Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens with my Daughter

Before my daughter started her summer job, we enjoyed a staycation in Maine. At the top of her list was returning to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, an hour up the coast from us. For her high school senior project Gemma designed a guide to Maine medicinal plants.

CMBG also combines botany and art; sculpture is an integral part of the gardens and seaside trails. My favorite was this supersized pinecone made of rusty old boat propellers.

We first came here with my kids' playgroup, so many years ago Gemma can't remember. There's a children's garden and fairy house building zone in the woods. We were relieved to see that no lady's-slippers were slain for this fairy abode. These woodland orchids grow naturally in Maine at this time of year.

For the botanically illiterate, such as me, plants were conveniently labeled. There was a Japanese accent to the design too, reminiscent of the gardens of Kyoto. At one point, I considered a career in Landscape Architecture until I learned that most work comes from designing parking lots.

We loved the exuberant colors of these Candelabra Primroses. The bright sunshine and dappled shade made photography challenging, but it was perfect weather for exploring the grounds.

The lilly pad pool reminded us of Monet's Garden in France.

Our favorite bloom was the Showy Lady's-Slipper, glowing in the midsummer light. I'm savoring these glorious June days. All too soon, I'll be back to work revising my manuscript. Boothbay Harbor, where these gardens are located, was another town that inspired my fictional Port George.

CM Botanical Gardens:
May 2015 Visit: spring blooms
August 2012 Visit water & sculpture

Blog Watch: if you enjoy botanical posts, check out garden bloggers Tina in Tennessee & Skeeter in Georgia, Les in Virginia, Rose in Illinois and Vivero in Texas. I'm a lazy gardener and prefer admiring the work of others.

Huffington Post posted this beautiful image in memory of those who lost their lives in the terrorist attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey last night. ISIS attacked a Muslim country during the holy month of Ramadan. When will this senseless violence stop?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

With Malice by Eileen Cook

Elba Island off the coast of Italy

Eileen Cook is guilty of first degree sleep deprivation. Her With Malice kept me up way past my bedtime and will no doubt have the same effect on legions of other readers. There were intriguing suspects, multiple red herrings and more twists than the village roads of Tuscany. This young adult mystery-thriller is addictive to adult readers too.

May I state for the record that the Italian setting was no coincidence but rather a premeditated choice to connect this fictional story to the true case of Amanda Knox. Once again, we have a beautiful American brunette studying abroad in a supposed love triangle with her gorgeous roommate and a hot Italian man of ill repute. Sensational tales of passion, rivalry and deadly revenge are irresistible.

Elba Island road sign
Millennial teenagers have been known to lose interest in novels with linear plots, descriptive prose and literary language. Why read a book when you can check Snapchat? So this cunning author chose to break up her narrative with police interviews, news broadcasts, tour book excerpts, yearbook quotes, personal emails and vitriolic blog comments. Parents, lawyers, reporters, detectives, teen-tour leaders and other pillars of adult society were vilified without compunction. Always entertaining, With Malice verges on satire at times.

The Duomo in Florence, Italy

Was it murder, manslaughter or merely an accident? We will never know for sure because the main suspect had amnesia. The unreliable narrator's testimony leaves the reader tossing and turning in bed, ruminating over conflicting versions of the truth. As a writer myself, I was also plagued by envy. Eileen Cook has reset the game of young adult fiction.

Even more egregious? The author showed no remorse. On June 17, 2016 I tweeted that With Malice kept me up to 1:00 AM. Did Eileen Cook apologize? No, she retweeted me with this blurb: "I love ruining people's sleep." Ms. Cook is no doubt in the throes of crafting yet another YA novel designed to deprive readers of a good night's rest. Teens might form the dangerous impression that reading is fun.

Verdict: read this book, but start earlier in the day because you won't be able to put it down.

Reviewer's Disclosure: The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, sent me a free June 2016 galley upon my request. I may have been influenced by Barrie Summy's excellent review of With Malice. The photos are from my visit to Italy, which is featured in the narrative. However, most of the story is set at an American rehab hospital, where the protagonist is recovering from a car crash. This book was previewed in my Good Summer YA Books for Teens and Tweens post.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Introducing my new agent, Sara Crowe & How to Find a Literary Agent

Once I finished writing and revising my young adult novel set in Maine, the next step to publication was finding a literary agent. I'm overjoyed to announce that I have signed with my first choice agent,
Sara Crowe!

