Teen Writers Bloc

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Guest Blogger Jesse Karp, Author of ‘What We Become,’ On the Sequel

Posted by Teen Writers Bloc On March - 11 - 2013

REV.WhatWeBecome 398x600 Guest Blogger Jesse Karp, Author of What We Become, On the SequelAccording to Hollywood, our culture’s largest purveyor of populist storytelling, the general wisdom on making a successful sequel is “the same, but more,” with the operative word being “more.” It’s pretty easy to see this in action (A Good Day to Die Hard is a recent example). Now, I’m not saying you can’t tell a big, enjoyable escapist story with this formula. However, one can also look at a sequel as a chance to expand and deepen the experience of the first installment.

In writing What We Become, a sequel of my book Those That Wake, I tried to adhere to three general rules to construct as compelling and satisfying a continuation as I could.

1. Deepen your themes and pay off your ideas – Presumably you’ve laid out your themes clearly the first time around, so rather than simply repeating them, delve more deeply into them and get below the more obvious conclusions. A famous sequel that did this extremely well, I think, was The Empire Strikes Back, in which the themes of heroism and fighting tyranny were deepened from the first movie as the narrative delved into the anguish, pain and sacrifice that heroism requires and how a victory may only be the first step in a more arduous struggle. Similarly, ideas and concepts introduced in a first part no longer have the novelty of the new and should be “paid off” with surprising and satisfying new applications.  Again, The Empire Strikes Back does a nifty job of this, by taking the idea of the Jedi and the Force introduced in Star Wars and immersing its main character in the philosophy of these ideas and showing off to audiences a wider array of functions.

In What We Become, I have taken the theme of not giving up, central to Those That Wake, and plunged in as far as it will take me. What happens when you can’t stop fighting?  What is the final cost of never giving up? What is the third choice, the one that is not about fighting or giving up? I’ve also given a new perspective to the theme of a world manipulated from behind the scenes by moving away from the more fantastical take on it in Those That Wake to one that, while still stranger than pure reality, is more grounded in the real world and recent history. Meanwhile, some of my Big Ideas, like the Librarian and the Global Dynamic, are taken to their natural fruition and have their origins and intricacies revealed in unexpected ways.

 2. Grow your characters – Hopefully, your characters had a full and satisfying arc the first time around.  So where does that leave you to go with them?  Well, an arc is just the narrative of a character’s growing understanding.  Coming to understand things always leads to seeing a larger world, greater possibilities and how much more there could still be left to understand.  Those initial arcs can flow organically into larger and more expansive arcs.  Characters in stories get to grow more neatly than actual humans, whose experiences and understanding are not divided into clear, narrative sections.  But a good fictional character should keep searching and growing as long as they live, just like actual people.

While Mal was the ostensible hero of Those that Wake, his arc in that book was very much about showing him his limitations. Laura, meanwhile, had a more classic arc, essentially moving from dependence to self-sufficiency. I have, in what I hope are interesting and surprising ways, reversed their roles for What We Become. Laura takes on more classically heroic characteristics here, even going on a physical quest for something crucial, Mal has his arc ultimately and completely fulfilled.  Using his arc in the first book as a mere first step, I push Mal to those aforementioned limitations and see what he has to do to actually break through them.

I’ve also introduced two new characters to share the main spotlight, whose own development as characters serves not only to flesh them out, but to highlight other aspects of Mal and Laura, making all four of them into more fully-formed and psychologically complex and authentic characters.

3. Don’t take your readers for granted or leave them behind – If things went right, you’re going to have some returning readers. Some of them may remember the details of the story very well and some may only remember a few key moments and strong characters. At the same time, you’ve got to assume that there are going to be at least a few people who wandered into your story right in the middle. So, you’ve got to be able to gently recap crucial information without being intrusive or artificial about it. You’ve got to integrate the recap naturally into the flow of the new story.

Having new characters caught up in the ongoing adventure helps with this considerably, as they will need to be brought up to speed even as events proceed at an engaging pace. In What We Become, I have also tied some of the revelations into the mysteries of Those That Wake, not so that you need to understand what came before, but so that if you do, the current story will take on multiple layers, and revelations will have a larger impact. At the same time, I have also worked hard to create echoes of elements from the first book: character moments, lines of dialog, situations, even tricks I play with chapter titles. For those who went through the first part, you want the second part to recall it and to connect with it to create a larger, more complete structure, but not necessarily be dependent on it. That’s why, I figure, they put the word “companion” on the cover of What We Become, rather than “sequel.”

You always want to give your readers a deeper, more expansive experience. In a sequel, the most effective way to do this is to give them something they haven’t seen before but that improves and is improved by what they have seen before. In other words “more, but not the same.”

