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Reflections: My Second Semester in a Kid Lit MFA Program

in Writing

It’s been six months since my recap of my first semester in my MFA program, so I thought I’d do an update on the second semester, which I just finished. I am a student in Vermont College of Fine Arts’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults low-residency program. I started last July (read my account of that first residency here on the blog), and I’m about to embark on the residency that will kick off my third semester in July.

Part 1: This Semester in 10 Photos

This was fun to put together for last semester’s recap, so I’m bringing it back! Here are 10 photos that epitomized this semester.

Photo #1: The semester started with a change… I chopped my hair off! Before this it was shoulder length and black, but I wanted to grow in my natural blonde and needed a new look. It was quite cold to have no hair in the middle of winter, but I came to love hats. Of course, I can’t go two weeks without changing my hair, so I promptly dyed it purple. Having a pixie cut definitely helped me get in character for writing Always Never, my Peter Pan retelling. I’m currently growing it out.

Photo #2: Here you see Jon Snow sitting by They All Saw a Cat, a picture book written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. I read this picture book for my first packet, and it totally launched me on a new critical journey. They All Saw a Cat got me interested in surrealist and avant-garde children’s literature, which ended up being a big theme in my critical thesis. Before this, I had never written about picture books critically and was nervous about it. But this brilliant book changed everything, and I knew I had to dive in and try.

Photo #3: And here we have a photo of that critical essay (CE), the long one in the first packet: “‘Ceci n’est pas une essai critique’: Subverting Perception and Questioning Realism in Children’s Literature.” I felt like I really hit my stride with this topic. I only intended to write a shorter CE on the topic, but once I got going, the ideas wouldn’t stop. Admittedly, it feels a little “out there” for a CE topic—basically, I’m arguing that there’s no one true reality—but I’m excited to work on it in the third semester as it’s a theme I’m passionate about in my own writing.

Photo #4: For the first time in a while, I ordered a bunch of new tea from Premium Steap, my favorite local tea distributor. I wrote out in my (unheated) office a lot this winter, often making a full pot to linger over when I was writing.

Photo #5: Introducing the Packet Board! Starting with my second packet, I began writing down the possibilities for packet materials and my schedule to complete everything on time. This was a lot of fun and it saved countless sheets of paper, as I tend to sketch these things out in notebooks and chew through pages. The white board is much greener, and I enjoyed playing with the different color markers.

Photo #6: Writing poetry was exhilarating, baffling, fun, and very rewarding. Crafting each poem felt like taking jigsaw puzzle pieces out of reality and assembling in something coherent, a little self-contained work that I hoped would pack punch. All of my poems rhymed, and I experimented with some new forms (the limerick, the elegy, alphabet poems). Something about poetry revived me and my enthusiasm for writing this semester. Amidst a larger depression, I found that poetry pushed me more than any other form I’d written thus far. Plus, while I was middling about with several different works-in-progress, I felt a strong sense of completion with each poem I wrote. Some of these poems went through drafts and drafts and drafts across hours and hours and hours of work, chewing through pencil erasers and blank sheets of paper with a hunger to match my passion for poetry. I’d say I spent more time drafting, tweaking, revising, and finalizing my poems than any other creative work I did. You can see in this picture that I’m working on drafting “The Lexlog,” a three-page poem I consider my proudest achievement this semester, while having a burrito bowl at Chipotle. I am a Starbucks addict, with my local Starbucks being my preferred office space, but sometimes you need to branch out. And eat! Because poetry takes a ton of brain power, and you need to nourish yourself.

Photo #7: My mother and I are members of the Brandywine River Museum and Conservancy and usually go to each exhibit. This spring, we attended an exhibit of art collected by Richard M. Scaife, a benefactor of the museum. I took a photograph of this quote from Scaife on the wall outside the exhibit entrance because I loved the message: “Beautiful art—paintings, music or literature— can transform our moods, lighten our hearts, make us think or change our minds, inspire us to be creative or live better lives.” Since starting my MFA program, I’m beginning to think about what it means to be a writer in the sense that you are an artist creating art for the world. That means it’s essential to connect with other artists and take in other art outside your medium. One of my close friends is a professional potter and teaching artist, and our conversations always invigorate me. I’ve also become more active in film culture this past year as a member of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. And I’m slowly beginning to bring music back in my life more as a well of creative inspiration—music can often make me manic, so I try to stay away from it. Two great recent books I read this semester that address the creator’s life are Art Matters by Neil Gaiman (which I reviewed here on the blog) and Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon.

Photo #8: A discussion of this semester wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that I published my two debut romance novellas, Our Perfect Fantasy and Our Perfect Secret! Here I am the day Our Perfect Fantasy went live, showing it to you on my Kindle screen.

Both of these sweet and clean romance novellas are in my “Political Passions” series. Our Perfect Fantasy has its origins years in the making. I first began Our Perfect Fantasy as a YA novel and in fact submitted the opening chapter as my writing sample for VCFA. Now, two years later, I heavily revised and updated the story, aging up the characters as “new adults” in their mid-twenties. I now know what it’s like to stick with a manuscript you shove in a drawer and keep going with it, which means gutting a lot (if not all) of your previous material. “Killing your darlings,” as we like to say in writing.

Publishing these two novellas was a total hypomanic-induced whirlwind. I really don’t like the spring, mainly because it makes my moods go up and down really fast with the changing circadian rhythms. Seasonal affective means many people with bipolar see hypomania and mania spike in the spring and summer, which can be very productive, as the 44,000 words I wrote in three weeks between these two novels shows, but those elevated moods can be dangerous, too. In some ways, dealing with the fallout of mania and hypomania is even more destructive than depression. You overcommit yourself, burn out, spend a bunch of money you don’t have, and can slip into mania or psychosis if you’re not treated early enough. So while I’m so happy to have published those books, I also have the perspective to say I wish I could have taken that creative burst and spread it throughout the semester. Not long after my crash down from hypomania, I had my fourth packet due and was creatively exhausted from all the work I did on my romance novellas. Plus my cognitive impairment was horrible, my brain a fog. I’m glad I have those novellas, as they are, if nothing else, two pieces of writing I’m proud of (and selling…), and fortunately my hypomania wasn’t too bad, but this is the life of a being a bipolar creative, for better or worse.

Photo #9: My advisor, An Na, focused a lot of her feedback on challenging me to better balance exposition with scene work. One of the coolest things about writing Our Perfect Fantasy and Our Perfect Secret was I could immediately see how my time in the MFA program is helping me improve as a writer. I had Na’s feedback from my work in the back of my mind, and I constantly asked myself, “Can I show this rather than tell this?” I got to play around with exposition a lot, especially in dialogue. For my final packet, Na wanted me to write a long critical essay on exposition and dialogue. Since I’m working on a middle grade fantasy novel, I decided to use Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as my mentor text, addressing the different ways that J.K. Rowling used dialogue to introduce the magical world to Harry and to readers. I still haven’t done a total Harry Potter reread, but I feel it’s coming. It’s such an important work of children’s literature, and now that I’m writing middle grade fantasy, I should revisit this classic that broke open children’s literature. Here you can see me writing in the book, which felt like sacrilege.

Photo #10: Here we are! I posted this victory status just moments after turning in Semester 2 Packet 4. I’m officially halfway through the program, which is a scary but thrilling thought. Can it get any better? I bet!

Part 2: What I Produced

I did a lot of writing this semester, generating more creative work than last semester for sure. Our new packet guidelines said we could submit anywhere from 25-50 creative pages each packet. Last semester, I struggled to meet the minimum for some packets. This time, I used almost every creative page possible. Between the four packets, I used 189 out of 200 available pages. (Caveat: poetry pages count double.) I think this reflects an increasing comfort with writing new material. For the first three packets at least, I definitely did not struggle with creative output.

Here’s a breakdown of my creative work:

The Whole Truth about Half House: I wrote and revised the first four chapters of this middle grade fantasy. I definitely plan to continue working on this project either this upcoming semester or in my final semester. I think it’ll be dependent on who my advisor is for those semesters, meaning if they work in middle grade or not.

The Epic Link Between Boom and Blink: I wrote the first seven chapters in this middle grade novel about two cats. I also finished an outline for the rest of the book, so I can pick this one up again some day.

Always Never: I worked on the opening chapters in this YA Peter Pan retelling. I’m not sure I’ll be working on this one in this upcoming semester, but I might turn it into a short story as I have an idea to create a collection of retellings as short stories.

Pen and Pulse: I crafted the first 21 pages of this YA novel in verse. I definitely want to continue working on this project next semester and have already started drafting more of it before residency.

Trust Your Story: I got to revise the opening of this YA contemporary epistolary novel.

Poetry: I rediscovered my love of poetry this semester and began two themed poetry collections. I wrote or revised 20 new poems over the course of the semester. The first is a series of children’s verse poems called “The Limerick Lyrics” and the second is a collection of fractured nursery rhymes I’m calling “Brother Goose’s Crimey Rhymeys.”

And as for the critical side of things… this semester I…

Read 52 books – a mix of picture books, poetry, early readers, chapter books, middle grade, and YA.

Wrote 2 long critical essays on the topics of a) perception and surrealism, and b) dialogue and exposition

Generated 4 shorter critical essays on retellings, power dynamics, subversive poetic techniques, and more.

Created a critical thesis proposal ready to go for my third semester advisor

Part 3: How I Grew

This semester, I saw a ton of growth.

Revision was never a great skill of mine going into the semester, and thanks to Na all but telling me that revision was not optional, I worked through my blocks and revised Always Never and The Whole Truth about Half House. Interestingly, these revisions looked very different. Whereas Always Never was tweaked and expanded (one of Na’s main suggestions was to take the time to build out the world), The Whole Truth about Half House was a top-to-bottom gutting. I think I only kept one single sentence from the first 29 pages in the 17-page revision. Revising “The Lexlog” was also helpful. After the creative rush of finishing the poem, I stepped away from it. When I came back, I was able to get more perspective on what needed more explanation and how I could make the language work on the line level to reinforce the action, characterization, and theme.

Poetry has always been my first love in writing, but I lacked the courage to just go all out and write and revise a bunch of new material. This semester, I felt more confident just going for it. I not only wrote children’s verse, but a young adult verse novel, too. I learned this semester that poetry is a true passion of mine, that I might want to do a poetry creative thesis (or a novel-in-verse creative thesis), and I absolutely want to encourage myself to write more in this genre as it satisfies me and brings me joy in a way nothing else has so far.

Middle grade intimidated me in the first semester. I felt like, since I had a crappy childhood, how could I write books for kids without being morbid? I think this semester, I really dove into middle grade and challenged myself to stop letting my past police what I could and couldn’t write. Maybe I could write anything! Maybe I couldn’t. But I needed to try. Between Boom and Blink and Half House, I feel my middle grade voice strengthening. I really hope to keep working on these projects, especially Half House, in the time I have left at VCFA.

Plotting and storytelling have always been my greatest weaknesses. I’m definitely more of a “pantser.” But this semester, I started to think about writing more deeply. What am I really doing? What do I really want to achieve? I think I’ve found my answer: above all, I want to tell good stories. I felt that way after seeing The Shawshank Redemption for the first time this year. Knowing it’s a Stephen King adaptation, I was just blown away thinking about what it would be like to train myself to think about stories in the same way King does, or other expert storytellers (novelists, yes, but including screenwriters and poets, too). I want to be a storyteller first, writer second, and to help myself on that path, I’ve been reading more great craft books on storytelling (Story Genius and Save the Cat! Writes a Novel). And in fact, I plotted and stuck to outlines for each of my romance novellas, the first time I’ve ever seen an outline through to the end. I used a hybrid plot template I created based on Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and Romancing the Beat so I’d be hitting my storytelling marks. Importantly, I did not let myself deviate from the outline even when I wanted to, so I could see the full effect of sticking to your story. After that experience, I think I’m a converted plotter! In any case, I do know that if there’s one big skill I want to come out VCFA having mastered, it’s storytelling inside and out.

These are just a few ways I’ve grown, and I know from first semester that you’ll often find your writing improved months if not years after the fact. One thing I have learned is creative and craft go hand in hand, and their influence is often an echo. Writing my romance novellas, I felt the lessons from my first semester on microlevel writing techniques come through, plus I saw Na’s exposition-and-scene mentoring radically improve my writing. I might not always see how I’ve grown from each and every piece, but I do know that I am growing. It’s true what they say: going to VCFA WCYA will teach you what you might take ten years on your own to learn. And I can’t wait to go to residency in a few weeks and begin a new semester and new chapter in my writing journey.

