VCFA WCYA Residency: My Trip to Hogwarts

Vermont College of Fine Arts.

A.K.A. Brigadoon


This place bears an uncanny resemblance to Hogwarts. The staircases don’t move, but the buildings seep tradition and history.


There’s an eerie fog. A forest off in the distance. Even a bathroom stall door that moans like Myrtle.


Students gather from around the country and are sorted into advisor groups with a mysterious method much like the sorting hat.


There is magic here. The magic of a class of children’s writers who support each other, name themselves, and become a family over two years together. The magic of a network of alumni who’ve already reached out to welcome first semester students into the fold.


There are readings, costumes, dances, amazing guest authors such as Maggie Steifvater (who read tarot cards at my lunch table!), and an awesome faculty of writers to guide us on this MFA journey.


Every writer leaves Brigadoon changed.

Not from the weight of reading lists, critical essays, and creative pages looming before us.

From finding the family where we belong.




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Wild, Wild Midwest

IMG_7648Last weekend 500 Wild, Wild Midwest children’s authors and illustrators gathered in Chicago for the SCBWI regional conference. The faculty list was a who’s who of awesome children’s authors, featuring keynote speeches by Lisa Cron, Sarah Aronson, Linda Sue Park, and Candace Fleming.

Here’s my conference top five list:

5. I randomly sat down next to an awesome author at dinner who lives near me. My critique partner and I thought we were the only SCBWI members in the Rockford area. Now we have another writer to commute to conferences with.

4. I bravely took off my author hat to attend my first illustrator breakout sessions. Eric Rohmann presented a great session on The Language of Pictures which was extremely helpful for this hobby artist attempting to cross the bridge into illustration. His presentation discussed how illustrations are different from stand alone art pieces because they need to show movement, draw the eye to specific places on the page, and use the page turns for suspense and surprises. Then Kristi Valiant presented a session on digital illustration demonstrating how she adds texture to drawings to mimic traditional art mediums.

3. After a diversity update showcasing the many grants and internships started by We Need Diverse Books, one author in the audience shouted, “If everyone here donates $5 we could fund a writing grant.” An avalanche of people rushed forward with cash in hand to do exactly that, raising over $3,700.

2. Linda Sue Park. Need I say more? I attended her three hour intensive on revision, which was incredible. If you ever get a chance to see her speak, take it. Not only is she a great teacher, she had an inspiring story to tell in her keynote speech about her book A Long Walk to Water. This book is classified as historical fiction, but it is based on the true story of her friend Salva, a Sudanese “Lost Boy” who was air lifted to the United States in the mid 1990’s and has since established Water For South Sudan to drill wells for clean water. This book has inspired classrooms all over the country to hold fundraisers to bring clean water to children in Sudan.

1. It’s probably no surprise, book nerd as I am, that I stood in line to get many author and illustrator signatures. When I met Sarah Aronson and mentioned I would be attending her alma mater, Vermont College of Fine Arts, she squealed, leapt out of her chair, ran around the table, and gave me a big hug. Then she proceeded to give me encouragement and advice for my program, as well as the name of another local alumni. There truly is no other writing community as supportive as SCBWI!

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Sample Illustrations

Shooting Stars 1

Where has Jennifer been for the past two months?

Attached to my new digital drawing pad. It’s become a third limb. After only three hours of online webinars on how to use Manga Studio 5, I’ve reached below average functionality in the program. Seriously, it’s a big change from drawing and painting by hand. Especially when I normally paint landscapes that do not include any people. That said, it was time well spent because my new drawing software came in handy when I needed to design a custom baby shower invitation, and I somehow stumbled through creating my first ever sample illustrations.

How did this happen?

It all started with that New Years resolution to write a graphic novel. The text of the manuscript took me less than two weeks to write. It’s amazing how much quicker the writing goes with only 1000 words of actual captions and text. So much of the story is told using the illustrations.

