Q&A with Christa Desir

C DesirChrista Desir writes contemporary fiction for young adults. Her novels include Fault Line and Bleed Like Me and the forthcoming Other Broken Things. She lives with her husband, three small children, and overly enthusiastic dog outside of Chicago. She has volunteered as a rape victim activist for more than ten years, including providing direct service as an advocate in hospital ERs. She also works as an editor at Samhain Publishing.

MWW Planning Committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed Christa about the sessions she will present at MWW15.

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MWW: Please tell us your background and something about your path to getting published in YA.

CD: Well, I wrote a terrible book. It was awful. I revised it 57 times, but it was still terrible. The idea was good, but I didn’t have the first clue what I was doing. Then I started to connect with lots of people who did know. I had writing mentors and critique partners and I went to workshops and I learned how NOT TO SUCK. (Pro tip: part of this is knowing you’ll suck the first several times around and you have to keep going and practicing until you don’t suck anymore.) So, one of the workshops I went to was a writing workshop for rape survivors, and I wrote a scene in that workshop that was told from a seventeen-year-old boy’s point of view, and somehow, that voice crawled inside me and took up residence. Six months later, Fault Line was ready to go. Except it wasn’t, of course. More revision with my agent, more revision with my editor, more fixing, more trying to inch further away from sucking. And two years later, I had my first published book. Still imperfect (because there is no perfect in writing), but closer.

MWW: At MWW, you’ll be discussing how writers can use their life experiences as fodder for writing YA. You’ve written about date rape and others write about difficult topics as well, like cancer and death. Any tips for writers looking to write edgy who are without personal experience on difficult topics?

CD: Everyone has difficult personal experiences because life is messy. You don’t have to write about the world’s worst experiences to make a book meaningful and connect with readers. I took a writing class once that had us do an assignment: write about the worst thing you’ve ever done. Then we read a short story about a woman whose best friend was sick in the hospital and she couldn’t get up the courage to visit her. It wasn’t edgy, but rather soft and lovely and spoke about some very real and painful human truths. So “writing edgy” isn’t the point as much as writing something authentic that will connect you with readers. One of the books I absolutely love is The Chocolate War, which from the outside seems to be about a boy who doesn’t want to sell chocolate bars for his school. Hardly edgy. But there are so many layers to that story, so many ways that Cormier connects to readers, you realize that what may seem simple is actually quite complex. Every character is in a different kind of struggle in that book, grieving and pushing and pulling for power, and it doesn’t really have to do with chocolate at all. That authenticity is what I want writers to search for in themselves.

MWW:  What would you say is the top one, or three mistakes, people make with the genre?

CD: That’s a very BROAD question, but mostly I think people’s mistakes in writing (and life) come from trying to follow too many rules. Yes, rules exist for good reasons and there are how-to’s for everything, but each person’s journey, how they learn, how they find their voice, how they engage, that’s different, and rules are very confining. I’m one of those people who finds the line someone has drawn in the sand and will do just about anything to figure out if I can cross it. That makes for authentic writing, and authentic human-ing. To me the purpose of rules in writing is to figure out what you really care about and why things matter. Everything else is just personal preference.

MWW: In general, tell us a little about what to expect from your intensive session, and the Part II sessions. What stage should a YA writer be in to benefit most from your classes? Specifically, who is your ideal attendee for these sessions?

CD: What’s fun about my intensive is that it’s for all levels of writers, because we’re talking more about the human side of us vs. the nitty-gritty of craft. And that has a lot to do with finding your voice, figuring out what you believe and what you want to include on the page and what you don’t. I think new writers will benefit from it if they are worried about what to write, and I think seasoned writers will benefit from it if they’re wanting to push themselves a little out of their comfort zone.

MWW: Do you have any advice or general thought for those who want to break into YA?

CD: Write more, read more, listen to people’s stories, have a rich and full life, make friends with other writers, stay out of Twitter drama, fail boldly, repeat.

MWW: In trying to get to know you a bit better, what is a surprising or unique aspect of who you are, either personal- or business-wise, something that would serve as an icebreaker if we were to meet?

CD: I’m made up of many flavors. I do roller derby, and work with rape survivors, and edit erotic romance, and teach Sunday school, and am ragingly awkward and inappropriate in social situations. I’ve had a hundred jobs and am incredibly forgiving of people’s screw-ups because I mess up so frequently in my life. I do a podcast about sex and YA books with my friend Carrie Mesrobian, and the two of us have such strong Midwestern accents when we talk to each other that it sounds like a dirty girl version of “Prairie Home Companion.”

MWW: Would you like to add anything else?  Please let us know some places to connect online. Twitter handle? FB address? Website? Other?

Website: www.christadesir.com

Twitter: @ChristaDesir

FB: https://www.facebook.com/ChristaDesirAuthor

Gail Werner on conferences & facing down fears

Gail Werner first came to MWW in 2013 as a reporter covering our 40th anniversary. A few months later she started working on her first novel. That happens to people who come into contact with our community of passionate writers.

Soon after we subjected Gail to our grueling obstacle course–like those ones in the Kung Fu movies–she survived and is now on the committee.

Today on her blog Gail writes about her experiences at MWW as an attendee, writer, and committee member–Writers’ Conferences & Facing Down Fears.

Here’s an excerpt:

I gained SO much wisdom: how to gracefully handle rejection, how to improve my pitching techniques, how to market myself as a writer and, most importantly, how to run at a full sprint off the dock known as my comfort zone. That’s the beauty of writers’ conferences: Big or small, they help writers stare down fears that crop up so easily, especially in such a solitary profession.

Read Gail’s post. If you’re inspired by it and want to attend MWW sign up now. There are barely any spots left.

Marketing yourself

Marketing yourself 

— by Kelly O’Dell Stanley

Marketing is about communicating the value of a product of service. As a writer, you have the job of promoting yourself—and it is never too early to start. With MWW15 only six weeks away, this is the perfect time to start moving.

The first step is thinking about how to position yourself. What do you want people to know about you? What genre(s) do you write? Do you want to promote a specific book or topic or blog or do you want to simply be known as a writer?

