Plague Diaries #4

A week has passed since my first installment of the Plague Diaries. Much has changed, but in another way we seem suspended here in Florida. True, the numbers are jumping every day. As of right now there are 4,246 cases of Covid-19 reported in the state of Florida, with 95 of them in my county.

But I know that number is grossly underrepresented. Testing in Florida has been abysmally lacking. The drive-through testing center we had in Naples had to shut down because there were no more testing kits available. I find that extremely disturbing.  We have no idea what’s really going on out there and that, I think, frightens me above all else.

I am returning to work tomorrow. I have been told I can self-isolate in my office and that’s exactly what I intend to do. I have plenty of projects I can work on and am honestly looking forward to the distraction. This past week, while I didn’t do much, was filled with anxiety combined with an inability to concentrate.

I did have a great video conference with a very dear friend just an hour or so ago. She’s a writing partner of mine and we are going to work on our current projects, share, and chat weekly about them. I feel like this is something I can do that will help me bridge the gap back to calm.

There seem to be two groups of people in this country. The first group is taking the pandemic seriously. They stay home as much as possible, they keep six feet away from everyone they meet, and they practice strict hygiene. I fall into this category. When I go back to work I will immediately bathe and put my clothes in the washing machine upon returning home. That may seem extreme and ridiculous to some, but if it keeps me from getting sick, I’m all for it. You don’t bounce back from dead.

The other group are the people who don’t or won’t take this seriously. They stand right next to you at the grocery store, they sneak onto the beach even when they are closed. (This last week Naples City Police turned away over 400 people trying to go to the closed beach for sunset. In about 2 hours. They are now threatening $500 fines for lawbreakers.)

Losers at the poolHere is a picture of the pool at my condo. It’s right out my back door. And you can partially see in the picture the crowd that gathered out there yesterday to hang out, drink, and talk.

There were about eight of them altogether. Not sitting 6 feet apart. Not paying any heed to the PANDEMIC that is gripping the world. I want to find a copy of The Masque of the Red Death and nail it to the pool gate. Although I wonder if anyone would get the reference.

I’m tired of this. Not just the people who won’t behave but of the anxiety and the worry and the fear that all come along with it. But what can I do? I just have to actively look for ways to retain calm in my life. Right now, those include:

  1. Watching Looney Tunes on YouTube (Holy cow, a lot of those do not hold up! So racist!)
  2. Reading beloved novels from my childhood. (I’m looking at you, Maud Hart Lovelace.)
  3. Face Timing with friends and family. It’s amazing what getting to see someone’s face will do for you.
  4. Taking naps.

The last one isn’t probably very healthy–it’s an old coping mechanism that I’ve employed since I was a teenager to escape reality. But I’m being nice to myself right now. A nap isn’t going to kill me.

I hope all of you out there are doing all right. Drop me a line if you need to talk. Do what the CDC is asking of you. Don’t take risks right now. After this passes there will be plenty of time for living again. Like I said, you don’t bounce back from dead.

I’ll see you on the other side,

Anna

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.

New Year, New Me?

It’s the second week of the new year and I was hoping for some magical transformation. Like I would suddenly be satisfied with my job and editors would start sending me acceptances for the short fiction pieces I’ve written and submitted in the past few months. Life would lighten and I would be able to breathe and look forward to the future.

In short, I was looking for a miracle.

It seems like so long since anything has gone right in my life that I am despairing a little that I will never catch a break. My mother has been gone for seven months now and Christmas was a bugger to get through. I did, and am relieved it is over. The day itself wasn’t as bad as the lead up to it. Everywhere I looked and saw the decorations and heard the music I would think of her and how much she loved it.

There are good things to look forward to. We will be moving into the condo we own at the end of March. That is going to save us a significant amount of money a year in rent. We’ll be able to pay off debt, and maybe even squeeze in a trip to Greece this September.

We are currently downsizing, as we are lopping off 550 square feet to our living space. Many books, furniture, old clothes and other odds and ends are going away. I am starting to feel lighter with the purging we have already done. Come March I want our place to be positively Spartan so when we move we will fit. That feels good.

