No One to Blame But Myself… and Maybe Franz Kafka

A few years ago, after I started penning chapters for the story that became Kinned to the Sea, a critique partner gave me some advice at a meeting. As I do with all of my feedback, I wrote down the words, and I quote my writing partner now —

“You just don’t know how to write fantasy, Melissa. Why don’t you write something you actually know about? Like your own life. Why don’t you write about that?”

Whenever anyone suggests I write memoir, I always respond the same way: by stating that I have never felt compelled to write memoir. The thought of writing memoir feels like hydrochloric acid being poured on my brain. It’s highly unpleasant, to say the least. I’d honestly rather think about sawing off both my legs with a rusty bucksaw than contemplate penning an entire book based on my life.

I believe I inflict more than enough of my life on my blog followers. These random posts ought to qualify as “writing memoir,” as far as I am concerned.

Though I should also state that, for the most part, my writing partners and beta-readers do not subscribe to my blog. My critique partners are largely spared my personal drivel by avoiding these posts as well as my books. A few of them are gluttons for punishment, and might be reading this post, but that’s a very small few.

Then I have another tiny group of people who keep reading my books, and caring about my work, no matter what weird thing I write next. These fans have a lot of faith in my career — and they keep rooting for me to get a literary agent one day, so I can have some kind of financial success to show for all of this work.

I appreciate that faith readers have in me. I appreciate it a LOT.

As my longtime blog followers know, since 2012, the house my mother lives in has been facing foreclosure, saddled with an equity mortgage (a reverse-mortgage-type loan originally taken out in 2000) that no one in my family can afford to repay. We’ve been scraping by, but just barely.

By the summer of 2017, this scary financial situation turned grim. I borrowed $5,000.00 from my husband, to pay the mortgage on that house for five months, and I also used all the money I’d saved up to make my last two novels available as print books — that savings gave me an extra month’s mortgage payment. One of my brothers also sent me a check for $1,000.00 last fall, and that gave me a month’s mortgage payment as well.

During those seven months, I wrote a Young Adult/YA contemporary novel titled Ninja in a Cornfield. I wrote the book with the direct hope of being able to query the manuscript in order to gain the representation of a literary agent. (Since novelists cannot traditionally publish their work without first having an agent.)

Here is an example of what many literary agents say they are looking to represent right now — this is a paragraph taken from one literary agent’s online bio page (the agent’s name is Jennifer Kim) —

“In contemporary YA, Jennifer is looking for unique, uncommon teen stories with an authentic voice. She enjoys stories that tackle themes of being an outsider, displacement, race, sexuality, and self-discovery, and is particularly drawn to bicultural characters and stories centered around subcultures, countercultures, and found families.”

Here is how another agent (Caitlin McDonald) lets anyone seeking representation know what she is looking for —

“– Diversity of all kinds, including (but not limited to) race, gender, sexuality, and ability, in both characters and worldbuilding”

My sixth manuscript, Ninja in a Cornfield, features many of these specific diversity traits. I honestly thought I had written something that not only worked as a great story, but gave literary agents exactly what they said they were looking for.

In November 2017, I queried 109 literary agents. It took a full two weeks of working 10-hour days (14 days total) to query that many agents. I made sure to finish by November 30, which is when National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) ends. A lot of NaNoWriMo participants start querying agents starting on December 1, and due to the glut of emails this creates, many literary agencies now close to submissions for the month of December.

I followed all of the rules of the business. I had a great query letter, had a story agents said that they wanted, and had a great first ten pages to paste in an email beneath my query letter.

Then came my moment of truth.

The agents couldn’t reject my book fast enough.

The great majority of my rejections arrived within one or two days after sending my query letter — sometimes within just a few hours. Literary agents who stated they were “eagerly seeking diversity” turned down Ninja in a Cornfield faster than I can spit out an f-bomb.

On December 6, 2017, after receiving more than 70 rejection emails in a few weeks, I went for a walk through Target. I had my niece and nephew with me, and I was pushing them both in a shopping cart. We were just out for a stroll to look at Christmas decorations and toys. I happened to walk down the book aisle.

I looked at the book covers.

I paused. I looked again.

And I finally realized what was actually selling. I finally apprehended and accepted what kinds of stories were being picked up and purchased. And I knew why. I knew why because I had read almost all of the books on the shelf. I knew exactly what was printed inside of those pages.

And I realized why all of those rejection emails had hit my inbox so fast.

Within hours of that trip to Target, I started to outline a new book, and the next day, I started to write the first pages. I now have about a third of this novel finished. It’s my seventh manuscript, and it’s a Young Adult/YA fantasy — which is the genre with the strongest sales overall (in the current publishing marketplace), which means it is the genre I have the best chance of being able to sell.

So let me return to where I began this post — with the advice a critique partner gave me a few years ago —

“You just don’t know how to write fantasy, Melissa. Why don’t you write something you actually know about? Like your own life. Why don’t you write about that?”

I don’t think my problem is that I don’t know how to write fantasy. Regarding sentences and scenes, I know “how” to write. I think my problem is what I choose to write about. In my five self-published books, and in the sixth novel I finished last year, all of the stories focus on subjects that are anathema to the marketplace. In book-marketing terms, I am writing abominations. And I don’t just mean because I write about mermaids and vampires. Though that certainly hasn’t helped.

In 2017, I didn’t mess around with toxic story elements. No mermaids, no vampires, and no word counts that went over the publishing limit.

This time, I wrote exactly what the literary agents all said they wanted. And I still ended up with a trainwreck.

So I think I’ve finally come to the real root of my problem, as to why I continually fail to attract a literary agent.

Kinned to the Sea is my examination of real-life child soldiers and human-caused climate change.