I’m going to pause here for a second. If you have trouble calling yourself a writer—something nearly every one of us has struggled with at some point—practice now. A writer is, simply, one who writes. You are not an imposter, even if you’ve never had a word published. Even if you are just starting out. If it makes you feel better, save the term “author” for when your work has been published. But you are on your way to a writing workshop, so you’re investing your time and money, which tells me writing is important to you. Calling yourself a writer is the fastest way to make yourself — and then others — truly believe it.

But don’t stop there. Think of yourself as a brand, like Target or Nike or Starbucks. When I mentioned those names, I bet you pictured their logos. If you see big red dots on a white background, you’re ready to shop. See a swoosh on a shoe or t-shirt and you just do it. See a round green symbol and instantly crave caffeine.

One reason these brands are so recognizable is because they’ve presented themselves in a consistent way. They’ve used colors, icons, fonts, and a certain style of images to show who they are. And we remember. Granted, you and I don’t have the same kind of budgets, and our product may not be as desirable to the general public. But especially when you’re starting to build your own brand, when you’re seeking name recognition, consistency is the key.

A great place to start building your brand is with a business card.

You don’t have to spend big money. You can print cards at home, but usually those aren’t the same quality as the ones printed professionally. I’m a graphic designer, so I design my own cards, but I print them through online printing companies* because they’re fast, high quality, and inexpensive. (Seriously—you can get 250 full color, professionally printed cards for as little as $15.)

But even if you aren’t (or don’t know) a designer, you can work with the templates online to put together a professional-looking image. Some offer folded cards, rounded corners, two-sided printing, unusual sizes, multiple images on the backs, or even printing on plastic. Take advantage of whatever size or effect makes sense for what you write. And make sure to include all relevant contact info (phone, email, website, blog, social media handles).

Please plan to bring plenty of cards with you in July. There will be around 235 attendees this year—plus authors, agents, editors, committee members, and interns. That’s a lot of people who care about writing. Make it your goal to hand out 100 cards. (Or 250!) We’ll also have a resource table on which you can leave your info for others. It’s not about finding people who can do something for your career. It’s about building relationships, making friends—and letting the magic inherent in these connections work for you.

I’ve attended MWW eight times and met some truly amazing people. I’ve connected with successful writers who have been willing to share their tips with me. Editors who asked me to submit articles. People who have invited me to write guest blogs. But the most valuable thing of all, the reason I recommend this conference far and wide, is this: MWW is where I found a group of close friends who are my biggest cheerleaders, valuable sources of information about this industry, knowledgeable critique partners—and my inspiration. This is where I found community. And it came because I wasn’t afraid to hand out a card, or two, or a hundred—because I genuinely liked the people I met and I wanted to be able to find them again once we left.

MWW will be here before you know it, so give yourself permission to get started. I have a giant stack of business cards sitting here—and I can’t wait to trade for one of yours.

A few of my favorite printing sources:



Q&A with D.E. Johnson


Johnson DEAlthough D.E. “Dan” Johnson always wanted to write, for the first half of his life, he chose practicality over passion.

After a long, successful career in the audio-video retail business, he sold his Grand Rapids, Michigan-based company in 2006. He took a couple years off to get back to the dream and use the time to hone his writing skills. As it turned out, it was time well spent.

In 2008, Dan met veteran P.I. novelist Loren Estleman, who agreed to read some of Dan’s work. Dan sent him the first three chapters of his novel in progress, The Detroit Electric Scheme, a historical mystery set in 1910 Detroit. To Dan’s delight, Estleman praised the work, comparing it to Les Miserables. The book found a publisher (St. Martin’s Minotaur Books) and hit the bookstores in September 2010. The Detroit Electric Scheme was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Crime Novels of the Year and won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award.

Dan followed up with three more books in the series — Motor City Shakedown, named one of the Top 5 Crime Novels of 2011 by the House of Crime and Mystery, called “extraordinarily vivid” by The New York Times, and won a 2012 Michigan Notable Book Award; Detroit Breakdown, placed on the best crime novels’ list for 2012 by multiple publications; and Detroit Shuffle, which earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews in 2013.

A 2009 Midwest Writers Workshop Fellow, Dan calls MWW’s summer workshop one of the best conferences in the country and certainly the best value.” He is joining MWW’s 2015 faculty, teaching an all-day Thursday intensive session, “Writing the Crime Novel,” an hour-long Friday afternoon session, “Settings You Can’t Escape”; a Saturday morning buttonhole, “Characters You Can’t Forget”; and a Saturday afternoon session, “The Hows and Whys of POV.”

Dan and his wife, Shelly, make their home near Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he grew up. We thank Dan for speaking with MWW Planning Committee member Janis Thornton earlier this week about his writing and his journey as an author. The result, a Q&A with Dan, follows.

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MWW: When we first met at the MWW fellows’ retreat in the spring of 2009, you didn’t yet know it, but you were on the brink of landing your first publishing contract, resulting in your highly successful The Detroit Electric Scheme, which came out the very next year. What did that achievement do for your confidence as a writer, your passion for writing, and your writing itself?

DEJ: It was very affirming to get my first book deal and a thrill beyond description to see the manuscript in hardcover. My confidence really jumped, which let me give myself permission to take more chances in the subsequent books. As far as passion, I had pretty well maxed that out already. After denying myself writing most of my adult life, I dove in with both feet in true compulsive fashion.

MWW: Now, four books later, what has been your biggest writing-related surprise? And what has been the most satisfying aspect of becoming a published novelist?

DEJ: I’d say the biggest surprises have been the affirmations by critics. My books have gotten three starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, and one each from Booklist, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. I’ve also won two Michigan Notable Book Awards, which I didn’t even know existed until my publisher submitted my first book. I was just hoping to get a book out there in the world, so it’s been really gratifying to have a good reception for four of them so far.

The most satisfying aspect, without a doubt, is reader email. Two kinds in particular: my fave is the “You kept me up all night” email, because that tells me I did my job, and also emails from readers who feel like my book has connected them to some aspect of their past, usually an ancestor who lived in Detroit during the time period. Just the fact that people feel compelled to share something about their reading experience with me is amazing.

