Writing while on sub, the first rule of Fight Club, and what I’m reading…GHOST HUNTER’S DAUGHTER

It’s become a cliché, the idea that being a writer on submission is an awful lot like Fight Club…the first rule is you don’t talk about it. In fact, so is the second rule. And come to think of it, most of the Fight Club rules* apply to being a writer on submission…

*I mean, come on. Look at Rule #7.
If that isn’t shorthand for the publishing journey,
I don’t know what is.

There are many good reasons for the radio silence you’ll get from writers on sub, and probably a good number of superstitions as well. And unlike querying, there is comparatively little real, actionable information out there for authors on submission. Add to that the feeling many of us have while on sub – something akin to survivors guilt. With so many of our talented and hardworking writer friends still in the query trenches, how dare we complain or look for support now that we’ve reached such a significant milestone? And don’t get me started on imposter syndrome…

If you’re like me and enjoy internet rabbit holes, you can find a few resources that discuss dealing with the sub process. My favorite is Mindy McGinnis’ series, Submission Hell It’s True. What you’ll find if you read through the archives obsessively (ahem) is there is no prescribed, standard submission experience. There is no average timeline and no one can tell you what to expect aside from a great deal of waiting and subjective feedback. If there is one commonality amongst the writers’ experiences, it is they didn’t share much about being on sub while they were in the thick of it. Oh, and most of them had some level of anxiety about the process.

Many (most) authors on the other side of sub offer the same wisdom regarding dealing with submission anxiety: Write something else.

On its face, this is solid advice. Your manuscript is literally out of your hands. There is absolutely nothing you can do to influence how it will be received by editors and their teams (no, not even Twitter stalking them. Don’t do it. You’ll make yourself crazy). The first step toward something approaching sanity is to let go of the illusion you have any control over what happens in the weeks and months after your manuscript is released into the wilds of publishing.

Do yourself a favor. If you’re a writer on submission, take a minute to acknowledge you’ve done the damned thing – most importantly, you’ve written the story. Then revised and polished the story ad nauseum. If you’re going the trad route, you’ve signed with an agent. You’ve revised and polished some more with your agent. Now your words are out in the world, and they have to do the work on their own – helicopter parenting isn’t even an option.

Does that mean you shouldn’t dream big? Nope, not at all. Dream away – I certainly do. It does mean you need to take all that obsessive focus and energy and put it somewhere productive – or at least somewhere it isn’t causing you distress and harm.

So what else is there to do but write the next thing?

Well, if you’re me, that’s easier said than done. Perhaps it’s just being on sub that made all my new words disappear. Perhaps it’s being on sub during a pandemic. Perhaps it’s my aversion to ambiguity, and the special kind of anxiety being uninformed causes to bloom and spread in my soul like a noxious weed. Whatever it is, I’ve had a hell of a time writing the next thing.

Until last week.

What changed?

Honestly, nothing except my mindset.

As someone who needs at least the illusion of control to feel centered and at peace – much less creative – I took inventory of what in my writing life is really, actually, truly in my power to accomplish. The list is short:

  1. Write the next thing.

I mulled over my list, prioritized the items, and came to the conclusion I can either marinate in self-pity and woe until I’m insufferable (to myself and others), or I can refuse to further enable my creative stasis and do that thing I say I love to do: write.

Getting started was an uphill slog in the dark with one headlight. I lost traction and spun my wheels more than once. Sulking in the passenger seat, my main character didn’t trust me to get us up that hill, and I didn’t trust him to navigate. We were two strangers in a car in a snowstorm trying to have meaningful conversation but only managing to make inane small talk.

At one point, out of sheer fatigue and desperation, I pulled the car over and asked him, “Why are you giving me such a hard time? What are you afraid of – what matters to you?”

He rolled his eyes and turned up the stereo. He stared out the window for a while, a dramatic sigh fogging the glass. And then, so softly I almost missed it, he told me. His answer was short but laden with meaning.

While he wasn’t watching, I took notes.

And then, equipped with a better understanding of this complicated and grieving twelve-year-old, I was able to begin telling his story. Being the kind of kid he is, I am certain he’ll tell me when I’m getting it wrong. And I’ll listen, because listening to him is why I have any new words at all.

