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About write at your own risk

Unofficial blog by faculty members of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults.

Give Yourself a New Year’s Present by A.M. Jenkins

Quit being so hard on yourself! Beating yourself up doesn’t help your writing, and negative self-talk creates its own downward spiral. Turn away from that spiral. Just be about what’s on the page.



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What’s Up With That? by A. M. Jenkins

An open question regarding sexism and misogyny in the children’s and YA publishing industry.

First, some background: A little over ten years ago, I wrote a YA ms that had alternating POVs—one male, one female. The girl was vain, manipulative, and selfish—all layers in a veneer of desperate self-protection driven by a bone-deep fear that she was inherently unworthy and unlovable (rooted in a traumatic loss that took place in her childhood).

What happened to this ms? As it made the rounds the girl character was consistently deemed unlikable. Around this time I realized that I was trying to avoid “going there” so I rewrote the book forcing myself to do my job and stay in the extremely painful-to-write male’s voice, mind, and heart. The girl character did not change at all; her actions, motivations, and words were exactly the same. The only difference was that now readers got the character through a male POV; in other words, they were one step away from experiencing the girl rawly and directly.

The book (Damage) quickly sold and got a positive reception.

A couple of years later, I wrote and sold a YA book with a single male POV. The POV character was vain, profane, bullying, selfish, and actively cruel—all layers in a veneer of desperate self-protection driven by a bone-deep fear that he was inherently unworthy and laughable (rooted in an undiagnosed learning disorder).

The book (Out of Order) was quickly published and was generally praised for its accurate depiction of a real teen guy.

And all of this—plus repeated, repeated experiences reading:

a)  pre-publication YA ms whose authors are told by editors/agents to change realistically flawed female characters so that they present as “likable” or “everygirl”
b)  reviews of published YAs calling realistically flawed female characters “unlikable” or “unpleasant”

has given me the very strong sense that publishing prefers its girls to be generically palatable and/or shallowly token-spunky. As a writer friend has pointed out, girls are allowed to wield swords so long as they aren’t negative or angry about it. My own observations tell me that a boy character can curse, lie, cheat, bully, steal, and kill, and still be deemed likable and someone to root for. But a girl who has a prissy streak? A judgmental bent? Not so much.

There are exceptions, of course. But I believe I have seen—and am seeing even more, as the larger publishing industry discovers that YA can be a huge moneymaker–a clear knee-jerk prejudice against realistically 3-D girl characters. And here’s what’s odd: the majority of people who work in the children’s/YA end of the publishing industry are women.

What do you think is up with that?


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Book Talk


A whole weekend to talk about books?  If this sounds like your idea of heaven on a stick you will be envious of an event that my colleague Leda Schubert and I attended in September.  We met in a barn in Vermont with other like-minded folk to talk about the works of Susan Cooper.  That was it.  No prize to decide; no lectures to attend; no conclusion to come to; no report to write; just the pleasure of focusing on books that have accompanied some of us on the road for almost fifty years. (As befits a group of readers there was also eating, drinking, walking, gossiping and contemplation of sheep against a backdrop of crimson and golden hills.)

             In reading and re-reading in preparation for this treat I couldn’t quite set my teacher self aside and I noticed several inspiring technical things in Cooper’s writing.  Here are a couple:  The first is punctuation extravaganza!  In a book like The Dark is Rising you can see how Cooper uses punctuation to orchestrate the rhythm of her sentences. It’s as though she teaches you how to read her work, how to hear it, as you’re reading it.  I know we’re in a punctuation-averse age.  I feel it in my own writing.  Maybe it’s a tool we’re neglecting.  (Please note my daring semi-colons in the previous paragraph.)

            The other writerly thing that really struck me was Cooper’s innovative use of point of view.  In King of Shadows for example she does something very cool with a dual point of view.  But that’s nothing to what she pulls off with first person in her recent Ghost Hawk.  I don’t want to give too much away here but it does contain the line, “I never heard the sound of the second shot that blasted a great hole in my chest and killed me.”  Intrigued?  Read the book and then find somebody to talk to about it.

Sarah Ellis


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Perfectionism by A.M. Jenkins

Apropos of nothing, I would like to share this quote I loved (and saved) after reading an article Linda Washington directed me to.

“Depending on the form it takes, perfectionism is not necessarily a block to creativity. A growing body of research in psychology has revealed that there are two forms of perfectionism: healthy or unhealthy. Characteristics of what psychologists view as healthy perfectionism include striving for excellence and holding others to similar standards, planning ahead, and strong organizational skills. Healthy perfectionism is internally driven in the sense that it’s motivated by strong personal values. Conversely, unhealthy perfectionism is externally driven. External concerns show up over perceived parental pressures, needing approval, a tendency to ruminate over past performances, or an intense worry about making mistakes. Healthy perfectionists exhibit a low concern for these outside factors.”
—Peter Sims

You can read the full article at:


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Phonetics, the short course

POSTED BY: Louise Hawes

During a recent visit with my family, I watched my two-year old granddaughter take a bath in her new favorite phrase: whoopsie daisy. If she dropped something, she said it, and saying it made her eyes larger than ever, her mouth smile wide around those last lazy syllables. If she fell, or stood up, or found something that had been lost: whoopsie daisy. If she saw something that looked lopsided or silly: whoopsie daisy. The joy, the delicious relish with which she pulled out this all-purpose word condiment, was contagious. Soon were all using it, for everything. We named things Whoopsie Daisy. We sang Whoopsie Daisy. We used it as encouragement, in sympathy, to express appreciation. It sounds good everywhere, always. It’s just plain fun to say.

