Thursday, November 27, 2014

Alumni Voices with Maggie Moris: Giving Thanks

We’re all well versed with the usual reasons to be grateful that we’re writers.

          Writing teaches us about ourselves.

            Stories have the power to change lives.

            Writing can open, deepen and widen our understanding and appreciation of the world.

            (Insert favorite platitude, motivational quote, or advice from favorite authors that you’ve scribbled on scraps, wedged in your wallet or penned on your person.)            
Today, I offer up a new reason for giving thanks.

Months ago, when Marsha Q. put out a request for guest bloggers, I ran to the calendar and offered to take the November 27
th slot.

I hoped back then that there would be something related to giving thanks and gratitude that I could share with you, even if nothing “news worthy” had transpired around my writing life.

Heck, I figured I could only be in one of two places by now: Either my first book would have sold or I’d be depressed because it hadn’t and would need to shift my attitude away from anxious hand wringing to one of hand holding - as in, please gather with me around the “It’s Just A Writer’s Life” table.

But it turns out there was a third scenario I hadn’t anticipated.

A while back, I came across an interview with Leonard Cohen. (For those who need reminding, as I did, in addition to being a legendary and prolific songwriter, a published poet and a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, he is also an ordained Rinzai Buddhist Monk.)

When asked whether the hard work involved in writing songs is enjoyable, Cohen had this to say:

"[Hard work] has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn’t help. It’s just hard work.

"But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.” 

(Popova, Maria. Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What it is You’re Quitting. Brain Pickings, July 15, 2014. )

 Put a fork in me and call me done.

I am fully employed.

Better yet, this state of being has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not we ever earn a red cent, wooden nickel, or two bits for our work. Writing, by its very nature, means that when we write – whether that time flows easy or yields an abundance of perspired blood - we are always fully employed. And folks, there are a lot of people on this planet that cannot say that about their own lives.

Having spent the better part of nearly twenty years in corporate jobs that did not employ me in any way that mattered, I can say with full conviction how blessed and grace-filled is this thing we do.
Think about it. Hold it in your heart. Gaze in tender wonder at this truth. We, as writers, with our finite lives and our limited hours, are also a community of people who live fully in the deepest sense of our words.

When I was a child, I dreamed of joining the table for writers, to one day sit and extend my hands to fellow writers on either side. But, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the work. Or that having a place, meant that the storyteller’s circle spirals back, around and up, through the eons that preceded us, on into the present and will wheel out into the future - all because we do our work.

Today, I bow my head for this writing life, for our community and for the chance to keep doing what we do.

I give thanks for the work.

 Maggie Moris graduated from Hamline in 2009. She will be enjoying a little pie with her pile of whipped cream today. Her website is

Monday, November 24, 2014

Faculty Voices with Eleanora E. Tate: An Author’s Trek to Getting Back in Print

Eleanora E. Tate
After Dial Press published my first book, Just an Overnight Guest, in 1980, I naively assumed that it would be in print forever. After all, Phoenix Films had adapted it into a television film in 1983 and it aired on Nickelodeon and PBS’s Wonderworks all over the country. I don’t remember which year the hardcover went out of print, but it did, and without even going into paperback!
Since that time, eleven of my manuscripts have become published books, thanks to Dial, Bantam Books, Random House, Delacorte, Franklin Watts, Pleasant Company, Just Us Books, and others. Of the eleven, Just an Overnight Guest, A Blessing in Disguise, Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School, The Minstrel’s Melody, and Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom went out of print. The books that went out of print quickest were A Blessing in Disguise and Don’t Split the Pole, though at least they made it into paperback before being kicked to the OOP curb.

probably thousandsof books go belly up every year. That’s part of “the writing life.” But when it happens to your baby, it’s a shock. I’ve heard that some writers take to their beds after suffering such catastrophes. I didn’t do that, but I’m sure that I sulked and fussed to myself for days.    
One just doesn’t sit and wait for a publisher to approach you to reprint a book. Generally you need to get on the stick and do the homework yourself. Ask publishers who’ve already published one of your works. That’s what I did. I asked Just Us Books, the premiere publisher of books about children of color (but to be read by everybody), and Just Us Books came to their rescue. It reprinted Just an Overnight Guest (1997), A Blessing in Disguise (1999), and Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School (2007).

