Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Faculty Voices with Kelly Easton: Writing Prompts

Kelly Easton
By popular demand (from two people at the last residency), here are some writing prompts.  As I’ve mentioned before, prompts are best executed in a very relaxed state.  When I first started writing, I lived off of them, and some of my favorite short stories evolved from random prompts.  Some are for new stories; some are to add to works in progress.

1.       Add one of the following to your book in progress:  something unexpected flies through the window, a character with amnesia shows up (could be a dog, or someone they know), a tree bursts through a floor, a little brother or sister gets into make-up and nail polish, and/or a secondary character wins a prize goat.

2.       Start a scene in your YA or middle grade novel with a make-up fight in the locker room or bathroom, or have your characters use lipstick to write a vibrant message.  Add an older relative with a foul mouth, or who likes to give people the finger, only they use the wrong finger.

3.       Invent a camp for kids that has never existed before.

4.       Add two characters to your piece that have disabilities, or take your characters to the Special Olympics.

5.        Add three dialogue scenes about subjects that have never come up again in your story.

6.       Then give two plot threads to secondary characters (See my earlier entry on monomania!).

7.       To a new or ongoing project, add the following subjects: Pompeii, a cartwheel contest, birds of paradise, a reference to Moby Dick, sushi, enchiladas, and egg rolls.

8.       Fill in the blanks.  ________________ wants _______________, and will stop at nothing to get it/him/her, but _________________________ is in the way.

9.       Write a picture book about a sad character who finds something under a rock that changes their perception.

10.   Write a picture book called one of the following: Bad Berry, How the rose got her thorns, Three Elves and a Duck, or Snapping Turtle’s Diet.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Faculty Voices with Emily Jenkins

Emily Jenkins/E. Lockhart
Hi Storytellers!  All my Inkpot posts thus far have been about some aspect of the non-writing writer’s life – professional adventures, I guess you could call them. This one is no different – I’m going to report on YallWest, which is a teen book festival.

There are not so very many teen book festivals out there – but the number is increasing I think. North Texas and YallWest started up just this year. They’re different because most book festivals are geared to a broad audience and feature a wide range of authors. These can be tough if you’re a children’s book person, though occasionally they’re lovely. Teen book festivals are all YA all the time.  That means very often teens come in enormous school groups and book club groups in matching T-shirts. Librarians and teachers organize field trips. The atmosphere is bordering on raucous. Panels can be goofy or important, but they’re nearly always relaxed. (Note: I’ve never been to it before, but this year’s
Twin Cities TeenLit Con is May 9, and I’ll be there with Hamline’s own Gene Yang, Hamline guest speaker Matt de la Pena and the insanely popular Gayle Forman. Plus more!)

Okay, the report: YallWest is an author-run festival and a spin-off of the successful YallFest. Both festivals are organized by Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Creatures, etc. ) and Melissa De la Cruz (Blue Bloods, etc.) – and there are loads of hijinks, lots of parties, and extended opportunities to sign books – all elements I associate with teen book cons as opposed to general ones.

They work you hard – and I find most authors prefer it that way. Why fly across the country to be on a single dignified panel when you could be on two panels (one while wearing a tiara), run a trivia game, sign books for a full hour, give away free cupcakes and t-shirts and sign for another hour, read aloud embarrassing juvenilia and then put on a pink wig and dance backup for an all-author rock band? That’s what my day looked like. I was in front of readers all day long at YallWest. Exhausting, but super fun and productive.

How do you get invited to these festivals? As an author, your publisher pitches you if they think you’re a good fit. Then the conference organizers decide whom to invite. You can ask to be pitched if you have a new book with that publisher and if you really want to go – especially if you can offer to make things easy. That is, if you have a free place to stay, you let them know (as I did for YallWest), or if you’re local to the area – and that reduces their costs. Of course, you can just GO as an audience member, and I recommend it if you’re starting out as a YA writer. You’ll see a lot of writers and get a sense of how people conduct themselves on panels – what makes a good discussion, what connects with the audience, how authors sign so as best to connect to their readers, and so on. 