Both topics are strongly avoided in the YA fantasy market. Which is to say, both topics are not what the great majority of YA book customers want to read about. Real life, to put it mildly, is pretty goddamn grim. YA stories typically re-frame the darkness of real life into far more palatable terms. Sometimes these stories ignore reality altogether, but they most often just favor the stylized creation of hero’s journeys, savior tales, the triumph of justice, redemption, and happy endings. They soften real life with moral rewards for the heroes and “just deserts” for the villains — which is a far different experience from watching the nightly news.

That is just the beginning, however, of what separates bestselling YA from a tale of real life. And as far as my work is concerned, my stories don’t fit. Especially not Kinned to the Sea.

Books are one of the hardest things to sell to begin with, and literary agents can only keep their jobs if they pay close attention to what people want.

And by “people” I mean bookstore shoppers. Folks who choose to spend money on brand new books.

Of all the things a majority of these book-buying readers want most from a book, I will share a brief list.

In order of importance, here is what I believe *most* YA book customers want:

  1. To see themselves in the story (in as many of the characters as possible).
  2. Escapism. (readers crave “feelings and fun”)
  3. Confirmation bias. (**and herein lies my biggest problem**)

As I have been talking about my growing awareness of the book market with friends, I’ve found that defining the term “confirmation bias” is often useful.

Here is the definition from Wikipedia:

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.”

Confirmation bias is one of the biggest parts of identity and behavior. A reader’s confirmation bias has a direct impact on how they see themselves as well as the world around them, and this worldview then shapes what they consider escapism, or “feelings and fun.”

Years ago, somewhere around June 20, 2009, author Pamela Painter gave me some important writing advice. I’m unsure if this was an original quote, or if she was citing the work of another instructor, but I wrote it down and have always remembered it, to the point that I quote it a lot —

“You must give the reader to the reader.”

The “you” is the writer, of course. The writer’s job is to “give the reader to the reader.”

And “the reader,” in this case, is not “an every-man” or “an average Joe.” The folks who purchase brand new novels are a small, rather homogeneous slice of the U.S. population. And they want what they want.

I’m not really a part of that market. While I *am* a reader, and I *do* buy brand new books, I am actually part of a tiny, tiny sliver in this piece of the book-buying pie. When I spend money on new books, I am much more likely to purchase literary fiction and nonfiction. I consume YA fiction only when the titles are popular and generate large amounts of buzz.

Except for 2017. In 2017, I devoured book after book of YA fiction. Both fantasy and contemporary YA. I read YA and I read YA and I read YA some more.

That was how I ended up taking that stroll through the Target in December, and being confronted with truth.

Truth is hard. It’s uncomfortable. This particular truth is also quite ugly.

Literary agents don’t really want what they say that they want. And when they do find a “diverse book” that is acceptable for representation, what they really want is a diversity story that upholds all of the reader’s confirmation bias.

My stories have — so far — failed to do that.

Because the reader’s confirmation bias is fundamentally different from mine. I cannot give the reader to the reader if I’m really writing for me. Which is what I have done all along.

But now that I see the problem for what it is, I believe I have found a solution. And I wanted to share the bare bones of what I’ve learned in the past two months in this blog post, so all of my followers would know that Ninja in a Cornfield — unfortunately — has died. The writer-lingo term for a dropped project is “a trunked manuscript.” Author Colum McCann calls these books “dead babies.”

This one is only dead for now, though — not forever. I’m going to rewrite Ninja in a Cornfield. But I have to rewrite the book with all of this confirmation bias in mind, and by the time I lengthen it to make it what I want, it will be too long for a query letter.

But that’s okay. I like self-publishing my work, and I hold everything I write to the same high standards, including this new story I’ve begun. Confirmation bias be damned.

Personally, I have always turned to books for the same reason Franz Kafka needed certain kinds of words —

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

I read those words, and they resonate all through my body. Kafka’s truth brings tears to my eyes, makes my heart pound with joy, makes me hold up my fists in the air and shout, “Yes!! Yes!! Yes!!”

I want the axe in my books, and I want to be broken open. I want grief and disaster. I want an author who knows I exist, an author who will kill me and resurrect me in order to teach me something new.

But a blow to the head is the opposite of confirmation bias. What drove Kafka to read, and what drives the bulk of the book-buying market to read, are two very different things.

As a writer, I have written six novels that have gone nowhere. First, I tried and failed, five times over, and then I tried better and failed better with my sixth book. My failures have grown into a spectacular pile of abysmal worthlessness in the face of the market.

I have no more mortgage money left to keep my mother’s house out of foreclosure. But I paid the January 1st bill with my last savings. And my seventh manuscript is outlined and streamlined, with more than a hundred pages complete.

I have always written with urgency. Now, more than ever.

I would have had to give up this year, if I hadn’t finally figured out why everything I write is always so wrong.

Maybe I should have given up. Maybe I will always be wrong. I keep going further and further into debt for a career that is taking me nowhere. This path I am on is profoundly unwise and ridiculous. I feel like an utter fool.

But hope springs eternal, even when all I do is just fail.

This is probably all Franz Kafka’s fault. Of course. I blame him.

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Notes on The English Patient, and a Few Reflections on Love

In 1996, when I was sixteen years old, I went with a friend to the movie theater in Mattoon, Illinois, and we watched The English Patient together on the big screen. It was one of the best days of my life.

My friend felt the opposite. She didn’t care for the movie at all, and she laughed uproariously throughout all the slow, quiet scenes that are meant to be serious, including the moment when Ralph Fiennes turns the movie into a literal “bodice-ripper” by tearing the front of Kristin Scott Thomas’ white dress.

