Writing and Waiting….and Waiting


Recently I played on a softball team and got some coaching on hitting. “Wait for it,” said my friend, Doug, as he lobbed the ball. A slow pitch comes at you from above, like an apple falling from a tree. It’s very hard to gauge when to swing, and I’m usually wrong.

At first I swung and swung, connecting with nothing more than air. “Wait for it. Let it drop into the zone,” he’d say patiently, letting fly another pitch.

Eventually, I learned to wait for the ball to enter the space in front of me, about waist high. When I hit the ball, it felt soft. Suddenly I knew the meaning of the phrase “sweet spot.” If I waited until just the right moment, it was easy to hit, and felt perfect. Now I could hit them out into the field over and over. But if I jumped the gun and swung too soon, the ball spun backwards, or popped off foul. Too late, and the hit was so harsh it hurt my hands.

Waiting is a big part of the writing life, too. Waiting for readers to finish, to give feedback. Waiting for editors to buy. Waiting for agents to give a thumbs up.

All those kinds of waiting are what I’d call external waiting. But there is also internal waiting, and this is what’s hardest for me right now.

I finished yet another draft of a book I have been working on for several years. I’d taken extensive feedback from a year or so ago, and reworked most of the book. I thought the book was ready to shop around. But I worked with kid lit editor Emma Dryden over a long weekend at Better Books Marin in October. Her critique was to the point: You are starting at the wrong time in this character’s life. This meant that the entire opening was useless, and the world building I’d done there was wasted.

Not a small thing to swallow. I had no idea how I’d go about fixing the problem without writing the whole thing again. The notion froze me in my tracks.

Later in the conference, she counseled all of us kid lit writers to let the manuscripts on which we’d gotten feedback sit in the background as we digested all that we’d learned over the course of the conference. She said that our subconscious writer minds needed time to mull over what to do next.

This is what I mean by internal waiting. It feels like doing nothing, just as I felt while standing at home base, watching the ball come at me, waiting for the time when I could see that it was in the right place to hit. Those split seconds feel like a year when you are nervously hoping to get on base. It feels like I am doing nothing as I let the story stew and I reread and study my notes from the critique group, the lectures and my own journals during that conference. I have to trust that I am sorting things out even as I do nothing at all for this story but wait.

While my writing seems to stand still, my thinking doesn’t. It is moving in a slow arc, bringing my story into focus. This meditation will get it in just the right position. Once it’s there, I’ll be ready to swing and send it flying.

Anonymous Author Confessions


Being an author is weird. Here are a few anonymous quotes that I gathered from a variety of YA, MG, and PB writers on publishing, life, writing, etc.


I don’t write every day. I’d be a better writer if I did, and it’s what I aspire to, but I don’t actually manage to write every day. And I don’t feel guilty about it. Being a writer is not always a straight line process.

I’m 100% certain I’d be much less moodier and a lot nicer to people in general if I gave up the stress-filled writing life, but I can’t possibly stop. Does that make me an addict? I’m pretty sure it does.

Most times, I’m afraid my writing is bad. Other times, I’m afraid my writing is great. The second fear is the one that blocks me.


Why is it that polishing silver looks so exciting when I reach act 2 in revision?

There are certain bits of writing advice that I’ve heard bandied about by so many people so often that they make me want to scream. “Show don’t tell,” “Kill your darlings,” and “Butt in chair” come to mind. I think at this point one should have to pay $5 into the Overused Adage Retirement Trust Fund prior to invoking any of these.


90% of the time I’m convinced my editor hates me, even when she’s writing totally innocuous or even positive emails. The compliments are just an elaborate cover for her searing rage at everything I’m doing wrong!

I stalk my editor’s Twitter feed. That’s horrible, isn’t it? I mean, I think I could say I just “check” her Twitter feed a lot, but for whatever reason it feels like stalking.


Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Fast, Cheap, or Well-Made: Pick Two.” Well, I have a writer’s equivalent. “Writing, Family, or Self-Care: Pick Two.” On any given day, I can only attend to two out of these three things.

The week before my deadline, no one gets a bath in my house. No one gets dinner either.

I was folding laundry and remembered that I just sold a book, so now I can buy new underwear! Triumph!”


I thought royalty checks would trickle in, but no. Even though my debut novel is selling fine (according to my publisher), it might be years before I earn back the advance — an amount that was less than a public school teacher makes in a year. (No matter that it took me two years to write the book.) Now I fully understand the advice, ‘Don’t quit the day job.’

Did you know you can sell a book to a publisher and actually lose money? Unless you’re with a big publisher and with support from their marketing team, you may have to hire your own publicist and attend conferences at your expense–or else nobody hears about your book. At this point, I have to wait for my finances to recover from my last book before I let my agent submit a new one.


I cringe at the way people seem to automatically put the words “famous” and “author” together; there are a lot of us authors who aren’t the least bit famous. It embarrasses me for some reason when I get introduced by friends and acquaintances as a “famous author.”

You know darn well my name is not John Green or Veronica Roth, so please don’t ask if you’d have heard of my book before.

At least once a month, someone says, “So you’re an author. Where can I find your books?” And I inwardly chant, “Don’t snarkily say ‘a bookstore.’ Don’t snarkily say ‘a bookstore.’” It then tends to come out as: “A bookstore…?”

I learned the hard way…so much of our publishing fates are pre-destined the second our deals inked. Every season, publishers pick their horses, the favored titles that are slated to finish first. If you’re lucky, you’ll be one of them, and get incredible marketing, a huge print run and lots of support. If you’re not, you won’t. It’s not fair, but give it everything you’ve got, regardless. Just run like hell, race after race, against all odds. One day, you may win.


