Literary agent Regina Ryan: eager to find new nonfiction talent

Meet Regina! She’s one of eight literary agents participating in the MWW Agent Fest Online, October 13-16.

Regina Ryan has been the head of her own boutique literary agency for some 40 years, handling mainly adult nonfiction and a small, selected list of juvenile nonfiction. Her areas of interest are wide-ranging and eclectic and include narrative nonfiction, natural history (particularly birds), popular science, the environment and sustainability, gardening, women’s issues, parenting, psychology, business, health, wellness, self-improvement, lifestyle, history, food travel, popular reference and, very occasionally, memoir. She loves good stories, good writing and books that are helpful and/or offer a fresh understanding of the way things work in the world. Among her recent sales are The Appalachian Trail: A Biography by Philip D’Anieri, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist by Donald Kroodsma, Ph.D., Your Brain on Pregnancy: A Guide to Understanding and Protecting Your Mental Health During Pregnancy and Beyond by Dawn Kingston, Ph.D., Saving Nature: One Backyard at a Time by David Deardorff, Ph.D. and Kathryn Wadsworth, The Great War and the Making of Modern Medicine by Thomas Helling, M.D.; New on Earth: Baby Animals in the Wild by Suzi Eszterhas, A Blissful Feast and Other Culinary Adventures in Italy’s Piedmont, Maremma, and Le Marche by Teresa Lust, and Birding Florida by Randi Minetor.

Regina will present the session “How to Write a Nonfiction Proposal.”

Check out the full faculty here!

Check out the full schedule here!

MWW: You belong to an impressive list of associations and organizations and have even founded some! Are there groups you would recommend to aspiring writers? 

RR: I always recommend the Authors Guild to writers. They have a wonderfully supportive community of members and also answer legal questions writers come up against. In addition, many of my authors find writer support groups in their own communities are helpful. Some libraries run these or authors start them themselves.

MWW: I noticed you have a fondness for birds (my mother is an avid birder, and I’ve grown up loving them). What attracts you to birds, and what particular sighting do you remember most?

RR: What an interesting question. I remember my first sighting of a bird that thrilled me as a young person — it was a bright red cardinal in an evergreen bush in front of my house. I think I was about ten. I couldn’t believe my eyes! And I’m still that way about birds. They are astonishingly beautiful, mysterious, and inspiring to me. I love to watch them go about their business, hoping I’ll learn their ways.

MWW: What elements make a story stand out to you? 

RR: I think the most important thing is to keep the reader’s interest through narrative drive, even moreso than wonderful writing. Never underestimate the power of narrative and the allure of the question: what happens next? When I’m reading, I love feeling I’ve just got to find out “what happens next!” which means I’ve fallen under the spell of a story. Characterization is important too, of course — but to my mind, it’s not as crucial as narrative drive.

MWW: What’s the primary message you want attendees to take home from your Agent Fest session? 

RR: That agents and publishers are real people — not special and superior beings and they are eager to find new talent.

MWW: Are there elements of a query that make you immediately dismiss it? 

RR: Hyperbole in any area makes me very suspicious. I also want to know as soon as possible why I should pay attention to the person writing the query. Why is it going to be worth my time to read what he or she has to say. If that’s not there, I can’t take the query seriously.

Register for Agent Fest Online and pitch your nonfiction to Regina!

Follow her on Twitter — @ReginaRyanBooks

Agent Jeff Ourvan seeks page-turning narratives

Meet Jeff! He’s one of eight literary agents participating in the MWW Agent Fest Online, October 13-16.

Jeff Ourvan is a literary agent with the New York-based Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency and heads up their books-to-film efforts. He’s also an attorney, author and the founder of The WriteWorkshops, which are intensive writing workshops for debut and experienced novelists and memoirists. Some of Jeff’s recent representations include Christopher Knowlton’s Bubble In The Sun, Peter Houlahan’s Norco ’80, and Ron Ferguson and Tatsha Robertson’s The Formula. A boutique publishing imprint Jeff established, Stone Tiger Books, this summer released Chasing Butterflies: The True Story of a Daughter Of 9/11, by Ashley Bisman.

