Miss Meteor Blog Tour

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.

reddietoread

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!

#MissMeteorOnTour

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.

Tehlor Kay Mejia

I’ve gushed about Tehlor Kay Mejia’s incredible YA duology We Set the Dark on Fire and We Unleash the Merciless Storm in 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.

Anna-Marie McLemore

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.

Project materials:

  • large wooden or plastic embroidery hoop – nothing fancy required
  • scissors
  • 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!
  • graphite transfer paper to trace the pattern onto the fabric
  • 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!
  • basic felt sheets
  • Mod Podge matte – you can use the spray version, or use a sponge to apply the regular version

Resources used to create the merit badges:

Instructions

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.

Happy stitching!

BREAK OUT THE SCISSORS

Happy Monday, theydies and gentlethems. This week, I’m pleased to share with you a review of Avalon’s Last Knight, an #OwnVoices LGBTQ2S+ novel by trans author Jackson C. Garton. I’m also thrilled to host a guest post from dark fantasy author A. J. Vrana on one of my favourite editorial topics: HOW TO CUT WORDS. Thank you so much for your continued support of this space! If you want to throw a coin to your blogger, my ko-fi is linked at the end of the post.

Review: Avalon’s Last Knight, by Jackson C. Garton

I’m so pleased that author Jackson C. Garton sought me out and shared this book with me, and I owe him a public apology, because it took me forever to finally pick this up. 2020 has been a hard year, and if I had known that I would enjoy this as much as I did, I may not have waited so long. Sorry, fam!

Avalon’s Last Knight from Pride Publishing is loosely categorized as LGBTQ Urban Fantasy, but I think it is more accurately described as an LGBTQ2S+ romance with speculative elements. I’m not usually all about retellings, but Garton managed to skillfully integrate the old and the new in a way that wasn’t distracting from the thrust of the narrative. Set in the rural American south – a rare bird for LGBTQ2S+ fiction – Garton’s book follows Lance and Arthur, high school BFFs turned sweethearts, as they learn to navigate their new relationship, and all the complications that come with it.

With strikingly raw prose reminiscent of the fiction of the Trans Vanguard, Garton expertly weaves thematic aspects of the original tales of Avalon through a diverse and contemporary romance flavoured with a taste of the occult. Emotions right on the surface, this book tackles the complexity of transition, love, and the cultural tension of progressive life in a conservative setting.

My only criticism of this book is that, to my knowledge, the racial representation is not based on lived experience. For me as a reader, it felt as though the diversity aspects were handled sensitively, and this remains a book that I would recommend. As a white reader, I would be interested to see reviews of this title from POC.

When I asked Garton what book he would recommend by a Black author, he suggested Kacen Callendar’s Felix Ever After, which was featured on Santana Reads! I’m thrilled to have been introduced to Avalon’s Last Knight, and I look forward to seeing what Garton comes up with next.


The Baldwin quote above is the banner that I use on my editorial reports for my lit agent clients. It feels appropriate here, because today, I am completely stoked to be hosting one of those clients with a guest post on one of my FAVOURITE editorial topics: how to make deep cuts. There is nothing more satisfying than a manuscript with good economy of language, and no one knows how to achieve that better than A. J. Vrana. Her method is just… *chef’s kiss*. I asked her to write this as much for my nerdy brain as for anyone else’s benefit. I hope you’ll all enjoy as much as I did.

In the meantime, if I haven’t shouted about it enough, A. J. Vrana’s beautiful debut dark fantasy novel is also now available for purchase, if you’d like a book-length example of the kind of results you can get with her editorial methods.

How to Cut Words: Guest Post by A. J. Vrana

There is no shortage of jokes about writers. Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional, you’re bound to encounter a quip or two about creative types and their stubborn dedication to their artistic vision. Creative people are sometimes incorrectly stereotyped as being spacey, unmoored, and impractical, much to my personal chagrin. Of course, if that were true, none of us would have succeeded in making a living with our creative work, least of all in a business that is primarily concerned with one thing: making money.