Thank you, Just Us Book Publishers Cheryl and Wade Hudson!

The Minstrel’s Melody
, published in 2001 by Pleasant Company in its American Girl History Mysteries series, was printed next by Windmill Press in its Mysteries Through Time series (2009), thanks to my energetic agent, and is now also available through Open Road Integrated Media as a Mysteries Through History series e-book!

Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom (Delacorte 1997) was brought back to life by in May 2014 as part of the Authors Guild edition. I’ve been a member of the Authors Guild since 2003 but wasn’t aware that this service was available to its members! Thanks, Liza Ketchum, Hamline University faculty chum, for telling me about it.

But then I had to get off my duff, contact and follow through!

In my Don’t Split the Pole collection I wrapped stories around impactful sayings I’d heard over the years. The stories/sayings are: You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks; Slow and Steady Wins the Race; A Hard Head Makes a Soft Behind; Never Leave Your Pocketbook on the Floor; Don’t Split the Pole; Big Things Come in Small Packages; and What Goes around Comes Around. These sayings can probably be found anywhere in the world. I set all but one along the North Carolina coast.

Proverbs and sayings are also known as aphorisms, mottos, Biblical expressions, similes, even rich brief anecdotes. They explain a truth or a moral, offer opinions, summarize an action or thought, or are phrases or tidbits of songs, poems or books repeated so often that they enter the lexicon. Every culture throughout the world has them. A proverb or saying can be applied to many dissimilar events, depending on how different people interpret it.

I hope to target teachers who work with middle-school and high school readers; writers who seek short story writing techniques; and folklorists, storytellers, and, of course, readers of all ages.

Although many sayings go back to the beginnings of language, I place the ones I use in contemporary settings to show young readers that they still have meaning in today’s world. One of my new favorites is today’s very real “It is what it is.”
If you want to reprint one of your OOP books think about these Tate Tips:
  • Make sure that you, the author, have a reversion of rights letter from the publisher who published it. In fact, when you find out that your book has gone out of print, immediately contact your publisher (or your agent) and request a reversion of rights letter from the publisher. This will speed things up when or if you decide to take that reprint step, especially if your original publisher was a “traditional” publisher like Random House, etc. because the new potential publisher will want to see it.
  • After you find a publisher interested in reprinting your old book (good luck!), insist on getting a contract from that publisher spelling out all details, including royalty rates, any revisions that the publisher -- or you -- desire, publication schedules, etc. It’ll probably be a “boilerplate” contract, with the benefits leaning toward the publisher, but that’s not new.
  • If you don’t recognize a word or phrase in the contract ask. Never sign anything that you don’t understand or don’t agree with. In light of today’s changing publishing world, words in a contract like all rights, now and forever, known and unknown, electronic rights, and digital rights may have meanings different from what you know.

Here’s where an agent can be invaluable, but if you don’t have one, or he/she doesn’t want to be bothered, do your homework and educate yourself. Writers groups like the Authors Guild, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the North Carolina Writers Network, and others might be your saviors.
  • Suppose you DO plan to pay a company to reprint your manuscript. That’s fine, as long as you understand what you’re paying for, and what your and the company’s responsibilities are, including marketing, publicity, distribution, and payments. Examine books that they’ve published and talk with their authors. I met a woman the other day who said she signed such a contract, but didn’t know how or if she’d get royalties (or how much), didn’t have someone to edit her manuscript, and didn’t have NO money to pay the company. Don’t be like that woman!
  • Market your book yourself, aggressively. Send out news releases and e-blasts, have blog tours, visit bookstores, make book trailers, and so on, or be willing to pay to have a professional or the company do this for you. Except for big-name writing stars, most writers these days are expected to do more of this kind of marketing.
  • Be aware that certain computer software programs that some publishers may require you to use to format your manuscript—from pdfs to “jumpshare” file sharing, digital signatures, and more complex stuff—might drive you up the wall if you don’t know how to implement them.
No matter how you choose to reprint your book, remember that good writing is still good writing. Rewrite any part that’s weak. Find the best editor (or professional friend) who’ll help you with spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, overall revision, chocolate cake, and wholehearted encouragement. Happy Reading!

