Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011: A Year in Queries

Hi everyone. Hope you all enjoyed the holidays! I'm squeezing in one more post in 2011. This year was my first *full* year of being an agent, so I thought the best way to commemorate this was with data collecting and spreadsheets. At the beginning of the year, I decided to choose three months at random and do a tally of every query I received. I'll spare you from the VERY SCIENTIFIC (not really) charts and day-to-day totals, and just give a brief overview.

(Note: These results are from emailed queries only. Thankfully, I don't receive many snail mail queries, and hope this stays true in 2012.)

In January 2011, I received a total of 442 queries. This is probably the most number of queries I received within a single month all year. January is a big query month. You have everyone who made it their New Year's resolution to get an agent, you have the NaNoWriMo writers who took December to revise, and you have your usual queriers who just felt like querying.

Contrary to popular belief, January queries are not automatically bad, rushed, or even unwanted. I ended up requesting two manuscripts sent on the same day that month, and that day was January 1. Despite the optimistic start to the year, of those 442 queries, I requested a total of 8 manuscripts. Which means 434 people received a form rejection.

The next month I tallied was July. This is a slow month for obvious reasons. It's the middle of summer. Writers are busy writing what they're going to query, or they are vacation. Also, many agencies close to queries beginning in July, so it's probably easier for writers to just resume duties in the fall. In July, I received a total of 388 queries, again including a post-holiday day of requesting two manuscripts in one day's batch. Of the 388, I requested 11 manuscripts and sent 377 form rejections.

Finally, November - the last complete month of the year, work-wise. I received a total of 363 queries, the lowest total, but requested 12 manuscripts. November was also the month in which I received the highest number of queries in one day: 34. The lowest number I've received in one day's batch was 7 (occurring once each month).

Random observation: Tuesdays and Wednesday are the biggest query days, while Saturday and Sunday are the slowest.

Using these samples, I'd say I average about 400 queries a month (4,800 per year) and request about 10 manuscripts per month just from the slush pile. This figure does not include any revisions I had asked for from previous months, contest winners, or requests from conferences. In case you're wondering whether the requests were fulls vs. partials, I honestly didn't keep track. But! I'd say 8 times out of 10 I request the full. It saves time in the long run and I can always stop reading if it comes apart. I request partials sometimes - most often if I'm on the fence about a particular premise (but was intrigued by writing), or if I love a premise (but not sure how the writing will be). Full disclosure: I may go back to requesting mostly partials due to an out-of-control reading pile that accrued around November.

To give you a picture of how many requests result in an offer of representation, out of the 100+ manuscripts I requested in 2011, I took on a total of 4 new clients, only 3 of whom came from unsolicited queries. (Admittedly I had offered on two others but lost them in a battle.) I officially started building my list in April 2010, and eager as I was to find clients, I took on a total of 8 out of a similar - though slightly lower - number of queries and requests.

For those who may not know, my *other* full time job at Curtis Brown is working in the foreign rights department. I love working in this department, but sometimes this means I end up passing on projects I really really like - but don't love - just because I know my time is divided right now. I wouldn't be able to give that person adequate attention. So, I keep my roster of authors purposely small so that I'm able to give proper time and care to my clients equally. By the end of 2012 I hope to raise my number of clients to an even 20. I won't make it an official goal; I just think it'll be nice. Obviously I'll have to receive worthwhile submissions. Hint, hint... :)

While I chose these months at random (beginning, middle, end), the interesting thing I noticed in 2011 queries was that as the number of queries received decreased, the number of requested manuscripts increased. I take this to mean that more writers are doing research before they send. Rather than submitting blindly, more people are taking the time to realize I might not be for them. Meanwhile, those who do query me know exactly what I'm looking for or know why I'd be interested in their story. I hope this, too, remains true for 2012. Though, as you noticed, my reading pile got bigger and bigger at the end of the year. But, I'd rather take the time to read 20 amazing manuscripts than take a few hours sorting through a folder of lackluster premises, genres I don't represent, or (worse) vampires.

So that was 2011 in a nutshell. As I begin Year #2 of being an agent, and I add more clients and book deals to my belt o' publishing, I can only hope that one day I'll look back and say "remember when I only received 100 queries a week?" Until then, thanks readers & writers for making my first full year as an agent pretty darn great.

See you in 2012, friends! Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Coping

Today's will be the last Glass Cases publication of 2011. There are so many great stories still on deck for 2012, and I want to say thank you to everyone who submitted work this year. This blog wouldn't exist without you, and I can't wait to see even more submissions in the new year. 

