Thursday, April 17, 2014

Alumni Voices: Loretta Caravette

When I was working on my Masters at Hamline University in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I asked a visiting editor, “What are you looking for?” He told me not to worry about what he wanted, and then said, “Just write your book.”

I spent the next two year learning how to do just that. After graduating I began to submit my manuscripts. A year later I was still submitting. I was frustrated, confused, and no closer to understanding how to reach the publishing world that I felt should embrace my stories.

When the idea and opportunity to be an agent arose, I jumped at the chance because I saw it as a way of getting an inside look at the publishing world. I hoped to understand the people and the process of publishing better.

When I think back to what I’d asked the editor, I realize that the real question should be “How do you know which publishing house is right for your story?” Answering that is the first challenge facing any agent.

As I got going, consulting the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market was good for getting brief descriptions and addresses, but it was still difficult determining what kinds of books publishers liked. Every house has a website, which helped. Catalogues are also good, but tastes change, especially when the head people change.

I decided I had to go there and talk with these people face to face. Most houses are in New York, but there are others scattered around the country. There’s even a house in Chicago, my hometown. It took me a while to figure out who was who and get updated names and titles. While all this information was available on the Internet, I also made quite a few calls to the different houses in order to verify spellings and titles

I went to New York. For three days I went to as many publishing houses as I could. Each meeting was better than the next. Everyone was more than happy to share what they were looking for and they proudly showed off their most recent titles. I felt very energized by these visits. I learned so much and felt I was beginning to understand the publishing world. I will continue to make these trips because I feel meeting face-to-face is important. People buy from people.

All this information moved me closer to knowing I can find the right house for the right story. But even when the match is perfect it doesn’t always work; just recently I received a no from a publisher because the story I submitted was too similar to something they already had. Another story, which the Associate Editor loved, just wasn’t going to work for her editor. “It was just a little too different. Not cute enough.”

I appreciated all these comments and can move on, working harder to get the right connection.

As my agency expands, I know that most of the clients I take on will be writers without a publishing track record. That presents a unique problem because these writers are an unknown entity. Here is where Marketing and PR is going to play a big role. We are a team, the author/illustrator, me and the publishing house. We all bring our experiences to the table. Together we will strategize. There are the traditional methods: school visits, library readings, bookstore appearances, websites, and social media. But there still needs to be some out-of-the-box ideas. Fresh approaches and some novel ways are called for in today’s competitive climate. Recently I learned some book publishers are considering displaying YA novels in places where their audience might shop for clothes. Why not!

Another indispensable part of the team is a knowledgeable lawyer. I would like to say that I know all the nuances of contract negotiations. But, since I haven’t sold any books YET that’s a little hard for me to address. I was a television producer for about twenty year. I do know about television contracts and royalties, so I feel comfortable with the idea of rights and control of intellectual property. Still, the lawyer will ensure my clients are protected.

It’s been one year since I started, and I’ve learned that my job as an agent is to 1. Keep learning and paying attention as this business continues to evolve 2. Be responsible for assembling the team that will create the best chances for my writers’ work to succeed.

Your job, writers, is to keep writing.

Loretta Caravette is a 2009 graduate of the MFAC program and the founder of LR Children’s Literary. She is interested in seeing picture books, Early Readers, Chapter Books, and Middle Grade and YA in all genres. Submission guidelines and contact info is available on the agency website.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Faculty Voices: Jane Resh Thomas

Rules for Writing and Life
Jane Resh Thomas
I have never understood why people who can least tolerate unkindness choose an occupation that entails rejection, typically in written form, there on the page in black and white. I adopted rules forty years ago that helped me to write with a minimal regard for the outcome of my writing. These rules have helped me survive the exigencies that came my way:

Write what haunts you, lest you spend your life amidst drivel. Write what you care most about, the beauty, the absurdity, and the sorrow of the world.

Set achievable goals. The thought of writing a novel may be too daunting, so focus on today's work.  Two manuscript pages is possible, even on a bad day, so write two pages, not thinking at all about their quality. If you're rolling after five hundred words, and if you're enjoying the work, write more, but you're off the hook for today. Even if you write more than today's quota, though, tomorrow you owe yourself a minimum of another two pages.

Complete a draft. When you have written a whole draft, then you can smile and say that now you have something you can work on. You don't know what you're doing, while you're doing it. None of us does. We learn what the story wants to be by writing it. Revision is not the mere installation of a copy editor's corrections but a new vision of the work. You could tinker with the first chapter for the rest of your life while it still amounts to nothing, so finish a draft, and then go back to the beginning with new insight.

