Publication Journey: Query Letters

Since signing my contract with TouchPoint Press for publication of my novel (reminder: launches April 5th and is available for preorder on Barnes and Noble online and Amazon, haha), I’ve had a few people reach out and ask me about the process of getting published. I fear my response to them was a tad disappointing, as it boiled down to:

1) write, rewrite, finesse, and rewrite again your query letter (HARD!!!),

2) be willing to spend an inordinate amount of time researching possible agents or publishers who are looking for your genre, and

3) develop an elephant hide so that when rejections come (and for most of us, boy, they do come), they will bounce right off and you can keep going.

That’s the way I got my contract, and it seems to be the experience of most novice writers (novice in being published, not in writing); if there is an easier way, I’d love to know it. 😁

So for those who are interested in the long path, I’ll add more detail to the above topic in a series of posts. This time, we’ll start with the basic assumption that you’ve already written something and revised it many, many times, at least once with a long break between revisions. I finished my rough draft at the beginning of summer three years ago, revised it twice, then had a small group of beta readers review it. These were people who I knew would be honest about giving opinions, adept at grammar enough to point out obvious issues, and gentle enough to not crush my spirit, because I was under no illusions that this was “the draft.” I revised again, using their comments, and then put it away in a drawer for a month before looking at it again and revising again. It’s amazing what a little time away does for your perspective—suddenly things I’d never noticed before were hitting me as trite or clumsy or telling-not-showing.

So after writing and rewriting your story x 1000, it is time to write a great query letter. To query, according to the old Merriam-Webster, means to “question, especially addressed to an official or organization.” What a weird term; technically, I guess the question is, “Will you read my manuscript?” And since I’m being honest, I will tell you I probably sent several dozen letters out during this process, and most of the time the answer was, “no.”

Don’t let anyone tell you that doesn’t sting. It does. A lot. Especially since most of the “no” were some form of, well, form. “Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, your work does not seem to fit our needs at this time.” How do I know it was a form? Because I received almost the same thing from agents and publishers, with minor differences, many, many times. This brings me to the first point:

It may be you, but probably not. It’s probably them.

You know the old break-up standard, “It’s not you, it’s me,” a lie meant to soften the fact that it is 100% that person you’re dumping’s fault, but you’re just too nice to come out and say, a ’la Kathleen Turner in War of the Roses, “I want to smash your face in”?

Here’s something I was dimly aware of when I started submitting but never really processed until I read it in an article about dealing with literary rejection: Agents receive thousands of queries a year and sign three to five new books. Gulp! A THREE in a THOUSAND chance of getting signed! No wonder the form letter rejection exists—there are only so many ways to say nooooooooooo. Before you lose heart, though, here’s some tidbits to cheer you: J.K. Rowling was rejected twelve times for Harry Potter. Golding’s classic kids-are-freakin-terrifying novel, The Lord of the Flies, was rejected twenty times. Gone with the Wind was rejected thirty times (I maintain that the pain of that was one reason why Mitchell never tried to write another book.) Kathryn Stockett kept plugging her bestseller, The Help, despite its SIXTY rejections. Stephen King used to hang his rejection letters on a railroad spike driven in his wall. When one filled up, he started with another one. His first novel, Carrie, was rejected thirty times before publication. One rejection of his novel stated, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” King’s novels of “negative utopias” don’t sell? Riiiight. May I be that unlucky, pu, pu, pu.

The fact is, the market is glutted and subjective. It only takes one “yes,” but you may have to endure a lot of “nos” to get there, so buckle up, buttercup, and hang in there. Faint heart never did win fair contract.

Second point: Maybe it IS you.

Maybe you need to spend some time reading through the countless columns of advice from agents and writers on what makes a “good” query letter. The hardest part is that “hook”—the first line or two that reels the reader of your letter in. Spend a lot of time on that part—whittle, finesse, whittle some more.

You might even consider hiring a professional to give you his/her feedback on your query letter. After a couple dozen rejections and rewrites, I did this very thing. Many agents in publishing also have side-gigs as editors and may offer their services at reasonable prices. I’m a big believer in editors, especially ones who don’t know me and so aren’t as worried about my delicate feelings as helping  me make my writing sing. So I hired Kaitlyn Johnson from Belcastro Literary Agency ( She was great, told me my letter was polished and had all the necessary ingredients, then pushed me to consider aspects of my book I had held back. After taking her advice and rewriting my letter yet again, I began to see some actual requests for partials or fulls of my manuscript—a big milestone. I was still getting rejections, but I was also getting requests for manuscripts, which let me know for sure that changing my query letter did matter.

