Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Bigger Boat

Today's blogpost is from the fantastic *Maggie Moris (a.k.a M. A. Moris), a 2009 alum of Hamline's Writing for Children and Young Adults program. In this post, she talks about one of a new (or well-established) author's greatest fears.  When you're done reading it, ask yourself if you know any "Shirley Sharks" and how you deal with them?

Most of my family and friends have stopped asking me the “P” question.  They know and trust that if I have news to share about the status of my books, they’ll be the first to know.

Not so, Shirley Shark.

Shirley Shark – as I like to think of her – enters my social sea about twice a year. Every time she locates me during a party, my heart hitches, my belly tenses and my breath turns to sludge in my chest.  Short of full-blown eye-twitches and seizures, I’m a physical and mental wreck. My dread of her approach pools around me as clearly as blood in the water. Shirley Shark likes to circle in with a wide schadenfreude smile. My middle name turns to “Chum.”

A few weeks ago our exchange went something like this:

M.M.: Murmur, murmur, weather, weather, nicety, nicety, and …

S.S.:  “So, any publishing news? Sold anything yet?” Twenty-two rows of teeth gleamed.

M.M.: “Oh, you know …” 

I’m not proud about what happened next. I swear to God, I meant to tell her what I’ve told her 31 times before, but to my mortification, I stuttered the one word I shouldn’t have: “P-P-Published.” 

The “P” word left my mouth like a verbal fart. I couldn’t call it back. A dear friend standing at my side looked as surprised and horrified as I felt.  She knew this was a lie and she understood how much I dreaded talking to Shirley Shark about my writing.

Shirley Shark’s smile dipped. Her shoulders dropped. The predatory gleam in her eye dimmed.  “Really? You did get published? When? How?”

Whatever nano-second of self-satisfaction I enjoyed was snuffed out as I back-stroked and retracted the statement – badly, awkwardly, but as quickly as possible. Shirley Shark then brightened and spoke a few condescending words of encouragement before she swam off while I tried to figure out what in the world had possessed me.

The mystery of this whole scenario is that I’ve fielded this same question from countless people over the years and I can answer with truth, grace and goodwill.

For me though, Shirley Shark is “The One.” She’s the one person in my wider social circle who consistently unseats my self-confidence and reduces me to worm status. 

So. What’s the point of this story? 

Writing + Time = Insight

I had a sudden epiphany after I finished my second novel. Both books had the same underlying theme, even though I thought they were wildly different stories. Both narratives had something to teach me about forgiveness. Not just forgiveness in a general sense, but specifically in regards to a child forgiving an adult. Writing those books and getting to know those characters opened up a path to compassion and revealed a place inside me that needed to be healed.

In the movie “Jaws,” Roy Scheider’s character, upon seeing the size of the man-eating shark for the first time, says, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  As writers, we get to build that “bigger boat” for ourselves. Be it sharks, monsters, bullies, neuroses, self-doubt – we can craft the vessel or fort or castle or hot-air balloon we need to find a safe vantage point to explore what haunts or hunts us. 

I don’t have a profound insight on my ongoing issue with Shirley Shark quite yet.  My hunch is that something inside her touches upon an unresolved or unenlightened piece of my own psyche. I could try to psychoanalyze the issue, but I’d rather keep writing. I may not understand Shirley Shark, but I bet there’s a future character inside me who does.

Whether we will it or not, know it or not, intend it or not, our characters often appear to show us what lurks in our personal shadows. Sometimes, our characters come to light for our own benefit. Sometimes, they show up carrying tender blueprints.

Real sharks have a bad rep. No real sharks were harmed in the writing of this essay. 

*When she’s not torturing and mixing metaphors, Maggie Moris (a.k.a. M. A. Moris) writes middle-grade novels.  She received her masters in 2009 from Hamline University and will answer any question you have about a different “P” word: Perseverance. Visit her website to learn more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Agenting Tips of the Month - October 2015

Get ready Inkpot readers, this week we're treated to a fantastic true-life agenting adventure.  MFAC alum and agent extraordinaire Jodell Sadler* has once again offered to share some insight into her field. This time she wanted to talk about a recent book deal she has with new author-illustrator Phil Gosier. Read on to find out why his inquiry was her fastest response to date.

I wanted to share with my Hamline family, a recent two-book deal for Phil Gosier’s debut author-illustrator picture books: Snow Beast Comes to Play and an untitled to Emily Feinberg, Macmillan. But the story goes deeper than that. Phil’s work, when submitted, was actually picked up for a MG illustration project, The Friday Barnes series, with Connie Hsu, Macmillan/Roaring Brook, and his picture books were forwarded to Emily. Both are going strong and he has more books in the works. I know his submission to me was my quickest response to date and I’d like to share why.

