Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Publication Interview with Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis: The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo (by Mark Ceilley)

Today I have the honor of interviewing Marsha Wilson Chall, the author of the new picture book, The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo, and her editor, Jill Davis.

Marsha Wilson Chall grew up an only child in Minnesota, where her father told her the best stories. The author of many picture books, including Up North at the Cabin, One Pup's Up, and Pick a Pup, Marsha teaches writing at Hamline University's MFAC program in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives on a small farm west of Minneapolis with her husband, dog, barn cats, and books.

Jill Davis has been an executive editor in children’s books at HarperCollins since 2013. A veteran of children’s books, she began her career at Random House in 1992, and worked there at Crown and Knopf Books For Young Readers until 1996, after which she worked at Viking until 2005. After that, she held positions at both Bloomsbury and FSG. She is the author of three picture books, editor of one collection of short stories, and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University

Mark: The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo came about in a different way. You were asked to write a story based on illustrations of a character. Could you tell us about this process and a little about the story?

Marsha: You're right that this story evolved differently than my others. My amazing editor, Jill Davis, sent me Alison Friend's thumbnails of an adorable canine character she had named Figgy Mustardo in a variety of human-like poses and costumes. For me, it was love at first sight! So I set about the process of creating Figgy's story based on my impressions of him through Alison's art and then, via Jill, Alison's written notions of his characterization and story ideas.

An imaginative, spirited fellow, Alison visualized Figgy zipping through many adventures on his scooter. In the book, I took the liberty of changing the scooter to a race car and also cast Figgy as a rock star and a pizza chef who organizes and stars in a neighborhood rock concert, pizzeria, and stock car race with his animal friends. Lots of Figgy fun, but this did not a story make. I needed to know why these activities mattered to Figgy and how he grew as a character.
I also had to think about the nuts and bolts of how Figgy might transform from dog to dilettante. I was fairly certain of my own dog's boredom and loneliness while our family is away, so I started my story exploration there. We all know that dogs, as social creatures, dislike being left alone and are often fraught with anxiety leading to certain not-so-flattering behaviors and/or the escape of sleep. A story with a sleeping dog would not be too interesting, so I chose the much more exciting, destructive route. What if Figgy ate things--any things--in his frustration, fell asleep, and dreamed about himself as a manifestation of what he ate? We all know "you are what you eat," so in Figgy's case, for example, he eats Mrs. Mustardo's Bone Appetit magazine, falls asleep, and dreams of being Italian Pizza Chef Mustardo serving Muttsarello and Figaro pizzas to adoring gourmands. When he wakes, he knows his dream is a sign, so he makes a real one of his own, "Free Pizza," and serves his entire animal neighborhood at Figgy's Pizzeria.

Most importantly, I needed to develop a motivation for Figgy's adventures; how were these events connected to him? What did they mean? How would they affect Figgy's world outside and inside? The answer arrived in the form of loss; every animal neighbor came to Figgy's concert and pizzeria and car race except Figgy's family, the Mustardos, especially George (his boy). In desperation, Figgy creates the sign "Free Dog" to find a family who will talk and walk and play with him like all the other families he sees through his window. Where are the Mustardos? The family Mustardo arrives in time to show Figgy how much they care with a promise to take him wherever they can and to provide him companionship when they can't in the form of new pup named Dot. Figgy and Dot go on to enliven the neighborhood with Free Shows nightly.

Mark: What kind of revising/editing process did you and Jill go through?

Marsha: Once I knew my character and his problem, I dashed off the story, sent it to Jill who loved it at first sight, then sat back satisfied with a good day's work.

Ha! Not the way it happened, but I did write a first draft within a few days that Jill found promising. So many drafts later that I can't even recall the original, Jill exercised plenty of patience waiting for the story she and Alison hoped I could write. I know she'll protest my tribute, but I have never worked with an editor so open to my trial and error. Her abundant humor carried us through the process that I think would have otherwise overwhelmed me.

      Mark: Will there be any more books with Figgy and his further adventures?

Marsha: Figgy hopes so and so do Jill, Alison, and I.

