Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Letter on the Importance of Writing Groups

Who writes letters anymore?  In this fast-paced age of email blasts, instant messaging, and texting it seems no one has time to write more than two sentences at a time.  Well, not everyone has given up on letter writing yet.  

Today Polly McCann* has written a special letter to all of us reading The Storyteller's Inkpot on the value of a writer's group.  If you enjoy it, I encourage you to check out her blog, Letters From Polly, to read more of her letters.
Dear Friends,

I decided to write you all a letter (as I can't seem to stop writing them) about what I've been doing since graduating from Hamline's MFAC program. It hasn't all been avoiding bifocals and moving into my mother's basement. (Hah, I'm not making this stuff up.) No, a lot of great things have happened as I've found ways to get started on the journey that is the writing life.

The best tools for that journey are not only the ergonomic chair and writing desk (or Google fiber being installed by zippy little blue trucks filled with chipper workmen who introduce you to their cousins and fix your printer no charge). No. What I'm taking about is your writing group. You need one.

Yes to get started as a writer I found I needed other people. The best work I've written since graduating from Hamline several years ago were projects I finished in order to submit to my writers' group. I could spend all my time writing bad poetry. But in the end, I found I needed that accountability to keep me going; remind me I'm not insane just because I chose to be a writer; and give me a deadline.

I just have to show up to group with something good. Shame is a motivator, but more than that it's friendship. Let me tell you what happened. . . . A few years ago I decided to host a SCBWI group. I met Johanna. She, noticing that I had a newborn baby, and a degree to finish, and that my house wasn't properly dusted, then promptly took over the group and moved it to Panera. I was thankful.

Johanna inspired me. She wrote every day and submitted work frequently. It was for Johanna I dredged up a poem about the novel I intended to write. I had no words for a project I intended to write. With the support and encouragement of my writer's group, my empty page became 60 words and those 60 words became 30 scenes.

Last year I met again some of the people from my old writer's group at our annual SCBWI conference in Kansas City. There we talked about Johanna's recent passing. She had spent the last years in and out of chemo and would write the entire five hours during her treatments. I don't know how you would feel, but we felt we owed it to Johanna to begin our group again.

So I started a writer's group at my local library through the SCBWI. Thirty glistening-eyed-authors-to-be came to the first meeting.  When people bring their work and show me how far they've come-- I think of Johanna and how her commitment spreads. I think of all the professors who poured so much passion and knowledge into me. I think about how we are changing hearts and minds, lighting them like candles, one word at a time. Even if it is only our own heart and the group we meet at the library on Saturday mornings, or the group we meet on Google Chat on Thursdays at three o'clock during the little one's nap time. Even so, it's worth it. My heart needs it.

Writer's group is where I learn what I did right. Oh, I know I do a lot of things wrong. I miss a lot. My dialogue will never sparkle like Ron Koertge. My rhythm will never sing like J.J's "worm meets worm." My fantasy will never reach the height of Georgia B. But in the end, I will find my voice. And my writer's group lets me know the good notes I hit along the way.

Since I graduated from Hamline, my writer's journey has had some perilous turns. My life has been turned up side down and right side up. But through writing and through my community I've found "my secret love for hearts," as my daughter calls it. I've found my way home.

Dear Polly,

Thank you for taking the time to write this wonderful letter and agree to share it on The Storyteller's Inkpot.  Letter writing is an under-appreciated art form, and this topic was a superb one.

P.S. - Feel free to send us another letter anytime!

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

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What Publishing Will Do For You

This week author and MFAC alum Rebecca Grabill* shares some sage advice on what publishing your first book will do for you - and what it won't.

In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott describes publishing as the golden eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar, and she writes, "Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy."

I agree. If anyone thinks that a magical first contract will ... pay off their mortgage, repair their marriage, get their kids to obey, fill them with endless joy, make writing easy, well, it won't. I don't feel much different today than I did six months ago. My house is still messy, my kids still draw all over themselves with Sharpie during nap, writing is still hard. Really, really hard.

In some ways writing is harder. My agent expects things from me. Like books. Good books! Finished books! I give myself arbitrary and unyielding deadlines because the pressure is on, baby. I question every word I put to the page because, ach, I only studied picture books one semester, how can I be a picture book author? I have the unshakable and very rational fear that the editors who bought my books were just playin' and any day now will notify me that they changed their minds and could they have the advance money back please. Security? Confidence? My pen scribbling off one blissfully perfect story after another? Nope, publishing did none of that.

