atonement

heather-heyer-funeral

Charlottesville pays homage to Heather Heyer.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week processing the events in Charlottesville.

I wasn’t surprised by what happened; anyone who knows history and has a little bit of common sense could have predicted what this administration would unleash. But even when you see the cracks in the wall, even when you know the dam is on the verge of collapse, confronting the moment it actually breaks can leave you stunned and speechless.

This long night of our nation has moved many things inside of me. As a German-American, I grew up keenly aware of the danger of blind patriotism and most especially, of the terror and brutality that comes with the doctrine of white supremacy. One could call this the unique burden of my cultural identity. I had much to be proud of in my German heritage, but much to be ashamed of as well.

Born in the United States, some four decades after the Nazis came to power, I could hardly claim personal responsibility for what happened in the 1930s. But that which is not our fault must sometimes, nonetheless, be our responsibility – especially when it comes to cultural identity.

While children should not pay for the sins of their fathers, I’ve always believed in embracing the task of atonement. We have been given this life to help heal the wounds caused by our predecessors, and in this way, to build a better future. Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt this instinctive commitment, though when I was young, I didn’t really have the words to express it. In grade school, I found those words in the Prayer of Saint Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth…

And on it goes. Coming from a cultural legacy that – in spite of its many positive aspects – instigated the darkest war of modern times, it seemed to me that choosing a personal path of peace and commitment, of truth and justice, of encouraging love among all neighbors, was an appropriate and noble goal.

Over the years, I’ve tried to live by this creed in many ways. But since the summer of 2015, I’ve had to face up to an ugly truth: Whatever I may claim to have done with this short life has not been enough. It hasn’t been enough, because here we are again: torches in the night, young people gripped by a twisted ideology, innocents dying in the streets. Worst of all, this racism, bigotry, and violence is openly incited and endorsed by the man who holds the highest office in our nation.

I’ve often wondered what I would have done, had I lived in Germany during my grandparents’ time, during the 1930s when the fever of Nazism was beginning to take hold. What would I do, if confronted with a rising tide of white supremacists? I’ve been learning the answer to that question over the past couple years. Despite all the brutal lessons of the 20th century, my grandparents’ time has become my own.

 

Something that gives me hope in these difficult times is the tremendous effort on the part of many fellow Americans to fight against the blight of white supremacy. In the case of Charlottesville, what began with a handful of students on Friday night and has now engulfed the nation and reached beyond our borders. I continue to believe the human spirit is greater – much greater – than all the ugliness and violence that converged on this one university town in Virginia last weekend. We can stop the tide of hate, but we have to stand up, speak out, and resist. And that resistance will not come without cost.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

waiting until you’re clueless

 

Sagrada Familia 03

Yes, it’s beautiful, but we’re still working on the final draft.

One of the drawbacks of the surge in self-publishing is that too many writers have been allowed to believe an inspired work is also a publishable work. As a result, inspired works are too easily thrown into the market before they are publishable.

 

This is an easy slipping point for any writer. After all, inspiration is the fun part of writing. The juices are flowing, the ideas seem fresh, and words simply tumble out of the mind and onto the computer. A new story feels easy and exciting.

Inspiration brings its own euphoria, and as writers, we are anxious to share that euphoria with other people. It’s this same euphoria that gives us confidence in the tale we need to tell, that convinces us everyone is bound to love our characters and their stories as much as we do.

But at the end of the day, the inspired draft is also the first draft, and as Anne LaMotte has famously said, first drafts are always shitty. Not because we are poor writers, but because it’s the inalienable right of every first draft to be a bad piece of prose. This rule remains constant throughout the writer’s journey: No matter how many novels you’ve written, the first draft will always be crap.

“Got that,” you say?

You already know first drafts are shitty and would never presume to upload a first draft onto your KDP account?

Great! You’re now ready for the next hard truth of writing:

Second drafts are also shitty.

As are, more often than not, third drafts. By the fourth draft, you might have a quality piece of work in the making. But even then, your manuscript is not as good as it could be.

To compound the problem, by the fourth draft you’ve been spending so much time with the story, you cease to see areas that need improvement. Or – more frustrating – you know certain pieces still need fixing, but you can’t envision how to fix them.

