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? 😀

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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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Work Songs, Night Skies, and Animal Love

My husband drove me to Farmington, New Mexico, to look at laptops for sale in Best Buy. We contemplated buying one, debating whether we could spend the money right now. I felt pretty stressed out, and just wished I could have my long-gone, motherboard-crashed-and-was-irreparable laptop back. We left the store without a new machine, because I just couldn’t commit to the expense of a purchase.

In the car on the way home, I told Greg about a scene in my third Pterren book, in which Rafael must cook some river fish at a crude camp, and I needed a natural replacement for aluminum foil. “He guts the fish, leaves the bones and skin attached, places slices of pineapple into the flesh, then wraps this up before cooking the fish in the fire. As a soldier responsible for his own meals, he carries salt and pepper with him, but I want this meat to be tender, not dried out at all. Could he wrap the fish in yucca leaves? Would that keep the juice in the meat?”

Greg thought yucca leaves would be far too bitter. “Have him use banana leaves,” Greg said, since this crude camp is set in Central America. “The banana leaves wouldn’t leave the meat bitter.”

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Which I thought could work, and I thought about how South Indians use banana leaves as meal plates. Then I thought of that famous song, “Day-O,” or “The Banana Boat Song,” sung most famously by Harry Belafonte (who celebrated his 90th birthday this year, on March 1). So I started singing “The Banana Boat Song,” and thinking of those dock workers loading ships full of bananas, and in my mind I saw them in a heavy night rain, their shadows illuminated by old sodium lights, their fatigue immense, their eyes distant and sad, anxious for dawn, their voices painful and beautifully harmonious as they sang the callbacks together. The sound rose up and filled me, those straining men and their voices, as I gazed out the window and watched the sun set.

My eyes kept lingering on irrigation equipment, those giant contraptions that turn circles in fields, and as I looked over the farms on the mesa, I remembered taking a particular turn off this highway, fifteen years ago, and driving into those fields. I was a passenger beside a different man then, a man whose name I cannot remember, but he had met me in some chance encounter in Durango, and fallen in love with me, and asked me to come with him out to one of those fields, so he could show me “the most important thing” in his life.

Since I hadn’t been afraid of this man, I had said yes, took a seat in his pickup, and we traveled to the end of some dusty road, parked, and then crossed two empty pastures on foot. The air had been windy and cold, the earth hard with frost, the sky overcast with a storm moving in. The fields were jagged and barren, colorless in the dim haze of winter. We arrived at a wooden fence, which we climbed over, and then far in the distance, I saw a young bison, a goat, and a donkey running toward us. They traveled in a group, excited and happy, kicking up their heels and tossing their heads.

The man had tears in his eyes as he introduced me to his animals, which swarmed around us, eager for pets. We stood in that field for over an hour, petting them and watching them frolic around us. I wish I could remember the name of the man’s bison, and donkey, and goat, but they are as lost to me now as his own name. The bison’s head reached my shoulders, and he had the most beautiful dark eyes, with long, curling lashes. I was so enchanted by the delicate, humongous eyelashes of this buffalo.

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The memory stirred up another one, another time I had spent with a man and his most beloved pet. I had been in a different part of Colorado, about five hours north of Durango, staying in a rickety old hunting lodge way up in the mountains, one of those big open cabins lined with narrow cots, tiny beds with thin blankets and thinner pillows, where groups of men sleep before venturing off into the wilderness.

I’d gone up there to visit my friend. Her father owned the cabin, as well as about 2,000 head of Hereford cattle. Maybe the count was higher than that, I forget. And maybe her dad crossed his line with some Angus, and had some Black Baldies in his herd too, I forget that as well. It’s obvious what a poor memory I have.

My friend helped on the ranch, though she didn’t much care for the hunters who came in the winter and fall. She had a lot of colorful swear words for those guys, wealthy Californians and Rust Belt Hemingway wannabes who didn’t know sh*t about staying alive in the mountains, but wanted to shoot stuff with guns.

