Friday, October 9, 2015

Macabre Writing Prompts From My Backyard

This week Ellen Kazimer, MFAC alum of 2014, shares a few creepy stories and free write exercises based on true events.  Read on, if you dare...

When the call came out for Halloween inspired postings, I didn’t wander past the woods behind my house to dig up a few writing prompts. This time of year, globe spiders spin webs across my windows, bats perform aerial acrobatics at dusk, and toads cover my front walk. 

Halloween decorating? I’ve got that covered. So for your writing amusement, I present three “true life” vignettes from my woods, each with two writing prompts. Hope they inspire your monster muse.

Vignette I 
There are ten unmarked graves behind my house and possibly more. A dismembered arm indicates there is still another body to be found. Three dead baby dolls and seven dead Barbie’s is a case for the Behavior Analysis Unit on Criminal Minds. I suspect that in yards across America, you will find a buried doll or two, but ten? What twisted mind would do that? (I tried reviving the dolls, but they were too far gone. Tiny insects had crawled into their heads through their hair follicles.) 

A. Write a picture book, middle grade, or young adult scary story where your protagonist either buries or unearths dolls in their backyard.  Would you choose gothic, noir, supernatural, or psychological? Picture book noir, anyone? 

B. The last Barbie I found had hair so full of leaves and mud, that her hair was stuck in place as if it were styled that way on purpose. Perhaps I had a woodland fairy instead of a zombie. Are the dolls changelings? Write a story using the buried dolls as fantasy elements. 

Vignette II 

Last winter, in the middle of a snowstorm, I spotted a piebald deer. I'd never seen one before, and we are replete with deer. A few days later, a neighbor found a tree stand in the woods and deer entrails strewn into the creek. (Deer hunting is illegal in our woods.) The kill was fresh. Turkey vultures had not found the entrails yet. That piebald deer never appeared again. Who killed and gutted the poor piebald deer and why? 

A. Write a story where your protagonist discovers the entrails using one of the three types of terror defined by Stephen King, the Gross Out, the Horror, or the Terror. 

B. Write a story where this unusual deer is a magical beast loose in the suburbs. Perhaps go back to the ancient legends of the mythical white stag. 

Vignette III

I have a trail camera takes six rapid photos when it detects motion. Most of the time it catches deer, foxes, squirrels, or me walking the dog. One night the camera went off, and there was nothing in the pictures except an “orb.” If you are a fan of shows like Ghost Hunters, then you know this could be a spirit orb. (Or it could be an insect or pollen, but let's stick with a spirit orb.) 

A: Write a story where a spirit orb or ghostly apparition haunts your protagonist by appearing their trail camera. 

B: Write a story where the orb is a “will ‘o the wisp” leading your protagonist to another world. Hope you found some spooky inspiration for your stories of mayhem, horror, and the supernatural. I’m off for a walk in the woods.

Thanks for answering the Halloween call, Ellen!  Hopefully these spooky true-life events will give you some great starting points for you own seasonal scares.

*Ellen Kazimer is a 2014 graduate of Hamline MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. When she’s not sweeping spider webs off her windows, she writes picture books, nonfiction, and middle grades novels. Her bio can be found on her website and blog where she shares “Odd Bits of Research that Washed Ashore.”  Learn more about her work on her author website or visit her blog.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Shudder Shriek Scream

October is the month of mischief, fun, and sometimes frights. MFAC faculty member Ron Koertge* kicks off the season with his own Halloween story.

As some of you know, I live in the Halloween House. One of the local sites for John Carpenter’s Halloween. The first one. The iconic one. Everybody’s favorite.

If you watch the first 12 minutes or so of the movie, there’s the house on Oxley Street and the avocado tree. The latter is bigger and the house is pretty much the same. Which is part of the appeal.

For sure now in October, but really off and on all year, we get visitors. Pilgrims is more like it, because they come from everywhere. All over the U.S., Mexico, Germany, Japan, Australia, China, Israel, and Norway.

Vagabonds. Supplicants. Votaries.

Mostly they just wander around, take pictures, use the plastic pumpkins my wife provides. They sit where Jamie Lee Curtis sat. They walk where she walked.

A few turn up in costumes, and Michael Myers - the madman with the knife - wins hands down. I don’t know how many times I’ve come home from the race track and there are two or three people in coveralls and masks holding a pumpkin hostage and waving a knife around.

