Accept the 90 Days to Your Novel challenge – with Sarah Domet

Meet fiction author Sarah Domet!

Sarah Domet is the author of The Guineveres, originally released from Flatiron Books/Macmillan in October 2016. It received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal along with praise from O Magazine, People, Elle, Real Simple, Harper’s Bazaar, and The New York Times Book ReviewSouthern Living voted it one of the Best Books of 2016 by Southern Authors and Bustle included it on their list of 2016’s best debut novels. Sarah is also the author of 90 Days to Your Novel, and her short fiction and nonfiction have been published and anthologized in numerous places. Sarah holds a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from The University of Cincinnati, and she currently teaches in the creative writing program at Ball State University.

Sarah’s MWW20 sessions include:

  • 90 Days to Your Novel Challenge – A line has been drawn in the sand. Come prepared to cross it and to accept the 90 Days to Your Novel challenge. This session will help you arm yourself with a deadline, some good writing habits, and an outline in order to imagine, structure, and complete a draft of a novel in 90 days.
  • You Finished Your Manuscript, Now What? – Completing your manuscript is only half of your job as a novelist. This session will address the necessary next steps toward publishing and promoting your work.
  • Character + Yearning = Plot – This session will explore how understanding your character–and your character’s yearning–serves as the crucial foundation for the plot of your novel.
  • Panel: Outliner or Pantser? [Tracy Clark, Sarah Domet, Sarah Aronson, Moderator: Angela Jackson-Brown]

 

Sarah Domet - MWW20
Sarah Domet – MWW20

Angela Jackson-Brown, Midwest Writers Workshop board member, interviewed Sarah for this faculty Q&A.

MWW: Often times writers have a “do as I say, not as I do” approach to writing. What is some advice that you give to your students, that you wish you did more of in your own writing? 

SD: I always tell students to let go of perfectionism in the first draft of anything–just write and have fun with it. Enjoy the process. Revel in the pure joy of language. Follow the energy of the story to unexpected places. Whatever you do: keep writing. The sentences and pages will add up. I do feel I could follow this advice a bit more. On occasion, I find myself reworking the same paragraph/page/scene over and over again, and usually this is a sign that I’m stuck. I’m a big believer in the idea that the first draft of anything is simply a process of trying to figure out how to tell a story.

MWW: In your novel The Guineveres, you have four characters who share the same name. How easy or difficult was it developing their individual voices? What are the techniques/strategies you used to make sure each character resonated off the page?

SD: Voice is everything in fiction. I always tell my students that once you find your voice, you find your story. Part of narrative voice is discovering who is telling the story, of course. But perhaps equally important is figuring out who the imagined listener of your story might be. In The Guineveres, the turning point for me was figuring out just who was listening. Why were these girls telling this story in the first place? In the end, the answer surprised me!

In general, I find it useful for writers to think about this question: Why do I want to tell this story? If you can answer this question clearly, then you can often tap into your characters–and their motives–in more authentic ways.

MWW:  What are the main takeaways you want conference attendees to walk away with after taking your workshop?

SD: I hope attendees walk away with confidence in their voices and with concrete plans for finishing, revising, or submitting their work.

[Support Midwest Writers Workshop by purchasing MWW20 authors’ books with Amazon Smile! Click here.]
Join Sarah and the MWW Community to help you move forward with your stories! Check out this awesome schedule — and you get access to ALL 23 sessions!

Register for Virtual MWW20 here today!

Lori Rader-Day presents An Autopsy of a Novel – MWW20

Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark award-winning author of The Lucky One (February 2020), Under a Dark Sky, The Day I Died, Little Pretty Things, and The Black Hour. She lives in Chicago, where she is co-chair of the mystery readers’ conference Murder and Mayhem in Chicago and the national president of Sisters in Crime. [Support Midwest Writers Workshop by purchasing The Lucky One with Amazon Smile! Click here.]

Her short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, TimeOut Chicago, Crab Orchard Review, Freight Stories, and in the anthologies Dia de los Muertos (Elektrik Milkbath Press), Unloaded 2 (Down and Out Books), and Murder-a-Go-Go’s (Down and Out Books). Bestselling author Jodi Picoult chose Lori’s story as the grand prize winner of Good Housekeepings first fiction contest in 2010.

She studied journalism at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, twice–but eventually gave in to her dream and studied creative writing at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Now a resident of Chicago for almost twenty years, she has a favorite deep dish pizza (Lou Malnati’s) and is active in the area’s crime writing community.

Join “Happy Hour with Lori” – Monday (July 20), Wednesday (July 22), Friday (July 24) from 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm. as she discusses An Autopsy of a Novel.

Lori will walk you through her entire process for writing her novels. MWW20 session participants are encouraged–not required–to read The Lucky One prior the conference. Lori may need to talk about some spoilers to tell this story. Reading the book prior to the sessions will help a great deal not to have the twists ruined and to see how she worked them through.

Moderator Jama Kehoe Bigger will ask Lori – DAY ONE:

  • Where did the idea come from?
  • How did she create the plot?
  • At what point did she determine her characters?
  • Can we see her synopsis?

Since we hope most of the audience will have read the book, Lori will stop and ask for your feedback on decisions she made when writing the book. She can describe a problem that came up and ask you what you would have done to solve the problem. This will lead to lively dialogue! The purpose of this Happy Hour with Lori is to encourage writers to read books critically; to help workshop participants understand the steps involved in creating a publishable novel; to build community among MWW patrons; and promote literary citizenship by supporting an author and his/her work.

Moderator Jama will ask Lori – DAY TWO:

  • What did her outline look like?
  • How rough was her rough draft?
  • Talk about the editing process. How much input did her editor give her?
  • Who chose the title?

Moderator Jama will ask Lori – DAY THREE:

  • Did she have any control over the cover design?
  • What kinds of obstacles did she encounter along the way?
  • Did she have beta readers?
  • How many drafts did she do?

COUNTDOWN: ONE WEEK!

