Thursday, June 22, 2017

Meet the Grad: Tina Hoggatt

On Sunday, July 16, 2017, Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the months of June and July we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's featured grad is: Tina Hoggatt. Tina lives in Issaquah, Washington. Find Tina at and @tinahoggatt Twitter & Instagram.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

Wait, you have the option of not working on your packets?

I have a visual art practice and I try to spend regular time in the studio although the MFA work has dominated my time for the last few years. In truth, it’s hard to run both practices at once but with the MFA work I feel I’m getting closer to managing an integrated practice with more success. I’m moving the visual work into illustration with a goal of writing and illustrating books.
We have a big garden that takes intensive time right about now, will flourish and quickly become overgrown by July, and for the rest of the season will be weeded (at least by me) only where you can see it from the house.
I recently ended my tenure on the advisory committee for the Western Washington chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, working on illustrator exhibits, the annual conference (now every other year) and as illustrator coordinator for several years. I highly recommend joining and participating in SCBWI. It’s a marvelous, all-volunteer, international organization filled with people who want you to succeed.
AND I have a swell husband, two very grown up children, and two grandchildren who I am lucky enough to hang with on a regular basis. We have two cats, one dog, and four obtuse chickens.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

The lovely and talented writer Ailynn Collins (January, 2017 graduate of the program) is in my critique group. She got into the program after a workshop at Highlights where she met Anne Ursu and Laura Ruby, and encouraged me as well as Lily LaMotte to apply. Lily and I will graduate together and are psyched that Anne Cunningham, a fourth member of our group, is returning to the program this summer.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I worked on writing novels for young readers on my own, through NaNoWriMo, at SCBWI workshops, conferences, and retreats, took online and IRL classes, and participated in regular critique groups. I also did a lot of writing for the web and educational materials through my job at a local non-profit arts funder.

What do you especially remember about your first residency?

The excitement and pleasure of my first residency was broken by a controversial lecture by Jane Resh Thomas, then faculty member, and its aftermath. Ultimately the fallout helped reset the program’s priorities and deepen my experience at Hamline.

Have you focused on any one form (PB, novel, nonfiction; graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Tried a form you never thought you’d try?

I worked with three picture book authors, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Claire Rudolph Murphy, and Phyllis Root in my first three semesters. I wanted to work on both picture books and a novel during my time in the program and did both with all three. Because of Claire’s expertise I ventured into nonfiction, and with all of their input on the novel I started first semester I was ready to work on its completion with Marsha Qualey during my last semester.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis. 

Piper in the Middle is a middle grade historical novel that takes place in the aftermath of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. It’s a family story of travel, nature, birth, death, secrets, and finding one’s place in both family and childhood.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

I’m a better, more concise storyteller. I have a firmer grasp on the picture book and novel forms, something I’d hoped for, and am not wholly overwhelmed at managing a complete novel. Due to the terrifying regularity of packet deadlines my writing practice has been much stronger over the last few years. 

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?

If you have the money and time to swing it, and if you want to take the next step in your creative work and towards teaching opportunities, you should apply. Shrug off some hours of your regular job if possible so that you can concentrate on reading and writing. Get a jump on the required reading list! At Hamline you will work with some of the shining lights of the industry and you will gain a circle of friends in your fellow writers who will help you through the challenges and triumphs of the program and beyond. Go for it.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Meet the Grad: Aimee Lucido

On Sunday, July 16, 2017, Hamline's Creative Writing Programs will host a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor all the students who have completed their studies and will be receiving an MFA from Hamline University. 

During the months of June and July we will be featuring our soon-to-be alumni as they look back on their time at Hamline University. Today's featured graduate is Aimee Lucido. Aimee lives in San Francisco, California. Find Aimee at and @aimeelucido on Twitter.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?

I'm a full-time software engineer at Uber (which ends up being about half actual software engineering and half working on our diversity & inclusion efforts), and lately that has me traveling a lot, so much of my writing has been done on planes these days.

But for fun (and profit) I write crossword puzzles and perform with my musical improv team Flash Mob Musical. I also love to run stupid-long distance, see musicals, eat pasta, and play Zelda with my boyfriend.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?

About two years ago I was at a different company than where I am now, and I was fairly unhappy. I remember sitting in an interview one afternoon and the candidate wasn't doing very well, and as the time ticked down I thought, "thank goodness, in ten minutes this will be over and I can go back to work."

But then I remembered that in ten minutes I had to go back to WORK.

So I had a minor panic attack, considered quitting right there on the spot, but then I collected my bearings and I decided the mature, responsible thing to do would be to figure out what I would want to do instead before I abandoned my primary income source.

I started researching internships at literary agencies and I ended up interning with Ayanna Coleman at Quill Shift for six months. It was remote, so I didn't have to quit anything, or move anywhere, and best of all I could do it without even telling my boss I'd taken on a part-time job.

I was just reading and editing stuff from the slush pile, but I loved it so much that at the end of the internship, Ayanna and I talked about what I was going to do next. While pursuing agenting or publishing was an option, she sensed (correctly) that I wasn't quite ready to leave my cushy day job just yet (though I have since switched companies and am far happier now). She told me about something called a "low-residency MFA" and gave me some websites to look at that focused on young adult writing.  

The ones that stood out were Vermont and Hamline. Vermont's deadline had JUST passed (literally earlier that week) but Hamline's was... Two days later!

I assembled an application that same day, applied, and within a month I was at my first residency.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?

I had a bachelor of arts in literary arts from Brown, where I did my undergrad, and I had written two full "novels". One was my thesis for my degree in college, and one was how I spent my summer before going off to work. The first novel is a pile of junk but the second one I'm still holding onto in hopes that I may find it a home!

What do especially remember about your first residency?

So many times in the "real world" you're sitting in a meeting, or in a movie, or at a dinner and you're thinking of all the things you could be doing instead. But I never once had that feeling at residency. Every lecture, every reading, and (especially!!!) every one-off conversation with my Hamlettes. It was like "oh so this is what it feels like to love what you're doing!"

Have you focused on any one form (PB, novel, nonfiction; graphic novel) or age group in your writing? Tried a form you never thought you’d try?

I came in thinking I wrote YA and it turns out I write everything but. My voice tends toward middle grade, so a lot of what I've ended up with falls in different areas of that age group.

But I did a fair bit of exploring! Before Hamline I hadn't even read a picture book (since I was, say, three) and now I've written, like, ten, and some of them are actually good!

I also tried writing a graphic novel (didn't get too far before I got distracted by my actual attempt at a YA, but I'll come back to it!), and my creative thesis ended up being a novel in verse.

No way I would have tried that two years ago.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.


THE MUSIC MY KEYBOARD MAKES is a middle grade novel in verse about a twelve-year-old girl named Emmy learning to program in Java. She's painfully shy, winding up in the computer class almost by accident, but she finds herself connecting to the course material, often going so far as to incorporate it into her poetry. Through the language of computers, Emmy builds a relationship to herself, her school, and her classmates. But as the real world starts provide challenges of its own, she finds herself wishing everything in life could be broken down into a series of ones and zeroes.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?

Before, me no right good. Now, me right good!

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?

Do it!! Do it!! Dooooo eeeeeeet!!!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Announcing Our New Blog Editor

Congratulations to Tiffany Grimes (MFAC '15), our new Inkpot Blog Editor!

Tiffany Grimes, Inkpot blog editor

Tiffany Grimes is a minimalist (excluding cats: cats bring joy, thus more
cats equal happiness). She graduated from Hamline in 2015 and currently writes
and breathes in Portland, OR. Follow her on Twitter 

Tiffany will take over the blog management duties later in July. Plus, more exciting blog changes coming soon!

Welcome, Tiffany!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

BEST OF: Agenting Tips of the Day, Part 2

NOTE: While we work on some exciting Inkpot renovations, 
we'll be featuring some favorite past posts here on this space.

[ originally published in 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.

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.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

BEST OF: Agenting Tips of the Day from Jodell Sadler (Part 1)

NOTE: While we work on some exciting Inkpot renovations, 
we'll be featuring some favorite past posts here on this space.

