2012 Francelia Butler Conference Winner

Each year at my graduate program, a conference is held to honor the work of the graduate students.  Students may submit work in each of the following categories: critical papers, creative stories, and original artwork to win one of three awards presented at the conference.

This was the first time I’ve ever entered any sort of writing contest.  The past two years I’ve simply attended this conference as an observer, and I did not enter anything in any of the categories.

There were 24 creative submissions this year, all from Hollins University MFA graduate students in Children’s Literature.

Last week, I learned my entry was one of the creative submissions selected to be read at the conference, and that my piece would be one of five pieces to go on to be judged by outside judges for the final honor of Best Creative Submission.  The judges for this year’s FBC conference were: Ashley Wolff (children’s book author and illustrator), Bruce Coville (children’s and YA author), and Michele Ebersole (Professor of Children’s Literature at University of Hawaii).

And… as you may have guessed by the title of this post… I won!

I entered the first 12 pages (first 3,000 words) of a short story I wrote in my Fantasy Genre Study course last summer.  The current title is “Rebel Angel” and the story is about a rebellious guardian angel who is sent to Earth on her first mission where she must save a boy from being recruited by a gang.

Below are pictures of me reading my selection at the conference.  I was nervous to speak in front of a crowd of adults as opposed to 11-14 year olds.  But after a lot of practice, all went smoothly.  A few funny parts in my story even got some laughs from the audience!  šŸ™‚

I was extremely honored to be recognized, especially knowing what talented writers are in my classes here at Hollins.  I only have one more week of classes left, and I think I can say that this summer has exceeded my expectations in almost every way.

Week 2 & 3 Grad Class Recap

I have had zero time to blog, which was quite unexpected.  Last summer I took three classes and it was really tough.  I am only taking two classes this summer, and I thought that would leave me with more time: to write, to blog, to read for pleasure.  But that has not been the case.

The culprits: Critique and Insane Weather

I really take critiquing my peers work seriously because I know how valuable feedback is to a writer.  And for some of my classmates who aren’t a part of a writing group, this is the only feedback they get.  I also believe it’s a give and take, people will spend more time on your work if you spend more time on theirs.  I’m taking two creative courses, and between both classes, I’m critiquing 16 people’s work per week and between 120-160 pages.  Or roughly, it’s been taking me 45 minutes to an hour per person.  So… I’ve been overwhelmed by critique.  Other than Saturdays and Sundays, I’ve had no time to write, much less blog or read for pleasure.  BUT!  I do think that being able to critique is a valuable skill.  And who knows… I’m not planning on teaching forever.  I could see myself enjoying being an editor someday…

And last weekend, here on the East Coast, we were hit by this thing called a “derecho.”  Had never heard of it before, but it resulted in high winds (gusts up to 80 mph) that tore down trees, tore some of the roof off the University Library, and killed power throughout the region.  This was extra horrible because the temps have been over 100 degrees and without power… we had no air-conditioning.  The University was without power for about 36 hours which was much better than most other areas.  (I know people who are still without power… now 7 days later.  Ugh.)  Below are some pictures that illustrate how torn up campus was after the storm:

Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Caroline at ProseBeforeWoes for sharing her pictures!

Here’s a brief summary of what we’ve been up to in my classes!!!  ^_^

Dystopian and Science Fiction:

We went over common elements of dystopian fiction.  Some elements we discussed are dehumanization, control of information, loss of freedom, focus on society.  We’ve been using Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy as a writing guide for our class.  It’s been very helpful.  During one class, we discussed chapter 3 in the book and talked about four different ways to structure your narrative (MICE: Milieu story,  Idea story, Character story, or Event story).  I discovered that one of my stories is a character story because the story revolves around my protagonist’s transformation.  Whereas, my dystopian story is an event story because the story revolves around the world making a transformation and being restructured from an event.

I also had a MAJOR revelation in regards to my dystopian WIP.  I’ve been frustrated because I didn’t know how to end my story.  Dystopian novels typically end one of two ways: revolution or escape.  Either the society/government is upended due to rebellion, or the protagonist runs away from the society they’ve grown to detest.  I wanted to find a new/different way to end my story.  And I did it!  I came up with an absolutely fabulous plot twist!!!  I’m so freaking excited.  I haven’t read any dystopian novel that does this, and I think I have something fresh on my hands.  And it allows for BRILLIANT sequel possibilities.

I also read Across the Universe for this class and will be posting a much delayed review of that this weekend as well.

