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Q&A with Kelly O’Dell Stanley

Kelly O’Dell Stanley is full of doubt and full of faith. In 2013, Kelly’s essay “Amazing Grace” won the Writer’s Digest Inspirational Writing Competition, and she’s the author of Praying Upside Down and Designed to Pray (coming in August 2016). With more than two decades of experience in advertising, three teen and young adult kids, and a husband of 25 years, she’s learned to look at life in unconventional ways-often upside down. She enjoys living in small-town Indiana, where she operates her own graphic design business, reads too much and cleans too little, and thrives on coffee and deep discussions with friends.

MWW committee member Cathy Shouse recently interviewed Kelly about her MWW sessions.

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MWW: What are some ways attendees can benefit from attending MWW this summer? How has your attendance, prior to coming on to the committee in 2015, influenced your career? You seem to have “colored outside the lines” and found friendships and collaborations that have propelled your career. Any tips on how others can do that?

KOS: Nearly everything I know about this industry–and writing–I learned at MWW (no exaggeration). Flash fiction sessions taught me to get right to the heart of a story; creative journalism sessions taught me better ways to tell true stories; a storyboarding intensive taught me about structure–and I’ve learned tons about platform building and promotion. The broader your exposure to multiple genres and techniques, the better your writing will be.

But the reason I love MWW the most? The friends I’ve made here. A handful of us connected deeply and quickly. They’re good writers, and they’ve helped me improve, but more than anything, their friendship makes my life richer. We write in different genres but support and admire each other’s work–pushing each other to get better, to keep working, and not to give up when things aren’t going as well as we’d like. Coming from different backgrounds, too, we are able to offer new insights into each other’s work.

The best tip I can offer is this: when you meet people (successful authors or those starting out; agents, editors, publishers, or what have you), don’t think about what they can do for you. Instead, be genuine in your interest and friendship. If you have anything to offer them (reviews of a book, sharing something on social media), do so without expecting a return favor. Be real, generous–and yourself. Ultimately, it’s likely that some of these people will help you in very real ways (like endorsements, guest blog posts, etc.). But that can’t be your motivation or you’ll never truly connect with them.

For example, I first met Elizabeth Berg at a writing workshop in Italy. I went to learn about fiction; instead, she pushed me to face my grief and loss of faith, and that experience resulted in an essay that won the inspirational writing category of the Writer’s Digest competition–and led to an endorsement from Elizabeth for my first book. I didn’t go into it expecting anything, just expressing my admiration for her work and being open to learning. But what I gained is immeasurable.

MWW: Your debut book, Praying Upside Down: A Creative Prayer Experience to Transform Your Time with God, had an amazing review by Elizabeth Berg, the award-winning novelist who spoke at MWW in 2015.

“Like the books of Anne Lamott, so full of honest and soulful searching, Kelly Stanley’s Praying Upside Down takes as its launch pad the precepts of the Christian faith. But what is offered here can apply to anyone, regardless of their faith–or lack thereof. What this book does is offer ways to learn and practice a humble kind of self-inventory, leading to forgiveness and generosity toward others as well as toward oneself. I found Kelly’s spiritual journey compelling and her voice clear, engaging, and irresistible.” (Elizabeth Berg)

Please give us a thumbnail sketch of how this unique book, which could only be created by a writer who is also an artist, went from idea to publication? Plus, how did it make you feel to be compared to Anne Lamott, who is so admired in your genre?

KOS: I was giddy when I got Elizabeth Berg’s review. My main goal in Praying Upside Down was to be true to my faith and accurately relate my experiences, but to do so in such a way that it was not off-putting to those who are not Christians. To get such a great review from a mainstream, New York Times bestselling novelist–and then to have her compare me to the person about whom I’ve always said, “If I could write like anyone, it would be Anne Lamott,” well, let’s just say there were a lot of tears that day. The good kind.

So, what is Praying Upside Down? When you turn an image upside down to copy it, you’ll get a more accurate result. When an image is upside down, it frees our minds from defining it, so we see what is really there, not what we expected to see. When my husband and I owned two houses for two years because we couldn’t sell the first, I started praying for the woman who would someday buy my house, and doing so changed everything for me. By taking myself out of the equation, I could see other things happening, and in the end, I believe I saw so many things God did in the process that I would have missed had I been determined that answered prayer could only look a certain way.

One day I saw that I had been praying upside down, much like an artist might draw upside down, and I realized nearly everything I know about art applies to prayer. At MWW 2011, I decided to turn that idea into a book, and in August 2012, right after MWW, I’d completed the book proposal and several chapters so I submitted to three agents. Several months later, I signed with one of them (Blythe Daniel), and in January of 2013 got offers from two publishers. Manuscript was due by end of the year and my book released in May 2015–it was a long wait, but I made the right choice because my publisher is so great to work with. In the end, my book turned out to be about 90% memoir and about 10% practical application. Most chapters contain a prayer palette, which offers creative suggestions for implementing the different artistic concepts described in terms of prayer–things like white space, composition, perspective, using the grid method, sketching, and so on.