Join Lori and the MWW Community to help you move forward with your stories! Check out this awesome schedule — and you get access to ALL 23 sessions!

Register for Virtual MWW20 here today!

Q&A with Lori Rader-Day

MWW Director Jama Kehoe Bigger caught up with Lori about her writing and her friendship with Midwest Writers Workshop.

Lori Rader Day - MWW20
Lori Rader Day – MWW20

MWW: Introduce yourself and tell us about your latest novel/creative project.

LRD: Hi, everyone! I’m Lori Rader-Day, a Midwest Writers Workshop alumna and award-winning crime fiction writer. I’m also the national president of Sisters in Crime, and you can consider that a commercial. My latest published book is The Lucky One, which is a psychological thriller about a woman who was kidnapped as a child (and returned safely) and is paying back her good fortune by helping find cold case missing persons–when she sees a face she recognizes on the site and it’s her kidnapper, never brought to justice. My latest project, not yet published, is a historical crime story set during World War II at Agatha Christie’s summer house, Greenway, in Devon, England.

MWW: We’re all creating new routines for ourselves in the midst of COVID. What does dedicating time to your craft right now look like for you?

LRD: To finish my recent revisions for that last project, I had to dedicate so much what we call “butt in chair” time that I might have injured myself. Who says this job isn’t a physical one? This was hours a day every day for most of the quarantine, which gave me something to focus on. Now that I’m done… well, let’s just say I might start writing my next book sooner than planned.

MWW: What role has Midwest Writers Workshop played in your personal path to publication?

LRD: Midwest Writers Workshop was the first writing conference I ever went to. I had no idea who I was, what kind of writer I wanted to be, but I had so much fun. When I went back the next time, I had a clearer idea–but I was wrong, because when I went to MWW’s fellow retreat (RIP) one year, I found out I was a crime fiction writer. I didn’t know, but the wise people at MWW made sure I left with a better idea of the story I was writing and what I would need to do to get it written. That book was published as my third novel in 2017, but the scene I wrote at the retreat is still in the book.

MWW: Why would you encourage writers–of any age or any experience level–to participate in Midwest Writers Workshop?

LRD: I send a lot of people to MWW because I think it’s a welcoming space with great teachers. I think any age of writer could find some fellow writers to hang out with, and any experience level will find some classes to fit their needs.

Lori’s waiting to meet you for Happy Hour!

“Creative Research” and how to decide what works with your story

Meet MWW20 faculty member Kelcey Parker Ervick

Kelcey Parker Ervick is the author of three award-winning books: The Bitter Life of Bozena Němcová, a hybrid work of biography, memoir, and art about a Czech fairy tale writer; Liliane’s Balcony (Rose Metal Press), a novella set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater; and the story collection For Sale By Owner (Kore Press).

She is co-editor, with Tom Hart, of the forthcoming Field Guide to Graphic Literature: Artists and Writers on Creating Graphic Narratives, Poetry Comics, and Literary Collage, which Rose Metal Press will publish in 2021.

She has received grants from the Indiana Arts Commission and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Her stories, essays, and comics have appeared in The Believer, The Rumpus, Colorado Review, Passages North, Quarterly West, Booth, Notre Dame Review, The Common, and elsewhere. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and teaches creative writing at Indiana University South Bend.

Kelcey Parker Ervick MWW20
Kelcey Parker Ervick – MWW20

Kelcey’s MWW20 sessions include:

  • The “I” And The “Eye” In Nonfiction – How to strengthen your memoir by developing a persona and writing from a clear and consistent narrative perspective.
  • Searching and Researching: How To Write What You Don’t Know – How to take your memoir to the next level by making connections to history, politics, science, and culture.
  • Scene Magic – Kelcey will take you step by step through the writing of a compelling scene, then we will break those scenes down to identify the key parts so you can do it again (and again) on your own.

Lylanne Musselman, Midwest Writers Workshop board member, interviewed Kelcey for this week’s faculty Q&A.

MWW: Your award-winning book, The Bitter Life of Bozena Němcová, is billed as a biographical collage. How did that come about? Did you start writing with that idea in mind?

KPE: Bozena Němcová is a fairy tale writer whom I first encountered when I bought a book of her fairy tales for my daughter in the Prague Castle gift shop. I then learned that she is everywhere in Prague: there are statues and plaques and books and theater productions inspired by her. She is even on the Czech equivalent of the $20. (Imagine: a woman! on paper money!)

Long before it was a book idea, it was just me wondering: Who is this person? Why is she so important here? And why have I never heard of her before?

In my quest to find answers, I was so dazzled by everything I came across, and all my notes and quotes seemed to be in conversation with one another. So, I decided to tell the story of her life through actual snippets of her fairy tales and (amazingly frank) letters, gossip and recollections by her friends, radio interviews, and even things Kafka wrote about her in his letters. So, it became a “biographical collage.”

MWW: One of your sessions for Virtual MWW20 is “Searching and Researching: How to Write What You Don’t Know.” Writers are often told to only “write what you know” so what teaser can you give us about this session without giving too much away?

KPE: “Research” sounds so dull, but it isn’t! And it can add so much to your writing.

For example, I learned that one of the (rather disturbing) Frida Kahlo paintings that was originally owned by the historical characters in my book Liliane’s Balcony is now owned by Madonna, who uses it as a test litmus of friendship: “If somebody doesn’t like this painting,” she said, “then I know they can’t be my friend.”

Actually, that’s a terrible example because although I REALLY wanted to include that research tidbit, I couldn’t make it work in the story, so it’s not in the book!

Anyway, in this session I’ll provide strategies and fun examples of what I call “creative research” and how to decide what works with your story. Then I’ll offer a list of specific ways you can apply and incorporate your discoveries into your writing to add depth, detail, and humor.

MWW: What is your writing process like? Do you have any set rituals? 

