Wednesday, May 27, 2015

LU MFA Foundations: Defining Young Adult Literature--Beth Mead

The simplest way to define YA:
The term Young Adult literature usually refers to novels featuring a main character within the age range of approximately 12 through the early 20s. The content often deals with issues faced in these years of life. The primary target audience is expected to be readers in that same age range.

The reality of defining YA:
Effective literature, including Young Adult, can appeal to a much broader audience than its intended age range (as with films, tv shows, artwork). The appeal of YA books to older readers may be due to lush and thorough world-building that immerses the reader in a different reality (one that mirrors their own in some way, or one that offers escape from our reality); it may be due to a connection with well-drawn characters, whether through self-identification or through characters we fall in love with; and it may be due to a connection with subject matter and experiences that hold nostalgia for older readers, or that offer a parallel struggle to issues faced by adults.

Why study Young Adult literature in an MFA Program?
The books I chose for my YA lit class—Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, Pure by Julianna Baggott, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon—are all examples of effective literary works with broad audience appeal, and they are all written by authors who publish both adult literary fiction and young adult fiction. These books illustrate how the use of literary fiction techniques can strengthen YA-specific writing and broaden the appeal of the work to a wide age range of readers.

In writing exercises in my class, and in other YA classes in the LU MFA program, we will write from the perspective of characters in the YA age range, dealing with issues experienced during those years, but we will remember the importance of the techniques we study and use in adult literary fiction: complex characters (not character types); a vivid setting that creates tone and atmosphere; interesting uses of language (not dumbed-down or overly-simplified to give the impression of youthfulness); and a plot arc that offers believable conflict, resolving in a way that both surprises the reader and feels exactly right (not trying to shock readers for the sake of being shocking, and not relying on cliché or the most expected outcome).

An MFA Program offers instruction and feedback for sharpening language skills, polishing literary techniques, enhancing your voice as a writer—all aspects of writing craft that can be applied to any form, including Young Adult literature.

What is the distinction between YA literature & adult literary fiction?
The line dividing YA lit and adult literary fiction can be blurry. For the purposes of studying YA as literature, it’s good to embrace those fuzzy lines, to focus on content and impact rather than focus on categorizing. Often, but not always, the age of the main character is the main determining factor in the way a book is categorized.

Sometimes adult literary fiction can have a young narrator or main character, of course. Often when this is the case, there is also an adult perspective introduced in some way—whether it’s through showing this character later as an adult, or through the adult voice dropping in occasionally to reflect on moments from a later perspective (or in a flash-forward at the end), or through the use of an unreliable narrator, where you as the reader are aware of layers in a scene, and potential repurcussions of actions, which are not realized by the young speaker.

In both literary adult fiction and YA lit, character change is an important element. When writing a literary short story, often a good starting place is to fully develop a character, and then ask yourself what situation or event would force this specific character to make a choice, to realize something, to change. Those are the moments our life is built on. In a YA story, change is inevitable, as the main character is on the cusp of growing up, learning some hard truths about life. Growing is changing, and while this can be approached in a more metaphorical way in adult fiction, the impact and the journey can feel very similar.

It’s important to recognize that the use of the term literary is not intended to sound haughty or elitist. The definition of literary is not better. When we refer to a work as literary, we’re referring to elements such as creative use of language and distinctive character development, often with the primary emphasis on those aspects rather than on plot. Sometimes when adults get offended by the notion of YA appealing to adults, saying that YA should only be read by the target age range, it is because they assume all YA is a lesser form of writing than adult fiction. The definition of YA is not lesser.

Some readers who argue that YA should not appeal to adults are responding to their belief that all YA fiction has a lower quality of writing. While this is true in some cases, just as it is true with some adult fiction, it is certainly not true with all YA. Rather than generalize and lump all YA into a category of lower writing quality, it’s useful to look at specific examples that spark those types of arguments. Twilight has been criticized for a lack of technique and polish in its writing style, but its popularity shows that its fans responded to the fantasy world built in that book, the immersive concept and story and specific characters that, for many readers, allowed the book to transcend its writing flaws. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has also received some criticism for writing quirks (such as overuse of adverbs in dialogue tags), but again, the world that was built, the characters that were created, impacted readers profoundly. Some writers have a gift with language, with technique, with style and phrasing and the ability to create atmosphere through words. Other writers have a gift for story, for creating realities that are believable even if they are fantastical, for allowing readers to escape completely into their worlds. Both of these things are true gifts. An admirable goal for a writer would be to attempt both things: to build a world that engrosses readers, and to show readers that world through exceptional language.

