The Front Row Blogs: Where I Write


thefrontrowblogsFirst off, being a writer is REAL HARD. It’s NO JOKE. So many things want to STOP you.

Netflix. Happy Hour. Puppies. America.

In order to get to that blank page, you have to have a carefully thought out ritual, if you will, to get into that creative space where the magic happens.

Part of that game plan is WHERE you decide to write.

Maybe you finally get your butt in the writing chair. But No Writing Happens. You’re distracted. Disconnected. Bored with the blank page. You close your notebook without putting down a single word. Somewhere, a puppy mournfully howls.

That’s why The Front Rowers…

Sarah AhiersJosh HammondZack WilsonJessica Mattson, Brita Sandstrom, Jennifer Coats, and ME.

…decided to share where our magic happens. We hope these posts will either affirm you or give you some inspiration on how to change things up so your characters aren’t hanging in limbo and wondering when you’re going to come out and play.

Tip One: Don’t Be A Goddamn Romantic

I’ve wasted a lot of time thinking that the best place to write is a café on the Amalfi Coast.

Just imagine it. You’re alone. You’ve got your computer, notebook, and special pens laid out. You can hear the sea crashing. A glass of white wine and bowl of bread are set down before you by a sexy server. Two grandmothers hang laundry out their windows across the street as they chatter back and forth in Italian. There are pink flowers everywhere. You take a sip of wine and a deep breath and….IMMEDIAETLY SLAM YOUR LAPTOP SHUT. Because ain’t nobody going INTO THEIR SCARY HEAD TO MAKE SHIT UP in a place like that.

Also, the I’m-a-better-writer-in-Europe trap is REAL folks. You are not Hemmingway. Recognize this as a procrastination trap and an excuse to spend your emergency fund on plane tickets and European Air B&B’s.

Tip Two: Don’t Fixate On the IF ONLY

I once convinced my husband shorty after we were married and BROKE that I needed a very expensive shelf from Ikea in order to write. He’s a good guy so he buys the shelf. I fill it up with all the “things” that were distracting me in my home office and then continue to NOT WRITE.

This, PEOPLE, is the procrastination MONSTER.

If you find yourself saying, if only I had a third story balcony or a lake cottage or J.K. Rowling’s brain…you are procrastinating.

You gotta work with what you have right now. Today. Where you live. I promise you that there is a place for you to write well in your life as it is today. You just have to do some experimenting to find it.

Where I Write (which is the topic of this blog, not procrastination, in case you were distracted by how all I talked about was procrastination, the actual topic is where people write, so try harder not to get so confused next time, k? K!)

Where I decide to write depends on what part of the writing process I’m in. If I’m shitting it up with a first draft, I have to be in my home, alone, on my futon, in my office WITH NO DISTRACTIONS. I’ll listen to music, but that’s it. I can’t be near people. I can’t be in public. I can’t be anywhere interesting. Because I’m such a fearful writer and will be interested in a small tumble weed of cat hair in order to have an excuse to NOT WRITE, I have to isolate myself completely. No phone. No email. The internet has to be burned to the ground. It has to be a Zero stimulation environment.


If I’m doing research or prewriting or revising, then I can be anywhere. Coffee shop. With people. Without them. Anywhere, except Europe. 😉

rabbit writing hat

This hat is magical. 

As you try to figure out where you write best, think about your writing process. What do you need when you’re first drafting? What about revising? Or researching? What about when you’re getting inspired? (In that case, blow your money on Europe. Who cares!?!? It’s for your Art, right?)

If you need some tips, this article is pretty NEAT, so check that out.


The Front Row is a writing group of sorts formed from connections made at Hamline’s MFAC program. We write, workshop, drink, and dream together. Look for more blog series from us soon.


Truest Release: Congrads Jackie Lea Sommers


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Check it Out!

I know I haven’t blogged in a long time. It’s been a busy year of teaching and thesis and graduating, BUT I HAD to blog about THIS!

My good friend Jackie Lea Sommers’ book comes out today! It’s called Truest.

It’s a book about first love and fathers and small towns and hard choices and even harder loss. This book is beautifully character driven. Seriously, they feel like real people after a while.

And this is a thinking book–one that makes you ask big questions along with the characters. One that makes you consider.