The next task, then, was to really focus on what I wanted for my book, and I changed course from looking for an agent to looking for a traditional publisher. And that, dear ones, is a subject for another post. So until then, keep bleeding on those typewriters (okay, laptops. Hemingway’s quote needs an update) and chase that dream.

Breaking the Chains I’ve Forged this Year

And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, and aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly process, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.

From “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

What can I say about this year that everyone else hasn’t already said? It sucked. COVID, mask mandates, and lockdowns. Financial losses. Loss of real celebrations of big events, the things that make us glad to be humans. Worst of all, loss of loved ones, not to COVID, because yes, people do die from other things. Heartbreaks. Election mayhem. Anger, confusion, worry. Raging for a return to common sense. (I am one of those people who does not like to feel out of control and who equally does not like being told what to do if it makes no logical sense. “Just do THIS because we said so” doesn’t cut it for me. I can see what is working and what is not, and I know what the definition of insanity is. In short, I know a hawk from a handsaw.) As I plodded along this year, my fists clenched, I tried to remember that in this world there would be trouble, that I am not a citizen of this world so I shouldn’t sweat the small stuff (and compared to eternity in heaven, everything here is the small stuff), but I confess, I failed and failed and failed in the hope department. I think that was the worst part of all. Sneering, ugly 2020 held a mirror to my face, and I found out how shallow my faith is and how easily I let the enemy steal my joy. I’m not afraid, but I’m not loving, either, and without love, I am a clanging cymbal.

My only resolution for 2021, my prayer, is that I will try harder this year to love and forgive so that the same epitaph for Young Goodman Brown (and 2020) won’t be inscribed on MY tombstone one day.

Happy New Year, friends. I can’t say it will be better, but I can say I hope to be.

“Come what may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day.”

Unfortunate Advent Event: A Warning

This is actually a retelling of a story I posted a few years ago on an old blog. It did not happen in the church I now attend. Our changing churches is completely unrelated to the following tale.

Christmas Sunday. Everyone is present and accounted for and looking mighty pretty in their special red and green sparkly Christmas clothes. The church, with its three Christmas trees, huge wreaths, and pots and pots of poinsettias, is not looking half bad its ownself.

A man and woman stride to the darkened stage and begin to speak solemnly about Christ’s coming. After awhile, they invite the congregation to participate in a corporate reading, praising God for His greatest gift to mankind: His son, Jesus Christ. A holy silence falls as the couple lights two sets of advent candles on either side of the stage–the purple candles of peace and hope, the pink candle of joy. As they finish lighting the final purple candle (love), everybody bows their heads.

Suddenly, a not-turned-off-as-it-SHOULD-be cell phone begins to sing out tinnily, softly at first, and then louder as its sheepish, blushing owner (a man, I must add) scrambles to shut it off.

And the song it sings? Well, let me give you the part we heard, and see if you can identify it:

“Ah–you gonna take me home tonight?
Ah–down beside that red firelight;
Ah–you gonna let it all hang out . . .”

I look down the row, past my kids, to my husband, who is looking back at me. We grin at each other in gleeful, horrified disbelief and simultaneously mouth the rest of the song: “. . . fat bottomed girls, you make the rockin’ world go round.”

It had to be Queen, and it had to be that song? God has a delicious sense of humor. And I bet somebody never brings his cell phone to church evereverever again. Fat bottomed girls, indeed.

Happy Advent season, y’all. And leave your phones in the car.

Thankful Reads

Some of the most fun I’ve had writing my book was creating the dedication and acknowledgements page. I understand that some publishers (and some grumpy readers) don’t like acknowledgements (more pages to print = more $$ spent, I guess; thankfully, my amazing publisher never batted an eye about including both a dedication page and an acknowledgment page).

I personally love reading these tiny slivers of reality. After I’ve been walking around in the dream of fiction and reach the end, where I sit for a few minutes, easing myself awake, the acknowledgements serve as a nice bridge between not real and real. Here, the author reminds me that she’s a human as well as a creator; author Anna North once noted that “We often think we’re seeing the author’s real self when we read her fiction, but as any author who’s ever been asked what happened after she fled her family of international superspies and threw in her lot with a group of itinerant circus performers knows only too well, this is a delusion. The acknowledgments at the back of a novel are tantalising because they’re often the only true thing amid a pack of lies.”