I’ll leave you with a picture that gives you a sense of the YallWest vibe. That’s the back-up dance team: left to right, Shannon Hale, me, Leigh Bardugo, Coe Booth. We danced to “Whole Lotta Love,” as performed by Libba Bray and her all-author band, Tiger Beat. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Publication Interview with Judy Dodge Cummings: The American Revolution

The American Revolution:
Experience the Battle for Independence
Nomad Press/ March, 2015
Illustrator: Tom Casteel
Please describe the book.
Early in the morning of April 19, 1775, a shot rang out on the commons in the small town of Lexington, Massachusetts. Who fired that shot remains a mystery of history. But this single action was a catalyst that sparked the American War for Independence. At the beginning of this war, Americans were outgunned, outspent and divided. The American Revolution: Experience the Battle for Independence relates the history of how these patriots defeated the powerful British army and formed the United States of America. The book is aimed at readers in grades 4-6. It incorporates primary sources and engaging projects and focuses on helping readers think like historians.

How did you connect with the publisher and/or editor?
I found Nomad Press in the publishers guide that we get with our SCBWI membership—The Book. After graduating from Hamline, I sent queries and writing clips to lots of write-for-hire and educational publishers. Nomad Press was one of those houses. Months passed and then the editor contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on the American Revolution. I have a history degree and have taught the subject to high school students for years so it was a great fit.
Continental Army
soldier in tricorn hat

As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
At first the editor wanted the book to be written for 1-3rd graders. However, I have a passion, some might say obsession, about teaching people the value of historical thinking, and I knew I couldn’t write an overly simple book that told the same old patriotic myths and included a pattern for how to make a tricorn hat. (Don’t get me wrong. I love tricorn hats. I own two tricorn hats.) So I talked to Jodi Baker, Hamline alum and writer/teacher extraordinaire, about when elementary students typically study the American Revolution.
Based on Jodi’s feedback, I suggested to my editor that we aim the book at 5th graders. She agreed. After that the book came together very smoothly and systematically. Of course, I had to make every project that appears in the book. My diorama of a redoubt from the battle of Yorktown still sits on my desk. If you don’t know what a redoubt is, you should read my book.

When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
I had a sixth month contract to complete a draft of the book. After that I had to make only minor revisions, so all told my writing process took about nine months.

What research was involved before and while writing the book?
General Washington's HQ at Valley Forge
I did tons of research. Because I’ve been teaching American history for years, I already had a solid foundation, but I still read about fifty books and many articles. I trod the Freedom Trail in Boston and ran up and down the redoubts at Yorktown National Park in Virginia. I love research and like to experience history through the soles of my feet.

You have done work-for-hire writing before. What have you learned about the business of writing since your first contract?

The first book I wrote was a write-for-hire on Pope John Paul II. I wrote that book in five weeks. I was paid for the work, but ABDO decided not to publish it. I was never told why. That was disappointing, but the experience taught me how to write to spec, how to write quickly, and how to organize and document all my research. Those lessons have been invaluable.

Where do you do most of your writing?
I bought a walking treadmill with an attached desk last year. I walk at a turtle’s pace, but when I’m in the writing groove, I really put in some miles.

Do you remember the first book you loved?

TheFamous Five adventure series by Enid Blyton. I tagged along on many adventures with those five kids and their dog, all from the safety of the triple-decker bunk bed I shared with my brother and sister.


Judy Dodge Cummings is a July 2012 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives in southern Wisconsin. To learn more about her writing please visit her website.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Alumni Voices with Susan Stenfors:Finding Your Lost Voice or How Loss is Not an Excuse to Stop

When I was little I began telling stories. I told them to anyone who would listen. One of my biggest fans was my mom. She encouraged me. As I grew up, I continued to play with words. I didn’t become serious about my writing until I was a divorced mom of three, returning back to school with no idea how to make a new life. A professor introduced me to Alison McGhee, who guided my path to Hamline.

When I took my mom to an Alison McGhee book signing, I was beyond shocked when she raised her hand and asked, “Do you hear voices, too?” Alison’s response, “Are you two related? Yes, she’s fine, she’s just fine.” That one sentence meant more to my mom than any of my own reassurances. A simple sentence gave me permission to let my voices whisper their stories to me, and I plowed forward on this new adventure.

Fast forward to graduation from Hamline’s MFA program and my time under the care of such amazing faculty, people who understood and supported. I also walked away knowing I had the full embrace of a community that would continue to grow. This community fed my voices and my passion for the words. I kept writing, I sent my book out into the world. I received plenty of rejections but it never worried me. I garnered hope when an agent asked to read the entire novel. I waited, but never heard a thing. I even wrote to ask if they had received the novel, and still heard nothing.