When I get out of the car, the conversations go like this:

Fan: “Do you live here? Holy crap! What’s that like? Are you scared”
Me: “Nope. It’s a friendly house.”
Fan: So cool you let people use your pumpkins and stuff.”
Me: “Sure. Have a good time.”
Fan: What’d you do, like for a living?”
Me: “Well, I, uh, write poetry and - ”
Fan: “No, man. What do you do?”
Me: “Oh, okay. How about mortician.”
Fan: “No way!”

What seems remarkable to me is the good will these folks bring. They’re thrilled to be here. Grateful to be able to take pictures. Anxious to share minutiae. Ready? The original title was not Halloween but The Babysitter Murders,” Jamie Lee Curtis bought her own costume and spent under a hundred dollars, and in the credits Michael Myers is called “The Shape.”

We’ve lived here more than twenty-five years and never an ounce of trouble. Nobody steals a pumpkin, nobody sprays their names, every now and then someone leaves a Thank You note and a dollar or two.

Just the other day I was outside staring at the dying lawn when a guy pulled up with a woman who, from a distance, looked a little like Jamie Lee Curtis. “I swing by here on my honeymoon,” he confided. “This is my fifth trip.”

Thanks Ron for sharing the true-life tale of your Halloween House.  We're glad that it's got a happy ending.  So, readers, do any of you have a Halloween story to top Ron's?  If you do, share it in the comments below!

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program.  He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and most recently co-authored a young reader series (Backyard Witch) with Hamline alum Chris Heppermann. Book # 1 of that series -Backyard Witch: Sadie’s Story - is out now (read the publication interview). His latest work also includes The Ogre’s Wife, Coaltown Jesus, and the unforgettable Sex World - some of the fastest flash fiction in the world.

You can learn more about Ron's work by visiting his website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Getting the Right Blank Page

This week we have another fantastic post on "Getting Started."  Read on as Jackie Briggs Martin*, prolific picture book author and Hamline professor extraordinaire, gives you her advice on what to do once you're ready to start your next big project.

This month’s Inkpot topic is “getting started,” facing the blank page. I’m taking this to mean what you do when you have no unfinished writing projects to work on and not the blank page of the next chapter. I feel as if I should have a list—“10 keys to filling the blank page”—but I don’t. 
I never have. I just wander around at the beginning, kind of like exploring a new patch of prairie, see what’s there, what might grow, what might be beautiful. So I can’t share answers here, just a few thoughts.

A blank page begins with a notebook, at least for me—a new notebook. And the kind of notebook I have is very important. I can’t imagine writing a new story in just any notebook. I want a notebook with the right colored cover, with ¼” graph lines on ivory paper. I don’t know why this is important but it is. And so is the writing instrument. Rolling Ball V pens or pencils go directly to my brain. Pens from the gas station don’t work. My muse is particular.

So getting the right blank page is the first requirement. Then, even at the beginning, the page is not really blank. We all have some little story idea tapping us on the shoulder, maybe not formed, just an urge, but something we want to explore. Whether we keep an actual file of story ideas, or interesting articles or just let them simmer in that unconscious part of our brains until we have time and/or inclination to develop them, something is there. So when the page looks blank, maybe we should just write something, anything—as Phyllis Root says it’s all play. Just write what our brains tell us to write. Then write some more. Let a character stroll on to the page and off again. Be goofy. It’s all play. I heard Minnesota poet Michael Dennis Browne talk about beginnings once. And he said that beginnings are like auditions for ideas. And we should welcome all the ideas we have onto the stage. I find it useful to write all over the page, at all angles, against all those prescribed graph paper lines. It somehow gives me permission to be whimsical.

The next problem can be which one of those clamoring ideas gets picked. Sometimes it’s easy. One is just more compelling, more demanding. Sometimes it’s not. They all seem to speak at equal volume. What to do? Wait. One will emerge. Or just start. Just pick. We can always put it aside.
Once I have chosen the topic, or the topic has chosen me, I have to get into a new world, the world where that story could take place. And that is true whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I have to do research, find out where the grass grows, what the people in this world do for fun, what games they play, what their shoes look like, what they do when it rains. Sometimes this involves actual looking things up. Sometimes just brainstorming lists and charts, weather reports and relationships.  As I do this research, story ideas accrue on the page and it’s no longer blank in any way but a busy carpet that takes me into the story.

Thanks Jackie for a great take on starting our stories.  If you're looking for more tips, be sure to check out Claire Rudolf Murphy's post, Research – How to Start, When to Stop, What to Do With It, for more insight into starting work on your next project.

