Friday, August 31, 2018

My Summer in Pictures

     I'm wrapping up our TeachingAuthors' series on how (and if) the seasons affect our writing. This has been an unusual summer for me. For the first time in years, I didn't teach a summer camp for ages 9-12. I definitely missed working with young writers and hope I'll have the opportunity to get back to it next year.

Instead, I've spent much of this summer either working on a freelance editing project or promoting my published books. We don't talk much about promotion here. Perhaps we should. (If that's a topic you'd like us to address, let us know in the comments.)

I hadn't planned on doing book promotion this summer. But after Playing by Heart was honored with several awards, I realized spreading the news might draw some much-needed attention to the book. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you've probably seen these images:

Playing by Heart won the 2018 Catholic Arts and Letters Award (CALA) for Children's/YA Fiction
Playing by Heart took Third Place in Books for Teens & Young Adults Category of the
2018 Catholic Press Association Book Awards

Playing by Heart is a finalist in the Young Adult Category of the
2018 American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) Carol Awards.
The winner will be announced in September.

In between promotion and editing, I did find time for some fun, including going on a Troll Hunt at the Morton Arboretum (with my husband John, whom you can see in the photo standing beside Joe the Guardian)

and visiting butterflies at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

As summer winds down, I hope to finish my freelance editing job and squeeze in some writing time before I start teaching again in October. If you're in the Chicago area, you can find info regarding my College of DuPage class on "Finding Your Writer's Voice" on my website.

This week's Poetry Friday round up is hosted by Robyn Hood Black at Life on the Deckled Edge.

Don't forget to always Write with Joy!

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Seasons of My Books

It is my turn to blog about how the season affects my writing.  The seasons of the year don’t change my writing schedule.  When I’m working on a book I keep plowing onward Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall.  

But I do have different seasons of writing that has nothing to do with the calendar.  I write long nonfiction books that are deeply researched. Each one takes years to research and write.  And in a lot of ways, each book goes through four seasons.  

I’ve written about my upcoming book in the blog space quite a few times.  But just like a mother (and grandmother) I never tire of talking about my “baby” AKA, my new book.  Oh and did I mention that new baby’s name is 



This book, like all my others, goes through all four seasons before it bursts forth as a fully developed book.  

It goes something like this: 


Spring is when a new idea pushes its way to the top.  For Buried Lives, that idea was five years ago.  Yes, five.  The idea for this book was fresh and green and exciting.  I wondered if the idea for this book would take hold and grow. There was so much I needed to consider. Could this idea work?  Would it work?  Was there enough primary source material to make it work?   Spring is the time for possibilities.  

Summer is when the idea has taken root.  The idea turned into a book proposal.  The proposal turned into a contract.  The contract turned into finding a way to make this book actually work.  This is when seed which sprouted in the spring, takes root.  The more I work on the book the deeper the roots go.  For Buried Lives, the long hot days of summer lasted a very long time. It is a complex, difficult topic. Many days I watered the text of this book with tears.  

Fall is when the idea has been fully executed.  I turned in the completed manuscript.  Then the harvesting begins.  Like my Daddy cut rice during the days of harvest on our farm, editing and revision is about cut, cut, cut.  Then revise, revise, revise.  Editor after editor, reader after reader suggested changes.  This is when my “baby” book starts to walk, then run. Every edit makes it better. Finally, the last edits are done. (Just this week the very, very last edits were done on Buried Lives.)  The harvest is over and the result is a book that is as good as I can possibly make it.  


Winter is when the book is finished.  My editor and I are elated and exhausted.  The book is delivered to the printer.  It is a time of reflection because I know that soon people will read the words I’ve written and rewritten.  I hope reviewers, teachers and readers will like my “baby” and I hope that no one is mean to my darling in a nasty review.  Yet, I know I’ve done all I can do.  Soon I will send my book out into the world to stand alone.  

For me the winter season of the book is when I clean my office and try to get the stacks of research in order and off of my desk.  Then I start working through a to-do list of things around the house I have ignored: cleaning closets, drawers and the garage.  (OK, I still haven’t gotten to the garage!)   Even as I’m relieved to be finished with my book, I start wondering what I should write next.  

During the winter season of my books, a glorious day arrives—like it’s Christmas Day.  A box of books lands on my front porch and I tear it open to see my baby nestled there in paper.   I revel in the sound of opening of a brand new book.   It is a happy day-beyond description really.  The publication date for Buried Lives is December 18, so I should get this happy day of books near the end of November or so.

Spring follows winter, even in the seasons of my books.  When spring comes, I’m ready for a new idea to push its way to the top.  

The front cover of Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington's Mount Vernon, published by Holiday House, release date December 18, 2018.

Carla Killough McClafferty

Friday, August 17, 2018

Something from Nothing

The calendar says the first day of fall is September 22, but we all know summer ends the first day of school. Here, that is August 6.  Right on schedule, the temperature ratcheted up to 95 plus. Kids at bus stops, melting into the sidewalk at 7 am? So wrong. So unseasonal. Like a street corner Santa in July.

Summer is pure pleasure for long as there is air conditioning. Summer brings out my latent optimism...partially because I am teaching Young Writer's Camps (pure joy), and partially because the skies are mostly sunny. The laid back schedule of summer allows me to indulge in a trip to someplace I've always wanted to go. Sort of like a bucket list, except I'm not organized enough to keep an actual list.

So this summer, we went to Watts.

Yep, that Watts.  The one that those of us of a certain age, watched burn in the riots of 1965.
My daughter, me and the Towers.
For me, Watts means the Watts Towers.  Somewhere in my childhood (maybe an article in Life magazine?) I learned about this magnificent yet quirky installation, built over the course of 34 years. Built by one Sam Rodia. Just Sam.  Nobody else.

There are whole volumes dedicated to the "meaning" and "form" of the Towers. Finding out about Sam Rodia, not so easy. Here is what we don't know about Sam: his real name (variously listed as Sam, Simon and Don; it changed with every census), his actual age(ditto),when he immigrated from Italy (he does not appear on any Ellis Island ship roster), what he did before 1921( from the records, he wandered up and down the West Coast, working as a day laborer, marrying and divorcing at least three women, with whom he had at least two children..that the state of California knew about.) Sam-Simon-Don was a recluse who wasn't much of a talker. Interviewed later in life, he would toss out whatever answer came to him first, forgetting what he'd said previously. Or maybe he just didn't care.

Here's what we know for sure. In 1921, when he was 42 (maybe),Sam bought a triangle-shaped lot at the end of a 107th street in Watts. Back then, Watts was a bedroom suburb of LA. surrounded by truck farms owned by Japanese families. Watts itself was a mixture of immigrant groups, eventually joined by African-Americans, seeking employment in the factories that were taking over the farm lands. Watts was a transportation hub for both rail shipping and the Red Line commuter trolleys that ran between Long Beach and Los Angeles. The railroads ran right along the northern edge of Sam's property.

After his day job in construction, Sam came home and began to build on his pie shaped bit of land. Sam, who had no training in design or architecture, was constructing something out of wire and rebar and discarded steel rails he picked up along the railroad beds.  Sam worked without welding or nails. Without scaffolding or plans. He used the railroad tracks to bend steel into the shape he needed. He worked on his own time, using his own money.

"What are you building, Sam?" the neighbors asked.

"I'm gonna build something big," he'd say.  The neighbors knew Sam well enough to not ask questions, so they just watched. They watched for 34 years as Sam built a mosaic wall around the whole property. Not a plain old wall, but one with a scalloped top.  Did the scallops represent sea waves, waves that would take him home to Italy?  Sam never said.

The walls and towers

Within those walls, Sam erected three towers, the tallest of which was 99 feet. Sam was only four foot ten, so the concrete enforced ribs of the towers were close together, as far apart as a man of his stature could reach. When the towers grew beyond his tallest ladder, he climbed the lower rungs of his tower, higher and higher, adding increasingly small layers until he judged the tower "big enough." He covered his metal skeleton with a thin shell of concrete. He ornamented every inch of the concrete with whatever he found in his neighborhood.

Here is what he used: Seashells, abalone and clam shells. Bits of mirror. Rocks, large and small. Remnants of linoleum and marble. Broken dishes and tiles, rejects from the local pottery factories. Glass bottles the neighborhood children brought him: green soda, blue Milk of Magnesia, brown beer bottles and Chlorox jugs. Glass telephone line insulators. . He embedded his "jewels" into the concrete when it reached the right consistency not too wet or the pieces would sink and be covered, nor too dry, lest the elements would not set firmly and fall off.

Sam worked without a safety belt. With his gas fitters pliers, he shaped the glass in the fire he kept going at the back of the property. He had a tile cutter. These were his only tools.

Sam worked and worked. For thirty four years. Then one day when he was 75 (or 73 or 78), he climbed off his tower and said, "I'm done." Some of the work wasn't finished, but Sam was. He sold the property to his neighbors for 200 dollars (they wanted to open a taco stand), packed his suitcase and moved to Martinez near San Francisco, where is sister lived. He lived in Martinez for the last ten years of his life, dying only a week before the Watts Riots.

