the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog


Posted by Tami Brown on Wed, Sep 03, 2014 @ 07:09 AM

We welcome Lisa Doan back to the Launch Pad with the next book in her Berenson Schemes series. (Oh how we love these prolific alums!!!)

cover Jack and the WildlifeAfter a wild plan by his parents left Jack stranded on a deserted island in the Caribbean, the Berenson family decided to lay out some rules. But then Jack’s parents thought up another get-rich-quick scheme. Now the family is driving around the Masai Mara of Kenya and Jack is about to end up in a tree – alone. As Jack attempts to outsmart the wild animals of the savannah, he’ll have plenty of time to wonder if the Berenson Family Decision-Making rules did enough to keep him out of trouble.

Lisa Doan writes middle grade stories and is either childless or has accidently left her children somewhere. (Hopefully not on an African savannah.)

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

 I have a real fondness for Richard and Claire Berenson. Yes, they are completely irresponsible parents, but they are irresponsible in such a big, grand way that I find it a little inspiring. They represent the ultimate ‘go big or go home’ kind of bad parenting. After all, if you’re going to keep losing your son after you have sworn you will never, ever do it again, then you should lose him in the wilds of Kenya – not the local mall. Also, despite failing at everything they do, they are cheerful and happy-go-lucky souls. Of course, I also have a soft spot for Jack, particularly for his own brand of quiet outrage directed at the adults in his life, which totally cracks me up.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I had already written Jack the Castaway as a stand-alone book, so when it turned into a series I revisited my years as a backpacker. I once spent a year backpacking alone from Morocco to Kenya. (Tip on traveling in West Africa: get on a plane and fly to East Africa.) In Kenya, I went on one particularly ridiculous excursion – a lone walking safari through a small game park. After I had lost my way, couldn't figure out where the ranger hut was, ran out of water, had a jeep swing by and ask me if I had “seen the leopard” and then speed away without giving me a ride…I began to panic. I will never forget that feeling - a deep wave of recognition of my own stupidity. Obviously, I made it out alive, though extremely sunburned. Also obviously, I drank a lot of Tusker beer that night. Perhaps less obviously is the real lesson here: just because a Lonely Planet guidebook tells you to do something, doesn't mean you should actually do it. So, it was a harrowing experience that showed me how fast things can go wrong in the bush and I had a real empathy for Jack as he realizes he is alone with a couple of rolls of duct tape and bags of Chips Ahoy cookies.   

What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

Well, I’m not sure this is actually craft advice, but let’s call it my “fun way in” theory. (FYI – I have a lot of theories, make no guarantees on the efficacy of any of them and routinely change my mind about them) I thought of this one when I began to notice a lot of writer talk about how writing or revision or selling or whatever is HARD. This is a mistake. Not a mistake in the perception of reality, but a mistake in self-talk. It completely robs you of the one absolutely crucial component – you started to write because it was fun. (At least, I hope that’s why you started!) You will never be productive, or like what you produce, if your thinking is that it’s hard.

A lot of writers struggle so much, and then are surprised when they have a writing day that really flows. Then they search for a connection – maybe it was the special pen they used, or the music they played. But it was just that they accidentally didn't obsess on the hardness of it. (Rituals like special pens don’t do anything except remind the brain about the past positive experiences associated with them.)

So, the problem is how to reclaim the fun. This is individual, but a starting place is realizing that your brain is just playing a soundtrack you told it to play, and you can tell it something else. Stop saying things like “I am going to force myself to write” and start saying things like, “If I get all my work around the house done, I will treat myself by sitting down to write.” (If you are me, this will inspire you to do a haphazard and shoddy job at housework and immediately go to the treat part.) 

All craft advice ever does is present a way in to writing, and all the various ways into writing start with your brain. Create a bubble around you and your computer that excludes your agent, editor, writing group – everybody. Then write what you really want to write, not what you think you should be writing. Period. Because that is what you were doing when you first started to write and that is why it was fun and that is how to end up with a completed manuscript.

The sticking point for a lot of writers is that they remember those early days so well and now know that what they wrote was crap, so they associate being overly optimistic and having too much fun with ending up with crap. The mortification of that first experience of going from “I wonder if I’ll win a Newbery” to the realization that the work is in fact un-publishable, is burned into a writer’s soul. With experience under their belt, they are determined to be realistic and keep one eye out for problems. But there was never anything realistic about writing fiction. Now go barely clean your house and reward yourself by writing that Newbery winner!

What’s the weirdest thing you've ever Googled as research for your writing?

A YouTube video about a Honey Badger. Warning – naughty honey badger and even naughtier narrator! 

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

I can put a prospective student’s mind at ease about a number of concerns. 1. A Vermont winter will not actually kill you. It will just make you wish to be killed and that is survivable. 2. If you are prone to guarding your personal space, wear some sort of armor. The huggers will creep up on you when you least expect it. 3. Get used to the idea that you will know your VCFA peeps forever. It will not help to change your name and move to a remote Fijian island. You will never shake those people. 4. After you've graduated, they don’t actually make you leave. There is an alumni gathering ever summer (Yes – thank the universe it’s in the summer) and all faculty lectures for every year are free to download. And 5. You will cut about ten years off your learning curve so that you can write the kind of books you want to write before dying of old age. So what are you waiting for? Buy a good coat and get going!

You can visit Lisa Doan at

The Berenson Schemes #2 – Jack and the Wildlife was published by Lerner Publishing and hit bookstores on September 1st!

Topics: Lisa Doan, 2014 release, Lerner Publishing Group, middle grade, humor

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