The Strongest Chain: First 250 words

Just a few days I ago I entered an online contest for new authors – Secret Agent run by the amazing Authoress who remains nameless.  Click the link if you’d like the particulars, but the purpose of this one is to see if your first 250 words will attract an agent.  The agent remains nameless as well and is revealed at the end along with a winner and runners-up.  My entry was randomly chosen for participation and the feedback was pretty consistent, they were all confused.  Not that the writing was bad or it was boring, just that they couldn’t tell how old my MC was and it was reading more like YA than Adult.

And yah, I didn’t win, but it was info I needed.  Especially since the agent turned out to be one that I have on my wish list of people I would love to work with.  Le sigh…  These contests have been incredibly helpful in figuring out what I’m not doing right.  They aren’t as helpful in telling what to do instead because that’s pretty subjective.  However, this time, I think I’ve got it.  I’ve changed the prologue into the first chapter and tweaked it a bit.   I’m asking all of you lovely readers to please review the newly revised start to my novel and give me some feedback.

For those of you who have been with me since this was the Davies of Coventry – bless you.  I can promise you the revised novel is better and although different, the heart is still the same.  So, without further ado –

The Strongest Chain: Chapter One

They were breaking the rules.  The Davies’ Top Rules of the Road said you do not stop at a gas station in a crappy part of town, you do not stop for gas late at night, and you do not let the tank get below a quarter to avoid breaking rules one and two.  But here they were, at the Gas and Grab in freaking Chelsea on fumes at one in the morning.  Kennedy Davies looked out the window and watched her mom finish filling up.   Meredith replaced the pump handle and then looked over to the little store attached to the station before opening the car door.

“Hey, I’m going inside to grab a pack.”

“Mom, it’s seriously late.  Can’t you just skip it?”

“No, my delightful daughter I cannot.  I abstained at the party since Eloise is allergic, but I’ve got a deadline looming and at least two hours of work to get through tonight.  That means I’m going to be ready to kill someone for a cigarette at about three.  You don’t want that to be you.”  With a smile and a wink she grabbed a twenty out of her wallet.  Kennedy watched her mother walk confidently into the station on her three-inch heels with just a pashmina thrown casually over her thin white blouse and silk skirt as if the December night wasn’t freezing.

Kennedy shook her head.  At twenty-four she was the cautious one while her forty-five year old mom was the one staying up late, tempting fate, living by her own set of rules.

***

And that’s it.  Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.  Is it clear who the MC is?  Are you interested in reading more?  Are you left confused at all?

Thanks as always!

In Defense of Happily Ever After

In 2014 I finished my very first novel and decided to take a workshop to polish it up before seeking representation. I emailed all 135,000 words of what I thought was a women’s fiction off to the editors only to be told that it was far too long for a contemporary romance. I read their return email with dismay. Romance? That genre was full of vapid heroines and muscle-bound heroes. That was not what I wrote. I told them they were wrong and they gave me my first homework assignment, to read the genre I was so ready to malign and dismiss. So, I read through the good and the bad, Regency and Contemporary, both bodice and bonnet rippers. Sure, some of them induced a bit of eye rolling, but the majority were some of the best fiction I’d ever read. The depth of the subject matter in contemporary romance in particular was surprising and that’s where I found a home for that first book and the two others I’ve written since. The genre gets a bad rap, and I fear it’s because any ‘serious’ literature tends to stay away from happy endings.

When I was a young reader I stuck to fantasy and the classics. I liked adventures that had happy endings.  I can pretty much guarantee that if in those days you saw young me walking through the woods or mucking about, I was probably having an adventure in my head inspired by some story I had just read. As I became a teenager my tastes drifted into Sci-Fi and cozy mysteries. Though my tastes changed, one thing stayed the same. I read books with happy endings. They might have detectives and scientists instead of orcs and hobbits, but the heroes had to win, the villains had to lose, and the couple had to get married or at least kiss. These endings weren’t all sunshine and roses, but ends were tied and worlds were saved. I loved the books that either made me sigh in contentment or want to grab a sword and go hack up some orcs.

As an adult reader, that’s what I still look for in the books I chose to read for pleasure. I don’t want to be immersed in a novel where the main characters have terrible things happen to them or are horrible people themselves and after slogging through to the end there’s only a vague sense of completion, a morally relativistic point, or a relief for having survived it. Fiction is a place where the author spins a world out of nothingness and then chooses what happens. She is in control of everything. Why anyone chooses to write a book full of desolation without consolation, I will never know. If I get to choose then my reader is going to turn the last page of my book with that feeling one gets when walking out of a really great movie.

This is not a dig on complex, well-written fiction or modernist, post-modernist, or literary books. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a very difficult book to get through, but to this day it is the novel with the greatest impact on me as a reader. That book altered my view of the world. There were times I had to put it down and walk away because the world it took me to was so real and terrible a place I didn’t want to be in it, but its message, the experience it was showing me, was profoundly important. The world needs books that tell a story a reader might not ever hear otherwise, an experience they might not ever understand without it, but there’s room on the shelf for happy endings too.