If you want to read a middle grade horror novel where the author got it right, may I recommend the book I’m currently reading, Dan Poblocki’s Ghost Hunter’s Daughter.

I’ve not yet finished the book (because I started it late last night), but I’m tearing through it.

Poblocki gives us characters to care about and a plot to keep us up past bedtime, and has a knack for balancing heart with dread. Poblocki has written a number of other books, which feels like a gift as this is the first of his novels I’ve read. There isn’t much better than finding a new-to-you author with a long backlist.

Ghost Hunter’s Daughter is the kind of book I searched tirelessly for as a young reader. I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s a little bit of John Bellairs in Poblocki’s writing – especially his setting and supporting, adult characters – high praise indeed from this reader.

I’m going to finish this story in the next day or two, but will make sure I have another of the author’s books waiting in my TBR pile before I do. Because on those night when I can’t find new words to write, it sure is nice to have some really good ones to read.

If you’re a writer on sub, I get that you’re lonely. Believe me, I am, too. But you’re not alone. If you’re on sub and have author friends who are as well, reach out to them. I’m willing to bet they’d appreciate the opportunity to commiserate. And if you have an agent, remember they are your partner and colleague, are nearly as invested in your success as you are, and can probably help talk you down from the ledge (I’m looking at you, Ali – thank you).

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Send me your spooky book recommendations and – if you’re so inclined – your tales of submission struggles and successes. Especially the successes. I want to celebrate them with you.

I hope you are safe and well and you are brimming with new words.

Everything is fine and what I’m reading…CITY OF GHOSTS.

Everything is fine.

Really. See? I’m wearing the t-shirt to prove it (Ignore the tired, glassy eyes. That’s normal).

Side note – the shirt is a design from one of my favorite independent artists. Check out Bombs Away Art – you’ll love his work, too.

Other side note – I have three versions of the “everything is fine” shirt, so I guess it’s kinda my thing.

Except, I’m not delusional.

I know everything is very not fine. People are sick and scared and scarred and out of work and lonely and overwhelmed and the world seems to be burning down around us while we watch through a window – if we’re fortunate enough to have a window to watch through.

For creatives – and I’m going to talk about writers here, because that’s what I know and understand – a world that is always difficult and uncertain is now exponentially more so. Many of us are finding it damned near impossible to find our words, buried somewhere deep below our anxiety, and all the while our attention is demanded by so very many deafening and conflicting priorities.

For those of us engaged in the business side of writing, that, too has become more daunting. It’s tough to read the publishing tea leaves in the best of times. The industry feels nearly inscrutable right now. Rumors of layoffs and downsizing and ever-tighter budgets abound – some of them easily verifiable, others the result of a very nasty game of telephone with too many players. I have an outstanding literary agent, and a debut project I’m proud of, but I may not have been able to pick a worse time to try to find my strange little story a home. So I fret about it. A lot.

In fact, the word I seem to now use most frequently to describe myself is “fretting.” But, you want to know something? I’m kind of (insert your favorite vulgar phrase here) over it. Fretting is getting me absolutely nowhere and taking up far too much precious time and bandwidth. So I’m going to stop. Fretting, that is. And I’m going to focus on what I can actually do rather than obsess over the things outside my control (easier said than done, but I’m determined).

That starts with writing. Until recently, a good night of writing meant somewhere around 800 words, and 1200 if I was on a roll. Now, if I get any new words written during one of my evening (after work, after the kids are in bed) sessions, I’m counting that as a win. And I mean any new words. If I write at all, I’ve accomplished something. Most importantly, I’ve not allowed my creativity to be smothered by my anxiety. Even if its breath is shallow and its heartbeat faint, my creative mind is alive. For now, that’s enough.

The other thing within my realm of control is my family, and how I choose to spend this time with them. So, instead of fretting about what I can’t do for and with my children, I asked the twins what good things were happening because of COVID-19. The Boy Child and Girl Child (six-and-a-half) didn’t hesitate to tell me:

“Doing fun activities.”

“Seeing my cats a lot.”

“Seeing new little caterpillar friends.”

