Reading

Recent Reads – July 2019

BlogJuneReads2019Just another roundup of recent favorites! I seem to be developing a habit of reading multiple books at once. Kid Jill the anxious completionist, with her habit of devouring one book at a time before tearing into the next, would be horrified. Or impressed. Or both.

Anyway.

The Wise and the Wicked by Rebecca Podos: Ever have that experience where you’re reading a book and you suddenly realize you didn’t know how much you wanted this story until you were neck-deep in it? This was one of those for me. I jumped in knowing relatively little about it, not having read any in-depth summaries, and I’m glad I did–discovering the secrets of the Chernyavsky family along with Ruby was a delight. The story’s LGBTQ+ elements are handled with gentle, deft sensitivity (I don’t want to say too much because there was one reveal I didn’t see coming, having not read up on the book first, and it was so well done), and I loved the concept of this strong, imperfect matriarchal family in which things are seldom as they seem. I’ve seen some criticism of the end, but its standalone open-endedness worked well for me while still leaving plenty of room for a possible sequel. The author has addressed that possibility on Goodreads.

The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman: First of all, can we yell about how gorgeous this dust jacket is for a second, with its glossy raised letters and its mattified metallic sheen? I swoon. And as a Stranger Things fan, I really enjoyed this story. A group of teens figuring out their powers? A deadly monster trapped in another dimension? Family secrets? Complicated feelings and friendships? Bring on the sequel!

You Asked for Perfect by Laura Silverman: OH HELLO THERE HIGH SCHOOL ANXIETY, I REMEMBER YOU WELL. Senior Ariel Stone throws everything he has into making sure his grades and extracurriculars are enough to get him into Harvard, but when the competition’s this fierce, one bad grade might be enough to ruin everything and something’s going to have to give. This was so relatable–I was the same kind of perfectionist in high school, although compared to what Ariel feels like he needs to accomplish, I suppose the stakes were a little lower back in the mid ’90s. I studied like mad, hyper-focused on grades, and stopped taking some of the classes I most enjoyed because earning an A in them lowered my weighted GPA. (How freaking SAD is it that weighted GPAs work like that??) I just want to hug Ariel and gently suggest to his parents that he might benefit from therapy, because his narrative felt like an anxiety disorder to me.

Anxiety, Life

Getting (Library) Carded

Embarrassing confession time: Until quite recently, I did not have a current library card. That’s fixed now, but the idea of a professional writer without a valid library card is kind of unbelievable. I mean, most writers do a ton of reading. We need to keep up with what’s going on in our genres and know about buzzworthy recent releases. Plus, books are AWESOME and I want to read as many of them as possible. I’d love to buy every book I read (I really hate not getting to keep a book if I truly enjoy it), but shelf space and financial limitations make that impossible. A library card is a necessity.

Yet my last card expired in the early 2000s, and I’d stopped using it even earlier. Why? Let me tell you a story about how an anxiety disorder can turn a minor inconvenience into a huge deal. Thanks, anxiety.

I’m usually too much of a perfectionist to let a book go overdue, but during my last year of college I had to write a pretty major paper. The professor required us to turn in a list of our sources weeks before the paper was due, so I had to check the books out and then keep them as long as it took me to write the paper. I guarantee I finished it early, but even so, my sources were overdue. Most were from the campus library, but at least one was from my public library system.

As soon as possible, I went to my local branch to pay the fine. I’d always adored the public library; I practically grew up between its shelves. The fine was something like $7, and I had cash in hand.

The volunteer at the front desk blinked at me. “You can’t pay that here.”

“Okay, so where do I pay it?” I thought maybe I had to go to a different part of the large front desk, or maybe even a different branch.

“I don’t know, but not here. I can’t do that here.”

I shoved down the anxiety rising like bile in my throat. “What?”

“You can’t pay the fine here,” she snapped.

I asked how I could pay. The volunteer got upset. She fussed. She didn’t know. I’m not sure if she was new, or if the library had just switched over to a new system, but I couldn’t pay my fine. And with an outstanding fine, I couldn’t use my card.

This was, obviously, a problem.

I went back at some point and tried again. Got the same answer. The whole “You owe us but you can’t pay us” thing hit my anxiety pretty hard. I was mortified. I wanted to pay! I wanted to make it right and start using my card again.

I could have pursued the issue. I probably should have. (And here’s where my therapist would call me out for using the word should.) But the volunteer’s attitude combined with my own embarrassment for having a late fee in the first place made me freeze.

