Tag Archives: Rachael Hanel

A writing family, part two

The best part of being in a writing group: celebrating publication.

The best part of being in a writing group: celebrating publication.

In yesterday’s post, members of my writing group responded to my question: What do they get from being part of a critique group? Three answers ran yesterday, and three more follow.

Amy Kortuem. Amy’s a singer and harpist who writes her own material. You can find her CDs and performance schedule at her web site. She writes professionally and recently decided to bring her own writing into the world. Look for her to publish soon. Also, Amy has the world’s best biceps from carrying her massive harp to gigs. Who needs weights?

I think what I love most is the companionship of people who are doing what I’m doing. I don’t have any harp friends, and have done everything in the space of my own head and heart. But in writing, I NEED companionship. I need to talk through ideas before I write. I need to read what others are writing and see that in all stages of drafting so I don’t put all that stupid pressure on myself to hang out with one paragraph for two weeks until it’s “good enough” before moving on. With writing, it’s hard to let anyone read something until I’m in a place where I think it hangs together. Maybe once I get used to the welcoming atmosphere and the genuine support of this group, I’ll be able to share more.

Rachael Hanel is the author of the memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down and an essayist. We worked together for six years at a newspaper. That’s where I discovered we shared so much – and so little – in common. Rachael loves winter, enjoys cemeteries, and is devoted to working out. Me? Not so much.

  • I need sets of eyes on my new work. You absolutely need to bounce work off others.
  • Sharing resources: magazine articles, books on writing, notes from workshops and conferences, tips we’ve learned, etc.
  • A group in which to brainstorm ideas.

Judith Angelique “Angie” Johnson is a published poet who also writes essays and fiction. Alas, we’ve been unable to bring Angie into the technical world, so there’s no web site or Facebook page. Angie looks sweet and fragile, but don’t let that fool you. She once hopped in her minivan and chased down a man who’d stolen a bike from her driveway. She raced down the street, yelling “drop the bike, mother****** or I’ll run you over.” And the guy, wisely, dropped the bike.

The group gives me confidence. I like criticism to see where I can improve as a writer and a thinker. The group keeps me balanced: to love the sound of words, but to love – even more – their meanings. Story first. Providing criticism for others has also made me a stronger writer. It forces me to think about audience, purpose, stance and so on, in order to provide feedback that is helpful for others, rather than feedback on how “Angie would do it.” I also know my writing can fall flat on its face and I won’t be judged. Our group is a safe place to fail, and fail hard, and then stand and tighten the belt again.

So there you have it. Six members; six viewpoints.

Tomorrow: what your writing group should not be.



My friend Rachael Hanel has her own YouTube channel. You can link to it from her blog. She’s the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down, a memoir about growing up as a grave digger’s daughter.

In the future I expect her to write another memoir, I’ll Be the Last One to Let You Down When it  Comes to Clever Uses of Social Media.

Kudos, Rachael.

First, a writer. Now, a budding YouTube star.

First, a writer. Now, a budding YouTube star.

A memoir that won’t let you down – part 2

A new memoir by Rachael Hanel

A new memoir by Rachael Hanel

Here’s part two of the Q & A with Rachael Hanel. Her incredible memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You, is now on bookshelves.

You’re a huge fan of memoir as a genre. Why? 

I think this ties into the previous question. I grew up listening to true-life stories. Even as a small child, I felt like the fictional stories I read paled in comparison to these stories that Mom told me or the real stories I sought out to read. I was always fascinated by real stories and was captivated to try to learn how people react to events in their lives. The memoir genre continues to fill this need.

It’s also no surprise that I grew up wanting to be a journalist. I wanted to learn people’s stories and be the one to chronicle them. I remember returning from interview after interview shaking my head and thinking, “Wow, what an amazing story! You can’t make this stuff up.” Real people and their real situations will just always be very compelling to me.

What memoir are you currently reading and name 3-4 you’d recommend.

I just finished Thirty Rooms to Hide In: Insanity, Addiction, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic, by Luke Longstreet Sullivan and published by the University of Minnesota Press. I was completely blown away. It’s funny, because the couple of books I read before this one were novels. They were very good novels and I enjoyed them. But after reading Longstreet Sullivan’s book, it was once again affirmed that I am completely drawn to memoir. The novels just seemed to be lacking something in comparison—I find it hard to fully care about a fictional character.

