The Impact of Teachers

I had the same teacher for both fourth and fifth grades. Her name was Mrs. Tapscott. Many details about her are fuzzy after so many years, but I do remember that she had gray, curly hair and a soft, sweet southern accent. But what I remember most is that she read to us every day. She read THE HOBBIT, and A WRINKLE IN TIME, and THE CAY, and MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN. We were mesmerized by every chapter of every book, drawn in by her expressive voice.

Even back then I wanted to become a writer, but thanks to Mrs. Tapscott I became a reader, too. I can’t say that I always chose books of the caliber she favored. I read plenty of Choose Your Own Adventure, and Sweet Valley High, and every Trixie Belden book ever written. Of course I believe that any time a child picks up a book voluntarily it’s a Very Good Thing. But Mrs. Tapscott taught me—taught all of her students—to seek out quality and variety in the books we chose.

A WRINKLE IN TIME, in particular, stuck with me. It changed me. It was strange and new and important.

Now that a movie of this iconic story has finally been produced, I decided it was time to reread the book, to see how it held up after more than 30 years.

Here’s what I discovered: it was just as weird and wonderful, just as impactful, when viewed through the lens of age and experience. I could see how brave and groundbreaking it was, and how truly unique. I still pictured the characters and settings in much the same way as I had as a child. But things I saw more clearly this time around included the rich symbolism and the power of a strong female protagonist who broke the mold of expectation and was utterly herself. And I fell in love all over again with Charles Wallace’s ethereal calmness and Calvin’s kindness and loyalty.

I think the point I’m working toward is that my teacher chose material that challenged us, that made us think and dream and expand our narrow worlds.

Teachers come in many guises. Not all are teachers in the traditional sense. Some are neighbors, or coaches, or church leaders—or writers. As writers we’ve been given a rare gift: the chance to influence minds young and old, to advocate for kindness and justice, to encourage a thirst for knowledge and truth.

I’m grateful to Mrs. Tapscott, and to the other teachers in my life who made a difference: Mrs. Gray, Mrs. Keeling, Mr. Jacobus, Mr. Duffer, and Dr. Tunnell. Thank you. I will do all I can to pass on your incredible passion and purpose.
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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Ways to Study Craft

Right after I signed with my agent, I had a minor panic attack. Until that point, I’d always told myself that I loved writing and I always made time for it, but I’d convinced myself that I could walk away from it and think of it as a hobby. Signing with my agent made me admit that I was serious. Really serious. And admitting I was serious, meant that I needed to actually know what I was doing.

Because I definitely didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing.

And so it was AFTER I signed with my agent that I decided I should probably read a craft book. I picked up THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby and started reading.

I don’t know if you’ve read THE ANATOMY OF STORY but it is DENSE! It’s so good and so full of really amazing information. But I could only get through a few pages before I had to put it down and let my brain take a rest. I still haven’t finished it but just reading the first half did wonders for my writing. (And yeah, I’ll finish it one day. I swear!)

I think really studying and analyzing story craft is so important. But it can feel daunting to do. And sometimes the resources people tell you to check out make no sense or they go against your rhythm. Sometimes, it’s all we can do to write, let alone study craft.

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BUT! You have to do it if you want to get better. So I’m going to talk about some ways you can study craft without getting an MFA or losing your writing time.

