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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.