Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Amber’s Aiming High in YA Contemporary

Posted by Amber On July - 2 - 2012

HJNTIY Ambers Aiming High in YA ContemporaryIf I had to ‘pitch’ my new YA work-in-progress, I’d say it’s a mix between Greg Brehendt and Liz Tuccillo’s He’s Just Not That Into You, Elizabeth Scott’s Bloom and Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland.

Of course, it’s not finished yet, and even if it was this could all change during revisions. BUT I’m viewing it as in the same vein of some of the main threads in those books. My other work-in-progress is harder to describe. My goal for it, even more so than the one I first described, is to make it different from what else is out there, or at least from what I’ve seen out there for realistic young adult fiction. Maybe it’s along the same lines of Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries, with the princess bit substituted with some other amazing opportunity meant to inspire? Or… perhaps not. It’s still too early to tell.

But the more I keep working on it, the clearer it will be. For now, that’s all I got!

Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster

Post-Grad: Amber’s Oh-So-Simple Plan

Posted by Amber On June - 20 - 2012

P13203621 Post Grad: Ambers Oh So Simple PlanAt last, I’ve come to learn that one’s work life doesn’t necessarily have to contradict with one’s writing life.

Case in point: Now that I don’t have to worry about school stuff, I’ve actually started a new book. I’m at thirty pages currently and am hoping to get a lot more done over the summer. I work during the day and crank out pages at night and I only need to worry about my main character, her journey and the story I’m trying to tell. It’s fun. It’s a refreshing change. And I’m trying my best to put to use what I’ve learned over the past two years during workshop without letting any voices of critique hold me back from what really matters at this very early stage — the story itself.

My post-grad plan is that simple. To write without inhibition.

Photo Credit: Overstock.com

Was It All Worth It? Amber Takes A Look Back

Posted by Amber On May - 14 - 2012

pocky1 300x225 Was It All Worth It? Amber Takes A Look Back

Part of me still can’t believe that we’ve made it to the end. I’ll walk away from this program grateful for the friends that I’ve made, the feedback I’ve received, and the incredible stories that I’ve been able to read over the course of the past two years.

But, with that said, one question still remains: Would I do it all again?

This experience, though filled with ups and downs, has been rewarding for me. Mostly because of the people I’ve shared it with. So I would do it over again in a heartbeat, even though I don’t know what the future holds. No matter what, I’m lucky to have met such talented and driven people.

With regard to the program specifically, I appreciated that, for the most part, we could submit whatever we wanted to submit. And because of the literature seminars I was able to read books I never would have picked up previously, such as Nervous Conditions, which I read in Darryl Pinckney’s lit seminar, Fiction as Memoir/Memoir as Fiction, a class that I loved. As well as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Blankets, both of which we read during David’s class in that first semester, which was another class that was really fulfilling and worthwhile. Obtaining feedback from others — twelve sets of eyes analyzing my work — was a unique and helpful experience.

 

That said, while I do feel that the program was worth it, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a suggestion or two for how it could be strengthened.

The main thing that I feel the program needs is a more diverse faculty. Here are a few suggestions just off the top of my head: New School Alums Coe Booth or Jenny Han , or maybe someone like Matt De La Pena. I’m not sure if they’d even be interested, but I can say that the Writing for Children program is missing something crucial by not having a permanent faculty member of color on staff.  Honestly, I think that bringing in someone new to lead workshops or even a lit class could only make the program better than it already is. And beyond that, students in other concentrations have multiple professors to choose from, so WFC students should have the same opportunity.

It’s only fair.

Another suggestion that I have is that workshops should include more craft exercises and lessons. I think most of our workshop professors assumed we knew everything but it would have been helpful for there to have been a reading list or a weekly or biweekly assignment focused on Plotting, Character, Pacing, etc., with an option to apply that assignment to an already existing piece or a new one. It would also be great if there were more TA and GA positions available during the first and second years. But I’m not sure if that will ever change.

There were a few other things that I didn’t like, but I can’t go back in time and make changes to my unpleasant experiences. So, I’m not going to voice them.

But I will say this: Walking to the subway with my classmates after workshop and congratulating them on successful submissions, or sympathizing with them and encouraging them after tough critiques (and vice versa). Eating dinner at Charlie Mom’s after workshop or getting Korean BBQ at Kum Gang San before peer group. Opening email attachments from certain classmates with anticipation of what I knew would be an exciting, compelling and/or humorous continuation of a piece that I admired.  Working on something of my own diligently and feeling good when my classmates liked what I’d created and then motivated when there were things I desperately needed to fix.

