the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Carmela Martino and PLAYING BY HEART!

Posted by Adi Rule on Sat, Sep 30, 2017 @ 07:09 AM

Today, we have a symphony of applause for Carmela Martino's new young adult book Playing by Heart, out now from Vinspire Pubishing!

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She could compose anything . . . except the life she wanted.

Emilia Salvini dreams of marrying a man who loves music as she does. But in 18th-century Milan, being the “second sister” means she'll likely be sent to a convent instead. Emilia’s only hope is to prove her musical talents crucial to her father’s quest for nobility. First, though, she must win over her music tutor, who disdains her simply for being a girl. Too late, Emilia realizes that her success could threaten not only her dreams for her future but her sister’s very life.

Playing by Heart is inspired by two amazing sisters who were far ahead of their time--mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi and composer Maria Teresa Agnesi.

Welcome, Carmela!

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I actually started out writing a picture book biography of little-known 18th-century mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi. My undergraduate degree is in Mathematics and Computer Science, yet I’d never heard of Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history. Born in Milan, Italy, Agnesi was a child prodigy, fluent in seven languages by age eleven. By age fourteen she was solving difficult geometry problems. She went on to write an acclaimed math textbook. But in her early 30s, she turned her back on her celebrity life to devote herself to helping the poor.

Maria Teresa Agnesi at keyboard1.jpgIntrigued by Agnesi’s story, I began working on a picture book biography of her around 2002. It was a challenging project, especially because not much remains of Agnesi’s writing besides her textbook. I kept writing and revising, but I kept getting rejected. One of those rejections was from the Candlewick editor I worked with on my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola. She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by Maria Gaetana and her younger sister, Maria Teresa, a composer who was one of the first Italian women to write a serious opera. Both sisters struggled to please a domineering father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness. And that was the spark that led me to write Playing by Heart. (For more about the Agnesis, see this site I created.)

Since Playing by Heart is heavily fictionalized, I changed the characters’ names. The narrator, Emilia Salvini, is a musician and composer inspired by Maria Teresa Agnesi, with an older sister modeled on Maria Gaetana Agnesi. I also incorporated a romance because I thought that would make the novel more appealing to a YA audience.

Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out?

I had a terrible time selling this book! I was devastated when the editor who suggested I write the novel turned it down. But I kept revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. The novel did well in several contests, including taking first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City Romance Writers Association Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest. The feedback I kept hearing was that Playing by Heart was well-written but “historical YA is a tough sell.”

I eventually gave up and put the manuscript in a drawer. I focused on freelance writing instead. Still, deep down, I hoped historical YA might eventually make a comeback. I shared that hope on our TeachingAuthors blog back in 2014.

Then, in March of 2016, I signed up for the Catholic Writers Guild Online Conference, which included pitch sessions with publishers. I’d planned to pitch my biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Given her service to the poor, I thought one of the Catholic publishers there might be interested. As it turned out, none were a good fit for the biography. However, Vinspire Publishing was there accepting pitches for YA fiction. With nothing to lose, I pulled Playing by Heart out of the drawer.

Dawn Carrington, Vinspire’s editor-in-chief, liked my pitch and asked for the first three chapters. In April 2016, she requested the full manuscript. Three months later, Dawn sent me an email that began, “Thank you for submitting Playing by Heart for consideration . . .” I thought for sure it was a rejection. But she went on to say she wanted to publish the manuscript! Of course I was thrilled, but I was nervous, too. Vinspire is a small press based in South Carolina. They publish only paperback and ebook editions and they typically don’t pay an advance. They are not a Catholic publisher, but they do focus on being “family friendly.” After weighing the pros and cons of working with a small press, I signed the contract. (If you’d like to know more about Vinspire, I’m going to have a great interview with Dawn at TeachingAuthors.com on Monday, Oct. 2.)

By the way, my experience with Vinspire led me to pitch the article “Working with Small Presses: Bigger Isn’t Always Better,” that will appear in the forthcoming 2018 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (CWIM). For the article, I interviewed three award-winning authors who share their advice and experiences working with small presses. Two of them are fellow VCFA alums Laura Atkins and Nancy Bo Flood.

Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?

My husband is retired and typically around while I’m working. It can be distracting if he turns on the radio or TV, so I often play classical music in the background to drown out the noise. Usually it’s Mozart or Vivaldi. For Playing by Heart, I had to research the music my main character would have known and played. So, for my new soundtrack, I created a Pandora station of baroque music that included the works of Sammartini, Pachelbel, and Rameau. In the novel, Emilia plays works by the last two composers.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

Given that my novel is set in 18th-century Milan, I had to do a TON of research. I Googled such things as: Did women’s gowns have pockets? And how many layers did women wear? I also had to do lots of setting research. I looked at photos online in books that showed what homes and public places looked like both inside and out. There’s a scene inside the Duomo of Milan, the main cathedral, which was being used even though the exterior wasn’t yet completed. Fortunately, I found an engraving of what it looked like in 1745.

