Vive la France!

Don’t mistake this for a political message. I’m writing this from Marnay sur Seine, France on the eve of the French election.

               I’ve been awarded an international artist residency at the Centre d’Art Marnay Art Centre located in a village of about 250, an hour and a half southeast of Paris. For one month, with seven other artists, I’m living in a place of old bones. It’s a 17th century priory, spacious and still reverential with ancient surprises around every corner. We’re along the Seine river; as the water ripples, the place teems with singing birds, playful fish, contented couplings of white swans cruising, and stately, towering trees with stories to tell.

                The l’eglise (church) directly across the street provides a spiritual lift and carries us through the day with a bell counting off the hours at the top of the hour. A single bell sounds each mid-hour. After 11:00 each night, the streetlights go dark, leaving stars as the only illumination. Energy conservation or romanticism?

               Yet, as is the beauty adorned within a Monet painting, there’s amazing artistic vitality everywhere. I’m in the fourth day of my residency, enjoying an easy settling in, making an unknown spot in the world a place to create. I’m sure I was a gypsy in a prior life. Or perhaps it’s because a writer is so comfortable in his or her own head.  To create, one only needs to relax, a corner filled with light, a laptop, some tunes and if lucky, nature just outside the window. I have it all, with Paris just a train hop away.

               My fellow artists, writers, painters, and creators of sculptures, are a talented, hearty group who have ventured in from all over the world. We hail from Brazil, two are from New York (one, by way of Japan), Wisconsin, Mississippi, California and two are from Canada (by way of Korea).

               I woke up one morning to the sounds of delighted children assembling just outside my second floor window. Fresh off the bus, they had arrived for an art workshop. I thrilled at the sound, picking up the delightful lilt of the French language I had studied for years, abandoned, and picked up again in preparation for my residency. Little did the children know, they were already artists, bending and shaping language to fit their changing moods.

               Last night, we joined a gala in a welcoming home of an Argentine artist, just down the street from CAMAC.  Our group was comprised of residency artists, former residents, locals, and individuals from various countries, all succumbing to the magic of Marnay sur Seine, Paris and surrounding cities. I met one former CAMAC artist who came for a residency, and last year settled down here, uprooting herself following a 30-year career in Mississippi. A natural gathering, as the savory wine flowed and music from all over the world spilled from speakers, we artists, united in dance, with wide smiles and camaraderie.

               That’s the magic of art as the children discovered the day of their visit to CAMAC. Art can be created anywhere. It simply requires giving in to the muse. And the rewards are immeasurable.

              

Why I March…On the journey toward children book publication

The journey of getting one’s children’s book published is filled with anticipation, excitement and downright disillusionment. I’ve never taken ‘no’ for an answer, so I focus on the blessings to date.

I’m submitting to agents and getting rejections, so I’m closer to acceptance of my middle grade manuscript! For those who have passed on the adventures of my 12-year-old African-American superhero, Mighty Marty Hayes and his awesome band of multi-cultural friends…Well, wait and see.

Meantime, I’m making final, final edits. Not too much. Time to start the next book. And I’m doing my homework. Ah, homework. For the uninitiated, book publishing is a business. Once you plug into this world, as Dr. Seuss says, “Oh, but the places you’ll go.” And then, there are my French language studies.

An aspiring author must study the marketplace. So, I took a field trip just before our recent snowstorm to Madison, WI. There’s a little-known jewel located on the UW-Madison campus called the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC). What’s that, you ask? As the website, informs, “a library of the department of education.” It’s a research library for anyone interested in the field of children and young adult literature.

I called the day before my trip and spoke to a librarian. “I’d like books set aside that cover the themes of the book I’m writing,” I said. “What’s that?” she asked. “Superhero, spy gadgets, science, particularly the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology… and civil rights, especially if a book has been written that deals with the superheroes of the civil rights movement,” I responded. Just kidding on that last part. My middle grade manuscript may be the first to imagine that link. Mighty Marty’s Granny does indeed perform some miraculous feats to help out Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I arrived at the CCBC to find a cart full of about fifty books reserved for me. I was like a kid in a candy store! Better, a lifelong reader and writer surrounded by books available in the marketplace and books about to be published and untouched by the public: advance copies. And better still, the careful CCBC library staff had notated inside the front cover of each book whether the book had won any awards, for which years and which award.

I set out to catalogue and read the first few pages of each book, noting a few things. Damn, this is a great first book by a first-time author. Wow, this author has written 30 books! Certain publishers are focusing on a certain style. How does my manuscript measure up? I also noted upcoming books that I intend to purchase. My ever growing list and membership in the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) means my reading pile continues to grow and impact the household budget. (All in the name of research, dear).

