Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Bookseller's 2015

I have a dream job. I get to talk to people about books all day on the days when I'm not writing them. The Curious Iguana is a small indie in Frederick, MD with a global focus. We work closely with the WNDB campaign, Kiva and with global and local social justice charities through our monthly B-corp donations. It's a huge joy and a privilege to work for a business that takes its corporate responsibility seriously as well as being a place where people can come and discuss great books.

My Goodreads list has gotten a little out of control since joining the Iguana team. Working for the big box book stores, I never spent any time in the stock room opening deliveries--my knowledge was kind of limited to what I shelved and other things I took a particular interest in. But I'm finding that being the one to open all the boxes doesn't half put a dent in your wallet. ("I'll have that one, and that one and OH MY GOD, I DIDN'T KNOW THAT WAS COMING OUT.")

I've not had quite as much time as some of my fellow booksellers this year to read--partly due to writing and partly due to small people who seem to want juice all the time, but I've managed to knock out a little of 70 titles, some new and some old. So, without further ado, (or any organization in order of favorites) here's what's kicked my ass this year.

The Mapmaker's Trilogy by SE Grove

I'm a sucker for amazing world building and this series has some of the best that I've seen since I read His Dark Materials many years ago. The world Sophia Timms inhabits is one that is shaped by the Great Disruption--an event where different parts of the world were flung into different time periods. She and her uncle Shadrack, a cartographer, live in Boston, but when he's kidnapped, Sophia's forced to make some unlikely alliances to get him back. The "disrupted world" that Grove builds is fascinating, as is the art of mapmaking in a constantly changing landscape. I'm looking forward to the conclusion of the series, The Crimson Skew, in July of 2016. Definitely a cross-over title with YA as the language and concepts (that include time travel and biology) are delightfully complex.


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

This is the first title of two on my list written by North, which is a pen-name for British author, Catherine Webb. I LOVED her Midnight Mayor urban fantasy series (which she wrote under the name of Kate Griffin) so I was pleased to finally get around to this title, which was published in April of 2014. Stories about people getting to live their lives over and over again have always struck a chord with me, so I seriously enjoyed this tale of Harry August, who literally lived his life over and over. The same life, every time. Harry is an Orobouran, and he's not alone. Slowly he learns about the existence of others like him and this draws him into a relationship with the dangerous Vincent Rankis, who's determined to use his strange relationship with time to change the world forever. North's storytelling is marvelous as well as her well thought-out ways for these time travelers to send messages back and forth through the ages. A cracking read.


Stratford Zoo: Midnight Review by Ian Lendler

Those little people I spoke of earlier? BIG readers. And being their mother, I'd like to introduce them the the wonder that is The Bard as early as possible, so when these fabulous graphic novels appeared on the shelves, it was fate. One wouldn't think that anything could make the tale of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet funny, but Lendler has it all figured out. He weaves a child friendly story with the cast of animals of the Stratford Zoo, who perform Shakespeare's works after the staff have gone home for the day. The stories are smart and entertaining while the main themes remain intact--revenge, guilt and corruption of power for Macbeth and tolerance, love  and the futility of grudges for Romeo and Juliet. Highly recommended for any mid-grade reader!


The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

This one was very close to my heart. Pratchett was a particular favorite of mine--his gentle (and not so gentle) mocking of human foibles through humor has always really resonated with me. When he died earlier this year, I knew that this last book was not going to be an easy read. He concludes the tale of Tiffany Aching, witch of the chalk and successor to Granny Weatherwax, his leader-but-not of all of Discworld's witches. Shepherd's Crown is both melancholy and hopeful--a beautiful goodbye to a world that he created. In it, he even takes the time to write his own eulogy, which just about had me curled up on the floor in a ball after reading it. Through Tiffany, Pratchett reminds us to take care of one another and ourselves and that sometimes we must do the hard things that need to be done.


Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

When you read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy, things tend to lose the ability to surprise you. Not to say I don't enjoy books that don't surprise me, but when you come across one that does a total left turn at the traffic lights, you sit up and take notice. Magonia is not the book you think it's going to be in the first 100 pages and it's such a treat to have your expectations confounded. The writing is beautiful, the world building is superb, the characters complex and I JUST WISH I'D WRITTEN IT. I'm so glad that Headley's getting the recognition she deserves for this in year end lists and that it translates into sales of the second book of the series, which is, as of yet untitled, in early 2016.


Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Another YA fantasy making year end lists from one end of the internet to another is Ember in the Ashes. It's got all the ingredients of an exciting and gripping series--a broken and brutal society, two world colliding, magic, privilege, rebellion, poverty and forbidden love. Tahir just binds it all together so well, drawing parallels with decisions that we're all forced to make at one time or another. The second volume, A Torch Against the Night, will be hitting shelves in August of 2016.




Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Although this isn't exactly the sequel to Fangirl,  anyone who loved Rowell's tale of college, family and fan fiction is going to want to pick this up. When I first heard of this book, I was under the impression that it was going to be a full length version of the fan fic that was the foundation of the previous story. Instead, it's the final book in the imaginary, Harry Potter like series that the fic was based on. It made me happy for a lot of different reasons, but mostly because I'm somethign of a lifelong professional fangirl myself. Knowing the protagonists of the previous book (Cath and Wren) got to read this book and see all their hopes for the series come true made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.


A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis

Anyone familiar with the work of the great Nelly Bly will know that late 19th-early 20th century insane asylum was not a nice place to be, particularly if you were a woman. Not to mention the fact that it was distressingly easy to get sent to one by a husband or loved one. Want all your wife's money? Get her declared insane. Daughter pregnant out of wedlock? Off she goes. This is the unfortunate circumstance of Madness's unlucky protagonist, Grace. Lucky for her, her talents of observation are discovered by a visiting doctor--a Sherlock Holmes-esque figure in desperate need of a Watson. Madness is a beautiful and raw historical thriller that combines McGinnis's skillful research and brilliant imagination.


Lockwood and Co by Jonathan Stroud

My world-building fetish was mightily satisfied by this fabulously creepy series of middle grade books by Stroud, who's known for his Bartimaeus novels. Set in a world where the dead pose a real threat to the living and the only people capable of keeping the population safe are children, Anthony Lockwood, along with his colleagues Lucy and George, run a small agency dedicated to eradicating troublesome spirits. These are quick and satisfying reads for the post Goosebumps generation.


Stray Souls by Kate Griffin

The second Catherine Webb title on the list. Set in the same London as The Midnight Mayor series, Griffin uses her trademark knowledge of the minutae of the city to tell the story of Sharon Li, a reluctant shaman and head of a support network for supernatural beings called Magicals Anonymous. Sharon, along with her misfit band of compatriots that include a troll, a banshee and germaphobe vampire are called into to investigate the disappearance of the Soul of the City as well as attacks by a giant slavering hellhound. Witty and fun and full of the otherworldly life Griffin breathes into a city that's close to my heart.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Quintessential Query Quest

Eventually, as a writer, you reach That Point.

That Point where you feel like, well, hey, I haven't just been whistling dixie this whole time. I've actually put one word in front of the other, written a book, had some people check to make sure it's not, you know, THE WORST, and now I guess I should actually think about showing it? To people? I guess?

And this idea will make you Want To Hide©. Cause, up til that moment, the whole idea of showing it to someone with an aim towards publication was a purely theoretical exercise. I mean, during the writing process, it was no doubt quite clear in your head how you'd get taken on by your dream agent who'd sell it to a Big Five house with foreign and screen rights and you'd end up on a red carpet at a premiere and (insert British actor's name here), who you really admire, will come to tell you how brilliant you are. As clear as all of that was in the cinema of your fevered imagination, you never quite imagined the completely unglamorous and sadly British actor-free query process.

