Sunflower Wars, a brief memoir

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a 6 yr old boy came home from school with a small potful of dirt and this:

sf1-e1532080185199.jpg

So his mother (that would be me) placed the pot upon a windowsill and watered the contents each day. A shoot appeared, and when the tiny plant grew large enough to need support, the mother stuck a drinking straw into the earth and tied the stem with string. Whenever she was writing outdoors, she took the pot with her, basking her fragile charge in sunlight.

Time passed and the mother taped another straw to the first. The sunflower continued to grow but it did not flower. Eventually, the drinking straws were discarded in favor of a bamboo stick. The mother did not name the sunflower but she nurtured it, and when she wrote, it was her only companion.

The day came when it was time to take the sunflower back to school to be judged. The boy was excited but his mother was anxious. What if all the other sunflowers had bloomed? What if they were much taller? What if the boy or indeed the sunflower felt diminished by the forthcoming judgement?

On the way to school, they met another mother. “Oh my goodness, that’s amazing,” she said. “Ours never grew. We watered it for weeks and nothing happened, so we emptied the pot out and we couldn’t even find a seed.”

The mother sympathized but inwardly she rejoiced.

The entire way to school, they didn’t see anyone else carrying a plant. It was the same story in the playground. A woman there saw the sunflower and her eyes widened. “Did you do that?”

The mother preened. “Yes, I did. It’s my only gardening success.”

“Ours never grew. We watered it for weeks and nothing. In the end, we tipped the pot out and we couldn’t even find a seed.”

“Someone else said the same thing. I’m worried that all the others will have flowered.”

The woman looked at the boy. “You’ve won.”

The boy smiled, but to be honest, he wasn’t particularly interested.

The classroom door opened. The mother handed the plant (her precious!) to the teacher and managed to resist the impulse to instruct her on its care. As the boy disappeared into class, a dad appeared from nowhere with a carrier bag containing two sunflowers of a size comparable to the mother’s (for she no longer thought of the plant as belonging solely to the boy). Somehow she restrained herself from rugby tackling the dad by reminding herself that this wasn’t Thunderdome.

Then she beheld a monstrosity: A woman carrying a large flowerpot. Needless to say, it was not the one issued with the seed. Inside, was a short and incredibly stocky plant with a massive yellow flower blooming at its apex. Her kid was clearly facing some skepticism from his peers because even as the mother clocked this travesty, he cried out, “I didn’t buy it!”

Bullshit! the mother thought. That’s bullshit, kid. I don’t care how old you are, you’re lying your arse off.

The stem on that thing was several inches thick. It wasn’t even the same variety of sunflower. Of course, the mother didn’t say any of this out loud because that would be petty and mean. Also, swearing in the playground is frowned upon.

It’s just a bit of fun for the children, she told herself, because she knew she had to rise above such unspeakable chicanery.

She walked home and told this story to her husband who was working from home that day, and he found her outrage cute instead of exhausting, which was lucky.

When the mother picked the boy up from school that afternoon, the sunflower looked tired and bruised, like it had endured a tough day. She took it home and, after she’d re-potted it, they sat together in the sun while she read the latest Victoria Stone. The boy received a certificate:

SF2

You’re goddamn right we did.

The Query Letter That Got Me My Agent (with commentary from Jessica Alvarez of Bookends Literary Agency)

Snoopy

(Image via Pinterest.com)

When I wrote my first query letter, I was deeply grateful to all the authors who’d shared their successful letters on the internet. It would seem wrong somehow if I didn’t share mine. This wasn’t the first manuscript I queried. Although I got very lucky (as you’re about to see) I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the query trenches, and I know how frustrating the process can be.

Here’s the query for The Madness of Miss Grey, then titled Heart of Ice:

Dear Ms Alvarez,

Everyone thinks Helen Grey is mad. She certainly causes plenty of trouble at Blackwell, the crumbling asylum where she’s been imprisoned for the last ten years. New doctor William Carter seems decent, honorable, and eager to help. Just the sort of man she can trick into helping her escape.

Will knows he’s being manipulated, but he also realizes Helen doesn’t belong at Blackwell. Getting her out won’t be easy, not for a mere housekeeper’s son educated above his station, and not when her mysterious benefactor is determined to keep her locked up forever.

Helen and Will need to work together if she’s ever going to be free. As their uneasy partnership turns to tender friendship, neither foresees the passion they’ll find in each other’s arms or the love that will save them both.