Nothing like not remembering the name of a friend of some twenty years when she comes up for a signing. And she is one of three people buying your book.

A customer admiring one of my picture books said with enthusiasm, “The illustrations are really great!” Pause. “Too!” she added, suddenly remembering that I was the author, not the illustrator.

If you’re ever wondering if authors are still fans at heart–I once found myself on a panel with one of my favorite authors, speaking about one of my favorite subjects. On the panel, I easily made the room laugh. Afterwards, I wanted to tell the author how much her books meant to me, and was completely tongue-tied. After a few highly uncomfortable seconds, I mumbled something unintelligible and beelined… straight for the bar.

At a group book signing, there is nothing more humbling than having so few people line up for your autograph that your “signing assistant” gets bored and wanders away to buy the other authors’ books. (She doesn’t want to buy your book, but could she have a copy for free?)


I don’t read my reviews, but sometimes my family tells me about them anyway. My cousin once called to read me my one-star review on Amazon. He thought it would be hilarious. Still not laughing, cuz.

I refer to Kirkus as Jerkus.

I claim not to read my Amazon reviews, but I can’t help myself: I read all my bad reviews.



6 Ideas for Creative Inspiration


Interior of Nileometer (measures the Nile level) Photo by Sarah Johnson

What is your creativity metaphor?

A whispering muse?

A well of water? A waterfall?

Forest trails?

What does a writer (or artist) do when the muse hides, the well freezes, or the trails fade or are overgrown? Ideally the well always is overflowing, the muse is always whispering in our ear, the trail is easy and clear and the words flow. But when words seem flat on the page, here are a few ideas that can help get creativity flowing again.

Write. Write and write and write. Write until the words flow. National Novel Writing Month taps into this approach.

Don’t write. A walk always helps me when I need inspiration. Kate Messner recently found a solution to a plot problem while hiking. Her post is an insightful read.  When Tim Wynne-Jones’ well ran dry, he stepped away from the computer and traveled for a year. Check out his great post.

Read. Read. Read more. Jane Smiley, when not satisfied with the way her writing was moving forward, decided to read 100 novels. She describes her journey in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

A class or program. Take a writing class, online or in your community. Or get a copy of The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. This is a wonderful book that assists artists after a “creative injury” or artists who are looking for more inspiration in their creative path.

Writer’s groups or online writing communities. This is a great way to connect with other writers.

Live life fully. Susanne Langer wrote, “Imagination must be fed from the world: by new sights and sounds, actions and events and the artist’s interest in ways of human feeling must be kept up by actual living and feeling.”

What other activities do you suggest when creativity is having a slow day or a slow month? We’d love to hear your ideas.

Is Your Work-In-Progress Ready to See Other People?


Recently I attended an interdisciplinary artists retreat where I got to spend twenty-four hours with creative people representing all avenues of art: musicians, fine artists, film makers, actors, and writers. I was encircled by amazing people and I got to stare at these trees. It was a total win-win.


Aspen Grove

While there, I learned from James Christensen that some fine artists, when almost finished with a piece, hold it up to a mirror to check for errors or inconsistencies. As the creator, your eye compensates for what is missing or uneven.  Sometimes you can’t really see what you’ve done until you look at it through a mirror.  It’s the reflection of that creation that shows you what it truly is.  This is such a profound concept.

Finding Your Fish by James Christensen

Finding Your Fish by James Christensen


I, myself, have gone “eye blind” while working on a manuscript.  Sometimes after working for months and months, it feels impossible to really see my work for what it is. I miss blaring typos and fail to notice that I’ve used the word probably about thirty-nine times in one chapter.  I have trouble seeing the problems in the plot.  It’s so strange how our brains compensate for our mistakes. After hearing about the mirror trick from Christensen, I wished writers had some sort of magic mirror we could hold up to our manuscripts and immediately see the flaws. Wouldn’t that be dreamy? Although, I’m afraid my mirror might turn into the Mirror of Erised, from Harry Potter, and I’d stand there for months…years even.

Mirror of Erised

Mirror of Erised

What can writers do after we’ve stared at a piece for so long that we’ve gone eye blind? How do we test our manuscript for flaws?  How can we know what our writing truly reflects?  We need a Writers Mirror. Here’s what I think it consists of:

First, you need to write your piece until you are completely sick of it. Only after you’ve spent a significant amount of time revising your novel, and are so sick of reading it that the thought of having to read it again makes bile rise to the back of your throat, are you ready to take a break from it.  Put it away and let your manuscript breathe.  Give your mind a rest.  I did this with SURIVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE. I put it away for a long, long time and wrote something else.  Doris Lessing said, “In the writing process, the more a story cooks, the better.”  While writing a different book, I could slowly see the problems in SSOTAB and was able to go back and attack the pages with fresh eyes and a new brain.

rose colored glasses

Fresh Eyes

Second, give it to a trusted writers group (or reader) who understands your genre. If you don’t have someone, get someone. In my opinion, every writer needs a nice, healthy, critique from smart people who like you, but aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings.  Every writer needs a truth teller.  Actually, I need these kind of people in every part of my life. Right now, my fifteen-year-old thinks she’s my truth teller (but I fear her motivation is highly suspect). When writing a book, you need a truth teller. Preferably it’s nice to have more than one, so that when they both mention a common concern, you will be more likely to believe them.  It wasn’t until I heard from two different editors that SSOTAB should be a journey novel that I took it seriously. In the end, I re-wrote my entire manuscript.Jen Book Cover

Third, be brave and get smart.  Attend a writers conference or retreat where you can get feedback from professionals (SCBWI has a great list of resources). I know for many introverted writers, this sounds excruciatingly painful. You have to make small talk with people you don’t know and then are expected to talk about your work. No, thanks. But these kinds of events are really the place to be if you want to find success in traditional publishing. Not only will you get honest, industry-sound, feedback, you’ll also learn a lot and make great connections with other writers and professionals. I met my current editor at a writing retreat where she gave a lecture about the publishing industry and then agreed to read ten pages of whatever the attendees wanted to submit. It was there, during her ten page critique, that she asked to see my full manuscript. I would have never made that contact unless I had been a little brave. So, do it. Even if you don’t want to go, go. I promise you won’t be sorry.

