The Spark Award and a Personal Announcement

I had a pretty exciting thing happen this past week. I actually found out on Friday the 13th, which was a good day also because I finally mapped out the rest of UGLIER, something I had been struggling with for months. But the best part was the email I got from SCBWI saying Ugly was the Honor book for the Spark Award in the Books for Older Readers category. They announced it this past Wednesday.

!!!!

For your edification, here is the Ugly cover:

Ugly book cover

SCBWI is the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and most people in the world of children’s publishing are members or interact with it to some degree. They give the annual Spark Award for non-traditionally published books, for either younger readers (board books through chapter books) and older readers (middle grade and young adult). There is always a winner, who receives $1000, but they also have the option of also naming an Honor book (optional in that they don’t always do this), so it’s basically second place or runner-up. No money for that one, but it’s still an amazing honor given that there are hundreds of entries of middle grade and YA books (fiction and nonfiction).

Those of you who know me will not be surprised that my brain went, “Well, you know they only picked it is because it’s LGBTQ-themed.” Fortunately, my brain then went, “You idiot, there’s no way yours was the only LGBTQ-themed book entered.” So then I felt good again.

Validated and Feelings

One side effect of this win is that it made me feel validated. I’ve felt like a fraud since writing Ugly because I know people would look at me and say that it couldn’t be authentic because I am not personally nonbinary, or out as gender nonconforming, or using they/them pronouns. Of course, I’ve been thinking about all that since writing it—in fact, when I applied for my MFA, I put my gender as gender nonconforming. Ugly was such a personal story and I really felt the process that Nic went through in exploring her gender because in writing the book, I went through the exact same exploration she did.

I’ve said since then that if I were young, like a teen or in my twenties, it would be a no-brainer—I’d come out as nonbinary. But as someone in my forties, it wasn’t so obvious. There are a lot of considerations and it would impact a lot of areas of my life. It would be difficult for my family and friends (even though I knew they would all be supportive). I’d have to decide if I should come out at work, and that would likely be awkward. It just sounded sort of exhausting—I’d be constantly correcting people. And one thing I’ve learned from reading LGBTQ books is that I would also be constantly coming out, basically every time I met new people and groups. This made me feel tired. So I never did anything about it.

A Real Fraud

But that made me feel like a fraud. One time, an agent responded to a query on Ugly with the question, “Is this Own Voices?” I answered that it was complicated, and I explained that I was not out as gender nonconforming or nonbinary because of my age, but that Ugly was still as authentic as a story could be. She didn’t respond. So I knew for sure that my book would not be respected in the publishing world or the LGBTQ community. And it was frustrating because Ugly was straight from the heart and incredibly realistic. Also, the Own Voices idea always frustrated me because it was itself a binary concept (which I think is one of the reasons many have moved away from using it). Real life is much more gray.

Back to the present. Even though the Spark judges didn’t know how I identified, they obviously felt like the story was authentic and believable, and that felt good to me. For some reason, this recognition emboldened me to finally make the leap.

Coming Out

I have decided that I am gender nonconforming and have started using they/them pronouns. I’ve already come out in some spaces and will be continuing to do that. I’m honestly not entirely sure exactly what this means. Although the terms ”nonbinary” and ”gender nonconforming“ are often used interchangeably, to me they are two different things, and I am still trying to figure out which term best fits me.

But however that ends up shaking out, they/them pronouns feel the most accurate. So I will be using these going forward.

Review: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

I’ve been reading more adult novels lately, but while I was out walking, I listened to a YA book by one of my favorite authors, Sarah Dessen. This was Saint Anything.

Setup

Saint Anything book coverThe premise of Saint Anything is that Sydney, a well-behaved teenager who lives in the shadow of her gregarious brother with his oversized personality, has her life upended when that very brother gets himself thrown into prison. Her parents, especially her mom, fixate on supporting the brother and making his prison stay as cushy as possible. But Sydney is torn up by the event that landed her brother in jail—a teen boy riding home on his bike late one night getting hit by Sydney’s drunk-driving brother. The teen survives, but he’s going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Sydney’s mom doesn’t seem to care at all about the kid, even going so far as to blame him for being out so late at his age.

A Fresh Start

At the beginning of the book, Sydney has transferred from the private school she and her brother have always gone to to the public high school, so she can have a fresh start where people don’t know everything about her. She’s pretty shy, so she’s lucky when she stumbles into a friendship with a girl—and then her family—at a pizza shop. This friendship is eye-opening for Sydney because Layla, Layla’s brother Mac, and the rest of their family are very open, in direct contrast to Sydney’s own buttoned-up family. Layla and Mac also come with some other friends. Soon Layla in particular is helping Sydney deal with her stress over her brother, and she’s getting closer to Mac.

Being Seen

Sydney is increasingly frustrated with her mom, who is so focused on her brother that she seems to forget Sydney is alive. There’s also a total creep who was her brother’s best friend and is beloved by their parents, especially her mom, so he’s constantly around. He’s gross and Sydney knows it but nobody else is paying attention to her.

Eventually, Sydney’s mom notices Sydney, at the worst possible moment, and her entire life is thrown into upheaval. Her parents blame Layla and co for being bad influences, and Sydney has to figure out how to fight for herself, friendship, and love.

I pretty much like everything Dessen writes, and this one was no different. Check it out.

Review: A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

A Very Large Expanse of Sea book coverSo I’m going to say up front that I loved this book. I wasn’t sure what to expect—I’d seen the Mafi’s dystopian Shatter Me series, but never read it since I mostly read contemporary. But I picked this book out because the setting right after 9/11 with a Muslim main character seemed interesting and I wanted to learn more about the actual experience of Muslim kids at that time, especially anyone wearing such an obvious outward marker as the hijab she wears. I obviously knew things would be bad for her, but I wasn’t sure how bad, or how that would turn into a novel plot.

