MFA

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A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Gabriela Periera who runs a wonderful writing website called DIY MFA. I love this idea. As someone with a traditional MFA, I certainly advocate for getting into a program, but I also see the benefits of structuring your own course of study with resources like this one. It’s a really great idea and I’m very glad that someone is out there in the world doing it.

You can check out the video and write-up on the DIY MFA website, then stick around and learn more about it. Or you can watch the interview below. Gabriela has been kind enough to let me embed the video right here on the blog.

 

In other news, Cristy Zinn was kind enough to do a blog review of my book and my client Bethanie Murguia’s new release, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER (Knopf/Random House) was reviewed by the talented Michael Ian Black in this past weekend’s New York Times. You can read about that here.

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Katie Van Amburg, a recent college graduate, wrote in a few weeks ago and wanted to know what she should be doing next to further herself as a writer. Should she get an MFA? Should she work at a publishing house? These are some of the “next step” questions that a lot of writers have when they’re looking around and wondering if the writing that they do in their rooms is going to be enough to speed them toward their goals.

Is taking the next step and working at a publishing house or getting an advanced degree for you? Well, as a lady who has done both…

This is a tough answer to hear but it’s necessary: There is no magic bullet. I worked as an intern at Chronicle Books in San Francisco, and it was wonderful. I learned a lot. I also got an MFA degree and wrote a thesis, which was a completed fiction manuscript. Again, I learned a lot. But working at Chronicle didn’t get me automatically to some new level as a writer, and neither did the MFA. Neither ended directly in a publishing deal. I published a book this year but it took into consideration all of my experiences in publishing. And everything I wrote for Chronicle or for the MFA certainly must’ve played a role, but at the end of the day, the sum of all my experiences came out on the page.

Writing isn’t a linear progression. There’s no “go get your medical degree, then do a residency, then…” path outlined for it anywhere. That can be liberating, but it can also be scary because there are so many variables and fewer tangible results than in other fields.

If you do any of these things, you are doing them for YOU and to grow as a writer, not to get brownie points on your resume. Remember that. If you expect to wake up the morning after your MFA thesis is accepted and somehow be changed, it’s not going to happen. (Sorry to say, but it’s sort of like publishing a book. When I got the deal, I called Andrea. The first thing she said to me was, “That’s great, but just don’t think it will change your life.” At first, I thought she was being a bummer. Now I know she’s right. That one thing will not change your life…unless it becomes a megaselling hit and makes you lots of money. Most books are all about what you got out of writing it and then all about what you do with them. Waking up on publication day is like waking up on any other day.)

However, if you think a structured, workshop-based program will help you get to the next level, apply to an MFA and get everything you can from it. If you want to see how a publisher works from the inside out, go intern at one or work for a literary magazine or read for a literary agent. But don’t expect either of them to be more than what you make of them.

Sure, good programs and good publishers will furnish you with mentors and experiences you’ve never had before. And there’s a lot of value in that. But there’s usually no benchmark with something like this. The lessons and realizations (and then the energy and courage to use those insights when you’re back at the page) mean the ball is in your court. All of these things are just individual steps, it’s up to you to put them together into a ladder a climb it.

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This heady MFA question comes from Valeria:

Some writers say they work around one certain theme, others just find the theme later. But what are your thoughts on it?

Theme is actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about as I move forward (luck you!). We all hear the stories of the writers who finished their opus and then saw all the threads come together into their big, almost unintended theme. Sure, it must’ve been there subconsciously, but they never intended to put a Big Idea together in just this way.

That happens all the time, and I’m not criticizing it. In fact, I think it’s valuable to let your subconscious step in and plant little anchors throughout your story that have to do with a larger theme. But I’m coming around to the idea that you could — and maybe even should — write with a theme, Big Idea, or Big Question in mind. Here’s why:

It helps you refine your idea from the concept stage forward. If you know what theme you want to write about, you can more easily pinpoint yourself in the marketplace, and you don’t have to wait until you have a completed novel to figure out a) what you’re doing, and b) if it’s marketable.

What is the big question you want your story to answer? What is the thing you’re asking or hoping to express about the universe and life itself? What are you exploring? What do you wish you could solve about your own life? What have you observed about being alive? That’s your Big Idea and/or Big Question and I think every book should have it…otherwise, what’s the point?

Now take your Big Idea and find its layers. What is an idea that contradicts your central theme for the story? Can you work that contradictory viewpoint in through a plot event or secondary character? What are the shades of your idea? The layers? What are the twists and surprises that will keep your readers engaged, that will help them dig deeper into your story?

