Thursday, February 21, 2019

Interview with Greg Howard The Whispers



First, congratulations on the release of your powerful new novel, The Whispers.  It’s exciting to see it so well-received by reviewers, and I wondered if there’s a line or two from a reviewer that really captures what you’d hoped a reader would experience in the book?

Brooks Benjamin, author of MY SEVENTH GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS wrote the blurb on the back of the book and I think it captures the essence of The Whispers. He said, “This book is a reassuring hug for any kid who’s had to grow up a little too fast. It’s a reminder that magic is never more than a light breeze away. It’s a story full of hope.”  

I love that.  Thank you.  Can you share a bit about the evolution of this book of hope?  How it came to be?  The original seed for the story?

The inspiration for the story was my mother. I had written a sort of racy gay young adult rom-com for Simon & Schuster called Social Intercourse, and although it probably would have been smart to follow that up with another like it, I had this idea for The Whispers that I couldn’t get out of my head. My mother was the original inspiration for the book and what I went through as a kid after she died of cancer at the age of twenty-six. My main character Riley’s story is quite different from mine, but I did borrow heavily from my life and experiences. We didn’t have a guaranteed home for the book and I’d never attempted to write middle grade before, but my agent, Bri Johnson, believed in the idea and encouraged me to write it anyway. Bri has amazing editorial insights, so after I sent her my first (very rough) draft, she guided and advised me on how to make the story better, stronger, and deeper.

In terms of later stage writing process did the book continue to evolve after acquisition?  Any surprises there for you? 

Well after acquisition is when all the heavy lifting begins. My editor at Putnam/Penguin, Stacey Barney, is an amazing (and tough!) editor. Her insights and direction were really spot-on, so there wasn’t ever any push-back from me. She helped me round out characters, deepen the emotion, and fine tune the story. The surprise for me was that after Stacey’s notes, I ended up adding about ninety pages to the book. Now I can’t imagine the book without those additional words.
Your book takes on subjects that include grief, sexuality, trauma, religion, and more of course.  Could you share a bit about your commitment to these subjects for a middle-grade audience? 

It’s really pretty simple for me. Kids in the middle grades are dealing with issues of grief, sexuality, trauma, religion, etc., so why wouldn’t I write about them? I think it does a disservice to those kids if we as writers of middle grade fiction steer clear of tough topics that our readers struggle with on a daily basis.
I feel the same.  Can you talk about any challenges? 

I think the challenge you always have when writing middle grade fiction is creating something that is entirely authentic to the middle grade voice and experience, while also making it an engaging read for adults. I think it’s important for adults to read middle grade books (as well as young adult books) so they understand what their kids are going through and are able to discuss these issues freely, intelligently, and empathetically with them.

Thanks so much for writing this poignant and brave book, and I hope it makes its way to many readers.  We will be cheering it on as it moves through the world. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Favorite Quote of Madeleine L'Engle

There are several writing books which I have returned to over and over throughout the years.  Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water:  Reflections on Faith & Art is one such book.

I have read Walking on Water more than a couple times.  In those readings, I have highlighted many sections of L'Engle's insights about the heart and soul of creating art of any kind.  Besides the times I've read this book cover to cover, there have been many occasions when I have paged through the book rereading and pondering certain sentences or specific passages.

One of the sentences that speaks volumes to me is, "Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear."

Amazing that a thirteen-word sentence packs such a huge punch.

The idea of listening when we write is for me sort of the "mystery" of the creative process.  When I am fortunate enough to be in the middle of a writing project, and I am able to enjoy the experience of having my characters speak to me so that I can write their story, I know I am doing my best work and telling the story I am supposed to tell.

I'm thankful that in her lifetime, Madeleine L'Engle, not only learned to listen well enough to write the amazing novels we love.  But I'm also thankful, she took time to write Walking on Water and spoke directly to those who create art, encouraging them to be true to the work they have been called to give to the world.

Happy Listening & Creating,

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Writing quotes, writing life

“When it came time to go for my writing dream, I knew there was nothing I could say to calm the youngest parts of me, who feared yet another disappointment. So I had two choices: I could sit with her forever in that dreamless world, or I could pick her up with compassion, and carry her along with conviction, and prove to her that not all stories have sad endings.” -Sandra Kring

I am truly blessed that one of my favorite authors, Sandra Kring, is also one of my truest and kindest friends. We met in a book interview – her latest novel about to hit the shelves, and me a journalist.

