Friday, September 23, 2016


Our SCBWI-MI Fall Retreat is only two weeks away! Charlie Barshaw looks back on the SCBWI Wild Wild Midwest Conference and gives us a reminder about all of the hard work going on behind-the-scenes by an army of volunteers. Here's Charlie:

Note: These impressions are the writer’s alone. They are based on faulty memories, overheard conversations, and opinions parading as facts. Please ingest with caution.

The first clue that the 2016 Wild Wild Midwest SCBWI Conference was a big deal surfaced Thursday, the day before it officially started. We walked into a large conference room, set up wall-to-wall with tables and chairs.

Twelve well-dressed hotel people sat opposite the twelve SCBWI people, Regional Advisors from Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ruth McNally Barshaw, the Illustrator Coordinator. And me, the guy who “technically” was the Audio/Visual expert.

In front of us, placards with our names, water glasses, hotel pens, pads of paper, and a spiral-bound booklet.

Inside that booklet a breakdown of each room of the conference, for every day. Every hotel person seated there would play a part. Every person on the SCBWI side likewise had commitments that played out over the past three years, and the next three days.

SCBWI National pulls off two of these huge spectacles every year: the winter sessions in New York, and the summer sessions in downtown Los Angeles. And they employ people whose only job is to make each conference run smoothly.

Contrast this with the WWMW conference, held for the first time in Spring 2013, and then May of this year. Why three years? Because every person involved is a volunteer, many with real day jobs and families.

Planning began immediately following the successful end of WWMW ‘13. During the 2014 LA conference, I was a fly on the wall as RAs gathered in a hotel room to lay out possible venues. During the 2015 LA conference, they again gathered to finalize faculty selections.

Over the years, RAs dropped out and were replaced by new volunteers, who then inherited WWMW duties. One whole state, comprising two SCBWI regions, dropped out entirely, to be replaced by another state.

Faculty had to be contacted, cajoled for bios, quizzed on food preferences. Schedules had to be drawn up, plane tickets and airport pick-ups arranged, rooms set aside.

There were also almost 500 attendees, some veteran conference-goers, some eager but oh-so-green rookies. Dietary requirements, special requests, unexpected emergencies: all had to be dealt with in the months leading up to, and especially during the three days of the conference.

Projectors and laptops were donated, to offset the huge expense of renting that equipment from the hotel. Many of the pages of the spiral-bound booklet specified, in agonizing detail, the cost of each service.

I witnessed one of the most stunning sights of the whole weekend, entirely behind closed doors. After lunch, there was a brief window where every trace of the meal had to be cleared, tables removed, walls assembled. Every hotel person seated across from us on Thursday, from security, AV, management, food service, worked together to set up the room for the next events.

As incredible a display of teamwork as that was, the work of the Midwest organizers was amazing in its thoroughness and dedication. Special thanks to our own RAs, Leslie Helakoski and Carrie Pearson, who shouldered much of the responsibility as co-chairs.

So, how do you organize a multi-state conference? It’s impossible, but somehow they did it.

Charlie Barshaw has four MG and YA novels-in-progress, three critique groups, two dogs and a gifted, supportive and encouraging wife. Oh, and a miniscule bank account, but a whole vast world of opportunity.

Learn more about the upcoming SCBWI-MI Fall Retreat here, and be sure to thank our hard working volunteers.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Hugs and Hurrahs! Send your good news to Patti Richards by Monday, Sept. 26th to be included. Don't be shy; we're inspired by your success!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Paying it Forward: Cathy Bieberich - Mentor Extraordinare, a Volunteer Tribute by Monica Harris

If you ask people about SCBWI Michigan volunteer, Cathy Bieberich, several things might be mentioned. Her boisterous laugh and wickedly sharp sense of humor might be first. Her diligent work ethic would certainly be high on the list. A few members may even reminisce (with chuckles) about her karaoke skills and interpretive dance prowess.

While these are just a few of her sparkling wonders, one of Cathy’s biggest accomplishments as a SCBWI volunteer is the strong mentorship program. Sadly, Cathy is stepping down (or should I say retiring) from her Mentorship Coordinator position; a position she has held for 9 years. Her personal journey actually began when Cathy won the novel mentorship in 2002 with Audrey Couloumbis. At the end of their mentorship session, the two remained close friends and shared their writing. When Audrey had another book published, Cathy was humbled to find her name included in the dedications. Filled with gratitude from the entire experience, Cathy choose to give back in the best way she knew…to expand, strengthen, and coordinate the mentorship program.