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There were only six people in the audience that day, so my friend and I were surrounded by a sea of empty chairs. The other four people looked like two married couples in their late sixties. One couple sat in the front row, the other in the back row, and my friend and I sat in the middle.

Every time she burst into laughter, the sound interrupted the movie, and the couples shot us dirty looks and/or muttered and hissed about how disrespectful we were. I didn’t laugh, but I smiled in support of my friend’s right to laugh, since she found the movie appallingly ridiculous, and therefore humorous. When we left the theater, she said that I’d picked the worst movie ever, and she gave me an earful about how she was never going to suffer through something that shitty ever again. As she announced I’d lost my movie-picking privileges after choosing such epic drivel to watch, I drove us across the highway to the Walmart. At the time, the only place to buy novels in Mattoon was at Walmart.

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Once inside the store, when my friend wasn’t watching, I found a copy of The English Patient on the magazine rack. Of course, being sold in tandem with the movie’s release, the trade paperback’s cover featured the film poster, and I felt a wave of euphoria picking it up. An ugly gold sticker slapped over the title announced the book was half-off the list price.

I definitely had plans for the $7.00 in my pocket, plans that involved other people, but I bought that book in secret, because at sixteen, I was a selfish and secretive asshole, with a mind that hungered for things I couldn’t explain and still don’t really understand.

Whatever the fallout was for this rash and secretive purchase, I cannot remember. I just know I had to cancel doing something I had promised to do, went home, and stayed up all night reading the book. I read the novel again the next night, and again the night after that. I think I read that book eight times in the first week alone. As a teenager, I had a lot more stamina for reading for hours on end, with no breaks at all, like I’d fallen into a trance and could barely even breathe. At some point in my obsessive rereadings, I finally picked off that ugly gold sticker. I remember thinking it took me more time to do that than to read the whole book.

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Many penned and digital words have been written about The English Patient, the movie as well as the prize-winning novel. I love the movie a great deal, but I love the novel more, because the novel is far, far darker than the movie could ever be. To enter the world of that story is to be plunged into a much starker evaluation of racism and colonialist discourse than what was put in the film. There is also pagan love, talk of demons, a reanimated corpse, and ancient fairy tales. My heart found its cadence when I read that book.

Ten years ago, I met a woman in Aspen, Colorado, who had such an intense loathing for the film, she savaged the movie in public, and a handful of bar patrons applauded her emotional screed. My friend in Illinois would have cheered, had she witnessed the diatribe. When the woman heard me quote lines from the novel, and learned I had the gall to disagree with her, she asked, “How can you love that shitty movie? How?

She was beside herself, and her three martinis hadn’t helped. Her eyes had gone wild, her frizzy hair was practically sparking with rage. She almost grabbed my shoulders to shake me. I kept slinking away from her but we were in one of those small, sophisticated bars that encourage entrapment. Hedged into that crowded space, I had to face the fact that this woman and I both loved Michael Ondaatje, only she was sure that my love for “Hollywood’s f*cking hack-job of a movie” meant I didn’t understand what the author was really writing about, and my so-called “love” for his work was a sign of mindless bandwagon-hopping of the very worst kind.

I found the whole conversation absurd. It was my first experience of being yelled at in a bar about my “uninformed” appreciation of literary fiction, and I thought the messenger was completely unqualified to be riding my ass. Sure, she had at least two extra decades of reading on me, and I was certain she’d read a great many more books than I had. But I knew my Ondaatje. By the time of this fracas, I’d read all of his published work: all of his novels, all of his poetry. In the eleven years since my first binge-read of The English Patient as a teen, I had consumed everything else he had written. I also carried my original copy of The English Patient around like a talisman, including two trips to India, when books are the last thing anyone should be backpacking with.

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The woman’s argument centered on how the movie had changed Kip (Kirpal Singh — pictured above), the sapper who the nurse (Hana) falls in love with. In the book, when Kip leaves Italy to return to (what was then) India (the story is set before Partition, when India and Pakistan divided), he does so after learning the Unites States has dropped two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Devastated by the news, Kip realizes that America would have never dropped the bombs on Germany, and that the decision to test-drop a new weapon and avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Germany had done so many equally terrible things in the war, was motivated — and made possible — by racism.

Kip is an Indian Sikh, a sapper trained by the British military, a soldier who loses his best friend (in the movie and book) to one of the many hidden land mines they’ve been working so hard to remove. Before his untimely demise, Kip’s friend Harvey is a beautiful figure, in the movie as well as the book. Harvey admires Kip, is tremendously loyal to Kip, and even though — as a white subject of the British Empire — his racial superiority could’ve led to any number of stereotypical comments, Harvey never — not once — treated Kip as an ethnic, religious, or racial Other to be mocked. For Kip, Harvey represents the best of what Western civilization can be; Harvey embodies all that Kip loves most about the West.

In the movie, Harvey’s death provides the impetus for Kip to withdraw from Hana’s love, turn away from Western hegemony, and return to his native India. In the book, however, it is clear that the dropping of the nuclear bombs is the final poison Kip cannot forgive, marking the end of his loyalty to Western civilization and the hegemony he can no longer support.

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The woman in the bar thought I hadn’t understood all these points. Though our conversation was nowhere near as articulate as I’ve summarized here, in the emotional context of our clash in the bar, all she needed to do was refer to the “nuclear bombs” in the book, and I knew exactly what she was talking about.

To study “the decision to drop the bomb” on Hiroshima is to be plunged into a terrible piece of American history. As militarists, patriots, and jingoists, there is no end to the amount of rationalized justification made for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Forced Japan to surrender” and “saved American lives” are the two most-frequently repeated reasons touted in America’s defense. Bring up this subject alone, and people will often start shouting those two phrases before any conversation begins.