JO: Here’s my story of just that kind of journey.

Late last week, the PW featured Sadler Children’s Literary’s double-book deal for Phil Gosier, debut author-illustrator, who earned his illustrator wings at DC Comics:

I feel really honored to represent Phil’s talent. His submission marked my fasted pull from my submission bin ever. We’ve seen tough challenges, but today, I really must say, I feel his feet are firmly planted in a wonderful journey as an author-illustrator. It took time, a mutual respect for the mission, and honoring the goals he saw for his end product, but it was worth every moment.  

In my last post, I mentioned how I pulled Phil’s letter and emailed him right away. I still wonder how I held back from calling, but it makes me smile when I think about that moment —my I’m-so-lucky moment. I often talk about the one line in his cover letter, which he placed under an “A bit more about me” header. It read, “I tend to cry at most Tom Hanks movies.” And BOOM. That made me feel he was genuine and real and relatable right away. 

I’ve often called his email the “unreliable narrator” approach to submissions because, if I recall, he wrote something about it needing to be in better shape and still needing work and not willing to send it back out until he fleshed it out even more. All things I respect a great deal. And what I’ve seen is that this is rather true about how he works and this has helped him find success this past year.

I read his letter and opened his attached PDF file. And WOW! Snow Beast as a concept hooked me, and then I saw his HELLO! art, and his wonderful street scape with Snow Beast playing peek-a-boo behind buildings, I knew his talent would shine and this book would sell. 

While I know Phil mentioned in his letter that he happened upon my website and thought “why not?" there’s not a day I don’t wonder how he got there. Still, I do thank my lucky stars.  So, I asked: Phil, What lead you to me?

PHIL: There’s a quote that I attribute to Scott McCloud, but it’s probably not his originally... “The only people who succeed in cartooning are the ones who are too stupid to know it’s impossible.” When you have two young kids that doesn’t seem as pessimistic as it may sound... it seems like good, practical advice on how to conduct your career. Well, as you know I have a college friend who had succeeded wildly in kid’s literature. I remember the exact moment when I decided to give this industry a try. I was down seeing the national Christmas tree with my family...maybe 6 years ago. We had stopped into union station to grab dinner before heading over to the tree and we stopped into a Barnes and Noble. I was rounding the bend into the kids section and I saw a stack of bright red books on the floor, right at the end-cap. I recognized the drawing on the cover was unmistakably Jeff's work. He and I were cartoonists together at the UMCP student newspaper, the Diamondback, and I know his stuff on sight. I knew right then that Jeff had not only managed to get published, but also that he was a success. In this small bookstore the staff will stack top sellers at the end-caps because they move off the shelves so quickly. I know this because I used to work at this very same bookstore back in college. Anyhow, when you come to know that something is possible...well, it becomes difficult to keep from thinking about it. So, I was off and running...

I had been working on Snow Beast for years, just chipping away at it. Initially the story was about two kids who go looking for an abominable snowman and are surprised to actually find one. I drew on it in off hours for a long time. The story evolved to the more heartfelt version we now know. Once that happened the drawings seemed to make much more sense and I seemed to like everything better. Maybe it was that boost in confidence, maybe it was because I had been working on it for years, and maybe I was just looking for something to do on my lunch hour.

I found you through a Google search and I remember the language on your site being very approachable and friendly so I decided to see how someone actually in the industry would look on what had essentially been my hobby. Also, most other representatives looked as though they were trying to hold the submissions community at arms they didn’t want to be bothered. Also, Also, I had previously sent illustration samples over to Shannon Associates (illustrator reps) and they didn't pick me up. I sent them a bunch of disney-esque illustration work...some Tony the Tiger samples, stuff like that. Looking back on that experience, they seemed to like me, but I didn't have all that much to show so things didn't move forward. That’s sort of how I thought our interaction would go. "Yeah, sure, it’s charming...but I need to see more." Whatever the case, I didn't really expect to hear back from you.

JO: Like editors, agents look for that next great author or author-illustrator. They are looking for the whole package, that great story and great person to work with. Phil represents both those things. He’s all about getting the work done, staying on deadline, and keeping humor in our conversations.

It took us a while to find a perfect home for his work, and it was riddled with a few rejections (as we expect), but it also came with some awesome, awesome moments worth celebrating along the way.

Our first rejection was after editorial circles at a great house. It was an editor I had long admired by her books and client list. I wanted to work with her and knew Phil was of her caliber. But, ultimately, after a round a few editorial meetings, the project was turned down because it was too similar to a book they already championed (that also went on to win accolades).

