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?"

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Back to School: MFA Week, Day Three

Welcome to Day Three 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 and the second post in our MFA series.

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

What's it like to spend a semester in your program?

Jay: VCFA is a low-residency program. For eleven days each in January and July, students live on campus. Days usually start around 8:00 a.m. and end around 10:00 p.m. with lectures, readings, workshop intensives, special guest presentations, poetry readings, and more. During this time, you also meet with your advisor to work out a semester plan for your writing (both creative and academic) and reading.

Once back home, you send in what are called packets once a month for five months. Packets include approximately 40-50 pages of creative pages, 10 pages of critical/academic writing, an annotated bibliography of the month’s reading (usually 10-12 books plus 1-2 books on craft), and a letter that summarizes your progress for the month, including successes, struggles, and questions. Generally, you receive feedback within a few days, and you start all over. I spend about 30 hours per week on my packets, but I am also a slow reader and an even slower writer. Some people spend less time, some more.
VCFA students from Michigan: Katie Van Ark, Diane Telgren, Marty Graham, Jay Whistler, Anita Pazner and Tina Vivian

Diane: At VCFA you also write a critical thesis of 25-plus pages in your third semester, while in your fourth and final semester you leave critical work behind and focus on your creative thesis. The program recommends you devote 25 hours a week to homework, but I probably averaged around 30, or even more closer to packet due dates. You get out of it what you put into it, so “your mileage may vary.”

Anita Pazner: Since Jay and Diane have already described the academic portion of the program, I feel it my duty to discuss the aspects not listed on the brochure. Yes, we spend countless hours going to lectures and readings, but we also have fun, staying up late into the night discussing everything from politics and religion to the adult humor in Spongebob Squarepants. Did you know that Mr. Krabs lives in Bikini Bottom? Yeah, it’s a little disturbing.

When we finally get a break on laundry day, we venture into Montpelier to savor real food in real restaurants. It’s also around this time that the fourth-semester students throw a themed costume party for the graduating class. I’m not calling anyone out on this, but students have been known to dance in the fountain located in front of College Hall on their way back to the dorms—at least they did until the fountain was shut down for “health reasons.” Hmm.

There are also amazing opportunities, such as the chance to spend a summer residency in Bath, England, where you can meet Phillip Pullman and David Almond, and literally walk in Jane Austen’s footsteps. As you can see, there is so much more to an MFA program than simply reading a few hundred books, writing a thousand pages of creative work and completing twenty or more academic essays on the craft of writing for children and young adults.

Erin: A semester at WSCU’s MFA program is like any online class, but with more: It was a support system of cohort members sharing your passion and open to giving more to help with success (a we’re-in-the-same-boat attachment and desire). I won’t downplay the work. It’s hard. Many hours. You have to be super disciplined, and I spent many a day up at 5:30 AM, when the coffee shop opened, to get in word count and quality writing time.

I liked the idea of one two-week summer residency in the summer in the mountains of Colorado (who wouldn’t?!)... and it didn’t disappoint. Yes, we worked incredibly hard, but the environment was beautiful, memorable, and special.

Rebecca: Hamline has five 11-day residencies and four six-month(ish) long semesters, which involved one-on-one work with a faculty advisor: four packets due roughly a month apart, each with creative work, critical work (essays on topics like “Rhyme in Picture Books” or “Verse Novels”). A letter or phone call from the advisor provided feedback and instruction for the next packet. Over the first two semesters, every student had to complete an annotated bibliography based on a reading list of 120 notable children’s books. The third semester involved the usual creative work plus a critical thesis. Students presented a lecture on their thesis topic during fourth residency, while the final semester was geared toward creating a creative thesis--a collection of picture books or a finished, full-length novel.

In summer residencies, we lived on campus and worked. Hard. Dark-o’clock workshops ran until noon, then lectures and hands-on lessons until dinner, then readings and outings and signings.

In winter, we stayed in a nearby hotel (with a bar! And a pool!) and, after a hotel-provided breakfast, rode the shuttle to campus in the morning, where we followed our summer routine. Evenings were adventures of walking in the dark to local eateries (or the dining hall), back for readings, off to the shuttle and back to the hotel for drinks and pick-up games of Dixit (because what OTHER game would a bunch of writers play?). I loved the camaraderie of dorm life during the summer, but I adored the luxury of hotel life in winter. 