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

As I mentioned in my 2016 Launchpad interview, my class seemed to “click” right from the start and we continue to be a tight-knit group. Seventeen years after graduation, we still have an active Yahoo group. We share industry buzz, celebrate sales, commiserate over rejections, offer manuscript feedback, and support one another through personal and professional challenges. We also occasionally get together for mini-reunions.

001 cropped.jpgThis photo was taken at one we had in Chicago in 2008.

Left to right: Carolyn Crimi, me, Gretchen Will Mayo, April Pulley Sayre, and JoAnn Early Macken.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

My advisors were Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Resh Thomas, Carolyn Coman, and Amy Ehrlich. I couldn’t have asked for better teachers and mentors. I still use some of their lessons in my own classes—always making sure to credit them, of course. I left the program amazed at how much my writing improved over the two years of the program.

PR BW  portrait.jpgThanks so much for stopping by, Carmela. And welcome, Playing by Heart -- Brava!

Carmela Martino is a writing teacher, freelance writer, and author of short stories, poems and novels for children and teens. She is co-founder of TeachingAuthors.com, a blog by six children’s authors who are also writing teachers. Four members of the TeachingAuthors team are graduates of the Vermont College MFA program.

Of her VCFA class, Carmela says: "I graduated in Summer 2000. Our class was nicknamed the Hive by the faculty because we were always 'buzzing' about something. We called each other Bees."

Visit Carmela online at www.carmelamartino.com, and follow her on Facebook (carmelamartinoauthor), Twitter (carmelamartino), and Instagram (cmartinoauthor).

 For a chance to win a copy of Playing by Heart, head over to TeachingAuthors.com or go to the Facebook launch party on 10/17 from 7-9 PM (Central), where there will be giveaways every 15 minutes!

Topics: young adult, 2017 release, Carmela A. Martino, Vinspire Publishing

Paperback Party!

Posted by Adi Rule on Wed, Oct 12, 2016 @ 09:10 AM

It's a paperback party! Here's a peek at some recent and upcoming paperback releases from VCFA authors! Click the covers for more info.

Nomad-cover.jpgNomad by William Alexander

 

Owl Girl by Mary Atkinson

 

23866208.jpgThe Buccaneers' Code by Caroline Carlson

 

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A Nearer Moon and Audacity by Melanie Crowder

 

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The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox

 

076369097X.jpgSmashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11 by N. Griffin, illustrated by Kate Hindley

 

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Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen

 

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Rosa, Sola by Carmela A. Martino

 

You Were Here by Cori McCarthy

 

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The Devil and Winnie Flynn by Micol Ostow

 

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How to Share with a Bear by Eric Pinder, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin

 

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All We Left Behind by Ingrid Sundberg

 

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Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott

Topics: eric pinder, N. Griffin, 2015 release, Cori McCarthy, paperback release, Micol Ostow, Michelle Knudsen, Melanie Crowder, Caroline Carlson, Meg Wiviott, Ingrid Sundberg, 2016 release, Janet Fox, Carmela A. Martino, William Alexander, Mary Atkinson

Carmela A. Martino and ROSA, SOLA!

Posted by Adi Rule on Wed, Oct 05, 2016 @ 13:10 PM

Today we're celebrating the paperback release of Carmela A. Martino's middle grade novel, Rosa, Sola!

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“Rosa didn't know which she hated more—being lonely or being different. One thing she did know—she wanted a baby brother . . . one just like Antonio.”



Rosa Bernardi, an only child living with her Italian immigrant parents in 1960s Chicago, often feels alone, or sola, as her parents would say. But after she holds her best friend AnnaMaria’s baby brother for the first time, Rosa is sure that if she prays hard enough, God will send her a brother of her own. When Rosa’s prayers for a sibling are answered, she is overjoyed—until tragedy strikes. Rosa is left feeling more sola than ever, and wondering if her broken family will ever be whole again.

Welcome, Carmela! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

Interestingly, I never planned to write Rosa, Sola. And I never would have if I hadn't gone to Vermont College (which is what VCFA was called back then). The novel grew out of an assignment suggested by my first-semester advisor, Marion Dane Bauer, when I was having difficulty getting my characters’ feelings to come across on the page. Marion asked me to write a short story about an event from my childhood that still aroused emotion in me. It could be any emotion, so long as it was something I could still feel in my gut. I chose to write about fear—the fear I’d experienced at age ten, when my mother nearly died in childbirth.

