Writing essays is all about the process of discovery

Silas Hansen’s essays have appeared in Colorado Review, Slate, Catapult, The Normal School, Hobart, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. He is the nonfiction editor of Waxwing and directs the creative writing program at Ball State University.

MWW board member and publicity chair, Leah Lederman, has interviewed the faculty for MWW21. Today, meet essayist Silas Hansen who discusses his writing and what he will present at our virtual summer conference.

Silas’s MWW21 sessions:

  • “Embracing the Tangent: the Art of Meandering in Personal Essays”
  • Panel: “Pathway to Publication” Jessica Strawser, Chadwick Gillenwater, Pam Mandel, Silas Hansen Moderator: Angela Jackson-Brown

MWW: What are the most satisfying aspects of writing for you? Conversely, what are the most frustrating or difficult aspects of being a writer, and how do you cope with those issues? 

SH: I’ve described writing nonfiction before as putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box as a guide: I have all of the pieces, but I’m not sure how they fit together until I sit down and actually try placing each of the pieces side by side. I find this both immensely satisfying and incredibly frustrating—I love figuring out how two things work in juxtaposition (e.g., a scene from my childhood blended with research about something that was happening in the news at the time), but it can also be a long process of trial-and-error to get to that moment of realization.

It has helped me to remember that the process of getting there is the whole point of the essay. I also save the “errors” (the pieces that don’t fit) for future essays, which takes some of the pressure off: it never feels like wasted time, even if it ultimately doesn’t fit into the essay I’m working on at the moment.

MWW: What kind of research do you do for your writing, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book or an essay? 

SH: I can easily become obsessed with new ideas and concepts, so I have to be careful with my research: I can get so caught up in researching that I never actually put my own words on the page. Instead, I need specific questions to keep me focused. I often write first (often several thousand words, even for a single essay), then do the research once I know more about what I’m trying to say.

What kind of research I do depends on the essay. I often write essays about my own life and experiences, so my research tends to be more informal and personal. Recently, for example, I sorted through several boxes of family photos/scrapbooks from as far back as the 1890s and asked my 96-year-old grandmother about what I’d found. Sometimes research means asking friends and family about an experience that we had together so that I can compare our memories, or looking through my own yearbooks, photos, scrapbooks, etc.

MWW: What have you learned about revising over the course of your career as an author? 

SH: The most important thing I’ve learned about revision is to always save each version of the essay separately—clearly labeled—so I can go back to it. This gives me the freedom to take bigger risks. I know I can always go back to a previous version if my new weird idea doesn’t work. I’m a big fan of drastic revision: What would happen if I took this very straightforward essay and tried re-writing it as if it were a final exam? What if it was a letter? What would happen if I re-wrote the entire thing in second person?—so I’ll often have six or eight different versions of the same essay saved. Similarly, I never fully delete anything from an essay—if I’m cutting more than a few sentences, I save it into a separate Word document, as it might be the start of something else.

My advice is to give yourself permission to take big risks in revision and to figure out what you need to do to make taking those risks feel “safe.”

MWW: In To Show and To Tell, Phillip Lopate wrote “Good writers are always trying to write above their heads, to hit on understandings beyond their conscious knowledge, through fortuitous word choice.” Can you think of a time when your writing revealed something to you that you hadn’t clearly understood until you’d come to write about it? 

SH: This happens all of the time in my essays—it’s hard to think of a specific example! For me, writing essays is all about the process of discovery. I’m always starting with something that I’m uncertain about: maybe a question, maybe a memory that’s stuck in my head and I’m trying to figure out why, or maybe it’s an idea or a concept that I feel ambivalent toward. My essays are basically the travel log of where my mind went to figure it out. I’m often discovering something else—what the question means, why I’m asking it in the first place, what the answer might mean for me—along the way, even if I don’t ultimately find an answer.

MWW: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar?  

SH: Probably my cat: I do my best writing at night, am very productive in short bursts, and enjoy a nice afternoon nap.

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Silas!

All writers can benefit from studying poetry

Allison Joseph directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University. She is the author of many books and chapbooks of poetry, including Lexicon (Red Hen Press), Professional Happiness (Backbone Press), The Last Human Heart (Diode Editions), and Smart Pretender (Finishing Line Press). Her latest full-length book of poetry, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman, was published by Red Hen Press in 2018. It was chosen as the Gold/First Place Winner in the poetry category of the 2019 Feathered Quill Book Awards. She is the widow of the late poet and editor Jon Tribble, to whom Professional Happiness is dedicated.

Born in London, England to parents of Caribbean heritage, Allison Joseph grew up in Toronto, Canada, and the Bronx, New York. A graduate of Kenyon College and Indiana University, she serves as poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review, the publisher of No Chair Press, and the director of Writers In Common, a writing conference for writers of all ages and experience levels. In 2014, she was awarded a Doctor of Letters honorary degree from her undergraduate alma mater, Kenyon College.

MWW board member and publicity chair, Leah Lederman, has interviewed the faculty for MWW21. Today, meet post Allison Joseph who discusses her writing and what she will present at our virtual summer conference.

Allison’s MWW21 sessions:

  • “Beginnings and Endings: How Poets Can Sing At Both/Poetry as Meditative Practice”
  • Panel: “To Agent or Not to Agent” — Angela Jackson-Brown, Pam Mandel, Dirk Manning, Allison Joseph

MWW: What are your favorite literary journals?

AJCrab Orchard Review, of course—the magazine I helped to found with Jon Tribble, my beloved late husband. It’s been hard coming back from his death, but we are reading submissions again and looking forward to publishing new issues. Other than Crab Orchard, I have always been a fan of Ploughshares, the Southern Indiana Review, New Letters, and the Kenyon Review (Kenyon is my undergraduate alma mater).

MWW: What do you love most about poetry, and what do you find that it does a better job of doing than other modes of writing? Conversely, what things frustrate you about poetry?

