Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Excuses

Today's author, Leila Rheaume, is a student in Florida who is currently querying a YA novel. She's sharing a stand-alone short story that's also for young adults, Excuses, about a girl who immortalizes her sister after witnessing her untimely death. 

Excuses
By Leila Rheaume 

When I was little, my sister used me as an excuse.

She would offer to take me to the playground at the end of our block and then meet her boyfriend there. They would wander off for the best measure of privacy allowed and I would be left on the swing set, pumping my legs half-heartedly at the evening air. If you gave it any force at all, the rusty old chains would click back and forth and pinch the skin of your palms.

She was a sheep in wolf's clothing the night she died. Bright red crop top, matching mini skirt, chunky heeled boots that hugged her legs up to the knee. I followed her and Brendon around that evening, fascinated by the way he laid his hands and mouth on her, like he wanted to become her. Like he couldn't stand not being a part of her. I tailed them from the slide, to the see-saw, to the roundabout, until they finally gave up and ran laughing into the road where they knew I wouldn't follow.

It was drizzling and the street lamp reflected the specks of water in the air, giving the impression that it was snowing in the oval of light surrounding the two of them. My sister's damp strawberry blond hair glowed like the flickering embers that rise up when you poke a dying fire. A car swung onto the road, its high beams perfecting the moment, lighting them up from one last angle like the final act of a play.

But the car didn't slow and they didn't move. I wanted to shout, to warn them, but I thought surely, surely they saw it.

Just before the impact, he shoved her, trying to get her out of the car's path. It wasn't fast enough or far enough. She sprawled into the street and was sucked under the front tire, then the back, the force it rolling her body along for a few feet in the car's wake. She never screamed. I think I would have been more horrified if she screamed.

The car hit Brendon at the legs and his body slammed into the windshield before spinning, sailing up over the top in a grisly display of acrobatics.

Later, they called me a hero because he lived. I was the brave little girl with the presence of mind to dial 911. The reporters and the fifteen minutes of fame they brought with them were the worst. I wanted to explain to them how I didn't call out a warning, so they would be disgusted with me and stop asking me stupid questions like, 'Do you miss your big sister?' I wanted to tell them how I was the one who chased her into the road in the first place. But I wasn't even brave enough to confess.

They told Brendon he was fortunate to be alive, that he wouldn't have made it if I hadn't gotten help in time. I imagine him hating me for it. If only I hadn't hesitated, he wouldn't have been 'lucky' to be stuck in a wheelchair with one useless leg and another amputated at the knee.

I wasn't there to save him six months later when he shot himself in the temple with his father's duty weapon. Sometimes before bed I wonder, was it the handicap or was it her? It shouldn't matter, but I like to believe it was because of her. My sister. The angel in go-go boots.

It's morbid but I want to die like her. Young, beautiful, spotlit, burning with a passion so devastating that even an oncoming car is beneath my notice.

I turn my cheek onto the hood of my beat up '81 'vette and study the boy beside me. He's pretending to enjoy the soft blues playing from the speakers. My thoughts are as cold as the metal of the car and not even Jeff Buckley's ethereal voice can heat them. There is nothing between me and this boy but his desire to get to second base or beyond. He wouldn't wither and die from the lack of me. He isn't the one. He isn't Brendon and I'm still not her. Anyway, the light isn't right. I slip the razor edged paring knife back into the sleeve of my coat, a step not to be taken.

I deserve better. I deserve a boy who will stay my knife, not because he's lukewarm, but because I can't stand leaving him. Because I can't take the chance that there's no heaven where we'll meet again.

The catch-22 is obvious. If a boy isn't good enough, perfect for the moment, then I can't do it without tainting her memory. If he is, I won't want to. Excuses, excuses. I make room for them in my life. I nurture and pamper them. It's healthy to have a reason to live, right? And anyway, I know better than anyone that excuses eventually get you killed.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Test

After a writing contest gave him a prompt of "giving something up," today's featured author, Shawn Keenan, produced The Test. Shawn is a writer from Florida who's also written two YA novels, Errant Intern and The Buried Covenant. Enjoy!

