Friday, July 22, 2011

VCFA Writers: Liz Gallagher on Character = Plot

By Liz Gallagher

As I'm writing this, it's days before my second novel, My Not-So-Still Life is published. Without the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I don't think I'd have ever written a book.

The lectures, workshops and—maybe most of all—casual conversations over giant cookies in the cafeteria gave me the opportunity to be obsessed with the craft of writing. I, and my classmates and the faculty, dedicated ourselves to really trying to figure out what makes a good book a good book.

I graduated from VCFA in January of 2006. Five and a half years later, there's one casual conversation I find myself gravitating toward again and again.

I used to worry that, even though I was pretty good with characters, I’d never be able to finish an actual novel because I was terrible with plot. I had an idea that a plot was this thing conjured up out of thin air, a story where before there was nothing.

I thought plots came to be via magic.

By Alison McGhee (Feiwel, 2009)
Alison McGhee was on faculty, and she said, "Plot is nothing but character."

Plot is nothing but character. Okay! With just that one small conversation, I realized that if I have a strong character and that character has desires and does something (anything!) other than sit on their bed all day, I have a plot. No hocus pocus required.

I don't go to Montpelier every six months now, and I don't get to be surrounded on all sides by people who love talking about craft, but I do have those two years to draw on.

At VCFA I gathered enough inspiration and insight to keep me writing and writing and writing. That's what I do now.

Making a story come together usually still feels like magic. Except, now, I know how to access that magic. I just have to think back to Vermont.

Cynsational Notes

Liz Gallagher is the author of two YA novels, My Not-So-Still Life (Wendy Lamb Books, 2011) and The Opposite of Invisible (Wendy Lamb Books, 2008).

Both books are set in Seattle, which Liz happily calls her adopted home.

Visit her online or contact her at for questions about this post or Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Unworthy Heroes by Sarwat Chadda from Diversity in YA Fiction. Peek: "I mean a cast of thousands and heroes who bleed and swear and come back for more. The big, bold old-fashioned Boys Own adventures but ones where the heroes aren’t the blond, blue-eyed, defenders of civilization fighting against the bearded, turbaned fanatical hordes."

Four Elements of a Great Book Signing by Corrie Garrett from Pimp My Novel. Peek: "...let’s say you’ve done your promotion and your marketing and you’ve managed to gather a respectable crowd at your local Barnes and Noble. What do you do with them?" Source: Jon Gibbs from An Englishman in New Jersey.

Bookbird: a Journal of International Children's Literature from the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). See also Co-Editors Interview: Cathy Kurkjian & Sylvia Vardell on Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature from Cynsations.

Certificate in Children's Book Illustration from Hollins University. Peek: "The goal of this program is to help artists develop a personal vision and style for tomorrow’s picture book market. The courses will provide an opportunity for intensive exploration and improvement of students’ art skills and knowledge of picture book fundamentals, while being informed by an in-depth study of both past and contemporary picture book illustrators."

YA Writing Workshop with Margo Rabb will be Sept. 13 to Oct. 18 at Austin Bat Cave in Austin, Texas. Peek: "The term 'young adult' encompasses a wide range of fiction. This class will discuss what makes a novel or a short story 'young adult,' and the complexities of the genre. Each class will focus on aspects of the craft of fiction, including character, plot, voice, and dialogue while paying particular attention to the revision process. In addition, the following topics will be discussed: finding time to write, making a life as a writer, and the business of publication, from finding an agent to submitting work to magazines and publishing houses. Class is limited to ten students."

Submission Tracking Chart by Tabitha from Writer Musings. Peek: "I knew exactly what I’d sent out and when I could expect a response. I created a header for all of this information, then created subsections for material that had been requested, rejected, was still out, and who I had left to query."

Author Interview Tricia Springstubb and Giveaway from Carmen Oliver from Following My Dreams One Word at a Time. Peek: "Fox Street began with a real incident here on Cleveland’s west side. Some developers, with the support of the mayor, made a bid to buy a small, blue collar neighborhood and replaced it with high-end condos and retail. This neighborhood was on the edge of a glorious metropark. To the surprise of the developers but no one else, the residents fought back." Giveaway deadline: July 29.

Flipping the Switch from Introvert to Extrovert by Deborah Halverson from R.L. LaFevers at Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: "Figuring that anything I did in a future career would require me to step out of those shadows I so enjoyed, I very consciously set about making myself comfortable with activities that extroverts take for granted."

