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Author Archives: pollyholyoke

What I’ve Learned So Far About School Visits

As we all know, many school districts have had their funding decimated. Even though I love staying at a school all day and teaching writing workshops to individual classes, I receive many more invitations to give a single talk at a big school assembly. Rather than turn down these invitations, I’ve put together a colorful, fast-paced, and entertaining presentation that will keep 200 students (many of whom are NOT into books) interested.

Big assemblies are scary, but they do go much better if you can get the kids involved. I try to ask lots of questions and find ways to get students to stand up and be a part of my presentation. I show funny pictures of myself reading when I was a kid and tell stories of my childhood misadventures while I’m communicating to students how important and fun it is to read, write and daydream.

I close my presentation by having three student volunteers come up and put on scuba gear, including snorkels, a tank and fins. Then I have my volunteers give a marine fashion show to their peers. By doing so, they help to illustrate the point that many books grow from the simple question, “What if?”

 What if we didn’t have to wear all this cumbersome gear to live in the sea? That’s the “what if” question that led to my writing The Neptune Project, a story about genetically altered teens fighting to survive in the sea. Even the sleepy, bored jocks in the back row sit up when I start talking about the time I was bitten by a rattlesnake, or when their best friend clomps by them wearing dive fins.

 Think about something tangible and interesting that you can bring in to a school that will grab and hold the kids’ attention. Yeah, it’s a bit gimmicky, but remember, you’re fighting for the attention of a generation who can build and destroy entire civilizations in an hour playing a computer game!

Here’s one more quick hint. If you can find a way to make your presentation help to fulfill state testing requirements, librarians or teachers are much more apt to get funding from their principals and PTA’s for your visit.

I still haven’t figured out the perfect presentation that will meet Texas state requirements plus my own in the fun and interesting department, but I’m working on it!

What I’ve Learned So Far as a Debut Author

My fellow classmates have already said many of the things I wanted to say on this topic. Several have talked about how important it is to reach out to other debut authors, to build a community, and to support each other.

So I thought I’d head off in a different direction. I’ve learned I simply do NOT have time to do it all. It’s hard to keep my children and hubby in clean clothes, put edible food on the table, AND write books and promote them. (Actually it’s always been a challenge for me to produce edible dinners. I’m a terrible cook, and deadlines do NOT improve my culinary skills!)

But I finally found a cheap source of help:  high school and college student labor. I hired my own kids and other high schoolers in the neighborhood to make swag. I paid a college kid who is interested in becoming a publicist a measly $8 an hour to find and compile the email addresses of every elementary and middle school librarian within a two hour drive of my home. Then I found a talented teen artist who will be studying animation in LA in the fall. I paid him $200 create a series of funny undersea illustrations I can use in school presentations and aquarium talks. My artist was thrilled to be able to say he created illustrations for a Disney Hyperion author, and the would-be publicist is going to say she was an author’s assistant on her resume.

My young art student created some hilarious cartoons for my school presentations....

My young art student created some hilarious cartoons for my school presentations…

Similarly, I used a high school volunteer actress to star in THE NEPTUNE PROJECT book trailer, and my own daughter, who is very handy with a video camera, shot most of the footage. I paid them with a round at Starbucks, and if you take the time to watch my trailer, I think you’d agree I got a pretty good deal!

I have to admit that not all of my hires worked out. One young woman whom I didn’t know very well dropped the ball and never completed her project for me. But the rest came through big time — until they had to head back to school.

I can hardly wait for next summer. I’m already compiling a list of tasks I want my volunteer and cheap helpers to tackle so that I can focus on the chores only I can do, such as writing my next book!

One Smart Thing I did to Sell My Manuscript: I Wrote for the Market… Sort of

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Should you, or shouldn’t you write for the market? This is one of those perennial questions which writers who long to be published often ask. My answer is simple. You absolutely need to be aware of market trends, but you also have to write the book of your heart.

I’m convinced that The Neptune Project sold because the market for science fiction was heating up at that time. I had been studying teen fiction trends. Vampires had been “hot” for a long time, but I knew I couldn’t possibly write a good vampire book because the basic vampire myth leaves me cold. Zombie stories were popular, too, but the idea of dead people lurching around eating brains doesn’t do much for me either (sorry, zombie fans!)