The Test
By Shawn Keenan

Tim’s hand swept across the diner table, grazing a saltshaker, sending it spinning like a top to the edge of the Formica surface, showering little diamonds across it. He grabbed his shaking hand with his other slightly-less shaking hand and pulled it back to his chest. A shudder ran up his back and he took a deep breath to calm himself. The sound of his own ragged breathing in his ears did little to help soothe him.

“Hey, Hon, can I getcha somethin’ else?” The waitress has appeared at his side for the third time in the past five minutes. Her crusty hair continued to teeter from the gravity-defying mound she’d heaped it into at the top of her head. The strategically placed yellow pencil seemed to be the only object standing between the outdated style and structural collapse.

“No, just the water.” Tim nodded his head (one of the last parts of his body he could still keep from shaking) to the full, sweaty glass across the table from him, just out of his reach.

“How about some pie?” Sugar suggested. The name on the frilly collar of her apron wasn’t in quotes. It was either her God-given name, or she’d gone by it for so long, no one could remember she’d ever been called Louise.

“Yes, pie. Pie is great.” Anything to get her away from the table again.

Sugar’s eyes lit up. “Now we’re talkin’. Let me see what we got this mornin’.” She looked into the air at nothing. “We got apple, cherry, blueberry. Um, we got –”

“Apple,” Tim snapped. He tightened his grip around his quivering hand. He took a small calming breath and cracked out a tremulous smile. “Apple sounds divine.”

Sugar gave him a quizzical look then dismissed his less-than-hospitable tone in light of the order.

“Apple pie – comin’ up. Do ya want whip cream, or –”

“Surprise me,” Tim said.

“You got it, Hon.” Sugar stepped away from the table, her impractical heals clicking against the linoleum.

The shaking was getting worse, not better. It had been forty-three hours, and the symptoms kept getting worse, not better. And coming here … was this really the best way to beat this? Face it head on? Spit in its eye?

Tim stared at a droplet of condensation rolling down the cup across from him. The clear liquid would still be cold, the condensation proved that. But it would be tasteless, odorless, and completely unsatisfying. If it wasn’t brown, aromatic, and steaming, what good was it? Maybe a small sip would help. He hadn’t put anything wet to his lips in forty-three hours. He’d run out of spit an hour ago. He had to try eventually. Tim grasped the side of the table with one hand. The glass and peppershaker rattled as he tried to steady himself.  

The saltshaker, half-hanging over the edge of the table, rolled a quarter of an inch and toppled to the floor. 

The thick glass dispenser didn’t break, but bounced under the table and out of sight.

The rattling subsided. Tim pulled his jacket together more tightly, trying to keep in the little bit of warmth left from his last –

No, he had to put that out of his mind. He reached out with his free hand and pulled the cup across the table by the rim with the tips of his fingers. The cup left a wet trail of protest behind it. Tim wrapped his hand around the cold, sweaty glass. The wavy surface of the cup felt like a gun handle under his fingers. He drew the cup toward his lips, resisting the temptation to put the cup to his temple first.

“Hey, Hon. Here’s yer utensils.” Sugar had snuck up from behind again, depositing a wrapped set of cutlery onto the table.

The slippery glass shot out of Tim’s hand, sliding across the table like a shuffleboard puck, dropped over the side, and hit the floor in a spectacular crash of glass and water. Sugar didn’t flinch.

“Oh, that’s ok, Sweetie – happens all the time. You weren’t aimin’ for me, were ya?” Sugar let out a grating laugh. “I’ll get that cleaned up right after I get yer pie.” She patted me on the shoulder, and I flinched from the touch. Physical contact felt like shots of needles through my skin. At least it had for the last day.

Tim glanced over his hunched shoulder to the counter where Sugar was serving up his slice. Just behind her, a red light flashed on a little machine. The sound of water passing through it would be unperceivable to anyone else, but Tim’s ears strained to hear it. He could hear the water running through the machine, could imagine it washing through the filter, through the dark, rich grounds. In another second, the machine would produce that hot, dark liquid that no cup of sweaty water could replace.

