Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Faculty Voices with Laura Ruby: Bone Gap Interview

Balzer & Bray
March 3
What’s the book about?
The book is about a 17-year-old boy named Finn who witnesses the kidnapping of a beautiful young woman, but no one in the small town of Bone Gap — including his own brother — believes his story. It’s a mystery twisted with magic. Or magical realism twisted with mystery. Or it’s just twisted.

As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
A better question might be: What DIDN’T change about this book? This story began as a book for younger readers and contained not one iota of magic. It ended as a book for much older readers with magic everywhere.
As I’ve talked about on the Inkpot before, I’m a huge reviser, so it’s not uncommon for me to turn my books inside out, cut hundreds of pages, chop characters/storylines/points-of-view. But the revisions for this book were intense even for me. When I started it somewhere around 2007, I had no idea what I was writing. I was working with so many different point-of-view characters — including a 19-year-old, a grandmother, a cat, and a beehive — just feeling my way along. Even after I’d done a few drafts, I still hadn’t gotten to the heart of story. I set it aside and wrote other things.
A couple of years later, while on a run, I started thinking about the book again, how I might revise it, focus it, make it more of what it wanted to be. I mulled over the inciting incident, the thing that sets the story in motion, which is the kidnapping of this young woman. “She’s taken from the fields like Persephone,” I thought to myself. And then I skidded to a stop. Was it really like Persephone? How much like Persephone? I went home and read the manuscript, and realized that what I’d done was a retelling. A loose retelling using not one but two different myths, and maybe some tidbits of others, but a retelling nonetheless.

As Jane Resh Thomas says, we write behind our own backs.

After that, it took another two years of work—more revisions than I can count—till I had a decent draft to submit to editors. And then I revised that draft till my editor pried the copyedits out of my hands and told me I had to find something else to do, please.

What research was involved, and how did it affect the story’s development?
In the beginning, the “research” really wasn’t research, it was a set of random experiences that somehow coalesced in my head. My late father-in-law handed me an article about a woman who had lost her child at a fair and could not find him for reasons she didn’t understand. I visited a school in rural Illinois and met the son of a farmer, a kid so mature and polite that he seemed to be out of another century. I met a fabulous woman at another school visit in Wisconsin, a woman who invited me up to see her barn, meet her horse and talk to her daughter, a fierce and fearless equestrian. At a graduation party, a whip-smart, charming teen named Miguel and I compared our freakish arms to see whose were longer (we declared it a tie). My dad told me stories about running the horses on his grandfather’s farm, horses with evocative names like Gladiola and Thunder. My husband’s aunt died, the last of his family that spoke any Polish.

After the pieces of the story started to coalesce, I read about all kinds of things—bee behavior, neurological disorders, corn, farming, crows, wildflowers of Illinois, the phases of the moon, Polish cuisine, Greek myth, kittens.* And then I talked to beekeepers and EMTs and more farm kids. I rode some horses. I tried my mother-in-law’s golabki recipe. I took long drives through the cornfields.

I can’t say exactly which bits of research made it into my book, but I can say that all of my research informed and inspired the book.

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
I have one reader who sees everything as I write it, who understands that when something is so tiny and new and barely-formed that what I need most is encouragement. I need to know what she loves about it. What’s working. When I have a complete draft, I’ll send the whole thing to her and also to my in-person writing group. I do many rounds of revision based on all their feedback. Only then do I send to my agent.

What books do you love to teach or recommend to students?
So many different books for so many reasons. Recently, I’ve recommended ONE CRAZY SUMMER for voice and scene. WHEN YOU REACH ME for voice and overall structure, WE WERE LIARS for the same. THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTER GO for voice and the rules of magic. OTHERBOUND for magic and structure. CHIME and BROWN GIRL IN THE RING for voice and setting. OKAY FOR NOW for objective correlative (getting emotion on the page). BREADCRUMBS and TWO BOYS KISSING for point-of-view (omniscient and 1st person plural respectively). POINTE for voice and unreliable narrators. FAKE ID for plot. SPEAK for just about everything.

During the January 2013 residency Emily Jenkins lectured on “How to Be Funny,” and one of her suggestions was to “use jolly words.” A good idea even if one isn’t trying to be funny. Do you have a favorite jolly word?
I definitely have favorite words, some of them jolly. Flummox. Otter. Kerfluffle. Schadenfraude. Bamboozle. Wombat. And I have a newfound love for the word “bananas” (i.e., this sh*t is bananas.)

*Okay, all my research includes kittens.
*
To read more about Laura's books, please visit her website.




Thursday, February 26, 2015

Alumni Voices with Sherryl Clark: A Different Kind of Challenge

Sherryl Clark
More than a few years ago, I went along to a seminar called “Renovate your life”, which was mostly about health and fitness. I didn’t magically want to go live at the gym! But I came away with a great strategy that I have found works. It was the 28 day challenge (thanks, Craig Harper).

