In January 2016, I enrolled in VCFA’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and this January, I’ll be graduating with my MFA. You might wonder why I would enter an MFA program at this point in my career. My first novel, Trafficked, was published by Penguin in 2012, and did fairly well as far as debut novels go. It was well-reviewed, made some state lists, and earned out the advance. Some people say this is evidence that I know what I’m doing.
But the truth is, I had a lot to learn as a fiction writer. My former background and training was as a journalist, so I wasn’t using all the tools of fiction that I could have been using. Honestly, I didn’t even know about them. Also, I was terrible at rewriting. I couldn’t seem to do it in an efficient way. I’m a pantser, a writer who doesn’t plan, but rather flies by the seat of her pants, so I really needed those rewriting skills.
I also wanted a bigger network of writing friends, people who support each other through the ups and downs of publishing. As in all creative endeavors, it’s easy for writers to start to doubt themselves. It turns out that a second book is just as hard to get published as a first. At this point, my former agent had moved on from agenting and I was essentially agentless. I saw my writing friends coming out with book after book while I floundered. I worried I would become one-book-wonder.
Then, I was accepted into VCFA. This gave me the boost of confidence that I needed. I thought, maybe I should send out this book I’ve been working on, so that I could decide whether to work on it in the program. I sent This Is Not a Love Letter to agent Sara Crowe and she loved it, and suddenly, I had an amazing agent. It was a dream come true. A couple months later, Laura Schreiber at Hyperion offered a two-book pre-empt offer, and I was stunned. So much had happened once I gained a little confidence by being accepted into this MFA program.
I worked on a different young adult book and a middle grade book in the program since I was rewriting This Is Not a Love Letter with my editor. However, though I didn’t work on this book directly with my advisors, they had a tremendous impact on what it became. My semester advisors are all brilliant YA authors: Kekla Magoon, Daniel Jose Older, A.M. Jenkins and A.S. King. Along with my workshop advisors, they taught me not only how to be a better writer and a better teacher of writing, but they also taught me lessons on representation, bias, and humanity that impacted my rewrites for This Is Not a Love Letter, and quite honestly, who I am as a person.
Now, as I’m heading into graduation from VCFA, I realize I received so much more than I ever expected from this program. Most of all, I learned the value of giving back. The advisors at VCFA seek to uplift the students and bring out their very best writing through a supportive and respectful environment. This is so important. Writing can be a self-centered endeavor, but the way you get a real feeling of joy in life is when you reach out and help others. In the publishing world, this means lifting up under-represented voices and mentoring those who are starting out. So, now, as I prepare to graduate from VCFA, with a great sense of gratitude, I’m thinking about how I give back and how I honor these people who have taught me so much.
Now, my focus is helping teens from underserved communities across the country to start writing. We need their voices. In Los Angeles, I’m volunteering with WriteGirl, a mentoring organization for emerging teen writers, whose motto is “Never underestimate the power of a girl and her pen!” I’d like to spread this message throughout the country and the world.