Tim jerked his head back around, staring down at the diamonds on the table. He’d made it this far. He would get his pie, eat his pie, and leave this place. It would be one more test under his belt. He could do this.

The tapping on the linoleum gave Sugar away this time. He could hear her gum smacking as she approached the booth.

“Here’s yer pie, Hon.” A piece of floppy, mushy apple pie appeared on a small plate before Tim.

“And I felt so bad about yer water spillin’, I got ya a nice hot, cup o’ joe. On the house.”

Sugar reached down and set a mug down next to the pie. The aroma slipped through Tim’s nostrils and wrapped itself around his brain like a bull rider’s legs around a saddle.

“Now, dontcha try to thank me yet,” she said. “Just you wait til’ ya try that coffee. One sip, and ya won’t wanna drink anything else.”

Tim twisted his shaking head toward Sugar, his teeth rattling in his skull.

“Sugar, that’s the gospel truth, that is.”

Monday, June 18, 2012

Your Rhetorical Questions, Answered

If you're a writer who's ever queried an agent, let me salute you. It's not very fun, I'd imagine. As you've noticed, agents tend to have different submission guidelines and some of us are quite militant about them. I hope you all have spreadsheets to keep everybody straight.

However! I'm here to make your lives slightly easier. While I don't have the power to create a universal submission guideline, there is one thing that 99.9% of agents agree on when it comes to your actual query:

We hate rhetorical questions.

Now, to be fair, some agents don't mind when you begin your query with a rhetorical question. Some just skip it and move on. But no one likes them, which I think it a notable distinction. They're awkward to read, wastes precious query-reading seconds, and can even get you a very quick rejection. Agents read hundreds of queries - sometimes hundreds of them a day (!) - and your rhetorical question is not going to hook us the way a direct, unique description of your book will.

Here's why rhetorical questions fail:

Have you ever wondered... ? Nope.

What would you do if.... ? Whatever your character does.

What if you... ? I'd be living in the premise of your book, whatever that is.  

Remember when... ? Maybe, but you shouldn't assume I come from the same background or generation as you.

Do you ever wish... ? Probably not, but hopefully my enjoyment of your novel doesn't depend on my inner desires. 


In short, the answer is never a simple "yes." Even if by a miracle you pick the one agent who has been waiting to hear that question all day, chances are he or she will prefer to have heard what your book is about instead. What's worse is that if the answer is a very plain "no" (which it usually is), then all you've done is given us permission to stop reading your query. 


You will never be rejected based on a rhetorical question alone, so don't worry if you've already sent out a bunch of queries littered with them. But, for me, if I'm on the fence about a query or I know my reading my pile is getting too large to add to, I may take that rhetorical question as a testament to your writing style. It may not always be fair to the writer in question, but it's an easy way to filter out material when I just don't have the time for new things. 


Queries are hard, but there is no magic formula to them either. The only thing agents want to know is what your book is about. Note: your book. Rhetorical questions say nothing specific about you, your story, or your characters. They're like movie taglines, meant to entice a potential audience without giving anything away. Agents, however, are not your potential audience. We're the ones who will help you find your audience. But first, we need to know what your book is about. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Maria

Hi everyone. Sorry there was no story posted last week on account of BEA madness, but I'm happy to be back with a short story from George Ayres titled Maria. George is currently writing and co-producing FREEFALL, an Internet cop series, which debuted this spring. His fiction has appeared on plimptonmovie.com and Identitytheory.com, and in Wordriot, Maverick Press and Street News. He also has published articles and essays for Texas Journey, New York Press, the Houston Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, Austin Monthly, the Santa Fe Reporter and Twins Magazine.George can be found on Twitter @gcayres.

Maria
By George Ayres

The bald man behind me tapped my shin with his cane: “Hurry up,” he said. “I don’t have much time.”

It was past midnight and the store was empty.

“We’re moving along, sir. Take it easy, please.” The cashier had to address the situation. Her badge read 
Maria and she knew a thing or two about crowd control.