Every big, successful book has a big question or a big idea behind it. (BEFORE I FALL: What would you change if you could do it all over again? 13 REASONS WHY: What small things in life add up to big consequences? HUNGER GAMES: What matters in a society that works so hard to dehumanize its citizens? HOLES: How can you be in charge of your own destiny? Etc.)

You don’t have to introduce your Big Idea right on the nose in the beginning of your story, but hint at the questions that you’ll be answering, and make sure they grow in importance as you write. Your Big Idea or Big Question should be at work in all parts of your novel. For example, voice: What does your characters and narrator (if different) notice about the world? How do they notice it? What does it have to do with your Big Idea? How is it expressed?

Why am I so high on theme these days? You, as the writer, have one responsibility: you have to, as Ursula Nordstrom says, “dig deep and tell the truth” about the world as you see it. That plays directly into the “why” of your story, as in, why are you as a person telling this story to the world now?

What Big Questions are you asking? What is the thing you want to say with your book? What human foibles and characterizations do you want to bring to light? What kind of plot construction will let all that come together in an engaging way?

If you want to reflect life back to your readers with your own personal slant, you have to be committed to living and observing and distilling. Be honest with yourself and be honest with your ideas so that you can be honest for your kid readers. They’re still getting to know the world…reach down and pull them up so that they can experience the vista you’re seeing.

In addition to your big idea, you need to think about the idea of the Core Emotional Experience, which we talked about all the time in my theatre training. You’ve expressed your Big Idea. You’ve answered your Big Question, using this story as a tool to explore theme. What do you want your reader to put the book down and think or feel? In theatre, what do you want the audience saying as the house lights come up and they emerge from the “fictive dream,” as novelist John Gardner calls it, and stagger back into their real lives? How do you want to change them? What seed of an idea do you want to plant in their imaginations?

Your responsibility is to say something that’s true to you, true to your vision of the world, and a story that speaks in a big way. That’s where your theme comes into play and, ideally, you will have that framework in place before you start to write.

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I just spent a lovely weekend in Montpelier, VT for the VCFA Children’s Writing MFA mini-residency. Did I mention it was beautiful? No? Here’s a shot of their cute little capital building (“cute” and “little” are perfect adjectives for Montpelier, the smallest state capital and the only one without a McDonald’s, as six different residents, yes, six, told me):

Isn’t it gorgeous? We had a relaxing weekend of hanging out on the veranda at the Inn at Montpelier, mingling with the locals, meeting current VCFA students and alumna/ae, listening to readings and pitches, and otherwise drinking in the creativity of this little hideaway town.

One thing that struck me about the program is how dedicated the students and faculty are. (Hanging out at the Saturday BBQ were Walter Dean Myers, Tom Wynne-Jones, Coe Booth, M.T. Anderson, and more…what an amazing roster of talent!) But I did notice something that bugs me about MFA programs, and about establishing a writing habit in general. This is something I saw much more in my MFA program, and I don’t know to what extent it exists at VCFA, yet this weekend did get me thinking…

A lot of alumni coming back to Vermont felt liberated, as if they could think, breathe, create again. For them, their time at the program was such a richly creative time, and one where they were pushed by their advisers and classmates to really put in the work and get some writing done. Apparently, some of them stopped writing or wrote less or felt less driven after graduating.

The same thing tends to happen to people who can only write between 6 and 8 a.m., or people who can only use a certain computer, or people who can only go to such and such coffee shop, or sit in this one seat, or wear those pajama pants. Having writing habits and a writing ritual and ideal circumstances for creative work…that’s all good and fine. In fact, having these habits and requirements is much better than having no writing practice at all.

But there’s also a hidden danger. What happens when you leave the MFA program? When your seat is taken? When the dog eats your pajama pants? I know perfectly wonderful writers who have been driven into a serious block when their (self-created, mind) requirements aren’t being met. Which brings me to the idea of creativity as this fleeting thing, and my disdain for the idea of writers having some temperamental muse.

No. Here’s what you do: you sit down and you write. First, you pay attention to what your mind is saying are your requirements (this mug of coffee, that chair, these pants). But what’s more important is that you establish a daily practice of writing. When something goes wrong and your coffee shop closes because they’re resurfacing their floor, you don’t go into a creative tailspin…you go home or go to the library or sit outside and you keep writing. When you graduate from the MFA program, you don’t go into a creative funk, you rally your former peers into a new critique group and you keep going. (VCFA people: please know I’m not talking about you…if anything, I’m thinking so much more about my own MFA experience!)

