Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Deborah Halverson

Before taking our annual summer blogging break, we're featuring a very special Guest TeachingAuthor interview today. Deborah Halverson is joining us to celebrate the online launch of her new book, Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies (For Dummies/Wiley Publishing). As part of the celebration, we'll be giving away TWO copies of the book here on our TeachingAuthors blog. You can read our contest entry instructions following the interview.

After you've entered our contest, be sure to head on over to Deborah's DearEditor website. From June 29-July 5 she will be featuring daily “Free First Chapter Critique” giveaways, free downloads, excerpts from the book, and profiles of the 13 authors, editors, and agents who contributed sidebars to the book. For the grand finale of the book's launch, Deborah will be giving away a “Free Full Manuscript Edit” on the last day! You don't want to miss that opportunity.

In addition to Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies, Deborah Halverson is the author of the award-winning teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth, both published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers. Armed with a masters in American Literature, Deborah edited picture books and teen novels for Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years before leaving to write full-time. She is also the founder of the popular writers’ advice website, a frequent speaker at writers conferences, and a writing teacher for groups and institutions including UCSD’s Extension Program. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband and triplet sons. You can read more about her at her website, and on her blog

Welcome, Deborah. Would you begin by telling us how you became a TeachingAuthor?
     Fifteen years ago I sat across the desk from a human resources manager who looked me dead in the eye and said, “It’s not as glamorous as it looks.” Glamorous? I wanted to be a book editor, not a fashion model. The yen for glam was not what put me in the chair across from him. What put me in the chair across from him was a lifelong desire to be involved in some way in the making of books. If I could parlay all my schooling and specialized certificates into a career in bookmaking, I’d consider myself one lucky (and apparently unglamorous) girl.
     That day I became the editorial assistant to the managing editor in the children’s book department. There, I learned how books are made. Shortly after, I pushed my favorite chair and box of colored pencils to a desk down the hall where the acquisition editors toiled. There, I learned how the stories in those books are made. I was hooked.
     I spent ten years editing children’s book at Harcourt. I worked with amazing publishing people and brilliant authors and illustrators. And I didn’t have to move to New York to do it. But then, in one swoop, three more amazing people entered my life—my triplets—and it was time to give up the office job. I didn’t give up publishing, though. I stayed in, editing freelance and writing my own novels while my little ones napped. Writing was a natural transition for me—I’d secretly wanted to write novels since I was a little girl. I was hooked again.
     About the time I was finishing my second novel, I realized that, hey, I knew a heckuva lot about publishing from both sides of the desk. I should try teaching a class about writing for young people! UCSD’s Extended Studies gave me a shot, and I found out that I love teaching. For me, breaking down abstract notions like “narrative voice” into specific, tangible, teachable elements is loads of fun. Hooked again, line and sinker.
     So now I’m an official teaching author, and my editing style reflects that. My three professional loves overlap in a way that fulfills my creativity and lets me pay forward the knowledge that was so generously shared with me by the authors and editors who’ve helped me on my journey. I’m one lucky girl, indeed.

What's a common problem/question that your writing students have and how do you address it? 
     Nailing a youthful narrative voice can be challenging for grown-ups. When writers ask me how to sound convincingly young, I tell them to relax their grammar. That is, let their sentences purposely run on, double-back on themselves, repeat, and end prematurely. This can inject a more casual, off-the-cuff, and ultimately youthful quality into their narrative voice.  Plus, it’s just fun to break the rules once in a while. As long as your meaning remains clear, the grammar police won’t hunt you down. And what’s more youthful than breaking rules?

How does being an editor influence your writing?
     I sometimes wonder if I’d lay down my words on paper any differently were I not an editor. Probably. After all, it’s through editing that I learned common writing pitfalls and how to avoid them. One thing I do know for sure is that even though I am an editor, I must bring in fresh, objective, knowledgeable eyes to assess my manuscripts at some point. After spending weeks, months, or longer with a manuscript, every writer is susceptible to loosing sight of the forest for the trees. I’m no different in that respect. I always show my work to critique partners and other freelance editors.

Your new book, Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies, is about the craft of writing YA. Do you include writing exercises in the book? And, if so, would you share one?
     I believe in arming writers with tangible techniques and encouraging them to experiment with those tools. That’s the way to take your craft to the next level. In that spirit, I’ve included writing exercises throughout Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies so that writers can apply the skills at hand directly to their works-in-progress. Writers can work through the exercises chapter by chapter to take their fiction from idea to final manuscript.
     One of my favorite exercises in the book is aimed at helping writers revise. I call it the “Stop Looking Test.” Actually, if we want to get technical, this is probably a “revision tool,” but it goes beyond the manuscript at hand, making you aware of your word and action choices in future stories. In the Stop Looking Test, writers must search for the words look, stare, glance, gaze, smile, frown, turn, nod, shrug, and the like in their manuscript. These verbs are dead weight. Oh, sure, they inject action into dialogue beats, but the action is blah. Action should reveal something about the character’s mood or the setting, or it should push the plot forward in some way. A page of characters gazing and staring at each other between lines of dialogue isn’t going to do that. When you find those words in your manuscript, replace them and the whole sentences with new material that has your characters manipulating props or reacting to the temperature or to other elements of the setting while they talk. If there’s nothing worth engaging in that room, move the conversation to another place that forces characters to act or react in an interesting, revealing way. Force the issue. I’d much rather read a scene about a mother and daughter arguing as Mom forces Daughter to weed the garden with her (all those sharp tools, and all that yanking and throwing of dirt and greenery, and the sun beating down on them…) than a scene showing them standing in the living room shrugging and staring at each other. I love the Stop Looking Test because the difference it can make in your manuscript is immense, immediate, and tangible. You feel this one.

