Interview with mystery novelist Julie Hyzy

Meet MWW faculty member Julie Hyzy: Mystery novelist, winner of Anthony and Barry Awards

Today’s leading authors and experts in the publishing industry will be on hand at the Midwest Writers Workshop this July, delivering insightful presentations, offering answers to those burning questions writers face, and helping fill in details on “what’s next.”

Note: Reading the work(s) of the faculty helps to maximize the conference experience. In fact, members of the MWW committee have already begun reading. It’s tough work, but somebody’s got to do it!

MWW Committee Member Cathy Shouse recently interviewed Julie Hyzy, author of the White House Chef Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime.

HyzyQ. Our family is going on vacation to Washington D.C. and I’m taking State of the Onion, (first in the series) for the car ride. How much research do you do for the D.C. series? Is your research ongoing or do you have it nailed after writing several?

Great question and I’m jealous that you’re visiting D.C. I love that city and — to answer your question — I’m always researching. What constantly amazes me is how ideas can pop when you least expect them. My family and I were there last June and even though I’ve been to D.C. for research many times over the years, it felt fresh and new, the way it always does. There’s always some great moment or location or experience that makes me glad I visited.

There are currently five books published in the White House Chef series and number six will be out in January. Even better I just signed a contract for three more for a total of nine. I’m excited.

Interestingly enough, I just signed a contract for three more Grace books (Manor House Mysteries) as well. That’s another series I adore researching. Because the stories are set at a mansion/tourist attraction/museum, I have all the excuse I need to visit places like the Hearst Castle in California, Ca d’Zan in Florida, and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, which — incidentally — is where the Manor House mysteries are set.

Q. Tell us about your journey to publication. 

I started writing short stories. Sure, I attempted a novel (nobody has read it and no one ever will) but I was convinced I didn’t have the stick-to-it-tive-ness to finish an entire manuscript so I focused on short stories instead. I enjoyed myself thoroughly and saw my first few professional publications (in a Star Trek anthology). A friend from my writing group suggested I try my hand at a novel. Initially I demurred, thinking that I’d never finish it and it would turn out to be a colossal waste of time. But I did finish. Even better, I loved the experience so very much that I wrote another, and another.

Through all this I did not have an agent. That first finished manuscript sold to Five Star, as did the next two (these two were my first-ever series — The Alex St. James Mysteries). Was I thrilled? Absolutely. Because the books came out in hardcover, I was getting reviews and a little bit of notice. It was right about that time that a third party approached me about writing the White House Chef series and I jumped at the chance. Still no agent, mind you. It wasn’t until State of the Onion was published that I could get an agent to notice me.

Q. How will your intense session (“Writing the Cozy Mystery Novel”) at MWW this summer be structured and what types of secrets will you reveal? Any hints?

Hmm…. if I share the secrets, then no one will want to come to the talk <grin>.

Actually, I have a very conversational style and I get very excited talking about writing: the craft, the perseverance necessary, the ideas that threaten to burst if we don’t get them written down. I participated in an extremely intense two-week workshop about ten years ago and that experience has shaped me and my writing in profound ways. I hope to be able to engage participants the way I was engaged back then. There is so much to discuss on writing, especially crime fiction writing and I’m itching to get to it. Can you tell how much I’m looking forward to this workshop?

Q. Has attending conferences been an influence on your career?  If so, how?

I believe that attending conferences has had a *huge* influence on my career. Listening to panels of authors who are higher up the ladder than I am is always an eye opener and the lessons I’ve learned are invaluable.

Q. What else would you like to add to entice readers to sign for your course?

Well, there are those secrets that I haven’t spilled yet… If anyone wants to know what they are, they’d better sign up! Just kidding. I think I bring a level of enthusiasm and positive energy to my presentations. Writing is a solitary endeavor and the constant rejection can really get a person down. There are ways to look at things, and ways to look at things. Plus, I’m a meat and potatoes girl. By that I mean I like to talk about the nitty gritty parts of writing. I like to try to identify trouble spots and work on them. Not paint everything with a one-solution-fits-all swath. If that appeals, I hope you’ll sign up.

Q. What do you recommend as top three must-see stops while in D.C. and have you ever been in the White House kitchen? If so, please spill the details!

Top three stops in D.C. … Ooh, there are so many. The White House is my top choice, absolutely, but one usually needs to arrange for a visit at least six months in advance. Because it’s tough to get in, I’ll pick three additional choices (see how cleverly I managed to give myself four?) I think a stop at Arlington National Cemetery is a must, especially taking the time to visit the Tomb of the Unknown. If you’re able to watch a wreath-laying ceremony, you’ll be glad you took the time. The quiet, the reverence, and the peacefulness there make this a stop you won’t forget. I would also take a walking tour of the monuments. I can’t begin to choose one monument over another, so I’d strongly suggest doing the entire walk and seeing them all. They’re awe-inspiring and beautiful, each in its own way. Lastly, it’s hard to choose between a visit to the Capitol (also best if pre-arranged) and time spent at The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian, as you know, is a collection of wonderful museums all along the National Mall. We spent hours in the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American History, the National Air and Space Museum, and we wandered around the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. Admission is free and there are so many other museums there (also the zoo) we didn’t have time to see. Our most recent family trip took us to several cities over two weeks and the kids, by far, loved D.C. the best. Fabulous city.