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When a student of history looks deeper, however… sifting through all the documentation, the casualty numbers, the operations in the Pacific, the communications between the White House and the Japanese military that were already underway before Nazi Germany even fell… the rationalizations for those nuclear bombs become hollow war propaganda, and many a student of history ends up where Michael Ondaatje ended up with Kip: that the emotions of racism won the day, the same way racism won when the United States set up those Japanese concentration camps on American soil.

If you are a defender of America’s nuclear bombing of Japan, and find this blog post infinitely offensive, please be advised that I’m aware of the animosity toward my opinions, and I assure you, I have been called “an ignorant bitch,” “a bleeding-heart liberal,” and “a complete fucking moron” more times than I can count.

Yet I persist in my study of history here, and I refuse to tout the party line. As far as I am concerned, I can still love my country and be honest about my country. Love does not need to come with delusion. Love, in fact, most often exists because forgiveness exists. As someone who also enjoys reading the Gospel of Mark, I believe it is sometimes impossible to tell the difference between mercy and love. I could never bear to read about “the decision to drop the bomb” without a great deal of mercy — first and foremost, for myself, as a citizen born to the nation that created and used nuclear weapons in war. That legacy is felt in my blood, and part of the reason why my teenage-self read and reread The English Patient so many times in one week.

I do not condemn the movie made of my most-beloved book because the screenplay left out all conversation of America’s nuclear bombs. I certainly understand why the woman in the bar did so. What is considered “palatable” and “acceptable” art by the American public is often completely at odds with historical fact and historical truth.

Yet I love the movie. I love the movie. To watch The English Patient is to witness a poem told with image and sound. I knew this from the instant the movie began, because the opening scenes lit me up, made my entire spirit feel radiant, as if I were a penitent kneeling at the bones of a saint.

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The movie begins with a close-up image of paper, one of my favorite things in the world. This image tells the viewer  — right away — that they are watching a film concerned with texture. Both the literal texture of how things feel to the touch, as well as the texture of meaning, meaning that has either been laid bare in the singular or layered together like ancient bedrock. The paper’s color and texture look more like sandstone than paper, and that immediate likeness holds the scope of human history in its message: prehistory combines with recorded history here, all the tribes of humanity to ever exist on the earth are condensed in this moment.

Then the tip of a paintbrush appears, and someone begins to paint a figure. Later, the audience learns the painter is Katherine Clifton, and she is recreating the figure on a cave wall, painting on paper what already exists on the sandstone in front of her. The symbolism of her paintbrush forces time to collapse yet again: we are watching the cycle of history, told in seconds. As the lines on the paper are formed, the figures in the cave live again, they are reanimated before us, the same way generations of humans are reborn again and again.

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During this opening scene, a woman sings an old Hungarian lullaby, voicing notes full of pathos and reverence, a song that the audience later learns is symbolic of Count Ladislaus de Almásy’s childhood.

While the woman sings, we wonder: what is this painted figure, exactly? As the limbs slowly take shape, this person might be walking, or dancing, or marching to war. This figure might be falling, or asleep, or a corpse on the ground. Anything is held in that initial drawing, every action of human life is bound in that simple picture.

Then the music shifts to stringed and wind instruments, as the audience watches a plane in flight over the desert, over sand and sandstone: the paper’s texture stretched over the earth like a map. The politicization of maps is one of the story’s strongest themes, and my favorite theme of the book. In every empire, the drawing of lines is a known weapon of war. In every empire, cartography is the work of story and symbols to motivate and justify war.

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As  the camera focuses on the plane with the same care given the paper, the audience sees Almásy flying an airplane we later learn belongs to his English friend, Madox. Katherine Clifton sits in the seat in front of Almásy, and she is no longer alive. She is, in fact, a corpse, but in truth, she is a reanimated corpse, her body held alive by Almásy’s terrible and infinite, passionate love.

In the novel, the reader learns just how reanimated Katherine Clifton is in those fleeting moments of the plane flying over the desert. Those particular missing scenes from the novel are yet another place where the movie diverges sharply from the book.

The novel is dense and oblique, asking questions of demons and shadow and the spirit at the heart of all human life. Ondaatje’s poetry is like trying to read Sanskrit, sometimes, and I don’t think I’m really up to the challenge, as much as I try. Any prose that complex and lyrical can extend into places a Hollywood movie cannot.

But the film engages with other meanings, and it is the juxtaposition of recorded image and sound that works in a way a novel cannot. The movie is beautiful on its own terms. It speaks to the viewer in a language beyond words, and there is an infinite power in that language as well.

The fate of Almásy’s friend, Madox, is another place where the novel and film differ. In the movie, Madox shoots himself after learning Almásy was a spy, after Almásy gives away British maps to the Nazis in an act of betrayal.

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The book does not blame Madox’s suicide on Almásy’s behavior. After the men say goodbye to each other, and Madox returns home to England to wait out World War II, the novel explains that Madox went to church one Sunday, listened to a lofty sermon in praise of war, and immediately shot himself. The novel never deviates from the tenet that war is a senseless human hell, and Madox’s suicide by shooting himself in the mouth while attending a sermon is an act of protest, a violent way to disagree with the belief that the purpose of Christianity is to justify war.

I love Madox — in the movie and in the book. He is such a great character. Plus, he loves Tolstoy. I have infinite respect for any Englishman who loves Tolstoy.

None of these are points I can make in an argument with an intoxicated, angry woman in a bar. She wasn’t trying to have a discussion, but to convince me I was brainless and wrong. I can cop to the fact that I am often brainless and wrong.

But I wanted to make these points, anyway.

And now I have.

