Friday, February 17, 2017

Beyond Cute, Loud, Obnoxious, and Innocent: Writing Children as Literary Characters

Some of the most enduring characters in literature are children: Scout, the March sisters, Harry Potter and his friends, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Liesel Meminger and Rudy Steiner from The Book Thief leap immediately to mind. Each of these characters is as fully-rendered on the page as any of their adult counterparts.
Filling your stories with children will add an element of complexity and authenticity to your writing. Whether you are writing children as main or secondary characters, considering these few points will help you create realistic, identifiable characters for your readers.

Children’s emotions and personalities are as complex and unique as adults’ are. It helps to remember yourself at the same age as your character. While you certainly didn’t know a lot about the world at large, you knew a lot about your world. You were curious and smart and kind and frightened by things that might seem silly now. You navigated relationships with siblings and friends and teachers and neighbors. You had your own sense of humor, your own varied interests, your own insecurities, your own rich and secret imaginary world. Write these into your child characters.

Children are motivated by goals and desires. One of the elements that separates static characters from dynamic characters is desire. Children long to fit in at school, for a parent to love them, to be given a guinea pig for their birthday, to negotiate more screen time or a later bedtime. Much of their mental and physical energy is consumed by wanting things and figuring out how to get them. In fact, since most children don’t need to worry about careers, mortgages, taxes, and politics, it is possible that the children in your stories are even more defined by their desires than adults are.

Despite their rich inner lives and wonderful brains, children are children. Your readers will have a hard time believing that your eight-year-old protagonist has the experience and emotional intelligence to counsel a drug-addicted parent, or the culinary knowledge to whip up a gourmet meal. If readers don’t tire of precocious children who spout zingy one-liners or use obscure four-syllable words in their dialogue, they will certainly begin waiting for “the twist” that explains why these children are so uncharacteristically wise. Readers will also be suspicious of impeccably well-behaved children. Children are sometimes loud. They are impatient and restless, and they don’t always adhere without complaint to adult agendas.

If you’re having a hard time tapping into your own memories, it can help to consult photographs and videos from your childhood. Observe your own children, or your nieces and nephews, or your students. Children are everywhere, but if you’re living in a retirement community or feel uncomfortably voyeuristic observing children to whom you have no connection, consult the internet. Child development charts like this one can help you determine what a healthy (or unhealthy) 10-year-old might do.
Children under the age of fourteen make up more than a quarter of the world’s population. Include them in the landscape of your own writing.

Trina Sutton is a second year MFA candidate in Fiction. She loves teaching students to be logical and critical thinkers.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Accomplishing the Possible: On Writing Good (and Great) Fiction

If there’s anything that I’ve learned this semester (this being my first as an MFA), it’s that there isn’t a formula for good fiction. There is no single aspect of it that’s more important than others. Wonderfully complex characters can suffer if the dialogue is hokey. An intriguing plot can derail if the characters aren’t complex. A distinct voice can risk failure in carrying a piece if there’s not some sort of plot or growth.

I should acknowledge that all of the things I’ve mentioned could work and as creative writers, we should try to figure out how. After all, I think that once we learn all the “rules” for writing good fiction, it’s up to us to try to break them (successfully). But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that most of the fiction that I love often has more than one aspect that makes it strong. It’s finding the right combination that’s the tricky part. But I believe that’s what our workshops are for: targeting the aspects that are working and those that aren’t. How do we make this piece stronger? It’s the question we ask ourselves when we read each other’s work—what we set out to do when we revise.

So maybe this is my long-winded way of saying that feedback and revision are some of the most important aspects of composing good fiction. It often takes stepping away from our work and letting others lay eyes on it to find the direction we need to go next. Finishing a piece isn’t enough. Good fiction comes from thoughtful revision.

But how does one progress from writing good fiction to writing great fiction? This was one of the many questions that Professor Bucak posed to us this semester and to begin trying to answer it, we have to ask ourselves how we define great fiction. Is it simply more successful at doing what good fiction does or does it fulfill a completely different set of criteria? As Professor Bucak pointed out, if great is defined by standing the test of time, does it then imply risk-taking, originality, historical significance, or timeless themes? What is it that separates good contemporary fiction from short stories and novels that hold up over time?

I’m still working out how I would answer these questions, but I think that it’s something that we should all consider as writers as we try to revise our stories. In the end, it comes down to what we want our fiction to do. Do we speak closely to the issues that we are currently encountering or do we want our fiction to still be relevant years from now? Do we want to push boundaries with our writing or do we use traditional or familiar methods?