MWW: Please tell us a bit about your writing process. For example, do you write until you reach a daily word goal, a certain number of pages, or a particular stretch of time? Do you plot your story in advance, or do you let the story reveal itself as you progress?

DEJ: My process is to write every opportunity I get. I’ve seen quotes from many writers along the lines of, “I get inspired by putting my butt in my seat.” Since I also work a “real” job, I can’t wait for my muse to call. I write early in the morning and most weekends — all weekend — until I’m done. On occasion, I’ll give myself a word count goal, but usually I slog along until I’m finished.

I plot in advance but give myself permission to change anything and everything. Two of my books even have different antagonists than I expected when I started. A mystery plot has to follow a pretty specific convention, and I find it much easier to have a plan.

MWW: Where are you in your Detroit series? Now four books into it, you’ve taken your readers from 1910 to 1912. How far into your character s’ future will you keep the series going? Is there a new series brewing, and if there is, what is it?

DEJ: I’m giving Will, Elizabeth, and company a well-deserved rest. They need to heal their bumps, bruises, cuts, gunshot wounds, radiation burns, etc., before I punish them further. I’m currently working on two different Chicago-based series, one in the gambling world of the early 1900s, and the other in a grimmer reality after the Great Fire. Both still need work, so I’m not sure which will surface first.

MWW: What is the ratio of time you spend conducting research vs. time you are writing? What is the primary source for your research? When you are writing, how do you make that mental shift from 2015 to 1912?

DEJ: When I was working on plotting The Detroit Electric Scheme, I spent three months full-time on research. I’ve been able to use that material throughout the series, and I’d guess I probably spent another four weeks in research out of the year, give or take, it took me the write each book. There are a lot of good sources for researching the time period, none better than the archives of the Detroit News and Free Press.

As far as “thinking 1912,” I give myself a running start. Before I go to bed, I read the section I just wrote to put me in the proper frame of mind for the next morning. I’ll usually read it again just before I start writing.

MWW: What advice do you have for writers in their mid-life years, and beyond, who dream of being a published author but are still looking for that first book deal?

DEJ: Don’t give up! Perseverance is the most important trait for a writer to be published. Hundreds of famous authors were rejected dozens or hundreds of times before they made it. However, you also need to be realistic about your project. Even though you’re in love with your post-Apocalyptic YA novel, chances are agents are not going to be these days. Look for your next idea, sit your butt down, and get to work.

MWW: You are booked for a Thursday intensive session, “Writing the Crime Novel.” What would you like your participants to know in advance about you and the material you’ll be teaching? What’s the best way for them to prepare for the class? And what is the most helpful writing advice you plan to pass on to them?

DEJ: First of all, we’ll have fun. The class will be part lecture and part workshop, with a lot of interaction. I’ll be touching on all the important aspects of writing thrillers, mysteries and crime novels, from characters and setting to plotting and writing violence that kicks the reader in the gut. My topic is so big I don’t know that I can single out any one piece of advice I think is most important. My goal is to give the writers a blueprint for writing the best book they can. If the attendees have works in progress, that’s great, but the only prep necessary is to drink lots of coffee beforehand and be ready to go!

MWW: Thank you, Dan! We look forward to seeing you in July.

Q&A with Martha Brockenbrough

marthabrockenbroughMartha Brockenbrough (rhymes with broken toe) is the author of two books for adults and five books for young readers. She’s the founder of National Grammar Day (every March 4), and she’s written game questions for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit. The former editor of MSN.com, Martha has interviewed lots of celebrities, including the Jonas Brothers and Slash (his favorite dinosaur is the diplodocus). Her work has been published in a variety of places, including The New York Times. She also wrote an educational humor column for the online encyclopedia Encarta for nine years. Her debut novel Devine Intervention, was one of Kirkus Reviews Top 100 books for teens in 2012, and was a Kansas State Reading Circle selection. Her books include the middle grade nonfiction opus Finding Bigfoot, and a picture book called The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy. Her YA novel The Game of Love and Death was released April 2015 by Scholastic. Martha has taught writing for children at the University of Washington continuing education program and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle with her family.

An  L.A Times reviewer said about Devine Intervention: “It is a pleasure to read a writer who so delights in language, and who writes so captivatingly in a teen voice with such imaginative description.”

Kirkus reviews: “The rules governing Jerome’s afterlife lead to frequently hysterical prose…. Beneath the snark, though, runs a current of devastatingly honest writing that surprises with its occasional beauty and hits home with the keenness of its insight.”

And Booklist gave a starred review for The Game of Love, released in April. “This original novel is a thoughtful exploration of courage, love, and the price we pay to live.”

MWW committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed Martha for our E-pistle e-newletter issue.

MWW: Please tell us something about your background, how you became a novelist, and perhaps enlighten us on what an “educational humor column” is.

MB: I was one of five kids, and always sort of the odd one out. My brothers and sisters were matched pairs, and I spent a lot of my time putting my cat in baby clothes and carrying him around in a basket, and when he’d had enough of the indignity, I’d read. I loved reading, and once I realized that there were new books being written by people who were not yet dead, I began to consider it seriously as a career. I was 8 at the time, though, and didn’t know where to start. I read voraciously, though, and often reread the same books until I’d memorized passages and their page numbers. Little did I know I was teaching myself how to put together pleasing sentences and paragraphs (plot and structure came later for me and were harder to achieve). I had a number of other careers before becoming a writer: teacher, journalist, web producer, game question writer. The educational humor column, which I wrote for the online encyclopedia Encarta, was my first regular freelance job. It was so much fun–I could write about anything that interested me, and my goal was to interest readers enough to pursue more information on the subject. I wrote about bigfoot, grammar, secret societies, the influence of names, happiness … a lot of what I learned doing that column for nine years still informs my writing and my life. I also believe that writers of fiction would benefit greatly by reading a lot of nonfiction. The more of the world we can draw into our stories, the richer they will be.

MWW: You have received glowing reviews of your work that many of us would dream of getting. Does such acclaim influence your writing? If so, how?