Even while working full time, Cathy made sure to put together an outstanding program.  She devotedly located and secured mentors.  While this may sound easy, it is not. Many writers and illustrators are busy with their own careers so it would often involve a little ‘pay it forward’ coaxing on Cathy’s part.  After that, capable judges were secretly contacted (again, sometimes needing a bit of coaxing).  Once submissions rolled in, Cathy coordinated every detail including sorting and coordinating the submissions, making sure the judges received their copies (either by mail or electronically), and then tabulating the results for the mentor.  A tedious job, to say the least, but Cathy embraced it with the excitement of a 2-year old being handed a Labrador puppy!  It was a time of thankfulness and generosity, which Cathy juggled like a three-ringed circus professional.

While I can certainly dwell on how much we’ll miss Cathy’s hard work, I know with certainty that her presence will continue to be felt within the Michigan chapter. For example, Cathy was the pioneer for our speaker-shadowing program. Speakers will continue to have a SCBWI “shadow helper” in order to make them comfortable during conferences.  The program has been so successful that other national SCBWI chapters have adopted it.

If there’s ever a moment when the Advisory Committee needs a helping hand, Cathy will be there to offer both her left and her right. Whether it’s stuffing folders for conference participants, greeting them at the registration table, or bringing cold water to the members of a panel, she will be there…. selflessly offering her time and cheerful smile.

What I admire most about Cathy is her devotion to make new people feel welcomed.  If someone is sitting alone at a table, she makes a point of joining them. If a participant is lost, Cathy takes time to walk them to the appropriate conference room.  She doesn’t do it for any sort of glory. She doesn’t expect a pat on the back. She does it because she believes in our chapter, our members, and our dreams. We are in this together and the best way to help each other is to be supportive.

Without a doubt, she will be missed in her role as Mentorship Coordinator. Yet, I find it uplifting knowing that she will continue to be a pinnacle example of what makes our Michigan chapter so wonderful. Thank you Cathy---my role model, my writing buddy, and my dear friend.

Although she’ll deny it, Monica Harris is usually an accomplice and backup dancer to Cathy Bieberich’s karaoke singing! As a previous AdCom member and a retired Co-RA, she does have to worry about her reputation, you know? She lives in Kalamazoo…oh oh, there goes her status in the witness protection plan (gulp).

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Behind the Conference Scenes, a new Featured Illustrator, and another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. We want to trumpet your good news! Please send your children's writing or illustrating news to Patti Richards by Sept. 26th.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Schuler Books: An Indie Interview with Whitney Spotts by Carol J. Verboncoeur

Schuler Books has been a staple in the mid-Michigan community since 1982 with stores in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Okemos. Schuler Books hosts a variety of fun and informative events including: writing workshops, book clubs, author readings, story time and so much more. Events coordinator, Whitney Spotts was kind enough to give us a glimpse behind the scenes.

Tell us a little bit about your job at Schuler Books? 

I manage the author events for three Schuler locations, so every day is a little different! I spend an inordinate amount of time on email, corresponding with publisher contacts, local media, and authors, but the best part is obviously hosting the authors. I've met so many interesting people, and been exposed to so many different subjects than the normal person. There's always something to enjoy or learn from. 

Was there an event at your store that remains particularly memorable? Something surprising that happened, a wonderful chain reaction, or a day that went terribly wrong? 

My favorite events have been the times I've worked with David Sedaris - he is always hysterical and you never know what will happen (like unexpected raunchy jokes over the intercom). On one particular tour, David was collecting and telling jokes from all of his fans. There was one woman loudly complaining about how long the signing was taking, and in a quiet lull, everyone, including David, loudly heard her say "He has to tell every person  some goddamn joke." You could hear a pin drop and David sweetly cocked his head and said, "Well, I guess I'll have to sign your book next." The woman turned purple and slowly walked up to the table, just mortified. He grabs her book, smiled and said, "You wanna hear a joke?" It was the best thing I'd ever seen.

What advice can you give to authors and illustrators who are preparing for bookstore appearances?  

First off, know whether you will be talking, or just signing. If you're talking, every presentation is a little different, so just be sure to communicate with the bookstore. Some authors do full-scale presentations with visuals like a slide-show, others simply talk and read. It makes no difference to us - we just want you to be comfortable so that the presentation goes smoothly. So do what feels natural to you, and rehearse it a little before your first talk. Readings aren't done as much anymore (except for picture books) -- most readers want to know the story behind the book, what your process is, what got you here. If you do decide to read, definitely keep it short: 5, no more than 10 minutes or people get antsy.

Do you have any particular advice for children’s authors and illustrators?