Then Suzanne Collins and other authors appeared on the scene and wrote some brilliant dystopian novels, which are basically sci/fi with an apocalyptic twist. I had a hunch I could write a good sci/fi story because I loved to read them when I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to write a story about young people fighting to survive in the sea. So, before the market became deluged with dystopian stories, I sent out a proposal for The Neptune Project, received some encouraging comments from agents, and promptly went to work on the novel itself.

It was a labor of love. I’ve always relished survival stories like the classic The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss about a young Swiss family struggling to survive on a deserted island, and Island of the Blue Dolphins about a Native American girl fighting to survive on her own by Scott O’Dell. I got caught up in the idea of a shy girl who is ignored by her classmates and family on land, but beneath the waves she becomes a hero. Genetically altered by her parents to live in the sea, Nere Hanson must learn how to survive in her dangerous new environment with the help of a pod of dolphins her family trained.

I dove in into the story, so to speak, and I loved my plot and my characters so much that the book almost wrote itself. The Neptune Project truly is the book of my heart. But I’m not sure it would have sold five years ago when vampire and zombie stories dominated the teen section of bookstores.

So, to sell your first book, I think you do indeed need to be aware of trends in the children’s fiction market, but you also need to write a book you would have loved to read when you were young.  

polly holyoke nameplate

A Talk With Tamera Will Wissinger

I’m delighted to interview Tamera Will Wissinger about her charming new children’s novel in verse, GONE FISHING. Already this sweet little story about a boy going fishing with his father and sister has garnered some wonderful reviews. Kirkus Reviews states that, “This tender, well-crafted sibling story should hook many readers.” Publishers Weekly declares, “this book is just the thing for readers with a burgeoning interest in poetry—or angling.” And the Junior Library Guild featured GONE FISHING in their spring catalogue.

Much of your story centers around the charming relationship between the little boy in the story and his sister. Did you have a little brother or sister who drove you crazy when you were young?

Actually, I’m the middle child of three. I have an older sister who is close in age and a brother who is several years younger. As a result, I have the advantage of being both an older and a younger sibling. I have to admit that I based many of the little sister behaviors in the story on my relationship with my older sister – looking back I know I drove her crazy by getting into her things and always wanting to tag along. When I was writing this story, I remembered those instances when my sister was so frustrated with me and I tried to put myself in her shoes – I probably owe her an apology, although I did get some good poems out of those memories.

Fishing is such a magical pastime for your young hero. Did you go fishing with your parents when you were little? Do you still like to fish?

I did go fishing with my parents when I was young, and I still do when our schedules allow it. I also like to go fishing with my husband. Several scenes from the book are taken straight from my family fishing experiences. We were a little bit competitive, and I was known to befriend my bait. I was also the most likely in my family to talk or want to move around when we were supposed to be still and quiet, so in this case as well, I was my own role model for what not to do on the boat.

How did you manage to capture that sense of anticipation that children can feel so intensely? Are there any hints you can share with your fellow writers on how to write and convey childhood emotions vividly and effectively.

There are probably two things at play: first, I’m naturally an enthusiastic person and I get excited about very little things, so I may have infused that eagerness into my writing. Second, I’m lucky enough to remember my own childhood and that glowing “night before Christmas” feeling that something wonderful is about to happen.
As authors, if we can tap into our own memories or emotions of childhood enthusiasm or excitement, we’re well on our way to writing vividly in a child-friendly way. If memories are elusive, put yourself into a situation where they can surface. If possible – get away from your desk and go do that cool, exciting, or wacky thing that you did with gusto as a kid: ride a bike, twirl a baton, blow bubbles, squash through the mud in your bare feet, drop a line in the water… chances are, as you’re goofing off, those memories and the accompanying emotions will surface. If recollection is still vague, pay attention to what you’re feeling in that moment. Then be ready to capture those feelings in your writing.

I think that’s fabulous advice! Is it easier for you to write in prose or poetry?
Both have their challenges and virtues, so it really boils down to finding the best way for each story to be told. Sometimes a story comes to me through a series of poems. When that happens, writing the story in poems is easier. When the story emerges as a prose narrative, that’s the easier way to write it. Whatever happens to come forth, I try to go with the flow of words and then gently shape from there.

Do you have any advice for writers and poets who are considering submitting a novel in verse?

