My Big Reveal: The Next Bayou Sabine Book is Here!

I’m super excited today because the fifth book in the Bayou Sabine series is almost officially out in the world. It took a long, twisting road to get to this point, but it has been an amazing experience. I never expected my first novel to grow into a series, but here we are, five books later.

I was in graduate school when I wrote the earliest draft of my first novel Trouble in Bayou Sabine. My master’s thesis was a “literary” novel (I say that because, was it? Really? It was supposed to be, but you know how these things go), and I started writing another book on the side—one just for fun that felt an awful lot like a romance novel. In fact, I really thought it was a romance novel. I thought this for a lot of reasons, but mainly because the love story was the central part of the book. (I’d later learn that the romance genre has certain expectations that I didn’t always meet in that book—but that’s a different conversation.) This was about 2005.

Anyway, I graduated with two finished manuscripts—one of them I shopped around, and it was named a finalist for a contest, and the other sat collecting dust. For about eight years.

During those years, I sent out the “literary” novel, and then I started teaching, and then I went back to school for an art degree, and then I moved to the Midwest, and every now and then, I’d think about that couple in the “romance” that was stored somewhere on my old Mac. (Remember the Macs that looked like some helmeted alien head with see-through neon backs? And the clamshell laptops they made to match? That’s how far back in time we’re going here.)

One day, I opened that old file, and I read that manuscript. And sweet baby Jesus, it was terrible. But there was a spark in there. As I read, I thought: This is salvageable. There is something here.

I rewrote it. And then I set it aside.

I did some other things. I read a pile of other books. I took another job. I wrote some short stories. And I kept thinking about that couple, Enza and Jack, and this funny romantic story that wasn’t quite a romance, and wasn’t quite literary, but kept creeping back into my mind. I didn’t know what to do with it, but I couldn’t forget it.

I got serious about rewriting it. I added threads to make it more complex. I created a love triangle, some misunderstandings (because who doesn’t have those in spades?). I deepened the plot, and gave the characters some real-life problems. I added some mystery, some heartache, some comedy, some redemption. And pretty soon, it felt like a real book with a beating heart, and not something I should shove aside anymore.

I got my good friend and writing partner Katie to help me edit and tell me it wasn’t stupid. We found a press that was actively looking for new writers, and that spurred me on to finish. I revised until I felt like I was on my hundredth draft. I knew Enza and Jack like they were my own family. And then I had this book, and I didn’t know if it was romance, or women’s fiction, or something in between, and I wrote a query and crossed my fingers.

That was 2015.

It was published under a different title, and then I wrote a novella to go alongside it and share more of Enza’s history. And then Katie said, “When’s the next Bayou book coming? What happens now?”

And I thought OMIGOD WHAT HAPPENS NOW.

So I wrote the second novel, Bayou Whispers, and kept the threads going. Relationships can always get more complicated, right? We can never know EVERYTHING about a person—our parents, our lovers, our friends—those stories can go on forever. I wrote a second novella to be included in an anthology, and then I suddenly had a spin-off—the two secondary characters from Bayou Whispers had a good love story unfold between Kate and Andre in the novella (Just the Trouble I Needed), and I felt an urge to keep writing about them. I wondered what happened to them, and how their story would continue.

And that what if? led me to Trouble Will Follow. Kate’s story got even more complex, and no matter how hard I tried to keep the tone light (I wanted Hallmark and rom-com, dammit!), that book took a hard right turn and went to the dark place. I’d been going through some difficult things myself, and those feelings kept creeping into this book. It’s the hardest book I’ve ever written because, in a lot of ways, it was the most true. Certainly the book is not autobiographical in the strictest sense, but a lot of my own turmoil found its way into the story. My heroine was dealing with some the hardships I was facing, but dialed up to 11. (I wrote more about that in a previous post, back when I was dialed up to 11, too.)

I fought that for a long time, through a couple of drafts—I tried to tamp down the hard, bitter parts of that story and play up the lighthearted love story. But after a while, it felt like a facade that kept crumbling. The book needed to go to the dark place, and I had to let it take me there, and then write myself out of it. And in the end, writing my heroine into a moment of grace helped me to find a little, too.

