Wednesday, December 29, 2010

the sounds of silence

Hypergraphia is the overwhelming urge to write, and it is a trait/malady which I have, yet lately, it's been dropping off. I used to be constantly writing things down. My purse was full of scrawled-upon napkins and scraps of paper. I had numerous notebooks.

I've always argued that non-writing time can be as productive as writing time, and this was the case for me. Some of my best ideas came on walks or runs, while swimming or driving. But why did this spring dry up? A quick analysis of the before and after solved the mystery. My car radio used to be broken. I used to just run or walk the dog without accoutrements. I swam by myself. I never had a radio or television in the kitchen. So I would drive, run, walk, swim, and cook in silence, my mind dwelling in the world I'd created in that morning's work.

But then my car radio was repaired. My daughter gave me a tape deck to use when I ran and made me tapes with energetic music. My husband started swimming with me. He put a radio in the kitchen, so I listen to NPR while I cook. I started catching up on phone calls when I walk the dog.

So, last week, I returned to the quiet. I ran without music. I walked the dog without my cell phone, kept the radio off while I was driving and cooking. Hypergraphia returned. The ideas poured out, the scraps of paper multiplied, problems in my plot solved themselves, as I completed meditative (some call them mundane) tasks. Silence can make us anxious, I think, or lonely. We are a culture that avoids it. But for the hypergraphic, silence is like the sky. It's open and endless and waiting.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hats Off: Accomplishments of Hamline MFAC faculty 2010

It’s time for reflection, so here are a few things the Hamline faculty have accomplished this past year:

Marsha Wilson Chall: Her picture book, ONE PUP’S UP came out and won a National Parenting Publication Award (NAPPA) Gold Award.

Kelly Easton: Her adult novel, TIME IN THE REGION OF SKY, won first prize "The Golden Grace Note" in the Grace Notes Forthcoming Novel contest. It will be published this spring.

Lisa Jahn-Clough: Sold a YA novel, BLUE’S SHADOW to Houghton/Harcourt. Her picture book, FELICITY AND CORDELIA: A Tale of Two Bunnies (FSG) is released in February 2011 and was featured in a PW article on the sudden surge of bunny books.

Liza Ketchum: is passionately and furiously finishing her YA historical novel.

And, along with Phyllis Root, taught a Whole Novel Workshop in Historical Fiction, hosted by the Highlights Foundation.

Ron Koertge: SHAKESPEARE MAKES THE PLAYOFFS came out in the spring and received a starred review in The Horn Book. The Canadian magazine, “Prizm,” accepted three Flash Fiction pieces for publication in 2011. NOW PLAYING: STONER & SPAZ 2 is coming out in 2011.

Mary Logue: sold a picture book, SLEEP LIKE A TIGER to Houghton/Harcourt.

Jackie Briggs Martin: Her picture book THE CHIRU OF HIGH TIBET was released and has been named by Kirkus Reviews "Best Books of 2010.”

Claire Rudolf Murphy: Finally received the illustrator sketches for her picture book AUNT SUSAN, MAMA AND ME (Peachtree Books).

Marsha Qualey: Completed an Inkpot month-long poem a day challenge, sold a story to an educational publisher, started another adult novel, and is adapting one of her YA novels into a screenplay.

Phyllis Root: Got a starred review in Kirkus for her chapter book LILLY AND THE PIRATES. Her picture book, BIG BELCHING BOG has been released to great reviews.

Gary Schmidt: Sold a fantasy novel, WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS and a picture book, A ROSE IN THE DESERT: A Saint's Life of Martin de Porres, both with Clarion. OKAY FOR NOW (sequel to Wednesday Wars) is released this April.

Jane Resh Thomas: Along with Marsha Chall and Phyllis Root taught a Writing in the Woods workshop. Jane also bravely survived the installation of another titanium knee and a cracked tail bone (we're glad you're okay Jane!!)

Anne Ursu: Signed a two-book deal with Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins. The first book, BREADCRUMBS, will be out in 2011.