A Big Start

So the book grabbed me right away with an explosive interaction Shirin has with her new AP English teacher on the first day of school. The instructor looks at her and basically tells her she must be in the wrong class, and when she shows him her schedule, he still assumes she shouldn’t be in there and acts all condescendingly sympathetic with his, “ah, this happens sometimes” crap, still assuming it’s a scheduling error.

At first I found it a little hard to believe he could be this much of an idiot—she’s already spoken to him during this exchange without a “foreign” accent because she’s a native speaker of English—and he just won’t let it go, but then I remembered that just because I am not generally around people who actually think the color of your skin and the presence of a headscarf have any relation to your ability to speak your freaking native language, I don’t actually know other people’s experiences, so yeah. I’m going to trust the author on this. And by the time Shirin loses it with him, I was right there with her and so glad she cusses at him. He absolutely deserved it and I loved her for calling him out so emphatically.

Anger

This anger she has, this impatience for idiotic, judgmental people making assumptions about her, actually drew me in in a really personal way. It will probably seem weird to people, but I actually related to Shirin more than I have to any YA character I’ve read in a while. It was all about the rage. She pretty much hates everybody because she knows they’re all judging, making assumptions about what she’s like and what her life and family are like.

I felt exactly the same in high school. People looked at me and the way I presented myself and disapproved of the way I "performed" my gender (spoiler: I didn’t), and they just wouldn’t let it go. There were constant barbs and I never knew where it would come from, or when. For me, it depressed me but mostly I was angry, and I hated people because they all sucked. If you’ve read my book Ugly, you’ll have seen this in Nic because it’s a semi-autobiographical book, but I actually toned the rage down in that book. Real me was angrier.

So I completely related to the way Shirin basically just tried to ignore people, and assumed there was no value in meeting new people or interacting with anyone around her. When a boy asks some ignorant questions, she assumes he’s being a jerk and only realizes over time that he really is just trying to understand and isn’t judging her, but he doesn’t know how to talk about things.

A Friendship

Anyway, more on the story. The boy in question is her biology lab partner, a white kid named Ocean. He offends her early on, but he perseveres in getting her to work together on their lab work and they even start chatting on AIM at night. A real friendship starts to emerge. This is very confusing to Shirin because Ocean’s just not like the other people she’s dealt with. In the meantime, she joins a school  breakdancing club that her brother starts along with some of his friends, and she starts developing her moves. I know virtually nothing about breakdancing, but the stuff they were doing sounded really physically demanding, and it was cool to see her grow in her skills over an extended period of time (the way that stuff works).

More than Friendship

Shirin and Ocean soon find themselves in an actual relationship, and naturally some of the assholes at the school flip out because Ocean’s this big basketball star so he’s known and considered important, blah blah. After a shitty incident involving Shirin’s face and a thrown cinnamon roll, she takes off her headscarf in the bathroom so she can clean her face, and a girl comes in and takes a picture of her without the scarf—it’s such a horrible violation and really stressed me out for her. She and Ocean deal with more stuff and things come to a head when someone convinces Shirin that it’s in Ocean’s best interest to end things.

Moving On

But there’s obviously more to Shirin’s life than Ocean, and the breakdancing performance the and her group do in the school’s talent show has a surprising effect on her life. Still, everything with Ocean feels unresolved, and it’s great to see how they manage to work through things even as the adults around them make their lives so difficult.

It’s also worth mentioning that Shirin is able to lessen her general anger (being angry all the time does not feel good, so this is a good thing) as she comes to see that not all people are the same.

This is totally unrelated to anything else, but I loved that she hides her headphones under her headscarf and listens to music all day. This is awesome.

Last Thoughts

Anyway, I loved this book and am not surprised at all that it was longlisted for the National Book Award. A lot of people will relate to it, but I think a lot of other people may be able to better understand how constant micro aggressions—not to mention physical violence and other full-on racism—can really wear a person down.

An In-Person Event: Shoreline Holiday Market

Last weekend I attended my first book event as part of the Author Event Network, the Shoreline Holiday Market held on the ground floor of the Shoreline City Hall parking garage. The most notable thing was how cold it was basically outside without even the sun to warm us up. It reached the low forties by noon, but didn’t go much higher. I got there about 9 and didn’t leave until after 5, so I appreciated the decent coat I have and the portable propane heater I bought the day before. I actually didn’t appreciate the heater until the propane canister ran out, and then I realized it actually had been helping quite a bit, as it got noticeably colder.

Table Setup

There were six of us there, selling different kinds of books. We each had about 3 feet of table space, and I tried to make the most of it. I feel like my display was pretty good, honestly. Here’s what it looked like:

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022 table display

I’ve definitely got the blues and greens going on, with a splash of purple. Assuming I get the rights back on Finding Frances I’ll have to do a cover with those colors, too.

Before the Storm

I took a couple shots of the full event setup a little before it started, so you can see the scale:

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022

Nobody’s there yet—the quiet before the storm. The event was actually pretty well-attended and our table for a lot of traffic. Here’s my view from my chair:

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022 table back

Selling and Lessons

In the above picture, you can see a sample of the crowd. A lot of the authors did really well, selling upwards of 20 books. I did not do so well, but I learned a lot while I was there. One thing is I’m going to have to come up with better hooks for all of my book descriptions. It’s true that I am able to talk about my books more coherently than I could at the beginning of my author journey. I don’t ramble about plot details or anything, but there’s not much of a hard hook to it. So I’m going to work on that before going to additional events.

I also learned that you don’t want the end spot if you can help it. I saw many people stroll past my table only to stop at the next one when they finally noticed books (and not backtracking to mine). Only a few people took candy without looking at my stuff, but I learned that Starburst are not the best candy to bring when it’s freezing—they were hard as rocks.

