Book Review: From Ashes to Song by Hilary Hauck

From Ashes to Song by Hilary Hauck is a gentle, yearning love story about a young composer, Pietro, who loses what he loves most in Italy, and comes to America for a new start. On the voyage over, he meets Assunta, whose warm heart and beautiful voice touch him, though she is married to another man. Never letting his feelings show, from a chaste distance Pietro is inspired by Assunta, even as he works in the depths of the Pennsylvania coal mines.

Pietro and Assunta both endure grievous losses, but these losses are told gently, subtly, and nonetheless poignantly. What was most vivid to me in this story is how Pietro finds music in everything: in the grapevines of his old-world home, in the voice of Assunta, in the ring of hammers and picks in the darkness of the mines. That music blossoms even amidst the coal dust of the mining towns, just as Pietro and Assunta’s love blossoms and comes to bear fruit in the fullness of time.

Hilary Hauck’s writing is delicate and elegantly understated; she brings the true story that inspired her novel to life. On her website, I was quite happy to find photos of the actual people who inspired her characters; it was very gratifying to see their faces, and they look a lot like I imagined them. You can also read the story about the beautiful cover art.

I recommend From Ashes to Song, especially for readers who enjoy literary fiction, particularly with a taste of history, and for musicians and other lovers of music.

Going to Conferences with Aud & Gemma

Editor’s Note:

Writers and good friends Gemma and Aud are members of the same monthly critique group and have had short stories published in Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Volume 3. Together they attended the virtual PennWriters Conference in mid-May. In late June, Aud also attended two other conferences online: The Greater Philly Christian Writer Conference and the Friends General Conference (FGC). There was only one free day between the last two. Recently Aud and Gemma came together via Zoom to talk about what they learned.

GEMMA: So Aud, did you have any specific ideas or suggestions from these conferences that were especially helpful for your writing?

AUD: Yes. This was from PennWriters. I really needed that reminder about word counts and other characteristics distinguishing a Middle Grade novel from a Young Adult. I was pleasantly surprised to hear about the in-between category, although it’s not accepted by many publishers yet. I also thought the pre-conference workshops from the Christian Writer Conference were helpful. They were about creating a one-sheet and how to boil a novel to the essence of the story in 20 words or less. Those exercises were so agonizing I wrote a blog post about them. But doing all that work before going into a pitch session certainly lowered stress levels. That happened after the PennWriters conference. Oh man, the day before my appointments at the PennWriters conference, I was panic-stricken because I couldn’t think of a novel I could compare to my novel, Frama-12. They call them “comps” and I didn’t have one!

GEMMA: That would stress me out, too!

AUD: Fortunately, it came to me the morning of the session: Alice in Wonderland on steroids. And, to complicate things, I went in there, still thinking my novel was Middle Grade and the company only published YA and above. The workshop by Heidi Ruby Miller that described Middle Grade and YA novels didn’t go on until the very last day of the conference. Anyway, I went in there and said, “I know you don’t publish Middle Grade fiction. Can I just practice my pitch on you?” She asked for a sample! It made me think agents and editors ask for samples from anybody who goes to a pitch session at a conference.

GEMMA: I just want to interject – in some conferences I’ve attended in the past, not everyone got asked for samples! That may have changed, I suppose. But I still think it says good things about your stories and pitches!

AUD: Thanks. Both the agent and the editor that I spoke to told me to send sample chapters. The editor was so nice about it. When I said I wasn’t sure if my novel was YA or Middle Grade, she said, “Don’t worry about it. Send the sample. I’ll give it to the fantasy department and let them figure it out.” That was quite a relief, especially considering the comments I got at the critiquing night. That was another thing I liked about PennWriters, having a critique night, even though the feedback was weird. The agent who read my piece said, “That’s not middle grade!” He never said what he thought it was. The published author who commented on it said it sounded like literary fiction. And the publisher at critique night said my sample reminded her of the opening to a movie.

GEMMA: Frama-12 would make a great movie. And it sounds like literary fiction? Woo hoo!

AUD: Well, here’s the thing, and I cut it out before I submitted it to the agent and the editor. The opening was a description of the rising time-tear on the beach.

GEMMA: Oh yeah. I remember that.

AUD: It was kind of literary the way I described it. I cut that altogether. Now nobody will think it’s literary fiction. I emailed a synopsis and the first three chapters of Frama-12 to the editor. She wrote back and said, “I got it. You’ll probably hear from us in 60 days.” The exciting news is it wasn’t a week before I got an email from the fantasy editor asking for the whole manuscript.