©2014 by Eleanora E. Tate. A version of this article previously appeared on The Brown

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Alumni Voices with Jamie Kallio: Work for Hire:Just Do It

Not too long after I graduated from Hamline, I was stalled on my middle grade novel. A fellow Hamline grad set me up with her editor at a book packaging company.  This place hired people to write kids’ nonfiction.

I let this particular editor know that I was really interested.  I told her my interests were in writing for children and history. Not too long afterwards, I was contacted by the company. They were looking for authors to write titles in a series about the early history of the United States. I signed up for The Mayflower Compact.

My assigned editor sent me the guidelines for the project.  Pages of guidelines.  Footnotes were required. A thing called sidebars needed to be incorporated.  I had to come up with primary sources.  The text had to be of interest to sixth graders but written at a third grade level. And the kicker? The manuscript was due in 30 days.

As I stared at the (pages of) guidelines, panic set in.  What the hell had I done to myself? Didn’t I already have enough on my plate? A carefully-researched manuscript written in 30 days? Impossible!

When the hyperventilating passed, I told myself to buck up. I was a professional.  I mean, I had degrees.  I could do this.  So I descended on my library and checked out every single book I could find on the Mayflower, the pilgrims, early American colonies, Native Americans, the Chicago Manual of Style, and anything else that looked helpful.  I found myself researching Increase Mather, the Little Ice Age, and scurvy. I learned that the original Thanksgiving feast lasted about three days, and everybody ate mostly venison.

In a whirlwind, I wrote. I met my deadline and sent a draft to my editor. She sent it back with suggestions and corrections. I looked over the manuscript and made the changes. After I hit send on my final email to my editor, I realized I’d done it. I’d completed an entire piece of writing—from beginning to end—by a certain deadline. I was getting paid for it. And best of all, I was getting published.

More projects came my way, and they keep coming. Sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I take on too many of them.  Working a full-time job with weird hours presents its own set of problems, let alone trying to fit in research and writing. And unfortunately, many times my beloved fiction writing gets pushed to the back burner while I meet a work-for-hire deadline. Sometimes I collapse among piles of books on subjects like climate change or invasive species and scream that I’ll never do another work-for-hire project again.

But I always do.  And here’s why: I really do love history. I love research. I love the extra money. I love fitting information together like a puzzle. Most of all, I love going to Amazon, typing my name, and seeing a list of titles pop up.  Titles that I wrote.

Work-for-hire has been good for me.  It broke me out of my holding pattern. It got me moving forward. It taught me how to work with editors, how to let some battles go in response to what a certain project needed.  It taught me to manage my time a little more wisely.

So if you have a chance to take on some work-for-hire? Do it.  Do it just once, for the experience. You might learn something new.  You might find yourself having fun.

And I might serve venison this year at Thanksgiving.


Jamie Kallio is a January 2011 graduate of the MFAC program. A veteran public librarian, she lives and writes near Chicago. You can find earlier Inkpot posts by/about Jamie here and here

Monday, November 17, 2014

Faculty Voices with Phyllis Root

Phyllis Root
I love words.

Well, of course, you say.  You call yourself a writer.  Of course you love words. But I love them even outside the context of stories or articles or poems. I love the sound of them.  The taste of them.  The shape of them.  I love words and phrases and whole sentences and paragraphs. Give me a good, meaty word to chew on and I’m happy.

I collect words in the same way I love picking up those little bits of frosted beach glass or finding an agate that catches the slanted sunlight.

Here are a few words and phrases that have caught my eye and ear over time.

In The Sailor’s Word Book I found bran, which meant to lie under a floe edge, in foggy weather, in a boat in Arctic seas, to watch the approach of whales.  (Could you think of anything more lovely, all contained in four letters?)