There is no separating creative writing from the publishing industry if, well, you want to be published. While there are many talented, visionary writers out there, navigating the business side of publishing can prove frustrating and alienating for many people. However, if we want our work read, we need to come to terms with the fact that publishing is a business, and businesses will always be concerned with how to maximize their profits. One of the ways they do this is by becoming intimately acquainted with the market. For a book to be publishable, it needs to have commercial potential. It doesn’t matter how breath-taking, eloquent, or poetic your writing is; if it isn’t something a publisher feels they can sell to a market they themselves have carved out through a long history of curated publication and advertisement, there is little hope the manuscript will be acquired by an agent or an editor.

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

One of the often understated facets of marketability is word count. See, when I say, “markets that have been carved out through a history of curated publication,” I’m talking about genre conventions that have slowly but surely become cemented in readers’ understanding of literature, and subsequently inform their expectations. Word count is one of the many markers of how well a work fits within its intended genre. It has implications not only for a publisher’s production costs and returns, but for how the market will actually receive the work.

So, what is an acceptable word count for your next best seller? Well, it depends on the genre. Here are some general figures for popular genres; these can be easily found on the interwebs:

  • Mainstream Romance: 70,000–100,000 words
  • Subgenre Romance: 40,000–100,000 words
  • Science Fiction / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000
  • Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000
  • Thrillers / Horror / Mysteries / Crime: 70,000–90,000 words
  • Young Adult: 50,000–80,000
  • Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words
Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

With the exception of kidlit and SFF, you’ll notice immediately that the upper end of the word count bracket for most genres is 100k. However, I would argue that if you’re a debut author, your SFF should also be around or under 100k. Once you go over this mark, the work becomes an increasingly difficult sell for both agents and publishers.

I myself am a verbose gal. When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words! I justified this massive word count by convincing myself it was what I needed to tell the story, but I was a DIRTY LIAR. In truth, the long word count reflected several of my weaknesses as a writer: I sucked at pacing. My first 50 pages were way too slow in getting to the action. I overwrote emotions. I spent too much time on scenes that didn’t move the plot forward, and I did so under the guise of ‘character development’. I underestimated how few words I needed to get my point across. After several rounds of substantive edits and several more of line edits, I parred the beast down to 97,000 words. The final manuscript upon publication? 98,300 words. The best part? The major plot beats and structure hadn’t even changed.

But how the heck do you chop a novel’s worth of words out of your manuscript to appease your agent or editor’s pragmatic bones? Well, let me tell you. Here’s how to murder your beloved in three, excruciating steps.

Photo by Angèle Kamp on Unsplash

STEP ONE: Reverse Outline Your Book

The first step to chop-chop-chopping is to get rid of any large chunks of text that are unnecessary to the plot. But how do you know what’s unnecessary to the plot? That three-page meditation on the movement of celestial bodies and their implications for the fate of the family cat provide the reader with such a keen glimpse into your character’s psyche.

To figure out whether your reader will give a rat’s ass about the family cat’s natal chart, try a reverse outline. To do this, make a note of your book’s conclusion, then work your way backwards. What event prompted the ending? What then triggered the event that prompted the ending? Keep working your way backwards until you reach the beginning of your book. The catch? Don’t look at your manuscript when you do it. You, as the author, should be able to backtrack through your entire manuscript and communicate the book’s major inciting events without analyzing the text.

Once you’ve done this, take a look at your manuscript and make note of everything that falls outside of those core events, then ask yourself if those scenes are truly necessary. After reverse outlining your book, you should have a little more distance to judge whether these outliers are really needed. If you aren’t sure, cut and paste them in a separate document and see if the story still works without them. If the answer is ‘yes,’ DELETE DELETE DELETE. I don’t care how much you like it; GET RID OF IT. You won’t notice it after it’s gone, I promise.

One other option is to consolidate chapters that deal with similar events or circumstances. Are there two chapters where your protagonist visits a creepy old man in the woods to get information about a certain mystery? Slap ’em together, delete all the dialogue and prose that isn’t vital for your reader, and maintain the core purpose of both chapters—but in one!

