November 8, 2018

Birth Stories for Books: THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY, by Hannah Holt

Welcome back to Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication from Published Authors and Illustrators. My current guest is Hannah Holt, author of THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY (illustrated by Jay Fleck and published by Balzer + Bray, October, 2018). I had so much fun learning about this book and getting to know Hannah along the way.

Dawn Prochovnic: Thanks for allowing me to interview you, Hannah, and congratulations on your recent publication of THE DIAMOND AND THE BOYI’ve read in some earlier interviews that you wrote over 80 drafts of this manuscript over a number of years, eventually landing on the dual telling / parallel structure that you use for this story. How did that structure eventually emerge for you? Is there a particular ah-ha moment that you recall?

Hannah Holt: First, thanks so much for interviewing me. My parallel version of this story came as a result of responding to failure. My first agent and I did not part ways on happy terms. She wrote a long and hurtful note when we separated, and after that I wasn’t sure if I could or should go on writing. For the next month, I didn’t write a thing. Instead, I did a lot of soul searching. In the end, I came to the following conclusions:

-I liked writing and missed it.
-I couldn’t control whether or not anyone else liked my writing.
-I could improve my craft.
-I could become smarter about how and where I submitted my work.

This story, THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY, was one of the first stories I revised after this writing break. Previously, I had tried writing the story about Tracy’s cleverness or rocks that sparkle, but those ideas no longer seemed important.

Instead, I saw the need for resilience.

Graphite needed to become resilient…Tracy had to become resilient…

And I needed to get over myself, too, if I wanted to write this story well. So I threw out all my old drafts and started from scratch. Writing a story in parallel about change and resilience seemed natural because it was the journey I was on myself.

This story went on to attract interest from multiple houses.

Lasting success takes hard work and resilience. I’m really glad I didn’t give up!

DP: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that after you signed with a new agent, you spent another three months polishing and revising the manuscript before it went out on submission. After so many revisions over so many years, how did you know the story was finally done

HHI don't think stories are every really finished. I think they just arrive at interesting stopping places. Publishing a book is a great way to stop working on it! :) My agent, Laura, helped me draw out more of the heart of this story. Through our revisions my story became less perfectly parallel but more compelling. Revision means giving up something good for (hopefully) something even better. Looking back at my old drafts, I'm glad we took this direction. It brought out more of the soul of the story.


DP: I understand that The Diamond and the Boy is about your grandfather. Do you remember the moment that you decided you needed to tell his story? 

HH: My cousin, Erin Bylund, told me I needed to get started on this book. She was very supportive in helping me get started and read several of my earliest drafts. Sometimes it takes a push from the outside to get the ball rolling.

DP: Beyond the familial connection, was there anything that motivated you to keep working on this particular story for so many years? 

HHI have a degree in civil engineering and I loved the scientific elements of the story, too. This project was the perfect blend of heart and science. It was an irresistible mix of all the things that interest me most.


DP: Reflecting on THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY's long journey from idea to published book, is there any one moment along the way that you credit with opening the door for this particular story to find its way to publication?

HHI "met" my agent through an online query letter contest called PbParty. Without this event, I don't know that I would have connected with my agent. I'm stubborn enough that I probably would have found a different path to publication some other way; however, that was a pivotal moment in the development of this story. 


DP: As you labored over this story over the years, was there a moment or situation along the way that was so painful or demotivating, that you nearly quit?

HHBreaking up with my first agent was the hardest moment for me before this story was published. However, even after signing with agent #2 and selling two books, it hasn't been all rainbows and kittens. 


My second agent, Laura Biagi, left agenting to pursue her own writing. Another agent at the agency took over my work for a while. However, this agent represented many clients in many genres. After a while, it became clear that if I wanted my work pushed, I would need to seek new representation. I really liked agent #3, so it was a tough call to make. However, even though I'm currently in agent limbo, I still think it was for the best.

I'm slowly gathering research in quest of agent #4. I'm taking my time because I really, really, really want agent #4 to be my last. 

DP: When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different? Likewise, is there anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the many revisions?

HH: The thing that lasted the longest was the title. From almost my very first draft, I had titled this story DIAMOND MAN. That title lasted up through the offer from my editor. However, a year before publication marketing requested a title change and now we have The Diamond & the Boy.

