Audio Book Review: Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray

April 28, 2015 at 8:20 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Audio books have not, traditionally, been kind to me. They’ve just never meshed with my particular manifestation of ADD. Sitting and just *listening* to something inevitably makes me drift away-it made lecture classes a unique breed of hell in college. Lately, though, I’ve discovered that I do pretty well listening to books I’ve already read and loved, as long as I’m doing something else at the same time, like cleaning/packing, driving, crafting, or leveling up in video games. This weekend, I listened to Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.

Beauty Queens

I reviewed the book a few years ago, when it first came out, and it’s absolutely hysterical and subversive and thought-provoking and fantastic. I loved it.

And now, having listened to the audio book, I might get down on my knees and worship it a little.

One of the unavoidable problems with audio books is that you HAVE to have a good narrator or actors (I do have a love of full cast audio, a la Tamora Pierce or Brian Jacques). A bad narrator can absolutely kill a good book, but it is extremely difficult to find people who can read consistently over long periods of time (weeks, in many cases, to get enough good takes to edit together), read clearly without over-doing it, AND do distinct voices for characters without shredding your ears. (Example: I recently listened to the first Harry Potter narrated by Jim Dale, and think he does an amazing job–except for Hermione, whose voice made me want to retch with every line) It’s a challenge, and there are many, many audio books that fail to meet this challenge sufficiently.

I am VERY happy to say that Beauty Queens is not one of those.

It’s narrated by Libba Bray–you don’t often find authors reading their own books outside of non-fiction–and she does an AMAZING job. Nearly every voice is distinct, and those that aren’t belong to characters who are, by design, not particularly distinct to begin with. Even heavily accented characters, like the very Miss Texas, or the British-inflected Indian Miss California, don’t lose clarity. The regional dialects are respected, and for the most part (MOST part) not made outlandish. When they are, it’s because that’s the joke. I think the only character voice I had any issue with was Adina (Miss New Hampshire) who had a bit of a flat affect that made it difficult to hear sometimes, but that flatness fit her character so well it was easy to forgive.

This is a rare example of an audio book that can actually give you a little more than the book itself. Part of that comes from fantastic sound effects, like background for the commercial breaks, little chimes for the forty-something footnotes (seriously, footnotes; only novel other than Good Omens where they fit so perfectly), and every single character that mentions a trademarked item gives a high-pitched, sing-song TM after the full product name. A larger part of it, though, comes from being as close to inside the author’s head as it’s possible to be. Here, in the very purposeful choices of delivery, we get unexpected depths to characters who already had the ability to surprise.

One of the strongest elements of that came out in Taylor Renee Crystal Hawkins (aka Miss Texas). She’s a huge personality, completely dedicated to the Miss Teen Dream pageant and a set of very stereotypically Texas ideals. She’s meant to be larger than life, and she absolutely is–but listening to her, rather than reading her, also gives more of an edge to what is, ultimately, a profoundly sympathetic and pitiable character. The performance of Taylor’s break with an already fragile reality is exquisitely performed. Tiara, Miss Mississippi, is still sweet and sincere and too stupid to breathe, but we hear more of that sweetness, and the uncertainty just beneath it. Her obliviousness, and her simple joys and the growth she makes as a character, all come through so much stronger with Libba Bray’s performance.

And then there’s Ladybird Hope. A veteran (dare I say dowager queen?) of the Miss Teen Dream Pageant, a sponsor of the pageant, a corporate superstar, and presidential hopeful, there was always something in her that came off strongly reminiscent of Sarah Palin in the book. Given that the voice was only in my head, it was easy to shrug off that resemblance as pure coincidence. With the audio book? It is definitely not a coincidence. There were many places in this book where I nearly hurt myself laughing, but it was a definite risk EVERY TIME we heard from Ladybird Hope. Really just THE definition of painfully funny.

Beauty Queens is a ridiculous, high-strung journey into the absurd, stretching the absolute limits of plausibility, but travels through genuine, thought-provoking regions of gender and femininity and what those concepts actually mean. It’s a phenomenal book that I love to push into people’s hands, either to start the conversation or continue the discussion, and the audio presentation not only lives up to that love, but quite possibly surpasses it. Even for those like me who love the book, I strongly recommend the audio for your rereading enjoyment. And many congratulations to Ms Bray for taking an already phenomenal book and leading it to make even more of an impact.

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2015: Looking Forward

January 3, 2015 at 5:58 pm (Personal Real Life) (, , , , )

In a weird kind of way, this is my first day of 2015. Whether it makes sense or not, my brain goes less by date than by clump- the new year doesn’t start until major events of the previous year have finished, even if it takes them a couple of extra days. So for me, today is the first day of a new year, because yesterday–with my mom’s memorial service–is still part of last year.

If that doesn’t make sense to anyone else, that’s perfectly okay. I am well aware I have a sideways way of looking at the world. It’s at least half the reason I write.

But it occurred to me, somewhere between eating cookies for breakfast and trying to decide if a migraine meant I could go to bed at five without feeling guilty, that I should probably take a look at the year ahead. In some ways, it feels like that’s ALL I’ve been doing, trying to plan, trying to guess, trying to be prepared without ever being able to pin anything down.

I guess I make it a little easier because I don’t do New Years Resolutions.

I am absolutely not out to insult or offend anyone who DOES do NYRs, I just personally find them a little silly. If I want to make a change, why should I wait until a set day to start it? Especially because there is this prevailing idea that NYRs inevitably fail, which puts a LOT of pressure on efforts. I’d rather see the need for the change or goal, start it, and do my damnedest to keep it going. So rather than set resolutions, or even goals really, I prefer to put down what I want in the next year.

1. MOVE
This is a pretty easy one, mainly because it’s happening no matter what. There’s just a lot involved in that, because I’m dealing with my stuff as well as my Mom’s stuff, and not knowing when exactly I’m going to be done with all of that makes it hard to make plans and set dates. But it does lead into

2. GET RID OF STUFF
I am a packrat. I keep things because I swear I’ll find another use for them someday, only someday never really comes along and I’m stuck hauling more and more around and never finding a place to put everything, which is the single biggest contribution aside from laziness to my being kind of a slob. It’s been in the back of my mind for months that next time I move, I am getting rid of things. Culling the bookshelves, taking a hard look at sentimental things, really whittling things down to immediately useful or extremely (and identifiably) sentimental.
I inherited the packrat tendency from my mother, absolutely without question, and now, trying to go through all of her things, I think I’m about to get a lot more ruthless in what I’m getting rid of in my own stuff. I will never be someone who travels lightly (BOOKS) but I’d like to let go of the things I’ve been holding onto for just too long.

3. GET A JOB
Aside from getting out there and applying, and making sure I put the best foot forward and all that, this isn’t something I really have control over. It is, however, a really really REALLY big desire for the year ahead. After a year of unemployment (not without its silver linings when it came to being available to my mom, but still) I would very much like to be gainfully employed again, hopefully doing something I love.

4. SELL A BOOK
Another thing I have absolutely no control over, but feeding into this is the fact that I need to write books before I can have any chance of selling them. Writing is not something that’s gone well this year, and most of that is stress and loss of focus. Normal stress, every-day stress, makes writing a relief. The monumental stresses I’ve been under this past year made me stumble, a LOT, and I have several half-finished, frustrating, curse-fostering projects to show for it. I also got a little too caught up in numbers this year. If I had a writing day that got less than seven thousand words, I got frustrated, I felt unproductive and disappointing and kind of a waste of space. Yes, I realize I was being too hard on myself, but I felt like when everything else was spinning or had spun out of my control, I should have been able to keep control of this one thing. It’s BS, of course. but that doesn’t change anything about how I felt then. I wanted the staggering numbers of stickers on my calendar, the rows of pretty numbers on my tracksheets, so I could feel like I was at least accomplishing SOMETHING.
So, along with pulling my focus back in, I also want to shift it a little. Rather than worry about word counts or defined productivity or how quickly I’m finishing a draft, I want to dwell on the story and characters, letting the project tell me when it’s had enough for the day–or when I’ve had enough for the day. I’ve been doing this with my current project, and it’s amazing how much it’s helped. Even though writing days have been few and relatively far between in the past few months, I was okay with myself if I only got one or two thousand words down in a day. As long as the words were honest, and didn’t feel forced, I was happy. And I learned that sometimes, despite knowing what happens next and maybe even knowing how to tell it, I just have to back away from a scene for a bit. I don’t know yet if that’s going to become universal or if it’s just this project–this one is intensely personal and emotionally difficult, so I don’t know. But I don’t feel like a quitter or a failure when I close the computer after seven hundred words because I need a few more days before I can write That Scene.
Numbers in publishing are really hard, and really painful, and it’s easy to lose yourself in them at the expense of your writing. How many books have I sold? How many rejections have I gotten? How many projects have I gotten out there? I added a lot of unnecessary stress to myself this year freaking out that I haven’t sold another book yet, terrified I’m going to be a blip on the shelves with one small easily overlooked book. I dwelled on that thought A LOT, far more than was healthy, and I know it’s because this is something I’ve wanted very badly for a very long time, so it had a lot of oomph behind it. I need to let that go. It will happen, or it won’t. The best (and the most) I can do is continue to write and craft and improve.
Here’s my sucker punch, though: I would really like to sell another book for my mom. I think that was one of my biggest whips through the year, this desperate desire to sell another book while my mom was still alive and lucid to know it, so she’d worry about me just a bit less, knowing I’d be a step closer to a career. I am someone whose beliefs mean that I believe my mom is still watching over me, still aware of my life and its successes and failures, its good times and bad times. My mom will know if it happens, and if (or when) it happens, she’ll celebrate with me, but it won’t be the same. I had really wanted her to KNOW, where I could see the relief on her face, that she didn’t have to be scared to leave me. It’s another thing I need to let go, but that one is harder.

5. READ 100 NEW BOOKS
Re-reading is my security blanket. I have favorites that I re-read time and time again (and am, in fact, in the middle of one of those trilogies now!), and my favorite comfy snuggly must have at slumber parties pillow is fanfic. They are my creature comforts, my de-stressors, my safe places. But I need to deal with stress better this year, and hopefully it won’t be nearly as overwhelming, so I would very much like to read a crapton of new books (okay, actually a hundred, which is far less than a crapton). And by new, I simply mean books I haven’t read before. Brand new releases, yes, but also the books that have been sitting patiently on my shelves waiting for me to get to them. Part of getting rid of stuff means culling books that I have to honestly admit I’ll never get to, or just don’t have an interest in getting to anymore, but there are so many books on my shelves already that I really WANT to read, and so many good ones coming out, that this is my goal. We’ll see how it goes.