Future Thoughts

It looks like none of the 2023 events are until summer, so the Starburst won’t be a problem and I’ve got time prepare some hookier pitches. I was originally hoping to have Uglier out by next summer, but I don’t think that is going to happen because I’ve reprioritized my nonfiction project at least until I can get the proposal done. But who knows; I might get a burst of productivity.

Thank You, Mr. Heater Friend

You were appreciated.

Shoreline Holiday Market 2022 heater

Book Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea book coverSetup

I’ve been on a bit of a historical kick in my YA. This one has been on my shelf a while so I picked it up because I loved Out of the Easy by the same author.

This book is set during World War II in East Prussia, a little pocket area between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea. It’s got four viewpoint characters, all young people—teenagers or maybe a couple in their very early 20’s. There are some other characters in the book who are older, but it doesn’t detract from the sense that this is a story about young people. 

The premise is that there is a group of people walking to a port city to try to board a ship and get out of East Prussia, which is being torn apart by the war, pinched between the Russians and the Germans. It’s definitely a ragtag group, but from a story perspective, it’s a great mix of characters.  

Point of View Characters

Joana is a young, trained nurse; Emilia is a deeply traumatized fifteen-year-old; Florian is on a somewhat noble journey to try to make up for some Nazi evil he inadvertently aided; and Alfred is spineless German soldier with a personality disorder.

The book cycles rapidly through the different characters with very short chapters, usually not more than 2-4 pages. I actually had a little bit of trouble getting into it because I don’t usually read multiple-viewpoint novels, and I found the switching jarring. But I got used to it because I really liked three of the viewpoint characters and I wanted to learn more about them. The fourth viewpoint character is supposed to be despicable, and he absolutely was. However, once I’d gotten used to it, the multiple POVs was cool because you got to see how the characters viewed each other versus what was really going through the others’ heads. 

Inevitable Tragedy

So I think anybody reading this story is probably going to guess the basic outcome. I didn’t recognize the name of the ship they were trying to get to, and after reading the author’s note, I wonder how the name isn’t more known, given the almost incomprehensible scale of the tragedy. 

Conclusion

This is a truly sad story, as any war story must be, but it does such an incredible job capturing what war is like for regular people. You can’t read this and not appreciate how much general suffering there is during war when it’s your homeland that is occupied or serving as the battlefield. Sepetys is a master of the historical novel in my view, based only on the two I’ve read. She skillfully conveys the harsh historical realities her characters are facing and still finds ways to show bravery and the power of the human spirit. I can’t wait to read her others. 

 

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Review: The Paper Girl of Paris by Jordyn Taylor

The Paper Girl of Paris book coverI haven’t been a big reader of historical fiction, even though when I do read it, I usually enjoy it. But I recently read another one I really liked, so I picked up a couple when I went to Barnes and Noble recently. 

One was The Paper Girl of Paris, which I devoured in only two days, which is unheard of for me in the last year and a half. My reading slump has had me taking two plus weeks to finish a book for a long time. Not only did I finish this book in two days, but it never even made it upstairs to my bed, where I do most of my reading. Instead, I read it between doing other things at my desk in front of my computers. 

The Setup

So you can infer that I loved it. It’s actually a dual timeline story, where we switch back and forth between modern-day Paris with Alice and WW II-era Paris with Adalyn, Alice’s great aunt she never knew existed. The setup is pretty simple: Alice’s beloved grandmother has died and left her family’s Paris apartment to her. Alice’s mom, whose mom is the grandma in question, suffers from depression and has been distraught since her mom died and she found out about the apartment, which she had no idea existed. 

The Apartment and the Discovery

Alice goes with her parents to check out the apartment. They are all confused about everything, but Alice is more curious and discovers a diary belonging to Adalyn, who she learns was her grandma’s sister. It’s of course strange that the grandma never told anyone about her family, but it’s also clear nobody really thought about it before. 

Alice takes the diary and starts reading it, loving the information about her grandma that Adalyn shares, because it’s clear they were really close and loved each other. Which makes it even stranger that Alice’s grandma never mentioned her. But she gets a clue on going back to the apartment, when she finds a picture of Adalyn cavorting with Germans during the occupation, so she’s horrified, because from the diary, it sounds like both she and Chloe were passionately opposed to the Germans and their many atrocities. So Alice doesn’t understand how she could change her mind. 

Exploration

So we see Alice starting to explore the diary, which she has to painstakingly type into Google Translate. In the process of spending time away from her parents, she befriends a local boy named Paul who helps her research things. Interspersed with these chapters are full chapters from Adalyn’s point of view. This is the part of the book I loved. 

I’m going to admit that as soon as Alice found the photo of Adalyn with Nazis, I knew what it actually meant, even though it takes Alice a good part of the book to figure it out (the advantage of having more life experience). But Adalyn is one of the people I love reading about—the people who actually did the right thing during the war. 

So even though I knew that little twist (I think most readers would figure it out pretty early, but I’m not entirely sure), there were still some surprises that I enjoyed. One has to do with a museum where Alice ends up being able to give some clarity on a photo the museum had but knew very little about. 

Summary

Obviously I totally recommend this book. If you aren’t a big historical fiction reader, this one might be more palatable since half of it takes place today. But Adalyn’s story is what made the book for me, even though I liked Alice and her story just fine. 

 

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PNWA Conference 2022

I’d been looking forward to the first in-person writing conference since 2019, which finally happened last weekend. I’ve been going to PNWA’s conference for years and during the pandemic they and everyone else switched to online. Although that is very logical, I have gotten to the point where I am so, so sick of online conferences. I went to eight or so. So it was great to be back and to see people I hadn’t seen in a while, and just generally be amongst writers. My friends and I hung out and compared sessions like we used to do.