AJ: I love that poetry can be handed down through the centuries—that it is supposed to survive the poet. I can pick up, as I did today, a book by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and find truths in his work that apply to my life now. What’s frustrating about poetry isn’t poetry itself but rather people’s attitudes toward it—indifference, or, sometimes, outright hatred. I can only guess that for some people poetry was something they dreaded in school. For me, it was something I adored whenever I had a chance to study it as a child.

MWW: In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg tells us “Forget yourself. Disappear into everything you look at—a street, a glass of water, a cornfield. Everything you feel, become totally that feeling, burn all of yourself with it.” Can you talk about a time you found yourself losing yourself in what you’re writing about? Is that a recommendable path, or do you prefer a certain sense of objectivity?

AJ: That has happened to me fairly recently, because I’ve been writing a lot of poems about loss and grief. The experience of turning grief into poetry, line by line and image by image, is an absorbing one. It’s a path that unfortunately happened to me. I’d much rather not be writing elegies. But elegies do take all your energy and do demand a lot of the poet, even as they provide catharsis.

MWW: What are your favorite takeaways from the sessions you’ll be teaching?

AJ: I’m of the mind that all writing has a bit of poetry in it. What can writers learn from poetry even if they don’t consider themselves poets?

The elements of poetry are the elements of good writing—rhythm, pacing, image, simile, metaphor, epiphanies. Good poetry does what all good writing does—just in a more condensed way. All writers can benefit from studying poetry—if not writing it as well.

MWW: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar?

AJ: My late husband’s nickname for me was ocelot, so let’s go with that.

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Allison!

Every writer has something to learn from comics

Dirk Manning is the writer/creator of comic series such as the supernatural noir Tales of Mr. Rhee and the genre-bending horror anthology Nightmare World. More of Dirk’s comic work includes Buried But Not Dead, Twiztid Haunted High-Ons, (nominated for three Ringo Awards, including Best Humor Comic of 2020), Hope, Butts in Seats: The Tony Schiavone Story, Love Stories (to Die For), and The Adventures of Cthulhu Jr. & Dastardly Dirk. Now predominantly publishing with Source Point Press, Dirk was an early adapter in using crowdfunding to launch pre-sales of his comics and graphic novels, with Dirk’s work having raised over $250,000 and counting in pre-sales on Kickstarter alone.

Dirk is also the author of the inspirational/how-to column turned book series Write or Wrong: A Writer’s Guide to Creating Comics and has contributed several short stories to the RPG game series Clockwork: Dominion for Reliquary Game Studios.

His screenplay writing credits include the YouTube horror series Blackbox TV episode “The Hunger” (directed by Drew Daywalt and featuring Bonnie Aarons and Jon Gries).

When not at his desk writing, touring on the comic convention circuit, and/or sampling his way across the best ice cream shops in the world, Dirk can be found online at www.DirkManning.com and on most social media platforms as @dirkmanning.

He does not wear a top hat and scarf in real life.

MWW board member and publicity chair, Leah Lederman, has interviewed the faculty for MWW21. Today, meet Dirk Manning, writer and creator of comic series who discusses his writing and what he will present at our virtual summer conference.

Dirk’s MWW21 sessions:

  • “Creating Comics by the Numbers” — This is a technical-based presentation about how to create comics, including panels per page, words per balloon, balloons per panel–but also gets into the sales and costs of creating comics, too.
  • Panel: “To Agent or Not to Agent” — Angela Jackson-Brown, Pam Mandel, Dirk Manning, Allison Joseph

MWW: In previous discussions on writing, you’ve mentioned Harlan Ellison’s quote “Write angry.” You’ve also used the medium of comics to cover a great range of experience and emotion. Can you tell our readers about the ways comics are a platform for delving into the human experience?

DM: As a writer who lives primarily in the horror genre of the comic medium, one of the things I always seek to do is write stories that people will feel when they’re reading them, remember after they’ve read them, and want to revisit upon remembering them… and all that is dependent on creating an emotional connection to the theme, scenarios, characters, and/or stories being told with a combination in words and pictures.

That may sound a little academic, but that’s only because there’s a science writing a good comic story that resonates with people. As you said, I often quote Harlan Ellison’s “Write angry” mantra, because I think as a writer – especially in the comic medium – your passion can translate to the artist you’re working with, and then through to the reader, too.

Every story in the human experience is rooted in some sort of emotional resonance, and I am honored to be able to create that experience through comics.

MWW: You are the ultimate “Road Scholar.” I remember your three-part article, “15 Shows in 15 weeks” What are a few pieces of advice you can give for people trying to get their work out there, whether online or in-person?

DM: First, know your brand. Know what you offer, because that’s how you’re going to find your tribe. Don’t try to be all things to all people. As we just discussed, I’m primarily a horror comic guy. I have a few variations and exceptions… but that’s mainly what I do, and I own that. That’s how I find my tribe: Other people who like scary stories told in the comic medium. That goes triple for how you represent yourself on social media and online.

Second, start local. I now have the honor of having done conventions and signing appearances from coast to coast and from the tip of the north to the bottom of the south. I didn’t start there, though. I started by doing two conventions a year, each a few hours from my house, and I returned there again and again year after year to ply my trade and start to build-up my audience… my tribe… both in-person and online. It was years before I was able to grow my circle and recognition to the point where I could do things like “15 Shows in 15 Weeks” or be in Seattle one weekend and Chicago two weeks later.

Finally, be proud of what you’re doing. Nothing is more off-putting than someone who criticizes or – even worse – apologizes for what they’re offering in their work. Be proud of what you do, and be the only person who can offer it.

MWW: What do you most love about writing in comics? Conversely, what are some of your frustrations with the genre?

DM: The storytelling techniques (such as the impactful and interlocking juxtaposition of words and pictures) in comics are unique to comics, and it’s one of the main reasons I love this medium so much.

My biggest frustration with comics doesn’t come from the medium, but rather people’s perception of it. Many people associate comics with “kid’s stuff” or “superheroes.” Those are genres, and comics are a medium – a method of delivering stories – rather than a genre. While stories about superheroes have held a lot of prominence in the comic medium in the United States for years, there are comics out there in literally every genre. I think more and more people are becoming more and more aware of that, but I’d like that to be common knowledge to everyone.