KPE: In 2018, I started making a drawing or painting each day, and I’m now in my third year of doing it, and it has transformed my writing life. I have a different, less precious, relationship to painting than writing, so it is a way for me to create more freely and have fun. I post most of my daily doodles on Instagram, where it’s fun to connect with other readers, writers, and artists. The whole experience helped me think differently about how I write and the stories I tell. Weirdly, making visual art has helped me find my “voice.” (The Rumpus published my visual reflections on daily art-making in 2018 and again in 2019.)

I also like having at least two different projects going at once. This way, if one project isn’t going well on a certain day, there’s always another to work on.

Another part of my process is stepping back from a piece and writing ABOUT it: Why am I writing it? What am I trying to say? How would I describe it to a stranger? Writing about and reflecting on these questions can help me move forward and provide focus when I go back to drafting.

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

KPE: I’m working on a couple of different projects. Both are illustrated narratives. One is inspired by my great-grandmother’s life in Belfast, Ireland, working as a flax-spinner making tablecloths for the Titanic, which was being built in nearby shipyards, while dreaming of taking it to America.

The other is an illustrated memoir about being part of the first generation of Title IX, the law best known for creating equal opportunities for girls and women in sports. Like my literary idol, Vladimir Nabokov, I was a soccer goalie who wanted to be a writer. Unlike him, I was a girl. As I tell my story, I share stories of women athletes and writers who paved the way.

Join Kelcey and the MWW Community to help you move forward with your stories! Check out this awesome schedule — and you get access to ALL 23 sessions!

Register for Virtual MWW20 here today!

Sarah Aronson is all about about exploring those three I’s!

Meet MWW20 faculty member Sarah Aronson

Sarah Aronson began writing for kids and teens when someone in an exercise class dared her to try. Since then, she has earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and published three stand alone novels: Head Case, Beyond Lucky, and Believe, a young MG series, The Wish List (Scholastic, 2017-2019) as well as the picture book biography, Just Like Rube Goldberg (Beach Lane Books), illustrated by Robert Neubecker.

When Sarah is not writing or reading (or cooking or riding her bike), she is talking to readers about creativity, writing, social action, and of course, sparkle power! She loves working with other writers in one of her classes at  the amazing Highlights Foundation or Writers on the Net (www.writers.com). She currently serves as PAL coordinator for SCBWI-Illinois-and the SCBWI-IL initiative, Read Local. Warning: She overuses exclamation points. When she gets really excited, she makes funny faces and talks with her hands. She lives in Evanston, Illinois.

Sarah Aronson - MWW20
Sarah Aronson – MWW20
Sarah’s MWW20 sessions include:
  • Get to Know Your MG/YA Novel – Sarah will present her philosophy on the stages of revision, beginning with reimagination and how writers can discover their most authentic voices. She will look at the three I’s: Inspiration, Intuition, and Intellect. She will offer her best tips, as well as anecdotes for every stage of revision–from concept to word–that are guaranteed to amplify voice and give you the confidence you need to dig deep into your novel narratives. She will provide a hand-out filled with exercises you can use to help you embrace the power of play.
  • Panel: Outliner and Pantser? [Tracy Clark, Sarah Domet, Sarah Aronson, Moderator: Angela Jackson-Brown]
  • To Move Forward, Look Back – Explore backstory to reveal new opportunities for revision and reimagination. In this lecture, Sarah will look at three kinds of back story-your story’s origins, your characters’ past, and your emotions and reasons for writing-as tools for discovery and revision. Writing exercises included.
  • No More Subpar Subplots – Are you stuck in the muddy middle?  Worried that your novel sags and drags? Or are you just plain lost? Perhaps you need to ramp up your subplots!  In this seminar, Sarah will break down the art of writing compelling secondary characters and subplots, and help you increase the conflict and pace your novel. Come prepared to do some writing exercises and self-editing. Warning: this process may lead to the death (or creation) of brand new characters!

Gail Werner, long-time friend of Midwest Writers Workshop, caught up with Sarah recently and interviewed her for this Q&A.

MWW: Can you tell me more about your background and how you got into writing young adult fiction? Someone you knew dared you once to give it a try, right?   

SA: Yes! Before I was a writer, I was a physical therapist, and for a long time, I taught a variety of exercise classes. After one spinning class, someone dared me to try writing. This didn’t completely surprise me. I had grown up loving and performing theater, and if you ask my mom and dad, I have always been a very persuasive story teller. So, I went home and found my children reading. (Rebecca was reading Esperanza, Rising, and Elliot was reading Bunnicula–for maybe the 100th time!) I don’t think I really thought much about it. I decided to try writing my favorite kinds of books–books for young readers–took out a pen and paper and started writing!

(I admit: I thought it would be easy. It wasn’t!)

After a few false starts, I met editor, Deborah Brodie, who liked my voice, but not much more! She suggested I get my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Since that experience, I’ve published nine books for kids with one more under contract. I love talking about craft–and working with writers to help them find their stories. Every day, I am inspired by so many writers in the children’s literature community. We have great readers and an important mission: to give every child the opportunity to see themselves in stories that end with hope.

MWW: One of your MWW20 sessions–“To Move Forward, Look Back”–is on the topic of exploring backstory as a writer’s tool for discovery and revision. What do you think are the key purposes of backstory, and why is backstory important to good character creation?

SA: Backstory is all about the WHY–and the why is the key to understanding our characters’ motivations and desires that propel the story forward. No story begins on page one. Our characters’ past experiences form their worldviews–and that helps us imagine what they will do when faced with obstacles. Our backstories are important, too! They help us understand what our stories mean to us–and also mine for personal details. It’s going to be a fun session!

MWW: What do you love most about writing for kids and teens? On the flip side, what is the greatest challenge? 

SA: I love hanging out with kids! I love thinking like a kid. Childhood is a time of discovery and growth–both physical and emotional. My favorite books are the books I read when I was young. Getting into the mindset of a young person or teen is both rewarding and incredibly challenging! As an adult, I have a lot to share. But books aren’t teachers. Story is still the boss.

