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March 27, 2015No Comments

Why I’ll Likely Self-Publish

I've been struggling to find a literary agent for one of my two fiction novels for more than a year now. I've pitched the story at conferences and via email, and received a steady trickle of rejections. Mostly formulaic responses, some nicer than others, one or two with encouraging words, but all the same rejection in the end.

People tell me to take heart. Kathryn Stockett was rejected 60 times before finding someone to accept her debut novel, The Help.

Others tell me to self-publish. After all, the greatest thing about the Internet and the print-on-demand technology is that I don't have to rely on someone else to "give me permission" to publish my novel. I can do it myself.

But since I was a girl, I wanted to be an author, and I thought authors needed agents and publishers. And to be honest, I don't want to sort out ISBN numbers and e-book formats and cover art. I want to write.

However, the truth is that I cannot get a foothold in the publishing business. I've tried to figure out the rules of what makes an agent accept your work. I've been told all of these things:

  1. It's all about the writing. If the writing is good, we'll consider it.
  2. Target agents based on their interests and other clients.
  3. Format your manuscripts properly and be professional.
  4. No typos!
  5. Make me fall in love with your characters.
  6. I've got to be hooked on the first page.
  7. Create a narrative voice I haven't heard before.
  8. Create a world that I want to learn more about.
  9. Develop a platform and fan base first.
  10. It's a subjective business.

I've worked in business long enough to know that following the rules only gets you so far, and by this, I mean that you can follow rules to a "T" but still get rejected for just not being the right fit. Which has led me to the recent conclusion that most of those tips are noise, because number 10 seems to trump them all.

Case in point: take a look at just a handful of the rejection emails (form letters) I've received.

  1. I'm sorry. This is not for me.
  2. You have an interesting idea for a book and there's a lot to like about your approach. But in the end I'm afraid I didn't come away from this quite fully convinced this was something I think I'd be able to represent successfully. (I've gotten this exact same email for both of my novels.)
  3. I’m afraid your book isn’t a good match for my list.
  4. Having considered it carefully, we have decided that we are not the right fit for your project, and so we are going to pass at this time.
  5. As interesting as your novel sounds, I don't believe I would be the best agent to represent your work.

The world of book publishing has changed. I may need to admit that despite persistence and hard work, I may not find a traditional book deal waiting for me. And that I should take advantage of the opportunities afforded by self-publishing to reach readers directly.

I'll just wait until the latest batch of rejections finishes trickling in, to be certain.

 

December 5, 20143 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Right-size

Alicia spouted business cliches with such earnestness that I had to wonder if she'd been living under a rock for 2o years. How could anyone in the year 2014 call for a paradigm shift or blame something on a perfect storm without a measure of irony at the sheer overuse of the terms? Then she stood up and announced it was time to think out of the box. I rubbed my forehead like I was really thinking hard so she wouldn't see me roll my eyes.

Privacy screen in place, I fired up the laptop to watch some funny cat videos and daydream about starting my own business. The meeting droned on around me and I vaguely heard someone say something about squaring a circle. I had no idea what that meant.

I did have a great idea for a new business watching the news about the day-after-Thanksgiving retail sales. Professional line-waiting. It's an untapped niche of the service industry. Thousands of people want to score $79 flat-screen televisions and tablets but they don't want to wait in line outside the Best Buy for four days. I'd hire the homeless and the otherwise unemployed to secure places in line. Then, on the day of the sale, my savvy customer could simply swoop in to take their place and get the great pricing without all the hassle.

I had just come up with the slogan We Wait For You when Alicia's voice cut through the fantasy.

"The upshot here is that on a go-forward basis we need to right-size this department," she said.

The phrase "right-size" got my attention because every business school flunkie knows that when managers say right-size they mean it's time to fire some people. I shut the laptop screen without even watching the video kitten get out of the cardboard box, as Alicia demanded everyone stand up. I got to my feet, exchanging confused glances with the cubicle warriors around me, then watched as Alicia's assistant wheeled two chairs out of the conference room. Were we going to have meetings where everyone had to stand now, like those Silicon Valley companies do? I'd just read a story on the Huffington Post about how making people stand during meetings encouraged creativity or teamwork or fewer restroom breaks.