 Guest Blogger Jesse Karp, Author of What We Become, On the SequelJesse Karp is the author of Those That Wake, the sequel What We Become, and the non-fiction work Graphic Novels in Your School Library. He is also a school librarian in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.  Please visit him at beyondwhereyoustand.com.

Jean-Paul Bass on Perseverance

Posted by Teen Writers Bloc On June - 22 - 2012

Perseverance Jean Paul Bass on PerseveranceI struggle with writing on a consistent schedule.  I only write when I am in the mood or if there is a deadline approaching, but being in the mood comes very infrequently.  There’s always something else I want to do and I keep pushing writing aside.  I had such high hopes for the summer.  I just knew I was going to be so prolific and wow everyone but after a few weeks of late nights at the computer, my enthusiasm waned when I hit a rough patch in the story and I haven’t revisited it since.

Just recently, I attended three different events.  Each event featured some of the hottest authors in YA today.  And at two of the events, the authors were alumni of The New School’s MFA program, more specifically, of the Writing for Children Program — Lisa Greenwald and Siobhan Vivian.

Once I got over feeling cool from being connected to these authors through the program, I got a little bummed.  Here were people who were in the same program as me and now look at them!  On stage, some with multiple book deals, talking about writing and being writers, and the audience can’t wait to hear what they have to say next.  I immediately tried imagining myself getting asked questions, promoting my book at events, and wondering what writing tips I could give my audience.  But I couldn’t sustain the fantasy for long because all of those authors have something I don’t have: perseverance.  Tenacity.  Determination.  Dogged pursuit of a goal.  Call it what you want but I ain’t got it.

At one of the events, an editor told us that she would be accepting unsolicited submissions from the audience for two weeks after the event and instead of getting excited, I felt like kicking myself.  Here was an awesome opportunity, a direct line to an editor, and I couldn’t use it because I didn’t have anything ready to send out.  I’ve been spending my summer goofing off when I should have been writing.

Imagining myself on stage with those other authors doesn’t get me very far, but thinking about writing, about sticking to a schedule and finishing a story just like those authors gets me inspired.  It’s all about perseverance, about seeing something through to the very end and not getting sidetracked.  That’s how they got on the stage and why they have book deals.

The summer’s not over yet.  I’ve got a few more months left to cultivate that stick-to-it-ive-ness skill that is so crucial to being successful.  I probably won’t be on stage giving advice anytime soon, but the next time an editor asks for a submission, I will be ready.

Guest blogger Jean-Paul Bass recently decided to quit her job to focus on writing full-time and she swears she doesn’t miss having a regular paycheck at all. She is currently working on her MFA in fiction and writing for children at The New School.  If she could finish her memoir about growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, before graduation, then she would be quite satisfied with herself.

Jean Paul Notebooks 600x506 Guest Blogger Jean Paul Bass Reflections on Her First Year in an MFA

Reading everyone else’s thoughts on getting an MFA, I thought about why I am in the program at all. Because, you see, I made a giant mistake when I applied to The New School.

The mistake began years before I even thought about getting an MFA, before I even thought about being a writer. It began in the summer before I entered the tenth grade, when I wrote a story in a green notebook and then promptly threw it away. That green notebook contained the first story I had ever written and without even finishing it, I was convinced the story was no good. So I got rid of it.

Fast forward a few years to when I dropped in and out of three colleges, sometimes simultaneously attending one while in the midst of failing classes at another, as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I thought about being a linguist, a teacher, a paralegal, a museum curator, a librarian, studying medieval history, owning a bookstore, basically anything except writing. But I never forgot about the story in that green notebook and when a friend suggested I write something instead of picking apart the bad writing in a book I had just read, I did it. And when I shared the story with my friend, I was amazed that she liked it, and everyone she showed it to liked it. That’s when I revisited that old story, and even though I had forgotten most of the details, I decided to finally finish it.

Over the course of six months, I stayed up until four and five in the morning, writing because I couldn’t sleep at night. My brain raced with new ideas and I would lie awake in bed, begging my mind to shut down so I could sleep but also excited about all of the scenes I couldn’t wait to write. So I would crawl out of bed and write until the sun came up.

Eventually I finished the book and after sharing it with a few friends, I put it away because I felt it just wasn’t good enough to be published. And I continued on with my life, but by then I had decided to finish college with a degree in English and Creative Writing. In my writing classes, I focused on literary fiction, or adult writing as I call it, because no one in my classes read or wrote YA novels and I didn’t feel comfortable submitting anything that wasn’t adult-orientated. So my YA novels and ideas were put on the back burner as I concentrated on my adult stories even though I didn’t much care about them. I just wanted to write and be around writers.