6. BE OKAY WITH NOT BEING OKAY
This is the biggest one, and by far the hardest. I’ve talked before (I think I’ve talked before) about the fact that I have recurring clinical depression. It’s not chronic, for which I’m very grateful, but it’s something I have to always be aware of. I have to monitor my moods and my actions so that I can identify when I’m having trouble. Admitting that has never been a problem, for some reason. I never felt ashamed to say that I was struggling with an episode. I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t have the perceived stigma of medication (because, with the full support and conversation of my mother and my psychiatrist, I felt that wasn’t the best path for me), or because I was dealing with it and anyone who had a problem with it could go screw themselves.
Grief and stress, though, are really powerful triggers to my depression cycles. I know this, and that’s one of the major reasons why I re-read without guilt, because it helps, but grief and stress have been unavoidable this past year, and they’ll be unavoidable this coming year. I’ve been extremely (probably unheathily) focused on being strong. Don’t break down and put extra burdens on Mom, on the family, on my friends, on the random people who ask for updates. For a while, I could go home and close the doors and just break down in private, but eventually that started to feel self-indulgent, and there were bigger more important things that needed my attention an energy (totally not true, by the way). I’m starting to realize that a large part of my focus on everything that needs to get done is because it keeps me too busy and too tired to feel everything else.
Because if I start to feel all that weight, that crushing loss and bewilderment and anger and fear and all those things that go hand in hand with illness and death, I’ll never get out from under it. (Also not true) If I stay busy, if I don’t have time even to think, much less feel, then the grief and stress can’t latch onto the depression and breed. And like I said, it’s absolutely not true. It’s not just something I know, it’s something I can feel. Right now, no matter how much sleep I do or not get, I’m the same degree of exhausted. For me, that’s one of my more obvious warning signs. It’s also one of the early ones.
Before this terrible year, I was okay with not being okay some days. The cycles happened, and I could accept that and take care of myself until the cycle had passed. I really, really need to get back to that. It’s important for me to remember (for everyone to remember) that depression is an illness, not an affectation. Some days are ALWAYS going to be worse than others, sometimes by triggers, sometimes simply by chemical imbalances. I need to let myself have those days to really take care of myself, before this becomes a much bigger, much more complicated problem.

So, not resolutions, really, and in some cases, not even really goals. I don’t know what 2015 is going to hold. Changes, yes, some of them really massive and exciting and painful, but I very much hope that what I can do, I will, and what I can’t, I can let go of.

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2014 in Books

December 31, 2014 at 6:57 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , , )

You know, I’ll be honest, 2014 is the year I’d like to kill with fire, if that were at all possible. There were a staggering number of reasons for this year to suck, and it fully inhabited ALL OF THEM.

One of the consequences of that is that I didn’t read nearly as much as I usually do, and read barely anything new. That’s one of the signs that my stress level is too high. I love rereading books, but when I actually CAN’T read new books? The inability to focus on or absorb new information is one of my biggest signals that my stress is soaring, so I end up mostly re-reading or plowing through fanfic.

That being said, I still read this year, because I’m still breathing, and because I love to blab about books, here are some that I really noticed.

Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine
I haven’t read any of Rachel’s other books (I strongly suspect a serious case of vampire fatigue still lingering from six years ago), but then I heard that there was something completely different coming out, and it was Shakespeare (cue the fainting couch and smelling salts because SHAKESPEARE). Then I heard it was off of Romeo and Juliet and I was pearl-clutching for a different reason, because while R&J has some undeniably beautiful language, I really hate the play. I do. Reading or watching R&J makes me want to kill All The People. Then Tessa Gratton was raving in a good way about it, so I settled down with it, and HOLY HELL.
I don’t know how she managed it, I really don’t, but she managed to make me invested and passionate about freaking Romeo and Juliet! Except, not them, really, because they’re just the twits causing problems for the people she REALLY made us care about. Benvolio and Rosaline step away from their more famous cousins here, dropping prop-status and becoming dynamic, interesting people with a whole lot more going on that their cousins ever realized. Family! Politics! Curses! Clever Thieves! Smart Ladies! (I am a total sucker for Clever Thieves and Smart Ladies) I was absolutely blown away by this book, and am already itching to re-read it.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Not a YA book (I know, weird, right?) but probably the single most personal book of my year. This book is essentially a biography of cancer, with the more humanistic elements interspersed through history. Technically it was research for a project that may or may not ever see the light of day, but it became an anchor of sorts. For anyone slammed with cancer, either in their bodies or in those they love, there’s this overwhelming and ultimately futile rage: why don’t we know more about this? Doctor Mukherjee balances the science (some of it, admittedly, a little dense, and took more than one reading) with the human, and delivers a rounded, sympathetic, and ultimately uplifting progress report. We’ve come a lot further than we realize, and if some cancers are much further along towards successful and humane treatments, well, some cancers are more common than others. Even for those without an intensely personal interest in the subject, it is well worth a read.

The Strange Maid by Tessa Gratton
Months after reading it for the first time, I am still unable to talk intelligently about this book. THIS BOOK BROKE MY ABILITY TO BRAIN. It is just so freaking good! I was already in love with The United States of Asgard because of The Lost Sun (Soren! Astrid! Baldur! VIDER!), and I knew Strange Maid was going to be a middle book, and I frequently find middle books problematic but OH MY GODS! Signy is compelling and repelling and complicated and simple, all the contradictions and madness and focus that makes up who she is and who and what she wants to be. I love that she is so unapologetically unstable, and that her obsession with death is not against life, but rather part of it. She is one of the most fascinating, complex, and RELATABLE characters I’ve ever come up against, and her blood-soaked, passion-driven, fierce, defiant story is an amazing journey.
This year we also got to see a collection of three USAsgard novellas (VIDER!!!!), and words cannot express how excited I am for April’s The Apple Throne.

Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian
I’m not usually one for contemporary, but Carrie definitely proves an exception. Her debut novel, Sex & Violence, was exceptional and well-lauded, and PGWB is a strong successor. One of the things I love about this book is that while there is conflict, and there are goals, and there’s definitely a journey, there’s not precisely a plot, as such. It’s a slice of life, wonderful and messy and bewildering and painful, full of drugs, booze, bodily fluids, and a sort of relentless optimism wrapped in cynicism. It’s very, very real, pointy sucky bits included. Rather than pushing indiscriminately towards a conclusion, it takes the time to look around, see everything that’s there, not just what’s directly connected to THE PLOT. It’s messy characters and difficult things and it’s amazing.
Also, you should definitely follow Carrie on twitter, because in between thrifting and The Reedus and the renovation that may never be complete, she drops a lot of big truths and smart things.

The Story of Owen by Emily Kate Johnston
Another Lab Rat, but I’m not biased, I swear, they’re just REALLY GOOD BOOKS. Owen is symphonies and trumpets and dragons and driver’s ed and soccer, and it’s a storyteller and a storyteller’s bias and a bouncy Chesterfield couch. It’s a lot of really amazing elements that come together into this astonishing, touching, painfully funny story, and it’s forthcoming sequel, Prairie Fire is absofreakinglutely fanstastic. Siobhan, our intrepid bard, isn’t telling us THE story- she’s telling us A story, and storytellers, of course, lie. Or at least tell carefully edited versions of the truth. Whether we can believe it or not, whether we trust it or not, Siobhan tells an astonishing, captivating story.
Really just anything Emily Kate writes. I got to read the first third or so of her project for Disney Hyperion and now I am CONSTANTLY DISTRACTED BECAUSE IT’S SO FREAKING GOOD AND I DON’T HAVE THE REST OF IT TO READ! Also a very good one to follow on twitter or tumblr, because if you are even peripherally interested in any of the numerous fandoms to which she’s devoted, she finds some amazing stuff.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
Actually, this whole trilogy, continuing into The Crown of Embers and The Bitter Kingdom. This set was a re-read, and it’s the first time I’ve read them all together, going straight from one book into the next, and they were just as fantastic as I remembered them being. Elisa is one of my absolute favorite heroines of all time. Her journey through politics and magic and adventure is huge and wonderful and riveting, but what really makes this so unique and awesome is her more personal journey. Elisa starts this series as someone convinced of her own complete and utter lack of worth, and she GROWS. She learns and decides and it’s not ever that she becomes someone else, but that she becomes more and more herself, sloughing off all those things she and others have put on her over the years.
Probably my favorite moment is (and I’m paraphrasing here, because I don’t have access to the books at the moment) is when she’s getting ready for something, and she says “I look beautiful to the one who matters most”, and the person helping her is all “Yes! He’ll be blown away by the sight of you!” and she says “I meant me.”
THAT journey, even as just a part of many larger ones weaving together, is perfect.

What were some of your favorite reads (or re-reads) through this year?

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We Are All Dead, Not Dying

December 27, 2014 at 11:58 pm (Personal Real Life) (, , , , , )

On 4 May 1991, Star Trek: The Next Generation aired episode 4.22, “Half a Life”, guest starring David Ogden Stiers as the aging Timicin, a scientist dedicated to finding a way to restore his planet’s dying sign. The science would have been fascinating enough, but in the tradition of the classic Star Treks, the episode tackled much more difficult questions and issues. In so doing, they did something rather rare, not just for a television show, but in life.

They asked about dying.

Timicin’s people have a practice called The Resolution. At the age of sixty, a person’s family gathers for time together and a farewell, and the newly-sixty-year-old kills his or herself, offsetting the infirmities of greater age, the loss of the sense of self, and relieving the burden and strain on families obliged to care for those who can no longer care for themselves. This is something in which Timicin has always believed, even as he nears his own sixtieth birthday, but under the dual influences of an unsuccessful attempt to save his sun and the passionate, defiant, acknowledges no obstacles love of the inimitable Lwaxana Troi, Timicin begins to consider a life outside of that tradition, where he might be free to continue his work and live his life.

Also in the tradition of the best episodes in this and the original series, they don’t try to answer the questions. Rather, they admit, openly, perhaps ruefully, that the issue is never as simple as yes or no, or right or wrong. They ask the question and let the characters explore that dangerous, bewildering, sometimes polarizing intersection of perspectives. I always loved this episode, but lately it’s taken on new meaning for me.

Because we as a culture don’t really talk about dying.

Death, yes, we’re all obsessed with death, but only when it surprises us, in a way. We talk about murders, about accidents, about natural disasters. We talk about death toll, and once it reaches truly epidemic proportions, we can even bring ourselves to talk about disease. It’s like we all ascribe to this James Dean sort of immortality: unless we’re taken out, we’ll live forever.

We don’t, of course, but we don’t talk about that. We fill ourselves with death as the unexpected, leaving no room for the everyday sort of things. We rattle off statistics, and despite the astonishing number of life insurance commercials on the television, we don’t prepare for things, not really, because no matter how old or young we are, that’s never going to be us. So we’ll talk about violence from people, from animals, from nature, because it can always surprise us. We’re obsessed with death, but we’re never dying.

Except, of course, when we are, but we don’t talk about that.

We don’t talk about the slow, unsteady decline unto death, the gradual and inexorable loss of self and vitality. We don’t talk about what disease actually does to a person, to a family.

We do fundraisers for cancer research, treating it like it’s any enemy to be defeated, using strategically chosen poster children to create a sense of community or empathy, but it’s only ever as an abstract. Because cancer is depicted in our culture as something that can be beaten, we expect strength and grace and dignity and endless optimism from those who’ve been diagnosed with it. Chin up, soldier, and fight, you’ll get through this. We buy into the commercials that tell us beating cancer is as simple as finding the right doctors, the right treatment centers. We don’t buy into it because we’re stupid (or at least not entirely) but because that sort of relentlessly ignorant optimism is part of our cultural obsession with being vibrantly alive until suddenly we aren’t.