Alicia swiped at her smart phone. "Everyone remember the rules for musical chairs?"

Concerned looks bounced around the room. Was she serious?

The dance track "What Does the Fox Say" inexplicably blared from the tiny speaker on her phone and she bounced her head in rhythm. "When the music stops, find a chair. If you find a chair, you keep your job. If you're left standing, well, sayonara and we wish you well."

There was barely time to be stunned or protest because my colleagues starting marching around the conference room table, hands grazing chair backs in the hopes that continued contact would bring an advantage.

The music stopped just as the singer was about to answer the song's titular question. Alicia grinned as eight adults in business casual bumped hips and settled rumps into chairs. Me? I was left standing, along with Ruben from marketing. He looked like he was going to cry.

"I know this seems tough," Alicia said. "But remember, in Chinese, the word crisis also means opportunity. Or something like that. One door shuts, another one opens."

Ruben turned on his heel and walked out. Nine sets of eyes shifted to me.

"I see it as a win-win," I said. "Let me know if you want me to wait in line for you at the Apple store. I'll give you the discounted rate."

 

November 14, 20143 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Abandoned shoe

The police helicopter’s spotlight bounced through layers of Southern California dust on my windshield to illuminate the Chevy's dashboard. Hip-hop music nearly masked the scream of the police sirens behind me. I counted two news stations circling the orange-streaked evening sky above me. High-speed chase alerts were breaking news in this town, and mine could be spectacular, if I wasn’t careful.

You see, that night there was a full moon. With the sun dropping fast, my skin was already starting to prickle and burn. Griffith Park was the nearest wilderness LA had to offer, and I needed to get there fast, before the hairs started popping out and my transformation was underway. I punched the gas at the freeway exit and took the turn into the park on two wheels. 

A shiver pulsed through my body as my muscles expanded to split my khakis at the seams. I screeched into the deserted parking lot near the merry-go-round, five seconds ahead of three black-and-whites and a K9 unit. I kicked the door open with one foot-turning-paw, and my running shoe popped off like a billiard ball bouncing off of a pool table bumper. I heard car doors opening, and someone shouting “Stop and put your hands up!” but my wolf brain had already taken over. I threw my head back and howled at the moon before leaping into the scrubby hillside, shoes no longer needed.

November 7, 20142 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Sparrow

The portal had dissolved the hospital wall, but only Netta seemed to notice. The nurses flowed in and out of the room without so much as a glance at the garden that had materialized.

Netta tried to get the night nurse to pluck her a flower from one of wild bushes on the edge of the path. But her tongue couldn't form the right words, and her feverish pointing at the portal only convinced the nurse to bring her the bed pan.

Netta caught the faint scent of roses before the sharpness of rubbing alcohol erased it entirely. The nurse was back, and she took possession of Netta's arm and pricked its tender underbelly.

The nurse didn't notice when a sparrow flew out of the portal and sat on the bed railing. And she didn't react at all when the bird started singing. She only looked up from her vampiric task when Netta sang along with the bird.

But now it was Netta's turn not to notice. She was in the garden, silky grass under her feet. Her hand wrapped around one of the pink and white flowers bursting out of its fragile cage of thin branches and stiff leaves.

 

October 31, 20143 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Halloween Run

Kelly hopped up the curb and onto the dusty path that ringed North Hollywood Park. The loop was just under a mile, and she figured she could get two laps in before dusk dissolved to night and burn enough calories to enjoy at least some of her son's Halloween candy.

Ahead, the trail was empty. Everyone was either trick or treating or preparing for a night of revelry. But before she'd run five steps, out of the corner of her eye she sensed movement. A boy in a dirty white tshirt leaned against the scarred wood of one of eucalyptus trees lining the park, studying her with wide eyes.

Her initial smile faltered when the boy didn’t smile back. His reaction was not a reaction at all; instead he continued to watch her, eyes hooded, unblinking and malevolent. He gripped something brown and furry. She extended her legs in longer-than-usual strides, suddenly anxious to put some distance between them.

She heard a scratching sound behind her and glanced back, hoping to see a fellow jogger. Someone normal. But it was the boy running behind her, keeping pace. His sneakers made no sound on the path, nor did they kick up dust like hers did.

