Reviews of favorites from my reading list, along with writing tips and advice, beta reading pet peeves, and other tools I pick up along my journey to trad publication.
I’ve lost work. Hasn’t everybody? Mine was a hard drive failure that deleted dozens of short stories and partial manuscripts I’d collected over the years, back when cloud backup wasn’t anything as accessible or cheap as it is today. I had printed copies of some of those, backup diskettes of others, but a few are gone forever.
It’s understandable! We writers are not necessarily also computer people. We come from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life, so the routine, rigorous backup and version control practices of software programmers may not be something we’re even aware of. But since I was lucky enough to marry into the ranks of nerdery (who was HORRIFIED at my chaotic-evil approach to file management), I have unlearned some bad habits that put my work at risk.
Don’t: Work From the Same Document Every Day
You don’t have to lose a whole file to lose work. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding out that you don’t like the changes you made yesterday, but since Undo only goes back to the last save, you’re stuck. Or finding out that you hit a wrong button at some point (who knows when?) and deleted large chunks of your document.
Do: New Day, New File
Every day that I write, step one is to create a new document. The document name begins with the date in year-month-day order, then a file name. For instance, on August 1, 2022, I opened my work in progress with the working title Uncoupled, and saved it as 2022-08-01 Uncoupled. This applies whether I’m working in Scrivener, Google Docs, or Word/Libreoffice. Then I work from this new file that day. Tomorrow I will start off my session by saving a new copy, 2022-08-02 Uncoupled.
This means that if a file gets corrupted, I’m unlikely to lose more than a day’s work. It also means that if I make a major change, such as from 1st person to 3rd, I can roll those changes back simply by opening an older version of the book. If I accidently delete a section without knowing, I can retrieve it from an earlier version. It also proves provenance if I have to show that I am the creator of a work in copyright dispute.
Is it “really” your final draft, though? One of the biggest traps we writers fall into is thinking a work is done, then having to tack on new words to try and distinguish it from the last time we thought that work was done. Also, what about when this is no longer your Work In Progress? How would you find this in a file search, or know at a glance which project this is when you’ve written three more books?
Do: “<Date><Working Title>.doc”
Again, if a file is labeled 2022-08-01-Uncoupled.doc (My current WIP) and stored in a folder specifically for this project, I can sort by date and see at a glance that this is my most recent version. I don’t need to label it “Final,” despite the emotional satisfaction of doing so. It’s also easy to find in a search, if I don’t know where I put it in a few years. I can be confident that there isn’t a FinalFinalFinalFINALdraftWIP.doc floating around somewhere that replaces this one. And, by including the date in the name of the file, I don’t have to worry that if I open an older version and hit save by accident, it marks the “last edited” date in the system to make it appear the most recent version.
Don’t: Keep Files in Multiple Local Folders
At one point, I had separate folders for “Drafts” “Querying” and “Books.” The first book I wrote had versions of it spread over all three folders, and one hanging out randomly on my desktop. (Did I mention my ADHD?) I hadn’t yet started good file name practices, so each of those folders contained a version of my project labeled “Final Draft,” and every single one of those “Final Draft” files was slightly different. So which one was my real final draft? I had opened and closed them enough that the system dates were unreliable. I could use specialized software to compare the versions and discover where they differed, but chances were, I was rolling dice and losing edits.
Do: Keep Drafts in a Single Central Location and Link
I decided to use a folder structure of Writing –> Books –> Title for my central repository. There I have all of my notes, scrivener and doc files, and even images for mood boards. I do have a separate Writing –> Query folder, where I keep query specific documents. But that folder contains a link to the draft I’m currently querying, not a separate copy. That way, if I spot a stray typo before sending out pages or full MS, I can correct it, and that change will reflect back on the central copy of the MS. I’m not breaking the chain, and that correction will be preserved if I go back and do a round of revisions between queries.
When I do make changes, however, I save a new dated version as backup. The querying copy is an exception to the naming protocols because it should be <last name>_<Title>.doc for purposes of attaching the file for agents. But it should also exist as a dated draft in the main folder, for future edits.
Don’t: Only Save In One Location
Computers fail. Hard drives fail. Files glitch. Theft happens. Malware happens. It’s easy to lose sight of just how impermanent electronic documents are. Some folks get around that by using only the cloud, such as working directly from Google Docs or Dropbox. But those accounts are just as vulnerable as your local machine.
Do: Minimum 1 Physical Drive, 1 Cloud
This is a bare minimum! The physical drive can be a laptop, desktop, external HD, anything that stores the files locally to a device that is within your physical control. The Cloud can be any of several paid or free cloud services, including Dropbox, OneDrive, Pcloud, or Google Docs. Your writing habit should include opening your writing session with a new file name, and ending it by saving a copy of that file to a new location. If you work from Dropbox, make a local copy on your machine at the end of the day. If you work from your local machine, save a copy to the cloud.
