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!


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

What I’ve Learned: MFA in a Nutshell, Part 2

Hi all,

Sorry for the delay.  Figuring out post-MFA grownup life is time-consuming business! That, and completing the revisions, of course 😉

But now, let’s continue the (quite ambitious) list of all the things I have learned during my intense two years in the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program. There may be more parts. We will see.

7. Arc

Over the last two years, I have really learned to pay attention to story arc. An arc means change. An arc is growth. Movement. In a good story, everything arcs. There is an external arc, and an internal one to mirror it. A good romance should have an arc. Every scene should have one. It might help to think of an arc as a journey. You know your story has a good, interesting arc when your character/scene/relationship/situation starts in one place and ends up somewhere different and when the reader looks back, she can see how things got to where they are.

8. A Scene is a Mini Story

We all know this instinctively: every scene is an entity in itself. But I’ve learned it really helps to think of each scene as a mini-story, with its own build, its own movement, its own momentum. For every scene I write now, I have a series of general points and questions I want to make sure that I hit. I have four sticky notes stuck to the bottom of my computer monitor, each featuring a mini list of elements to consider when writing a scene. There are 17 such elements for me. (Just counted). Hmmm, a list within a list. I am thinking, it deserves its own post!

9. Desire

I am sure I’ve talked about it here before, and more than once, too, but this post is about what I’ve learned, and desire was a big one. Through the study of other books, through essays and through my own writing, I saw it clearer than I had before, how desire drives story. Desire is the most straightforward way to create a narrative pull that would make the story irresistible. I have learned that a character’s big desire must be crystal clear. And very specific. That it’s better when it can be translated into something “positive” (something the character DOES want), as opposed to negative desire (something the character wants to avoid or run away from). By the way, the latter can be the key to the former. Another revelation: what matters is not only what the main character wants but why he wants it. As I write, I am now more aware of the interplay, the juggling act that goes on as I balance my protagonist’s internal desire with her external one. And in every scene, in every chapter, it helps to translate this desire into goals.

10. Plot is Made of Moments and Bridges

Working with novels in verse critically and creatively (not to mention, reading a ton of them, of course) made me look at plot in a different way. When I considered closely the way verse novels are structured, I noticed they are really a kind of a beautiful necklace made of brilliant moments, each moment like a pearl, with the poetry form acting as a kind of a string to tie it all together. For one year I re-envisioned my previously prose novel in this exciting form. It liberated me, writing out of order, not worrying about ways to connect the moments. Not at first anyway. In my last semester however, I felt it was time to convert the story back to prose. When I did that, I realized I needed to add “bridges” or transitions between my moments. Now, this is what I see when I look at a story: I see moments and bridges. In her craft book, Steering the Craft,  the legendary Ursula LeGuin uses the terms “crowding” and “leaping” to talk about this. Scene vs. summary, pearl vs. string, moment vs. bridge, showing vs. telling. However the writer chooses to think of it, I am now convinced it’s important to be mindful of the distinction and to be purposeful about it.

11. Write What you Know, But Don’t

Life is full of contradictions. And so is art. Two totally opposite things can be true at the same time.  I picked that idea up from Davis Jauss, in one of his wonderful essays on the craft of writing, called “Lever of Transcendence: Contradiction and the Physics of Creativity.” This applies to writing ALL THE TIME.

For example, Write what you know, some say. That’s how you get to the treasure that only you can offer the world.

No, no, say others. Truth constricts fiction! Look beyond your life: ah the freedom! The possibilities!

Both pieces of this advice are two sides of the same truth. Dig deep into your memories, to enrich your characters’ emotions, or to make your setting real. But in doing so, why limit yourself to the things you know? With the help of our imaginations, oh the places we will go! I am sure Dr. Seuss would agree 🙂

12. Break the Rules!

Here is another two-sided bit of wisdom: mind the rules. And break them! This can apply to anything, from grammar to archetypical characters to plot. So many books I’ve read over the last two years, plus a few wonderful lectures I attended, reminded me how fluid the rules in writing can really be. Margaret Atwood switches back and forth between past tense and present in Handmaid’s Tale, leaving the reader dizzy. Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda raises a HUGE central question that never gets answered, not even at the end. In Sarah Aronson’s Head Case, the story doesn’t have much of an external arc; most of the change is happening inside the main character’s head. And I am still on letter “A” in the cumulative bibliography of titles I have read while in the program! In each of these cases and many more, though, the reader can tell, the author is well aware of what he or she is doing. Good writers follow the rules. Great writers know the rules and break them for excellent reasons. They play with expectation and create their own reality.

Thoughts? Questions? As always I hope you find these helpful. And maybe inspiring, too!


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

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]



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

Hanging A Shingle

Hi all,

A couple of things this week.

First, I would like to welcome the new subscribers. Every time someone new joins the small but beloved audience of this blog, I get nervous. I feel like going, “what me? What would they want to hear from good old me for, when there are so many other great, smart voices out there?”