When you start showing up for work without these obstacles (self-created, again) weighing you down, without a checklist for the Ideal Creative Environment that the world must meet before you can write, that “muse” (your work ethic, actually) will start showing up, too. You will, in effect, train yourself to show up creatively every time you show up physically to the page.

Just write. Write when it’s easy. Write when you don’t wanna (I didn’t wanna blog yesterday, so this entry is a day late…we can’t all be perfect). Write when it’s raining. Write when everyone else on the freaking planet is at a picnic and you can’t go because you know you have to write. Don’t rely on that program or those pajamas or this coffee shop. Rely only on yourself. Practice discipline.

Always evaluate your writing habits and try to determine whether they’re helping you in the long term or hindering you. Keep an eye on what you think you need and what you really need. Rally yourself. And when yourself is feeling cranky, rally a community around you. (May you all be blessed enough to create the kind of peer group that they have at the VCFA, truly an awesome thing to behold!)

The writing life isn’t a simple thing, but the good thing is humans can be taught, and creativity can be trained to flow, as long as you make yourself available to it and focus your work ethic.

Speaking of which, here was my community for the weekend:

(l-r: Sam McFerrin, editor at Harcourt/HMH, Julie Scheina, editor at Little, Brown, Kristin Daly Rens, editor at Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, me)

Thanks to the VCFA for hosting us and for all the hard-working MFA students! Now send me your stuff! :)

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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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Housekeeping:

I’m interrupting our workshops for the week to give you some housekeeping notes. July on the blog will be a little bit different, thanks to the fabulous students and faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s Writing. Sheryl Scarborough offered me the opportunity to feature some MFA student articles as guest blogs. Since I love the VCFA MFA program (and I’ll be at the weekend mini-residency this year, July 15th through 17th!), I jumped at the chance. So every Wednesday, starting this one, the 29th, and going for the next five weeks, I will let the talented MFA students tell you about issues we’ve discussed, from reading like a writer to the objective correlative to, yes, show vs. tell. I’m really excited for this opportunity to feature some craft-intensive voices. Workshop #5 will go up this Friday, July 1st, instead.

Also, check out editor Deborah Halverson’s book launch starting on Wednesday for her new book WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES. She’ll have seven days of events, interviews, and giveaways on the blog. And don’t forget about LitWorld, which I featured on Friday.

Finally, you will have two opportunities to see me in July. One is for VCFA MFA alumni and students only, it’s the weekend mini-residency up in Montpelier, VT, and I couldn’t be more excited. The other is the Harriette Austin Writers Conference in Athens, GA on July 22nd and 23rd.

Utah:

Speaking of travel, I just got back from the week-long WIFYR conference in Utah last weekend. This is one of my favorite conferences in that it brings an awesome teaching faculty together with some NY publishing professionals and gives writers a week of total craft and marketplace immersion in beautiful Sandy.

Here was a sampling of the faculty this year, including Kathleen Duey and Holly Black, with some attendees mixed in (many from my client Kim Reed’s fabulous critique group: VaLynne, Emily/Wingnut, Brodi, Sarah), fabulous New York editors Lisa Yoskowitz and Alyson Heller, our fearless organizer Carol Lynch Williams (with right-hand man Rick Walton), and me in my cute hat:

I love these people. WIFYR is one of my favorite conferences and I highly recommend it to everyone, even if I won’t be there next year (gotta give some other agents a chance…grrr). This year’s shenanigans included a fake kidnapping plan, of which we have the following photographic evidence:

Our aim was to freak Carol out. Since Carol freaks out about everything, I thought we had a very easy sell. Not so. She wasn’t buying it. But it did make for a great entrance for my keynote (all about creativity). Yes, I danced to some Lady Gaga. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Come to WIFYR next time. :)

We also went to a lovely potluck at local superstar indie bookstore, the King’s English. Here’s me posing with a copy of Bethanie Murguia’s BUGLETTE, THE MESSY SLEEPER, out from Tricycle Press/Random House. Everyone go buy it!

ALA:

Speaking, again, of travel, I am typing this from beautiful (and sultry-hot) New Orleans, LA, one of my absolute favorite American cities. I’ve been here since Wednesday for ALA and for general shenanigans. My mom is a fine art painter, so I’ve been hanging out with her gallery staff, who are like family, meeting some new locals, shooting a gun for the first time (long story), and greatly enjoying the food and the visiting publishing people who have descended on the Crescent City. It’s pretty surreal to be walking down Canal Street and run into Jeff Kinney, say, or Mo Willems.

