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Yet Another COVID-19 Blog Post

Yet Another COVID-19 Blog Post

I promise you, I’m not here to talk about “living in interesting times” or “steps we’re taking to ensure the health of our customers and employees” or even to remind you to stay home and wash your hands.

(But no, really – stay home and wash your hands.)

I just wanted to remind you that if you’re looking for stories to fill your Social Isolating Time (and up your GoodReads Goal count), you can find my free stuff by clicking the links below.

Stay safe out there, friends and fellow bookworms.

– J.M. Frey

Download FOUR different novels in either .epub, .mobi, or .pdf format.

Click here.

Password is: BookWormY (case sensitive)

Offer expired May 1st. Sorry! But you can still find all of my novels here.

 

 

 

Listen to audiobooks of THE MADDENING SCIENCE, ANOTHER FOUR LETTER WORD, THE ONCE AND NOW-ISH KING, THE DARK LORD AND THE SEAMSTRESS, TIME TO MOVE, and OFFICIAL SELECTION (NSFW).

Click here.

 

 

 

Read THE MADDENING SCIENCE in it’s entirety on my website. This is a tale about identity, trust, and the strange alchemy that is attraction.

Click here.

 

 

 

 

This 2019 WATTY AWARD Winning novel is completely free on Wattpad for the moment. Grab your chance to read it, and comment on your favourite parts, while it’s still available.

Click here.

 

 

 

 

Using the social-isolation time to work on your own writing? Here’s a collection of advice blogs and Q&As that may help you make the best book you can.

Click here.

JM FreyYet Another COVID-19 Blog Post
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How do writers get paid?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How do writers get paid?

While we all became story tellers because we had something in our hearts we want to share, there are a lot of us writers who also want to turn this into a career.  There are likely lots of you dreaming of massive advances and comfortable (if not Rowling-levels) of wealth, so let’s break down where that money is actually going to be coming from.

Buying and Selling

Firstly, some clarification about what happens to your intellectual property (hereafter “IP”) when you exchange money for the right to print it.

At no point – unless you specifically sign a contract stating so explicitly – do you loose control or ownership of your IP. While we use terms like “buying” and “selling”, it’s more appropriate to call it “leasing” your story. In Canada, you own the copyright to your IP the moment you put pen to paper. In the USA, you have to register copyright to the IP. I’m not sure about other countries, but take a look at what your local copyright laws are, and if a guild or union offers discounted registry services.

A publisher pays you for the right to publish your IP (usually presented as a completed manuscript), in specific format(s), on the understanding that you are contractually bound and may not give another publisher the right to do the same. This includes posting it yourself on your website, or on story sharing platforms like Wattpad.

In return for this right, the publisher uses all of their own money to create the product (i.e. a “book”, an “ebook”, or an “audiobook”), and gives you, the author, some money in return for this lease. This money will come in the form of an outright payment, or a royalty – more on that later.

If you or the publisher elect to do so, you may terminate your relationship prior to the product being created (in which case you’ll likely have to give them back some or all of the money they gave you), after the publication of the product (in which case, you may have to pay them for the right to take your IP back and let another publisher use it, depending on what’s in the sunset clause in your contract), or, there maybe a natural end date in the contract (which means you get to keep all your money and get back the right to lease your IP elsewhere).

It’s very common for short stories to have a One Year From Publication end date: you the author get the right to take your story and publish it elsewhere only after one year from the first publication of the story. Sometimes novel contracts have this too – there’s a four-year end date on my fantasy novel series. #1 and #2 have actually expired, so I can take them elsewhere at this point if I like without owing my publisher any money. But novels #3 and #4 haven’t expired yet, so I’m allowing the publisher to keep publishing (and making money) from #1 and #2 at this time. And of course, I still get royalties for those sales.

Some contracts don’t have expiry dates, and instead have sunset clauses by which the author may request thier rights back if the publisher breaks another clause, or if there are very limited sales of the book, or just if both parties choose to part ways. But in all likelihood, if you’ve signed with a professional publisher – and especially if they’re one of the Big Five – then you’ll have no expiration date and no reason to invoke the sunset clause, and so your book will continue to be available ad infinitum, and you’ll keep getting paid for as long as copies sell.

The #1 rule of publishing is this: Money should always flow toward the author, never away.

And speaking of money…

Per Word

In the world of short stories, you get paid for your story in one of two ways – per word, or per story as a whole. The Science Fiction Writer’s Association has set the current market rate for short stories at eight cents per word. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but that means a 5k story would be worth $400. Professional Markets must pay at minimum eight cents per word to be considered so by SFWA.

Each different market (romance, fantasy, literary fiction) will have different associations and expectations. But the SFWA rate tends to be the best litmus test of what a per word rate should be.

Per Story

Not every market can afford to pay professional rates or prefers not to go by-word, so they’ll offer a lump amount per story, no matter the length.

I sold my first tale for $10 USD flat. There are low/no pay publishers out there, and unless they’re actually predatory and listed on Writer Beware, they’re not selfish, they’re just unable or unwilling to pay at market rate. It’s up to you, at that point, to decide if the publication of one of your stories, in that particular publication, at this particular point in your career, is worth it to you.

At the start of my career, I took a few low/no pays, knowing that I could use the stories again as reprints, or in my own short story collection. At that point, the publication credit itself was more important to me than the money.

Now, I’m a member of the Writer’s Union of Canada and always ask for professional rates, unless there is some amazing reason why I should lower or waive my fees (like the book being a charity work, or because it’s some market or will attract some attention that I might not be able to access otherwise, or if my story will be beside a Big Name Author who will boost sales of the book and thus awareness of my existence).

Again, it’s up to you to decide whether that amount, in that publication, in this time of your career, is worth it to you.

Short stories may also be re-printed in other anthologies or magazines. If you’re asked to contribute a new story to a publication but don’t have one (or have time to write a new one), sometimes the publication will take a story that’s already been published once, and is outside of the exclusivity period. The amount of money offered for a reprint will often be less than that offered for a new story (say, $200 where a new story is worth $400).

Per Page

This form of compensation is more usual to comics than short stories and novels, especially if you’re also the artist. Generally if you’re contributing a comic script to an anthology, they’ll pay you per scripted page. I’ve gotten around $11 per page, or $150 CAD total for a 14 page script.

But rates will vary depending on who you’re writing for, and why. Check with your local creators and guilds for appropriate rates in this medium.

Per Draft

There’s really only two times you’ll be paid per draft, and that will be if you’re writing for television and film, or when you’re ghostwriting (that is, writing a novel for someone else who will put either their own name or a pseudonym on the cover, like many celebrity autobiographies or series like The Babysitter’s Club).

You’ll generally get a bundle deal for an Outline, First Draft, and Second Draft / Polish. If further drafts are required beyond that, you or your agent will be able to negotiate for a supplemental payment, appropriate to what your original payment was.

Money for this sort of work is generally split into two or three payments – one on delivery of the outline or on the signing of the deal, one on delivery of the outline or the delivery of the first draft, and one (if there are three) on publication or when the script is greenlit (that is, when the production team begins work on shooting the script.)

The fee that you can command for this work depends on how popular a writer you are, how many novels or scripts you’ve written before and how well they did, how quickly it’s needed, and how much research will go into it.

Your local screenwriter’s guild with have payment breakdowns in their member handbooks, which professional producers are beholden to adhere to if you’re a member. These rates are based on the length of the script, the number of drafts that will be expected of you, if you need to spend time in the Writer’s Room, the format of the show (Multi-cam One Hour, Children’s Animation, Feature Film, Digital Marketing, Video Game, etc.)

Even if you’re not a member of these guilds, familiarize yourself with their suggested rates. While you may not be able to command those rates at the start of your career, know your worth and work your way steadily towards the market fees.

For example, in 2010 Independent Production Agreement for the Writer’s Guild of Canada (they cover anyone who writes scripts), to deliver a Feature Film with a budget of over $60,000 CAD, a WGC member in good standing must be paid at minimum $50, 185 for the full script, broken down to an original treatment (the film version of a pitch document) and two drafts. This fee amount lowers if the treatment is provided by the producer, or is an adaptation of pre-existing source material (like your novel).

As I’m a member of the Canadian Writer’s Union (they cover anyone who writes anything that isn’t scripts), my union suggests a starting payment of $40,000 CAD for ghostwriting a book. That might seem like a lot of money, but don’t forget that as a ghostwriter your name isn’t going to be on the book. You don’t get the press, you don’t get the marketing push, and you likely won’t get any of the royalties from the sale of the book, unless that’s explicitly written into your contract. If it is, it will absolutely be a lesser percentage than if you were listed as the author.