But these first contracts did do something. Something surprising. A few weeks ago I took the kids to our local megachain bookstore for Dr. Who Fan Night. I escaped with the babies to the children's section, and I expected to feel my usual mix of hopelessness and futility. There are Sooooo many books published out of the sooooooooooo many I know editors receive. How would one of my silly goofy scary weird stories ever make it past the Publishing Powers and onto the shelves? Hello, meet Eeyore.

But as I paged through new releases I realized ... there's a chance my own book could be on the Halloween Table in some upcoming seasonal display. My own book, showcased alongside Max and Ruby and Curious George!

I realized I love the bookstore. I wanted to stay forever, to read every title, stroke every spine, inhale the fresh glue, lay my cheek against the silky smooth pages, lick the--uh never mind. I hadn't enjoyed a visit to a bookstore, truly enjoyed it unfettered by the whispering "you'll never be good enough" specters in, well, since I got in my head that I wanted to be a writer. I was free. I visited three more times that week alone.

I've noticed a few more changes as well. For example, when I see friends asking for advice on writing query letters I thank All That is Good that I no longer have to write them, and when I'm faced with the option: sweep up or write? I'm far more likely to let the ants take care of the crumbs.

I'd never compare publishing to something as dismal as the fake eagle on fake money that makes you feel good for a second but leaves you in debt. But then again, I don't expect a book contract to fix all my problems and make me happy (maybe ten contracts). I haven't though of an appropriate analogy yet, but perhaps by the end of the process, I will.

Thanks for the great advice Rebecca, we wish you luck on the next 10 contracts!  On Thursday we'll have a special letter from Polly McCann on the importance of having a writers group.

*Rebecca Grabill is author of the picture books Halloween Goodnight (Atheneum 2017) and Violet and the Woof (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins 2018).  She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University (2011). If you want to learn more you can visit her author website or read her blog.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Agenting Tips of the Day

MFAC alum and agent extraordinaire Jodell Sadler* (Sadler Children’s Literary) 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!

We'll try to make this a regular monthly post, so if you have a question we can ask just write a comment below and we'll get it answered next time.

*Jodell Sadler is the founding agent and owner of Sadler Children’s Literary and KidLit College. She also teaches and presents on "pacing a story strong" nationwide.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Publication Interview with Ron Koertge and Christine Heppermann

It's not everyday that two Hamline authors team up, but when they do you know it's going to be a great book!  Read on as co-authors Ron Koertge* (MFAC professor) and Christine Heppermann** (MFAC 2010 alum) talk with us about their newest book, Backyard Witch.

Tell us about your new book.

It’s the first installment in a series about three nine-year-old friends—Sadie, Jess, and Maya—and their comical adventures with a witch named Ms. M, who turns up one day out of the blue in Sadie’s old backyard playhouse. 

Ron: The title tells it all – an amiable witch with questionable magic powers turns up in Sadie’s back yard  just as she needs a friend.

Christine: So far we have three books under contract, each told from the perspective of one of the girls. The next two books are scheduled for publication in 2016 and 2017, and all will include illustrations by the amazing Deborah Marcero.

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

Christine: My favorite part is the overall tone of the series. My daughter Audrey describes it as “smart-stupid”—and she means that as a compliment! The stories aren’t frivolous; they have a lot to say about friendship and parent-kid relationships and different ways of looking at the world. But the humor is goofy. Anytime a scene seems to be veering dangerously toward “heartwarming,” Ms. M will say or do something silly and, crisis averted. 

Ron: I like the beginnings of things:  the first few minutes of a movie, the post parade at the races, and the opening scenes with Sadie abandoned by her friends.

What was it like writing a book with a former student/faculty mentor?  

Christine: Honestly, those labels, for me, went away a long time ago. For years now, we’ve simply been friends. 

Ron: Chris was always such a good writer that I never thought of her as anything but a peer.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?

Christine: I workshopped the first few chapters or so at an alumni weekend. People said encouraging things and gave us good advice, as usually happens during workshop.

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

Ron: Ummm, a couple of years ago now and we worked on Book #1 for 6-9 months.

Christine: We started work on the first book in the summer of 2012. I remember because that was a rough time for me: my husband had just been laid off from his job, and I was in limbo with the manuscript that would become Poisoned Apples, waiting to hear from an editor who seemed enthusiastic, but couldn’t quite commit. (Eventually I got an agent, Tina Wexler, who found the perfect home, at Greenwillow, for it.)