So, my day at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center was a day well spent. The marketplace knowledge I gained will undoubtedly impress an agent to the extent that they will eagerly offer representation. That’s the plan anyway. As I was packing up to leave on that cool February day, I remembered that the director Kathleen Horning had shown me to a bookcase filled with advance book copies, free for the taking. I decided to nab one to get a sense for how a final published book differs from the advance copy, prior to final editing, market positioning, etc.

So, my research continues.

More on this in a future blog. You may be interested to learn that amidst all the delights of the job, the CCBC staff does some sobering work. Annually, they compile statistics on publishing works of authors and illustrators of people of color and first/native nations. Folks, there’s work to be done. Equity in publishing is not yet reality.

http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp

Why does this matter? Because children need to see themselves reflected in the books they read for their self-development and to know that they matter. A little brown boy superhero who loves science and spy gadgets could very well inspire the next scientist or inventor.

I’m happy to spend time reading my critique partner’s 73,000-word sci-fi young adult novel. Yes, writers are disciplined and committed. It’s a great read and ready for the marketplace.

This May, I’ll stay in France for a month at an artist colony, CAMAC, all in the name of research and writing solitude. I’ll check out middle grade books published in France and see how a European country’s approach differs from the U.S. publishing industry.

Au revoir!

Lora Hyler is a seasoned communicator, public relations and marketing expert. Founder of a 15-year PR firm, she is now on the journey to get her middle grade children books published. She has been awarded a 2016 Wisconsin Writers Association Jade Ring for fiction, 2015 and 2016 residencies at the Martha’s Vineyard Noepe Center for the Literary Arts, and a May 2017 residency at Centre d’Art, Marnay Art Centre in Marnay sur Seine, France.

 

 

Lessons learned on the eve of our change of power

We, the people.

In addition to existing as a memorable preamble to our U.S. Constitution, these words were repeated by outgoing president Barack Obama in his final address. President Obama sought to remind us to become “jealous guardians of our democracy” and that “for all of our outward differences, we all share an important title: citizen.”

If upon first glance, Donald Trump supporters thought this was a treatise on why we should all hail Trump, get ready to be disappointed. The thoughtful among us have come to understand that middle aged white men have felt threatened by the pace of change in America, the election of the first black president, and the diverse parade of citizens (finally) gracing their television screens each night. We get that you’ve been disguising your pain. We’d like you to understand that people of color, disabled citizens, women, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and many others have felt left out from this country’s promises for decades. This struggle plays out in the workplace, communities and places of worship.

You’ll now watch closely with the rest of us to see whether campaign promises translate into governed action and policy.

No one wins if we remain pitted against one another. This lesson should have been learned during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. It seems that those who didn’t suffer a personal affront didn’t think these lessons applied to them.

We will never realize the promise of America until we fully understand that we have both a moral and economic imperative. And by the way, it’s a losing argument to insist that those who voted for him surely agree with his misogynistic, racist and xenophobic comments. Some would call these Trump supporters racist. Fact is, some were just so focused on their pain, that once they heard a catchphrase they could relate to, they jumped on board the Trump train and held on ‘til the end.

Some overlooked the fact that these insults applied to their family members, friends, co-workers, next door neighbors, church members. People are complicated. I get it.

I remain hopeful that these individuals and all of us will listen a bit more in the coming days and not dismiss each other. Each of us has work to do. Whether you march, write, speak, or take action in the method that best suits you, take action for unity.

For those of you with a Trump sign still in your yard, take it down.

We’re clearly a divided country. It’s up to all of us to make it better. Our children are listening and learning.

My view from the trenches: the journey to publication in children books

As a professional writer, book lover and mom of an only son, I’ve read my share of children books.  So, I began a serious journey in mid-2016 to become a writer of children books.  And I’m feeling like an intern again.  I’m learning a new business: the publishing world.

I remind myself to keep my sense of humor, appreciate the many helping hands along the way, and to never tire of edits.  I’ve completed my middle grade manuscript featuring a superhero with a love of science and spy gadgets.  He gathers his multi-cultural band of friends together to thwart international goons from wreaking havoc on the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.  They plan to steal valuable CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing data.  Google it.  This is timely stuff.