Oh, and it’s possible to write comics and not illustrate them, too. I’m a writer – an author – and I work with dozens of extremely talented artists… but I don’t draw myself, past perhaps occasionally sketching a scene or cover layout for consideration for the artist.

MWW: What authors inspire you most, comics or otherwise?

DM: On the prose side of things, Harlan Ellison is a big one for his passion, his output, and his fantastic ability to tell stories of the human condition and experience in fantastic speculative fiction settings. Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, and Joe Landsdale also remain huge inspirations for me in regards to how well they demonstrate the power of the short story format. In fact, under that criteria, I’d also include Stephen King and Ellison again. Crossing into comics, Joe Hill remains a huge inspiration for how well he weaves between both prose and comics and demonstrates mastery of both mediums… And when we’re talking primarily comic writers, Alan Moore is an unmatched master of the medium. I also greatly enjoy and remain inspired by the comic work of Robert Kirkman, Eric Powell, Mike Mignola, David Lapham, and Garth Ennis each for different reasons.

MWW: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar?

DM: This may sound cheesy, but I think it’s important for each writer to become their own avatar. I think all the best professionals in any line of work become their own brand… and I’d argue, by extent, their own avatar. In my career I took that to a bit on an extreme, creating a “Dirk Manning Avatar” using an illustration of a guy in a black top hat, scarf, and sunglasses as not only my brand logo, but also my author photo almost exclusively for two decades – to the point where people have thought that I walk around in an outfit like that. (Spoiler: I don’t, and never have aside from at a Halloween party.)

I chose to make my mascot that personified Dirk Manning “character” because I didn’t want my brand tied to any one book or book series I wrote. For example, Nightmare World was my first comic series, and it’s one that not only remains a personal favorite of mine, but also an evergreen one in terms of publishing and sales to this very day. However, I never wanted to be just “The Nightmare World Guy” despite how good the series is. I wanted Dirk Manning to be a brand unto itself, the way Stephen King, Alan Moore, and many other authors are and remain.

So, to you up-and-coming authors out there, while perhaps you don’t have to (nor should) take it to the extreme I did (and, to a lesser extent, still do), I think it’s important to make yourself your own brand, and create a logo that’s not only unique to you, but one that people will associate with you in person, on social media, and even on your books and associated products and merchandise.

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Dirk!

What stories are you going to tell with this imagination?

Chadwick Gillenwater (also known as Professor Watermelon) is an experienced school librarian, children’s book author and creative writing teacher. Along his journey, he has collected the essential tools to teach his students the elements of writing for children. He knows what makes characters memorable, he understands what makes scenes and settings captivating, and he has discovered what simmers and twists a good plot. As Professor Watermelon, Chadwick has written three middle grade novels. He is President of the Indiana Writers Center, and he lives in Indianapolis with his husband, two dogs and one bearded dragon. www.professorwatermelon.com

MWW board member and publicity chair, Leah Lederman, has interviewed the faculty for MWW21. Today, meet children’s author Chadwick Gillenwater who discusses his writing and what he will present at our virtual summer conference.

Chadwick’s MWW21 sessions:

  • “Write Great Read-aloud Picture Books” — As a school librarian and as Professor Watermelon, Chadwick has read thousands and thousands of picture books to children. He has learned what qualities turn a picture book into a read-aloud classic. In this workshop, let Chadwick help you see if your PB manuscript has what it takes to stand the test of time on the library shelf.
  • “Write your Children’s Book with all 5 Senses” — Writing with all five senses creates a “literary dream” for young readers. If you write scenes that show what your characters are seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling and smelling, your readers will be pulled into a full sensory experience that will keep them turning pages. In this workshop you will learn techniques on writing with all five senses.

MWW: In your children’s writing workshops, you feature local venues and landscapes as writing fodder. You’ve introduced me to so many wonderful places around Indianapolis this way. How do you find all of these places, and how do you recommend other writers find them for themselves where they live?

CG: I find a lot of interesting places just by asking around. If someone that I know works or volunteers at a place that I think would be a cool setting for a tour and class, I ask them if they can put me in touch with the right person to get the ball rolling. I also look at local online and print publications for interesting features or ads that highlight museums, historical buildings, and other places of interest. And sometimes, I see something just by driving or walking by it. My eyes and ears are always open.

MWW: What’s your favorite takeaway from the session you’ll be teaching? Why do you think this is important for writers to consider in their own work?

CG: My favorite takeaway is that every single person on this planet has a unique imagination. Your imagination is the only one like it in the history of the universe. What stories are you going to tell with this imagination? And where are you going to look for inspiration? I have some tools to give you for that.

MWW: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

CG: When I was a freshman in high school, I wrote a short story. I took this story back to my 8th grade language arts teacher and asked her to read it. She did, and she cried at the end. I couldn’t believe that I had written something powerful enough to cause tears. I knew then that words had power and that I liked using the written word to express myself.

MWW: In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle says, “All children are artists, and it is an indictment of our culture that so many of them lose their creativity, their unfettered imaginations, as they grow older.” How do you encourage writers of any age to tap into their curiosity and appreciation of the world around us?

CG: I encourage writers of all ages to be open minded, receptive and aware of their environment. If they do, they will have an endless supply of inspiration for creative endeavors. For example, the next time you take a walk in a park, look at the trees. Imagine what these trees have witnessed though their decades and centuries of life. Imagine if you could sit next one of these trees and listen to its stories. Well, you can. Just take along a notebook, a pencil and your imagination and write down what you hear (wink).

MWW: Can you share details about what you are working on right now? 

CG: The project that I’m working on right now isn’t a children’s book, actually. It’s part memoir and part spiritual self-help. In this book I share how I communicate with my dad who died by suicide when I was three. It’s called The Bluebird on Your Shoulder. This book aims to help people maintain, grow and even heal relationships with loved ones who have experienced what is commonly referred to as “death”.

