and author. I feel incredibly lucky for this chance to learn from her.

I have some great posts planned for you. Printz Award finalist  Lucy Christopher visited VCFA this residency and talked to us about how she uses landscape to construct her stories. Lucy gave me permission to write about that presentation for you guys here. Not to mention, my list of discoveries is long, once again, and I want to share! But I am going to need a little time. I totally didn’t consider this before — this third semester I have just embarked upon is different. In addition to my regular creative work, I must also work on my critical thesis, a long paper delving deep into an aspect of craft, which is a requirement for graduation and can be a great learning tool. It requires in-depth reading, thinking, planning, research. And guess what? Shelley is expecting the first draft on February 10th!

In addition to all that, I am getting started on a new career, which I am very excited about. (More on that soon, I promise). So, please bear with me.

It’s good to be back, sleeves rolled, ready to go.

One last note: some of the subscribers to this blog might remember my 31-minute challenge campaign last year, where I urged a group of writers to commit to writing every day for at least 31 minutes. I know the challenge worked great for a bunch of you and I am sorry I am just too busy to continue it this year. Obviously, right? 🙂 But one of last year’s participants Dori Stone picked up the campaign and is now trying to get people excited on her new blog. The best part? She is doing it in February instead of January, so there is still time to sign up right here. If the challenge worked well for you before, I hope you consider joining her. Take it away, Dori!

January 23, 2014 Posted by | Personal Mirror, VCFA Adventures | | 14 Comments

Off to Hogwarts!

Hey guys,

Just letting you know it’s almost time. Two days, to be precise. Time to launch the third semester. Time to pack up my wand — um, I mean pen — my numerous notebooks, my thickest of sweaters. (Brrrrr!!!) Time to take the plane to Vermont College of Fine Arts– the secret snowy north place, where they teach magic. I know what to expect from this Hogwarts by now: the tiny dorm, the dizzyingly small campus where I will walk in circles from lecture to workshop to reading to cafeteria to lecture to workshop and back again, where I will float on magic air among fellow Gryffindors. I know what to expect. And yet VCFA is like writing itself, it always surprises you. I can’t wait to see the dear faces, hear new exquisite words from classmates and grads and faculty, can’t wait to talk magic, can’t wait to get sorted with my next advisor assignment! And I can’t wait, once again, to be surprised.

As always, when I come back, I’ll try my best to share my discoveries.

my Hogwarts

See you in a few weeks!

Cheers, KR

January 7, 2014 Posted by | Personal Mirror, VCFA Adventures | | 19 Comments

Happy 2014! A Rambling New Year’s Post

Just back from New York City, on the heels of the craziest night of the year. My family’s New Year’s eve was made of stars, theMe and my daughter, on the boat's top deck windy Big Dipper shining over the Hudson River, while fireworks broke the night above our heads. On the cruise boat’s lower deck my husband and I took over the dance floor. Our kids rolled their eyes at us from the nearby table, while my husband’s eyes shone stars into mine. Our voices twined, singing along more than song lyrics.

This first day of the year was already a good one. The morning wind blew less harshly than the night before, as the four of us walked to the Port Authority Bus Terminal from our hotel. Being in the city to greet 2014 reminded me of my American beginnings, of that excitement and chaos I am made of.

Once we got home, I made sure to build the rest of the day out of writing: writing story, writing poetry, writing some, reading some.

As the longtime readers of this blog might know, I used to be superstitious about New Year’s eve. I guess I still am a little bit. But I am also more open now to whatever the Universe has in mind for me, in its magical Universe mind. I try to focus on what I can do, let go of the things I cannot control. It’s been freeing.

I hope your New Year’s eve was magical in its own way. Most of all, I hope your year will be, too.

We may not be able to will the magic into our every year. But I am pretty hopeful that we can invite some of it in through the simplest of actions. Because, aren’t our years made of the stuff of our days?

Aren’t our years made of our dreams? Our loves? Our souls? Shouldn’t they be?

Happy New Year! Make it great!

January 1, 2014 Posted by | Personal Mirror | , | 10 Comments

An Honest Promise of a Great Beginning

With 2013 winding down, the New Year is almost upon us. I figure this is a pretty good time to talk about beginnings. Well, it’s my excuse, anyway!