Craig said choose one thing and commit to doing it for 28 days. Have an accountability partner, and every day when you have done your “thing”, email or text your partner and say “Done”. When your 28 days are up, if it worked for you, commit to another 28, and then another 28. That’s 84 days of doing your one thing, and you will have created a habit.

I chose walking. Every day I walked for a minimum of 20 minutes. After 84 days, it was most definitely a habit. In fact, I still walk every day (usually now for at least 30 minutes) and if I don’t, I get twitchy. Occasionally I’m out there walking at 8pm – in the rain.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, it didn’t take too long before I realized this could just as easily apply to writing. I’m great at procrastination. I have medals for it. But I have a long-time writer friend who lives half the world away from me and we set up our 28-day challenge via email. Each day, we committed to write for 30 minutes, and then check in. 
Five years later, we still do this, although the challenge “thing” has changed over time.

Fast forward to a Hamline winter residency, sitting around one night with a bunch of fellow students, and I happened to mention this 30 minutes challenge idea. In no time, I had six people who wanted to try it. We set up an email group and, since I was 15-17 hours ahead of everyone else, time-zone-wise, I usually emailed “Done” first. Not everyone lasted the 84 days, because life happens even when you’re doing a challenge, but we all did lots of writing. That’s the benefit.

Right now, I’m in the middle of a 30-minutes-a-day challenge with some of my writing group. You might not think 30 minutes of writing a day is nearly enough, but it is, trust me! It keeps the novel in your head, it keeps ideas bubbling, and when you have 30 minutes you can just sit down and write. This is Day 66 and so far I have added 25,000 words to the first draft of my current novel. Some days I do more than 30 minutes, but if I stick to the minimum, I know it will work over the long term.

I’m about to teach the first class in a course called “Write a Novel in a Year”. Guess what my students are going to be doing?

*
Sherryl Clark is a July 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. To find out more about Sherryl and her writing, visit her website. 





Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Faculty Voices with Ron Koertge

Ron Koertge
I was talking to a young poet recently who refuses to write in forms of any kind, even as an exercise or—God help me—for fun. He (and it is a he) can write a pretty readable poem—using a long and very loose line. Which is fine. I do that more often than not.

But I also know the drawbacks of that technique—a tendency toward the prolix and an inclination to value momentum over a technical mastery that’s so well done it’s pretty much invisible.

His (we’re back to the guy again) argument against traditional forms is that meter and/or rhyme are inhibiting. He doesn’t want to have to force his ideas into an inappropriate container, since “that’s too much like shoving a boa constrictor in a milk bottle.”

Let’s take a minute to look at his simile: his ideas are the boa constrictor and the sonnet is the milk bottle? Boa constrictors strangle things, pal. Is that what you want your ideas to do?

“Well, no, and maybe that isn’t the best figure of speech.”

No kidding. But we pressed on. I suggested we take a look at the sestina form:  six stanzas, six lines in each stanza. No meter, no rhyme. Just the same six words to use as end-of-line words in every stanza but in a different order. I showed him a gorgeous sestina by Elizabeth Bishop and here, for the record, is stanza #1:

            September rain falls on the house.
            In the failing light, the old grandmother
            sits in the kitchen with the child
            beside the Little Marvel Stove,
            reading the jokes from the almanac,
            laughing and talking to hide her tears.

Now I know one stanza doesn’t do justice to a whole poem in the same way that the engine doesn’t do justice to the entire Lexus, but—and let’s just caress this simile for a second—the first stanza of any sestina is engine-like since the key words are there, the tone is there, the main character/characters are there, and so on. In short, the first stanza propels the rest of the poem.

So he said he’d give the sestina a try and I suggested taking one of his very long and very loose (so loose as to be baggy) poems.  

I don’t think what happened will surprise anyone: 1. He couldn’t do it. 2.  But what he saw in the process was this: his original poem was far too relaxed and unbound, and merely working in a form that demanded restraint showed him that. The next draft of his original poem was much stronger, thanks to the sestina-exercise.

I’m not a Formalist at all, but I’ve done this exercise a hundred times: turning a poem that just wasn’t cooperating into a sonnet or a villanelle or a series-of-couplets. Why not, right? I had nothing to lose and something to gain, and that something was working with the medium in a new way.

Most of my poems are failures, anyway, but as Samuel Beckett (Mr. Sunshine) famously said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”



           

           

  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Alumni Voices with Jodell Sadler–“We Get What We Need:” Can A MFA Thesis Become Your Platform?