Hats off to all!

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Liminal State

When I'm between novels like I am now, I always write poetry. Usually, I try the hard forms. Not because I'm so good at the so-called easier ones (free verse, for instance) but because my free verse is so close to my prose that sometimes I can barely tell the difference.

Really odd forms like the ghazal are always attractive, but I wrote a whole book of ghazals (INDIGO) and of course it sold in the dozens. By trying rare forms I'm usually avoiding the sonnet. It's such a bear, partly because anybody can write a bad one. Dahdum, bahdum, dahdum, bahdum, baddum: full rhyme. Do that 13 more times and then you can show your mommy and she'll put it on the fridge.

But a good sonnet is a real challenge. I tend to look at Shakespeare, of course, and guys I know like Tim Steele. Then I sit down and see if I've got the chops.

Usually not. I'm reminded of some guy in his underwear heating soup on a hot plate in a furnished room while watching "Top Chef."

But I'm never sorry I tried. There's always a word or an iambic foot or a slant rhyme that, like the porridge, is just right. Then I throw the whole thing away. There's always tomorrow.

Happy New Year everybody.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

fees for contests

The fee for contests seems to be its own closet industry. I remember listening to Joyce Carol Oates speak many years ago, and she said that there were no contests that were not fixed. I found that so cynical and depressing coming from someone who obviously would never need a fixed contest. The academic version of this are departments who run "searches," which they are legally bound to do, when they have already picked their candidate.

When I heard Ms. Oates speak, I had just moved from playwriting to fiction, so I thought I would test this out. After carefully checking out the contests to make sure they were legit, I forked out my ten or fifteen dollars and entered some. I won a couple and was happy that the world was not as uniformly corrupt as Ms. Oates implied. After that, I decided never to pay again for a contest unless there was a subscription included; fair is fair. This year, however, I sent my adult novel to a contest and it won and will be published. Still, while my experience is that good things can come from these contests, I don't generally bother with them. I'd rather focus my energy on straight submissions and publication; the literary journals that run most of these contests also accept unsolicited submissions, and many now accept on-line submissions so you don't have fork out for postage either.

If you're going the contest route, it seems wise to analyze the cost/benefit ratio. A legitimate contest where your book might be published seems worthwhile, while a small prize or mere publication in a journal to which you could submit anyway may not be worth the cost, given the odds against you. Obviously, you want to consider the fee relative to the monetary prize.

There are also awards that don't charge, which are usually supported by a larger body such as a university, publisher, or arts council (Check your own state's art council). has a list of prizes for writers of children's books. There are several web-sites and magazines that list adult awards.

A quick google search turned up many web-sites that focus on exposing scams. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,, has a good article on the contest industry.

I might add that we are lucky to be in the children's field where there is still vast enthusiasm for great writing and originality. In the adult field, that is not the case. I have many friends who have written beautiful adult books and been told by their agents: "What a masterpiece. But there's no market for it. I can't sell it."

Good luck to all.

Gifts from the Hamline MFAC Community

I hate shopping. The canned holiday music and newspaper ads this time of year nearly send me over the edge. But when I sit back with a strong cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine in the evening, I am grateful for the gifts I have received from the many people in my life who support my sometimes euphoric, sometimes neurotic writer's life. I couldn't survive without them. A special shout out today to the supportive Hamline faculty, students and alumni.

On Sunday I finished up the last of my Hamline student packets for the semester. Every student I have worked with over the years has given me the gift of their passion and creativity. They have trusted me with their deepest work. They challenge me to respond more clearly, to articulate what I believe can help make their creative and critical writing stronger. They teach me by introducing me to new stories and characters. Thank you. Thank you.

They introduce me to new subject matter, too, like tapping into dreamwork to create stronger stories, using Jewish myth or the art of burling in historical fiction. Or like Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, who managed to write pieces for NPR while completing her first semester at Hamline, they also write about their world. Check out this one on how Bonnie' small town in Colorado is the first to give all of its residents free regional bus passes.">

I believe we learn from every type of writing we create and read. Lucky me.