This is where the six month hiatus comes in: An extended period where you put that manuscript away and focus on something else entirely, whether it be a new writing project or – if you’re feeling really adventurous – having a life outside of writing.

Doing this allows you to come back to the manuscript with the eye of a reader rather than an author. This is what I mean by “waiting until you’re clueless.”

As the author, you know everything about your story: the history of each character, their hidden motivations, the rules of the world they live in. An omniscient narrator can’t always judge how much information to give the reader and how much to hold back. But if you allow yourself to acquire the eye of a reader, it’s easier to fill in places where information is lacking and backpedal on moments when you’re bludgeoning the reader with the obvious.

Sometimes we choose the six-month hiatus; sometimes it’s forced upon us. In the case of The Hunting Grounds, I’ve done both. This latest novel has had multiple back-burner periods, first at my choosing, but most recently as a result of the query process itself.

My first bout of querying for The Hunting Grounds began about this time last year. I was mildly successful, in that I had several promising bites, a few requests for partials and fulls, and even a couple contract offers (which I decided to turn down, but more on that later).

In sifting through the scattered feedback of different editors (last year’s query effort was directed mostly at small- and medium-sized presses, as opposed to agents), I was able to identify some sticking points in the narrative. By spring of this year, I’d decided to go back to the drawing board and work through the manuscript one more time. 

I don’t regret it. One year ago, The Hunting Grounds was a strong manuscript. If I were committed to the path of self-publishing, I might have released it on Kindle as early as October or November of 2016. But I chose to wait, to query, and to let things simmer.

Now, my novel is even better, with more depth and cleaner prose, and reworked in a way that addresses some of the feedback I’ve received from professionals in the field.

At the end of the day, there may not be a future for this novel on traditional markets, but I derive tremendous satisfaction from seeing my work realize its full potential. My days of inspired writing on this project are long gone, but the tedious process of crafting and molding and honing the details carries its own rewards.

Whatever road takes this manuscript to its final, published version, I’m more confident than ever that the finished novel will be everything it was meant to be.

And that, my friends, is well worth waiting for.

Summer Book Sale

Facebook Banner

I’m taking a break from my regular programming to announce a great Summer Book Promotion going on over at author Vanessa MacLellan’s web site. Vanessa has gathered 10 authors of fantasy and science fiction who are offering their Kindle titles for less than 99cents, including 8 FREE books!

Two of my titles are in this promotion: EOLYN, now available FREE on Kindle, and SWORD OF SHADOWS, on sale for just $0.99. Blurb and purchase links for both books are provided below, but don’t stop here! Go to Vanessa’s Summer Deals Book Shop to download more free and discounted titles. Happy reading!

EOLYN (Book One of The Silver Web)

Eolyn cover flat2 reduced 1 22 16FREE on Kindle!

In a land ravaged by civil war, the Mage King Kedehen initiates a ruthless purge of the magas. Eolyn, last daughter of the magas and sole heiress to their forbidden craft, seeks refuge in the South Woods. When she meets the mysterious Akmael, heir to the throne of this violent realm, she embarks on a path of hope, seduction, betrayal, and war. Desire draws Eolyn toward Akmael’s dark embrace, but fate binds her to Corey of East Selen, a cunning mage whose ambition challenges the limits of love and loyalty.

Can she trust either man?

Hunted in a realm of powerful wizards and brutal deceptions, Eolyn must find her own path to freedom or she will burn on the pyre.

“Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes, with a romantic thread.” – Publishers Weekly

A “dreamlike, fairy-tale ambiance…immersive political machinations and grand-scale battles.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A tale of female oppression, prejudice, and even deadly seduction, Eolyn touches on issues that are deeply relevant in our own society.” –Apex Reviews

“Magnificently written.” –Kindle Book Review

Download EOLYN today!

Sword of Shadows (Book Two of The Silver Web)

Sword of Shadows Kindle 3Just $0.99 cents on Kindle!

Sisters in magic, Eolyn and Adiana seek to revive a millennial tradition once forbidden to women. When war strikes, their fledgling community of magas is destroyed; its members killed, captured, or scattered.

