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 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

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

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



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

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

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

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


Me and My Hating Reader


The other day I read a library book. I often borrow books from the library, and enjoy the pages softened by the many turnings. A library book smells of promise, sturdy and resolute. Sometimes I note coffee stains, or a turned down corner, and I get a brief reminder that I am following many other readers who have enjoyed the same book.

This time, I was reading I Capture the Castle, by Dodi Smith. The story is quaint and the characters interesting enough to engage me, though I sometimes didn’t believe in them and wanted them to try harder. Though the family lived in an old castle, they were very poor. There was a lot of talk about food, which made me hungry, but I suppose that was the point because the narrator was often hungry, too.

Then, I turned a page and got a jolt. A previous reader had made marks in the book. In pen. In a library book.

At first glance, it was a series of dots and dashes. Sort of a clumsy Morse code. A message:


DSCN2101 (1)I hate it here.

It stung. Someone felt enough hate to deface a library book.

After the sting faded, I was awash in curiosity. What had the reader hated so much? The story? Being in a dark, derelict castle with a teenage girl who writes about every last piece of furniture, every bit of food for tea? The story’s core: longing for love, making a life in the simple village, a family in the midst of change?

Or was it not directed at the story at all, but the reader’s own circumstances? Did she hate the library in which she sat reading the story? Or was she in a classroom, forced to read the book by a teacher she disliked? My mind went crazy with possibilities. Perhaps she’d brought it on a long bus ride and now she was stuck in a desolate place late at night, all the bathrooms shut and the vendors at the station long gone. Or she had been kidnapped, given just this book as company. She had to tell someone. All she had was the book, and the future reader to connect with. All she had was me.

Both she and Dodi Smith were taking me for a ride, but only one of the trips was known.

I hate it here.

The mystery of this unhappy reader stayed with me as I continued through the story. I was no longer alone with my thoughts and reactions to Smith’s narrative. I read another fifty pages and thought, “Did the hating reader give up? Did she get this far?”

I realized I was reading defensively, like an author might, worried about who had just dropped the book and turned on the TV instead, or flicked through it in a book store and shoved it back on a shelf, uninterested. Just as the negative whisper of gossip can forever shape how you see people, this tainted my feelings about the book. I read to the end, and was relieved to be done. I felt I’d been dragging the other reader with me.

As I write my own stories, I think of that hating reader. I ponder ways to make her surrender to the story, letting it take her away from any misery she might feel or regret she might have. I think of ways to keep her, to make her like or even love where she is.

Wherever that is.

Rainbow Boxes: Love is Love


1896945_10153064837333823_3983777819841938645_nI grew up loved.

I knew that I loved my family and that my family loved me. I knew that not everyone had that kind of reciprocal support. So, I was lucky, and I knew that too.

I also knew that I liked boys, which was great because that meant I wasn’t gay. Now, I had been led to believe by just about everyone that there was something wrong with gay people. I won’t point fingers at my small town upbringing or religion because the message wasn’t just in the water, it was in the air. It was on the sitcoms I watched and in many of the books that I read. Definitely in all the movies.

None of that seemed quite right…in fact something really didn’t seem quite right, but it took me a long time to figure it out because of the reasoning’s simplicity. There’s just something not right about gay people. See? So simple. So inexact. It’s really the perfect false truth.

Whitman-leavesofgrassLike so many things in my teenage life, I found insight through literature—even if said insight confused the hell out of me. At a young age, I’d discovered a deep love of Walt Whitman and was unfortunate enough to have an ugly argument with a stranger one day at my bookstore job. He saw me reading Leaves of Grass, and said, “You know he was gay, right?” He said this as though I should not like Walt’s poetry because Walt was gay.

I was horrified. No, I was confused. I was utterly stumped because I disagreed with the man and had no idea what to say. That was the moment when I learned I was completely ill-equipped to have any sort of discussion about gay people, gay rights, and being gay.

tumblr_mw14cbjr581rb3t22o1_500Which was all compounded by the fact that I was starting to have crushes on girls. What was happening? Was I turning gay? Could that happen? I had no one to talk to, no stories or characters to reference. I decided that since I had crushes on boys and girls that I should just ignore the girl crushes, focus on the boys, and push everything into the proverbial closet.