What a terrific exercise, Deborah. I'm going to try it on my current work-in-progress. In addition to Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies, you've published two young adult novels. Do you have any suggestions for teachers on how they might use one of your books in the classroom?
     Indeed, I do. My novel Big Mouth offers teachers and students a funny and fun way to talk about something serious: eating disorders in teenage boys. That topic has been important to me since high school, when a wrestler friend of mine essentially starved himself so that he could “make weight” to wrestle in the lowest weight class possible. I thought it odd that he was being praised for this behavior while girls who starved themselves were told they had a problem.
     Today, 15 percent of high school boys are dieting, with peer pressure, media influences, and the weight demands of sports such as wrestling leading the list of reasons why. Big Mouth features a 14-year-old boy training to be a superstar in the hilariously bizarre sport of competitive eating, and he must alternately starve and stuff himself to do that. This plot allowed me to take on some of the misguided reasonings that can play into eating disorders. To help teachers talk about these issues with their students, I created a full curriculum guide for Big Mouth. The curriculum guide includes facts, discussion questions, and activities about competitive eating and eating disorders, and it has five specific curriculum sections. The guide can be found here. (Additional guides for this book and also Honk If You Hate Me, can be found here.)

Besides being an author, editor, and teacher, you’re the mother of triplet boys. How do you balance all these roles? In other words, when do you sleep?
     Actually, I’ve never needed a lot of sleep. I inherited that quality from my dad. No matter what time I awoke as a child, I’d find him up reading a book. I took on that behavior myself, and it paid off big time when my sons were born. There was very little sleep for anybody those first months. Nowadays I can look back and identify a few patches since their infancy that I could call “balanced” in some sense, but overall I think I’m like most writers—constantly reassessing and refocusing my efforts based on my “day job,” my current work-in-progress’s needs, and the current phase of my family’s life.
     One of the best skills a writer can cultivate, I think, is the ability to make the time to write. That is, you have to call your writing time like you would call your pocket at the pool table, and then you must protect it fiercely—from yourself as much as everyone else. If that means blocking it out on the family calendar like you would block out a dentist appointment, then get out the pen and start blocking. If that means sticking a note to your door saying, “Yes, Mommy loves you . . . but please come back in thirty minutes,” then post the note and close the door. If that means setting up a regular babysitting trade with the neighbor, then set it up! For me, to strive for balance is to live the life of a tightrope walker: I may wobble left and right a lot, but I’m absolutely committed to keeping those feet of mine on that wire.

I love the image of "calling" your writing time as you would "call your pocket at the pool table." Thanks so much for sharing these tips, Deborah, and for all your answers to our questions.

I'm sure all our readers who write young adult fiction will want to win a copy of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies. Deborah has generously donated TWO copies of the book for our giveaway. Anyone who submits a valid contest entry is eligible to win the first copy. However, as a special thank you to our regular readers, the second copy will be reserved for one of our followers. In other words, you increase your chance of winning by being a TeachingAuthors' follower, whether you follow us via Google Friend Connect, Facebook/Networked Blogs or as an email subscriber. (If you are not already a follower, you may subscribe via one of the links in the sidebar before you enter. We will verify that you're a follower!)

Contest entry:
Please read these entry requirements carefully--incomplete entries will be disqualified!
1. You must comment on today's blog post and provide your name for the inscription Deborah will include with her autograph. (If you'd like to give the book as a gift, give us both your name and the recipient's name.)
2. You must provide contact information in your comment. If you are not a blogger, or your email address is not accessible from your online profile, you MUST provide a valid email address in your comment. (Your email address is required even if you are an email subscriber because our subscription list does not contain subscriber names.) Your email address will only be used for contest-related contact purposes. Note: the TeachingAuthors cannot prevent spammers from accessing email addresses posted within comments, so feel free to disguise your address by spelling out portions, such as the [at] and [dot].
3. All readers who post a valid entry comment will be eligible to win the first giveaway copy. To also be eligible to win the second copy, you must follow the TeachingAuthors blog and specify in your comment how you follow us: via Google Friend Connect, Facebook/Networked Blogs or as an email subscriber. (If you are not already a follower, you may subscribe via one of the links in the sidebar before you enter. We will verify that you're a follower!)
4. One entry will qualify you for both copies if you are a TeachingAuthors follower.
5. Entry deadline is 11 pm (CST) Saturday, July 16, 2011. The two winners will be determined using the random number generator at and announced on Monday, July 18. Note: Winners automatically grant us permission to post their names here on our TeachingAuthors website.
6. You must have a mailing address in the United States.

That's it. If you have a question regarding how to enter, feel free to post it as a comment.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, after today we'll be taking our annual summer blogging break. We won't have any new posts until Monday, July 18, when we announce our two giveaway winners.
Until then, happy writing. And good luck!

Monday, June 27, 2011

I'm Not Charles Dickens; Writing the Autobiographical Novel

     "Everybody's first novel is autobiographical." I don't know who said this, or how true this. However, I am guilty as charged.  My first published book, Yankee Girl, is at least semi-autobiograpical. By semi-autobiographical, I mean I changed the names, physical characeristics, and several of the characters are composites of real people. 98% of the incidents in the book really happened, if not to me, then to members of my family, or someone I know personally. The most important part of the story, the inner struggles and fears of Alice Ann Moxley are 100% me.

    Why do writers start off writing about their own lives?  What could be easier than writing about yourself and the people you know?  Right? Wrong!

    Yankee Girl took me five years. It was my life.  What took so long?  I have kept a diary since third grade, so I had my fifth and sixth grade journals to jog my memory. True, I did have to do a years worth of research on things that weren't in my journal (the chronology of the Civil Rights movement, hairdos, television schedules....but I'll save that for a future post.)

