It’s back-to-school week here in New York, and my daughter is preparing for her first class of fifth graders who will arrive tomorrow. And I’m scheduling my own back-to-school events this fall.
When I returned to writing fiction in 2000 after a ten-year hiatus in which I focused on reference books and textbooks (and editing MultiCultural Review), I realized that I had to relearn all of the craft techniques I’d forgotten — or perhaps never quite figured out in the first place. For two summers in a row, I attending the New York State Summer Writer’s Institute as well as an intermediate short story workshop led by Elizabeth Benedict, who is both a wonderful writer and an outstanding teacher of writing. (I highly recommend her craft book The Joy of Writing Sex, which has useful insights even if you’re not writing sex scenes.) Although I was working on the multiple drafts of Dirt Cheap, I also wrote a variety of short stories, most of them for my hard drive only. I did have a YA short story published in an online journal, a couple of MG short stories in Skipping Stones, and one adult story accepted by a literary journal four years after I submitted it and two years after it came out in rewritten form as Chapter 2 of Dirt Cheap.
I applied to the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA after I’d had an adult novel and a YA/adult crossover published, which is not that unusual; many students at VCFA are previously published and/or have book contracts while attending the program. I wanted the MFA in order to teach, though it turned out when I graduated that the university teaching position I’d wanted was already spoken for. Still, VCFA expanded my range and made it possible for me to sell a middle grade novel and to complete several write-for-hire projects for that age group. The craft techniques I learned — not the least of which was “reading like a writer” and using what I’d read as mentor texts for my own work — also made the writing process go faster. Not including the ten-year hiatus and time I worked on other projects, it took me five years to write Gringolandia and four to write Dirt Cheap. I can now finish a first draft and revise a novel in less than a year.
When I worked on Dirt Cheap, Gringolandia, and Surviving Santiago with my editor at Curbstone, Alexander (Sandy) Taylor, I felt that the back-and-forth, as well as general discussions of literature and craft, helped me to grow as a writer. I had the same experience when I attended VCFA after Sandy’s passing. Since then, I’ve changed editors with each of my published books, and I haven’t worked closely with any editor since my last one left the YA field in 2015.
When I asked other YA authors who haven’t published recently how they maintain and develop their craft, they say they read a lot of books on craft. I’ve been doing the same for the past several years. One of the most popular of these books is Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, which I initially resisted but am now finding useful in terms of finding my characters’ motivations and how they inform action. I also resisted using “beat sheets” as formulaic. Several years ago, I tried to pull back from all those craft books and online resources, believing that I was overthinking. And maybe I was then, though I now see that I’ve internalized all those lessons I’d initially resisted.
Besides making me overthink everything, the problem with craft books is that they’re isolating, and I’m finding that to return to traditional publishing — and to develop my skills and range further by working with a compatible editor on multiple books — I need to interact more with others in my profession. For that reason, I’ve taken the money I’ve made through translation and sensitivity readings this year to sign up for two workshops in the fall. The first of them, the Pneuma Creative workshop led my my fellow VCFA-er and wise writing coach Heather Demetrios, will focus on meditation and the writing process, to help me embrace the journey rather than the destination. (This, by the way, is advice I give to people looking for travel advice, particularly those weighing public transportation versus renting a car.) The second is the Falling Leaves master class sponsored by the Eastern New York region of SCBWI, where I’ll have the opportunity to meet, show my latest work to, and learn from five editors with major houses. The last time I attended Falling Leaves, in fall 2010 as I’d started writing Rogue, I tended to avoid social interactions with the visiting editors due to anxiety about making a bad impression. Since then, I’ve learned much more about author-editor relationships, and I know that it’s as important for me to find someone with whom I’m compatible as to impress them with the quality of my ideas and writing and my ability to work with others. Older and wiser now, I’m looking forward to going back to school and moving on to the next stage in my career.