Weakness and Opportunity

I’ve been absent from the blog while working toward my MFA at Lesley University, and it’s good to come back for a quick reflection. When Katie and I chat, which we do with semi-regularity, we often discuss the latest thing I’m learning in my program. There’s always a lot to talk about.

During my recent residency in Boston, one of the faculty asked us to be truthful about our writing weaknesses. A task such as this is always easier said than done. Of course, we all have weaknesses. (Mine is dark chocolate sea salt caramels. Isn’t yours?) Prior to this seminar, I would have said revision was my biggest weakness. But if our weaknesses should be our top priority when it comes to revision, as this faculty person said, then revision itself couldn’t be my weakness. Besides, revision isn’t a craft technique. It’s the process of reworking the mechanics (read: craft techniques) of a piece. So I couldn’t play it safe with “revision.” But what I discovered at first unnerved me.

In general, my characters are deemed likable or relatable. At the same time, they trend toward being one-dimensional, lacking backstory, or blurring with other characters. In the case of my current WIP, I’d been thinking about these characters for over three years—I was convinced I knew them well. But when my chapters were workshopped at residency, there were questions about my characters I couldn’t answer. Here are just a few:

What was Sage doing when she found out her father had died?

What did she think when her mother first told her they were moving out of the country?

What did AJ think when he met his adoptive parents for the first time?

Why did Leighanne resist going to Nepal all those years?

Did Tenzin ever resent having a nun for a mother?

What fascinating questions! And what I wouldn’t give to know the answers to them.

It’s incredible to grasp how much I can not know my characters. Right now, they live only in my head. At some point, I hope they will live in your head as well, but until that day, I’m all they’ve got. To tell their stories, I would have to get to know them better.  I’d discovered a weakness, and a pretty significant one at that. What to do?

My advisor for this semester, Sara Zarr, recommended daily writing prompts by Sarah Selecky. (You can access it here.) Using these prompts, I write scenes with various characters from my WIP. A recent favorite involved an unnamed baby. In writing this scene, I discovered more about the dynamic between my protagonist’s parents. And while their relationship is somewhat critical to the backstory, I honestly hadn’t given them much thought.

Now, uncovering the details about my characters is a top priority, and the daily prompts are a big part in this process. Since I don’t know the answer (and arguably there is no right answer) of who my characters are, I can simply experience the joy of discovering new things about them. And my characters are so much more interesting than I ever would have imagined. I don’t foresee being able to use these scenes directly in my WIP, but I’ve only been doing them a few weeks, and already I feel more in touch with my characters. I’m hooked.

At first I was scared to confront the idea that I didn’t know my characters. Now I see that even within weakness there is opportunity. This is true beyond writing as well. Whether your weakness is defining characters or asking for help or speaking in front of large groups, be brave and embrace it fully. Who knows what will come of it.

Lost (and Found) in MFA-land

Here’s a shout-out to Katie for giving so much love to the blog!

I’ve been a bit absent lately. And will be for the next few months.

Remember when I applied for an MFA? Writing submissions, check. References, check. Acceptance, check! I was accepted into three of the four programs I applied for and am now happily enrolled  in Lesley University in Boston. In fact, my first semester is almost half over. That’s like 1/8th done with the whole MFA!

Okay. I’m counting pennies, but I’m so excited to be doing it. Critically reading young adult literature (and having to write essays about what I discover–still painful at this point). Ripping apart and rebuilding one of my manuscripts. Researching 17th century Holland for a different one.

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It’s all so interesting, stimulating. And how can my writing do anything but improve?

One highlight so far has been working with my faculty advisor, Jackie Davies. She’s written a number of successful books for young people. My recent favorite is The Candy Smash, the fourth in a middle grade series about a brother and sister. I’ve learned so much from her guidance, and this kind of close mentorship was precisely what I was looking for in getting an MFA.

