Trailer Trash: About Me, Part I

I grew up in a trailer or mobile home, the terms are used interchangeably. But such technicalities make no difference when you’re a kid, and every other kid who didn’t grow up in a trailer or mobile home had the benefit of dubbing you “white trash,” and “trailer trash.” Humans are no never so human as when we take comfort in hierarchies, even as children.

Everyone in school knew me and my family were poor. We didn’t live in poverty, but we were poor. My sister and I had to look after ourselves since our father worked 12 hours a day.

When you live close to the edge of poverty, you learn things early. You cram too much in too few years. You are surrounded by people who are economically similar to yourself and for wildly varying reasons, all of those reasons you are likely to learn at some point, for better or worse.

As I related in a previous blog, I suffered from childhood anxiety disorder, I found relief in the library. That meant traversing my mixed bunch, trailer park community, crossing roads and unsavory neighborhood elements in order to get to my local library. Liquor stores, check cashiers, pawn shops, strip clubs, questionable dwellings with questionable persons hanging around. Every trip was frightening. In my young mind, the payoff was worth it. I knew the books I would soon delve into would erase the worst of anything I may have just seen, heard, and even smelled. The same would be true when I made the trip back to my mobile home, mind lost in books once more.

I grew up in Irving, a city adjacent to Dallas. Irving was much smaller then and called a suburb of Dallas. The poor who had to find work in Dallas lived in Irving. Today, I sit from the comfort of my two story home in a high demand neighborhood of the ever booming Austin, Texas. Today, it is not unusual that I am treated as someone who grew up from an affluent home. I am often approached by others who assume to know my background. The implication of a comfortable childhood is apparent in the language used and the attitude assumed when I am spoken to. Having worked in the higher education system for nearly a decade, and the fact that I have two degrees, often put me in the position of being passively-aggressively challenged about a wealth and upbringing I didn’t have. I don’t bother to correct the projection others put on me, but I don’t engage with people who assume to know me either. It seems a waste of my time. I let my work speak for me.

As it turns out, my childhood background would lend itself to my style of writing. Had I earned degrees in writing, I might have learned of my actual genre much sooner. I had always labeled my work as a women’s fiction-slash-drama. I recently discovered that my style of writing is a sub-genre of Gothic, called Southern Gothic. I write with “dark elements” (better known to me as “the truth”), while set in the geographic location of Texas, a big ol’ chunk of the south. That makes Southern Gothic, apparently. The gritty and glaring real life depictions, plus fiction, coupled with location. Southern Gothic, like all of Gothic, can incorporate fantastical elements too. One day I may write a piece that includes magic and other worldliness, but for now, real life serves up more than enough to work with.

I once wrote a short story for my high school’s creative writing course inspired by a resident of my trailer park. A severely obese woman who spent her days divided between residing in her trailer to hobbling her way out to her attached deck, surrounded by her 10 dogs. In life, I never learned her name, in my story, I called her Edna. Edna, from her place on the deck, folds of her body spilling out from all directions on her distressed bench, stared boldly at any and all residents who passed by. Edna never spoke, but still managed to quietly challenge by site alone. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Edna was angry, but no one knew why. In my work, I gave Edna a backstory that explained her current disparity, taking comfort in the company of her dogs. Claiming her untrained, no-collared, badly groomed furry companions were all that she needed. They were loyal, Edna’s character claimed. Edna’s backstory didn’t matter, the ending did. Edna died alone in her trailer from a massive heart attack. The residents suspected something was wrong as several days had gone by without Edna presiding over her usual place on the deck, glaring down all passersby. But hey, who cares? If anything Edna’s absence was an improvement so why rock the boat, was the general consensus of the trailer park residents.

What caused the first of many double-takes to come from my teachers over the years was Edna’s ending. She was found a week later, eaten by her beloved dogs. In life, the woman who inspired Edna did die alone from a massive heart attack. And she was discovered several days later, but not eaten by her dogs. Her dogs had disbanded and sought food elsewhere from other residents. That’s when people thought to look for the heavy set resident who rudely liked to stare from her deck. I didn’t realize it then, but such writing would become the basis of my work – the truth, with more steps. The world, as it is, is infinitely strange, my mind decided to make use of what was already there.

Examples of Gothic fiction includes:
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, by Victor Hugo
Almost everything by Edgar Allan Poe
And so many more. Here’s a full-bodied list from Goodreads

Examples of Southern Gothic fiction includes:
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt
A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Here’s an excellent Southern Gothic list from Goodreads. I hope to make it here one day.

