A New Voice

2 Rainbows, dreamy

Credit: Miniperium | Morguefile.com

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do — 
determined to save
the only life you could save.

— Mary Oliver

VCFA: A Place that Grows Children’s Writers

Credit: Vermont College of Fine Arts

Credit: Vermont College of Fine Arts

Interested in moving your career as a writer for children and young adults forward?  Would you like to learn amidst the lush mountains of Vermont?  Or as part of a sojourn in Bath, England?   And then return home carrying a mentor in your pocket and all the support of an MFA program into your daily life?

The Master of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts can offer you just that.

Why an MFA program you might ask?  Can’t I learn to write on my own?

You can.  My generation of writers had no other option, so we did.  But I’ll confess that I just might have considered selling my children—the more difficult child anyway—to have had a chance to learn under the guidance of established writers who knew the field I was attempting so blindly to stumble into.

A disclaimer.  I’m not speaking without prejudice.  I am retired now, but I was one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair of the VCFA MFA-WCYA program.  We were the first such program in the country.  In the world, actually.  And we—I still consider myself part of VCFA, despite having moved on to a less student-packet-driven existence—remain the most prestigious.

It’s a four-semester, five-residency program.  The twice-a-year residencies are filled—and filled is an understatement–with workshops and lectures and readings and one-on-one sessions with mentors . . . and lots of talk and bonding with fellow writers on the same trajectory.

The members of our faculty are outstanding writers in the field.  Our alumni are pulling down major awards.  They are also teaching and using their expertise to benefit the world such as the Young Writers Network created by alumna Katie Bayerl.  This group is focused on supporting young writers in underserved areas with workshops offered by VCFA alumni in collaboration with other local centers.

And studying abroad?  Students can now opt to spend one residency in Bath, England, studying with program faculty who travel with them and with students and faculty of the Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People.  Talk about a working vacation!  I can imagine nothing more satisfying.

Established writers join the program to move their careers forward or to have support in trying a new track . . . and perhaps also to have the credentials to teach on the college level.  Talented beginners get their feet on the ground through the intensive two years of study and work.

Graduate programs cost, but scholarships are available as are student loans.

There is no guarantee, of course, that an MFA will get you published.  (I used to teach for a well-known correspondence course in children’s writing that took practically all comers and “guaranteed” publication by the end of the student’s time in the program.  When I challenged the contention the answer was, “Well, a letter to the editor, perhaps.)  And no one at VCFA is going to make that kind of spurious promise.

In fact, if you come into the program, you will be encouraged to put aside all questions of marketing and publication and to concentrate on producing the best writing you are capable of, the writing only you are capable of.  But then, if there is any magic that can open the door to a publishing contract, that’s it.

Some of our students have gone on to contracts with advances far beyond anything I have ever dreamed.  Others have worked their hearts out during the program and after and still not published.  Those are the chances you take when you set off to be a writer by any route.

But students who go through the MFA-WCYA program come away with a much deeper knowledge of their own strengths and of the field they love and with a support system that will be theirs for the rest of their lives.  That support system alone changes lives.

Writing is such an isolated and isolating activity.  Having others who know the same isolation, the same frustrations, and who know, too, when your manuscript is good and what you might do to make it better . . . that is richness beyond measure!

As I said, I’m retired now, but VCFA remains part of my heart.  It’s the only community in the world where I ever felt completely and absolutely at home.

Vermont College of Fine Arts might be your home, too.

Is it only the gifted that succeed?

Norman Mailer, by J. Michael Lennon

Norman Mailer, by J. Michael Lennon

In writing, as in so many pursuits, it’s not the most gifted but the most determined who succeed.  John Berryman thought talent was no more than twenty percent of a poet’s makeup. This is probably true for any type of writer.  Those we hear about are more blessed with luck and persistence than ability and skill.

-Norman Mailer

The Highest of Arts!

Credit: Quicksandala | Morguefile.com

Credit: Quicksandala | Morguefile.com

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statute, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day—that is the highest of arts.