MWW: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar?

CG: A happy, friendly, handsome, cute little dragon!

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Professor Watermelon!

YA author Jay Coles discusses Diversity in Kidlit at MWW21

Jay Coles is the author of critically acclaimed Tyler Johnson Was Here, a composer with ASCAP, and a professional musician residing in Muncie, Indiana. He is a graduate of Vincennes University and Ball State University and holds degrees in English and Liberal Arts. When he’s not writing diverse books, he’s advocating for them, serving with The Revolution church, and composing music for various music publishers. Jay’s equally passionate about playing drums. Find him and nerd out over making some dope beats. Jay’s forthcoming novel Things We Couldn’t Say is set to be released this fall with Scholastic!

MWW board member and publicity chair, Leah Lederman, has interviewed the faculty for MWW21. Today, meet Young Adult author Joy Coles who discusses his writing and what he will present at our virtual summer conference.

Jay’s MWW21 sessions:

  • “Diversity in Kidlit” — In this workshop, we will look at what it means to write diversely for young adults and middle graders as well as discuss examples of books/authors that do this well and how can we better equip ourselves to write more inclusively to reflect the world that we live in.
  • “How to Strengthen Your Opening Pages” — In this workshop, we will examine how to make your opening pages to your manuscript stick out by looking at all the ways that you can hook readers–narrative voice, character, setting, and/or killer opening lines. All the things that’ll keep your reader wanting to turn the page.
  • Panel: “Staying Motivated & Productive / Beating Rejection / Improving Your Writing Routine” with authors Larry Sweazy, Jay Coles, Pam Mandel, Matthew Clemens, Moderator: Angela Jackson-Brown

MWW: In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says “Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.” Do you think this sentiment applies to the work you’re doing, and can you touch on certain themes that emerge from your writing, things you tend to pay attention to? 

JC: Of course. I feel a lot of my writing is fueled by my curiosity to understand and know the world we live in. There’s always more to see, more to experience, and more to discover about our world and even about ourselves and the people we are. My writing usually follows characters who are on a journey of self-discovery and exploring their identities in this broken world. This is why in anything I write you will find conversations about race, sexuality, religion, social justice, and other social issues because these are things that are so deeply entangled with our world and our very existence and it feels unfair not to communicate what’s going on in my work, even if I’m writing fiction.

MWW: What authors or books most inspire you, and why? 

JC: I will read anything by Jason Reynolds, Adam Silvera, and Renee Watson because not only is their writing so gorgeous and poetic, but they happen to tell very real stories in very honest and unflinching ways that inspire me deep at my core.

MWW: When you hit the wall and nothing is working on your computer screen, how do you clear your head and refresh? Do you power down and go to a movie, or do you just keep pounding the keys? Advice? 

JC: I definitely disengage. I close my laptop (or my writing journal) and I turn on a good movie on Netflix or Disney Plus. I go get dinner, ice cream or a tasty snack and I don’t think about my writing. I’d rather not force anything, even if I’m on a hard deadline. My advice to writers when they feel like they’ve hit a wall, is to stop writing. It’s okay to take a break and recharge. Go on a walk, play a board game with a friend, cook your favorite meal, go biking, or just sit under a tree if it’s nice out! Do anything else to recharge your creativity.

MWW: If you could tell your younger writing-self anything, what would it be?

JC: Don’t believe people who tell you that the best thing to do is write everyday. That’s stupid. And unrealistic.

MWW: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar?

JC: An owl. I love staying up super late writing and snacking (ha!), but I also just love owls in general. My favorite childhood book was HOOT which is all about owls!

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Jay!

Jessica Strawser’s sessions are FULL of takeaways!

Meet award-winning author Jessica Strawser at MWW21

Jessica Strawser is editor-at-large for Writer’s Digest, where as editorial director she became known for her in-depth interviews with such talents as David Sedaris and Alice Walker. She is the author of the book club favorites Almost Missed You, named to Barnes & Noble’s Best New Fiction shortlist; Not That I Could Tell, a Book of the Month bestsellerForget You Know Me, now new in paperback; and A Million Reasons Why, released in March 2021 (all from St. Martin’s Press). She has written for The New York Times Modern Love, Publishers Weekly, and others, is a contributing editor at CareerAuthors.com, and is a popular speaker at writing conferences. She lives with her husband and two children in Cincinnati, where she was named 2019 Writer-in-Residence for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Connect with her online at jessicastrawser.com, on twitter @jessicastrawser and on Facebook and Instagram at @jessicastrawserauthor.

MWW board member and publicity chair, Leah Lederman, has interviewed the faculty for MWW21. Today, meet novelist Jessica Strawser who discusses her writing and what she will present at our virtual summer conference.

MWW: What’s your favorite takeaway from the session you’ll be teaching? Why do you think this is important for writers to consider in their own work?

JS: I’m teaching two sessions that are designed to be full of takeaways! In “Surprise and Delight Your Readers on Every Page,” the overall goal is to give you tools and tips that can literally take your stories to the next level one page at a time—which I find so much less intimidating than the prospect of tackling an entire book-length manuscript. In “10 All-Time Best Writing Lessons From 10 Years of Interviews with the All-Time Best Writers,” my favorite takeaway is pure motivation: inspiration to keep going after your writing goals with renewed energy and perseverance.

MWW: What do you love most about writing suspense? On the flip side, what is the greatest challenge? 

JS: I’ve found that I quite like writing toward a twist: Being in on a secret that a reader is not, and knowing where a story is going without quite knowing how I’m going to get there. Of course, sometimes, the not knowing how to get there becomes the biggest challenge, too.

MWW: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

JS: My new novel, A Million Reasons Why, is my most research-intensive book to date, as it deals with sensitive health-related topics that haven’t affected me personally: matching through mail-in DNA test kits, chronic disease, and live organ donation. The book I just completed for release next year was very heavy on research too, as the characters’ lives are consumed by their work in a profession that is both new and unfamiliar to many readers. For both of those stories, I needed to do a lot of legwork up front to be sure my plots and characters were even plausible before diving in.