Here’s a sampling of the books I’m reading for my various independent studies:

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It’s a great variety, and that helps keep me engaged, for sure. I’ve only just begun, but I am so excited for wherever I am going with this! From time to time, I’ll chime in to the blog, to share what I’m learning. And thanks again to Katie for keeping our blog’s momentum!

The MFA: Part One

A few months ago I wrote a post about MFAs, specifically on whether or not I would apply for one of the few programs on writing for young people. I ended up applying to four schools, getting into three, and finally accepting a position at Lesley University in Boston (forever known to me as Bostron from my college days). I couldn’t be happier about Lesley. I’m not sure I totally understand what I have signed up for, and might not know until the two years are up, but I can already feel the momentum building underneath me. A literary adventure awaits!

In preparation for the first of five residencies, Lesley and Co. has sent out a list of required/recommended readings for workshops, and then there will be manuscripts to read as well. Having this work at first overwhelmed me. How was I going to tackle it all? But now that I’m engrossed in the reading, my excitement for the endeavor of getting an MFA increases with every assignment I read.  So far I haven’t gotten through that much, but I’ve already applied the readings to my own WIPs (at least mentally). I can’t wait to see how my writing and critical thinking improve through this program.

Lesley’s program appealed me for many reasons, one of which is their interdisciplinary slant. For the first three semesters I’ll take a class in a subject related to, but not necessarily on the craft of, writing. Maybe this will be Creative Writing Pedagogy (a class that would be great if I ever want to teach) or Historical Fiction. I could even develop an independent study specifically for one of my WIPs — like a class on 17th century Surinam for my historical YA manuscript. So interesting! As a generalist in almost all things, the opportunity to learn many different aspects of the craft is very exciting. Though I expect to work closely with my advisors so that I don’t spread myself too thin (one of my habits).

Amidst all this excitement is a good-ol’-fashioned case of stage fright (Book fright?). What if, once I get there, Lesley doesn’t think I’m good enough? <Sigh.> This is normal, at least for me, and I’ll do what I always do in situations that press me. Pretend I’m not scared! It’s not very suave but sooner or later I’ll be in it, doing it, using that strong self-critic to drive my work. At least, that’s what I’m hoping for!

Have you gone through later-in-life schooling or expansion of some kind? Was it harder or easier than you expected?

One and A Half Yards of Fleece

This past weekend I experienced a rare and somewhat bewildering burst of inspiration. If this burst had had anything to do with writing, I might feel surer about it, excited to run with it. Because isn’t that where I want to direct my creativity? To my manuscripts in revision and to the new ideas swirling in my head? Instead, here are the outcomes of this inspired rampage:

One fleece sweatshirt.Two fleece hats. One cardboard dinosaur head. One dinosaur tail. One pair very baggy pants with a drawstring. One pair mittens. A host of cloth sandwich bags.

That’s right. I crafted.

All weekend, basically. I sewed and cut and measured and sewed again. I glued and taped. I cursed my inability to plan ahead and started over. It began with my son’s Halloween costume. (Obviously, he’s being a T-Rex). It ended with a headband for myself made with scrap fleece. Oh, and I finally hemmed those pants that were dragging in the mud.

What makes this all so monumental is that I don’t craft. I don’t sew. I don’t—and didn’t—use patterns. Yet somehow I managed to CREATE all these things from scratch.

In two words: LOVED IT.

I don’t really *make* that many things. Things you can hold. Every once in a while I experiment with something in the kitchen. But by now I’ve chosen my easy-to-bake artisan breads, so there’s not that much enjoyment from the experimentation (oh, but the eating…). Writing itself is a drawn out, abstract process. I probably won’t feel complete in the way I do now until a book is published, in my hands, being held in the same way I can hold the mittens I just sewed.