I hope you all enjoy today's story - albeit a heartbreaking one - by Melissa McNallan called Coping. Melissa is a freelance writer from Minnesota who's been published in regional newspapers and magazines, and has had three short stories appear in various online publications. In 2010 she won the Minnesota State Arts Board
Grant in Prose for her novel currently titled Un(in)tended

Coping
By Melissa McNallan

As soon as Christopher’s foot hits the brake, I catapult from my seat. I move across the grass to the strong shoulders, shined shoes and military-issue cuts. I wonder if their eyes have been trained to hold a certain look for wives and children – sympathetic and distant. I can only see Mom’s struck face.

“Kate,” Christopher hollers. My head is submerged like I’m bobbing for apples in cold water on Halloween. I can feel the color of my face change. His words can’t penetrate. I wondered about coming up for breath while bobbing, because maybe it’d be cheating, like now. Christopher got through and into me last night in his old Ford truck with the rust above the wheels. The one he bought from his father. While he did, I kept my right leg from bumping into the knobs of the stereo he’d installed a week ago.

I can see the message they’re delivering in my mother’s pinched up face with its black streaks. Her eyes have been hollow for weeks. Panic wielded its chisel on the space just above her cheek bones first. It moved onto the cheek’s hollow, around her lips in thin lines and to the pinch in the bottom of her chin. My Mom’s face transformed into a shrunken head of stress that the soul packed up and left. I’ve never felt anger like this; it’s punching from behind my ribs with hands wanting to break free and strangle the men’s calm faces and Mom’s blotchy one, pathetic on top of her worn housecoat. The house coat is peach and quilted with coffee stains. It’s like the cloak of surrender to a blobby brownie filled existence. I won’t live a life of surrender.

I know she forgot to pray. His safety was contained in her ability to fret, pray and hold her breath. It was her job to keep him from falling. 

Mom knew it’d happen from the moment she started packing up the nice Christmas dishes, back when Dad was stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. When the orders were issued for us to move onto Shaw, she started wrapping them in week old newspaper ads. Red dishes trimmed in
silver went into apple cardboard boxes she’d picked up from the back of the grocery store. 

It was then that she started praying, morning and night. She baked as though kneading and braiding breads could hold us together. They meant nothing. He’d arrive in a box, like the dishes – broken. She cried about the dishes too. Whenever Mom wants what she can’t have, tears fall. If you really don’t want something wrecked, like the posters I never let the military move, you have to keep it with you. 

I push at the soldier’s sturdy arm. I feel my arms swinging. Before I make the kind of connection I want, like hitting a home run in softball, the kind of connection that rings through my body, the sort I’d hoped for in Christopher’s truck hours before. Before I feel that connection, the one the angry hands against the inside of my ribs want to make, arms hold me. Not hard, but firm and I feel my back against a man’s chest. I don’t know who the arms belong to but they remind me of my Dad’s the day he deployed. The arms are strong, holding tight as though one body could press through another and always be there somehow. “Shhh,” I hear soft in my ear.

I see my brother, Bradley, behind Mom. His face is a horrified question mark beneath his parted hair. The man let’s go and I move through them. I kick off my flip flops. My legs take me from the living room, through the hallway and into my room. I put my Green Day CD in, set it to replay on 21 Guns and put my headphones on. I close my eyes until everything is as gone as it can be.

I dream of Scott in Jessica’s basement and the way the combination of kissing him and drinking wine coolers made my lips tingle. I loved looking up into his eyes. In the dream he and I start to dance. We look at each other as our feet make a slow circle; my hands are clasped behind his neck. I put my head against his chest. Then I feel this pull on my sides.

Greedy hands that belong to an unseen man pull me from Scott. I move too hard and fast for him to keep me. Then I’m running through doors, down a hall. I keep worrying that the next one will be locked but they keep opening and I can hear the man’s breath heaving behind me. I will my eyes open and they find Christopher sitting on my chair, the one for the desk that I never use. There’s nothing comfortable about that configuration in life – desk and chair. His head is tilted back at an uncomfortable looking angle and his mouth is open.
I slip off my bed quiet, letting my toes touch gentle to the carpet. My favorite thing about this house is how thick and gentle the carpet is on my toes. I like to squeeze each toe into it.

When I cross the hall to the bathroom I see Mom looking out the living room window. She’s done that for the past few months. I want to tell her the only thing coming back is a box she’ll have to put away. I leave the carpet for the bathroom’s hard tile.

I brush my now blonde hair straight and proper, brush my teeth and put on a little lip-gloss. I go out to the living room where Mom is by the window and say, “There’s a strange man in my room.” I put my arms around her because everyone deserves some sympathy once in awhile I guess.