For now, I hope Figgy wags his way into the hands and hearts of many human friends where he belongs.


Mark: How was this project different having a character first and then having to find a writer to tell his story?

Jill: It was kind of hard. The illustrator had invented this little dog who she wanted to be an adventurer—yet she wasn’t sure how to make the story happen. When I saw the dog, I thought of Marsha’s One Pup’s Up—and I knew how talented she was. Seemed like a slam dunk! But all of us—Marsha, myself, and the illustrator, Alison Friend had to share plenty of feedback, edit, and revise a bit before Marsha was able to tell both the story she envisioned as well as the story Alison had in mind. Marsha pictured Figgy at home, and really loved the idea of using signs. Alison seemed to feel Figgy was some kind of James Bond. So how were those two visions going to meet? They finally did when Marsha realized that Figgy would go to sleep and dream about his exciting alter-ego. And we all loved the idea. The book may seem a little bit sad because Figgy is always being left at home, but Marsha told it in such a great way, that Figgy showed his grit! If he’s hungry, he eats what’s there—but then the magic happens and he goes to sleep and dreams of something related to what he ate. It’s so fun and so imaginative. I love what Marsha did with Figgy’s story, and Alison did, too.

      Mark: What was it like to work with Marsha in this new role as editor after being her student in the MFA in Writing for Children program at Hamline University?

Jill: It felt very wonderful and natural. Marsha does not use intimidation as a tactic in general. She’s the rare combination of brilliant and super silly. That’s one reason she’s so loved at Hamline and in the continental United States, generally speaking.

There were times when she should have been frustrated or wanted to spit at me, but she was cool as a cucumber in the freezer in the North Pole. So professional and what I loved also about working with her is how much I learned: a lot. I learned how she makes use of repetition, alliteration, and very careful editing. I can be sloppy, but Marsha walked straight out of Strunk and White. She’s exact and wonderfully detail oriented. She was also involved at the sketch stage. Actually at several sketch stages. We worked on the phone, we worked at Hamline, and we worked until we thought it felt perfect. And she loved it because she could use it in her teaching! And I just loved working with Marsha!

Mark:  Thank you, Marsha and Jill for taking the time to tell us about your collaboration on The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo.   The book is now available at your local independent book store.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Publication Interview with Jane O’Reilly: The Secret of Goldenrod

Author and MFAC alum Jane O’Reilly* talks about her debut novel, The Secret of Goldenrod. Learn about her writing process for this mysterious new middle grade masterpiece.  The images bellow are from the sold-out launch party at the Red Ballon, held earlier this month.

Tell us about your book.
The Secret of Goldenrod is a little bit of everything—mystery, fantasy and coming of age. The main character, Trina, almost eleven, travels the country with her dad, picking up odd jobs and house remodeling projects. When they are given a year to fix up an abandoned Victorian mansion named Goldenrod, in the town of New Royal, Iowa, Trina is excited. This will be the first time in her whole life she has ever lived anywhere long enough to make friends.

Do you have a favorite part of the book or a favorite character?
I love the chapter in which Trina goes to the library. It’s a massive, elegant library way too big for the town. But that’s part of the mystery. In addition to meeting wonderful Mr. Kinghorn, the librarian, Trina learns some secrets about the New Royal townspeople. Plus, something very special is in her pocket the whole time.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
I workshopped the first chapter at an alumni weekend at Hamline. I remember that Kendra Marcus, of Bookstop Literary, sat in on that workshop. I felt like Trina that morning—excited and nervous. Kendra made a suggestion that ended up in the book.

When did you first begin working on it? When did you finish?
I began working on the story in the winter of 2011 and felt I had a reasonable draft within a year and a half. Revising it, sending queries to agents, landing the marvelous Sarah Davies as an agent, revising twice for her, waiting as she found not one but two publishers (Egmont, the book’s first home, closed its doors just after I finished the first revision) and revising again for Alix Reid at Lerner, over a period of six months, added four more years to the process.