For children's book authors and illustrators, I would just say that you should have practiced reading your story aloud, holding the book or whatever demo instruments you have. Rehearse the presentation. We love it when authors and illustrators have their own activities or activity sheets; we are happy to print-off copies and provide supplies -- just let us know in advance so we can prep the space or any supplies you need! Be very clear what you need and what you will be bringing.

Tell us about some of your upcoming events at Schuler Books.

I am SO excited about what's coming up this fall. We have confirmed a stop on the Jan Brett Gingerbread Christmas tour at our Okemos store on December 3rd, and are working out the details for an event at our Grand rapids store with Patricia Polacco! We are also excited to have middle grade author Mike Lupica to tour Okemos store on Sept. 19th as well as hosting a zombie themed event for middle grade author Max Brallier at our Lansing store on October 29th! It's going to be an awesome fall season, so keep an eye on our website for details on these and other events!

Carol J. Verboncoeur writes middle grade fantasy and science fiction under the pseudonym, CJ Verb. Her blog History Bites shares quirky bits of history and delightful treasures from museums near and far.  She is a docent at the Michigan State University Museum and serves on the executive board of the Capital City Writers Association

Coming up on the Mitten blog: An SCBWI-MI volunteer tribute, Behind the Conference Scenes, and another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. We want to trumpet your good news! Please send your children's writing or illustrating news to Patti Richards by Sept. 25th.

See you next Friday!
Kristin Lenz

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Back to School: MFA Week, Day Seven. That's a wrap!

Welcome to Day Seven of our special Back to School: MFA Week! Six SCBWI-MI members (representing three different MFA programs) answer a question a day for seven days. It's everything you ever wanted to know about getting your MFA.

Just joining us? Go here to read the first post in our MFA series. Day TwoDay ThreeDay FourDay Five. Day Six.

Team MFA: Jennifer (Jay) Whistler, Diane Telgen, Anita Pazner, Erin Brown Conroy, Rebecca Grabill, and Katie Van Ark.

The final question: Would you do it again?

Erin: Absolutely. No question. The learning was phenomenal. My writing leaped miles ahead of where it was before. And now I have an incredible support system of other WSCU graduates who I can call on, night or day, who are also professionals in the field. Invaluable.

Jay: I am considering doing a post-grad semester with VCFA. They allow you to choose a focus area that you want to work on, and you also get to choose your advisor.

Diane: When I graduate, they’ll probably have to drag me onto the plane out of Vermont, that’s how much I’ve loved my time there. It’s the best investment in myself I’ve ever made.

Rebecca: Honestly, I sometimes wish I could have a do-over. I’d love to go through the program again, now that I know what it’s like and what to expect. I sort of hate that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Hamline also offers post-grad semesters, so maybe…. But I love how Diane says, “It’s the best investment in myself I’ve ever made.” So 100% true.

Katie: The skills I gained and the connections I made were worth every penny of tuition. I would do it again - and in a way, I still am. VCFA allows graduates to continue accessing their lecture database and recently updated their library system to also make student theses available. I plan my own personal "residencies" where I listen to lectures from the database at home and I also exchange feedback with other members of my graduating class.

Anita: Do it again? You mean I have to graduate and leave? I was hoping to go back every six months for the rest of my life. I have become so vested in the work and camaraderie that I have a tough time thinking about graduating and leaving it all behind. So to answer your question- yes. I would absolutely do it again.

And that's a wrap! Thanks to Team MFA for answering all of our questions for seven straight days! And now, the Mitten blog team is officially on vacation! We'll be back on Friday, September 9th with an indie bookstore interview.

Enjoy the holiday weekend!
Kristin Lenz

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Back to School: MFA Week, Day Six

Welcome to Day Six of our special Back to School: MFA Week! Six SCBWI-MI members (representing three different MFA programs) answer a question a day for seven days. It's everything you ever wanted to know about getting your MFA.

Just joining us? Go here to read the first post in our MFA series. Day TwoDay ThreeDay Four. Day Five.

Team MFA: Jennifer (Jay) Whistler, Diane Telgen, Anita Pazner, Erin Brown Conroy, Rebecca Grabill, and Katie Van Ark.

What is the most important thing you learned?

Jay: I learned that if you call yourself a writer, then you have to write everyday. But you also have to read. A ton. Everything you can get your hands on. Ask yourself why something works. Is it because the author uses the three-act structure perfectly? Does the picture book master the art of the page turn? Learn from what these authors do well. But also ask yourself why something doesn’t work. Has the writer failed to make the stakes high enough, or the concrete desires obvious enough? Real writers don’t just read it and forget it. They deconstruct and use what they learn to reverse engineer their own stories.