Heart of Ice is the first in a series I’m calling Dysfunctional Dukes about a family so messed up I call them the anti-Bridgertons. I am currently working on the second installment which is about Helen’s brother.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best wishes,

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s perfect. Not by any means. For one thing, I didn’t personalize it. Though some agents prefer you to get straight to the pitch, just as many say they appreciate when an author includes why they’ve chosen to query that agent/agency in particular. If I could go back in time, I’d probably start with something like:

Dear Ms Alvarez,

I’ve been following you on twitter for a year or two. Earlier today, I spotted your #PitMad tweet which said that, though you weren’t taking part, you were open to queries.

Almost the first thing Jessica asked when she contacted me was why I queried her, so I certainly should have included the information.

An interruption from Jessica: It’s funny; I don’t remember asking you why you’d queried me. I actually normally don’t care too much about that or whether a query is personalized to me, though I know there are those agents who do care. I may have been trying to figure out if you were a #PitMad submission, but no matter now, it all worked out.

Back to Julia: Bookends uses Query Manager, which is why the original query doesn’t include word count, setting, and genre. I entered that information as part of the online form. When querying agencies by regular email, I’d add a line to the above paragraph, something like:

Please consider my 80,000 word historical romance set in late-Victorian Yorkshire.

Still, despite its imperfections, this query had a 100% success rate, (something that would be more impressive if I hadn’t only queried three agents).

Another interruption from Jessica: There were several things that grabbed me with your query. I love the idea of a tortured, possibly mad heroine, and the entire concept struck me immediately as a fresh spin on Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. That’s one of my all-time favorites and quite possibly the greatest asylum romance to ever exist, imho. And right away I could tell there was going to be some juicy conflict with the doctor/patient relationship and him coming from humble beginnings. To top it off, I loved the way you described your series as being the anti-Bridgertons—any historical reader will immediately get that, and I can’t get enough of dysfunctional families. So, maybe there are a few things to quibble with, but really, I think the query was spot-on and it hooked me. Plus, it was so good that I basically stole your entire query, so I think you can claim more wins than just 3 for 3

Back to Julia: However, months later, when we pitched the manuscript to Entangled, Alethea Spiridon, the acquiring editor, requested a refined version more in keeping with their brand. I worked with Jessica and the rest of the Bookends team to produce this:

Everyone thinks Helen Grey is mad but, despite ten years imprisoned in Blackwell, a crumbling Yorkshire asylum, she’s managed to cling to sanity. When a new doctor arrives, she sees an opportunity. William Carter is honorable and eager to help. Despite his rigid moral code, desire burns in his eyes. Her pretty face and generous curves are her best weapons and she knows he’ll be a pleasure to seduce…and trick into helping her escape.

Will knows he’s being manipulated, but he intends to help Helen no matter what. She’s no more mad than he is. Though he would never bed a patient, his yearning for Helen torments him. The more time Will spends in this beautiful schemer’s company, the harder it is to resist temptation.

Helen and Will need to work together if she’s ever going to be free. It won’t be easy, not when her mysterious benefactor is determined to keep her locked up and hidden from society forever. When Helen is entangled in her own trap and begins to fall for Will too, she must fight not only for her liberty but for her right to love.

The first one is more restrained (restrained is my comfort zone), but I think the new version does a better job of selling the book.

So, keep working on your query, listen to advice when advice is given, and with luck, you’ll find an agent and an editor who are right for you and your manuscript.

 

A Frivolous Post about My Quest for the Right Pen Name

Brainless Tales

(Image from brainlesstales.com)

I’m indecisive about names. My heroines usually go through about three before I find the one that’s just right. My pen name has been no different. I’m happy with Julia Bennet. It holds meaning for me, and it’s close but not too close to my real name. Now that I’ve settled on it, it seems the obvious choice. Meant to be.

But until recently I was using Julia Jones. It was a name I could imagine gracing the cover of an historical romance, and I fell in love with the alliteration of it. If you google that name, you’ll see that there are lots of people already using it, including an actress from the Twilight movies.

So I started brainstorming.

After some thought, I settled on Julia Audley. It seemed like something an historical romance author might be called. But then someone at my literary agency pointed out that the two As side by side made it awkward. I had to agree.

Next, in a moment of desperation, I turned to my 6 year old:

Me: What do you think my pen name should be?

Him: Mummy. Or Clark Kent.

Then I went through the entire section of a database of British surnames. When that yielded nothing, I went through all the other sections. Still nothing.