ArmedWithCoffee.com
Austin, Texas

The Book I Left Off

I intentionally withheld a book from my last blog, “Books of Influence.”

If you were to ask a reader what their favorite book was, they might well find it a difficult question to answer.  There are scores of things to take into consideration in order to pair favorites down to a top 10 list, never mind a singular favorite. I, on the other hand, have no such issue.

I was an insatiable reader since early childhood, always categorized as advanced by my teachers. I suffered anxiety disorder as a child, a solitary life was my norm, books became my friends. I do not know if this was a cause and effect relationship, or if I was truly gifted in reading. But I do know it was this overwhelming need to shove my nose in a book that led me to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) when I was perhaps ten years old.

I recall it was summertime. Two weeks into my school vacation and I had already tackled my summer reading list. I went to my local library to stock up. A summer earlier, I had long since drifted from the children’s and young adult areas to full on fiction. Floating amongst the alphabetized authors, I spotted a familiar title, A Christmas Carol, ‘Oh, like the Mickey movie.’ No, as I would soon discover. A Christmas Carol was not written for children, not in the least. It had an important message, clearly, how else do you explain the many film versions, most child-friendly? But no. The original written version was intended for a very adult audience.

This was the passage my eyes first fell as I flicked through the book:

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

This passage terrified me and for several reasons. First of which, I had never read of children depicted in this way. Starved, sickly, twisted, humiliated creatures. And if the context were to be believed, these children were made so by the neglect of man, or rather man’s indifference to the sufferings of others, even children. Second, the Ghost of Christmas Present named the children, “Ignorance,” and “Want,” the formula for suffering. I was scared at the thought of being either.

After giving A Christmas Carol the full read through, I understand how Christmas Present was mocking Scrooge with Scrooge’s own words, “Are there no prisons?” and “Are there no workhouses?” as a solution for dealing with the destitute.

Sometimes you come across something so powerful it influences you from the first moment of exposure and not casually. Some find inspiration in works of art, others in music, television, film, or in the actions and beliefs of others. I have those moments as well, but fiction will always take lead. The passage I read that day in my local library, and later the full story in my bedroom, impressed upon me a way of being. That passage taught me what I wanted to see in myself and in society. That passage has influenced me from that day to this, everything from my views on religion, to politics, to my own personal behavior when I meet someone of want…and when I meet someone of ignorance.

What works of fiction have influenced you? Was it powerful?

ArmedWithCoffee
Austin, Texas

Books of Influence

I’m only through my third day of a massive head cold. Of course, this happens as soon as I decide to blog regularly on Tues/Thurs and sometimes the weekend. So I thought, ‘filler piece.’

I want to share those novels that stay with me on a day-to-day basis. Novels that inspire me regularly. Books that I can reread and still find content that makes me think and reflect.

These are not ranked, merely listed.

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan
Shatter, by Michael Robotham
Carrie, by Stephen King
The Shining, by Stephen King
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
The Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
A Game of Thrones (the book series as a whole), by George R.R. Martin
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen
The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris

Off topic, the rejection emails from literary agents have been pouring in lately, as I think about my previous blog, “Literary Agents and Queries and F*** You’s”. I also noticed just how many agents are gearing up for writer’s conferences. Coincidence? I hate to think my query got rushed through for the sake of clearing out the old inbox before he or she left the office for a few days, but as someone who used to attend conferences regularly, I know better. Sigh. Time to compose the RESUBMISSION list.

I get knocked down, but I get up again / You are never gonna keep me down…
you know you hear the tune in your head.

ArmedWithCoffee
Austin, Texas

Literary Agents and Queries and F*** You’s (read before you comment)

For those of you who are concerned, or looking to let off some steam, this blog is not about telling off literary agents. I’ll spare you that anxiety…or disappointment if you were hoping to really sink your teeth into a good bashing. I get it, though, the query process is soul-sucking.

As a would-be author (who is actively seeking agent representation) do you know what I read quite often from lit agents? Profiles, articles, blogs, and more dedicated to what they are looking for in queries, and what they are not looking for. I see lists and lists of advice about how to increase the odds of getting THE call, a request for the full manuscript, and hopefully, THE second follow-up phone call, where at long last, the agent proclaims they want to represent you.

You know what I don’t read anything about? The flipside of that coin. The writer’s experience. The frustration, the dedication to meet the requests of literary agents to exacting detail. I think the idea is everyone (lit agents and writers alike) presume to know this side. However, I have no impression that this is true. Here’s why – the advice given to unrepresented writers does not match the outcome. In other words, there is no proof to be had in that pudding.

