I can write anywhere—coffee shops, planes, waiting rooms, standing in line. I usually carry a journal with me in case I’m stuck somewhere, waiting, and then I type what I’ve written later. My preferred place to write, however, is my desk at home. It’s a minimalist, stainless-steel table with a pretty wooden box placed on top to hold office supplies. I’ve set out a few mementos to inspire me: a chunk of amethyst purchased at the gem and mineral show in Tucson, a ceramic owl to hold pens and pencils, a paperweight I created when I took an art glass class with my mom, a vase full of objects found along the seashore—shells, rocks, and a toy elephant. A special place—no, a sacred place—dedicated to creativity.
Over the past year though, my sacred place to write became increasingly cluttered. Papers kept piling up and I kept putting off organizing them. In my defense, I’ve been busy: taking on a new job as a full-time academic advisor, teaching a writing class, completing nine editing projects (two of which were full-length novels), and releasing two books of my own. My place of inspiration became uninspired, which didn’t stoke the urge to create.
Finally, this weekend, I made time to go through the piles, tossing outdated and unnecessary documents and filing important ones. Why did I keep all this stuff? I guess I thought they were important at the time. It’s hard for me to be creative when I’ve got things hanging over my head, whether they are deadlines for other projects or piles of paper begging to be sorted. Purging was good for my soul, and my newly organized space is inspiring me once again.
My characters have been chatty lately, and I’m ready to see where they want to take me as I transcribe their adventures. I’ve got at least two novels in my head that are ready to hatch, and several others are still incubating. Finishing a book is just a matter of writing every chance I get, chipping away until I’ve got 90K words or so—a novel. My goal for this summer is to complete a first draft of one of the books I want to write. We’ll see how far I get.
I’ll have to be stingy with my writing time. I may go on hiatus from the blog from time to time if I’m on a writing stint, but I’ll surface with news about upcoming projects and events. If you’re on the north coast of Oregon and want to talk writing, stop by Lucy’s Books in Astoria for the Second Saturday Art Walk on July 8. I’ll be there from 5-8pm talking about my recent releases. I’ll also be at the Book Warehouse in Seaside in August and Klindt’s Booksellers in The Dalles in October. More news to come about those events.
I hope you have a wonderful summer. Between work and writing, I’ll try to remember to make time for the beach. The ocean is calling, and it can’t hurt to have more inspiration—find some sand dollars, play in the waves with my boys, and build a driftwood fort or two.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017
Monster in the Woods
On Saturday, March 4, at 4pm, I’ll be at the Astoria Library, offering a free writing workshop on character-driven fiction. I’ll be sharing tools I use in my own writing, and we’ll do several writing exercises on character, setting, and point of view. It’ll be fun. Then, at 6pm, I get to read from Sunset Empire, and I’ll be talking about how Astoria’s history and legends influenced my writing. I’m looking forward to it. As a sneak peek, here’s another excerpt from Sunset Empire. I hope you like it.
Greasy Jim hated the rain. Lucky for him, he’d traded his favorite alley for something drier. He wasn’t the overly friendly type (unless, of course, he happened upon a young woman walking alone down a dark alley—then he was much too friendly), but he’d managed to fall in with a group of squatters who were taking advantage of a recently foreclosed Victorian, butting up against the woods.
One benefit to squatting was the house provided shelter from the autumn storms ravaging the coast. It was also large enough that each of the five middle-aged alcoholics had room to spread out without becoming too much of an annoyance to the others. Two of them had prior arrests for shop-lifting, and Jim would have been nervous about this, had he owned anything worth stealing. As it was, they were pretty good at scoring liquor, so everyone was in good spirits.
The downside to the house was the power and water had been shut off, so Greasy Jim was forced to visit the backyard to take a leak. The house was quiet and dark as he stumbled from his sleeping bag and down the stairs. Glancing out the front window, he could see that the neighbors’ porch lights were out. Probably after midnight, if he had to guess the time.
