Thursday, April 18, 2019

Notre Dame

Not going to lie, when I came home from work late at night, exhausted and stressed, and found that Notre Dame was on fire, I felt inexplicably raw. While I practice Christianity, which people often lump together with Catholicism, I don’t have strong religious ties to Notre Dame. I didn’t have the time or mental energy to sit down that night and parse together why I was feeling the way I was feeling. It was only when I was sitting at a coffee shop the next day, trying to focus on my novel-in-progress, that I realized I had to figure out why I felt ready to cry in public, why I felt frantic to know if Notre Dame was okay, when it seemed like everyone on Facebook was panicking and saying it had burned to the ground.

It is difficult to imagine something that seemed to promise permanence reduced to ash. Notre Dame is centuries old—it has outlived so many generations, it is meant to outlive us all. Now, especially, it feels important to have something to cling to, some symbol of stasis. When you watch that very symbol burning, hot and bright, it shakes something in you, down near your foundations, leaves you feeling a whole lot less grounded, a great deal less safe.

Here’s the thing, though. Notre Dame did burn, but she did not burn to the ground. While the iconic spire did collapse and most, if not all, of the upper roof is gone, the lower part of the roof is still there, minus three holes. The structure itself is sound—the stone the building was built from created a heat shield, which saved the building from a great deal of damage.

Let’s take a look at what was and wasn’t lost. Yes, the rose-colored window is gone. However, it was, itself, a replication of the original, as were many features of Notre Dame. When I read Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, back in high school, I won’t lie—I snoozed through most of it. I couldn’t understand why he spent maybe a hundred pages talking about the architecture of Paris, talking, at great length, about Notre Dame. What I couldn’t appreciate, even immersed in the medieval history studies which I loved immensely, was that Hugo didn’t write that book for readers of the future. He meant it for the Parisians who had been letting Notre Dame fall into ruins, who had left it to rot as an eyesore. Were it not for him, the church would have been lost to us a couple centuries ago. If you didn’t believe in the power of literature before, I hope you do now.

The roof itself was constructed of thirteen and nineteenth century wood, which means not all of it was original material. This is the case across the board. The church has been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, like some weird jellyfish life cycle. We don’t see it that way, normally, because our perspective is limited to modern day. Not all of us think in centuries, but there it is. For decades, there has been a plan in place for disasters like this. The trees needed to rebuild the cathedral supports are already ready to be harvested. There is something truly, deeply religious about praying for peace and planning for war—the Bible is filled with that sort of practice. Imagine if all of us lived more like this, enjoying the stasis of the normal, yet ready in case things go south, with seven years of grain stored away for when Egypt is struck by famine. What I’m saying is, there was a disaster plan in place, and the firefighters followed it. The art, the altar, the furniture, so much was saved. And the famous gargoyles? Those weren’t even on the roof at the time of the fire. All sixteen had been removed four days previous in preparation for the restoration work that was already underway.

Nothing has been permanently destroyed here. Had Notre Dame burned to the ground, we have the knowledge to build an exact replica. The parts of her that were lost will be rebuilt faster than ever. And let’s not forget that it was insured, which brings me to my next point. If you’re deeply moved by the sight of a burning church, examine your faith, see the parts where it has been singed over the years, work on rebuilding yourself. If you feel the need to pray, pray for those affected by the fire in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was burning at the same time as Notre Dame. And if you feel the need to donate money, donate to the three churches in Louisiana that burned over a ten day period.

Here’s the thing I want to leave you with, before I retreat back to my reclusive state, as I have taken an impromptu hiatus to recover mentally from an ongoing stalking situation: it can be easy and all too satisfying to give in to despair, to panic before you have all the details. Don’t do that. With the internet, we have a wealth of knowledge at our fingerprints, and the onus is on us to make sure we’re passing along accurate information. So before you write that dramatic post about how Notre Dame burned down and you always wanted to go there and now you’ll never get to, please search out the facts first, to spare yourself—and others—unnecessary pain.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Guest Post // An Introduction

Featured from left to right: Danielle (who has guest posted on this blog before), me (with hair styled by Wind, because I am a classy broad), and Abby (the culprit responsible for this blog post). 