As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
Oh, man. The first draft had a prologue loaded with backstory. On top of that, because I always knew that the house was a character, the first draft handled the story in alternating perspectives—Trina’s and Goldenrod’s. Fortunately, I couldn’t keep that up. Better yet, very few people saw that draft. Once I started working with Alix at Lerner, all my effort to get an inciting incident into the first chapter went out the window and a major happening moved from page 12 to page 60-something. Alix suggested we see Trina more firmly in her world, dreams, problems, etc., before we saw her world change. I think her advice was spot on. Although that change was deemed by some as a “slow beginning,” plenty of stuff happens if you don’t know what’s coming.

What research did you do before and while writing the book?
Because of my real estate background and my childhood, I know a lot about old houses. Still, I was forever researching stuff from Victorian design elements to growing seasons— building codes, lights, radiators, girl’s clothing, and, of course, goldenrod. I also researched small towns in Iowa and distances between them and bigger cities. The first name of the town near Goldenrod was simply Royal. When I discovered there really was a Royal, Iowa, I changed the name to New Royal.
Where did you do most of the writing for this book?
In my writing room at the time—overlooking the garden. The revisions took place in my son’s old bedroom. So much time has passed from start to finish, our house has changed.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
The biggest, most rewarding lesson has been this: Don’t ever give up on your dreams. But sometimes you have to be prepared to change them.

*Jane O’Reilly grew up in a very old house in Fort Snelling on a Mississippi River bluff. She is the recipient of a McKnight Fellowship in screenwriting and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University (MFAC 2009). Today she lives with her husband, cat and dog in a very old house in the Tangletown neighborhood of Minneapolis. The Secret of Goldenrod is her first published novel.

You can learn more about Jane on her author's website.  If you want to know more about The Secret of Goldenrod, check out this Kirkus Reviews post.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Alumni Voices with Polly Alice: Something About Writing

Dear Hamline MFAC friends,

I’m writing you from HU 211 where I now teach English 101 twice, two days a week. The inner city campus of the local community college has somehow decided to welcome me on board. Just four blocks from my former art studio, the campus is one large system of buildings with a view of uptown from where I park my Soul in the back lot every Monday and Wednesday. My classroom is filled with the slim table desks and chairs, four posters of Frida Kahlo, a twenty-foot white board, and an ad from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art exhibit from 1992. The lighting isn’t too terrible. The carpet is a nice gray check, and as they said when I first came in, I’m “exactly the kind of person they are looking for.” I have no idea what that means.

For six hours a week, I have to find something to say, something about writing. Looking into the vast subject of words and how we use them, I’m searching for all the unspoken things from my undergrad classes. What I say from week to week must build a bridge to a place that students may care to go.  Students who overwhelmingly chose to write their first essays on why college is not really that important to getting a great job. Students who catch up on sleep outside the adjunct office, or watch TV by phone in between classes. Students who have said, they really like my class.

So every time I prepare for class, I ask myself what I’m going to say that’s worthwhile. Because I’m someone who loved to skip class, sneak out when the professor’s back was turned, write all my assignments at 2 am the night before without revising. There was the time I left class because the professor touched the end of his nose too often. A couple of times I skipped Ethics because the rather overheated professor like to raise his arms a lot. Once I even spoke loudly about a teacher’s pedagogy as he came up behind me on the sidewalk. If there is one thing I’ve come to recognize the last few years, is what youth really means. The hilariousness of it. The wonderful bliss of ignorance. The amazing aptitude for discovering something new.

Every time I prepare for class, I ask myself what I’m going to do to make it interesting. I remember the professor who introduced me to poetry. Writing a paper about that poem, changed the entire course of my life, made me who I am as a person, and continues to effect each and every thing I do: how I think, how I process, and how I chose to pursue my creative life. I remember the lectures that brought me to tears, made me wonder about the universe, or helped me understand just how little I really knew about the world.

Every time I prepare for class, I ask myself where I want these students to go. My answer: I want them to fly into the future on wings made of words, words made into sentences - sentences formed into a path they can walk on; into the place they were meant to be.

I guess I’m surprised to suddenly become an English Professor. I think I like it.  