My earliest drafts were so different that nothing remained the same. I completely rewrote this story at least ten times. I have a version in rhyme, another from the point of view of his mother, and yet another as a series of fictional letters between Tracy Hall and Thomas Edison. I tried just about EVERYTHING before I came to this final version.

DP: Is there anything that you had to cut out of the story that was especially near and dear to your heart, but that didn’t work in the confines of a picture book? 

HH: No but there was something my editor asked me to add that was painful. My editor asked me to address conflict diamonds in the end note. I spent a month immersed in this research, trying to approach it in a way that was both representative and kid-appropriate. The diamond fueled wars were cruel and gruesome. While doing this research, I frequently cried myself to sleep at night. I stopped wearing my wedding ring because looking at diamonds became disturbing. What people have done to each other because of diamond greed is absolutely horrifying. 

DP: Yes, the diamond conflicts are a very troubling topic. For for what it's worth, I learned a lot about the issue from the end note in your book. I'm really glad you included that information. Let's shift gears to something less painful. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of seeing your words and your story being joined with illustrations?  

HHI feel like a need more of a break to transition from that last question. Whew, talk about one extreme kind of emotion to the other. Seeing this story illustrated was an amazing experience. Jay’s work is stunning. In addition to the beauty of the work, I was delighted to see he had illustrated some of Tracy’s childhood inventions and made them scientifically accurate. I'm so thrilled he said yes to this project.


DP: If you could go back in time, what would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

HHThis is going to sound a bit cheesy, but chase your own dreams. If you are keyed into the writing community on social media, you'll likely see lots of other people posting success stories (like what I'm doing today). There are almost as many different success paths as there are writers. Do your homework, decide what you want, and don't become distracted by what other people are doing. Aim high and shoot for your own stars.


DP: Oh, yes, I couldn't agree more! One last question before we wrap up: Is there something you wish someone would ask you about THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY and/or your path to publication that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet? 

I wish someone had asked me who helped me get this story ready for submission. In addition to my amazing editor Kristin Rens and agent Laura Biagi, many others helped. My amazing family assisted with research and development, special thanks to Erin Bylund, Charlotte Weight, David Hall, John Catron, Josh Holt, and others.

Many talented critique partners read this story along the way, including Carrie Finison, Diane Tulloch, Dana Carey, Vivian Kirkfield, Alayne Christian, Julie Segal Walters, Carrie Tilotson, Tonya Lippert, Casey Robinson, many members of the Poet's Garage, and others.

SCBWI provided opportunities to have this work critique by professional children's editor. Julie Hedlund's 12x12 challenge provided me with support and motivation to keep writing and revising. I probably found out about the query letter pitch contest in the Sub It Club group on Facebook. Sites like Kidlit 411 helped provide education and resources. The debut group Epic 18 was a tremendous resource for navigating my debut year.

There are dozens of others who offered kind words or support along the way. Each made a difference. And the help continues forward! Thank you readers! Thank you reviewers! Thank you to everyone requesting The Diamond and the Boy at your local library! Writing may be a solitary experience but publishing is a team effort.

Just in case this feels overwhelming to anyone at the beginning of their publishing journey...ten years ago, I didn't know anyone in publishing. I started with a desire and reaching out to another local writer online: Elizabeth Glann.



I wasn't working on The Diamond and the Boy yet when I sent this message, but joining my first critique group was the real birth of my writing career.


DP: Wow, Hannah. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and share THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY's birth story. I'm inspired and encouraged by your story and by your tenacity and resilience. It's not a wonder you are Tracy Hall's granddaughter! 

*************************

Hannah Holt is a children’s author with an engineering degree. Her books, The Diamond & The Boy (2018, Balzer+Bray) and A Father’s Love (2019, Philomel) weave together her love of language and science. She lives in Oregon with her husband, four children, and a very patient cat named Zephyr. She and her family enjoy reading, hiking, and eating chocolate chip cookies. You can find her on Twitter and at her website: HannahHolt.com.   

Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication, Summary Post

Beginning now, until October 2019 when my two new books come out, I will be running a series of blog posts called "Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication from Published Authors and Illustrators." This will be a great series to bookmark and follow.  I will add links to this page as new posts go up. (Note: I've also added links to the path to publication stories for my books below. Although they are not officially part of this series, they align with the "Path to Publication" topic/theme.)

