Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Emotional Response

The third lecture of that first day at VCFA, which tied everything together for me, was by Louise Hawes. She described what she calls the novel's "desire line" - the engine that drives the story, the longing for something. The desire line exactly balances the story arc in reverse, because every reader wants the protagonist's desire to be satisfied at the end of the story.

Asking "what" your character wants is the first important question any writer should ask. Asking "why" they want it is the way to get to their deepest desire.

Now, Louise gave us all something far more memorable with her lecture: she asked us to dig deep (there's that "dark room" again, that "clothesline") and speak to that person we were at that age when we were most vulnerable. Pull that child out and find his or her desire.

First, you could have heard a pin drop in the room, a full room - I'm guessing a hundred people. Then sniffs. Then some of us (yes, I'll confess, I'm one) were openly weeping.

So, once again, that's why I write and that's why I'm attending VCFA, and that's why I want to be the best writer I can: because I want to express those universal longings and dreams, those desires, that bind us together as human, as vulnerable, as unique and yet all the same - I want to express humanity.

Even if we are just a speck in the universe.

Yikes! Heavy thoughts.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

More Craft Issues

I should note that when I summarize the VCFA lectures here, I'm only giving you a taste. I was so blown away by the level of detail and amount of information delivered by the faculty and students in their 45 minutes. I can't do it justice. Come see for yourself!

I'm skipping over Lisa Doan's lecture on humor to continue with the thread that seemed to run through the day - deep digging for ideas and emotions to make your writing better.

Alan Cumyn also addressed this, in his lecture on perseverance. Gosh, that's one of my favorite words. As you've probably seen, I wouldn't be writing today if I didn't possess this trait. In this context, Alan talked about how our hopes and dreams become a part of our writing, even though they can make us vulnerable to being hurt. You know, when you have the feeling that "this is my best writing ever!" until a critique partner says "this is dreck!" .

Well, enter the "dark room" of your soul, and you'll know when your writing is good. Don't stay on the surface; let it bubble up, and when your writing truly becomes organic, it will be your best work. Believe it! Persevere!

Okay, on a personal note, my new-look website is up (not complete yet but up) and I love it. Have a look at and let me know what you think!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Home and at 'em

Okay, so I'm back and nobody here understands me. I'm not complaining, just remarking. Some of us in my VC class are talking about having been pulled into a cult-like thing there...and I'm totally with that. It's all-encompassing, this experience.

But now for some craft issues! I thought I might share a little taste of the lectures. Give you a sense of the people and ideas.

I'll just march into lecture 1, given by Sharon Darrow. It was really cool how the entire day (that was Thursday the 10th) had a thread, and that thread was: look inside, deep inside, look at what made you, how you grew up, your family, your experiences, and be really true to those experiences. Sharon called it a "clothesline". When she was little she remembered hanging out the wash, running through the clean linens, following the flapping shirts, racing out to take up the laundry before the thunderstorm. And the image is apt, because don't we all try to hide our "dirty linen"? Don't we all keep secrets, buried so deep we keep them from ourselves as well as the rest of the world?

Well, dig 'em up. That was Sharon's message - because as children's writers, we are really writing for the child we once were. I know I am. And there are some dark little things in there I need to face, and when I do, I think I'll be a better writer for it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Taking a Deep Breath

Now the work begins. The residency is over, and I'm taking a short breather before starting on my first packet.

Short is the operative word, here - my first packet is due on August 18th. And since I'm writing picture books, time will feel very compressed.

What I'd like to do in this blog now is not just fill you in on the residency experience, but also share some of the things I learned - there were many, many craft issues addressed at a very sophisticated level, and my goal is that you should hear something about them here, too.

But first, just a recap of the emotional aspects of this program. Vermont College has recently become independent from its parent Union Institute and University, and VC is seeking accreditation in its own right. This has given us all a sense of pride and ownership in a college program that is dedicated solely to the arts at the highest level of achievement. If you've thought about moving up in your craft/skill, and feel ready, I cannot recommend this program enough. It's fabulous.

And we all really bond here - there's a familiarity that grows very quickly not only among the students, but also between faculty and students. Each meal time, faculty sat down with students; they attended our parties and readings and student lectures; they laughed and cried and argued with us - we were all very much a team.

And how often in life can you sit in a room filled with amazing award-winning authors and feel a part of their world?