I’m going to miss all of those things. And all of those things are what made this worth it.

Photo Credits: Top Shelf Productions & Craig Thompson

Jane and I shopping at a Korean Supermarket on 32nd St. (Her hands, my picture)

WhenYouWereMineCover1 204x300 Debut Author Interview: New School Alum Rebecca Serle On When You Were MineLast week, in an effort to fulfill our Writer’s Life Colloquium requirement, I stopped by Barnes and Noble to attend a reading for author Rebecca Serle, whose debut novel, When You Were Mine, has just been released. It’s a modern re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a bit of a twist — it’s told from Rosaline’s perspective. When I went to buy the book and found out she’d graduated from the New School MFA program (Fiction Concentration), I knew she’d be a great person to interview for our blog. Take a look for yourself and see what Rebecca has to say about her journey to publication and her life now as a full-time writer.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

I have always been a writer, but it took me a little while to call myself that. It was the only thing I ever felt any good at — that ever felt worth doing, frankly. I think that’s how you know. When you’re a writer, and you write, there is nowhere else you should be, and nothing else you should be doing. It’s this wonderful, perfect sense of productivity — and it has always been there for me.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of  When You Were Mine? How did you come up with the concept for the book?

When You Were Mine is a modern re-telling of Romeo and Juliet from the perspective of Rosaline — the girl Romeo was supposed to love. It’s about first love, and first heartbreak, and what happens when our destiny defies us.

The book came about through and from my own heartbreak. I felt like I knew exactly what it’s like to be the girl who gets left behind. I wrote my way out with Rosaline — we did it together.

Were you a big Shakespeare fan growing up? What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager?

I was, but I actually never read Romeo and Juliet as a child, or in high school. I was a huge fan of the Baz Luhrmann movie — Leo, sigh — but it wasn’t until later that I came to the play. My favorite book as a teen was probably Wuthering Heights — it still might be.

romeo and juliet poster Debut Author Interview: New School Alum Rebecca Serle On When You Were MineRosaline is so relatable and the friendship between her, Charlie and Olivia is so strong and defined. During the initial stages of the book, did the creation of their voices come easily to you?

I’m so delighted you think so! Not everyone will like Charlie and Olivia (with good reason). They are imperfect people, but they love each other completely — I just see friendship that way. My friends and I, we’re not perfect. We talk about each other, we complain about each other. We care about silly things. But we love one another. Charlie and Olivia can be catty, they can be stuck up and snide, but they are fierce in their love for Rose — that was easy to write, yes. I really love those girls.

Was it challenging writing a story where — technically — readers already know how part of it will end?  

Good question! Well, you know, just because we know the ending for Romeo and Juliet, doesn’t mean we know the ending for Rosaline, right? This is her story, after all.

How was your New School MFA experience? Did When You Were Mine begin as your thesis?

It was great — I learned so much. I think the most important lesson, though, was how to commit to doing it. I really came to see myself as a writer through my time there — something I think is invaluable for an artistic person. If you do not see yourself as what you want to be, who else will? When You Were Mine was not my thesis, no. My thesis was another novel that is tucked safely away in a drawer (where it will remain).

What’s your writing process? What does a typical writing day for you look like?

I wish I could tell you! Sometimes I am very structured, and sometimes I am not. When I’m working, which I haven’t been lately, I try to do 1,000 words a day — more on the weekends. That doesn’t always happen. I believe in consistency, but I also believe in self-forgiveness. So much of being a writer, an author, is wresting guilt — am I doing enough? You’re doing just fine. What gets done, gets done. And somehow, books still get written!

What has your path to publication been like? Any surprises?

Tons. Sometimes it sounds like a fairytale when I tell it but the truth is, it wasn’t always that way. I fought many losing battles, and I’m sure I’m still not done. Writing, and publishing, is a dynamic process — it’s always changing. I just try not to take it for granted. The work is what matters — and luckily that is always there.

Rebecca Serle umbrella1 300x197 Debut Author Interview: New School Alum Rebecca Serle On When You Were MineWhat’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

My friend and fellow novelist Lauren Oliver once told me “write for truth and beauty will follow” — that is some pretty A+ advice, right there. When I write I try to always ask myself: is this true? 

I’d tell aspiring authors to be writers, first. Being an author is cool and all, but we all work with the same alphabet, the same blank pages. Writing is 90 percent temperament and ten percent talent — you have to be comfortable just doing it. Also! Get Stephen King’s On Writing. 

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise)?