For someone who never expected to write for a living, it's moment that you're expecting to get shown up for the non-MFA-having hackjob you are. It's the whole reason that you've kept the whole Writing Thing® quiet for the last three years, not wanting to tell anyone what you were doing, for fear of the look you'd get--similar to when your 8 year old announces that they wanna sell cupcakes out in the driveway in the middle of February. The look that says, "Oh, bless! How're you getting on with that?" It's the look that you are now expecting from potential agents when your manuscript comes across their desk. (Although, be be fair, an agent on Twitter posted the other day that just this year, she's received 6 manuscripts written from the point of view of a penis. When I said it was a disturbing statistic, she replied that over the course of her career, she has received over 40, so chances are that there are manuscripts getting bigger side-eyes than yours.)

So, round the middle of November, I reached That Point. Having been convinced by people I love and trust that what I had written was NOT, in fact, THE WORST, I decided to embark on the querying process. (A process, I must add, that would have been 150% harder without the help of Query Tracker.) My first rejection rolled in to days later, which was strangely elating. I'm actually doing this! JK Rowling was rejected loads of times! I must be doing something right! And, apart from the comparison to JK Rowling, I was right. I was doing it. Something I never in a million years believed I'd ever be doing. Even if every letter I sent came back with a polite "thanks, but no thanks", I'd still managed to string enough words together for them to be considered a manuscript. It was a big middle finger to all the beginnings that I'd written over the years only to discover that middles are a lot harder.

And then something weird happened. I began getting emails that weren't rejections. Emails that said, "I'd love to see the whole manuscript," or "When's a good time for us to speak on the phone?" They Of course, they were the responses I'd HOPED for, but not actually expected. That thing that lives deep down in the cavern of every creative person and stirs in the middle of the night to whisper terrible things in your ear kind of had me convinced that "Hey, maybe not so much with this for you."

Lucky for me, I managed to shut that asshat down long enough to talk to total strangers on the phone without vomiting in abject terror first. I used to think my phone phobia was fairly unique, but I think the majority of people that I know now would probably rather spend an afternoon in hell with a toddler who'd missed their nap rather than face the possibility of making a phone call to someone they didn't know. Not only that, but when you make plans to have a phone call with someone you don't know, you have a more time to sit around thinking about it, making it all the more likely that when the phone rings, you may simply expire on the spot. Or, if you have the misfortune to pick it up, you may simply make a goat noise and run away.

But, talk to strangers I did. Strangers who wanted to ask me things about myself. About my book. And, after several remarkably non-vomity experiences, I came away as a client Jennifer Linnan of Linnan Literary Management. The first of my middle grade trilogy goes on submission the first week of January.

Into the abyss!


Sunday, March 1, 2015

How To Get Your Local to Love YOU

I have one of the best jobs on the planet. Besides actually writing for a living.

I work in a bookstore. A writer working in a bookstore. As if that weren't good enough, I work in an independent bookstore. Cherry on top? It's a successful independent bookstore. Wanna spit at me yet? Because it's a successful independent bookstore run by a wonderful, open-minded, generous married couple who are dedicated to enriching the community through creating a great environment for their employees, as well as providing a friendly space for discussion and debate.

Okay. I'm done.

*whispers* There's also always wine in the fridge. And sometimes donuts. *ducks*

Anyway.

Since we're a local, we like to have a section devoted to local authors. At beginning, when we opened, we kind of worked with a "hey, sure we'll buy a couple of copies" policy, but when it became apparent that there was a LOT of interest, we switched to a consignment system. Most of the local authors we work with are delightful folks. We even try to periodically have a "Love Your Local" night where we get a handful of authors in to talk about their work.

And then...there are other local authors.

1) Approach politely and at an appropriate moment. One would think this first step would be a no brainer, but this last Christmas season, when the shop was crammed to the gills, we had at least 2 or 3 authors turn up wanting some of the boss's time to discuss getting their book on our shelves. If you're trying to speak to a bookseller who's trying to answer 6 customer questions at the same time on a busy Saturday in December, then you're barking up the wrong tree. Find out when the shop's down time is. And once you're there, ask a bookseller about the shop's local author section and how the manager/buyer prefers to be approached. (email, letter, in person, etc.) And, although it seems like it's another no-brainer, being polite and friendly is much more likely to get you in the door rather than being entitled or demanding.