Thanks to Team MFA for giving us a behind-the-scenes peek into their programs!

Come back tomorrow for MFA Week, Day Four. Our MFA team will answer the questions, "How did you research programs to find the best fit for you?" and "What's available after you graduate?"

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Back to School: MFA Week, Day Two

Welcome to Day Two of our special Back to School: MFA Week! Six SCBWI-MI members (representing three different MFA programs) answer a question a day for the next six 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.

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

Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?

Vermont College of Fine Arts
Diane: I had been a regular attendee at SCBWI conferences, both local and national, for more than fifteen years. While some of them had workshop elements, I wasn’t getting the focus on craft that I felt I needed. I attended the VCFA Day in Ann Arbor in 2014, and the workshops Marion Dane Bauer and Coe Booth presented were the kind of craft-focused event I wanted. I was also impressed by the quality of readings from graduates and current students. I hadn’t thought about going back to school before, but by the end of the event I had decided to apply to VCFA.

Anita: Much like Diane, I wanted more in the way of workshops than could be found at SCBWI conferences. I attended a Highlight’s summer workshop and then did an online class with agent Wendy Goldman Rohm of the Rohm Agency located in New York and Paris. That’s when I realized I craved an academic setting to work on my novels. I highly recommend searching out writing classes locally or specific online courses to further your knowledge. The biggest reason I felt I needed an MFA program was that I was painfully unaware of gaps in my knowledge. In essence, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Erin: I earned my MFA with Western State Colorado University’s Low Residency program. I decided to go back to get an MFA for two reasons. 
1. The college where I was working (teaching online writing classes) wanted me to have more credentials for their impending regional certification process.
2. I knew I wanted to transition from nonfiction to fiction writing, and I wanted to learn fast. An MFA appeared to be the way to steep myself into the skills, to jump ahead -- and I can’t tell you how much it did. Story is so incredibly powerful, reaching hearts and souls in a way that nothing else can. You can say the power of story wooed me. I still write nonfiction, but a piece of my soul is now complete with fiction writing.

Rebecca: I’d been hiding a brochure to the (then only) MFA program in my desk for over a decade. Over and over I’d take the brochure out, page through, decide I didn’t need an MFA, it wouldn’t be worth the expense, I could learn all that “MFA stuff” on my own anyway… and I’d put it back. But after a decade of writing, I realized I wasn’t growing in any focused way. And, being totally honest here, I also started dealing with some serious issues, like a lifetime of agoraphobia. Suddenly it was time. None of my then-three children were in diapers, and I just knew this was the next step, one I desperately needed to take. So in 2009 I enrolled in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Hamline University, Minnesota

Thanks, Team MFA! Come back tomorrow for MFA Week, Day Three. Our team will answer the question, "What's it like to spend a semester in your program?"

Friday, August 26, 2016

Back to School: MFA Week, Day One. 7 Reasons You Might Want an MFA by Rebecca Grabill

Introducing our special Back to School feature: MFA week! Six SCBWI-MI members, three MFA programs, seven days of posts, all of your questions answered, everything you ever wanted to know about getting your MFA.

Here's Rebecca Grabill to kick off our special event:

I hid brochures for MFA programs in my bottom desk drawer. Every few months I’d take them out, page through, dream a little… Until finally in 2009 I enrolled in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. The program took two years of concentrated study at home, and for 60 days, spread over five residencies, I lived in the Twin Cities, away from children and family. It was a significant investment in time, energy, never-over-abundant funds, but now, five years after graduation, I can say without question, the MFA was worth every dollar, every hour in the MSP airport, every frantic trip to the library to pay my fines so I could pick up yet more holds. Hamline’s MFA gave me far more than I spent (or bled) to earn it. Like…

1. An MFA filled my toolbox with New Writing Tools and showed me how to better use the tools I already had.

Was I pounding in nails with a screwdriver? What could I do with a jigsaw? I learned about psychic distance and filters, I re-learned plot and characterization and so much more. Could I have broken through my plateau on my own? I’m not sure. Maybe, with enough time and enough reading. And if an MFA only provided tools, then I might question the value. But the MFA gave me more than a single workshop or another book on writing. It gave me more than tools.