The man smacked his dentures and murmured under his breath. Lazy, disfigured, archaic words. Something about hellfire and damnation.

Maria pulled my roll of paper towels across the scanner and dropped them in a plastic bag.

“I really don’t have much time!” the man shouted.

“Cálmate!” Maria wasn’t cut out for pulling products across scanners, smiling at strangers, bagging. Most of the time, Have a Nice Day could suck it.

“As we live and breathe, I will smite you!” The bald man raised his cane like a striking warrior and fell over onto the hard floor, taking the candy rack with him.

Maria slumped her shoulders in frustration.

“Otra vez. I can’t believe it. That’s the second one this week. You gotta help me move him to the back. Por favor.”

Her brown eyes were set perfectly into the canvas of her terra-cotta-colored skin; short, dark hair framed her adorable face.

“Of course.” I stammered.

We dragged the man by his ankles down aisle seven past the cereal and breakfast bars and into the back storage room. Two hours later at a bar called The Fat Frog, Maria was loaded with cheap tequila. Her red blouse creased under her precious collarbone and turned out, awarding me a clean shot of smooth skin. With every syllable of her misspoken English, my spirits lifted. This could be the conquering moment of my existence but my vision was at an impasse. Pay attention and look at her face! Be a gentleman and look at her face! Sometimes the screaming started and wouldn’t stop.

She toyed with the stub of a Menthol Lite in a tin ashtray. Gold lettering inside read: Go Crazy in Key West.

The bar was crowded with beer drinking slobs. Facial hair and hoarse voices.

Maria ordered more Tequila and put down a twenty. The tattooed bartender picked up the bill and planted it against Maria’s forehead.

“I ain’t servin’ you nothin’ else.”

I tried to focus on the bartender’s bicep tattoo. A knight with a rose in his teeth? A serpent with a red head? Maria said something.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“What?”

“You said something but I couldn’t make it out.”

“You want to make out? Is that what you said?”

These opportunities never happened for me.

“You need another drink?” I asked.

“Yes, but the painted lady won’t serve me. Let’s go measure constellations with our fingertips.”

This would be a challenge since I knew nothing about astrology. She slid off her stool, brushed a strand of black hair out of her face and fell backwards into the crowd.

***

Days passed.

“Where do the bodies go?” I asked. “After Philipo gets them, what does he do with them?”

We were enjoying an evening of fine dining at Mr. Gatti’s and the time had come. I needed to know.

Maria plunged her knife into a tired-looking salad swimming in oil and vinegar.

“It’s about science,” she said. “Something about money for body parts.”

At 2 a.m., she was asleep on the sofa, drunk on sangria and reality TV. Even though Maria got a few bills with those “money for body parts” deals, it didn’t seem fair. The arrangement had me thinking … I leaned back in my chair and pulled on my pipe. While that sounds like I was pleasuring myself, I swear I was not. I was actually smoking a pipe. Smoking was an act banned in this country some 25 years ago.

Maria had been instructed by Philipo to leave the bodies in the back room and, being illegal, she did as she was told. She didn’t want to ruffle feathers, draw attention, be strip-searched. The deal was this: between hits and deliveries and drop offs and the occasional geezer that fell over in the checkout line, Philipo would locate surviving relatives, deliver bodies, say a few words in salesman-like, broken Italian, and put out his hand. The part that involved merchandising anatomy was a puzzle to Maria. It was underground. It was darkness. It was lucrative. At least for Philipo.

The next day Maria sashayed into the grocery store manager’s office and quit. When she came out, I was on aisle four cramming Doritos into my backpack while a toddler, hanging on the edge of her shopping cart, glared at me.

“Vato!” That’s what Maria called me. “Vamanos!”

She waved her final paycheck over her head like she’d won the lottery and stamped her wooden-heeled shoes. Maria and I high-tailed it to the nearest liquor store.
Within a week we moved into a garage apartment. Our gig was cleaning houses and it paid the rent.