“He was worried about you,” she says. “It’s not a bad thing.” No guy has ever been allowed to enter my room before, except Bradley and Dad. She pulls toward the window and I know tears are finding their way
easy down her cheeks. Maybe she plans to be some kind of window display. We could put up a sign that says suffering widow and prop it next to her.

Bradley must be playing over at Jonathon’s house. Jon lives two houses down. His mother bakes cookies, plays games and helps the boys write letters and make things. I guess Bradley won’t need to write letters anymore. Mrs. Brighton, Jon’s mom, is young compared to ours. She’s upbeat and strong; and, looks powerful with her apron on.

I go back to my room; change out of last night’s low cut and clingy bubblegum pink shirt and the white Cheap Trick T-Shirt my Dad had given me two Christmases ago. It’s what he and I had: Cheap Trick, The Clash and The Ramones. At least he’d given me a proper introduction to punk rock and its awkward siblings before he left. I wake Christopher.

“What?” He looks confused.

“Let’s go,” I say.

As I walk out of the house with my hand in Christopher’s, he tries to tell the window display thanks or good-bye. The display’s fixed its sight and will not be distracted. He looks at me and I shrug. He wanted in.

“Where to?” Christopher opens the truck’s passenger door for me. He gets in behind the wheel.

“Away.”

“You okay?” He turns the key in the ignition. His light blue button down shirt is rumpled. He looks good when his order is compromised.

“Sure.” I know it’s the wrong answer. I turn the stereo’s volume up.

He turns his truck onto Myrtle Beach Highway. I wonder when Dad’s body will be delivered. Will he be brought back in one piece or in parts? 

“Did you hear how it happened?” Christopher asks.

Before Dad left for Afghanistan, he stuck me in Saint Francis Xavier School. I was pissed. On the day he deployed my Dad pulled me to him, pressed me hard against him and my arms just kind of hung there, because they had to. The nuns were better than weepy Mrs. Sandraniski. She’d had glasses, wore skirts with sweaters and really felt for students in her gawky way. The nuns don’t weep. Their attitude seems more, so you have a problem – what is it you intend to do to fix it or cope with it? God doesn’t make mistakes.

“They said his F-16 Falcon collided with another plane, faulty coordinates.” Christopher parks the truck in a lot by the beach. Christopher pulls a bottle of wine out of the back seat of the truck. He uncorks it and I pull the bag of plastic cups from behind my seat. 

I hold the glasses as he pours. I’ll cope as we walk along the beach.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Past Matters

Hey everyone. So that Slate piece got me all riled up on Wednesday, so I postponed this week's publication to today. It's a short story titled Past Matters, and it's one that will fill all five senses, with a certain olfactory emphasis. It comes from Sabine Sur, a writer, a translator and a knitter, which in her words means "she knits narratives, writes from one culture into another and translates patterns into garments." Enjoy!

Past Matters
Sabine Sur

Today Carina could not smell a thing, even though she had just tried out a new perfume. She could merely make out a waft of pink berries. Forget about it, she thought. I’m glad I only got a sample. She had been told that she should wait about fifteen minutes until the head notes gave way to the heart note, where this fragrance really came into its own, but if it was so weak after a couple of spritzes there was no use hoping for more. She decided not to scrub it off her skin because she had no time this morning and she had been long enough in the bathroom already.

Carina was looking for a new fragrance; so she was collecting samples, disappointments and almost-but-not-quites. All the women of her family considered scent to be very important, and a daughter’s thirteenth birthday was the occasion to give her her first perfume bottle, chosen after a complex ritual of subtle questions about favourite smells, and character observation. Carina had been offered a scent of citrus, jasmine and oak-moss: a cheerful, obstinate scent, with so much presence some might have said it was invasive.

But Carina was no longer thirteen and after she had gone through a variety of fragrances—flirty gardenia, sedate and gourmand rose, distant iris sheltered in a secret garden—, she wanted to find a perfume with longevity and spice, but no sourness. She would have loved to wear her mother’s and her grandmother’s scent, a warm and comforting oriental, but her skin made it go awry. So she looked for a scent to the same effect and tried mainstream brands, designer brands, supermarket brands, niche brands, stopping by perfume shops she passed by or going out of her way ordering samples on obscure brand websites, but nothing had come of it so far.

Five minutes later, she had put on the clothes that she had laid out the night before and was making breakfast: hot chocolate for her daughter, tea for her, toasted bread and fresh butter; rich smells that made her forget today’s wispy perfume. She looked at the clock. Clearly her little darling had not heard the alarm and was oversleeping, again.