We don’t want the truth about suffering. When we ask someone how their treatments are going, we want to hear “Oh, they’re just fine. You know, I really think they’re working!” or “I’ll be cancer-free in no time!” We don’t to hear about the side effects from the chemotherapy a/o radiation. We don’t want to hear about surgical complications. We don’t want to see the pharmacy of carefully measured risks and interactions spread across the counter, hoping the effects will be more than the averse possibilities. We don’t want to hear about vomiting or dehydration, or being unable to eat. We don’t want to hear about weight loss or hair loss or the ability of cold to make you lose sensation in your extremities. We want our poster children to be brave and bright.

We don’t want to hear about the countless people left abandoned or neglected in sub-par nursing facilities as their needs outstrip the ability or willingness of their families to care for them. We don’t want to hear about the families struggling to keep their loved ones at home through increasing infirmities. We want to hear about our senior citizens doing extraordinary things–being active! Iron Man Nun! We went boating, biking, digging for dinosaurs, whatever the commercials are selling–so we don’t want to think about the inevitable decline of the body. We don’t want to think about the body as a machine that will, no matter we do, one day simply run down and stop.

We don’t want to think of dying as a process.

We don’t want to think of dying as something we can’t stop.

So, culturally, we don’t. We shield ourselves with the unexpected, the unpredictable. We comfort ourselves with sudden, with random, with malice.

We don’t talk about dying.

But we talk about death.

My mother died on Christmas Eve.

She was diagnosed with cancer in May 2013, with what the scans showed to be a very small, isolated cluster of tumors. Surgery showed us it was anything but. The pathology report, however, the thing that would tell us exactly what we were dealing with, took longer than usual to come back. In fact, it wasn’t until I was at BEA, a couple of hours after my ARC signing, that the results came back. My mother had a very rare form of cancer, hence the extra days–the pathologists weren’t entirely sure what they were dealing with, so they had to check with others.

In treatments, most oncology centers lump cancer of the appendix in with colo-rectal and other GI cancers, largely because they don’t know what the hell else to do with it. It’s not a GI cancer, and it doesn’t respond or behave or grow like a GI cancer, but they treat it like one anyway. It’s probably not a shock that these treatments don’t have any inspiring results.

The last time I openly talked about my mother’s cancer, we were headed down to Daytona for a surgery that could have been the miracle we were hoping for. It’s a surgery specially designed for THIS type of cancer by a doctor who specializes in rare cancers, but there’s a narrow window for candidacy. Mom’s scans looked beautiful. Opening her up showed a rather uglier picture. There was far more cancer tissue than the scans had indicated–two to three hundred times what was expected–which meant the procedure couldn’t actually proceed. Our miracle surgery was a failure.

The cancer was going to kill my mother.

Really, it was just a question of when. Despite chemotherapy having shown no signs of slowing the growth of tumor tissue before, it was hoped that changing chemo agents (still GI agents) would at least slow or maybe even contain the growth. My mother’s life would revolve around treatments and side effects, but she’d be alive, and for some people, that’s enough. Some people want all the time modern medicine can give them. Some people want to accept the days left to them and live comfortably, doing they things they want done so they leave nothing behind.

But we don’t talk about dying, and that’s really a terrible thing, because as members of our particular cultural peculiarities, we don’t really have any idea how to approach dying.

We don’t talk about Hospice, or just how amazing a thing that really is. It’s always surprised me that so many people don’t seem to know anything about it, and I was never sure if that was because my mom used to be a Hospice nurse, or if it was because I was a broken child obsessed with dying as equally as with death. Hospice began as end-of-life care in oncology wards in England. When the other doctors gave up on patients, when there was no more cure to be sought, they were just left in corners of wards and forgotten, left to die. The amazing Dame Cicily Saunders made it her mission to make their end of life more comfortable. Where the disease or the decline could not be conquered, she sought to alleviate their symptoms. Eventually this spread to the United States. Today, Hospice serves all end-of-life care, not just from cancer. They work in hospitals, in care centers, and in the homes to assist patients and their families. In additions to doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners, they have cadres of social workers and chaplains to provide emotional support and resources, as well as an incredibly active volunteer horde to assist in innumerable ways.

We don’t talk about the mindset and clarity–and acceptance–it requires to actually make plans for your death and after. To talk with family members and friends, to make arrangements. We talk about the five stages of grief, but only after death. We never talk about how it can start long before the moment of death. We don’t talk about fear or denial. We don’t talk about the frenetic push for things to do, just to pretend that our end isn’t looming.

It’s not about religion or faith, at that point, or any sort of belief in what does or does not (or may or may not) come after death. Fervently faithful people can still be afraid. People who believe, passionately and whole-heartedly, that death moves them to a better place, can still not be ready to go.

We don’t talk about caregiving, not really. In commercials, sometimes, for nursing agencies, but even those are full of crap. The commercials, I mean. They show gracefully aging seniors being assisted in normal activities by smiling, uniformed people, and sure, sometimes caregiving is cooking a meal or helping to clean, but that is such a tiny, tiny piece of it. Caregiving is riding the emotional extremes of the person you love, and not being able to ride out your own, because your focus is so entirely on the other person. Caregiving is doings things it never even occurred to you might be necessary. It can be giving rides and doing the shopping, but it can also be helping someone use the toilet or take a bath.

Caregiving can be learning every single medication and what they do and when they can be taken and what are the side effects and what can be taken at the same time and what has to be separated and what are my options if she throws this back up? Caregiving can be pretending you’re not gagging when you need to measure the color, consistency, and volume of a bucket of vomit as you’re also making sure there isn’t any undissolved medication in there. It’s talking to doctors and nurses and trying desperately to make sure you understand everything. It’s being snapped at and having to remind yourself that it’s the fear and the pain, not the person, saying these things.

Caregiving is hard. It is hard and it is exhausting and it is emotionally, mentally, and physically draining. It is the single hardest thing I have ever done and, God willing, the hardest thing I will ever have to do, and I was far from alone while doing it. But because we don’t talk about dying, or about Hospice, or about caregiving, we deprive those caregivers of really important support and resources to be found in Hospice.

We had that support. My mom entered Hospice at the end of September, after two hospital stays and the realization that her chemo was actually causing life-threatening problems. Chemo came to an end, and the focus switched to pain and symptom management. Accepting that you need Hospice, though, is not the same as accepting you’re dying.

It’s incredibly difficult to talk about dying with someone who refuses to accept that they are, and nothing in our culture prepares us for that.

Our culture thinks people who accept death and dying are weak, somehow, like they’re traitors for not fighting and denying and burying ourselves in a perceived immortality.

My mom vacillated wildly between denying her impending timeline and morosely drowning herself in it. And that’s normal, sadly, and difficult, and painful, for everyone connected to it. Her doctors told her to gather the family and have an early Christmas, and at the beginning of November, we did. We had Thanksgiving a few weeks later. My brothers came down on more weekends than they ever had before. Some days it felt like the house had a revolving door, there were such constant streams of visitors, overlapping each other.

As her symptoms got worse, the medication got higher. A LOT higher. My mother–an incredibly active woman who used to run COPE courses and lead Boy Scouts on hikes and camp outs–was increasingly confined to bed. We had to get a wheelchair for the few longer outings she could still tolerate, like the giant craft fair she and I have gone to together every single year as our one big Mother-Daughter tradition. After getting called at four thirty in the morning because she’d fallen and cracked her head and was unresponsive, we had to get her a walker, and then hound her endlessly to use it, because it’s one thing to know, in a professional sort of way, that your body just can’t do this anymore, and completely another to obey it, to accept it. More and more, we had to help her with medications, and with using the bathroom. When the narcotics and relaxants were at their mega-doses, and she was rather less than cognizant, we had to make sure we repositioned her fairly regularly, so she wouldn’t get bedsores. We had to repeat conversations, and try to parse through the confusion and aphasia that wasn’t entirely the fault of the morphine. As we tried to start making arrangements for After, we had to accept and try to work around the resistance, the insistence that it wasn’t necessary.

My mother fought like hell against something she couldn’t ever hope to beat, and she fought right up until her last breath at 10:25 pm, Christmas Eve. And I have to wonder: if we a culture were more open about dying, would she have fought so relentlessly?

Because that’s our other myth about dying. When we can accept that it happens, when we can somehow manage to work against the prevailing atmosphere in order to talk about it, we have this image of serenity. Surrounded by loved ones, the dying person smiles, closes his or her eyes, and simply lets go on a seraphic sigh, all peace and grace and dignity.

I hope I never again have to hear the sounds my mother made as she struggled to keep going. We clustered around her, holding her hands, touching her, telling her it was okay, we were okay, she could just let go, because we could see how anxious, and restless, and miserable she was. She wasn’t responsive by then, but still fighting like hell against a force that was always, always going to win. We tell people to make the most of life. We tell them to fight, we tell them to cling, we tell them to always focus on how much we have left to do.

So we don’t talk about making your peace with what you’ve done, and what you will never do. We don’t talk about letting go.

Through that silence, that willful ignorance and relentless optimism, we hurt not only ourselves but our loved ones. We, as a culture, cannot handle dying.

In “Half a Life”, Timicin’s people came up with The Resolution in an attempt to be humane and compassionate, to spare themselves the indignities and infirmities and decline. They did it as a way for families to come together and make their farewells, to leave nothing unsaid. They did it as a way to meet death with dignity. We see a number of perspectives in what follows, and they’re paralleled in real life by all the arguments surrounding physician-assisted suicide, and extended into the debates about living wills and do-not-resuscitate orders. The conversations are only half-formed, though, because we refuse to talk about them in practical measures. The ideas, the concepts, the abstracts, those we can discuss. The ethics and philosophies. Faced with the reality, though, we turn away.

We’re all dead, but never dying.

Timicin makes his choice in the fiction, and my mother made hers in real life. Neither was easy. Neither made their choice without doubts.

My mother was a pretty amazing woman. She was a dedicated nurse and Navy officer, and her three favorite areas of nursing were neonatal, Hospice, and teaching. The full spectrum of birth to death. Despite working insanely long hours at most of her jobs, she was involved in all of our activities. Church, choirs, Youth Group, Sunday Schools, Bible studies, soccer, baseball, drama, dance, French club, competitions and field trips and projects. She started a Boy Scout troop and led it for ten years, one of the first female Scoutmasters. She faced derision and insults and sabotage, having to stand in a line across from entire troops of boys and adults chanting “No women in Scouts!”, and rather than return insult, rather than succumb to indignation or hurt, she and her troop won the campwide Spirit Award, and she carved out a name for herself in the Council as a Scoutmaster whose Eagles truly earned that distinction. She also started a Girl Scout troop, and there was very little more funny than my sleep-deprived, caffeine-deprived mother teaching a group of eight-year-olds how to make campfire coffee simply because she was going to scream if she didn’t get that black elixir. The Boy Scouts similarly learned not to approach her until she’d had her first cup of coffee. Preferably the second, maybe even with the third in hand.