Note: Today I bring you a guest post from my sister, Abby. I apologize in advance. 

I think you know me, coffee beans. At least, I think you know me a little. I’m the sister that pops up from time to time in Liz’s narratives. One time I even wrote a guest post, and I think Liz has shared some of my poetry with you. I don’t know if you’ve ever wanted to know more about me, but for a long time, I’ve wanted to get to know you.

I’m not going to tell you my life story, because Liz has pretty much taken care of that. We haven’t shared every single life experience, and we haven’t responded in the same ways (in fact, we’ve often responded in opposite ways), but we’ve shared enough to be the same kind of different. Which is why we think maybe you won’t mind if I start to write for Out of Coffee, Out of Mind with some regularity. Maybe once a month. Maybe once a year. Who knows? But don’t worry, Liz is still in charge. She won’t let me post anything stupid. **Liz, you won’t let me say anything stupid right?** (Liz: *shifty eyes* Yeah, sure, whatever you say.)

So, for an introduction, let me just start with what I’m reading. Except first I should tell you that I work at an interior design company about an hour from where I live, so I have an hour each morning and an hour each evening to read via audiobook. An hour commute each way might sound absolutely horrible to you, but it’s really not. The Virginia countryside is rural and gorgeous, while the Maryland portion of my drive is...uh...okay. So I get two hours of mandatory reading Per Day. Isn’t that amazing??? Best. Life. Ever.

The reason I have this job is complicated and ugly and messy and horrible, so I’m really trying to stay positive here (I say, filling our landlord’s swimming pool with all the lemonade I’m making from the metric ton of lemons I’ve been handed).

Anyways. I just reread ERAGON by Christopher Paolini. I read it and loved it when I was thirteen, but Not Nearly Enough. Say what you will about how parts seem a little like LORD OF THE RINGS fanfiction. No one world-builds like Paolini. No one. And that kid was nineteen. Geeze. What am I doing with my life? Five out of five.

Just before that, I listened my way through Ally Carter’s NOT IF I SAVE YOU FIRST, just licking up all those Russian accents (yes, my ears can lick). (Liz: Ew.) Ally gives us a secret service agent’s daughter living in the wilds of Alaska, throwing glammed up hatchets with alarming accuracy, trying to save her best friend/worst enemy, the first son of the United States, and keeping her lipstick fresh in the process. Solid. Four out of five.

I’m currently reading Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series for the first time even though my friends have been hounding me about it for years. I’m working on THE KING OF ATTOLIA right now, and this installment is for sure my favorite so far. I’m also working on SHADES OF EARTH, the last book in Beth Revis’ Across the Universe trilogy. I’m actually reading that one physically, which is nice. I’ve given each of the books in both of these series either a four or a five on Goodreads so far.

But best of all, best of all, I am beta reading Liz’s newest project: PLANET EYES. WHAT IS PLANET EYES? You ask. Calm down. Actually don’t calm down. It’s freaking brilliant. PLANET EYES is the working title Liz settled on for HIRAETH when we all realized that no one could tell when we were saying the name of her book and when we were sneezing. **Bless you, Liz….Oh...Oh right, right I’m on chapter 15.**

This feels like a good time to segue into what I’m writing. Not that you should care too much. (Liz: It’s okay. I don’t.) Liz is still the Mycroft to my Sherlock in all things, especially writing, but whatever. First off, you already know that I write poetry. I also write thoughtful and informative emails So Evil they get me fired from churches. I’m over it. Not bitter. **Chants: I love my new job. I love my two hours of mandatory reading. I love my life.**

But that’s not really what I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell you that I’ve been working on a novel, WILL THE BOLD, for the last six years. It’s about an artist and a soldier and a sister and a trail of paintings that the soldier and his sister hope will help him get his life back. And it’s almost done. So that’s exciting. At least, it excites me. I know I don’t have the right to expect you to care about your favorite blogger’s (Please, of course she’s your favorite) sister’s questionably-talented writing ventures, but I’ve got this dream of Liz and me being the new Brontë sisters. So, you know, look out world, and all that.