Advanced Tutorial

My steampunk WIP for this class has been going much better than I expected.  I worried a little that the idea might be too strange and different.  But my class seems to be connecting with my characters really well.  They absolutely hate the characters I want them to hate and they love the characters I want them to love.  And they find my protagonist extremely sympathetic.  Yay!  I was also worried if I could pull off one of the settings… a factory… and have it make sense.  I haven’t exactly worked in a factory.  But they said my world-building is fantastic, and there’s been no confusion in how the factory is set up.  Double YAY!  And my pacing and plot are still strong.  As well as my “brushstroke” descriptions.  I don’t do heavy description.  I try to pick no more than three details to bring a character or setting to life.  I never do more than three, and I think it forces me to pick the three details that are most revealing and important.

There are still some things I need to work on.  My protagonist thinks in a puzzle-solving, scientific, mathematical way, and that’s hard for me to pull-off consistently because that’s not how I think at all.  I also need to do a better job of including my protagonist’s emotions and reactions to situations.  And I have my secondary characters down, but I need to add background people or tertiary characters to give my settings more vibrancy.  But I think for a first draft, I’m doing quite well.  And I sooooo appreciate both the constructive and positive feedback.  There is nothing more valuable to a writer than feedback!

I now have 10,620 words for my steampunk WIP.  Before the summer started I had sporadic key scenes and the first 1,600 words.  So I’m writing about 3,000 words a week which is great considering I’ve only had time to write on Saturdays and Sundays!  I trap myself in the library for 6-7 hours at a time and crank out the pages.  I’ve found I’m still doing a lot of research which slows me down a bit.  I’d love if I could hit 30,000 words before I leave for the summer.  We’ll see!

I am so, so, so behind in reading blogs.  I’ll read a post here and there on my iPhone when I’m stuck waiting somewhere, but it’s depressing how behind I am.  I’m going to try to do some commenting this weekend, but I’m not going to make any promises  šŸ˜¦  I still have loads of schoolwork to do.  But I promise to catch up at some point!

First Tutorial Critique

Today was our first critique in my tutorial class.  It was unusual because we read our work aloud and then critiqued it immediately after.  Because this is the first week of class, we didn’t have adequate time to critique work outside of class in just one day.  This is the only time we’ll be doing read aloud critiques, which is good!  I wasn’t a fan.  It felt rushed and I didn’t always have a copy of the story in front of me to follow along (and I’m very much someone who needs to follow along).  And it was hard to jot down notes and listen at the same time.

The project I’ve decided to work on for my Advanced Tutorial is an idea that came to me last summer and I just started working on this past winter.  It is very new, very rough, and today was the first time I shared it with the world.

What I’m willing to share online in terms of concept is I’m doing a steampunk twist of a piece of classic literature.  It will involve a strong heroine, clockwork creatures, ghosts, romance, and an evil lady who’s part of a secret society.

Critique Feedback

I got comments on good pacing which I consider my strength.  But I was nervous because the beginning of this particular project was backstory, and I was worried about the backstory being not engaging.  But my class LOVED the way I did the backstory!  Yay!

My class said I have memorable lines, vivid descriptions, and a nice blend of drama and humor.  I’m funny?  Didn’t think I was that funny, but I’ll take it.  And supposedly my main character has a mathematical and scientific view of the world in her voice that is intriguing… I really don’t know how I pulled that off, and I hope I can continue that voice through the rest of the novel.

In terms of constructive criticism, there were questions about age progression (I had issues with the age of the main character, so I expected that).  They wanted a scene with the mother.  And they wanted a description of the nursery setting.  All of which I will consider doing so long as it doesn’t mess with the pacing too much.  I like my pacing fast.

Next Thursday will be my first 20 page critique and I definitely have some writing to do this weekend… in a mathematical/scientific voice… yipes!  I really hope that comes out naturally because it wasn’t a conscious thing.

First Classes: Tutorial and Dystopian



Advanced Tutorial

This is a small class of six graduate students where the emphasis will be working on individual writing projects and critique.  We will be submitting 10-20 pages per week for critique as well as complete two presentations on aspects of the craft of writing that we are mystified by or struggling with.  I’ve chosen to do my presentation on point-of-view, specifically choosing third person or first person.

We also had a discussion on the high concept novel.  There were twenty-five principles that we looked at as being part of a high-concept novel.  A few of them are: original and unique concept, appeals to wide audience, a quintessential protagonist, a sweeping landscape, and a life-changing event.  The discussion and twenty-five principles definitely gave me some things to consider when plotting/outlining and some new writing terms to add to my craft vocabulary.