 Pre MFA my reading was all over the place. I’d go to the library, check out books based on recommendations or labels on the spine: Oh, Mystery! I want to write a mystery, too! As if I were looking through the lens of my DSLR set to manual with the focus ring turned the wrong way, all the world’s books looked the same. I never knew what new books were worth reading, or what old books were true classics I couldn’t live without.

2. An MFA provided Focus.

Before my first residency I began on Hamline’s Required Reading List—120 curated books spanning all genres and age groups which provided us a grounding in the literature we were learning to write and a common vocabulary. Plus each residency added several must-read books for different topics we'd study that semester. Even now I can post to my alumni group, “What’s a good middle grade novel on bullying?” and get a dozen relevant titles, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Which leads to another perk…

I came into my program set on writing young adult (YA). It’s what I’d always written, what I always read, but,

3. My MFA program helped me Become a More Versatile Writer.

I spent an entire semester working the the amazing Phyllis Root on picture books. Another semester ignited a love for poetry that grew and influenced my graduating thesis—a novel in verse for middle grade readers, and my first two published books will be—not YA—but picture books. Speaking of publication…

I once dreaded writing query letters. I agonized over the hook, wrote and rewrote a bio that sparkled while still being…true. Because while it looks great in a bio, I’m not a celebrity, don’t have a doctorate, and don’t have one single superpower. Unless Able to Scale Mountains of Laundry counts.

4. The MFA gave me a Credential, and with it Credibility.

A degree from a good institution is noticed. It is respected. An MFA qualifies me not just to lead workshops (and get paid for them), but to teach. At the college level. The credential proves I put in time, tears, and money, that I’m committed to being an author. It proves to me, on those days when I’m cleaning up one toddler-tornado disaster after another that I am a writer. A real writer. Because sometimes it's easy to forget...

 I’d worked at this writing thing so long and so hard and had so many Close Calls (“I brought this to committee, but unfortunately…” “I love your work, but this book just isn’t quite…”), I truly believed I’d be stuck in the slush pile forever.

5. An MFA Can Open Doors to the Publishing World.

When I began the MFA I had no idea one of my classmates would go on to become an editor with a big house. I had no idea other classmates would find an agent who would happen to be a good friend of my agent. The industry is an interconnected web, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my network of alumni stretches, somehow, to every publishing house on the planet. Alumni, faculty, we all work together, sharing knowledge, names, connections and yes, even stolen carrots.

Speaking of carrots, I once felt isolated on this writing journey. Sure I had a critique group and I had a few writer friends, though out of necessity most overlapped with Mommy Friends or school-pick-up friends. My segmented life had only a small hole carved out for Me as Writer.

6. The MFA Gifted Me with Community.

Friendships I’ll treasure forever. Each residency became a celebration: These are my people. They understand me, care about the same things, share my passions and dreams. I still remember many late-night conversations with my first-residency roommate—our instant connection that continues to this day. And remember the carrots? Late-night pick-up games of Dixit, glasses of wine at the hotel bar. I forged memories, shared life with people who, five years later, continue to share life and inspire me, goad me to keep at this exhausting art. Because…

When I began the MFA I thought I knew everything. I’d read all the books (hadn't I?), I knew all the rules (didn’t I?). I was a great, or, um pretty good writer (wasn't I?). Beneath the bravado a crippling terror whispered that I was a pretender, a hack.

7. Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Gave me Confidence. And Humility.

Learning always builds confidence. But there’s nothing quite like seeing a whole universe of expertise—faculty, visiting writers and publishing professionals—to make me acutely aware of how much I didn’t know. Yet. Because I now have the tools, community, and support to continue learning as long as there are new things to learn.

Which would be, in case you're wondering, forever.

Rebecca Grabill graduated in summer 2011 and has two forthcoming picture books, Halloween Goodnight (S&S 2017) and Violet and the Woof (HC 2018). She lives and writes in Michigan. Find out more about Rebecca and her writing at

Come back tomorrow for day two of MFA Week. Graduates and current MFA students Diane Telgen, Jennifer Whistler, Anita Pazner, Erin Brown Conroy, Rebecca Grabill, and Katie Van Ark will answer your questions. First up: "Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?"

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Cybils Awards by Jennifer Rumberger

In the next week or so, a call for judges for the 2016 Cybils Awards will be announced. The Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards are an annual event for all of us. Whether you nominate a book, apply to be a judge, tweet or blog about the books everyone can participate.

