#VaBook – Gone but Not Forgotten

Virginia Festival of the Book is aptly named, but after this, my third year of attendance, I think it more apt to title it “Virginia Festival of the Book–and Writers and Readers.” Though considerably less populated than the 12,000-person AWP Conference just two weeks before, the enthusiasm about books and their authors was just as intense. In truth, you don’t get many “readers” at AWP, but #VaBook (its Twitter hashtag) is the rare opportunity for writers and readers to mingle. In some cases, you’re a writer for one panel’s presentation then a reader for another. It’s a great showcase for writers across the country who have or whose books have Virginia roots.

My festival started on Wednesday evening with “The Ties That Bind: Family in Fiction.” Authors Wendy Shang, Lydia Netzer, Camisha Jones, Mollie Cox Bryant, and Cliff Garstang combined a discussion of this year’s The Big Read book, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, with their own works. I read that book before it was a best-seller on the recommendation of a co-worker, who is Asian and said it was as if Tan had written the friend’s biography. I found it a fascinating glimpse into a culture I knew little about, but the sometimes bizarre behavior of mothers was something I completely understood. The authors on the panel compared and contrasted how Tan used family to their use of family in their own works.

Thursday’s only session for me was “Fiction: The Art and Craft of Short Stories,” which I wanted to attend because I keep trying to convince myself there’s a future for short stories (why I’ve published three volumes of them). The panel members–Robert Day, Cliff Garstang, E. J. Levy, and Kurt Rheinheimer–are convinced the short story is undergoing a revival. Their various definitions of a short story were compelling:

“A short story is a piece of geography that spawns a character.” (Rheinheimer)

“A short story is a bomb going off.” (Levy)

“A short story focuses on a moment in time with a zoom lens.” (Garstang)

“A short story is a piece of prose fiction that has something wrong with it.” (Day)

The latter was intended to show that even short stories are never finished in the sense of revision and rewriting. The panel went on to discuss the writers who influenced them, the how and why of linked short stories, first person versus third person, and if an MFA helps your progression as a writer.

Friday was a full day for me, beginning with “Fiction: Forbidden Attraction.” Authors Maryanne O’Hara, Erika Robuck, Margaret Wrinkle, and Bill Roorbach discussed how they used captivation in each of their novels or were captivated themselves by the subjects they wrote about. In Robuck’s case, a photo of a young, Cuban girl on a dock where Hemingway hauled in his fishing catch prompted her to write Hemingway’s Girl. For Wrinkle, it was literal captivation–a novel about the taboo topic of slave breeding in the ante-bellum south. A wonderful discussion and great insights.

Next was “Fiction: Parallel Stories,” featuring authors whose novels involved two different but related timelines. I particularly wanted to attend this panel because a novel I have in rough draft involves stories in the present and in the World War II era. Dana Sachs, Tara Conklin, and Sarah McCoy discussed what compelled them to construct their works this way and the joy–and pitfalls–of research.

“Fiction: Journeys” was a panel on novels featuring road trips or metaphorical journeys by Sharon Short, Sheri Reynolds, Kathleen McCleary, and Kimberly Brock. They discussed the apparently insignificant germs of thought that inspired them, and the chemistry among these authors during discussion was fascinating and hilarious.

Unfortunately, I had to miss two other panels on Friday (“Science Fiction and Fantasy,” featuring the phenom Hugh Howey of Wool fame, and “Crime Wave: Friday Night Thrillers”) because I needed to go home and pack for an unexpected trip to Northern Virginia for a funeral. That also meant Saturday’s panels and the Book Fair I missed as well, but friendship supersedes all.

I was back Sunday in time for the only panel on which I was actually a participant–“The Magic of Words,” which was the launch event for the Blue Ridge Writers 2013 Anthology. My story, “Mourning,” appears in the anthology. Rita Mae Brown was the keynote speaker, and she gave an amazing off-the-cuff, quarter-hour dissertation on language. Fascinating. Then came the time for readings. I was fourth on the schedule, so enough time to work up a good set of nerves. Fortunately, Brown had been amusing as well instructive, so when I got a laugh out of her at the first comedic point in my reading, I relaxed. After the event, Brown came up to me and said, “Please tell me you’ll continue to write.” Yeah, floated a few inches above the ground all the way home.