My next step was researching how to query a graphic novel. I found nothing online. Even literary agents who represent graphic novels didn’t list their graphic novel submission guidelines – only procedures for picture books, traditional novels, and non-fiction. I assumed that meant a graphic novel would be submitted similar to a picture book, meaning a debut author could submit a text only manuscript and later be paired with a more experienced illustrator.


Special thank you to agent extraordinaire Kelly Sonnack for taking the time to answer my newbie graphic novel questions. According to Kelly, it is very difficult to sell a debut author graphic novel without sample illustrations. Agents (and editors) need to see 20 to 30 pages of sample art along with the graphic novel manuscript. She recommended 5 to 10 pages be inked and full color. The rest of the pages can be rough blue line sketches.

What? I can think of a million exceptions to that rule. Tons of comic books and graphic novels are produced by a three person team: author, inker, and colorist. But those are experienced, published authors and illustrators with a track record and a portfolio of their work. Debut authors are an unknown quantity. As a newbie, you have the burden of proving your text lends itself well to being illustrated as a graphic novel.

Maybe you’re worried you’re not a great artist. That’s okay. Graphic novel illustrations range from stick figures to artistic masterpieces. Pick a style you’re comfortable with and go for it. Maybe an agent or editor will suggest pairing you with a more experienced illustrator after they see the potential in your manuscript. Or maybe you’ll surprise yourself with the quality of illustrations you produce.

Here’s a link to my first sample illustrations: Part 1 of The Shooting Stars. Eight pages with three full color illustrations to give a feel for the finished look of this section of the story.

Only 22 more sample pages to go, with ten new characters and ten new settings to draw. When you consider the artwork, writing a graphic novel is a much slower process than writing a traditional novel.

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Starting the New Year with New Art Forms

It’s no secret I’m a creature of habit. If my online calendar crashed, my life would fall into utter chaos. I make lists. Even lists of my lists. There’s only one way to juggle so many balls for myself, my husband, and my daughter. I take organization to crazy, scary new levels.

Yet I have an artistic side that loves to create – within pretty rigid boundaries. I write children’s novels and paint landscapes with oils. Within that comfort zone, I’ve always felt free to experiment and create. Occasionally I stray into the realms of acrylic or watercolor paint for my landscapes, but they are very similar mediums to oil painting. And I’ve ranged from middle grade to young adult audiences with my novels, which really only changes the length and maturity of the story.

For the first time this year, instead of resolving to exercise more and eat healthier (which are admirable goals I usually forget by February 1), I decided to push myself into completely new artistic terrain.

I recently completed my first landscape paintings with alcohol ink, a very un-brush-like medium of painting.



And I started my first stained glass panel, which added breaking pliers and a soldering iron to my brush box.


My biggest new risk: writing a graphic novel manuscript. Maybe even attempting to illustrate it too!

I was pulled into this unfamiliar terrain by my daughter, who loves stories but is a reluctant reader. She’ll eagerly listen to me read all my favorite middle grade novels, but when the time comes to sit down and read a story herself, she’s all about graphic novels. It’s been a challenge continuing to put great age-appropriate material in her hands, especially because she isn’t interested in super heroes. So far the big hits have been Rapunzel’s Revenge, Amulet, Baby Mouse, Phoebe and her Unicorn, Zita the Spacegirl, and Bones. I was thrilled to discover most of these great graphic novel series are available in her school library. But she’s read them all and is seeking new material.

Enter Abigail and the Snowman.

My daughter has officially crossed over to reading comic books. So my research moved in another new direction: searching for the best E for Everyone comic book series. And the impossible quest: finding a child friendly comic book store to take her to. Special shout out to Toad Hall Books and Records for helping me on both fronts.

During my hunt I discovered the new Jem and the Holograms comic book series. I’m officially hooked on a comic book for the first time in my life. I may have even secretly drawn some fan art in my doodle book.


My daughter is upset it’s rated T for Teens. So I started to write my first middle grade graphic novel for her – basically Jem and the Holograms for a younger audience. Not fan fiction. I used a multicultural cast of characters modeled after the third-grade girls in my daughter’s after school program.