Gemma: That is so exciting!

Aud: Thanks. When she wrote, acknowledging she got it, she said it could be a 90-day wait to hear back. It probably will take that long because if she likes it, she’ll have to talk to the bean counters to see if they’re interested in paying for it. The other thing is, this publisher specializes in romance. When the fantasy editor wrote back acknowledging receipt of the manuscript, she asked, “Is there romance in this?” I wrote back that there was, but it was very subtle in the first book. In the second book, I’ll punch up the part about Winnie having crushes on Kip and the boy they meet in the alternate world.

GEMMA: I think, having read both, out of order, I would say there is a hint in the first book, but it grows. The romance definitely heightens.

AUD: By book three, it’s really going to heighten. I’ve been working on that in the back of my head, and I’m writing notes.

GEMMA: I love both books, and I can’t wait to read the third! I’m sure you told the publisher this is part of a series.

AUD: Oh yeah, they know it’s a trilogy.

GEMMA: Because that’s a selling point. Publishers want to know that you’re good for more than just one book.

AUD: In PennWriters, an editor, Lawrence, said that too. They don’t want a writer who doesn’t have more than one book in them. If readers like how you write, they’re going to want to read more stuff that you’ve written.

GEMMA: And a publisher doesn’t want to invest all that time and money for the author to say, “Well, that’s it, I’m a one-book author.”

AUD: It turned out that way for me with I Almost Love You, Eddie Clegg, and Peachtree. After they published “Eddie,” all I had was Frama-12, and they don’t publish fantasy. Now I’m glad they didn’t take “Frama.” It’s so much better now, and that’s thanks to our critiquing group. PennWriters mentioned that quite a bit in the different workshops, encouraging writers to get in a writer’s group.

GEMMA: I absolutely agree – critique groups have made my writing so much better. And this is where I’m going to segue into one of the things that really struck me and was helpful with my own writing. One of my favorite authors, Nancy Springer, presented “The Muddle in the Middle.”

AUD: I liked that one, too.

GEMMA: One of the things Nancy said was to forget about “the middle.” Just keep having beginnings all the way through. Which made sense to me. I mean, you’re not starting from square one, but you’re doing new things all along the way. Keep that excitement going for you, as the author, and for the reader. She also said, start the novel as late in the plot as you can. This advice ties directly into what you told me. You said, “I think it would be awesome if you start your novel when Perylan’s trying out to join the Roving Guard.” I sat in our critique group thinking, “Uh-huh…Yeah, I’m not gonna do that.” [Laughter] And later, I realized, “Wow, I should do that.”

AUD: I love your Perylan fantasy! In Nancy’s workshop, she also said sprinkle the story with little things about your character. Don’t give the reader everything at once, and I love that. In our critique group, sometimes somebody will say, “Wait. What’s that mean?” Good, I’m glad you’re asking! You’re supposed to be asking, but I’m not going to tell you yet. You have to keep reading to find out. [Laughter]

GEMMA: Yes, and you’re good at that! This is a big challenge for me, but it is a good challenge to think, okay, a little bit here and a little bit there. It’s a little challenging with “Perylan,” but I see how I can do that. Don’t reveal all the secrets too soon.

AUD: I love the idea that we won’t know certain things from your Perylan novel until later. They should stay a secret. Then when it’s all revealed, the reader will go, “Holy crap!” We don’t have to know right away why certain things are important to your character. I love not knowing. It keeps the curiosity factor going.

GEMMA: What Nancy said struck home with me. It’s changing how I’m going about things now. That was a big concrete challenge. How about you, Aud? What was challenging?

AUD: Like I said, it was challenging to boil down my story into a nugget.

GEMMA: Oh my gosh, yes.

AUD: Yeah, it’s like you’re taking a piece of coal and turning it into a diamond. Or, maybe it was more like being an oyster and making a pearl. The process felt gritty and irritating, but in the end, I really loved how it finally came together.

GEMMA: [Laughter] Good analogy! I’m still struggling with how I would begin to do that. One of the workshops was how to write a query and the exercise: “When your character first discovers “X,” they know they must do “Y” within a specific time period or else.”

AUD: Yeah, when I heard that I worried because my “Nickie” novel doesn’t follow that formula.

GEMMA: Well, no, I would agree, it doesn’t work for “Nickie,” but it does for Frama-12.

AUD: I guess that’s true.

GEMMA: Without giving anything away, there definitely is a catalyst/revelation in Frama-12, oh yeah! And stakes and a time limit. I think for “Perylan,” that format works really well, and I would mention that in a synopsis for an agent or an editor.