He trudged through the overgrown grass in the yard and stood at the edge of the trees, peering into the darkness as he prepared to do his business. The older he got, the harder it was to pee. Someone at a bar once told him that drinking was healthy because it reduced the risk of prostate issues. He’d joked that with all he drank, he’d never have a problem. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. He sighed, and closed his eyes.
He heard a slight rustle in the brush in front of him, and suddenly smelled something foul. Skunk. His housemates wouldn’t be too happy if he startled the thing and got sprayed. But, they’d been even less happy if he didn’t deal with the problem and one of them encountered the critter later. His booze privileges could be revoked. He glanced over at the back door. There was a rusty shovel leaning against the wall. He wondered if skunk tasted better than it smelled. Desperate times, desperate measures, he decided.
He zipped up and crossed over to the back door, the tall grass pulling at his legs. Shovel in hand, he made his way back to where he’d smelled the skunk, scanning the undergrowth for a white stripe. He couldn’t see anything in the dark, but the stench was growing stronger. Now it smelled less musky and more like decay. He choked back bile and covered his nose with one hand, gripping the wooden handle of the shovel in the other.
Something massive erupted from the trees. It wrenched the shovel from him, snapping the handle in half. He barely registered the release of pressure in his bladder before something grabbed both his legs, jerking them out from under him. He felt the air leave his lungs as his back hit the ground. As he was dragged into the woods, he found he had just enough breath left to scream.
Thanks for reading!
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017
Words of Wisdom
I got to spend last evening with some lovely, lovely writers at a book event at the Blue Scorcher Bakery. (I highly recommend the Scorcher’s hot chocolate, by the way. So rich and creamy. Their shortbread and pizza are also amazing.) We had a great group of authors, offering something for every reader: Matt Crichton, Heather Douglas, Kestrel Gates, Andrea Larson Perez, Angela Sidlo, Deb Vanasse, and me. That’s one of the best things about attending these kinds of events—besides talking with readers—hearing from other writers about their lives and writing process.
As I went around saying hello, a couple of conversations stood out. Angela Sidlo, coauthor of the bestselling anthology, The Silver Linings Storybook: Successful Leaders Share Inspiring Stories of Overcoming Stormy Days in Personal and Professional Life, had this sage advice for aspiring writers: “Write every day, even if it’s just a series of random thoughts, and never give up!” Angela and I also talked about developing characters, and how sometimes, when you are immersed in writing, trying to see the world of the story through your character’s eyes, they almost seem to come alive. You start to visualize their universe and hear their words. That probably sounds crazy to non-writers, but in my experience, it’s true. I’ve learned to let go of my preconceived notions about how a scene should go, and let the characters drive the dialogue and action. The story is always stronger and more authentic for doing that.
Another piece of advice that struck me was from Diana Kirk, author of Licking Flames: Tales of a Half-Assed Hussy. Diana’s book is a series of essays about feminism, family, travel, owning a business, and embracing sexuality. It is raw, honest, and at times inspiring, heart-breaking, and laugh out loud funny. One thing I love about Diana is she is fearless. Fortune favors the bold, and that is certainly true for her. I’ve seen her take risks in seeking out opportunities, and her courage and confidence have paid off. That’s why I love her advice for would-be authors. “Don’t be afraid of rejection,” she said. You have to put yourself out there and be vulnerable if you want to progress in your writing career. Rejection is part of the job, whether it’s submitting your manuscript to agents and publishers, asking another author to blurb your book, having your book critiqued in a review, or sitting at an event and trying to convince readers to purchase your book. It’s not easy to push fear and self-doubt aside, but you have to do it if you want to keep moving forward. Seize the day, writers.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017
How I Found My Publisher
A few people have been curious about how I found a publisher for my suspense novel, Pitcher Plant, which will be released this spring. I thought I’d take some time and answer the question.
