Category Archives: YA

How it feels to be split open

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” – Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

I’ve been struggling with a scene in my WIP lately, one that’s seemingly innocuous. It’s a scene in which the guy my protagonist has been snogging tells her he doesn’t want to go public with their relationship. It seems pretty simple and straightforward. And not at all difficult to write. But every time I sit down to get it done, my fingers freeze on the keys.


Why am I hesitating? I’ve written rougher scenes than this. I’ve written scenes with physical and emotional abuse, scenes of coercive sex. Scenes that have left my protagonist bare and raw. I’ve been open. I’ve been accommodating. And I haven’t held anything back.

But there’s something about this scene that inexplicably panics me. Something that makes my eyes burn. My skin prick. Something that makes me want to surf the net, decorate the room, or do ANYTHING except write that scene.


When I worked with Franny Billingsley, she mentioned three terms she called “The Vacuum,” the “Controlling Belief,” and “The Default Emotion.” And it’s by thinking about these three terms that I’m coming to grips with why I’ve been struggling with this particular scene.

According to Franny, the Vacuum is the great hole in a character, the thing he or she craves most (whether or not he or she is aware of this craving). Ex: Acceptance, Love, Visibility, etc.

The Controlling Belief results from The Vacuum; it is the way a character perceives him or herself as a result of the aforementioned hole or empty space in their emotional life. Ex: I’m unworthy, I’m unforgivable, No one will ever see who I really am.

Finally, The Default Emotion is the emotion your character naturally “falls back to” in times of stress or great intensity. This emotion is tied directly to The Vacuum and your character’s Controlling Belief. Ex: Shame, Anger, Longing.

If A + B + C = D, where A = The Vacuum, B = Controlling Belief, and C = Default Emotion, then D = who your character really is. (That person you’ve been trying to figure out all this time).

Yeah. I just went all mathematical on you. In a writing blog. 😉

Ex: In Franny’s novel, Chime, Briony’s Vacuum is acceptance (due to a tragic incident in her childhood). Because her Vacuum is acceptance, her Controlling Belief is that she’s wicked. And because she believes she’s wicked, her Default Emotion is guilt.

Whew. Complicated, I know. But it’s really a profound way to get in touch with your characters’ emotions and the things that make them who they really are.

So as I began to think about these three pieces and about how they shape who my protagonist is, the reason for my hesitation became painfully clear.

Why was I getting so upset?

Because my character’s Controlling Belief/Default Emotion is exactly the same as mine.

She’s not me and I’m not her, and we both arrived at our CB’s and DE’s in different ways, but we both have a controlling belief that we’re not worthy of attention/love. Which means we both have the Default Emotion of Fear, specifically of being ignored/rejected.

ALL of which we both have to deal with in that particular scene.

Yikes. Intense stuff.

This, I think, is what Natalie Goldberg means in Writing Down the Bones. I have to be willing – just as all writers do – to face my own fears and emotions. To understand both myself and my character, and find the courage to tell the truth of that experience.

What about you?

What scenes are you avoiding? What sections stand out as so emotionally painful or intimidating that you can’t bring yourself to write them?

I challenge you to sit down and look at both your and your character’s Vacuum, Controlling Belief, and Default Emotion. And if you see some overlap, don’t be surprised.

And take heart. You’re writing something real.



Filed under Fiction, writing, writing life, YA

On writing, getting lost, and driving with your headlights on

“Writing is like driving at  night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E.L. Doctorow

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a fear of getting lost.

I’m not sure exactly when it started. Maybe that time when I was in elementary school, about five, when both Mom and Dad left me behind at church. Each thought each other had me, both went home, and I was left to curl up in the playground fort, hug my knees, and cry.

They never forgave themselves for that one. I did, but the memory of it still sits deep to this day.

The fear of getting lost followed me into my teenage years, especially when I first started driving. Back then, the GPS had only just come out on the market and was too expensive, which meant I had to find my way  the old-fashioned way. I was terrified to drive to places I had never been, and the mere thought of it would turn me into a jittery mess. Mini-panic attacks were not uncommon. I’d beg my parents to come with me and, if it wasn’t possible, I’d go over the directions at least ten times and study the map for a good twenty minutes before departure.

Even when my father purchased me a GPS as my high school graduation present, the fear didn’t go away. What if the maps weren’t accurate/up to date? What if I got turned around in the boonies in the middle of nowhere? What if I got lost in a place with no streetlights, no signs, and no way to find  the road back home?