From research into Lake Superior in an old journal I found this description “a little dumpling of a schooner.”

From hearing a former railroad worker talk, I learned gandy dancer, a term for an early railroad worker who laid and repaired tracks.

From hearing the TV weather report about a torrential rain in Fort Wayne, Indiana:  “It’s a real frog choker out there.”

And one of my all-time favorites, from a talk on geology about which I understood almost nothing but loved the sound of this: pelecypod-bearing wacke.

Will I ever use these words?  Maybe not. Some are archaic, some regional, some scientific. But just the act of collecting them feels like a way to tune my ear to the sound of language, which is at the root of what we writers do.  We manipulate sound and meaning.  Why not collect words in the same way an artist makes sketches or a composer gathers musical phrases?

And who knows?  Maybe I will find a way to use them, although most likely not all in a single sentence.  Unless, or course, I have the chance to turn down a job as a gandy dancer, board a little dumpling of a schooner moored to some pelecypod-bearing wacke, and sail off in a real frog-choker to bran. 

Hmmm, maybe there’s a story there after all.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Alumni Voices with Connie Heckert: Failure to Finish

Heckert's bookshelf
Sometimes the hardest task for writing can be finishing. For some, it’s much easier and less stressful to call a project a work-in-progress.

It’s exciting to start new projects. A new idea offers hope, fresh research that can be pursued and we have permission to write what Anne Lamott calls the “Shitty First Draft.” Revisions can be circulated forever to our critique group and for conference peer reviews and editorial feedback. If you finish the manuscript, and send it out to an agent or editor, writers face the prospect of rejection or the reward of success. Hopefully, it’s the latter!

There are many reasons for failure to finish and I think I know them all.
  • The project isn’t working. Despite all of the critiques in the world, all of the attention and perspiration we give it, the manuscript may never work well enough for publication.
  • The original premise was faulty or not fresh enough; the action can’t overcome obstacles, there’s no way the ending will satisfy readers. Or, the market has changed and we haven’t 
  • Distractions from professional obligations. We all want to give back, and some do more than others, but we know that these obligations--no matter how enjoyable and rewarding-- can diffuse our focus on our own projects.

Our personal lives interrupt and distract us from dedicated focus. For those who want a high quality of life and know that relationships with family and friends matter, we sacrifice attention and time for our writing projects. Life-changing situations impact us personally and professionally: birth, raising children, milestone events, moving, and death can all sidetrack us for extended periods of time.

There are tons of experts advising on how to manage time and set priorities for the kind of life we want to live. Balance in our lives is a worthy goal, but what kind of balance should we strive for? And who is to define “balance” for each of us? It’s different for everyone.

The Louis Rich WIP
It’s important to love the journey and we can’t always control which road we’ll take. Sometimes the road chooses us. In my own work, Miss Rochelle and the Bell was published shortly before the publisher declared bankruptcy. Dribbles (Clarion, 1993), reached paper in a firestorm of grief and new challenges. For teens, The Swedish Connection and To Keera with Love resulted from life experiences with exchange students and a teen facing life-changing decisions. The commissioned corporate/family histories—eight going on nine--most often became projects for cash flow. Roots and Recipes (Pelican Publishing, 1995, 1997), in support of a writing friend, took ten years to publish. After eight years, The Louis Rich Story is projected for release in 2015. The Writing Group Book, nonfiction in The Writer and Cricket Magazine, I loved it all. . . . Other opportunities came my way; I declined them.

Ralph Keyes wrote in his book, The Courage to Write, “The euphoria that writers experience is a reward for the risks they take. No matter how much they dread diving into the cold, white page, once there, writers usually find it exhilarating.” (189)

For all of us, I hope that finishing our projects becomes a higher priority. May our lives give us the courage, peace and support to write with exhilarating and rewarding results.

