Guest Post

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Scott Plumbe checking in again about his Kickstarter campaign to publish his illustrated novel, THE UNCLUKY FOX via digital installments. Really interesting stuff, I’m really enjoying seeing a glimpse from the other side of the crowd-funding curtain! Please check out his campaign if you’re interested. It promises to be a very cool project if the funding is successful.

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My Kickstarter campaign has been equal doses exhausting and rewarding. So far The Unlucky Fox has nearly 100 backers. I am grateful for this solid base, but the campaign still has a long way to go to make the $30,000 goal. In fact, financially I’m only just over 10% of the way there. I’m now considering ways to tune up my campaign mid-stride.

Going on the assumption that my project isn’t completely undesirable, the first place to look is the rewards. Kickstarter allows you to edit and add new rewards once the campaign is underway. Some people have mentioned that they want the physical book as a reward. I understand that. I’m a bibliophile too. I’d love to be able to offer it, and it is tempting, but I’m not sure realistically how many people would be willing to pay up front and wait almost two years for a hard copy. That was one of the considerations for choosing the incremental release model. So I’ve decided to stick with my original offering, especially as so many people have already pledged on the current reward tier. It seems disrespectful to change that now.

Recently there have been articles surfacing from news sites like Gawker Media about how successful KS campaigns often have a hired ‘guru’ who is responsible for preparing and presenting the campaigns. I did find a few such individuals online during the pre-launch stage but confess I was skeptical. Essentially, they work as a PR company to position your project, devise rewards that will pique a backer’s interest, and spread the word through social media, blogs and various media outlets. Some such consultants even guarantee success! When I reviewed my rewards and calculated the time it would take me to fulfill what I’d promised, I didn’t see any room left for a consultant’s commission.

Some people have suggested I set my financial goal too high. Conversely, I have had people tell me I’m not ambitious enough with my project! They advise that I should aim for more and deliver my story in a variety of formats and through numerous channels. While I appreciate that kind of strategy and input, I don’t feel it squares with who I am. I want to guarantee that I fulfill my promises. I have a realistic understanding of what is achievable and can be delivered with quality and professionalism. I’m a firm believer in the practice of ‘bootstrapping’ for small businesses — and that is exactly how I think of The Unlucky Fox, as an emerging small business. Furthermore, doing it in steps allows it to happen on my terms. That may at first seem narcissistic, but what’s the point of following your passion if you’re not going to be true to yourself as a creator? I could have easily set a much lower goal in hopes it would be easier to reach. I have seen many projects on KS that have done so. But they’re not honoring their backers and are selling themselves and the crowdfunding platform short. Especially if they then struggle to fulfill their rewards in a timely manner — one of the #1 criticisms of crowdfunding.

So where does this leave me? I’m an independent creator who has spent countless hours getting this project underway and is now asking for an injection of support to bring it to fruition. So far, I’ve felt genuinely blessed to have so many backers that believe in my quirky project. The enthusiasm shown by absolute strangers is utterly humbling. More than ever, I feel a deep obligation to ensure The Unlucky Fox happens for those who have entrusted me with their hard-earned money!

Now that the campaign has launched, there is a limit to what I can do, yet I do still have a few avenues. Spread more press releases and woo various bloggers. Continue to engage on art and writing forums like DeviantArt, Wattpad and others. I’ll continue to post updates to my Kickstarter page and provide answers to the questions I receive daily. Social media, you ask. Yes — I can do that too, although not being ‘social’ by nature makes it particularly agonizing! Ironic, yes. As many other creators can understand, being less social is how I’ve found the time to hone my art! Now it’s time to flip the switch in the other direction.
In a few weeks time, I plan to submit my final report on my crowdfunding process. I look forward to reaching this to a conclusion.

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Most writers I know are avid readers. I have been for as long as I can remember. I read so much as a child that my mother often scolded me, saying things like, “You spend too much time sitting around with your nose in a book. Get up and DO SOMETHING!”

But I WAS doing something. I was learning how to be a writer. Without even realizing it, I was studying how writers use language, create tension, bring characters to life, etc. All that reading expanded my vocabulary, refined my literary tastes, and taught me genre-specific conventions. And the best part? My education-by-osmosis was not only painless, it was pleasurable.

When I eventually went to the Vermont College of Fine Arts (then called simply Vermont College) to work on an MFA in Writing, I learned a more direct approach to my education as a writer. At the beginning of each semester in the program, I was required to create a personal reading list pertinent to my writing goals. The list included books on craft as well as children’s/young adult books in the genre I was writing. Each month, I then had to write two critical essays discussing what I had learned from my reading.

