I know I’m shaking up the schedule a bit this week, but it’s a big week over here, so I hope that it’s worth the wait! I’ll be back to my regular schedule next Monday at noon ET like usual! For now, I have a few exciting announcements to share, and then a review and (what I think is) a cool creative, quarantine-friendly project in honour of the release of Miss Meteor, a new contemporary YA with speculative elements from incredible non-binary author Anna-Maria McLemore, in collaboration with Tehlor Kay Mejia.
Cemetery Boys Makes History
First, I want to take a quick minute to shout out trans author Aiden Thomas, his agent Jennifer March Soloway, and the editorial team at Swoon Reads, for the breakout success of the paranormal romance novel Cemetery Boys. Not only did it hit the NYT Bestsellers list, but it also made the National Book Award long list!
Thomas is in good company on the National Book Award long list – Black non-binary author Kacen Callender also made the list with their newest offering, King and the Dragonflies.
New Non-Binary Author: The Girl of Hawthorn and Glass
In my corner of the world, we’re also celebrating the debut YA from #SpineSquad author Adan Jerreat-Poole, The Girl of Hawthorn and Glass. Adan is a non-binary author, and their YA fantasy officially released this week from Dundurn, after quietly sneaking onto some shelves in advance earlier this summer. This is the first in a duology, and Adan’s working on some amazing new LGBTQ2S+ SFF projects for the future – so watch this space.
I couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce all of you to a new non-binary content creator who is now supported by Books Beyond Binaries: reddietoread! The human behind this account is Eddie, a college student studying literature, creative writing, and art history. They are currently fulfilling their middle school dream of being a booktuber, and they are working on their other childhood dream of becoming a published author. In their spare time they can be found reading YA and middle grade fiction, learning how to use power tools, and obsessing over anything dark academia-related.
Check out their channel for all kinds of rad content, including a playlist of non-binary book reviews and recommendations! The video below is the first in that series. Welcome to the team, Eddie! So glad to have you!!
Last But Not Least…
I just want to take this opportunity to wish an INCREDIBLE book birthday to my friend and author Cecilia Lyra on her sophomore novel, The Faithfuls, which comes out TODAY!!! CeCe is a badass Brazilian feminist woman living in Canada, and I was thrilled when my pre-order landed in my inbox this morning! Pick this one up, and when you do, if you can guess the twist ending? Make sure to let CeCe know… so far, no one has!
I jumped at the chance to be an official stop on the blog tour for this book (thanks, Caffeine!) for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is because the level of hype Miss Meteor is seeing leading up to its release is truly not on par with the level of excitement I felt when I discovered this title. Also – I want to interrupt myself for a second here to give a special shoutout to @MeteorReadathon on Twitter, because their Meteor Shower Readathon is such a great idea. If you haven’t had a chance to pick up some of these authors’ other works, check out their feed for great inspiration.
I’ve gushed about Tehlor Kay Mejia’s incredible YA duology We Set the Dark on Fire and We Unleash the Merciless Stormin this space before. What I have never written about is how Anna-Marie McLemore’s Wild Beauty is one of the first books that brought me back to reading YA fiction after a long time away from the category. I picked it up when I first began working at Another Story, during my many years in academia, and had to reintroduce myself to YA after being exclusively immersed in scholarly non-fiction for way too long. Wild Beauty was one of the first queer YA books I ever read, and it is still one of few books that I see dimensions of myself reflected in that don’t really show up anywhere else. Later, when McLemore celebrated their non-binary identity publicly, it was super heartwarming for me, and their books hold a special place in my heart for all of that.
When I heard that these two incredible queer Latinx powerhouses were teaming up on a project, I was over the moon – and Miss Meteor does not disappoint. My preface to this glowing review is this: I didn’t bother to read much about the book before I picked it up, because I was so excited to see what Mejia and McLemore would come up with together. I had skimmed the jacket copy and seen the cover, and that was it. This book was not at all what I expected.
The best way I can think of to pitch Miss Meteor is if Dumplin’ were super queer, and had a little touch of magic. I was a kid who grew up closeted in a small town that’s truly supportive and sweet as long as you abide by don’t ask, don’t tell… and there there were a lot of moments of searing truth in this story. There aren’t enough queer books that take place outside of the sprawl of metropolis, and we need them. I don’t think that LGBTQ2S+ folks think enough about how different it is experiencing queerness and gender non-conformity outside of urban centres. McLemore and Mejia paint a picture of a small town that’s believable and quaint and chilling, and there is skillful, diverse representation in every direction in this narrative.
Miss Meteor has so many things to love, including food descriptions that left me drooling onto my eReader. It has Wild Beauty‘s fingerprints all over it in the character of Lita – after reading this, I want to go to a cactus birthday party so badly! The only criticism that I really have of the book overall is that I could have used just a touch more of the magic that we get a hint of through this main character. It had everything else – the thrust of a powerful friendship story to keep to keep the plot momentum in forward motion, touches of romance and truthfulness, and the spectacular, voicey writing that I’ve come to expect from the authors’ other works. I just fell a little bit in love with the girl who was made of stardust, and I wanted to know more.
