Story Within A Story Time

One of the things I enjoy about this whole writing deal is coming up with all of the backstory that goes into a book. I know so much about every single named character I write: their histories, their personalities, their likes, dislikes, and goals, where they will end up in the future. Figuring this stuff out is fun and results is so many little side stories and vignettes that never, ever make it into the book but strongly inform the characters as I’m writing. (As fun as this part of my process is, it is also occasionally frustrating like when you realize that the main character from Book 1 will pull out his grandest romantic gesture 3 years after the epilogue, but I digress.)

Since this is my blog and no one can stop me, Imma tell you some backstory from Book 2 that makes me all warm and fuzzy and will definitely not make it into this book:

Book 2’s FMC, Nat, was born around 1990. She would have been 8-9 years old when the Backstreet Boys Millennium album came out, a little too young for it to have been a real cultural touchstone. Nat was often left in the care of her older sister, Rachael. Rachael was born in 1982 and was 17 and a junior in high school in 1999. Millennium was absolutely part of her zeitgeist. Now Rachael was far too cool for boy bands at 17, at least in front of her peers. But she fucking loved that album and she and Nat spent many a night blasting I Want It That Way and yell-singing along when they were home alone together while their mom was working or out. It is the soundtrack to some of Nat’s fondest memories of Rachael’s last year living at home.

Twenty plus years later, Nat will be out somewhere, probably a grocery or drug store, with the MMC and I Want It That Way will come on. She’ll smile and bob her head along. When he notices, she’ll tell him she loves this song because it reminds her of her sister and dancing around the living room screaming into a remote control to an album Rachael would never admit to even liking to anyone else. Rachael died when Nat was 17 and this song bring her back to the absolute best, happiest memories of her sister.

I am now going to spoil a shocking twist of my romance novel: Nat and the MMC end up together and eventually marry. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?) He is a very cool guy and Nat’s musical tastes in her 30s don’t generally run to pop love ballads so the music at the reception is danceable and accessible but does not include a 90s and early aughts pop music. But midway through the night, he’ll have the DJ play I Want It That Way. It’s his way of including her sister in their wedding and their lives. Nat recognizes it for what it is and it absolutely delights her. They’ll dance to it a little off to the side of the dance floor so they can have a some more space and it’s just this little moment of private joy. He’s the only one there who truly understands what this song means to her, just as she had been the only person to understand what it meant to Rachael. And now the song she associates with some of the best memories of Rachael is also associated with the new memory of celebrating the start of her marriage to a man who really, truly knows and loves her.

And this is why I will never, ever give up writing or romance. Because I love this stuff.

Why Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know should be on writing syllabi

Let’s talk about unreliable narrators.  I love unreliable narrators.  Vladimir Nabokov is a master of the unreliable narrator, a POV character who lulls you into his version of events until you have a moment of, “Wait. Hold on a minute. Say what now?” And suddenly the entire book is cast a whole new light.  Lolita is the most famous example, but Pale Fire is the funniest.  It is masterful stuff and you should read Pale Fire at the very least.  (No judgment if you want to give Lolita a pass).

However, when I see novice writers ask about unreliable narrators in the wild or when I need to try and introduce my own elementary schooler to the concept, my favorite example is the unnamed narrator of Gotye’s 2011 duet with Kimbra, Somebody That I Used to Know. In less than 4:30, you get a fantastic example of an unreliable narrator (and toxic male entitlement) packaged in a banger.  And since this is my blog an no one can stop me, we’re going to break it down and discuss why it is so great.  So

The song begins with our male narrator signing about the end of a relationship.

Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love, and it’s an ache I still remember

He starts out telling us about a relationship that, honestly, doesn’t sound like a grand love affair.  He had to convince himself it was a good fit but admits he often felt lonely with her.  Though it is always sad when a relationship ends, he seems to recognize this was for the best.  How wise!  How mature! 