When she was about to open the door to her daughter’s room, standing in the corridor, she felt out of place. Something unknown was wrong and she felt a knot in her throat. She closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, she was a child and her mother was hugging her. Carina whispered a few words into her ear, and concluded by kissing her cheek. When Carina moved away she saw her grandmother sitting at the back of the room, gesturing her to come closer. She ran to her; her mother followed. The two women cuddled her and told her all sorts of niceties, as they always did: my beautiful, my sweet, my wonderful, words filled with motherly love, an ordinary, daily love that was bigger than themselves.

When they kissed her, some of their scent clung on to her clothes.

“This house is yours, explore it as you will,” her grandmother told her. “The scent will guide you. But be careful: you should only open the doors that it will lead you to.”

Carina felt their loving eyes as she left. She was at her grandmother’s, a wooden house by the sea that always smelled of salty air.

The scent directed her to specific places by wafting closer to her nose at times. At the beginning, when she had smelled it on them, it had seemed a bit too strong, but now it was delicious, a bit peppery but sweet, was it ambergris? It smelled like old ladies and clothes so worn they were more than comfortable. Weren’t her mother and her grandmother old ladies, imposing and fragile, tender giants whose smell was a reminder of their love?

As she opened the doors she had the joy of finding her toys scattered on the floor and the ancient furniture. She was dumbfounded when, rummaging in a chest of drawers, she found love letters written in violet ink on thin paper, dating from the last century. She tried to remember what is was that she had whispered to her mother. She had the feeling that it mattered, but it eluded her memory. The thought distracted her and she opened the wrong door.

She was in a hospital room. Her mother, looking tired, was sitting by the bed where her grandmother lay. There was an empty chair where Carina sat. The sick and exhausted body in the bed became her mother’s and she was holding her hand. Her mother’s lips moved and she got closer to her; she had to hear what her mother would say. The words she had been looking for came back to her then and the two women spoke them together.

“Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death...”

She was a grown woman helping her mother pass away, and she was a little girl on her mother’s lap; sitting so close, she could smell her scent, a faded smell, sweet with a hint of pungency, the smell of a mature woman, the trace of the fragrance applied yesterday, the one she had started to wear when her body was vibrant with health. The perfume covered the hospital smells. All that subsided between them was the memory of their shared years, Carina’s entire childhood.

“My daughter...”

Carina was surprised to hear her own voice. She was kneeling before her little darling’s bed and held her hand. On Carina’s arm, the perfume was exhaling its heart note, the magical note she had tried to find for so long.

Her little darling opened her eyes and Carina remembered with a shock that every woman in her family had the same green eyes. She remembered the day when her mother’s ashes had been scattered over the sea. Other traces of her, lying in her own genes, like her gestures, and her taste for spices, had been disseminated and thrived; and she was happy to have recovered by chance, with this scent, what she had missed so much: her smell and the memory of her love.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jocks vs. Nerds

"When deep-space exploitation ramps up, it will probably be the megatonic corporations that discover all the new planets and map them. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Denny's. Every planet will take on the corporate identity of whoever rapes it first." - Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Don't let the title of my blog post fool you. Yes, I fall into the "nerd" camp, but this won't be a revenge of the nerds story. It won't be about staying true to yourself even when you're not popular, overcoming adversity, or realizing that someday you will inherit the earth. In this story, the nerds lose.

Last week, Amazon* took a beating with their "anti-local business" discount program. Only to them, the "beating" was more like an infant punching tiny fists into their ankle. Many authors, booksellers, and publishing folks had reactions to this, but the one that I'll point to specifically is Richard Russo's New York Times op-ed. Russo's daughter works at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, but his personal connections to bookstores are deeper than that. He discusses what he calls the "literary culture" that come with bookstores, and I'm inclined to agree with him. I'm also inclined to agree with his statement about Amazon's personal investment in what it means to be a bookseller:

"Maybe Amazon doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe because it’s simply too big to care. In a way it’s become, like the John Candy character (minus the eager, slobbering benevolence) in Mel Brooks’s movie “Spaceballs” — half man, half dog and thus its own best friend."

The thing about Amazon is that it's a monopoly disguised as our savior. It has its hand in every area of book publishing - no longer just a seller, they are a distributor, publisher, and author platform. Eventually Amazon will realize they can't be everything - or at least can't be everything with the same level of success. But what they will always be, I think, is a venue to sell books. I won't pretend that I'm not biased here. I don't buy my books from Amazon because I like to support local businesses.

No, I'll rephrase that.

