Sticks and Stones and Broken Stories

For fear of confirming I’m a total jinx, I’m not going to talk about Blood and Water in this post. I’ve already received two (big) rejections almost immediately after mentioning something about the fact that those agents still had my full manuscript, and while I’ve been known to knock on wood from time to time, I’ve never felt so seriously superstitious as I do about this dang book right now.

Instead, I’ll tell you a bit about how the sequel is going. If you can call roughly 45,000 words that more or less relate to each other a sequel. I’ve gotten pretty lost on some tangents and side stories, and found myself a time or two writing my own fan fiction–and about Jannik, of all people (pretty much everyone who’s read B&W *hates* Jannik)!

I’m desperately searching for those loose little lines to tie all these ideas together. Who knows what–if anything–will make the final cut, but at least I’m writing (or that’s what I tell myself as I draft another side-novella about Tarben and Sanne, anyway)!

They Said it’s All Been Done, But They Haven’t Seen the Best of Me

If my life is a song, right now it’s “High Hopes” by Panic! at the Disco on repeat.

I alluded to the epic high I’ve been riding this week in an Instagram post the other day, but let me just tell you all about it. As you already know, last week an agent reached out asking to read my first three chapters. At that point, my success-total was: 1 agent with my first 50 pages, 1 agent with my full manuscript, and now 1 agent with my first 3 chapters.

Last weekend, that same agency reached back out asking for more. After reading three chapters, they wanted to read the whole thing. Cue squeals and happy-dancing around my kitchen until my husband gently reminded me we *do* have neighbors. New total: 1 agent with 50 pages, 2 agents with the full MS.

Then, earlier this week, that last agent responded, complimenting my writing, and asked. for. the. full. thing.

I’m trying to maintain a grasp on my sanity by reminding myself this is no guarantee of representation. They could all read it and decide it’s not so great, or needs too much work, or doesn’t fit the market, or any number of things. Only one of them gave me a timeline for when I might hear back, and it was 6 months because they’re so swamped, so I could be biting my nails until the summer or later.

But, damn, I’m feeling good right now. I’ve created something enticing enough that people asked for more–people whose job it is to read piles and piles of books. I know this feeling will fade as the year continues and the waiting game begins, but I hope I don’t lose the pride I have in myself for getting this far.

Query Update – January 2020

As of now, my full manuscript is still with an agent, and TWO other agents have my partial story. That’s right, my first response of the new year was a request rather than rejection, which is a lovely way to start 2020! I don’t have a timeframe for when I’ll hear back—if I’ve learned anything, it’s that agents are swamped with queries and clients plus other jobs to pay the bills, so patience is key (and pretending to forget your manuscript is pending is essential for maintaining sanity).

So, deep breath, Blood and Water is still kicking out there, and I’m working on her sequel so at the very least I’ll have a completed story someday, published or not. Crossed fingers, earnest prayers, and positive vibes are still and always most welcome!

Magic

I felt it when my block broke this week. Normally, I don’t realize I’ve made it through a bout of writer’s block until I’m well on the other side, elbow-deep in fresh words. This time, though, I can pinpoint the moment it happened.

My husband and I were eating dinner at what is fast becoming our favorite local bar. I sipped an excellent Old Fashioned and listened to him recount the mundane horrors of his work day. The bartender poured a frothy, butter-yellow drink into a cocktail coupe, a tea candle’s flickering light reflecting off the glass, and a tingle started behind my ears and sizzled into the bones of my right hand. Every cell in my body became alert, like a dog recognizing a certain car door slamming closed.

No burst of inspiration or lightbulb idea followed. Words did not flood my mind.

But a whisper of a promise hovered over me in the steam from the hand-cut French fries: I will write again. My story is ready for me, and I, for it.

I wrote 2,000 words the following day.

A Walk

Life is hard, and by that I mean busy, and I’ve been particularly homesick this week. The good news is: I’ve been writing a little! The bad news: it has nothing to do with anything except Forest Park. I already shared it on my personal blog, but I’ll share it here as well.

Wanna take a walk with me?

Today is one of those achingly beautiful days. The sky is painfully blue, a blue you could gladly drown in, and the sun bathes the multi-colored trees golden. Each breath is crisp with decaying leaves and the promise of frost.