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Writer’s Log: This Day Gets a Smiley Face, and Here’s Why

In preparation for querying my newest manuscript, a YA contemporary titled Ninja in a Cornfield, I wrote a one-page synopsis of the book today.

A one-page synopsis! That’s right — I wrote a WHOLE PAGE! Where’s my glass of champagne?? Where’s the marching band and the six-block parade thrown in my honor??

Like, seriously: GO ME.

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Yeah, I know it’s NaNoWriMo and all, a month when other writers are challenging themselves to pen 50,000 words in thirty days — and here I am, excited I wrote 353 words. I can totally cop to how pathetic that is.

And yet, I’m still feelin’ so fly.

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The fact that my friends are so happy about my wee baby steps is no doubt why I’m in such a good mood, and feeling like I’ve accomplished much more than I really have.

I also queried two more literary agents this morning, bringing my total query count up to thirteen. None of these agents required a synopsis in their submission requirements, but having a synopsis means I can now query even more agents who represent contemporary/real-life YA manuscripts.

This is actually a pretty big deal. In the past, I’ve not done so well with this process. Right now, I’m pursuing the market, rather than just giving up.

For my first two novels, I was a lot braver with querying. But by the time I finished my third book, Mark of the Pterren — in 2015 — I’d learned enough about the industry to know I’d written a manuscript that didn’t qualify as a good risk for a publishing house. The novel was far too long for a debut author — and science fiction did a lot better when it was penned by a male writer. When I was met with a void while querying Mark of the Pterren, I invented a male pen name and queried the manuscript as a male. That query letter received several responses — all were rejections, but they were polite and personalized, and each one greeted my fictitious male self by name.

After sending out 12 query letters as a male, the lying bothered me so much that I stopped, and simply gave up on querying that book anymore.

In September 2016, I attended a writers conference in Denver, and learned that certain words in a query letter are considered industry-toxic. As in, if any of these words appear in your query letter, it’s an instant-delete, and no amount of “nice prose” is going to change that.

Unfortunately for me, my fourth and fifth novels both qualified as industry-toxic. Vampires, urban fantasy, and mermaids are currently all deal-breakers for acquiring editors, which means literary agents hunting for manuscripts want nothing to do with them. These words have been industry-toxic for some time, and they will likely stay that way for the next couple of years. Like any other trend, book genres run in long cycles. Something that is popular for a time, such as werewolves, time travel, or fallen-angel YA, can sell well for years, and then suddenly plummet in sales once that particular subject becomes overdone.

Had I known this, I would have picked different projects for my fourth and fifth books. Alas, I set myself up for failure. A calamity I’m trying hard not to repeat.

I chose to work on Ninja in a Cornfield this year because the story occupies a genre literary agents currently want: YA contemporary. I started the book at the end of May, and wrote most of the novel this summer. In October, I took a break from writing in order to accompany my husband on a three-week trip to visit his family. Once we arrived home, I went back to work, and finished the final two chapters this month.

There are so many things I know now about publishing that I didn’t know even a year ago. Knowledge is power, and I have more confidence in this manuscript than I’ve felt as a writer in years. The market is impersonal and driven by money — just accepting that fact takes a lot of the sting out of rejection.

Writing quality isn’t determined by money. Money follows trends and luck. If a writer anchors their self-esteem to something as ephemeral as trends and luck, they’re doomed to feel sucky. And I really can’t work when I feel sucky.

So being able to stop linking “quality” with “success” is emotionally helpful to me, and allows me to power through a process that has been my absolute downfall in the past.

All of us face our own hurdles, large and small — and query letters are just one of the bigger hurdles I’ve ever found myself trying to jump.

No matter the outcome, or how long the odds to success, we all know the only thing that matters is doing the work. So whatever you might be facing today, I wish you well in achieving the task.

Since I often fall flat on my face, and bomb things all the time, I know failure is the big constant in life, and I can’t say my success today will continue tomorrow. But for the present moment, my day is not completely suck-tastic, and I hope your day isn’t, either.

And if you’re curious about reading my query letter for Ninja in a Cornfield, it’s pasted below. All well-wishes for this manuscript are most gratefully appreciated! I will gladly take all the help I can get — and many, many thanks for reading this blog, and all the positive energy sent my way! ^.^

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*****

            Fifteen-year-old Mercedes García has a small obsession with ninjas. To her way of thinking, fantasy ninjahood means personal freedom, financial independence, and the kind of badassery that can make dreams come true. With a physically violent uncle pressuring her to make money in the adult film industry, Mercedes lives with plenty of secrets about what her home life is like, but possesses none of the weaponry a badass ninja should have. As much as she loves growing tomatoes and beans, vegetables aren’t much good in a fight.  

On the first day of junior year, a new student arrives at Mercedes’ rural Illinois high school. Well-dressed and well-spoken, he inspires a storm of angry rumors, and the gossip is damning. Nicolás Sánchez is labeled a Mexican drug dealer, and an illegal immigrant hiding from ICE. Though Mercedes is told by her uncle to stay away from this boy, she befriends Nico anyway. She learns Nico is Colombian-American, and that he admires vegetable gardens, fantasy ninjas, and speaks fluent Spanish, which is as badass to Mercedes as showing up at school with throwing stars and a sword.

Their honest conversations inspire new hope and new strength in Mercedes, even though she is punished at home for creating this friendship. As her family becomes more physically abusive and dangerous, Mercedes must confront the ugly secrets and fears that control the choices she makes. With her dreams and her future at stake, she realizes that even a fantasy ninja must overcome enemies far more powerful than the ones she faces at home.

            Ninja in a Cornfield (76,000 words) will appeal to fans of contemporary YA with diverse, bilingual main characters, such as Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star, as well as fans of diverse friendship stories set in rural locations, such as Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King.