The other purpose the acknowledgements and dedications serve is to show that the author is thankful to those who helped her along the way. No writer is an island, and in a world full of people often obsessed with being perceived as uniquely superior (it’s the reason Instagram filters exist, right?), it’s nice to see a slice of humility.

Also, gratitude is just a great read.

Acknowledgments run the gamut from the utilitarian, where the author spends time thanking editors, publishers, and agents, to the very personal. As a practical consideration, writing experts often encourage authors seeking publication to look at the acknowledgement page in books in their genre and note the agents and publishers as people they may want to reach out to. It’s good advice that I took myself. I discovered my publisher by following a rabbit trail that began while I shelved books at the library part-time. As I pushed my cart around, pausing to fit a book in its tidy alphabetical or numerical place, I’d also sometimes scribble down publishers’ names I found in books that looked similar to mine, and as I later researched those publishers and sent out queries, I found a treasure trove of more publishers. A couple offered me contracts, one of which I happily accepted. So if you’re an aspiring author, I concur with the experts: Don’t neglect the business of reading acknowledgements

Beyond the practical, however, far more interesting to me in the acknowledgments is the personal, the human. Stephen King regularly adds a quick note of thanks to his “Constant Readers,” which is a nice touch. Craig Johnson, in one of his Longmire books, finishes his acknowledgment page with the following for his wife: “To Judy who, like the stars, wonders if she shines brightly enough and always does.” Leif Enger, in one of my all-time favorite books Peace Like a River, begins his acknowledgements thanking his father and his mother, Wilma, “who read us Robert Louis Stevenson before we could talk, and who writes better letters to anyone since the Apostle Paul.” In Will  My Cat Eat My Eyeballs, death queen Caitlin Doughty ends her acknowledgment page with “And finally to Ryan Saylor, the shroud to my casket.” (I LOVE this woman.)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite anti-acknowledgement, E.E. Cummings’s “No Thanks” poem, dedicated to the publishers who rejected him. (Cue the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts’s character comes back in to taunt the snobs who make her feel bad: “Big mistake. Huge.”)

The story with Cummings is that his mother believed in him in a way that the publishers did not (ah, moms and their mom-goggles) and gave him the money to self-publish his book of poetry. His “dedication” page is as follows:

Note that the poem is in the shape of funeral urn; Cummings was feeling ALL the salt! All of us who have suffered the pain of rejection after rejection can now stand up and cheer.

One of the best dedications, of course, is C.S. Lewis’s dedication in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

To Lucy Barfield

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand, a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather,

C.S. Lewis

I mean, COME ON! We all want to be Lucy now, don’t we?

When I started counting my blessings in the writing of my own book, it was hard to stop. All the people who helped me as a writer, as a person, who love me in spite of my shortcomings—as I made my list and tried to, in my inadequate way, let them know how much they mean to me . . . well.

It wasn’t enough, but I did my best. Since I’ve been feeling very grouchy and UNthankful for this weird masked world lately, it was nice to take an unfettered breath and remember that for all the bad 2020 has thrown my way so far, there was once and has to be yet again, someday, so much to be thankful for.

Why I Avoid the News

Life is a roller-coaster dive of peaks and valleys. One minute, I’m chugging up the hill, my breath caught in my throat, simultaneously sick and thrilled as I chant to myself, “This time I will keep my eyes open. This time I will watch and see everything.” As the car crests the hill and begins its downward swoop, a scream rips itself free from my throat and my eyes slam shut. All my brave resolve disappears as I feel myself plummeting (so fast, oh mercy-me, so very fast) with gravity, my body slamming side to side and upside down, my body straining against the flimsy straps, the only things that stand between me and certain death. I’d almost think I’m holding my breath if not for the shrieks—my shrieks—filling the space around me. “I will never do this again” becomes my new mantra, a whiskey-promise followed by an “I’m going to die” chaser.

Hours of eternity disguised as minutes posing as seconds flash through my body and just as I am beginning to give up and give in, wearily telling myself “Hey, maybe this isn’t so bad; I could get used to this,” the car rights itself and begins to slow. I am thrown forward, jarred by the sudden stop at the end. The nervous laughter of my fellow passengers echoes my own as I try and stand, my legs Jell-O cubes, my stomach sick with adrenaline. I exit the ride, patting my hair down. My feet have never welcomed solid, non-moving ground so much.