The Word Count of 175 Favorite Novels

in Lists/Writing

I’m writing a novel. You’re writing a novel. We’re all writing or reading novels. But how long is too long? How short is too short? If you’re obsessing over how many words your novel should be, it’s a good idea to consult the word counts of popular novels as a frame of reference. In this post, you’ll find the word counts of 175 (well, it’s actually 177, but 175 sounds cleaner!) classic, bestselling, award-winning novels, from books you’d recognize from high school English to recent hits. Along the way, I’ll analyze the word counts and note a few interesting trends. It’s my hope this list can be a resource for other writers like me who wonder how long a novel should be. I hope to follow it up with a children’s literature specific list.

The links will take you to Amazon (affiliate links), and if you’d like to know my sources, you can view them in this Google spreadsheet.

A few series in focus

Before we dive into the list, let’s explore the word count of a few popular fantasy series and one favorite, bestselling author who racks up high word counts.

Word count of Harry Potter series

The total word count of J.K. Rowling’s seven-book Harry Potter series is 1,084,625. That’s like reading David Foster Wallaces’s Infinite Jest (488,940) twice.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneJ. K. Rowling77,325
Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsJ. K. Rowling84,799
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanJ. K. Rowling106,821
Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireJ. K. Rowling190,858
Harry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixJ. K. Rowling257,154
Harry Potter and the Half Blood PrinceJ. K. Rowling169,441
Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsJ. K. Rowling198,227

Word count of The Chronicles of Narnia series

The total word count of C.S. Lewis’ seven-book Chronicles of Narnia series is 345,535. That’s approximately the same length as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (344,665).

The Magician’s NephewC.S. Lewis64,480
The Lion, The Witch, and the WardrobeC.S. Lewis38,421
Prince CaspainC.S. Lewis46,290
The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderC.S. Lewis53,960
The Silver ChairC.S. Lewis51,022
The Horse and His BoyC.S. Lewis48,029
The Last BattleC.S. Lewis43,333

Word count of Earthsea series

The word count of Ursula K. Le Guin’s six-book Earthsea series is 480,503. That’s like reading Stephen King’s The Stand: Uncut at 471,485 words and a third of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea at 26,601 words.

A Wizard of EarthseaUrsula K. Le Guin56,533
The Tombs of Atuan Ursula K. Le Guin45,939
The Farthest ShoreUrsula K. Le Guin60,591
TehanuUrsula K. Le Guin99,200
Tales from EarthseaUrsula K. Le Guin128,960
The Other WindUrsula K. Le Guin89,280

Word count of His Dark Materials series

The word count of Philip Pullman’s three-book His Dark Materials fantasy series is 390,575, about the length of reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (130,115) three times.

The Golden CompassPhilip Pullman112,815
The Subtle KnifePhilip Pullman109,120
The Amber SpyglassPhilip Pullman168,640

Word count of Game of Thrones series

The word count of George R. R. Martin’s five-volume A Song of Ice and Fire series is 1,770,000. The series is incomplete, so there could still be more words on the way! That’s about the length of Stephen King’s It (445,134) times four (1,781,736).

A Game of ThronesGeorge R. R. Martin298,000
A Clash of KingsGeorge R. R. Martin326,000
A Storm of SwordsGeorge R. R. Martin424,000
A Feast for CrowsGeorge R. R. Martin300,000
A Dance with DragonsGeorge R. R. Martin422,000

Word count of the Lord of the Rings series

The word count of J. R. R. Tolkien’s four-volume Lord of the Rings series is 576,459. To equal that, read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (190,858), Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (169,441), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (198,227) plus about half of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (36,014)

The HobbitJ. R. R. Tolkien95,356
The Fellowship of the RingJ. R. R. Tolkien187,790
The Two TowersJ. R. R. Tolkien156,198
The Return of the KingJ. R. R. Tolkien137,115

Author in focus: word count of Stephen King’s books

It’s also fun to look at the word counts in the work of one author in particular, so I decided to do a little exploring and find out the word counts of some books by a beloved author, Stephen King, a prolific writer with millions of words among his many books. In this list, you can see that The Stand: Uncut is 471,485 words. His writing guide and memoir On Writing is 79,139, meaning The Stand holds approximately six (5.957) books of On Writing‘s length within it. On Writing is one of my favorite guides to writing. I’d gladly take more of those over another novel. (Though I’d of course take The Stand over any novel ever.) For more Stephen King book word counts, see this very detailed Reddit thread.

CarrieStephen King61,343
‘Salem’s LotStephen King152,204
The ShiningStephen King165,581
The Stand (uncut version)Stephen King471,485
The Dark Tower: GunslingerStephen King56,583
Pet SemataryStephen King142,664
ItStephen King445,134
On WritingStephen King79,139

Now we’ll move along to look at this list of 177 word counts of popular novels.

Books that are 500,000+ words long

Here we see some of the longest novels in the world in the 500,000-word and up level. (And for more on that, check out the Wikipedia entry for List of Longest Novels.) Many people put reading Marcel Proust’s seven-volume In Search of Lost Time series on their reading bucket list. I’ve only read the first volume, Swann’s Way, and loved it, but I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to reading the rest of the books.

In Search of Lost Time booksMarcel Proust1,267,069
A Suitable BoyVikram Seth591,554
Atlas ShruggedAyn Rand561,996
War and PeaceLeo Tolstoy561,304
Les MiserablesVictor Hugo530,982

Books that are 400,000 words long

Think you can manage writing a 400,000-word novel? If you were going to write 1,000 words a day, that would take 400 days, more than a year. And if you only manage 500 words a day, double that to 800 days, over 2 years. Still, if it’s fame and glory you’re chasing, why not? David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a cult classic. And Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize. Maybe bigger is better.

Infinite JestDavid Foster Wallace488,940
The Stand (uncut version)Stephen King471,485
ItStephen King445,134
A Storm of SwordsGeorge R. R. Martin424,000
A Dance with DragonsGeorge R. R. Martin422,000
Gone with the WindMargaret Mitchell418,053

Books that are 300,000 words long

If you’re writing a 300,000-word novel, you’re in good company. Some of the most beloved classics in literature sit in the 300,000 word range. And some of these are downright page turners. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander has to be the quickest 305,000 words I’ve ever read.

The Count of Monte CristoAlexandre Dumas375,695
Lonesome DoveLarry McMurtry365,712
The Brothers KaramazovFyodor Dostoyevsky364,153
Bleak HouseCharles Dickens360,947
David CopperfieldCharles Dickens358,000
Anna KareninaLeo Tolstoy349,736
Don QuixoteMiguel de Cervantes344,665
A Clash of KingsGeorge R. R. Martin326,000
Gravity’s RainbowThomas Pynchon324,945
MiddlemarchGeorge Eliot316,059
The FountainheadAyn Rand311,596
Jonathan Strange and Mr NorrellSusanna Clarke308,931
OutlanderDiana Gabaldon305,000
A Feast for CrowsGeorge R. R. Martin300,000

Books that are 200,000 words long

Writing 200,000 words seems manageable. Interestingly, the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones, is also his shortest while J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the fifth and longest book in her series. Here we also have the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Salman Rushdie’s Man Booker-winning Midnight’s Children. Two classics of the Western canon, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment also reach the 200,000 word novel club.

A Game of ThronesGeorge R. R. Martin298,000
UlyssesJames Joyce265,222
CloudsplitterRussell Banks260,742
Harry Potter: Order of the PhoenixJ. K. Rowling257,154
A Prayer for Owen MeanyJohn Irving236,061
East of EdenJohn Steinbeck225,395
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayMichael Chabon216,020
Crime and PunishmentFyodor Dostoyevsky211,591
Midnight’s ChildrenSalman Rushdie208,773
Moby DickHerman Melville206,052

Books that are 150,000 words long

I split up the 100,000 – 200,000 category in two to make it easier to grasp. Plus, that 50,000 word difference is significant, at least according to the good people of National Novel Writing Month, who count a winning novel at 50,000 words. In this category, we have three books in the Harry Potter series. We have a few modern classics of literary fiction, including Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. We see a few fantasy and science fiction novels here, too, like Dune, American Gods, and Eragon.

Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsJ. K. Rowling198,227
The CorrectionsJonathan Franzen196,774
Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireJ. K. Rowling190,858
The Fellowship of the RingJ. R. R. Tolkien187,790
DuneFrank Herbert187,240
Memoirs of a GeishaArthur Golden186,418
Jane EyreCharlotte Brontë183,858
Little Women (Books 1 and 2)Louisa May Alcott183,833
Great ExpectationsCharles Dickens183,349
American GodsNeil Gaiman183,222
The Poisonwood BibleBarbara Kingsolver177,679
Catch-22Joseph Heller174,269
For Whom the Bell TollsErnest Hemingway174,106
The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck169,481
Harry Potter and the Half Blood PrinceJ. K. Rowling169,441
White TeethZadie Smith169,389
The Amber SpyglassPhilip Pullman168,640
Uncle Tom’s CabinHarriet Beecher Stowe166,622
The ShiningStephen King165,581
Cold MountainCharles Frazier161,511
DraculaBram Stoker160,363
The Kitchen God’s WifeAmy Tan159,276
Alias GraceMargaret Atwood157,665
EragonChristopher Paolini157,000
The Two TowersJ. R. R. Tolkien156,198
Watership DownRichard Adams156,154
Oliver TwistCharles Dickens155,960
EmmaJane Austen155,887
The Time Traveler’s WifeAudrey Niffenegger155,717
‘Salem’s LotStephen King152,204

Books that are 100,000 words long

At 100,000 words, several of these novels are bestsellers. If you want to write a hit, this might be the sweet spot. Also, we’ve got Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a #1 New York Times bestseller, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, all three of which were adapted for Oscar-nominated movies. Might this be the perfect length for a film version of your novel? It’s certainly something to consider. Note that we’ve got the first novels in three beloved YA fantasy series here: Twilight, Divergent, and Throne of Glass. If you’re writing YA fantasy, aim your word count high.

Gone GirlGillian Flynn145,719
The Last of the MohicansJames Fenimore Cooper145,469
A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith145,092
One Hundred Years of SolitudeGabriel Garcia Marquez144,523
Pet SemataryStephen King142,664
20,000 Leagues Under the SeaJules Verne138,128
Snow Falling on CedarsDavid Guterson138,098
Moll FlandersDaniel Defoe138,087
The Return of the KingJ. R. R. Tolkien137,115
A Tale of Two CitiesCharles Dickens135,420
Schindler’s ListThomas Keneally134,710
The SilmarillionJ. R. R. Tolkien130,115
Tales from EarthseaUrsula K. Le Guin128,960
Sense and SensibilityJane Austen126,194
AtonementIan McEwan123,378
Pride and PrejudiceJane Austen120,697
My Sister’s KeeperJodi Picoult119,529
Twilight (Book 1) Stephanie Meyer118,875
The Tenth CircleJodi Picoult114,779
WaldenHenry David Thoreau114,634
Throne of GlassSarah J. Maas113,665
The Golden CompassPhilip Pullman112,815
McTeagueFrank Norris112,737
The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnMark Twain109,571
The Subtle KnifePhilip Pullman109,120
Wuthering HeightsEmily Brontë107,945
Gullivers TravelsJonathan Swift107,349
Harry Potter: Prisoner of AzkabanJ. K. Rowling106,821
DivergentVeronica Roth105,143
A Distant ShoreCaryl Phillips103,090
Ender’s GameOrson Scott Card100,609
To Kill a MockingbirdHarper Lee100,388

Books that are 90,000 words long


We’ve dropped a digit and are now at five-figure word counts, but that doesn’t mean the prestige (or bestseller potential) drops, too. Here at 90,000 words, we see Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games alongside Paula Hawkins’ frenzied thriller The Girl on the Train and Toni Morrison’s lush literary Song of Solomon. And 90,000 words seems quite doable. At 1,000 words a day, you’d be finished in 90 days, or three months. And if you really hit your stride at 1,000 words, you’d finish four 90,000-word books in a year. Not bad if you’re planning a series!

The Hunger Games (Book 1)Suzanne Collins99,750
Welcome to the Monkey HouseKurt Vonnegut99,560
All the Pretty HorsesCormac McCarthy99,277
TehanuUrsula K. Le Guin99,200
Anne of Green GablesLucy Maud Montgomery97,364
The Girl on the TrainPaula Hawkins95,410
The HobbitJ. R. R. Tolkien95,356
The Left Hand of DarknessUrsula K. Le Guin94,240
Song of SolomonToni Morrison92,400
Joy Luck ClubAmy Tan91,419

Books that are 80,000 words long

There are many bestsellers and award-winning novels in the 80,000-word novel society, like Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead and the Booker Prize-winning The English Patient. But what strikes me most about the books in this category is The Diary of a Young Girl. I take particular inspiration from Anne Frank’s diary, which is 82,662 words long. That’s as long as some of the classics of literature, including 1984 and Persuasion, and shows how insightful, observant, intelligent, and hopeful Anne Frank was while writing her diary. What an accomplishment. It stirs you on, doesn’t it?