Cars fly through the intersection. A golden-doodle pants at my side, distracted from the sight of the park across the street by a new person to smell. I bury my gloved hands deep in my coat pockets and tilt my face skyward. A light but insistent wind tugs at my earlobes and rubs the tip of my nose, but the sun’s warmth soothes away the sting.

It’s a day that reminds you you’re alive and demands you be happy about it.

The light changes, a shiny pickup and rusted old Honda blurring past anyway. Everyone waits a collective breath, then the dog leads the charge into the crosswalk. Two joggers pass, spurring the dog and its owner faster. I take my time. Forest Park waits patiently.

Inside the park, the sun dapples through slowly-dying leaves. I cross the bridges, first over the metrolink, then over the parkway, and descend to the Victorian footbridge. Wood planks echo underfoot. I take a moment to lean against the black metal railing. A chill seeps through the down of my jacket sleeves. The sun reflects off the water below, and on the far bank, a weeping willow flutters in the wind.

Two teenagers speed past on electric scooters, rumbling across the footbridge. Wisps of breathless conversation drift by as speed-walking moms push their strollers toward the ice rink. I turn right instead, gravel crunching beneath my boots. Here, without the burnt-hued trees shading the path, the sun sinks into my skin. Frigid air burns my nose with each inhalation. Every breath tastes of life.

By the time I reach the statue and pause for a vehicle headed down the road toward the Muny, my fingers are numb despite the gloves. Breath clouds in front of my face and my cheeks tingle. I turn and follow the path back along the creek, past a man calling for his black lab as his little boy cheers on the dog sloshing through the shallow current. Past a couple arguing on a bench near the pond with the fountain spraying rainbows between its jets. Back under tree-cover, a smile for the homeless man curling up on the bench surrounded by brambles and caught-leaves. Across the footbridge, pausing for a cyclist to cross my path. A grandmother helps a toddling child in a princess skirt climb the stairs to the pedestrian overpass. She trades a smile with me over her shoulder then cautions the little girl to “let the lady pass.”

A train blurs below as I cross the second bridge, its rails whistling protests against the cold metal. Somewhere, a fire crackles in a wood-burning fireplace, filling the air with the smoky-sweet scent of home.

It is a good day to be alive.

High Hopes

Querying is hard. That’s kind of a no-brainer–crafting a business letter to basically say “I promise my story is good, please give me a chance!” is as bad as writing a cover letter for a job (I mean, essentially, it’s the same thing). For me, it’s been disheartening and nerve-wracking and left me wanting to pull my hair out. I wrote a freaking novel–please don’t make me condense the plot into a single-page synopsis!

Sending out queries is terrifying, too, because I don’t know if the base of my letter is any good. I’ve poured over blogs and revised, revised, revised, and I *think* I’ve got a decent hook and capture the stakes and introduce the conflict in three short paragraphs, but I won’t know if it’s enough until the requests start rolling in. And when they *don’t* roll in, I can’t be sure if it’s that my query letter isn’t strong, or my writing isn’t good, or my story isn’t appealing, or if it just doesn’t fit on that specific agent’s list at this point in time.

Guys, requests have NOT been rolling in.

Out of 23 agents queried thus far, I’ve received 10 rejections. That’s flirting dangerously close to 50%–and those other 13 aren’t guaranteed requests by any means. To make it harder, I received 5 of those rejections in the space of a few days.

And it’s fine–I understand that it only takes one “yes”, that Stephen King had hundreds of rejections nailed to his bedroom wall and Harry Potter was rejected over 30 times, that a pass doesn’t mean my writing is poor or my story not good enough…I know all that. It doesn’t make it suck any less, though, so I just want to wallow a bit.

But.

Last night, after two more “thanks but no thanks” emails, I was telling my husband I’m thinking of switching gears and returning to a WWII story I’ve been working on when it happened. An email notification was sitting on my phone’s home screen, and I recognized the name of another agent. My heart sank, even as I read the preview saying I provided a great writing sample. I expected to see the “but” as I clicked it open.

But nothing, baby! The agent requested 50 pages to keep reading.

This isn’t any more of a guarantee than any other step in the process, but it *is* the next step. And it feels amazing to know a professional read a snippet of my story and said “more, please!” Even if they end up passing, my confidence has been boosted enough to face down the next 10 rejections with minimal sulking.

