Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Inkpot Interviews: Elizabeth Verdick

Elizabeth Verdick's picture book Peep Leap was published this past March by Amazon Children's Publishing (formerly Marshall Cavendish). She will graduate from the MFAC program this July. For more information on Elizabeth and her writing, check out her website.
Please describe the book in under 50 words.
In this illustrated picture book, ten little wood ducklings must leap from their nest to the pond below. Duckling Ten is scared to take the plunge—until his family helps him to count down from ten and find his confidence.

Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
I was inspired to write this story after going on a field trip with my son’s kindergarten class to the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis. We saw a display of baby wood ducks making the leap from their nest in a tree to the pond below, where the mother duck waited. I began writing the story the same day. Up to that point, I’d been fortunate to have many nonfiction books published for kids of all ages, from toddlers to teens. I didn’t really know how to write a story, though. I was very lucky to have received the Shabo Award from the Loft Literary Center and the Martha Weston Grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, opportunities that helped build my confidence as a writer of fiction. Still, I had much to learn! I took writing classes at the Loft and learned about the Hamline MFA program. All the while, I kept turning back to my story of the little wood duckling who was scared to make the leap. I probably wrote a hundred versions of this story! Finally, I figured out how to make it into a counting book that rhymed, and the words began to fall into place. A month before I started at Hamline, I was offered a contract for Peep Leap from Marshall Cavendish, which was subsequently bought by Amazon Children’s Publishing. Writing the story was a leap, and so was starting school at Hamline. I’m very grateful to have had such amazing opportunities.

How did it come to the attention of its editor?

I found a local agent after attending the Loft Literary Center’s Children’s Lit. Conference. She helped me to place the manuscript.

What research was involved?
I learned all about wood ducks, which was part of the fun. I have a new appreciation for these wonderful creatures. I learned the ropes of writing picture books by reading Anne Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books. (Of course, once I got to Hamline, I learned tons more about writing picture books!) I joined a critique group and wrote, wrote, wrote. It’s almost embarrassing how many drafts I went through to create a story with so few words. But with picture books, it’s all about making every word count.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
No, it was already with the editor by that point. But I did read the manuscript to my colleagues when we were first getting to know one another during first semester.

What was your critical thesis on?
I explored unusual plots in award-winning middle-grade novels, including When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead and Holes by Louis Sachar. Both of these books have hard-to-follow plots, and I read them not only with a great sense of suspense but also a strange feeling of “How is the author doing this?!” The moment I finished the books, my impulse was to start again from page one to figure out what really happened and what I’d missed in my first read. The plots are like story puzzles—I wanted to understand how the “puzzle-makers” did what they did.

What was your creative thesis?
My thesis includes two picture books and chapters from a middle-grade novel. One picture book is a dog’s-eye view of the poet Emily Dickinson. I’ve also written a picture book about a fun-loving cub who does NOT want to stop and take a bath, no matter how dirty he may be or how much his mama pleads. My middle-grade novel is about a boy with autism who has special gifts that surface when his family moves in with his eccentric grandmother on a big old piece of wooded land she calls the Sanctuary—here, things aren’t always what they seem. My goal is to write a fantasy story in which the central character is identified as autistic but is so much more than that.

Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
Too many to count! I rediscovered some classics and was introduced to new authors, poets, stories, and genres. I’ve discovered things I never knew about writing and the business of publishing. I’ve seen firsthand just how dedicated, giving, and humble many children’s writers are. I am in awe of people who write and illustrate books for kids. My head is full of the many things I’ve learned in this program! It has been an unforgettable experience.

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are. When do you share a piece of writing?
I am involved in two separate writing groups, and I have a trusted “writing partner” who reads my rough and/or finished work. I have an agent who is not afraid to tell me, “This isn’t quite ready yet—get back to work.” I rely on my sixteen-year-old daughter’s opinion, too. I prefer to work on my writing alone for many drafts, until I feel that the material is truly ready for someone else’s eye. That said, I grew more comfortable with showing new, raw work to my Hamline advisors and workshop members. The beauty of this MFA program is the way it honors a writer’s work and intentions—the critiques help you bring out the best in your writing.

Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
My writing life today is still focused on Hamline packets, for now anyway. I’m working on my creative thesis, while jotting down ideas for future stories. I’m promoting Peep Leap and some baby board books that have recently been published. I’m looking forward to writing a follow-up to my book The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (this time focusing on teens). I work on many different projects on any given day.

What are you working on now?
Graduating! Although, to be honest, I’d be happy with one more semester. This program goes fast! I’ll miss it so much.

What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
I’m so, so glad I joined this program. I was already published in the category of nonfiction, but I had tons to learn about writing fiction. I felt as though I was starting from scratch, learning to write in a whole new way—but thanks to my Hamline advisors, I was given essential guidance, tools, and knowledge. I learned to trust the process, even when it was messy.
Hamline workshops give you a chance to show your work to a group of thoughtful, questioning peers who have your best interests at heart. The lectures offer insights about writing, rewriting, and finding a “home” for your work. It’s heartening when you hear from successful writers that they too have experienced the frustrations and rejections that are part of this business. But these writers will also tell you about times when their work touched a child or maybe even changed someone’s life, if only for a moment. That’s what’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do here. That’s what makes the journey worth every step.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Best American

Just a little nudge, friends, toward the Best American series:  Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, Best American Short Stories.  I read to steal, as you know,  and for treasure just lying there and glittering, there's nothing like this series.  If I'm working on poems, I sneak into short fiction.  If I'm writing stories, I pick the lock of poetry.   (You know I'm not talking about plagiarism, but about seeing how others have done it and then seeing if I can do it, too.  In my own way.)

There's nothing wrong with reading what my mother called trash, and inspiration can come from unlikely places,  but the BA series is quality swag.  For people who hate poetry, there are always surprises.  For innovation, the short stories never fail to surprise me.  And some of the writing in the essays is flat out sublime.

Most libraries have these going back a lot of years.  Give them a look.  I know you won't be disappointed.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Inkpot Interview: Jamie Kallio

Jamie Kallio is a January 2011 graduate of the MFAC program. Her book, Read On: Speculative Fiction for Teens was published in August, 2012 by Libraries Unlimited. She is a youth services librarian in suburban Chicago.

Please describe the book in under 50 words. With the explosion of interest in teen paranormal romance, reading choices need to be as diverse as the teens who read them. Designed to spark reader interest and engage teens, this guide is filled with scores of book lists for fans of science fiction, popular fantasy, and paranormal fiction. 

Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development? This project was nonfiction, so I approached it differently than I would fiction. It’s a reference material intended to help teachers, librarians, parents, and speculative fiction readers find books that go beyond Twilight and Harry Potter. First I spent a lot of time gathering resources. Then I researched the history of fantasy and speculative fiction as it pertains to YA readers and began to form the introduction. Next came all the reading and then writing all the annotations.  It was long, hard work (I began in December of 2010) but it was extremely rewarding. The biggest challenge in the rewrites was the index! Talk about needing super-sharp organizational skills! 

How did it come to the attention of its editor? It was by word-of-mouth; my previous supervisor wrote a reference book for Libraries Unlimited, and he recommended me for the Read On project. 

What research was involved? Lots and lots of reading YA fiction/fantasy/science fiction/horror.  I pored over review journals such as VOYA, School Library Journal, and Booklist, and relied heavily on a database called Novelist. 

What was your critical thesis on? My critical thesis discussed how teenagers had the mental and emotional capacity to read, understand, and enjoy complex fiction.  While researching my thesis, I kept coming across all these “rules” on how to write teen fiction, and I didn’t agree with many of them (i.e. always use 1st person; don’t include the point of view of an adult character; don’t write about extremely heavy or dark material). I realize now that my critical thesis directly informed how I wrote Read On: Spec Fiction for Teens.  My intro to the reference book is basically a condensed version of my thesis about how teens can and will read complex fiction and are currently the demographic that the publishing industry focuses on.  Very weird how it all fell together! 