Aside from reading and writing and working my butt off, I like to hang out with friends, watch TV with Liz, watch TV with my boyfriend, watch TV with my coffee, run around in the rain, beg my boyfriend for a puppy, eat pie, play ukulele, dance to Bieber in the kitchen, cook in the kitchen, and last but certainly not least, leave the kitchen because I am a strong, independent woman with a career at uh...Carefree Kitchens **sigh**.

That’s it, coffee beans, that’s me. Ask me all the questions! Throw tomatoes. Joke’s on you, I make a great tomato sauce. What would you like to know?

P.S. After my initial draft of this post, I did indeed finish PLANET EYES. DANG. Five out of five. Liz and I have had many a good conversation since about possible edits (not that it needed many), and the themes of her work. Let me just say, it is my privilege and genuine pleasure every time I get the chance to have any kind of input on her work.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why I Don't Want To Self-Publish // Part One

Recently I talked about query writing, and I mentioned I wanted to write a post about why I don’t want to self-publish. This is that post.

I have come a long way since my younger days when I considered self-publishing as nothing more than a platform for untalented writers. I have since read self-published gems like Sierra Abrams’ THE COLOR PROJECT. And let’s not forget that Hugh Howey’s WOOL and Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN were originally self-published. There was a good stretch of time, about a year, when I strongly considered that route myself, when I still wanted to have my books out there, but I had lost faith in my ability to make the cut.

People don’t realize how big a deal it is, doing everything by yourself. If you want to do your due diligence, you are probably going to need to hire a professional cover designer and a professional editor. That costs money. You can cut corners with those, if you want, but you are going to risk hurting the final result. I’m going to say something unpopular and discouraging here, and it won’t be the last of it’s kind in this post: you are not as good at editing and writing and cover design as your mom says you are. I have read too many samples of self-published works that were rife with typos and lazy formatting and bizarre grammatical errors. Most readers are not willing to spend their time and money on those.

Unless you are sticking with digital publishing, you are going to need to pay for print copies. You also need to either a) figure out how to format a novel well, which is not as easy as you think, unless you know about formatting issues like widows and orphans (and I’m not talking about the Baudelaire kind), or b) you need to hire a professional to format your novel.

This isn’t meant as a harangue on self-published authors, since there are some who do their due diligence, but because there is no gatekeeper in self-publishing to tell people, “Hey, wait a minute, you don’t know what you’re doing,” most books don’t get vetted. Suddenly if your mom says you have written the next Great American Novel, then that’s good enough, might as well stick a barcode on that baby.

But back to the issue of money. If you’re going to do it right, it can take somewhere between two and five thousand dollars. You might, might earn back that investment. Let’s say you spend two thousand dollars, and let’s say you charge twelve dollars for each book, if you’re doing print. You are going to have to sell upwards of one hundred sixty-seven print copies before you start to see any kind of income, and that’s not necessarily factoring in the cost of printing all one hundred sixty-seven of those copies, because the initial two thousand won’t cover that many, so it’s actually going to be longer. Also, as you make all this money to pay back your two thousand, you have to remember that taxes for self-employed people, which is the category you fall under as a writer, are twice as high, because right now your workplace pays half of your taxes, so the money will basically evaporate. That means it’s going to be longer before you earn out, and even longer before you start to make any sort of appreciable profit. I could go on. But I hope you see what I mean. You can curtail some of these expenses by sticking with digital or using a platform that does not require you to pay for your print copies, but you’re still going to have to pay for editing, cover designing, book formatting, and promotion, which you shouldn’t skip.

Something a lot of people don’t realize is that you don’t pay a traditional publisher. The publisher buys your book. Like, with money. Essentially, they’re paying for the privilege of editing your book with you, designing the cover, printing it out, etc... I would much prefer a setup where I don’t have to pay to do things I could otherwise get payed to do. Simple math.

And here’s where too many authors get scammed. You never ever ever pay a reputable literary agent out of pocket. After your book sells, they get a percentage (usually 15 to 25%, depending on the agent and what kind of deal it is—print, foreign, film, etc…) before you get your cut. True, most advances are not worth bragging about, and after taxes and your agent’s percentage get taken out, what remains is less than impressive. But it is still preferable to footing the bill.