It's Time to Get on Google+ by Kate Fall from Author2Author. Peek: "Google Plus is more social than Twitter and more businesslike than Facebook." See also No, You Don't Have to Join Google+ by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident. Peek: "Finding a network or networks that work with what you want to accomplish and what makes you comfortable takes the stress out of the equation...." Note: Cynthia Leitich Smith at Google Plus.

Cynsational Author Tip: Include your publisher names, publication dates, and ISBNs for each of your books on your official website.

Be Book Smart: "If you shop at Macy's and give $3 to provide a book for a child, Macy's will donate your $3 to Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) to help reach their goal of giving 1 million books to kids. You'll also be eligible for $10 off a $50 purchase." Enter to win a $500 Macy's Gift Card from RIF.

Celebrate the publication of YA zombie comedy Bad Taste in Boys (Delacorte, 2011) with author Carrie Harris and benefit the kids of C.S. Mott Children's Hospital with Night of the Giving Dead! Bid on over 80 items, including signed books, ARCs, and author/agent critiques. Participants can enter to win one of two grand prizes: a Kindle or a six-month writing mentorship with the author. Deadline: midnight EST, July 27.

Interview with Tu Editor Stacy Whitman from the Happy Nappy Bookseller. Peek: "I try to address both encouraging authors of color to write fantasy/SF (or submit those manuscripts they might have put aside thinking there was no market for a POC main character in fantasy) and encouraging white writers to diversify their writing in a way that doesn't appropriate from other cultures."

Anna Staniszewski: newly redesigned official author site. Note: Anna's upcoming book is My Very Un-Fairy Tale Life (Sourcebooks, Nov. 1, 2011).

The Case for Comic Books by Mindy Lucas from The Kansas City Star. Peek: "Students in Whitted's class pore over and deconstruct the books in as serious an academic manner as one would analyze Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment or Joyce's Ulysses (both of which, by the way, have been turned into graphic novels)."

One Simple Way to Sharpen Your Pitch by Zachary Petit from Writer's Digest. Peek: "I like to apply the MacDonald Rule to all of my pitches and loglines. In other words, even though it’s only a few lines, a pitch should explain who is trying to do what and why." Source: Lupe Ruiz-Flores.

By Lupe Ruiz-Flores (Arte Público, 2010)
Congratulations to the 2011 SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant Winners! Special cheers to Texans Lupe Ruiz-Flores and Shannon Morgan. Note: Shannon is the creator of my marvelous teacher guides for Holler Loudly, illustrate by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010)

Cantastic Guest Author: Yolanda Ridge from Lindsey Carmichael at Ten Stories Up. Peek: "I’m not sure this is unique to being a debut author in Canada, with all publishers cutting back on marketing, but it is hard because the book buying population is small.  I feel fortunate that my publisher sells in the United States and does some marketing, but there is still a lot of responsibility left to the author in terms of social media and publicity."

Dealing with Criticism by Icy Sedgwick from Fuel Your Writing. Peek: "I dislike the distinction drawn between constructive and deconstructive criticism – whichever way you slice it, it’s still criticism. I prefer the word “feedback”. Source: QueryTracker.netBlog.

A Writer's Dilemma: Meditating Versus Participating in the Moment by Heather Anastasiu. Peek: "...part of being a writer is constantly writing, even in your head."

The Business Side of Writing: a chat with Sue Ford from the Institute of Children's Literature. See also Patching Picture Book Problems by Jan Fields, also from ICL. Note: these links are  recommended to beginners.

Cynsational Giveaways

Tantalize: Kieren's Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle with cover art by Sam Weber (Candlewick, Aug, 2011) Giveaway from P.J. Hoover from Roots in Myth. Deadline: July 29. Peek: "Illustrated by Ming Doyle, Cynthia Leitich Smith's Tantalize is reimagined as a graphic novel, seen through Kieren's werewolf eyes." Learn more about Tantalize: Kieren's Story.

The winner of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies by Deborah Halverson (Wiley Publishing, 2011) is Beth in New Hampshire. See also Deborah on Serving Up Subtext from Alice Pope's SCBWI Market Blog and Melodrama Isn't a Four-Letter Word from QueryTracker.netBlog.

