Teen Writers Bloc

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

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

XVI CVR Debut Author Interview: Julia Karr Talks About Her Girl Powered First Book XVIJulia Karr‘s debut novel, XVI, caught my eye while I was purusing the teen lit shelves on a bookstore date with my husband last month. The book, about a futuristic society in which 16 isn’t so sweet anymore – it’s a fast-paced dystopian thriller that takes on gender politics, sexuality and government agenda in a world that could become all too real. Karr’s journey into publishing was a long one, and we caught up with the Indiana-native to talk about birthing a book, whether she’s working a feminist vibe, and why dystopia is so hot right now.

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

I’m a Hoosier, born and raised – but I turned sixteen in Chicago, my favorite city! I’ve been writing all my life – letters, poetry, essays, even a musical! – but it’s only been the past ten years or so that I really started wanting to write a novel. I’ve always been a voracious reader – loving imagination – eventually those ideas kicking around in my brain had to have some kind of outlet. Writing was it! I do not write full-time (I wish!) I have a nine to five job in human resources.

Can you give us a quick synopsis of XVI? How did you come up with the concept for the book?

A synopsis of XVI, from my website: “In the year 2150, being a girl isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially when your sixteenth (read sex-teenth) birthday is fast approaching. That in itself would be enough to make anyone more than a little nuts, what with the tattoo and all – but Nina Oberon’s life has taken a definite turn for the worse. Her mother is brutally stabbed and left for dead. Before dying, she entrusts a secret book to Nina, telling her to deliver it to Nina’s father. But, first Nina has to find him; since for fifteen years he’s been officially dead. Complications arise when she rescues Sal, a mysterious, and ultra hot guy. He seems to like Nina, but also seems to know more about her father than he’s letting on. Then there’s that murderous ex-government agent who’s stalking her, and just happens to be her little sister’s dad.”

The concept unfolded organically from the original mental image of Nina walking down a city street. XVI was conceived in the backseat of NaNoWriMo in the year 2005. National Novel Writing Month is in November, for the uninitiated. Notice the year – 2005. XVI went through several rewrites (although the basic story stayed the same.) There was the initial rewrite I did myself, then one with my critique partners. Then an agent (who eventually became my agent) asked for some rewrites. Then an editor (who eventually became my editor) asked for some rewrites. After signing the contract, there was the highly anticipated rewrite based on my editorial letter (only 6 pages or so of “I like this, but… can you add to/take away from/ tweak/give me more emotion – inner thoughts – action…”) And, then copy edits. Finally: a book!

Can you  talk a bit about the feminist angle of the book, especially in dealing with sex? Did this raise controversy at all? Was this a deliberate theme for you, given that you have daughters?

I didn’t write XVI as a feminist book. Some reviewers think it is – and there are a couple who think it isn’t – feminist, that is. It wasn’t a deliberate theme, either. I wrote it first as a story that was in my head. I’m sure that the kernel of the story that ended up being the main thrust of the book – that came about because of the disturbing trend I see in society that places more value on the way a girl looks rather than what she thinks and feels. And, how popular media is all-too-successfully forming our children into their consumeristic ideal – dress this way, own these items, eat these foods, go to these movies. Me thinks a wake-up call is in order, particularly for the women who – perhaps unwittingly – are behind the promotion of the early sexualization of girls. One only has to look as far as the recent French Vogue issue to see how “accepted” it is to make our sisters, daughters and granddaughters into little adults – with all the trappings and the poses. Uh… Epic Fail!

What do you think is causing the dystopia trend? Is it escapism? The bleak future reality?

I’m sure there are many factors playing into the rise of YA dystopia. The huge success of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy can’t be diminished as a big boost to the trend. But we already had Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox, and, of course, high school is where kids are introduced to 1984, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451 The Handmaid’s Tale. So, if they’re doing their assigned reading, the pump of love for dystopia is already being primed. Plus, youth wants to change the world in which they live. They are always looking for a different (hopefully) better way than their parents’ way of living. This means looking at cautionary tales and attempting to change the trajectory so those tales don’t come to pass. (Let’s not discuss 1984 and the fact that Chicago has one of the highest levels of population surveillance in the world.)

