I was flirting with the idea of self-publishing MAMMOTH. The only thing keeping me from doing so was that I hadn’t yet come up with a cover design I liked. (More on that in a future entry!)
Eric was on my radar because I knew several of his clients (Rebecca Enzor and I ran in the same toy collecting circles well over a decade ago, and I knew Rebecca Phillips from the ABNA), and I figured, hey, might as well get one more opinion.
The TL:DR version is that I asked if fat characters are really such a tough sell, and Eric said nope. “If you’re getting that kind of feedback from agents, they simply aren’t the right agent for you.”
“Don’t give up.”
DON’T GIVE UP.
If you’re a writer in the querying trenches, go back and read that last bit again.
DON’T GIVE UP.
Eric shared a ton of great info in that AMA (seriously, go read the whole thing if you haven’t already), but those three words are the most important part. You might be one email (or tweet or Reddit post) away from the right connection, and you don’t want to miss that. I’m glad I didn’t. Turner Publishing is releasing MAMMOTH this fall.
Time for a new blog series featuring my favorite things related to some of my recent reads!
Warning: While I won’t reveal any major spoilers, some of the details I list could be considered minor spoilers.
First up is Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed. Samira’s debut has been getting tons of attention since its highly-anticipated release in January, and it deserves every bit. It starts off as a sweet/fluffy YA contemporary about Maya, an Indian-American Muslim teenager caught between her dreams and her parents’ overbearing expectations while also juggling the onset of a love triangle.
Then an attack ignites a storm of Islamophobia that affects Maya and her family, and everything changes.
It’s jarring. It’s relatable. Maya’s voice is genuine and honest, and I truly enjoyed getting to know her.
Five things I love:
Maya is an #ownvoices character, and that comes through in the narrative. She’s so authentic. The #ownvoices movement is bringing attention to some brilliant and very deserving voices in YA fiction, and LH&OF is a great example of that.
Maya’s use of her video camera as a shield between her and the rest of the world. “The camera gave me distance and something to hide behind.” SO RELATABLE. I often feel like I need a shield too, and I’d definitely need one in the sort of boisterous family wedding scenario Maya describes.
Speaking of weddings, the book opens with a an Indian-American wedding that’s just… SOMEONE ADAPT THIS BOOK INTO A MOVIE RIGHT NOW JUST SO I CAN BE DAZZLED BY ALL THE COLORS IN THIS SCENE PLEASE. It’s so vivid and gorgeous and I can’t even.
Hina, Maya’s aunt. I adored her! I’m a bit of a sucker for cool aunties (Natalie has one in MAMMOTH, too), so I was already biased. Hina is so awesome and supportive, and her refusal to follow tradition gives Maya a more balanced perspective:
The fact that Phil remembers the barfi story from when he and Maya were seven years old. Come on, how cute was that?? ❤
Those were my top five, but there’s plenty more to love about Love, Hate & Other Filters!
We had a water leak in the slab of our house. There wasn’t much evidence at first — just a vague, slow, barely-audible hiss that might’ve been water moving where water shouldn’t be, but hey, maybe it’s just the air conditioner. Or the refrigerator’s ice maker. Or the wind. Or a nearby snake talking to himself. When you’re already preoccupied with other major repairs, it’s really easy and really tempting to shrug off that odd little hiss.
Then you end up with a river running through your garage, and there’s no more ignoring. You have to dig down and deal with what’s going on.
It’s a little like having an anxiety disorder. You learn to mask it out of necessity because no matter how much you’re freaking out, sometimes you still just need to get through the day. (And deal with the plumbers and the leak detector and make phone calls you don’t want to make and and and…) On the surface you seem okay, but there’s chaos underneath that a patch here and there won’t fix. That’s where therapy comes in. And maybe medication, if that’s an option for you. And self-care, whatever that looks like for you.
In 2010 I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I don’t mind admitting that. It’s just part of who I am, and I try to be open and matter-of-fact about it because I feel like that’s the best way to combat some of the stereotypes and stigmas associated with mental disorders and mental illness.
GAD is a challenge I live with. I compare it to having various Kristen Wiigs in full meltdown mode inside my head, which sounds facetious but is almost alarmingly accurate.
Seriously, she’s in there punching cookies and passing out and trying to convince the mayor of New York that a portal’s about to open up and flood the city with angry ghosts, and I’m just trying to get through the day. I’ve learned to mask my GAD so effectively in a lot of situations that people who don’t know me well, especially professional acquaintances, often don’t believe it’s as bad as it is. This is frustrating; it gives more weight to the inaccurate assumption that anxiety is an excuse or a minor issue that can be overcome with some willpower and an attitude adjustment. It leads to people saying things like “Don’t worry,” which . . . OH THANK YOU I AM SO GLAD YOU MADE THAT SUGGESTION I NEVER THOUGHT OF TRYING THAT.
But anxiety has also given me some gifts, and I try to be mindful of that (especially since it’s not like my Inner Wiig is going anywhere, so I might as well make peace with her). I don’t miss deadlines, for example. Editors appreciate that. When I’m writing, I can portray anxious characters in realistic and sympathetic ways. Some of my anxiety is money-based, so I’ve had to become good at budgeting. And since I’m so used to functioning with a high level of anxiety, I tend to be pretty good during a crisis. I don’t break down until after the worst has passed.