Enter to win an author-signed bookmark and copy of Bumped by Megan McCafferty (HarperTeen, 2011). To enter, comment on this post (click link) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with "Bumped" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Deadline: July 29. This giveaway is for international readers--everyone is eligible!

Cynsational Screening Room

Walter Dean Myers and Chris Myers on We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart from HarperKids. Peek from Walter: "I wanted to put myself out there and make a statement and say, you know, I love this country." Source: Shadra Strickland on Living the Dream.

Congratulations to Jo Knowles on the release of Pearl (Henry Holt, 2011). See the book trailer. See also a snapshot interview with Jo from Angelina C. Hansen and comment for a chance to win a copy of Pearl. Deadline: July 27. For a more in-depth interview with Jo, check out this Q&A with Kate Messner about revision.

Congratulations to Melissa Walker on the release of Small Town Sinners (Bloomsbury, 2011)(excerpt). See the book trailer. See also an interview with Melissa by Lucienne Diver from Authorial, Agently, and Personal Ramblings.

Last weekend, I saw "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. See the review by Kazia Berkley-Cramer from Out of the Box: an exclusive look at what comes into the Horn Book offices. Check out this video from the set in which the cast and crew says goodbye to the actors.

More Personally

A more recent incarnation of the downtown Ann Arbor store.

When I think of Borders, it's the original store in Ann Arbor. My Borders had crooked stairs and books piled in the middle of aisles, and it smelled like a bookstore. I'm sad for the booksellers who're losing jobs and readers who no longer have any bookstore within comfortable driving distance. My thanks to everyone at Borders for their service to the children's-YA book community. Note: I'm a 1994 graduate of The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.

On a brighter note, congratulations to the summer 2011 graduates of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults!

I'm making an effort to read more children's-YA book writing/publishing blogs that originate outside the U.S. and are more focused on other markets. Please feel free to suggest.

I'm also pleased of news of solid sales of Eternal in Poland. Thank you to my Polish readers!

Interview de Cynthia Leitich Smith, auteur de Sanguine from Loraah Books. Peek: "Quand j'étais adolescente j'ai travaillé en tant que serveuse, et j'ai toujours pensé que les restaurants faisaient de fantastiques scènes de drame. Vous avez un décor, des menus et de la musique thématiques." Note: for French-language readers.

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith:

Cynsational Events

Keep Austen Weird Prom! Jennifer Ziegler is hosting a launch party for Sass & Serendipity (Delacorte, 2011) at 2 p.m. July 23 at BookPeople in Austin. Peek: "This modern YA retelling of Sense & Sensibility is a perfect jumping off point for a teenager's first taste of Jane Austen, but adults well-versed in the world of Austen will love it too! We'll be doing this book release party prom-style; wear your fanciest duds and get ready to make all your dreams come true. Jennifer will be interviewed by her real-life sister (fingers crossed for some embarrassing stories), plus there will be contests & prizes and yummy refreshments."

The 2nd Annual Halloween in July will be at 8 p.m. CST, 9 p.m. EST July 27 with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Kim Baccellia and Dawn Metcalf from #yalitchat on Twitter. Follow: @cynleitichsmith @ixtumea @DawnMetcalf. Chat with us for spooky fun, giveaways and more!

Southwest Texas Fall SCBWI Conference is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 17 in San Antonio. Faculty includes: Andrea Welch, editor from Beach Lane Press (Simon & Schuster); Elena Mechlin, agent from Pippin Agency; Kristin Daly Rens, editor from Balzer and Bray (HarperCollins); author Diane Gonzales Bertrand; Kim Murray, online media specialist with Piccolo Media; and Richard Johnson of InteractBooks. Note: the early bird registration deadline has been extended to July 23.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

VCFA Writers: C. M. McCarthy on A Writer's Community

C. M. McCarthy
By C. M. McCarthy

Picture a dartboard. Red, green and black with silver inlays drawing concentric circles. Do you have it? Okay, hold onto it.

As a recent graduate of the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I’m often asked if I’m experiencing withdrawal from school, and while I do miss the monthly work packets as well as the “I’m not publishing because I’m studying” excuse, I can honestly say that I have not felt a loss.

Even though I was only in Montpelier for five 10-day residencies, I haven’t stepped outside the VCFA writing community since I enrolled.