Jodell
I can remember being smitten by the interplay of art and words in the picture book form. I entered my third semester at Hamline on the wings of adventure, ready to jump in. I brought picture book faves, armed myself with printouts of research, completed dummies of my own book ideas, and was charged to move forward. Then, my faculty advisor, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, reminded me our focus would be on the text and I should look into something else. Ha! Puzzled, my world spun 360 degrees, and I flat lined before I realized what Marsha Qualey said often during our residency was true: “We get what we need.”

Fast-forward 24-hours, and, together, Jackie and I talked about an idea that fascinated me: Pacing. The many movements within the picture book form and its impact on the reading experience was a thrill to explore: the back and forth, the ebb and flow, art and words, and this got me thinking about all pacing does to connect the many elements in a picture book together into a tapestry, which weaves its way into a child’s heart for a lifetime. A lifetime. So my MFA Critical Thesis was born, but resources? There were only a few. A handful of articles on pacing existed at the time, a page here or there. I was really carving new ground and innovating my ideas on this subject. 

What happened next? I really challenged what I believed to be true of pacing: action drives story, we move ourselves to move our readers and story, we enhance the emotional journey, and support theme. I reviewed hundreds of picture books (now thousands), devoured them, and kept seeing key tools surface. Once I started jotting down the nuances of how each tool interacted and connected art to words, I became ever more amazed and ended up researching my original idea, the interplay of art and words, through a new lens, the lens of PACE.

I’ve shared my pacing material in articles in Writer’s Digest’s Children’s Writers & Illustrator’s Market and Webinars and Tutorials and in my online pacing courses, and more recently jumped into agenting.

I landed in my shiny new agenting shoes daring myself to toss my small pebble into a very big pond to see what kind of ripples I could create. I prayed I could make a difference for writers and illustrators. Since then, I have placed many projects for authors and illustrators—it doesn’t get much better than that.

So, long story short? After earning my MFA from Hamline University, I’ve grown ever more obsessed with how much pacing can do to enhance a book project. Though this journey, Pacing Writing to Wow has become my platform, and it’s helped hundreds of writers edit manuscripts stronger, and when I think back to that day Jackie urged me look further into what I was exploring, I had no idea it would become such a huge part of my success as a writer, editor, and agent—and would ultimately lead me into a career I love in children’s publishing. I can only say, Thank you! I really can’t thank Marsha Wilson Chall, Ron Koertge, and the whole Hamline Faculty enough for allowing us (me) the opportunity to “...get what we need.”


Happy writing day!
***


Jodell Sadler is a 2009 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives, writes, teaches and agents in Rockton, Illinois. To learn more about her, please visit her website, Sadler Creative Literary.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Faculty Voices with Mary Rockcastle: Graduate Recognition Ceremony

(This week’s Faculty Voice post shares the complete text of the talk given by Mary Rockcastle at the Graduation Recognition Ceremony January 18, 2015.)

Mary Rockcastle
Welcome to Hamline and to the sixteenth Graduate Recognition Ceremony for the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I’m Mary Rockcastle, Director of The Creative Writing Programs, and I’m very happy to be here celebrating the accomplishments of our graduates. They have completed five marathon residencies and four demanding and, I hope, transformative semesters. The picture books, novels, and nonfiction they wrote for their final thesis projects show mastery of the craft in their chosen genres and are light years ahead of the writing they submitted when they applied to the program. I want to thank the family members, friends, and other loved ones who are here today helping us to honor our graduates. I also want to thank the faculty who worked so generously with them during their time at Hamline.

Eudora Welty calls “place” one of the “lesser angels” watching over the racing hand of fiction. It certainly has been the primary angel on our minds over the course of this residency. In her essay, “Place in Fiction,” Welty writes: “Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress. Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.”

The writer often starts a literary text from a seed: an image, a person, a memory, an overheard conversation, an idea, a galvanizing incident. I’m a writer deeply inspired by the physical world. Both of my adult novels started with place. I took a turn in my latest novel, About Face, by writing not from a place I knew well but about a place I knew little about and a world I’d never experienced: a London hospital and its environs in the final months of World War I. The seed was not a place but an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum on prosthetic masks made by artists for soldiers wounded in battle. I soon realized, however, that my ability to create was tied to how deeply I was able to ground myself in the novel’s time and place. I can’t say for sure whether this is just me and my predilection for place or the writer’s essential need to see, hear, touch, and feel the physical world of the story. To do this, I dove headfirst into research in every way Claire Rudolf Murphy talked about in her lecture this week.

Eudora Welty writes not just about the craft value of writing about place but the larger social value we can derive from effective world building. “Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth.”

I believe that if you effectively capture the individual’s unique voice on the page, you in fact can convey the voice of a community.

This individual voice is shaped by the world he or she is part of. “Location,” Welty writes, “is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction that charge out from the story in its course. These charges need the warm hard earth underfoot, the light and lift of air, the stir and play of mood, the softening bath of atmosphere that gives the likeness-to-life that life needs.”