    I do a lot of critiquing, and I can always sniff out an autobiographical first novel. New writers think that you start at what they believe to be the beginning (sometimes all the way back to the beginning, as in David Copperfield's first chapter "I Am Born.") In fact, most autobiographical novels seem to take Mr. Dickens as their literary role model.


   Before you start snorting, "Just who does Mary Ann Rodman think she is, trashing Dickens?" I will tell you I like Dickens.  Nobody can create a character like Dickens. However, there was a reason that most of us read "edited" versions of David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities in middle school. Our books were perhaps 250 pages.  The uncut versions are around 900 pages! Before I went to college I decided that "a real writer" would have read the original versions.

     So I ploughed into them. Here is where I became frustrated with Dickens' style. He could spend a whole chapter describing a character who never appears again.

     And description? I love writing description, but again, the man could write for pages about a room that really had nothing to do with the central story. OK, I realize that Dickens wrote many of his books
as newspaper serials, and that he was paid by the word. But that was then. This is now.

     My point?  Real life and fiction are two different things. Fiction is life edited. I learned this the hard way.  The first draft of Yankee Girl and included everything, even the color of my bathroom tile  (mint green, if you want to know). And it was 300 pages! Somewhere in those 300 pages was the original story of following your conscience vs the crowd...but it was buried under characters who appeared once and disappeared, a fight my mother had with the Welcome Wagon Lady who told us to move back to Chicago (it was funny, but really added nothing to the story), and endless details that were accurate to the time...but detrimental to the story.

    I was writing Yankee Girl in the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children program. My second semester, my obese novel landed on the desk of my semester's mentor, Marion Dane Bauer. I wasn't around when she first saw it, but I can imagine her reaction. Marion is of the Spartan school of writing.
Her books do not contain one unnecessary word, character or scene. Her Newbery Honor winner, On My Honor and Yankee Girl are both middle grader novels. The first draft of YG was something close to 80,000 words. On My Honor is 16,000.

   I have lost track of how many times per critique Marion would use the phrase How does this move the story along? She used it in reference to characters, scenes, and descriptions that I thought were just too cool to leave out. Because it really happened this way I would write back. That's not a good enough reason Marion answered.  If it doesn't move the story forward, take it out.

     Being a slow learner, who likes to wander up literary cul-de-sacs just because I love the way the words sound, it took me most of the semester to discern what did or did not "move the story along." The "move along" critiques continued to the end of our time together, although they grew became less frequent, I went into the next semester with a 50,000 word draft. (The published version of Yankee Girl is around 44,000 words.)

     Meandering around with words doesn't just happen with autobiographical novels. However, in an autobiographical story, you have a tendency to not want to leave out a single detail, relevant or not.

    Thank you, Marion Dane Bauer, who has influenced me more than she will ever know, even though our styles are absolute opposites.  And for the rest of you who haven't had the good luck to spend six
months working with this wonderful writer, repeat after me How does this move my story along?

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Friday, June 24, 2011

Try a Trimeric! Happy Poetry Friday!

Howdy, Campers!  
We've just completed our VCFA series, which began with Jodi Paloni's entry, "The Point of Point of View."  After Jodi's post,  Cynthia Newberry Martin shared a technique for letting the characters tell you what happens next in your story in her piece, "Decide vs. Discover."  Sion Dayson gave us another method for moving forward called, What Happens Next? Inch Forward in the Dark.”  Then, Lynn Miller-Lachmann showed us the VCFA way to critique a fellow writer’s manuscript in "Critiquing Others: The Constructive Critique." And we ended the series with guest blogger Pam Watts's post, "Finding the Heart in Your Story"

Thanks to the VCFA writers who shared their writer's journey with us!
Now, journey along with us as we celebrate Poetry Friday ~
Thank you, Carol, of Carol's Corner, for hosting Poetry Friday this week!

Okay, I have a confession to make: I.  Am having.  A love affair.  I'm so excited about this new love in my life, in fact, that I want to share a poem I wrote about it:

by April Halprin Wayland

You're the only one I'm telling:
I'm having a love affair.  
My husband knows.
I don't sneak around whispering that name.

I've having a love affair!
My new love makes everything so simple,
helps me see the world in a new light.

My husband knows.
He phoned and heard my hypnotized voice.
He came home unexpectedly and saw triplets dribbling drown my chin.

I don't sneak around whispering that name—
I sing it, I shout it:
Trimeric! Trimeric! Trimeric!
2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

Yes, I'm in love with a form of poetry that appears to have been invented relatively recently called the trimeric. The inventor, Dr. Charles Stone, says it rhymes with limerick.  (I prefer to call it a try-mer-ic, which sounds lovelier.)  Here is the definition on his trimeric page

"Trimeric \tri-(meh)-rik\ n: a four stanza poem in which the first stanza has four lines and the last three stanzas have three lines each, with the first line of each repeating the respective line of the first stanza.  The sequence of lines, then, is abcd, b – -, c – -, d – -."

In searching for more information (there isn't much), I found one poet who rhymes the last two lines of each stanza, but this isn't part of the official definition.

Here are more trimerics I played around with this week:

by April Halprin Wayland

She said, “No, I'm too tired.”
“Let's explore the word
tired,” he said
then the tortoise lumbered in the door and they laughed.

“Let's explore the word
for creature who looks
like a dinosaur but lives in our house.  He's obviously not

tired,” he said,
though if you look closely, 
the tortoise did have dark rings under his eyes.

Then the tortoise lumbered in the door 
and she reached for his hand.
“I like your wrinkles better than his,” she said, and they laughed.
2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved


by April Halprin Wayland

Walk the perimeter, the trainer says.  
You're the leader, the one to watch.
Eli will look up every now and then
to find you.

You're the leader, the one to watch,
he's the guy in the field, taking notes,
doing the research, collecting the data.

Eli will look up every now and then,
give you the secret wink
and you'll know the coast is clear, the deal will go down.