Again, that’s a minimum. Backup redundancy is always a good idea, but does require more discipline. Some authors will work from their laptop, backup their work to an external hard drive, then make separate backups to two cloud services. Those authors are very unlikely to ever lose more than a day’s work.
I split the difference, personally. My ADHD makes it important that my routines are as simple and automated as possible. So I work from my laptop, using Scrivener for drafting and LibreOffice for final layout/edits. Scrivener has the option to set a backup destination and back up your file with one click, but LibreOffice requires an extra step of “Save As” at the end of the day. I backup to PCloud. Once a week or so, I copy my entire writing folder into a zip file and store it in Dropbox for an additional reserve.
Dropbox and Pcloud do have automated options that will back up your files and folders, but after a glitch where Dropbox overwrote my local laptop files with the older cloud version, costing me a day’s work and 5K words on a first draft, I prefer to back up manually.
The most important things you can do to save yourself from losing your work are to work from a new, dated copy of the file each day, stored in a single central folder, and back it up to at least one separate location.
Andrew’s bond with his best friend Eddie was deeper than blood or friendship, rooted in deep magic and deeper secrets. When Andrew gets word of Eddie’s apparent suicide, it tears Andrew’s whole world apart. He’s drawn back to Nashville to piece together Eddie’s last days, certain that there’s more to the death than he’s been told.
I’m picky about gothics. Not because I’m somehow an expert in the genre, but specifically because I’m not. So my favorite gothics tend to be contemporary genre crossovers with accessible writing style, vivid characters, and a strong sense of place.
Summer Sons just clicked for me. It is a slow, dark, languid dive into the Appalachians. We walk the line of social tension between the elite and the back woods, old South generational wealth and generational curses, ivory towers and street racers, queer masculinity and violence.
What I love best about Summer Sons, besides the sheer craftsmanship, is the handling of ghosts. Andrew’s powers and affinity for the dead are woven tightly into the story, heavy with dread and metaphor. There is no friendly Casper guiding the MC gently to a life lesson. The ghosts are visceral, angry, and dangerous, seducing Andrew into a spiral of his own self-destruction.
But the craftsmanship! I simultaneously disliked every single character, yet wanted to really dive into in their head and rooted for their redemption. The author pulled me into scenes and hobbies I had no interest in and made me care. The characters made terrible, toxic, self-loathing, and self-pitying decisions, but made me understand and sympathize. It is the kind of story that lingers for hours once you close the book, like the taste of coffee after you drink. It’s not the kind of book you take to the beach for a light summer read.
It’s the kind of book that haunts you.
To find a copy of Summer Sons visit the author’s website at https://leemandelo.com/
Content warnings for suicide, alcoholism, drug use, graphic violence, supernatural horror, and homophobia.
Here it is, the traditional, ginormous, over-the-top, all-the dish, “How I got my agent” post!
I’ve included my successful query letter at the end. I’ll also break out individual pieces into future blog posts as well, going into more depth with the strategies that worked for me. Please note that no one path to publishing is going to be right for everyone. I have a great deal of privilege going into this process, along with some big disadvantages, and that affected my approach and results. The goal is always to build a big toolbox, then use the most effective tools for the job in front of you.
I always had plans to be a writer, from the short story I wrote in kindergarten about a ghost who was really bad at scaring people, to the truly tragically, hilariously awful fanfiction I wrote in my teens about Star Trek (big crushes on Chekov and Worf) and Batman Forever (Hellooo Chris O’Donnell!) I still have those fanfiction notebooks, by the way, and do solemnly swear that if I ever make it to NYT Bestseller lists, I will release pages of it every April Fools Day to show that writing skill can be acquired through practice, and doesn’t have to exist as an innate trait. So if you’re curious, then buy my books and recommend me to others.
After my meandering path of career changes into my 40s, my partner earned his doctorate in mathematics and got a job offer that we could both live on. With his support, I had a rare opportunity to take my filing cabinets full of bits and pieces of half-formed ideas and unfinished scenes, and set out full-time on a self-directed study of how to be a writer.
BOOK ONE: PUNCH DRUNK MAGIC
I wrote my first full book, Punch Drunk Magic, in the summer of 2018, after searching endlessly for a certain kind of book I wasn’t able to find. It was a not-so-cozy suburban mystery about witches, romance, and identity within a generational community. In the meantime, I started brushing off old social media accounts and joining online writing groups for advice, reading voraciously, and searching for resources on the business end of writing. I learned about the query trenches, synopses, beta readers, and comps. I devoured every piece of advice I could find, sifting through it for patterns so that I could figure out which to follow. I believed so hard in this book. It was everything I wanted to read – sexy, angsty, magical, and subversive. When I sent it off to beta readers, they loved it (except for one who said there was too much kissing for a mystery, but I forgave them).
