Rosemont Writers’ Retreat: Showcase Elizabeth Mosier

Author Events, Interviews

Continuing our coverage leading up to the Rosemont Writers’ Retreat, we sat down with Elizabeth Mosier to get a better sense of what shapes her as an author.

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These days, ghostwriters pop out fantasy-young-adult-teen-paranormal-romances a dime a dozen—but Elizabeth Mosier’s approach to writing for the young adult is drastically different: she doesn’t follow trends, she writes for her teenage self. Elizabeth has been a teacher to all ages, and has written in magazines, shorts stories, and a novel. Philadelphia Stories wanted to know more about writing for the young adult, which she will instruct at the Rosemont Writer’s Retreat, and the authors and stories that she recommends to aspiring writers.

You have taught from the elementary level to the adult and collegiate levels. Do you still find yourself learning from your students? 

A fairy typical teaching week for me this semester included teaching third graders to fracture fairy tales, guiding seventh graders to structure a personal narrative, and teaching college students to write for children. My work with young readers certainly informs my syllabus in college courses like Writing for Children, but the most important lesson I learn from little kids is that making up stories is supposed to be fun. Kids are eager to play and experiment; teenagers (who are newly self-conscious) and college students (concerned about their grades and their futures) and published writers (no longer immune to marketing) understandably less so. I try to import some of that elementary school energy and playfulness into all my classrooms, including the home office where I spent this long, gray winter revising a novel with a complicated plot.

In many bookstores these days, there are shelves upon shelves of the same “young adult” genre stories. How do you keep your writing fresh and different?

I don’t follow trends, but instead write the books I wanted to read back then. What troubled me as a teenager? What did I wish for? What did I know, and what did I still need to figure out? The challenge, when writing for young adults, is to impart your hard-won wisdom without preaching (teens won’t read your work if they smell a lesson coming). To preserve a sense of immediacy, you have to recount what you learned as though you’re going through the experience with them, for the first time.

What authors influenced your writing? What writers do you recommend to aspiring writers or avid readers?

 

I read constantly—for pleasure, as part of my profession—but the books that influenced my writing for adults and young adults were the books I read before I entered high school. I learned what a simile is from a picture book called I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss (illustrated by Mary Blair); another picture book by Joan Walsh Anglund (Nibble Nibble Mousekin, a version of the Hansel and Gretel tale) taught me what irony is with its revealing illustrations that contradicted the text on the page. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White taught me that the right word can save someone’s life. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain introduced me to characters so real they seemed to live outside the books’ covers. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith taught me about complex characterization—Francie’s lovable father, Johnny Nolan, is also the book’s villain.  Lord of the Flies by William Golding, while not considered a YA novel, is the book that reminds me, when I write for young adults, not to condescend to my reader about the difficult passage of adolescence. Though I would recommend any of these books, I encourage my students to develop a personal syllabus of books they loved or hated or wanted to live in or revise. As Richard Peck so wisely said, “We write by the light of every story we ever read.”

What do you do to overcome writer’s block? Do you have any rituals or exercises to help yourself when words will not come?

I’ve been writing for long enough now to distinguish between writer’s block and a delay in processing—which is more like that colored wheel that spins on your Mac than a full-blown hard-drive crash. Often, I’m not able to make progress on the work up on my screen because I’m working something out in my head. On those days, I keep my butt in the chair, but open a new screen and set my mind to another task (like editing) or a project (an essay if I’m working on fiction). Or sometimes I just make chocolate chip cookies, to feel again the satisfaction of finishing something made from scratch!

You’ve published in a variety of publications, ranging from your novel, “My Life as a Girl,” published by Random House, to short stories and essays in magazines like Seventeen. Do you think it is important for a writer to get exposure to all types of writing— not just one specific medium or genre?  

 

Though every writer seeks to develop a distinctive style, and most writers settle into a preferred form, expressing yourself in different ways teaches you what’s possible—and what seemed impossible but actually isn’t. Writing short pieces for The Philadelphia Inquirer teaches me to condense, and writing novels teaches me to be patient. I recently published an essay on memory and archaeology and my mother’s Alzheimer’s (in issue 47 of the journal Creative Nonfiction) that began as a short story. When I’d completed the fictional draft, I realized that only one detail was made up—and that place where I’d departed from the truth informed my revision. What did that detail tell me about what I wanted, and what would stand in my way of getting it? Therein lay the real conflict, which I wrote the nonfiction essay to resolve.

Elizabeth Mosier will be teaching “Writing for the Young Adult Audience” at the weeklong Rosemont Writers Retreat on June 24-28.

