A Reason to Say No

I’ve started querying agents again.

I know, I know. I said I didn’t think I wanted to. I still don’t think I want to.

But I want to give The Body Gift the best possible chances. So here I go again, go again. (Yes, I’m totally feeling like OK Go on the treadmills.)

So, you all know how it goes. The queries go out. Vast silence ensues. People are reading. Be very, very quiet so they can concentrate.

But, every once-in-a-while I get the insta-reject. Or near instant – within a few hours. I know these are from the readers whose mission it is to say no. They scan the incoming queries and hit the “no” button as soon as they find a reason to. This is how the business works and I totally understand that.

Still, it reminds me of an NYC editor friend. She was a friend of a friend, who came to visit, so I spent some social time with her. She published mainly celebrity tell-alls and kitschy coffee-table books. Once of her favorite rhetorics was “Give me a reason to say no.” Getting a book through all the layers of approval at her mighty publishing house was such an Olympian feat that, if she could at any point find a reason to say no to a project, she would.

I sometimes imagine how it would be if we all approached dating this way. The human race would die out.

But that’s neither here nor there. This is the cutthroat business of Big 6 Publishing.

It got me thinking though, because Jane at Dear Author, a blog I really admire for its forthright honesty, posted the other day about how agents are the unseen gatekeepers to reading. She referring to a daunting story where two successful authors collaborating on a project were told by a major agent that he/she would represent the book if they changed a gay character to straight, or cut him altogether. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth over this because, thankfully, this sort of thing is just not acceptable to say anymore. At least in certain circles. That’s not to say that this sort of thing hasn’t been going on all along. Jane’s point, and I think it’s a really good one, is that most readers didn’t know it.

Why would an agent suggest such a thing? Right. It’s a reason to say no.

The agent is thinking ahead to the ladder of editors, the marketing folks, the distributors, the booksellers and imagining if anyone in that whole vast chain would say eek, we can’t sell a gay main character.

Not hard to imagine at all.

Maybe the dating analogy is relevant, after all. Agents like to say that they only represent projects that they fall in love with. To some extent I imagine that’s true. But I think it’s more to the point to say that they want projects they think other people will fall in love with. So it’s not so much if their date has a bad habit of slurping his soup or blowing his nose on the napkin, it’s more, will everyone fall in love with that strong jaw and those steely blue eyes.

The agent figures she’ll just keep him away from restaurants until the ring is on his finger.

How Not to Revise

This monsoon season has been a tease. The clouds loom, promising rain, and then evaporate. I watch it on the weather radar – the greens condensing, flashing orange and red – and then it dissolves away again.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been in revision mode, refining The Body Gift. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve been in revising/editing mode for quite some time now. Between revising Obsidian for a revise & resubmit, working on developmental,, line and copy edits for Sapphire and Feeding the Vampire, and now adding to TBG to send to this agent, I haven’t done any real drafting since March.

Sure, some of this has involved adding new words, but really, working on a story that’s already *there* is a different process.

You know how sculptors (it might be a specific one, but I forget who and I’m feeling too lazy to try to find it) say that sculpting is carving away the extra stone, to find the shape that already exists within? (Maybe it was Michelangelo?) I’ve always loved this idea. This is how writing and revising often works for me.

Once a draft is complete and the story is pretty much *there* (this is a technical word I’ve used twice now. feel free to borrow, but use carefully – it’s a powerful term), it’s like a block of marble. Maybe it’s like a rough outline. Or like the horrible, globulous beings that are what remains of people when the transporter malfunctions. Kind of shaped like something, but not really discernible. Not alive, for sure.

I think it works this way for me because I don’t really plan my stories. It’s more like I download big chunks from elsewhere. Unlike A.S. Byatt, however, I don’t get mine in perfect dictation. So there I am, with my amorphous thing, that has some really lovely bits and some pretty damn icky ones. That’s when I begin carving.

Revision is an acquired skill, I believe. It takes care and judgment. You have to be brave enough to knock off big pieces that must go, but also patient enough to do the detail work. Over and over, you have to step back and see how you’re doing. It takes objectivity and precision.