Certain parts of our lives are really hard to write about. I mean REALLY hard, like “would anyone ever believe this happened?” hard, or “will my family disown me when they read it” hard. I didn’t start writing that book to work through a trying part of my own life, but by the time I got to the final draft, I realized that it had actually helped me solve some problems of my own and make peace with a few demons that weren’t as fictional as I’d presumed. In other words, I didn’t realize that I needed quite so much healing until I got to the end. I had to take that hard right turn to get there.

When I finished this book, I thought it was the end of the series. I’d written my characters into the dark places and then into redemption, and they’d made their peace and it felt like the end. Not every loose end gets tied up with a bow (because really, when does that happen?), but there’s a “happy for now” finish, and I’d already started thinking about new characters and a new book. And then Katie said, “What happens in the next Bayou book?” And I thought: Well, hell. What, indeed?

***

Trouble Will Follow releases in ebook and paperback on October 1, 2019. You can pre-order it for Kindle today. If you’d like to get the first four books in the Bayou Sabine series, you can get the box set for Kindle.

Suggested reading order:
Trouble in Bayou Sabine (read it for free!)
Back to Bayou Sabine
Bayou Whispers
Just the Trouble I Needed
Trouble Will Follow

Writing Tip #17: Sometimes You Have to Walk Away

A plate from Audubon’s Birds of America. Not my mystery bird, but he’s awfully cute.

Last week I had the good fortune to have a week alone in cabin at a writers’ retreat. Every year I try to carve out a week to spend at a place like this that cuts me out of my day-to-day life and forces me to focus on a creative projects. It’s great because the workaholic in me goes into hyper-creative mode, thinking “Hey, I took this week off of work, which means it’s costing me (hours x hourly wage) to BE HERE. So I’d damn well better BE HERE NOW and do what I came to do” (e.g. the thing I can’t do in the evenings at home).

A caveat: yes, I am a writer. Yes, I can write at home on my laptop. IF I stop doing all of the other daily tasks like doing laundry, cooking dinner, answering emails, taking a shower. Most days, that’s a big IF. I find it extremely difficult to tune out all of the mundane tasks that are competing for my attention and devote time just for myself, to focus on creative work.

So last week, I spent 6 days in a cabin with no internet, no cell service, and no other people.

It was glorious.

A book I’d been thinking about for a long time came pouring out, and I wrote over 25,000 words. And the best part? It was FUN. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like what I was supposed to be doing with my day. But that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t stumbled onto an old book and walked away from my project one day.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the most of my time in a place like this: once I settle in and start working, I don’t want to stop for acts like eating and socializing. I had to make myself stop sometimes, and go do something else just so my fingers wouldn’t fall off from all the typing. I went to dinner in the lodge and met some other artists. I took walks in the woods. I went to the old library on site and happened upon a 1942 volume of Audubon’s Birds of America.

This was exciting for two reasons: (1) I love Audubon’s paintings and I geek out over birds like you wouldn’t believe. So this book is basically catnip. (2) My new book in part centers on an unusual bird that’s been sighted—one that was believed to have been extinct. When I went to the library that day, I needed to know what this bird was. I was starting this book, but I had no idea what the bird was, and it was a central character in itself. All along, I’d been thinking it would be something like the ivory-billed woodpecker. Maybe a Carolina parakeet. It needed to be a bird that had a unique call, and one that had been seen in South Carolina.

A quick internet search gave me my answer: a warbler. Just for fun, I flipped through the Audubon book, and there was my mystery bird. A warbler named for Audubon’s best friend, and one that had nested in the southeastern US. It was easily confused with hooded warblers and magnolia warblers, and there were unconfirmed sightings in the 1980s, but it’s thought to be extinct. It was perfect.

That discovery energized me. I went back to my outline, and filled in the gaps. Suddenly the story took more shape, and I felt less worried about how it just felt like a hot mess. The important pieces fell into place—enough to get started on that zero draft—and that’s when the book started pouring out. This bird was a touchstone, much like it is for the heroine in my book, and all I could think was, “Hey, it’s a good thing I wandered into the library today.” It’s a good thing I walked away and took a breath.

