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!