2) Take a little time to learn about how bookstores do their buying.  Anyone in the trade can tell you that the margins are TINY. Find out how the store YOU want to approach does their buying, especially when it comes to their local section. If you're selling your work through Ingram or another service, take the time to research pricing. If an indie can't make any money selling your book, they're not going to stock it.

3) Find your niche. A lot of indies thrive by specializing- tailoring their collections to the tastes of their communities. Make sure that your work is right for the indie. If you're writing unicorn cyberpunk thrillers, you might not find a whole lot of success approaching a shop whose collection runs more toward global issues. Take time to browse a shop's collection before approaching. Get to know how it's curated and by whom.

4) This one is important. And I know, because we have had run-ins with more than one author on this subject. It is not the job of the shop to sell your book for you.  Unless it's otherwise specified in some kind of contract, once your book is in the shop, you are entitled to shelf space. That doesn't sound like much, but in a small shop where space is at a premium, it's a lot. Want more exposure? Tell your friends and family. Put it on your blog. Tweet it, text it, talk it up. Secret weapon? Booksellers. Try to get one of them to read it, because when we find something we like, we will hand-sell the hell out of it.

We have had people come in complaining that their work isn't visible enough or they believed there would be some kind of featured display in the window or in prime real estate in the front of the shop. Remember those margins I talked about? They're even smaller on your work than on NYT Bestsellers, so unless there's a special event or feature that you've discussed ahead of time, your work will most likely occupy a space in the 'local authors" section which may not be as visible as some of the other stock.

5) The biggest thing? And it shouldn't really need saying, but obviously it does: Just don't be a douche. I mean, that's good advice when trying to sell anything, really. Examples of douchebaggery that we've encountered? Authors offering unsolicited advice on the running of the shop. Authors who make repeated phone calls to ask about their book and whether or not it's out on the shelf. Authors behaving like divas. Authors believing they are above the consignment system. And so on and so on.

I've been so pleased to see the looks on some author's faces to see their work on a shelf in an honest to god shop. It's amazing. It's what all of us ink-slingers hope for someday, myself included. Just don't stumble at this last hurdle.

Indies are your friends. Do your homework. Be a good guy. And hopefully, you'll find your way into this awesome community.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Beautiful Destruction

So.

Writing "the end" on my first manuscript last fall was kind of a big deal for me. Previously, I was a 30,000-worder. I'd get about that far and then hit a giant wall made of ice, behind which lay no plot, only Winter, which everyone knows, is coming. But for some reason, I stuck with this one, even though it made me swear and hate everything in the whole universe. Even though I believed that no one might ever want to read it. Even though I started out with a fairly simple love story and suddenly I was knee deep in aliens.

Since sending it to busy CPs, I've started a women's fiction triology and a mid-grade fantasy, but my mind has constantly been going back to the 111k monstrosity that I dumped on their doorsteps. I didn't even let myself go back and read it, because I knew my instinct would be to start editing. I wanted to wait for their opinion.

But, this week, I caved in to my own curiosity and started reading. This turned out to be not my best ever decision, because what I encountered made me want to do this. 




Right in the middle of the manuscript. 

Turns out that's what my CPs had in mind as well, although not for the same reasons. My strongest sections are sandwiched in between a lot of florid exposition from a not-nearly-as-interesting character. I place the blame squarely on the doorstep of the aliens. Trust them to fuck everything up.

While this WILL help take care of my vastly over inflated word count, it's daunting to think of taking two years work apart and reworking it. In the end, I hope that something that kind of feels like it's being held together with string and blue tack will eventually feel more seamless. 

So, I've saved the whole thing as is.

And then I'm going to smash it with a hammer.

Maybe after a little drinkie first.