To find you,
he'll launch his implanted dog paw device
and you will reach nonchalantly for your cell phone.
2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

Eli, getting ready to go incognito to the dog park

by April Halprin Wayland

First, a mound of soil burst open—then, 
a stem poked through.
The next day,
it blossomed in the sun.

A stem poked through—
but it wasn't a stem.
What then? A finger.

The next day,
more fingers, an arm, 
a body bathed in dirt.

It blossomed in the sun:
green eyes, asparagus-fern hair,
a boy of greens and ground.
2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved


by April Halprin Wayland

She used to be nicer to me.
Something's happened.
Now her voice is stern; 
she frowns at me for little things.

Something's happened.
It used to be all about scratching my rump,
or giving me that big bone stuffed with peanut butter.

Now her voice is stern
and she'll only give me that big bone
when I've done all that sit-stay-down-roll over stuff.

She frowns at me for little things.
I wonder if pulling all the stuffing out of the couch 
had anything to do with it?
2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

My favorite part of Thanksgiving is the stuffing...why should Eli be any different?

I love the surprise package of a trimeric--at least the way I write them. It appears as if the poem is about one thing, but if I can turn it the right way, then--surprise!--it's about something else.

So write one or two or twelve.  It's simple...and it's not.  But it's certainly addictive.  And please share yours with us--I'm really interested in seeing what you come up with!

And remember to write with a sense of play.  I mean, why else are we doing this? 

P.S: I wanted to do a few drawings to break up this post.  But each drawing takes a long time, so I took photos instead.  Saving my energies to work on my book.  Just thought I'd share that.  We all need to prioritize, right?

poems and photos (c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

VCFA Blog Initiative: "Finding the Heart of Your Story" by Pam Watts

The TeachingAuthors are proud to be part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Summer Blog Initiative. We're especially pleased to be the first blog to feature these inspiring and practical posts by students and graduates of the MFA programs because four of us (Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, Carmela Martino, Mary Ann Rodman and JoAnn Early Macken) hold MFAs from Vermont College. As for me, I’ve vicariously attended Vermont College since it began in the late 90’s via my writing friends, colleagues and even students whom I recommended.  One of these days my Summer teaching schedule will change and I can at least attend a Summer Intensive.  (I’m saving the Winter Intensives for my Next Lifetime.)
Our series began last Monday with Jodi Paloni's entry, "The Point of Point of View." In last Wednesday's guest post, "Decide vs. Discover," Cynthia Newberry Martin shared a technique for letting the characters tell you what happens next in your story.  Sion Dayson gave us another method for moving forward in last Friday’s post, “What Happens Next? Inch Forward in the Dark.”  On Monday, Lynn Miller-Lachmann put forth the VCFA way to critique a fellow writer’s manuscript in "Critiquing Others" The Constructive Critique."

Today’s post by Pam Watts, "Finding the Heart in Your Story," addresses the heart of your story and how it can be found. It captured my writer’s heart instantly.  Following the post, I've offered a related Writing Workout.

The next stop in the VCFA blog initiative?  Pam's very own Strong in the Broken Places blog.

Thank you, Pam, for sharing your insights with our readers and writers.

Learning from you and your fellow VCFA bloggers these past two weeks gladdened this teacher's  heart immeasurably.--Esther Hershenhorn

                                * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Finding the Heart in Your Story

I decided to be a writer after some minor success with my first book when I was seven. I took a year off from college ten years ago and blithely wrote my “first novel.” Ha.

Many critique groups, writing classes, and conferences later, my novel was going nowhere. But I was serious about this writing thing, so I found myself at Vermont College of Fine Arts. They gave me a scholarship when they admitted me. I thought I was Pretty Hot Stuff. I just needed to learn to turn a prettier phrase (but I thought my phrases were already fairly pretty). Again, can I say: Ha.

I got to my first workshop--the extremely squirm-worthy process whereby 15-20 extremely articulate students and a teacher who has written so many books that he could generate an award-winning plot in his sleep tell you exactly what is and isn’t working with your novel--and discovered from the inimitable Tim Wynne-Jones that my characters lacked emotion, my plot lacked internal logic, my language was altogether too flowery. Oh, and that setting I thought was Wales?--Well, it felt more like Ireland, actually.

I cried big, fat heavy tears alone in my dorm room. Then I put my hair up in a pompadour and I got on with life.

My first semester studying with one of my literary heroes -- Martine Leavitt--did not go any better. I spent the entire semester trying to convince her that she just hadn’t understood my perfect vision.

Now fast forward through three semesters, a few World Wars, and a great deal of craptastic writing to my penultimate residency. Here you will find me crying in my closet after my good friend Clete finished his graduate reading.

Why was I crying this time?

Because the story Clete read from was so deep and heartfelt and emotionally honest that I suddenly realized how much resistance I have to my own writing. I realized that I aggressively “try” so I don’t have to do the real work of writing from my heart.

I’d like to say that I’m a new person now, that I have no ego and I always dig deep. Sigh. But over the course of my last semester my writing did change. I started to actually listen to my wonderful advisor -- Margaret Bechard. My writing became a little darker, scarier, and more fluid. And I started to ask the question: why do I need to tell this story?

Now that I’ve graduated, that question is with me each time I sit down to write. And with it I’ve occasionally found a deep openness. This space is scary and so I often avoid it. But not always.

It’s a process.

Finding the heart of your story is like finding the heart of yourself. You never really get there, but every step you take gets you a little bit closer. And if it’s worth it to you, you keep going.

Pam Watts is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program. She writes fiction for teens, speaks about graphic novels and literacy at conferences, and blogs about children’s books and childhood adversity at Strong in the Broken Places. If you have questions or comments about this post, or about Vermont College, she can be reached directly at

Writing Workout

Your story’s heart and yours share the same blood supply. What’s pumping in one is pumping in the other. 
No bypass is surgically needed.

