Thursday, March 26, 2015

Alumni Voices with Gina DiCiani: Amuse Me

(Author’s note: Think of this post as a Public Service Announcement for writers.)

I really like to follow rules.

So, when I hear or read advice like Jane Yolen’s oft-repeated, if you want to be a writer, get your “butt in chair,” I take it to heart. 

Okay, I sort of, kind of tend to overdo things, but I have been known to spend hours without moving significantly, sitting still while I type words into my laptop, because Jane Yolen says that’s what I’m supposed to do.

And then a study was released claiming, “sitting is the new smoking.” (Dr. Anup Kanodia, as reported in the New York Daily News, May 27, 2013.) And even worse, the same article reports that Dr. James Levine, endocrinologist at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine says, “The chair is out to kill us.” According to the article, “[R]esearchers in Australia discovered that serial sitting slows the metabolism and increases the risk of a heart attack and stroke.”

This is not good news. With all due respect to Ms. Yolen, I now needed to do something that would get me out of the chair. But what?

Chris Hamilton posted a suggestion for overcoming this “butt in chair” issue, suggesting we stand when we write. (Florida Writer’s Conference Blog, July 12, 2013). However, elevating my laptop on a contraption is too complicated and potentially catastrophic.

I had to face the facts. I needed to do some cardio. If there was only a way to combine the workouts with writing my novel (see above, where I note my tendency to overdo things).

First, I tried studying writing while I did cardio. I downloaded craft books on creative writing, intending to listen to them while I was working out. No surprise, but this approach quickly proved to be less than inspiring. So I switched to listening to audiobooks, which seemed like a good idea at first, but I kept losing track of where I was in the story. Perhaps I wasn’t exercising often enough to remember what had happened during my last workout session.

I know music inspires a workout, but calculating beats per minute and adjusting the intensity of my workout accordingly was beyond me. But then … I hit upon the solution: 
The “amuse me” playlist. 

The playlist is not about songs that have a certain number of beats per minutes – that’s not the kind of thing that motivates a writer to move. No, my playlist is full of songs whose lyrics amuse me. They don’t just make me laugh, although there’s some of that in the selection of songs to my list. They also make me think more about some element of writing.

So, in the interest of helping my writer friends get out of their chairs for a little while, I share some of my playlist here, with a reason why I think it amuses me.

Makes Me Laugh: “Don’t Cha,” by the Pussycat Dolls, sometimes makes me laugh out loud with its lyrics, which ask, “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend were hot like me?” (Lyrics by Busta Rhymes, Cee-Lo Green, and Sir Mix-A-Lot.) Has anyone ever said this to someone? If so, let me know how it went. In the same vein, Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend also makes me laugh.

Clever: “Fairy Tale,” by Sara Bareilles, is a song whose lyrics take on popular fairy tales and question the “happily ever after” premise? What’s not to love about a song that has lyrics like, “Snow White is doing dishes again ‘cause what else could you do/ With seven itty bitty men?”

Surprises Me: Country music is great for telling the s/he wronged me story. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” has lyrics that made me think about how we present less-than-socially-acceptable behavior (revenge that results in damage to property) in art:  “I dug my key into the side  / of his pretty little souped up 4 wheel drive, / carved my name into his leather seats.../ … Maybe next time he'll think before he cheats.” (Written by Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear.)

Elements of Good Storytelling: Taylor Swift is known for telling a good story in her songs (and she’s incredibly popular with the audience we’re aiming to reach – just ask my 12-year old niece). In “You Belong With Me,” Swift totally captures characterization so easily in just a few words: “She wears high heels, I wear sneakers / She's Cheer Captain and I'm on the bleachers.” (Written by Liz Rose and Taylor Swift.)

Elements of Poetry: Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves – well, enough said. (Written by Kimberly Rew.) And it has a good beat.

(Thank you, free downloads from Starbucks, for introducing me to songs I’d never otherwise hear of.)

Please share your “amuse me” songs in the comments.


Gina DiCiani is a January, 2014 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives and writes and moves in the Chicago, Illinois area.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Faculty Voices with Claire Rudolf Murphy: Writing Past Dark (The Transformative Success)

Claire Rudolf Murphy
Hello, Inkpot Readers. In the conclusion of Phyllis’ touching post last week she said, “I will tell those younger selves (and the self I am now), “Darlin’, you’re going to be all right.”

In her February post Jackie asked us what we writers do “to feed our spirits and our creative selves.”