WaitingHin Ja89,297
The Other WindUrsula K. Le Guin89,280
1984George Orwell88,942
PersuasionJane Austen87,978
Pere GoriotHonore de Balzac87,846
The Unbearable Lightness of BeingMilan Kundera85,199
GileadMarilynne Robinson84,845
Harry Potter: Chamber of SecretsJ. K. Rowling84,799
Cry, the Beloved CountryAlan Paton83,774
The Diary of a Young GirlAnne Frank82,762
The English PatientMichael Ondaatje82,370
The Dark Is RisingSusan Cooper82,143
The Secret GardenFrances Hodgson Burnett80,398

Books that are 70,000 words long


It feels a bit strange to know that one of my favorite novels of all time, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is 73,404 words long. It’s like knowing how many words are in the bible, if Catcher is your misfit religion like mine was. We see in this batch of 70,000-word novels the first book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series at 77,325. If you’re keeping track, you could write that in 77 days, a little over two months at 1,000 words each day.

Do Androids Dream of Electric SheepPhillip K. Dick79,360
On WritingStephen King79,139
The Picture of Dorian GrayOscar Wilde78,462
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneJ. K. Rowling77,325
FrankensteinMary Shelley74,800
A Farewell to ArmsErnest Hemingway74,240
The Catcher in the RyeJ.D. Salinger73,404
White FangJack London72,071
The Woman WarriorMaxine Hong Kingston70,957

Books that are 60,000 words long

From John Green to Virginia Woolf to Terry Pratchett, the authors who have written beloved 60,000-word novels know how to pack a lot of meaning into a relatively short book. If you’re looking to expand your novel beyond NaNoWriMo length, take some comfort that you don’t have to stretch too far past the 50,000 word draft to pen a future classic.

The Adventures of Tom SawyerMark Twain69,066
Drinking Coffee ElsewhereZZ Packer68,410
The Sun Also RisesErnest Hemingway67,707
A Clockwork OrangeAnthony Burgess67,280
The Fault in Our StarsJohn Green67,203
Treasure IslandRobert Louis Stevenson66,950
The Color PurpleAlice Walker66,556
The Color of MagicTerry Pratchett65,113
The Martian ChroniclesRay Bradbury64,768
The Magician’s NephewC.S. Lewis64,480
Brave New WorldAldous Huxley63,766
The Scarlet LetterNathaniel Hawthorne63,604
Mrs. DallowayVirginia Woolf63,422
All Quiet on the Western FrontErich Remarque61,922
CarrieStephen King61,343
The Farthest ShoreUrsula K. Le Guin60,591

Books that are 50,000 words long

Several classics of children’s literature are comfortably in the 50,000-word novel range, including Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. The novels in this category, including Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning The Hours (one of my favorite books), prove that you don’t have to type your fingers off in order to craft something that takes your reader’s breath away. It’s also interesting to note that The Hours is an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which we learned in the last category, is longer (at 63,422). Sometimes you can take inspiration for a retelling and capture the beauty of the original in far fewer words.

Lord of the FliesWilliam Golding59,900
War of the WorldsH.G. Wells59,796
Black BeautyAnna Sewell59,645
The Wind in the WillowsKenneth Grahame58,428
A Separate PeaceJohn Knowles56,787
As I Lay DyingWilliam Faulkner56,695
The Dark Tower: GunslingerStephen King56,583
A Wizard of EarthseaUrsula K. Le Guin56,533
The HoursMichael Cunningham54,243
The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderC.S. Lewis53,960
The Silver ChairC.S. Lewis51,022

Books that are 40,000 words long

Now, none of these authors would win NaNoWriMo with their 40,000-word novel, but they’re obviously playing the long game. This list of 40,000-word novels should be subtitled: “How to write a book they’ll teach in high school English.” It’s like a who’s who of the English curriculum: Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Hinton, Bradbury, hell, probably Nicholas Sparks… I mean, who knows? Clearly, even though we’re getting down to the end of this list of word counts of favorite novels, there are still heavy hitters in the lower range.

Slaughterhouse-FiveKurt Vonnegut49,459
The NotebookNicholas Sparks48,978
The OutsidersS.E. Hinton48,523
The Horse and His BoyC.S. Lewis48,029
The Red Badge of CourageStephen Crane47,180
The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald47,094
Prince CaspainC.S. Lewis46,290
Fahrenheit 451Ray Bradbury46,118
The Tombs of Atuan Ursula K. Le Guin45,939
The Last BattleC.S. Lewis43,333

Books that are 30,000 words long


As an aspiring children’s literature writer, I’m pleasantly surprised and inspired to learn that Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is only 30,644 words long. You can manage that in a month, for sure! It’s also interesting to note that James M. Cain’s noir novel Double Indemnity is only 30,072. And at 30,000 words, most of these novels fall into the novella length, which is generally between 17,500 and 40,000 words.

The Lion, The Witch, and the WardrobeC.S. Lewis38,421
The StrangerAlbert Camus36,014
Old YellerFred Gipson35,978
The Time MachineH.G. Wells32,149
Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryRoald Dahl30,644
Double IndemnityJames M. Cain30,072

Books that are 20,000 words long

And here we are at the last category I’ve included: novels that are 20,000 words long. When you read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, you’re reading some of the shortest novels (really, novellas) you’ll find in bound books, yet these alarming, still-shocking stories show you can make a huge impact in just a few words.

Animal FarmGeorge Orwell29,966
Of Mice and MenJohn Steinbeck29,160
The Old Man and the SeaErnest Hemingway26,601
The Mouse and the MotorcycleBeverly Cleary22,416
The MetamorphosisFranz Kafka21,180

What’s the word count of your novel? What are some of your favorite short novels or long novels? Leave a comment and share your thoughts on writing and readings books of all lengths.

A Month of Journaling Questions for Readers

in Bookish and Book-Related/Lists/Writing

I’ve always been kind of obsessed with journals. I grew up during the height of Dear America books, Amelia’s Diaries, and other epistolary novels, like Bridget Jones’s Diary, that had a profound effect on my identity as a reader and writer. But it’s not really until the last two years that I got serious about keeping a regular journal. Now I look forward to journaling every night before bed. Admittedly, my day-to-day existence is pretty boring, but books, reading, and writing are my greatest passion and life’s work, and I make sure to journal about reading often. There are so many ways journaling about your bookish life can be rewarding, not least because that kind of regular reflection can help shape your personal reading practice. This article will go over some of the benefits of keeping a journal of your reading habits and bookish life. I’ll also include some prompts and journaling questions for readers to get you started today. If you’re a bullet journal person, you can adapt these questions for your bookish bullet journal.

Benefits of Journaling about Books

What are some of the benefits of keeping a journal about your reading life? I’m so glad you asked! It wasn’t until I started journaling about books that I realized it was the missing piece of my diaries (the ongoing record of which I loosely call “The Mad Book”). I often wrote about my daily existence, my medical history, work, relationships, and my ongoing journey as a writer, but once I began including details about books in my journal, I felt like I cracked open another dimension to my life. It’s how I started to develop what I consider a reading practice, much like a spiritual practice. Journaling about books helped me piece together who I really am as a reader, what I want books to be in my life, and how I intend to live bookishly.

My journal from 2017-2018: A patterned Moleskine I bought at Target

Here are four other journaling benefits I discovered in the process.

Benefit 1: Keeping a record of what you’re reading helps you notice patterns

Sometimes it can be hard to see the bigger picture of what you’re reading and how you’re growing as a reader. It’s one thing to have a digital record on Goodreads, but actually being able to recored what you’re reading at the moment and what topics, authors, and genres are interesting you gives you a more complete picture of how your emotional journey and reading journey are aligned. Often these things are difficult to recognize in the moment. But go back and look at your reading life a month, six months, or a year ago and you’ll start to discover the tendencies, preferences, loves, and dislikes that form your identity as a reader.

Benefit 2: Journaling about books makes you engage with what you’re reading more deeply

I know how true it is that writing about what you’re reading forces you to think more critically about those books. Imagine another year goes by and you’ve read 52 or however many books, but it’s just a blur, a wave of data with no direction. When you’re journaling about books, though, you have time and space to reflect on what you’re reading.

Benefit 3: A journal is a private, safe space to let it rip and be honest about books and reading

Ever finish a book and feel like you want to talk about it but, er, you’ve got an unpopular opinion? In the safe pages of your journal, with nobody’s eyes but your own, you can totally let it rip and give your hot take and negative review of a book that’s the literary darling of the moment. Journals are also good places to sort through your very personal reactions to a book, things you might not feel comfortable sharing, maybe something that triggered you or left a bad taste in your mouth, or, alternately, a book you’re embarrassed that you loved. With a journal, no more do you have to feel silenced about your deepest, most secret bookish opinions, nor do you have to let them float off into oblivion. You have a safe space to capture them in your journal.

Benefit 4: When you journal about your reading life, you’re writing a book!

Yes, maybe this benefit of journaling about reading is the most important one. By writing about your reading in a designated space, you are writing a book! This book is the story of your life in paper, something you can touch and feel and go back to again and again. So if you’ve ever said to yourself, I’d love to write a book (and who hasn’t?), keeping a journal about books is a great opportunity to do just that!

Ideas on what to record

Not sure what to write about your reading life? Start off with these ideas.

Before we jump into the list with a month’s worth of journaling questions for readers, you might be wondering how to get started. After all, journaling is no small thing. It can be very daunting—and it’s extremely brave—to want to think critically and reflect about your life in a journal. But where to begin? You can certainly start with the questions below, but if you want to ease into it, I recommend including some consistent notation of any of these:

  • Your current reads.
  • How many pages/chapters/books you read today.
  • Star ratings and a five-word book review of books you’ve finished.
  • Books you bought or borrowed that are on your To Be Read list (TBR).
  • Book recommendations that you’ve been given.
  • Upcoming new releases you’re excited about, pre-ordered, or put a hold on at the library
  • Book reviews, book blog posts, bookish articles, YouTube videos, and podcasts that you read, listened to, or watched.
  • Bookish adaptations on TV or film that you’ve seen.
  • Notes on book clubs and discussion groups.
  • Your daily, weekly, or monthly progress on your reading goals and any challenges you’re participating in right now.
  • A quick book review or instant reactions to a book you’ve just finished reading.
  • Keywords for books you’ve finished so you can easily scan for what you’re looking for.

While I first fell in love with journaling through Moleskines, my new favorite journal is Leuchtturm Hardcover Medium A5 Ruled Notebook. Right now, I’m journaling in one of these in Royal Blue. I like this notebook because it includes extensive indexing tools, good quality paper with plenty of space, and a solid hardcover.

31 Journaling Questions for Readers

Get ready for 31 bookish prompts and questions for your reading journal

Now let’s dive in with a month’s worth of bookish questions about your reading life and philosophy.