I don't buy my books from Amazon because I live in a city where local businesses still thrive and I'm physically able to support them. Plus, I'm not a fan of large corporations. (While I'm not against them in a militant sense, it's unlikely you'll see me in a Starbucks or chain restaurant if there is a local option available.) The thing is, I don't think this makes me a better person. It just means I'm lucky enough to be able to practice what I preach as often as I can. Not everyone has that luxury.

I know that for many people in other parts of the country physical bookstores are not available. For those who had Borders instead of Barnes and Noble, even access to chain stores can be nearly impossible these days. Then there are those who can't bring themselves to care about "literary culture" because they are too busy working three jobs in order to pay their bills and feed their families. Maybe you live ten minutes away from your independently owned local bookstore but spending full retail price on a trade paperback just isn't an option for you. Or, simply, you love the comfort of shopping online (which you can do from the websites of many of your favorite local bookstores, by the way). Not supporting your local physical bookstore doesn't make you a bad person, and I understand the many conveniences Amazon has to offer. (As a tiny New Yorker who can only buy as much as I can carry, I take advantage of having things delivered directly to my apartment quite often.)

That's why I was taken aback by a counterpoint piece that Slate published with the sensationalist headline "Don't Support Your Local Bookseller." Rage-inducing as that is by itself, I know that the writer, Farhad Manjoo, most likely didn't write his own headline and that titles are meant to grab attention and aren't indicative of the content of the piece overall. Except in this case, the author is saying exactly that. In fact, it supports such an unpopular opinion that part of me wonders whether it's satire, while the other part of me can see it's a blatant attempt at self-promotion. Then there's the part of me that knows in either case, it was written for the sole purpose of getting a reaction. So, fine. I'll bite. 

(It should be noted - if not written in all-caps - that Slate is an affiliate of Amazon.com.) 

Manjoo highlights many of the points I made above about Amazon being pretty great for people a) with no other option, or b) who don't consider themselves part of a "literary culture" and just want to buy books. I 100% agree with him on this. Not everyone considers themselves part of the literary class - those who prefer reading to other things have been historically considered "nerds," after all. We are in the minority.

But he goes on to argue that Amazon is not only part of the literary culture, but is actually helping support your local community by providing cheaper models of the same books you were going to buy anyway. He says:

"After all, if you’re spending extra on books at your local indie, you’ve got less money to spend on everything else—including on authentically local cultural experiences. With the money you saved by buying books at Amazon, you could have gone to see a few productions at your local theater company, visited your city’s museum, purchased some locally crafted furniture, or spent more money at your farmers’ market."

Putting aside my continued shock of seeing someone so flagrantly anti-bookstore, I'm more confused by what Manjoo is trying to say with this. The same case could be made for a lover of Applebees who thinks that eating at chain restaurants instead of more expensive family-operated ones could free up some cash to support your local bookstore instead. Or, put from the perspective of a pro-Wal-Mart shopper, one could save enough on groceries, clothes, and appliances to send money to starving children in Africa. It's a weak argument at best, and it brings me to the next point that the Slate piece misses. 

Bookstores are about much more than selling books. 

If all you want are books, then Amazon is just as satisfying as going to a bookstore. Those who drive to a store are usually looking for more. You can't host an author reading/signing at your local Amazon, meet with your writing group on their comfy couches, peruse their shelves, and meet fellow book-lovers in your community. Your local Amazon doesn't care if your child has a place to go to hear Story Time readings (even if you don't buy the book) so that you can run errands for an hour. 

Manjoo refers to Richard Russo as a "bookstore cultist" and admits to not understanding why a novelist, in his op-ed on bookstores, "omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books."

"Literary culture" is not just for the literary elite, which is the image Manjoo is trying to paint with his pro-corporate brush. He's trying to argue that we "bookstore cultists" miss the point of bookstores and are merely part of an Occupy mentality who hate corporations. He doesn't understand what bookstores mean, or that they even have meaning. Who needs a sense of community when there's nothing to buy? 

Manjoo fails to see that you can sip your soy latte and be a member of the NRA and shop at Whole Foods and vote Republican. Not everyone needs to be one thing, and not everyone has to want only one thing from their bookstore. Manjoo isn't just telling us to respect Amazon for what it is. He's saying it's the only way to shop, and that even if you're able to support local businesses, you shouldn't because if you do you're nothing but an out-of-touch, overly romantic hippie who doesn't get how business works. 

So nerds, we lose again. Because being able to look outside yourself and still see value in the thing you love is totally lame. Isn't it cute how we thought we could compromise and that we'd be able to live in harmony with the popular kids? Sadly, no matter what we do, we cramp their style by merely existing. 