Miss Meteor Stitch Project
For those of you who don’t know, when I’m not reading, I’m usually stitching. I discovered embroidery a few years ago when I was adjusting to a new psychiatric medication, and I still love it. It’s cheap, it’s not super difficult, and I love the outcome. For my creative project for #MissMeteorOnTour, I decided to make a sheet of stitchable (or colour-able, if you’re not a stitcher!) Miss Meteor Merit Badges!
What’s your favourite part of this book? The pageant, the cactus birthday parties, the delicious diner food, or the awesome space rocks and star dust? The choice is yours.
large wooden or plastic embroidery hoop – nothing fancy required
fabric! You can use an old T-shirt (or bedazzle a new one), a swatch of cotton, or really anything you have lying around. Choose something with a fun pattern for a decorative background.
medium-sized embroidery needles. I would suggest DMC Size 5, if you’re a beginner!
embroidery floss. Use any colours you want! I would suggest DMC six-strand embroidery floss. It’s inexpensive, you can get it at lots of craft stores, and it comes in LOTS of colours. Sometimes, less expensive floss can tangle more easily, but you can also dig into your childhood friendship bracelet supplies for this project!
All you need to do is print the pattern above, use the graphite paper to trace it onto fabric (be careful, these lines won’t wash off), and then get started! Before you thread your needle, you’ll want to cut off a few feet of embroidery thread, and separate it into 3 strands. Only use 3 strands at a time to thread your needle. Once you’ve threaded your needle, and tied it off at the end, you’re ready to get stitching. You can use a simple straight stitch or back stitch for any of these designs, or get creative and choose something more complicated! There are loads of Youtube tutorials for learning embroidery stitches.
Once you’re done, and you love your badge, you can iron it flat, or leave it under a stack of books for a few days to flatten out. Then, cut the felt sheet to make a backing, and glue it to the back of the badge, and you’re done! If any of you decide to stitch (or colour!) a Miss Meteor merit badge from these patterns – PLEASE send me a note through the contact form! I would love to feature it on the site.
After taking the longest hiatus from posting that I have taken since I started this blog, coming back feels a little bit like coming home. I love my life as a literary agent, and in these quarantimes I am missing my life as a bookseller, but first and foremost, I’m always a bookworm at heart. I decided to take a step back from posting to make space for Black and BIPOC voices making essential statements during a very difficult political time both for publishing and for all of us who are touched and affected by COVID-19. I don’t want anyone to stop listening to those voices, but I also don’t want to stop making space for LGBTQ2S+ voices in this little space of mine. With that in mind, I would like to extend an ongoing invitation to Black and BIPOC writers who would find it advantageous – reach out to me. This space is yours to use if it’s useful to you. I would always be more than willing to use this platform to host and boost your words and voices if I can.
With that in mind, I have two books that I have personal connections to that I want to mention this week, and I am also all kinds of honoured to be hosting Kylie Schachte, author of You’re Next this week. But first, I want to plug a few of my favourite books by Black authors, for those of you who may not know them yet.
If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you will know that two of my favourite books of all time are Freshwater, by Akewaeke Emezi, and Hurricane Child, by Kacen Callender – both non-binary authors. Freshwater is an adult literary novel that is like no other book I’ve read before. It’s powerful and otherworldly, at times baffling and at others too relatable. It delves into themes like identity, sexuality, and trauma, and it is a difficult but breathtaking book. Hurricane Child, on the other hand, is an accessible middle grade ghost story about a young, Black, queer girl navigating her first crush. It’s poetic and spooky in all the best ways, and I would recommend it to readers of any age. While I’m at it, I’m going to put in a quick plug for books by a dear friend – Emmy Jackson is a Black author of post-apoc fiction, and their book is literally next on my TBR. We’re working on a top secret project together right now, and they’re one of my favourite people. Check out their books here.
If you’re seeking something more contemporary, I would recommend Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid, which deserves to be the next TV series à la Little Fires Everywhere. I feel like every millennial has known the characters in this book in their own lives, for better or worse, and the ending is deeply satisfying. Helen Oyeyemi is an author who never ceases to amaze me. Gingerbread is my favourite novel of hers, and it’s a twisting, winding, family epic turned fairytale that is all about a sticky, spicy, maybe deadly (??) snack. In non-fiction, I’d check out Haben Girma’s memoir – a book that I don’t think got enough buzz early on, and comes out in paperback later this summer. Haben tells her story of being a deafblind Black woman, and I think it’s essential reading – especially for anyone who can only name one deafblind person in history (Helen Keller).
As for books by Black authors that I have on my TBR that are coming out later this year, there are so many… Raybearer, by Jordan Ifueko, is a YA fantasy about having the strength to find your own path. I love innovative true crime memoir, and Natasha Trethewey’s book Memorial Drive that examines the murder of her mother looks fantastic. I’m SO HYPED for Alyssa Cole’s new thriller, When No One is Watching – look out for a review somewhere in the near future, because I snagged an ARC! And in my FAVOURITE genre, YA thriller, Tiffany Jackson will drop Grown later in 2020.
…I’ll stop there for now, but thanks to inspiration from Kylie, I’ve asked everyone who I’m featuring in the blog today to recommend a book by a Black author, so this post is packed with suggestions from some incredible authors in their own right.
