Monday Musings

Kayla2016 has been an eventful year thus far. I was so honored that A Home for Kayla won best picture book at the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Hurray for mutts! This little labor of love has yet to reap great financial success, but what it does earn is going straight to one of my local animal shelters. The illustrator, Yis Vang, and I are also collaborating on a new animal-themed picture called Rolly and Mac, which we will be releasing later this year. As with Kayla, Rolly and Mac focuses on friendship. In it, a puppy and a kitten deal with the disapproval of the other farm animals, who think that a dog and a cat are too different to be friends. Fortunately, owl is the wisest animal on the farm and comes to the rescue.

Speaking of Kayla, the real Kayla is doing remarkably well despite her age and health issues and is longing to chase the new goats around. These newest fur buddies, Wyatt and Virgil, are simply too cute for words. I never thought it was possible to have a lap goat, but I’m here to tell you, it is. These little guys snuggle like a cat and play like a dog.  I see a goat-themed picture book on the horizon.

In other news, my adult thriller is on submission with my fabulous agent, Gina Panettieri, who is also looking for a new home for the Coriander Jones series. The second installment of CJ  is polished and ready to go and I can’t wait to have it out in the world. I learned so much since writing the first book in 2012 and I hope it shows. Whoever coined the term “submission hell” hit the nail on the head. Querying is nothing next to waiting for submission news. Next on the writing agenda is either another Florida-based thriller, my long-neglected steampunk manuscript, or finally finishing my offbeat YA zombie novel. Decisions, decisions…

On my entertainment agenda, Finding Dory is a must-see and the last installment in Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes series is a must-read. If anyone has suggestions for a good, long-plane-ride type book, let me know.

To start off your week on a happy note, I’ve included a picture of Kayla with her #indiebookawards medal.

 

In Which I Finally Get Around to Reading “Weetzie Bat”

When I first started querying Coriander Jones in 2012-13, one agent’s submission preferences referenced her love for Weetzie Bat. I admit I hadn’t heard of it, but I put it on my to-read list, where it stayed until recently. I was intrigued by the setting, Los Angeles, and its reputation as a ground-breaking YA book that embraced magic and allegory.

Weetzie, along with her Secret Agent Lover Man, her best friend and his partner, make their own version of family in a Los Angeles that is half in the present and half in the soiled glory of its ritzy past. Having lived in LA in the late eighties, I can see it as a sort of tear-stained love letter to a city that was probably never as grand as people imagined it was during the golden era of Hollywood. Weetzie starts off the book in high school, but after a few scant pages, that locale is never mentioned again. If you like linear story-telling with internal logic, then this is not the book for you.

There is a lot to admire in Weetzie– The writing flows along dreamily as if the characters are having a lucid dream. Some events are constructed on the flimsiest sort of pretense (a magic genie provide Weetzie with just what the “plot” requires, Weetzie decides to become a mother by sleeping with both her friend and her friend’s lover) not to mention the suspension of disbelief about how the lot are even able to buy food. But that misses the point, because the mundane aspects of life (going to school, getting a job, paying bills) are not at all what the book is concerned about.

This is not to say that the magical realism totally overshadows the characters’ genuineness. Weetzie has her first real and true heartbreak when her father dies. The  AIDS epidemic (not mentioned by name) hits close to home. In the play within the play, where Weetzie is starring in a movie and can’t figure out how to end the story, her character decides that it is only by dying in the real world that she can wake up in the perfect fantasy world that she wants to live in. Although Weetzie herself doesn’t go the suicide route, I guess the takeaway is that you have to assume these characters only exist in a dreamlike state where all things are possible, where babies show up on doorsteps and no one questions it, and where someone tosses Burt Reynold’s toupee out of a limo window so that it can used to adorn a rubber chicken.

I’m guessing that there was not a whole lot like Weetzie Bat in bookstores  when it first came out. It had to have been mind blowing and I wish I had read it when I was closer to Weetzie’s age and closer to my years living in LA. For someone who came of age reading “edgy” contemporary YA by Norma Klein, or other books by SE Hinton or Judy Blume,  I can only appreciate Weetzie Bat from a distance. From my perch as a fifty-year old, still working on the writing craft, and parenting a teenager, it’s more of a specimen to me than something I will treasure having read.

If you’ve read it did you love it? Hate it? Wonder what the heck you were looking at? I’m interested in your thoughts.

Rediscovering John D. MacDonald

Recently I added “A Purple Place for Dying,” by John D. MacDonald to my kindle queue. One of several books featuring iconic Florida detective Travis McGee, I originally bought it as a pleasant diversion for a long plane ride, you know, the kind of pulpy crime novel that you read and then instantly forget about. I hadn’t read a McDonald novel in decades and had quite forgotten that he was far more than a grinder of pulp fiction.

In the novel, Travis is out west on a potential job when his would-be employer is shot and killed in front of him. This character appears only on a scant four or five pages, but consider his description:

I read female characters from sterns. Hers was hefty, shapely rich and  unapproachable. This one, I decided, would consider any gift of her favors a truly earth-shattering event, to be signaled by rare wine, incense and silk sheets. And she had the look of almost being able to live up to her own billing.

Lest you think McDonald’s narrative is limited to cops and femme fatale types, consider his description of college students that Travis observes as they scurry to and from their classes, noticing, but uninterested in, a middle-aged beach bum who is on campus following up on a lead.

The kids hustled to their ten-o’clocks, little and young, intent on their obscure purposes…They were in the vivid tug and flex of life, and we were faded pictures of the corridor walls-drab, ended and slightly spooky.

And the final blow, in which Travis imagines how life will eventually turn out for the young, unsuspecting coeds.

They were being structured to life on the run, and by the time they would become what is now known as senior citizens, they could fit nicely into planned communities where recreation is scheduled on such a tight and competitive basis that they could continue to run, plan, organize, until, falling at last into silence, the grief-therapist would gather them in, rosy their cheeks, close the box and lower them to the only rest they had ever known.

Mind you, at its core,  this is a crime novel, the type of popular fiction that is all too often derided as unsophisticated fodder for the masses. But I’ve read a lot of prize winning literary fiction that can’t hold a candle to the voice in this book.  I was struck by how well the story and characters hold up in today, where someone with a cell phone and Facebook could have probably untangled the complex family dynamics at the heart of the story.  Yes, there are outdated bits, and as far as some of the women characters, well, we’ve come a long way baby. But the writing is so good, Travis McGee so compelling a hero, that the reader can settle in as if it’s still 1964 and enjoy the ride.

My apologies for overlooking you for so long, Mr. MacDonald, who was also a Floridian, albeit a transplant. You will have a permanent place on my actual bookshelf from now on.

 

A Home for Kayla

If you take even a cursory glance at my blog, web site or social media, you’ll see I am an animal lover, and in particular, a lover of rescue pets. I recently completed the journey of publishing my first picture book with illustrator Yis Vang, who did the cover for Coriander Jones. This book is my love letter to our very special rescue, Kayla.

My husband and daughter brought her home from the pound one Saturday, unannounced, likely because they knew I’d start chanting “NO MORE PETS!” But my heart broke for the little stray. She’d been found wandering a busy street, perhaps a casualty of the recession when people starting abandoning their pets with alarming frequency. She was emaciated, fear aggressive with other dogs, and painfully shy with  people.

Fast forward a few years later and our girl was happy, healthy, and even a teeny bit overweight due to our compulsion to give her treats whenever she gave us that doleful look. My daughter started taking her to 4-H. Kayla learned that other dogs were friends. She even won blue ribbons and high points trophies against pure bred dogs.

We estimate that our grand old lady is about ten years old now. She started slowing down a bit and a little grey has creeped into her face. When she started limping late last fall, we took her in for a checkup. The vet diagnosed her with bone cancer, not the kind one can treat surgically or otherwise. We were, of course, devastated. Her diagnosis hasn’t stopped her from chasing the yard cats and begging for treats, and we are grateful for the medication that is giving us some extra time with her. Of the many animals I have had over the last fifty years, Kayla, I think, has the sweetest soul of them all.  I started working on this picture book with Yis last year as a purely personal endeavor and so it’s bittersweet that it is coming out just as Kayla is in her twilight.

If you feel like checking out Kayla’s journey from sidewalk stray to beloved family member, the book is available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I will probably be doing a Goodreads giveaway soon. And, as I always like to get a plug in for our angels in fur coats, please visit a shelter next time you are looking for a pet.

kaylaw:book

 

 

The Long and Winding Road to Publication and Back

In the summer of 2012, I packed off my daughter for her first summer camp- an entire month away from home at a traditional summer camp where the kids went on canoe trips, swam in the lake every day and participated in the annual “color war.” During the time she was away, I resolved to finally write that book I’d been talking about for years. Over the course of my life, I’d resolved at different times to write a book. Sometimes I aimed for a straight up thriller, or sometimes a horror tale, but that particular summer, I resolved to write a book for kids. Specifically, I wanted to write a book about kids away at summer camp who have to save the world. And not cotillion kids, or kids at boarding school, or chosen ones- I wanted to write about kids who lived in a trailer park, who didn’t have iPhones and who used the public library for internet.  My goal was to write a book my daughter would enjoy, and heck, maybe I could even get it published.

Three months later I had Coriander Jones Saves the World.  Actually, I had a first draft of CJ but little did I realize the importance of putting the book away and then coming back for multiple rounds of edits. By then, my compulsive nature had lead me to many hours of researching publishing, agents, and how to query. Even with all that information, I still managed to make every rookie mistake the good folks at QueryTracker warn us about.  If only I had discovered the forum sooner!

Genre? Who really cares if it’s MG or YA? Um, everyone. Fantasy? Adventure? Magical realism? What’s the difference? Lots, as it turns out. Even with all my mistakes, I still had a few nibbles, and even a few offers from small presses. Their contract terms were so one sided I didn’t bother to negotiate. A mistake? Maybe. Should I have followed up on the R&R from an agent? Maybe. But long about then I had decided that my personal goal of writing a book was enough and I could publish it myself. And then I decided to close out a partial request from a small press with a nudge so I could cross it off my list, and the editor immediately responded that yes, she had received the partial and could I send the rest. And then she asked what part of Florida I was from, and noticing my maiden name, asked if I knew an old high school friend of hers, who, as it turns out, is my cousin. Best of all, she love Coriander and her friends. She got what i was going for with the characters and the story. And I knew that going this route was not significantly different than self publishing as far as distribution. But the book was published. It even received some very flattering reviews and a few small awards, but as expected, sales were in the basement.

By then, I had kept writing, hopefully improving my craft, had made friends on Querytracker and  Twitter and felt like I was ready to not only write CJ II but also that quirky thriller I’d been thinking about for, literally, decades. So armed with Gator Bait, I dipped my toes in the query trenches again. This time, I struck gold when Gina Panettieri saw past the flaws and gave me a chance to make revisions. With those, she took me on as a client and GB is currently on submission. Along with, I might add, CJ, which I had mentioned to Gina, she asked to see, and decided it might have a second chance. So it’s on submission as well, with the second book done, edited, and ready to get in the queue. My small press is going in a different direction with their projects and they wished me well and gladly negotiated with me to return my rights early.

The odds are definitely against a previously published book like Coriander Jones, especially in a tight market like YA. But everything from here is gravy. I like my trailer park girl. Of everything I’ve written so far, her voice spills out the easiest. I may end up toting the series around to indie bookstores and craft fairs, but honestly, I wrote a book I liked, and my kid liked it too. Recently, a little girl that had been given a copy of the book very shyly asked me if I could please hurry up and finish the second one. It’s not a starred review in Booklist, but it’ll do.

On a side note, my own daughter hated summer camp and came home early. Go figure.

Check out the “Which Character Are You” quiz on http://corianderjones.com

 

 

 

 

My Year in Books

According to my Goodreads stats, I fell woefully short of my original reading goals inn 2015 as compared to 2014. But, it was all for a good cause. I read fewer books, yes, but I managed to edit my YA novel, finish my thriller and get representation for it, (Thanks Gina Panettieri!) dabble in some horror short story writing and outline a new YA book. But I did read some books I loved, some that surprised me, a couple that didn’t live up to my expectations and one that blew me away. So here is a brief run down of just a few of the books I read in 2015.

Stephen King can do no wrong in my book, and not just because he is a part time resident of my home state. “Finders Keepers” was a juicy thriller that kept me up late. I can hardly wait for the last book in the trilogy to come out so I can grab it up quick.

A book I would not have ordinarily picked up was my QT buddy Marissa Clarke’s romance novel “Sleeping With the Boss.” It was a good reminder to occasionally venture out of my reading comfort zone and try a genre I don’t normally gravitate toward. Even if you’re not a romance fan, give her books a shot.

Another unexpected gem was “Help! A Bear is Eating Me” by Mykle Hansen. It was dark, twisted and funny. In the laugh-out-loud category, I have to say “Let’s Pretend this Never Happened” by Jenny Lawson had me in stitches the whole time I was reading it.

How I’ve never read a Jack Reacher novel is a mystery to me, but in 2015 I finally picked one up. With “Persuader,” maybe it was just one of those can’t-explain-it-but-didn’t care-for-it things, but in my book, a middle-aged, marginally employed transient who is constantly under scrutiny by law enforcement is a serial killer, not a potential hook up.

One of my favorites from 2015 was “Second Hand Souls” by Christopher Moore. I don’t know how he manages to make death and the meaning of life both funny and poignant in the same sentence, but I’m thankful that he does. If you haven’t read his books, then do yourself a favor and run out and get one now.

And to top the list, I have to say “This Dark Road to Mercy” by Wiley Cash was just absolutely brilliant, not a single wasted word, and a book that I thought about long after I finished it.

There were more, but this is my highlight reel for 2015. What were your hits and misses?

Thrillers, Women Characters and the Barbie Effect

I love reading thrillers, the pulpier the better. Airport kiosks bursting with potboilers are my playground. But  if I let myself stray from reading for sheer enjoyment to a more critical analysis, I sometimes conclude that in order to be a woman character other than the MC, one must be 1) in her early to mid-twenties; 2) smoking hot 3) single and ready to mingle; and, 4) if the plot demands it, have an advanced degree enough to earn the grudging respect of colleagues but not enough to prevent said character from getting kidnapped or murdered or both.

Of course, this isn’t true across the board, and there are plenty of great women characters that don’t fit this archetype (Detective Rizzoli, “Bones” Brennan, for example). But it does seem that a good number of suspense thrillers use the supporting women characters either as a plot device (their brutal murder haunts the MC) or as a luscious love interest in the prime of her youth. It doesn’t matter if the male MC is fifty-something with scars and a beer gut, that lithe coed/neurosurgeon is gonna be all over him by the end of Act One. I read a book awhile back where a female assasin (in her twenties and with a perfect body, naturally) went about her bloody business… topless. ‘Cause, you know, sometimes the girls gotta breathe. The reader was also assured that her assets were spectacular. So that was a relief. Also, these women have no  body fat, no kids to distract them and really shiny hair.

God forbid a forty-something gal with roomy hips and maybe a few gray hairs wants to get in on the action. Yes, attractive people make up the bulk of fictional characters in books, television and movies. Pretty sells better. I get that. But surely the women characters can be a little rounder, a little more realistic. Start small. Make them less Barbie and more “Bones.”  And for Pete’s sake, put some clothes on those poor girls. They might catch a cold.

 

My Eternal Devotion to Harry Potter

Recently, my daughter and I conscripted my husband into a week-long Harry Potter movie marathon.We’d been talking about for quite some time and so every evening around 7 p.m. we popped a movie in. Afterward, the husband commented that the experience was like “going to the movies with those two old guys from the Muppet Show.” I guess we couldn’t contain our enthusiasm and there may have been a few spoiler alerts. Both my daughter and I are avid readers, and we devoured Harry Potter. I read the first book while I was on maternity leave. When every new book was released, I stood in line with all the kids (albeit not in costume) to get a copy on the first day of release. I actually started reading it to my daughter a chapter a night at bed time. My husband isn’t a reader, so we decided the movies would at least get him introduced to J.K. Rowling’s magnificent world.

Despite our constant commentary, he ended up liking it, exclaiming at one point, “That Bella chic need to die!”  Until the very last movie, he didn’t quite believe Sirius wouldn’t come back. We did have to overlook the minor sin that he called the Room of Requirement “That room where they keep all their crap.” Muggles. What are you going to do?

Now, I’ve resolved to put aside all my unread books (gosh, maybe a dozen) and re read the entire series. Because, in case you haven’t guessed, I absolutely frickin’ love Harry Potter. My daughter and I have endlessly debated whether Severus Snape was worthy of being a namesake for Harry’s son (I say yes, she says no and a nerd fight erupts). I just love the way Neville Longbottom grew as a character. I love Gilderoy Lockhart and Professor Trelawney and Moaning Myrtle and Polyjuice Potion and the whole world that has enriched my life.  I sincerely thank Ms. Rowling for giving us this world and these characters.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve decided to make my own Quidditch broom as a fall project.

P.S. Still waiting for my letter from Hogwarts. If I can’t get in as a student, I’ll help Filch scrub the floors.

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Great Passages, Best First Lines and All-Time favorites

I was thinking the other day about books I love, and why. When my daughter brought home The Great Gatsby, part of her English Lit reading list, I immediately blurted out:

“Tom and Daisy were careless people. They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

I still love that passage. But my all-time favorite passage is from my all-time favorite book, Catch 22, in which Doc Daneeka explains to Yossarian that pilot Orr is, in fact, crazy, but because he’s crazy and won’t request to be grounded, he’ll keep flying missions, as per the requirements of Catch 22, which says that you can be grounded only if you ask for it and if you’re crazy, but if you do ask, then you are, by definition, not crazy because it evidences a concern for your own safety.

“That’s some catch, that Catch 22,” he observed.

“The best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Favorite first line goes to Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone:  “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

With that sentence, I was hooked.

A runner up from childhood is The Little Broomstick, which chronicles the adventures of a little girl named Mary and her cat, Tib: “Even her name was plain.”

If you’ve never read this lost classic, I encourage you to find a copy.

With some books, you keep thinking them  about long after you’ve finished.  For me, that list includes A Prayer for Owen Meany, One Thousand White Women, The Stand and Of Mice and Men.

And then there are those that you must re read every so often. My list includes A Wrinkle in Time, Slaughterhouse Five and The Harry Potter series.

What books do you keep or re read from time to time? What are your favorite lines?