the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog


Posted by Adi Rule on Fri, Feb 17, 2017 @ 12:02 PM

Are you ready for another alarmingly great middle grade novel from Lisa Doan? I have good news -- The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone is out now from Sky Pony Press! Even more good news -- Lisa has briefly switched hats here at The Launchpad, from interviewer to interviewee. Welcome, Lisa!

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Twelve-year-old Henry Hewitt has been living by his wits on the streets of London, dodging his parents, who are determined to sell him as an apprentice. Searching for a way out of the city, Henry lands a position in Hampshire as an assistant to Sir Richard Blackstone, an aristocratic scientist who performs unorthodox experiments in his country manor. The manor house is comfortable, and the cook is delighted to feed Henry as much as he can eat. Sir Richard is also kind, and Henry knows he has finally found a place where he belongs.

But everything changes when one of Sir Richard’s experiments accidently transforms a normal-sized tarantula into a colossal beast that escapes and roams the neighborhood. After a man goes missing and Sir Richard is accused of witchcraft, it is left to young Henry to find an antidote for the oversized arachnid. Things are not as they seem, and in saving Sir Richard from the gallows, Henry also unravels a mystery about his own identity.

Hi, Lisa! Why was the setting of Victorian England perfect for this story?

I’m a huge Dickens fan and go back to those books whenever I would like to be living in a different time. Now is a good example of that. Nobody ever worried about what Queen Vic would tweet out, though I suppose it would be amusing to imagine it. “Palace - WINNING! East India Company HUUUUGE LOSERS! SO SAD.”

But I digress. I had in my mind a story that would tip a hat to Oliver Twist and have a fairy-tailish rags to riches element. Then, of course, it’s ever so much easier to have a giant tarantula roaming the neighborhood when nobody has a cell phone camera. That said, I actually feel that this story may take place slightly earlier, in the Georgian era, though I only reference a queen and not a king and I never say her name.

What are the differences in how you approach a standalone novel as opposed to a series?

I suppose that would be creating the large problem that will hang over all of the books in the series and not get resolved until the end of the last book.  That’s very difficult if you don’t know it’s going to be a series or you do know but don’t know how many books. The first book in the Berenson Schemes was written as a standalone so when it was bought as a series I rewrote it to wrap up the local plot but leave the overarching plot/internal conflict hanging. Then I created an arc of the internal conflict over the three books instead of just the one. It allowed me to approach it as both a series and a trilogy of sorts. I was lucky in that I knew upfront that it would be three books.  Had I not known, I would have had to reinstate the internal conflict in some way when I got to book two.


Any craft advice for writers who want to write funny?

I’m so glad you asked! I could go on and on with tips and tricks, but will stick to the idea that everybody can write humor. So many writers say things like, “I’m just not funny.” Well, maybe not yet, but the only people who have no ability to be funny are people who never laugh. (And also, Sigmund Freud. Maybe he was a total jokester in his personal life, but his humor theory is dreadful.) I have my own theory about why writers end up believing they aren’t funny. It’s because they don’t understand how a humor piece develops. When a writer not accustomed to writing humor tries to write something funny, it ends up being a milquetoast haha moment. Then the writer concludes they don’t have the skill. The very same milquetoast haha moments happen to writers who specialize in humor. The difference is, they know it.

So why does that first effort end up being a milquetoast haha moment? Because that’s how our brains operate. Our brains are efficient and work hard to associate a new thing with a known thing. The writer ends up writing a pattern the brain remembers that is closest to what the writer was going for. That’s why, as a reader, we’ve all had the experience of reading something and maybe smiling a little and recognizing, “Oh, that’s humor,” but we don’t laugh out loud. That’s the first pass that never got changed or refined. Even though the scene might use different words or a different structure than you’ve seen before, it’s the same joke you’ve read a hundred times.

If you are attempting humor, go ahead and write that milquetoast haha moment. Just recognize that it is only a place holder, a sticky note on the skeleton of your manuscript. You will go back and refine and change and rearrange. Once you have the sticky note on the skeleton, you can tinker and that’s where funny lives, in the tinkering. Writers of drama do this very same thing, it’s called a crappy first draft, but I do think this process gets overlooked in humor because humor feels light, and light feels easy. Light is not the same as lightweight!