New Books to Check Out
While the blog was on hiatus, my agenting partner in crime celebrated her book birthday, for her debut novel The Sunset Sisters! Congratulations, CeCe! I couldn’t be prouder of you. This book is the perfect summer read, and is a great commercial fiction recommendation written by a badass feminist author. Cecilia is a Brazilian woman living in Canada, and I am absolutely honoured to call her my friend.
I asked Cecilia what book by a Black author she’d like to recommend alongside The Sunset Sisters, and she chose her favourite of this year so far – The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett.
Next, I want to give a quick shoutout to A. J. Vrana, one of my #SpineSquad authors, who is celebrating HER book birthday for her debut novel on July 28th. This dark fantasy is based on her South Slavic heritage, and it gave me nightmares. I’ll cop to it! The book that she wants to recommend alongside The Hollow Gods is How Long ’til Black Future Month, by N. K. Jemisin.
We also celebrated the sale of her audio rights to Tantor this past week, so there will be an awesome audiobook forthcoming! Congrats!!
You’re Next, by Kylie Schachte
When I picked up You’re Next earlier this year, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I read it because I had an ARC, and it was an easy go-to… as you all know, murder is my comfort read. What I actually got was a super queer, relatable, emotional story that blew me away. It reminded me of Veronica Mars, but super queer. Book of my HEART. I immediately reached out to Kylie, who is an absolute fucking gem, to tell her what a punchy rollercoaster her book had been for me. I’m thrilledthat Kylie was up for writing a post for this space, and even more excited because what she wrote feels like it was pulled straight out of my heart. Thank you so much, Kylie, it’s an honour.
You can pre-order You’re Next now, and while you’re at it, Kyle recommended two books by Black authors who share her book birthday: Cinderella is Dead, by Kalynn Bayron, and The Voting Booth, by Brandy Colbert. Here’s your summer challenge from me: order all three. You won’t regret a thing.
Re-Imagining Escapism for a World on Fire: Kyle Schachte
Emmy and I first planned the topic for this post back in March, but I am writing it in June. A month defined by uprisings in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells, and more–more lives, more Black people brutally killed, so many that even as I say those names there are many more I’m leaving out. More may be murdered between the moment I write this sentence and the day it is posted. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the pandemic disproportionally kills Black and brown people, for deliberate, systemic reasons.
This post is not about how I, as a white woman, feel about those murders, or the general state of racial injustice–the world emphatically does not need that. But to not mention this context would be to entirely miss the point of what I’m about to say.
My book, YOU’RE NEXT, is the story of Flora Calhoun–a sixteen-year-old girl obsessed with solving the murder of her ex-girlfriend, Ava McQueen. I first started writing the book because I wanted to write something “fun.” I had this idea about a girl detective–a girl who would toss off one-liners like a hardboiled PI from the 40s…right before she went to math class. It would be campy, and sarcastic, and full of things like fight scenes and explosions. People might bring it to the beach, or stay up all night finishing it.
But from the moment I began writing, I ran into some difficult questions. At the core of any murder mystery is, well, murder. So how do I write a “fun” book, when at the heart of it is a queer Black girl, brutally killed? And any murder mystery must grapple, in some kind of way, with justice–what it means and how it should be served. So how do I write a “fun” book about that, when our own justice system is so broken?
There are phenomenal YA books that tackle topics like these head-on, such as The Hate U Give, or the forthcoming This is My America. These are gorgeous, wrenching books that are desperately needed in YA. But this conversation should not be limited to “issue” books, and it shouldn’t solely be the responsibility of Black and POC creators. Too often, the media we think of as being “commercial” or “fun” (specifically the stuff made by white people) side steps these questions altogether. Those stories take place in some kind of parallel universe, where race, class, gender and the like simply do not exist.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that same question I was asking myself: how do you write something that’s both fun and acknowledges the sad, infuriating realities of the world? Doesn’t that, kind of by definition, make things less fun?
Well…yeah, in some ways. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that teenagers getting killed is fun. But we should also ask: fun for whom? That fictional parallel reality, absent any acknowledgement of inequality…it was constructed for the comfort of white people. An excuse for us to continue to ignore what we are already ignoring in the real world. Escapism from the issues that barely touch us, and yet make us uncomfortable. A world in which our privilege goes unacknowledged and unchecked.
When creators respond to these critiques, the answer is often, “It’s not supposed to be that serious,” or, “I don’t want people to have to think that hard.” Mind you, these are often the same people who have developed wholeass magic systems they expect readers to follow, but acknowledging that race…exists…is asking people to think too hard. And that response actually makes a lot of assumptions about readers, and what they will find enjoyable. It assumes a definition of “pleasure” that is, like so many things, oriented around a straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, male gaze.
But that kind of pleasure can ruin a story for others. I often give up on shows or books because the oversights are so glaring. Is this a world in which no people of color exist? No queer people? Women do not make up 50% of the population? When I consume those kinds of stories, there is no escape. My brain works double time to pick out every issue, every whitewashing, every dogwhistle.