I realize that I’m posing many questions that I don’t necessarily have the answers to, but I’ve come away from my first graduate fiction workshop with as many questions as things that I’ve learned. As Professor Bucak told us in one of our last workshops, “I feel that you should come out of this class less sure of what makes great fiction than ever. I think that should be a good thing. But you should feel clearer on what you each individually would like to try as writers.” For me, now is the time to try everything. The possibilities seem limitless, which is simultaneously daunting and exciting. But my focus has now shifted away from what is “right” in fiction and towards considering what I want to accomplish as a writer. Towards what is possible.

Madison Garber is originally from Tallahassee, Florida—or South Georgia, according to South Floridians. In 2015, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Florida State University with a B.A. in Creative Writing. A semi-professional ballerina for 17 years, Madison is now focusing her creative energies on fiction writing as a Master of Fine Arts student at Florida Atlantic University. Madison also hopes to hone her teaching skills as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the university’s Writing Program. She is a movie buff, a part-time introvert, and an Anglophile itching to return to Britain for another (hopefully extended) visit. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Setting: When Yours is Decidedly Not Subtropical

            Immersion in an environment that’s different from the one you intend to write about poses problems. Our program is situated in a subtropical, largely suburban city. Everything from daily attire and automobiles, to weather and flora differs significantly from the region I’m from—New England. Since my writing is predominantly set in New England, summoning it is essential. Memory is seldom enough. Like a painter, I find props and models are often necessary. Though these don’t need to be objects per se. They can be two-dimensionalish (like books and ephemera). Audio and video, either pulled from archives or drawn from the web, also work. And of course there are physical things. I once kept an anchor and some candle molds under my bed and hauled them out when I felt I needed to look at them. But I won’t admit as to whether or not they’re still there.

What I cannot have on hand here in Boca Raton are places themselves. And it’s impractical to travel back and forth during the semester in order to wander the streets of a given town or stroll a snowy beach for instance in hopes of executing some sort of plein air writing. However, I can bolster my memory of my experiences in such places with those aforementioned examples. A YouTube video of a place I know, a place I’ve spent time in, often will allow me to re-inhabit it enough to fold it into my writing. Audio is particularly helpful in summoning New England vernacular which otherwise evaporates at the Connecticut New York border. Though it doesn’t entirely because Florida breathes in people from all over the country each winter. Many of these snowbirds, vacationers, and transplants come from one of the six New England states. Improbably, I’ve had many fascinating conversations with folks not just from New England but from little towns adjacent to my own. The Wimberly library, in its stacks alone, is very well stocked with books that encompass what I look for in regional history and natural sciences. Add to this, the Marvin and Sybil Weiner Spirit of America—13,000 Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Century books and documents that hold their own against the holdings of many prominent northern athenaeums. A big, pleasant surprise. Bookwise off Spanish River Blvd regularly turns up interesting books on New England subjects. I find myself in there more often than I should be.

Of course the temptation to write about Florida is ever-present. And the subject itself is rich, diverse and intriguing. Wherever you find yourself, that environment will cast a bit of an alluring spell. No offense to the Sunshine State, but I doubt I will succumb. 

Rich Saltzberg concentrates in non-fiction at the FAU MFA program. He is a freelance journalist from Martha's Vineyard. His friends and peers consider him a heretic because he no longer drinks caffeinated coffee. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Happy Accident

There were four days before my community creative nonfiction workshop was set to begin when I learned that, due to unforeseen circumstances, I’d be taking on the community fiction workshop as well. At first this seemed like a daunting task. I had all of my lessons already planned out, my readings selected and ready to be photocopied, and they were all centered around—you guessed it—works and craft elements of creative nonfiction. This left me with two major questions I needed to answer in order to ensure that all of my students got out of the workshop what they’d hoped to: 1.) How am I supposed to fit fiction into the mix now with an already packed-to-capacity syllabus? And, 2.) Of all of the combined craft concerns of the two genres, which do I choose to focus on in the eight class meetings we’d have together?