“Helping Mom with the ants” (Don’t ask).

“Playing outside after dinner.”

“A good thing is that I have to stay with my family.”

Then the Boy Child said, “Can we stop? I’m done talking about the bad, old, stinking, dumb Coronavirus.”

I agree. Me too, Buddy.

So I’ll talk about what I’m reading, instead.

I’ve been hearing about City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab for a while now and finally picked it up.

Let’s start with the cover. I have to mention it because I find myself suffering from deep, seething, visceral cover envy. I mean, look at it, would you? It pisses me off how perfect it is.

I write middle grade horror, so am always on the lookout for books in my category. This one has everything I want as it serves as both homework and as a literary escape – humor, heart, and a scrappy, imperfect protagonist who also happens to have a ghost for a best friend.

I’ve only started City of Ghosts, but I’m already hooked by the voice and the premise. And honestly, I’m just in the mood for a little supernatural horror to distract me from the real-life, real-time tragedy we’re collectively living through right now.

Speaking of supernatural horror….

My reading time has recently been been otherwise occupied by The Magnus Archives podcast. If you’re a horror podcast fan and you’ve not yet given this a listen, stop what you’re doing, go find it, and listen to the first episode.

I’ll wait.

See? It’s amazing, right? I’m on Episode 22. Today is a warm, bright, glorious day, but I’ve got the full on creeps. It’s delicious. And also the mark of genius storytelling.

Ok…checking the list…I’ve rambled about COVID-19, t-shirts, caterpillars, publishing, and podcasts. My work here is done.

If you’re writing and struggling, keep at it. Your words are still there.

If you’re writing and not struggling, well good for you. Ignore my tone. I really mean it.

As always, send me your recommendations. Books and podcasts both, because I can’t get enough of either.

I won’t tell you to stop fretting, because I understand for some of us that simply isn’t an option. But work to control what you can.

And stay well.

A crisis of creativity, safety coffins, and what I’m (soon) reading…THE RADIUM GIRLS

I’m going to begin with two caveats:

1. I’m not the only creative type struggling with a world turned on its head, and my experience is both unique to my situation and not remotely unique at all.

2. This post is gonna ramble.

Still with me? Great. Let’s talk about creativity in the era of COVID-19.

The ugly truth is I’m having a tough time writing. I’m researching, and I’m thinking about writing, and I desperately want to write, but getting those words on paper has been damned near impossible as of late.

In this strange new world, I’m working from home which is far from the natural habitat of a community college dean. I still have meetings (zoom) and troubleshoot with my faculty (email and phone) and have reports and budgets and enrollment management and all the things that are required of my job. Now, instead of doing them from my office on campus, I’m working from a small desk in our guestroom. And don’t get me started on my office chair, which is broken beyond repair thanks to repeated abuse perpetrated by my six-year-old twins in an ongoing effort to best one another at the Spinny Chair Game. I won’t bother explaining SPG to you – whatever you think it is is probably close enough to accurate for you to get the picture.

Please note the unraiseable back I attempted (and failed) to fix with duct tape.

And it’s a funny thing, working from home, because boundaries get blurred very quickly. I was never great at them (work-life boundaries) in the best of times, but now I can’t seem to tell where my work day ends and everything else begins. Perhaps I’ll get good at it just about the same time I can return to the office which, incidentally, is about the same time my new office chair will be delivered.

In addition to being a full time dean working from a very small satellite campus (my house), I am now a part-time kindergarten teacher. Can I tell you how ill-prepared I am to be a part time kindergarten teacher? A lot ill-prepared, that’s how. We’ve spent time making art, reading, and watching videos of authors reading their picture books on YouTube (thanks HarperCollins for the great resources).Yesterday’s math lesson involved adding up numbers on playing cards, selecting a corresponding number of building blocks, and creating something from the resulting pile. Was it a good lesson? I have no idea. But hopefully we’ll keep their brains from getting mushy over the next few weeks. Their dad is currently conducting a PE class in the basement – which mostly means a lot of wrestling. Desperate Plea #1: If you have good lesson ideas for six-year-olds, FEEL FREE to send them my way.