Jodell Sadler, The Storyteller's InkpotMFAC alum and agent extraordinaire Jodell Sadler* 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!

*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.

Friday, May 12, 2017

BEST OF: Claire Rudolf Murphy and John Lewis

While we work on some exciting Inkpot renovations, we'll be featuring some favorite past posts here on this space. First up, from December 2014:


Claire Rudolf Murphy
I began this post before Maggie Moris’ thought-provoking gratitude post. Thank you, Maggie, for reminding us about the deep work we writers doevery day. I too am grateful for the challenges my writing life presents and for other aspects about this life that I don’t always appreciatemy supportive friends and husband, agents and editors who tell it straight and send me back to the work, the students, alums and faculty of the Hamline writing community that feed me in so many ways. And I am thankful for one of the most incredible experiences of my writing life that took place out in the world, not at my desk.

Please bear with my excited verbiage about my recent trip to Washington, D.C. for the National Council of Teachers of English conference. I am so very grateful. I flew out two days early to experience our nation’s capital again. Because I write about history, I wanted to visit the halls of power again where so many decisions have been made, to be reminded again about the evolution of our country. Thanks to Hamline alum Ellen Kazimer, a history geek like myself, we got around brilliantly. The second day we visited Mount Vernon where I came to appreciate our first president more deeply and to embrace the fact that he graces the cover of my new book My Country Tis of Thee, rather than Aretha Franklin. We also met an awesome fife player and guide whose interactions with third graders on our tour modeled ways to help young people enjoy history.

But the first day rocked my soul. Ellen and I toured the Supreme Court and the capital. Across the hall from my senatorMaria Cantwellis Al Franken’s office. Ellen and I were delighted to take a photo in front of the Minnesota college pennants on his wall and tell the office staff all about the Hamline MFAC program. Then we heard testimony on immigration on a mostly empty Senate floor, some of it inflammatory behind belief. But I want to focus on the positive, on what came next.

Ellen and I arrived at Congressman John Lewis’ office about fifteen minutes ahead of the interview time. I had met John at ALA last summer and he had agreed to discuss my new book project with me. Even so, I was delighted when his scheduler set me up with a face-to-face interview, only requesting the questions ahead of time.

We had to wait awhile as the House was actually working that day, voting on some bill. Like a cat on a hot tin roof, I could barely sit still. Ellen admitted later that she was surprised how nervous I was. I was too. But John Lewis was my heroFreedom Rider, speaker at the March on Washington, a member of Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign staff and, most importantly, the last civil rights activist serving in Congress. The 45 minute delay was a blessing. Ellen and I were allowed to stand in his office, which is like a museum to the Civil Rights movement and full of plaques honoring John’s service to our country. Bobby’s poster can be seen in the photo Ellen took of me and John.

He’d been on the go all day, but when he arrived, he asked us if we needed something to drink. To drink! I know, I know. My students are thinking to themselves how much I abhor exclamation marks. But . . . that’s how it went down. He was gracious and thoughtful and considered every question. We had a great conversation about his time with Dr. King and the Kennedys. All my questions were answered, and I only glanced once at my list. In closing I asked him what I should write about today’s racism challenges, what I should say to young people.

“Tell them never to lose hope. We have to have hope.”

John Lewis should know. He’d been beaten senseless as a Freedom Rider in 1962, lost Dr. King and Bobby within two months of each other in 1968, seen Congress devolve to petty partisan politics. He didn’t cover up his pain during our interview. He’s just risen above it. He’s used that pain to keep going. My hero gave me sixty minutes of his precious time. Afterwards he left to receive another award - from the Washington Historical Society. But he talked to me like he had all the time in the world.

NCTE was wonderful. I got to meet librarians, teachers and college professors who love kids’ books as much as do. I had coffee with the amazing Emily Jenkins and we chatted about our upcoming residency. I listened to Bryan Collier discuss how he painted the illustrations for My Country Tis of Thee, and learned that he stood on the Rotunda that cold, cold January day with his five year old daughter when President Obama was inaugurated and Aretha sang.

