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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!

Interview With THE NEPTUNE PROJECT Author Polly Holyoke

Polly Holyoke’s debut novel, THE NEPTUNE PROJECT, Disney Hyperion, releases tomorrow, May 21, 2013! Congratulations, Polly! I had a chance to read an advance copy of Polly’s book and I greatly admire the skill and thought that she put into creating this futuristic world and all the details she used to make it seem so realistic. (I’m hoping for a movie so that I can see these amazing details come to life on the big screen!) Of THE NEPTUNE PROJECT, Kirkus Reviews recently said: Holyoke keeps her prose well-pitched to her audience…She creates an interesting and diverse set of characters, including the dolphins. (Oh, the dolphins! Read below for more on the dolphins, and then read the book to see how Polly engagingly includes these wonderful creatures in her story.) It is my honor to now interview Polly Holyoke, a fellow member of The Class of 2k13.

Interview With THE NEPTUNE PROJECT Author Polly Holyoke:

I find the premise of THE NEPTUNE PROJECT – “genetic altering to successfully live in the ocean” – fascinating. Can you talk about how the idea came to you and how it evolved as you developed your story?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of people living in the sea, and I’ve been equally fascinated by our rapid and rather terrifying progress in gene manipulation. I’m not sure everyone realizes that we are already to the point we can clone our pets and design our children to be smarter and stronger. It just seemed logical to me that someday we may try to give humans the ability to breathe sea water. After all, 7/10ths of our planet is covered by oceans!

One of my favorite aspects of your book is the authenticity and richness of details in your story. Can you share how you were able to achieve that high level of realism in THE NEPTUNE PROJECT?

It helped that I’ve done quite a bit of scuba diving over the years. They say write what you know. I’ve certainly never lived in the sea, but I have spent enough time under the waves to be able to describe some of the basics—like light, visibility and currents. The terrain of ocean floor, especially near the Channel Islands, can be quite rugged and beautiful. I also spent hours and hours reading books on oceanography and articles by avid divers. I was delighted when a young beta reader recently said to me, “I had no idea all that cool stuff was down there!”

I also love the dolphins in your story – how they have names, distinct personalities, and how they are partnered with the human children, some almost acting as family. How did the dolphins become a part of THE NEPTUNE PROJECT?

I knew from the start that dolphins would play crucial roles in this book. I’ve always been intrigued by stories of dolphins helping sailors in distress. So many of these stories exist, it’s hard to believe there isn’t some kernel of truth there. But I wanted to make sure my dolphins, for all their incredible ability to communicate with humans, behaved like real dolphins. So I talked with the staff at dolphin centers and read tons of research on wild dolphins. On a recent trip to Hawaii I went snorkeling with wild spinner dolphins, and I truly could have given a much more thorough and interesting talk on dolphins than our guide did!

I was so happy when my dolphins became vivid characters in their own right. Just like well-developed human characters in a story, occasionally Sokya and Densil would say and do things that surprised me!

Although set in the future, the catalyst for THE NEPTUNE PROJECT raises intriguing questions about how we are treating our world now. How did you decide to weave environmental concerns into your science fiction story?

I tried not to preach, and I’m grateful that my editor helped me when my prose veered in that direction. Instead I hope we matter-of-factly present my heroine trying to cope in a world devastated by environmental and human disasters. Whatever your beliefs on the causes of climate change, certain things are absolute fact. The world IS getting hotter, and the oceans ARE rising. If we can’t find ways to reverse these trends, the costs in terms of human misery and suffering are going to be staggering.

The ocean is a tough environment and there are several scenes where your main characters are in danger. Sometimes it’s a little scary, and sometimes the characters even have to face death. I admire how you found a way to deliver these scenes so that they are not too edgy for a middle grade reader. Can you describe how you were able to find that balance in those more anxious scenes?

I tried not to be too graphic, and so much happens in this first book that my characters just don’t have much time to mourn the friends they’ve lost. I think in real life, kids would have thought about those deaths more. At the same time, my characters grew up in a bleak and dangerous world, and they are already more accustomed to death and loss than kids are today. I often think about “the good old days” just a century ago. Kids back then would have lost many brothers, sisters and friends to childhood illness and accidents. Our children grow up knowing remarkably few peers who have died.

What was both frustrating and kind of funny for me as a writer was trying to come up with visceral ways to depict the fear my characters feel in their dangerous new environment. My heroine Nere is scared A LOT, but her mouth can’t go dry and her palms can’t sweat because she doesn’t sweat any more. I had to fall back on the typical fear reactions of a tightened stomach and pumping heart again and again, so poor Nere has indigestion and heart palpitations on and off for 350 pages!

What advice or tips would you give to authors who might be interested in writing science fiction or fantasy?