My mother spent one Christmas Eve with a flashlight in one hand and a golf club in the other because the snake my brother was baby-sitting got out of its cage.

She spent another in the emergency room, after my Advent candles set a portion of the furniture on fire.

Christmas was really her Thing. The tree was always perfect–not in the showhome kind of perfect, but in the sense that chaos came together to really mean something. We had store-bought ornaments, some because they were meaningful and some because they were pretty, and we had craft-fair handmade ornaments, but our tree always had more clumsily or beautifully hand-made ornaments that were family. And Mom was the only one allowed to put on tinsel. The rest of us would toss it on, letting it fall like flurries of snow, but she’d place it strand by strand on the branches. The presents she wrapped were works of art. Baking smells filled the house, and then later there’d be cooking smells, too, and all of it wonderful. And there was music. My mom had an incredible voice, and every year during Christmas Eve services, she sang “O Holy Night”. One year (the year of the fire) we found an incredible dress shirt with a glittery tree and cuffs (and it was actually a beautiful shirt, even though it sounds like anything but), and as she sang, she’d lift her arm, and the lights would spark off the bit of cuff that came out of the choir robe, and it was like she had her own halo. I sang that song at other services some years, and other songs during others, but even when I sang it, it was still Mom’s song.

My mother was passionate about education, both receiving it and giving it. She believed fervently in continuing education for nurses, and was most of the way through a Masters program to become a Family Nurse Practitioner when she was forced to take a medical leave of absence. She was a teacher, both in profession and in spirit. She passed a thirst for learning on to her children. And she was a caregiver. It wasn’t just a job, it was a vocation. A calling. She was fiercely proud of us, even when we made mistakes. It got a little embarrassing, sometimes, that everyone she talked to just HAD to know that I’m a published author (and here’s something I never thought about with publishing–just how freaking hard it is to write an inscription to your mother!) but she was just that proud of me. My brothers, too, even when we struggled to find a path or stick to a path or just plain make the path work.

She had her faults, of course, and I was by no means blind to them, but at the end of the day, I was lucky to have a mother who was both my mom and my best friend, but always my mom first. The past nineteen months have been hellaciously hard and painful, but even at its worst, there has never been a point when I haven’t been grateful that I got to be here with her and for her. Even being unemployed for year, which otherwise sucks, seemed like a gift, because it meant that I got to be there, and as things declined and that became a necessity rather than simply useful or indulgent, I didn’t have any obstacles preventing me from being where I wanted and needed to be.

My mother didn’t die peacefully or gracefully, she died fighting, and our culture says we’re not really supposed to talk about that. If it doesn’t fit into our myth, it’s supposed to be left alone, because death should always be something unexpected. Death should always be something we can’t fight, so that way we don’t have to face what happens when we lose.

But my mother raised me to talk about it, so I am. We all make our choices, but by choosing to talk about it, no matter how hard or painful or impossible it is, I’m choosing not to be afraid of it. We will all be dead. We are all, little by little or step by hurtling step, dying. We don’t have to live our lives in spite of that. We get to live our lives with that, knowing that there is an end to all things, that we belong to a natural order in which death and life are intertwined. We get to exist in this miracle we call life.

We just need to start accepting all of it.

Katherine Ann Hutchison 9.1.1952-12.24.2014

Katherine Ann Hutchison
9.1.1952-12.24.2014

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Save the Libraries: A Guest Post With Pages Unbound

July 31, 2014 at 6:16 pm (General) (, , , )

The wonderful Krysta over at Pages Unbound invited me to do a guest post about libraries, and you guys have probably realized by now, I am ALWAYS happy to talk about libraries and how wonderful they are. So check it out, and be sure to chime in through the comments and tell us your favorite thing about libraries.

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I Found Treasure in the Library!

June 17, 2014 at 1:00 pm (A Wounded Name) (, , , )

Anyone who’s read through the archives on here knows that I love libraries. I love the accessibility of them, the way they can foster readers, the amazing assistance they can give the public through computer and employment programs. I love being surrounded by books. I love walking in and seeing people–especially children–so excited about what books they might stumble upon that day. I love that libraries are the perfect places to take risks on new books, new authors. I was one of the few kids that knew and conversed with all of the school librarians. I spent large portions of my summers in the main branch library downtown.

Libraries have a very special place in my heart.

A few months ago, my friend Lesley and I made a day out of going to one of the libraries in Ocala so she could look around in prep for an interview test. And can I just say, the main branch of the Marion County Public Library is GORGEOUS? It’s elegant and full of light and space. Their kids area is adorable, with science projects and theme displays, and they have an entire room dedicated to YA, with funky chairs and built-in swivel-top desks. We were scanning the shelves, and all of a sudden, I notice something.

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The audio book of A Wounded Name! It was the first time I’d actually seen a copy of it!

And if it seems weird that the library has the audio but not the physical book, well, I thought it was, too, so I asked (and blushed and stammered over trying to explain that it was actually my book). Turns out, the MCPL has a weirdly specific grant that gives them the ability to purchase a TON of audio books, especially in YA, so they’ve got a significant collection.

And in addition to the first time seeing the audio book, it was my first time seeing the book in the wild! I don’t count my BN as being the wild; we made very sure to order it in. I got to spend a few months seeing my book on the shelf in my store, but being able to see it somewhere completely unexpected was…it was…

Abso-freaking-lutely unbelievable.

There are a million points in the publishing process where your book starts to feel real–the sale, the first edits, the cover, the ARC, the finished copy, seeing it in a store, seeing someone purchase it–but I’m not sure it ever completely feels real. I was reorganizing my bookshelves a few weeks ago and was actually startled at mine being among them (and that alphabetically, I now have like five Carolrhoda Lab titles on a single shelf in one of the cases). I guess it’s just something that will always feel a little bit surreal.

Theoretically, I knew the physical book was in the library system for my county. (Okay, I admit, I totally looked it up on the library website) I hadn’t actually seen it yet, though. I have two branches that I go to fairly frequently, especially since I became unemployed, and I hadn’t seen it in either of them. I also didn’t feel entirely comfortable placing a hold on something I had no intention of checking out just so I could be lazy and not have to go to a different branch. I mean, let’s be honest, I’m lazy enough that I’ll Netflix shows I own so I don’t have to get up and change the discs, so this was me very carefully drawing a line. I would see it or I wouldn’t.

Thanks to Elizabeth Fama (author of amazing books MONSTROUSE BEAUTY and PLUS ONE, as well as all-around amazing person), I’ve been giving audiobooks a fresh chance, because they’re not something with which I ever do. I’ve been so miserably sick over the past four or five days that audiobooks have actually kind of saved my sanity, because taking super long soaks in the bathtub has been the only way to comfortably breathe, and the tubs in my apartment are so miserably proportioned that you can’t read while soaking. But audiobook? Totally works. So I’ve been finding some that don’t trigger my ADD, which is a wonderful thing. This morning I managed to get three whole hours of sleep, the first sleep in four days, and woke up feeling well enough to go out for a little bit. (That wasn’t really an option, though; I needed food. I had none in the apartment, because I’ve been holed up here in my hermit cave of illness). So, on my way to food, I dropped by the library to return a couple of titles and see if anything interesting had pulled up on the shelves. My branch has the audio books separated by section, but also separated from their sections. (Does that make sense? Like each category has, off to one side, its own little audio section, so you go near the end of Middle Grade, you have the Middle Grade audiobooks, etc) I hadn’t intended to go into the YA physical book section, except that I couldn’t remember exactly where the YA audiobooks were, because there was a weird allowance for running out of space in the area.

But my book was there!

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Just randomly sitting there on the shelf! And there’s a special sticker on for Local Author! (And a categorization of YA mystery, which kind of cracks me up a little, but whatever)

As wonderful as it is to see my book in a store, there’s something just indescribable about seeing it in a library. I think a big part of that is how much libraries were a part of my life growing up. Seriously, guys, think about everything your libraries do. It’s not as simple as “borrow books”. Libraries provide such a huge range of services. They help teach English to immigrants, they teach computer and life skills classes, and host job search and interview workshops. They do literacy assistance for all ages, from story time with the youngest children to working with adults who learning how to read. They host book clubs and writing groups and drawing classes. They hold a number of community gatherings, from small festivals to council meetings to town meetings. They serve as polls, both for early voting and standard voting. And that’s just a fraction of the services they provide.

Did you know you can request books?

You can! Most library systems have a way for patrons to request specific books, even in specific formats. You submit the request, they’ll consider it, and if there’s repeated interest or they think it’s a good fit (and, you know, they have money), they’ll buy it. A lot of them will even notify you when it’s in, and give you the option to place an automatic hold. If they can’t get it for their own system, a number of libraries are partnering with other counties, sometimes even in other states, for inter-library loan. In a time when libraries are struggling to get the funds to survive, librarians are doing everything they can to increase the availability of books.

Seriously, you should all go hug your librarians.

But ask them first, otherwise it’s kind of creepy.

I saw the book sitting there on the shelf and for a moment, all I could do was stare at it. Then it sank in and I started giggling, only I have no voice right now, so it came out as a kind of witchy cackle, and I think I scared the guy re-shelving books down the row. It was just amazing to see! There are kids like me, kids who rely on libraries because the money isn’t there to buy books for keeps, who can see this book and take it home with them.

I still can’t stop smiling about it.

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Cancer Needs An Ass-Kicking

February 15, 2014 at 5:59 pm (Personal Real Life) (, , , , )

Let’s talk about cancer, and about moms, and about moms who have cancer. Specifically, let’s talk about my mom.

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Last April, my mom started having some abdominal pains and bleeding, which might have been easy to explain if she hadn’t stopped that process a few years ago. (Ladies, if you notice anything weird going on with your lady-parts or lady-cycles, see a doctor. Better a false alarm than missing something. Actually, that goes for guys, too. True self-love is checking to make sure all your junk is healthy) A scan showed some shadows on an ovary and a mass behind the uterus. The cancer markers on her blood test were low, so there was a possibility that it was benign. If it was cancerous, they were pretty sure it was ovarian, slight chance it was uterine, and they were pretty sure they’d caught it early.

But, when they went in to remove the questionable bits, they found a very, very different story. They found cancer tissue across her ovaries and uterus, across her bowel, and through her lower abdominal cavity, including wrapping around a few blood vessels. They got out what they could, which necessitated losing some bowel, and sent it on to pathology. My mom’s surgery was near the end of the May; I spent the School Library Journal Day of Dialogue and most of my day at BEA waiting very impatiently for the path report. Not that I was going to be able to do anything from New York (or do anything, really), but not knowing was awful, because this was so clearly not what they were expecting. We’d been expecting the report for days, and every day that passed without a response just made it worse, because it had to mean that it was more complicated.