What was your creative thesis? My creative thesis was my historical fiction middle grade novel. 

Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program? Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt. Reading that book gave me the permission to not only go ahead with my historical fiction for middle graders, but to also let loose with imagery, symbolism, and heartfelt character emotion.  

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? Online writing group (of other Hamline grads!) 

Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?  I have learned that writing is about 90% diligence and 10% talent. You can be the greatest, most creative writer in the world, but if you don’t do the work, your talent is not going to help you. You have to make appointments to write and stick to those appointments just as you would a doctor’s visit. I have more of a regular writing schedule now, and if I only get down 500 words a day, so be it. It’s still progress.  

What are you working on now? I am still working on my historical fiction middle grade novel!

What would you like to say to current or prospective students? My experience at Hamline really changed my writing for the better. The lectures, workshops, and faculty involvement helped me to go deeper in both my creative and critical work. And I met some lifelong friends!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Syntax and Snakes

     When I’m not removing snakes from my yard or sleeping I’m critiquing children’s and young adult manuscripts, written by adults, of course. I can tell from reading the first page of the manuscript how much I’m going to enjoy the rest of it. These manuscripts range from five or six pages to over three hundred. 
     Often my bright little brown eyes sparkle as I eagerly turn the pages; often my little lids droop, I shake my gray-haired head, and I go outside and chase snakes to regain my alertness. Once I chased a snake with my lawn mower, but that’s a story for later.
     Here’s a few critiquing finds that make me cringe:
     1. Writing the same thing too many different ways: “Mary, you worry too much. You let the littlest things that don’t mean anything get under your skin. If you fret and lose sleep over useless stuff you won’t have any time left to think about important things.”  Stop! Once is enough!
     2. The character falls to “the ground” inside a house. The ground? Is the character in a hut with a dirt floor? No? Then it’s floor, carpet, linoleum, rug, but not the ground, please. Unless, maybe, the character falls down in the square of dirt where the pet poops. I think I that’s called a litter box.
     3.“Well” and “just”. In some manuscripts “well” begins sentences, connects phrases, ends sentences, is an aside, or is an expression used to make the character’s language seem “folksy.” NOT!  In my style book “just” means “merely” or “only” or refers to time (just now, just then, now just a gall-dern minute, Mister!). No more than one “just” per page, thank you.
     4. One and two page chapters. One manuscript I read had 50 chapters and barely one hundred pages. I felt like I was being jerked  from one scene to another.
     5.  A double-spaced gap between each double-spaced paragraph that makes the manuscript seem longer than it really is.
     6. No headers or page numbers. Once I read a 200-page manuscript with no page numbers. I knew it had 200 pages because I had to number each page myself.  Imagine dropping a thick sheaf of papers  with no page numbers.
     Enough! My hands are shaking. I stagger outside to catch a fresh breeze and check my hydrangea bushes for blooms. A foot-long gray stick is drooped over one branch.
     My eyes narrow.  That’s not a stick. That’s a snake lounging in my hydrangea plant! I drop my pencil. Where’s my hoe??

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Having a bad day, MarshaQ?

(Hot and muggy here, storm's a brewing, so forgive the churlishness ahead.)

Without fail, a few hours after I finish my daily writing I get a physical reaction--a whoosh in the gut--that is coupled with a discernible mood letdown and then I think, "What I wrote today was crap."

This has been going on long enough--years--that I know to shake it off and resume peeling carrots or whatever it is that occupies me.

Often it is crap, of course, especially when I'm in the long slog of the first draft. But I know I'll be less bothered by that if I've allowed a fair amount of time to pass before I look again, and if I have also accomplished something in another venue, say the kitchen, where perhaps a pile of peeled and chopped carrots waits for the soup pot.

