New Voice: Elizabeth Fixmer on Saint Training

Elizabeth Fixmer is the first-time author of Saint Training (Zonderkidz, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Mary Clare O’Brian thinks that her bargain with God – to become a saint if He’ll make her family happy – will result in a miracle.

But with a war in Vietnam, race riots in the city, the Catholic Church turning cartwheels, and too much responsibility at home, miracles seem to be in short supply. Even on a good hair day.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I am both a plotter and a plunger. I may begin with a simple idea – a little girl longs to become a saint – and I have to write down everything that comes to me about the idea right away.

If I try to force myself to outline in the beginning, I’m in danger of becoming bored or writing in a stilted style. But if I let the ideas flow on paper, without a lot of editing or planning, I find that the plot, subplots, themes, characters all begin to take shape nicely.

This style requires a willingness to do a lot of revision. After days, weeks, even months of writing, you may discover that you’ve only been writing background or that the story needs to be told from a different point of view or that a character you thought was minor has suddenly taken front stage.

I fall in love with a character, an idea, a potential book title and then spend months uncovering the bones of the story. It’s only then that I begin to outline. The purpose of the outline, at that point, is to make sure that everything fits together well. I look at the story as a whole and decide where I need to show more emotion, to explain, to cut. It’s this stage of the process that can really make a story sing.

As someone with an MFA in Writing for Children (and Young Adults), how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?

Graduate school made all the difference for me! I spent one semester at Vermont College and transferred to Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota following that.

Graduate school is a huge commitment in terms of time and expense. But it is worth everything you put into it.

I gained in writing skills and in critical-thinking skills. I read books I never would have chosen to read and grew from them. But what has had the greatest impact on me is the opportunity to be a part of an amazing writing community.

The low-residency programs at both Vermont and Hamline are set up to create an ideal atmosphere for getting intense one-on-one mentoring throughout the semester as well as five 11-to-13 day residencies where you are eat, breath, and sleep your craft.

The business end of writing was not addressed as much in graduate school as I would have liked. I would have loved more information on preparing for school visits and interviews, as well as on marketing and promotion But I met agents, Kendra Marcus and Minju Chang (Bookstop Literary Agency) through school, and they have helped with every question.

I would highly recommend a graduate school program for anyone interested in writing as a career. Joining SCBWI is a great way to get started. And I think participating in a critique group can be a great way to inform your writing.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said, “Ingenuity, keen observational skills, and compassion grant this feisty protagonist growing insight into the complex choices faced by those she loves, as well as her own character and calling.”

Read an excerpt of Saint Training (PDF).