MWW: In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says “Several delusions weaken the writer’s resolve to throw away work.” Talk about a time you edited something out of a book that was difficult. Why did you make the decision to remove it and how did it change the story?

JS: I think I’m less adverse to editing than a lot of writers simply because I was an editor first. That doesn’t mean I find editing painless or easy—not at all—but it does mean I’m always looking for something I can remove from a story to make it stronger. I tend to write long and then cut back. Those edits are always difficult in progress, but in the end it’s satisfying to cut 5,000-10,000 words from a story and find that what remains is a sharper version of itself.

MWW: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar?

JS: Maybe something magical that everyone wants to believe really exists, like a unicorn.

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Jessica!

Still time! Pitch fiction to Amy Stapp at Agent Fest!

Amy is one of eight literary agents participating in the MWW Agent Fest Online, November 18-21.

Amy Stapp received her BA from Samford University and MA from Georgia State University before beginning her publishing career at Macmillan, where she was an editor for seven years and had the privilege of working with numerous New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. Amy joined Wolfson Literary in December 2018 and continues to actively build her list, with interest in women’s fiction, mystery, suspense, upmarket book club fiction, historical fiction, young adult, and select nonfiction. She is particularly drawn to a high concept hook, well-paced prose, immersive settings, and smart, multidimensional characters. As an editorial agent, she enjoys working hand-in-hand with authors to take their work to the next level. Find her online at wolfsonliterary.com.

Check out Amy’s Wish List!

  • Fiction: twisty, intelligent suspense, upmarket book club fiction, women’s fiction that explores friendships and multigenerational ties, light magical realism
  • Historical Fiction from a new perspective
  • Young Adult Fiction: fast-paced, “unputdownable” story with a mature voice in a variety of genres—romance, mystery, historical, and unique coming-of-age stories
  • Always looking for stories from underrepresented voices and in diverse settings

MWW agent assistant Kat Higgs-Coulthard interviewed Amy about how her experience as a former editor informs her process as an agent. Kat’s writing has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Jack & Jill, Cleaver, and Women on Writing. In her role as Director of Michiana Writers’ Center in South Bend, Indiana, Kat loves working with young writers through summer camps and writing conferences.

MWW: How does your experience as a former editor at Macmillan inform your work as an agent?

AS: That’s really what sets me apart from other agents. It is incredibly helpful for my clients to work with someone who is already familiar with what the next steps are in terms of the marketing, publicity, and what to expect from a publishing house.

I just have an editorial eye, so people who work with me tend to be people who are already very talented but want to take their work to the next level. I know exactly how hard it is to get something through an acquisition board. Being aware of that behind-the-scenes process allows me to set my authors up for long-term success.

MWW: You represent multiple genres. How do you feel about authors who write across genres or age categories, like for instance a YA novelist who also writes middle grade?

AS: It’s always good to diversify, but there are different schools of thought. Some people will tell you it’s difficult to build a following or to grow your readership if you are constantly jumping around, but that tends to be more once you already have a contract with a house. The publisher will have a specific strategy for trying to build your brand and grow your audience.

But it’s not at all uncommon for authors to write in multiple genres over the years. I will always tell a writer to write the story of your heart even if the story of your heart right now is some outlandish project that you know you can’t sell. Some writers call it your “through book.” You have to write your way through it before you can tackle the one that will become a bestseller. Try not to be so focused on writing something just because you think it will sell, when really you have a whole different project on your mind. When your heart isn’t in it, it shows in your writing. You have to write what’s on your heart.

MWW: What should writers do when their pitch results in a pass from the agent?

AS: I talk about this in Queries Do’s and Don’ts (Thurs., Nov. 19, 11am ET), so you should come to my session [laughs]. For a query rejection, the only thing you can do is keep writing the next book, keep perfecting your craft. For one-on-one pitches at conferences like this, I think one of my biggest pet peeves is when a writer will try to convince me why I’m wrong about their manuscript. That’s not a valuable use of either of our time. If I say this story isn’t the right fit for me, that doesn’t mean the conversation needs to end. How often are you sitting across from an agent? Make use of your time with me to ask me questions about publishing, to ask questions about your comps or how to improve your pitch, anything at all. I come to conferences to be helpful and useful to you in any way I can.

MWW: What should writers do when their pitch results in a request for pages?

AS: The number one mistake I see people make is submitting before they’re really ready. Hopefully you’ve already workshopped it with critique partners and through your writers’ circle. Just because someone at a conference says ‘this sounds like a great pitch, I’d love to see more,’ does not mean you have to send it tomorrow. It’s fine to take a few weeks, even a few months, so you can take the time to make your manuscript the best it can possibly be before sending it to an agent. There is no rush. Play the long game.

MWW: With all the reading you do for work, how do you find time to read for pleasure?

AS: I have a library app on my phone and I get audio books from the library. Any time I’m washing dishes, walking the dog, doing laundry, or whatever it is, I am constantly listening to the new bestseller to keep up-to-date on what’s popular in the genres I’m trying to sell at the moment. (And let me tell you, the best authors are doing that as well. If you’re not current on what’s selling in your genre, you’re probably not ready to start querying agents yet.) The book on my nightstand right now is And Now She’s Gone. It’s a thriller by Rachel Howzell Hall. She’s incredible; everyone should go buy her book. Next up on my TBR pile is Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. My tastes are pretty varied, from commercial bookclub favorites to upmarket women’s fiction, from lighthearted romcoms to dark and twisty thrillers, and everything in between.

There’s still time to register and pitch to Amy!

Pitch fiction & nonfiction to Jolene Haley at Agent Fest!

Jolene Haley is one of eight literary agents participating in the MWW Agent Fest Online, November 18-21.

Check out Jolene’s Wish List!

  • Broad range of MG and YA: especially contemporary, mystery, magical realism, romance, and horror.
  • Adult fiction: commercial women’s fiction, romance (all subgenres), mystery/crime, horror, and immersive literary fantasies.
  • Nonfiction: lifestyle, health, wellness, self-help, spiritualism, and true crime.