New People

I also met a few new people, including some agents I was able to spend a bit of time talking to. One of them even encouraged me to reach out about Ugly and my nonfiction project. I’ve emailed her but haven’t heard back yet, but I know she’s incredibly busy, so it probably doesn’t mean anything after just a week. Anyone who’s followed my blog will know I’m not holding my breath at this point, but I am not an idiot and am not going to pass up a possible opportunity. I have no idea what might come of it. 

Writing Conference Fatigue

One additional thing I realized while I was at the conference was that I am also really burnt out on workshops. I napped through several (in my room, don't worry) and went to a few that underwhelmed me, and I don’t think the problem was the sessions—I think I may have just hit my limit of writing workshops needed in my lifetime. 

A Win (for Someone Else, But Still)

One cool that happened is that my fellow YA-writer and friend Stacia Leigh won first place in the contest’s short story category. This was a(n adult) story she wrote about her father’s death, where he experienced some dementia at the end and she imagined what that might be like. I critiqued it I think twice and I already knew it was good, but it was cool that it won. She’s finaled I think seven other times and never made it in the top three before, so this was cool. 

Book Signing Event

Stacia and I also had a table at the book signing they had Friday night. There weren’t that many indie authors—I heard there were about twenty, but it didn’t look like that in the room to me, so I don’t know. But we had the best table by far:

PNWA 2022 full table

Stacia’s is on the left side and her setup is definitely better than mine, but I think mine looks good, too. (Stacia’s also an artist and is way more into crafts than me, so this is more in her wheelhouse than mine.) Here’s a closeup of my side:

PNWA 2022 my side of the table

I recently bought a new display for the books that staggers them vertically, so that will look better. It’s from Clear Solutions. I'm considering painting the wood parts blue or a bluish green, since that's sort of the theme of my display. But here's what it looks like: 

Book display shelf

Anyway, things went pretty much like I expected—virtually no sales for me (two to friends). No one signed up for my mailing list or entered my giveaway. Some people did take candy. Stacia did run into someone she knows from her daughters’ school who she didn’t know was also a writer, and this person bought all five of her books, so that was nice. My own book-purchasing friends paid in cash, but Stacia’s used my Square reader (we had set this up in advance) so now I know this works. 

More Events?

One other thing that came of the weekend is that I met a guy who runs a group called the Author Event Network, which I ended up joining. He works with local events to get tables/tents for the members of the group. The idea is that it’s better for each author when there are other authors around, and I think he can also get better rates since he’s representing multiple people (I’m not sure about this, however).

The annual fee is relatively low, and then you just pay a relatively small fee for any events you actually attend. He only started this in December 2021, and he’s planning on keeping the number of members limited to make sure there are good opportunities for everyone. The remaining events this year are all pretty far from me (out on the Olympic peninsula), but I think I’m still going to try to make at least one to try things out. He says he really does well at these events. I haven’t really tried this, but I know other authors find events worth going to, so I figure I should give it a try. Even if I did decide to quiet quit. 🤷

Kirkus Round 2

Unrelated to PNWA, I also broke my quiet quitting decision by paying for an Kirkus author profile on their website (where it will remain permanently so I can always point to it). They said I could talk about more than Finding Frances (the starred review for that is what inspired them to contact me because there’s a list of recommendations you can be added to if you buy some type of ad), so I also mentioned Ugly.

A journalist interviewed me this past Thursday for it, which was kind of an odd experience. I was reminded of how weird and awkward I am. The profile is going to run in November, and I paid for a package that includes ads in the print magazine on November 1st and 15th, as well. Hopefully this will do better than my last ads did. This one has both Finding Frances and Ugly in the ad. 

In Summary

That’s pretty much where things are right now. Full steam ahead, also known as puttering along. 

 

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Review: Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink

Angel of Greenwood book coverAs soon as I knew this book existed, I bought it. It’s set amidst the Tulsa Race Massacre. I have a special interest in that event because I grew up in Tulsa and knew nothing about it until about five years ago. It blows my mind that this is something that was “forgotten.” It makes me so mad, but it fits right in with all the Republicans who are insisting that the unsavory parts of our history shouldn’t be taught in school because it might make some little white kids feel guilty. A little guilt never hurt anyone, and it would make it easier for them to understand their privilege. I think this is actually quite important. 

The Setup

But anyway, on to the story itself. It’s actually a rather unlikely love story between Angel and Isaiah, the town’s angel and a rough-around-the-edges boy. Isaiah in particular is secretly passionate about poetry, philosophy, and Black rights. He’s a big follower of W.E.B Du Bois and so he hates Du Bois’ nemesis, Booker T. Washington. Their school is named after Washington, and Angel is a fan of his and thinks Du Bois is too much. 

A Bit of Philosophy

So I had of course heard about both of these men, but I knew very little. But when Isaiah and Angel get thrown together for a unusual summer job arranged by their English teacher, they talk about the two philosophies on improving the rights of Black people. From their discussions, it was clear that Du Bois was more aggressive while Washington advocated for quieter change. I sort of imagined it as analogous to the differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

But I happened to stumble across an article about Washington in The Atlantic and learned a little more about him—his main belief was that individual industry would bring Black people into the country’s economy, and they’d then become valued by everyone. Basically, hard work was critical, but it wasn’t just working hard—it was also working smart. He founded the Tuskegee Institute and ensured that a lot of Black men were trained in trades that would help them join the economy like he wanted. So I thought it was interesting and a little subtle, even though it’s kind of clear to me that that approach is never going to be enough. 