Reading has “fed” me and made me feel “all right,” since I was a young girl. I needed some books in the last weeks to pep me up when I returned from our January residency. My bronchitis dragged on and on, and Claire was a glum girl, lying on the couch instead of writing. I loved reading my dear Alaskan friend Deb Vanasse’s first adult novel
Cold Spell, especially since I know the backstory of her writing life and the Alaskan setting. But I could only skim her other one: What Every Author Should Know: No Matter What You Publish. It’s chock full of helpful information. But learning about the changing world of publishing didn’t help to get me writing.

While searching online about writers and procrastination, I came across a quote from this book: Writing Past Dark: Envy,Fear Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life. Like most writers my shelves are filled with craft books and books about the writing life. But I’d never seen this one by Bonnie Friedman. A quote from our fiction guru Janet Burroway convinced me to get a copy: “If you think writing is a lonely task and you can afford one book, buy this one.”

I was so taken with Friedman’s introduction that I started underlining it (until I remembered it was a library book.) Her introduction and ending chapter featured the meatiest material:
“Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing. They are the ones who discover what is most important and strangest and most pleasurable in themselves and keep believing in the value of their work, despite the difficulties.”
Get thyself to the computer, Claire, and write some sentences, any sentences.

About how her graduate writing students are waiting for an outer sign that they are “brilliant,” Friedman writes:
"Because they are waiting, they do not write as hard as they can. And because they assume someday writing will feel different from the way it does now, they squander many true gifts. . . . that when they are successes they will be entitled to take time from family or take more risks, their doubts will be rinsed away, they will know their work’s importance . . . When they are successes they will deserve to be happy.”
So writers at any stage of their career need to find happiness/satisfaction in the daily work. If we don’t, if we keep waiting for that outer sign of success and recognition, we’ll always be unsatisfied and anxious. And that state hardly produces the best writing or any at all.
“I live in dread that the story I am currently writing resembles those that have been rejected . . . it feels as if my new writing comes from the exact same place. . . Yet our finest writing will certainly come from who we already are and how we already write.” (p. 146)
Oh, that trust issue again. Trusting our voice and our unique talents.
Friedman concludes the book with these words:
“To love our lives right now – that is the transformative success. To see what is already beautiful – that is what is the astonishing strength.”
Of course it’s not as easy as that. We have to relearn every day how to love the work. Rereading and thinking about Friedman’s insights finally got me off the couch, and back to my work. But if all if this is just too heavy to think about right now, try this fun and brilliant book: WildThings! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Bird, Danielson, Sieruta).

Now that I’ve got my inner writing life all figured out and happiness reigns, I’m working on inserting more mischief in life and writing. But first I am cheering for my Gonzaga basketball teams – both the women and the men’s teams made it into the Sweet Sixteen during March Madness, along with MFAC alum Elizabeth Schoenfeld’s Duke Blue Devils and MFAC alum Randall Bonser’s Michigan State team. All three of us have been inspired to put in good writing time before every game. According to our beloved Kate DiCamillo that means two hours or two pages a day. We can do that, right?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Faculty Voices with Phyllis Root

Phyllis, second from left.
Click to enlarge.
In the past few weeks two events have converged. I bought yet another book on getting rid of clutter, and I had my sixty-sixth birthday. I don’t have sixty-six years of things to sort through, but I am finding bits and pieces of my life I had squirreled away and completely forgotten about.

Take this photo of a friend’s wedding in which I was a bridesmaid. I almost didn’t recognize myself in a long pink dress with long hair and a wreath of flowers, and I had to rummage in my memory to recall the bride’s name.

And these grade school pictures: here I am in sixth grade, fifth grade, fourth grade. In Talent is Not Enough Molly Hunter wrote about seeing a picture of her young self and thinking, “Warn her! Oh, for God’s sake, why did nobody warn her?”

Looking at these younger selves, I wonder what I’d say if I could send a message back in time. I had already lost my mother, so I knew about the uncertainty of the universe and the black hole of loss. Would I warn my ten-year-old self of more deaths ahead? Of the dark despair of depression? Would I tell her to find a good-paying profession with benefits and a pension plan? Would I whisper a few words that would allow her to develop the Internet or back a spectacularly winning horse?

I could tell her, “You will fall in love and out of love. You will have babies who grow up to be self-sufficient young women. You will have friends of the heart to see you through tough times and good times.”

And if my younger self pressed me for more, I might say, “You’ll go to South Africa and Vanuatu, you’ll raft down the Zambezi river and dogsled in 20 below weather and stand on the rim of an active volcano, you’ll sail and canoe and kayak and grow vegetables and wildflowers and hear whales breathing around you in the darkness.”

But mostly I think I’d tell her, “You will be very lucky, because you will live among words. Words to tell your daughters that they are strong and beautiful and can do anything they put their minds and hearts to. Words to write books that, amazingly, other people might read. Words with which to try to give a voice to the world you will inhabit.”