  1. Read a craft book. This is the obvious one. Maybe after you finish a draft of your new WIP, you can read a craft book while you let it sit before revising. There are so many different craft books. The dense ones like Truby’s. Short and snappy ones (I’ve heard great things about Take Off Your Pants!) The classics like King’s On Writing and the inspirational ones like Bird by Bird. Find one you enjoy! Or one that challenges you but in a good way.
  2. Go to the movies. For some reason, it is often easier to pinpoint plot devices in movies than in books. Maybe it is the visual aspect and the music that work together. But if you’re struggling with plot structure, I can’t recommend watching good movies enough. Pixar is a master of storytelling. Watch a Pixar flick to finally understand turning point, midpoint, dark night of the soul, and climax. Superhero movies will show you how to continually raise the stakes. Watch a chick flick to understand how to set up romantic tension. You get the idea.
  3. Read a book with a highlighter. I did this with Ally Condie’s Summerlost for the first few chapters (until I lost my highlighter and got so sucked in I couldn’t pause to stop.) But think about something you are struggling with and then go to a well-reviewed book in your genre and look for it, highlighting the passages that apply so you can see it and learn from it. With Summerlost, I was trying to see how humor is braided into a very heavy story to make it manageable for the MG reader. So I highlighted every instant of humor. It let me see how often it came up, but also how little space it took up on the page. It was super helpful. You can do this with show, don’t tell. Internalization. World Building. Backstory. Whatever it is you need to get better at.
  4. Go to a conference. I can’t recommend conferences enough. Size doesn’t matter. I attended a very small conference back in February and only attended one workshop and it helped me tackle a huge edit in my debut. You don’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of more regional and affordable conferences to go to. I personally love the Storymakers conference. Best classes and best price for any conference I’ve attended. The big national conferences can be good, but from what I’ve heard, they aren’t necessarily THE BEST. So don’t feel like you need to attend unless you really want to.
  5. Get on Twitter and follow your favorite authors and other writers. Writing Twitter is awesome and a lot of times writers will have really helpful threads on things you might be struggling with. Choose who you follow carefully if you want to keep it from being a timesuck. But there is a lot of really good FREE information on Twitter.
  6. Offer to do a lot of CPing and beta reading. Critiquing others work was probably the best thing I did for my own writing those first few years. Having to pinpoint what was working and wasn’t working in others’ stories allows you to come back to your story with fresh eyes and a better understanding of how everything works.
  7. Try to teach what you know. I’m a Pitch Wars mentor. And the mentoring process has forced me to nail down and be able to explain the parts of writing that can sometimes feel very fuzzy and ephemeral. I’ve had to think about it a lot so that I can put it into words instead of just feeling my way around it. That process has forced me to actually do a lot of analyzing and discover things about craft that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

So, feeling inspired to go study some craft? I hope so. What are some ways you study craft?

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Summer is almost over, and the most wonderful time of the year is right around the corner. And no, I’m not only talking of the Fall, with its scents of cinnamon and burning leaves, the taste of everything-pumpkin-flavored, and Halloween. I’m talking about NATIONAL HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH.

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When I first started writing (back in 2009) a Utah school invited me to visit them for Hispanic Heritage Month. I still remember my nerves as I, an unpublished writer, prepared a presentation for all grades attending this bilingual school.

To start, I read a couple of my short stories, but my favorite part of the day was sharing my love for the books that marked my life as a kid growing up in Argentina. Although I believed EVERYONE should read Juan Ramón Jiménez’s classic Platero y Yo and all of Isabel Allende’s books (especially her trilogy for teens), I would’ve wished to share books by Latin American authors. US-born and/or immigrant Latino authors who represented the kids who looked at me with such wonder and admiration.

All these years later, I’m thrilled that the list of Latino authors I’ve read and met is so extensive that I can’t name them all in a single blog post, but I’ll feature a few of my favorites—many of whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet in person and some I count among my friends.

I believe that in order to become better writers, we should read voraciously. I became a writer because of my love of reading, and never was I happier when during my years at my MFA program, I could count reading time as “school work.” Even after graduation, I never got over the habit, I’m happy to say. What I love the most about books and stories is sharing my favorite with the world. Here they are:

matt_sidbr.pngMatt de la Peña:

Matt de la Peña isn’t only a New York Times Best-selling author; he’s also a Newbery Award Winner for his picture book Last Stop on Market Street. His Newbery Medal acceptance speech is empowering and life-changing. He’s also the author of multi-award winning novels Mexican White Boy, Ball Don’t Lie, and We Were Here, among others. A confessed former reluctant reader, he’s spoken widely about his attitude about male emotion and his relationship with his father. Matt’s books are dynamic and stereotype-shattering.   

Zoraida Córdova:

zoraida_vlc_photo2.jpgBorn in Ecuador, a New Yorker at heart, Zoraida is the author of the Vicious Deep trilogy (amazing mermaids!), the On the Verge series (steamy young adult), and the Brooklyn Brujas series (speculative contemporary YA). Her latest novel, Labyrinth Lost, was a Tor.com Best Book of 2016 and has been optioned for film by Paramount Studios. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic, which is obvious in the way she writes about brujas saving the world right in the middle of Brooklyn. Her new series Hollowed Crown was recently acquired by Disney Hyperion, and is loosely based on the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century, but adding a thief of memories. I can’t wait for summer 2019 to get my hands on it.

