Cleaning Up The Trailer Trash Stereotype


jen dogSCAN0181tami001 jen stove

SCAN0190car2Tomorrow I depart for my third residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts WCYA. The dreaded critical thesis semester is about to consume my life – except I’m not really dreading it. I’m a structural engineer. Critical analysis and technical writing don’t scare me. I’ve had my thesis topic in mind for months, and I wrote three exploratory critical essays last semester. My thoughts are already organized into charts and tables.

jen swingsTo prepare for this challenge, I decided to read all of the Critical Thesis Prize Winners over the summer break. VCFA WCYA is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, so that’s a lot of prize winners. The engineer in me was thrilled to see some of those winners use table of contents, numbered outline sections, charts, tables, and appendices. The writer in me was wowed by the diversity and depth of topics covered. Then one critical thesis resonated with me so strongly my heart hummed.

“Reconsidering the Trailer Park: Confronting Stereotypes of Rural and Blue-Collar Culture in Young Adult Literature and the MFA Academy” by Monica Roe from Winter / Spring 2014.

I wish this critical thesis were available for the public to read. I’d skip this blog post and give you a direct link. If you’re a VCFA WCYA student or alumni, I highly recommend this critical thesis. For those of you who are not, let me quote the two paragraphs that really resonated with me:

“Ask anyone from a lower-SCAN0182socioeconomic rural upbringing and you’re likely to find that they’re no stranger to hearing jokes and slurs about their background, whether directly or in passing. Besides being prevalent in popular culture as a whole, this tendency is surprisingly accepted in higher socioeconomic urban or academic environments, where many people who would never dream of mocking someone on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, skin color or disability status seem to find nothing untoward in openly making fun of those who grew up in a trailer or who speak with a country accent.” (Roe 3)

“If not honestly acknowledged and addressed, this trend risks a huge disservice to rural and working-class readers of young adult literature by continuing to provide them with derogatory and incomplete portrayals of their culture and community while re-enforcing existing stereotyped views widely held by more socioeconomically privileged readerships.” (Roe 5)

Until I read this critical thesis, I had not considered myself to have a marginalized identity element I could use as lived experience in my writing. But I do. Jennifer Kay Loescher, S.E., jen motorcycleP.E. and VCFA WCYA MFA student began her life as Jenny, a little girl who lived in a rural trailer park. I didn’t realize that aspect of my upbringing was a marginalized identity element mocked by others until I was older and no longer lived there. The first teasing didn’t occur until high school, and I didn’t really understand the stereotype until I was in college, surrounded by people from higher socioeconomic status.

I would like to say this issue has been addressed and corrected in the writing community since this critical thesis was written, but unfortunately I experienced a hurtful situation, much like the ones described in Roe’s critical thesis, in a writing workshop earlier this year. One creative writing piece had used the “poor white trash” stereotype in a way that really triggered me. I debated what to do. I’m not the type of writer to go on theSCAN0074 attack in a workshop. How could I nicely point out that a hurtful stereotype had been used without ambushing the author?

Before I worked up the nerve to say anything, another writer brought up the same sentence I had underlined. For a moment I was relived. Someone else would point out the issue. I didn’t have to talk about my upbringing. My relief dissolved when that writer complimented the author on that character and the great humor in the “poor white trash” set-SCAN0185up. The entire workshop collectively laughed at a stereotype of a rural person of low socioeconomic status.

I debated whether to ever blog about this incident. I like and respect every writer who was in that workshop, including the author of that creative piece. All of them felt strongly about writing across identity elements and wouldfamily photo2 never stereotype based on race, gender, sexuality, mental or physical disability. I could tell they seriously had no idea that mocking someone for their low socioeconomic status and rural upbringing could be as hurtful to the reader as a racist remark. It also never occurred to them that a rural person of low socioeconomic status might be
among the writers in their workshop.

Don’t worry, I’m not changing my critical thesis topic at the eleventh hour. Roe already did a fantastic job covering this issue. What this experience will likely do is impact my writing. My story idea with a rural setting will likely move up my priority list. The protagonist’s trailer park home is going to subvert this stereotype to show another reality, one that is rarely considered in children’s books: a happy home and a close-knit community in a rural trailer park.