Here goes:

Dawn Prochovnic, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? and Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty? (Graphic Arts Books, forthcoming, October, 2019)

Sarah Darer Littman, Anything But Okay (Scholastic, October 2018)

Jody J. Little, MOSTLY THE HONEST TRUTH (Harper, March 2019)

Dawn Prochovnic, Story Time with Signs & Rhymes (Abdo, 2009-2012)


If you like these posts, you might also be interested in posts about The Writing Life.

If you like these inspiring Birth Stories for Books, I encourage you to bookmark and follow this page. I will add links to this page as new posts go up!

November 6, 2018

I'm So Grateful I Live in a Country Where I Can Speak My Voice

Dear America. Today is Election Day.  I've always considered it a privilege to vote, but this is an election in which I've felt an urgency to vote and an urgency to help get out the vote.
Image Credit


I live in a vote-by-mail state. I completed my ballot and hand-delivered it to the election office within the first week of voting. I spent time working on local campaigns I care most about, and I spent the last several days working to engage other voters to cast their vote and to help other voters who were experiencing complications voting. With the help of like-minded friends, I created a progressive voters' guide for my college-aged daughter and her friends, first-time voters, and I encouraged friends and friends-of friends to volunteer for election-related work. I attended fund-raising gatherings and I hosted my first fund-raising gathering.

Not only do I appreciate my right to vote, I'm also extremely grateful that I live in a country where I can safely and freely give voice to issues of importance to me. I consider it an extension of my civic duty to contribute my voice to local and national issues. I care deeply about my country. Our country. And, I care deeply about my community. Our community.

October 29, 2018

Birth Stories for Books: ANYTHING BUT OKAY by Sarah Darer Littman

Today we continue the series, Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication With Published Authors and Illustrators. My guest this week is author  Sarah Darer Littman, discussing the story behind the story of her timely novel, ANYTHING BUT OKAY that released earlier this month. Welcome Sarah!


I Write Books to Answer Questions
by Sarah Darer Littman

Image Provided by Sarah Darer Littman
As with most of my books, the idea for ANYTHING BUT OKAY started with questions that had been knocking around in my brain for a while. The first one was inspired by my friend Rob Jordan, a USAF veteran. Back in December 2014, Rob made a post on Facebook about the problems he had getting disability for the health issues he'd developed as a result of serving in Afghanistan, at bases where there were burn pits. His post made me angry about the way we treat our veterans - I wrote about it here. I didn’t support the Iraq war. I wrote a political column on the eve of the war headlined “Bush in a china shop,” warning that if we broke this, we’d pay to fix it. And pay we have. Back in February of this year, The Cost of War Project at Brown University estimated that through the end of FY2018, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) will cost the American people $4.6 trillion. That’s trillion with a T. Add in another trillion for the cost of medical and disability for GWOT veterans through 2056, and we’re talking $5.6 trillion. That’s before we even get to the interest on the debt that we took out for war appropriations. Back in 2003 when the war started, my town was filled with people sporting those yellow ribbon car magnets that said “Support the Troops” on their cars, combined with a healthy dose of American flags. There was no yellow ribbon on my car. But despite not supporting the war, I wanted to support the people fighting it. My kids and I adopted a soldier who was serving in Iraq, and sent him weekly letters and care packages. It felt like the least we could do for the people who were putting their lives at risk while America went about its business. Seeing Rob and so many other of our veterans struggle to get help from the Veteran’s Administration after having served our country with pride got me wondering: Why is our country so quick to send troops off to war regardless of the cost, but when our vets come home struggling with the emotional and physical costs of fighting it, the focus is suddenly switched to reducing taxes and a deficit swollen by the costs of prosecuting that war?
Cover Image Provided by Author
I had to write a novel to work that one out, and I dedicated it to Rob.


