Monday, November 23, 2015

You Heard it Here First: Jo Hackl's Path to Publication - Part II

My apologies if you received an email on Saturday evening with a link to an old blog post--blogger error! Rory's Promise was given away 5 months ago. I'm sorry for the confusion.

Last week Jo Hackl, long-time member of SCBWI-Carolinas, shared the pitch and background of her debut novel, Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe. This week you'll hear more about working with her agent, Tracey Adams of Adams Literary; finding a publisher; and what she wished she knew before she started her writing journey.
 Carol: Did Tracey suggest editorial revisions either before or after she acquired the manuscript? 

Jo: Tracey suggested editorial revisions before taking me on as a client.  I’m very fortunate to have the benefit of her keen perspective and insight and every one of her comments has made the manuscript stronger.

Carol: How long did it take before SMACK DAB found a home? Did Shana Corey suggest many changes? Was the title yours or something you came up with together?

Jo: It took years for SMACK DAB to find the perfect home with Shana Corey at Random House Children’s Books.  It was absolutely worth the wait.  During that time, I believe I’ve continued to grow as a writer.  I’ve taken more classes and workshops. I started a website,, devoted to providing inspiration and information about the outdoors, and I wrote articles on that site about outdoor experiences. I wrote a young adult novel and am almost through the first draft of a middle grade manuscript.  I also continued thinking about SMACK DAB, revising it, and brainstorming on ways to make it stronger.   

I greatly admire Shana Corey’s work and was enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with her.  Shana suggested changes that I believe will make the story stronger and I’m looking forward to digging into the revision process. 

For the title, Tracey, Shana and I brainstormed from a list of around one hundred possibilities. Brainstorming titles is the fun part!

Carol: I’ve often wondered how you balanced being a lawyer, mother, and writer. Any hints on how you have made this juggling act work?

Jo: I think it helps to have a sense of humor, to be curious, not to expect perfection, and to surround yourself with creative, positive people.   My family is incredibly supportive.  My husband has done more than his share of car-pool duty while I was away at conferences, critique group meetings or on a writing retreat.  Our children offer ideas for things my characters might do next.  My family in Mississippi helps me keep track of what is in season and edible in the woods so I can verify my research.  

My law firm, Wyche, PA, has a strong tradition of attorneys who serve the community and pursue personal interests in addition to the practice of law.  My extremely smart colleagues have kept me on my toes during the 25- plus years that I’ve been with the firm and continue to inspire me by their own examples.  Among our attorneys are photographers, writers, singers, and musicians and virtually every attorney serves on a community board. I believe this environment encourages creativity.  
Jo with some of her creative colleagues from the Wyche law firm.
Creating time to write has forced me to be very strategic about how I spend my free time and has probably kept me away from a lot of bad television. To create time to start work on this novel, I carved out time at night, between the time our children were in bed and my chef-husband came home from work. Now that our children are older and more independent, I have much more flexibility in creating time to write. 
Jo on a family vacation in
 Japan, 2014
Although I need quiet, mostly uninterrupted time to draft, I’ve discovered that I can edit in small chunks.  I’ve done a lot of editing through the years sitting in the carpool line.   I’ve also found that I can learn something from almost everyone I meet. I keep an idea journal with me at all times and transpose the notes onto a computer file to which I often turn for ideas. I love to listen for rhythm in different regional accents. I’m amazed at the great dialog and character details I’ve been able to pick up at legal conferences, community boards, from neighbors, and in airports. 

Jo and family in Costa Rica, 2009
Carol: How would you encourage others in their search for an agent?

Jo: From the first time I met Tracey Adams, I knew that I wanted to work with her.  I was enormously impressed by her experience, talent, warmth, sense of humor, and commitment to excellence in children’s literature.  I worked hard on this manuscript and waited until I thought it was ready before I sent it to her.  I also had several other shorter pieces and ideas for other projects to demonstrate that I was serious about putting in the work required to be a writer.  I would encourage others to first work on writing the best piece they can, let it sit, revise and polish it and make it as strong as it can be, then research potential agents.  I would also encourage writers to seek not only a technical match with an agent in terms of experience and genre interest, but someone with whom they believe they will enjoy working over the long term.

Carol: You’ve been very active in SCBWI Carolinas. What role did SCBWI have in your path to publication?

Jo: SCBWI has had a pivotal role in my development as a writer.  The workshops and conferences have provided training to help develop technical skills and the wonderfully supportive SCBWI community has been a consistent source of inspiration and encouragement.  I’ve made great friends through SCBWI and we cheer each other on in our writing.  You’re a great example of that, Carol.

Carol: What advice do you wish someone had given you before you started your novel?

Jo: I think the most important thing I wish someone had advised me before I started working on my first novel is this:  “Dig deep and be brave.  As you write about your character’s experiences and reactions, recall a time in your life when you felt a similar emotion and try to put into words how it felt to be inside your body at exactly that moment, no matter how awkward or weird.  Write the scenes you’re most afraid to write and don’t hold back one bit.”
Hiking Paris Mountain, South Carolina
Jo Hackl is represented by Tracey Adams of Adams Literary.  Jo is also a corporate lawyer with Wyche, P.A. in Greenville, SC, where she is Past President of the Greenville County Bar Association and the recipient of the Richard Riley Award for her pro bono service.  She is a past president of Emrys and the founder of, which provides a free source of information and inspiration about the outdoors to individuals, families and educators. She lives with her family on the side of a mountain where she writes every day and tries to spend as much time outside as possible.
Jo has agreed to share some of her research for SMACK DAB including her experiences in an outdoor survival class. But first, I have several book giveaways coming up, another "You Heard it Here First" two part interview (with the winner of the Grateful American Book Prize!), as well as some answers to FAQs about blogging/Facebook/and Twitter from the Carolinas very own Joan Edwards. Stay tuned!