In 2013, I was chosen to be a first round judge for the Middle Grade Fiction category. While it was exciting to be chosen, it required lots of work. Over the span of a couple of months, my group of judges was required to read around 100 middle grade books that were nominated. (It definitely helped if you had read some of the books already!) We kept lists and chatted together and slowly narrowed the books down to our top five. That’s when our job ended. The second round judges then took those five books and picked the winner.

So what did a book need to have to be in the top five? Not only did it need to be well-written but it also needed to appeal to the children or young adult audience. Not an easy task. Many books were high on the literary merit scale and many definitely appealed to kids. But finding books that meshed the two ingredients, only a handful.

If you blog regularly, which can be as little as once a month, I encourage you to submit an application to be a judge. 15 different categories existed last year from poetry to easy readers to non-fiction to fiction young adult. The time spent with your fellow judges (albeit cyber time) can be a valuable tool in your own writing process as you learn what works and what doesn’t to make a book successful.

And if you aren’t a blogger, there’s plenty for you too. The nominations lists for all categories are a great way to find new books to read. And the lists of finalists are a must read for the genre in which you write.

For more information about the Cybils Awards, visit their website

Jennifer Rumberger is a wife and mom of two very active boys. She is an administrative assistant during the day and a children's writer in her free time. She has been published in a handful of children's magazines and her picture book, DUCKLINGS ON THE MOVE, is available from MeeGenius/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

See the 2015 Cybils Award winners here.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Back to School with MFA Week. Yes, it's finally here - 7 days of posts packed with everything you've ever wanted to know about getting your MFA. The fun starts next Friday - see you then!

Kristin Lenz

Friday, August 12, 2016

To Self or Not to Self, by Pam Depoyan

Maria Dismondy
Are there great reasons to choose self-publishing? Bestselling picture book author Maria Dismondy says, “Definitely!”

Who hasn’t dreamed of getting that call -- a publisher wants your manuscript! But -- what if it’s just taking so long?    
As a teacher for over a decade, Dismondy did her homework. She believed the story based on her own childhood experience of being bullied would captivate children and motivate empathy, in a realistic way her research proved just wasn’t being offered. So, hopes high, she submitted her engaging SPAGHETTI IN A HOTDOG BUN to ninety traditional publishers.

“Over 13 months, I heard ‘no, no, no, no, no’,” she confides. "Finally, I heard ‘yes’ from a subsidized publisher, here in Michigan. Because I was so passionate about the message I wanted to get out to an audience larger than just my classroom, I put forth the investment and self-published. I’m happy I did because the message has now gone out to hundreds of thousands of children.”

Since then, SPAGHETTI has even morphed into a New York musical and stage tour!

No longer pursuing traditional publishing, Dismondy says, “I’m completely satisfied with the way my books are being sold and perceived…going out into the world now in different art forms… and that’s really rewarding.”

Also a writing consultant, she encourages clients with these tips:

  • Analyze the publishing path right for you.  You can self-publish, go traditional, choose an e-book… Once you’ve decided on a path, dig deeper into a variety of companies. Sit down with a local company, ask questions, get references from people who have worked with that publisher. Really spend time finding a company that shares the same mission and passion you do.

  • Set aside fear.  Fear of the book not being published, not being good enough… I have found not only is it a lack of motivation -- because the process of publishing a book is grueling -- it is extremely difficult and challenging and the outcome isn’t always what you want it to be. So my biggest (tip) is put aside fear and write.

  • Mine from your own experience.  I don’t think there’s enough realistic fiction out there, so I encourage people to stick with characters that are children and adults, stories (readers) can relate to on a deeper level. I also recommend taking time to develop strong characters. Finally, please do not forget your writing should entertain. It shouldn’t just teach, teach, teach, but should be witty in order to teach a poignant lesson.

  • Concentrate on what brings you joy.  Once upon a time, I made a huge accounting mistake and overpaid a retailer. That was an eye opener. I needed to educate myself a little more on that side of the business. A few years after that, a business coach suggested “try to do the things in your work that bring you joy.” The financial part of the business does not bring me joy! It brings me headaches. So I’ve actually hired a bookkeeper and together we’ve conquered that challenge.

  • Listen to personal stories.  There’s a free resource called “podcasts” I have learned a lot from. I listen while I run, bike, cook and drive. Start researching different podcasts. Stories of failure and success are both helpful in knowing next steps for your own (publishing) journey.

