Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüôā

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!



February 10, 2015 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series | , , , | 16 Comments

Questions and Answers

Hard to believe Hanukkah is almost over, Christmas almost upon us, the year almost through, my very last MFA semester completed. As I am wrapping up¬†the preparations for my final Vermont College of Fine Arts residency (!!),¬†I think it’s appropriate to share one last lecture post I had promised you. This one comes courtesy of our lovely Margaret Bechard, VCFA faculty and YA and children’s science fiction author, and it deals with the use of questions and answers in building stories.

Note: much of this lecture was based on a craft book by Will Dunne, THE DRAMATIC WRITER’S COMPANION.

“Asking questions is what the brains were born¬†to do.” ¬†And it is an activity readers constantly engage in. In addition to multi-dimensional and¬†relatable characters and an authentic story world that feels alive, it is the curiosity and the wonder that turn page after page. Because, “Every book is a mystery,” and all reading “a kind of puzzle-solving.” This curiosity is something the writer can harness by purposefully planting question after question after question in the reader’s mind.

Remember though that questions need not all be intellectual or simply curiosity-driven. “From a technical point of view, the function of a story is to make a reader worry.” Some of the questions you might want your readers asking themselves include “will she make it?” “Will he love her back?” “How can they possibly beat that villain?” Sure, your readers might wonder, “who done it?” or “what had happened to make him this way?” But also, ideally, you’d want them thinking, “what is going to happen next?” According to Will Dunne, “Suspense is a state in which the audience is in two places at the same time: the present (what is happening in the here and now of the story) and the future (what might happen later in the story as a result of what is happening now).”

Tension in a reader is a state of “being stretched tight.” Introducing doubt then is part of that mystery-weaving process that keeps the tension high, and it can be done through a series of questions. Margaret (and Will Dunne) recommends to think of one grand story question that you as the writer know won’t be answered till the very end. In addition though, you are going to need to plant a series of smaller questions throughout the story. As you go along, you are going to have to supply the answers too, the answers your reader is going to need in order to understand and continue being engaged with the story, the answers that might provoke new questions in turn. If the reader is missing too many pieces, they will put the book aside in frustration. “Suspense is as much a product of knowledge as a lack of knowledge.”

questionsKeep in mind however that as you answer each question, the tension will ebb, and the reader’s attention will momentarily lag. Unless, just before answering the question, you have introduced another one!

Like so much of writing, this too is a constant balancing act: introducing just enough questions, but not too many at once, alternately keeping the reader in the dark and illuminated with understanding, surprising the reader, but not shocking them with developments that come out of nowhere.

This is useful to keep in mind when creating exposition. When the flashbacks or explanations are unwelcome, they feel like “info dumps.” If, however, you have created a question in the reader’s mind first, the background will be welcome, as the reader suddenly craves those answers.

Through the story’s middle, as you build your chain of questions and answers, the more connected your subplots to the main plot and the story’s grand question, the more engaged the reader will be.

In crafting the ending, you can leave some of the questions unanswered. But generally, if you want your reader satisfied, the big story question should be answered. Of course, even as I am typing this, I am thinking of exceptions to¬†the good rule: Lois Lowry’s Giver, anyone? Will Jonas escape to Elsewhere? By the end of the story, we still don’t know it. (Of course, we can probably have an interesting discussion about whether or not that is indeed the big story question, or is there another, even bigger one that had been answered, after all?)

Here are some questions from Margaret for you to consider, as you craft your stories and make your choices:

1. What is your story’s grand question?

2. What knowledge does your reader need to being asking this question early on?

3. What is your final answer? Can you express it as a “yes, but…?”

4. What must occur in the story to make this answer logical and truthful?

I thank Margaret for allowing me to share this with you guys, and I hope you find these questions and ideas useful in creating and sustaining tension in your own stories. Wishing you happy holidays, a happy New Year, and happy writing, as always!

We’ll talk again in 2015!



December 23, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , | 11 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‚Äôt just happen ‚Äď 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‚Äôs initial situation has a definite cause. The lake‚Äôs 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‚Äôt make every action count, (though we sure can try!) But in creating fiction, we can ‚Äď 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