Looking Forward

It’s the end of the decade and the beginning of the twenties. I wonder if these will roar as loudly as the previous twenties did. And if not, what will they do? Are we about to enter the Exploding Twenties? The Whimpering Twenties? We’ve just been through the Dumpster Fire Teens, at least where politics is concerned.

Ahem. No politics, Anna.

This is a time of year, that nebulous, hazy time between Christmas and New Year’s, when people take stock of things. What have I accomplished in the past year? In the past decade? In my life? What do I want to do next?

I am of two minds about this practice. While I always think it is a good idea to write down your goals–it makes them permanent–I’m not always sure doing it this time of year is the best. We go into January with giant expectations of ourselves. For instance, I could say that I want to lose fifty pounds, learn Greek and Norwegian, start and Etsy business, Marie Kondo my house, and land myself a literary agent.

But I am sure I would only end up in a tepid teacup of bitter disappointment. The expectations we place on ourselves probably aren’t unattainable. I mean, I could do all those things above, but would it make me happy?

Probably not. Sure, I would have a huge sense of accomplishment, but I think I’m starting from the wrong angle. Instead of thinking about correcting my deficiencies (for example, my shameful monolingual-ism or my cluttered bedroom), maybe I should think of things that I know would make me happy and start there, working backwards to it.

Maybe we need to focus less on what we should be doing, and concentrate on the things that make us happy. Unless you’re a serial killer, of course.

On March 31, 2010, at approximately 4:45 pm I was hit with the bolt of inspiration that led me to write my first novel. I’d always thought of myself as a “writer” before then, even though I had only written a few short stories and some terrible poetry in college. But that day I was researching Greek mythology and I came up with the idea of writing a modern day take on the muses.

I confess, I might have been doing this at the end of my work day (Shame! Shame!) But at 5 pm I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go with the story and I roughed it out with my husband as we went for a walk after work. I was frolicking in circles around him, I was so excited.

I wrote the first draft in twelve weeks. I remember bursting into tears right after writing “the end” at the bottom of the page. Even though I wasn’t published, I had the chops to finish a novel! I really was a writer.

Since then I have worked very hard at my writing. I did my homework about the publishing industry and sent out queries to literary agents. I slaved over that first query letter. Every word was lovingly selected and combined into what I thought was a sculpted thing of beauty. I got a few nibbles, agents asking to see more than the initial pages I had sent out. But no one took the worm and pulled.

I did not give up. I thought the first novel might work better as a young adult story so I rewrote it completely. I queried again. Several agents asked to see the whole thing, but ultimately, I once again did not find someone to represent me.

I did not give up. I wrote a new book. This one was a young adult historical thriller set in Tudor England that is very dear to me. My wonderful husband, who is also my first-line editor, worked with me every night after work to hone that manuscript until it sparkled like a gem. (Let’s go with rubies, I really love rubies.)

I sent it out to agents starting in February of 2015. I got lots of positive responses, but still no takers. But then, after about 140 rejections, at the end of July, a brand-new agent from a huge agency in New York wrote to me to say he was head-over-heels in love with my book. I remember opening that email. It was on a Friday afternoon that I was off work.

I shrieked. My husband came running in from the other room. All I could do was put a hand over my mouth and point at the screen. I moved so he could sit and read. By the time he was done I was on the floor, on my hands and knees, and pounding the rug. (This is not a euphemism.) I was screaming and crying and filled with joy.

I had found an agent! Within a couple weeks I signed a contract and we started getting the manuscript in shape to send it to editors.

EDITORS. People who publish books. I had made the next rung on the ladder!

We queried editors until Christmas. Many were extremely favorable about the book but ultimately it came down to one thing: young adult historical is extremely hard to get past a sales team. I had many interested, but no takers.

And if you think that it stings less when an editor says no, you’re so wrong. It hurts like a motherfucker.

Finally, my agent had to break it to me that we had to shelve this book because there was no one left to send it to. I was devastated. I loved that book with everything I had.

I did not give up. I did my homework. I went out and grabbed up YA historical new releases and gobbled them down. It seemed that all the YA historical fiction that was being published (and still is) has some sort of fantasy element to it.

