And then came no . . .

So Monday, I heard back from the literary agent who had asked to see three chapters of my manuscript.  As soon as I saw the email in my box, I was pretty sure it was bad news – it came back too quickly.  The agent who wrote me was very kind and very professional and had all kinds of good things to say about my credentials.  But bottom line, this is what she said:

While the story was entertaining, and marketable due to its  draw upon our culture’s love of all things celebrity, I had a difficult time personally connecting with the voice. The story felt very plotted, very matter-of-fact. I think this is perhaps in part to the past present tense which we’re learning of the actions, the very nature of hearing the story after the fact. Regardless, the voice made it hard for me to really feel a part of the story. I kept waiting for that moment that I felt like I would be “all in” and unfortunately that moment never came.

She went on to suggest that I consider a kind of flashback/flash forward structure so that there’s a more immediate sense of urgency to the action.  Anybody who survived me watching the last couple of seasons of Lost will know my reaction to that, and those who didn’t can probably guess.  There was more, and it was all very thoughtful and polite, and I will be sending her a genuinely heartfelt thank you note.  Because while I’m bitterly disappointed, I know from her letter that she wasn’t the right agent for this book – she didn’t like it; she didn’t “get” it; it didn’t speak to her.  That doesn’t mean she’s not a great reader and a great agent – everything about what she wrote and how promptly she wrote it suggests that she is. 

But it doesn’t mean my book isn’t a great book, either.  As painful as they are and as useless as they feel at the moment they happen, this is what all those rejections do for us – or have done for me, anyway.  When I was a new writer, if a New York agent had taken the time to write me a long letter telling me what was “wrong” with my book, I would have broken a bone rushing off to the computer to “fix” it.  It would never in a million years have occurred to me that she might be mistaken or that other people just as fabulous might disagree with her and – perish the thought! – agree with me instead.  But now, after seven books that a lot of people have paid for, read, and loved, piles of rejections, and years and years of reviews, good, bad, and brutally ugly, I know that one woman’s meh is another woman’s page-turner, and vice versa.  I’m not saying I ignore criticism and advice or that I’m always right or that every writer has to “follow her own path” or whatever – that way lies madness, kittens.  (Just ask anybody who’s read anything the brilliant, wacko, and entirely-self-propelled Anne Rice has written in the past 10 years.)  What I am saying is that my opinion – and your opinion on your own work – matters, too; matters a lot; ultimately matters most.  So the trick is to listen carefully to the criticism, think like a grown-up about what’s being said in relation to your manuscript not as your precious baby but as a piece of work, one of many you’ll produce over your career, and decide what to incorporate and what to leave alone.  And in this case, I’ve decided what to incorporate is, either find another agent who does connect with the book or self-publish it as I originally planned, not because this woman isn’t smart but because in this particular instance, this woman is wrong. 

And incidentally, in her letter, she allows quite graciously for this possibility:

As you know this is a business based on personal taste and as obvious from my notes above, these couldn’t be more subjective of opinions. I wish you the best in finding a better suited match for this project.

I think that’s very kind, and I intend to take her good wishes in the lovely spirit in which they were obviously intended.  And if I write something in the future that I think is more in keeping with what she’s looking for, I will definitely consider sending it to her – again, I couldn’t ask for a more thoughtful reading.  But in the meantime, American Starlet is going to stay as she is.  Because I love Scarlett’s voice, and I’m still convinced a lot of other readers will, too.

Finally, a yes – querying an agent

Last week, I saw a reference to a particular literary agency on my Twitter feed.  I clicked over to their website and saw that not only did they apparently represent work like mine, they represent another writer who used to work with the same editor as me at Pocket.  They had very clear and specific submission guidelines, and I have a completed manuscript, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to at least send them a query.  They listed their response time to query emails as 2 weeks, so I figured I had nothing to lose.  Last Friday, I sent them an email, and yesterday, they emailed me back – they want to see the first three chapters!

Nothing more may come of this – they may read my chapters and decide they aren’t interested after all.  But I’ve made it over a hurdle, and it was almost entirely painless.  My only hesitation in sending the query in the first place was a childish but horrible fear of more rejection – I couldn’t face one more no.  So getting a positive response so quickly is a very, very good thing. 