It does not seem to matter that I wrote my query to his or her exact specifications or that the preferred content the agent is seeking is a match. I still end up with this response in the rejection email, ‘doesn’t fit my interests,’ or some variation of it. Even though you, the agent, listed that you specifically want to read a story in women’s fiction that features a strong leading female, maybe an underrepresented female set in the modern world, an outsider if you will. GREAT! I can give you just that! That’s my story, exactly. I, the writer, am suddenly terribly excited to submit my work to you, the agent. And yet, a week, two weeks, two months go by and I might get a rejection letter citing the ‘not quite right fit,’ line. Sigh.

I can’t discern from a basic, online profile page if what the agent is asking for is what he or she really wants. I only submit my work if there’s a match. Sometimes agents are very specific about what they are looking for, others are less so. The result is often the same. I follow the advice, I do my research, I tweak my queries, and yet the pudding remains without proof.

I hear tales long since passed of agents who took the time to write back after receiving a query, and although you were likely being rejected, the agent dropped a line or two on how you could improve. I don’t think the current standard for queries was meant to be as it currently is, that is to say, silent, but it is even so. How, then, do you boost your odds of getting an agent’s attention? You research your agents, you compose your query well, you submit the sample pages as requested…what else?

I’ve seen one advice article from a writer, turned author, who stressed numbers. Queries, he said, are a numbers game. Yes, you still craft your query as well as you can, you do your research of agents, you do your best at all times when reaching out to a complete stranger, but you do so repeatedly and often. If you’re submitting once or twice a week, you’re doing it wrong. I hate to think that this process, which feels oddly intimate because you are reaching out to persons unknown and putting your work out there, has been reduced to numbers. But I can’t say I’m surprised. And I’ll tell you why.

For nearly a decade, I advised university students (undergrad and grad) on how to launch into the real world. I have a master’s degree in counseling, and I chose to specialize in career counseling. While I had studied all the major forms of traditional counseling, I couldn’t leave the career element alone. I found career counseling infinitely more fast-paced and engaging. What to study, what to make a career of, and so on. If you’ve ever seen a person’s face in pure relief for having made a major decision about life, I’m telling you, there’s nothing like it.

Where numbers came in was when it was time for a student to apply to jobs. I told every graduating student I ever met, if she was not applying to jobs at least 10 times a week, it was the same as not applying at all. My advice for applications filed was roughly 15-20 a week. It seems like a lot but it’s not. The students who were smart enough to take my advice were the ones who received multiple offers. The students who only wanted to be considered by their top or favorite company and applied once, sometimes twice if they had a second favorite, well, you can imagine how well that strategy worked out. By the time this student realized saturation was the key, the jobs were filling up.

The idea behind application saturation is an old one. You write more, therefore your written language improves, also your speed in the application process improves considerably, which means you can submit even faster. You start landing interviews, and in so doing you become a better interviewer. You figure out how to make yourself look good on paper – that’s check one. Once you figure how to sell yourself in person (that is absolutely what an interview is) – that’s check two. Then it is only a matter of time before you get the offer.

Many of these things I have found apply to queries, and if you’ve submitted more than 10 queries you might know what I’m talking about. After 10 queries, I believe, you start to pick up the pace, not so unlike the application-cover letter-resume package that is part of job hunting. The faster I submitted (not sacrificing quality and always personalizing) the faster I got responses, all rejections at this point, but it was an improvement over the no responses when I was going at a slower pace.

The query is a lot like the application, cover letter, and resume rolled into one. The query should be tweaked per agent you are submitting to. I can’t help but notice how the expectations for queries can vary wildly among lit agents. That’s irritating, but because you’re a would-be author, you write your query as outlined (if at all) according to the agent or the agent’s company’s website. You tweak your query to make it a little extra special per agent, just like a cover letter (and if you aren’t doing this, you should be). You do your damnedest to be thoughtful, concise, and above all sellable, cause let’s face it, those sample pages you are submitting are your interview equivalent. I’ve trained countless student-clients on how to represent themselves on paper first and in-person second. I believe I do a good job of meeting the standards for queries if not exceeding them. Now let me tell you about my numbers:

Queries = 38
Rejections (auto response or personal) = 10
No Response = 7
Floating (too early to call) = 21
Calls = 0
Feedback Of Any Kind = 0

You can only read that quote about ‘giving up is the only way you ever really lose’ before you start thinking, ‘fuck you,’ in a sort of begrudging, mental response. The sentiment of never giving up is true, don’t get me wrong, but you’re still thinking, ‘fuck you.’