However, the economy perspective not working reminds me of migrant laborers who make it possible for us to have inexpensive fruit, all because they’re being exploited and working for criminally low pay. Also, there are a lot of other people from Latin America that make up a good portion in the back of the house in restaurants across the country, some legal, some not. Their value in our economy (keeping prices low and keeping restaurants open) does not outweigh the hatred that so many people have for them for not being white. 

The Story

Anyway, back to the book. Angel and Isaiah fall in love while riding around in a three-wheeled bike with a sidecar and a bin to store books so they can share books with people in the Greenwood community. This was all in the days leading up to the attacks, which started a little after midnight June 1st, 1921. Each of them plays an important role in helping their neighbors. Despite the bravery and efforts of real people like Angel and Isaiah, it’s known that a several hundred people were killed that night. 

Although everything in the story obviously leads up to the attacks, that night doesn’t dominate it. It really is a story about young people who are living in a rather idyllic place but who are aware that they are privileged to be there, and also know that nothing in life is guaranteed. 

Summary

The book does what historical fiction does best—it shows that the people who lived through significant events were real people who the reader can empathize with. You will root for both Angel and Isaiah not just to end up together, or even just to survive, but to actually to show the greatness within each of them. And the book delivers on that. 

As a totally not important side note, I also absolutely love the cover. It’s dramatic and somehow captures both the violence of that night but also the peacefulness the character Angel embodies. 

 

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Quiet Quitting

I’ve decided to change things a bit with my fiction writing. It doesn’t make sense to keep putting my heart, soul, and pocket book so energetically into my fiction writing. So I’m quiet quitting. 

That doesn’t mean I’m not writing anymore, but it does means things are going to be different. 

A Great Idea

Thursday I went to office hours for a BookTok class, and they gave me some great ideas to try on TikTok. One of them was to look in the Kindle version of my books and find all the text that had been highlighted by readers in order to quote them in videos (overlayed over flipping pages). This is really a good idea, because while some of what gets highlighted is mundane, I also see stuff that is more interesting and profound show up. So I went and bought all of my YA books on Kindle. And I soon discovered that not a single person has highlighted anything in any of my books, including the one that came out in 2020.

This just says FAIL. It doesn’t matter that my first book won some small awards and the next two also did well in a national contest. It doesn’t matter that there are a handful of people who really believe in my work and me as a writer. Ten people does not make a writing career. Virtually no one reads my books, no one follows me or interacts with my posts on social media, and no one reads my blog posts. It’s hard to deny that I have completely failed as a writer. 

The Effort

At the beginning of my journey, I took lots of classes on writing as a craft, and even went and got the MFA. All that was great, and I improved dramatically. I know I am a good writer. But I’m not quite good enough for the publishing industry, and there is no way for me to get there without help from someone in that industry, but I have been denied access to those people (300 agent and editor rejections sends a clear message). I’m simply not good enough for real traditional publishing, despite having done everything you’re supposed to do to get there, and promises that if I just “keep trying” it’ll definitely happen. This from people who write “inspirational” posts about how they queried 35 agents before FINALLY landing one. Puke. 

Trying to Not Feel Sorry for Myself

Faced with this rejection reality last year, and a comment from my book coach that my work wasn’t quite publishable (this was a surprise to me—I thought what we’d been doing the whole time was making my work publishable, not just throwing my money away), I got depressed and even somewhat lost the ability to enjoy reading (which was probably the worst part). So earlier this year, I decided that instead of feeling sorry for myself, I’d just go ahead and put my work out there rather than sit on it forever, even though I knew they weren’t going to be the best books they could be if I’d been able to find a major publisher. I thought that I’d just need to focus on marketing. Self-published authors obviously have full responsibility for their own sales. 

Social Media

I threw myself into learning about marketing and especially learning how to step out of my comfort zone, as self-promotion is very unnatural for me. I did everything I could, even going all-in on TikTok/BookTok, which in retrospect is kind of crazy—I’m someone who generally won’t even have my picture taken, and here I am getting on camera several times a week. But I didn’t take off on TikTok, where I cap out at about 230 views on every video, with very little interaction, despite several months of posting nearly daily and interacting with other BookTokers (again, way outside my comfort zone, but I did it anyway).

On Twitter, I’ve been trying to post regular content three times a week, and there is literally only one person who ever likes my tweets (an old friend). On Instagram, where I also try to post three times a week, I usually get five to fifteen likes, mostly from people I know in real life. So my social media "strategy" is obviously not working. 

Blogging

My blogs are even worse. I made my first post on this blog in January of 2017 because I knew you were supposed to have a platform to be taken seriously by the industry, especially agents, and blogging seemed the least intimidating way to start. “Platform” was the buzzword. Even though my post views have always been in the low doubt digits (sometimes in the single digits, actually), I kept going because I believed that eventually I could turn the tide, and then I’d have all this content. For many of those years, I managed to post something every single week.

I’ve tried different things to pull in readers, with no success. I also have a blog for my romance pen name, and I actually get more views on there even though I almost never post. I have another blog about my art that I get similarly low views on. My blog efforts are obviously not working either. 

Forging Ahead

With all this mounting evidence that for whatever reason, I can’t make myself a successful writer (the most obvious reason is that maybe I’m just a bad writer, but I really don’t think that’s it), I thought I would give it one more full-effort shot and actually pay an expensive publicist for help with my release of Ugly in June. Although it’s hard to definitively quantify the results of that because a lot of it involves longer-term impact, it seems to have been a total bust (especially considering how much I spent—many thousands of dollars). I’ve made about twice as much on Always the New Girl, released four weeks before, than I have on Ugly. But the money is laughably low so it doesn’t really matter much, anyway. 

Income

Since my first book was released 2.5 years ago, I have made less than $550 on book royalties. Contrast this with how much I’ve spent on writing, and it’s clear that this is an irrational pursuit. Since 2018 alone, I’ve spent nearly $89,000 on writing related expenses, from tuition, to editors, to software. Last month I sold a total of ten copies of my five self-published books, totalling $19.80 in royalties. Here’s a chart showing lifetime cumulative sales for all my books:

Chart showing cumulative royalties

Clearly, staying the course is completely insane. 