Lastly, don’t give up. I cannot say this enough. Do you realize the amount of self-soothing and loathing that goes on inside my head as I work on a manuscript? Let me tell you, it’s a little pathetic. And I don’t think I’m alone. Writing is a hard, and sometimes lonely, business. Don’t give up. I have this quote at my desk:  A published author is an amateur who didn’t quit. It’s true. Don’t ever give up.  One of the common complaints from literary agents and editors is that a writer sends their manuscript too soon.  This shouldn’t be you. You’ll know you’re ready after you hold your WIP up to your Writers Mirror.  Give your manuscript a break, listen to great advice from trusted truth tellers, and attend a conference or two.  It can only make your work shine brighter and you’ll feel more confident sending it out into the world of publishing.

Jen White grew up in Southern California and had a mostly uneventful childhood except for the one time when her parents accidentally forgot her on a family vacation. Her debut middle grade novel SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE was inspired by that experience.  She has an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in California with her family.  jenwhitebooks.com

Dark Stories and the Things We Cannot Talk About


I get asked as we all do, or will, why did you write this book? –in my case, Romancing the Dark in the City of Light.

Romancing_cover_final.inddAs the title implies, my YA thriller is dark. My imagination was kindled over a decade ago by a suicide in the Paris metro. For most, that’s sufficient explanation.

Another answer is that forces of antagonism, or darkness, are crucial for every story. The stronger they are, the better our books. Theoretically, anyway.

A third answer is that many of us like dark stories–defined then as having unsettling situations and characters who cause or endure loss, suffering, and death.

We readers experience such things vicariously and safely. We test our coping mechanisms. We feel an empowering sense of control. (“Bibliotherapy,” has proven to be effective in the treatment of depression, among other things, but it’s a new name for an old idea.)

For teens, I think this is even more true. Journalist Katie Roiphe wrote incredulously about dark YA: “What is striking in the response to these (dark) books is how many teenagers seem to identify with their characters, even though their experiences (suicide, car crashes, starvation, murder) would seem to place them on the outer fringes of normal life… But it seems that the extreme and unsettling situations chronicled in these books are, for many teenagers, accurate and realistic depictions of their inner lives.”

Ah, the adolescent inner life.

Little guy and thought bubble with chaos inside

So the average teen is struggling with a tumultuous inner life. Then anxiety disorders, depression, and more serious mental illnesses often first manifest in adolescence.

That’s not all. These mental health issues carry stigma that makes them hard to talk about for both the sufferer and friends and family. If everyone insists on denying there’s a problem, this can make things doubly tumultuous.

Julie Schumacher’s 2008 novel, Blackbox, is an excellent story about depression. She writes, “Ultimately my decision to publish Black Box came back to shame and to isolation. I thought about the people I had met who were in pain but were pretending that everything was fine. And I thought, This is what books can do for us: they can acknowledge our experience and take the lid off our isolation and make us feel less alone.”

The difficult, depressed, eighteen-year-old MC in my thriller is suicidal. She endures extra suffering thanks to her choices, such as “self-medicating” by drinking herself silly. As we do. She also hooks up with a character who tries to convince her to kill herself.

As a fifteen-year-old, I was over-sensitive and anxious on a good day. Due to garden-variety divorce and moves at the time, the world felt like it was falling apart. It seemed everyone was pretending it wasn’t. Digging a little deeper, my final answer is the confession that I was depressed, and suicidal for a brief time then. For my protagonist, I tried to recapture how suicidality felt in its overwhelming, unavoidable, shameful and seductive darkness.

Indeed reading saved me. The stories that comforted me most were those where characters struggled with difficulties that dwarfed mine. I understood I was not alone.

If I’d admitted I was feeling suicidal and had been treated with meds, plus schooled in better coping skills than overeating, oversleeping and binge-watching The Brady Bunch reruns, perhaps I would never have written the entirely fictional RTDITCOL.

Author Richard Peck says, “The sacred secret of writing all fiction is this: a story is always about something that never happened to the author.” But we start with a fear, a shame, or a hole—or for better-adjusted writers, perhaps with a positive yearning—and think, “what if?” This is something that maybe could have happened to me. If all had gone right. Or all had gone wrong.

Often we don’t realize the wellspring of our story until after we’ve written it. Then it comes in a rush of insight and recognition–like seeing and holding your own stomach organ. It’s always been there, full, empty, or aching. We know it intimately. We just never gazed at and poked it, or held it up for everyone else to inspect.

In children’s literature, we believe in and feel an obligation to hopeful, upbeat endings. Even in dark YA, generally characters triumph and gain strength and knowledge from their extraordinary trials.

The It Gets Better Project aimed at LGBT kids suffering bullying and triply tumultuous teen years says if you can just hold on, things will get better. I believe this wholeheartedly. I also know of a couple of exceptions.

Hanging in there can teeter on a mere moment of caring connection, from a peer, or an adult. Or the relief provided by escape into a story (even The Brady Bunch).

I wrote this book for the reader who needs dark stories to help them make sense of a tumultuous inner life, or the memory of one. I wrote this book for me.