*Jacqueline Briggs Martin is the author of over a dozen picture books for children. She is best known for Snowflake Bentley, which received a Caldecott medal in 1999. The Chiru of High Tibet, published in 2010, was named to Smithsonian Magazine’s and Kirkus Review’s “Best Book of 2010” lists and selected for the 2011 list of “Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12” by the National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council.  To learn more, visit her faculty profile at Hamline University or her author website.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Research – How to Start, When to Stop, What to Do With It

Today we have a special post from the amazing Claire Rudolf Murphy*, renowned author and MFAC professor at Hamline University.  Taking on the challenge of "getting started," Claire provides us with her top ten tips on doing research for your next book.

Hello, Readers. When Daniel Campbell, our new blog coordinator, suggested the theme of “getting started,” I decided to write about one of my passions – research. Every writer gets a gift  - something that comes naturally. Mine is research. 

Let’s pause for a moment. What is your natural gift? Dialog? Plot? Humor? 

Back to mine – research.  This love for uncovering new information started back when I was a history major in college. You may not like to do research. But for many of us it is much easier to learn new things than to put this knowledge into writing. According to plot guru Martha Alderson the order of difficulty in communication skills are: listening, speaking, researching, and finally writing, the most complex. I agree.

Research is not just for nonfiction writers. You do research every day in your personal life – what car to buy, where to move, how to meditate. And in your writing – fiction, nonfiction or for your critical essays. Fantasy writers might study up on Greek myths or astronomy. For realistic fiction, you may need to learn specific details about a type of dog, how to cut hair, what the character’s body feels like when running a 10 K race. Yes, in nonfiction the bar is higher. Everything you write needs to be true and verified. 

But for all of us, here are ten research tips for writers of all genres. Thanks to the wonderful Hamline writers, past and present, who have shared their process with me and contributed to my tips below.

1. Start with general learning and reading on the subject – online articles, books, 
articles, interviews, videos. Enjoy yourself.

2. Figure out a method for keeping track of your research notes - from old-fashioned notecards, to a notebook like a scientist in the field, or new computer programs like One Note, Scrivener, or Ever Note. Faculty writer Emily Jenkins uses Scrivener for novel writing, too, and many Hamline writers have followed suit. New grad Judi Marcin used Scrivener when working on her third semester critical project. Your method doesn’t
need to be fancy, it just needs to be one that you will actually use and suits your style.

3. Look for surprises in your research. When alum Judy Dodge Cummings researched the Revolutionary War for her book The American Revolution: Experience the Battle for Independence, she was “amazed and impressed by the endurance of the soldiers fighting. We would never survive this today.” See her publication interview here.

4. Take a break from your own work, and read about how other writers do research. Last winter I suggested for one of our common books Curiosity’s Cats – Writers on Research. These are wonderful essays on how writers of how genres uncovered the information they needed. The Hamline University bought several copies for our use.

5. Speaking of the Hamline University Library, contact librarian Kate Borowski when you come up with a problem or question. She is an amazing resource and dedicated to our program, as many of the third semester critical writers have discovered. Check out the other resources offered online at the Bush Library

6. When doing online research, if you want your Google search to bypass Wikipedia and go straight to a more elevated (!) source -- for example the New York Times or the Smithsonian Institution -- type in your keywords with followed by "" (no quotation marks) or "" and you'll get a much more refined result.

7. Those of you at the July residency heard graduate Donna Koppelman read from 
her delightful Elvis story, with the amazing O.J. as Elvis. Here’s one of Donna’s research tips: “I have learned the value of immersing myself in a time period when writing about a certain thing.  Working on the Elvis book, I have been listening to Elvis Radio on XM (yes, there is such a thing) for months.  Every day someone close to Elvis calls in and tells stories about his life.”

8. Donna’s suggestion for interviews: “It’s hard to cold call all these people, explain who you are, what you want, and then get them comfortable enough to open up to you.  But the more I do it, the better I get.  AND the more I do it, the more I learn the right people to talk to usually aren’t the biggest names.  The governor’s receptionist gave me way more information than the governor ever would have.”

9. Current student Hayley Lerner is researching a nonfiction project on the Radium Girls. One step she took to find about more about this important, but little known story from decades ago was to locate their relatives. After many weeks, she heard back from one descendant that had a diary of one of the girls. A thrilling day for Hayley that renewed her enthusiasm and dedication to the project.

10. I will wrap up with advice from alum Tracy Mauer, the author of many nonfiction books. After Tracy has some basic knowledge of her subject, she puts it into one long document with footnotes and thinks about what she has learned. Then she tells it to another person, her husband, the dog, a stuffed animal. “If you can’t explain how an external combustion works to another person, you won’t be able to explain it to a kid.”