Prior to working as a literary agent, Jeff was a magazine editor, as well as a corporate attorney, public relations consultant, geologist and commercial fisherman. He is a lifelong Buddhist, loves long road trips, has been to all fifty US states, and once drove from Manhattan to the Arctic Circle.

Wish list:

Narrative nonfiction, histories, science, sports, and unusual memoirs. For fiction, I tend to seek romance, sci-fi, YA and MG, and mysteries.

Jeff will present the sessions “How to Pitch; Common Mistakes; What Not to Do When You Pitch” and “The Pros and Cons of Independent vs. Traditional Publishing.” He is also a member of the Query Letter Critique Team, which offers (for an additional fee) the opportunity to meet for a 10-minute one-on-one consultation to discuss your query letter AND the first page of your manuscript.

Check out the full faculty here!

Check out the full schedule here!

MWW: Some agents prefer a proposal for a memoir; others prefer a query letter. Do you have a preference, and why do you think there are such discrepancies within the field?

JO: When it comes to pitching a memoir, I prefer a query letter. If the query piques my interest, then I’d next ask to see a proposal or the full manuscript. I can’t speak for how other agents work, but often I collect queries in my inbox over a period of 2-6 weeks, and when I set aside time to read through what could be hundreds of emails it’s not always practical to stop to review a proposal. If an author is serious about securing an agent, that author really should devote considerable time to crafting a sparkling query letter – an excellent query letter has often made me jump all over a prospective project. In my view, whatever is outstanding in your proposal can indeed be crystallized into a fine query letter – it’s not easy, it’s a craft in itself, but this is the most effective way to get my attention as an agent. As for why there are such discrepancies within the publishing field – well, we are part of what I consider to be the most notoriously subjective business on Earth!

MWW: Is there anything writers should always ask an agent but don’t seem to know because they’re new to being represented?

JO: I think this is sort of a two-part question – what to ask an agent before you have one, and what to ask that agent once you’re signed on. If you find yourself in the fortunate position to choose between two or more offering agents, then you’ll want to consider a few matters: the agent’s client roster and track record; the terms of the offered agency agreement; the enthusiasm the agent appears to have for your project, and whether there’s a shared experience with respect to the material; and the general nature of the relationship a specific agent looks to have with his or her authors. As for the agent or agency’s client roster, it can cut both ways. We all would want the most powerful and successful of agencies, but does that mean you might get “lost” in a client base with celebrity authors? At the same time, you don’t necessarily want an agency that’s too small or just starting out – what contacts in the industry does an unknown agency have? The happy medium, I think, is best – a boutique literary agency with a strong client list, one that has excellent publishing contacts but not too, too many author superstars dominating the lion’s share of their time.

Once you’ve signed on to an agency, then I think you ought to take full advantage of the resources offered. For example, as an agent, I expect to work with my authors on editing or brainstorming their manuscripts to help get them ready to be marketed. I know some agents don’t do this, viewing their roles as simply salespersons, but many other agents are eager to “get in under the hood” with the author to help craft the work. In part, this is why you should choose an agent that has some personal affinity for what you’re writing, whether it be subject matter, theme or genre. Also make sure you understand every provision in the agency agreement and, even more importantly, the publishing contract – your agent should walk you through all the elements of a deal until you understand exactly what will be expected of you.

MWW: Are there specific elements in a manuscript that help determine whether you think you’d like to work that story, or do you approach each manuscript differently?