Often, it wasn’t until I sat down to write those essays that I recognized what I had absorbed.

I know the essays were the bane of some of my fellow students. But for me, the process of organizing my thoughts about a book I’d read and then putting those thoughts into writing led me to new insights—insights I might never have discovered by osmosis alone. (For an example of how this works, see the Writing Workout below.) Perhaps this is one of the reasons so many writers are also bloggers—the web has become a place to organize our thoughts and share our insights about both reading and writing.
Since graduating from VCFA, “Reading as a writer” has become second nature to me, even when I’m reading “for fun.”

I also continue to choose books that will help me learn specific techniques. I recently read the young-adult novel The Vanishing Point: A Story of Lavinia Fontana by Louise Hawes, one of my teachers at VCFA. Fontana was a Renaissance artist who lived in 16th-century Bologna, and the novel is a fictionalized account of her adolescence. My current writing project is a historical novel set in 18th-century Italy, and is also based on the life of a real woman of the time. While reading Hawes’s novel, I studied how she wove in setting details specific to the time period along with known facts from Lavinia Fontana’s life. The book taught me a great deal!

Next time you practice “reading as a writer,” consider trying the following Writing Workout to deepen your experience:

Writing Workout: Reading as a Writer

In preparation for “reading as a writer,” decide what aspect of writing you will study. For example, you may choose to focus on characterization, dialogue, description, plot, setting, use of flashbacks, etc. When I started at VCFA, I knew one of the shortcomings in my own writing was a lack of specific detail. So, in my first two semesters, I read to study how authors incorporated details into their writing.

Ideally, you will read the book you are studying more than once. The first time is to simply enjoy the story. However, if you’re pressed for time, you can read for pleasure and analyze at the same time.

If you are able, purchase a paperback copy of the book you’ve chosen. With a highlighting pen, mark occurrences of the technique you are studying. For example, while studying the use of details, I highlighted every use of sensory detail that I found. (If you’re working with a borrowed book, then take notes describing each occurrence of the technique. Make sure to include the corresponding page numbers.)

Doing the above alone will likely be an eye-opening experience. But to take this exercise a step further, write a 300-800 word essay or blog post discussing what you learned from your reading. Your essay should include some of the examples you highlighted in the text. Important: be sure to discuss how you will apply what you learned to your own writing. And don’t forget—you can learn as much, if not more, from a book you don’t like as from one you do.

Carmela Martino writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry for readers of all ages. She also teaches writing classes for children and adults. Her first published novel for children, ROSA, SOLA (Candlewick Press), began as her creative thesis while pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College. Over ten years after graduating from the program, Carmela remains close to her classmates from VCFA. (Her class was nicknamed “The Hive” and they continue to “buzz” via daily emails and periodic reunions.) She blogs regularly with three of those classmates at www.TeachingAuthors.com, a blog by six children’s authors who also teach writing. To read more about Carmela and her work, visit her website, http://www.carmelamartino.com. You can also contact her there if you have any questions or comments about her post or Vermont College.

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My most recent novel, PURPLE DAZE (Running Press Teens), is a novel-in-verse which I conceived while attending MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Is the prevalence of young-adult novels-in-verse in the last decade merely a trend? Or can the novel-in-verse do something traditional prose novels can’t? Is it, in fact, peculiarly suited to the turbulent, but often secret, inner lives of teenagers?

Perhaps publishers, editors and readers have accepted this form because it’s an appropriate platform to showcase the inner drama of adolescence. Indeed, as I was reading scores of novels-in-verse, it became clear to me that poetry can bring readers closer to the consciousness of teens—perhaps even closer than YA novels penned in traditional narrative prose. When should a writer consider this form?

  1. Stories that are better told from more one than one character’s point of view. Mel Glenn’s verse novel WHO KILLED MR. CHIPPENDALE? has more than fifty viewpoint characters. Even if Glenn had used an omniscient viewpoint – in other words, bouncing in an out of others’ minds — it would be confusing to the reader. However, not all verse novels have more than one viewpoint character.
  2. Stories that are predominantly character driven, as opposed to action-driven. Verse novels tend to deal with highly charged emotional issues. Some issues include, incest (FURNITURE by Thalia Chaltas), mental illness (STOP PRETENDING WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MY BIG SISTER WENT CRAZY by Sonya Sones), and teen pregnancy (FIRST PART LAST by Angela Johnson). In each of these novels, what the characters are thinking and feeling is more important than what they are doing.
  3. Stories with poetry as a subplot or theme. In LOCOMOTION, Jacqueline Woodson’s main character Lonnie is exploring poetic forms to help him deal with the untimely death of his parents. In Ron Koertge’s SHAKESPEARE BATS CLEAN UP the main character is bedridden. He’s a bored kid who reads his dad’s poetry books and then begins writing his own poems.
  4. Stories that are best told in short, energetic bursts – instead of traditional margin-to-margin prose. For example, scenes that capture one moment whether it be an emotion or an idea.
  5. Try this exercise: Take a paragraph from any novel. Rewrite it in verse. Concentrate on metaphor, assonance, imagery and cadence. Shouldn’t all good writing contain these elements? Sure. But I find it easier to focus on ‘voice sounds’ and ‘patterns of expression’ when my writing looks like poetry.