So I took what felt like the easy way out. I mostly stopped using the library.

I still took my laptop there to draft or revise sometimes, but I never checked out another thing. I couldn’t, and my anxiety disorder held me back from fixing what seemed like a simple problem.

My useless card expired. I meant to get another, but I’d remember the volunteer’s tone, the way she snapped at me when I was trying to do the right thing, and I’d just put it off. Again and again.

That volunteer was probably just frazzled about an upgraded system. Or whatever. I’ll never know. The situation was weird and embarrassing and I gave up.

BUT. Last month I finally got a new card. I went to a different branch (because I still get a little jittery about my local one, even though that volunteer is likely long gone!) and now I can check out books again. It sounds like such an inconsequential thing, but anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses are rarely rational creatures. They take minor annoyances and reshape them as impossible riddles; they inflate problems while stealing solutions.

This wasn’t about getting a library card; it was about confronting an anxiety trigger that had been whispering in the back of my head for the better part of two decades. Now that whisper is gone.

MammothLibrary
And hey, several branches of my local system even have copies of Mammoth!
Writing and Publishing

Rejection: How to Deal

I feel really old when I think about my history with rejection. When I first got serious about sending queries and submitting work to agents and publications, almost no one in the business used email as a default, and rejections took the form of slips of paper or little cards or photocopied form letters. Sometimes they showed up with bonus grease stains or a brown ring from a jostled coffee mug. One of my writing professors told me that he used to pin his rejection letters to his office wall. Seeing them all the time kept him going, purely out of spite. After I heard that, I held onto most of my rejections as well:

OldRejectionLetters

That’s only a sampling. There were a lot. Those slips and scraps represent my efforts to publish several books and a number of short stories. There are probably some poetry rejections in there, too. And those are just the hard-copy rejections; I’ve got tons of email rejections saved, too. I should probably just burn/delete the whole mess, right? Why hold onto hundreds of disappointments?

But I’m proud of that pile. Those notes are proof that I tried, that I’ve been working at this since I was in college. I swept all those NOs up in a folder, tucked them away and kept fighting, even when I was almost too intimidated and disappointed to manage, even when my anxiety disorder tried its best to swamp me into stopping.

Rejection is part of the industry, but understanding that on a rational level doesn’t really do much to lessen the sting. It hurts whether it’s your first rejection or your five hundredth. If you’re thinking about submitting your work somewhere–or if you’re already deep in the query trenches–here are a few thoughts that might help you deal with the lows, at least a little:

Accept that rejection sucks. IT TOTALLY DOES. Maybe you’ve spent months or years drafting a story. You poured your heart into it. Sharing a manuscript like that in a professional context leaves you incredibly vulnerable, and sometimes all your effort gets shoved aside with a form letter. (Or with no response at all, which I think is worse. Silence is the chilliest form of rejection.) That’s frustrating as hell! Let yourself be mad or upset for a little bit–just don’t wallow. Don’t let it weigh you down. Letting it out is healthier than holding it in and/or trying to convince yourself you’re not feeling it.

Vent in private. Whatever you do, DO NOT reply to rejections. Even if you’re frustrated. Even if the rejection felt rude. Don’t do it. Instead, find a friend or two who are willing to listen. In person, online, over the phone–whatever works. You might want to talk to someone who’s at a similar stage of the process (in that case, remember to return the favor when it’s their turn to vent). Most of the friends who listened to me complain weren’t querying themselves and didn’t always understand the process, but that worked fine for me. I just needed someone to listen while I went “BLAH!” for a minute or two. So go “BLAH!” and then breathe and let it go.

Reframe rejections as practice. The critical feedback in this business never ends. If you don’t get used to it, you’ll be miserable. Working through your early rejections will make the edit letters and the unfairly cruddy reviews that much easier to process later on. The rejections typically continue, too, even for a lot of successful writers. They’re not going away, but you can learn to get used to them.

Remember that if someone doesn’t feel strongly enough about your work to represent or publish it, they’re not the ones you want representing or publishing your work. It’s not personal. It’s just not a good professional fit for either of you. You want to work with people who are going to champion your projects, fight for your best interests, and help shape your career.

Work on something else. THIS. This is the biggie. Always have another project going. It’s a welcome distraction and a reminder that the story you’re shopping around right now isn’t the end of the road. If this one doesn’t find a home right away, maybe the next one will–but that can only happen if you actually write the next one.