  • Give time to your business every day.  Seven days a week, I am thinking about my business, educating myself through podcasts, through professional literature…but I am not spending 40+ hours a week on the business like I did when I was a teacher.

  • Be yourself.  I’ve decided I am going to be myself when I present my work, open myself up to vulnerability and share my stories and children’s books with others. By being myself every single day, in promoting my work, I’ve found meaningful connections to others who are up to the same thing -- making a difference in the world. At the end of the day, think on this: What brings you joy and how can you do that every single day?

Maria Dismondy is a mother of three, fitness instructor, former teacher and bestselling children’s author living in Southeast Michigan. Learn more about her books, workshops, events, and teaching resources on her website.  

Pam Depoyan is a writer and artist in Southwest Michigan.  Her stories have appeared in HIGHLIGHTS, PRAY!, MATURE LIVING, and four volumes of CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL.  She once received a Letter of Merit from SCBWI for UNCOVERING THE GHOST OF NANCY DREW, and was thrilled recently when she stumbled upon HIGHLIGHT's fun audio link to this story - now a read-aloud online! Read more at her blog, Apples of Gold.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Judging the Cybil Awards, Back to School with MFA Week, another Indie Bookstore Interview, and Gearing Up for the SCBWI-MI Fall Retreat.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Writer Spotlight!

The Mitten is shining today's Writer Spotlight on fellow Michigan writer, Kathy Higgs-Coulthard. Kathy is a Mitten native who’s lived on the Michigan/Indiana border her entire life. She grew up along the St. Joseph River, and some of her earliest writing memories are of disappearing for hours to climb her favorite tree, scoot out on a limb that hung over the water, and write. Kathy claims she still does her best writing when she can hear the rush of water and feel the warmth of the sun filtered through leaves. Kathy has a rich writing journey that’s sure to inspire. So, let’s dive right in. Welcome to the Mitten Kathy!

Mitten: When did you start writing for children or otherwise, and how did you know it was something you wanted to do?

Kathy: I have written for as long as I can remember, but because of a few negative voices (both in my head and in the real world), I didn’t share my work until a friend introduced me to the Hoosier Writing Project, which is a chapter of the National Writing Project. The NWP is a network of educators that supports and deepens the teaching of writing by supporting teachers AS writers. Through the support and friendship I received as part of the Hoosier Writing Project, I gained knowledge of the writing craft, which increased my confidence and allowed me to begin sharing my work.

Mitten: How did you find out about SCBWI and how long have you been a member?

Kathy: I found out about SCBWI through the National Writing Project. I’d been participating in NWP advanced institutes for a few years and joined a critique group with a few other teachers who were working on children’s books. They raved about SCBWI and let me tag along to a conference. I was hooked!

Mitten: What genres are you most interested in and why? Picture books, middle grade, YA, chapter books, poetry, nonfiction?

Kathy: I started off writing picture books and still love that genre, but really found my voice with middle grade and YA.  I also have a few adult pieces that I have written, but those may end up being what Stephen King refers to as “trunk novels.” They’re very raw and represent my earliest attempts at learning the complexity of story and character development.

Mitten: Tell us about your publishing journey. Are you pre-published or published, and if so where?

Kathy: I am thrilled to count myself in the published category. My journey to publication was long—I, like most writers I know, have a family and a day job, so it hasn’t been a direct route. Several years ago, I met an editor from Jack & Jill Magazine at an SCBWI-MI event and pitched him a quirky idea that he loved. That was my first official sale. After that I wrote a lot of nonfiction, just trying to get my name out there—craft articles for Women on Writing Ezine (which is an EXCELLENT resource for writers, by the way!), chapters for projects with Facts on File, and even a memoir piece for Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Reboot Your Life.

Throughout all of that I was sending out my middle grade novel and a few picture books. About ten years ago, I attended the SCBWI New York Conference and participated in the writers’ intensives. An editor that I have always admired (and who had recently rejected my novel) sat at that table. She remembered me and my story and told me to please send her whatever else I was working on. Although we have yet to hit on a piece that fits her needs, her words to me that day helped spur me on to keep submitting.