And anyway, it’s a false choice! We already know for a fact that it is possible to write books that can be both fun and acknowledge systemic injustice…because marginalized writers have been creating those stories for ages. Check out A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, or the upcoming Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas–all joyful and escapist, and yet imbued with the lived experience of marginalization. And we should absolutely be handing the mic to #OwnVoices authors at every opportunity, but that does not absolve us from needing to do better in our own work as well.
I’ve been thinking about these questions since I started writing YOU’RE NEXT in 2014, but my thoughts started to coalesce a few months ago, when I watched the movie Knives Out. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie is an extremely campy, whimsical romp in the vein of Clue, or The Westing Game. An eccentric millionaire is murdered in a locked room, and a brilliant, ostentatious private investigator is brought in to figure out whodunit. But underneath those fun trappings, the movie is also a pointed rebuke of white privilege. The millionaire in question left his entire fortune to his nurse, Marta–a young Latinx woman whose mother is undocumented–cutting his family out of the will altogether. At first, the white family members treat Marta with saccharine affection (while loudly debating in her presence whether “illegals” should be deported), but when the money gets involved, they turn on her. They threaten her and weaponize her mother’s immigration status–even the “nice,” “liberal” side of the family.
Now, is Knives Out a nuanced, in-depth portrayal of our broken immigration system, or the ways white people benefit from systemic racism? No. It is zany and bonkers, and exactly what you would want from a movie like that. But it provides just enough context to feel like it lives in our real world, or at least was created by people who are aware not only that these problems exist, but that they shape every story we tell–whether we acknowledge them or not.
“Escapism” shouldn’t mean ignoring hard or painful things completely. Instead, when we acknowledge those issues, we find new narrative possibilities–we can create “escapist” fiction that is in dialogue with the things we are trying to escape. Knives Out is pleasurable–and commercially successful!–not because it pretends that racism and xenophobia don’t exist, but because Marta triumphs over it through her own cleverness and good heart.
The joy I tried to create in YOU’RE NEXT is a little different. Yes, there’s the fun, high octane stuff–car chases, fight clubs, Noir tropes with a high school twist. But unlike Knives Out, the triumph over injustice at the end isn’t so clean & tidy. In many ways, I think the true pleasure of the book comes not from joy, but from pure, unadulterated rage.
It is fury that propels Flora, the main character, to act. Anger that fuels her obsession with solving Ava’s murder. She lives in the same world we do, where kids are killed all the time, and the entire system is built to protect the wealthy & privileged. And she’s pissed as hell about it. She would love nothing more than to scream “fuck you” in the face of everyone who doesn’t care, or who looks away…and she kind of does exactly that.
And the satisfaction of that rage can be its own kind of pleasure, or escape. As I have better educated myself about the injustice of the world around me, I have often been sad…but more often I have been livid. Furious with the world for being such a dark and violent place, furious with other people for not doing anything about it, and furious with myself for not knowing better sooner. And while there is plenty we can do in real life to work towards a better world, my hope is that there is something deeply, primally satisfying about watching a teenage girl–someone whom society has deemed weak, vulnerable, without agency–burn the whole fucking thing to the ground.
I strove to write a book that is “fun,” but still inhabits a world in which race, class, and injustice actually exist. As an obscenely privileged white woman, I have certainly gotten things wrong, and have much work still to do. But I could not write a book in which a queer, Black teenage girl dies and pretend that her race and sexuality have nothing to do with her death, or the failures of the investigation. I could not write a book in which teenagers participate in an illegal fight club for money, and not acknowledge the class divisions that drove them to such violence. Acknowledging these problems is not a chore, or an obligation. It creates opportunities for newer, more original stories to be told–and, most importantly, to connect with more readers. Because we already have plenty of books that look the other way, and people are hungry for something else.
PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.
I am so excited that this week, I get to hand this space over to a whole bunch of rad guests! I am so grateful to author (and #SpineSquad member) Jules Devito, who is gracing this space with some of her wisdom for querying authors. You may remember that I hosted a self-pubbed author not too long ago who wrote about how to know if querying is not for you. Well, what if you know querying IS for you? The internet is a sea of advice on how to go about doing it, and it can be a lot to sift through.
Jules has queried and successfully been signed by two different agents in her writing career, and had great relationships with both of us. I have deep respect for her prior representation, with whom she parted ways amicably, and I am super grateful that she decided to sign with me on her second time around. Today, Jules has written a little bit about what she’s learned through her querying process.
I am also truly honoured to welcome author, friend, and fellow literary agent, Cecilia Lyra, to this space! I have so much respect for CeCe as a reader and as a fierce, brilliant feminist, and for everything that she does in my life and in the literary community. She’s penned a review of the forthcoming novel Exciting Times, by Irish novelist Naoise Dolan, and I’m so glad to share it with my readers in PART because CeCe loved the book, but also because Naoise is queer and autistic, and we need more of these voices ringing out across the literary world.
Shoutout to Santana Reads: Trans, Non-binary, and GNC Reviews and Recs
But first: I want to drop a few links to Santana Reads, a blog by a rad bi, genderfluid, Puerto Rican teen who Books Beyond Binary supports! Carolina has dropped some awesome content lately, including an interview with non-binary author Kacen Callender about their newest title, Felix Ever After. If you’ve been reading this blog a while you may recall that Callender is the author of one of my FAVOURITE all-time middle grade novels: Hurricane Child.
