Saturday, February 28, 2009

You Know You're Done Writing for the Night When...

You keep misspelling a character's name, and that character's name is only four letters long.

G'night all!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Apparently I Need to Eat

I know! Who knew? So I'm working on my new manuscript, Knights of Avalon, and I'm really getting into the story and then as the day goes by, I start feeling bad, like really bad, like lay down in bed under the covers bad. But I'm not sick, so I'm sitting there, trying to figure out why I feel so weak and dizzy when I suddenly realize I haven't had anything to eat or drink, except for a few Milano cookies (half off! Nom nom nom), for the last 18 hours or so.

Now, I like to eat. I'm extremely fond of eating and drinking. I do it on a regular basis and Bear Grylls tells me it's extremely important to do, especially when wandering in the Patagonia or the wilds of Alaska. But on rare occasion, I get so wrapped up in what I'm doing that I kinda forget, until the room gets all spinny on me and I'm like, "Oh yeah, body needs sustenance." So I drank some water, ate some food, got myself a Coke Slurpee and much better! Yay for food and water!

Here's a status report on where I am with my writing:

Surviving Matewan: Am holding off on further queries at this time. Various people are reading the revised manuscript, I'm gathering up feedback and will make further revisions based on their recommendations. Goals so far include: Getting the word count down, coming up with a stronger opening line, and more showy and less telly.

Knights of Avalon: I am having way too much fun with this book for this to be healthy (see above). We'll see if it's any good, but the writing process is going a lot faster this time around, and I have to think all the experience I gained from the first book has something to do with it. Hopefully an increase in speed does not equal a decrease in quality, but I'm not forcing it, and I think that's what's important.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Haiku Brings All the Readers to the Blog

I don't know why, but for some reason, I've had the following lyrics running through my head all day long:

(sung to "Milkshake")

My haiku brings all the readers to the blog
And they're like
It's better than yours
Damn right it's better than yours,
I can write you another one
But I'd have to charge

All. Day. Long.

It probably has something to do with the fact that I finally finished my haiku for the Query Haiku contest. Now, I will warn you up front, I have written haikus before and almost always mangle the syllable count. I can check and re-check and still get it wrong, so hopefully this one's all right.

Oh, and I did it for my YA Urban Fantasy, tentatively titled Knights of Avalon, because I kinda think it's really cool. Here it is:

Knights of Roundtable
Reborn as New Jersey teens
Learn past, save future


Special Friday Bonus Haiku!

Milano Cookies
Half-off at supermarket
Nom nom nom nom nom

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Damn Turkey

Apologies for being so absent from the blog...had a very long week which in all honesty kind of sucked, which says a lot when I look back and consider all the good stuff that's happened in the last seven days.

The least suckful (bear with me, I'm making up new words as I go along) news is that my partial got rejected by a wonderful literary agent who I really wanted to work with. I am sad. Once again. But wait, perhaps it will work out for the best!

While I try to work out the kinks in Surviving Matewan, I'm going to focus more attention on my YA Urban Fantasy. It's still going to take me a while to complete, but I can already see that while I love to write both fantasy and historical fiction, I'm trending more towards the fantasy side of things. So if I'm lucky enough and skilled enough to eventually get an agent, it probably makes more sense for the first work an agent sees to be in the fantasy genre. Plus, I honestly think my YA Urban Fantasy is better written than Surviving Matewan, or at the least, has better pacing and plotting. We shall see though, first I've got to finish writing the darn thing.

In other contests are still my crack and lo! and behold!, Colleen Lindsay over at The Swivet is having a Query Haiku contest. You may recall the last time she held a contest, it was to write a query in 140 characters or less and I likened it to writing... a query haiku! This clearly means that I am psychic! I shall now go play the lottery and when I get back, start work post haste on my contest entry.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Happiness Is...

An evening of writing and chocolate. Mmmmm, chocolate.

Having sent the partial off to the agent, I've been keeping myself busy by working on my next story, a YA Urban Fantasy. It's in the very early stages, only a few pages written, so I'll discuss the plot at greater length when I'm a little further along in the story.

But just as I did with Surviving Matewan, my writing process is going something like this:

[Type type type] This is so much fun! This is great, I love this! [type type type]

Five minutes later

[Type type type] This is terrible! It's not coming together! What was I thinking, trying to write a story like this! This story sucks! I suck! [type type type]

Five minutes later

[Type type type] This is so much fun! This is great, I love this! [type type type]

Rinse, repeat.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Chapters Are Up!

The first three chapters are now up on the blog. Please feel free to post your comments below.

