Nancy Sondel's Pacific Coast Children's Writers Workshop
15th Annual    September 22-24, 2017    Master Class to Masterpiece
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“I’ve rappelled down cliffs in Alaska, flown in a hot air balloon in Africa,
and eaten scorpions-on-a-stick in China, but the writer’s journey
is my favorite adventure. ” — Helen Pyne

HELEN PYNE

Writing Instructor

What do you enjoy most about teaching teens?

I love their energy, excitement, and passion. Teens are in the process of becoming. They’re experiencing so many firsts… At the same time, adolescence can be a crazy, confusing, angst-driven time filled with incredible highs and lows… teenagers’ emotions are raw and honest, and they’re not afraid to admit to strong feelings that adults often hide. Many great protagonists in YA literature have been rebels, loners, and misfits—characters who feel out of place among their peers—and who among us hasn’t felt that way at some point in our lives?

I agree with writer Bruce Hale, who said that adolescents are “old enough to know that magic isn’t real, but young enough to wish that it might be. These readers are curious, creative, incredibly loyal, and just beginning to taste their own independence. And they crave characters that reflect their experiences.”

What kinds of books and genres do you like?

I read all genres, but I am increasingly drawn to contemporary, realistic YA. I wrote my graduate lecture on the trend towards “dark” YA, stories that tackle topics that are painful and unpleasant and build worlds where, in the battle between good and evil, evil sometimes wins.

The irony is, these stories that some adults call dark, depressing, or bleakcan be extraordinarily life affirming, even when they deal with serious topics such as abandonment, addiction, and death. Like the early problem novels, which also broke boundaries and stirred up controversy, the best of these contemporary novels (whether dystopian or realistic) incorporate artistic innovation, experimentation, and risk taking. Many of these stories actually empower teens, rather than the opposite. But I believe that writers of YA fiction have a responsibility to provide hope, even when the endings are sad.

My favorite books? I love fairy tales and classics such as The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, A Wrinkle in Time, and anything by Roald Dahl. Favorite contemporary authors include Kathi Appelt, Laurie Halse Anderson, Carolyn Coman, Sharon Creech, Kate DiCamillo, Neil Gaiman, John Greene, Katherine Paterson and Tim Wynne-Jones. I also like R.J. Palacio’s acclaimed middle-grade novel, Wonder, and Benjamin Alire Saenz’s brilliant YA, Last Night I Sang to the Monster. 

What kinds of writing and editing have you done?

My first job was in the children’s and young adult book department at Doubleday working as the assistant to Joanna Cole, an editor who authored the Magic School Bus series. I’ve also worked at Seventeen magazine and as an editor at Cloverdale Press—a book packager that created the first YA romance series, Sweet Dreams, as well as Sweet Valley High and many other pioneering book series for preteens and teens.

I loved my job as a New York editor; sometimes I had to pinch myself to believe I was actually being paid to read stories all day! Eventually, I wrote two books myself—the first two books in a pre-teen mystery series titled The Twin Connection. Years later, I received my MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. There I studied with wonderful writers and teachers, learned a lot about risk taking, discipline and hard work, and became connected to an amazing kid-lit community that continues to provide inspiration and support for me every day.

Now I work as a writer and freelance editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. I also teach writing classes and mentor student writers as an instructor with The Society of Young Inklings. This year, I’ve also had fun writing nonfiction articles for Appleseeds, a social studies magazine for kids.

You’re working on a contemporary YA novel. Describe a challenge you face in your writing.

I tend to protect my characters. I want to mother them and keep them safe. But without struggle and conflict, stories become dull and boring. So, I’m learning to let go, to allow my characters get into trouble and experience things that are dangerous, life threatening, and traumatic for them. But it’s hard!

What do you like best about writing fiction?

I enjoy writing dialogue and interior monologue (thoughts). Dialogue is more than just people talking. It should reveal character, show attitude, and move the story along. Using subtext (reading “between the lines”—using space, silence, or the absence of words to reveal mood and meaning) can be helpful, too, because what characters don’t say is often as important as what they do say.

What’s your advice for teen writers?

Follow your passion, despite obstacles. Read a lot and write a lot. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. As Malcolm Forbes said, “Failure is success if we learn from it.”

One of the secrets to successful writing is known as B.I.C. (Butt in Chair.) Seriously, you have to show up, sit down, and stay there for a while. Even if you just stare at your computer or write really “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” stuff, it’s a necessary step in the process.

Writing is something you do in layers. Most of us discover our story and characters gradually. We learn a little bit at a time as we write and revise, then start all over again the next day.

Tell us about your hobbies.

I like to work out, hike with my dog Cody, travel, cook, and spend time with my wonderful family. Oh, and because I love to bake, I plan to bring cookies and loaves of banana and pumpkin bread to the workshop!

See past faculty interviews here.

Helen’s teaching includes improvisation to draw out character. One student,
Thomas Sullivan, says she helped him improve technically and encouraged him
to use his imagination. He concludes, “Helen Pyne is an inspiring teacher.”

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Check out our photos and enrollees’ feedback. Early Bird deadline is May 30. Register before we fill, then enjoy our September 22-24, 2017 workshop at the beach!
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