And don’t forget that there’s more to writing than just writing when you’re creating a book for someone else. I was once asked to ghostwrite a true crime/courtroom thriller memoir for an American lawyer – besides the hundreds of hours of work it would take to write the book itself, I explained that I would also need to charge for the time it would take for me to read all of the courtroom notes, interview the lawyer, and teach myself American Environmental Law, and learn the American justice system.

The offer was withdrawn when I pointed out that it made no sense to hire a SF/F writer to write courtroom drama, and suggested they reach out to someone who actually writes in the genre they need already, and who is familiar with the system.

(Though I wasn’t going to take it anyway – they offered me a measly $5,000 USD, which is significantly below the hourly minimum wage if I was to break that down into outline, first draft, and polish.  And someone else would get the credit as the writer? No, thanks.)

Royalties

Ah, and now we come to the heart of it!

Remember how I said that you’re not really selling your book so much as ‘leasing’ it, and that a publisher pays you for that privilege? That’s what a ‘royalty’ is.

The publisher pays out of pocket to have your manuscript substantively edited (with your editor at the house, whose salary they pay), and then copyedited and/or proofread (again, usually someone salaried in house), and then a typesetter/graphic designer who makes the manuscript book-shaped, and then pays for the art/stock images and fees for a cover artist and designer, pays for the review copies out of pocket, pays for the books to be printed and shipped, and of course all the marketing and the salaries of those people who run said marketing.

You, author, don’t need to pay a cent of that.

As such, the publisher keeps the lion’s share of the profit they make from selling your book, in order to recoup the cost of doing all that. As such, you’ll likely be given 15% of the profit, though I’ve had royalty rates as low as 10% and as high as 35% before, though. eBook royalty rates tend to be higher, (around 20%-45%). The royalty rate for audiobooks depends on if your publisher produces it, or if you go out of house to somewhere like ACX/Audible, and what sort of payment arrangement you or your agent makes with the narrator and audio editors. This royalty is usually between 10%-50% per sale of an audiobook.

Royalty cheques are sent to your agent either yearly, half-yearly, or quarterly. (I get all of mine via PayPal as all of my publishers are American and a lot of Canadian banks won’t take an American cheque. Also, the rates are better that way.) Your agent will review your Royalty Report (the breakdown of how many copies of which books sold, in which formats), make sure there are no mistakes, and then forward on your payment to you.

On average, you’ll be making $3 for every $20 paperback that is sold, and roughly $2-10 for every ebook and audiobook, depending on how the percentages break out.

Advances

The big money!

Or so folks think.

Here’s the thing – an Advance is not a gift from the publisher. It is an advance on your royalties. Like a payday loan, the publisher is giving you the money they think you’ll earn in royalties in advance of your actual sales and royalty cheque. You don’t get an advance and royalties right away.

If a manuscript is very in demand (especially if it went through an auction where several publishing houses bid on the right to be the ones to publish it), and/or the publisher thinks they can make a significant amount on the book, they’ll give you the advance on your royalties on the understanding that you’ll be able to use the money to focus on finishing the book and working with the publisher to do the best job possible for everyone.

Obviously they’re not saying that they expect you to quit your dayjob, but you know, a good chunk of money would mean a lot of peace of mind for a lot of writers (paying off debts, paying off a mortgage, etc.), which will free them up to focus more on the book.

However, you’re not actually going to see that money all at once.

Advances are delivered to you in thirds, generally – one third on signing, one third on delivery of the novel, and one third on publication. Let’s say you get an advance for $100,000. That’s $33,000 for each stage. And depending on how long it takes you to write/edit/rewrite the novel to the editor’s satisfaction, and how long it takes the publishing house to turn that manuscript into a book, then you might only be getting one of those payments per year.

And remember, that money is an advance. Until you earn out that advance, you won’t be seeing another nickel from the publisher. It may take months. It may take years. I have authorfriends who have never earned out an advance, not one.

If you don’t earn our your advance, that may affect the publisher’s decision to ask of another book from you, or continuing a series; they don’t want you to be a moneypit and you don’t want to look like a losing proposition. So as much as we all want the mega-bucks advance, sometimes it’s actually better to get a smaller one, or none at all.

Speaking Engagements

There are other streams of income available to authors beyond just writing and selling your books. Believe it or not, people will pay you to hear you talk. Weird, huh?

Your Speaking Fee will be based on your popularity, if you have to travel to get there, and where you are in your career. For example, I hear that Neil Gaiman commands a fee somewhere around $5,000 USD for an hour appearance – it seems like a lot, but he’s an extremely busy guy with two TV shows to run and a 4-year old at home, so a fee that high weeds out the not-serious requests. (Besides, I also hear that he usually donates a percentage of that back to the location’s local library).

Your local guilds and unions will know what a good amount to request is, and may also offer discounts and grants to schools, charities, and community groups to be able to afford authors. That way you get paid your full amount and they don’t have to cough up all of it.

I charge about $100/hour, and travel if it’s far. That sounds like a lot, but I once took a two hour bus ride up to a museum to give an hour and a half workshop, then another two hour bus ride home. All told I made about $180, and $30 of that was to cover the bus tickets.

If your books are appropriate for children, lots of schools provide opportunities to come in and talk to their students for a fee. You can also teach workshops and seminars at community centres, charities, libraries, colleges, and universities. I’ve been asked to consider teaching an eight-week course on worldbuilding at a local comic book/animation school, and will be able to keep all the fees I collect from the students outside of paying rent on the space.

And if you’re a SF/F/Horror or romance author, conventions may invite you to do panels and signings. If you’re a Guest of Honor, that means they’ll usually cover your travel, hotel room, and give you a daily honorarium (usually between $25-$100) to cover meals. If you’re just a guest or panelist, they’ll likely comp your badge fee and/or vendor table (if you want one; I generally donate mine to the local indie book store to come in and sell more than just my own books), and you’ll have to pay for the rest yourself.

Literary festivals will often provide an honorarium in the realm of $100-$400. Your appearance there will be just one day, usually, and they’ll ask you to read and do a Q&A panel, and will generally have someone there to sell your books for you.

A residence is basically when an author is given somewhere to live – usually of historic or literary value, like a Heritage Trust house, or at a college/university – for a few months, along with an honorarium to cover other daily expenses. In return, you promise to mentor a group or writers, do some free appearances/workshops/lectures at the local library/community centres, and of course write your manuscript (ideally directly inspired by where you’re living).

Authors can also apply for support from your local arts council in the form of grants. Like a bursary for higher education, this money is basically a conditional gift (you get the money on the understanding that when the book is done, you thank the council and/or put their logo in the book, and give back to the community as much as possible the form of free appearances, etc.) These can be anywhere from $100 to $100, 000.

Do some research into what’s available through your local guild/union, library associations, author associations, and arts councils. And of course, keep in mind that the earlier in your career or the more unknown you are, the lower a fee you’ll be able to command. That’s okay, you can work your way up. And there are way more contests, awards, grants, and purses for early-career writers than mid-career or established ones.

Foreign Translations

Like getting reprint fees for short stories that have already been published once, getting paid for someone else to take a book you’ve already written and do all the work to translate it into another language, and sell it in their country, is pretty sweet.

This will be just like signing with a publisher all over again – you may or may not get an advance, but you will definitely get royalties, and sometimes you get a little “thank you” money as a gift.

The difference here is that the foreign publisher may have to pay some of their profits to the original publisher, as the original publisher is the one who put in all the money and work editing your manuscript and creating the cover. (This is why you sometimes see foreign editions with different covers – they chose to make their own rather than use the pre-existing one.)

And that’s only if the publisher doesn’t also own the foreign publishing house, like some of the Big Five do.

Signing the rights to allow foreign translations to be printed isn’t a violation of your original contract with your first publisher, because (unless, as I said, the foreign house is an imprint of your larger publisher as a whole), your first publisher is only taking worldwide rights for the language that the book is originally written in.

Generally speaking, these publishers people approach you or your agent, not the other way around. Your agency will likely have someone on staff whose job it is to court these kinds of deals, and any agency worth their salt will be at international book fairs with a catalogue of their client’s available titles.

Dramatic Adaptations

I’ll go into this topic in more detail in a future post, but it may happen that someone approaches you/your agent to make a dramatic adaptation of your book – a film, a TV series, an audiodrama, a podcast, etc. This is basically when anyone who isn’t you uses your IP as the basis to create something else.

Generally speaking, these people approach you or your agent, and your agency will likely have someone on staff whose job it is to court these kinds of deals.

The payment range for something like this will depend on how popular you are, how popular your work is, how many people are vying for it, what kind of production they want to make, and how big the production house is. Disney, obviously, is going to pay you more than Big Cheese Studios down the block. And they’re going to pay more for a New York Times Best Seller than for an indie that’s only sold a few hundred copies. Major feature film franchises take more money to make and earn more money than an indie podcast, so amount of money offered is dependent on that, too.

When an agreement is made – that is, you’re happy to lease your IP to these people to make the production, which doesn’t violate your deal with your publisher because they’re making a different product, i.e. not a “book” – your publisher may get a cut of it, depending on what kind of a contract you signed with them.

These deals are called “Options”. The producer/production house that wants to make your IP into a dramatic thing will pay you for the right to do so. Like an advance, the payments are usually split up – you get some when you sign the deal, some when the production is greenlit, and some when it’s released. This could be as low as $1,000 or millions of dollars based on a variety of reasons.

Because it costs so much to make films and TV, and takes so much time to pull a project of this scale together, it usually takes years. For every year that they the production house holds on to the exclusive rights to make your IP, but doesn’t actually make it, you’ll likely get another chunk of money.  I’ve heard of payments being as low as $1,000 and as high as being in the millions. And of course, many of the most popular IPs have limit dates on them – like they can only be renewed ten times before either the production has to happen, or the house has to give up the option and let someone else try to make it.

You may also be asked to sign a Shopping Agreement, which basically means the producer/director/ screenwriter has no executive director/studio/money/distribution yet, and pays you a token amount (like, $1), to validate your contract stating that you promise not to snatch the rights out from under them until they have the rest of their ducks in a row and can assemble a full production team and announce that their production house is making the project. At that point, you’d sign an Optioning Agreement.

It would be up to you and your agent to negotiate if you get a cut of the box office profits, or DVD/BluRay/Streaming sales, if you get any of the money from the merchandising like character totebags or plushies, or indeed if you get any backend money at all.

Merchandising

If the publisher wants to make any swag or stuff that they’ll be selling (not giving away for free) based specifically on your IP, you’ll need to negotiate for a cut of that, too.

Like a royalty, this will likely operate on a percentage basis based on your own klout and the popularity of your books.

Selfpublishing

It’s true that when you selfpublish a book, you get to keep 100% of what you earn. But it’s also true that you also have to pay 100% of the cost to create that book.

And the market is so saturated with half-thought-out, poor-quality, self-important selfpublished fiction that if you want your book to stand out and make you money, you have to not only do it well, you also have to do it professionally.

Paying for editors? That’s from your pocket. So is buying stock images or commissioning art for a cover, and paying for someone to design the cover. And the interiors, if you want it professionally typeset. And while it’s free to list a title on Amazon/Kindle CreateSpace, most other printing services like require a listing fee.  You’ll get copies of your books to sell at a discounted rate as the printer, but you still have to buy them, and pay for them to be shipped from the printer’s to you.

Bookstores will generally only take selfpublished books on consignment, which means they get a bigger bite of the cover price.

You’ll have to pay for marketing – ad design and placements on websites and in print, fees to get a table at trade shows and conventions, paying to send copies of the book to review outlets or awards for consideration, and sometimes paying to get your book listed or reviewed on big name websites.

Literally everything costs money to do, and you may not see a return on it if your book doesn’t take off. So be prepared to have to build and stick to a budget if you elect to selfpublish.

On the upside – all the profit is yours to keep or reinvest in your marketing.

What will you need to pay for?

Your publishing house will have a specific per-book marketing budget for your work. It might be as low as $200 bucks per title if you’re a debut author at an indie publisher, or it might might be hundreds of thousands if you got a mega-deal with one of the Big 5.

Publishers will generally pay for advertisements in print/online, to send review copies to specific outlets (like the Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Quill & Quire, etc.), to buy a blog tour, to submit the book to awards, maybe to buy ads on transit, and to send ARCs to book bloggers and influencers. If the publisher has lots of budget, you might get a book tour, or they might pay for part of your book launch, and they’ll likely pay extra fees to bookstores to get your book placed on shelf endcaps, shelved face-out, or piled on spotlight tables.

Things like postcards, bookmarks, pins, posters, and anything else you may want to give away for free as swag will likely be on you – you may even have to design it yourself if the publisher can’t lend you their designer. You’ll likely have to pay for your own book launch, including venue fees, licencing, snacks and booze, and if you don’t have a bookstore coming to do the selling for you, actually buying a box of books from your publisher to resell. Publishers will not fund your book tour if they don’t offer it for you, or fund a book trailer, or basically anything else that doesn’t directly result in sales of the actual book for them.

Agency Fees

I’ve addressed this in earlier articles, but if you have an agent, they’re entitled to 15% of all the money they make for you. And to be clear, that’s only on what they actively bring in for you and actively negotiate or notarize – if your agent doesn’t help you sell a short story, you get to keep all of that money you just made.

That 15% (or whatever percentage you negotiated with them) comes out of your 15% (or whatever percentage of royalties your agent negotiated with the publisher). So that $3 per $20 book is actually $2.55 by the time it makes it to your pocket. That $100, 000 advance? They get $15, 000 of it.

On the other hand, 15% of $0 is $0, so it’s in your agent’s best interest to make sure you make money, and lots of it, in all the ways they can.

Taxes

Don’t forget that being a writer is akin to owning a small business. You will be taxed on your income. Agencies will send you a document which will detail your annual income through royalties. One-time payments like for short stories don’t come with tax documents, though I always declare that income as well, as publishers will be declaring it on their end.

In Canada, if you make more than $30k annually on writing, you will need to get an HST number and create a formal business in the eyes of the government. I assume there’s a similar requirement for other countries – research your local laws.

I also am paid via my agency, and via Amazon in USD rather than CAD, so I need to declare my American income as such in my tax documents.

All grants will likely be taxed (I won a $10k grant and had to give the government $2k of it), and advances will definitely be taxed, so make sure you keep enough back in a high interest savings account to cover what you anticipate you’re going to to have to pay come tax season.

On the upside, you can claim a lot more than you probably think for your expenses. I claim new office equipment (computers, printers, furniture), software (FinalDraft, Scivener, Microsoft Office, GoogleDrive Storage), utilities (about 10% of my hydro, internet, and phone bills as I write from a home office), office supplies (paper, ink cartridges), mailing and shipping (sending out books for review, mailing bookmarks to schools), transportation to events (transit and cab receipts), meals (with my agent, with authorfriends, with editors), charitable donations (donating books to raffles, attending mentorship events), etc.

Take a look at what’s claimable in your country.

Bottom Line

There’s lots of ways to make money – and lots of ways to spend it – in this career. Make sure you seek out financial advice if you need it (that’s on you, it’s not your agent or publisher’s job), and look into tax accountants who specialize in arts workers if you find the task of doing your own taxes challenging.

I keep an excel spreadsheet of each dollar coming in and going out, and have a small file folder prepared to file my receipts in so they’re always sorted by date and by which line on the tax form they align to.

Figure out a system that works for you and makes tax time easy, and you won’t regret it.

Happy writing, and I wish you a lucrative career!

*

Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS posts here or ASK ME HERE.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How do writers get paid?
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2019 Writing Roundup

2019 Writing Roundup

The new year is here, and with it everyone is talking about what they wrote this past year. The last quarter of 2019 was a brutal rollercoaster for me, emotionally and personally, so it’s good for me to have the chance to sit here and reflect on what I accomplished and the good things that happened too.

2019 started with receiving a grant from the Toronto Arts Council for The Maddening Science – said grant went to research materials for the novel, a new computer, printer, and keyboard, and paying off some debts. But 2019 also started in a place of utter exhaustion, having slammed through writing, editing, and publishing five big novels in three years, as well as rewriting a feature film and completing the scripts for three seasons of a webseries.

I was also working two dayjobs – one first thing in the morning, for an hour and a half, and then a standard eight-hour shift in the evenings which got me home at around 10pm – so my sleep schedule was a mess and I was having trouble not only making time to write, but concentrating when I did have the time.

Happily, I’ve now had the opportunity to rest more, and I’ve had the chance to begin to refill my creative well again. Even more happily, left those dayjobs and am at the moment writing full time. I even got to reclaim my writing space by no longer needing a roommate.