MB: The thing with reviews is that they come after your work is done and after you have spent a lot of time with your agent, your brilliant editor, his team of assistants and copy editors and proof readers, the book designers and illustrators and marketers and sales people….

All of these things shape reviews, particularly the hands-on work of your editor, which is why I am fortunate to work with one of the masters. Great reviews tend to come when everyone on the team has pulled out all of the stops. That said, not every book is for every reader, and there is a lot of luck that comes into it. Did your book fall into the hands of someone who was ready for it at that time? That matters, too. What I’m saying here is that reviews are about a lot of things and not just your work, and you can’t let them take up too much space in your head.

The better thing, I think, is to develop your own sense of excellence in storytelling.

This is a combination of many things: character, setting, plot, theme, language, inventiveness … Make each of those as strong as you can. Make each story as big and beautiful as it can be. Challenge yourself. Persist. Take time. Of equal importance is understanding your own strengths and the unique aspects of your voice and point of view as an artist. The more deeply you can go into your own well, the more humanity will flow on the page.

The process really is everything. It can take many years to write a book. My own books each contain fragments of my life reinterpreted through fiction. There are moments from many years ago whose meaning I come to understand when struggling with a story. I like that. I’m also glad to work hard, to hone my patience and persistence, to practice being kind to myself and my fellow writers, and to cultivate the optimism and faith that the discipline will pay off. I think these are good qualities to have as a person, and I really appreciate becoming a better human being through my work (or at least trying to).

Writers can illuminate the human condition. We can alleviate suffering. We can be company to the lonely. It’s a good way to spend a life, and these hours of striving and giving are the thing that matter–not the reviews, although I will forever appreciate my good ones and understand my less-than-great ones, and be grateful for the way they help readers find books.

MWW: It seems to be a good time to be a YA author, since many agents seem to be acquiring it. On the flip side, the competition is fierce. What would you say is the top one, or three mistakes, people make with the genre?

MB: The competition is fierce and this is a good thing for books and readers. If your book isn’t better than what’s on the shelves, it shouldn’t be published. That sounds harsh, yes. But I think that’s the view that pushes the category in new and deep directions. Middle grade is actually a bit more in demand these days–the YA market is saturated because books in this category have been such an immense force in pop culture for the last decade or so.

When I think about books and writing, though, I don’t really think there are category-specific mistakes as much as there are writing mistakes in general.

First, while books for young readers are intended to a young audience, they can and are often enjoyed just as much by adult readers. Why? Because the books are about being young. A picture book like Where the Wild Things Are is about the experience of rage and returning to safe emotional harbors. It works for very young children but it also resonates for adults, almost all of whom will have had that emotional experience and can take pleasure or satisfaction of find catharsis in reading about it.

So, the first mistake might be to think you are writing /for/ someone rather than /about/ being human. Yes, books are for people. But they become so because they contain something meaningful within them. If you think it is somehow easier to write books for children, well, that would be a mistake.

If you are writing for children because “there are no good books for children,” that is also a mistake that reveals either you are not widely read, or you are not yet sophisticated enough as a reader to understand why what you have read is excellent (and it goes without saying that you are not reading books that you buy in non-bookstores that are packaged with stickers and glitter, because those are generally book-like objects and not books). I’m not saying that all books in these categories are universally excellent, but there is so much tremendous literature being written today that you could read a book every day for years and have your mind and heart fairly blown.

Another general mistake that writers make is to rush the work. Don’t send out first drafts or second. Don’t query or pitch agents if you haven’t a fully polished piece to send. Don’t self-publish it because you received a few rejections (self publish because you love marketing and want to do that work on your own).

I wrestle with this impulse myself and understand it completely. It comes from doubt and wanting to be reassured that our work is good enough. What you need to do is act as though you ARE good enough. Because you have the potential to be when you do all of the work that is required.

Your task is to go through these steps, again and again. Develop your characters. Know not just what the story is about on its surface, but what it says about the human condition. Write the book. Put it aside for awhile knowing that it will get better as your skills get better. Read other books. Take classes. Talk with other writers. Most of all, though, do the work.  

The writing, the thinking, the wrestling, the deleting, the reading out loud, the loving that this work takes. It’s not a race, and in the end, the most important source of approval and encouragement is your own self. So start giving yourself that kind of attention now, and let all of the useless worry go.

MWW: Your intensive session is divided into sections, from getting the first 500 words right, to querying. What stage should a writer be in to benefit most from your class? Specifically, who is your ideal attendee for this session?

MB: I have written nonfiction for adults and middle grade readers, picture books, and young adult novels. I am a writer’s writer and love all forms of writing and reading. The first 500 words of ANY book (or the entirety of a picture book) absolutely must sing in order to catch the attention of an agent. What you will learn in working on your first 500 words is stuff you can apply to the rest of your project. Having a great opening is necessary, but having a great book as a whole is necessary to all of the rest of the steps of the publishing process.

You can get a lot of excitement and momentum from your opening, but you can never be certain you have the write one until you also have the ending of your book written. The opening is a promise that the ending pays off. Ideally, people will have that first draft and can get a charge for revising with the things we’ll be talking about with openings. But it’s not necessary. With writing, you’ll learn what you are ready to learn when you hear it. And who really knows when that is? That’s part of the magic of taking classes and attending conferences. You’re sticking your shovel in the soil, and the gems appear as if by magic–but it’s really because you’ve readied yourself to receive them.

Querying an agent (my bias is that you do this and not an editor) is an important part of the process. But you don’t have to be at that stage to benefit from knowing how to query.

A query will be a sort of bouillon cube of your story: a condensed version of it that conveys its potential and essential flavors. We don’t always know this about our stories when we are drafting them, but it sure helps when we do. You can choose your images and details with more certainty when you know what you’re about.

Again, I am into the fundamentals: the language, the human elements. We build up from here until we have a hook crafted. You can do it the other way–start with a hook and hang things on it. But I think in general what I say will have more appeal to people who are interested in a classic, literary approach. I’d rather a novel that is deep and enduring than one with a great hook and not much beyond that.

MWW: Given that you seem to have had numerous types of work in publishing, do you have any advice for those want to make a career in the writing field, in addition to novel writing?