I recommend writers create a Writer’s Journal to use - in tandem – with the Writer’s Notebook they keep for each writing project.

In your Writer’s Journal, answer the questions below for the story you’re currently writing:

(1)    How might your character introduce you to an audience of writers and readers?
(2)    Why does your character NEED you to tell his/her/its story….and now?
(3)    What thoughts/concerns/worries might your character have about your keepin’ on…as you travel your writer’s plotline to tell his/her/its story?  How and why is he/she/it 100% certain you'll do just that?

Monday, June 20, 2011

VCFA Blog Initiative: Critiquing Others: The Constructive Critique by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

The TeachingAuthors are proud to be part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Summer Blog Initiative. We're especially pleased to be the first blog to feature these inspiring and practical posts by students and graduates of the MFA programs because four of the TeachingAuthors (Carmela Martino, Mary Ann Rodman, JoAnn Early Macken, and I) hold MFAs from Vermont College. Last Monday, our series began with Jodi Paloni's entry, "The Point of Point of View." In Wednesday's guest post, "Decide vs. Discover," Cynthia Newberry Martin shared a technique for letting the characters tell you what happens next in your story. On Friday, Sion Dayson gave us another method for moving forward with "What Happens Next?"  Today we hear from Lyn Miller-Lachmann on the art of critiquing. --Jeanne Marie

Critiquing Others: The Constructive Critique by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Before entering the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I had extensive experience in critique groups and workshops. Some of these were helpful, but others left me with more hard feelings than ideas for improving my work.

Like unhappy families, unsupportive critique groups can be unsupportive in many different ways. Some function as cheerleading squads, leaving the writer unprepared for the highly competitive and often cruel world of publishing. Others spend more time tearing down the work and the abilities of the writer, leading to discouragement and disengagement from the critique process. Some members consistently fail to pull their own weight, refusing to read and comment on other people’s work or else to share their own. Others see the group or workshop as a competition, an attitude that some workshop leaders encourage.

Enough of the negative. The workshops at VCFA offer a model for the constructive critique that enables all participants to share their work in a safe, supportive environment and to learn from their own and others’ writing. At each residency, students take part in daily workshops, two hours long, with 10 fellow students and two faculty workshop leaders. At each workshop, two student pieces from 10 to 20 pages long are critiqued, giving each student an hour to hear feedback on the work and to ask questions. The workshop members are at different levels in the program, from nervous first semester students to workshop veterans about to graduate, and the types of works presented range from picture book texts to novels in verse to short stories, from early readers to edgy young adult.

On the first day, faculty advisers set the tone and the ground rules. The student with work to be critiqued reads a paragraph from that work. Then we go around the table, each person stating one thing he or she likes about the work. Faculty advisers take their turn. No one’s comments are more privileged than anyone else’s. After fifteen minutes of what we like about the piece, workshop participants discuss questions, which may be problems with the piece, or confusing parts, or aspects that touch on general writing topics. This part occupies thirty minutes of the discussion. For the final fifteen minutes, the writer, whose work is being discussed, finally has a chance to respond. Until that final fifteen minutes, the writer remains silent—unless there’s a factual question that requires a quick answer.

The silence of the writer for nearly an hour requires a level of trust at the core of the VCFA workshop process—that the discussion of the piece will focus on the piece and not on the writer, that the tone remains positive even though the time devoted to questions is twice as long as that devoted to favorable impressions, that all workshop members take their turn in voicing positives and raising questions, that all comments carry equal weight rather than gravitating toward the observations of the workshop leaders, that we learn not only from our own work but also from examining others’ efforts, that we put forth our best effort but know that any piece can be improved.

All of these principles can be applied to critique groups beyond VCFA. Here are some general tips for constructive criticism:

* Ask the person whose work is under consideration to listen to the initial discussion rather than explain or argue

* Make sure all other members have the chance to speak—do not allow some to dominate and others not to speak at all

* Treat all comments as having equal value, regardless of the writing and publishing experience of the one commenting

* Begin with the positive—what works in this piece?

* Frame what didn’t work for you as a question and relate the questions to larger issues that may apply to several group members’ works

* Give adequate time for the person who wrote the piece to respond at the end

* Make sure all members have the chance to share their work equally as well as respond to others’ work.

Of all my experiences in critique groups, the VCFA workshops have helped me the most. Beyond the specific critique of my own work, they have addressed larger questions with which I struggle—getting readers to connect emotionally with my characters, revealing backstory without halting the action, making the first person narrator’s voice consistent. As often as not, I’ve discovered the answers for my own work while discussing someone else’s story, which is why it’s so important to both participate and to listen.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is in her second semester in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. She is the author of an adult novel, Dirt Cheap (now back in print), and the award-winning YA/adult crossover Gringolandia. She also contributes reviews to the online Albany Times-Union, Readergirlz, and The Pirate Tree, a new blog about social justice and children’s literature. You can read more about Lyn and her work at If you have any questions about her post or the MFA program at Vermont College, you can contact her directly at

Exciting plot… great characters… exotic setting… a good story will invariably have at least one of these things going for it. But a GREAT story will always have heart. For a look at how one writer learned to find heart in her story. Please check back here on Wednesday 6/22, when Pam Watts, a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults reveals her journey.

Friday, June 17, 2011

VCFA Blog Initiative: What Happens Next? Inch Forward in the Dark, by Sion Dayson

The TeachingAuthors are proud to be part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Summer Blog Initiative. We're especially pleased to be the first blog to feature these inspiring and practical posts by students and graduates of the MFA programs because four of the TeachingAuthors (Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, Carmela Martino, Mary Ann Rodman, and me, JoAnn Early Macken) hold MFAs from Vermont College. On Monday, our series began with Jodi Paloni's entry, "The Point of Point of View."  In Wednesday's guest post, "Decide vs. Discover," Cynthia Newberry Martin shared a technique for letting the characters tell you what happens next in your story. Today, Sion Dayson gives us another method for moving forward.