You can imagine how well that went. Years of tormented depression later, I came out as bisexual and have been struggling to be proud and open to the world ever since. I’m delighted and revived by the recent SCOTUS decision, but somewhere at the back of my head, I have to imagine my twelve-year-old self and wonder what she would have thought about gay marriage. The answer is nothing. I wouldn’t have been able to see past “the wrongness” of gays to even imagine weddings. And so I have to ask, what would have helped me back then? What would have brought me out of that very dark, very limited place of understanding?

The answer is books.

Rainbow BoxesSo here is where the autobiography turns into an ad, but bear with me. Having been inspired by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, my best friend and fellow YA author Amy Rose Capetta and I have spent the last six months dreaming up a charitable initiative called Rainbow Boxes. You can find out all the particulars at this link, particularly by watching the video, but basically, we’re on a mission to get more inclusive fiction onto community bookshelves as well as into GSA and LGBTQIA homeless shelters. In our minds, more books = more hope.

img-thingBecause the problem is that the old, simple, perfectly false truth—that there is something wrong with gay people—is still out there in the water and the air in America. It’s toxic and sad, and most frighteningly of all, partially invisible. And the only way to fight boiled-down judgments is with stories.

We all know that books teach understanding and empathy and uniqueness and validity. They show you someone else. They show you yourself. They prove that we all have things to learn, things to unlearn, and most importantly, that we all have very unique reasons to love and be loved.

Rye_catcherWhat if fourteen-year-old me—with all my limited understanding and inherited embarrassment about homosexuals—had gone into the library and checked out a book about a young lesbian? Or a bisexual? Or a transgender boy? Or an intersex person? What if I saw that they weren’t damaged individuals but part of the gorgeous, elaborate array of humans? After all, these aren’t fanciful what ifs. I don’t know about you, but I learned firsthand how to survive the landscape of my depression from one Holden Caulfield.

We all know that stories save lives, but I’ll add something to that. Characters save hearts. I’m going to conclude with the fifteen titles that will be in each Rainbow Box. They all feature LGBTQI main characters in a variety of settings, adventures, and love stories. None of these books existed when I was a teen, but they exist now. Please help us get them into more hands by donating or spreading the word about Rainbow Boxes, and above all else, enjoy these beautiful stories for yourself!


The 15 titles included in each Rainbow Box:

(1) Magoon, Kekla. 37 Things I Love (In No Particular Order).

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Questioning, Lesbian

Description: On the verge of finishing sophomore year, Ellis has to deal with her comatose father’s worsening condition, her strained relationship with her mother, and problems with her oldest friend. For readers who love a strong contemporary story with realistic teenage struggles at its heart, Ellis’s story is perfect.

(2) Lo, Malinda. Huntress.

Genre: Fantasy     Identities: Lesbian

Description: Kaede is of the earth, and Taisin is a sage-in-training. The two girls are chosen for a dangerous journey into the heart of the Fairy Queen’s kingdom. A perfect book for readers who loves an epic fantasy with lyrical writing.

(3) Cronn-Mills, Kristin. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Transgender

Description: Gabe was born as a bio girl, but with the help of his radio program and his best friend Paige, he’s “letting his B side play”, even when the world makes it difficult. This story has a strong music angle, a good sense of humor, and an unforgettable main character.

(4) Sharpe, Tess. Far From You.

Genre: Mystery/Thriller     Identities: Bisexual, Lesbian

Description: Sophie has almost died twice. The second time, her best friend Mina was killed, and Sophie rushes to uncover who was really behind it. This book is fast-paced with fascinating, damaged characters.

(5) Saenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Gay, Questioning

Description: This book chronicles several years in the lives of two boys as they form a strong friendship that holds strong during the transition to adulthood and the discovery of love. This beautifully written book is a celebration of both the universal and the unique in its characters.

(6) LaCour, Nina. Everything Leads to You.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Lesbian

Description: Emi is a precocious production designer who discovers a mysterious letter written by a Hollywood film legend—which leads her straight to Ava, a beautiful and struggling actress. This graceful book is a true love story, steeped in beauty and emotion.

(7) Farizan, Sara. If You Could Be Mine.

Genre: Contemporary Realism     Identities: Lesbian, supporting gay and transgender characters

Description: Sahar and her best friend Nasrin have fallen in love, but in Iran they can’t be together openly. When Nasrin’s parents arrange a marriage for her, Sahar comes up with a plan to become a man, since sex reassignment is legal in Iran. This is a fascinating look at how far we will go for the people we love.

