Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Inkpot Interviews: Debra McArthur

Debra's historical novel, A Voice for Kanzas, was published by Kane Miller Books in 2012. It was recently selected for this year's Kansas Notable Books list and was named a 2013 Bank Street College of Education's Best Children’s Books of the Year! Debra lives and writes in Kansas City, Missouri.
Please describe the book in under 50 words.
When Lucy Catherine Thomkins’ family moves to Lawrence, Kansas Territory, in the winter of 1855, Lucy struggles to find her place in this strange world of border ruffians, mysterious night travelers, and dangerous secrets. Armed only with her pen and her belief in freedom, Lucy must dare to become A Voice for Kanzas.

Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
I began working on the book in 2004, but stalled out because I didn’t have the skills I needed to develop it. When I began the Hamline program in 2008, my primary goal was to finish the book before I graduated. I did finish the draft of the book with the last packet of my final semester. I did a full revision of the book in the first three months after graduation. After I sold the book to Kane Miller, I did one revision responding to the editor’s comments about plot and character development, making sure the characters’ motivation was clear. The second pass revision was one of tightening language. The third revision was still more tightening and subtle sentence-level changes. 

How did it come to the attention of its editor?
I did not have an agent, so I submitted a query letter, a synopsis, and two chapters, according to the author guidelines on the publisher’s website. I received a response in about two months, with a request for the full manuscript. I was offered a contract about two months later. 

What research was involved?
I had already published a history book on this period of history, so I went in the project thinking I was pretty well prepared. But every writing day brought the need for more research. Besides the traditional research in books and websites, I did a lot of research in newspapers of the period and primary documents, both for actual events and for the flavor of the language of the time. I also went to several historical sites and museums to see household articles of the era and get a better idea of daily life. 

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline? 
Yes, I workshopped sections of the book every term except one. 

What was your critical thesis on?
My book includes characters of different ethnicities, so I explored the difficulties writers face when writing about characters which are outside the writer’s ethnicity. 

What was your creative thesis?
A Voice for Kanzas was my creative thesis. 

Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
I read The Book Thief my first term, and I think it was one of my favorites. The history is woven so seamlessly into the story that the reader learns a lot about the setting and period without even realizing it. I wanted to be able to do that. 

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
I am part of a long-standing group that meets annually at a retreat in Maine. In addition to our annual retreat, some members of this group are regular readers, and we hold live critique sessions online with webcams. I also belong to an online group of Hamline alumni. We share our writing and respond by email. Both groups have been great help to me. 

Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
I work full-time, so my writing time is weeknights and weekends. I work more consistently with regular goals and deadlines, so I have to set those for myself in order to avoid procrastinating. I participated in NaNoWriMo last fall. Although I didn’t reach the 50,000 word goals of NaNoWriMo, I did add 25,000 words to my work-in-progress during that month. I set a similar goal in January and wrote another 20,000 words that month. 

What are you working on now?
I’m working on another Kansas novel now. It’s not really a sequel, but some of the same characters from A Voice for Kanzas appear in this one. It’s completely different in tone and style from the first book, and I’ve enjoyed trying something new. 

What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
Recognize the incredible opportunity for learning that comes with being part of the Hamline MFAC program. Leave your ego at the door, and be ready to accept and appreciate feedback from your peers and instructors. It’s the only way to really grow. 

To learn more about Debra and her writing:
Her website
Facebook Author Page
Amazon page

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How to Prepare for a Residency at Hamline.

When I was getting ready for my first residency, I was pretty excited -- though for me, “pretty excited” is like being on spin cycle all the time, only with caffeine. Now that I’ve graduated, I don’t get to be a part of the fun anymore, alas, but at least I can pass on a few tips for you new folks that might help you before and during residency.
My first day at residency. So many trees!