Sherry Shahan has 30 children’s books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. YA novel PURPLE DAZE is set in 1965 Los Angeles where six high school students navigate war, riots, love, rock ‘n’ roll, school, and friendship. She teaches a writing course for UCLA Extension. Feel free to contact Sherry if you have any questions about novels-in-verse or the VCFA MFA writing program. Email: kidbooks [at] thegrid [dot] net. Or visit www.SherryShahan.com

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by Ingrid Sundberg, current VCFA student

We can all agree that Aristotle is the granddaddy of plot. Aristotle’s goal-oriented or action plot is nothing new to shout about. In fact, at this very moment, we are all busy giving our protagonists goals (like saving their families from flesh eating zombies), building up obstacles of increasing intensity, crafting the perfect climax, an emotional resolution, eating zombie brains, blah, blah, blah…yes we’ve heard it before. When we talk about plot, 99% of the time it’s going to be Aristotle’s action plot that we’re referring to.

But is this the only plot available?

In my own writing, I’ve often found myself trying to pound my round-shaped story into this square-shaped Aristotelian idea of plot. I’ve done this because it’s the only type of plot anyone talks about. However, I had an Ah-ha! moment at my first Vermont College of Fine Arts residency last January (an intense 10-day lecture and learning extravaganza). During a group discussion with visiting author M.T. Anderson, he challenged concepts of plot and encouraged us to discover what works for our own writing and to not simply accept what others have said on the subject. This inspired me to start collecting alternative plot structures – and guess what – there are lots of them!

The following is a short list of some of the alternative plots I’ve come across. Of course, this is only a small sample:

The Repeated Action Plot

This plot follows a character who repeats an action multiple times until he or she “gets it right.” The classic movie example of this plot is the Billy Murray film Groundhog Day. We also see this plot structure in Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel BEFORE I FALL, where the protagonist repeats a crucial day of her life multiple times.

The Daisy Chain Plot

There is no central protagonist in a Daisy Chain Plot. Instead the plot follows a chain of characters or an object as it’s passed from one character to the next. Each character’s story is told in whole, but their story is short and often self-contained. Examples of this type of plot include the films The Red Violin, Twenty Bucks, and Slacker. Even though Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY follows a single protagonist there is an element of the Daisy Chain Plot in the device that brings out the chain of characters in the story.

The Ensemble Plot

This plot concerns a variety of protagonists where no character is more dominant than another. The plot explores multiple voices, consciousnesses, and takes place within a single location. Character storylines can interweave or be independent. This often becomes a portrait of a place rather than a portrait of a person with a particular goal. Film examples include: The Big Chill, Crash, and Dazed and Confused. JUMPED by Newberry Winner, Rita Williams-Garcia is a great example of the Ensemble Plot in a young adult book.

The Emotional Plot

This plot is similar to the Aristotelian action plot, but all of the “action” is internal rather than external. This plot explores the moral or emotional development of a character and much of the story is told through the characters thoughts rather than their actions. Sometimes an emotional plot will follow or mirror an action plot as well, but some don’t have an action plot at all.

There are plenty of plots out there to choose from, not to mention structures (but that’s a whole different blog post). Remember, there is merit to Aristotle’s goal-oriented plot and many agents and editors are looking for that type of plot in a novel. However, one must be true to the story he or she is telling and be purposeful and honest in that telling. If you’re struggling with plot, you may find an alternative form of plot is just the ticket you’ve been searching for.

Ingrid Sundberg will graduate from the Vermont College of Fine art in January 2013. She also has an MFA in Screenwriting from Chapman University, and a BFA in Illustration from the Massachusetts College of Art. She likes to look at storytelling from all angles – artistic, cinematic, or word by word – and loves how VCFA has helped her to integrate these various points of view. Ingrid writes young adult novels, picture books, screenplays, and illustrates for children’s magazines. She is very active in the Kidlit community and blogs about writing craft on her blog Ingrid’s Notes.