I have only happy memories of my early years living in a trailer park. My parents were young, blue collar workers who bought a small home they could afford. Emphasis on the word ‘home.’ We were surrounded by other young families, which meant lots of kids for my sister and me to play with and lots of couples for my parents to socialize with. The only inherent danger I recall was tornadoes, because trailers don’t have a basement. The owner of the trailer park always welcomed the residents into his own basement whenever there was a tornado warning.

The trailer park where I grew up had a collective parenting mentality of looking after all the children. I haven’t experienced that mindset in any suburban neighborhood I’ve lived in since. Any of the moms on my street would punish me if I were naughty, but they would also help me if I were in need. Because everyone was of low socioeconomic status, there was a passing down of clothes, toys, and bikes among families. There was also a greater value placed on taking care of your belongings and appreciating everything you owned, which I do not see in the middle and upper class children I encounter now. Yes, that includes my own daughter and her friends. They are a product of their middle class socioeconomic environment.

Eventually my parents did save up enough money to build a more traditional house. It was a big adjustment for all of us to no longer have those neighbor kids and adult friends in such close proximity. We continued to get together with some of the families from the trailer park for years afterwards as they, too, moved on to larger homes. Many of those families, like my own, chose to stay in a rural setting near a small community, where there was a similar mentality and way of life as the rural trailer park.

Photos of my early childhood are limited because camera film was considered an expensive luxury for us at that time. I wanted to share the few of the photos I do have to give a brief ode to our happy home in a rural trailer park. In the ways that matter, it wasn’t much different from anyone else’s childhood.

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Subtext: Two Plus Two Equals A Reader Connection

Eons ago, at my first SCBWI Prairie Writer’s Day Conference, I heard the popular writing tip “show, don’t tell.” That catch phrase should be writing advice to live by, except this wide-eyed newbie didn’t understand how to “show.”

I jumped to the conclusion “show means slow.” To me, telling was a summary that skipped the reader ahead in time. Showing must then mean slowing down to flesh out a scene. True, but that was only half of the equation.

The other half of the showing equation was missing from my writing: emotion. Adding emotional depth to the scene makes a connection with the reader. In his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How To Write the Story Beneath the Surface, Donald Maass said, “One secret ingredient behind effective showing can be summed up in this word: subtext. When there’s a feeling we’re not being told, but it is evident anyway, that underlying feeling is the subtext.”

The concept of subtext finally solved the equation for me, or so I though. I had decoded the “show, don’t tell” advice, ten years after I first heard it. Yet my writing was still uneven. There was emotional depth in some scenes, but none in others. The reason: my understanding of subtext was only in terms of dialogue.

In her weekly e-mail newsletter, author Sarah Aronson discussed three levels of dialogue: “what is said, what is unsaid, and what is unsayable.” To me, the unsayable was the subtext – the only type of subtext I had figured out how to write. That meant my reader could only emotionally connect to my protagonist during scenes with dialogue. My writing remained uneven.

I discovered the final variable in the equation while reading The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maass suggests writers “Add a detail of the setting that only your protagonist would notice, or that everyone notices but your protagonist sees in a unique way.” The key to showing subtext through description is the setting detail only your protagonist notices, but the writer must open the door for the reader by establishing why that setting detail matters.

From Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk, the “unifying theory of two plus two” is one method to establish why that setting detail matters. Readers enjoy figuring things out for themselves. “Don’t give them four, give them two plus two.” Don’t tell the reader how the protagonist feels about the setting detail she notices. Let the reader put two and two together so he can feel the subtext emotion himself.

Holly Black used setting description to show subtext in The Darkest Part of the Forest. Hazel’s mother came home from a thrift shop one day with a sword for her brother Ben and a baby doll for her. The problem: Hazel was the one who dressed as a knight to explore the forest, the one who desperately wanted a sword.