I’m working on my second book, which should be out in the next two years. I’m always working on a million things. I love the process, I love creating. So, more to come.

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

I think community is important in just about everything. It’s wonderful to be able to call up a writer friend and ask “hey, I’m stuck on this chapter” or “when you went through x part of the publishing process, was it like this for you?” I’m lucky that I have those people in my life — writers who have gone before. Particularly because writing is so solitary, it’s lovely to have that dialogue. But I think, sometimes, writers in groups can get a little too focused on what other people are doing. It doesn’t matter. Focus on YOUR best work. No one writes like you. No one has your specific talent. What other people are doing is irrelevant. It’s a balance. Luckily, my writer friends are also, just, my friends! So we talk about lots more than just our work.

Thanks again!

Thank you! This was so much fun!

Photo Credits: Book and Author Image: rebeccaserle.com & Simon and Schuster

Movie Poster Image: Flixster, Inc.

Holstee Manifesto 300x251 Spring Cleaning: Ambers Making Peace With That Critical Voice In Her HeadSo I was going to write about the bad writing habits I need to get rid of for this month’s topic, Spring Cleaning, but every time I started to write something I felt like a broken record. I’ve mentioned my tendency to procrastinate and to be distracted by my non-writing obligations, i.e. my full time job and other outside commitments, many times before. So writing another post about it doesn’t seem all that useful.

What I really want to write about is something that I’ve been afraid to bring up. It has to do with something that I wish I could easily forget but can’t for some reason — a harsh critique that I received last semester in workshop from my professor.

I won’t say what that critique was. All that I’ll say is that it has stayed with me through this semester, especially because I’m still working on the same piece. The problem is that I still have my professor’s voice in the back of my head, making me second guess whether I should even bother working on what I’m working on. I mean, I am working on it, because I’ve made major changes to it since the critique was given, and I lucked out and got a really encouraging and helpful thesis advisor. But it’s been hard, nonetheless. Even though I really believe in what I’m writing.

Here’s the deal: Our thesis is due in the beginning of May.  And while I must say that I’m extremely grateful for the amazing feedback I’ve received along the way because it’s made me a much better writer than I was before and, honestly, I have loved this entire experience overall, part of me is looking forward to having the ability to breathe again after graduation. I’m ready for the chance to feel like I’m writing the book that I want to write instead of the one that will appease my professors and, though I love them dearly, my classmates. Even if that book might not be the book. You know, the one that sells.

It’s a process. I’m still pretty young, and with all that I’ve learned from my talented peers, and yes, from my experienced and usually quite wonderful professors, I think eventually I will get the hang of this writing thing, once and for all.

Or so I hope.

Image of the ‘Holstee Manifesto’ Courtesy of HOLSTEE.COM/MANIFESTO

caucasia 185x300 Writing Ethnicity vs. Writing Colorblind: Amber Thinks Its An Authors ChoiceMy stance on writing race and ethnicity has always been the same. If cultural elements and racial identity are important to the story you’re telling and the character at the heart of your piece, you should make those things apparent in your work. However, if you’re not writing a story specifically about a Black/Hispanic/Asian/White/Arab/Indian/etc. individual and how s/he experiences life, and instead you’re writing a story about family/love/friendship/loss or whatever with a protagonist that just happens to be of a certain race, I don’t think that such information needs to be heavily focused on in the text.

It’s true that if it’s not spelled out for the reader, most people will assume that a narrator is white, because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to see as the norm. And it’s true that some distinguishing characteristics about a character’s appearance should be included for readers so that they can have a fuller picture of who that character is. Naturally, readers bring their own preconceived notions taken from their personal experiences and apply them to whatever text they’re reading, helping them to relate to a character or situation. But with that said, what pushes me to keep reading a novel is not a character’s race necessarily, but his or her voice, motivation, personality, point of view, and most importantly, his or her personal journey or struggle. In my opinion, if those are clear and specific in a narrative, the appearance of a character is almost irrelevant with regard to level of importance.

Now, this belief of mine has garnered some criticism during workshops because I don’t always describe a character’s appearance in the first chapter. I may say brown hair or brown eyes, but I don’t make it glaringly obvious that it’s a person of color until the third paragraph in chapter two. Sometimes I wonder why this is an issue. When I read a book about a white protagonist there doesn’t always seem to be a need to discuss cultural or racial particularities. If my story is mainly about a girl struggling with her parents’ divorce, does it matter what race she is necessarily? So much so that it must be clarified on the first page? But then I think about when I was a teenager and I wanted to read about someone who looked like me going through the same ‘normal’ things that other teens in YA novels went through. That reminds me that the distinction does matter, and always will, to an extent.

