Five Things I Learned at VCFA Day

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a day-long writing seminar in Ann Arbor, MI, hosted by the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). The speakers, Coe Booth and Marion Dane Bauer, are current and former professors of writing at VCFA and are both published authors. I’m so glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and attended this event. Their valuable insights on psychic distance and the interior lives of characters have already helped improve my writing. For those who weren’t able to attend, here are my top five takeaways from the day:

1. Character is the Beginning, Middle, and End
Coe Booth began her talk by asking us to remember our favorite book from our childhood. (For me, that would be Little House on the Prairie.) She suggested that readers love a particular book, not because of the plot, but because they love the main character. In fact, readers often don’t remember anything about the plot. A character who resonates, on the other hand, will stay with someone for a lifetime.
A giant light bulb turned on in my head when Coe Booth highlighted the importance of character. When I think back to Little House on the Prairie, I don’t remember a single event that happened in the book. What I remember is the character, Laura. I remember her curiosity, her determination, and her love for her family during her childhood on the frontier.
So how does one write a believable, memorable, publishable book? Develop the interior lives of your characters first. Flow comes with character. Character is the beginning, middle, and end.

2. Mine your Own Experiences to Bring your Characters to Life
Coe Booth suggested that we look within ourselves to bring our characters to life. During an afternoon writing workshop, we mined our own childhood experiences to dig up milestone memories, such as the first day of school, a death in the family, or a birthday. Additionally, we came up with ways to recall everyday memories, such as looking through old journals, photos, letters, and yearbooks. Coe asked us to remember times when we were sad, afraid, lonely, jealous, elated, etc. What did it feel like? How did our bodies feel? Go there. It might be painful or uncomfortable to relive some of these moments, but writers can’t live on the surface. The characters in our books had all these early childhood experiences too. As writers, we must describe our own feelings and sensations through our characters. This depth of experience will bring them to life.

3. Don’t Forget to Develop Minor Characters
During her lecture, Coe Booth mentioned one of her pet peeves when reading her students’ stories: perfect parents. Parents aren’t perfect! I immediately gasped and slunk down in my chair as I thought of my own manuscript sitting at home. Yep, the one with the perfect parents. How did she know?
As soon as I got home, I made lists of ways to make them less-than-perfect. I used the questions Coe Booth asked us as a starting point. What are the parents dealing with in their lives? What drives them? What do they want more than anything? What is stopping them? The writer does not need to include the answers to all these questions in the story, but understanding the answers will provide more depth to the parents and other minor characters in the story.

4. There Correct Point of View is Whatever Works in the Story
Marion Dane Bauer gave an informative lecture on psychic distance and the advantages and disadvantages to each type of point of view. For example, using the omniscient point of view establishes an old-fashioned, comforting feel to the story, but may sacrifice intimacy with the main character. Using the first person point of view enables the writer to get as close as possible to the character, but can sometimes sound clunky or false. The third person point of view allows for richer language than first person, but can be hindered by a writer’s lack of experience as far as the ability to inhabit the character completely. While writers often struggle with selecting third person over first person, or vice versa, Marion Dane Bauer’s insight provided me with some peace on this issue. Ultimately, the point of view used to tell the story doesn’t matter, as long as it works. The writer’s ability to connect the main character to the reader is the most important thing.

5. Write YOUR Book
Both Marion Dane Bauer and Coe Booth encouraged us to write the book we were meant to write. They insisted that we not worry about trends and forget about what’s popular right now. By the time our books are completed, the current trend will have passed anyway. Don’t stress about finding an agent or getting published. A well-written book will find a publisher or an agent. The world needs your book, they said. Write it.
Until next time, happy writing!
And for my “horsey” followers, be sure to swing by my blog in a few weeks. I’ll be detailing my experiences with Louie at our upcoming horse show. I’m nervous already . . .