The second question that has been bothering me for a long time was “What is a patriot?” and the related question of who gets to define that. I spent fourteen years writing political opinion columns, and count George Orwell as one of my major influences. Hearing our government using the euphemism “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” for torture was a perfect example of what Orwell warned of in his essay, Politics and the English Language: “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Yet because of the views expressed in my 650-word columns, I was called “un-American,” and “a terrorist lover.” The hyperbole really made me laugh one day, when I received an email telling me I was “using the American way of life to destroy the American way of life and the rest of Western Civilization in the process.” All of that in 650 words, and I couldn’t even get my teenagers to put their dishes in the dishwasher! I guess the pen really IS mightier than sword. Still, I found these accusations confusing because I thought I was doing my job as a journalist and my duty as an American by trying to hold those in power accountable. The current political climate was another inspiration for ANYTHING BUT OKAY. I sold the book right before the 2016 election, and as I was writing it, I watched politicians use rhetoric to portray different groups as “animals,” and working to restrict the ability of refugees to seek asylum. It had a disturbingly familiar ring for someone who grew up in a family with Holocaust trauma. As I traveled to promote my previous novel IN CASE YOU MISSED IT in the lead up to the election, teachers and librarians described how that rhetoric 'trickled down' to their schools, both virtually on social media and in real life bullying. My heart broke as I heard about students in tears concerned for the safety of their families. I read news stories about white, privileged kids from the suburbs shouting racist chants when they played teams from schools with a more diverse makeup. This made me wonder how as writers and educators we can use literature to help create more understanding and empathy; how we can start conversations and bridge differences. As a white woman of a certain age, I’m learning how many blind spots I have, and I hope reading about Stella and Farida’s friendship will encourage young people to think about what it means to be a good ally; to recognize that we can’t stand by in silence when we see injustice and hate speech, just because it’s not happening to us personally. Speaking of the news and the disinformation campaigns that were employed during the 2016 elections —and presently— it’s critical for young people to learn media literacy skills, particularly in the Internet age. And yet I’ve watched as the number of school librarians and media specialists has been cut by twenty percent since 2000, particularly in predominantly black and Latino districts, despite rising student populations. Technology can be a great tool, but Google will not teach our students the media literacy they need to be informed citizens in our constitutional republic. I hope that this book will encourage discussion of all of these questions—and through those conversations enable us to find the humanity we have in common. To read more about ANYTHING BUT OKAY, here's the link to the book on my website as well as a reading/teaching guide with extension activities.


Thank you so much, Sarah, for sharing the questions that inspired ANYTHING BUT OKAY. It's an important and timely book to put into the hands of young readers who are trying to make sense of the world we are living in today. THANK YOU also for doing your job as a journalist and your duty as an American by trying to hold those in power accountable...and for your ongoing advocacy for information literacy and for continuing to shine a light on the importance of school librarians and media specialists.

***********************************************
Sarah Darer Littman is the critically acclaimed author of Young Adult novels, In Case You Missed It, Backlash (Winner of the Iowa Teen Book Award), Want to Go Private?; Life, After; and Purge; and middle grade novels, Fairest of Them All, Charmed, I’m Sure and Confessions of a Closet Catholic, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. As well as writing novels, Sarah teaches creative writing as an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University, at the Yale Summer Writers' Conference, and is an award-winning opinion columnist. She lives in Connecticut. You can find Sarah on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @sarahdarerlitt.  

October 18, 2018

Birth Stories for Books: MOSTLY THE HONEST TRUTH, by Jody J. Little

Periodically, from now until next October when my two new books come out, I will be running a series of blog posts called "Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication from Published Authors and Illustrators." I'm so happy to welcome Jody J. Little, and her debut novel, MOSTLY THE HONEST TRUTH, as the debut for this series of posts! Jody calls her path to publication a journey of wonder. Here it is:

A Journey of Wonder
by Jody J. Little

Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder. E.B. White

Getting a book published is hard.

Writing is just plain hard.

It’s really a wonder that we do it. The number stats are not on our side.

-I’ve attended 12 SCBWI conferences.
-I’ve worked with 13 amazing critique partners.
-I’ve read 20,290 middle grade novels (made-up number).
-I received 27 agent rejections.
-I wrote the 1st draft of my debut in 2008.
-It was my 2nd full-novel manuscript.
-It was rejected by 23 editors.
-I did 24 full revisions before it sold.
-I’ve cried 4096 times (made up number, probably higher).
-I was 50 years young when I received a first offer from a publishing house!
-I’ll be 52 when it is released on March 12, 2019.

I think wonder is the key to most writers’ journeys.

