Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Agenting Tips of the Day

MFAC alum and agent extraordinaire Jodell Sadler* (Sadler Children’s Literary) has generously offered to answer a few questions about the ever mysterious world of agents - and how to find one. Read on to find out her agent tips of the day!

What are agents looking for from a craft point of view?

Agents look for great writing and great story, pure and simple. It has to be both. When a unique idea comes along, it stands out. When a unique voice pops up in the inbox, it stands up and announces itself. When I open a submission and sense a writer has studied his/her craft and places me in story within the first lines, pages and chapter, I forget I am reading a story, and its the magic I look for. It makes me want to acquire yesterday and work with that writer.

The next concern is if a writer can carry story over the muddy middle. I look for a well-paced manuscript: active verbs, honed sentences with diction that pauses me at emotional hot points and enhances my focus in a masterful way—just really great sentences. I ask myself a few questions: do the words match the action of scenes? Do I sense emotional depth, original character, and worldview and does the piece have both layers and legs?

More than anything, I crave fresh, original, creative, interactive, and genuinely engaging stuff. What’s the personality and voice used in your cover letter? Are you presenting to an agent your personality and passion? Are you using comedic timing and pause well and asking they pay attention to the underpinnings of your words? I love that quote from William Zinsser, “You are the product that you sell” or the notion the late Ray Bradbury speaks to: writers learn the rules and how to break them well up until that day that the process of writing becomes “all in an of their fingers”—and they no longer think about it. If you have earned your MFA, you are well on your way. So, write. Write from that passionate place where story comes.

What are some writing clichés to avoid?

Princess and holiday books cause allergic reactions for me. I see them too often in my submissions bin. I prefer commercial, literary—that surprising, new material that makes me want to snatch it up. Material that presents that wow-factor and leaves me thinking: “I with I had thought of that!” moment is perfect.

When I first started out as an agent, I felt I could help any writer who was committed to his/her career, held an MFA, but that has since changed. It’s all about collaboration and a project I can genuinely connect to and believe in. As an agent, especially an editorial one, we spend time with the manuscripts, reading them and rereading. So, I am careful to take on projects and writers or writer-illustrators I feel connected to. I look for that writing professional who partners with an agent to further a career.

I’ve come to enjoy finding clients at events and workshops because I learn more about how they work, how they edit, and who they are. What I know is that when I take on a client who dedicated to improving craft and has a great manuscript in hand, that’s perfect. You should be savvy about what is out and current in the marketplace—enough to know when a manuscript feels like it is written from a mentor text or includes lines so similar to established text that it feels cliché.

Do I need to have a full draft of my novel?

Yes. You should have a full draft of your novel to submit. We are looking for that next great book. It’s nice to have other manuscripts in the works as well, ideally ready, but one great book is what we look for. I personally enjoy working with writers who work in more than one category, a writer who enjoys nonfiction as well as fiction, or is a writer and also an illustrator, or a picture book writer who also writes YA.

How much revision should I do before I submit?

Your novel should be through a number of revisions, for it is usually in the 8th or 56th that we reach that depth needed to skyrocket our manuscript toward success. I was working on a manuscript the other day, or just looking for where I was at in my own revisions, and I found a draft marked 222. I laughed. I remember how I felt at the time I saved it like that. Some stories come to us and the muse opens up and others find there way through the labyrinth of our souls, but they find their way. Our job is to nurture it onto the page. And with pluck and a little luck and butt-in-chair (BIC), we, ever onward, reach our goals. It’s what writers do. What you need to know is that with MFA in hand, you are on that journey, so enjoy it, celebrate it, and cherish the small successes as you move forward.

What are some tips about writing a cover letter?

My biggest tips are two-fold: keep it short and be yourself. We get so many submissions, so those that share their personality in the cover page stand out. I enjoy it when the cover letter matches the tone of the manuscript.

One of my favorite submissions was from an author-illustrator who mentioned his work in a three parts; he works as an art director, cut his teeth at DC comics, and cries at most Tom Hank movies. This is a breathing person who feels real and friendly. He’s been fabulous to work with and we are currently contracting his fourth book, a two-book deal with more in the works.  Another great submission came from a writer who shared her cover letter in her main character’s point of view and voice. It was really engaging. And so was the work that followed.