  1. What was the first book you read on your own that made you love reading? Why?
  2. What was the most significant and impactful book someone has ever given you as a gift? What books that you’ve given have had special meaning?
  3. Do you finish every book you read? Why or why not?
  4. What quotes from books or poems have stayed with you? Which lines of literature can you quote verbatim? Why do you think they have made such an impact on you?
  5. Who helped encourage you to read? What books would you share with them now?
  6. What’s a 5-star book for you? 2-star? 3? Define your philosophy of rating books.
  7. If you had to pick one book to recommend your whole town, city, state, or country to read as a “One Book, One City” selection, what would it be and why?
  8. If you could have any kind of bookish job what would it be? If you could invent a bookish job, what would you do?
  9. What is your system like for recording books you’ve read, bought, plan to read, etc.? Would you change anything?
  10. If you could get a bookish tattoo, what would you get it of?
  11. Ready for a dare? Give yourself a reading dare and a month to complete it. Track your progress and note how it’s making you feel to be pushed as a reader.
  12. If you could either (a) read 100 books in a year, some great, some not-so-great, or (b) read only 40 fantastic books in a year, what would you pick and why?
  13. If you were to teach a class on books, literature, reading, or writing, what would you choose? What would you call it? What books would you’d add to the reading list?
  14. Do you blog about books or share your reading online? If so, how does this fulfill you? If not, would you ever consider it?
  15. Set a timer for 20 minutes and write down your philosophy of reading. Keep writing. Don’t correct yourself or stop to edit it.
  16. Who is a person you trust to give great book recommendations? What is it about their reviews that always make you listen and get excited about reading? (Learn more about recommending books in my guide.)
  17. What’s one book you were surprised that you loved? What made you take a chance on it?
  18. How does reading offer you Comfort? Enlightenment? Escape? Joy? Thrills? Peace? Love? Free write what books come to mind when you think about each of the words.
  19. What are some of your bookish bucket list ideas?
  20. Write a letter to yourself and give an update of the last few books you’ve read, bought, borrowed, added on Goodreads, or put on your TBR. What kind of topics are you enjoying reading about? Seal the letter up and open it in a year. Journal about the experience of writing and reading that letter. How are you different as a reader today vs. then?
  21. Do you feel like you’re part of a community of readers? What’s an encounter you’ve had with a total stranger or acquaintance who you’ve bonded with about books? What friends have you made through books?
  22. What is your favorite book of all time? Just one. No, really. Why did you pick that one above all others?
  23. What’s a personal reading challenge goal you have that doesn’t have to do with amount of books read? Why is it significant for you?
  24. Mindfulness and meaning. What would “reading meaningfully” and “reading mindfully” be for you?
  25. Think back to the last book that gave you The Feels. “The Feels” are often indescribable, you just know them when you see them, but if you had to choose some emotions to describe them… what would they be? It’s interesting to consider what “The Feels” means for each individual reader.
  26. What authors do you admire and why? What makes someone more than just a good writer, but a partner in reading and advocate for books?
  27. What’s one book you think should be banned? Or does this question make you realize you’re against all kinds of book bans? There’s no wrong answer here.
  28. Which books do you wish you could read for the first time again? Was it more about the experience of reading the book or the book itself?
  29. Give yourself a code name. If you could name yourself after any fictional characters (first, middle, and last names), who would it be and why? What would it feel like to actually live with that name?
  30. Think about the reading accomplishment you’re most proud of in your life. What gives you pride about it? Could you push it further?
  31. If this bookish reading journal is your book… what’s the title?

Book Review of “Art Matters” by Neil Gaiman

in Reviews/Writing

Over the years, I’ve steadily been working my way through prolific author Neil Gaiman’s publications, recommending them here on the blog and just about everywhere. The more I’ve read by him, the greater my appreciation for Gaiman. That someone can write in such an authentic, recognizable style and sustain it over time means you’re truly witnessing an artist who has a true vision and is able to lend you their perception so you, too, can see the world through their eyes. Plus, how can you not like Gaiman? He’s a generous, down-to-earth, and approachable writer. I feel like the barriers are not so big between Gaiman and his readers. You can tell he is genuinely interested in connecting with his many fans. In this book review of Art Matters by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell, I’ll introduce the book, analyze its strengths, and share why I think it’s a 5-star read. Let’s get going!

Art Matters (2018) is a collection of four pieces Gaiman has written. The book is not very long at just 112 (unnumbered) pages. I’ll here point out that the entire book is illustrated by Gaiman’s long-time collaborator, Chris Riddell. Rather than being set in type, the text appears in drawn letters. Each page is illustrated with beautiful scenes and rousing imagery. (Apologies that the images I’ve added to this post do not do the illustrations justice as they all look a bit pixelated on the screen.)

The book starts with “Credo,” a short, punchy argument for the power of ideas and free expression in a time when they are under assault. According to the book’s publisher, HarperCollins, this was delivered after the terrorist shootings at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. This deadly attack was believed to be due to the magazine’s cartoons spoofing the Prophet Mohammed. It’s hard to read “Credo” and not feel chills spring up due to the forceful, bold language. For instance, in “Credo,” Gaiman writes:

Ideas spring up where you do not expect them, like weeds, and are as difficult to control. I believe that repressing ideas spreads ideas.

Neil Gaiman, Art Matters (2018)

As a big believer in the right to freedom of expression, I connected with Gaiman’s attack on censorship, and I do believe he’s right: the more we try to suppress ideas—even harmful, toxic ones—the more power they have and the further they spread. I don’t believe censorship is the answer. This was a strong start to this book and set the tone, like a sharp punch to the gut, that Gaiman won’t be censoring his own beliefs about art, writing, and ideas, no matter how bold, “radical,” or unpopular they might seem.

In the next section, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming,” Gaiman sings the praises of libraries and librarians. Gaiman discusses how libraries paid a big part in his development as a writer and reader.

Chris Riddell Illustration Art Matters
Illustration from Neil Gaiman’s Art Matters (2018) (source = The Guardian)

You might know by now through this blog that I’m a librarian, though I consider myself a non-practicing librarian out in the greater library of the world, so this part really resonated with me. Given that President Trump has moved to defund libraries for the second year in a row, Gaiman’s passionate defense is all-the-more relevant. There’s something else that Gaiman talks about in this section. He advocates for reading fiction, evidently in response to people who find fiction a frivolous distraction. My favorite quote from Gaiman came from the passage where he pushes for adults to let children read whatever they want as it will help them love reading. Gaiman writes this about the period of excitement of reading when…:

You’re finding out something as you read that will be vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

Neil Gaiman, Art Matters (2018)

This is so, so true, and I think any kid who found themselves “saved” in one way or the other by fiction and storytelling will recognize themselves in that quote.

Chris Riddell Art Matters Illustration
Illustration from Neil Gaiman’s Art Matters (2018) (source: The Guardian)

When I was a little girl, I read primarily for escapism, and I had a lot I needed to escape in my life. But there’s something even deeper in this idea, that beyond escapism, young readers learn that there is another way to live. You can read a contemporary book about people who don’t live all that different from you and still see another way to live, that your challenging life isn’t the only possibility, and if that’s not a resounding advertisement for art’s soul-changing, soul-saving capacity to rescue us, I don’t know what is.

The third section, “Making a Chair,” I found to be the weakest part of the book. The poem is about Gaiman’s efforts to make a new office chair, partly as a distraction from writing. I don’t have much to say about this section, other than it felt a little out of place. I think it’s because the poem was so focused on this one experience Gaiman had that I struggled to connect it to myself, to other artists, and to art in general. But I also understand that it brought 14 pages to a 112 page book and, hey, who hasn’t needed filler in a book compiling previous work? I mean, I liked the illustrations!

In the fourth and final section, Gaiman prints his famous “Make Good Art,” commencement speech he delivered in 2012 at the University of the Arts (hey, Philly!). You can watch it here:

I had never watched the speech, but I knew of it through various quotes from Gaiman that pop up here and there. I was familiar with the “make good art” refrain, but it wasn’t until I read it here in Art Matters that I felt the full impact of the speech. And man does it hit you in the mind, heart, and soul. For all artists and creatives, whenever you’re feeling down, discouraged, and unsure, whenever you’re feeling crushed by the world, “Make good art,” Gaiman answers. This is the answer. To not stop making good art, no matter what. It’s a deceptively simple instruction, but it’s so true. Where would we be if we just stopped making art? I’ve been feeling pretty down lately, and I appreciate how easy it is to hold onto and live up to Gaiman’s “make good art” command.

Illustration from Neil Gaiman’s Art Matters (2018) (source = Goodreads)

I was surprised on reading Gaiman’s speech how current it is. I had expected something a little more general, but Gaiman is speaking to and of the moment we are living in, and that includes freelance culture, self publication, and in general, when the rules of art and distribution are changing. For some, this is scary, and it’s tempting to want to stick your head in the sand and hope that it’ll all pass. But Gaiman feels as I do, that with the old rules breaking down, along with the gatekeepers and those who have been privileged to always be at the top, there’s never been a better opportunity to create new ones.

The old rules are crumbling, and nobody knows what the new rules are. So make up your own rules.

Neil Gaiman, Art Matters (2018)

It’s an exhilarating, shockingly chaotic time where it’s as easy to get your art (writing, whatever your mediums) out there as posting on Instagram, but in some ways, harder than ever to be recognized by “The Academy.” And yet, artists and creatives have more ways to reach more people. I’m doing an MFA right now, and traditional publishing is the last thing on my mind. I’d rather go the indie route, at least for now, in part because I would be able to reach readers more directly. To be doing an MFA and thinking “indie first” not as a last resort, but as the path of choice is a product of these shifting times. The rules are indeed breaking down, and good for Gaiman for not speaking in archaic platitudes but getting real.

Definitely pick up Art Matters!

All in all, I cannot recommend Art Matters highly enough, and honestly, since it takes about 30 minutes to read, what are you waiting for? (I’m definitely going to have to include Art Matters in the next update to my list of short books to read in a day or readathon.) The tiny bit of time you spend reading this book is lopsided. You might finish the book in half an hour, but the stirring manifesto you’ve just read will stay with you long afterward.

Read Art Matters now…

Add Art Matters on Goodreads, purchase on Amazon, and find in a library through WorldCat.

Reflections: My first semester as an MFA student

in Writing

As of last weekend, I have turned in all my schoolwork, portfolio items, and evaluations necessary to complete this first semester of my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults (WCYA) program. I have put miles between who I was up in Vermont at July residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts (read my residency recap here) and who I am today, and not just because Montpelier is 406 miles away from me right now. When I think back to the writer I was just five months ago when I sat in Cafe Anna sketching out a semester plan and the writer I am now, I realize just how much I’ve started growing into the writer I’ve always hoped to be. In this recap of my first semester in VCFA’s low-residency WCYA Master of Fine Arts, I share how this life-changing opportunity to study writing more intensely has already transformed me into a stronger, more confident writer and critical reader. In Part 1, I go over the various components of my study that I’ve produced this first semester. Part 2 is a visual essay: how this semester felt in 10 pictures. Last, in Part 3, I talk about how this semester impacted me in the big picture of what kind of writer I want to be and nerd out about writing topics like organic story flow and craft awareness. I end by considering how my illness issues have made me realize I will need to be strategic about growing as a writer and positioning myself to write professionally by putting the bulk of my efforts into this program and growing my writing career. (Beware: financial transparency talks!)

Part 1: What I produced this semester

In this first semester, I’ve completed substantial critical and creative writing as well as read widely for my annotated bibliography, including:

Critical work

This semester, I read 49 books, a combination of picture books, chapter books, early readers, middle grade novels, and young adult fiction.

I wrote several critical essays a mix of short CEs and long CEs that examined:

  • Characterization, with a focus on epiphany, awakening, and motivation in books like Dear Rachel Maddow and Radio Silence.
  • Advantages that graphic narratives have in creating a visual language to describe indescribable feelings, such as invisible pain from mental illness or disability.
  • Language at the line level (or “microlevel” as my advisor, Amanda Jenkins, describes it). I did a close read of passages from Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and the first and second chapters of The Catcher in the Rye.

One of the best critical assignments Amanda gave me was to do a close read of the first chapter of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, my favorite book in high school and undoubtedly one of the most influential books on my writing.

My fifteen-year-old self wrote this on the title page of Catcher. I still have this copy!

I took my beat-up copy from my teen years and typed up the first chapter so I could print it out on computer paper and mark up the text with highlighting and glossed notes. 

Jon Snow sleeps next to my notes on Catcher‘s first chapter
My marked-up notes from Catcher‘s opening chapter

Amanda told me to look specifically at Grounding, Flow, and Feeling. After I got done working on the paper printouts, I went back into the Word document where I typed up the text and began marking it up with comments and track changes.

My comments for Catcher‘s first chapter in Word

I added 71 comments! And then in a separate document, I broke out some of the analysis in more depth.

The whole experience really opened my eyes to looking at the line level to see the sum impact of different micro craft choices Salinger (and Holden) make. (Also, it felt pretty cool to be marking up The Catcher in the Rye as if it were a manuscript I was editing or a workshop submission from Salinger.)

Creative work

This semester I produced several creative works, including:

  • Three short stories: “Cursed,” “Virginia Tucker Cooks Magic,” and “Let Your Heart Be Light”
    • I completed a full revision of “Cursed” for Packet 4.
  • My short story work grew in complexity, in length (from 7 page short stories to 14 and even 22 page-long stories) and depth of character journey. I learned to shape the story around the character’s epiphany so that twists, payoffs, and character change felt organic.
  • The first five chapters (and a few illustrations) of a middle grade novel, Boom and Blink.
An illustration I made of Blink, one of the cats in my middle grade story.
  • Side work and exercises to lay the groundwork for drafting my YA novel, Swing Love. I also wrote the climactic scene of the novel.
  • A first draft of the opening chapter of a new epistolary YA novel, Trust Your Story, later revised completely for the fourth packet.