My voices wavered, a bit, but my personal cheerleader kept cheering, so I plowed forward. I found a job as a teacher and shared my love of words with enthusiastic fifth graders. I talked to them about how important it was to find your voice, how to create more than just words on a page. I was living my dream. I waited for my book to be found, continuing to send it out. I started a new project, and another. I kept moving forward, doing just as I had promised myself long ago. I wrote.

When a second agent asked to read my entire novel, I was beyond thrilled. My mom was ecstatic, this time, she told me, this time someone would see my words and want to help me. However, I waited for a year, and nothing. I knew after six months to give up hope, but was there a chance? I wrote to the agent, to make sure she had received the manuscript. Still, I heard nothing.

When my mom passed away last January, it was unexpected. We thought we had three to six months but we had just one month from diagnosis to the end. When my mom passed, the voices that had been my companions for as long as I could remember went silent.  I sat in my room, staring at a computer, at a notebook, at the wall. Why couldn’t I write anything?

The first anniversary of my mom’s passing came and went. I tried writing, I wrote words but when I went back to read them, they meant nothing. I stopped reading, my teaching became drudgery, I wasn’t teaching well because I could no longer find the passion in those words.

“Could it really be the loss of my mom? It’s not that simple is it?” I asked a friend.

She had no answer for me. It wasn’t until I was driving down to a science academy that I had an epiphany. My mom, my biggest cheerleader, had never read a word I had written.

My mom never read any of my words. My mom will never have the opportunity to read any of my words. It was at that moment that I realized, that is not why I write. I am not writing to be perfect, or to be published, I am writing because I love to share words. So today, I share my words, with you. I promise to share them with my children, whenever they ask, and my students when they say “Read more”.  It is that gift, of sharing, that gives me the power and the strength. My voices have returned. I am writing again, but this time I write not to find publication, though I won’t be opposed should that ever happen, but I write to share my words and my love of words.

This summer, I will visit my mom’s gravesite in Hawai’i. I will share my words with her, the first time, of many, I hope. Share your words, you have a gift and even if you do not think they are perfect, someone will think they are perfect. That someone is me! 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Faculty Voices with Marsha Chall: REFLECTIONS ON THE AUTHOR VISIT

Marsha Chall and friends
The author visit—a heralded event for both invitee and inviter. In my two decades of visits, Murphy’s Law has sometimes defined the day’s dynamics, from hyperbolic scheduling (the worst being 12 presentations in one day), to dysfunctional room assignments (full afternoon sun for a slide show), to vomiting children (I try not to make them sick).

The reason for my continued forbearance as a visiting children’s author is that most experiences defy Murphy’s Law: What can go well, does, and sometimes eclipses even my expectations. Tired feet and weakened vocal chords do not dent my conviction that an author’s presence deepens and emboldens the connection between stories and readers, enriching both author and child, so that by the end of each visit, “I am wrapped in a sweet humility of secrets” (Isak Dinesen).

As a visiting author I have found these things to be true:
  • Authors create readers. Basal reading texts and worksheets might not. I visited a tiny school in Southwest Minnesota where the sole reading curriculum was, of all things, books. Reading class was conducted in the library where every child could freely choose literature to read daily. The school could not afford to buy a basal reading series, so it couldn’t afford not to use the library. These young readers created outstanding companion writing and art in preparation for my visit. They also achieved the highest reading scores in the state.
  • Readers create authors. If I had never been a prodigious reader, I would not write. Reading my own work to children allows me to hear it as a reader, so that I write far more with the reader in mind. By winnowing passages from my work for oral readings, I have discovered that my best writing is what I like to read over and over and that children listen to with open faces and respond to with silence, laughter, gasps, echoes, or murmured acknowledgements. Writer and readers have connected across the arc of story. We have felt and shared our humanity.
  • Authors create authors. On a deep winter day in Northern Minnesota, five middle-grade girls encircled me after my presentation. They were skipping some of their lunch period to spend time with me, hungry for something besides fish sticks. As they shared the details of their changing families—a runaway mother, a new stepfather, a smaller bedroom, horrific pet deaths, parents’ unemployment—I slowed the pace of my book signing to give them space to tell their stories. Dinesen’s words reflect the truth of this telling: “All sorrows can be borne if we put them in a story or tell a story about them.”

Author to author, we are entrusted with the sweet humility of secrets. An author visit is a compelling responsibility, but also a privilege. Humane. Humbling. Honorable.