Interview with author Karen Pokras

Interviews, Push to Publish 2015

With less than a week until the 2015 Push to Publish conference, the preparations begin for an exciting and informative day. There is still time to register! Click here for more information.

In the meantime, check out an interview between published author Karen Pokras, a panelist at the conference, and Philadelphia Stories intern Raven Eckman for some fun writing tips!

Karen Pokras writes both middle school and contemporary fiction. She has won several writing awards including two Readers’ Favorite Book Awards. Her books include the Nate Rocks series and The Whispered Wishes series. For more information about Karen, check out her website here.

Why Middle Grade Fiction and Contemporary Adult Fiction? They seem like such different genres. Do you favor one more than the other?

Yes, they are very different! My mind is constantly coming up with story ideas — some for children, some for adults. I enjoy writing for both genres, and love that I don’t have to limit myself to being just a children’s writer or just an adult fiction writer. It can be tricky shifting gears since I tend to jump quickly from one project to the next, and they are often so different. For example, I wrote two middle grade stories this summer and am now working on a legal thriller. However, I think I would get bored doing it any other way.

How do you know you’re finished with a book? Does it just feel right?

After I finish what I feel is a decent self-edited draft, it goes out to a group of beta readers who I hand pick. These are people whom I trust will give me honest opinions (ie – not my mom). Based on their notes, I will often make several rounds of revisions until I feel I’ve polished the story to meet their concerns. It then goes to my editor who works her magic. After another round of revisions, I can usually rename my document FINAL and feel confident about the finished product.

When was the first time you felt like you would make it as a writer?

A few months after I published Nate Rocks the World, my first book, I decided to enter it into a literary contest, not expecting anything to happen. To be honest, I forgot all about it. About six months later, I received an email saying I’d both won first place in the Children’s Chapter Book category and the Grand Prize overall. I sent the email out to my publicist at the time because I thought for sure I had read it wrong. Not only was this my first self-published book, but it was one that had been rejected by more agents that I cared to admit. It was a great feeling to know that maybe I actually could write something decent.

What was the most difficult of your books to write? The least difficult? Why?

Millicent Marie Is Not My Name was my least difficult book to write. I really connected to Millie right out of the gate, and I think it shows. She is my best selling book and my favorite character (sorry Nate!). The words really flew while writing her story. That book was supposed to be a one and done, but I get a lot of requests for a book two, so I am hoping to put out a second book next year.

The most difficult book to write was Holly’s Wishes, the second book in my Whispered Wishes romance series. I re-wrote it start to finish EIGHT times. As the second book in a four book series, I wanted to make sure it had enough to keep my readers interested enough to keep going. That’s a lot of pressure!

How do you manage to make your stories different and stand out?

I’m not just a writer; I’m also an avid reader, so I try to write things that I’d want to read. I hope that others will as well.

What is your best marketing tip to writers who are looking to get published?

Social media is a place to be social. Interact with your readers on a friendly basis. Get to know them. Think of it as a huge cocktail party. Talk about what you’re working on, but don’t shove “buy my book” down their throats. It’s a huge turn off. If you can build up your fan base before you publish, you’ll be amazed at the support (and sales) you get when your big day finally arrives.

What is the most important thing to remember when you are writing?

For me, if I feel myself getting stuck, I tell myself to just walk away. I know it will come — even if it’s at a time when I can’t sit down and work, I can still usually stop and jot down some notes. I’ll never try to force a story out. Nothing good ever comes out that way.

What is your favorite book? Did it help to inspire you to begin writing?

I don’t know that I have a favorite book. I love to read and love so many books. Judy Blume was and still is a huge inspiration for my middle grade books, and my desire to write books that encourage children to read more.

If you had to describe the entirety of your writing career in just a sentence what would it be?

An amazing experience that’s only just beginning.

How important are names in your book? How do you go about naming your characters?

I love names! When I picked my title Nate Rocks the World, I was inspired by the movie Good Will Hunting. I loved how the character’s name (Will Hunting) was used in the title but not necessarily as his name. In Nate Rocks, my main character is Nathan Rockledge, but he becomes Nate Rocks when he daydreams himself as a super hero. I knew I had to play on that in the title. I did something similar with Chasing Invisible (my main character is named Chase and was originally James until my publisher and I came up with the title) and of course Millicent Marie is not my Name is an obvious play on Millie’s name (which was completely random.) A lot of times when I get stuck on picking a character’s name, I’ll turn to Facebook, pick a friend and look through their friend list to find names. I’ll often mix and match first and last names … so watch out … you could be my next character!

