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!

Craft + Community: That’s what MWW21 is all about

Make MWW21 your summer destination

Join us for inspiring four days at Midwest Writers Workshop, July 28-31, 2021. It’s the best kind of writing conference for both aspiring authors and those getting ready to pitch or market finished works.

More than 20 sessions cover aspects of novel-writing, creative nonfiction research, children’s writing, memoir, essays, and new this year – writing comics. Plus breakout sessions, writing prompts, cocktail hours, and chances to read a “first page” for feedback.

Everything is online, but we offer a remarkable level of intimacy nonetheless! You’ll find it a joy to get acquainted with fellow speakers and hear from writers whose struggles are similar to yours. In every session, the mutual support and encouragement you receive (in the chat boxes and in small breakout “rooms” where you can unmute and unload) will keep you motivated and inspired. And there’s a private Facebook group for shared links and book recommendations, questions, and selfies.

Best piece of advice for persons registering for MWW21 in July: Keep an open mind. If you write romance novels, attend a poetry session; if nonfiction is your passion, attend how to create powerful scenes. In other words, plan to stretch yourselves in all sorts of new ways. The best part of being a writer is that you never master it. You’re always learning and experimenting.

Virtual MWW21 is around the corner! July 28-31!

MWW21 is more than instructional and inspiring sessions!

Award-winning author and MWW21 fiction faculty, Angela Jackson-Brown offered this wisdom:

On Thursday, July 29th, the second day of the Midwest Writers Workshop conference, you will have the opportunity to “Read Your Stuff” during our Morning Talkabouts.

Of course, some of you are probably shy or nervous about reading your work out loud. In fact, some of you might even avoid reading your work out loud to yourself. Completely understandable. It definitely feels a little awkward. But it’s some of the best advice you can receive when it comes to reviewing your own work. Reading it out loud lets you physically hear it, a different experience altogether from hearing it in your head. We would urge you to consider pushing through that desire to remain silent and share your work.

Below are some reasons why it is great to share your work. The information below comes from an article written by David Berner of The Writer Shed.

  1. You will catch awkward or unnecessary phrases. When we write, we write in silence, meaning we figure out the words in our head and then simply type them. And when you do this, you tend to create unnecessary phrases and sentences, description that is filler, fluff. If we read the work out loud that “fluff” jumps out at us. It will reveal what needs to be cut.
  2. You find the music in your words. When people say, “that writer writes so beautifully,” they usually mean he/she writes like a poet, a lyricist, and the words flow like the most magnificent of songs. And how do we know we like a particular song? We hear it. It’s not enough to see the notes on a staff; we must experience the melody aurally. Words on a page are no different. Reading out loud will let you know immediately if you are one of the “beautiful writers” or if your story is clunking along like a bad ballad from the 80s. It helps you find the rhythm and pace of your writing, and to ultimately create a memorable melody of story.
  3. You will find your voice. There is so much talk about writers finding their voice, that unique pattern and style that is all yours. Many times, writing workshops tend to overplay voice. But what they do get right is that writers should write enough to discover it, not force it. Let it emerge naturally. Reading out loud can help in this process. The more you hear your words, the more you can identify how your writing voice is developing.
  4. You will find your mistakes. We read silently, in part, through a filter. If we do a lot of reading, our brains skim through anticipated phrases and words. We do not read every single word. But, if we read out loud, we are forced to read every word, and that permits us to discover those grammatical errors, typos, even help us see where that comma is misplaced.
  5. You become a better reader of your own work. If you find yourself writing material that is published or can be shared at many of the live lit experiences popping up all over most cities, reading your work out loud will give you practice. You will hear where you need to work on intonation and pace, where there are words and phrases that look good on paper but are hard to say, and you’ll prepare yourself for troublesome pronunciations. I recently wrote a piece that mentioned a town in Wales. I had seen the town’s name hundreds of times in print, but until I read it out loud, I truly hadn’t known the correct way to say it. Reading out loud fixed that.

Perhaps most important when you’re reading your work out loud and correcting the flow and possible minor mistakes: be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up. You’re taking a courageous step forward to hear yourself and discover your writing voice. That’s not a small thing.

Make MWW21 July 28-31 your virtual destination! Register today!

YA author Jay Coles discusses Diversity in Kidlit at MWW21

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

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

Jay’s MWW21 sessions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Jay!

Jessica Strawser’s sessions are FULL of takeaways!

Meet award-winning author Jessica Strawser at MWW21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Jessica!

“You CAN improve your writing skills,” says Angela Jackson-Brown

Meet award-winning author Angela Jackson-Brown

Angela Jackson-Brown is an award-winning writer, poet and playwright who teaches Creative Writing and English at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. She is a graduate of Troy University, Auburn University and the Spalding low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing. She has published her short fiction, Creative Nonfiction, and poetry in journals like The Louisville Journal and the Appalachian Review. She is author of Drinking From a Bitter Cup (WiDo Publishing, 2014), House Repairs (Negative Capability Press, 2018), and her latest novel, When Stars Rain Down, which will be published by Thomas Nelson, an imprint of HarperCollins, in the spring of 2021.