Ann Jacobus lives in San Francisco with her family, and volunteers weekly on a suicide crisis line. She graduated from the VCFA WCYA program in 2007. Romancing the Dark in the City of Light is her debut YA novel.

Copy Cats


It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation

-Herman Melville


Dear Writers,

When I was young, I learned to draw by tracing. I learned to sing (sort of) by trying to sound like Barbra! Before I ever wrote a word, I spent a lot of time reading. I typed sentences I really loved–sentences that stopped me for all the best reasons. Then I studied them to figure out why they were so good.

I first read Carolyn Coman’s WHAT JAMIE SAW when I was getting my MFA at VCFA. I immediately loved everything about that book. That first sentence blew me away. (From that moment on, I referred to it as “THE sentence.)

When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved. 

It still gives me chills. I love it because it is scary to read. I see the baby in slow motion. Like I’m reading a movie.

From the moment I read it, I hoped that some day, I would be able to write  a sentence that great.

And so, with all due respect to Mr. Mellville, I tried to do just that. Over and over again, I tried to make ONE sentence that scanned the same way–that slowed down a moment–that offered the same master effect. I believed that by studying this classic, I could learn more about the power of words and how I could tell a story (or at least write one good sentence!!!).

As I wrote, I did not worry that I was guilty of theft. Or that most of my attempts were terrible and contrived. (One advisor thought I had a tic–or a problem with the word, AND.)

I also found other sentences to mimic. And then paragraphs and prologues. I tried writing in second. In third present. I challenged myself, over and over again, to experiment with techniques I enjoyed reading, and along the way, the best thing happened:

I began to develop my own voice.

I still collect sentences. And quotes. And good advice. Because writing is not always spontaneous. Most of the time, when I sit down, I need a prompt. A push. Some time to step away from my manuscript and play.

Imitation is just one game. It is one way to be inspired and to get the writing ball rolling. So is drawing. Or walking. But because we are in the business of WORDS, studying the language of my favorite books, more than anything else, helps me discover and practice my own voice, likes, and style.

Apparently, in the bigger world of ART, this is a bit controversial.  I know a couple of art students who have been DISCOURAGED from learning to paint in the classic styles. No imitation at all. It seems to me that all they care about is the voice they went to school with. To me, imitation is an opportunity–especially in the arts. It is a chance to learn, to see how the picture gets drawn. For us, a chance to experiment with every level of story.

So are you ready…to be a


Go ahead and pick up your latest favorite book. (Mine is CIRCUS MIRANDUS. It is an absolutely wonderful book. I actually had to stop reading to read it out loud to my husband.)

Now type the entire first chapter word for word and print it. Hold it in your hands. Read it outlaid  See what that beautiful writing looks like as a manuscript. If you like, dissect it. For white space. For meter. For words that make you pause.  Figure out why you love it. Pinpoint what appeals to you. Read it out of order. Figure out its secrets.

Then go back to your own work. If you like, play with the rhythms of a sentence. But don’t stop there. Take off! Let great writing imprint on your style. The more you read the more you will see how flexible writing is. Let it inspire you to write your own masterpiece in your own voice.

Or talk to a master herself.


I am DELIGHTED to tell you that Carolyn Coman will be one of the mentors for the upcoming Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at VCFA. Also coming are authors, Martine Leavitt and Micol Ostow, as well as editor Laura Schreiber. The dates are March 18-20. Registration starts November 1. (It will probably end Nov 1, too, so be ready to push the button THAT day.)

Why I love the retreat? It’s about craft. And experimentation. And discussion. And play. Want to be part of it? Email me. Or check my FB page.


Sarah Aronson is the cofounder and organizer of the Writing Novels for Young People retreat. She also teaches Whole Novel workshops for Highlights and other classes for www.writers.com. Stay tuned for more information about her new books: Just like Rube Goldberg (Beach Lane) and a new chapter book series, The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever (Scholastic).

Life After the MFA: Part II


Today’s post is the second in a two-part series about writing and publishing during and after the MFA program. Today I’m chatting with my VCFA classmates Caroline Carlson and Melanie Crowder about life after grad school, what we’ve learned about publishing and writing since graduation.

You both signed contracts for books you had not yet written. Caroline, you had a deal for a three book series with one publisher, and Melanie, you work with two different publishers, one for MG and one for YA. Will you tell us about the scheduling of the books and how you structured your time to meet the deadlines?

A Nearer MoonMelanie: Sure! My YA was set to release in January and my MG was slated for September. In really general terms, a book goes to copyedit a year before release, which means that I finished Audacity in the winter of 2014, and I finished A Nearer Moon later that fall. Now, my next YA will come out in early 2017, so I’ll need to be wrapping up revisions in the next few months.

Where it gets tricky is in the planning. You never know how extensive revisions with your editor are going to be. Revisions for Audacity took months and months (and months!) while revisions for A Nearer Moon were relatively quick. So as I try to plan my drafting and revising schedule for the coming year, I really don’t know when I’ll need to stop drafting my next MG and begin revising my YA, or when that revision will be finished and I’ll get to finish the MG. I have to be ready to shift gears quickly when I hear from my editors. It’s a challenge, for sure, but I feel really fortunate to have the privilege of working with two fantastic editors.

The Buccaneers' CodeCaroline: I have always loved schedules and spreadsheets and making plans way in advance, but publishing has taught me that I need to embrace the unexpected! The three books in my Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series were scheduled at one-year intervals (in September of 2013, 2014, and 2015) so I always knew roughly when I had to have a final manuscript delivered to my publisher. But as Melanie says, when it comes to the time spent on revisions, each book is different, and you never know exactly how much time you’ll spend revising or when those revisions will take place. One thing I’ve learned is that I can conjure up an editorial letter by scheduling a vacation or another important life event! For example, I had to do major revisions on The Buccaneers’ Code during the same month that my husband and I moved houses. All the packing and unpacking kept me so busy that there are huge chunks of the book I don’t actually remember writing.