Ben’s sword beat any stick Hazel used to fight him. Frustrated, she noticed a machete in the tool shed and whacked the new sword with it before running off into the forest. In this scene, Black gives the reader two: Hazel’s jealousy of her brother’s sword.

After an incident in the forest where Ben has to save Hazel because her machete is an inadequate weapon, Hazel describes this setting:

“Hazel’s gaze went to the bank where she’d fallen, the gouges her scrambling had made in the mud, Adam’s rotting body and her dog’s limp one beside it, the buzzing of flies in the air above them, and something else, something that shone in the sunlight like a hilt. A knife? Had Adam brought a weapon with him?”

In a scene with a dead child and a dead dog, Hazel notices the glint of sunlight on metal. Black gives the reader two: Hazel cares more about finding a weapon so she can become a real knight than the death of her own pet or friend.

The subtext in this scene is not relief at surviving the hag attack or horror at the death before her. Two plus two adds up to four. Hazel’s jealousy of her brother’s sword plus her desire to find her own weapon at any cost add up to hope. Hazel hopes she’s finally found her sword. And she has. The reader is now emotionally connected and ready to root for Hazel on her quest to become a real knight who fights the evil of the forest.

In my own writing, I was stuck on a scene where my protagonist is alone in a town car. I needed the town car scene for pacing, but there was no one in the car for her to talk to. No way for the reader to understand how she was feeling. Or was there?

I had already given the reader two in an earlier scene:

            Still the crowd chaffed me. I didn’t find an open patch of pavement to hit my stride until the Wrigley Building, the historic tower with the giant clock face. Probably the only non-digital clock still ticking in all of Chicago – other than Dad’s watch on my wrist.

My protagonist, Kat, notices a ticking clock. She is running out of time. The subtext is anxiety. Kat is also wearing her dad’s watch. The reader knows from an earlier statement that his funeral was four months ago. The reader wonders why this teenager is on the run so soon after her father died. An emotional connection begins to form.

Kat was right to be anxious. Two mob goons catch her and toss her in the back of a town car. She’s being forced to visit the mob boss. The reader needs to know how Kat feels about this meeting. Yet she’s alone. Dialogue can’t reveal the subtext. Instead, I needed to use description of the setting to convey subtext. What was the item only Kat would notice in the town car? A bottle of her father’s favorite liquor.

I grabbed the bottle to check the label. I’d expected Schlitzer. Der didn’t settle for anything less than the best. To him, Deutsch ist am besten. The older and purer the better.

            Scapa. The label said Scapa.

The bottle trembled in my hand. I read the word again, because that couldn’t be right. Der hated Scotch, wouldn’t lay hands on anything Scottish, except maybe Chrissy.

The cork squeaked as I wiggled it back and forth, prying it out of the bottleneck. Who’d uncorked Scotch in this car with no door handles?

Two plus two equals four. Kat’s anxiety plus finding an open bottle of her father’s favorite liquor in the back of the mob town car with no door handles adds up to a suspicious death. The reader feels the subtext: suspicion. The reader worries Kat is being taken to a mob boss who may have been involved in her father’s death.

Now this scene in the town car matters. The subtext of the protagonist’s setting description has forged a connection between the reader and the protagonist.

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Can Kids Relate to Structural Engineering?

I never thought my day job as a structural engineer designing bridges would ever intersect with my dream job writing for children. Right-brain pursuits never cross paths with left-brain projects. Yet somehow they have, with a little help from my VCFA advisor. Cynthia Leitich Smith nudged me in the direction of narrative nonfiction. She thought my credentials as a licensed Structural Engineer and Professional Engineer made me uniquely qualified to write nonfiction picture books about bridges.

My first thought (which I blurted out at our meeting): Nonfiction is boring. I didn’t like it as a kid, and I don’t read it as an adult unless it’s research.

Wise Cynthia asked me, “Have you read narrative nonfiction?”

I had not.

Have you?

Spoiler alert: It’s not boring!

Biographies of historical figures are very popular in the narrative nonfiction market, but there is a real desire for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics as well. Even a very dry topic like Structural Engineering can be conveyed to kids in a compelling way through the use of a child protagonist connected to the structure and a glimpse into the landscape of the time and place the structure was built.

