Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

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


diplomaHey all! I am, of course, back from my final VCFA residency, a shiny new MFA in hand.  It’s fun to look back on the incredible, enriching, life-changing journey this has been and take a moment to talk about what I’ve learned. First, let me quantify it for you: two years of learning, what exactly did it add up to?

Let’s see.

Two years equaled:

– surviving five residencies

– attending/or listening to up to 50 faculty and graduate lectures

–  completing twenty packets of one-on-one work with an advisor

These packets included:

– more than a dozen critical essays

–  a 38-page critical thesis

–  a 45-minute graduate lecture

–  a total of 200 books read, analyzed and annotated.

And then of course, came the meat of it all, the creative pages. It would be impossible to try and figure out an exact figure at this point. But I’d estimate I have revised and generated a total of more than 600 pages of creative work through it all. Plus, “side writing,” “free writing” and exercises the length of which I couldn’t even begin to guess. There were so many!

Add to that a scattering of poetry, several new short stories, attempts to bring back to life two other novels, and three starts of shiny new stories in genres I had never tried before.

So, what have I learned through all this?

Allow me to present my list: the craft, the personal, the philosophical, all of it, broken into two (or more) parts. Of course, as always, I hope that my discoveries will be helpful to you.

This is Part 1:

1. Inhabiting Characters

In order to write authentic characters, I have discovered that I must inhabit them.  I think this was truly the biggest lesson I’ve learned, and one I got plenty of opportunities to practice. If you have been faithfully reading my blog over the last two years, this might no longer be a revelation to you either — that even though characters are our creations, they cannot be our puppets. We cannot move them across our fictional landscapes as though they were made of wood or tied to a string, just for the sake of plot convenience.

I mean, sure, I guess we can, right? But if we do, we shouldn’t be surprised with the results: characters who seem lifeless or characters who simply shut down and turn away from us. What I’ve discovered is that writing has so much in common with acting. Think method acting. Let your characters breathe on the page, let your characters react, act, say things only they possibly could! Let your characters’ words and actions surprise you.

Be your characters. Walk across the page in your characters’ shoes.

2. The Other Arts

This last residency confirmed another wonderful discovery, how much the arts cross-pollinate one another. Looking at the graduate lectures presented by our class alone, we had four other arts represented. One of my classmates, Lianna McSwain, talked about using Improv Theater techniques to make writing more spontaneous, to loosen up, to be braver. Another classmate, David Rogers, shared a presentation on how some of the top names in YA literature, from K.L. Going to A.S. King to M.T. Anderson rely on music to fuel their stories. Melanie Briend, who is a professional dancer and choreographer, shared a talk on authentic and expressive body language in dance and in writing. And then, in my own lecture, I talked about my experience last semester in painting the truth of my main character. My point? When the well is running dry, and even when it isn’t, turn to the other arts. Writing can feel so cerebral at times, while so many other arts are richly  physical. Every art can inform our writing work in the freshest, most marvelous of ways. Allow yourself to be surprised by it.  For more on other arts and creativity, read Eric Maisel and Twyla Tharp.

5. The Glory of Making Mistakes

Creating is really all about facing our fears. We know this.

One of my classmates posted this chart during our first semester, and it’s still hanging in my office and inspiring me every day: How to Be an Artist. This sketch is attributed to a British artist Kate Holden.

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

In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler talks about the fear that prevents us from creating our best work. He invites the writer to defeat perfectionism by shutting down the conscious mind and getting into the flow state. Meditating, free writing and other arts are some of the ways I’ve tried over the last few years to circumvent and fool my inner perfectionist.

For my graduating residency workshop,  I wrote 20 pretty rough pages, to share with two advisors and eleven other writers. I had no choice. The deadline was looming, and my final packet had to be submitted at right around the same time.  Yikes! Boy was I terrified. I wondered, what would my fellow writers think of me? When during residency, it came time to discuss my submission, it turned out to be a real thrill. Sure, there were plenty of rough patches in those pages. But my fellow workshop participants also pointed out plenty of gems that seemed to delight them! If I had more time and allowed myself to try and make these pages more “perfect,” it is possible I wouldn’t have come up with the quirky, crazy details that surprised even me!