Part 2: What my first semester was like in 10 pictures

I think to describe this semester best, I’ll have to do it in pictures. So here’s a visual look at my first semester.

1 – One of my first reads of the semester was Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner, a VCFA alum who coincidentally also had Amanda as an advisor. I wrote a critical essay on political awakening using this book as the source text. I’m also writing a YA novel where politics plays a big role.

Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner

2 – I went to see the movie Eighth Grade and was so moved at how intensely I felt drawn to write children’s literature for this age group. It was a visceral experience being dropped into an awkward, socially anxious girl’s life in the last weeks of eighth grade before graduating to the high school. I recognized a lot of myself in her.

Movie poster for Eighth Grade when it was playing at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute

3 – I worked on my cat book, Boom and Blink: Finding My Shadow. It was interesting to write from an animal point-of-view!

Writing my first middle grade work, Boom and Blink.

4 – I got reacquainted with marking books up with notes, glossing them like I was scribbling insta-reactions in my high school copies of Hamlet. Here you can see the rainbow of stickies I used to signify moments in Courtney Summers’ Sadie that felt emotionally gripping on a writing and/or storytelling level.

I used a whole set of stickies on Sadie.

5 – I obsessed over every detail of each packet, but I still felt scared to submit them. Many times, after I pressed “Send” in Gmail, I hit the Undo button and panicked over something, tweaked it, and then sent the files off for good.

Capturing the moment I sent a packet in—past the “undo” send option, and it’s outta my hands and in the fates of the gods!

6 – In early October, I took a solo vacation to Bethany Beach, Delaware. It was nice to get out and clear my head, take in nature and see new places. I visited some great bookstores. I also got some work done on the creative pieces I was putting together for the third packet. The ocean and wind served as my soundtrack from where I was staying a few blocks from the beach. After Packet 2’s feedback earlier in that week, I really needed to do some soul searching to find the courage to create with my voice.

South Bethany Beach, Delaware

7 – In the fall, I started to take long walks into Swarthmore’s downtown. My house is a little over a mile away. I walked through Swarthmore College’s campus, which is actually an arboretum, during fall when it was in full bloom. I’d often end up in Hobbs Coffee, a cafe by the train station. These cleansing walks helped me soak up nature and tease out story ideas or think about how to work through blocks in my work.

I printed out what I had so far for Packet 3 and revised in Hobbs Coffee

8 – This visual essay could be comprised entirely of coffee, but I learned that I could not survive on this “writer fuel” alone. I had to eat a full breakfast if I wanted enough energy to write for the day. Here I made myself some steel-cut oats and paired it with a strongly brewed cup of Cafe Du Monde coffee, my brew of choice.

Breakfast on a writing day: steel-cut oats and Cafe Du Monde coffee!

9 – I actually went to a bunch of movies this semester. I found it helped me think about writing and storytelling from a different perspective. Plus, it helped clear out the cobwebs, a technique I learned from Mad Men‘s Don Draper. First Man was one of my favorites from this year and got me thinking about craft and how to layer themes in from the beginning of the story.

First Man was one of the films I saw in theaters this semester.

10 – When I really needed to buckle down and write or read, I would go off the grid. I’d delete social media apps, sign out of accounts, limit my iPhone notifications to just the minimum (or put it on Do Not Disturb or Airplane Mode, or turn it off). One advantage (?) of depression making me isolate myself was being able to actually focus on reading and writing again, since they were the main things in my life. As the semester went on, I dropped off being so obsessed with the news. My nightly MSNBC binge was replaced by reading and writing time. In some ways, I felt cut off, and, being a news junkie, I worried that I’d feel out of the loop. But with a few select podcasts keeping me informed of what really mattered, I survived, and actually, I got so much more work done this way.

One of my “going off the grid” pictures on Instagram to signal I was taking a break.

Part 3: I am a writer

Developing craft awareness

Starting an MFA program made me aware of how much craft mastery is involved to create storytelling magic. At one of my residency workshops, my instructor broke down a master plot into different stages. I asked them, “If great stories often follow this map, and thousands of stories get through production each year as films, TV shows, or books, what separates those thousands of stories we forget from the rare ones that rise to the top? What makes The Fault in Our Stars or Harry Potter any different from stories that follow the same plot journey?” As you imagine, there’s no clear answer to that except the best stories reach us deep inside, our hearts, our soul. They connect with us.

As the semester went on, though, I started to find my answer. I developed a new appreciation for my favorite writers because my eyes were opened to how many little decisions go into a story or book that becomes a work of art.

When I came home from residency, I felt totally humbled about the way I thought about writing. Sure, I knew great writing when I read it. But I never fully appreciated the craft level of what separates great writing from stuff that is merely good. Certain authors write prose that so effortlessly falls into place. Think about it. I’ve always felt the best writing doesn’t even make you feel like you are reading words—it’s a kind of magical transformation that happens where you just feel like you’re absorbing this totally immersive story that is firing on all cylinders: language, voice, character, plot, the payoff. I tend to get turned off from writing that’s almost too good. because it feels like writing. I have that problem with Rainbow Rowell sometimes—she’s got an incredible ear for dialogue and writing quotable lines, but to me, it just reminds me that I’m reading excellent writing and it takes me out of the story. Some of my favorite authors who manage to accomplish this kind of enchanted non-writing immersion are Donna Tartt, Michael Ondaatje, John Green, E. Lockhart, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Gabrielle Zevin, and Neil Gaiman.

Beginning the MFA showed me the level of craft mastery or craft consciousness required to write the stories that deeply affect readers and stay with them—to write magic, to write art.

As I learned to make these kind of decisions on the microlevel, I saw how they could add up to something unforgettable (after tons of revision!). My advisor really pushed me this semester creatively, and her pointed questions made me develop a kind of backbone and eventually a kind of authority to make tiny choices that affected the bigger picture. If was going to try out a bold, voicey narrator, I had to be sure that it made sense from a craft and character perspective, not just because I was forcing it. Similarly, if I was going to choose to revise a passage or not, I needed to feel confident about it. A lot of the time, I ended up revising pieces and throwing out just about everything. When I decided to revise the first chapter of Trust Your Story, I changed the format up to be an epistolary novel, a diary. I think I saved the grand total of two pages’ worth of material from the original 21-page long first draft. Sure, it kind of sucked to throw that work away (all those words!), but I knew it was the right way to go because that’s how the story really was taking shape.

And that’s one of the big takeaways I have of this semester, getting out of the way of the story’s natural flow, the idea of the writer as a vessel or medium through which the organic story comes through. The difference between achieving that effortless kind of storytelling was knowing how to craft that at the intricate word, punctuation, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter level until you’ve tamed it and shaped it into something organic.

When I finally got to the last packet, I knew this fortune cookie I got early in the semester at Margaret Kuo’s in Media was prophetic: “How can you have a beautiful ending without making beautiful mistakes.” This semester was all about making beautiful mistakes but growing from it and not being afraid to try something and miss.

I got this fortune cookie about making “beautiful mistakes” to get to “beautiful endings” early in the semester.

I discovered any piece of writing is only as good as the sum of its words—each and every word, stacked on top of the others, to create a multilayered, complex, and vividly alive story you connect with in a gut, emotional way because you are present to its art as it unfolds in the moment.

You almost had to know when to get the writing out of the writing’s way, to tame both the story in its natural form and your own desire to force on it craft choices that didn’t make sense—like trying something flashy or clever that ultimately wasn’t the best fit for the story the story wants to be.

Okay, so that’s a lot of craft talk for one day, haha.

Leaning into a writing life

As the semester went on, though, and I developed more of an awareness of this level of craft consciousness, I was also dealing with my bipolar symptoms. Brutal depression, distracting mania… I saw how my illness was sucking every bit of energy out of me, and whatever I had leftover went towards my MFA work. Many days, it felt like all I did was get out of bed (a victory itself), write or read all day, swallow some pills, and go back to bed and repeat. I eventually abandoned my rule about not wearing sweats before five. Loungewear became my friend. Anything that would make writing more comfortable and easier.

If I didn’t know it before I started the MFA, I knew it the first morning of my first residency: I want to do this, badly, full time. I only want to write—and a myriad of other gigs I love, like teaching, criticism, blogging, freelance writing for Book Riot/Electric Literature/NoveList etc., and author assistant work—or I want to get to the point where this is all I need to do each day, to focus primarily on my writing.

I battled against the bipolar issues—along with med side effects, the increasingly more debilitating and severe episodes, and the ghost of my cognitive decline of this illness as it takes its natural course across the lifespan. It made everything harder. Each word felt like it took an hour to write, then add another two hours for a paragraph, stringing this all along like beads on a string until you get a bracelet, or a page. That made throwing away more than 6,000 words of the first chapter of Trust Your Story devastating, knowing how much I fought to write each one of those words against my illness. Creating 40-50 pages of new or revised material for each of the four packets felt like climbing Mt. Everest. So daunting. And I know that writing is like that for everyone, that it takes enormous effort and time. Writing is not easy!

But I learned that I only have room for writing in my limited energy and bursts of productivity when I can either work alongside my illness or manage to climb above its severity. To me, this period of study (and beyond, because I’m pretty sure I want to apply to PhD programs after this), is a time to throw all of that energy, passion, and time to becoming the writer that I want to be, not just in a craft way, but as an author best positioned to make a career out of this. I don’t want to do anything else, but I’ve also seen this semester that I don’t think I can do anything else, not with bipolar disorder being a full-time job of its own. I have to really start making good choices about my craft and career.

It all sort of came together when I was watching a movie at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute (my second home) one afternoon with a bunch of seniors and retirees (the only people besides grad students who see matinees at an art-house theater, presumably). I looked around at the people there, and realized in bipolar years, with my life expectancy cut by 15-20 years, according to studies, I might not have a lot of time or “good years” left. I’m middle-aged at 30! At least now I know what I want to do so I don’t waste my life anymore on things that aren’t part of that passion.

To make that happen, in the new year, I’m planning to step up my passive income products, go into blogging coaching and consulting, and being much more proactive about going after fellowships, residencies, scholarships, and so on. Because my energy is so limited at this point, I’m going to be more strategic about expanding my freelance writing, sending pitches, following up on ideas with editors, and staying on top of my game with expanding my presence. For now, I’m channeling my all—time and money investment—into my MFA years, looking at this not unlike law school or med school and that level of effort into training for a skilled trade. It means I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself and allowing a small margin of error, but I believe I feed off that intensity, focus, and ambition (total Capricorn).

I know it all sounds icky to describe things that way, but I think we need more transparency in our industry. Writing isn’t just a fun hobby for me… It’s what I want to do as a professional, and be able to support myself doing it, which means making better decisions about my ambitions and prioritizing my energy into activities that will get me there. So yeah, I have to consider the commercial side, too. Am I gearing up for another year of making less money than just about everyone I know? Of living at home? Of avoiding making big financial “adult” decisions so I can continue to live at poverty level but be in school? Of taking out loans? Yes, I guess. It’s a sacrifice in the short term, but I have to do it; I can see how it will pay off down the road—not by magic, but with real effort. I’ve already seen so much progress in just this one semester going beyond schoolwork and just thinking about this as an art in a deeper way I never had before. I have to believe in myself and my want to do this and passion and love for it. And I do.

I feel it in my bones, my blood.

This is it for me, all it’s ever been all along: writing.

Now, at last, I know I’m on the right path forward. My wandering years are over, and my compass isn’t spinning anymore. Writing is steering me home, towards the future I want. This is my story and how I believe it’s going to flow. I just have to make barriers I can control get out of the way as much as possible so it can take its natural form. I’m excited. I have a good feeling about the ending.

A Recap of My First Residency in the VCFA Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA

in Writing

Well, since I arrived back in Philadelphia from Montpelier, Vermont, a little over one month ago, I think it’s finally time to write my wrap-up of my first residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Writing for Children and Young Adults Master of Fine Arts program. I was really nervous about the residency, given that I work from home and am sort of housebound by disability, and am therefore not used to being around people all day and night, as well as traveling in general. I scoured the internet to find first-person narratives of what a low-residency MFA experience is really like before I went, but honestly I just didn’t find much. I hope that over the course of the next few years, I can provide that information based on my personal experience so that hopefully someone out there might find it useful…a perspective student perhaps? (Is this you? APPLY TO VCFA WCYA—you won’t regret it!) So this is my honest account of what my MFA residency experience was really like.

Let’s get started!

Residency begins: Days 0-2

My Amtrak train ticket to get me to Montpelier, VT.

