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by Rebecca Stead
Middle Grade, 208 pages.
Wendy Lamb Books (2009)
ISBN: 978-0385737425

“There are days when everything changes, and this was one of those days.”

Miranda thinks she has her life as a latchkey kid figured out: her frazzled mom is dating Richard, Sal is her best friend, the crazy man in the street sleeps under the mailbox, the spare key is tucked into the fire hose.

Then a series of mysterious letters, written by someone who knows the future, shake up her world and things begin to change.

A WRINKLE IN TIME is lauded in the acknowledgments for WHEN YOU REACH ME and that is no accident. L’Engle’s classic has influenced this book thematically and plot-wise. Both books, you see, happen to feature time travel.

At first, that really surprised me about WHEN YOU REACH ME. Rebecca Stead has created a very convincing real world full of authentic, idiosyncratic characters, spare description and witty, engaging writing. The extra twist of time travel was unexpected but fascinating. By the time the climax comes together — with two of the same person, one from the present, one from the future, colliding in a gripping scene — I was riveted.

Best of all, this book reminds me of LOVE, AUBREY (Read my review), my favorite middle grade book of the year. Surprise, surprise, both are from Wendy Lamb’s imprint. Bravo! WHEN YOU REACH ME adds another quiet, unassuming but completely engaging and heartfelt book to an already amazing list.

WHEN YOU REACH ME came out July 14th. Here are links if you want to buy: Shop Indie Bookstores, Amazon.

For Readers: This book will be a hit with smart kids, teens and (cough cough) kidlit-lovin’ adults. It is a blazing-fast read. No joke, I polished it off in, like, three minutes and wanted to read it again. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, Stead has paid her tribute to L’Engle and, at the same time, has created an emotional, intelligent and intricate story that could easily become its own modern classic.

For Writers: WHEN YOU REACH ME is a perfect example of my favorite “genre.” I put that in quotes lest all the MFA and PhD students in the world  jump down my throat, for it isn’t really a genre, per se, but a term from literary criticism. For me, though, “magical realism” is the only way to describe this book. Magical realism is our world with a twist, a little magical quirk, like time travel. The people are like us, the world is our own and easily recognizable, but something is a little off and the characters must react to it.

For me, that term aptly fills the gray area between genres like sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal (that usually feature a world not quite our own) and what you’d call “contemporary” or “literary” fiction (that feature no crazy anything). If it isn’t a genre you’ve tried writing, then do. It is so much fun and such a treat (as long as you’re clear when you set the rules of the magic and stick to them, of course).

Also, I’m pretty much a stickler about the use of the 2nd person in fiction (more on this later) but Stead has used it here to great effect and as a surefire way to keep tension and stakes sky high. Definitely check it out to learn more about that.

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For today, I’ve got a question from a reader! Take a look at what L.S. wanted to know:

I’ve been writing for a few years (I’m 17) and I know I want to be an author. It’s all I want to do but I know my writing needs work – a lot of work. I’ve heard from some people that the only way to improve your writing is to practice, just keep writing and reading. Is that true, or is it different for everyone? And is it wrong to pursue this as a career?

It seems like the most common advice is to do something else, “write in your free time”. I originally decided that if I made it to college, I’d major in Creative Writing. I thought that would help me become a better writer, but I’m worried now that it would be a waste of time.

There isn’t a single writer in the world who hasn’t doubted whether writing is the path for them. These questions are definitely normal. The first thing I have to say is that you’ve got plenty of time on your hands. A lot of writers discover their passion for it early. This is the part you might not want to hear, though: a lot of writers start early but then spend years and years and years honing their skills. To answer your question, yes, practice and reading are the best ways to improve as a writer. That’s not just for some people, that’s for everybody. The more you write, the better you get, and the more you read, the more you absorb for your own craft.

Even though you’re thinking of majoring in creative writing, don’t think you’ll get out of college with that degree and begin a career writing books right away. The truth of the matter is, you’ll learn a lot more from years and years of practice than you ever will in creative writing classes. Those classes were nice but did little to prepare me for writing a book and getting into the publishing world. Heck, my MFA in creative writing was only marginally better than college in terms of craft and literature curriculum. Luckily, nobody cares about your degrees or your resume when you’re a writer. They only care about the work, as should you. That’s your responsibility to hone, so don’t feel like you need to put so much pressure on your degree.

Being an author isn’t an easy career to get into. Most people don’t realize how long it takes to start writing good, saleable books. Most people have no idea how slowly the publishing world moves. I talk to writers all the time who say it took them ten years of solid writing to finally get a manuscript that sold. But if that’s the only thing you can possibly imagine doing, if writing is an irresistible, compulsive thing for you, then pursue it. Most people try and then drop out. This is a field where tenacity is pretty much a requirement.

The thing you really need to explore right now is your voice. For young writers, the voice is usually the last thing to develop and solidify. It’s true. To carry any kind of book for 300 pages, a writer needs a mature, dynamic and compelling voice. A voice that feels like a real human being, not just some caricature or persona. If there’s any advice I’d give you, it’s to educate yourself, put in grueling writing time every day and to work tirelessly on your voice. That and don’t give up just because it’s hard. The most worth-it things are always difficult.

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by Seth Grahame-Smith
Adult/Young Adult, 320 pages.
Quirk Books (2009)
ISBN: 978-1594743344

The Regency world is turned upside down when an unholy menace descends upon Netherfield and… Actually, no. I refuse to do a detailed synopsis for PRIDE PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. Because you either get it or you don’t. This is PRIDE AND PREJUDICE mixed with brain-lusting, flesh-rending, slobber-icious zombies. And ninjas, too. In a book review capacity, I can’t exactly take it seriously, other than to say that Elizabeth’s feisty sparring with Mr. Darcy takes on a whole new edge when you introduce a plague of friggin’ zombies to the mix. In my MFA program, I think we’d call that an “objective correlative.” In my real life, I’d call that “mind-blowing awesome.”