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My Husband, the Halloween Hippie — and a Unicorn of Good Luck

Happy Halloween, everyone! I hope you all have a great time dressing up today, for those of you fond of Halloween costumes. My husband went to work as a hippie this morning — he even shaved and dyed his facial hair, put on fake piercings, and donned a pair of loafers with goofy socks —

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He is also wearing a wig, and some pins on his shirt — so cute, don’t ya think? 😀

Greg with his piercings

Me? I’m just wearing jeans and a t-shirt today, and trying to finish the last chapter of my sixth novel. Greg and I were out of town for most of October, visiting friends and family in Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois — and while we had a great trip seeing so many loved ones, I didn’t get any book-writing done. So now we are finally home again, and I get to play catch-up with my pages.

Tomorrow is November 1, the first day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I have many writer-friends who will be participating this year. Last year was my first NaNoWriMo experience, and even though I was excited to sign up and log my word count each day, I definitely failed to complete 50,000 words before the end of November. Like many other people, the 2016 presidential election results prompted me to put my attention elsewhere. I read political essays and articles, camped out on social media a lot, and ended up organizing a march in Durango, Colorado, on the day after President Trump’s inauguration.

I did focus on my writing last November as well, but I spent my time editing Bloodshade of the Goddess and Kinned to the Sea, rather than completing the goal of adding 50,000 words onto a new project.

This year, all summer long, I tried to complete a Young Adult contemporary novel, a book I’ve titled Ninja in a Cornfield. I wanted to finish the manuscript by Labor Day, but here I am on the last day of October, typing the final words into the last chapter.

While that *does* mean I could start work on a new book tomorrow, I’ve promised myself I will query Ninja in a Cornfield to every literary agent I possibly can — an endeavor that might take me all month. I average around an hour or two in order to query each agent, mostly because researching the agents and formatting the query letter for each individual is such a long process.

But if I get any requests for the manuscript, then querying all of these agents will be time well-spent. And if no one expresses any interest in this novel, then I will turn to self-publishing again.

If you are a writer participating in NaNoWriMo this year, I wish you the best of luck on achieving your 50,000 new words by the end of November. I hope you overcome all distractions, and keep your focus on your project, whether you are rewriting a manuscript or starting with a blank page. I have a feeling this November is gonna be GREAT. ^.^

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Banana Puddin’ and Sweet Tea in Eastern Tennessee

Today, I ate a piece of buttermilk pie, drank a cup of coffee, and visited the Davy Crockett Tavern and Museum in Morristown, Tennessee. My husband and I drove to Tennessee to spend a week with his family, since it’s been four years since we’ve seen his siblings, their spouses, and their children. So far, this has been a very good trip. I’ve been socializing a lot, which feels strange, since I was a hermit all summer, writing another book. Greg’s family has been super kind about humoring me, and taking me to all these historical sites I want to see.

Here is a photograph I took of the recreated Davy Crockett Tavern, which is a much larger building than the real tavern would have been —

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See how green those leaves are? Yeah. Eastern Tennessee is exceedingly pleasant this time of year. I love how warm the weather has been. Two days ago, I visited the General Longstreet Museum in Morristown, a Civil War site in Tennessee, so I know some of these valleys dropped to 29 below zero in the winter — cold enough to halt battle sometimes — but right now, the temperatures here are like the late-May weather where I live in southwest Colorado.

The state tree of Tennessee is the tulip poplar, and there is a beautiful tulip poplar growing behind the Davy Crockett Tavern. A few years ago, lightning split the bark in half (a vertical slice running the length of the trunk), but the tree has survived with the help of the staff, who seal the bark with black paint to keep the bugs out.

Also behind the tavern is this all-purpose shed structure, which includes a mossy-roofed covering for an original 1790s Conestoga wagon —

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The museum bought this wagon from a place where it lay in pieces, and then the staff repaired and reassembled the wagon on site. I don’t know if you can tell from the picture, but the base of the wagon is curved, which made it easier for transporting across water.

The large pan on the ground is a hog boiling cauldron. After slaughtering a pig, the body would be boiled for a time in water, which made the hair easier to scrape off the skin. People used “everything but the oink” when they butchered a pig, goes the saying — and I’m grateful I don’t have to spend my days slaughtering hogs.

After the guided tour at the tavern, we also drove to a campground which now houses the original cabin where Davy Crockett was born —

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You can see my husband standing beside the house in that picture. The pickup and trailer behind him are some folks parked at a campsite.

Here is a closer photo of Greg, which also reveals some better detail of the house. The chinking on these cabins was made with sand, clay, horsehair, straw, and other materials, pretty much whatever was handy —

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I asked Greg if he could point out a hemlock tree for me, and he said hemlock trees didn’t exist. I said, yes they do, hemlock are one of the most common trees of eastern Tennessee and the Appalachian mountains, whereupon Greg whipped out his spiffy smartphone and googled it.

He soon discovered that hemlocks *do* exist (and no, the trees are not poisonous). Hemlocks are a type of pine tree with short, blue-green needles, and after Greg examined a photograph online, we did find many hemlocks to sniff. I love the smell of hemlock needles, so I sniffed many of them.

Here is a view of the back of the house where Davy Crockett was born —

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Someone has nailed up a yoke to the right of the back door. Greg said it’s an ox yoke. There were ox shoes on display at the Davy Crockett Tavern and Museum. There was a *lot* of stuff in that tavern and museum — it was utterly awesome. If you haven’t been there before, and you find yourself in the area, I definitely recommend visiting. Our entry fee today was $5.00 for each adult.

Visiting the house at the campground is free, but it’s about an hour away from the tavern, and you cannot go inside the house at the campground.

I’m not the best person to travel with, since I don’t have a smartphone, I’m using an outdated road atlas from 2007 because I’m too lazy to buy a new one, and I generally whine a lot if I don’t get nice things to eat, like jambalaya and green tomato gravy-smothered grits and homemade spaghetti and meatballs.

But while I might be a lazy whiner, I can be a good talker when called upon to converse, and I like talking about history. Davy Crockett is a fascinating person. As a member of the U.S. Congress, Representative Crockett split with President Andrew Jackson over the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands — but then Davy Crockett went to Texas, and fought for Texan independence from Mexico.

Why did people in Texas want freedom from Mexico? Yeah. Slavery. Ugh. Not that Mexico is a perfect country, but at least they’d already abolished slavery there.

None of this slavery stuff was up on display at the Davy Crockett Tavern and Museum, but I can’t “Remember the Alamo” without remembering one of the biggest reasons that inspired the fighting.

Greg and I drove to Austin, Texas, in May of this year, and I spent a lot of time at the Texas State Capitol building — on the side lawn of the State Capitol, to be exact — which now holds this beautiful piece of art —

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The Texas African American History Memorial.

Flanking the main entrance and mall leading up to the capitol building are monuments to Civil War generals, cannons, and other Confederate memorabilia. I took pictures of those monuments, too.

But today, standing in eastern Tennessee, contemplating the life and times of Davy Crockett, the Texas African American History Memorial was the one on my mind.

I also spent a lot of time thinking about human migration patterns — with a special fixation on comparing the movement of immigrants from the Old World to the New with the modern-day rise in urbanization all over the world, as people leave rural towns to live in cities. Today, I thought about the landholding urban class of the 1700s, and the landholding urban class of 2017.

Modern American pioneers are still people like Davy Crockett — country people who learn how to bridge the divide between living in the rural backwoods and urban life. Sometimes people think modern life has changed “so much” from “the good old days,” but the storyline of starting out in humble beginnings to claim a place of power in the city (or in many cities — plural) is certainly the backbone of the United States.

The divide between rural and urban life is much, much older than the United States — and the difference in the social hierarchy between those two settings has always been there as well. The Founding Fathers/Framers of the U.S. Constitution certainly knew this. Modern politicians certainly know this. My conservative family members who advocate for states’ rights certainly know this as well.

My week has been full of political conversation. I like those discussions a lot. We haven’t been talking about the current news cycle, but history and government in general. With sprinklings of psychology and philosophy thrown in for good measure.

Our first night here, we gathered as a big family around a fire in the backyard, and Greg’s brothers played their guitars and sang beautiful country and rock ‘n’ roll songs that made everyone want to sing along. The day had been warm, around 82 degrees, and the night air was cool but not cold, out under the stars.

Tomorrow, Greg and I will be leaving Tennessee for northern Ohio, to visit more family members who live close to Cleveland. I’m taking many fond memories of eastern Tennessee with me when we go. The landscape is so gorgeous here. And there’s plenty of banana puddin’ and sweet tea, brisket and biscuits and buttermilk pie. My belly has been exceedingly happy during this trip.

 

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Welcome to My New Website!

Hello, Thought Candy readers! Welcome to my new home on the internet! I hope you like my new website. My friend and Reading Angel, April Duclos, created this for me. She knew how much I loved my original website, and she designed these pages to look as much like my original site as possible.

Thank you for joining me here, and for subscribing to my blog! My blog followers are one of the biggest joys in my life, so I thank you for being part of my journey. I hope to have many more posts to share about writing and life, while galloping around on my special snowflake unicorn, Princess Sparkles. Glitter power! (Which is like Moon Princess Power, but more glittery.)

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So Many Feathers in My Mouth from Eating All of This Crow

Late last night, my husband and I came home from a week-long trip to Austin, Texas. We drove there to visit Greg’s youngest son, Wesley, his wife, Brandi, and their four-year-old son, Gabriel. We also visited Greg’s nephew, Shane, who works for the current governor of Texas (Greg Abbott). The drive to Austin from Durango, Colorado took us two full days each way. So we spent four days on the road, and four days in Austin.

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I took several pictures, and hopefully I’ll share those in a future post. But I have some writing-related news to share at the moment.

On Saturday, May 13, bestselling author Mindy McGinnis slashed (“critiqued” free of charge) my query letter for my current work-in-progress, a manuscript I decided to name after the villain of the story, The Shadowfall Witch.

A quick note on my use of the word “villain” — I do understand that it sounds more “humane” and “compassionate” (as well as “more educated”) to call the creator-of-conflict in a story the “antagonist,” but I prefer the word “villain.” Mostly because it’s such a cool word. Plus, it just seems more honest, given the moralizing that goes on in a story — any story, even the most highbrow literary novel.

I love the word villain so much. And I *do* humanize my story villains. As an author, I could put a bumper sticker on my car that reads I LOVE MY VILLAINS but that might freak people out. And other writerly types would accuse me of being a hack, because nowadays, only hacks still call their antagonists “villains.” If you suspect I am a hack, maybe unsubscribe to this blog and find a better writer to follow, preferably one who hears the word villain and squinches their face with a noxious expression, like someone just silent-farted in the room and the air smells like diarrhea now. Because there will be no face-squinching going on in this blog post. Not unless someone brings me a plate full of lemon bars, because I think those things are disgusting.

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Ew. Lemon bars. Ew, ew, ew. This is what I imagine people are forced to eat in Hell. Just looking at that picture makes me queasy. So much ew.

Anyway, back to the point of this blog post. Which was my latest query letter, shared in an earlier blog, and slashed by Mindy McGinnis on May 13. You can read her full slash comments right here.