He never saw the Towers again.

From across the street, the structures make a lovely multicolored whole, glass and tile sparkling in the sun. But closer, you can see the individual elements. Plate halves. Seven-Up and Canada Dry bottles. Rows of seashells. A patchwork of Arts-and-Crafts style tiles, the same pattern as some in the Smithsonian collection.

The Towers are currently under restoration, so the whole area was fenced off. I can only imagine what it would be like to wander the lot; there is a fish pond, a gazebo, the "ship of Marco Polo", the archway of Sam's house (the original burned in the late 50's after Sam had moved away) These pictures were taken by sticking my phone through the fence rails (probably illegal). I wondered at how Sam had created such an amazing work of art, using nothing but discards, and his own imagination and hard work. (You bet I'm coming back when those fences come down.)

My grandmother's bowl--yellow at the top right of arch
Then, on my way to the car, something ornamenting an archway caught my eye. Two bowl halves, decorated with daisies. That was my bowl! Or rather, it was my Grandmother Smith's Hull mixing bowl that had then been Mom's, then mine. And now here was its broken twin, gleaming on Sam's archway.

Sam did what we all do as writers (if on a somewhat grander scale). He took the detritus of every day life and fashioned it into a whole, unique entity, something whole Sam could've built. We take the odds and ends of our lives, and shape them into stories, without help, using only our imaginations and our gut feelings. We also work without a safety belt or net. We climb our story towers, working as far as we can reach, until something tells us we're done.
The bowl

Why do we do this?

Why did Sam build the Towers? Was he constructing his own little town? Was he building the "ship of Marco Polo",pointed toward Italy, to take him home? These were all things Rodia had told reporters over the years. Does it really matter? The one statement that Sam never varied from is good enough for me.

"I'm gonna build something big."

And so are we.

...And we have a winner!!!

We are pleased to announce that Geri G. is the winner of our giveaway of HP? Who's He? by Patricia Karwatowicz!

For more about Sam Rodia and The Watts Towers here are some wonderful children's books:

The Wonderful Towers of Watts by Patricia Zelver, Boyds Mills, 2005
Dream Something Big by Diana Hutts Aston, Dial, 2011

Friday, August 10, 2018

O! The Feels!

For these summer weeks, Teaching Authors are exploring how the summer season might affect our writing, work plans and/or schedule. Don't forget, we’re also offering readers the opportunity to win an autographed copy of Patricia Karwatowicz’s HP? WHO’S HE? Be sure to read the details on Carmela’s post.

Like Esther, I simply keep on keeping on. Or, echoing Dory’s wisdom, I Just Keep Swimming.

Besides beginning my third term teaching MFA grad students and learning all this new techno-stuff, I continue to search for a new agent. Until my stories find this champion, I continue to study in hopes of mastering my craft. And to that end, let me tell you about a new discovery, Donald Maass’ book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next. The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s similar to her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in. They what to know what happens to these characters. If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

Maass explores these emotional modes of writing, and demonstrates how to “... use story to provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers.” According to Maass, the language of emotion makes the difference to a reader’s experience. And plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones...

“Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own.”

In other words, as Maass suggests, you are not the author of what readers feel. You are the provocateur of those feelings.

With this in mind, Maass explores three primary paths that an author can use to create this emotional experience.

One. Report what characters are feeling, using language and images that evoke feeling. As we know, words can have multiple meanings. The denotative meaning is the explicit definition as listed in a dictionary. Childhood, for example, means the state of being a child. However, the emotional weight, or the expressiveness of language, comes from the connotative meaning. The connotation of the word impacts the tone and themes of the narrative. When Dorothy says "there's no place like home," she is referring to the emotional impact of her family. Because fiction is an emotional exchange, a writer chooses words to create a larger emotional impact. Maass calls this the inner mode, the telling of emotions.

Two. Imply the characters emotional – or inner – state through external action. Maass calls this the outer mode, the showing of emotions.

“Like billiard balls colliding … a character’s actions transfer an emotional impact to the reader, who feels it with equal force, and the reader caroms across the table.”

Three. Create an emotional dialogue between author and reader. Maass calls this the other mode, in which readers feel something that a character does not feel. The reader reacts, resists and sometimes succumbs, but  “…she can never escape the churn and flow of her own feelings.”