One other thing I’ll say about writing humor – it takes nerve and daring. When you tell your reader a joke, they know it. Even when they don’t laugh, they know you told it. In drama, you might get a little bit more leeway. Perhaps you meant for your reader to sob but they only feel saddish. They may not understand that your intent was sobbing. No such way to skate by in humor. On top of that, humor doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It is a science and an art and, most importantly, it’s vital and necessary. I would argue that it is especially necessary during this particular time in our history.  Don’t we have enough to cry about?

Hear, hear. I hope you've given lots more people out there the courage to write funny. We can do it, friends! Lisa, your writing and your presence is always a treat. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Lisa Doan is a proud member of two VCFA classes – the Dedications and the Cliffhangers. She is also the author of The Berenson Schemes series, the first book of which she wrote at Vermont. Should you happen to attend the Alumni mini-res this year or any other year – say hello! She, like the bad penny that she is, turns up every year.

Visit Lisa online at, find her on Facebook (lisadoanauthor), and follow her on Twitter (@LisaADoan).

Topics: Lisa Doan, middle grade, Sky Pony Press, 2017 release

Cover for The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone by Lisa Doan

Posted by Lisa Doan on Wed, Feb 10, 2016 @ 08:02 AM

final_cover_Alarming_Career_of_Sir_Richard_Blackstone_9781510711228.jpgThe cover is here! Lisa Doan, 2008 VCFA grad and proud member of both the Dedications and The Cliffhangers, has a middle-grade coming out in February 2017.  The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone features a knight, a boy who would prefer to be an orphan but isn't, and, of course, a tarantula the size of a horse-drawn carriage. Let the hi-jinx begin.

Twelve-year-old Henry Hewitt has been living by his wits on the streets of London, dodging his parents, who are determined to sell him as an apprentice. Searching for a way out of the city, Henry lands a position in Hampshire as an assistant to Sir Richard Blackstone, an aristocratic scientist who performs unorthodox experiments in his country manor. The manor house is comfortable, and the cook is delighted to feed Henry as much as he can eat. Sir Richard is also kind, and Henry knows he has finally found a place where he belongs.

But everything changes when one of Sir Richard’s experiments accidently transforms a normal-sized tarantula into a colossal beast that escapes and roams the neighborhood. After a man goes missing and Sir Richard is accused of witchcraft, it is left to young Henry to find an antidote for the oversized arachnid. Things are not as they seem, and in saving Sir Richard from the gallows, Henry also unravels a mystery about his own identity.




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Topics: Lisa Doan, middle grade, Sky Pony Press, 2017 release

Meet the Launchpad!

Posted by Adi Rule on Sat, Mar 07, 2015 @ 09:03 AM


The Launchpad has been blasting away for about a year now (can you believe it?), celebrating the release of over 70 books by students, faculty and alumni. Wow!

So we thought it was time to introduce ourselves. Hi, all! 


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Tami Lewis Brown

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Tami lives in a creaky old house in Washington, DC with her husband and a pack of wild spaniels. Her picture book biography Soar, Elinor! and middle-grade novel The Map of Me were published by Farrar Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers. Tami graduated in January '06 (the class with no name) and serves on the VCFA Board of Trustees. Visit her at


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Lisa Doan 

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Lisa is the author of the Berenson Schemes series – Jack the Castaway, Jack and the Wildlife, and Jack at the Helm. She has been a headhunter, scuba diving instructor, owner of a sort of Chinese-like restaurant,  Deputy Prothonotary of a county court and international vagabond.  Her hobbies include: writing middle grade fiction, and wine. She has high standards for middle grade fiction, but sadly low standards for wine.  Buy her a cheap drink at


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Robin Herrera

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Robin is an aspiring cat lady and also sometimes writer. Her first novel, Hope is a Ferris Wheel, was published in 2014, and she's hard at work on her second. Robin is a member of the Thunder Badgers (VCFA Summer '10) and misses those NECI cookies like no one's business. Luckily, she lives in Portland, and can find weird, tasty food on every corner. Visit her at  


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Sarah Blake Johnson

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Sarah writes for teens and children. As a global nomad, she has lived on five continents, where she has adventures such as stepping in quicksand (yikes!), cooking dinner in a geyser (yum!), getting lost (sometimes on purpose), and exploring ancient ruins. Currently she lives in Egypt, where she can visit the pyramids and be back home before lunch. Sarah graduated from VCFA in 2011. Join her adventures at


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Adi Rule

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Adi is the proud owner of a rare original Robostrux T-Rex. Her YA novel Strange Sweet Song is out now from St. Martin's Press, with Redwing coming soon. When she's not writing, she sings in the chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra/Boston Pops and gives tours of a lonely seaside mansion with an undetermined number of rooms. On her last trip to VCFA, she worried about where the portrait of Mr. Noble had got to. Adi's website is and she blogs at Three Tassels and a Top Hat.