Then, in another moment of desperation, I asked my husband:

Him: Have you considered English placenames?

Me: Such as?

Him: Cherwell? Chiswick? Stafford?

Me: Are you just listing motorway service stations?

Him: Er … maybe.

Nevertheless, I liked the idea in theory, so I turned to google maps. What I found convinced me that our British forefathers were permanently drunk on small ale. Believe it or not, all of the following surnames are examples of real British place names.

How about Julia Picklescott?

Julia Monkland? (Monkland being the world’s worst theme park.)

Julia Broadbottom?

Julia Wetwang?

Julia Whapload?

These are the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a map:

 

Funny-places-in-britain-map-medium-branded

(For more examples, visit Anglotopia.net where I found the above image. It’s well worth a look.)

How I Got My Agent

FairyGodmother

I am beyond thrilled to have accepted an offer of representation from the amazing Jessica Alvarez of BookEnds Literary.

I wish I had some wisdom to impart on the subject of how to go about getting an agent. But, beyond “Write a book, submit it to respected agents who represent your genre, and hope you find someone who loves it,” I’m afraid I’ve got nothing.

How did this happen? I only starting querying the manuscript in July.

I don’t send out big batches of queries. I research each agent until I’m pretty sure I would love to work with them. (Obviously you don’t know how well your personalities will mesh until you interact a bit.) So, in that three month period, I sent out a total of three queries. Of the three, one agent sent me a lovely, encouraging rejection, saying she really liked what she’d read and urging me to keep querying. The second response was Jessica’s. And she wanted to call me.

I can’t tell you how it felt to read those words. All aspiring writers long for The Call. Was this it? The email said she liked the manuscript but a call from an agent isn’t necessarily the call. I know because I googled it.

Then I visited Jessica’s twitter which I’d been stalking for ages and saw this tweet:

Could she be talking about my manuscript? Could she have liked it to this degree? And if she had, did that mean she wanted to represent me?

Because it was half-term and my 6 year old was home, I suggested we talk in the evening, which meant I had to wait hours to find out. And as you can imagine, it was all I could think about.

I’m happy to say the call was The Call.

I already knew I wanted to work with Jessica and the fact that she was lovely on the phone made me even more certain. She seemed to be offering representation. She even said point-blank “I’d love to work on this with you.” You’d think at that point, I’d have believed her but after we’d talked for another ten minutes, it still hadn’t sunk in.

“So, just to clarify,” I said, “Are you offering representation?”

There was a short pause during which I suspect Jessica questioned my sanity.

“Yes,” she said.

Reader, I’m not sure – I was bright red and shaking at this point – but I think I might have actually said the word “Hooray.” (I sometimes channel Emma Thompson when I’m nervous, or at least I like to think so.)

I asked for time to reflect because all the advice says you should. But I wouldn’t have queried Jessica if I didn’t think she was wonderful, and it was so hard to keep that ‘yes’ in. I made myself think things through seriously but I confess I only managed a couple of hours before I emailed to accept her offer.

Now, four days later, I’m still walking on air.

Writing Contests and Their Wily Ways.

All You Need

Contests are funny things. Writers differ as to how useful they find them. Personally, I think they’re a good way of getting feedback. It’s a way of testing yourself against other writers and their work. How good am I compared to my competition? Obviously they’re subjective … but then so is reading.  You’re never going to write something that everyone loves, so with contests there’s an element of luck of the draw. If I have the good fortune to be matched with judges who like my voice, I’ll do well.

Recently I was a double finalist in the 2017 Romance through the Ages contest. As if that wasn’t thrilling enough, when the preliminary results came back, I found that I was entering the next round with a perfect score. Which meant that at least three people (who are not my mum, husband, or friend) absolutely loved what I’d written. This was prize enough in itself, to be honest.

Unfortunately for me and despite how much the initial judges loved my story, the final round judge liked it least of the three finalists, and I came in third. You would think I’d be disappointed and I was (because who doesn’t enter a contest hoping to win?) but only a little bit. That particular judge had truly loved my first manuscript and so I’d had high hopes she would connect with my second, but them’s the breaks. I reasoned that, even in the case of my absolute favorite author, I don’t love every single thing she’s written.

So I didn’t win and the world didn’t end. The fact is, rejection can be good for you if you use it to help toughen your skin.