When it came time to apply for an MFA program, I picked The New School because of the writing for children concentration. I thought it would be great to work on fiction and writing for children but I only applied to the fiction program. I looked at the YA novel I had written and the other YA ideas I had started but never finished, felt none of them were ready, and prepared my fiction submission.

My first semester in the fiction MFA program left me feeling lost. I didn’t care about what I submitted, and dreaded my second year and all of the expectations that came with it. What would I write about during my thesis semester? What would I read at the final student readings? None of the my adult stories were special enough for me to want to keep revising or showcase them and I had no new ideas.

But I had tons of YA stuff I could write and polish. In my second semester, I took a writing for children seminar and I finally felt like I belonged. Here were people who took children’s books seriously, who didn’t treat genre like the plague, and I finally had the chance to share some of my YA ideas and characters with people who could understand where I was coming from and why these characters and their stories mattered to me.

As the semester ended and it came time to choose classes for the next year, a sinking feeling settled into my stomach and I realized what I had done to myself. By not applying to the writing for children program, I had once again thrown away my green notebook. I knew I had made a giant mistake that would haunt me for years, just like the story I had been too scared to finish writing, and I knew I needed to make a change. I finally realized why I didn’t apply to the writing for children program: because writing for children is what matters to me. Fiction was easy; I almost didn’t care if one of my adult stories was rejected. But to put my YA novel out there frightened me. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone saying my YA novel wasn’t good enough and so I didn’t give anyone that chance.

Once I admitted the real reason why I didn’t apply to the writing for children program, I did everything I could to get myself in there. I talked with the program director and began meeting up with my writing for children classmates so that we could start our own workshops and attend writing for children events together. And I sent out the first few chapters of the novel I wrote based on the first story I had ever written in that green notebook for my classmates’ critiques.

I had almost given up on the MFA program because I was getting my degree for all of the wrong reasons. I still struggle with having confidence in myself and my writing, but I know I am getting better, better at writing and better at staying true to myself. And I owe it to the green notebook. Even though I threw it away all those years ago, the memories of writing my first story in there have never left my mind. I used to be embarrassed at my teenage attempt at writing, but now I look back with fondness and inspiration. It is because of those memories that I feel at home in the writing for children MFA program and am glad that I fixed my giant mistake.

Guest blogger Jean-Paul Bass recently decided to quit her job to focus on writing full-time and she swears she doesn’t miss having a regular paycheck at all. She is currently working on her MFA in fiction and writing for children at The New School.  If she could finish her memoir about growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, before graduation, then she would be quite satisfied with herself. 

Photo Credit: Jean-Paul

were not worthy Guest Blogger Perla Rodriguez Looks Back at Her First Year as a New School MFA StudentDo you remember the scene from the 1992 movie Wayne’s World when Wayne and Garth get down on their knees in front of Alice Cooper and scream, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!”?

Well that’s how I felt walking into The New School when my first semester started a year ago. I might’ve also had Wayne’s idiotic smirk on my face as I opened the door. I was in complete disbelief.

I wasn’t in shock about attending the New School, but at what I was studying. I simply couldn’t believe that I was actually pursuing a degree in writing. And I couldn’t believe that the New School had accepted me. I did a double take when I saw the acceptance letter and a tear ran down my face. Seriously, I cried. My friends mocked my denial of the situation and told me to frame the acceptance letter so that I could read it everyday and get over the shock. Up until recently, I never considered myself a writer, and as an avid reader and teacher, I never imagined myself following the footsteps of the people I admired the most.  I think for the most part I’m a pretty confident person, but when it came to my writing I had serious issues. Like Wayne, I wasn’t worthy.

So you guys can only begin to imagine my anxiety when it was time for my first critique. Attached to my critique I even included a weak sob story basically begging my classmates to go easy on me! The night before, I didn’t sleep. I was sweating in class, biting my nails, looking down, and dreading the moment. I patiently waited for my turn while I struggled internally. I hated myself for putting myself through that experience, and for letting their opinions impact me so much.

To make a long story short, they all loved my writing. Obviously I had many things I needed to work on, but in general the feedback was reassuring and inspiring. So maybe I can write, I thought to myself. Maybe my inner-critic was so ultimately powerful that it blinded me to this gift I have.

And so my semester progressed with lots of constructive and reassuring feedback telling me that I hadn’t made a huge mistake in applying to this program. Maybe the debt I was incurring wasn’t all going to waste.

When my second semester came along I had improved significantly, not only in my writing, but in my confidence as well. I started to believe that I was in fact worthy.