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES has its critics of course. Mostly people who left their sense of humor in the stacks while writing their third PhD dissertation on the symbolism of candlesticks in the middle-to-late-Austen canon. What I don’t understand is how you can possibly pick up a copy of this book, see the red eyes, torn flesh and blood on the cover and expect something in the spirit of Jane Austen. What part of “Now With Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!” don’t you understand?

Some people have lashed out at Seth Grahame-Smith, also, for not matching Jane Austen’s style more closely in the parts where he edits the text. Call me crazy, but scholars have no idea how Austen would write zombies. Thus, it is safe to assume that she might handle them something like this. Either way, since Jane Austen can’t write zombies for us unless she becomes one herself, I think it’s safe to give Grahame-Smith the benefit of the doubt here.

So, recap: The Bennet family + dagger skills + zombies + ninjas = the best ever gift for your English teacher. And also, if you really want to wow the AP English committee, base your entire essay on this adapted version of the classic.

Here are links if you want to buy it for your grandmother, pastor, therapist, everyone else you know: Amazon, Shop Indie Bookstores.

For Readers: This book turned me into a less-than-careful reader. While the Jane Austen parts were good, they sounded more like Charlie Brown’s teacher compared to the awesome zombie violence. Complete with line drawings that help you imagine the gore, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is the ultimate treat for the literate horror movie fan. While the jury’s still out on whether this Jane Austen chick will make it as a writer, there’s no doubt Seth Grahame-Smith is the King of English Literature!

For Writers: I think we can all admit in our secret heart of hearts that we let out a low keen of extreme mourning when we heard about this book. All because some screenwriter in LA (of course) thought of it first. You can’t get more public domain than Jane Austen, so his start up capital was exactly zero dollars. Now the grapevine tells me that this author has gotten a mid-six-figure advance for his second tale about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I still can’t forgive myself for not smoking what Seth Grahame-Smith was smoking when he thought of this because it’s bloody brilliant. Literally.

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I just read a MS where the author’s answer seemed to be an emphatic: NO!

My answer? An emphatic: YES!

This question is much bigger than I have time for right now. I’ll do a longer post later. In short, though, I’ll leave you with a quote. My MFA professor, Lewis Buzbee, is probably not the first man to say this. But he said it again last night in class and it couldn’t be more applicable to what I read today:

“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”

Dunk that in your morning coffee. And no, I don’t think we’re just talking about Adam-and-Eve-style innocence here. More to come later!

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There’s almost nothing harder than “killing your babies” and axing chunks of your writing. Everybody loves their writing. It’s always hard to lose a word here, a line there, sometimes an entire paragraph. But cutting makes for a leaner, meaner, more amazing manuscript.

I’ll be posting some craft articles on revision in the next few weeks. Maybe because I’m revising stuff myself right now, it’s on my mind.

At my MFA program, my teacher, Lewis Buzbee of Steinbeck’s Ghost fame, makes the class do reductive revisions. We turn in a manuscript of 20-30 pages, then everyone in the class takes two to three pages of that week’s submission and cuts, cuts, cuts until only one page remains.

It’s a lot easier to cut through the fat and be merciless when it’s someone else’s work. However, to be a successful revision expert, you’ve got to develop that sort of keen ruthlessness toward your own precious manuscript. Especially after your First Draft Goggles wear off and you have to streamline.

One of the biggest problems some writers have is redundancy. They’re not sure the reader gets what they’re trying to do so they explain it. Then they explain it a different way. And then, just in case, they introduce another way of saying the same thing.

This is all fine and good. Maybe your subconscious is spinning all these repetitive statements so that you, the writer, understand the scene better. But the reader doesn’t need them. When I’m looking at a manuscript, redundancy is the number one thing I axe for the reductive revision exercise.

Exercise:

Let’s do a reductive revision together. The objective is to halve the length. Let’s give it a try. I’ll do my revisions and then you can do yours in comments, if you want, to see how ours match or don’t match.

Edna looked Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs. Her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
“I know, me too.”
“If we don’t find this book soon, the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the shelves. “But where could the book be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open.

Okay, so this scene is serviceable as is. But notice some redundancy issues. The characters are sneaking around and they’re nervous. We get it. We can convey it in a much simpler way. Our word count is 93. Let’s see if we can’t come in under 50.

Edna looked at Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs, H her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
I know, me Me too.”
“If we don’t find this book it soon… the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the forbidden shelves. “But w Where could the book it be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open with an ear-splitting creak.

And this is how it reads without the delete lines:

Edna looked at Chris, her back to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around. “I’m scared,” she said.
“Me too.”
“If we don’t find it soon…”
They scanned the forbidden shelves. Just then, the door flew open with a ear-splitting creak.

All I did was delete things the reader already knew, with the exception of rearranging the last sentence. Now, I was pretty ruthless. Notice, I took out all mention of the book and the library. That’s because they’re worried about the librarian and they’re scanning the shelves, so “book” and “library” are implied. I also got rid of all the emotional but cliched heart/eye/blood stuff that writers tend to lean on too heavily.

You might not want to go so sparse, but notice how much quicker the scene moves. We still get they’re scared and we still get a sense of danger. But guess what? Word count 49!

Have your own version of this revision? Post it below. More memos from the office of repetitive redundancy office coming soon.

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