I’m not quite there yet – turns out finishing two series in four years really takes it out of you – but I’ve begun to make preparations to sit down and begin to spin out a new novel. In the mean time, I’ve got lots of irons in the fire, as you’ll see.

January

The first third of 2019 was dedicated to rewriting The Skylark’s Sacrifice a second time. I’d rewritten it in the last third of 2018 and my editor ended up agreeing that while the rewrite was exactly what she asked for, we should not have gone down that street in the first place. It was what was asked of me, but it didn’t work. So I took it back to the drawing board, and started the re-write all over again.

I also published WORDS FOR WRITERS: The DO-ING Trap.

I finished the edits/polish on A Woman of the Sea, which I had begun in October 2018 and loaded the book onto Wattpad in preparation for serializing it.

February

I spent February rewriting and jobhunting. I tried to write a short story and Did Not Do Well. It’s half done and likely to end up on the Pile Of Unfinished Tales.

At least I got some new words on the page with WORDS FOR WRITERS – Beta Readers.

And I began releasing A Woman of the Sea a chapter at a time on Valentine’s Day.

March

I completed the Skylark rewrites and handed them over to Reuts Publications.  I also published WORDS FOR WRITERS – From Signing to Signing.

At this point I tried to start The Maddening Science, the book I received a Toronto Art’s Council Grant for in 2018, and bashed out a few chapters and a few scenes. But something was off about it, and I couldn’t pinpoint why, so I kept going into the file and only put a few hundred words in here and there. I couldn’t really sit down and dig in, and because I don’t believe in Writer’s Block as a mystical magical reason for why people can’t write (there are always reasons), I had to step back to try to figure out why I was struggling. I assumed it was probably because I was in the middle of job interviews and decided to try again later.

April

I started a new copywriting job, leaving my other two dayjobs, and it sucked up all my brainpower and creativity and made it very hard to want to sit down and compose yet more words at the end of the day.

I resumed working piecemeal on The Maddening Science, pecking out what I could one molasses-slow sentence at a time. I realized that the incidents in the news regarding the current political comment and the toxic white supremacist misogyny that is rampant in our society today has made it very hard to figure out how to tell a responsible story about a supervillain as the protagonist.

I’m still working on that. In the mean time, while I figure out how to restructure the tale, the book and the progress blog are on hiatus.

May

Still brain-dead from work, I only managed to bash out WORDS FOR WRITERS: How do social media and writing/publishing work together?

June

There were some final edits on The Skylark’s Sacrifice to be discussed, but I really did nothing this month beyond marketing pushes and watching all the webseries I judged for TOWebfest.

July

The director of my feature film, To a Stranger, was going to start shopping the script around to executive producers, so before he did that I got some actorfriends together to do a table read. The read, and their feedback, revealed some character motivation gaps in the film, and I set about organizing their notes and figuring out how to solve the issues.

I also wrote and published WORDS FOR WRITERS – How To Write a Synopsis.

This was also the month of TOWebfest, the festival itself, and I spent a lovely day with fellow creators and spoke to some executive producers about my own webseries to try to garner interest.

I was a guest at Pretty Heroes Con for the first time and LOVED it. It’s great to celebrate strong female leads in SF/F and I loved Sailor Moon as a kid, so I was in nostalgic nirvana. It was lovely to introduce those Girl Power-loving fans to The Skylark’s Saga.

August

I restructured and rewrote To a Stranger, added extra characters and extra scenes to clear up some character motivation in the screenplay. It’s now back with the director and I hope to hear that he’s got a production house and an Exec attached to the project soon.

I appeared at FanExpo Toronto to do some panels, sell some books, and judged the short fiction contest. I also wrote and published WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Create a Pitch Package.

September

The Skylark’s Sacrifice was published! Yay! I had a wonderful launch party at Bakka Phoenix, and got to simultaneously launch the incredible book trailer for the duology animated by Elizabeth Hirst to a song by Victor Sierra. Friends Adrianna Prosser and Eric Metzloff, and Danforth Brewery made it extra special.

I also got to read at Word on the Street, which was been a career-long dream, reading on the new Across the Universe Stage.

However, September was also the month when I lost the copywriting job. I saw it coming, so I was shocked when it happened and how it went down, but not surprised. I wasn’t fitting in well with the team, the original project I had been hired for had been cancelled by the execs, work was being taken away from me and given to freelancers, and I didn’t have the training they wanted (though that makes me wonder why they hired me in the first place.) In retrospect it’s been a blessing, as the workplace was not at all a good fit for me and was slowly becoming toxic, and I’ve had lots of time to get my creative life in order as I jobhunt.

Just a few days after I was fired, on my 37th birthday, I won a Watty Award for A Woman of the Sea. Happy birthday to me! I was offered a place among the Wattpad Stars program and accepted – and wow, is there a lot of paperwork for that – and I’m still trying to figure out what benefits the program offers. (Though I’m pretty chuffed with my free Canva Premium subscription!) A Woman of the Sea was featured on the home page as an Undiscovered Gem and as of today has about 82k reads. Whoa!

I also wrote and published WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series.

October

I spent most of the month sleeping and crying and working through how I felt about getting fired. When one identifies oneself as a writer, to finally get a job in writing was a thrill and felt like a confirmation that although I was struggling with my next book, I was a writer and I’d get through it. Being fired from the job – even though the reason was an exec decision to eliminate my project and thus my role – felt like a very personal blow. I wasn’t a writer after all. (Or at least, that’s what it felt like).

This had me thinking long and hard. Especially about where I wanted my writing career to go next – as much I’ve been writing in the realm of SF/F the past decade, I’ve begun to realize that was I really am is a Character-Driven Romance writer. Romance set in spec fic and fantasy realms, sure, but Romance and Character Work are my wheelhouse and how I should be selling myself.

This realization has been pretty freeing because it means that the frustrations and roadblocks I’ve been coming up against can maybe be dissolved by reframing my brand and rethinking my career map.

Wattpad added the sample of City By Night that’s on Wattpad to their Halloween Reads list on the homepage and I decided to put the whole novella up on the site for people to read. Read it now, though. It won’t stay up forever as the eBook rights to the novel are signed with an indie publisher. This is just a limited-time promotion.

And knowing that readers were asking what I would be posting next on Wattpad after A Woman of the Sea, I rejigged Triptych for the site and started serializing it from the start. You can read it here. This story also won’t stay up forever, for the same reason.

I also started serializing Words for Writers on Wattpad. I won’t be copying over all 75+ articles I have on my website, just the ones that are specifically useful for Watties.

I also polished a webseries and sent it to a producer with a major broadcaster after our convo at TOWebfest for consideration. I’ve followed up but there’s no reply. I’ll follow up again in January 2020 but I can pretty well assume that No Answer is my ‘No’ Answer.

I am thinking about maybe pitching it as a graphic novel in the future, though I’m going to have to reach out to my friends who write them for publishers to figure out how to put at pitch together.

November

In 2017 I handed over a YA contemporary re-telling of “Northanger Abbey” to my agent, and it was lukewarmly received by both her and the handful of editors she showed it to. It was then shelved for possible future reworking.

In the first part of the NaNoWriMo month, I decided to tackle this reworking, and I was still wrestling mentally with The Maddening Science. This reworking was inspired a lot by reading Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston in October, and realizing that the tone I’d been going for with my narrator hadn’t been irreverent or GenZ-y enough for the story I was trying to tell, and not grounded enough in the technologies and social media that my modern-day Catherine Morland would have access to.

I reworked the Pitch Document for the novel, now currently called “Title TBA”, and got to chapter seven during NaNo. I’ve got some thinking to do about structure for the novel, and how far into using Social Media As A Storytelling Tool I want to go with the idea, but generally speaking I’m pretty pleased with the result of the rewrites.

Partway through NaNo, it occurred to me that there was another story that my Wattpad readers were asking for, and one that would be a lot of fun to write. In A Woman of the Sea, my fictional Regency-era  Jane-Austen-analogue authoress Margaret Goodenough writes her debut novel “The Welshman’s Daughters”. As I describe this non-existent novel in A Woman of the Sea, it’s a Gothic romance that’s very Elizabeth Gaskell-and-Jane Austen-esque in terms of it being a character study driven romance, with some of the fun high melodrama and gothic tone of Ann Radcliffe. And, in the world of A Woman of the Sea, it’s the first queer kiss in Classic Western Literature.

A handful of readers have asked where they can find this book, or have confessed to going to the library to ask for it, only to learn that it’s not real. I made it up.

