Thursday, December 18, 2014

Alumni Voices with Mandy Davis: The Other 364 Days

As a kid, the entire Christmas season lead up to that moment on Christmas morning when I got to open up all my presents. I’d wake up much too early, run into my parents’ room, and let them know that it was TIME FOR CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It was a big moment.

There are a lot of Christmas mornings in life of a writer. The day you get that book deal. The day your book receives a starred review. The day your book wins that award. (You know the one I’m talking about.) These moments stand out there on the horizon, beckoning us toward them, and promising so much happiness and fulfillment if we can just get there.

One of the reasons it’s so easy to get lost in our big author fantasies is because the writing itself is so hard. When you write you don’t just have to reinvent the wheel, you have to reinvent the axle it attaches to and the motor that moves the axle and then you have to create the body of the car and the people in it and the place they’re going and then you have to give them a good reason to be going there but also a good reason not to be going there and so on and so forth until your head just hurts and you have to go lie down in a dark room for a while. Creating stories seems impossibly complicated, yet we do it, and we do it well.

You do it. I do it. We all sit down with our words, and we all know what to do. Yes, we get help from critique groups and teachers and editors and books and blogs and many, many other sources, but we still sit down alone. And alone, somehow, we manage.

I think we sometimes we wait for the world to tell us we are good enough before we let ourselves believe it. I think that’s another reason why those big moments feel so important to us. We’re waiting for that external validation. I got that validation last summer when I sold my book. And I felt so confident—for a while. But when I actually sat down to write again, the warm fuzzies had all worn off and all the doubt had returned. Nothing had changed except for the fact that I now owed someone a book—a book that had to be good enough to publish. (Cue that famous Queen and Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure.”)

The day I got my first set of feedback from my editor was one of the scariest days of my life. How was I ever going to do what she was asking me to do? Then, I actually read the feedback. Then, I actually sat down and started working through it. Four days later I had a new first chapter. And this new chapter was better than the old one. So. Much. Better. Then, I started working on chapter 2. Then, chapter 3. Eventually, coming to the chair became easier. (Notice I said easier, not easy.)

Everyday, right before I sit down, I wonder if I can really do it. I get this intense urge to clean the toilet or go grocery shopping or reorganize the basement. But then I sit down anyway. And prove to myself, one again, that I can do it.

I am always good enough to do this work, but only when I’m sitting down and actually doing it.

Will there come a day when the fear of not being good enough is completely gone, and I will skip and dance my way to the chair every morning? I’ve not been doing this long enough to know. What I do know is that the longer I go without writing, the more scared I get of it. And the more I write, the easier it becomes.

Mandy's writing chair and Christmas tree.
The biggest and most important moments of this writing life are not the sales or reviews or even the awards. For every December 25th of the year, there’s also a December 18th and a September 21st and an April 4th. It’s the other 364 days of the year that really matter. That’s when we prove to ourselves over and over and over again that we can actually do this work.

I moved my writing chair into the living room next to the Christmas tree. My days of spending the season waiting for that big Christmas morning moment have long since passed. Now my favorite Christmastime moments are those small ones, like right now, when I’m wrapped up in a blanket, sitting by my tree, watching a glittery snowflake twirl back and forth, and writing.

Mandy Davis is a 2011 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. Her first book, Stuperstar, will be published in 2016. She lives and writes in Minneapolis, MN.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Faculty Voices with Kelly Easton: Monomania and Writing

Kelly Easton
Last night I saw a play called O.P.C. at the American Repertory Theater in Boston, and it reminded me of a writing issue that arises in books I read and plays I see. The play, by Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues fame, is described as a comedy, and there were many funny moments of satire (most notably parodies of Oprah and Barbara Walters). The primary messages, though, are dark indeed. I won’t go into the plot further except to say that it was a struggle between two of the characters that repeated in variations. The other characters were what-I-call serving characters, or foils. The vast majority of the dialogue is a polemic spouted by the main character regarding atrocities wrought by humans: global warming, poverty, sweat shops, consumption, trash, and pollution. The play was, in many ways, brilliant and meaningful, and had much to recommend it. However, by the time I hit the 40 minute mark of the three hour play, I was jaded and bored. As my husband put it, “This play feels like someone is jackhammering in my brain.” 

I have a term for this writing issue, which is monomania, an obsession with one thing. In the literary context, this is when the writer fixates on one plotline, or character, or theme, shrinking the world of the book. Think about it. How many YA books have you read that revolve around only the main character’s concerns, or where the dialogue reflects only the bottom line of the plot, or theme.

A. Chekhov
Lest I be misunderstood, I want to clarify that it is the writer’s monomania that is the issue, their compressed vision. Chekhov was a playwright who wrote about characters with monomania. There are characters obsessed with billiards, the past, birds, philosophy, utopia, lovers, the trees. But Chekhov’s concerns were vast and filtered through every nuance of the dialogue. Chekhov’s plays are brilliant in the characters’ mental wanderings, and the metastory. Here is Nina in a play within the play of The Seagull: “Men and lions, eagles and partridges, antlered deer, geese, spiders, the silent fishes dwelling in the water, star-fish and tiny creatures invisible to the eye--these and every form of life, ay, every form of life, have ended their melancholy round and become extinct. . .” (Chekhov). The characters’ interests carry the script to far-flung ideas. And in Chekhov, there is no such thing as a serving character. Each one is fully developed in their own life purpose and plot line, as we all are. A classic example from The Cherry Orchard is Fiers, literally a serving character—a faithful servant, but, figuratively, the most important symbol at the heart of the play, a metaphor for the passing of Russian aristocracy. At the end, he is forgotten by the family to whom he’s devoted his life, locked in the house and left to die, as the cherry trees are chopped down around him. Even so, he is worried about them. “And Leonid Andreyevitch will have gone in a light overcoat instead of putting on his fur coat.”

When I read something where I am battered with the same repeated message or character details, I begin to ask questions: Why does this character have no memories from the past? Why don’t they have hobbies? Or music they like? What are the quirks of the mailman who delivers each day, or the crossing guard? What objects are in their room? What are they writing their school report about? Is it Darwin? Is it eco-terrorism? Or Chopin? How can that play into the piece? Why does their mother not have any plot of her own, or memories, or a career? Who is shoveling the snow outside? Who is the mayor of the town? What is going on politically? What is the story behind the statue in the town square?

Truly, we all have something to say, but if we’re locked too tightly into that message, or plot, or one character (who is coincidentally a lot like us), we might consider looking out the window; or reading a magazine about birds; or talking to some strangers on a city bus. We might ask our neighbor for their stories and listen for a long, long time.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Alumni Voices with Danette Lane: The Toothbrush and the Pen

Jane Resh Thomas once told me “understanding clears obstacles.” I love the simple truth in this wisdom and remind myself of it frequently.

If there is one obstacle in my writing life that I have earnestly sought understanding for, it is the obstacle to writing every day. I know I do not suffer alone with this problem. Jamie Swenson taught us “how to get [our] butt BACK into that chair” in November, and Jennifer Mazi wrote an open letter to her distant muse just last week. In general, we writers spend a lot of time talking about our problem of not writing.

Why is that? Shouldn’t writing every day feel just as important to us as brushing our teeth?

I have worked on my writing obstacle for years. The easy BIC! fix never cut it for me. Then last month, while exploring various topics for this post, I discovered some blessed understandings that have shifted my writing paradigm. Disclaimer: What follows may only be ridiculous convoluted theories that have absolutely no basis in reality. (But they’re working for me.)

Here goes…

: What the obstacle to writing is not. It is not fear (What if I don’t get it right?); it is not doubt (I am not the one to tell this story); it is not procrastination (Today I will make a story collage); it is not laziness (ZZZZZZ); or interruptions (“Candygram!”); or even distractibility (Look! A chicken!). The obstacle is not any of these things--or all of these things. These issues are surmountable.

: What the obstacle to writing is. The obstacle is a basic failure to understand who we are as writers and how we are created to process the world.
Creative writers are a highly intuitive clan. Significant portions of us fall into the “Intuitive Feelers” or “Intuitive Perceivers” personality types when we take the Jung Typology test. This means we gather information using the five senses like everyone else, but we then take in additional data that goes beyond our senses: wispy connections, patterns, relationships, gut instincts. I’m not sure how much of this input we are even consciously aware of. While these pieces of data are not typical facts and figures, they are still a form of intelligence. It’s a mystery how this intelligence is stored within us, but we don’t seem capable of accessing it in the same manner as recalling facts and figures.

: The understanding that clears the obstacle. Additional tools are needed to cull and extract intuitive intelligence. Artists use paint. Monks use prayer. Writers pick up the pen. We rely on the writing process to access and free the unconscious knowledge our intuition has gathered and stored. This understanding offers us a serious motivation to write: To not write means leaving a considerable portion of our humanity and intelligence lying fallow within.

So being all I am created to be depends on me picking up the pen every day.
This new level of self-understanding has turned the simple act of brushing my teeth into a strange otherworldly experience. Every morning I pick up my toothbrush, and I see a pen. I pick up my pen, and I see a toothbrush. My intuitive intelligence must be working overtime, making a connection in the relationship between these two implements. Oddly, I feel thoroughly empowered by the visual reinforcement the delusion provides.

Danette Lane is a 2010 graduate of the MFAC program. She carries her toothbrush (and pen!) back and forth between her residences in Florida and North Carolina.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Faculty Voices with Laura Ruby: A Lot of Rewrites

A few weeks ago, one of my students asked me how many times I rewrite a book. My usual answer is something like “umptyjillion” or “HAHAHAHAHA.” I’m only being somewhat facetious. I honestly don’t have any idea. All I know is that it’s a lot.

Pictures of the “Alot” ©  Allie Brosh
Hyperbole and a Half

Many people believe the primary work of a writer is getting that first draft down. Even professional writers believe this. Drafting can be so painful and take so long—months, years. Who could bear to imagine that the first draft is only the beginning? Who could stand one more holiday with your dad saying, “Are you still working on that thing? When do you get paid for this stuff? Somebody’s going to pay you, right?”

So, as we’re drafting, we don’t think about revision much at all. We can’t. (I can’t). Instead, we tell ourselves: “This is working really well!” and “I’ll just have to fix this little thing here or there!” and “I love this story sooooo much!”

©  Allie Brosh
Hyperbole and a Half

 These little tales are a defense mechanism, stories we tell ourselves in order to survive the drafting process. Because if we didn’t tell ourselves stories about how much work our books don’t need, all the rewriting we likely won’t have to do, we might scoop out our own eyeballs and use them as martini garnishes.  

Which is why critical feedback from readers, advisors, agents & editors can be such a shock, and why this feedback can make us feel so frozen and resistant. If you’ve talked yourself into believing that the hard part is done, that the only thing your book requires is a few minor tweaks, it’s devastating to hear that your whole plot is bananas (and not in a good way).

Here’s what people like to imagine revision is:
·         Correcting and/or defending one’s charming little grammar idiosyncrasies
·         Futzing around with a line here or there
·         Reworking that one annoying chapter in the middle of the book
·         Spellcheck!
·         Cutting adverbs and/or the words “sigh” and “shrug”
·         Giving your main character an interesting pet (a hedgehog named Amelia!)
·         Futzing around with a few more lines
·         Swapping out the interesting pet for an even more interesting pet (a quokka named Coughdrop!)

But this is polishing, not revising. This is what you do with a manuscript that’s already been revised.

Here’s what revision really is:
    ·         Starting the book in a different place
·         Ending the book in a different place
·         Ripping out entire characters or plotlines
·         Amping up conflict in every scene
·         Building a tangible world using all five senses
·         Deepening characterization across the board
·         Reordering scenes and events across the narrative for maximum effect
·         Recasting the book in a different tense or POV
·         Keeping the characters but inventing a new story
·         Keeping the story but inventing new characters
·         Identifying and focusing in on primary themes
·         Rewriting the opening chapter till your fingers bleed
·         Chucking the entire first draft and starting fresh
·         Doing a whole bunch of other stuff I can’t even think of right now because YIKES 

Tackling any of the above work is difficult, but not as difficult as simply accepting the idea that any of this work must be done.

Plus, complicating the revision process is the fact that you will get conflicting feedback. One reader tells you that he loves the voice of the piece but thinks the plot is wonky. Another reader says that the plot is amazing but the voice is off-putting. You revise the plot to please the first reader, and then he comes back and tells you the voice is off-putting. What are you supposed to do with this except to conclude that everyone, everywhere is insane?

When you first start out as a writer, you try everything people suggest. They say the beginning is slow? You speed it up. They say the ending isn’t earned? You rework it. But Neil Gaiman said: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” (Well, maybe not your Hamline advisors, ahem).

When I was working on my latest novel, my agent told me that she really wasn’t that keen on Roza, one of my point-of-view characters. She didn’t like Roza as much as she liked Petey, another POV character. Maybe I should cut Roza, she suggested, and write the whole book about Petey. My dear friend Anne, on the other hand, told me that Petey was taking over the whole book and that maybe Petey should be cut back.

Needless to say, this was confusing.

What I had to do was take in this seemingly contradictory advice and drill down to the essential issue. Why would these two amazing readers have such strong opinions about these two characters? Why favor one character over the other? And the issue, I decided, was one of balance. Roza’s voice was so quiet that her chapters couldn’t stand up to the passion of Petey’s. To solve the balance problem, I had to amplify Roza’s voice as well as dial up the drama in her chapters. I took Roza’s chapters out of the narrative and completely rearranged and recut them (at least four different times). In a sense, I took the advice of both these readers, but I found a way to solve the issue that didn’t conflict with my vision of the book.

I call this the 13th way. 12 people will identify 12 different problems, but it’s up to you to find the real problem underlying most of them. Then you have to find your own unique solution to that problem.

You do that for each of the problems identified. Over and over and over again, times umptyjillion, HAHAHAHA.

Revision is a ton of work. And it can be exhausting. In an interview with NPR, the late Kent Haruf said, “It doesn't seem to me there's a scarcity of talent among students who want to write. But what there is a lack of is a talent for work, that it's so difficult to write and it takes so long to learn how to write well that most people give it up before they get good enough.”

So, tell yourself all the tales you need to as you draft. But when it’s time to revise, do not give up before you get good enough. It often takes many sweeps through a manuscript, many drafts before you find the real story you needed to tell all along.

This is Jacqueline Woodson on her Tumblr, relating an exchange she had with her daughter about her National Book Award Winning novel BROWN GIRL DREAMING. 

The 12 year old: Mommy, how many times did you rewrite Brown Girl?

Me: I stopped counting after 31.

©  Allie Brosh
Hyperbole and a Half

Some revision links:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Alumni Voices with Jennifer Mazi: Open Letter to a Muse

Dear Sharon,
I’m writing an open letter to you because that seems to be the thing to do these days and since we broke up, I haven’t had a single, fresh idea of my own. In fact, I can’t even find proper writing tools in this snowglobe of a house I live in, which explains why I’m scribbling this letter on the back of a Wild Things color sheet from the library in pink marker.
That is how bad things have gotten between us. So let’s talk.
(Come closer!)
Oh, you have somewhere to be?
I get it.
I see you out there, speeding through the woods across the street, blowing your pouty whistle to rub in my face that you are moving forward...without me.
Tracking down the muse: Of course, 
the morning I go out to find her, 
Sharon is nowhere to be found.
I hear you right this instant—the whole neighborhood hears you too, by the way—whining about how I’m not doing my part to woo you, that I’ve been distracted by a four-month long Good Wife binge and what the world is doing on Facebook and untouched stacks of overdue library books.
(In my defense, I’ve read all the picture books, several times, at least. I read Oliver Jeffers’ It Wasn’t Me maybe 92 times this month alone. And I gave The Goldfinch a shot but it was so heavy my arms hurt by page 20 and there weren’t any pictures.)
You say you feel neglected, but the truth is: I don’t know how to woo 240 tons of iron and steel. I miss the version of you that climbed up onto my lap and purred wild word after word into my ear. Now, I strain to even hear you ramming your cars into each other at odd hours, drowned out by the sound of Mahna-Mahna on repeat and four people hollering that they have no clean underpants.
A friend e-mailed the other day to let me know about a free two-hour Scrivener workshop I might be interested in.
Which I would have been, I told him, except I don’t write anymore, and haven’t since you crawled out the door dragging half of my brain with you in search of a clear route west...all because YOU wanted to see what the moon looked like over the Grand Canyon and I wouldn’t drive you.
I guess it’s not entirely true, that I don’t write. I tweet, although I get scared and delete them before people comment. I write Facebook rants about ridiculous tools I need but don’t have, and notes for my kiddos’ lunchbox napkins when I remember. I can manage a decent obituary and the occasional newspaper article, but that doesn’t cover the bills.
Our projects? The ones you and I loved like children, that we named and hugged and whispered to and envisioned in glossy Pantone colors with double-fan adhesive binding before sending off to yet another not-the-right-agent?
I haven’t seen them in months.
If we wait a bit longer, “months” changes to “a year.”
They cry for us, sometimes. (Doesn’t that just break your heart? Do you even have a heart?) We left so many of them dangling on the edges of various cliffs and ravines. They deserved a chance to reach The End, but you needed your own adventure, and I was too tired to drive to Arizona.
I’m sorry. Let’s stop blaming each other. I’ve changed, or at least I am trying: I only watch TV when I fold laundry now; I switched my Facebook password to something so complicated I couldn’t remember it if I were a World Memory Champion; I am reading longer books again, or at least, I will be once I return that stack in the corner to the library.
Just come back inside. My lap is empty, and I’m allergic to cats.

Jennifer Mazi is a 2011 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives in Missouri.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Faculty Voices with Claire Rudolf Murphy—A Writer’s Gratitude List: John Lewis #1

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.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Alumni Voices with Maggie Moris: Giving Thanks

We’re all well versed with the usual reasons to be grateful that we’re writers.

          Writing teaches us about ourselves.

            Stories have the power to change lives.

            Writing can open, deepen and widen our understanding and appreciation of the world.

            (Insert favorite platitude, motivational quote, or advice from favorite authors that you’ve scribbled on scraps, wedged in your wallet or penned on your person.)            
Today, I offer up a new reason for giving thanks.

Months ago, when Marsha Q. put out a request for guest bloggers, I ran to the calendar and offered to take the November 27
th slot.

I hoped back then that there would be something related to giving thanks and gratitude that I could share with you, even if nothing “news worthy” had transpired around my writing life.

Heck, I figured I could only be in one of two places by now: Either my first book would have sold or I’d be depressed because it hadn’t and would need to shift my attitude away from anxious hand wringing to one of hand holding - as in, please gather with me around the “It’s Just A Writer’s Life” table.

But it turns out there was a third scenario I hadn’t anticipated.

A while back, I came across an interview with Leonard Cohen. (For those who need reminding, as I did, in addition to being a legendary and prolific songwriter, a published poet and a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, he is also an ordained Rinzai Buddhist Monk.)

When asked whether the hard work involved in writing songs is enjoyable, Cohen had this to say:

"[Hard work] has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn’t help. It’s just hard work.

"But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.” 

(Popova, Maria. Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What it is You’re Quitting. Brain Pickings, July 15, 2014. )

 Put a fork in me and call me done.

I am fully employed.

Better yet, this state of being has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not we ever earn a red cent, wooden nickel, or two bits for our work. Writing, by its very nature, means that when we write – whether that time flows easy or yields an abundance of perspired blood - we are always fully employed. And folks, there are a lot of people on this planet that cannot say that about their own lives.

Having spent the better part of nearly twenty years in corporate jobs that did not employ me in any way that mattered, I can say with full conviction how blessed and grace-filled is this thing we do.
Think about it. Hold it in your heart. Gaze in tender wonder at this truth. We, as writers, with our finite lives and our limited hours, are also a community of people who live fully in the deepest sense of our words.

When I was a child, I dreamed of joining the table for writers, to one day sit and extend my hands to fellow writers on either side. But, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the work. Or that having a place, meant that the storyteller’s circle spirals back, around and up, through the eons that preceded us, on into the present and will wheel out into the future - all because we do our work.

Today, I bow my head for this writing life, for our community and for the chance to keep doing what we do.

I give thanks for the work.

 Maggie Moris graduated from Hamline in 2009. She will be enjoying a little pie with her pile of whipped cream today. Her website is

Monday, November 24, 2014

Faculty Voices with Eleanora E. Tate: An Author’s Trek to Getting Back in Print

Eleanora E. Tate
After Dial Press published my first book, Just an Overnight Guest, in 1980, I naively assumed that it would be in print forever. After all, Phoenix Films had adapted it into a television film in 1983 and it aired on Nickelodeon and PBS’s Wonderworks all over the country. I don’t remember which year the hardcover went out of print, but it did, and without even going into paperback!
Since that time, eleven of my manuscripts have become published books, thanks to Dial, Bantam Books, Random House, Delacorte, Franklin Watts, Pleasant Company, Just Us Books, and others. Of the eleven, Just an Overnight Guest, A Blessing in Disguise, Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School, The Minstrel’s Melody, and Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom went out of print. The books that went out of print quickest were A Blessing in Disguise and Don’t Split the Pole, though at least they made it into paperback before being kicked to the OOP curb.

probably thousandsof books go belly up every year. That’s part of “the writing life.” But when it happens to your baby, it’s a shock. I’ve heard that some writers take to their beds after suffering such catastrophes. I didn’t do that, but I’m sure that I sulked and fussed to myself for days.    
One just doesn’t sit and wait for a publisher to approach you to reprint a book. Generally you need to get on the stick and do the homework yourself. Ask publishers who’ve already published one of your works. That’s what I did. I asked Just Us Books, the premiere publisher of books about children of color (but to be read by everybody), and Just Us Books came to their rescue. It reprinted Just an Overnight Guest (1997), A Blessing in Disguise (1999), and Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School (2007).

Thank you, Just Us Book Publishers Cheryl and Wade Hudson!

The Minstrel’s Melody
, published in 2001 by Pleasant Company in its American Girl History Mysteries series, was printed next by Windmill Press in its Mysteries Through Time series (2009), thanks to my energetic agent, and is now also available through Open Road Integrated Media as a Mysteries Through History series e-book!

Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom (Delacorte 1997) was brought back to life by in May 2014 as part of the Authors Guild edition. I’ve been a member of the Authors Guild since 2003 but wasn’t aware that this service was available to its members! Thanks, Liza Ketchum, Hamline University faculty chum, for telling me about it.

But then I had to get off my duff, contact and follow through!

In my Don’t Split the Pole collection I wrapped stories around impactful sayings I’d heard over the years. The stories/sayings are: You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks; Slow and Steady Wins the Race; A Hard Head Makes a Soft Behind; Never Leave Your Pocketbook on the Floor; Don’t Split the Pole; Big Things Come in Small Packages; and What Goes around Comes Around. These sayings can probably be found anywhere in the world. I set all but one along the North Carolina coast.