Corporate America, you win. Rich kids with your fancy cars and your head cheerleader girlfriends, you win too. Don't provide us with a more convenient option - become our only option. Put us in a headlock and steal our lunch money because, hell, you'll probably invest it for us and make us better for doing so. 

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right? 

No middle ground to see here, folks. 

*Footnote: This post is a response to Slate's anti-bookstore article and should not be read as an attack on Amazon as a corporate competitor. Choice is a good thing. Competition is healthy. People who propose eliminating competition are not. 

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Recycle Bin

Today's post is inspired by my mother, who (unbeknownst to her) raised an interesting question about ebooks. My mother only recently got rid of AOL but has somehow managed to jump immediately to having an iPhone, where - to her delight - she can download ebooks. Just one problem - "What do I do with them after I read them?"

I take after my dad. He doesn't join Netflix for the same reason I don't belong to a library - we need to own, and display, the things we love. With him, it's movies. With me, it's books. I have lots of them, and give or take the sporadic "do I really need three copies of Pride and Prejudice?" I keep 98% of what I buy or what's given to me.

I like arranging books on my shelf, being able to look at them, picking up old favorites to re-read, or just  reorganizing my shelves when I'm bored. But mostly I like owning books. For these reasons, I don't really buy ebooks. I say "really" because I've purchased five ebooks in my life, but I don't see myself buying more if they are also available in print. I have nothing against them and see no difference between reading a book and reading an ebook during the act of reading. My love lies in the books themselves. There are books I have in my apartment right now that I know I won't read again, but I like knowing they're there.

But there are those with a less romanticized notion of books. So you tell me, embracers of ebooks, what do you do? If no one can see the physical evidence that you've read Thomas Pynchon, do you bother keeping him on your ereader? Can you delete and move on, the way technology does, or do you transfer each ebook to every new ereader because you just can't let go?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Storm Coming

For New Yorkers, the title of this story is especially apropos on this gray, rainy day. Storm Coming is the latest story from friend-of-the-blog Melissa R. Mendelson, whose work has appeared on Glass Cases from back in its early days and just last year. Melissa was a newspaper reporter for Long Island's The Smithtown Messenger, and worked as a freelance writer and movie reviewer for other regional publications. She is also a poet and novelist, having just completed her first novel, Glass Skies Over Home. Hope you enjoy her short story!

Storm Coming
By Melissa R. Mendelson

A smell of ocean wafted through the air. The sun rose high above the clouds. A bird’s song followed his every step. Laughter of children, a fountain of youth, echoed in the near distance, and cars slowly drifted on by. And still he walked.

The house was set apart from the road. Little stones decorated the dirt path. A luxurious, green velvet sea flowed before the porch. Small windows welcomed in rays of sunlight. The door was left half open, and the wind gently slipped inside. And it was like he never left all those years ago, and even the peaceful neighborhood seemed the same.

"Can I help you?" A shaggy, stooped man emerged on the porch. "Can I help you, son?" The man merely just stared at him. "What’s your business here?"

"I’m sorry to intrude, sir. I grew up in this house." He let his words settle in for a moment. "My name is Davis Yarn." The older man’s eyes gleamed with recognition. "My family lived here a long time ago."

"I know the name. The man that sold me this house mentioned you as the previous owners." With quick strides, he walked up to Davis. "What brings you here today?"

"I was in the neighborhood and thought I would pass by. The neighborhood seems the same." He followed the older man’s gaze to the area behind him. "So does the house."

"Buildings don’t change, son. People do." He rubbed his chin. "Well, if you want to take a walk inside, be my quest, but don’t disturb nothing. You hear?" Davis nodded. "Good. Storm’s coming, so we best get inside."

Dark clouds gathered overhead. A cold wind rustled through the trees. Cars hurried by before the skies opened up. No bird’s song was heard in the growing silence, and children quickly headed home. And the storm continued on its approach.

"Sudden change in weather," Davis mused.

"Mother Nature has been drinking again." The older man hurried inside, and Davis was right behind him. "She’s been off the wagon for so long that I lost count."

"How long have you lived here?" He watched the older man close the door behind him. "Has it been a long time?"

"Son, I’ve been around for a very long time." Davis stared at him, trying to estimate his age. "Can’t tell how old I am?" Davis shook his head. "Stay out of the heat, boy, and you won’t age. Remember that." A large smile crossed his face. "Now, how about a cold drink?"

"I’m good. Thank you." Davis shifted from foot to foot. "So, can I take a look around?"

"Sure, sure. Be my quest. Take as long as you need, but do not stay too long." The older man sat down in a leather couch nearby. "No business wasting time when it’s all we have."