Do you plot out your stories or write as you go?

I’ve tried to plot, but I’m definitely more of a write as I go writer. I think it’s more exciting that way, and I get to experience my book the same way a reader will.

What are you working on now?

I’ve got two projects going at the same time, both very different. I’m about ¾ done with the second book in a middle grade mystery that I started at the beginning of the summer, but I put it to the side to begin a legal thriller that I felt compelled to write. It’s also about ¾ done at this point, and I hope to have the first draft done in the next month or so. Welcome to my crazy brain!

Any advice you want to give inspiring writers that you wish you would have known when you started out?

I was very fortunate to meet some extremely helpful folks right at the outset who helped me get started. I learned that in this industry most authors are generous and happy to pay it forward. Readers are willing and able to buy more than one book. We are not competitors, but rather in this together – to both learn from each other and help boost each other up. I highly recommend joining the Indie Author Group on Facebook. It’s a great group filled with resources to help writers of all levels.

In Conversation with Michael Martone

Interviews, Writing Tips

Thoughts on the creative process and the shifting publishing landscape

by Tara Smith

Martone hat

We’re delighted that Michael Martone, award-winning author, teacher, and judge of this year’s Philadelphia Stories’ Marguerite McGlinn National Prize for Fiction, will be our keynote speaker at Push to Publish. In anticipation of his visit with us here in Philadelphia, Martone shares a few thoughts on publishing, writing for contests, and a writing technique called “collage.”


TS: Writers generally come to a conference called “Push to Publish” carrying a jumble of hopes, expectations, and questions about being published. What did it mean for you to first be published? And how would you suggest that unpublished writers allocate their time and energies between writing and working at being published?

MM: I always ask my students if they want to be published. I will ask the participants at the conference that as well. And all will say, I imagine, yes. And then I will say, “I have an incredibly powerful typesetting machine, the same layout software used by Knopf, and electronic connections to printers in Iceland, China, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. I can publish you right now.” And what I expect to hear is, no, that’s not what we mean by “publishing.” What is it we mean when we want to publish? So a conference about publishing, I think, should not be so much about the “How to” material that has snap and pat solutions, but should address that “jumble” you mention and how specialized and individualized the notions of successful publishing are for each of us. I consider my contribution of a story to a workshop of 12 people to be an act of publishing. I have published a story in a magazine that probably had fewer than a dozen subscribers. I have written and sold poems on the spot on subject matter suggested by the reader on the streets of Philadelphia. I have published in journals subsidized by universities or by Karastan carpets. I have published myself in books. As an editor, I have published others in magazines and books. For me, more and more, it is harder to compartmentalize the me who is the writer and the me who is the contributor of his writing. I find myself living in a horizontal world of publishing. I don’t spent much time at all thinking in the vertical.

TS: I ask my writer friend, whose only experience of collage was an unfortunate incident in second grade involving scissors, paste, and her parents’ wedding photos, to come along to your Push to Publish master class, “The Four C’s: Context, Cutting, Compression, and Collage” ( How would you suggest I word the invitation?

MM: Well, I think you could actually cut and paste. That is to say Google the word “collage” (let me just point out that when we “Google” we are making, with our computers, collages) and then, going to the various result pages, cut out interesting snippets of text and/or graphics and paste them into your invitation. The hardest part of collage for prose writers, I think, is giving up the feeling of control of the text. In collage one creates interesting environments, arranges things, invites the reader to make something from these disparate pieces but does not invite them to specific results, specific conclusions, meanings. It is not about the point but the spread. The technique would not be the best for the form of writing we call an “invitation” as specific information needs to be transmitted. But it is great at creating a sensation, a mood, a tone. It is the sublime in plain sight. There is no way to take notes as the thing itself looks as if it is nothing but notes. Ah, “nothing but notes!”

TS: You read the top stories for Philadelphia Stories’ Marguerite McGlinn National Prize for Fiction ( this year and selected our winner, Che Yeun’s “One in Ten Fish Are Afraid of Water.” You’ve been both winner and reader for many writing contests (though presumably not both for the same contest!). What advice would you give to writers submitting a story for next year’s Marguerite McGlinn contest?