4. Paying Close Attention

But there is another side to the “letting go” coin. (So often two contradictory things are true, I have found.) At one point, I’ve learned, a writer needs to realize that sloppiness is deadly to a good story. Especially when revising, I have learned that it’s crucial to pay attention to the following on every page:

– cause and effect

– language

-setting/physical detail

I am sure I have mentioned this before. Now it’s time for me to say it again: read your work out loud! And not mumbling, either, read it loudly, really let your voice carry and resonate! During every one of my last four semesters, reading my pages out loud really helped me pick up on a lot of logic lapses and language inconsistencies. There is something about the sound of a sentence that just won’t lie. Yes, I know, it’s time-consuming! So often it feels like an extra step. I have learned to do it anyway. It’s been invaluable.

5. Logic

In good writing, things have to make sense on every level, from sentence to physical setting, to plot. As I wrote and revised, I learned to ask myself such questions as, why would he do this? Why would he do this now? What caused this story event? What’s it leading to? I’ve become more aware of geography in my writing. Things like, where is everyone situated in relation to one another? Can I truly visualize the whole thing? If I can’t, then how can I expect the reader to do it?

A related discovery: the use of maps need not be limited to science fiction or high fantasy. By all means, map out your kingdoms and your planets! Actually, I really hope you do! But also, feel free to quickly sketch out the outlines of your protagonist’s room, for example. Don’t feel silly imagining, sketching or even role-playing the smallest of events. The more real it is for you, the more real it could become for your readers.

6. Language

Since first semester, I have been on a mission to write with more precision. Grammar makes all the difference: I knew that even before the MFA, of course. But over the last two years I’ve learned to slow down and really choose my words, really craft my sentences. I started paying closer attention to the way my particular word arrangements added up to meaning. I got into a habit of asking myself: Am I saying what I think I want to be saying? You might think you don’t need to read a grammar book. I thought so too. Yet, I was glad I did. Shrunk and White’s Elements of Style is a very slim and basic volume. Here are a few other titles, for more grammar fun: The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite by June Casagrande, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.

Finally, working closely with poetry over the course of two semesters awoken me to the glorious sound of language. This awareness of sound is something I carry with me now into every sentence and every story. If you would like to cultivate it, you can start by reading lots and lots (and lots!) of poetry.

Whew! So much learning. 🙂 Time for a break. But please stayed tuned! More soon!


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

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

Words, Words, Words

building blocks What are stories made of?

The answers are many: characters, setting, plot, theme, ideas, emotions. But underneath it all, we writers forget sometimes, don’t we? That first and foremost, stories are made of words. In this post, I would like to explore the storytellers’ most basic building material: language.

According to the American Heritage College Dictionary, language is “the use by human beings of voice sounds, and often written symbols representing these sounds, in   combinations and patterns to express and communicate thoughts and feelings.”

Think about it — sound, combinations, patterns. When it comes to language, these can be great tools!


A story I’d like to use here to demonstrate the power of language, the power of sound and word and pattern, is Kathi Appelt’s middle-grade novel The Underneath, a magical tale about two kittens and a blues-singing hound facing danger together and forming a family in the deep dense woods of the American southwest. I was lucky enough to have Kathi  as a workshop advisor at the Vermont College of Fine Arts last year, and I learned so much from her just in ten memorable days. But I also learned much from her writing, and that you too can do. Just look closely at this story, and the way she uses language here with precision and heart, to accomplish all sorts of storytelling aims, from plot, setting and characterization, to mood and themeThe Underneath

If you haven’t read this book (and I hope you do!) or if it’s been a while, here is a little summary:

A pregnant calico cat befriends a chained hound and makes her home in “The Underneath,” a hole under a tilting house in the middle of the forest. The house is inhabited by a cruel and lonely hunter, Gar Face, and his sad blues-singing hound. The hound  finds joy in the company of the cat and her two twin kittens – Puck and Sabine. But the happiness is short-lived. Unable to resist the pull of curiosity, Puck violates the most important safety rule of “the Underneath” and goes out into “the Open” to bask in the sun. Gar Face catches the kitten, then his mama, stuffs them both into a bag and throws the bag into the river. Puck makes it back, his mama does not. Stranded, away from his sister, his hound and his home, Puck faces dangers on the other side of the creek, dangers that include a powerful predator sleeping under the root of a tree, an ancient snake with her own magical story.

There are many, many strands in this richly patterned tale. Yet, Kathi makes it whole. There is so much magic here: talking animals, blues-singing dogs, ancient snakes, magic upon magic. Yet the narrative moves fast and feels incredibly real. I think Kathi’s use of language has a lot to do with this sense of unity and authenticity the story creates.


