Friday, August 26, 2016

Alumni Voices with Melinda Cordell: The Buddy System - Promotion at its Best

My nonfiction book, Courageous Women of the Civil War: Soldiers, Spies, Medics, and More, came out on August 1. It’s only been a few days since the book’s official release date, but it seems like much longer. 

Long before the book came out, I did something smart: on my Facebook account, I started friending folks from way back in my life. People I went to school with. My parents’ friends. Folks from around town. Writer friends. Hamline buddies (of course). I friended my fourth-grade teacher, my speech therapist from clear back in kindergarten, folks from Nodaway, shirttail relatives, college buddies, professors, the list goes on. Of course it’s nice to have all my old friends and relatives in one place, but I also knew that home folks would be interested in seeing what I did, since they knew me back when I was small and walking around with my nose in a book.

The nice thing was how good it felt to reestablish contact after lo these many years. And when I talked about my book on there, folks actually got excited. This didn’t usually happen in my life, so it felt pretty good.

A few months before my book’s release date, I hit a rough patch due to outside factors. I stopped caring about writing and was profoundly unmotivated to change this. My little family kept me going, and I love those guys for it, but I was low. I’d been a writer all my life, and now this other stuff was going on, and I was worried that I was going to be stuck without writing for the rest of my life. I needed help, but it seemed like wherever I turned for help a door would quietly shut in my face.  
But then, after I got my box of books, some of my buddies (from FB, naturally) wanted to buy a book from me. So I sold one. Then I sold another. Friends – and I just said that in my preacher’s voice – friends, that’s when the light shone upon me. I handed somebody my book. They handed me a $20 bill. After all these years of hard work, I was getting a tangible reward. Instant gratification. And that’s when I got hungry. When I got hungry, I pulled out of my funk. I got so motivated so fast it made my head spin.

So anytime anyone on FB said they wanted to buy my book, I told them that if they buy it from me, I’ll take it to them and sign it right there. Old friends are taking me up on that. The neat thing is, not only do I sell a book, but I get to talk to an old friend I haven’t seen for a while. That’s definitely worth the price of admission.

Other friends are helping out in other ways. Some give me leads about places to sell my book, or they’ll share posts about my book with folks they know. Some friends have invited me to come out and give presentations. You never know who will have a lead for you – so invite ‘em all!
And I’m getting more ideas just from hanging out with these guys. I used to say that I had no interest in self-publishing. Then, after an author’s showcase at the library where I hung out with a bunch of self-published writers with tons of books on their tables, I got hungry again. “Dude!” I thought. “I have so many old manuscripts that agents have passed on – I’m going to self-publish them too!” So now I’ll have more books to sell with my Civil War book. I’m still sending stuff out to agents – but Mama’s tired of waiting over here. She’s going to make her own damn books!

You know, this whole experience has been a kick in the pants – a very welcome one, because I had no idea that promotion could be such a nice thing. My friends’ support has been invaluable, and actually has been one of my favorite parts of this whole journey. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

*Melinda Cordell earned her Master’s in Writing for Children from Hamline University. Her first book, Courageous Women of the Civil War, has been published by Chicago Review Press and is (at this particular millisecond) a #1 New Release in Teen & Young Adult Military History.  Melinda's fiction and articles have appeared in Cricket, Highlights, and The Horn Book, as well as Organic Gardening, Birds and Blooms, and Grit. Visit her author's website at to learn more or just say hi!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Alumni Voices with Rebecca Grabill: 7 Reasons You Might Want an MFA

I hid brochures for MFA programs in my bottom desk drawer. Every few months I’d take them out, page through, dream a little… Until finally in 2009 I enrolled in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. The program took two years of concentrated study at home, and for 60 days, spread over five residencies, I lived in the Twin Cities, away from children and family. It was a significant investment in time, energy, never-over-abundant funds, but now, five years after graduation, I can say without question, the MFA was worth every dollar, every hour in the MSP airport, every frantic trip to the library to pay my fines so I could pick up yet more holds. Hamline’s MFA gave me far more than I spent (or bled) to earn it. Like…

1. An MFA filled my toolbox with New Writing Tools and showed me how to better use the tools I already had.

Was I pounding in nails with a screwdriver? What could I do with a jigsaw? I learned about psychic distance and filters, I re-learned plot and characterization and so much more. Could I have broken through my plateau on my own? I’m not sure. Maybe, with enough time and enough reading. And if an MFA only provided tools, then I might question the value. But the MFA gave me more than a single workshop or another book on writing. It gave me more than tools.

Pre MFA my reading was all over the place. I’d go to the library, check out books based on recommendations or labels on the spine: Oh, Mystery! I want to write a mystery, too! As if I were looking through the lens of my DSLR set to manual with the focus ring turned the wrong way, all the world’s books looked the same. I never knew what new books were worth reading, or what old books were true classics I couldn’t live without.