A related issue is that in contemporary YA, there is a trend toward the use of first person and/or present tense. Hunger Games, Divergent, and Belzhar use both first person and present tense; Pure uses present tense (with third person); Twilight and The Curious Incident… use first person (with past tense). Tense and voice are simply some of the tools we have as writers, serving different purposes, and each choice has its advantages and its limitations. There is no right or wrong choice—there is the choice that is better for this particular character, this particular story, and for your own personal voice as a writer. However, sometimes the limitations of present tense, or first person, or both, can result in awkward phrasing over the course of a novel, and that is sometimes what critics of YA writing styles are responding to.

One reason you may choose to write YA in first person is the way it allows the reader to closely identify with the speaker. A young girl reading a book in the voice of another young girl, who is going through problems or situations that are familiar (or that she wishes were familiar, or anticipates going through), can make it a very personal experience. To read, “He kisses my neck,” has a different impact than reading, “He kissed her neck.” For some readers, for some books, first person is most effective.

As a writer, first person can be limiting, so it’s important to weigh the benefits with the limitations. When using first person, your story remains in one character’s head. Scenes cannot be told from another character’s point of view (unless alternating chapters are used, with two or more characters each speaking in first person in his/her chapter—which helps avoid the limitation, but may become confusing for the reader). One limitation of first person, which can result in one of the “lower writing quality” issues that come up in YA/adult reader arguments, is that the speaker describing his/her own physical appearance or actions can sometimes read as awkward or overly precious. Divergent, an enjoyable book that builds an intriguing world and situation (and that translated successfully to film), falls into this trap at times with phrases like, “my fingernails bite my palms,” and “I press air from my lungs,” and “I press my palms to my face.” However, the reader connection that first person brings to a story can often make it worth taking on its challenges and limitations.

In a similar way, the choice of tense has a specific impact on a story. The use of present tense can draw in a reader closely to the speaker’s point of view, giving the story a sense of immediacy. However, it also limits a writer in a way that past tense does not (past tense and third person allow the most flexibility for a writer in terms of elements such as points of view and the ability to show through description). Again, it is a matter of choice, not a matter of which tense is correct. For some stories, and for some writers, present tense is the most effective choice. It can also be a useful technique to use tense changes to distinguish between the current action of a novel and flashback chapters or scenes within a novel. For example, the Prologue of Pure is in past tense, as it shows a long-past event that feels very distant from the current reality of the main character, while the body of the novel is in present tense, which helps convey the story’s urgency and tension.

When discussing and writing YA lit in an MFA class, remember to be respectful of each other’s preferences, to be open to hearing different opinions, to give insights to the class and be willing to learn and grow from other students’ insights. Remember that we all love writing, we all love good stories, and we’re all here to keep growing as writers and readers together.

—Beth Mead

On-Campus or Fully Online (No Residency Requirement)

In the LU MFA Foundations series, our faculty members 
discuss or clarify foundational elements of the craft of creative writing.
Other entries in the series are linked here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

LU MFA Foundations: Literary Fiction & Genre Fiction--Wm. Anthony Connolly

It can be difficult, but not impossible, to discern the difference between fiction that is literary from fiction that is genre. In much the same way we’d know the difference between classical and hip hop music, we can know the difference between literary and genre fiction. In this analogy, music is music. Well, fiction is fiction, too. Music comes in types. Fiction comes in types. The important thing to remember is that the term literary is not a value judgment, much in the same way the term hip hop is not a value judgment, but rather a way to say what type of music it is.

Literary is a type of fiction. Genre is another. I have published novels in both types. My last novel PKgrrl is genre fiction. The novel I have coming out soon The Smallest Universe is literary.

Let’s attempt to discern between the two:

1. The term literary does not mean high brow. In other words, the term itself has a hard time being understood because at one time in your reading education you were chided for not understanding a story and from that day forward the term for such a shame was literary. Anything literary was this kind of writing only for smart people or the pretentious. NOT TRUE. 

2. Language vs. Story. Here’s a biggie. In literary fiction you notice language (the words used, metaphors, allusions); in genre fiction you notice story (the plot, and then what happened…). If you are reading a book and it’s a page-turner and you can’t wait to know what happens next, you’re reading a genre novel. If, on the other hand, as you are reading a book you find yourself loving the words, the metaphors, the character being developed before your eyes, you’re reading literary. This is not to say a genre novel can’t be literature (a different term): I consider Dune, Frankenstein, Lord of the Rings, Childhood’s End, and others to be literature!

3. Character vs. Plot. In literary fiction the book is developed and focused around the character whereas in genre fiction the book is developed and focused around plot. This is a variation on #2. In other words, the language you use is very very important because you are developing a character. In genre fiction, you are concerned with structure, the structure of conflict-choice-consequences because you are creating a story/plot.