Yes, this revelation birthed another critical essay. No, I won’t bore you with my actual critical essay. Instead, here’s a list of the narrative nonfiction and traditional nonfiction books I’ve been reading this month. I’ve zoomed in on the topic of bridges, but there are great nonfiction picture books out there on so many topics.

Guess who is researching her first narrative non-fiction project right now.

Spoiler Alert: It’s a fascinating structure nicknamed Galloping Gertie.

Bunting, Eve. Pop’s Bridge. Illus. C.F. Payne. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2006.

Curlee, Lynn. Brooklyn Bridge. New York: Atheneum Books For Young Readers, 2001.

Editors of Yes Mag. Fantastic Feats and Failures. Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2004.

Finger, Brad. 13 Bridges Children Should Know. New York: Prestel, 2015.

Hopkinson, Deborah. Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building. Illus. James E. Ransome. New York: Dragonfly Books, 2012.

Hurley, Michael. Landmark Top Tens: The World’s Most Amazing Bridges. Chicago, IL: Raintree, 2012.

Johnmann, Carol A. and Elizabeth J. Rieth. Bridges: Amazing Structures to Design, Build, & Test. Illus. Michael J. Rieth. Nashville, TN: Williamson Books, 1999.

Mann, Elizabeth. The Brooklyn Bridge: The story of the world’s most famous bridge and the remarkable family that built it. Illus. Alan Witschonke. New York: Mikaya Press, 1996.

Prince, April Jone. Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing. Illus. Francois Roca. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Sayre, April Pulley. Woodpecker Wham! Illus. Steve Jenkins. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2015.

Ratiff, Tom. You Wouldn’t Want to Work on the Brooklyn Bridge! An Enormous Project That Seemed Impossible. Illus. Mark Bergin. New York: Franklin Watts, 2009.

Richardson, Justin and Peter Parnell. And Tango Makes Three. Illus. Henry Cole. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2005.

Ritchie, Scot. Look at That Building!: A First Book of Structures. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2011.

Tate, Don. Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers, 2015.

Tonatiuh, Duncan. Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2014.

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Moody Edges

I just finished my first packet of my second semester of VCFA WCYA. (Insert virtual high five’s all around). My new advisor’s feedback was very insightful. No surprises there. I have even more work ahead of me for my second packet as the writing bar has been raised even higher. I kind of expected that, too. What really shocked me: my advisor returned her feedback in only one day! Cynthia Leitich Smith – you’re awesome. I have no idea how you work so quickly.

Before I dive into packet two and am off grid for another month, I thought I’d share an excerpt from one of my critical essays. This topic has prompted a new writing game I’m calling Moody Edges.


The Changing Mood of Edges

In her blog post “From Rough to Final: A Dissection of Revision,” Maggie Stiefvater explains, “The first line, to me, is about the purpose of the scene; the mood I’m trying to set; the ‘mission statement’ for the chapter. Edges – the first and last sentences of chapters, paragraphs, novels – are incredibly important for the work they do in the reader’s subconscious.”

Rita Williams-Garcia defines mood in her lecture “Tone, Voice, Mood” as “the emotion the writer seeks to evoke in the reader.” It differs from tone in that mood is all about the reader, not the writer. Tone, as defined by Williams-Garcia, is “the writer’s attitude toward his subject.” In many cases tone may be invisible in the narrative, but mood must always be present. Emotionally engaging novels use a change of mood from the first line to the last line of every scene, every chapter, and the whole novel to hook the reader and make him feel.


I won’t bore you with the rest of my critical analysis of a sample text. Instead, try my new game, Moody Edges. I’m playing this afternoon with my own work in progress.

  1. Write down the first line of a scene / chapter / manuscript.
  2. How does that line make you feel? Why?
  3. Write down the last line of the same scene / chapter / manuscript.
  4. How does that line make you feel? Why?
  5. Did the mood change?

Hint: If the mood didn’t change, you probably don’t need that scene.

Or you have some revising in your future.

Happy Writing!