MWW: From what we’ve heard, sometimes getting that second book contract can be as difficult as the first. For your second book, Designed to Pray: Creative Ways to Engage with God, which releases August 1st, how was your path to publication easier, if it was?

KOS: My experience defied every expectation of what is supposed to happen. Since I was a first-time author, my publisher wanted to see six months of sales figures before considering another book proposal. My book came out in May; in early June, my publisher emailed my agent. They’d teamed up with Women of Faith for two new books, and would I write one? And could I turn it in in two months? When they described the concept they had in mind–which was an idea I had described to a friend a few weeks earlier (but hadn’t mentioned to anyone in publishing)–I said yes. When I first hung up from the call with my agent, Blythe Daniel, there were tears then, too. Seems like a pattern with me. Don’t let me near Hallmark movies, either, or it could really get ugly.

Designed to Pray is a really different kind of book and was a creative challenge. Technically it’s a Bible study workbook. Each of the eight chapters begins with an essay on a new topic-praying like a child, overcoming obstacles, getting creative. The remaining days of each week are made up of a wide variety of practical exercises to help people apply those concepts, discover new truths about their faith and their prayer life, and explore prayer to broaden their definition of what it can be. These include writing, doodling, looking up Bible verses, coloring pages, filling in charts, and making things. I wrote it, but the biggest challenge was creating 56 different activities, designing them in order to lead people to unique results, and finding and suggesting visuals for all of the exercises. It was crazy and fast and complicated–and boy, was it fun.

MWW: Your session about finding and holding on to inspiration talks about “inspirational” writing. What are some challenges people writing “inspirational” face and how would you define the genre? Specifically, what types of writers will benefit? Is this all about religion? I’ve heard debates about what makes something “inspirational,” so am curious to get your take on it.

KOS: Inspirational writing doesn’t have to be religious, but most Christian publishing falls under that category. I guess I’d simply define it as writing that inspires, or a story with an uplifting purpose or intent. Although my writing is mostly about faith, I hope my sessions will appeal to all those who write to inspire others (whether that’s through a biography or fiction or whatever). We’ll talk about establishing credibility; maintaining a balance between your public and private faith (if that applies); the responsibility to authentically and factually relay our stories; and being sensitive when writing for an audience that spans denominations or religions.

I think the greatest challenge we face is maintaining authenticity. As writers of faith, specifically, I think we’re held to a higher standard in terms of living the type of life we are presenting in our work. I can’t write about prayer without actively and intentionally praying on a regular basis. I can’t give my take on the Bible without having read and studied carefully. No one is standing over me supervising me, but my faith is the most important part of who I am, and I want to get it right–or my readers will have no reason to read my books. All good writers know their subject matter, so in that respect it’s no different than what any other writer does. But in order to have any success whatsoever, I have to be as real as possible. Because readers will see right through it if I’m not.

MWW: I followed your journey through several rewrites (or revisions?) of your first book, which you shared on your Facebook page. How difficult was that time for you, what was involved and what motivated you to stay the course? Also, do you have any memorable reactions from strangers that have been part of your reward?

KOS: Tyndale has some extraordinary editors, and I was paired with a woman who totally gets what I’m trying to do in my writing. I’ll admit, I cried (devastated, heartbroken, sad tears) when I got the first round of changes from her. So I had a big glass of wine and watched TV until I fell into bed, resolutely refusing to think about it. But when I sat down at the computer the next day, I saw that they weren’t criticizing my work but making suggestions for clarity, not correcting mistakes as much as tightening and strengthening the words that were there. When I finished, I saw how much better my book was because of it–and I felt as though I’d just completed a masters’ course in creative writing.

People have been so good about contacting me and telling me what stories touched them, or how my book changed their prayer lives or reassured them that they were not alone. The messages from people asking me to pray for them are the most moving. When I think about what it would take for someone to reach out to a stranger–to trust me, based solely on the words I put on the page, to help them with something personal and important (and often, something they haven’t shared with people close to them)–that’s when I stop and give thanks for what I get to do. It shows me I’m exactly where I want to be.

MWW: For your MWW session “Embracing creativity in nonfiction,” what is a way, or a technique, you’ll be sharing that might help attendees to catch an editor’s eye?

KOS: I plan to discuss types of brainstorming and making connections between different things, because generating ideas is the basis for everything we do–marketing, publicity, the writing itself. We’ll talk about creative structures or frameworks for the story, ways to get an editor’s attention in the book proposal, how to reach and define your target audience, and ideas to implement after you have a book published or want to grow your platform.

People think of fiction as the place to be creative, but nonfiction benefits just as much from creative approaches. Even nonfiction writing itself is creativity–it’s the act of creating something that didn’t exist in that form before, of telling a true story in an interesting way. In fiction, writers do character studies–we will discuss our audiences in a similar way. Good fiction keeps upping the stakes; in nonfiction, the equivalent is adding value to the reader. Bringing in different techniques and approaches will help your work stand out.

MWW: To wrap this up, the following questions are just for fun:

Netflix or Prime or???

Usually a book, but I DVR a handful of shows and watch Netflix sometimes. Or I did, until we lost the remote this week. So I’m 100% back to books.