And I thought… well, why not make it real?

So I’m working on the pitch doc and the first chapter now, to see if this is something I want to pursue. I hope it will, but I think I still need to take time to rest before I really push into it.

And I still have the “Title TBA” rewrites to complete.

December

I published WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get An Agent?, and spent the rest of the month just trying to chill. I’ve become a bit of a reluctant reader, so I am trying to push myself to read a little each day, to remind myself why I fell in love with storytelling in the first place.

A Woman of the Sea was turned down for Paid Stories, unfortunately, because of the structure of the romance. The Stars Team explained that romance stories like this one, with one romantic partner in the first half of the book, and a different one in the second (a la Brigit Jones’ Diary) doesn’t tend to do well on Paid because readers are reluctant to shell out for a romance where they don’t meet the HEA partner until later. It’s a disappointment to hear, because I was really hoping that this might become a viable stream of income for me. At least the team who turned it down were very kind and expressed how much they loved the story in and of itself.

But no matter – onwards and upwards!

What’s ahead for 2020

Well, I’m not sure. This has been a really, really difficult year and I have really, really struggled with trying to figure out who I am and what I want, both in life and as a writer. Certainly, there will be lot of hard thinking about the future of my writing career. I have ideas that I love and want to pursue, but this post-firing-return-to-the-job-hunt-depression is a hurdle when it comes to carving out time to create.

However, I have some new opportunities on the horizon – conversations happening behind closed doors, as well as Divine Paradox Films still working toward filming To A Stranger, and Alpaca vs Llama shopping The Skylark’s Song as a teens animated series. And the webseries I wrote is under consideration with a new production team, so keep your fingers crossed.

Who knows, perhaps the rewritten “Title TBA” might be just the thing to propel my work into a realm where readers can connect with my work more easily. Though I had originally envisioned it as the first of a series, the more I work and think on it, the more I feel like it would be best as a stand-alone. I think it would slap a lot harder if it was a one-off.

And I am genuinely liking the plot of The Welshman’s Daughters, and all the research reading and viewing I am doing to get the tone and mood of the book right (please recommend me your favourite Gothic Romances – film, TV, or books!).

But I’m not going to rush anything. It’s nice to be able to remember how to putter with a book and have no looming, razor-blade deadlines hanging over my neck.

2020 will be, I hope, a year of renewed creativity, motivation, and the year where I complete at least one of the three novel projects I’ve started.

For now, I’m going to have a nap.

*

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JM Frey2019 Writing Roundup
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get An Agent?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get An Agent?

I’ve talked about this in other articles, but I wanted to dedicate a full post specifically to getting an Agent.

There are thousands of agents out there at any given time, but those thousands of agents are getting requests for representation from hundreds of would-be-writers every month. There’s massive, massive competition for the attention of a single agent, and so the querying process has been developed to separate the wheat from the chaff, and help the agents find the authors with the talent, drive, and discipline that they want to represent. Agents can, therefore, afford to be picky.

The very  first thing that you should know is that agents sign clients on proven, tangible talent, not “what ifs” and “maybes” – you could have the best idea for a novel in the entire world, but if it’s not down on paper, polished and complete, there’s nothing there to actually read and evaluate, and then sell.

This is where a lot of writers first stumble – their first impression is awful. They don’t finish and polish the manuscript, or they don’t research the agents they’re approaching enough and submit to the wrong agents, or their cover letters are horrendous. The agent-writer relationship is very important, and it’s vital to find an agent who not only represents the kind of writing that the author is submitting at the moment, but also the sort of career they want to have – and the agent has to be excited about the writer’s manuscript, too, and have the connections to sell it to the right publishing houses or manage the various rights. The agent and the writer have to like each other, and have to be able to maintain a professional relationship based on trust. They don’t have to be friends, but they have to be able to get along.

It’s also useful, but not necessary to have a handful of publications in short story anthologies, genre magazines, academic journals, newspapers, a completed thesis, a blog that you run and update consistently with a significant following, a series of popular fanfictions, etc. prior to beginning the agent-search.

Basically, that completed manuscript and any other publications are proof that not only can you write, but that you can finish what you write. And that there are other people who believe your writing is good and like it – whether that’s paid, or just a big number in terms of stats in a free-to-read medium like Wattpad or Archive of Our Own. You just need to prove that there have already been others who have invested in you and found your work worth publishing. This can include your stories from Wattpad, Raddish, or any other sort of online story-sharing platform, especially if the story is finished and you have a significant number of read stats and engagement.

Should I try to get an agent with my Online Publishing Platform Story?

Well, that’s a tough question.

See, here’s the thing: agents and publishers are in the business of making money. And a story that is already out there available for free to the reading public is, well, not making money.

There are two times when I would say using your Wattpad/Raddish/Online Published Story on submission is a good idea:

First, if you have a highly polished and complete tale, that is relatively unknown on the site and has low reads. This way it can be pulled for polishing and submission.

And yes, I think that if you’re going to submit with the story, you should delist it from the website. Why? Because agents and publishers know how to use Google and if the book comes up and they find it for free elsewhere, then it’s already out there and not something they can commodity.

The second is the exact opposite – if the story is massively, hugely, incredibly popular. I’m talking like, “After”popular. Like, E.L. James “Fifty Shades of Grey”-back-when-it-was-still-a-fanfic popular. These kinds of stories, even though they’ve already been published online, have a massive, rabid, incredibly dedicated fanbase that is willing to purchase a book they’ve already read for the sheer fannish devotion. That’s a book worth shopping around to agents because it’s a guaranteed money-maker.

And what should you do if you fall between those two points?

Well, I think you should write another book.

See, agents aren’t just here for a one-and-done with their clients. They want to represent your entire career, and that means multiple projects spread over many years. You’re going to have to write multiple books over your career, and this is the time to start. Create book that has nothing to do with your already-published-online one, and make sure it’s a strong one.

And that already-published-online story? Mention it in your cover letter to the agent and cite the number of views, comments, and votes you’ve gotten on it. Use it as proof that people already like your work. Later, down the road, when you have an agent and you guys have a good working relationship set up, that is when you mention that already-published-online story again. Ask them if they’d be interested in reading it, maybe seeing if there’s some potential for money-making there.

Your agent may say yes, they may say no. Heck, maybe the announcement of your publishing deal will have skyrocketed your story’s popularity. You can’t be sure what will happen to that story, but it’s always nice to keep it on the digital story-sharing site so people interested in your forthcoming book have a chance to sample your storytelling style.

Of course, this is just what I would do. If you feel that you’d try a different route, that’s up to you.

So how does this all work?