I came away with a lot of good information and way too many books. Add them to the stack I brought home from AWP, and I’ll still be reading them by the end of the year. But that’s a good thing.

I can’t wait for #VaBook14! And who knows, maybe there’s a panel out there with my name on it!

AWP13 – Day Three

I didn’t read the description for the first session I chose for Saturday, “A Room of Their Own: How to Make the Most of (or Create) a Writer’s Workspace.” I thought it would be about how to organize your home office or writing area, but it was far more interesting than that. The unfortunate part about it was half the panel didn’t show up and hadn’t advised the moderator. She didn’t say it outright, but she hinted they were at AWP and just hadn’t bothered to show up. She was embarrassed and apologetic, but she filled in quite ably. I’m omitting the names of all the panel so I don’t further anyone’s embarrassment, but really?

The session was about establishing a space for writers to come have a place to write in peace. The two panelists discussed the virtues of doing this as a business (profit or non-profit), as a profession, or just as a community offering. One thing is for sure, I’ll never question my $52/year membership in Charlottesville’s WriterHouse again. Writer spaces in Boston and New York rent for $300 or more per quarter. Wow!

The “Women in Crime” panel was raucous and entertaining. Moderated by St. Martin’s Press editor Toni Margarita Plummer, the panel of Sophie Littlefield, Linda Rodriguez, and Nicole Peeler explained how they each came up with their unique, “kick-ass” female protagonists. For Littlefield it was divorce and the issue of how aging women are ignored by a society fixated on youth; for Rodriguez it was to highlight the issues of mixed-race native Americans fitting in the caucasian world; and for Peeler urban fantasy was a way to write powerful statements about gender inequality and sexuality using fiction. Very thought-provoking, and the Q&A about gender equality issues in publishing topped off a good session.

Again, I needed to read the session descriptions better because a few minutes into “Career Suicide,” I realized it was about switching teaching jobs, tenure vs. non-tenure, so I opted for lunch instead.

The week before the AWP Conference, VIDA–Women in Literary Arts–had released their analysis of work published in major literary and news magazines, an analysis which showed not only were the numbers worse for women this year than last year. Then, there was buzz at the conference that twenty-three of nearly 500 panels focused on women’s literary issues, while only one focused on men’s. One man tweeted, “Don’t we have issues, too?” (Yeah, don’t get me started.)

The VIDA panel offered a detailed breakdown of the statistics from its news release. For example, the numbers of men and women submitting are almost equal, with men having a one-percent advantage. The panel members were from two literary journals and a well-known, left-leaning political magazine that also has a literary section, mostly reviews and poetry. This is another situation where I’m not listing the names of the panel because one of the literary journal editors–a man–stood up and tried to justify that it was all right to pick more men than women because of quality. That got a bit of an uproar, and the gentleman opted to sit down without finishing. He proceeded to sit at the table and not participate in any further discussion. I rest my case.

However, VIDA showed that where the disparity is minor statistically and as an amalgam, specific publications have significant problems with gender equity in submissions and acceptances. One panel member told the women in the audience, “When an editor calls an wants an op-ed piece, don’t make an excuse, e.g., kids, making dinner, etc.; find a way to do it.”

“Master of None: Surviving and Thriving Without an MFA” featured a moderator and a panel of four successful, young authors (Rebecca Makkai, Samuel Park, Ru Freeman, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, and Ida Hattermer-Higgins, respectively) who had not gone the MFA route. In truth, though, all accept one did have a higher degree, usually in English or literature, but not writing. Because I’ve been going back and forth on whether to get an MFA–I’m pretty certain I don’t want to teach Freshman Comp–I opted to attend this session. All five on the panel had leveraged attendance at writer conferences and workshops, and the networking done there, into procuring agents and traditional publishing contracts.

A good panel, a practical discussion, but it didn’t really help me with my decision. That is all up to me.

I decided to skip the panel on Ray Bradbury, mainly because it was another situation where the convention center security had to control how many people could be in the room. That gave me time for a final walk-through of the Bookfair, where deals could be had.

And then it was over. The Bookfair closed, people started saying goodbye, and the convention center grew quiet. A few people began to speak of AWP14 in Seattle, WA. Yes, it’s that positive an experience–you start talking about next year as this year’s conference draws to a close.

Later this week, an interview with me about my AWP experience will appear on writer Jan Bowman’s blog. I’ll post a link to it under the About Me tab at the top of the page.

AWP13 – Day Two

Boston’s snow today (eight to ten inches) was beautiful–from the inside looking out. I was ever so grateful that AWP is all in one building and I can walk to Hynes convention center, about a block and a half away from my hotel, entirely on sky-walks and through shopping malls. There’s something efficient about the states in the northern latitudes–by the time the snow stopped this afternoon, the roads and sidewalks were clear.

I started the morning off with “Purpose and the Practical in Historical Writing,” something of interest to me because I write the historical thriller, or so genre assigning says. The planned moderator Anne Keesey got held up by the bad weather, so Marshall Klimasewiski (Tyrants: Stories) managed the panel of Peter Ho Davies (The Welsh Girl), Emily Barton (Brookland), and Zachary Lazar (Sway). A great discussion of how they became interested in historical fiction, how to define it, and when to stop researching and write.

I slipped from the first session during the audience Q&A to head to a craft panel called “Art of the Ending,” or bringing your work to a successful conclusion. The room was already so full, the fire marshal once again wouldn’t allow anyone inside until some people left. That wasn’t happening, so I moved on to “This is Your Brain on Fiction.” This was an excellent discussion of how the human brain processes fiction. It turns out when a writer has done a good job, the brain reacts as if it’s seen something real. The moderator and panelists (Susan Hubbard, Brock Adams, Hillary Casavant, John Henry Fleming, and John King) gave their opinions on this, and where it was more for the neurologists in the room, it was food for thought. The brain just skips over cliches, for example, but describe something texturally, and it lights up.

As I walked to meet some writer friends for lunch, I passed Seamus Heaney in a hallway. He gave me a nod and a great Irish smile, and I think I kept my composure. I’m sure he nods politely to every middle-aged woman who gawps at him, but I’d like to think he saw the Irish in me. Still, it was the highlight of the day.

After lunch I dropped some things (translation–went shopping in the mall) off in my room and fully intended to head back for “Story Autopsy: How I Wrote a Novel in Three Days and Adapted It into a Movie,” but, well, I fell asleep. I did make it to “Style and Story: Balancing Form and Content in the Short Story.” The planned moderator, Jessica King, was also absent because of weather, but her replacement moderator never introduced himself. However, he did introduce the panel, Ted Sanders, Josh Cohen, and Susan Steinberg, all authors of short story collections and whose style has been deemed “experimental” by critics. The discussion of which comes first–form (chicken) or style (egg)–was lively and provocative, and each author read a bit from their work.

A little more shopping and it was back to the room to prep for tomorrow’s sessions:

0900 – 1015     A Room of Our Own: How to Make the Most of (or Create) a Writer’s Workspace
1030 – 1145     Women in Crime
1200 – 1315     Career Suicide
1330 – 1445     Numbers Trouble: Editors and Writers Speak to VIDA’s Count
1500 – 1615     Master of None: Surviving and Thriving without an MFA
1630 – 1745     Shadow Show: Writers and Teachers on the Influence of Ray Bradbury

AWP13 – Day One

I’m not eccentric enough to be a writer, I’ve decided. I have red hair, but not a bright enough red or magenta or maroon. I no longer have the legs to wear a multi-layered, tulle just-below-the-butt skirt accessorized with the tiger-stripe fish-net stockings and the unlaced combat boots. (Though I will say I’m wearing patterned knee-highs and crocs with my Lee jeans, and I did touch up my roots with a new shade of red with AWP in mind.)

Of course, there are plenty of conventional-looking writers around my age or older. So, I don’t know which is more dismaying–that I’m too old to be the writer who dresses in a way that makes avant-garde seem conventional or too young for the tweed jacket with elbow patches, corduroy slacks, and sensible shoes set.

But, it’s great to be surrounded by writers, to talk writer stuff, and even continuously answer the ubiquitous question, “What do you write?”

The first session of the day, “The Ten-Minute Play: The Essential Ingredients,” was the perfect follow-up to the play-writing workshop a couple of weekends ago put on by SWAG Writers. Panelists Gregory Fletcher, Jean Klein, and L. Elizabeth Powers gave us a lot of dos and don’ts, and I was happy to see that I didn’t commit many of the don’ts on the first draft of my ten-minute play I wrote last week. A sample of ten-minute play formatting and a list of places to submit ten-plays, and AWP13 kicked off perfectly.

And then it went south. The next panel was one of two must-sees on my carefully planned schedule: “Small Worlds–Flash, Sudden, and Other Very Short Fiction Internationally and at Home.” Even though all the sessions take place in the same building, I’ve discovered fifteen minutes to get from the end of one session to the beginning of another is only doable if you don’t have to pee. Even then, it’s touch and go, so when I arrived at the appointed room for “Small Worlds,” not only was every seat taken, but the SRO space was full. However, in the room next door, three times the size of the first, there were plenty of seats for “Being a Good Literary Citizen.”

Rob Spillman moderated authors Alan Heathcock and Matthew Specktor, bookseller Emma Stoub, and agent Julie Barer as they discussed how to get your greater community involved with your writing community and how to be a “mannerly” author during book events and with your agent. Frankly, I found this a little preachy on the book event and agent side, and I was far more interested in how Heathcock got people in Boise, ID, to pay $35 a person to come to his writer group’s readings.

I decided to opt out of “The First Five Pages: Literary Agents and Editors Talk” because I’ve been to many versions of this in the past couple of years. I had lunch instead then went to “Launching the Literary Journal: New Editors Confess.” The editors (Graham Hilliard, John Gosslee, Jarrett Haley, and Patrick Sugrue) of four relatively new literary magazines (Cumberland River Review, Fjords Review, Bull Men’s Fiction, and Bellow, respectively) talked about how their publications got started. Two of the four had nothing better to do (their words), one wanted to showcase his college, and one wanted a publication for a niche market. A very interesting discussion about submissions, and of the four I liked the editor and the concept of Bellow, which is produced through CreateSpace, a highly unique production process for a literary magazine.

“Women Writers in the Contemporary Literary Landscape” was a wonderful discussion among three writers (two prose, one poetry) who don’t write “typical” women’s fiction or poetry. Susan Steinberg, Fiona Maazel, and Mary Jo Bang all discussed the stereotypes women authors encounter even today. A great Q&A session, and for the men at AWP who’ve been complaining on Twitter that there are twenty-three panels on women’s literary issues and only one on men’s issues, let me just remind you you’ve dominated literature for, oh, the past two millennia, so hush.

I wanted to close the regular day with “Bending Genres,” my other “must see” panel, but it was another SRO event, so I prowled the AWP Bookfair and talked to a couple of MFA programs because that still comes to the forefront of my brain on occasion; then, dinner and a bit of a rest before the keynote speakers, not one but two Nobel Laureates.

I’m aware of the poet Derek Walcott, who won the Nobel in Literature in 1992, but not to the extent that I know Seamus Heaney, a Nobelist in 1995. Both read two of their poems, which was a delight, but to see Heaney in person, to hear his voice in person, transported me. All too soon it was over. Walcott and Heaney wanted to take questions, but the moderator pointed out, with 12,000 of us, there were “too many people.”

Tomorrow the plan is this:

0900 – 1015     Purpose and the Practical in Historical Writing
1030 – 1145      Art of the Ending
Lunch with some writer friends, plus attending a friend’s book signing
1500 – 1615      Story Autopsy: How I Wrote a Novel in Three Days and Then Adapted It into a Movie
1630 – 1545     Style and Story: Balancing Form and Content in the Short Story

Let’s hope the best laid plans of mice and writers don’t gang awry.

AWP – Arrival

My arrival at AWP began about 1400 yesterday afternoon when I pointed my trusty Jeep northeastward and headed for Washington, DC’s Union Station. I made a brief detour into my old neighborhood to “my” Barnes and Noble for a chai and a snack. And to get in practice for AWP’s Bookfair, I bought two books. Around six I discovered I can still deal with DC’s rush hour traffic and made it to Union Station in about a half-hour.

Which meant a three and a half hour wait for the train to depart, but Union Station is primo for people watching. And apparently I must look like a nice person. Every beggar in the place asked me for money.

The snow-apocalypse hadn’t yet started when the train pulled out at 2210, and I had already finished one of the books I bought at B&N. I settled in to catch a nap–not so easy when the conductor announces every stop along the way–but I managed to get about five hours of sleep overnight in a series of naps. I woke to a beautiful sunrise near Mystic, CT, and I got a little artistic with the photo I snapped in Instagram (below, left).

Sunrise

Sunrise east of Mystic, CT.

Boston

Boston, MA

The train arrived in Boston a bit early, there was a cab waiting right away, and, lo and behold, there was actually a room ready for me with a great view of Boston (right).

 

My regular Politics Wednesday blog post, lunch (chowdah, my absolute fave!), and a nap later, and I was ready to pick up my registration materials for the conference. Just me and a couple hundred others.

Now, the good news is a sky-walk connects the hotel and the Hynes Convention Center, the location of the AWP Conference–no treks through Boston’s notoriously chilly and windy weather. The bad news? You go through a really, really great shopping mall to get there. (I have my eye on a set of Russian matryoshka dolls, and there’s a Vera Bradley store.) Very tempting.

I’d already looked at the conference schedule on-line, and, as usual, AWP offers a bounty of panels and reading, and I spent at least an hour figuring out my schedule for the next three days, only to discover I’d left no time for lunch. Oh, well.

Here’s what’s up for tomorrow:

0900 – 1015     The Ten-Minute Play: The Essential Ingredients
1030 – 1145      Small Worlds–Flash, Sudden, & Other Very Short Fiction Internationally and at Home
1200 – 1315     The First Five Pages: Literary Agents & Editors Talk
1330 – 1445     Launching the Literary Journal: New Editors Confess
1500 – 1615     Women Writers in the Contemporary Literary Landscape
1630 – 1745     Bending Genre
2030 – 2200   Keynote Presentation: A Conversation Between Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott

A full day–but I can’t wait.

Friday Fictioneers – In Like a Lion?

Friday Fictioneers LogoIt’s the first day of March, which is the first day of meteorological spring, and at least in my part of the world, it hasn’t come in like a lion. However, there were snow flurries last night. Welcome to the world of climate change.

But coming in like a lion is today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt. As you’ll see it’s unusual, but certainly thought-provoking. I can’t wait to read other Friday Fictioneers’ creations.

Early March does mean the AWP Conference. (AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.) This year it’s in Boston, MA, one of my favorite U.S. cities, and, like Chicago last year, I’ll be among 10,000 other writers. Since I’ve made a nice group of writer friends on-line, from conferences and workshops, and from AWP last year, it’ll be a great time for a reunion, not to mention some chowdah!

Next Friday will be the peak of the conference, so I hope I can find some time for Friday Fictioneers. It’s a tradition now, and who likes change anyway?

Today’s story is “Eye of the Beholder,” and if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the title from the drop-down menu.

Oh, and back to the stretching yourself as a writer I posted about on Monday? Today’s offering is another first for me–young adult.

Roanoke Regional Writers Conference – Part One

Yes, this writers conference was two weeks ago, but when a cold puts you low, low you are. This small, regional conference was such a positive experience, I decided to rise from my sickbed and finally give it its due.

Okay, that was way dramatic–too much Downton Abbey. Being sick meant I watched all three seasons in two days, so I’m overly influenced.

The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference had been planned for the final weekend of January, but a snowpacalypse (which never arrived) forced a one-week postponement. So, we gathered the evening of February 1 for a writer meet-and-greet. You know, this is where you approach, or are approached by, complete strangers with the question, “What do you write?”

An aside here–I was almost the only attendee NOT writing YA paranormal romance. There may or may not be a lesson in that.

After the meet-and-greet and some great writerly conversations, we had the opening session for the Sixth Annual Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, the fifth sell-out in a row. Hollins University, whose writing program has earned it the nickname “Pulitzer U,” was the host, and probably the most encouraging words came from Hollins’ current Writer in Residence, Karen Osborn (author of Centerville), who spoke on “Working in a Changing Publishing Environment.”

Osborn said, “Getting published has always been difficult, but failure to publish is not a marker of your work’s value.” And after that garnered a loud round of applause, she added, “Publishers are most interested in selling books, but they seldom know what will actually sell.” She reminded us that traditional publishers are focused on the bottom line, but she didn’t discourage. “If your agent won’t send out your book, send it out yourself,” she advised and emphasized university and small presses. Osborn believes we have more options than ever before for publication, ones which allow us to take more control of our work, but, she said, “Believing in the work is the most important step.”

The evening’s keynote address came from Kathy Grissom, author of The Kitchen House, and her topic was “Becoming a Writer.” Grissom was a perfect candidate for this topic because, as she admitted, she never intended to become a writer. “Writing,” she said, “was something only extraordinary people could do.” She learned through inspiration that writers are “ordinary people who write extraordinary things.” Grissom outlined her writer’s journey, from poetry and journaling to being inspired by an unusual event in her life. The inspiration led to research, and a chance conversation with her father led her to a “story I knew I had to tell.” The result was The Kitchen House, a novel about a young Irish orphan who finds her real family among the slaves of a southern plantation. Now, Grissom says, “My job is writing.”

We were treated to a song written by Greg Trafidlo especially for the conference, and the chorus said it all, “You have to sit on your butt and write.” We also participated in the presentation of scholarships from Hollins to “non-traditional” students, women who have returned to school after a break for marriage or children. The Horizon scholarships are funded by the faculty for the conference, who forego being paid to endow the scholarships. Applicants have to write an essay on why they want to return to school, and the scholarships are billed as “recognition of writers by writers.” The recipients are students in Hollins’ writing program, and this was an uplifting way to end an evening of writerly discourse.

Next Post – Day Two–Down to the Nitty Gritty

A New Book Review

It has been a while since I’ve found an indie-published book I wanted to read, much less review. I started out doing that last year, and, with a few exceptions, it was so dismal, I gave it up.

I’ve reviewed one of those exceptions, All That Is Necessary, by Jennie Coughlin, here. If you don’t see the link, click on the Book Reviews tab above and select it from the drop down list.

I hope you’ll agree this is one indie book you’ll be hard-pressed to differentiate between it and a traditionally published one.

Oh, and look for an author interview with Ms. Coughlin here next week.

Let the Querying Begin

This, the first full week of the new year, I go down a new path on the journey to publication–querying an agent. Yes, I hyperventilate a bit at the thought.

Well more than a decade ago, I thought I had a manuscript in good enough shape to query agents. Armed with my copy of Writer’s Digest’s guide to literary agents, I made a careful selection of about ten who accepted work in my genre (historical thriller), who would look at the work of unpublished authors, and whatever other criteria I thought would make us a good match.

Since these were the days before electronic submissions and Submitable, I dutifully made ten copies of the first thirty pages of the manuscript, and I wrote a query letter (based on samples I’d seen in Writer’s Digest and other writing magazines) individual to each prospective agent. I prepared ten self-addressed, stamped envelopes with the correct postage and ten envelopes for each query package, again with the correct postage. The clerks at the Kingstowne, VA, Post Office got to know me well.

The now-ex and I spent a Saturday morning stuffing said envelopes, and we were rather giddy as we trekked to the Post Office and dropped them in the mail box. The now-ex was always very supportive of my writing–seeing as how a lot of my non-fiction had bolstered his career a few times–but he was also good at bringing me down to earth when I needed it. “Don’t expect an answer from anyone on Monday, or Wednesday, or Friday,” he said. “You said yourself, these things take time.”

Good advice, which, of course, I ignored when I eagerly checked my mail box upon returning home from work each day. I think it took about two weeks for the first reply to come in–of course, blah, blah, be happy to represent you, blah, blah, blah, for a fee.

I was a novice in the getting fiction published market at that point but not so ignorant to know that agents who expect fees up front are not being ethical. I went back to the literary agent “bible,” and this particular company did not indicate that it wanted an up-front fee. I tossed the response and considered it a rejection.

Of the ten queries I sent out, I got responses from six, all rejections. Of them, only two used the SASE to return the manuscript sample. Those two arrived within a day of each other, each with a hand-scribbled “No Thanks” at the top of the page. Both had a note: one said, “Like your writing, hate the concept,” and the other said, “Love the concept, dislike your writing.” Helpful. Not.

That exercise was so ego-bending–but necessary–that it put me off querying until now. However, I look back on it and realize it happened just the way it should have. That manuscript was in no way ready for anyone’s consideration and, in fact, has gone through so many revisions and reorganizations it’s unrecognizable as the draft I thought was a gem.

Time passes, I’ve educated myself better about the querying process, and now it’s time to try again. I have, however, been to enough agent panels at writing conferences to know it’s all subjective. It all depends on the agent’s mood on a particular day, whether he or she has had a fight with a spouse or child, whether he or she has had a spate of great queries or horrible ones, and many other conditions the writer has no way of knowing.

In other words, it’s a crap shoot. An agent described it that way at a “First Pages” workshop I attended last year, and it was a relief that an agent was so honest about the process.

So, why bother? Well, because I want to give traditional publishing a good chance before I go completely over to what some would characterize as the dark side of publishing. I have published on my own three collections of short stories, mainly because I know querying a collection of short stories, and in particular genre short stories, is almost a guaranteed rejection. My novels, however, are a different matter. I want to give them a try at traditional publishing.

This year, then, will be the year of the Query Letter. I’m not going to do a ten-agent blast mailing this time, mainly because most queries are now electronic, but I am going to do a lot of careful research and select two or three at a time to query. And this time, I do have a manuscript, which has gone through two revisions and my critique group, in really good shape. It’s not the one from all those years ago, which morphed into a trilogy (I know; yikes), but it’s one I’m proud of and willing to toss into the consideration pool.

You won’t ever win the pot unless you roll the dice.

Thanks, Mom

The project I’m working on for this year’s NaNoWriMo is based on a Friday Fictioneers, 100-word story from several months ago. This was the photo prompt:

And here is the story:

Amontillado

“That wallpaper’s stuck to the wood,” the contractor said. “If you want it gone, you’re gonna have to take the wood down then drywall.”

We’d hoped to save the old walls. They lent such a rustic feel to the place, but the ancient wallpaper wouldn’t budge. Drywall wouldn’t be the same, but what can you do?

To save money we did the demolition ourselves. With pry-bars we had fun, imagining we ripped away annoying people.

It was all great fun until the last corner, when the boards came away and we saw the tiny bones wrapped in a baby blanket.

I had a lot of positive comments on the piece (and, yes, someone did mention I used the word “fun” twice within a couple of lines), and several people suggested I expand it into a longer story or even a novel. I appreciated the confidence in me, but I put it out of mind until I was on a train trip to New York. The story kept coming back to me, and I started jotting notes. It wasn’t long before I had four pages of them, some snippets of dialogue, and a concept for what was obviously a novel.

However, I had a couple of writing/editing/revising projects I was deep into and didn’t want to start anything new back in the spring, but I kept the notes close by, added to them over the months, did a little research (part of the story takes place during World War II), and decided this was perfect for NaNoWriMo. So, I’m off and running–just over 12,000 words in four days.

As an historian, I love researching other times, but this project has another significance for me. Many who know me well know my relationship with my mother was problematic at best, traumatic at worst. She was a teenager to young adult during World War II, worked in a uniform factory, and wrote to a lot of soldiers whose convoys passed through her home town. She would talk about the homefront of World War II as if it were her personal playground, and she often referred to it as the best time of her life. (Yep, Mom wasn’t particularly thoughtful of others; it was always about her.) Her stories, though, have given me a lot of background detail that I can include in this project. So, in a big way she can contribute to my writing other than as a model for a nutcase character.

It’s probably good that she’s gone, though, because she’d be pissed as hell to recognize any of her life stories in anything I wrote. You see, no one was allowed to talk about her except her, but thanks anyway, Mom.

And something a little off-topic here: Tomorrow is Election Day, and it is the civic duty of every eligible voter to vote. Find a way to do it. It’s important to our democracy.