All of which, to my abject horror, did eventually happen. More than once, in fact. I seem to have a knack for getting lost. And I can still taste the copper on my tongue, feel the dull ache between my heart-battered ribs, and recall the pale whiteness of my fingers wrapped around the steering wheel as I struggled to find my way.

Thanks to a better GPS and slightly better coping skills, those moments of breathless panic are fewer and further between. But each time I hop in the car to drive somewhere new, I still feel this little twinge of nervousness – the slightest uptick in my heart rate – when I pull out onto the road.

Maybe that’s why Doctorow’s “Writing is like driving at night in the fog,” quote never sat well with me. Driving was terrifying. The dark was terrifying. The absence of sight…horrific.

And yet, as I move into my second year of working on my WIP, the one I started in my second semester of grad school (then restarted in 3rd, 4th, and I’m re-working yet again now that I’m on my own), I’m beginning to realize that driving in the dark with nothing but my headlights is exactly what I’m being called upon to do.

In my last semester at VCFA, A.M. Jenkins gave a wonderful lecture on that well known adage of “Character drives plot.” She gave us friendship bracelets and told us to wear them every time we wrote. The bracelets were totems, reminders that we were supposed to tell the characters’ stories: not our own.  And if we told their stories, though we might not “know” how those stories would end, the characters themselves would eventually lead us there.

The idea of taking on such a writing style was unsettling to me. I’m a planner. An organizer. A strategist. A map it out then make it happen kind of girl. The prospect of letting my characters emotions, wants, and needs move the plot was every bit as frightening to me as driving alone in the dark.

So I resisted.  I plotted. And my writing turned to shit.

But then, something strange happened one day. I decided to just free write, much in the way I had in Martine Leavitt’s Generative Workshop (where the first pages of this WIP were born). I thought about my character. I thought about what she was feeling. I thought about what she wanted.

And I closed my eyes. And wrote. And the weirdest things happened.

A sense of place, or “MA” as Tim Wynne-Jones would say, crept slowly into my novel. I could suddenly taste, touch, and feel the world my character lived in.  Emotions she had buried, deep beneath layers of cynicism and toughness, came bubbling to the surface. Her relationships with her parents became clear, with her lover became clear, and – for the first time in a long time – it finally all felt real. I quit mapping. I stopped staring at the GPS. I just turned on my headlights and drove.

And it was beautiful.

This realness has taken a toll on my current WIP: I’ve had to almost completely rewrite eight of my first ten chapters, kill numerous darlings, and cut over 40 pages from what had been the tail-end of my WIP. The character’s motivations have changed…which means the story has changed…which means I have no idea how it will end. In essence, I’ve had to start completely over: all the way back to square one. Which is why – unlike the rest of my classmates who have finished drafts, agents, or book deals, – I’m on my 5th first draft.

It’s terrifying. It’s crazy. But the writing is so much better.

I’m more than a little panicked about the fact that I no longer know how the story will end. Will the plot be cohesive? Will the characters be believable? Or will it just be a jumbled up mess? I don’t know.

But instead of being miserably stuck and hating every word on the page, I’m moving forward. I’m driving – with nothing but my headlights on. And I’m trusting, with my characters serving as the GPS, I can make the whole trip that way.


Filed under Fiction, Revision, writing, writing life, YA

YA Prose Problem #1: Parental Plot Bitches

This inaugural post is near and dear to my heart, largely because it’s a problem that I’ve discovered in my own writing. I just got my third packet back from my graduate advisor and, in it, she and I realized the same thing:

the father in my work-in process (WIP) is non-existant.

Sure he’s mentioned in passing. And he serves a legitmate purpose in the furthering of my plot. But when it comes to the actual “presence” of my father within the story, it’s as though he’s nothing more than a shade – a ghostly shadow passing in and out between chapters whenever I feel like summoning him. He has no life, no motivation of his own, and no ambition save to stiltingly choke out the few lines of diaglogue that I, his maker, have graciously given him.

In other words, to steal a phrase from the delicously audacious A.M. Jenkins…

the father in my novel is a “plot bitch.”

What is a plot bitch, you may ask? A plot bitch is a caricature. A cliche.  A rendition of a human being that is so shallow that it scarcely deserves the title. It is paper thin. And, just like paper, when you hold it up to the light, you can see right through it.