Instead, I’ve felt as though I’m smack in the center of a dartboard with friends all around: The outer circle is the network of writers, agents, editors and publishers of all genres, who come out of the woodwork to mingle around the VCFA table at writing conferences all over the country.

The second circle is the school body, the 100+ writers and advisors who keep in contact over the fabulous online forum. Anytime I have a question about writing, I find dozens of peers waiting to answer it.

The innermost circle is made up of my graduating class. This small group of writers stood by my side through the program, and we now encourage each other via emails, lunch dates and phone calls as we all embark on publishing adventures (Go Bat Poets!).

I do miss VCFA, but only on the surface. Inside, I’m still at the center of a vast and supportive creative community built around the love of writing.

C. M. with faculty member Shelley Tanaka
Cynsational Notes

C. M. with alum Sean Petrie and student Amy Rose Capetta
C. M. McCarthy writes fiction for all ages as well as poetry and screenplays.

She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University, a grad certificate in screenwriting from UCLA and a MFA in Writing For Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts (Class of January 2011).

If you have any questions or comments about her post or Vermont College, you can contact Cori at

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

VCFA Writers: Mandy Robbins Taylor on Voice

Mandy Robbins Taylor
By Mandy Robbins Taylor

A few years ago at a conference, I heard Erin Clarke, a Senior Editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers, reply to a question regarding voice.

“What is voice?” she ruminated. “Basically, voice is everything.”

Great. So I get to write a one-page blog post on "everything." No wonder nobody else claimed this topic.

She's right, though. Voice is everything. Every word on your page is told in your character's unique voice, or your unique voice if you are writing nonfiction.

In writing, a voice ultimately is the embodiment of a character. Even if you are writing in third person, your narrator is a character.

The YA novel I'm currently working on, in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, is written in first person present tense. Choosing this point of view means each word must really and truly belong to my main character. Sure, she and I would say the same thing sometimes. But other times, not so much.

Uma Krishnaswami
While revising, my brilliant and talented VCFA advisor, Uma Krishnaswami has called me out a few times on my voice slipping into my character's narration. For example, at one point my character describes an “omniscient smile.” In the margin, Uma commented something like “this sounds like you, not her.”

At first I was annoyed. Just because I'm a writer doesn't mean the writerly word "omniscient" is so uniquely mine. But then I realized she was right—my character is a grieving seventeen year old on summer break, more interested in making varsity softball than writing "A" English papers. Words like "omniscient" are not just going to pop into her head while observing the smiles of people she's just met.

Lately, Uma has just been oh-so-sweetly highlighting passages in blue when I slip out of voice. I've noticed this helps me to connect the dots and see when, where, and why I'm doing it. I enjoy academic writing, and most of my trouble spots simply sound too...fancy.

HarperCollins, 2005
As Fancy Nancy would say, “I'm inexplicably devastated” is a fancy way of saying “I don't know why I'm so upset.” And it's me, being a fancy, show-off, critical writer who likes to feel smart--not my girl, processing her emotions in her own mind.

But the good news is, when it comes down to it, after spending eighteen months of my life with her, I do know this girl. I know what she would say, and it isn't (usually) hard to fix. Sometimes it just takes another pair of eyes and a gentle reminder that I’m way too impressed with myself.

But sometimes you may find you need to spend more time getting to know your character. Try freewriting conversations with her. Have him fill out an email survey. Make a character profile in your novel folder. Pretend to be her when you're walking to the store, working out, talking to a salesgirl. Just never take a shortcut and assume one way is as good as another. It isn't.

Voice is everything—and every single word on every single page matters.

Cynsational Notes

Fancy Nancy was written by Jane O'Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser.

Mandy Robbins Taylor will graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program in January 2012, though she would truly rather not. Ever.

She loves writing realistic young adult, funny fantasy middle grade, and goofy picture books. She occasionally teaches workshops for teen writers, passing on some of that hard-earned MFA knowledge and staying connected with her audience.

You can find her this October teaching the teen portion of the inter-generational Pacific Coast Childrens Writers Workshop.

Feel free to email her at MandyRobbins7@aol(dot)com with any questions about this post, her writing, or Vermont College of Fine Arts.

See also Romancing Reality in YA Fiction by Mandy Robbins Taylor from Pam Watts at Strong in the Broken Places. Peek: " your average, contemporary, realistic YA novel, why do the boys have to be so much better than real life teen boys? What are we telling our girls to expect?"