Some titles I want to highlight from Carolina’s list that I am personally super looking forward to are Cattywampus, by Ash Van Otterloo, which is a magical MG that had me at the charming as all get out title; Even if We Break, by Marieke Nejkamp, who is not only an author whose YA thrillers are among my faves, but who is also queer, disabled, and autistic (like me!), and whose work reflects that. Also – can we TALK ABOUT THIS COVER PLEASE? Last, but not least, we have Ana on the Edge, by A. J. Sass, which is about a trans figure skater! Nostalgia calling…!
How to do the Query Thing, by Jules Devito
Clement St. John Sinjin Wyndhamhammersmythe, or: Things I Learned During (And After) Loads Of Querying
Hey book community! As some of you might know, I signed with Emmy last month, and I couldn’t be more excited. What you might not know is that I had another agent before signing with Emmy. Which means what? Yes: I’ve done a lot of querying. I sent out 88 queries before getting my first agent, and 3 before signing with Emmy. That’s a lot of rejections. But along the way, I picked up a few tidbits here and there that I’d like to share with you. This is just my personal experience talking, so, as we say in critique partner-land, YMMV.
The manuscript that I queried Emmy with is a dark, quirky, queer (queerky?) vampire romp – a bit of a departure from my usual SciFi manuscripts. One thing to keep in mind when querying is that you’re not just writing one book and calling it quits. You’ll write more, your style will change, your tastes might change too. So you’re looking for an agent who represents everything you think you might write in the future. More on this later. For now, let’s start with:
WOW, I started querying for my first novel ten years ago, way before I had any business releasing it into the wild. Do you know what querying was like back then? Not all agents even had an email address. So you’d print your query and send it via snail mail, and then you’d wait weeks—or months—to get a reply in your actual mailbox. Gross!
So I began querying for my first manuscript in 2010, and I didn’t sign with my previous agent until 2015. Seven whole drafts later.
Therefore step one—and every literary blog, every agent, every editor, everyone and their dog will tell you this, because it is so true–is to make sure your manuscript is ready. I know, I know, it is always ready, right? You’ve already cast the Netflix series in your mind, time to get started! But leaping empty-handed into the void and hoping for a net isn’t quite the thing in publishing, and that’s because you might find yourself burning through your list of agents in a big-time rush, and some of them might not give you a second chance after that first rejection. So if it takes six or seven drafts before your critique partners / mentors / writing communities agree that it’s ready, then take the time to redraft. Don’t blow your chances before you’re ready to go. Publishing is slooooooow anyway. Think of it like orchids: you tend them for a whole year just to get a few blooms. (But the blooms last for a really long time and are so worth the wait.)
I made loads of mistakes. Starting queries with “What if” questions, yikes! Scattershot querying. Not researching agents enough. (Although, again: in the early 10s it was hard to come by resources with which to research them. There was a physical book, inches thick, which listed every agent, editor, and publisher, and gave you the tiniest, most pointless little blurb about their likes and dislikes. So personalizing your query back then was a challenge.)
What Finally Worked
Publishing, and naturally, agenting as well, changed a lot in those years. Like, did you know: Back in the 10s and earlier, having written fanfic was almost sure to get you rejected? So when you started to send out those queries, you had to scrub your fandom presence if you wanted to be taken seriously. Thank goodness that changed. Now, many agents grew up in fandoms themselves and consider this a plus. Not all, so do your research. But being a fic writer doesn’t disqualify you anymore; in fact, if you have a positive social media presence, you might even want to include links. That was one of the things that worked for me the first time.
Another thing I did was to change the name of my novel. I can’t stress this bit enough: Make sure your title is accessible, clear, catchy, and easy to understand and to pronounce. The week I changed my title was the week I got three full requests.
I entered every contest I could find to win critiques, chances to talk to agents, opportunities to pitch to them. I entered two pitch contests, two auctions, and in one case played a game of “guess what I’m thinking” with a high-profile agent on Twitter to win a ten-page critique. These were game-changers. Those query critiques and five/ten-page critiques that I won on Twitter improved the entire manuscript.
If an agent, editor, or writer is offering their help on any media platform, take them up on it. Take every opportunity to get eyes on your words. This might take a while. Feed those orchids.
It Doesn’t Always Work Out
BE HONEST. Be honest about what you want out of the business relationship, and more importantly, about your own passions. Approach the entire situation with openness, not only with your future agent, but with yourself. Both novels that I wrote previous to this last one were SF, and I’m comfy there. My brain likes it. But my heart wanted to write that queerky gothic vampire novel, and I should have admitted that to myself from the start.
So obviously, when you do get an offer from an agent and they ask about your future works, you already know to tell them your plans. But you can’t do that unless you’re being honest with yourself. If you suspect that someday your Id is going to push you to write sassy vampires escaping bad guys while running hand in hand through a Halloween corn maze, then square with that and be upfront about it. And if you and that agent aren’t on the same wavelength about the future of your career, it’s okay to start looking elsewhere, even if that seems like it’s going to set you back. Trust your manuscript. It got you one request, it will probably get you another.