B&W Playlists: The Couple

I’ve re-written this opening to avoid some minor spoilers surrounding Solvi and her love interest(s) in Blood and Water (and beyond). As the author, it was obvious from the start which character would capture her heart, but in my critique circles people have come to shipping them (or not) at varying paces, so I’ll refrain from confirmations and just provide you with the top songs I’ve listened to while writing the main couple’s love story (or lack thereof…dun dun dun…) across 2 books.

  1. You’re the One That I Want – Chadwick Stokes
  2. Hideaway (Acoustic) – Dan Owens
  3. The Few Things – JP Saxe
  4. Head Above Water – Avril Lavigne ft. We The Kings
  5. Whole Heart – Taylor Berrett
  6. A Grave Mistake – Ice Nine Kills (Live from Sirius XM version preferred, though the original fits the overall book/scene better)
  7. Better Than the Pain (Acoustic) – The Woodlands
  8. May I – Trading Yesterdays
  9. Tired – Alan Walker ft. Gavin James
  10. Little Do You Know – Alex & Sierra
  11. Please Don’t Leave Me Like This – Edward + Jane
  12. Resurrect Me – Skrizzly Adams
  13. Fade* – Lewis Capaldi (the F-bomb is dropped so painfully toward the end that it might be the most beautiful swear I’ve ever heard)
  14. Forever – Lewis Capaldi (okay, I’m borderline obsessed with him, and these songs have been on repeat for some book 2 scenes)
  15. Already Gone – Sleeping At Last
  16. All I Want – Gardiner Sisters
  17. Hear You Me – Alex Goot
  18. Hurricane – The Likes of Us

As always, you can find the entire playlist on YouTube.

Solvi – Leika’s Bonfire (Pt. II)

As the midnight sun paints the world gray, I make my way toward the temple and the evening’s festivities. Gunda waits for me outside her longhouse. My best friend has always been one of the prettiest girls in Torblirost, and tonight is no exception. Her silver-blonde hair is twisted into a braided crown around her head and threaded through with blue cornflowers that match her eyes. Dark sweeps of kohl point into her temples, giving her the appearance of elongated cat-eyes.

She smiles when she spots me walking toward her.

“I’d started to think you weren’t coming.” She takes my hand then steps back, her gaze sweeping over my braids—woven like a net over the rest of my loose blonde hair—the kohl smudged over my eyelids and along my lower lashes, my best linen dress cinched tightly with the braided leather belt Papa made me last jultide. “You look lovely, Solvi.”

“Nothing compared to your beauty, havdel sjel.” I hook my arm through hers as we make our way to the temple.

Most of the eligible young women from our village are already inside, clumped in groups of twos and threes. Several young men mill about, too. The chief’s sons are not among them.

Bendt is, though, and he makes his way over. His face is free of any kohl and his hair is thrown up in its usual topknot, but at least he wears a clean tunic and trousers.

“Vöder take me now if you two aren’t the prettiest girls in the whole village tonight.” He takes one of our hands in each of his to twirl us. With a shared eye-roll, Gunda and I oblige him, spinning so our skirts swish around our legs. “What do you say we three skip the matching and go off on our own?”

Gunda laughs.

“That would rather defeat the point,” I say.

“Ah, but Leika’s Bonfire is about celebrating the Lover of the gods. I can promise you, we would be doing that.” He taps my nose and throws a wink at Gunda.

She and I share another look from the corner of our eyes. I’m surprised to see a flush creeping into Gunda’s cheeks; she’s not usually so easy to tease.

“Are you drunk?” I ask Bendt.

His smile creases his cheeks. “It’s Eostre—of course I am.”

“In that case, I think we’d rather take our chances with the choosing stones.”

Bendt gapes at me in mock anger. “Who could possibly be a better choice than me?”

One of my eyebrows cocks upward. “Anyone, really.”

As if to punctuate my point, a commotion near the temple entrance brings us all around. A string of giggles floats around the space as Aksel leads his brother through the growing crowd. Behind them, my brother weaves towards us.

Tarben’s eyes are bright and his brown hair is barely held together with a loose braid—one that was a lot tighter when I tied it for him not an hour ago.

“What have you been up to?” I ask.