He continues:

You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness
Like resignation to the end, always the end
So when we found that we could not make sense
Well, you said that we would still be friends
But I’ll admit that I was glad it was over

He paints picture of the relationship in the second verse that is even more bleak, of addiction to sadness and resignation.  It no longer sounds like just a bad fit, it begins to sound unhealthy. It’s good they broke up.  But even in the midst of that, the split was amicable.  They are able to “still be friends.” This relationship ending is for the best.  He’s even glad it’s over.

Ah, but then we hit the chorus.  And things begin to shift.

But you didn’t have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing

Wait.  Didn’t he just tell us they said they would still be friends?  But she cut him off and is now acting like they never went out?  That’s not friendly. 

And I don’t even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger, and that feels so rough

Okay. Now he’s beginning to sound almost petulant.  If he doesn’t need her love, why does her treating him like a stranger feel so rough?  He’s glad it’s over.  He was lonely in her company.  He spent the first two verses downplaying the significance of this love affair.  This seems like a disproportionate amount of angst over someone he didn’t really seem to…enjoy his time with all that much?

No, you didn’t have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number

Say what now?  She had her friends collect her stuff and changed her phone number?  Changing your number is a pain in the ass. It’s not something people generally do on a whim.  If you say that you will still be friends, you don’t send your friends to get your stuff.  Sending your friends to get your stuff is something you do when a relationship ends badly…or if you don’t feel safe.

I guess that I don’t need that, though
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know

More petulance and soupcon of “the lady doth protest too much.” The tone has shifted.  It’s indignant and not nearly as philosophical as the first two verses.  His version of events is still plausible but there are now some questions, some loose threads we see upon further inspection.

And then Kimbra comes in:

Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over

Oh.  This is far more direct and a far less flattering portrait of the relationship

But had me believing it was always something that I’d done

Now this.  This could be a chapter heading in Lundy Bancrofts seminal work on intimate partner violence, Why Does He Do That.  One of the most common themes in stories of IPV is how the victim ends up feeling responsible for their abuser’s bad actions. It is their fault that he did whatever he did.  If they had just acted correctly, he wouldn’t have had to. 

It didn’t make sense, in his account, why she would have her friends collect her records and change her number, even if she was just being vindictive.  But once we have this line, it makes a lot more sense.

And I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say

Her account becomes more unsettling.  She felt like she had to try and interpret every word he said, to the point that it made her life untenable.  She’s talking about being in a relationship with someone manipulative, who leaves her on edge, who she feels like she can’t take at face value. Her account also stays consistent, unlike his. 

And then, we got the line where his credibility crumbles.  Where I feel like the audience should be saying, “Oh Shit! Maybe we can’t trust this guy.”

You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know

He has, in fact, spent two verses and a chorus being hung up on someone he used to know.  He, himself, has told us how much he didn’t care, how relatively insignificant she and this this relationship was to him and then:

But you didn’t have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
And I don’t even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger, and that feels so rough

No, you didn’t have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number (aah)
I guess that I don’t need that, though
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know

Somebody (I used to know)
Somebody (now you’re just somebody that I used to know)
Somebody (I used to know)
Somebody (now you’re just somebody that I used to know)
I used to know
That I used to know
I used to know

He doesn’t care about her, she’s just “somebody that he used to know.”  But if she treats him like a stranger, it “feels so rough.”  If she sends collect her records, she is “stooping so low.”  It’s not about her wanting to feel safe or comfortable, it about what she is doing to him.  She isn’t allowed to cut him off.  She isn’t allowed to block his calls or avoid him.  He wants to be the sole arbitrator of the status of their relationship.  It’s over and he still feels entitled to her performing what he feels he’s owed.

Go back and listen to the song again and his account starts to feel even more hollow.  More inconsistencies start to appear.  Of course, we never know the truth of the song (though I think her side stays pretty solid no matter how many time you listen to it) but by the end of 4:04, I know we can’t trust his.

How Do You Keep a Story Interesting When Everyone is Happy?

I finally have a functioning computer again, which is extremely exciting. There is much rejoicing that I can writer again over here. If you are a writer and are reading this GO BACK UP YOUR WORK NOW! DO IT NOW! NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW!!!