Margarita.jpgMargarita Engle:

Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but from a young age she developed a deep love for her mother’s country, Cuba. She’s the current National Young People’s Poet Laureate. Her numerous books have won multiple awards including: The Newbery Medal Honor, The Walter Dean Meyers Honor, Pura Belpré Medal, PEN USA, Golden Kite, etc. etc. Margarita’s books are pure magic made words. My favorite of hers are: Enchanted Air, Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, The Surrender Tree, among others. Besides being a very prolific writer, she’s an agronomist and botanist.

Daniel José Older:

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I had the pleasure of working with Daniel during the last semester of my graduate program. He’s not only the author of the acclaimed, award winning Shadowshaper cypher about teens with the power to infuse ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories, but also the magical Bone Street Rumba series about in-betweeners who walk in the realm that separates life and death, and sometimes ride ambulances to save the world. He’s also an activist and his Buzzfeed article “The Twelve Fundamentals of Writing the Other” (and the Self) should be required reading for all writers.

medina_high07.jpgMeg Medina:

Another Cuban American writer that’s changing the world! Her YA Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass won the Pura Belpré award and is being developed for a TV series by the producers of Jane the Virgin. Burn Baby Burn was longlisted for the National Book Award. She’s also written picture books (Mango Abuela and Me), and Middle Grade fiction (Milagros Girl From Away).

Anna-Marie McLamore:Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 9.39.05 PM.png

The queen of modern magical realism! Reading one of Anna-Marie’s books is like diving into a pool of technicolor images, alluring scents, intoxicating flavors, and magical textures. I will forever read everything she writes. I can’t get enough of her stories.

The Weight of Feathers is kind of like a Romeo and Juliet but featuring two families of entertainers: mermaids versus ravens. Palomas versus Corbeaus. It’s so gorgeous I dreamed for weeks in the rhythm of the words.

When the Moon Was Ours is a magical love story with the background of a lose version of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman of Latin American folklore. It’s so incredibly well-written and mesmerizing it was longlisted for the National Book Award.

And Wild Beauty (out October 3) tells the story of the Nomeolvides women, who have the power to bring flowers out of barren land, but who are condemned to pay back to this land with what—and who– they love the most. I was fortunate enough to read an advanced copy of this book, and I can’t wait for the rest of the world to fall in love with Estrella and her cousins just like I did.

Courtney Alameda:Courtney+Author+Photos2013_117.jpg

Born and raised in California, but now living in Utah, Courtney is a force to be reckoned with. Because each of her stories is so unique and carefully written and researched, she’s also one of my insta-buys.

In Shutter, she brings together the first families from the classic Dracula to destroy monsters both corporeal and spiritual.

In Pitch Dark (upcoming in February 2018), she introduces us to Laura Cruz, a shipraider whose family looks for human history among the stars (it’s amazing!!!!!). And in Seven Dead Gods, she collaborates with another Utah author, Valynne Maetani, to bring to life Kira, a seventeen-year-old loving in modern day Japan, who brings together seven “death” gods to save Kyoto from destruction. The “foxy” love interest is the most alluring character I’ve read in a long time. I’m in love with him.

Courtney also writes the comic Sisters of Sorrow.

Other writers to read and get to know: Pablo Cartaya, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Celia C. Pérez, Yuyi Morales, Juana Medina, Rene Colato Lainez, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Francisco X. Stork, etc.

These wonderful authors and stories shouldn’t be relegated to one particular month in the year, and I hope that you’ll be motivated in getting to know these names if you don’t already know them. Come back and tell me in the comments which one was your favorite.

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YamileMendezYamile (prounounced sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is an immigrant writer and reader, a dreamer and fighter, a Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, a 2014 New Visions Award Honor Winner, and one the 2015 Walter Dean Myers Inaugural Grant recipients. Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina (cradle of fútbol), she now lives in Alpine, Utah with her husband, five children, and three dogs, but her heart is with her family scattered all over the world. Find her on twitter: @YamileSMendez and online: yamilesmendez.com.

Storymakers Conference

Many of our contributors are teaching and volunteering and learning at the Storymakers Conference in Provo Utah today. Checkout #storymakers17 on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to get insights to help your writing along with us. Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 10.29.32 AM.png

See you with a regular post Monday!

Should you get an MFA?