What about the editing process? How similar or different was it to a faculty’s packet letter? How many revisions did you go through with your editor?

Caroline: I’m hugely grateful that I got to experience receiving packet letters from my advisors at VCFA, because it made receiving editorial letters so much easier. My editor and her assistants are tremendously smart and ask great questions; they also occasionally offer suggestions when I’ve dug myself into a hole I can’t get out of without help. At this point, I feel like sending a draft to my editor is a lot like sending a packet to my advisors: I have done my best work, but I know it can be better, and I am genuinely excited to hear someone else’s ideas about how to push my story to the next level. Building that sort of relationship with an editor or an advisor takes time and trust, though, and I feel lucky to have it with my editors at Harper.

I usually do one larger-scale revision and one smaller-scale revision with my editor. Sometimes I’ll make small line edits during the copyediting process, too. By the time the book goes into production, I try hard not to change anything unless it is absolutely crucial!

Melanie: The biggest difference is that you’re preparing a story for market. In a packet letter, the focus is on learning, and process. In an editorial letter, the focus is on the product. So the same comment yields different results; you don’t address a problem by exploring all the different ways to resolve it. Instead, you find what works, and if you don’t get it right, you go back and forth until you do get it right.

As I said above, Audacity took several rounds of revision. But that story posed unique challenges. It was a verse novel, and it was a historical fictionalization of a real person’s life. There was a lot of pressure to both get the timeline to work on a story level, as well as to honor history and Clara Lemlich’s legacy. A Nearer Moon, which is prose fiction, only took one round, with a little back and forth in the line edits afterwards. The thing is—if a story needs several rounds, you want to give it that amount of attention. While a quick revision process is nice, you know it can’t be like that every time if you are going to be putting your best work forward with each new book.

Meg: My experience with PAPER HEARTS was that the packet letter was significantly more difficult than the editing process. When I first spoke to my editor, before the story had even sold to Margaret McElderry, she wanted to know if I could change Zlatka’s POV from third person to first. I played around with that before an offer came in so I would know if I could do it. So for me, the biggest change was done early. After that, there were relatively easy revisions.

Let’s talk about the copy editing process. What was it like for you?

Melanie: Copyedits for A Nearer Moon were pretty easy, but I had been through it a couple of times by then. My first experience was torture! With Parched, I was so particular about every single word I put in that book that to cut or add words in a line to fix paragraph or page widows felt impossible!

melanie's copy edits

Caroline: I love copy edits! I have actually done a lot of copyediting work myself—first at my college newspaper, then at the publishing company I worked for after college, and finally at Hunger Mountain, the VCFA literary journal—so I have a lot of sympathy for copy editors and a pretty good idea of what to expect from that part of the editing process. My advice for writers is to make sure you understand why your copy editor is making each suggested change. Sometimes she may be offering a style suggestion, but other times, she may be correcting a mistake. If the edit is more of a suggestion than a correction, I keep it if I like it and stet it if I don’t. Copy editors expect this to happen, so don’t feel bad if you don’t want to accept all of your editor’s changes! Just make sure you understand why she made that change in the first place so you’re making an informed decision when you stet.

My copy editor at Harper has been fantastic, and she’s saved me from making a lot of embarrassing errors. In Magic Marks the Spot, I had a character “climbing to the halyards” of a ship until my copy editor pointed out that the halyards are actually on the deck. My copy editor also keeps track of things like what all the characters are wearing, so there are no accidental costume changes from one scene to the next.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 7.03.56 PM

Meg: My copy edit experience was payback for the hell I didn’t have to go through in the revision process! I wanted to curl into the fetal position on the floor (I may actually have done that at one point).

It began when I opened the package and saw my mss marked up with red squiggly lines that looked like hieroglyphics but made less sense. The first thing I did was call Melanie, who calmly told me to Google copy editing marks, which I did. Here is the most helpful page I found (bookmark it in case you need it some day).

I think what made it so difficult was three-fold, first PAPER HEARTS is a novel in verse, so that raised questions of punctuation and grammar that might not come up in a straight narrative story. Secondly, I used a lot of foreign words (Yiddish, Hebrew Polish, German, and some camp slang which produced words that are hybrids of two languages and don’t exist in any dictionary). Finally, it’s historical fiction and like Melanie’s AUDACITY, it’s based on true events in real people’s lives.

My copy editor at Simon & Schuster was fantastic! She was tough, but excellent. She found problems in the timeline that my agent, editor, and I missed; she fact-checked EVERYTHING, which meant I had to fact-check Everything. (Suggestion to anyone writing historical fiction: KEEP EXCELLENT RESEARCH NOTES). I took over the dining room table for a week while doing copy edits.


What happens next? Please explain First Pass Pages (sometimes referred to as 1Ps). How many passes did you get to see?

Caroline: It’s a pretty exciting day when first pass pages arrive. My books have all been illustrated and heavily designed, but I don’t get to see most of the design work or artwork until the production passes begin. Flipping through the pages and seeing what the designer and illustrator have come up with feels like getting the best birthday present ever. It’s also a nice reminder that you, the author, are not the only person working hard on your book—there are many other wonderful people who are all putting their creative energy into the story with your name on the cover.

I usually only look at first pass pages. If they’re relatively clean, my editorial team handles subsequent passes in house, and my editor sends me an email if she has any additional questions. When I get first pass pages, I read through the entire book, looking for any mistakes I haven’t caught previously or errors that might have been introduced during the transfer from text document to production file. I’ll also answer any questions the editorial or design teams have for me. Sometimes I get a chance to weigh in on the visual aspects of the book—if the designer is choosing between two fonts or two design elements, for example—but  my main responsibility is to make sure the words on the page are right.