While I was sans computer, someone posted a question on Twitter that essentially asked: How do you keep the happy, fluffy parts of relationship in a romance novel interesting since conflict drives a novel but there isn’t much conflict when the main characters are just kind of hanging out, content and in love? I’ve been thinking a lot about that question.

First let me stipulate that I find the happy, fluffy parts of a romance novel inherently interesting. You know people who love an angsty book, who want a story to emotionally destroy them and the characters? Whatever the opposite of that is, that is the kind of reader I am. I will happily read page after page of nice people being sweet to each other so it is possible that my perspective is not a conventional one for the romance market or for literature.

When I’m writing the good times in a romance, in addition to feeding my own personal yen for sweetness, I try to use those softer, quieter moments to accomplish two things:

1) Demonstrate how the main characters complement each other.

2) Highlight and contrast the cracks in the relationship, the doubts or issues that are obstacles to the HEA. (I tend to write internal rather than external conflict).

There was a particular scene in Book 1 that I immediately thought of when I read that tweet and since I have a whole blog, let’s break it down, shall we?

The scene takes place during a 3-month period in the story between when they decide to start seeing each other and the next big emotional set-piece. Over the course of that 3 months, they get to know each other, gradually start spending more time together, and are generally pretty happy. It’s very much a honeymoon period.

This scene begins in the MMC’s POV. Both the leads come home late from their respective jobs. This is another in a long string of late nights at work and they are both exhausted. Miranda (our FMC) hands Vincent (our MMC) a glass of water when he walks in the door. He takes a shower, and they collapse into bed together. Vincent is a pretty tactile dude. He pulls Miranda into his arms and as they are drifting off to sleep, he thinks about how soothing it is to hold her; how the feel of her against him and her scent are significant consolation after a hard day. He deeply appreciates how peaceful she makes this moment in the middle of a busy and stressful period. Fluff! It also demonstrates how they complement each other. Vincent needs touch and respite and Miranda meets those needs with water and rest and snuggling. It also highlights some of things about her, specifically, that he’s attracted to.

But. Even though the moment is warm and soft and peaceful, Vincent worries about the future of the relationship. The reason he’s so exhausted, and the reason that he needs the respite she provides so badly is that Vincent is a professional chef working at the highest level; Miranda has never worked in food service and has a demanding job of her own. His schedule is brutal and uncompromising. He has lost relationships because of it before. He and Miranda have specifically discussed this and he’s been very up front with her about how little time he has to give her. Because of this, they have agreed to see each other when they have time for as long as they enjoy it and leave it there. Essentially, they are friends with benefits.

Vincent really likes her and the moments like this one they have been sharing. Though no one is talking about the long term, the past 3 months have been great and he is keen to keep going. However, this is her first real taste of just how bad his schedule can be. He has worked the past 17 days straight. They haven’t had sex in over a week. He feels like he’s barely been a decent friend and now there are no benefits. He fears it’s only a matter of time before she gets sick of his shit and kicks him to the curb. Vincent’s core belief that his professional life is fundamentally incompatible with a long-term romantic relationship; that Miranda cannot possibly love him in just a few hours a week, is a major fault line in their relationship. Having him reflect on it in a quiet moment lays the groundwork for obstacle they will have to overcome in the future and gives the story some precarity.

Side Note, I do not consider this a romance “misunderstanding.” Vincent’s beliefs aren’t unreasonable. His schedule is a shit show. There legitimately aren’t a lot of people who would be willing or able to put up with it. And he isn’t discounting Miranda’s opinion. They have talked about it, but Vincent knows that you can’t really understand how difficult it is until you experience it.