I could be wrong, but I think the manuscript has three problems:

  1. Too high word count. It's a YA/Middle Grade/Somewhere in the middle and it's 89,000 words. That's just too high for the genre, I need to get the word count down. Of course, when the manuscript was at 81,000 words and I did a lot of editing, while working on developing the characters more, I somehow ended up at 89,000 words. Behold my mad editing skillz. This time, I really will try to get the count down.
  2. The fact that it isn't squarely YA or MG is a bit of a problem, it's in some juvenile fiction no man's land. But for now, I'm not going to worry so much about this. I'll work on telling the story, that's the most important.
  3. Finally, I think there's just too much exposition, especially in those first few chapters. Right now, I'm considering taking out the first chapter entirely, starting with the second and making major edits to the next few chapters.

But it's very difficult to know what to cut and what not to cut, so please give me your feedback, thanks!

Update: OK, I made some edits and sent the partial off to the agent.

The major change I made was that Chapter 7, which I hadn't posted up on the blog, was taken out entirely.

The chapter was straight exposition on the pros and cons of being a miner (The Good: Miners back then set their own hours and were basically their own bosses. The Bad: The 100+ horrible ways a miner could die underground..and look Ma, no safety regulations!) and while fascinating, it slowed the story down and impeded the flow of the narrative. Instead, I'll take the information contained in that chapter and spread it out throughout the story.

I also cut a few paragraphs of exposition from Chapter 6, such as the discussion of how the coal camp women helped one another, that's made abundantly clear throughout the book, the reader doesn't need to be hit over the head with that information.

My word count? It's now around 87,500. Progress!

Chapter One - One Fine Morning

“Molly Anne McCoy!”

That was my name. It had a nice ring to it, I thought, as I rolled over on my side and wriggled under the covers. I inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of soot and coal that was ingrained into my blanket.

My two-year-old sister, sleeping next to me in the narrow bed, kneed me in the back. I inched a little to the right to give her some room, coming dangerously close to falling out onto the floor.

As I balanced on the edge of the bed, the entire house rattled and shook. Being no more than thirty feet away from the railroad tracks, our house did that a lot. I drifted easily back to sleep, the comforting rumble of the locomotive like a lullaby to my ears.

I smiled to myself. In my dreams, I hopped on board and rode the train down the Tug Valley. A cartoon sun, smiling above, cast its gentle rays down on me as trees and flowers happily swayed to and fro, singing my name.

“Molly Anne McCoy!”

Yeah, like that. Except not as angry.

I don’t know what we’d do without the trains. We ordered our lives around them. They’d rumble by, one after the other, loaded with coal from the mine. I liked to watch them go by as I made breakfast in the morning…


“Molly Anne!”

Morning. It was morning. I jerked wide awake. “I’m comin’!” I hollered to my Dad.

My brothers, snug and comfy in their bed, started to stir, “Did Molly fall out of bed again?” my little brother Bobby murmured, cracking open one bleary eye. Frankie groaned, “Molly’s late. The usual.”

Ignoring the March chill, I tossed on some clothes and ran out into the kitchen. My father was sitting at the table, reading his copy of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the way he did every morning without fail. He was dressed in a freshly cleaned shirt and overalls, his face pale with a bushy brown mustache. By the time he returned from work, he’d be totally transformed, grimy and black from head to toe.

“’Bout time,” he muttered, never looking up from his paper, “Said to give you five minutes. That was fifteen minutes ago.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, lighting the stove. My father couldn’t make breakfast anymore than I could mine a seam of coal. It was up to me to fix the meal, put together my father’s lunch, get my siblings out of bed and my brothers ready for school, all as the first light of dawn was brightening the sky. Then there’d be the rest of my chores to get to.

My father grumbled unintelligibly as he read, only pausing long enough to thrust out his empty cup so I could pour him some coffee. I didn’t dare say a word. It wasn’t worth the risk to talk to him before he had had his mandatory dose of caffeine.

For an entire two months now his mood had been foul, with only a few breaks of good cheer appearing, and disappearing, as quickly as a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.

“Coal’s not going to mine itself,” my father noted as he waited impatiently for breakfast. I swore there was a direct relationship between how hungry my father was and how slowly the food cooked, it’s almost as if my stove was conspiring against me.

There were a whole host of reasons for my father’s perpetual bad mood. There was the downturn in work over the winter. Ever since the Great War had ended and peace had broken out, coal just wasn’t in demand like it used to be.