I wish I’d written this post in March because it's soooo helpful to start reading through the required reading list before residency starts! Listen to them on audiobook (The Book Thief and Diary of a Part-Time Indian are especially good, though you miss out on the illustrations). Read your books on the floor and let baby crawl all over you, read them over breakfast lunch and dinner. Write a paragraph or two about each one, choosing some aspect of craft, for your bibliography. When you start corresponding with your faculty adviser, you will have your hands full with writing 20-40 pages of story plus several essays on craft every month – AND you’ll still need to keep working on required reading!

It helps to have a master list of everything you’re going to take, and keep this list in a journal where you can find it every semester, revising it as you go. Write down everything that’s going in your suitcase. Consider this your inventory, so you don’t have to start rooting through all your suitcases just as you’re leaving to make sure you packed your notebook/chamomile tea/pet lemur. Also it’s good to have this list handy as you pack your things at residency’s end, to make sure you haven’t left anything behind.

In summer, casual is fine, with a nice dress/pair of slacks for the farewell banquet. Jeans, casual dresses and skirts, slacks, shorts, T-shirts with picture book covers on them are always good to have in stock. Comfortable shoes are a must because you’ll take an eight-minute walk across campus several times a day. Last summer, the heat index in Minnesota hit 110 a couple of times. This year may be milder – temps in the 80’s are the norm – but be prepared.

(For winter residencies, buy Thinsulate stuff. Best. Stuff. Ever.)

The dorms have a stove and fridge – no microwave – so if you’re driving in you can bring cooking stuff. A saucepan and a skillet usually does the trick, plus a few table settings. They’ll have several shuttle runs to Super!Target! so you can stock up on easy-to-fix stuff at the dorm. (Don’t get too fancy, because sometimes you’ll get home too exhausted to do more than fix oatmeal.)

Aaaaaa the residency!! *explodes*

This will be an emotional time. All the new stuff you’re learning is going to be amazingly cool,

an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move --

(tip of the pen to Lord Tennyson), but at the same time you’ll be missing your family (especially if you have kids) and yes, a few tears are going to be shed at some point at the residency. If you’re in an especially rough state, get yourself out of the dorm and hang out with others, because being with people really helps. And help others out, too, because we’re all here for each other.

This is also a busy time, as you can see by the schedule. Be prepared to rush, find little ways to recharge – and write your Reflections every night; don’t wait for the end of residency because then it’s a huge pile of work.
And yet, during my first residency, I found time to take lots of bunny pics.
Okay, you residency-goers, you lucky ducks, if you have any questions, throw ‘em down in the comment section and I promise to answer every one of them, and I bet our seasoned Hamline grads and faculty will have plenty to add, because this post has barely scratched the surface. You can also email me directly if you want to carry on a very extended conversation about Hamline stuff.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Inkpot Interviews: Tamara Will Wissinger

Tamara Will Wissinger's novel-in-verse Gone Fishing was published this past March by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Tamara lives, writes, and fishes in Vero Beach, Florida.

Please describe the book in under 50 words.
Gone Fishing is a humorous father-and-son fishing adventure and sibling rivalry middle grade novel in verse for children ages six and up that includes a section of poetry information called “The Poet’s Tackle Box.”

Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?

Here is the timeline for developing GONE FISHING:
2007: I wrote one poem called Night Crawlers. It was published in Wee Ones Magazine and would become the first poem in the story.
2008: More fishing poems followed and developed into a short collection. I worked on these “on the side” while I was a student at Hamline.
July 2008: Nikki Grimes visited Hamline and lectured on how she uses a traditional story arc to write her books in poetry. Nikki’s lecture lit a spark in my brain about how I might be able to do that with my poetry. 
Fall 2008: I introduced more conflict into my fishing poetry and developed a stronger story arc.
December 2008: Phyllis Root, my faculty advisor during my final semester at Hamline, asked me to submit something that I would continue working on after graduation. I submitted Fish Tales, my fledgling story in poems.
2009/2010: As Phyllis had suggested, I worked on my poem story, including with fellow Hamline grads in person and online, and at a Hamline alumni weekend in the summer of 2010. Dear friend and Hamline alum Jamie A. Swenson critiqued my poetry story and suggested that I label the poetic forms that I was using. I did.
2010/2011: I submitted Fish Tales as a picture book story in poems. I received many rejections.
March 2011: I received a magical note from my editor at Houghton Mifflin: Yes, she was interested in publishing it!
Remainder of 2011/early 2012: We revised from picture book length to short verse novel length, expanding the poetry from about 20 poems to over 40. We changed the name from Fish Tales to Gone Fishing: A Novel In Verse. My editor had the great idea of adding end matter to discuss the poetic forms that I used. Matthew Cordell signed on to illustrate. Copy edits arrived in a beautiful shade of purple ink.