Later, when too much sitting around has lulled me into a false sense of life’s okayness, I will convince myself that maybe the ride wasn’t that scary. I will make my way back to the roller-coaster and stand in line again, comforting myself with the fact that at least now I know what the ride feels like. THIS time, I tell myself, I will keep my eyes open; gosh, I may even just let go and keep both arms lifted in the air. I continue kidding myself all that long, long wait until the moment I strap myself into the car and feel the gears grind into motion. I hold my breath and begin chanting as the ride climbs to the top, then my eyes slam shut, my hands become iron clamps on the bar, and I


to scream.

The Stories that Stayed with Me

Because of COVID concerns, the college where I teach English compressed our semester and eliminated breaks so that the students don’t have to return to campus after Thanksgiving. (We had face-to-face instruction, which was wonderful. I hate virtual classes, and my students do, too. We made it through this semester just fine; no need for a shutdown. No WANT for a shutdown.) Our spring semester got pushed back for the same reason, so we don’t start classes again until February.

February, y’all! What in the world shall I do with all that extra time?

Write, is the obvious answer, as I wait for a publishing date for my current book. I have two different ideas stewing in the hopper. One is to revise a memoir I wrote about growing up in boarding school in Kenya in the 1980s, which has been in a finished but rough state for years. The other, a novel, is outlined and just waiting for flesh on the bones. The protagonist has already become a close friend of mine, and she sometimes shows up in my dreams, beckoning me to bring her to life. So yeah, I have time and the will to write.

The other thing I plan on doing during my break is read. A lot. And since the world is a scary, ugly place these days, dark and full of shadows, I’ve been leaning towards doing some comfort rereading of the books that charmed and formed me in childhood.

I have always had a love affair with books. Before I started boarding school in 6th grade, my best friends growing up were Jo March and Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Every time I read Little Women, I convinced myself that this time, this time, Jo would not be so stupid and she would agree to marry Laurie. She still always makes the wrong choice.) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books were a fascination for me, rich with adventure, history, and my favorite: food descriptions. Reading how the starving settlers in The Long Winter were reduced to eating brown bread and butter sent me scurrying to the kitchen to make myself a pile of Blue Band and bread sandwiches, after which I plonked down on the red rug in my room, munching on the salty, coarse snack and tsking over the Wilders struggling to stay warm.

blue band

Wilder’s Farmer Boy was decadent; the Christmas meal had me wiping saliva from my chin as I read:

”He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth. He looked at the fat roast goose, the drumsticks sticking up, and the edges of dressing curling out. The sound of Father’s knife sharpening on the whetstone made him even hungrier. He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly, and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melting butter trickling down it. He looked at the heap of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips.

He swallowed hard and tried not to look anymore. He couldn’t help seeing the fried apples ’n’ onions, and the candied carrots. He couldn’t help gazing at the triangles of pie, waiting by his plate; the spicy pumpkin pie, the melting cream pie, the rich, dark mince oozing from between the mince pie’s flaky crusts. He squeezed his hands together between his knees. He had to sit silent and wait, but he felt aching and hollow inside.”

Same, Almanzo. Same.  

Many of my days were spent at the top of the loquat tree next to our house. Drowsily, I’d gorge on the honeyed fruit and The Chronicles of Narnia, ignoring the bossy sharp cries of the ibis in our yard. A lonely, imaginative child, I became firmly convinced that Aslan was real, and I diligently searched the hedges and holes of our two and a half acre yard for a door to that magic kingdom. I decided I was Christian after reading Little Pilgrim’s Progress, a kid-friendly version of John Bunyan’s great allegory, and I spent long hours destroying my mother’s purple African lilies with a stick I’d deemed a sword. The lilies, which had become in my child eyes the Giant of Pride, eventually succumbed to my triumphant sword, their sad purple-bunched heads lying in piles on the ground. I kicked off my wellington boots and paddled in the huge tea-colored puddles in our driveway, and called for help from the angels because I’d fallen into the Slough of Despair.african lilieslittle pilgrim

Have I mentioned that my childhood was magical?