If you read The Underneath carefully, you will notice the narrative is peppered with proper nouns. Through the specificity of her words, the reader walks “dark damp streets of south Houston” with Gar Face or watches out nervously for snakes: “vipers, rattlers and corals, the copperheads, the venomous crew” in the “piney woods forest in far East Texas.” We aren’t just anywhere, and we aren’t dealing with some generic cat, either: she’s a calico. The personalized character of a tree isn’t just some pine: it’s an old loblolly pine. The Native Americans inhabiting the woods are the Caddo people. These choices provide the reader with a feeling of precision.  The setting comes alive in its specificity.


Kathi often plays with words, now setting them against each other, now pairing them in startling combinations. When  now orphaned Sabine finds herself hunting in the forest, the way her mama used to, Kathit subtly chooses words to signal Sabine’s savage origins and her growing responsibilities. But in the same passages, these words — “rough” and “sharp” and “fearless” and “mother tigers of the Punjab” — are contrasted with adjectives, such as “small,” even “tiny.” Sabine is a descendant of the wild hunting she-cats. She’s also still a miserable, struggling kitten.

“With her rough tongue, she licked her front paws one at a time, taking care to polish her sharp little claws. Then she walked to the edge of the Underneath and looked out into the awful Open. Soon she would have to go out there, like her mother and her brother, now lost. … Sabine, descendant of the great lionesses of the Saharan plains, grandchild of the mother tigers of the Punjab, tiny heiress of the fearsome lynx and cheetah and panther, night hunters all. Here was Sabine.”

Through these contrasts, the poignant passage helps characterize the animals, create tension and raise the stakes.

But just as it can be used in creating tension, word play can be a great tool for tension release.

“Suddenly he was overwhelmed by it all. Such deep and utter Missing,”Kathi writes when describing Puck under the rain, in all his misery. She allows him to wallow for a few more sentences, before providing some quick comic relief on the following page, when Puck runs into a pine: “He was so full of Missing that he almost missed the tree.” 🙂


Sound, too, can set the mood and advance the story. Here is Kathi using assonance and alliteration of the sound “s” to add tension and set a menacing mood, while describing the emotional state of Grandmother Moccasin, a snake: venomous, grieving, angry.

“Loss. A small hissing word. A word that simmers into nothing. Beneath the old pine, Grandmother stewed inside her jar. Loss engulfed her as it had a million times before in this dark space. Lossss! she whispered. A word that scrapes against the skin.”

Repetition is a big part of using sound skillfully, and there is a lot of it in The Underneath. 

Sometimes Kathi uses it for emphasis, and at other times to establish important plot connections between the narrative’s many threads and themes. One example is the  repeated use of the word “curl.” When the kittens curl beside each other, or beside their hound, purring, the word is used to portray love. When Grandmother snake curls her body into a tight coil, ready to spring, the venom pulling in her mouth, the word “curl” describes hate and anger, underscoring an important theme in The Underneath, the contrast between love and hate.


Language of course has a lot to do with how we string our words into sentences. Kathi often varies the length of her sentences, going back and forth between fragments, alternating between short, simple, incredibly long and complex. When using long sentence, she builds a rhythm, often leaving the punch, or the revelation for the end. Look at this long, winding sentence, how it leads us slowly toward its dramatic end: the end of an ancient tree.

The lovely Kathi Appelt photo_credit Ken Appelt“So much water makes the ground softer than soft, so soft that an old tree, one  that has stood for centuries, one that was struck by lightning and has dwindled down to less than half its greatest size, whose limbs fell to the earth with a crash, whose long and lovely needles turned coppery red and settled on the mossy ground, whose upper stories cracked off one another and dropped away, whose trunk split in two and made a nest for one lost kitten, this old tree, this singular loblolly pine, the one that has held an ancient jar in its web of tangled roots for a thousand years, held it deep under ground with its even more ancient inhabitant, this very tree finally let go of the soggy earth that had held it all these years and leaned over.”

Reading the winding sentence is akin to giving tribute to the long life of a loblolly pine.

Kathi’s use of punctuation is subtle most of the time, not calling attention to itself. But in some of the tenser, more action-packed passages, she uses ellipsis and exclamation points for added tension and italicizes selected words for emphasis. In the following example, Puck is chasing a log drifting down the creek, with an intention of jumping atop it and riding it to the other side.

