Paperback writers: new Pitt course turns students into authors


Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

By Sarah Schneider / for The Pitt News

Katelyn Prosachik’s dream growing up was to be a government spy — but while that dream hasn’t materialized in real life, a Pitt class is keeping her fantasy alive. 

Prosachik is writing a novel about a fictitious 17-year-old version of herself, a teenaged federal government-recruited spy.

“The inspiration for my main character is the girl I always wanted to be growing up,” she said. “How cool would it be to go around the world and kick butt before even graduating high school?”

Every Wednesday night this semester, Writing Youth Lit II’s 22 students — including Prosachik — congregate in Room 216 in the Cathedral of Learning, where students peer edit and power-write their own young adult fiction novels for two and a half hours. In order to meet their novels’ required 40,000 to 60,000 word quota, students bring 3,000 new words to each class — a word count some students take entire semesters to amass.

“I knew the work load when I signed up for the class, but there was just something so appealing about finishing the class with a small novel,” said Prosachik, a senior and English fiction writing major. “Even if it is not the best, you can still say you wrote it and that in itself is impressive to most, be it friends or future employers.”

Writing Youth Lit II is a continuation of professor Siobhan Vivian’s Writing Youth Lit I, where students write the first 50 pages of a novel and finish it in her second class. She calls this semester’s Youth Lit II course her “first draft class,” as this is the first time the University is offering it.

“Together we are making something that you can do with your degree after graduation,” Vivian said. “It is important to learn discipline and to force yourself out of your comfort zone into writing what you don’t know.”

Every class students spend the first hour peer editing each other’s new batch of 3,000 words before discussing directions the author can take their project in the next 3,000. The class’s second half consists of character workshops or a writing power-hour, in which students work on the next segment of their stories.

Vivian, who studied screenwriting at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has worked for Disney as a screenwriter on a show called “Little Einsteins,” and has had eight books published — a number of which have earned various awards, such as the American Library Association’s 2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults award for her fifth novel, “The List.”

Vivian always knew she wanted to write for children and young adults and eventually went back to school to earn her MFA in creative writing. In addition to teaching at the University for the last five years, she is also working on her upcoming novel that will be available in April, “The Last Boy and Girl in the World,” about a town’s flood forcing its residents to leave and a girl to finally confront a boy she’s always loved.

“There are many misconceptions about teen lit. My job is not to educate but to entertain,” Vivian said. “I am simply trying to tell a story that will entertain you. Whatever I decide to be entertaining is what I am going to write about.”

Young adult fiction varies from adult fiction in that its protagonist — generally between 12- and 18-years-old — mirrors its intended audience, and often features a romantic or coming-of-age subplot. Adults are never the main characters and often are the story’s villain — think Count Olaf in “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

More recently, the “Twilight” series and author John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” and “The Fault in Our Stars” have popularized the genre within the millennial generation with tear-jerking teenage tragedies and imagined human-vampire relationships. However, students in Writing Youth Lit II prove it’s more than just fairy tales and a big imagination that go into writing a young adult novel. Most writers seek out authentic teen experiences — often those of their own lives — to impart to their reader. Topics range from first loves and sex to heavier issues of racism, cancer and depression.

“YA stories might seem like less than those of other genres because their character is a teen and not as important as an adult,” Vivian said. “[But] it’s very easy to remember what a first kiss felt like, from a vampire to a real boy.”

From “The Fault in Our Stars” to “The Hunger Games,” young adult fiction has some of the hottest selling titles in today’s literary market — both novels sold over 10 million copies in the United States alone. And according to a 2012 Publishers Weekly study, 55 percent of YA readers are, in fact, adults.

“As an adult you often look back on your own experiences, but when reading YA novels, adults can look back on their own past but experience it through a different lens,” said Rachael Lippincott, a junior English fiction writing major in Vivian’s class.

Lippincott transferred to Pitt before her sophomore year from Parsons School of Design, an art school in New York City, to major in molecular biology. However, after taking Vivian’s Writing Youth Lit I to fulfill a writing credit, Lippincott switched her major yet again to English writing. She is writing her novel about a star high school football player who gets blinded in an accident and must rediscover himself.

“I honestly was always interested in writing, but never thought I could make a career out of it,” she said. “Looking around my class and reading the work of my peers, somebody is definitely going to get published and write a book that sells. I don’t know who it will be but hopefully it’s me.”

Just as teen fiction can be an escape for readers, Vivian’s class is an escape for her students. For two and a half hours a week, Vivian’s students create their own worlds on paper, unrestricted by content or editorial pressures.

“I feel like I am very lucky to be able to teach this class because students are so passionate about their stories,” Vivian said. “This is the place where she or he can write whatever they want. It’s kind of like a safe haven for writers.”

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