And it was. What they found was advanced cancer (Stage 4) originating in the appendix. Appendiceal cancer is rare; there have been less than two hundred documented cases since it was first diagnosed as a separate and distinct cancer in 1969. Because of its rarity, treatment options are…limited. Limited and still largely experimental, lobbing chemo agents at it and hoping it works. Chemo couldn’t start until she was fully recovered from surgery, which took a while, because it turns out when you lose portions of your bowel, it makes little things like eating a very chancy business.

My mom was, at this time, enrolled in an online graduate program to become a Nurse Practitioner. Grad school has been a dream near and dear to Mom’s heart for a long time. She was enrolled at UF when we first moved to Gainesville in 1990, but she got recalled to active duty during Desert Storm, and was gone for almost a year, and then becoming a single parent meant that grad school had to wait. And wait. And wait. When she finally got the chance to investigate online programs, we crossed our fingers. When she actually got to enroll, we were ecstatic. The program is hard. It’s meant to be done by professionals working full-time, but you would never know that based on the deluge of assignments and impossible class times. She worked herself to the bone while she was still working. Fortunately, she was eventually approved for a grant that allowed her to leave work and do school full-time. It meant things were tight, but it also meant school was doing well.

UNfortunately, once she started chemo, school got harder and harder to keep up. Chemotherapy essentially poisons your body; it’s why the side-effects are so terrible. You’re literally pumping toxic chemicals into your body in the hopes that it kills the cancer before it kills you. She grew extremely fatigued, couldn’t focus, got extreme sensitivity to cold from both taste and touch. She couldn’t walk barefoot in the kitchen without loosing sensation in her feet. She couldn’t pull things out of the fridge or freezer, couldn’t drink anything that was even cold, much less containing ice. Her potassium levels started tanking (which is, among other things, very bad for your heart). As tired as she was, she also suffered from insomnia. Nausea and vomiting came in waves, and the complications from the surgery meant she developed Short Gut Syndrome. She lost weight at a dangerous speed. And there were other side-effects. Eventually, it reached the point where she had to take a medical leave of absence from school, which was a devastating personal blow. She was later able to return to her old job, which was fortunately willing to be flexible with the hours and her needs, but school is such a deep and driving dream for her.

So why am I telling you this?

At the end of the month, my mom will be going into surgery again, a couple hours south of home. There’s a doc in DC that specializes in developing treatments for rare cancers. This protocol he’s developed, which other doctors also perform, is an aggressive combination of a long, intensive surgery and directly-applied chemotherapy. The side-effects of a direct-application chemo wash are significant, not to mention the incredible strain on the body that a long surgery produces. Provided all goes well, she’ll be in the Intensive Care Unit for several days, and then on the main surgical floor for two to three weeks (also provided all goes well). It’s an aggressive procedure, but it has a decent success rate, and if it does work, it has a significantly higher quality of life standard than continuing traditional chemo, which has thus far prevented new growth but not diminished old growth.

And we have no idea how much it’s going to cost.

Thank God, she has insurance through her job, but we don’t know how much it’s going to cover. We heard back from the office of the doc who’ll be doing the surgery, so we know things are covered on that end, but the hospital is a completely different story. Right now, her two-person household is a three-quarter income household, and once she goes down for surgery, she’s not going to be able to work until she’s fully recovered. She tried to make arrangements to work from home, and the doc was certainly willing to sign off on it, but the confidential nature of the work she does makes her employers unwilling to make the arrangements on their end. She has insurance, but no sick time. Some of her co-workers even tried to give her some of their sick time, but no dice. Her job will still be there when she gets back (and even that is a small miracle) but for the duration of her recovery, both in Daytona and here, there’ll be no income.

My mom was lucky enough to form an incredible study-group with some of her fellow Hoyas, and they support each other like you wouldn’t believe. Her phone is always going off with texts, and they moved from study-buddies into genuine friendships. When she had to take her medical leave, they kept her involved in classes by asking for her help editing papers, or helping them go over tests. When the rest of the group had to head to DC for an on-campus intensive for clinical skills, they printed out a picture of her from the previous OCI and Flat Stanley-ed her. They took ‘her’ along with them to clinicals, to meals, to drinks, to the hotel, out on walks, everywhere, and sent her pictures. They’ve committed themselves to helping her study when she comes back from medical leave, and if the procedure is successful and she’s able to join back in summer or fall semester, she’ll actually be able to walk at graduation with them next year.

And they’ve started a gofundme for her medical bills. Cancer is a debilitating disease–physically, mentally…and financially. It’s easy to say to ignore the money and focus on getting better, but that doesn’t work if the money ISN’T THERE. There’s only so much you can put on credit cards before you reach your limit, and all the well-wishes in the world don’t pay the rent.

I’m not really one to ask people for money, largely because I know better than most just how tight money can be. I live well below the poverty line, and am currently unemployed. The one advantage to that is that I can be down there with her at the hospital. But..I am asking. Politely, and with the complete understanding that money is tight, I am asking. If you can give anything to this fund to help my mother pay her medical bills and keep a roof over her head, even just a few dollars, THANK YOU. If you can’t give financially, you can still help by boosting the signal and sharing it with others, and THANK YOU. It’s funny, you’d think I’d be pretty good with words given the whole writing thing and all, but words really can’t express how grateful I will be for ANY help than can be given.

Again, here’s the link to help my mom hopefully kick cancer’s ass and still have her life to come back to when she recovers.

For any donation, for any share, for any signal boost, THANK YOU.

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An Experiment in Control

February 6, 2014 at 8:36 pm (General, Writing) (, , )

Tomorrow marks two weeks of unemployment for me. I’m not panicking yet- last time I couldn’t get a job, it stretched for a whole six months- but it’s led to a lot of thinking for me, in between the cleaning and procrastinating. Mostly, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about control.

Because realistically, I can’t control my employment. I can put out applications, I can search and interview and do my best, but I can’t control what actually happens. It’s led me to other things I can’t control.

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I can write the best book I can write, but I can’t guarantee that the book will sell. It’s out of my hands, and in the hands of an editor who can decide that he or she wants to buy it. I can do my best, my fabulous agent can do her best, but in the end, it depends on a lot of factors, like what else is in the catalog, like what the current trends are, like the purely subjective likes and dislikes of an acquisitions board. A lot of factors, factors over which I have no control.

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Once a book is out there, the way it’s perceived is entirely out of my control. Books become, to many readers, very personal things. The way we enjoy them, the way we react to them, says a lot about us. I can’t control what people think of my writing. Once it’s out there, I can’t argue with people that I think miss the point, can’t tell them what I meant to do. Hell, J.K. Rowling is a superstar and she can’t get away with it without a furor. And really, that’s as it should be. Once it’s in the hands of the reader, it’s open to interpretation, to personal perception. I can’t make anyone like my book. I can’t control whether or not someone enjoys it. Love it or hate it, it’s out of my hands.

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Publishing is a crazy industry that attempts to balance art and business. It’s a juggernaut, really, that steams along to its own timeline. There are eight million numbers and considerations and factors and none of it is in my hands. I can make my contributions on one end or another, but I can’t control it. YA readers on Twitter the other day may have seen #TheArchivedNeedsaThirdBook. For some context, The Archived is an absolutely amazing book by Victoria Schwab. It’s creepy and atmospheric, exciting, heart-wrenching, unexpectedly funny, with the lyrical, gorgeous writing we’ve come to expect from Victoria. It’s sequel, The Unbound, came out at the end of January, and it is just as good. Where the first book was an external enemy, this book is largely internal; the main character is shattering and struggling to make everyone believe she’s okay. A very large part of this book is the realization that it’s okay to NOT be okay for a while after trauma. The story is such that things can end here; it’s the characters that need a third book, and there was originally supposed to be one, but as we know, in publishing, sometimes things happen. They’re not done intentionally, they’re not done to hurt anyone, but it is, at the end of the day, a business, and a business is about numbers and projects and yes, about passion. The hashtag was a fan movement to try to sway the publishers, but at the end of the day, a trending hashtag isn’t going to make a difference to the business. (It will, however, make a hell of a difference to an author to get that kind of outpouring of love and support). What makes a difference to the publisher is sales. Aside from the contribution of buying books from authors I love so they can hopefully make more of them, I can’t control other books. I can’t control other authors. I can’t control publishers, or timelines, or release dates. I can’t.

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I’ll be honest, Other People as a collective tend to piss me off. Not in a “you’re awful” kind of way, but in an “I don’t want to be dealing with you” kind of way. I am an introvert; I prefer not to deal with people if I can possibly avoid it, because I’m awkward and self-conscious and I hate feeling like an idiot in social situations. But I learned a long time that I can’t control other people. I can’t control behavior, or statements, or preferences. I can take accountability for my own actions, but not for theirs. I can’t control luck or good fortune, or bad fortune, I can’t make other people live with compassion or mindfulness.

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There are so many things out of our control it’s frankly a wonder we can convince ourselves anything IS in our control. There is so much about life that we don’t get to decide. We can’t choose the weather, or the climate (unless you choose to move, but even then, have you noticed how things have been recently?). We as individuals have a say in our government, but we don’t really choose it. We can’t control the jury summons or the illness or the falling in love. We can’t choose a lot of things, and where there is no choice, there is no control. It all seems rather a hopeless business, doesn’t it? But there’s something comforting, in a strange sort of way, about acknowledging how small we are, how generally powerless we are. Because when we admit to ourselves all the things we CAN’T control, we start to understand the things we CAN control.

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I can’t control what happens with my writing, but I can control the writing itself. Yes, there are bad days, where every word is a struggle and I’ll probably end up deleting most of them the next time I sit down to work, but those are generally rare. More to the point, what I can control is sitting down and DOING IT. I can control the process of sitting my butt in the chair and WRITING. I can choose to open the file, the notebook, the book. I can choose to exercise my craft and expand my voice. Whatever comes after is out of my hands, but it is precisely in my hands to shape the story and spill it onto the page.

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I’m not by nature a disciplined person, but I can change that. I can control that. I can make it better. Right now my apartment is slowly getting cleaner than any living space of mine has probably ever been, and it’s kind of creeping me out a little, because everything is getting organized and neat and in its place, and that’s just not normal for me. But I’m making the choice, here and now, to keep it that way. To start the good habits and maintain them. I’m usually someone who waits for the mood to write, or who waits for the day off, but I would very much like to get into the habit of writing at least five hundred words every day. Even if it’s not on my main project of the moment, just so I’m writing SOMETHING every single day. Starting good habits is hard. Maintaining good habits is REALLY hard. But- I can choose to have the self-discipline to enforce them, and right now, I choose that.

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I’m not able to control what happens to my books, but I can choose to keep pursuing the goals I’ve set. I can control whether or not I give up. Determination, persistence, they’re hard, especially because they traverse so close to the border of delusional and trying too hard. Sometimes, no matter how badly we want something, no matter how hard we work for it, it just doesn’t happen, and we do have to accept that. Sometimes that means we have to shift our goals. It doesn’t mean we have to give up. Determination got me my first book deal. I can choose to continue that determination.