MB: People will always need good writing. Unfortunately, many people confuse the ability to type with the ability to write. We are also in an era where otherwise sane people have bought into the “writing for exposure” economy. I like to remind people that exposure is another word for freezing to death or illegally flashing your naughty bits. One leads to the grave and the other to jail. Neither should be a life goal.

Study it and get good. Many people are intimidated by grammar or profess its unimportance. You don’t hear a lot of professional athletes whining about how hard the rules of the game are. If you want to play with the best, learn the rules. Then go ahead and break them with purpose and style (more Michael Jordan than Tom Brady). Likewise, know books. Spend time in bookstores and libraries and read what is being published today in addition to what has endured. Most writers are readers, and the ones who aren’t make me scratch my head a bit.

Second, value the craft. This means charge a living wage for it. Everyone who works for free or for inappropriately low wages makes it harder for the rest of us.

Third, create your own opportunities. If you have a day job, find a way to make writing part of that job. Companies have blogs and twitter accounts and tumblrs and all of the rest; if you can make doing that something that helps earn your paycheck, you’re on your way.

MWW:  In trying to get to know you a bit better, what is a surprising or unique aspect of who you are, either personal- or business-wise, something that would serve as an icebreaker if we were to meet?

MB: Know this! I am not judging your grammar. Yes, I did found National Grammar Day, but that was for fun and for the high school students I was teaching at the time, and unless you have specifically asked me to look at the grammar of something and are paying me to do so, that part of my brain is turned off and I am focused on getting to know you-where you’re from, what you love to read, whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, whether you prefer Twizzlers* or Red Vines, and whether you would take a one-way trip to Mars if you were offered the chance. There is so much we have to talk about! And I can’t wait to meet you.

* The Devil

MWW: Would you like to add anything else?  Please let us know some places to connect online. Twitter handle? FB address? Website? Other?

MB: http://twitter.com/mbrockenbrough




An interview with Agent Alec Shane

Committee member Summer Heacock bring us this interview with agent Alec Shane, who will be one of the 6 agents at our conference this summer. Only 30 spots left! Register now!. This post first appeared on Summer’s blog Fizzygrrl.

Hello my darlings!

Today I bring you a chat with Alec Shane, awesome person and literary agent with Writer’s House.


1. Let’s start with the basics: How long have you been an agent, and what made you dive into this wacky business in the first place?

I originally moved to New York to get into finance, actually; I was familiar with that world and didn’t have any other bright ideas at the moment, so I figured I’d give it a shot. But I arrived at my apartment in Brooklyn in June of 2008, which is – almost to the exact month – when the economy collapsed and a lot of the big hedge funds went under. Knowing that what few financial institutions left weren’t hiring (and probably wouldn’t see “former stuntman with very little experience” as a huge selling point if they were), I decided to see if I could get a job doing something I loved instead. And two of the things I love most are sports and books. Since NYC has a big presence in both arenas, I started applying for both sports and book jobs. I didn’t really even know what agenting was, and I had never even heard of Writers House; I just called them because I stumbled onto the website and thought it was a pretty building. Luckily for me, Writers House was in the process of hiring interns right around the time I first reached out, and the rest is history. I started as Jodi Reamer’s assistant in 2009, and have been building my own list since 2012.

2. Because inquiring minds always want to know, what genres do you rep?

Mystery, thriller, horror, historical fiction, literary fiction, biography, military history, humor, sports, “guy” reads, and any type of nonfiction about an event/person that most people don’t know about, but should. I do a little bit of memoir, but not much. I’m also very passionate about helping young boys reading, as they are falling behind girls in almost every category, so books geared towards younger male readers are very much on my want list – more specifically, an MG adventure or ghost story. I’m not the best fit for romance, YA featuring angsty teens with first world problems, straight fantasy or sci-fi, self-help, and women’s fiction.

3. What type of story do you pray to the literary gods will land on your desk?

I think that horror is long overdue for a comeback, and so I’d love to find the author who can vault the genre back into the spotlight where it belongs. Most of the horror I get reads like an 80s slasher movie – which is fine, but that’s not what’s going to take things to the next level. I’d also love to find a great children’s adventure series and the next Roald Dahl. More immediately, WWII is something I’d love to learn more about – more specifically, an account of the US soldiers imprisoned at Berga towards the end of the war. We’re at the point where veterans of WWII are in their 80s and 90s, and thus won’t be with us much longer. We naturally lose our personal connections to a war when there are no living veterans who fought in it, so now is a great time to preserve that piece of history and ensure that the stories of that war never die.

And if I’m praying to the literary gods, I may as well ask them to put in a good word for me that Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfus, Tom Hanks, and Christopher Walken will all look my way when they decide to publish their memoirs.

4. I’ve heard that before leaping into the literary world, you spent time in Hollywood as a martial arts coach and a professional stunt man, among other things. Which I think makes you the most badass person I’ve ever interviewed, just FYI. Tell us a story. Did you ever jump out of a moving car? Off a burning building? I’m intrigued.

Most of the stunt work I did was of the fight choreography/getting beat up by the good guy variety, so I don’t have too many crazy stories about getting set on fire of fighting a lion to share, unfortunately. I did get thrown out of a breakaway glass window once; it was 20 floors up in the movie, but in reality I fell maybe 3 feet onto a nice, cushy mat. I also got thrown down a flight of stairs once – that wasn’t fun. Both of those scenes ended up getting cut from the movie as well, making the whole effort fruitless. But probably my most enjoyable stint doing stunts was for a movie I was in called (I’m sure you’ve heard of it) Half Past Dead Part 2, in which a prison riot broke out and the guards had to come in to try and stop it. Needless to say, the convicts end up winning the day. I played one of the guards, and it was a blast – and a little surreal – to be right in the middle of an organized, well-run, safe, planned prison riot. Everyone is standing still, the director yells “action!”, everyone starts beating each other up, the director yells “cut!” and everyone just stops. By the end of shooting that scene we all pretty much abandoned all of the choreography and just started fighting each other in earnest for as long as they’d let us. It was great.