My favorite memoir is Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I bought it right away when it came out in 2006 because her father worked as a part-time mortician. I came to find out that this is actually a very small portion of the memoir, but the book (which is a graphic memoir) is stunning nonetheless. Bechdel is a very smart writer and she expertly weaves together many different stories and ties everything together in a full circle. I read the book several times as I was writing my memoir. Structurally Fun Home is about as perfect as a memoir can get.

Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

I’m partial to memoirs that take place in the Midwest. Some stunning ones include Nicole Helget’s The Summer of Ordinary Ways, Kent Meyers’ The Witness of Combines and Debra Marquardt’s The Horizontal World. These were also books I read several times as I was writing my memoir.

What’s it like to think about your book – your baby – going out into the world?

This is causing me a great deal of anxiety! Ironically, even though I wrote a memoir, I’m a very private person when it comes to my life and my emotions. So there’s anxiety surrounding the idea that I’m going to be revealing myself to friends, family and strangers. There’s also anxiety over the fact that I’m sure not everyone will love the book, so what will the critical reviews say? But even good reviews will make me nervous because I don’t like a whole lot of personal attention. I’m social and I love being around people, but I don’t like the focus to be on me.

But of course, this is a day I’ve dreamed about for many, many years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way! I’m just sure the reality of it will be different than the fantasy I built up in my head!

I’m grateful to Rachael for being part of my blog. I also owe her an overdue, public thank you. Nearly 20 years ago, she was copy editing my news story under deadline.  Rachael and her eagle eyes saved me from spelling my own name wrong. (Really, who hasn’t done that?) She actually prevented public humiliation for lots of reporters during those years. On behalf of all of us, thanks!

Voldemort or Gizmo? Ashley or Stumpy? The writer decides!

My sister adopted two rescue dogs years ago. Gizmo and Peyton. I’ve asked her, Why didn’t you give them new names? As a writer, one of the most fun – and challenging – parts of developing your novel is naming characters.

In the dog instance, I’d have suggested Attila and Voldemort. I kid, dear sister, I kid! Her actual response regarding new dog names was this: they’ve already been through trauma, and I don’t want to add confusion to trauma, or make them feel that they’re bad.

Awww. You’re feeling a little misty right now, aren’t you?

Personally, I think the dogs hear blah blah BLAH blah blah, and the BLAH with emphasis indicates a name. Or perhaps a Milkbone.

Just try not to rescue this dog. Too late! I already called and I'm naming him Muffin.

Just try not to rescue this dog. Too late! I already called and I’m naming him Muffin.

My sister’s reasoning reflects her character. Compassionate. Sweet. Generous. And if you mess with me or my family I’ll unleash the power of Voldemort on your sorry a**.

Names, or course, reflect your character and the book’s tone. You can have three old men drinking morning coffee together at the local café. One man is Stumpy. And that works. It speaks to the size and quality of the town, and the kind of guy who might have a nickname Stumpy. Cliché: a retired farmer who lost his arm in a machine. Character twist: a lawyer. Humor: the town’s mayor, Mayor Stumpy.

Quirk has its limits. Unless the tone is absurdity, or you’re writing a picture book, you shouldn’t name the trio Stumpy, Lumpy, and Grumpy.

My writer friend quoted her agent: No more than two quirky names per book. Every rule was made to be broken, but he has a point.

In my forthcoming novel, The Graham Cracker Plot, I have pages of notes with possible character names. I spent days at my job, testing the names in my head. We had conversations, my characters and me. I asked a lot of questions. Why are you so rude to your mother? What’s your favorite food? Who’s your hero?

At work, I looked at clients and checked my character names against their names. What’s your name? I’m hoping, Ashley, please be an Ashley because you look like my Ashley.

My Ashley says, Linda.

So where do you work? Please say thrift store!

Ashley/Linda says, I’m a pharmacy tech.

Two strikes.

Ultimately, I used a typical, popular name from the late 1980s-1990 for the least typical character. My spunky, sassy heroine has a princess name, a name she dislikes and ditches in favor of a nickname. Mom doesn’t have a name at all. Just Mom, which says a lot about the relationship between my heroine and her mother. Dad has a special name, which says also says a lot about the relationship between my heroine and her father.

