"What's next for you?"
As a new author with a single book deal, there is only one question more daunting than, “What’s next for you?” That would be “How is your book selling?” I’ll go ahead and answer that here with an intentionally vague, “it is (selling)!” so I can get back to the “What’s next?” thing. Also, I only mentioned sales because I wanted to include this comic. I think you’ll agree that it was worth it.
I’ve answered the “What’s next?” question in interviews, but it’s not as simple as I present it. Yes, I have a plan for a next project, and tens of thousands of words written, many arranged into quite polished chapters, but it hasn’t been sold. To sell it, my agent and I have to submit the first three chapters and a synopsis. At the moment, those quite polished chapters I mentioned? They’re not the first three.
When I finished A Certain Appeal and began querying, I was worried about one day being “stuck” as an Austen reteller. That, should I get an agent, get a book deal, and become wildly popular, readers would demand (DEMAND, I say!) I stick with retellings instead of…I dunno. Patiently waiting for me to come up with my own plots? Perish the thought.
I had another completed manuscript that I loved but never quite gained traction. Convinced that one day I might parlay said book in a two-for-one deal, I went back to that setting, which was as far from the largely nocturnal world of A Certain Appeal as one could get. They say write what you know, and what I know best is outdoor recreation.
Save for an 11-month stint as a receptionist—ahem, security administrator—with a DOD contractor and my one less-than-glorious year teaching high school English, the entirety of my working life has been spent in aquatics. I’ve taught swim lessons at eleven facilities across four states, starting at my local rec center in Arizona at 15 and teaching at Manhattan Youth into my sixth month of pregnancy at 31.
My favorite job was working for the City of Orange while attending Chapman University. It’s also where I set that other manuscript. The story of college student Chloe Hayes, who was just fine, thank you very much. Her boyfriend was the son of a fading film star and a movie director, big man on campus, a functioning alcoholic, and total emotional drain on Chloe, who couldn’t help but want better than “fine.” While working at the pool, Chloe begins to realize what “better” would look like for her…and who, in the form of her prickly but ultimately sweet coworker, Gales, is a decidedly better fit in that better life. To ACA readers, yes, it’s that Chloe and Gales.
It was a shameless mix of self-insert and wish fulfillment. My college relationship had a lot of the same beats as the dysfunctional one Chloe was stuck in. And the relief of having a place outside that relationship (and a reciprocated but unrequited crush on a coworker) informed the bulk of that story.
I worked on it for years, bombarding the Second Drafters with chapter after chapter until they had an intervention, telling me I’d written a sequel and needed to write book one. I started over, writing alone at the Starbucks in Bentonville Arkansas, then with MeetUp and revision groups in Seattle. I submitted chapters to Critique Circle, began querying, and got six full requests. One agent was very disappointed, angry even, and misnamed my antagonist in her rejection letter three times! Another suggested I revise and resubmit, giving the story a happy ending, making it a Romance instead of the soon to be extinct New Adult. I did! And...never heard back. I still recommend her podcast, though. It was an excellent resource for query letter writing.
By then, I was already writing what turned into A Certain Appeal. And while I queried that, I got to work on that other manuscript at the pool, the one I hoped would spare me Austen-related pigeonholing. This protagonist was a creative post-grad grappling with moderate body dysmorphia with a side of heartache/betrayal. She worked at the pool and taught a swimming course for the local university, but had a decidedly non-aquatic vision for her future. Based on an interview I heard with Margaret Atwood, this character (whose name I have forgotten) aspired to run a birthday party planning/providing business. Like a wedding coordinator, but for birthdays. She and a friend hosted lavish themed parties for the bougie families of Orange County, CA, managing activities while the moms drank rosé in the kitchen. Atwood had done the same in high school on a smaller scale, and back then, the moms were drinking gin.
The hero was a sweetie pie who did a home renovation show with his brother. Their meet-cute included a staged kiss in a coffee shop. It was adorable. And at 50k words, I ran out of steam.
I still have it! What is written is never really lost, it just becomes something to revisit for spare parts. A boneyard for phrases, and one specific steamy scene that has been revised to fit into no fewer than four manuscripts at this point. It’s very good.
In any case, I didn’t have time to dwell, because I was suddenly and happily agented. And then revising. And then on submission—and, three days later, under contract.
Also: COVID. The world had effectively shut down on March 13, 2020, and I found myself with a precocious six year-old no longer under the watchful eye of boulder Valley Schools for the better part of six hours a day. And while there’s no reason to rehash those early, grim days of remote education, I did pull off a pretty solid Biology lesson when the cat eviscerated a mouse on the back porch and True asked if we could identify the parts. Pro tip: when searching for a labeled mouse dissection, don’t click on a link that takes you to Pinterest. It will screw with your recommendations forever.
But when writing did pick up again, I decided maybe I should try my hand at another Austen. I’d done Pride and Prejudice, so I took a look at Ms. Jane’s second most celebrated work: Sense and Sensibility. An offhand comment from my NYC Dad, Bill, about the ultimate cost of renovating Pemberley at the end of ACA inspired my Elinor’s vocation: she’d be Pemberley’s accountant. Edward became a reluctant would-be politician, Marianne an aspiring singer working with a day job in a Park Slope boutique, and youngest sister, Margaret, a black and white dappled French bulldog named Maggie Moo. Rest assured, the dog will have exactly the same impact on the course of the novel as its namesake.
I hit 90k fairly polished words this summer, when my agent politely reminded me that we had to sell this WIP, and that perhaps she should get a feel for what I was even doing. All along I’d been assuring her that I had the story well in hand, that I’d finish a draft and we’d be on our way to pitch, etc, etc, etc. But I did concede to a synopsis, and once she read it, we had a problem: what I had was not usable.
She liked my first three chapters, but the overall story wasn’t working. I’d suspected this— I didn’t much care for the reluctant politician angle, and there was a whole fraud scheme involving a community center that I simply wasn’t selling. It was ages getting that synopsis to something usable, and then a new problem popped up: it was a very different story.One I now had to write.
That was September. And if you’ve been keeping tabs on me, I’ve had a few things going on since then. A cross-country move here, a book release there, and the ongoing renovation of a pair of rental units on our property. Keep in mind, my husband and I (mostly I) do not know what we’re doing on that front, so it’s been a lot more time consuming than either of us anticipated. Such sweet, summer children were we, thinking we’d undertake this on our own.
Last week, I got back to a somewhat sustainable writing schedule. I’m happy with my revisions to chapters one and two, but the third one has a lot more emotional beats to get sorted. I’ve changed the dynamics of the sisters’ relationship, and now Elinor and Marianne have more of a Fleabag/Claire vibe than the traditional, overtly caring one in the original. It's been really hard to establish the balance of humor, emotional exhaustion/repression, and vague horniness for Elinor in these early scenes. But I also love it. Rereading later chapters, there's so much great stuff going on. Ming has a bigger role! My Brandon wears a cycling cap and is noting as having showed up one day with a mystery baby in a front carrier, Willoughby scolds a shoe in a very sexy manner, and I've learned more than I ever thought I'd need to know about Art Nouveau just to lend credibility to a single conversation between Bennet and Marianne. Look up Hôtel Tassel; it's gorgeous.
And Elinor and Edward? Oof. The banter. Thee sweetness! The HEAT. I keep this screenshot on my desktop as inspiration for Edward's personality:
And, no, this isn't inspiration for the "heat"; don't make it weird.
It's going to be a lot of work, but I'm excited.
So, that's "what's next" for me.
Aren't you glad you asked?