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

VCFA Writers: Lyn Miller-Lachmann on Creating Likable Characters

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Nobody liked my protagonist.

Well, not nobody. Editors didn't like her. I had already cut her whining and made her helpful and friendly to her new stepfather in response to a harsh letter from an agent. But those changes didn’t make her any new editor friends.

As I began my second semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I decided to submit my initial chapters to the workshop to figure out why my now non-whiny and extraordinarily helpful teenager still wasn’t deemed “likeable.”

Interestingly, I found my answer not through discussion of my own manuscript, but through the discussion of someone else’s piece.

A mandatory part of VCFA residency is daily attendance at workshop. Residency workshops are round-table critiques of 20 pages of work -- among 10 students, at different levels of the program -- moderated by two faculty advisors. Each student receives a turn to have 20 pages of their manuscript critiqued by the group, for one-hour. For a writer with a work in progress, it doesn’t get any better than this.

The best thing about the workshops at VCFA is how much you learn by discussing the strengths and questions in each workshop submission -- your peers’ as well as your own.

It can be easier to absorb information when your “baby” is not on the block. Or, maybe someone else has achieved the effect you were struggling with and now you learn from that example. This is exactly what happened for me. My fellow workshop members and I grew to care about the angry and physically aggressive 10-year-old girl in another workshop member’s story for the following reasons:

  1. She didn’t whine, and she didn’t feel sorry for herself. (This I’d figured out before.)
  2. Behind her anger there was an emotional vulnerability that allowed readers to engage. My own protagonist saw herself as emotionally self-sufficient, and she was. But that much detachment and independence doesn’t give readers the opportunity to get involved and care. I needed to make her vulnerable.
  3. I learned that when other characters in the piece (characters who do appeal to readers) like and care about my main character, readers like and care about her more as well.

Initially, my novel was structured in such a way that readers didn’t see my main character interact with her friends. In other words, increasing the presence of people who liked her helped readers follow suit. All it took was adding friends who were funny and relatable to teen readers to like my character for her loyalty, sense of humor, and great ideas.

As they say, “Friends are people who know everything about you and like you anyway.”

Don't hold anything back from your readers, and they just might find that your character feels like a friend.

Cynsational Notes

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is in her second semester in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She is the author of an adult novel, Dirt Cheap (Curbstone, 2006)(now back in print), and the award-winning YA/adult crossover Gringolandia (Curbstone/Northwestern University Press, 2009)(excerpt, trailer, teacher guide).

She also contributes reviews to the online Albany Times-Union, Readergirlz, and The Pirate Tree, a new blog about social justice and children’s literature.

If you have any questions about her post or the MFA program at Vermont College, you can contact her directly at

Monday, July 18, 2011

VCFA Writers: Peter Patrick Langella on Writing Your Way into a Routine

By Peter Patrick Langella

During my first 10-day residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I kept hearing the word “routine.” I knew they were talking to me. I was disorganized, and I needed to create a routine around my writing. I needed to figure out where and when I produced my best work, and hopefully that would lead to some consistency.

I started with mornings. I told myself that I would write first thing each morning at the kitchen table.

Strike One. Life got in the way.

I then tried late-nights, reverting back to my old college ways.

Strike Two. I’m not really a night person.

Next up were early evenings; a nice block of time before my wife got off work.

Strike Three. I had too much energy. I couldn’t focus most days.

My quest for a routine ended in a strike-out.

But then I realized there are no strike-outs when it comes to writing. There are no right or wrong times and places to write. Coming to terms with this was the solution to the problem.

The routine I found is more of a mindset than a time and place. I’m never going to be someone who writes at 7 a.m. each morning in the breakfast nook, and that’s okay. I’ve gained consistency through the realization that as long as I’m writing each day, it doesn’t matter for me.

A minimum of 1,000 new words per day. That’s my routine. It doesn’t matter if it happens at dawn in my kitchen, or at midnight on the moon, as long as I get to that 1,000. The words can be for my WIP, school essays, random tangents and exercises, or a letter to my grandmother. It doesn’t matter.

Finding my routine was just about figuring out exactly how I work, and now that I have, here's to the future...

Cynsational Notes

Peter Patrick Langella, a former ice hockey player who happily traded body checks for spell-checks, is in his first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, working toward his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. For questions or comments about his post or the program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, you can reach Peter at

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