If you’ve ever considered getting a Masters of Fine Arts to help with your writing, we’ve got a treat for you today. Marissa Graff visited awhile back, sharing info about her first semester in the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Now she’s back to let us know how the second semester is going. If anyone has been wondering about whether or not to pursue an MFA, hopefully you’ll get some good info here.
How can you tell if an MFA program is any good? Follow its students to the halfway point and see if they’re jumping for joy at reaching the milestone, or crying because the experience is going too quickly. The latter would be me. My experience at the Vermont College of Fine Arts is slipping right past me. The good news is that my writing is forever-changed from all that I’m learning. The even-better news is that I’m the kind of girl who likes to share.
Embrace the suck. Write the heck out of clichés and overplayed description (in your first draft). Consider them placeholders. You know the emotion you’re going for. Why pause and agonize over getting the moment just right? Sometimes we stall in our WIP because we’re afraid to move forward. Maybe we don’t even know where forward is. Instead, we iron the same pages over and over again, trying to get them “just right.” Danger. Getting snagged on description and cliché is a trap. Embrace the suck and carry on. For now. At some point, you will go back and you will revise.
Make body language do double-duty. Of course, Angela and Becca’s Emotion Thesaurus gives writers great ideas for what a character experiences both externally and internally when feeling a particular emotion. Be careful not to overdo it though, or your writing will start to read like, as VCFA calls it, an organ recital. Clenched fists, tightening chests, thick throats… The ET is excellent for giving you one piece of the puzzle and inviting you to fill in the rest. Get your character interacting with their world—maybe your character is tick-tocking her mother’s antique necklace pendant back and forth, or caressing the knit cap her baby brother used to wear. Those descriptions work so much harder for us because they say so much more than the clichés that make readers roll their eyes. Let the ET be the springboard that enables you to bring your characters to life. I never write without my copy next to me.
Look at the world through character-colored glasses. One of my favorite techniques to convey emotion involves stepping into your character’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. Ever notice how when you’re in a bad mood, you seem to hit every red traffic light, or maybe the tag of your shirt won’t stop itching the back of your neck? Or maybe you’re on an emotional high, and you get lost watching a pair of squirrels chase one another up and down an oak tree, or the puffs of clouds in the sky remind you of your favorite childhood quilt. Look for ways to reflect your characters’ inner moods through the way they see the world around them. When you’re in a good mood, you notice the good stuff, and vice versa. This allows your reader to intuit your character’s emotional state, and respects them enough to let them figure it out for themselves. It makes them work and readers like to work.
It’s not your story. Yes, I said it. That thing you’re writing belongs to your characters. This semester, I learned to take away the fabulous descriptions and snappy dialogue that was near and dear to my heart. I looked at every word and asked, “Would a child/teen actually say that? Would a child/teen really think that?” Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the things we think are clever and original, but if it doesn’t ring true to your character’s voice, it probably needs to go. Don’t confuse your voice with your narrator’s. We’re not writing for us. We’re writing for our audience. If you’re like me and you’re writing for children and young adults, that means seeing the world as they see it. If you think about the consequences of holding onto your clever line, it’s easier to cut. Imagine the reader saying, “A kid would never say/think that.” Bam. Your reader is yanked from the fictional experience and unfortunately, it’s difficult to recast that spell you’ve been working so hard to spin. Sometimes, you have to kill your darlings for the sake of authenticity. In the end, you’re actually serving your story by doing this.
My second semester at VCFA was all about achieving emotional honesty and authenticity. No matter the age of our audience, these are crucial elements in helping our readers connect with our stories in real ways. We’re working to write stories that make readers *think* that maybe, just maybe, it really happened.
Your turn! What techniques do you use to show how a character is feeling? When reading published work, what types of things yank you from the fictional experience? How do you evaluate what rings true in dialogue and narrative aimed at a particular age group?
Marissa Graff is a full-time student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. When she’s not reading or writing, or thinking about reading and writing, she’s spending time with her husband, Crossfitting, or exploring Northern Virginia. Follow her on TWITTER and FACEBOOK for more on her MFA & Writing adventures!
The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults is a low-residency program, meaning you attend lectures and workshop for ten days in January and ten days in July, while working one-on-one with an advisor during the months between.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.