I’ve long since shelved most of the projects that collected all those rejections in the photo, but I didn’t let that pile of NOs stop me. If I had, I wouldn’t have written or sold Spookygirl or Mammoth, and I wouldn’t have several more WIPs on the way. I kept going. So can you. Kate McKinnon would totally back me up on that:

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(NBC Universal)

(And hey, if you’re curious about how to avoid the mistakes I made in those early querying days, check out my post on how not to query.)

Reading

Recent Reads

I recently blogged about ways to deal while playing the publishing industry’s waiting game, and one of my suggestions was, of course, reading. I mean, let’s reframe the situation. Are you waiting for news, holding your breath, caught up in some level of publication limbo? Nah, you’re enjoying the rare opportunity to tackle some of that TBR pile before it grows to unstable heights, tumbles down and crushes you under the weight of a thousand unread treasures.

AprilReads

I’ve spent a lot of 2019 revising my second current WIP, but I’ve also been waiting on certain things. I’m still waiting on some of them. In the meantime, here’s some of what I’ve been reading:

Sadie by Courtney Summers: The story of a teen girl out for revenge spliced with clips of the podcast investigating her disappearance. This was one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a long time. It was gripping. Shattering. And I loved the format–the narrative jumps between Sadie and the podcast kept the plot thrumming and the mystery intense. This story left me frustrated in the best of ways.

Sea Witch by Sarah Henning: An imaginative retelling of The Little Mermaid. I picked this one up based on a recommendation from Destiny Murtaugh, and I’m so glad I did. I was a pretty intense fan of Disney’s take on TLM for a long time, and I really enjoyed the nods Henning made both to Hans Christian Andersen’s original (including all the Scandinavian details), and to the Disney version. Plus, there’s a sequel coming out in August 2019, and now I . . . kind of need it?

On Writing by Stephen King: Half memoir, half writing class. The last time I read this book was in 2000, when it first came out, and I decided to give it a reread before rewriting WIP #2 (a feminist YA horror story). Some of King’s examples of top-notch writing haven’t exactly aged well (lots of old white male authors, huh), but a lot of his advice is still really solid, especially for those of us who don’t plot and outline and plan every detail before we start writing. I’ve been reading King since I was eleven, and his work had a huge impact on the evolution of my narrative voice, so I’ve got a soft spot for Uncle Stevie. (And no, he’s not telling you you can’t use adverbs! He just wants you to be aware of them and avoid using them if they’re not necessary. And a lot of them aren’t. There’s often a better, stronger, more direct way to say what you’re trying to say.)

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health edited by Kelly Jensen: An anthology of essays and other pieces about mental health, mental illness, and the discussions we need to be having, both with others and with ourselves. I’m not quiet about the fact that I have an anxiety disorder. I think it’s integral to be open about these things when we can, to counter and subvert the stigmas related to mental health, so I truly appreciate projects like this. The amount of raw truth Jensen collected and curated here is staggering. Gemma Correll’s comics are delightfully relatable, and I was especially drawn in by “Black Hole” by Victoria “V.E.” Schwab about the onset and evolution of her anxiety and the safe harbor she’s found in writing.

The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw: The curse of three long-dead sisters causes annual terror and heartache in a small Oregon town. I’ve been on a creepy-YA kick, and this one definitely fulfilled my expectations in that regard. It was also far more wistful than I expected, in a really lovely way, and it had such a satisfying, bittersweet conclusion. Ernshaw’s descriptive style is both vivid and atmospheric, pulling the town of Sparrow and Penny’s nearby island into existence with skill and care.

AprilReads2Scripted Unscripted by Kristina Miranda (out May 14 2019): Hey, I blurbed this one! 😀 Here’s what I said:

“SCRIPTED UNSCRIPTED is a charming YA contemporary about family ties, compromise, and finding what it takes to be authentic while surrounded by carefully-crafted fantasy. Animal lovers will embrace Ellie’s clever canine references and the story’s stance on pet rescue, and the Hollywood settings will delight teens with dreams of making it big.” -Jill Baguchinsky, author of MAMMOTH

How about you? Read anything good lately? Feel free to toss recent or upcoming creepy YA recs my way–I’ve still got several in the TBR pile but I’m always looking for more!

Life, Writing and Publishing

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Tom Petty may not have had experience in book publishing, but still . . . HE KNEW.

PettyWaiting
(Geffen Records)

Publishing moves at its own pace. If you’re on deadline, you might feel like there’s not enough time and OMG where did the day go and HEY LET’S PANIC, but there’s also a lot of waiting around in this business. Maybe an agent requested your manuscript (yay!). Or maybe you’re on sub and editors are reviewing your submission package (double yay!). Whether you’re waiting for betas to check out your newest manuscript or your editor to sign off on your latest revisions, here are a few ideas to distract you from constantly refreshing your email or obsessively checking your phone.