He quickened his pace to close the gap between them. He drew near enough that she could see the brown furry thing in his hand was a squirrel. And it was dead.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as tall as acupuncture needles. She cut off the main path to a shortcut she knew would get her to the main street faster. She closed her eyes and ran for her car, parked under a streetlight 100 yards away.

With shaking hands she opened the car door and slid into the driver’s seat, only to see the dead squirrel laying on the passenger seat. 

She screamed. Perfectly framed within the rearview mirror was a reflection of the boy's eyes, dark and reptilian. Impossibly, supernaturally, he sat in the back seat.

The knife glinted in his hand.

October 24, 20143 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Haunted

The man in the Edgar Allen Poe tshirt wasn’t acting. He was actually bleeding to death on the grounds of Minta Deek’s Haunted Playground. But the drunken revelers ignored the moans and gurgles escaping from his slit throat. One even stepped over him and then called his performance “inauthentic.” 

Everyone’s a critic, Richard thought, wiping the knife handle on his shirt then tossing it in the thorns of an ugly shrub. Though, he had to admit, he had witnessed some pretty lackluster performances from the zombie crew by the swimming pool. Minta didn’t pay enough to attract top talent. It was one of the things they fought about as early business partners, before she forced him out of the company.

Hands and arms trembling, the dying man’s eyes started to close. One last cough shook his body and then he was still. Richard faded into the background and pretended to look at his phone. He hoped that Minta herself would appear on the scene so he could watch her reaction up close. 

One of the rent-a-cops stooped over the man and shook him by the shoulder, then backed away as fast as a little girl from a snake.

“We’ve got a situation,” he said into his radio. “Someone’s been murdered.” Pause. “No, I’m not f--king kidding, Albert, you idiot. Some guy got his throat slit.”

Richard thought about the bouquet of flowers he had sent to Minta today, after signing the separation papers. “Good luck with your business,” he wrote on the card. He hoped she would get the sarcasm as he intended, once she realized that her haunted playground was a crime scene and soon would be shut down. What he really wanted to say was "good luck with your lawsuits and insurance and bad publicity" but sometimes subtlety was best.

October 17, 20142 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Spooky dooky

The power went out and with it every electrical form of entertainment that kept Anna and Jackson and their babysitter Makenna occupied.

Makenna didn’t like the way the darkness turned the potted plants into monsters or the way it amplified the old house's unfamiliar creaks. But she worked so hard to convince her parents that she was responsible enough to babysit at the ripe old age of 13, so no way was she going to let on that she was scared by a little power outage.

Rubbing the stone of courage on her charm bracelet, Makenna forced a big smile. “I've got a fun idea! Let’s play spooky dooky,” she said. “It’s like hide and seek, but in the dark with a flashlight.”

“Do we get flashlights?” Anna asked.

“Only the seeker gets the flashlight. Now you two hide while I count to ten, and I’ll come find you.”

“Will you close your eyes?” Jackson said.

“You don’t have to close your eyes in the dark!” she said, giving him a little tickle.

Something about the darkness made her hearing more acute. She could hear Anna’s heavier steps on the staircase, and Jackson’s on the wood floor of dining room. In the kitchen, the plastic flap of the dog door slapped back and forth.

"Cookie, come here." She wanted the labrador's company; the big dog made her feel safer. But she didn't hear the sound of nails on the kitchen linoleum. Just a heavy thump.

Maybe Cookie was lying down for a nap.

She started counting in a loud voice.

“10, 9, 8...” 

It was so quiet in the house, without cartoons or video games or the hum of the refrigerator or whoosh of the air conditioner. It made Makenna’s thoughts so loud. And had she always breathed so fast?

“7, 6, 5...” She paused, waiting to hear the dog’s nails on the kitchen linoleum. Instead there was a heavy thump. Maybe Cookie was laying down for a nap. 

“4, 3, 2...” 

“1,” she called out. “Here I come!” Jackson giggled. 

Makenna turned the flashlight on and walked to the kitchen, looking for Cookie. She swung the beam of light across the kitchen floor.

A pair of men’s brown boots shone in the quivering beam of the flashlight. Her breathing get heavier, like she was hyperventilating. The kitchen floor felt like it was covered in glue, holding her flip-flops in place. Goosebumps appeared on her arms despite the warmth of the night.