Genre Study: Dystopian and Science Fiction

I was incredibly psyched for this class, and I was not let down at all by the first class.  This class is larger at 12 students, but also has a creative emphasis.  We will be submitting 5-10 pages each week for critique, and the pages should be some form of science fiction.  We will be reading five novels (Across the Universe, Ender’s Game, Feed, Adoration of Jenna Fox, Matched) and using one writing handbook (How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card).  We will have discussions about the books and keep a reader response journal that is focused on craft.  Our journals should show that we are reading the novels as a writer and examining how an author was successful or unsuccessful in their novel by looking at aspects of their craft.

For the first class, we defined science fiction as a whole, and then defined many different sub genres of science fiction.  Here are the sub-genres we discussed:

  • Utopian
  • Dystopian
  • Ecotopian
  • Feminist Utopian
  • Hard Science Fiction
  • Soft Science Fiction
  • Cyberpunk
  • Time Travel / Time Slip
  • Steampunk
  • Alternate History
  • Superhuman
  • Military
  • Space Opera
  • Parody / Comedic
We finished class with a writing exercise, where we had to pick one of the sub-genres above that we would never normally touch… the sub-genre we would normally avoid.  We then had to come up with a protagonist, problem, reason for urgency to solve problem, something terrible in protagonist’s past, the worst thing that could happen to them, and how they would get themselves out of that lowest moment.  It was actually a fun exercise, that I’d like to repeat.
Two more classes this week, with first critiques!
I have to finish Across the Universe by Beth Revis this weekend because that’s the first book up for discussion, so a review of that book should be up on the blog soon!

Book Review: Little Brother

Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow
Purchased/Paperback
Genre: Dystopian
Big Themes: Terrorism, Cyber Security, Freedom, Privacy, Government, Torture, Friendship, Love
***Grad School Text***

Summary: Marcus is a 17 year-old tech genius who gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during a catastrophic terrorist attack on San Francisco.  Because of all the tech gear Marcus carries with him, the Department of Homeland Security suspects he had something to do with the attack.  After days of interrogation and torture, Marcus swears to get revenge on the DHS…

What I Liked:

The book made you think.  I haven’t read a book that made me think about big issues like this in awhile.  It made me question what level of surveillance is okay for the government or another institution to do.  It made me want to learn more about cyber security, programming, and cryptography.  It made me wonder what liberties or conveniences I would give up if my safety were threatened.  These are real issues that face us today as the internet is such an integral part of our daily life, but at the same time makes us so vulnerable.  I think this is an important (but fun) book for people to read in today’s world.

The Voice: Marcus had a great personality.  I really enjoyed him as a narrator.  He was funny and quirky. He explained complex technology in an easy-going, conversational way, and yet revealed his doubts, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities with total honesty.  I was always on the same page as him in terms of where he was going, what was important, and how he was feeling.  Narration is definitely a strength of the book.

What I Didn’t Like: 

Heavy Tech Language Impacted Pacing: The book was a tad heavy on technology and explanations of how the technology works.  Granted the explanations are usually kept under a page and told in Marcus’ quirky way.  They held my interest.  But if you know my reading preferences by now, you know I like my books fast paced.  I have little patience for slow plots and heavy description.  So while the descriptions of how different forms of cyber security worked were well-done, I did notice how they affected the pacing.  (I still finished the book in three days, so please don’t think it’s a slow read.)

Live Action Role Play: This hobby (dressing up in costume and pretending to be vampires or wizards or dudes with swords) popped up a few times in the book.  It’s nerdy.  Mainstream readers might be turned off by this activity that is on the fringe of Geek World.  I just took it for what it was.  I would hope most readers would still be open to all the big questions and issues this book brings up and not shy away because of nerdy subplots.

My Rating: Based on the book’s description, I wasn’t too excited to read it, but I’m really glad I did.  I loved the big ideas this book made me think about and I loved the voice of the narrator.  I’m giving it 4 big stars out of five.

Recommended For Readers 14 and up
Due to sexual content and mature themes

Sidenote: The frequent coffee drinking in the book made me CRAVE COFFEE while I was reading.  And lots of yummy descriptions of food too.  If you like that sort of thing  ^_^

Book Review: The Adoration of Jenna Fox

The Adoration of Jenna Fox
by Mary E. Pearson
Purchased/Paperback
Genre: Science Fiction
Big Themes: Medicine, Technology, Science, Parental Love, Humanity, Friendship, Loyalty, Identity
***Grad School Text***

Summary: Jenna Fox wakes from a coma after a car accident with no memory of who she is. Is she the same Jenna Fox as before? Who was Jenna Fox? Why does her grandmother treat her like a stranger?  Where are her friends? Why are her parents so worried and cautious?