Proverbs and sayings are also known as aphorisms, mottos, Biblical expressions, similes, even rich brief anecdotes. They explain a truth or a moral, offer opinions, summarize an action or thought, or are phrases or tidbits of songs, poems or books repeated so often that they enter the lexicon. Every culture throughout the world has them. A proverb or saying can be applied to many dissimilar events, depending on how different people interpret it.

I hope to target teachers who work with middle-school and high school readers; writers who seek short story writing techniques; and folklorists, storytellers, and, of course, readers of all ages.

Although many sayings go back to the beginnings of language, I place the ones I use in contemporary settings to show young readers that they still have meaning in today’s world. One of my new favorites is today’s very real “It is what it is.”
If you want to reprint one of your OOP books think about these Tate Tips:
  • Make sure that you, the author, have a reversion of rights letter from the publisher who published it. In fact, when you find out that your book has gone out of print, immediately contact your publisher (or your agent) and request a reversion of rights letter from the publisher. This will speed things up when or if you decide to take that reprint step, especially if your original publisher was a “traditional” publisher like Random House, etc. because the new potential publisher will want to see it.
  • After you find a publisher interested in reprinting your old book (good luck!), insist on getting a contract from that publisher spelling out all details, including royalty rates, any revisions that the publisher -- or you -- desire, publication schedules, etc. It’ll probably be a “boilerplate” contract, with the benefits leaning toward the publisher, but that’s not new.
  • If you don’t recognize a word or phrase in the contract ask. Never sign anything that you don’t understand or don’t agree with. In light of today’s changing publishing world, words in a contract like all rights, now and forever, known and unknown, electronic rights, and digital rights may have meanings different from what you know.

Here’s where an agent can be invaluable, but if you don’t have one, or he/she doesn’t want to be bothered, do your homework and educate yourself. Writers groups like the Authors Guild, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the North Carolina Writers Network, and others might be your saviors.
  • Suppose you DO plan to pay a company to reprint your manuscript. That’s fine, as long as you understand what you’re paying for, and what your and the company’s responsibilities are, including marketing, publicity, distribution, and payments. Examine books that they’ve published and talk with their authors. I met a woman the other day who said she signed such a contract, but didn’t know how or if she’d get royalties (or how much), didn’t have someone to edit her manuscript, and didn’t have NO money to pay the company. Don’t be like that woman!
  • Market your book yourself, aggressively. Send out news releases and e-blasts, have blog tours, visit bookstores, make book trailers, and so on, or be willing to pay to have a professional or the company do this for you. Except for big-name writing stars, most writers these days are expected to do more of this kind of marketing.
  • Be aware that certain computer software programs that some publishers may require you to use to format your manuscript—from pdfs to “jumpshare” file sharing, digital signatures, and more complex stuff—might drive you up the wall if you don’t know how to implement them.
No matter how you choose to reprint your book, remember that good writing is still good writing. Rewrite any part that’s weak. Find the best editor (or professional friend) who’ll help you with spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, overall revision, chocolate cake, and wholehearted encouragement. Happy Reading!

©2014 by Eleanora E. Tate. A version of this article previously appeared on The Brown

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Alumni Voices with Jamie Kallio: Work for Hire:Just Do It

Not too long after I graduated from Hamline, I was stalled on my middle grade novel. A fellow Hamline grad set me up with her editor at a book packaging company.  This place hired people to write kids’ nonfiction.

I let this particular editor know that I was really interested.  I told her my interests were in writing for children and history. Not too long afterwards, I was contacted by the company. They were looking for authors to write titles in a series about the early history of the United States. I signed up for The Mayflower Compact.

My assigned editor sent me the guidelines for the project.  Pages of guidelines.  Footnotes were required. A thing called sidebars needed to be incorporated.  I had to come up with primary sources.  The text had to be of interest to sixth graders but written at a third grade level. And the kicker? The manuscript was due in 30 days.