And, oh yes, you can ruin it. I truly believe that.

There comes a point where, instead of refining and polishing, you’re hacking it to bits. Sure, with writing, you can always add it back in. This is the advantage the writer has over a sculptor who accidentally whacks off the nose. The story, however, that brilliantly alive creature, can slowly suffocate, wither away and die if pummeled too much. You’re left with a corpse. Maybe a pretty corpse, but a dead body nonetheless.

I know no one wants to hear this. We all want to believe that, with enough crit, enough time and dedication, we can make the book PERFECT. Maybe a truly practiced writer can. But, just as with sculpting, it takes skill and experience.

This is what I’m learning about revising: it’s important to keep the final image in mind.

We all start with a seminal image or idea. That changes as we go along. But, at some point in the process, (yes, yes, I know you pre-plotters claim you know it before you even start writing) you have to decide on what you want it to look like when you’re done. All revising should be directed to that idea. Don’t get halfway through polishing your Running Dog sculpture and then think, hey! a Running Cat would be way cool! Write down the Running Cat idea and go back to working on the DOG.

Having editorial notes helps with this, because you can keep going back to the line where your editor says “do this.” I’ve started keeping a list of what I’m revising towards. To remind myself of that final image.

I imagine that few sculptors create a perfect sculpture on their first try. This is why most writers I know have at least one novel under the bed, maybe several. Those are the corpses.

Like clouds promising rain, sometimes they don’t produce.

May they rest in peace.


I caught a bit of sun on this one, but I love the happy look on Granddaughter Aerro’s face.

We spent the weekend with family, celebrating David’s birthday and Tobiah’s a bit late. It’s fun to do these things, to see everyone, but I ate lots of food I don’t normally eat, got no writing done and got all out of my routine.

I know – I’m cantankerous.

I think this is why so many people dislike Mondays though. It’s much easier to stay with a routine than to start it up again. My folks are retired and they don’t notice the days of the week so much, except for planning events. Sometimes I think that’s the best way, just to let the flow of time be even. When I’m home for the weekend, though I sleep a bit later, it’s not by a huge amount – maybe an hour – and my exercise and writing schedule is pretty much the same. Then Monday isn’t so much of a shock.

This morning, though…

So I’m gearing up. Lots to do this week. I’m almost done revising The Body Gift. I’ve been strengthening the hero and it’s working. I found myself mooning over him the other day, which is lovely, because he’s been very difficult to get to know. I’m 70% done, with 15 chapters to do over the next 7 days. Totally doable, right?

(There is the small matter of adding an entirely new scene where my characters end up in this very particular image I have in my head, but I don’t really know how they get there or what happens. The story magic will fill that in, right?)

Then I send it off to my (potential) agent who is enthusiastically (I like to think) waiting for it.

Okay, off I go to catch a wave. Wish me luck!

Craving the Pain

We bought rain barrels. Plastic ones that won’t, oh, fall over and shatter. Not as pretty, but far better for the long term.

We’ve realized that last year, our first year in Santa Fe, spoiled us terribly, with all the snow and rain. This year is far more dry and we fell behind on watering. We’re catching up now, and the flowers are coming along. Fortunately, as children of the West, David and I are both habitual water-savers. We just need to adjust our thinking, take it a bit further.

I am thinking longer-term in many ways.

I mentioned yesterday that I’m not willing to take The Body Gift to self-pubbing, or even digital publishing yet. See, I have a Plan. This is a Plan suggested to me by a lovely agent-friend who can’t take me on as a client right not, but offered me unlimited advice. (I’m not sure if that’s just her very gracious way of saying no while remaining friendly and supportive, but I don’t care. She also told me I seem to be doing just fine on my own and you know where flattery will get you with me. Hey, I’m a Leo – I can’t help it!)

At any rate, she suggested that with each new novel, I shoot as high as I can, walk it through all the Big Show venues and then, if no one bites, offer it to digital. I like this plan. I know many scoff, because it’s still clinging to the traditional route, which so many are forsaking. Why put myself through the pain of the Big Filter when I could just skip all the rejection and waiting, go straight to Smashwords or one of the innumerable start-up epresses that seem to snap up all and sundry.


