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! 

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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.   

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