Then it was time to enter the dreaded query trenches.
THE QUERY LETTER
It turns out that writing a book and writing about a book are two completely different skill sets. So if you’re struggling with your query letter, you are not alone, or a bad writer. You are trying a new writing form for the first time, and it takes practice.
Luckily, I found The Query Shark at https://queryshark.blogspot.com/. Agent Janet Reid runs the blog were she takes queries submitted for critique, and shows us the editing process, often through multiple iterations. To this day, the number one advice I offer any querying author is to go to the Query Shark blog, navigate to the archive, and read ALL 300+ query critiques. After every 20-30 critiques, stop and revise your query letter with what you’ve learned, so the new tips don’t get lost in the shuffle.
That sounds like a slog, right? But again, you’re developing an entirely new skill set, and this blog is a master class in crafting a tight, dynamic, voice-driven query letter. There’s no shortcuts to learning a new skill. Put in the time. Do the work. You can start as soon as you have a rough draft or outline of your book and pick away at 20-30 critiques and one revision a week. Once you have a finished book, you have a polished query letter ready to go.
Note that some agents have specific requirements for query letters that don’t match Query Shark’s (e.g. loglines, housekeeping info at the top). Always defer to the individual agent’s requirements, and poke around to see if that agent has posted sample queries you can use as a guide.
I’ve included my successful query letter at the end of the post.
Again, writing a book and writing about a book are two very different skill sets! The synopsis is the most hated step of the querying process for a lot of authors. And no, that’s not a typo in the section title. You need two. One is a 1000 word version for agents who either don’t specify, or ask for a 2+ page version. The second is a 500 word version for agents who request a one-page synopsis.
Start with a “however long it takes” synopsis. Stick to ONLY your main character’s story and the central conflict. For each chapter or major scene, write out one sentence saying what happens, one sentence describing how the character’s choices or actions led to that event, and one sentence describing the effect of the event on the character or central conflict. Once you have an outline, you can smooth it down to just the major turning points of the story instead of every scene, eliminate any side characters who crept in there, and eventually, make sure it reflects your narrative voice. Then chop it down to just the absolute critical events (inciting incident, midpoint, all-is-lost, ending) for the 500 page version.
If you’re struggling to identify the major plot points that go into a synopsis, I recommend starting with the beats described in the books Save the Cat, and Save the Cat Writes a Novel. For Romance genre, I recommend Romancing the Beat.
I’ll go more into query letters and synopses in future blog posts.
THE AGENT LIST
I do use Query Tracker, but the interface wasn’t intuitive enough for me for tracking and hid some information I wanted to see at a glance. I created a separate spreadsheet using Google Sheets to create a master list of agents. To start, have one sheet in the workbook that serves as a master list of all agents you’re interested in. You’ll do a separate sheet to track querying for each project.
I’ll do a separate post to go into more detail, but you’ll want to start with Query Tracker and search for anyone who reps your genre. For each agent, use their agency wishlist, the Manuscript Wishlist site, and social media (especially Twitter) to determine whether your book would be a good fit. Take notes as you go, as it will help you personalize your query letter later and make good choices. Save links to interviews or blog posts they’ve made. I then scored each agent 1-10 based on how well my book fits their wishlist.
Once you have a complete list, my next step was to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace for one month. I went through each agent and agency and took extensive notes on what they’ve sold in my genre (or if they’re a new agent, what the lead agents that might be mentoring them have sold), who they sold it to, and when. If you start with a complete list, you can cram this work into a month and then cancel the subscription if you can’t afford to maintain it. You’ll want to resubscribe if you get an offer, though, so that you can get recent information and dig more deeply into the offering agent(s). Then, of course, you’ll want to re-subscribe long-term once you’re published, to maintain an author account and your book listings.
You can do some of this work for free through Query Tracker, the agency website, and individual authors’ acknowledgment pages, but it is a lot more time and effort. If you can afford the month of PM at this stage, it’s a good investment.
Now you should be ready to sort your agents into A, B, and C tiers based on how much you want to work with them, as well as flagging (not deleting—always keep your research) anyone you absolutely do not want to work with. An A10 agent is a dream match. A C1 agent might not be worth querying, at least not until much later.
When I set out to be an author, I found a lot of advice and resources through social media, including several of my most trusted beta readers, free workshops and courses, and advice. While the primary focus should always be on writing the best possible book and refining your craft, all three offering agents mentioned my social media following as a positive factor in their decision.