How did it come to the attention of its editor?
I sent an unsolicited manuscript and my editor pulled it from her slush pile. A note on this: My editor first came to my attention when she visited Hamline during a residency. I actually met her at lunch that day and when she spoke I remember thinking that based on what I understood of her sensibilities and taste, she might like to read my stories when they were ready.

What research was involved?
The story itself came mostly from childhood memories, fishing experiences, and my imagination, so that part didn’t require research. I did research the specific details of catfish and bluegills to make sure those elements were just right, and the poetry forms and definitions took a great deal of research and care. I wanted to be sure that I was expressing the correct information in the right way.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
Yes, at the summer alumni weekend in 2010. I was with the workshop group that was made up of alums with last names in the second half of the alphabet.

What was your critical thesis on?
For my critical thesis I studied picture books to understand how authors successfully develop their texts either by following or varying from the classic story arc and word/picture balance principles.

What was your creative thesis?
My creative thesis included a combination of poetry, picture books, and a portion of a middle grade historical fiction novel.
Janet Burroway

Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
Many books, including those written by the fabulous Hamline MFAC faculty! And I happily rediscovered old books that I hadn’t read in years, and of course, the craft books are wonderful as well. How can you not fall in love with John Gardner, Janet Burroway, and Donald Maas?

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are. (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent).
When do you share a piece of writing?
I’m fortunate to have a combination of live-action and online readers. Depending on what I’m working on, I generally try to make something as polished as possible before I share it with anyone. (Much more easily done with picture book-length work.)

Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
I’m a fan of regular writing with big blocks of time and staying on a schedule. Mornings are my favorite time to write, and I was fairly disciplined at that while I was a student. Keeping a schedule hasn’t always been possible since the book’s release in March. I feel lucky to have been welcomed into bookstores and classrooms this season already, and I have more events scheduled over the summer, into fall, and for poetry month next April. Reading and writing poetry with children is one of my new favorite things to do; they’re so welcoming and full of energy! I’ve also embraced social media and online marketing – something that, until recently, I avoided. Marsha Qualey helped me over that hurdle last summer when she shared her social media philosophy with me, something to the effect of “being part of the conversation.” (Note: It’s never too late to go to Hamline and learn something new!) Despite these changes, I’m trying to write each day, even if it’s only for a short burst of time.  And if I don’t produce something one day, I try to the next.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple of quirky picture books, more poetry, and a middle grade novel. I recently learned that one of my concept picture books, This Old Band, will release in 2014 from Sky Pony Press.

What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
If you haven’t already done so, learn to love the critical essay, embrace the critical thesis, and find a way to comfortably speak to an audience and read your work in front of groups. These are as important stepping-stones to developing fully as a writer as the creative aspects. Once you are graduated from the program, your critical thinking skills will help you figure out the answer to any literary question you may have. And if you publish your work, pursue teaching – or any writing role that involves working with others – speaking and reading what you wrote will likely be part of your position. You will never find a more enthusiastic and supportive audience than the one you have at Hamline. Be bold – You can do this!
You can learn more about Tamara and her work at any of these places:

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Pre-Residency Heebie Jeebies?