Flannery O’Connor, another Southern writer, was interested not in external habits but in what she called “the habit of art.” “The person who aims after art in his work,” she wrote, “aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.” In her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” she referenced the writer Joseph Conrad, whose goal as a fiction writer was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe. From Conrad:

“The task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there . . . encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

As you’ve been learning since you started the program, our business as writers is to distinguish what is significant from what is not, to select, to find the telling—not the random and extraneous—detail. Each choice you make as a writer affects the ones made earlier and the ones that come after. Sometimes you make these choices in the first draft; often the choices become clearer during revision.

Everything you know and feel and believe about your novel—its characters, action, style, voice, underlying meaning—is part of building the world. Place makes the characters real and keeps them that way. The characters’ inner and outer worlds define them.

In my novel, I wanted to know what it was like to live inside a country at war. Partly I wanted to better understand the lives of my two grandfathers, both of whom had served on the Western front. My maternal grandfather was gassed on the eve of a ferocious battle that took the lives of most of the men in his infantry brigade. Had he not been gassed and taken to a military hospital, I might not be here. The experience of being a soldier and living in London during World War I felt completely alien to me. I thought I could harness that alienated feeling by telling the story from the point of view of an American teenaged boy thrust into the daily life of a military hospital during that time.

Marsha Chall quoted the German artist Paul Klee, who wrote: “Art is making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” Anne Ursu calls it defamiliarizing the familiar and quoted the writer Zadie Smith: “A great piece of fiction can demand that you acknowledge the reality of its wildest proposition, no matter how alien it may be to you. It can also force you to concede the radical otherness lurking within things that appear most familiar.”

My own alienation from the world I was creating helped me to inhabit the body and consciousness of my teenaged protagonist. If I can make the strange world of a 1918 hospital ward familiar to the reader, I might be able to bridge the gap between the first World War, and its lessons, and a 21st century reader.

As it has done for me, and as your books have done and are doing for you, we hope they do for our readers—take them into a new and foreign world and make it real. So the world shrinks, understanding grows, empathy builds.

In her kick-off lecture, “Worldbuilding in Fiction,” Laura Ruby used Tolkien’s concept of the “secondary world,” the one enchantment produces, which is an amalgam of setting, rules, language, and theme. Every secondary world has its own rules, Laura says, whether magical, scientific, and/or cultural. Each of these rules has implications and costs for your characters. The set-up of these rules can often give you the seeds for conflict.

Marsha Qualey also talked about the role that rules, and disruption of those rules, can play in creating conflict. Conflict arises when your character doesn’t know the rules of the particular world she’s in or chooses to push against them. Identity equals Power + Belonging, Marsha says. Creating disruptions in power and belonging will always be the best way to ensure that conflict in a story really matters.

Marsha Chall and Claire Rudolf Murphy took us through the physical process of making a picture book and explored the role and uses of setting in the picture book, whether the setting is communicated through the text or through the illustrations. Most picture books, Marsha says, feature familiar settings for children. Or, they take a fantastical or non-human setting and make it feel like the child’s own home.

In her three-day intensive, Emily Jenkins also immersed us in the process of writing a picture book, covering the form, the text itself, pacing, page turns, and the different ways in which illustrations work. The artist, with cues from the author, might choose to give the reader something new to look at on each page, or spread; might use a particular visual device; might employ repetition, creating a premise and its payoff; might simply play with language and use white space to create drama.

This idea of white, or blank space, all that is roiling between the lines or beneath the surface of a text, got a lot of attention during this residency. Charles Baxter calls this white space subtext, the “implied, half-visible, unspoken material behind the surface.” One of the ways to achieve subject, Baxter says, is through staging, putting your characters in specific strategic locations or positions in a scene so that some unvoiced nuance is revealed.

Swati Avasthi stressed the importance of this white space, all the stuff the writer leaves out. The writer’s job is to make connections for the reader, to help her, just as the spotter helps the gymnast, across the empty space to a soft landing. Choosing the right telling details can help us do this. It can make the invisible visible. As writers, we want to be in charge of the blanks we’re leaving for the reader. An effective use of negative space can invite the reader to complete the story for himself.

A folk tale can be the negative space we offer a reader. Jackie Briggs Martin shared the many opportunities offered us as writers through retelling a familiar folk tale, adding a folktale to our stories, or placing a folk tale in a new setting. The folktale imbues the story with meaning, conscious or unconscious. It can add depth and texture, shed light on our own time, become a bridge into another time or culture.

Kelly Easton showed us how to use the language and forms of poetry to capture a particular kind of intensity or emotion in our writing. A poem is a mystery, Kelly says, like channeling the voices of the dead. The practice of reading and writing poetry can enliven your language, add rhythm and a sense of surprise to your sentences, show you the power of compression and the opportunities that form opens up to you as a writer.