  • Write a novel. Edit and polish that novel within an inch of it’s life. You can do this with a professional editor, or with critique partners, or beta readers, whatever suits you and your process the best. Just make sure that the novel is 1) complete, and 2) the best version of itself. You only get to make a first impression once; make sure it’s a good one.
  • Write your Pitch Package. This will include the cover letter that you submit along with your manuscript, and should be equally as polished as your book. You can read about what should be in a Pitch Package here.
  • Research which agents you want to submit to.  You can find info in the agency guides that are published each year in your country, as well as on websites like DuoTrope, Absolute Write, and Writer Beware. Read industry publications like your local Writer’s Guild/Union magazine and newsletter, or Publishers Weekly. I also went to the bookstore and wrote down the names of all the authors who were writing books like mine – SF/F, Queer, near-future spec, very thinky – and then went home and researched who their agents were. Social media has also made this so much easier than it was when I was first looking for an agent, because now you can see how those agents communicate, what sorts of things are important to them, and can even have little interactions with them prior to submitting.
  •  Research which agents you want to submit to more. I cannot stress this enough – read their website and blog. Make sure they are even open to new submissions. Make extra sure they represent what you write (i.e.don’t send your western romance to an agent who only does space opera). Figure out if their agency shares submissions between all the agents or if you can query another agent in the practice if one doesn’t offer. Know who their other clients are and the kinds of deals they’ve gotten through thier agents.
  • Submit. Agents prefer that you submit to them one at a time so that they have the chance to read your work without outside pressures. I did it a few at a time, tracking them on an Excel sheet that listed all of the things they wanted in each submission, and more importantly, recorded their feedback. When the same feedback was given more than three times, I took a long hard look at the book, did some revisions to address the issue, and resumed sending the book out.
    This will be a long process and could take anywhere from several months to several years.
  • Start with your favourite, #1, big dream agent. This way you’re not insulting a lesser-desired agent who is offering by asking them to wait while you query someone you’d like better, and it means that if you hit big on the first go, then your hunt is over right away. Woo hoo. (This is also why you need to make sure your book is the best it can be and has been through revisions and edits from outside eyes before you ever start submitting.)
  • When you submit your manuscript, give the agent exactly what they asked for. No more. No less. If they say “Query letter, first five chapters, and a picture of a clown with a purple nose,” give them the letter, the chapters, and the picture and nothing else. Why? They are testing you. Yes. This is a test about whether you can follow directions, and whether you are worth working with as a result. Okay, so no one actually asks for clown pictures, but the point stands. If they ask for the first five chapters, don’t send the whole book. If they ask for the whole book, don’t send them only the first five. They have a specific process for how they evaluate manuscripts and potential clients and you don’t want to mess with their groove. They are just looking for an excuse to reject you so they can move on to the next person in the slushpile. Do not give them one.
  • Only submit to agents in the way they tell you to submit. If they say paper, send it on paper. If they say email, email them. If there is a form to fill out, fill it out. Do not hand-deliver it to the agency offices unless they specifically tell you to do so.
  • Be polite, oh my god, be polite. Be a professional. No one wants to work with a whiny, cranky, self-important snowflake. And trust me when I tell you that agents talk to one another. They will know if you send back a snarky, horrible email when you receive a rejection, or if you bitch about them on your own social media, or neg them in the cover letter. These are human beings that you are hoping to form a relationship with, and you will be asking to manage your career and money. Treat them like the professionals they are.
  • And for the love of little baby ducks, no bribes or weird submission materials. Don’t send cookies, or bookmarks, or a cover you made for your book yourself, or gifts. And if it’s one of the agencies that still prefers paper submissions, don’t send it on scented stationary or in green swirly pen. You don’t know whose migraines that might trigger. Professional, professional, professional.
  • Wait. I know, it’s frustrating and terrible, but you gotta give the agent time to read your submission – and all of the ones that came in before yours. Their website will usually indicate how long you can expect to wait before you hear from them; usually it’s a few months but sometimes it’s upwards of a year. If that time has lapsed and they haven’t responded to your submission at all, you can send them a politely worded follow up to ask about the status of your submission.
  • If you’re like me and query just a few agents at a time, and one comes back with an offer while you’re still waiting to hear from the others, it’s professional to message the others and either politely withdraw your submission from their slushpile, or inform them that you have an offer and that you’d like to hear from that agent too, in case they may also be interested and may like to counter-offer.
  • Agents review your book on several points – does the agent think it’s well written? Is it original, fresh, intriguing, saleable? Is it pandering to a trend that is going to be dead in the time it takes to get the book into print (usually a few years), or could it possibly pioneer a new one? Is the writing good but the plot broken, yet fixable? Would it make a good series?
  • Agents will look you up. Again, agents know how to Google and they will look at your online presence, the way you conduct yourself, and the professional-ness of your blog and website if you have one. They want to know if you’re going to be good for their agency, or a risk to their reputation. (So if you’re going off on Twitter about how stupid a previous agent you submitted to is for not recognizing the special awesomeness of your holy talent, be prepared to have every other agent you query after that say ‘no thanks’ to being a part of your narcissistic dumpster-fire career, too.)

The Rejection

  • More often than not, you’re going to get a politely worded “No, thank you,” with little or no details as to why the manuscript was rejected. Assume that it just didn’t hook the agent, and move on. They’ve got lots of submissions to get through. I always replied with a very nice “Thanks so much for your consideration, and I wish you all the best with your current clients, ta ta” kind of email and left it at that. They’ve made up their mind, and there’s nothing you can do about that.
  • However, you might get a conditional rejection. This will be something like, “I liked this, but I think XYZ isn’t working and I’d like to see you address that and resubmit please.” Now, when you get an email like that, you need to remember that 1) it’s just that agent’s opinion. If you don’t like the agent’s suggestion for changes, you’re not obligated to make those changes and resubmit. You can just politely say ‘no thanks’ and move on to the next agent (although, you know, remember that they do this for a living so they have an idea of what they’re talking about.) 2) It’s not a promise of a yes later down the line. It’s just a promise to re-read and give it a second consideration.
  • You might get an alternate request. The agent might not want or need the book you submitted for various reasons – it’s too close to something one of their other clients is already doing, or the trend is dead, etc. – but they love your writing and want to see more from you. They may ask to look at what else you have. Now, ideally, while you’ve been querying you’ve also been writing. For reasons that I go into further detail about in “How to Plan a Series“, you should be writing something different from what you submitted with, and not the second book of the same series. If it’s not finished, tell the agent that you have a manuscript in progress and if they’d be willing to wait a few weeks for you to polish up the existing chapters to send along, you’d be happy to do so. If you don’t have anything on the go, point them to your story on an online platform (if you have one), or tell them that you don’t have anything else at the moment but look forward to pitching them in the future with another novel when it’s ready. (And if you finish querying to no success with your current manuscript, then absolutely write another novel and send it to that agent. Be sure to remind them that they asked for something else from you when you submit.)
  • Sometimes, there may be something in the letter that you might be able to respond to. For example, when I submitted my debut novel to a small press publisher, the editor said she really, really loved the characters and concept, but that there were several flaws in the manuscript that she couldn’t see a way toward fixing and that’s why she said ‘no’. I replied and politely asked that if I took some time to rewrite the novel to address her concerns, would she be willing to re-read it and reconsider my submission. She said yes, I rewrote, and she ended up accepting the manuscript for the publishing house. However, had she said no, I would have taken her advice, and rewritten the book anyway, and then moved on to other agents and publishers to submit to.
  • Hopefully, all this submitting, and tracking the feedback, and revising your manuscript accordingly, and submitting again, will pay off and you’ll end up signing with an agent. But I’m gonna be really honest with you – it might not. You could get to the end of the list of agents that you wanted to work with, and have no offers.
  • At this point, you need to step back and re-evaluate: does your craft need work, and that’s why you were rejected? Is the story right for the time? Did you tell the story in the right age range and demographic, or is it too mature/juvenile? And, more importantly – do you still want an agent? Is this still the route you want to go, or do you want to give indie publishers, small presses, vanity publishing, or self-publishing a try? (And please, for the love of those same baby ducks, don’t choose to go into selfpub on a knee-jerk defensive reflex because you feel rejected by trade publishing – selfpubbing is a very hard small business to open and run and you need to be even more professional and informed to do it well and make any kind of profit.)
  • If the answer is yes, you still want an agent, then I would recommend putting that book in a drawer and starting a new one. That first manuscript can always be revised and revived later. And you probably learned so much from writing that first book that your next one will be a hundred times better. But for now, stick it somewhere that’s away and move on, and try again. And be heartened by knowing that pretty much every author has a “trunk book” that didn’t get them an agent – a lot of people get agents on their second or third manuscripts. I know an author who got an agent on her eighth.

The Acceptance

  • If an agent likes the sample of your manuscript you sent per their instructions (the “partial”), they will likely ask for a “full” – meaning the whole book. They may also ask for things like market comparisons or series pitches. Don’t worry, if you’ve created your full Pitch Package, you’ll already have that stuff ready to go out. I always recommend taking a day or two before replying to give the manuscript a quick re-read to catch any last-minute typos or glaring errors, and then sending on the manuscript.
  • If the agent likes the full book, they’ll likely ask for a phone call to have a chat with you. This is to see how you communicate together, check if you guys are on the same wavelength, and to give you the opportunity to ask questions. Don’t be nervous – remember, this is as much about you deciding if you can work with this agent as them evaluating you in return. Have a list of questions for them, and note down their answers. Things like whether they’re more of a hand-holder or if they have no interest in being part of your emotional support network, just your business one. Whether they like to offer editorial advice on your new books. Whether they like your ideas for some other novels (again, they’re in this for your whole career, not just this manuscript). Whether they’d be open to meeting in person regularly. What kind of deals they’ve closed in the last year. Then thank them for their offer and let them know that you’re interested and will get back to them with your decision.
  • You don’t have to decide right away. I mean, obviously don’t take too long a time to decide, but give yourself breathing space to review your wants and desires in an agent against what this particular agent is offering. Maybe reach out privately to some of their other clients to see how happy they are and how the agency runs from the inside. Check the agent against Writer Beware and look them up again on DuoTrope and Absolute Write, and Query Tracker. And if something feels off, or if you don’t like something and want further clarification or explanation, address it with the agent. Email them, or ask for another call.
  • You are under no obligation to say yes. Let me repeat that: you are under no obligation to say yes. If you don’t like the offer or something just isn’t jivving, you can say no.
  • Once you have said yes, your agent will send you a contract. Review it carefully, ask for clarification on things you don’t understand, and feel free to discuss amendments with your agent if you feel they’re necessary. Be aware that if it isn’t in the contract, it’s not something your agent is obligated to provide to you – like help doing your taxes as an author, or financial mentorship if you get a large advance. If you want that information, you need to ask for it, and your agent will point you in the right direction.
  • Once you’ve signed, you’ll be an official client, and they’ll likely make an announcement.
  • Celebrate!
  • And then get down to the hard work of getting that manuscript you signed with ready for submission to publishing houses. Communicate, communicate, communicate. As with any relationship, this is the key to a happy future career and a great team effort between you and your agent.