If you're looking for a literary agent, take heart from my story. Miracles can happen in the slush pile. Sara requested a full manuscript four minutes after receiving my query (a one page pitch with sample pages). However, my query received as many rejections as requests for more pages. My biggest category was unanswered queries.

Once I received my first offer, I nudged all agents with manuscripts to finish and withdrew unanswered queries. Partials were bumped up to fulls. Sara read over the weekend, making a counter offer on Sunday night, more than a week before my deadline.

Still, there were more passes than offers. This is such a subjective business. Finding an agent takes persistence as much as talent. All you need is one yes...or two, since the agent needs to find a publisher. There are no guarantees, but I now have a good shot with Sara Crowe as my agent.

I know. Sara is representing Sarah. At least our names are spelled differently, but I do feel a bit like I'm talking to myself. Sara reminds me of my college friends: smart, articulate, and down to earth. Like me, she works best when she's busy. We clicked during our FaceTime chat, when she made her official offer of representation and presented her vision for placing my work with a publisher. My manuscript needs only minor revision, and her feedback resonated with me. Soon she'll be sending me editorial notes, and I'll get back to work on revisions while she draws up a submission list.

Sara Crowe's logo
I'm walking around with a goofy grin on my face. Sara has an outstanding record in YA sales and an excellent reputation in the industry. Her amazing client list includes Nina LaCour, Leila Howland, Megan Frazer Blakemore, and many other talented authors. Her clients love her. Although my novel hasn't yet sold to a publisher, I'm celebrating this first step. YA author Maria Padian came over with a bottle of Prosecco to drink on my deck. My writing crit partner, author/illustrator Charlotte Agell, painted the gorgeous card (top image) of us enjoying a Swedish toast at Simpson's Point.

After signing the contract yesterday, I raised a glass to Sara with my family. My British husband and our daughter had left for England to visit relatives the day before I got my first offer and returned after I had accepted Sara's counter offer. Thanks to everyone for all your support during this stressful but joyful time, and good luck to those of you who are still querying. Below are some tips and useful links for other writers looking agents.

How to Find a Literary Agent:

The acknowledgement page at the end of books similar to yours is the best place to find agent names. Before querying an agent, I usually read a client book to check for fit and then tailored the market comparison paragraph of my pitch. The best matches were agents like Sara who represented several authors whom I'd already read and enjoyed. My nine years of book blogging were helpful for understanding my genre and for refining my craft too. Do not query until you have a complete manuscript and a synopsis (for fiction). Spend time polishing the query letter. Remember: I had only four minutes to pitch my book. Follow submission guidelines on the agent's website carefully and spell his/her/their name right.

It's worth trying for superstars like Sara Crowe, but you should also query agents who are actively building a list of clients. Of the young, new YA agents, I was most impressed by Leon Husock at L. Perkins. No agent uses twitter better than Leon with his helpful query tips, witty observations, interesting retweets, and a client twitter list to facilitate book promotions. He aims to reply to all queries in 24 hours. Also look for experienced agents who have recently changed agencies like Eric Myers at Dystel & Goderich. Eric's stellar list includes one of my favorite YA authors, Seth Rudetsky, and NYT bestseller MG author Chris Grabenstein. Like his authors, Eric has a great sense of humor. Search for the best match to your writing and your personality; agents aren't one size fits all.

Twitter is the social media platform for the publishing industry. Consider joining for agent pitch events. Beth Phelan of the Bent Agency organized the first #DVPit to help diverse authors find representation. Twitter is also the best place to check out potential agents and to network with other writers. You can find my tweets here. I'm always happy to connect with other writers and readers. Good luck!

Agent Info links:

Query Tracker
Manuscript Wish List
Writers Digest New Agent Alerts & Profiles
Association of Authors Representatives (AAR)
Agent Query
Publisher Weekly free e-newsletters
Poets & Writers magazine
Predators & Editors
Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators
Literary Rambles Children's Agents Profiles
Purple Crayon: Finding & Choosing Literary Agents
Publishers Marketplace (monthly subscription fee but some agent profiles are public)
Janet Reid, Lit Agent: Between Offer & Acceptance, a checklist
My YA Agents List on twitter

Update: Jane Friedman's Guide to Query Letters

New Harbor, Bristol, Maine: one of the inspirations for my fictional Port George. It's an hour up the coast from my home.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Monhegan Island & New Harbor, inspirations for my novel

My love for Maine islands and harbor towns inspired me to write a contemporary young adult novel about a mainland girl and an island lobster fisherman. With my manuscript shipped out to literary agents, I'm feeling nostalgic. Two years ago, I rented a boat house apartment on Monhegan Island to gather offseason material for my work-in-progress. It's a long journey to publication, and I'm not yet anchored.