I’ve been on enough editor-agent panels now to know that when I suggest to keep these short, it’s the best advice I can give you. A lot of us feel this way. When I see a long, long cover letter, I get hives and think “I’ll read that one later” and may not. It’s professional to by concise and clear. Short means it fits on my computer screen without scrolling down. Keep it simple, direct, and memorable.

What matters most about your submission? Your manuscript. For your cover letter, spend the most time honing that pitch for your manuscript. Write that in a way that makes me crave your read and you will be in great shape. I often read this pitch and move right to reading the manuscript. Really. When my in bin fills fast and furious like a wild thing, it’s a must. Some twenty to one hundred submissions a day is normal life as an agent and really why we are sometimes slow responding. If I write an article, at times that number can reach 500-600 in a month.

When I’ve been the submission agent following an online event, I’ve received this number from just one group—all picture books. When I attend conferences, critiques get added to this reading. When I want to send out clients’ manuscript, important reading and editing gets added to this reading. So do realize that when we are slow to respond, we are diligently and constantly working to catch up.

So my other piece of advice is to take the time to read and adhere to the specific guidelines for each agent you send your work to. When I receive submissions written to the agent they sent to just prior to me (Happens a lot just prior to events I am scheduled to attend—I think writers send to the agents that will be there and simply forget to change the name) or to “Dear agent” (really? Didn’t bother to look my name up) or Mr. Sadler (did I really have a sex change overnight? Hmm), I know this writer has not taken the time to consider me as a professional or present him/herself as a professional.

Will my agent work on revising something with me?

Agents are the new editors in many ways. We look for work that is so ready to send that it already sings. It’s nice when we only have a few things to consider like setting or depth of characterization, or chapter breaks and shifts, or subplots or threads that need more attention. In the case of picture books, a lot of time can be spent on crafting fresh and thinking about what will elevate a piece in the marketplace.

I’ve recently launched KIDLIT COLLEGE, which hosts great webinar events with editors and agents, who also do critiques. In a recent event, Allison Moore talked about Big Story Ideas and shared how to position your work to complete in the marketplace and stand out. This past weekend, Ann Whitford Paul joined Jill Corcoran to talk about picture book craft. Ann talked about the ABCs of writing picture books, which was fabulous and gave detailed list of what to do, and literary agent extraordinaire, Jill Corcoran joined her to talk about what agents look for.

Find these kind of opportunities to get your work critiqued and reviewed by editor and agents. From our first webinar alone three manuscripts out of 20-ish where requested by the critiquing editor, so it’s a great move.

I often say that while we don’t write to the market, per se, we do need our work to fit into a market category. It’s a different ballgame to craft a story than to craft a story that will sell. I know a book is one I can take on when I can instantly think of three editors I can share it with.

Agents work on revisions, but an editorial agent definitely does, and this is all a process. I now use Google hangouts to work with clients because it saves a lot of back and forth emailing. We read and mark up and then chat about the piece and what needs to happen to make it ready to send out.

What catches an agent's eye and makes them want to read more?

Voice. Original idea. Different. Captivating. And Firsts. The first line, paragraph, pages and chapters of your novel need to be the best you’re capable of. We need character, setting, plot hints and voice all at once. How important is this? Huge. In the first week of my MG/YA pacing course, I talk about the importance of firsts. I also recently did a Writer’s Digest Webinar with Leslie Shumate, assistant editor at Little Brown Books for Young readers, and she will also be talking about first pages and we have Leslie joining us at KidLit College in October: “Making First Impressions”—and she definitely knows what she is talking about.

I believe in one simple truth: A writer who hones his/her craft will earn the book deal. There are no short cuts. A manuscript has to be top quality. This was the whole reason I started KIDLIT COLLEGE, and asked presenters to talk about craft. Ariel Richardson, assistant editor at Chronicle, will be talking about “What Makes Nonfiction Great” in September, and Yolanda Scott, executive director at Charlesbridge, will talk about “The Whole Book Approach to writing picture books in November. We also have an author-agent team talking about The author-agent relationship in a few short weeks, titled, “I’ve Got Your Back,” which pretty much sums up a great team approach to agenting.