AUD: Exactly. And it’s time-consuming to create a query and a synopsis. That’s why it took almost a month between the conference and submitting Frama-12 to the editor I met at PennWriters. Now, I’m freaking out about the “Nickie” submission for the editor I met at the Christian Writer Conference. I’m still rewriting the novel. Oh, man! I got it down to 69,144 words! It was 77K.

GEMMA: Excellent.

AUD: I want to get it down to 63. The publisher wants between 50 and 60 thousand words. If it’s 63, I don’t know if they’ll ask me to cut the extra three or let it go because it’s not that much over.

GEMMA: You can do it.

AUD: A lot of exciting things are happening with the edits to the “Nickie” story. At the FGC conference, I told them the story feels spiritually inspired. I can’t even take credit for it because it’s like these ideas are coming out of the air, and they’re so beautiful. I’ll be walking outside, writing notes on a little notepad, and start to cry. It’s so touching. The story also makes me laugh. But I don’t have a big enough platform. I worry nobody’s ever going to read this book. That’s so heartbreaking to me.

GEMMA: Don’t think about it that way. Your passion will come through, and that’ll help you find people to get it out there.

AUD: I’m still struggling over the synopsis. It’s hard to figure out what to put in there.

GEMMA: Oh yeah. I suggest you get it down on paper, do the whole thing. Don’t defeat yourself before you finish it. Then say, okay, what are the crucial parts? What are the parts that I really want to get across? It’s hard for me, too.

AUD: And getting help with that is one of the reasons we go to writer conferences.

GEMMA: Absolutely! Another workshop I remember was Hilary Hauck’s on “The All is Lost Moment.” That moment is critical for our characters because it leads to the next big change. Hilary was very sweet and compassionate when she said, “It’s very hard for us to do this to our characters because we care about them. I want you to write down the five worst things that could happen to your character and then choose the worst. I know what you’re thinking, ‘I’ll choose the second-worst.’ Really, choose the very worst.”

AUD: Hilary’s right. It’s hard to throw metaphorical rocks at characters we love. Have you tried that exercise yet?

GEMMA: I have not, per se. But I’ve decided if I’m going to write “Perylan” as two books, it can’t just be sliced in half. The first book has to have an arc, and it has to have the worst thing. And I know that’s what I’ve got to do. It’s not the climax. It’s the “Oh no!” moment.

AUD: I’m thinking about that for the third book in my “Frama” trilogy. A lot of crap is hitting the fan in book three! It’s exciting to have these things in the back of my mind while working on “Nickie.”

GEMMA: Oh yeah! I will also say I was excited by that last workshop about Middle Grade, Young Adult, or In-Betweener books. I remember thinking, “In-Betweener is what Aud’s writing!”

AUD: I am! I totally am! I also think I’m writing kid books for adults. That’s why, when that agent for kid books looks at my stuff and says, “No. This is not a kid book.” He’s partially correct. But why can’t we have a genre for the young at heart? Like they said at the conference, a lot of adults are reading YA.

GEMMA: Yeah. Absolutely!

AUD: Gemma, something you had in your notes scared me to pieces. It said, 14-year-olds today aren’t the same as how 14-year-olds were when we were that age. But I’m still writing like they are.

GEMMA: You have to write the truth as you know it.

AUD: And hope it’s authentic enough to speak to the reader.

GEMMA: I think you just have to go with writing to the truth of the story, not to the trends. Because trends change.

AUD: Yeah.

GEMMA: I understand that the world that 14-year-olds are in now is not the world it was when we were that age.

AUD: That’s why everybody’s writing fantasies! Then you don’t have to worry about Instagram and cell phones being in the plot. [Laughter]

GEMMA: This is a quote* which I love and applies to this situation. C. S. Lewis, possibly my favorite author of all time, said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally or far more worth reading at the age of 50 and beyond.” Ta-da! You can write it with multiple layers. Some layers will appeal to the kids, and some will appeal to the young at heart.

AUD: I love that quote, and that’s my hope.

GEMMA: It appeals to kids going through these times of change but also to older people who can go, “Oh man, I remember going through that.”

AUD: In another pre-conference thing for the Christian Writer Conference, we got to practice our pitch with a published author. In my practice, I called the “Nickie” story YA. When I mentioned the main character was 14, the author suggested I change her age to 16 to appeal to a wider audience since kids read “up.” I can see Nickie doing the things she’s doing as a 14-year-old, but not 16. I almost tried to justify her age but ended up saying, “I’ll think about that.” The author said, “That’s all I’m asking.” Okay, I thought about it. She’s 14.