Something I learned at my previous job in publishing is that making changes during production passes can get expensive! It costs nothing to make a change yourself in a word processing program, but once a book is all laid out in a program like InDesign, changes can have far-reaching consequences and require a lot more effort to implement, especially if they’re large. If the author makes a lot of unnecessary changes to the text late in the process, she may end up paying for those changes herself, so it’s best to get your text as clean as you can before it goes to the production team. You may still have to go through several rounds of pages, but at least you’ve gotten the bulk of the writing work taken care of!

Melanie: This is a really fun part of the process because you get to see your book in its final format—the smaller page, the designed chapter beginnings, the font and style—it’s really cool! All this is done by your publishing house; your responsibility as an author is to check that all your copyedits have been correctly input into the document.

Another good thing to know about 1Ps is that usually that document is what the ARCs or galleys are made from. So any mistakes in the 1P will probably be in the copy reviewers and early readers see. Yep, that’s a little nerve-racking!

With Audacity, formatting 300 pages of poetry was a huge undertaking—we went through 3 or 4 rounds, which is a lot! Of course, I had all the line breaks and spacing the way I wanted it in MS Word with Times New Roman 12 pt. font, but the designer of course changes the font and program and page layout, so I had to go through and check the formatting in every single line. You don’t have to do that with prose!

Meg: I agree that getting 1Ps was thrilling. Seeing my words laid out on a page in a font I didn’t even know the name of, with page numbers and chapter headings, and the detail of the stitching at the bottom made my heart beat faster. But there were a lot of errors, mostly all those pesky foreign words, that made my heart beat faster for reasons other than excitement.  Because there were so many misspellings, I asked to see 2Ps, but ended up seeing 3Ps. By that time, all the misspellings were corrected and I am grateful that, for whatever reason, the ARC for PAPER HEARTS was not made from the 1Ps. Yet with all those passes, there is still an error in the Acknowledgments.

At VCFA the faculty, thankfully, focused on craft. How did you learn about all of THIS – what happens once you’ve signed on the dotted line?

Melanie: I asked for help! I am fortunate to have several people from my literary agency nearby, and they have become both a huge source of information and really good friends!

Caroline: As you can probably tell from some of my previous answers, working in publishing for a few years turned out to be a really helpful way to demystify a lot of the work that goes on behind the scenes to make a book. I also talk to my agent and my more seasoned writer friends. Even when you think you know everything there is to know about publishing, someone will share a new tidbit of information that blows your mind all over again and makes you realize how much you still have to learn.

When my first book sold, I joined a group of children’s authors (including Melanie!) who all had their debut novels coming out in that same year. We all had different experiences with our publishers and different areas of expertise, and we talked a lot about everything we learned throughout the process. Knowing you’re not the only one who’s confused or lost or bingeing on cheese can be very comforting.

Meg: I asked Melanie and Caroline for help! Thank goodness for the VCFA community and my L.E.C.S. classmates!

Is there anything else you’d like to share about this process? Something you wish you’d known about before you were in the midst of it?

Melanie: I’m still trying to figure out the balance between writing and promoting. My advice is to set a limit on what you are going to do to promote each book and then get back to writing—that’s what we’re in this for anyway, right? Nobody writes books because they’re so excited to sell books and market themselves. We’re in this for the story, so do everything you can to get yourself back to your stories, back to where you want to be.

Caroline: There is nothing better than meeting or hearing from a child who loves your book!

Meg: Life goes on. The book is out there, it’s out of my control. It is thrilling, frightening, and humbling. But the laundry still needs to be done.

Melanie and Caroline, you each have two more book contracts. What can you tell us about those books?

Melanie: I have a YA set in South America coming in early 2017 from Philomel, and a MG (that I’m having a lot of fun drafting right now!) coming in fall 2017 from Simon & Schuster. And I have lots of ideas banging around up there, so hopefully there are many more to come!

Caroline: My next book is a middle grade detective novel that’s kind of a send-up of Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, and all the great mysteries I’ve loved to read ever since I was a kid. That’s coming out from HarperCollins in 2017. After that, I have a couple of ideas I’d like to play around with, but I’m not sure which of them will transform itself into a book. I hope it’s a good one!



Caroline Carlson is the author of the VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES trilogy for middle grade readers. You can learn more about her and her books at carolinecarlsonbooks.com.

Melanie Crowder is the author of the middle grade novels PARCHED and A NEARER MOON and the YA novel AUDACITY. You can learn more about her and her books at melaniecrowder.net.

Meg Wiviott is the author of the YA novel PAPER HEARTS and the picture book BENNO AND THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS. You can learn more about her and her books at megwiviott.com.



Happy New (School) Year!


My Best Everything-HorizonMy internal calendar thinks in terms of school years. As a student, as a classroom teacher, and as a mom, each separate school year adds structure and reference in a more specific and concrete way than traditional months or years. So, this time, right now, is the new year.

This is the time for resolutions and new beginnings. Even though it’s hard to come off summer when I have much more time to write and to explore, it’s a good time to set goals and be aware of the world beyond my words.

I still work in schools, although now I’m tending school health offices. This job allows me to make a positive difference, in the moment, but when I walk out, my head is mine. There’s room for my stories in a way that teaching doesn’t allow. But best of all, my job keeps me connected to young readers. It helps me remember the truths – the aches and joys – of growing up.