A smirk toys with his lips. “The business of the gods.” He gives my hair a quick tug and claps Bendt on the shoulder as he passes to the far side of the temple, where the young men congregate.

“If your brother’s here,” Bendt says, his eyes scanning the female side of the temple, “does that mean Sanne is choosing a stone as well?”

I shrug and join his search for the petite blonde. It’s no secret Tarben and Sanne have been spending more time together than is necessary for a healthy young man and the village healer. Tarben hasn’t made any indication it’s something serious, though.

Sanne enters a few moments later. Her hair is carefully smoothed in a single, golden braid down the back of her head. Her dress is immaculate and her expression casually interested in the proceedings, but her lips are very red, the skin around them flushed as well. I glance at Tarben again, but his eyes follow Brita, the shepherd’s daughter, as she makes her way past.

“I’ll see you ladies tomorrow,” Bendt says. His eyes are still on Sanne. “Wish me luck!”

“May Leika bless you this night.” I have to call it at his back, as he’s already scrambling for a place near the front of the boy’s side.

I shake my head and look at Gunda. Her gaze is focused across the room as well.

“They keep looking over here,” she mutters. “Do you think they’re talking about us?”

When I follow her gaze, it’s apparent Aksel has just turned away. Beside him, Jannik smiles at us.

“I’ve never seen a shadow smile before,” Gunda says and I laugh.

Jannik is our age, hardly more than a year younger than Aksel, but they’re so close it truly is as if Jannik is a shadow of his brother.

“Perhaps they’re scheming how best to pick your matching stone,” I say.

Gunda smirks. “Or it could be you they’re hoping for.”

That makes me laugh again. “Fortunately, only Leika knows who we’re meant for this night.”

Asta the priestess takes her place at the front of the temple and a hush falls over the crowd. As she begins the opening ceremony with a prayer to the goddess Leika, Gunda slips her hand into mine once more.

“I hope only for the best for you, havdel sjel,” she whispers.

I give her hand a squeeze. “And you, havdel sjel.”

Half of my soul.

When it comes time to choose, I glance over the young men gathered once more. Aksel hovers near the back of the men’s line while his shadow uncharacteristically surges to the front. Jannik’s eyes are closed and his lips move, as if with a last minute prayer. Bendt is behind him; he raises his eyebrows at me when our eyes meet.

I catch Tarben looking at Sanne, then Gunda nudges me forward. I take my stone from the women’s urn and move off to the side to wait for the choosing to finish.

“What are you waiting for?” A yell draws our attention to the male urn, where Bendt elbows Jannik. “It’s easy; you just stick your hand in and take one.”

Bendt waves the stone he’s pulled under Jannik’s nose with a grin. Jannik looks like he could murder Bendt as he fishes his own stone from the urn.

“There,” Gunda murmurs. “That face is much more fitting of the shadow.”

Once everyone has a stone, Asta returns to the front.

“Well, now that you have selected your destiny for the evening…” She spreads her hands wide. “May Leika bless you this night.”

Our two sides converge in the middle of the temple, each stone seeking out its mate. Voices rise over one another, filling the space with deafening chatter. Gunda and I hold tight to each other as we push through the crowd, glancing at upheld stones as we go.

“Which of you has only one line carved on your stone?” A voice calls over the chaos. I glance toward the front, where a boy stands in Asta’s place.

My eyes widen as he holds up his stone. Gunda is carried along by the crowd, but I’m rooted in place. My thumb traces the single hatch mark along the surface of my own stone as a nervous laugh bubbles in my gut. Leika certainly has a strange sense of humor.

His eyes fall on me as I make my way toward him, holding up my stone. His head tilts to the side and he blinks as if seeing me for the first time.

When I arrive in front of him, I sigh. “At least you don’t smell like fish guts tonight.”

I put my stone in Bendt’s hand.

Solvi – Leika’s Bonfire (Pt. I)

Tonight is my first visit to Leika’s Bonfire. I was eligible last year, but we had just lost Ulf. It didn’t feel right to celebrate love when my heart was broken. This year, I’m excited by the prospect of matching with one of the village boys I don’t know very well. Whether or not the connection lasts, I’m looking forward to interacting with someone other than my brothers or one of the fishermen who share their vessels with me each summer. 

