Blood pumps between my fingers and trickles over my knuckles; it's slower now. I press the towel hard to stop the flow, but it's sodden and useless. I imagine I can push the blood back into her body. The ambulance is taking too long. There's no sound. Her skin is bleached of color. Her stilled eyelashes fan out over her cheeks. I'm bewildered by blood like this: I've seen minor cuts. A scraped knee. A crimson dot or a slash, blotted easily. This is a salty red ocean. I pray the wound is sealing up under my hands. Cooling blood soaks my legs where I kneel. Everything shines wet and red. It's like being inside my own heart.
I can't feel the throb of her pulse anymore; only my own, roaring in my ears. I don't dare move my hands to check my watch. It's been too long. My fingers begin to stick together.
In the distance the sirens wail. At last.
Marrying a stranger was hardly the worst thing I'd ever done.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, they say, though I hadn't a clue how on earth that would apply to a legal marriage and a wedding ring that's too cheap to pawn and too nice to throw away.
I woke up with a stiff neck in the thin white light of morning in a parking lot. Muscles screamed as I un-wedged my head from the crevasse between the passenger side window and the headrest of a Ford sedan that smelled like two thousand miles of cigarette smoke and Febreze. Some worrisome brown substance stained the front of my jeans and cheap pink scoop-neck top. Only one flip-flop remained on my feet.
On my left hand, a too-big gold ring with a tiny stone of some kind slid toward my knuckle.
My head throbbed and my vision twirled and twisted. This must be a hangover. I hadn't had one since I was a teenager, because I'd always been careful not to get drunk for fear of what could happen. I tried to swallow but came up short of saliva, and groaning with every millimeter, turned my head to glance at the driver's side. The intake of breath hurt my head.
A man sprawled there asleep, his khaki pants and Vineyard Vines T-shirt rumpled and stained to match mine. He had messy chestnut hair with gold streaks. A straight nose over well-formed lips. A fit body. No noticeable tattoos or ridiculous jewelry. Something about him screamed To the Manor Born—maybe the khakis. They belonged on a boat deck or a golf course or something. He snored, his breath fanning fumes of alcohol that churned my stomach. He wore a gold ring on his left hand as well.
Oh, my God. What had I done? What had we done?
What had I said?
For a horrible throbbing heartbeat, I couldn't come up with his name.
Cooper. It clunked into place. His name was Cooper, though I had no idea what his last name was.
I poked him. He grunted and shifted in his seat. Yep, I remembered right. His voice was low and rumbly and did things to me. Had we . . . ?
"Hey," I said, poking him harder. His upper arm was solid.
"Whassgoinon?" he muttered, backhanding his mouth and nose like a child. Apparently I wasn't the only one with a hangover, because his eyes squinted tight in pain. They opened, revealing green-brown irises in a sea of red.
"I think you'll see what's going on when you wake up." I pushed on his shoulder again, holding up my hand to show off the ring.
He sat up, blinking against the daylight and what had to be a whopper of a headache, and took in the situation. "Oh, holy God." He looked at me, eyes full of remorse and—to my surprise—kindness. He stretched out his own hand where the matching gold ring told the tale. "Did we get married?"
"I think we did." I pointed to the small white fake chapel in front of us, deserted at this hour.
"Do you remember it?" he asked in his musical drawl of an accent, carefully trying not to give offense.
"No." A few hazy memories assaulted me, but not enough to put together a picture. Another couple kissing passionately in the hotel lobby. A flash of skin. A sense of terrible fear and longing and then a ride in the night with the windows all open, my hair blowing. None of it made sense. Fear—of myself and the lost time—stood the hair on the back of my neck on end. "You?"
"No." He glanced, wincing, into the backseat, handing me my missing flip-flop and pulling a sheaf of paper forward. I leaned in to look as he flipped through. A fancy-looking marriage certificate with bad calligraphy, suitable for framing. A brochure for the chapel, with an inflated price list for wedding attire, a photographer, and hair and makeup. An instruction sheet for the licensing place. Another sheet explaining that our real marriage certificate would be mailed to us.
"Edward Cooper Middleton. The Fifth. Your last name is Middleton," I said, to have something to say to cover the memory jolt of my first communion at age six. I wore a white dress that resembled a bride's. I'd dreamed of my future wedding, then, but that dream had been dead for over fifteen years.
"It is," he said. "No relation to the princess, though. I get that a lot. I go by Cooper. Edward—Ted—is my dad. You're Molly Todd."
"Molly Middleton, now, I guess," I said, choking back a gasp of disbelief. This man was my husband. Husband. And I didn't know him at all. If I had to be honest, though, he should probably be more worried that he didn't know me.
Much more worried.
I'd met him—what?—three or four days before. I'd been fired from my job six hours earlier and had curled up in the hotel bathroom crying, wondering what in the hell I'd do next. Whatever it was would almost certainly involve ramen for dinner and defaulting on some bill or another. I should have spent the time calculating how I could continue to pay for my month-to-month lease, how to save money on groceries, and where I could find another job quick.
Instead I cried, and a kind woman named Nikki turned from the sink where she was washing her hands to listen. When she heard the part about the ramen, she invited me to join her and her husband and their friends at the buffet for dinner. I wiped my tears away with a cheap brown paper towel, asked her not to mention what I'd told her, and followed her.
At the table were two other women, three husbands, and one single man named Cooper who'd all come to Vegas from South Carolina for a Clemson University reunion of sorts. In an instant, I understood why Nikki had thought I might fit in—she made up some story on the spot and pointed me straight to the chair next to Cooper. They were having a good meal and a good time and the longing for both overwhelmed me. If Cooper hadn't looked up at that moment of weakness and caught my eye and smiled, I might have been able to walk away.