I will never forget that hour with John Lewis. Whenever I get down and out about my writing, politics or global warming, I am going to remember his words: “We have to have hope.”

John Lewis, you give me that hope. I can only pray for a smidgen of the courage you have shown us all. And writers out there, don’t ever hesitate to ask for an interview with one of your heroes. We need their stories, and you just might be the one to write it.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Faculty Voices with Claire Rudolf Murphy: March Madness and the Writing Life

Full disclosure: this does not include brilliant insights. It’s just a fun way to celebrate life in all we do. If you are not a basketball lover, take a pass. But if you are, here goes . . .

For as long as I can remember, March Madness has been a family affair. My beloved Zags have made it to eighteen straight tournaments and the Gonzaga women’s team has had some good runs, too. This year the Zags’ men’s team outplayed all its skeptics and made it to the Final Four, the National Book Awards of college basketball.  So I couldn’t resist sharing how it compares to our writing life.

If you are like me, you don’t need much to distract from your writing, especially while in a challenging stage in the process, as I am right now. This year, I kept revising my book project, but kept tuned in to the games, too.

So how is writing like basketball?
  • Producing pages and watching games gives us something to cheer about.
  • Writing and watching games can distract us from the ongoing distressing news of late.
  • Both writing and basketball helps me channel my dad who was proud of Zag basketball and my books.
  • Children’s books are sometimes not given the same attention as adult books. The same could be said of my Zags. National sports pundits would say they come from a small college in little Spokane, and a weak conference. Sure they’re going to win a lot of games, but can they play with the big boys? It’s easy to write a kid’s book, right? And not so hard to get one published.
  • Gonzaga men’s team has been called a mid-major for years. There’s that category of midlist for writers. So what can we do? Never stop showing up.

Going to the Final Four is like winning a big award. There are no guarantees but if it comes, let’s celebrate. More importantly let’s celebrate another day of practice and writing, even when it’s tough.

I’ve celebrated March Madness with Hamline students and alums for years. Like Randall Bonser and his Michigan teams and Elizabeth Schoenfeld and her Duke Blue Devils. This year I’m having fun with alum Donna Koppelman whose North Carolina team will be at the Big Dance along with her daughters’ college team - South Carolina. Oh, yeah.

I am here at the final four and would appreciate your cheers tonight for the little engine that could against the  if mAchine of North Carolina.

Seize the day and write on.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Faculty Voices with Sherri L. Smith: Drowning in Research

Have you ever wondered how to go about building the world of an historical novel?  Well, let me show you how I do it!  I am currently writing a book set in 1940s Japan.  Toward that end, I am:
  • learning basic Japanese;
  • going to Japan;
  • reading the 20th of 30 or 40 books on the period and culture, including wartime diaries;
  • emailing strangers and asking them odd questions;
  • outlining;
  • day dreaming; and
  • basically drowning in research.

This is what I do.  For every single book I write, I drown myself in the process.  It’s probably not healthy—I have next to no room in my head for my own day-to-day life when I’m in drowning mode—and it’s never won me a championship on Jeopardy.  But for the few bright moments of vision and revision, I become an idiot savant.  I become an expert.  

Granted, it’s a useless sort of expertise, unless you are a writer.  Like cramming for a test, as soon as the book is done, the knowledge will fade to make room for the next story.  Really, what good is it knowing what instruments use silk strings, or what blind men used to play in Edo period Japan, unless you are a writer (or a time traveling musician)?  I can’t actually play a string instrument (if you don’t count three Groupon lessons I took for cello… and I don’t).  My book doesn’t even take place during the Edo period.  Does it matter if I know the name of Japanese work pants, or the common crops of a mountain farming village circa 1937?

Hopefully, yes.  To my story, and to my readers.  (The pants are called monpe!)

I say “hopefully” because I don’t know how much of what I am learning will be used in the final book.  There is a lot of “read-and-discard” going on.  I scour the internet for reference books, checking out what I can from the library, and purchasing the more obscure titles.  It can be frustrating, like sifting for gold.  Sometimes you buy a 500-page book that turns out to only have a paragraph or two of interest.  And then, sometimes, you hit the motherlode.
Like the koto player writing her own book on the spirituality of Japanese instruments.  Or the sociology book about the region you are researching, tucked in the high shelves of a small used bookstore in Vermont.  Suddenly, vistas open up!  Volumes of information that make the warp and weft of great worldbuilding, and the intimate details that make the story ring true.  It’s this sort of gold strike that makes all of the digging worthwhile.  