Photo by Alex Gruber on Unsplash

STEP TWO: Economy of Words

This is the more detail-oriented and pain-staking method of cutting words, but people grossly underestimate just how much can be excised with careful line edits. The goal here is to make sure that not a single word is wasted. There is no one method of doing this, but I’ve learned a few tricks that can go a long way.

Contractions. This one took me a while to get used to because I got my start in academic writing, where contractions are a big no-no. However, using contractions in non-academic writing, especially creative writing, can reduce word count significantly. Use Ctrl+F to find common phrases that can be replaced with contractions.

That. Many a time, the word ‘that’ is not really necessary. I was told that I’d have to cut at least 10,000 words from my book. See what I did there?

Sentence Structure. Sometimes, switching up syntax and playing with verb conjugation can spare a word or two per sentence. It may not seem like a lot, but when you have thousands of sentences, it adds up.

For example: He stared at the maskless buffoon and then wondered if humanity was done for.

Alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, then wondered if humanity was done for.

Even better alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, wondering if humanity was done for.

Now, you don’t want to use the same sentence structure over and over again. Don’t get too nitpicky with this, because sentence variety is more important than cutting a single word per sentence. Don’t forget that you can also change what order your clauses are in. Be conscious of modifiers and subordinate clause placement, as sometimes these can needlessly lengthen sentences.

Example from this very verbose blog: When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words!

Alternative: The first draft of my contemporary dark fantasy debut was 135,000 words.

Photo by Wajih Ghali on Unsplash

Starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’. This is probably the thing I struggled with most. I loooove starting sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but,’ especially when establishing a character’s voice. Sadly, it’s not necessary most of the time. Occasionally it’s fine if used for emphasis or in dialogue, but try to minimize this as much as possible.

Adjectives and adverbs. Remember when I said I overwrite emotions? Yeah, this. Listen, there is NOTHING wrong with a good adjective or adverb, but when you find yourself piling them on like a grocery list comprised entirely of snack foods, reign yourself in. Pick ONE snack food. Even better—ask yourself if there is a more accurate noun or verb that can replace the adjective + noun or adverb + verb you’re using.

Don’t repeat yourself. Sometimes when we try to communicate something, we spend too many sentences expressing the same sentiment. This is natural, as overwriting is how we explore the best way to get a point across. However, once we’ve done this, it’s a good idea to go back and pick one sentence that best communicates the intended point.

Metaphors > Literal Description. This can be a tough one as it forces you to exercise your poetic brain, but I promise it pays off and makes your writing more interesting. Literal descriptions of settings or a character’s emotional state tend to be quite lengthy, and if you have the attention span of a kitten like I do, they can be kind of boring too. Sometimes, an apt, pithy metaphor can convey all that needs to be conveyed in far fewer words than a very literal description. Don’t be afraid to experiment with similes and metaphors; if it doesn’t work, someone will let you know with their confusion! As with the suggestion about sentence structure, you shouldn’t turn every description into a metaphor, but it can help add some variety!

Example: On the weekends, the sidewalks were crowded with people pushing past one another.

Metaphor: On the weekends, the sidewalks [crowded] like an ant colony.

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

Don’t start sentences with ‘There was’.  This is best illustrated with an example.

Example: There was a child napping in the shade.

Alternative: A child napped in the shade.

Eliminate the obvious. This is another trick best illustrated with an example:

Example: The sky was grey. The clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Alternative: The grey clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Since clouds are inherently in the sky, we don’t have to mention the sky and the clouds.

Eliminate absences. One trick to using precise language is to eliminate any mention of things being absent, and instead focusing on what is present instead of the absence. Here’s what I mean:

Example: She stared at her estranged mother and felt nothing. The love was gone.

Alternative: She stared at her estranged mother. The love was gone.

Here, it’s redundant for us to say that someone felt nothing; instead, we can infer that there is an absence by noting that ‘the love was gone’.

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

STEP THREE: Repeat Step 2.

Seriously. You need to do the line edits like three times, because as you progress through your manuscript, you will grow lazy and let things slip. The first time I finished cutting on a line level, I’d eliminated 3000 words. After my second round, I’d eliminated 6000 words. By my third round, I’d cut a total of 8000 words.