For Phyllis Root and Jackie Briggs Martin, music—jazz in particular—is a great model and source of inspiration to the writer of the picture book. Both are orally based. Both rely on rhythm, and the play between tension and release. Both use form and improvisation; both speak from the heart.

We heard from Debbie Kovacs on how to use our skills as writers to assemble a working life that leaves us room to write. Mary Logue walked us through the process of publishing a book. Tina Wexler shared tips on finding an agent for our books and explained the role she plays when representing a writer’s book.

Visiting writer Matt de la Pena said that one of the most useful lessons he’s learned as a writer is to slow down and cultivate the art of patience. This slowing down is important in a number of ways. One: it enables you to appreciate the process itself. Matt asked: “Why is success considered so much more important than the beautiful possibility which exists just before?” Another is the narrative restraint that gains the reader’s trust and enables us to create more big ticket set-ups and pay-offs.

Jane Resh Thomas said that fiction is a prolonged act of empathy—empathy for our characters and for ourselves as the transmitters of story. I don’t know whether empathy can or cannot be taught, but I do believe it can be cultivated and that’s what you must do to be a good writer. It’s at the heart of what Sarah Park Dahlen talked with us about: if you do your research and harness your own experience (each of us knows what it means to be an insider as well as an outsider), if you acknowledge what you don’t know and do your best to fill in the gaps, if you come to the writing with a sense of humility—to quote Justina Ireland, if you activate your empathic imaginations, you can create authentic characters unlike yourselves and build worlds no matter how foreign.

When Charles Flaubert uttered his famous line, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” we saw perhaps for the first time in literary history a male author fully and intentionally extending his empathic imagination to the particular woman he’d created. Essential to Madame Bovary’s character is the mid 19th-century small town near Rouen in northern France, a setting that Flaubert meticulously describes. As the world cries out, “Je suis Charlie,” it is in solidarity with the people of France, in honor of the 12 journalists and cartoonists who were murdered on January 7 in Paris. We are saying: we share your outrage and your suffering. We, too, believe in freedom of expression.  On another day, in another place, it could be us.

The hip hop recording artist and actor, Common, with John Legend, won the Golden Globe for best original song for their song “Glory” from the movie, Selma. In accepting the award, Common said, “As I got to know the people of the Civil Rights Movement, I realized I am the hopeful black woman who was denied her right to vote. I am the caring white supporter killed on the front lines of freedom. I am the unarmed black kid who maybe needed a hand, but instead was given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers murdered in the line of duty. 'Selma' has awakened my humanity."

This is what we do when we create fictional worlds on the page. If we do it well, we force the reader to, in Anne’s words, PAY ATTENTION. We make the extraordinary familiar or give new life to the familiar so the reader sees it all again.

If the writer is doing her job, we, too, are Narnia; we, too, are District 12; we, too, are Hogwarts; we, too, are Naomi, Florida; we too are a small potter’s village in 12th century Korea or a schoolyard in southern Sudan.

The young men who left their trenches and went over the top on July 1, 1916, in the first battle of the Somme had to stifle, or block, all empathy toward the German soldiers on the other side of no man’s land. You can’t kill another human being if you’re trying to walk in his or her shoes. Therein lies the perhaps unresolvable conundrum of war.

Cultivating our own empathic imaginations to write well enables us to create meaningful connections across cultural, national, gender, racial, and other boundaries. We want our books to cultivate this empathy in our young readers.

One last time, Eudora Welty: “The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.” I’m still pondering this language, “the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.” Pacifists or not, we may all be warriors in search of the truth.




Thursday, February 12, 2015

Publication Interview with Elizabeth Fixmer: Down from the Mountain

Albert Whitman Teen
March 1 2015
Please describe the book.
Down from the Mountain is contemporary fiction in which a fourteen-year-old girl begins to question the prophet of the religious cult in which she was raised. Righteous Path members are isolated, schooled on the compound, and taught to fear the outside world of “heathens.” But Eva’s journey into critical thinking begins when a new member, a teacher, brings books from the outside and Eva reads The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. When Eva learns that this book is an allegory and Aslan represents Christ, the idea of god as loving verses the capricious, fear provoking one that Prophet Ezekiel portrays, resonates deeply in her heart.

When money dries up and the group faces the possibility of starving over the long winter to come, Ezekiel allows Eva to make jewelry and sell it at the Boulder flea market. But he uses much of that money to buy guns believing that they must protect themselves against the government, former members and nosey reporters.

Things really heat up when Eva’s mother has difficulty with her high risk pregnancy and may die without the medical attention denied all members. At the same time Ezekiel announces that he will marry Eva when she turns fifteen. Eva must finally decide what she believes and what she must do.