I was a quick and voracious reader, gobbling up Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web, Island of the Blue Dolphin, The Secret Garden, Lorna Doone, and A Little Princess, coming up for air just long enough to get my bearings before reading the same books all over again. While my sister, five years younger and the exact opposite of me, kept a busy social schedule with neighboring missionary kids, I shifted from the loquat tree to one of the enormous avocado trees in our yard, carrying a spoon and Hans Brinker under my arm, settling myself on a huge branch. In the warm African sun, I scooped buttery green avocado into my mouth and shivered at the idea of a Dutch winter. (I’d never seen snow, at least not that I could remember. Now that I have seen it and felt it, I can safely say I HATE IT AND WINTER.)

In the used bookstore we frequented on our monthly journeys to the capital city of Nairobi, I loaded up on my very favorite series of all: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and The Naughtiest Girl in the School. (Because Kenya was a British colony until 1963, the books in English there were, by and large, British ones, and yes, often fifty years old or more.) In The Famous Five, I discovered adventure and mystery, a fondness that would eventually lead me to Nancy Drew, which became another obsession of mine. (Nancy’s independence, fancy car, and tidy wristwatch fascinated me more than her exciting scrapes.) As for The Naughtiest Girl series . . . well. A girl never wanted to go to boarding school more than me after reading those books—until I actually had to go to boarding school. But that’s a story for another day.

During our trips to Nairobi, we mainly stayed at the Mennonite Guest House, a quiet, comfortable, less-than-luxurious cottage-style B-n-B that had the very best tea time, climbing trees, and library for the guests. It was there that I discovered Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, and arguably my favorite character of all times, the loyal Samwise Gamgee. Samwise’s unwavering loyalty spoke to me deep in my young bones, perhaps because I too was (am) loyal to a fault, and like calls to like. I remember nestling deep into the top bed of the bunk in my family’s shared room, ignoring my mom and sister’s request to play “Sorry” with them, moving through a world of chaos and courage, emboldened by the good that emphatically conquered evil.

the hobbit

Last weekend, my Molly and I stopped at a flea market, and I found a book called The King’s Thane by Charles A. Brady. Thumbing through it, charmed by the illustrations, I felt that old familiar longing to lose myself in a good yarn of old, so I bought the book, claiming I’d save it for a future grandchild someday. I was lying; I totally bought it for me. Because in this horrific time, filled with almost unbearable anger and fear and what seems like very little hope, I’ve decided one necessary use of my long break will be to reopen some long-shut wardrobes, jump in a sporty little convertible in search of a secret in a clock, and squat next to a little sour-faced orphan as she pretends to plant hibiscus flowers in heaps of dirt. Perhaps I’ll prepare a “tuck box” and some bread-and-butter sandwiches before I set out, and when the angel shows up to rescue me from the sticky, awful slough I’ve been stuck in for far too long, I’ll offer to share. Above all, I’ll try to remind myself, over and over, what Samwise told Frodo in The Two Towers:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

What to Watch, Halloween Edition 2020

Yesterday I offered up my opinion on scary books worth reading. Today I’ll share my favorite Halloween movie picks. Some are scary, some are hilarious, some are scary AND hilarious. So here we go: Becky’s Top Ten Movies to Watch on Halloween.


Holy crap, this movie scared me to death, and it’s the kind of scary I adore. Not too many jump-scares, no blood and gore, just quiet dread the entire way through. Great acting, perfect pace, and oooh, there’s a twist. I do so love me a good twist.


This is one of those rare, rare cases where the movie was actually much better than the book. Richard Matheson’s novel of the same name was a mess–really aggravating and a little stupid. But the MOVIE? Fantastic. It’s terrifying, and Will Smith is amazing in his role as a man surviving the apocalypse alone. (Well, not entirely alone, and therein lies the rub.)


If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen this movie yet, then climb out, dust yourself off, and WATCH THIS MOVIE. It’s incredible–scary, yes, but heartbreaking and awesome to experience. The acting is superb; who knew Jim from The Office had such range? And to watch him act with his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, was a treat–you feel the tenderness between them in the movie, and that’s not acting! What I love the most is the careful plotting; Krasinski and his fellow screenwriters didn’t cheat, and every “little” detail mattered. I hate when movies gloss over things and you’re left thinking, “Wait–when did that happen? How’d they do that?” There’s none of that in this movie. It’s a masterpiece of careful plotting, suspense, and storytelling.


What can I say? I’m a sucker for funny zombie movies (more on that in a moment) and gothic horror. This is gothic horror at its finest. Really, really, REALLY scary.