My wonder began when I was seven years old. I gleefully came home from school and announced that I was going to be an author when I grew up. I held my first story in my hand and showed my mom. It was brilliantly titled, The Nut and the Boy. Each page was lovingly adorned with a crayon-colored illustration. Here’s an exclusive excerpt:

Onse a pon a time ther was a boy. He whet to the store he said to his mom which fish shed I pik. don’t pik a fish pik a nut a nut yes a nut o.k. but nuts make a spot.

This brilliance was followed by many other stories like, Tommy Turtle and Fanny Fish, Me the Dime, Melvin Goes on a Trip, and The Glerp.

By fourth grade, I was writing my first chapter book. It included the characters from the Boxcar Children and was set in the time of Little House on the Prairie. I worked on it every spare moment I had while in school. When my fourth-grade teacher asked if she could read it, I anxiously handed over the forty pages I had written, filled with wonder of what she might say. Would she love it? Would she tell me I was talented? Would she share it with the class? There was little to wonder about when she returned my story. I received a verbal lashing for my spelling, particularly my inability to distinguish long vowels from short vowels, and how with short vowels you must double the final consonant before adding -ed or -ing. That conversation is tearfully vivid in my mind. Clearly, if I couldn’t spell, I couldn’t write.

In looking back, I wonder if this moment instilled a misbelief in me, one that took me years to overcome. I never once thought of pursuing writing as a career. I was a good student, I loved school, and I followed in the footsteps of my parents and became a teacher. I taught middle school for nine years, and then had two wonderful children and decided to stay home. Up until my kids were born, my adult writing life consisted of required college papers, comments on student papers and report cards, emails, grocery lists, and thank you notes.

Being a stay-at-home parent is something I’ve never regretted, and I have fond moments of those years, but it was also isolating at times. I missed the professional world. I missed having a sense of self-purpose. I felt directionless. I started to wonder about writing, so I enrolled in a correspondence course through the Institute of Children’s Literature. During and after the course, I sold a handful of stories and articles to children’s magazines. A second course a few years later, offered me the guidance to write my first full-length children’s novel. I sincerely believe that these courses, along with The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators are responsible for putting me on my path to publication. I attended my first regional SCBWI conference in 2005 and joined an online critique group soon after. I continued to write and submit short stories, articles, and puzzles for magazines, selling a few of them, and all the while dabbling with that first novel.

Then in 2007, I submitted the novel to the Delacorte Contest for First Time Novelists. I didn’t win, but I was a finalist and was assigned an editor to work with on revisions. I was certain this was going to be the trigger for getting my novel published, but after a year, the editor left Delacorte leaving me no contact information and no directions on who to contact. I was crushed. I was certain that this writing business wasn’t meant to be. At least not for me.

Fortunately, my critique group would not allow me to quit. They’ve never allowed me to—not when I returned to teaching—not when my first novel didn’t sell. Never. They became my writing backbone, sending me virtual high-fives and real chocolate when needed. They knew all my stats on rejections, but they didn’t pay any attention to those numbers. They cheered with me when I landed my agent. They encouraged me when my chapters needed work—a lot of work. They are the best, and I never wonder about writing without them.

Published by HarperCollins
Last fall, on September 6, the second day of school, almost nine years after writing the first draft of  Mostly the Honest Truth, my phone rang. I was right in the middle of a math lesson, but when I went to silence my phone and send it to voicemail, I noticed the number was from New York. I checked the voicemail while the students were at recess. It was my agent, telling me to call him back. He said he had good news and bad news. I had forty minutes left in the day before I could call him, and I have no memory of how I made it through those forty minutes. I do recall exactly what he said, though, because I had dreamed of this conversation for years. It remains the best phone call of my life.

Hi Jody! I’ll start with the bad news. You’re no longer an unpublished author. The good news is you just received a two-book offer from HarperCollins!

I still have a long road to travel on my publication journey. Having a two-book deal is all-sorts of stress which I never imagined, but it’s what I’ve dreamed of, too. My books are going to be bound, and sitting on bookshelves, and in the libraries of teachers, and in the hands of young readers.

And I’m still filled with the wonder of what will happen around the corner.

How many more books will I write?

Will my students like my book?

What would my fourth-grade teacher think if she read it?

I’m pretty sure all the spelling is correct.