"Right." Davis moved away from the man. "Don’t worry. I won’t take too long." It seemed like the older man was no longer listening to him.

The house seemed the same but smaller, emptier. Crayon pictures used to decorate walls along with family affairs, but that was a long time ago. The wooden floors of the hallway seemed to pale in age. Relics of the past wobbled on almost broken tables, and plastic flowers tried to lighten up the space. But it was still his home.

Davis remembered the day that his family moved. His parents were battling with their neighbors and were being forced to leave the development. The children were packed into a van surrounded by belongings, and off they went. And home was now in another state, but this house, this place would always shoulder his childhood memories.

Switching jobs was never the problem for his parents, but adapting to a new area proved to be the hardest challenge. His sister did well, spreading wings and becoming a gossip queen, but not his brother. As for Davis, he did okay walking the loner path, but if they never moved, would he have been different? Would his family have been different?

"Lost, son?" The older man was now right behind him. "I don’t have all day to entertain you."

"I’m sorry." Lightning flashed through a window nearby. "I got lost in thought."

"Well, hurry up then. Storm’s coming, and it’s going to be a bad one. I don’t need to be trapped in a house with a stranger taking a stroll down memory lane."

"My apologies." He heard the man mutter something under his breath, followed by another flash of lightning. "I won’t be long."

Stepping into his room, Davis let out a jagged breath of air. This was where he really wanted to go. This was his sanctuary, his world away from life, and he left it all behind. The empty walls now mocked him, teasing him that his secrets had been told, and the floor underneath was no longer soft, no longer safe to support him. But this was still his room, and the older man had done nothing with it but let it fall away.

"What are you looking for, son?" The older man gingerly stepped into the room. "What secrets hide in here?"

"There are no secrets left to tell." Davis ran his hand against a wall. "No sanctuary left behind. Not even a… Scratch." He turned toward the man now grinning at him. "Is there?"

"You figured it out, son."

"I’m not your son."

"I still own you, Davis, and I knew you be coming here." The older man now stood up about a foot taller. "Your movements are predictable. How’s the family?"

"Family’s good. So is my brother." He smiled as the grin faded from the older man’s face. "All’s good in the world." A roar of thunder followed his words. "You lost."

"Did I?" More thunder followed. "Maybe I won."

Years after the move, his brother had gone down a dark path, and time and time again, Davis had come to his rescue. Whether it was drugs, gambling, or even assault, he came to save his brother, but what did it cost him? Everything.

His brother gave his soul to make it big, and he was living large for a few years. He helped his family out, repaid Davis for his sacrifices, and kept on going straight until he nearly stepped over the edge. And then Davis grabbed hold of him before he was taken away down to where he did not belong, and the deal was that Davis would take his place.

"Your brother still living it up?" An ugly laughter escaped from the older man’s lips. "He still hightailing it from the law?"

"He’s married with a child on the way." Davis crossed his arms over his chest. "He turned his life around."

"Because of you." The older man tilted his head to one side. "Was it worth it? Your life for his?"

"He’s my brother." Davis kept his hand pressed against the wall. "I would do it again in a heartbeat." His fingers dug deep against the plaster and paint. "I would do it again."

"I gave you a year, boy to say your good-byes, so why come here?" The older man crept closer to him. "What is it about this old piece of house that you cling to so much?" He reached toward him. "Do you think you are safe here?" His hand shook as it came closer. "Do you think you can escape me?" He tried to touch his arm. "Do you think that you can walk away from me?" His hand slipped through Davis.

"No." Davis continued to touch the wall. "You can’t take me. You can’t touch me. You have no power over me as long as I stay here in this room."

"So, what? You stay here and starve to death? Doesn’t matter. You still come to me."

"When I was a child, I had this friend that enchanted the room from evil. No harm could ever come inside or… Leave." He waited for his words to sink in. "Nobody believes in magic, but nobody really believes that the devil exists either." He laughed at the furious expression on the older man’s face. "When I walk out of this room, I know I will die, but you will not be there to take me. If I am to become a lost soul, then so be it, but maybe I will go to heaven."

"You walk me out of here, and I’ll send you up there." Davis shook his head. "You can live a longer life."

"No." He stepped away from the older man. "It’s over." He moved quickly toward the bedroom door. "It ends here."

He saw the older man struggle toward him, but it was like he was walking in quicksand. The man’s eyes grew wider and wider as well as darker and darker. A snarl covered half of his face, and his hands were clenched in fists.

"There is no such thing as magic," he roared.