Is there another way to do this, without going through the submission slushpile?

Sure!

I didn’t get my agent through the slushpile. (Though pretty much all of my authorfriends did.) While I was querying agents, I met an editor at a convention and accidentally pitched her my novel Triptych at a room party. At that point I’d had about 20 agent rejections, as well as some publisher rejections as I’d submitted to some small/indie presses that didn’t require submissions to come through an agent.

The editor wanted to read “Triptych”, and eventually rejected it. But she allowed me to try again when I asked her if she’d be willing to let me resubmit after revisions that addressed the reasons why she rejected it. She did, I rewrote, and she signed the book. Many things happened with the book – Publisher’s Weekly starred review, Lambda Literary Award nominations, film adaptation offers, named Best Book of the Year by PW – and I realized quickly that I needed an agent ASAP to help me navigate this new reality.

Through that editor I got some agent recommendations. I also had a few contact me, to ask me if I was looking for representation and asking for the chance to have a chat. I had another book completed at the time (what would eventually become “The Skylark’s Song“), and I used that manuscript to submit with.

I narrowed down my choices to three agents, and got on the phone with each of them. All three more or less offered to represent me. The first, I declined because talked over me the whole call, didn’t listen to what I said, and was frankly kind of a ditz. The second said she’d give me a conditional offer of representation, provided that I revise “Skylark” first with her notes. The third said he’d like to take me immediately and work with me on the “Skylark” revisions. I spoke again to the second agent, and she advised me that if the third agent was keen enough to sign me before he saw the revised manuscript, I should likely sign with him. So I did.

I found out later that agent #2 was mad at herself for “letting me get away”, but not to worry. Turns out the agent I signed with and I had a terrible relationship (he was the one that contact me, and remember, this was before there was really any presence of agents on social media so I didn’t really know much about him), and I eventually ended up leaving him for agent #2.

You can also meet agents by attending pitching sessions at conventions and conferences (this is why you need to read their website – it will tell you where and when they’ll be). In-person-face-to-face pitches can be nerve-wracking, but with your Pitch Package you’ll have already done all the hard work on figuring out how to talk about the book. All you have to do no is memorize some of the info (the elevator pitch, especially), and practice controlling your nerves. And agents are aware that you’re nervous, and are there to see you succeed. No one will judge the quality of your novel based on the the quality of your ‘performance’ while pitching.

I would very much caution you, though, not to try to casually pitch the agent at the conference bar or networking party, unless you have already had a good conversation with them and they seem open to it. Don’t make them work when they’re trying to relax, it’s annoying.

If you do want to pitch them in these situations, I’d say something along the lines of, “Hey, listen, I’m really enjoying this conversation and I think we might work well together. Do you mind if I send you an email later to pitch you my novel?”

They may give you a card and say yes – remind them in the email where and how you met them, when you send them your cover letter. They may say no thanks, and you have to respect that because no amount of bullying to let you pitch them will endear them to you or your work. They may ask you to pitch on the spot (always memorize your elevator pitch!) The point is to let them decide if they are comfortable hearing about your book now, or if they prefer a different form of communication.

As I said earlier, each agent has their own way of evaluating pitches and you want to respect that.

For the love of those little baby ducks we are all now coddling, do not pitch in inappropriate spaces. I have heard horror stories of people slipping manuscripts under bathroom stall doors while agents are peeing. Are you kidding? That is not how to start a professional relationship!

You may want to look into online contests as well, like #PitMad or #PitchWars on Twitter, or blogs like Miss Snark’s First Victim which holds a few Secret Agent contest every year, or any number of hundreds of other opportunities. Your local and online writing community friends will have resources and suggestions, if you ask.

There’s more than one way to find and sign with a literary agent, and I encourage you to look at all the possible options and read lots about different author’s experiences.

Good luck!

*

Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS posts here or ASK ME HERE.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get An Agent?
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My Granny

My Granny

Grannie, on the left. I think there’s a photo of me at the same age, with the same haircut and the same expression.

My grandmother, Evelyn Alexandra Winer (nee Gilmour) was born in the middle of The Depression into a household which would, eventually, contain nine children and two cousins. She was just five when her mother passed away in childbirth, along with the baby, leaving the leaving the older kids to raise their younger siblings. The children minded the house, worked the garden, and helped their father on the family farm, bringing in the hay and loading up trucks of turnips to make ends meet.

Sandy, ready to play ball.

Granny grew up very social and active. She loved baseball, and she was a fielder and short-stop for the local all-ladies team during the war. Her nickname was Sandy then, and her catcher Doris eventually became her sister-in-law by what I’m given to understand was some good old fashioned lady-plotting.

Rumor, or family fantasy, has it in our family that Granny and Aunt Doris might have been part of the inspiration for a certain pair of characters in the film A League of Their Own, as their skills led to a Calling-Up – for a time they both played in the U.S., Hamilton, and Toronto.

When she could no longer play, Granny still went down to the Badenoch and Morriston diamonds on weeknights to watch cousins, neighbours, grandchildren, and friend’s kids run the bases. A few years ago, my cousin’s team and my brother’s team were facing off and a bunch of us went down to enjoy the game. One of my cousins made a double-sided sign cheering them both on, which she would flip depending on who was up to bat. And Granny spent the whole time keeping score and telling everyone how the players would be doing so much better if they could just “Get behind the ball!” (This was a life-long refrain; I remember hearing it at my T-ball games and my brother’s little league tournaments.)

I’m given to understand that prior to the outbreak of WWII, Granny had a crush on a young man – a farmer’s son and her brother’s friend – named Roy Winer.

Poppa, being all swoon-worthy.

When Canada joined the fight, Poppa lied about his age to enlist and worked his way up to Flight Sergeant/Air Gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was very tight-lipped about his time overseas, so we didn’t know much of what he did, except for amusing anecdotes about antics he got up to on the base during training. One involved someone grabbing him by the ankles so he wouldn’t fall out of the plane while he hung out of an opened bomb hatch so he could take a nice photo of the base from the air.

Yes, I made Robin a sergeant in The Skylark’s Saga on purpose.

Poppa avoided the Nazi guns and made it home safely, only to find himself in Granny’s crosshairs. I’m not entirely sure how the courting went, but I can imagine there was a lot of Granny saying “Oh for god’s sake, Roy, just pick me up at seven.”

Granny had little patience for dithering, flimflam, hesitation, lack of decisiveness, sniffling children (which resulted in Vick’s Vaporub on a Q-Tip shoved up your nose; lots of fun when you’re a kid like me with hay-fever triggered by coming to visit the farm), and your long hair getting in your face at the dinner table (punished with a tight French braid; there’s a reason I prefer my hair short).

On the day Granny and Poppa were headed to the courthouse to sign their wedding paperwork, they took a car that only sat two. But of course, when they arrived, they learned that Granny was – at the time – too young to sign the certificate on her on own behalf. Her father had to give his permission in writing.

As the car only sat two, Poppa left Granny sitting on the courthouse steps for hours as he went back to the Gilmour farm to fetch his would-be father-in-law to complete the licence.

Vehicular abandonment was to be a theme. Not long after their wedding, on an extremely icy New Years Eve, a quite-pregnant-with-her-first-daughter Granny and Poppa stopped their car in the dip between two hills because someone else’s car had been abandoned on the side of the road. The car belonged to a friend, and it had quit in the cold. They found their friend halfway up the hill and the friend walking home with his own battery under his arm to plug it back in and try again in the morning.

Poppa took the battery out of his own car to boost his friends, and then set his own back on his runnerboard instead of putting back under the hood like he should have. Trying to crest the slippery hill from a dread stop, they nearly lost the battery into a snowbank.