“He could see the limb heading straight toward him. Closer and closer and closer. Almost. Yes! He slid down the bank and landed, oomph, right in front of the turtle-laden limb. He closed his eyes and…


See how, with the use of ellipsis and a paragraph break, Kathi has the reader feeling both the kitten’s desperate courage and his uncertainty? As though it is us, and not only Puck, who are about to jump onto a log in the middle of the creek!

Kathi’s writing can be an inspiration for us all. A lot of this — the rhythm and structure of the sentences, the sound of our words, will come to us naturally as we write and revise our own stories. But it doesn’t hurt to be more mindful, to remember that we sometimes can take a sentence and break it apart or meld it together for stronger effect, that we can set elements against each other, that we can dig deeper and give our readers a more specific experience.

Let’s honor the origins of all story. Let’s remember to love the place where it all comes from. We are writers, and language is our home.

June 24, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , , | 7 Comments

Assassins, Not Liars

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

DA logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Writing Out of Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Back!

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

Some of the big highlights this residency:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off to Hogwarts!

Hey guys,

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

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

my Hogwarts

See you in a few weeks!

Cheers, KR

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

HOW DID THEY DO THAT? Learning From The Best

my current (working) bookshelf 001So I am about halfway through the Writing For Children And Young Adults program now — another year to go! — and last week I wrote my last Vermont College of Fine Arts essay. The realization makes me feel surprisingly wistful. The essays, anywhere from 3 to 10 pages long, were meant to help us tackle craft topics we struggle with. The essays I wrote in my two semesters definitely helped me do that.

Here is how it worked: I would read a book or two — no more than that, usually — then re-read, taking careful notes on how the author handled a particular writing or story issue. Some of my classmates tackled examples of things that haven’t been working. I, on the other hand, stuck to the successes.

It’s been an incredibly useful tool. Some of the best writers have learned the craft that way. Jack London used to copy passages of his favorite books for practice — a literary equivalent of warm-ups or scales.

If ever you are stuck on an issue; say you struggle with middles, as a lot of writers do; or you want to explore how to make your villain more believable, or your character funnier, or more spunky, or whatever. Well, why not turn to the best teachers, authors who have already been where you want to go? Read their stories, then read them again. How did they do that? The answers are there, for everyone to see.

These are the subjects I explored and the books I used: (this is not an exhaustive list)


Worldbuilding (Kenneth Oppel’s Frankenstein prequels, The Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent). Using imagery and strong sensory descriptions to build both the “real” and the magical worlds.

Surprise not shock in stories with a twist (Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Named Verity). Placing clues and planting information that lead to a satisfying surprise at the story’s end.

When to introduce magic in a fantasy story (Rohald Dahl’s Mathilda and Jennifer Donnely’s Revolution). The interesting thing about both of these stories is that, counter to the common advice to let the reader know as soon as possible what sort of story it’s going to be, both of these books introduce the magic really late. Or do they?

Cause and effect (Louis Sachar’s Holes). On the surface it might seem like the story is laced with coincidences. Upon a closer look it becomes obvious that nothing here happens at random, that every single event builds upon the one before. My first semester advisor Tim Wynne-Jones used to say to me, the only coincidence that should be allowed in a story is one that launches the protagonist into her adventure. Everything else must flow from the character, the narrative and the story’s world. I wrote this essay to study how Sachar makes that happen.

Language (Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath). How to make the narrative sing on the level of word and sentence. Kathi, of course, is a master at that.

Dystopian beginnings (Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker). Okay, these are dystopian novels, and I chose them because they are particularly good at getting the reader into the story quickly, while having to introduce a lot of information about the rules and the world. But my discoveries about an effective beginning could apply to any book genre.


A perfect blend of old and new (Karen Cushman’s Catherine Called Birdy). How to keep a historical novel true to its time period, while at the same time allowing the modern young reader to relate to the story. Using language to achieve both authenticity and relevance.

The use of the present tense/first person narration, its pitfalls and opportunities (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games). Present tense/first person is such a fashion in YA. But it has to be done right, in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself, in a way that makes sense for the particular story.

Flashbacks (A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz). I studied the seamless way she tied them to the main narrative, without making it feel like an info dump.

  Showing not telling (Martine Leavitt’s  The Book of Life by Angel). Related to the above, I examined the power of restrained exposition, especially in the beginning of Martine’s gorgeous novel in verse. Martine is not in a hurry to reveal all. She carefully teases the reader.

Yearning or protagonist’s desire (Cori McCarthy’s The Color of Rain, Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust). I wrote two separate essays on this, one on introducing both the external desire and the internal need of the protagonist before launching the story, and the other on expressing the character’s desire using the senses throughout the narrative.