So dear writers, there are many ways to learn about a subject. Just jump in. And don’t forget to tell your friends. They often have leads. Requests for information on the Renegades site has helped many of us over the years.

Thanks for a fantastic article Claire. This will certainly give us all a wonderful place to start when we begin researching information for our next book.

*Claire Rudolf Murphy is the author of over a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction and a professor in Hamline University's Master in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.  To learn more about Claire and her writing, please visit her website or faculty page.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Setting Boundaries As Writers

Today's post is from alum Araceli Esparza* and talks about one of the biggest issues that an author can face, setting boundaries and learning to say "no." Araceli also provides a great quote from another Hamline alum, Jennifer Mazi, and some life boundary exercises.

As writers, we are presented with many options and opportunities to give to a project by using our writing, like even writing for a blog! 
One way to give the very best of yourself to your writing is by setting boundaries.

Boundaries can help us trim down these options/invitation in to suggestions, and not into obligations that choke our time to write, our time to have for ourselves, and our families.

Writing, teaching, and sharing are all parts of being a writer. When we begin setting boundaries for our writing life, we add value to it, regardless of whether we are published or not.

Our boundaries help us structure and honor our craft, our profession and our choice to read or write. Setting boundaries is a muscle--use it and the stronger it gets.

Having boundaries doesn’t mean you have to close-off your relationships, it means that you can begin to select meaningful relationships. Beginning with ourselves, writers must communicate in our own voice style what it is that we want or desire. Building boundaries is a first step to getting to know your voice.

I asked fellow alum Jennifer Mazi to share with us her experience with writing as a mother and finding balance, boundaries, and time for her writing:

"I used to say yes to everything because I believed, by telling the universe that I was open for business, more opportunities would come my way, which would lead to wild success, that everything would happen in easy ways because of my awesome positivity. 
That kind of naiveté makes me tired even typing about it. Consider me yessed out, which is worse than stressed out. My new strategy is to structure my life around the writing in order to protect my own bandwidth and my family. 
This means I say NO a lot more, and to more people. This leaves me with enough energy to bring my best to both my writing and my kiddos, because if I do right by them, there is a good chance my best will be enough to reach other kiddos one day.
That’s the dream, anyway."

That’s all of our dreams. Each of us have a similar story/dream, whether it's to be published or just nail it.

After publication, most authors never let that comfort level go to high. I have found from talking with other authors and writers, that it’s important to stay hungry. Making space for our writing is a constant battle.

Remember that on the side of pre-publication: 
You can take a break from trying to get published and enjoy the freedom that you can write whatever the heck you want to, and you can submit it where ever the heck you want to.

Tips to do Free Writing:
  • You can explore whatever genre, hybrid, heck invent a new meter.
  • Ask for space for yourself.
  • Visualize the word rejection and blow it up. 
  • Paint. Draw. You are an artist. Collage. Redecorate. You are an artist.
  • Instead of giving we need to take. Sometimes.
  • Writing is giving, and as women, mothers, men, partners, etc. we give so much.
  • Ask for quiet time from your family.
  • Get some healing rocks.
  • Spend quiet time at church.
  • Ask for a room with no TV and cut off your laptop from wifi when you are on vacation.
  • Read.
  • Write like no one will see this!

Write out your writing life boundaries in these three sentences with 3 variations:

People may not ________________________________________

I have the right to ask for _________________________________

To protect my time and energy, it’s okay to ___________________

Thanks Araceli for saying yes to the Storyteller's Inkpot and deciding that this WAS worth your time and energy.  We appreciate it immensly and hope that your advice will be equally helpful for others.

*Araceli Esparza is a poet, budding bilingual/bicultural picture book author, and diversity in children's literature advocate.  An alum of Hamline University's MFAC program, she enjoys blogging about the writers life, her journey to publication, and writing latino children's books.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Writing and Fear

Hello everyone!  Hopefully you all had a great Labor day weekend and spent all that extra time writing the next great book. If not, then now's a great chance to get back into a good routine and face those fears.  In today's post MFAC faculty member Kelly Easton* talks about fear, writing, and family.

