#FAILURE IS NOT FATAL

#amwriting #amquerying

Just the other day, I posted this quote from Winston Churchill: Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. Normally, I’d just leave it out there and it would hopefully inspire some other folks the way it inspired me. But I’ve found that over the past few days, I can’t seem to get it out of my mind.

Maybe it’s because I’m at a point where some writers I know have given up: 100 query letters sent, no nibbles. A handful of really nice responses, praising one or more of the elements of my offerings. But no concrete interest to date.

Many people would move on.

It’s not that I thought it would be easy. In today’s anyone-can-publish environment, I knew it would be hard to find an agent or publisher the traditional way, as the bar is set so high. I knew that books set in the Old West aren’t all that popular, particularly when they don’t adhere to the expected story lines. I knew that rape and incest were topics that would be rejected immediately by some agents.

But I also know it’s a subject that needs the light of day to shine on it, and that I’ve handled it with both empathy and sensitivity. I’ve explored the effects of these horrors not only on the abused, but also on those who help others heal, who become the caregivers for the exploited, and who may feel guilt and despair because they think they should have somehow, in some way, been able to intervene and change the path of fate.

So, yes, it’s a hard subject. I often find myself drawn to hard subjects, like intractable physical pain; the plight of Native American children in missionary schools; Irish slavery in the Americas; hatred of those who are not “like us”; the failure of those we trust to defend us; being disabled in an able world; and An Gorta Mor. I have written or am writing on all of these subjects.

Knowing that WHISPERS IN THE CANYON was going to be harder to place is something that gives me the ambition to keep going with the query process. The book hasn’t failed because it hasn’t found the right agent, but I will fail if I give up on it.

Or it could just be the hardhead incurable optimist in me…

NWW Photo Prompt: The Lake

Once again, I’m coming in just under the wire for NWW’s photo prompt from August 15. As before, I’ve created a scene that will be used in my Donovan Family Saga. Enjoy!

The Lake

THE LAKE

When morning came, Adam sat and watched the sun rise over the canyon walls. One moment, the shadows were deep in the darkling dawn – the next and the sun had burst over the rim, covering everything in a warm golden haze. The canyon sunrise is like life: you jump from dark to light in an instant, and sometimes you’re caught unprepared.

He had spent most of the night pacing along the banks of the brook. He’d built a small fire when the night air became damp and chilly, and spread his bedroll out on the soft ground. But he nodded off infrequently and for short periods during the remainder of the night. When dawn began to break, he roused himself, made coffee and rolled a cigarette, then sat against a tree smoking as the sky turned suddenly blue.

There were biscuits and jerky in his saddlebags, but he wasn’t hungry. He forced himself up, finished his coffee, and buried his cigarette along with the fire. The sun was already hot – too hot for April. He walked to the edge of the brook and inspected it closely. Clear and a few feet deep, it ran swiftly with the melting snow off the mountains. He bent to taste it: colorless, odorless and icy. He splashed it over his face and neck, wondering if it were the only water on this ranch.

He’d ridden deeper into the canyon last night, away from the cabin and the girl who was so much on his mind. He decided to follow the brook further west to get the lay of her land. Thinking the walk might clear his head, he left the horse behind. He stopped from time to time to smoke, and took notice of the prints of many animals: deer, fox, raccoon, and once the spoor of a big cat. Cougar or mountain lion, he supposed, then realized that he had seen no cattle.

He had walked about a mile when he noticed that the brook seemed to be running more swiftly. From the distance he could hear the sounds of falling water. He increased his pace and came upon a beaver dam and a rippling waterfall that he judged to be some eight feet tall.

He’d been on an incline for some time, and it was quite steep here. There were terraces and ledges between him and the brook, but he climbed them easily. At the top he stopped in his tracks, awed by the size and beauty of the lake before him. For over four acres it spread, deep and pure in a natural bowl. He gazed in silence for a long minute, then uttered one word,

“Arizona.”

Like the sunrise, it caught him unprepared. But unlike the breaking morning, this sight soothed him. He slowly sat down on the rocky ledge. It was here that the cattle were – some two hundred of them. Here also the deer whose tracks he had seen, and even a small band of mustangs that had come down from the mountains to drink. Here the air was cool and clear, and the blue of the sky was reflected in the calm waters.