Jolene Haley joined the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency in 2020 and has been in the publishing industry since 2012. She has worked for literary agencies and publishers like The Bent Agency, Corvisiero Literary Agency, Entangled Publishing, and Swoon Romance, and has an extensive background in marketing. Her well-rounded experience provides a unique perspective and a solid foundation to support authors as they build their careers.

Jolene represents middle grade, young adult, and adult fiction. She is drawn to original concepts, compelling characters, and stories with plot twists that keep her guessing. In all genres, she welcomes diverse stories and characters that reflect the world we live in. She graduated with accolades from Cal State Fullerton with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Composition. She runs a global horror writer’s resource site The Midnight Society and is a member of ALA, HWA, and SCBWI. Follow Jolene on Twitter or Instagram.

MWW agent assistant Amanda Byk interviewed Jolene about her life as an agent and about coming to MWW Agent Fest. Amanda graduated from Ball State University with a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing. She is a copywriter for Dealer Inspire out of Naperville, IL. She enjoys writing historical fiction and nonfiction and hopes to return to school for a Masters in Fiction.

MWW: How did you become an agent?

JH: I always knew I wanted to work with books. I joined the publishing industry in 2012, while earning my English degree. I started as an assistant who worked across teams at Entangled Publishing. This experience led me to taking on new roles in marketing, editing, and publicity teams at different publishers. Working for publishers was fantastic, but I was drawn to agenting.

I joined The Bent Agency as an intern and worked my way up at agencies until I became an agent. In 2020, I joined my dream agency, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, as a literary agent. Working alongside fantastic agents like Kevan, Jill, Patricia, Shannon, and Deborah is a dream. I feel grateful to champion amazing authors and that my job is to help bring stories into the world!

MWW: What are a few tips you would give to writers? What are some tips you have for writers on approaching agents?

JH: My best tips for querying writers are simple.

  1. Polish your book. Send your work when it’s done and not a moment sooner. You want the agent to see your best work when you query. Research book length, nail down your genre, write a polished query, and ensure that your manuscript is free of typos and grammar issues. There are fabulous free resources online to guide first time queriers, and by submitting polished work, you’re automatically setting yourself apart from other submissions and giving yourself a competitive edge.
  2. Follow submission rules. Most agencies and agents share their submission guidelines. Please follow them, as they are the best way to ensure that your query is seen, considered, and responded to.
  3. Don’t give up! Querying can feel hard. Putting yourself out there can be scary. But the payoff is worth it when you find the perfect agent for you and your work. Every query pass is one step closer to your future offer of representation.

MWW: What kind of manuscript do you favor/what kind do you hate getting?

JH: On my website, visitors can find submission guidelines and my wish list. I do this to help writers decide if I am a good fit for their work and to share more about my reading preferences. I currently accept middle grade, young adult, and adult manuscripts. In these age categories, I’m seeking a wide variety of genres, but my current favorites are horror, thrillers, mysteries, and romance.

There is not a type of manuscript that I hate to receive, however my wish list shares the type of work that I am not a great fit for, such as high fantasy, military thrillers, and pandemic stories. No matter what, I read every query and consider each submission that I receive.

MWW: What questions should new authors ask during the first meeting with the literary agent?

JH: I firmly believe that when meeting with an offering literary agent, authors should ask anything that they want to know about the agency, the agent, their agenting style, and their vision for the manuscript. Don’t be shy! For example, a great question for an agent is to describe their agenting style. If you feel like it’s important to have an editorial agent, and the agent shares that they are not editorial, you may not be a good match.

Here are four great questions that might be helpful to know before you make your decision:

  1. How does the agent communicate with their authors?
  2. Will you be working with the agent directly or with another agent/assistant?
  3. What types of changes do you think need to be made for your book? What is their editorial vision?
  4. What are the next steps after signing?

I have additional resources on my website, under the Writing Resources tab.

MWW: At the Agent Fest, you have a presentation on Building Your Author Platform to Elevate Your Career. How important would you say an online presence is and why?

JH: In my opinion, it is critical for authors to have an online presence. When I say that, I don’t mean that you have to make 20 social media accounts and spend all day posting instead of writing.

What I mean is, one of the most effective ways an author can have an effective online presence is through a website. Readers, editors, and agents need a place that they can go to learn more about you. Visitors should be able to find your agent information, a media kit (author photo and biography, at least), and book information with buy links. Of course, there are additional ways to optimize your presence online, but a website is a great place to start.

Still time to register and pitch to Jolene!

Pitch fiction & nonfiction to Latoya Smith at Agent Fest Online!

Latoya is one of eight literary agents participating in the MWW Agent Fest Online, November 18-21.

Latoya C. Smith started her editorial career as an administrative assistant to New York Times bestselling author, Teri Woods at Teri Woods Publishing while pursuing her Bachelor’s degree at Temple University. She graduated Cum Laude from Temple in August of 2005. She then attained a full-time position at Kensington Publishing in March of 2006. In October 2006, Latoya joined Grand Central Publishing, an imprint at Hachette Book Group. For the span of her eight years there, Latoya acquired a variety of titles from hardcover fiction and nonfiction, to digital romance and erotica. She was featured in Publishers Weekly, Forbes and USA Today, as well as on various author, book conference, and book blogger websites. In early 2014, she appeared on CSpan2 where she contributed to a panel discussing the state of book publishing. From August 2014 to February 2016, Latoya was Executive Editor at Samhain Publishing where she acquired short and long-form romance and erotic fiction. She is the winner of the 2012 RWA Golden Apple for Editor of the Year, 2017 Golden Apple for Agent of the Year, and the 2017 Literary Jewels Award for Editor of the Year. Latoya provides editorial services and literary representation through her company, LCS Literary Services.

 

Check out Latoya’s Wish List!