By last night, when we all said goodbye until January, there was a spontaneous party (of course), and there were many tears and hugs and warm partings, and a feeling of kinship that was unlike anything I've ever felt (even stronger than anything I felt in college or when I went to sea lo those many years ago). We are now part of this wonderful community of writers, who bleed and sweat writing, who love the written word with a passion usually reserved for spouses and children and grandchildren and pets.

Next time, some craft issues.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

How Time Flies

So, ordinarily the passage of 3 days between posts would be like nothing at all. But in this case, those three days were filled with more experiences than I've often had over weeks.

I'll try and fill you in over the next week or so, but here's the skinny for now: my first advisor is Sarah Ellis, a respected Canadian writer with a number of prize-winning books. More importantly for me, she is a gentle soul who is highly intelligent, widely read, and likes the kinds of books that I like. We've agreed that I'm going to stretch this first semester, and work way outside my comfort zone.

For me, that means picture books. I've never been able to master the form. I guess I just talk too much. Give too much information. I love information, love details, love expression, so the picture book (where less is more) is really tough. I think I've found my voice in MG and YA fiction. But writing is writing and I want very much to learn how to manipulate a complex idea in a small space, how to control my pacing, and how to create a story arc within the confines of 300 words.

Losing signal so I'll be back later.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Next Time the Karaoke, too!

I got it, suddenly got it. I got it while dancing around like a maniac, like a teenager, to tunes old and new, and having a wonderful time, along with everyone else. It was like the 8th grade dance where no one really dances with anyone else, no boy-girl pairings or whatnot...but here there were no wallflowers, either.

We were all accessing that part of ourselves we'd left behind, that awkward gawky kid who really wanted to dance but felt too shy or too unpopular. Everyone here has that kid self out and on their sleeve and ready to leap. All the faculty certainly do. The Stevens sisters had it in spades. Tim Wynne-Jones is a walking master, as is Kathi Appelt.

So next time I'm doing the karaoke...more about that one later.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Day 2, Day 3

So I skipped the karaoke, but I made it through the auction! Team Tim Wynne-Jones and MT Anderson (aka Tobin Anderson, aka Octavian Nothing) were hilarious, and actually sold things I thought would never sell, and the school netted a ton (no numbers here) for its scholarship fund.

And again the workshops and lectures - brilliant. For me, the highlight was Tobin Anderson's lecture. He was talking about plot, and structuring plot using the templates of Aristotle and Barthes. Now, I know the Aristotle from teaching English lit; but the Barthes was new to me and a bit abstract, but I want to know more, more, more, since I have most of my problems with plot. Sequencing and scene structure and pacing - what to keep and what to cut - I ask myself all the time. Well, certainly character defines the action. Each action must be true to the character. But also, there's the question: if you cut out this scene, does it hurt the story? Because if not, then it should leave, no matter how pretty.

And, by the way, description is usually gratuitous. My big issue.

So today, we heard the Stevens sisters, Janet and Susan, who are major PB authors. I laughed until tears streamed down my face. (There's a lot of crying at this rez. But none of it from hurt feelings.) They are a delight to watch - defining themselves as the heroes of their own life stories, reading their best work, showing how they work, playing off each other with immaculate timing and must LOVE them. I love them. And their wacky, wonderful, pun-filled books.

Okay, must eat, basic necessity. This afternoon: a special PB workshop, then a DANCE! Now that, I'll do.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Whew...the real day one...

So I still have homework to do and it's really late but what an excellent day. Three faculty lectures and one student lecture, all incredibly inspiring and informative, and one workshop.

Here's the skinny: the faculty are truly gifted with knowledge - and delivery. They are spontaneous and open and yet I could feel my brain filling with the information they delivered. In one lecture - Louise Hawes' - we all (that's, like, 60, full-grown adults) were reduced to tears. Louise had us evoke a memory from that deep place, that beginning of all story, the root of all our personal conflict - and she did it in about 5 minutes. And suddenly, since she came at the end of the day, I began to pull together the other things I'd heard and realized that all my stories are about the same thing (which I won't reveal here!)

The workshop was wonderful as well - I have a great group led by Sarah Ellis and Louise Hawes and it was gentle yet informative. We got into the groove of the discussion, and I think we all began to learn things to apply to our own writing and to be less fearful of the process.

