Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

“What Do I Know About Writing Anyway?” One Writer’s Quest for Critiquing Confidence: A Guest Post

Last month I had the good fortune — and the great fun! — of hosting my fellow Darling Assassin Monica Roe with her sage writing advice about working in the NOW. Today, another VCFA classmate, Tziporah Cohen, agreed to share the wisdom she picked up with her MFA over the last two years.

Darling Assassins is the name of my Vermont College of Fine Arts class of January 2015. Recently I asked them: What was the biggest lesson you learned in Vermont? These posts are their answers, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do! 

And here is our Tzippy!

WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT WRITING ANYWAY? ONE WRITER’S QUEST FOR CRITIQUING CONFIDENCE 

by Tziporah Cohen  

One of the ironies of writing is that the better you get at it, the worse you think your writing is. In the beginning, there is a lovely sense that everything you put down on a page is, well, lovely. Only later comes the unpleasant realization that your work only seems good because you don’t yet have the skills to assess it. And how are you supposed to build those self-assessing skills? You can put the answer at the top of my list of lessons learned at VCFA.

In my other life, the non-writer one, I’m a psychiatrist and a mother of three. I feel pretty competent in both those arenas. And heck, while I’m patting myself on the back, the last couple of years have seen me managing a psychiatry practice, family, and a Master of Fine Arts degree at the same time. No easy feat, believe me.

But put me into a workshop, also known as a critique circle, and watch my feelings of competence disappear like a hot dog the give and take of a workshopbun thrown into a flock of pigeons. Workshops are a critical component of the program where I completed my MFA degree. Six to twelve students and one to two faculty meet for twelve hours over several days. Students range from those beginning their first semester to those just about to graduate. Their works in progress are a smorgasbord: picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, fiction and non-fiction, verse and prose.

Don’t get me wrong here. It’s not the being critiqued that has my palms sweaty remembering those early workshops. I’m lucky in that I generally don’t experience much anxiety when my work is reviewed. Perhaps it comes from being an older student, coming at this writing thing from the safety of an established non-writing career, or from having seen enough of life to know that a disappointing critique is just that, not a tragic event. Or perhaps it comes from knowing that the work will be better in the end with the input of others.

But critiquing someone else’s work? That makes me very uncomfortable. What if I send someone down the wrong path? What do I, unpublished newbie, know about writing, anyway?

I spent a lot of time listening in that first workshop, as others debated the writers’ choices of point of view and tense, discussed word choice and voice, and analyzed story arc and desire line, all about of which I knew practically nothing. It’s not an option to say nothing during twelve hours of workshop, though. So I started out, tentative, introducing each of my comments with an “I don’t know, but…” or “It could just be me, but…”

Before my MFA, I either liked a book I read or I didn’t. I didn’t know why. Sixty hours of workshop over two years taught me the why behind that snap judgment. And the real lesson? Workshop taught me that learning to identify the jewels and flaws in someone else’s work is important not just because of how it helps them, but because it is how we learn to identify the jewels and flaws in our own work.

When we leave the security of our writing programs and classes we travel from the safe sanctuary of the workshop circle to the much more challenging wilderness of self-assessment. Yes, we have critique partners, but they don’t want to see every page of every early draft. (They do have their own writing to do.) We need to have confidence in our own ability to see what works and what doesn’t on our own pages. And in submitting our own work to the critical eye we have honed critiquing others, we improve our own writing skills.

I still face every manuscript I critique with some dread, and preface my thoughts with a too-long apologetic paragraph about how unqualified I feel to comment in the first place. But I remind myself that I have as much to offer my writing friends as they have to offer me. And that the process will turn everyone involved into a better writer.

Thank you, Tzippy! I totally know the feeling! 

Tziporah Cohen graduated in January 2015 with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is also a psychiatrist who works in the fields of oncology and palliative care. Hailing from New York and Boston, she currently resides in Toronto with her husband and three children.

June 11, 2015 Posted by | Guest Posts, VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series | , , , , , | 4 Comments

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) 🙂

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—hopping from village to village on tiny planes, hauling a month’s 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’s 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’t have that perfect space—both physical and mental—in which to write, I’d 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’t, in fact, two separate and non-overlapping halves of “writing” and “other stuff.” To put it bluntly, if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to be writing—regardless 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.  

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

Building A Meaningful Writing Life

People think that writers enroll in an MFA program on a quest for publication, the shiniest treasure of all. hobbit

And maybe some writers do. Okay, many do. Most.