I wanted to work on something fun and distracting. Ron and I had talked semi-seriously about doing a picture book or an early reader together. At some point I floated the idea of a girl with something living in her playhouse—a rhino or a dragon or a witch. Ron said, “I like witch.” And we were off, as they say, to the races.

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

Christine: Can’t remember what the specific changes were, but I know they involved fleshing out the story and the characters. Ron and I are both minimalists. 

Ron: Chris and I would be away from the ms. for awhile, then come back and sense these holes that needed to be filled in.  And our keen-eyed editor, Martha at Greenwillow, had suggestions.

Christine: Under [Martha's] direction, we kept going back to the story, adding layers. Sometimes it was just a line or an additional paragraph; sometimes it was whole new chapters.

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

Ron: Chris did bird-watching stuff.  I interviewed witches.  

Christine: Ms. M is a birder, and she turns Sadie into one—not magically, but by showing her how amazing it can be to sit and observe the natural world. I already knew a little about birding, but I still checked out a lot of birding books from the library. Also, I lived in Chicago at the time and spent some wonderful sunny afternoons hanging out behind the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, watching birds at feeders.

Where did you do most of your writing for this book? 
Christine: I like to write in coffee shops. Ron writes in his study. 

Ron: We live on opposite sides of the country, so we talked on the phone and sent each other works-in-progress.  Once a year we got together face to face.

Any final thoughts on the book you'd like to share?

Christine: It makes me very happy for lots of reasons. One is that it’s about friendship, and I was lucky enough to be able to write it with my friend.

Ron: Who knew I’d write for very young readers?   I wrote Stoner & Spaz and the dark fairy tales in Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses.  Most writing is enjoyable, but this book was flat out fun. 

Thanks to both Christine and Ron for taking the time to answer our questions and discuss a little bit about their creative process.  Congratulations again on Backyard Witch!  We can't wait to read the next two.

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program, and author of over a dozen books, mostly for young adults (Backyard Witch being a notable exception).  You can learn more about his work by visiting his website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.

**Christine Heppermann is a January 2010 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. Her book, Poisoned Apples, received five starred reviews and was chosen as a Best Book for Young Adults 2014 by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Boston Globe, and The Chicago Public Library.. Christine lives in New York's Hudson Valley region. To learn more about her and her writing, please visit her website. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Thoughts on Writing: Love and Letting Go

In the final part of author Molly Burnham's* top six Thoughts on Writing and Mindfulness we end on a positive note. 

In this post Molly shares why loving what you do and letting go of it when you're done is an essential part of the writing process.  Like the rest of her wonderful points, these last two
 are something every writer should take the time to reflect upon next time you're worried about an agent rejecting a manuscript or even what a young reader will think when they crack open the front cover of your next book.

5. Love
I like to spend time loving what I do and reminding myself that I do love it. I'm in awe that I live during a time of peace, that I learned a craft, and that I have the time to write. It's easy to get down-hearted and sad. I get that. I feel that way, and then I remember that I just love writing. And I'd do it no matter what.

Why should anyone else decide for me my experience with art? I'm the only one who gets to decide that. It might be one of the only things I have control of.

Speaking of which...

6. Letting Go
Seriously hard, but I practice letting go every day-even with a book sold.  I let go of thinking that I have control over anything. My books might do well, or they might not, I might have a difficult day writing, or I might have a smooth day, there's so little I can control.

So let go of control and see where the adventure takes you.

Thanks again to Molly for sharing these helpful tips to help us sustain the writing life. If you missed either of Molly's previous posts you can read part one Connecting and Routine and part two Demons and Distractions here.

*Molly B. Burnham graduated from Hamline in 2010. Her first book, Teddy Mars Almost a World Record Breaker came out March 2015. It will be followed by two more Teddy Mars books. She lives in Northampton, MA with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She tries to be mindful, but is remarkably unsuccessful most of the time. Luckily she learns a lot from her failures.

To learn more about Molly and her writing please visit her website.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Thoughts on Writing: Demons and Distractions

I hope you enjoyed Tuesday's post by Molly Burnham*If you missed it, be sure to read it here for some great advice on seeking connection and developing a writing routine.

Today we're continuing to look at Molly's top six thoughts on Writing and Mindfulness by journeying to the dark side of the writer's life. Keep reading to find out how to fend off your inner demons and manage those ever-present distractions.

3. Demons

Keeping the demons at bay is always important. The demons I’m talking about are: Fear, judgment, criticism, will I make the deadline? Will I ever have something to write about? etc. That's where mindfulness really comes in handy-just quieting those stories and getting back to the work of writing. 

Another demon that pops up is that only earning a living from my writing makes me a real writer. I am lucky to be married to an artist so we have a lot of conversation about earning a living from art, and how difficult that is in a capitalist society. I think having these conversations are really good because through them I realized that no matter what I would keep writing because I just like writing. Once I took off the "earning a living” from my plate, I became more open and free with my writing. 
I also practice affirmations around writing. I focused on writing easily and 
writing with joy-as opposed to something like "I earn a lot of money from my writing" because that seems ridiculous. Notice this affirmation is not funny, so I have to work on that.

I also practiced mindfulness by reminding myself that writing is not a separate experience from my life, but is part of my life. I will grow as a person because I write and engage. I remind myself that this is my life and I am not someone else. All I can do is live this life, mindfully writing and sending work out, taking part in classes, without an attachment to outcome. I can forget the outcome and stay in the present. By doing that I was able to focus more fully on my writing and the story I wanted to tell. 

Lastly, I decided that I was not allowed to compare myself to others. They get to live their lives and I get to live mine. When that comparing demon arises, my mindfulness practice notices it, and I let it go. I remind myself that this is my life as Molly Burnham and I am here to learn as much as I can about Molly Burnham and no one else. Let other people travel their life. We will all feel happiness, and struggles, but they will come at different times to us all, so stop comparing yourself to anyone else.

4. Choose Your Distractions
I'm married to an artist who also works a full-time job. We know we have limited time with our art, so we keep our lives simple.

We don't go away on vacations a lot (
because we need to be home making art). We don't go out a lot or watch a lot of TV (because we need to make art). We don't have a garden that needs a lot of our attention (because we need to make art). These are things that would need our attention, or to put it another way, would take attention away from our art. 

These are different for everyone, but try to find a way to simplify your life so writing can become your focus. If my art was a vegetable garden then that is what I should pay attention to. This is also true for Facebook, twitter, etc. There are so many ways to make our brains move from our art, so many distractions, so only choose the ones you really want. This doesn't feel sad or anything, it feels really right. It feels like I'm in control.

We'll have Molly's final thoughts on mindfulness and writing up on August 18th. You won't want to miss her take on Love and Letting Go as an author.

*Molly B. Burnham graduated from Hamline in 2010. Her first book, Teddy Mars Almost a World Record Breaker came out March 2015. It will be followed by two more Teddy Mars books. She lives in Northampton, MA with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She tries to be mindful, but is remarkably unsuccessful most of the time. Luckily she learns a lot from her failures.

To learn more about Molly and her writing please 
visit her website.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Thoughts on Writing: Connecting and Routine

Welcome back after our Summer MFAC Residency!

We've got a lot of news to share about The Storyteller's Inkpot, starting with new types of posts!

We'll still have our regular publication announcements, Meet the Grad features, and general blog posts, but we'll also have a featured topic each month that our community of Hamline bloggers can engage with. August's topic will be revision, one of the most critical (and challenging) skills for any writer to master.

To start things off, author Molly Burnham* has offered to share her top six thoughts on Writing and Mindfulness with The Storyteller's Inkpot. Her post was simply too good to giveaway all at once, so we'll be breaking it into three parts.

This time Molly talks to us about how connecting with others and establishing a solid routine can help you break free from a writing (or revising) rut.

1. Connecting
The first year out of grad school sucked. It was really hard. Really.

I was revising what I had worked on at Hamline, but it felt like I was spinning my wheels. This led me to apply for a weekend away with Stephen Roxburgh that focused on Editing for Writers. It was a very interesting retreat about looking at our work with distance so we can edit it as writers.

I felt this was important because in the two years I spent at Hamline I hadn't grappled with this issue-my writing was still very fresh. I was creating, but I needed to learn more about what to do after I had a book. How do I work with a whole draft?

I found that for me it was important to connect with kids. Not only because I write for them, but because I have fun with them. I needed some fun that first year out of grad school!