I survived my childhood for four reasons: my sister and my three brothers. My sister was pure love. I called her "the saint." My older brothers picked up my pieces on a daily basis and put me back together again. 
One brother taught me to be a runner. He took me to track meets, told me to “run like hell” and bragged to everyone when I won, pinning the blue ribbon onto the family bulletin board. I would wait every night for him to come home from the movie theater where he worked. He brought me candy bars and frozen burritos, and we watched Johnny Carson and old movies. Luckily, my mom never made me go to school the next day, or most days. He took me to work with him where I watched the same movie over and over again, memorizing the words. It still bothers me to pay to go to the movies. Most importantly, he taught me how to play the piano, the single most important experience to my success in anything I’ve ever done, since I learned that practicing daily and making incremental steps would result, eventually, in beauty.
My oldest brother taught me to meditate, and ponder the stars, something that became crucial in my first novel, The Life History of a Star, a sort of homage to brothers. He also took my sister and I to live in a commune on the beach in Santa Barbara with a lot of naked people who chanted (This was the seventies in CA, folks).
My youngest brother was an adventurer. He built a race car and a speed boat in the garage. His scuba diving equipment hung on the shower, dripping onto the bathroom floor. He taught me to snow ski, water ski, and rock climb, though my mom wisely forbid him to take me hang gliding. Teaching should be in quotation marks, because his way of teaching me to ski was to drop me at the top of the mountain and let me alternately fly and tumble down. Still, to climb to the highest rock, or ski to the bottom of the slope was to be heaped with praise, which I, of course, craved. My favorite compliment from him was that I was “fearless.” 

The truth was that I was not fearless, but feisty and determined, character traits that mute fear sufficiently in the present moment. I had a misguided kind of confidence; it simply didn’t occur to me that I would not make it down in one piece, or that in leaping over a crevasse, I might stop midway like a cartoon character and plummet to the bottom. Had I been afraid, I might have hesitated. Hesitation might be a fatal error.
Writing is not so very different than rock climbing or skiing, in that you need a certain amount of blind confidence. And like any other activity, fear tends to result in paralysis. Fear tightens the mind. Above all, fear is future oriented, the opposite of being in the moment, a necessary element to creating.

What do writers fear? Writers, who cannot write, may fear mediocrity, failure, self-exposure, or the new call to submit to the demands of social media. What do they do about the fear? Well, if I go with my childhood experience of rock climbing and skiing down the mountain, I would say, “Don’t look down into the crevasse,” and “Go fast. Don’t think. Hesitation might be a fatal error.” Lastly, and most importantly, is practice. As my son’s music teacher once wrote on his music notebook: “Only practice on the days that you eat.”

*Kelly Easton is the author of nine novels for middle-grade readers and young adults. Her most recent novel for children, The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes (Wendy Lamb Books), was a Jr. Library Guild Selection.  Visit her faculty profile or website to learn more.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Letter on the Importance of Writing Groups

Who writes letters anymore?  In this fast-paced age of email blasts, instant messaging, and texting it seems no one has time to write more than two sentences at a time.  Well, not everyone has given up on letter writing yet.  

Today Polly McCann* has written a special letter to all of us reading The Storyteller's Inkpot on the value of a writer's group.  If you enjoy it, I encourage you to check out her blog, Letters From Polly, to read more of her letters.
Dear Friends,

I decided to write you all a letter (as I can't seem to stop writing them) about what I've been doing since graduating from Hamline's MFAC program. It hasn't all been avoiding bifocals and moving into my mother's basement. (Hah, I'm not making this stuff up.) No, a lot of great things have happened as I've found ways to get started on the journey that is the writing life.

The best tools for that journey are not only the ergonomic chair and writing desk (or Google fiber being installed by zippy little blue trucks filled with chipper workmen who introduce you to their cousins and fix your printer no charge). No. What I'm taking about is your writing group. You need one.

Yes to get started as a writer I found I needed other people. The best work I've written since graduating from Hamline several years ago were projects I finished in order to submit to my writers' group. I could spend all my time writing bad poetry. But in the end, I found I needed that accountability to keep me going; remind me I'm not insane just because I chose to be a writer; and give me a deadline.

I just have to show up to group with something good. Shame is a motivator, but more than that it's friendship. Let me tell you what happened. . . . A few years ago I decided to host a SCBWI group. I met Johanna. She, noticing that I had a newborn baby, and a degree to finish, and that my house wasn't properly dusted, then promptly took over the group and moved it to Panera. I was thankful.

Johanna inspired me. She wrote every day and submitted work frequently. It was for Johanna I dredged up a poem about the novel I intended to write. I had no words for a project I intended to write. With the support and encouragement of my writer's group, my empty page became 60 words and those 60 words became 30 scenes.