Thank you, Jody, for such an inspiring story! You've taught us to wonder, and then to persist and persevere to bring the stories we believe in to life. I can't wait to read MOSTLY THE HONEST TRUTH when it comes out next spring! 

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Jody J. Little is a third-grade teacher who loves sharing her joy of books and reading with her students. She lives in the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon with her family and an immortal pet rabbit. MOSTLY THE HONEST TRUTH is her first novel and will be published by Harper in March 2019. It was recently selected by the American Booksellers Association to be included on their Indies Introduce List for Winter/Spring 2019. You can pre-order through multiple vendors at HarperCollins. Visit Jody on Facebook @jodyjlittleauthor or follow her on Twitter @jodyjlittle


September 7, 2018

The Reading Part of the Writing Life

A significant part of my writing day is spent reading. Lots and lots of reading. And making notes about my reading. And pondering how a particular book I'm working on and/or getting ready to submit to publishers is comparable to and different from the books I'm reading.

At this moment I have 65 books checked out from my local library and 29 titles on request (shout out to the wonderful folks at the West Slope Community Library who help me accomplish my reading and writing goals). I will dive into the pile of books in this picture a bit later today. But before I do, I wanted to share some of the books I've read in the past couple of weeks, and how they relate to my forthcoming books.

As I've mentioned before, I have two new books coming out in 2019: Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? and Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty? Back when I was seeking a publisher for these books, I read a ton of other potty books to help me identify suitable publishers for my project and so I could accurately reference "comps" and "how my books are different than what's already out there" in my query letters/book proposals.

Even though my potty books are now written, acquired, and edited, I still keep an eye out for "comps." In some cases these comps help me think about ways to connect with readers who are interested in #PottyHumor. For example, I'm guessing that readers who like the books in the Dinosaur that Pooped series by @TomFletcher@DougiePoynter, and Garry Parsons/@ICanDrawDinos, such as The Dinosaur That Pooped ChristmasThe Dinosaur That Pooped the Past, and The Dinosaur That Pooped a Princess, which just released today, will also like Where Does a Pirate/Cowgirl Go Potty? and vice versa. Being aware of these books might be useful when I'm interacting with readers at my own book events, and watching how these authors market their books can also inform my own marketing plan. Case in point, today's release was announced as the Pooplication Day, and the new book was referred to by the author as "even more funny/disgusting" than the other books in the series.

I can also learn more about the general subject matter by reading other potty-related books. For example, by reading What Do They Do with All That Poo? (Jane Kurtz and Allison Black, (Beach Lane Books, 2018), I learned that a giraffe has four stomachs and that elephants "can eat 300 pounds of leaves and grasses a day and then dump 165 pounds of poo." Wow! Although neither of those factoids relate directly to my potty books, I'm guessing at some point, I'll have an opportunity to plop that kind of info into one of my book talks (pardon the pun).

I also learn more about other authors and illustrators by doing this research. For example, I had not visited Allison Black's website before writing this blog post. I really connected with her work--it's full of color and positive energy. You should definitely check it out! As I prepped for this post, I discovered that she, too, has a pirate-themed book coming out in 2019. Cool Beans. Another comp to put on my list! And who knows, maybe a new book buddy?

Image from Publisher's Website
The research I recently conducted in prep for submitting a new (not related to potties!) manuscript led me to two very funny books published by Arthur Levine Books: Stick Man and The Princess and the Pony. You can find my Goodreads reviews of both of these books here. Re-reading Stick Man (I first read it years ago when it originally came out), provided me with an excellent point of reference to indicate the type of illustrations I envision for the new project I've just started submitting. The Princess and the Pony book just so happens to be a good comp for Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty? Plus, it simply gave me a good giggle.

Speaking of a good giggle, Who's in the Loo? by Jeanne Willis and Adrian Reynolds did just that, and led me to discover Jeanne Willis' cowgirl-related book: I Want to Be a Cowgirl. And so the cycle continues.

You might wonder how it is that I manage to write when I'm reading all these books? My question right back to you is: How could I possibly manage to write without reading all these books?

But alas, it's time to shift my attention for the day to the actual writing of a new manuscript. Stay tuned for more posts about my reading list. Next up: Books that incorporate empathy, tolerance and/or resilience.