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

SA: I just finished editing my upcoming picture book called Brand New Bubbe.

Other works in progress include a middle grade novel that begins when the protagonist gets kicked out of camp for reasons she will not disclose. Because her parents are busy, they send her to her grandmother’s house for two weeks. It’s a story of family and friendship–my first story that takes place in Chicago. I’m also working on a mystery as well as a picture book about the history of Paint By Numbers. I like working on more than one project at a time–they are all in different stages. My writing process is all about the power of play. It’s about exploring those three I’s: inspiration, intuition, and intellect!

Join Sarah and the MWW Community to help you move forward with your stories! Check out this awesome schedule — and you get access to ALL 23 sessions!

Register for Virtual MWW20 here today!

Carol Saller helps writers polish their work for submission

Meet MWW20 faculty member Carol Saller

Carol Saller is a longtime contributing editor to The Chicago Manual of Style and writes for Fiction+ at the CMOS blog. She has also worked as an acquiring editor in children’s book publishing (Cricket Books). Her own books include The Subversive Copy Editor and several books for children, most recently the MG/YA novel Eddie’s War.

Praise for The Subversive Copy Editor …

“This is the book Oprah would write if her vocation were saving writers from embarrassment, rather than saving the whole world. To which I say, finally. I’ve got dozens of books concerned with the nuts and bolts of copy-editing, but this is the only one that teaches the fine art of chilling out.” — Jennifer Balderama, New York Times

Carol’s sessions for MWW20 include:
  • From Yourself to the Shelf: How a Book Gets Published – Knowing in advance what happens in copy-editing and proofreading helps writers understand their responsibilities, manage expectations, and work well with editors. This introduction to the publishing process from submission to printed (or digital) product will prepare you to work capably alongside the pros in delivering your work to readers.
  • Acts of Submission: Working with Editors – Each year writers and editors submit thousands of questions to The Chicago Manual of Style, and for more than 20 years, editor Carol Saller read them all. To her, the number of questions beginning “My editor insists . . .” began to present a theme: that in editorial battles, the reader is the one who loses. Her book The Subversive Copy Editor is all about win-win strategies for editors and writers. This session presents advice from the book Publishers Weekly called “practical, relentlessly supportive and full of ed-head laughs.”
Carol Saller welcomes you to MMW2020
Carol Saller welcomes you to MMW2020

Jama Kehoe Bigger, MWW Executive Director, caught up with Carol recently and interviewed her for this Q&A.

MWW: What is The Chicago Manual of Style? What is the biggest source of confusion for writers about style manuals?

CS: The Chicago Manual of Style is a gigantic reference book filled with grammar and style advice for writers, everything from hyphenation and capitalization to writing footnotes and creating an index. It has chapters on permissions, tables, mathematics, languages other than English — you name it. It’s the style guide used most by US trade book publishers. It’s been around for generations and is respected all over the world.

The biggest source of confusion about style manuals is that they disagree, and that’s OK! Style manuals are created to serve different kinds of audiences or different kinds of publishing. Most newspapers use Associated Press (AP) style, for instance, which is different from Chicago style. So, for example, Chicago writes “lions, tigers, and bears” with a comma and AP writes it without, “lions, tigers and bears.” They’re both “correct.”

Styles are simply choices an editor makes in order to keep things consistent within a document, and following a manual keeps the editor’s choices consistent and saves the editor the trouble of making a million decisions.

MWW: Why did you write The Subversive Copy Editor? And why “subversive” in the title?

CS: Well, you caught me out. I don’t really have much potential as a subversive. But so many copy editors — especially inexperienced ones — take their style guides as sacred texts, I began to feel subversive in counseling them to be more flexible and break rules when it helps the reader. And as a colleague pointed out, The Subversive Copy Editor is a much more fun title than The Sensible Copy Editor.

MWW: How did you become an editor? Do you have any pet peeves as an editor?

CS: I sort of stumbled into editing by chance — it’s a long and boring tale. But I feel lucky to have found work that’s suited me so well.

Although I’m officially against peeving, which I believe stems from arrogance and leads to grammar-shaming and bullying, I can’t deny that there are some expressions that give me hives even though they’re already almost universally accepted. Here’s one: the use of “All X are not” to mean “Not all X are.” To me, it’s just nonsense! I could go on and on about this – if anyone’s curious, they can read my essay “All Lawyers Are Not Liars: True or False?

MWW: You have read thousands of questions submitted to The Chicago Manual of Style. What are your favorite editing tips for writers?

CS: The best writers are readers. Read the kind of thing you want to write — read lots of it — to get an intuitive feel for how to write it. You can’t learn that kind of thing in a class.

Be humble when someone edits your prose. Some of the rules you learned in school about grammar and punctuation are out of date or were actually never right. Editors call these old bogus rules superstitions or zombie rules. You won’t find them in any authoritative grammar or style book. True facts: It’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition. It’s fine to have a sentence fragment. It’s fine to start a sentence with “And” or “But.” It’s fine to use the passive voice.

People tend to think whatever English they learned in school is gospel and unchanging. They don’t think that about physics or biology or history, of course — only English.

MWW: You are also a published author of fiction. Tell us about your other books.

CS: Years ago I published a string of books for young children — fiction, biography, history, a tall tale in verse — and then after a long hiatus I wrote Eddie’s War, which is YA historical fiction. Although the characters and events are made up, I based the farm-life details on my father’s family farm, which I grew up visiting, and on details I found in Dad’s childhood diaries, which he wrote when he was 12-18. Recently I finished two middle-grade/YA manuscripts (not sure how that happened — I started them years apart), and now I’m beginning the long-dreaded search for an agent. Wish me luck! If I don’t find one, I’ll have to retire from advising on how to write a query letter.

Join Carol and the MWW Community to help you move forward with your stories!

Register for Virtual MWW20 here today!

Need help “Nailing the First Page”? Tracy Clark has advice!