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The Rule of 10,000


I’ve finally made it back from Residency, recovered from the stomach flu that hitched a ride home with me, and dug my way out from under the To Do List avalanching my desk. And now, to relax, I’ll dive into Packet 1. For my awesome new advisor: Cynthia Leitich Smith!

I know, homework packets are not everyone’s idea of fun.

If they’re your idea of fun, though, you’re probably curious what happened at Residency. What prompted over one hundred writers to trek to Vermont in the winter to live in dorms, brave the cafeteria food, and put their home lives on hold for two weeks?

The short answer: Magic.

The longer answer: What happens at VCFA stays at VCFA.

Sorry, but that’s the truth. Students in the Writing for Children and Young Adults Program work very hard to be admitted. Then they invest serious time and resources into a full time graduate program that requires a 25 hour per week commitment. Plus, to be honest, you really do have to experience Residency first hand to understand the magic of this program. There is no golden nougat of wisdom handed out at Residency that will publish your book.

What I can share: The Rule of 10,000.

The idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill. Writing included. The VCFA low-residency program is modeled after this concept. Students invest many, many hours in reading, writing, and analyzing children’s literature.

As I make my plan for the semester, I’ve been reflecting on my pre-MFA self. She desperately wanted to take her writing to the next level, but didn’t know how. She didn’t have the time or resources to attend an MFA program. Are there things I know now that might have helped her? Yes.

Here are the key ingredients to the Magic of VCFA:

  1. The Faculty!

That’s what draws the students to Hogwarts. There’s a faculty list on the VCFA WCYA website if you’re curious who I’m talking about. Each of them are award-winning authors with books you could read. Many of them also blog. Some speak at conferences or teach workshops open to the public throughout the year. Even if you don’t have access to these particular faculty members, there are many other amazing writing teachers who host workshops.

  1. The Annotated Bibliography.

Commit to read ten books per month. Read broadly.

What does that mean?

This semester I’ll be reading 1 writing craft book, 2 picture books, 2 middle grade novels, 1 graphic novel, and 4 young adult novels (on average) each month. At least one must be originally published before I was born. At least one must be originally published outside the United States. At least two must involve a diverse identity marker. I also like to include a mix of contemporary and speculative fiction. That’s broad.

Reading these books is not enough, though. Annotate them. Think about writing craft techniques you notice. What do you like? What didn’t work for you as a reader? Take the time to write these thoughts down and learn from them.

  1. The Critical Essays

Pick writing craft topics that would inform your work and research them. Students write critical essays citing example texts, writing craft books, recorded lectures, etc. First semester students write two 3-5 page essays per month. Second semester students transition to one 8-10 page paper per month. Third semester students pick a topic they feel passionate about and write a critical thesis.

Do you need to write these formal papers if you’re not a student? No, of course not. But you do need to admit to yourself that there are writing craft skills you need to work on. And then invest the time in learning more about those topics.

  1. The Creative Pages

The best way to learn to write is to actually write, but more importantly to revise and learn from critiques of your work. Students produce 25-40 creative pages per month. Part new material and part revision. Even if you don’t have an awesome faculty advisor to critique your writing, you could still find a critique group or writing workshop to attend.

This advice won’t magically guarantee a publishing contract. Neither will a completed MFA. What it will do: get you on the path to 10,000 hours of learning to write well.



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New Year! Same Goals!

This weekend I’ll be packing my bags to return to VCFA, also known as Hogwarts.


Can’t wait to be reunited with this group of amazing and talented writers.


Really excited for my first Focus Workshop: Writing the Other taught by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Check out her blog Cynsations if you’re interested in learning more about Writing the Other, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and #OwnVoices.

And yet, my 2017 goals are exactly the same as 2016.

1)   Healthy, happy family and friends.

2)   Growth as a writer on my path to an MFA and (hopefully) publication.

3)   Free time for art and creative pursuits.

If you’re a writer, you already know mastering writing is a life long pursuit. And the publishing industry moves at the pace of a slug stuck in the mud. If you put all your hopes in a resolution to publish this year . . . then the next year . . . and every year after, you will become very discouraged.