What keeps me going is that I actually like my work. I do. As I’m editing my manuscript, rereading passages, extracting samples, I truly, genuinely believe in my work. I am excited by it. My voluntary beta-readers, they believe in my work too and cheer me on. I didn’t slap 450 pages together thinking that now I needed to be compensated because I wrote something. I am very familiar with how life works and how it doesn’t. No, I pursue the course of agent representation, despite the overwhelming silence and rejection, because I know what I’ve produced. I have confidence in my manuscript, and one day an agent will too.

In the meantime, I will continue to submit queries with ever increasing accuracy and speed. I will reread that quote about the only way you ever really lose, while the mental ‘fuck you’s’ are stowed once more.

To learn more about my manuscript, please read the blog, “Ruth.”

ArmedWithCoffee
Austin, Texas

Portable Magic / Dorks Unite

It was Howard Pyle’s, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883), that inspired today’s modern version of Robin Hood, a good-hearted, rogue-styled philanthropist.

My family and I recently attended the Sherwood Forest Faire in McDade, Texas, roughly 50 minutes east of Austin. This is not my first rodeo of fantasy inspired gatherings. I love going to these fairs, be it Scarborough Renaissance Festival, which occurs annually outside Dallas, or the mighty Texas Renaissance Festival (Ren-Fest for short), just outside of Houston, I never fail to feel amazement by the sheer volume of dedication to the theme. The workers and attendees alike dress to the nines of their period intended costumes.

Sherwood is by far the simpler or smaller of the fairs, but no less dedicated. A person’s need to express what inspires them is a precious thing, more so when adults engage in make-believe. Such adult play holds out for hope that we might still be inspired to imagine. I have yet to meet one L.A.R.P.er (live action role play/player) that didn’t make me smile, their dedication to the craft infectious.

To date, the greatest example I can think of where adults were more likely to act as children than the actual children present was when we vacationed at Universal Studios, Florida for the sole purpose of spending three days in the Harry Potter themed parks. It was my idea, actually. My last vacation had been five years earlier with my husband – on our honeymoon. We work hard, and time off isn’t always an option.

My idea of a relaxing vacation does not typically include cramming myself into a park of equally enthused Potter-heads (as we call ourselves), and yet I willing flew (I hate flying), spent five days in a family packed hotel (children were seen, smelled, and heard at all times), and jostled ourselves to and fro the hotel and theme park via shuttle bus. It was hot. Sticky. Loud. Scorching. But once you stand amidst the fantasy world that you have come to know and love over the years, none of the aggravating humanness matters. In fact, you welcome the people around you, minds blown by the books-turned-into-life. You’re suddenly glad you packed your wand even though you weren’t sure you should bring it. Cause ya’ know, you know you’re a dork, that doesn’t mean you want to let the world in on it. But no, now you’re glad you did as dorks unite. Spell battles run unchecked with equally excited Potter-heads.

These book inspired activities should not fail to remind us of the power of fiction. Stephen King is quoted as saying, “Book are uniquely portable magic.” Individually, avid fiction readers understand this meaning in its truest form. The fairs and theme parks, the role players inspired by centuries-old tales, it means accessing the same magical portal, at the same time. So pack your wand alongside your fairy wings, and take comfort in knowing that you will find yourself with like-minded spirits.

Hello from ArmedWithCoffee

Hello! This blog is dedicated to the honest experiences of a writer. My aspirations are simple, I hope to upgrade from writer to professional author, that is to say – published.

These blogged thoughts will often be intended, thought out, and yet at times, utterly random. I will relate my experiences as a writer, and literary agent pursuer, with stark honesty; the good, the bad, and the ugly. The triumphs, the screw-ups, and the face-palms.

Somewhere a coffee maker just dinged, indicating a fresh brew. Let’s grab a cup.

Ruth

Ruth. That’s the name of my manuscript.

Ruth’s Stats:
page count = 442
word count = 170,086
genre = upmarket-commercial fiction / women’s fiction / new adult (depending on the agent’s opinion, respectively)

Ruth has existed in my mind for a very long time. Since college, I believe. I will dedicate a future blog to who I am, where I’ve come from, my education, my career prior to writing, but for now, this blog, ArmedWithCoffee.com, comes down to Ruth…and its blatant solicitation to literary agents.