This Arizona. This land of surprises. What a wonderful place!

He wondered why the girl had never mentioned it. Could it be she didn’t know? How far from the cabin could she have gone with her father so sick these past years? That dam, if he was right, was only a few years old.

It was a sizable inheritance. This lake and those cattle would put the ranch on a prosperous footing again. He jumped from terrace to terrace, hurried back along the trail, his singular purpose to surprise her. Then he stopped in his tracks. What if she wanted to leave this place and all its associated misery behind?

Thoughtfully, he saddled his horse and mounted, turned toward the cabin. He’d just have to convince her to stay.

DEFINING GENRE: or when is a Western not a Western?

One of the most difficult things about writing fiction is deciding on a genre, particularly when your work hits several of them tangentially.

For instance, my style is more literary than contemporary.  But the Literary genre requires more than a literary style.  It identifies character-driven stories that explore the reactions of characters to universal situations, situations often fraught with emotion.

In the broad sense, my novel WHISPERS IN THE CANYON does those things, but some would not label it as Literary Fiction because there is too much resolution.

What do I mean by “too much resolution”?  Literary Fiction is focused on making the reader do some deep thinking, and usually leaves at least one open question in the reader’s mind.  My novels are character-driven and, at the end of the books, the major conflict is resolved. However, there are questions left open pertaining to the future of the characters and how deeply the issues will affect them going forward.

On the other hand, most genre fiction has a definite set of rules to follow.  A Western, for instance, is plot-driven, and will usually flow this way: hero cowboy/lawman/rancher fights the bad-guy/rich-guy/land-grabber and saves the girl/ranch/town.  A twist on that involves a woman, sometimes posing or dressed as a man, fighting obstacles to win the guy/ranch/revenge.

Now I realize this is very simplistic view of a plot and many variations are possible, but most Westerns will follow this formula.  And just as Romance readers expect a happy ending, most Westerns readers will expect the formula to be followed, at least to some degree.

So how is my novel, set in the 1880s Arizona Territory, not a Western?  To start with, the bad guy’s death is the opening catalyst for the novel, not the thrilling denouement.  The cowboy wins the girl (and the ranch) very early on.  However, the repercussions of the dead outlaw’s deeds figure prominently in the story until the very end.  And to top it all off, the hero manages to create a situation that threatens both his happiness and that of his woman.

So to sum up, a novel that’s set in the Old West but that deviates from the expected norm is, by definition, not a Western.  WHISPERS IN THE CANYON is a Literary novel set in a Historical time period and most definitely not a Western.

 

UPDATE: Part 1 is Done!

It’s been awhile since I talked about where I stand in terms of my manuscripts.  My first completed novel, DONOVAN, is being queried, and the second, THE WOODSMAN’S ROSE, has gone through my edits and is now with my extremely helpful critique partners.  I’m also just finishing up my final edit of the third manuscript, entitled RAINBOW MAN.  It’s not quite ready for the beta readers yet.

But the good GREAT news is with my fourth novel in the Donovan Family Saga.  THE WINDS OF MORNING is actually a “pre-quel”, and tells the story of Molly and John Patrick’s emigration to America just after the Potato Famine of 1847-1851.  It’s told in four parts: their meeting and marriage in Ireland; their trip across the sea to Philadelphia; and their journey first south to Terminus (now Atlanta), then west to Texas.

PART 1 IS DONE!!!

This is a huge accomplishment for me.  I started writing this story about two years ago and I got to a certain point and simply could not decide where to go from there. I knew I had to get the Donovans to America, but I also knew that if I followed them every step of the way, I’d have a 1,000-page book.  That’s where I broke it off and started working on revising and re-editing the first two books (which at that time were one book, but that’s another story!)

The problem wasn’t writer’s block, per se.  I was fully capable of writing new scenes in the other 3 books, and even some scenes for the book after this one, as well as the book that will, someday, close the series out.  I even wrote a couple of scenes that will appear later in THE WINDS OF MORNING.  In short, I just suffered from a lack of direction for this particular situation.

I finally solved it by a stroke of luck.  I was reading another historical family saga and the author simply skipped over a few years.  That’s right, just skipped them.  The first part was labeled 1697, the second part 1705.  As soon as I saw that second date, I had my answer.  I could simply skip over the years when nothing (or almost nothing) changes in Molly and John Patrick’s lives.