At the completion of my first year at the New School I can confidently say that I AM A WRITER and I am indeed WORTHY. Without this year at the New School, I would have never been confident enough to pursue this career. I needed my professors and my classmates to tell me that I was a good writer in order to start to believe in myself. Many people do not need that. They can go into a career and know in their hearts that they are good and not need the approval of others. And those people probably save a lot of money! icon smile Guest Blogger Perla Rodriguez Looks Back at Her First Year as a New School MFA Student

I believe EVERYTHING in life serves as a learning experience, as a stepping-stone into the right direction (even bad financial moves, huge graduate school debt and bad relationships). I needed the New School in my life at this particular moment. So for that, I am immensely happy. I have learned so much from my professors and classmates… more than I ever would have just sitting at home and thinking about becoming a writer. Now I truly believe in my talent and myself and I am confident I will see my books in my local bookstore soon. I AM WORTHY!

Perla Rodriguez is a NYC teacher and mom of two who recently decided to become a writer and capture some of the awesome, yet rarely told stories that surround her.  She is currently working on her MFA in Writing for Children at The New School and writing a few fictional pieces for young adults and children.

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Guest Blogger Gwendolyn Heasley on Publishing That Second Book

Posted by Teen Writers Bloc On June - 5 - 2012

ALong WayFromYou COVER 392x600 Guest Blogger Gwendolyn Heasley on Publishing That Second BookI think books are like boyfriends. Just because you’ve had a boyfriend before doesn’t make your next relationship any easier or less complicated. Like boyfriends, each book has its peculiarities and nuances.

I wrote the first draft of my debut novel Where I Belong in a MediaBistro class. I never dreamed that it would be published, so when I wrote it, I wrote it for only me.  I didn’t think about landing an agent. I didn’t think about what an editor would think. I didn’t cater to “the industry.” With some great luck (publishing does involve luck in my opinion), Where I Belong went from a pet hobby project to a real live book. With much help from my then editor, Catherine Onder, I learned a lot about editing and making a draft into a real book. Mainly, I learned editing is not only comma splices and run-on sentences.

So when I started on Where I Belong’s companion novel, A Long Way From You, I felt like a different person and writer than I had been when I wrote my first book. I knew about websites, book trailers, blogs, library visits, oh my! In the past year and a half, I had a crash course in the wonderful world of Young Adult Literature. Because of that, I naively thought it would be easier — not harder — to write my second book.

I was wrong. Very wrong.

You know that quote, “Dance like no one is watching.” When I wrote Where I Belong, I did write like no one, besides my MediaBistro online class, was watching. Yet when I sat down to write A Long Way From You, I felt like people were watching. I had made some mistakes with Where I Belong, and reviewers and critics alike had (sometimes) kindly pointed them out. Armed with this information (use contractions, you wouldn’t believe the fury over my lack of contractions), I found it harder to just write. I’d type a sentence, then wonder what my readers would think. I’d delete the sentence and type a new one. Then I’d wonder what my editor would think. I had too many voices in my head when I really just needed to be listening to my character.

I’m not going to say that one day, I woke up and the voices were gone. That never completely happened. But over time, my character spoke to me louder than the imaginary fear mongers. It took me longer to write A Long Way From You than Where I Belong, but I think that ended up being a good thing. In the end, I let my character tell her story. But I also improved as a writer, in part thanks to some of the critics. (Don’t be afraid of reviewers. Sometimes, they offer great — free — advice.)

My advice to anyone who feels stuck — on a second novel, on a first draft, on whatever — is to write like no one is watching. Put away the craft books for a while. Write for a while before asking for critique. Basically, just write. One word at a time and try to ignore any voices —but your characters. You will have to edit later no matter what, so enjoy the pleasure of not worrying for at least one draft!

I’m glad that I figured out that books are like boyfriends. I know my third book will be nothing like my second — and I’ll probably give completely different advice after writing it. But of course, I’ll romanticize it, just like I do old boyfriends.

Photos Courtesy Harper Collins

GwendolynHeasley AuthorPhoto 100x150 Guest Blogger Gwendolyn Heasley on Publishing That Second BookGuest blogger Gwendolyn Heasley, author of Where I Belong and its companion novel A Long Way From You, is a graduate of Davidson College and the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she earned her master’s degree in journalism. When she was a little girl, she desperately wanted to be the next Ann M. Martin — the author of the beloved The Baby-Sitter’s Club series. She’s incredibly grateful that the recession rendered her unemployed and made her chase her nearly forgotten dream. She lives in New York City, teaches college and eats entirely too much mac and cheese for an adult. She’s also currently at work on her third novel for Harper Collins.