Believe it or not, this is my “desert island” movie (As in, if I was stuck on a desert island and could only take one movie to watch, this would be it.) I love this movie! It’s sly and hilarious and quote-worthy and just a pile of delicious codswallop. I have never gotten tired of it, and I watch it every year. The ten-year-anniversary movie, Zombieland: Double Tap was pretty good, but really, this is the one for me. Perfection.

MOVIE PICKS SIX AND SEVEN (FUNNY): Shaun of the Dead and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I’m lumping these two together because, well, more zombies. Worth it though–hilarious and gross and just a good ol’ romp. I personally like to believe that Jane Austen would’ve enjoyed the updated version of her novel. It’s really well done and bloody good fun.

MOVIE PICK EIGHT (FUNNY): Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.

I stumbled across this gem quite by accident a few years ago when trolling Netflix for something to watch. What a surprise it turned out to be–absolute satire at its finest. This movie takes tired slasher-movie clichés and turns them into something new. Having two backwoods, redneck guys as the heroes who are bewildered by the rich college kids who keep dying in true slasher fashion was just genius. This is a funny, smart movie.


Okay, I’ll ‘fess up–I only really love this movie because it happens to be my 72-year-old mother’s favorite movie.

It’s early 90s shtick, and it IS funny, but honestly? It’s 10x more funny watching it with my mom because she cackles all the way through it. Still and all, it’s a blast–a silly scary movie, with or without my mom along for the ride.

And last but not least, MOVIE PICK TEN (FAMILY): The Nightmare before Christmas.

I mean, obviously this is a yearly Halloween must-see. (I sometimes watch it both at Halloween and Christmas.) The music, the story, the Tim-Burton-perfection of it all–if Halloween had a national movie, this would have to be it.

So there you have it: My top picks for things to watch on Halloween. My personal plans for the big day itself consist of me stress-eating way too many chocolate bars and noshing on a big bag of Sonic corn dogs (Halloween is 50-cent corndog day, at least where I live), whilst I jump and scream and watch the too-gross or too-scary bits of my movie-of-choice through my tiny telescope. (Right eye closed, left eye looking through the small hole I’ve left in my clenched fist to block the awful images).

What a great time of the year.

What to Read: The Halloween Edition, 2020

It’s almost time for that most deliciously dark night of the year, though I’ve personally been celebrating since September. (As in, that’s when the decorations went up).

My mantle, of which I’m sorta proud.

To commemorate this terrible, wonderful time, I thought I’d share my picks for things to read and things to watch for Halloween. Today is the “what to read” post, so here we go with six of my favorite scary books:

BOOK PICK ONE: World War Z, by Max Brooks. (Fun fact, apropos to nothing: He’s the son of Mel Brooks and the late, great Ann Bancroft. So he’s extra cool.)

I know, I know–a zombie book? Really. I swear, it’s amazing. Not only is it gripping in subject and detail, but the narrative structure is fantastic–unconventional, to be sure, but man, it WORKS. I’ve read this book three times now, and every time I’m blown away by how good it is. (By the way, if you saw the movie version, PLEASE don’t let it sully your reading of the book. Because of the narrative structure I mentioned, this book should never have been made into a film. NEVER. It doesn’t work! I’ll let the folks at “Honest Trailers” shift you away from the movie, but do read the book.)

“Brad Pitt Zombie Movie”

BOOK PICK TWO: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.

Shirley Jackson is my spirit animal, let’s just get that out of the way right now. I adore her writing–she can shift from hilarious (her memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, which featured her sardonic views on motherhood, had me crying with laughter) to chilly terror in nothing to ninety flat.

This book was SCARY, boys and girls. At first, I kept thinking, “It’s just a creepy old house where things aren’t set right. Is that it?” I didn’t know at first how to feel about the characters–while Jackson has a charming way of including sparkling, clever dialogue in her books, I felt that it was sometimes forced and false, especially when dealing with the protagonist, Eleanor. She went from a suppressed, downtrodden, fearful 32-year-old woman to someone who talked and capered like a young teenage girl once she was in the house. The instant camaraderie between Theodora and herself seemed weird and unrealistic to me–they were all SO jolly–but that is the slyness of Shirley Jackson. She creeps up and slips a hook in you while you’re not looking, just a jab really, a tiny pin-prick while you’re distracted–and then she goes to work, tying you into her web. Suddenly the story was genuinely spooky and I was constantly on edge, trying to figure out what was real and what was not–and praying that no one would ever, EVER be foolish enough to open the door.