Btw, I absolutely loathe writing queries – I hate being my own advertiser; it just feels wrong.  And I know a lot of other writer peeps who feel the same, some of whom have been known to check in here at the blog.  So for the record, here’s the one that worked for me this time:

Dear Ms. XXXXX –

                 The best, most accurate pitch line I can give you for my new novel, American Starlet, is “Valley of the Dolls as written by Flannery O’Conner.”  The fictional memoir of Scarlett Cross, the daughter of a Hollywood movie idol and a fashion model from Tupelo, Mississippi, it’s lurid and tragic, trashy and satirical.  Scarlett witnesses her mother’s brutal murder at the age of four, and she spends the next thirty-plus years (and three installments) fighting to first forget then to discover how and why it happened.  American Starlet, a manuscript of 109,626 words, briefly touches on her childhood before moving on to her adolescence and young womanhood, including her rise as an actress in her own right and the start of her stormy lifelong romance with on-again, off-again husband, two-time Sexiest Man Alive Romeo Kidd.  Book 1 is complete, and I have detailed synopses for two sequels, American Actress and American Movie Star. 

                 Before Scarlett, I wrote six historical/paranormal romances published by Pocket Books – The XXXXX Agency client XXXXXXX and I used to share the same editor, Lauren McKenna.  A Falcon’s Heart, This Dangerous Magic, and Wicked Charms were published under the name Jayel Wylie, and A Falcon’s Heart was dubbed a “Desert Island Keeper” by All About Romance.  My Demon’s Kiss, The Devil’s Knight, and Dark Angel are medieval vampire romances I wrote as Lucy Blue – German editions of those three books were released in 2011 and 2012, and I’m still collecting royalties from e-book sales. 

                 Until the agency was sold earlier this year, I was represented by Russell & Volkening.  Timothy Seldes was my agent through the first six books, and Joy Azmitia worked with me on the first draft of American Starlet.  I originally went with Joy to FinePrint Literary Management, but she has left there and has left being an agent, so I’m looking for new representation.  I found your website through Twitter, and I think my work could be a good fit for your agency. 

                 Thanks very much for your attention and consideration.  I look forward to hearing from you soon. 

Very basic.  Paragraph 1 = this is what the book is.  Paragraph 2 = this is who I am.  Paragraph 3 = this is how I know about you and why I think you might be interested in me.  Be confident; be honest; be ready if they ask for more.  I’ve already sent off the three chapters – I’ll keep y’all posted on how it goes.  Again, they might very well say no, and I might very well end up publishing this thing all on my own, and that will be just fine.  But it’s still really nice to hear yes – I highly recommend it.

Wabbit Season

One of the things I did on vacation was see The Dark Knight Rises, the final dark chapter in Christopher Nolan’s dark Der Ring Des Batman-lungen trilogy.  One of the previews shown before it was for the Nolan-produced Man of Steel, aka Die Leiden des jungen Supermans, which looks, among other adjectives, quite dark.  So moved and inspired was I by this experience, my fangirl need for chaos, knowledge, and control seized me and forced me to psychically hack the hard drive of Nolan’s writing computer where I discovered his first notes for a new project:  Wabbit Season, a dark and hyper-realistic interpretation of another beloved and iconic fictional universe long revered in the collective subconscious of American pop culture.

Working Title:  Wabbit Season

Bugs Bunny:  Protagonist; small-time criminal, genius intelligence, incomplete arts education, anarchist, open transvestite, closet transsexual – Brooklyn accent, Irish descent – ties to IRA; good with bombs.  Casting notes:  Christian Bale currently preparing with carrots-only diet and plastic surgery to stretch ears.  Other possibilities if Bale unavailable and/or uninsurable due to starvation?  Will Smith?  Warner Brothers pushing Jim Carrey; too on-the-nose.

Daffy Duck:  Homicidal moralist – strong ties to Black Panther movement of the 1960s – 1960s setting?  Subtle lisp suggestive of homosexuality, self-loathing, love/hate/lust/kill fixation on Bugs.  Torture sequence involving bill.  Casting note:  take meeting with Chris Rock re:  possible dramatic vehicle.  Don Cheadle could also work.

Elmer J. Fudd, Millionaire:  Primary antagonist, industrialist, serial killer.  Owns a mansion and a yacht.  Childhood history of profound physical and sexual abuse, current addiction to whiffable drug designed by his own pharmaceutical company – turns red while under the influence.  Hunting enthusiast; obsessively drawn to Bugs in drag.  Casting note:  keep calling Tommy Lee Jones, restraining order be damned.

Secondary plotline to open the film involving dwarf mafioso Babyface Finster – Tom Cruise has expressed interest; only if he dances.  Prefer Peter Dinklage, would take Patton Oswalt if his sense of irony can be surgically suppressed.  Mel Gibson last resort.  Possible product placement deal with Huggies?

Other possible titles:  “Pronoun Trouble.”  “Despicable.”  “Hassenpfeffer.”  Trilogy?


Hanging out my own shingle . . .

Well, kittens, it’s official, and I can officially talk about it – as of today, I am a free, unsigned, unrepresented author.  My agent, Joy Azmatia, is no longer working as an agent.  And rather than going through the dance of trying to find another one, I’m going to try it on my own for a bit.  Joy has been awesome; the agent I had before her, Timothy Seldes, was legendary for his talent and influence.  They were both more than lovely to me – smart, kind, supportive, energetic – I couldn’t have asked for more.  They both behaved like my career was just as important to them as it was to me, and I can never thank either of them enough.

But publishing has changed.  And I’ve changed, too – I’m not as eager as I used to be, not as willing to compromise.  I’ve been writing genre fiction for a long time now, and I’ve had a fair amount of mid-list success.  But I’ve never really felt like I fit in.  What I do has never really checked off all the boxes of what my genre is supposed to be – supernatural historical romance, with vampires – I can’t even define my genre without a whole sentence.  And my box office as a writer has reflected that.  The readers who have enjoyed my novels have really enjoyed them, and I love them all – you know who you are.  And I hope I’ve done a good job of pushing my own vision of emotions and relationships and the universe at large through the mask of genre expectation – I hope these stories have been me.  But I know they haven’t been completely me.  I know there are things I’ve wanted desperately to do that I haven’t done because it wasn’t what mainstream publishing wanted – historical periods I’ve wanted to explore, relationships and characters I’ve wanted to talk about, beliefs I’ve wanted to share.  The last couple of years, I’ve been working on two different projects, one an urban fantasy romance, one a contemporary pulp saga, and the idea of trying to force either into a mainstream publishing genre box makes me want to cry.

So I’ve decided I’m not going to – or not yet, anyway.  I’m sad to lose my agent and scared to death of all the work and commitment publishing on my own is going to require.  I’m learning all kinds of new stuff – if I didn’t have so many gifted friends to hold my hand and help me, I wouldn’t dare to even try.  But after a couple of decades of being a storyteller for hire, I’m ready to open my own shop.  Watch this space for the results – and in the meantime, pray for me, y’all.


I can’t stop listening to this song!!!

She’s Not There by Neko Case and Nick Cave

I found this on iTunes yesterday – I was actually looking for the original by The Zombies, which is one of the first records I ever remember hearing as a very small child.  Which might actually explain a lot – pretty spooky for a British Invasion pop record.  The Santana cover from the 70s is pretty amazing, too.

But nobody beats Nick Cave.


The Best Beach Trip Ever

The family and I just got back from our annual pilgrimage to the ocean.  I’ve been going to North Myrtle Beach on vacation nearly every summer since I was eight years old –  more years than I care to share in a public forum.  This year in a four-bedroom house, oceanfront, we had my dad; me and my Max; my sister, Sarah; her husband, Derek; and their 5-year-old daughter, Katie; my youngest sister, Rachel; and her husband, Tally, all week long.  Then for the juicy center of the week, we had my best friend Petey and her mom, Alice.  My friend Tammy and her family live down there, but we didn’t get a chance to see them this trip.  My aunt and uncle were staying in a condo right down the beach with my cousin’s child and her best friend, a pair of 13-year-old girls having their first Ocean Drive experience – we totally forgive them for not getting in touch; they were busy.  My boss and his family stayed in a house right up the beach from ours the week before we were there.  And when I got back and posted on Facebook where I’d been, I found out that a friend I’ve known since kindergarten, Matt, was there the same time we were at the other end of the Grand Strand – if we’d known, we definitely would have all hooked up.

I suppose the point is, folks in South Carolina love the beach. 

Like I said, I was eight the first time I went.  My immediate family had spent the weekend before the Fourth of July at my mother’s parents’ house in Colonial Heights, Virginia.   My Grandmama and Pawpaw Wylie (my dad’s parents who, incidentally, lived right next door to us) had just started their yearly week at the beach with my Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ainsley and their kids, and they suggested that we come down on Sunday, spend the night Sunday night and the day on Monday, then head back to Chester so my parents could be back at work on Tuesday after the holiday.  I was beside myself with excitement.  I had been to the Isle of Palms near Charleston lots of times, but my cousins had assured me that I knew nothing of the ocean, that the Grand Strand was another name for paradise.  For twelve hours as my dad drove steadily southeast, Sarah and I bounced in the back seat, watching the signs for South of the Border go by and planning all the glorious adventures we would have at the beach the next day.  (For my darling kittens who’ve never driven south through North Carolina on I-85, let me explain.  South of the Border in Dillon, SC, is the world’s most elaborate truck stop, complete with amusement park, but I promise you, the billboards beat the destination by a mile.)  We finally got there close to midnight, and the house was literally bursting at the seams – my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my Aunt Miriam, who was still just a teen-ager, at least two of Miriam’s friends, and my cousins, Andy and Richard.  The house in question belonged to my Uncle Ainsley’s Aunt Pearlie, a woman I never met in my life and never heard tell of beyond the mention of “Aunt Pearlie’s house at Windy Hill,” and I believe it may have had three bedrooms.  I slept in a reclining lawn chair at the foot of my grandparents’ bed; I have no idea where my parents and sister slept that night.  I know Miriam and her friends all slept on a huge pallet on the living room floor. 

The next morning early while we watched Grandmama make breakfast, Richard and I listed out all the things we needed to get done that day so I would know I’d been to the beach – swimming in the ocean, fishing off the pier, crabbing at Murrell’s Inlet, putt-putt and skee ball at the arcade down the street, ice cream at the Dairy Queen, and a trip to the big Pavilion in Myrtle Beach proper to ride the rides.  Grandmama just listened, but by the time my parents were awake, she had a plan – she told them to leave me with her when they went home, to let me stay the week.  I had never been away from my mama for more than a night or two, but Grandmama and Aunt Sarah promised her that they’d keep a careful watch over me, and I begged shamelessly to stay – I suspect I may have even made an end run around Mama to appeal to Daddy, but I don’t remember.  In any case, we had a much more relaxed day that day than Richard and I had planned, and late that afternoon, my parents and Sarah drove away and left me at the beach. 

For the rest of the week, I revelled in more freedom than I’d ever had in my life.  Grandmama and Aunt Sarah were as good as their word; they took excellent care of me.  But it was a different kind of care.  Grandmama took me to the dime store and bought me a football jersey teeshirt and a pair of cut-off shorts to replace all the cute matching outfits in suitcase that could so easily get ruined, and my Aunt Sarah unbraided only one side of my pigtails every day to brush it out – two was more than she could face in a 24-hour period.  Somebody always knew where I was; somebody always made sure I was fed and washed and went to bed at a reasonable hour.  But for the first time in my life, it was assumed that I could amuse myself.  I was welcome with anybody in the house, even the teen-agers, but nobody made me go much of anywhere or do much of anything but what I felt like doing.

Grandmama was an old school beach bunny – she made breakfast every morning and dinner every night, but the day in between was her own.  She packed a picnic of pimento cheese sandwiches and iced tea in a thermos after breakfast every morning, then hauled it the three blocks to the beach along with an umbrella, a stack of towels, and any of her relatives who cared to tag along, including me.  We spent the entire day at the ocean, and I learned to adore it the same way she did.  I learned to ride my float and to survive when it flipped over and dumped me head first in the waves.  I learned to love homemade pimento cheese.  I learned that the best naps in the world are taken after lunch on an inflatable float under a slightly-damp beach towel under an umbrella.  Most important of all, I learned that my grandmother was the closest kindred spirit I might ever know.  One of my fondest memories is standing in the surf with her, jumping the breakers and laughing like loons.  And even now, whenever I think of her, the first picture that comes to mind has her standing at the edge of the water in her floral print bathing suit with the straps tied together across her back with a shoestring for extra support and her white canvas Keds with holes cut out for her corns.  These days I have her big boobs, and I have her corns, and I promise you, she was magnificent in every way. 

We did go to Murrell’s Inlet, and we ate a cubic ton of soft serve vanilla ice cream, and Richard and I played enough skee ball and putt putt to bankrupt a Third World nation.  On Friday night, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ainsley took us kids into Myrtle Beach proper to the Pavilion, and that was a whole new world of wonderful.  Miriam and Andy and the rest of the teen-age crowd rode all the scary rides, including what surely must have been the creakiest, most terrifying wooden rollercoaster the world has ever known – Richard rode that with them and said it was the best thing ever, but I wouldn’t get on for love or money.  Andy won me a teddy bear at the arcade, shooting a high-powered water gun in a clown’s mouth, sealing his fate as one of my favorite humans ever for all time.  Richard and I played dime arcade baseball and the pinball machines, and he even deigned to ride the carousel with me so I wouldn’t have to ride it alone.  But best of all was the German Baden pipe organ – a massive, surreal thing, all cherubs and Grecian goddesses and little guys in lederhosen that came to life every hour to music that was gorgeous and layered and scary as hell.  I adored it – Aunt Sarah and I agreed it was far and away the best thing at the Pavilion. 

We went home the next day, and my mama barely recognized me.  And I think in a lot of ways, I really was a brand new child – tanned and confident, reeking of sunscreen and ocean water.  I loved being that girl, and I’ve tried to be her again for at least a week every year since.  By the time I was a teen-ager, my dad was out of the Army Reserves and able to take a week’s vacation every summer, and we started renting houses of our own.  My sisters and Petey and I have tracked our path into womanhood by these weeks at the beach – the year we all slept in one bedroom with a creaky AC unit and the world’s noisiest cricket; the first year we went out drinking together on our last Friday night; the boys we met in the arcade. 

Myrtle and North Myrtle Beach have changed a lot over all those years and not, to my mind, for the better.  What used to be a charmingly seedy resort for South Carolina families has grown up to be a sleek, well-programmed, garishly marketed golf and ‘attraction’ playground for rich Yankees.  Ocean Drive, the birthplace of the Shag, is now shadowed by South Beach-style condo towers.  And Dolly Parton has pirates doing battle three shows a night for tourists who need that sort of thing to enjoy overpaying for their dinner – like my daddy says, I just don’t know that I could eat $40 worth of corn on the cob.  There’s an awful lot of Vegas in Myrtle Beach these days. 

But it was the craziest thing.  One cloudy afternoon this past week, we decided to take in one of the most Vegas Yankee ‘attractions’ you can see for free – Broadway at the Beach, a shopping and dining complex with a Hard Rock Cafe and no sign of either the ocean or Broadway in sight.  We bought some overpriced penny candy at a store that made a fetish of gummy bears and walked around in the stifling heat and had just about decided we were done with the whole concept when we rounded a corner and saw it.  The old Pavilion closed down in 2006, but the Broadway at the Beach people saved some of the rides – Katie rode the old carousel last year.  But this year, they’d added something even better.  The old German Baden pipe organ is there, restored to all its creepy glory.  We didn’t get to hear it play this time – I suspect they only crank it up at night.  But I love that they have it there.  I love that Katie got to see it, and next year, we’ll go back at night so she can hear it play, and I bet she’ll love it, too. 

The beach has changed a lot for me in ways a lot more profound than losing the Pavilion.  Standing in the kitchen of the beach house making breakfast last week, I missed my mama so much it hurt.  And I can’t stand in the surf without missing Grandmama Wylie, promising myself that she’s somewhere in the universe doing the same thing and hating that she’s not there doing it with me even so.  But there’s still an awful lot to love.  The old Grand Strand is still there if you look for it.  I got to stayed in a ramshackle duplex on the water with gray cedar shingle siding on the outside and dark pine paneling on the inside with an army of my nearest and dearest around me.  We sunned on the sand surrounded by families just like us.  We ate sandwiches and drank iced tea and went out for ice cream.  My niece had an absolute ball – someday she’ll remember what it was like to wake up to the smell of bacon, tingling with the knowledge of the Atlantic right outside her bedroom window and uncles ready and eager to carry her into the waves.  My dad spent days sunning on the deck overlooking the ocean – I like to think God is kind of like that, having a ball watching us have fun and making sure none of us gets hurt.  My sisters and Petey and I fell back into that same old closeness, talking and laughing and playing contract rummy.  And this year, I had my Max, my husband, and that was it’s own special kind of amazing.  No year at the beach is just like any other, but in its own way, each is the best vacation I ever had.