But he did—-and when he waved me over, I went. I turned off my desperation long enough to let myself enjoy it. It had been a long time since I'd spent an hour with someone attractive who thought I was attractive, too.
Cooper paid for my dinner, and I let him.
My conscience had fought me over that: it jabbed and whispered that, deep down, the things I'd done in my life barred me from simple pleasures like this.
The friends—all Clemson grads in their early thirties, except one woman who took a lot of ribbing for having gone to the rival University of South Carolina—welcomed me into their group and did everything but physically shove me at the single Cooper, who'd been divorced some years before. They were easy to talk to and laughed and teased each other and bought lots and lots of drinks. I joined their pack and we all stayed pretty well drunk as skunks, going from casino to buffet to bar to hotel to casino, for three days. I slept on the sofa in someone's hotel suite.
They were kind. None of them knew who I was. What I was.
I didn't remember what happened last night. My memories grew hazier as the weekend went on. I hadn't drunk alcohol in so long that my tolerance had dropped to nothing. In high school, I'd been known for saying too much when I drank. I prayed I'd grown out of that. I couldn't afford to say too much anymore. There were things I had to keep secret.
"You have red hair," Cooper said now, trying to stretch his lanky frame in the seat of the small car. "Last night, I remember your hair. Something about your hair, anyway." He trailed off.
"It's too dark to be red," I said, self-conscious now.
"Okay. Auburn, then. It's pretty."
"Thank you," I said, prim as a nun. Prim had no place here: the stranger I'd married probably knew the curtains matched the carpet. Um. In a manner of speaking.
"Oh, holy God," he said again. "We've really screwed up now, haven't we?" He leaned back against the glass of the driver's side window, throwing sunlight onto his sculpted cheekbone. At least I'd picked a good-looking stranger.
I liked that he didn't blame me, though most likely he should. I guaranteed I had more to gain through this marriage than he did. Even if I didn't remember how we decided to first get a license and then arrive at this extra-sleazy chapel, I doubted I'd objected to it. The memory of the longing returned.
"It's probably my fault. I do impulsive things sometimes." Not true. I hardly ever did impulsive things, and that's what worried me the most. "I'm sorry. What do you want to do now?" I asked.
"First things first. Let's hit a gas station and get some water and some hardcore breakfast to sop up all this alcohol. My head is killing me. Yours can't be much better."
Cooper reached out a hand and squeezed mine.
* * *
Later that night, we sat side by side at the airport gate, surrounded by Cooper's luggage and my tiny duffel bag. I didn't own much, and it hadn't pained me to terminate my lease this afternoon and save myself the upcoming rent. While we packed and cleaned up in his hotel room, he texted his friends some explanation I never saw and bought us both plane tickets to Charleston.
I'd chosen more wisely than I'd realized. Cooper didn't ask any questions—or not the right ones, anyway—and said he couldn't let me stay alone in Vegas until we got all this straightened out. He assumed I was on vacation, like he was, and that I wouldn't need to be anywhere until the Monday after Thanksgiving, now a week away. Nikki had kept her word and never told the others about how I'd lost my job, or what it was. He didn't know I didn't need to be anywhere at all.
It seemed crazy that I'd pick up and go with this stranger-husband across the country, but somehow, I trusted him. I trusted him at a basic bone-deep level, and I'd never trusted anyone before. Instincts had been one of the few things in life I could count on. I tried not to question the strong ones.
We were on our way to his home in some small town in South Carolina I'd never heard of, where we'd see if annulments were a real thing. I'd never even been to South Carolina.
Six hours of flight, a layover in Charlotte, and an hour of driving from Charleston ought to give me a chance to figure out first who I'd married, and then to figure out what to do from there. I felt bad that Cooper had paid for my plane ticket, but he said he'd take care of it. I certainly couldn't afford it—it cost more than a month's rent on the apartment I no longer had. I glanced at his phone as he read articles on the internet: the latest model iPhone. Leather luggage. Nice watch. He hadn't had to borrow money for the plane ticket.
"Listen," I said, as he spoke at the same time. I let him go first. I'd prefer if he did most of the talking.
"Molly," he said. "I know this is deeply awkward and bizarre. I wanted you to know—I'm not a psycho criminal. I'm a regular guy with a good job and a normal family and a place to live. I'm sure you're worried for your safety and I want to make sure you know you'll be safe with me, until we get this mess all straight. If it makes you feel better, you could call my sister before we get on the plane."
I had to force myself to keep up my tough-girl face. Tears welled and I blinked them back. Nobody had ever said anything to me as thoughtful as that. So far, I'd been safer with Cooper than I'd ever been before. "Thanks. I trust you. If you'd wanted to kill me, I guess you'd have done it by now."
"And I also want you to know," he continued, his hands open and loose on his lap. "I'm not an alcoholic. I haven't gotten drunk like that since college. I don't normally behave like that. I swear I'm a responsible adult. When I'm with those guys, it's like we're all twenty-two, not thirty-four. You'd never know it to look at them, but Craig is a banker in Columbia. High up on the pay scale, too. Jon's a high school teacher and football coach in Beaufort, and Jeremy works for a drug company. The corporate kind. We were all close in college and then they met the ladies and well . . ." he said, trailing off. "We are actually grownups."