Polly Alice author and illustrator, opened New Thing Art Studio in 2015 back home in Kansas City-- where she paints, illustrates children’s books, and teaches college writing. Her work is often mixed media. “I create my art to be more like poetry: to have symbolic meanings layered from dream images and memories.” Her work centers on healing, small loves, and the every day. Polly is a proud Hamline MFAC alumna. She won the 2014 Ernest Hartmann award from the International Association for the Study of Dreams from Berkley CA for her research on self awareness for writers and artists through dreamwork. She loves letters. Write her anytime and you’ll be sure to get one back. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Faculty Voices with Marsha Qualey: The Big One - Conflict and Antagonists

We focused on plot this past residency. I welcomed this topic immersion because for the last several months I have been writing short stories after years of novel writing, and I have been hugely challenged by the need to pare down the scope of my storytelling. How much plot can a 5000 word story handle? How do I know what is essential? What should I spend time on?
The residency session I concocted and led (with gracious participation from very game students; thank you, all) was, frankly, quite self-serving as it was an exploration that’s relevant to my own writing questions.

In the session we first discussed the types of conflict in fiction as outlined by Victoria Lynn Schmidt in her book Story Structure Architect:

Relational Conflict 
This is the main character in conflict with another human

Social Conflict
The Main Character faces the group and the cultural/social/legal limits of that group--a religious organization and its laws, a secular institution and its laws, or maybe a book club and its expectations.

Situational Conflict
The main character is challenged by something that occurs or arises in the natural or human-made world, maybe tornadoes or fire or being lost in the woods or swimming among sharks.

Inner Conflict
The main character is challenged by the self—by habits or uncertainty or memories or any of the many physical or emotional elements of that person.

Paranormal Conflict 
The main character is challenged by technology, science, or the limits of what is possible: unleashing a new strain of bacteria, dealing with superpowers, ghosts.  

Cosmic Conflict 
The main character deals with fate, destiny, or God

Then we did a close reading of a few scenes from The Goose Girl, one of the residency’s common books and discussed what types of conflict were present in the scenes. Were the scenes loaded with too many types? How much is too much? What types of conflict might be best for what types of scene?

Types of conflict are nearly interchangeable with types of antagonists. I concluded the session by encouraging the writers to make their own conflict/antagonist list for each of their own stories. What are the specific conflicts or antagonists a protagonist might encounter? This is crucial world building. 

In her lecture “Bad Luck and Trouble: Antagonists in Fiction”, Laura Ruby told us that the most important antagonist “is the self.” Similar, one could say, to Schmidt’s “Inner Conflict.” I agree with Laura (who wouldn’t!) but my final caution to the residency students in my session was about this very important antagonist: Use this conflict sparingly in scenes. This is especially and most obviously true of action scenes, of course, but all scenes can bog down when they focus on inner turmoil. Once established, the inner conflict is part of the reader’s base knowledge and the writer need only—at most—quickly signal that inner struggle. Unless there is a change about to occur that will alter the plot trajectory, it might be a good idea to bury the self.

Marsha Qualey has been a faculty member in Hamline's MFAC program since it began. She is the author of several YA novels, one novel for adults, and several work-for-hire books for younger readers. For more information please visit her website.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Alumni Voices with Bill Kennedy: The Library's Leadership Role

How is the library's role measured?

Is it a number? The James River Valley Library System ranks very well in the categories tracked by the North Dakota State Library. Jamestown is #10 in population in North Dakota and is ranked #8 library in the state in number of visits in 2015. This is a good number.

Or is it learning opportunities that change lives? A story that makes a connection?

Over the past few months, I have collected stories from a cross section of past and present community members and friends that illustrate the role the library plays in the community. Here are a few of those stories based on interviews and my own reading.

English Lecturer, University of Wisconsin, Stout

Libraries have always been important to me. They were especially important for the year and a half after college. I took a year off before grad school to work as a caddy in Chicago and on the Oregon coast, and travel through Australia. Because I never stayed in one place very long, I depended on public libraries for internet so I could stay in touch with friends and family, keep up with current events, research graduate programs, and communicate with the graduate programs I was considering. As an aspiring writer, I depended on libraries as my source for books and films and was able to continue educating myself during that time between college and graduate school.

