Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

The Problem With When (And the Cumulative Power of Now): A Guest Post

A lot has been going on over here behind the Magic Mirror: some of it writing-related, much of it big and exciting life changes and I promise to explain more soon(ish) ūüôā

In the meantime though, I wanted to reach out to my wise and talented writing siblings, my Vermont College of Fine Arts classmates, The Darling Assassins, to see if they had any writerly wisdom to share. 

I asked them: what is the biggest “lesson” you learned in Vermont?

Now I am excited to introduce you to the powerful Monica Roe and her wise answer to my question. Read on, enjoy the views and see for yourself why I love her so.

Take it away, M!

            THE PROBLEM WITH WHEN (AND THE CUMULATIVE POWER OF NOW), by Monica Roe

Monica M. Roe

I’m just not feeling it today. 

I won’t write anything good if my head’s not in it.

Today my schedule is crazy.

Any of these sound familiar? They’re familiar to me!

Hey, I like my sacred desk space as much as the next writer. But there are many days or weeks when that space is simply not available to me. When life gets in my way.

AlaskaFor about four months every year, I travel around the Alaskan bush as a physical therapy consultant for 16 schools in small villages off the road system. Think frozen tundra, -35 temps, the occasional bear or musk ox roaming through town. Four times a year, I remain almost constantly on the move for one month at a time‚ÄĒhopping from village to village on tiny planes, hauling a month‚Äôs worth of supplies in a backpack, sleeping on cots, bare mattresses, or sometimes on nothing but a spare gym mat in an unoccupied classroom, library, or closet. It‚Äôs wonderful, rewarding work.

But it can be tiring.

From those of you who may not be familiar with itinerant bush travel, it is anything but fancy. Personal space becomes little more than a distant memory. You get used to sleeping wherever, often sharing bunk space with any number of other itinerant specialists who may also be passing through the village. By the end of a month on the road and in the air, I sorely miss my home, my husband, and my cherished and peaceful private writing space. I’m dirty and sleep-deprived and unbelievably tired of scraping together yet another dinner from the dwindling contents of my backpack. Worst of all, though, that constant upheaval of daily travel can also make it feel nigh onto impossible for me to maintain a consistent writing schedule.   Have a plane? Will travel!

I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a tough balance to strike.

My situation may be a bit more extreme than some, but I think this holds true for most of us on some level. We don’t always end up in the same place from hour to hour, let alone from day to day.

So what are we writers to do when life doesn’t allow us large chunks (or even small chunks) of time to sit at our desks and thoughtfully scan the horizon for a glimpse of that wayward, shiny-winged Muse?

I used to think that if I didn‚Äôt have that perfect space‚ÄĒboth physical and mental‚ÄĒin which to write, I‚Äôd maybe just be better off waiting until I did have it. Until I was back home, until life calmed down enough for those perfect conditions to coalesce.

Just another commute...All of that changed abruptly when I entered the program at VCFA. Suddenly, I no longer had that luxury of putting off the writing until next week or next month. If I did not find some way to pound out those essays and generate those creative pages on the road, they simply would not get done. It was a tough transition to make, and I can recall more than one instance where I frantically finished writing an essay during a bumpy inter-village flight (including one memorable time when I also got airsick coming over a mountain range) in order to make a midnight packet deadline. It was not exactly how I’d envisioned working on my MFA.

But somewhere along the way, it finally sunk into my brain that my life wasn‚Äôt, in fact, two separate and non-overlapping halves of ‚Äúwriting‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúother stuff.‚ÄĚ To put it bluntly, if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to be writing‚ÄĒregardless of which phase of my life balance I was currently inhabiting.

It can be oh, so tempting to simply put the writing off. Village morning in Alaska

I’ll try again tomorrow.

When I have more time.

When I’m not dragging my backpack through three feet of snow to get to the airstrip.

                                  When I can actually sit at my own desk.

            When

                                                         When

                                                                                          When

The problem with when is that he’s a tricky little demon. Always dangling that carrot, promising that one day we’ll have the perfect time and the perfect headspace in which to sit down and pound out that masterpiece…or even that so-so first draft.

