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?
MELANIE: 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.
MEG: 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.
CAROLINE: 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.