I started an MFA program in January, specifically one geared at writing for children and young adults. (You can check out the program here). And it wasn’t an easy decision to make. I’ve been wanting to go back to school to get my masters forever, but I always figured it would be something in education. I’d toyed with the idea of doing an MFA (master of fine arts) instead but always brushed the idea aside. I guess I had this idea that the program would be full of pretentious teachers and faculty who would sneer at genre fiction and try to transmogrify my work into something high brow, literary, and dreadfully boring.

I like high brow literary books, actually. But I dislike dreadfully boring ones. And so I didn’t seriously entertain the idea of an MFA program. Besides, you absolutely do NOT need any degree at all to be a successful writer. There are scads of national bestsellers who never took a college writing class and do just fine drawing an audience, and even more importantly (to me), construct great stories. If you’re willing to read widely and practice hard by writing hundreds of thousands of words no one may ever see, then you can absolutely become a self-taught master of the craft over time with effort and some natural talent.

And yet here I am. This post is for anyone who is wondering if an MFA is for them. Because just two months into this program, I can tell you it’s definitely for me.

I’ve been writing for eight years now. I have seven published novels to my name. They are well-reviewed and sell well. I’m proud of these books, but they’re mostly for adults, fun, lighthearted romances that are perfect for Friday nights or reading by the pool. I like writing them, and I’ll keep doing it. But a few years into writing, I found myself restless to try something different. And so I started a young adult novel.

It was a contemporary story about a girl who is trying to escape her vindictive great aunt and her hoarding house by getting into design school in New York. It’s not something my publisher would be interested in, and so I went looking for an agent and landed a great one. That book didn’t sell. Neither did the next book, although it got close at a few national publishers.

I was left with the feeling that there was some piece missing in my writing and I couldn’t see it. And the thing is, although I know excellent writers who are generous in critiquing my work, none of them could put their finger on it either. But I could sense that I was missing something. Worse, other story ideas were coming to me that I didn’t dare tackle because I knew I didn’t have the chops.

That’s a sad feeling, not being able to tell a story you want to tell.

None of that would have led to an MFA though. It would have led to more conferences and retreats, which are also an excellent route to improving and growing. But a friend who graduated from my current program brought it up out of the blue one day. “You need to go get your MFA.” Wait, what? No, thanks. But she didn’t let up. And suddenly, two hours later, I was telling my husband I thought I should apply, and he was like, “DO IT.”

There are drawbacks to an MFA. It’s expensive. It’s time consuming. My low-residency model requires me to travel literally across the country twice a year for ten days. I could conceivably find the right combination of conferences, online classes, and critique partners to progress on my own. Also, I already have some of the things other people who enter these programs want: a major agent and some publishing contracts. So why do I need an MFA?

I guess it’s for the same reason that we have New York Times bestsellers in the program—as students. Not teachers. It’s about getting better, and this being the only way to truly grow any further. I’d gotten as good as I was going to get on my own.

Above all, this program offers me the chance to work with a brilliant teacher one-on-one for six months at a time, and have that teacher thoughtfully consider my work, show me my weaknesses, and challenge me to strengthen them.

Also, I have to read constantly now, so I can lie around on the sofa in the middle of the afternoon with my nose in a book and be like, “I’m working.” And I mostly get to pick what I want to read! Hard life.

The advisor relationship is the number one reason for me to do this program, but there are other benefits I’m discovering: first, an MFA is considered a terminal degree for teaching at the university level. That means it qualifies me to teach college, and I don’t need to get a PhD. Next, an incredible camaraderie develops between you and the other students in the program. Even across four semesters, there are only about 100 students enrolled at a time. That’s true of most programs. Some may even be smaller. It gives you an opportunity to get to know people who are as passionate about writing as you are. That also means there are inevitable networking opportunities that have the potential to blossom in unexpected ways.

MFA programs aren’t for everyone. And they’re definitely only for deeply committed writers, although that doesn’t have to mean published writers. My program is a range of writers from those who don’t have agents yet all the way up to those bestsellers.

What tells me that I’ve made the right choice more than anything else is that I’ve been happy to sacrifice luxuries and even small comforts to pay for school, and I haven’t begrudged that once. But even more than that, it’s the sheer joy I feel in learning and progressing every single day as I do my work.

Every. Single. Day.

It’s not an easy decision, or one that anyone can take lightly. But for the right person, it’s . . . well, it’s nirvana.

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.