GEMMA: [Laughter] I’d like to finish with a quote* from Stephanie Keyes. She said, “I’m creating characters that are confused about what they want and where they’re going next.” That appeals to me. Those are the characters I want to read: characters in transition. That’s why I like reading YA books: coming of age books. But not only young adults are going through transitions.

AUD: So true. When you really think about it, every phase of life is a transition. That’s probably why I write: to make sense out of those phases.

GEMMA: Well put, Aud! Thanks for joining me to talk about conferences and writing. To read more about our experiences with these conferences, be sure to check out Aud’s blog!

*I encountered these great quotes in Heidi Ruby Miller’s workshop.

Book Reviews: Stamped and The Lost Tribes

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You  by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

Based on (a Remix of) Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

I expected this book to be well-written, thought-provoking, and engaging. And it truly was, starting with the Introduction by Ibram X. Kendi (how often are Introductions themselves absorbing?) It was also painstakingly researched by Dr. Kendi, (a professor of history and international relations), as revealed in the twenty pages of source notes.

What I didn’t expect was that it would be so hard to put down. But that’s how Jason Reynolds made his remix of Kendi’s book. Once I started reading, I didn’t want to stop. Even though I am decades away from Jason Reynolds’ target audience, I had to keep turning the pages.

The book traces the history of racism over six hundred years, from its roots and through its introduction to newly-colonized America, up to the present day. But it is not, as Reynolds emphasizes, a history book. It is a book that contains history – a history that is most often troubled and troubling.

It was hard to read about some people I admired from the past. Jason Reynolds paints nuanced portraits that shows how complex these people were, and how they changed and evolved over time. It was harder still to read about people from my lifetime – some of whom I voted for. This book is eye-opening and revealing, including about some of my own unconscious assumptions. Because, as Jason says, this book is about all of us.

This is a vital, riveting book. I read it months ago and have wanted to review it ever since, but, well, it’s been a fraught year. Also, I was daunted by the knowledge that I can’t begin to do the book justice. Read it and let it speak for itself. I highly recommend it. If you don’t think a Young Adult book is for you, consider Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. It may be the next book I read on this subject.

These two authors held a very interesting discussion about their book with some high school students you can read about and listen to.

As  Christine Taylor-Butler wrote in June of last year, “I’m a parent, author, and a former college interviewer. Please hear me – in this time of stress people want to “flood” their kids with books about racism. Please provide 20 joyful books for every one book on racism. They also need to know POC kids are like every other kid.”

I began to take her advice for myself, and read her book The Lost Tribes. It fulfills her suggestion perfectly! Five friends from diverse backgrounds have adventures while just being kids. And what adventures! They’re given a high-tech computer puzzle to solve, with virtual reality that takes them to Egypt, Easter Island, Peru, and sub-Saharan Africa among other far-off places. The computer simulations become eerily realistic. And when their parents disappear, they have to undertake a dangerous journey. The kids discover that nothing is what they thought. The truth is amazing and empowering.

I can’t really capture the story, especially without giving too much away. Science and history are woven throughout in fun and interesting ways. There are puzzles and codes the kids have to solve, and readers can try out, too. And the website has a couple of fun challenges with more to come (delayed by the pandemic). But you can watch the cool trailer, meet the kids, and get introduced to their parents.

Kirkus Reviews calls it “Well-written and well-paced: a promising start to what should be an exciting and unusual sci-fi series.” See the full review here.

I recommend this book if you’re looking for a good story for kids who like adventure – or if you’re such a kid at heart yourself.

The next book, Safe Harbor, is out, and a third is expected later this year. I’m looking forward to continuing the adventure!

Happy Juneteenth!

Happy News for Enola Holmes Fans!

I’m emerging from my deep Cave of Projects to sing out some good news. I just found out this morning that there’s more Enola Holmes on the way! I’m so excited, I hardly know what to announce first.

Ok, here goes: there’s going to be a second Enola movie on Netflix!

I really enjoyed the first one, so much so I’ve watched it twice and look forward to watching it again for a future review I hope to post.

Even better news: there’s going to be a NEW Enola Holmes book! Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche.

As much as I enjoyed the movie – the books are some of my favorite books ever. They are mysteries with clever, riveting plots, great atmosphere, codes the readers can work on, and the deeply appealing Enola herself.

I thought the series was complete, with the very satisfying (and more than a little moving) The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye. So my surprise at another book is exceeded only by my delight.

And there’s more! A new short story: Enola Holmes and the Boy in Buttons. That particular boy is a lot of fun, so I can’t wait to get the e-book.