2. An MFA provided Focus.

Before my first residency I began on Hamline’s Required Reading List—120 curated books spanning all genres and age groups which provided us a grounding in the literature we were learning to write and a common vocabulary. Plus each residency added several must-read books for different topics we'd study that semester. Even now I can post to my alumni group, What’s a good middle grade novel on bullying?” and get a dozen relevant titles, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Which leads to another perk…

I came into my program set on writing young adult (YA). It’s what I’d always written, what I always read, but,

3. My MFA program helped me Become a More Versatile Writer.

I spent an entire semester working the the amazing Phyllis Root on picture books. Another semester ignited a love for poetry that grew and influenced my graduating thesis—a novel in verse for middle grade readers, and my first two published books will be—not YA—but picture books. Speaking of publication…

I once dreaded writing query letters. I agonized over the hook, wrote and rewrote a bio that sparkled while still being…true. Because while it looks great in a bio, I’m not a celebrity, don’t have a doctorate, and don’t have one single superpower. Unless Able to Scale Mountains of Laundry counts.

4. The MFA gave me a Credential, and with it Credibility.

A degree from a good institution is noticed. It is respected. An MFA qualifies me not just to lead workshops (and get paid for them), but to teach. At the college level. The credential proves I put in time, tears, and money, that I’m committed to being an author. It proves to me, on those days when I’m cleaning up one toddler-tornado disaster after another that I am a writer. A real writer. Because sometimes it's easy to forget...

I’d worked at this writing thing so long and so hard and had so many Close Calls (I brought this to committee, but unfortunately…” “I love your work, but this book just isn’t quite…”), I truly believed I’d be stuck in the slush pile forever.

5 An MFA Can Open Doors to the Publishing World.

When I began the MFA I had no idea one of my classmates would go on to become an editor with a big house. I had no idea other classmates would find an agent who would happen to be a good friend of my agent. The industry is an interconnected web, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my network of alumni stretches, somehow, to every publishing house on the planet. Alumni, faculty, we all work together, sharing knowledge, names, connections and yes, even stolen carrots.

Speaking of carrots, I once felt isolated on this writing journey. Sure I had a critique group and I had a few writer friends, though out of necessity most overlapped with Mommy Friends or school-pick-up friends. My segmented life had only a small hole carved out for Me as Writer.

6 The MFA Gifted Me with Community.

Friendships I’ll treasure forever. Each residency became a celebration: These are my people. They understand me, care about the same things, share my passions and dreams. I still remember many late-night conversations with my first-residency roommate—our instant connection that continues to this day. And remember the carrots? Late-night pick-up games of Dixit, glasses of wine at the hotel bar. I forged memories, shared life with people who, five years later, continue to share life and inspire me, goad me to keep at this exhausting art. Because…

When I began the MFA I thought I knew everything. I’d read all the books (hadn't I?), I knew all the rules (didn’t I?). I was a great, or, um pretty good writer (wasn't I?). Beneath the bravado a crippling terror whispered that I was a pretender, a hack.

7 Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Gave me Confidence. And Humility.

Learning always builds confidence. But there’s nothing quite like seeing a whole universe of expertise—faculty, visiting writers and publishing professionals—to make me acutely aware of how much I didn’t know. Yet. Because I now have the tools, community, and support to continue learning as long as there are new things to learn.

Which would be, in case you're wondering, forever.

Rebecca Grabill graduated in summer 2011 and has two forthcoming picture books, Halloween Goodnight (S&S 2017) and Violet and the Woof (HC 2018). She lives and writes in Michigan. Find out more about Rebecca and her writing at

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Faculty Voices with Ron Koertge: You Never Know

My friend Gerry Locklin turned me onto poetry in grad school at the University of Arizona. We were 22 and 23 respectively when he showed me a copy of an indie magazine named The Wormwood Review. I didn’t need drugs to open those doors of perception. The Wormwood Review did it for me. I was studying poetry (and how I hate to see the words study and poetry side by side. Can’t you just see students gritting their teeth and wondering what that freaking albatross stands for?) but none of the poems in Wormwood or Poetry Now or Aldebran Review needed lucubration; they were right there on the page waiting to be enjoyed.

And they were enjoyable: goofy and uncultivated and against-everything-one-should-be-against, they were little celebrations of another kind of life – not serious, not dogged, not sober, highbrow or grave. They looked liked they’d been fun to write and they were fun to read. Did any of these poets imagine their verse was immortal or enduring? No way. Although Wormwood lasted a long time, lots of the indie mags were as ephemeral as the poetry they published. Here today, gone – sometimes – today.

Still, a lot of us who started fifty or so years ago are still around, still writing, and often still not taking things seriously. But here’s the thing – writing fast as I do and in a sense tossing poems often leads to a lot of balmy but imprudent work. Poems that don’t jell and never will. Poems that more witless than witty. Poems that collapse under the strain of so much whimsy. But every now and then something very cool happens and a poem steps forward wearing its jester’s cap and bells and just kills. A little gift from the poetry gods.

Of course, after that I want another gift, so every morning I give my Ego ten bucks and send it off to watch a movie about itself, put my butt in the chair and do my best. Because – as the title up there says, you never know.

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program. He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and recently co-authored a young reader series. You can discover Ron's literary work by visiting his author's website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.