Most of what I’m finding now in basements and closets I’ll let go. The pages of old stories can be recycled into new paper for new stories that someone, somewhere, will write. The clothes in the back of my closer will keep other folks warm. The books I’ve read and loved will be read and loved by someone else. But I’ll keep those pictures somewhere where I can see them once in awhile, and when I look at them, I will tell those younger selves (and the self I am now), “Darlin’, you’re going to be all right.”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Publication Interview with Diane C. Mullen: Tagged

Charlesbridge Publishing
March 10, 2015
Timothy Tang, cover illustration
Please describe the book.
TAGGED is a contemporary novel about Liam O’Malley, a fourteen-year-old graffiti artist living in the projects of Minneapolis with his mom and three younger siblings. When Liam’s estranged older brother coerces him to tag a graffiti symbol over a rival gang’s tag, Liam’s life is threatened. Afraid that he might turn out just like his older brother, Liam’s mom sends him to a small town on Lake Michigan for the summer to live with her best friend, Kat, a sculptor and art teacher. Liam soon delves into the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, Claes Oldenburg, and his own personal aesthetics. He’s encouraged to consider his art seriously and how it might contribute to a greater community. Having to decide between staying with Kat to pursue his dream and returning home to his siblings who need him, Liam’s story inspires him to reinvent himself for the better.

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?
The biggest change during the process was the title changing from PIECES OF A WRECK to TAGGED. That happened when I first began working with my editor, Julie Bliven, at Charlesbridge. There were also some changes made during a couple of rounds of revisions with my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette. I first began the work on this novel during my final semester in the MFAC program, and the first eighty-five pages became my Creative Thesis. I was inspired to begin a brand new novel in my fourth semester because of the work I did with Kelly Easton during my Critical Thesis semester.

What research was involved before and while writing the book?
TAGGED was extremely research heavy! Here are a few topics – graffiti art; Pablo Picasso; baseball; gangs in Minneapolis; abstract expressionism; Minneapolis housing projects; art camps and boarding schools; Jean-Michel Basquiat; the fine arts of sculpture, painting, printmaking, and dance; Lake Michigan; gang hand signs; the Southie neighborhood in Boston; Claes Oldenburg; small resort towns; contemporary art; and handguns used by gangs and drug dealers. Most importantly I had to figure out what it was like to be a fourteen-year-old boy.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
I workshopped earlier versions of this novel during a couple of Alumni Weekends at Hamline.

Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
During my time in the MFAC program I fell in love with many amazing books, but three novels stand out above the rest - The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier because of the characters and the story, and because Cormier refused to make everything tidy at the end of the novel; I was moved by Carolyn Coman’s story and unflinching portrayal of domestic violence in What Jamie Saw; and I was blown away by Chris Lynch’s use of second person narration in Freewill. I’m certain that the work of all three have had an influence on my own work.

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?
My first readers are a good friend who has an MFA in Writing, and my agent. I share new work with my friend when I feel like it makes enough sense for her to understand what I’m trying to do. And I usually send new work on to my agent when I feel like it’s ready for submissions. But sometimes I’ll send her a bit of something new just to see if she thinks it’s worth going forward with.

Where do you do most of your writing?
I do all of my new work writing at home, sitting at a table next to ten-foot tall windows overlooking my urban neighborhood. But when it comes time to revise I always go to a café/restaurant named Barbette down the street. I seem to be able to read my work much more closely when I have some commotion going on around me
Do you remember the first book you loved?
The first two books I loved where The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton which my mom used to read to me over and over; and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George which I read over and over by myself.


Diane C. Mullen is a January 2009 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes in Minneapolis. To learn more about Diane and her work, please visit her website

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Faculty Voices with Jane Resh Thomas: A Super-Hero Grows Up: “Jack and the Mad Dog,” a Novella by Tony Earley

Jane Resh Thomas
In Mr. Tall: Stories and a Novella, by Tony Earley, the author of Jim the Boy and The Blue Star presents a hilarious and dead serious new version for adults of the tale about “that Jack,” the one of Beanstalk and Giant Killer fame. As he waits for the farmer to go to sleep, so he can bend the farmer's wife over a plow for the price of four dollars, Jack sips a colorless liquid from the mason jar he found in the middle of the road. The drink is not moonshine, however, but “seeing juice.” Jack will never be the same.