As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
I have more versions of this book than I care to recall. In the first version, Eva is kidnapped from the cult by men her father hires for this purpose. The problem with that version was that most of the action took place after Eva was kidnapped from the cult and that was far less interesting than her experience inside the cult. The second problem was that I wanted Eva to become strong enough that she would leave on her own without being forced to leave.

In another version I made Jacob and Eva co-protagonists and told their story using alternate voices. I wrote the story in third person past tense, then shifted to first person present tense so that the reader would share greater intimacy with the protagonist. I had as many titles as versions. Finally it was the Albert Whitman team who chose Down from the Mountain, a title that has multiple meanings. It is both literal and symbolic.

When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
I started work on this ten years ago. I sent the first chapters to the Highlights foundation at Chautauqua where I spent a wonderful week several years ago. It was critiqued by Carolyn Coman. She encouraged me to get an MFA from Vermont. I applied and was accepted. I continued work on it with my first advisor, Cynthia Leitich Smith. When the Hamline program opened, I continued my MFA there and worked with Carolyn Coman for my first semester there. I was really tired of the manuscript by then and started, Saint Training, (ZonderKidz, 2010) under the tutelage of Gary Schmidt for my two final semesters.

Once my first book was published I continued to work on Down from the Mountain under the guidance of my agent Minju Chang, and my incredible critique group. When the manuscript was purchased by Wendy McClure at Albert Whitman, her excitement about it breathed new life into it. Under her guidance I continued editing it until literally days before the first printing. I seriously wonder sometimes if it’s the most examined and edited book ever.

What research was involved before and while writing this book?
Long before I wrote this book I read everything I could get my hands on about cults – especially the psychology of cult leaders and participants. As a psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, I had occasion to work with individuals who were recovering from their religious cult involvement and on some occasions even worked with people who were active participants in a cult, who sneaked off to see me so they could explore their doubts. I only needed to review all that I had learned about cults in order to write this book.

Saint Trainingyour first book, was published in 2010. What have you learned about the business of writing since then? 
The business of writing is complex, ever-changing and varies from house to house.  I’ve learned that book acquisitions are very impersonal and that your book may be passed up simply because it doesn’t fit the vision of that house. A genre or even a subject may be hot and then suddenly it’s not. I was told by more than one publisher that “dystopian fiction was losing popularity.”

Now that I’ve had the experience of working with two publishers I see differences in big and little things. One made up a great marketing plan; the other left that almost entirely up to me. One gave me input into the cover design and title, one did not. I’ve also learned that I can adapt to the difference between houses, and that what’s most important is working with a good editor. I’ve been blessed with good editors for both of my books. Their enthusiasm made the editorial process fun and exciting. 
Where do you do most of your writing?
 When my writing is going well I sit at my computer in my office. But when I’m stuck or dragging, I stay in bed and write by hand until I’m in a better place. Writing by hand in my comfortable bed makes the process less serious and reduces any anxiety I might be fighting.

Do you remember the first book you loved?
As a small child I loved Winnie the Pooh, and the Dr. Seuss books, especially Horton Hatches an Egg. As an older child I loved many books, but Gone with the Wind stands out as one of my favorite.

*

Elizabeth Fixmer  is a January 2009 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives in Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin. To learn more about her and her writing, please visit her website.



Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Faculty Voices with Jackie Briggs Martin: Taking Care

Warning: Do not eat this blog. Do not inhale this blog.  Do not come in any kind of physical contact with this blog. I have a cold and these germs are nefarious. Who knows by what channels they travel?

But having a cold and being easy on myself today has made me wonder about  how we take care of ourselves when we’re not sick, what we do to feed our spirits and our creative selves. We’re responsible for our own sustenance, for keeping ourselves fueled for the long haul. What do we do? What do others suggest?

Twyla Tharp in The Creative Habit says take a walk, visit a museum look for beauty.  So let’s go—100 of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs are at the Museum of Modern Art. It's not exactly the same as being there. Still it's exhilarating to see all this art that Henri Matisse made while bed-bound. Visit a museum.


I have friends who say—

Light a fire, light a candle.
Re-pot a plant. Plant a seed.
Make lentil soup. Fry onions in olive oil. Make pancakes.
Buy a flower, or a bunch of flowers. (A bunch of fresh flowers costs the same as a medium latte at our grocery store.)
Sing a song, or sing along. (Anything by Pete Seeger.)
Cut paper and make a collage. 
Make a mobile from an early ms draft.
Make a loaf of bread for a friend. 
Go to a used bookstore and look for an unappreciated gem. 
Call a friend from your writing group.

Or, on a slightly different tack,  getting over a snag.

Maybe the cupboard is bare, or maybe there's a huge tangle, a plot problem you just can't solve, a character who won't step out of the shadows.

Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer  says, “If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways." She suggests going to a symphony, sitting on a park bench, horseback riding, knitting. I'd add walking in the woods, sitting by a river or the ocean--if there's one handy.

Laura Ruby has said on this very blog that she often gets insights into how to solve a writing tangle while running.

Franny Billingsley plays fetch with her dog when she's trying to solve a writing problem.

When Twyla Tharp is looking for an idea for a dance she moves, and that movement leads to another movement, and that eventually leads to the dance. For writers, perhaps we grab a new notebook and write something silly: a to-do list for a potato, a pig's opera, a crossword puzzle writer's proposal of marriage.

Perhaps undertaking a non-writing project that involves several steps will be useful, say making kim chee --a process that involves waiting and fermentation--or Jim Lahey's no-knead bread, ditto.

Many of us have heard Ron Koertge say read poetry as the first part of writing, every day. That is especially true when we are hacking through a writing problem. Ray Bradbury agrees with Ron. In Zen and the Art of Writing, he says: "Read poetry every day of your life ...Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue and your hand....What poetry? Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. ...You say you don't understand Dylan Thomas? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children."

Try a new writing space. Go to a library or a coffee shop where no one knows you.

Clean off your regular writing space.

Recall something that makes you laugh. 

And finally, whatever it is that you do, trust that the answer will come. While you are chopping, cleaning, dancing, laughing, walking, your brain is working. Last summer in her student lecture "How Understanding Our Brain Can Make Us Better Writers," Kate Fitzgerald said, "As we trust that the process is working we relax." As we relax our brain makes more and better connections.

Trust--and take care, and take tea, if you end up with a cold. 




Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Faculty Voices with Emily Jenkins: Book Launch

All my Inkpot posts are Writing Life posts, for lack of a better phrase. This one is about the kind of stuff I find myself doing for the launch of a picture book — in this case, A Fine Dessert, which was published by Random/Schwartz & Wade and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. The subtitle is “Four centuries, four families, and one delicious treat” — and the book shows four different families in four different time periods, all making and sharing one of the oldest desserts in western culture — a blackberry fool. Picture book launches are tricky little things. You don’t go on a glamorous tour, there’s usually not a party, and you wrote the book so long ago (given the lag time for illustration) that you hardly remember what’s inside! So I am going to chat a little about what I did on this one, and how it worked. 

First, what I should have done before the book launch: I should have updated my website with the book jacket and flap copy and maybe some interior art. It should have happened a couple months ago, when the F&Gs (early copies) started circulating. But I never got to it. That is just lame. Anyway, my web design guy is on it now, and the new pages should be up soon. In the case of A Fine Dessert, the publisher also made some school activities for the book, so those will go on my website, too — in the teacher resources section. 

Second, what I did do: Before publication I talked to my editor about the school connections for this book. I wrote an author’s note about the ways it might be used in the classroom. Thinking about curriculum uses is helpful for certain types of books, and in this case the publisher responded by creating activities that are online and on the back of the book’s poster — so teachers can easily use the book at school. I was glad I had thought that stuff through, and glad they created such good materials with the info. 

Sophie's drawing from the store event
Also, I pulled together two kinds of presentations for the book. Just thought them through at home, really. One is the bookstore presentation, which I do with Sophie, my illustrator. I read the book, and she brings the twig whisk she built and some cards that show all the dining room scenes for the book — so we do an activity where the kids notice the differences from scene to scene. Then Sophie paints a character from the book and talks about her techniques, and I take questions from the crowd while she’s illustrating. Then we sign books and serve Blackberry Fool to everyone. It’s always easy when there’s book-related food to share! 

The other presentation is a school visit. That visit is for younger grades and I talk about “noticing” things as an important skill for a storyteller or poet. I get kids to notice things in their own classroom, and invite them to notice things in both my older picture book Water in the Park and this new one, A Fine Dessert. I praise their noticing and point out they have a skill that makes them strong readers and will make them even stronger writers. They really do have excellent insights once they focus their attention. 

A picture book doesn’t get a tour. I mean, maybe if you’re Mo Willems, it does. But I have never toured for one. I did attend the National Convention for Teachers of English and did a presentation there about picture books with classroom connections, and Sophie did a panel somewhere on picture book illustration and research. Those were both pre-publication, and useful to get teachers and librarians on the look-out for the book. Then our publisher set up events at local bookshops — just three different stores. There, we will do our planned bookstore presentation. For myself, I set up a few volunteer schools — public NYC area schools. We didn’t sell books, but I got a chance to hone my school material. Then when I do paid school visits, I have a K-2 intimate-group presentation I know is strong. I have yet to incorporate this book into my auditorium slide show — but that’s something to work on in the next couple months. 