Connie Heckert is a 2012 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives in Iowa. To learn more about Connie and her writing, please visit her website.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Faculty Voices with Jackie Briggs Martin: "And the little ones chewed on the bones-o"

Every three months I review children’s books for a nearby newspaper. I love this assignment. It gives me a reason to look at current picture books and to share my enthusiasms with readers in eastern Iowa. Last week I found a winner—with a wonderful story about the story.  

In 1961 Doubleday published The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night, Peter Spier’s take on the folk song of the same name. That book was a Caldecott Honor Book. In a charming author’s note to a new edition (2014) Peter Spier says that he was inspired to do this project while driving through Vermont with his wife one October, early in their marriage. “We were singing the folk song  ‘The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night,’ and I suddenly said to Kay, ‘This is the perfect setting for a picture book of this song!’”

He did the research, made the illustrations, and published the book, which has never gone out of print. Only one side of each page was printed in color in that 1961 version. In 2013, a Random House editor asked Spier if he would color the black and white pages. He writes, “…at age eighty-six and more than half a century later, I wondered if I would be able to do it as well as when I was thirty-one.”  I’m here to tell you he was able to do it. And he enjoyed the process. “The years fell away. I was back in 1959 and I was blissfully happy.”

There are so many things about this book that make me happy. 

First, I’m a huge fan of Peter Spier’s work. There is love in the details. The fox hurries home ladened with fowl, past a Civil War monument, past a church, past a bevy of buggies. In the Gigglegaggle’s bedroom we see the prop that held the window open, the chamber pot, even the holes in the socks.

Second, Peter Spier had the courage to go back to this work fifty two years later, to give it new life.

Third, I love the drawing that accompanies the folk song near the end of the book. A grown-up fox is playing the piano. Young foxes are singing along. And so are a couple of geese, which suggests that maybe it was all a stage show. And foxes and geese really can get together and just make music.

Fourth, I love the timelessness of a book that’s been in print for fifty two years. All those generations of kids who belted out the song of the fox and the goose and the Gigglegaggles, generations bound together by that memory.

Finally, it makes me excited at the opportunity, the possibility that we have every day of creating something timeless, something that is so right, so true, so fun that it will last for fifty two years.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Alumni Voices with Jamie A. Swenson: Easing Back In...

Okay. I will admit it – but just to you. I haven’t been writing lately.
But this post is not about the guilt we all feel when we’re not actively working on a manuscript. It’s also not about my almost fanatical avoidance of anything beginning with NaNo or PiBo … No, it’s not about that. In fact, these days I try to not allow the guilt in when my writing career (or life) takes me away from the writing itself. It happens. We all have LIFE happening.
This entry is about how to get your butt BACK in that chair.

I’ve been away from creative writing for weeks now and it’s high time I return to the page. I’ve promised stuff to people. These people are aging at about the normal rate, so I imagine I should get something submitted to them within the next five to ten years. I think they gave me until December. So, back to it.
Easier said than done.
If you’ve ever stepped away from the computer for a while – you know – it can be a struggle to return. I feel a little like that addict who says something like, “Of course I can quit – I’ve done it a hundred times.” Still, of course I can get back into my writing routine – I’ve done it a hundred times before!
Here’s my list of HOW I’ll dive back in after a writing break. Some of these steps take a bit of time and advance planning to complete … so if you’re currently in the midst of a break … give yourself a break as you plan to break your break. (Wow. I’ve clearly been away longer than I thought. Hmmm….)

1.     Critique something by another writer. Nothing gets the creative energy flowing better than getting back into the conversation. Critiquing gets the brain thinking about writing craft instead of Kraft Mac-n-Cheese (Don’t tell me you’ve never been distracted by mac-n-cheese. Liar.) So, find a writing friend who needs a critique. And then, don’t phone it in. Do a spectacular critique.

2.     Schedule time for writing and only writing. If you haven’t been writing, that likely means that other tasks have seeped into your schedule. Time to reclaim your time. Even if you’ve overscheduled yourself this week – start blocking off days/hours/minutes next week for writing. (No, you cannot organize the Musical Pasta Dinner, attend every volunteer meeting that pops up, and make twenty-course gourmet meals every day – you need to spend some serious time writing. Just say NO. Trust me on this.)