I guess I did, too.

I enrolled in the program with that shiny goal in mind.

And then, after intense writing and reading and studying, one of the biggest lessons I got out of Vermont College of Fine Arts is the importance of … life.

Yes, life.

The writing life. But also, the life outside of writing.

As I started to pay closer attention to the ebb and flow of my process and my creative habits, I discovered that the busier I was with other things, the more often I took time to step away from the keyboard, the more passionately I lived, the more productive became my writing output.

The less tightly I clutched my work in progress, the easier the words came.

The less the writing mattered in the big scheme of my life, the more I wrote, and the happier I felt about doing it.

I decided to try and build a new and meaningful professional career. In preparation, I committed to a one-year-long in-office literary agency internship, smack in the middle of my studies.

Did that new commitment affect my writing? Yes it did, in the best possible way!

Turned out, I had more to give to myself — and by extension, to my writing efforts — when I gave more to the world.

With this discovery, my real writing goal became not chasing publication, but building a meaningful and sustainable writing life.

Did that mean I’d stop submitting my work?

Not at all.

It’s simply about the shifting of the emphasis.

For me, building a meaningful writing life includes having: under construction

1. A regular writing routine

2. A story to work on

3. The next story waiting in the wings (this one’s maybe not a strict requirement, more of a nice bonus).

4. Setting aside some time for reading fiction

5. Being able to help support my family

6. Taking one day a week and/or occasional vacation time to just decompress and breathe and luxuriate in the life part of the equation

7. Giving something to the world, something else, something other than writing

daily ritualsAs part of my studies, I read up on habits of writers, artists, thinkers and scientists, from Pablo Picasso to Jane Austen, from Ingrid Bergman to Sigmund Freud in a super fun collection of biographical sketches that deals specifically with the working habits of composers, choreographers, sculptors, filmmakers, poets and lots and lots of novelists. The book, which I highly recommend, is called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. What I saw in these entertaining sketches reassured me that there is no ONE right way to build a meaningful artistic life. Some of the greats wrote in bed for 12 to 14-hour stretches. I know I couldn’t do that — in bed or otherwise. Others (sadly) could not work without the help of some powerful chemicals. I choose not to do that. 🙂 Some wrote 500 words and called it a day. (Hemingway, anyone?) Many had low-paying day jobs. Some built meaningful careers alongside but separated from their art.

What did all the greats have in common? A meaningful, consistent and productive artistic life. So, okay, maybe the #1 thing on my list is a must: a regular writing routine. Honestly, I’d say #4 also. Ask Stephen King, if you don’t believe me.

Everything else, though? You tell me.

What are the most important components of your meaningful writing lives? I’d love to know. But whether or not you share them here, I hope you take the time to answer that question for yourselves. And then follow through!

Happy building!

March 22, 2015 Posted by | Personal Mirror, VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , | 10 Comments

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

Happy New Year! Off to Graduate!

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

The year 2014 has been pretty exciting. I completed the second half of my studies at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Learned up to my ears. Wrote a critical thesis delving into novels in verse. Finished a draft of a manuscript I’d been trying to figure out for years. Then finished it all over again.

Through all this, I reconnected with New York, the city of my American beginnings, happily commuting, blending right in with the the crowd as I walked the streets and the avenues with my bright orange briefcase (sometimes writing on the go!). As agency intern at Serendipity Literary and assistant to the amazing Regina Brooks, I worked with authors from “the other side of the desk.” The internship concluded just yesterday, but all the learning I have done will stay with me for a long time, as will all the wonderful new friends I’ve made, Regina included. She has been the best mentor anyone could wish for, and she, along with her colleagues, always made me feel positively brilliant!

What will 2015 bring?

Graduation, for one thing!

Tomorrow I am flying to Vermont for my final residency, during which I will present a lecture of my own (!) The following weekend my family will come to town, braving the crazy cold to watch me perform a reading of my own work. And of course through it all I will watch my classmates,  my brothers and sisters-in-writing, my Darling Assassins, the class of January 2015, graduate with me. I am still in disbelief that this is happening. Two years just whizzed by, in one great big whirlwind of learning, reading and writing (and laughing and crying, and friendship and fear and love).

Do you make resolutions? Wishes? Goals? I do a combination of all three.

For 2015, my biggest aim will be to channel all my passion and education and knowledge into a start of a wonderful career. When I return from the final residency, I plan to network and job-hunt my head off.

As for the writing, this year will mark an important beginning (that’s how I prefer to think of graduation, anyway). After two years of working under the guidance of powerful advisors, I am going to be on my own again. My writing life this year will answer an important question: with all that you’ve learned, what can you do, Katia Raina? A few months ago, this question terrified me. Now, it seems more like a friendly taunt from the Universe, a challenge I am excited to embrace.

My writing plans for this year include concluding a revision of the novel that is my creative thesis, getting it off to beta readers, finally, then polishing it into submit-able shape. But also, I already have three new-ish story ideas I am excited about. This year I hope to get started on at least one of those. I am not going to worry about finishing it, of course. With these new projects, I only aim  to play, play, play, to try things, and to write bravely and honestly and with joy. Another page from my planner

Finally, in 2015, I want to continue to be there for my family. To make time for love and goofiness. To treat time like it’s no big deal. Occasionally, at least. To take some grown-up time, too, once in a while. But also, to be a good listening ear to my two kids who are growing up way too fast. I want to give them support and understanding, always, while having the courage to tell them the truth, too, even when they might not want always to hear it. Oh, and I want to remember to call my mom every week with some good stories 😉

So, how about you? What’s your biggest goal for this year?

May your 2015 be a great and shiny one! See you on the other side of graduation! [gulp]

xoxo

KR

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

A Very Belated and Very Zen Bit (or Should I Say “Bead?”) of Writing Wisdom

It seems crazy that I am only now getting around to sharing such a long-promised post, about a graduate lecture from the summer’s residency by a fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts now-alumni Joe McGee. Crazy, when I am now finalizing work on my own upcoming lecture for January! (Gulp). one bead at a time 001

Nevertheless, here goes!

Joe’s lecture, ZEN AND THE ART OF NOVEL WRITING: Stringing Your Story Together One Bead at a Time was one of my favorites from last July’s residency. It had a simple message, as most truths do. But it stuck with me through these last few frenetic months of writing, and I hope it helps you too.

For writers faced with the prospect of just starting a new novel, those mired in the mucky middle, or those trying to see their work anew after too many drafts to count, it can be easy to get discouraged, blindsided, lost, overwhelmed. That is why, Joe recommended, it’s so important for us to stay in the NOW.

Don’t think about all these scenes, don’t think about all these chapters. Don’t think about your  readers, your agent or your dear friends on Facebook sharing good news. The trick is such a simple one, and yet it can be so hard sometimes: when you write, it’s best to “stay immersed completely.” What Joe reminded us back in the summer has always been true and will remain so forever: “the now is all we have.”

As you are settling into your writing space, “let everything go but the scene you are writing,” Joe said, and “write for yourself first.” He said: “Focus on the smallest particle,” just the action at hand. It’s “all about one good sentence placed after another.”

For each scene we write, Joe asked us to consider: “What is the quintessence of the moment?” Quintessence is “the most perfect example of a quality in its concentrated form,” in other words, the it-ness of whatever the it is.

So before writing, take a moment and figure out, “at its core, what is the scene REALLY about? What is its absolute essence?” He advised to “turn the scene over and over in your head and your heart until you’re sure of its quintessence.”

[I have been doing that in the past three months more than ever before, and let me tell you, it helps SO MUCH. Before writing each scene, I try to determine its role in the overall story design. In this lecture Joe referred to Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer, and it has become one of my favorite craft books (along with Robert McKee’s Story). As per Alderson’s advice, before writing each scene, I think about my character’s goal and the action she will take, the overall mood, her growth and the shift the story will take in the course of this scene. Thinking about all that before helps me stay “in the now” of the scene when I start writing, while allowing the plot to move forward.]

Joe invited us to think of each scene as a “pearl polished till it shines with its individual quintessence.” As you write, “don’t focus on the strand,” he said. “Just focus on the bead.”

“Think inside the box,” Joe said. “The scene is the box.”

Joe urged us to “retrain the brain to put blinders on to everything but the scene we are in, to write “as if the current scene is the only scene.”

I don’t know about you, but I am so big on the goal, the plan, the overall. I NEEDED to hear this. When we surrender everything we’ve got to the scene at hand, as though nothing else exists, our writing is likely to reflect that kind of focus and intensity. Our characters become more real. Our voice and our vision shine through, unobscured by worries, fears, or projections.

