Achievement Unlocked: Celebration Launch Party

When I was mired in researching publishers and agents, reading about how to catch the eye of the aforementioned publishers/agents, writing query letters, and dreaming of that elusive, “Yes, we’d love to publish your book!” reply, I used to peruse published authors’ sites and sigh in jealousy over their launch parties. “Someday,” I told myself, “that will be you, Becky, and what a fine party it will be.”

Well, someday came last Sunday, and it was very fine indeed. I was surrounded by a vast number of friends and family in a friend’s event barn, and I felt overwhelmed by the love they all showed me in attending and cheering me on. I was able to practice my first reading, and I only cried twice (note to self: no more reading the dedication and acknowledgements aloud because you CANNOT HANDLE IT); afterwards, I had my first book signing and felt like the real deal. 

Next up: A reading at the college where I’ve taught for thirteen years:



It’s finally that day–the official release day of my book, White River Red: A Novel.

To celebrate, I went out to Friendship Cemetery in Springdale, Arkansas, where the real-life heroine of my book, Forrestina Bradley Campbell, is buried. I left her some thank-you flowers and wondered how long it’s been since she’s had flowers left at her grave.

The book is available for purchase on Amazon

and Barnes & Noble online

Don’t forget: If you read the book and enjoy it, PLEASE leave me a nice review on Amazon, B&N, and Goodreads.

Book Publication Progress Report

ONE MONTH UNTIL RELEASE DAY, and the early reviews (via LibraryThing) are making me feel warm and fuzzy inside! 🙂

The trade paperback edition will be available for order on Amazon on release day, April 5th.

To preorder the hardcover edition: T

To preorder the Kindle edition:

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.”