The Stone Mountain Coal Co., where my father worked, had no choice but to cut the miners’ hours. If my father wasn’t working, he wasn’t making money. To make it worse, and there was always something to make it worse, things like beans and flour, the basics we relied on for our meals, cost more than ever before.

Then there was the reappearance that winter of the dreaded influenza, a disease our family had particular reason to fear. Several local coal companies responded by raising the price of a visit from the company doctor. It was a slap in the face to the miners. An act of bad faith they vowed not to forget.

Prices were going up, wages were going down, and my father couldn’t even drown his sorrows in a pint of beer. Prohibition had officially gone into effect on January 29, 1920, outlawing the sale of alcohol, much to my father’s dismay. He blamed the little old ladies and their temperance leagues. This was their doing, he said, conveniently ignoring the fact that my mother had quietly championed the cause as well.

Though Prohibition had come early to West Virginia, starting in 1914, that had never stopped my father from getting a drink before, national Prohibition certainly wasn’t going to stop him now. It just made it harder, and things were hard enough already.

I was putting some eggs on my father’s plate when he broke the silence with a string of curses, enough to make me cringe, and it took a lot of cursing to make me cringe.

Looks like he had found something else to add to his list of problems.

“Twenty-seven percent!” he exclaimed.

Did I even want to know?

Chapter Two - Me, Myself, and I

Let me take a step back and explain how I got to that chilly morning in March.

My life is divided into two parts: Before my mother died and after. It’s like a wall, thick and impenetrable, dissecting the two halves of my life. On one side is my childhood, fast a fading memory. On the other side, all the responsibilities of adulthood. Those responsibilities came a little too soon, but I wasn’t given a choice.

I was born on December 6, 1907, early on a cold, snow-filled morning in a coal mining camp just south of Fairmont, West Virginia. Born in a company camp, delivered by a coal company doctor, in a company home that looked just like every other miner’s home in town.

I was my parent’s first child, my birth barely noted by the outside world, no grand announcements, just a pair of happy and relieved parents. They didn’t have long to enjoy my arrival, for December 6, 1907, has not gone down in history as the day Molly Anne McCoy was born. Rather, it is the date of the worst mining disaster in American history.

Around 10am, in the town of Monongah, several miles away from where my family lived, an explosion ripped through two of the Fairmont Coal Company’s connected mines, burning alive or suffocating some 500 men and boys hundreds of feet beneath the ground. The explosion was felt for miles: People were thrown to the ground, pavement cracked, streetcars were knocked off their rails.

Monongah was a model mining town. It was a place where you wanted to work, where my father had wanted to work. A friend convinced my father to join him instead. Otherwise, hours after I was born, I might’ve lost a parent.

My father was among the volunteers who rushed to the scene to help with the rescue, full and willing to risk his own life for the chance to save another’s. Miners looked out for one another. That’s just what they did.

But there wasn’t anything for him to do. Not anything for anybody to do. Those boys and men down in those mines were all cinder and ash. Some died mercifully quick, right where they stood. One man died as he ate an early lunch, what once must have been a sandwich raised to his lips. Others were found in ugly, contorted positions, fighting for a breath of precious air that never came. With no one to save, my father helped dig out the bodies.

My mother told me it was the only time he ever thought about finding a new line of work. My father was good at what he did though, and for someone without a lot of schooling, the pay was good too. Mostly though, it was force of habit. He had been mining for years now, change was hard.

This was the life I was born into. Danger and death. Brotherhood and courage.

As the years passed, and my father took us from town to town in search of better wages, I was joined by two brothers and a sister, Frankie, the Bane of My Existence, Bobby, the Boy Wonder, and the youngest, little Gracie Ellen, thumb sucker extraordinaire.

Being the oldest came with its own set of privileges and responsibilities. The good: I got to boss my younger siblings around, and the bad: I had to keep them out of trouble, about as easy a task as herding extremely clever, accident-prone cats. Of all the responsibilities I had though, my most important one was going to school.

My mother was a single-minded lady. She had a plan for each and every one of us, and that plan included going to school and having a better life than what she and my father had. When she was laid up by frequent bouts of illness, the coal dust hanging heavy in the air seeming to do her no favors, she refused to let me quit school to help out more around the house. It wasn’t part of her plan.

She’d watch us while we played and while we did our homework, her lips pursed, observing us, seeing where our talents lied. She had the highest hopes for Bobby, I think. Maybe even college, if by some miracle we could get the money for it. The boy was smart, the smartest kid I had ever met. A walking dictionary, he knew the meaning of words I had never heard of, and he actually liked school, though I had no idea why. He had already skipped one grade. He probably would’ve skipped more, if we hadn’t moved around so much.