My conclusion?  Those who say the best way to write better is to read more are absolutely right!  If I hadn’t been reading another author’s novel, I could have been stuck for even longer.

How about you?  Did another writer’s work ever influence your work-in-progress?  ever give you an idea that you had searched high and low for?  ever pulled you out of the blue funk of not knowing what to do next?  I’d love to know I’m not alone in this, so feel free to share your stories with me …

That Dreaded Query Letter: Critique by an Agent

Today I received an agent’s critique of my query letter, and it was pretty positive. She said it did a nice job of presenting a complicated plot succinctly. Hooray for that!

However, she felt the “stakes” weren’t quite high enough. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that after Adam Donovan kills a bank robber, he decides to tell the outlaw’s family of the death himself. The agent asked why he would do that, and further posed the question:

“What makes his moral code run so deep?”

I’ve been pondering over that all day, and I really don’t know how to answer it. I’ve confessed before to being a very literal person, and the question literally seems to me to be unanswerable.

It seems to me that a moral code is something a person has or doesn’t have. There are those who have set standards for themselves, and those who have not. That’s not to say that some standards aren’t flexible, or that some aren’t closer to being “wrong” than “right” (think Hannibal Lecter). But those without a code seem to do whatever appeals to them at a particular moment, while those with a code can usually be expected to react in a similar way to similar situations.

I consider my own moral code to be fairly rigid. It’s based on the ideal that I would never intentionally harm another being, or allow another being to come to harm if I can prevent it. (Kind of sounds like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, doesn’t it?)

So what causes one to adopt and adhere to a moral code? I believe that it’s first made up of the total of our lifetime experiences, including education and parental guidance, but I know that can’t be all of it.

My sister and I were brought up by the same parents in the same house and had essentially the same education. We were both well-loved, we were both occasionally spanked (all the kids of our generation were – we never thought it meant we weren’t loved). We ate together, played together, went to church together. Our birthdays fall only one day apart (so there goes the astrological explanation). Why then are we so different?

My sister worked one job for over 30 years; I changed jobs every 3 to 5 years. She worked in pre-school; I worked in finance. My sister still practices the religion of her youth; I don’t. She’ll “go with the flow”; I prefer to map things out. I tend to collect evidence and examine it from all sides; she’s more likely to follow her instincts. My sister inherited red hair and blue eyes; for me, gray eyes and brown hair.

We both love to read and we’re both optimistic.

So is it genetic? Part of it must be, don’t you think? If the corporal identifiers are so different, doesn’t it stand to reason that the internal processes must be different as well? What leads one to be more accepting, another more inquisitive, when all other factors would seem to be the same?

Can we ever know? Will brain mapping ever tell us why even identical twins have different interests or laugh at different jokes?

Or is the answer to the original question a whole lot more simple? Could it just be that the men I admired most in my young life – my father, my grandfather, my uncle – had a moral code that never broke? Could Adam be the reincarnation of them – my wish to have them all live again, if only in print?

I think that may be true. In fact, after further thought, I’m sure it is.

But it still leaves me with absolutely no idea of how to answer the original question:

What made their moral codes run so deep?

If you have a theory on this, I’d love to hear it.

Whoopi-ti-yi-yo

This is another one of those cowboy songs I learned very early on: I can’t begin to tell you how many verses I’ve heard to it. I’m including only the ones that are most popular, the ones I’ve heard recorded by more than one source. A “dogie”, of course, is a cow.

Whoopi-ti-yi-yo

As I was out walking one morning for pleasure,
I spied a cow-puncher all riding alone;
His hat was throwed back and his spurs was a jingling,
And as he approached he was a-singin’ this song,

Refrain

Whoopi-ti-yi-yo, git along little dogies,
It’s your misfortune, and none of my own.
Whoopi-ti-yi-yo, git along little dogies,
For you know Wyoming will be your new home.

It’s early in the spring we round up the dogies,
We mark ’em and brand ‘em and bob off their tails;
Round up our horses, load up the chuck-wagon,
Then throw the dogies upon the trail.

Refrain

Your mother was raised away down in Texas,
Where the jimson weed and sand-burrs grow;
Now we’ll fill you up on prickly pear and cholla
Till you are ready for Idaho.