My friend shot stuff, that’s for sure — she had no tolerance for coyotes, and would fire shots at them whenever one appeared in the distance. I was nineteen then, she was around twenty-three, and it was mid-August when I went up to see her. I arrived on a Friday night, met up with her at a rodeo in town, and after the rodeo ended, I followed her pickup way into the mountains, to the cabin. We had the place to ourselves, and the cabin was cold that night, since we didn’t build a fire in the stove, but I slept hard and woke before dawn with my friend.

We cooked some bacon and eggs, and then we saddled her two favorite horses and went out for the day. I rode a dun gelding named Captain, and he was a good horse, very gentle and calm. My friend rode a chestnut mare who never flinched when we stopped to shoot at coyotes. My friend would drop the reins, grab her rifle, and fire a single shot, but she never hit one, and each time, the coyote would bolt away. Personally, I thought those coyotes were just f*cking with us, though I never told my friend that. Her hatred was fierce and she wanted those animals dead.

We rode around all day, sometimes coming in sight of the herd, but mostly just keeping off by ourselves, and in the late afternoon, I heard sheep bawling somewhere. I asked my friend if she wanted to say hi to the shepherd, and she said okay, so we searched around a bit and found his tiny trailer.

The man was happy to see us, and so was his Australian shepherd, a scruffy white and brown dog that circled the horses. Maybe the sheepherder was Basque, or descended from Basque sheepherders, or maybe he was from Argentina or Bolivia, I couldn’t say. He didn’t speak English, though he was friendly and kind and he let me play with his dog. His trailer was not large enough to sleep in, just a small steel trailer that could be hitched to a horse and deposited high on a mountainside, because we were right at timberline, barely in the shelter of trees. The grass was tall and lush though, silvery when the wind blew, and he had built a small fire in preparation for supper.

My friend wanted to get back to the cabin before dark, but I decided I wanted to stay and spend the night by the fire. She didn’t like that idea, since I hadn’t brought my sleeping bag with me and the temperature had already started to plummet, the moment the sun slipped behind the top of the peaks. I said I’d just sleep on the ground by the fire and meet up with her in the morning.

So she took Captain with her, and I played fetch with the dog until it was too dark to see the ball anymore. The man heated a tin of beans for supper, and he offered me some, but his poverty was too stark, too brutally apparent, and I couldn’t take what little he had. So I told him I’d already eaten, gesturing when he gave me a quizzical look. When he made a kettle of coffee for dessert, I drank a cup with him, and he tried to teach me a song I could never memorize the words to, but I could harmonize with him well enough. So I laid by the fire with his dog on my chest, which was the whole reason I’d stayed to begin with, to lay there with his dog, and we sang this Spanish song I could never translate, gazing up at the stars.

Sunset over mountains

Maybe he’d chosen a work song like “Day-O,” waiting out the cold dark until the sun rose again. I can’t remember if I slept, or if the sheepherder ever left me to check on his herd. He was there when I told him goodbye, and headed back to the cabin at dawn. My friend was cooking some eggs when I got there. “I thought you’d freeze to death,” she said. I just smiled and joined her for breakfast. We ate on battered tin plates, sitting outside on the cabin stoop, in the sun.

 

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The People’s Climate March, Pretty Pictures, and Some Book News to Share

Saturday, April 29, 2017 marked President Trump’s 100th day in office as well as the People’s Climate March, and there was a local climate march in Durango, Colorado, which I attended. My friend Hannah went with me, and since the sky was spitting snow at my house that morning, everyone had to dress warmly.

Everyone smiling banner picture

As you can hopefully see from that picture, some folks made large puppets to walk in, supporting the effort to power the American economy with 100% renewable energy, and there was a mix of professionally-made and homemade signs on display.

This was my favorite professional sign, art created in a similar design to the professional Women’s March signs used in displays on January 21 —

My favorite professional sign

This was my favorite homemade sign, propped against a stroller at the gathering after the march in Buckley Park —

My favorite homemade sign

I love preschooler artwork like this. Totally great sign.