     Incoming Hamline students, if you’re nervous about the upcoming residency, at least one Hamline faculty member has  pre-residency jitters, too -- ME.
     Despite forty-plus years of  professional writing, speeches, author school visits, national and international reading and writing conferences, storytelling festival presentations, church communion -- I still get the heebie jeebies.
    I start to tremble as soon as our dear director Mary Rockcastle sends out her call for our lecture and workshop titles. This summer’s focus is on character.  
     Oh Lawd, do remember me and character!
     What to pack???  Checked luggage is limited to 50 pounds.  I used to laugh at the thought that I could pack 50 pounds of anything to take airborne until I began packing books and student manuscripts. 50 pounds right there! Which laptop to bring? Why bring one at all? Eleanora, didn’t you finish your lecture at home? What about a thumb drive? Which one? The  4, 8 or 16 gig? The 50 gig? Which files to bring? Will my spider solitaire game fit on a thumb drive?
     Oh Lawd, do remember me, lectures and workshopping!
     What else to pack:  my blue, green and black suits? Or just the skirts? Which shoes, socks, nylons, long underwear, boots? No, scratch long underwear and boots. This is July, not January. My sexy red blouse? (For whose eyes, for goodness sakes??)  Scratch the red blouse. Which slacks, jeans, and shorts? What to wear for my reading? For my lecture? For graduation? Which pajamas? Which medicines to bring? Do I dare take my teddy bear this time?
     Oh Lawd, do remember me, clothes and meds!
     What and where to eat while I’m there? Salads? Breakfast? The dining hall? The corner gas station? That little sandwich shop?  Or just stock up on chocolate?
     Oh Lawd, do remember us all. Take heart, nervous students. You’re not alone. Your fears -- and hopefully mine -- will leave as soon as you hit campus! Welcome to Hamline!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Inkpot Interviews: Jamie Swenson

Jamie Swenson is a July ’09 graduate of the MFAC program. Her first book, Boom! Boom! Boom! was released in May. Currently serving as the RA for the Wisconsin chapter of the SCBWI, Jamie lives and writes in Janesville, Wisconsin. You can find out more about Jamie on her website.
Please describe the book in under 50 words.
Here’s what the publisher wrote:
“Flash! Crash! Boom! Boom! Boom! One rainy night, in the midst of a storm, a brave little boy is cozy and warm. He’s all snuggled up, safe in his room—when ‘Arrooo,’ howls dog, ‘is there room?’ Of course there’s room—and all is well—until … Flash Crash Boom! Boom! Boom! What happens when too many friends start to squish in? That’s when the fun is sure to begin.”

Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
Boom! Boom! Boom! was actually one of the very first picture book manuscripts I ever wrote. I believe I wrote it about two years before entering Hamline. It is most certainly one of the most revised of my books—and it traveled through every single Hamline advisor I had—each giving it a little suggestion (or a big one)—and each leaving a mark on it and me! The major change from my very first draft was the introduction of a real main character. I believe it was Marsha Chall who wondered, “Who is telling this story?” At the time she saw it, it was little more than a rhythmic poem—it was not yet a real story. The manuscript had received at least three glowing rejections, but something was missing. There was no one for the reader to relate to—not really. Just a floating voice. It started: “Flash Crash Boom Boom Boom! A beagle jumped onto my bed.” After Marsha’s suggestion I revised the opening to, “One stormy night, I jumped into bed. Safe with a book and my bear named Fred.” Of all of the tweaks, nudges, and overhauling of this story—that one line probably did the most work in making this a story with a main character. It might not seem like a big change—but the idea that a real person, with a book, and a bear named Fred, seemed to make all the difference.

While this book did go through revisions during the writing process, none were made with my editor at FS&G. It’s a little different, I think, with rhyming text. Either it’s working and you don’t need to change it—or it’s not and you do. Janine liked it the way she acquired it—and I think that is due to all the work that I had already put into the text.