Be kind to yourself. The muse does not like abuse. Put down the horsewhip. Treat yourself with the kindness you give to your writer friends. You hear yourself dish out the criticism: “Who are you  kidding?” you say. “You're a fraud. You don't know how to write a novel.” Don't lie to yourself, but pose the observation in a more optimistic way: “I don't know how to write a novel, but I'm learning how by writing one.” (Noticing the grammatical error in the first sentence of the criticism, remind yourself that nobody's perfect. Then recast the sentence to avoid both the error and the clumsy whom.)

Do your work. You can't control how others react to your writing. You can't control the response of editors and reviewers. You can't even control the quality of your work, apart from doing your best.  The only thing you can control is whether you do your work. Study your craft, master grammar and punctuation, revise until the story hangs together and the writing sings. Your work involves discipline, a daily routine that has readied your mind when you sit down at your desk. Another part of your work is reading what others have written, in all forms. If you immerse yourself in others' writing, you will absorb language and method naturally, as a sponge absorbs water. As the language becomes your very bone and sinew, you will also grow in compassion. If you do your work, something good will come of it.

These rules have kept me going as a writer. They are adaptable, as well, to life.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Alumni Voices: Daniel Bernstrom


I asked myself, why am I afraid to write? I came up with three reasons.

Fear of Rejection
Being rejected feels as if I’m sitting in front of that principal with his perfectly pressed suit and bleached white teeth, listening to him tell me that my child has “special challenges,” and that it would be in my best interest if, tomorrow, I started looking into other “special options.” Then, for days later, I can’t write. In my wounds, I’m afraid. I don’t want to birth another ugly, misfit, underachieving story. 

Sometimes even the thought of rejection, makes me obsess over every word. Makes me want every page to be perfect. Problem is, I can’t make everything perfect. And because it is not perfect enough, I stop, turn my heart and eyes away from my useless words, and close my computer.

Fear of Confession
My writing teacher, Jane ReshThomas, once had me read a book by Thomas Cottle entitled Children’s Secrets. I read of children very much like me that had unspeakable secrets: finding mother naked with two mechanics, believing father’s promise that being touched is just a little game he likes to play, hiding from drunk father who is turning the house inside out. 

Jane had me write personal essays. I had to write one every day. There were days when my hands would shake over the keyboard. Unwilling to write what I had buried back in childhood, I ran away. I wouldn’t write for days. This fear carried over into my fiction. Whenever I was close to a sin or secret, I would dance around it, telling those all too comfortable lies that came from decades of practice.

Then when others would read my work, they would say things like, “I don’t feel close to your main character.” 

I didn’t want people to be close to my protagonist… I couldn’t let them. For I as the writer was unwilling to face those monsters hiding in the dark places of my heart.

Fear of confession stopped my writing, or, if I did write, it would be safe, thereby stripping my writing of truth and conflict.

Fear of Time Wasted
Many times when I write a book, I know that I’m going to have to rewrite it. 

I can’t even approach my book. I actually keep it stuffed in a drawer. I say that it is marinating, when in fact it might be rotting. I make excuses about my neglected book because I’m afraid of killing a darling, eliminating a precious character, or rewriting the beginning.

I don’t write because it will take too much time.

So, How Do I Fight Fear?
For me it is more than super gluing my butt to the chair. 

I think it’s a matter of:

Mustering up that unflappable child hero inside to accept the fact that there will always be editors or agents or peers or children who will not “love” my work.

Resisting the urge to hide my darkest sins, my deepest longings, and those good and terrible things I have promised never to tell a living soul.

Loving my story enough to rewrite it as many times as I need in order for the right story to come into the world. Even if that means cutting beloved scenes, killing my darlings, or – if I do not have the heart – placing my beloved words into a scene orphanage.

I do keep a journal. I write at four ante meridiem. I go on long walks. I take long showers. I talk over my stories with my wife. But all these serve as mere pain pills to help me bit by bit… day by day… bird by bird… word by word… face my fear and keep writing. 

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable.” 
                                   Madeleine L'Engle

Daniel Bernstrom is a July 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. He lives and writes in Red Wing, Minnesota. For more about Daniel and his work, visit his website.


Bayles, David, and Ted Orland. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra, 1993. Print. 
Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee, 1992. Print. 
Cottle, Thomas J. Children's Secrets. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1980. Print. 
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor, 1995. Print. 
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"Madeleine L'Engle Quotes." Madeleine L'Engle Quotes (Author of A Wrinkle in Time). N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.