I currently keep a Twitter account that’s primarily a professional writing account, and a Facebook account where I participate in a lot of writing groups and workshops. I’ve switched a lot of my Facebook activity to an author page to build interaction, and linked it to my Instagram, which I’m still building and figuring out how to use effectively. (Right now I just post writing quotes and dad jokes).
Before 2018 I barely used my Twitter account for anything and only had a couple of followers. I set out to deliberately build a writing community around me before I queried my first book. It took almost four years to pass 14K, so it’s worth starting early so you don’t have to have a crash course in social media in the short time between signing an agent and going on sub. Trust me, you’ll have enough to do then!
I sent out my first batch of query letters to a mix of A and B tier agents in January 2019, and mixed it up with Twitter pitch parties. I got a few requests from DVpit and SFFpit in 2019. Overall, I sent 38 queries for Punch Drunk Magic between January and May 2019, with 8 requests for partial or full. Then I declared it dead.
This was a brutal process, and I have absolute sympathy for anyone who quits, goes indie, goes straight to publishers, etc. Those are valid paths, but didn’t fit my own long-term career goals. But the querying trenches are harrowing, without a doubt. I was even playing on easy mode, not having to wonder if my race or ethnicity was a factor in the rejections. I knew it came down to my story and the market, and I didn’t make the cut.
BOOK 2: A WITCH IN WINE COUNTRY
What kept me going, aside from sheer stubbornness, was that I had already started a new book. Once Punch Drunk Magic was out there and I only had to occasionally send an email or update a spreadsheet, I took some excellent advice and turned to a completely unrelated story. By the time Punch Drunk was ready to be shelved, A Witch in Wine Country was ready for beta readers, and I started the whole process again.
The thing is, once I had finished writing and revising the new book, I picked up Punch Drunk just to read for fun. With the benefit of more experience, I could see the problems in that first book that I could not see when I was querying it. The characters were underdeveloped. There were some plot holes. The line-level writing was choppy. I used cliches, like starting with the character waking up and describing herself in a mirror. If I had thrown it out there on Amazon as a self-pub, I’d be a little embarrassed of it now. It’s still a good story, and I hope to dust it off and revise it in a few years, but it wasn’t ready.
Overall, I sent out 45 queries for Wine Country and participated in Twitter pitch parties between February and July 2020. I immediately noticed a pattern compared to the previous book. My rejections took longer and were more personalized, so I was hitting more “maybe” piles. I received 6 requests for more material, but more full requests than partials. Then, in September 2020, I hit the next marker in what I considered progress in my writing craft—a revise and resubmit from an agent I really wanted to work with. The feedback was sparse, but I took the bit in my teeth and ran with it, doing a full re-write, adding depth to characters and re-shaping the plot. Unfortunately, I revised it too far away from the agent’s wishlist, and they passed. While I think it ended up a much stronger book, it also ended up a much different book, so I don’t blame them for deciding it was no longer a good fit for them.
In 2021, while struggling with a new project along the same lines, I sent Wine Country back out to beta readers, including, this time, a published author I met through a Facebook group who was able to give me higher-level professional advice. In short, the feedback was that I was trying to do too much in one book. It had a central romance plot, but also a women’s fiction plot, a murder mystery, and paranormal elements, all competing for equal billing. The blend of genres was similar to gothics, but it didn’t have enough of the gothic tropes and vibe to market it as such. I needed to pick a central plot and let the others take supporting roles if I wanted the book to be marketable. I had the same issue with my current WIP, which was stuck at the midpoint.
BOOK 3: TIMBER (THE ONE)
So to focus myself and recover from the disappointment of querying, I set out to write a pure, single-genre contemporary romance. My goal was to really nail down the romance plot with all the genre beats, and narrow in on the character development around that plot. I needed to make writing fun again, so I picked something completely out of my wheelhouse and as different from the previous books as I could get—a lumberjack romcom. It was such a cliché that it begged for a revival. So I put my lumberjacks on the set of a reality TV show and cast it all through a queer, gender-subversive lens. I also put some craft books to work (Save the Cat, Save the Cat writes a Novel, and Romancing the Beat) sketching out each chapter and matching it up with genre beats before beginning the first draft. Hats off to my poor partner, who watched three seasons of Axe-men with me for research, and then listened to me info-dump everything the TV show got wrong according to the behind-the-scenes articles and forum threads from real loggers.
I started querying Timber in October 2021, picking up whoever was still open over the holiday season. Then in 2022, I took a few weeks and just blasted queries, hitting an agent at every agency on my list by the end of February. From 71 queries sent, I received 13 requests for more materials, and, in June 2022, an offer of representation.