When I read I don’t stand beside the main characters and walk through their story, I jump into their shoes and live it with them. Getting lost in a book is my favorite way to read. As a reader, I want to know my pain is worth it, that there’s either a great truth that is about to be imparted or at the end I will turn the last page and feel something. Whether that’s the glow of a happy ending or the thrill of an amazing adventure, or a puzzle solved, it has to move me.

There is this idea amongst fiction’s literati that sentimentality and the happy, satisfying, resolved endings it produces fails to communicate the emotional complexity and moral ambiguity of real life and are therefore inferior. I say that’s nonsense. Actually, I’d go as far as calling it elitist. The idea that enjoying sentiment is strictly for the uneducated or less-enlightened is insulting.

So, my defense of happily ever after is this; sentiment doesn’t mean sappy. Characters who are complex and intricate plots can have their happily ever after and still be great fiction. My own writing may center around two characters falling in love, but there’s real life in between. Whether it’s corruption at a small private school, opiate addiction, office politics, or the usual prosaic difficulties of being on the PTA, I depict real life. I want my readers to know that real life can have happy endings. In a sometimes bleak world I want to tell the stories that inspire and move my readers. A book with a happy ending isn’t less intelligent because it embraces emotion because it doesn’t do so at the cost of reason. A good author writes emotion in measure with reason. Romance as a genre is snickered at because serious readers aren’t supposed to enjoy it and intelligent women aren’t supposed to write it which I say is utter nonsense.

Read what you like and don’t worry that it doesn’t meet some outside standard of what is ‘good’ fiction. In my mind the best books will always be those that leave you feeling better turning the last page than when you opened the cover. Whether they thrill you, charm you, or scare you, the happily ending is the final piece of the puzzle, the last word, the perfect closer. As dark as it can sometimes get in one of my books, the sun will always shine in the end.

 

 

Language Most Foul: Profanity vs Vulgarity

True confession? I swear. Sometimes a lot. Usually in my car when no one is around, but sometimes at my husband.  Sad, but true.  It’s also true that profanity and vulgarity are like the toxic twins of modern speech. They are everywhere and pretty well tolerated in most situations and definitely in most entertainment. Take the ubiquitous Facebook.  It can be a bit dangerous to have your kid read your feed over your shoulder because you never know what’s going to pop up. Twitter feeds are the same and even on TV a good amount of what could be called ‘cussin’ is shown.

Books are no exception, in fact, they have always been a medium that accurately reflects reality so the profane or vulgar speech of every age has been depicted in them. In order to create real, three-dimensional characters authors have to mimic the speech patterns of real live humans. But what if the author is a Christian?  Think of Ephesians 4:29 “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths…”  It’s been struggle for me since my books tend to be mainstream fiction, not Christian fiction where the expectation is for the work to be swear-free.

I was raised to believe that both profanity and vulgarity were evil and no girl with any kind of class used them. This belief was strengthened by attending a Christian college where you’d be fined if you did. Imagine my shock when I got my first real job. It happened to be where the staff was mostly male. I’m not saying all men swear more than all women. I think it depends pretty heavily on your age and socio-economic background, but in this instance…yeah, the boys swore a lot. And some of the words they used I had never heard before and couldn’t even define.

The guys usually reined it in around me and that was a measure of the respect they had for me.   In fact, they waited until I was out of the room or gone for the day before they used the truly vulgar phrases, told a dirty joke, or shared a porn video (thanks guys!) But for the most part profanity and vulgarity peppered their speech. This was their language. These words were part of their lexicon and using them actually improved understanding. This was peer to peer speech though. They did not speak like this to their boss, their mom, or a client. Eventually I even got in the habit of the occasional f-bomb myself. I’m not sure if it was just catching or I wanted to be better understood. Most of the time when I did that it made them laugh.

Years later and I’m writing a novel with characters not unlike the men I used to work with. In life these characters would use both profanity and vulgarity regularly.  I found myself asking where the line was between being honest to my work and honoring my faith.   In the end I realized that I already had the answer in what I myself, deemed appropriate.  I divide ‘profanity’ and ‘vulgarity’ this way: Profanity is speaking the lord’s name in vain, Vulgarity is just that, vulgar and coarse speech.  I might occasionally indulge in a bit of vulgarity, but you will never (never) hear Profanity out of my mouth if I can help it.

Modern humans rarely swear in the way Matthew 5:34 addresses “But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King”

The way we profane God’s name is almost banal. We’re careless with it, stripping it of all meaning and using it like it’s nothing, a throw-away, hollow.

If there is one thing I would like to eradicate from modern dialect it would be the use of ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ as anything other than nouns referring reverentially to the being they represent. It hurts to hear them used as curses.

When I encounter a coworker who says them on a regular basis I actually tell them I’d rather they say Mo***F***** instead. Really. I’d rather hear the foulest vulgarity than to hear Christ’s name spoken as a curse.  Typically they laugh, but also… they adjust.  They honor my request and they censor themselves which just goes to show what awesome people I work with.

