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!

KR

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

Five Ways To Get Closer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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