Thursday, December 23, 2010

Being Critical - In a Good Way

The above photo is of my desk. For some reason it doesn't look as messy in the picture as it does in real life. I have my piles -- VCFA packet pile, top left between lap and computer screen; 2nd wip pile, directly in front surrounded by research books and coffee cup; VCFA Workshop readings, pile to the far left. These are the essentials to my work. And I have been working!

I just completed my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. During this past semester, as a requirement for receiving my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I had to write a critical thesis on a topic of my choosing relating to the craft of writing for children. To say this was an arduous endeavor would be understatement. But I did it. I struggled through it with the assistance of my fantastic advisor, Shelley Tanaka, and several skype sessions with fellow VCFAers who were in the same critical thesis boat as I.

I truly disliked writing the thesis. But I must admit that I learned a lot. Not only about the topic I chose, which is closely related to my wip, but also about reading and writing critically. So, during this season of giving, my "gift" to fellow writers are my ever evolving thoughts on reading and writing critically.

For anyone who has been following this blog since it's inception knows that I am a reading convert. Going back to May 2008 I confessed that I didn't read children's literature. Now, two and a half years later, all I read is children's literature. My friends who used to ask me for book suggestion are disappointed when I suggest Suzanne Collins's The Underland Chronicles , Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light, or Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose. They look at me, roll their eyes and ask, "Aren't you ever going to read real books again?" Let's skip my response to them, because THAT could be a whole other post.

The title of my critical thesis is "The Appeal of the Ultimate Bad Boy: The Personification of Death in Books for Children and Young Adults". I looked at four books -- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt, Mort by Terry Pratchett and Keeper of Soles by Teresa Bateman -- that present Death as a main character. I chose this topic because in my current wip, Death shows up at high school to pursue the sister of a girl whose soul he's just gathered. What I wanted to learn was how did Zusak, Leavitt, Pratchett, and Bateman make their Death characters likeable? And why did they do it? What I learned is that there are a variety of devices writers use to make characters, even stereotypically bad characters, likeable and even human. By the end of all these stories the protagonist/reader roots for Death. So, which devices work best? Which can I employ in my own writing? As for the Why? writers present Death as likeable, I'll simply quote Gregory MacGuire when he spoke at VCFA's Summer Residency in July 2010 when he said, "The Why is as personal as prayer."

But beyond the craft of writing, I learned about myself as a writer - How I write. I am an impatient writer. I don't like to plan or outline. I just write. That leads to many, many, many revisions. I'm not saying that writing organically isn't good. I do that. But once I've got the basic premise down, once I know where the story's going, I need to slow myself down and think about pacing and plotting. When writing the thesis I knew what I wanted to say and just sort of vomited it out onto the page with little organization. Which meant I had to do major rewrites. Organization is not my strong suit. But being aware of a weakness in your writing only makes you a stronger writer. I also repeat myself (as my honest fellow Paper Waiters know). I write a scene and then explain it. They've been telling me this for years. I was aware that I did this, but didn't quite get it. Somehow, in writing the critical thesis and working simultaneously on my creative work I got it. It was that light bulb moment -- Ah, ha!

So, as much as I disliked the critical work VCFA forced me to do. I will not discount its value.

My point is, that as a writer of children's books. I must read children's books. And I can't just read them the way I read adult books. For fun. I have to pick them apart. I have to examine each level of writing from plot, to character, to pacing, to white space, sentence structure, and word. I have to discover what works for me (because what works for me, might not work for someone else) and what doesn't. What does the writer do that allows me to suspend believe and fall with Gregor and his baby sister Boots through the grate in their laundry room into the Underland, or root for Mattie Gokey as she struggles to be true to herself in 1906 Upstate New York, or to be grabbed by a long-ago, and nearly forgotten, event in history when I already know what's going to happen?

I'm not expecting too many comments on this post - it is Christmas - but if you have the time, just list a book that's helped you with your writing.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


  1. Meg,

    What a really good and thoughtful post on the discipline and structure of writing - and the hard work of the work, and your examples of the children's books you read for research for your own work. This afternoon I ran into the Harding Township Library to pick up copies of a grand new book of photographs titled RURAL HARDING for family gifts and I spotted a group of new 2010 PBs on display. So I spent some time checking out these new and excellent books for my own research - - when I should have been at home working on dinners and desserts! But, I couldn't resist.

    Merry Christmas~~Happy Holidays
    Happy New Year!

  2. I recently read Because I Am Furniture, which I loved. It reminded me that you can tell an amazing story, touch on critically important issues and use poetic, gorgeous language all at the same time. (which, I suppose, is the point of great books)

  3. It's always amazing to me how many different ways writers write. True, your way probably leads to more rewriting, but if each revision is an improvement, then the goal is eventually attained!

  4. Eileen, even in this season of busyness we have to give our muse her time to meander.

    CL, an amazing story, about something important, with stimulating, beautiful language is the point of a good book - but I would also add an intriguing character to the mix.

  5. Meg,
    Thanks so much for sharing that information. Whew! Happy New Year!

    I've been rereading Sara Zarr's ONCE WAS LOST. On first read, I was struck by how beautifully she presented the MC's troubled realtionship with both parents. How she worked it all in without overpowering everyday teenage life. As I now study it, I can't believe I didn't notice how much of the novel is internal thought. I'm a big dialogue writer. This discovery is making me rethink quite a bit about my own work.

  6. Just finished The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Lockhart, which I loved for the story and further for a study of the narrator as a character. I felt it was a modern update of the 3rd person omniscient, and I'll need to ask Anna D. if she's used it to look at intrusive narrators.

  7. Gale -I guess every writer has their own "method" but it would be nice if I could cut out SOME of the revisions.

    J.A. - I'll have to add ONCE WAS LOST to my pile. I like internal dialogue, but my problem is not having it sound like "telling."

    Anna B!! - I enjoyed FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS as well. An intrusive narrator without being INTRUSIVE. I can't remember if Anna D used it or not … No comments on how the critical thesis went for you?