Later that year I had my first offer on that novel. It fell through, but opened a door I didn’t expect. My middle grade novel,Hanging with My Peeps, finally sold this spring to Astrea Press/CleanReads (if you’re keeping track, that’s after ten years of submitting). It isn’t the same novel I wrote all those years ago—it has changed as I gained more knowledge of craft and more insight into the industry. My big advice here is, talk to other writers! I found Astrea Press because I reached out to an SCBWI-MI author to ask why she switched publishers. That conversation led to me realizing my project might be a good fit with that company.

Mitten: Many of us have a job other than writing for children. Tell us something about what you do outside of writing.

First and foremost, I am a mother. My four kids bring joy to my world and make all things possible. Before having my own children I was a preschool and elementary school teacher. Currently I work with future teachers at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame and engage young writers through my work at Michiana Writers’ Center. MWC offers summer camps for children in grades 3-12 and a teen writing conference each fall. Information on those activities is available on our website.

Mitten: How does this occupation inform your writing?

Kathy: Writing for children requires a deep understanding of kids—today’s kids. We can’t write characters that today’s readers will engage with if we base our writing on how we were as children or even the books we loved to read as children. We need to know the audience we write for—what they laugh at, what they roll their eyes at, what they avoid at all costs. My work in local schools and with the Michiana Writers’ Center allows me to be around kids and I know that helps me create richer characters. MWC also allows me to talk with young writers about what they love to read, so I get a sense of stories that might work with that age group.

Mitten: Where do you get most of your writing ideas? Do you write them down, keep them in a computer file or just store them in your memory?

Kathy: I can’t even hold a grocery list in my memory, so I write everything down. Ralph Fletcher compares a writer’s notebook to a ditch—he says you never know what might wash up in there after a good rain. Notebooks are such an important part of my process that I have 23 of them and I lug them to every school visit to emphasize to kids that writers WRITE. My notebooks catch more dead frogs and tin cans than sparkly things, but I’ve learned that better stories come from the unexpected anyway.

My ideas come from the world around me—the sound of chicks peeping from behind a half-open door, the sight of a dragonfly lighting on my son’s shoulder, the worried, rolling motion of a man’s hands—I collect these images in my notebooks and if I’m lucky they’re still there when the water drains off and I have a story seed.

Mitten: We all have favorite writers that inspire us. Name two of yours and why you like them.

Kathy: I’ve always loved the secondary definition of “inspire” which is to “breathe in.” To think of inspiration that way makes me think not just about the works that have inspired me, but the heart and soul of the writers who I would like to emulate. Mary Ann Moore is tenacious and fiercely devoted to the craft of writing. She is skilled and committed and has told me at each rejection to put my helmet back on and get back on the field. Her work rings true because she puts a little of her own soul into each character. I hope I have half the strength and skill that she does.

Our own Ruth McNally Barshaw is my other favorite writer. Her Ellie McDoodle series is one I recommend to every young writer I meet because I feel that they will recognize themselves in Ellie’s quirky creativity and every member of Ellie’s family is so well developed I feel like I could run into them at the grocery store and recognize them. Ruth continually reaches out to support other writers by sharing her own struggles and triumphs. Every time I run into Ruth at SCBWI events I try to breathe a little more of her energy and spirit in. I’m going to cheat here and tell you I am blessed to be surrounded by so many inspirational writers—April Pulley Sayre, Barb Shoup, Cynthia Furlong Reynolds, Heidi Sheffield—these strong women, these amazing writers—if you know them, breathe them in!

Mitten: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer for children? Why?

Kathy: First—Someone, I wish I could remember who, once told me that the difference between writers and people who want to be writers, is that writers WRITE. That is by far the best advice I’ve ever gotten. You can’t get better at something unless you practice it. It doesn’t have to be every day, but it does have to be regularly or the muscles atrophy and it’ll be a struggle to keep going.

Second, I had the immense privilege of attending a whole novel workshop through Highlights a few years ago and working with Stephen Roxburgh. He guided me in looking at each scene of my story to note the emotional reaction I wanted that scene to evoke in the reader. We charted the emotional journey of the reader and rewrote scenes to prevent emotional whiplash. Now when I write, I consider not only how my characters are feeling, but how the reader should be feeling.

Mitten: Thanks so much for stopping by Kathy. I know our Mitten readers have enjoyed learning more about you. Be sure and visit Kathy at her website,

Be on the lookout for our next Writer Spotlight! Who knows, it may be you!