As an unexpected side effect of my time in the MFA program at VCFA, I have lost all faith in that sparkly and Puckish when.

I have gained a firm belief in the unglamorous and dependable now. 

I am squished into a plane between 800 pounds of cargo and a huge sack of mail. I will write 50 words now, no matter how lousy. Ah, but the views!

I am camped in a school and it’s evening open gym night. I will write 100 words now, even though I can hear the basketballs thumping right through the music from my headphones. 

I am in my sleeping bag, lying on a mattress in a supply closet and desperately wishing to fall asleep so I can be at least somewhat rested in the morning. I will scribble one paragraph now, even though I cannot think of one interesting thing to say. Those nows, I have discovered, may be unglamorous and arduous at times. They may feel like throwaway writing, a waste of precious moments.

But those tiny little nows also do something amazing.

They add up. Become paragraphs and pages. Become chapters and messy first drafts. Even more important, they keep us in the game. The arduous, unglamorous, and massively rewarding game.

Stay in the game now. Get messy now. Even if it’s an airplane essay.

You just might surprise yourself.

¬†Monica M. Roe is a graduate of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at VCFA. She also holds a doctorate in physical therapy from Clarkson University and works as a consultant on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. Her YA novel, THAW, was published in 2008 by Front Street Books (she’s a very slow writer!). When she isn’t traveling in Alaska, she can often be found in rural South Carolina, where she and her husband run Old Swamp Apiary, a small-scale farm and beekeeping operation. ¬†

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May 13, 2015 Posted by | Guest Posts, VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series | , , | 9 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!

xoxo

Katia 

December 23, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , | 11 Comments

The Value of Adults

adultsMy teenage son was peeking over my shoulder, and when he read this title, he laughed.¬† I didn’t¬†ask him what was funny — that adults have value? — or that we are at a point of needing to blog about it? But we do. Need to talk about it.

During the summer residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults, one of our amazing advisors, Amy King, known to the world as A.S. King,¬†presented a passionate and illuminating lecture — and a plea — about fleshing out adult characters. I just knew I had to share it! (Late¬†as it is. Better late than never, right? Right?¬†The good thing about these topics is that they are as timely today as they were back in July. See, this is why I am glad I am not a journalist anymore :))

Anyway, with Amy’s permission,¬†here is¬† the gist of her talk, in my own words. Mostly.

In writing books for young readers, of course we want to keep our young characters active. We want them to have agency (which, incidentally is the topic of my graduate lecture, coming up in a month and a half, omg). We want¬†our young characters¬†to make mistakes, to act, to shape their destinies, or at least try to, not just to watch or merely respond to adults and their drama. And we surely don’t want the adults to pull our characters out of every sticky situation, solve all of our heroes’ problems, or¬†achieve nothing¬†more than¬†stuff¬†the young characters with¬†morsels of¬†wisdom and knowledge and message — no, no, no. Of course not.

But can we sweep the grownups aside completely? Kill them off, immobilize them, shut them up, so our young characters can have room to make their own decisions and affect their own destinies? Shove them onto the sidelines, keep them shadow-like, in the background, to serve cookies, step aside, pass out in front of the TV?

If we do, we might be creating a flat, unbelievable story world.¬† If we don’t develop our adult characters, we might rob our young protagonists of the chance to really grow.

In real life, adults are everywhere for the teens and younger kids to watch, emulate, learn from, detest, idolize, try to make sense of, make fun of.¬†In deeply felt and richly imagined stories,¬† young characters don’t come out of nowhere and don’t get handed down a world free of adult control or influence. Amy implored us to embrace the possibilities offered by adult characters in order to craft stories that would ring truer for young readers. Here are some questions to consider¬†when developing¬†adults in YA and children’s fiction:

1. Look at the teachers, the bosses, the neighbors, the celebrities, the heroes. Spend some time fleshing them out, the way you would your younger characters. Who are they? What drives them? What do they believe and why and how do their beliefs affect their actions? How does your main character feel about them and why? In what ways is your main character like them? And how is she different from them?