Last year I met again some of the people from my old writer's group at our annual SCBWI conference in Kansas City. There we talked about Johanna's recent passing. She had spent the last years in and out of chemo and would write the entire five hours during her treatments. I don't know how you would feel, but we felt we owed it to Johanna to begin our group again.

So I started a writer's group at my local library through the SCBWI. Thirty glistening-eyed-authors-to-be came to the first meeting.  When people bring their work and show me how far they've come-- I think of Johanna and how her commitment spreads. I think of all the professors who poured so much passion and knowledge into me. I think about how we are changing hearts and minds, lighting them like candles, one word at a time. Even if it is only our own heart and the group we meet at the library on Saturday mornings, or the group we meet on Google Chat on Thursdays at three o'clock during the little one's nap time. Even so, it's worth it. My heart needs it.

Writer's group is where I learn what I did right. Oh, I know I do a lot of things wrong. I miss a lot. My dialogue will never sparkle like Ron Koertge. My rhythm will never sing like J.J's "worm meets worm." My fantasy will never reach the height of Georgia B. But in the end, I will find my voice. And my writer's group lets me know the good notes I hit along the way.

Since I graduated from Hamline, my writer's journey has had some perilous turns. My life has been turned up side down and right side up. But through writing and through my community I've found "my secret love for hearts," as my daughter calls it. I've found my way home.

Dear Polly,

Thank you for taking the time to write this wonderful letter and agree to share it on The Storyteller's Inkpot.  Letter writing is an under-appreciated art form, and this topic was a superb one.

P.S. - Feel free to send us another letter anytime!

*Polly McCann, artist, writer, and mother, earned her MFA in writing from Hamline University. Tea with Alice is the working title for her first collection of autobiographical poems; three generations of stories retold in free verse. She has been published in Naugatuck River Review and Arc 24. She is the owner of NewThing Art Studio in Kansas City Crossroads arts district. She loves to grow basil and explore unexpected surprises in her free time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What Publishing Will Do For You

This week author and MFAC alum Rebecca Grabill* shares some sage advice on what publishing your first book will do for you - and what it won't.

In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott describes publishing as the golden eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar, and she writes, "Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy."

I agree. If anyone thinks that a magical first contract will ... pay off their mortgage, repair their marriage, get their kids to obey, fill them with endless joy, make writing easy, well, it won't. I don't feel much different today than I did six months ago. My house is still messy, my kids still draw all over themselves with Sharpie during nap, writing is still hard. Really, really hard.

In some ways writing is harder. My agent expects things from me. Like books. Good books! Finished books! I give myself arbitrary and unyielding deadlines because the pressure is on, baby. I question every word I put to the page because, ach, I only studied picture books one semester, how can I be a picture book author? I have the unshakable and very rational fear that the editors who bought my books were just playin' and any day now will notify me that they changed their minds and could they have the advance money back please. Security? Confidence? My pen scribbling off one blissfully perfect story after another? Nope, publishing did none of that.

But these first contracts did do something. Something surprising. A few weeks ago I took the kids to our local megachain bookstore for Dr. Who Fan Night. I escaped with the babies to the children's section, and I expected to feel my usual mix of hopelessness and futility. There are Sooooo many books published out of the sooooooooooo many I know editors receive. How would one of my silly goofy scary weird stories ever make it past the Publishing Powers and onto the shelves? Hello, meet Eeyore.

But as I paged through new releases I realized ... there's a chance my own book could be on the Halloween Table in some upcoming seasonal display. My own book, showcased alongside Max and Ruby and Curious George!

I realized I love the bookstore. I wanted to stay forever, to read every title, stroke every spine, inhale the fresh glue, lay my cheek against the silky smooth pages, lick the--uh never mind. I hadn't enjoyed a visit to a bookstore, truly enjoyed it unfettered by the whispering "you'll never be good enough" specters in, well, since I got in my head that I wanted to be a writer. I was free. I visited three more times that week alone.

I've noticed a few more changes as well. For example, when I see friends asking for advice on writing query letters I thank All That is Good that I no longer have to write them, and when I'm faced with the option: sweep up or write? I'm far more likely to let the ants take care of the crumbs.

I'd never compare publishing to something as dismal as the fake eagle on fake money that makes you feel good for a second but leaves you in debt. But then again, I don't expect a book contract to fix all my problems and make me happy (maybe ten contracts). I haven't though of an appropriate analogy yet, but perhaps by the end of the process, I will.

Thanks for the great advice Rebecca, we wish you luck on the next 10 contracts!  On Thursday we'll have a special letter from Polly McCann on the importance of having a writers group.

*Rebecca Grabill is author of the picture books Halloween Goodnight (Atheneum 2017) and Violet and the Woof (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins 2018).  She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University (2011). If you want to learn more you can visit her author website or read her blog.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Agenting Tips of the Day

MFAC alum and agent extraordinaire Jodell Sadler* (Sadler Children’s Literary) has generously offered to answer a few questions about the ever mysterious world of agents - and how to find one. Read on to find out her agent tips of the day!

What are agents looking for from a craft point of view?

Agents look for great writing and great story, pure and simple. It has to be both. When a unique idea comes along, it stands out. When a unique voice pops up in the inbox, it stands up and announces itself. When I open a submission and sense a writer has studied his/her craft and places me in story within the first lines, pages and chapter, I forget I am reading a story, and its the magic I look for. It makes me want to acquire yesterday and work with that writer.

The next concern is if a writer can carry story over the muddy middle. I look for a well-paced manuscript: active verbs, honed sentences with diction that pauses me at emotional hot points and enhances my focus in a masterful way—just really great sentences. I ask myself a few questions: do the words match the action of scenes? Do I sense emotional depth, original character, and worldview and does the piece have both layers and legs?

More than anything, I crave fresh, original, creative, interactive, and genuinely engaging stuff. What’s the personality and voice used in your cover letter? Are you presenting to an agent your personality and passion? Are you using comedic timing and pause well and asking they pay attention to the underpinnings of your words? I love that quote from William Zinsser, “You are the product that you sell” or the notion the late Ray Bradbury speaks to: writers learn the rules and how to break them well up until that day that the process of writing becomes “all in an of their fingers”—and they no longer think about it. If you have earned your MFA, you are well on your way. So, write. Write from that passionate place where story comes.

What are some writing clichés to avoid?

Princess and holiday books cause allergic reactions for me. I see them too often in my submissions bin. I prefer commercial, literary—that surprising, new material that makes me want to snatch it up. Material that presents that wow-factor and leaves me thinking: “I with I had thought of that!” moment is perfect.

When I first started out as an agent, I felt I could help any writer who was committed to his/her career, held an MFA, but that has since changed. It’s all about collaboration and a project I can genuinely connect to and believe in. As an agent, especially an editorial one, we spend time with the manuscripts, reading them and rereading. So, I am careful to take on projects and writers or writer-illustrators I feel connected to. I look for that writing professional who partners with an agent to further a career.

I’ve come to enjoy finding clients at events and workshops because I learn more about how they work, how they edit, and who they are. What I know is that when I take on a client who dedicated to improving craft and has a great manuscript in hand, that’s perfect. You should be savvy about what is out and current in the marketplace—enough to know when a manuscript feels like it is written from a mentor text or includes lines so similar to established text that it feels cliché.

Do I need to have a full draft of my novel?

Yes. You should have a full draft of your novel to submit. We are looking for that next great book. It’s nice to have other manuscripts in the works as well, ideally ready, but one great book is what we look for. I personally enjoy working with writers who work in more than one category, a writer who enjoys nonfiction as well as fiction, or is a writer and also an illustrator, or a picture book writer who also writes YA.

How much revision should I do before I submit?

Your novel should be through a number of revisions, for it is usually in the 8th or 56th that we reach that depth needed to skyrocket our manuscript toward success. I was working on a manuscript the other day, or just looking for where I was at in my own revisions, and I found a draft marked 222. I laughed. I remember how I felt at the time I saved it like that. Some stories come to us and the muse opens up and others find there way through the labyrinth of our souls, but they find their way. Our job is to nurture it onto the page. And with pluck and a little luck and butt-in-chair (BIC), we, ever onward, reach our goals. It’s what writers do. What you need to know is that with MFA in hand, you are on that journey, so enjoy it, celebrate it, and cherish the small successes as you move forward.

What are some tips about writing a cover letter?

My biggest tips are two-fold: keep it short and be yourself. We get so many submissions, so those that share their personality in the cover page stand out. I enjoy it when the cover letter matches the tone of the manuscript.

One of my favorite submissions was from an author-illustrator who mentioned his work in a three parts; he works as an art director, cut his teeth at DC comics, and cries at most Tom Hank movies. This is a breathing person who feels real and friendly. He’s been fabulous to work with and we are currently contracting his fourth book, a two-book deal with more in the works.  Another great submission came from a writer who shared her cover letter in her main character’s point of view and voice. It was really engaging. And so was the work that followed.