You also don’t have to sign with the biggest or most famous agent or agency. Often, a smaller agency will be a better fit, if you like a personal touch.
Be patient. Remember: ORCHIDS.
Querying In ~*~Modern Times~*~
It’s so much easier now to know what an agent is looking for, and if they would be compatible with you and your work. Know your audience/agent. Google people, but don’t be stalkery. Manuscript Wishlist is the best resource there is. Did you know you can keyword search? “Gothic” “Vampire” “LGBTQA” “Adventure”! Keyword searching specifics can make a world of difference, and the MSWL is so detailed now, it’s really easy to personalize your query. Use that resource.
My new favorite thing? Form queries! They are so convenient. They practically tell you what to say, so you don’t have to struggle with what goes where (“do I lead with the hook? Do I start with the title and word count?”) It’s all laid out for you. But even so: keep a base query at hand, one that you can build on when you add personalizations specific to different agents.
These days, an agent might ask for some links. Do you have a Pinterest mood board for your manuscript? A Spotify playlist? It might be worth it to have a few links to include, if requested. (This was the most exciting bit to me. Wait, so you want to see my self-indulgent mood board? And my MIX TAPE? HECK YES.)
The Call… or Not!
The Call can be completely stressful if you have phone anxiety or social anxiety. The good news is, not all agents need to hear your voice these days. That’s a huge plus also for someone who needs time to think about what they want to say, and make bullet-pointed lists. It’s a good idea to have that anyway, this way if you do have to talk on the phone, you’ll have some guidelines. Also, I think it’s all right to be upfront about your anxiety. The old wisdom was “don’t lead with a weakness,” but I don’t like to think of that as a weakness. I can’t say it enough: Be honest! Agents get nervous too.
So when I signed with Emmy, we mutually decided to do “the call” via email, which for me was much more organized and easier to follow. But you—and your potential agent—may feel differently and that is also great.
What else did all those old advice pages say? Almost everyone still advises that you should ask which publishing houses or specific editors the agent has in mind for your manuscript. It’s supposed to make you sound knowledgable and professional, but again: Is that honest? Your query will divulge how much or how little experience you have in publishing, and you should never pad your query with exaggerations. You will be googled. So why are you bothering to sound like an in-the-know pro if you’re not? The agent is excited about your manuscript, not your connections.
And anyway, how familiar are you with the names they might give you? “Oh yes, the famous editor Clement St. John Sinjin Wyndhamhammersmythe, I just had lunch with that old chap last week!” (Me, though? I actually do know Clement St. John Sinjin Wyndhamhammersmythe. You can ask Emmy.) I get it: You want to google the houses/editors they’re thinking of. Yeah, I do, too! And if they do throw you some names, that’s cool. Don’t get weird about it though. Leave people alone.
So, what should you ask? Personally, I love an editorial agent – in my opinion, that is the best kind of agent. MORE EYES ON YOUR WORDS. So it’s good to ask if they do editorial work and a round or two revisions before submitting. Yes, again, that takes a bit longer. ORCHIDS.
I’m a chatty, nervous person, and I like to check in a lot during revisions (I always feel like the woman who tried to restore the Jesus fresco.) Is your potential agent all right with checking in? What is their level of communication? You never want to feel like you’re annoying them.
I think it’s all right to ask if you can talk to some of their authors, but only after you get an offer. Chatting at signed authors before you’ve even queried the agent seems a little presumptuous. “Hey, what do you think, should I query your agent?” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I guess?? Do what you want!
Many agents will offer you some contacts with their authors after they make an offer, and if that’s their preference, that’s fine. But keep this in mind: Will any of those authors bad-mouth their agent? Hahahahaha not likely. If they’re still with their agent, then you can be sure they’re pretty happy. So you can contact all the authors you like, but I doubt you’re going to hear anything that will change your mind. “How was your experience with the agent Foreign Rights McNetflix-Series?” “OMG the absolute worst, can’t recommend.” Seriously?
What sorts of revisions do they have in mind? This is important! True story: I have a critique partner who was told by an agent that he would definitely sign her if she was willing to make her lead character “more marketable.” Well, what does that mean? When pressed, the agent clarified, “Straight.”
Run. Oh my god, run.
Be seriously open to change, because agents do have more experience than you, and they know what’s publishable. So to a point, you can’t be in too much of a committed relationship with your manuscript. But if they suggest any changes that make you feel uncomfortable, or that you really can’t get on board with, then chances are you and this agent will keep running into this particular wall, and you’re not going to have a good business relationship with them. Editorial suggestions should not feel personal – this is a business decision. If their suggestions make you feel bad, make your skin crawl, or make you feel like you suck, then it’s better to hold out for someone else.
You should never be made to feel like you suck. There is a gatekeeping aspect to agenting, but as a querying writer who knows that your manuscript is The Goods, try to think of it as searching for a compatible business partner. Agents are not the enemy or some door you need to batter down; you’re looking for someone who is as excited about your manuscript as you are. As with any relationship, you want them to feel a passion that matches yours. They shouldn’t be settling for you, nor you for them.