I chuckled, trying to calm my emotions and stop my brain from worrying about the next step and the step after that. They'd been great. If they'd noticed my inexperience with any kind of party, they hadn't commented, not even when I made the mistake of letting my amazement show the first time I tasted a mixed drink. After that I remembered to cover my lack of sophistication. I didn't think they'd been aware I had no knowledge of ordinary fun that was normal for regular people.
Cooper echoed my laugh. "Yeah, I can see how you might think Jeremy was running a pot farm the way he carried on here. Without the ladies, we'd have been even dumber. Reliving the days when we all still had hair and no gut."
While I waited for some kind of response to occur to me, I took the opportunity to study him. If his hair had thinned in the last decade, then there'd been way too much of it before. It was thick and came in many colors from dark brown to light caramel, and I had a dim memory of maybe having rubbed my hands through it.
My eyes drifted downward. "Umm. How skinny were you? Because now, you're . . . that's not much of a gut."
The flush lit up his beautiful skin once again. "Uh, I run. I play basketball when I can find guys to play with. And in college I was too skinny."
An overwhelming urge to run my hands up his flat torso to his shoulders shocked me out of nowhere. I sat on my hands.
"What about you?" Cooper asked. "What do you do to stay in such amazing shape?"
I glanced down. The boobs. He must be talking about the boobs. 36D, noticeable on a relatively thin frame. They'd never done a single good thing for me since the day they'd made their unwelcome appearance at age twelve. "Oh, I eat regular meals and no snacks. I walk whenever I get a chance, too. I got lucky, I guess. With my metabolism."
"Whatever it is, it's working."
Heat shot through me. He met my eyes. The contact held and simmered. For a wild second I thought he might kiss me. He swallowed and looked away.
Better that way. It would be better if I didn't get any further emotionally entangled with someone who'd use all the legal efficiency money could buy to remove me from his life within the next few days. This couldn't last. Even if I'd married him on purpose in a fit of alcoholic idiocy, I knew that much. These days were a gift. A little time to try to figure out a life plan. At age thirty-three, better late than never.
"Cooper, I—" I bit my lip. He didn't need to know my history. There'd be no point in telling him and taking us from awkward to awful. "What's the name of the town you live in again?"
"McClellanville. It's about forty-five minutes north of Charleston. In the Lowcountry, on the marsh."
"How long do you think it will take to get this straightened out?"
He put away his phone to give me his full attention. The worst of the hangover had disappeared. His skin tone had returned to a healthy tan and his eyes had cleared of the red. "Well, now, this is Thanksgiving week. I doubt we can get in to see a lawyer tomorrow, and then it's almost the holiday. I'd say we've got to stay married at least a week. Or more, depending on what they say when we do talk to them."
"Oh. Should I stay in a hotel?" I asked, terrified he'd say yes. I didn't have much money for a hotel. "You don't have a girlfriend or something, do you?"
"Nope. No girlfriend right now. I do live at my family's house with my dad and sister and her little girl, though. She and her husband split up about six months ago and she's back home. We've got room, in any case. House is old, but it's plenty big. More than enough bedrooms. You can stay with us."
I pictured our entrance. We'd walk in. Cooper would say, "Hello, Father. This is Molly. I married her during a three-day drunk. I don't know the first thing about her."
"What will you tell your family?"
He sat back, long legs stretched out in front of him, and laughed. "If it were just me, I'd tell the truth. Caroline'll think it's funny. Dad'll try to take control of the situation no matter what."
"What do you mean, 'take control'?"
He rubbed the tip of his nose. "Oh, Dad is one of those guys who has to be in charge of every situation. You know. If he thought we got married drunk, he'd want to ask a million questions to find out whether you took leave of your senses as a child or only recently, and whether I need to check in somewhere to dry out."
"Oh." A million questions sounded bad.
"It's nothing. Dad's just like that. You can't let him bother you. I'll leave it up to you, though. What do you want to tell them?"
"I have no idea. I shouldn't care what they think, but I'd hate to have your father think I'm an alcoholic gold digger. Or a nutcase."
"He'll probably think you're terrible anyway, but not for that. Do my ears deceive me or is that a Northern accent?"
Heat rose up my chest into my cheeks. "I'm from Michigan. Does that count?"
"Yup. That's what I thought. Somewhere Midwest. North of the Mason-Dixon line. Dad's got a few old-fashioned Southern prejudices."
"Great. So he'll hate me the instant I say hello. Before we even explain."
"Tell you what. If you're up for it, we can pretend that we weren't drunk. We can pretend we had some kind of love-at-first-sight situation and got married stone cold sober. Let him think what he wants. Then we work on the annulment all quiet-like and I tell him what happened after. You'll be gone and you'll never have to see him again. How's that?" He ran his hands through his hair. It fell back into place in perfect waves.
I stared at him, unable to make sense of someone so easy-going. "Cooper, why?" I cleared my throat, the words escaping me. "Why would you do this for a total stranger? The plane ticket? Taking me home to meet your family?"
His brows met in confusion, then his gaze dropped sheepishly. "Well, as you say, you're a stranger, but you're also my wife, for the moment at least, and you seem kind of . . . lost, maybe. Like not enough people have taken good care of you in your life. It won't hurt me a bit to do that a few days until we get all this mess straight, and like I said, the annulment will be easier if we can go to the lawyer together and just get it done."
I was so overwhelmed with the generosity of this plan—his kindness—it delayed the realization that it would seriously complicate the sleeping arrangements at his family's house. Which took my mind to another unanswered question. "Um. Last night. Do you know if we . . ."
"Did we have sex, do you know?" I forced out the words, unable to meet his eyes. I didn't think we had before last night. The first couple of nights, we'd crashed along with his friends in whatever hotel room we fell down in. Nikki had shared her suitcase. "I mean, I wouldn't be upset . . . you know, if . . ." Son of a bitch. I made it more and more awkward every word I spoke.
"Uh. I don't remember," he said, rubbing his temples. "I honestly don't. When I packed up my hotel room, I didn't see . . . anything that would make me think we did," he said, delicately. "Though that doesn't mean we didn't. Because I would have wanted to." Now it was his turn not to meet my eyes.
"So," he said, uncomfortable now. "Do you have family you need to call?"
I'd need to tread carefully here. "Um. My dad was never in the picture. My mom died when I was a teenager, and my grandma died six years ago. I never had any brothers and sisters."
"I'm sorry," he said. I glanced up. He meant it.
"It's all a long time ago."
"What do you do for a living?" he asked, showing off his skill at the basic manners I lacked.
I did not lack skill at lying, however, and this lie I'd practiced. I'd told it to several people I met in Las Vegas during my time there. No one would understand my real job. "I'm an interior decorator."
"Oh, that must be interesting. Annoying as hell, too. People who can afford help with interiors are usually pretty demanding."
"Are you one of those people?"
He colored and spread his hands flat on his thighs. "I guess I am. Or my dad is, anyway. That's the second blunt question you've asked in five minutes."
"Yeah. I do that, I guess. Does it bother you?" Bluntness was good cover: people never think blunt talkers are hiding anything.
Sometimes they are.
"No, not exactly. I'll get used to it." He leaned his elbows on his knees. "I'm a Realtor."
"Oh." I couldn't think of the first thing to ask about that.
He studied his fingernails as I desperately scrabbled for anything to say.
"Welcome to American Airlines Flight 355 to Charlotte. We'll begin boarding with our first class shortly."
I'd lost my train of thought. "Thank you. For what you said. For taking me home." For so much else I can't say.
"Ha!" he said, his low-pitched laughter rumbling. "Don't thank me until you meet my family."
"No, it's amazing what you're doing. Everything. Nobody . . ." I owed him more. I owed him some of the truth. "I-I'd been having kind of a tough time when I met you. I lost my job recently. I came to Vegas to try to forget things. To be somewhere new. I don't think I've ever been that drunk before. I've certainly never married someone before."
He absorbed that, taking it in stride. "Well, good. No need to apply for extra vacation time after all. You don't have a boyfriend who's going to turn up at my door, shotgun in hand, do you?"
"No. No boyfriend."
"You know I was married before. Got a divorce after Lynette left and stayed gone for a year. I never heard from her again. My lawyer had to put a notice in the paper. She never responded."
"I don't honestly know. We'd been married two years. I thought we were happy enough. Dad used to give her a hard time about being a Yankee—she was from Virginia, so it was his joke—and occasionally we argued about me spending too much time at work or hunting, but that's it. She was a first grade teacher. Not the kind you'd think would be impulsive, but one day she was gone. Took a bag and left. A plane ticket to Charlotte showed up on our joint charge card. Then nothing else. She must have cut up the card."
"Did you look in Charlotte?"
"Charlotte is a major airline hub for flights all over everywhere. She could have flown on anywhere. My dad hired a private investigator and he never found anything."
"No contact with her parents?"
"Nope. She only had a dad. He was in a nursing home with Alzheimer's by the time he was fifty. That part was odd. When I checked there, they said they'd call if she ever visited him again. They never called."
"That is odd. Are you okay?" I asked, searching his face, finding that I cared whether he was hurt by this, and worried that I cared.
"Yeah, now I am. I was torn up about it at first, no question. But it was five years ago now. I hope she's happy somewhere. And look. I've moved on. I'm remarried." He laughed.
Something inside me lifted knowing he was the sort of person who could already find the humor in it, less than twenty-four hours later. If I had to be married to a stranger, at least he was a kind stranger.
"Now boarding, American Airlines Flight 355 with service to Charlotte. All rows."
"Are you ready?" Cooper asked, shouldering the carry-ons and extending a free hand to me.
I took it.
If you only read Twitter, you’d think the bridge over the vast gulf between writing for teens and writing for adults is one of those flimsy rope ones you see in action movies. You know, the kind that unravel or get cut or disintegrate just as our intrepid hero tries to cross. You see it in the bios on Instagram: YA writer. Romance writer. As if the members of each group are in different Hogwarts houses and only see each other at the beginning of term dinner.
It doesn’t have to be that way. I cross that bridge all the time. I write both adult and YA (and I’m far from alone). All my novels have in common a thread of romance, chemistry between the main characters, a few sometimes-uncomfortable observations about societal conventions, a struggle to grow and change, and a messy-haired hero. (Which my older son would find hilarious, as I’m constantly telling him to comb his hair.) Here’s my big point: all these elements work no matter what age group I’m writing for.
I have three novels available now for online reading in which the main character is a teen girl (or slightly older) on the verge of adulthood and leaving home. You can find HERE’S WHERE SHE MEETS PRINCE CHARMING on Swoon Reads (oooh! Leave a comment there to help me get chosen for publication —a YA debut!) and TWENTY MILES IN and THE SUMMER CORSET on Radish Fiction. I love exploring that feeling I remember so well: wanting the independence and freedom of being out in the world, but with that not-so small part of me wanting to stay in the safe orbit of my parents as well. I never get tired of exploring this dilemma in lots of different settings. That’s the period of life – right at high school graduation time—when everything seems possible. All the doors are still open. All the choices are still left to be made, which is both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. No surprise I keep going back to it.
In January (so soon!), I’m also about to release my debut print novel, which is adult romantic suspense, LYING BENEATH THE OAKS. I realize this might be a wildly unpopular opinion, but to me, writing an adult heroine (in LBO, Molly is 33) and a teen heroine are much the same. It’s been years since I was a teen. I’m older now, and I have children of my own, but I feel the same inside. I react to things somewhat differently, but many of the same things make my heart sing now just as they did then. A beautiful piece of music. Christmas lights. A book to get lost in. A particularly swoonworthy kiss on TV. The glow of belonging to something. A perfect flower. A story of redemption or empowerment. The thrill of and pride in doing something well.
At the bottom, I’m here to tell you that your teenage years don’t ever really desert you. You’ll still be the same person on the inside even when you have to moisturize and fold fitted sheets. Yes, many of the excruciating moments of embarrassment will fade, and I’m sorry, your joints will never be as good, but I promise you this: a romantic story never gets old.
Full disclosure: my upcoming release, LYING BENEATH THE OAKS, has a sex scene. No fade to black, no coitus interruptus. The book is a romantic suspense, and while the scene isn’t even close to ghost-pepper hot, it’s definitely there in all its sweaty, naked, sliding glory.
They say “write like your parents are dead.” LBO is my sixth manuscript. I admit it, in the first two, written back in a time when I thought for sure I’d be published with the snap of my fingers, I wrote like my parents were very much alive. I faded to black. I interrupted. I was the queen of the euphemism.
And then my first two manuscripts didn’t sell. Neither did the next two. When it came time to sit down to write the manuscript that became LYING BENEATH THE OAKS, I felt pretty free by then to write whatever I wanted. The possibility that the elderly lady at my church might read what I wrote grew a lot more remote. My writing got bolder—and better, I think. I wrote like my parents were dead.
Fast forward a few years. My parents are still very much alive. So are my husband’s parents. And that lady in my mother-in-law’s book club who can’t wait to read my book but never reads “smutty” books. I have received Facebook messages from at least seven respectable senior citizens who told me they’ve pre-ordered, and well, I worry about their pacemakers. It occurs to me I may be penciled in for a concerned pastoral visit. There’s the co-worker who read an advance copy and told me red-faced that she’d read many a sex scene before, but never one written by someone she knows. And whose husband she knows, she added, in a meaningful whisper.
Suddenly, the cold chill of terror tempted me to call my editor and beg him to shut it all down. The sex scene would be awkward when people I know in real life read it, especially my boss and the lady at church who likes Amish romance. It was more than that, though. There’s not a word in the book that isn’t just as personal. Not a sentence that doesn’t show off the shape of my imagination and my worldview and the way I think about people and problem solving and entire cities. And also the way I think about a man’s shirtless chest.
Publishing a book is terrifying. It will expose me: the way my brain works and the vocabulary I think in and things I fear and the colors I see when I close my eyes. It’s nakedness, and not just the sexual kind. When this book comes out, everyone will know me in ways that they don’t, now. Here’s a hint: the sex scenes are nowhere near the most personal part of LYING BENEATH THE OAKS.
I calmed down. I’m ready for the January release day, I think. I’ve dreamed of having a book exist in the world that I wrote since before I could spell my own name. Sometimes I can’t believe my own good fortune. I have a book coming out. People will read it. They may hate it. They may skip “certain parts.” (They may also read those parts twice.) My favorite people, I find, are kind of like that with other people too—skipping the parts they don’t like to focus on what they do.
I bit the bullet and gave the copy to my in-laws. My father-in-law read every word. “I liked it. It’s a bit bawdy, but I liked it.”
First thing you need to know about me: I love Pitch Wars. This is my third year mentoring and I got my agent, the amazing Sarah Younger, with the manuscript I entered in the contest in 2014. Being part of the mentee class also got me an amazing group of support (shoutout, 2014 PW TOT!). Becoming a mentor in 2015 got me my critique partners and best friends – all mentors that year. My 2015 mentee got an agent within two weeks of the agent showcase. My 2016 mentee won an RWA Golden Heart with her PW manuscript and is set to publish another soon with the Big 5. Both my parents were English teachers, my father was a copy editor for a major newspaper in the summertime, and I live for Correct English Grammar. (Please know that I will spend at least two weeks in terror that there is a typo or error in this post.)
I owe every step I’ve made along my publishing journey to Pitch Wars. I write both adult and YA. My debut, LYING BENEATH THE OAKS, is a Southern romantic suspense for adults and it comes out in January 2019 from Bella Rosa Books (preorder links are up on my Goodreads page and this website). It never would have happened without Pitch Wars. My road was long, longer than most, and I’d be happy to share that story with anyone who is interested, whether or not you submit to me. For what it’s worth, not only have I worked with my editor on my soon-to-be-published novel, but I’ve also done two full R&Rs for Big 5 editors, so I do have some idea of what they’re looking for.
I work full-time as a lawyer and I have two boys who play all the sports in the world. Even so, I’ve written nine manuscripts in the last five years. I’ve written many of them in parking lots behind the wheel of my Ford Explorer, waiting for soccer practice or cross country or swimming to be over. I’m a champion multi-tasker. Let’s do this!
I am looking for your ADULT manuscript! Across all genres, I'm drawn to romantic plots and subplots and smart characters. I love flirting through intelligence. Here’s a breakdown of what I’m most likely to choose.
You’ll note I didn’t specify #ownvoices or LGBT, even though I want those. I didn’t specify it because in this day and age diversity should go without saying. If your book isn’t an accurate reflection of the society it purports to show us, that’s a problem, and it will likely impact your selection not just by me but by any mentor and ultimately by publishing. I won’t pick a manuscript that is problematic. I’ve recommended sensitivity reads in the past and I’ll do it again. Be aware of the market and your place in it.
As to New Adult, I will consider any manuscript that falls within the above categories where the protagonist is at least 21 years old and is dealing with adult issues, not coming of age questions. If chosen, I’d treat the manuscript as adult and would help you make that clear in revisions.
I’ve said this before: If your story doesn’t fit into any of the categories above, that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy; it’s just not for me. There are better mentors for it. Send it to them.
I will pass on the following BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW THESE MARKETS:
Here’s how it will work if I get to work with you! My plan is to help you with the following:
I’ll write you a long edit letter at the get-go that explains what larger changes I see (structure, plot changes, character deletion/addition, pacing, beginning in the right place). Once you do that, you’ll send it back to me and I will do in-line edits on more of a sentence/paragraph level (adding tension and punch to your language, work on dialogue, dialogue tags, character consistency and development). If we have time, I’ll read it a third time and help you copy edit. I will never try to correct your voice. I’ll be available as much as I can to help you as you revise and am easily reached by email. While we wait for the showcase, I’ll be happy to help you come up with a query strategy for your new revised query.
One caveat, and it’s huge. If you believe that your novel is perfect, and you’re entering Pitch Wars with an idea of bypassing the mentoring and going straight to the agent round without changing a word, this isn’t going to work. If your novel is that amazing, query now. This contest is for writers who want to be mentored, and that means subjecting your writing and your story to criticism that might be hard to hear. If you’re ready for an honest and improving critique, SEND IT TO ME! I will be gentle, I promise.
I can’t wait to get started! Please don’t hesitate to @ me on Twitter if you have questions.
Here is a link back to the PitchWars blog:
At the bottom of this post is a link to all the other Adult mentors’ wish lists. Happy hunting!
I have a real cover for my real book! I am so excited about this. I hope you like it as much as I do.
Here’s the back cover copy:
Molly Todd wakes up in a Vegas parking lot with a headache, a virtual stranger, and a wedding ring. Jobless and broke, she’s left with no other option but to go home with new husband Cooper Middleton to the Lowcountry of South Carolina to straighten out the mess they’ve made. It’s in Molly’s best interest to get an annulment sooner rather than later—before her hosts find out that she’s not the kind of guest anyone wants at their Thanksgiving dinner.
The more Molly gets to know Cooper and his family, the more she wonders if she and Cooper might have a real chance together. She longs to tell him her secret even though she knows the truth might get her kicked straight out into the nearby swamp. While she wavers, Molly’s unusual life experiences allow her to spot the skeletons in the Middleton family closet: ones Cooper’s never suspected, ones that are hidden in plain sight. What Molly discovers will shake Cooper’s foundations—and could threaten both their lives.
I hope you’ll consider pre-ordering at Barnes and Noble and Amazon!
I sent a LOT of queries, but this is the one that means the most because it got me my agent. Pay attention to the brackets. No two queries should be the same! Bonus: this book is available, mostly free, to read on the online reading app Radish.
Dear [Name of agent, spelled and gendered correctly]:
I am seeking representation for my 72,000 word contemporary romance manuscript, TWENTY MILES IN. [Personalize here if you can. Don’t if it’s forced.]
Recent college grad Emma Clark thinks all hikers are hemp-wearing vegans, but her roommate bribes her with sushi and new jeans to come on a four-day group trip to West Virginia’s wilderness. Emma figures she got the worst of that bargain when she finds out ex-hookup Kevin is her tent mate. They had a hot evening last fall, but he disappeared in the morning leaving nothing behind except sunlight on the pillow. That embarrassing mountain shrinks into a molehill, however, when an unexpected April blizzard buries the trails.
No one brought winter gear, and their food won’t last long. When one hiker breaks his leg on an icy log, someone has to strike out in search of rescue. Kevin's got the skill, and Emma's the only one available to go as backup in case he gets into trouble on the long hike out. In an instant, the snow turns Emma's grudge into a luxury she can't afford. Emma uses her anger at Kevin to fuel her energy for the escape, but his charm is chipping away at it hour by hour. She'll have to clamp down on his irrepressible cockiness to make sure they reach help before their friends’ body heat and food supply - and their own - runs out.
I am an attorney and I live in central Virginia, where hiking opportunities in all seasons abound. Pasted below is [whatever sample the agent’s submission guidelines call for. Double check and get it right!] of the book, which could be pitched as It Happened One Night meets Indiana Jones meets snow. Thank you for your consideration.
Kristin Button Wright
Though I’ve been known to write whole books about sex without ever putting much sex on the page (hello, repressed main characters!), I’ve been reading about #cockygate with interest.
If you don’t know, #cockygate is the name given to a blowup of late in the world of romance writing. By way of a brief summary, an author named Faleena Hopkins trademarked the word “cocky” for her own titles only, and has sent cease and desist letters to a number of authors who also use that word in their titles, even some whose titles predate her trademark. The Romance Writers of America association is preparing to battle to prevent Ms. Hopkins from claiming that very common word (what’s next? Duke? Devil? Bride? Night?), and litigation will no doubt ensue.
I doubt highly any book of mine will ever use the word “cocky” in a title, but the whole hullabaloo has made me think about writing as a profession, and how upsetting the whole #cockygate thing is, mainly because it is so unusual within the world of authors. As a rule, we don’t ambush and attempt to sabotage each other.
Publishing professionals frequently say on Twitter and elsewhere that publishing is not a zero sum game; that your book isn’t competing against others, that there is room in publishing for all books with merit. I’m not sure that is always true—it’s fairly unlikely, though not impossible, for two genderflipped Cinderella retellings set in Ancient Greece to get picked up at the same time, or ever, whatever their merit.
That said, though, publishing isn’t cutthroat like other professions either. Success of books, of publishing, of bookstores, of libraries, of school summer reading programs, of agents, of other authors lifts all boats. We all need this industry to do well. A kid who loves your book might then decide to read mine. An adult who looks for your book at the store might buy mine if it’s similar in feel.
I read a brilliant blog post lately that theorized that Faleena Hopkins, putative owner of the word “cocky,” must not have a group of other authors to bounce things off. Faleena has nobody to tell her that it’s okay if three (or ninety) books have the word “cocky” in their titles. They may attract each other’s readers. Just ask the other guy who wrote a book called Fire and Fury after the one about the president was published. Faleena clearly has nobody to tell her that sending cease and desist letters to other authors is at best futile and at worst, career-killing.
I have a group of writers who mean the absolute world to me. We all started this journey around the same time. Some are multi-published, some are not published at all. One is a NYT Bestseller. They are all fantastically talented, and better, loyal and caring. I couldn’t do this without them. They read my work and tell me when something makes no sense. They cheerlead when I need it. They tell me I cannot quit (and yes, if you’ve been at this any time at all, you know that the occasion for that demand arises a lot). I do the same for them.
At the end of my life, I’ll be happy to know that I left a book behind me (I hope more than one!) in the Library of Congress. But that’s not what this is all about. It will matter much, much more that I made friends, true, deep friends, with other authors.
We write books to connect with people. It’s sad for me to think that Faleena Hopkins doesn’t seem to understand that some of the best people and the most real connections are with other authors.
This story has a happy ending; I promise (spoiler alert! a BOOK DEAL). First, though, the inevitable backstory.
In February of 2015 I got my agent. I wrote my post about “The Call” and secretly planned my imminent book launch party. My agent offered on the second book I’d written. I already had a third ready to go. I was ON MY WAY.
I was on my way until I wasn’t. That second book went on sub and I kept writing. I always kept writing; at the rate of about two fully-edited manuscripts a year. I’d have a huge backlist to offer my publisher when—back then it was always “when”—they offered me a contract.
Within days after I went on sub, the rejections started to roll in. My writing was beautiful, they said. The characters were well-developed. The dialogue was snappy. The concepts were intriguing. Most of the rejections were downright mushy, until I reached the “unfortunately” that heralded the thing they all tended to say: We can’t figure out where to shelve this. We don’t know how to market this. We don’t have a vision for a book in this space.
In other words, my genre is fuzzy.
Genre—science fiction, historical romance, fantasy, true crime—helps booksellers to know which shelf to put a book on. It helps publishers know what type of cover to put on it. It helps readers to make quick decisions in bookstores based on other books they’ve enjoyed.
My genre is fuzzy. In theory, I write women’s fiction and young adult books, always with romance and kissing (at least). Easy, right? Nope. My young adult books venture a little outside straightforward romance and into topical. My women’s fiction books veer sharply into domestic suspense, mystery, and contemporary romance, and sometimes all three. They don’t go neatly into a box.
I kept writing and my agent, the brilliant Sarah Younger, kept submitting my manuscripts to editors. The rejections kept rolling in — almost all with the same complaints. In all, we submitted six different manuscripts to editors at publishing houses large and small. I came close, a number of times. Several editors advised they’d asked other editors to read, before they got to the “unfortunately.” Twice an editor offered to edit the manuscript and allow me to resubmit the revised version in the hopes it would pass a marketing team the second time. It never worked. At least three times I was told my manuscript had made it all the way to the Super Important Person Called The Publisher. Nothing.
My genre was still fuzzy.
Three years passed this way. With every rejection, I died inside a little bit more. My writing slowed to a crawl. "When" became a very decided "If." I thought about quitting. I made plans to quit. I’d been happy before I started writing. Every time I got serious about walking away, my husband and my friends—ones I met on this journey—begged me to keep trying a little longer. Sarah told me she would never give up on me. I kept writing. I kept reading rejections — over seventy-five in all, over a period of three years.
It’s hard to believe in yourself when the evidence is pointing the wrong direction. I knew I could write. I knew I had the ability to put sentences together, to create memorable characters, to place it all in a world that felt real. All my life I’d been a voracious reader, and I started off with the idea that I could add one book back to the feast I’d been gorging on for so many years.
In January 2018, Sarah sent my sixth manuscript (out of eight in total I’d written) to Bella Rosa Books, and within a day, the editor contacted Sarah to let her know more about their publishing model. They might be interested. It would take two more months to hear the words I’d been waiting for.
They, unlike the bigger publishing names you might have heard more about, were willing to take a chance on my book. LYING BENEATH THE OAKS, a Southern-set women’s fiction story with elements of romance, suspense, and mystery, bled over the genre boundaries as much or even more than any of the others, but BR saw a market for a story like that.
This is all to say that if you have been struggling, wondering whether your two years on sub or your three unsold books mean that you should quit, you shouldn’t. I’m delighted to answer any questions, but the stats don’t lie:
Hang in there. Reach out to me for support. I’ve been there. I’ve been there for a long, long time. I know the temptation of closing that laptop cover for the last time.
HANG IN THERE.
I put a book out in the world this week! You can find it at Radish Fiction, a free app for your smartphone or tablet. Radish does serialized fiction and it’s a fun way to read that hearkens back all the way to Charles Dickens. The first three chapters are free, and then you can purchase the rest as they are released.
My book is called THE SUMMER CORSET and it’s about a girl who longs for the romance of an earlier age and takes a job at a Detroit Civil War fort as a costumed living history interpreter. She thinks she’s found the old-fashioned gentleman of her dreams in her older co-worker, but soon realizes that clothes don’t make the man and that by looking to the past, she might miss out on her future. I would love it if you’d take a peek, and I’d love it even more if you told me what you thought afterwards here or on Twitter!
I wrote this story because I used to have a job as a Civil War-era living history interpreter in my own late teens and I’ve never forgotten the experience. I still remember fighting my hair each morning to get it in a snood. There are few odder experiences than waiting in line at a fast-food restaurant wearing a long dress while your co-worker in a Union Army uniform orders a Whopper for lunch. I learned to build a fire and wash laundry on a washboard and to sit down in a hoop skirt and even to fire a cannon. Sometimes we romanticize the past, and I thought it might be interesting to see what might happen if a girl who’d been hurt in the modern day thought she had a chance at a courtly nineteenth-century romance—especially if that romance didn’t end up measuring up the way she thought it would.
Having said all that, this is the first time I’ve shared a story with people I don’t know, and it’s way scarier than I thought it would be. Writing a book is like taking little pieces of yourself, your home, and your memory and stitching them into a quilt. Sharing that writing is like reading your diary aloud in disconnected chunks – there’s enough there that people can figure out what goes on in your head.
People have been really nice so far (except for the unknown person on Twitter who said the concept sounded terrible and he hoped the sex scenes made up for it—thanks for your input, sir, but this is a book for young adults), but it’s still terrifying. For example, this story is written for modern teenagers, and because it is a romance starring an 18-year-old protagonist, includes some frank talk about sex and what expectations for sex mean to teenagers of today. My mom will read this story. My mother-in-law will read this story. Ladies at my church will read this story. They will all know that I’ve thought about sex!
Joking aside, I hope you all enjoy the story of Jenna and her confusing summer in Civil War underwear. Here's the link:
Thanks for reading!
Full disclosure: I’m a Game of Thrones cheater. I came late to the party. I read all sorts of spoilers while I was pretending that I would never watch/read/follow the story, so I know more than I ought to. Here are my only-kinda-legit credentials: I’ve read the first book, about one-third of the second, and (shhhh) hardly any other fantasy books other than Narnia and Harry Potter and the Frostblood series by Elly Blake.
I’ve seen four seasons of the show, because I can only watch when my middle school boys are out of the house. They’re at the age when GoT is a lot less about thrones and a lot more about boobs. Naked boobs. I’m not ready for the level of awkward that is watching Littlefinger give exposition speeches in a room full of frolicking whores with my thirteen-year-old son.
Given that I am in possession of illegal spoilers, I’m aware that many of you are going to want to fight me on behalf of Sansa Stark, because yes, this post is about Sansa Stark.
Four seasons worth of Sansa Stark.
Four seasons of a character who is clearly intended to be one of the good guys but instead makes my blood boil every time I see her. Game of Thrones has demonstrated many inventive and gory ways to kill people and I’ve imagined Sansa at the receiving end of every one of them. I hate Sansa Stark. Why?
BECAUSE SHE NEVER DOES ANYTHING. She has no agency. Things happen to her. Occasionally if pressed she will issue a bitter but yet tepid remark. So far, she's been engaged to one sadist, married to a man old enough to be her father who is in love with her maid, and kidnapped by a creepy dude who is happy to pretend she is her mother. After all that, she still has so little agency, I'd be surprised to see her squash a spider.
There are a lot of ledges and cliffs and castle heights in Game of Thrones. People are always having conversations at the edge of these, usually with Sansa, and usually with some intent to harm her. Joffrey takes Sansa up to a ledge to look at her dad’s bodiless head on a pike. She thinks about Joffrey hitting the ground, but no. Cersei takes her to the waters’ edge to torment her. Shae feeds her breakfast on a balcony. Littlefinger stands at the edge of the Moon Door.
SHE NEVER PUSHES ANY OF THESE PEOPLE OVER THE EDGE.
Think for a second, just one second, about how much more of a badass Sansa would be if she did this. Arya would be a tame little kitten by comparison. Game of Thrones would have been a very different show if she’d just given one of those monsters a tiny push. I have worn out my rooting rooter trying to send her telepathic messages to just shove out a hip ONE TIME.
Okay, you get the idea. Yes, I know (or have heard) that her arc gets better. I’m only four seasons in. I hear Sansa matures into someone tougher. That she’s supposed to be naïve, gentle, reactive, self-protective, et cetera. It doesn’t change the fact that as a viewer AND as a reader, a character with lack of agency will drive you crazy.
I’m a writer. There was a time when I thought this “characters must have agency” thing was a crock. It wasn’t realistic. Real people aren’t always out there taking the bull by the horns, I said. Most people are just people who have things happen to them. What’s wrong with writing about everyday people?
Everything, that’s what. Agency drives interest and connection. It makes you root for a character. Whenever Arya or Cersei or Tyrion comes on the screen, I sit up straighter. I know I’m going to watch someone DO something, however twisted. Bran, a paraplegic, has figured out a way to do things. Jon does things. Robb and Ned and Catelyn did things. Danaerys does things. Even Ramsey and Tywin do things.
Sansa, however, raises my blood pressure by letting everything happen to her. If Game of Thrones starred only Sansa, I’d have given up long ago.
Be smart about your characters and their agency. Don’t lose your audience before you start.
Coming soon: THE DARKEST FLOWER!