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by Tim Martin, current VCFA MFA student

(boundaries): noun. the boundaries of acceptable behavior: limits, parameters, bounds, confines.

These are exactly the words that steered me to the big Victorian Orphanage on the Hill in Montpelier: Vermont College of Fine Arts. It was time for me to find a place and a community to break free of personal writing patterns and see how many personal “limits” could be crossed, how many boundaries could be pushed.

I came to the right place.

VCFA’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults is a program that allows experimentation – of themes, issues, styles and platforms. I initially enrolled with a set of objectives (finish novels, explore previous ideas) but with the influence of experienced tutors, specialist workshops, and an environment of innovation, I realized I may be limiting myself. Now’s the time for creative amplification!

So how, in my first semesters, am I pushing those personal boundaries?

Firstly, I’m setting aside my comfortable stock line of “I do fantasy, Middle Grade”, and launching into YA realism, digital picture books, and a quirky chapter book series. New work, new frontiers. One project, possibly to be tackled this coming semester, will feature the fictional journals penned by the son of a convicted criminal. As protagonists go I don’t know anyone like that, so my boundaries are already smashed. Research will be needed – perhaps within prisons, perhaps with inmates, or their families. Demographics, culture, even time and place will all be foreign to me. Yet it’s clear I will be extending myself as a writer, by crossing into new genres and exploring new territory.What better way to throw myself from comfort zone to deep end?

Secondly, I’m looking into how content can jump from platform to platform: how a story can be shaped in different ways on-line, in apps, media and a variety of book styles. How does the quality of this content hold up? Is it relevant? Does it expand storytelling creatively and intellectually?

Finally, I’m excited by a specialized workshop I’m attending at this summer’s residency at VCFA, orchestrated by Louise Hawes and promising to leave me with “insights into the limits of language, the music of words, and the profound nature of non-verbal communication”As an appetizer, Louise has tempted her six students with boundary-busting appeal: “Thanks for being brave, curious, and crazy enough to tackle this adventure with me.”

Experimentation can feel exhilarating. It can also seem daunting if you’re used to a particular genre or you’ve previously carved out a personal writing path. For me, it feels right. And it feels like those confining shackles are already being wonderfully dismantled.

Tim Martin is about to start his second semester in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. You can read more about Tim and his work at www.timothyjohnmartin.com. If you have any questions about his post or the MFA program at Vermont College, you can contact him directly at tim [at] timmartindesign [dot] com.

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Today’s guest post comes from the fantastic Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest and Guide to Literary Agents blog and book fame. He’s celebrating the recent release of this fabulous book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK: DEFEND YOURSELF WHEN THE LAWN WARRIORS STRIKE (AND THEY WILL). Here, he shares the reason that your sample pages are getting rejected by agents, and I wholeheartedly agree. While I have posted on this topic a few times, maybe Chuck’s take will finally make folks listen. :)

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When agents review pages of your manuscript, they may reject you for one of three reasons. First, they may realize that the story they’re reading is in a genre or category outside of what they handle. Form rejection. The second reason they say no is because of poor writing skills: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Form rejection. The third and most common reason that good writers get rejected is that their story just plain isn’t ready yet. In other words, it’s good—but simply being good doesn’t cut it. A piece of fiction has to be great to catch an agent’s eye.

Writers are constantly rejected because they’ve turned in work too early. As a writer myself, this is a problem I sympathize with. We work on a story for what seems like an eternity and then you get to a point where you just say, “If I read this darn thing one more cotton-pickin’ time, I will KILL SOMEBODY. I am so sick of looking at this thing that my eyeballs hurt. I am going to send it out and take my chances.”

So you’ve decided to send it out. But is it ready?

When is your work really ready? By that, I mean: When is your manuscript edited enough and polished to the point where you can confidently submit it to agents? I used to think there was no answer to this question, and that each project was so vastly different that it would be misleading to address the subject. But I was wrong.

The best answer I can give on the subject is this: If you think the story has a problem, it does—and any story with a problem is not ready. When I have edited full-length manuscripts (some for SCBWI friends and others on a freelance editor basis) and then met with the writers personally to discuss my thoughts, a strange thing happens. When I address a concern in the book, the writer will nod before I even finish the sentence. What this means is that they knew about the problem and suspected it was a weak point in the story. I have simply confirmed that which they already knew.