JKarr Debut Author Interview: Julia Karr Talks About Her Girl Powered First Book XVIWhat’s your process? What does a typical writing day look like?

I get up around 5 a.m. Quick feed the cats and dog while I make a cup of tea. Then I stand at the kitchen counter and write three long-hand pages in my journal (Morning Pages for those of you who are familiar with The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron). That done, I settle in for about an hour of novel-writing at my desk. Inspiration comes from writing. With limited writing time, I don’t have the luxury of waiting for a muse to appear – I just have to write and then the inspiration comes.

What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

Like most writers, I’d imagine, my path has been full of twists and turns and unexplained events that turned out to be just what was needed at the time. I think the most surprising part was just how much waiting goes on – mega-waiting, then monolithic waiting, waiting of gargantuan proportions!!! And then – BAM!!! – whatever you were waiting for needs to be turned around immediately! Yep, that’s it – rather much like most parts of life, except on a grander scale!

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

To keep on writing and reading. I think that’s what I’d tell apiring writers, too. Read everything – good, bad and indifferent. It’s how you know what to emulate and what to avoid. Oh… and, if you happen to be an aspiring author who is reviewing books on Goodreads, Amazon, your own blog or anywhere – remember that snark that seems oh-so-clever right now, but it will probably come back to bite you in the butt if you ever get published. I’m just sayin’…

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

As a kid I was completely blotts for The Black Stallion books and Nancy Drew. As a teen, I was reading classics and at-the-time contemporary novels. Right now, I’m re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books and also Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

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

There’s the sequel to XVI… and many other books/ideas that need to be captured on paper.

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

I have two close critique partners that I share my work with. That works well for me on the writing front. I am part of The Elevensies, The League of Extraordinary Writers and The Class of 2K11 writing communities. They are invaluable as peers, shoulders to cry on, people to vent with, and people to celebrate with! The children’s writers’ community is the absolute BEST!!! Thanks for having me on your blog! It’s been fun!

Writers Conferences: Plan Ahead to Get the Most Out Of Your Networking Dollars

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On January - 12 - 2011
nycview Writers Conferences: Plan Ahead to Get the Most Out Of Your Networking Dollars

A writer's conference can put you right into the heart of the publishing business.

There’s nothing like being amongst your fellow writers to get you energized about your work — whether it be writing or selling. Luckily, I’ve got my buddies at the New School’s MFA program to motivate me. But sometimes you just need that extra kick in the pants (MFA or not).

That’s why writer’s conferences are like a quick fix of creative adrenaline. A concentrated take on the craft and business of writing, they can really get the creative juices flowing, and get you right into the thick of things, whether or not you’re a natural-born networker, like our own Dhonielle.

But there is a right time to go — and not every conference is a great fit for everyone. That’s why, when you’re budgeting your networking dollars, it’s a smart idea to take a really close look at what your options are. Especially given that, these days, you could probably find a writers’ conference in your area any given weekend. But which are worth the investment? And when should you go?

It all depends on you and where you are with your writing. A few of us here at Teen Writers Bloc, for example, are gearing up for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators conference in New York City this month. But others among us — like me — know that, as much as we’d like to go, we’re nowhere near ready. Which is why I’ll be saving my conference dollars for the summer.

What writers conference will give you the most bang for your buck? Only you can decide. But since it’s a new year (and hopefully, new budget!), we’ve rounded up a few of the best bets for your perusal — and we’ve tried to stick to conferences that would be fruitful for teen and middle grade writers. Maybe we’ll see you there!

Writers Digest Conference
New York, New York; January 21 – 23
Cost: $495 for the full conference, $345 for Saturday only
With lots of big picture overview, including keynotes on the where publishing is headed, marketing in the digital age, social media strategy, apps for writers and even a Kindle publishing workshop, this conference, sponsored by industry magazine Writer’s Digest, is taking writers’ straight into the future of the book business. There’s also an intensive two-hour pitch slam, a sort of speed dating with agents, including YA champions Brandi Bowles (Foundry), Jennifer DiChiara, Molly Jaffa (Folio), Mary Kole (Andrea Brown Lit), Suzie Townsend (FinePrint) and Joanna Volpe (Nancy Coffey Lit).