If you could give one tip to new authors, what would it be?

Write the best manuscript, that manuscript only you can write, and write it strong in your voice and style and trust in the journey—it’s a good one.

Thanks Jodell for all the great advice!

We'll try to make this a regular monthly post, so if you have a question we can ask just write a comment below and we'll get it answered next time.

*Jodell Sadler is the founding agent and owner of Sadler Children’s Literary and KidLit College. She also teaches and presents on "pacing a story strong" nationwide.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Publication Interview with Ron Koertge and Christine Heppermann

It's not everyday that two Hamline authors team up, but when they do you know it's going to be a great book!  Read on as co-authors Ron Koertge* (MFAC professor) and Christine Heppermann** (MFAC 2010 alum) talk with us about their newest book, Backyard Witch.

Tell us about your new book.

It’s the first installment in a series about three nine-year-old friends—Sadie, Jess, and Maya—and their comical adventures with a witch named Ms. M, who turns up one day out of the blue in Sadie’s old backyard playhouse. 

Ron: The title tells it all – an amiable witch with questionable magic powers turns up in Sadie’s back yard  just as she needs a friend.

Christine: So far we have three books under contract, each told from the perspective of one of the girls. The next two books are scheduled for publication in 2016 and 2017, and all will include illustrations by the amazing Deborah Marcero.

Do you have a favorite part of the book or a favorite character?

Christine: My favorite part is the overall tone of the series. My daughter Audrey describes it as “smart-stupid”—and she means that as a compliment! The stories aren’t frivolous; they have a lot to say about friendship and parent-kid relationships and different ways of looking at the world. But the humor is goofy. Anytime a scene seems to be veering dangerously toward “heartwarming,” Ms. M will say or do something silly and, crisis averted. 

Ron: I like the beginnings of things:  the first few minutes of a movie, the post parade at the races, and the opening scenes with Sadie abandoned by her friends.

What was it like writing a book with a former student/faculty mentor?  

Christine: Honestly, those labels, for me, went away a long time ago. For years now, we’ve simply been friends. 

Ron: Chris was always such a good writer that I never thought of her as anything but a peer.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?

Christine: I workshopped the first few chapters or so at an alumni weekend. People said encouraging things and gave us good advice, as usually happens during workshop.

When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?

Ron: Ummm, a couple of years ago now and we worked on Book #1 for 6-9 months.

Christine: We started work on the first book in the summer of 2012. I remember because that was a rough time for me: my husband had just been laid off from his job, and I was in limbo with the manuscript that would become Poisoned Apples, waiting to hear from an editor who seemed enthusiastic, but couldn’t quite commit. (Eventually I got an agent, Tina Wexler, who found the perfect home, at Greenwillow, for it.)

I wanted to work on something fun and distracting. Ron and I had talked semi-seriously about doing a picture book or an early reader together. At some point I floated the idea of a girl with something living in her playhouse—a rhino or a dragon or a witch. Ron said, “I like witch.” And we were off, as they say, to the races.

As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?

Christine: Can’t remember what the specific changes were, but I know they involved fleshing out the story and the characters. Ron and I are both minimalists. 

Ron: Chris and I would be away from the ms. for awhile, then come back and sense these holes that needed to be filled in.  And our keen-eyed editor, Martha at Greenwillow, had suggestions.

Christine: Under [Martha's] direction, we kept going back to the story, adding layers. Sometimes it was just a line or an additional paragraph; sometimes it was whole new chapters.

What research did you do before and while writing the book?

Ron: Chris did bird-watching stuff.  I interviewed witches.  

Christine: Ms. M is a birder, and she turns Sadie into one—not magically, but by showing her how amazing it can be to sit and observe the natural world. I already knew a little about birding, but I still checked out a lot of birding books from the library. Also, I lived in Chicago at the time and spent some wonderful sunny afternoons hanging out behind the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, watching birds at feeders.

Where did you do most of your writing for this book? 
Christine: I like to write in coffee shops. Ron writes in his study. 

Ron: We live on opposite sides of the country, so we talked on the phone and sent each other works-in-progress.  Once a year we got together face to face.