I think my mother’s plan for Frankie was for him to live to see his eighteenth birthday. If Frankie succeeded in that, he’d end up being an Arctic explorer or a professional alligator wrestler, although my mother probably preferred him to take up a more respectable trade.

She didn’t quite know what to do with me. Cook, seamstress and gardener were all out. I strongly suspected she kept me in school in the hope I’d discover some hidden talent. Maybe juggling.

I think my mother even had a plan for her and Dad. He certainly wasn’t going to come up with one himself. He focused on what was in front of him, not on what would or could be.

There were two things my mother was religious about: Religion and money. She scrimped and saved, taking on all sorts of side jobs to make a few extra pennies. Sometimes, out on the porch in the evening, I’d overhear my mother talking to my father about opening up a store one day. That was her dream.

My mother didn’t have a plan for Gracie. Gracie had been too young when my mother died for her to decide on anything.

October 22, 1918. That’s the day everything changed. That fall, just as the Germans were close to defeat and the Great War was nearing an end, just as we thought the deaths would stop, our people started dying at home.

They called it the Spanish Flu. I called it my greatest fear, for it took my mother from me forever. Forty million people around the world shared her fate. The flu claimed its victims quickly. People often died in less than a day, coughing up blood, turning blue.

In the coal camps of West Virginia, schools and churches closed. People became prisoners in their own homes, afraid to step outside. A horse-drawn hearse passed by our house every night, traveling in the dark so the living wouldn’t see how many had died that day. While the rich ordered expensive tonics we made due with prayers and old folk remedies. When the doctors were afraid to visit the sick, a few brave miners’ wives took up the burden.

October 22, as golden leaves covered the ground, the hearse stopped at our door. A few days before, my mother had complained of a headache. She said she was tired. Looking back, it must have been bad, she never complained.

My father knew what it was. He sent us to a neighbor’s house and refused to leave my mother’s side. Did everything in his power to save her. But almost every family in the coal camp had lost a loved one, we couldn’t escape. The hearse came.

Then my father, one of those people who you wondered if they ever got sick at all, fell ill. I had never been so afraid. I couldn’t console my brothers. I didn’t know what to do with Gracie. Without our father, we’d be split apart and sent to a children’s home. He was all we had left.

Somehow my father survived, through sheer stubbornness I suspect. He wasn’t going to have his children be orphans in less than a week.

When it was certain my father would live, the questions started. With our mother gone, what would become of us children? A man couldn’t raise them alone. Couldn’t keep house. That was woman’s work.

I remember lingering in the hallway, listening in while the miners’ wives gently tried to coax an answer out of my shell shocked father. What would he do?

“We’ll find a way,” my father muttered tersely, but the women weren’t having it.

I think my father was afraid to ask, afraid I’d say ‘no,’ afraid to ask me to end my childhood. Maybe afraid I wasn’t up to the job. So I volunteered.

It wasn’t as preposterous as it first appeared. Happened all the time. Almost eleven years old, the eldest daughter, my mother had taught me almost everything I needed to know to run a household. I could work a stove, knew how not to burn myself on the iron. I already cared for my brothers and sister. What I couldn’t do was be their mother. But I could keep them safe, keep them fed. I could make sure they weren’t sent away from my father and in doing so, help them keep the one parent they still had. They’d just have to make do with me, the sorriest of imitations.

I dropped out of school. I never liked it anyway. My mother wouldn’t have approved, but more than anything, she would’ve wanted the family to stay together. I know that.

There was an unspoken understanding between my father and me: I might have had to drop out, but we were both determined to see to it that my brothers and sister made it through.

After an unhappy Christmas, we were on the move again. There were too many memories in that old company house we called a home, we had to keep going. We headed south. Word was there were good jobs to be had, in a town called Matewan.

Chapter Three - Welcome to Matewan

January of 1919 was a time of new beginnings. We moved to Matewan (you pronounced it Mate-wahn), a firecracker of a small town that hugged the southern border of West Virginia.

I fretted the whole trip down, wondering what I’d find when I got there. Would I really be able to run a household by myself? Back at the old camp, the women had all pitched in. This would be the first time I’d truly be on my own.

We moved in under a cheerless gray sky, buffeted by a cold wind. As I struggled with a box, my new next door neighbor, Mrs. Whitt, came over, wrapped me in a hug and offered to watch Gracie while I unpacked.

I think I was going to be all right.