I’m now at the stage of being interviewed by literary agents.  The process is its own—send out a query letter, sometimes add a synopsis (per individual agent requirements) and wait for a request to send up to 50 pages, a full manuscript, or… listen for crickets.  Lit agents are not shy about letting would-be authors know not to expect a reply for 30, 60, 90 days or more.  In many cases, no reply means ‘thanks, but we’re not interested.’

In addition to patience, one needs a strategy.  It’s smart to attend conferences where one may meet the agent of his or her dreams, watch for Twitter pitch opportunities, and discover what individual agents covet through websites such as #MSWL Manuscript Wish List and Publisher’s Marketplace.

What’s a writer to do while waiting for the right agent match?  Write.  Continually honing one’s craft via the next book, and those that follow is crucial to becoming an author and making a living at it. Until that happens, like an intern beaming following a compliment from the boss, it’s the rewards along the way that keeps the would-be author going.

 

I’ve been fortunate so far on this journey as a children book writer to receive:

–        Two writer residencies at Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard. I truly found my tribe with writers who met as strangers and are now friends from all over the globe. South Africa, Alaska, England, New York, California, New York, Maryland, and all parts of the Midwest were represented.

–        Invitation to attend a month-long writer residency in Marnay sur Seine, France. More heads down writing time and inspiration from fellow authors! French classes are underway.

–        Jade Ring Fiction award from Wisconsin Writers Association

–        Welcome arms from fellow members of the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators. The inspiration from those who have succeeded on this journey is invaluable. It’s also great to share expertise—I enjoyed creating and sharing a presentation skills for authors workshop for SE WI members.

–        Critique partners and editors who advise, cajole and encourage.

–        Confirmation that as with any career, hard work and perseverance is the way.

–        Encouragement from a national and even worldwide effort called #WeNeedDiverseBooks which recognizes that all children need to see themselves reflected in books in their full glory—children of color, disabled, refugee-status, LGBTQ, etc.  Books help them discover themselves and find their place in the world.

–        A glimpse at the finish line. After attending the 2015 Sheboygan Children Book Festival, I marveled at how children book authors connect with rapt audiences composed of children.  They are viewed as rock stars of the written word.  Truly, there’s nothing better.

I’ve been one of those voracious readers since I learned to read.  Now, I intend to create the books that leads to more voracious readers.  Any literary agents listening?  Stay tuned for my first quarter 2017 success story.

Post Election: Let Us Not Grow Weary

I woke up to the headline in my local newspaper: Trump Wins.

After my scream, I realized God is still in control and the sun will come up every morning.

Then I tuned into Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. Grace personified, clad in purple. How do we get the color purple, my favorite color? We blend red and blue.

As a former journalist who has worked for my local NPR and ABC radio affiliates and Time Inc., I’ve covered presidential campaigns and know a thing or two about the highs and lows of campaigns and outcomes.

People take it personally and concession speeches are not easy to do.

Here are a few key quotes that Hillary Clinton will be remembered for.

“To the young people, I hope you will hear this. This loss hurts. Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”

“And to all the women, especially the young women, nothing has made me prouder than to be your champion. I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday someone will and sooner than we may think right now.”

“And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and every opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”

“Scripture tells us let us not grow weary in doing good for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”

This scripture reminds me of my mother. She was a strong God-fearing woman who met every challenge with grace and dignity. As a licensed missionary, she inspired thousands over her lifetime, traveling near and far spreading the good news.

So, in my shock that our nation has elected an abrasive, misogynistic man who chooses to put others down in an attempt to raise himself up, I remain hopeful. Let’s face the fact that he has tapped into the pain of many who feel left behind.

I remain hopeful that we will unite:  for there are more seasons to come and more work to do.

 

 

Seven Tips of Wisdom for Writers: Best-selling author Jane Hamilton

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Held on an unseasonably warm Fall Saturday among the rolling hills of the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, the 7th annual Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books didn’t disappoint.

Best-selling author Jane Hamilton delivered the Saturday morning keynote, imparting words of wisdom every writer needs to hear. Hamilton grew up in Oak Park, Ill., and now lives on an apple orchard in Wisconsin. Many will recognize her as the author of two books, The Book of Ruth and Map of The World, both selections of Oprah’s Book Club. I was happy that I took a break from submitting my new middle grade manuscript to literary agents to listen to her address.