The next morning, we switch to Miranda’s POV. She wakes up in an empty bed thinking Vincent has already left for work. Now, inside her head, I can show the reader that all of the things Vincent fears are conspicuously absent. She’s not remotely close to running out of patience with him. She’s disappointed that she won’t be able to kiss him goodbye this morning but mostly she sympathizes with how tired he must be. Miranda admires his dedication and his hard work. She also views their lack of time as temporary. Their schedules will settle down soon and though she didn’t see him this morning, they have a standing date in two days, and she’ll get some time then. Her POV further contrasts his POV demonstrates how, even though they’ve talked about it and generally communicate well, their is a disconnect between how they perceive the relationship. That disconnect is only going to grow too. Additionally, the way she conceptualizes the challenges they are facing right now illustrates how well suited they are. Most people wouldn’t be able to handle his schedule; Miranda however, can.

She hears him moving around and realizes she hasn’t missed him. Miranda goes and gets her good morning kiss. Things start to heat up and she asks when he needs to leave, because she knows how tight his schedule is and is conscious and careful with his time. (Complement) Vincent only has 27 minutes before he has to go. He pulls back when he tells her this, we already know he feels like he is disappointing her, and he behaves as though he expects her to take this news negatively. Miranda, however, hears 27 minutes and thinks, “I like a challenge.” (Fault line) When the scene ends, Miranda is quite satisfied with how the morning has gone and Vincent still makes it to work 5 minutes early. (Complement)

So, there you have it, a peak into what I’m trying to do, besides just indulge in all of softest, fluffiest fluff, when I’m writing those sweet scenes. I promise, they are just as much a part of moving the story along for me as the big, emotional scenes.

Why I Quit Querying (But didn’t learn to love publishing)

In July 2022, I finished my first novel.

My writing origin story unremarkable: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but never really finished much.  I drifted away from it for a while when the obligations of work/parenting/other grown-up stuff got to be more than I could handle with the time writing requires.  Then, about 18 months ago the planets aligned to provide the right mix of financial security, motivation, and free-time and the end result was a 98,000-word contemporary romance that I absolutely adore.

I wrote it selfishly.  It is the book I, a long-time romance reader have been searching for but unable to find.  It was so purely for myself that I didn’t even tell anyone I knew until I was nearly done.  When I did reveal I was writing my own novel to a few close friends in the context of discussions about the romance genre generally, to my surprise, they asked to read it. 

Though I loved my selfish book and it was a blast to write, I wasn’t sure it would work for an audience broader than me.  My friends are lovely people though, so I worked up the nerve and shared it with the folks who asked (2 of 5 actually read it) and got some very nice feedback.  It wasn’t a totally horrific experience to share this art that I’d made with other people, and I started to toy with the notion what it would be like if even more people read it.

I Googled “I wrote a novel, now what?” and two things quickly became apparent: 

  1. I’ve got a full-time job, a kid, and I suck at self-promotion; self-publishing wasn’t going to work for me. 
  2. At 98,00 words my book was too long for Trad Pub.  Depending on the source, I was 8,000-18,000 over the acceptable word count for a contemporary romance debut.  I knew I couldn’t cut that much, so I concluded Trad Pub wasn’t for me either.

That was where my publishing journey should have ended.  But my friends were so encouraging….  As were the online writing spaces in which I lurked where folks whose books were outside the publishing norms were regularly encouraged to query anyway.  The daydream of my book being out there in the world, finding other people who liked it slowly grew more vivid and more lovely.  I kept researching how to query, feeding that dream like a feral stray thought I knew it was neither wise nor practical, until one day I saw a post from an author discussing how she had gotten an agent for her 94,000 word CR debut. I let that post confirm my bias.  If other too-long books were being picked up by agents surly mine had a chance too?  Querying didn’t cost anything after all, so why not shoot my shot?

Thus began a month of querying prep.  I read everything on r/pubtips and scoured query tip blogs.  I agonized over comps.  I drafted and redrafted a query letter, a synopsis, and 1 and 3-sentence pitches.  All of which sucked, by the way.  I enjoyed none of it.  I read Manuscript Wish List and made a list of potential agents on Query Tracker which I cross-checked against agency websites and social media. I made a crappy author website and signed up for Twitter, Instagram, and (shudder) TikTok and even “engaged” on the platforms. All of the free time that, a year ago had been devoted to writing was now devoted to making me and my book up as appealing as possible to agents.  I also started another WIP (Book 2 in the series because I do love interconnected standalones) that I barely touched, promising myself I would work on it once the query package was done.