Determined to defend her people against the darkest forces of the Underworld, Eolyn seeks to escape the occupied province and deliver to King Akmael a weapon that might secure their victory. Trapped by the invading army, Adiana is taken prisoner and placed at the mercy of the ruthless Prince Mechnes.

Even as their paths are separated and their world torn asunder, Eolyn and Adiana cling to a common dream. Courage and perseverance guide them through chaos toward a future where women’s magic will flourish in a world set free from violence and war.

But that dream will not be possible unless both are willing to offer the greatest possible sacrifice…

“War propels the story forward, and the characters are at their best when circumstances are at their worst.” –Publishers Weekly

“Lush, evocative descriptions carry readers through an unforgettable journey.” –Kirkus Reviews

Download SWORD OF SHADOWS today!

Looking for more free and discounted books? Visit Vanessa McClellan’s website for more great deals from authors of fantasy and science fiction!

milestones

San Antonin 01

Sometimes revisiting the past can help us embrace the future. (Photo by Wendy Donnell)

Week 4 Query Totals (Agents Only):

  • Submitted: 41
  • Rejections: 7
  • Requests for Partial/Full: 0

And…I’m done. For the moment, at any rate. July has ended, and August is here. Time to set aside query madness and focus on getting my act together for the start of fall semester. Later on down the road – probably in September – we’ll revisit the query adventure. You’ll get an update on rejections (I’m sure there will be many!) and though it’ll be slower going with classes in session, I will manage few more submissions before the holiday season begins in November.

~*~

One of the biggest tasks in post-divorce life is figuring out who you are on your own.

As part of a couple, we acquire a thousand habits that are either a product of our partner’s preferences or an emergent property of the relationship. These habits touch all aspects of our lives: daily rhythms, the food we eat, the friends we keep, the places we go, the things we do on weekends… The list goes on and on. There isn’t anything inherently wrong in this, but when that other person is suddenly gone, it demands a reassessment of whether to continue doing things the way we have been doing them.

Example: Am I now avoiding that park because I never actually liked our evening walks, or does it just make me sad to be there without my ex?

If you never really liked taking a walk in the evening, now is probably a good time to stop. You aren’t beholden to your partner any more; you aren’t responsible for this piece of his or her happiness. Dedicate your evenings to something else, something that you truly enjoy doing.

If you do like those evening walks, but that particular park brings back memories that are still too painful, you have a couple options. You can find another park. Or – my personal recommendation – you can reclaim that space as your own. No need to push yourself too hard or too fast in either direction, but if there’s one thing I have learned about coping with divorce: It is absolutely fundamental to identify what you really enjoy doing and do it. A lot. In fact, you should do everything you like in bold excess, if you can manage it.

In my experience, part of this process of rediscovering one’s preferences involves revisiting the past. Over the last year, I’ve found myself looping back to key points in my life. This has included reconnecting with friends I hadn’t seen in years, either through their initiative or my own.

It also included resurrecting certain rituals that have strong associations. For example, in Barcelona I walked to our neighborhood bakery first thing every morning, in part because I loved having fresh bread for breakfast, but mostly because it reminded me of summers spent with my grandparents in Frankfurt while growing up.

There’s been a lot of this sort of thing: I keep gravitating toward experiences that were once an important part of my life. Recently, I went out for a night of Latin dancing (something I couldn’t go a week without in my 20s); this summer, I returned to the Ozarks for some good, old-fashioned water sports (harking back again to my childhood).

Not that I want to return to all the habits I had decades ago, but I have been engaging in a kind of mental time travel: looking through windows toward my past as I work to integrate who I’ve been with who I am and who I want to be. I didn’t conscientiously plan it this way, but in hindsight I know a good instinct has led me down this path.

One of the most important outcomes of these multiple encounters with Past Me has been a reaffirmation of the choices I’ve made. This has been a little surprising, because if I’m to be honest, not too long I believed I would find at least one mistake and probably many in my past. Choices I should – or should not – have made. Moments where I went right when I should have gone left, or veered left when I should’ve gone right.