How to impart meaning in a short novel (Eugene Yelchin’s Breaking Stalin’s Nose and Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall). It always impressed and mystified me, the way some books manage to tell a rich meaningful story, yet stay so slim! I decided to investigate just how they do that.

Feeling curious about any of the above topics? I would be glad to share my discoveries in the posts to come. I think I’d like to start with beginnings. Looking back, I realize, many of my essays deal with beginnings, and I can see why. In a way, this entire first year has been about learning how to begin the right way. The right start can influence the entire journey.

In the meantime, what craft issues are you curious about as a writer? What do you wish to learn how to do better? Well, whatever it is, you can! 🙂 Have you a book that just makes you swoon? (and which writer doesn’t?) Have you ever wondered, how did she do that? Well, re-read it, with a pen in hand. Many discoveries await you.

November 25, 2013 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , | 10 Comments

On Voice And Love

Aaaaaah! How is it already August 20th? And how has it been a month?

How? How? How?

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, I bring you a long-promised nuggets-of-wisdom post from my last residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. While my first residency back in January got dubbed as “The Plague” residency, because pretty much  everyone was sick (except for me!), this one became known as “The Summer of Love.” The lecture on voice by one of our incredible advisors, Martine Leavitt, was a huge part of the whole love theme that permeated our ten days. I am going to share the highlights from that lecture here with you guys — with Martine’s permission, of course. Thanks, Martine, for the wisdom and the inspiration. And for allowing me to share the love.


Voice. Such an elusive concept, isn’t it? We know when the author has achieved it. But how to grasp it? How to master it?

According to Martine, you need to think of voice as an integral part of the story. “Voice begets character and character begets plot.”

All right, but where does voice come from? What exactly IS voice anyway?

Here are Martine’s answers: Voice is…

— The author’s personality and worldview

— A combination of diction, sentence patterns, tone and point of view

— Attitude

— Author’s natural narrative tendencies

— Authenticity

— What the author is writing about

— Style

— Appropriate and well-modulated mood

The way Martine summed it up was: “Voice is what you hear in your mind’s ear as you read.” Or, to look at it another way, Martine offered a quote from Eudora Welty: “The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth.”


What can you do to find your voice as a writer? How can you strengthen it?

Here are Martine’s suggestions:

— Read the best books. “Figure out what makes you jealous. It is often a clue to what your natural tendencies might be.”

— Read aloud.

— Research primary sources. Read the stories and poetry and songs of the day.

— Try imitating. As an exercise, pick a passage or a poem you admire and try to write something with the same structure.

— Notice when you get it right and aim to sustain that.

— Relax! Dare to be dreadful! “A voice can’t be heard if there is no breath…”

— Avoid fancy words. Don’t overwrite. (Which is a whole another lecture).

— “Cower at cliche. Avoid hearts and stomachs and anything else that clenches.”

— “Use the language of the perceiving subject. Let the character talk and think in terms of his significant attachments to life, his desires and his history.”

— Choose your distance (from your character) thoughtfully. Think about the reason for this character to tell the story.

And after all these helpful suggestions, Martine revealed the true secret to voice. Ready? It is, of course love.


“Love for words, love for the reader, love for the world, love for the work.”

If we think about it, isn’t love the secret to pretty much anything?

Yep, that’s what Ray Bradbury said, too.

“Love is the answer to everything. It is the only reason to do anything.” Ray Bradbury

Below are some ways you can love more:

— “Think of your reader sitting next to you,” Martine said. “Think: I want to tell you a story.”

— Wait between projects, listen for a voice.

— Love your character. “Close your eyes and become that person. What does it feel like? What does he see? What does he do? What does he do next?… Never stop being that boy, as you write. Don’t think about the weather until he looks up at the sky.”

— Avoid sentimentality and mannerism. “Sentimentality comes from false emotion” and mannerism is simply “the author’s wish to distinguish herself.” Instead, Martine invites you to “imaginatively become your character.”

— Pay attention. Be here. Don’t be so focused on always taking “your own pulse.” Martine offered another great quote, this one from poet Ralph Angel: “By attending to things and beings… one forgets about oneself and travels some distance. Language becomes voice in that open space.”

— Finally, “Be kind,” Martine said at the end of the lecture. “This is what makes a great writer.”

Be kind. These words. From now on, I will take them with me everywhere I go. I hope you all do too.



August 20, 2013 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , , , | 16 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.



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