This mature and rational handling of the whoosh and the writing blues works best, however, when I write earlier in the day. These days I rarely write early in the day. Morning--even early afternoon--has never been a good writing time for me, but for many years that's when I wrote because that's when the kids were in school. The kids are far removed from school now (which sounds like they've been placed someplace for their or a school's safety), but I've acquired a couple of other jobs that require my attention (because people are paying for my attention) and so writing is item #3  on the get-the-job-done priority list. Therefore, the Whoosh and the blues often hit me late at night, when A. it's harder to resist looking at what I've written or B. I'm roused from sleep or near-sleep and so ensured a night of bad sleep.

Probably the writing cry I dislike the most is "I treat my writing like a job," a cry that is usually followed by a proud comment about dressing for the (uptown) office while being ready to go in the (home) office by 8 am. I let that cry haunt me for far too long, even as I knew it had nothing to do with my own professionalism. If I wanted a job where I punched a clock, then there are probably better professions than the one I've chosen/stumbled into/embraced.

Still, making writing an 8-4 endeavor would have one, enormous benefit: the whoosh and the blues would be easier to synchronize with a nice glass of wine. 

p.s.: this is a very nice article.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Inkpot Interview: Molly Beth Griffin

Molly Beth Griffin graduated from the MFAC program in January 2009. Since then she’s had two books published: a picture book, Loon Baby (Houghton Mifflin, 2011) and a YA novel, Silhouette of a Sparrow (Milkweed Editions, 2012).  Today she talks about the development of Loon Baby. 

Please describe the book in under 50 words.

Loon Baby
is a lost-and-found story about a baby loon learning how to dive, set against the backdrop of the eerily beautiful north woods and its many inhabitants. 

Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
I scribbled the first words of the story while camping in the BWCA in 2007, where I had the privilege of watching two baby loons learning how to dive. Some of the language of that jotted-down draft remains in the published book. The title changed from Dinner Dive to Loon Baby at the request of my editor (who wanted “loon” in the title), and I trimmed a lot of verbiage when the illustrator’s sketches came through—we wanted a 10 x 10 book with large print, and there just wasn’t enough room for Anne Hunter’s beautiful art without cutting some text. The illustrator’s dummy also had 34 pages, so I needed to cut one full repetition/scene. The result is a much tighter book and a more engaging read-aloud.

How did it come to the attention of its editor?

Ann Rider spoke at Hamline and invited our submissions. She passed the first story I sent to a colleague, who rejected it kindly. So I sent this story to that other editor, who passed it to Ann!  This one suited her, and she asked me to do some market research to bring to her acquisitions meeting.  Ultimately, she accepted it! She has rejected everything I’ve sent her since, but I still appreciate that she is willing to carefully read my work. 

What research was involved?

I did some loon research, to make sure the story was accurate. We did not want the characters to be unnecessarily anthropomorphized. I am very familiar with the north woods, and I wanted this story to convey the beauty of that area to child readers. 

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?

No. I wrote it early in the semester, and felt it was polished by the time workshopping came around.  But Phyllis Root was my advisor that semester, and her critiques helped me revise the story for submission. Her love of the MN landscape and her passion for language deeply influenced this story (and my writing in general). 
What was your critical thesis on?
Survival novels and how they help connect modern kids to nature.

What was your creative thesis?

Several picture book manuscripts (including what is now Loon Baby) and a full YA novel (what is now Silhouette of a Sparrow).

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

Oh yes.  Far too many to name. Some that influenced Loon Baby might be Looking for a Moose and Oliver Finds His Way by Phyllis Root and Up North at the Cabin by Marsha Chall.

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are.  When do you share a piece of writing?

My writing group, comprised of two other Hamline grads, meets in person and sees pieces in all stages—right now they are reading a very raw, bare-bones draft of my new YA novel.  I don’t have an agent, but send work (once I think it’s polished) to several editors, including the editor of Loon Baby.  I sometimes read new work at my monthly Picture Book Writers’ Salon meeting.

Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
I am mainly a stay-at-home mom now, so I have to make the most of small windows of writing time.  The real writing also has to share time with teaching work, critiques/freelance editing, book promo, website maintenance, and all that. It’s very different from the long stretches of just-writing that I did in grad school, but I still manage to get the work done.

What are you working on now?

My YA novel, Silhouette of a Sparrow, just came out last fall, so I’ve been busy with events and blogging for that. I recently put a middle grade novel into a drawer, and launched into writing a new contemporary YA novel. I am totally in love with it.  I’m also always submitting picture book manuscripts. I haven’t written a new one in a little while, but I try to be open when inspiration strikes.

What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
Make the most of this time—when you can focus all of your energy on generating new work and revising it. Enjoy it. Try to leave with as much material as possible. Then, when you’re done with the program, you can launch yourself into the business side of the industry. But right now, write.  Get in the habit of writing so that you know what it feels like to be fully engaged in it, and you can dip back into that state later on whenever you can.
Learn more about Molly, her books and her teaching on her website.

Monday, May 13, 2013

It's Our WEEK! (again)

Hey everybody, it's CHILDREN'S BOOK WEEK!!!
Give a children's book author a hug.
Or money.
Give yourself a hug.
Buy someone else's children's book.
Give away one of your own.
Read, read, read!
Need I say more?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Get Out of the Room

I know a while ago I wrote about Staying in the Room, riffing off the Ron Carlson motto.  He's right, of course. The room (or the desk or the coffee ship) is where the work gets done.  Not succumbing to the lures of the refrigerator or the cute person by the window takes discipline.  Those snacks aren't going anywhere; the world is full of attractive people.  Stay at your desk and make interesting mistakes.

There comes a time, however, when it's time to put on your shoes and go  out. Especially among your peers.  I'm the one who doesn't always go to hear other poets, preferring the rough edges of the race track to abrade a morning spent with a sestina.  But I do attend readings and am usually the better for it.

Last week Bianca and I strolled down the street to a local 99 seat theatre to hear some Spoken Word poets.  By grad school standards, they weren't very good  -- the poems were derivative and hortatory.   But these (mostly) young writers weren't in grad school.   They were performers and charismatics.  They riled the small audience up and in the lobby afterwards gave away their chapbooks.  Their energy was contagious and I left the theatre in a good mood.

That happens a lot.  Sure, at some poetry readings management wisely takes away any sharp objects and everybody's belt because after a soporific 40 minutes any sensible person would be go Keats one better and be totally in love with easeful Death.  

But most of the time, especially with the up-and-comers, readings are fun.  They bring out the larcenist in me  -- how can I take that cool simile and make it mine?  How did that poet get a laugh out of such a serious subject?  And it's always a rush to see somebody do anything really well, and that includes writing.

So stay in the room with Ron Carlson, then get out of there with Ron Koertge.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Gone Graphic

We're getting ready for the July residency, especially for the northward migration of faculty we haven't seen since last summer. Among those will be Gene Luen Yang, who will be doing a session on how to write a graphic novel. I've seen Gene do a fifteen minute version of this, and I'm delighted to be getting a full hour on the topic.

Meanwhile, I've been keeping up with all the new graphic novels vicariously--reading a few, relying on other people to report back. One such person is Natalie Rosinsky. She writes a column on graphic novels for Teen Literature Network. It's a wonderful resource.

The most recent column focuses on graphic novels in which public events intersect with private lives. Much of my own writing has been about just that, and I can't wait to get my hands on quite a few of these books.


PS: I'll be putting up the next Inkpot Interview soon.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Inkpot Interview: Sherryl Clark

Sherryl Clark comes to the Hamline MFAC program from Melbourne, Australia. She's the author of several books for young and teen readers. Her newest, Runaways, was published by Penguin Books Australia in March 2013. 