Monday, November 16, 2015

You Heard it Here First: Jo Hackl's Path to Publication Part I

If you're a member of the SCBWI-Carolinas region, then you probably already know Jo Hackl's cheerful, friendly face.  For three years she served as assistant Regional Advisor and for another three she was the voice of reassurance and encouragement as the Critique Coordinator at the annual conference. She and I have been in the region for close to the same length of time, and I've always felt like we were kindred spirits. When I read her response to my questions, discovered her favorite books and that her debut novel includes a cantankerous goat, I understood why. It gives me great pleasure to feature Jo in a two part blog series celebrating Random House's announcement to publish her book in 2017. If you live outside North and South Carolina, you'll just have to come to one of our fantastic conferences to meet Jo and our other fantastic writers!

Carol: First of all, what was your pitch for Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe

Jo: SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE is an outdoor survival meets art mystery story set in a rural Mississippi ghost town.  It features Cricket, a budding artist in search of her run-away Mama.  The story also includes a Trans-Am driving aunt and fireworks obsessed step-cousins, with a part-time moonshiner and a cantankerous goat thrown in for good measure.  I like to think of it as Hatchet meets From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler meets Turtle in Paradise.

Carol: Where did you get the idea for the book? How long did these ideas swim around in your mind before you started writing? Did you wrestle with several different versions before you settled on the one that Random House finally bought? 

Jo: I grew up next to a ghost town in rural Mississippi and spent a great deal of time outdoors, exploring the woods.  I discovered thick, crumbling sidewalks cutting straight lines through a vine-tangled forest, cement pillars from old home-places laying sideways in the red clay, old garden patches with rambling roses and wisteria gone wild,  and mysterious-looking bottles everywhere. The place had so much history that I could practically breathe it.  
"Walking Bridge" was taken with Jo and her cousin in the gravel road that ran in front of
their grandparent's home in Kemper County, Mississippi, circa 1970. 

I knew that I wanted to use that rich setting in this book.  I’m also a fan of contemporary art and wanted to include an art-related mystery element.  In brainstorming on the project, I was inspired by the way that From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (one of my favorite books) placed the main characters in a fascinating setting- the Metropolitan Museum of Art- and introduced them to an art mystery.  I wanted to see if I could figure out a way to make the ghost town setting function in similar ways to the museum in The Mixed-up Files- by challenging my main character, sparking her curiosity and imagination, and engaging her in unravelling an art mystery.  

I imagined a secret room in the last house standing in the ghost town, its walls, ceiling and floor covered in paintings, with clues to a treasure hidden in the images.  To make things more interesting, I added additional clues in a vine-covered sculpture on a pine tree in the woods and on a carving on a dowsing rod found inside the house (because what could be more cool than a rod that can be used to find underground water, treasure, or bodies - take your pick).  
The historic marker for the town of Electric Mills, Mississippi;
the ghost town that inspired the setting for Jo's book.
No story set in Mississippi would be complete without a cast of lively characters, all ready to speak their mind.  I played around with voice and backstory until the characters became real to me.  I brainstormed for about a year before I started writing.  I also tried several variations and plot structures through the writing and revision process until I found one that seemed right. 

Carol: How many drafts did you complete? How long was it from your idea inception to when you started querying agents? 

Jo: Oh my!  It’s been a long process and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each stage. I wrote the first draft in five months and spent seven more years revising, refining and polishing.  I completed at least nine full drafts (I’ve lost count).  I was on at least the fourth draft and several years into the project before I started sending it out. 

Carol: What type of help did you receive as you wrote your debut novel? 

Jo: I began the first draft of my novel in a class taught by the wonderfully talented Ashley Warlick, who offered a novel writing workshop through Emrys, a local literary arts organization and Ashley has continued to offer wise counsel throughout the project.  I attended writing workshops and read books about the craft of writing.  I studied and wrote poetry. Emrys and SCBWI conferences and workshops were extremely helpful.  

Ashley Warlick and Jo 

The Emrys, SCBWI and outdoor communities are delightfully generous and I had help from many readers, independent editors and critique groups members.  I took classes in outdoor survival skills.  Naturalists, artists, and people from the mental health community shared their knowledge and answered my questions. Colleagues and friends have been very supportive. And, of course, Tracey Adams’ comments have been invaluable in shaping the manuscript. As soon as I got the word of Random House’s offer of publication (and after I let out a huge whoop and thanked Tracey and my family), I immediately pulled out the ongoing list I’d been keeping of people to thank, to make sure it was updated.  It’s a long list! In my case, it really did take a village to write a novel and I was blessed to have this wonderful village to help me on my journey.  I look forward to giving back.
Next week Jo will share how she has balanced a very full life of being a lawyer, mother, and author, as well as the role that SCBWI has played in her life. 

Jo Hackl is represented by Tracey Adams of Adams Literary.  Jo is also a corporate lawyer with Wyche, P.A. in Greenville, SC, where she is Past President of the Greenville County Bar Association and the recipient of the Richard Riley Award for her pro bono service.  She is a past president of Emrys and the founder of, which provides a free source of information and inspiration about the outdoors to individuals, families and educators. She lives with her family on the side of a mountain where she writes every day and tries to spend as much time outside as possible.