Henry David Thoreau

When We Hear the Q Word . . . Quiet

quiet, aging, children's writing

Credit: diannehope | morguefile.com

My blog last week, On Being an Aging Children’s Writer, generated many responses both on my website and beyond it.  Some of those responses were about the trials—and more often the fears—surrounding aging.  Some of us are convinced we’re being written off by young editors who choose to be surrounded only by the same.  But eventually the conversation moved on to center around a single word, quiet. 


I had said in my blog that my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, often warns me, gently, that a manuscript might be “too quiet.”  Many of you wrote to say you are being told the same.  A discussion of what quiet means and a defense of quiet books followed.


I have my own thoughts about “quiet” and “too quiet,” but I decided to go to the source—at least my own personal source—of the word, Rubin.  And he gave me the gracious gift of responding fully and deeply to my request for amplification.


Here are Rubin’s words:



“Quiet” is relative. And “Quiet” needs to be taken in a myriad of ways and meanings. It’s about context. And largely the context is marketability.


Marketability from an agent’s point of view.

Marketability from an editor’s point of view.

Marketability from an imprint’s point of view.

Marketability from a publisher’s point of view.

Marketability from a sales person’s point of view.

Marketability from a bookseller’s point of view.


All of these contexts and more.


Let’s get a couple of points made and out of the way first—


Quiet books are fine, great even.  Quiet books are read and adored.  Quiet books sell, have always sold, and will continue to be sold.


Second point—you, MDB, are not perceived as “Quiet ” or as an “Aging Writer” by booksellers, publishers, or anyone else on the publishing food chain.  Those words don’t define you or categorize you.  You are relevant. You are admired. And you are attractive to all. You sell, you deliver, you receive starred reviews, and you inspire.


And sometimes you write “quiet” manuscripts. Sometimes they sell and will become prominent, wonderful books. Sometimes these manuscripts don’t sell.  I’d take your odds any day.


That out of the way, let’s quickly separate quiet manuscripts from quiet books.  I think that’s what we’re really talking about.  Does the manuscript have the requisite forces to make it through the numerous gates of acquisition so that it may enter the pearly gates of a publishing house and have all the attendants of editorial, marketing, sales, design, and production to transform it from manuscript to book?


That question is where we begin to really hear the term “Quiet.” And “Quiet” is code for any number and degree of meanings.


Here are just a few “Quiets” that might be painless to hear:  “lovely, but not quite what we’re looking for,” “ lovely, but doesn’t fit our current editorial objectives,” “unfortunately, not what we’re able to get into the big accounts and box stores,” “We are aiming our publishing in a more commercial direction.”


Here are a few versions of “Quiet” that might be painful to hear: ”lacks freshness,” “old fashioned,” “Not for today’s readers,” “ a bit dull,” “subject matter is tired,” “won’t hold readers’ attention,” “too institutional,” “will get lost.”


Here are a few that might be actionable to address:  “pacing is slow,”

“lacks action,” “lacks surprise,”  “needs stronger voice,” “language and dialect not current,”  “needs stronger characters,” “needs to be more reflective of today’s world.”


Editors, like agents, have many submissions to deal with.  “Quiet” may be THE handle that is least offensive to say –and yet covers a swath of meanings from legitimately quiet in its writing to just plain “Quiet” in terms of sales opportunities.


Quiet should not be taken as code for aging or irrelevant. Quiet generally means that the manuscript may not be marketable enough for any number of reasons. Likewise, Quiet will be seen as a powerful component of a powerfully written book.  (And MDB, you know this as you have a few wonderful examples of quiet, powerful manuscripts that have been signed up and are in the pearly gates of publishing houses.)


It takes one editor to see what a dozen other editors may not see in a quiet manuscript and to bring out all the noise and promise it offers, guided by the editor, the art director, illustrator, and marketers.


Thank you, Rubin, for the gift of your very professional insight.  I suspect the next step is for each one of us writers to figure out what “quiet” means when it’s offered up to us.