Meet award-winning author Tracy Clark

Tracy Clark is the author of the Cass Raines PI series. The series, set in Chicago, features ex-homicide cop turned PI Cassandra Raines, a hard-driving African-American gumshoe who works the mean streets of the Windy City dodging cops, cons, killers and thugs.

Her debut novel, Broken Places, made Library Journal’s list of the Best Crime Fiction of 2018 and was shortlisted in the mystery category on the American Library Association’s 2019 Reading List. CrimeReads also named Cass Raines Best New PI of 2018. The novel also received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, a rave from Kirkus Review, and was nominated for a Lefty Award for Best Debut Novel, an Anthony Award for Best Debut Novel, and a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel.

Her second Cass Raines novel, Borrowed Time, released in May 2019. Book three, What You Don’t See, recently released in May 2020.

A native Chicagoan, Tracy roots for the Cubs, the Sox, the Bears, the Blackhawks, the Chicago Shy and the Chicago Fire equally. She is member of Sisters in Crime and Sisters in Crime Chicagoland, Mystery Writers of America Midwest and International Thriller Writers. She is also a member of the Bouchercon National Board and secretary of her MWA local chapter.

Tracy’s sessions for MWW20 include:
  • Listening to The Voices In Your Head: about developing characters, main and secondary. Fleshing them out, giving them distinctive characteristics.
  • Panel: Outliner and Pantser? [Tracy Clark, Sarah Domet, Sarah Aronson, Moderator: Angela Jackson-Brown]
  • Nailing the First Page
  • Crafting Dynamic Dialogue
  • Panel: What No One Tells You About the Writing Life, But Should

Stephen Terrell, a member of the Midwest Writers Workshop Board of Directors, caught up with Tracy recently and interviewed her for this Q&A.

MWW:  Your first novel in the Cassandra Raines detective series was nominated for an Anthony, a Lefty Award and a Shamus Award for first novel. One of your topics at MWW2020 is “Listening to the Voices in Your Head” and developing characters. How did your character of Cassandra Raines come about? You’ve now written three books in the series. Has Cassandra changed from your initial concept, or was she fully formed in your head at creation?

TC: Cass Raines has been rattling around in my head, as a voice, as a character, almost fully formed since I was maybe twelve or thirteen. She popped up around about the time I started really getting into mysteries and reading them exclusively almost nonstop. I started with Nancy Drew, spunky, intrepid, progressed to Agatha Christie, then careened into the Golden Age of female crime writers in the early ’80s. I don’t think Cass has changed all that much in all that time. She’s still the same ferocious champion of the underdog she was when she presented herself to me, but I’ve got deeper understanding of her today than I ever could have had at thirteen. I understand her better today. Now I just go where she leads me.

MWW: Your stories are set in your hometown of Chicago (“Go Cubs”). How do you go about making your Chicago setting come alive for readers?

TC: Chicago’s a great city, and I work really hard to get it right, capturing the smells, the sights, the sounds, the corruption, the grit, the traffic snarls, the perennial nuisances that Chicagoans have to deal with. I use all of it to paint the picture and bring the city to life on the page. It takes a bit. I spend a lot of time on it. If a reader is familiar with Chicago, I want them to say, “Ah, I know that place. That’s exactly how it is.” If a reader knows nothing about the city, then I want them to get a sense of what they’re missing.

MWW:  Dialog is so important in your writing. You are teaching a class on “Crafting Dynamic Dialog.” What are the key points people listening to your presentation will be able to learn about improving their dialog?

TC: Dialog is key to revealing your character. How people speak, what they say, how they say it, tells you a great deal about them. But it is equally important what a character holds back. What he or she perhaps won’t say and how that can be conveyed in long pauses or short hesitations. All of that counts toward dialog. Every character has to want something. Not all characters are evolved enough to ask for it. Dialog therefore can be a delicate dance. Getting it right will assuredly elevate your story, muffing it will certainly kill it.

MWW: You are speaking on “Nailing the First Page,” which I think is one of the toughest tasks a writer faces. How do you know when you get it “write” or when you still need to re-write?

TC: For me, I equate it with hitting a tennis ball and getting that sweet spot on the racquet. That hit, that dead-center pop has a distinctive sound. You know the instant you hit the spot that you’ve hit it, and that the shot’s going to be good. It’s kind of the same with writing. Each sentence, each paragraph, each page has a rhythm to it. The words work or they don’t; your pace is slow or fast, your intent is conveyed or it isn’t. Your characters are revealed, their wants and needs expressed, or none of that is accomplished and you’ve lost your reader. And you know you’re done writing when all the elements of story work together, when you’ve hit that sweet spot. You can feel it. You can hear it when you read your work aloud, and every writer should. When you’ve gotten it right, your story will sing to you. That sounds goofy, but it’s an organic sort of thing

Join Tracy and the MWW Community to help you move forward with your stories!

Register for Virtual MWW20 here today!

Pitch to Jennifer Grimaldi at MWW 2020 Agent Fest!

Get to Know an Agent in Attendance: Jennifer Grimaldi

Jennifer is one of eight literary agents coming to the 2020 MWW Agent Fest, March 13-14 at the Ball State Alumni Center, Muncie, Indiana.

Raised on a steady diet of Holly Black & Philip Pullman, Jennifer Grimaldi has always gravitated toward otherworldly, fantastical novels that reflect our own world’s past and present. At St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne, she edited and acquired S. Jae-Jones’ New York Times bestseller Wintersong–a Labyrinth-inspired gothic YA–and worked with numerous bestselling and award-winning authors such as Kate Forsyth. Jennifer’s broad exposure to the domestic and foreign publishing markets as a scout with Barbara Tolley & Associates further shaped her taste for the eclectic. She is now an agent with Chalberg & Sussman, where she first started her publishing career in 2012.