Elementary Faith Formation Coordinator, St. James Basilica
L-R Annie, age 8, Isaac, age 10, Seth, age 6, Katie and Jacob, age 12

As a parent of four kids, I know that children's literacy is of utmost importance.  I also know that it is not easy in our modern world of screens everywhere.

I know genetically my kids are not all made up exactly the same and therefore reading comes easy to some and not as easy to others.  That is where the community library comes to the forefront in our family.

My children don't always love to read, and sometimes they do not want to go to the library, but when I get them there they almost always find something of interest.

I have made it our weekly habit, since they were babies, to go to the library in the name of literacy for my kids. The library is a place children of any age or economic level can come and experience books beyond their imagination.


Louis L’Amour was born in Jamestown, ND in 1908. By the time of his death in 1988, he had written 89 novels, a book of poetry, 14 short-story collections and two full length works of non-fiction. There are more than 200 million copies of his books in print. 45 of his novels have been adapted for Hollywood and TV.

Quotes from Education of a Wandering Man, Bantam Books, 1938

"Education is available to anyone within reach of a library." Page 2.

"All of us had library cards and they were always in use. Reading was as natural to us as breathing." Page 6.

 “The first (non-fiction book) was, I believe, a book called The Genius of Solitude, which I found in our Alfred Dickey library in my hometown.” Pages 13-14.

North Dakota State Representative, District 12
Anthony, Alyse, Jessica, Kenlee, at the ND State Legislature

I have many fond memories of Alfred Dickey library and the bookmobile growing up. Now I take my step daughters there often in the summer and they love it. The library has always been a special place for me. It was summer reading programs, being able to rent a movie after reaching a goal, and spending time with my mom during the summers.

It is a great equalizer. Everyone could come, check out books and explore their interests, a true place of community. I remember when I reached my first achievement at a young age in the summer program, I swear my mother still has my treasure chest toy yo-yo somewhere. I was so proud of that, I worked hard and earned something.

I want that for my girls and luckily they both love going to our local library. They are also part of the summer reading program and we go to Lego club once every two weeks. It's a wonderful experience I feel blessed to share with them, and libraries make it possible.

Homeschool Mom

I began using the children’s library on a weekly basis when my oldest children were three and five years old. All of my children became avid readers, and most of them were reading by age five. My local library made homeschooling my five children much easier because I was able to find a multitude of books to interest all of them. Once a child loves books, all of education opens up to them and they are able to learn rapidly. I am thankful to my library for providing these books for us, and for ordering books that I could not afford to purchase myself.

Several of my children love to write, and as part of our homeschool curriculum they write their own stories. Steven has a strong desire to publish his work. He completed a rough draft of a comic book. My local librarian, Jennifer, offered to help us self-publish it. She took an interest in Stephen’s book Chet Chetterson’s Adventures, and her enthusiasm propelled us toward completing our immense project of rewriting and self-publishing a book. She brought books into the library on how to draw comics, as well as current examples of comic book stories. Once we had created the comic book, Jennifer helped to organize a book-signing event and publicity in the newspaper. I am amazed and thankful for all her help. This experience has helped my son go deeper into the creative process and gain a new appreciation for his education as a means to get where he is going in life.

Retired 2nd grade Teacher, Reading Specialist/Read180 Teacher
Currently Coaching 7th Grade Girls Basketball, Elementary Track & Field
Deb and Students

The James River Valley Library plays a very important role in the elementary classroom.  I have taught children for 30 years, and have depended on and worked closely with the library throughout each school year, at all levels of teaching. I have used the library for thematic teaching units, to find as many resources as possible in order to pique a student's interest on a topic. I have borrowed books on a monthly basis to use for oral reading when studying heroes such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Ruby Bridges.                      

I love calling the librarian and upon communicating the need, she gathers the books of interest for me. When I arrive, the books are ready. Many teachers in our district use the library in the same way. We encourage our students to get involved in the library programs throughout the school year and the summer.  We have a direct connection with the librarians. I can't put enough emphasis on the importance of a great relationship between our elementary schools and JRVLS.