I’ve been on enough editor-agent panels now to know that when I suggest to keep these short, it’s the best advice I can give you. A lot of us feel this way. When I see a long, long cover letter, I get hives and think “I’ll read that one later” and may not. It’s professional to by concise and clear. Short means it fits on my computer screen without scrolling down. Keep it simple, direct, and memorable.

What matters most about your submission? Your manuscript. For your cover letter, spend the most time honing that pitch for your manuscript. Write that in a way that makes me crave your read and you will be in great shape. I often read this pitch and move right to reading the manuscript. Really. When my in bin fills fast and furious like a wild thing, it’s a must. Some twenty to one hundred submissions a day is normal life as an agent and really why we are sometimes slow responding. If I write an article, at times that number can reach 500-600 in a month.

When I’ve been the submission agent following an online event, I’ve received this number from just one group—all picture books. When I attend conferences, critiques get added to this reading. When I want to send out clients’ manuscript, important reading and editing gets added to this reading. So do realize that when we are slow to respond, we are diligently and constantly working to catch up.

So my other piece of advice is to take the time to read and adhere to the specific guidelines for each agent you send your work to. When I receive submissions written to the agent they sent to just prior to me (Happens a lot just prior to events I am scheduled to attend—I think writers send to the agents that will be there and simply forget to change the name) or to “Dear agent” (really? Didn’t bother to look my name up) or Mr. Sadler (did I really have a sex change overnight? Hmm), I know this writer has not taken the time to consider me as a professional or present him/herself as a professional.

Will my agent work on revising something with me?

Agents are the new editors in many ways. We look for work that is so ready to send that it already sings. It’s nice when we only have a few things to consider like setting or depth of characterization, or chapter breaks and shifts, or subplots or threads that need more attention. In the case of picture books, a lot of time can be spent on crafting fresh and thinking about what will elevate a piece in the marketplace.

I’ve recently launched KIDLIT COLLEGE, which hosts great webinar events with editors and agents, who also do critiques. In a recent event, Allison Moore talked about Big Story Ideas and shared how to position your work to complete in the marketplace and stand out. This past weekend, Ann Whitford Paul joined Jill Corcoran to talk about picture book craft. Ann talked about the ABCs of writing picture books, which was fabulous and gave detailed list of what to do, and literary agent extraordinaire, Jill Corcoran joined her to talk about what agents look for.

Find these kind of opportunities to get your work critiqued and reviewed by editor and agents. From our first webinar alone three manuscripts out of 20-ish where requested by the critiquing editor, so it’s a great move.

I often say that while we don’t write to the market, per se, we do need our work to fit into a market category. It’s a different ballgame to craft a story than to craft a story that will sell. I know a book is one I can take on when I can instantly think of three editors I can share it with.

Agents work on revisions, but an editorial agent definitely does, and this is all a process. I now use Google hangouts to work with clients because it saves a lot of back and forth emailing. We read and mark up and then chat about the piece and what needs to happen to make it ready to send out.

What catches an agent's eye and makes them want to read more?

Voice. Original idea. Different. Captivating. And Firsts. The first line, paragraph, pages and chapters of your novel need to be the best you’re capable of. We need character, setting, plot hints and voice all at once. How important is this? Huge. In the first week of my MG/YA pacing course, I talk about the importance of firsts. I also recently did a Writer’s Digest Webinar with Leslie Shumate, assistant editor at Little Brown Books for Young readers, and she will also be talking about first pages and we have Leslie joining us at KidLit College in October: “Making First Impressions”—and she definitely knows what she is talking about.

I believe in one simple truth: A writer who hones his/her craft will earn the book deal. There are no short cuts. A manuscript has to be top quality. This was the whole reason I started KIDLIT COLLEGE, and asked presenters to talk about craft. Ariel Richardson, assistant editor at Chronicle, will be talking about “What Makes Nonfiction Great” in September, and Yolanda Scott, executive director at Charlesbridge, will talk about “The Whole Book Approach to writing picture books in November. We also have an author-agent team talking about The author-agent relationship in a few short weeks, titled, “I’ve Got Your Back,” which pretty much sums up a great team approach to agenting.

If you could give one tip to new authors, what would it be?

Write the best manuscript, that manuscript only you can write, and write it strong in your voice and style and trust in the journey—it’s a good one.

Thanks Jodell for all the great advice!

We'll try to make this a regular monthly post, so if you have a question we can ask just write a comment below and we'll get it answered next time.

*Jodell Sadler is the founding agent and owner of Sadler Children’s Literary and KidLit College. She also teaches and presents on "pacing a story strong" nationwide.