Society of Children’s Book Writers And Illustrators
New York, New York; January 28 – 31
Cost: $375 for members, $415 for non-members
Highlights: The SCBWI annual winter conference is the scene and be seen event for children’s book writers. This year, teen favorites like Lois Lowry, Sara Zarr and R.L. Stine are amongst the keynote speakers, and there are plenty of big agent and editor names on the panels on craft and marketing, too. But conference vet Dhonielle says the best part of doing the SCBWI events is meeting like-minded writers. She’s found critique group members — and life-long friends — at these events. If you can’t make this one, SCBWI has mini-events across the country — and another biggie in L.A. this summer.

San Diego State University Writers’ Conference
San Diego, Ca.; January 28 – 30
Cost: $399; one-on-one consult appointments are $50 each
If you’re working it on the West coast (or trying to get out of the snow here on the East Coast), then you can’t beat the San Diego State University Writers’ Conference at the end of January. The event seems chock full of opportunities for teen fiction writers, including meet-n-greets with editors from Tor Teen for fantasy, and editors looking for YA at St. Martin’s, Grove/Atlantic, and Simon/Pulse, amongst others. Plus, there will be panels on revising your middle grade or teen novel, the “white-hot” YA category, and even making the transition to writing for screen and television.

Algonkian NYC Pitch and Shop
New York, New York; March 17 – 20
Cost: $595 before March 1, $695 after
This quarterly, application-only conference, held in New York City every spring, summer, fall and winter, is focused on getting writers in strong shape to sell their novels, offering novel deconstruction and analysis from agents and editors from major houses (including ICM YA champion Tina Wexler). Writers refine their works via panels and intimate workshop groups, then have the opportunity to pitch up to four industry professionals, including editors from Grand Central, Random House, Broadway Books and others.

PennWriters Career & Craft Conference
Pittsburgh, Pa; May 13 – 15
Cost: $275 for three days; $194 for one
No, it’s not New York City. But that’s why PennWriters was able to score commercial fiction biggie — and Pennsylvania native — Jennifer Weiner as their keynote speaker this year. So don’t let the location fool you. The PennWriters’ line-up is chock full of publishing heavyweights, like agents Janet Reid and Jenny Bent (who are teaching useful workshops on social networking and contracts, respectively), Sleepless and Fairy Tale author Cyn Balog, who’ll be teaching workshops on YA and hooking the reader, HarperCollins Children’s senior VP and editorial director Barbara Lalicki (who edits Beverly Cleary) and iconic fantasy writer Jonathan Maberry, who’ll be showing you how to put chills and thrills into your own work.

Backspace Writers Conference
New York, NY; May 26 – 28
Cost: Early Bird registration is $450 (two full days), $550 after Feb. 1
The conference spin-off of the stellar online writers’ community BKSP.org, this three-day event is super-focused on making connections with agents, with panels on querying, crafting stellar opening pages, and what agents are looking for. So if that’s the stage you’re approaching, it might just be the perfect way to network yourself into a deal. Bram Stoker Award-winning author Jonathan Maberry is the keynote this year, and given the NYC location, the publishing industry insiders will no doubt turn up in spades.

Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-On-One Plus Conference
Piscataway, New Jersey; October 15, 2011
Cost: $195 for the one-day event, including breakfast and lunch
This application-only event pairs a small number of skilled writers one-on-one with a children’s writing professional — agent, editor, or writer. The plus? Each writer and mentor pair gets to network with several others at round-table discussions about writing, editing and publishing — a great, low-pressure way to network, and it’s very likely you’ll come out of the event with long-term relationships.

What writer’s conferences will you be attending this year? What are your best tips for getting the most bang for your buck at these networking events?

New Year’s Writing Resolutions: Corey Plans to Be a Businesswoman

Posted by Corey Haydu On January - 9 - 2011

working girl New Year’s Writing Resolutions: Corey Plans to Be a BusinesswomanThis past year has been an especially productive one in terms of creative output, risk-taking, and pushing myself to write every day. I have been mostly successful — a huge amount of writing happened, and finished products are pending. I am days away from a completed first draft of my first YA novel, and am in the third revision of a very special debut novel that has been a challenge and a thrill.