The Change

Last year, with all the agent rejections, I went through a bit of an existential crisis with my writing and thought I might give it up. But I didn’t seem to be able to stop. Then, when I hired the publicist this year, I decided that if this doesn’t work, I should seriously evaluate whether I should keep going. It didn’t work. So as I concluded above, I shouldn’t keep going as is, but as I learned last year, I probably can’t just quit. So I am going to keep writing fiction, just at a much lower energy level. 

I am continuing to work on Uglier, and I also have a romance I’ve just sent to my editor and will do final edits on it, but that’s all I’m going to do. I’m considering submitting the romance to a publisher that does offer an advance, but I’m not decided on that. If not, I’ll publish in November. When Uglier is ready, I’ll send it to the line editor and then publish it, and then I’ll figure out if I should work on the third book in that series or the third romance, or something else. I still have a draft of Sadie Speaks floating around somewhere. It needs a full rewrite, but the story is pretty solid. 

What’s Different

But I’m not going to keep making pointless social media and blog posts, I’m not going to constantly look for small and cheap promotional opportunities, I’m not going to enter any more contests, I’m not going to do any more freebies, and I’m not going to check my sales every day. I’m basically dialing back the energy. I’ll stop setting myself up for failure after failure, and just deal with the one long-term failure of low sales. 

For now, I’ll be giving more attention to the nonfiction and the picture book writing and illustration. I think both may be a direction I could still have some success with. I don’t “believe it with all my heart” or anything stupidly naive again, but there is a nonnegative chance. The only way I can find out is by trying. I have a great idea for a nonfiction book for teen and college students that I’ve started working on (plus I’m working on short nonfiction for adults for real magazines). I’m also working more on my art (I actually decided to withdraw from the degree program I was in, so I have more time to focus on what I want) and will soon be starting to work on sketches for the two picture book manuscripts I have ready. 

Future State

So I don’t know where things will end up, but I do know I will never be a YA novelist published by a major publisher. I’ll keep putting my work out there, but I’ll always know it isn’t as good as it could be. And that is still hard for me to accept, but there you go. 

So if you are one of the handful of people who really like my work, thank you and don’t worry—there will still be more of it. Uglier is actually coming along quite nicely right now. You will love what Nic has done with herself and a new character just barged into the story, and she’s going to be fun.

Meet Fea!

New Book Release

I’ve just released another book this past Wednesday: Fea, the Spanish translation of Ugly. Here’s the cover:

Fea book cover

Obviously it’s just the Ugly cover with the carving swapped out and the tagline at the bottom translated (and way longer than the English version). 

The book is available pretty much everywhere, like my others (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Google Play, and Kobo, and you can order it at your local indie shop). See my landing page for links to all the places you can buy it and the book page here for more details.

Translation Experiment

This translation thing is kind of an experiment. Several writers I know do get translations of their books and they actually seem reasonably well with no marketing. (Nobody knows how to market in a foreign language they don’t speak.) One writer said people just find them. I think this makes sense because the problem of discoverability that I’ve been dealing with is partially a result of the explosion in self-publishing—which while not exclusively in English books, is predominantly English work. Other languages aren’t overloaded with so many books to choose from.

So the chance of coming up in a search that someone is making on Amazon or wherever is simply much higher. I decided to start with Ugly because of the timeliness of the subject matter. Although it’s probably much more of a current event in the U.S., I am sure that some of the other progressive places in Latin America (plus Spain) have people questioning their gender identities and exploring those ideas. I suspect there aren’t very many such books out there, so I’m curious to see what happens. 

Finding a Spanish Translator

Finding a translator was interesting. First, I needed a literary translator, not someone used to doing marketing copy. When I started searching for translators, most do business work and the first literary ones were so expensive—like in the range of $7000 for my 90,000 word (about 400 page) book. I could not justify that kind of expense. After some more searching, I decided to try Upwork. I put together a project and a max budget and got a lot of bids right at my max budget, naturally. But then I got one from a translator living in Bolivia that was hugely lower than my max.

Too Good to Be True

At first I thought a couple things: this was probably too good to be true, and if it is legit it might not even be ethical. I thought about the ethical aspect and decided that because cost of living is much lower in Bolivia, it makes sense that she doesn’t need as much money to make the project worth her time, which is obviously different for people living in the U.S. or other expensive countries. She set her rate. So I think it’s okay. 

Too Good to Be True?

But I still wondered if it was too good to be true. So I asked her to translate the first few chapters, slightly less than 10% of the book, and I’d pay her 10% of the fee and then have a couple people look at it to make sure it’s a good translation of the book in terms of accuracy and tone. My friend Gwen was willing to read it. And in a stroke of luck for me, my house cleaner had once seen some of my books lying around and asked if I was a writer. It turns out that her son is a writer too, and by chance he also is transgender, which made my book an even better fit. She asked him if he’d be willing to read the sample, and he agreed. So that was great. 

It's All Good

Both of them said it was a good translation. They noted that it was a little more formal in Spanish, but that that was probably just the nature of the language, which makes sense to me. Like there’s a point where someone calls Nic a “lesbo” and that was simply translated as “lesbiana,” which is the same as “lesbian” would be translated. This formality is also a result of the fact that she translated into what is called Neutral Latin American Spanish, so we avoided country-specific words (which of course also means there’s less slang, because so much of slang is country-specific, in any language). But anyway, she ended up doing the whole book and now it’s out in the world. 

What About Italian?