My search for guidance on writing a graphic novel manuscript played out much like my original search for graphic novel series for my daughter to read. There are gems out there, but be prepared for a massive hunt to find them. My best resource: my awesome sister who loves manga and graphic novels. But if you don’t know anyone already familiar with the comic / manga / graphic novel marketplace, there are awesome author / illustrators with tons of helpful information online. Google Mark Fearing or Scott McCloud to get started. From there, create and explore to the limits of your imagination.



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Ornaments are Memories

IMG_4795I love Christmas. Few things make me happier than seeing the lights and decorations go up, hearing holiday songs start playing, and watching the joy and wonder on children’s faces when they open gifts from Santa. That said, it’s a very stressful season to be an adult. All that decorating, baking, and shopping takes time. Fighting crowds and traffic can be maddening. The gift shopping list seems to grow every year, stretching the budget. Plus there is so much pressure on parents to squeeze in all the Christmas traditions we grew up with plus many more that have been invented since then. It’s easy to get caught up in the To Do list to prepare for Christmas and lose sight of what matters more.

This year as we decorated the Christmas tree my daughter announced, “Ornaments are Memories.”

Her observation stopped me short. Instead of stressing about how long it was taking her to decorate the tree when we had so much more on the To Do list, I sat back and watched her hang ornaments. With each one she picked up, she looked it over and smiled, wondering where it came from. Some she knew, like the ornament series her grandmother and I give her and the crafts we’ve made together. Others from my childhood she asked about. Her favorites are the picture frame ornaments with her yearly Christmas photos in them and the family ornaments with all of our names and the year on them.

Ornaments are Memories. Memories of the time we’ve spent together as a family celebrating the holiday season. Memories of what matters more than our To Do list.

After we finished the tree, I sat down at my laptop to work on the photo calendar I always make for my mother and myself. Usually I buzz through the year’s photos at lightning speed to get the calendar ordered while it’s still on sale and will have guaranteed delivery by Christmas. This time I stopped and actually looked at the photos. Wow did this year fly by. We were crazy busy, and I always felt a few steps behind my plan, but the photos don’t reflect that. There were so many amazing family moments and experiences. So much love and joy. Nobody’s life is perfect, but overall we had a great year.

Maybe it’s okay if the photo calendar isn’t ordered until after Christmas (Sorry mom!). Or if the gifts aren’t wrapped with as many fancy ribbons and bows. Instead let’s focus our time and attention on what matters more than being a Christmas Super Mom and out holiday-ing others:

The families we’ll be celebrating with.

The families we don’t know who could maybe use our help this year.

The spirit of giving.


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Writing Characters Who Don’t Look Like You

IMG_4305Last weekend my critique partner and I journeyed into Chicago for SCBWI Prairie Writer’s Day. Once again it was an event filled with awesome people in the publishing industry (or aspiring to be), invaluable knowledge, and heaps of inspiration. This year the topic that really resonated with me was diversity, in a session by Andrew Karre, Executive Editor at Dutton Children’s Books, titled “Writing Characters Who Don’t Look Like You.”

Diversity in books is not a new issue. It’s been debated at length in literary circles and on Twitter. There’s even a website devoted to the cause called We Need Diverse Books. Awareness had been raised. Authors, educators, and parents want things to change. There’s still one fact no one can change: published literary works in the US are already heavily skewed toward straight, white, male, able-bodied characters and cultures.

Things are slowly changing. Authors such as Renee Watson, Linda Sue Parks, Joseph Bruchac, and Gary Soto are producing great children’s literature with multi-cultural characters and settings. Resources are emerging to cultivate more authors of color who can then publish authentic multi-cultural novels. Agents and editors are actively seeking diverse manuscripts.

The question raised at Prairie Writer’s Day in Andrew’s discussion: is that enough to correct this issue? The United States population is approximately 63 percent Caucasian. That means over half the authors currently publishing novels are likely Caucasian, and they are adding to the huge collection of work already published by Caucasian authors. If white authors only write white characters, diverse books statistically cannot catch up. Ever.