(8) Levithan, David. Two Boys Kissing.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Gay, Transgender (F to M)

Description: This portrait of a group of gay teenagers centers around the efforts of two ex-boyfriends to break the world record for longest kiss. This heartbreaking and hopeful story is narrated by a Greek chorus of men who died in the AIDS epidemic.

(9) Duyvis, Corinne. Otherbound.

Genre: Fantasy     Identities: Bisexual, lesbian

Description: Nolan lives in our world, but whenever he closes his eyes, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a girl in another world—one full of magic and danger.

Intricate world-building and strong plot twists will pull in any fantasy lover.

(10) Charlton-Trujillo, e.E. Fat Angie.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Lesbian

Description: Fat Angie is struggling against the news that her war hero sister might be dead, when new girl KC Romance moves to town and shows Fat Angie how much potential she has to shake things up. This novel is equal parts funny and dark, with an unforgettable voice.

(11) Gregorio, I.W. None of the Above.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Intersex

Description: On the eve of taking things to the next level with her boyfriend, homecoming queen and track star Kristin finds out that she is intersex, throwing her life into turmoil and her identity into question. This novel is as thorough and informative as it is sensitive and engaging.

(12) Polonsky, Ami. Gracefully Grayson.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Transgender, (M to F)

Description: Grayson Sender is living with a crushing secret: “he” is a girl, but wearing skirts at school doesn’t seem like an option until a special teacher gives Grayson a chance to shine as Persephone in the school play. A beautiful, and often painful, exploration of what it means to live as your true self when most of the world seems to be set against it.

(13) Albertalli, Becky. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Gay

Description: When a classmate blackmails Simon, his sexuality—and that of his email pen pal, Blue—might become public knowledge. As the boys develop feelings for each other, things quickly become more complicated. This charming novel is a quick, voice-driven read.

(14) Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Gay

Description: Rafe has been out since eighth grade, and his entire life seems to revolve around being known as gay. When he starts at a new school, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret, but that gets a lot harder when he falls in love. This witty coming-out-again tale is perfect for fans of funny contemporary.

(15) London, Alex. Proxy.

Genre: Dystopian     Identities: Gay

Description: Knox was born into the wealthy Patron class and Syd is his proxy, which means that when Knox gets in trouble, Syd is punished for it. But when both boys want more control over their lives, they know they have to run. A fast-paced action thriller, this story is for anyone who loves The Hunger Games or Divergent.



Cori McCarthy is the YA author of The Color of Rain, Breaking Sky, and the forthcoming, You Were Here. Find out more about her books at or send me a tweet @CoriMcCarthy  or @RainbowBoxesYA

Poetry Invites Prose by zu vincent


balloon jpeg
Last summer a friend and I began exchanging a poem a week. She’s a visual artist and I’m a writer, but neither of us consider ourselves poets. We just love poems and wanted to grow a few between us. At first, we used the works of established poets to plant the seeds, poems we liked that made us feel we had something of our own to say on the subject. But we soon found we didn’t need the prompt and began writing simply from the stuff of life. We wrote narrative poems, three line poems, silly poems, serious poems, poems that tackled the biggies such as joy, love and grief, and poems that seemed to bubble up from the unconscious with no warning at all. For me, the resulting harvest is rich with story ideas and language I might not have tilled any other way.

Poetry, as Newbery author Karen Hesse says, is addicting. “It’s like chocolate, once you start eating it you can’t stop” It’s also a great way to see more deeply into your prose, which is why poetry is at the heart of the VCFAWC residency this summer. For starters, each faculty lecture includes a poem or poetic reference. Visiting author Karen Hesse wowed folks with her twelve inch thick (at least!) binder of her poetry output for a year. And a faculty panel discussion featuring Tom Birdseye, Amanda Jenkins, Louise Hawes and Sharon Darrow dissected what poetry means to each of the panelists on a personal and professional level.

paracheute jpegWhile some of these distinguished writers don’t mind calling themselves poets, others shy away from the term. But they all read, respect and love poetry. That’s the beauty of what they had to say, which is that poetry is not scary or inaccessible or meant only for the erudite few. Poetry is for everyone. And poetic language is everywhere, as familiar as our heartbeat. From ads, to nursery rhymes, to popular songs, to prose lines to daily free poems on Writer’s Almanac. And for writers, reading and practicing poetry can enhance your prose and narrative non-fiction in several ways.