Being unable to identify any glaring mistakes in my past has been at once comforting and unsettling. Why, if I’ve consistently made the best choices I could, has life handed me these terrible periods of deep pain? Why, after having chosen the best partner among all those available to me, did I still end up alone?

It’s a common myth that making the right choices inevitably leads to happiness. But [spoiler alert] life is never constantly happy, no matter what choices we make.

In this sense, making the right choices also inevitably leads to sorrow, loss, pain, and all the other difficult emotions we really wish we could avoid.

But who wants to think about it that way?

One of my favorite characters in The Silver Web, Mage Corey of East Selen, has a habit of insisting there’s no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” choice; there are simply decisions we make and the consequences they bring. Corey does not endorse moral relativism (except, ahem, when he does…). He’s just saying that a fork in the road is nothing more than that: a fork in the road.

So make your choice carefully, but once you’ve made it, don’t punish yourself for what might have been. No matter which route you take, everything life has to offer – joy, sorrow, triumph, and defeat – will be waiting around the bend. To embrace life, you must embrace it all.

getting the labels right

17952939_10211340428099611_637950376483175218_n

If customers were to walk into a bookstore, where would I send them to find novels like mine?

Week 3 Query Totals (Agents Only):

  • Submitted: 30
  • Rejections: 4
  • Requests for Partial/Full: 0

I’m well on target to meet my goal of at least 40 queries by the end of this month. After that, I’ll take a break from querying, in part because once August begins I need to give my full attention to getting the semester up and running at Avila.

One of the most difficult things about querying is making the transition from a writing mindset to a marketing mindset. Like all professional endeavors, writing and publishing have their own unique languages, and while you wouldn’t expect it, there’s not a whole lot of overlap between the two. Unless, of course, you’re a writer who writes to the market. But most writers I know simply write the stories they want to write. When they’re done, they then have to spend some time and effort figuring out which square marketing hole is the best fit for the round peg that is their unique novel.

It doesn’t help that the best novels rarely fit neatly into a particular marketing category. And it helps even less that marketing labels and categories are in constant flux, as the publishing industry tries to track, define, and anticipate the preferences of tens of thousands of readers.

As a not-so-random example, take my trilogy, The Silver Web. There is no marketing label that is a perfect fit for this work. While The Silver Web draws heavily on traditions of high fantasy, it is written more like historical fiction with a healthy dose of magical realism. More importantly, the novels carry strong feminist undertones, in the way patriarchal systems are perceived, discussed, and challenged by its characters.

When asked for an elevator pitchI often describe The Silver Web as “feminist high fantasy.” Of course, that label is not all-encompassing. Worse, it kind of dooms me.

Most readers of high fantasy have no interest in feminism, fascinated as they are with ‘the good old days’ when men were ‘honorable’ lords and women their pliant and faithful servants (NOT – but we’ll leave the realities of medieval life for another post). At the same time, most feminists steer clear of high fantasy because of its history of overt sexism in the treatment – and exclusion – of women.

So “feminist high fantasy” is not a good marketing label, but nor is the simpler designation “fantasy.” The former label doesn’t exist in bookstores, and the latter, while it exists, is unlikely to attract the full range of readers who would really enjoy my work.

Querying for The Hunting Grounds has brought me back to this labeling dilemma. My new series is contemporary fantasy with strong paranormal elements, but there are no vampires or werewolves or any of the other creatures commonly associated with paranormal fiction. Like all my stories, romance lies at the heart of The Hunting Grounds, but the love story is by no means the sum total of the novel.

The book is dark, sensual – erotic, even – and sometimes violent, but there is no BDSM and certainly no forced sex. The main characters are bisexual, but the story does not dwell on dilemmas of sexual identity or “coming out.” They are who they are, and they live their lives and their desires accordingly.

Oh, and my novel has a forty-something woman protagonist – an uncommon, even revolutionary, age for the genre, where 18 to 20-something protagonists are more the norm.

How do I summarize all this in a single marketing sticker?

A year ago, when I started my first round of queries, I called The Hunting Grounds a paranormal romance. But I’ve since discovered the label ‘paranormal romance’ has strong associations that don’t describe my novel. What’s worse, paranormal is on a downswing because of these associations. People are tired of reading about teenagers with vampires, so they are turning away from paranormal shelves in bookstores.