The first reaction of many white writers: “I write colorblind fiction. I don’t mention race or skin color because it doesn’t matter. People are people.” While that is true in theory, it is impossible to truly write colorblind fiction. Skin color is one small piece of diverse fiction. The character names, foods, family members living in the home, clothing worn, games played, traditions, religious beliefs, challenges faced, and character voice are all deeply rooted in the culture. A white author will write what they know, and default to white culture, unless they make a concerted effort not to. That effort involves extensive research and interaction with the culture the author is trying to write. Beta readers need to include members of the culture depicted to insure the author’s ignorance isn’t accidentally offensive.

Andrew asked the audience (consisting of ninety percent Caucasian women) why writers aren’t writing diverse characters. The number one answer: FEAR. Fear of getting it wrong. Fear of accidently offending. Fear of hurting rather than helping the cause for diverse books.

A little fear is a good thing. It drives you to do your research and try your best. Making the effort is always better than giving up or ignoring the issue.

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Stories for All

PIB-smThis week Shannon and Dean Hale released the second book in their Princess in Black Series: Perfect Princess Party. Nicole and I devoured it on release day. It’s an early reader chapter book with hilarious illustrations by LeUyen Pham.

Love the concept of a princess who is also secretly a monster-fighting ninja. Our favorite line that recurs in both books: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little . . . SMASH!” This quote of course occurs while the Princess in Black goes into battle with her wand, valiantly saving her kingdom’s goats from being eaten by monsters.

In honor of this release, Shannon has been hosting a series of guest posts on her blog with the theme Stories for All. She’s blogged in the past about her experiences during author school visits, and the shocking sexism that still occurs when boys are not allowed to attend a presentation by a female author presumed to only write for girls. I’ve read all of Shannon’s books. They are exciting adventure stories all children would enjoy. Most have a female protagonist, but all have great male characters as well.

One of today’s guest posts is by author Matthew Kirby, who I’ve blogged about before. He is the author of the award-winning novel Icefall, and he’s also the author who first told me about the awesome faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. This quote from his post really resonated with me:

“I hope the current conversation going on in our community about gender and diversity in children’s literature will continue. I believe the notion of boy books and girl books sets up a false dichotomy. There are only books, and there are readers for those books, and we do a grave disservice to children if we make assumptions about what they will or won’t like based on their gender, or worse, shame them for their interest and enjoyment.”

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The Low Residency Degree

Last Wednesday my phone rang while I was on a lunch date with my husband. When I saw Montpelier, VT, on the caller id, I squealed right there in the middle of Chipotle. I was accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program. It took much restraint for me to contain my happy dancing until we were outside the restaurant.

Yes, I am crazy enough to embark on my third college degree.

No, I am not moving to Vermont.

The new trend in higher education is the low residency degree. This program is very different from the online degree most people think of.

Online degrees sometimes get a bad reputation, but they can be great programs if well executed. I earned my masters degree in civil engineering from Kansas State University via distance education. Their philosophy was to record the courses being held on campus so the distance education students could view the same lectures, mail in the same homework, and have the same exams proctored for them. The program is designed for the on campus student but can be completed by working professionals at the same time. My experience in that program was very similar to my more traditional undergraduate degree, only I wasn’t on campus and didn’t know the other students.

Low residency degree programs are designed for the working professional. No live courses take place on campus during the semester. The entire program is for distance education students who cannot quit their day job or relocate to obtain their degree. This concept breaks down many of the barriers preventing adults from going back to school. But it also seems best suited for MFA programs that are largely independent study models.

Vermont College of Fine Arts was at the forefront of low residency degrees, establishing their Writing for Children & Young Adults program in 1997. It’s regarded as one of the top children’s writing programs in the country because of the unique model and the success of its graduates. Students come to campus for a ten-day residency before the traditional semester begins, and then work independently during the remainder of the semester. My first trip to Vermont will be July 2016. Then I’ll be able to answer questions and share my insights on this new adventure.

