Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Work, Art, and More, More, More...

Last I left off this blog, one summer ago, I was about to query more agents with a manuscript about a girl who becomes a spy in a 15th-century castle.

I queried that puppy to 11 people, got two partial requests, and ultimately no offer of representation.

Do you like how I just wrapped up in one sentence an agonizing, month-long process filled with neurotic moaning about the impossible process of becoming a "real" writer? Ha.

I'm glad I queried, and I'm also glad I stopped.
Clearly, I'm not thinking about query letters here.

Most writers have to query a bunch before their manuscript finds a home. I know that would've been the case for me. I think I had the stamina to do it, but here's the thing -- I realized it wasn't the right book to query.

It was a good book. It was well-written. It even had an awesome protagonist. But it's not quite there yet. I'm not sure where there is, exactly, or how else to put it. I feel like writing my first book five years ago taught me how to write a book. Writing the last book (my second) taught me how to write a better book. But what I'm going to do next -- hopefully -- is write a book that truly belongs to me, something I would long to read on the shelf, something that feels effortless to spend a day with.

And so I shelved (heh) my manuscript, and I stopped querying so that I could begin a better book.

I know that it's the right decision. How do I know this? Because I have no regrets, and because the beginning of my newest manuscript has the major thumbs up from my beta readers.
Beta reader Meika Usher, 'bout to take flight!
I'm five chapters into a story altogether different from my last tale. It's a bit older, much darker, and it has some romance. It's not set in a Europe-based fantasy land; rather, its origin comes from the Steppes of Central Asia, where the fabled blood-sweating horses led an Emperor to war. It is the story of a love that is despised by family, and ultimately, it is a story about the desire for a home.

This summer I ended up having no work with my textbook publishing company, so I spent a lot of time researching, plotting, drawing, and dreaming. It was my last summer home with my eldest before he went off to kindergarten this fall, and my last summer with my youngest before she began preschool. It was hot, lakewater-drenched summer.

So, what's next?

I have more than just my electronic pile of rejection letters to show for my efforts!

I have laid the foundations for future art commissions by creating an Etsy shop: 

Here are a few of the portraits I completed over the summer:

And there's more.

I've built up an arsenal of agent names and their interests, query letter tactics, and a solid understanding of the querying process.

I was also approached by the publishing company I work for to help write two more textbooks! Woo-hoo! Not only does this feed my family, but it feeds my soul, too. I get to research theoretical aspects of linguistics, write about oncoviruses, study filtration systems, and, in general, learn a shitload of fabulous information about the world.  Yay academia!

And best of all, I have a new manuscript that I can't wait to work on -- in my seven seconds of spare time...

Monday, May 2, 2016


Having toddlers and being dedicated to art -- either writing or fine art -- is a constant negotiation of determination, planning, and time. This month that negotiation turned into a wrestling match.

All the "I'm-so-busy" talk aside, I'm totally geeked to be working on the first portrait sketch I've drawn in more than a decade.

I'm simultaneously shocked by how long it's been (they are so fun! why don't I do this all the time?) and how hard it is.

And oh man, the rusty factor is real. Rusty like used-car-parts-in-a-junkyard rusty. I basically forgot how to draw portraits. Like, all of it -- the measuring, the shading, the outlining.
The eyes are off. The face width is off. The chin and jaw are off.

But relearning has been fun, and it's gotten me thinking about other kinds of sketches, namely character sketches for my new novel. The desires, fears, and history of my character are no less important than the drawn lines of the eyes, shadows of the nose, and space between the features of my art subject.

I never considered doing portraits (way back in my early 20s, I mean) because they were not technically strong, nor were they marketable. I'm sort of sad for myself when I think about this. I know now that it's so much more than what is considered "good" to the world. It's about putting your blood on paper and pouring out your emotions.

Ok. A little dramatic there, but still. Art now is so much about what I WANT. And it's what I want for me, alone.

So much about novel writing is the same.

The face I've decided on drawing has bits of magical realism sprinkled about -- a hot-air balloon, gears, moons, and ferns. I'm thinking about shading, measuring, and other details that make up a person.

Every measurement is important. One feature can't be drawn without being connected to another.

In my new novel, I've decided that one of my main characters has suffered a deep personal loss that resulted from disease. How does it affect her decisions and other aspects of her personality? How does it measure, so to speak, between her bravery, her reluctance, her words, her perception of others -- and the way others perceive her?

All the lines matter.

In my drawing, the background was too light. I didn't draw the right amount of attention to my subject material the way I wanted. I added shading in the lower left corner to start remedying this problem.

Progress. Still not done.