When my kids came home from college with a friend, they wanted to show her Monhegan. The ferry leaves from New Harbor, an hour drive up the coast from us. My fictional Port George was modeled on this working harbor with a bit of Port Clyde and Brunswick added to the mix. The floating dock rises and sinks with the tide, making it easier for the lobster fishermen to unload their catch.

The only way to reach Monhegan is by boat. It's ten miles out to sea and too small for a airport. Just 42 people live year round on the island. I increased the population to 200 for my fictional island because I needed more teenage characters. The largest building is a hotel.

Tourist season starts Memorial Weekend and winds down around Columbus Day. Monhegan is a rustic place to vacation, but people like us keep returning for more. In the shoulder season, most visitors are birders tracking migrations (plus one nosy writer researching her novel).

Jamie Wyeth's house was the inspiration for my character's home; it's my dream house too.

Monhegan has 12 miles of trails, scrambling up and down the cliffs and meandering through the woods. This time I was retracing my character's footsteps, remembering lines with a satisfied smile.

It was quite a workout keeping up with my fit kids but worth it for the stunning view.

After several hours of hiking, we rewarded ourselves with homebrewed root beer for the girls, stout for my son, and Quad British style ale for me. Monhegan Brewing Co also brews an excellent ginger beer for those who feel seasick.

The co-owner of the brewery hauls lobsters too; Matt answered many questions for my novel. He was busy stacking traps in the beer garden at the close of the island lobster fishing season.

It was now time for the lobsters and us to migrate back to the mainland. On the ferry ride back, the captain pointed out a bald eagle and I spotted a pod of harbor porpoises. What a perfect day!

You can read more about my novel and Monhegan Island here:

Researching a Novel on Monhegan Island (my one-week retreat)
Sunrise on Monhegan Island (artsy photos)
Port Clyde to Monhegan Island (follow up research)
Factual Accuracy in Fiction: does it matter? (writing about Maine)
Monhegan Island, Maine (a family vacation)

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge was the first young adult author to win the Costa Children's Book Award since Philip Pullman. The Lie Tree is not easy to categorize, but like Pullman's Dark Materials series, this enticing blend of history, science, and magical realism would appeal to readers of all ages. Hardinge extrapolates on the beliefs of Darwin's time period to create a world that is both familiar and creepily fantastic.

The Lie Tree opens with a stormy sea voyage. A disgraced reverend/natural scientist has relocated his family to an island in the English Channel to escape scandal. With his daughter's help, he hides a Chinese plant in a seaside cave and swears Faith to secrecy. When her father's dead body is found at the bottom of a cliff, Faith is convinced it was murder and not suicide. Clues lead her back to the mysterious plant, which supposedly grows from lies and reveals truths to those who dare to eat its fruit. Is this the Biblical Tree of Knowledge or a hoax that may have cost her father his life?

Faith dreams of being a scientist like her father, but the social mores of her time constrain her tighter than a corset. Sixteen and plain, she is awkwardly stuck between girlhood and womanhood in a world in which brain size is mismeasured to dismiss female intelligence. "There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry." Nonetheless, Faith is determined to solve the mystery with the hope of restoring her family's name.

I loved the original premise, the marvelous sense of place/time and the strong female protagonist, but best of all was the gorgeous writing:

"There was something unsettled and unsettling about him, like a horse that might kick."

"Nobody was unkind, but after a while they had politely ignored her as if she were a stain on the tablecloth."

"She had always believed deep down that science would not judge her, even if people did."

"Dead people bled silence."

"There was no guilt left in her, just a bruise where it should have been."

"'Magic' was not an answer; it was an excuse to avoid looking for one."

Nearly every chapter had sentences worth highlighting; I had a hard time whittling down my long list to these excerpts. I don't usually like fantasy or religious themes, but I loved this book. I strongly recommend The Lie Tree to everyone, and especially to those who enjoy natural history, magical realism, and feminism.

Reviewer's Disclosure: this book was first published in 2015 in the UK. Too impatient to await the April 2016 publication in the USA, I bought the ebook for my Kindle. My cave photos are from a vacation in Cornwall, England and are under copyright. This book was included in my list of Good Summer YA Books for Teens and Tweens; follow the link for a dozen more recommendations.

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@Barrie Summy