Thursday, February 25, 2016

Publication Interview - Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter

Author and MFAC alum Barbara Herkert* talks with us about her newest book, Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter. Learn about her writing process for this picture book biography on the life of Mary Cassatt, one of the most celebrated female artists of all time.

Tell us about your new book?

Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter is a picture book biography, illustrated by the extraordinary Gabi Swiatkowska. It was released in October, 2015 by Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt.

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

I love the first page. That look on Mary’s face is priceless.

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

I think I started it in 2012. It took about two years to complete.

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

The book was originally entitled Mary and Edgar. It was about the friendship between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, which fascinated me. When I started working with Christy Ottaviano, she asked for it to focus on Mary. So I cut out Edgar’s side of the story. He’s still in there a bit, because he was such a huge influence on Mary.

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

I read and read and read some more! I took copious notes. I met with a Cassatt expert at the Cleveland Museum of Art, who took me on a private tour of Mary’s prints.

Where did you do most of your writing for this book?

At home on the Oregon Coast—my favorite place to write! I also spend writing time at a log cabin in Central Oregon.
Any final thoughts on the book you'd like to share?

Always stay open to revision! I think the book became much stronger after eliminating Edgar’s point of view. I adore Gabi’s paintings. They capture the essence of Mary perfectly.

*Barbara Herkert has been a fan of Mary Cassatt every since she stood in front of Mary's original paintings. She received an MFA from Hamline University, a biology degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and she studied art and art history at Oregon State University. 

Picture book biographies are her passion—Barbara loves both the research and finding hidden gems that will appeal to young readers. For more information, visit her author's website at

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Writers v. Artists in the Ring

Greetings Inkpot readers! This week MFAC alum *Polly McCann writes to us on dystopian politics, where to write, and her new artistic community/gallery, Paper Birch Landing.

Dear Hamline MFAC-ers & Friends,

Last night my ten year old said, “Do you know what we like to talk about at lunch on Wednesdays? Politics.” What followed was a brief conversation about a rather awkwardly groomed politician who used to be the richest man in America. I gleaned from the following conversation that even ten-year-olds think building a wall to keep people out is an evil political plot that must be punished over chicken nuggets and instant mashed potatoes. Some of the political thoughts in our country seem to remind the local fifth graders of their favorite dystopian novels like The Unwanted by Lisa McMann.

I said, dastardly politicians who build hypothetical walls of hatred hadn’t read any good children books when they were kids. “That’s why we write for kids,” I said. Because we are hoping a generation of people grow up already knowing that forcing people to be the same, or forcing people to stay out, or forcing them to live in fear just leads to dystopia. It ruins our world, our creativity, then our hearts. Well, I wasn’t that poetic aloud, but how much can you say at bedtime?

Last week, I wasn’t there on Wednesday to tuck in the kids. I drove downtown and parked myself in a folding chair in the back room of the Uptown Arts Bar. I wanted to find out about the other poets and artists in my hometown. Pound Slam is spoken word poetry: 30 poets, three minutes each, three rounds. Three hours of in-your-face-poetry. So now I know what poets care about; what they are angry about. I know about their spiritual lives, their jobs, their loves, their politics. They are angry about dystopia too, they say something about it in a rhythm no political figure except Martin Luther King Jr. could probably imitate.

Monday, January 18th was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I didn't have the day off. I was working downtown. How did I get out of the burbs? In the 2014-2015 school year I sat at home and wrote a novel alone in my grandma’s old dining room chair. In the 2015-2016 school year I left my house and rented a studio space in the city. It’s made all the difference. Maybe 20 years of creating in a small room finally got to me. Maybe I’m just rolling in a current of events I have no control over. Whatever the reason, I’m not alone anymore. I have two other artist/writers with me at the studio space we share. From the third floor studio I have a view of KC’s midtown and all of King’s dreams echoing about in the street.

My work is better with a view and coworkers. I need other writers. I can’t sit alone, building awkwardly groomed antagonists to fight on paper, with accidental walls around my writing space. Artists experience the same thing. The walls are up. Having been an artist and a writer exclusively - and now trying to do both - I want to bring the two groups together. So I’m doing something new. It’s formed out of the community I met when I left my desk at home. Now it’s turned into an art gallery of sorts.

What will happen there? We are trying to figure that out. Writers can meet in our art gallery for critique groups. Spoken word poetry might be nice on the terrace for our June Street Art show. “…merely posing,” a quote from a poem by the new poet laureate, sounds like a great name for a juried art show with a photography theme. Novelists without an office could use the study for a space to get away. We can throw awesome book launch parties, build websites, make cakes. I’m thinking if we work together as creatives - a rather new term I’m fond of - then we can inspire each other to keep going. Someone has to make sure kids read good books with good old common sense for what's a bad idea. Someone has to make sure writers get recharged. Artists need other creatives to experience their art. Maybe we could meet in the middle. Step over the walls. There’s a lot of work to do. As one of my new artist friends says, “We’re stronger together.” I'm calling it #ArtLocal.

*Polly McCann, artist, writer and mother, earned her MFA in writing from Hamline University. Tea with Alice is the working title for her first collection of autobiographical poems; three generations of stories retold in free verse. She has been published in Naugatuck River Review and Arc 24. She is the owner of NewThing Art Studio in Kansas City. She loves to grow basil and explore unexpected surprises in her free time.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Agenting Tips of the Month - February 2016

Today MFAC alum and agent extraordinaire Jodell Sadler* is set to share insights and secrets about the world of agents. This time she will answer your submitted questions from the last month, and a few extra ones submitted by the Inkpot.

