Thursday, July 28, 2011

My First-Ever Book Review: CREEP


             I am going to attempt something I’ve never done before:  A book review.  Now, I have no skill in this department whatsoever, but what I lack in aptitude, I think I more than make up for with enthusiasm.
As an avid reader, I am constantly on the prowl for the next novel that will truly grab and shake me to my roots, something so good, I simply cannot put it down.  I rarely come across books that hit me on a visceral level and stay with me for long periods of time.  I think the last time a book affected me this way, I was reading my friend, Lisa Regan’s, book, Finding Claire Fletcher, but until some wise publisher out there picks it up, most of you will never know. 
I can, however, share a book with you that everyone has access to because Jennifer Hillier’s debut novel, Creep, is now widely available.  I won a copy of this book and Jennifer was kind and gracious enough to send me one personally signed, something I will always treasure.  I was very anxious to get started and did a happy dance when it finally arrived.  And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. 
In case you haven’t had the pleasure, here is the inside jacket copy:

IF HE CAN'T HAVE HER . . .

Dr. Sheila Tao is a professor of psychology. An expert in human behavior. And when she began an affair with sexy, charming graduate student Ethan Wolfe, she knew she was playing with fire. Consumed by lust when they were together, riddled with guilt when they weren't, she knows the three-month fling with her teaching assistant has to end. After all, she's engaged to a kind and loving investment banker who adores her, and she's taking control of her life. But when she attempts to end the affair, Ethan Wolfe won't let her walk away.

. . . NOBODY ELSE CAN.

Ethan has plans for Sheila, plans that involve posting a sex video that would surely get her fired and destroy her prestigious career. Plans to make her pay for rejecting him. And as she attempts to counter his every threatening move without her colleagues or her fiancĂ© discovering her most intimate secrets, a shattering crime rocks Puget Sound State University: a female student, a star athlete, is found stabbed to death. Someone is raising the stakes of violence, sex, and blackmail…and before she knows it, Sheila is caught in a terrifying cat-and-mouse game with the lover she couldn't resist—who is now the monster who won't let her go.

*

            Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?  Well, it is.  Very much so.  I love a good villain, probably more than the average protagonist.  I think they’re juicy and fascination, and Hillier’s Ethan did not disappoint.  From an older woman’s perspective, I found it intriguing that the nearly forty-year-old protagonist, Sheila, has a torrid affair with a hot twenty-something collegiate.  (Hey, one can dream, right?)  And I didn’t find fault that he reacted badly when Sheila dumps him after getting engaged to someone else.  But Ethan is a very bad boy and just can’t handle the rejection.  So he decides to get even.  And things heat way, way up.
I don’t want to give anything away because it’s the not-knowing-what-comes-next that kept me up way past my bedtime and sitting inside on the first beautifully sunny, warm day Seattle has seen is nearly a year.  Creep is loaded with sexual tension that grips and holds you in place, yet it is masterfully executed without being crass.  It’s both scary and sexy.  So unsettling and terrifying.  And it’s a thrill ride right up until the very surprising end.
You will definitely not regret picking this book up, except for the fact that once you do, you won’t be able to put it down.  So make sure you have a good long day to put everything else aside.           
      
         

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What Do You Know, I'm a Judge!



I had planned on making a standard post today, but I will have to put it off while I participate in week 4 of Deana Barnhart's  Gearin' Up To Get An Agent Blogfest.  This week is the First 200 Words Novel Critique and Contest, but instead of being a regular participant, I am a judge!  How cool is that?  Pretty cool, I think.

So while I thought to take the week off from reading then commenting on the first 200 words of 40 different participating novelists, now I am  reading and judging those critical first words.  I don't really feel worthy, but I will give it my best shot.  And how exciting to get a first glimpse at some extraordinary novels!  

Friday, July 22, 2011

CREEP



            Few people know this, but last Monday, I won a copy of Jennifer Hillier’s just-released debut novel, Creep.  I was ecstatic when I found out.  I mean, it’s always cool to win a little something, but I’d been hearing about this book all over the place, so I was very excited to be in on the action.  All my Blogger friends were reading it and it was getting fabulous reviews.  I even read the first chapter while standing in Barnes & Noble last Friday.
Alas, though I wanted to buy it, I couldn’t afford it right then as I was burning a hole in my wallet buying my son books on SAT prep, finding college financing and writing the perfect college essay.  I was disappointed because I found that first chapter thrilling.  The book was right up my alley, a taut thriller with a sexual edginess that made it hard to put back on the shelf.  But I knew I would buy it soon.  I just had to be patient.
So, wahoo…YAY ME!  I actually WON a copy of Creep!  