In addition to the above, there is a house to keep sort of clean (impossible), meals to make (trying to avoid mac and cheese more than once a day), and – oh yeah – writing.

And, let’s be very honest with one another, writing is the one thing that has to give when nothing else can or will. Even when I have time to write (late nights – that hasn’t changed), there’s an empty space where the words are supposed to be. I think about writing all the time, I play with plot while I’m washing the dishes (again), and I even get a bit of research done (we’ll talk about safety coffins in a minute). But writing – that thing that results in books? – yeah, it’s not happening. Desperate Plea #2: If you have good suggestions for creative productivity during a crisis (both existential and actual), FEEL FREE to send them my way.

Okay, now that I’ve sufficiently whined, let’s talk about safety coffins.

Remember way back, like twenty seconds ago, when I mentioned researching my current project? Yeah, that’s where the safety coffins come in. Have you heard of them? No? They’re fascinating. Let me give you a quick (and not very good) lesson…

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a rather common paranoia about being buried alive. The term for this is taphophobia, and it’s a legit phobia (which you know because smart people gave it a fancy name with a Greek root-word) It wasn’t entirely unfounded, either, as premature burial was happening from time to time – often linked to cholera epidemics (don’t ask me for further explanation, I’m not a doctor nor a historian, just someone who’s relatively skilled at googling). Edgar Allan Poe didn’t help the hysteria much, as he wrote about premature burial in a number of his works, most notably (ahem) The Premature Burial, published in 1844.

Anyway, people were afraid of being buried alive and some of those people were, by nature, avid problem solvers (necessity and invention and whatnot). So safety coffins were developed. There were any number of designs, and all of them were bad. A few had windows so some unlucky soul could peer in from time to time to make sure the person inside wasn’t tapping on the glass trying to get their attention. Others had a tube – or trumpet, depending on who’s telling the story – that served two purposes. Some unluckier soul could listen at the tube for signs of life or – wait for it – smell the tube for signs of decay. No odor meant whoever was at the other end of that tube was probably still alive. An ever-increasing stench meant everything was as it should be.

My favorite safety coffin design – and the one that is worming its way into my current middle grade horror project – involved bells. These bells hung off a tombstone and were attached to cords that ran through tubes and into the coffin itself. Those cords were attached to the wrists (and sometimes the ankles and head) of the recently (maybe not) deceased. The idea here seems pretty smart. If the person in the coffin wasn’t quite dead yet, they could pull the cord, ring the bell, and help would be on the way. The problem? Well, as bodies decompose there is an amount of natural movement that occurs. And, sometimes, that movement was enough to ring the bells.

There are some urban legends that tell us terms like dead ringer, saved by the bell, and graveyard shift originate in the heyday of safety coffins. There’s little evidence that’s actually true, but I like the story all the same.

My twisty writer brain likes to conjure some poor guy patrolling a foggy cemetery at night, holding a flickering lantern, while around him softly pealing bells shatter the silence from time to time. Can you imagine how eerie and unsettling that would be? I can. Which is why the idea is making its way into my project. See, my middle grade stories are set in Blight Harbor and Blight Harbor is the seventh most haunted town in America (per capita). It’s the kind of place that’s spooky enough a lot of folks might want to be buried in a safety coffin even today. You know, just in case.

That’s all a very long and winding road to my point, which is while I might not be able to write I can think about writing, and I can research the stuff that will make my writing fun and my world full when I finally get back to it. Oh, and I can also read, which takes us to the final point of this post…

There’s a book that’s been following me around for the last couple weeks, The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. It’s popped up in a number of podcasts and articles lately and, while I don’t necessarily believe in synchronicity (see the 1984 film Repo Man for elucidation on the topic), I also kinda do. So I’m going to succumb to cosmic peer pressure and read the book.

The Radium Girls follows the (very true) story of the women who worked in American watch dial factories in the early decades of the twentieth century. You might ask, “Um…so?”