I departed Philadelphia’s historic 30th Street Station on the morning of Sunday, July 8th to take the Amtrak Vermonter line to Montpelier. The trip through Vermont during the summer months had been scenic. Green, green foliage everywhere, and funky small New England towns all raced by. I still had some anxiety the final hours. All of a sudden the last few weeks just hit me. I had quit my job. I had been sick recently. I had left my psychiatrist of nine years. I had taken out loans to fund my studies. Whaaaat was I doing?? The last hour, with Montpelier the next stop, I started to feel really nervous and have second doubts. Friends, I wanted to keep riding that train until I could get off somewhere and turn right around. But I kept going, and the experience really did feel like the Hogwarts Express approaching Hogwarts as the sun sets.

Arriving in Montpelier, Vermont as the sun sets in the horizon was a scenic way to begin my VCFA experience.

I got off the train, hailed a cab, and was driven up the very long hill to the VCFA campus. I was grateful for the silence of my single room and felt exhausted but ready to go for the morning.

Monday the 9th was technically Day 1, even though first semester students (“firsties”) were due to arrive the day before (Day 0?). At breakfast in the small cafeteria, I met some of my cohort members and the friendly Graduate Assistants (GAs) who instantly put me at ease. That day was filled with new student orientation (or NSO as we used to call it when I worked in residential life at Penn) and a dizzying amount of new information. We learned about the structure of the residency, the semester, and the program. At our lunch, the firsties mingled with faculty. Those first few seconds were scary! These writers are legends both as authors and as caring, nurturing, and damned effective craft mentors. But I felt relaxed and welcomed.

Monday, July 9th: Residency Begins!

That night, all students gathered in the Chapel room at College Hall, a historic building from the 19th century when the college was a seminary. Novelist Amy King (pen name A.S. King) delivered the first faculty lecture, a kind of keynote speech that set the tone for the residency, emphasizing how art is pain but art can also heal. By the end of the day, all my anxieties were gone. I was pumped up and excited and anticipating the semester ahead. More than that, I felt surrounded by writers, something I haven’t ever experienced live. “What do you write?” was one of the first questions you hear from students, GAs, and faculty alike. Suddenly I was A Writer.

“At its core, art is pain”: A key takeaway from the opening lecture at residency. Setting the tone for our mission, our craft, our duty as writers.

Tuesday the 10th, Day 2, was the first day of workshop. Each residency, students of all semesters and writing genres are grouped into different workshops led by two faculty members. There are also a few special topic workshops. My workshop leaders (Cori McCarthy and Tom Birdseye) were awesome and set the mood for a mellow, collaborative, and free-form feedback experience. From high up on the top floor of College Hall (or the Astronomy Tower as I thought of it), we workshopped two students during each session. Workshop didn’t happen every day but was spread out over residency. The rest of Tuesday was filled with faculty lectures from Louise Hawes and Cori as well as readings and lectures from graduating students. Each student gives a lecture based on their critical thesis in semester 3 and a reading of their work as part of their degree requirements and graduating residency.

Around campus: the VCFA statue.

That night, several faculty members read. We capped off the night with readings with just our cohort. I didn’t go that night—I was too nervous! But it was a great bonding experience and a way to get to know each other. My cohort was smaller than average at just 15. All women, they came to feel like a sisterhood—or the coven I always wanted! 🙂

The Sorting Hat Process: Days 3-5

Wednesday the 11th was Day 3 and largely replicated the schedule for Tuesday with workshop in the morning, then faculty lectures. However, by that point in the residency you start to think ahead towards what faculty members you might want to work with in the upcoming semester. For an hour that day, first and second semester students had time to interview faculty (more like speed dating) and ask them questions about their pedagogy, instruction philosophies, as well as their preferences for formats, reading selections, essay choices, and procedures for turning in packets. At the beginning of residency, you get a form that lists each of the faculty teaching for the following semester (some faculty take a semester off here and there). Firsties are supposed to check off (but not rank) at least 8 faculty we’d like to work with in our first semester. I believe second semesters must check off no fewer than 6 faculty, and the number shortens as you proceed through your program. For me, it was a bit overwhelming. There were so many faculty I’d love to work with! And my list definitely changed over the next few days.

The things you see on dorm doors in a kid lit MFA program.

Later that night, we had our second evening of faculty readings and cohort readings. I went! And it was fun! And interesting to hear other people’s reactions to what I had written. It made me realize that my excerpt, taken from my workshop piece, was hitting the right notes. Since I had written that piece new for workshop and hadn’t thought much of it, reading in front of my group made me think I could potentially turn it into something more. Alas, I wouldn’t be workshopped until the second-to-last day of residency, so I’d have to wait to find out more.

Thursday, July 12th: Day 4. I was starting to feel a bit squirrelly on top of that mountain. There were fewer mandatory things on the schedule now, though we had a new student orientation to the library and IT services in the morning. A great lecture on film by Amanda Jenkins in the middle of the day lightened the mood a bit but was thought provoking, too. It’s maybe possible to attend everything on the schedule, but the great thing about residency is you’re encouraged to pace yourself and enjoy some time off to decompress, have some fun, and clear your head. By that afternoon, I was itching to get off campus, which is really quite small. In the afternoon, then, I decided to stroll down into Montpelier down at the bottom of the long hill. The town was gorgeous. Very classic New England small town, though Montpelier is the capital city of Vermont. I only had time to go into Bear Pond Books before I headed back for a meeting, but I felt refreshed and cleansed, as any bookstore will do.

Panorama of downtown Montpelier, VT

One of the great things about residency is they invite visiting writers and illustrators, and Thursday night graphic novelist Jillian Tamaki gave a reading and signed books. Jillian Tamaki is one of my idols. I’ve read four things she’s authored, and I was so stoked to meet her live. I was an “autograph virgin,” but Jillian was kind to sign my copy of Skim with my message.

My copy of “Skim,” signed by Jillian Tamaki, a visiting artist for the VCFA WCYA July 2018 residency.

I skipped the student readings that night—I learned that I have trouble paying attention to readings of any kinds, both student and faculty—and watched an episode of TV in my dorm room. It was necessary, as I still had to finish filling out my faculty preference form before submitting it the next day (Friday) by 1 pm. And the last few days’ faculty lectures and readings, as well as workshop, informal conversations, and the faculty interviews, had helped me shape my list. At that point I had 7 names but was stumped on the 8th. The thing is, there were some faculty I’d love to work with, but I didn’t think it would be the best match for my first semester and where I was. Maybe down the line in the program when I felt more confident in my work. But that’s the great thing about it. “You get who you’re supposed to get,” more experienced students told me. The actual sorting process is a mystery that is never truly revealed. That’s why it’s jokingly referred to as the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter… you get your selection, and it happens in mysterious ways but ones that are right for you. Trust the Sorting Hat…

Finally, Sorting Day arrived… and it was also Friday the 13th! Which added a little spooky supernatural feel to the already magical day we would learn our faculty advisers. That morning, we had workshop and then had to submit our faculty preference forms by 1:00. There were a bunch of optional activities scheduled for that afternoon, but I knew what I really needed was FOOD. Everything about residency was great except the cafeteria food, and it was affecting how much I ate. I already have eating disorder issues and take medicine that has side effects of loss of appetite, so I didn’t need to give myself a handy excuse to not eat anything and restrict. I took a cab to the nearby Hunger Mountain Co-op. I enjoyed a snack and cold brew (Vermonters apparently LOVE fancy canned cold brew—that all taste the same, btw) in a nice dining area by the river and stocked up on food and some toiletries to bring back to my room.

Taking a cold brew and pudding break at Hunger Mountain Co-op

One thing I did not realize about my trip was how many toiletries I’d need… mini travel sizes were not going to cut it for 12 days away from home. (Kudos to Amazon Prime for delivering to campus 7 days a week… definitely saved me a couple times!) I got back to campus and lay down for a few minutes before we had a special meeting with just the first and second semester students so we could bond. I was so touched by the camaraderie and warm welcome from writers who already felt like peers, like friends, like family.

Interlude: Laundry Day

I should say that Friday was also “Laundry Day,” named for linen exchange where you got fresh linens, and it has a legendary reputation for being the day that people break down and get emotional. I did not have the Laundry Day experience Friday but it certainly came up throughout the residency. The thing is, residency is grueling, inspiring, gratifying, challenging, provocative, humbling, life changing, and earth shattering. I think there’s a reason for this. Children’s literature, and our task to write books worthy of today’s kids, reaches to your core, your past, your identity. We were all there because stories affected us profoundly when we were young. We knew how powerful literature for children and teens can be. I was not alone in being continually reminded of how books literally saved my life over and over again and reached me at a vulnerable age.

I just happened to be rereading “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and saw this quote on the back cover. Totally sums up how I feel about getting into VCFA. The golden ticket.

The gift of being admitted to VCFA WCYA, to Hogwarts, and opportunity it offered was humbling and empowering and terrifying all at once. We have the power to change lives with our stories. So… you can start to see how emotional people get when they’re digging deep into their childhood and the stories that shaped them—saved them.

**

Okay, back to Friday night!

As the magic hour of 9:00 approached, I joined many students walking the illuminated path to the building where we’d find out our faculty assignments. I imagined it would be something like high school theatre where the cast list goes up, and it sort of was! Will Alexander, our faculty chair, walked down the magic steps with the Sorting Hat on and posted the list. It was actually much smaller than a giant cast list—after all, VCFA WCYA isn’t that big, just 100-ish students enrolled for the semester, I believe. I camped out with my cohort while someone in our group took a picture of the list and posted it on our cohort Slack. And. I found out…

Please not Slytherin! Please not Slytherin! 🙂

That I got Amanda!

Cue trumpets and fireworks. I was so happy and relieved. Amanda, who people told me again and again “changed my life,” was one of the faculty I wanted to work with most at VCFA, and to have her in my first semester left me overjoyed. Two other members of my cohort also got Amanda. The rest of us were pretty well distributed among the various faculty with a few of us grouped together with an advisor. I felt happy and excited, and in a way it felt circular because Amanda was the first faculty member who I had spoken to on our first day of NSO.

The rest of the night was happy tears and watching TV in my room trying to get my mind to relax after a very emotional first half of residency.

Planning for the semester ahead: Days 6-8

The next two days—Saturday the 14th and Sunday the 15th—were focused on planning for the semester ahead. Saturday, the day after faculty selection, we had group meetings with our advisors where they told all their advisees the specifics of their requirements and preferences and we set packet due dates. The rest of the day was spent in graduate and faculty lectures. The residency Dance/Party/Games took over the evening. I went and had a great time, especially with a very bawdy game of Cards Against Humanity.

Fun at the dance!

The dance was a fun way to unwind, and I will usually do anything possible to avoid going to a dance or social event like that because of all the social anxiety I get. I was struck again by how VCFA students of all cohorts and semesters and alumni and GAs mingled as one big family. I did think to myself, this is such a cult… in a good way! I felt privileged and lucky to be a part of this wonderful community.

But there was a flip to that, and something that I heard from other VCFA students, too. It was easy to feel like an imposter if you let it get to you. Am I good enough? Did they make a mistake? However, “lucky” wasn’t quite accurate. We wrote our way there. We earned our spot in the program through talent and sincerity of passion, a commitment to our craft and wanting to be better at it. We deserved to be there.

Sunday morning I had my meeting with my advisor and then caught up with my therapist on the phone. I was feeling confident about the semester ahead and felt a renewed sense of interest in Swing Love, my novel that I had been working on for a while but hadn’t planned on exploring in my first semester, if ever. Amanda and I talked about where my mind was with the novel and my big breakthrough that the relationships needed to change and the focus be on my main character’s bond with her father.

The view from my workshop room in the top floor of College Hall, aka the Astronomy Tower

The rest of the day was pretty light. We had workshop, graduate lectures, and faculty readings. I finished the night with a phone call to my parents. Then I listened to a faculty lecture about children’s literature and the avant-garde from our online library. It felt like one more way to cram my mind with the wonder of possibility. My plans for the semester were starting to take shape. It was going to be a good next six months, I could tell.

Wrapping up residency: Days 9-10

The final few days of the residency went by pretty fast, even though there wasn’t a ton on the schedule. Since most of the faculty had already given their lectures and readings, the remainder were mainly by graduating students. I went to as many as I could, and the variety of subjects kept things interesting. By that point, I was exhausted like everyone else and taking notes at a lecture was one way of staying awake. I finalized my semester plan and felt ready to write. I also took this time to go down to Montpelier and get lunch and poke around the town.