I had my own childhood aspirations at the time as I sat behind that newspaper reporter desk. I always had. To write a novel. My attempts to fulfill that dream had been weak and half-hearted, afraid to try.

Sandra would later become my first – and one of my best ever – mentors. Both in writing, and in my life.

It’s true childhood me was terrified to try. Terrified to fail. I’d write a sentence or a chapter or two then destroy it. I never told anyone. I didn’t want them to laugh at me, or judge me if or when my writing never went anywhere.

A change in life circumstance scared me beyond anything my own personal failure ever could. Suddenly, failing at something like writing a book was the least thing that could punch the wind from my lungs. I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote until I had my first novel. Then the next. And the next.

It was Sandra who read my first – really bad – attempts at a first manuscript. It was Sandra who stood by as I honed my writing and learned more and got better. She was there as I queried my first agents, signed my first book deal, stood at the podium for my first-ever book reading.

There are a lot of things in life to be afraid of. Making friends, and trying your hardest to make your dreams come true, shouldn’t be one of them.

Thank you, Sandra. 

Happy reading!

(Photo from The T-Cozy)

Monday, February 18, 2019

Facing It

For me, the hardest part of any writing task - and of any life task - of any task whatsoever - can be summed up in two words: "facing it." I build up so much dread and terror and fear and loathing; I convince myself it's impossible, it simply can't be done. . . . and then, once I actually face it, it's NEVER as bad as I thought it was going to be.

Well, sometimes it is. Sometimes it's even worse.

But then I think of these words from Joseph Conrad that are my current mantra:

"Facing it - always facing it - that's the way to get through."

It's the only way, actually.

The new book I don't have an idea for yet? The only way I'm going to get an idea is to sit down with a pad of paper and a pen and start brainstorming.

That plot problem that can't be solved? The only way I'm going to solve it is to turn on my computer and start trying out solutions.

The revisions that are completely insurmountable? Once I finally make myself face them - after months of panicked procrastination - I can often get them done in a matter of weeks.

Do you remember the classic picture book Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury? The bear-hunting family encounters a daunting series of obstacles: grass, river, forest, snowstorm, each time with the refrain:

We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
Oh, no!
We've got to go through it!

And so they do.
And so do I.
And so do you.

"Facing it - always facing it - that's the way to get through."

Friday, February 15, 2019

Islands in the Sea

“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” ~ William James

Kinza Riza/Courtesy of 
For this round of discussions, we at Smack Dab in the Middle share our favorite writing quotes and how to keep going despite the odds. At the core of these discussions is the importance of making connections. Chuck Sambuchino, of Writer’s Digest, once said, “Writing is often thought of as a solitary occupation, and it’s true we writers spend a lot of time alone. However, we write so people can read our writing—a writer is inherently part of a group.”

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” ~Herman Melville

We know stories are old. Humans have been telling stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture had developed codified laws, or even a written language, but every culture in the history of the world has had stories. Some research suggests stories predate language, that language came about in order to express story concepts.

And those first stories are found in paintings buried in prehistoric caves. An ancient man reaches out and across 40,000 years to his descendants, connecting past to present. It is the essence of humankind to connect. As Eric Booth states, in The Everyday Work of Art, “Art is not apart. It is a continuum within which all participate; we all function in art, use the skills of art, and engage in the action of artists every day.” 

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

About the photograph: A stencil of an early human's hand in an Indonesian cave is estimated to be about 39,000 years old. Kinza Riza/Courtesy of

See More about the Cave Art here: Rock (Art) of Ages: Indonesian Cave Paintings Are 40,000 Years Old. Cave paintings of animals and hand stencils in Sulawesi, Indonesia, seem to be as old as similar cave art in Europe.

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.” -- Enid Bagnold
Thank you for connecting with Smack Dab in the Middle!
--Bobbi Miller

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Happy heart day, fellow authors! By Michele Weber Hurwitz

This month, we're blogging about self-esteem and our favorite writing quotes. My post just happens to fall on Valentine's Day, which is a perfect day for me to remind my fellow authors of some of my favorite writing sentiments: Love yourself. Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself. And most of all, forgive yourself.