Meet Elizabeth Mosier on Monday, June 24, 2013 at the free noontime Writers and Readers Series, which will feature in-depth conversations about craft led by Rosemont MFA program director, Carla Spataro.

Young Adult Round Table Discussion, Part 2

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Join me as I continue talking with Beth Kephart, Elizabeth Mosier, Siobhan Vivian, and Melissa Walker.

Wittle: Which story telling device makes for a better story, plot driven books or character driven books? Why?

Kephart: Books have to have both.  It wouldn’t be right to choose.  I don’t care how robust your plot is if your characters are paper thin.  And if all you have are characters, then you aren’t going to go anywhere at all.  Plot lives inside characters; it springs from who those characters are.  And characters must be carried forward on the wings of plot.

Mosier: Both.  Plot arises from character, in life and in fiction.  Everything about a story—who tells it, why it’s told, why it matters—depends on the characters who populate the tale.  Ask Charles Dickens, a man who knew from plot, but whose characters endure because they are so well drawn, so real.

Vivian: I think it depends. An amazing, unique plot can float a book just as an amazing, unique character can.

Walker: It varies from author to author, I’d guess, but for me the characters always come first. I’ve tried writing the other way around and I end up with wooden people walking around in my plot. If I can hear the main character’s voice, clear and true, then I know I can plot something for her. Also, as a reader, I follow a character I love, not a good plot. The latter strings you along, but the former takes you with them, side by side.

Wittle: What advice have you been given about writing you would like to pass along to others?

Kephart: It will be hard.  You will feel lost.  You will chase your own tail, run in circles.  And then one day the storm clouds will part.  Persistence will be your greatest quality.  Reading the books of others will be your comfort.

Mosier: The poet Ellen Bryant Voigt once said, “It’s a draft until you die.”   It’s important to be willing to play, to experiment, to see your work as fluid while you’re drafting.  But while I’m still alive, I’m so grateful for a deadline!

Vivian: Finish something. You’ll learn a million and one lessons by telling a story from beginning to end.

Walker: I just heard author Allen Zadoff say something like, When you’re working on a draft, don’t screw the guy who’s going to sit down and pick it up tomorrow. Meaning, set yourself up to move along swiftly the next day as you write. Sometimes that may mean stopping in the middle of a sentence, just so you can hit the ground running when you start again… but it always means knowing what comes next when you put down the pen, so to speak. I love that advice!

I would like to personally thank the authors who were willing to give up some time to have this discussion with me.

About the Authors:

Beth Kephart’s seventh YA novel,SMALL DAMAGES, due out in July, has received starred reviews and early acclaim. She blogs at http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/.

Elizabeth Mosier is the author of The Playgroup, part of GemmaMedia’s “Open Door” series to promote adult literacy, and My Life As a Girl (Random House). Find Elizabeth at www.ElizabethMosier.com

SIOBHAN VIVIAN is the author of THE LIST, which has received stars from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Her other novels include NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL, SAME DIFFERENCE, and A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE. For more on Siobhan, go to www.siobhanvivian.com

Melissa Walker is a Carolina girl who lives in Brooklyn. She’s a former magazine editor turned Young Adult author, and the co-founder of iheartdaily.com. Her latest novel is Unbreak My Heart. For more information on Melissa, go to  http://www.melissacwalker.com and http://www.iheartdaily.com

Young Adult Round Table Discussion, Part 1

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With all the books like, “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” the Young Adult Genre has been rediscovered by all ages of readers. I didn’t know much about this genre, so I figured the best way for me to learn was to ask some authors in this genre. Once again, it turned into a round table discussion with Beth Kephart, Elizabeth Mosier, Siobhan Vivian, and Melissa Walker.

Wittle: Who do you feel are the most influential writers in young adult literature today?

Kephart: Well, I am just going to have to preface this entire response sequence with three words: present company excluded. Because I happen to think the world of my co-panelists.

Everyone has different definitions of “influence.” If the question is, which YA writers are inspiring the greatest readership of YA books, then you absolutely have to point to writers like John Green, Rick Riordan, Suzanne Collins, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jay Asher, Libba Bray, Jack Gantos, Markus Zusak, Maggie Stiefvater, and other powerhouse authors whose books hit the bestseller lists upon publication and are readily embraced by younger and older readers alike. Not only that, but some of these authors are just plain good at what they do. While I wish that John Green would vary his characters just a little bit, for example (the sound of their voices, the way they speak) I was one of the many who cried my way through Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars. And I adore what John Green does for kids, how he empowers “nerds,” how he makes books cool. Maggie Stiefvater is terrific in her own right—so multiply talented, so artistically inclined. Laurie Halse Anderson and Jay Asher have made it okay to talk about anorexia and date rape and suicide—not by sensationalizing the topics, but by artfully exploring them. Libba Bray and Jack Gantos have made quirky not just all right but popular. And I don’t have to say anything about the phenom Markus Zusak and his international sensation, The Book Thief. Anyone who reads me or my blog knows just how extraordinary I think he is.