On top of all this, last weekend I had the great pleasure to attend an online workshop with Nancy Springer as part of the online Pennwriters Conference. She was such fun! And had so much good advice for writing. I intend to share some highlights of the conference and what Nancy had to say.

Meanwhile, I have seven projects I’m working on, only one of which is my fantasy novel in progress, so it may be a while before I emerge. Back into my Cave of Projects! (Ok, it’s sunlit and infused with fresh spring air, but still – I’m trying to work on several of these things at once, so it’s a little hectic in here…)

In the meantime if you like a good Victorian mystery, read the Enola Holmes books!

Tell a Fairy Tale Day

Two days ago, February 26th, was National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. I am a long-time lover of fairy tales, and I’ve blogged in honor of this day twice before. Over the years, I’ve collected a good shelf’s worth of fairy tales,* and I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. One of my favorites is World Tales, in which Idries Shah has collected tales that have been told in many different cultures around the world, with striking parallels. Did you know there are over 300 known variations of Cinderella? I think my favorite is the one in this book, “The Algonquin Cinderella.” As in the well-known tale, the heroine, marred by cinders, suffers from the cruelty of two sisters. But the result of her goodness is much greater than simply marrying a charming prince. Because she can perceive wonders, she becomes the bride of the beautiful and powerful Invisible One.

Reading in my own fairy tale collections over the years, I’ve often felt a shiver of recognition while reading a tale, an echo that this tale reverberates in some other land, some other time. One is the story of “Catherine and Her Fate.” Catherine is given a fateful choice by her Destiny in both World Tales and The Pink Fairy Book (edited by Andrew Lang): she can be happy in her youth or in her old age, but she must choose which.

The shiver of recognition became a thrill of pleasure when I realized some of my favorite stories have been told in many places over many centuries. One is “Mastermaid,” which I found both in World Tales and Tatterhood (edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps).  A good-hearted but rather bumbling young prince is saved from his dangerous naïveté by Maj the Mastermaid. When he forgets her wise advice, they both have trials to go through.

Another tale I love goes by many names and the heroine has many faces: “Clever Manka” in Tatterhood, “The Maiden Wiser than a Tsar” in World Tales, and “The Innkeeper’s Wise Daughter” in Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters (edited by Kathleen Ragan). The young woman’s wit and wisdom not only saves her father (sometimes his very life), but restores harmony, love and respect to her marriage.

I was excited to stumble upon a much-loved tale twice in my recent reading. It is known as “The Tsaritsa Harpist” in Fearless Girls, and “The Lute Player” in both Tatterhood and The Violet Fairy Book (edited by Andrew Lang). A brave lady seeks to ransom her beloved husband by becoming a wandering minstrel. I feel I have also encountered this as an ancient ballad. This tale echoed in my mind for so long, it turned into a song which came out in a novel I’ve written, where it takes on the yearning for homecoming after long journeys.

These are excellent collections of fairy tales and I deeply enjoyed reading them. But for some stories I have wanted to write a different ending. Like the kind Fisherman who saves the life of a magical, wish-granting flounder, and whose wife demands ever more grandiose and outrageous things. When the wife orders her long-suffering husband to tell the flounder she wants to be Ruler of the Universe, I dearly want the fisherman to say, “No, Wife – I’m done. You tell him if you dare!” In my mind, when the wife gets her comeuppance (very merciful in the old story, I think), the fisherman returns to the humble life he loves, blessed with abundant catches.

And then there is “Kari Woodengown.” Of all the fairy tales I’ve read and heard, I’ve only encountered this one in Tales from the Red Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang.

Kari endures some of the troubles of Cinderella, with absent or dead parents and unkind stepmother and stepsister. But Kari befriends a great blue bull, and they face and overcome hardships together as they flee her cruel stepfamily. I have a faint memory-impression that I was charmed by this story when I read it decades ago as a kid. No doubt that was partly because of the wise and powerful talking bull. But this time I was not charmed. When I reached the end, I was so indignant, it spurred me to actually write my own retelling. But that’s a tale for another day.

Speaking of retelling…folk tales are closely intertwined with fairy tales, sometimes only lacking outright magic. For a fine retelling of the Stone Soup folktale, have a look at VT Dorchester’s “Horseshoe Nail Stew” in Frontier Tales. I may be a bit biased, but I think there may be some quiet magic worked in the hearts of some of the story’s people by the end.

*In case it’s not always evident, all books pictured are my own well-worn copies.My copy of Tatterhood, is lacking its dust cover so I’m showing the title page.

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