Chris Raschka

How did it come to the attention of its editor?
About six months after graduation (Oct. 2009), I sent a different manuscript out to four or five houses as a simultaneous submission—simply based on which houses were open and accepted picture books. That manuscript, If You were a Dog was eventually fished from the slush and acquired by Janine O’Malley. That book has the wonderful good fortune of being illustrated by Caldecott Medalist, Chris Raschka—which was actually doubly good luck for me—because Mr. Raschka is a very busy man and couldn’t start that project until 2012 at the earliest. So, Janine said, “What else do you have?” Again, lucky me—I happened to have eight picture books ready from my Creative Thesis. I sent her an additional three or four—and in spring of 2010 she picked Boom! Boom! Boom! (Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah!) and David Walker, who is also a talented illustrator, was able to get started on it right away—so it only took from about March 2010 to May 2013 for this one! GRIN.

What research was involved?
I researched publishing houses! I relied heavily on the Children’s Writers Market. I highlighted every possible house that was open and listed the names of the acquiring editors. I sent the manuscript to around five houses, and I’ve yet to hear from the other four.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
No, I never workshopped this manuscript—at least—not that I recall. I did work on it with Marsha Chall and Phyllis Root—not as much with Lisa Jahn-Clough or Marsha Qualey (because we worked on novels instead of picture books).

What was your critical thesis?
"What Haunts You?: Elements of the Middle Grade through Young Adult Ghost Story"

What was your creative thesis?
A combination of part of a supernatural middle grade novel and about eight picture books. 

Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
Oh my goodness, yes. I work in a library so I was already deeply in love with so many books; still, through required reading at Hamline I found some titles that I had either missed, or judged by the cover and hadn’t read (oh, the horrors!). After hearing M.T. Anderson speak at a residency I went back and re-read Feed with a greater appreciation for the crafting of that book. I also found books by my fabulous advisors that I love—including Marsha Qualey’s Come in from the Cold, Lisa Jahn Clough’s ALICIA books, Phyllis Root’s Kiss the Cow, and Marsha Wilson Chall’s Prairie Train.

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are. When do you share a piece of writing?
My first readers are my critique group members, two of whom also graduated (in different years) from Hamline’s MFA program. We were already together as a critique group when our first member headed off to Vermont, and then switched to Hamline. I was second to go—and then one more of us went and finished the program. The other three writers laugh and say that they’ve lived through THREE MFA programs now, so surely they deserve some type of honorary status!
I share a manuscript when I feel it has a voice and some form of direction—but it still needs input from another person. If I share too soon, they cannot help. If I share too late, that ship has sailed and I might not hear what they tell me. Sometimes, I will share, revise, share, revise, share, revise—until they say, “STOP!” And then it’s either ready to go to my agent who will likely make me revise again anyway—or—it just isn’t there and I put it away and hope that I figure it out someday. 

Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
The major change in my writing life since graduation is the lack of a real deadline. I floated for about six months after the program—and then I started being more intentional about my writing time again. Because I work part-time, I have to make good use of my non-work days. I schedule my writing time just like I schedule my work time—I have to be there at a set time and stay for a set number of hours—whether or not I FEEL LIKE IT—just like my ‘other’ job!

What are you working on now?
My first book is just out, my second book is scheduled for January 2014, and my third book is still with Mr. Raschka (take all the time you need, Mr. Raschka!). I continue to play with picture book ideas, and I am working on my first early chapter book. I haven’t done very much with my novels since leaving Hamline—but all in good time!

What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
Keep at it. Listen to all those bits of wisdom that float out of your advisors’ mouths. Ron [Koertge] is right—MFA students spend way too much time thinking and not enough time writing. Writers “on the outside” do that too! Quit analyzing everything or waiting for the perfect time in your life to write. It will never come. WRITE it now! You will never be perfect. Your writing will never be perfect. But if you never write anything—I guarantee you won’t get any better AND you’ll have nothing to show for it! I am as far from perfection as can be, but I love writing and I love storytelling and I love playing with words. I don’t plan to stop any time soon—and neither should you. I think if I excel at anything, it’s listening to revision suggestions and revising my work. Don’t fear the revision process.

Now, don’t you have a packet due soon? Scoot.