5. What is your very favorite part of agenting? And for the sake of balance, what makes you want to cry sad agenty tears?

Hands down my favorite part of agenting is finding a new manuscript in the slush pile that just blows me away. It happens so rarely, and you have to sift through so much stuff that isn’t quite right for you in order to get there, that when it does happen it’s just an amazing feeling. Equally as amazing is calling that author whose book you found in the slush pile to let him/her know that the book s/he wrote just got picked up by a publisher.  For the most part, working with authors is a wonderful experience, and this business exposes me to some of the coolest, weirdest, nicest, craziest, most genuine people on the planet. I’ll always be grateful for that.

As for my least favorite part of the job…it’s extremely hard to read for pleasure, which is really sad. I always have at least 1,000 pages of work reading to do at any point, and so it makes it hard to sit down and just read for the hell of it – and even when I do find a few free hours to read a book I’ve been looking to check out, I find myself editing it or reading it with my agent hat on. When you read books for a living, it kind of changes the way you read books for enjoyment.

But I feel like this question is posed in order to give authors some tips for what not to do when reaching out to an agent. In that case, I’ll say that I can’t stress enough how far a personalized query letter will go towards getting your stuff read. If I get a query in which the author clearly just cut and pasted the same letter, changed the names, and blasted it out to every agent whose email address is available online, that query immediately has a stigma attached to it. But if I get something even as simple as “when researching agents online, I was happy to see that you are currently looking for thrillers, as I have a thriller that might be right up your alley,” that immediately tells me that whoever sent me this manuscript sent it to me for a reason. That’s huge.

6. Tell us something you’re working on right now that’s giving you excited feels?

I have a few projects in the works that I’m excited about – one is a thriller about an expert linguist, kicked out of the FBI, who has to solve a plot based on a random bit of Arabic spray-painted onto the wall of her apartment. I also have a mystery about a former Olympic swimmer-turned PI who delves into the seedy underbelly of Olympic sports in order to find a missing girl. I’m also getting ready to go out with a book about my beloved New England Patriots, aka THE SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS. So there are a few irons in the fire at the moment.

7. You will be coming to the Midwest Writers Workshop this summer as faculty! For those on the fence about attending, woo them with some details on what you’ll be offering up in your panels/sessions/critiques.

Oh jeez, wooing people has never been my strong suit. But I will say this: I love attending these conferences, interacting with writers, and meeting my fellow publishing professionals. Authors should always – always always always – feel free to approach me at any time throughout the weekend to ask questions they might have, pitch their book, or to just say hello. I consider myself a pretty straight shooter, and I’d like to think that authors find that helpful when attending one of my panels or sitting down to a critique session with me; if you want to hear about how perfect your manuscript is, give it to your mom or grandma. But if you’re genuinely looking to improve as a writer, to hone your craft, and get the kind of feedback that will help take your work to the next level, come see me. It’s always friendly, and I always keep it positive, but if something isn’t working, I’ll definitely let you know – and if at all possible, I’ll work with you on some ways to fix it as well. I’d like to think that authors who sign up for a critique session with me will walk away from the experience excited about the new direction they can take their book, and as far as I know I haven’t left anyone crying.


8. As is customary on my blog, it is here I request an embarrassing or hilarious moment. Bonus points if industry related.

I made the very egregious error, during my first time ever at BEA (the Book Expo of America), of accidentally walking through the Harlequin booth during a rather busy period of romance author signings. By the time I realized where I was and what was happening, it was too late.  If I was remotely as popular with girls my own age as I am with middle-aged women who love romance novels, I’d never find myself at the singles table at weddings ever again.

Fizzy here again! 

My favorite part of this is that he ended up with one of the absolute best lit agencies in all the land because he thought they had a pretty building. If that’s not kismet, I don’t know what freaking is.

Also, I’ve been to that Harlequin booth. The man is lucky he made it out with his life.

And that’s Alec, my dears!

Follow him on Twitter HERE.

Or check out Writer’s House HERE.

OR! Even better, come see the sir in person this July at the Midwest Writers Workshop. A good time will be had by all.

Q&A with Julie Hyzy

MWW is delighted that popular, award-winning mystery author Julie Hyzy is returning to this year’s conference. Julie was last a featured MWW faculty member in 2012.

HyzyShe is a New York Times bestselling mystery author and winner of the Anthony, Barry, and Derringer awards. An incredibly busy writer, Julie produces a book a year for two cozy-mystery series — the White House Chef (featuring Olivia Paras) and Manor House (featuring Grace Wheaton) — both for Berkley Prime Crime.

During this year’s Part I, Thursday intensive sessions, Julie will share what she’s learned as a novelist. Her workshop is, “Your Novel and How to Write It.” Her Part II sessions are “The Voices in Your Head” on Friday afternoon and “Friends Indeed” on Saturday morning.

Julie makes her home with her family in Chicago. Visit www.juliehyzy.com for more information about her books.

This week, MWW committee member Janis Thornton caught up with Julie for a Q&A.

*  *  *

 MWW: What led you … or perhaps you were driven … to write cozy mysteries? When did you know you had found your niche?

 JH: Believe it or not, I never set out to write cozy mysteries. Although my first novel was a light romantic suspense, my next two (the start of my Alex St. James series) were a little edgier and my short stories have always been dark. But back in about 2006 or so, Marty Greenberg (then head of Tekno Books — now, sadly, deceased), asked me if I had any interest in writing a series involving the first female White House executive chef. Of course I was interested! Oddly enough, until he shared a couple of titles his team had dreamed up for the books, I didn’t know they were expecting a cozy. That definitely changed my approach.

Since then, I’ve come to embrace the genre and I truly enjoy writing Ollie’s adventures. In fact, I had so much fun with them that I created a series of my own with Grace and the Manor House gang. I do, however, hope to return to my darker roots (and I’m not talking about my hair <grin>) one of these days.

MWW: As you’re preparing to start a new book project, how much of the story do you plan, such as outlining, and how much of it is simply organic?

JH: I always have a plan of attack, but it’s never set in stone. I outline, but the actual method changes from book to book as I explore new techniques and adopt new habits. When I begin a new manuscript, I generally have most, if not all, of the key scenes jotted down. That said, if an unplanned character shows up and says “You need me,” or my protagonist tells me that she’d prefer to follow a different path, I listen. The final manuscript rarely matches the original outline.

MWW: One of the difficulties with writing a series is keeping the characters, situations, and mysteries from getting stale. You clearly don’t have that problem… so what advice do you give authors looking for ways to keep their series fresh?

JH: That’s so nice of you to say. Thank you! I have to give Ollie and Grace the credit here. They lead interesting lives and I simply follow along and write it down. That sounds like a non-answer, doesn’t it? But it’s the truth. I try very hard not to get in my characters’ way when I’m writing. I place them where they need to be, but then I let them take over. They constantly surprise me with ideas and actions I could never have imagined on my own.

MWW: Your stories are also realistic. For example, you obviously have spent a great deal of time in the White House kitchen <smile>. But seriously, how do approach the research for your books so the settings and situations seem so real?

JH: Again, thank you! I research like crazy. I read everything I can about the White House so that I can portray life there as realistically as possible. (Within reason, that is. In real life, they’re WAY more detailed than my characters are. But that could get boring for readers, so I pare it down.) When I’m writing for Grace, I refer back to photos and books I’ve collected from mansion-tourist museums in the U.S. Plus, I visit as many key locations as possible — as often as I can. In fact, I’m traveling to Quebec City later this year because I have some scenes in mind I’d like to set there (for an entirely new story). Although there’s a lot of information online about locations, there’s no substitute for actually visiting a place in person. How else to experience the sounds, the smells, the people?

MWW: What do you enjoy most about being a full-time writer? And what about it, if anything, continues to challenge you?

JH: I love the fact that I can make a living (albeit a small one) following my passion. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and I really feel as though I’m living the dream. I enjoy being my own boss and setting my own schedule. Hilariously, that’s also what I struggle with most. Hitting deadlines on time, every time, takes discipline; and while I’m usually pretty good at sitting my butt in the chair and keeping my fingers on the keyboard, I’m also very easily distracted. Our youngest daughter, Biz, and I enjoy watching BBC dramas while we drink tea. Using our tea time together as a carrot (er, in this case, crumpet) often gets me to complete my daily word count.

MWW: What project are you working on currently?

JH: I’m writing the seventh book in my Grace (Manor House) series right now. The sixth book (Grace Cries Uncle) saw some major changes in Grace’s life so I’m using this one to kind of re-settle things before her world gets upended again in Book #8. I’m also jotting notes for something altogether new.

MWW: You are teaching a Part I intensive session called, “Your Novel and How to Write It.” What’s the best way for your participants to prepare for your class, and what is the best new writing tip you want them to take home?

JH: The best thing a participant can do is simple: be prepared for a fresh approach. I was impressed with the level of professionalism at MWW when I was there in 2012. These writers aren’t looking for someone to parrot old rules like “Write what you know,” or “Avoid talking heads.” They’ve been there, done that. We’ll definitely cover some basics (it’s impossible not to) but I hope to encourage these writers to dig deeper. No one has all the answers, of course, but I’m eager to share what’s worked for me.

MWW: Thank you, Julie!


Janis Thornton on her first novel: Dust Bunnies and Dead Bodies

We’ve been putting on our conference for 40+ years (only 30 spots left for July’s conference). We believe that part of our recipe for success is that we’re a conference for writers put on by writers.  The planning committee is a team of  volunteers and we choose to give back because the conference has given so much to us. We’re all on our own writing journeys, alone and together. Committee member Maye Ralston interviewed fellow committee member Janis Thornton about her latest book and her journey. janis book cover

Janis Thornton is a freelance writer, personal historian, and award-winning journalist. She is the author of two local history books, Images of America: Tipton County and Images of America: Frankfort. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Indiana Writers Center, Association of Personal Historians, and the Midwest Writers Workshop Planning Committee. She lives in a small town in Indiana, not unlike Elmwood—the setting in her debut novel Dust Bunnies and Dead Bodies.

MWW: Being a journalist and having written two nonfiction histories, why did you turn to writing fiction? Is this something you always wanted to do?

JT: Actually, Maye, I was writing fiction long before I landed my newspaper job or wrote two local history books. So, I’ve taken the liberty of flipping your question to … “After writing fiction, why did you turn to journalism?” And the simple answer is the joy of writing for me is the telling of stories, whether the stories are about news events, people’s lives, community histories, or fictional situations generated by my own imagination. Telling a great story, regardless of its origin, in a way that captivates and moves readers emotionally brings me more satisfaction than almost anything I do.

MWW: Where did you get the idea for Dust Bunnies and Dead Bodies? Do you have any plans to write a series using these characters or this setting?

JT: When I first began the project that finally became Dust Bunnies and Dead Bodies, I had only an inkling of a story about a 20-year-old unsolved murder, the three main characters, and the small-town Indiana setting. After I started plotting and cobbling an outline together, I needed a motive for murder that was both gripping and plausible. Around that time, the national news was being dominated by reports of abuse of power by a college football coach … and voila! There it was, the element I had been seeking for the crux of the mystery. Once I had all of that in place, the rest of the story sort of came together organically.

As for a series… yes, I am planning to produce more stories starring the DBDB characters and am noodling around right now with the plot for their next big adventure.

MWW: Are any of your characters inspired by personalities or places you’ve encountered?

JT: Absolutely. I guarantee that if you read the book, the next time you pass through my little hometown of Tipton, you’ll experience some déjà vou. And many of the characters exhibit traits of real people I know. Of course, when I’m asked to reveal the source of inspiration for those traits that happen to be less than admirable, I take the fifth.

MWW: I noticed your main character, Crystal Cropper, is also a journalist. Is she based on you? How is she alike or different from you?

JT: Crystal Cropper is me, and the fabulous person I would like to be. At times, Crystal exemplifies facets of my actual life experience; other times she portrays attitudes, actions, courage, wisdom, and skills that I lack or am too shy to exhibit. Naturally, having been a newspaper reporter, I was able to infuse Crystal with those skills (although hers are FAR better than my own) and perspectives. Besides her career, Crystal parallels my life in many other ways—such as her cooking competency and bowling techniques!