I waited as patiently as I could and just this morning, it arrived in the mail.  Now, I haven’t had the time to get too far yet, only 67 pages, up to chapter 8, but what I’ve read is fantastic!  I love that it’s set in Seattle, my backyard.  I’m kind of pissed though that I can’t just burn my whole day away reading.  The tension is just delicious!  But I have the whole weekend even though this is supposed to be the first really sunny, warm weekend so far for Seattle this summer.  But this book is calling my name and I simply cannot ignore it. 
So, thanks so very much, Jennifer!  We have a date this weekend!!               

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Happy Dance Time!

Wahoo!


I'm a finalist in
Query Critique Contest

I'm very excited, though I realize after reading all the other revised queries that I have very little hope in winning, but like they say:  It's great just to be nominated!  

I would like this opportunity to thank everyone
who helped whip my query into better shape, most especially 
You, Ms. Weeks, are a godsend, not to mention a freakin' anomaly.
Who can whip out queries like that, I ask you?

Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Gearin' Up to Get an Agent BlogFest: Query Critique Contest



Okay Friends, Followers and Readers extraordinaire,
I am participating in week 3 of

Query Critique Contest

In this week’s installment, participants will be putting their query up on their blog so that they may receive feedback from other participants and anyone else who might want to share their two cents.  I’m not sure that I’m ready yet, but here it goes.     

Dear Ms. Agent-of-my-Dreams:

I am seeking representation for THE MISTAKEN, a psychological thriller of 91,000 words. Told from alternating perspectives, it is the story of a vengeful man struggling to save an innocent woman from the ruthless men he’s mistakenly set upon her.   

Skylar Karras is no longer an honorable man.  Gone is the doting husband, the sibling who never failed to bail his brother, Nick, out of trouble.  In his place is a different man, one broken by grief, blinded by rage and consumed with vengeance.  His target is a stranger, the woman responsible for the death of his pregnant wife.  He doesn’t know her, but he’ll find her, and when he does, he will make her pay.  But to do so, Sky must get into bed with Nick’s thug associates in San Francisco’s Russian mafia.  They’re experts in human trafficking and Nick’s plan offers Sky the perfect solution: his fill of sweet revenge and the chance to free his brother from the Russian’s control.  But as he stumbles forward in a numbing haze of alcohol, Sky mistakes the wrong woman for his intended victim, sending all his plans straight to hell.

With his eyes made clear by the stark reality of his mistake, Sky is driven, compelled by remorse and a relentless sense of guilt to make amends and protect Hannah Maguire, the innocent woman whose life he has derailed.  He vows to keep her safe and out of the hands of the Russians, but they’re holding Nick as leverage to force Sky to complete their deal and turn over the girl.  It’s a race against the clock as Sky strives to be the man he used to be, risking all to defend Hannah’s life and secure Nick’s freedom.  But desperation leads him to a place darker than he ever imagined and he simply can’t do it all: save the girl, his brother, and his own soul.  One of them must make the ultimate sacrifice. 

Charged with the raw emotions of human loss and regret, I believe my novel would appeal to fans of Greg Iles’s Turning Angel, James Scott Bell’s Try Dying, Neil Cross’s Burial and even Alexandre Dumas’ classic, The Count of Monte Cristo.

I am an interior designer living in Sammamish, Washington with my husband, teenaged son and two singing sled dogs.  Though I no longer have ties with anyone in San Francisco’s Russian underworld, I have loosely based my novel on villains and events from my past.

My research has unveiled your interest in thrillers.  I have included the first five pages within the body of this email.  I would be happy to provide a full synopsis, additional chapters, or the complete manuscript.  Thank you for your time and consideration.