I travel between schools which means I get to see kids of all ages, from preschool to high school. And, I get to see a little bit of everything. I take care of ongoing medications and treatments for asthma, allergies, diabetes, and more. There are the expected skinned knees and bumped heads. Nosebleeds. The fevers and the tummy aches. One school has bright red, enthusiastically proclaimed, “vomit pails.” Yes, sometimes they are put to use.

There are also the emotional stresses and anxieties. Conflicts of every intensity often pass through. Physical fights and emotional bullying both leave scars in need of care. Some kids are hungry. Others need new shoes. Or a new home. From temporary trouble to serious mental health issues, the health office is a safe place to claim a time out.

But it’s also a place to see kindness and caring. Kids help their injured friends make it to the health office. They check on each other and advocate for someone that they think needs care and attention. They offer sympathy and empathy. Yesterday a group of over-achievers came in to make ice packs and it was delightful to watch them independently develop a cooperative assembly line.

I love being able to make a difference in someone’s day. I try to make a tough experience a little bit better – or, at the very least, not worse. But, selfishly, I also get to do current and ongoing research for my writing. I see new trends and hear opinions on everything. Most importantly, I get to imagine myself in unfamiliar shoes. I am reminded, over and over again, what it truly feels like to be in the midst of growing and changing.

Happy New Year!

It’s time to set goals, look ahead, and anticipate. What will you do this year?

~Sarah Tomp

Life After the MFA: Part I


Today’s post is the first of a two-part series about writing and publishing during and after the MFA program. In this installment, I’m chatting with my VCFA classmates Meg Wiviott and Melanie Crowder about how our time in grad school influenced our later writing. In two weeks, we’ll talk again about the writing life after graduation. –Caroline

What’s your most recent writing project?

MEG: PAPER HEARTS (Simon & Schuster, September 2015) is a historical novel in verse based on a true story of a group of young women who were slave laborers at the munitions factory in Auschwitz. One of them, Fania, was turning twenty, and her friend, Zlatka, decided that birthdays needed to be celebrated, even in Auschwitz.

MELANIE: In a small river village where the water is cursed, one girl’s bravery could mean the difference between life and death. A NEARER MOON (Simon & Schuster,  September 2015) is a middle grade fantasy for ages 8-12.

CAROLINE: My latest book is the final entry in my Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series for middle grade readers. It’s called THE BUCCANEERS’ CODE (HarperCollins, September 2015), and like the rest of the series, it’s full of pirates and magic and bad jokes and descriptions of all the food I wanted to eat while I was writing.

Did you work on this book at all during your time at VCFA, or is this a completely new story?

A Nearer MoonMELANIE: Nope–this one’s brand new!

Something I find myself doing in all my books is infusing my metaphor into my prose style. PARCHED (HMH, 2013) is (obviously) about this dry, barren landscape, so the prose style was sparse to match it. AUDACITY (Philomel, 2015) is an intense story about a passionate young woman living through tumultuous times, so I wrote the story as a verse novel in order to capture that intensity. A NEARER MOON is set in a swamp, and explores the interconnectedness of actions and emotions through time, so I used a lot of repetition in my writing; I picture the repetitive prose style as ripples extending out from a pebble dropped into still water.

Paper HeartsMEG: I first started researching this project while in my third semester at VCFA and working with Shelley Tanaka. I then wrote it during my fourth semester with Rita Williams-Garcia, but it was a completely different animal then. Originally, I wrote it as a middle grade non-fiction picture book. It sold right before graduation. However, for a multitude of reasons that deal fell apart and I shoved it in a drawer for a while. I knew the story had to be for older readers (it takes place in a death camp and there’s a death march in it for goodness sakes) and while it wallowed in the drawer, I decided the story needed to be told in verse. Rita made me read poetry during my last semester, and I did—begrudgingly. I had written angst-ridden poetry as a teenager, but did not write any while in the program. Poetry confuses me.

The Buccaneers' CodeCAROLINE: My book isn’t technically a VCFA project either, but like yours, Meg, it has its roots there. I wrote the first book in my pirate series during my final semester at VCFA, and although I didn’t have any sequels planned at the time, I ended up writing about those same characters for 4 more years. In some ways, I don’t feel as though my writing has changed very much since my time at VCFA, but when I compare my first book to THE BUCCANEERS’ CODE (and especially to the entirely new manuscript I’m working on now), I can see that I’m still learning and developing as a writer. The development is just a little less dramatic than it was during my time in school.

What piece of craft advice from VCFA do you find yourself returning to again and again in your writing?

MEG: The very first lecture at our very first Residency at VCFA was Tim Wynne-Jones’s lecture, “An Address and a Map: Discovering Your Genius Through an Openness to Text” in which he talked about believing in our “own genius”. My learning curve for poetry was steep—one might call it vertical. In order to keep making progress and not see the project as a hot sticky mess, I needed to believe that eventually I would see my “own genius” in my poems.

CAROLINE: I loved that lecture! I think Dorothea Brande also talks about the idea of inner genius in her craft book, BECOMING A WRITER. It’s an idea that’s helped me hundreds of times when I can’t figure out what happens next in a manuscript. When I look back through what I’ve already written, I almost always discover that my inner genius has hidden an answer to my problem earlier in the book.

MELANIE: Less is more! Seriously. It’s my mantra.

CAROLINE: I would like to borrow that mantra. It hasn’t quite stuck for me yet.

Is your writing process as a working writer similar or different from your writing process as a grad student? 

MEG: I think there were more hours in the day when I was in the program. Somehow I’m not as productive as I once was. But I try to keep to the same schedule. I write in the morning. As a student I would be at my desk with my coffee by 7 AM, now it’s more like 8 AM. I write until I realize I’m hungry, which, depending on the day, can be anywhere from 8:30 to 2:30. My student afternoons were spent reading. Now my afternoons are spent running errands, doing laundry, or making dinner. I know that mundane stuff got done while I was in grad school, I just don’t remember doing it.