And it was great.


Alex’s recommendation for a book by a Black author to check out is the Binti trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor. I had the pleasure of hearing Okorafor speak in Denver a couple of years back, and she blew my mind. This book is definitely worth the read!

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.

Veronica Mars, But Make It Queer

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 thrilled that 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.

The cover of You’re Next, out July 7th.

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. 

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

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. 

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

“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. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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.

Be Our Guest!

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.

The cover of Exciting Times - a green background with a cup holding two toothbrushes, and one toothbrush set down beside it.

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.

BUT FIRST:

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.

A campfire, with lots of sparks around it.
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

Carolina has also posted a review of Somebody Told Me, the first traditionally published book with a bigender protagonist (AND IT’S A THRILLER!); a review of fresh new LGBTQ2S+ book Verona Comics; a review of Girls Save the World in This One; and a fantastic list of 23 new and upcoming books by trans, non-binary, and GNC authors! Phew. Dear Carolina, you are on fire, how do you do it? Love, emmy.

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…!

Cover of Even If We Break, by Marieke Nijkamp. White theatre masks on a black background, and text that reads, EVEN IF WE BREAK. One of the masks is cracked.

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.

A bat flying in a sunset.
Photo by Igam Ogam on Unsplash

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:

Oldschool Querying

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.)

A blur of a person walking with stylized posters in the background reading "wait"
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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.

Orchids.
Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

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.

Orchids.
Photo by Kyla Flanagan on Unsplash

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.

A group of people sitting at a wooden table with notebooks, a plastic coffee cup, and a book with highlighting inside. They look like friends collaborating on a project.
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

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

A coffee and an open book on bedsheets.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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.)

But.

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.

5/5 stars

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!

The German cover of THE SUNSET SISTERS, by Cecilia Lyra.

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.

2019 In Review

Currently Reading: Keystone, by Katie Delahanty

News!

Get ready for your TBRs to balloon for the new year! Fellow trans blogger Corey Alexander brings you all the titles published in late 2019 with trans and/or non-binary authors. My top pick from this list are Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi, which I previewed earlier this year, and I’m most looking forward to Beyond the Black Door, by A. M. Strickland, which is on my TBR!

In response to the recent transphobic events at the Toronto Public Library, local independent bookstores are coming together to support trans writers and activists by co-hosting a teach-in at the 519 Community Centre on January 23rd. The store where I work is one of the organizers, so if you’re nearby, please come out and support the local trans and non-binary community.

Re-Introduction

When I first started this blog, one year ago, I wrote an introductory post, which gives a little bit of a window into what I’m about as far as my literary life is concerned. Because this blog and my reading in general is fairly politicized, and I believe that the personal is political, I’d like to offer a bit more information about myself that might give context to some of the 🔥hot takes🔥 that I post in this space.

A selfie of me in the bookshop where I work. I have medium complexion white skin, pink curly hair that is shaved on the right side and has dark roots, clear plastic frame glasses, and no makeup. I'm wearing a black tank top and a grey sports bra, and tattoos are visible on my shoulders. Bookshelves are visible in the background.
Me! 2019.

These are the facts about me that my Twitter bio won’t tell you!

