David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Tag: MFA

Portrait photo of Anna Staniszewski smiling

Anna Staniszewski on MFAs, Writing, and Not Teaching Kids Stuff in Your Kids’ Book

Anna Staniszewski is one of our daughter’s favorite authors. Our daughter is nine, with great taste in books, so we always pay very close attention to who she’s loving as a middle grade reader. We were all lucky enough to meet Anna at least year’s New England SCBWI Conference and had the chance to pick her brain after about writing, writers, MFA programs, kids’ books, and whatever else spilled out of our collective heads.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Portrait photo of Anna Staniszewski smiling

Anna Staniszewski

The Book Doctors: I’d like to start with the MFA programs, because we hear such conflicting things, particularly for children’s book writers. What are the benefits of going to a program like the one at Simmons College where you teach?

Anna Staniszewski: I hear that question a lot. For me, I think that it comes down to two things. If you want to be a published writer, you have to put in the work. Some people need a structured environment like an MFA program. I know I did. For other people, they can do it on their own. Another benefit of having an MFA program is the community aspect of it. You have this network that you’re part of—people with similar interests and goals. Some say you can’t be taught to write. While I think ultimately the actual storytelling voice is hard to teach, I obviously believe that you can teach someone to write, because I attended an MFA program and I teach in one.

TBD: What kinds of things do you actual teach in an MFA program for children’s literature?

AS: When the students come into the MFA program at Simmons, we really break down the basics. We look at character, plot, structure, setting, all those things, which seem really basic because we do so many of them by instinct, because we see how they work in other people’s stories. But if you really break down how they work, then you can take them and use them in your own story. The more aware you are of the different building blocks of fiction, the more consciously you can use them to benefit the story that you’re working on.

TBD: What was the transition like going from student to published author to teacher?

AS: When I first started at Simmons, I originally went for the MA of Children’s Literature. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to go into publishing. But my first semester there they were just launching that MFA program–this was over ten years ago–and so I thought that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to do both those things. Once I knew that, I was really focused throughout that program on wanting to be published when I graduated, and then when I finished, I actually applied to the Writer Resident Program at the Boston Public Library and, miraculously, got it the next year. Right after I graduated I was a writer-in-residence at the BPL, which was amazing. I think that really gave me such a boost of confidence that writing could be a real job for me! Right after I finished at the BPL, I went to teaching. Originally, for the first year that I taught, I taught all over the Boston area. I was really lucky when an opening popped up in Simmons, where they needed someone to teach in the MFA program, so I was able to do that right around the time that I got my agent. That was interesting to go through the submission process all while I was teaching other students who were trying to get to the same point.

TBD: One thing that we run into all the time is that people think that it is easier to write a children’s book than an adult book, particularly when it comes to picture books, and what I find amusing, in terms of length of time, is that it takes longer to publish a picture book than it does any other kind of book that I’ve ever seen.

AS: Absolutely! I sold my first picture book in 2011, and it is coming out in 2017. It was a long process! (Even though book publishing is a slow process, it’s rare for a book to take this long.) I think because there are so few words, you have to pick the exact, perfect words for every spread. And then there’s this whole other element if you’re not the illustrator and you just have to wait and hope that it all comes together! Writing picture books is such a specific craft, I was actually a little bit intimidated by it for a while. For me, writing a novel somehow feels less scary.

Cover of Dogosaurus Rex by Anna Staniszewski; boy walking a T. Rex on leash

Holt Books for Young Readers

TBD: For those writers out there who really know nothing about the craft of picture books, do you have a few tips?

AS: I would say the big thing is thinking about what would you like to see illustrated because I think a lot of times you’ll have a certain idea of “wouldn’t this be cute” and “wouldn’t this be fun,” but then you really have to think, “Can I get several illustrations out of this?” Then there are the parts of your book that not only could be illustrated, but also are begging to be illustrated! That’s why you need to find an idea that doesn’t just resonate with people, but that’s demanding to be illustrated.

The other thing I often tell students, because this is true of my own experience, is that an idea is not a story. The picture book I mentioned that’s coming out in 2017–the one that took six years–that was one where it took me a good year to find what I was actually trying to say. I came up with the idea, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if a boy turned a dog into a dinosaur?” And so I kind of played around with it, and it just wasn’t really working. I think part of it was because I wasn’t really thinking about the illustration potential. But I think a bigger part of it was that while it was a fun idea, it wasn’t really a story. And so I had to really dig into it. It took me a while to find what it needed to be about, which was the relationship between the boy and what turned out to be just a dinosaur.

Probably the most important thing in a picture book is the emotional component to the story. Because picture books are so short, there’s so little time to get the point across. You need something readers can really connect to on an emotional level because otherwise it’s just a fun story and you forget about it. But if there’s that deeper emotional layer, then readers will come back to it over and over.