In early October, I sent out my first round of 10 queries.  The first rejection came in 4 days later.  I knew almost all authors get rejected.  I knew about Steven King’s railroad spike; about all the pillars of the cannon and blockbusting bestsellers that had been rejected scores of times before they were published.  I had done my very best to temper my expectations and keep the fact that my book was a longshot for multiple reasons–high word count, not “tropey” in the way BookTok loves right now, not a RomCom which are currently very hot in the genre–front of mind.  That first rejection still hurt.  Even with all that foreknowledge and my realistic expectations, I cried.  I felt like garbage for the rest of the night and then the next day I dutifully sent out another query because that’s what all of my research said I was supposed to do.

One month later I had 6 more form rejections and no indication that any agent had ready anything beyond “98,000 word contemporary romance.”  During that time, I had started following more querying authors as well the agents on my query list.  I began learning more, not about querying, but about the publishing industry.  I learned that the majority of US agents are only paid when an author is paid and the amount is a) not much per book and b) usually spilt over YEARS.  I started following editors and I learned how under-resourced and over-worked they are and how much pressure they are under to prove ROI to the finance bros who actually run the publishing houses.  It’s always been this way, but recently, as more VC has gotten into publishing, the big houses have consolidated, and the total number of agents and editors has decreased as workers at all levels left during the pandemic, it’s apparently gotten worse.  Multiple sources were saying that querying is harder now than it’s been in modern memory.

As I developed a clearer and more nuanced picture of the publishing business–what the pressures and incentives are–I reevaluated my book not as a piece of art or a beloved creation, but as a business proposition.  If I were an agent looking though the literally hundreds of manuscripts in a slush pile looking for something that would pay my rent would I pick my book?”  The answer is: No.

A smart agent is going to try and find the books in the slush pile that are going to be the fastest, easiest sale so they can maximize their ROI and stand a fighting chance of eating and paying their bills.  Their best bet the book that isn’t an outlier: expected word count, easy to comp, on trend, with query materials that demonstrate the author can effectively promote themselves and their work.  My book could be the objectively best thing in the slush pile (it is not) and the smart agent is still sending me a form reject and requesting a full on the 77K manuscript with a quirky 24-year-old FMC that lists 5 different tropes in the first paragraph of the query and comps itself to the books most beloved by the BookTok algo last spring.

[This is not a criticism of agents!  I, too, like shelter and providing for my family and maximizing the money I get vs the hours I spend on my work.]

If my book is not a good business prospect, then sending it to agents is a futile endeavor; a waste of my time and theirs.  Spending $2 on a Powerball ticket for the slim chance that you might win a billion isn’t the most practical use of your money, but there’s still a chance.  However, sending a book that wasn’t an easy sale to agents in this publishing economy was spending $2 on a Powerball ticket for last week’s drawing. 

I am not a genre-defining, once-in-a-generation talent. My book is not so exceptional that it transcends the petty concerns of late-stage capitalism. Therefore, to make my book a 1:1,000,000 chance instead of a 0 chance, I’d need to make it conform to market expectations. Frankly, that would suck.  I have neither the skill nor the ego to cut 18,000 words from my book.  It would fundamentally alter the story to the point that it would no longer be the story I wanted to tell.  Ditto for changing it to capitalize on current tropes and trends.  I have been reading romance since I was way, way too young; I know the real market is wide and varied.  But me and BookTok, which is what trad pub seems to think “the market” is these days?  Our tastes…don’t align.  A lot of mainstream M/F romance’s favorite tropes are just not for me, thanks, and were consciously left out of or subverted in my book. 