Community Activist:  Little Libraries, Community Gardens, Seed Library
Laura Miller Today, Donald Kershaw Age 7

There comes a time when all the king's horses and all the king's men can never fix Humpty Dumpty again. My brother Donald, at the age of 77, had come to that point after
a number of medical diagnoses had chipped away at his robust health.  The final diagnosis was male breast cancer. He gave up his beloved Volvo, his apartment and his independence and moved into a nursing home in Normal, Illinois. Soon he was too frail for more surgeries. Powerful prescriptions had lost the power to heal him. Donald was face to face with a point of no return. I brought him to Jamestown.

It was now time for me to help him prepare his last life and death decisions. We had not grown up together. We were a family of five children born during and shortly after the depression, growing up separately in foster care and in children’s homes. Nevertheless, we were close.

In these last years he was no longer my mentor. I was his mentor and I was his friend. Most of all, I was his sister. In October, 2015 the Friends of the James River Library System kicked off a series of programs aimed at helping the public understand how to prepare for the final days of life. I attended each of these programs and at the end of each session felt more prepared to help my brother and myself.

During the second session led by Michael Williams, owner and funeral director at Williams-Lisko Funeral Home, I learned that the University of North Dakota Medical School had a deeded body program where my brother could donate his body after death to the study of medical students. This had been Donald’s long time wish even in his young and healthy days.

My brother passed on June 11, 2016. Thanks to the James River Valley Library System I had in short order learned to navigate the paths to making final preparations. I can now take comfort in knowing he was able to complete a final wish and I have gained knowledge in making my own preparations.

*Bill Kennedy grew up in a library, his house. He spent many years in the apparel industry traveling the world looking for trends. Bill received his MFA in Creative Writing for Kids & YA at Hamline U in 2009, the second graduating class.  He and his wife teach creative writing to students from elementary school to long term care facilities. He is the author of three books.

Bill’s day job is raising awareness and money for a renovated and expanded library as the Development Director for the James River Valley Library System (JRVLS) in Jamestown, ND.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Alumni Voices with Melinda Cordell: The Buddy System - Promotion at its Best

My nonfiction book, Courageous Women of the Civil War: Soldiers, Spies, Medics, and More, came out on August 1. It’s only been a few days since the book’s official release date, but it seems like much longer. 

Long before the book came out, I did something smart: on my Facebook account, I started friending folks from way back in my life. People I went to school with. My parents’ friends. Folks from around town. Writer friends. Hamline buddies (of course). I friended my fourth-grade teacher, my speech therapist from clear back in kindergarten, folks from Nodaway, shirttail relatives, college buddies, professors, the list goes on. Of course it’s nice to have all my old friends and relatives in one place, but I also knew that home folks would be interested in seeing what I did, since they knew me back when I was small and walking around with my nose in a book.

The nice thing was how good it felt to reestablish contact after lo these many years. And when I talked about my book on there, folks actually got excited. This didn’t usually happen in my life, so it felt pretty good.

A few months before my book’s release date, I hit a rough patch due to outside factors. I stopped caring about writing and was profoundly unmotivated to change this. My little family kept me going, and I love those guys for it, but I was low. I’d been a writer all my life, and now this other stuff was going on, and I was worried that I was going to be stuck without writing for the rest of my life. I needed help, but it seemed like wherever I turned for help a door would quietly shut in my face.  
But then, after I got my box of books, some of my buddies (from FB, naturally) wanted to buy a book from me. So I sold one. Then I sold another. Friends – and I just said that in my preacher’s voice – friends, that’s when the light shone upon me. I handed somebody my book. They handed me a $20 bill. After all these years of hard work, I was getting a tangible reward. Instant gratification. And that’s when I got hungry. When I got hungry, I pulled out of my funk. I got so motivated so fast it made my head spin.

So anytime anyone on FB said they wanted to buy my book, I told them that if they buy it from me, I’ll take it to them and sign it right there. Old friends are taking me up on that. The neat thing is, not only do I sell a book, but I get to talk to an old friend I haven’t seen for a while. That’s definitely worth the price of admission.