Many of my favorite books, like Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, are written by black or mixed authors about black protagonists, and I do admit that I seek out such works so that I can try to find a character who understands some aspect of my experience. Many people do this, I feel, especially since a character’s identity is often important to a story. Yet, a fair amount of my favorite books are also written by authors of other races about white protagonists or protagonists of other ethnic origins, like with Jenny Han’s novel, The Summer I Turned Pretty. Do I relate any less to those characters? Not really. Their experiences and viewpoints, spelled out richly on the page, cause me to yearn to know what will happen to them on their journeys as well.

Still, regardless of what race a protagonist is, sometimes when reading I don’t relate at all to an emotion or feeling or incident that the character experiences. For instance, I can read a book about a black girl and not be able to fully relate to that character because of our different backgrounds and struggles. Every person, no matter what ethnicity or race, is unique in experience and thought. A character’s differing decisions and outlooks and a reader’s ability to understand and/or be intrigued by them account for a novel’s strength in some regard.

Overall, I believe that writing race is difficult. Will what you write affect people’s perception of your people as a whole? Or is it just a part of that particular character’s experience? Will people read your work as widely if you focus on a character considered to be an ‘other’ in society? Will you be pigeon-holed into only writing about a certain type of person? These are all questions that a writer might consider before beginning a story. But a better question is perhaps this: what is necessary for you to include in order for you to tell the story you want to tell in the best way possible? It’s a question that only you can answer. For YA readers in particular, finding a character that speaks to them and their personal struggle is crucial. But the way such characters are written depends on authors and their conscious and deliberate decisions about how to best tell the stories they were meant to tell.

Image Courtesy of Penguin Group, Inc.

 

For Thesis Semester, Outlining Will Help Jane Get to the End

Posted by Jane Moon On January - 11 - 2012

index cards For Thesis Semester, Outlining Will Help Jane Get to the EndWhen the Fall semester finally ended, I was relieved. For some reason, I felt that it lasted longer than it should have, although I wasn’t sure why it seemed to feel that way. Maybe it was because I had to take a non-children’s lit seminar. Or I was submitting a story for workshop that I wasn’t completely into. While time was dragging, I felt like it was pulling my writing along. In other words, my story was going nowhere. I didn’t feel the drive to work on it and find out where it could go.

But towards the end of the term, things changed. I came up with another story idea that I was really excited about. As I mentioned in my last post, I met up with Dhonielle Clayton, who shared her wonderful methods on outlining and this fueled me even further. For part of a 14-hour plane ride to Asia over Thanksgiving break, I sat and outlined the first five chapters of my new book.

And it got even better. Another classmate, Kevin Joinville, had a fantastic system of using index cards to map out his stories that he shared with me as well. I recently sat with Amber Hyppolite, another TBWer, in Barnes and Noble while Kevin demonstrated how he used his index cards to revise and refine his writing.

My goal for the New Year is to finish a first draft of my latest story. I not only have the means and the motivation, but I also have a great peer group to support me through the process. I have a feeling that this new semester is going to fly by, but I also know it’s going to be a great year.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles

Book Review: Impossible by Nancy Werlin

Posted by Amber On December - 15 - 2011

impossible book final pb1 200x300 Book Review: Impossible by Nancy Werlin

This semester I haven’t done as much outside reading as I would have liked. A few weeks ago though, I did stumble upon a book by Nancy Werlin called Impossible that I couldn’t put down after I began to read it.  In this novel, Werlin takes the lyrics of a well-known folk song, “Scarborough Fair,” and turns them into a curse that has plagued protagonist Lucy Scarborough’s ancestors for many years. However, Lucy doesn’t find this out until after the curse has already begun to affect her.

The only thing Lucy knows when the novel begins is that her biological mother went insane shortly after giving birth to her and now walks around town with a shopping cart, humming the ballad “Scarborough Fair” to herself.  And while Lucy resents her biological mother in those first pages, eventually an understanding between the two emerges when Lucy realizes that she may one day have the same fate. An Elfin Knight with a  grudge has cast a spell, making it so that whenever a Scarborough girl turns eighteen, she gets pregnant, has a baby girl and goes insane. It’s a seemingly never ending cycle.

The only way to break the curse is to complete the tasks mentioned in the “Scarborough Fair” song. The tasks are to: 1. Create a shirt without needle or seam 2. Find an acre of land between salt water and sea strand and 3. Plow the land with a goat’s horn and sow it with one grain of corn. These tasks are nearly impossible to complete, hence the title and the perpetual insanity of each of Lucy’s ancestors.