World building is all in the details. If you throw in too many or invent too many exotic new terms, you risk overwhelming the reader. Remember kids are the same, and they react the same, no matter how strange or different their surroundings. One carefully chosen detail can convey so much. I’m proud of a scene in The Neptune Project in which one of my characters misses fresh-baked bread. I hope that detail helps to convey just how much her life has changed and the personal cost she is paying for being a part of the Neptune Project.

Can you talk about what you’re working on now or what’s next for you?

I’ve already written a second Neptune book, and I hope that Disney Hyperion and Puffin UK will want me to finish the trilogy. I’m also working on a MG fantasy/time travel story I LOVE about an enchanted carousel.

Here are links to Polly online: WebsiteFacebookTwitterPinterestGoodreadsAmazon

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

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,, 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!

Comparable Titles to THE NEPTUNE PROJECT

My agent told me that THE NEPTUNE PROJECT sold in part because there really aren’t a lot of comparable books that are set in the sea. That fact surprises me. Last time I checked, most of the earth is covered by water! Thanks to global warming, even more of it is going to be covered by water in the next few hundred years. But unless you’ve actually crossed an ocean by boat, it’s easy to forget how huge our planet is and how much of its surface already is water.

I think the most similar series out there right now to my Neptune books is KatFalls’ wonderful DARK LIFE stories. These books are also set in a dystopian future where the oceans have risen and life on land has become dangerous and difficult. Her novels are about a boy and his family homesteading on the ocean floor. Both of our series contain plenty of action, sympathetic characters, and vivid descriptions of the world beneath the waves.

Our stories differ in that my protagonist Nere is female, and Falls’ characters need a great deal more technology to survive in the sea. My heroine and her companions are actually genetically altered to breathe sea water. After they go through the Neptune transformation, they have to live in the sea because they can only breathe air for short periods of time. For the entire first book, the Neptune kids are struggling to survive on their own beneath the waves with no family to help them.

Dolphins also play a much more vital role in the Neptune series. Nere can communicate telepathically with dolphins, and her pod is like her extended family. Her loyal dolphins help to protect Nere and her friends and frequently tow them away from trouble in emergency situations. My dolphins have a dry sense of humor, and I think they end up being some of the most intriguing characters in these books.

I still have to put in a big plug for KatFalls’ novels. I really, really enjoyed DARK LIFE and RIPTIDE. And if you have read them, I think it’s pretty safe to say you’ll enjoy THE NEPTUNE PROJECT as well.

Polly Holyoke & the Inspiration for THE NEPTUNE PROJECT

The premise of The Neptune Project (and series) came to me gradually, over many years. Growing up in Colorado, where we’re definitely a little short on oceans, I always looked forward to those rare, wonderful occasions when I actually got to see the sea. Whenever my family went to a beach, I was mesmerized by the waves and wondered what the world was like beneath them.

My favorite cartoon when I was little was Marine Boy, an anime series about a boy who could breathe seawater after he chewed “aqua gum.” He had these awesome propellers built into his shoes so he could zip around the ocean. He and his dolphin pal Splasher often saved people or the sea from colorful villains and environmental threats. Because my parents were big Jacques Cousteau fans, we saw plenty of his televised undersea adventures as well. When my husband and I took up scuba diving in our twenties, I finally got to explore that fabulous, vivid and strange undersea world for myself. I always tell non-divers that scuba diving feels like flying because you can move through three dimensions in a way you simply can’t on land.

I’ve never believed the sci/fi stories based on the premise we’ll just leave this planet if and when we ruin it completely. If things go that badly for our species, we won’t have the resources to leave Earth because it takes so much energy to lift even a small amount of mass out of our atmosphere, much less hundreds or thousands or millions of people. But the more I read about gene splicing, the more it made sense to me that we might eventually go back into the oceans that cover four-fifths of our planet. Dolphins and whales were land mammals that returned to the water… why can’t we, someday, with help from geneticists?

The more I played with this idea, the more I realized the sea would make a wonderful, fresh setting for a children’s story. But researching The Neptune Project has presented some challenges. With only a BA in history, I had much to learn about oceanography, marine mammals and genetics. I still have a well-thumbed copy of Genetics for Dummies in my car! Some of my favorite research moments included swimming with domesticated dolphins, snorkeling with wild spinner dolphins in Hawaii, and spending hours talking to dolphin trainers and researchers about these incredible animals.

I believe the end result of my research and writing is an action-packed adventure story for middle grade readers. I hope children will enjoy the tale of shy Nere Hanson and her companions as they struggle to adapt to their perilous new world. Nere must lead a group of Neptune kids across hundreds of miles of dangerous ocean, relying only on their wits, her loyal dolphins and each other to reach the safety of her father’s undersea colony.

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