Just like when we don’t fully understand why we do the things we do, a character does not always understand her behavior. This confusion, however, makes your character real to the reader. Her confusion reinforces her struggle. Madeleine L’Engle (The Heroic Personality, Origins of Story, 1999) offers that the heroic personality is human, not perfect. What it means to be human is “to be perfectly and thoroughly human, and that is what is meant by being perfect: human, not infallible or impeccable or faultless, but human.” A character’s confusion is authentic. This sense of authenticity is important in keeping the reader connected to your story.

Human beings are complex, messy, flimsy, brave, heroic, cowardly and courageous and infinitely interesting. Emotions skim the surface and run deep, creating conflict and contradictions in the character’s life. When an author masters this emotional connection in her writing, it becomes the difference between a reader simply reading the story, and instead experiencing the story.

Or, that's my hope. I’m still working on it.

Story – whether in prose or verse – can do things, so Maass reminds us, that no other art form can. It engages the imagination on a deeper level. It stirs hearts and brings about change in a way that other art forms rarely achieve.

“Writing a novel is itself an emotional journey akin to falling in love, living together, hating each other, separating, reconciling, gaining perspective, accepting each other, and finally finding deep and abiding love. Writing fiction is like living…The emotional craft of fiction is a set of tools, yes, but more than anything it’s an instrument beyond the range of any book: the gracious gift of your own loving heart.”

What do you think?

-- Bobbi Miller

Friday, August 3, 2018

Sounds of Summer...

For the next few weeks we Teaching Authors are exploring how the summer season might affect our writing, work plans and/or schedule.
We’re also offering readers the opportunity to win an autographed copy of Patricia Karwatowicz’s HP? WHO’S HE? Be sure to read the details at the end of this post.
. . . . .

I’m proud to say, I spend my days - and often nights - growing writers, seeding and feeding human beings who want to tell their stories to children.
Like farming, it’s a four-season endeavor, not to mention, fortunately, a labor of love.

Often while planting and fertilizing, each crop’s possibilities have me pinching myself.
Canadian writer Brian Brett wrote, “Farming is a profession of hope.”
Writing for children is one in the same.  Indeed, isn’t the offering of hope what defines a children’s book?
(My own writing, when I find or finally make the time, can be similarly described.) 😊

this summer,
I’ve simply kept on keepin’ on. I’ve turned page after page to feed myself the newest books - sighing, laughing, crying and ah-ing whilst watering and sunning my writers 'til the cows come home.
As always, I continue to LOUDLY thank the Universe, for my writers as well as for my teaching opportunities – specifically, this summer’s Advanced Picture Book Workshop at Chicago’s Newberry Library, the one-week July Manuscript Workshop in Landgrove, Vermont and my current participation in Judson University’s Doctor of Education in Literacy program.

I’d decided last December to mainly utilize children’s books published in 2018 in my teaching and coaching throughout this year.  Showcasing the marketplace is always a plus. Writers need to know the books being published.  Writers also need to know, though, publishing happens.  Debut authors offer pure Inspiration.

Let’s hear it for these rich resources that continue to help me feed my writers:

Epic Eighteen Authors and Illustrators
The Electric Eighteens (debut mg and ya authors)
Kids Indy Next Lists (seasonal)
The Nerdy Book Club
Mr. Schu Reads (Twitter)
ALA Booklist (Twitter)
PW’s Children’s Book Issues/Children’s Bookshelf

And let’s hear it, too, for my Chicago Public Library’s budget and reserve system that placed each season’s books in my welcoming hands.

Finally, that sound you hear is me enthusiastically applauding Juana Martinez-Neal, Lindsey Stoddard and Adrienne Kisner, authors respectively of these three debut cream of the crop 2018 books – the picture book ALMA AND HOW SHE GOT HER NAME (Candlewick Press), the middle grade novel JUST LIKE JACKIE (HarperCollins) and the YA novel DEAR RACHEL MADDOW (Feiwel and Friends).  Their characters – Alma, Robbie and Brynn - opened my heart and their stellar craft opened my eyes, enabling me to further fortify my writers and students.

Hands together clappin’ and Happy Growin’- all-year-long!

Oh, and be sure to click HERE to enter our Book Giveaway of Patricia Karwatowicz’s HP? WHO’S HE? Today’s the last day!

Thanks to Mary Lee and Franki at A Year of Reading for hosting today’s Poetry Friday AND helping me feed my writers.

Esther Hershenhorn

Here’s a photo of Epic Eighteen debut picture book author Christy Mihaly sharing her Holiday House picture book HEY! HEY! HAY! with 3 of my Vermont Manuscript Workshop writers (from left to right Laurie Stein, Nancy Ramsey, Christy, me, Cheryl Sullivan) this July.