Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

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

Hi all,

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

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

7. Arc

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

8. A Scene is a Mini Story

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

9. Desire

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

10. Plot is Made of Moments and Bridges

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

11. Write What you Know, But Don’t

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

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

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

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

12. Break the Rules!

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

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



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


I hesitated and debated with myself on whether to do this, and finally decided that the Magic Mirror just wouldn’t be the same without a traditional — if belated —¬†New Year post ūüôā

I’ve been thinking: why does the New Year excite us so much — why does it inspire and scare us so?

A poem a friend of mine wrote a few days ago led me to an answer. I think the key to the New Year’s is in the word “new.” A new relationship. A new child. A new house.¬†A new draft. A new story. A new year. Newness means hope. Another chance.

Last year — the old year —¬†was good for me in so many ways, great even. It brought countless moments of happiness and love.¬†It brought new revelations,¬†achievements, new lessons learned. And yet, if I said the year brought me everything I wanted I would be lying.

I didn’t sign that contract I’ve been dreaming about.

But it’s not even that — what was worse — way worse — was that¬†I didn’t finish the story I thought would surely be making the rounds by now.

That was my heaviest disappointment of the year.

But¬†that’s the way it is, isn’t it?

At the start of each year, we are nervous and hopeful. As the ball drops, our hearts lift with desire. We hope that maybe this year we will get it right. This year we will re-invent ourselves.

But what I realize now, is that there is no need (at least for me) to keep trying to be this new person every year. This shiny idea of the perfect me is just that — an idea.

Here is what I am beginning to understand: every year will bring joy –and disappointment.

And the two are interwoven together tightly as the strands of hair in a braid.

My not completing the novel I hoped to finish led me to re-evaluate my revision methods. It pushed me to try new things.

Saying “hello” to 2012, I am going easy on hopes and wishes this time around, while continuing to focus on my goals. The things I can do. Revisions. Completions. Submissions.

I don’t care¬†about a book contract in 2012.

Okay, maybe that’s a lie. I care. But I don’t wish for it. Nope. I¬†am¬†hereby striking it from my list of hopes and wishes for this year. In fact, I am keeping that list very short, and here it goes:

To reach my own goals. Hit my own deadlines.

That’s all I want for this year.

Happy 2012, everyone!

May your joys this year outweigh your disappointments. May you have the strength, committment and wisdom to keep your resolutions, and may those bring you closer to your dreams.

January 6, 2012 Posted by | Personal Mirror, Writing Mirror | , , , , , | 8 Comments

To love and revision: a post-Valentine’s Day post

This Valentine’s Day I took a walk with my dog Lucky, something I do every day, but this time, inhaling the miracle of spring-like air. I did something else, too, this Valentine’s Day. Something pretty cool.¬†I . . .¬†finally . . . ¬†(deep breath in) . . . FINISHED THE REVISION!!!


Well, at least it’s finished for now, and out of my hands for the next two weeks.

Fighting dread and mostly convinced I have created nothing but awful, nonsensical, indigestible drivel, I e-mailed the revision to my two trusted readers and wonderful writing friends Patti Brown, a Vermont MFA graduate http://plbonline.blogspot.com/    and Keri Mikulski, author of Head Games: A Pretty Tough Novel that is just out this year with Razorbill (go Keri!) http://kerimikulski.com/  


I know, I know,¬†I’m sure it’s awful. ¬†(Or so a grumpy perfectionist¬†demon grumbled in my head — trying to ruin my near-perfect day.) But the voices of my friends were louder. All that time, they¬†kept telling me to shut up and stop whining (well, Patti did, anyway :)); they kept saying I should revise this manuscript, should finish it. So, there.¬†At least I have done it.¬†¬†For them. For myself. For the perfectionist demon in my head. For the crazy-terrible story that just might have some good bits in it.

Step by step, page by page, chapter  by chapter, day by insane day, past fear, past almost incapacitating anxiety, past my body refusing to move forward, past a full-blown panic attack that happened just last week, past all that, I have been moving, now crawling, now sprinting forward, to this point.