I had, at this point, given up on Timber and was ready to shelve it and move on. It hit hard, the rejections on this third round. My partner was talking me out of quitting writing and looking for a job every month or so. I was researching self-publication marketing in earnest, even though it didn’t fit my career goals. When the email asking for a phone call came in, right after a rejection on a full, I had to read it three times to understand that it wasn’t another rejection.
The phone call was like a miracle. Not only did she love my book, she GOT my book. She understood what I was going for (a m/f romance through a queer lens, kicking off an eventual series of various queer pairings) in a way that made me feel seen. She loved my characters for the same reasons I did, and her editorial goals was to make my book more of what we both loved about it, not turn it into something else. She supported my interest in writing in multiple genres in the future, and had ideas for how to map that kind of career. Most importantly to me, she’s an editorial agent, and writing the best book I can is as important to me as selling it.
I immediately contacted everyone who had a Timber query and hadn’t responded yet, even those that were six months old that technically would be considered timed out. This resulted in two additional offers and an outpouring of personalized, supportive rejections congratulating me on my offer (in case anyone though agents didn’t care, the good ones really do want to see authors succeed).
My next step was to weigh the different offers. I reviewed the agency sample contracts with my partner, who is one of those people who reads court briefs for fun. Yeah. I don’t get it either, but it sure comes in handy when reviewing legal documents.
In the end, the deciding factors will be different for everyone. For me, it came down to:
- The editorial approach and this agent’s background in editing that would make this book shine in a very crowded market
- The contract that seemed the most fair and balanced with an assumption of good faith
- A boutique agency where agents had a strong cooperative working style, experienced mentors, and a mission of inclusion/diversity in publishing that I feel strongly about
- The connection this agent had with my book and her enthusiasm for working with it!
AFTER THE OFFER
A few things to keep in mind that I haven’t seen passed around as advice for a newly offered author, and should be:
1. You can request changes to the contract. Probably not something extreme like fee percentages, but if you see a clause in one agency’s contract that you wish existed in another, don’t hesitate to ask for it. Do they specify caps on multi-agent fees for subrights? Do they have a clause that ensures you can be paid directly from the publisher in case of agency bankruptcy or dissolution? They might say no to your request, or ask for a different wording, but they’re not going to rescind your offer for something like that. If they do rescind, you dodged a bullet. You wouldn’t want to suddenly find out your agent has a touchy ego once you’re already in a business relationship and you rely on them to get your checks.
2. If you get an offer, ask around your whisper network. Post in private writing groups on social media asking if anyone has heard good or bad things of the agents, and if someone wants to DM you about it, let them. People in the industry get to know the bad actors, but won’t say anything where it will come up in a search and risk retaliation. Check WriterBeware. Get 2-3 references from the agent, preferably at least one writer that has sold a book and one that hasn’t. Email them to ask how it is to work with the agent.
3. Plan for a crash. You’ve spent a lot of time, either months or years, enduring heartache, rejection, exhaustion, and burnout. You’ve had an adrenaline soaked couple of weeks of fielding life-changing phone calls and decisions. Give yourself time to fall back to earth after you’ve signed the contract. If you can take time off work, do so. Don’t throw yourself into a new project. Play video games. Go for walks. Breathe. Feel your feelings. Process the trauma of this journey. This moment, between your acceptance and either an editorial letter or a submission plan, is the last and best moment to breathe in your career.
4. If an agent refuses to give you references, pressures you to make an immediate decision without giving you at least two weeks to consider other offers, or won’t provide a sample contract from the agency to look over, I would consider those red flags. This is supposed to be a mutually beneficial business relationship. If it isn’t starting out with mutual respect, transparency, and good faith, it can only go downhill from there. You are in a vulnerable position and maybe a little desperate, so you’re perfect for predators to pick off and take advantage of. As much as we want an agent, it is absolutely true that a bad agent is worse than none. This is why your whisper network may be your most valuable tool.
The most helpful lesson I’ve learned through the process of querying three books in three years was that I have more than one book in me. I’m able to let go of scarcity thinking going into revisions with my agent because I know this isn’t “THE BOOK,” It’s one book. It’s my first of many books. If I need to cut a character, plot, or theme, I can re-use it somewhere else. If it fails on sub, then I’ve already started outlining the next book, and it will be even better than this one.
Related to this, the best skill I’ve picked up in this process is the ability to receive critique of my work. As much as I love my characters and story, the fact that this isn’t “THE BOOK” means I can take a step back and consider them objectively. That isn’t to say all criticism is useful, since it’s often highly subjective and sometimes delivered so rudely that it overshadows any useful message buried beneath the jerkiness. But I’ve learned that my real goal isn’t to preserve this story–it’s to make it better. Even if that means tearing it down to the studs for a complete re-build. That doesn’t mean critique is easy to hear, but accepting it is a skill worth cultivating if your goal is to become a better writer.
Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this, and good luck in the query trenches! If you have questions or need specific advice, feel free to reach out to me in the comments, or on Twitter @JoGeekly.
MY QUERY LETTER for TIMBER
This was my base query letter, which was personalized and modified according to each agent’s guidelines and interests.
Dear (agent full name):
Aspiring producer and secret idealist Anna MacKenzie needs this reality docudrama on Oregon logging to launch her career. She expected the studio executives and her ambitious ex to fight her dream of making sympathetic, positive television. She wasn’t expecting the biggest fight to come from a giant, grumpy, backwoods lumberjerk determined to sabotage her show.
Henry West is not about to let some Hollywood slimeball come in with pretty promises and throw the private lives of everyone he cares about into the national spotlight for public ridicule. Not even for the cash infusion his family’s logging business desperately needs. Not even when said slimeball comes with eyes like the shifting shadows on mossy stone, and reminds him of the poems he stopped writing so many years ago.
In their war of contract loopholes and Disney princess theme songs, the line between fighting and flirting quickly blurs. But a cease fire proves even more dangerous. Giving in to the pull of attraction would risk her career, his family’s reputation, and both their hearts.
TIMBER is a contemporary, dual-POV, enemies to lovers romance of 83,000 words with strong series potential. It was inspired in part by the History Channel’s docudrama Ax Men and the Lifetime series UnREAL, and should appeal to readers of Tessa Bailey’s It Happened One Summer, Lucy Score’s Mister Fixer Upper, and readers of Sally Thorne.
Thank you for your time,
Dev Deshpande makes happy-ever-afters happen. As a producer on the top reality dating show, his specialty is crafting a story of true love, even when his own love life crashes and burns.
But this season’s bachelor, tech genius Charlie Winshaw, is a disaster. Stiff, awkward, picky, and anxious, he’s as far from prince charming material as the show has ever seen. Worse, he doesn’t even believe in love—he’s only on the show to rehabiliate his image.
Dev’s mission is to get Charlie to open up, relax, and give love a chance with the women vying to be chosen as his princess. But the more Charlie opens up, the more they realize he has better chemistry with Dev than the 20 women he’s supposed to choose a wife from. The two men are faced with a high-stakes choice: Go along with the illusion and save both their careers, or challenge everyone’s assumptions of who deserves a happy-ever-after.
This is one of those rare and precious cinnamon-roll love stories that make my heart sing, because the author does not confuse cinnamon-roll with passive or feminine. Charlie is strong, loyal, physical, and willing to fight for what he wants. He’s just also soft, sweet, anxious, and wounded by a world that refuses to see him. With OCD and panic disorder, his biggest struggle is internal; he must take off the mask that he’s worked so hard to make, because he assumed he had to meet the expectations of others to deserve happiness.
Dev and Charlie’s dynamic is reminiscent of Alex and Henry in Red, White, and Royal Blue. Dev has the same frenetic energy and wild charm, balanced by Charlie’s wounded softness. It’s a dynamic that works well, lending itself to adorable squee moments and outrageous, witty banter. The writing craft is strong from the line-level on up, the pacing well-balanced, and the secondary characters are ones we want to see center-stage in their own stories. This one is definitely going in my re-read pile.
Look and ask for The Charm Offensive at your local library, or visit the author’s website at https://www.alisoncochrun.com/ for purchasing options and upcoming titles!
Ari Abram’s dream is to be a meteorologist, and counts herself lucky to work with her childhood hero, the ever calm and cheerful Torrance Hale at KSEA 6 in Seattle. But instead of the close relationship with her mentor she’d craved, she spends most of her time trying to defuse shouting matches and petty fights between Torrance and her divorced husband, the news director.
Desperate, she teams up with cinnamon roll sports reporter Russell Barringer to play matchmaker. If they can make their bosses fall in love again, it will make everyone’s lives easier at KSEA 6. But Ari wasn’t planning to fall in love herself. It would mean letting someone see past the sunshine girl, into the darkness beneath.
My favorite romances have both elements of light, funny, wholesome squish and tackle darker themes of identity and self-growth to keep it real and grounded. Weather Girl is a great blend, with the refreshing bonus of a sexy-sweet fat male lead, Jewish characters, blending families, and a twist that is as surprising as it is satisfying. I love the exploration of generational trauma relieved by laugh-out-loud dialogue. The author is also a master of steam, putting more panting sexual tension into a casual brush of skin than some books pack into an entire sex scene. There are, of course, also a few sex scenes, so lovers of extra chili peppers will enjoy this book.