Our new home town was fueled by trains and coal, with most of Matewan proper wedged between the railroad tracks and the Tug Fork River. Red brick and wooden buildings, arranged in neat rows, ran parallel to the tracks. Matewan had everything it needed for a respectable downtown: Several restaurants, a hotel, a hardware store, a grocery, and a bank. We even had a jewelry store, run by the mayor of the town, Cabell Testerman.

Surrounding downtown were clumps of private homes, shops and the Stone Mountain Mining Camp, where we now lived. When it came to Stone Mountain, the whole concept of ‘mining camp’ was a bit misleading. It was more like mining camps. Stone Mountain might have been a small operation, but it was spread out across the entire area. There was a cluster of homes just steps from downtown, as well as to the north and ones to the west that clung stubbornly to the mountain side.

On the other side of the river lay the vast wilderness known as Kentucky, exactly the same as West Virginia, just as hilly and rugged, except in Kentucky I swear they talked a little funnier than we did. Many folks traveled across state lines at least once a day, making the arduous trip of about thirty yards over a rope bridge. Some went all the way to Kentucky to get their drinking water, others went just for a drink, while some folk went there for more virtuous reasons, to attend the Baptist tent revivals that sprung up like mushrooms wherever there was a spot of flat earth, a rare commodity in these parts.

Getting to Matewan by automobile was like eating spaghetti with a spoon: Difficult at best and not really worth the effort. You had to crisscross up and down over mountain ridges, one after the other, along dirt roads that carried wagons as well as cars. Why bother when you had the railroad that could deliver you in comfort straight to downtown?

Like a force of nature, the railroad cut through mountains that separated towns, it pushed aside thick forests and chugged over swift-moving rivers.

Our whole lives revolved around it, the rumble of the train ever present. It was how we got most of our goods, how we traveled, how many children even went to school. Most importantly, it’s how the coal we dug got to the outside world. Without the railroads, there would be no coal mining in West Virginia. Matewan didn’t even exist until the train tracks were laid.

Given life by the railroad tracks and the coal in the surrounding mountains, Matewan thrived. Always a little special, a little star-crossed, the town already had a reputation long before we had ever set foot there, as the site of the now legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.
No, I wasn’t a McCoy. Not one of those famous McCoys, at least. I wasn’t going to lay claim to something I had no right to. The McCoys were living in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia long before my father had ever set foot in America.

My father was one of those Irish McCoys that populated the Emerald Isle. He might’ve looked exactly like any other resident of Matewan, but his accent and his religion always gave him away as an outsider.

He never talked about why he left. He hardly ever talked about his past at all. I knew that by the time he was sixteen, my father had found his way to America, to one of those port cities like Boston or Baltimore. I knew that he must’ve had a brother or two, because one time he mentioned how much Frankie reminded him of his brothers. If they were like Frankie, maybe that’s why he left. But how he ended up in West Virginia? That was a mystery. His life in Ireland? That was a mystery too.

Despite not being proper McCoys, that didn’t stop us from feeling a strange sense of family when we moved to Matewan, surrounded by people who by chance shared our last name. Nor did it stop people from assuming we were a part of that famous clan. I couldn’t exactly blame them for the misunderstanding.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bad News, Good News

Bad news first: I got a rejection from the very nice agent who was reading Surviving Matewan. I am sad. So sad. Worse yet, to cheer myself up, I bought myself a pack of my favorite chocolate chip cookies and my shifty little hound mix (not Lucille the beagle!) ate the entire thing. In like ten seconds when I was on the phone and had my back turned.

The universe. It still laughs at me. Because seriously, it's one thing to get a rejection. That sucks, but it's all a part of being a writer and I get that. But if I'm going to get rejected, at least let me have some chocolate. But no, apparently I can't even get that.

So the good news, I bought myself a new package of cookies and I now have a request for a partial from another agent. This time though, I didn't freak out and celebrate. No, I calmly closed the e-mail and took my dog (the little evil cookie stealer) for a walk and then half-way around the block, started freaking out in celebration. Delayed reactions are fun.

Before I send off the partial though, I thought I'd try to improve the manuscript as best I can, because I'm getting a sense from my readers and from the agents that something's not working (besides the fact that the agents keep saying 'no', that's obviously a dead giveaway). Unfortunately, the agent who rejected my work this time didn't give me any feedback (sad, so sad), so I'm left to guess as to what the problem is.

Which is where my readers come in. I know I don't have many, but like Jimmy Hoffa and bigfoot, I know you're out there. Tomorrow I'm going to post the first few chapters of my book (don't worry, my chapters are short). If you all could give me your honest feedback, it's be greatly, greatly appreciated. Let's see if I can whip this manuscript into shape.