What Happens Next? Inch Forward in the Dark, by Sion Dayson

Working on my first novel, I sometimes felt like I was stumbling through a large, strange house without the benefit of light. Maybe a storm cut the power or faulty wiring flipped the switch. Whatever the reason, I was in the midst of a blackout, trying to draw a blueprint of a place I had never been.

My advisor Ellen Lesser had a simple suggestion for combating the panic of not knowing where I was heading in my writing: inch forward in the dark.

The directive resonated.

I connected it to my idea of the foreign house. Everything was already there to be discovered; I just couldn’t see it yet. So I’d run my hands along the walls, stretch my arms out in front of me, take tiny steps. I inched forward in the dark. I learned there was a chair in the middle of the room, a desk with knick-knacks in the corner. What was this? Perhaps family portraits on the mantle?

After awhile I found a light switch. Suddenly an entire room was visible. It looked different than what I’d pictured, yet it was also so clear. Of course, this is the kitchen, I might say. Utensils on the drying rack, chipped plates, a leaking sink I’d heard when the lights were out--though I’d been unsure of its source.

But the hallway remained dark. The bedroom, the den. So I just kept mapping the house (the story) until every lamp was lit. Warm light seeped from each window. Slowly, I started making myself at home.

Sion Dayson will graduate in July 2011 with an MFA in Fiction Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, a National Book Foundation anthology, and the volume "Strangers in Paris," among other venues. She is currently working on her first novel. If you have any questions about her post or the MFA program at Vermont College, you can contact Sion directly at Feel free to visit her blog paris (im)perfect for information on her writing journey and other adventures in the City of Light.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

VCFA Blog Initiative: Decide vs. Discover, by Cynthia Newberry Martin

The TeachingAuthors are proud to be part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Summer Blog Initiative. We're especially pleased to be the first blog to feature these inspiring and practical posts by students and graduates of the MFA programs because four of the TeachingAuthors hold MFAs from Vermont College: Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, JoAnn Early Macken, Mary Ann Rodman, and me, Carmela Martino. On Monday, Mary Ann kicked off the series with Jodi Paloni's entry, "The Point of Point of View."  In today's guest post, Cynthia Newberry Martin shares a technique for figuring out what happens next in your story. Following the post, I have included a related Writing Workout. Enjoy!

Decide vs. Discover: Let Your Characters Tell You What Happens Next

I used to think I had to know what was going to happen before I could write.  During my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), Diane Lefer, my advisor, wrote to me:
I would suggest thinking less ABOUT your characters and instead just trying to put yourself in their shoes and see where they take you.
I copied this sentence on an index card and taped it above my desk. These twenty-four words worked like scissors, cutting me loose. I thought I had to know. I thought I had to decide, but instead I could discover. I could just place the characters in a scene and see what happened.

I learned to wait.

Granted, it’s a subtle difference: decide versus discover. I mean, we are the writers. But here’s an example: in the novel I’m working on now, there are three trailers off to the side of the road. They appeared because one of my characters needed a place to live. Who was living in the other two? Well, a son appeared; he could have one. So who was living in trailer #3? I didn’t know. I kept writing. I wrote “Who is living in trailer #3?” on a card and taped it next to the other card. Weeks went by. What I discovered by waiting and not deciding was that no one was living in trailer #3.

And, as Robert Frost wrote, that has made all the difference.

Cynthia Newberry Martin lives in Columbus, Georgia, the home of Carson McCullers. Her fiction, essays, and book reviews have appeared, or will appear, in Gargoyle, Contrary, Storyglossia, and Numéro Cinq. She is the Review Editor for Contrary and currently in her third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts working toward her MFA in Writing. You can find her at Catching Days.

* * *
Thank you, Cynthia, for sharing this approach to plotting. I especially like your advisor's advice to put yourself in your characters' shoes and "see where they take you." One way I've done this is to keep a journal written in first person, from my character's point of view. In a blog post last summer, I talked about the journal I kept while writing Rosa, Sola. Below is a variation of the Writing Workout I included with that post.  

Every writer has a different method for figuring out the next turn in his or her story. Tune in Friday 6/15, when Sion Dayson, another Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) colleague, will show us another technique for inching forward in the dark. 

Writing Workout
Create a journal where your characters can tell you what happens next.
  • I prefer using a paper journal that I write in with a pen. Something about physically pushing the pen across the page allows me to connect with my characters in a different way than typing on a keyboard.
  • The journal doesn't have to be expensive. It can be a simple spiral notebook or composition book. (These are usually on sale in August for back-to-school.)
  • I also like personalizing the journal's cover. I typically paste a photograph that represents something important to the character, or that is an image of the character herself.
  • Once I have my journal, I use it to ask my character questions. I write the question at the top of the page. Some examples: What are your likes/dislikes? What is your biggest problem or fear? What do you REALLY want? How did you feel when . . . .
  • My character "responds" to the questions in the journal. (Of course, I am the one writing the response, but I write in first person as though the character is speaking through me.)
  • I've used this technique for both main characters and important secondary characters. The process has yielded interesting and unexpected results, often helping me figure out "what happens next."
Happy Writing!

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Point of Point of View by Jodi Paloni

Greetings and welcome to the kick off to our VCFA blog initiative. Today's guest blogger is Jodi Paloni, followed by a Writer's Workout by me. Enjoy!

Congregations of characters followed me around to high levels of distraction until I hollered at them: all right already! You all know how it works. But I didn't. In my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), I generated a pile of papers with various characters all telling the same story at the same time. POV were the three most frequently scrawled letters in the marginalia of my pages.