Most days I wrote a minimum of 1,000 words.
I didn’t shy away from really big revisions.
I wrote about a community I actually had to research.
I made enormous, chapters-long cuts to help the books move.
I started a first attempt at a middle grade novel.

Now it’s time, in 2011, to address the other side of writing: The Business Side. With a lot of material under my belt, I need to start figuring out what to do with it. BUT also keep pushing through on my newer work! Here’s my to-do list:

-write a great query letter for my YA novel as well as my adult novel

-sign with an agent

-remember to research publishing imprints and be vigilant about doing further research on my favorite books and authors

-finish my middle grade novel (or you know, get a chunk more than ten pages long under my belt)

-keep reading middle grade work to get more familiar with the genre

-make time for my freelance/paid writing work, even if I don’t feel like it. A girl’s gotta eat!

Wish me luck!

Half-Brown or Half-Yellow, Will it Sell?

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On December - 13 - 2010

 Half Brown or Half Yellow, Will it Sell?  After reading an article about mixed race or biracial characters in children’s and teen fiction, it made me reconsider or rethink my own project. I am writing a middle grade historical steampunk novel with a biracial main protagonist. Questions swirled in my head: Why did I choose a biracial identity for the main character? What did I gain by doing that? Or what could my future gains be?

The author of the article was reviewing two picture books that profile biracial children, Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids and Spork. Kip Fulbeck’s Mixed book reminds me of a coffee table book full of pictures of happy biracial children. The second book, Kyo Maclear’s Spork, shows the offspring of a fork and a spoon and symbolizes an interracial union. These picture books made me think about multiracial or biracial teens and tweens in teen and middle grade fiction. Would my protagonist be lonesome? Or a perfect intersection of cultures to boost sales? Not too brown to impede sales?

There has been little press devoted to the fact that the main characters in Rick Riordian’s The Red Pyramid (The Kane Chronicles) are, in fact, biracial. Sadie and Carter are the children of a dead white woman and a black Egyptologist father. Sadie looks white and has been living with her mother’s parents in London, only getting the opportunity to see her father and brother a couple times a year. Carter looks more like his father and lives with him, traveling all over the world. Their racial identity doesn’t inform the text or become a thematic element, but there is a scene where Carter’s father has a serious conversation with him about being African-American. Here is a snippet:

“Carter, you’re getting older. You’re an African American man. People will judge you more harshly, and so you must always look impeccable.”

“That’s not fair!” I insisted.

“Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same,” Dad said. “Fairness means everyone gets what they need. And the only way to get what you need is to make it happen yourself. “  (67)

Last month, at an event at New York City’s Books of Wonder featuring the National Book Award Nominees Walter Dean Myers, Rita Williams-Gracia, Katherine Erskine, and Paolo Bacigalupi, I polled the illustrious panel of authors with the following question: Do books with brown faces on them sell?

Rita Williams-Garcia and Walter Dean Myers both answered that it has been hard, but you must persevere and write the book in your heart. The owner of Books of Wonder, Peter Glassman, said that he has often found that white parents don’t buy books with brown faces on them for their kids — and that it is an unfortunate fact. Rita reminded the audience of the publishing hoopla caused by the cover of Justine Labarastier’s book Liar, and how the first cover featured a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl when the main protagonist was in fact a black female.

 Half Brown or Half Yellow, Will it Sell?  Paolo Bacigalupi commented that the main protagonist in his futuristic novel Shipbreaker is mixed race and based on his own child’s ethnicity. He said that his publishers didn’t put his face on the cover and that could say something, but that it is a fact often overlooked when the novel is reviewed. When reviewers neglect to mention the ethnic and/or racial identity of main characters in successful books, does it add to the feeling that biracial characters are invisible in the teen market? Are they doing the book a disservice, even if it isn’t central to the plot?