MWW board member and publicity chair, Leah Lederman, interviewed Angela about her writing and what she will present at MWW21.

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

AJB: A worker bee. I am a productive writer because I am a hardworking writer who, much like the worker bee, realizes being a writer isn’t, most times, a very glamourous job.

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

AJB: The first time I learned that language had power was when I wrote my first story. I saw the impact it had on the people I shared it with, especially my daddy. I realized then that storytellers have the ability to transport other people to another place, even if only for a short period of time.

MWW: What’s your favorite takeaway from the session you’ll be teaching?

AJB: Improving our writing skills can be taught. There are some aspects of writing that are innate and either the person has “It” or they don’t BUT so much of writing can be learned if we are willing and open vessels. THAT is the one thing I hope everyone walks away believing. They can improve their writing skills. They just have to be willing to put in the hours/days/weeks/months/years needed to elevate their skill set.

MWW: Why do you think this is important for writers to consider in their own work?

AJB: Writers need to know that writing is not just this mystical act that depends on some mysterious muse. Writing is back-breaking, sweat-inducing work. Every day, to be successful at being writers, we have to show up and put in the effort it takes to take our work to the next level. It is not for the faint of heart.

MWW: How do you channel real life experiences in your fiction — or do you? 

AJB: I primarily write historical fiction, so I am constantly weaving in the historical past into my fictional worlds. I can’t imagine writing without paying attention to what was happening when my novels are set. How do I write about politics in 1948 without mentioning Truman, Civil Rights and the Dixiecrats? Historical details are the bread and butter of any story, regardless of when it is set.

MWW: I’ve read Drinking from a Bitter Cup and can’t wait for When Stars Rain Down. In your writing, what are some themes that arise again and again?

AJB: Family relationships and spirituality almost always show up in my work. If a writer knows the intricacies of their characters’ relationships with other characters, then they have the tools to write a complex plot. Spirituality is something all of my characters grapple with because they, like us, are trying to figure out how they got here and what their purpose in life is going to be.

MWW: Do you deal with them differently in your separate works?

AJB: The outcomes are different but the strategies are the same in most of my work.

Register for Virtual MWW21 and meet Angela!

My First Jane Friedman Course

By Leah Lederman

Why You Need to Sign Up for Jane Friedman’s MWW One-Day, March 27, 2021

I met Ms. Friedman in person at a workshop held by the Indiana Writer’s Center at Marian University in 2019.

Now, I’ve come across celebrities. I once passed Steve Harvey at the Detroit Metro Airport baggage claim at 2 am. But at that moment in the college hallway, I understood the feeling people talk about when they describe meeting a major influence in their life.

(She might remember me as the cartoonish character wagging my tongue while she was trying to get her mojo in place before class. I took my seat, grateful I could stop my mouth-rattling and if she was too, she never let on.)

That workshop was “Getting Your Work Published” and it marked a turning point in my career as a writer. At that time, I’d had a short story collection published by small press and while I sensed that not all of my works-in-progress were best suited for the same trajectory, I didn’t know how to make an informed choice.

The slides were set and the microphone checked, Jane cleared her throat and said something like, “I’m about to school y’all.”

Okay, she didn’t say that. Memory is a funny thing. That’s what I remember, though. Because school me she did.

The presentation was chock full of sample pitches and bios, cover images, charts and graphs, do’s and don’ts, and insider tips. Ms. Friedman took questions from the class like she was rolling a basketball over her shoulders. Honestly, I’d never seen someone go Harlem Globe-trotters while discussing the publishing industry, but that’s the closest comparison I can make.

I sat in the car for a good ten minutes afterwards, a tuning fork still sounding from the information I’d ingested. Rarely outside of grad school had I encountered so much information so densely packed and tightly organized. Ms. Friedman’s talk covered everything from agents, queries, proposals, and comp titles, to book covers, editors, formatting, and distribution. Plus hybrid publishing!

I was familiar with or had working definitions of a lot of the material when I walked in (helped in no small part by www.janefriedman.com), but for so long I’d been drowning in these concepts—especially the varied advice I received about them. By the time I walked out of that room, Jane had given me a life vest, an inflatable raft, an oar, and a first-aid kit.

Naturally, I signed up for her free newsletter, “Electric Speed” (recently I added “The Hot Sheet”) and when 2020 came around, her consistent online course offerings were indispensable to my burgeoning author career. Ms. Friedman’s classes illuminated the nuts and bolts of the writing life: I learned about self-publishing, blogging strategies, working on my author website and managing my author platform. On top of that, top-notch guest lecturers like Allison Williams and Dinty Moore offered valuable insights into the process of memoir.