Here are a few suggestions:

Try rewording your paragraphs sentence by sentence with an eye to word choice and poetic line breaks, this can be a revelation when it comes to cutting unnecessary words and phrases, and in general sharpens your voice.

Write a poem from each of your character’s points of view to help you discover motivation and voice.

colorful balloon jpegAnd as Louise Hawes suggests, write a poem for each scene or chapter of your novel as a way to uncover the main emotion you need to convey in that scene or chapter. When seen in poetic form, you can more easily note any gaps in your narrative arc, or missing elements from your beginning, middle or end. (Lou as she’s affectionately known, holds word play workshops she calls Play Shops around the globe).

In his lecture on metaphor, VCFA faculty and author Mark Karlins notes that metaphor “can’t be translated.” Rather, you must intuit your way in. Because metaphor goes “deeper than thought, and is rooted in the human soul. That place where the inner self and the world merge.” That place is the stuff of poetry. Poetry distills. Poetry re-sees. Poetry provides a metaphorical lens that isn’t about thinking, but about intuiting. And it does this most often by capturing a moment that speaks to what is larger than that moment, and larger than ourselves. The world in a grain of sand.

Often these grains of sand can add up to larger works. You might find your next book in your poetry, as Karen Hesse did. Or that, like author Pam Houston (whom I spoke with last spring and whose process seems to me so like poetry writing that I wanted to mention her here), you are developing your own poetic form. Houston’s novel, Contents May Have Shifted, while not written in verse, is a series of short chapters that hover between genres and flash off the page in a form she calls “glimmer writing.” Glimmer writing, Houston explains, is about opening yourself to the world each day, and recording what sticks, what sparks insight and holds richness, much like the contents of a poem.  What says, in her words, “Hey writer, over here, pay attention.”  In encouraging writers to capture their own glimmers, Houston believes that what sticks, what coalesces on the page, will provide the themes and storylines you’re meant to tell.

Reach for the poetic in your writing. Find those glimmers and keep them as a poem or a paragraph, because in the very act of giving a moment attention, it becomes a habit of deep listening, both to the outer world and your own inner experience of it. That’s were words resonate. In that space beneath and beyond the self that lives for the reader. That space between the marks on the page and the life created as one reads them.

Survival Strategies of the Best First Chapters


When you open a brand new book, the binding gives a satisfying crack. The pages smell of new ink and freshly dried glue. If you’re like most readers, you have hope that this book will be awesome. And you don’t necessarily want to put it down. But with limited time, most people are looking for an excuse to stop reading and do something more pressing. Studies show, that in books written for adults, the author has maybe an entire chapter to hook their reader. In writing for young adults and children, the author has an even smaller page allotment. If you’re a writer trying to get published, you have one page to hook an agent or an editor. The first chapter (especially your first page) is your golden ticket. golden-ticket-large

A first chapter is a contract between you and your reader. I thought I knew what that meant when I crafted my first novel, but I didn’t. When I wrote the draft of my newly released middle grade novel, “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” the first scene began with two sisters sitting alone on a deserted road at the gas station waiting for their dad. I loved this first chapter. It had everything I thought a first chapter needed: an opening scene that began with a bang, drama, a great voice, a page turn…. But what I didn’t realize was that my first chapter was promising something I wasn’t aware of. After a few editors read my manuscript, it became clear to me that I wasn’t living up to what I had unknowingly promised in the first chapter. I will explain more about this later, but as I continued to write and revise my book, I learned a few things about writing a great first chapter.

First, you need a great hook. Everyone likes a hook. Everyone wants a hook, maybe they just don’t know it yet. As a reader you have great expectations. You hope that you are in skilled hands. Perhaps you want to like the main character. Maybe you want a distinct voice. You might like a mystery. Most of all, you want a book that you can’t put down. You want to be hooked.13161017971575791316fish-hook-md (2)

A first chapter is like telling a joke. It has certain expectations. A joke is like a little story. It has a hook, a dilemma, and a punch line. As a listener, we recognize this structure and are willing to wait for the punch line. A first chapter can be written in the same way. Here are four things I think a writer needs to create a great first chapter hook.