Pay attention: Jackson starts and ends the novel with the same words about the house, and those words are fantastic: “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Stunning and perfect.

(Side note: The Netflix version of the book, while taking huge liberties with the material, was not too bad.)

If you decide you need more Shirley in your life and in more manageable, bite-sized pieces, Dark Tales is a great collection of her short stories that will blow your mind. I use “The Possibility of Evil” in my English II class, and my students really dig it.

BOOK PICK THREE: The Stand, by Stephen King.

I’ve had a longstanding relationship with Stephen King, starting when I was in around 7th grade in boarding school in Kenya. A friend lent me Salem’s Lot (my mother would never allow such “trash” in the house), and I spent the next year wearing a cross around my neck, terrified of the vampires I just knew would come to get me. I’ve read many, many of King’s books since–some great, some pretty awful–but The Stand is the one I return to over and over. It never ceases to amaze me with its depth, its almost prophetic vision of the world we live in now. (I’ve been calling COVID “Captain Trips” since March, though thankfully it turned out not to be a captain at all. Really, not even a first-mate. Possibly a tourist?)

I first read the original, edited version, then the uncut, and then the edited again, and I can confidently say that there was a reason the editor got rid of so much the first time. The first run of the book reads far better than the unedited version, so if you can get your hands on that one, do it. I think you can find it on ebay–I got mine at a used bookstore.

(And skip the made-for-tv version of the movie with Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, and Gary Sinise–pee-yew. What a stinker!)

BOOK PICK FOUR: The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey.

Yes, another zombie book, and still well-written and engaging. It’s fun and scary, just like Halloween.

The movie for it was meh. Not anything to write home about, but not bad. Read the book first, though. Always.

BOOK PICK FIVE: Something Wicked this Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury.

Fantastic book–scary as heck, and Bradbury’s way with words knocks me at the knees and makes me tumble right over. I had to stop and read several lines aloud just because they tasted so delicious in my mouth. In the book, Dad’s great truths about human nature was less interesting to me, but still he was a great character, and Mr. Dark was fabulous in his evil. By the pricking of my thumb . . .

And finally, BOOK SIX OF BECKY’S SPOOKY READS, 2020: Swan Song, by Robert R. McCammon.

I begin by echoing the reviewers who compare this book with The Stand. The subject is obviously similar–an apocalyptic event that leaves the few humans who survive scrambling to figure out how to go on, two factions of good vs. evil marching towards each other in an inevitable show-down, a spiritual undercurrent that drives everything. HOWEVER: The story was different enough that it still felt like an original story. McCammon is gifted in character and plot development (important considering the massive size of this book). I preferred his less crass style (swearing was a minimum, as was descriptions of sex) to King’s, and as others have noted, his ending is much more developed and just BETTER than the ending in The Stand. Margaret Atwood noted once that most stories come from ancient tales, and I think rather than a knock-off of King’s tale, McCammon just drank from the same story well. I’m glad he did.

So there you have it–books to make your blood cold and your breath catch. Tomorrow I’ll share my favorite Halloween picks. Until then, stay spooky.

How Does One Acquire a Deadly Vice?

I’ve finally figured out the root of my current writer’s block: I need to start smoking! I recently watched a movie about one of my writing heroes, Shirley Jackson, and that ol’ gal smoked like a chimney. As a matter of fact, it seems like any movie I’ve ever watched about writers (barring Beatrix Potter) shows the literary types puffing away as their brows furrow in the pain of tortured genius and angst of brilliant creation. So that must be it; I need to start smoking! Then I too will be great!

Oh, and I guess I need to start drinking, too. So many of the literary giants appeared to be constant guests on the slick liquor train–Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe–the list goes on and on. I can almost see myself tottering around in a filmy gown and marabou-lined slippers, a cigarette smoldering in one of those long black cigarette holders clenched between my teeth, a squat glass filled with amber scotch and ice sloshing around in my hand as I slur, in a golden-whiskey-throated growl, “Gimme a pen–I’ve just had a great idea for the next chapter.”

(Actually, now that I think about it, maybe that image is a little more Sunset Boulevard and less authorial. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille . . . .”)

Hold on a tic, though–all those writers I mentioned had miserable personal lives. Some of them committed suicide (a la Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Hemingway); some of them just drank themselves to death, and Shirley–well, unsurprisingly, a heart problem blamed on her weight and cigarette use got her in the end. 