My historical steampunk novel would be complicated by the race relations of the late 1800s if I made my character full-blood African-American, so I chose to give myself some freedom by making her only half. Additionally, I think that it enhances the tension in the novel to have her be able to pass for white, but also be confronted with the racism her mother faces. The novel is not about race and it’s not a sub-plot or part of the thematic content of the novel. But it is mentioned to add another layer of isolation and tension to the main character’s journey and how she came about. I do worry about whether this decision will effect the book’s marketability and whether my main character’s biraciality will be swept under the rug in reviews and marketing. And sadly, I can’t help but wonder, is that for the best? Peter Glassman’s words haunt my subconscious.

Even though this book hasn’t been sold yet, I find myself already thinking about its racial implications. What is gained by making a character biracial? What is lost? Will my heroine still be considered a multicultural heroine? Will she speak to the child I was? Will all middle-grade girls find a connection with her?

Does anyone know of other middle grade and teen texts with biracial main characters where the novel is not about race? I’d love hear about them.

In the Land of Giants: The Books of Wonder Holiday Party

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On December - 10 - 2010

 In the Land of Giants: The Books of Wonder Holiday PartyLast Monday I got the opportunity to tag along with my good friend and published author J.A. Yang, writer of Exclusively Chloe, to Books of Wonder‘s private holiday party.

I can’t say enough fabulous things about this Chelsea bookstore. I often visit it when I hate writing my current project or am re-thinking my chosen career path as a writer. I wander the aisles, running my fingers over the colorful hardcover titles. I read all of the back-flap summaries of the entire middle grade row and eventually make my way to the back of the store to gawk into the rare children’s books case. Being surrounded by only children’s and teen books fills me with a magical feeling, like I’ve lifted off in a hot air balloon to an unknown destination.

Jon and I met at the party around 6:30 pm. I timidly followed him inside, unsure of what to expect. I am usually a social butterfly, diving in head first, ready to chat. But walking into this party was different. It buzzed with dozens of authors sipping wine, nibbling on snack foods, and talking about the current market. I nervously stared and wandered around bookshelves in awe. I spent most of the night awkwardly gazing at peoples’ bellies to get a look at their name tags. Then my mind frantically tried to connect authors’ names with their books. I secretly googled people on my iPhone to pin down their titles. These people were my celebrities. They were living the dream. The life I covet: a published, working author in the casual, cozy company of other authors.

 In the Land of Giants: The Books of Wonder Holiday PartyI stuffed carrots in my mouth and watched them drift by. Here were some of my sightings: Deborah Heiligman, whom I’d heard speak at Rutgers and was still in awe of from her inspiring kick-in-the-butt speech. Sheldon Fogelman of The Sheldon Fogelman Agency, whose clients are some of the top children’s book writers and illustrators, Jerry Pinkney, Mo Willems, Richard Peck, and Maurice Sendak, and not to forget my former Hollins University writing professor, Alexandria La Faye. Barry Lyga, author of one of my favorite books, The Astonishing Adventures of Fan Boy and Goth Girl. Judy Blundell, National Book Award winner and an author who had just come to my Teen Lit class with David Levithan as part of his author panel. She remembered signing my book! Dave Horowitz, a prolific picture book author and artist that my four-year-old niece adores. He has titles such as Duck, Duck Moose and Five Little Gefiltes. Courtney Sheinmel, who was the Rutgers One-On-Obe mentor of our fabulous logo designer Lisa Amowitz and the author of a powerful books titled Positively, about an HIV-positive teen. And that’s just to name a few!

There were countless others, but I couldn’t get to them all before having to rush off to Monday workshop. Needless to say, attending these types of events boosts my morale and makes the dream of being a writer seem a tangible reality that is coming closer and closer. Maybe one day soon I’ll get to attend the Books of Wonder party again, but as a published author.

New York City MFA Students: We’re Not All Idiots

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On December - 3 - 2010

kendra cover New York City MFA Students: We’re Not All IdiotsIt’s interesting that in the fallout of the expose on James Frey’s fiction factory in New York Magazine last month, New York City MFA students are the ones who come off looking like fools.

That is, at least according to MFA guru Seth Abramson, author of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, who wrote all about why we’re apparently idiots for the Huffington Post last week.