I’m also thrilled to report that Disney-Hyperion editor (and rock star) Lisa Yoskowitz and I have added a fifth state to our unofficial Tour of Awesome. Lisa and I first met in Wisconsin in the fall, then lunched in New York, and have recently been to two more conferences back-to-back: Indiana and Utah (see above). It’s like we’re itinerary twins. We just had to meet up in Louisiana and have a good laugh about it.

While on the floor at ALA, I got the fun opportunity to be there when they laid out the WILDEFIRE ARCs, and to enthusiastically hand-deliver them to a throng of librarians. WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight is the first novel on my list to be published, and it comes out July 26th!

ALA is definitely one of my favorite expos. Not just because they had it in New Orleans this summer, but because there are a lot of books on the floor, there are tons of authors walking around (I got to see the lovely Sara Zarr and Carrie Ryan, who I don’t often have the opportunity to hang out with), and many great publishing colleagues are getting excited for Fall 2011 and beyond together.

Now it’s off to the last day of the show and then I’m hanging around and eating some more delicious Cajun food. After all this traveling, it’s time to take it a bit more Big Easy. Look for the first VCFA MFA guest post, “Pushing the Boundaries” by Tim Martin, on Wednesday!

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I have been meaning to tackle MFA programs for longer than I’ve had the blog. Tons of writers have asked me: is it worth it to get an MFA? Does that catch your eye in a query? Is the actual curriculum going to take my writing to the next level?

As many of you know, I recently completed my MFA. Before I can speak about the MFA experience in general, I have to speak about my MFA experience, which was not altogether positive. I mean no disrespect to the hard-working directors, professors, advisers, and students at the University of San Francisco. However, I want to be truthful. And the truth is, I often felt like a pariah in my program on two counts: as a children’s writer and as a publishing industry insider.

First, there were a lot of people there (all writing serious adult fiction) who didn’t get children’s books. My first workshop started with someone saying: “Well, I never expected profundity from a children’s manuscript.” (There were a few genre writers in the program who, I think, got a bit of the same snobby treatment because they weren’t writing literary fiction.) That’s fine, though. There’s a well-known bias against kidlit in adult literary circles and I don’t waste my time defending my profession to people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Second, though, and more problematic, is that I worked in publishing and concerned myself with ideas of market and audience and sales hooks and all that unsavory business. I can’t help it. As an agent, saleability and hook is just how I think. People were very quick to brand me a corporate sellout. More on that later.

While I did have trouble fitting in, for the above reasons, I can say that I found workshop useful and that I met one of my dear mentors through the program. I also either started or finished several manuscripts over the course of the two-year MFA, and improved with each one. How much of this was the program and how much was it my growing experience in agenting and publishing? Hard to say. How much of it was the MFA and how much of it was my own writing habits? Also hard to say.

One of my issues with MFA programs is that it seems like a lot of students go there and buy the scaffolding to allow themselves to finish a manuscript. I’m the opposite, and ridiculously self-driven. I’d written something like four manuscripts and gotten an agent before entering the program, so I couldn’t relate to the majority of students who seemed to be there to finish a book for the first time in their lives. A lot of people work well under pressure or deadline, and most of my peers seemed to be paying for the experience of a structured, two-year plan to finish. If you’re having problems executing a book, this might actually be the perfect fit for you: a completed manuscript is the “thesis” of most MFA programs, it’s a graduation requirement.

Another issue is that the professors and directors treat the MFA as an artistic cocoon. Writers are there to write and think about art and craft (which is great, don’t get me wrong), but the program doesn’t teach the industry or the business…you know, all the stuff that, ideally, happens after you finish your magnum opus. I think it’s perfectly fair to focus on the gestation of the manuscript during the MFA, but the truth is, the publishing industry exists, and it’s a business. And no matter how much (the majority of) the students rant and rave against traditional publication, I know most of them are interested in actually getting their work published, paid for, and read widely.

Not only is industry talk relegated to one dreary afternoon — the “Life After the MFA” workshop — but it’s actually frowned upon in the classroom and socially. I asked one of my advisers, point blank: “How many of our alums actually get their books published?” She frowned and said: “Not many.” Nobody is going to pay back their student loans with their contributor’s copies from the Small Time Literary Review (the only payment you get from most journals and magazines), but a lot of MFA students act as if this is the right and noble thing to do. The tortured/starving/pissed-off artisté cliche is alive and well. Lots of MFA alums have told me that the exact same vibe exists across the country.