Earley has given the priapic youth of folklore a conscience. Never again will his belief in his own powers enable him to seduce and rob and hoodwink and cuckold every passerby without cost to himself. When he sets out for Yonder and meets a sweet young virgin, he will never again be able to roll her in the hay with no thought of consequence and then set out again without remorse. He won't be able to keep aloft the flying bottom-rotted rowboat and white-oak contraption in which he and his friend Tom Dooley escape the snarling black dog that blocks Jack at every bridge he encounters.

The old man who has “spen[t] all those years and spells and truck helping [the boy] out,” when the old man “could've boodled up all the treasure for [him]self...,” “could've been the one [who] diddled all the maidens and flummoxed the giants and stole the gold and soared around in the flying boat”—that same  old man is the one who left the seeing juice in the road. He sounds like a worn-out father at the end of his son's exhausting adolescence. Now he has run out of gifts:

“Jack, you ain't going to understand a word of this, but being a king didn't
 interest me none, and I never developed a taste for treasure. But making sure no harm come to you once you set out? That there made me rich as I ever cared to be.”

A nameless cry laddered up the inside of Jack's ribcage toward the light. “But I'm ethically challenged,” he said.

“You are that.”

“And I never think about nobody but myself.”

“You do not.

“I don't deserve a single thing you give me.”

“No, sir, not one. You always have been, and continue to be, a most unworthy vessel.”

“Then why—”

            “Because, honey, that's what makes it count.”

In this gloss on assorted folktales, Earley makes fun of everything and everybody, including the “pointyheads” who write glosses on folktales. The novella curls back on itself and comments on 
Earley's own literary techniques. Jack winds up in a double-wide at the top of the hill with a pail of water, Jill, and a baby, having discovered responsibility as a tornado bears down on them.

Just as happens every day to grownups in the real world.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Publication Interview with Molly B. Burnham: Teddy Mars, Almost a World Record Breaker

Trevor Spencer, illustrator
Katherine Tegen Books
March 24, 2015 
Please describe the book.
Teddy Mars feels invisible in his huge family, especially because of his little brother Jake, a.k.a. The Destructor. Teddy loves The Guinness Book of World Records, and the pigeons that live next door. He does not love Grumpy Pigeon Man who owns the pigeons. But when life gets to be too much, he moves out into a tent in his backyard, and he winds up working for Grumpy Pigeon Man. With the help of his friends, Lonnie and Viva, he plans to break the perfect record, until his little brother destroys that idea. In the end he reconciles himself to his family, and they prove to him that they truly see him.

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?

I started this book my first semester when I was working with Ron Koertge. I wrote about twenty pages then put it away until the last residency. After graduating, some time passed, and then I picked it up again. I finished it and revised it over the course of a year. I sent it out to Tina Wexler, who loved it but had more revisions she wanted before she sent it out. That took a few months. The two biggest changes to the book were that it first started as a book in free verse. Ron pointed out that there was no reason it should be in verse, and so I turned it all into prose. The second change was that the original book took place over the course of a year, but when the book was bought, and they wanted it as a series and asked for two more books, they asked if I could truncate the action so the three books could all take place over one year.
What research was involved before and while writing the book?
I researched pigeons. We do live next door to a bunch of them. I also keep a number of copies of The Guinness Book of World Records beside me.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?

Yes, my last semester at Hamline with Anne Ursu and Eleanora Tate.

Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?

A million, too many to name.

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?

The first draft of Teddy Mars I took to a week-long workshop with Stephen Roxburgh and Carolyn Coman. They were the first people to read the whole thing. The second Teddy Mars book (which I’ve just finished copy edits on) was first read by my editor, Maria Barbo, and my agent, Tina Wexler. I think I’m a pretty private writer. A lot of time, I keep work private because I’m sorting it out myself, and I’m trying to listen to my own heart tell me what the book is about. I’m trying to get better about this and share more easily, not only because I’m used to putting work out to people from our program, but also because I’m teaching a writing class and forcing them to share their writing. I see how valuable it is. Sometimes I think I keep it to myself because my life is so full of opinions from other people
kids, partners, newspapersthat I just want a little time with me. But I could be fooling myself.

Where do you do most of your writing?
I have a small room in our house that my husband built for me. I need quiet when I write so I can hear all the voices in my head. And I think I’m like Virginia Woolfa room of my own is important. So much of my life goes out to others. As everyone in my family knows, if I was in a café I would end up watching the people, listening to their conversations; I would never get any writing done. This is why I’m always placed facing a wall if we go out to dinner. Otherwise it’s too distracting.

Do you remember the first book you loved?
I loved many books, but I will say for a picture book, Bread and Jam for Francis and middle grade, Tuck Everlasting.

Molly B. Burnham is a June 2010 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. To learn more about Molly and her writing please visit her website.

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?

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.