"I know." Davis was now safely outside the room. "There was no friend either." He eyed the older man calmly. "I was the one that believed that no harm could enter the room or leave it, and I still believe it today. And that’s all I need. Faith." He turned to walk away.

"Don’t walk away from me! Do you hear? Do not walk away from me! This is far from over! I’ll find you! Dead or alive! I will find you!" But no matter how hard he tried, the man could not leave the room. "This isn’t over!"

Stepping outside, the storm was in full swing. Dark clouds gripped the sky. Heavy rain plunged down into the ground. The wind whipped back and forth, and there was no sign of life along the streets. And as Davis began another long walk, he turned the corner and disappeared.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Stop Helping Yourself

We all know querying is hard. Personally, I think writers make it harder on themselves, though I understand that keeping everyone's individual guidelines straight can make any person insecure. If you've reached the querying stage of writing, you've probably read that agents get anywhere from 50 to 300 queries per day. While I can't speak for every agent, I personally respond to all them, even if it's ultimately a form rejection. This takes a lot of time (it's also why many agents have a "no response means no" policy that's been quite controversial recently.) Knowing all of this, writers think they need to go out of their way to stand out among the pack even though it really can't be said enough that the only thing that will do that is to have an amazing book.

Writers with the best of intentions will include buzz words in their queries that they believe make them look more professional, and, in their minds, will attract an agent's attention. What they don't realize is that for many agents, these phrases and pieces of information more often serve as red flags that this writer has no idea what they are talking about or how publishing works.

Here are the Top 3 self-praises I see:

"I am a published author."
If you have prior publications, you should absolutely list them in your query. Give the title, date, and publisher. Without that information, we have no way to believe you or take this claim seriously. Saying you are a published author when you've self-published or, worse, haven't published at all makes you look foolish.

If you self-published, own it. Tell us when, with who, and for what type of book - then provide sales figures.  If you can't give us this information, don't feel that you have to. If your self-pubbed book only sold around 100 copies, it's not the end of the world. Query agents with a project other than the one you self-pubbed and don't feel as if you need to even mention that other book until you receive an offer of representation.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a debut author with no prior publishing credits. Being unknown or new to writing will never count against you if you have an amazing book, but having a fake or, let's say, questionable publishing history can end up hurting you if you aren't honest.

"My manuscript has been professionally edited."
The first question that always comes to mind is "by whom?" Your friend who works at the local newspaper? A college writing professor? Your aunt who reads a lot? There are plenty of freelance editors out there whose opinions are professional and whose judgment I would respect as an agent. However, even if you used professional services, there is no reason to say that in your query. It tells me nothing about the quality of your writing or whether I'd be interested in your book. "Professionally edited" is a vague term at best, but at worst it can means one of three things:

1) You think the manuscript is already perfect and you won't be willing to revise.
2) You could be willing to revise, but you aren't able to do it yourself.
3) You think copyediting and editing are the same thing. (This last one I see a lot - the "professional eye" who looked over your manuscript made sure it was polished and grammatically correct, but the character development, plot structure, and overall quality of the writing were still severely lacking.)

Every writer needs an editor, but editors can't make mediocre writing great or make an agent fall in love with a premise. All of that needs to come from you.

"My book has already gotten interest from Hollywood."
On paper, this sounds impressive and I can see why writers include it in their queries. But let's break this down. For one, how does anyone in Hollywood know your book exists? If you're sending manuscripts blindly to showbiz people, not only could your idea could get stolen (and you wouldn't be protected), but it tells me you might be signing contracts and giving away rights that renders any interest I might have had useless (not to mention any deal our film department could have made for you).

The second red flag is that "Hollywood interest" is not impressive to me unless you have an actual contract in your hands from an established production company. There is a huge difference between "Paramount Pictures wants to buy the film rights to my manuscript" and "Larry the coke dealer on Hollywood & Vine said he'll give me $50 for it." Both of these can mean "Hollywood interest," and without knowing the specifics, I assume it's the latter. Plus, think of how many promises are broken in the film industry. Some slick suit who calls you "baby" can tell you he loves your book one minute and then throw it in the trash as soon as you look away.

***

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make yourself sound more impressive than you think you are. Being a writer is impressive enough in itself, but I understand that in queries you want to add a little more. It's called selling yourself, and this business is all about selling a product. Specifically, your product. But if you really want to impress an agent and get noticed, all you need to do is write the best book you can and know which agent will want to read it.

You should have pride in your work - if you don't, who will? Saying you're "award-winning" even if it was from your local library in 1998 might not change an agent's mind about a project, but hell, you earned it and you should say so. Just make sure you're not inflating yourself so much that you pop.