Seven Tips and Quotes from Jane Hamilton:

  1. Write every day.
  2. Be grateful for the stories that come to you. “I feel it’s a privilege to lead many lives.”
  3. Don’t worry about whether you are “good.” “Each book demands a new form. I don’t think you can know what your work is, you can only do the best that you can.”
  4. Read aloud to yourself and take pleasure in what you’ve made. As every writer knows, writing is hard work. Do take time to enjoy it.
  5. Beginning has to be strong. “That’s the foundation.”
  6. Always know the last line of the book. Hamilton noted this allows her to forego an outline and keep on track.
  7. Just keep writing. Venturing into a bookstore with her friend, another best-selling author, Ann Patchett (Commonwealth, Bel Canto), Hamilton noted the volumes and volumes of books for sale. “Sometimes it seems there are more writers than readers,” she said. “Even if you feel as if you’re in the doldrums, just keep writing.

SCBWI-WI conference celebrates 25th anniversary; Illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton delivers compelling keynote

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Writers and authors who attended the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators 25th anniversary conference were in for a special treat. We listened attentively to the wisdom of top national publishing representatives, including from Balzer + Bray, a Harper Collins imprint and Simon & Schuster. Top literary agents were also represented, along with smaller publishers, and many authors and illustrators.

Author Varian Johnson advised writers to put in the work to become successful authors. “If you are here, doing the work of a writer or illustrator, you deserve to be part of the conversation,” he said.  Johnson has authored six novels and started writing in 1996. He was recently able to leave his career as an engineer to focus on writing full-time.

Cue the record scratch! A standout speaker graced the stage with a dynamic story to share. Vanessa Brantley Newton’s work is known to picture book readers, teachers and librarians. A self-taught illustrator, she’s worked on more than 70 picture books. She became the target of explosive national attention earlier this year when her illustration of A Birthday cake for George Washington was pulled by its publisher, Scholastic for its supposed depiction of ‘happy slaves.’

Newton told SCBWI conference attendees she was the target of a nasty social media firestorm that culminated in death threats, and caused her family to move from their home. She shared tears with her ‘SCBWI family’ and declared that the controversy made her stronger. “I’ve been through hell in gasoline drawers.”

A strong advocate for the We Need Diverse Books movement, Newton shared WNDB’s quote: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

She vowed to illustrate children inclusive of many colors, disabilities and sexual orientation.

Newton’s childhood hero is Ezra Jack Keats, author of the 1960 The Snowy Day picture book, which depicts a young black boy Peter, delighting in falling snow. Newton felt challenged in the classroom, and says it wasn’t until a teacher shared the book with her that she could truly relate. “I never saw myself reflected in books. I created them in my head,” said Newton.

She recounted that Keats said he had the likeness of Peter on the walls of his studio for twenty years. Newton said Keats remarked to his editor, “I drew Peter because he should have been there all along.” Keats went on to receive the 1963 Caldecott medal for his book. Newton has a collection of 25 copies of The Snowy Day, and is still buying more.

She urged illustrators to step outside their comfort zone and ensure that children continue to see themselves in books. After all, their self-esteem is at stake.

And as for her well-being post controversy, “Does a phoenix rise?” asked Newton rhetorically. “Absolutely!”

 

Writer Residencies: Time. Space. Create.

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I’ve just returned from a two week writers residency at Noepe Martha Vineyard Center for Literary Arts.  Ten strangers entered the 10-bedroom wing of an old whaling mansion in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.  Ten writers and authors with mutual respect for one another were birthed.

Director Justen Ahren chooses among 300 fall applicants and selects 29 for residencies. With no distractions, writers tackle their work, freely share resources valuable to all writers, and share meals and good wine. We found our tribe.  We explored a beautiful island and came to appreciate our own place in the world as writers.  We vowed to stay connected, follow and tweet, and purchase each others work.

Noepe Martha Vineyard Center for Literary Arts is a gem.  Much thanks to Justen and artist Claudia Miller, owner and visionary who made this all possible.  Looking forward to stretching my wings as an alum.  Looking forward to watching the residency that keeps on giving, as it blossoms and sprouts more talented authors.

Artists as Light Bearers

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As I sit in a sun-filled room hundreds of miles from home, I’m reminded that writers and artists of all types are light bearers in times of despair and unease. In a world of 24-hour commerce and one-upmanship, where would we be without art?

I’m attending a two week writers residency at the Noepe Martha Vineyard Center for Literary Arts. I’m surrounded by fellow artists who ventured here from all over the world. South Africa, England, Alaska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, California, Maryland, Colorado and New York are represented. And the work we are sinking our teeth into is as varied as the writers, these truth seekers and imaginists.

An island artist, Claudia Miller has generously demonstrated her support for fellow artists by welcoming them to this space in an elegant mansion built in 1851 as a sea captain’s home. We apply and we become among the fortunate few. Writers, dancers, painters, and sculptors have breezed through these doors in search of their muse, to create, to restore hope and joy to jaded souls.