Instead, let’s celebrate the little goals and accomplishments.

For me, 2016 was the year I joined the VCFA WCYA family of writers. I’ve never encountered such a welcoming, encouraging group. I explored many formats of writing for young readers. The two keys to success in this area of writing: flexibility and play.

2017 will be the year I return to my first love: YA Genre Stories. Can’t wait for the (chicken) sorting hat to select my next advisor for that leg of my writing journey.


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Super Hero Writers

Last weekend Super Heros flew to Chicago to gather for SCBWI Prairie Writers & Illustrators Day. This year my conference posse grew from two writers to four, including one of my VCFA classmates. We happened to sit in the Maw-ha-ha section of the audience, but there are no villains in writing and illustrating for children.

Only Super Heros!

This year we kicked off the day with an inspirational keynote by author / illustrator Don Tate. If you aren’t already familiar with his work, check it out. I especially loved how his artwork grew and changed over time into his own unique style. New this year was a Skype keynote by Kirsten Cappy of on finding your audience, advocates, and being an ally in book marketing.

In my breakout sessions I learned about The Enigma of Voice from agent Linda Pratt, How Motivation Drives Story from Viking Children’s Books executive editor Kendra Levin, and Revising and Editing MG / YA from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers assistant editor Nikki Garcia. All wonderful presenters that I’d recommend if you ever have an opportunity to see them speak.

As always, there was learning for all levels of writers and illustrators, even those returning to the conference for the sixth time like me. I am always struck by what a vibrant, creative, FUN community SCBWI is, more so this year because I attended a much drier (but also very important) structural engineering bridge conference earlier in the week.

This year at Prairie Writers & Illustrators Day there was one Super Hero that kept popping up in every session and conversation: Diversity! Or “Writing the Other,” as it’s more frequently called in writing circles. This topic is more than a trend, it’s a new frontier the publishing industry has embraced.

I was glad to hear about the SCBWI-Illinois Diversity Initiatives, such as the auction of John Parra’s painting FRIDA on their website, the Diversity Has Many Voices buttons for sale at their events, the Diverse New Member Pathway, and the Many Voices Outstanding Manuscript Prize. It was also reassuring to hear the big publishing houses all have diversity committees focused both on their employees and their authors / illustrators.

Change is slow, but know that progress is being made.

In my own writing life, I was recently selected for the Writing the Other focus workshop at my next VCFA MFA WCYA residency. Exciting, yet frightening. To prepare for this workshop, students will read diverse children’s fiction as well as online discussions of Writing the Other. Identity markers in diverse books include race, religion, sexual orientation / gender identity, physical disabilities, mental health disabilities, body type, generation, socioeconomic class, etc.

To prepare myself for this focus workshop, I’ve been listening to VCFA archived lectures on Writing the Other as well as checking out great resources available for everyone:

TED Talk: The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Blogs: A is for Aging, B is for Book, Disabilities in Kidlit, Reading While White, Latinx in Kidlit, etc.

Article: 12 Fundamentals of Writing “The Other” (And The Self) by Daniel José Older.

Magazine: The Writer’s Chronicle: October / November 2016 Edition theme is Writing the Other

Book: Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward

Whatever form of media you prefer, this important information is out there.

Inform yourself.

This week especially, after an election that has divided our nation and struck fear in a large percentage of our population, have empathy for your fellow Americans and listen to their many voices.

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The Objective Correlative

In writing, as with many other aspects of life, you don’t know how much you don’t know until someone wiser teaches you. I started out over ten years ago knowing nothing other than I loved reading stories and wanted to learn to write them.

My learning journey began by attending writing conferences to learn the basics. That is a great place to start. I learned key things like the difference between the content and length of the various levels of children’s literature. Show, don’t tell. Plot structures such as The Hero’s Journey and The Three Act Structure. Writing mechanics that can flag you as a newbie writer, such as adjectives, adverbs, and naming emotions. All important topics that made me feel I’d figured writing out and was ready to publish a story.

Not true.