There are other kinds of influences, of course. Ruta Sepetys with Between Shades of Gray, has demonstrated just how powerful and popular historical fiction can be, even if the topic (a Stalinist purge) is difficult. Ruta’s book also hit the bestseller list, by the way, on the week of its publication. Patricia McCormick has proven that very sensitive topics like cutting and the teenage sex trade can be addressed for younger readers—with huge literary style. Gary D. Schmidt with books like Okay for Now (which is for a slightly younger audience, but still…) reminds us how good good old-fashioned can be. A.S. King has shown us how wonderful and smart wacky can be. Thanhha Lai once again proves the power of a story told in prose poetry with Inside Out & Back Again. The list goes on—there are many fine writers that I am not naming here. That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud to be working within this genre. I’ve written about all these books on my blog, by the way, as well as the beautiful books of my co-panelists.
 Mosier: I’m in the midst of a residency at Radnor Middle School, teaching 7th graders to write narrative essays about the books that have changed them as readers, as writers, as people. It’s the rare kid among these newly minted teens who isn’t reading Suzanne Collins or some other author of dystopian fiction. Though there is much controversy about whether or not teenagers should be reading fiction that is by nature alarming and often depressing, my students tell me these books give them hope. The fictional characters’ problems aren’t their problems, and yet they can work out their real anxieties within this fictional landscape. But perhaps most hopeful of all—and true of any YA novel—is the fact that these teenage protagonists act as agents in their own lives and solve problems themselves—often the problems created by adults.
 Vivian: I am in love with Maggie Steivfater’s The Scorpio Races. I think it’s such an interesting book, and one that only she could have written. It’s got it all—action, adventure, a romantic element—and yet it’s unlike anything else out there. I’m quite excited for her newest, The Raven Boys, which comes out this fall.
 Walker: In terms of being widely read and reshaping the conversation, I think John Green and David Levithan have a really positive influence. I’d also be remiss not to mention Sarah Dessen, who keeps Contemporary at top of mind even when the shelves are filled with dystopias and otherworldly fare.

Wittle: Who or what influences you to write in this genre?

Kephart: The teen readers themselves. I meet them in stores. I correspond with them through my blog. I teach them. They are smart, beautiful, alive, yearning, and I try to live up to their hopes for the books I write. I am equally inspired by the large number of adults who have decided to read my YA books and to talk to me about their own pasts, their once-ago dreams. This is a very vocal and loving readership.

Mosier: I read Lord of the Flies, a dark novel about a group of stranded English schoolboys who create a hierarchical, violent society, when I was thirteen. The book confirmed what I knew from direct observation in seventh grade: that childhood is not all sweetness and light. The book both frightened and comforted me because I sensed that William Golding knew (and wrote) the truth about human nature and the pressure of context on behavior. Now, when I write for teenagers, this book sits on my shoulder, checking to make sure I’m not condescending to my reader or romanticizing what I remember to be a very complicated time of life.

Vivian: I’m always influenced by the stories of real girls that I find online…newspaper articles, blog posts, stuff like that. They are usually written from an adult perspective, and I like giving a voice to their side of the experience.

Walker: My inner voice is set solidly at 17, and it has been since I was 10. It’s that voice I hear when I’m writing, and trying on other ages or situations never seems to flow for me. I love the teenage years–highest highs, lowest lows, so many truly meaningful firsts. It’s a time that is full of emotion and passion and everyone’s experience is universal and incredibly unique all at once.

Wittle: Discuss briefly your book writing process.

Kephart: My goodness. I’m not sure I can be brief. Or, I am trying to think of ways to be brief. I have written YA novels that take place in the past (during the 1876 Centennial, for example, or in 1871 Philadelphia), books that take place in foreign places such as Juarez, Spain, and Berlin, books that are told in the past tense, books that are told in present tense, first-person books, third-person books, books with dual narrators, books that feature girls, books that feature boys. My process, then, is simple: I have no idea what I am doing or going to do every time I sit down to write a book. I have to figure it out, step by step, and every single time it feels as if I have never done this before. And like doing it at all will be impossible.

