Happy Holidays! 2016 has been a Twilight Zone of a year, but I hope you’ve had some good moments in spite of that. I have. Some highlights were finding out my third book, The Sower Comes, won a book award, and hearing that the Secrets and Shadows boxed set had become a bestseller in the UK. I’ve had some nice opportunities, like releasing Sunset Empire and telling ghost stories on the Astoria Trolley on Halloween.
My blog will be taking a hiatus for a few weeks so I can focus on my family, but I’m looking forward to 2017. My goals are to finish a book called Riverbound I’m co-writing with a friend, and to finish editing a vampire novel for another author. I’m also excited about two upcoming book events. More on all that in January. In the meantime, there’s a giveaway for Sunset Empire on Goodreads. I hope you’ll enter if you haven’t already.
What are you reading right now? I just started Trevor Noah’s biography, Born a Crime. It’s a fascinating and timely read which I highly recommend. It’s about him growing up in South Africa during apartheid, and his mother having to keep him hidden since he was bi-racial and interracial relationships were illegal. If they’d gotten caught, his parents would have been thrown in jail, and he would have been taken away and put in an orphanage. Here’s the book description:
Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.
Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.
The stories collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.
I also recommend one of my favorite reads of 2016, The Fireman, by Joe Hill. It’s about a plague that causes the infected to spontaneously combust. What I found so compelling about the book was the way society unraveled in the face of an end of the world pandemic. Here’s the book description:
The fireman is coming. Stay cool.
No one knows exactly when it began or where it originated. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. The doctors call it Draco Incendia Trychophyton. To everyone else it’s Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe.
Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse as pragmatic as Mary Poppins, treated hundreds of infected patients before her hospital burned to the ground. Now she’s discovered the telltale gold-flecked marks on her skin. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper wants to live—at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term. At the hospital, she witnessed infected mothers give birth to healthy babies and believes hers will be fine too. . . if she can live long enough to deliver the child.
Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged, and eventually abandons her as their placid New England community collapses in terror. The chaos gives rise to ruthless Cremation Squads—armed, self-appointed posses roaming the streets and woods to exterminate those who they believe carry the spore. But Harper isn’t as alone as she fears: a mysterious and compelling stranger she briefly met at the hospital, a man in a dirty yellow fire fighter’s jacket, carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known as The Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted . . . and as a weapon to avenge the wronged.
In the desperate season to come, as the world burns out of control, Harper must learn the Fireman’s secrets before her life—and that of her unborn child—goes up in smoke.
What to read in 2017? I meant to read Three Dark Crowns, by Kendare Blake, but I’ve run out of time. That will be top of my to-read list. Here’s what the book is about:
In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.
But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins.
The last queen standing gets the crown.
I haven’t yet read Stephen King’s End of the Watch either, so I’m going to have to rectify that. This book is the third of a trilogy. I love everything Stephen King writes, but this series has been a favorite. Here’s a description:
The spectacular finale to the New York Times bestselling trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes (winner of the Edgar Award) and Finders Keepers—In End of Watch, the diabolical “Mercedes Killer” drives his enemies to suicide, and if Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney don’t figure out a way to stop him, they’ll be victims themselves.
In Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, something has awakened. Something evil. Brady Hartsfield, perpetrator of the Mercedes Massacre, where eight people were killed and many more were badly injured, has been in the clinic for five years, in a vegetative state. According to his doctors, anything approaching a complete recovery is unlikely. But behind the drool and stare, Brady is awake, and in possession of deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.
Retired police detective Bill Hodges, the unlikely hero of Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, now runs an investigation agency with his partner, Holly Gibney—the woman who delivered the blow to Hartsfield’s head that put him on the brain injury ward. When Bill and Holly are called to a suicide scene with ties to the Mercedes Massacre, they find themselves pulled into their most dangerous case yet, one that will put their lives at risk, as well as those of Bill’s heroic young friend Jerome Robinson and his teenage sister, Barbara. Brady Hartsfield is back, and planning revenge not just on Hodges and his friends, but on an entire city.
In End of Watch, Stephen King brings the Hodges trilogy to a sublimely terrifying conclusion, combining the detective fiction of Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers with the heart-pounding, supernatural suspense that has been his bestselling trademark. The result is an unnerving look at human vulnerability and chilling suspense. No one does it better than King.
Do you have any recommendations for my reading list?
Hope your holidays are wonderful, and all the best to you in the new year.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
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