I obtained my first agent and learned how much more there was to learn about character development, emotional arc, and the heart of the story. I hadn’t realized stories need both an external (plot) quest and an internal (emotional) quest that both need to have progress and impediment throughout the character’s journey, and in some way are connected to each other. This type of topic was better learned in writing intensives or writing workshops. I attended many. Now I certainly felt ready to publish a story.

Still not true.

This is the point where many writers hit the wall. They know everything a conference or writing workshop can teach, their manuscripts are getting partial requests, but they never quite make a sale. Something is missing from their writing and they don’t know what. But the only way to find out what is missing is by learning from someone who is a published author.

I am not suggesting anyone stalk a published author to glean information. Don’t do that. Not even at a conference. Seriously.

The answer for me has been the MFA. All the writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts are award wining, published authors who know exactly what it takes to bump your manuscript from good to great. They lecture on these topics at residency and comment on the specific items a student needs to work on during the semester.

The first big tidbit of information I gleaned from my MFA: Objective Correlative.

In ten years of writing conferences and workshops, I never once heard this term mentioned. It must have been stated fifty times at my first MFA residency, both in seriousness and as some inside joke we first semester students have not quite figured out yet. I’m certain it’s buried in one of the archived faculty lectures. Upperclassmen, please tell us which one so we’re in on the joke, too!

The first thing I did when I got back from residency was look up the definition of the objective correlative. I’ve since watched five lectures related to the topic and read eight student critical thesis that listed it as a keyword. I’m still beginning to figure out how to incorporate this new tool in my writing, but let me share the basics I’ve uncovered.

T.S. Elliot is credited as first defining the objective correlative as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

That’s a mouthful. It required further research for me to understand. I’ve found four ways (so far) this objective correlative can be used. Let’s say the object I select is a horse.


1)   Single Use Object

In this case, I am not actually writing a story about horses. If I am writing about a school-aged kid who is being bullied on the playground and the teacher never sees it happen. The class goes on a field trip to a farm (where there is a one time exposure to a horse), and the bullying continues. This kid has been told not to react to the bullying because that’s what the bully wants. How can the writer show what the kid is feeling on the inside (without telling) while he pretends not to care on the outside? A rearing horse in the scene could be an objective correlative for the kid’s true feelings. He may even go so far as to think how much he wishes he were a horse who could rear up and kick away bullies.

2)   Object’s Relationship to Character Shows Character’s Relationship to Plot

In this case I am writing a story about a character who owns a horse he is supposed to take care of. But he doesn’t. Just like his parent doesn’t take care of him. The boy’s feelings of abandonment and depression are internal feelings that can be difficult to show. The horse would have physical signs of not being cared for, such as losing weight or growing a shaggy coat, that could be an objective correlative for how the boy is feeling inside. Then when the parent does begin to take care of the boy again, and thus the boy takes care of his horse again, both boy and horse flourish. The horse’s external plot arc is a smaller, mirror image of the boy’s internal plot arc.

3)   Object is a Symbol of the Changes in the Novel’s Situation

In this case the horse does not necessarily have its own plot arc. It is a symbol of changes going on in the story. If I am writing a story about a boy whose sibling is kidnapped, a horse he loves at his riding stable could be an objective correlative for the turning points of his sister’s kidnapping. At first the boy is riding the horse as his sister watches. All is well. The sister is kidnapped. The boy feels powerless. The police won’t let a kid help search. But when his favorite horse gets out of its pen at the riding stable, he can take part in the search. He distracts himself from the missing sister by searching for the horse. Both the sister and the horse are found in the story climax (not necessarily together). The boy’s internal worries about his missing sister are mirrored by his external search for the missing horse.

4)   Object Builds and Releases Story Tension (Endowed Object)

In the theatre world, an “object must be shown great honor and respect before it can be endowed with the ability to hold and project meaning and heart.” In this case the horse is not just a horse. The main character assigns great meaning to the horse early on. Perhaps the boy tells all his deepest secrets to his horse, endowing it with a special position in his life. If the boy then loses a leg in an accident and can only “walk” using his horse, there is an emotional reaction in the reader. If that same horse is then injured or dies, an even stronger emotional reaction occurs in both the boy and the reader.