Erin: I agree with Jay. I never read as I do now (and I considered myself to be a reader, before the MFA). I’m constantly evaluating others’ works, listening to books on audio to hear the rhythms and tones that make an author successful, and analyzing how a character is introduced, to glean more skills. The MFA gave so many “whys” that I can now see in others’ works, and it all informs my work. Also, I have to say, I learned the value of outlining the beats of your work before writing -- which not only saves time but also makes sure you’re including the emotional moments that readers crave. Having a frame to write within only strengthened my scenes, the conflict within each scene, and the pacing of the work.

Rebecca: I totally agree with Jay and Erin. Read, read, read some more. I also learned the vastness of what I *don’t* know, which in one way is humbling, in another invigorating. I’ll never stop being curious. There will always, and I mean ALWAYS be new things to discover.

Diane: Learning to read books with a critical eye is crucial, I agree, but more important for me was to really develop that eye when looking at my own work. It can be so difficult to spread the guts of your story all over the table and assess what it needs without feeling inadequate. Now I have tools to consider things like voice, stakes, structure, language, metaphor, point of view, etc., and diagnose not only what needs improvement but how to fix it. So perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that revision isn’t a sign of failure, but an opportunity to make your story the best it can be.

Anita: I learned all the things that my esteemed colleagues mentioned, but I also learned a great deal about myself. I learned that I can do this. That I am a writer and a pretty good one, at that. But most of all, I learned that even when things are ridiculously hard and I want to give up, I can keep going one word at a time. And then, I can go back and revise and edit until my words are no longer a pile of gibberish, but a group of well thought out sentences that shine and stir emotion.

Writing a book is not a sprint, but a marathon that needs the kind of stamina that only a program like VCFA could help me develop. In essence, it gave me permission to write badly and just get words on the page. That was the toughest part for me. I had to metaphorically bind and gag my inner editor and toss him in the closet and keep him there until a first draft was complete. Come to think of it, I better go check on him. He’s been there far too long.

Go Team MFA! Only one day left in our series. Please join us tomorrow for the grand finale, Back to School: MFA Week, Day Seven. The big question: "Would you do it again?"

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Back to School: MFA Week, Day Five

Welcome to Day Five of our special Back to School: MFA Week! Six SCBWI-MI members (representing three different MFA programs) answer a question a day for seven days. It's everything you ever wanted to know about getting your MFA.

Just joining us? Go here to read the first post in our MFA series. Day TwoDay Three. Day Four.

Team MFA: Jennifer (Jay) Whistler, Diane Telgen, Anita Pazner, Erin Brown ConroyRebecca Grabill, and Katie Van Ark.

Do you think having those three little letters--MFA--after your name will really make a difference in your career?

Katie: I had a lot of friends ask me this, especially one whose hobbies include an Investor’s Club. She said I’d never get my money back out of it. She was right that it takes a lot of book contracts to cover tuition costs, but this wasn’t about the money just like it isn’t about the three little letters. An MFA can help you get noticed in a slush pile, but what will really sell your book is having the best possible manuscript you can write. For me, it wasn’t about the three little letters as much as it was about taking the time to deeply invest in my craft skills.

Diane: VCFA has a great reputation, so it can help you stand out from the slush, but more important are the skills I’ve acquired during the program. With what I’ve learned, I can polish my manuscripts to present my best possible story. As a bonus, the alumni and faculty are so supportive of fellow graduates that it will be extremely helpful in terms of social media, once I reach publication stage. Plus this MFA is considered a terminal degree, so it gives me teaching qualifications should I decide to try that route. As I tell my friends who wonder why I bothered going back to school, as a way of confronting a mid-life crisis, an MFA is much more useful than buying a Corvette!

Rebecca: Without a doubt YES. Pre MFA I was at the point where every rejection I received was personal. But it was still a rejection. After the MFA I had more requests for fulls, more interest in general than I ever had before. Plus the faculty and fellow students have been VITAL to me finding my amazing agent and landing contracts at houses I’d once thought entirely out of the question for me.

Anita: I’m not quite finished with the program, so I can’t speak to the difference the letters will make for my publishing career. What I can address is the difference the program has made for my writing. For me, it’s not about the letters, but about the knowledge that I’ve gained. I also feel more confident regarding my manuscripts, and the connections I’ve made with other authors is invaluable. I have no doubt that I will find the perfect agent once I’ve completed this program. One thing I have noticed is that agents take those three little letters seriously. An MFA graduate has put in the time and effort to be a serious writer. Not that you can’t be serious without them. I’m not saying that or in anyway diminishing the hard work of writers who have not gotten an MFA degree. I know exceptional writers that enjoy success without an MFA. But I needed to be in this program to move forward and to have the excuse to scream at the top of my lungs, “I can’t do your laundry or be at everyone’s beck and call. I have a deadline, for goodness sake!”