I connected with Filles Vertes Publishing through #PitMad (short for Pitch Madness), a pitch party on Twitter. The event was created by young adult author Brenda Drake, and I encourage you to check out her blog to learn more about her work and the details on #PitMad. She collects success stories from authors who have found agents and publishers through the event, so that’s a great resource for learning about what has worked for other people.
#PitMad occurs quarterly—the next event is March 23. If you have a completed, polished, unpublished manuscript, you pitch it to agents and publishers with a tweet on the day of the event. You have to be brief and focus on the main concept or conflict of the book. You include the book’s title and use hashtags so publishing professionals can sort by genre. For example, #YA would be used for a young adult book (there’s a genre list on Brenda’s blog). You include the hashtag #PitMad so your tweet shows up in the event feed. You can pitch three times on the day of the event, and it’s good to vary the times (think breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Professionals may view the feed at different times during the day, though I’ve noticed many of them check in early in the day. You can use the same pitch each time, or try different versions.
The key advantage to #PitMad is it’s a way to get out of the slush pile. If an agent or publisher favorites your tweet, that’s an invitation to send your query to them. You’ll want to follow their submission instructions (usually this means including #PitMad in the subject line of your email so they can easily spot your query). You’ll likely get a response more quickly than if you query without an invitation. You should research where you submit, because you want to tailor your query and make sure it’s a fit for that professional’s manuscript wish list, and also because anyone can say they are an agent or a publisher, and you want to be certain they’re legit.
A few tips on writing your query letter. First, always be courteous and professional (say thank you). You’re applying for a job, so don’t assume you’ll get a contract. If possible, let the agent or publisher know why you’ve chosen to query them—in this case, because they liked your pitch. Include critical information: the title, word count, genre, and if requested via the submission guidelines, whether or not the query is exclusive. Follow that with a brief description of the book, and then a short bio. With your bio, you want to focus on relevant experience: other books you’ve written, notable accomplishments like awards or bestselling lists, and other experience related to writing. You don’t need to include much else, although if you wanted one sentence on your other interests, just to show your personality, that would probably be okay. Publishing professionals are more interested in the content of your book and whether or not it has the potential to sell than your hobbies.
As an example, here’s the query letter I sent to Filles Vertes Publishing after #PitMad:
Dear FVP Team,
Thank you for your invitation to share more about my novel at this week’s PitMad event. Here is the pitch you favorited: Buying a seaside fixer-upper seemed like a great idea until Tawny unearthed a murder victim. Now she’s next.
Set in a beachside town in the Pacific Northwest, PITCHER PLANT is a suspense novel with romance and elements of horror. It is complete at 85,500 words.
When thirty-year-old Tawny Ellis spots a weathered fixer-upper for sale in Seaside, Oregon, she jumps at the chance to own a house near the beach. She and her husband Mark are tired of sinking money into a high-priced rental, and hope by investing in the house, they can supplement their income by opening a bed and breakfast. Their marriage begins to unravel as repairs cost more than expected, budget cuts threaten Mark’s job, and Mark grows jealous over Tawny’s budding friendship with an attractive handyman. Tensions rise as Nicholas Stroud, the house’s former owner, begins stalking Tawny and her two young daughters. Tawny learns that Stroud lost his childhood home through foreclosure, and believes he may still be angry over the loss.
Then one of Tawny’s daughters starts talking about a new friend, one who might be imaginary. This friend bears a striking resemblance to a former resident, a little girl who squatted in the house with her drug-addicted mother during the foreclosure. Now the girl and her mother are missing, and Tawny suspects Stroud may be responsible for their disappearances. After finding evidence of foul play in the house, Tawny fears she and her daughters may become Stroud’s next victims.
I am an award-winning author living near Seaside with twin boys, a neurotic dog, and a piranha. Sign of the Throne, my debut young adult novel published by an independent press, won a 2014 Reader’s Favorite International Book Award and a 2014 Eric Hoffer Book Award. My third book, The Sower Comes, won a 2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award. My fourth book, Sunset Empire, was released this week in the Secrets and Shadows YA box set. Today I was excited to learn that the collection is a #1 Amazon Bestseller in the UK.
