Jamie Swenson is a July ’09 graduate of the MFAC program. Her first book, Boom! Boom! Boom! was released in May. Currently serving as the RA for the Wisconsin chapter of the SCBWI, Jamie lives and writes in Janesville, Wisconsin. You can find out more about Jamie on her website.
Please describe the book in under 50 words.
Here’s what the publisher wrote: “Flash! Crash! Boom! Boom! Boom! One rainy night, in the midst of a storm, a brave little boy is cozy and warm. He’s all snuggled up, safe in his room—when ‘Arrooo,’ howls dog, ‘is there room?’ Of course there’s room—and all is well—until … Flash Crash Boom! Boom! Boom! What happens when too many friends start to squish in? That’s when the fun is sure to begin.”
Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
Boom! Boom! Boom! was actually one of the very first picture book manuscripts I ever wrote. I believe I wrote it about two years before entering Hamline. It is most certainly one of the most revised of my books—and it traveled through every single Hamline advisor I had—each giving it a little suggestion (or a big one)—and each leaving a mark on it and me! The major change from my very first draft was the introduction of a real main character. I believe it was Marsha Chall who wondered, “Who is telling this story?” At the time she saw it, it was little more than a rhythmic poem—it was not yet a real story. The manuscript had received at least three glowing rejections, but something was missing. There was no one for the reader to relate to—not really. Just a floating voice. It started: “Flash Crash Boom Boom Boom! A beagle jumped onto my bed.” After Marsha’s suggestion I revised the opening to, “One stormy night, I jumped into bed. Safe with a book and my bear named Fred.” Of all of the tweaks, nudges, and overhauling of this story—that one line probably did the most work in making this a story with a main character. It might not seem like a big change—but the idea that a real person, with a book, and a bear named Fred, seemed to make all the difference.
While this book did go through revisions during the writing process, none were made with my editor at FS&G. It’s a little different, I think, with rhyming text. Either it’s working and you don’t need to change it—or it’s not and you do. Janine liked it the way she acquired it—and I think that is due to all the work that I had already put into the text.
How did it come to the attention of its editor?
About six months after graduation (Oct. 2009), I sent a different manuscript out to four or five houses as a simultaneous submission—simply based on which houses were open and accepted picture books. That manuscript, If You were a Dog was eventually fished from the slush and acquired by Janine O’Malley. That book has the wonderful good fortune of being illustrated by Caldecott Medalist, Chris Raschka—which was actually doubly good luck for me—because Mr. Raschka is a very busy man and couldn’t start that project until 2012 at the earliest. So, Janine said, “What else do you have?” Again, lucky me—I happened to have eight picture books ready from my Creative Thesis. I sent her an additional three or four—and in spring of 2010 she picked Boom! Boom! Boom! (Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah!) and David Walker, who is also a talented illustrator, was able to get started on it right away—so it only took from about March 2010 to May 2013 for this one! GRIN.
What research was involved?
I researched publishing houses! I relied heavily on the Children’s Writers Market. I highlighted every possible house that was open and listed the names of the acquiring editors. I sent the manuscript to around five houses, and I’ve yet to hear from the other four.
Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
No, I never workshopped this manuscript—at least—not that I recall. I did work on it with Marsha Chall and Phyllis Root—not as much with Lisa Jahn-Clough or Marsha Qualey (because we worked on novels instead of picture books).
What was your critical thesis?
“What Haunts You?: Elements of the Middle Grade through Young Adult Ghost Story”
What was your creative thesis?
A combination of part of a supernatural middle grade novel and about eight picture books.
Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
Oh my goodness, yes. I work in a library so I was already deeply in love with so many books; still, through required reading at Hamline I found some titles that I had either missed, or judged by the cover and hadn’t read (oh, the horrors!). After hearing M.T. Anderson speak at a residency I went back and re-read Feed with a greater appreciation for the crafting of that book. I also found books by my fabulous advisors that I love—including Marsha Qualey’s Come in from the Cold, Lisa Jahn Clough’s ALICIA books, Phyllis Root’s Kiss the Cow, and Marsha Wilson Chall’s Prairie Train.
Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are. When do you share a piece of writing?
My first readers are my critique group members, two of whom also graduated (in different years) from Hamline’s MFA program. We were already together as a critique group when our first member headed off to Vermont, and then switched to Hamline. I was second to go—and then one more of us went and finished the program. The other three writers laugh and say that they’ve lived through THREE MFA programs now, so surely they deserve some type of honorary status!
I share a manuscript when I feel it has a voice and some form of direction—but it still needs input from another person. If I share too soon, they cannot help. If I share too late, that ship has sailed and I might not hear what they tell me. Sometimes, I will share, revise, share, revise, share, revise—until they say, “STOP!” And then it’s either ready to go to my agent who will likely make me revise again anyway—or—it just isn’t there and I put it away and hope that I figure it out someday.
Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
The major change in my writing life since graduation is the lack of a real deadline. I floated for about six months after the program—and then I started being more intentional about my writing time again. Because I work part-time, I have to make good use of my non-work days. I schedule my writing time just like I schedule my work time—I have to be there at a set time and stay for a set number of hours—whether or not I FEEL LIKE IT—just like my ‘other’ job!
What are you working on now?
My first book is just out, my second book is scheduled for January 2014, and my third book is still with Mr. Raschka (take all the time you need, Mr. Raschka!). I continue to play with picture book ideas, and I am working on my first early chapter book. I haven’t done very much with my novels since leaving Hamline—but all in good time!
What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
Keep at it. Listen to all those bits of wisdom that float out of your advisors’ mouths. Ron [Koertge] is right—MFA students spend way too much time thinking and not enough time writing. Writers “on the outside” do that too! Quit analyzing everything or waiting for the perfect time in your life to write. It will never come. WRITE it now! You will never be perfect. Your writing will never be perfect. But if you never write anything—I guarantee you won’t get any better AND you’ll have nothing to show for it! I am as far from perfection as can be, but I love writing and I love storytelling and I love playing with words. I don’t plan to stop any time soon—and neither should you. I think if I excel at anything, it’s listening to revision suggestions and revising my work. Don’t fear the revision process.
What a fun interview! Thanks for sharing!
Jamie, so impressed with your insights about the writing life and so very, very proud of you and your books. You make us so proud at the Hamline MFAC, such an inspiration to us all and so much fun as a person. Cheers to you. Claire