JO: Again, because “what’s good” is so inherently subjective, I would think every agent is attracted to certain stories or themes that resonate with them. For example, I like well-paced stories, and I look for them – when I’m told by an author that he or she needs five chapters to really develop the characterization before the plot kicks in at around chapter six, I know this work might not be for me. So one of the dynamics I’m keen to discover in a work is the interplay between the plot and the protagonist – does every plot development compel the protagonist to adjust? Does the character adjustment affect the subsequent development of the plot line? This interplay precipitates a story’s energy and keeps the pace from flagging. I was a geologist, so I love science themes; I’m a nut for Shakespeare and have lived long enough to have been burned a few times, so bring me stories about betrayal; I love love, so I adore romantic fiction; and I’m fascinated by Alaska, so books set there always get my attention – my list of interests, of course, goes on and on. Ideally you want to find an agent who is fully invested in your subject matter – an agent ought to be your audience, your guide and certainly your biggest cheerleader. An agent can’t be all that if they’re insincere – so, yes, every agent worth their salt looks for specific elements in each work that appeal to them. We’re not stuck on one genre, usually, and we approach each manuscript differently, but every author I take on has a work that strikes within me a personal chord.

MWW: A lot of authors out there are debating if they need an agent. What are the advantages of having an agent versus not having an agent, and when should an author seek out agent representation?

JO: This is a pretty simple equation. Many acquiring editors will only read manuscripts pitched to them by established agents. So if you’re hoping for a trade publisher to publish your work, chances are you need an agent to get your foot in the door. Of course, not every publisher relies on agencies to be their gatekeepers. Some medium or smaller publishers are open to pitches from authors directly. There are also the times where an editor sees a news story or a social media post and approaches that individual to write a book – that author may not necessarily need an agent. An agent, generally, provides for an author the “passport” to access major publishing houses; the agent also offers important guidance with respect to the terms of a publishing agreement; an agent, additionally, should serve as an editorial sounding board, helping the author to “fix” what might be “wrong” in what he or she thought was a finished manuscript. Not every author needs all this, of course, but it still seems to me that an agent provides important advantages to those seeking traditional trade publication.

On the other hand, the agent takes a 15-20% commission, depending on the terms of the agency agreement and the sales of specific rights. So an author, of course, is paying for the above-described work and guidance.

Lastly, I’d mention that independent (self-) publishing has grown into a dominating presence in the book market. Naturally, if the goal is to independently publish – and there are both advantages and relative disadvantages to doing so – then the author has no real need for an agent.

And, lastly lastly – don’t seek out agent representation until your manuscript (or proposal) is actually finished and ready to be seen!

Register for Agent Fest Online and pitch your fiction to Jeff!

Follow him on Twitter — @WriteWorkshopNY

Agent Amanda Orozco represents both fiction and nonfiction

Meet Amanda! She’s one of eight literary agents participating in the MWW Agent Fest Online, October 13-16.

Before joining Transatlantic, Amanda Orozco gained a breadth of experience in academic publishing, publicity, subsidiary rights, and agenting. She graduated from UCLA with a degree in Physiological Science and an English minor and worked as a Fine Art instructor and freelance editor for several years before moving to New York to complete the NYU Masters of Science in Publishing: Digital and Print Media. While at NYU, she worked at the National Book Foundation, Shreve Williams Public Relations, and The Gernert Company; she was also selected to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Beijing International Book Fair. Upon graduating from NYU in 2019, she worked in Subsidiary Rights at Little, Brown, where she helped sell rights for authors such as Michael Connelly, Elin Hilderbrand, and Sarah Knight, until discovering agenting was her true calling. She worked at Park & Fine Literary and Media before moving back to Los Angeles, where she is now excited to build her list at Transatlantic.

Amanda has been a member of PoCinPub since 2018 and currently works for Dryland, the literary journal born in South Central, where she aims to amplify marginalized voices from the literary underground.

Wish List:

Amanda is particularly drawn to stories from Asian and Latinx writers, though she is always looking for stories with compelling writing featuring protagonists with a distinct voice and personality; clever, quirky, gritty, and/or twisty stories that surprise her and keep her reading through the night.

For fiction, she’s looking for YA contemporary romance and fantasy, as well as literary and upmarket adult fiction in the contemporary, speculative, horror, and romance genres. She has a soft spot for coming-of-age stories, multi-generational family sagas, short story collections, and the occasional urban fantasy. Recent favorites include Mary H.K. Choi, Elizabeth Acevedo, Weike Wang, Kiley Reid, Ling Ma, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and Leigh Bardugo. She is not the right agent for thrillers, mysteries, procedurals, space operas, or historical fiction.