On Saturday we cleaned a run-down place that some slumlord wanted to put on the market. It was in terrible shape – broken sheet rock, buckled floors, cracked paint – all the niceties that scream eviction or tear down. The kind of place where a 95-year-old woman took care of a dozen stray cats and dogs, and slept in the closet on a pile of newspapers.

So we’re filling bags of trash and end up in a bedroom with a stained mattress on the floor. Maria tosses down her broom, wiggles out of her jeans and yells: “Take me, vato!”

I’ve never said no so I go at it, full bore, and am dreaming about cream-filled doughnuts, sunshine on the beach and nickel beer night at The Fat Frog. All the while, I’m having a one-on-one in my head with the Dalai Lama.

My nerves popped, rang like a pinball machine. I tingled, my fingers vibrated against her velvet skin. Parts of me expanded and contracted. I was one slow, undulating wave, as close to natural as something could be. 

And wouldn’t you know it, just when I’m having my special “me” time, someone bangs on the front door. 

And I mean bangs on the door.

Maria jumps up, all skin and sweat, and pulls back what’s left of a tattered curtain.

“Hijo de la chingada. It’s that pendejo Philipo.”

“What the hell’s he want?”

“Money, vato.”

“What money? We don’t owe him money.”

Her misguided, dark eyes tell me she doesn’t understand the American dream, the one that’s prosperous when deception and unethical behavior are not involved.

“We owe him money?! Maria?!”

“Hush and get dressed, vato.”

We’re throwing on our clothes when troublesome Philipo smashes down the door and bounds inside searching for green bills and violence. My shirt flailed, my pants unbuckled; Maria with no shirt but pants and brown bare feet.

We scramble through the house of trash, jumping broken furniture and sliding past tarnished walls. High
volume strings from Mozart play frenetically in my pounding head. She screams as she searches for a back door. I save my breath for an ugly hand-to-hand battle or the final breaths of my life. Philipo carries something evil: A Louisville Slugger? A tire iron? A pizza box?

Philipo wildly swings, missing this and that, shouting for justice. Maria sprints and bounds like a gazelle, jumps on an ottoman here, climbs over a kitchen counter there, crosses herself like a Catholic schoolgirl. He swings at her again and misses. My adrenalin shoots like a rapid. The moment is electric: Aphrodite and Ares in the same room, aroused beyond belief, while Zeus looks on and laughs.

I come around from the bathroom where visible pipes spring from the floor like Medussa’s hair. I’m unannounced and frantic, like a party crasher on acid, set on a permanent end to this madness.

I land on Philipo’s back like a pouncing cheetah. He twirls and curses, delivers a flawless performance at the height of his reign of terror.

Maria spits. I pull hair, deliver a kidney punch and Philipo throws me to the floor. He grits his teeth and swings. I duck, just low and outside of the strike zone.

His bat lands a solid blow to a doorjamb and wall. Instantly, the wall buckles and flattens him. Live animation at its finest. Everything stops, silence prevails. Covered in dust and blood, the look on Philipo’s dead face is priceless.

Maria and I laugh and can’t stop. Seems like we laugh for an hour until we drag that bastard Philipo through the rubble of the crap house, cleaning the dirty floor with his lifeless body. We drag him to the backyard and bury him. At that moment, consequences didn’t matter.

We cleaned the house until our fingers bled, until sweat dripped from our pores, until our tired souls begged for a rest.

Friday, June 01, 2012

When Bad Books Happen to Good Writers

I recently sat on an "Ask the Agent" panel in which a writer anonymously asked, "Why do so many bad books get published while so many good ones get rejected?"

My first thought after hearing this question was "whoa, someone is bitter." Then I quickly realized it wasn't an unreasonable question. In fact, it was a pretty good question. Being on the business side of things, I sometimes forget how certain book deals must look to the writers struggling to get their work noticed. The thing is, I roll my eyes as often as you do when I see celebrity book deals, bestsellers in dire need of editing, and mediocre work from popular authors who no longer worry about "building their audience" (not naming names, but we all know they exist).