P.S. Reading comps also inspires new book ideas. To note, I've scribbled down two new ideas in the course of writing post!

August 22, 2018

The Song Writing Part of the Writing Life

Dawn and Sam Then and Now
This past weekend my husband, Sam, and I celebrated 30 years of marriage. Although we don't typically exchange gifts for special occasions (other than small, favorite things, such as molasses cookies, or timely items such as tickets to a live concert or play), I wanted to do something especially memorable for this anniversary.

Since we both enjoy live music, and going to concerts together is our most typical date night activity, I thought it might be fun to commission a song from one of our favorite singer/song writers or bands.

I had read about some musical artists providing this type of commissioned service, and I reached out to one of the singer/songwriters we have followed since early in our marriage. She was keen on the idea of participating in the project and asked me for my thoughts on how we might go about it. I told her it was my understanding that most typically the artist would interview the subject(s) to get some background about our life and relationship, and then would write a song with those details in mind. I mentioned to the artist that I was a children's book writer, and that I wished I had a musical background, because I'd love to write my own song. She encouraged me to write my own lyrics . . . and I took the challenge.

I sat down to write, and the words poured out quickly.

One of the constants of the relationship Sam and I have shared for 33 years (30 of those years in marriage) is travel. We are at our very best together when we are planning a trip, taking a trip, or reminiscing about a trip. Since the early days of our shared life, we have held a savings account dedicated to travel. When we accumulate enough funds in our travel account to pay for major expenses like airline tickets and lodging, and enough vacation time to make a flight worthwhile, we start planning a new trip. We've been to some very amazing places in our shared life, and writing about our travels provided focus and structure for my song.

Here are the lyrics for, Travel in This Life With Me:

*****

Our story starts when I was eighteen.
You worked for my dad. We kept the place clean. 
Then I moved on to the retail scene. 

Travel in this life with me.

Holding hands and getting caught.
In ’88 we tied the knot. 
We’ve had it good. We’ve loved a lot.

Travel in this life with me.

Said I do, and dropped the mic.
Near that place we used to hike.
You’re the one I love and like.

Travel in this life with me.

New beginnings. Life as one.
Honeymoon in sand and sun.
Port to port. Just havin' fun.

Travel in this life with me.

Work and college to attend.
Eatin' takeout with our friends. 
Seinfeld humor never ends.

Travel in this life with me.

Weekend trips to camp and ski.
Costa Rica, ninety three.
We were young, and we were free. 

Travel in this life with me.

Easter candles lit in Crete.
Santorini's cobbled streets.
Fresh adventures at our feet. 

Travel in this life with me.

Oh Manado, how we cried. 
Scuba diving. Almost died.
Would the ocean steal your bride?

Travel in this life with me.

Parenthood in ninety nine.
Love those kids of yours and mine.
We’ll survive it sippin’ wine. 

Travel in this life with me.

Dinner table, six o’clock.
Share our day then take a walk.
You will listen, I will talk.

Travel in this life with me. 

Ferry boats and hockey rinks.
Royal Scott and gear that stinks.
Makin’ love and makin’ drinks.

Travel in this life with me.

Pack the van and load some tunes.
Sweet Sunriver, be there soon.
Breathe the pines and chase the moon.

Travel in this life with me.

Reminiscing: Minibus.
Fly to Greece, the four of us.
Memories make it worth the fuss.

Travel in this life with me. 

Little league and basketball.
Parent-teacher conference call.
Off to college in the fall.

Travel in this life with me 

We’ve been married thirty years.
Sharing hopes and dreams and fears.
Love you Sam. I’m glad you’re here.

Travelin' this life with me.

***** 

The artist I had originally reached out to was very kind and encouraging, but she ended up not being able to follow through on the project, so I was back to the drawing board for who I could work with to give voice to my song. We have several musically inclined friends (several of which are in local bands), and I contemplated hiring one of them to work with me. But, before I reached out to any of them, the most obvious and awesome band came to mind: The June Bugs.