Guest Blogger Perla Rodriguez Asks: Latinos, Do You Read?

Posted by Teen Writers Bloc On May - 18 - 2012

boy reading book.jpg Guest Blogger Perla Rodriguez Asks: Latinos, Do You Read?Latinos, do you read?

When the brilliant idea of pursuing a career in writing for children occurred to me a few years ago, I embarked on an obsessive-information-gathering- journey (like many of us do when we switch careers, but maybe not so obsessively). I clearly remember the beautiful spring day that I attended a workshop at a prestigious university in the city. The panel of speakers consisted of writers, editors and publishers and I was especially interested in what one particular Latina editor had to say.

During the Q & A session I told this particular Latina editor (and a room of about 100 people) my recent life changing, ego-shattering decision and asked for her opinion and advice.

“I’m sorry to say that there is no market for Latino literature. Latinos simply do not buy books. Maybe you should just stick with teaching,” she said.

Yep, that was her response. I kid you not.

After I proceeded to lift my jaw off from the floor, I simply sat back down — dumbstruck. A few encouraging ladies who sat around me told me not to let what she said derail me.

“There might not be a market for it not now, but maybe sometime in the future,” a Cuban hermana sitting next to me said once the workshop was over.

And with that she and many others rushed to front of the room to network.

Luckily for me I had woken up that morning with an insurmountable amount of confidence and determination. “That lady has some cojones,” my stubborn Dominican self said to my emerging writer self. “Bring it.”

I walked out with my head held high and my sonrisa colgate, ready for this challenge. I even hummed the “Eye of the Tiger” as I walked to my car.

Unfortunately, that was not the only time I heard similar allegations. After starting my degree in Creative Writing at The New School and attending an SCBWI Conference,  I heard from numerous editors how unmarketable Latinos and, in general, most people of color are.

But I kept on pursuing this crazy career. After all, hasn’t every genius encountered some negativity? Were would we be if Einstein or MLK Jr. quit with their first rejection? (Not that I am comparing myself, but you get my point.)

I refused to believe it. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.

I am sure you have all heard the cheesy and cliché lines about how literature changes lives. But it really, really did change mine. As a daughter of hard-working immigrants, I wasn’t exposed to the world of literature I now love. I discovered reading in my later years, thanks to great teachers that pushed it upon me. Slowly, my small Bronx world transformed before my eyes. I had an escape. As a pre-teen and teenager, I remember savagely reading every R.L. Stine, Sweet Valley High, and Babysitters Club book I was able to get my hands on. I became an avid reader and the library became my refuge.

However, I also started to find my life inadequate, lacking. I wanted to be naturally blonde and have a twin sister. I wanted to live in the suburbs and date guys named ‘Chad.’ I felt discontented and trivial.

But then I read The Joy Luck Club my first year in college. And that started another obsessive journey into whatever diverse, multicultural piece of literature I was able to get my hands on. Amy Tan, Julia Alvarez, Maya Angelou, Pat Mora, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros –thank you all. And WOW. I couldn’t believe. I seriously did not think it was possible. My experience can be documented out there!  Versions of me do exist in literature. I REALLY can identify with these characters.

And those feelings to search for me, for us, in literature only doubled once I had my babies. I didn’t want them to question their identity, like I did for so long. I wanted them to automatically see their colored faces in the text and feel validated, strong, confident, and happy.

And so I ask my Latinos and fellow people of color out there, is it true? Are we unmarketable? Should we allow them to cast us aside? In this day and age, I think not. Demand literature that represents you! Let’s prove them wrong.  Lets show them that, yes, we are consumers who need to be taken seriously. Let’s add some color and sabor to those bookshelves!

Perla Rodriguez is a NYC teacher and mom of two who recently decided to become a writer and capture some of the awesome, yet rarely told stories that surround her.  She is currently working on her MFA in Writing for Children at The New School and writing a few fictional pieces for young adults and children.
Photo credit: George R. Fischer

new school Guest Blogger Ghenet Myrthil Responds to Marys Question of Low Expectations

I’ve followed Teen Writers Bloc pretty much since its inception, and what I’ve loved most about it is the variety of perspectives the bloggers provide on their experience as writers and MFA students. I graduated from The New School Writing for Children program in 2010, and it’s been fun to read their posts and reminisce about my own time there.

The question the bloggers are tackling this month has to do with whether this MFA program is worthwhile. After reading Mary’s response, I realized how different my experience in the program was compared to hers.