My beef with MFA programs isn’t really what happens during them — all that focus on craft and writing is a beautiful thing — but what happens after. There’s precious little information about publishing to guide your next steps, and not a lot of empathy for those dreaming of publication with a big house. A lot of students in my program actually come back and audit classes after graduation to feel the community of the MFA again, since it’s the first time they’ve had a critique group or felt like a real writer. The same students who need a MFA program to finish a book are also relying on their MFA program to be their only workshop opportunity, their legitimacy. And that’s an expensive way to learn how to write a manuscript. Last I checked, anyone can form a critique group, it’s just a matter of initiative and a little elbow grease to find the right people. I was in a critique group before and after my MFA, so the idea of workshop wasn’t totally revolutionary to me, either.

But if MFA programs had to start tallying up their publication stats — much like undergraduate universities advertise their job placement percentages for recent grads — a lot of them would be in trouble. Because for most programs, the stats aren’t good. The truth is, an MFA does not guarantee publication, because nobody and nothing in life (except worldwide celebrity) can guarantee a book deal. So MFA faculty and directors have taken the focus entirely off publication and put it on the writing journey. That way, the MFA process itself is fulfilling because there’s not quantifiable end goal. There’s no pressure. I totally get where the MFA programs are coming from with this. But I still think it’s detrimental to the writers, who now have two years of fuzzy writerly feelings and no idea what to do next.

To tell you the whole, honest truth: seeing that you have an MFA in a query letter doesn’t really impress me, unless you went to a really high-profile school. I’ve read the writing coming out of my MFA program and some of the work from second year students wasn’t much better than what I see from rank beginners in my slush. I’m not trying to be mean, at all. But I judge writing professionally, every day, and most of the work I saw wouldn’t pass muster.

I do wonder if I would’ve had the same experience if I’d gone to a program specifically targeted to children’s writers. If I could go back in time, I’d probably apply to Vermont (website). There are other programs that have MFA programs for children’s writers. Hamline (website), Simmons (website) and the New School (website) come to mind. Though, to be honest, I don’t know if I’d get an MFA if I had it to do all over. I’m not sure the whole experience — the nitty gritty writing mixed with the high-brow attitude — is a fit for me, as a person.

At the end of the day, I think I’ve learned so much more about writing by simply working in the industry than I ever did in the classroom. I also learned a whole lot by reading, and not just the same old short stories that seem to be part of every writing curriculum. I mean reading in my chosen genre, thousands and thousands of books above and beyond what I was assigned, because that’s just what I do. I know my approach (work in publishing, become an agent, read thousands of books) isn’t realistic for everyone, but since I started in publishing at the same time that I started my MFA, I can’t tell which influence is really responsible for what I know now. I am a better writer than I was two years ago (in all my spare time — ha!), but I think that came from a wide mix of experiences, not the least of which is putting my butt in the seat and actually, you know, writing.

If I was running my own program — and several agents and I have discussed this fantasy because we get frustrated with the output from today’s MFA programs — I’d run a mix of MFA and MBA, much like suggested in this cheeky little article that I found this morning.

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Plot is one of the most important elements of any story, from picture book to chapter book to middle-grade to young adult. Since Revision-o-Rama is a response mostly to NaNoWriMo, I’ll be tackling novel-length plots. These are quite the tricky kettle of fish. We’ve already talked about character, but characters mostly add internal conflict to a story when left to their own devices. They sit and contemplate how lonely they are, or how unpopular, or how much they want something exciting to happen. So what do we do? We give them external conflict: plot.

I’ve had the tremendous luck to study with MG author Lewis Buzbee in my MFA program. Not only is he a very talented writer but he’s an excellent teacher. This way of looking at plot is cribbed almost entirely from him, because I think it’s just that good. (But he often gives this workshop in person and, if you ever get the chance, do listen to him talk about it… my version will be a pale imitation.)