MM: Tough to give advice as that implies that such judgment remains static and unchanging. Remember, I selected from a pool of ten finalists. I am not even sure who made the initial cut through all of the submissions. What were the stories I did not even see? I might have really admired many of the stories in the first round but did not see them as the first readers’ taste just differs from mine. Remember, too, that it is sheer luck when and how a submission is read. If you are read first of the day or last after the judge has read 25 stories before yours, that placement could deflect the reading. We make a mistake in contests if we proceed in the belief that there are objective standards that everyone understands, agrees upon, and can attain. My advice? Think of contests as a lottery with much better odds though a lower payout. It is always nice to have someone read your work either in the setting of a contest or in an attempt to have that work published, but the writer cannot surrender his or her feeling about that work to the judge or editor. Not being selected or published is and should be considered very low stakes. Writing success, for me, is not tactical but strategic. It is about the long game, the lifetime of writing. Contests and publishing are dangerous, then, if the writer grants these immediate snap judgments the power to divert his or her individual work from the long-term life’s project.

TS: What one truth, idea, or inspiration would you hope that Push to Publish participants take back to their writing desks after the conference is over?

MM: Quantity has a quality all its own.

TS: You’ve travelled widely and taught in many different contexts, including Philadelphia and Rosemont College. What particular opportunities and challenges do you see for us as a community of writers here, in 2013?

MM: I am not sure I would locate the challenge in Philadelphia. The challenge has to do with the construction of authorship and audience. The models of both are in rapid flux in this time and place. The categories of author, editor, publisher, agent, reader seem to be collapsing. When I started writing, if I published myself it was considered “vanity” publishing, but that word has now been replaced by “self” and we suspect (we fear?) that “self” itself will disappear altogether. I am writing this on an incredibly powerful typesetting and publishing machine that is connected to a seemingly infinite network of other machines. So maybe the challenge is to figure out what is “network” which is to say what is community itself? Maybe the community here isn’t negotiating challenges and opportunities but the notion of community itself is the challenge, is the opportunity.

TS: Do you have a “most embarrassing publishing moment” (real or imagined) that you could share with us?

MM: In the late seventies, I went to a reading given by George Plimpton, the founding editor of The Paris Review, a magazine I had been submitting stories to unsuccessfully. Mr. Plimpton as a writer was famous for his books of participatory journalism. He trained and played football with the Detroit Lions. He played professional baseball, hockey, golf. Played in a professional symphony. He wrote about being an amateur in with the professionals. After his reading during the Q&A that followed, I asked if he would allow me, an amateur, to edit The Paris Review for an issue. He was not amused.


Michael Martone is the award-winning author of Four for a Quarter, Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fiction from the Flyover, and many other titles. Martone has won two Fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His stories and essays have appeared in The Best American Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. He is currently a professor at the University of Alabama, where he has been teaching since 1996.

When and where can you meet Michael Martone?

In addition to the keynote address at Push to Publish on Saturday morning, Martone will be giving a reading at Rosemont on Thursday evening, October 10th (, ( and a master class on Friday the 11th (

The Author-Agent Relationship

Interviews, Writing Tips


As Philadelphia Stories prepares for another fun Push to Publish writing conference coming up on October 12, we asked literary agent Rita Rosenkranz to share her tips on what an author should look for when shopping for an agent. Below is a sampling of her tips. We are happy to report that Ms. Rosenkranz will also be sharing her insights at both the speed date and the “meet the agents” panel discussion at the Push to Publish event.

What should authors look for in an agent?

I advise authors to “know thyself,” because there is a spectrum of agents with different personalities, strengths, level of experience, connections to the film world, etc. Depending on the author’s publishing history and/or ambitions, she might benefit more from a well-established agent, whereas another author will connect better with a hungry, new agent. Do you want a New York-based agent? Some—but not all authors—do. Some authors prefer to have an agent close to where they are based. Will the author be working with the agent or mostly with an assistant or intern? What are the agency’s commission and agency charges (and is there a cap on charges)? I advise authors to review the questions listed on the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) Web site to help determine the best fit.

Finding the right agent can mean different things to different people. What suggestions do you have for writers who want to gain a deeper knowledge of the agents they are pitching?

I think many authors don’t consider the nuances of the agent/author relationship beforehand. More than to simply know they want an agent, authors should identify what matters most to them. Do they want an agent who will simply get them the most money or one who will help them become better writers and who will be available for matters large and small? More than ever, writers can learn about agents thanks to the Web. On many sites authors exchange experiences––offering recommendations, sob stories and everything in-between––undiluted and uncensored. Writer’s Digest, as well as other print and online venues, regularly profiles agents, offering writers a deeper sense of the agent’s personality, taste and approach to the author/agent relationship.

Where you do you find your authors?

I find authors every which way: through queries, conferences, word-of-mouth, and my own active outreach campaign. I read my mail closely and with anticipation. I have found wonderful projects through query letters. Only a fraction of the projects I ask to see end up being right for me. But I sometimes will offer feedback even if I end up turning down the project, and the author presumably benefits from this exchange. Sometimes a writer whose work I’ve turned down will reconnect with me later with a new project that in fact does interest me.