Her comments are excellent, I emailed her as soon as I could to say thank you, and I can definitely put her feedback to use to write a better query.

But what caught my attention the most were her final thoughts on my letter: “Your word count raises questions about length. While your genre allows for such a hefty WC [word count], the fact that there are multiple examples of unnecessary wording in your query, I have to wonder if the same is true of the manuscript.”

Now, she is absolutely right to say I have redundancies in that letter, and to state I have a hefty word count. A novel of 100,000 words is the largest manuscript a literary agent will consider these days. (And if this had been a contemporary novel, I’d need to cut the book down to 80,000 words to be viable to an agent.)

And here is the cold hard truth: The Shadowfall Witch will be longer than 100,000 words. I was just using that number as a placeholder, so I could start querying agents and see if they like the idea of this project before I finish writing it. I knew I couldn’t put a larger number in the letter because agents would delete the letter immediately, if the word count was too high.

The reality is, no matter how artfully I pen this query letter, the manuscript itself will be unsuitable to an agent. Not only due to an undesirable word count, but because the book itself doesn’t fit a strict genre. As Ms. McGinnis pointed out in her feedback: “Right now it reads like a magical realism historical romance, which, while that’s really cool, you need to hint more about what exactly that is, without lengthening the query by much.”

First, I should make clear that The Shadowfall Witch is not a romance, and I do think I can adjust this query to make sure the story doesn’t sound like one.

Second, for Ms. McGinnis to call the book “magical realism” rather than “fantasy” is an upgrade. A big upgrade. Fantasy is genre fiction. Magical realism is literary fiction. To non-writers that might sound meaningless, but to me, it means my query letter sounded far more precise and rooted in reality than most genre fiction (generally) is.

But the mash-up “magical realism historical romance” is not a good thing. Literary agents do not like “blendy” books — books that blend multiple genres together — because they are difficult to market. Meaning, they are difficult to sell. And selling books is hard enough without adding more complications like a novel in a blendy genre no one knows how to talk about in a five-word sound bite.

I have written and self-published five novels, and my last two manuscripts were written with the specific hope that they would be attractive to a literary agent. Then I went to a writers conference in Denver last fall, and discovered some genres and subjects are “toxic” to agents, because acquiring editors (at publishing houses) won’t touch them. Some of the most toxic stories (right now) are urban fantasy and anything starring mermaids. So I had to give up my hope of ever successfully querying two books that took me a long time to write — but because I think they are great books, I made them available on Smashwords for free. If I couldn’t query an agent with them, maybe they could bring me new readers, or new blog followers, since both books will have sequels one day.

So far, that has not happened. My two free books are just — um, there — existing unread — on the internet. Like a lot of other self-published books.

I promised my husband that taking this risk — putting two ebooks up for free — would be a boon to my writing career, but the fact is, the whole experiment turned out to be fruitless, Greg wasted a lot of money paying my self-publishing costs (about $3,000.00 for the two covers and the formatting fees), and I have eaten a whole lot of crow.

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Greg serves me plates of crow daily. I have eaten a LOT of crow since January, when I published Bloodshade of the Goddess, and even more crow since March, when I published Kinned to the Sea. One of the biggest humiliations of my life has been Kinned to the Sea, since I was so sure that book would find a niche readership, and I spent a lot of time on Goodreads telling mermaid-lovers about the book. I even convinced Greg to give me $400.00 so I could pay to format the book with CreateSpace, and make it available as a paperback, and all I can say is, nothing makes me feel more pathetic, or more of a super-failure, than looking at my first proof copy of Kinned to the Sea. The formatters did a horrible job with the font, so I have a lot of work to do to make this paperback formatting not-totally-suck, work that will be overall pointless for a non-selling book, and it depresses me to no end.

Look, I am not saying that I regret self-publishing my books — I am saying I regret that my hopes were so high that offering ebooks for free might have some kind of benefit to my readership. Hopes crushed by reality are brutal pills to swallow. Crow is not fun to eat.

The feedback Mindy McGinnis gave me — free criticism from a professional — is invaluable. Because here’s what I chose to do with that feedback: I immediately shelved my work-in-progress as another unsellable book, and decided to work on something an agent might want.

What do agents want? In the adult world, psychological thrillers are big. Mysteries are always big.

In the YA (Young Adult) world, contemporary YA and historical YA are both big.

So I’m going to work on a YA contemporary right now. I’m going to make sure the book isn’t blendy. I’m going to make sure the manuscript isn’t longer than 80,000 words.

I can’t keep publishing books the industry doesn’t want, and I can’t keep publishing books when I have no marketing budget for them. If one more person tells me I should “pay to advertise on Facebook” and that this will “solve all my problems,” I might scream. To the folks who have money to spend on advertising, all I can say is, “How awesome for you!” This is not my reality. I can’t advertise on Facebook when I don’t have the money to pay for the ads. I love knowing that Facebook ads have been successful for a great many people. But this avenue just isn’t one that is open to me.

For the time being, I need to get busy and work on something a literary agent might be able to sell.

And for anyone who hasn’t yet read a book by Mindy McGinnis, I **highly** recommend her YA contemporary, The Female of the Species. I devoured this book as soon as the novel debuted, and you can read my review on Goodreads here, if you want to hear me gush about how much I loved this book. The prose is amazing. And this is the first YA I’ve ever read that felt, in any way, like my own high school experience. Guhhhhh, this book is just so flipping good. (Even if the cover does squick me out a bit, since the color reminds me of one of my most-detested foods, the dread lemon bar. Food of Satan.) I’m sure whoever created this cover loves to eat lemon bars. ^.^

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