Creating tangible things is such an important process for me, but one I haven’t really embraced for a long time. I used to paint, but my paints and brushes have been in some kind of cryogenic deep freeze since I started writing. I don’t know if I’ll take them out, or just keep on this sewing kick. But the pride I felt at having made something concrete was so overwhelming it made me realize I wasn’t meeting all of my creative needs. I’m predicting that attending to both the abstract and non-abstract sides of my artistic self will better serve my writing, though I’m not precisely sure how to detect or measure that influence.

What have you discovered about different forms of the creative process? Do you experiment with both abstract and tangible forms of creation? What have you made with fabric scraps lately?

(Also, email me if you want those bread recipes. The dino costume you can figure out on your own like I did…)

Making My Story Matter: A Second Look at Revision

A few posts ago, I wrote about revisioning my novel, a la Cheryl Klein. Now I’m back at it, with another book – Writing A Book That Makes A Difference by Philip Gerard.

I admit it – I’ve had this book for well over a year and haven’t even cracked it open enough to skim more than a page or two. At first glance, it’s dense – altogether different from Cheryl Klein’s light, but informative transcribed speeches. But on closer inspection, this is a winner. I suppose it’s important to know why I even picked the book back up, after many failed attempts. Last winter, an agent requested a full manuscript read of a YA novel I’m working on. She liked some bits, but overall said the book wasn’t about much. Those are my words (she was very polite) but it got me thinking. I knew the book was about more, but after the teeniest bit of scrutiny, I had to agree with her. But what to do?

I underwent a big revision, after a random and fortuitous email sparked an idea, an idea that raised the stakes in the book. At this point, I knew I wanted the book to *be* something, at least in my eyes. Not just a bittersweet coming of age story (which it still is). I wanted my book to make a difference. Or at least read like it did. So I picked up Gerard’s book.

Yes, I’ve skimmed a bit, but the book isn’t as dense as I’d first thought. And there’ve been lots of great tidbits including:

– Have each character “present different facets [of an issue] in their actions and words”. Gerard is referring to novels affected by didacticism. Using characters in this way helps alleviate preachiness. Though my story isn’t driven directly by an “issue,” this approach has helped me flesh out the sidekicks in such a way that they now (hopefully) aid my protagonist in reflecting on what’s challenging her. Duh, right?

-A quote from John Steinbeck, included in the book: “A chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book and should almost be able to stand alone. If this is done then the breaks we call chapters are not arbitrary but rather articulations which allow free movement of the story.” Wow. For some reason, this struck me something fierce. Mostly in that I’ve never quite reached that level of revision, and I mean that in the best of ways. Yes, I’ve reworded and rearranged and cut and inserted and and and, but this one quote raised my goals to heavenly heights. Could each chapter in my novel almost stand alone? Not yet.

Perhaps the most striking thing about reading Gerard’s book was realizing how I just hadn’t been ready to approach my novel in this way. I knew the people, but only vaguely. But my last revision helped me get to the place that I was even ready to delve into a book like Gerard’s, a book about meaning, a literary book (egads!). Now that I know why my characters matter (at least in my head), about why they as individuals will each make a specific difference in the story, my mental revision feels like it’s been expanded exponentially. Of course, now I have to actually do the revision.

With a big thank you to Philip Gerard.  His book made a difference.

Goal! – Sports in YA Lit.

Let me be frank. I am not a sporty person. Yes, I love the Olympics. Yes, I watched horse racing as an eighth-grader, even reruns. Yes, I did train for a triathlon once. But would I ever have anticipated reading and enjoying a novel with a sports theme so strong it constitutes its own character? In two letters, no.

But I love Chris Crutcher. And every one of his books — the ones I’ve read at this point — are sports books.

I first heard about Mr. Crutcher at the SCBWI NYC Winter 2012 Conference. He was a key note speaker, and man did he ever rock. He talked about the importance of using humor in order to write about grief. The audience was laughing and crying, almost simultaneously, as he pulled us down to the darkest depths of an emotional experience, only to lift us up through some unexpected, humorous twist. I’ve since read a good handful of his books, and each has provided me with the same wondrous blend of dark and light. Crutcher is a master, that’s for sure.