  • Fiction: women’s fiction, humor, thriller/suspense, romance (contemporary, paranormal, small-town, suspense, erotic, LGBTQ), young adult
  • Nonfiction: memoir, relationship, advice/how-to, self-help, business, sports, politics/social justice, pop culture, health/wellness

MWW agent assistant Allen Warren interviewed Latoya about her life as an agent and about coming to MWW Agent Fest. Allen is an English Studies major at Ball State University. He is also managing editor for the Digital Literature Review and assistant fiction editor & event/writing series coordinator for Ball State’s literary magazine The Broken Plate.

MWW: What got you interested in becoming a literary agent? 

LS: I worked as an acquisitions editor for over 10 years and was laid off from my job. Based on my contacts, a really good friend thought I’d make a great agent. So, I joined her agency in 2016. I later began agenting for my own company in 2018.

MWW: Who have been some of your more recent clients, and how did you promote them? 

LS: Kimberly L. Jones, Kondwani Fidel, Kristin Vayden and LaQuette to name a few. In regards to promotion, I speak about my clients whenever I can at whatever stage of the process they are in. For example, if a client is in early development, I’ll bring up their concepts as I speak to editors to try and garner early interest. Once sold, I am actively promoting them and their projects on my social media and at conferences and events, by spreading the word and offering my help and support however I can.

MWW: What are the number-one things you recommend attendees pitching ideas to do and NOT to do? 

LS: Be passionate, confident and practice so that you won’t feel as nervous because you know your stuff. However, try not to waste your time making light conversation. You’ll lose valuable time like that. Instead, begin with your greeting and move right into your pitch so that you can leave room for questions at the end.

MWW: What makes a manuscript stand out to you? What will make it sink? 

LS: Strong first pages, with a clear sense of who these characters are and why I should care about them. If the project is riddled with typos, confusing, or just uninteresting, I will stop reading.

MWW: Finally, what have you been reading during quarantine? 

LS: Romance and women’s fiction along with some thrillers.

Also on Latoya’s schedule for Agent Fest Online:

  • First Page Read – Love It or Leave It, “Okay, Stop” – with Latoya Smith, Alice Speilburg, Shannon Kelly. This is a chance to get your first page read (anonymously — no bylines given) with our attending agents/editors commenting on what was liked or not liked about the submission. Get expert feedback on your incredibly important first lines and know if your writing has what it needs to keep readers’ attention.
  • Working With An Agent: Writers will learn the tools needed to successfully partner with the right agent. This includes:  Preparing Your Written and Verbal Pitch.  Finding the Right Agent.  What Your Agent Should Bring to the Table.  How You Should Use Your Agent.  Building Your Platform. When to Part Ways With Your Agent.
  • You’ve Got A Book Deal, Now What?: Writers will learn what happens after they’ve been offered a deal (per traditional publisher standards). This includes: Contract Negotiation Points.  Welcome Materials from Your Publisher. The Editorial Process.  Importance of Cover Art and Cover Copy. Publicity and Marketing Strategies. Sales and Distribution. Useful Tips.
  • Agents/Author Conversation: How an agent works with an author — Agents Cherry Weiner and Latoya Smith and author Larry D. Sweazy

Conversation with author Lara Ehrlich

Midwest Writers Workshop presents another installment of our “Conversation with an Author” series. MWW board member Lylanne Musselman talked with MWW alum Lara Ehrlich about her newly released book, her writing life and her MWW experience.

Lara Ehrlich’s work been published in literary magazines, including F(r)iction, Hunger Mountain, and StoryQuarterly, and has been recognized with many awards and fellowships; most recently, Animal Wife received Red Hen Press’s Fiction Award, judged by New York Times-bestselling author, Ann Hood, who called the collection “sensual and intelligent, with gorgeous prose.” Animal Wife, which launched in Sept 2020, has been praised as “remarkable” by Lit Hub, who said “the collection is a standout in a season full of amazing new releases.” Lara lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter.

Lara Ehrlich is also a former Midwest Writers Workshop Retreat Fellow. Here’s Lylanne’s interview with Lara:

MWW: Tell me a little about your new book, Animal Wife – how did it come about? Are the stories in it what you normally write?

LEAnimal Wife is a collection of stories about women’s transformations, from girls into wives, mothers, and monsters. Winner of the Red Hen Press Fiction Award, judged by Ann Hood, Animal Wife was on shelves September 8, 2020. It’s available now at RedHen.org, Bookshop.org, and Amazon.com.

Animal Wife originated with the titular story in the collection, about a girl who undertakes a quest for the mother who abandoned her. I started this story as a novel and after writing hundreds of pages, realized it was actually meant to be a short story! This is where I rediscovered my love of writing short stories, how time and emotion can be compressed into a tight space that exerts pressure on every sentence. I love the intensity of short stories, and how they can sustain an off-kilter voice or a wild conceit that might sag in a longer piece.

The next few stories are also about girls and young women, tapping into the urgency and uneasiness of puberty. As I began writing toward a collection, the stories began to change, to move away from girls and toward mothers. During this time, I was questioning whether I wanted to have a family. I was terrified of the self-abdication that I believed motherhood necessitated. I was going to create Important Work, and I couldn’t afford the distraction. I believed that the right way to be a mother was to devote all of myself to my child, while the right way to be a writer was to toil in isolation, unfettered by the needs of others.

I wrote the majority of the stories in Animal Wife while agonizing over this decision, then while pregnant, so those stories are often worst-case scenarios, nightmares, terrors about motherhood. I wrote the last few stories during those first few months of motherhood that I can barely remember because they were so intensely exhausting. Writing has become not only a calling and a career, but my way of keeping hold of myself and avoiding the self-abdication I’d so feared.

Throughout Animal Wife, readers will be able to see my preoccupations and priorities shifting—and with them, my voice. Now, I could no longer write the stories that open this collection.

MWW: What writers do you feel have influenced you?

LE: In elementary school, my obsession with Edgar Allen Poe inspired me to write stories about crazy murderers. Ray Bradbury sparked a science fiction period. In college, I read James Joyce, Nabokov, and Faulkner, and became longwinded. In graduate school, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, and Oscar Wilde injected some whimsy into my longwinded prose.