Another possibility is Italian. Supposedly that market is desperate for more books. I have a good Italian friend from my grad school days who works as an English to Italian translator, so I asked her if she’d be interested in translating my book. She doesn’t do literary translation, but has a friend who does. So we’re going back and forth about that. Her rate is much higher (it’s actually in line with what my original budget was for the Upwork project), but this is obviously to be expected because Italy’s much more expensive than Bolivia. But it’s still a decent rate that is be worth trying. I’ve told her I can’t do it now but if she’s still willing to do it in January, I’d be able to do it then. This isn’t finalized, but I’m guessing it will go ahead, so I’m really curious to see how this goes. 

Uglier

And during all of this, I’m working on the sequel to Ugly, which is tentatively called Uglier. If the translations do well, I’ll need to get Uglier done, as well. So I’m really curious how all this is going to go. 

Review: Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti

Girl, Unframed book coverI’m a big fan of Deb Caletti and have reviewed some of her books here (One Great Lie, A Heart in a Body in the World, Essential Maps for the Lost, The Nature of Jade, and Stay). But I’m going to openly admit that I didn’t love Girl, Unframed as much as the others. This is probably because it places celebrity front and center, and I’m pretty much not remotely interested in celebrity. But the book still drew me in because of a particular device Caletti used, which I’ll talk about below. I’ve been in a major reading slump and still had no trouble getting through this one, so I think it would resonate more with people who do find celebrity interesting. 

Sydney, the fifteen-year-old main character, is not herself a celebrity, or even particularly enamored of it. But her mom’s a very famous movie star who’s sort of moving out of her prime at this point. Sydney attends a boarding school in Seattle during the school year and I think spends most holidays with her grandma (I think also in Seattle). But summers are for bonding time with her mom in San Francisco.

Leading up to the summer where she’ll turn sixteen, Sydney’s got a bad feeling about the visit. She can’t shake it, and it stays with her even after she gets there and meets her mom’s new boyfriend. Her mom is typically aloof and not super-interested in Sydney as a person. She’s definitely a narcissist. And the boyfriend is someone Sydney never quite trusts or likes, even though on the surface he seems fine. But there is something going on, because the house is being watched and there’s some tightly wrapped up art in one of the empty rooms. 

It’s not just Sydney’s misgivings that clues the reader in. Caletti puts a little text at the top of each chapter that lists evidence in a criminal investigation. It’s never enough to say what actually happens, but there’s no doubt that Sydney is right and something really bad is going to come to pass. This keeps the reader engaged because you’re looking for clues to try to guess what it could be and who will be the presumed victim. 

Sydney’s relationship with her mom isn’t great, which is down to her mom’s selfishness, really. But even more importantly, she’s not in as strong a position as she used to be. Sydney’s seeing evidence of some financial trouble, and her mom's relationship with the boyfriend doesn’t seem great. But she’s still famous and going out into the world with her is an experience. 

I’m going to admit that the bad thing that eventually happens actually did surprise me. One of the things that I actually questioned throughout the book was Sydney’s almost age-inappropriate wisdom and insight into the injustice in how women are positioned in society. But the ending actually made this make more sense to me. 

In the end, I enjoyed the book even though it’s not my favorite, so if you’re a Caletti fan, check it out (especially if you enjoy reading about celebrity). 

 

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Review: Deathless Divide (Dread Nation #2) by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide book coverContext

This is really quite the book. I read and enjoyed the first book, Dread Nation, a bit ago and I admit I didn’t remember all the details. And I remember overall liking it and being impressed by it, but I also saw some flaws that I found a little distracting. Deathless Divide completely upped the ante. Even though I didn’t find it perfect, I still gave it 5 stars on Goodreads because it’s such an ambitious book that takes a long, hard (and subversive) look at US history and comes to some conclusions that are hard to swallow, all while spinning a great, entertaining yarn.

Setup

The worldbuilding here is amazing—alternative history is such an interesting thing on its own, where what really happened has to be balanced with the fictional changes to still feel feasible, but when you add on a fantasy element, that makes everything even more complicated. And where I think this book shines is its rich authenticity and harsh realism. If zombies really had risen on the Gettysburg battlefield, the story Ireland tells here is 100% believable. 

The Story

As an alternative history novel set in the time of the US Civil War, this book obviously deals with race and the harsh truths of the abuses people of color have borne over the centuries. It excels in showing us two different individual perspectives we first encountered in the first book: Katherine, the uptight rule-follower, and Jane, the irreverent free-spirit. Both are older Black teens (I think they’re still that young) who have trained as zombie killers (dispatchers? destroyers?). As the book opens, they are on a journey with some other people, trying to find a safe place to exist. There are unsurprisingly some problems, with all the zombie hordes lumbering around.

Changeup

After all the problems come to a head and Jane and Katherine get separated, the book gets a lot darker when we rejoin Jane. The time we spend with her is uncomfortable, and I wondered how things were going to turn out. Some things seemed unresolvable. Katherine’s journey isn’t as dark, but it still reflects the harsh reality of her world—and her ability to manage everything while making sure things go as planned. I still found the ending of the book satisfying, even if everything didn’t get wrapped up in a perfect, pink bow. 

Shhh

Don’t tell the history-denying book-banners about this book, because they wouldn’t like it. Sometimes fiction can tell the biggest truths.

 

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Review: The Perfect Escape by Suzanne Park

The Perfect Escape book cover

Suzanne spoke at a meeting of one of my writing groups a few months ago, and she was really entertaining but also had some good info for writers. So I decided to check out her work, and I started with her debut YA, The Perfect Escape. 

This is a romance featuring Kate, a white girl who loves theater but has an unsupportive father, and Nate, a Korean-American academic overachiever. They meet at a zombie-themed escape room in Seattle, where they both work, and they become friends after he gives her a ride home and accidentally leaves her wig in his car.  