Yesterday, I raised a glass of red wine to love — to the yellow roses my husband gave me — to our every single day. I raised¬†the glass¬†to my children who promptly spilled their grape juice all over the floor in celebration ūüôā I raised my glass to reaching this stage of the journey.¬† Somehow,¬†deep inside me, on the other side of¬†the swirling vortex of fear and doubt, I always knew I would.

“This means you’ll be ‘tranquille’ (French for “calm,” “at peace”) for a little while?” my husband asked me. (Yes, he’s French, and no, we converse in English, with some fun Russian and French words thrown in when they seem to fit best.)

“Yes,” I smiled back at him, “For a little while. Until the next revision. That is the writer’s life.”

He sighed a little — and I think I sighed back. But the truth is, I love it.

Yes,¬†a writer’s life¬†is like that — a series of celebrations.

February 15, 2011 Posted by | Personal Mirror, Writing Mirror | , , , , | 4 Comments

Jonathan Evison: “What More Can You Ask of Anybody?”

I am so pleased and excited to give you Jonathan Evison, another fabulous author. His novel for¬†¬† adults “All About Lulu” (Soft Skull Press, 2008) spans the 1970s-1990s, delves into dreams, love, obsession, growing up¬†and family. The ¬†book is impossible to put down, and once you reluctantly close its covers,¬†the characters¬†will keep haunting you.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†

(Also, coming out¬†from Algonquin is¬†Jonathan’s new¬†“epic Western adventure”¬†called “West of Here.”¬† http://www.jonathanevison.com/books.html¬† Look for it this fall!)

Jonathan is a West Coast guy, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to sit down with him for a chat — which I imagne would have been a long and great one. Still, after I sent him my questions and read his answers, all I could think was, in Jonathan’s words, “what more can you ask of anybody?”

¬†Okay, first I just want to say, it is a true pleasure to read such an honest voice that grabs you from the very first line and won’t let go. In fact, thinking about it, there is NOTHING in your story that just ISN’T original. The narrator who is having such great trouble finding himself, or moving past his great obsession. To the setting. To the great minor characters, from the hot dog idea guy from the Soviet Union to even Acne Joe, to, of course, Will’s family. I think what you did with this story is: you told the truth. I know you didn’t¬†just sit and write an autobiography, but it felt so real, that I have to ask, to what extent — if at all — did a memory of a painful all-consuming passion or an obsession of any sort affect your writing of this book?

J: Well, to some extent, I’ve been obsessed with every woman I’ve ever loved, and a few I didn’t even know (and just for the record, I never had sex with my step-sister or half-sister). Like Will, I lost my primary caregiver as a youngster, and it left me with a bit of a bruised heart. Also, I’m well acquainted with longing in many of its guises.

 In one of your interviews, you say you constantly pick up pieces of real life, which eventually make it into your fiction. Do you keep notebooks? Different notebooks for different sorts of notes, or one crazy notebook for EVERYTHING? Have you kept one as a kid? Was any of the 70s-90s stuff from your notes/research or memory?

J: I must have twenty notebooks, but usually they’re pretty focused at any given time on three different projects: the novel I’m editing, the novel I’m writing, and the novel ‘m daydreaming. That’s how I work. The fact that the three processes are so different, allows me to compartmentalize them. As far the stuff in Lulu, pretty much everything was from memory–the bodybuilding stuff, the radio stuff, the pop culture window dressings. West of Here was a different story all together–tons of research. But aside, from some date and fact checking, Lulu required little research.

What did you do before you became an author (a radio DJ, I hear? http://laist.com/2008/08/13/laist_interview_jonathan_evison_aut.php )

What other jobs have you held?