TBD: We love that last one! We do a lot of work with writers to try to help them figure out how to pitch their books, and many writers have tremendous difficulties doing this. We get so many pitches where we don’t see an emotional connection with their main character. They just have an idea, there’s no actual plot or story there.

AS: It’s true, because by the time you finish reading a story, if there’s no emotional component and there’s no real plot, you find yourself asking, “Why did I just read this?” There has to be something there, even if it’s not a traditional story arc. My picture book, Power Down, Little Robot, is not a traditional story arc. It’s about a robot that doesn’t want to go to bed. It tries out all these different things to prevent going to bed, so it’s more like a list-type story. But I really try to highlight the mother-son relationship there. I hope, by the end, readers feel changed by the story, even if it doesn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end.

TBD: It’s confusing to many people who are starting out in the field what the category Middle Grade even means–the age range, where it diverges from early reader, how it stretches up to YA but doesn’t cross over into it. Can you give us your thoughts on this?

AS: I get this question all the time as well. I think people define it slightly differently, but this is how I think about it. I think the characters are typically between the ages of eight and twelve or thirteen. There are also early chapter books, and I do include those in early middle-grade, so in early chapter books, the protagonist can sometimes be in second grade or age seven. But a lot of early readers of chapter books are very much riding that line between picture book and novel. So I look at early chapter books on a case-by-case basis to know where exactly those fall. I feel like once you get into high school, that’s where it gets tougher. In my novels, most of my characters are thirteen or fourteen, which is at the upper end of middle-grade, often referred to as “tweens.” And even fifteen years ago, those would have been published as YA. Because YA has aged up so much, middle-grade has had to expand a little bit and the characters have become a little older.

While part of the way I define middle grade is by age, part of it I define by focus. It’s not only the content, but also how you deal with the content. So in middle-grade, if it’s younger middle grade, you might get away with a little bit of romance, but there are a lot of kids who don’t want that in their books. Whereas if it’s upper middle-grade, you might see a little bit of romance and you might see some darker things like war and death. With the latter, they tend to be handled a little bit more in the background or off-screen, so they are certainly there and they’re impacting the main character, but not in a direct way. For example, if there’s a character with something very serious going on in her life, maybe that’s not happening to the main character, it’s happening to the main character’s friend or somebody else in the family. In middle grade, you’re still kind of discovering what the world is like, whereas in young adult, I’d say it’s “Now that I know what the world is like, how do I fit in?” In YA, the focus is more inward, where middle-grade is more outward.

TBD: In your bio you write, “When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch.” We thought this was so funny, and it’s just the sort of thing our nine-year-old daughter would love. Speaking of our nine-year-old daughter, she loves your books so much and just had the experience where she sat down with The Dirt Diary and couldn’t get up until she finished. You captured something that felt grounded in reality yet she could fantasize. How do you come up with your stories? Are they things that just come to you, or are they things you’ve been thinking about since you were little?

AS: I feel that I never have a lack of ideas. I feel like my brain is open, that it’s always asking “What if this happened?” I’m always kind of twisting the things that I notice, and thinking about “What if I told it this way?” Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what am I most excited about, and that’s what I decide to write about. But sometimes I feel like the process is a little bit mysterious. With my first book, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, I was working on something completely different. I was working on a sort of depressing book that ended up not going anywhere, and I needed something fun to work on. So I sat down and I just thought “Okay, I’ll just write a fun scene, just for myself,” and I wrote a scene about a girl who came home from school to find a talking frog sitting on her bed, and if that was me, I would have screamed and run out of the room, but she was so annoyed at the sight of the frog, and she actually grabbed that frog and she threw it out a window. I thought, “Who is this character? I need to know more about her!” I would write a chapter or two every once in a while, just for my own amusement, and that’s how that book came about. With my book The Dirt Diary, I heard a story on the radio about a girl who used to work for her mom’s cleaning business and a bell went off in my head. So for me, the premise comes first a lot of times, but it’s not until I connect with the characters that I go with it.

I feel that what you were saying about being rooted in the real world with a little bit of fantasy or magic, those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved the most, and so I feel like that’s what I most enjoy writing as well.

TBD: We were impressed with how you dealt with class issues in The Dirt Diary. Our daughter happens to be in a public school that is very mixed, class-wise, from the very top to the very bottom. We were happy to see her reading a book that made her think about class. Speaking of which, your dedication may be our favorite ever: To anyone who has ever had to clean a toilet.

