Sunday, June 20, 2010

Janet Fox on Growing As a Writer

I'm doing something different this week, posting an interview with author Janet Fox. She talks about the Vermont College MFA program, and how it helped her grow as a writer.

You were already a published author (Get Organized Without Losing It, Free Spirit Publishing, 2006) when you decided to join the Vermont College MFA program. Why did you feel that additional education was important?

Janet: I’d been attending SCBWI conferences for years and I recognized the value of honing my craft by listening to lectures. About the time that “Get Organized” came out I felt that those conference lectures, while still good, weren’t enough any longer. I wanted more “how-to” knowledge, I wanted to be a better writer, and reading craft books in the isolation of my office didn’t do the trick, either. Kathi Appelt lives near me, and she’s not only a good friend but also a mentor and is on the faculty at VCFA, and she began to talk up the MFA program to me. I think the final push came from my agent, who was wildly enthusiastic when I asked her what she thought about it. And here’s the thing – it’s fabulous. The Vermont program has taken my skill to an entirely new level.

How is that program set up? What appealed most to you?

Janet: It’s a two-year low-residency program. Each January and July for four semesters (five residencies, including the final) you attend a ten-day residency filled with lectures and workshops and readings. During the semesters off campus you are assigned an advisor, different each semester, who guides you through assignments due on a monthly basis. It’s intense and hard work and requires a commitment of time and energy. You must complete a critical thesis and a creative thesis. What appeals to me most of all is what I learn from the lectures, and then apply to my work; but I also value the input of my advisors during the semesters because that direct editing has truly taught me about my own strengths and weaknesses.

Do you think the education you got at Vermont College helped you to write and sell your new historical fiction novel, Faithful (Speak/Penguin Group, 2010)?

: No, I sold Faithful before I began the program. What I do wish is that I’d had more time in the program before Faithful came out! I was editing the manuscript like crazy based on what I was learning in the program at the time, and now see the flaws in that novel very clearly. But I’m trying to apply my new-found knowledge to the Faithful sequel (Forgiven, due out in 2011.) In fact, that manuscript forms the basis of my creative thesis, and I’m so thankful to have the eye of my current advisor, Leda Schubert, because I know this will be a better book for it.

Did the discipline and/or expense help you feel and act more like a professional writer?

Janet: Certainly the discipline helps – but also the fact that the VCFA faculty is stellar and yet approachable. I feel humbled in their presence and honored to be a part of this institution. I take my work seriously because I’m taken seriously by writers who are at the top of their field. VCFA is a terrific place. Expensive, yes. And worth every penny.

Can you share a few important things you learned in the program?

Janet: It’s all about the craft, not about the publication. Commit to hard work. First drafts are ugly, and revision rules. We all have craft flaws; the trick is to discover what you tend to do “wrong” and weed it out. Read like a writer, meaning read to see how great writers handle aspects of writing – dialogue, scene, description, character. Apply what you learn to your own writing. Be prepared to grow as a writer by always learning. Write every day. Write from the heart. Bare your feelings and write from the deepest possible place.

Monday, June 14, 2010

More on Cliffhangers

As noted last week, cliffhanger chapter endings drive the story forward. But they can also inspire new dramatic events. If you have to find a way to add a scary or exciting twist at the end of the chapter, the scene automatically becomes more dramatic.

In the Haunted series, I try to keep my chapters to about 1500 words. If I can't find a cliffhanger moment within 1600 words, maybe there isn't as much action as I want. If a chapter goes longer, I split it in two—which forces me to add a new cliffhanger halfway through the chapter.

For example, in Haunted book 4: The Ghost Miner's Treasure (not yet published), I had a chapter that was going on too long. I looked back through it, especially at the 1200 to 1600 word point, to see if I had a moment I could turn into a strong chapter ending. I found this:

          There was another guy in the room. He had shaggy dark hair and skin that looked like he spent every day in the sun. He stared at us a moment, with black eyes that kind of gave me a shiver, then looked down at the map spread across his table.
          The old guy bustled around, pulling out books and boxes and stacking them on an empty table. I sighed. This looked like it might take awhile. Tania sat down, and I moved up next to her. I jumped back when my elbow seem to hit a wall of cold. I must've gotten too close to the ghost. There really wasn't room for all of us.
          "Hey, why don't I go find Mom, while you get started," I said. "She'll worry if she doesn't know where we are."

There's something potentially dramatic there -- a physical encounter with the ghost. But they've already gotten to know the ghost, and it's just a slight brush of the elbow, so it passes in a moment. To build that into a cliffhanger chapter ending, I changed it to this:

          When I glanced up, I saw the dark-haired guy staring at us, with black eyes that kind of gave me a shiver. For some reason, he reminded me of the fortune teller, and her words "Bad luck" seemed to echo in my brain.
          I guess I took a step back without realizing it. I let out a yelp as I stepped into a wall of cold.

I took a small moment and made it bigger. Because the reader already knows the freezing effects of ghosts, they'll wonder what happened when Jon backed into one. This also allowed me some humor at the start of the next chapter, as Jon knocks into the museum curator. Books go flying, Jon has to somehow explain what happened, and he draws even more attention from the spooky guy.

Tip: To keep the plot action-packed, check your pacing by noting your chapter lengths. If some chapters go on much longer than others (proper length varies by genre and age range), look for places to add action.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Cliffhanger chapter endings have the obvious advantage of driving the story forward. Not every chapter has to end in a cliffhanger (I personally get annoyed when there's never a good place to put down the book. Sometimes I have to do other things!) But using cliffhanger chapter endings regularly throughout your manuscript can help build drama and keep the reader turning the pages.

If you want a cliffhanger, it's not enough to just suddenly throw something at your character. I ghost wrote a book for a series known for its cliffhanger endings. After I turned in my manuscript, I got this comment from the editor: “I would like to see more of a slow build-up toward the intense action. In horror movies, it’s always the ominous music and the main character slowly opening the closet door that scares us the most, not the moment right after she opens the door.”

She's talking about the difference between suspense and surprise. Surprise is startling, because it's not set up. However, there's no tension leading up to it. It's slow until something smacks you in the face, and can feel more random and baffling than dramatic. (A car that rear-ends you out of nowhere is a surprise. Losing your brakes at the top of a steep hill is suspenseful.) For suspense, give clues that something is about to happen. Often this means expanding the scene a bit, using more sensory details and more emotional thoughts, expressions or actions.

As an example, here's an early version of a chapter ending in The Ghost on the Stairs. Jon is starting to believe that Tania really sees ghosts, and they are trying to find out if they can communicate with one.

            “All right,” I said. “Let’s go back in now. We can just stand near the bottom of the stairs, and pretend that we’re talking to each other and watching the filming.”
            Tania nodded. She took a deep breath and led the way inside.

Here's my revised version, as published, with more detail to hopefully build suspense.

            “All right,” I said. “Let’s go back in now. We can just stand near the bottom of the stairs, and pretend that we’re talking to each other and watching the filming.”
            Tania nodded. She looked down, then back up, and spoke softly. “Do you think she could be dangerous?”
            I shrugged. I wasn’t sure she was anything. But that got me wondering. Could a ghost do anything to you? Did it matter if you could see it or not?
            I watched Tania as she stepped toward the door. Maybe we were going to find out.

 Now you try it -- look back at some of your chapter endings. Can you make them more dramatic, by sloooowly opening the closet door?

    * Focus on suspense, not just surprise.
    * Use more detail -- you actually slow the pace for a cliffhanger. Use sensory details with an emotional impact.
    * Use shorter sentences and short paragraphs to keep the reader's eyes speeding down the page.