3.     Read something. ANYTHING. If you haven’t been reading – that might be why you haven’t been writing.

(This next one might seem counter-productive, but it does work).

4.     Take a walk. Take a drive. Sit and watch the wind blow leaves around. But while you’re doing this – start actively thinking about the project that you’re ready to start – or resume writing. If you’re in the middle of a project – think about the voice, the characters, the reason you started writing. Fall back in love with your project.

5.     Announce your writing intentions to the world. Post it on FB, chat about it with family, let the neighbors know. “Yup, I’m heading home to write. See you later.” They will watch you walk away and think, “There goes a writer.” (hee hee). And you will start believing again too.

6.     Sign-up for a blog entry with Marsha Qualey. She will gently remind you that you promised her a blog entry. Then you will write it. Yes, you will.

7.     Remove all leftover Halloween candy from the surrounding vicinity.

8.     Write.
So, that’s about it. Good luck easing back into your work – and stop feeling guilty about the occasional writing break. We all need to step away from the computer every now and again … just don’t forget to return!

Jamie A. Swenson is a 2009 graduate of the MFAC program. To learn more about Jamie and her writing visit her website.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Faculty Voices with Jane Resh Thomas: Trouble

Jane Resh Thomas
Many people who write for children had a painful childhood themselves. Many of us have old business in childhood that makes us, unawares, want to protect our characters, so we soften conflict and draw them as perfect little insufferable darlings.

As Carol Bly used to say, however, “'The sky was blue, and the clouds were like sheep' is not a story.”
No. Stories are about trouble. No trouble, no story. “The sky was blue, and the clouds were like sheep, and Miss Lydia Best had just caught me cheating on my Latin test.” Now there's a story, especially if you knew Miss Best, as I did in junior high. Her hair was white and shingled up the back. She always wore nicely tailored suits in impeccable condition. An upright broomstick through her torso kept her perfectly erect. She never smiled. If Miss Best stabbed you with a glare and jerked her thumb toward the door, you were on your way to the office without a word's having been said, and you knew you'd never known such trouble in all your years at school. Anybody who would cheat on a test in Miss Lydia Best's Latin class had to be crazy.

Hic haec hoc
Hujus hujus hujus

“The sky was blue, and the clouds were like sheep, and those red dots on Lenna's cheek came from the bristles of the hairbrush her mother had swung just before Lenna left for school. If she answered Miss Best with the truth about those dots, her mother would kill her.”

Stories are about trouble.

Because so many writers for children want to protect their characters, one of the books I ask my students to read is Donald Maass's [sic] Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, where Maass asks contrarian questions that help in the revision of a story. They pry a writer out of his unconscious ruts. (The paperback workbook contains the guts of the hardcover book, Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level, and also poses exercises.) Maass's questions ask for the other side of things. Your character hides behind her hair and would never call attention to herself? Donald Maass would ask, what's the opposite of hiding and being withdrawn? What would happen if your character did the opposite? Write that scene.

Editors' most frequent explanation when they reject manuscripts that are “well-written” is the deadly summary “The story is too quiet.” What editors mean thereby is that the characters are too nice to live, their world is too pretty, the opposition to their hopes and dreams is too bland and tepid. The sky was blue and the clouds were like sheep. So what? Where's the conflict?

The best advice I could give to anybody who asked, even if I hadn't read the manuscript, is “Push the conflict.” Who in your childhood caused the most trouble for you? Who in your story reminds you most of that person? How have you dramatized your protagonist's hatred for him? Yes, hatred. If you haven't hated, you haven't lived. Half of life is seizing our hatred and harnessing it to something more constructive. Adults are only more adept than children at hiding their jealousy and malice and lust. What were the secrets your family demanded you keep as a child? They didn't have to tell you to keep your mouth shut. You knew. What are your character's family secrets? His parents' upcoming divorce? Financial trouble? The druncle?  What is the worst thing your character ever did?

What would you be ashamed for Miss Lydia Best to know about you?