Although the titles on her shelves have changed over the years, the content has not: they are still stuffed with magic and spaceships, fairytales and faraway lands. Across all genres, Jennifer loves strong, voice-driven novels, dark and romantic themes, and books that make her think–and learn. She is particularly excited by books that explore gender and sexuality, especially those with diverse, LGBTA+ leads, and own-voice writers.

Aspects sure to delight her include: cities and urban-planning, anecdotal histories, that trope where there were supposed to be two rooms at the hotel but they’re all booked up so the leads have to share, spies, thieves, mythological retellings, witches just trying to get by, weird obsessions, and puns.

Jennifer’s Wish List:

She is looking for historicals, romance, horror, and young adult and adult sci-fi and fantasy.

MWW agent assistant Gina Klaff, senior Creative Writing major at Ball State University and fiction editor for The Broken Plate, interviewed Jennifer about her life as an agent and about coming to MWW Agent Fest.

MWW: Let’s start with a question that might help some of the writers who may be attending the Fest. Are there any specific elements that you look for in a manuscript that help you determine whether or not you’d like to work with that story, or do you approach every manuscript differently?

Every manuscript is different, which is why most agents request a query letter along with pages to get a sense of the plot, themes, and writing style of the project. I don’t expect writers to be experts at query writing, so passes at that level for me are usually very basic: I’m not interested in representing that story, or I don’t like the hook, or it’s something I’ve seen done before. Once I move to the pages, I make faster and more cutthroat determinations. These can be based on character interactions, plot, genre tropes, writing, and so on, and are very specific to each type of project. I expect the first pages of a MS to be the most heavily edited, so if I sense problems, I’ll pass on a project very quickly.

MWW: Do you have any advice for new writers on how to query, or how to approach you or other agents?

The most important step is to do your research, both into your own project to correctly determine its genre and comparison titles, and then into agents who you feel will best be able to represent your project. The agents you are querying should be experts in your genre, and someone you would be excited to build a partnership with. The best advice I can offer is to be kind, professional, and respect boundaries. Remember that agents are people too, and they should be as excited to represent your work as you are to have them representing you!

MWW: Are there any specific tropes that make you happy whenever you see them? 

Absolutely! I have a few specific ones listed in my bio, but off the top of my head, I’m also a big fan of bodyguard romances, clever inversions of traditional narratives, villain-centric stories, and explorations of mythology and morality.

MWW: What kind of manuscript or story have you not seen for some time (or at all) and would like to work with in the upcoming year?

Oh, this is a tough one! I’d love to see more sci-fi dealing with robots/AI and the general question of what makes us human. On a completely different tack, I’d also love to see a fun murder-mystery romp as the backdrop to a rom-com or a YA narrative, in the vein of “Knives Out” or Clue.

MWW: And since we’re talking about stories, what’s a book you’ve recently read that you enjoyed?

I recently picked up A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which is sort of a space opera-meets-political intrigue with a fascinating mystery and extremely compelling heroine. It’s a wonderful read.

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In addition to hearing pitches and critiquing query letters, Jennifer will present this session at the 2020 MWW Agent Fest:
  • “360 View of the Path to Publication” –  A look at the full process of publishing a book from a current literary agent and former book scout and editor. This session will cover what you can expect from the submission process, the selling and retaining of rights and subrights, the marketing and publicity a traditional publisher can offer, and what comes next.
Come and meet Jennifer!

Register Today!

Pitch to Patricia Nelson at MWW 2020 Agent Fest!

Get to Know an Agent in Attendance: Patricia Nelson

Patricia is one of eight literary agents coming to the  2020 MWW Agent Fest, March 13-14 at the Ball State Alumni Center, Muncie, Indiana.

MWW agent assistant Kate Champlin, Ph.D. in English from Ball State University, interviewed Patricia about her life as an agent and about coming to MWW Agent Fest.

MWW: What should a new author remember to include in a pitch? Is there an element in the query or the description of the book that will especially catch your attention?
PN: I’m always looking for four things in a pitch: character, catalyst, conflict, stakes. In other words:
  • Who is your main character and what’s interesting about them?
  • What happens that changes everything for them?
  • Now what choices do that have to make, and what obstacles do they have to overcome?
  • And finally, what will happen if they fail or make the wrong choices?
In an in-person pitch, being concise and straightforward is key to making the best use of your time, so if you can sum up the answer to each question in a sentence or two, that will give us a great foundation to start our conversation.

 

MWW: What questions should new authors ask during the first meeting with the literary agent? (Some new authors might not know the right questions to ask.)
PN: Usually in a pitch we’ll just be talking about your book, so no need to worry too much about preparing questions in advance. I suppose you could ask “do you have any suggestions for how I might strengthen my pitch or the story?” or “does this strike you as a premise that would work in the current market?”… but honestly, I’ll probably volunteer that advice unprompted!

 

MWW: Are there any particular character tropes or plot points that might cause you to reject a pitch?
PN: I personally tend to shy away from stories with a great deal of violence, and from stories where the catalyst for the main character’s growth is a rape or assault. And of course, any pitches in a genre or category I don’t represent will be a no-go for me.

 

MWW: Are there any character types or plots that you feel are overrepresented in the market?
PN: The market is so tough right now that anything that doesn’t feel completely fresh is difficult to sell. So your best bet is to read widely, and then think about what you aren’t seeing and write the story only you could write. Because of the long lead time between when a book is acquired by a publisher and when it releases, if you’re trying to write to trends, you’re generally already too late.

 

MWW: How many new queries do you receive every year? How many of these projects do you choose to represent?
PN: I receive hundreds of queries each month, and generally sign no more than five new clients in any given year. It’s important to me to keep my client list relatively small so that I can give a lot of attention to every single person I represent, so when I’m deciding whether to take on someone new, the bar is very high. I’m only looking for authors who I feel like I would be heartbroken to NOT work with.