All of this advice goes for pretty much any relationship, business or personal, right? Be honest with yourself and with them from the start. This decision should make both of you happy and excited; neither of you should feel any trepidation about working together. Gut feelings are for real. Building this relationship will take time and work. Be patient but don’t spin your wheels for too long.
Remember, your manuscript is a Tall, Proud Orchid!
Review: Exciting Times, by Cecilia Lyra
There are many reasons to fall in love with this novel. I will give you three.
Let’s begin with Ava—our protagonist. Reason number one.
Originally from Ireland, twenty-two-year-old Ava moves to Hong Kong to find happiness, except all she finds is an insultingly unstimulating job teaching English to wealthy children and a crowded flat filled with passive-aggressive roommates. Is it any wonder she agrees to move in with her Brit banker friend Julian, who, yes, is a first-rate douchebag, but who is also able to offer her a comfortable lifestyle? Their arrangement is casual (at his insistence), sexual, and involves Julian buying her clothes and dinners. Ava might be a feminist, but she is also human—and, by her own account, manipulative, unscrupulous, and prone to moral cowardice. I don’t disagree with her self-assessment, not exactly. I take her point—Ava isn’t likeable by any means. But she is interesting, not in the least because of the source of her moral cowardice—Ava possesses a dangerous trifecta of qualities: she’s abundantly intelligent, sensitive, and self-aware. And, let me tell you, when you feel and think with that much intensity—and, more importantly, you know it—you can talk yourself into anything, particularly when you’re young. (If you don’t get it, it’s likely because you are and have always been a stable, well-adjusted person. Good on you.)
Reason number two—plot.
This would be an interesting enough story if we only followed Ava’s time living with elitist, commitment-phobe Julian. But it gets even better when we meet Edith, a stunning and ambitious Hongkonger lawyer. Edith enters Ava’s life when Julian is away on an extended business trip to who-cares-because-this-man-is-seriously-so-boring, leaving Ava at his posh flat. Edith takes Ava to the theatre. Edith is a spry conversationalist, a sharp observer, and a feminist. Edith speaks with a permanent note of surprise in her voice. Ava wants Edith. Or Ava wants to be Edith. Does it have to be only one? The point is that during the six months while Julian is away, Ava grows very close to the mythologically beautiful Edith. When they kiss, it’s electric. When Edith asks Ava about Julian, Ava lies and says they’re just friends (there is very little Ava won’t lie about). And when Edith asks Ava to be her girlfriend, Ava happily says yes. And then Julian comes back.
Which brings me to reason number three—themes.
Woven into this heartbreakingly raw, character-driven novel are themes such as the messiness of human interactions. The perils of overthinking. Social pressure—and how it affects even the most well-educated, politically confident individuals. Exploration of one’s sexuality. The nexus between monogamy and the patriarchy. Financial anxiety, particularly as it affects a generation that’s been screwed over one too many times by capitalism. Fear of intimacy. The trauma that comes with being an outsider. Lying as a means of survival. Avoidance, not as a result of cowardice, but as a form of self-harm. Cultural clashes. Race. Class. The true cost of letting someone in. Above all, this novel explores what it’s like to love at an age where single people enjoy so much ostensible freedom and yet are plagued with even more inner doubts. And it does all that through prose that is precise, witty, and fluid. The quality of the writing alone makes this an unforgettable novel. (I suppose that’s reason number four. Don’t blame me — blame Dolan for writing a book that’s too good to be recommended with any sort of brevity.)
A warning: those who enjoy likeable, cookie-cutter characters should stay away from this novel. Why anyone would enjoy that is beyond me—Once upon a time, there was a good girl who did good things is a decidedly uninteresting story—but to each their own. (Again: I’m talking to you, well-adjusted human.)
If you’ve ever felt damaged, read this novel. If you’ve ever been plagued by self-consciousness, read this novel. If you’ve ever suffered because you didn’t fit in, read this novel. You need to meet Ava, to spend time with her. You might not like her. But if you’ve ever had to pretend—and if you’re a minority you have—you’ll understand Ava. You might even forgive her.
I know I did.
A quick plug: If you loved this review, or found it helpful, please consider pre-ordering CeCe’s upcoming novel THE SUNSET SISTERS (also available through Amazon and Apple Books) – the perfect, affordable book for your 2020 summer reading!
PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.
Currently Reading: Tiny Pretty Things, by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton
I have a couple of neat resources to share this week, but before I do that, I want to pop in a quick personal note. One of my colleagues at the Rights Factory, Cecilia Lyra, announced her new two-book deal this week! CeCe is a multicultural author originally from Brazil, now living in Canada. She is a brilliant feminist with a background in law, and I love working with her. Her novel The Sunset Sisters was previously published in Germany under the title Sisters for a Summer, where it was a #1 bestseller. The Sunset Sisters will be available digitally in English through Bookouture/Hachette in June! I can’t wait to read her books! If you want to read The Sunset Sisters, please consider pre-ordering an affordable digital copy! If you do so, it will be of most benefit to CeCe, and it will positively influence Amazon’s algorithms – something we should all want to do to support deserving authors.