But now dear friends I have to get to work before bedtime...and I even skipped the karaoke!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

First real day at the rez

So, technically, yesterday was day 1. But really, it all started today, with the orientation of our 27-strong class. We are the largest group of entering students in the program thus far. Yet, by lunch, I began to feel like I had made some true, lifelong friends, and there wasn't anyone I didn't like and I wanted to know every one of them better.

It was a jam-packed day, touring the campus and facilities and meeting the faculty. But the highlight was the speech by our new Vermont College president, Thomas Christopher Greene. He is both a novelist and the founder of our new, new institution, which just became an independent arts college - with the goal of becoming the premier arts college in the country. His speech was hilarious; I laughed so hard tears were streaming down my cheeks.

And the faculty? There, present, friendly, helpful, supportive - famous names, most of them, and I was trying hard at lunch not to think about the fact that I was sitting across the table from Marion Dane Bauer and Ellen Howard, and about how many books they'd authored between them, and how brilliant they are, and how nice they are, and how I'd like to work with each of them...

So tomorrow begins the real work, the lectures, the workshops, and that's where the learning curve steepens really fast.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Arrival in Vermont

So I arrived last night and settled into my room at Betsy's B&B at about 2 AM. And woke up in shock when a truck rumbled by at 8:30 in the morning. Can't so that again, or I'll miss the first lecture, which would be bad, bad.

I decided to stay in the B&B instead of the dorm this time, because I was warned about the heat, which is already oppressive, though it's supposed to break tomorrow. Betsy's is just down the hill from the campus, and someone told me that a student referred to the hill as the Grinch hill because it's so steep. Though Montpelier is not Whoville, it sure is a charming little town (the smallest? second smallest? state capitol in the nation). And Betsy does provide AC, so I can, I hope, sleep at night.

For a drift on the dorm life, check out my new friend Dawn's blog . We met with about ten other "freshmen" for lunch in town. I already feel like a part of something big and exciting, though I also feel like a squeaky little newbie.

"Hard? you have no idea." "It will be the best two years of your life." "You'll make friends here you can't imagine." "It will go by so fast, and you'll want to do it all again." "You won't sleep for two weeks, but it'll be worth it."

I will surely let you know.

One hour to meet the rest of my class at dinner!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

So While I'm Biting My Fingernails

...I'll talk about writing. And selling. Because the craft is one part, and the sales is the other, and they can be very different paths.

My critique buddies and I often discuss things other than each others' manuscripts. And one of our favorite topics is the celebrity children's book. Now, please don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of Jamie Lee Curtis, Henry Winkler, and other celebs who are really very good writers who just happen to be famous prior to writing their very good books. But we all know that there are famous folks whose books have been published for no reason other than their fame.

I'm noticing fewer of these of late. I think publishers may be finally cottoning on to something: that a good book that makes a good read is written by someone who works very hard at perfecting the craft of writing.

So, sales. Editors. They used to scare me like crazy. I'd go to conferences and watch them from afar as if they were aliens from another planet. And then I discovered - they just want great books. Great writing. Craftsmanship.

And what a great word that is - craftsmanship. Like the old days of guilds and apprentices. Where you weren't ready to practice the art of whatever until your master said so.

So I'm heading back to school - to find my master!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Only A Few Days to the "Rez"

Okay, just so it's clear, in this case "rez" is the nickname for "residency", which is the two week stint that Vermont College MFA students participate in each July and January. During that time, we listen to lectures, participate in critiques, participate in discussions, meet with advisors, and apparently sleep, occasionally.

Seriously, I'm a little nervous. This turns out to be a common feeling among the group I'm entering with. We share a discussion board and I was really heartened to see that I'm not the only one feeling a little jittery about undertaking this two-year hard-core program. I mean, I'm no spring chicken, and the idea of going back to college and starting to snore while the party is still in high gear is a little daunting. Not to mention this is a really serious program.

That was clear from the packet I got with other student work. Some is outright awesome. And everyone seems to be up there in terms of knowing their stuff. So I feel humbled, anxious, excited, and all the other stuff that goes with two weeks away from family in a super strange environment that may be stressful and sleep-deprived.

Well, I'm still working while I wait. I'm writing a new MG novel, kind of a reality-based fantasy, and I'm having the most fun, as often happens with first drafts. Gosh, that first draft just flows sometimes! Until I smack up against the brick wall of revision. But that won't happen with Ruby (the character's name) for a while. So for now, I'm just enjoying myself. And I'll tell more about Ruby and her adventures in the future.

And still gnawing my knuckles waiting for the edit letter on Faithful.