 

MWW: Our interview model also includes space for a brief biography and a wish list. What should the new authors at Agent Fest know about you? What types of manuscripts are you currently looking for?
PN: I’ve been a literary agent with Marsal Lyon Literary Agency since 2014, representing young adult, middle grade, and select adult fiction. My clients include bestselling and award-winning authors, and my recent sales include books placed with Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Candlewick and Simon & Schuster, among others. I received my bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and hold master’s degrees in English Literature from the University of Southern California and in Gender Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Although I’m currently based in San Diego, I’m actually a Midwesterner originally — I grew up in Michigan.
My wish list includes:
  • beautifully written, page-turning, unique young adult and middle grade fiction across genres, with particular interest in contemporary/realistic novels, contemporary fantasy, and magical realism
  • contemporary women’s fiction of both the upmarket (book club) and commercial (beach read) varieties
  • historical women’s fiction set in the 20th century, especially if it explores the untold story of a real historical figure
  • sexy, smart adult contemporary and historical romance with a big hook (but note that I do NOT represent category romance, paranormal romance, or romantic suspense)
  • novels by underrepresented authors across all categories/genres that I represent
In addition to hearing pitches and critiquing query letters, Patricia will present these sessions at the 2020 MWW Agent Fest:
  • “Rookie Submission Mistakes (and how to avoid them)” Learn about common pitfalls of queries and first chapters, along with a crash course in best practices for catching an agent’s eye. Whether you’re just starting to prepare to seek an agent or are looking to troubleshoot a query that’s not working, this session offers tips and tricks to help take your submission materials to the next level.
  • “Capturing the YA and MG Voice” – Agents and editors often say that they’re looking to “fall in love with the voice” when they’re considering a project. But what does that even mean? What is voice, and how can you make yours stronger? In this session, we will focus specifically on honing a voice that jumps off the page for the competitive young adult and middle grade markets.

Come and meet Patricia!

Register Today! (Limited number of Query Letter Critiques available)

Pitch to Kerry D’Agostino at MWW 2020 Agent Fest!

Get to Know an Agent in Attendance: Kerry D’Agostino

Kerry is one of eight literary agents coming to the  2020 MWW Agent Fest, March 13-14 at the Ball State Alumni Center, Muncie, Indiana.

Kerry D’Agostino is a literary agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. She received her bachelor’s degree in English from Bowdoin College, her masters in Art in Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and her certificate in publishing from the Columbia Journalism School. She started at Curtis Brown in 2011 as assistant to Tim Knowlton and Holly Frederick in the Film and Television Department. After some time as a film and audio rights associate, she also began assisting Peter Ginsberg. In addition to her continued work with Peter, Kerry now represents authors of literary and commercial fiction, and select narrative nonfiction. She is particularly interested in work that is voice driven, accessible, and authentic. Above all, she is drawn to work that either introduces her to someone, somewhere, or something new, or makes her see something old in a new way. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.

Kerry’s Wish List:

She is looking for literary and commercial fiction and select narrative nonfiction. She is particularly interested in work that is voice driven, accessible, and authentic.

MWW agent assistant Allison Akers interviewed Kerry about her life as an agent and about coming to MWW Agent Fest.

MWW: What are some do’s and don’t’s for authors who may be attending an agent pitch fest for the first time?

KD: The Midwest Writers Workshop website has some great advice for attending agent pitch fests, and I second all of it; it’s important to know who you are meeting with, and it’s also crucial to practice your pitch, on your own and also with those you can trust to share honest feedback. Be prepared to have a conversation about your work outside of the pitch, too: what brought you to the idea? What did your writing process involve? What do you consider to be good comp titles for your work? What kind of work might you want to pursue next? As far as “don’ts” go, it’s completely understandable that this can be a nerve-wracking experience, but don’t be too nervous. Agents work in publishing because they love books, and they attend these conferences because they’re excited to discover new talent. Both parties entering the conversation are hoping for a potential match! That said, another don’t is to not be too discouraged if your project is not a perfect match for the agent. Literature is so subjective, and just because the work is not right for one person does not mean it will not be a fit for the next. 

MWW: In your agent bio, you say you are interested in work that is “voice driven, accessible, and authentic,” as well as work that introduces you to new people, places, ideas, or gives a fresh take on an old concept. What work have you run across–either through your clients or leisure reading-that displays these qualifications?

KD: The best way to familiarize yourself with an agent’s taste is to study the books that they represent. My clients’ spring publications give a good sense of my interests: Leesa Cross-Smith’s  So We Can Glow is a gorgeous short story collection exploring the complicated hearts of girls and women; in Nancy Wayson Dinan’s  Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here, a young woman sets out in the aftermath of the 2015 Memorial Day floods to find her missing friend; and with  Before She Was Helen, Caroline B. Cooney takes us to the heart of a retirement community to discover long-buried secrets in her first mystery for adults. Each of the protagonists across these books is deeply relatable in some way, but each also simultaneously brings me into a new landscape of some kind, whether physical or emotional.

MWW: Do you gravitate toward a particular genre or story/memoir structure within the categories of commercial fiction, literary fiction, and nonfiction?

KD: I would not say that I’m drawn to a particular structure, but across each of these categories I’m consistently looking for work that blends a deep examination of character with narrative momentum. I’m always intrigued when I see a writer playing with structure–Leslie Pietrzyk’s  Silver Girl is a great example of this, where we start with The Middle, move to The Beginning, then to the End, and then finally to Where Every Story Truly Begins–but the structure has to be purposeful, in service of the story rather than vice versa. In terms of genre, while much of my list does focus on upmarket/literary fiction for adult readers, I am also excited to be working with both authors of young adult literature and also authors of mystery/suspense.

MWW: What are some reasons that you reject a pitch, query letter, or manuscript?

KD: The most common reason that I reject a pitch, query letter, or manuscript is that I simply do not feel enough of a connection with it to feel confident that I would be that work’s most passionate advocate. There can always be unforeseen challenges in publishing, and when faced with those challenges an author deserves both an agent and an editor who shares their complete enthusiasm and their complete vision for their work. If I don’t have that vision, then I am not the right match for that work.