You asked if I’d ever been to the White House kitchen. Yep, I have — for the first time on this trip with the kids. I was lucky enough to have turned my ankle while walking at Arlington the day before our White House visit and, while there, I asked if there was any way to get to the first floor from the ground floor other than taking the stairs. (Keep in mind, I have the entire floor plan memorized from all my research.) As it turned out, there happens to be an elevator right next to the kitchen. Imagine that! A very nice uniformed Secret Service agent escorted me (not the family) through the restricted area and through the back corridors, past the kitchen, which I was thrilled to finally see. It’s small. I know I’ve mentioned that in the books, but it was even smaller than it looks in pictures. I was so excited to get my own “private” tour of the back, working areas and I knew that I’d be able to add even more detail to the next book because of it.

Thanks again for these great questions!



New York Times bestselling author of AFFAIRS OF STEAK

Pitch Perfect: expert tips to snag an agent

Meet Chuck Sambuchino!

Chuck Sambuchino is an editor for Writer’s Digest Books (an imprint of F+W Media) and is the editor of Guide to Literary Agents as well as Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. He also oversaw the third edition of Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript. Chuck has instructed on writing and publishing at more than 50 writing events in the past five years, including presentations in Italy and Canada, and he is sometimes one of the conference’s keynote speakers. His humor book, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack (2010), was featured by Reader’s Digest, USA Today, The New York Times and AOL News.

Chuck is also a writer and freelance editor. He is a produced playwright, with both original and commissioned works produced. He is a magazine freelancer, with more than 600 of his articles appearing in print. His website–the Guide to Literary Agents blog–is one of the largest blogs on writing & publishing.

Chuck is the the keynote speaker for the opening of MWW Part II on Thursday evening. You will not want to miss his presentation, Mastering the In-person Pitch.  This is a chance for Part II participants to practice their “agent pitch.”  Chuck will critique the pitch for all to hear. Individuals can pitch or simply attend to listen in on other pitches. It’s an opportunity for writers to rehearse their elevator pitch before sitting face-to-face with agents. This session targets fiction and nonfiction writers, both novice and intermediate; and it breaks down what needs to be in a pitch, and what NOT to include in a pitch. Chuck will listen to sample pitches to help you prepare for your pitch with an agent on Friday or Saturday.

New this year, MWW offers a Query Critique with Chuck Sambuchino (or Jane Friedman). For an additional fee of $35, you can meet for a 10-minute one-on-one consultation with either Chuck or Jane. The deadline is July 1st, so register NOW if you want to take advantage of this great opportunity!

MWW intern Linda Taylor recently interviewed Chuck about his appearance at this summer’s workshop.

Q. First and most important, my husband and I have a few garden gnomes in our yard, several around our house, and one on the flag out front that says “Welcome Gnome.” I assume we should be worried?

Very worried. Gnomes cannot be trusted under any circumstances. These gnomes outside are no doubt probing your outer defenses at this very minute, looking for weaknesses.

Q. Second, and more on a serious note, how does such an unusual and interesting idea like that become a book? What do you tell potential authors about their ideas for books–even the really unusual ideas? (After all, someone thought putting Jane Austen with zombies would be a good idea . . .)

Nonfiction books simply need three elements to come to life: 1) a unique or interesting idea, 2) proof that an audience exists to buy it, and 3) an author with platform who can sell books. Even very unusual ideas, such as GNOME, can come to life, as long as those three elements are in place. From a writing perspective, you would pitch a book on New York architecture the same way you would pitch one on a history of unicorns: by addressing elements 1, 2 and 3.

Q. Briefly describe your journey as a writer–from your bio on your blog, you appear to have done a lot of types of writing from newspapers and magazines, to writing scripts, to writing articles and books (the latter ranging from resource manuals to humor). When did you first decide to become a writer and how did your path lead you to where you are today?

In high school, I was always the one in the group who could tell a story the best. I didn’t realize it, but that was the origin of me as a writer. In college, I majored in public relations and then decided I didn’t want a job in PR, so I took an entry-level position with a weekly newspaper when out of school. I got promoted to reporter and also started freelancing for magazines on the side. This gave me some writing cred when I applied to Writer’s Digest Books. Once I joined WD books, I started writing plays and books, and saw success with both. During the day, I am an editor for WD Books, and during the night, I write humor books and screenplays. (That’s the short version, but no one would have the desire, nor patience to read the long version.)

Q. What advice, then, do you have for young writers? for older writers?

I could speak on this question for one week straight and still have advice to give. But I will say this: No matter if you are old or young, some across-the-board pieces of advice for writers include 1) keep moving forward and do not give up, 2) build your writer platform and make connections with other people, and 3) always write the best book possible, because the cream rises to the top.

Q. At the Midwest Writers Workshop, you’re teaching on several topics, including “Mastering the In-Person Pitch.” That’s probably one of the most frightening parts of being a writer–working on a computer composing pages is one thing, having to then do a “sales job” in order to get that book published is quite another. What do you say to allay those fears and help even the most introverted writer?

I will cover the nuts & bolts of all this in my speech at the event. But writers should know that agents understand how nervous writers get, so they’re pretty patient with everything. Also, pitching a book means following a step-by-step formula. Once you know what to address, then it’s all a matter of filling in the blanks.

Q. Another session topic is “Chapter 1 Do’s and Don’ts.” What’s the worst way to start a book? Do you have an example (beyond Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”)?

Avoid descriptions of the weather. Don’t start with a dream. Try not to be inside of a character’s head for very long or at all.

Q. Your third topic is “The Business of Scriptwriting.” Did you find it to be an easy or natural transition to scriptwriting from all of the other types of writing you do? What is most rewarding and/or most challenging about scriptwriting?