Spin forward a few months… After sending it out again, I learned this editor shifted to a new house. And I wondered: Could it be that what might not be right for one house, might be just right for another? So, I followed my gut (something I encourage writers to do) and reached out again.

Her response came with an email and a phone call meeting, followed by the news that they would like to consider Phil for a middle grade project and move his picture books forward with another editor. Yes, a two-editor split. It was a moment—an amazing moment—and I thank my lucky stars. 

Phil went on to illustrate The Friday Barnes Series at Macmillan with Connie Hsu while working on Snow Beast with Emily Feinberg.  Two great titles filled with these characters will be released soon, and news of more in this series is in the works:

For me, this was a rare moment.  Looking back, do you remember that initial rejection from a different house and the few rejections that followed? How did you feel and what did you think when I told you I was going to follow up with the same editor now that she had shifted houses? And, of course, I asked Phil about this experience:  How did it feel that day I called you to tell you that Connie wanted you for a middle grade art project and was also sending your picture books to another editor? 

PHIL:   Fast forward a bunch of months. I remember our phone conversations where you were pitching the Beast. It seemed like there was a lot of negative response except for one editor, who really liked it. I remember you saying, “I think she GETS it.” There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere...not every house is going to be predisposed towards something you feel has merit. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit...just that it may not fit the house or the editor whose looking at it.

Also, let’s face it...Writers, illustrators and editors are all in the same boat. We’re all trying to tell stories to kids. We have the burden of trying to get noticed and they have the burden of trying to bring a vision into its proper form. We spend late nights banging our heads against the creative while juggling our uncertainty. They spend late nights banging their heads against the same creative, while juggling the money and their own uncertainty. Anyway, we're all in this together.

This publisher’s initial interest sent me over the moon. I was disappointed when they didn't pick it up, but it was immensely satisfying that there was interest from such a big and reputable house. Interlude: I read the Artists Market books with regularity. Most entries from publishers read something like “We're approached with 2000 submissions a year and we publish 4." So, having that interest, for me, was like summiting Everest.

JO: What is great is that during all of this, Phil worked above and beyond, maintained steadfast faith, and kept coming up with interesting stories and ways to make his mark in the industry.

And while, I’d love to ask him: How do you feel about this year and what you’ve been able to accomplish? Do you feel optimistic about your future in the industry?

I know the answer is mutual. We are looking forward to a recent submission moving forward and another offer moving into contract. It’s a great day when you know that there’s room for your books on a shelf at a house (and editors) of your dreams. Knowing you can make this happen with a lot of hard work, a little determination, and the belief that together you can make things happen. This, for me, defines the ideal, author-agent relationship.

Phil continues to make me laugh, produces the highest quality material, and there’s not a day that goes by that I do not thank my lucky stars. It’s been a rewarding partnership that makes me completely thrilled to be an agent for KidLit.

Thanks Jodell for all the great advice! 

We're trying 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 KidLit College. She also teaches and presents on "pacing a story strong" nationwide.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sit in the Discomfort

This week alum Donna Koppelman talks to us about this frightfully fun time of the year as we inch ever closer towards Halloween.  Read on if you dare to embrace your own darkest fears (insert melodramatic evil laugh).

The scary season is upon us. Not presidential debates. Haunted houses. Fright nights. Scary movie marathons. Ghost walks. Imagineers at theme parks brainstorm new and powerful ways to scare people.

Adults are inclined to squelch this emotion in modern culture, but artists must embrace the intensity and power of fear. People who write for children cannot lose touch with this emotion. Fear plays a critical role in the lives of young people.

When children are very young, good parents and teachers honor their fear. It’s real and valid, and keeps them safe. As children grow more adventurous, fear protects them. Still, small children don’t like fear. The avoidance of fear may drive many aspects of a child’s life.

For teen-agers, it all changes. Fear becomes delicious, scintillating, exciting. Young people seek the heart-pounding, skin-crawling rush of emotion. It tests their mettle, their courage, and their confidence. Adolescents embrace scary situations as long as they happen in a controlled environment. In other words, adolescents often play at being scared because they thrive on the intensity.

Adulthood brings with it routine and responsibility and other logistics that allow people to avoid fear as much as possible. Young couples look for a home in a safe neighborhood. Parents seek out nurturing, safe schools and work environments. Adults instinctively consider ways to protect themselves from horrible tragedies reported in the news. They think their way through fear, explain it away and rationalize it. In this manner, sensible adults isolate themselves from the primal fears of childhood.

Writer friends, we can’t be sensible adults AND effectively write for children!