Other friends are helping out in other ways. Some give me leads about places to sell my book, or they’ll share posts about my book with folks they know. Some friends have invited me to come out and give presentations. You never know who will have a lead for you – so invite ‘em all!
And I’m getting more ideas just from hanging out with these guys. I used to say that I had no interest in self-publishing. Then, after an author’s showcase at the library where I hung out with a bunch of self-published writers with tons of books on their tables, I got hungry again. “Dude!” I thought. “I have so many old manuscripts that agents have passed on – I’m going to self-publish them too!” So now I’ll have more books to sell with my Civil War book. I’m still sending stuff out to agents – but Mama’s tired of waiting over here. She’s going to make her own damn books!

You know, this whole experience has been a kick in the pants – a very welcome one, because I had no idea that promotion could be such a nice thing. My friends’ support has been invaluable, and actually has been one of my favorite parts of this whole journey. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

*Melinda Cordell earned her Master’s in Writing for Children from Hamline University. Her first book, Courageous Women of the Civil War, has been published by Chicago Review Press and is (at this particular millisecond) a #1 New Release in Teen & Young Adult Military History.  Melinda's fiction and articles have appeared in Cricket, Highlights, and The Horn Book, as well as Organic Gardening, Birds and Blooms, and Grit. Visit her author's website at http://www.melindacordell.com/ to learn more or just say hi!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Alumni Voices with Rebecca Grabill: 7 Reasons You Might Want an MFA

I hid brochures for MFA programs in my bottom desk drawer. Every few months I’d take them out, page through, dream a little… Until finally in 2009 I enrolled in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. The program took two years of concentrated study at home, and for 60 days, spread over five residencies, I lived in the Twin Cities, away from children and family. It was a significant investment in time, energy, never-over-abundant funds, but now, five years after graduation, I can say without question, the MFA was worth every dollar, every hour in the MSP airport, every frantic trip to the library to pay my fines so I could pick up yet more holds. Hamline’s MFA gave me far more than I spent (or bled) to earn it. Like…

1. An MFA filled my toolbox with New Writing Tools and showed me how to better use the tools I already had.

Was I pounding in nails with a screwdriver? What could I do with a jigsaw? I learned about psychic distance and filters, I re-learned plot and characterization and so much more. Could I have broken through my plateau on my own? I’m not sure. Maybe, with enough time and enough reading. And if an MFA only provided tools, then I might question the value. But the MFA gave me more than a single workshop or another book on writing. It gave me more than tools.

Pre MFA my reading was all over the place. I’d go to the library, check out books based on recommendations or labels on the spine: Oh, Mystery! I want to write a mystery, too! As if I were looking through the lens of my DSLR set to manual with the focus ring turned the wrong way, all the world’s books looked the same. I never knew what new books were worth reading, or what old books were true classics I couldn’t live without.

2. An MFA provided Focus.

Before my first residency I began on Hamline’s Required Reading List—120 curated books spanning all genres and age groups which provided us a grounding in the literature we were learning to write and a common vocabulary. Plus each residency added several must-read books for different topics we'd study that semester. Even now I can post to my alumni group, What’s a good middle grade novel on bullying?” and get a dozen relevant titles, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Which leads to another perk…

I came into my program set on writing young adult (YA). It’s what I’d always written, what I always read, but,

3. My MFA program helped me Become a More Versatile Writer.

I spent an entire semester working the the amazing Phyllis Root on picture books. Another semester ignited a love for poetry that grew and influenced my graduating thesis—a novel in verse for middle grade readers, and my first two published books will be—not YA—but picture books. Speaking of publication…

I once dreaded writing query letters. I agonized over the hook, wrote and rewrote a bio that sparkled while still being…true. Because while it looks great in a bio, I’m not a celebrity, don’t have a doctorate, and don’t have one single superpower. Unless Able to Scale Mountains of Laundry counts.

4. The MFA gave me a Credential, and with it Credibility.

A degree from a good institution is noticed. It is respected. An MFA qualifies me not just to lead workshops (and get paid for them), but to teach. At the college level. The credential proves I put in time, tears, and money, that I’m committed to being an author. It proves to me, on those days when I’m cleaning up one toddler-tornado disaster after another that I am a writer. A real writer. Because sometimes it's easy to forget...