Besides my weekly blog on MelissaEskueOusley.com, I contribute monthly articles about writing, editing, and marketing to BookDaily.com and I have edited for Barking Rain Press and Lorincz Literary.
Thank you for your time and for considering my submission. The first 25 pages are included below.
Melissa Eskue Ousley
I hope this is helpful. Comment if you have questions, and best of luck with your submissions!
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017
Getting Naked in Public
This weekend I went to a release party held at the Hoffman Center for the Arts for the North Coast Squid, a literary magazine. I was honored that Sacred, one of my short stories, had been accepted for publication, and I was excited to read it to an audience. I was a little nervous too, if I’m honest. I don’t have much fear about speaking in public, but reading from my own work is different. It’s more intimate.
It’s like I told my writing class: sharing your writing with another human being is like getting naked in public. Not that I’m in the habit of actually exposing myself—trust me, nobody wants to see that—but when you write, you bare your soul. When you show your work to another person, you leave yourself vulnerable—not just to criticism, but to being seen. You can hide behind a nom de plume, but you are still the force behind the words, giving them life.
Even if your work isn’t autobiographical, there is some part of you that goes into it. We write what we know, how we think, how we see the world. It takes courage to put yourself out there, to share something that intimate. “It takes guts,” I told my class.
“Guts with a Z,” one of my students replied.
“Guts with a Z,” I agreed. It takes gutz, and I applaud anyone who shares their creative work, even if it’s only with one other person. Not just the writers, but the artists, singers, musicians, dancers, designers. Anyone who creates, taking what’s in their heads and sharing it with others, making the world a better place.
It takes courage to give and receive feedback too, and that’s what we’re doing in class. Helping each other strengthen our work, so when we send it out into the world, it’s practically bulletproof. We’re helping each other become better writers by encouraging each other and learning from each other.
My reading of my short story went well. People laughed in the right places, my voice held out, and I didn’t trip over my feet when I left the stage. I got lots of compliments on my work afterwards. The best one was from a man who said he appreciated how my characters changed from the start of the story to the end. “Thanks,” I said, pleased that he understood the point I’d been trying to convey about the conflict in the story. “I wanted to show that even though people can be unpleasant, there’s always a reason, something in their history that has led up to that point.”
It made me feel good that there was so much warmth and support at this event for fellow writers and artists. I loved listening to the other pieces, fiction and non-fiction, as well as poetry. It’s good to get out of my writing space and hear what other people are doing, to see their courage as they share their work. It takes gutz to do what we do, and that inspires me.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Rejection sucks. We all face it at one point or another, and if you’re a writer, you might encounter it more than other people because you’re constantly making yourself vulnerable, whether you’re submitting your work to agents, publishers, or book reviewers. You can’t make people fall in love with you; you can only submit your best work and hope that someone will like it enough to give you a chance.
Even though I’ve had some of my work published, I’m still pitching projects, and even though I get more positive feedback than I used to, I still get rejections. I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with rejection. These days when I get a rejection letter, I don’t even flinch. I can’t afford to waste energy feeling bad about another failed attempt. I’d rather spend that energy creating. I tell myself, “Okay, now move on.” I have a spreadsheet I use to keep track of queries sent to agents and publishers, so I make a note under the appropriate entry, recording the outcome of the query. Then I move on to focus on something productive.
That’s how it works most days, at least. Other days, I feel like the universe’s punching bag.
You’ve probably heard that quaint little phrase people use at such times: when one door closes another door opens. It was Alexander Graham Bell who said that, and he was a man who knew a thing or two about failure and rejection. Here’s the full quote:
“When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
A worthwhile notion, but some days, I feel like I’m trapped in a room full of doors that have all slammed shut. I’d love to try another door, but there are none to be found. I’ve exhausted my options, and I’m stuck.
