On Writing


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What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”
— Maya Angelou

Classroom Connections: THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY by Tracy Holczer

age range: middle grade (10 and up)
genre: contemporary fiction
study guide
Tracy Holczer’s website

“A lovely and captivating debut . . . Holczer writes with depth, heart, and a poetic lilt . . . nuanced characters engage from beginning to end.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Holczer expertly crafts the characters and dialogue to create a story readers will identify with, and thoroughly enjoy… More than simply a book about grief and the death of a parent, Grace’s story is about the search for identity. An essential purchase for middle-grade collections.” —School Library Journal, starred review

Please tell us about your book.

The Secret Hum of a Daisy is a story about love and loss and what it means to be a family. It takes place after the sudden death of twelve-year-old Grace’s mother. Grace is forced to live with a grandmother she’s never met in a small town she’s never heard of. A town Mama left years before—with Grace in her belly and a bus ticket in her pocket—and never looked back. It doesn’t take long before Grace desperately wants to leave, too.

Until she finds the first crane.

A mysterious treasure hunt, just like the ones her mother used to send her on, takes Grace on a journey to find home. And it might just be closer than she thinks.

What inspired you to write this story?

I read a blog post recently where it talked about artists being “fundamentally inconsolable.”

This knocked my socks off for about two days while I thought about the reasons I sit in my chair to write. While “fundamentally inconsolable” isn’t the way I would talk about my life—I’m rather happy, actually—I do find that in my artist’s heart, this is very true. I feel compelled to write about themes of love and loss and belonging. These are deep rooted and wind in and out of my earliest memories, so when I sat down to write about Grace, it seemed natural to draw upon these themes that have special meaning to me.

Could you share with readers your writing process?

While I’m writing, my brain resembles something of a Jackson Pollack painting. Actually, even when I’m not writing, my brain tends to look like that. Ha! So, mostly, the writing process consists of me trying to figure out the order of things. As an instinctual writer, outlines don’t particularly work for me, but with my second book, I’m finding Blake Snyder’s beat sheet to be very helpful.

My books always start with a character and a situation. Family comes next and how that character interacts with the world. Once I see whatever it is that particular character yearns for, in their most secret heart, then the story begins to unfold. So the first few months of a book has me chasing down dead end roads and backtracking, and chasing down more dead end roads. It’s a little crazy making, but it’s what I’ve got. I am completely lacking a left brain, it seems.

What are some special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade?

Plot is so very tough for me to wrap my mind around. Especially in a contemporary story where the character isn’t questing for anything on the outside, like winning a competition or landing the lead in the school play. I mean, how to you write about yearning for a ten and up audience and keep them engaged? So, what I do is read writers who have mastered this. Kate DiCamillo. Linda Urban. Sharon Creech. Then I pray that things rub off.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

There is poetry from Robert Frost and from the main character, brief clips from different poems that felt very true to the themes of the story. I liked the idea of using clips since they can be easier to grasp and might encourage young writers to start small, as Grace does. The poetry also lends itself to the bigger idea that great sadness is always healed little by little, clip by clip.

The book touches on Sadako Sasaki and her thousand paper cranes, how we all have to find our own ways to heal. Magical thinking is part of that and children are so very good at it.

It would also tie in well with abstract art.

Writing Links

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Debut Year Reflections, Tips for New Authors :: YA Highway

Novel Revision Charts: 2 Tools for Smart Re-Thinking of Your Story :: Darcy Pattison

Life Doesn’t Permit…and Other Wise Words On Making Time to Write :: Kate Messner

The Crushing Weight of Expectations :: Writer Unboxed

Redefining Expectations in Order to Stay Sane :: Read Write Thrive

The Hectic Life of a Multi-Published Author :: Jody Hedlund

 

Troubles

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The trouble with writing says the historian who lives next door to me, is that no matter how many times you do it, you start out every time with the sick sense that you don’t know what you’re doing.

The trouble with writing says a novelist friend, is that it never gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder. And if it starts to get easier, you’re probably slacking off or repeating yourself.

The Millions :: The Trouble with Writing

Hooray for Val’s CROOKED RIVER! A Giveaway

‘Tis the season for critique partner debuts!