“In seeking out young authors to exploit, Frey has done as much as anyone in the United States to reveal the seedy side of unfunded MFA programs,” Abramson writes. “Indeed, research done into MFA programs since 2006 reveals that Columbia University and The New School, Frey’s top targets for young, desperate literary artists, are distinctive in only two respects: (1) they host the two largest MFA cohorts in fiction in the United States; and (2) their fiction alumni are believed to have the highest graduate student loan burden of any MFA graduates anywhere.”

The case he’s making is that students at the New School and Columbia (and no doubt NYU, too, by default) are so desperate to earn their way out of their MFA debt that they’ll sign any old contract, panting breathlessly at the very thought of actually being published. Because apparently we’re that hopeless.

In reality, I think the students that did sign on for Frey’s dastardly deal are simply hedging their bets. Some percentage of a million dollar deal is a hard thing to turn down. Especially when advances these days are often pitifully low. But that’s a whole other conversation.

Really, I’d rather address Abramson’s allegation that New York City-area MFA students are idiots. As a graduate student in the MFA program in creative writing at the New School: A) I’m not going into crippling debt to pursue this. Yes, it’s an expensive endeavor, but I (and many of my classmates) do have some funding. We’re in New York City, the heart of the publishing industry and the known world. Of course it’s expensive, but so are many programs in other parts of the nation. B) I don’t have the the luxury of packing up my life and my family and moving to Iowa or Nebraska to pursue a funded degree. I work. I have a family. I have family in the area. I want to be in New York City. C) I truly believe you get what you pay for. And to me, this degree and the creative community that comes with it are worth it.

But also, having spent a semester in the program thus far, I also see that my classmates are far from being idiots for taking on this purportedly life-altering debt for a degree, as Abramson put it in another HuffPost blog, that is “at base, a non-professional, largely-unmarketable art-school degree that can’t get anyone a full-time teaching job (at least not in the absence of significant in-genre publications) and is not designed to ‘network’ graduates into magazine or book publications.”

In fact, I’d argue that the Writing for Children program at the New School is designed to be pretty much exactly the opposite of what Abramson presents. The class of 2012 consists of 12 students, a small cohort that’s designed to create a close-knit writers’ community. (Hence this blog.) It’s one of fewer than a dozen programs in the nation with a writing for children concentration, so the odds are, it’s building up the next strong group of instructors in this very specialized field (and with YA markets booming, the need for instructors with expertise in this arena is no doubt growing). Its focus is on creativity and the canon, so we know all about where we’re going — and where we’re coming from. It’s a diverse, intelligent, creative group of writers who no doubt represent the future of publishing in this arena.

And even more significantly, the networking element is crucial and a key component of the way this program is built. Case in point: David Levithan. A force to be reckoned with in the children’s publishing industry, and a best-selling writer himself, Levithan hasn’t simply put his name on the program. He’s an integral part of it. For one thing, he teaches every year, unlike some of the brand name authors that serve as MFA ambassadors throughout the nation, pulling students into their fold only to depart on book tours or sabbaticals, rather than teach. And it’s an education only he could provide, given his multiple roles in the field and his careful, articulate examination of it. He also advises students, and even publishes some of them.

Secondly, David and the other instructors in the program — all of whom are working writers and/or editors — play up the networking aspect. Just this past week, David brought in a cadre of eight working writers to class to “talk shop,” as it were. Among these were best-selling YA goddess and Printz winner Libba Bray and National Book Award winner Judy Blundell. We got to ask them questions about their process, craft, publishing, the highs and lows of life as a writer.

Thirdly, given our locale in downtown Manhattan, we’re at the heart and the pulse of publishing every day. Another major part of our program — for all genres — is the writers’ colloquium, which mandates that we attend a minimum of eight author events and readings throughout the semester, either sponsored by the school (which offers a great line-up each year) or within the city. Of course, most students attend far more than eight, considering that New York boasts such readings and events on a daily basis with major names in publishing. One of the first such events I attended as a student was Salman Rushdie introducing new writer Tishani Doshi at the Brooklyn Book Festival, which was absolutely free. Another great one was one of David’s NYC Teen Author readings, featuring David and his Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares co-writer Rachel Cohn and YA icon Scott Westerfeld, amongst other teen lit all-stars.