The Junebugs Playing in Sunriver, 2016
A couple of summers ago, during one of our family trips to our Sunriver house, there was a Portland band scheduled to do a concert on the lawn at the SHARC. Sam was very keen on seeing the band--truth be told, I was kind of lukewarm about it because it was a very chilly afternoon/evening and I was more keen on staying home. But I didn't . . . and I am so glad I didn't. It WAS very cool that night, but The June Bugs put on an excellent show. We absolutely loved their concert. So much so, that after we returned home to Portland, Sam and I sought out several of their local concerts. We saw them at an outdoor concert in Lake Oswego, and at a venue they play at fairly regularly in Vancouver, and several other local places around town. We've purchased their CDs and added their songs to our iPod, and we listen to them regularly. Even if we can't make their concerts, we have their concerts written in our calendar "just in case." Our kids love to tease us about being Junebugs groupies. They would be the perfect band to bring our song to life. Happily, Moses Barrett, their lead singer was game.

I reached out to the band via Facebook, and Moses was quick to respond. I shared my lyrics and our anniversary date with him, we came to an agreement on pricing, and I offered many caveats about not having any experience with song writing (i.e. I don't know the structural elements needed for a song such as a bridge or a chorus), and that I was fine with them taking creative license as needed to turn my lyrics into a song. Some weeks went by and eventually Moses got back to me to let me know that the schedule would not work for the full band to put the song to music/record it, but he could do something solo. I was still elated with that plan. Some more weeks went by, and one Saturday afternoon, Moses reached out to me and mentioned that my lyrics didn't include a chorus. He pointed out that Bob Dylan didn't really write choruses either and said he thought the song "lends itself to that Dylan long form song poem aesthetic," and wondered what I thought. I loved the idea, but again, said that I knew Sam and I would love anything he came up with, and that whatever he hears when he sits with the words would be just right.

Some more weeks passed, and then on August 7, 2018 at 2:53 PM, a most wonderful email popped into my inbox. Moses wrote, "Hey, so here is the tune. What do you think? ... I have some time in the studio tomorrow..." Attached was an acoustic version of my words put to music. I sat at my computer and cried happy tears. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Not only was it amazing to hear my words become music, it was incredible to hear my life with Sam conveyed in a song.

I hit "play" about a dozen times, then took my phone down to the basement where my teenaged son was chilling out, and I played the song for him. He thought it was pretty cool too. I played it for my daughter when she returned home from work, and she was visibly touched by it, too. She asked me how long it took to write the words. I answered honestly that it took me a day . . . a day and a lifetime.

About a week before our anniversary, more happiness arrived in my inbox. Moses re-recorded the song more formally in the studio. I love both versions, the acoustic and the studio. With Moses's permission, I can share the studio version with you here.

Next came the hard part of waiting to share the song(s) with Sam.

My kids helped me plan the rollout. Our daughter and her boyfriend, visiting from out of town, made us breakfast on our anniversary. Earlier in the morning I had loaded both versions of the song onto Sam's iPod, then as we ate breakfast, I casually mentioned that the Junebugs had a new song out that I wanted to play. Our daughter hit the play button, and Sam proceeded to eat breakfast and simply enjoy the song as background music. This is exactly what I thought would happen, because he does not typically drill down to the words of a song as closely as I do, or as quickly as I do. He just ate his breakfast and enjoyed the song in a general sort of way. We played it a couple more times, one of those times the acoustic version where the words are more prominent, and told him to listen to it more closely. He jokingly said, "Ha, did they write us an anniversary song?" And then he started really listening . . .  and then came the emotions.

"How did you pull that off?" he asked. And then I told him the story of Moses . . .

Thank you, Moses Barrett, for making a special anniversary even more special. Sam loves the song as much or maybe even more than I do . . . I and love it quite a lot.

For those of you reading/listening who love this song as much as we do (or like the story behind the song, or simply like to support artists and their art), be aware that Moses and his band are looking to grow their outreach and their following. They have set up a Patreon page to develop a steadier income flow so they can make their art. You can hear their great sound on this Facebook Live concert they offered up to their fanbase a couple of weeks ago--give them a listen and share their work with others! You can also do like Sam and I have done and buy their CDs and/or catch them live in concert. Here is their schedule (they will be at the Oregon State Fair for SEVERAL SHOWS starting Friday, August 24, 2018). It would be great if you could show them some love!

I've long said that someday I'm going to be part of a girl band (I play a mean tambourine!), and recently I've been thinking it would be a good creative outlet to learn more about writing songs. Maybe it all begins with writing the lyrics to my first love song.