Some days I feel like I’m sailing a tiny boat through a storm, helpless to watch as it is thrashed against rocks by angry waves. My sails have wilted, my mast is cracked, and it’s all I can do to hold on and bail water. Overly dramatic? Probably. But don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Star-crossed heroes fighting against the odds, even if it’s only in our own story? Surely I’m not the only one who has days like this.
There’s another saying: when it rains, it pours. I don’t know who said that, but it’s a good way of conveying the idea of a number of difficult things happening at the same time. On those days, it feels like the universe is cruel, taking pleasure in raining misfortune on your head.
I had one of those days recently—four rejections in a single day. Two of those were hard to shake off. One was for a job I would have been thrilled to have because it seemed like a great opportunity to use my writing skills. That one stung, because I felt like I’d done well in the interview and thought I might receive an offer. The other hurt worse. It was from a publisher I’d wanted to work with, who had been talking with me about the possibility of writing a sequel to the book I was pitching. Hearing no, after a series of conversations that felt like they could be a yes, wasn’t easy.
It’s hard to stay focused on those days, to see the big picture. It’s easy to question why I keep making myself vulnerable to rejection, why I’m even trying. Wouldn’t it be easier to just stop, to be content with all the good things I have in my life? It would, but then I’d always long for more. I didn’t have the heart to write anything that day. I wanted to take a vacation from my own thoughts for a while, to escape those feelings of failure and disappointment.
I told one of my sons I was having a rough day, and he gave me a hug, which is one of the best things in the world. I prayed—for wisdom, for strength, for direction.* Then I went and volunteered at my other son’s swim meet. Focusing on other people was a good antidote for a bruised ego. After that, we went out for pizza and bowling. Spending time with my favorite people was good medicine too.
The next day I woke up, took inventory of what I could do better, and got back to work. I’m battered, but not beaten. I still have hope.
*P.S. During my talk with God asking for direction, I asked for a sign that I’m on the right path, something positive to show me I should keep writing. Five days later, I got a message saying one of my short stories had been accepted in a literary journal. I take that as a sign and a victory. This week, I feel like doors could open, walls could get knocked down. I’m grateful.
P.P.S. Maybe you believe in that kind of thing, maybe you don’t. My point is this—don’t give up just yet. We all face rejection as we work toward our goals, but you never know what’s coming next. Maybe it’s better than you imagine.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
So, You Want to be a Writer…
Sometimes I get questions from readers, and I enjoy answering them. I know a lot of you out there are into writing, so I think you’ll find this interesting. Here’s the question and my answer.
“I have a question for you since you are a published writer. Was it hard to get your work published? How did you decide on genre? I would like to start writing and just didn’t know how to get started.”
Well, when I began this journey, I wasn’t sure how to get started either. I was an avid reader, but I knew nothing about the publishing industry—how the process works, how to query an agent, how presses choose what they will publish—none of that. I’ve been doing this for a number of years now, and I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons. I still don’t have all the answers, but maybe what I’ve learned will make your path easier.
I started writing because I had a story in my head and I wanted to see how it would play out. I can’t say I set out with genre in mind. I was simply writing the kind of story I wanted to read. I wrote a fantasy story with a teen protagonist, so my books are classified as young adult fantasy. At some point, the story took shape and became a novel, and I thought I’d attempt to get it published. Thus began years (YEARS!) of querying agents. Scary, right? Okay, stay with me—don’t get frightened away just yet.
One thing I did correctly is I finished the novel before sending out queries. This is important, because if an agent likes your fiction, they will want to read the whole story. If you don’t have a completed manuscript, game over. (For non-fiction, it’s different. You query with a proposal which may include an outline and sample chapters, depending on the agent’s submission guidelines, and the book does not have to be finished.) So, step one, finish your story.