  • Although legally I have to, I don’t capitalize my name. It’s emmy!
  • I’ve been (as) vegan (as possible, depending on where I was living) for more than 20 years! That said, I am firmly in solidarity with Indigenous and other marginalized people who cannot or do not engage with that life – especially (but not limited to) the Indigenous people who sustain their communities through the seal hunt and the deer harvest at Short Hills.
  • I’m a social work researcher, mostly focusing on LGBTQ2S+ health, and wellbeing of working dogs in therapeutic environments. In my previous life, I went to college for circus arts, and spent nearly a decade performing and coaching at a professional level. My specialities were juggling and group acrobatics.
  • I grew up in Newfoundland, an island off the east coast of Canada, in the North Atlantic. The island is the occupied territory of the Innu, the Mi’kmaq, and the Beothuk, who were victims of genocide. My family in Newfoundland can be traced back at least 7 generations on the maternal side, and we are white colonizers. I was raised in a house with my mom, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother, just the four of us most of the time.
  • J’ai appris le français quand j’étais très jeune, et j’ai vécu la grosse majorité de ma vie l’en parlant comme langue principale, alors que je me considère comme francophone.
  • My hobbies, when I have the time and energy, include film photography, snail mail (I collect postcards), roller skating, embroidery, cooking, and recently I’ve started playing video games occasionally. Oh! I also like to read!
  • I share my life with a lot of pets! Right now, that includes living primarily with an eleven year old retired racing greyhound, two formerly feral maine coon cats, and one five month old (by the time this gets posted!) deaf Dalmatian puppy. Their names are Boom, Whisper, Willow, and Pavot (pronounced pav-oh, it’s French for “poppy”, as in poppyseed). You can find them on Insta!
  • I’m polyamorous and have two relationships with genderqueer trans folks. My partner lives in Toronto, and I have a theyfriend and Denver. I am questing for a word that accurately describes “polyamorous but in no way seeking new romantic relationships,” because my life is as populated as I can handle it being.
  • I have diagnosed psychiatric disabilities and chronic illness, both of which are hormone-related (PMDD, chronic major depression, general and social anxiety, and PCOS). It’s also likely that I am on the autism spectrum, and I have most of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, although these are both more or less undiagnosed.
  • Other alphabet soup diagnoses that play a big role in my life through the people I love are PTSD and DID.
  • I have a very small social circle, and most of my close friends are relationships that I primarily nurture online, in large part because I have am neuroatypical and have a disorganized anxious attachment style.
  • I love bees and kākāpō, but I have a lot of favourite animals.
  • Recently, I have been trying to come up with the books that I would take with me if I was going to be indefinitely stranded on a desert island, and so far, I think they would be The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende; The Tea Dragon Festival, by Katie O’Neill; Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi; Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper; Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi; and Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima.

2019 By the Numbers

All these numbers are current as of December 20, 2019.
My 2018 In Review can be seen here!

How many books I read in 2017: 41
How many books I read in 2018: 57
How many books I read in 2019: 124
First book read: One of Us is Lying, Karen McManus
Last book read: Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty
Average length: 287 pages

Books by POC: 52
POC MC: 43
Male authors: 33
Female authors: 160
Non-binary and/or authors: 5
Queer authors: 46
Queer MC: 45

Middle Grade: 18
YA: 74
Adult: 101
Graphic: 5
Short story or anthology: 1
Non-fiction: 37
Memoir: 9
Lit Fic: 55
Poetry: 3
SFF: 46
Thriller: 28
Horror: 18

Purchases: 26
Library: 60
ARC: 105

Digital: 108
Print: 50
Audio: 36

½ Star Books: 3
⭐️ Books: 21
⭐️ ½ Books: 0
⭐️⭐️ Books: 27
⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 9
⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 24
⭐️⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 28
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 26
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 9
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 41

January: 8
February: 11
March: 6
April: 11
May: 14
June: 16
July: 11
August: 11
September: 17
October: 7
November: 6
December: 6

Reading challenges I participated in: #VillainAThon

DNF: 68
Currently reading (unfinished in 2019): Keystone, Katie Delahanty; The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware; Amanda Greenleaf, Ed Kavanagh
Favourite books of the year: Little Apocalypse, Katherine Sparrow; The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang; The Wise and the Wicked, Rebecca Podos; Wilder Girls, Rory Power; Pilu of the Woods, Mai K. Nguyen; Pet, Akwaeke Emezi; In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado; The Tea Dragon Festival, Katie O’Neill; The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black; I Know You Remember, Jennifer Donaldson; Your House Will Pay, Steph Cha; We Unleash the Merciless Storm, Tehlor Kay Mejia; The Seep, Chana Porter
Favourite picture books released this year (not otherwise included in stats above): My Footprints, Bao Yi; Stormy, by Guojing; No Room for a Pup, Laurel Molk and Liz Suneby; It Feels Good to Be Yourself, Theresa Thorn and Noah Grigni; King Mouse, Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling; Princess Puffybottom… and Darryl, Susin Nielsen and Olivia Chen Mueller, Truman, Jean Reidy; Ping, Ani Castillo; The Cyclops Witch and the Heebie-Jeebies, Kyle Sullivan and Derek Sullivan, The Scarecrow, Beth Ferry and the Fan Brothers; The Rabbit Listened, Cori Doerrfeld

