My Workshop for the VCFA Young Writers Network, Part 1
When I started at Vermont College of Fine Arts in summer 2010, I met Katie Bayerl, who was graduating the semester that I began. Katie immediately impressed me with her commitment to nurturing the writing of children and teens — especially those from diverse backgrounds and/or from underresourced schools with few opportunities to participate in creative writing and the arts. Katie talked about starting workshops that would involve VCFA students, alumni, and faculty.
A lot of people talk about what they’d like to do, but over the next five years, Katie, with the help of several other passionate alumni and faculty, actually turned this dream into a reality. This past year, she secured funding to establish the VCFA Young Writers Network and set up workshops in Boston, Brooklyn, Vermont, and Alaska — with more sites to be added in the future.
VCFA faculty member and award-winning author Kekla Magoon became the first author to offer a program, presenting a workshop at O’Bryant High School in Boston on December 1. I was honored to be the VCFA Young Writers Network’s second presenter, with a two-day workshop at New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts, a middle school in Brooklyn, NY.
Before my first workshop on December 3, the 17 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in this after-school workshop led by teacher and fellow VCFA’er Danielle Pignataro (aka Ms. P.) read Rogue. At the same time, they were working on their own stories. Originally, I had planned to talk to them about the revision process, but when I heard that they were having trouble finishing their first drafts, I changed my mind. I didn’t want to break the news that they’d have to revise their work when they hadn’t even finished it! I was afraid they’d become intimidated and never finish their stories.
At the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference the weekend before Thanksgiving, I attended a presentation by author Meg Medina, who has written acclaimed picture books and middle grade and young adult novels. Meg talked about some of the challenges she has faced in her writing. One of the biggest, she said, is getting past the middle. So often, she has wished her novels could be only 80 or 100 pages long. (Her Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, one of my all-time favorite YA novels, is 260 pages.) As I listened to her, I thought about the students in my forthcoming workshop who hadn’t been able to finish their stories. When time came for the Q&A, I asked her how she got unstuck in the middle.
Meg told me she interviews her protagonist, thinking of the interview as a dialogue between friends who are trying to solve each others’ problem. She asks her protagonist as series of questions: What do you want? Who or what is keeping you from getting what you want? What can you do to overcome those obstacles? What will happen if you don’t overcome them? (I can imagine Meg Medina being a very good listener, and giving excellent advice to her protagonist-friend in trouble.)
Meg also suggested thinking of events that can serve as turning points in the story, in this way “unsticking” the action. So in my first workshop, I took her advice and planned two activities for the students. I talked about how I got lost in the middle of writing Rogue. I didn’t actually get stuck — I was having quite a bit of fun writing the scenes — but I was spending way too much time on the BMX track and the bike riders Kiara meets. As a result, she didn’t face enough obstacles, and much of the story centered on Antonio and his grief over the death of his father several years earlier. At the time, I was a student at VCFA, sending each month’s writing to my advisor, An Na, and she told me I had to cut more than 80 pages from the manuscript, taking it back to the time before Kiara and Chad first arrive at the BMX track. Out went much of Antonio’s presence in the novel — Rogue is not his story. And the first question I had the students ask themselves as part of the character interview:
Whose story is this?
I then listed the follow-up questions, once the students identified their focus character — some of the questions taken from Meg’s list and some my own:
Character, what do you want?
What do you really want? (Your character may be hiding something, or may not know. Press him or her to go deeper.)
What does this character need? (The writer will need to analyze and interpret here, as if he or she is the friend, offering advice.)
Who or what is standing in your way of getting what you want/need?
What will happen if you don’t get what you want/need?
Before sending the students to do their interviews (with Lego minifigures as stand-ins for their characters), I asked them to brainstorm events to get their story moving. These would also give them ideas for what their characters could do to overcome the obstacles that they face. I listed these events on the whiteboard and once they finished the character interviews, I added others that came to them in the course of the interview. I took part in the activity as well, and summarized an interview with Rosália, the protagonist of my work-in-progress, on the whiteboard.
The students seemed to enjoy the interviews, which gave them the opportunity to become involved in their story as a participant as well as a writer.
To be continued…