Let’s get even more depressing. Self-published books normally don’t get placement in bookstores, which doesn’t have to be a major deal now that Amazon has become a huge marketplace, but you would still be losing sales opportunities. You would also be passing up on the chance to see your book in a bookstore, freak out, and take a million photos. So, there’s that.

You’re not going to want to hear me say this, but I’m glad younger me heard it over and over, so I am going to say it. With self-publishing, there is a very real danger of jumping the gun and harming your career. Let me give you some limited perspective. If you rush and query an imperfect manuscript, generally the worst that will happen is that you won’t get published that time around. Not a career wrecker, unless you’re unprofessional about it. With self-publishing, unless you are getting feedback from unbiased people who are knowledgable about writing craft, you are not necessarily going to get an honest view of your book. I cannot stress it enough: you need someone to tell you when your book isn’t good, and you need someone who knows how to help you make it better. Everyone does. If you rush yourself and self-publish a low quality manuscript, you have shot yourself in the foot. Your chances of getting an agent after that are a lot lower. Now that they’ve seen how you’ve performed as a writer, they’re less likely to risk their time on you. Not to mention that self-publishing as a method of breaking into traditional publishing is inadvisable, because unless your book is a smashing success, it is almost impossible to get an agent interested in an already-published work.

A lot of people self-publish their first novels. If self-publishing had been my chosen route, I would have done the same, because I thought TIB was awesome-sauce. I still think it’s a good book, but I also know that it needs work. The same for my second. But writing is a craft that takes years to develop, and the only way to develop it is through practice. No one really wants to hear this, but I am going to say it anyway, because I am so grateful that I finally understand. Your first book is probably not going to be good. Your second and third and fourth might also be subpar. It depends on how quickly you learn, as a writer. I saw some statistics once, and I wish I could find them for you, that showed your chances of getting traditionally published increase with each book, but the point where they start to skyrocket is on your fourth. Your fourth book. If you’re looking at that number and thinking, “Wow, that’s discouraging, I guess I’ll self-publish instead,” you’re missing the point. It’s not a numbers game. To learn the skills, you have to put in the time. More people get published on their fourth book, not because four is some magic number, but because that is how long it takes a lot of people to get good at their craft.

I know it’s hard, because you can get it into your mind that, oh, I finished a book, that must mean I know what I’m doing. It doesn’t. All it means is that you finished a book. It does not necessarily mean that your book is any good. Self-publishing lets you skip vital steps in your development as a writer. I know traditional publishing can be disillusioning. Because it’s so subjective, it’s entirely possible for a wonderful book to get rejected across the board, so I am not saying never self-publish. But, generally speaking, the gatekeepers are there for a reason. Agents and publishers are actually very good at their jobs. Most of them have been doing it for years, so they know how to spot talent. And while it’s not fun to think about, the rejection storm I received when I was querying TIB wasn’t because the agents I queried were mean or blind, it’s because my book wasn’t good enough.

There were times I was tempted to self-publish because I just wanted to have my book out there, because I felt this maddening need to be published that became, at times, all-consuming. It’s so hard to hear that you’re not ready yet, harder still to delay your dreams. But I learned valuable lessons from being told no so many times, lessons I needed to learn, and I’m grateful for that.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Query Writing

Part One// The Nitty Gritty

For those of you who don’t know what a query letter is, or how traditional publishing works, the first half of this post is for you. Let me walk you through what I’ve learned along the way, because I get asked a lot if I plan to self publish. When I say I want to be a published author, people tend to assume that’s what I mean. I think the general populace of non-writers has this nebulous concept of publishing—either you self publish, which seems to be what more people are familiar with, or you send your novel to a publishing house where an editor will be more than happy to print it out and send it to bookstores.

Not many people seem to be educated on how the process actually works, and that’s okay. But after a while, it gets a little disheartening, especially when it’s hard to tell if questions are coming from a lack of understanding or a lack of confidence in my ability, an “Oh, you want to write, that’s cute, but you’ll obviously never make the cut to be published professionally” approach. And I try not to take offense, when I sense someone is taking that specific tack, but it’s a little insulting all the same.