For nonfiction, she’s interested in stories that offer fresh cultural, political, and/or social critiques along with personal narratives on art, pop culture, tech, and forgotten, unexamined history. She is looking for perspectives from the margins or from emerging artists and academics with original ideas and sharp commentary. She is open to select poetry, memoirs, and illustrated gift/humor books. Recent favorites include Carmen Maria Machado, Cathy Park Hong, Roxane Gay, Ayad Akhtar, and Jenny Odell.

Amanda will present the session “What Agents are Looking for in a Query Letter.” (Check full schedule here.) She is also a member of the Query Letter Critique Team, which offers (for an additional fee) the opportunity to meet for a 10-minute one-on-one consultation to discuss your query letter AND the first page of your manuscript.

MWW: You represent both fiction and nonfiction. Are there different qualities that make fiction shine as opposed to the ones that make nonfiction shine?

AO: I don’t think they’re necessarily different qualities between the two; for both, I would say the voice and writing are key! The unexpected usage of language, the unconventional format or structure, an old story told in a new way… all of these could be applied to both fiction and nonfiction and perhaps the difference would just be in how they’re applied to the project that makes it stand out.

MWW: Name the three top things you look for in a pitch.

AO: 1. Personalization (Is it addressed to me or to another agent mistakenly, which happens more than you would think… Is it clear there’s a reason why the author is querying me specifically or is the opening line a generic, “because you’re looking for fiction”?)

2. Succinct, punchy one-sentence hook (Does the author know how to summarize/market the book in an effective way? Do the comp titles feel relevant?)

3. Author bio (Who is the author as a person? What is their professional background and how does that contribute to their work?)

MWW: What do you hope for when tackling the slush pile? What are you tired of seeing?

AO: Like many in the industry, I’m hoping to fall in love… to come across a project that will make me sit up in my chair and want to read more, where the writing and characters and story are surprising and authentic and compelling. If a book can keep me reading late into the night, then it’s a home run.  I receive such a range of queries it’s hard to say if there’s one thing I’m tired of seeing… I suppose of all the queries, the most common one I’ve received has been in the YA fantasy genre. I wouldn’t say I’m tired of seeing them, because I love the genre, but it does make it difficult for a YA fantasy project to stand out in the crowd.

MWW: What makes you keep reading—or stop reading—a manuscript?

AO: What keeps me reading is superlative writing and narrative voice! When the writing serves the story and doesn’t draw attention to itself… when the characters feel real and engaging and the dialogue is sharp… when I can be immersed in the story and the narrative voice feels naturally strong and different.

What causes me to stop reading is usually if the manuscript does the opposite of any of these!

MWW: What are the biggest takeaways you want attendees to take home from your Agent Fest session?

AO: I’d love for them to know that when they’re querying, they’re querying a human being! Agents are humans, too; we’re not robots or machines or miracle workers. We are just humans, looking for connection through the stories that they’re sharing with us, that we can then help share with editors and publishers and readers all over the world. Be as genuine as you can in your queries–and be patient!

 

Register for Agent Fest Online and pitch your fiction or nonfiction to Amanda!

Follow her on Twitter — @oczoroadnama

Claire Harris: agent with a passion for a wide range of fiction and nonfiction

Meet Claire! One of eight literary agents participating in the MWW Agent Fest Online, October 13-16.

Claire Harris is a literary agent with a passion for a wide range of fiction and nonfiction for adults. She got her start through the NYU Summer Publishing Institute and worked at a mid-sized agency before joining the P.S. Literary team. Claire seeks projects with unique voices, interesting writing styles, and compelling characters. She enjoys the creative process of working with creators and collaborating closely with them throughout all stages of their careers. Having grown up in Wisconsin, she has a soft spot for stories set in the Midwest.