After several drafts, the story evolved into “Rosa’s Prayer,” a short story about losing and regaining faith. It focused on only a few weeks in the life of Rosa Bernardi, an Italian-American girl growing up as an only child in 1960s Chicago. (There are many similarities between Rosa's life and my own childhood, but I’m not an only child.) Marian was pleased with the piece and encouraged me to submit it for critique at the next residency workshop. Meanwhile, I decided that instead of returning to the middle-grade novel I’d been struggling with, I’d write a collection of short stories for my creative thesis.

At the residency, my workshop group provided terrific feedback for improving “Rosa’s Prayer.” They also encouraged me to expand the story into a novel—they wanted to know what happened to the fictional family I had created. Did they ever recover from their loss? How were their relationships affected by it? Would Rosa always be an only child—sola? Their enthusiasm and curiosity for Rosa’s story inspired my own. I spent the next year or so of the program expanding the short story into a novel that was eventually called Rosa, Sola.

What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?

I had a completed draft of Rosa, Sola by the end of my third semester. At that point, my advisor was willing to sign-off on it as my thesis, but she recommended I wait and have my fourth-semester advisor critique it first. That advisor, Amy Ehrlich, provided wonderfully insightful feedback, especially regarding some weaknesses in the plot. However, one of her suggestions was rather daunting: she wanted me to rewrite the entire 125-page manuscript from third-person limited point of view to first-person. I resisted the idea, in part because I liked it in third person, and in part because of all the work such a change would require. In the end, though, I gave in and did the rewrite. At the same time, I revised the plot issues. When I was done, Amy loved the first-person voice of the new draft. She signed off on that version as my official thesis.

There was only one problem—I still preferred the voice in the earlier, third-person draft. The first-person narration didn't ring true to me; it felt too mature and thoughtful to come from an average ten-year-old struggling with complex emotions. After graduation, I decided to go back to third-person limited viewpoint before trying to sell the manuscript. Of course, since I'd changed the story's plot in between, I couldn't just go back to the earlier draft (which I had saved on my computer). I had to do another FULL rewrite. Knowing how much work that would take, I procrastinated for a long time. However, I eventually bit the bullet and did the rewrite. To my surprise, the revised third-person draft was MUCH better than my earlier third-person version, and it wasn't just because of the plot changes. The process of rewriting the story in first person had given me a better understanding of my main character, and that new understanding now made the third-person version much richer.

Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?

I didn’t have an agent, but this was back around 2001-2002, when you didn’t need an agent. I submitted the manuscript to several editors, including one at Candlewick Press that Amy, my fourth-semester advisor, had recommended. After receiving a couple of rejections, I sent follow-up emails to the Candlewick editor and a Dutton editor who had requested the manuscript after critiquing the opening for an SCBWI conference. The Candlewick editor replied fairly quickly, saying she loved the manuscript and had “cried buckets” while reading it. Her email made ME cry! But when she called to make the offer, she mentioned wanting some revisions. My first thought was “Oh, no, she’s going to ask me to change it back to first person!” I didn’t say that, though. Instead, I carefully asked, “What kind of revisions?” She replied that it was “nothing major.” She basically wanted me to deepen the characters. Still, I was on pins and needles until her editorial letter arrived. To my great relief, there wasn’t one word about point of view!

My editor asked insightful questions that did indeed help me deepen my characters, especially Rosa’s parents and their neighbor, Mrs. Graziano. I worked diligently over several months to address all the issues my editor raised. I finally sent off the revised manuscript and waited. When the editor called one day, I assumed it was to discuss my revisions. Instead, it was to let me know that she was leaving Candlewick and was turning over my manuscript to another editor. I was devastated. I’d heard horror stories from some of my Vermont classmates about how their manuscripts were orphaned after the departure of their acquiring editors—the next editor never seemed to have the same enthusiasm. But I was one of the lucky ones. My new editor loved Rosa, Sola, too. She sent me a long, thoughtful editorial letter in response to the revision I’d submitted, along with numerous yellow sticky notes on the manuscript pages themselves. But now I faced a new problem: some of her comments contradicted those of my first editor. For example, she recommended I cut Mrs. Graziano from the novel altogether. Fortunately, the Vermont MFA program had given me experience in handling conflicting feedback. I kept Mrs. Graziano in, but I did edit her role in the novel. In the end, working with not one but two talented, dedicated, editors helped make the story much stronger.