Refrain

Notes: Since both my maternal and fraternal grandparents lived two hours away (in opposite directions, no less), and in the days before cars were equipped with anything more than a radio, it was critical for the seven of us children to be happy in the car. One of the tricks my parents had was teaching us these songs, and then letting us make up our own verses as we went along. It was so much fun, I’ve adapted it to my manuscripts, and let my fictional Donovan family do it as well.

That dreaded query letter …

Oh, the dreaded query letter! It is, in my opinion, the hardest thing in the world to write. Writing an effective query letter takes the ability to ignore your creative urges and write in a way that‘s totally foreign to your instincts.
books art-writing
Remember how you used to write book reports in grade school? You’d take someone else’s work and boil it down to a one-page review. Hard, right? A query letter allows you that same one page, except it also has to include some personalization, your biography, comparable titles, and any other little thing a specific agent wants to see. So, in reality, you have about a half-page to work with.

To condense a book of 80,000-120,000 words down to its most basic elements in three paragraphs (or as one agent recommends, 5 sentences!) verges on the impossible. Add in your voice, the stakes, and a hook that makes the reader say, “I’ve got to see more of this!” — and, well, you’ve gone right over the cliff.

My query letter for WHISPERS IN THE CANYON has undergone more than a dozen transformations. I’m still not totally satisfied with it. But the other day I heard what I believe is the most pithy and on-point advice since I figured out “show-don’t-tell”.  And it’s this:

Nouns do not create characters.

Huh! Was I trying to create a character with nouns? Or have I stuck to the basics and used lots of verbs? Let’s see if I can change something and make my query letter stronger.

I took a long hard look and realized that, though my query letter did not contain a lot of unnecessary nouns, there were a number of adjectives. But more to the point, I was not putting enough emphasis on the verbs. Take this sentence for instance:

Jesse is small, fragile, and shunned by the village for her brother’s misdeeds.

Reading it over, I realize I’ve put as much emphasis on the descriptors “small” and “fragile” as on the action “shunned”. The first question I asked myself was: Is it necessary for the reader to know that Jesse is small and fragile? The answer (at least in my unqualified opinion) is “Yes”. However, a simple re-wording of the sentence could move the emphasis.

Small and fragile, Jesse’s been shunned by the village for her brother’s misdeeds.

The readers still know what they need to know about Jesse physically, but now the emphasis is on “shunned”. This version, I believe, creates a more emotional response in the reader. And when you’re trying to get someone so interested they can’t help but want to know more, you need that emotional response.

Half a dozen small tweaks like that one have, I believe, made my query better. How about you? Are you in the query trenches? What do you think the strongest thing about your query letter is?

Tuesday Trivia #10: The Origins of “OK”

As I was editing my manuscripts, I noticed that I occasionally used the word Okay, or its abbreviation OK. There’s nothing that peeves me more than an anachronism in historical fiction, so I decided to see if I could trace the origins of the word.

Easier said than done! I did find out that OK has been in common usage in the US since the 1830s (meaning I was safe to use it in the context of the 1880s). However, the actual formation of “OK” is credited to the French, the Scots, the Greeks, and a railway freight agent, among others. My personal favorite origin story is from the Chocktaw Indian language, where “okeh” means “it is so”.

However it came about, OK’s popularity certainly rose when Martin van Buren ran for re-election in 1840; his nickname was “Old Kinderhook”, and his supporters formed the “OK Club” during his Presidential campaign.

While it was not enough to win van Buren the election, OK’s popularity has not waned at all since that time.

MOLLY BAWN

This is a traditional Irish song which I first learned as a child, listening to my grandmother’s recordings of the great Irish tenor, John McCormack. In the Donovan Family Saga, John Patrick Donovan sings it to his wife, Molly.

Oh, Molly bawn, why leave me pining
All lonesome waiting here for you?
While the stars above are brightly shining
Because they’ve nothing else to do.

The flowers late were open keeping
To try and rival blush with you,
But their mother Nature sent them sleeping
With their rosy faces washed with dew.

Now the pretty flow’rs were made to bloom, dear,
And pretty stars were made to shine,
And the pretty girls were made for the boys, dear,
And maybe you were made for mine.