One of the ways Joe recommended we train ourselves to approach the work this way is through meditation. For example, close your eyes and picture a candle lit in otherwise complete and total darkness. Can you watch that imaginary flame flicker for 15 minutes straight? During the lecture, Joe had us try it for just a few minutes: it was so hard! So you might want to practice, train yourself in increments. But it’s worth it. I am not quite sure yet what I am going to do with the short passage for my work in progress I wrote as part of Joe’s “be here now” writing exercise following that attempt at meditation. Right now I am actually thinking it might make a great ending — but it’s also possible that I won’t end up using it at all. The point is, that passage surprised me with its vividness and the strength of the main  character’s voice. This is what happens when we write in the moment, we inhabit out characters. As Joe put it: “By immersing ourselves in the scene, we are inside looking out, not outside looking in.”

So, before you start writing your next chapter, consider your scene’s essence, focus on your breathing, surrender your chatty mind to the truth of the moment. Call forth some  vivid sensory details and lose yourself in your story’s magic, while finding yourself in the wonderful adventure of NOW.

Joe McGeeThank you Joe so much for the wisdom and the inspiration, and for allowing me to (belatedly) share it with my readers.

Happy writing, and hugs to all!

Joe McGee, who graduated from the program in July of 2014, teaches writing in southern New Jersey. Represented by Linda Epstein of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, he is the author of a picture book Peanut Butter and Brains, forthcoming from Abrams.

October 21, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , , | 6 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 🙂

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. 🙂

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

“Love. 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.”  Ray Bradbury

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

Not A Daily Writer 2: On Superheroes Versus Champions

This is a follow-up post to my last rather embarrassing admission of not being a daily word count superhero anymore. Okay, maybe you guys didn’t think it was embarrassing, but I did!

Allow me now to present the other side of the issue. Because ever since the last post, I’ve been thinking…

It is true that when I take a day or two off — say a weekend — my writing generally benefits in some ways. I can feel it; I come back to the computer refreshed. And, as I said in the last post, I hate it when the word count quota looms over the story like a chore, as though words were dirty dishes.

On the other hand, I took last week off from writing fiction. I focused instead on getting all my other Vermont College of Fine Arts packet work out of the way — two essays, a new outline, a streamlined synopsis. When I returned to the manuscript yesterday and today, even while I felt refreshed, I realized my fiction writing muscles have softened. I was more relaxed, yes, looser maybe, which is good. I produced some pretty prose, and poetry too. But the pretty stuff refused to add up to a narative . I felt overwhelmed, disoriented. Suddenly I found myself looking around like a guest inside my own work-in-progress.

And now, Ray Bradbury’s 1k-a-day advice (from his Zen And The Art of Writing) keeps nagging at me. Apparently, Mark Twain did it, too, though it took him an entire working day to come up with his 1,000. Hemingway, they say, stuck to the more modest 500. But what of Stephen King, with his 2k-a-day sprints? (On Writing). And that all started back when he was still a teacher!

I know. I know.

Here is a cool, inspiring and funny post about famous word counts (or sometimes, lacks thereof): http://algonquinredux.com/daily-word-count-output-of-my-favorite-writers/

This post only proves what I still believe — it’s an individual game more than a game of numbers. It’s in some ways, a hopeless debate, isn’t it, like the benefit of plotting versus writing by the seat of the pants?

I am sorry to keep blogging about this. I guess I am searching for the answer.

I am now — and possibly forever — we never stop learning do we? — but especially now, a shameless student of writing. I am in the MFA program, after all. It’s all about figuring things out. Here is a new thing I’m wondering: is it possible to one day grow into a word count?

I know I am not ready for shackles of a daily quota. And I am not sure if I’ll ever be willing to give up my writing-free Saturdays, plus even an occasional vacation. For me, it’s important to step away, to be in the world — or writing will suck me dry, I have learned that. On the other hand, a writer must be careful not to step out too far.

This semester it was important for me to slow down. I imagine that if I didn’t give them up, the word counts would have interfered with that. But now that the semester is drawing to a close, (one more packet to go!), the idea of daily writing (except Saturdays), after some reflection, is one I would like to keep striving toward. Maybe not at once. Maybe this time, I’ll be smarter about it. Go slower.

But I can try again. And again. I can keep trying, can’t I? Until the day when whatever quota I decide on, feels like home.

Credit: Chiot's Run via Flickr

Credit: Chiot’s Run via Flickr

Maybe it’s not about being a superhero. Maybe it’s more about training. Stephen King and Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury, they are champions. Champions practice. Lots. So can I.