  1. Voice
  2. Empathy.
  3. A mystery.
  4. A promise.

Voice is difficult to describe, but when you read a book with a compelling voice, you know it. There are no doubts about who the character is. From their distinct voice you feel like you know them already. A great voice has a unique style and way of phrasing language. Just think of your mom, best friend, spouse or child, all telling you the same story. They each have a distinct way of speaking. Make sure all of your characters have a different sound. Listen. Eavesdrop and then read. Read everything you can. And lastly, Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I say, good call, Elmore.

A few great books that have a distinct voice are: “Feed” by M.T. Anderson, “Wintergirls” by Laurie Halse Anderson, “Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11” by N. Griffin, and “Chime” by Frannie Billingsly.Feed

Empathy. A reader must care about the character. There must be some sort of emotion evoked while reading a first chapter. It doesn’t always have to be a happy emotion. Negative emotions can be a great catalyst for a page turn. No matter what you do, your first chapter must make your reader feel something. Write with enough emotion to make the reader want more. Create an emotionally charged scene where something is new, perhaps a turning point for the character or story. Create pathos. Khen Lampert said, “[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies…and find ourselves either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain.”

Great books that show first page emotion are: “Jelicoe Road” by Melina Marchetta, “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, “The Chosen One” by Carol Lynch Williams, and “I’ll Give You the Sun” by Jandy Nelson.

Next, a first chapter needs a mystery. Your book doesn’t need to tote the mystery genre to have it create a mystery. You want the reader to ask questions. What will happen next? What is going on? Is this believable? Is it plausible? Do I care? A mystery incites a page turn. I read this great advice from the writers of the TV drama, Scandal. I keep this list at my writing desk. “1. Everyone has their own story. 2. Everyone has their secrets. 3. Everyone lies. 4. You don’t know what you think you know. 5. Answers lead to more lies.” I think this is great advice for creating mystery in fiction. You don’t need to have all of these elements, but by using one or two of these, a writer can create a great first chapter.


Books which exemplify a great first page mystery are: “Ink and Ashes” by Valynne Maetani, “Bones and All” by Camille DeAngelis, “Holes” by Louis Sachar, “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart, and “Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester” by Barbara O’Conner.

A promise. As an author you promise to stay in character and to stay in genre. You promise to keep story threads alive and fruitful. The first chapter says: This book is about…(and then stay true to that statement). You want the reader to know you trust them because they are smart. If you keep your promises, the reader will trust you, and will be willing to go along for the ride.  Andrew Stanton, the creator of the movie Toy Story, said, “Your audience is a born problem solver. They want to figure out your story. Give the reader 2+2. Not 2+2=4.”

When I wrote my first draft of “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” I had unknowingly made a promise to my readers. I set my protagonists on a road, but I didn’t let them use it. The first chapter implied that the main characters would go on a journey. But in the first draft, I didn’t let them. They stayed in one town for the entire novel. Looking back now, this was obviously frustrating to those who read my manuscript. They wanted to go somewhere. I had put the girls on a road and then left them there to languish.Empty desert road

When my (now) editor asked me to have my characters travel, I realized that I had to fulfill the promise I made in my first chapter and that I had to rewrite my entire book. I had promised a journey novel, now I needed to produce one. I could have rewritten the first chapter to match the rest of my book, but I felt very strongly that I wanted to keep my original first chapter. In the end, I kept seventeen pages of my first draft, and then I rewrote the rest of the book. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do with the story, but eventually I figured it out. And my book is the better for it. Currently, my first chapter in, “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” is still my original chapter from my first draft.Jen Book Cover

I think every writer wants to create a rabid readership. Every writer would love to author a book that readers can’t put down. Pull out your work in progress and weigh it against these first chapter survival strategies. Does it: have a distinctive voice, evoke emotion, create a mystery, and make a correct and clear promise to your reader? If not, you may consider a first chapter revision…and let me know how it goes. I have found that I’m a little bit of a first chapter enthusiast, these days. I wish you that shiny, golden ticket–whatever that may translate into for you. An editor? An agent? A book contract? An amazingly crafted sixth novel? Poof. May it all be there for you.

Find Your Pea Vision: Write from the Antagonist’s Point of View




While visiting my eldest son in Oregon this month, I spent a morning picking peas on his farm. After showing me how to choose the plumpest pods that were ready for harvesting, my son handed me a bucket to fill. As I worked my way down the row of trellised vines, peering out from under my sun hat into the dappled green depths, I picked what I thought was every last ripe pod.