Coffee or tea?

Coffee–strong, preferably dark roast Sumatra with lots of brown sugar. Or real Italian espresso.

E-books or paper?

Both, depending on where I’m reading. An iPad is awfully convenient to prop up beside me while I eat breakfast or lunch, so I lean in that direction unless I can get a signed paper copy or know I’m going to want to mark key passages. The night I finished the first book of a series at 10:30 and realized I could download the next book and start reading right away (rather than driving an hour to Indy the next day or waiting for UPS to deliver), I was sold.

MAC or PC?

Mac, of course, says this iPhone, iPad, Mac Book Air and Mac Pro owner. No question.

MWW16 Registration Now Open!

Room to grow!

If you’ve been part of Midwest Writers Workshop in recent years, you know all about our growing pains. With our ever-surging enrollment we’ve often had to cap registration early, shoehorn extra chairs into classrooms, and designate quiet corners in noisy spaces for writers’ one-on-one appointments with editors and agents.

So, this year we’re taking a giant leap to the next level where the operative words are “NEW” and “MORE.” Let’s start with the “NEW” ….

LA Pittenger SCLA Pittenger loungeOur NEW workshop home is the L.A. Pittenger Student Center on the campus of Ball State University. The familiar adage “location, location, location” certainly fits this sprawling facility with its extra parking slots, classrooms, Starbucks, food court, lounge areas, and—would you believe—a bowling alley! It also puts us in close proximity to what the locals call “The Village,” a casual cluster of restaurants and watering holes within steps of the Student Center. Writers can socialize as much or as little as they choose. The adjoining campus (typically quiet in July) is a great place to wander, soak up the sun, or check out an exhibit at the Owsley Art Museum or a program at the new planetarium (both free!).

 

Now for the “MORE” ….

The additional space is enabling us to accommodate MORE writers, faculty, editors, agents, and workshops. We have the largest faculty we’ve ever had: two faculty for middle grade (NEW), two faculty for women’s fiction (NEW), four faculty for mystery, three for young adult, up and coming star of writing the online essay; PLUS nonfiction, poetry, inspirational; PLUS Scrivener, social media tutoring, PLUS six agents and two editors. We’ve put together a schedule that balances keynote talks on both the craft and business of writing, hands-on learning, panel discussions, and opportunities for manuscript evaluations, query letter critiques, professional head shots, and tax/business consultations. We’re now able to offer 10 Part I intensive sessions and 45+ sessions for Part II on Friday and Saturday. We’ve made it extremely tough to decide which ones to attend!

Amid all these changes, one thing will remain constant: Hoosier hospitality. Our planning team works hard to create the kind of friendly environment that gives new and veteran writers room to grow. Whether you’re a “regular” who makes Midwest Writers Workshop an annual event, or a first-timer who has decided—like us—to take a giant leap this year to the next level, we look forward to welcoming you on July 21!

Register today!


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Award-winning Michael Shelden to teach Writing the Biography

For the FIRST TIME, Midwest Writers Workshop is offering a Part I intensive session on WRITING THE BIOGRAPHY.

So, who did we get to teach it? None other than the award-winning Dr. Michael Shelden! (Yes, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Biography.)

Shelden Michael 150x129In addition to teaching “Writing the Biography,” Michael will teach several sessions throughout the weekend of our July 23-25 workshop. Committee member Cathy Shouse caught up with Michael for a Q&A after he landed back home in Indiana from his six-city tour to Chicago, San Diego, New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, as a 2015 Drue Heinz Lecturer for the Royal Oak Foundation in affiliation with the National Trust of England.

While on tour, Michael lectured about his latest book,Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill,published by Simon &, Schuster, New York and London, 2013. (For more details about the tour, click here.)  This month he also gave a presentation, “Moments of Being: The New Art of Biography,” at the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue in West Lafayette.

Young Titan has garnered rave reviews from numerous sources:

“It’s all here–the boy wonder, adventurer, romantic, orator and eloquent man in the arena. I didn’t want it to end.” ~ Tom Brokaw on Michael Shelden’s book Young Titan.

“Entertaining and erudite . . .Shelden is full of sharp literary insights about Churchill, as one would expect from a biographer of his rank.” ~ The Wall Street Journal

If you want to improve your nonfiction skills, you should register for Michael’s intensive session! Here’s what he had to say about his upcoming presentations at Midwest Writers Workshop in July.

MWW:  Which book would you recommend attendees read to understand the techniques you’ll discuss in your intensive session? Or would all of them apply equally?

MS: Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and Mark Twain: Man in White (Random House, 2010)

MWW:  One of my favorite biographies is Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak. Do you have a favorite biography, or more than one, and what do you like about it?

MS: Hampton Sides, Hellhound on His Trail, is a suspenseful portrait of Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray in the period when the hate-filled assassin was stalking the great civil rights champion.

MWW:  Is there a common pitfall(s) you see when you read biographies and how will your session help to avoid those?

MS: The most common mistake in biographies is to follow chronology too closely. The writer must know when to skip over boring details for the sake of creating a streamlined narrative.