The second question needed to be addressed first. Once I decided how to shift the focus of the class in order to encompass both genres, then I could worry about organizational measures. With six students in the class, that meant I could only afford to dedicate two of the two hour sessions to craft if I wanted to have enough time for all of my students to have two different pieces workshopped—which only seemed fair to me. A crash course in craft concerns was certainly in order, but which craft concerns should take the focus? Well, I would at least have to cover the elements of craft that are integral to both genres. This meant, for me: plot, characterization, setting, dialogue, point of view, and voice. On top of these, I’d have to cover certain elements unique to creative nonfiction as well. And so I chose to add truth and universality to the mix. No creative nonfiction class could be complete without a hearty discussion of the difference between objective and perspectival truth and how to handle weaving through both on the page. Universality, on the other hand, seemed crucial to bring up in order to avoid the awkward possibility of having to workshop 15 pages of Jane Doe’s private diary entries. “Your pieces should appeal to an audience broader than just you and your circle of friends and family,” I made sure to tell them straightaway.

With that, I added a few fiction readings to the list, photocopied them out, and the class had begun. Over the course of the workshop I found the amount of overlap between the two genres (even in terms of truth and universality, believe it or not) to be quite surprising. In fact, teaching the two genres together didn’t seem to muddle the concerns of either in the limited amount of time we had, but, instead, helped to illuminate the concerns of both in fascinating and beneficial ways. They reflected and refracted one another when they needed to, making for a swift understanding of the craft of creative writing overall. The other happy accident of the hybrid workshop was that it gave the students a chance to step outside of their comfort zones—an experience that I would argue is critical to the practice of writing. If I remember correctly, everyone in the class, whether they originally signed up for fiction or nonfiction, wrote one piece in each genre and I had the pleasure of being able to watch their writing improve and their appreciation of reading increase because of it.

Originally from Rochester, New York, Dustin J. DiPaulo is an MFA candidate at FAU. He writes creative nonfiction and music.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Q&A for Swann Summer Funding

Generally speaking, artists aren’t known for their salaries. As grad students pursuing fine arts degrees, we know this well. The proverbial image of a writer typing furiously into the night, bottle of fine whiskey close at hand, should perhaps be replaced by this: me, stunned by a humbling reflection of myself in the darkness of my zero-percent-battery computer screen, eyes baggy and brow furrowed, with a forkful of 99-cent tuna lunch making its way to my mouth.
The good news is, the MFA at FAU has many good funding opportunities for interested parties. Along with teaching assistantships and stipends, the Thomas Burnett Swann Summer Writing Fund is an opportunity for MFA candidates to pitch their summer writing plans for a chance at supporting cash.
As one of last summer’s Swann recipients, I, tuna girl, will now answer the following questions in the hope that you too can benefit from this (truly invaluable) opportunity:
Q: Why did you apply?
TG: $$$. I was yearning for certain writing opportunities but didn’t have the finances to pursue them.
Q: What was the application process like?
TG: Pretty straightforward. The first step was attending an informational meeting, where Dr. McKay outlined the application process. (This was announced by email in the spring, and took place on a Friday afternoon.) Next, we had several weeks to fill out an application form, and submit said form to Dr. McKay, along with a rough budget outline and a summary of our intended summer plans and how they would inform our writing.
Q: What would you have liked to know before applying?
TG: One helpful tip I did know before applying, thanks to a savvy older student, was that you can submit a ‘Plan A’ and a ‘Plan B’ if your first plan may tentatively fail. In my case, my Plan A was to intern with a high-profile, NYC-based publishing house or literary journal (my applications were in but were pending); Plan B was a self-designed ‘Micro-Retreat’ in which I would spend 2-3 days at an Airbnb location in order to ‘get away’ and focus solely on my writing, and gain new story fodder from the new people and environment.
Q: Where did you go?
TG: Asheville, North Carolina, and the Florida Keys. (It’s not New York City, but I wouldn’t change a thing.) The internship in NYC fell through, so Plan B was the plan for me. I was able to stay in Asheville for two nights, and stretch a bit of my cash to Key West (I’d never been, and its resume of writer-residents was too good to pass up).
            Q: How did the trip affect your writing?
            TG: I definitely got what I asked for. One of my Airbnb hosts was so strange (I won’t say which), he’ll probably be muse-worthy for the rest of my life. Both places were eclectic and arts-supportive; in Asheville, I spent an entire morning writing on a back porch with mountain views, which later became a setting for a story. On that same porch, I spent one long, candlelit evening in a rocking chair and watched the bugs flirt with the flames. One tragic moth was engulfed entirely, and the moment brought Annie Dillard's “The Death of a Moth”, which I had recently read, into truer beauty than the first time I read it indoors. In Key West, I rode a scooter around the island to Hemingway’s house, enjoyed the beach once favored by Tennessee Williams, and revised another short story that is probably my best one this year.
            Q: Why should other people apply for funding?
            TG: So you can set intentions for your summer, your growth, and your writing, so you can get money, so you can use the latter to actually fulfill the former, and (thanks to Thomas Burnett) to invest in creating great art.