Let me clear the air. Eventually, I will write a post about why I would rather not self publish. Glossing over this topic today feels unintentionally rude to people who do self publish, which is sad, because I have beta read for self-published authors (Sierra Abrams and Brian McBride), and I have a lot of respect for them. So I will write a post about that soon, because it’s a personal choice, and I know it’s no one’s fault, really, but I’m tired of the question, after all these years. Right now, let’s just move forward knowing I would prefer to be traditionally-published.

The fun—and by fun, I mean not-so-fun—part of traditional publishing is that, to be considered by most reputable publishing houses, you have to have an agent. The agent is the gatekeeper, someone who thinks your manuscript is good and is now invested in getting an editor to buy it. This is great for editors, who are insanely busy, because they can at least know that what’s being sent to them has been vetted. Beyond that, it’s good to have an agent, because then you have someone in your corner who knows the business, who knows how to negotiate legal contracts, get you better advances, pitch to editors, and work out film deals, and more (not necessarily in that order).

Now that we’ve covered what agents do, let’s talk about query letters and why I’m writing one even though the whole process makes me want to tear my novel into tiny strips and use it as confetti. A query letter is, primarily, a short summary of your novel, like you would read on the inside flap of a book jacket. It gives agents an idea of what your book is about, and its job is to be intriguing. If it fails at that, then it is a sad, sad failure. (No, I don’t feel overwhelming pressure, what are you talking about?) Long story short, a good query letter is meant to convince an agent to read your book, because if they read it and like it, then they might want to represent it.

Something else to note, before we move on, is that rejection is a huge part of the process, and that does not necessarily have anything to do with whether or not you are a failure. JK Rowling received her fair share of rejection and was told not to quit her day job. Even if you have written an astonishingly good book, there are going to be people who don’t think it’s worth the paper used to print it. Go on Goodreads and look up reviews for your favorite novel. There will be people who hated it. So getting an agent is not necessarily as straightforward as it sounds, because everyone has their own personal taste. This is all ignoring the issue of making sure, if an agent is interested in representing you, that they are a good fit for you and your projected career path. Nothing is as simple as it looks from the outside. So, before you ask an author if they are published yet, consider maintaining a healthy distance, enough to give you a running start if they decide to stab you.

Part Two // Query Woes

Now that we’re all—hopefully—on the same page, I can complain about query writing. It’s hard. Like, so hard. (Truly, I have such a way with words.) Back in 2012, when I began reading numerous successful query letters and researching how to write my own, I thought it was going to be a breeze. Coming into it, you think it’s going to be easy, and people will tell you that it should be easy, which makes it even worse. But then you actually sit down to write it, and you realize that it takes a lot of work to make something look effortless.

Here’s the thing. You have just spent a considerable amount of time writing, editing, and polishing your novel. At this point, you are so familiar with it that you no longer know how to see it like it’s new, which shouldn’t be a problem, but it is, because you have to step into the shoes of someone unfamiliar with your story to know how the summary comes across. They don’t know how awesome your book is—all they know is what you tell them, so you have to tell them the right stuff, and that doesn’t mean writing a query letter that says: My book is really good. Pls believe me.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Jim, but I am a doctor writer, not a salesperson. If I had wanted to get into sales, I would have gotten into sales. Nevertheless, here I am, feeling like someone going door to door trying to sell vacuums to people who already own multiple vacuums.

I have to extract the essence of my story, all that makes it interesting, and condense it into as few words as possible (closer to 250 than 500). I have to make this letter cohesive and well-written and fascinating. And I have to communicate that I think my book has what it takes without sounding like a pompous nutcase. On top of that, I have to do this knowing I have failed twice before, which is even less fun than it sounds.

That’s why I’m giving myself a month to finish the query letter for HIRAETH, as well as the synopsis, which is longer and more detailed and spoils the ending. That one is less frustrating, although it still feels alien.

So if my next few posts read like they were written by a deranged person, you’ll understand why.