Press: there usually isn’t much for picture books. The publicist arranged an interview with a local paper, which was nice. The interviewer had not even googled the book, much less read its 32 pages, though. She asked me what the dessert was. It’s not uncommon for interviewers to be under-prepped or uninterested in the topic, so …. deep breath. On the brighter side, we had a lovely interview on conference call, me and Sophie with Publishers Weekly. That was totally great and the interviewer was on top of everything. There was one tricky subject we discussed, and I asked the journalist to send me the transcript of my quote on the subject — so I could make sure I’d said what I intended to say. She did this graciously — and I wouldn’t have known earlier in my career that I might ask for that — but it’s pretty usual, I’ve learned. 

Social media: Again, with picture books there’s not so much to do. We do have a hashtag: #AFineDessert, and I made the dessert and posted pictures on Twitter and Facebook, using the tag. But probably only four people have ever used it besides me. Still, it allowed an illustrator friend who came to our first event to post his photos, and allowed me to announce the book in a way that was more fun for my readers than just a plain announcement. I am hoping families and school groups will make the dessert and use the hashtag — but I don’t know if that will work! 

I used to find publication days anticlimactic, because nothing much would happen after all that time working and waiting. Arranging the volunteer events really helps me stay buoyant, because it reminds me that KIDS and BOOKS are what this is all about. 





Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Faculty Voices with Marsha Qualey: A Do-Over

MarshaQ
I don’t believe I’ve ever finished a presentation or lecture without immediately wanting a do-over, a chance to add something or approach things from a slightly different angle.

Things were no different this past residency when I presented on “Conflict.” As it happened, I did get one chance for a do-over because my presentation and another were scheduled concurrently and we repeated them so students could attend both. I was grateful for the chance to revise and reorganize between the first session and the rerun.

But not even ten minutes after the second presentation had concluded I wanted to corral all the students back into the lecture hall. "More, there’s one thing more! I forgot something!"

And I have Phyllis Root to thank for that.

In the final moments of my allotted time that second time around she asked the question that I should have anticipated and the answer to which should be part of any lecturer’s talk: “Can you give an example from your own work?”

I was gobsmacked. I hadn’t included an example, and in the rush of adrenaline that accompanies fifty minutes of jabbering in front of an audience, I couldn’t think of one on the spot.

Ten minutes later when everyone was gone from the room and the rush was subsiding, I of course came up with an answer, but it was one that made me realize, “Oh, wow, I forgot to talk about that.”

So now I am indulging in a do-over on the Inkpot. First, a recap of the topic and lecture.

I was speaking on “Conflict.” Early into the talk I reminded those present of one of the many gems from Laura Ruby’s first-day lecture on world-building: Within the rules of the fictional world are the seeds of conflict.

I then suggested to those present in the lecture hall to consider that there are also worlds within worlds, and each has its own set of rules.

Identify all of the worlds your character lives in and navigates between, I advised. In a realistic novel, for example, these worlds might be labeled, “Family” or “School” or “Job.” There might even be—should be—smaller worlds within those worlds. “Cousins” or “high school band” or “night shift.” Each will have its own rules. Identify the rules. (Never talk about the uncle who drinks; never flirt with anyone in the clarinet section; never give free ice cream cones to people you know.)

Then I once again brought up a favorite craft theory of mine: Power + Belonging = Identity. Our stories are essentially about identity, the realization of an individual on the page. If conflict is what makes a story soar (and heaven knows the writing experts tell us just that) than one should look to create conflict in the worlds where a character’s power and sense of belonging are the most vulnerable or the most secure. Those places are the sweet spot of conflict. Use them.

What I didn’t say and will now is …Those spots are also the places where the conflict you create MUST resonate. Get that? I used all caps, so I hope so.

Even if the important action happened elsewhere in the main character’s life and not in the places where he/she/zhe feels most or least powerful or at home, the impact must be felt in all those places. If not, your conflict is cheap stuff.

And Phyllis Root, my dear friend and esteemed colleague, I have an example from my own work.

As Just Like That begins, Hanna Martin, the main character, dumps a boyfriend and (now in a churlish mood) takes a late night walk to a nearby lake. The mood is made worse by the high spirits of a couple that is riding around—illegally—on a four wheeler, so she doesn’t tell them that the ice is thin on the lake. The next morning she learns they went out on the ice and broke through; both have died. She, not surprisingly, feels enormous guilt.

Hanna is a talented artist and she also has a very loving relationship with her mother and two best friends (power and belonging, yes?) While her art and the relationships have nothing to do with the inciting incident, you can bet I turned to those parts of her life to demonstrate the impact of the accident and the devastating power of her guilt.   

So this is my lecture addendum in a nutshell: Yes, the worlds where a character’s power(s) and sense of belonging are the weakest or strongest will indeed provide the sweet spots for detonating conflict, but they are equally important as barometers of that conflict.

My do-over is done.