However, traditional publishing offers me precious little incentive to make my book marketable. There’s no financial incentive: I am never going to make more money writing than I do at my day job.  If I’m going to expend effort on something I find neutral to unpleasant for money, I’ll just log a few extra hours at work.  I’ll make a lot more and it doesn’t involve hacking up my art. I don’t want to be famous.  Being a recognized author would be cool in that it would potentially provide opportunities to geek out and over-think the genre with readers and other authors but otherwise fame seems like a pain.  The only thing publishing offers me that I actually want is a connection to people who know how to make and sell books (skills I do not have) who will put the book I love where the readers who might like it could find it. If traditional publishing can’t/won’t give me that, it’s not a good business prospect for me.

The other thing I learned in that month was querying wasn’t free.  It was costing me something. Though my query package was done, I was still spending large chunks of my very limited free time on query tasks.  Even if I wasn’t actively working on querying, it still occupied a significant portion of my mental bandwidth, like some bloatware in the background sucking up all of my processing power. Fully a third of my morning pages every damn day were Feelings About Querying and Publishing (it is even more tedious than you’re imagining).  When I did manage to allocate time to my WIP, the persistent, low-grade angst from the rejections and the silence and the fact that I was still constantly thinking about my Book 1 characters as part of the process made getting into the right headspace to write Book 2 incredibly difficult.  At the end of October, I was feeling dejected, the WIP only had 6000 new words, and writing, which had once been an absolute joy, had become a slog.  

If I my book wasn’t a good business prospect for agents; changing it wasn’t a good business prospect for me; querying was costing me time, creativity, equanimity, and even a little money; and I wasn’t reaping any other benefits out of querying, what was the point?  And why should I continue?

The answers were, of course, there is no point, and I should stop.

A proportionally brief digression about the prevailing attitudes around querying:

A certain amount of irrational optimism is necessary to query and have the fortitude to keep going in the face of repeated rejection. And writers certainly should support and encourage other writers in the query trenches. But it is a truth almost universally unacknowledged by the #amquerying world that not all of us will get there eventually.

A writer can do  everything right–stellar query letter, great comps, snappy synopsis, flawless, genre defining book, meet all of the requirements currently considered to be “to market”–and still not get an agent for one of a dozen reasons that have nothing to do with merit and are wholly beyond their control: They didn’t get that perfect book in front of an agent who knew how to sell it.  The agent didn’t have space for that genre this year.  The agent missed it because they had read so many queries that night their eyes were burning and they hit reject purely because they were tired.  The editor who they would sell it to was on parental leave. A writer with an amazing book who did something slightly wrong has even dimmer prospects. They may still have the perfect book, but if they suck at query packages, or the book is outside the accepted page count, or they can’t fit it neatly into a genre, then there are even more potential reasons they may be rejected. The fact is, there are thousands of wonderful, worthy books we will never read because the system is jacked up.

Just keep querying and you’ll get your turn one day is a lie: a tempting illusion.  It gives writers a false sense of power: that if you just tweak your query letter/find the agent with the best Query Tracker stats/revise that log line then you can make an agent request a full.  It allows the publishing industry to shift the responsibility of its systemic failures to writers so it doesn’t have to acknowledge those failures and calls for change (If you actually do want to make querying better, support the HaperCollins Publishing Union in their strike).  It also allows us to blame to other writers when they fail to secure representation and differentiate ourselves from them, so we don’t have to acknowledge the far more frightening truth that the system we’re all working in is subjective, capricious, and that worth and merit have a very small role in the process.  “If they didn’t get any requests, it was because they did something wrong. I had mine critiqued 3 times so that won’t happen to me.”  Look, I spent thousands on therapy fighting to keep my illusions of control (thanks for not letting me get away with it HD!) because admitting you are powerless, that the universe isn’t just, that it’s subjective and random, and that good work and good people aren’t always rewarded is terrifying.  But perpetuating that illusion helps no one.  You can’t make good decisions based on lies.