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Pop by our websites, say hey on social media, or meet us at Café Anna. :) 

We want to hear your launch news!

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Topics: Lisa Doan, Tami Lewis Brown, Robin Herrera, Adi Rule, Sarah Blake Johnson

Lisa Doan and JACK AT THE HELM

Posted by Sarah Johnson on Tue, Mar 03, 2015 @ 03:03 AM

The third book in the Berenson Schemes, starring kid adventurer Jack, is now available. Hurray! Lisa Doan visits us today to discuss Jack at the Helm, The Berenson Schemes #3. It is published by Lerner/Darby Creek

Jack + parents + he fell for it again! = Jack must find his way out of a remote region of Nepal.

Who was your favorite character to write and why?Jack at the Helm by Lisa Doan

I always love writing Jack and his hapless sense of outrage over the adults in his life, but this time around I also had fun writing his new friend Harry from Connecticut. Though Harry is older, he is in so many ways an innocent. He’s traveling around the world to find himself without much luck. Jack, having been marooned on a deserted island and lost on the Masai Mara, gets to feel like a seasoned traveler.  (He’s not, but at least he feels like it.)

What authors do you love for their sentences? How about character? 

Dickens and Dickens. I love Dickens’ rambling and expansive descriptions – especially descriptions of ridiculous people. One of those ridiculous people, Mr. Wilkins Micawber, is one of the most hilarious characters of all time.  What linguistical heights couldn’t Wilkins Micawber  ascend to? (FYI - Mr. Micawber would be perfectly comfortable with me making up the word linguistical and could readily use it in a sentence that was extremely long.)

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

One of the things I’ve been working on is comedic timing, and I’ve noticed that adequate lead up or set up or whatever you want to call it, has to be present for a joke to be successful. The reader has to have time to process everything, and if they don’t have enough time they sail by the joke. They read it, they even get it, but it’s just not as funny. It also ends up feeling like trying, which is the kiss of death in humor.  This is particularly hard for a writer to pace, since the writer already knows what’s coming and it’s hard to define the comprehension moments of someone who doesn’t know what’s coming. (Wow, so obviously I take humor pretty seriously! )

Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?

I try to write in silence, and I would write in silence if the world would cooperate and stop making noise! Sometimes I go somewhere that has a lot of background sound like the grocery store café or the park – yes, people are talking, but they’re not talking to me and I don’t find it distracting. I’ve tried to write with NPR in the background but that doesn’t work – I end up half-listening to the disturbing plight of somebody somewhere in the world and then get riled up about the injustice of it all. Injustice and comedy don’t go together that well.

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

Sometimes, it’s not so much what you’re looking for, but what you end up finding. For Jack at the Helm, I was googling the crocodiles of Nepal when I ran across a rather horrifying creature. It’s called a Goonch – and it’s a giant man-eating catfish.  Yikes.

Tell us about your writing community. Are you in a critique group?

I am a loner when it comes to writing. I write on the weekends until I think something is done, then I send it to my agent. After I hit send, I enjoy a pleasant interlude feeling pleased that I’ve finished a manuscript. Then my agent gets in touch to say that it’s actually not done. Then I start revising the next weekend. Rinse and repeat! I’ve heard about a writer’s group that meets in a bar down the street from me and I’m going to check it out. It could be that if I hang out and drink with other writers I might stop sending my agent manuscripts that aren’t done. Fingers crossed!

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I lucked out there – I had Ellen Howard, Brent Hartinger, David Gifaldi and Martine Leavitt.


Lisa is part of our Launch Pad team. It's fun to highlight her book today. 

To read about Jack's adventures, visit your favorite bookstore. You can find Lisa at her website: 

Topics: Lisa Doan, 2015 release, Lerner Publishing Group, middle grade


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


Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Apr 01, 2014 @ 08:04 AM

We love middle grade, especially when it's by writers as smart and funny as Lisa Doan! That's why we're super excited for Lisa's new series from Lerner Publishing Group, which kicks off TODAY with The Berenson Schemes #01 - Jack the Castaway.

cover Castaway JPGJack's parents have been chased out of Tokyo, gone broke in Greece, and hosted Nairobi's least successful safari. Next they're taking Jack to the Caribbean, whether Jack wants to go or not. The Berensons have devised their latest get-rich-quick scheme - a new sport called 'drift-snorkeling.' With these experienced world travelers at the helm, what could go wrong? 

Jack's used to staying indoors and not taking chances. When his parents take him out on the water, he ends up shipwrecked. Now Jack has to survive on a tropical island...and avoid a whale shark that's cruising along his beach.

Lisa was kind enough to stop by for a chat. Welcome! 

Who was your favorite character to write and why? 

I have a natural affinity for Jack’s parents – Richard and Claire Berenson. They are backpackers at heart, and so am I. They are not naturals at parenting, and if* I had children, I wouldn’t have been either. One of the things I like the most about them is that they never acquired the adult habit of being afraid to look stupid. They dive into each new scheme with every confidence in the world that it will be a roaring success – despite vast evidence to the contrary.

*on the off chance that I did have children and have left them somewhere and you are one of them – call me! I’ll come pick you up!

mangrove bight houseWhat was the spark that ignited this book?  

I lived in the Caribbean for eight years and spent a couple of years traveling around Africa and Asia. You meet a lot of very interesting expatriates along the way. I knew I would set a book in a foreign location at some point; I was just waiting for the right story. Then I heard about ‘helicopter parents,’ which I thought was fascinating in a ‘I’m-so-happy-that-didn’t-happen-to-me’ kind of way. I just couldn’t resist writing the anti-helicopter parents. Then, of course, they could have lost Jack in the mall. But it seemed like it would be more fun if they lost him in a foreign country while in pursuit of a doomed get-rich-quick scheme.

Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?

I write in a house, so the soundtrack is slamming door, barking dog, ringing phone, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, UPS guy banging on the door, so more barking dog. Sometimes, when all that fails to inspire me, I put on headphones and listen to Binaural Beats – it’s just a tone that goes on and on, blocking out the rest of your life.

img001 1 2What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

I can’t say what is the strangest thing I asked Google for, but the strangest thing Google ever gave me was a YouTube video called Honey Badger Don’t Care. I was working on the second Berenson Scheme book, Jack and the Wild Life, in which a honey badger makes an appearance, and ran into this gem. If you have not seen this, you have not lived a full life. (Warning: naughty language!)

What is your favorite VCFA memory? 

Waiting to find out which advisor I would get for the next semester. I approached filling out the advisor preference list as I would a high stakes card game in Vegas – ear to the ground, taking note of how many people put down which faculty member and using popular choices as red herrings on my list. It was gratifying to see the assignments and know that all my calculations paid off! (PS – the majority of my classmates were mature individuals who approached this process as adults who were at a master’s residency, not a high stakes card game in Vegas.)

What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus? 

Anything! I really knew nothing at all. I had written a book while I was living in the Caribbean, (a rambling 300 page tome featuring French-speaking rats). Then I returned to the states, but the book didn’t sell. (I can’t imagine why!). Then a second book didn’t sell, so I asked my agent if he thought going back to school was worthwhile. He said, “Well, if you go – go to Vermont.” When I arrived in January, I slogged through the snow in leaky Timberlake boots from the Goodwill and had never heard of the term “workshop.” (I had a vague idea we were going to sit around and congratulate each other on our work while sipping coffee.) Once, I remember sitting in Noble Hall, listening to a lecturer and thinking, “She’s so famous I had assumed she was dead.” It was all new to me.

We can't think of a better or creepier compliment!

Thanks so much for popping by, Lisa! Welcome, Jack!

Lisa says: I am a middle grade writer, Dickens lover (Mr. Micawber, anybody?), ex-Scuba diving instructor and ex-restaurant owner who would rather own a Tardis than a Mercedes.

Visit Lisa's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

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

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