We must connect with the raw, basic emotions of childhood. The children need us to remember, understand and support them in their fears. We must write characters who experience real, knee-knocking fear and then find their way to courage and strength. In this way, our readers will feel less alone in their fears, our work will ring true, and our characters can offer help and hope.

Young readers try on different identities, environments and experiences by immersing themselves in books. We must provide honest, real writing for readers to connect. We cannot do it if we have grown detached from the intense emotions of childhood.

So do your research. Take a ghost walk. Visit a haunted house. Watch a horror movie. Walk around your house in the dark and listen to its sounds.

Scared yet?


Now, pay attention to your fear. Sit in the discomfort. What does it do to your senses? How does your body respond? What scares you now versus what scared you as a child? What would comfort you? What environment or encounter would push you past rational fear to true terror?

Take notes and put them in a folder marked fear. Add to it whenever you feel afraid or observe a frightened child.  Keep a list of things that frighten you and scary story ideas for the younger set.

Figure out how your own emotions and physical reactions can enrich a children’s story. Then, write one. Or ten.

And every October, get out there and be afraid.

For the children.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Alchemists, Teachers, and Ponies.

Welcome back to the Storyteller's Inkpot, today we have another great recollection from MFAC faculty member Ron Koertge*.  Read on to find out Ron's secret to writing YA novels.

Every now and then, I teach for a friend of mine at her Writing Pad. She has classes in everything - fiction, screen writing, web-stuff, etc.

This class was called Writing the YA. I had five students, most of whom had degrees in writing of some kind. Working in Hollywood (scripts, pitches, etc.) can be discouraging and these women wanted to try something else. Maybe just a YA; maybe that in addition to other kinds of work.

Teaching all of YA in three hours (tone, pace, dialogue, killer opening page, and more) was daunting, but everybody was curious and willing so we did pretty well.

They asked a lot of questions, but the one that kept coming up is this: “What’s the structure?”

Almost all of them knew the three-act template for some scripts. Five acts, sometimes, for plays. Most knew the Save the Cat book about screen writing with its many beats and plot points. I told them that Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall) goes into a quiet room, puts two chairs facing each other, sits in one, imagines one of her characters in the other, and then she talks to him or her.

When they asked me what I do I said, “Different things, but mostly I write three pages a day that don’t bore me. If I can do that for a month, that’s 90 pages and the best part of a first draft.”

Them: “And that works?”

Me: “Sometimes.”

Them: “How do you know when you’re being boring?”

Me: “I nod off and drool on my computer.”

I know this sounds glib, but isn’t it just about that simple? Characters doing and saying things that make it impossible for readers to put the book down.

To come back to my five students for a moment: I don’t blame anyone for wanting an alchemist instead of a teacher. Hell - I still want a pony.

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program.  He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and most recently co-authored a young reader series (Backyard Witch) with Hamline alum Chris Heppermann. Book # 1 of that series -Backyard Witch: Sadie’s Story - is out now (read the publication interview). His latest work also includes The Ogre’s WifeCoaltown Jesus, and the unforgettable Sex World - some of the fastest flash fiction in the world.

You can learn more about Ron's work by visiting his website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Macabre Writing Prompts From My Backyard

This week Ellen Kazimer, MFAC alum of 2014, shares a few creepy stories and free write exercises based on true events.  Read on, if you dare...

When the call came out for Halloween inspired postings, I didn’t wander past the woods behind my house to dig up a few writing prompts. This time of year, globe spiders spin webs across my windows, bats perform aerial acrobatics at dusk, and toads cover my front walk. 

Halloween decorating? I’ve got that covered. So for your writing amusement, I present three “true life” vignettes from my woods, each with two writing prompts. Hope they inspire your monster muse.

Vignette I 
There are ten unmarked graves behind my house and possibly more. A dismembered arm indicates there is still another body to be found. Three dead baby dolls and seven dead Barbie’s is a case for the Behavior Analysis Unit on Criminal Minds. I suspect that in yards across America, you will find a buried doll or two, but ten? What twisted mind would do that? (I tried reviving the dolls, but they were too far gone. Tiny insects had crawled into their heads through their hair follicles.) 

A. Write a picture book, middle grade, or young adult scary story where your protagonist either buries or unearths dolls in their backyard.  Would you choose gothic, noir, supernatural, or psychological? Picture book noir, anyone? 

B. The last Barbie I found had hair so full of leaves and mud, that her hair was stuck in place as if it were styled that way on purpose. Perhaps I had a woodland fairy instead of a zombie. Are the dolls changelings? Write a story using the buried dolls as fantasy elements. 