No, I don’t write stories about horses. But I am trying out the many uses of the objective correlative in my own stories before I move on to studying another new topic: Mood.

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Secret Hobbies

Ten years ago writing was my secret hobby. I had a story bubbling inside of me that slowly seeped out in stolen moments alone with my laptop. That secret hobby morphed over time from “something just for me” into a possible second career. My path eventually led me to VCFA, and hopefully publishing is waiting for me beyond graduation.

After a few years of serious writing, I missed my secret hobby. The “something just for me” shifted from writing to art. I started with oil painting and moved into acrylics, watercolors, alcohol inks, oil pastels, inks, quilts, and – most recently – stained glass. On the horizon I glimpse glass fusion. That seems like a random assortment, but there is one common core: Designing and Creating. The same thing I love about crafting a new fantasy story world can be carried over into planning a new art project.

My art is no longer my secret hobby. I’ve showed family and friends. Many of my pieces hang in my home. I’ve even shared a few photos on this blog. That said, it’s a huge leap from hobby artist to illustrator.

In the past year, I’ve started to sit in the back of the illustrator sessions at writing conferences, looking at my new peers to feel out whether I belong among them. Story characters inspired my most recent watercolor paintings, and I started digital sample pages for a graphic novel. My toe has dipped into the illustrator ocean. It may take another ten years for me to pursue that idea with any seriousness.

This weekend, while on a break waiting for Packet 2 writing feedback, my husband and I strolled through a local art fair. I took home these gorgeous copper hummingbirds made by local artist John Lamar.


My husband scoped out the artist booths and asked me when I’d be ready to exhibit at this art fair. The question floored me. I’m not a real artist, am I?

Maybe I could be someday, but I’m not ready to fill that art fair booth just yet. There aren’t enough hours in the day for a possible third career. Baby steps: I’ve bravely added pictures of my art to my writing website.

Please be kind, so I don’t flit away from art like a startled hummingbird.

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Writing Four Hours A Day

In his book, On Writing, Steven King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” That concept is the foundation of the VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. In my first semester I will read 50 books, write ten critical papers, and write / revise 200 creative pages. I’m already 2/5 of the way there.


The program requires 25 hours of work per week. Four weeks per packet. Five packets per semester. Four semesters in the program. That’s 2,000 hours. One fifth of the 10,000 hours it takes to become a master at any skill.


My goal: 4 hours per day.


Where does a wife / mother / home owner / structural engineer find four free hours in her busy schedule? That is the dilemma that holds so many writers back. If you only have one hour per day to devote to learning your craft, you can still get to 10,000 hours, but it will take over 25 years.


Writing is important to me. I found my four hours. I’m not a morning person, so there’s no reason to delude myself into thinking I’ll be waking up four hours before my family. If I did, I’d barely be coherent enough to type.


Instead my hours are broken up throughout the dead time during my normal daily schedule: while I watch my daughter wait for the school bus, over my lunch hour, while I wait for my daughter during her extra-curricular activities, and after my daughter does to bed. Before VCFA, that was time for calling, texting, or Facebooking. Now I’m not as in touch with the world, but I’m making my dream happen one hour at a time.


The more interesting thing is where these four hours are happening. In parking lots. At Beef-a-Roo (which somehow always generates creative ideas for reasons I cannot explain). In parent waiting areas. At Starbucks. In the park. At the library. In the Hanson kitchen.


The hardest place for me to work is actually at home. I’ve had to carve out several happy writing places:


Our front bay window overlooking the humming birds is magical (and within view of the school bus stop).


Our three-season porch has a great breeze and the steady hum of vehicles driving by.


Our back patio is finally re-paved and ready to enjoy the cooler fall weather outside.


The newest addition to our household is a writing desk for our treadmill. It seems I am coordinated enough to walk and type at the same time.


This holiday weekend I’ve been enjoying breakfast in bed followed by entire mornings curled up in this creativity cocoon.


The only place I haven’t written in the last two months: my writing desk.

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