Natalie Rowland is a second-year MFA student who has upgraded from tuna to quinoa.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Swann Travel Grant: North Dakota, June 2016

If you didn’t guess by my last name already—Jensen is one of the most common Danish family names around—I am part-Scandinavian as the paternal side of my family hails from Denmark. For my first ever Christmas, my dad’s parents sent me a big red book with gold gilt pages. I hadn’t yet left the hospital where I’d been born and they knew I’d be too young to read it for many, many years, but they sent it to me all the same. I still have their postcard note that had been tucked inside. Like the book, it is written in Danish:
Kære lille Rebecca, Du ønskes en rigtig god jul...
We hope that you will soon be big and strong so you can come home to mommy and daddy to read the wonderful stories of Hans Christian Andersen. We hope that one day you will be able to read it for yourself.
I’ve had the book sitting on my shelf at home for years, rarely opening it, rarely taking it down for fear of ruining the spine when I thought there was no way I’d ever be able to read it anyway. The Danish I know is scattered and basic; I can speak a little, but for the longest time I’d been scared to try to read it. And then, I took Dr. Becka McKay’s Translation workshop in the spring of 2016 and I decided, after almost 25 years, that it was time I made a better effort to read the thing myself. With my dad as my co-translator, I worked with the Old Danish to bring the lost stories of my childhood, Andersen’s lesser known tales, into modern English.
As the spring semester came to a close, my interest in translation had only begun to blossom, and I hopped on to a plane from sunny Florida to the great windy plains of North Dakota. Although not a popular vacation destination—especially not for us living in perpetual summer here—I was beyond excited to get out and to see what the Midwest had to offer. I’d been to the Dakotas before, but I’d never considered them as places where I could learn; the times I’d been before were to visit family and only that.
My plane landed in Fargo (yes, like that movie) and I spent the week getting lost in all things Scandinavian. From the early 19th century, many Scandinavian people began to cross over the seas and settle in locations across the Upper Midwest in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and North and South Dakota. Because of this movement, North Dakota today is still rich in Scandinavian heritage and the state is dotted with centers and sites where tourists and descendants (mainly Norwegian, but Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Icelandic, too) alike can gather to learn of the Nordic history and culture in the area.
Fargo sits on the eastern state line between North Dakota and Minnesota. A skip across the Red River took me to Moorhead, MN, where—conveniently—there is a Scandinavian heritage site, complete with Viking ship and Norwegian stave church. Each and every part of the church and surrounding buildings had been dismantled, numbered and inventoried, shipped from Norway to Minnesota, and reassembled exactly and precisely as they had been originally built in Norway. On just the second day of my trip, I had found a home from home.

            Of course, I wanted more. With a bit of research, I had discovered that my beloved Hans Christian Andersen lives on in North Dakota. A memorial and tribute to him sits with pride of place at the center of a Scandinavian Heritage Center in Minot, ND, only a five-hour drive from Fargo. 
I made the trip with no idea whether the place would live up to my expectations. It seems silly to say it, but my worries vanished when I stepped out of the car and laid eyes on the statue in the middle of the park. Set to the backdrop of an even bigger and more majestic stave church than the one I’d seen previously at the Hjemkomst Center (hjemkomst: homecoming) in Moorhead, beside a replica Danish windmill, a cluster of authentic Norwegian homes, and a Finnish sauna, and flanked by the flags of each of the five Scandinavian countries, Hans Christian Andersen perched with one hand on his hip, the other extended out to hold a little bronze bird. I sidled up to him and had my picture taken sitting on his knee. Later, inside the church, as I looked up at the intricate carvings around the beams in the ceiling, an elderly woman struck a conversation with me in Danish. It was the first Danish I’d spoken in years but it came freely without too much second-guessing myself. It felt natural and, after, I felt giddy and proud of myself for making this happen.