“Scriptwriting” means writing plays and/or screenplays. I wrote plays before I did anything else. Now I’m trying screenplays. It’s an unusual transition, but there are upsides. When your work becomes a play, then the written dialogue is king, and it’s very rewarding to hear an audience erupt in laughter or be as quiet as can be when listening to your words. The reward with screenwriting is writing in a visual medium, and that the pay is much better than most writing assignments.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add, which might include hints on your philosophy/approach to writing and/or your teaching style?

Not really. I teach at a lot of writers conferences. I love meeting writers. I am happy to talk with anyone at the event who has a question or five about their journey. I will see you all soon!

Note: Chuck’s Part II Sessions:

  • Chapter 1 Dos and Don’ts – This workshop examines that all-important Chapter 1.  It spends a lot of time going over what not to do-listing clichés and overused techniques that repeatedly pop up in chapter 1 manuscripts, with comments from agents and editors alike. Following a discussion of agent pet peeves, the workshop addresses what writers should be doing to draw readers in.
  • Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published Panel [Cathy Day, moderator]; with Jane Friedman, Kathleen Rooney, JL Stermer
  • The Business of Scriptwriting: You’ve Written a Play or Screenplay-Now What? – This workshop examines what writers need to do if they’ve finished that play or screenplay and don’t know what to do now.  We’ll address targeting markets, getting plays read/workshopped, writing script queries, the difference between agents and managers, and more.  Everything is discussed, from writing and rewriting to contests and dealing with directors. Handouts provided.  It’s not a session about craft; it’s a session about business-for writers who have a script and no idea what to do with it.

News from agent Kathleen Ortiz

New Leaf Literary & Media

Great news: Joanna Stampfel-Volpe (MWW faculty in 2009) has opened up her own agency, and Kathleen Ortiz has joined her.

Formation of new agency

Kathleen Ortiz is the Subsidiary Rights Director and Literary Agent at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. On the children’s side, she is interested in acquiring all genres of YA (she especially gravitates to darker YA), but would specifically love a beautifully told story set within another culture (historical or modern, in the vein of Blood Diamond or Memoirs of a Geisha). She’s also looking for darker middle grade for older kids (especially in the vein of Labyrinth). On the adult side, she’s looking for lifestyle or technology non-fiction, as well as urban fantasy or paranormal romance. Please, no picture books, chapter books or adult books outside of romance.

She represents Jaime Reed’s Cambion Chronicles (Kensington), Dawn Rae Miller’s Larkstorm, Sarah Fine’s Sanctum (Marshall Cavendish / Oct ’12), who also writes as S.E. Fine for Scan (Putnam for Young Readers, coauthored with Walter Jury / Fall ’13), as well as Disney and Sony animator Dan Haring and Betty Crocker recipe writer Bree from

Find Kathleen on Twitter or visit her blog for more information or updates on the publishing industry.

MWW Alumni News

Bragging a bit!

From Kate SeRineI attended the 2010 Midwest Writers Workshop, courtesy of the Zilpha Danner Memorial Scholarship. While there, I learned some great information and made my first pitch to an editor. The editor requested my manuscript, and although she eventually passed on the manuscript, the experience was invaluable in boosting my confidence! Feeling pretty good about how things were going, I entered the manuscript in the Finally a Bride Contest (sponsored by the Oklahoma chapter of Romance Writers of America) and ended up being a finalist and placing 2nd. In addition, the editor who was a final judge requested my manuscript and (several months later!) made an offer.

I’m happy to announce that my novel, Red (Book 1 of my Transplanted Tales series), was sold in a three-book deal to Alicia Condon at Kensington Books and will be released in August 2012 as part of their new digital-first imprint, eKensington. (And I’m all register to come in July!

From Lori Lowe

I found the Midwest Writers Workshop team to be encouraging and welcoming. While I’ve attended larger writing conferences, MWW is the one I have found most helpful and to which I have returned. I benefited from the 2010 conference by meeting the agent I later signed with and by interacting with and learning from respected faculty. I also made helpful connections and was honored with a Manny Award. Finally, I have made friends with other writers on the publishing journey, and that has made my life richer.

My marriage book was published in late 2011. First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage (available in print and e-book) is an inspirational book with real-life stories of finding true marriage after overcoming adversity. Or check my blog.

From Elaine L. Orr

The second book of my Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series (electronic and paperback), Rekindling Motives, was released last year. (Appraisal for Murder is the-first in the series.) Lightening struck when I heard Mike Lawson (during last year’s Intensive Session) describe how to put more punch into an opening paragraph of a novel, and I rewrote the first paragraph of my four-book mystery series.  A number of people have said the opening really drew them into the book.

“Terry Faherty helped hone my first book”

Meet Terence Faherty!

In our last E-pistle, D.E. (Dan) Johnson praised Terry Faherty for his mentoring help on the first chapters of his historical mystery, The Detroit Electric Scheme. “I become a MWW Fellow in 2008,” said Dan, “where Terry Faherty helped me hone the beginning of my first book, which sold four months later. MWW works!”

That’s what Terry does: encourage, instruct, and provide direction for improving and selling your writing. He’s been a MWW supporter for many years, participating in our Writers’ Retreat and mini-conferences. If you want to learn how to develop a well-structured plot, sign up for Terry’s Writing the Mystery – Idea to Plot to Story.  (Short assignments included!)

FahertyTerence Faherty is the author of two mystery series. The Scott Elliott private eye series is set in the golden age of Hollywood and is a two-time winner of the Shamus Award, given by the Private Eye Writers of America. The Owen Keane series, which follows the adventures of a failed seminarian turned metaphysical detective, has been nominated twice for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award.  His short fiction, which appears regularly in mystery magazines and anthologies, has won the Macavity Award from Mystery Readers International.