4. Who vs What. By now, you should have a good notion that literary fiction is about who while genre fiction is about what.

Here’s how you can tell the difference here: Take a representative page of your work. Read it and answer the following questions — Do I know more now about the character or the plot? In a work that is literary the answer is the former; for genre, it’s the latter. 

Some other things to consider:
For any specialized writing course — science fiction, the short story, poetry, etc., it is very, very important to read in the specialized area. When you are enrolled in a literary fiction class, I suggest you pick up a literary book or two to use as models. In other words, when you’re stuck or need inspiration go to experts, published authors in the specialized area and see how they wrote, borrow from them, learn from them. While in a literary fiction class, you should be reading literary fiction. Only makes sense. 

When you register for Literary Novel Workshop: Polishing the In-Progress Novel or any course for that matter, you need to understand what you’re getting yourself into, as best you can. This course could have easily been called Fantasy Novel Workshop: Polishing the In-Progress Novel and guess what, you’d need to understand what fantasy means, right; and be interested in writing it! Only makes sense.

5. Literary is incarnation and idiosyncratic. This is the heart of what literary is, it’s also its most hard to understand because it’s not something that can be readily taught. Let me break it down:

A. Incarnation: Make your character real. Simple right? Well, yes and no. To flesh out your character you have to, regardless of POV, see the world through them and in order to do so you must create them, and the only way to create something from abstraction (in your head) to concrete (on the page) is through words. So, in this way, the very words you choose to describe, set, put into action, all are directed toward the character. You get to play at being a god. You decided how words serve as the fire, the fuel, the DNA of the character so much so that when someone reads about your character they’re inside the mind or psyche of that character. Just look at yourself, what are your favorite words? What expressions have you always said? How do you look at the world; and what are the words you’d use to describe it? Because of my journey my words are different from yours because you’ve had a different journey. Think of your character as another entirely different person. Use words to make it flesh.

B. Idiosyncratic: This cannot be taught. I have a love for words and I love to encode my fiction with words that will blossom in the mind of a like-minded reader. I use words like music, in order to instill in the reader an emotion or a feeling I want them to have. I don’t say it outright, I use language to have it arise within the reader. I have a way of looking at the world, and so, I put that down on the page when I’m writing literary, because with literary works not only are you noticing the language, the character, but you are noticing the author him or herself. 
—Wm. Anthony Connolly

On-Campus or Fully Online (No Residency Requirement)

In the LU MFA Foundations series, our faculty members 
discuss or clarify foundational elements of the craft of creative writing.
Other entries in the series are linked here.

Friday, May 15, 2015

May 2015 Commencement

Congratulations to our new Masters of the Fine Art of Writing who walked across the stage tonight at Lindenwood University's May 2015 Commencement: John Tuohy, W.D. County, Teressa Rose Ezell, Jeannette M. Landon, Cassandra Ricard, Chryssa Sharp, and Emily Vieweg.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

LU MFA Foundations: Defining Prose Poetry--Eve Jones

The use of constraint in poetry is like a contract the poet makes with his or her art: "I will write you, but I will write you using this technique, in this form, with these words, with this length of line, playing with this much white space, approaching with this tone, etc." There are both conscious and unconscious decisions made along the way, and when it all comes together, the consequential art is a marriage of content and form, of picture and frame.

Prose poetry is no exception. A prose poem intends to be a poem in its attention to language, but does not employ the use of line like regular poetry. It resembles prose, and in fact, it is cousin to short prose such as flash fiction and the lyric essay. Prose poems may be narrative-based or not. They may have complete, grammatically sound sentences or odd fragments. They may be glimpses of something or the whole shebang. They may brim with metaphor or not. They may be one-sentence or two pages long. They balance the said and the unsaid. They have the same goal as any poem: to wallop the reader with some emotional impact, and to do it with grace. 

By way of illustration, consider a section of Karen Green's book, Bough Down, a section which could rightly be called a prose poem. Or lyric essay. Or memoir-beating-as-heart. It is chronicle of grief following the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace. It borrows from prose, it borrows from poetry, it refuses to settle, it is less chronicle and more reaction, more endurance. It is difficult, it balks the tidy rooms of the brain, it wallops. 