Any final thoughts on the book you'd like to share?

Christine: It makes me very happy for lots of reasons. One is that it’s about friendship, and I was lucky enough to be able to write it with my friend.

Ron: Who knew I’d write for very young readers?   I wrote Stoner & Spaz and the dark fairy tales in Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses.  Most writing is enjoyable, but this book was flat out fun. 

Thanks to both Christine and Ron for taking the time to answer our questions and discuss a little bit about their creative process.  Congratulations again on Backyard Witch!  We can't wait to read the next two.

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program, and author of over a dozen books, mostly for young adults (Backyard Witch being a notable exception).  You can learn more about his work by visiting his website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.

**Christine Heppermann is a January 2010 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. Her book, Poisoned Apples, received five starred reviews and was chosen as a Best Book for Young Adults 2014 by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Boston Globe, and The Chicago Public Library.. Christine lives in New York's Hudson Valley region. To learn more about her and her writing, please visit her website. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Thoughts on Writing: Love and Letting Go

In the final part of author Molly Burnham's* top six Thoughts on Writing and Mindfulness we end on a positive note. 

In this post Molly shares why loving what you do and letting go of it when you're done is an essential part of the writing process.  Like the rest of her wonderful points, these last two
 are something every writer should take the time to reflect upon next time you're worried about an agent rejecting a manuscript or even what a young reader will think when they crack open the front cover of your next book.

5. Love
I like to spend time loving what I do and reminding myself that I do love it. I'm in awe that I live during a time of peace, that I learned a craft, and that I have the time to write. It's easy to get down-hearted and sad. I get that. I feel that way, and then I remember that I just love writing. And I'd do it no matter what.

Why should anyone else decide for me my experience with art? I'm the only one who gets to decide that. It might be one of the only things I have control of.

Speaking of which...

6. Letting Go
Seriously hard, but I practice letting go every day-even with a book sold.  I let go of thinking that I have control over anything. My books might do well, or they might not, I might have a difficult day writing, or I might have a smooth day, there's so little I can control.

So let go of control and see where the adventure takes you.

Thanks again to Molly for sharing these helpful tips to help us sustain the writing life. If you missed either of Molly's previous posts you can read part one Connecting and Routine and part two Demons and Distractions here.

*Molly B. Burnham graduated from Hamline in 2010. Her first book, Teddy Mars Almost a World Record Breaker came out March 2015. It will be followed by two more Teddy Mars books. She lives in Northampton, MA with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She tries to be mindful, but is remarkably unsuccessful most of the time. Luckily she learns a lot from her failures.

To learn more about Molly and her writing please visit her website.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Thoughts on Writing: Demons and Distractions

I hope you enjoyed Tuesday's post by Molly Burnham*If you missed it, be sure to read it here for some great advice on seeking connection and developing a writing routine.

Today we're continuing to look at Molly's top six thoughts on Writing and Mindfulness by journeying to the dark side of the writer's life. Keep reading to find out how to fend off your inner demons and manage those ever-present distractions.

3. Demons

Keeping the demons at bay is always important. The demons I’m talking about are: Fear, judgment, criticism, will I make the deadline? Will I ever have something to write about? etc. That's where mindfulness really comes in handy-just quieting those stories and getting back to the work of writing. 

Another demon that pops up is that only earning a living from my writing makes me a real writer. I am lucky to be married to an artist so we have a lot of conversation about earning a living from art, and how difficult that is in a capitalist society. I think having these conversations are really good because through them I realized that no matter what I would keep writing because I just like writing. Once I took off the "earning a living” from my plate, I became more open and free with my writing. 
I also practice affirmations around writing. I focused on writing easily and 
writing with joy-as opposed to something like "I earn a lot of money from my writing" because that seems ridiculous. Notice this affirmation is not funny, so I have to work on that.

I also practiced mindfulness by reminding myself that writing is not a separate experience from my life, but is part of my life. I will grow as a person because I write and engage. I remind myself that this is my life and I am not someone else. All I can do is live this life, mindfully writing and sending work out, taking part in classes, without an attachment to outcome. I can forget the outcome and stay in the present. By doing that I was able to focus more fully on my writing and the story I wanted to tell. 

Lastly, I decided that I was not allowed to compare myself to others. They get to live their lives and I get to live mine. When that comparing demon arises, my mindfulness practice notices it, and I let it go. I remind myself that this is my life as Molly Burnham and I am here to learn as much as I can about Molly Burnham and no one else. Let other people travel their life. We will all feel happiness, and struggles, but they will come at different times to us all, so stop comparing yourself to anyone else.

4. Choose Your Distractions
I'm married to an artist who also works a full-time job. We know we have limited time with our art, so we keep our lives simple.

We don't go away on vacations a lot (
because we need to be home making art). We don't go out a lot or watch a lot of TV (because we need to make art). We don't have a garden that needs a lot of our attention (because we need to make art). These are things that would need our attention, or to put it another way, would take attention away from our art. 

These are different for everyone, but try to find a way to simplify your life so writing can become your focus. If my art was a vegetable garden then that is what I should pay attention to. This is also true for Facebook, twitter, etc. There are so many ways to make our brains move from our art, so many distractions, so only choose the ones you really want. This doesn't feel sad or anything, it feels really right. It feels like I'm in control.

We'll have Molly's final thoughts on mindfulness and writing up on August 18th. You won't want to miss her take on Love and Letting Go as an author.

*Molly B. Burnham graduated from Hamline in 2010. Her first book, Teddy Mars Almost a World Record Breaker came out March 2015. It will be followed by two more Teddy Mars books. She lives in Northampton, MA with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She tries to be mindful, but is remarkably unsuccessful most of the time. Luckily she learns a lot from her failures.

To learn more about Molly and her writing please 
visit her website.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Thoughts on Writing: Connecting and Routine

Welcome back after our Summer MFAC Residency!

We've got a lot of news to share about The Storyteller's Inkpot, starting with new types of posts!

We'll still have our regular publication announcements, Meet the Grad features, and general blog posts, but we'll also have a featured topic each month that our community of Hamline bloggers can engage with. August's topic will be revision, one of the most critical (and challenging) skills for any writer to master.

To start things off, author Molly Burnham* has offered to share her top six thoughts on Writing and Mindfulness with The Storyteller's Inkpot. Her post was simply too good to giveaway all at once, so we'll be breaking it into three parts.

This time Molly talks to us about how connecting with others and establishing a solid routine can help you break free from a writing (or revising) rut.

1. Connecting
The first year out of grad school sucked. It was really hard. Really.

I was revising what I had worked on at Hamline, but it felt like I was spinning my wheels. This led me to apply for a weekend away with Stephen Roxburgh that focused on Editing for Writers. It was a very interesting retreat about looking at our work with distance so we can edit it as writers.

I felt this was important because in the two years I spent at Hamline I hadn't grappled with this issue-my writing was still very fresh. I was creating, but I needed to learn more about what to do after I had a book. How do I work with a whole draft?

I found that for me it was important to connect with kids. Not only because I write for them, but because I have fun with them. I needed some fun that first year out of grad school!

When in doubt, focus on one element of craft that you need help with and find people to help you. Really good people-like Hamline people if you happen to live close to them.
2. Routine
The other thing I did was to establish a routine for my writing. I woke up at 5:00 am so I could write before my kids woke up. I was working and needed to have that time. This was not easy, but I really liked it (and got the idea from a Hamline faculty member who recommended the book From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler).

As I said, getting up that early was not always easy, so I had this little phrase I'd say that went like this:

"I'm the kind of woman who gets up at 5:00 in the morning to write. That's the kind of woman I am." 
It would make me laugh but was also a positive affirmation. I find positive affirmations are so important. (A lot like mindfulness). 

Choose affirmations that have a bit of humor to them; it really helps.

That's it for today, but check back on August 13th for Molly's thoughts on Demons and Distractions!

*Molly B. Burnham graduated from Hamline in 2010. Her first book, Teddy Mars Almost a World Record Breaker came out March 2015. It will be followed by two more Teddy Mars books. She lives in Northampton, MA with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She tries to be mindful, but is remarkably unsuccessful most of the time. Luckily she learns a lot from her failures.

To learn more about Molly and her writing please visit her website.