First and foremost, focus on good storytelling. A story in verse is a format and structure choice, so it’s always secondary to the story. Writing a story in poems adds a layer of constraint that – unless you absolutely must tell your story this way – you might want to resist. If you can’t resist, then don’t. Go ahead! Just go into it understanding what will be necessary to do it well.
Second, know why you’re writing a story in verse – for younger children this format might be a lighthearted way to deliver a story. For older MG and YA verse novels, the format sometimes, but not always, has something to do with the story. In other words, the main character is actually writing or journaling in poetry as part of the story. Regardless, I suspect that verse novel authors have very specific reasons for writing their stories in a series of poems.
Third, read and study a lot of poetry stories and really understand what those authors are doing to make their stories verse novels. There are some stories that are called novels in verse, but may really be “broken prose,” as Nikki Grimes has said, meaning that they aren’t poetry in the true sense of the word. When you work on your verse novel, make sure that it lives up to the term by using rhythm (and rhyme if appropriate), poetry techniques, and/or poetic forms.

What other projects do you have in the works?

Right now I’m working on more poetry, a couple of quirky picture books, and a historical fiction novel. I just learned that one of my picture books, a counting concept book, will release with Sky Pony Press in 2014!

I think that’s a good place to reel in and finish up this interview. I hope that you readers out there are now well and truly hooked. GONE FISHING releases March 5, and this is one terrific catch of a story you don’t want to let get away!

tamera will wissinger nameplate

What I’ve Learned From Kids

Hm, how can I narrow this down? I feel like I learn something from my own kids, or the kids I teach, ALL THE TIME. I suppose one thing I’ve learned from children (and have to keep relearning) is to live in the moment.

Kids live every second of their day SO intensely. They hurt, they laugh, they wonder.

happy child running

I relish the way my kids love holidays. Children make pulling cold, squishy innards out of pumpkins at Halloween fun, and singing carols in front of a candlelit crèche at Christmas magic. I’m always amazed at the way my daughters can have HUGE fights with their best friends. Clearly they think their world has come to an end, and a half-hour later the entire storm has blown over as if it never happened!

Mostly, kids don’t hold grudges. And in the publishing world, just like life, that’s a very good idea.

So thanks to my kids, I try to enjoy every day, hold on to the wonder, and let the petty stuff go.

polly holyoke nameplate

Rockin’ Out Under the Sea with THE NEPTUNE PROJECT

What would be part of a playlist inspired by THE NEPTUNE PROJECT? My first reaction is: “Under the Sea,” from THE LITTLE MERMAID. Hey, I work for Disney now, and the lyrics, “Darling, it’s better down where it’s wetter, take it from me,” fits the future of my young characters. Nere and her friends are forced to give up their lives on land to survive in the sea. Eventually they do adapt and begin to build a community under the waves.

But it’s not an easy or safe task, so now I’m imagining the low, ominous notes to JAWS playing. My characters do have some very scary battles with sharks and giant squid.

great white shark

Finally, “Never Let Me Go,” by Florence and the Machine sounds like sea music to me, and the lyrics, “And I’m going under, but I’m not giving up! I’m just giving in…” make me think of a harrowing moment in the story when her mother forces Nere under the surface to make her breathe water into her lungs for the first time.

But the very best playlist for THE NEPTUNE PROJECT would be composed of real sea music. If you go to my website, http://www.pollyholyoke.com, you can click on links to sites where you can hear dolphins whistle and saw, and humpback whales sing!

polly holyoke nameplate

Sharks, Squid and Dolphins, Oh My! Why THE NEPTUNE PROJECT is Literally a Sea Apart

How is THE NEPTUNE PROJECT different from other children’s books? That’s easy to answer. TNP has a very unique setting. Few books for kids take place almost entirely in the sea. Every Sunday night my generation got to watch Jacques Cousteau explore the oceans of the world, but I think this generation of young readers knows very little about the oceans that cover 73% of our planet.

Because I’m an avid scuba diver, I can describe what it’s like beneath the waves. It is a fascinating world, full of beautiful creatures like billowing white cloud sponges, delicate brittle stars and brilliantly-colored corals, and odd ones like plump orange sea cucumbers and funny round pufferfish. Far from silent, the oceans depths are filled with the sound of shrimp crackling, dolphins squeaking and sand whispering.

Marie, one of my young beta readers, said wonderingly, “I had no idea all that cool stuff was down there.” There are all kinds of cool stuff down there, and if you read THE NEPTUNE PROJECT, you’ll get to see that amazing and sometimes dangerous world through my heroine’s eyes.

Oh, yeah, and here’s one more thing TNP has that sets it apart: telepathic dolphins. They are important and colorful characters in the story, too!

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