So, basically, what Lewis teaches and what I believe is that there are only four key points to a plot. This is that “dramatic arc” that you hear so much about. Some writing teachers subscribe to a “three act” structure, some like five acts, some like to choreograph your plot right down to what should happen in a story when. I think these micromanaging techniques miss the point. Put whatever you want in your plot, run your characters through the story that’s in your imagination, but when you’re reading your manuscript over again, make sure it adheres to this very simple arc:

plot

Do you like my lovely drawing? I never said I was visually gifted, mind you. Let me explain what’s going on here, point by point:

  1. Normal: This is your character’s baseline. At the beginning of a story, your character is usually their normal self in their normal circumstances (as much as possible). Something has probably happened to knock them off balance but they are making do. They might even be doing well. Even if they’re starting on their first day at a new school, they’re making a friend or two, they’re not completely failing their classes, they discover a magic shop where the owner seems very interested in them, etc. This leads us to…
  2. The Rise: This, for the near future, is as good as your character is going to get. You want to spend some time, maybe the first quarter of your story, building relationships, exposing your character and their goals and motivations, creating a world and planting all the seeds of plot, story, theme and character that will be important later. If your story is longer, maybe spend only the first 1/5th or 1/6th here. Then get ready for…
  3. The Fall: But things were just moving along so nicely! Oh well. We don’t pick up books to read about nice people in calm, tranquil situations. All that stuff that you’ve established in the first quarter, fifth or sixth of your story… screw it up. Things go from okay to bad, from bad to worse, and from worse to impossible. The character’s relationships get troubled, their goals and aspirations are thwarted at every turn, they make dumb decisions and have to deal with the consequences, etc. The very bottom of this point on the graph is usually the climax of the story, aka. when things seem hopeless or so bad that they can’t get any worse. Then, the character triumphs, and…
  4. The Evening Out: No, not a nice night out on the town with a date. This is the getting back to some kind of equilibrium again. It shouldn’t be the same equilibrium because, hopefully, your character has changed over the course of their journey. It is a new normal, a new way of living and thinking and existing in the world of the story.

There you go. Now, you’ll notice that the graph outlines more of an emotional journey than specific plot points. Unfortunately, I can’t sit here and tell you all the things that must happen in your story. I don’t know. They have to be born from the character who’s starring in your book and the story that you want to tell. But take this four-point structure to heart and make sure that the plot you’re creating puts your character in roughly this emotional state over the duration of your story. How you get them to these emotional highs and lows, to these particular experiences, is up to you, but make sure you’re massaging and revising your story into the above shape. It is the most effective and a great starting place, even if you do want to experiment later.

Subplots don’t need to be quite as dramatic — the highs shouldn’t be so high, the lows shouldn’t be so low — and they don’t have to span the whole length of the book, but do make sure that they follow some semblance of this graph, too. Subplots are usually generated by secondary characters. Let’s say the plot of your book is American Pie-esque… a guy, Joe, trying to get laid before the end of his senior year in high school. That quest will form the main plot. Let’s say, though, that he’s got a best friend, Sam, who can’t seem to stop getting laid, and he’s been hiding all his various girlfriends from each other.

Sam’s subplot is that he wants to simplify his life and get rid of some of his attachments. This subplot could interact with the main plot because Sam might try to pawn off girls on our hero Joe, for example, or one of the girls pretends to like Joe just so she can get back at Sam. So subplots usually belong to other featured characters in your story and have this same trajectory. The moments when they interact with the main plot should serve to move the main plot along.

This brings me to my last consideration about plot. Readers like to be surprised, they like suspense, they like the unexpected. Your plot shouldn’t be so linear. That’s why I like using the emotional highs and lows of your story for guidance. For me, as long as you hit these emotional points, there’s a lot more room and flexibility for an interesting plot. Ally Carter, in a workshop I went to, talked about surprises. They’re characters and plot points that dig into the story you’re telling and spin it around, shooting it off in a completely different direction.

Make sure you’ve got key places in your story where a character or event acts like a bumper car and sends the story in a new or unexpected place. Let’s say Joe, our high school virgin, is about to ask his dream girl to the prom — where he’ll try to seal the deal — but she asks Sam, blissfully unaware of his Hugh Hefner tendencies. Now Joe is caught between his loyalty to Sam and wanting to save Dream Girl from Sam’s clutches. This creates a whole new wrinkle in the story. Complications! Surprise! You don’t have to be zany for the sake of zaniness here, like I have been, but do try to keep the tension and suspense of surprise alive and well in your story.

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Okay, you guys. In a very real sense, I was blown away by these queries. And I almost wish I hadn’t run the contest, because now I have to choose winners and that’s been very hard. My personal challenge was choosing submissions based on the strength of the query more than the strength of the hook or the idea, which isn’t really the point of a query contest. Let me tell you, it was very, very difficult! So, without further ado, here are the Honorable Mentions. I chose these queries because they were great, but they also had some opportunity for me to illustrate a few query points.