MWW:  Please provide some details about how your intensive will be structured. Will attendees be writing during the session?

MS: I will discuss how to find material for a good biographical narrative, how to structure it, and how to make it come to life with forceful writing. We can try a few experiments by writing short samples, but mostly I will try to highlight the effective methods I’ve learned over the years.

MWW:  If someone has not begun a biography and maybe doesn’t have a subject chosen, how will this session help (or should they have a subject already?) and would you rate your class as aiming toward a specific level of writer?

MS: I’m often asked how I choose the subjects for my biographies, and I will explain this process in the session, but it’s highly personal and can’t be applied to most writers. You don’t write a biography in the abstract. The subject has to come first, and it has to be one that engages the writer fully at every level. The nature of the subject will largely determine how the story will be told.

MWW:  Will some of the techniques you plan to discuss apply to fiction writers who are working on characters, or should attendees be strictly working with nonfiction?

MS: Biographers may use dialogue, setting, and story in much the same way that novelists do, but the main difference is that we can’t make stuff up. Most of what I will have to say will apply to writers of nonfiction.

MWW:  Are there some ways to prepare for your class?

MS: Read a good biography and think at every turn about how it was made.

*****

Michael’s Part II sessions include the Thursday evening keynote, Finding Subjects for Nonfiction, and The Art of Research.

REGISTER TODAY!

Interview with Kelsey Timmerman: Turning Real Stories into a Real Career

Kelsey Timmerman is a traveler with a writing problem. He met the agent who sold his first book, Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes at the Midwest Writers’ Workshop in the summer of 2007. Kelsey’s latest book is Where Am I Eating? An Adventure Through the Global Food Economy. His writing has appeared in publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Condé Nast Portfolio and has aired on NPR. Kelsey is also the co-founder of the Facing Project, a nationwide storytelling project that activates writers to tell stories that strengthen community. He has spent the night in Castle Dracula in Romania, played PlayStation in Kosovo, farmed on four continents, taught an island village to play baseball in Honduras, and in another life, worked as a SCUBA instructor in Key West, Florida.

Kelsey will be leading the  Part I nonfiction intensive at MWW. We caught up with Kelsey for this week’s E-pistle.

MWWAt MWW you are teaching a nonfiction intensive session titled “Turning Real Stories into a Real Career.” Could fiction writers benefit from this intensive as well?

KT: Totally. I’m jealous of fiction writers because they can travel between their ears where they aren’t threatened by deadly venomous snakes, paramilitary forces, and Ghanaian death buses, all of which I have encountered. Also, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper. But from a career perspective, I often feel sorry for fiction writers. There are way fewer places to publish fiction. Nonfiction is always about real-world issues. However, fiction writers can leverage their real-world experiences and research surrounding these issues to get published in magazines, newspapers, and other outlets. Each published clip, besides being a great ego boost, is another shiny thing to pepper in your query letter to a future agent or editor. Nonfiction writing builds an author’s authority and platform. It also is more likely to pay! All writers can benefit from writing and publishing non-fiction.

MWWWalk us through your path to publishing.

KT: I graduated with a degree in anthropology, which I quickly put to use as a SCUBA diving instructor and world traveler. I started to write about my experiences and shortly after had a weekly travel column in the Key West The Newspaper. I got paid $0 per column. It was the world’s most expensive hobby, and I love it! That column was my grad school. I had to write 1,000 publishable words every single week. It was my reason to write. (In my session we’ll be exploring our individual reasons to write that keep us writing.) After two years of writing the column, I reworked some of them and they got picked up by publications that people had heard of and that paid. And then, of course, I went to Bangladesh because my underwear was made there and I wanted to meet the people who made them. This was followed by trips to Cambodia, China, and Ethiopia. I had an agent interested in my Where Am I Wearing? idea as a book, and then I met another agent at my first MWW, with whom I eventually signed. A few months later, I had a book deal. Three months later I finished the book. A year later that book was out, and suddenly, after eight years of working at the writing thing, I had a career as a writer and as a speaker. And because everyone always wants to know. . . . Yes, this is what I do for a living.  I support my wife, who is the real hero in all of this, and our two kids.

MWW: You’ve been a column writer, freelancer, author, and speaker. Is it important for writers to diversify?

KT: You bet! I looked at my career as a multi-front attack. I advanced the column thing as far as I could, and then I shifted to freelance work. Freelance clips led to books, which led to more freelancing work and speaking engagements. They all feed one another. Yet, if I would’ve said, “I’m only a columnist,” and given up when my travel column literally  had been rejected hundreds of times, I would be living someone else’s dream. You are a writer. You aren’t just a fiction writer, a YA author, or a literary journalist. You are a storyteller.

MWW: What will students walk away with from your intensive?

