Today I’d like to start by introducing you to a wonderful writer, Mika Ashley Hollinger, whose first novel just came out with Random House. I have a very personal relationship to this book and its author. Mika was my student for several years while she worked on PRECIOUS BONES, so I feel about this book as a midwife feels about the babies she helped deliver. But friendship and admiration aside, I think Mika’s own publishing story is an instructive and inspirational one for all writers.
Barbara: Tell us a little about your novel, PRECIOUS BONES. What’s it about?
Mika: PRECIOUS BONES is a young adult historical fiction, about a ten-year-old girl growing up in the Florida swamps of 1949. I did extensive research on the life cycle of Florida’s swamps and inhabitants. It was at one time an incredible wildlife habitat and I wanted that time to be forever remembered.
The book’s setting feels entirely real. Did you grow up in the Florida of that time? Is the novel based on your own life?
Yes, I was born and raised on the east coast of southern Florida. The book is loosely based on my childhood memories. I chose 1949 because that was just the beginning of Florida’s drastic changes, both environmentally and socially. After being away many, many years, I returned to visit where I grew up and was devastated by the changes that had taken place. It woke up all those memories.
Did you read much as a child? What were your favorite books?
I loved to read stories about animals and about the South. Some of my favorites were; The Yearling, Charlotte’s Web, Gone With the Wind and of course To Kill a Mockingbird. I was fifteen years old when I saw the movie and it had such a profound effect on me, I knew from that moment on I wanted to write books. I wanted to tell stories from the innocence of a child, but with the wisdom of an adult.
When did you first start writing PRECIOUS BONES?
About twenty years ago I started compiling memories and facts about Florida and my childhood. It didn’t actually become a story draft until I took an online Writer’s Digest course in 2004 with you, as my teacher! From that experience I gained the confidence and knowledge that I could actually write this story.
When was it published?
It was published by Random House in May 2012.
How many drafts of the novel did you write?
I would say there were at least three or four along the way, I don’t really remember. Of course, my most serious and extensive re-writes were with my agent and then my editors at Random House.
Was the path to publication smooth? What kept you going?
The path to publication was a long and winding road filled with speed-bumps. I have a folder filled with rejection slips. I had two different agents, at different times, but neither one knew where or how to sell the book to a publisher. There were some very discouraging times and on more than one occasion I thought about just giving up. But through the support of my husband, and your support and encouraging advice, I stuck with it.
Before the book sold, did you ever consider self-publishing?
No, that was not a consideration. I held true to my own conviction that it had go through the proper channels and be published.
What sort of strategy did you have before selling PRECIOUS BONES?
In hindsight, one of the problems, from 2005 to 2010, was I didn’t have a strategy. I was so new and naive that I just sent queries out to any agent. I got a lot of positive response, which led me to believe I did have a good story, but no one knew how to sell it. After one particularly discouraging event, I told my husband I felt like it was a hopeless situation. His advice to me was, do some research and find agents that represent the type of story you have, and that is exactly what I did. I read young adult books with a southern theme, and stories with the same type descriptive writing style I was using. I sent out a few more queries. There was one agent in particular whose work I so admired. Within six weeks, I got a phone call from her and I had the agent of my dreams: Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management. She was wonderful to work with, she understood what needed to be changed or added to make the story bigger. We worked together on a couple of rewrites and within one year she had it sold to Delacorte Press, Random House Children’s Books. A true dream come true!
Tell us about the phone call…was it a call?…in which you learned the book had sold.
Catherine kept me informed on all transactions, which relieved a lot of anxiety on my part. On February 24, 2011 she emailed me with the wonderful news that Michelle Poploff of Delacorte Press, loved the story and wanted to publish it. It’s one of those moments when you have to read the sentence over and over again to let the true sense of its meaning sink in. Working with Michelle and her assistant Rebecca Short was also an incredible experience. These ladies were so professional and accommodating. Getting published with a house like Random House was well worth the wait.
What have you learned as a writer from the evolution of your first novel?
Believe in yourself. Be prepared for those rejection slips and just file them away. And when you do sign with a publisher, be ready and willing to listen to their advice and suggestions. There may be some major changes taking place with your story. Work with them, it’s what they do; they know how to take your little story and turn it into a bigger one.
What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?
Persevere. No one is going to come looking for you, you have to look for them. Do your research and find agents that represent your genre of writing!
What comes next for you?
I am working on another young adult historical fiction, set in Georgia in 1969, during the height of hippies, The Vietnam War and integration.
I can’t wait to read it. Thanks, Mika!
I wanted to bring Mika and her novel to your attention for several reasons. First, because PRECIOUS BONES is wonderful, one of the best young adult novels I’ve ever read. Over the course of its evolution I read it multiple times, and it still makes me cry. It’s a book that children and adults can enjoy equally, and I recommend that you buy it immediately. It’s available as an e-book, but I’d suggest getting a print copy, because I have a feeling that first editions of this book will someday be valuable.
The second reason is that Mika exemplifies the five qualities I believe writers need if they aspire to be published, as her story illustrates.
Talent is the first requirement. Anyone can learn craft, and even the most talented writer needs to do that; but talent is a gift, just like athletic ability and perfect pitch. Mika had talent in spades. The first time I read her work, when it was little more than a gleam in its author’s eye, she was in a class of 10 or 12 writers. Even in its embryonic form, I still remember how her language, descriptions and characters jumped off the page.
Craft is the second. Serious writers study the craft. Mika invested in her dream and became a better writer than she was. These days, with self-publishing as popular as it is, there are lots of people offering all sorts of services to writers. In my opinion, the only thing a writer ought to pay for is good instruction in the form of classes or manuscript evaluation.
The ability to learn from good criticism is the third requirement. You can only go so far on your own. At a certain point you must seek out discerning readers, learn to distinguish good criticism from bad, and implement the good advice. Criticism is like fertilizer; it can be hard to abide, but it grows the writer. Mika was open to that process.
Perseverance is the fourth requirement. Mika’s novel was 20 years in the making, eight years in the writing. She had agents who failed to sell the book and many disappointments along the way. She could have given up at any point. She didn’t. She believed in her book. If the author doesn’t, who will?
A focused goal is the fifth. Mika was determined to be published by a trade publisher. She did her homework and focused on agents who represent her type of writing. Agents and editors bring real value to their books. Because Mika held out for commercial publication, PRECIOUS BONES is a much better book than it would have been if she had self-published an earlier version–and I say that as someone who read and loved the earlier versions.