I want the filter.

I want the writing I put out in the world to be the very best it can be. Even though I hate the pain, I want my work to receive ruthless editing and the stern eye of marketing. I know NYC can have a narrow view. I also know traditional publishing has been putting out incredible books for my entire life.

I want that to be my books.

And I don’t know about all of you, but I’ve been reading a lot of less-than-stellar stuff lately. Digital publishing is coming up in the world and some of the digital imprints seem to have pretty high standards. Others…. erm. Not so much. As much as I would love someone to embrace my book and publish it, I don’t want it at the price of quality. I’d rather revise.

I know it’s hard to know these days, what a press’s standards are. But if you look around, you can figure it out. Read their books and you’ll know. The ones who haven’t put out any books yet are a bigger gamble. Every publisher has some lemons, or books that you hate. More than once I’ve wondered what Ace was thinking, or who is reading some of what Kensington puts out. I also know they have exhaustive acquisitions processes, so I figure I’m not their reader.

So, I don’t want to be the person who doesn’t want to belong to any club that would stoop to admitting the likes of me, but I do want to make the grade.

I want to be part of the Big Show.

And I won’t stop until I get there.

Anger Management

This is a Cinco de Mayo rose. I just love the subtle lavenders in with the brighter shades. I bought this rose at Santa Fe Gardens, which is the local bricks & mortar presence of High Country Gardens. If we weren’t on water restrictions that forbid new plantings, I’d go every weekend and pick out just one new friend to take home.

It feels good to me to garden again. To spend some time with the earth and the plants.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote on Word Whores about how I’ve given up so many hobbies, to make time for writing. I don’t regret that choice, by any stretch. The last couple of years have been very productive for me. You folks out there might not be able to tell, because it’s mostly going to yucca juice right now, but I’ve been writing these fabulous novels that will be published ANY SECOND NOW. I’ve got a good root system of several series going. When I look at my portfolio, it feels good.

Hell, I feel sexy just saying I have a portfolio.

Yesterday, I mentioned to the fabulous author Laura Bickle that I’m trying not to be angry that I’m going to RWA this year with the same novel I pitched last year. She told me she thought I should be angry. That it’s healthy to express that anger, rather than tamping it down and seething over it.

She’s right.

I am angry and that feels good, too. It makes me mad that no one has fallen in love with this novel like I feel it deserves. It pisses me off that so many agents tell me they love it, the premise, the writing, the characters – and ask me to send them the very next thing I write. I’m angry and that fires me up.

Yes, I know I could self-publish. Or submit to a press directly. I’m choosing not to at this point.

I see so much dithering in the publishing world right now. So many of the industry professionals are hunkered down waiting to see what will happen. I hear many editors have been instructed not to acquire anything at all. I see agents making what seem to be desperation moves, selling clients’ work to epresses with no track record. Established authors are turning down NYC deals to self-publish. (Courtney Milan is the latest news that way.)

We all want to make the thing happen. To get the stories to the readers, to make a living doing what we love. Everyone seems desperate to get rich and terrified of going under.

So, I’m coming back to the idea of balance. I’m spending more time in the garden, hand-watering and adding mulch to retain moisture.

I let myself be angry and it felt good, too.

It’s good to want things.

Boy on Boy

I’m just about out of Tucson photos. I need to get busy around here again.

I’d hoped to be taking a lot of nifty pics in Boston this weekend, but alas we’ve canceled our trip. Ironically, I also finished my revision of The Body Gift, which had been consuming my thoughts and energy. So I don’t even relish my suddenly free weekend to work on it.

I am, however, going back to the novel I started before Christmas, which I think I’ll call The Middle Princess for the time being. No, I don’t always do three-word titles. Sometimes I do one-word titles or, in a salient example, an eight-word title.

At any rate, I’ve been thinking about male/male romance.

What – you didn’t follow that transition? Keep up!