In a way I have been investigating beginnings my entire first year in VCFA — both through my critical and creative work. After two semesters, 100+ books consumed and/or re-read closely, ten intense packets, and thousands and thousands of words produced (not counted), all I really have to show for it is what my advisor and I think is a solid beginning of one novel and a first chapter I like of another one. It might not seem like a lot. But it feels like enough right now. It is a beginning. 🙂

How do I begin?But what’s a beginning, anyway? This is an arguable point and should not be taken as a rule exactly, more as a guideline, but I have discovered a typical YA novel usually takes between 40 and 60 pages to get rolling.

Not that these pages are a space to wander! Not in a final draft, anyway.

A reader picks up a book, hoping to be vowed and converted, lost and found in the story’s world. The beginning of the story will tell the reader whether or not she will find the magic she is looking for. In introducing a world and a cast of characters, a writer makes a promise: this is the kind of tale I am about to tell. Ideally, that promise is made in an enticing way that keeps the reader turning those pages, beyond the first few chapters. Introduce a tense world with gripping characters and make honest promises while keeping the reader rooted in the story every step of the way: how do great writers accomplish so much with their beginnings?

Here are the answers I have discovered, in a list:

1. A great character with a yearning

I keep coming back to it, don’t I? The character has to want something. Without yearning, desire, dream or need, there is no story. And the writer needs to get it in right there in the beginning. By the time the reader is done with the opening, the character’s desire should be clear in her mind. If the beginning includes at least a hint of the protagonist’s inner need too, so much the better.

2.  A great character who is suffering, or lacking, somehow

Can you think of some stories that start with the protagonist who is just fine, thank you very much? Maybe. But in my favorite stories, the kinds that clutch at my heart from the beginning,the main character doesn’t just want something, he’s in quite a fix, he’s drowning (metaphorically speaking, most likely, but still). The problem does not always need to be a physical one. It can be an internal lack: for example, young Anna missing a mother in Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah Plain And Tall; the absence of songs in her household. For me, the stories where the main character suffers from some kind of injustice are hardest to resist. Think Harry Potter living in a cupboard, think princess Ani betrayed by her best friend and lady-in-waiting in Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl, think Eleanor in Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park having to deal with a clueless mom and a jerk stepfather. Grrrr.

3. A great character with some spunk and some capacity

Give me yearning, give me suffering, but then give me something to balance that out. Your great main character should have some spunk and/or some kind of inner (or outer) strength, some ability, maybe some talent, quick thinking,  a sense of humor, or maybe even just self-awareness. Along with some flaws, a desire and a heap of trouble to bury your protagonist in, it’d be nice to also have something for the readers to hang our hopes on.  Incidentally (and probably obviously), the beginning is a good time to introduce some other characters, potential friends and foes, even if minor ones at first. It is in interacting with them that your protagonist’s qualities and desires should shine through.

4. A great image

A powerful beginning tells the reader as little as possible. With exposition reigned in and revealed in bits and only when appropriate, a good beginning will show the reader all of the above elements I have discussed — the protagonist’s yearning, her flaws and her great qualities, along with the high stakes and the danger. Think back to your favorite books, and chances are, you’ll discover that their beginning has a strong image that vividly  shows the world, the character and the danger. One of the best examples of such an image come from Paolo Bacigalupi’s dystopian novel The Ship Breaker, where the main character Nailer, almost drowns in an oil pool, but survives using his wits and his drive. The almost-drowning scene is not an inciting incident, it is a true introduction to the character and his world, but what a heart-pounding one! Another image from that particular story’s opening is one of a beautiful slender “clipper ship” made with new technology. The ship symbolizes Nailer’s dream and provides a great contrast to his harrowing reality. Think about your protagonist’s desire and the dangers she faces. Can you show these things with unique and powerful imagery?

5. A question

A strong opening foreshadows the rest of the narrative by introducing a taunting question, either stated or implied, a question the reader will hope to find an answer to by the end of the story. Such a question, again,often has to do with the character’s desire, and/or the danger she faces. Will Angel, a teenage prostitute from Martine Leavitt’s beautiful novel in verse My Book of Life by Angel, stay off the drugs and find her way back home? Will Amir free himself of childhood guilt? (From Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner). Will the girl get the boy?

There are many books, posts and articles out there in the writing world, talking about “hooking” the reader. But thinking of beginnings as “hooks” can lead to a writer being manipulative. It can tempt a writer to introduce a shiny event or a clever metaphor that has no real relevance, or to try and make a character into something they are not. If the promises made in the beginning are not carried out in the rest of the story, the reader will know and the book will fall short. The above suggestions are not a formula, they are guidelines to keep in mind as you dig deep and search hard for your character’s truth, for your story’s soul.

December 17, 2013 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | 4 Comments

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 | , | 10 Comments