If you fall in love with a project, will you simply take it on, or do you run it through a marketability grid? Do you take on projects you think will sell even if you don’t love them?

If I fall head-over-heels in love with a project, I’m willing to move forward even if the market is small. I’ve handled niche projects and sometimes if it’s a rich niche with a renewable market, one can be rewarded over time. I don’t feel I have to love the project so much as respect its purpose and its market. How wonderful though when I do love it. Those occasions especially help keep me buoyed by my work.

Once a writer signs with an agent, what type and what frequency of contact can she or he expect?

It’s impossible for me to generalize, since writers have different needs and agents handle business differently. I personally want my authors to be in the loop in a real-time way, whether it involves rejections or other matters that can play a part in their wellbeing. At the same time, I’m sensitive to authors’ individual personalities and preferences. While maintaining my basic approach to the relationship, I’ll adapt wherever I can. This might mean not sharing rejections but only letting the author know when there is an offer.

What are your biggest frustrations when working with a client?

It’s easiest for me to do my best work when an author is dependable, respectful of deadlines, proactive in terms of generating publicity for themselves and promotion for their books, thanks to their speaking circuit, podcasts, etc. The more I am preoccupied about these points the less time I will have for higher level efforts, for instance, discussing the author’s next book project. Also, too often I am making excuses for delays in the publishing process—for instance in getting contracts or payment of advances to the author—and it can be frustrating to spend so much time on what should be automatic. I am most thrilled when a project introduces me to a world I hadn’t realized would interest me, and where the author is a well-paired partner to the work.

What is the most important thing for writers to know about agents?

There is great variety among us, in the kinds of writers we’re attracted to, our approach to the author/agent relationship, our editorial sense, our publishing connections, and our stick-with-it-ness, even when a project doesn’t win a publisher’s interest right away. This should give authors hope that within the large and diverse community of agents, there will be a perfect match. I think the most successful writers manage to persevere and show great fortitude no matter what the circumstance. Agents need to demonstrate this too, of course, and the journey together is much more sturdy and rewarding when the agent and author can stay the course through the difficult spots, too.

Rita Rosenkranz founded Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency in 1990 after a career as an editor with major New York houses. Her non-fiction list includes health, history, parenting, music, how-to, popular science, business, biography, sports, popular reference, cooking, spirituality and general interest titles. Rita works with major publishing houses, as well as regional publishers that handle niche markets. She looks for projects that present familiar subjects freshly or lesser-known subjects presented commercially.


Bee Ridgway: Finding The River

Interviews, Reviews


by Nicole Wolverton

As a kid I loved anything to do with time travel. One of my favorite movies was Time Bandits. I loved Madeleine L’Engle’sA Wrinkle in Time. Later, I fell in love with Slaughterhouse-Five: if there was ever a patron saint of time-travel-related existential angst, it would be Kurt Vonnegut. It is impossible to imagine how often I contemplated his words about time: “It is just an illusion here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.” Who hasn’t wished it were true, that time isn’t linear? At the heart of every time travel novel, from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children to The Time Traveler’s Wife, is the wish to return to the past to make the present a better place, and that is…

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Rosemont Writers’ Retreat: Showcase Night Faculty Reading Part II

Author Events, Interviews


Anne Kaier’s poetry and nonfiction has been published or is forthcoming in journals and publications such as Philadelphia Poets, The Gettysburg Review, Apiary, Paradigm, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. In a 2012 interview, her poetry was called, “seductively rhythmic and precise,” and Philadelphia Stories asked her how she remains successful and how she strives for truth in nonfiction writing.

As writers, we sometimes overuse our words. How do you keep your vocabulary fresh and new?

A very interesting question.  I ‘d love to hear what you do!  I find that when I am completely absorbed and feel very passionately about my subject, words often come directly.  These are the best.  However, most of the time, I find myself hung over my keyboard, searching and searching, knocking my head.  I also write many drafts, especially of essays, so on the first few drafts, I’m usually more concerned with the structure of the piece and less with individual word choice.  In later drafts, I go back and back, trying to find strong verbs and descriptions will startle the reader. Perhaps since I’m also a poet, I also pay attention to the rhythms, even the meter, of sentences, using anapests if I want to hurry a sentence up or iambs if I want to give a concluding sentence a sense of resolution.  I guess it’s also true that I read a lot, so I am always on the outlook for words that can be pilfered.