For those of you living under a rock, m/m romance is a huge trend these days. These are essentially traditional romance novels, except that the hero and heroine are a hero and hero. The novels are largely written by women and read by women. There’s all kinds of debate about whether or not the stories are accurate depictions of male homosexuality, and if they should be. Every once in a while someone will produce an article where gay men make scathing comments about the romance/sex/level of realism. And they speculate about why women want to write and read this stuff.

The astute women ask why hetero men like to watch girl on girl so much and leave it at that.

It would be kind of amusing to see an article about girl on girl porn scenes, asking lesbians about the level of realism and whether these scenes accurately portray a lesbian love-affair.

So, I read one of these books a bit ago, partly to broaden my horizons and partly because the book received such a good review. I enjoyed it, too. One of the characters was more dominant, a business-man who wasn’t openly out of the closet. The other, flamboyantly gay, “never topped.” The dynamic felt familiar. One man was more ambitious, busy and closed off, the other more emotional, who loved to cook and read.

Some conflict revolved around being out together in public, with the one being so flamboyant, dealing with family and similar issues that this less-acceptable sexuality brings. But the main conflict came from the balance of power in the relationship, vulnerability and intimacy. As the more flamboyant man sulked, threw fits and struggled emotionally, I realized that a lot of that behavior would have annoyed me in a female character. It was as if, by being male, he had license to behave as outrageously as he wished. In some ways, his emotions were more valid to me, than they would have been in a female character.

So, this is one book and I’m not a sociologist. Still, I’ve grown up in a culture where women’s emotionality is considered boggy ground. As professionals, we’re expected to behave more like men emotionally. In relationships, being too emotional is considered cheating. I wonder if the m/m romance gives more room to explore the love relationship without bringing up those damming triggers.

When I brought this up with a group of writer friends, though, the ever-saucy Darynda Jones blinked at me and said, “I just think they’re hot.”

There you are then.

First Time’s a Charm

When I was in school, lo these many moons ago, the common wisdom was to save time at the end of the exam to review your answers.

I don’t know if that’s still the advice these days. But it never worked for me. I found that, if I went back and changed my initial answer, I nearly always changed it wrong. Seriously – the questions I’d miss on the test would be the ones I changed upon review.

I don’t know what this says about me, but I’ve noticed it in other areas of my life, too. The first time I try a recipe, it comes out perfectly. After that, not so much. When I try to photograph something, inevitably my first shot is the best. This generally works out fine for me. I prefer to be decisive – make a decision, commit to a course of action and have done – so my experience that my first attempt is usually the best reinforces that preference.

The downside of this is, I really don’t like revising.

In fact, I’ve become superstitious enough over the years about “changing my first answer,” that I fret that revising makes my story worse.

I know, I know. You hear that noise, like marbles clattering around in a jar of olive oil? That’s my critique partners rolling their eyes at me.

Revising is necessary. I understand that, here in my head. It’s my heart that gets all nervous about it.

I once had a John Irving quote that I cut out of a magazine somewhere, that I recall as being “I have learned to have no fear of revising.” I’m almost certain he said it about Cider House Rules. However, the closest I can come online is this one:

No, this isn’t religion, there’s no fear in changing the text.

Superstition and religion. Do I detect a recurring theme?

At any rate, I’ve nearly completed the revision of Act I of The Body Gift. I’m tossed between the exhilaration of seeing how much better the story flows now and genuine terror that I’ve ruined it forever.

(Yes, I know I can change it back – this isn’t rational.)

But, when they’re not rolling their eyes at me, my CPs are reading it and pronouncing it much better.

I don’t know if I get an “A” on it, yet, but at least I haven’t changed it wrong.

Murky Is as Murky Does

A while back, I took a class in play-directing.

Okay, this was almost twenty years ago. So a titch more than a while.

At any rate, I had several reasons for doing it. I was in grad school getting a PhD in neurophysiology and all the science was making me feel like a left-brain cripple. Some of my best times in college had been running with the theater crowd. I took enough acting classes and performed in enough shows that I could have added a theater minor to my biology major, had it occurred to me. In grad school, I found myself lonely among the science-heads. I auditioned for a play, but I’m really not a very good actress. Where they didn’t know me, they didn’t even toss me the bit parts I’d had before.