KT: I’m not sure this has been done before at MWW, but I will personally give you a, “you’ll get published guarantee.” Every attendee will leave with clear goals and a plan of attack to execute those goals. If after one year, a student believes he or she followed the plan and has not been published, I will personally reimburse them the $150 fee for Part I.  (Note this isn’t an MWW guarantee; in fact, Jama will probably try to talk me out of this. This is me paying you back if you aren’t happy.) You. Will. Get. Published. I guarantee it! The bar for nonfiction writing is rather low.  We’ll talk about how to exceed expectations and share a few tools from fiction writing. We want your work to stand out. You have to write well before anyone will publish anything. Next, we’ll explore why you write, and how to discover your unique areas of expertise. And then, we’ll lay out a plan of who you’ll pitch (agents, newspapers, magazines, websites, etc), how you want to be published, and set tangible writing and career development goals. We’ll work through a writer’s business plan and we might even bust out a spreadsheet or two. Writing careers rarely happen by accident.

MWW: What are you looking forward to the most about this summer’s conference?

KT: I grew as a writer by attending MWW, and I really enjoy watching as others grow their love for writing and their writing careers. For me, the conference is less of a workshop than it is a family reunion. I’m looking forward to catching up with old friends and making new ones. Connect with Kelsey:  Blog / Twitter / Facebook

Being brave is part of chasing your dream of being a writer. Be brave. Register today for #mww14!

Part I Intensive Sessions are filling up! Don’t miss this outstanding faculty, this information-packed schedule, this opportunity to pitch to agents, this time of networking and participating in all that is the MWW Community. Register today!

 

Interview with author Hank Nuwer

headshotnuwerLHank Nuwer is best known for his four young adult and adult books on the topic of hazing in society-including High School Hazing. He teaches journalism at Franklin College, Indiana but speaks on hazing at schools such as Kenyon College, Maine, Toronto, Cornell, Chico State, Dartmouth, Oregon, Michigan and Stetson. He also teaches on the art of nonfiction storytelling at writer conferences. Nuwer also has written To the Young Writer, a book for young adults on the business of writing as seen through the eyes of well-known authors; it was a New York Public Library 2002 award winner for Best Books for Young Adult readers. Other books for youngsters include a biography of Jesse Owens and books on football, baseball, sports scandals, steroids, and recruiting in sports.  His journalism has appeared in Harper’s, Outside, Fraternal Law, The Nation, Toronto Globe & Mail, Montreal Standard and Boston Magazine.

MWW Social media intern, Madison R Jones interviewed Hank for this week’s E-pistle.

JONES: At MWW you will teach three different nonfiction workshops: two on the art of storytelling in nonfiction and another about writing memoir. What’s the most important rule for a nonfiction writer to follow when trying to balance facts and truth with telling a good story?

NUWER: Oh, man. that is an easy question. Selection of detail. Cultivating the value of ruthlessness with regard to story. Pare to the essentials. Develop the parts too sparsely described. If you were reading this aloud, you’d want the audience leaning in to catch your every word. Nothing left out, nothing superfluous. It isn’t easy, but it can be done, and it must be.

JONES: You have taught at Midwest Writers before. How does it feel to be coming back, and what do you enjoy most about this conference?

NUWER: The energy. From the first step in the door and getting a hug from like five old friends to the class itself and getting to discover new talent, the entire MWW conference is a rush. One of my students (Gary Eller) went on to write a book and get an MFA from the famous writers school at the University of Iowa. Getting together with writers who love and appreciate good writing? It’s better than a love-in or jam session. It’s creativity at work. I won’t sleep for a week after the conference–just write. Seriously. I’m in the middle of a book right now and it’s 2:45 a.m. and what’s better in life than writing at 2:45 a.m.?

JONES: How old were you when you first were published?

NUWER: Age sixteen with two essays-for-pay in the Buffalo News. One was an op-ed, the other a review of a bad baseball game broadcast by Dizzy Dean.

JONES: When did you take your first creative writing class, and where was it?

NUWER: Hamline University in July 2012. I had never had a creative writing class before that. My professor was the poet and essayist Lia Purpura–who was in the New Yorker two issues back with a piece.

JONES: You had never had a writing class before that?

NUWER: Never.

JONES: What do you emphasize in your sessions?

NUWER: Great storytelling. Bringing out the telling details. Knowing what to leave in and what to pare out.

JONES: You said in your 2012 CBS interview with Tracy Smith that you’ve been writing about hazing since 1975. That’s nearly 40 years. What is it about this issue that draws you to write about it?

NUWER: I came to young adulthood in the 1960s when the driving urge for many of us was to make a difference. As a graduate student at the University of Nevada-Reno, I knew many members of a fraternal club of mainly athletes called the Sundowner Club through my own associations as a onetime president of the Graduate Student Association and intramural sports. The Sundowners conducted their bare-chested drinking initiations in public, and I saw two of them (alcohol-fueled hazings), actually imploring one friendly member to walk a student for hours that I had found inert under a pool table and frothing at the mouth. Just before I quit the program to pursue a freelance writing career I had started years earlier, the Sundowners had a third initiation far from campus and killed John Davies and caused a second pledge to have brain damage.

I wrangled an assignment from Human Behavior magazine to write about hazing behaviors and interviewed giants in the field of behavior about such theories as groupthink and our human urge for camaraderie and acceptance. I came to the belief that my interviews with such experts might in time put together all the best science and knowledge to eradicate hazing. With all due humility, I’d like to think my four books and countless articles on hazing have made a difference for the better to try to put an end to the degradation and violence that occurs worldwide in hazing acts.