One thing all of these writers have in common: they’re men. And I was writing about men. Writing about women seemed dangerous somehow, too autobiographical. Reading other women was revelatory. When I began writing about women, writing from that place of danger, my stories changed. They became spare and, although they no longer feature murderous crazy people, more daring.

The writers who inspire me now are risk-taking women who cross boundaries, tackle uncomfortable themes, plunge into dark places. Women like Angela Carter, Kelly Link, Katherine Dunn, Elena Ferrante, Maggie Nelson, Karen Russell, Kristen Arnett, Aimee Bender…I could go on!

MWW: Do you have any writing rituals?

LE: I have a 4-year-old daughter and work full time as the director of marketing for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, CT. Before I had a child, I had writing rituals: I’d write every day before work and on my lunch break—but those sacred times have been filled with other responsibilities, and I struggle to find time for sustained work. I force writing into the cracks of my schedule wherever I can.

This is more of a practical habit than a ritual, but I have a long commute and often use the time to work on my novel by dictating to myself using my phone’s recording app (In fact, I’m dictating this right now!). I upload the recording to the (free) Otter transcription app, which does a passable job of transcribing my monologue. While my toddler is eating dinner, I clean up the transcription and end up with 3,000 words on a good day. Those 3,000 words need a ton of work, but starting from there instead of with a blank page has been really helpful for my productivity. It’s the only way I was able to draft my novel-in-progress.

MWW: You are an MWW Alum. How did you originally find the workshop? How often did you attend?

LE: The 2009 Workshop was my first conference! I originally found the workshop through a scholarship promoted in Poets & Writers magazine. A year later, I attended the Midwest Writers Workshop Fellows Retreat, which was my first retreat.

MWW: How did attending MWW affect your career?

LE: I’ve wanted to write a book since fourth grade, when I composed a fantasy epic (in an etched leather journal) that was really just a description of the movie Willow. I went on to fill dozens of notebooks with stories and bits of novels and scenes. Although publishing a book was my ultimate goal, completing and selling a manuscript seemed utterly mysterious and out of reach. I attended MWW with about 20 pages of a novel and zero knowledge of the publishing industry, open to learning everything I could.

I was nowhere near ready to query agents yet, but I took advantage of a pitch session with an agent who encouraged me to stick with my novel, gave me some pointers on the query letter I’d drafted, and invited me to send her the book when I was ready. That one actionable goal—send this person my book—helped me begin to demystify the publishing process and break it down into other actionable steps that seemed attainable when tackled one at a time.

During that same conference, I clicked with two other Chicago writers who were working on their first novels, and we formed a critique group. We continued to meet for years, supporting one another through drafting and revising our work, querying agents, and eventual publication.

MWW is equally devoted to helping writers develop their craft, and I found many of those sessions to be valuable—but at that moment in my fledgling career, MWW helped me to understand the business side of writing. That is what I needed to be able to take my writing seriously not just as a craft, but as a career.

MWW: Thinking about the sessions you attended, what is one session that really stands out to you (more if you want to mention them)?

LE: Among the many excellent programs that I attended on writing vivid settings, querying agents, and developing intriguing characters, the session that stands out to me most was about tax preparation. This, from someone who struggled so mightily to learn the difference between addition and subtraction that when I finally got it down, my first-grade teacher sent home a congratulatory note.

Until MWW, I hadn’t realized that I could deduct the writing expenses I was racking up—from the MWW conference fee, to a portion of my rent, to my office supplies. As much as I still detest math, tracking my writing expenses made the business side of my career more tangible; while I couldn’t quantify my effort, I could quantify my monetary investment in my writing, which elevated what I was doing from amorphous labor to real work.

MWW: If you were ever to lead a session at MWW (and we hope you will!), what might be something you’d like to instruct writers on?

LE: At this moment in my life and career, I’m particularly interested in working with other parent-writers (specifically, but not limited to, mothers) to prioritize their writing. I’m forever asking other parent-writers how they manage to create art while cleaning up after little people, imagining that there must be a secret I just haven’t discovered yet. How does everyone else seem to have their lives together, to be producing exceptional work, to have well-adjusted children? Every parent-writer I’ve asked has laughed and said, “My life is a shit show.” (Often literally. So. Much. Poop.) I’d like to lead a session for other writers who struggle with this balancing act to see if we can come up with strategies together.

MWW: Can you share what you’re working on now?

LE: The stories in Animal Wife are about girls and women seeking liberation from family responsibilities and societal expectations; my novel-in-progress is a more in-depth exploration of these themes, framed by a loose retelling of “The Little Mermaid.” A restless siren-turned-human who takes over a failing mermaid burlesque. She establishes a kingdom in the likeness of her lost world and lives as a siren, performing in a tank at the edge of the sea. At its heart, the book is about the dark underbelly of fantasy, the need for escape and transformation, which in the end is disappointing—and often destructive.

A fun note: As part of my research, I attended the Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp at Weeki Wachee State Park in Weeki Wachee, Florida, where women have performed as mermaids since 1947. During the two-day camp, my fellow campers and I were trained by mermaids—called Legendary Sirens—who had performed at Weeki Wachee in its golden age. My essay about Siren Camp is forthcoming in Lit Hub.

MWW: What is some advice you would give to novice attendees, or even to those who are wanting to attend…but feel they’re not ready?

LE: As I mentioned before, I was a total novice when I attended my first MWW conference. I was so overwhelmed when I arrived that I bought a box of cereal and a bottle of wine at Walmart and hid in my hotel room watching a truly terrible Jennifer Love Hewitt movie on cable. When I finally made it to the conference center, I was relieved to find that the staff and instructors were supportive and welcoming—and the other writers were as overwhelmed as I was! From there, MWW was a transformative experience, so I would advise novice writers just to go and be open to feeling overwhelmed. You’ll never really feel ready, so you might as well just go for it.

Learn more about Lara at LaraEhrlich.com and join her newsletter for writing updates here!