(Yeah – the role I played in Equus? I totally got it because the director called me when the actress he’d cast was so offended at the role’s minor nature. Ask Jeffe – she’ll do it! It was fun, too.)

So, I thought I could break into the scene and make some little friends in the bargain, by taking a class. Finally, I was noodling about creative writing and I recalled how the Assistant Director of Equus had been an MFA student in playwriting and his adviser suggested he learn how to direct, to better understand how a script comes alive on stage.

(He also might have been a handsome blond from New Orleans with whom I had a little love affair, but that’s beside the point.)

It didn’t work out so well. I remained an outsider in the theater clique. Plus, because I was an outsider, I had a great deal of trouble casting my scenes – all the best people got snapped up by their friends.

However, I did learn something very interesting that serves me still today.

Though I seem to need to relearn the lesson, over and over.

The course culminated in two nights of One-Act Plays open to the public. Five of us put together about half an hour long plays. Mine was this creepy one (I forget the name) about a cold marriage where the wife kills the husband’s cat – either deliberately or through negligence. The husband then channels the cat (either becomes the cat or just flips out), stalks and attacks the wife.

It was a cool play.

And people liked it. They really liked it! (That’s me channeling Sally Fields.) I loved people telling me how they enjoyed it, with their faces lit up. You don’t get that in science. Then they’d say, “except I didn’t get if she killed the cat on purpose or not.” Or they’d say “I didn’t really understand if he was crazy or if it was the cat’s spirit.” This wasn’t in a contemplative, I’ll have to mull over the implications way. They were genuinely confused.

I realized that, in every spot of this little 30 to 45 minutes, where I hadn’t been crystal clear on what was going on, the audience hadn’t known either.

I thought I could leave some bits murky, but I lost them in every place I did.

Yeah, you know where this is going. I’ve completed the storyboard for The Body Gift. You can see it in all its Post-It glory above. I’m eliminating an entire POV, because its murky and I have a choice of de-murking (yes, that’s a word) or nuking it. I’m not sure I can de-murk, so off it goes.

The pink and dark blue notes? Those are places where I’m not crystal clear on why the characters are doing and saying what they do and say. See, my particular curse as a writer is I follow the characters and write the story as it happens to them. This means that I have to find out things about their world that they don’t tell me straight out. It doesn’t feel to me like I get to make it up.

The writers who plot out ahead of time call us Pantsers, because they see us as flying by the seat of our pants. I prefer the term Mister. That’s how it feels to me – like I sink into the mist and things come to me out of it.

It’s just not always easy to get the exact right thing to come out when I want it.

But, it’s clear I have to. Where I was murky on this story, the readers were confused.

Lesson learned.

And remind me next time.

Piecing It Together

I used to sew a lot. My grandmother was a great seamstress, so I suppose I come by it naturally. In my twenties, I really got into quilting. Some of them turned out pretty fabulous, too, including a King-Size Wedding-Ring quilt I made for a college roomie.

Eventually I had to quit. I quilted more than I wrote, so I finally gave it up. Following a dream requires sacrifices and that was one of mine.

When we moved, I even gave away my sewing machine, along with bags and boxes and piles of fabric. It really kind of broke my heart to see it go. But it was one of those table sewing machines and I absolutely knew there would be no place for it in the new house. Plus I wasn’t sewing. I let it go with a pang, and a promise that if I did want to start sewing again, I’d get a snazzy portable machine.

I really hadn’t given sewing much thought lately, largely because my attention has been on novel-writing, as it should be. But I used the old family Christmas-tree skirt this year, the one my mom forced me to take when we cleaned out her house. That’s the skirt in the top picture. It used to be a white felt skirt, that my mom had everyone in the family sign. Then she embroidered the names in red yarn. We did that when I was about six or seven. Over the years, the white got dingy and stained from various pets and accidents. My mom asked me to cut it up, saving the embroidered names and make a new skirt that matched her living room. Which was *not* red and white.

So I pieced a skirt of mauve silk and burgundy velvet and appliqued the names with a bit of lace edging. I totally don’t remember doing this, just that I did. So this Christmas I used it, as I hadn’t thought I would. It took a bit of cleaning up and so I noticed what a good job I did on it. The seams are strong. It lays nicely, holding up well these twenty years later. I used beads from one of my grandmother’s necklaces as buttons, with satin loops to hook them. Most of the people who signed it are dead now, so I’m glad we saved it.

It’s funny to me to think that I probably could not do as good of a job on it today.

But I’m taking this class, with Alexandra Sokoloff, in an effort to learn her screenwriting tricks to better structure my novel. I needed to make a storyboard and, rather than run to the office supply store, I pulled out my grandmother’s cutting and measuring board.

It’s one of the few pieces of sewing equipment I kept, not only for sentiment, but because it’s a really useful tool that is nearly impossible to find these days.
And now I’m laying out The Body Gift events on it. I’ve only just completed Act I and already I see things I couldn’t before. Blue is the heroine’s POV (point of view, for the uninitiated) and yellow is the hero’s.

Yeah – I’m thinking I’m going to lose his POV altogether. A shocking move that may be exactly what the book needs. Then I’ll applique and embroider in what’s missing.

My grandmother loved to read, too.

Waffles for Breakfast

Quote of the Day from Crazy Lady at the Gym: “This frosty weather is messing with our gardens – it’s not natural.”

I had no words. Which is saying a lot for me.

My spooky Halloween decorations look cool at sunset though, don’t they?

Clearly I’m feeling quite rambly today. I’m looking at my list of potential blog topics and none look interesting. My writerliness might be getting sucked into this new story I’m working on. It’s called (right now) “Sapphire” and it’s an erotic contemporary romance. An editor requested to see it, so I’m getting it all finished up. It’s interesting how, because it’s contemporary, I seem to be getting more into the thoughts and emotions. My modern career-gal, Taylor, has far more neuroses and hang-ups than virginal Amarantha did. Of course, they both get ravished just the same. Some things transcend era.

The big question is what to write next. I’m trying this schedule of spending three months drafting a long work, setting it aside for a month to “cook,” writing something short, then spending a month revising, then another short. October sees the end of this “writing a short” month. (Okay, I’m running about a week behind -have been since July. You can dock my pay.)

What this means is: time to work on the next big project. And I’m not sure what that will be. Oh yes, I have a list. I have several manuscripts in various phases from a jotted-down idea to one that’s 36K complete. Allison asked me which is tugging at me and I confessed it’s still The Body Gift. I haven’t quite cut that umbilical cord.

Of course, if I get an offer on it, I’ll almost certainly be diving back in with revisions. That’s pretty much inevitable. I know that, so that might be feeding in.

At any rate, I’m contemplating going back to a nonfiction project. Part of me thinks that, since I don’t have any other strong tuggings, I should pick the project that’s most marketable. Then I think, who am I kidding? If I was good at picking marketable projects, I’d be Nora Roberts. KAK has a vote in for me to finish the 36K one, which I might. It’s also probably the most unsellable project under the sun, so I’m waffling…

See? I warned you I’m in a rambly mood today. Say, I don’t solicit comments often, but let’s play Vote on the Next Manuscript!

Here’s the list: (I’m keeping each description brief, so as not to unduly bias my judges.) (And, no Marcella, none of these are good loglines, I know.)

The Daughters (36K done) – Fantasy, lots of sex magic, about girls being manipulated by a cult

Writers Group story – Nonfiction, 12 intertwined stories about women in my first writers group and how they ended up

St. Johns love story – contemporary romance, a woman travels to St.Johns because she falls in love with a singer’s voice

Wendy story – literary fiction. 30 yo woman living in small-town Wyoming with parents

Sorority book – Nonfiction, intertwined essays (yeah, it’s my thing right now) about women from my sorority, then and and the ensuing years, what sorority life was like

Papa book – narrative nonfiction, from the divorce scandal that banished my grandparents from theater mecca to the ashes of alcoholism

Post-apocalyptic vampire story – could be expanded?

Okay! What do you all think? Feel free to say you hate something, too. All suggestions welcome!