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The first one is Laurie Edwards, with her query for Red Beads:

Dear Ms. Mary Kole:

Water beetles, worms, and crickets—delicious, right? When you’re starving, pregnant, and on the run from the emperor, they are.

Laurie definitely takes a risk here! This is a question query, sure, but the question is interesting. It’s risky because a) it might gross the agent out right off the bat and b) because it doesn’t exactly tell me about what kind of book I’m looking at here… this could easily be the first line of a creepy crawly picturebook about the eating habits of indigenous people or something. But I kept reading.

Those are only some of the many hardships Mei faces in Red Beads, my edgy YA novel set in China during the Ming dynasty. This tale of palace intrigue, forbidden love between a concubine and a eunuch, and the triumph of the human spirit is complete at 57,000 words.

Great summary in one line tells me everything I need to know, including the central conflict and the main characters.

When sixteen-year-old Mei is taken as a concubine against her will, her feisty personality arrests the attention of head eunuch, Li. He concocts a plan to not only protect her, but to give her heart’s desire—the opportunity to read and write her beloved poetry. But Mei’s jealous cousin Daiyu reports their secret meetings to the emperor, who condemns Li to death and punishes Mei with a sentence worse than death. After Mei realizes she is carrying a deadly secret (the emperor’s child), she flees the Forbidden City, and her life becomes a fight for survival as she matches wits with those who hope to imprison or destroy her.

I love that we find out more about Mei and her passion, poetry. However, “… a sentence worse than death” is a little vague. I think she’s being forced into sexual service of some kind but I had to read it a few times to make sure that’s what we were talking about. Might want to be more specific for the purposes of a query.

When I stood in the Forbidden City several years ago, this story gripped my heart and has since been a labor of love. As for those water beetles and worms? I’m not sure how they’d taste raw (the way Mei eats them), but they’re delicious cooked. I believe in immersing myself in the culture I’m writing about, so during my trip to China, I enjoyed deep-fried water beetles, but must admit I wasn’t as enamored with boiled sand worms. A former librarian, I have been using my research skills to flesh out the historical details. In addition to reading extensively on the Ming dynasty, I have enlisted the aid of a scholar to insure the historical accuracy.

Be careful about giving too much information about yourself. This is a great story — risky again because of the ick factor — but might be too much info for the query. I love that she’s so knowledgeable about the culture and setting that she’s desribing but I would save something like this story for the phone when the agent calls to talk more about the project. It’s an extra little bit of zest but it takes the attention off the book which, for the purpose of the query, is most important.

My writing credits include Rihanna (People in the News) for Lucent (2009) and “Summer Storms” in Summer Lovin’, an anthology from Wild Rose Press (2009). I also have more than 850 magazine and educational articles in national publications including Highlights for Children, Woman Alive!, Junior Trails, First Teacher, On the Line, Light and Life, and Clubhouse as well as in encyclopedias, reading books, and educational databases.

I would be happy to send Red Beads for your review. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Impressive list of publication credits and a breezy sign-off. Nice!

Sincerely,
Laurie Edwards

Now we move on to a picturebook Honorable Mention from Michelle Munger!

Dear Ms. Kole,

Reading your biography, I have found we share a common interest in the works of Neil Gaiman. I hope you will find my story “I Want to be a Cowboy”, a 680 word picture book for ages 4-8 years old, intriguing as well.

I appreciate the author reading my bio and reaching out to make a connection. However, I’m not quite sure how Neil Gaiman fits into a picturebook called “I Want to be a Cowboy.” If you’re going to include personalization in the query, it’s a good idea to have it be pertinent to the work you’re submitting.

Popper is a prairie dog who desperately wants to be a cowboy, like the ones he watches on the ranch just above his home. He decides to find a way to become a cowboy and asks every animal he finds if they know how to be a cowboy. Each animal gives him different advice, but even after he finds boots for his feet and a hat for his head, he still doesn’t feel like a cowboy. It isn’t until he learns to use the things he finds that make him truly a cowboy. The story uses repetition and spunky animals to help him realize it’s not what he has, but how he uses them that make the difference in the end.

The story sounds cute and I like it. The conflict, action and resolution are described well. However, this is a picturebook. Even if you’re only writing the text, give me at least one concrete image to walk away from the query with. Like, for example, I want to know more about “It isn’t until he learns to use the things he finds that make him truly a cowboy.” Give me an example. What does he learn to use? How does it make him feel? Describe a scene for me in a sentence that’ll give me a mental picture.