Well, I’ll tell you. These factories were doing something pretty groundbreaking. They were making watch dials that glowed in the dark – awfully useful for lots of obvious reasons (imagine soldiers in foxholes trying to keep time for a predawn charge). The thing is, the reason those watch dials glowed is the paint they used was filled with radium. And it was mostly girls and young women who worked in those factories – small hands made for fine work, after all. And the girls were instructed to sharpen their radium-coated paintbrushes between each stroke by pulling the tips of the brush through their lips. The girls also liked to apply radium to their clothes, their skin, their teeth, before going out at night. That glow told the world they were special, they had excellent and well-paying jobs, they were Radium Girls. These young women had no idea how dangerous radium was. Those who owned and ran the factories, however, did.

You might recall, Marie Curie was famous in part for her discovery of radium. And her experiments ultimately led to her death in 1934. Today, nearly a century after her passing, Curie’s papers – and even her cookbooks – are considered too dangerously radioactive to handle. So, we had factories full of young women exposed to – ingesting – ungodly amounts of highly radioactive materials. As you might imagine, the consequences were horrific.

I’m going to read The Radium Girls, but I don’t want to read it alone as I know I’ll want to talk about it. So I bought my sister a copy, had it sent to her in Oklahoma City, and we’re going to read it together. Basically, the world’s smallest long-distance book club. (Thanks, Georgia. And also, I’m sorry. This might not be the uplifting story we all need right now).

tl;dr: If you were hoping for some cohesive conclusion to all this that ties everything in a neat bow, sorry to diappoint you. I don’t have one. If anything, the moral of this rant is there are ways to be engaged with your creative side, even if the words aren’t coming and you’re effectively out of time and mental capacity.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Send me your kindergarten lesson ideas, your creative productivity strategies, and your book recommendations.

And a new chair. Please send me a new chair.

I hope you are safe and well and your words are cooperating.

A bit about what I’m writing and a book recommendation… THE ABSENCE OF SPARROWS

So, writing first.

I’m outlining a new middle grade horror manuscript. For now it’s called SOON but I expect that will change over time. It’s about a kid trapped (alone…?) inside his creepy new-old house because there’s something out his front door that is both invisible and ominous. I mean, he’s safe indoors, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Because it’s hard to guard against a threat you can’t see and don’t understand.

Did I start this idea before the COVID-19 scare? Yes, yes I did.

Is it at risk of tuning into a commentary on current events? Yes, yes it is.

Can I avoid that entirely? Probably not. I’m of the opinion most writers cannot entirely divorce themselves and their writing from the world around them. Reality creeps in even when it’s not been invited. Which, if you’re keeping track, makes reality less considerate than vampires.

I’m curious to see how many quarantine-inspired books are released in the next couple years. Will this be the Next Big Thing, or will publishers avoid it like the – ahem – plague? (Sorry about that…)

In the meantime, I’m going to keep plotting this story as much as a by-the-seat-of-her-pants writer like me plots anything. I have no intention for the story to be an allegory but I have no control over how it will be read and received. And we’ll see how much of that self-entitled and unsolicited reality sneaks past security.

All that said, I like the idea a lot. It appeals to my love of haunted houses, feisty kids, and impending doom. And my main character, Wyatt, has done that obnoxious thing good characters inevitably do – he’s become a fully formed person in my head. So I suppose I’m bound to see where this thing goes, because Wyatt will never give me any peace if I don’t – he’s the kind of kid who’ll go down yelling and swinging.

Ok, as for that book recommendation.

Kurt Kirchmeier wrote a brilliant middle grade horror, The Absence of Sparrows. It’s about a kid dealing with a pandemic that only affects adults…so, basically, Kurt was way ahead of the curve. It’s strange and haunting and lovely. I recommend this book all the time anyway, but as it’s particularly timely here I am recommending it yet again.

Pick up The Absence of Sparrows and see how Ben and his brother Pete – and their community – deal with a plague they can’t escape and don’t have an antidote for.

It was one of my favorite books last year, and I’ll wager you’d enjoy it as well. Because if you’re here, you have at least a passing interest in dark and twisty books.

If you’re writing, I hope your words are flowing.

If you’re reading, support your local bookstores. They sure need it right now.

I’d love to hear about what you’re working on. And, of course, I want all your book recommendations.

And seriously, go wash your hands. Right now. I mean, you have no idea where this blog has been.