While the work seems huge, I like to start small.  I like to use kids’ books—they give you the short version of your research, and often come with a handy list of cited sources.  Those are the adult books I turn to next.  From there, I develop my story, making a list of what I don’t know along the way.  And then I start asking question of myself, the story, and take that list to the library, the internet, looking for answers.  

I do my research before, during, and after a draft.  Every time I feel stuck, it usually means I need to do more research.

And remember, nothing you learn is wasted, even if you discard it for now.  Somewhere deep inside that sea of knowledge, you might find the seeds to your next story. 

Sherri L. Smith is the author of several award-winning young adult novels, including the 2009 California Book Awards Gold Medalist, Flygirl, the “cli-fi” adventure, Orleans and the middle grade historical fantasy, The Toymaker’s Apprentice.  Her books appear on multiple state lists and have been named Amelia Bloomer and American Library Association Best Books for Young People selections.  Sherri has worked in comic books, animation, construction, and most recently, a monster factory.  Currently, she teaches in the MFA Writing program at Goddard College and the Children’s Writing MFA program at Hamline University.  Her latest book is the YA noir mystery, Pasadena.  Learn more at

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Alumni Voices with Jane O'Reilly: The Notations of Cooper Cameron Cover Reveal!

I am thrilled with the cover for The Notations of Cooper Cameron. It was designed by the amazing artist,  Julie McLaughlin, who managed to squeeze just about the whole book onto one page.
The Notations of Cooper Cameron by Jane O’Reilly
Cover by Julie McLaughlin
Pub date: 10/1/17
CarolRhoda Books, A Division of Lerner Publishing

Excerpt from The Notations of Cooper Cameron
“Cooper,” his mother says. “I have just the job for you. Caddie and I will make the beds. Think you can bring in the groceries?”

The groceries are a big and important job. Food is sustenance. Food gives life. Yes, he can bring in the groceries. He will bring in the groceries to make his mother happy.

The cereal boxes and chips and cookies fit into place on the open shelves like puzzle pieces. Soup cans and salt and cinnamon and many other red-capped spices are stacked in perfect rows. The groceries are snug and safe, like ancient cliff dwellings packed into the mesa. Everything fits. And it is beautiful.

“Cooper, what in the world. . .?” His mother says.

“Geez, Cooper,” Caddie says.

His mother squeezes Caddie’s hand to keep her quiet. Smiles at Cooper. He sees her think he doesn’t know. Sees her pretend everything is okay and he aches with this lie. 

Summary from the jacket
Eleven-year-old Cooper Cameron likes things to be in order.
When he eats, he chews every bite three times on each side.
Sometimes he washes his hands in the air with invisible water.

After the death of his beloved grandfather, Cooper invented these rituals, believing he could protect those he loves from terrible harm.

When Cooper’s strange behavior drives a wedge between his parents, and his relationship with his older sister, Caddie, begins to fray, his mother’s only solution is to take Cooper and Caddie to the old family cabin for the summer.

Armed with his prized possessions—a collection of rocks, his pet frog and pocket-sized notebooks in which he records his observations of the confusing world around him, Cooper vows to cure himself and repair his damaged family. 

Jane O’Reilly is a 2009 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. Her first book, The Secret of Goldenrod, which published on October 1, 2016, received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, and was named a Junior Library Guild Selection and a “Kirkus Best Book” of 2016. Jane is also the recipient of a McKnight Fellowship in screenwriting. Her forthcoming book, The Notations of Cooper Cameron, about a boy with OCD, was inspired by the childhood of her older sister, Catherine. Just like Cooper, the main character, Jane spent many summers at the family cabin in the North Woods. Although their children live out of state, Jane and her husband remain in their hometown of Minneapolis with their elderly cat and brand new puppy.