Holly told me she thinks the first book sold holds a special place in every writer's heart, since it the first labor of love that someone else loved enough to want to invest in. She admitted that her first sale didn't come easy.
"I had to give it full-time effort for seven and a half years before I finally inked my first deal! A BLUE SO DARK was the book that began to open doors, so I think I’ll always look on it fondly," she said.
While she was drafting her earliest manuscripts, Holly taught piano and guitar and her students really inspired her to try writing for the younger set.
"They were just so fantastic—so lively, so enthusiastic, so funny—that I knew I had to try my hand at writing YA," she explained. "I wanted to write for and about the same kinds of intelligent, thoughtful children and teens who filled my home with music."
Even before, though, Holly knew she wanted to be a writer.
"I started writing as a little girl, at my child-sized roll top desk. I was really painfully shy as a kid, and sometimes I think writing came about in some ways because it was an easier way for me to 'talk.' But I was also ALWAYS telling stories," she explained. "I remember making up stories when I played with my dollhouse…I wasn’t just posing my dolls, I was using them as actors in my own prime-time dramas!"
If she weren't a writer, Holly told me she would probably be a literature professor. Her initial plan was to obtain a PhD in lit, but by the time she got her master's degree she had to step away from school to pursue her writing. The desire and dream to write was everything for her. It's still on her bucket list, however, to go back to school to get her PhD.
"What is your working environment like?" I wondered.
"My environment reflects what stage my current WIP is in…I have a tendency to be a bit of a slob while drafting and a complete neat-freak while revising. Right now, I’m in the midst of outlining a few new projects—a stage during which I can let stacks of manuscripts start to mount. But I also just signed up for Skype, and I’m pretty sure this will force me to keep the old office in spick ‘n span shape from here on out."
At heart she says she is really being a low-tech girl.
"I prefer vinyl to digital music, have never texted ANYONE in my life," she admitted. "As I’ve sold more projects, and as I’ve begun to promote my work online, I really have grown more and more reliant on my new(er) computer…But I still do revise with a red pen and a notebook…A manuscript just reads differently in hard copy than it does on a computer screen."
Holly told me that she finds outlining essential, especially when an author has multiple works in development.
"You never know exactly when you’ll get the next email from your publisher, needing you to suddenly stop what you’re doing and revise or work on copy edits," she said. "If you’ve got an outline, you can feel safe stopping your current WIP and doing the work your publisher needs…When you complete your work for your publisher, you can return to your outline and jump right back into your WIP, never losing your momentum!"
I asked Holly to tell us a little bit about her debut novel, A Blue so Dark.
As A Blue So Dark opens, we find fifteen-year-old Aura Ambrose struggling to keep a secret. Her mother, a talented artist and art teacher, is slowly being consumed by schizophrenia, and Aura has been her sole caretaker ever since her dad left them. Convinced that “creative” equals crazy, Aura shuns her own artistic talent. But as her mother sinks deeper into the darkness of mental illness, the hunger for a creative outlet draws Aura toward the depths of her imagination. Just as desperation threatens to swallow her whole, Aura discovers that art, love, and family are profoundly linked—and together may offer an escape from her fears.
Holly told me that she didn't have personal experience with the illness so had to do research on it.
"I read all I could on the symptoms, treatments, etc. I also mined the YA nonfiction shelves in my local library…I wanted to find out how the disease had already been presented factually to teens," she said. "But once I sat down to start WRITING, I really had to put all my research away. I didn’t want my RESEARCH to drive the book—I wanted the plot and my characters to propel the story. I was writing fiction, after all, not nonfiction!"
She drafted A Blue So Dark late in 2006. The initial response to the book was positive—editors kept telling her the premise had potential. However, the manuscript itself needed work. After a cycle of revising and resubmitting, in 2008 she contacted Brian, the acquisitions editor at Flux. He asked to see the full manuscript and two weeks later, he and Holly were on the phone talking about the book.
"Right from the start, I clicked with Brian. I was ECSTATIC when the official offer came!"
Her next book is really quite different from her first.
Playing Hurt centers on two former athletes: Chelsea Keyes, a basketball star whose promising career has been catastrophically snipped short by a horrific accident on the court, and Clint Morgan, an ex-hockey player who gave up his much-loved sport following his own game-related tragedy.
Chelsea meets Clint (who’s working as a resort fishing guide) soon after arriving with her family for a summer vacation in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. Sparks fly, igniting the pages, even though Chelsea has a boyfriend back home in Missouri…and even though Clint has sworn never to put himself in the position to be hurt emotionally again.
Their unlikely romance has the potential to heal their heartache and force Chelsea and Clint to realize just how timidly they’ve been living—but are they really ready to give themselves completely to one another? How will the weeks spent in another man’s arms play into Chelsea’s feelings for her boyfriend when she returns home? Will Clint allow himself to fall for a woman who’s bound to leave him at the end of her summer vacation? By playing hurt—entering into a romance with already-broken hearts—are they just setting themselves up for the kind of injury from which they could never recover? Will Chelsea and Clint pull away from each other before they have a chance to find out just how beautiful their story could be?
Finally, I asked Holly if she had any advice for young writers.
"Get used to criticism. It’s an inescapable part of the gig. You really have to learn to separate yourself from your project, so that you can look at it objectively, see where you can improve. That’s how you sell a book! You don’t sell the first draft of a novel, you sell the twelfth.
And these days, you don’t just get reviews from trade journals, you get reviews online from bloggers or Amazon shoppers or members of Goodreads…critique follows you as you try to sell a book and AFTER it’s published and hits shelves."