Some things haven’t changed. The program still has its benefits and drawbacks, which I’m sure is true of many graduate programs. Like Mary, I didn’t find the adult literature class I took to be very useful, and I was equally offended by the administration’s assumption that children’s literature writers aren’t real writers unless they study adult lit. What a load of crap!

Also, like Mary, the main reason I loved the program was because of the writers I formed a community with while there. The support I receive from them even now, two years later, is invaluable. Not all twelve of us keep in touch anymore, but the five that I do keep in touch with are awesome.

One point Mary made in her post gave me pause:

“Finally, there’s the problem of low expectations. If you wanted to, you could graduate from the program without ever having completed a novel. The thesis requirement is only fifty pages. You could literally write only fifty pages in the entire program and still graduate.” 

Here’s where I respectfully disagree, and where my experience in the program differed.

I agree that MFA applicants need to decide what their expectations are before entering a program like this, because a lot of it is what you make of it. However, I don’t agree with the idea that if you don’t complete a novel by the end of the program, your expectations are too low. It’s not so black and white. The creative section of my thesis was only seventy pages (18,000 words). I certainly wrote way more than seventy pages over the course of the program (since I started several projects before deciding to focus on one), but I didn’t complete an entire novel.

There were two main reasons for this. One was a lack of time. I had a full-time job while in the program, and was also planning my wedding, so I found it hard to write every day. Along with all of the other program requirements (reading a book a week, critiquing several submissions a week, attending readings, and of course attending class), it was a lot to juggle. Second, I had never written a novel before. I entered the program having only ever written short stories.

 

My personal expectation for the program was to learn more about kid lit (through the literature classes), improve my writing (through the workshops) and get as far into a novel as I could. I would have loved to finish an entire novel, and I wrote as much as I could, but a completed manuscript wasn’t in the cards.

 

Despite that, I was so proud of my thesis! And I’ve since finished and revised that book. What I really wanted out of the program was to kick start my career, and it did just that.So while I agree that you do have to think about WHY you want to get an MFA and WHAT you want to accomplish, it’s okay if you don’t end up completing a whole manuscript. In fact, I was one of many people in my class who only submitted portions of manuscripts for their theses and completed their books after the program ended. At the time, none of my classmates had agents or book deals. Many of us (myself included) are still working toward that goal. None of us are unmotivated. We were just at an earlier stage of our careers while at The New School. We took our time getting the pages we wrote for our theses right.

One thing that’s very clear about the Class of 2012 is that they are a very motivated and productive bunch. I’m seriously impressed by how they’ve supported each other and pushed one another to write so much. I’m sure they’ll have long and successful careers, and I feel the same way about my old classmates! If there’s one thing I’ve learned from getting an MFA, and being a writer in general, it’s that everyone follows their own journey and writes at their own pace.

Thanks, Teen Writers Bloc, for letting me share my experience!

me Guest Blogger Ghenet Myrthil Responds to Marys Question of Low Expectations

Ghenet Myrthil is a 2010 graduate of The New School Writing for Children program. She’s currently seeking representation for her contemporary young adult novel. You can find her blogging at www.ghenetmyrthil.com and tweeting @ghenet

Covers Race in YA from a Biracial Perspective    Guest Blogger Jean Paul Bass Weighs in on the IssueI grew up reading Barbara Park, Louis Sachar, Baby-Sitters Club, S. E. Hinton, Paula Danzinger, Beverly Cleary, the American Girls series, and Lois Lowry. Some of my favorite books from childhood are The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Just as Long as We’re Together and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great by Judy Blume, the Anne of Green Gables series, Behind the Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassedy, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, and Betsy Byers’s The Summer of the Swans. So I had a pretty eclectic taste in books, but one thing never varied: pretty much all of the books and authors I liked focused solely on white characters. If there was a non-white character, s/he was usually around to teach the white kids a lesson on race or tolerance or just a peripheral character who happened to be ethnic, but usually not the main character. (Some of the authors/books/series mentioned above did feature non-white characters, but that was pretty rare and even rarer for the main character to be non-white.)

So I know I should be lamenting the lack of diversity in the books I read as a kid and how it made me think less of myself, but honestly, it didn’t bother me or affect my self-image growing up. I never read books looking for characters that were just like me because I didn’t want to read about me, a poor, biracial girl living with an abusive white mother in an economically-depressed and uneducated black neighborhood who was made fun of for attending mostly-white private schools. I knew that story inside and out and didn’t want to read about it while I was still living it. Books were my escape, my chance to see how normal people lived because my life was very abnormal.

I grew up seeing myself as neither black nor white, but as a mixture of both, and so it didn’t matter what race the characters were so long as they took me away from the problems of real life. But now, as an adult, I realize those books did have an impact on me. As a writer, it’s so easy for me to fall into the default white trap. Creating racially diverse characters is a conscious effort and I have to actively work to make sure that my stories represent people of all skin colors.