Last month we celebrated Kate Bassett’s Words and Their Meanings. Now it’s time to cheer on Valerie Geary and her Crooked River. It’s been especially thrilling to watch these two talents find their agents, sell their books, and then release them into the world just a few weeks apart. Val and Kate have been instrumental in my own writing process. Here’s a little glimpse into CROOKED RIVER and the way the three of us work together.

Before I hand things over to Val, though, I want to share that Crooked River made November’s Indie Next list. It’s that good.

Tell us about your book.

Still grieving the sudden death of their mother, Sam and her younger sister Ollie McAlister move from the comforts of Eugene to rural Oregon to live in a meadow in a teepee under the stars with Bear, their beekeeper father. But soon after their arrival, a young woman is found dead floating in Crooked River, and the police arrest their eccentric father for the murder.

Fifteen-year-old Sam knows that Bear is not a killer, even though the evidence points to his guilt. Unwilling to accept that her father could have hurt anyone, Sam embarks on a desperate hunt to save him and keep her damaged family together. Ollie, too, knows that Bear is innocent. The Shimmering have told her so. One followed her home from her mom’s funeral and refuses to leave. Now, another is following Sam. Both spirits warn Ollie: the real killer is out there, closer and more dangerous than either girl can imagine.

Crooked River is my first novel, a coming of age story and a page-turning mystery that I hope will touch readers’ hearts and keep them up past their bedtime.

What is it like to work with two other writers you’ve never met in person?

I was in a local writer’s group for a short time, and while it was nice meeting in person to talk life and writing, it was also incredibly awkward to have to sit there and listen as my group members picked apart my chapters. There was very little time and no space to consider what they were saying, and for me it ended up being this horrible emotional roller coaster that did more harm than good. 

My socially anxious personality tends to fit better with a virtual writer’s group. Whenever I’m ready, I send Caroline and Kate part or all of my manuscript. They take their time reading it and then they send the manuscript back with their notes attached. There’s less pressure this way, and a lot of distance, a feeling of detachment. Revision is all about setting aside what you think a story should be and really seeing it for what it is so that you can figure out what’s working and what’s not and why. During this stage, it’s important to be as objective as we can with our own work, and the best way I’ve found to do this is by not having my critique partners in the room while I consider their feedback. There’s no one around watching, or judging, or expecting things from me. No one for me to try and justify, defend, or explain my choices. It’s just me alone with my manuscript and their notes, finding a way to a better story.

That said, there are definitely times when I just want to go grab a cup of coffee and talk shop with my friends. Or pop by their house with a plate of cookies when they’re having a hard day. We can’t do this because of the distance, and that’s something I miss.

How often do you read for each other? Do you respond differently as a manuscript progresses? If so, how?

As long as I’m not pushing up against a deadline, I’ll read as often as Kate and Caroline need me to. I’ve read their manuscripts at various stages of development. When I read early drafts, I tend to look more for big picture problems like pacing, story arc, and character development. As the drafts progress, if I’m asked to read again, I still keep big picture things in mind, but I also edit for details, oddly worded sentences, grammar errors, and typos. At every stage, too, I try and point out things I love, beautiful phrases, sections that make me hold my breath or shed a tear, characters that steal my heart. Drawing attention to where a story already shines is just as important as pointing out where it might need a little more elbow grease

Beyond critiquing manuscripts, how else do you support one another?

In this business, there are highs and lows, good days, bad days. When I need to vent, when I want to celebrate, when I feel like a sham, when I read an interesting article, when I need encouragement, when I have stupid questions, when I need someone to tell me I’m not going crazy, or a safe place to be myself, or someone to bounce ideas off of, I go to Caroline and Kate first. No one understands the strange life of a writer better than other writers. 

What is something you’ve learned from your critique partners?

Perserverence, courage, resilience. 

Also, that I overwrite more often than underwrite. Thanks to Caroline and Kate’s keen eyes and wicked red pens, I’m more aware now of the places in my manuscripts where the prose gets wordy or redundant. Of course, I don’t catch everything–I still need them to help me trim the fat.

And finally…

One thing I always remind Caroline and Kate (or anyone else who asks me to critique their writing) is this: At the end of the day, it’s your story. So take the feedback that rings true to you and throw out the rest.

I feel like this is good life advice, too.

 

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