And last, but certainly not least, are the alumni, who continue to support the program that brought them right into the heart of publishing. Next week, author and New School alum Coe Booth will be teaching our class — and teaching her books, Tyrell and Kendra (both published by David Levithan at his Scholastic imprint Push). She graduated from the New School in 2005, along with fellow published writers Jenny Han, Lisa Graff, Lisa Greenwald, Siobhan Vivian, Daphne Grab, Kathryne Alfred, and Caroline Hickey. (That’s right, the Longstockings.)Given the short history of the writing for children program, an astonishing number of its graduates are published and publishing. Not bad for a throwaway degree, huh?

Trailer of the Week: Ally Condie’s Matched

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On November - 30 - 2010

matched Trailer of the Week: Ally Condie’s MatchedToday marks the release of former English teacher-turned-author Ally Condie’s Matched, the first in a trilogy about a dystopian society in which all your major life decisions are made for you: who you are, what you do, who you marry, and even when you die.

Cassia Reyes aims to stick with the plan, but then, on the day he’s scheduled to die, her grandfather gives her a poem — clearly contraband. It is the Dylan Thomas classic, telling her: “Do not go gentle into that goodnight.” Then, despite the fact that she’s been looking forward to marrying her match, her childhood best friend Xander, she finds herself thinking about a stranger she shared a fleeting moment with. Intrigued? That’s just the beginning.

The trailer for the book is pretty clean and straightforward, given the high tech premise of the novel. But I think that’s why it works, it gets right to the point and leaves you curious to learn more. Check it out below:

Ally Condie’s Matched hits bookstores today. Will you be reading? What did you think of the trailer?

Want a Boy to Read? Make Reading Cool.

Posted by Caela Carter On November - 16 - 2010

blog7 416x600 Want a Boy to Read? Make Reading Cool.Last night, during a reading by the National Book Award Finalists at New York City’s famed Books of Wonder, Walter Dean Myers addressed the question of how to get boys to read.

Surprisingly, he dismissed the idea that there are not enough books for boys, that video games get in the way, or that boys just don’t like to read. “We need to create a culture of reading,” he told the audience. “We need to make reading cool.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I taught English at an all-boys inner-city middle school in Chicago for the past four years, and let me tell you, we created a culture of reading. The thing is: reading already is cool. Duh. And reading as a teenager has probably never been cooler than it is right now. We just need to open these crazy boys eyes to see just how cool it is.

Where I come from, boys traded the latest Charlie Bones and Wimpy Kids books like baseball cards. They asked for Mysterious Benedict Society and Fear Street and Comeback Kids for Christmas.  They plowed through fantasy, ate up any urban fiction, and dove into memoirs. They looked up authors’ websites, sent them emails, and bragged about reading entire collections. One Thanksgiving when we were reading The Giver, I told my boys they’d have to leave the books at school for the long weekend. They proceeded to shove them into shirts and coat pockets in an attempt to smuggle them home and finish. Stealing is never okay, but I really had to pretend to be mad about that incident.

No, we did not hand pick these boys. No, most of them were not literary-minded when they show up for the first day of fifth grade. No, most of them did not come to us as advanced readers or even on the appropriate grade level. And, demographically, they are from the population least expected to excel on reading tests or become lifelong readers.

So how do you create such a passion when it is so counter-cultural? In my estimation, we just followed these steps:

1. Read Aloud To/With the Boy: Yes, YOU do the reading. Make sure he has a copy of the book to follow along or that he can see the words over your shoulder, but don’t make all of reading work. If you have a struggling reader, don’t make every reading-second painful. Instead, you do the reading at first. Read with inflection, enthusiasm, bravado. Use silly voices to demonstrate different characters. Stop to laugh, stop to ponder, stop to gasp, and stop to cry. And yes, do all these things even if it feels like you have a classroom full of fourteen-year-old punks who are physically a head taller than you, and they are staring at you like you’ve gone off the deep end. Really, they are just kids. Any reaction means they are probably loving it deep down. A trick of the trade: If you want to be sure he is following along, just get to a really juicy section, and stop reading. If he looks up at you, he’s faking, not reading. If his eyes keep going so he can see what happens next, he is in the right spot.