AS: I always thought I’d write fantasy. I wasn’t sure I had realistic fiction in me until I started writing it. For me, I guess what helped me was that I felt like my entire middle school existence could be summed up in the word “embarrassed.” I was nothing but embarrassed all the time. I also needed to know “Where do I fit in?” So a lot of those class issues are things that I experienced in school, where there were kids who lived in the big fancy houses and their families had big fancy cars, and then there were the rest of us. There was a lot of pressure no matter where you were on that hierarchy, and I thought that was something worth exploring. It also felt very true to my character because of the situation I put her in, and it also felt very true emotionally for me. A lot of people ask me how much of that story comes from my personal experience, and it’s very little. I did not clean houses for a living. I try to avoid cleaning houses at all, even my own. But I feel the emotional element is very true to life, and so I feel like I took a character who is very shy and very awkward, and took those qualities from myself when I was her age and amplified them by ten.

TBD: Something we run into every day with clients trying to get children’s books published is the desire tell us what their book is trying to teach. I would love for you to say something about the didactic nature of children’s books, and what do you advise on that?

AS: I think the important thing is telling a good story, and if there’s something that comes out of that for the reader, that’s fantastic, but if that’s the aim–if you go into it looking to teach something—it will show. The story always has to come first. When I set out to write a book, I’m not thinking what I want the reader to learn, or what do I want the character to learn, I just focus on something much more simple, like how does the character change. I try to think of it in a very specific way. With The Dirt Diary, for example, it’s about a character finding her voice. Though that may imply that maybe she learned some things along the way, that’s not what the story is really about. I think about: “Where does she start?” She’s shy, she can’t speak up for herself. “Where does she end?” She comes out of her shell a little bit, she speaks up for herself, at least when she really needs to. I’m not just trying to hit the reader over the head with a lesson or a moral. As a reader, I like to be able to think about the book myself and also feel like I have grown and changed along with the character; that’s more valuable than having a very obvious and concrete lesson.

Anna Staniszewski is the author of several tween novels, including The Dirt Diary and Once Upon a Cruise, and the picture books Power Down, Little Robot and Dogosaurus Rex. She lives outside of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can learn more about her and her books at www.annastan.com.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train

Christina Baker Kline: From Midlist to Megabestseller

Selling your First Novel, Maximizing Writers’ Conferences and Making a Living While Writing

We are lucky to live in a town called Montclair, New Jersey. We had no idea when we moved here how many amazing writers would live within a stone’s throw of us. One of them is Christina Baker Kline. We got to know her before her New York Times best-selling novel, Orphan Train, was published. She was at the center of the writing community in Montclair, helping writers both published and unpublished to get their foot into the door of the book biz. It often seems like a bestseller comes out of nowhere, fully formed like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. But as you’ll see from our interview with Christina, a groundbreaking novel, like Rome, is not built in a day.

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The Book Doctors: You were a writer for many years before you had a mega bestseller. Take us down the path of your decision to become a writer, the arc of your career, and how it led up to your most recent success.

Christina Baker Kline: I have always been a working writer, by which I mean I was a scrappy kid. I was raised by professor parents who had no money. My mother taught at a community college. When I was about 11 or 12, she put me in charge of cooking, and she put my sister Cynthia, who was about 18 months younger, in charge of laundry. She had to stand on a box to do laundry. And so we became quite self-sufficient. We also took care of our two baby sisters. We called them The Babies until they were 12. And I remember one of my sisters saying, “You have to stop calling us The Babies. We’re not babies anymore.”

In college, I majored in English literature. I did a Masters of Arts in literature for graduate school, and then I did an MFA. For me, as it so happened, English was a marketable degree, even though people might not think of it that way, because that’s where my skills lie. My masters in English literature helped me get teaching jobs. For my MFA, I knew that I could stave off student loans for two more years, and I also wanted to write a novel, but I knew I would never be able to do it if I was working full-time. So I applied to ten programs. I got full fellowships at two, Michigan and The University of Virginia, to, as far as I was concerned, write a novel. They didn’t know I was going to write a novel. MFA programs are not set up to write novels. But I was very directed. I had one shot, and then I was going to be repaying student loans and working. I wrote my first novel in two years while pretending to be writing short stories. I kind of handed in little bits and pieces and old stories.

I also was an entrepreneur, and I had a company called Writing Works, which I started with another grad student. We edited Guggenheim applications, professors’ essays, and letters. Books even. Then I came to New York and continued that little company. I’ve always set up a life in which I was working as an editor and teaching.

I’ve always assumed I would have to make a living in addition to writing. I have ten books, and I’ve always gotten reasonable advances. I broke six-figures once in that period of all those books, but I always had high five-figure advances. Sometimes I could support myself for a year, and sometimes I couldn’t. But the big picture is, I always knew that I wanted to write, and I always assumed it would also entail making a living in some other way as well. So I never expected to write a book that would mean I wouldn’t have to do other jobs.