Here’s the program description from the Vermont College of Fine Arts website:

On Campus

The ten-day residency is a vibrant whirlwind of workshops, lectures, panels, discussions, and readings by faculty, graduating students, and visiting writers and illustrators. Students participate in small, intensive, faculty-guided workshops in which each writer’s work is carefully examined. Students and faculty eat together in the Dewey Cafe, stay together in campus dorms, and find plenty of opportunities for informal exchange over coffee, in the VCFA bookstore, or on our comfortable grassy quad.

A low student-to-faculty ratio (5:1) ensures that our students receive close attention and that individual skills, talents, and artistic vision are nurtured. Residencies provide the opportunity for students to choose their faculty advisor, develop a unique study plan for the coming semester, and gain both direction and inspiration for the work ahead. Students choose a new advisor each semester, ensuring a wide range of input and the benefit of informing their studies with each faculty member’s expertise.

Off Campus

After the vibrant exchange of ideas during residencies, students return home to embark on the semester’s faculty-guided independent study project. Because the program is equally committed to individualized education and to supporting a dynamic writing community, students are closely supervised and supported every step of the way, maintaining a continual correspondence with faculty and peers. Students can dive headlong into serious writing education without leaving their communities, families, or jobs.

Students devote 25 hours a week to completion of the semester’s Study Plan. Students send monthly “packets” of writing and responses to reading to their faculty mentors. Each faculty member supervises five students through written correspondence, online communication, and/or telephone conferences during the semester. Our mentorship model provides more individualized feedback on student writing than most traditional classroom programs. Students relish the opportunity to develop close relationships with eminent writers of literature for children and young adults. The flexibility of our model allows students to follow their particular interests and passions—such as writing for the young adult market or picture books for young children—as well as develop independent work habits and skills, which will serve them throughout their professional writing careers.

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Forced Growth

Every writing conference I attend hammers the same key writing slogans. “Show, Don’t Tell” is the favorite, followed closely by “Characters must grow and change.” But do they really choose to grow? Or do relationships with those around them force change?

S.L. Saboviec explored that second question in this blog post. Characters themselves don’t just grow – their relationships with everyone around them grow. She suggests writers use a matrix to study the character relationships if your story is lacking character growth.

Her idea has been in the back of my mind, not just while I write, but also in life. This week especially, the first week of school, I’m observing a lot of growth and change in my daughter as our family shifts from our summer schedule to a new third grade school year. Some of the changes excite her. Others, such as her first standardized test, loom before her like demons poised and ready to attack. This school year will change her, whether she wants it to or not. Children have no choice but to grow.

In the adult world it’s feasible to remain the same forever. But you’d have to become a hermit and avoid others. Personal growth spawns from changes in our circumstances, often in our relationships.

In my own life I can pinpoint ten key circumstances that redirected my life into uncharted terrain. It’s no coincidence these items are also key themes in fiction. They’re universal life experiences most people can relate to.

1) First best friend: A girl named Katy who sat next to me in Kindergarten. Loved her giggle and her mischief. No idea where she is now, but I remember her sixth birthday party (and walking into the sliding glass door while holding my piece of cake) as if it were yesterday.

2) Switching Schools: I went from a school district with a swimming pool to a school district without a swimming pool. That’s an epic ordeal in first grade. Combine that with leaving Katy behind, and my world was turned upside down. Plus I never really learned how to swim.

3) First Bully: In the course of one school year I got both glasses and acne. Double whammy. Don’t think I need to illustrate the level of teasing that brought on. Not a school year I recall fondly or care to write about.

4) First boyfriend (and every one after): New people expose you to new life experiences. That’s a great thing. New boyfriends become the epicenter of a teenage girl’s life and change her. Not always a positive impact. Yet I can think of many life experiences, such as fishing, cow tipping, rock climbing, and skiing, I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to.