Human behavior fascinates me, always has. As a child, I constantly questioned adults and quickly learned that adults do not appreciate the scrutiny, most definitely not from a kid. The thing is no one likes to be questioned (regardless of the age of the person asking) particularly when someone’s behaviors are in fact questionable. I learned early to stop asking, but I never stopped observing. Never. As an adult, a regular quote that runs through my mind while writing a recollection, “I was quiet but I was not blind,” by Jane Austen, Mansfield Park. Love that bitch. [If you become a regular blog reader, anticipate the occasional swear. Straight-up, it’s gonna happen.]

My years of accumulated observation and direct experiences only increased my need for answers. During college and grad school, those questions would be answered at last. I would say it’s people that hold my fascination, but no, that’s not right either. After two degrees and a profession dedicated to helping others, I understand I am more intrigued by motivation rather than the person.

I had a drive to understand addiction, to understand familial rejection, to understand the cruelty of words and actions, and why people would willingly choose to engage in any and all of those things. Ruth is the resolution of that knowledge.

Ruth is written from an outsider perspective; she suffers from anxiety disorder and obesity. While diversity and inclusion are hot topic points in fiction, psychological and mood disorders alike are still underrepresented despite being so relatable in today’s world. In fiction, the same is true for weight disorders.

Ruth, the character, is subjected to a childhood of rejection and abuse. In these topics, I believe, there is more representation in fiction, but what I think makes Ruth, the manuscript, different is the inclusion of the familial perspective. The reader is not thrown to the winds as it were. One of the major points of Ruth is that abuse and neglect are not random. These are learned behaviors and therefore are passed down and experienced throughout generations.

Ruth, as a character, rejects the status quo of womanhood. Ruth rejects the women in her family as leading examples of her sex and so struggles with her own identity as a woman. As she ages, Ruth is continually dissatisfied in what she sees in women, feeling set apart from most. As a result, Ruth is prone to denying traditional gender roles and rejecting “society sanctioned” sexual expressions. While Ruth is fine with separating from gender norms, she is none the wiser in what kind of woman she does want to be. Womanhood, and understanding it, is another aspect to Ruth as a manuscript.

Ruth offers up several themes and many of them marginalized, not only in the world of fiction but also in reality. Ruth concludes with a greater realization of the self as she undergoes therapy and understands what anxiety is. Ruth understands what forgiveness is and who is actually meant to benefit from it. Forgiveness is quiet, it needs no recognition or attention. Forgiveness simply is or is not. I find this aspect of quiet forgiveness unique, as in fiction, as in real life, forgiveness is often touted about and fawned over – loudly. I believe true forgiveness is a simple decision and doesn’t need outward recognition. As Ruth knows, expressing forgiveness to her wrongdoers would only mean more abuse and rejection. No. Forgiveness is personal and requires no witness. It either means something to the individual or it does not, outside opinion be damned.

And that’s Ruth, or at least the bones of it.

Hmm. I’m quite surprised by my choice of beverage this blogging day. I’ve opted for a vanilla raspberry tea concoction over a coffee. I suppose even ArmedWithCoffee could do with the occasional variance.

So why the #blog? Cause #socialmedia.

Here’s the deal, social media is calling the shots and not just for writers (or rather, would-be authors) like me.

The more queries I submit, the more this little beauty crops up while researching literary agents, ‘Please provide links to your Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or blog. We especially want to know about your blog.’

‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?’ my brain initially protested. My Facebook is garbage, a glorified catch-all for my pictures. Instagram? More like Instawhatsitdo? My Twitter page isn’t too poorly neglected but I must admit my Twitter feed is mostly retweets from my favorite authors.

After mulling it over, blogging held a little more appeal than trying to professionalize the others. I get the chance to showcase my skills (for better or worse) and I get to air my thoughts. My real thoughts, mind you, and not just what I can squeeze into a limited amount of characters or memes. I think this is what mostly accounts for my disdain when it came to the social media requests. I see Facebook and Twitter and others as the fast food equivalent of a person. Takeaway, really. The thing about takeway is that it’s easy to throw away. Blogging has a little more stay power than my cat pics.

And I get the request in general, I do. Literary agents get to gauge your writing style ‘as is’ regardless of the genre you’re working out of, or perhaps in support of it.

So in between raising my kid, being a wife and partner, taking care of my home, paying the bills, and writing, I will now be blogging too. Sure, why not? I am, if anything, determined.

To the conclude this blog, I think it appropriate to sling a series of hashtags: #writer #writerforlife #writerslife #determined #literaryagent #fiction #ownvoices #publish #author #armedwithcoffee

%d bloggers like this: