Today is the day. THE DARKEST FLOWER arrives in the world. People can hold it in their hands (or read it on their devices, or listen in their cars, or...). This day was a long time in coming. In the hopes that it helps other authors struggling to get a book published, or helps readers to understand the backstory behind just one book in a huge world full of books, I'm going to get really honest here.
I started writing in 2013, for real. I assure you that first effort wasn't much to write home about, but I kept at it. In early 2015, I got my first agent with my second manuscript. She was wonderful and amazing and a spectacular cheerleader. That second manuscript was a romance and she was a romance agent with a talent for spotting likable heroines people could root for. She put it on sub. It didn't sell. Neither did the next one, or the next one, or the next one, or the next one. The one after that did sell, but to a small press with a tiny readership, and only after I added some murder. For me, romance alone apparently doesn't cut it.
All that failure took some time. In 2017, I was getting depressed about whether I really had enough talent to do this. Difficult questions had to be asked: did I love writing enough to do it even if it never sold and no one ever got to read it? Maybe. I kept writing, but in a much bleaker frame of mind. My youngest child had just finished fifth grade. I had been a PTA officer at his school. I was distracting myself with a binge-watch of Game of Thrones. I took all of those things: dark mood, milestones, my favorite character traits from my then-favorite show, and mixed them into a, well, kind of disturbing stew.
I had written my first anti-heroine, Kira. She was the opposite of likable, so I added a second point of view character, Allison, to be the moral counterweight (and let her have the romantic subplot so as not to get too far from my roots). I revised it over that fall and sent it to my agent. For the first time, I really thought I had something good.
My agent didn't love it. She really didn't like the unlikable "heroine." She wanted revisions before she would agree to send it out to publishing houses for consideration. I agreed, since I had just sold the small-press book (LYING BENEATH THE OAKS) and had all the pre-launch edits and activities to do for that one.
In January 2019, LYING BENEATH THE OAKS came out. It sold decently well for a small-press book and got pretty good feedback on Amazon and Goodreads. I was, and am, proud of it. I asked my agent if it was time to send out this next manuscript.
She didn't want to. She just didn't like it. Keep in mind, this book with the unlikable antiheroine was very, very far from the tone of the book she'd originally signed me for, and also it was not then in its current state. It did need improvement, but it was clear that I'd moved away from the type of book my agent was a superstar at representing. I couldn't give up on it. We parted ways.
I started over looking for an agent with this new manuscript. I got plenty of rejection for it, but one agent saw the merit in it early. She said she'd look at it again if I let Kira's hateful flag fly even more. Up to that point, I'd been toning her down. This agent gave me the courage to go the other direction. I went, and it was absolutely the right way. Within three months after sending the first query, I had a new agent (not the one who suggested the revision--though all the thanks to her!). Sharon got the book right down to the push and pull of the two POVs. She understood right away that the book was a legal thriller and a whodunit, but most of all it was about privilege and motherhood and the way they can warp who we are.
THE DARKEST FLOWER went on sub. I got rejected a lot. A whole lot. Editors hated the ending. They didn't feel satisfied by the outcome. I began to lose hope, but all in all, it only took four months for the amazing Liz Pearsons at Thomas & Mercer to see what it could be if I changed that ending. She bought it (I got the news on Friday the 13th, a day that will never again be unlucky for me) and gave the chance to do it.
So here it is. Today I hold in my hands the proof that my instincts were right. That it was worth having to search for a new agent, worth all those years of revising, worth completely re-writing the ending. If you are an author still waiting for that break, trust your instincts. Know that it can happen after you--and others--almost give up. If you're a reader, go stand in a bookstore. Turn in a slow circle. I promise you that almost every book you see has a story like this one. Every one of them represents someone's dreams coming true.
Hi and welcome new visitors!
My book, THE DARKEST FLOWER, has been an Amazon First Reads pick for this month (May 2021, for those of you reading this later) and totally, completely out in the world as of June 1! The address for this website is listed on the Amazon page for the book and in the author bio at the back of the actual novel. I’ve noticed a lot of new traffic here, from all over the U.S. and from the world (hello, Malaysia!), which is thrilling, because it means people are reading and are interested enough to see what’s here. I don’t know if I’ll ever be blasé enough not to be wide-eyed at the thought of people reading my words in small towns in Louisiana and Montana and Illinois and big cities like Los Angeles and London. THANK YOU!
Here is just a quick update as to where things in Writing World stand, for anyone who’s visiting for the first time.
Thank you all again, from the bottom of my heart, for reading. I can express a lot of things in writing, but one of the things that escapes me entirely is how to tell you all how much it means that you spent your time on my words.
My new book, THE DARKEST FLOWER, is available for download a month early on Amazon First Reads as of today. It doesn’t go officially on sale until June 1st, and anyone who prefers to read a paper book or a library copy has to wait until then, but for all of May 2021, any Amazon customer can read—and review—THE DARKEST FLOWER. The reviews are the point, actually. They’re the reason for First Reads—to build up word of mouth to drive sales for the lifetime of the book. There will be a lot of reviews. They will not all be positive. I am ready.
The advice given to authors is always the same: Don’t read the reviews. Reviews, they say, are for readers, not authors. Don’t read them, don’t get offended by them, and don’t, whatever you do, engage with or argue with any review. It’s all great advice and I have no intention of responding in any way to a bad review. Share away if you hated my book. That’s your absolute right as a reader.
I’m going to read those reviews, though. I always do.
I love to write books and would write in any case, but I certainly wouldn’t go through the struggle to publish books if I didn’t want to share my writing with other people. If there were no reviews, publishing a book would be like dropping it into the ocean, vaguely wondering if any fish watched it sink. Reviews are proof that other people are reading my books. I’d be flat out lying if I claimed not to prefer the reviews that express a deep and abiding love for my characters, the story, the twists, and the writing.
But I like the bad reviews, too. After spending years writing and trying to get published, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin—hundreds of rejections will do that to you. Here are the reasons I read my bad reviews, and why they don’t bother me as much as they might.
After having said all that, now I’m worried you’ll think I WANT bad reviews. No, of course not. Please don’t go out there and TRY to hurt me, okay? My skin is thick but it is not titanium. Every author dreams of getting raves and tearful emails of adoration from readers, and I’m no different. Having a book go out into the world with my name on it is a big deal—and part of that deal is knowing that reviews are good and reviews are bad.
I hope you enjoy THE DARKEST FLOWER and post a review. If you don’t enjoy it, I still want you to leave a review. Thanks for reading.
Every writer who's ever tried to get anything published knows the compulsion to check email. It's more than a compulsion; it's like an imperative. There's a pull that feels as undeniable as the tides, if the tide came in every three minutes. I've checked my email at stoplights, at soccer games, in restaurant bathrooms, on the tops of mountains, and on Christmas morning.
Email giveth, but email taketh a hell of a lot away. Try to get it back.
The road to publication goes like this:
1. Finish manuscript. Email it to people to read it. Check your email for their thoughts.
2. Once your readers say it's good enough, begin querying agents, several at a time, over the course of weeks and months (and sometimes years). Check your email constantly for their verdicts.
3. Once you have an agent (that you got after getting a happy email), go on submission to editors at publishing houses. Their responses will come at the rate of about one every three and a half weeks. Check your email every three and a half minutes for updates.
4. Once you get a book deal, prepare for publication. Wait for your cover, your blurbs, your reviews and promotion opportunities and interview requests. Check your email for all those, too.
5. Once your book comes out, start over at step 3 (if you have a single book deal) or step 4 (if you were lucky enough to get a multiple book deal.
I've been through all these steps, and while, like any writer, I really love receiving happy good news emails, the whole thing is unhealthy. Deeply, soul-killingly unhealthy. I love writing books, but I was a happier person before I started checking that email inbox so often. Especially while querying (step 2), which initially lasted fourteen months for my first agent and three more months for my second, my self-worth got way too attached to the ding of my email. I let that happen. I let those brief emails that said "not for me" or "not quite ready" define me and my purpose on this earth for far too long.
Don't let that happen.
Writing is not my only purpose on this earth, and I forgot that. By all means, write if it makes you happy. Write even if it's merely that you can't NOT write. If you value peace of mind and serenity at all--totally honestly--stop writing for publication altogether if you can.
But don't write because you need some stranger in New York or L.A. or wherever to tell you you're worthy. You're worthy even if you deleted every word you've ever written right this minute. Try remembering the rest of your life. Take a look at your kids and think about how recently they were tiny and how soon they'll be gone. Hug your spouse or your mom or a dog. Go climb a mountain. Sit on a beach and dip your toes in the waves. Go out and stare up at the stars. Binge a TV show. And read--other people's books, preferably in a genre you don't write so there can be no comparison to your own works and relative ease in being published.
There's no easy answer. I didn't resist when it was the worst (while querying and on sub), and I don't do as well as I'd like even now. All I can do is keep trying to put down my phone long enough to see the forest and not just the trees--and the sunrise, and my sons' smiles, and the crackle of the fire, and the blue of the sky in the spring. My family and my life.
Two days ago, my publisher sent me an email with these words in the subject line: "New Trade Review."
This was my first-ever trade review. My first book was published by such a small press that all the trades opted not to review it. The trade magazines, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, are widely read in the book industry. Library systems and booksellers read them to decide what to order (translation: how many copies will sell). Buzz can be created. The vast majority of books released each year never appear in their pages.
It's a big deal to get a review in a trade, any review, because that means my cover and my story will show up in the inboxes of everyone in the book world--the same book world that has meant so much to me since before I could see over the library circulation desk.
It's a little hard to believe.
My first trade review--and maybe only one, I don't know yet--came from Kirkus. I have enough author friends to know to be a bit afraid to open that review. Kirkus reviews are short, 300 words or less, always contain mostly plot, and can be dismissive, mocking, even rude. They sling around phrases like "not enough" or "fine but" or "less than." Many of the books that got dinged in that way went on to become New York Times bestsellers, but it had to sting. Fortunately for me, the joy and gratitude of learning I'd been reviewed at all still frothed through my veins and propelled me to start reading before I remembered any of that.
And they liked it! (You can read the full review on the home page of this website.) There was no snark. No comparisons to other works in which THE DARKEST FLOWER was found lacking. Not a single negative anywhere. They said my main lawyer character "burns with a hard and gemlike flame" in service of her client, which, quite frankly, is such a great compliment and so beautifully phrased I wish I'd written it. They said the story as a whole was "a female-forward courtroom drama," which is exactly what I intended it to be.
I will breathe a huge sigh of relief. Even if the other trades ignore the book entirely, or hate it outright, I've achieved a milestone I never thought I'd see when I despaired that I'd ever get to hold a book in my hands.
Yesterday, I got a notification from Twitter that it had been seven years since I signed up. I'd resisted Twitter for a while. The word "tweet" as a verb was so precious that it made my skin crawl. I couldn't imagine that anyone would be interested in anything I had to say, but I'd written my first manuscript and had just started querying and I'd learned quick that there was writing intelligence to be gleaned there.
I started by following publishing houses. After that, the algorithms began suggesting for me other people to follow within my area of interest: literary agents, publishing house editors, well-known authors. I followed everyone I could and followed back anyone who connected with me who had writing in their bio. The staggering amount of information at hand changed my life--and made me serious about getting published. These people were doing it--why not me?
Twitter isn't perfect and probably, overall, has not exactly assisted in calming my already busy life, but I'd never be a published author without it. I met my first critique partners there--in an online writing contest I heard about on Twitter. I learned about inciting incidents, story beats, saving cats, comma splices, to avoid people waking up at the beginning of chapter one, and that using the word "said" in my dialogue tags was preferable to "exclaimed" and "replied." I connected with other writers and exchanged query letters, first chapters, and later, whole manuscripts. I read agents' feeds about query mistakes and what they wanted to see in their inboxes. Publishers shared information on trends and overdone tropes and I learned. Side benefits: I learned early about much-anticipated book releases, discovered Goodreads, and once interacted with Betty Buckley, famed singer of "Memory" on Broadway.
I never took a creative writing class in school, though I took many that required persuasive writing. Without Twitter, I might never have learned all that was wrong with that first manuscript in time to write the better second one that eventually got me an agent. Sure, Twitter is full of political hot air and self-obsessed celebrities and spoilers for every form of entertainment you love. Though it's not how I learned to write, it is how I learned to write what might sell. It's how I found the other writers who would help me make that dream come true.
The word "tweet" still kind of makes me cringe. If you're interested in becoming a published author, though, Twitter is still where I'd recommend you start. Really, it's indispensable.
You can start by following me: @kbuttonw
This week I posted "blurbs" from other authors who have read THE DARKEST FLOWER.
There's a certain kind of terror that goes with asking busy authors to take the time to read your book. They have deadlines, book launches, and other writing friends' work to critique, not to mention day jobs and families. It is a gift you are asking for-- the most valuable one of all. There's also the terror of sending your manuscript baby out for its first real reviews. Up to this point, it's only been read by close friends, your agent, and innumerable editors, most of whom rejected it. It's terrifying to hit send on an email like that, knowing that these lovely authors may be the first to tell you they hated your book and just cannot bring themselves to blurb it--or maybe worse, even finish it.
I was beyond fortunate. One hundred percent of the authors I asked enthusiastically agreed to read THE DARKEST FLOWER, and did read it, by or well before the deadline, and they each wrote a truly lovely blurb. A few even reached out to message me privately and that means the world.
How do I repay them? The gratitude is overwhelming, and needs a direction. Huge gestures come to mind, but skywriting is expensive, ambrosia and nectar hard to come by, and I'm kind of attached to my firstborn child.
Instead, I did what I would want in return: I bought their books. And I'm urging you to do that too. Their names and most recent works are listed on my home page on this website, on the Amazon page for THE DARKEST FLOWER, and will appear in the opening pages of the book itself when it comes out.
My first Thomas & Mercer book, THE DARKEST FLOWER, went to copy edits this week. That means I'm done editing it and it's time to turn to writing the sequel.
I've written a lot of books before--one published already, one currently being searched for out-of-place commas as I type, two posted on Radish, and five others existing in various states of finished in my Word files. You'd think I'd have no trouble dashing off a sequel to TDF. I've got the plot and the pitch and the characters.
Nope. Any writer will tell you that a book to be written "under contract" -- meaning it is already sold and certain to be published -- is a whole different kind of writing. Here's why:
1. The difficulty of starting a new manuscript that always exists: you've just completed/edited/turned in a supremely polished book that reads beautifully, has correct pacing, and no continuity errors (you hope). By comparison, the new book looks like a mess. How did you ever write before? Who on earth will want this slop of rambling, incoherent nonsense with plot holes big enough to fly a 747 through? It is boring. It is offensive. It is trite and superficial and absolutely awful.
Until it isn't. Nine completed manuscripts and I know it always gets to the Not Awful place. It's just that that place is very, very distant at the moment.
2. The knowledge that this book will be published. There's a certain comfort (also despair, but definitely comfort) about writing a manuscript before you have an agent or a publisher. It is what it is. You're writing the book you want to read. You're having fun with it. All that disappears with an under-contract book. It cannot stay what it is--it has to be readable, marketable, easy to pitch, and the type to build your career. You are not writing the book you want to read--you're also writing the book thousands of OTHER people will want to read. It's great to have fun with it, but it is also a product on the marketplace. This is a job now.
3. If that second book is a sequel (mine is), how will readers react to what you're doing with the characters they liked in the first book? Does it stand up? Does it match the tone, the voice, the structure? At the same time, is it different enough that readers will not feel like they're reading the same book a second time?
4. If the book you're writing is the finite one under whatever contract you have, will there be another? Will a second contract be for more sequels, or something different?
There are probably another thousand reasons, but those are the main ones. I've written so many manuscripts that I wasn't expecting all those worries, but here I am. I'm still having fun, mostly, seeing where I can take my lawyer main character this time. I always love exploring backstory and conflict. There is no greater thrill for me than developing characters and really showing what they want, what they won't give up, what they're willing to destroy.
I keep telling myself this is normal. It's normal to be afraid of not measuring up. It's definitely normal to write a first draft that has none of the sparkle or polish of the final draft. I will get there. It's just that I might have to do it with my eyes squeezed shut.
And a lot of ice cream. There will definitely be a lot of ice cream.
I turned in my first-pass edits for THE DARKEST FLOWER today: one day early and, I hope, thorough. It wasn't easy, though.
When I was in high school and college, I was a procrastinator. I remember many a night when I stayed up past midnight writing a paper on a book I'd only finished two hours before. I grew out of that in adulthood once I became a lawyer -- I have too much natural anxiety to try that when contempt of court is on the line.
I am still so thrilled that Thomas & Mercer took a chance on me and this book that I was determined not to be late. I'd get my revisions done a week early and have time to read over what I'd done idly. Things didn't work that way.
Nine days before the edits were due, I got the call we all dread. My mother had become confused sitting out on her porch. She wouldn't eat. Wouldn't come inside. When my father and the neighbors tried to force her out of the direct sunlight, her legs wouldn't work. She'd been admitted to the hospital--during the coronavirus epidemic. I dropped everything -- including my edits -- to rush up there to see her and to help my dad handle things.
She was tested for coronavirus. Not that. For stroke. Not that. Eventually they found the bacteria in her blood which had traveled from an innocent scrape or mosquito bite scratch to cluster around the heart valve replacement she'd received last fall. There was nothing to do but give her antibiotics and hope. We waited.
My parents live about ninety minutes away from me. I drove back and forth nearly every day for a week. I carried my computer, but as you can imagine, not much editing got done in full PPE--rubber gloves, mask, gown, and all. Stress--both for my mom and the approaching deadline--grew.
It's amazing how priorities reshuffle. I'm constitutionally unable to fail to meet a deadline--long years in the legal profession have made it so. I also love my parents. I quit sleeping. I edited pre-dawn and at lunch when I could make it back to work. I missed time -- over a holiday weekend--with my kids and husband.
I found time to help my father, late one night after we left the hospital, install Disney on his TV so he could watch Hamilton. We watched the opening song together at six in the morning before leaving for the hospital again.
My mom is hoping to leave the hospital today--stable enough to medicate at home. I got it all done. It turns out there was time for the important things.
Now maybe I can watch Hamilton myself.
“When is your next book coming out?”
If you’ve ever published a book (my last one came out in January 2019, in what feels now like another lifetime), then you’ve heard this question. If you were lucky enough to have a multi-book contract, you had an answer.
I didn’t have an answer. I used to say something like, “Ha, ha, someday, I hope!” Then I’d ask after the health of the person’s family, real quick.
It’s the question you don’t want to hear if the honest answer is “I have no idea.” There’s a little stomach-flip that goes along with it every time: the decision to have another book be published rarely belongs to the author. It’s entirely dependent on a publisher wanting to publish it. The question is especially difficult to hear if the true, complete, a-little-bit unhinged answer is, “Maybe never: I only had a contract for one book, and my agent didn’t like my next book, so I had to search for a new agent for three months, and then it took three more months to edit that book for her, and then I bit my nails to the quick for six soul-killing months on submission, and each rejection from publishers added to my growing despair that maybe I’d already climbed the highest publishing mountain I would ever climb and I didn’t have enough sense to look around and enjoy the view!”
Whew. That was a mouthful, and I promise you it was a fairly miserable state of being, too.
This story has a happy ending, however!
Back in the summer of 2017, I gave in and began watching Game of Thrones, years after everyone else. Easily my favorite character right from the start was Cersei Lannister, and specifically, Cersei Lannister as a mother. Absolutely convinced that her exalted privilege exempts her from the rules and morals that everyone else lives by, she’s entirely without redeeming qualities except that she will do anything for her children. My brain played with the idea. What if that isn’t a coincidence? What if motherhood itself made her so ruthless? We assume that mothers are serene, giving people who put aside everything for their children’s happiness, but yet we all know women who admit in their darkest hours that, maybe, possibly, motherhood makes them just a touch…disturbed.
Possibilities started to boil. If I had a ruthless mother who’d do anything for her children, she’d be in the PTA, of course, interacting with mothers of all different stripes. She’d own the PTA. She’d smile sweetly and teach her kids to say “sir” and “ma’am” and people would get hurt in her wake. I started typing, and Kira Grant was born, along with her lawyer, Allison Barton, yet another mother with motives of her own. THE DARKEST FLOWER is full of poisonous gardens and badly-behaved moms and murder-y fifth-grade graduation parties.
I finished the manuscript in October of 2017 and put it aside because Lying Beneath the Oaks was headed out into the world (publishing takes forever). I’d hoped to send THE DARKEST FLOWER out to publishers in early 2019, but I changed agents and it didn’t go out until September 2019. I got the news it—and a sequel, hallelujah, AND an audiobook—would be published by Thomas & Mercer, a division of Amazon, on Friday, March 13, 2020, the lucky/unlucky day the pandemic closed my children’s schools and started to wreak havoc on all of our lifestyles in earnest.
When does my next book come out? I can finally give an answer: THE DARKEST FLOWER is coming JUNE 8, 2021.
Cue the socially distant celebration. And wash your hands.
THE DARKEST FLOWER:
LYING BENEATH THE OAKS: