Friday, June 29, 2012

A Book Cover

My mother is an artist and she thought it would be fun to create a book cover for my book. So we started collaborating on things and the book cover--though it isn't the traditional one pretty girl in a elegant dress she never wears in the book--I think it's gorgeous.  It's a representation of a scene in my book.  Those who have read the entire manuscript may even recognize the scene.

Because we're not one hundred percent certain I'll keep the title of Shadowed we thought we'd leave name and title out and photobucket it in. That way the original image does not change and I can change the title as many times as I want.  As you can tell from the images below, I've already started playing around with the title and byline locations.

I'm currently playing around with where to put that information now, because we plan on turning everything into paperback copies via Createspace. I won NaNoWriMo in November so I get five free Paperbacks of my work. Has anyone used Createspace before?  What was your experience like?

The cover is oil-based, so I won't get the hardcopy of the cover for at least a month but when I do get it, I'll frame it and hang it on the wall for inspiration. It would be nice if I could actually use this cover when I do get published. For now it'll work well for fun and inspiration.

If you know where I should put the title and byline, what font and color or you think I should use one of those three covers, let me know!


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A book review: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

Ever since she was a child, Rebecca has been enchanted by her grandmother Gemma's stories about Briar Rose. But a promise Rebecca makes to her dying grandmother will lead her on a remarkable journey to uncover the truth of Gemma's astonishing claim: I am Briar Rose. A journey that will lead her to unspeakable brutality and horror. But also to redemption and hope.

I must say in a lot of ways this book reminds me of that NBC TV series, "Who Do You Think You Are?" For those unfamiliar about it, the documentary features a new celebrity each week, who goes on a journey to trace his or her family tree. They are often surprised by what they find in their ancestor's pasts, traveling across America and to different cultures to find answers.

Becca goes on a similar journey after she makes a promise to her grandmother who is on her deathbed: find the castle and the prince from the story Gemma has always told her grand kids as they grew up, the story of Briar Rose or Sleeping Beauty.

Unfortunately, Gemma has left few clues as to her past. Her mother, Gemma's only daughter, doesn't even know Gemma's real name or where she came from.  She always believed Gemma came to America just before the First World War. However there is one document that suggests she didn't arrive until in the middle of the war. After gathering all the clues and information she can find with her little proof, she goes to Poland, in search of more concrete answers.

Her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.  In fact, she survived, barely, being gassed at an extermination camp. The way she survives is believable though predictable set of circumstances. And the story of Briar Rose is the only thing she remembers when she recovers. Not to give spoilers but she goes by several names throughout the book.

This book was interesting.  Not only in how the story of Briar Rose and the holocaust are combined in the book, but Yolen had no fear of using new perspectives. There is no real magic in the book, despite the frequent references to fairies and magic spells. It is based on reality. For about half of the book, we learn the story of Josef Potocki who knew Gemma briefly. He was the Prince that woke Gemma with a kiss. He wasn't Jewish, he wasn't Roma (Gypsy), he was rich. Royalty, in fact, was in his ancestry, but he ended up in a concentration camp for a year. The reason? Josef Potocki is gay.

Him being gay adds to the story and isn't just a fact thrown into the book to make him different. We learn about two lovers he had. We know there were more. We even get a very brief narrative summary of him making love with one of his lovers.

Suicide happens in the book, both the traditional slit-wrist kind and the suicidal mission kind. Murder is mentioned. Heterosexual love is also in the book. And Becca has her own budding romance in the book. I did find Becca's older sister's annoying. They treated her more like a wayward daughter than a sister who was only a few years younger than them and they, themselves, bickered like six year olds when they were in the same scene together. Luckily, they weren't in the story for long. Becca, to me, seemed the mature one of the three.

Published in 1992, this book is geared for Young Adults, but as an adult I enjoyed it.  It's a literary novel, but the pace kicked along, making it hard for me to put the book down. It has some great quote-worthy lines and a great coming-of-age story in it.  Three actually--Gemma's, Becca's and Josef's.  For those who enjoy historical novels, this book is a must read. Even if you don't normally like historical novels, this one may be an exception to that rule.

Have you read Briar Rose?  What did you think?  Do you plan on reading Briar Rose?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Review: A Reference for Writers

In Make a Scene, author Jordan E. Rosenfeld takes you through the fundamentals of strong scene construction and explains how other essential fiction-writing techniques, such as character, plot, and dramatic tension, must function within the framework of individual scenes in order to provide substance and structure to the overall story.

This book is a good reference for basic scene techniques. There are some new ways of introducing the information that I have not seen before but the information is nothing new. I would recommend this book for beginners or those who want a review on material or haven't read many books on the subject of writing.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld uses a lot of excerpts from various books to get her point across. Several of the excerpts have me wanting to read the books she uses as examples.  However the book itself is on the dry side. It isn't the driest piece of literature I've ever read, but I kept putting the book down, and progressed through the book slowly.

A slow is not necessarily bad. It allows things to digest the information.  But I am not one to enjoy slow reading. I prefer to swallow it  whole and study the parts most helpful to me later.  This book is a very good specific topic book.  Rosenfeld had plenty of opportunity to expand outside of how to write a scene, for instance, she could have explained more on what makes a good character, said more on point of view or even how to write good dialogue.  However when she does address dialogue or characters, it is only in reference to how it helps make a scene great. 

Have you read Make A Scene? What did you think?

Response from Lesléa

I got an initial response from my mentor, Lesléa, about the material I sent her for my first packet. I got a lot of positive feedback on Shadowed and my short critical essays. However Entangled, unsurprisingly, needs a lot of work.  I agree with most of the comments she made. And suspected some of the issues she mentioned.

Entangled needs a work and right now, with the initial comments thrumming in my head, I'm not sure how to make some of the changes, specifically, how do I get Maline into his role without readers going, "A real mother would question that"? I've had a few people who have already made suggestions on how I could possibly make it work.  I really like a few of them, but I need to see what kind of changes that would mean for the draft I have and how to make them all work, or use those ideas as inspiration.

Does anyone have ideas?  Anyone else willing to look at the fifteen pages I'm working on?  Or someone who is willing to just play sound board for me while I figure it out?

Lesléa's email was encouraging but she did not hold back on what she thought needed improvement. So far, I only have an email from Lesléa. From what I understand she'll be sending my submissions through the mail with her notes in the margins.  So I may get more detailed notes on the material when the packet arrives.  It seems to take mail a week to reach me from the East Coast, so I probably won't get it until late this week, early next week. But I will let everyone know when I get it.

I also will be reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke instead of How It Ends by Laura Wiess. If you recall, How It Ends was on my original reading list at the very beginning of the semester. So far, no other books have been switched out.

For my next packet I plan on reading:
  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
  • Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
  •  Girl Meets Boy This is due around the time my packet is but isn't necessarily part of packet 2.
  • Make A Scene: Crafting A Powerful Story One Scene At A Time by Jordan E. Rosenfeld  This one is more to help me make the changes I needed to make and not a necessity for the school semester.

I now have a Goodreads account for those who would like to follow my reading progress.

I'll keep all of you up-to-date.
Thanks for the help and support.

Edited: Got the Hard copy packet today.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Retreat Update: It was a blast

I got home from retreat today and I am sad I am home.  I wish the retreat was still going on and I did not have work tomorrow.  I learned a lot at retreat both about writing and non-writing topics. I tried foods that were new to me, drank a single glass of some sort of alcohol every night. I had great conversations with writers, about writing, helping them through their story and about books we've read.

There was no internet access at the cabin, which meant when we were on the computer we could only write. We had to leave notes in areas where we would otherwise immediately start doing research and distracting us for several hours from our writing.  I got some good feedback on my work, good sound-boarding was accomplished and some general editing.  I went there intending to edit my novels, which I did, not to create new pages, so I can't say exactly how much writing I got done.  But one of the attendees there hit 20,000 words. It's amazing what no internet and several "Power Hours" can accomplish.

A Power Hour, for those who don't know, is basically an hour of writing.  You don't worry about grammar, whether the scene makes sense, or anything other than getting words on the page. It can all be edited later. And some make it a mild competition.  Who can get the most words on a page in an hour? I was editing, so I didn't get as many words written as I otherwise might have when I participated in two of the power hours.  I hit about a thousand words.

This was my first writer's retreat, my first retreat. I wasn't sure exactly what to bring with me to this one so I took the basics and a few other..."I may needs."  Now I have a better idea of what I'll need to take with me for retreat next year.  Here's an example of a few things:

  • A Throw
 I think I would have been a little more comfortable if I'd had a small blanket to throw over my legs or shoulders at different parts of the day. It got chilly in McCall.
  • A small pillow
  • I would have been more comfortable with a small pillow to sit on.  The chairs I sat on--the kitchen table chairs--were hard and would grow uncomfortable after a while. The pillow would also give me a little support when I was trying to go to bed for the night.
  • A Hard copy of my novel(s)
  •   I may not feel the need for a hardcopy at a later time. But since I do everything better on paper--editing, writing, reading, critiquing--I probably should have brought a hard copy with me to help me with my editing.  If I'm focusing on writing, instead of editing, next year I should be fine with just paper and pen.
    These are only a few examples but they are what I would put on the top of the list of wants/needs.

    Thanks to everyone who made the retreat a great experience for me. I look forward to next year's retreat. 

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012

    A Writer's Retreat

    As some of you know, I am a member of several writer's groups. One of the groups I'm involved in is the Romance Writers of America (RWA). I am an active member of the Coeur du Bois chapter. I've been a member for almost a year now and I have no regrets in joining the RWA chapter. I've gained a great number of writing resources, writing friends and learned a lot things about writing. Usually, the group  meets once a month to discuss various topics on writing, whether it's how to write dialogue, or build an author platform. However, this month their is no meeting.

    From June 21-23, the Coeur du Bois chapter (CBC) is hosting a writing retreat for its members in McCall, Idaho.  The idea of the retreat is simple: escape the world, get away from the distractions that make writing hard, and write. The only thing keeping us from writing is other writers, which may or may not be a necessary part of the process, depending on where in your writing you are.

    I have never been to a writer's retreat.  But I have heard of them in the past, and, since the retreats are an annual event, I've heard nothing but good things about the experiences from fellow CBC members. One person told me she got 25,000 words written during one of the retreats. Food is paid for by the CBC, though we are encouraged to bring food for ourselves or to share with other members if we like. I'm looking forward to it and, honestly, the trip couldn't have arrived at a better time.

    My current homework packet is due on Wednesday.  As soon as I turn it in, I need to start working on the material for my second packet.  So I'll start working on my second packet at the retreat! It'll be the perfect place to get a great start on my editing and writing. 

    I've also never been to McCall before. I've had family members and fellow writer's tell me it is beautiful.  On Google, I find pictures of a lake, woods, mountains, old-fashioned buildings.  It sounds ideal and I intend to take a camera with me to take a lot of pictures. Going off the map, it appears the cabin we'll be staying at will be relatively close to the lake. The cabin itself looks attractive and will no doubt help spur my imagination into overdrive. Hopefully I can keep up with my imagination.

    Monday, June 18, 2012

    Feed: A Critical Review

    M.T. Anderson drops you in the world Titus lives in without explanation. In the first few pages of Feed we’re introduced to different slang, technology, and, of course, The Feeds.  The decision to let readers infer some things in the story, like Slang, and wait to explain other elements in the story, like the Feed, gives the story authenticity.
    Titus is the narrator of the story. A teenager who has grown up surrounded by the technology and terminology scattered throughout the book.  As such, he does not think much about his surroundings.  As a result, it would be realistic for him to describe things as if everyone knew what he was talking about, as he does from page one.
    In his explanation as to why he and his friends were going to the moon, Titus says: “Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like: “I’m so null,” and Marty was all, “I’m null too, unit,” but I mean we were all pretty null … (1).”
    The risk in writing like this is that it has the chance of confusing readers as to what is going on and what is trying to be conveyed. Those with a low social IQ or weak critical analysis skills may not infer that “null” is the equivalent of bored, especially since the only real clues we have as to its meaning is the tone and Titus saying, “Everything at home was boring.”
    A paragraph later and we’re introduced to another element in Titus’ world, The Feed.  Once again we get no explanation as to what it is:
    “We flew up and our feeds were burbling all sorts of things about where to stay and what to eat. It sounded pretty fun, and at first there were lots of pictures of dancing and people with romper-gills and metal wings, and I was like, This will be big, really big, but then … (1).”
    In both cases, if Anderson had stopped to explain the slang or what a Feed was, it would have been jarring and made the story less realistic.  After all, when modern teenagers say “I’ve been on the computer all day,” they do not follow that up with “A computer is a…” because they assume the person they are speaking with already knows what one is.
                However, another issue with this technique is that readers need a chance to fully-orient themselves in the world before they reach the true beginning of the story.  This can be dangerous. Most modern readers want the story to start immediately, and in having the characters flying to the moon and then getting settled on the moon, as Anderson does, could lose a lot of readers. By the end of the first two chapters--or what I perceived as chapters--I was asking myself "Is this book almost done?" It was slow. The story didn't actually start until chapter "The Nose Grid." However, if Anderson had simply started the book where the story started, he may have lost even more readers as they were trying to orient themselves in the book and keep track of what was happening in the story.  So Anderson gives readers and the book what it needs, a few pages of set-up.
                It isn’t until after Titus and his friends have their Feed corrupted by a hacker that we really learn what a Feed is. This is because they’ve been disconnected from the Feed, the internet.  And because Titus is alone in his head for the first time in his life, he actually thinks about the device:

                I missed the feed.
                I don’t know when they first had feeds.  Like maybe, fifty or a hundred years ago.  Before that they had to use their hands and eyes. Computers were all outside the body. They carried them around outside of them, in their hands, like if you carried your lungs in a briefcase and opened it to breathe (39).

                In this case, Anderson is using the old cliché “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” to tell readers what the feed is, without leaving the realm of believability in the story. The Feed has been in Titus’ head all his life. He’s never questioned it being there, never wondered about it, until he was temporarily disconnected from it. Readers can believe it and are satisfied with how it is presented to them.
                With the explanation in hand, readers are better able to comprehend what the narrator is doing throughout the story, especially as his use becomes more complicated than simply listening to the Feed. He chats, he does internet searches, he buys things and listens to music, which may have provided confusion without the provided explanation.
                Delaying giving an explanation or simply letting readers infer the information themselves, gives the story authenticity and stays true to the books needs.

    Friday, June 15, 2012

    Feed by M.T. Anderson--A Review

    For Titus and his friends, it started out like any ordinary trip to the moon—a chance to party during spring break and play with some stupid low-grav at the Ricochet Lounge. But that was before the crazy hacker caused all their feeds to malfunction, sending them to the hospital to lie around with nothing inside their heads for days. And it was before Titus met Violet, a beautiful, brainy teenage girl who has decided to fight the feed and its omnipresent ability to categorize human thoughts and desires.

    I can honestly say I'm not sure how I feel about this book.  It had some things in it I loved and things in it that made me want to abandon the book. Granted some of my issues may only be because I do not normally read satire or futuristic novels. But some of it is style.

    M.T. Anderson drops you in the world Titus lives in without explanation.  He uses his own made up slang on page one.  I know I'm slow to pick up on slang, so other people may pick on what slang like "null" and "meg" mean faster than I did. They use the word "unit" a lot, which seems to be the equivalent of "dude" but for the longest time I thought that was Titus' name.

    Other parts of his style intrigued me.  There were no official chapters in the book.  What you would consider chapters are simply given titles, like "Awake," "Bored," and "The Nose Grid." These chapters could also be a few pages long or two sentences long.  The feed, which is basically the internet, frequently talks. And it's not immediately clear why the feed is speaking--it just seems like you're getting another sense of what having the feed in your head is like--until later in the book.

    Their really isn't a true plot. The book is high on teenage-angst, which never appealed to me even when I was a teenager.  The characters are into the up-to-the-minute fashions, the newest toys and gadgets, movies, dating, etc. Titus meets Violet on the moon. They start a relationship, which further develops after the hacker temporarily malfunctions their feed.

    The relationship continues back on earth. And I believe it was realistically shown.  Between spring break and summer, when the story takes place, the two of them fight, have self-confidence issues, have fun together, learn from each other, and defend each other. However their are some inherent issues with their relationship. When Violet's feed was hacked, it was permanently corrupted. The corrupted feed will eventually kill her, they're just not sure when.

    So, as selfish as his reasons seem, as poorly timed as it was--Violet was wanting to give Titus her virginity at the time--Titus breaks up with Violet. It is realistic, especially since the two of them have only known each other a few months. Obviously, the relationship doesn't end with the break up. Here, Anderson kept true to human nature.

    I would recommend this book, but with caution. The story is great. The message made clear without being preachy. But I wanted more specifics in places. And I didn't like the narrative way the story was told. For those who like satire, dystopians and books filled with teen-angst, this may be a 'must read.'

    Thursday, June 14, 2012

    First Packet Due Soon

    The due date for my first packet is drawing near and I'm busily trying to get the last-minute stuff done.  My novel has changed a lot since residency.  I don't recognize the structure anymore, though the scenes themselves are familiar, except for one. It still has issues that I need to work out--the new scene is throwing me for a loop. I'm not sure what bothers me about it.  However, I've spent most of my time on Shadowed and not nearly enough time on Entangled 

    Entangled is Lurynne's book. It's a story that's been on the back burner for a while. I have several drafts of the book written out but have never been satisfied with what I wrote. Something has always been off. I'm not sure this draft--the one I'm trying to revise is going to work either. I may simply not be ready to write the book. It's not time for me to play with it.  But the book--both of Lurynne's books--dominate my mind. They want to be told. Being in the MFA program may be exactly what I need to get the story down in a satisfactory way.

    What do I need to send in for my first packet? The following:
    • A 2-3 page cover letter discussing the enclosed material and asking questions about the material
    • 35-34 pages of fiction--excerpts from two novels
    • 2-3 short critical essays
    • cumulative bibliography in standard MLA format
    • cumulative list of titles of original creative work included in packets
    Packets cannot exceed 50 pages length, total.

    The cover letter is mostly done. I need to finish working on Entangled, otherwise the fiction pages are done.  I have one essay written.  I'm reading the book now so I can start writing the second one.  I still need to do the cumulative lists.But I think I have enough wiggle room to get everything done on time.

    Thank you to everyone who's helped me by editing my pieces, sometimes multiple times.  I'll be working on packet 2 soon, which will be even harder to put together than this first one I'm sure. Let me know if you're interested in reading new edits.  For packet two I plan on them being part of a different section of both books.  So you'll get a break in that area.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2012

    Reviews and Changes

    Although I do not intend to turn this into a book review only blog, I thought it might be helpful to readers if they had an easy way of looking up the books I've done reviews on. So I've put two extra pages on this blog.  One is an explanation for how this blog works or how I hope it will work.  The second one will contain an explanation of the different kind of reviews I'll be posting--there are two of them--and the list of books I have reviewed.  Once the lists reach a certain length, I may put the Reviews and Critical Reviews on separate pages.  For now, one page should work fine.

    If the pages become too hard to maintain I may scrap the idea all together, but I thought it would be helpful, especially to me, along the way. Let me know if you have suggestions on how to maintain the pages, or if you have other ideas on how to organize this blog. I will consider everything.

    Tuesday, June 12, 2012

    Al Capone Does My Shirts--Critical Review

                   Newbery Honored book,  Al Capone Does My Shirts is about a twelve-year-old boy named Moose Flannagan who moves to Alcatraz with his family and the struggles he faces as he comes of age. Considering the setting of the story and the situation Moose’s family was in, Choldenko could have easily focused solely on what life was like living on Alcatraz and still have a good book. Instead, Choldenko used subtle details to make readers more aware of what life was like outside of Alcatraz to add authenticity to the story. 
                     There are certain events that happen that when they happen—no matter how old the person is—everyone in the country is going to be aware of to some degree. In 1935, one of these events was the great depression. Moose Flannagan, the narrator of Al Capone Does My Shirts, does not directly mention the great depression, but the fact each chapter is dated between January 5 and June 12, 1935 lets the sophisticated reader know aware that the depression was in full-bloom. For readers not as well versed in American history, there are several hints as to the economic state of America in that time.  One example is seen while Moose is worrying over whether the warden knows about his sister, Natalie, and if she's supposed to be a secret: “There were 237 electricians who applied for the job my dad got. If it were me, I'd have kept my mouth shut about having a daughter like Natalie (page 19).”
    This is a great way of simply showing the economic times and the character’s awareness of it. Obviously, Moose and his family are not as concerned about the recession as others, because his father has two jobs, but the family is aware of the financial hardships others face. Instead of blatantly saying, "Because of the Great Depression, my father was lucky to get the job. A lot of people applied,” she drops in the detail subtly, neatly, and lets readers know how bad the economy was at the time. Even if young readers do not realize 237 people for one job is a lot of applicants during a healthy economy, they will recognize that 237 people is a lot of people. They will also know that, with so many applicants, Moose's father was lucky to have received his job at Alcatraz.
    Later in the book, Moose observes a once-common ritual. His father is reading the newspaper: “My father reads Natalie headlines from the newspaper, adding numbers to every one.  "Work resumes on the Golden Gate Bridge. 103 men are put back to work, (...) (pg. 23).”
    The phrase, “103 men put back to work” lets us know 103 men were out of work and provides another hint about the depression. But Choldenko also provides a new detail of the times in the passage: the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. The word “resume” also lets readers know that people were working on building the bridge, stopped and are starting again.  According to, construction on The Golden Gate Bridge  "commenced on January 5, 1933 and the Bridge was open to vehicular traffic on May 28, 1937." It also states that there were ten different contractors working on the Golden Gate Bridge at separate times during those four years. This small detail, especially since the characters live on Alcatraz--near the Golden Gate Bridge—adds a little historical trivia to the period and authenticity to the time.
    Gennifer Choldenko adds subtle details not directly related to the story, to add authenticity and expand the reader’s knowledge of the times.

    Wednesday, June 6, 2012

    Spalding: MFA Program Worth It?

    I've been asked by a few writing friends if I thought the MFA program I'm in at Spalding will be worth the cost of tuition. Obviously I think so, otherwise I wouldn't be enrolled and I won't know for certain how I feel about the entire program until after I get through my first semester. But I thought I would explain what I've heard about MFA programs, what I've seen at Spalding, and what I think of the program so far for those who are curious.

    **Please note, I'm not trying to promote Spalding.  It's the only true reference I have to pull from experience-wise.**

    A little information on Spalding first.  Spalding's MFA program is a low-residency program.  That means students need to be on campus ten days a semester, which they call residency, unless you're attending a summer semester.  In that case your 10 days will be spent in a foreign country.  This year students went to Paris, France. Next summer, they'll go to Dublin, Ireland.  After the residency, students work from home with guidance from their mentor. Spalding offers Children's/Young Adult fiction, Fiction, Screenwriting, Playwriting, Poetry, and Creative Non-fiction.  I learned about Spalding, because I was in close proximity of the school in High School.  I did not know about the MFA program until I saw it listed as one of the top 10 creative writing MFA programs in multiple writing magazines. To learn more about the program go to Spalding's MFA website.

    Creative Writing MFA programs only write literary fiction.
    I've heard and read this a lot. I've also read that because they only write literary fiction, a lot of writing suffered from the program.  The author was a contemporary novelist and the school insisted on him/her writing literary. This was a concern for me. I'm a a contemporary writer and though I don't mind reading literary pieces, I don't believe I'd do well with that style of writing on more than a trial basis. This was especially a concern when I realized that the two books we needed to read before residency were both literary fiction.  However, we were required to workshop our peers writing during the residency as well. I found some reassurance in reading the excerpts.  Their were contemporary pieces to critique.

    During the actual residency at Spalding, I picked up on a lot of their techniques and logic. They want their students well-rounded. So each semester they focus on a different aspect/genre of writing that they expect everyone to participate in during residency. Of course, they offer lectures on other topics, subjects and material. This semester the focus was on children's books.  Next semester, from what I understand, the focus will be on screenwriting. They prefer students to do an exploratory semester their second semester--have them try something other than their focus.  A lot of people suggested I try screenwriting out, next semester. I believe you can try a different style for every semester if you like though. The different types of experiences will help the writing in different ways. Poetry for instance teaches rhythm and imagery.  Screenwriting teaches you how to tell a lot in a very short amount of space/time, etc.

    No one said anything about restricting oneself to literary fiction when writing.  In fact a lot of contemporary novels were referenced in lectures. I've heard that a lot of MFA programs are literary focused, but I do not get the sense that Spalding is.

    Creative Writing MFA programs result in one or two short stories a semester.
    I workshopped with ten students, an alum who was volunteering to help with the program and two mentors. I met several other people outside the group.  None of which, are going to be writing short stories during the semester. I will be working on two novels during my first semester.  Shadowed, and Entangled.  I've been editing Shadowed for years, as some of you may know.  I first wrote a rough draft of Entangled at fifteen.  I've rewritten it several times since then, in totally different ways, but have not yet fallen in love with a discovery draft yet. I doubt either book will be complete by the end of the semester.  But I imagine Shadowed will be much cleaner, more polished and significantly closer to being ready for publication. Hopefully I'll have a better idea of how I want to write out Entangled and even have a much stronger discovery draft--if not a rough draft carved out. I'm hoping to have gone through the first 100 pages of both books with my mentor by the end of the semester.

    I've heard from a few transfer students that their are writing programs like this--they have you turn short stories in throughout the semester and nothing more.  This often results in students graduating from college and never writing a story again, because they wrote to fill a deadline.  Spalding, I'm told, wants to teach students how to fit writing into their daily life, which is why they have the mentorship working the way they do.

    Creative Writing MFA programs don't teach you anything you can't learn on your own.
    I believe you can learn anything on your own, from car mechanics to archery to martial arts to crocheting.  Classes are always offered in those areas though. So, this statement is true in my mind, but I imagine you'll learn a lot more and a lot faster with an experienced mentor at your side. Spalding's mentors have all been published in their field. I know several of the ones in my field of concentration have won awards for their writing and have active careers. Each semester you're supposed to work with a different mentor, which would give you more/different perspectives and experiences in writing, and in your writing than working with the same person year-after-year-after-year. You're going to continue learning after the program--you never stop learning, but by the time I graduate from Spalding, I suspect I'll have a better idea of how to figure out how to improve my writing and use the resources I picked up on, which will make me improve faster, even on my own.

    You also meet a lot of great people at the residency, which not only can help you with your writing, or promoting your book but can also provide you with the emotional support you need when times are hard. You also have a great potential resource of information in areas you may need later for other books.  I met nurses, doctors, lawyers, waitresses, career-military, a baker...etc. A lot of great sources you're not going to easily get on your own.

    Creative Writing MFA programs are expensive.
    Depending on your program and your income, they can be expensive. The lowest-priced one I've heard of is $7,000 a semester. At the moment, Spalding is looking at $7,900 a semester. Some will say that's chump change, others, like me, will not.  Their are options, grants and scholarships can help with the cost, even for freshman.  Spalding doesn't offer grants and only a very select few get scholarships, from my understanding.  Spalding does offer an assistantship program for those who want to go that route.  The more you work, the more they knock your tuition down.  I think the minimum they'll knock it is $1,000. And, of course, student loans. Spalding allows you to stay in the program as long as you need, so long as you graduate in ten years.  My understanding of this is, you can apply for Spalding, pay $8,000 in cash for your first semester.  Wait two years to save up another $8,000, attend your second semester and keep the pattern going until you graduate.  You only need four semesters to graduate. It just depends on what you prefer and can afford.

    Another way to think of it is that, sending your novel to a good, professional editor would cost approximately the same amount as you are spending on a semester at Spalding. (I've looked into the pricing but not extensively, so please correct me if you have better knowledge.)  I don't just mean copyediting.  I've been told my mentor will read every page, dissect every paragraph and question every comma. She'll make suggestions on how to improve my story AND help me get the story as grammatically correct as possible. That means I'd get proofreading, copy editing, substantive editing, and  developmental editing.  To get all those services, from what I've seen, you'll have to pay significantly more than $8,000 a semester. All the while learning a lot more about writing than one would from such an editor.  I'm also not required to work on the same piece of writing for all four semesters.  I can work on something different each semester if I want.

    To me, with everything I know about Spalding's program, I think it'll be worth going to an MFA program. I would recommend it to whoever is interested at this point, but I know it's not for everyone. If this has tugged your interest and you'd like to know more about Spalding's program, feel free to ask questions. I'll do my best to answer them. As I've mentioned before, I also plan on recording as much of the experience as I can on this blog.

    Are you in an MFA program?  Tell us about your experience. Would you be interested in trying one?  What would you most hope to gain from the program?

    Monday, June 4, 2012

    Al Capone Does My Shirts: A book Review

    Murderers, mob bosses, and convicts . . . these guys are not your average neighbors. Unless you live on Alcatraz. It’s 1935 and twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan and his family have just moved to the infamous island that’s home to criminals like notorious escapee Roy Gardner, Machine Gun Kelly, and of course, Al Capone. Now Moose has to try to fit in at his new school, avoid getting caught up in one of the warden’s daughter’s countless plots, and keep an eye on his sister Natalie, who’s not like other kids. All Moose wants to do is protect Natalie, live up to his parents’ expectations, and stay out of trouble. But on Alcatraz, trouble is never very far away.

    Traditionally, books that feature 12-year-old protagonists are for middle grade readers.  Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko is listed as a Young Adult novel.  The book felt like it didn't fit in either category. I believe Young Adult  and adult readers would enjoy it. However, this book did not hold me hostage.  I could have easily put the book down.  I probably would have needed to return to it eventually, but it NEVER threatened to keep me up all night.

    The description above is actually pretty accurate of the book.  Their is no linear plot, though the theme is strongly toward family and identity. Moose Flanagan narrates the story and I must say he has some pretty interesting views of the world he's now living in, Alcatraz. The very first pages opens with:

    Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.
         I'm not the only kid who lives here.  There's my sister, Natalie, except she doesn't count.  And there are twenty-three other kids who live on the island because their dads work as guards or cooks or doctors or electricians for the prison, like my dad does.  Plus, there are a ton of murderers, rapists, hit men, con men, stickup men, embezzlers, connivers, burglars, kidnappers and maybe even an innocent person or two, though I doubt it.
          The convicts we have are the kind other prisons don't want.  I never knew prisons could be picky, but I guess they can.  You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst.  Unless you're me.  I came here because my mother said I had to.

    Granted, some of this information is repeated through dialogue later in the book but it felt like a great introduction to this Newbery Honored book and I really didn't mind the repetition.

    Chodenko has a way of keeping my interest.  When the novelty of living on Alcatraz Island in the 1930s began to wane, Chodenko introduced other elements to the story that kept me going. I don't want to go into too much detail about the different kind of dynamics you see in this book.  But one of my favorite was the families interaction with Natalie and Natalie herself.

    Natalie is Moose's older sister. But their mother insists every year that she is 10. At the beginning of the book she's 15, by the end she's 16. Though the book itself doesn't reveal what's wrong with Natalie, which sticks to the times because the condition wasn't identified until 1943, the sophisticated reader could likely guess. And the author provides a great deal of information in her Author's Note at the end of the book, both on her research and Natalie herself.

    Natalie has Autism.  And as far as I can tell, Chodenko gives a very accurate account of the condition--which apparently she grew up around.  Her sister "had a severe form of autism."  Natalie is likeable, and has a personality of her own, despite her condition. Her father took a job at Alcatraz with the hope of getting her into a school that could help "normalize her."  Her mother seems to be the one who fights the hardest for Natalie's well-being, though everyone fights for her in some way.  Even Natalie fights for herself.

    The Autism is seen throughout the story and it is on the forefront of Moose's mind, especially since his sister's condition keeps uprooting his life. In some ways, the changes are small.  Other times, they're large. But Chodenko doesn't make it the sole focus of the book.  Moose plays baseball, tries to make friends at the new school he's attending, he gets into trouble because of Piper's, the Warden's daughter, scheme.

    My main issue with this book is that I kept having to remind myself that Moose was 12 years old.  Possibly 13 by the end of the book.  His voice sounded too mature, though his actions would sometimes match a kid his age. Al Capone's actions at the end of the book seemed a little too convenient.  This may be because the book discuses the bad things he's known for and not the good, though it's a great setup for the book's sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes.

    I would like to read Al Capone Shines my Shoes when I have some free time.  And I would recommend Al Capone Does My Shirts to anyone who enjoys historical novels, with well-rounded, realistic characters, who just happen to live on Alcatraz--which a lot of people actually did.  Boy or girl, adult or child, this book has a little bit of everything for the reader.

    For those who are interested, I'll try to post a critical essay on Al Capone Does My Shirts, where I try analyze a writing aspect of the book.  For example, Moose's voice, the description or the way things are weaved into the book.

    Have you read Al Capone Does My Shirts?  What are your thoughts?