Best Regards,
Nancy S. Thompson
(Personal info redacted)

So what do you think?  (This is me biting my finger nails!)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Stories Don't Happen in a Vacuum


            I knew I would have to come up with something to post about today, but when I woke up, I still hadn’t thought of anything new, that is until I read today’s post at BookEnds Lit Agency.  Today is Workshop Wednesday at BookEnds, the day agent Jessica Faust posts one of the queries she’s received for critiquing, kind of like Janet Reid does at Query Shark.
I love query critiques.  I think it is the single most effective way to know what does and doesn’t work in a query.  Now, I don’t always agree with Ms. Faust’s opinion.  Case in point, a few weeks ago, she critiqued this query and loved it.  I thought the query was vague, at best, and had many of the qualities that agents advise writers not to include.  But she loved the “southern rhythm” of the voice.  Yeah, I didn’t get that at all and I lived in the south for awhile, but whatever, just like books, it’s subjective and if she liked it then kudos to the author.  Well done!
But this week’s critique struck a nerve with me because Ms. Faust alluded to something I hear over and over again when agents are critiquing queries.  After reading the first two paragraphs of the query, she more or less said, this is all backstory; the real story starts here.  In other words, cut all this crap out and get to the meat of the story.  While I agree the query needs a lot of work, I find issue with the fact that the agent automatically thinks the first two-thirds of the query, and therefore the book, is all backstory. 
In my opinion, this is the story, at least part of it.  It is how the author wrote it to give it structure and body, a reference point from which to contrast the conflict.  It bothers me that the agent thinks that everything that came before what she considers the core of the story is somehow irrelevant or that the story goes off track.  Yes, the author should have written the query differently to show the progression of the story and the importance of that progression. 
She implied subtly that the story might be about something else, or perhaps that was just the agent inferring that idea, but even still, that doesn’t mean all those points the writer thought important enough to include in her query are not crucial to the story.  Some of the commenters, in fact, seemed very interested in the writer’s story, calling out the fact that those first two paragraphs were simply acts one and two.
My point is that agents toss aside stories based on assumptions that the reader doesn’t want to know all that happened before, that they simply want to get to the meat of the story.  Well, okay, I don’t need to know everything that happened to the nineteen-year-old MC during her first seventeen or eighteen years unless it’s relevant to the story, but from age nineteen on, all the things that happen to her forge her into the woman she becomes and adds dimension to her reasoning, to how she handles the conflict.  Stories don’t happen in a vacuum.  We need to care about the protagonist and their journey and we do this through knowing and understanding their history. 
I often wonder why everyone is always in such a hurry to get to the end.  It’s all about instant gratification so we can move on to the next thing.  Why not savor the time spent with a story and let yourself get immersed in the simmering heat of the layers as they buildup?  I’m not saying that everything that the query writer put in her query is essential.  Personally, it comes off more like historical romance, not historical fiction, and so definitely not my thing, but I get that those details are important to understanding why there even is a conflict. 
Could you imagine if Winston Groom had to query Forrest Gump in today’s market?  Some agents would likely say to cut all that backstory about Forrest as a small child or in high school, but it is those details in the early chapters that show how Forrest changes later in life, how he manages to deal with all the drama that’s thrown his way.  How can we know if we weren’t privy to the backstory?
All this relates to me personally because last week I rewrote my query, for what must be the fifteenth time, based on advice from Stephanie DeVita in her post last week titled Slow Summer, where she says, In most of the queries that I read, the writer isn’t giving me the most thrilling aspect of their book, the crucial element that should make me desperate to ask for more pages. In other cases, it’s unclear if that pivotal element is even there.” 
So I cut all the “backstory” out of my query and just alluded to it in the second line, then got right into the major point of the conflict.  But now I worry that any agent who requests pages will think the first third of my novel is all backstory when, in fact, it is the story, or part of it anyway.  Since the story is all about a man who changes, who becomes a different man due to some pretty terrible things that happen to him, that first third of the book is the setup.  It determines what he was like at first and how those events twisted him into a different man, made him act a certain way and do that one awful thing that drives the story.  The rest of the book is how he deals with the repercussions of those decisions.  Why would any reader care about how he changed and what he did if they didn’t know his “backstory?”
And by the way, I hate that word, backstory.  It makes it feel like all those early words are somehow illegitimate, a bastard to be cast aside.  Yes, it matters how that information is presented, that we feel it is part of the actual story and not simply dumped there in a lazy attempt to give context, but I like to think of it as the ice cream in my sundae.  It’s all those yummy bits on top that make it special, but you can’t just eat the yummy bits.  You have to savor it properly with the ice cream set below.  Otherwise, it’s not a sundae.         