While here, we find our tribe. In our evening readings, we discover open wounds still fester all these years following 9-11. We smile at the pristine language of yesteryear as witness the dance of romantic talk by two ladies who live within the pages of a historical fiction romance. We laugh at the antics of a 12-year-old superhero coming to terms with his superpowers while attempting to save his beloved International Spy Museum.

That’s my current project. With space to write and create, my vision of authoring a middle grade novel is close to reality. One completed, the real work begins-finding an agent and publisher to bring the story to the world.

Here at the Noepe Martha Vineyard Center for Literary Arts, ten strangers are finding it quite enjoyable to live peacefully together for two weeks. Stepping outside one’s everyday circle and polarized discussions leads to growth and new vision. These insights foster peaceful coexistence. Many lessons abound here. Bravo Noepe. Bravo benefactor Claudia Miller and founder/director Justen Ahren. We appreciate you. And to my fellow artists and artists in the making: Be inspired and live your dreams.

 

You’re an author. You receive a public speaking invitation. Now what? Just say yes.

The Artist’s Way author Julia Cameron espouses the importance of daily writing in a journal. No matter what your profession, the simple act of taking pen to paper awakens your inner awareness and creativity. Many artists are in hiding. They’ve turned a deaf ear to their creative calling, choosing instead to pursue a ‘sensible’ career.

In my opinion, callings don’t go away. They lie latent for a time. Many writers take a stab at it, then return to writing their novel, memoir or other non-fiction once they are well along in their careers. Some write post-retirement. Oh, what might have been!

Personally, I’ve written three screenplays and trekked to Hollywood for years attempting a sale. To no avail. Also, a novel I’ve written was hastily set aside without much effort to get it out into the world. Recently, I had an epiphany. I’ve had a long, storied career – a CAMAC career. I’ve worked in corporate, academia, media, the arts, and commerce. I’ve journey from radio and television, to corporate America, and to the halls of Harvard Business School as a speaker…several times.

Soon, I will journey to CAMAC. That’s the name of the writer residency that will bring me to Marnay sur Seine France in May 2017. Coincidental? I think not. I believe our personal journeys are necessary preparation for success as writers. When we put effort behind our passions, our dreams begin to materialize in ways we can hardly imagine. So, my career has taken many winding roads and now the road leads to France. I’m sure the relationship building with artists of all sorts at CAMAC is a necessary component on my journey as an author.

I began my middle grade novel: The Stupendous Adventures of Mighty Marty Hayes a few years ago. It was during my first writer’s residency at Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard that I felt Marty coming to life and knew I needed to see the book through to publication. Little did I know that as time grows near to share my manuscript with agents and publishers, the timing couldn’t be better. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement is reminding publishers that stories with protagonists of all backgrounds is necessary. And my story of a young African American boy coming to terms with his superpowers, love of spy gadgets and science is nectar for the young boys and girls of all colors who covet transportation to other worlds through reading.

Like many other inventions, there’s no such thing as ‘build it and they will come. Authors need to promote their babies, just as entrepreneurs do when they come up with a better mousetrap, or scientists who develop a technique to curtail the Zika virus.

Throughout my career journey, I’ve always enjoyed taking time to reach back and lend a helping hand to someone who radiates their own passion. These individuals are easy to spot. As a budding author, I plan to continue lending a helping hand. I will begin by offering a free two hour session in Wauwatosa on September 7th on “Presentation Skills for Authors.” Writing books is not an easy endeavor. And once published, the job is half done. The author also needs to fine tune his or her marketing skills to get their prized possessions out into the world.

As authors overcome their fears and promote their books through workshop and conference appearances, school visits, residency talks, book festivals, and the like, quite simply, they find their audience.

What a shame it would be if a reserved author declined speaking invitations and missed out on the exchange of energy and love of an audience. For children’s book authors, showing up, or not, could mean a child seeing him or herself in the pages of a book, perhaps for the first time. Showing up, or not, could mean an avid reader getting the encouragement he or she had been needing to write. Showing up, or not, could mean one’s own voice is dimmed a bit. After all, Authors need to hear from their readers as much as readers need authors. A reader gets to venture into worlds and down roads they would otherwise not traverse. Through live audiences, authors are filled with new knowledge of the impact of their words. This, in turn, fuels their work. So, authors choose to speak. Otherwise, the cycle is broken. And your words will not reach their full potential.