I’d worked at this writing thing so long and so hard and had so many Close Calls (I brought this to committee, but unfortunately…” “I love your work, but this book just isn’t quite…”), I truly believed I’d be stuck in the slush pile forever.

5 An MFA Can Open Doors to the Publishing World.

When I began the MFA I had no idea one of my classmates would go on to become an editor with a big house. I had no idea other classmates would find an agent who would happen to be a good friend of my agent. The industry is an interconnected web, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my network of alumni stretches, somehow, to every publishing house on the planet. Alumni, faculty, we all work together, sharing knowledge, names, connections and yes, even stolen carrots.

Speaking of carrots, I once felt isolated on this writing journey. Sure I had a critique group and I had a few writer friends, though out of necessity most overlapped with Mommy Friends or school-pick-up friends. My segmented life had only a small hole carved out for Me as Writer.

6 The MFA Gifted Me with Community.

Friendships I’ll treasure forever. Each residency became a celebration: These are my people. They understand me, care about the same things, share my passions and dreams. I still remember many late-night conversations with my first-residency roommate—our instant connection that continues to this day. And remember the carrots? Late-night pick-up games of Dixit, glasses of wine at the hotel bar. I forged memories, shared life with people who, five years later, continue to share life and inspire me, goad me to keep at this exhausting art. Because…

When I began the MFA I thought I knew everything. I’d read all the books (hadn't I?), I knew all the rules (didn’t I?). I was a great, or, um pretty good writer (wasn't I?). Beneath the bravado a crippling terror whispered that I was a pretender, a hack.

7 Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Gave me Confidence. And Humility.

Learning always builds confidence. But there’s nothing quite like seeing a whole universe of expertise—faculty, visiting writers and publishing professionals—to make me acutely aware of how much I didn’t know. Yet. Because I now have the tools, community, and support to continue learning as long as there are new things to learn.

Which would be, in case you're wondering, forever.

Rebecca Grabill graduated in summer 2011 and has two forthcoming picture books, Halloween Goodnight (S&S 2017) and Violet and the Woof (HC 2018). She lives and writes in Michigan. Find out more about Rebecca and her writing at www.rebeccagrabill.com/blog.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Faculty Voices with Ron Koertge: You Never Know

My friend Gerry Locklin turned me onto poetry in grad school at the University of Arizona. We were 22 and 23 respectively when he showed me a copy of an indie magazine named The Wormwood Review. I didn’t need drugs to open those doors of perception. The Wormwood Review did it for me. I was studying poetry (and how I hate to see the words study and poetry side by side. Can’t you just see students gritting their teeth and wondering what that freaking albatross stands for?) but none of the poems in Wormwood or Poetry Now or Aldebran Review needed lucubration; they were right there on the page waiting to be enjoyed.

And they were enjoyable: goofy and uncultivated and against-everything-one-should-be-against, they were little celebrations of another kind of life – not serious, not dogged, not sober, highbrow or grave. They looked liked they’d been fun to write and they were fun to read. Did any of these poets imagine their verse was immortal or enduring? No way. Although Wormwood lasted a long time, lots of the indie mags were as ephemeral as the poetry they published. Here today, gone – sometimes – today.

Still, a lot of us who started fifty or so years ago are still around, still writing, and often still not taking things seriously. But here’s the thing – writing fast as I do and in a sense tossing poems often leads to a lot of balmy but imprudent work. Poems that don’t jell and never will. Poems that more witless than witty. Poems that collapse under the strain of so much whimsy. But every now and then something very cool happens and a poem steps forward wearing its jester’s cap and bells and just kills. A little gift from the poetry gods.

Of course, after that I want another gift, so every morning I give my Ego ten bucks and send it off to watch a movie about itself, put my butt in the chair and do my best. Because – as the title up there says, you never know.

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program. He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and recently co-authored a young reader series. You can discover Ron's literary work by visiting his author's website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.