It's a simple thing; if you're a beginner, choose a point of view and stick with it. If not, then have a clear intention for shifting it and teach your audience how to read your story.

Of course, it's not really that simple. In fact, just about everything in a story is affected by point of view and point of view affects just about everything in your story.

In the remaining space I have, I will use it to plead.

Get your hands on David Jauss's craft book, Alone With All That Could Happen  and study the essay, "From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction." In 33 pages of definitions, descriptions, and examples that cite the best work in the business, youíll receive a semester's worth on the topic. And ironically, just like your characters, the wisdom of Jauss's discourse will not leave you alone.

The take-away is this: point of view is not only a matter of person. It's a matter of the degree of distance created between writers and readers.

Jodi Paloni will complete her MFA in Fiction Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in July 2011. She is currently working on a collection of linked stories. Her book reviews on linked story collections may be read at Contrary Magazine. She blogs at Rigmarole.   If you have questions about this post or the Vermont College MFA program, you may contact Jodi at

Writing Workout

     I can identify with Jodi's POV problems. Sometimes I have a story or scene...and I don't really know whose story it is.  I will re-write the scene (and sometimes, gulp, the entire book) from three different points of view.  I limit myself to three possibilities...the scene as viewed by two different characters (I find first person easier, but it can be done in limited third person as well), and then what I call the "Dragnet POV" ("just the facts, ma'am.").  There are other possibilities--other characters observing, for instance, but I limit myself to three.  I always learn something new about at least one of my characters and who the real main character is.  This is also a fun exercise to use in the classroom.

To use in a classroom:
1. Have the students write down an actual conversation/argument they have had. (The "your-room-is-a-pigsty" argument is a frequent favorite in my classes.) Write it from the student's point of view.

2. Write the same scene again, this time from the parent's POV.

3. Write the incident as if you were presenting this as court opinions or emotions allowed.
Just the facts.

Which was easier to write? Which makes the most sense within your story? What did you learn about your characters?

Workout posted by Mary Ann Rodman

There is more than one way to figure out what happens next in your story. Cynthia Newberry Martin, whose MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) is just a few weeks away from fruition, will share some useful tips here on Wednesday, June 15.  Her guest post will be called "Decide vs Discover." Please stop by and see what she has to say.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Preview of Coming Attractions: VCFA Blog Initiative

The TeachingAuthors are proud to announce that we'll be kicking off a Summer Blog Initiative with students and graduates from the MFA programs at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). We're especially pleased to be the first blog to feature these inspiring and practical posts because four of the TeachingAuthors graduated from Vermont College: Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, JoAnn Early Macken, Mary Ann Rodman, and me, Carmela Martino.

 We'll feature the first guest post on Monday, June 13, when Jodi Paloni discusses "The Point of Point of View." Please stop by and read what she has to say.  

Happy Writing!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Digging Out From Writer's Block...and happy Poetry Friday!

Howdy, Campers!

You'll find today's Poetry Friday at 
Anastasia Suen's Picture Book of the Day
and my poems below. Thanks for hosting, Anastasia!

If you've been following us lately, you know that we TeachingAuthors have been discussing what motivates us when the chips are down and all the dip is gone.

Carmela found it was helpful to Velcro herself to a writing buddy, Jeanne Marie mused about the power of gold stars and other outside rewards (and followers chimed in with ideas about what makes a child want to read, about summer reading programs, and about what authors need to keep going); JoAnn, in watching her son leave for a new job, realized that showing up is half the battle (and wrote a triolet about it).

Here's a quiz for you.  What's the following list about?

  • This chair doesn't feel right. 
  • I'd better schedule a blood test.  Hello, can you fit me in today? 
  • Yikes!  I forgot about tomorrow--I need a hair appointment NOW!
  • I had to skip exercise class yesterday because of my critique group and we'll be leaving on our trip before class starts tomorrow, so I HAVE to go to exercise today.  In fact, if I hurry, I can make the class starting in 15 minutes.
  • Eli needs exercise or he'll poke me with that Doberman nose all morning--better take him to the dog park.
  • That was fun.  I better have some protein before I settle down.
  • Oops--forgot to make the bed...and put out the recycling.
  • What was it the plumber said I needed for our toilet?   Better hop in the car and get it now or I'll never do it.
  • I need coffee.
  • Eli threw up in the car.  I have GOT to clean out that awful smell.
  • I'll send off my book to the winner of the charity'll be nice to get it off my desk.
  • This email asks if June 22nd is a good day for our meeting ...where's my calendar?
  • Gad zooks--UCLA Extension just emailed my contract.  Better look over last summer's syllabus.

If you guessed that it's all the reasons I didn't/couldn't write today, then you know me too well.  And you know what every item on this list is covering up, don't you?  Yep--fear.

A former student recently emailed, telling me that she signed up for my UCLA Extension summer class, adding, "but I'm really scared because I have writer's block.  Nothing new written for a long time."  I replied, "I've had a bad case of Writer's Scare this week, too."

Writer's Block sounds like a cement plug that won't let the words out. For me it's more like...well, I can probably say it in a haiku:

a snowstorm of fear 
falls on my shoulders, chills my 
chest, numbs my pencil.
(c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

So what cuts through the fear, what motivates me to dig out and write anyway?  At different times, different things work.

Remember your first day of kindergarten?
Some kids skip right through that door, some cringe. If you were one of those kids who wanted to roll up in a blanket, what made you finally go to school?  Probably two things: a parent...and the fact that it was time to go to school.

That's right--a deadline. Looking up "deadline" in my favorite online thesaurus, we've got: target date, time frame, time limit, zero hour.

But not just a target date I whisper to my pillow.  Or even the time limit to get something ready for tomorrow's critique group.

Deadlines that work best for me come from a class assignment, from someone I've paid to critique my work, or...from a dynamite blog team that depends on my post.