  • New project! This is the gold standard for dealing with the delays in publishing. Grab one of those plot bunnies hopping around in your head and get to work. Whether you’re a careful outliner or a true pantster, you’ll worry less about work-in-progress #1 if you’re wrapped up in work-in-progress #2. Plus, you’ll eventually finish and submit #2, and then you’ll have a whole new round of waiting and hoping to deal with–which just means it’s time to start #3!
  • Cheer on other writers! Look, you’re already glued to Twitter or Instagram, right? If you’re not already doing so, boost some new releases. Take a sec to congratulate fellow writers on signing with an agent or finishing a manuscript or announcing a deal. That support can mean a lot, especially when so many of us feel like social media is mostly a lot of screaming into the void. You might even make some new writer friends!
  • Read! Um, too obvious? Tackle that TBR pile. And when you finish a good book, recommend it on social media or leave a nice review on Goodreads and/or Amazon. I was going to include a list of my own recent reads in this post, but at this point it’s long enough to need a post of its own.
  • Hobbies! Have you been wanting to learn to knit? Practice the ukulele? Plant an herb garden? Now’s the time! I rarely have a moment to dig out my embroidery or sewing projects when I’m neck-deep in drafting, so when I’m between projects, I love working on . . . other projects! That aren’t writing!
  • DIY/repairs! Okay, minor home renovation projects aren’t always fun, but most of us probably have a few of them floating around in the backs of our minds. I recently redid some of the caulk in my bathroom because that’s the kind of exciting life I lead. But hey, it’s done!
  • Try to sell your house! Okay, probably not. But I’m currently living in a house that’s on the market, and it’s providing plenty of distractions. Most of them aren’t good distractions (“Oh, you had plans for today? Nope, there’s a showing this afternoon, so you’re spending the morning cleaning only for the real estate agent to cancel at the last minute, what fun!”), but they’re distracting either way*.
  • Dark magic! Oh, you know, just put a hex on whoever sent your most recent rejection, or sign away your soul in return for the promise of a nice publication deal. I’m kidding, I’m kidding! (Or am I? The waiting game can get you to consider all kinds of possibilities…)
  • Scream! Try it. It might help. And breathe, and remember that the waiting won’t last forever.
BrooklynScream.gif
(Fox)
*Once this place sells, I’m totally writing a guide to coping with an anxiety disorder while living in a property that’s up for sale, because that is just a whole other mess.
Reading

December Reading Round-Up

After tackling ALL THE WRITING in November (50k words for NaNoWriMo, another 25k words of extensive revision–and that was all on top of launching Mammoth), I promised myself plenty of reading time in December. My TBR pile was reaching approximately halfway to the sun, so it was time to catch up a little. Did I read as much as I hoped to? Of course not, because life happened and eyestrain is a hideous delight. But here’s some of what I did read.

December2018Reading

Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen: Jack is a gay teenager in NYC who writes an anonymous sex advice column online. When a secret admirer starts sending notes that get increasingly creepy and threatening, Jack has to figure out the truth before he’s forced to sacrifice who he really is. This book is incredibly bold, frank, and sex-positive. It tackles a lot of subject matter that YA fiction doesn’t typically reach, and Jack’s focus on consent and safety was powerful. Can we have a companion book that’s a compilation of Jack’s columns?

Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy: I wonder if Kate McKinnon has any idea that she’s thanked in the acknowledgements of more than one YA novel published in 2018 (I also included her in Mammoth’s). This was an insta-buy as soon as Cori mentioned that it references Holtzmann from the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. (One character has a Holtz tattoo. I also have a Holtz tattoo. I felt seen.) Seventeen-year-old Iris spends a few weeks with her little brother on the set of the troubled movie adaptation of their famous-author grandmother’s series of fantasy novels. I loved all the film-set details like the daily sides, and the story’s characters were diverse and authentic. There was some great commentary on feminism, too, especially from director Cate Collins.