Wish List:

Claire is acquiring both fiction and nonfiction projects for adults. She’s actively seeking diverse voices and unique perspectives in all acquisitions. In fiction, she’s looking for adult rom-coms, psychological and commercial thrillers, works of fiction inspired by actual crimes, mystery, suspense, cozies, and contemporary fiction (especially family dramas). Claire is a lover of both the dark and twisted and the light and heartwarming. For nonfiction, Claire is seeking a range of projects, including lifestyle guides, pop culture celebrations, pop psychology, humor, true crime, cultural criticism, gift books, and illustrated books for adults.

Claire will present the session “So you’ve signed with an agent – now what?” She is also a member of the Query Letter Critique Team, which offers (for an additional fee) the opportunity to meet for a 10-minute one-on-one consultation to discuss your query letter AND the first page of your manuscript.

Check out the full faculty!

Check out the full schedule!

MWW: What character types or plots do you feel are overrepresented, or that you’re just tired of seeing?

CH: My main thing is that if it’s a “tired” trope or character or plot point, you need to have a fresh take. Maybe it’s your writing style. Maybe it’s a unique POV. Maybe it’s a trope that you flipped on its head. There’s not a lot that I’m truly “tired of seeing,” as long as there’s a little something new that makes it stand out from other books in the same genre.

MWW: Any tips on what a person can do to make an impression during a pitch session?

CH: Be prepared and know how to concisely pitch your book. I would say that practice makes perfect, but don’t just sit down with an agent and blurt out a memorized script. Try to leave a little room for flexibility and conversation. Make a bulleted list of points you want to hit, but don’t read through a script—be natural. My favorite part of speaking with authors during a pitch session is getting a sense of who they are in addition to hearing about their book. It’s okay (actually preferable) to leave an impression, and for me, those impressions are generally made by being personable and yourself—and not being too nervous! We agents are people, too. Keep that in mind.

MWW: What questions should a writer coming to Midwest Writers Agent Fest ask an agent who is offering representation? 

CH: My favorite question to answer (and one that I think is incredibly telling and important) is, “what’s your agenting/communication style?” If you’re the kind of author who needs weekly check-ins but the offering agent makes it clear they are more hands off, you need to give some thought to that. It can still work if you’re both willing to be open and work with each other to find a happy medium, but that’s a major one. Another is to ask about any edits they might want you to make to the manuscript, which can show you how they’re thinking about positioning the book, etc. I’m also always prepared to talk to the author about their career goals, so while this is something most agents will bring up, it’s important to discuss (and you should feel free to start that discussion if the offering agent doesn’t). There are so many more, but those are three that I think are key.

MWW: What’s the most exciting part about working with a new author on an accepted project? 

CH: For me, one of the best parts of my job is getting a project ready for submission. I absolutely love editing, writing pitch letters, creating sub lists, and calling editors to build the hype. The actual best part, though, is being able to call your author and let them know you have an offer on the table. Those are my favorite calls in the world, and little else brings me as much joy. (A close second would be calling the editor to let them know we’re accepting the offer.)

MWW: What’s the biggest takeaways you want attendees to take home from your Agent Fest session?

CH: I would love for people to walk away from my Agent Fest session realizing that getting an agent is an important first step, but it’s nowhere near the end of the journey. There’s a long road ahead of them, and I hope I can help writers know what’s coming and maybe even a few key questions to ask along the way.

Register for Agent Fest Online and pitch your project to Claire!

Agent Dani Segelbaum seeking authors from diverse backgrounds

Dani is one of eight literary agents participating in the MWW Agent Fest Online, October 13-16.

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Dani is a graduate of Boston University’s College of Communication, where she studied journalism and political science. She has been a voracious reader for as long as she can remember. Dani began her publishing career as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins Publishers, focusing primarily on highly designed nonfiction titles. She currently works as a literary agent at the Carol Mann Agency.

Wish List:

Dani hopes to work with authors from diverse backgrounds to tell stories that are important to them. Her typical preferences include literary and contemporary fiction, memoir, narrative nonfiction, and popular culture. Find out more by following her on Twitter.