All of us students and faculty have until January 7th to rest and prepare for the stimulating residency and reunion of kindred souls. I can't wait.

Writing cheer to all. CRM

Monday, December 20, 2010

answer to the inpot question: on weaving threads

What a great question. One of the most common remarks I make on manuscripts relates to weaving more threads through the book (which really means, keeping track of your threads).

Novels in progress can be overly ego-centric via the main character, with secondary characters standing around like hand-maidens ready to serve. This can create both a claustrophobic atmosphere and a one-note plot. So grabbing hold of secondary characters' plots threads and pulling them through creates texture and interest.

Of course, there are other kinds of threads: character, metaphoric, thematic. These are as important as the plot threads. What I've been noticing lately is how good sit-coms are at repeating small details to a large effect. I was just discussing with my daughter Isabelle the Seinfeld episode where Elaine breaks up with her boyfriend and he calls her Bighead. She finds the comment ridiculous, but when she goes outside, birds keep flying into her head. A passer-by comments on how the birds just can't seem to avoid her. On a recent HBO sit-com, the boss is upset that a girl at work is exposing her midriff. When he tells her not to, she accuses him of calling her fat. There are several other scenes with the boss feeling politically incorrect about weight and women because of his faux pas, each increasing in hilarity because of the echo, with the viewer happily connecting the dots. The show ends with him falling off of a building and grabbing his employee's bared stomach fat to hang on for dear life.

On the opposite hand, I've recently seen two shows where the script opened up all kinds of plot threads and then just let them drop. The first was the new Spiderman musical on Broadway. The second was the film Black Swan which was "full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing," although probably not "told by an idiot" as the line from Macbeth begins. Both had these and-then-they-woke -up-and-it-was-all-a-dream type of endings. I wanted to jump up and yell: "But what about those threads!"

The thing I find most helpful for keeping track is to simply bold words on my computer draft that I want to pick up later. It might be a simple character detail, like nail biting, that I want to remember so I don't show the character later peeling off stamps with her long fingernails (consistency of character). Or maybe everyone in the surreal high pressure school bites their fingernails (thematic thread) or rebels against the demands of beauty (metaphor/theme), or she decides to be a hand model and needs to stop, but can't so she goes to a twelve step program where she meets the girl or man or dog or scissors of her dreams and lives happily ever after (plot thread). Any technique that notices the opportunities in front of us on the page will work. One book I can think of that does this brilliantly on every level is Holes. Other techniques/thoughts?

From the Mailbag

Hello Inkpotters,

Here are two questions that have been submitted in the past (gulp, whoops!) month and a half. Inkpot bloggers, please weigh in on these questions, as your schedules permit.

New Years resolution for this administrator? Check the Inkpot mailbag more frequently....

Happy Holidays, Inkpot Bloggers and Followers!

The Inkpot Administrator


Dear Inkpot,

Stories are made up of threads woven through a main plot.Could you discuss different ways/techniques you keep track of, tease out,revise, shape, let go of, and build up these different threads. Sticky notes?Highlighters? Reading the story over and over again and focusing on adifferent thread? This question is of course a revision question, once there a story to play with.

Thanks, Tangled Up in Threads

Dear Inkpot Bloggers,
What do you think about fees? Contest fees, application fees, etc. A struggling writer can be nibbled to death paying fees for contests, residency program applications, etc. You pay it knowing you are helping to subsidize the prizes, you may get a subscription out of the deal, and seems like such a scam. But everyone does it. If you've already written on this, I apologize for asking again.

Susan KoefodM.F.A., 2004 (Hamline) Your following me is most appreciated....

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Another view of picture books

A quick post:
Check out this recent PW article about picture books: It's a more positive view of the market, written in rebuttal to an earlier, dreary NYTimes story on the same subject.