Fortunately, publishing changes its labels almost as fast as readers change their tastes. There’s always another label out there that just might work for your novel.  In this second round of querying, the label that’s caught my attention is “upmarket commercial fiction.”

Of course, no reader goes into a bookstore looking for “upmarket commercial fiction,” but apparently among agents and publishers, this is now the go-to label for novels like mine that cross multiple genres, are written in a more literary style, and have the potential to appeal to a broad audience.

So there you have it. I write upmarket commercial fiction.

Problem solved – until, that is, the labels change again…

glimmers of hope

IMG_3913

With my niece on Table Rock Lake. If querying gets you down, go out for a while and enjoy the sun!

Week Two Query Totals (Agents Only, Cumulative Tally):

  • Submitted: 22
  • Rejections: 3
  • Requests for Partial/Full: 0

I promise I won’t be posting these numbers every week, in part because it’s going to get depressing pretty quickly. For the moment, I’m only counting rejection letters, but many agents reject by simply not responding. As those response times expire, 4-6 weeks down the line, rejection numbers will show a sharp uptick.

On the other hand, it’s hard to tell sometimes how to interpret no-response scenarios. I’ve seen agents give estimated response times of anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks, only to write back six months later, long after I’d assumed they weren’t interested. Each of these cases was still a rejection, but it just goes to show: Sometimes a query can be in an agent’s queue for a very long time.

Another consideration is that I’m in high drive right now, trying to submit as many queries as I can before fall semester picks up and I have to return to campus full time. That means queries are being put out at a pace well ahead of responses, but once classes start, the rate of queries will be much slower. And statistically, most – if not all – of the responses will be rejections, so…brace yourselves. Those rejection numbers will be on the rise very soon!

This is the second round of querying for my current novel, and the latest in many rounds of querying connected to other novels that I’ve written.

Eolyn was the first novel that I queried, and the first to land in a traditional market. It was picked up almost right away by the then-up-and-coming small press, Hadley Rille Books. Through Eolyn, I applied some important advice and learned some sobering lessons.

The important advice? Research the publishers and agents you query. 

My editor at Hadley Rille, Eric T. Reynolds, often said that the number one reason he rejected manuscripts was that they simply weren’t the right fit for Hadley Rille’s markets.

Of course, identifying the right fit for your manuscript is easier said than done. As careful as I try to be about who I query, sometimes the information available doesn’t give a clear picture of their current interests and connections. And I have, on more than one occasion, come across someone I deemed a perfect fit, only to be told inside a few days that my novel, while it seems “well written” and/or “shows promise,” is not what the agent is looking for.

Those are nice moments by the way, when they personalize their response to say my work shows promise. But I’d still rather have a request for a full!

The research end of querying has become a little easier than it used to be. I’ve kept a personal database over the years of who I’ve queried for what, including notes on response times and any personalized messages included in those responses. Rather than start raw, I can go back to the literary agents’ web sites, check on their current status, and see how their interests have changed or developed.

This saves me time because, while I am still identifying new agents and markets, I also have a backlist of people I know might be interested in my kind of story, as well as a query package set up that already meets their specifications. And I can hope – just hope – that they start recognizing my name, too, and that the portfolio I’ve developed since the last time they heard from me provides evidence as to how serious I am about writing and publishing.

In some cases, I’ve acquired a feel for the way certain agents work and this helps me interpret their responses. For example, there’s one agent I’ve queried for all three of my previous novels. In all three cases, she responded with a form letter rejection in the space of one to three days.  As of this writing, it’s been almost two weeks since I sent her my query for The Hunting Grounds, so perhaps I can dare to hope that maybe, just maybe, she’s at least thinking about asking for more…

There are some things that never get easier in life, but querying and fielding rejections definitely gets easier. The more you query, the less odious it is to query again. The more rejections you receive, the more they begin to slide like water off your back.

The occasional personalized responses that say, “This is cool, but it’s just not what I’m representing…” become notes  of encouragement to keep trying.

The occasional personalized responses that say, “Neat premise, but the writing needs some work…” become rallying cries to revise and improve your novel in preparation for the next round of querying.