Back to my own journey to quitting: As logical a conclusion as it was, I had to sit with the idea of quitting for a while.  The dream of being published, of having my book out in the world where other people might love it almost as much as I do didn’t get any less lovely and I didn’t want it any less just because I figured out it was impossible. Also, the well-intentioned but relentless drumbeat of, “just keep trying! If you keep querying/revising/tweeting you’ll get there!” from the #amquerying writer community of which I was now a part made considering quitting felt like cowardice.  Admitting this might not to work out felt like a personal failing, a fundamental lack of tenacity and gumption on my part that made me unworthy of being a published author. 

I took about a week of examining quitting, weighing the pros and cons and “sitting with my feeling” (gross) after it first occurred to me, “hey, I can…quit” for me to finally decided to do it.  I spent another few days after that evaluating whether I wanted to stop entirely or if I wanted to finish off all the open agents on my list.  I eventually opted to finish the list, even though it was not strictly rational, because I knew my deeply type-A ass needed that feeling of “completion.”  (Sorry HD, still think feelings are stupid and would rather I didn’t have to deal with them at all, even though I acknowledge that they must, in fact, be delt with).  I also did it so that when I encounter well-meaning folks in writing spaces who try to encourage me to query again because me giving up freaks them out about their querying prospects, I can confidentially tell I gave it a legitimate try, with the numbers to prove it, and sincerely wish them the best on their own journey.

Today is my 2-month query-versary/almost 1 month quit-aversery.  My current stats are:

  • 11 Form Rejections
  • 2 CNR
  • 13 Pending

Evidence that my book is a dim business prospect for agents and that I will not be getting an offer of rep continues to mount.

Evidence is also mounting, though, that quitting was the right decision for me.  My morning pages no longer have a full page devoted to Publishing Feelings.  The rejections that are trickling in still sting but I’m able to let them go more easily.  The biggest proof, however, is in the writing.  In September and October, when I was drafting my query package and sending out queries, I added 6,000 and 6,500 words, respectively, to my WIP.  In November, after I decided to quit, I added 10,000 even though I was unable to write at all a few days due to travel.  The day after I resolved to quit, I wrote 1500 words and it didn’t feel like squeezing blood from a stone for the first time in weeks.  I have ideas: scenes unfolding and snatches of dialogue popping in my head. Writing is something I enjoy again!  I’m also starting to appreciate the positives of doing this purely as a hobby, most of which boil down to not having to give a fuck about “the market” however publishing companies are defining it at the moment.  (There will probably be a post on that in the future.)

If I had known what I know now when I started querying, would I have still done it?  I honestly can’t say.  I have more than my fair share of hubris and humans are bad at estimating risk.  I still would have put the same amount of effort into the query package because that’s how much effort was needed for a quality job.  But I think I would have sent fewer queries total, in a more focused manner with the intention to test the waters.  I would have treated the whole endeavor more speculatively.  And quitting would have always been a part of the plan, rather than just assuming I’d send queries in perpetuity until it was my turn.

Obviously, quitting is still a work in progress.  I have just spent many hours and an absurd number of words writing this essay; clearly I am still in my feelings about this whole thing.  Also, quitting doesn’t affect the queries I’ve already sent out.  Those 13 pending mean I’m still querying until the last CNR date in late February. (I could withdraw my pending queries and truly be done now, but the thought of that is more horrifying than querying because, again, feelings are stupid and make no fucking sense sometimes.  So, instead I will ride it out because that doesn’t fuck me up quite as much.) 

As for what’s next, I don’t know.  I know when that last CNR date comes, it’s going to suck.  Chances are good I’ll cry again despite all the processing I have done and will continue to do.  (Seriously, why are feelings?)  This whole exercise has shown me that I do want to share this book with other people, far more than I realized.  I plan to spend some time in the New Year finding ways to get what I wanted from this process: to share my art and build more community.  I have no idea what that looks like yet or best route.  I’ll take a second look at self-publishing again, though I’d be surprised if it’s any more appealing upon review.  Putting Book 1 on Wattpad or AO3 or someplace similar intrigues me far more, but there’s a lot I would need to clarify first.  I want to take my time with the decision.

All of that is future-me’s problem though.  Present-me hopes that, even though this process isn’t over, this essay is the last major expenditure of time and energy I will have to give to querying (until my last rejection pity-party).  And, now freed, I can go gleefully make things up about my new characters and my new story and write another book that I love.  And whatever I end up doing regarding sharing or publishing my work in the future, this time I know that if it doesn’t work out, I can quit.

Inspiration Fresh Out of the Dryer

There is nothing quite like manual labor to spur a writing epiphany.

Usually hand-washing dishes is my go-to method for getting through any sort of creative block.  Over the years I’ve solved plot holes, genetics experiment design flaws, and complex data review workflows while scrubbing glassware and pots, my hands emersed in hot, soapy water.  Tonight’s, came via laundry, though, and took me completely by surprise.

I was listening to the playlist for my WIP, the second book in my contemporary romance series (which shall heretofore be Book 2) and folding one of the many, many post-holiday travel loads.  I thought I’d take advantage of a quiet moment to try and get ye olde creative subconscious percolating in anticipation of doing some post-bedtime writing. (As you can see from this blog, I am not a visual person. But playlists are a big part of my process.)  Book 2 has been slow going for a variety of reasons, but it has picked up in the last few weeks as I’ve both quit querying Book 1 and slowly made my peace with  not querying  Book 1 anymore.  (If I stick with this blog thing, no guarantee there, there will definitely be an eleventy-million word post on all of that at some point down the line.)

Since I do like a consistent theme, Book 2’s playlist has also been slow-going.  I’ve been struggling to find songs that capture the characters or the vibe and, at the moment, it’s quite short.  Spotify likes to antagonize me by adding songs to playlists on the mobile app if it deems the list “too short.” After flying into a rage one too many times on my walk to get the kid from school because I was suddenly assaulted by a song or a band I loathed, I threw a handful of songs from Book 1’s playlist on to meet the minimum so that I might know peace. (Side Bar: Spotify. Babe.  If I have specifically curated a list of songs, why in God’s name would I want your suggestions?  In what universe does that make sense? Also, your suggestions are so bad as to be insulting.)

The track that has become Book 2’s theme song had just finished when Cyril Hahn’s Open started up.  Open is one of the Book 1 placeholder songs. It’s lovely, down-tempo, almost ethereal electronic track with essentially only 7 lyrics: “Should I leave my heart wide open?” Open was a major track for Book 1.  I listened to it a LOT to get in the right headspace for that story.  Since there’s so little to it, I thought it would be an innocuous addition to the Book 2 playlist, but it has always felt jarringly discordant in the context of Book 2.  Tonight, it felt desperately out of place. And suddenly, while folding t-shirts and hanging school uniforms, I knew exactly why. 

One of the issues that tied the main characters in Book 1 was that they both fundamentally feared being vulnerable; showing their whole selves to other people.  Each of them had to work through some variant of that fear to get to their HEA.  “Should I leave my heart wide open?” was a weighty and frightening question for both of them, especially the FMC. 

Vulnerability is not a problem for the idiots in Book 2.  Their first real conversation involves them sharing their worst secrets.  I think they learn the thing the other is agonizing over but has never shared with another soul before they learn each other’s names.  “Tell me another dark secret,” is a reoccurring theme and a game they play throughout the story.  “Should I leave my heart wide open?” is not a difficult question for them.  They’d both pretty much be like, “Sure, why not? The other MC already knows the worst of it.”  The fundamental issue that unites these two isn’t that they are afraid to trust other people; it’s that they are afraid to trust themselves.  The FMC has had her confidence in her own judgement and perceptions shaken by a bad relationship.  The MMC is afraid to examine how dissatisfied he is with the path he’s been on his entire life because he doesn’t think he has it in him to forge a new one.  That’s why this song fails so badly for the new Book.

And just like that, half-way through the basket of warm laundry, a major theme and driver of both character’s actions for Book 2, and a major theme from completed Book 1 suddenly crystalized like purified water flash-frozen in a polar vortex.  When I wasn’t even thinking about it. Creativity so weird.  Also, do your laundry I guess?