The morning where all you could eek out was two sentences? Love yourself anyway. Turn off your laptop, make a cup of tea, and curl up on the comfiest chair in your home. Stare out the window -- whether it's a polar vortex or a palm tree -- and remind yourself that the next day will be better and the words will come.

The day you received that stinging rejection? Be kind to yourself. It happens to everyone, even successful multi-published authors. Bruce Hale collected rejection letters for more than eight years before he got a contract, and then hit a snag midway through his writing career when one of his series didn't do well and was discontinued by the publisher.

Treat yourself on a regular basis. Ice cream and chocolate do just fine, but have you heard about author Julia Cameron's advice to go on a weekly "artist's date?" In her book, The Artist's Way, she recommends going somewhere by yourself at least once a week to nurture and feed your creative spirit.

Writing is so solitary, but spending time away from your work, at an art museum, a concert, walking in the woods, anywhere that speaks to you, can do wonders for your creativity and amazingly, productivity.

Lastly, forgive yourself! This one is important, and can be hard. Things happen in this business. A manuscript doesn't sell. You and your agent part ways. A book you've poured time and energy into falls through the cracks and doesn't find its reader. You got a not-so-great review.

Much of this is out of your control. So forgive yourself for whatever happened, move on, and do what you do best and can control -- the writing.

Michele Weber Hurwitz, the author of four middle grade novels, is off to stare out the window and eat some chocolate. It's been that kind of day. Find her online at

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Writing, Focus, and Forgiveness

As a freelance writer, a creative person, and a navigator of my own career, this month’s topic (favorite quotes) brought two things to mind. 

The first is something I read years ago, in an interview with the actor Alan Alda. In it, he spoke about a revelation he had as a young actor, trying to make a go in the business, and always struggling against the endless list of things he wasn’t accomplishing, the jobs he wished he could get, the professional accolades he hadn’t yet achieved. And the revelation was this: that he should stop worrying so much about what he wasn’t doing and focus much more on what he WAS doing. 

So simple, but such apt advice, and for me, something I need to be reminded about, over and over.  

I find it very easy to fret about all the books I haven’t written, all the stories I’ll never get to, all the qualities of my writing that I wish were better…. but meanwhile, I’ve turned this idea of Alda’s into a kind of guidestar. When I’m getting dragged down in my own imaginings of what I may never get around to, never achieve, etc., I remind myself to focus on the project right in front of me—whether that’s a novel, a lecture, an upcoming workshop, or whatever else. 

And related to that, here’s an absolute favorite quote of mine, from Ann Patchett, in her essay, The Getaway Car. 

"Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.

“Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time.   

"Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.

“Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

There’s a beautiful practicality to this kind of thinking—the kind I suppose could be mistaken for cynicism. But for me, anything I can use to keep myself focused on doing work that is both achievable AND as good as I can make it is far preferable to the empty pursuit of perfection. This is never about letting go of my ideals, but about keeping sight of them at the same time that I’m keeping sight of what’s happening right here, right now, right in front of me. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Quotes That Inspire by Darlene Beck Jacobson

As I thought about what to write for this month's post, I decided to combine both ideas into some inspirational quotes that help boost the self-esteem of a writer. It is a solitary occupation, doing what we do, and sometimes it feels as if we are drowning in a sea of rejection and negativity. Yet still, NOT writing is NOT an option. So, for those days when it feels particularly hard, I find what I need to keep going in the wisdom of others who came before.

"Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul." - Samuel Ullman

This one just reminds me that writing for children is a wonderful thing that brings out the curiosity and wonder found in life, when we slow down and choose to watch and listen.

"Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money". -source unknown

We are not in this to get rich...the rewards are sometimes intangible and much more lasting than money.

"A mind once stretched by new ideas never regains its original dimension." -Oliver Wendell Holmes

Writing - and reading - takes us to places we can only dream about, and opens our minds to all that is possible and impossibly wonderful.

"There are only two ways to live life: One as though nothing is a miracle. The other as if everything is." - Albert Einstein

For me, and I suspect for many of us who write for children, EVERYTHING is a miracle.

I leave you with this, from MARK TWAIN: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

And...keep on writing. When you look up...there are no limits.