TBD: What happened to that first novel?

CBK: For my first novel, I got $7,500. It was the little engine that could, and it far surpassed my modest expectations. We sold rights in other countries. We sold film rights, first serial rights. It was a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. For $40,000, Reader’s Digest bought it. That was huge because the book had earned out way before it came out. This led to a bidding war for my next novel. Of course, that’s how I thought it would continue forever. But the second novel did very poorly, and I had gotten a big advance. So I sold my next novel for a reasonable amount and got myself back on track in terms of publishers not being terrified to take me on. And then my next book was much darker, more serious. That didn’t do so well. My career was very up-and-down. That brings us to Orphan Train.

TBD: It’s interesting that you’ve never really experienced full-on rejection in the way that most writers have. Despite the ups and downs, it sounds like a really nice run!

CBK: Not exactly. I have been protected a bit from rejection. But I went through one very dark period. I had this wonderful experience with my first novel. I had a lot of interest in my second novel. But the editor who bought it was a celebrity editor; she was not hands-on. She took on a lot of writers like me, paid them well because she had a big budget, and then waited to see who would rise to the top. She’d tell me she read the manuscript but didn’t seem to know the story. Her assistant would call and say it was in the pipeline, and I would know it wasn’t. Crazy. I had just had my third child, my second book had done poorly, and my life was kind of a shit show.

TBD: You’ve written many different kinds of books. Now you have a huge bestseller. Do you feel pressure to recreate Orphan Train?

CBK: As you said, all of my books are really different from each other, and they probably always will be. I don’t feel constrained by the weight of Orphan Train. I feel freed by it in a way. Nobody ever thought Orphan Train was going to be a bestseller. There are these books–Eat, Pray, Love, or Water for Elephants, or The Lovely Bones–that writers publish and then have respectable careers, but they don’t repeat that level of commercial success. I fully intend to be that kind of writer. I don’t plan on having another one. I’m not a writer like Stephen King whose books will always be at the top of the bestseller list. And I don’t feel bad about it.

Look at a writer like Claire Messud, who made a big splash with her novel The Emperor’s Children. That was her big book, and she’s very respected. But if you read her other novels, they are very dark and intense. It’s who she is and what she does, and she’s not trying to write to an audience.

My next book is quiet and interior; it’s about a woman who essentially never leaves her house.

Another thing: after I handed in Orphan Train, before it came out, I called everyone I knew in publishing and asked for jobs. I thought, “I have to get a full-time job as an editor. I can’t do this anymore. This book is probably just going to fail.” I was editing 50 manuscripts a year and teaching. It was grueling. I had several interviews, and they all basically said, “You’re too old. There’s no way we’re hiring you as an editorial assistant or anything else.” They didn’t say that, but it was clear. I thought, “What am I going to do? Just work at Starbucks or something?”

TBD: You still teach at writers’ conferences. I see you’re going to be at the Kauai Writers Conference in November. (So jealous!) What impresses you when you come across someone who has never been published when you’re in this environment?

CBK: I was reading The New York Times on the plane yesterday, and there was this person talking about what leads to success. He said there’s an equation, which is Talent + Work = Skill. Skill + Work = Success. But Big Success is when you have a vision of how what you’re doing makes the world a better place. So what I guess impresses me is when they have the talent, the work ethic, the willingness to read a lot, and are willing to edit their own work–a lot of people aren’t. To me, editing is the secret to writing. I edit so much, and I think it’s very important. In literary stories and novels the sound and rhythm of words matter. But understand that even if you want to write a literary novel, plot and structure are incredibly important.

TBD: And on the flip side of that, what do you see people doing that’s a turnoff

CBK: If people want things from me but they don’t know my work, or they haven’t read it and have nothing to say about it, then I’m as anonymous to them as they are to me. If I don’t feel they have any particular reason for approaching me, I don’t have any particular reason for helping them. But if a writer knows my work and has some kind of connection to it, I’m open to being approached. I love discovering and championing great new writing. It’s one of the best things about this writing life.

TBD: We can’t wait to read the next book, Christina!

Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels. Her most recent novel, Orphan Train, has spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and has been published in 38 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her other novels include The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines. Her new novel, based on the iconic painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, will be published in Winter 2017.

In addition to her five novels, Kline has written and edited five nonfiction books. She commissioned and edited two widely praised collections or original essays on the frist year of parenthood and raising young children, Child of Mine and Room to Grow, and a book on grieving, Always Too Soon. She is the coeditor, with Anne Burt, of a collection of personal essays called About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror, and is co-author, with her mother, Christina Looper Baker, of a book on feminist mothers and daughters, The Conversation Begins. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Money, More, Psychology Today, among other places.

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