MELANIE: I miss all the reading too!

The biggest difference for me is that during my MFA, I had all the time in the world for my stories. (That’s not to say that my days were full of leisure–they weren’t! I was insanely busy!) But if a story needed time to simmer, it got it. If it needed several rounds of feedback before it was submission-ready, it got it. Now, if I am going to meet the deadlines set before me, I have to be smarter in both drafting and revision, and do more with less time.

CAROLINE: I agree with both of you. I had a nearly full-time job while I was at VCFA, and I still managed to read and write a huge number of pages every week. How did we get everything done? Now I write full time, and while I feel immensely lucky to do it, I am not much more productive than I was in school. I’ve found that I work more efficiently when I give myself artificial time constraints and deadlines, so now I try to set monthly goals for myself (and often weekly goals, too). Asking other people–like writer friends and VCFA classmates–to hold me accountable for my work has also been immensely helpful.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the art or business of writing since graduation?

MEG: What I’ve learned about the business is that it is CRAZY. There is SO much we didn’t learn about The Business while at VCFA, which was good, I am glad we focused on craft, but exactly how much I didn’t know about publishing and copy edits and first pass pages and contracts and foreign rights and publicity and marketing and how much of all that was going to eat into the time I had reserved for writing came as a real shock to me once I sold my book.

The most important thing I’ve learned about the art, is that I have to keep my butt in the chair to create it. And just because I do that, there are no guarantees that anyone beyond my beta readers and agent is ever going to read what I create.

CAROLINE: I think all of us wonder if our books will be successful, but we often don’t stop to think about what success really means for us. And there are plenty of moments, both before and after publication, when it’s easy to feel like you’re not successful. Maybe no one came to your book signing; maybe you got an awful review; maybe your revisions feel insurmountable or your sales are miniscule. In those kinds of moments, I try to remind myself why I’m writing in the first place–to tell the kinds of stories I loved reading as a kid, and to pass that love of reading on to new kids today. No matter what else happens in the weird and unpredictable publishing world, if my books brighten even one reader’s day, I can feel proud of what I’ve accomplished. Knowing that makes it much easier for me to shove my worries and nerves aside and focus on my writing.

MELANIE: Everything beyond writing and revising your book is out of your control. Everything. How it will be received by critics, gatekeepers and readers. How it will be promoted, designed and marketed. How long it will stay in print. Book sales, foreign sales, audio sales, film sales, etc.

If you want to protect the art, you must, to a certain extent, put the business out of your mind. Write the very best book you can. Do what you can to support it as it makes its way into the world. And then get to work writing the next very best book you can.


Meg Wiviott is the author of the YA novel PAPER HEARTS and the picture book BENNO AND THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS. You can learn more about her and her books at megwiviott.com.

Melanie Crowder is the author of the middle grade novels PARCHED and A NEARER MOON and the YA novel AUDACITY. You can learn more about her and her books at melaniecrowder.net.

Caroline Carlson is the author of the VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES trilogy for middle grade readers. You can learn more about her and her books at carolinecarlsonbooks.com.

What The #$&@ Does My Character Want Anyway?


questioning girl

When I showed up for my first MFA residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was surprised at how many discussions centered around “what does the main character want?”

Why is that so important, I wondered. What if the character doesn’t know what she wants at the beginning? She’s a teenager. How is she supposed to know? And even if she does know, that doesn’t mean that what she wants now won’t change.

My first epiphany came during a lecture about how a writer can get to the essence of their story by summarizing it this way:

My character (insert name)

wants (person/place/thing)

but when (event) happens

he/she must choose between (option one) and (option two).

My protagonist will struggle to get what he/she wants, because of his/her (character flaw or weakness.)

Suddenly, I saw that want was the driver that sent the character on their journey. Every choice, every decision the character made had to tie back to getting what the character wanted.

Identifying what my character wanted was easy when it involved goals like winning the race or getting the guy, but I struggled when faced with a character who didn’t have a conscious desire or goal.

day dreaming girl

I floundered about until I discovered FROM WHERE YOU DREAM by Robert Olen Butler. In his chapter called “Yearning,” I experienced my second epiphany.

“We are the yearning creatures of this planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something.”

Yearning or hungering for something–even if the character wasn’t capable of verbalizing  their feelings–now that made sense. All those unspoken, perhaps even unacknowledged dreams–the feelings we are only half-conscious of, the flutters we try to ignore–they can change the course of our lives even if we don’t fully understand them.

And Butler crystalized the power of yearning when he said “plot represents the dynamics of desire.” Plot is how the character satisfies their desires.

Now I could identify what was underneath my character’s skin and what my protagonist knew they wanted, as well as what they might not admit they wanted, but which drove them nonetheless.

But I still felt uneasy when my character’s desire changed.

My most recent epiphany came when I was struggling to write the sequel to A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, because my character was no longer the girl she was when the story began. Avie wasn’t innocent or naive anymore. On the run from a planned marriage, and hoping for freedom in Canada, Avie’s future was now complicated with an important, but unwanted mission that might kill her.

At a retreat with Martha Alderson, the “Plot Whisperer”, Martha emphasized the parallel between the character’s emotional development and the plot’s story action, and I realized that even though my protagonist still longed for love and freedom, she would struggle in the sequel with a growing sense that she needed to serve a greater purpose.

It was now clear to me that our characters evolve through their stories, and so what they want must also evolve. As writers we have to allow our characters to abandon what they first thought they wanted and let them hunger for something even greater.


Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can connect with her on twitter @cblinka or www.catherinelinka.com.