How do you get started? Begin with short stories or with characters in a scenario, and write every day if you can. Try for an average of 1,000 or more words a day. If you do that every day for three months, you’ll have a novel of 90,000 words. (A note on length: 80-90 thousand words is a good range for a book, depending on genre.) It may take you more than three months, because, let’s face it, other obligations get in the way. But keep going. Don’t worry if it sucks. That’s what revision is for. Finish that first draft.
While you’re working on your book, read as much as you can. Read books similar to yours. Read books that are different too. Think critically about what you read, noting the choices an author makes. Think about what works and what doesn’t. Read books on the craft, and challenge yourself to do better. My favorite writing book is On Writing by Stephen King. It’s a practical and entertaining read, and the guy knows what he’s talking about.
Step two, edit your story. Polish it as much as you can, then give it to a beta reader for critical feedback. After reading your book a number of times, you’ll no longer be able to see the typos. Find somebody smart to give you an honest critique, who you trust to have your best interests in mind. Somebody who can be brutal, but who you’ll still talk to afterward. I have friends who do this for me, people who I respect deeply, who are intelligent and can tell me the truth, whether I’ve got a plot hole or my fly is down. You might also consider hiring a professional editor. The cost is worth it. I truly believe that without my editor, my work wouldn’t be as strong, and I wouldn’t have found a publisher. Another option is to join a writing group. Your fellow writers can give you feedback on your writing and may have insight into the publishing industry.
Your book needs to be as strong as it can be before you send it to agents or publishers, because if your sample pages have too many errors, they will get annoyed and stop reading. Agents get thousands and thousands of queries. Publishing is a competitive industry. If you want to get through the slush pile, your query letter and sample work need to be free of errors and compelling enough to keep them reading. Great writing doesn’t guarantee a contract, however, so don’t take rejections personally. Even if you write beautifully, the agent has to be able to sell your work. Sometimes they love your concept, but there’s no market for it.
That doesn’t mean you should give up. If you really want to do this writing thing, keep going. Research the industry—what type of books agents represent and how to write an effective query letter. Two good resources for this are WritersDigest.com and BookDaily.com. I also recommend reading How Can I Find A Literary Agent?: And 101 Other Questions Asked By Writers by agents Chip MacGregor and Holly Lorincz. It’s full of practical advice to help you as you query. In the meantime, you can keep writing, working on your second book, right?
Do you need an agent to get published? No, but most large publishing houses won’t review your work without one. You can also publish your work independently, not going with a publisher at all. The advantage to that is you make all the choices about how your book will look, and you keep the profits. The disadvantage is the market is flooded with independently published books, and without exposure and a distributor, your book won’t be on shelves in stores unless you do the work to get it there. (I’m oversimplifying for the sake of brevity here—the process for getting books in stores is complicated.)
So how did I get published? I went a different route. I attended a local writing conference called Summer in Words, which I highly recommend if you’re in the Pacific Northwest. There, I met a publicist who also serves as a book shepherd. A book shepherd functions like an agent, except instead of working with an author long-term and on commission, the shepherd sends out proposals on your behalf for a fee. Our proposal package consisted of a description of my book, my bio, a list of comparable titles, sample pages, and a marketing plan. We sent it to ten small publishers who did not require representation by an agent. One of them offered me a publishing contract for my young adult trilogy.
I’m grateful to all the people who helped me get published—beta readers, my editor, my book shepherd, my publisher, other authors who mentored me…I’ve learned much through the process. I’ve learned about the industry in marketing my books and in working as an editor for another press. It’s interesting to be on the other side, to be the person critiquing submissions. You gain insight into what works with queries and what doesn’t.
It’s tough to get published. Believe me, I know. I’m in the trenches with you right now. I’m still looking for representation by an agent, but I get more requests for full manuscripts than I used to, so I’m getting closer. I’ll keep you posted if I get an offer. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m hopeful I’ll find the right publishing home for my new books. I’ll keep going, and if you want to get published, you keep going too. Don’t give up.
I hope that answers the question. If you have more questions, send them my way. I’ll help if I can. Best of luck.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016