MWW: What are you most excited about for the Midwest Writers Workshop?

KD: I am looking forward to meeting with writers and learning about their projects! It would of course be particularly exciting to connect with a potential match, but either way I always enjoy feeling immersed in a creative community and the conversations such a community fosters.

In addition to hearing pitches and critiquing query letters, Kerry will present these sessions at the 2020 MWW Agent Fest:

  • “Six Steps from Query to Publication” – This session provides a general overview of the publication process, with steps that are broken down into the following: The Query; Signing with an Agent; Submission to Editors; Negotiating the Contract; Preparing for Publication; and finally, Publication itself. Tips for understanding and navigating each stage are included
  • “Subsidiary Rights” – This session explores the range of rights that can be involved in any one publishing contract, including print rights, digital rights, foreign language rights, UK rights, audio rights, and dramatic rights. Learn what each of these rights represent, and learn about the advantages of granting them to a publisher versus the advantages of reserving them.

Come and meet Kerry!

Register soon for the Early Bird Registration Cost! (Limited number of Query Letter Critiques available)

Pitch to Abby Saul at MWW 2020 Agent Fest!

Get to Know an Agent in Attendance: Abby Saul

Abby is one of eight literary agent coming to the 2020 MWW Agent Fest, March 13-14 at the Ball State Alumni Center, Muncie, Indiana.

Abby founded The Lark Group after a decade in publishing at John Wiley & Sons, Sourcebooks, and Browne & Miller Literary Associates. She’s worked with and edited bestselling and award-winning authors as well as major brands. At each publishing group she’s been a part of, Abby also has helped to establish ebook standards, led company-wide forums to explore new digital possibilities for books, and created and managed numerous digital initiatives.A zealous reader who loves her iPad and the ebooks on it, she still can’t resist the lure of a print book. Abby’s personal library of beloved titles runs the gamut from literary newbies and classics, to cozy mysteries, to sappy women’s fiction, to dark and twisted thrillers. She’s looking for great and engrossing adult commercial and literary fiction. A magna cum laude graduate of Wellesley College, Abby spends her weekends – when she’s not reading – cooking and hiking with her husband and son. Find her @BookySaul on Twitter.

Abby’s Wish List:

She is looking for adult fiction only in the following genres: mystery, thriller, suspense, women’s fiction (upmarket and commercial), historical fiction, and select literary fiction. (No science fiction or fantasy; no Jack Reacher-esque thrillers, ditto talking animals in mysteries. She does like works of fiction that are character-driven and smart.

MWW agent assistant Briana Rooke interviewed Abby about her life as an agent and about coming to MWW Agent Fest. Brianna is a senior English major at Ball State University. She also serves as an editorial assistant for Hope for Women magazine and a creative nonfiction editor for Ball State’s literary magazine The Broken Plate.

MWW: What are some do’s and don’t’s that you would recommend to authors who might be attending the festival for the first time?

AS: Do: listen, learn, and mingle. Events like this are incredible opportunities to realize you are not in this alone, and to start to demystify the “I’ve written a book, now what?!” feeling that often comes at the start of the publishing process. Connect with your fellow writers and the event faculty! Take it all in!

Don’t: believe everything you hear, and don’t be afraid. Publishing is a subjective business, and you’re going to hear some contradictory information. You’ll have to digest and figure out what makes sense for you and your path. And don’t be afraid to mingle – we’re all bookish people! When in doubt, ask your fellows about what they’re currently reading.

Do: be excited about your manuscript, if you’re pitching. If you aren’t, who will be?

Don’t: be so excited about your book that you pitch an agent in the line to the bathroom.

MWW: What are some elements that make stories stand out to you? What characteristics do you look for in fiction manuscripts?

AS: I have certain plot things that I always love – family secrets, locked rooms, dual timelines, exciting and tear-jerking finales, a sense of history and the book’s place in the larger scheme of life, etc – but the most important things, to me, are harder to define and they defy plot. These are characters who feel real, a world that I get lost in, and incredible, unputdownable writing. Those latter elements will make me fall for a book that doesn’t tick many of my “plot” boxes, and they can only come from honing your craft, getting more reads that you think your manuscript needs, and editing editing editing.

MWW: On the flip side, are there any elements that make you immediately dismiss a manuscript?

AS: Plot-wise, FBI or CIA agents running around while things blow up or killer POVs are not for me! I’ll also stop reading when a book is racist or sexist (and, oh boy, does that happen more often than you think!)

MWW: Your wish list states that you’re looking for “mystery, thriller, suspense, women’s fiction (upmarket and commercial), historical fiction, and select literary fiction.” What are some examples of the types of literary fiction that you are looking for?

AS: I’m looking for realistic and transportive literary fiction, grounded in the messy reality of human lives (past or present). Some examples of recent-ish literary projects I wish I had worked on:  The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai,  The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry,  The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman,  When All is Said by Anne Griffin,  A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

MWW: Finally, a fun question! It sounds like you have a diverse personal library…. What is your favorite book on your shelves?

AS: This is NOT a fun question! I have too many favorites to pick just one, and the list keeps growing as more incredible books get published every year. I would have to categorize by genre and subgenre (ie, favorite recent mystery v. favorite classic mystery v. favorite recent mystery, American-set v. favorite recent mystery, Scottish v. etc etc etc) and I would never finish. I will bypass succumbing to the panic this question induces by saying that I do like introducing people to some of the “forgotten” classic authors whom I adore (Ngaio Marsh, Barbara Pym, Josephine Tey, EF Benson, Nancy Mitford).

In addition to hearing pitches and critiquing query letters, Abby will present these sessions at the 2020 MWW Agent Fest:
  • “Please Read My Manuscript: Quick Tips for Query Questions”
  • “Finding, Working with, and Keeping an Agent”

Come and meet Abby!  

 

Register soon for the Early Bird Registration Cost! (Limited number of Query Letter Critiques available)