Hmm . . . as Fagan sang in the movie Oliver: “I think I’d better think it out again.”

Because here’s some flies in the ointment. One: I’ve never smoked. I tried ONCE and ended up coughing and gasping for ten minutes, then using the cigarette like a sparkler to draw shapes in the dark sky with the glowing tip. I just don’t get it. (It burns us, Master!)

Fly number two: I’m not a big drinker either–I like a rum-n-Coke now and again, but mainly it’s the Coke I like. And I could n.e.v.e.r ingest scotch on a regular basis. Or even on a non-regular basis. Okay, not even one sip. (Again with the burning issue).

And buzzing, poop-dwelling vermin number three: Neither do I really fancy wandering into a rushing river with my pockets filled with stones or sticking my head in an oven. It’s a hard old world, to be sure, but I’m still curious enough to see what’s going to happen next. I’m not quite ready to check out just yet.

Dear me, my options have suddenly shrunk. Perhaps if I begin drinking Coca-Cola by the gallons and chewing gum, I may be able to at least achieve mediocrity in my writing. I might never get to “great,” but at least I’ll get to stick around and see my kids grow up to become geniuses. That seems better to me right now. But oh, what will all that Co-Cola do to my ever-expanding girth? And do I really want massive jaw muscles?

Patron Saint of Mediocrity

Writing is such a tricky business . . .

Shimmering Silence

I was watching my daughter (now a fourth-year med student—almost done, thank the LORD) write something for class, and I marveled, not for the first time, at how she listens to music while she writes. I just cannot do that—when I’m writing, it has to be absolutely, entirely silent. Not only can I not listen to music, I also cannot have the television on in the same room or be near any conversation at all. I become hypersensitive to sound—ticking, thumping, the silent buzz of the phone when a text comes in—all of it becomes as loud as a train whistle near the tracks. (Ironically, we live quite close to a train track and I rarely notice the whistle. But you get my point.)

This is not true of when I read. A bomb could go off in the room where I’m reading and I won’t notice until shrapnel hits me in the eye. My kids have, more than once, shaken me to get my attention after they’ve said, “Mom. Mom. MOM!” repeatedly and I haven’t responded because I honestly didn’t hear them. This has been the case since I was a child—I clearly remember being dragged back into the real world by my bemused parents or aggravated sister, who apparently had been trying to get my attention for awhile to no avail. When I am in a book, I am IN a book.

It’s the opposite when I write, though. John Gardner, in his fantastic book The Art of Fiction, speaks of the “fictional dream” a writer should create for the reader, and it’s a perfect explanation of where I go when I am reading a great story. When I am writing the story myself, though, I fall into a fictional hole rather than a dream. Once all distractions are eliminated (emails read/responded to, laundry folded or ignored, snacks eaten, phone off and away from my writing space) and I’m in “the zone,” it’s like slipping into a dark chasm. The chasm becomes a cave where I have to navigate around pits and slippery spots with my characters, and I only have a sentence at a time to light my way. If there is any sound in the outside world, my characters melt into the darkness and I’m yanked out of the hole, blinking against the harsh light of reality, sputtering with irritation at whoever or whatever pulled me out. It’s so hard to find my way back when I’ve been pulled out this way; if I come to a natural pause or am really stuck, then leaving the cave of my own accord is fine, but being disturbed when I’m in the groove—hoooo.

Not good for me; not good for the cause of the disturbance.

I tell my composition students to set themselves up for success when they write, to find the environment that works best for them. Many admit that writing propped up in their beds is a bad idea because they often fall asleep. So some need a busy coffee shop. Some listen to music on headphones; others, like me, need perfect quiet, and they retreat to the second floor of our university library. I try to take my own advice. If anyone is home, I announce, “I’m going to write, so don’t bug me unless it’s an emergency” before heading upstairs for writing time. I take my Westie, Jock, out so his bathroom needs won’t interrupt my cave time. I leave my phone downstairs so it won’t bother me. I settle myself in my favorite writing spot , sit on the edge of the hole for a minute, then drop into the cave. It takes a bit to find my character friends, but not too long—they’ve been waiting for me, after all, and I’m the only one who can unearth them. I shine the light of that next sentence in front of me, and together, we start moving again. If all goes well, the world outside is silent while the world inside is a mass of noise, and I plunge on like a dwarf in a fairy-tale, trying to pick gems out of the cavern walls.