As I stared at the (pages of) guidelines, panic set in.  What the hell had I done to myself? Didn’t I already have enough on my plate? A carefully-researched manuscript written in 30 days? Impossible!

When the hyperventilating passed, I told myself to buck up. I was a professional.  I mean, I had degrees.  I could do this.  So I descended on my library and checked out every single book I could find on the Mayflower, the pilgrims, early American colonies, Native Americans, the Chicago Manual of Style, and anything else that looked helpful.  I found myself researching Increase Mather, the Little Ice Age, and scurvy. I learned that the original Thanksgiving feast lasted about three days, and everybody ate mostly venison.

In a whirlwind, I wrote. I met my deadline and sent a draft to my editor. She sent it back with suggestions and corrections. I looked over the manuscript and made the changes. After I hit send on my final email to my editor, I realized I’d done it. I’d completed an entire piece of writing—from beginning to end—by a certain deadline. I was getting paid for it. And best of all, I was getting published.

More projects came my way, and they keep coming. Sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I take on too many of them.  Working a full-time job with weird hours presents its own set of problems, let alone trying to fit in research and writing. And unfortunately, many times my beloved fiction writing gets pushed to the back burner while I meet a work-for-hire deadline. Sometimes I collapse among piles of books on subjects like climate change or invasive species and scream that I’ll never do another work-for-hire project again.

But I always do.  And here’s why: I really do love history. I love research. I love the extra money. I love fitting information together like a puzzle. Most of all, I love going to Amazon, typing my name, and seeing a list of titles pop up.  Titles that I wrote.

Work-for-hire has been good for me.  It broke me out of my holding pattern. It got me moving forward. It taught me how to work with editors, how to let some battles go in response to what a certain project needed.  It taught me to manage my time a little more wisely.

So if you have a chance to take on some work-for-hire? Do it.  Do it just once, for the experience. You might learn something new.  You might find yourself having fun.

And I might serve venison this year at Thanksgiving.


Jamie Kallio is a January 2011 graduate of the MFAC program. A veteran public librarian, she lives and writes near Chicago. You can find earlier Inkpot posts by/about Jamie here and here

Monday, November 17, 2014

Faculty Voices with Phyllis Root

Phyllis Root
I love words.

Well, of course, you say.  You call yourself a writer.  Of course you love words. But I love them even outside the context of stories or articles or poems. I love the sound of them.  The taste of them.  The shape of them.  I love words and phrases and whole sentences and paragraphs. Give me a good, meaty word to chew on and I’m happy.

I collect words in the same way I love picking up those little bits of frosted beach glass or finding an agate that catches the slanted sunlight.

Here are a few words and phrases that have caught my eye and ear over time.

In The Sailor’s Word Book I found bran, which meant to lie under a floe edge, in foggy weather, in a boat in Arctic seas, to watch the approach of whales.  (Could you think of anything more lovely, all contained in four letters?)

From research into Lake Superior in an old journal I found this description “a little dumpling of a schooner.”

From hearing a former railroad worker talk, I learned gandy dancer, a term for an early railroad worker who laid and repaired tracks.

From hearing the TV weather report about a torrential rain in Fort Wayne, Indiana:  “It’s a real frog choker out there.”

And one of my all-time favorites, from a talk on geology about which I understood almost nothing but loved the sound of this: pelecypod-bearing wacke.

Will I ever use these words?  Maybe not. Some are archaic, some regional, some scientific. But just the act of collecting them feels like a way to tune my ear to the sound of language, which is at the root of what we writers do.  We manipulate sound and meaning.  Why not collect words in the same way an artist makes sketches or a composer gathers musical phrases?

And who knows?  Maybe I will find a way to use them, although most likely not all in a single sentence.  Unless, or course, I have the chance to turn down a job as a gandy dancer, board a little dumpling of a schooner moored to some pelecypod-bearing wacke, and sail off in a real frog-choker to bran. 

Hmmm, maybe there’s a story there after all.