And he loves sports. Whether it’s swimming, cross-country, football, or basketball, Crutcher’s ability to develop sports into a character of its own is pretty remarkable, and that’s coming from someone who is not a sporty person. At times, his blow by blow narration of sporting events can be overwhelming for non-sporty people. Truthfully, I have to tune some of it out. That’s because I have no idea about layups and sweeps and off-sides. Even so, Crutcher uses sports to showcase his characters and their personalities, and even a non-sporty like me can understand the positive influence that sports can have on a person, in this case a teenager.

My favorite book so far was Stotan! This book is about four boys — the only members of their high school swim team. Being a swimmer, or should I say someone who enjoys a lap swim now and then, I could relate to this one a bit more. The boys enlist in a training exercise put on by their coach, and it’s a b&#$^ of an exercise. Somehow, even though I’ve never swum for four hours straight, doing sprints and pyramids and crab-crawls on the rough poolside, I understood how the boys were going to be stronger because of this challenge, more able to withstand the grief that Crutcher puts them through.

If you like sports and you also like YA novels, I highly recommend Crutcher’s books. If you like see protagonists face the gritty grief of real life and come out of the water still breathing, then read his books.

Cut Away!

I’ve recently had some major aha moments during the revision process of a manuscript I first wrote two years ago. After a round of rejections, including one that gave me the smallest smidgen of feedback, I couldn’t quite figure out what the story needed. I knew the stakes needed to be raised – that the story needed to be about more than just the romance. And while it was hard to hear the agent’s feedback, I think I’d always known that the story was about more. But maybe this awareness was just on some majorly deep, subconscious level. 🙂 In order to move forward with the manuscript, I needed to figure out what that “more” was.

I struggled with this for a while, until I received a mass email from a non-profit group I’ve supported a few times over the years. My mouth fell open. Just like that I’d found my “more”. I knew what the story needed, and my next wave of revisions was off.

Now I’m finding that so much of what had seemed so critical to the first draft of this story – and even to the second and third drafts – really didn’t matter so much in this new revision. Cut. Cut. Cut. I don’t think I would’ve seen these scenes for what they were – superfluous, fat, filler – without this new vision of what the story was really about. It felt so freeing to drop these scenes, which I am still in love with, into my “graveyard” file. Maybe they’ll find life again in another story someday. (On that note, if I end up pulling them out the graveyard someday, does that mean they’ll have to be in a zombie novel? Hope not…)

I’d always heard about people dropping major scenes, really rewriting, but I guess I’d never truly experienced it before. I suppose I’m lucky the trimming was voluntary and self-driven. Without those scenes, the manuscript will come together in a way I expect to be fresh. I’ll let you know.

You never know what will inspire re-visioning or a major trim session. But my wish is that, if you’re stuck, that you find your “more” to help you on your way.

 

The Beast That Is Revision

Last year, when Katie and I attended the SCBWI NYC Winter Conference, we both attended sessions with Cheryl Klein, an editor with Arthur A. Levine Books (a Scholastic imprint). Ms. Klein guided each session through the steps of re-visioning your manuscript. Afterwards, Katie and I commented that this session was especially helpful because it was so specific — we left armed with a to-do lists of exercises that would help us evaluate our stories, find their essences, and move forward towards making them shine. I came home from New York energized and ready to edit.

To be honest, it’s taken me some time to get to some of Ms. Klein’s list. You know, life happened. I wrote a new manuscript (who needs revision when you’re finding the words for the first time?). My son stopped daycare for the summer (bye-bye writing days). We were on the road for four weeks (why don’t we live in Canada?).

But now I’ve picked up Ms. Klein’s book, and I’m raring to go. Her book, Second Sight: An Editor’s Guide to Writing, Revisions, & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, is a collection of talks and reflections. After first skimming the book and now starting it from the beginning, I know there will be some great kernels of advice — some repeats from the conference, and others new.