I will update this post later with the finished product.

UPDATE: (hooray, I finished it!)
Done. Pencil added for scale. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Marcella Boveri, the unrecognized scientist

For International Women's Day 2016, I'm not going to write about the fact that women face inequality in every nation on Earth, nor that women face a continual barrage of sexism and gender-based violence.

Instead, I'm going to raise from the depths of the male-dominated history of the sciences a woman so impressive that her story reverberates today, more than a hundred and fifty years after she was born.
Marcella O'Grady Boveri, 1863-1950

Marcella O'Grady Boveri was a scientist in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She holds the distinction of being the first woman to graduate from MIT with a concentration in biology, one of the first female science professors at Vassar College, and she is also an unrecognized contributor to the Sutton-Boveri chromosomal theory of inheritance.

If you think women are lacking in the sciences today, consider what it was like when Marcella was applying to do her doctoral studies in biology in 1887, when women were neither encouraged to enter nor accepted into such programs.

I happened upon Marcella's name in some work-related research about the history of cancer. One of the first scientists who ever proposed that cancer was caused by a single cell's abnormality was the German zoologist Theodor Boveri, and the only reason he did -- and that anyone knows about it -- is because of his wife, Marcella.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to Marcella's story.

Marcella taught biology at Bryn-Mawr College and later at Vassar. In 1896, she journeyed to Germany to study in the all-male science department at the University of Wurzburg -- again, the first woman to do so -- and worked with the head of the zoological department, Dr. Theodor Boveri.

Theodor was studying chromosomal theory of genetic inheritance at the time, and was less than thrilled to learn that a woman was joining him. He didn't think women belonged in the sciences in higher education. (What a pig, right? )

He changed his tune quickly, however. According to this short biography about Marcella written by Margaret Wright, it was soon after Marcella's arrival that Theodor could hardly contain himself around the brilliant scientist. He wrote to a family member that "I now have an American lady zoologist in the institute, and she is not really pretty, but quite attractive. I enjoy her company and must sometimes restrain myself: she does not care for frivolity."

Lab experiments on sea urchins, apparently, made quite the romantic backdrop. The two married at the end of the year.

Marcella worked on Boveri's theories with him for the remainder of his life, though she was not credited with the same achievements awarded to her husband. She researched alongside her husband to prove the theory of chromosomal inheritance, yet she was unrecognized as a contributing researcher.

She also translated a paper titled The Origin of Malignant Tumors written by Theodor Boveri in which he postulated that cancer was caused by abnormal behavior in cells. Marcella was, in essence, offering up to the scientific community a study that was far ahead of its time, which was subsequently proven through the discovery of oncogenes and cytogenetic studies. Again, she was never recognized, though she'd assisted in her husband's research, translated his work after his death, and advocated for the theory. Her name remains absent on the historic document, just as it did for his discovery of chromosomal inheritance.

Marcella Boveri, you were one hell of a strong woman.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Servant and a Spy

I have finally begun the exciting and terrible process of seeking agent representation for my book, A Servant and a Spy.

Who's my dreamboat literary agent? Someone who loves Young Adult literature, for starters. Someone who fancies adventure stories and rides along with characters thrown into situations they never expected. An agent who is passionate about drama, treason, and wickedly tight friendship.

So far, I have queried eight people.

The tally? Two rejections, one full manuscript request (which is still out). The full-manuscript request was from an agent I met at a writer's conference, so I never had a vicious attack of nerves in sending off a query letter to him. Oddly, it was much easier to pitch in person than online, where I agonize over commas and berate my slowness.

I have to remind myself that this process is glacially slow, and that it is highly competitive. I may never be published. Am I fine with that? No. That's why I'm querying.

But it's not the backbone of why I write.

The person I'm writing for at this moment is me. The enjoyment of telling a story and the contagious process of developing characters is my lightening rod of motivation -- not the coveted title of published author.

If I think about the publishing process and what I need to do to query, sell, and market a book, I would give up now.

Among what I'm sending out to agents is a proper description of A Servant and a Spy, or what would appear on the back cover as the book blurb.

Here it is!


Fifteen-year-old Seren lives in a small village where she’s expected to marry early, tend goats, and not punch anyone. So it’s no surprise that she wants nothing more than to escape. With her mixed ethnicity and fluency in the language of Barataya, the warring kingdom to the South, she never really stood a chance of fitting in anyway. 