I wrote my third novel, another YA historical thriller with a fantasy element. I had a ridiculous amount of fun writing it. My agent said he was very excited to take it out to the editors. We sent it out. And once again we did not succeed in snaring an editor’s attention. The reason? There were too many YA fantasies out there right now and mine would just get lost in the mix.

I pounded my head on my desk. I wept. I felt like shit for quite a while.

In fact, about this time my mother’s health began to fail in earnest and 2018 was filled with me watching her die and then grieving for her. I did not write. I didn’t even read. I couldn’t. But there was that spark in me, that one that loved the process of crafting stories that wouldn’t be quenched.

But my contract with my agent expired and he did not offer to renew. I was heartbroken that I hadn’t had success when it had been at the tips of my fingers.

I did not give up.

In 2019 I started to come out of the well. I started by writing some flash fiction. I wrote a few short stories. I wrote a non-fiction piece about anxiety. And lo, when I sent some of these out, they were published! I had a flash piece called “Teeth” in Everyday Fiction. My essay on anxiety ended up in Vamp Cat Magazine. And two more flash pieces ended up printed in The Mangrove Review.

I went to The Mangrove Review launch party. I gave a reading. I LOVED it. I’m not just a writer, it turns out I’m an excellent public speaker too. I read with inflection. I crack jokes. Dammit, I’m witty.

I went back to a novel I had been thinking about since I was an undergrad taking art history. There is a famous Renaissance painter named Fra Filippo Lippi who was a monk. He used a young nun as a model for the Virgin Mary and ended up falling in love with her kidnapping her, and spiriting her away from the convent. You can’t make that shit up.

Or can you? I took that seed of an idea and started working on my fourth novel: a paranormal thriller set in Italy in the 1400s and present day. This one is for the adult market. I have it on good authority that the adult historical fiction market is hot.

While I’ve been working on this novel I’ve built an acquaintance with a literary agent. He has been very kind and given me good advice.  I sent him my second novel at the end of October and he responded with delight. He is a great agent: he started as an editor and now has a cadre of talent all over the spectrum. He’s seen all sides of the industry and really knows his stuff.

I know there’s no guarantee he’s going to take me. It isn’t his job to take me on because he likes me. He has to love my writing. But I have the talent and the drive. If he doesn’t take me I’ll keep going until I find someone that will.

I will not give up.

So to go back to the beginning, what am I expecting of myself in 2020 and beyond? I’m going to say “fuck you” to the resolutions and keep doing what makes me happy. That is writing. And even if I never get anything published, I will have had a satisfactory career as a writer. Because I love it.

Hoodoo Voodoo Chooka Chooky Choo Choo

I can’t wait. I said I was going to take a little time off to relax before starting on the next book, but I don’t want to! I want to plunge ahead and start researching.

I write historical fiction which means my research nerd gene gets exercised frequently. The Abduction of Audrey Bettencourt is starts in London in 1817, right in the heart of the Regency period. Very Jane Austen, or Georgette Heyer, which excites me. But there is also the shadowy figure in a remote castle in the Carpathian mountains that I had to research as well.

Marie Laveau

This new book sees my heroine, Jane Bell, setting out from France on a journey to New Orleans. The war of 1812 still hangs heavy in the atmosphere, and a young Marie Laveau, the famous voodoo priestess, is just coming into her powers. What an enthralling period of history to explore!

I just went and ordered four books on New Orleans, Marie Laveau, and voodoo.  I can’t wait to dig in. I hope a visit to the city itself can be arranged within the next year. I’d love to absorb the flavor and history of NOLA first hand. I figure it isn’t that far and I’m already used to the heat living in South Florida like I do. Seriously. I could use oven mitts to handle the steering wheel these days.

Also: books are coming to meeeee!

I’ll still have a few days before the books arrive, so I’ll take that moment to breathe, relax, and do some recreational reading. Do you know of Book Bub? It’s a great little email service. You create an account and tell them your preferences and they send you a daily email with sales on eBooks from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, etc. It’s wonderful and terrible because I have about 50 new books on my Nook that are just waiting for me. Well, vacation is coming and I’ll have plenty of reading material to choose from.

But soon I’ll be in the bayou.

(p.s. The title of this post refers to a song originally written by Woody Guthrie and covered by Billy Bragg and Wilco. It has been my resident ear worm all week.)

 

Five Questions – Julie Berry

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

Last year when I was doing some market research in YA historical fiction I went to the bookstore and grabbed four books off the shelf and bought them. One of those was Julie Berry’s The Passion of Dolssa. I was not disappointed when I began reading.

Dolssa is a high-born young woman in 13th century France with the gift of hearing words directly from God. In her community she is revered as a miracle worker and a mystic, but the Church hears of her good deeds and brands her a heretic. Dolssa barely escapes being burned at the stake and goes on the run.

Botille lives in a fishing village on the coast and makes a living running a tavern with her sisters, but is also the town matchmaker. When she discovers Dolssa half-dead, she brings her back to the tavern and hides her, nursing her back to health and forming an unlikely friendship. But the Church won’t stop in their quest to find Dolssa. It is up to Botille and the people of her village to save the girl from a fiery fate.

I wrote a full review of The Passion of Dolssa last April and you can read it here.  It was a dark and twisty read full of great historical detail and a thrilling conclusion.

FIVE QUESTIONS

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

The Passion of Dolssa began gradually as several different pieces joined together. I’d always been interested in medieval mystics, and had read a fair bit about them. I had once thought, what if I recast Macbeth’s three witches as teenaged sisters running a roadside inn? At another time I thought, why do matchmakers always need to be older women? What if there was a young matchmaker? But none of these ideas found each other until I listened to an audio lecture on the Albigensian Crusade in southern France in the early 13th Century, and the subsequent inquisitions into heresy. Then everything clicked: what if a girl mystic was accused of heresy and sentenced to execution, then rescued and helped by a girl matchmaker who runs a tavern with her two sisters? Et voilà. The Passion of Dolssa. Plus a few years of research, writing, and revision, give or take. 🙂

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I’m pretty much a pantser, but I use outlines extensively when revising. The Passion of Dolssa underwent significant revision, and outlines were crucially to wrapping my head around the scope of the story and its many voices and moving parts.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

Hm, I’m really not sure how to answer that one. I don’t there’s anyone whom I consciously try to evoke. I have lots of favorite authors, but I don’t know to that extent they find their way into my style. I love Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters – the usual suspects, I guess.

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

I don’t. I love music, so it diverts my attention away from writing. Background noise isn’t my friend. It’s why I don’t write in cafés.

5. What are you reading right now?

I’m reading 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Julie Berry

Julie Berry

Julie Berry is the author of the acclaimed young adult novel The Passion of Dolssa, the award-winning, All the Truth That’s in Me (2013, Viking) and The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place (2014, Roaring Brook), and six other critically acclaimed titles for young readers. A forthcoming middle grade novel, The Emperor’s Ostrich, releases in June 2017 from Roaring Brook. She grew up in western New York and holds a BS from Rensselaer in communication and an MFA from Vermont College in writing for children and young adults. Before becoming an author, she worked in software sales and marketing. She now divides her time between eastern Massachusetts and southern California with her husband and four sons. Find her online at www.julieberrybooks.com, or on Twitter at @julieberrybooks.

And you know you want to read The Passion of Dolssa now, don’t you? You can buy it here:

Barnes and Noble                    Amazon

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker

We’ve been binge-watching the final season of Downton Abbey at home this past weekend. I truly adore that show not just for its historical accuracy and its depiction of the lives of both servant and master, but also because of the amazing costumes and the delicious wit. I will be sad to see the farewell, but I like how they have been setting up things for the finale thus far.

Downton Abbey draws a lot of parallels to the book Longbourn by Jo Baker. It would be easy to say it is the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen told from the point of view of the servants of the Bennet household. But it is so much more than that. Because the lives of the Bennet sisters hardly signify at all in this narrative, and that is a rather poignant remark on class society.

I read several interviews with Jo Baker on her writing of Longbourn. In one with Hazel Gaynor she says, “But it was on one re-reading of P&P that I just got stuck on a phrase, and couldn’t get past it. It’s the week before the Netherfield ball, it’s been raining for days, the footpaths are awash, the roads are deep in mud, there’s no way the Bennet girls are going to venture forth, and so, ‘The very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’ I just thought, ‘who’s proxy?’ and everything else followed on from that.”

Indeed! We know the housekeeper’s name is Mrs. Hill, but none of the other servants are named, even though they did a great deal of work behind the scenes. Jo Baker did a marvelous job creating lives and characters out of the unnamed housemaids and footman. In fact, she did an ingenious job of incorporating the two novels so they flow together, with the servants’ stories on top, with a little-noticed undercurrent of the perils and trials of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters.

I also loved that Baker gives us different perspectives of the characters created fully by Austen. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins are, in Baker’s eyes, more than just the comic relief. There are reasons their personalities developed they way they did. I found I had new-found sympathy for some characters and less for others I originally liked.

But beyond that is the story itself. Mostly it is told from the point of view of Sarah, the teenage housemaid. An orphan, she has a very comfortable situation for someone who might otherwise have grown up in the poor house. True, her work is exhausting and grueling, but she has food in her belly and a warm bed in which to sleep. For her station in life, she isn’t doing too badly.

What her employers don’t understand, however, is that she has a brain and a heart and desires and wishes for herself. So when a footman from the Bingley household starts paying her attentions, her world is rocked. Not just because she finds him attractive as well, but who on earth has ever paid her a speck of attention before? And just what are the intentions of Ptolemy Bingley, the footman? Is he a Wickham or a Darcy?

I’m a sucker for good historical fiction, and I sucked this one right up. I also learned that the best way to clean hardwood floors is to drop damp tea leaves around and sweep them up. They catch all the dust and hair that are shed without blowing them around. I may have to drink more tea and give that a whirl someday.

 

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

It is a weird week. Not a bad one, just different, schedule-wise. Kosta and I have taken tomorrow off to add to our already three-day weekend, so today is my Friday. But our usual Wednesday night person is on vacation so I am working the late shift to fill in for her. That’s why I got to go here this morning:

2016-03-16 08.15.30

Ah…

The beach in the morning is one of my favorite places in the world. It brings me back to myself when I’ve been living in my head too much. And I have lately, and here’s why:

My novel, Cloak and Dagger, isn’t selling. I’ve had lots of favorable feedback from different editors but no one has ultimately taken the bite. The thing I have heard most frequently is “I really love this book, but I couldn’t get it past my sales team because it is historical fiction.” Apparently while historical fiction is a huge thing in the adult market, it is a very tough sell in the YA world.

What I’ve been doing since December is taking out the first novel I wrote, The First Muse, and rewriting the beginning and editing the rest. I knew the first third had flaws and a tough time getting going, but I believe I fixed those issues. I am almost ready to send it off to my agent and see what he thinks about it. Trust me, I am terrified he won’t love it, but that’s just a little part of me. I know this book is good and the series has amazing potential.

It’s just hard, you know? Getting the agent was an incredibly grueling endeavor, but this part is no easier. The funny thing is, when you are searching for an agent, you get rejections. But when you ascend to the next level and your agent is sending your manuscript to editors, you get passes. Sounds a lot less awful, but really, it’s just as painful. Especially when the months drag by and you’re still waiting.

But I don’t give up. I will keep plugging away until I get a win. My agent loves my writing and at least one editor asked to see anything else I wrote. That is encouraging. If my contemporary fantasy about a kick ass group of girl goddesses doesn’t sell, I will dust myself off and write another book.

I expect to finish my final polish of The First Muse by Friday and then I’ll be sending it up to New York and crossing my fingers. I’m looking forward to some rest now that it will be with Alex. I’ve been working two full-time jobs really, and I’m exhausted. Even so, I know the work won’t be done, as I am sure he will have suggestions to make the story tighter. After all, I’m a talented writer, but not a flawless one.

Then it will go out into the world to be loved or rejected, and I won’t be able to do one thing about that.

Tom Petty said it best: The Waiting is the Hardest Part.