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Okay, so this one is actually really difficult. Life has a way of throwing things at us, and it’s hard to control your outlook in trying times. But if I can’t control my emotions well enough to be optimistic, I can at least control them enough to not wallow in misery. I can choose to temper my outlook with a bit of joy and hope, or at least a really sick sense of humor. I can’t control the world, but I can control how I look at it, and I can control how I choose to move through it.

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Because at the end of things, the only thing I can really control is myself. All those other factors, all those other things, that I can claim to control, all those really boil into one single thing: me. And as long as I can control myself, as long as I can choose to make myself better, to do better, I can get by.

And what that also made me realize is something else I can control.

My gratitude.

So.

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Sometimes Things Happen

January 28, 2014 at 7:18 pm (General) (, , , )

I’ve been a bit squirrely for the past few months, and there were Reasons, but while I was in the midst of dealing with them on a daily basis, I found I couldn’t come home and explain it online, couldn’t talk about it more, but now I think it’s time for some explanations, largely because it’s also a form of goodbye. Not to you- I’m not leaving- but to my home for the past six years, and a large part of my life for twenty.

On 31st December, my Barnes and Noble closed its doors for the last time. This wasn’t an indication of how the company as a whole is doing, it wasn’t an indication of our store faltering or our local market not supporting us. Boiled down to its bones, our landlord didn’t renew our lease. There were details, of course, but to be honest, things got pretty messy after the announcements and it became a Big Thing, and in the interest of it not becoming a Legal Thing, I’m going to leave it at the lease.

Employees learned about it in September. Our District Manager was up (not unheard of) and she’d spent the day holed up in the office (not uncommon; even on store visits she still gets stuck on conference calls). What made it weird was the sudden appearance of our assistant store manager, who was supposed to be off that day and had been called in. Then the arrival of one of our merchandise managers, who was on vacation (but still in town). Eventually the other merch manager was called in, and then it was my turn, and by this point we were all wondering just what the hell what was going on. And the news was, we’d be closing at the end of the year.

When you hear something like that, there are any number of questions that bubble into your mind all at once, but damned if you can pull yourself together enough to ask them with any degree of intelligence. You want to ask about transfers, about severance, about eligibility for rehire, about insurance. But mostly HOW. Mostly WHY.

And once you get safely home and break down in private: What do I do now?

It was another month before we started telling customers, and even then we eased into a bit. There were a few of our regulars, people who are so much more to us than customers, that we told a few days early, but for the most part, we waited until the first clearance signs went up. We needed time to get used to it ourselves, we needed time to find out what we were allowed to say, how we were supposed to answer questions.

On October 27th, the first of the clearance sales went up. At that point, we had about 125,000 books and product in the store, and about a quarter of it went to clearance, all things that were unable to be returned to vendors. Unlike all of our previous clearance sales (because they happen about every two to three months), the dots marking the products were white, instead of red, and at every sale we had to warn people that these items could NOT be returned. I was actually somewhat shocked at how many people were utterly incurious as to why. But for most, this was where the questions began. The initial reactions were mostly shock and dismay. We were in our location for twenty and a half years, and a fair number of our customers have actually been with us the entire time. We used to have a hugely active preschool and elementary school community that partnered with us for events, and a lot of those kids who grew up in our store had started bringing their own kids in.

I never did the storytimes or the activities, but I was one of the kids who grew up in the store. I was there opening week with my mother, and it was the first time I’d ever told anyone that I wanted to published someday. I spent my allowance in this store, my birthday/Christmas/babysitting money. All of my original books were ruined in a house fire when I was 12, but three years later, I got to drop a couple hundred dollars in our Barnes and Noble (and trust me, I’d EARNED that babysitting money!) and finally got to buy my favorite books, the ones I’d checked out so often from the library that I could almost quote them. I still have almost all of those (some of the paperbacks have passed to friends as I’ve broken down and replaced them in hardcover), and sometimes it’s weird to look at the backs of the books and realize this was when mass markets were rarely higher than $4.99. Money wasn’t something we had a lot of, but when I had it, it tended to find its way to bookstore far more often than not. This store was a home for me, and as a child, I was awestruck by the idea that so much knowledge, so much wonder and imagination, could be contained within a single building.

There were tears from some of our customers, fury from others. There was a rather depressing indifference from some. But then, there were some reactions that utterly baffled us.

Like the man who said he wasn’t surprised we were closing, because we’d politely refused to place an order on Amazon for him because he didn’t want to bother with his computer.

Like the woman who sniffed and said it was about time, because we’d been unable to send someone to her home to diagnose her router issues.

Like the ones who said no one read anyway, or that books were dying, or that Amazon was a better place anyway. (And do you have any idea how difficult it is not to snap back that Amazon isn’t a place at all?)

But no matter how the conversation went, the fact was, the conversation happened. Again and again and again and again. So. Many. Times. A. Day. And it was exhausting. Because sometimes the conversation twisted around to “What are you going to do now?” and we didn’t know (many of us still don’t know) and it was terrifying and we really didn’t want to talk about the uncertainty of our future inability to pay our bills. And sometimes the conversation turned to “What am I going to do now?” and it was both strange and discomfiting that some people could be so incredibly selfish, when there are SO MANY avenues by which to acquire books. We’d have to explain that no, we weren’t simply moving locations, because those things take time and we didn’t have any. We’d explain again and again until finally we just wanted to hide in the breakroom and talk about ANYTHING ELSE because we could actually FEEL our brain cells dying. We’d get home and I know for myself, I could do nothing more than drop onto the couch and stare mindlessly at the TV. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t do anything that required actual thought, because I was just so mentally exhausted.

The news had come so out of the blue that most of our holiday orders were already locked in, so it took a while for our shelves to start to feel empty. But, slowly, the shipments slowed down. Gradually, our ability to restock the shelves was cut off, vendor by vendor, warehouse by warehouse. Eventually, our ability to order books for customers transitioned to only direct-ship. We had to shift constantly to condense those empty shelves, and as weeks passed, entire sections of the store were just bare shelves.

And as we got into December, the desperation ratcheted up. Our customers were desperate to believe that there was some kind of reprieve in store, that if they just wrote enough angry letters or made enough angry phone calls to our landlord, somehow everything would be okay. As employees, we were torn between wanting to believe that and wanting everyone else to stop believing it.

But, we found ways to entertain ourselves, in a thoroughly giddy, borderline-hysterical kind of way.

Thanksgiving weekend, our assistant store manager decided to gift-wrap the breakroom door. I helped, and then took it further, until all the interior doors save the bathrooms were bright and sparkly (but without glitter, because one of our merch managers freaks out at glitter).

Outside of the Office Door

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We even found the polar bears because they make our store manager happy.

I have to admit, I kind of turned into a demented Christmas fairy, because it kept me busy. I made ornaments for everyone on staff. I made a wreath for our inner office. It kept me busy and kept me, a little bit, from fretting.

One night, one of my rare closing shifts, a couple of our cashiers decided to put out scrap pads (recycled page a day calendars) and asked customers to draw what they thought a whalien would look like. Sometimes they’d add a little explanation, but most of the time, they just would just say to draw what they thought it sounded like. I was astonished by how many ACTUALLY DID. We made a quilt of them. (I accidentally deleted that picture, but it was pretty awesome) It hung out at the cashwrap for that final week of business, and then the next couple of weeks of actually closing everything out, then moved to the fridge when we had to take those bays out.

For our final two days of business, our glitterphobe made us a playlist that included titles like “Final Countdown”, “Closing Time”, “End of the World (As We Know It)”, and other thematically appropriate (or inappropriate, all things considered) titles. The final day he included “Dance Magic” from Labyrinth, and “The Time Warp”, and we actually did dance the Time Warp in the cashwrap line. By the last day, we’d reached the point where we had to laugh like idiots because we just didn’t know what else to do and still function. (I’m told there’s video of that somewhere, but I haven’t seen it, so I’m pretending it doesn’t exist).

We closed on New Years Eve at 4 pm, because there really wasn’t much point in drawing it out, and we all trooped out across the parking lot to Ale House and started drinking. (Responsibly, but still, it was a drinking sort of evening).

For most of our staff, that was the end of it. As a store, we had over time transitioned into a staff made of disparate personalities that worked together really well. We didn’t have the big dramas that we’d had in some other incarnations of the staff, we didn’t have the fights. Were there issues? Sure. But we were also a staff that could talk through those problems, or take them to a manager for mediation without it being a tattle-tale situation. As a staff, we’d become very close-knit, family and friends. Saying goodbye that night was like a physical blow.

And yet, if I’m honest, I might be a little jealous of the people who go to leave when the store was about half full, because the actual process of closing out the store, seeing it disappear little by not so little every day, was heart-breaking. (And back-breaking) Day by day, we watched the store dwindle into nothingness.

We had to return all of the books that were left, which tallied up to about 65,000 units once the doors closed. We had to sort them by vendor, scan them, box them, try to get the box packed as efficiently as possible with a 50lbs weight limit in mind, label, them, and stack them. Then, either the guys in the evening, or I the next morning, would move them into the back room and stack them onto palettes. Over time, that equaled over 36,000 lbs. That’s right, over 18 TONS of books. One of those days included me packing up all of our copies of A Wounded Name. In a way, I was lucky- my book was in my store. My dream of seeing my book on the shelf of THIS Barnes & Noble, THIS store that I grew up in, came true, and I got to have my signing. But returning those books was shattering. We got an insane amount done each day, but…

..some days you just had to take a break…

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…and if you sat too long in the wrong spot, you took the risk of becoming part of the furniture.

We had to figure out what was going to other stores, and how we could pack them, and tear down sections to load into the truck, and the information kept changing, constantly, so we never really had a full idea of what was going on. We had to figure out what we could donate to different organizations, what we were allowed to sell to other organizations. One of our poor guys spent about three days doing nothing but shredding, sitting huddled in our cold back room as it emptied around him, because the cold kept the silly machine from overheating quite as often.

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When the demolition crew came in, I think what hit me hardest was the destruction of the theme wall and children’s octagon. Before moving to receiving, I was the Kids’ Lead, and I loved it. Kids books, from board book through YA, are my heart, and watching it get literally torn to pieces was devastating. The sequence was just..GAH.

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This was before, and then there was this:

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(Okay, yes, we sent our manager’s grandson down the wall mounting. Okay, FINE, I went down a few times too)

But even when we had moments to rest or laugh-

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-things just kept going away.

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Over the course of seventeen days, we saw a healthy store diminish into an empty space that suddenly, shockingly, seemed as tiny as we’d always sort of known it was. It’s only 12,000 square feet. In terms of bookstore space, that’s minimal. And yet, with the shelves and the books, with the vitality, it seemed so much bigger.

Friday was our very last day. We cleaned, we waited for our equipment to pick up, and then it was time to say goodbye. I worked at that store for six years, but it was a part of my life for more than twenty. And the truth is, I don’t know what I’m doing from here. I had some applications out, one of which got me very excited about taking new paths, but they didn’t pan out. There will be many more applications in the next few weeks. Hopefully something will work out, hopefully it will turn out to be a great thing, a good opportunity in something new, something exciting. But for right now, I don’t know.