It’s a quiet book.

But Don’t Get Me Wrong. I read it in two days.

It’s also a funny book. #hilariousteeshirts

I hope you pick it up at your local/online bookstore.

Jackie, I’m so proud of you. Get It Girl!

MFAC Wrap Up: Cat in the Dishwasher


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This has nothing to do with today’s post and more to do with Look at HIM in the DISH Washer. AhhhhhhhhhWWWWWWWWWWW

Let’s be serious. MFAC ended weeks ago. I should have wrapped it up then, but I’ve been writing furiously, so there was no time. I’ll explain in a second.

There one more thing I wanted to share.

On the last day of MFAC, there is a graduation. It’s an intimate affair in a dark auditorium. The graduates vote on who they want their speaker to be. This year, they picked Vera B. Williams. She is a tiny, spunky woman who took the train out to Minnesota to be with us.

Here are two things she said about writing that I need to remember:

“You will learn from what you have written, and it will surprise you.”

“You will create the world you were made to create.”

These two quotes are a great comfort to me because all this MFAC business, all the wisdom imparted, all the conversations about writing, have made me realize that my current novel (the one I have been working on for Thesis which starts September 1st) is so flawed that there would be no way to salvage the story without completely starting over.


So. That. Sucks.


I thought, “Well. If I have to start again, might as well write a new novel that isn’t such a tangled mess.” Right? Right.

Three weeks ago today, I plotted out a whole new story in a new setting, dumped it into Scrivener, and am plowing through it every morning.

But the good news is that, because of all the MFAC plotting/POV lessons, it’s been so easy this time.

Well, maybe not easy, but smooth. I know where I’m going and how I’m getting there. Writing the other novel felt like trying to assemble IKEA furniture, blindfolded, on the deck of a ship in the middle of a hurricane…naked. Seriously. It was bad.

But this is good.

I have about 150 pages to write before September 1st plus LIFE, so wish me luck!

I’ll see you on the other side.

MFAC Day 10: Agents and Editors


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booksObviously, MFAC ended almost a week ago, but I needed a break from the posting.

On the last day, we had a session put on by the faculty on publishing. Because the grads missed this session (they were chillin with Vera Williams–no joke), I’m devoting a whole post to this talk.

Here’s what you missed:

MOST IMPORTANT THING: Get your manuscript in the best shape possible. Don’t rush to send out work that’s just OK. You might actually get the attention of a big-deal agent or editor. You don’t want to blow it by sending something out that isn’t your absolute BEST.

On getting an Agent…

1. Do your research: Duh. Don’t query blindly. Most info on agents and editors is on the interwebs (including blogs and Twitter accounts). Also, check the acknowledgment section of your fav book, too. By doing research, you can find an agent that is the best fit for you. And you can then mention a book they worked on that you really liked in your query letter (but don’t mention their most famous book.) “Dear Sir or Madam, I LOVED HUNGAR GAMES!! And have written a book just like it!” Don’t do that.

2. Match your project to the agent: Query agents who represent authors/books that are similar to your work. This part of publishing is all about relationships. You have a relationship with your agent who, in turn, has relationships with editors. If an agent only sells fantasy and you write historical pictures book, that agent probably won’t have relationships with the editors who are interested in that type of picture book. You want someone who has sold books like yours.

3. Make sure your agent is either experienced or has mentors: Ideally, you probably want an agent with experience. You are placing your baby (manuscript) in his or her care, after all. But sometimes a younger, less experienced agent can be a good thing, too. He or she is trying to build their career and might, in that case, work twice as hard for you. Just make sure that a younger agent is being mentored or working under smart people with experience. How do you find that out? Ask. Which leads me to the next point…

4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions: It’s sort of like dating. You have to have a good relationship with this person; therefore, try to get a handle on how they work. Ask about their experience. Tell them about your next project to make sure that project will also be a good fit. Ask how they communicate and how long it takes them to return a phone call or an e-mail. Ask if they have editorial experience and if they will ask for changes to your project before presenting it to editors. Ask if they are encouraging. Ask to talk to one of the writers they represent, and don’t be afraid to ask hard questions to that writer, too. It’s better to not be represented at all and keep searching for the right agent than to sign with someone who is a bad fit. If you have a manuscript ready to send out, you’ve probably put a lot of blood and tears into it. Don’t entrust it to someone who doesn’t believe in it as much as you do or just isn’t a good fit with how you work.