But I feel like my writing career is dead. I’ve tried so hard, worked tirelessly, and it seems that the world doesn’t want to read my stories. I’m weary with the sting of rejection. But I love writing. So what do I do? Just write for myself and not try to pawn my words on anyone? Perhaps, but that makes me feel like a failure.

So there are good things and bad things happening. I suppose that is life. I just feel like I’ve been down so long that there is no climbing out of this well. When will I catch a break? I’m putting it out there: I want transformation. I will work hard for it if I just had a hint that something good was coming. Because I’m getting tired. I’m losing faith that everything will turn out all right.

Sorry to be such a downer. Life has been kicking me in the teeth and I don’t have many left. Maybe dentures are in order? At least I’d have my smile back.

The Muse Wields a Sledgehammer

NaNoWriMo

On November 1st I am going to embark on a writing frenzy. Every day for a month I am going to write an average 1,667 words until I have a grand total of 50,000 by November 30. This is National Novel Writing Month. I’ve participated twice before, once in 2011 and once in 2013, each time I wrote over 50,000 words.

Yes, my book is still on submission, and while I am waiting I have been toying with a book idea. I’ve started writing the thing three times and each time I’ve been dissatisfied with the results. The plot, the characters, all feel derivative, like I’ve seen it before a million times. That is a disaster waiting to happen.

And in the past two days I’ve gotten three passes, which is hard to take. I know it isn’t personal, but each one is another little cut until I’m stinging and bleeding all over the place. Yeah, I suppose that’s dramatic, but I allow myself to wallow in misery for a night and then I suck it up and move on.

So last night after a visit to Royal Scoop ice cream to drown my sorrows, I went to bed. I was idly thinking about a tweet my agent had put out last week about how he would love to see a Western. So I started thinking about how I love Westerns myself, and what I would do if I ever wrote one.

That’s when the muse descended and whacked me in the back of the head with a sledgehammer. I had a hard time falling asleep because my brain was galloping away in a thousand directions, coming up with brilliant ideas and details. I kept having to get up and write them down.

This morning I have two protagonists, a setting, the rough outline of a plot, and even a title. I’m calling it West of Never and on November 1st I am going to start the first draft. The rest of October will be given over to drafting an outline, character sketches, and general noodling. I’m pitching it as True Grit meets Thelma and Louise.

This. This is going to be wicked fun.

And that’s what writing is all about, right? If it isn’t fun, you shouldn’t be doing it.

We’re Back in the Saddle Again

Good old Gene Autry. He wrote the song about being back out on the range, toting his old ’44 and feeling at home. When I set out to write this I just conjured the line of the chorus without really considering the rest of the lyrics, but I find that they mean something more than being back in one’s old routine.

I`m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly gypsum weed
Back in the saddle again
Ridin` the range once more
Totin` my old .44
Where you sleep out every night
And the only law is right
Back in the saddle again
Whoopi-ty-aye-oh
Rockin` to and fro
back in the saddle again
Whoopi-ty-aye-yay
I go my way
Back in the saddle again
It’s more than doing something familiar. It’s about being in a place that is comfortable, that suits a person right down to the blood marrow. Every person is different when it comes to their saddle. Some people never discover what theirs is, and for those I feel the most sorrow, for there is something so satisfying at being in a place that brings you quiet joy.
For me, it’s writing.
The Abduction of Audrey Bettencourt is currently out on submission to editors in New York. It is a thrilling and terrifying prospect all at once that chips away at my concentration on everything. My brain is always half somewhere else, wondering, hoping, and wishing for the best news possible.
To distract myself I have started a new novel. I won’t tell you about it yet because the idea is still just a seed and I need to work things out before I start yammering about it to the world. But this is exactly what I need. Writing is being in the saddle for me. It is a place so familiar and sweet that it calms and energizes me at the same time. I can throw my entire brain at it and be absorbed completely, no fretting about what may or may not happen in other arenas of life.
So I am going to dive head first into a new project and give it all my attention. What may come with Audrey will happen in its own time. Don’t get me wrong, I will be out of my mind with happiness if it sells. But in the meantime I am going to do what I love most.
Whoopi-ty-aye-yay.

Writing in a Vacuum

Writing is an isolated business, at least for the writer. Once a book is sold it becomes a team effort of agents, editors, designers, printers, bookstores, and marketing teams. But before a writer gets to that lovely prospect, there are countless days of agonizing over every word, plot point, and character. Usually all alone.

I am one such person as that. While it is true my husband (also a writer) is hands-down my best go-to person for reading pages, giving critiques, and editing with me, it still is a rather lonely place. I know my husband loves my writing, but he did marry me, right? I know he wouldn’t bullshit me, but he is just one opinion.

The Algonquin Round Table — the ultimate writer’s group.

That is why a writer’s group is so important. You can get feedback from more than one person, and if you have a good writer’s group, that feedback is helpful. Ah, but not all writer’s groups are equal, are they?

For example, last year I heard of a group that met at a church on Saturday mornings. It was a drive but Kosta and I arrived on time and took seats in the meeting room. It was a very large group–near to twenty folks crowded around the tables. But as the first few members began reading their work I realized I was in the wrong place.

How did I know? Because my husband and I were nearly the only two folks who were not octogenarians writing about their husband’s cancer/Alzheimer’s disease. That’s not entirely true, but it did feel more like a therapy group for widows. They enjoyed what I read (at least they said they did) but I didn’t get any helpful criticism. How could I when I was only aloud to read one page?

For a serious writer it can be hard to find a group of like-minded folks who are working on projects for publication. I still haven’t found one, but I am always on the lookout for potential partners. But it seems that for now I am on my own. And that’s okay. I’ll just keep working hard and doing what I love. That, in the end, is what it’s all about anyway.

 

The final lap…

“Been around that track a couple of times but now the dust is starting clear…” ~Dead Horse, Guns N’ Roses

Last week I officially finished draft three of my manuscript. My husband and I edited it together, and I have to say he is a wizard when it comes to pointing out flaws, or places where I can massage the story a little more. It’s a miracle that we can work together as well as we do, and that we’re still happily married.

So now all of the pieces are in place and have been filled out to their best potential. Tonight we start on the final polish. I will read it aloud to him and we will tweak the hell out of it, polishing until it shines like the top of the Chrysler building. (Shout out to little orphan Annie.)

As in my last post, I am so far down the well of editing that I have hardly had time for anything else in my life but the book, book, book! I am looking forward to having a little breather after I send it off to my agent. (Who am I kidding? I’m going to eat my nails off one-by-one until I hear back from him.)

That being said, I am really proud of this book. I am so pleased with the way it all came together in the last draft. I am excited to move forward and find this little book a home at a publishing house.

It’s time.

 

Down the Rabbit Hole

Like Alice in Wonderland, I’ve been deep underground in a surreal bout of editing. I can’t tell you how many times I have rewritten the ending of my novel. I think this count is number five. But each time it gets better and I think I might be there soon.

Please let me be there soon.

This novel has taken all my time, sucked every last second of my day that isn’t spent doing other things (you know, like my 40 hour a week job.) I’m obsessed, I’m determined, and I am so ready for this draft to be over. But that said, it keeps getting better every time I make changes. It tightens, streamlines, and propels the plot forward like a comet.

What’s it about? The (working) title is The Abduction of Audrey Bettencourt and I style it as a Pride and Prejudice meets X-Men. My heroine, Jane Bell, the youngest lady’s maid in London has a peculiar talent. She can pick up any inanimate object–a glove, a shoe, a handkerchief, and she can sense who touched it last and what they were feeling at the time. Her employer, Audrey Bettencourt is the most highly sought after debutante of her season. When she is kidnapped from her own coming out ball it is up to Jane to follow the clues to bring her home safely. But the reasons of her kidnapping are much more complex and far reaching than Jane realizes and she finds herself on a chase across the Continent to bring Audrey home.

I have fallen down the rabbit hole of editing. I might be able to climb my way back up soon. There are only 30 pages left in my manuscript, but it is the big finale and it must be as explosive, exciting and perfect as I can make it. The process of the second draft has been so protracted that I am losing patience with myself, although I am so close. Just a few more days work and I feel I will be there. If only I didn’t have this pesky day job taking up all my time and energy I would have been done weeks ago. But eating and having shelter are important too, I guess.

But soon I will put draft two to bed and then begin on the next step: draft three. *headdesk*

I will come out of this someday. And when I do I will have a polished novel with a kickass heroine and a twisty plot with a big bang ending. Stay tuned.

Elly Blake: Five Questions

frostblood

I am a sucker for a good fantasy. Magic, new worlds, adventure, and mystery are just the things that to me make a thrilling story.

Elly Blake’s Frostblood is a prime example of what I mean. Ruby is a Fireblood–she can control fire. But being a Fireblood is a big secret in her world. The Frostbloods, who can control ice, want to obliterate every last Fireblood and will stop at nothing to do so. When Ruby’s village is attacked she unwittingly reveals her true nature and is thrown in prison where she is tormented with buckets of ice water.

But then two Frostblood men arrive and tell her they will break her out of prison if she agrees to help them with a mission. She doesn’t trust them but is desperate to be free. She is taken to an abbey where she is healed and taught how to use her power properly, though most who know her true nature are frightened of her and the danger she represents as a fugitive.

And then there is Arcus. He is the Frostblood that freed her from prison. He hides behind a mask and is very reticent to share anything about himself other than what he expects of her. But a reluctant truce forms and they begin an unlikely friendship.

This book was so well done. The writing was outstanding and the story was well-plotted and satisfying. The sequel, Fireblood, comes out in September and I am ready for it NOW.

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

I started with a character — Ruby, a girl with power over fire. I actually dreamed about a girl with power over fire and a king with an icy heart. When I woke up, I knew right away that her name was Ruby. I decided to focus on frost and fire as opposing elements, and started spinning ideas from there.

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

I’m a pantser who wants to be a plotter. I try to plot, but I find it very hard to answer questions about character and plot before I start writing. I get to know the characters as I draft. So I know a few major points before I start, but the rest is a mystery until I have that messy draft. That’s when I focus on applying structure and plotting methods– during revisions.

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

There are many writers I love, and many writers whom I envy! I often wish I could write more like my favorite authors, but I’m not sure who actually influences my style most. I think when it comes to voice, most of our influences are unconscious. We pick things up from books we enjoy and it comes out when we write. A few of my favorite authors are: Marie Rutkoski, Megan Whelan Turner, Leigh Bardugo, Kristin Cashore, Morgan Rhodes, and so many more!

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

I usually listen to soundtracks: Tron: Legacy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Game of Thrones, The Dark Knight Rises, etc.

5. What are you reading right now?

I’m reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. It’s so good! I just finished Caraval by Stephanie Garber, which was a beautiful read. (I also met Stephanie recently at a signing and that was a total thrill!) Next, I plan to read The Edge of Everything by Jeff Giles. I’m in a debut group so I’m reading a lot of 2017 debut books and loving them!

Elly Blake is the NYT bestselling author of Frostblood. After earning a BA in English literature, she held a series of seemingly random jobs, including project manager, customs clerk, graphic designer, reporter for a local business magazine, and (currently) library assistant. She lives in Southwestern Ontario with her husband, kids and a Siberian Husky mix who definitely shows Frostblood tendencies.

Ready for a thrilling fantasy?  Get your copy here:

Barnes and Noble                    Amazon

 

What Is Your Word?

I had a text conversation with my friend Tammy last week. She asked me out of the blue the following question: If you could choose one word to set your intention for 2017 what would it be?

I had to think only a moment before I answered her: TENACITY. As in never, ever, ever give up. Never give up on what, you may ask? My writing most definitely, but it applies to all areas of my life – my career as a librarian, my marriage, my family, my friends, my spirituality, my creative endeavors in general. Writing a book and getting an agent has really taught me this lesson well and I can see it working in different ways that are surprising and wonderful to behold.

I thought it was a random thing to ask, but a very good question. Imagine my surprise when a week later I received a package in the mail containing this:

2017-02-05-09-03-50The bracelet comes from myintent.org. You can customize your bracelet to say any word that means something to you. It’s a really cool idea because every time I look at it I remember my determination to do the things I am passionate about. It also reminds me what an awesome person Tammy is.