It’s hard to go into the plaza and see that empty space. It’s hard to go to bed whenever and get up whenever, because I don’t have any particular place I have to be. My apartment is in the middle of getting cleaner and more organized than it has ever been (or might ever be again), and it’s kind of creeping me out, because I don’t stress clean. It’s also not done yet, but it’ll get there, and I have this awful feeling that I’ll get everything put perfectly in a place and I’ll still be unemployed. It’s hard to walk out of the grocery store and see nothing but this:

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Things end, and sometimes it sucks, and sucks royally, and I’ll be honest, I’m not yet at the point where I can nod and accept that things might yet turn out for the better. I’m not at a point where I can be philosophical or hopeful about it. But, I think I might finally be at a point when I can ask a favor of all of you.

If you have a favorite bookstore, whether it’s chain or indie, let the employees know how much you love the store, how much you appreciate them. Make the decision that the buck or two extra, or the day or two extra, is worth shopping there to support them, rather than Amazon. Write, call, or e-mail the landlords to tell them how much you value the store. Support your local stores, and help them stay where they are, because seriously, while the internet is a wonderful community (most of the time) there’s just nothing that beats having a bookstore as a part of your experience. As much as it hurts now that my store is closed, I wouldn’t trade those years growing up in the store for anything. Bookstores and libraries were- and remain- my favorite places, and I know a lot of you are the same way.

So talk about your bookstores.
Tell the employees.
Tell other customers.
Tell the landlords.
Tell anyone you can think of that might listen.

Things are hard for bookstores right now, because online is so convenient, and usually cheaper, and sometimes faster. That isn’t what happened to us, but it could have been. A bookstore closing- for any reason- is never less than a tragedy.

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Querying for the New Year? Pt 2

January 17, 2014 at 8:47 pm (Industry, Writing) (, , , , )

So last time, we talked about the first steps towards publishing.

So now, you have a finished, polished manuscript, one on which you’ve received honest and detailed critiques, a manuscript that is the best you can possibly make it.

You’ve done your research- you know if you want to self-publish, sign with an agent, or go traditional on your own.

You’ve done even more research- looked at self-publishing companies, looked up agents and what they’re looking for, looked up publishers that accept un-agented manuscripts.

So what now?

If you’re self-publishing:
There’s not a lot I can offer you from here; this isn’t a path I’ve taken. Just don’t commit to anything you haven’t researched. As you’re looking at different companies that can help you, look at the various prices they have listed, and start to list out your own budget. Go right down the line of expenses: editing, formatting, book design, cover design, publishing, returnable options, distribution, publicity. Decide what you can afford for each category, and where you can give a little on one to gain on another. If you’re not financially ready for this kind of investment, WAIT. You don’t want to put out less than your best. Not only will you be cheating all the hard work you’ve done thus far, but you’ll also limit your options in the future. If your first public effort is less than, um…well, less than good, it’s a lot harder to get readers interested in a second book, and that’s just not how you build a career. Also, if you can’t afford to do it right, you don’t want to ruin yourself financially in the hopes that it’ll be a runaway bestseller and make you tons of money in the first month. The simple truth is- and this goes for any form of publishing– you cannot rely upon publishing to pay your bills. Not at first, and honestly, many authors never make it to that point. Publishing is a dream, yes, but you have to be realistic about it. Having a book out doesn’t mean much if you sacrifice your ability to pay your rent. Or buy food. Explore your options, make your decisions carefully, and when in doubt, look to those who’ve had some success with it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

If you want to submit directly to publishers:
Again, not a path I’ve taken, but make sure you pay attention to submission guidelines. Every publisher that accepts unsolicited manuscripts will tell you EXACTLY what they want you to send them. For some, it will be the full manuscript. Some will ask for a certain number of pages or chapters. Some will ask for a synopsis, some won’t. I know the gut feeling is to say “Screw it, I’ll send them everything, I just know they’ll love the first pages too much to want to wait for the rest!” Yeh, don’t do that. Send them what they ask for, no more, no less.

Another gut feeling is to send the first few chapters through such a strenuous polishing process that those first pages are AMAZING- but then the rest of the manuscript hasn’t gotten that kind of attention. Agents and publishers both see this a lot. The first chapters have been workshopped to death and the rest just can’t hold up. You want your submission to be balanced, to be equally strong the whole way through.

Once you’ve sent it off, resist the impulse to send follow-up e-mails every ten minutes. This is hard, I know. Still, you’ve got to resist it. The process takes time, and harassing them with follow-ups isn’t going to persuade them to read your submission any faster. In those agonizing weeks and months while you’re waiting to hear from them, do something else. Go on a reading binge. Work on a new project. Learn how to knit. Something to help distract you from sitting and stewing about it. Keep track of your submissions, including when you sent it off. You don’t want to send out one, wait until you get a response, then send off a second. Send in bunches, small enough for you to keep track of, large enough that you’re not wasting time.

If you want to query agents:
Welcome to the query letter! Also known as the strangest level of hell since the invention of the resume cover letter. Which makes sense, given that they accomplish much the same thing. There are thousands, perhaps even millions, of sites out there with advice on how to write a query letter. I looked at a lot of them while I was querying. What I can share with you here is my own distillation, what I found in my experience worked the best for me.

Step One
Get the agent’s name right.

No, seriously, this does actually bear emphasizing, because too many people don’t bother. This is how your letter is literally opening. This is the agent’s first encounter with you. Do not say “Dear Agent”. You want to personalize it, you want to address it to the person you are actually talking to. At the same time, you don’t want to be overly familiar. Don’t use just the first name, or a nickname. Use the name he or she has listed on his/her website.

A note on titles: when it comes to using Mr, Mrs, Ms, or Miss, there are differing opinions on that. Mr. is usually pretty safe (so long as you are very VERY sure that you are addressing a male; names can be tricky things), but the feminine titles can cause problems. I know some people prefer to use the titles, insisting that it’s more respectful, but I honestly prefer to use the first and last name as listed on the websites. There’s less chance of causing accidental offense that way by using the wrong one.

Spell the name correctly. It’s on the personal website, there really is no excuse for getting this one wrong. This is one of the very few things about a query that is black and white right or wrong.

Step Two
Hook your book.

Different websites and books will give you different opinions about the order a query letter should go in, but this is the one I prefer. You’re writing to the agent to talk about your book, so start with the book. This is a single paragraph, sometimes two if they’re short, that should spark interest in your book. It’s not quite a back cover copy, but it’s more than a twitter pitch.

(side note: don’t pitch on twitter unless specifically invited to do so during a #pitchmad or similar contest; it’s rude and out of place and tends to really piss people off. On the same note, don’t pitch on facebook. Or in the comments of a blog. There are specific avenues acceptable for querying, and you need to stick to those.)

This isn’t the place to go into detail. You don’t need to say everything about your book, every plot point, every character, every twist. This is your book in the most general terms. Think of this as the elevator pitch. You have 90 seconds: GO.

(Personal example: Hamlet Danemark V, Headmaster of Elsinore Academy, is dead and buried, but some secrets seep past the grave: the poison of a man who murders his brother to claim his wife and position; the poison poured into a son’s grief and twists the sorrow bloody; the poison of pills meant to strip away a world no one else can see.

For Ophelia, poison is just another way to drown, and she’s drowned before. When Dane makes a promise to avenge his father’s murder, she knows she’ll drown again- in his pain, in his rage, in his play at madness that becomes all too real. Revenge, after all, is a messy business.)

Step Three:
Define your book.

This accomplishes two things: first, it tells an agent what they should be expecting; second, it tells them you know what you’re talking about. Or, if you don’t do this carefully, tells them that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

This is where you say the title, the word count, the genre, and where appropriate, the category. (I say that because Young Adult and Middle Grade aren’t genres, they’re age categories. Calling a book Young Adult tells us the age it’s meant for but not what type of book it is; it doesn’t tell us if it’s paranormal or romance or thriller or what.) This is fairly succinct, almost a stats listing.

Titles aren’t the be all and end all. A good title can be intriguing, and the ability to come up with good, compelling titles is a definite plus, but titles change all the time. You have to put SOMETHING down, and you should try to make it good and appropriate, but the fact is, titles are hard. A bad title is not going to kill your chances.

Word count tells an agent how well you know you category. Genres and categories tend to have ranges of word counts. YA, for example, generally runs 75K-100K. There are always exceptions, of course, either shorter or longer, but a 140K word YA novel is going to make agents a little leery. Sometimes that means there’s too much story for one book. Sometimes that means there are just too many words, and the manuscript is in desperate need of red pen and a machete. But sometimes, it means that it’s a tight, fast-paced, well-written story that tricks you with its length by coming off as a much shorter book when you’re actually reading it. Word count, as long as it’s reasonably near range, isn’t an automatic disqualifier. If you go over 200K for anything other than epic high fantasy or in-depth non-fiction, you’re probably in the auto-reject pile.

This is a bit more like a twitter-pitch. You don’t have to keep it 140 characters or less, but it is short, and it is to the point.

(Personal example: Complete at approximately 99,000 words, Elsinore Drowning is a haunting, modern retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s voice for a Young Adult audience.)

Step Four:
Let’s talk about you.

No, seriously, this is where you get to talk about yourself. Agents aren’t after your life story, but they do want to hear a little about you. What do you do, what makes you the best one to tell this story. If you’ve ever won awards for writing, talk about them here. Member of any writing societies? (Preferably official ones). If you’ve ever published anything, here’s the place to talk about it. If that something is self-published, you might want to include sales numbers (if they’re respectable). Do you have a blog with millions of followers, or some other Cool Thing that means people might fall over themselves trying to buy your book? YOU SHOULD MENTION THIS. All of this relates directly into your sellability as an author- your brand, as it were. If you have a devoted following, you have the beginnings of a devoted readership; agents like to know these things.

Be aware that most agents will google the crap out of you if they’re even remotely interested. If you’re full of BS, they’ll spot it.

And this is where good behavior on the internet becomes a really, REALLY important thing, because agents (and editors) pay attention. If you’re ranting and raving about rejections or the slow pace of things, if you’re throwing tantrums, if you’re insulting to other writers, authors, reviewers, or bloggers, you’re not winning yourself any points. Agents and authors don’t have to be best friends, but they do have to be able to work together; if you’re showing yourself to be an unholy terror, don’t expect too much interest.

One of my best friends had a first conversation with an agent and was shocked when her wedding pictures came up as a subject- they were on her facebook. This isn’t stalking, this is research, the same research you did before you queried agents. They want to know who they’re dealing with, and people, seriously, the internet never forgets. Make good behavior a habit now if it isn’t already and save yourself a lot of heartache. Rant and rave and cry and pout in private ALL YOU WANT- it can be a very healthy stress relief- but don’t do it online, don’t do it where anyone and his mother can see it. You’re presenting yourself as a professional. Act like one.