Naturally, I was horrified to discover that I’d done such a thing. But I found comfort in the fact that, according to the New York times, I am not alone in my tendency towards “plot bitchiness.”

In her essay, “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit,” Julie Just asserts that parents in YA stories are increasingly clumsy, ineffectual, and unrealistic:

 …some of the most sharply written and critically praised works reliably feature a mopey, inept, distracted or ready-for-rehab parent, suggesting that this has become a particularly resonant figure. …Afflicted by anomie, sitting down to another dismal meal or rushing out the door to a meeting, the hapless parents of Y.A. fiction are slightly ridiculous. They put in an appearance at the stove and behind the wheel of the car, but you can see right through them.

Though there has been some slight controversy over this article, I would like to suggest that Just isn’t arguing that writers can’t use characters who have some of the aforementioned traits. I believe Just’s real complaint is that, in a growing number of YA novels, parents are defined solely by these traits. Mopey with a capital “M.” Rehab with a capital “R.” And nothing more. These adjectives become place holders, subtitutions for actual identities. They are a quick way of “telling” the reader what a parent is like instead of showing them why he or she has become such a thing. Such parents make their entrances and exits, spout of a few lines of dialogue, and then disappear into the background again. They are rendered ineffective so that it is “easier” for the YA protagonist to move on and acheieve his or her goal.

In other words, they are plot bitches.

It’s not that your parents can’t be mopey. Or distracted. Or in serious need of counseling. But there needs to be a reason why – and that reason must be compelling enough to drive their everyday behavior. Yes, parents are secondary characters. But just like your YA progatonist, parents have their own stories too. They have a unique set of hopes, dreams, ambitions, and baggage that makes them who they are – all of which influence the way they interact with your protagonist (which in turn, of course, affects the way your protagonist interacts with the world). 

In a traditional story arc, the protagonist has a problem – a hole, a void, something that needs filling – and the majority of the story is spent trying to figure out how to solve that problem. The stakes are raised and tension is heightened, however, when conflict is present  in a story. After all, if a protagonist can reach his or her goal too easily, what’s the point in reading? There’s no risk. No danger involved. Conflict, however, adds excitement and urgency. It makes the reader want follow your progtagonist, to journey with him or her for the duration of a novel.

The problem with bumbling, absentee, faux-parents in YA is that they sometimes result in a lessening of the sort of conflict that is crucial for keeping readers engaged.  When the parents hold no weight, when they have no importance or power, not only does a story become unrealistic: it becomes frightfully predictable and boring.

If, however, your parents have a history – a set of goals, desires, and motivations – that drive them to act in a particular way, the miraculous can begin to happen. 1) You will find yourself crafting well-rounded, complex, and realistic human beings. And 2) The wants and needs of said human beings may come in direct conflict with the wants/needs of your protagonist, which is a lovely way to rachet up the tenison in your novel.

A great example of this is the mother in Nancy Werlin’s The Rules of Survival. She is anything but a plot bitch (though she may indeed deserve the latter half of that title). In many ways, she drives the plot because her wants/needs are constantly clashing with Matt’s (the protagonist). She cannot, however, be accused of being a caricature.  She is just as compelling as the progaonist she was created to compliment.

Marion Dane Bauer states it perfectly:

Your character needs a history that relates directly to his struggle…ask about the past as well as the present. What happened before now to make her want what she does? Is there something from her past that makes her problem more imporant to her? Or more difficult to solve? (What’s Your Story, 18)

By knowing the history of both their primary and secondary characters, writers can avoid the increasingly depressing scenario that Just desribes – one in which contemporary YA parents are no more authentic and, in fact, even less consequential than their literary predecessors (8).

So do your self a favor: whether you are in the midst of revising your current WIP or in the process of starting a new story, ask yourself: do my parents have a life and history of their own?

Or are they just my bitches?

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Here’s to one classy lady….

An interview with oh so classy Lauren Myracle who – if you haven’t heard – chose to step down after the recent selection debacle created by the National Book Award Committee.

As a VCFA student, I am proud of all the VCFA  nominees, including Franny Billingsley (my former advisor) and alumni Debbie Dalh Edwardson. But I am especially awed by Lauren’s courage and grace in the midst of what was, clearly, an awful situation.

My heart goes out to you, Lauren. And I’ll be purchasing my copy of Shine ASAP.

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