Just like that leak in the slab, plenty of us have some under-the-surface stuff to work through. I choose not to be ashamed of mine. I choose to be open about it. I choose to appreciate what I’ve learned from it, the strengths I’ve developed.
Plus, it’s an excuse to post Kristen Wiig gifs, and that’s always a plus.
Okay, so where were we? I took a little break to deal with Hurricane Irma cleanup (almost five months later, we’re still working on getting our roof replaced) and other life stuff. I’m still processing a lot of anxiety-related stuff (hurricanes and anxiety disorders are a fantastic combination), I’m catching up on a ton of reading, I finished a new rough draft during NaNoWriMo last November, and last week I helped one of my best friends move from Georgia to south Florida.
I’ve also been sitting on some super-exciting news, and now that the announcements have run in Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace, I can finally share: my next novel, MAMMOTH, will be published in fall 2018 by Turner Publishing!
This book is so dear to my heart, and I’m so ridiculously anxious (in a GOOD way) to launch it out there into the world. MAMMOTH is a body-positive, science-geeky story about being true to yourself and letting your talents and ambitions shine.
Most of the book is set at an Ice Age dig site; to get the paleontology angle as accurate as possible, I trained at the Waco Mammoth National Monument and learned to dig and prospect for fossils. I also interviewed paleontologists, toured a bone lab, practiced screen picking, and spent a particularly spectacular morning hanging out with a pair of elephants at Cameron Park Zoo. (Thank you FOREVER to my bestie Dava Butler, who works at Waco Mammoth, for making all that possible!)
I’m so jazzed to work with Turner, and so excited to share updates as MAMMOTH’S publication date approaches. Watch this space, my vintage velociraptors (as MAMMOTH’S Natalie would say) — there’s so much more to come. ❤
I live on Marco Island, which is several hours south of Tampa on the Gulf Coast of Florida. About a month ago, the island took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, which I believe was a category 4 storm at the time.
Had the eye stayed a little more to the west, the resulting storm surge could have been as high as fifteen feet. As it was, I believe we got more like four feet, which was high enough to swamp the island and come most of the way up our driveway but not high enough to get into the house.
We evacuated the day before the storm hit, knowing we might very well come back to . . . nothing. Irma barreled through on a Sunday and we were allowed back onto the island on Monday; turning down my street and waiting to get a glimpse of my house (or whatever remained of it) was one of the most dreadful moments of quiet, terrified anticipation I’ve ever experienced. We were very, very lucky — we got plenty of cosmetic damage, but the roof stayed mostly intact (although it still most likely needs to be replaced) and we didn’t lose any windows or doors. We spent days without running water or electricity (September in southern Florida without air conditioning, man, NO). We’re still waiting on a lot of repairs. We’re trying to budget for what insurance won’t cover (which, as it turns out, is probably most of the damage, ugh). My father always handled these things when I was younger; not having him here to arrange repairs and make decisions is bringing up a lot of emotions on top of everything else.
I’ve been through so many hurricanes that I can’t even keep them all straight anymore, but I’ve never experienced one like Irma. I’m dealing with a lot of delayed anxiety, a newfound sensitivity to mold (the island has huge piles of molding debris everywhere waiting on county clean-up), and a still-unreliable internet connection. Once everything blows over, I’ll be back to blogging more regularly. In the meantime, I’ll be taking out my anxiety on the coconuts that got knocked down by the storm. We’ve got a lot of coconuts, but I’ve got a lot of anxiety, so it works.
So. By spring 2017 I’d been unagented for nearly two years.
I queried new agents when I had the time and determination, but between being a caregiver for my dad*, who had renal failure, and digging up whatever freelance opportunities I could, I didn’t have a lot of emotional headspace left for agent hunting. Especially when the rejections I got were variations on a theme: “I love the voice/concept/whatever but there’s no room in the market for plus-size** characters.”
(Pun not intended. And, I mean… What? ELEANOR & PARK was on fire when I was drafting MAMMOTH in 2013-2014, DUMPLIN’ took off in 2015, THE UPSIDE OF UNREQUITED was on the way… The audience is there! Plus, MAMMOTH is a story about personal authenticity and paleontology geekery. Its protagonist happens to be plus-size. She’s also smart. Clever. Ambitious. Conflicted. Brave. Flawed. Obviously I’m biased, but I think her value as a character goes beyond the size tag on her jeans.)
In April, an agent I followed on Twitter, Eric Smith of P.S. Literary, tweeted that he’d be closing to submissions in a few months. Eric seemed super cool, and he represents several writers I know (Rebecca Enzor, a friend from my toy-collecting days, and Rebecca Phillips, who I knew from the ABNA), and I figured, why not? I was spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms, so that’s where I drafted a new version of my query letter. Within a couple of days, Eric requested the manuscript. Yay!
A few days after that I saw this tweet and wistfully thought, “Aw, I wish he was talking about MAMMOTH!”:
BUT. BUT. HE WAS TALKING ABOUT MAMMOTH.