5) First breakup (and every one after): New hurts teach you how to protect yourself in the future. They also show you what you’re made of when it’s time to pick yourself up and start again. That said, they’re not fun to reminisce about or easy to write about.

6) First job (and every one after): The first day of work hammers a new idea into a teenager’s brain: you are not the center of the universe. Mine was spent drilling 3,500 tiny screws into ice fishing tip-ups, sitting next to loud machinery. Working for someone, and the way you’re treated, shapes who you become. And what career you choose. There are no tip-ups or drills in my work office.

7) Marriage: Love. Romance. Celebration. Followed closely by the realities of having to pay that whopping party bill and merge your lives together. All the thought and preparation goes into the first part, which can make the second part a rude awakening for many people. I’ve had two marriages (and weddings), which were complete opposites. Because I was a very different person by the second time. Because of all the change and growth forced upon me in between.

8) Motherhood: Words cannot describe how this one event changes every fiber of who you are. The physical changes to your body are less than ideal. Yet the love you have for that little person could carry you over any mountain. Priorities shift. Schedules change. Then you spend years trying to outsmart a younger version of yourself while at the same time sculpting her into a better version of yourself.

9) Divorce: It’s compared to death for a reason. Yet after someone dies they don’t show up on your door step every other weekend to pick up the kids. With that parenting link, it’s not easy to mourn and move on. I’ve come out the other side of a divorce, and found the middle ground for co-parenting. Still, I don’t think I’d ever choose this life experience to write about. Not sure if the story would be a dark comedy or a tragedy.

10) Death of a Family Member: This goes without saying. We never forget our first funeral. Mine was my great-grandmother, who passed away the week my Kindergarten class was scheduled to make an awesome Valentine’s Day craft project. I begged to go to school instead, and still have that craft. The rare “happy” funeral memory only a child could have.

If the fictional character you love grew and changed, it probably wasn’t her choice.

Life happened.

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The Heart of the Story

This week Jennifer Lynn Barnes published The Fixer, hyped as a YA version of Scandal. As a fan girl of both Jennifer’s books and all political thriller TV shows, I immediately pre-ordered my copy. I’m probably curled up in my reading chair right now. While I devour her latest book, you should check out her series of blog posts inspired by The Fixer.

The first post in the series, describing how Scientist Jen influences Writer Jen, intrigued me because I’ve recently been pondering a related topic.

There seem to be three rings of writing (torture) all aspiring novelists must pass through during the difficult road to publication.

1)     Writing Mechanics: As I rambled about in my last post, there’s so much more to learn about the publishing industry writing standards than your high school grammar lessons taught you. A great novel has a compelling voice with writing mechanics that are effortless to read – but require much dedication and practice to achieve.


Yet all the skill in the universe won’t take you anywhere if you don’t have an interesting story to tell.


2)     Story Pacing: This component is the meat of the story. You need a catchy idea that involves a compelling cast of characters confronted by an interesting conflict they must struggle to overcome. I know, that sort of inspiration doesn’t hit every day, and even when it does, it takes a lot of work to cultivate your concept into a fully fleshed out novel. I use Jami Gold’s beat sheet spreadsheets to help pace my stories in a three act structure that involves many twists and turns but still satisfies the reader. I also recommend The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler for great explanations of the character archetypes and the steps along the Hero’s Journey.


With a mastery of these first two components of writing, you can write an entertaining novel that may even be published, if you’re lucky. Yet somehow the most beloved novels take it one step further.


3)     Emotional Connection: This aspect of storytelling sets the masters apart from the rest. The Heart of the Story. The emotional connection between the reader and the characters, causing him to feel like he belongs in the story, like the characters are his friends and family. The shared experiences a reader can relate to and feel for hours or even days after finishing a book.


Unfortunately, I don’t have any insights or pointers for this last component that so few writers can achieve. As a reader, I can feel the difference, but I’m still pondering how to achieve that effect in my writing. For now, I’ll direct you to Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ insights.

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