Please describe the book in under 50 words.
It’s a MG verse novel in two voices. Jack and Cassie are siblings – when neither of Jack’s parents seem to care about him, he decides to run away, and persuades Cassie to join him. But does running away really solve anything? And what choices will Cassie have to make?

Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
For a long time, I didn’t think this story was going to work. I knew how it started, and that they would run away to meet each other, but where and why? I found part of Jack’s story in Perth (the furthest city in Australia from Melbourne). Finally I went on a “road trip”, looking for a place by the water, and found Hindmarsh Island in South Australia. From there, a lot of other things finally fell into place – the fishing grandfather, the grass fire, the symbolism of the river meeting the sea. The hardest part to write and rewrite was the last scene with their mother, because I wanted hope but not at the price of “prettying up” real life. All up, the book took nearly three years.

How did it come to the attention of its editor?
Penguin has published my other verse novels, but when this one wasn’t working very well, my editors gave me some helpful feedback, especially on the two voices. At first I couldn’t work out how to rewrite Jack’s voice, but I’d written a Hamline essay on dual narrators, which helped, and finally I could see how to get inside Jack through language, line breaks and the typeface symbols. I don’t spell out that he has ADD, but I hope you sense it through his verse structure.

Perth Station
What research was involved?
Standing in the railway station in Perth and writing down all the train stations in the right order! A trip to South Australia, driving around on a location hunt. Taking lots of photos. Country fire fighters. Maps.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?

What was your critical thesis on?
Verse novels! And to be honest, I wish I’d done all the reading and written the thesis before I wrote Runaways, but I think my next verse novel will be very different. Still, I was conscious of all the critical work I’d done on verse novels that I didn’t like much (and the ones I did), and I tried to put some of that extra, deeper insight into the final revisions.

What was your creative thesis?
A science fiction thriller. I’ve really wanted to make the absolute most of my time at Hamline, so I’ve done different kinds of writing that I might otherwise be too chicken to try on my own. I’ve learned so much and I hope my writing has improved!

Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
Definitely Helen Frost’s verse novels. They are not published in Australia so I had never heard of her before. From the reading list, some of my favorites were Island of the Blue Dolphins and Officer Buckle and Gloria. I also fell in love with Frog and Toad, and The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson. I enjoyed a lot of the nonfiction, too.

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are.When do you share a piece of writing?
I am in two writing groups, but one is for novels, which is my Big Fish group. It makes a huge difference to have other writers reading consecutive chapters and giving intensive feedback. They’ve suffered through my crime novel! My other group workshops shorter things like poetry – they are very supportive (lots of cake!). I don’t share something until I’m pretty sure I know what I want to say with it. Comments too early can shift the ground under you so you lose your faith in the story idea, I find.

Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
I’m graduating this July, but already I know my writing life has changed a lot. Just the fact that I have taken a year’s leave from my paid job this year to work on my creative thesis! I never would have had the courage to do that before. I’ve been able to put writing first – not always in terms of actual hours, because I need to still pay the bills – but first in my mind and my heart. That’s what will stay with me after graduation. That, and all the craft I’ve learned (and re-learned, which is just as valuable).

What are you working on now?
I want to finish the science fiction thriller (working title: Elimination) and then I will go back to the historical novel I’m writing for Penguin set in World War I.

What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
Give it everything you’ve got! The two years goes so quickly, and the opportunity to work with your advisors so closely on your writing is invaluable. You may never find this many great writers to learn from in one place again. Be adventurous. Take risks. Give up whatever you have to to make it the best possible experience. Be part of the community – connect and support and share. Everyone is generous and kind, and they want you to succeed and be the best writer you can. It’s been priceless to me.
 Visit Sherryl's website, blog, and her author pages on Amazon and Facebook to learn more about her books, her writing life, and for wonderful conversation and advice on writing.

Next Inkpot Interview: Molly Griffin, MFAC '09