I also agree with Diane. The degree is so much more practical as a mid-life crisis purchase than a corvette, a motorcycle or even a hot new pool man. I would say pool boy, but that would be icky, at my age. And affairs are too destructive and plastic surgery could go horribly wrong. That left me with only one option, a masters degree.

Thanks, Team MFA! I love how we are not only receiving honest, useful information, but we're also getting a feel for your voice, personality, and sense of humor through these short answers.

Only two days left! Join us tomorrow for MFA Week, Day Six. Team MFA will answer the question, "What is the most important thing you learned?"

Monday, August 29, 2016

Back to School: MFA Week, Day Four

Welcome to Day Four of our special Back to School: MFA Week! Six SCBWI-MI members (representing three different MFA programs) answer a question (or two) a day for six straight days. It's everything you ever wanted to know about getting your MFA.

Just joining us? Go here to read the first post in our MFA series. Day Two. Day Three.

Team MFA: Jennifer (Jay) Whistler, Diane Telgen, Anita Pazner, Erin Brown ConroyRebecca Grabill, and Katie Van Ark.

How did you research MFA programs to find the best fit for you?

Before Googling the basics, I set out my criteria. I wanted a small program (didn’t want to be  a number); instructors who were still currently releasing books/continuing to be published; and a once-a-year residency, instead of two (because of logistics with kids). That made the list smaller. Then I called the places, to talk with the directors and at least one instructor. If one or neither had the time of day for me (and quite a few didn’t), they were immediately scratched off the list. Then I applied to the four remaining on the list. I was accepted into two and chose the one with the teachers from which I believed I could gain the most - Western State Colorado University.

Jay: I live in a community with a well-respected state school that does have an MFA program, and one of the faculty is actually a National Book Award winner. But the children’s writing program did not have any children’s writers on the faculty. So that was a no right from the start. I knew I couldn’t go away to school, so I started with the entire list of low-residency MFA programs for children’s writing in the country and narrowed down based on factors such as when/where the residencies were, faculty, and national rankings. Once I had a list of four, I investigated the program details itself. One program was very academic, which I liked, but the generative portion of creative seemed to be lacking as a result. I felt like I would basically be getting a lit degree, not a writing degree. Once I had it narrowed to two campuses, I made plans to visit them both, but cancelled the second tour after I visited VCFA. After five minutes on campus, I knew this was the right fit.

Rebecca: I googled like crazy, ordered brochures from everywhere, and actually applied to and got accepted to both Hamline and Vermont, and I spent time on the phone with alumni and faculty of both. While I LOVE Vermont’s program and love that it was the First of its kind, I felt Hamline had a more commercial vs. literary focus, which was what I wanted. Plus some of the faculty at Hamline, well, I was crushing out on a bunch of them (their books!), so the decision was (fairly) easy.

Anita: I also Googled programs and even looked at the University of Michigan’s combined masters and PHD program, but it was not specifically geared toward writing for a young audience. When I discovered the Vermont program was a terminal degree in writing for children and young adults, I was intrigued. Mainly because Oakland University, near my home, recently created a new undergraduate program focusing on writing for children and young adults. And they need professors. But the biggest reason for me to attend VCFA was the people. Deb Gonzales, a former SCBWI regional advisor and VCFA graduate, held an event in Ann Arbor and brought in a few other graduates, instructors and some students. I was sold.

What’s available after you graduate?

Diane: I’m really looking forward to the Alumni Mini-Residencies that VCFA hosts each year for program graduates. It’s a long weekend with faculty workshops, readings, and a masterclass with a visiting writer, but they also host agents and editors and you have an opportunity for one-on-one consultations with these industry professionals.  

Rebecca: Hamline has a vibrant alumni network. We have grads in every area of publishing: illustrators, authors, agents, editors. We have a FB group that is a tremendous resource. Whether I want to know, “Hey, what MG novels involve boys and dogs?” or “Has anyone worked with DogBoy Press?” I’ll have an answer in minutes (or at worst, hours). Plus every residency holds an alumni weekend at the start with workshops and lectures involving publishing professionals Just for grads. Since I had babies #4 and #5 after graduating, I’ve yet to make it for an alumni weekend. But I want to!

Please join us tomorrow for MFA Week, Day Five! Team MFA will answer the question, "Do you think having those three little letters--MFA--after your name will really make a difference in your career?"