JONES: What would be your advice for the new/young nonfiction writer when it comes to finding that topic or issue to write about and finding their niche?

NUWER: From my own experience, I say this. 1) Sometimes a topic will find you. An online friend named Sheryl Hill started the ClearCause Foundation to highlight the dangers of too-little-planned school travel tips after her son Tyler perished in a horrific fall. I never would have written about hazing if the Nevada-Reno death hadn’t occurred. I had experienced hazing in Scouts and a fraternity, but not the kind that causes a death–more of  a timewaster and irritation than anything serious. The UNR death was serious. 2) Sometimes you find a topic. Some topics we choose on our own and pursue and through research and exploration and hard work we finally publish. Examples would be my biographies of Olympic legend Jesse Owens and (in-progress) Kurt Vonnegut. I went after those contracts hard before editors assigned them to me. Many hazing contracts are offered me. But outside of hazing, I get assignments through queries and proposals to editors.

JONES: What is the best gift you can give a student?

NUWER: Guarded enthusiasm and paying attention to find that writer’s singular voice.

JONES: Why is it that some people with real writing talent don’t go as far as they can?

NUWER: They have to develop a thick skin. One or a hundred rejections later and they give up. Or they don’t keep a daily writing routine. When you’re not writing it should be because you’re on a vacation to put something back into your mental fuel tank. And even then, keep a notebook handy and jot down ideas for stories or articles as they come to you. Real writers know the importance of developing a writing routine and regimen. And they stick to those.  Make a list of all the things you can cut out that can have an hour or two of daily writing put in its place. Then write instead of doing those other things. Put something, anything, down on a blank page. Don’t wait for inspiration. Just do it, as the commercial says. And sooner than you think, you’ll have done it.

JONES: Is there one quotation every aspiring writer attending MWW should commit to memory?

NUWER: Theodore Roosevelt said this: “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” Now combine the advice and techniques you acquire at MWW with discipline and courage . . . and you’re ALL the way there–you’re a writer.

Hank’s Part II sessions, Friday and Saturday include:

  • Putting Storytelling into Your Nonfiction (session in two parts)
  • Writing Memoir

Interview with Lou Harry

Midwest Writers has an amazing faculty slated for our 40th workshop!

Returning to teach the Intensive Session (Thursday, July 25) “Writing Everything: A Freelancer Book of Tricks” is LOU HARRY.
MWW committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed Lou about his writing and why he believes writers should be “interested in everything.”

Harry LouQ. I’ve enjoyed seeing you when our paths have crossed at the Indiana Historical Society Holiday Author Fair in December and last week at the Indiana Travel Media Marketplace. You seem to have your thumb on the pulse of publishing as well as the arts in Indy. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of how your current work came about? Also, are you as extroverted as you appear at these events?

Second answer first. I’m not really extroverted at all. I’m a terrible guest at parties if there isn’t a board game involved. But the combination of growing up working on the Wildwood, NJ, boardwalk and spending almost a decade working in comedy clubs taught me that you have to offer engagement if you want to engage. And I’m genuinely honored if someone wants to talk about the things I’ve written.

As to the first question, my current work is a wide range of things–my arts writing for IBJ (Indiana Business Journal), my theater writing, my book work. All of it, I suppose, came about because of a desire not to settle for doing okay, That means being a brutal editor of my own work but not to let that editor squelch me while I’m in the initial, freewriting phase (every book or play or article is the tip of the writing iceberg–there’s a LOT of material that I cut. Always.) And it means to constantly try to be a better communicator. Because that’s really the business we are in. It’s about figuring out how to pass on a story or pass on information or pass on a feeling in a way that makes it welcomed and understood by the receiver.

Q. It seems you’ve done it all, from working for an Indianapolis men’s magazine, to your current work as Arts and Entertainment Editor for the Indianapolis Business Journal, to my family’s favorite book of yours, The Biggest Trivia Book Ever. And the list goes on. What achievements are you particularly proud of, and/or do you have a project that is especially near and dear to your heart?

Pride is a tricky thing. It’s easy to be proud of the effect rather than the work. I’m proud, for instance, that I was able to negotiate a deal on a small book project years ago that still brings a royalty check every six months. And it’s fun to tell people that my novel was optioned by Warner Bros. But for the work itself, I’m proud of a short story I just rediscovered that I wrote in college. I’m proud of a one-act play called “Predictable” that does everything I want it to do even though I didn’t know while writing it what I wanted it to do. And there’s a poem or two where I feel I brought a clarity that I can’t really source. I don’t know where they came from. That’s usually the work I’m oddly proudest of, the stuff that comes from an unplanned place.

Q. Your intensive at MWW13 this summer, Writing Everything: A Freelancer Book of Tricks, encourages attendees to “be interested in just about everything.” This is a bit of a contrarian approach from those saying to specialize. What is one reason, or three, that writers need to generalize to succeed?

