We have a new baby on the website. You can read it here. The story is from The Bone Trench, the novel my agent with the Virginia Kidd Agency is currently presenting to publishing houses. The excerpt appeared in EAP:The Magazine, the full name of which is Exterminating Angel Press (isn’t that fabulous?).
I’m pleased to report that the essay Grief: The Best I Can Do will be published in Exterminating Angel Press: The Magazine. EAP is an amazing magazine whose ethic is spreading ideas, not exclusivity. So the “already published” nature of the essay is not an issue. In fact, the magazine encourages writers to get their work out anywhere they can, thus seeding the germinating idea in every garden possible.
In an aside, THE BONE TRENCH is currently being considered by an editor at a wonderful publishing house. You can read about the long journey of this novel here. My wonderful agent at the Virginia Kidd Agency is doing a fabulous job of getting it into the right hands. So send good thoughts to the editor, surrounding her with vibes that hum, “I love this manuscript! I love this manuscript! I must buy this manuscript!”
Finally, I’m a little—what? bemused? mystified?—to share that the Grief essay was picked up by a service called The Obitstream.com Daily. I learned about this via a Twitter notification. Perusing my notifications, I discovered a tweet by ObitStream.com including my Twitter name. Following this link, I found this new service that contains curated articles about grief. Who knew? It’s an ever-changing brave new world out there.
I’m hoping—fingers crossed—the popping of this publication news portends a fruitful 2016!
When I was in high school, I favored the library located in the small strip center that also held the hardware store where I bought tomato plants, thinking them to be flowers . . . but that’s another story. The library was cozy, the line of shelves beginning as soon as you walked in the door. From my weird spatial perspective, the books were arranged backwards—the cataloguing began at the front desk and the fiction authors whose names began with letters from the end of the alphabet were closest to the door. I remember this because I’ll never forget squatting on the floor and finding on the bottom shelf Kurt Vonnegut.
By that time, I was in the twelfth grade, participating in the Advance Placement English class. Part of the deal with that class was earning extra credit for reading books not on the required reading list. Can you believe that? They gave you extra credit for reading. Much of my life, reading had been something I was doing when I should’ve been “outside getting fresh air.” Or making my bed. Or eating. I was a pig in slop in that library, doing my favorite thing, fully sanctioned.
So, anyway, I found Vonnegut. His were small books, at least relative to Moby Dick, which we read in English class, so I checked out a couple of them. Slaughterhouse Five, of course, and either Cat’s Cradle or Breakfast of Champions, I don’t remember. The class had an approved “Outside Reading” list; anything off that list had to be approved by the teacher as meeting certain unnamed standards. I took my finds to school for perusal and acceptance. This had not theretofore been an issue. It was this time.
The teacher took my request under advisement. She was older, in real life, I mean—looking back from an adult perspective, you realize everyone seemed older when you were young. But this teacher’s hair was gray, her face heavily wrinkled, her hands trembling. She accepted the books from my hand, and, corralling stray wisps of hair back into the bun that swept dramatically from her forehead, she said she’d let me know.
Several days later I received her verdict. My choice was not conventional, she said (imagine that!), but she believed it could be approved. The language, the scenes—the book contained objectionable material; I, however, was probably mature enough to handle it. The book simply was not her cup of tea, she sniffed, but she didn’t want to discourage me from reading works that tried new approaches, even those that hovered on the edge of literature.
The year was 1975. Slaughterhouse Five came out in 1970. It was not yet a classic, to say the least; no one had yet put it on multiple “Best Of” lists. I was left with the distinct impression the teacher hadn’t even read it; hence, the delay of several days. But thanks to this open-minded teacher, I was an early reader and fan.
I do have one complaint: I blame Vonnegut for creating my lifetime inability to distinguish fantasy from plain ol’ literature. Maybe this defect was birthed years earlier when my mother read us the Narnia Chronicles as bedtime stories, us girls snuggled in the covers, me hating to see the white space that signaled the chapter’s end. Later in my senior year, I had my Asimov phase, and one summer I devoured Lewis’s Space Trilogy; my mother talked so much about Perelandra, I had to read it myself. In college it was Lord of the Rings; later, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and every Arthurian legend book written. I came late to American Gods and the Outlander series, but arrive I did.
None of these classic fantasies did I consider “fantasy.” They were just great books, no different from Moby Dick or William Faulkner, for that matter. So I guess it’s not surprising I never considered I was writing a fantasy when I wrote my own novel The Bone Trench. Yeah, the central characters are Mother Mary and her guardian angel Little c, both of whom have superpowers. Also Mary’s son Jesus, who grumbles about having stripped himself of his superpowers prior to his return to earth. And while the book is Urban Fantasy set in real-life Memphis, The Bone Trench’s Memphis has the phantasmagoric qualities of Tim Burton’s Gotham City.
As you can tell, these early reads also made the combination of fantasy and spirituality I created in The Bone Trench feel natural. Hell, C.S. Lewis was primarily a religion writer. Furthermore, to get a bit metaphysical, who’s to say the world doesn’t exist as the fantasy books portray it? Don’t lock me up, but where actually does the line between fantasy and reality run? I’ve told several people The Bone Trench is fantasy, only to get the response, “Well, I guess.”
So, of all the legacies Kurt Vonnegut left the world, in a way The Bone Trench is another one. In any event, I thank you, Mr. Vonnegut, for leaving me free to write whatever in this—or any—world I feel like writing.
It began on the veranda of the Gibson Inn in Apalachicola, Florida, the town locals call Apalach, where oysters once reigned and the river whispers of pirate ships disappearing in the streaky dawn.
In the waning heat of a summer afternoon in 2008, I joined my husband on the second floor porch of the hotel whose bar would make Hemingway weep and there, beneath the widow’s walk and cupola, I read aloud.
For two weeks, we lolled in this charming town, rooting out the public library, taking lazy trips to St. George Island. Riding bikes past shop windows where sponges and scuba suits reminded us of an era when diving beneath the waves required great courage.
When the heat built up to boiling, Tom returned to his Adirondack on the veranda with a book. I wrote. And when I’d rolled down for the day, I scooted my own Adirondack close and read what I’d written that day on a new work I called the Mother Mary novel.
That was 2008.
Over the intervening years, we returned to Apalachicola many times, introducing the kids to the Gibson Inn
and the streaky dawn
but the work on the Mother Mary novel transferred to Memphis, where the novel is set. There inside my treehouse home
I wrote through the blizzard of 2010
and the flood of 2011
and, after we took an apartment in New Orleans, the Zombie apocalypse.
I wrote as I welcomed a new dog to the family
and two other new members of the family
and lost my dad
Finally, in the spring of this my seventh year of work, I finished the novel, read it out loud, and sent it to an editor so I could begin querying agents: will you represent me, I asked, and try to sell my book for me? The opening sentence of the query letter acknowledged the oddness of the book: THE BONE TRENCH is a literary fantasy of 103,000 words that uses religion and humor to explore mass incarceration and the private prison industry—I know, religion, humor and prisons; you’re either going to love this or hate it.
Guess what? An agent loved it! He literally said, “I love it,” and offered me representation. William Reeve of the Virginia Kidd Agency. The agency is the grandmother of all Science Fiction/Fantasy agencies and, because Mother Mary and Jesus aren’t real people (not to mention the Demonittes), The Bone Trench is Fantasy. I’m joining a stellar list of “repped by” authors. And—extra good news here—he required no extensive revisions, so maybe all that writing was worthwhile. 🙂
Many of y’all have been with me on this journey. Acting as Beta readers, offering feedback. Kind enough not to ask, whatever happened to that novel you were working on? Others have followed at least snatches of this journey. So I wanted to share my happiness with y’all. (I sound so calm, don’t I? I’m not.)
Just to be clear: I’ll let you know what comes next.
Anyway, I’ve finished reading The Bone Trench out loud. That took nine days. This weekend, I reworked a query letter and wrote a new synopsis, one page. These two documents have now been sent to my paid editor Gretchen so she can work her magic.
I don’t want to burden you with the entire documents. But here’s the opening to the synopsis:
It’s been said the role of the modern book is to start a conversation. In America, a major conversation is coalescing around mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. The Bone Trench asks—with scandalous irreverence—what would Jesus say in such a conversation?
This is from the query letter:
The Bone Trench features Jesus but is hardly religious. Mother Mary is a fantastical Mother of God, but her desire to be a better mother is universal. The historical truths at the heart of the novel are all too real—my desire to explore America’s repeated willingness to use prisoners for profit was triggered by my own family’s checkered history with prison management and convict leasing.
My experience has been that Gretchen can take a query letter up a notch or two, so I’m excited to see what she does with what I’ve sent her. Until then, I could be researching appropriate agents, but one of the main questions I’ve asked Gretchen is, what genre book is this?
I’m open to suggestions, and to help you along, here’s the opening:
The trench in Union Avenue wept.
At the bottom of the dirt trench, hemmed in by its steep, slick walls, Cat Thomas dug a path for a new distribution line, finishing what the backhoe had started. Cat’s nose twitched with the smell of Mississippi River muck. Sweat stung his eyes, and a blister between his thumb and forefinger tugged and burned. The Memphis Power Company worker hated this part of his job: the damp trench, the earthen walls clawed by the teeth of the backhoe, the wiggling earthworms sliced in two. Ignoring the traffic noises drifting from above, Cat slowly found the rhythm of his shovel and worked in the June heat the way he’d always worked, with muscled shoulders and a head full of replacement thoughts: his wife’s wobbly smile when she announced the coming of a child, the cold one waiting for him in the refrigerator at home, whether the grit-and-grind Grizzlies would ever win it all. Caught up in his own world, Cat rent the ground. Until his shovel scraped a human skull.
Some of you have given up on me. You’ve quit asking “How’s the writing going?” You’ve even stopped asking, “Are you still writing?” Honestly, I don’t blame you.
I gave up my law practice in 2001. At the turn of the century. Fourteen years ago. Fourteen years. In that time, I’ve published a lot. A lot. You can read all about it on my Achievements page if you want. I’ve also won awards. A lot of awards. You can read about that on the same page.
I have not published a novel.
When I began my writing career, I thought this was the trajectory. Hallelujah—you’re getting short stories published. And essays. Winning awards. Getting your first book published. Now you can impress an agent with your resume. Have a major house publish your novel.
But when I got involved with writing novels, I began serpentining. I wrote a novel. And another. And another. That kept up for five novels. I began sending them to an editor. She gave me feedback. I sent her another novel, and revised a different novel while she was working on her review. Or wrote a new novel. Which I then sent to her for review. I have now written seven novels; she has reviewed five.
This is not a straight line trajectory.
I felt this was the route for me.
Today, the editor sent me her Reader’s Report on my latest submission. Usually, she chitchats in the cover letter and gives a synopsis of her reaction to the novel. This time, she basically said, I’ll let the Reader’s Report speak for itself. I thought, well, she must really hate it. She wants to keep her negative feedback in the professional realm of the Reader’s Report.
I couldn’t blame her. I’d taken a real risk with this novel. It features Mary the mother of Jesus and, yes, Jesus too—back on earth to deal with the evil of a new, supercharged private prison. Plus, structurally, I’d played around. Offered stand-alone chapters that asked the reader to hang in with me—time would explain them. Religious irreverence, political bomb shells, literary devices—what’s not to hate?
Her first sentence: “Cutting to the chase: I think this is your best manuscript. Hands down.”
Here’s the point: you have to follow your own process. Even if it is contrary to everything you’ve been taught. Even if you can’t find anyone else who follows that process. Not your published author heroes. Not your writer friends. Even if it’s so time-consuming everyone starts asking, Are you still writing?
Do what feels right to you. It may work out. It may not. But at least you have done everything that felt right to you to succeed.
And you know what? You just might do it.
Last year I sent my manuscript to Kore Press.They had some deal going where if you submitted, the press would provide limited critique of the submission—yes, precious critique of the first fifty pages of your novel. I sent them The Bone Trench in which a controversial private prison in modern-day Memphis brings Mother Mary and her son Jesus back to earth. Mother Mary tries—this time—to protect her son from harm, while Jesus goes about doing what he always does: causing trouble.
I did not get accepted for publication; I did get a lovely email. The editors really enjoyed the manuscript, though it wasn’t right for Kore Press. I also got a quite upbeat critique.
In the critique I learned the term “Urban Fantasy,” which is a subset of the fantasy genre where the action is set on earth in a real place (yes, Memphis is a real place). The email began with the standard caution—don’t wig out, this is the subjective view of only one reader—then said nothing remotely negative.
The tone of the novel is “humorous” and “bold” with “quick, funny dialogue.” She found that the “unique character choices” worked, even with “the juxtaposition of holy figures, natural images, and well, spit.” But, more seriously, the novel gave “an intrinsic sense of the culture of Memphis, the importance of recognizing the history of this place, the relationship of people with one another and with their past.”
I reveled in the review and forgot it, because I didn’t get accepted for publication, and there was nothing negative for me to work on in making revisions.
Today, I picked the review back up because I am, once again, revising the manuscript. I wanted to share the review with y’all. I re-read the first line, something about not being able to help but compare it to a novel by a writer I didn’t know, Neil Gaiman.
Neil Gaiman, Neil Gaiman.
Hadn’t that been the dude staring back at me from the front of the Poets and Writers Magazine I had been meaning to read for months?
Neil Gaiman, the author of the Hugo and Nebula-award winning novel, American Gods.
I’d already put American Gods on my list to read—I wasn’t going to ignore the reviewer’s identification of a book similar to this odd book I wrote—but for some reason I read her description to mean “cult classic.” As in, an odd book like your odd book beloved by odd people. Not a book that actually gained a wide appreciation.
I don’t know why this gives me hope but it does.
Hope I need as I begin, again, to revise a novel without any guarantee anyone will want to read it.