            But none of this would have happened without the help of the Swann Travel Grant. Every summer, MFA students at FAU are offered the opportunity to apply for this scholarship of $500 to travel—anywhere!—to pursue a project that will help/encourage/enlighten/enhance/develop our writing. And every summer only a small number of students apply. The application is simple:
1.      A proposed project/travel plan.  Where do you want to go? Why do you want to go there? How will a trip to this place help you with your writing?
2.      Cost of travel. How will you get there? How much will this cost?
3.      Accommodation plans. Where will you stay? Again, how much will this cost.
Altogether, it was a short summary (mine was maybe 350-400 words) of the intentions of the trip and that’s it. I put mine together over a few days, hit ‘send’ on the email to the department, and waited for their decision.
            The best piece of advice I’ve received since starting the program here at FAU is this: get involved and do anything that seems even slightly interesting to you. If you don’t apply, you won’t know. If I hadn’t taken a small chance on sending in that application for the Swann, I don’t know if I’d still feel the desire and urge to keep translating the big red book whose spine is now creased and whose pages are loved.

Rebecca Jensen is a third-year MFA candidate in nonfiction. She has served as fiction editor for Driftwood Press and as Managing Editor for FAU’s Coastlines. She was recently a nominee for the 2016 AWP Intro Journals Project in nonfiction, and her poetry appears in Eunoia Review, Firefly Magazine, and FishFood Magazine.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Swamp Ape Review: What It Means, How We Got Here, and the Narrative that We Hunt

I’m a nonnative Floridian. Like many of us here in the MFA (and many Florida-dwellers overall), I transplanted in favor of a great writing program, sunny skies, and sandy beaches. Part of that process involves what I think of as Florida initiation moments—key experiences where I learn a true quirk of Florida culture (e.g., the uncanny campus presence of iguanas in place of squirrels, hand-sized banana spiders next to walkways, hurricane season, the known-only-to-locals meaning of just “season,” unpredictable appearances of the word “y’all,” etc.) One such experience was my first encounter with the mythological Swamp Ape. Over a cold glass of beer, an MFA colleague enlightened me with the long-loved mystery of the Swamp Ape—a Florida-dwelling being that sustains an enigmatic and elusive existence in the Florida Everglades.

The myth of the Swamp Ape is what inspired the name of Florida Atlantic University’s first national online literary journal, founded and produced by students in the MFA at FAU. As the Managing Editor, I have the privilege of bringing the Swamp Ape legacy into a new format, and directing its embodiment in our inaugural issue, appearing January 2017.

Needless to say, this year has been a busy one for us. Our challenge was to take a vision for hybrid works (see more on this at our website,, and work it into existence with sweat, potlucks, and a pile of agendas and task calendars. Since January, we’ve been tackling all the practical business of running a journal: creating a temp logo and website, printing marketing materials for our submissions launch at AWP, outreach to artist markets and MFA programs soliciting their very best work, outlining staff responsibilities, reading more than 800 submissions (!), planning a launch party with big-name Skype-in readers… I may be biased (I likely am), but it’s been more fun than I ever imagined.

I’d like to credit the FAU MFA culture for that, as well as the drive we all have to create something new—something strange, exceptional, and alluring. Because we’re committed to our mission statement and niche, our hope is to build a community of artists—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, visual art, and “swamp” artists whose work defies a traditional genre—who are the best in their class and strive to capture that which we can’t explain. We are hunting a narrative as Floridians hunt the Swamp Ape; we want art that unsettles our assumptions of what is possible.

This month, we’re finalizing our decisions about what will be included in our inaugural issue. In upcoming months, we’ll be editing book reviews, hosting and interviewing top talent like Justin Torres, Ira Sukrungruang, Rebecca Makkai, Jennifer Egan, Victoria Fedden (an FAU MFA alumna), Elizabeth Powell, and Jensen Beach (who we also plan to take to the sandier-but-equally-mesmerizing Jensen Beach of the Florida coast).

For those of you who now (appropriately) want to get involved, we have options for you:
·         If you’re an FAU MFA student, attend our weekly meetings.
·         If you’re a writer/artist, watch for our submissions reopening in spring 2017.
·         If you’re attending AWP in February, stop by our table.
·         If you’re in another MFA program, watch your halls for our launch and submissions flyer, coming to a wall near you.
·         If you’re the social sort, follow us on Facebook (/SwampApeReview), Instagram or Twitter (@SwampApeReview).
·         If you’re just curious, check out our website and watch for our first issue at

It’s a good year to be a lit journal at FAU.

Natalie Rowland is an MFA candidate at Florida Atlantic University and the current Managing Editor of Swamp Ape Review (