Setup

Kate’s father runs a cutting-edge robotics and home automation company that is constantly pushing out products prematurely. Their pilot and current products are all over Kate’s house, much to her chagrin. These various devices monitor her while her fathers travels, and malfunction all the time. Her father is unwilling to support her in theater pursuits, instead trying to force her in “practical” directions. She knows the only way to escape his plans for her is to do things herself, because she’s more or less a prisoner in her own home. So she gets the job at the escape room as a starting point and plans to move to New York on her own.

Nate is a scholarship kid a fancy and expensive boarding school full of super-entitled jerks, including one who thinks he can pressure Nate into helping some of them get better GPAs through fraudulent means. Nate doesn’t want to do it, but he is considering it because his family really needs the money because his dad’s just lost his job and his mom makes very little money.

A New Option

But then something new comes up with Kate: a zombie-themed survivalist competition with a big monetary prize. This is Kate’s main escape plan, but she needs a partner, so Nate it is. This is a much better plan for Nate than helping out the entitled rich white boys. As Kate and Nate get to know each other better, they find they like each other more than either expected. They really gel. Nate’s long-term crush throws a wrench in the works, but Kate and Nate still decide to join in the competition. 

Once they start the competition, they discover it’s serious business, not all sunshine and roses. There are robot zombies moving around trying to “get” all the participants. It’s a lot of fun seeing Nate and Kate work together and figure out how to deal when things go completely haywire. Because things do go completely haywire, and it ends not at all to plan. You kind of wonder how they could possibly work things out, so seeing it happen is very satisfying. 

June 2022 Royalties Update

So in the past six weeks, I’ve released three self-published books and it’s been really interesting. I know a lot of people really don’t have any idea how many books writers really sell. It’s kind of like money and some people are probably reticent to speak about it. But I don’t really care, so I’m going to talk numbers a bit, because things have been really interesting with these releases (also the numbers are so low it doesn’t matter). 

First, for a reference point: Finding Frances. This book was published by The Wild Rose Press so my numbers come from them. They don’t get instantaneous records of sales and instead they come in in batches. With the exception of copies I bought directly from my publisher, I’ve made just under $100 in royalties over the lifetime of the book (over two years). Note that that does include royalties on copies of the books that I’ve purchased on Amazon myself (I’ve done this a few times, maybe 10-15 copies). In contrast, I made close to $150 in May alone from sales of Always the New Girl (Kindle and paperback). 

Charts

Because I am a nerd, I made a chart showing total royalties over time and another one just showing individual book royalties over time. The first is going to be far more interesting after another couple months go by because right now you can only see Finding Frances royalties. (Though it’s somewhat interesting since you can see how flat it is—they’re coming in pennies at a time.) This is through May, so it technically includes Always the New Girl numbers but not Ugly numbers. 

chart showing total royalties over time

There seems to be a tiny uptick in Finding Frances sales in April and May—this is just coincidence because of the delay in reporting, so it can’t be related to my new releases coming out. But if I see growth over the next few months, I may be able to attribute it to the exposure with the new ones. This next chart shows monthly royalties over time. 

Chart showing royalties over time

You can see quite a gap between July and December of last year—I literally did not sell a single copy of Finding Frances between August and November 2021. Fun times. You can also kind of see Always the New Girl and Ugly presale numbers on the far right of the chart—that blue dot in the upper right is Always the New Girl, and the green dot just above the yellow line is the the 2 copies of Ugly I sold in May. 

Ongoing Sales

Sales have continued on Always the New Girl in June and sales for Ugly have also been surprisingly good (again, for me). As of June 17th, I’ve sold 13 ebooks of Always the New Girl, 4 of Ugly, and 1 of Binding Off, and in paperback I’ve sold 4 of Always the New Girl and 23 of Ugly. These are not numbers that “real” authors would feel anything about (except shame), but for me they are amazing. Going four months without selling a single copy sets your standards pretty low, but I’m actually selling books. More than one a day. Of course I am curious what will happen over the long term, but I’m feeling good that at least I’m off to a good start. 

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Review: Not My Problem by Ciara Smyth

Not My Problem book cover

Not My Problem is another book that broke through my horrible reading slump. This is honestly one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and I managed to do it in just over a week (fast for me right now). It’s incredibly funny but still has enough teen angst to make me happy (I do love to watch characters suffer).

Aideen is the star of this YA contemporary novel set in Ireland. Aideen is dealing with a pretty difficult home life in the best ways that she can, just trying to hold it all together. She doesn’t really let people in, not even her one real friend. So when Meabh, a girl she’s thought of as a sworn enemy for years, convinces her to “help” her by pushing her down the stairs, Aideen surprises herself by doing it—for the right reasons, not secret revenge. Now Meabh and Aideen are going to be weirdly tied together. The act also basically conjures another friend, a boy named Kavi who is a sufferer of verbal diarrhea. 

This one act triggers a whole series of other incidents that turns Aideen into the unofficial school fixer. Not everything goes exactly to plan, but that makes it all the more interesting. And in the process of fixing other people’s problems, she makes new friends, all while her one long-term friendship is falling apart. Her mom is cracking up a bit, too, and Aideen’s pretty stressed out by that. But she feels like she has a handle on everything. It’ll be fine. 

One of the things I liked about the book is that the problems the kid have are perfect—they show the range of things teens deal with, from overly strict parents to an accidentally submitted assignment full of profanity. Some are relatively trivial, while others are a little more consequential. But they all feel big to the characters in the story. Another cool thing is that the language the kids use has the flavor of Irish dialect, so it’s extra interesting. A final great thing about the book is the relationship Aideen and Meabh form—it’s a mundane but sweet lesbian relationship, not one rife with trouble and issues. 

This one’s definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of contemporary YA. 

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