Q: If an agency doesn’t post a timeframe for their response times, what is an appropriate length of time after you haven’t heard from one agent at a specific agency to query another agent at the same house? Of course, I know that you NEVER query two agents at the same house at the same time, but the “rule” for successive queries is pretty murky.

My best advice is to email and ask. I often get queried with unrealistic timelines. For example, a writer might write that I have one week as an exclusive prior to a conference and in reality, if I am in contract negotiations or working on a timeline for another writer, I may not read submissions that week. Plus, there are critiques to complete prior to conferences so time fills with that as well. Most important: follow posted guidelines.

What we know is that agents know the preferences of their colleagues and if your manuscript might be more suited to another agent in that house, they will likely share it. 

I would also encourage you to continue to write, stay focused on craft, seek nonfiction projects to fill time gaps, and really stay focused on what you passionately want to share in print. These ideas rise up and garner attention. What I see is that often times manuscripts are shared too soon, and may not have the emotional depth needed to carry readers to the end. 

What we know is that the direction of your novel and main character’s views and world view need to happen immediately and of don’t happen in a first draft. These types of edits really happen on your forth, fifth or twenty-first draft. 

It’s really important for you to explore your work and be tough on yourself in regard to characterization, setting, plot points and the emotional journey as well as the pacing of you manuscript. That final edit will include a look at musicality and language and how well you are alerting your reader as you move through your plot. You should be sure to set your work aside and then pull it back out to review and think about the visual story. Are you showing and making active scene shifts dramatic and clear?

Q: I don't have a very active social media life. Is it necessary to have a platform in order to attract an agent? If so, what are some tips that I can use to start building up an online presence?

It’s more imperative for an illustrator to maintain a platform, but we live in a world of social technology and every writer will need to embark on that journey at some point. It’s nice to set yourself up as a writer for author visits so when the time comes, you preparedness meets opportunity. I Google every submission I enjoy and try to see what their online presence includes.

As far as illustrators, so often I receive a PDF of a few images and that is not enough to represent someone from. Agents will be looking for movement and energy and fluidity of your work. How well do you show off your visual storytelling? Is there a reason for the many things that are pictured in a particular scene? 

Q: Are agents more interested in an author who has a series of books? Is there still a place for stand-alone fiction?

An agent is interested in great writing and a marketable manuscript. I am sure this will vary from agent and agency. We all have focuses and are as unique and diverse as writers. Agents are not cookie-cutter and are as unique as you are as a writer. Some writers plot stories out; others string their work from scene to scene but both end up with a quality piece of writing. Some writers outline; others do not. But it’s all a process and there’s not a right way or a wrong way—everyone’s process is different. In this same way, some might look for series because they’ve successfully placed a few and enjoy working with them. Others might look for that one book that’s fresh, literary, or commercial. I have represented series projects as well as stand-alones and do not have a preference as long as I am passionate about the project.

Q: How much time do you spend looking at each query? I know for most agents it's not much - so how long DO we really have to hook an agent before they move on to the next person?

When I read: “I know for most agents it’s not much,” I do not believe this to be true. Agents seriously consider quality submissions that follow guidelines, present a great cover letter, especially when you share a bio that shows your commitment to children’s literature and writing. For me, I’d have your MFA placed after your name in the subject line. You’ve earned it and it shows your commitment. Think about your submission as a package that shows your professionalism. I’ve had some crazy submissions in my short time agenting and here are some things to remember:
  • Take into consideration how your email reads, how you sign off, and your Google image if you share one. 
  • Be sure to address the agent by full name and give reasons for contacting that particular agent/agency.
  • Include your contact information on your cover letter as well as the manuscript if you have been asked to submit a Word doc. 
  • Be sure your focus is on your manuscript itself as it really is all about the writing. 

The submission bin is a funny thing and I’ve missed some great writers and illustrators and there have been times when I would have loved to have read something that interests me but have been too busy with other things to do so. It’s just vital for you to stay working and producing and remaining positive about your work and career as a children’s literature professional.

If you are lucky enough to be asked to submit a full manuscript or a revision based on feedback, do not make hasty revisions and resubmit in a few minutes. Give it time to digest and really let the suggestions soak in. This marks your opportunity to make your piece the best it can be.

Q: What does a typical day in the life of an agent look like?

I can’t speak for all agents. I only know how I work, and the focus it takes me to place a piece of writing. A typical day includes tending to the manuscript and writer I happen to be working with, requests, and contracts and responding to editors, and then also fitting in time to review work on new submissions while also tending to in-bound submissions and reading new projects. 

Q: What inspired you to create KidLit College? 

I wanted to share craft learning when it comes to writing. I’ve learned so much from other writers and industry professionals and it made sense to me to help writers improve craft and make connections. I’m a huge advocate for craft and learning it and webinars and classes and critiques help coach a writer towards a great product deliverable and that’s the mission of KidLit College.

Here’s an overview of upcoming events.

Q: What should writers and illustrators look for in attending conferences: online or in person? 

Register for a critique, follow up, and submit your work. Really delve into craft. Attend webinars and lectures and apply it. Stay involved and get involved with a quality critique group. If you have the opportunity to submit, to an editor or agent, please present your best work. Write that strong cover letter and present a short pitch for your project. When you submit, it really is about getting to know you are and your work.

Please comment with your questions below as our next posting will include feedback from other agents as well.

Happy Writing, Everyone!

*Jodell Sadler is an Editorial Agent at Jill Corcoran Literary Agency and founder/contributor at KidLit College. She also teaches and presents on "pacing a story strong" nationwide.You can join KidLit College on facebookregister for their newsletter, or follow Jodell on Twitter @kidlitcollege.