Terry had two new titles in 2011, both in the Elliott series. Dance In The Dark, his eleventh novel, was published by Five Star and is set in 1969.  Perfect Crime Books released a collection of the Elliott stories entitled The Hollywood Op, which contains all the Elliott short stories published to date, including the Shamus winner “The Second Coming.” In 2012, a new Owen Keane novel, Eastward In Eden, will be published by the Mystery Company.

Q. What accomplishment or achievement are you most proud of as an author? What has been the most satisfying aspect of getting published?

DeadstickI don’t think any accomplishment has meant as much to me as the sale of my first novel, Deadstick, not even my first short story sale a few years earlier, though I can still picture the room where I was standing when I was notified by phone that the story had been accepted.  I heard about the Deadstick sale over the phone, too, and disappointed my editor-to-be with my low-keyed reaction (though I was shouting on the inside).  She kidded me for years about my first words, claiming they were “that’s nice” or something equally intense.

The most satisfying aspect of being published has always been the feedback from readers.  Writing without publishing can feel like launching notes in bottles:  an endless series of messages and no replies. Hearing from someone who’s read you and who appreciates what you’re trying to do is a really wonderful thing.

Q. Please explain how attending writing workshops influenced your career (if it did).

I attended a series of evening workshops given by the Writers Center of Indianapolis after graduating from college and really profited from the feedback from my teachers and fellow writers, though I was sometimes self-conscious about being the only mystery writer in a room of literary writers.  Later, the Writers Center sponsored a program by four touring mystery writers and that turned out to be one of the most significant days of my life.  I made important professional connections that day (and three friendships that I still value).  After hearing those four speak, I was never again embarrassed about being a “mere” mystery writer.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your journey to publication: when and what you first began to write, when you began submitting, to when you received your first contract.

I’ve been telling stories all my life, and writing them as soon as I could write-my earliest surviving manuscript is from the sixth grade.  (It’s a mystery.)  I wrote for and edited my high school and college literary magazines and began sending short stories out shortly after I graduated.  I have rejection slips from the 1970s from Redbook, Atlantic Monthly, and Ellery Queen, among others.  (Luckily, Queen later changed its mind about me.)  My first story sale came about five years after graduation (after the workshops described above) and my first book sale about ten years after that.  All that time, I was working as a technical writer, which did a lot to knock the curlicues off my prose style.

Q. What should writers expect from your intensive workshop and what would authors who don’t write your genre benefit from your session as well?

Writers should expect too much information in too short a time. I would hope they’d come away with some new thoughts on the mystery story that might help them see the potential of it and one or two suggestions about the craft of writing that might help them move their ideas from jottings in a journal to completed manuscripts. I also hope the participants come away with the sense that they’re part of a larger writing community that supports and values their efforts.

Q. What is the best advice on writing that you were ever given, and what is something you wish you had known sooner?

Best advice:  Maintain good relations with your editors.  They’re your first fans and your champions within the publishing world.  Listen to what they say with both ears and chose your inevitable battles carefully.

What I wish I’d known sooner:  Don’t quit your day job, not until your writing income has forced you to seek out tax shelters.

Note: Terry’s Part II Sessions:

  • I’ll Wait to See the Movie – How to use screenwriting techniques to improve the pacing and structure of your book and your chances of selling it.
  • Writing the Period Mystery – A discussion of how to bring to life a historical period through your fiction.  Although aimed specifically at mystery writing, these techniques can be applied to any type of historical writing.
  • Two for the Price of One –  A discussion of the two stories in every mystery, the hidden story and the open story, and how understanding their relationship can make your idea development easier and your plotting more effective.

A bit of bragging

“As we say in Sisters in Crime, you write alone, but you’re not alone. Nowhere is this more gloriously apparent than the super-charged powerhouse of writing skill—the Midwest Writers Workshop.  From tentative newbie to experienced oldbie (!) –we all learned something useful, we all shared something special, we all made new friends, we were all inspired and—absolutely–we are all looking forward to the next time. A true triumph—and a must-do for anyone who’s intrigued by the world of writing.” – Hank Phillippi Ryan, Mary Higgins Clark, Agatha, Anthony and Macavity award winning author, President of National Sister s in Crime

“I left the Midwest Writers Workshop as a stronger writer…and I was on the faculty. I can only imagine what it does to attendees.” – Lou Harry

The Midwest Writers Workshop remains at the top of my list of favorite conference experiences. The focused curriculum, helpful staff, and welcoming participants all make this one of the best organized writing events I’ve yet seen. – Brooks Sherman, FinePrint Literary Management

“Over the years, I’ve participated in more conferences than I can count, but time after time, Midwest Writers Workshop ranks among the best of the best. The students are anxious to learn, the faculty comes to teach, and the result is electrifying. Anytime you want me back, just say the word, and I’m there.” – John Gilstrap, author of Jonathan Grave thriller series

“The 30 pitches I heard at MWW were better than the 170 I heard recently at a west coast writers’ conference.” — Kathleen Ortiz, literary agent, New Leaf Literary & Media

“As I tell everyone who will listen, MWW is the best writers’ conference there is!” — D.E. Johnson, author of The Detroit Electric Scheme (and MWW Fellow)

“What an amazing batch of writers you have there — the participants’ talent is remarkable. I’ve rarely encountered that many truly talented non-published authors, and never all in one place at one time before. You’ve created a fabulous garden to grow writers. Thank you for allowing me to be part of it this year! And… personally… I had a blast! Everyone was so welcoming and warm.” – Julie Hyzy, author of White House mystery series

“Just wanted to let you know I am proud to say I was a part of the 39th MWW! You and your committee have truly fostered a family-like atmosphere for both the faculty and the attendees, and it was great to feel like a member of the group. I have already started to receive material and I am looking forward to seeing if I can make a match!” — JL Stermer, Literary Agent, N.S. Bienstock, Inc.