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand: I was in the mood for something darker, and this story of three girls coming together to battle a mysterious evil delivered. So much of the language is darkly lush and gorgeous, like this quote about Marion from the first chapter: “I’ll tell you what I’ve lost, she wanted to say, and then open up her chest so they could see the hollow pit where her heart used to live. It was stuck in a state of collapse, this pit–a tiny, organ-shaped singularity, sucking down the bleeding ravaged bits of who she used to be.” I savored those descriptions, and I enjoyed the connections that formed between the main characters. Also, there were moths. So many moths. As a crazy moth lady (I occasionally raise lunas and other moths), I knew I needed to read this book as soon as I saw all the moths on the cover art, and I was not disappointed.

Here’s to more reading (and less eyestrain) in 2019!

Writing and Publishing

How (Not) to Query

Every step on the hopeful journey to publication is fraught with potential horror, but there’s something especially cringe-worthy about the querying process. It’s a different brand of ugh. I started querying literary agents in the early 2000s, and I unsuccessfully shopped a number of manuscripts.

When I was getting started, there weren’t as many query-related resources as there are today. That was before most agents started blogging. I’m not sure if AbsoluteWrite existed yet, but if it did, I certainly wasn’t aware of it or other sites like it. There was no YA Twitter where you could connect with other writers and find critique partners. I went to Barnes & Noble and found a book about querying–it was full of amazing advice like “Find unusual ways to make your letter stand out! Include little gifts with your queries! Fill the envelope with glitter!”

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via giphy.com

DON’T DO ANY OF THAT. Those aren’t exact quotes, but they’re close. I can’t imagine that I still have that book, but if I come across it, I’ll share its dreadful wisdom.

Is it any surprise that I made a lot of bad choices when it came to querying? I’m occasionally decent at it now (you can find the final version of Mammoth’s query over on Eric Smith’s blog), but that wasn’t always the case. Since I love pointing out my own inadequacies (my therapist probably just developed a sudden headache and has no idea why), I’m going to share a few of the mistakes I made in my first query letter around 2003. Don’t do these things.

The first project I queried on my own was an urban fantasy called The Shades of Shadow. Y’all. I wrote the query letter from the POV of one of the main characters. Seriously, I went all out. I designed his fancy letterhead and I bought special paper and everything. It was adorable and terrible. DO NOT DO THIS. The letter was also two full pages long–while it’s not an absolute rule, especially now that most queries are emailed, I recommend keeping them under a page. In an effective query, every word counts. You don’t want to ramble.

Let’s check out the opening paragraphs (since I’m too embarrassed to share the whole thing):

What would you do, [agent name], if a character from your favorite novel showed up one evening at your front door? My name is Aidan Brennan, and I am the sort of character who does just that. That’s also exactly what happens to Miriam McKay in THE SHADES OF SHADOW, the manuscript for which I’m seeking representation. SHADES clocks in at 308 pages and is the beginning of a series; the next two volumes are in progress.

I also happen to be a vampire, and I’m well aware that you’re rolling your eyes at my admission. It’s a mistake to pigeonhole my series as nothing more than “vampire fiction,” or even worse, horror or sci-fi. My vision for the series is far more mainstream than that – my writer and I are aiming for a new commercial realm of character-driven supernatural realism, an invasive and suspenseful remolding of the concepts of fiction and fact. After all, there’s more gray area between the two than most people are willing to admit.

Oh no. Oh Jill, you sweet summer child. At least I remembered to replace [agent name] with each agent’s actual name in the copies I mailed. Let’s break this down. In addition to writing from my character’s point of view . . .

  • I used awkward clichés like “clocks in at.”
  • I refused to name a genre and tried to make one up.
  • I dismissed and insulted several other genres.
  • I talked down to the agent (I blame Aidan for this, heh).
  • I did this for TWO PAGES.
  • I opened my letter with a “what would you do” question.

That last detail isn’t as cringe-worthy as the rest, but it’s been done to death and it’s rarely an effective hook. If you can’t grab an agent’s attention with your query, you’re indicating that you might have an equally hard time grabbing readers’ attention with your book.

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via tenor.com

The genre details were awkward because I demonstrated that I had no idea where my project fit into the market. Offering a few decent comps would have been way more effective than trying so hard to set myself apart.

Interestingly, the response to this letter wasn’t as negative as you might expect. My dream agent was actually really amused; she addressed her (very kind and personalized) rejection to both Aidan and me, and I got several full manuscript requests from other agents. Nothing came of those requests (because the story itself was a mess), but still.

Because of that, my last querying tip is this: Don’t stress too much about the possibility of making a querying mistake. Y’all, if I could get full requests with that query, anything is possible. Do your research, read some examples of good queries, ask a few critique partners or trusted friends to take a look at your letter, and trust in the story you’re trying to sell.

WritingGood
via giphy.com