What's important for writers to remember is that the publishing industry, at least a large percentage of it, is full of book people. We studied English lit, think of authors as rock stars, and have a deep appreciation for the written word. So why do we (sometimes) allow mediocrity to take precedent over masterpieces? The answer I gave on the panel was that the terms "good" and "bad" are subjective - which they are - and that literary writing does often get overlooked for more commercial writing, but it doesn't necessarily make commercial writing bad. 

All of that is true, but the longer version of that answer is...

Good and bad don't mean the same on the business side as they do on the writer's side, but more on that later. For the purpose of this blog post, I'm going to focus only on commercial and genre fiction because the success of literary fiction is always dependent on the quality of the writing. Commercial fiction isn't. Not always. Which is why seeing what becomes a bestseller can be frustrating to writers trying to publish their first novel. 

In our insular world of publishing blogs, author Twitter feeds, and writer's conferences, it's easy to forget that we are a minority. Reading anything off the bestseller list has long-been considered "for nerds." If we could only sell books to people like us - the book people - then I think writers wouldn't have as many complaints about "bad" books.

But publishing is a business. Like any business, we need to look outside ourselves and find a product that will sell to a wider audience. Most people just want to be entertained. Sometimes that means sacrificing stylized prose. Other times it means you get to have high quality writing and the type of story that hooks a majority of consumers. When the latter happens, we do a happy dance.

Big blockbuster novels are like big blockbuster movies - high concept plot, not a whole lot of character development, and maybe some sexy times. It's "entertainment for the masses," but is it bad? Not even a little bit. It's actually the opposite, and this is where writers - like the one from that panel - can get confused.

In the publishing world, "good" doesn't always mean "well-written." We want it to, and it's what we always look for first, but it's not the only thing. It can't be the only thing. We'd all be out of jobs. Well-written books are well-written books, but "good" books have a broader definition. In publishing terms, "good" means that a book connected with its intended audience, and maybe even crossed over to reach a wider audience. Or, put more simply, good = successful.

A "bad" book can still be well-written. Bad is when a novel fails to find an audience, even if everyone involved in producing that book believed in it. Some books just don't hook an audience, and to the publishing industry that can mean some pretty bad things, such as:

1) The publisher took a loss by not earning back the advance it gave the author.
2) The publisher may not invest money in the author's next project to avoid the same results.
3) The book gets poor reviews, which hurts not only the author's reputation, but also their agent's, editor's, and publisher's.
4) Too many "bad" books in a row may lead to an editor not wanting to work with that agent anymore, or a publisher not wanting to take chances on that editor's projects.

In other words, a lot is riding on your book finding an audience and being liked.

Don't worry though. The pressure gets taken off of you because of what the outside world calls "bad" books. When we give Snooki a book deal instead of an up-and-coming debut author, do we sell out? Of course. Integrity can't always pay the bills, unfortunately. Super Big Commercial Bestsellers are often, as their name suggests, publishing's version of commercials. They bring in enough revenue to pay those bills and give us enough leftover to take on the smaller, beautifully written projects you bring us. We call these our passion projects because we love them and need to bring them into the world, but we know it's unlikely that book will be discussed on Dr. Oz (you know, for example...).

The writer on that panel wasn't asking about well-written commercial novels, but I want to take a minute to recognize that not all commercially successful novels are poorly written. Most of them are very well-written! Creating entertainment for the masses is still an art form, and being able to write commercially is a hard skill to acquire. Not all talented writers are able to hit all the right notes in their market the way a commercial writer can. A few of these Big Novels aren't well-written though. I won't pretend they are. Those are the ones that author was referring to, and I understand the frustration.

The publishing industry never looks for poorly written books, but for various reasons we do allow them to slip through. If your novel was rejected or didn't sell well, don't get angry at the bestseller list or blame the publishing industry. Instead, look at why those other books are selling. Books never sell because they are poorly written. There's always something else that readers are connecting with. Find out how to bring those elements to your own writing, but stay true to your own writing style, and never think for a second that in order to be big you need to be bad.