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.
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.
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.
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.