Please be aware that the book deals with depression and mental health, childhood emotional trauma, and inpatient mental health in a respectful, accurate way. It addresses issues that don’t get discussed often enough, like the effect of medication on sex drive, the reality of bad days even on well-managed symptoms, and processing forgiveness as an option instead of an obligation. It’s real, but so are the good moments, the vulnerability, and the happy-ever-after.
Visit the author’s website at http://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/ to find a copy of Weather Girl, or request it at your local library.
I’m breaking my contemporary romance reading streak for a very good reason. Gravity and Lies, the first book in the Static Over Space series by C. G. Volars, is worth jumping genres. It’s quirky, queer sci-fi adventure with a tough, trash-talking, bisexual Latino MC and a big cast of lovable and hateable aliens.
Izo Lopez has not had an easy life, cycling through the foster system and surviving homeless. But he has a big goal and a bigger secret. He is scrambling to save enough money to save his best friend from the foster system and create a stable family life for them both.
Oh yeah, and he can fly.
But when he’s snatched up and transported across several galaxies by alien traffickers, he finds himself on a new world where his powers of flight make him a hot commodity, and his kidnappers are the only ones who know how to get him back to the obscure little uncharted planet he calls home.
Volars pulls the rug out from under the classic damsel in distress tropes of adventure novels with a delightful, gender-bending twist in the form of the tough, stubborn, sarcastic Izo. Then the author goes on to flip and twist every other stereotype, resulting in an aerial circus of sharply unexpected, delightfully wicked, and dynamically complex characters.
Above all, the story is fun! There are dark moments, and heartbreaking moments, and stand-up-and-cheer moments. But Izo’s indomitable spirit and sharp wit always lift us right back up again. We’re right there rooting for him as he fights a whole galaxy in a relatable search for home, family, and identity (and a sandwich!)
Visit the Static Over Space website at https://www.staticoverspace.com/ to get a copy, or request it at your local library.
I had the pleasure of beta-reading this book, and I love the author’s vision for it. I also received an ARC copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. I can honestly recommend it to any steamy contemporary romance reader.
The Tel Aviv financial world is a world of men. Kelly, an investment manager and Argentinian immigrant, must be twice as good and twice as tough to hold her position at the top. That’s fine with her. After all, she’s happy, rich, and really only needs a man for one thing. It seems like the ideal solution to take up an affair with her younger Russian masseur, Slava. Sweet, romantic Slava is head-over-heels for Kelly, but she’s clear at the beginning that there will be no happy-ever-after—no matter how good he looks kneeling at her feet.
Illan is a private investigator working for the Israeli Securities Agency to uncover a massive market manipulation scheme. He needs Kelly’s help, but her whistleblowing and cooperating with the ISA could risk everything she’d worked for. He asks that he trust her not just with her career, but with her pleasure, and her deepest vulnerabilities. When he asks her to give up Slava, though, she finds that no-strings doesn’t mean easy to let go.
This is a bit of a break from my recent Romcom streak, although the author does bring some lighthearted moments to balance the serious circumstances and stakes. Sivan brings the diverse city of Tel Aviv to life as a backdrop to this steamy romance about financial trading scandals, intrigue, and the global immigrant experience. With well-researched and realistic BDSM and polyamory rep, this story brings the heat in a big way. But it also makes the complex world of financial trading and investigation accessible and interesting to readers with no background in finance. The characters are beautifully developed, with unique voices that jump off the page. We see them all as real people in their different strengths and vulnerabilities, and root for all three right to the very end.
Follow Mia Sivan on her Amazon Author Page for Crunching Her Numbers and upcoming releases.
Laura is a hopeless romantic and professional meet-cute reporter. Her own parents’ story of being brought together by a broken antique coin across the sea has set high standards for her love life, and she’s not about to settle for less than epic romance.
As she travels to the island of Jersey to trace her parents’ romantic footsteps for a story, her luggage gets switched at the airport. The contents of the mystery suitcase convinces her that the owner is the man of her dreams and she must find him to fulfill very own meet-cute. But as she tracks him down with the help of a surly cab driver and rediscovers her island roots, she uncovers family secrets that threaten to unravel her belief in happy ever after.
For me this romcom had the perfect balance of serious, funny, wholesome and whimsical to draw me right in. There are clever nods and twists to genre tropes and reader expectations that made the story fresh, and a light touch on the history of the island that captures the heart of the place without feeling that we’re being lectured on a school trip.