Seren gets her wish to see more of the world when a distant relation summons her to Castle Kingsforth to be a maid to the princess. Suddenly at court, in a nest of backstabbing nobles and jealous servants, Seren finds that her new life is nothing like what she imagined. When the king of Barataya arrives at the castle and the threat of war looms, she learns the real reason she’s been brought to court, and it leads her to hidden tunnels and treacherous secrets. If she follows orders, she'll betray the princess, the one true friend she’s sworn to serve. And if she doesn't do as she's told, she -- and her country -- could end in ruin.

Not your average princess story, A Servant and A Spy deals with themes of racism and female friendship. It will appeal to readers who enjoy the plot turns in Jennifer Nielsen's The Lost Prince, and those who loved Sara Raasch’s Snow Like Ashes or Kristin Cashore’s Graceling


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Today's chicken

Today's chicken. These hens have been roosting together for a long, long while.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Crossing the divide

Grave of a Protestant and Catholic married couple in Roermond, the Netherlands. 
The burial grounds were divided, but they bridged the gap. Image source here.
I came across the photograph of this grave while researching cancer for a work assignment. It was nearly midnight, and my eyes had long since glazed over. As the internet does from time to time, it provided me an image of such fibrous, raw emotion that it startled me awake. I could think of nothing else for the rest of the night. 

It's the truest kind of love story. Back in the 19th century, lady Jonkvrouwe J.C.P.H. van Aefferden, a good Catholic woman from a good Catholic family, flouted tradition damn good and well when she married the Protestant man Colonel J.W.C. van Gorcum. It was not just eyebrows raised over such ideas back then, but pitchforks. But these two married anyway, and late in life when they were sorting out their burial arrangements, society sought to separate them once more. The powers that be should've known better. The couple arranged to have their hands clasping together over the dividing wall, eternally connected.

Catholic, be honest, that's not what this picture is about to me. 

I'm thinking about a savage political season when old friends are baffled by each other's opinions. I find myself shaking my head and calling people cruel fools for following the candidates and the ideas I loathe. I will never back down from supporting social service programs and equal rights, and I will never condone racist, misogynistic, classist policies. 

I wonder if Mr. van Gorcum and Lady Aefferden ever screamed at each other about their religion? I wonder if they shook their heads, silently disproving. Did they reason with one another? Did they fight about putting the tea away, and did it lead to accusations of his upbringing? Hers?

How many such couples like this pair existed before social divisions began to break down?

I want to remain friends with people who disagree with me. It's difficult for me because I am so convicted about so many social issues (and because I am not good at keeping my mouth shut). Also, I'm not even sure it's even the best thing to WANT to remain friends with people I disagree with because honestly, I can only be nice about assfoolery for so long. 


But I don't have to agree with others, and we can remain civil with one another for the sake of mutual understanding. For the sake of peace.  

We can love one another without accepting each other's ideas. I think these two wise old ghosts understood each other in life and probably changed the way their entire society thought about divided religions. 

And of course I'm going to end this with a Rumi quote because I'm in a Rumi mood tonight (you're welcome):

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
 there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other"
doesn't make any sense."

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Book crush: Snow Like Ashes

Over the holidays, I read Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch and immediately fell in love.

Raasch's leading lady, Meira, is incredibly sassy and strong -- two of my favorite things. The tale is a hero's journey, with the heroine (a hero's journey with a  female character, hallelujah!) embarking on an epic journey to reclaim the lost land of her people.

I loved this story, simply, because of the main character. She's simultaneously humble and precocious; fearful and brave; young and grown. I thought the author did a fantastic job describing the different kingdoms, as well (though that comes into play even more in the second book).

Here's a great quote from the book:
"Fear is a seed that, once planted, never stops growing."

Meira ends up in some truly terrifying settings. Unlike adult fiction (I'm thinking Game of Thrones here), the graphic elements are handled with a lighter hand, but the author doesn't shy away from dragging the reader through some nail-biting, dark scenes.

Here's the book blurb:

A striking fantasy tale of dark magic, dangerous politics, and discovering your true self—perfect for fans of Game of ThronesAn Ember in the Ashes and A Court of Thorns and Roses.
Sixteen years ago the Kingdom of Winter was conquered and its citizens enslaved, leaving them without magic or a monarch. Now the Winterians' only hope for freedom is the eight survivors who managed to escape, and who have been waiting for the opportunity to steal back Winter's magic and rebuild the kingdom ever since.
Orphaned as an infant during Winter's defeat, Meira has lived her whole life as a refugee. Training to be a warrior—and desperately in love with her best friend, Winter's future king—she would do anything to help Winter rise to power again.
So when scouts discover the location of the ancient locket that can restore Winter's magic, Meira decides to go after it herself—only to find herself thrust into a world of evil magic and dangerous politics—and ultimately comes to realize that her destiny is not, never has been, her own.