In my writing for the mainstream market I never use profanity, even though it could be argued that it makes my work less “authentic”. In fiction there is the big T truth and the little T. I will always honor the big T and I pick and choose when it comes to the little one. I get to. This is my world, my characters and they bend to my Will. Bwaaahaaaa. But seriously, they do.

This is the same beef I have with authors of historic or fantasy novels set in medieval times or dark ages that frequently depict sexual violence against women.  These same novels don’t address dysentery or the other less than appetizing realities of pre-modern life. I believe they choose to depict rape in part because it’s an easy (lazy) plot device and frankly, because it’s titillating. But I digress. We’re talking about swear words here. My feelings on rape in fantasy novels (and some Romance novels) is a whole other rant.

In THE STRONGEST CHAIN I do use what some would consider vulgarities, but never anything that would garner more than a PG rating in a movie. Why include them at all? Because I want my characters to be as real as possible, as rough as they are. Why not just use profanity or nastier vulgarities? Because these do the job. I might use the stiffer sort of vulgarities in other books, but I will not use profanities. Ever.

I know it seems I’m drawing an arbitrary line, but if you are a member of the flock, if you are a professing Christian, these words wound and they demean the God that we love. Would you let a friend, a coworker demean your partner or your child or your friend? No. You wouldn’t. You’d stand up for them. You’d put a stop to it.

And that’s where I find my line. This isn’t me defending my faith. The author of the universe does not need my backup and my tiny whisper against the shouting of the world doesn’t matter much. This is me revering my God and honoring him in all I do. This is me being true to God and true to my work.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on profanity, vulgarity, and the written word.  Sound off in the comments about your own struggles with dialogue.  What are your thoughts on keeping dialogue real?  Where are your lines?

8 Query Tips No One Tells Writers

Great Advice for New Authors on Querying.

Carly Watters, Literary Agent Blog

typing fadeoutThere is a bounty of query letter writing advice on the web. I’ve written about it before too: The Biggest Query Letter Mistake, and How To Format Your Query.

However, here are some tips you might not have heard yet that will set your querying strategy apart from the rest.

Querying in 2015? Read 8 Query Tips No One Tells Writers:

1. There are no second chances. Send a query letter with an agent’s name misspelled and resend 5 minutes later? You might already be written off. We get so many queries that we’re always looking for reasons to say no (even though we’re looking for gems!). Sometimes there are easy no’s.

2. If you say you’ve been published we assume that means traditional. And if you don’t share the publisher, year, and maybe some sales information we’ll assume you’re pulling our leg.

3. Telling agents you’ve self published…

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2015 – Goals for the New Year: Like real ones, not the fake ones you tell people, but never do.

I am not one for resolutions, but I do like goals.  This year I wanted to set a few realistic ones so I sat down after the 1st and thought about what I’d really like to accomplish.   Here we go.

1. Put full effort into querying The Strongest Chain (formerly the Davies).  I’ve been tentative in the past and now I feel ready to successfully shop it around.  I just gotta do it.

2. Exercise.  I know this isn’t writing related, but it sort of is.  I have a desk job and adding the writing hours on top of it means my kiester is in a chair for 12-14 hours a day.  Not healthy.  I’m trying to commit to 90 minutes a day of cardio in 15 minute increments.  We’ll see how that goes.  🙂

3. Revise Bittersweet.  This was my last NaNoWriMo novel and I love the characters, the setting, but the plot was – meh.  I’m taking my newly-acquired structure and pacing skills and trying to save it from the reject drawer.  Bittersweet is set in a small town amongst the mountains of Maine.  The main characters are a hoot because they’re both middle-aged and stubborn.  They were fun to write and I want them to see the light of day.

4. Plot out the sequel to The Strongest Chain.  I have some ideas and I need to make sure they don’t get lost in the ether while I’m busy with other things.

5. ROCK MY DAY JOB!  This needs caps because I’m worried my competing interests will shave off some of my determination to do the best job possible since doing an okay job is always (unfortunately) an option.  I don’t want to just do an okay job. I want to rock it!

6. Shout less at my kids.  I noticed this year how loud my family is and I realized that part of the reason for the shoutyness is how often it starts with me.  My office doesn’t have a door and too often I’m wrapped up in editing or writing and my munchkins come in mid-fight about Mario Smash Bros or something else that doesn’t make my list of stuff to care about and when they don’t respond to my quiet re-directions I raise my voice.  I’d like to find another way to get through to them that doesn’t include cranking the volume to eleven.

7. Clean my office.  And the rest of my house.  It’s another thing that I let slide in order to fit writing in amongst working full time and parenting full time.  I need to be the lead on this since no one else in my family has the clean gene and there are five of us in a tiny (albeit cool) converted barn with no garage, no basement, no closets, no attic.  It’s really open which is great, but not so advantageous for the storage of stuff or the hiding of clutter.  Visible clutter oppresses my spirit so I want to see if we can fix that.

8. Read more of the good stuff.  Including the bible.  I’m lazy about reading the books that do more than just entertain.  I’ve got a stack of the good stuff waiting, I just need to get on it!

Totally doable right?  I’m looking forward to whatever this year brings and to doing the deeds! – see inspirational quote from Theodore Roosevelt below.

TR Quote