2. Get to know the parents on a deeper level, as “fully formed human beings.” Consider: young characters might have adapted their parents’ attitudes, or they might be rebelling against them. What is each parent’s gift, or legacy to the young protagonist?¬† Ask yourself: “Are they distracted? Supportive? Yelling? Happy? Hardworking?” A combination of these? And, “Why are they these things? What is their connection with the protagonist?” Does anyone tell your young main character, “You are just like your mother?” And how would your main character feel about being told that?

Reflect on how your young character might try to fight against the legacy passed down by her parents or other adults. Alternately, how can your young character try and embrace it? How can she do both in the space of the same story and even the same relationship?

3. We typically think of parents or adults influencing the younger characters, but consider: inspiration and wisdom can flow both ways.  How can your protagonist influence the adult characters in her story?

SOME EXAMPLES OF YA BOOKS THAT TAKE FULL ADVANTAGE OF THE ADULT CHARACTERS’ POTENTIAL:¬† Amy King

– In John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, see Hazel and August’s¬†interaction with Hazel’s favorite author Van Houten

– In Nancy Werlin’s fantasy Impossible,¬†the¬†main character’s foster family are supportive, imperfect, empowering and wise. They¬†make a tremendous positive difference in Lucy’s life, yes. But they¬†learn from her, too.

– In Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring,¬†the young maid Griet is at first inspired and learns much from her “boss,” her master Johannes Vermeer. But in the end she proves to be a stronger character than¬†her flawed and legendary hero.

– And let’s not forget Amy’s own Please Ignore Vera Dietz,¬†in which the¬†protagonist’s father is the one trying to keep his daughter from¬†making his mistakes.¬†¬†But really,¬†Amy makes adults matter in all of her books, from Everybody Sees the Ants to Reality Boy,¬†to the¬†just published Glory O’Brian’s History of the Future).

A. S. King is an award-winning, critically acclaimed author of six YA novels and short fiction for adults. She taught adult literacy in Ireland and now lives in Pennsylvania with her family and teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program.

Thank you, Amy so much for the inspiration, for letting me share, and for all those glorious books!

November 25, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , | 6 Comments

Five Ways To Get Closer

That’s what I have been doing, the reason you guys haven’t heard from me in a while (ahem): I have been getting closer to my characters. Especially the protagonist of my creative thesis, a novel for young readers, 75-80 pages of which I am to send to the MFA program office by December¬†in order to graduate. Polished, submittable/potentially publishable, approved-by-advisor pages. Now you see why I haven’t been blogging more often in the past two months?

I find characters are just like real people, sometimes, in that they like to put up defenses. They wear masks; they like to give a certain impression. They hide things. Our job as writers is to lovingly, but also unflinchingly, get past their defenses. Once we get to a place where they are most vulnerable, once we understand their core, we will know our story. What are some of the ways we can do that?

One way is of course to write a draft. And then another. And another. Then there is the thinking, just mulling things over, the least effective method, in my opinion. Brainstorming with writer friends or others can be effective, to a point. Discuss your story too much with too many people, and you can find yourself in danger of losing hold of your own vision. Some writers swear by filling out character biographies and questionnaires between drafts. ¬†As for me, in my time at VCFA, I have discovered the value — and the fun! — of writing exercises, what one of our advisors calls “side writing.” I call it “low-stakes” writing. I also call it “getting closer.”

The exercises in this list come from lectures, my advisors’ assignments and my own ideas.¬†My writing desk these days...

1. My current semester mentor Lou has me meditate on¬†my¬†character every single month. I imagine her in her own space, allow her to do what she will. This is not always easy, but almost always worth it.¬†After a while of “watching” your character get out a piece of paper and a pen and just write down the things you saw him or her do.

2. Here is another one from my mentor. Again, get quiet, maybe meditate. Then call forth an image of your character doing something in her space. Once you allow her to get comfortable, ask her a question. Make it a simple question, not too deep (so as not to involve your left brain too much in the answer). For example, if you want to find out what she is afraid of, instead of going the direct route, probe carefully. Ask her about a scary dream, for example. Her answer might give you a clue as to what she considers scary.