My writer-friend Angie Johnson almost always finds a way to slip “Margaret” into her stories. My writer-friend Rachael Hanel hit the jackpot. In her memoir, her father digs graves and maintains cemeteries. His real-life nickname: Digger. Digger! It’s perfect and true.

(And a plug for Racheal: The Barnes & Noble in Mankato, Minnesota, will host a book launch event with author Rachael Hanel for her new memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter on Thursday, April 4th at 6:30 PM.)

Test your character names. Say them in a sentence (Sherry shouted to shovel the driveway.) Picture them reacting to a crisis. (Edith froze with terror as Attila the dog chased the kids.) How would it sound if she’s paged on a store intercom? (Clean up in aisle 14. Antoinette Rousseau, clean up in aisle 14.)

You’ve got to test drive a lot of cars before settling on a 1994 Corolla or a 2002 Audi or a new Ford F-150 pickup truck. Personally, I’d get the 1994 Corolla. It best reflects my character. And my budget.

Book release parties

Mankato has an amazing writing community. This south central Minnesota town is bursting with writing talent. Minnesota State University, Mankato has a strong MFA program. The professors publish, and many of the students end up living here, working here, and writing here.  That means there are a lot of readings and book release parties. Parties probably don’t do much for sales, and they don’t get media coverage, so why do them?

  • They’re fun.
  • The networking is fantastic.
  • They create buzz and energy for a book.
  • The writer gets to have fun playing with the themes, characters, and settings for their books.

On Friday night, Kirstin Cronn-Mills had her release party at Tune Town, a blast-from-the-past Mankato record store. Her book, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, is loaded with music. The main character has a community radio show, and a secondary character is a former DJ who first played Elvis on the radio.

A friend made cookies decorated like record albums. Kirstin created a playlist from songs in the book. A group of friends made a “gold record” for her as a gift. (Confession: I was responsible for designing the label and I spelled her name wrong. Double DUH. Kristin instead of Kirstin. And we’ve been friends for eight years!)

Rachael Hanel, another Mankato writer, is planning her release party for her memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down. I won’t give anything away, but it’s one of the most creative ideas I’ve heard. More about that this spring.

Stephen Shaskan wrote a picture book called A Dog is a Dog.  It’s one of the coolest picture books I’ve read in a long time, and his web site rocks. When he does readings in bookstores and schools, he wears a dog costume and brings his guitar. Kids love it.

Lessons for my own release party … someday.

So I’m supposed to have an author pic …

There’s a small thumbnail photo of me in my “About Me” section of my blog. It’s the same photo I use on Facebook. It’s the same photo I used for an online dating site. If I had my way, it would be the only photo of me on Earth. I am comfortable with this photo. It’s small and black and white. I’m not smiling so big, with so much fake, that my lips have disappeared. Nor do I look like Queen Grump. There’s no double chin. My eyes are actually open.

Yesterday, my X, who’s a pretty good judge of this stuff, said, Get a new photo. 

My new fella, the guy I met through the online dating sight, has said, I really was never attracted to that photo.

And so I begin the quest for a professional author photo.

What I don’t want:

1. Serious literary artist peeking through the top of her glasses.

2. Serious literary artist leaning against a tree, arms crossed, conveying her passion for the environment.

3. Cute wedding-type pic with my hands folded under my face.

4. A trying-to-be-a-hipster photo — funky clothes, mod hair, posed in front of an old porch with the paint coming off in big flakes.

5. Serious literary artist reading Tolstoy. I’ve never read Tolstoy. My apologies to Tolstoy.

What I do want:

Nicole Helget, an amazing writer who lives down the hill from me. 

Rachael’s memoir, We’ll be the Last Ones to Let You Down, arrives this spring. She’s naturally hip and cool. We’ve worked together off and on for 20 years.

Amanda Dyslin is a reporter/blogger for the Free Press. I love this quirky photo. She’s a helluva writer, too.

Singer-songwriter and writer-writer Ann Rosenquist Fee never takes a bad photo. The handsome dude is my X and the other half of their band, The Frye.

Sally Rutledge-Ott is my soon-to-be sister in law. She’s a social marketing guru and one hot chick. Somehow I made this picture blurry. Too bad because Sally’s really sharp.