Dani will present the session “The Do’s and Don’ts of Querying Agents.” She is also a member of the Query Letter Critique Team, which offers (for an additional fee) the opportunity to meet for a 10-minute one-on-one consultation to discuss your query letter AND the first page of your manuscript.

MWW: How often do you get a pitch that you later wish you had accepted, or you wish they’d pitched again after revising. Do you have any insight as to how they could have better pitched their work?

DS: I always want authors to pitch me again after they’ve revised! It shows that they are willing to put in the work and are dedicated to the story. A tip I always suggest to writers is make sure to add comp titles to your query letters.

MWW: What do you hope for when tackling the slush pile? What are you tired of seeing?  

DS: I always hope to find a query letter that completely captures my attention. I’m lucky that I’ve found some incredible manuscripts in the slush pile. I’d also love to see more authors from diverse backgrounds tell their stories. I don’t typically represent sci-fi or fantasy stories, so I’m not the best agent to query for those genres.

MWW: What’s something that comes out soon that you’re excited about?

DS: I am so excited for Hanya Yanagihara’s third novel, To Paradise.

MWW: What’s your favorite book, or favorite kind of book to read?

DS: I truly love reading a variety of stories. A fun rom-com, a mesmerizing memoir, or a fantastic cookbook. I love them all!

MWW: What’s the primary message you want attendees to take home from your Agent Fest session?

DS: Getting a book published is not an easy journey. Authors that are smart, dedicated, and passionate about their writing always stand out.

Register for Agent Fest Online and pitch your project to Dani!

Pitch your nonfiction to agent Rita Rosenkranz

Meet literary agent Rita Rosenkranz

Rita is one of eight literary agents participating in the MWW Agent Fest Online, October 13-16.

A former editor with major New York houses, Rita Rosenkranz founded Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency in 1990. Her wide-ranging adult nonfiction list stretches from the decorative to the dark. She represents health, history, parenting, music, how-to, popular science, business, biography, popular reference, cooking, spirituality, sports and general interest titles. Rita works with major publishing houses, as well as regional publishers that handle niche markets. She looks for projects that present familiar subjects freshly or lesser-known subjects presented commercially.  www.ritarosenkranzliteraryagency.com

Rita will present the session “All About the Author/Agent Relationship. She is also a member of the Query Letter Critique Team, which offers (for an additional fee) the opportunity to meet for a 10-minute one-on-one consultation to discuss your query letter AND the first page of your manuscript.

MWW: What are the most important elements of a proposal a writer submits to you? 

RR: I look to determine that the author is well-paired with the topic, so I won’t have to argue why this writer is working on this particular project, and also that the work fills an obvious gap among the list of comparable titles. Ideally, the project will further the conversation on a topic we thought we knew.

MWW: What led you to your current wish list? Has it changed, ever? 

RR: My wish list is always evolving. Even though I’m not riding trends hyper-consciously, when a category is saturated it’s time to sit it out for a while. And when it’s clear editors are hungry for a particular category, it’s lovely if I’m working with an author whose work applies. But mostly I’m attracted to projects that aren’t in and out of fashion.

MWW: Because you’re primarily interested in nonfiction, what do you think makes a nonfiction work masterful? 

RR: It’s obvious when an author has a command of a subject, offering insight and an articulated perspective that helps educate us or even reframe our thinking. Those works stand out. They’re pulse-quickening.

MWW: How do you recommend getting over “pitch anxiety”? 

RR: I understand the nervousness. Authors think they have one shot, and if they don’t connect effectively, they’ve missed out. But, obviously, agents are humans, too. And the author invariably has talked a lot about their work to many others, in effect, rehearsing the pitch. We are another listener, leaning in, hoping to connect to something brilliant and saleable.

MWW: What’s the primary message you want attendees to take home from your Agent Fest session?

RR: Agents who are reaching out to authors at a writers’ conference are by definition looking for projects. We are open to hearing about your passion for your work, and how it will be of interest to readers. The most successful authors (this applies to agents, too), persevere to find a place they can call home. Keep searching until you find your home.

 

Register for Agent Fest Online and pitch your nonfiction project to Rita!

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!