“I wanted to let you know how great the conference was. You did a fantastic job creating a friendly atmosphere for everyone involved. Thanks so much for inviting me and I hope you’ll remember me for next year!” — Sarah LaPolla, Bradford Literary Agency

“Each year I come home saying this was the best MWW yet, and I said it again this year. A big thank you to you and your committee for a wonderfully organized and presented workshop. You always seem to anticipate what we writers need to know, and you provide excellent professionals to share that needed expertise. This year’s social media consultants were a perfect addition for those of us who require an informed “nudge” into the world of twitter, blogs, etc. My tech savvy son will be shocked when he receives a tweet from me–that will give me splendid satisfaction :)  I appreciate all of the hard work, knowing a workshop the caliber of MWW doesn’t just happen.  Ah, I am among friends and fellow writers here. — Sally Nalbor, MWW alumni

“Most useful conference ever!”

Meet D.E. (Dan) Johnson!

MWW Committee Member Cathy Shouse continues the Q&As with members of this summer’s workshop faculty. Now it’s Midwest Writers turn to brag a bit on the success of D.E. (Dan) Johnson!

DE JohnsonD.E. Johnson, a graduate of Central Michigan University, is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood but had to hit his midlife crisis to get serious about it. His first novel, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. The Detroit Electric Scheme garnered excellent reviews (including being named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Crime Novels of the year) and also won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award. (Video of Dan on Jay Leno’s Book Club!)

Motor City Shakedown, the first sequel to The Detroit Electric Scheme, was named one of the Top 5 Crime Novels of 2011 by The House of Crime and Mystery, called “extraordinarily vivid” by The New York Times, and won a 2012 Michigan Notable Book Award. Dan’s third book, Detroit Breakdown, will be published in Fall 2012 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books.

Q. What accomplishment or achievement are you most proud of as an author? What has been the most satisfying?

I guess I’d say getting a second two-book contract has been my biggest accomplishment to date. Receiving a couple of Michigan Notable Book Awards has also been great, but the fact that St. Martin’s believed enough in my potential to commit to two more books makes me very proud.

The most satisfying? Prior to shopping the The Detroit Electric Scheme, I got a letter back from Loren Estleman (Detroit mystery writer) saying he loved the book. I jumped around the living room for about five minutes. (And if you know me, you know how uncharacteristic that is.) It was the moment that I went from trying to believe I had a chance to be published to actually believing it.

Q. Please explain how attending MWW workshop influenced the launch of your career.

My first MWW was in 2006, two months after I left my job to pursue writing. It was, hands-down, the most useful conference I’ve ever gone to. I learned a great deal about writing and about the industry. I went on to become a MWW Fellow in 2008, where Terry Faherty helped me hone the beginning of my first book, which sold four months later. MWW works! (Watch for Terry’s Q&A in the next E-pistle!)

Q. Tell us a little bit about your journey to publication, to include when and what you first began to write, when you began submitting, to when you received your first contract.

I started writing, like most of us, when I was very young. I enjoyed it and was good at it, but by the time I started thinking about a career, I was convinced it wasn’t a practical pursuit. So instead, I got a degree in teaching, which I didn’t want to use, and eventually got into business, where I stayed for 25 years, generally being miserable and always feeling unfulfilled. I tried writing books over the years, but I didn’t know what I was doing. It was just frustrating.

Finally, in 2006 I dove into writing, with the full support of my family. For two years I studied writing and wrote 60-80 hours a week. (I’m known to be a bit obsessive, but I was going to have to get another job after two years. I had motivation.) At the end of those two years, I started querying for an agent. Two months later, I had one. Two months after that, I had a two-book contract. (Don’t throw things at me. There was a lot of being in the right place at the right time.)

Q. What should writers expect from your sessions and what would authors who don’t write your genre benefit from your session as well?

I’ll be working on how to write settings that you can’t escape, writing characters you can’t forget, and when to say “when.”

I write historical mysteries, but the lessons I’ve learned apply to all genres. Whether you write narrative non-fiction, memoir, or fiction, you have to be able to immerse your reader in your story, and there are easy tools to use to accomplish this. The New York Times called my most recent book, Motor City Shakedown, “extraordinarily vivid,” and a large part of that was the setting detail I employed. I can help writers learn how to create a memorable setting.

Nothing’s more important than character. Regardless of genre, your reader has to live and die with your characters in order to have a satisfying read. To do that, your characters have to be real. Not so easy to do, but definitely “learnable.”

Sometimes the most frustrating part of writing is to know when to stop. Every time you look over the work, you find more things to change. You feel like you could go on for an eternity and never really be done. Lie down on the couch and let Dr. Johnson help you move past that doubt and get on with it. The second part of this session addresses when to stop researching and start writing. All it takes is one mistake for the reader to start doubting you. You can’t make that visible error, but you can’t research forever either. I’ll help you work through that.

Q. What is the best advice on writing that you were ever given, and what is something you wish you had known sooner?

Best advice – Put your protagonist in a tree and throw rocks at him. I wish I’d known sooner – a lot sooner – that I had a real chance of making a go at writing novels.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

MWW remains my favorite conference of the year. I’ve gone to a lot of conferences, and NONE COMPARES!