Upcoming in 2020

So far, I have three 2020 plans. First: to integrate the reading challenge that my online book community, the Rogue Book Coven, is hosting for next year! Just to be clear, I had no hand at all in creating this – but I’m really glad for the work of some of our other members, who put this majestic thing together. If you want to read along with us, find us on various social media platforms at #CovenBookChallenge throughout 2020! POI for anyone who decides to follow along: we use the octopus emoji (sometimes, gratuitously) to mean hugs!

Second, to my actual delight and pleasure, I recently joined the planning team for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), held in Brampton each May. As such, I’m looking forward to curating and participating in the FOLD reading challenge in 2020 as well. The challenges aren’t 100% finalized yet, but you can check out past challenges here.

Last but not least, following a tweet from Esmé Weijun Wang, I committed to reading two Big, Long, Old Russian Books. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, and The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This is legitimately the challenge that I’m most worried about so… wish me luck?

Most Anticipated of (Early) 2019

Wondering what you can look forward to me chatting about next year? In January, I’m going to be previewing Karen McManus’ upcoming sequel to One of Us is Lying, the bestselling YA thriller, and chatting with author Chana Porter about gender and her Jewish Indigenous trans MC in The Seep, her unsettling and heartwarming dystopian alien invasion literary horror novel.

Some other Winter 2020 releases that I’m excited about reading? Non-binary Latinx author Anna-Marie McLemore’s new YA fantasy, Dark and Deepest Red, is a spooky modern fairy tale that spans generations. It drops on January 14th, and it’s right in my wheelhouse. I’m also looking forward to The Truants, by Kate Weinberg. It’s a thriller, and I’m curious to see if this NA is another millennial-appealing book in the vein of Such a Fun Age and Normal People, which I read earlier this year.

Kacen Callendar is the non-binary author of Hurricane Child, my favourite middle grade book of all time, and their next book, King and the Dragonflies, comes out this February. I’ll also definitely be checking out The Last Confession of Autumn Casterly, by Meredith Tate. It’s a spooky YA thriller, and my own teenage heart is stoked that this book has a musical, geeky protag, as a former band geek myself.

There are two final February releases I’m hoping to get to. I’m all about fancy school dramas, and Privilege by Mary Adkins is a feminist NA that deals with themes around sexual assault on a college campus. Since the #MeToo movement began, books with similar themes have definitely become more visible, and I’m hoping that Privilege will have something unique to offer. Finally, with some skepticism, I’m eyeing A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch. This is Sanam Maher’s debut book, however she works as a journalist in Karachi, Pakistan. Without knowing a great deal about Baloch’s story, I’m hoping that Maher will have handled her story with sensitivity and respect.

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.

Sign off image - an open book with a bright green glowing eye in the centre and several small eyes around it.

Black History Month Recs and a Taste of Salt

Currently reading: Empire of Light, by Alex Harrow

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Black History Month Non-Binary Reads

The covers of Hurricane Child, by Kacen Callender (formerly under a different name), and Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi.

Two of my overall favourite reads of 2018 happened to be by Black, non-binary authors, and I thought this would be the perfect time to give a shoutout to these books – although they hardly require it. The first is a middle grade debut novel called Hurricane Child, by Kacen Callender (formerly under a different name), and the second is a fictionalized memoir called Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi.

Callender, the author of Hurricane Child, was born and raised in the St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands, which also serves as the setting for this book. It is a poetic gem that features a black, queer MC, who is 12 years old, and was born during a hurricane. The character is navigating falling in love for what appears to be the first time, and trying to find her missing mother. It’s the best-written middle grade book I’ve ever read, while being age-appropriate, and it’s spooky. Callender’s second novel and first foray into young adult lit, This is Kind of an Epic Love Story, dropped in October. It is my hope to see works featuring enby characters from Callender, but I would recommend anything they write.