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gearin' Up to Get an Agent BlogFest: Week 1

(Wow, two posts in one day!  Not usually my thing,
but I was on vacation and forgot to do this one item below.)



Oops, I’m a day late (and more than a dollar short) but I thought I’d throw my two cents in as an official participant in Deana Barnhart’s  Gearin’ Up To Get An Agent BlogFest.  The rule?  Take the greatest, dumbest, weirdest...just whatever kind of writing question you have, and post it on your blog Wednesday.  (See, I’m  late.)  So here it is:

When a writer receives a rejection from an agent, can we assume that the agent has actually read that query, or is more likely that the agent’s assistant just assumed her boss wouldn’t like it and replied on her behalf?

Querying for an Agent: Part Deux

            Well I’ve been gone for awhile.  I took the first of three summer vacations.  Just a quick visit with the parents; long enough to drive me nuts anyway.  Now that I’m back and have six weeks before I take my son on his two-week-long college tour through California, I thought I’d write a quick update on my querying.  This is a subject I’ve written about a lot.  I know many of you fellow writers are going through the same process and have similar thoughts and frustrations as I’ve complained about since last December when I first prepared to send out query letters.
            What a difference six months has made.  I was such a newbie back then.  So excited and full of optimism.  I only queried for about two months then suspended my search while I waited to hear back from the last few agents who had requested partials.  Those rejections hit me like a fifty-pound sack of flour right to the face.  I suppose it would have made me feel better to have some feedback, but I didn’t get enough concrete criticism to make a difference.
I did, however, keep working on revisions to my manuscript, as well as my query.  To date, I have fourteen different query drafts.  I think I have used maybe eight of those.  I just wrote another one this morning after reading Dystel & Goderich agent Stephanie DeVita’s post regarding the summer slump in good queries.  She said “In most of the queries that I read, the writer isn’t giving me the most thrilling aspect of their book, the crucial element that should make me desperate to ask for more pages.  In other cases, it’s unclear if that pivotal element is even there.   
            This got me thinking that I should cut out all the backstory crap I put into the first paragraph of my query and just get into the nitty gritty angst of the story right up front.  So that’s what I did.  Just as I’ve done for the last two weeks, I sent out this revised query to five agents.  What’s funny and different about this round of querying is my attitude.  It’s not that I’m not excited to be querying again, it’s just that I don’t really think about it any more.  I’m not obsessed with it. 
            I used to be tethered to my email after sending out a round of queries.  This is because after sending out one of my very first queries, I received an immediate request for a full.  Yeah, to a superstar agent, no less, and within ninety minutes of sending it, too.  Pretty exciting, as you can imagine.  That was my second request for a full.  Two months later, the rejection nearly crippled me.  (That was the day I had my first-ever shot of tequila.  Boy, did I need it.)  After that, I received two more requests, both for partials, and both were rejected after a few weeks with little comment.  That kind of took the wind out of my sails. 
            Now, I’m all business about the whole thing.  I don’t send out large batches of queries, choosing instead to send out two to five once a week, at most.  I have researched and compiled a long list of agents who rep my genre of adult thrillers, and I am slowly nibbling away at the top of that list, but when I send the query, I just more or less forget about it.  I look ahead to the next small set I will send out the following week and while I will always remain optimistic, I am also a realist.  I can’t put all my hopes and dreams into this process.  I can’t get too excited about it any more because it’s just too painful when the inevitable happens, and it will happen. 
            I’m taking my good friend, Lisa Regan’s advice.  I will keep knocking on those doors.  There are hundreds of them lined up down a long hallway in front of me.  Somewhere in there is the one door with the one agent behind it who will be a match for me.  I just have to be patient enough to keep looking. 
So…this is me looking.  Any agents out there who like a good revenge thriller with a twist?  I’m here searching for you.  I hope you answer the door when I knock.  In the mean time, I jotted down something I heard from one the participants of this season’s So You Think You Can Dance.  He said push hard, stay focused and keep your eye on the prize.