(Personal example: I come from a mixed background of theatre and writing and for several years have worked at Barnes and Noble and a Kids/Teen Lead, where I gush about amazing books, want to purchase far too many of them, and do a happy dance very time a kid comes back for more adventures. I am not yet published.
My writing awards were, by this point, really out of date, so I didn’t talk about them. My background in theatre was directly connected to the fact that my book was based on Hamlet, working in a bookstore gave me additional knowledge and audience. Is it a ton to go off of? No. Which is why it’s VERY SHORT.)

Step Five:
Why this agent?

Some people prefer to put this first, or to put it right after the definition of the book, but I prefer to put it here, because it leads directly into the list of what’s included with the query and allows you a graceful way to close out.

This is where you’re telling THIS agent why you’ve chosen to query him or her. You can- and should- create a query template for yourself, wherein the bulk of the letter is the same every time, but the initial greeting and this paragraph should be personalized for every single agent. Yes, it’s time consuming, yes, it’s work, but it’s worth it.

But please, for the love of God PLEASE, make it appropriate. If you follow them on twitter, GREAT, you can say so, but if you’re going to talk about it, make sure it’s relevant. Talking about how cute their kid is? NOT A GOOD IDEA. Besides being unprofessional, it’s also a bit creepy. But mentioning that they participated in a twitter wishlist and requested “A YA that has X, Y, and 3.5″, and here’s why I think mine fits, hey, that’s a very good use of it. Same with things they’ve specifically mentioned on their blog or website. If you met them at a conference and they requested this, give them a gentle reminder here (and if you’re sending the query as an e-mail, put THE NAME OF THE CONFERENCE+REQUEST along with your title in the subject line, unless they specifically tell you to do otherwise- this gives them the heads-up that this is something in which they’ve already expressed moderate interest).

Querying an agent is not like picking a substitute teacher. You are not going down a list of more or less equally skilled people who simply need to fill a space for a day. This is not a case of “are you warm? Are you breathing? Good enough”. You are seeking a highly skilled, specialized individual who with whom you will be able to forge a solid working relationship. You need to know why you’re querying this agent, and not that agent, and you need to be able to say that.

Also, list what you’ve included with the query. Agents will request different things from you- it’s highly personalized, and you need to be able to keep track of it. At one time, one of my submission lists had query only, three pages, five pages, five pages and synopsis, ten pages, ten pages and bio, three chapters, fifty pages. You have to know what you’re sending to which agent. This also tells the agent that you’ve paid attention to their submission guidelines. Avenues of research are useful, but only to a point- books are very quickly inaccurate, unofficial websites that gather information can be wrong or outdated. When it doubt, always go with what the agent says on his or her website. If there is nothing listed, only an address that says send queries to, just send the query. Some sources will tell you to default to five or ten pages, but honestly, if they want to see past they query, they’ll ask.

Do not send more than they ask for.

Send everything they ask for.

If an agent does ask for material to be included with the query, paste it in below the query in the e-mail. Do not submit the materials as attachments unless specifically instructed to do so by the agent. Attachments are terrifying. Attachments are risks. Most agents aren’t going to take that kind of risk on a query they didn’t ask for. Save yourself an auto-delete, and don’t do it.

(Personal example: While researching your agency, I saw that you were interested in stories with a unique voice, something I hope you’ll recognize within Ophelia. Below, please find the first five pages, a synopsis, and a brief bio per your site request. If this piques your interest, further material is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Note that I’m not the most graceful individual when I’m conducting professional correspondence. I’m awkward and self-conscious, so I’m a bit stilted, and as long as you’re basically socially functional, you can probably be forgiven for a little awkwardness. You want to smooth things out to the best of your ability, but if you come off as a little stiff, don’t fret about it. That isn’t going to be the thing that sends the agents running for the hills.

Step Six:
Sign off.

This is another one that might sound strange, but the way you end your letter is just as important as how you begin it. Do not sign off with Yours Truly or Love or Always Yours or anything remotely of that nature. No. Just don’t do it. This is still professional communication.

That being said, I really hate signing things Sincerely. I am sincere, of course (usually, but always in professional circumstances) but I tend to sign off with Respectfully. Not Impatiently Yours or Impatiently Waiting or Desperate To Be Published. If you go with something other than the traditional Sincerely, it should still be professional and respectful.

And of course your name.

SOME TIPS

Just some things to keep in mind.

Be patient.
Keep track of your submissions, and note what an agent says his or her response time generally is. Also note one very important thing: NOT EVERY AGENT RESPONDS. There are a (large) number of agents who tell you to assume that no response means no interest. If the response time has passed for these agents, assume they’re not interested, and move on. If the agent promises a response, note the time span. Then, if the time has passed, give it a couple more weeks and then send a polite, non-pushy email with your query information in the subject line along with FOLLOW UP, and simply state that you submitted your query on such and such date, and simply wish to inquire as to the status now that such amount of time has passed.

Be organized about it. I can be a little OCD, I admit it, but I have a notebook for every project. These notebooks are where I do my brainstorming, my outlining, my character explorations, excerpts, writing stats, and these are also where I (used to) put my query lists. Agent name, agency, how I found them, what they said they were looking for, what they wanted submitted, date of submission, expected response time or no response. Then, as I got answers (or didn’t) I updated the notes. I also kept separate folders on my computer. In the folder for that manuscript, I had a submissions folder. Every batch of submissions I sent out had another folder with the date, and within that folder, every agent had his or her own folder, which contained the personalized query, as well as whatever other material they requested. This way, I knew at a glance what I’d sent, knew exactly what date to use as start date. Anal much? Yes, probably. But you know what, I never lost track of any of my queries. And honestly, it reassured me, knowing roughly when to expect things.

Being patient isn’t easy. This is our dream! This is all we can ever think of in a day, and every minute that passes, we start biting our nails or drumming our fingers or whatever the nervous tic du jour is, and we want to KNOW. More to the point, we want to SUCCEED. But once we hit send, it’s out of our control. We can only control our behavior and what we submit. We can’t control agent reaction. We can’t control rejection or acceptance. So be patient. Find something else to do. Don’t pester, don’t nag, don’t rant and rave at every moment.

Don’t query before you’re ready.
This breaks down into two parts. First part: do you have your materials ready? And not just whatever it is they’ve requested. I know the common joke is that agents take forever to respond, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they come back five minutes after your query is sent and they’re requesting the full. If you’ve polished and polished and polished the first few chapters on the expectation that you’d then have weeks to get to the rest of it, YOU CAN’T TRUST THAT. You have to be prepared.

Second part: are you mentally ready for this? I’ll be honest, querying is exhausting. It is an emotional roller coaster. It’s one thing to SAY that we understand that a rejection is a lack of interest in our manuscript, not a personal cut. Sure. We can say that. But rejection is HARD, y’all. It is. And when the rejections start piling up, it can become overwhelming.

And here’s the thing: you’re allowed to be overwhelmed. You’re allowed to have a meltdown and start sobbing into your pint of Ben and Jerry’s. You’re allowed to have a freak out that you’re nothing and you’ll never be published and oh God what were you thinking. And you know, you can even rant about how agents clearly have no idea what they’re missing out on. Just do it in private. Do with it a friend or family member, someone who has the sense to listen and not try to say anything (and more importantly not share anything). Just don’t do it in public.

The process of querying is this crazy zigzag of hope and ecstasy and anticipating and fear and worry and despair and anger, and you have to be ready for it. You have to go into this knowing that very few people have everything fall in place easily, that for most people, there are many rejections, many silences. You get a request for further material and OH MY GOD IT’S AMAZING but then there’s a whole new level of fear.

Don’t be afraid to re-write your query.
There are so many drafts of my query letters it’s kind of ridiculous. I wrote seven or eight drafts before I ever set out the first round of submissions. Then, as I started to hear back from each round, I worked on tweaking my query, trying to tailor it better, or make it more intriguing. Sometimes I was successful. Sometimes I wasn’t. Always keep a copy of the query you actually sent out, but it’s okay to make it better for the next round of queries. You learn by doing. You learn by feedback. Improvements are never a bad thing.

Don’t be jealous.
This one is hard. We all hear about the people who send out one query to their ‘dream agent’ and get signed, and then six weeks later there’s a huge multi-house auction that lands a three book deal for seven figures and everyone is watching with green eyes and a large vocabulary of curses. The fact is, we hear about these things to such an extent BECAUSE THEY’RE RARE. Most of us have to slog through round after round, and maybe even project after project, before we get a little bit there. It’s easy to be jealous of other people. Don’t be. Luck will always be an element, but sheer determination factors in there too. Rather than dwelling on what other people are doing or getting, focus on what YOU can do. Look for the stories that don’t invoke Cinderella, the ones where it was patience and determination and persistence that got them to their goal.

It took me three years and three projects to sign with an agent, and now that I am where I am, I can be grateful for it, because Sandy is amazing. We’re very well paired, and she gets the dark and twisty products of my imagination. I am where I need to be.

Don’t give up.
You want this- so go after it. Learn from each experience, make it better for the next round, but don’t take those rejections as proof you should tuck this dream back into the corner of the mental closet. You can’t get anywhere by giving up. But, on that note:

Know when to give up.
Not on the endeavor- but maybe on that specific manuscript. If you’ve queried everyone you can think of that accepts your genre and category and not gotten anywhere, maybe this isn’t the manuscript that’s going to sign you.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

Because you’ve kept writing, right? You’ve got something that, built off your experiences, is stronger. Better. Something that you can work on to make even better, and even stronger. And when you’ve reached the point, many MANY MANY MANY queries in, that maybe that first project needs to get shelved for a while, you have something else. And you can start over.

Except it’s not starting completely over, because the experience has taught you a lot. You have an advantage this time: you’ve done this before, and you know more or less what to expect.

Like I said, I queried three different projects over three years. It broke my heart to shelve those earlier projects, but I knew it was the right choice. I knew what I had waiting in the wings, these things I’d written while trying not to go crazy while the queries were out, I KNEW these things were better. I knew they showcased my writing better, that I’d learned and grown and expanded into characters and story and pacing.

Each time, you have the chance to get better, to improve not only your writing but your querying. As long as you’re willing to honestly assess yourself and your writing, you have the opportunity to improve your chances.

Don’t beat a project long past any chance it has to attract someone- know when to put it away and put out something better.

Last tip.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The internet is a wonderful thing. It gives you access to a TON of people who have gotten where you want to be- so when you need to know something and you can’t find the answer- when you need to be reassured- don’t be afraid to ask. A lot of authors, especially in the YA community, have ask boxes on tumblr. They have blogs where you can leave comments. So ask.

Be respectful of the space and circumstances. There are times when it’s not particularly appropriate to ask some things; let common sense guide you.

But we’re here, on tumblr, on twitter, on facebook, on blogs. There are interviews and newsletters and signings and panels, and you know what? For as much rejection as we have to experience, even after we get those first steps in the door, publishing is a ridiculously inclusive community. People cheer each other on, because when people are reading, this is good for ALL OF US. We want you to succeed. We want to cheer you on when you announce your sale, when you have signings and events and features. We want to celebrate your successes with you.

So consider this post an open thread for any questions you have. I’ll answer what I can, and I’ll try to point you to others when I don’t know what to say.

Work hard, be patient, and the best of luck to you all.

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