Note: Dan’s Part II Sessions:

  • Settings You Can’t Escape – How do some writers create a setting that’s so real that not only can you see what’s happening, you can also hear, smell, feel, and taste it?
  • When to Say When – When should you stop researching and start writing?

Erica O’Rourke’s Secret to Finding a Strong Voice

MWW Committee Member Cathy Day talks with faculty member Erica O’Rourke, who will teach a Part I Intensive entitled “YA Double Header: Strategies for Crafting Compelling Young Adult Novels,” as well as short sessions during Part II on critique partners, the life/work balance, and tricks of the trilogy.

O'RourkeErica is a former high school English teacher who has lived in the Chicago area her entire life. She is the 2010 winner of the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart® contest for Best Young Adult Manuscript.  Torn, the first book in the Torn Trilogy, was the launch title for Kensington Books’ KTeen line. When she’s not writing, Erica enjoys reading, watching Doctor Who, and keeping her three daughters and two cats in line – with the help of her exceedingly patient husband, who doesn’t like Doctor Who at all. She loves sushi but hates fish, and drinks far too much coffee. The second book in her trilogy, Tangled, was released in February 2012, and the third, Bound, will launch June 26, 2012.Bound bk cvr


Q: Your intensive will feature strategies related finding a strong, distinctive YA voice. What does that term, “voice,” mean to you, and why is it important?

One of the things that characterizes YA today is a strong narrative voice, whether you’re writing in first person or third. It requires that you get inside the skin of your character and perceive the world as they do. Everything that occurs in the story needs to be filtered through their experiences — if they come from a small village, they shouldn’t talk about the subway expertly, for example, but they might think in terms of nature metaphors. A character who’s an athlete might view everything as a competition; a character who’s a brilliant student might view every conflict as a test. (Those are gross oversimplifications, of course, but they provide a starting point — you’ll refine as you write, and even more in revision.)

Q: I like that that phrase, “filter through their experiences,” because I’ve noticed that many of my students write as if they are watching their characters, when instead they have to be their characters.  

Yes, deep point of view is really tricky, and truth be told, one of the reasons I prefer writing in first person.

Q: Can you give us one tip, one trick you use for getting inside characters and finding their voice that’s worked for you? How did you find Mo’s voice? I’ll even share one of my own tricks: I imagine my character posting Facebook status updates or tweeting to figure out her voice.

My favorite quick-and-dirty trick to get to know a character — or to build one — is to plan out his or her class schedule. By the time they’re juniors or seniors, kids have a fair amount of flexibility in their coursework: they can take a variety of core classes depending on their career goals, and their elective choices number in the billions. So, I typically download the course handbook from the sort of school my heroine is attending, whether it’s a Catholic all-girls school or one that’s small and rural. I decide what their post-high school plans are: prestigious university? work? backpacking across Europe? Once I know that, I fill in the classes I think they’d take, paying special attention to the electives. A student who takes a lot of speech and drama electives is going to have a more assured, confident voice. Someone who takes a lot of computer science electives is going to have a more logical voice. Again, these are broad strokes. You don’t want your protagonist sounding like Spock just because they’re taking a programming class, but knowing this about them gives you a filter, and you can decide how much you want the filter to apply. You can also use this to make your characters voice and situation more complex: If you have someone who’s taking Principles of Accounting AND Interpretive Dance, it’s pretty clear that something’s up on the home front. That tension should show up in the way she views the world, and herself, and her interactions with other people.

Do you have to stick to your schedule? Not at all. You can use this even if you’re writing a book set completely outside of a high school, if you want – if you’re writing a sci-fi book set in outer space, envision what they’d study: Fitness in Zero Gravity; Airlock Maintenance; AP Klingon History. The key is to use this schedule to understand your protagonist better, to really internalize how they view the world and then apply that to your writing.

Q: As soon as you signed on to teach at MWW, I ordered Torn and tore through it, and a few months later, read Tangled with just as much anticipation. I’m really looking forward to Bound and seeing how the trilogy resolves. Here’s the question I’ve wanted to ask you for awhile: on your website, you say you “write books about girls who make their own fate and fall for boys they shouldn’t,” and I think it’s really important that your books do both those things. Why is it important as a YA author to strike that balance, and how do you do it?

I think the balance is important in YA because to focus exclusively on either one risks making the characters stagnant or unrelatable. If the entire storyline is about the relationship between a protagonist and their love interest, with no thought to the repercussion it has on the rest of their life, you’re looking at a character that won’t really grow or change, because that relationship is only one aspect of their life. And it’s not realistic, because even though teenagers might feel that the relationship they’re in is The Most Important Thing In The World, they’re accustomed to pressure and conflict in all areas of their life: school, parents, friends, jobs, sports, etc. Similarly, a character who pursues a goal single-mindedly, who doesn’t care about the people and events around her, is neither sympathetic or realistic.

Q: That’s a really good way to put it: it’s more realistic for a character to care about both Life and Love. Mo isn’t just “torn” about which guy to choose. She’s also torn about what she wants out of life, right?

For me, the key was to make sure that each boy represented a potential future for Mo: either a life with the Arcs, and the dangers inherent in that, or a life in Chicago, negotiating a truce with the Mob. I don’t want to spoil Bound for you, but I’ll say this: Mo chooses which life she wants well before she chooses between the guys. That was always the crux of the story: Mo’s journey to determine who she wanted to be and what kind of life she wanted for herself. The boys, while great fun to write, were a way of representing those choices.

Register for Erica’s Thursday (July 26) Intensive Session, “YA Double Header: Strategies for Crafting Compelling Young Adult Novels.”

(Limited class size, so don’t wait!)