What I Liked:
EVERYTHING
I went into this book knowing very little.  I knew it was classified as science fiction.  And I knew what I’d read on the book jacket.  And I knew people loved it.  I’m so glad that’s all I knew because it was a joy of a discovery.  So I won’t say much to spoil the book because if you haven’t read it, you need to.

The characters are beautifully captured and real.  The science fiction elements are plausible and well woven.  The plot has excellent surprises and twists, but when you look back, all the hints and foreshadowing were carefully laid by the author.  Much like the cover, the book is a satisfying puzzle coming together.

This book would make an excellent book club selection (especially for a mother/daughter book club) and would foster great discussion.  I can’t wait to discuss it in class this summer!

Disliked?  Probably nothing.

My Rating: Five big beautiful stars for Jenna Fox.  Read it.

Meeting Kristin Cashore

Kristin Cashore has a special place in my heart.  I adore her books, but the reason she’s extra special to me is because she indirectly led me to the graduate program I’m currently in (and love).

About 3-4 years ago I was applying to Masters programs.  I knew I wanted to write fiction and specifically for teens/YA.  I applied to a nearby, prestigious school’s MFA program… and got in.  But they promptly told me I would have to write for adults, not children.

I was very discouraged and frustrated because I didn’t see the difference in writing for adults versus writing for teens.  A good story is a good story.  Good characterization is good characterization.  Good pacing is good pacing.  Good writing is good writing.  I just wanted to study writing, to grow, to learn, to hone my craft.  However, I didn’t want to be forced into writing for a particular audience.  And I certainly didn’t want to take classes with a faculty that was so elitist and narrow-minded.  I didn’t know what I was going to do because I had to take classes close to my job, and that limited the schools I could apply to.

Around this same time, I read Graceling.  I absolutely LOVED the book, and promptly went online to look up Kristin Cashore.  In her short bio, I read this:

During my stint in Boston, I got an M.A. at the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College. (Thank you, Simmons, for the scholarship that made this possible!) Grad school almost killed me, but I felt a lot more alive than when I was almost being killed in college. The Simmons program is stupendous. It got me thinking and breathing YA books. It got me writing.

I immediately went to Simmons’ website, began reading, and probably started glowing a little.  I requested more information about the program… but I did not end up going to Simmons.  Just two years into my teaching career, I was reluctant to leave when I had just received my tenure.  Simmons would have required that I move to Boston, and I wasn’t ready to do that.  (Though some days I do wonder what my life would be like with a degree in hand by now as a Bostonian and without the stress the past three years of teaching has brought me.)

Someone at Simmons e-mailed me and suggested I check out Hollins University (because it was closer to where I live and also because their program could be completed over 3-5 summers).  And here I am now, 24 credits into my MFA in Children’s Literature and I couldn’t be happier with my choice.

So that’s why I indirectly credit Kristin Cashore with leading me to my graduate degree.  I honestly don’t know if I would have discovered that there were Masters programs in Children’s Lit out there… had I not read her bio.

One thing I hate about book signings: you never have time to tell an author everything you want to say to them.  There’s people behind you in line and you’re being moved along.  But… if I was an author… I’d like to hear how I’ve impacted people.  Not just sign my name for an hour.

My solution to this problem: I wrote Kristin Cashore a card and handed it to her when I got my book signed.  Worked great.  My card looked like this:

And said this:

We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives. ā€”Dan Zadra
Inside: Thanks for making a difference.

And I wrote her more-or-less the story I told you above.

Now, as to what Kristin spoke about at her talk/signing:

She read two excerpts from Bitterblue, which got me quite excited to read the book  šŸ™‚

She then had lots of pictures of her manuscripts and stressed how difficult writing is and how failure is a huge part of the writing process.  She told us how Bitterblue is the most difficult book she’s written.  She showed us pictures of handwritten pages with huge sections crossed out.  She showed us the 700 page first draft.  She showed us pictures of the piles of paper that would be the seven drafts Bitterblue went through.

Kristin then went on to answer questions from the audience.  She got all the typical questions:

  • Where do you get your names from?
  • Do you want Graceling to be a movie?
  • Would you want to have input in the movie production?
  • Who would you want cast in the movie?
You tend to hear a lot of the same questions at these things.  Probably the most interesting question was about the feminist influences in the books.  Kristin spoke a bit about how her strict upbringing and experiences with sexism probably influenced how feminist ideas have manifested themselves in her books.

She was very humble and so clearly LOVES WRITING.  I really enjoyed seeing her in person, and think she’s a very cute and inspiring young author.

My final words to Kristin were:
“I love how you write about strong women.  And men who like strong women.”