The second is a great article by Toronto-based journalist Michael Rancic, who writes about the incident to date, as well as TRANScend TRANSform, the related teach-in that happened last week. If you, like me, weren’t able to attend this event in person (don’t worry – there were over 200 attendees!), the third resource is the high-quality video recording of the event, which was hosted by the bookshop where I work. Shoutout to Anju Gogia from Another Story, and Kai Cheng Thom, for putting in the legwork to make this happen, and to get both a live video stream, and this high quality version, online.
On a lighter note, ReQueered Tales, a re-publisher of post-Stonewall pre-2000 queer literature, posted this great Canadian LGBTQ2S+ history resource: unearthed 1970’s interviews with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera from CBC Radio.
Given my recent forays into the publishing business, I’ve been thinking so much about the process of writing and publishing a book for the trade market. This post delves into Rhynn Bowlick-Evans’ intensely personal experience of querying an agent for publication… and ultimately deciding instead to turn their back on the process.
Queery Me This, by Rhynn Bowlick-Evans
I did a lot of research when I started querying a couple years back. I had spreadsheets galore, bookmarked articles with click-batey titles about how to write the perfect pitch, meticulously prepared sample pages, and a deep, oppressive sense of longing.
You see, everything had really gone to shit. My family was crumbling. Posturing as cishet was becoming too exhausting, but my queerness scared me. I’d just finished grad school, which had completely destroyed me. I was stranded on the East Coast with no community, no connections, and no career prospects.
Writing was the light at the end of the tunnel, and as my characters helped pull me back into the real world, I wondered if they might do the same for others who were struggling. Thus, I did what I felt was the only logical thing at the time: I began the disheartening process of querying.
Swing and a Miss
I say it was disheartening, because the things I was searching for were not anything that literary agents could or should replicate.
I knew my word count was too high for a YA Fantasy manuscript. My fantasy of manners-esque style and florid prose didn’t necessarily pitch well, without a high-stakes hook. And yet, knowing this, I queried anyway. My manuscript was #OwnVoices—there was queerness throughout the manuscript that I wasn’t ready to call my own, though, and I couldn’t bring myself to type out the words I was abused, this is my story, which meant it was hard to explain why I should be telling this story, and why others should bother to listen.
At a certain point, the shiny new luster of querying started to wear off. Some of the agents I was lusting after made a questionable tweet (or six), and as I began to follow authors who were represented, it quickly became apparent that being agented was not the be-all, end-all fix. Many still worked day-jobs, and a handful were brutally honest about what it meant to not be the agency’s golden child. And beyond the realities of publishing lay uncomfortable truths about my sense of self—I could not pitch this book without owning the parts of it that belonged to me. And yet, to own those parts—to stand up and say I am hurt, I am queer felt like handing over my trauma a la some twitsted sort of currency to buy marketability, and I was expected to do it in pursuit of love I should’ve been seeking elsewhere.
Authors absolutely must be asking why they’ve chosen to query. Why do they want to be represented? Why do they want to be published, and more than that, why is this method of publishing right for them and their story?
Here’s the Deal
I got some fantastic feedback from my time querying. I also realized that I was waiting for someone to give me permission to be excited about my work.
At some point, I got it into my head that I needed to earn my own enthusiasm. That, with enough collective approval, I could cash in and start gushing about my project. And let me tell you, friends, it is exhausting, waiting to be excited about something you’re so passionate about.
In a lot of respects, querying was a way of searching for affection that my community wasn’t giving. It was the first step to building a collective that better reflected my interests and passions, that would get excited about the things I loved. And, too, I think the agent search was really a quest to lend some legitimacy to a project even I wasn’t taking seriously at the time—as much time and effort as I put into my manuscript, I still saw it as a cry for help from a desperate person.
Most of my querying was waiting for someone to hand my manuscript back to me and say, Your feelings are so valid, darling, so valid in fact that we must share them with the world. This—and I cannot emphasize this enough—is not an agent’s job.
I wanted someone to tell me that it was all going to be okay. That it was okay that my manuscript was front-loaded with the queer, masc characters like me. It was okay, writing about how difficult it was to maintain connections with people post-trauma, and too, that it was okay to craft a family on paper like the one I wanted in my real life. And above all this, I wanted someone to tell me it was okay to love that manuscript. Because that manuscript still feels like me, and it’s okay to love me. I am loveable.
I’ve seen a lot of people saying how 2020 is the year they write what they want. The distinction between marketable and good can, at times, be quite vast, and so it’s good to be aware that the story you love may not be a story that’s selling well right now.
I made a promise to myself, when I started writing. An internal contract that I would write what I needed to, and that this project would never be for anyone but myself. I broke this contract, querying.
I didn’t want to traditionally publish. There’s a lot of reasons why, some practical (retaining rights and control), others, not (I’m impatient and wanted to publish faster than a trad publishing timeline allowed). The most important reason, though, was that trad publishing could not give me self-love. It could not make me come to terms with myself. And it didn’t really matter which publishing avenues I was exploring—if I couldn’t find self-acceptance, it would be a miserable journey, no matter the path.
Intrinsic appreciation of the craft was something that I had to nurture. It’s a balance between writing for yourself and still being able to work with readers and editors, all while retaining confidence in your work. And really, it comes back the the interminable question every good writer should be asking, the one thing we all must wonder to spin the narratives: but why?
PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.