Well, one reason is because it usually makes you a more interesting human being. The person who knows exactly who he or she is is usually the person not open to other ideas and visions. They aren’t having a relationship with you. They’re lecturing. The best writers, I think, are curious. They research because they want to learn. They write because they want to figure out how to arrange what they’ve learned and discover what questions remain. Another reason for being open to lots of subjects is survival. A significant percentage of my freelance career–especially early on–has been on assignments whose subjects I had little knowledge of before taking the gig. That doesn’t mean don’t specialize. But it does mean don’t build walls too high around your specialty. The first column I wrote–which evolved into my first book–was on U.S. History, a subject I knew little about when I made a case for myself to be the column’s writer.

Q. Please share something about yourself that might help people to know you better, to feel more at ease upon meeting you for the first time this summer. Be sure to include that most important question: PC or MAC?

I’m just a blue-collar kid from the Jersey shore who picked his college based on the fact that, at Temple U., foreign language wasn’t a requirement. (I just couldn’t make my mind work that way.) I’m writing the stuff now that I feel I should have been writing 15 years ago. I feel lost at the beginning of just about every writing project.

PC.

Q.  Do you have tips on getting the most out of a conference?

Don’t come in looking for approval or validation or flattery. Come in wanting to leave a stronger, more motivated writer. Don’t be afraid to take a step back in order to make a leap forward.

Q. What would you say to those on the fence about coming to MWW13?

It can’t be very comfortable sitting on a fence. And, besides, people are starting to talk.

Q. Please share whatever else might be on your mind. 

Writing is a relationship you instigate.

Interview with agent JL Stermer

Meet JL Stermer!

Introducing another New York agent you can pitch to if you register for Part II of Midwest Writers Workshop:

StermerJL Stermeris an agent in the literary division of talent agency N.S. Bienstock. She is currently seeking both fiction and nonfiction. On the fiction side, she’d love to see both commercial and literary fiction as well as graphic novels. On the nonfiction side, she is looking for cookbooks and food-related narratives, prescriptive health, diet, and fitness, how-to, reference, narrative nonfiction, current events-related projects and all things pop-culture (science, business, technology, art, music, humor, crafts, DIY.)

Always looking for fresh and exciting projects, JL brings her enthusiasm to clients while helping them navigate the world of book publishing. From spotting trends, to finding the right editorial match for a project, she takes pride in being involved with her clients every step of the way. JL also teaches a class at the Gotham Writers Workshop: How to Get Published. Prior to joining N.S. Bienstock, she was an agent at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Born and raised in New York City, and a graduate of Columbia University, she currently resides in Manhattan solidifying that she is forever a city girl through and through.

Q: What are you looking for right now and not getting?

I’d love to see some fiction that reflects some of today’s more interesting “reality” projects … a protagonist who is:

….a judge (or contestant or a behind-the-scenes staff member) on a talent/food/addiction/fashion/weight-loss show

….on the front lines of current political revolutions/weather disasters/culture wars

….a social media developer/maven

…basically I am looking for any characters we might see in our daily lives (in all forms of media) and think: “I wonder what their days are like?”

In nonfiction, I am always looking for people with fresh twists on ideas that have been strong sellers in pop science, food, technology, health, diet, exercise. Nonfiction’s greatest hits!

Q: What’s your best piece(s) of advice?

One of the things I stress in the classes I teach at Gotham Writers Workshop is persistence. When submitting query letters persistence is key, but authors must be smart about their approach as well.  Make sure you have a well-curated list of agents you are going to query. Make sure they are truly a good fit for you. Keep meticulous notes during the process. And if you get any constructive criticism–do not be defensive and shrug it off–see if you can use it to make your pitch better. So many people give up after a few rejections. Keep the process moving by honing your letter as well as your manuscript/book proposal. And stay positive!! This is a hard one, I know, but bitter and frustrated authors send out that vibe and I can always sense it–in person and even in query letters…you are selling your project, sell it with a smile on your face.

Q:  How do you think attending a writing conference and speaking with you personally helps an author seeking representation and have you found some of your clients at writing conferences?

Attending a conference helps make it “real” for so many people. For the many writers who are cocooned in their own worlds, oftentimes this is the first chance they get to really identify as an author–to meet an agent, give their pitch and take that step into the business side of writing. I like to think I give authors confidence and inspiration (even if I am offering a critique). I try to take the scary element out of the equation by answering questions and being an attentive listener. As to clients, I do have a handful who I have met at writer’s conferences, but most of them are still works-in-progress. I have faith in them!

Q. In addition to the above, please be specific about the fiction you are seeking, to include whether you represent category romance, thrillers, and women’s fiction?

I am not looking for category romance. My colleague Paul Fedorko is always looking for a great thriller (WWII stories are his go-to favorite) so I am always happy to pass something great to him. And as for women’s fiction, yes please. Commercial and up market are welcome and I am very open regarding topic. As long as I am connecting with a distinctive voice and feel invested in a complex protagonist, I will follow her anywhere.

Q. What are some insider tips for making a successful pitch to you and how should someone who did not get an official pitch session approach you (if you are okay with that)?