Maiken has taken time out of her busy day to help me prepare for the big night. She gives the brush a vicious tug through a snarl in my hair, ripping me from my thoughts and jerking my head back in the process.

“Ow!”

“I can’t help that you let rats build nests in your hair!” 

I slap at her hands. “It’s funny, Mam never seems to have trouble brushing my hair.”

Maiken gives an impatient snort and drags the brush over my head again. “If you prefer our mother’s braids, I have plenty of other things to do with my time.”

I scowl at her reflection over my shoulder in the hammered-iron mirror. Maiken is an artist when it comes to braided hair, and she knows it. Especially tonight—the most important night of the Eostre festival—I need to look my best.

Once she’s finished attacking me with the brush, I breath a quick sigh of short-lived relief before her warrior’s-fingers twist into my hair. My teeth grind together and I remind myself—as I must every time she does my hair—the end result is worth the pain. 

“Thank Gull you’ll never have a daughter,” I tell her reflection. It earns me an extra tug on my scalp, but Maiken smirks.

“What would I even need a daughter for, when I have my sweet Solvi to doll up when I feel like it?”

My smile is a half-grimace. I watch her fingers fly through my hair. I may be an expert at tying knots for the fishing nets, but it doesn’t translate into the braids I attempt on myself.

“So,” she says after a moment, “any boy in particular you’re hoping blessed Leika matches you with?”

I shrug. Between the fishing vessels and the training yard, Bendt is the only boy other than my brothers I spend any amount of prolonged time with. I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to talk with one of the other unattached young men in our village.

“Not even Aksel?” Maiken’s voice has taken on a teasing edge. I roll my eyes.

Everyone hopes to draw the stone that will match the chief’s eldest son. He’s handsome—if a little too pretty in my opinion—but I know very little of substance about him. In the training yard, he only ever spars with his brother Jannik. He mans his own fishing vessel and prefers to hunt alone rather than join our hunting parties. 

“I wouldn’t mind someone a little more interesting,” I say. 

Maiken laughs. “More interesting than the future chief?”

“It just seems like that’s all he is. I’d like a man with a lot of different skills and interests.”

“And how do you know Aksel doesn’t have these?”

“Fine, I don’t. But all the other girls will be clamoring for him. I don’t need to join in all the fuss.”

I think through the other boys of the village: Mogen, Carr, Mads, Halstein…. Young men I know more by sight or from sharing a longboat on the occasional expedition. None make my heart pound at the very idea of them, but isn’t that what Leika’s Bonfire is for? To open up a possibility with someone I wouldn’t have otherwise spoken with?

“Well, whatever happens, little sister, try to make the most of it. I found Dag through Leika’s Bonfire, after all.”

My eyes narrow at her over my shoulder. “Not because you were matched together.”

My sister had famously punched her match after only a few minutes with him and struck up a conversation with the armorer’s son—a difficult feat, since Dag is the quietest person I’ve ever met. Even six years later, their story is still brought up during Eostre. It’s become as much a tradition of the summer festival as Leika’s Bonfire or the celebrations of the midnight sun.

Maiken shrugs and tosses her long, blonde braid over her shoulder. 

“If not for the bonfire, we both wouldn’t have ended up on that dock, on that night.” She smiles at me. “I have as much a say in my fate as the gods do. You should learn to live the same way.”

When we were younger, I’d hoped I’d be as fierce and brave as Maiken once I reached her age. But every year that I got older, so did she—her confidence growing with her. Mine remains static. I’m the same age now that she was when she sat down with Dag that night, but I’m not even sure if I want to commit to a life with someone else, much less who that might be. 

For tonight, I’ll cast my lot in with the other unattached members of our village and let the gods determine my fate one more time.

Querying

Well, I did it! I sent out a query letter to a handful of agents! I’ve got to polish my synopsis and try to ease off tweaking my manuscript because it is time, baby!

Or maybe not–I’ve got another list of agents to query next week. I’m hedging my bets a little bit and leaving myself options if my query or first few pages don’t seem to hook anyone in this first round. There’s always room for improvement, so if I’m being completely honest, I’m not going to stop tweaking my query letter or my story until I start getting requests to read the full manuscript. I’m just really excited because that first step has been taken and, request or rejection, I’ve at least put my story out there.