Now, if I could only write one of these dang things...Picture book stories are so much more difficult to write than novels!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Last week came the news that is giving authors access to BookScan information--which tracks sales of your books in the big chains, Amazon, and some independents. You can just click on a tab and find out how many books you sold the week before, and see a lovely map of your sales across this great land.

This confirms my suspicions that Amazon, with its sales ranks and customer reviews, exists solely to drive authors batshit crazy. We need something, of course; we're all such paragons of sanity and equanimity--at least we have been since no one drinks absinthe anymore.

It seems like such a good thing. And, indeed, people on the internets are embracing the news. Transparency! Access! No more of those nasty publishing-types holding the keys to all the information!

The thing is, those nasty publishing types have met authors before. When they speak to you in soft, soothing tones, it's not because that's just how they all talk.

Listen to me now. You do not want this information. Just like you don't want to know what every person with internet access thinks about your book. Having internet access is not necessarily a sign of good judgement. My mom once set up a Google alert for me so she could find out whenever any blog or message board mentioned my books. Then she turned it off. Some things, even your mother doesn't want to know.

The thing is, it's really hard to sit down and write when you're constantly pressing reload on Amazon for your sales rank, or when your email dings with the news that some blogger thinks your characters "have some intelligence," or when you're shrieking at some customer reviewer on Amazon because she obviously didn't read your book and probably can't read anyway because it's really hard to read with your head so far up your ass. And it's really really hard to write when you discover you've only sold 5 copies of your books in Montana, ever. And then you start thinking about Montana, and what you ever did to it, and why they don't appreciate your genius, and how you are not a genius at all but a complete failure and should develop an absinthe habit to numb the emptiness gnawing at your soul, and then you look at the population of Montana and divide it by copies sold, except you forget how to do long division and anyway it doesn't matter because your books sold per person in Illinois is so much higher, and you're clearly beloved in Illinois, SO WHAT IN THE HELL IS WRONG WITH MONTANA?

The internet provides all sorts of ways to drive you nuts. And to make sure you never write again. Don't go looking for it. Let those nasty publishing types tell you what you need to know in their soothing tones. And then just go on living your life as a paragon of sanity and equanimity.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Speaking of Poets--Happy BDay Emily!

Yesterday, (no, two days ago already) it was Emily Dickinson’s birthday. I am only just finding out because Billy Collins was on Prairie Home Companion this weekend in honor of her, and I listen to the rebroadcast of PHC on Sunday afternoons while lying on the floor. You can hear an older quite excellent interview with Billy Collins on why he loves Emily here.

Emily did not care about fame and success. She wrote 1800 poems and less than a dozen were published in her lifetime! As a child she hid at the top of the stairs when visitors came and listened. Her adult life was spent alone as a recluse working in her garden and writing poetry like a madwoman. Later she spent most of her time in bed (I am so in awe of her!)

Here’s a line from her poem, Compensation:

For each ecstatic instant

We must an anguish pay

In keen and quivering ratio

To the ecstasy.

So even though it’s two days belated, it’s never too late to read your favorite Emily poems. Or, for a little excitement, try Billy Collins reading his poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Poets in Solidarity

It has been almost a year since we heard--mid-residency--about the massive earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, killing more than a quarter of a million Haitians. Six weeks after the quake, eighteen poets, self-described as a "quiet group, and often not a group at all," gave a reading in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to benefit Partners in Health, the wonderful organization started by Dr. Paul Farmer. Now, as the anniversary of the quake approaches, these poets have published Poets for Haiti: An Anthology of Poetry and Art. Seven poets read from the new collection last night at Porter Square Books, our favorite local independent. It was a packed house, the largest I've ever seen at an indy reading.