Whoopsie Daisy (originally whoops-a-daisy) has gotten me thinking. About how often I choose a word based on its aural/poetic satisfaction, other things being equal. If I’ve got a choice, for example, between barbarous and cruel, give me barbarous every time! And felonious?  Hmmmm. Luscious on the tongue, and much more satisfying than illegal. Decrepitude and dilapidation are two more juicy sounds that sing songs about less than savory concepts.

And speaking of how the sound of words can often be more attractive than their meaning, I guess I should mention “Silent Night.” When I was my granddaughter’s age and listened to folks singing the line, “Sleep in Heavenly peace,” I heard, “Sleep in Heaven, Leapies.” I assumed Leapies were something like cherubs, and that they ran around a lot, played hard, and their parents had to be forceful about putting them to bed.


The word for this sort of mishearing is Mondegreen, a lovely word all by itself. It was coined by an American writer, Sylvia Wright, who misheard a line of a ballad: While the balladeer sang, “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray, and laid him on the green;” Wright heard “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” Whoopsie Daisy! One earl and one lady down. More grizzly, sure. But a lot more fun to say!

Mondegreen’s of your own to share?


by | June 28, 2013 · 2:30 pm

Catching up with Marion Dane Bauer — Uma Krishnaswami

During the July 2012 residency, Marion Dane Bauer was awarded an honorary MFA by Vermont College of Fine Arts. We as an institution owe her so much. It seems trite to say we wouldn’t be the program we are today without her, but it’s true.

Marion continues to push herself, still thinks and rethinks the craft of writing for young readers. Here’s more on Little Dog, Lost, her new novel in verse. Here’s the starred review from Kirkus.


And oh yes, read what Marion says about novels in verse at The Hate-Mongering Tart. Using form as a challenge instead of staying where you’re comfortable–brave writers do that.

Snippet: Verse novels, I have been known to opine, rarely accomplish fiction’s most important task, inhabiting their characters fully.

But Marion is one of those rare writers who promises nothing that she will not deliver with clarity and honesty. Count on that.

Still more. On Wednesday, September 19, at 7:00 pm EST, Marion offers a free, live teleconference call on picture books, and then a webinar a week later, on point of view and psychic distance.

The initial events are free–signup is required. The content remains free and accessible for 24 hours, after which it will be downloadable for a modest fee. It’s a wonderful opportunity. Those who have never been taught by Marion will encounter the wealth of her knowledge, her marvelous, dry wit, and her incisive way of getting to the heart of the work we hold dear. And maybe some of us who miss her still can get to revisit the love.

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Training Your Inner Critic — Uma Krishnaswami

Coe says, in her wonderful post:
The kind of self-talk that goes on during the fragile stage has so much power over the course of our writing.  Positive self-talk can be inspiring, keeping us motivated as we find our way with a new story. 
But negative self-talk can be debilitating.  It can stop us before we put a word on the page, keeping us in an endless cycle of wanting to write but holding ourselves back, time after time after time.

And that is so true–or at least it is when you’re at (or is it on?) that fragile stage.

I know all about fragile stages. I was the klutzy kid who, at 11, stepped on the only loose floorboard in a wooden stage during a dress rehearsal–and fell right through, perfectly in time to the high tumbling notes of Ariel’s song from The Tempest.

Oh, how I wish that I had possessed a smart, knowledgeable inner critic at the time! A voice of caution.

A voice that might have warned, “Hear that creak? Step away. Fast.” Instead I stayed and fidgeted.

Made the board creak louder and louder, until the fateful crash.

You may gather from this that I’m all for inner critics.

Coe’s right, of course. You can’t let the critic loose when you’re creating that first, fragile stage. That’s a structure you want to get across with quick, light steps, just barely managing to lay the planks down as you go. Pay no attention to the creaking. That’s normal.

It will be flimsy, of course. You want it to be. If you nailed it all down it would be secured way too soon. You want it changeable, with moveable parts many of which will need replacing.

But what comes next is the part of writing I love the most. Revision. Which is where I urge you, revive your inner critic. Tame him. Give her tools. Then put that critic to work.

When I have that first clumsy construction done, my inner critic and I can stroll around its edges, studying it, figuring out what fits, what doesn’t, and what was very definitely a misstep. I have to train my critic. She can’t go crashing all over that fragile stage. But I do need her to raise questions. Does that character belong? Do those two others need to be a single person? Does that motivation work? Is that premise too clever? Too neat? Too slight? What’s this really about? Whose story is it? Who should tell it and to whom?


Image source:

Only my inner critic would dare raise such questions.
My creative self certainly couldn’t do this work. She’s so tired from having flung floorboards around that she thinks she’s done.

So…sure, challenge your critic when the drafty winds are blowing through those loose boards. But crush? Drown? Hmm, I’m not so sure. Put her on a plane, maybe. Send him away on vacation while you play with the puzzle pieces. But when you have a working version, bring that critic back, rested, refreshed, and ready to ask the tough questions.

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