A lot of my friends attended this march, and I took pictures of some of them. Here is poet Mary Kate, with her puppy dog Cher (who is hiding behind Mary Kate’s preschool class sign), along with tireless LGBTQI advocate Anna (who made her original cloth Earth Day sign, attached to the snow shovel she’s carrying, 26 years ago) —

Mary Kate and Anna

Here is my friend Dreamweaver, sporting a super-awesome hat a shaman made for her —

Dreamweaver

Here is a picture of me and Hannah, in front of one of the giant puppets who walked in the march —

Coal is dead, with Hannah

As the final speaker told the crowd about the importance of minimalism and shared stories about how she grew up summitting tall mountain peaks all over the world, Hannah and I climbed the hill at Buckley Park, and I took this photograph of the people listening to the final speaker —

On the hillside, final speaker

I don’t know what the final attendance numbers were, but there were at least 700 people there, probably more. It was a chilly morning, but the weather was pleasant despite the cool temperature. Overcast, but not pouring rain or dumping snow.

I turned 37 on Tuesday, May 2 (don’t I have such a great birthday? spring baby Taurus here, word), and since my two newest novels are still available for free, I wanted to share my current download counts for Kinned to the Sea and Bloodshade of the Goddess. Especially since Kinned to the Sea is ALL ABOUT climate change, and I just participated in this march.

The clear winner (no surprise) is Bloodshade of the Goddess, with 313 downloads. Kinned to the Sea, which debuted about six weeks after Bloodshade of the Goddess, has 183 downloads.

The free downloads have not created any new reviews, either on Amazon or on Goodreads. I have two diehard bestie-friendsies (also known as fans of my work who are my friends in real life) who have each reviewed both of these books, so when I see that Kinned to the Sea only has two Amazon reviews, even after being out for two months, all I can do is shrug and say, “This is why literary agents want nothing to do with mermaids.” The follow-up statement being, of course, that “mermaids don’t sell.” I don’t think climate change fiction sells, either. I had hoped this book would do a lot better, but the market has spoken, and in this case, the nay-sayers were right.

There is also a “common knowledge” idea out there among indie authors and people who promote indie books that the more titles an author generates, the more their readership will grow. I would like to say I have not found that to be true. Here has been my particular reality, concerning my books and my readership —

My husband bought about 60 copies of my first novel in paperback, which I gave away to people in the hopes of gaining reviews. Some of those people were strangers, some were friends, some were friends of friends. For my second novel, my husband bought far fewer paperback copies, about 20, and I gave those away. People who received free paperback books had a much better track record posting an Amazon review. People who received free ebooks also posted reviews, but the percentage was a lot smaller. I think about fifteen percent of the free paperback readers posted reviews, and about two percent of free ebook readers posted reviews.

For Mark of the Pterren, my book fans are solely responsible for all nine of my current Amazon reviews. I offered the free ebook to people, but hardly any of my friends or family wanted the ebook. I had a dedicated group of beta-readers who loved that book and promoted it, and that is why I have nine Amazon reviews for my third novel. (My husband and I cannot afford to buy any copies of this one. It’s a massive book, and expensive to purchase, and I need to prioritize saving up for a laptop, since mine died in November, and has not been replaced. Thank goodness my old desktop is still grinding away, or I’d really be in trouble.)

This brings me back to the fact my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves, has 42 Amazon reviews, and my second novel, Love and Student Loans and Other Big Problems, has 16 Amazon reviews. Now, before you get all excited and assume that almost all 20 of my free paperback copies of Love and Loans earned me reviews, I must also make clear that a local book club chose Love and Loans for their monthly pick, and a number of those book club members bought the book and posted positive reviews. Before that happened, the book had nine or ten reviews. So the book club readers were a HUGE boost to my review count.

And I should also say that I know my diehard besties frequently spend money on my paperback books and ebooks, even though they can receive the ebooks and/or the paperbacks for free (when I can afford to buy the physical books for them) so beta-readers also cross into this category of being customers, despite the laborious work they put into these projects.