Vignette II 

Last winter, in the middle of a snowstorm, I spotted a piebald deer. I'd never seen one before, and we are replete with deer. A few days later, a neighbor found a tree stand in the woods and deer entrails strewn into the creek. (Deer hunting is illegal in our woods.) The kill was fresh. Turkey vultures had not found the entrails yet. That piebald deer never appeared again. Who killed and gutted the poor piebald deer and why? 

A. Write a story where your protagonist discovers the entrails using one of the three types of terror defined by Stephen King, the Gross Out, the Horror, or the Terror. 

B. Write a story where this unusual deer is a magical beast loose in the suburbs. Perhaps go back to the ancient legends of the mythical white stag. 

Vignette III

I have a trail camera takes six rapid photos when it detects motion. Most of the time it catches deer, foxes, squirrels, or me walking the dog. One night the camera went off, and there was nothing in the pictures except an “orb.” If you are a fan of shows like Ghost Hunters, then you know this could be a spirit orb. (Or it could be an insect or pollen, but let's stick with a spirit orb.) 

A: Write a story where a spirit orb or ghostly apparition haunts your protagonist by appearing their trail camera. 

B: Write a story where the orb is a “will ‘o the wisp” leading your protagonist to another world. Hope you found some spooky inspiration for your stories of mayhem, horror, and the supernatural. I’m off for a walk in the woods.

Thanks for answering the Halloween call, Ellen!  Hopefully these spooky true-life events will give you some great starting points for you own seasonal scares.

*Ellen Kazimer is a 2014 graduate of Hamline MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. When she’s not sweeping spider webs off her windows, she writes picture books, nonfiction, and middle grades novels. Her bio can be found on her website and blog where she shares “Odd Bits of Research that Washed Ashore.”  Learn more about her work on her author website or visit her blog.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Shudder Shriek Scream

October is the month of mischief, fun, and sometimes frights. MFAC faculty member Ron Koertge* kicks off the season with his own Halloween story.

As some of you know, I live in the Halloween House. One of the local sites for John Carpenter’s Halloween. The first one. The iconic one. Everybody’s favorite.

If you watch the first 12 minutes or so of the movie, there’s the house on Oxley Street and the avocado tree. The latter is bigger and the house is pretty much the same. Which is part of the appeal.

For sure now in October, but really off and on all year, we get visitors. Pilgrims is more like it, because they come from everywhere. All over the U.S., Mexico, Germany, Japan, Australia, China, Israel, and Norway.

Vagabonds. Supplicants. Votaries.

Mostly they just wander around, take pictures, use the plastic pumpkins my wife provides. They sit where Jamie Lee Curtis sat. They walk where she walked.

A few turn up in costumes, and Michael Myers - the madman with the knife - wins hands down. I don’t know how many times I’ve come home from the race track and there are two or three people in coveralls and masks holding a pumpkin hostage and waving a knife around.

When I get out of the car, the conversations go like this:

Fan: “Do you live here? Holy crap! What’s that like? Are you scared”
Me: “Nope. It’s a friendly house.”
Fan: So cool you let people use your pumpkins and stuff.”
Me: “Sure. Have a good time.”
Fan: What’d you do, like for a living?”
Me: “Well, I, uh, write poetry and - ”
Fan: “No, man. What do you do?”
Me: “Oh, okay. How about mortician.”
Fan: “No way!”

What seems remarkable to me is the good will these folks bring. They’re thrilled to be here. Grateful to be able to take pictures. Anxious to share minutiae. Ready? The original title was not Halloween but The Babysitter Murders,” Jamie Lee Curtis bought her own costume and spent under a hundred dollars, and in the credits Michael Myers is called “The Shape.”

We’ve lived here more than twenty-five years and never an ounce of trouble. Nobody steals a pumpkin, nobody sprays their names, every now and then someone leaves a Thank You note and a dollar or two.

Just the other day I was outside staring at the dying lawn when a guy pulled up with a woman who, from a distance, looked a little like Jamie Lee Curtis. “I swing by here on my honeymoon,” he confided. “This is my fifth trip.”

Thanks Ron for sharing the true-life tale of your Halloween House.  We're glad that it's got a happy ending.  So, readers, do any of you have a Halloween story to top Ron's?  If you do, share it in the comments below!

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program.  He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and most recently co-authored a young reader series (Backyard Witch) with Hamline alum Chris Heppermann. Book # 1 of that series -Backyard Witch: Sadie’s Story - is out now (read the publication interview). His latest work also includes The Ogre’s Wife, Coaltown Jesus, and the unforgettable Sex World - some of the fastest flash fiction in the world.

You can learn more about Ron's work by visiting his website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.