In other words?  A deadline that counts.

by April Halprin Wayland

I was spellbound, moonstruck,
looking straight up 
but my feet were stuck 
in messy marsh muck
A poet lame duck
with a moon but no luck
until there, in the shade 
of the nearby glade
with my visual aid
I spied a steel spade
though first delayed 
and quite frankly, afraid
I stretched and I swayed
'til I picked up that spade
then dug out of the muck
with a cluck and a chuck
now completely unstuck
I'm looking straight up 
once again I'm moonstruck...
but now I can write about it.
(c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

Ha ha.  I hope that came across as funny.  It was funny to my dog, Eli.  Here he is telling Elsie how funny it was.

Writing Workout: setting a target date, a time frame, a time limit, your zero hour...A Deadline That Counts

Set a deadline that counts.  One that isn't easy to wiggle out of.

I don't have to tell you about making it reasonable, not expecting the impossible -- you know all that.  But do stretch yourself.  See if you can reach that shovel of a deadline and dig yourself out of that quicksand.  I'll bet you can.

For more TeachingAuthor posts about deadlines, scroll down the right side of this blog until you come to the search box and type in "deadline."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Out-and-About: Chicago's Printers Row Lit Fest!

This past Saturday’s and Sunday’s Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest continues to be the Midwest’s largest outdoor literary festival.

Think 125,000 book lovers of all ages roaming five city blocks of tented and tabled booksellers, author readings and panels that spanned every genre and format imaginable, signings for authors published traditionally, digitally or any way you can think of, cooking demos, poetry slams, a group read-aloud of Peter Pan to support literacy and the Peter Pan Kid Lit stage that overflowed with storytellers. All on a hot, hot (did I mention it was hot?) early June day without one forgiving breeze from nearby Lake Michigan.

Once again I presented my workshop Oh, the Places You’ll Go! – Writing for Children in TODAY’S Children’s Book World. Everybody, or so it seems, wants to write a children’s book and I truly delighted in welcoming and grounding newcomers to the Children’s Book World. The possibilities today are infinite and believe it or not, opportunities abound. Opportunities such as Lee and Low’s New Voices Award, Simon and Schuster’s Spoonfuls of Cheerios Contest and the Smories, on which children read your stories aloud and visitors vote monthly. All one has to do is write, read and connect!

I especially delighted in my workshop’s follow up session: Show, Don’t Tell – Four First-time Chicago-area Children’s Book Authors.

The SRO crowd learned first-hand from the panel of four authors pictured above: from left, Sherri Duskey Rinker, Kate Hannigan Issa, Michele Weber Hurwitz, Allan Woodrow and me. (How nice that Sheri’s husband David is a professional photographer.)

Each author shared a few singular concrete details of his or her particular writer’s journey – the surprises, the thrills, the rewards, the Reality, from which attendees could glean insights, information, and best of all, heart and hope.

Sherri Duskey Rinker’s picture book Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site (Chronicle Press), illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, is the book most editors warn writers they never want to see: a bedtime story written in rhyme! But Sherri knew and held strong to her belief: her young son lived and breathed trucks and there wasn’t one truck story appropriate for a bedtime reading. Sherri wrote the story while working full time as a graphic designer. She did her homework, targeted 14 or so likely publishers, sent off her well-worked manuscript and struck gold with Chronicle. The book appeared on the NY Times Best Sellers List last week; a now-agented Sherri just sold her second rhymed picture book.

Kate Hannigan Issa advised writers to pay attention to the Universe and all it delivers on a daily basis. Kate worked hard to stay focused on whatever project she chose to write. Even when an SCBWI Bulletin article about receiving misdirected mail and emails for Iowan author Kathryn Hannigan brought a first invitation from the publisher of Blue Marlin to submit work, and then a second arrived while Kate was working on an SCBWI-Illinois newsletter story about a fellow Blue Marlin author. The third time Kate knew she needed to respond, submitting The Good Fun! Book, a text about the idea behind the neighborhood help-the-community children’s projects she’d passionately orchestrated with fellow Hyde Parker Karen Duncan.

Michele Weber Hurwitz , author of the middle grade novel Calli Be Gold (Random House/Wendy Lamb Books) proudly revealed she had several unsold, agent-turned-back novels on her laptop’s hard drive before she wrote Calli Gold’s story and earned the interest of four agents! And even while the manuscript was being read and considered, Michele continued to revise, utilizing responses her agent shared. Writing a novel’s hard work that demands perseverance, determination and pluck.

Allan Woodrow’s two words of advice? “Be brave!” he told writers. Writing a novel had always been on Allan’s Bucket List. So he finally did what anyone wanting to pursue any passion does, be it plumbing or writing: he enrolled in classes, he studied writing, he read children’s books and he made sure he wrote every single day. His children were finally at that early chapter book series level that 3rd and 4th graders love, a reading level Allan knew from his advertising and marketing day job and more important, a reading level that accommodated Allan’s voice and singular humor. The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless is the first of a four-book series, sold by his agent to HarperCollins.

Chicago Tribune Culture Critic Julia Keller had shared in her May 29 column E.L. Doctorow’s sentiment in placing writers center stage. “Books are written in solitude. And they are read in solitude. But in between, there must be noise, and lots of it. There must be bass drums and trumpets and slide trombones. Balloons and confetti. Fireworks and floats. Marching bands and dancing bears. Because if authors want their books to be read, the release of those books into the world must be public events. Ideally, a book launch ought to be like Cleopatra on her barge: majestic, incredible, eye-catching…”

Lucky me to be out-and-about at the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Lit Fest Saturday to cheer on Sherri, Kate, Michele and Alan as they sailed off to long-awaited applause, their brand-new first-time-ever children’s books held high for all to see.

Esther Hershenhorn