Werlin is very skilled at keeping you engaged in the story. The story takes place in present day Massachusetts and because initially the plot has elements that could be a part of any realistic YA novel — prom night, track practice, falling in love with your best friend —the incorporation of the magical elements of the tale and their stark contrast to the YA norm really tug at readers, making them want to know more about how Lucy will overcome  this enormous obstacle before her.  Werlin tells the story from multiple points of view, using the third person past tense, allowing us to get into the thoughts of Lucy, the Elfin Knight, and those of Zach, Lucy’s love interest. This I found to be very effective. And while the discussions about pregnancy can feel a bit overdone at certain moments, it’s all essential information for the protagonist to know given her unfair circumstances.

If you’re looking for a quick and unique read, Impossible is a book you should at least consider.

Photo Credit: Penguin Putnam, Inc; Nancy Werlin

 

Amber’s Thesis Semester Plans: Take It One Day At A Time

Posted by Amber On December - 11 - 2011

 

birdbybird Ambers Thesis Semester Plans: Take It One Day At A TimeNext semester is what we’ve all been waiting for. A semester that’s 100 percent ours to do with what we will as far as our writing goes. No more classes. Just meetings with our peers and our advisors, with more time to either create something new or to finish something we’ve already started.

I plan on doing the latter. I’ve spent my time at the New School trying to figure out the best way to tell my protagonist’s story. I think I’ve finally got an authentic voice for her and I’m more certain than I was before about where her journey will take her. That said, while I’ve been invested in realistic fiction for a while, I’m also contemplating trying my hand at fantasy or magical realism. And it’s encouraging and very freeing to know that my peer group will understand that first drafts and first starts aren’t always going to be masterpieces. (If you are also working on a first draft, I recommend Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, where she basically admits that crappy first drafts are like a rite of passage, which is so unbelievably comforting to hear. Writing is revision after all.)

Anyway, I’m going to try to finish a draft of something next semester but I’m not going to make any other big sweeping plans like I often tend to do. Instead, I’m just going to take it one day at a time. All I’m aiming for is a draft, something that I can fix up during revisions that will hopefully—someday—get published.

Photo Credit: Random House, Inc.

To Ban or Not to Ban: Amber Weighs In On Book Censorship

Posted by Amber On September - 27 - 2011

the awakening 175x300 To Ban or Not to Ban: Amber Weighs In On Book CensorshipOne thing that can be universally agreed upon is that books are powerful things. They can entertain, enlighten, intimidate and inspire readers, regardless of age. But even though books impact our lives and how we see the world, that doesn’t mean that we will blindly follow the behaviors that we read about. I have to have faith that we’re smarter than that, especially since reading about something outside of your comfort zone makes you more likely to question the world around you, which is a major aspect of what it means to be a critical thinker. And if you didn’t know, being a critical thinker is a good thing.

If parents are afraid that their children will be negatively transformed by the books that they read, all they need to do is have a dialogue with their children about the subject matter.  And when I say have a dialogue, I don’t mean they should forbid a child to read such a book or immediately condemn whatever subject matter is present. Instead, it may be more helpful to contextualize such behavior and talk about its risk factors and pitfalls. Or, I don’t know, maybe a parent could even read what his or her child is reading.  I think such conversations, the ones where parents show an interest in their children’s lives, are underrated. Being a parent is hard work, and what you don’t say matters just as much as what you do say.

I tried to understand the idea of banning books. I really did. But no matter what I can’t get behind it. That said, I do believe that there’s an age for everything. Fourth graders shouldn’t be exposed to books like The Awakening or Crime and Punishment, but I don’t see what’s wrong with high school students dissecting such texts inside or outside of the classroom. Age appropriate texts that are honest about both life’s hardships and wonders alike should be embraced, not banned.

Books, in some ways, go beyond entertainment and escapism. They teach you about the world, and while it’d be nice to live in a world where only good things happen, we need to be honest with ourselves and with our children (depending on their age) about all the possibilities around us. Ultimately, to an extent, it is a parent’s decision whether or not to protect their child from books with controversial subject matter. But, truthfully, I really think it can be a disservice to overly protect someone. Without proper knowledge of this world, how can anyone stand upright within it? It’s better to have a middle-schooler or a teenager learn about something through a text and then consider consequences and circumstances, than to have them stumble upon it blindly firsthand.

Photo Credit: Amazon.com/Avon Books

 

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