The wicked watchdog he is snarling
He takes me for a thief, you see,
For he knows I’d steal you, Molly darling,
And thereat thwarted I should be.*

Oh, Molly bawn, why leave me pining
All lonesome waiting here for you?
While the stars above are brightly shining
Because they’ve nothing else to do.

NOTES: “Bawn” is an Irish word that means fair or pretty.

*John McCormack, among others, sings this line as “And then transported I should be.” But “transported” in this sense means sent to a penal colony or sold into slavery, and I believe the dog would enjoy seeing that happen. So I prefer this alternate version.

Blogging 101 & what’s it’s done for me …

Being new to the Blogosphere and not making too much progress on my own in terms of readers and comments garnered with each post, I decided to take Blogging 101, a free class offered by WordPress. I needed to discover what I was doing wrong, and how to do it right. Or if I was doing it right, how to do it BETTER. Here’s what I learned:

1.) A blog is like a book. I put my blog out there on a virtual shelf like it was a book I had published. And then I waited for readers to come and pick it up. I had subscribed to a few other blogs, but I hadn’t really joined in on the community.

Wait a minute! I wouldn’t have put my book out there without any support — why was I trying to do that with my blog? Who will know it’s there without at least a little bit of prompting from me? Community — that’s the ticket! And though I’m still a bit behind the curve in that respect, I now have the tools I need to catch up (whenever I complete my initial round of queries and the last round of edit on my second manuscript).

2.) Tags and categories. They’re both important, but they’re not the same thing: categories are broad and tags are more specific. And the WordPress system will ignore any post with more than 14 tags and categories combined.

Who knew? I had one only post with the “over 14” offense, but most of the other posts were suffering from cross-contamination in the category/tag fields. Time to clean it up!

3.) Widgets are wonderful! I didn’t even know they were called widgets, but I’d seen them on other bloggers’ pages and I knew I needed some.

I learned how to get them as well as how to make them work for me.

4.) I’m not sure this was covered per se, but in reading the creative ways people were coming up with titles for their blogs, I realized that the titles for my posts were pretty “blah”.

I published a new post on St Patrick’s Day (if you’ve been following, you know I’m part Irish). I was going to call it something like “St Patrick’s Legacy”. Blah, blah, blah. What I actually published was “St Patrick and the Slave Trade”, and the new title not only more directly described the post, but it garnered me more views than I ever had before.

I’m going to try to come up with some new titles for my previously published posts (and if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!)

5.) Restricting myself wasn’t working. More than one task on Blogging 101 recommends expanding the focus of your blog.

“But how?” was my first reaction. I’m blogging about a book, and a bit about the research I’ve done to create that book. I don’t want to talk about my sewing projects, arts and crafts, or how I trained my pig of a cat to wait for his sister to finish her dinner before he scarfed down the left-overs.

I want to talk about my books.

So I did some really serious thinking and decided to keep on posting about things I found during my research. Maybe to add a sample of my writing here and there. But that was really all I came up with.

Then I was cutting a scene from the manuscript I’m editing. It was a Welsh legend about Olwen, daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden, and Culwych, the cousin of King Arthur. It’s considered one of the earliest recorded Arthurian tales. As I cut it from the manuscript, I thought, “Why don’t you put that on your blog?”

So I says to meself: What else is in my books that I can use? Well, there’s a lot more Celtic lore, along with many rarely-heard traditional Irish songs, and other Irish songs that were adapted to America like “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. Plus, there’s 19th century poetry; cowboy songs from the American West; Native American lore; herbology; etc., etc., etc. All included or referenced in my manuscripts.

By the time I had finished the list of inclusions, I’d come up with 10 additional subjects that I could write about — and all of them are related to my Donovan family saga! I can create new pages for some, find new examples of others — and all of a sudden I’m so excited about the blog that I now have to convince myself every day that writing the books comes first!

6.) Last but not least, I realized that I absolutely love photography blogs!

All of this from Blogging 101. So if you’re on WordPress and stuck on your blog in any way, shape or form, or even if you just want to make your successful blog better, let me HIGHLY recommend this course — tons of good info and bright ideas!

Slainte!

BTW, you can expect to see the legend of Culwych & Olwen some time next week. There’s this little matter of reformatting the blog that needs to come first.