It wasn’t until I went back for a second pass, that I saw the rogue pods that had escaped me. They seemed to have popped out like magic right in front of my eyes. I stared at them as they dangled jewel-like from the stalks, their plump exteriors bulging from the tender bumps inside. How had I missed them before?

One of the farm interns chuckled. “It takes awhile to get your pea vision,” he said, “and yours just kicked in.”

          images-5   Pea vision, as I define it, is when something obscure becomes suddenly clear. It’s all about perspective. Writers need to find their form of pea vision too—especially when it comes to characters. Figuring out how a protagonist acts, thinks, feels and talks rarely happens in a single blinding flash of insight. It takes time to get to know a character. When I walked back down that row of peas, I saw things I hadn’t seen before. Why? Because I changed the way I looked at the vines. Searching from a new angle, picking pods from the other side of the trellis, and risking bug bites and sore muscles to kneel in the dirt enabled me to better see what was ripe for the taking.

In writing, a different vantage point can result in a similar bounty. Our stories play out in real life from a single perspective—our own. But in novels, we can narrate from multiple points of view. I’ve always loved books where different characters give their version of the same series of events. In books like Tim Wynne-Jones’ Blink and Caution, Cynthia Leitich-Smith’s Feral series, and Sharon Darrow’s The Painters of Lexieville, each narrator’s perspective fills in a piece of the story.

“Write what you know,” goes the old adage. But writers should do exactly the opposite too. Mine your life, sure, but stretch yourself as well to write what you don’t know, what you don’t understand, as a way of figuring it out. I love writing about people on the edge, for example. The people who trigger us—whose behavior makes our blood boil—can sometimes be our best teachers. The traits in them that most disturb us may tell us a lot about ourselves (and our fictional characters). Antagonist

Which is why I like to give my writing students the following exercise: rewrite an existing scene in your story from the antagonist’s POV. The point is to write from the perspective of someone whose behavior is strange, disturbing or even incomprehensible. The goal is to find the commonalities, because I believe that people, no matter where we come from or how we grow up, have more things in common than we have differences. Afterwards I ask my students, “How did that change your story?”

Currently, I’m writing a book narrated from three points of view. One of the POV’s is my antagonist, a man very different from me. An obsessive-compulsive computer programmer with PTSD, he’s awkward, unattractive and antisocial. He has no friends and spends his days coding and his nights playing video games. He also commits a terrible crime. How do I get into his whackjob mindset? By looking for emotions we’ve shared, instead of the life experiences we haven’t. Like my antagonist, I too have felt lonely, jealous and powerless—and that is how I access him.

Writing from the antagonist’s perspective can make the invisible visible. It does so by enabling writers to understand things about the world of their story that they may not seen before. Both my antagonist and the teenage girl he’s obsessed with undergo pivotal transformations when they recognize in each other some of the emotional issues they struggle with themselves.

In addition, exploring the antagonist’s POV can help avoid stereotypes. In a recent VCFA lecture on diversity in fiction, author Cynthia Leitich-Smith talked about the challenges and rewards of writing fiction from the POV of multicultural characters who may be different from ourselves. (Differences, she pointed out, can manifest themselves in many ways such as ethnicity, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic levels, physical and mental health issues and abilities to name a few.) “Our characters shouldn’t be two dimensional excuses for social studies lessons,” Leitich-Smith said. “We are all accountable for the impact of our stories on young readers.” I came away from her lecture determined not to make assumptions. The danger of a single story is real.

Third, writing about characters antithetical to ourselves cultivates empathy. Never judge a person’s insides by his outside, my husband frequently says. When I remember to do that, I can step more easily into the other person’s shoes, and our differences matter less. When Wonder author R.J. Palacio decided to write a new chapter from the bully’s perspective, many readers felt that Julian’s narrative was the best one of all. UnknownBad guys may not be all bad, even when they do bad things. My antagonist is deeply flawed, dangerously hurt and he’s got a backstory full of baggage. But I didn’t understand all that until I began writing from his POV. I recommend two YA books, in particular, as stellar examples of antagonists who are protagonists: Tenderness by Robert Cormier and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. Although the narrators are deeply disturbed teenage boys, I found myself still caring about them, despite their horrific acts.

So go find your pea vision by getting curious about your antagonist’s world. Give him a mouthpiece, ask him questions and listen with your heart. How does it change your story?


A Blackdog Farmstead harvest

How does it change you?