I’ll keep you guys posted! 😉

November 19, 2013 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, Writing Mirror | | 9 Comments

Mid-Semester Progress Report

So, the whole slowing down and letting go thing?

It took just under a month, both a hard-work month and a vacation of a month. Letting go meant songs on the piano, meant Friday night candles, movies, nothing grand. Slowing down meant looking up, looking left and right, too, just paying attention. Playing meant new rituals (and some old ones too), little magic things like candlelit writing, timed writing, lemon water. It meant going back to where I came from; it meant poetry, lots and lots of poetry. It meant fewer pages, more crazy discoveries, and not just about writing, either.

The verdict from my advisor, after my latest packet? She is loving the results in the spare pages I sent her. my writing cup

Yay!

But… now she wants more. More words, more pages. Wait, what? I thought we were taking things easy. I thought we were floating. I have settled into a nice new rhythm now. Now she says, remember how you talked to me about goals before? So yeah, it is time to get back to those. I’m going to need at least a new chapter from you soon; I am going to need 40 to 50 pages of new writing from you soon, I am going to need a novel beginning from you, after all.

What? Damn! 🙂

Of course she is right, as always.

So here is the thing, the takeaway. Are you feeling comfortable in your life, your writing life?

Then consider shaking things up. Whether you’ve been working too hard, or floating, don’t get too used to it, maybe? Don’t allow yourself to settle, like the taste of lemon water, on the bottom of the glass.

Cheers!

October 15, 2013 Posted by | Personal Mirror, VCFA Adventures, Writing Mirror | , | 14 Comments

Own It

Hi all,

vermont july 2013 009It felt a little surreal to come back to Vermont for a second residency as a seasoned second semester. The ten days flew by. Friends, teachers, dancing, writing, soaking in new knowledge and old, soaking in the love. Yes, love. This was mainly what this residency, known as “summer of love” was all about: a great reminder that love is why we do what we do as writers, as humans. (We hope 🙂 )

Some of my teachers graciously gave me permission to talk about their lectures, so I will be doing that in the coming weeks. I’ll be discussing craft  (and love), more specifically at that time.

Meanwhile, here is a quick little list of my main, more global takeaways from this residency — the big picture.

1. Think about why you write

Sure, I want to succeed, to contribute to the well-being of my family; I won’t hide that I wish to do well in this crazy trade I have chosen, this crazy trade that has chosen me. But that’s not the main reason I write. It’s not even that I have things that need saying (even though maybe I do). Mostly, for me, writing stories is a kind of a crazy search, an exploration of myself and humanity. Writing is answering impossible questions, most of which hold no answers anyway. Writing, for me, is a way of loving this imperfect, incredible world and its inhabitants.

Also, to me, writing is playing. Each new project is a puzzle, a fun and an occassionally frustrating exercise of trying to fit the pieces in. Except, unlike with real puzzles, a story puzzle is never going to be complete. I don’t think there is a book out there that doesn’t miss several pieces — maybe a whole bunch of them. I think that’s what makes stories even better than puzzles.

I have asked my classmates why they write, really. Each one gave a different answer — each one gave a great answer.

How about you?

Why do you write?

2. Write for yourself

Sometimes we forget to do that. I know I do. When you have a great talented writing community, it’s easy to get caught up in writing for your writing friends, or writing to impress your advisors, your children, your audience, the reviewers, your agent, the editor. We must remember — well, I must remember — not to let my writing live or die by the approval of others. During this residency, unlike my first one, I didn’t participate in many readings. I suddenly found myself shy. I was afraid to share. I fretted about what my classmates thought of my writing this time around. I felt the need to prove that I have been improving, that all the hard work was not for naught. I had to catch myself, had to stop that. I had to remember, that’s not what this is about. In the end, you’re the only one who can measure your own progress.

3. Own it vermont july 2013 011

A fellow writer from my workshop complimented my outfit one day. She said, I love how the skirt you’re wearing isn’t supposed to match with the top, but it does. I love your outfit because you own it. Her compliment stuck with me. Later, closer to the end of the residency, I shared some doubts with one of my workshop advisors. There is so much talent around me, I whined. Am I actually getting better? How do I know if I am? She shook her head. She reminded me that fears never go away, and that sometimes growth brings more fears. She said, “You are talented. You have to believe that. You have to own that.”

So, that’s what I say to you too. Own your writing in all its mismatched imperfection. Own it.

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Katia

July 23, 2013 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , , | 15 Comments