The point of all this is that I needed a reminder. I needed to remember that even when we’ve carved out time for ourselves, and we’ve sat down to make this next creative thing, we still have to give ourselves a time-out. We still have to take time to relax, to explore, and to discover. Those moments outside of work time, when we let ourselves daydream, and let our minds wander—those are the moments that let the magic seep in. Those are the moments that happen when we walk away.

Slowing Down Means Time to Grow

Sometimes the hardest thing about writing is just finishing the dang book.

I recently read an article where the author argued “If it takes you more than a year to write a book, then you’re doing it wrong.”  

My boyfriend said, “You should be wary of any article that tells you if you’re not doing things a certain way, then you’re doing them wrong.” He has a solid point. We have to find the way that works for us. And slow isn’t always a bad thing. 

I envy authors who can sit down and bang out a book in a month or two—or even six. But there are plenty of us who struggle with finding the right words, crafting the story the way we envision it will be best, and making sure every piece of it fits together snugly. I’m a perfectionist with certain things, and books are one of them. I want my books to be as close to their perfect as I can get them before I unleash them into the world.  

Before I wrote novels, I made artist books. I’m a letterpress printer, and a printmaker. I carve wood blocks to print, and I make books by hand when I’m not writing novels. (You remember Audrey Niffeneger and The Time Traveler’s Wife? She made some killer artist books before she wrote novels, and she completely inspired me to keep doing both, because in my world, you can never have enough creative projects happening. Fun fact: Audrey made handmade paper, too, just like the main character in her novel. I met her at an artist’s retreat once, and she is an amazing lady.) 

When I first started making books, I hand-set metal type, one little upside down letter at a time. The process is anything but fast. I printed broadsides for poems (and looked for short ones from visiting poets because DANG hand-setting metal type takes a long time). But as I wrote my own texts to print, setting that type by hand forced me to think hard about my word choice, and say things with precision. (I’m not saying that everything I wrote was elegant, because I was in grad school, for heaven’s sake. But it made me think hard about my word choice, and that made me get serious about killing the darlings as I revised every book after that.) 

Fast-forward to now, when I’m trying desperately to finish the next book in the Bayou Sabine series, Trouble Will Follow. I wanted this series of books to all be standalones–you get a fuller picture of these people I write about if you read the series in order, but you don’t have to. Each book stands on its own, too. It was important for me to write them that way. My new book, Trouble Will Follow, has taken me over a year to write. There’s a lot of my own life tangled up in this book, and it was hard to write about some of those pieces—but I felt like I had to. And I had to get it just right.

I had to just slow down, and be patient, and cut myself some slack. And give myself some time.

Life feels like it moves super fast most days, and I feel like I have a ticking clock on every project. But sometimes we need to relax, and let our minds wander a little, and give the creativity a moment to take root and grow. For me, rushing through a project defeats the whole purpose of doing something creative: it strips away that time where we meander, and wander, and discover. It’s just like this time when I went hiking with an acquaintance—we were both at a retreat, and wanted to hike a nearby trail. To my horror, this woman took off like a rocket, speed-walking along this rocky uphill trail in the Appalachians. It was my first time at that retreat, and I was looking to take a leisurely stroll and soak up the wildlife. Instead, I spent the whole hour keeping up with this woman and trying not to break my ankle or be left behind. When we were finished, I couldn’t remember a single detail about that trail—the kinds of trees or flowers we’d seen, the kinds of birds we’d heard. All I remembered was watching the ground so I didn’t trip and fall. (I should have just let her go ahead and taken my time—never again did I go on a hike where I didn’t take the time to enjoy it.)

For me, writing is just like that hike. Speeding through it strips all the joy away. Giving myself permission to slow down gives me space to seek out the wonder.

Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

Writers, Find Your Superpower

This post originally appeared over at bluecrowpublishing.com, in a slightly different version.

Caution: Excellent publishing advice ahead.