I’d like to say I’m Jane Friedman’s number one fan but there’s too many contenders and I try not to start fights (I’m barely five feet tall and out of shape). Instead of giving *myself* a title, I’ll simply say that Jane Friedman is a national treasure for writers, a strong supporter of Midwest Writers, and you should sign up for everything she’s putting out there. It will change the trajectory of your author career.

“When it’s time to publish your book,” Jane says, “remember that there is no such thing as a career-ending decision. While I want everyone to feel confident and informed about the publishing options available to them, the honest truth is that many writers end up in a publishing situation that isn’t quite what they imagined, or working with a publisher they’d never before considered. And sometimes the publisher (or agent) isn’t as all powerful or impressive as you once imagined! At some point in the process, you come to realize that much of your success rests on you and the qualities of the work you’ve been developing for years. This is ultimately for the best: you will partner with publishers or services as it suits you, and most writers will modify their path for each and every project. Simply put: You don’t rely on publishers for success.”

REGISTER TODAY!

In this masterclass with publishing industry expert Jane Friedman, you’ll learn not just the foundational principles of getting a book published, but gain up-to-date insight into the changing landscape of the publishing industry, and how you can navigate your own path toward success. You’ll discover what it takes to capture the attention of a New York publisher or literary agent (whether you write fiction or nonfiction) and how to determine if self-publishing, hybrid, or traditional publishing is the most appropriate path for your next project. Can’t attend the sessions live? No problem. MWW is offering archival video access for three months to ALL registered attendees.

Attend How to Get Published with Jane Friedman

MWW Virtual One-Day Conference with Jane Friedman

How to Get Published: Traditional, Self, and Everything in Between

Saturday, March 27, 2021

  • Morning Session (10:30 am – 12:00 pm EST) Traditional Publishing
  • Afternoon Session (1:30 pm – 3:00 pm EST) Self-publishing (and alternatives like hybrid publishing)
  • Cost: $79 early bird; $99 after February 28

In this masterclass with publishing industry expert Jane Friedman, you’ll learn not just the foundational principles of getting a book published, but gain up-to-date insight into the changing landscape of the publishing industry, and how you can navigate your own path toward success. You’ll discover what it takes to capture the attention of a New York publisher or literary agent (whether you write fiction or nonfiction) and how to determine if self-publishing, hybrid, or traditional publishing is the most appropriate path for your next project. Can’t attend the sessions live? No problem. MWW is offering archival video access for three months to ALL registered attendees.

This class will cover the following:

  • Querying like a pro. Your one-page query letter should be short and sweet and pack a punch. Learn what it means to sell your story, and how to avoid problems that plague (and sabotage) writers in this critical document.
  • Whether you need an agent—who they are and what they do. You’ll learn what the standard agenting practices are and why you might want one—and how to make sure you don’t get involved with a bad one.
  • Researching markets (agents and editors) for your work. We’ll look at the major tools and resources for identifying the right agent or publisher for you.
  • Explore traditional publishing options outside of New York. The world of independent publishers—including university presses, small presses, and regional presses—is vast and can sometimes be more challenging to understand than New York publishing, as they all operate a bit differently. Learn how to assess the strength and position of any book publisher.
  • How to decide if you or your book is well-suited to self-publishing—plus the major self-publishing services available, and how to choose the best channels, formats, and distributors based on your target audience and genre.
  • Learn how to decipher “hybrid” publishing arrangements now available alongside the key forms of self-publishing and e-publishing practiced today.

By the end of this class, you’ll have a game plan for getting your book to market in the most efficient and effective way, based on your skills and target readership.

REGISTER TODAY!

About Jane:

Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in business strategy for authors and publishers. She’s the editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential industry newsletter for authors, and has previously worked for F+W Media and the Virginia Quarterly Review. In 2019, Jane was awarded Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World; her newsletter was awarded Media Outlet of the Year in 2020.

Jane’s newest book is The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press); Publishers Weekly said that it is “destined to become a staple reference book for writers and those interested in publishing careers.” Also, in collaboration with The Authors Guild, she wrote The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing.

In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses, Jane maintains an award-winning blog for writers at JaneFriedman.com; her expertise has been featured by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, NPR, PBS, CBS, the National Press Club and many other outlets.

Jane has delivered keynotes and workshops on the digital era of authorship at worldwide industry events, including the Writer’s Digest annual conference, Stockholm Writers Festival, San Miguel Writers Conference, The Muse & The Marketplace, Frankfurt Book Fair, BookExpo America, and Digital Book World. She’s also served on grant panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund, and has held positions as a professor of writing, media, and publishing at the University of Cincinnati and University of Virginia.

In her spare time, Jane writes creative nonfiction, which has been included in the anthologies Every Father’s Daughter and Drinking Diaries. If you look hard enough, you can also find her embarrassing college poetry.