Perhaps most importantly, the messy and often disappointing journey of querying forces us to re-center our lives; to recognize that as much as we would love to land that dream contract, publishing is not the most important part of writing. Writing is the most important part of writing. As long as we keep our pens alive, no amount of rejections can dim the innate value of the stories we weave, whether those stories are meant to be shared with a handful of close friends and a select circle of fellow writers, or with tens of thousands of readers across the world.

the virtues of querying

Montjuic 20

Playing the gatekeeper at Mont Juic, Barcelona

Week One Cumulative Tally (agents only):

  • 10 submissions
  • 1 rejection
  • 0 partial requests
  • 0 full requests

Yes, it’s true: I have, once again, embarked on the ego-debilitating task of querying.

There are few activities more onerous for a writer than querying. What better reward for the hard labor of finishing a novel than to spend hours assembling query packages, only to be bombarded by rejections?

At times, I’ve taken to calling queries “rejection requests,” just to feel like I’m succeeding!

In this age of self-publishing, when authors have the option to bypass gatekeepers altogether, it’s tempting not to bother querying at all. But querying continues to serve many important purposes – not the least of which is that, whether we like or not, we need gatekeepers standing between our precious manuscripts and the stormy sea of publishing.

Of course, there is more than one way to secure a gate keeper. Self-published authors – if they’re serious about their craft – build their own crew of gate-keepers by hiring quality editors and relying on honest, thorough critique partners. This is not quite the same as scaling the precarious walls that protect the hallowed halls of traditional publishing, but no matter how you define gatekeeper, the need for them is not in any way diminished by the advent of self-publishing.

From my perspective, however, gatekeeping is not the most important function of querying. The most important function of query process is that it forces us to wait. 

Patience is a virtue, they say – one that is increasingly abandoned in the modern world. Back when I started getting serious about writing and publishing (which wasn’t that long ago) I was often told that after finishing a manuscript, an author should set it aside for six months and then come back to it again for a fresh round of edits.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone say that. Indeed, if someone were to suggest such a thing at a workshop panel, I suspect they would get booed off the stage with rotten tomatoes.

Six months?? Who’s going to wait six months, only to come back and do more revisions?

In six months, I can have my precious manuscript uploaded to the ebook market, where I will instantly dazzle my readers with the brilliance of my imagination!

In six months, I can write two more novels, because as anyone in the know will tell you, it’s impossible to make a career as writer unless you churn out at least 4 books a year!

In six months, no one will want this novel anyway, because the market changes so quickly, my whole premise will be obsolete!

In six months, the world could end – without anyone having read my novel!!

Yes, yes, I know: Waiting could be disastrous.

But it could also be the best thing that happens to your novel.

Here’s why: Our creative juices depend on giving our brains a rest. Sitting on a manuscript allows your imagination to tinker behind the scenes. Random passages will come back to mind, begging for a little reworking. You’ll remember particular spots where the wording is off or the reader needs more (or less) information. You’ll get new and brilliant ideas to reorganize the story, or you’ll discover something important about one of the characters that wasn’t clear before.

If your novel is part of a series, you might dig into one of the companion novels while you give the first one a break. As you work on that next sequence of events, you’ll realize some things aren’t set up quite as well as you thought in book one – and you’ll be grateful you still have a chance to fix that.

In my experience, sitting on a manuscript transforms it, often for the better. Short of the rare self-discipline to let something simmer – yes, for six whole months – one of the few things that still allows us to simply set a manuscript aside and wait is querying.

Despite these virtues, querying continues to be the ugly underbelly of the writer’s journey. I don’t think it should be that way, despite the inherent challenges imposed by the process.

In light of this, I’ve decided to share more about my own querying experience in the weeks and months (and maybe years!) to come.  The good, the bad, the ugly: all of it will be discussed here. Avoiding names whenever possible, of course – we must protect the innocent!

Whether you’re querying yourself, preparing to query, or feeling put off by the whole idea, I invite you to follow this journey and share your own thoughts and experiences. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all learn something together.

Next week, I’ll have a new tally and a new reflection. Thank you for stopping by!