Lunch in Montpelier

Wednesday the 17th was the final day of residency. The main event was graduation in College Hall’s Chapel. The day was brilliantly sunny, and the Chapel was illuminated. The big space suddenly felt intimate. Throughout the roughly hour-long ceremony, I started to feel teery-eyed and emotional. I wasn’t alone. Seated among my cohort, I felt proud and honored to be among this community of writers and artists. There’s something special about going to a fine art school for your graduate studies: people just “get” it. They get how important art is to you, how it’s the life force we depend on. Everyone is connected to this one common goal of art, and to be a part of it is just exhilarating. Compared to undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, which is old AF and you inherit a history that you weren’t really a part of, newer Vermont College of Fine Arts felt so focused on one mission to support emerging artists. We are building something special.

That night, my cohort and I went out to dinner. We were starting on this journey together, knowing it would set us up for a path far beyond two years.

Back on the Hogwarts Express: Day 11 of residency… Day 1 of my new life

All packed up on my last morning in Montpelier.

The next morning, Thursday the 18th, I tidied up my room and got ready to head down to the train station. As the train pulled out of Montpelier headed towards home, I could feel the tears coming. I was just so emotionally floored. My lifelong interest in reading, books, and writing… validated. My calling, confirmed.

I’m heading into the unknown. Having undergone major personal changes and quit my job just before VCFA, I had spent most of residency scared of what lay on the other end of the train line. I loved the bubble I was in, but I knew I had to go back to Philly and face what lies ahead. However, the strength I gathered from VCFA propelled me down the Vermonter train line. Back in 30th Street Station, I was no longer quite as afraid of the future. I couldn’t wait to get started, knowing nothing could stop me now from pursuing my dream.

Step off the train and resurface.

Bring it.

The Ten Best Quotes about Writing from “Harriet the Spy”

in Bookish and Book-Related/Lists/Writing

I’ve known I wanted to be a writer as long as I knew what a writer was, which means as far back as the first time I read Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. Published in 1964, Harriet the Spy is a classic work of children’s literature. It was adapted for TV in a feature film in 1996 starring Michelle Trachtenberg as Harriet M. Welsch, Rosie O’Donnell as Ole Golly, and Earth Kitt as the bedridden diva Agatha K. Plummer, but I loved it long before then. This year, I’ve been rereading some classics from my childhood in 2018: My Year of Rewind and partly as preparation before I start my graduate program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA. It was such a fascinating experience to reread Harriet the Spy and be able to trace so much of my thoughts on writing, truth telling, and life, not to mention my fear of abandonment, to this one novel.

My new copy of “Harriet the Spy” on the left, and my beat-up copy from childhood on the right.

Rereading it was like finding one of the most formative documents in my life, and I could literally connect the notebook I carry everywhere with me to this novel.

harriet the spy highlights
Ever the young writer, I would highlight key passages that were meaningful to me. Here you can see I highlighted the names of cats… Is this the source of my cat lady lifestyle?

Analyzing this will take a whole other post. This article, at least, will get you started with the ten best quotes from Harriet the Spy. These quotes focus specifically on writing, and are from Harriet and other characters around her.

The best quotes from Harriet the Spy about writing

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Frozen Fiction: Best Books to Read While Snowed In

in Lists/reader's advisory/Writing

Right now, I am snowed in. Philadelphia, and much of the United States, is under a “bomb cyclone,” some kind of wild term for a snowstorm. I admit, it’s pretty fun. My father was a high school English teacher, so whenever he would have off, my brother and I would have off, too. If we were dismissed from school early, we’d somehow manage to find each other (this was before cell phones could help us easily connect) and go to a local dive bar, The Boat House, where the other teachers would congregate. Then we’d head home through the snowy streets of suburban Philadelphia. I would probably already be deep into whatever book I was reading. I liked to read with the lights off knowing that the snow would give a boost of white light. Like any reader, I love snow because it is perfect reading weather. I’ve got snuggly reading socks, a comfy reading sweatshirt, warm leggings, and a house where my office looks out into the snow-covered forest behind our house. Now that I work from home (perk of being a freelancer!), I’m snowed in by default, but it’s fun when everyone is the house is home for the day, the cats watching outside.

Jon Snow and Minerva in the bird observatory on a snowy day.

Crucially, I also think these blizzard days are perfect for reading because snow is so important to literature. If you’re like me, you remember some of these snowy scenes from literature as your own memories. Snow is so epic, so extreme, so beautiful, and it’s no wonder that it continually inspires literature as old as time stretching at least as far back as the Norse myths. So today I found myself reflecting on how writers use snow in creative ways to enhance their stories, how snow and literature intersect, and so, this article includes books that are perfect to read while snowed in because they so effectively use winter, blizzards, storms, and frozen landscapes. You’ll see that the blank white expanse of snow can be interpreted and used many different ways as these authors demonstrate how versatile this weather can be. So get your coziest reading gear on and a mug of tea or hot cocoa so hot you can’t even hold it in your hands: these are the best books to read while snowed in. (Related: if you’re looking for more of the best books to read in snowstorms, check out my Broke By Books list of Blizzard Books: Best Books to Read in a Snowstorm.)

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

Harry Potter series

Snow comes up again and again in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It’s impossible to remember the book or film series without picturing some snowy landscapes. I immediately think of the brilliant third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, and the amazing film adaptation byAlfonso Cuarón. I think of the Shrieking Shack coated in snow during the confrontation between Harry and Sirius. Set in Scotland, Hogwarts is up against the elements. Snow frequently descends upon the magical school of witchcraft and wizardry, forcing Harry, Ron, Hermione and their fellow students inside.

“Christmas was coming. One morning in mid-December, Hogwarts woke to find itself covered in several feet of snow. The lake froze solid and the Weasley twins were punished for bewitching several snowballs so that they followed Quirrell around, bouncing off the back of his turban.”
― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The snowy white landscapes of snow also act as an ongoing metaphor for Harry’s innocence. Virginal, untouched, white snow is a reminder of what’s at stake when Harry, Ron, and Hermione leave the safety of their childhood behind and step into adult roles with the arrival of the new war. However much fun they have playing in the snow, getting into snowball fights, running around, and laughing, rosy-cheeked, through the ground of Hogwarts, or huddled over Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade… this momentary levity, like childhood, will soon melt away.

Goofing around in the snow (from Prisoner of Azkaban)

Even Harry and Hermione’s visit to snowy Godric Hollow on Christmas Eve is a brief encounter with beauty soon to be short lived, as the attack at Bathilda Bagshot would be a sobering reminder that happiness and peace were momentary.

At Godric’s Hollow, visiting the graves of James and Lily Potter (from Deathly Hallows)

By the end of the series and the defeat of Lord Voldemort, you’re rooting for Harry, Ron, and Hermione to finally get a lazy snow day in with no responsibilities, just some time to savor the beauty of a purifying snow.

 

Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day

“The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats

When I was a kid, we had a major, record-breaking snowfall in the Philadelphia area, The Blizzard of 1996. It lasted for days, and the snow was packed up so high that my friends and brother and I were able to build tunnels and forts in the mountains of snow that blanketed the sidewalks. We would trek up through town and march through snow packed taller than us to reach the top of the hill on Swarthmore College’s campus. There, we would coast down what felt like a mountain, screaming with delight, staying out for hours until we collapsed at home in front of scalding hot chocolate, grilled cheese, and tomato soup, our Davis family traditional meal. Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day is a Caldecott award-winning picture book that captures how this experience, the joy, delight, and mystery of snow when you’re a kid, something that transforms your ordinary world into simply magic. Keats’ book follows a child, Peter, who explores his snow-coated Brooklyn neighborhood. The images remind me of Modernist art with beautiful, bold colors popping against the blank white canvas outside. The iconic landscapes were even made into stamps from the United States Postal Service.

USPS postal stamps released 2017 and inspired by Ezra Jack Keats’ “Snowy Day”

The Snowy Day broke down barriers in publishing as the first full-color picture book to feature an African American protagonist. When I remember this book from my childhood from the seemingly millions and millions of times we checked it out of the library to gleefully reread it, I feel like it depicts my experience, too, and that of my friends and brothers, and other kids, and all kids, and everyone who has ever been a child who delights in wonder and beauty, who has ever wanted to both leave the snow be perfectly untouched and also dive in, crunch about, pack it in your hands in a lopsided snowball and toss it about.

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series / HBO’s Game of Thrones

George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (note the cover for “The Winds of Winter” on the bottom right is tentative since the book hasn’t been released yet)

If you only know one thing about A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) / Game of Thrones it’s , “Winter is coming.” The motto of House Stark, the lords of the North in Westeros, this three-word phrase has burned into popular culture. It’s ominous but true. Whether you live in the sweltering heat of Arizona or the frozen tundra of the Arctic Circle, “winter” comes for us all. It’s death, hard times, depression, bad luck, failure… But that’s part of why “Winter is coming” resonates so deeply. The phrase has its roots in how Westeros experiences different seasonal cycles: spring will turn to summer, summer to autumn, autumn to winter, and then—eventually—winter will break. It’s not forever, but it is inevitable.

Sansa Stark knows the cold truth: Winter is here.

For the time period covered in the series, winter is descending upon the cast of characters in the ASOIAF books faster than ever. Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch see this when White Walkers, the creepy zombie monsters, are marching to invade the continent. Nothing will escape them, and they very well may defeat humanity once and for all. Jon Snow and his allies see this clearly, and having spent time north of The Wall, he understands the threat. The late Lord of Winterfell Ned Stark tried to teach Arya that the winter will bind their family closer than ever.

“Let me tell you something about wolves, child. When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths. So if you must hate, Arya, hate those who would truly do us harm. Septa Mordane is a good woman, and Sansa… Sansa is your sister. You may be as different as the sun and moon, but the same blood flows through both your hearts. You need her, as she needs you… and I need both of you, gods help me.”

― George R.R. MartinA Game of Thrones

 

In several snowy chapters and scenes, Jon is up against the suffocating cold that never leaves him and never lets him forget the imminent threat. Snow in Game of Thrones comes in blinding squalls, choking blizzards, and disorienting white outs broken up only by the telltale luminous blue eyes of the Army of the Dead. Winter is coming indeed.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

When I was brainstorming books for this list, my friend made a genius suggestion that I had overlooked, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one of my all-time favorite novels. Set at a liberal arts college in New England, Richard Papen, a transfer student, becomes involved with a very tight-knit group of pretentious and brilliant students who study intensely with one charismatic Classics teacher. Snow comes up most memorably in two ways, and it starts with the opening line of the book. In the prologue, Richard describes the mounting unease and anxiety when a murder Richard and his friends are connected to goes unnoticed as an epic snowfall covers the body, preventing its detection.

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
― Donna TarttThe Secret History

For The Secret History, snow is ominous and deadly. It preserves their crime, suspending them in paranoia and guilt. Later, over winter break, Richard decides to stay in the area rather than go home to sunny California. He rents a spare, under-heated room from some hippie in town, which nearly kills him from combined with long walks in the brutal cold. Richard falls ill and barely escapes with his life.

 

Stephen King’s The Shining

An alternate cover for Stephen King’s “The Shining” (via: https://fromupnorth.com)

Part of what makes Stephen King’s The Shining so damn effective is the way he uses snow. At the start of the novel, we meet Jack Torrance, a loose cannon of a man on his way to losing his mind. Jack takes a job as the winter caretaker for an historic hotel in Colorado. For Jack, this is a chance to start over from some recent friction in his work and also get some uninterrupted time to concentrate on finishing his novel. But as the winter progresses, Jack starts to unravel, especially as the snow layers inch by inch, foot by foot, enclosing him and his wife and young son in with inner and outer demons.

“Flakes of snow swirled and danced across the porch. The Overlook faced it as it had for nearly three-quarters of a century, its darkened windows now bearded with snow, indifferent to the fact it was now cut off from the world… Inside its shell the three of them went about their early evening routine, like microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster.”
― Stephen KingThe Shining

The Shining brilliantly uses snow to build up the claustrophobia and isolation that causes Jack to lose his grip on reality. I read much of this novel in the spring and summer when it was hot and humid in Philadelphia, but the chill reaches through the page. Of course, the movie is just as good, though you have to see them as two different interpretations of the same story.

James Joyce’s “The Dead”

“The Dead” by James Joyce

I read James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the final story in his “Dubliners” collection, in a philosophy elective I took during junior year of high school, and I have never forgotten it. Something about this short story moved me so much. The story a young man, Gabriel, and his wife, Gretta, during a party and back home. It’s snowing, and Gretta is melancholy and sad as it reminds her of a man she fell in love when she was younger and how she believes the snowy weather he trekked in to see her killed him. After Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel sits with this shocking revelation, a secret of his wife’s past he never knew about even though he thought he knew everything about her, and also about grief, memory, intimacy, and the existential duality of life and death.