Ophelia Dahl, CEO of Partner's in Health, introduced the evening. She spoke of how the medical workers at PIH "accompany" people in the communities where they work, in the spirit of a Creole proverb that translates, roughly, as "you can't eat okra with one finger." The poets read with passion and verve. The hair rose on my neck as Haitian poet Patrick Sylvain cried out for his homeland. Former Poet laureate Robert Pinsky first read John Donne's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" before sharing his own "Ginza Samba," an ode to the hybrid backgrounds we all share. Later, I read through editor Kim Triedman's introduction. She is speaking of poets, but her words apply to all of us:

"We work alone. We listen to our own heady music. We write words that may or may not ever be heard. We tunnel deep into ourselves...but poets also represent something greater than themselves. They have always been the voice and the conscience of their generations--the conduits of change, and of hope, and of urgency."

Then, as if in an echo, I turn on my computer this morning to find posts from Jane and Phyllis. They both described a poetry reading at the Birch Bark Bookstore, presented by members of Nolan Zavoral's poetry collective. It was a frigid night in the Twin Cities and in Cambridge, but in both cities, poets, writers, and readers filled independent bookstores to hear fine words. Conduits of change, hope and urgency. Indeed.

Fine words for the end of the year. Happy holidays to all.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Observations of young writers

I've been AWOL, too. Must be the season. For me it's not a partner with a broken foot or parenting duties, or even anything to do with holidays (I'll admit I am a scrooge). No, I am immersed in end of the semester portfolio reviews.

I have 58 undergraduates all taking Writing Children's Stories in three separate classes. We are just finishing the YA section of the semester. As with the picture book and MG sections, there are odd coincidental overlaps between classes, even though they don't know one another. For example, this week alone I've had four stories about teen pregnancy. And all of them decide to have the baby, either keeping it or giving it up for adoption. There have also been a number of stories about rape. Drugs (especially hallucinogenic episodes) is another popular topic, including one where the mom is a heroin addict. A lot of them are writing about college students or older teens, a couple about kids in the army or marrying a kid in the army. Unlike the picture book and middle-grade stories, not one brings in an adult to solve a problem (the majority of picture books did). And contrary to what is hot in YA, I have not seen a single vampire, fairy or fallen angel. However, there was an appearance of zombies, and two vaguely futuristic settings, one WW II story, and one steamy gay romance (from a very brave student!)

Not sure what this all means, but since these students are between eighteen and twenty years old it is curious to note what they are reading and writing.

By the way. not one of them reads paranormal novels. In fact they were surprised when I sent them on assignment to a local B bookstore and all they saw were vampires.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Odds & Ends

I know, I know. I've been AWOL. But I have an excuse. My wife broke a little bone in her foot recently, so I'm driving and picking up and shopping, etc. It's a vertical break and a clean one, not horizontal and jagged. No surgery, just one of those tall, black soft casts. I asked the orthopedic doc if he had that in another color, maybe with a sharp high heel and a little chain across the instep. Alas.

I just saw an ad for something called "A Working Writer's Daily Planner 2011." Under 'What You'll Find Inside' there was this (partial) list: How to Format a manuscript, Story Idea Generation, How to End a Story, A Place to be Inspired," etc.

I found that book and list profoundly depressing. I'm sure it will help somebody somewhere, but it certainly isn't my cup of oolong. My computer formats my manuscripts, I ask the gods for story ideas and get them, I end stories when they're just about over but not quite, and I don't believe in inspiration, just my blue collar work ethic. I wish people would just write more and not buy yet another book about writing.

I'll bet you'd like Elissa Schappell's "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves." Here's a quote from a TIN HOUSE interview where she's talking about adolescent POV: "Intuition -- that deep, inborn, and uncorrupted knowledge kids have -- that really interests me. Later etiquette or other screens occlude it but kids are really alive to profound stuff. They're on that weird threshold, they have this double optic: they're really alive to some adult truths but then they can pull back and view the world through kid goggles."

"Kid goggles" is very nice, isn't it? Let's all get some for Christmas.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

the middle morass

When my husband and I dine out, we often order appetizers, which we find to be the most inventive and interesting dishes on the menu. The other night, at a restaurant known for its creative chef, we were hungry enough to ignore that habit and ordered main courses. Mine was a very plain chunk of cod with a sauce that was indecipherable. Michael's was a steak slathered in a sauce far too decipherable, and couple of measly slices of potato. "Ugh," Michael said. "We should have known. A meal is like a book. The middle is always the worst part."