MWW: Did you “pants” this novel, or did you plot it out before you began writing? Which method do you generally prefer?

JT: Some writers feel that making an outline stilts their creativity; while I, on the other hand, find writing an outline a creative process in itself. For me, plotting is a must, particularly for a mystery, where it’s pretty much essential for the writer to know the ending from the very start. Initially, I’ll write an outline using broad strokes, crafting the story’s backbone and markers for where I need to be as the story progresses. Once I get deep into the actual writing (often a process of “write, delete, cry, repeat”), I stay on the lookout for the wonderful surprises that invariably pop up. When that happens, I make the necessary adjustments to the outline and plod on.

And then there’s that funny little mind shift, when the characters become “real” to the writer and attempt a mutiny. At that point, the writer’s challenge is to either keep her characters on the plotted path or follow them at her own peril. So, what I’m trying to say is, an outline works best when the writer considers it a dynamic path rather than a static rut.

MWW: What made you decide to become a writer?

JT: I was 12 when a national anthology featuring poetry by junior high students published the poem I wrote about my dog. After that, I was always writing little stories and poems, but primarily they were for my eyes only. That changed, in the late 1980s, when I signed up for my first fiction-writing class, and wow … a whole new world opened up to me. I began producing longer pieces with purpose as I learned techniques, what worked and what didn’t, all while I was getting feedback. I began to trust that if I could imagine a scene or a story, I could write it. It was an exciting discovery process that has never stopped.

MWW: Do you generally get the idea for your storylines first, or do you create a character first and then get a storyline from that?

JT: I see that as a sort of a “chicken or egg” riddle. Character and story are both essential, of course, and work in a sort of symbiotic way—with the characters driving plot and plot conjuring up characters. Typically, a story comes to me when I imagine a character in a particular situation. Then I start filling in who, what, where, when, why, how come, and so what?

MWW: What kind of books do you enjoy reading? Do you have any favorite authors?

JT: I am a big fan of mysteries and particularly mysteries by William Kent Krueger, Sue Grafton, and Michael Connelly. I also love anything written by Elizabeth Berg, who I discovered about 20 years ago and was thrilled to see at last summer’s MWW.

MWW: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

JT: Yep … I’ve been attending Midwest Writers Workshop events since the late ’90s, and they have been an invaluable resource for information, ideas, instruction, inspiration, and a sense of belonging to a community of writers. I’ll take this opportunity to thank Jama Bigger and her team again for the outstanding job they do organizing the workshops and for outdoing themselves each passing year. And thank you, Maye, for this opportunity to say so.

Award-winning Michael Shelden to teach Writing the Biography

For the FIRST TIME, Midwest Writers Workshop is offering a Part I intensive session on WRITING THE BIOGRAPHY.

So, who did we get to teach it? None other than the award-winning Dr. Michael Shelden! (Yes, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Biography.)

Shelden Michael 150x129In addition to teaching “Writing the Biography,” Michael will teach several sessions throughout the weekend of our July 23-25 workshop. Committee member Cathy Shouse caught up with Michael for a Q&A after he landed back home in Indiana from his six-city tour to Chicago, San Diego, New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, as a 2015 Drue Heinz Lecturer for the Royal Oak Foundation in affiliation with the National Trust of England.

While on tour, Michael lectured about his latest book,Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill,published by Simon &, Schuster, New York and London, 2013. (For more details about the tour, click here.)  This month he also gave a presentation, “Moments of Being: The New Art of Biography,” at the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue in West Lafayette.

Young Titan has garnered rave reviews from numerous sources:

“It’s all here–the boy wonder, adventurer, romantic, orator and eloquent man in the arena. I didn’t want it to end.” ~ Tom Brokaw on Michael Shelden’s book Young Titan.

“Entertaining and erudite . . .Shelden is full of sharp literary insights about Churchill, as one would expect from a biographer of his rank.” ~ The Wall Street Journal

If you want to improve your nonfiction skills, you should register for Michael’s intensive session! Here’s what he had to say about his upcoming presentations at Midwest Writers Workshop in July.

MWW:  Which book would you recommend attendees read to understand the techniques you’ll discuss in your intensive session? Or would all of them apply equally?

MS: Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and Mark Twain: Man in White (Random House, 2010)

MWW:  One of my favorite biographies is Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak. Do you have a favorite biography, or more than one, and what do you like about it?

MS: Hampton Sides, Hellhound on His Trail, is a suspenseful portrait of Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray in the period when the hate-filled assassin was stalking the great civil rights champion.

MWW:  Is there a common pitfall(s) you see when you read biographies and how will your session help to avoid those?

MS: The most common mistake in biographies is to follow chronology too closely. The writer must know when to skip over boring details for the sake of creating a streamlined narrative.

MWW:  Please provide some details about how your intensive will be structured. Will attendees be writing during the session?

MS: I will discuss how to find material for a good biographical narrative, how to structure it, and how to make it come to life with forceful writing. We can try a few experiments by writing short samples, but mostly I will try to highlight the effective methods I’ve learned over the years.

MWW:  If someone has not begun a biography and maybe doesn’t have a subject chosen, how will this session help (or should they have a subject already?) and would you rate your class as aiming toward a specific level of writer?

MS: I’m often asked how I choose the subjects for my biographies, and I will explain this process in the session, but it’s highly personal and can’t be applied to most writers. You don’t write a biography in the abstract. The subject has to come first, and it has to be one that engages the writer fully at every level. The nature of the subject will largely determine how the story will be told.

MWW:  Will some of the techniques you plan to discuss apply to fiction writers who are working on characters, or should attendees be strictly working with nonfiction?

MS: Biographers may use dialogue, setting, and story in much the same way that novelists do, but the main difference is that we can’t make stuff up. Most of what I will have to say will apply to writers of nonfiction.

MWW:  Are there some ways to prepare for your class?

MS: Read a good biography and think at every turn about how it was made.


Michael’s Part II sessions include the Thursday evening keynote, Finding Subjects for Nonfiction, and The Art of Research.