Here are the numbers I have right now on Amazon:

The Etiquette of Wolves (mystery): 42 reviews

Love and Student Loans and Other Big Problems (contemporary): 16 reviews

Mark of the Pterren (science fiction): 9 reviews

Bloodshade of the Goddess (urban fantasy): 3 reviews [*only available as an ebook]

Kinned to the Sea (YA fantasy): 2 reviews [*only available as an ebook]

In my opinion, having physical copies of books makes a huge difference in review counts. Most book clubs do not review ebooks, they want the paperback copy available. The vast majority of book clubs who meet in person, chat about books over wine, and post online reviews, tend to read what is called “women’s fiction” and shy away from science fiction, urban fantasy, and YA titles. (Note that I did not say “all” book clubs, but “the majority” of book clubs favor women’s fiction or historical women’s fiction, rocketing titles like Orphan Train and The Language of Flowers onto bestseller lists.)

On Goodreads, the YA fantasy genre, YA historical genre, and YA contemporary genre dominate the market in book sales and reviews. But it’s really hard to break into that market, for a large number of reasons. If ALL of my books were YA fantasy, I might be making some headway. But I suffer from the fact that I write across genres, so I cannot build a genre readership. I am a writer who must rely on my diehard besties and diehard fans for reviews, also known as people who are always game for my completely erratic stories, stories which have no logical coherency to bind them together other than the fact that I wrote them.

I’m not even helping myself right now, since I’m currently working on a historical fantasy at the moment — yet another genre jump that makes building a readership that much harder.

I wrote a query letter for this work in progress, and I’ve submitted this letter to be slashed — better known as “critiqued” free of charge — by author Mindy McGinnis on May 13. She slashed my query letter for Bloodshade of the Goddess last year, and she was willing to slash a new one for me, because she is awesome.

My letter is pasted below, and I welcome any feedback my Thought Candy readers might like to share. Just comment below, or use the Contact form on my website, if you don’t want to share publicly. Query letters have to be really short, and detail the plot without giving the ending away. They are complicated things to write. But I’m hoping that, this time, I can start the query process early, receive the results by the time the book is finished, and then (most likely) move forward with self-publishing from there.

If I had a good number of reviews for all of my self-published books, I could mention that in my letter. But unfortunately, my low review count would make a literary agent more likely to delete my letter, unread, so I have to leave my self-published books out of this letter. I have won no awards, and do not possess an MFA in creative writing, so there is no bio paragraph in this letter. Just the plot of the work in progress, and the comparative titles for marketing purposes, which all literary agents require.

Thanks for reading! And if any Thought Candy readers want to comment on this letter, your feedback is appreciated as well! ^.^

**********

 

Warrior, wizard, slave: no matter how powerful Andre Hawthorne becomes, he knows only death can set him free. He is the property of Mara Tsaryov, the ruthless Witch of Shadowfall, named for the Lithuanian forest where she was born. Mara bought Andre as a child, bonded him to her with magic, trained him to guard and protect her—and now that he’s grown into a charismatic young man, Mara has fallen in love with him. But in 1790, an aristocrat of New Russia would never permit herself to fall in love with a black slave, a living piece of her property who doesn’t even desire her. Mara despises her feelings, and she longs to kill Andre to rid herself of her shame.

            But this particular slave is too useful for Mara to kill, and her political schemes would be impossible without Andre’s skills. His magic protects her chateaux in the Carpathians, Mara’s favorite home and the seat of her power. Frustrated with Andre’s indifference, Mara decides to enhance her physical appearance, and dress to inspire his lust, in order to regain control of herself, and of him.

            So when a gifted seamstress in Kiev loses her husband, and must sell herself into slavery to keep her family safe, Mara is only too happy to acquire this slave. A Mongolian witch raised by Cossacks, Sienna Katyev will never be as powerful as Mara—but Sienna has her own kind of indomitable strength. As she works alongside Andre inside Mara’s chateaux, the two become friends, and then lovers. If Mara knew how they felt, she would kill Sienna, so Andre begins using his magic to free her. The more secrets Andre must keep from Mara, the more perilous freeing Sienna becomes, as political intrigue and love bring Andre toward a violent confrontation he knows he can’t win.

            The Shadowfall Witch (100,000 words) will appeal to fans of historical fantasy such as Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

 

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