3. This one I got from a lecture by one of our faculty advisors Amanda Jenkins, and it’s also something the unforgettable Rita Willaims-Garcia had us¬†do in workshop this past summer residency:¬†Put a timer on for ten minutes and come up with a list of words related to your character (or your story). Don’t think, just write whatever comes into your head. If you’d like, you could narrow down your focus a bit: for example, list words related to how your character feels about another character. Or list words associated with his or her feelings when she’s about to cross some important plot threshold.

4. Make art. All art intersects, don’t you think? Poetry, music, painting, pottery, might there be an art — another art — that is relevant to your story? Then use it, learn more about it, have your character use it! But even if your story has no connection to any other art forms, you can still put your pen down, and say, pick up a paintbrush. That’s what I am doing for my protagonist this month. ¬†Yep, it’s part of my packet homework. She is not even a painter, still I am asking my protagonist¬†a question, then having her paint her answer. Try not to worry too much about the results of your work. Anyway, it’s not yours, it’s your character’s ūüėČ

5. Do you have a weakness as a writer? Maybe you worry your characters are too passive, your dialogue stilted, or your setting too thin? Maybe you are trying to figure out the shape of your scenes or your chapters? Whatever it is you are struggling with, think of other novels, one or two, that do it masterfully, ones that make you jealous. Then post-it notes and pencil in hand, comb through the text and study how they did it. Based on your findings, create exercises to challenge yourself to do what your model authors did. For example, I am now preparing a graduate lecture on active characters in “quiet” books where most of the transformation happens internally. In analyzing Nancy Werlin’s YA fantasy,¬†Impossible,¬†I noticed how opinionated the main character was, and how her beliefs fueled and informed her actions. So I went back to my own protagonist, and had a little chat with her about her¬†opinions. She wasn’t always forthcoming. Still, I learned a lot.

And that’s the point of these. To learn. To see your story in fun, new, deeper ways. To shut up the chatty, bossy left-brain editor for a while, long enough to uncover some secrets. And of course, most of all, to get closer to your character. As a bonus, you might end up with some material that will be usable in your manuscript! Better yet, you might hear your character’s true voice.

September 14, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , | 12 Comments

So you think you’re done…

Or at least, well, that’s what I thought. Sort of.

When back in May, in my third semester,¬†¬†I finished a new draft of a novel I had been working on for…ahem…a lot of years, I was ecstatic. ¬†But¬†the glorious feeling that¬†yes, I got it, that¬†I nailed it this time, lasted for about…oh, twenty minutes.

After that, doubts and questions flooded my mind. Was my main character active enough? What did she even actually do?

Still I sent it to my then advisor, and after getting back her insightful and encouraging comments I tinkered with the draft some more. Then I thought, I was really finished. Really, really. That one lasted a few months ūüôā

I am just back from a family trip to the Italian Alps, so I can’t help but think in mountain metaphors. Because it just seems so similar! When you’re climbing and climbing for hours past all these clouds, bend by bend, turning and turning up into the gorgeous infinite sky, and your whole body is screaming SOS, I am so¬†done¬†here!, and it seems you will reach the destination just around the bend, but when you get there, new breathtaking views open up and show you the path keeps snaking on ahead, what are you going to do, turn around and go back?

Hiking with family in the Alps

Revisions can feel that way sometimes.

My new ¬†fourth-semester advisor read the draft recently. She had some things to say, she had sharp questions; she had more insightful comments. She made me see things that I can’t now un-see. I am excited about the possibility of drawing more connections through my work, of making the story even truer. But you know how we all have that small chicken voice in our head? Well, the voice in my¬†head wonders scared, is it worth it? Will I ever be done?¬†

The best way¬†to shut up the chicken voice, in my opinion, is to focus on the work. But another fun way to do it is to write up a blog post about it. ūüôā

Ray Bradbury and many others talked about the idea of 1,000 words a day, the idea that¬†it takes that many failures to master anything worthwhile. Some writers come to that mastery through many abandoned books, first or second drafts, perhaps, that are their learning, their stepping stones. Beth Revis, for example, a NYT bestselling YA science fiction author, wrote ten¬†“drawer” manuscripts before she got to THE ONE (Across the Universe, one of my favorite books).