2. Love Reading: I’m not sure how any of these other steps would work without this one.

3. Make Reading A Game: When it’s time for him to start reading with you, let him read the fun parts. Teach the boy about dialogue and quotation marks, and then let him read the most outlandish character — the character who gets to yell, or cry, or talk in a high voice, or (gasp!) curse. He’s reading, but it’s a game.

4. Insist He Read A Second Book On His Own at the same time that you are sharing one. Yup, two books at once. For older reluctant readers, I truly believe this is the way to go.

5. For this second, alone-book, Let Him Read What He Wants! (Unless it’s whatever book you were planning to read with him next.) Let him read the stuff that, as an adult, you probably don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. You might as well let him read those books now, because when he grows up he’s not going to find them nearly as enjoyable. And let him read something that is maybe a little bit easier to read than whatever you are sharing with him. That way, he is working up his confidence and his stamina when he reads on his own, but he is building his skill set when he reads with you.

6. Here is the controversial one: Don’t Read With Him Too Much. I mean, read with him every day, but stop right at the moment that he just can’t stand not knowing what comes next. Tell him where the book is, but tell him he’s not allowed to read it until you guys read together. Eventually he will get to the point where he is sneaking out of his room at night to prowl your hiding spot, buying a used copy on Amazon and sending it to his best-friend’s house, or hitchhiking to the library just to find out what happens next. When you reach that stage, you know you have a reader.

Book Packaging: YA’s Dirty Little Secret?

Posted by Corey Haydu On November - 15 - 2010

freyfour Book Packaging: YA’s Dirty Little Secret?Last week, in an article for New York magazine, a Columbia University MFA student unveiled the ins and outs of James Frey’s book packaging company, Full Fathom Five.

Packaging companies vary in their specifics but usually come up with ideas and outlines for books, and then hire writers to write the books. The company owns the idea, the writer gets paid without having to worry about how to get editors or agents to look at their work. It’s an interesting quid pro quo that I think often really works.

I’d like to weigh in, not on Frey’s company but on the book packaging world in general.

I have worked for book packagers. There. I said it. And here’s another thing: I found the industry not only interesting from a business standpoint but from a creative one.

When I was an assistant for Anonymous Company, it was an exciting weekly meeting that got me compelled and supportive of this industry. Talented literary types would brainstorm concepts, ideas, plot lines, characters. They would discuss what was missing in the industry, where they saw holes that needed to be filled. Then they crafted outlines for stories, working from a clear, full understanding of storytelling, traditional rising action structures, and passion for the kids who would be reading these books.

These were not the evil corporate types we think of when we learn about packaged books. These were people at the top of their game, profiting from their innovation and creativity and understanding of a complicated marketplace. I learned a lot during my time there. About story construction and market research and the way a book idea comes to life. I was inspired by the Anonymous Company. I respected their work. I buy their books.

Where Full Fathom Five comes into question is that the writer is coming up with the idea AND writing it. Anonymous Company provided their writers with chapter by chapter outlines—creating a true collaboration between idea and craft, plot and voice. From my (very limited and unresearched) understanding of Full Fathom Five, they aren’t doing much of either. This leaves the question of what service they are really providing. If the writer has to pitch the idea and write it, why don’t they own it?

I, for one, would be totally open to writing a packaged project for Anonymous Company or companies like it. I have actually done a fifty page sample for one of these companies before, and it was a positive experience. The plot — the thing I struggle most with — is laid out for you, and you are filling in the gaps. I enjoyed the writing process, having to stick to a traditional plot, and not having to exhaust my brain by generating ideas. I felt it was a fair trade: I was still able to do my own writing, and had the actual brain space to do it, while working on an interesting project that required less intellectual or emotional engagement. Kind of like the best day job imaginable.

I’d like to thank Anonymous Company for teaching me so much about story and concept and industry and plot. They were an inspiring group of professionals and seeing them work through ideas was more than exciting, it was what pushed me to address plot and concept more seriously in my own work. They made me a better writer.

pixel Book Packaging: YA’s Dirty Little Secret?

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