At the same time,  seeing the new subscribers makes me want to try even harder. It makes me want to pump my fist in the air. I am proud and honored to be walking along this crazy-marvelous-always-twisting path with you guys, fellow writers, restless souls, friends, even if we have never met face to face. Because, we writers know each other, don’t we?

So, this is just a long-winded, nervous, excited way of saying, “thank you,” old friends and new subscribers, for being here.

Second thing this week: I have an announcement. I am going into business!  Katia's critiquing service

After completing the first semester in Writing for Children And Young Adults Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, I guess I have gotten the confidence to start something I have been considering doing for YEARS. I now offer manuscript critiquing services! I have just heard from my second client! (Sorry about all the exclamation points, but this is exciting stuff.)


(Okay. Got it out of my system.) 🙂

The work is intense, time-consuming, but also gratifying.

Here is the info, in case you know of someone who might find this useful:

My speciality, of course, are YA and MG manuscripts — these  are the books I’d be best qualified to handle. But I can consider taking on an adult book as well, only if it feels like it’s the kind of project with which I could be helpful. I do NOT work with picture books. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about that tricky, magical genre.

Basically, my service includes a VERY THOROUGH, pretty intense in-depth line-by-line critique that deals with EVERYTHING, from language to conflict to logic to character development to plot and tension. If you seek my services, be prepared for LOTS of food for thought to chew over. Be prepared to reconsider your most darling of passages. Be prepared to be challenged. That’s my style. It’s the only way I know how to work.

Having said that, I will do my best to work with your vision, to offer you ideas and insight that seems to match with what you’re trying to say. I will also encourage, coach, offer advice on not only the story itself, but the writing life in general. My goal in working with every manuscript will be more than to give you a push. My goal will be to lift you up so you can soar.

I base and model my work on the feedback I have received from my agent, as well as the many exchanges with my editor, plus the generous comments from my fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts students, from my distinguished workshop advisors Kathi Appelt and Mark Karlins, and from my wise first semester advisor, a prolific, prominent, exacting Canadian author Tim Wynne-Jones.

I am really excited about becoming an entrepreneur. Of course, I am about to start my second VCFA semester, which means my time is going to be seriously limited, and I don’t think I am ready to face a deluge of requests. But I’d like to do this on the side, on a limited basis. I guess this is me, hanging a shingle. Wish me luck!

A third and final thing for this week I wanted to let you all know:

I am about to start my second semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts! Next Monday I’ll be heading back to the tiny, picturesque mountain-y Montpelier campus. When I went to my first residency back in January, my nervousness rivaled my excitement. Now I feel I’ll be going back more seasoned, more prepared, anxious to hug my friends and classmates and teachers. I also know that when I get there, I’ll be knocked right back on my butt, overwhelmed all over again with all the stuff I have yet to learn, terrified of the new possibilities, excited to take new chances! But isn’t that the writer’s life?

I might take a short blogging break during my absence. But when I come back, some of you already know, I’ll have plenty to say!

So, until next time — and thanks for reading,



July 2, 2013 Posted by | Personal Mirror, Updates, Writing Mirror | , , , | 15 Comments

What I’ve Learned At VCFA Series: Semester One (Included: The Secret To Productivity!)

This is the end of my first semester. Five packets containing nine essays, 200 pages total of creative work, 50 books read and analyzed, many exchanges with my advisor, Tim Wynne-Jones. I get a little choked up and overwhelmed, just thinking about the whole experience. So why don’t I try to tell you what I’ve learned with a simple little list?

In my first VCFA semester, I have learned:

1. To be a beginner.

Yes, after ten years and many drafts of several manuscripts, countless conferences, critiques and workshops, I still have such a long way to go. A long, long way. Then again, I wonder if I’ll always think so. In some ways, every writer should be a beginner, unless they feel they have reached the end: the end of their growth. The moment you think you know it all a little kid inside you that is joy and wonder grows old.

2. To follow my characters.

I used to be such a bossy writer. I’d have my outline all laid out, thank you very much. Or, at the very least, I’d know the points that I’d want my story to hit, the things I wanted my characters to do. After this semester’s intense work, I realized how much I was constricting my characters, and because of it, how much the story’s logic suffered. (As in: why would she do this all of a sudden? Or, why wouldn’t he try and do that?) It’s okay to know approximately where you might want to end up. As long as that’s where your characters are going!

Now when I construct scenes, I am not asking what I need to happen. I’m asking my characters: what are you going to do? And why?

3. To face my fears.

I have analyzed and figured out why I look for that Internet browser button in the middle of writing a scene. It could be because I am stalling. I know I’m stuck, something is off, and instead of facing the problem, my response is running off on some random chase. This work isn’t over by far, again will it ever be? And yet, this semester, I have started to pay more attention to fear. I realize I can’t eliminate it. It can’t ever go away. But it is something I can — and must — face, every time I sit down at my computer. But it helps to name it. Nameless, it can eat you whole.