The plot threads get a little meandering at the end, but the dynamic characters carry it through with a well-constructed twist. The resolution is deeply satisfying all around, and the light touch makes this a great, cozy, curl up on the beach, escapist kind of read, with more laughter than tears, and all the warmth of a good cuppa with friends.
Visit the author’s page at https://www.sophiecousens.com/ to buy this book, or request it at your local library!
Listeners of the Writing Excuses podcast are probably familiar with Orsen Scott Card’s MICE quotient, which categorizes elements of your story as Milieu, Inquiry, Character, or Event.
But I want to talk about a different MICE—one that’s uniquely relevant to the murder mystery writer, and borrowed from counter-espionage strategies developed during World War II.
MICE describes the four primary motives driving someone to commit espionage: Money, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego. These are still the central focus of security clearance investigations in the U.S. They also happen to be, on a higher level, the same primary motives driving someone to commit murder.
Murder for money means more than just paid assassins. Your murderer could want their inheritance a little earlier than expected. They could want to protect their assets in a divorce. They could want the contents of their victim’s wall-safe or a particularly valuable piece of jewelry. While this is probably one of the most common motives for murder in the real world, it can also be too simplistic on its own, and unsatisfying for your reader without layering more complex motives, such as Ego or Ideology.
Ideology is a complex motive for murder that lets you, as author, explore broader societal conflicts and dig deeply into darker premises. Is there a deep schism in your murderer’s religious community and they must kill their opponent “for the greater good?” Did the victim betray their community and way of life? Are they an interloper who threaten the community’s traditions? Is your murder a hate crime?* You can see how this motive is strong enough to hold it’s own, but it also layers well with other motives, particularly Ego.
This is the motive that I find writers using when they want their murderer to be sympathetic. Usually, the murderer is being blackmailed, exploited, or abused, and the only way out is by killing the person who controls their fate. Another common twist on this motive is for the murderer to be a pawn for someone else, coerced into murdering someone to protect their own life or (more sympathetically) their family or loved ones. This allows the murderer to remain a decent person in the eyes of the reader/viewer, because the decision to kill arose from sheer desperation or self-preservation.
While this motive stands alone, it also works as a second layer for any of the other motives. Ego involves the preservation of a person’s self-image, rather than physical self-preservation. Perceived disrespect drives these murderers, because their own self-image is fragile enough that if they allow the disrespect, it makes them question their worth, attractiveness, competence, or status. It allows you as a writer to play with social status, societal hierarchies, and even toxic gender, class, and relationship roles.
Ego is what drives your murderer to kill their cheating spouse (or their lover), or the person who rejected their intimacy. Some motive models list these crimes as “love” or “passion,” but it’s important to understand that what’s really driving the murder is the person’s bruised ego and self-image. They are angry over the hurt and feel diminished. They need to assert dominance and control. That has nothing to do with love.
How to use MICE
Murders are personal. They’re visceral, and the stakes should be high. But once you determine your murder motive, understanding the underlying MICE drivers will help you make that motive realistic, consistent, and clear. Murders are often executed with baroque complexity, but the psychological drive behind the decision to kill is what makes your murderer interesting.
*If you are using an ideology motive that affects a real-world marginalized group, please make sure you consult with an expert from within that group to ensure you are not falling into a lazy writing role of exploitation or stereotype.
Finlay Donovan’s life is a complete mess. Her newly ex husband fired the nanny without telling her, she’s behind on the bills, the book she desperately needs to finish to cover the mortgage is past due (and barely started), and her kid chose this morning to cut her own hair before school, then insists on fixing it with duct tape.
But then a woman at Panera overhears Finlay and her agent discussing the overdue murder mystery, and mistakes the stressed-out single mom for a contract killer. Finlay finds a note in her purse with a name and an offer that would solve a large chunk of her problems: fifty thousand dollars.
What could go wrong?
Elle Cosimano brings us an unapologetically campy romp of a mystery novel. It’s real, refreshing, and hilarious, but with hidden sophisticated depths and empathy.
The writing craft is exceptional and the combination of feminist lens and sharp wit put this in an entirely different class of mystery. The hijinks and fast pacing give it a cinematic, summer blockbuster feel (and lets hope this catches Hollywood’s eye!)
I like that the platonic female friendships in the book overshadowed the romance threads. The latter were a little underdeveloped. Then again this is a woman who is working her butt off to figure out who she is and where she’s going professionally and personally, and the men just need to take a back seat until she figures it out. Character-wise, the women in this book really stand out as vivid, strong individuals with their own personalities, and their dialogue is particularly strong.
But I’m here for the weirdness of laugh-out-loud funny, surprise twists, and, of course, the murders. The sequel is already on my order list.
Check your local library, or find out more about the author’s work at https://www.ellecosimano.com/