With shaking hand, she scanned the light beam up on dark jeans, a black zip-up sweatshirt, and a face shadowed by a hood. In his hand was an empty cloth sack. 

She lost her grip on the flashlight. Its light bounced violently around the room until it hit the floor and rolled toward him.

"I'll find the children for you," he said, picking up the flashlight.

October 10, 2014No Comments

Fiction in a minute: Method acting


“Surprised!” Grayson typed in the caption box under the selfie he just posted. It was part of his “emotional expression” series of self-portraits he was posting on his blog, a reaction to a casting director who recently said his facial expressions weren’t subtle enough for on-camera work. Jerk.

The doorknob on his apartment door rattled. He clutched the phone in the palm of his hand and rose from the couch. It was too early for his roommate Elijiah to be back from the movie premiere.

Metal on metal clicks, a catch and the bolt sliding out of the lock. He tried to peer through the peephole but saw nothing but the reflection of his own eye.

“Elijiah?” No answer, just the sound of his own light, quick breathing. 

The door handle turned, and Grayson put his hands out to hold it shut. But the force applied on the other side was too strong for him to counter. He watched helplessly as his feet slid back on the entryway linoleum and the door swung open.

Grayson didn’t recognize the man. Tall, shoulders as broad as Elijiah’s Prius, black hair and dark brown eyes. Good looking but too old to be Grayson’s type. One of Elijiah’s kinky daddies maybe?

Then Grayson saw the man’s fingers were curled around the handle of knife with a nasty curved tip.

Grayson was seriously under-armed and out of his weight class. He’d have to go for ingenuity. He grabbed his keys from the nearby table and rushed the man, aiming the sharp metal ends at his eyes. The man slammed his palm into Grayson’s shoulder, blasting the keys and the phone from his hands and onto the floor. Then, with a smooth, trained movement, he knocked his fist into Grayson’s jaw, caught him as he reeled back and dragged him to the couch. Grayson went limp against the cushions with fear while the man bound his hands and feet with zip ties.

Satisfied Grayson wasn’t going to move, the man picked up the phone and swiped at its screen. Knife in one hand, he held the phone up and the flash went off.

“You can call this picture ‘fear’,” the man said. “Should I post it?”

He turned the screen around to show Grayson a picture he hardly recognized of himself--eyes bulging, mouth gaping open, split lip starting to swell.

“You’re sick, ” Grayson spat. 

The man leaned in, his curly black hair tickling Grayson’s nose and filling it with the smell of herbal shampoo. Grayson pulled his knees up, hoping to find enough leverage to connect with the man’s balls. Then a sharp pain bit into the underside of his forearm and his legs went slack.

Tears sprung to Grayson’s eyes as two drops of blood slid off the knife and onto the beige carpet.

“What do you want?” 

The man held up the phone again and took another picture. “This one is called ‘pain.’” He showed Grayson the image--watery eyes, color drained from his face, lips pressed together tight. Grayson’s breathing was light and shallow, sticky blood pouring out of his arm. He struggled against the zip ties and fell onto his side.

“Now, now,” the man said, swiping at the phone. “You’ve already got five ‘likes’ from your friends for the fear photo.”

He peered at the screen closely. “In fact, Lisbeth says you are a brilliant actor.”

Grayson could see his blood streaking the sofa. He was already feeling light-headed. He squirmed and inched his way to the far side of the couch, trying to get enough distance between them to land a kick on the man’s abdomen before he could do any more harm.

So, let’s try the ‘pain’ one again. The first one wasn’t your best work.”

Grayson rolled on his spine and kicked out his feet into the man’s gut as hard as he could. The man grunted and stumbled backward against the kitchen counter. The knife went flying, hitting the flatscreen TV before falling to the carpet with a thud. Grayson fell from couch and reached for the knife, cutting the zip ties and placing the knife under the man’s chin.

“Who in the hell are you and what do you want?”

“Cool it, man. Cool it. Elijiah sent me. I’m Ryan from Actor’s School. He said you were trying to tap into your deepest feelings. He wanted me to help. He thought you might even find it a turn on.”

Grayson let the words sink in. Ryan from Actor’s School. Elijiah’s method actor friend he was always talking about. 