4. To think “try” instead of “perfect.”

Around packet 3 was where I got seriously stuck. I was paralyzed (see fear). I hated the chapters I was writing, and was terrified to approach another book I wanted to write. So, what did I do? I decided to “try” things. One day I tried to start with a school scene. The next day, I tried to start in a totally different place. In the span of that packet, I also tried to write a brand new story. It didn’t work. Ten pages, probably more, for nothing, pages I didn’t even bother show Tim. But it wasn’t “nothing.” It was learning. It got me back to a story I had been afraid to approach in the first place. Thinking “try” instead of “perfect” helps free you up. So what if you make a mistake. You’re only trying.

5. One thousand words a day. writing words

This is big, peeps, so pay attention. Huge. Life-changing. This, my friends, is an eternal secret to writing productivity. I used to try it other ways. Thirty-one minutes (some of you will remember that; it was great.) One chapter a day (that can work sometimes). Breaks on the weekend. Great chunks of all-or-nothing. And then I discovered Ray Bradbury’s precious little volume called Zen In The Art of Writing. Some of you/many of you might have heard of it. And I’m sure Ray Bradbury is not the only one who came up with that idea either: 1,000 words a day, to honor your craft, to honor yourself as a writer. All I know is, it came to me at the right time. I latched on to it. One thousand words a day. Make it holy. No matter what, NO MATTER WHAT. Some days, when you’re blocked on one project, make it 1,000 words from a different project. A short story. Or a fun writing exercise. Put your character in a random situation: 1,000 words. Examine a scene in the childhood of your antagonist: 1,000 words. Or just: write crappy on a crappy day. Lower your standards. One thousand words. Try it. Some days it’ll be easy as blinking. Other days, grit your teeth and stick to it, even if it takes all night. One thousand words. Some days, write more if you can. But never less. At some point during this semester, I started this practice. It hasn’t always been easy. But now I can’t live any other way. When someone asks me advice next time, this will be it. Ignore everything else I or anyone else have said and just try that, and you’ll soar. I practically guarantee it. *

*Only one way I’m letting you off the hook with this one: if you don’t need a secret to great writing productivity. If you have your own perfect secret. Some people do. Shannon Hale takes Sundays off and swears by it. Hey, it worked for her. Maybe you have something that works for you, something better. Then ignore this.  If you don’t, then tell me: what do you have to lose by trying this out?

6. Short stories

I recommend writing short stories to grow as a writer. It did wonders for me.

First, I started with reading, and if you try it you should too. (I read seven anthologies. If you decide to try it, I recommend reading at least two). The reading was such an inspiration. Short stories tend to be playful, elusive, wonderfully weird. Reading them, I got a sense of immense freedom: anything goes! Anything is worth a try! My mind burst with ideas. Writing was a joy, low stakes, not much to lose, and at the same time, there was the thrill, the freshness. If you’re a novelist, you are not wasting your time on a short story. While handling the concentrated, elegant form, it’s easy to observe your issues, your problems; it’s easy to plot, to revise, to add or take away a character, to play with tense or point of view. I bet I got that one from Ray Bradbury, too. 🙂

I hope this helps/inspires you a little!

What about you? What have you been learning, lately? I’d love to know.

June 17, 2013 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series | , , , , , | 8 Comments


flyingHappy Monday, everyone!

Yes, happy Monday. Whether it’s a day job Monday, or just a busy Monday. Try to treasure it no matter what. Measure your Mondays with new words, measure them with love, with little bits of beauty.

Try to fly through Mondays, if you can. Try to, even if you cannot.

I think it’s time for another Vermont College of Fine Arts update. You know, my dream and goal for so long, the MFA program in Writing For Children And Young Adults.

So, I am on packet 4 of 5, as of this writing. I cannot believe the semester is almost over.

This packet, I am paying close attention to language. The flow of sentences, the choice of words, the sounds that words make when they plop, slide or explode upon the page. As I read books, I keep my ear open for melody. I align my heart to the rhythm of the sentence.

I am also re-examining beginnings. What makes the reader care? How do writers make promises in ways that are exciting, but also true?

And then, of course, there is my own writing. The getting stuck, and sometimes unstuck. I am asking all kinds of questions. Grasping at hints of answers. Sometimes, rejoicing at the tiniest of discoveries. Often, panicking.

Oh God, the ride is scary, and getting scarier with every packet. Painful too, my writing bones aching with all the growth.

But if it’s all so tough and nerve-wracking, why oh why then am I having the time of my life?

I don’t know because I have never tried, but I imagine this is what flying must feel like.

One last thing for today: the winner of last week’s giveaway is…Michael Gettel-Gilmartin! Email me your address, Michael, to katiawrites (at) gmail (dot) com, and I will send you your very own brand new copy of The Marble Queen by Stephanie Blake, a fun new middle-grade novel set in 1959!

Whoo-hoo for you, and thank you so very much for participating!

Once again, happy Monday, dear friends and readers. May this week be a bright one for you all. And keep on trying to fly. It’s impossible. Also, it’s worth it.

May 6, 2013 Posted by | Updates, VCFA Adventures, Writing Mirror | , , , | 6 Comments