5. Don’t sweat the 15%: Yeah. It feels weird to have someone take 15% of everything you earn. You did the writing after all.  But all the faculty members strongly believe that you make that 15% back because of all the hard work your agent will do for you that you could never do on your own. The back end of publishing is a mucky jungle, and without the proper guide, you can get lost. For example, foreign rights? Movie rights? It’s just too much to deal with–to figure out. Spend your time writing. Let your agent wrestle through the jungle.

6. Don’t give anyone any money: For example, don’t pay to have your query letter written. If an agent or any other organization wants money up front for anything, it’s probably not legit. Again, do your research. Ask your friends. Ask Twitter. See resources below. Use common sense. There are a lot of people out there who want to profit off your dreams. They know some of you are desperate to get published. Don’t be fooled!

7. Follow the agent’s guidelines: For example, some agents won’t read submissions that aren’t formatted correctly, so double check/triple check their rules. Also, be professional. Use a normal font. Don’t send in photos of yourself for any reason. Agents are looking for serious writers, so present yourself professionally.

8. Write a good query letter, but don’t sweat it: There are so many resources online for writing query letters, so I’m not going to go into any of that. The point I do want to make: a BOMB manuscript with a crappy letter will earn representation. A crappy manuscript with a BOMB query letter won’t.

A note on Editors:

Editors are a lot busier than they used to be; therefore, they don’t have as much time to ACTUALLY edit. How crazy is that? For this reason, be a little leery of the editor that reads your manuscript and says, “It’s perfect. I’m sending it to copyediting.” You want to be edited. All the faculty and many published writers thank their editors constantly because their books are better having been edited. If you don’t believe me, look up the original ending for The Fault in Our Stars. Yikes!

Also, ask your potential editor if he or she is encouraging (if you feel you need that). Actually, all the same research and questions that apply for agents can also apply for an editor. Remember, the editor who is publishing your book also has to be a good fit. Or your book might die in their hands.

A note on correction letters (from the agent or the editor):

I’ve heard it’s overwhelming to get back a million pages of what’s wrong with your book. Take a deep breath. Then start with something small. Fix that, and move on. It’s important to remember that your editor/agent isn’t a writer (usually). When reading their comments, don’t follow them blindly. They may offer up suggestions for fixes. Be open to trying anything, but also remember, you are the writer. What you should take from the comments is this: something isn’t working. It’s your job to figure out what that is and fix it the way you see best. So fight for your story, but be open minded and ready to do Deep Revision.


Obviously, I am not a published author and am basically just saying what I heard from real authors. So please add any corrections, additions, or suggestions in the comments section! Thanks!

Good Luck!


MFAC Day 8-9: Last Lessons


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Read Gene Yang's American Born Chinese

Read Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese

Day 8 was a day off. I had lunch with Gene Yang. He recommended The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Just ordered it. Will do a book review about it soon. Have you read it?

Day 9, Laura Ruby gave a talk on Emotion in Fiction. Laura talked about how the main subject of fiction is emotion, but emotion is surprisingly hard to convey. “You cannot name it,” she said.

“I feel sad.” Boo.

Instead, as writers, we must think about what emotion feels like in the bodies of our characters and describe emotion through that lens. Though, Laura warned us to stay away from lungs and hearts (because it’s overdone). Instead, focus on facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures.

Next, Ron Koertge lectured on poetry in prose or the novel-in-verse. He reminded us that our words have meaning, but they also have music. As a writer, you can match the musical sound of your words with the movement in the scene for a certain effect. That’s like late revision business (at least, it is for me.)

If you care about the music of your prose, Ron said, “Read poetry every day of your life. Read it out loud as you walk around your room.”

My recommendations: Billy Collins, Matt Rasmussen, or Deborah Keenan. These poets write for adults, but I love their way with words!

Here’s some more Ron wisdom on making mistakes. In his session, we were rewriting some lines of poetry. Someone said something that was a misstep away from our rewriting goal. We, as a group, weren’t getting it. We laughed at ourselves. Ron said, “Why don’t you laugh in your studio when you make mistakes? Instead, you chastise yourself. I laugh at myself all the time.”