J: Hmm, let’s see: gardener, laborer, roadkill-hacker-upper, bartender, tomato-sorter, water-meter-checker, courier, telemarketer, busboy, barista (or is it baristo?), production assistant, production coordinator, producer, director, columnist, screenwriter, talk radio host. There’s gotta’ be a dozen more. Oh, vintage clothing dealer, cook,
ice cream server, dishwasher. Wait, I know I’m forgetting a few: journeyman cabinet maker, auto detailer, errand boy. I think you get the point. I started working when I was twelve–bussing tables for my waitress sister, who paid me out of pocket. Many of these jobs have served me well in fiction, because, as one bookseller recently put it to
me (Jessica Hurst, Third Place Books!), the devil is in the details, and I’ve sold my soul outright.)

You say, again in one of your interviews, that you wrote six books before you got Lulu published… can you talk a little bit about the long road that led to Lulu (as inspiration for us . . . ahem . . . the struggling writers out there . . .) ūüôā

J: That’s how long it took me to get good. I must have had five hundred rejections before I started placing stories– of course, in hindsight, I now see a lot of that was my own fault–not profiling editors properly, carpet-bombing campaigns, pompous cover letters, just a generally dumb game plan. Still, it takes a long time to learn craft, structure, the verisimilitudes of language. Hell, it can take years just to learn that you can’t forget the reader. Truthfully, though, I was never motivated by publication, or I would have quit fifteen years ago. The only real inspiration a writer should need is a chair. You gotta’ love to write.

I know your perspective has changed since you became an author, but try to think back to when you were than hungry anonymous writer. One can love to write, love it with great passion, still, when the story is done, how do you let go of that¬†crippling expectation when your stuff is out there courting editors? When you were anonymous, how did you find a way to separate yourself from that? Was it a struggle, or was it natural? (If you say it was natural, I WILL hate you). ūüôā

J: Throw expectations out the window. It’s fine to daydream, it’s better to believe, and it’s best of all to simply have faith that your diligence will pay off — it almost always does. Profile editors carefully, lick envelopes, keep spending your lunch money on postage, but the second you let go of that envelope, just forget about it. Throw your rejections
away unless they contain some substantive editorial insight. You can’t hang onto rejection, or it will drag you down–this seems to be a demonstrable law of the universe. Optimism is about the best tool I can think of–it really is contagious.

Your new book sounds so different from Lulu. If you look back at some of the stories you published (and didn’t), and these two books, what themes/threads would you say run through them all? (as I have only read Lulu, I wouldn’t know…)

J: Mostly, it boils down to character for me, and always has. The character is the story. My protagonists tend to be people who are stuck in some way. The story is there to serve them, to help them get unstuck, and start inching their way toward some sort of self-realization or catharsis. The story is basically a human obstacle course. Continuing
themes for me seem to be fathers and sons, the trappings of history, unfulfilled promises or ambitions. I’ve also been noticing that my characters often love their automobiles. Oh, and no matter how miserable they are as human beings, most of my characters (like my friends) are doing the best they can. What more can you ask of anybody?

July 2, 2010 Posted by | Contemporary History, Writing Mirror | , , , , , | 2 Comments

A year in my writing life: things I am thankful for

I love lists – another great American invention! (Okay, the truth is, I don’t know where those really originated, but the idea seems so very American).

So here is my list of three new things to be thankful for this year – a year in my writing life:

1. A year of setbacks:

It was definitely a bumpy ride,¬†signing on with¬†one literary¬†agent, trying to ignore the¬†premonition from the very start that¬†something was wrong,¬†and then¬†seeing for myself that¬†she and I just didn’t make a good team together.¬†This tough year: I am incredibly grateful for it. For the way¬†it¬†taught me, for the way it¬†strengthened me and readied me for the better things.¬†

So yes, I am thankful for this year/experience. I am also thankful that it’s over ūüôā

2. I am thankful for my new agent Jessica. She is what I first imagined an agent would be.

3. I am thankful for revisions. Another chance to get it right. And another. And another. And another . . . . another . . . another . . . No, no, but really. I am thankful!!

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 25, 2009 Posted by | Writing Mirror | , , | 2 Comments