When I come up with a new idea, I generally don’t think about race. As I start writing and getting to know my characters, sometimes a light bulb goes off and I think, hey, wouldn’t it be cool if everyone was black or mixed-race like me? But why do I think writing a book about non-whites is a novelty? It all comes back to the books I read growing up. Even though I wasn’t bothered by the lack of diversity as a child, it subconsciously left an impression on me and made me prewired to assume my own characters are white, which is troubling since I’m not even fully-white myself.

In my own writing, I sometimes get a bit heavy-handed with my character descriptions. I feel like I have to shove it in the reader’s face that these characters are not white because if it isn’t explicitly stated, then people will just assume everyone’s white. And, frankly, I’m tired of reading stories exclusively about white people as if people of color don’t exist. We do, and our stories need to be told, too. I now recognize the importance of including a racially diverse cast of characters. Nowadays, I get excited when I find a book with a biracial main character and if the character is female, it’s even better. It feels good to be represented in literature.

Guest blogger Jean-Paul Bass recently decided to quit her job to focus on writing full-time and she swears she doesn’t miss having a regular paycheck at all. She is currently working on her MFA in fiction at The New School and writing a memoir about growing up in Cleveland, Ohio.   

Photo Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, HarperCollins, Viking, Dell Yearling, and Puffin

Guest Blogger Jean-Paul Bass Puts the ‘Hero’ Back in Heroine

Posted by JeanPaul Bass On April - 11 - 2012

4329812168 f65b2cf670 n Guest Blogger Jean Paul Bass Puts the Hero Back in Heroine

She sighs. She huffs. She mumbles. She does everything except depend on herself. In the background, there is always a knight on a white horse just waiting to come to her rescue. Even if she pushes him away (usually for his own good, or so she tells herself), in the end she can’t be saved without his help.

In recent years, books have relied on the damsel-in-distress as the main female protagonist. It made me wonder if today’s teens are so blinded by the hero’s stunning abs that they don’t realize the heroine could’ve saved herself if she was a bit more plucky and a lot less sucky. But the times, they are a changin’, and none too soon, if you ask me.

With blockbusters like The Hunger Games dominating screens, bestseller lists, and even news sites, books with strong female leads are popping up on reading lists all over the blogosphere. Everyone wants to root for the girl who can kick butt, and readers are demanding more books with strong females in lead roles, but does that mean that’s all she can do?  It seems that many people equate “strong female lead” with traits usually associated with masculinity, such as being a good fighter and ruthlessness.

Giving a female character mostly male characteristics simply reinforces the idea that the stereotypes associated with girls are undesirable.  There are a lot of traits girls can be proud of, such as our compassion, being fiercely protective of those in our care, and we should definitely be proud of our superior communicative abilities. That’s right — we may talk too much for some people’s tastes, but we know how to make a point and that is a good thing.

When I was growing up, I was enthralled by Anne Shirley, the heroine of Anne of Green Gables. She has spunk, she’s upbeat, clever, and she’s determined. Once she set her mind on something, she made it happen. When her friendship is forbidden by Diana Barry’s mother after she mistakenly gives Diana three glasses of wine instead of the raspberry cordial Diana was expecting, Anne becomes determined to win over Diana’s mother so that they may once again be friends. By the end of the book, Mrs. Barry and the entire town are enamored with Anne and the incident is forgotten.

Anne is a strong female lead and although she probably couldn’t punch her way out of a paper bag, she sure could talk you into letting her out. What makes Anne such a strong lead is not that she has masculine traits (because she doesn’t), but that she is written so vividly and convincingly as someone who doesn’t take no for an answer and who uses her guile and wits to her advantage. And really, that’s what being strong boils down to — deciding for yourself what happens next in your life and making it happen.

I’m glad to see warrior-like characters such as Katniss (The Hunger Games) get their due. It’s time for strong female leads to once again dominate the bookshelves and cinemas. But when writing our own badass female characters, let’s not forget that sometimes a feminine touch can go just as far as a punch.

Bio: Jean-Paul Bass recently decided to quit her job to focus on writing full-time and she swears she doesn’t miss having a regular paycheck at all.  She is currently working on her M.F.A. in fiction at The New School and is writing a memoir about growing up in Cleveland, Ohio.   

Photo credit: Flickr – manan0410

gravestone Now That Weve Got the Parents Out of the Way the Children Can Play: Guest Blogger K.L. Gore Investigates Absent Parents in Teen and Kid LitIn The Outsiders, Darryl, Soda Pop, and Ponyboy’s parents are dead. In The Chocolate War, Jerry’s mother is dead. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s father is dead. Harry Potter’s parents? Dead. Dorothy Gale’s parents? Dead. Bambi’s mother? Dies right in front of our eyes. Yikes!

Either authors have bones to pick with their families, or they have excellent reasons for getting their character’s parents out of the way before a psychological journey commences.

What purpose does an absent parent serve?

If we look at middle grade books like The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne, the Dinosaur Cove series by Rex Stone, or even at television shows such as the new Cat in the Hat cartoon, the parents are alive and well, but out of the picture. In fact, the parents have be absent, because the children are about to embark on a magical adventure. Face it, would you let your children face ninja warriors? Or walk amongst carnivorous dinosaurs? Or let a talking, mischievous cat drive off with them in a flying thing-a-ma-jigger?

If your answer is yes, you need to consider therapy. Otherwise, you can see why the parents in these stories are left out. Instead of hauling their children inside the house and warning them about stranger danger, these clueless adults chuckle in the background, sure their children are playing pretend and would never actually embark on a journey that included swimming with a Plesiosaur.

In other middle grade books, there’s an entire different reason for being parentless. Think Orphan Annie, for example, where the plot centers on Annie finding someone to love who will love her back unconditionally. Or A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, where the three Baudelaire children not only have to deal with their parents’ deaths (in a fire, mind you), but now are forced to live with Count Olaf, who does not appear to have their well-being in his best interest. In other words, if the parents were still alive, there would be no plot. At least, not the one the author intended.

And then we have middle grade books that are similar to young adult books: Coming of age stories. A child is forced to work through his or her problems without parental aid because…well…there aren’t any parents available to them. It doesn’t even need to be a dead parent. Mom could be strung out on wacky tobacky. Daddy might be too busy getting it on with his hot secretary. It’s all the same, really. The parent isn’t around to be the voice of reason. To stop the young ‘un from making the disastrous choice we know they’re seconds away from making.

In Julie Just’s essay in the New York Times “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit”, she mentions other examples of books with absentee parents, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “In the move to independence, the parent is all but forgotten, or occasionally pictured in a fond glow of love and regret,” she writes.

I can’t help but consider how easily pre-teens and teens accept a character with one or both parents dead, missing, or absent and neglectful. Come to think of it, growing up reading books with missing parents, I never found it odd or annoying. And if I think about it further, I realize that pretty much every story I wrote as a child or teen had at least one dead parent, if not two. Completely realistic. Never once questioned it.

Why?

Because if there weren’t any parents pestering a kid to do his homework or standing around making sure the dishes got done, then it made the story interesting. Because what did one do when there was no one to tell him or her what to do?

Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford also wrote a post on his blog about absent parents. He sums it up perfectly: “I’m not a psychologist or an anthropologist or even a cultural historian (though I play one on a blog), but I am a former twelve-year-old, and I can remember how thrilling it was to read books where the kids were off on their own, fighting and outsmarting adults, dealing with harsh landscapes, facing their deepest fears, making unforgettable friendships, and, while I didn’t know it at the time, learning how to be adults.”

On the other hand, could sticking a dead or absent parent into your book seem like a plot device? Leila Sales, author and editor at Penguin Young Readers Books, writes: “It is not believable that so many kids are missing one, if not both parents. Slews of them! Hundreds! To quote Oscar Wilde, sort of: ‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose a parent in nearly every children’s book looks like lazy writing.’” She goes on to explain how it’s easier for authors to leave out the parents, how it gives the writer one less character to have to write about. Plus, she adds, adults often come off as boring. (Especially when they really, truly are.)

If you’re considering going parentless in your novel, ask yourself this: what purpose is it serving? Is it vital to the plot? Do the parents have to be dead? Can they be unaware instead? Or would it be best for the character that they remain nearby, in case they’re needed?

After all, not every character wants to ride in a thing-a-ma-jigger with a crazy cat at the wheel. And not every parent would let them.

Guest Blogger K.L. Gore resides in upstate New York with her husband and two children. A part-time writing instructor, she gives writing advice on her blog: www.klgore.com. Her stage play Something Blue (not to be confused with the novel of the same title) was performed on the theater stage, and she’s written and performed puppet shows for local schools and libraries. She loves to read just about anything. Represented by Regal Literary, she is now focusing her efforts on YA contemporary novels (although she is sneaking a little MG fantasy on the side).

pixel Now That Weve Got the Parents Out of the Way the Children Can Play: Guest Blogger K.L. Gore Investigates Absent Parents in Teen and Kid Lit
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