As a reader, I certainly find that to be true. I often find the energy lagging in books and I'm tempted to jump to the last few chapters (dessert!). Furthermore, as a writer I encounter the kind of writerly exhaustion to which Liza alluded in her last post, around page 150; in other words, the middle.

Some things can help. If I write the ending chapters (as I am tempted toward as a reader), I can trick myself into working backwards, so I don't notice when I get to the middle. The randomness exercises that Liza mentioned, be they Ron's talismanic words, my picture cards, or just plain reading articles on subjects far and wide, can push me through. Another way of getting through is to write chapters that I do not plan to use. Often, though, the only solution is setting the manuscript aside for a couple of months (something which I recognize is not always practical in a graduate program).

Well, I've finally finished the two books I've been working on: one adult, and one MG. On the first, it simply took years and years of writing and tossing, writing and struggling through the middle. On the second, I was helped along by a brilliant agent, whose advice supplied the key to unlocking the structure of the book. Does anyone else share this middle morass? What do you do about it?


Years ago, I was author-in-residence at a lively middle school where two exceptional teachers had created a strong writing program. A cardboard box, decorated with skull and crossbones, sat the the front of one room, with a sign reading "graveyard for dead words." Each day, students scrawled tired, cliched, or vague words on slips of paper and dropped them into the box. The graveyard held words such as "nice," "thing," "very." Great idea.

Perhaps because I've been feeling bone tired lately, my own prose seems ready for this graveyard. It tastes like Pablum, rather than chef Ana Sortun's fragrant Egyptian carrots flavored with dukkah. As a remedy, I've turned to suggestions from our esteemed faculty. The first is Ron Koertge's talismanic word exercise, where you pluck three words, at random, from the daily paper, and find a way to use them in that day's writing. My words this morning, taken from the Boston Globe: Scrooged (who knew that was a verb?); slash; taunt. I guess I was in the mood for verbs.

Last night, I spoke with Jackie Briggs Martin, who suggested that I keep a running list of favorite words. I chose the first words that popped into my head: chaparral; canyon; home. All nouns--and an odd mix that makes me think of Kelly Easton's enthusiasm for randomness. Saying them out loud already adds spice to my day.

What are your talismanic words? Your favorites? How do you add grit and spice to your writing?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wednesday Links

There was a post floating around Twitter a month ago that said something like, Writing is 3% talent and 97% ignoring the internet. This has nothing to do with the links below.

Publishers' Weekly has a terrific round-up of the bumper crop of imprints devoted to young adult books, with quotes from the editors about what they're looking for. These are smaller houses, and if you've got a YA to shop it's a great place to start. There are imprints devoted to romance, multicultural fantasy, contemporary YA, lists that spin toward the dark and edgy. Though I take some exception to the publisher of WestSide Books' description of their list as, "No fantasy, no romance, no dragons, no vampires. We publish books that kids will relate to based on their own experiences. We don't want them to feel alone if they are going through difficult times." Because sometimes there's no greater company in difficult times than a girl with dragons to slay, or who is madly in love with someone who sucks out her soul. But that's another post.

Those of us at Hamline have had the privilege of hearing children's book expert Anita Silvey's wonderful talks on the stories behind the classics. Now she's got the Children's Book-A-Day Almanac. Every day she features a new book somehow tied to the day's date, and writes about the history and significance of the book.

Finally, the end of the year means all sorts of best of lists--and we at Hamline are thrilled that Jacqueline Briggs Martin's The Chiru of High Tibet made Kirkus' best of list--and mock Newbery and Caldecott discussions. 100 Scope Notes is keeping track of these, and has a round-up of the Caldecott lists up today. My little boy would vote for A Pig Parade is a Terrible Idea, but somehow I don't think he gets a vote.

Now, get back to work.