Meet editor and poet Kathleen Rooney

MWW committee member Cathy Shouse continues her Q&As with this summer’s outstanding workshop faculty.

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, an independent, 501(c)3 nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres. Her first poetry collection, Oneiromance (an epithalamion) won the 2007 Gatewood Prize from the feminist publisher Switchback Books, and her most recent books include the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs (Counterpoint, 2010) and the poetry chapbook, After Robinson Has Gone (Greying Ghost Press, 2011).With Elisa Gabbert, she is the author of That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Otoliths, 2008). Her second solo poetry collection, Robinson Alone, a novel in poems based on the life and work of Weldon Kees, is forthcoming this fall from Gold Wake Press.

Q. What accomplishment or achievement are you most proud of as an author? What has been the most satisfying aspect of getting published?

KR: Publishing a book in any genre is a little bit like setting out traps in a forest. You never know who or what you will catch, nor do you know how long it might take to catch them. When I hear from someone that they read one of my books and found something worthwhile in it, I feel like I’ve caught that reader, but also like they have caught me in a way. That sense of human connection-a meeting of the minds-is super satisfying.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your journey to publication, to include when and what you first began to write, when you began submitting, to when you received your first contract.

KR: Like many writers, I began to write poetry as a little kid-kids tend to be natural poets-back when my biggest influences were Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever and a book called I Wish I had a Computer That Makes Waffles. But my first “real” published and paid-for piece of prose came out in The Nation in the Spring of 2002. It was an excerpt from a much longer project that eventually became my first book Reading with Oprah: the Book Club that Changed America (University of Arkansas Press, 2005).

Q. What should writers expect from your intensive workshop and what would authors who don’t write your genre (please define your genre) benefit from your session as well?

In writing my own poetry, both by myself and with my writing partner, the poet and blogger extraordinaire Elisa Gabbert, I have found that paradoxically, the greatest freedom can come from the tightest restrictions. So in Obstructionism: Finding Freedom in Poetic Restraint,” we will try to do just that-to re-imagine our approach to composition as not just an attempt to “say something” or to make something “beautiful,” but also to infuse our work with a structural and formal vitality, as well as with “ideas.” Poets and non-poets alike who are looking to see their work with new eyes, and come at their practice in a fresh and unexpected way will get a lot out of this class, especially if they attend with an open mind and a willingness to not always try to be “perfect.”

Register for Kathleen’s Thursday (July 26) Intensive Session, Obstructionism: Finding Freedom in Poetic Restraint. (Limited class size, so don’t wait!)

Social Media Consultants & FREE tutoring

NEW for MWW 2012!

Social Media Consultants & FREE tutoring!

By Cathy Day, MWW Committee Member, Ball State University professor, author of The Circus in Winter and Comeback Season

Because MWW is committed to helping you become a published writer, we talk a lot about social media. That’s because changes in the publishing industry have forced writers to become “author-preneurs”-marketers, promoters, social media experts, and much more. At MWW, we know how time-consuming and confusing these tasks can be, and we want to help by offering free social media tutoring.

Yes, free.

Originally, we were going to require you to pay $35 per consult, but we decided it would be easier and more effective to run it more like a drop-in tutoring center. (Those who already signed up and paid will receive a refund.) Consultants will be available to show you how to start a blog and how to use Facebook and Twitter effectively. We’ll offer a limited number of tutorial sessions, so sign up for your 45-minute individual consultation. Bring your laptop and/or smartphone, and get ready to join the digital age!

Where the Idea Came From

Last year, I was on the faculty at MWW and attended many of Jane Friedman’s panels on how to use social media. I looked around the room and saw people around my own age and older with stunned and frightened looks on their faces, and I thought to myself, “Oh, I know exactly how you feel!” I’m a latecomer to social media. My first forays went badly, and I experienced a profound sense of culture shock. (You can read about it here.) I turned to the young people in my life-my students-who showed me the ropes.

I’m excited to introduce you to these four individuals. Let me tell you about each of them, and I think you’ll see why I selected them to work as social media consultants at MWW.

Meet the Consultants

Fields TyperTyler Fields is in his third year at Ball State University, majoring in Creative Writing and Digital Publishing. He edits the BSU English Department Blog and is co-president of the Writers’ Community.  Both of these positions require maintaining a social media presence and/or professional writing proficiency. Tyler has published both creative pieces and academic articles in various national journals and continues to assist Ball State faculty in their publishing endeavors. Tyler currently maintains several personal social media platforms including his  website, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Twitter, and can be easily reached on Facebook.

Q: Tyler, in a nutshell, why is it important for aspiring writers to maintain some kind of internet presence?

A: The climate of writing, publishing, and reading is shifting drastically and swiftly. Unless a writer has become established before the surge of the internet and social media, it seems there is little to no hope for her to break out of the growing saturation of aspiring writers today. How is she to get notice from agents or presses? I think that because most communication has already shifted to internet-exclusivity, those aspiring writers who have yet to get connected are losing out on a myriad of opportunities. One is simply to create connections with other readers, writers, and publishers. Online, a writer is able to maintain connections with other hopefuls and established personnel. And as with any new prospect, it’s incredibly important to have already made connections with those people who can assist in your writing endeavors. Another opportunity exists in the recent push to publish online. I know of several authors who have been approached by agents from big and small presses to submit a novel manuscript based on their publications to online journals.

Further, because it’s becoming simpler all the time to move forward as a writer without a middleman, many writers are taking advantage of the ability to push and market their work more quickly and efficiently. How do they do this? They have a prominent online presence. In the end, if a writer is able to create and maintain at least a semblance of an online presence, they increase their chances greatly to immerse themselves in the world of reading and writing which has largely taken to rely on the internet to provide new, upcoming, and promising writers.