For example, some typical concerns were stuff like this:

  • “This part where he gets beat up—it doesn’t seem believable that so many kids just took off school like that.”
  • “If the main character is so stealth, then how come he gets caught by the bad guys here?”
  • “The story starts too slow. We need more action.”

In my experience, writers all seem to know many of their problematic issues before anyone even tells them. So all this brings me back to my main point: If you think your work has a problem, then it more than likely does—and any manuscript with a problem is not ready for agent eyes. If you find yourself saying, “Hmmm. I think the map just being there in the attic is kind of too lucky for the kids,” other readers will likely agree with you—and that is a great example of a typical problem. And every problem needs to be fixed before you submit to agents.

This shows the importance of beta readers—friends who will review the work once it’s written. They will come back to you with concerns, both big and small. You address the concerns in your next revision and send the work to more readers. Once readers stop coming back with concerns, you’re starting to get somewhere. If you think you have issues, or multiple critiquers agree on a problem, then you’re not ready for Querytime. When you and your readers can look at a book and say that all concerns are adequately addressed (and it therefore lacks any major problems), then and only then will you be ready.

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Writer Alane Ferguson is a dear friend of mine, and she recently emailed me about an article she’d written. Since I touched on the subject of censorship in my most recent post on sex in YA, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to “reprint” Alane’s piece (which was originally posted on her own blog, here).

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First of all, I believe not all published work is suited to all readers. There, I said it – to me it’s a simple fact. BUT, having said that, we wade into the murky waters of who decides for whom what is and is not appropriate.

So! I will now weigh in. Remember, this is just my take on the question as an author. (Yikes! I hope when I’m done people won’t pelt my house with olives!)

I’ll begin with little back-story. I may have mentioned earlier on my blog that ALL are welcome in my home, and those are not empty words. I have had teenagers (girls, mostly – although boys have landed here, too!) who have moved in when things have gotten rough, which has translated into hundreds of hours negotiating sticky areas between teens and adults. My conclusion? Let me just say that there is A LOT MORE GOING ON in the lives of young adults than many parents might care to acknowledge. Yes, there are some protected teens who have never heard a swear word, but they are, sadly, a small minority. Most teens I’ve encountered have matured beyond their years. (Another fact: I might not like the way they have walked away from their childhoods too soon, but choices are made apart from my pearls of wisdom. I work from what IS, not from what I wish could be). And having said all of that, it is my belief that banning books won’t change behavior, not in the slightest.

I mean, isn’t that the fear? That a child reading about a certain behavior will suddenly indulge in said behavior themselves? I have never personally witnessed anyone renounce their core beliefs because of some random author’s take on life. Quite the contrary. I’ve found reading is the safest way to explore alternative world views. Personally, I welcome a chance to talk about ‘banned’ subjects, not to preach as much as to listen. To probe into the decisions of a fictional character and discuss fictional consequences enlightens everyone involved. How much safer is it to talk about imaginary pregnancy than to face the real thing?

Now comes a caveat: Parents know their kids, so I invariability bow to their choices and wisdom when it comes to their offspring. If they deem my books (which some have) as too graphic (for some readers they are) then by all means, censor my books from your family! It’s not a problem with me – discretionary reading has my blessing. However, and this is where some people get stuck, the idea of honor goes both ways. Those same parents MUST honor the right of the many to read material they themselves may deem ‘unsuitable.’ I believe we must not allow individualistic sanctions to put the kibosh on a teacher’s/classroom’s/librarian’s choice of material. For me, the few should not control the rest! We’re all about freedom, right? (Man, I feel those olives coming my way…)

Last but not least – one thing life has taught me is that it is impossible to please everyone. Let’s not try. To that end, I am a big believer in offering all sorts of books to all kinds of readers – no judgment! I respect their choices…problem solved! Respecting differing points of view is the key.

So! In my humble opinion, let the few choose NOT to read, allow the many to ENJOY, and let the conversations begin!

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I really like Alane’s thoughts here. I think that — my own personal values, religion and politics aside — my baseline for these issues boils down to choice and truth. There are people who advocate for banning books on principle, of removing the “threat” from shelves for the “benefit” of everyone. And then there are people who advocate for choice — letting parents, educators, and kids choose what they recommend, teach, and read — but at least making all books available.

I get very uncomfortable with people who take it upon themselves to make decisions for others, who have the ego and the righteousness to think that they know better. Sure, some kids lack the life experience that some adults possess, but that doesn’t mean that more life experience is better or more valid. Our shelves should be allowed to reflect the wild diversity of our world: every person who has lived, and read, and thought, has their own truth and worldview. Each book should be allowed to have the same. In the end, it’s as simple and as complicated as that.

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