MFAC Day 6-7: Imbibed


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So sometimes. We all hang out at night in the dorms after the lectures and readings. And sometimes we imbibe a little. My dad uses the word imbibe when he wants to talk about drinking and sound fancy.

That happened last night, so I missed posting for Day 6. Also, I have no clean clothes, there is no food in the house, my cat peed on my couch three times, and I had a bachelorette party tonight. Unfortunately, life does not stop for MFAC.

AND then, I’ve got all these thoughts mixed together. My novel. Beat sheets. Agency. Physic distance. Cat pee.

It’s like one of those healthy, SICK-RICK green smoothies with, like, the spinach and the carrots, and maybe a lemon? All wonderful things separately, until you blend them together into an inedible sauce. I don’t know what this has to do with anything. Except that I have a lot on my mind.

OK, refocusing on the communicating, to you.

On Day 6, Gene Yang told us about, where you can write distraction free and mix and match different sounds–like wind and thunderstorms. The background also changes color. It’s really cool. Also, Gene says flashbacks slow down the narrative, so make sure they are worth it.

Jane Resh Thomas, who is wise, candid, and a fabulous story teller, spoke after Gene. She was Kate DiCamillo‘s mentor as well as mentor to a hundred other successful writers. That’s just the tip of her career in children’s writing. Jane said that, in your story, if you only pay attention to the brightness or light, it’s a lie. If you only pay attention to the darkness, this is also a lie. Then she said that it’s a sin to lie to children, that we need to tell the truth, that life is made of both. Of course, she said all that much more eloquently than I’m saying it here, but those ideas felt so true to me. I mean, in my real life, there is day and then there is night and then there is day again. Why wouldn’t that be true in fiction?

Day 7, today, Brian Farrey-Latz gave us his take on LGBT in YA Publishing. He challenged us to approach our characters with empathy–especially the antagonists (I might have added that last part–can’t remember). He also called out the power story has to change the way people see the “other.” Story has the power to change stereotypes by opening up the world of someone the reader may have a prejudicious against. It was a powerful talk.

Next we had a panel discussion called “What We Talk About When we Talk About ‘Otherness'” with some of the MFAC faculty members. One of the things that I love about MFAC is that it truly is a community of writers, and in any community, there must be safe places for people to talk openly about hard issues. This panel was one of those places.

I wish I could share with you everything we talked about because it was deeply meaningful to me. What I can tell you is that there are serious racism and sexism issues present in children’s literature.

But here’s the hopeful part: as authors and hopefully-soon-to-be authors, we get to shape the conversation. So if you’re angry because you never see your own reflection in books, write a book that reflects you. If you know a story that no one is telling because it’s not popular, don’t be afraid to tell it. We need all the stories, from every background. Right now. And buy books that you feel are taking these kinds of risks, so publishers get the idea that diversity in all it’s forms can sell.

I’d also just like to note, so you truly get what MFAC is all about, that I’ve gotten to share meals with Anne Ursu, Laura Ruby, and Swati Avasthi where we talked about my novel and the writing life. I can’t even tell you how helpful those conversations have been.

OK Kittens, I’m dropping the mike and going to BED.

See you tomorrow!

MFAC Day 5: Exhaustion



earthThe exhaustion has set in. AND THERE’S still five days left.

I kinda want to give up on this posting-every-day business.

I may have binge watched Gossip Girl.

Anita Silvey spoke again, and she was amazing, again.

Swati Avasthi taught again, and she was brilliant, again.

Another person who spoke today was Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen. Her talk was titled “What’s wrong with Being Exotic? A Guide for Writing Culturally Diverse Literature.” Her talk, well, (to use a terrible clique), opened my eyes to the many issues in children’s literature concerning diversity. To be honest, I’m still digesting what she had to say. Her ideas are intelligent, thought-provoking, and honest. If you’re interested (and you should be if you’re an aspiring YA writer), go here.

Maybe the reason this post was the hardest to make myself write is because I’m sad. I’m sad that some narratives are never told, that some stories die.

The thing is, I want more stories. All THE stories. From every walk of life.