A couple of weekends ago, I was pleased to be a part of the NC Writers’ Network Spring Conference in Greensboro, NC. This annual conference brings together writers, publishers, and bibliophiles from all genres—for just one day. This year, I went with Katie P., the other (usually more energetic) half of Blue Crow Publishing. (For those of you who don’t know, Katie and I formed BCP a few years ago as a small, traditional press.) We always enjoying meeting new people at NCWN events and talking books, and last Saturday we saw old friends and met some fabulous emerging writers that bowled us over with their stories. If you’re a writer, NCWN events are a great place to meet fellow writers, take workshops to hone your craft, and network with folks in the publishing industry. And it’s really one of the most welcoming, friendly groups of people you’ll meet.

One of the highlights of the day for me was taking part as a guest editor in “Slush Pile Live”—it’s like speed dating for manuscript review. In these sessions, writers leave a 1-page submission in a box, and the panel moderator reads each submission (names withheld) to the group. Three guest editors listen as the piece is read and then provide feedback, as if the piece were a query that came across their desks.

As a guest editor, I had an inkling of what to expect (thanks to a recording of a 2016 Slush Pile Live, which then of course induced a moment of panic with the realization that I might end up on YouTube when this was all over), but of course you never know what the submissions will hold. I watched the faces of the authors in the crowd as the first piece was read, and thought, “How can I be of help to these folks? What can I offer about these short, 300-word samples that might help them with their submissions to presses like mine?”

We heard poems, young adult fiction, sci-fi, historical fiction, romance, mystery—some samples were ready to submit for real, and some needed editing. But here’s what I thought as I heard the moderator read, and heard the critique from the panel, and watched those hopeful faces in the crowd:

Every writer has a superpower.

Every writer has that thing she’s really great at. Sometimes it’s dialogue. Sometimes it’s a way of seeing connections between unlikely pairings of objects (like that wonderful haiku that compared a mockingbird’s song to a crazy quilt). Sometimes it’s a way of nailing a character in just a few sharp turns of phrase. Sometimes it’s an image that sticks with you like a dream.

It’s easy to let yourself get jaded as an editor, to get annoyed by typos and adverbs and cliches. But it’s also important to remember that old adage about a diamond in the rough. Sometimes a writer has an amazing story to tell, and instead of being told “thanks, but no thanks,” they need a nudge to help point them in the right direction.

So if you’re struggling with a submission, or an edit, here’s my nudge for you:

Find your superpower. You have one.

Find that thing about your writing style that is attention-grabbing, unique. Ask a friend or writing partner to help you identify this strength—they might see something you don’t (writing can’t be a solo activity, sorry—no writer is an island). Ask your partner to read a page or two, and underline the most powerful sentence (got more than one? Great.).

Now think on that sentence—what makes it so compelling? Keep doing that. Identify the strongest lines that you’ve written, think about what makes them so fabulous, and bring the rest of your writing to that level. Use your insight. Consider that thing you did a tool, and apply that tool to the rest of your writing. Is it a unique description? An awesome metaphor? A detail about a character? If you’re superb at writing sharp dialogue (are you the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey?), then apply that sharpness to the overall narrative voice. Apply it to descriptions of objects, places, other characters. Use that tool to shape the whole story.

Then, trim out all the unnecessary words so that those really amazing ones shine. Consider this your de-cluttering. (You’ve watched Marie Kondo? Cut out all those words that don’t have meaning, all the filler that’s just there taking up space.) Your book needs to be lean and mean.

When you’re ready to submit, make sure that superpower shows up on the first page. Showcase that eye for detail, that witty dialogue, that arresting voice. Show the editor that thing you’re so good at on page one, and keep it steady through your whole MS, like a heartbeat.

And remember: every editor has different tastes, different loves, different turn-offs. Submitting a manuscript really is like speed-dating. Editors are inundated. Their eyes have glazed over from mundane manuscripts. You have 1-2 pages to make a bold impression, to hook that editor and make her want to know more about this story you have to tell. If you don’t fit with one editor (or a dozen, or fifty), keep going. Move on to the next one. Everybody has bad dates. Not every pairing is the right one. But we hit the lottery when we do find the right match—the one that sees our strengths and wants to make them shine.

 

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