Freshwater, (CW: trauma and sexual assault) is nothing short of breathtaking. Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil author, and this magical realism memoir is also their debut. They have a YA novel, Pet, forthcoming in 2019, and a second adult novel, The Death of Vivek Oji, also forthcoming. Emezi is trans, non-binary, and ogbanje, a Nigerian identity that involves aspects of plurality and of being a trickster spirit.

Freshwater is visceral and unique and bizarre and authentic. It took me a minute to get into the writing style, and this book is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Once I was able to process it, I was completely unable to put it down. Despite being fully an outsider to this story, I share with Emezi that I am non-binary and have experiences of trauma, and in addition one of my partners is plural, so aspects of the tale were very relatable for me. For a taste of Emezi’s writing, they have also written several short stories, including Who Is Like God, and a Curaçao fairy tale.

Trans Lit News

Unfortunately, some negative news in the trans lit world this week. The woman author of the 2018 book Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks, Nandini Krishnan, committed ethical transgressions against the trans people featured in her book. These included, but were not limited to, misgendering, dead naming, erasure of Indigenous histories, and violation of consent.

Invisible Men was published by Penguin India, and is Krishnan’s second book. Firstpost has reported in their deep dive article on the book that Penguin has not admitted fault or taken action based on Krishnan’s transgressions. The book was reviewed in the News Minute by Gee Imaan Semmalar, one of the people portrayed in the book, who recommends Revathi’s A Life in Trans Activism as an alternate title on this topic.

In addition, I want to put a plug in for author and fellow trans book blogger, Bogi Takács. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, Bogi was recently forced to leave their doctoral studies. This is a great time for other folks in this community to step up and support their work!

Slightly Salty

I feel like this has been the week of people using performative inclusivity for profit, while being exclusive and silencing marginalized voices in practice, and I am upset about it.

The first instance of this I want to address is the Kickstarter for 99% Chance of Magic, an anthology from Heartspark Press. The marketing copy for this book, which has raised thousands of dollars in donated funding, claims that this book is the world’s first chapter book for transgender kids. This is problematic for two reasons. First, this book is an anthology, not a chapter book, and there are some other great anthologies out there for trans youth (the first that comes to mind is transVersing, published in 2018, an #OwnVoices anthology by and for trans youth).

The second issue was clear to me after reading the marketing copy for this book, reading information about the contributors, researching (and Tweeting at) Heartspark Press, and reviewing the calls for contributors that the press made for this anthology. This project is not inclusive of a breadth of trans experiences. All contributors, and all people included in Heartspark in general, are (C)AMAB ((coercively) assigned male at birth). The calls for contributors were made specifically with the #girlslikeus hashtag. The Heartspark Press online mission page reads, “Join us in lifting the voices of (C)AMAB trans people everywhere.” However, it is not made clear in the branding of this anthology that transmasculine and (C)AFAB non-binary voices were excluded from this project.

This isn’t the only Heartspark project that is branded ambiguously. On the homepage of their website, The Resilience Anthology is described as “the largest literary collection of trans women and non-binary writers”, and The Sisters from the Stars is described as “a new children’s book for trans kids and weirdos like us”. I have spoken to several enbies who have supported this press under the assumption that they are inclusive of all members of the trans community, when that is not the case.

An #OwnVoices project for and by (C)AMAB folks is great! There is so much space for trans literature in the world. However, it should be clear to folks who donate that the anthology does not reflect experiences of many non-binary, transmasculine, or intersex people. This information is important to provide to folks who purchase the anthology for, or sell it to, trans or gender creative children or youth. If given this book without context, it could easily and unintentionally worsen feelings of isolation or dysphoria.

The LGBTQ+ lexicon is ever-evolving, and the mobilization of identities for profit can be tricky. It’s time for organizations like Heartspark Press to update their marketing practices. Enbies (myself included!) are tired of microaggressive gatekeeping, binarizing of the non-binary, and neglect of transmasculine people. Say “trans” if you mean to include everyone in the trans community. If what you mean is something different, please say that. (And thanks to Laura Bishop, who articulated this better than I could have!)

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.