I am an author/illustrator and member of SCBWI. I attend local weekly critique groups and am active in on-line groups to perfect my craft. I started Manic Network on Ning, a network to bring author/illustrators together so we can all learn from one another. I am a member of VSS, the Visual Storytellers Studio. I would like to illustrate this book, but I would be all right if you see a different vision from another illustrator. The manuscript and sample pictures can be sent at your request.

Great. Normally, of course, if you’re sending a picturebook query, you’ll include the text of the full manuscript, depending on an agency’s guidelines. If you’ve got a link online to illustrations from the project, even better. Include the link in your query so you don’t have to send an attachment to the agent.

Thanks so much for your time,
Michelle Munger

As you can see, these are really strong queries already. Finally, we’ve got another YA query from Marie Devers:

Dear Ms. Kole,

Moxie McCormick’s dad is ditching her in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Grabs my attention but watch out. This opening line isn’t so much about Moxie as it is about her dad, he’s the primary subject of the sentence and it raises more questions about him than about her.

Sounds harsh, but Moxie gets it. He’s given up everything to raise her. Now he’s pursuing his dreams, and 16-year-old Moxie must fend for herself. Her dad sets her up in the college dorms and asks the RA to look out for her. He tells Moxie to use this chance to live.

This sounds intriguing but slightly implausible, so I wanted the writer to combat that feeling of “No dad would ever, ever do this in real life” with some more facts. My brain is asking a lot of questions. Why did he give everything up? What dreams is he pursuing? It feels like he’s leaving her for a long time, even though we learn later that it’s only four weeks. He seems really callous to me from this short description. Also, notice how all the attention is on the dad so far, not the main character.

Moxie joins her new school’s award-winning choral group. She yearns to perform, so what’s stopping her from taking the solo she’s offered and performing at the local open mic night?

Take your pick:

Now we’re getting more Moxie! Good. I also like the “Take your pick,” because it has voice. The query is starting to come into its own.

  • Moxie’s new Alaskan friends are hell-bent on changing her.
  • She’s caught the eyes (and ears) of not one, but two cute guys.
  • All the attention is intensifying her stage fright (if that’s possible).

I like the bullet format. It’s not something I see very often, and it boils down Moxie’s world in a quick and easily digestible way. This does raise more questions, though. Why are her friends bent on changing her? Into who or what?

Moxie’s got four weeks of Alaskan freedom before her dad returns. Will she take his advice and live? Or will the pressure of being a strange new girl in a strange new land keep her from finding her voice?

Really like the last line but the first sentence is problematic. The opening of the query made it sound like the Dad was ditching her and she felt bad about it (though I really couldn’t tell what she was feeling because we didn’t hear about her that much…). Now this makes it sound like she couldn’t wait to get rid of Dad and have fun and it’s this wild adventure, instead of abandonment. The two don’t reconcile for me.

Complete at 50,000 words, MILES ABOVE EVERYTHING is a young adult rock-and-roll love story. I’m querying you because I read your blog and I know you’re wishing for YA fiction with a rock-and-roll slant.

Yay! Someone looked at my Wish List (in the sidebar of my blog) and sent me something cool. I do wonder how choral music equals a rock-and-roll love story, but I might just have to request some sample pages and find out. :)

I’ve been a professional educational writer since 2005. MILES ABOVE EVERYTHING is my first novel. For three years, I taught English classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks–the setting of MILES ABOVE EVERYTHING. While there I earned an MFA in fiction.

It’s nice to know that the writer has an MFA degree. That’s no requirement, by any means, but it lets me know that she’s serious and driven about fiction. It’s also great that she’s so familiar with the setting of her story, and I love the title. This sort of brief blip about her experience with her setting is something I wanted to see in Laurie’s query, above. It’s just enough where I know she’s an expert in what she’s writing about.

I’ve included the first ten pages below. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to see more.

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Marie Devers

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So there you are, the three Query Contest Honorable Mentions. Stay tuned these next few days, I’ll be choosing more and more winners and dissecting their queries. I hope this proved a useful exercise for you. The fun is just beginning!

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There are a lot of articles out there about what not to do when you’re writing a query letter. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to do a query right, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

It’s simple, really:

Make me care.

Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.

Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:

Dear Name,

I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.

So far, so good. Personalize the query to the agent and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is. Now we get the meat. The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story!

Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.

Then, you’ll finish your query with:

  1. Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
  2. A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
  3. Your signature and contact information.

Voila! Now you have a query letter that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.

This is by no means the only way to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?

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