By the way, the Dutton editor eventually contacted me to say that she, too, was interested in acquiring the manuscript. But by then I was already working with Candlewick.

Rosa, Sola was originally published traditionally, but you’ve self-published the new edition. Can you tell us why and what the process was like for you?

Although Rosa, Sola met with critical acclaim, including a starred review in Booklist, Candlewick never published a paperback edition. Part of that was probably my own fault—instead of writing another middle-grade novel, I focused on picture books for awhile. While those manuscripts got some encouraging rejections, they never found a publisher. I think if I’d written a follow-up novel for Candlewick instead, they probably would have done a paperback edition of Rosa, Sola.

When Rosa, Sola went out of print, I got the rights back and began looking for a company that would bring the book back into print for me. However, none of those I found seemed a good match. I eventually decided to self-publish. I asked a successfully self-published friend for advice and she recommended I read Susan Kaye Quinn’s Indie Author Survival Guide. Quinn’s book and website contain lots of great information and resources for indie authors, including links to recommended cover artists, formatters, editors, etc.

cabbage_white_butterfly.jpgOne of the first steps in re-publishing Rosa, Sola was to design a new cover. I didn’t have the rights to the original cover, and while that cover was beautiful, I always feared it was a bit off-putting for middle-grade readers. Since I’m not an artist myself, I started out by creating a Pinterest board of middle-grade covers I liked, with as many historical titles as I could find. I discovered I was especially drawn to covers that used silhouettes to portray their main characters. Then I made a list of themes and images from my novel that could work in a cover. One of those images was the cabbage butterfly that Rosa watches flutter up out of her Uncle Sal’s garden the day she learns her prayers have been answered. I then searched photo websites for visuals of girls with butterflies and found several where the girl was in silhouette. I sent my favorite of these images to my cover designer, Steven Novak, along with a description of the plot, character, setting, etc. Steven came up with a draft fairly quickly. We went back and forth a few times, with him revising based on my feedback, until he created the version that became the new cover. I loved it, but still wondered how young readers would respond. Fortunately, the week I received the proofs of the paperback edition I was teaching a writing camp for girls ages 11-14. I brought the proofs to camp and the ALL girls preferred the new cover to the original! In fact, one of the girls kept repeating “I LOVE that cover.” :)

The cover isn’t the only new thing about this edition. An author I know who self-published an ebook edition of her own out-of-print traditionally published novel gave me some great advice: she recommended I include new material so I could call the new Rosa, Sola a “revised” edition. I followed her advice and added a “Discussion Questions” section that I hope will be helpful to teachers.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

Probably the weirdest thing I Googled for Rosa, Sola was “wringer washer.” I have a scene in the novel where Rosa helps her mother do laundry. There was an old wringer washer in the basement of my childhood home that my mother used for years, but I couldn’t remember exactly how it worked. I wanted to make sure I got the details right.

 

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

My advisors were Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Resh Thomas, Carolyn Coman, and Amy Ehrlich. I couldn’t have asked for better teachers and mentors. I still use some of their lessons in my own classes—always making sure to credit them, of course. I left the program amazed at how much my writing improved over the two years of the program.  

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

We were called the Hive, because we were always “buzzing” about something. One of the first things that impressed me about my classmates was how well-published they were—I was one of only a few in my class of 14-15 who didn’t already have a published children’s book. (My credits were a few short stories and poems in children’s magazines, and nonfiction articles in magazines and newspapers for adults.) We seemed to “click” right from the start and we’re still a tight-knit group. After graduation, we formed a Yahoogroup to make it easy to stay in touch. Sixteen years later, that group still has 12 active members. We share industry buzz, celebrate sales, commiserate over rejections, offer manuscript feedback, and support one another through personal and professional challenges. When I decided to start the group blog TeachingAuthors.com back in 2009, I invited my fellow Bees to join me. Two of my classmates are still blogging with me, and one of our newest TeachingAuthors is another Vermont College graduate we met while in the program.

VC_Grads_2000_cropped.jpgWhat a talented bunch of Bees! (Check out the fuzzy friend perched on one Bee's shoulder!)

Thank you so much for stopping by, Carmela. And welcome back, Rosa Sola! (We love the new cover!)

Carmela Martino is a writing teacher, freelance writer, and author of short stories, poems and novels for children/teens. She is co-founder of TeachingAuthors.com, a blog by six children’s authors who are also writing teachers. Four members of the TeachingAuthors are graduates of the Vermont College MFA program.

Visit Carmela online at www.carmelamartino.com and at www.teachingauthors.com, and find her on Facebook!

 

Topics: Candlewick Press, middle grade, 2016 release, Carmela A. Martino, indie

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