When in doubt, focus on one element of craft that you need help with and find people to help you. Really good people-like Hamline people if you happen to live close to them.
2. Routine
The other thing I did was to establish a routine for my writing. I woke up at 5:00 am so I could write before my kids woke up. I was working and needed to have that time. This was not easy, but I really liked it (and got the idea from a Hamline faculty member who recommended the book From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler).

As I said, getting up that early was not always easy, so I had this little phrase I'd say that went like this:

"I'm the kind of woman who gets up at 5:00 in the morning to write. That's the kind of woman I am." 
It would make me laugh but was also a positive affirmation. I find positive affirmations are so important. (A lot like mindfulness). 

Choose affirmations that have a bit of humor to them; it really helps.

That's it for today, but check back on August 13th for Molly's thoughts on Demons and Distractions!

*Molly B. Burnham graduated from Hamline in 2010. Her first book, Teddy Mars Almost a World Record Breaker came out March 2015. It will be followed by two more Teddy Mars books. She lives in Northampton, MA with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She tries to be mindful, but is remarkably unsuccessful most of the time. Luckily she learns a lot from her failures.

To learn more about Molly and her writing please visit her website.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Meet the Grad: Katie Kunz

July 19, 2015, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor the men and women who have just completed their studies and will receive an MFA from Hamline University. Between now and residency we'll be posting interviews with the grads. Katie (Katherine) Kunz is today's grad; she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
I’m a high school English teacher, so that takes up a lot of my time. When I do have free time, I spend it with the people, stories, and dogs I love.

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
On the Internet. Like a little squirrel, the ad just kept popping up; kept running around in my head. I gave it a lot of thought, met with Mary [Rockcastle], and sat on it. Then, in the middle of subbing for an unruly eighth grade class, two days before the May application deadline, the ad popped up again. And I thought, “You know what? That little squirrel is pretty awesome.”

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
I started a comic about a boy named Stuart the summer before 6th grade. At 17 I made the decision I wanted to be a writer, and I practiced the rest of high school. Then I took undergraduate courses in creative writing at the University of MN. After teaching and trying to write in NYC for three years, I moved home to Minneapolis. Here I took a class at The Loft Literary Center and wrote two picture books. (I just found one this spring. It’s awful! Ha!) Three years ago I wrote a middle grade novel. After that was done, that little squirrel popped up.

What do especially remember about your first residency?
I remember feeling very out of place. Feeling a bit like a fraud, like I got in as a charity case or something. Everyone was brilliant and confident. I was not; I am not. But I did feel like I found a very special place in Hamline by the end of that residency. I also battled at bit of homesickness, which is ridiculous because I live about 10 miles from campus and stay at home. After graduation I expect I’ll suffer from MFAC-sickness.

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 with that middle grade novel I had written in 2012 and revised that in my first semester. I also started a graphic novel—which I never thought I would do. In my second semester I wrote the draft of a second middle grade novel, this one for the younger set in that audience. I started a third middle grade novel in my third semester. This, my final semester, I revised and revised and revised and revised one more time (thank you, Jackie) my second middle grade novel. I also drafted four picture books and revised and revised and revised two of those.

Tell us about your Creative Thesis.
It is a story of a nine-year old New Yorker named Moon who struggles with chronic pain and lonesomeness due to an undiagnosed blood disorder. She forms an unlikely friendship with a rambunctious pony she names Cheese, and when their friendship is threatened, she discovers who she is and what she can do. She gets help along the way from a pair of Adidas shoes, a wise, Chinese boy named Sying, a dragon kite, an iPad, and a chicken named Banana Cake. I also wrote a picture book about little girl named Ruby who believes in her super-ness, and another picture book with an embedded nursery rhyme about a little girl, Greta, who builds a moat to protect the animals in her kingdom from an evil witch.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
There are so many! For example, now I can see craft elements in my stories more clearly and analyze them for intention. Before I just ran with the feelings I had. Now I am more objective. Although my feelings are valid, I know if I can’t justify why something is necessary—despite my undying love for it—I let it go. I also understand my own process much better. I get the importance of a finishing a shitty rough draft, however embarrassing it may be. Until my third semester I didn’t know if I could revise, either. But I guess I can. So that’s new. Finally, en medias res, running your character up a tree then bringing on the storm, and plotting (arcs, scenes/summary, acts, chapters, etc.) were also critical lessons that have helped cause change in my writing.