Ryan smiled at him. “Fear is the real deal, isn’t it? Clears the mind.”

Grayson looked at the wound on his arm. Already the blood had stopped flowing. The cut wasn’t as deep as he thought, though it still burned.

Grayson felt the laughter in his belly first, shaking his core and then erupting from his swollen lips. 

October 3, 20141 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Killer app

Ashley and Calvin stood behind their orange shopping cart, arms touching but eyes fixed on their smart phones as they waited for the one Big Lots cashier to work her way through a line of 20 customers.

“That candy corn display has me thinking," Ashley said. "Let’s go to one of those haunted house thingeys. There is a zombie one at Universal Studios."

“I’m so over zombies,” he said, his eyes flicking through football scores on the tiny screen. “Anyway, tickets to that are, like fifty-five dollars. We don’t have that kind of money.”

Ashley sighed. He was right. The ramen noodles, no-name laundry detergent, and scratchy toilet paper in their cart were a testament to their lack of funds. She swiped and clicked the phone’s touchscreen, looking for budget Halloween festivities.

“Hey, here’s a free app. Spooky crime scene sites in Los Angeles. Says it guides you around haunted sites in LA.”

Calvin pulled his eyes from the sports mobile app to Ashley. “I bet I can name most of them,” he said, tapping his fingers against his crinkled forehead. “Black Dahlia murder site near USC. The Manson murder site in Benedict Canyon. Fairfax & Wilshire where Tupac was shot. Nicole Simpson's condominium in Brentwood. Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel.”

“You’re a trivia ghoul, Calvin,” she said. “Look, one of the places is right around the corner. It’s that boarded up house on Weddington.”

Calvin squinted at her screen. “A young couple was found brutally murdered in an abandoned house in North Hollywood. Suspects were never found; no motive was discovered. Does it say when that happened?”

She scanned the text and shook her head. “Nope. But let’s load the stuff in the car and walk over there. Cheap thrills.”

The house was a shell of neglect, its yard a wasteland of dried up plants and fast food wrappers. Sandwiched between two derelict warehouses, it smelled faintly of burning trash. Calvin shivered. 

“This is stupid, Ash, let’s go home,” he said, but she just smiled and scrambled through a hole in the fence to stand on the porch. “Take my picture, honey,” she said. 

The front door creaked open. Ashley screamed as a man’s dark silhouette covered her and disappeared into the house.  

Heart pounding, Calvin ducked through the cut chain-link and ran through the door. A second man stood in the shadows, light glinting off of the gun he held.

“Come on in,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

September 26, 20142 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Target practice

Safety reasons. That was what I told everyone at Gunslingers firing range that morning when they asked why I wanted to learn how to shoot a gun. It was a lie. Julianne and I were there to meet men, but saying that out loud makes you look desperate. Saying we needed protection was the perfect answer. No one was going to ask us any more questions. They were afraid we had sad stories to tell. The truly clever bit is that everyone knows guys can't resist a damsel in distress. Go read Sleeping Beauty or Twilight or see a James Bond movie and you'll see I'm right.

Last night Julianne and me did a little manhunting at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was pretty depressing. I seriously needed a beer after hearing all those sad stories. But you can't drink with those guys. They get all serious about it, like one beer is going to kill them. Guys who shoot guns have to be more fun than teetotalers, right?

Damn, though, pickings were more slim at Gunslingers than they were on that online dating site for old folks. Julianne started in with the instructor, fluttering those long eyelashes she started growing since her doctor prescribed those glaucoma eye drops. That left me with grizzled grandpa, barbed wire tattoo guy, or mystery man who didn't speak English.

I pointed at the box of guns the instructor brought in. "Is there a pink one?" I asked no one in particular. Barbed wire tattoo guy ignored me; mystery man posed for a selfie photo clutching his revolver to his chest. Grandpa smiled politely at me, so I picked up the revolver by the muzzle and looked confused.

"Do you know how to load this?"

Gramps took it out of my hands and filled it with bullets in one smooth movement.

"You're so good at that," I purred.

"Been doing it for years," he said.

"Maybe I don't need to learn how to shoot a gun. I can just take you home with me," I said. His polite smile morphed into a surprised grin.

Bulls-eye.