Ford AshleyAshley C. Ford received her BA in English Studies from Ball State University where she edited the departmental literary magazine The Broken Plate, contributed to the university magazine “Ball Bearings,” and served as communications intern with the Ball State University Foundation. In addition to her work with the university, Ashley served as Blog Editor and Marketing Director for

Specter Magazine and Communications Coordinator for local consulting firm, Whitinger Strategic Services LLC, where she ran six successful marketing campaigns using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and various blog-hosting sites. Feel free to follow her on Twitter: @iSmashFizzle, or read her blog, “The Next Thing.”

Q: Ashley, tell me a story about how social media has enriched your writing life, provided you with an opportunity you might not have had otherwise.

A: Let me say that I have a wonderful group of writing friends and partners right here in Muncie. We share work, attend literary events together, and support one another through the toughest spots of our writing processes. However, it is through the online writing community that I’ve found ways to get my work into the world.

About two years ago, I decided to follow and engage one of my favorite writers on twitter. I just wanted to let her know how much I enjoyed her work and how I found her to be inspirational. This led to her giving me the opportunity to read for a well-known literary magazine she edits. She went on to publish two of my essays in different venues. Through this relationship I have been introduced to other amazing writers, offered invaluable advice on writing and publishing, and she has become my writing mentor. All of this from a few initial tweets!

I know not everyone is looking for a writing mentor, but through social media I have had the opportunity to have conversations with writers from around the world who I may never get the opportunity to meet in person. Some of them have even offered to read and critique my work. These connections are only possible via the internet and I plan on using them to their fullest potential.

McNelly SpencerSpencer McNelly received his BA in Creative Writing from Ball State University where he was a tutor at The Writing Center, a member of Writers’ Community, and a copy editor for Stance, BSU’s international undergraduate philosophy journal. In addition to writing memoir and editing work, Spencer was Vice President of Spectrum, BSU’s GLBTQSA organization, where one responsibility was maintaining the Twitter account for the group. Spencer also blogs on Tumblr and can be reached on Facebook and @androgynisto on Twitter.

Q: Spencer, what would you say to someone who makes an appointment with you at MWW and says, “They say I have to do this. I don’t really want to, but I will if I have to. So show me what I need to do.” And what do you have to offer someone who’s a little more advanced, who says, “I’m doing it, but I think maybe I’m doing it wrong. How can I do this better?”

A: Firstly, I would ask them who “they” is and secondly, I’d assure them that one doesn’t have to be a part of social media. It’s an important aspect of being a literary citizen, but not a requirement. I’d walk them through the three main appendages of social media: Facebook, Twitter, and eBlogger. If someone asked about using social media incorrectly, I’d discuss with them about their goals in being a part of social media. I’d assure them that there isn’t necessarily a wrong way of doing it, just a gap in not getting what one wants from it.

Ralston MayeMaye Ralston worked as a freelance journalist and a professional writer and consultant specializing in marketing and public relations media. She has several years experience with online site development, writing, and marketing – including deploying websites, blogs, and social media and incorporating intersecting media. She is currently studying creative writing at Ball State University, where she continues to explore emerging media.  She plans to apply to MFA programs in the near future. You can follow Maye on Twitter @MayeRalston, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, and at her recent blog “The Well of Creativity.”

Q: Maye, one reason why I selected you is that, unlike the other consultants, you’re not Generation Y. You’re not someone who’s grown up using technology and social media. Like a lot of MWW attendees, you’ve had to learn how to incorporate this into your personal and professional life. What advice do you have for the aspiring writer who’s nervous about dipping their toe into these waters?

A:  Trying something new can be confusing, frustrating, and very time consuming. Certainly it can be risky. Especially if one has already acquired a certain amount of professional reputation capital, it can be intimidating to risk that capital in a technological wilderness. I wish I had had someone to guide me when I first started using online tools and media, it would have saved me hours (months really) of hard and frustrating work. As to the risk: not venturing into new tools and technology can also be risky, as the world may well leave one behind, mired in the muck (yes I love clichés) of outdated methodologies. It is a fact of modern life that technologies will change the way we live and work, at ever decreasing intervals. Keeping up necessarily means taking risks, and that means making mistakes. The good news is that even new media “experts” make mistakes, so we are all in good company. If we desire to remain industry viable, anything we can do to shorten the learning curve in order to get back to our real passion (writing) is worth every penny, and every effort, we spend on it.

Homework Assignment!

The consultants have some questions they’d like you to consider before you arrive at MWW 12 and sign up for an appointment with them.

  • Do you have: a Facebook profile, Twitter account, LinkedIn account, a blog?
  • Are you active on these accounts? How active? How long have you been using them?
  • Are these accounts primarily for personal or professional use? Or both? Are you connected to other writers and publishing personnel?
  • If you have more than one of the items in number one, are they interconnected? (For example does your twitter feed show up on your blog or Facebook feed? Or does your blog feed show up on your LinkedIn profile page?)
  • If you have a blog, what is your primary use of this blog? (personal or professional or a little of both)
  • What is the topic of your blog, if there is a topic or focus?
  • How many followers does your blog have? And whose blogs do YOU follow?
  • Do you know how many followers/friends/connections you have on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook?
  • Are your followers mostly friends and family members, or are they also professional connections? About what percentage of each are there?
  • What 1 or 2 things do you most want to learn during your tutoring session? Be sure to come to the session with a plan, your passwords, and a digital headshot photo.

Email your responses with subject line: “Social Media Homework”