Anyway, months prior, I entered the Golden Heart contest. While of course I’d love to win the Golden Heart, the competition is so fierce that I didn’t expect to final. And I didn’t. I shrugged that particular defeat off instantly, but then, a few weeks after the Romance through the Ages results came out, I got my Golden Heart scores back. It’s such a massive contest that it takes them a very long time to get the results back to everyone and I’d honestly forgotten that I was supposed to be waiting for them. I opened them up with only mild curiosity.

Oh my god, you guys. My preliminary round score was 9.166666667. Out of 10. Which put it well into the top quarter. Hats off to the ladies who actually finalled. They must have got perfect 10s or near enough. I was absolutely thrilled. Ironically, the contest I didn’t final in was the one that left me elated in the end.

But I’m glad I entered both.

With the Golden Heart, you don’t get feedback from your judges, but with the Romance through the Ages, I got three critiques which were helpful and also full of some truly lovely compliments, both of which are extra fuel to keep you writing.

Entering a contest is like getting on a roller-coaster. There are highs and lows and there’s a chance you’ll spew. Yet ultimately the experience can toughen you, and help you improve your craft. (Okay, that last bit isn’t true of roller-coasters but I think the metaphor stands.)

(Image found on Pinterest.)

Using Clothes to Construct Character

A better title for this post might be An Excuse to Share Costume Porn. I mean look at this:

Hot pink corset

 

Sometimes I think if it wasn’t for costume dramas, we’d have convinced ourselves that Victorians dressed entirely in sepia tones.  One of my favorite parts of researching the Victorian era has been discovering all the amazing and colorful clothes wealthy women wore.

When I started writing, I had no idea how character development could dictate costume or how useful descriptions of clothing could be for conveying small nuances of character.

Before I get into specifics, I want to note that I almost never use just one image to help me describe clothing (or for that matter faces). Half the fun for readers is using their imagination and I don’t think they particularly like to be told “No, this is what that dress/face really looks like.” But I like to use visual aids while I’m writing. It helps me keep things historically accurate and reminds me that my male protagonist will never unzip my heroine’s dress.

In the prologue of my first manuscript Ruled by Desire, my heroine Francesca is young enough that she’s still being told what to wear by her guardians. Hence these otherwise out of character inspirations:

The scene is in the hero James’s point of view. Pretty though the dress is meant to be, he takes a dim view:

“Rows of white ruffles covered her from neck to ankle. All that fabric obscured her figure, but she might be hiding a decent bosom under there for all he knew … She was a perfect debutante. Girls like her thronged the ballrooms of London during the season. If he discovered they assembled them in a factory somewhere, he’d feel only mild surprise.”

The description of the dress is brief but it tells us that Francesca is following convention when it comes to her wardrobe, something that has changed by the time we meet her again:

“She’d cast aestheticism aside for less practical attire, taming and restraining her unruly curves. The ruby-red silk, though vivid and unashamed like its wearer, revealed no more than was proper. He saw a hint of upper arm bracketed by short sleeves and long white gloves, and the gentle swell of her décolletage almost always concealed behind the black feathers of her fan. She didn’t go out of her way to display herself, but she disdained to hide.”

This red dress is one of the few times I didn’t use something from the era as my guide. Instead I used this costume from The Age of Innocence:

AgeofInnocencegown

I’ve loved this costume since I saw the movie back when it first came out.

As for James himself:

“He put a clean handkerchief into her hand. “Take care of it. It’s very fashionable.”

She tried to smile, but it came out wobbly. “A fashionable handkerchief? I never heard of such a thing.” She accepted the small white square and unfolded it. His valet must have slipped it into his pocket this morning. Four neat creases divided it into precise quarters. So much care taken over something insignificant.”

James is rich and privileged, from a set and rank that take fashion very seriously. But whereas an aristocrat might be socially prominent enough to flout the rules, James, as a mere gentleman, must make sure he dresses the right way. We also see how puzzling and trivial all this seems to Francesca.

One of my favorite items that I found was this brooch:

Hummingbird

Isn’t it awful?

In my story, it belongs to James’s aunt, Mrs. Price.

““What an extraordinary brooch,” he said, after he’d taken a sip of tea. Actually brooch didn’t seem the right word for what was in fact the stuffed and severed head of a hummingbird, its beak dipped in gold, pinned to the breast of her lemon yellow gown. It must have been a beautiful creature once. Even now, its feathers shone red and gold in the light.

“You like Freddy, do you?” She stroked the bird under his chin, pursing her lips in thought.