Home is where I take up such a tiny portion of the memory foam; home is a splintered word. His pillow is a sweat-stained map of an escape plot, also a map of love’s dear abandon. (When did he give way, at which breath?) Forgiveness may mean retroactively abandoning the pillow and abandoning the photograph of someone with curious eyes, kissing my toes, poolside. I paint my toes Big Apple Red. I don’t know what to do about the shock of red nails on clean, white tiles except get used to it. (And when he gave way, was there room for feelings or the words for feelings?) While I brush my teeth, I can see him in my periphery at the other sink. The outline of him lulls and stings. (And when he gave way, was it the end or the beginning of suffering?) I draw his profile near, I make him brush his teeth with me, he spits and makes a mess. I could love another face, but why? 

In her wonderful “verse novel,” Red Doc >, Anne Carson writes:

“what is the difference between / poetry and prose you know the old analogies prose / is a house poetry a man in flames running / quite fast through it / or / when it meets the mind waves appear (poetry) or / both are defined by length of lines” 

I have found that thorough discussion of the difference between poetry and prose can take an entire term, and, like all that is meaningful and unsettling, the questions linger long after a single course in the genre. After all, there are a lot of ways writers can say the unsayable. There are a lot of houses. A lot of men on fire. 
—Eve Jones

On-Campus or Fully Online (No Residency Requirement)

In the LU MFA Foundations series, our faculty members 
discuss or clarify foundational elements of the craft of creative writing.
Other entries in the series are linked here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Summer 2015 MFA Class Schedule

Click on class titles below to view detailed course info.

ON-CAMPUS CLUSTERS (9 credit hours):
Advanced Scriptwriting Cluster—Monday—Peter Carlos
Fiction Cluster—Thursday—Mark George

ONLINE CLASSES (3 credit hours):

Ekphrastic Poetry—Eve Jones (craft/workshop) -- FULL
International Poetry—Scott Berzon (literature/craft)
The Craft of Poetry—Thai Kaewkaen, Guest Writer (craft/workshop) -- FULL
Ariel & the Tarot—Julia Gordon-Bramer (literature/craft)
   This class will cover the second half of Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath, volume one, featuring Plath's Ariel poems #12 ("Elm") through 22 ("The Courage of Shutting-Up").

Fiction Writing Workshop—Tony D'Souza (workshop) -- FULL
Adv Studies in Contemporary Fiction—Wm. Anthony Connolly (craft/writing exercises)
Young Adult Fiction Workshop—Mary Anderson (workshop/craft) 
The Prose Collection: Henry Miller—Kelli Allen (literature) -- FULL

The Lyric Essay—Eve Jones (craft/workshop) -- FULL
The Personal Essay—David Hollingsworth (craft/workshop)
The Prose Collection: David Foster Wallace—Kelli Allen (literature) -- FULL

Focused Scriptwriting Workshop—Zachary Vickers (workshop)

The Literary Journal—Beth Mead
  • It is highly recommended that all MFA students enroll in at least one Literary Journal class during the program. This class gives students the chance to be on the other side of the submission process and is very useful as a writer--and it also allows students to list an Editorial Assistant credit on their CV/resume.
  • Journal editing emphasis options for summer: Fiction, Poetry, or Prose Poetry
  • Students in literary journal classes read, discuss, and vote on submissions to The Lindenwood Review. This class includes other types of assignments but does not include a creative writing component. See course description for full details.

Thesis Registration Instructions
Full Guidelines

On-campus clusters begin the week of July 6 (7/6 for Scriptwriting and 7/9 for Fiction). 
Online classes begin Monday, July 13. Summer quarter ends September 26. 
Registration instructions are available HERE.

Lindenwood University MFA in Writing Program
On-Campus or Fully Online (No Residency Requirement)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

LU MFA Foundations: Recommended Resource for MLA Format

LU MFA faculty members recommend Purdue's OWL (Online Writing Lab) as an excellent online resource for MLA format. Visit their MLA page at the link below. Following the OWL info below are examples of a Works Cited entry and an in-text citation using MLA format.

From the site:

MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities. This resource, updated to reflect the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed.) and the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (3rd ed.), offers examples for the general format of MLA research papers, in-text citations, endnotes/footnotes, and the Works Cited page.

Tony Russell, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli, Russell Keck, Joshua M. Paiz, Michelle Campbell, Rodrigo Rodríguez-Fuentes, Purdue OWL Staff



Sample Works Cited entry:

Works Cited

McCracken, Elizabeth. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.  New York: Little,
            Brown  and Company, 2008. Print.

Sample quote with in-text citation:
McCracken describes her best friend’s home as “a sweet house full of snacks and nice girls and good books” (McCracken 81).

On-Campus or Fully Online (No Residency Requirement)

In the LU MFA Foundations series, our faculty members 
discuss or clarify foundational elements of the craft of creative writing.
Other entries in the series are linked here.