My favorite tidbit from the first chapter is about emotion. A good book, Klein says, “creates a deliberate emotion.” This, I think, is something that gets developed mostly in revision. Deliberate emotionWhen I’m writing a first draft, I just plow through, to get something workable onto the page. Then, in revision, I can question what emotion I’m striving for, look at each sentence or word (if I’m having a good day) to see if it works.

The biggest challenge for me will be figuring out where to start and how to follow through with her suggestions. With three manuscripts in revision, it can be difficult to give each one enough time before my mind wanders into plot development of another. Yes, that can help keep each story fresh, but sometimes I can let one burn, so to speak, while stirring another.  And at this point, I’m very good at making a beast of a to-do list of plot holes to develop, characters to strengthen, and new chapters to write. It’s finding a methodical way to take down said beast that tricks me.

What about you? Have you found resources for revision that inspire you? How do you keep revision on track and in hand?

You can find more information about Cheryl Klein and her book here.

 

To MFA or not to MFA

How many of you have considered this question?

Graduate school has been circling the depths of my mind for close to thirteen years. Back then, I was trying to decide between studying geology or entomology. What a different ride it would have been had I chosen either of those subjects. But I didn’t, nor did I choose to go to divinity school or get my teaching certificate a few years later. No doubt, any of those paths would have proven exciting, inspiring, and enriching, but it’s water under the bridge now.

After two years of serious writing, graduate school has surfaced again. Should I get an MFA in writing? Specifically, writing for children and young adults?

So I’ve asked myself what I would get out of an MFA, and if I could get those same skills through a less expensive route. Probably the most important aspect of an MFA program – for me anyway – is the mentorship. My critique group (do we need a fancy name?) is an invaluable resource to me, and in no way am I going to let that go. But having a mentor whose sole purpose (among having many other sole purposes!) is to teach me the craft of writing sounds amazing. Reading and analyzing the books I’m already reading to improve my understanding of what makes a good story – yea! And the residencies – ten full days of workshops and readings followed by painfully short nights – well, they sound great, too. At least, they do right now…

Well, as of 10:13 this morning, I officially put my name in. Hence the delay in this post – I spent the better part of this past week writing and rewriting my personal and critical essays. Now they’re off. And of course, now I have to get in.

What’s been your experience with To MFA or Not to MFA? Why or why not? After deciding, yes or no, what’s your opinion now?

 

Ah, the Internet

Do you remember when there was no Internet?

Part of me enjoys asking that kind of question. Sure, it dates me. It dates all of us, depending on how you answer it. And at the risk of sounding romantic, I miss that simple world, before telnet (first user group and email I used), before Netscape (my first browser), and certainly before Google (my current search engine).

I started writing two years ago, well after our computer became an electronic family member.  And I’ve been curious lately as to how different the process of writing, and finding an agent, and generally trying to make a living out of this art would be if I had started this ten years ago.

I couldn’t just pop over to Wikipedia and check on some fact about 17th century Suriname nor could I learn of new agents and their interests so promptly. Often times I am thankful that this abstract web of connections exists—it can be very helpful.

But I wonder:

Does the Internet suck my energy?

Many writers could no doubt claim the Internet or something that they read online to be the inspiration for their amazing debut novel coming next fall.  Accomplished writers might say the same for the success of their 15th manuscript. But what is the flip side to having something amounting to an edgeless universe as a distraction?

I admit that when I’m writing I will occasionally (wink, wink) check email or Facebook or YouTube or whatever, really. Is that better than staring at the point where the wall hits the ceiling in search of inspiration? I don’t think so. More often than not, it pulls me away from my characters and their stories. But I haven’t found a way yet to work around this. Anyone have a typewriter they can lend me?

Have you been a writer since the Internet became ubiquitous? How did that shift affect your writing and career? Do you have tips on how to effectively turn off access to this kind of distraction?