Me? I have a few dead picture books in the drawer, a few false novel starts, a rough novel draft of maybe-something-we’ll-see. One fantasy YA manuscript I wrote was so bad I deleted it, with glee! But mostly, over the years, I have been revising two novels. Two stories of my heart that I just can’t seem to let go. This latest one has been getting better draft after draft after draft. There is no doubt about it: I have been getting closer.

But the busy worried little chicken wants to know, how can I know for sure when I do get it right? Will I ever know?

I am sure I am not the only one wrestling with such questions. So I figured that just for fun, I’d ask some¬†others for their take on this.

Here is what they had to say:

From Trent Reedy, a YA author and a VCFA alumni:

“My dear Katia Raina, (almost) MFA, you are asking my all time favorite question. I used to ask this question ALL THE TIME. Seriously, I would ask every visiting writer at VC. I would ask it at every Q and A time at book shows. Because….if we accept that we as writers are always improving our craft, then it stands to reason that our current manuscript can be improved. How is a writer to know when to turn in the manuscript, when to submit it for representation and publication? My first novel, WORDS IN THE DUST is the only book I’ve ever sent to a publisher “complete.” With all others I have earned publishing contracts on partials, by sending up three chapters and an outline. How did I know WORDS IN THE DUST was ready to send up? I had, of course, the help of my VCFA advisors with that one. But even then, I graduated VC knowing that WORDS required at least one more significant overhaul and another polishing. I didn’t know what else could be done. I sent it to agents and one editor and one of those agents and editor rejected with the same, useful revision suggestion. I did that revision and tried again. It worked.

In¬†short, for the writer to know when his manuscript is ready to submit for professional publication, he must read hundreds of books and learn all he can about craft. He must teach himself to understand how unready his previous manuscripts were. Then he must apply what he has learned about craft over and over again until he has exhausted the sum of his knowledge, until he has worked until he has dulled the tools in his writer’s craft toolbox. After that, he seeks out his writer friends so that he can use their suggestions to revise again. And when all that has been done, and the well learned writer has no idea what else can be done to improve the manuscript, then, MAYBE then, it is ready to submit for professional publication.”

And from Amy King, better know to the world as A.S. King, multiple award-winning author of contemporary YA novels and a member of the VCFA faculty, who writes one new book a year:

“The answer to your question really depends on the book. A wise friend of mine says that you know that you’re done writing a novel when you’ve revised so much that you hate it. In my experience, this has held true. However, I’ve also had books that I don’t hate when I’m done. I just know I’m done because after so many revisions and printed manuscripts and reads, there isn’t one more thing I’d change.”

Finally, here is perspective from my own advisor, Louise Hawes:

“I’m never finished, I’m always revising. Because as I pointed out, via Graham Greene, in my lecture on openings, you’re not the same person when you finish a book as when you start. Or a week after you publish as two weeks after that. So I’ve never read a book of mine at a bookstore or school or conference, that I haven’t “revised” for that reading. ¬†As for when to quit “tinkering” with a manuscript and send it off to a publisher, agent, or competition, that’s another question. And the answer, of course, is different with each writer. For me, when I stop waking up wanting to fix this or change that, I know I’ve stopped living with a story. It’s time to send it out into the world to live with its readers!”

Whew, REALLY close now...

As for me, I love revision as much as I love the mountains. I am proud and excited and yes, nervous, too, to go back to the work, to see it again, with new eyes, then to delve in, and try to get even closer. ¬†That’s my learning. That’s the fun of the writing life. I guess it’s never really over. Like Louise says, at one point, you just let your book go out into the world and focus on the next one.

When will I know when I get there? I don’t have my answer yet.¬†All I have is trust that one day I will. Meanwhile, the winding journey is scenic. I might as well enjoy the views!

xo

Katia

‚ÄúLove. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. ¬†You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.‚ÄĚ ¬†Ray Bradbury

August 11, 2014 Posted by | Interviews, VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , , | 12 Comments