“He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
― James JoyceThe Dead

Since this short story is relatively short, you can—and should—slip into it into your next snowed-in afternoon. I guarantee you it will knock the breath out of you like only the best works of literature can. (You can read this for online for free on many sites, such as The Literature Network)

Graveyard of St. Mary’s Church in Dublin

Narration, Authorship, and Memorial in John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars”

in Don't Mind Me/Writing
(From livingminutebyminute.tumblr.com)

One of my favorite quotes from "The Fault in Our Stars" (credit = www.popsugar.com)
One of my favorite quotes from “The Fault in Our Stars” (credit = www.popsugar.com)

(This post contains spoilers for The Fault in Our Stars… also, I wrote this as part of my application for MFA programs in spring 2017—and it worked!)

Upon a first read, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) might seem to be chiefly concerned with death. Indeed, the gut-wrenching novel about star-crossed teens is filled with morbidity and mortality—it has to be, for it is about terminal cancer. Hazel Grace Lancaster, bright and practical, knows that sand is falling through the hourglass of her short life. There’s no question that she will die, it’s when she will, likely when the miracle drug trial she is on fails to work or loses funding or she contracts an illness that would fatally cripple her compromised immune system.

When Hazel meets Augustus Waters, aka Gus, at a church-basement support group for kids with cancer, she is intrigued by his easygoing-yet-blunt attitude. Gus smashes the defense-mechanism cage where Hazel guards her love and trust captive. Earlier Grace confessed to her mother that, “I’m like. Like. I’m a grenade, Mom. I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?” (Green 99). Later, Gus responds to Hazel’s fear of intimacy with, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind, Hazel Grace. It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you” (Green 176). Gus knows his heart is screwed either way, so he might as well have it wrecked by the woman he loves. He’s dying, and so is Hazel. (And so are we.) Gus, though, dies first. The final pages belong to Gus’ letter to Hazel’s favorite author. Gus tells Van Houten that pain is unavoidable, that, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers” (Green 313). Now, in the final lines of the novel, Hazel addresses Gus directly in the first person present tense: “I do, Augustus. / I do” (Green 313). The “do” indicates that Hazel has survived, that she is still alive. She is not casualty of cancer, not yet, but love, and she would make the same choices again. Still, she stands memorial to Gus and devotes her narrative to tracing how he changed her life. She reflects on her life before and during her time with Gus. But Green gives one other layer; for Hazel, there is a time after this painful chapter in her life. She survives, she endures, and consequently so does Gus.

Those final words, “I do,” hearken back to the opening paragraph. John Green brilliantly subverts the raw transience pumping through the compromised blood of Hazel and her fellow cancer kids in the very first paragraph of the book. Hazel opens her story with:

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death. (Green 3)

Hazel’s narrative is established through a framework of Hazel processing her past. The key is in the opening words—Late in the winter of my seventeenth year…—this clues the reader in that Hazel is going to narrate her story from the perspective of the present reflecting on the past (Green 3). Hazel the narrator is, then, likely older than seventeen, certainly by emotional maturity. She has lived on past her fellow cancer warriors, her friends, the love of her life. But she has endured, and The Fault in Our Stars captures her quest to make sense out of the chaos an incurable, terminal epidemic chokes us of youth, innocence, life…and love.

I have always been fascinated with frameworks like this going back to high school when I reread the cracked-spine, dog-eared copy of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) that I carried with me wherever I went. Like many others, I memorized that first line:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (Salinger 3).

Holden spoke presumably from a mental hospital or some treatment center. He tries to create a coherent record of how he got from a lousy childhood to a controlled environment where someone would try to “cure” him. Similarly, I spent one luxurious summer reading through Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way before my senior year of high school. I pondered these two accounts, Holden’s attempt to process his insanity and Proust’s belief that it could all begin with the taste of a madeleine, like the Rosebud sled in Citizen Kane, one of my favorite films.

In my fall semester of college, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had to suddenly parse out symptoms I had experienced most of my eighteen years. To help my therapist, I read old journals, emails, asked my friends and family to clarify my memory’s blind spots. I sorted through my very own existence, trying to write a coherent narrative (“patient history”) that would help me pull out of my emotional agony. And eventually I did.

When I started writing more seriously, I thought back to Proust and Salinger and to two of my recent favorite novels, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) and The Secret History (1992). Each narrator uses a similar framework. Theo, the hero of The Goldfinch, attempts to make sense of the trauma that has dominated his life since the day his mother was killed in a terrorist attack when he was a young teenager. Likewise, The Secret History is an account by protagonist and narrator, Richard, of the intense friendships he had in college. As I have sought to define my own writer’s voice, these books have influenced my fiction for young adults.

Many young adult novels I read are written in present tense. The events are happening to the characters in real time. Yet I have resisted using the present tense because adolescence is one of the very first times we start looking at our lives as a story—one we can write to sort out our past, and define our own future. In the opening paragraphs of the contemporary YA romance I am writing, Charlotte notes how her mental health challenges are packaged to fit into her father’s journey from Appalachian son to decorated marine, law student, and congressman running for the presidency. Charlotte’s attempt to take control of her life and her narrative—moving from being just a secondary character in other people’s stories to the protagonist of her journey—makes her a dynamic heroine. Charlotte has always wanted to be a writer, but in this novel, she realizes how she can be the author of her image, her relationships, and her future. One of the messages I want to convey to young adult readers is that you don’t have to be defined by anyone else. You can be the author of your own life.

To return to The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel’s narration is so important because it implies that Hazel, at least for some time, has survived, that she has processed her grief and can view an extraordinarily painful chapter of her life with hindsight, that she can write Gus’ story, not someone who did not know him. Hazel’s story is a memorial to Gus. Through Hazel, Gus will be remembered as more than just an anonymous statistic or a handsome face in a newspaper obituary picture. He will be remembered as the complicated young man who taught her to walk straight into the war zone that first—and last—love envelops us in. As much as Hazel’s story focuses on Gus, the last lines show her own growth as she has learned to embrace love and intimacy. She will die one day. So will the reader. So live life and make it your own. Write your story. That is the kind of message I strive to convey in my fiction.

Works Cited

Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. Penguin, 2012.

Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1951.

What I Wish Romance Writers Knew About Nerds | Best Nerd Romance

in Bookish and Book-Related/Lists/reader's advisory/Writing

So you’re writing a nerd romance novel.

I myself am currently reading a “nerd romance novel” to coincide with February’s Valentine’s Day festivities. I appreciate the obscure pop culture references, and the heroine is pretty adorkable. But I guess I find that both in writing my own new adult romance novel and, well, living life in the mid 2010’s as a geeky gal, there’s a little room for improvement in romance novels with nerdy characters.

Here’s my wish list of what writers should know about writing nerdy characters, followed by some recommendations for the best nerd romance novels. Enjoy! (And happy Valentine’s Day.)

  • Nerdy characters can flirt just as well as anyone else

I really get annoyed at the whole “Smart characters only talk geek-gibberish and can’t flirt like a normal human being” stereotype that’s out there. So many nerds are good at flirting because they’re good with language and dialogue. And many of them have competed in debate club or Hi-Q, defended theses and dissertations, explained complex Boolean search techniques to others, and gotten into all kinds of heated fangirl and fanboy arguments about whether Snape was truly good or very evil and whether the second Spiderman reboot should be forgotten or praised.

A nerdy pick-up line for your nerdy characters
A nerdy pick-up line for your nerdy characters

Nerds also watch shows that have romance and flirtation in them. We soak up the come-hither dialogue like a sponge. That’s one place where we get our classic wit from (and a lot of us are really into British humor). So nerdy characters need not be prone to word vomit or regurgitating random facts and trivia that stop a flirty moment dead in its track. Yeah, we’re awkward sometimes, but so is everyone else.

  • Sometimes nerd + nerd = disaster

It’s tempting to want to pair your characters up with other nerds. And hasn’t every nerd wanted to find their other nerdy half? But this can lead to all kinds of deal-breaking arguments—what if your partner actually believes that Steven Moffat has been good for Doctor Who? What if they think Daenerys Targaryen should sit on the Iron Throne, but you feel Jon Snow is the obvious Song of Ice and Fire? That can kill a conversation—and a flirtation—real fast.

Fans often fight over which ship (or character couple) is the One True Pairing or the OTP. This can kill a nerd romance fast.
Fans often fight over which ship (or character couple) is the One True Pairing or the OTP. This can kill a nerd romance fast.

Also let’s not forget that “nerd” is a blanket term. Your partner might love Star Wars, but you might have massive amounts of ambivalence towards it. You could speak particle physics but your partner speaks postmodern poetry. We might all be nerds at heart, but we’re not all one and the same.  Although we we may like discussing the chemistry of oil and the properties of water, we might actually go together like oil and water. That’s why it’s a great idea to pair a nerdy character with a non-nerd. The (romantic) chemistry could be phenomenal, and they would play off each other really well.

  • Not all nerdy heroines are repressed ugly ducklings who need to be liberated

Oh boy. As a (freelance) librarian and someone who has worked in libraries before, I know all about this trope: the hypersexed but extremely repressed librarian who is just waiting for someone to tear her glasses off, toss her book aside, and hit the light switch in a secluded corner of the library.

The classic nerdy-nympho librarian
The classic nerdy-nympho librarian…can we put this stereotype to rest?

Seriously, librarians, as the archetypal nerds, have balanced lives in the stacks and in the sack. I wish more romance writers, or really any writers who are wondering how to write nerdy characters, would take note that not all geeks are repressed, nor are they ready to get it on with the first person they’re attracted to; in fact, most lie somewhere in between.

Writing nerd characters as one of these two extremes, or worse, as having some frantic and unstable Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde asexual/nymphomaniac personality flip does a disservice to nerds everywhere. It’s time to realize that geeky gals and dweeby dudes are just like everyone else. And we don’t all need to be liberated. For a great podcast series that balances thoughtful romance genre analysis with a librarian POV, check out In the Stacks’ Cardigan Rippers series.

It is my hope that more romances with nerdy characters will reflect the above advice. Now let’s take a look at some great nerd romances.

Great novels featuring nerd romance

Any novel by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow-Rowell-Book-Quotes
Four nerdy novels by geek goddess, Rainbow Rowell

I really couldn’t pick one of Rainbow Rowell’s books to feature over the others. All of her novels, Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, Attachments, and Landline, are nerdy in some way.

Eleanor & Park is a YA romance about punk music, bullying, comics, poverty, and star-crossed love. It’s a devastating read, but one that you resurface from feeling more alive.

Fangirl follows a young woman in her first year of college where she fights off her feelings for her roommate’s best friend and ex-boyfriend all while trying to write her fan fiction magnum opus, Carry On, Simon. Because Fangirl was so popular, Rowell published Carry On as its own novel, with a sequel on the way. (I wrote about more books for fangirls in an essay on this blog.)

Attachments is an epistolary novel about office romance in the 90s and drops references to film, techie things, and board game nights.

And Landline references old TV shows and time travel. All of her novels are great and feature nerdy romance—you really can’t go wrong.

Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid

Penny Reid’s Neanderthal Seeks Human is an awesome contemporary romance about Janie, a super-smart young woman who loses a lot—her job, her boyfriend, her apartment—and gains even more in her journey of self-exploration. Her hunky counterpart is respectful of her nerdy tendencies and thinks it’s cute that she speaks in obscure facts and trivia because she’s kind of awkward, reflecting one of my points of advice above, to pair nerds with non-nerds. Also, I love that Janie has a thing for shoes and cares about her appearance. She may be nerdy, but she’s not clueless about “girl” things.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

One of the strengths of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project is that the male romantic lead is a nerd, not the female lead. Don Tillman is a handsome genetics professor whose tendency to see everything through and intellectual and scientific lens often gets in the way of dating women. He also struggles with social cues and has Asperger’s. A student and waitress, the titular Rosie, seeks Don’s help with finding her father. He agrees to take on her project while he’s also trying to find a scientifically perfect mate (read: wife). One of the reasons why Don and Rosie hit it off is that they’re so different from each other, but in a way that oddly makes them perfect together (yet another example of why nerd x non-nerd romance is a good option). Ultimately the characters bring out the better side in each other is a hit worldwide and is being adapted for film. There’s also a follow-up, The Rosie Effect, which continues Rosie and Don’s story.

What are your favorite nerdy characters? What do you want to see in romance novels with nerdy leads? Leave a comment below!

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