He made a few revision suggestions that I totally agreed with, and a week or so later I signed a contract. His enthusiasm has been nothing short of remarkable, and I don’t know how he finds enough hours in the day to accomplish all that he does. Eric’s just awesome. Plus, I gained an amazing group of supportive agent-siblings!
MAMMOTH is now out on submission, and I can’t wait to prove that the market has plenty of room for Natalie and her dig site discoveries. THIS IS HAPPENING.
*My dad passed away in late May, and one of the last things that made him really happy was knowing I’d signed with a new agent. As overwhelming as the last few months have been, I’m really glad he knew I’d found my footing again.
**Not everyone likes “plus-size” as a label. I acknowledge that, and I’ll address the reasons I use it for Natalie in a future post.
Here’s an artist’s rendering of the newly-named pupper (image courtesy Royal Ontario Museum):
And here’s Zuul itself in Terror Dog form (image courtesy Columbia Pictures):
I can see the resemblance.
The dino’s full name is Zuul crurivastator. The species name is Latin for “destroyer of shins,” a nod to the animal’s clubbed tail. This Zuul was a herbivore, but at its size (as heavy as a rhino and as long as a pickup truck), it would probably do even more damage to Louis Tully’s apartment than the fictional keymaster version.
I’ve been sorting through a lot of long-buried possessions, and I recently came across this book about a boy who finds and hatches a mysterious egg (SPOILER ALERT IT’S A DINOSAUR EGG YEEAAAHHHH!!!):
I was six or seven when I got this. I remember being intimidated because although it looked like other chapter books, the print inside was so much smaller than I was used to — but I loved dinosaurs, so I jumped in. Years before I read Jurassic Park, I encountered my very first fictional paleontologist, Dr. Ziemer:
The Enormous Egg was originally published in the 1950s, and some elements of the story haven’t aged that well, but I’m still fond of it as a product of its time, and I still adore the illustrations. And I still want an Uncle Beazley of my own:
I’m not someone who normally has a lot of maternal instincts, but show me a teeny baby triceratops and suddenly I’m all:
Of course, large dinosaurs don’t make particularly good pets.
So, I mean… I guess that dream’s ruined. Still, as a kid, I always hoped I’d stumble across a mysterious egg, just like Nate did.
(Okay, I admit it. To this day, I still kind of wish that could happen.)
When you’re trying to break into traditional publishing, landing an agent feels like finding the holy grail — you’ve completed the quest, you’ve leveled up, you’ve done the thing.
Then you start digging into everything that comes after, and you realize that signing with an agent is just another step in the process. And oh boy, you’ve still got a hike ahead of you.
So. You sign the contract. Your agent probably wants a revision, so you get that done. The two of you put together a submission package, your agent starts reaching out to editors, and for half a second you can BREATHE because the process is mostly beyond your control. (You should still be developing your platform, extending your reach, all that good stuff, but at least the submission process itself can chug along without you for a bit.) In that moment of calmness, you start thinking about that new idea that’s been wiggling in the back of your head. That’s when the anxiety sets in because…
What if my agent doesn’t like my next book???
I’ve seen this question on so many writing forums and Q&As and subreddits. It’s a dreadful thought, and I can tell you from experience that it feels even more dreadful when it actually happens. So what does it mean when your agent just doesn’t connect with your new work?
The scenario can play out in several ways, and it mostly depends on your agent. If you guys work well together but your new idea is in a genre or area that he doesn’t represent, he might try to work something out with another agent (probably someone in his agency) who has more experience with that genre. If your new idea is still just that, a vague and nebulous spark, and you haven’t put a lot of time or work into it yet, your agent might suggest that you put it aside for now and work on something she’s more likely to be able to sell.
Or . . . You and your agent might decide to part ways. Cue the tiny violins and sad trombones!
I experienced that third option. In 2014, my then-agent was still trying to sell UNDERBED when I sent her the first draft of MAMMOTH. We worked through a series of MAMMOTH revisions, but in the end, she just couldn’t connect strongly enough with the main character to represent the project, and I felt too strongly about MAMMOTH to give up on it.
Because of that, and because she’d been unable to do much with UNDERBED, she and I parted ways in 2015. That happened on my birthday, by the way. I don’t recommend that. Really kind of ruins the day.
So yeah. These things happen. Sometimes you have to take a step or two back. However, that doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, or that the project in question isn’t viable. It just means that you and your agent weren’t the literary soulmates you both hoped you’d be, and if an agent doesn’t fall in love with a project, she’s not the one you want selling that project anyway. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right fit in this industry.
I sent out a couple of MAMMOTH queries that same day. Finding a new agent took longer than I expected (more on that in another post!), but now that I can turn around and look back at that rocky hiking trail from the other side . . .
I think it was all worth it. I’ve still got countless trails stretching out in front of me, but I conquered that one.
Breaking up with an agent sucks, but it’s not the end of your career. You mope for a bit, you vent to your friends, you post GIFs of the Doctor standing in the rain, and then you stand up and dust yourself off. You keep going.