Mosier: I write line by line and read over what I’ve written before I continue which, for a novelist, is like dancing en pointe through a marathon. Don’t try this at home! The habit of condensing is ingrained in me from writing short stories, and it’s hard to shake for drafting in longer form. I do outline, but usually only loosely; I have a series of pictures in my head that I connect with words, one following another like panels in a cartoon strip. I grew up reading comic strips, including book-length compilations of Peanuts by Charles Schulz—and from those cartoons I learned to structure a narrative: how to set up a conflict and how to increase tension toward a punch line. But the YA novel I recently finished, Ghost Signs, is a mystery with a narrator who doesn’t know the whole story until the last scene—and so I had to plan the book pretty meticulously, with time lines and plot graphs that looked more like notes for Trigonometry than for a novel.

Vivian: It is a gut-wrenching exercise. I am filled with self-doubt and insecurity the whole way through. However, I am buoyed by moments joy when something small feels like it is working, and usually there are enough of those to see me through to the end.

Tune in Friday when we continue this discussion.

About the Authors:

Beth Kephart’s seventh YA novel,SMALL DAMAGES, due out in July, has received starred reviews and early acclaim. She blogs at http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/.

Elizabeth Mosier is the author of The Playgroup, part of GemmaMedia’s “Open Door” series to promote adult literacy, and My Life As a Girl (Random House). Find Elizabeth at www.ElizabethMosier.com

SIOBHAN VIVIAN is the author of THE LIST, which has received stars from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Her other novels include NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL, SAME DIFFERENCE, and A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE. For more on Siobhan, go to www.siobhanvivian.com

Melissa Walker is a Carolina girl who lives in Brooklyn. She’s a former magazine editor turned Young Adult author, and the co-founder of iheartdaily.com. Her latest novel is Unbreak My Heart. For more information on Melissa, go to  http://www.melissacwalker.com and http://www.iheartdaily.com

Anticipating Teen Day in Manayunk with Four Extraordinary Writer Friends

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from the blog of Beth Kephart: http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2012/02/anticipating-teen-day-in-manayunk-with.html

Many months ago, I received an invitation to read from You Are My Only at The Spiral Bookcase, a new independent bookstore in Manayunk, PA. I was, of course, keen to meet the store’s very dear owner, Ann. And I was thrilled to have a chance to support a new independent (how many new independent bookstores do you know?) But how much more fun would be had, I thought, if I could be joined in the event by some of the best young adult writers around.

And so Ann and I talked. And so one thing led to another. And so it is with a great sense of anticipation and pleasure that I am sharing news of the inaugural Teen Day in Manayunk, to be held during the afternoon of March 24th. There will be writing workshops for teen authors. There will be a writing contest with winning entries (judged by Elizabeth Mosier and yours truly) appearing in the extraordinary teen-lit magazine Philadelphia Stories, Jr. and on The Spiral Bookcase web; I’ll also be excerpting winning work here. There will be marching bands and media coverage and appearances by some very special souls.

I encourage teachers, parents, and young writers in the Philadelphia area to find out more about the writing contest, workshop, and meet-and-greet by contacting Ann at The Spiral Bookcase. I encourage the rest of you to consider spending time with some truly fine writers along the canal.

Here we all are. There we all will be.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti is best known for her nonfiction books, including the Newbery Honor-winning Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow (Scholastic) and the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor-winning They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of An American Terrorist Group (Houghton Mifflin). Her most recent titles include the novel The Boy Who Dared (Scholastic) and a picture book Naamah and the Ark at Night (Candlewick 2011), illustrated by the amazing Holly Meade. http://www.scbartoletti.com

Beth Kephart is the National Book Award-nominated author of thirteen books, including the teen novels Undercover, House of Dance, Nothing but Ghosts, The Heart Is Not a Size, Dangerous Neighbors, and You Are My Only; Small Damages is due out from Philomel in July. Beth, who is an adjunct faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania, blogs at http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/.

A.S. King is the author of the highly acclaimed Everybody Sees the Ants, a YALSA 2012 Top Ten Fiction for Young Adults book, the 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor book Please Ignore Vera Dietz, ALA Best Book for Young Adults The Dust of 100 Dogs, and the forthcoming Ask the Passengers. Since returning from Ireland where she spent over a decade living off the land, teaching adult literacy, and writing novels, King now lives deep in the Pennsylvania woods with her husband and children. Lean more at http://www.as-king.com .

April Lindner is the author of Jane, the acclaimed contemporary retelling of the classic novel Jane Eyre and the author of several poetry collections. She is a professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University.

Elizabeth Mosier’s work for young adults includes My Life as a Girl (Random House) and My First Love (Delacorte, under the pseudonym Callie West), as well as numerous short stories in Seventeen and Sassy. She has recently completed a third YA novel, Ghost Signs.

Posted by Beth Kephart at Tuesday, February 21, 2012