Do you find that writing you do in the heat of the moment is your most successful writing, or do you write in a process and revisit old writing over time, until it is finished?


I may have partly answered this above.  These days, I’m mostly writing fairly long essays.  They involve research into primary sources and come out to be at least 5,000 words, so a fair amount of thought and early drafts go into figuring out the structure. I sometimes try out various possibilities.  For example, I may write one draft in the present tense, perhaps just to get my mind and senses closer to the scene I’m describing.  Then I may decide to put the whole thing into the past–for greater credibility.  Sometimes, I may decide to write an essay as a fairly simple straightforward narrative.  Or I may decide to try it as a lyric essay, done in non-linear ways.  So all of this gets in the way of writing in the heat of the moment.  I will sometimes use paragraphs written earlier, in the heat of the moment, but mostly the work their way in to a final version that is, in fact, the 8th or 9th full draft.

What would you say to a writer who believes her life story is not “interesting” or “worthwhile” enough to tell?


Oh, Lord.  Even the most exciting life stories can be made deadly dull with bad writing.   Good writing, writing that is clear and sensuous and well-constructed, brings the reader into the life you are describing.  One of the main reasons people read memoir, I think, is to feel they are not alone in the world, to feel that other people have lived lives that are as ordinary and as complicated and difficult and exhilarating as their own. So even the most ordinary life, well-told, can be mesmerizing.

What is the most difficult part about nonfiction or memoir writing?


Reliving the past.  Going back to the person you were or might have been and trying to make that person vivid to a reader. You have to characterize yourself, as if you were a fiction writing creating a character. So you have to try to look at yourself fairly objectively, which can be utterly embarrassing and difficult.  For an essay I wrote a few years ago, I had to reread letters I have written home from England when I was a student there. Oh God, they made me cringe! They were so fey and affected.  All memoirists have to confront less than splendid versions of themselves, too.  I also find that in this market, readers can be very judgmental–expecting a character to go through almost formulaic stages of hard times and bad deeds and salvation at the end. The salvation or reformation at the end bit drives me crazy.  I hate pat endings.  I also try hard to tell the truth about myself and my feelings–as clearly as I can discern them.

In an interview with, columnist Nicolette Milholin, you said that a poet struggling to find his or her own voice should, “Just try to be honest. Try to tell the truth.” Have you ever written something and had a family member or friend disagree completely? What does personal perspective mean in terms of writing memoir or poetry?


Another excellent question. All memoir is a story we tell ourselves about the past.  There simply is no such thing as objective truth.  All you can do is try to be as honest as your memory allows you to be, check the facts whenever possible and don’t make anything important up out of whole cloth. My family sometimes remembers events differently than I do.  I don’t concern myself much with that unless the family member has hard core evidence to support their version.  However, I go out of my way to try to check facts. I’m currently writing an essay set in Paris about getting some medicine for my skin condition that helped me very greatly when I first went there to take it. [The meds were not available at that time in the US].  I’ve done research in the Penn Medical School library, going through old medical journals by hand in the stacks in order to learn more about how my medicine was understood and used in the early 1980s, when I first took it.  I also spent a few days reading French medical journals at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Philly, for the same purpose.  My French is just good enough to get the gist of things.  Then I have to sit down with a dictionary –and ultimately ask a good friend who really reads French to help me. But I want to recreate as much as possible the reality of the times I’m writing about.

This answer strayed away from the family question.  Although I write about my family of origin–my parents and brother– we are Irish Catholics and don’t talk easily about the past. My brother, who is a very sweet man and admits he doesn’t have a good memory, still has sometimes remembered incidents in ways that are different from my memories.  If he can substantiate his memory with facts, I accept the differences. I always look into them. But if it’s just a question of a differing recollection, I use my own version, and don’t worry about the differences. For example, I wrote a piece about visiting the Grand Canyon when my twin bro and I were 10.  I remembered a drive through the desert in a car and set an important scene in the car. When I talked to my brother, Ed remembered that we had taken a train from Albuquerque to the Canyon, but he hadn’t kept train tickets or any hard evidence. If he had, I would have felt compelled to rewrite the scene. I checked to make sure you could rent a car in New Mexico in those days. You could. So I left the scene in the car and didn’t worry about it.  After all, a memoir is, fundamentally, a story we tell ourselves about the past–not to mention the fact that I had already written the scene in the car, it was a good scene and I didn’t want to rewrite it if I didn’t have to…

Anne Kaier will be teaching “Tell Your Story: Memoir” at the weekend Rosemont Writers Retreat on June 24-28.