One of the most important things is to take a deep breath and smile. Try to shake those nerves when you sit down for a one-on-one. Having your pitch be concise is important–you don’t have a lot of time to get it all in. I’d like to meet the protagonist right away as well as a few secondary characters, but not too many. If you try to cover everyone, you run the risk of losing me as I try to keep up with you…

As far as approaching me outside of an official pitch session, I’m okay with this but I’d rather not be pitched in the bathroom (!) or while I am chatting with another person. Other than that–that’s why I am here, to meet everyone and see if I can find a good match!

Patti Digh: From Blog to Book

2011 Midwest Writers Workshop – Nonfiction “From Blog to Book” – Are you a blogger who longs for a book contract? Or have you thought of starting a blog to get a book contract? We’ve all heard of six-figure advances being paid to bloggers to turn their blogs into books. Those stories have spurred many people to create blogs – without having anything to say, or without identifying what they long to say. In this hands-on session, we’ll explore why blogging is a good first step to writing a book — and, conversely, why and how focusing on the book deal splits our focus. We’ll explore where we need to stand to tell our stories, how to open space to tell them, how to interact with a blog audience in a way that doesn’t change our voice, and how to define and clarify the organizing principles of both a blog and book. Many of us write from a place of split intentions: we want to tell our story AND we want the audience to love us. This session focused on stepping out of that split intention. It focused more on voice and writing than on book deals, though a Q&A session during the session opened space for sharing of information on the publishing process.

Interview with author Patti Digh

INTRODUCING PATTI DIGHDigh
“I can’t wait to meet Patti, whose most recent book, Creative is a Verb, is full of the author’s fascinating personal stories. Patti inspires readers to get in touch with their uniqueness,” commented MWW committee member Cathy Shouse. “It also offers hundreds of thought-provoking quotes from everyone from Malcolm Gladwell to C.S. Lewis.  I appreciate its refreshing reminder that along with instruction on craft we must learn to effectively tap into the creativity each one of us was born with.”Q: Your Thursday Intensive Session “From Blog to Book” is the first time MWW has offered such a topic. Give us a brief overview and timeline of how your blog turned into a book.

I started writing my blog, 37days.com, in January of 2005, as a response to my stepfather dying just 37 days after being diagnosed with lung cancer. I was asking myself one question: “What would I be doing if I only had 37 days to live?” and writing my stories down for my two daughters was one important answer to that question. Several years after I started writing it, a publisher approached me and asked if I was interested to make a book from 37days. That book, Life is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful and Live Intentionally, was published by Globe Pequot Press in 2008, and is illustrated exclusively by readers of my blog from around the world.

Q: Tell us a little about your background.

I got my undergraduate degree in English, with a focus on contemporary American literature, and my graduate degree in English and Art History, with a focus on the figure of the artist in fiction.

My graduate thesis was on William Gaddis’ masterpiece, The Recognitions, which I consider one of the great American novels (along with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove [yes, really], and Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing).

I imagined I would be an English professor somewhere, but I found myself in Washington, D.C., for 20 years after graduate school, in the business world.  The first book I co-authored was called a “business book of the year 2000” by Fortune magazine. A few years later, I wrote another well-regarded business book.

And then the death of my stepfather sent me on a much more personal path, and I haven’t looked back at that other business voice since. I am fully inhabiting my own voice now, and telling my own stories.

Q: When you started blogging, was your objective to get a book contract and if so, are there specific steps to make that happen?

Absolutely not, and I believe we fall prey to focusing on outcome and not on process far too often. My intention was singular: I wanted to write my stories down for my two daughters so they would know me as a person, and not just as a mom. I wanted to leave behind a record of my being-all of it, not just the tidy professional me, but the messy, confused, fearful parts too.

I had no audience in mind but them, and I believe this singularity of intention ultimately drew readers in great numbers to the blog, ironically. A friend teaches young actors and one of the first things he teaches them is that you can’t play two intentions on stage at the same time. For example, you can either warn Hamlet (if that is the part you are playing), or you can try to get the audience to love you, but you can’t do both and do them honestly. Writing for a book contract is a split intention. Write what it is you long to say instead. Focus on process-using your voice, saying what you long to say-and not on product. Focus on content, and not on form.

Q: Will your MWW Intensive Session be more technology oriented or writing oriented; in other words, what should people expect?

Writing, writing, writing, writing, writing. In general, writers spend more time talking about how to write or what to write or what keeps us from writing than we do actuDigh creative bookally writing. This intensive will take us into process. I’ll also share insider tips on product–what happens in that liminal space between blog and book? We’re going to look at intention, voice, and much more–by writing, by digging into both content and form.

Q: Anything quirky or unusual about yourself inquiring minds would want to know?

My childhood hero was Johnny Unitas (quarterback for the Baltimore Colts), I played Johnny Appleseed in my fourth grade play, one of my favorite recording artists is Johnny Cash, I have a slight obsession with Johnny Depp, and I’m married to a man named Johnny. There is a pattern here. I also love the smell of lavender, and I write a thank you note every morning. And mail it. And I love to laugh.