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
I have a few. Yes, it may be a chunk of change. Yes, it may be time-consuming. And, yes, you will more likely than not cry, especially at residency. But let me ask you this: How much more does it cost to defer a dream? What better way to spend your time than with an art you love and believe in? And aren’t tears—happy tears, nervous tears, proud tears, grateful tears, the myriad types of tears you shed being part of the Hamline MFAC program—an unabashed reminder of the importance and the joy of writing our hearts out for our children?

The public is welcome to attend the graduate recognition ceremony on Sunday, July 19, 3:30pm, (Sundin Music Hall, Hamline University). Tim Federle is the speaker.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Meet the Grad: Judi Marcin

July 19, 2015, on the final day of the upcoming residency, the MFAC program will have a Graduate Recognition ceremony to honor the men and women who have just completed their studies and will receive an MFA from Hamline University. Between now and residency we'll be posting interviews with the grads. Judi Marcin is today's grad; she lives in Chicago, Illinois, and can be found on Twitter @MFACPride.

Judi and her amazingly supportive spouse.
What do you do when you’re not working on packets?
For now, my day job is as a family physician. I teach family medicine residents, but what I really want to do is teach and support young people on their own writing journeys. My long-term goal is to support myself by writing. I like to dream big! And thanks to Hamline, I feel well prepared to do whatever it takes. I am also a foodie who loves to eat, cook and travel with my amazingly supportive spouse. 

How did you hear about the Hamline MFAC Program?
I learned about the MFAC program at a booth at an AWP conference. This interesting and enthusiastic student had nothing but great things to say about Hamline. I did some research on my own and realized it sounded like the perfect place for me.

What was your writing experience prior to entering the program?
Before Hamline, I wrote only for myself, too intimidated to share anything with anyone else. But then I took the plunge and signed up for all the creative writing classes I could in Chicago. The more I wrote, the younger my protagonists became. Then a light bulb came on. Why should I write for grownups when what I want to do is write for young people? So I found my courage again and applied to Hamline—the best decision I have ever, ever made for my creative self.

What do you especially remember about your first residency?
I was so excited to find a bunch of people just like me who didn’t think books about magical talking cats in ancient Egypt were frivolous or silly. The program was filled with individuals who loved reading, writing and talking about books as much as I did, with brilliant faculty who shared their knowledge and lent their support. I remember how committed other writers and faculty were to their craft, and I soon realized how challenging this journey would be— so much harder than medical school ever was.

I embraced the fact that young people deserve stories written by authors who take their jobs seriously. What we do changes people lives. We provide our readers with escape and encouragement, mirrors and windows, and lots of wonderful ways of exploring the world. Writing for children and young adults is way too important to not do well.

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 to Hamline thinking I would write contemporary YA, scared to explore my talking cat idea. Then I discovered that middle grade is my true love and historical fantasy my destiny; however, picture books are an extremely close second. And thanks to Claire Rudolf Murphy, I have three nonfiction Works in Progress competing for my attention. Nonfiction blends my love of history, research and storytelling.
Original, real-world Onyx

Tell us about your Creative Thesis
My creative thesis is historical fantasy that is part of a series. Set in ancient Egypt, the pharaoh’s daughter rescues a magical black cat, Onyx, who possesses powers that will not only save her and family but an ancient library as well. In future books, Onyx learns the price and pain of immortality as she lives out her remaining eight lives. She travels throughout the world, learning how to protect the library from its enemies and becoming the warrior she was meant to be. These stories celebrate the lives of females, inspired by real girls and women who changed the trajectory of history.

What changes have you seen in your writing during your studies?
I am more confident and willing to take risks. I am less afraid to try something new and more accepting if the idea never quite comes to fruition. Writing is an art and a craft and something that deserves my attention. If I want to become better, I have to put in the time, and that is lifelong. It doesn’t end with one book or one story. Writing is lots of trial and error and rejection and I am still learning to embrace those things. I have discovered the joy of editing and working and reworking the story until the words are right.

Any thoughts for entering students or for people considering the program?
In this program, we celebrate one another as artists who want to make the world a better place. Find the things and people that inspire you and surround yourself with them. The MFAC program will change your life and demand your time and attention. Embrace that. The faculty and students will support you along the way and long after you graduate. Finally, run towards the things that scare you the most.

The public is welcome to attend the graduate recognition ceremony on Sunday, July19, 3:30pm, (Sundin Music Hall, Hamline University). Tim Federle is the speaker.