Story allows us to live a hundred of different lives. Story takes us places we could never go, let’s us meet people we’d never meet, see places we would never see, and understand things outside of our own experience. This is why story has power.

We should live in a world with no barriers where no matter who you are or where you come from, you get to tell your story.

MFAC Day 4: Vision and Action


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gene yang

Gene Yang teaching us about plotting with post-its.

Three Awesome Talks Today. OMG. Literally. THE BEST.

The afternoon started off with Jackie Briggs Martin and Claire Rudolf Murphy talking about vision and voice in non-fiction. Jackie’s BOOM Moment: She challenged us to Pay Attention. To say to our reader, “Look at this interesting thing. Listen to this story.” This was powerful because sometimes I feel that the work of paying attention, of story telling, is a frivolous thing. Jackie reminded me of how important the work of all story tellers is. #validation

Claire’s BOOM Moment: You can’t cover everything. You can’t have multiple visions. Or the work becomes muddled. In fiction, sometimes I think to have an interesting book means having characters with a thousand things going on. But it’s too much. The reader can’t keep it all straight. I CAN’T keep it all straight. I need to Simplify. Narrow. And Focus. She also said to honor who you are in your writing.

No one is like you.

Then, Gene Yang!

I feel literally shaky with the awesomeness of Gene Yang’s talk on plotting and beat sheets. If I ever write a book, his talk will be a key moment in that journey–a turning point in which I realized why my novel was sucking SO HARD. I’ll recall this moment, if I ever write a successful book, for Kerri Miller during my Talking Volumes interview on the stage of the Fitzgerald Theatre. Kerri will turn to me and say, “Was there ever a moment of clarity when you truly understood how you were going to put your novel together?”


Gene showed me that I had a bunch of characters feeling things and talking about things, but there was NO REAL ACTION propelling the plot forward. How did I miss that? Writing a book is truly a mysterious business of which the more I learn, the more I realize I need to learn.

And then if all that wasn’t blowing my mind, in walks Anita Silvey, wearing a fabulous floppy hat. This woman. This brilliant woman, tells the stories behind the stories. She literally knows EVERYONE who ever published anything or wrote anything having to do with children’s literature. For example, The Wind in the Willows wouldn’t have been published if Theodore Roosevelt wouldn’t have been friends with the author and called in a favor, because, you know, he’s the president of the United Sates, so if he wants his friend’s book published, it better be published damn it! Also, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was rejected around 25 times, and Kate DiCamillo was rejected a total of 440 times before she was published. Anita says, “It doesn’t matter how many people say no. It only takes one person to say yes.

I’m humbled to have the opportunity to sit at the feet of some of the smartest people in Children’s Lit.

Even if a book never comes out of all this, it’s been worth the journey already.

P.S. Shout out to Anne Ursu and Gene Yang for a kick ass reading this evening!


MFAC Day 3: 1st to 3rd


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My FAV Marsha Chall picture book

My FAV Marsha Chall picture book. A MUST read.

Feeling less scared today after another day of brilliance from the Hamline MFAC instructors.

Marsha Chall lead a workshop called “Look Who’s Talking: Picture Book POV and Voice” where she asked us to examine the relationship between narrator and character. BOOM Moment: Play around with the intersection of narrator and character. Picture books offer the biggest canvas for experimenting with POV. Interesting.

Swati Avasthi continued to blow my mind in the second installment of her lecture “Leveraging the First Person POV.” The homework for today was to rewrite one of my scenes from my novel in a different POV. I switched from first to third. And third is working so much better. I was able to see things about my main character that I wasn’t seeing from a first person POV. Apparently, two of the strongest reasons for choosing a first person POV is if your main character is unreliable or complicit. THIS IS NEW INFORMATION. BOOM.


I also attended the Common Books discussion where we talked about craft issues in the three books that were assigned for this residency. BOOM Moment: If you are writing a book that switches POV’s a lot, be aware of how much work you are making your reader do to reorient themselves every time there is a switch.

Lately, it been really hard to hang onto all these wonderful things I’ve been learning because I’m taking in more information than I can apply. In other words, I’m not writing nearly as much as I’m learning about writing. Hopefully, I’ll remember all this when I need it.


See you tomorrow!