Mrs. Price isn’t an out an out villain, but she’s extremely selfish. It doesn’t occur to her that there’s anything cruel or macabre about this bit of jewelry. She sees nothing inconsistent in her naming of the dead bird. Similarly, when she commits a cruelty, it never occurs to her that she might be in the wrong or that there’s any other point of view.

Poor Freddy. Since I can’t bring myself to end the post on that image, here’s a quick slideshow of dresses that I loved that didn’t make it into the story.

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(All images via Pinterest)

Recommended for Acquisition: A Lesson in how not to conduct yourself.

Mr.t

There’s so much great advice about how to write your query, but what happens when you actually get recommended for acquisition? How should you respond? What are the pitfalls? For it is a truth universally acknowledged that all new writers make mistakes but it isn’t necessarily true that we learn from them.

Learn from me. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Allow me to tell you a story.

The Literary Equivalent of the Charge of the Light Brigade

There’s a particular publisher I won’t name. They’re wonderful and have published some of my absolute favourite romances in recent years. I sent a query to an editor there. She requested the full, read it, and then loved it. She recommended it to the acquisitions board for publication, at which point they sent me an email asking me to send anything else I’d written with a synopsis.

This is where things start to go a bit wrong. Usually, when engaging with industry professionals, I research things. I make sure each communication is as well written and well thought out as possible. But I’d just been recommended for acquisition for the first time. I was excited.

How many mistakes did I then make? Let me count the ways.

Julia’s mistake 1: I immediately responded to the email. Let me repeat that: I immediately responded. I did not take a breath. I did not stop to consider. I just answered.

What Julia Learned: At the beginning of the post, I mentioned how much information there is online to help you craft a query. I spend ages reading this advice. I wrote countless drafts. I sent my first attempt to a critique partner and then I rewrote the whole thing again. Aspiring writers spend so much time on that initial contact. It doesn’t make sense to do any less when responding to the chief editor of a major publisher. Everything you write is a chance to show your ability.

I think I was worried that if I didn’t immediately respond, I might be perceived as rude or amateurish. The opposite is true. Editors are busy people. This one was probably relieved to have dealt with me for the day. I doubt she was hopping up and down with excitement to see my name pop up in her inbox ten seconds later.

Julia’s mistake 2: About ten minutes later, I remembered something I’d forgotten to include. So, I sent a second email.

What Julia Learned: If you rush to respond, you will forget something. Make yourself wait. Even if you write your response immediately, read it over, and decide that it’s perfect, make yourself wait at least 24 hours. There were now two emails from me waiting in that editor’s inbox neither of which I’d spent enough time crafting.

Julia’s mistake 3: I then read the publishing company’s requirements for a synopsis. Turned out they like a long synopsis. I’d sent one that was two pages. So, I wrote a new synopsis which I thought was rather good, and send it to them in yet another email.

What Julia Learned: Oh my god, read the publisher’s guidelines for things like your synopsis and manuscript formatting before you send your first response. Before. I hadn’t and there were now three rushed, overly-excited emails waiting in the editor’s inbox.

Then Comes Rejection

The editor got back to me after she’d met with the acquisitions board and delivered a kind, very encouraging rejection. She said they’d all loved the manuscript and that I was a wonderful writer. She then cited market forces as the reason they were passing. I was devastated. I’m good with constructive criticism. Tell me you think chapter six needs to be rewritten from a different point of view or you think my characters aren’t behaving consistently and I’m good to go. Tell me that you love my novel but that you don’t want to publish it and I’m not sure what to do with myself. There was nothing for me to fix. Or so I thought. I trunked the manuscript while I tried to figure out what went wrong. I was uneasily aware that the barrage of emails probably hadn’t helped but I told myself they couldn’t be a major factor.

What Julia Learned: Of course it’s a major factor. If you’re writing in a genre that isn’t currently flying off the shelves (and I’m told historicals are tricky these days), everything else matters much more than it ordinarily would. That editor is trying to find well-written books that her company can make money from. An author who’s ill-prepared and unprofessional (even in my rather cutesy, enthusiastic way) is a liability. Was I going to be like that all the time? Would I always fill her inbox with a gazillion responses, obliging her to sift through them for the one that I actually wanted her to take as my final answer? Would I always be disorganised? Did that mean I’d be unreliable?

So don’t be like old Julia. Be like new Julia. Consider long and hard before you click send. Also, be like Mr. T and follow your dreams, fool.