Happy New Year indeed.


Granny and Poppa loved one another fiercely, loyally, and steadfastly. I will be lucky beyond measure to find someone who loves me the way that Poppa loved my Granny, and to love the way my Granny loved him. I am unaccountably saddened that I have yet to have love, or been loved, the way my Granny and Poppa did one another. And that I wasn’t able to introduce her to someone like that to Granny before she passed, so she knew that I had someone in my life. I know that what Granny and Poppa had was something very, very special.

Poppa and Grannie

Poppa wanted to name his first son after the first Winer ancestor in the area – a man who had been emigrating with his family via covered wagon from the States to New Berlin (now Kitchener). The wagon kept breaking and he swore that the next time it happened, he was going to build the new house right there, dammit. It broke again just south of Guelph, Ontario, in a little hamlet that would eventually become Morriston. The cabin he built for his family can be seen to your left when you drive north up highway 6 from Hamilton,  (or on the right if you drive south down Hwy 6 from Guelph ) along with several other buildings which the family built and moved into the longer they stayed at the farm. The property is still in the family, and that wagon has since been repaired for use by descendants.

Roy Winer never got his boy, though. (Don’t worry, my mom gave that name to my brother). What he did get was five amazing, incredible, hardworking, honest, and loving girls – along with his wife, Poppa called them his Five Of A Kind and Ace. Granny and Poppa were killer card players and unbeatable Euchre partners. I recall many post-family-meal nights where the kids played with toys on the ground, and the adults got out the packs of cards and started ribbing each other. Eventually the kids on the ground grew up and joined in the card playing, and though I don’t have a head for it, several of my cousins became just as sharp at Euchre as Granny.

Five of a Kind and their Ace at Grannie’s 90th Birthday

Through their daughters, Granny and Poppa got thirteen kind, clever, and generous grandchildren. Poppa used to say that it doesn’t matter if you’re a ditch digger in life, so long as you’re the best ditch digger you can be. They instilled in us a sense of hard work, an appreciation for community and creativity, and a close love of family. At the annual family Christmas, we were encouraged to sing, dance, play saxophone, recite a poem, tell a joke, and on several memorable occasions, embarrass the heck out of our aunt’s boyfriends with silly skits.

And though Poppa never had the chance to meet them before he passed, he and Granny were graced with three curious great-grandsons who overflow with joy and love. And whom Granny doted on.

The day my grandparents met my Dad, he’d been invited up to the farm for, if I’m remembering correctly, a meal and what was likely a test when it came to dragging him out to the barn for chores. City-boy that he was, my Dad arrived on a motorcycle with a freshly-permed 1970s white-boy ‘fro courtesy of his older sister. I understand that Granny and Poppa talked it over and decided to be open-minded about him, despite the wretched hair.

My father went on to have a great relationship with my grandparents, and loved them both very much. Even if Poppa threatened Dad with the snips used to castrate the bulls if he got my mom pregnant a fourth time.


My grandparents made a wonderful life in a very difficult profession. Farming was never a sure bet, and it was back-breaking labour. Though, luckily enough, with their siblings farming close by and eventually, enough boyfriends, husbands, and partners who came along, there were always many hands to make the work light. (My hay-fever and I stayed inside during harvest-time and made sandwiches and coffee for the hard workers when needed).

But when times were good, they were generous in their financial support, and implemented a clever system whereby loans could be requested by their daughters by putting a slip of paper in a teapot on a shelf. They could also be repaid the same way, discreet and private, so the embarrassing money question could be handled gently and respectfully. To this day, when I need to borrow a sum from my parents, we call it a “Teapot Loan”.

Granny and Poppa had a sugarbush out the back of the farm, and if you’ve ever visited one, you probably know how much hauling and work goes into making maple syrup, especially if the bush is still using the bucket-and-tap system. I can think of at least two or three March Breaks spent not in Florida or at a ski resort like my classmates, but in the back bush hauling tin buckets to the big blue rain barrel that was being carted around before it was eventually dumped into the simmering pan in the sugar shack.

But oh man, that maple syrup? It was so worth it.

Nothing I’ve had since we finished the last recycled Cheez-Whiz jar of the homemade stuff has ever tasted as good.

I expect no Maple Syrup will ever taste that good again.


Andrew Gilmor and his children at the youngest’s wedding. Grannie is third from the right.

The Gilmour clan, Granny and her siblings, were part of a larger family of Ords. Like many quintessential rural Ontario farming communities, neighbours are close, families don’t move far away, children take over their parent’s farms, and everyone is tight. This past summer, our family celebrated the 68th annual Ord Reunion, where the descendants of my Granny’s own Grandpa gather to spend an afternoon together reminiscing, welcoming the new babies or spouses and toasting the dearly departed, studying the family tree or the albums on albums of family photos, newspaper clippings, and announcements. We share a massive potluck, play games, run races, and battle it out for the highly prized annual Shoe Kick trophy.

Listening to an original song written for the Ord Reunion.

Kicking butt in the obstacle course.

Granny served as both secretary and treasurer of the picnic for forty years, and relinquished the duties this past summer. She always took up the collection, booked the one-room school house for the day, and took the meeting minutes. I can clearly envision that red plastic binder filled with pages and pages of lined school paper filled with her sloped, clear handwriting.

After Poppa passed, Granny wore his wedding ring on a necklace pretty much every day for nearly sixteen years. When she missed Poppa particularly, she would put on a zip-up Polar Fleece jacket that had been his, and wear it around the house (maybe that’s why she kept the place so damnably cold all the time). When she was moved to the hospice, my mom made sure to bring the jacket and drape it across the back of one of the chairs in her room. When she passed, the staff at the hospice dressed her in her own housecoat and laid the jacket across her chest, so Poppa was giving her a hug.

For all that she was stern sometimes (I remember tales of my aunts and mother fleeing to Aunt Doris’ house down the country block when Granny was in a temper. I did the same myself the day I was flighty and burned a pie, and thus was rightfully scolded), my Granny was so kind, and so loving, and so generous with her time and attention.


She was motherly in small, quiet ways that were no less fierce for their understatedness.

Granny drove all over to attend province-wide volleyball championships, dance recitals, plays, graduation ceremonies, dedications, grand openings, book launches, and celebrations. On one memorable occasion, she travelled for a full day to take in my brother’s graduation and was utterly enraptured and fascinated by the keynote speaker – a Colonel Chris Hadfield.

I’m told she hung on his every word.

Grannie and I at the Book Launch Party for “Triptych” in 2011.


Granny was also very thoughtful with her time and home. Food and cooking were important to her, and were the medium through which she showed a lot of love.

Granny hated to throw away leftover food, and genuinely enjoyed Liver and Onions. She made the best pies on the planet, and the best pancakes, too.

We sometimes called her The Sergeant Major, because she could certainly marshal a meal together. Christmas lunch on Boxing Day was a feat of organization – long tables downstairs for dozens of people, bowls of buns, and corn, and beans being marched from the upstairs kitchen by dutiful grandkids, a massive turkey big enough to stick your head into being carved on the kitchen counter, jug upon jug of tomato juice, apple juice, orange juice, and of course, wine. So much gravy that we poured it from carafes and pottery milk-bag holders.

When I graduated from my Master’s program, Granny cracked a bottle of bubbly that had been in her cold pantry since it’d been given to her and Poppa for one of their milestone anniversaries. In that same pantry you’d find a literal bucket of flour, waiting to be turned into tasty treats, and shelves of homemade pickles (dill, sweet, and icicle), chili sauce with peaches, and the coveted strawberry jam.

“Is it Granny’s jam?” is the first thing that is asked by any family member if offered jam in an aunt’s or cousin’s house, implying that if the jam is store-bought, the answer to the offer may be a polite No, thank you.

Her tipple of choice was a rum and Pepsi, served in a tall glass with two ice cubes. How do you measure the rum for the drink? You pour until the ice floats. This is known among my friends as a “Granny pour” of booze. Making drinks for one another, we ask: “Do you want just a shot in your cocktail – or do you want a Granny pour?” Of course, she’d add the remaining can of Pepsi slowly over the course of the evening, so the drink got weaker as the night went on.

One for me, one for Granny.

You could always find a battered mint-green tin of cookies in her freezer or in the cupboard under the microwave, which she pretended not to notice that she had to refill whenever a grandchild had come to call. No holiday meal was complete without her pies, and when one of my cousins was diagnosed as Celiac, lemon-meringue pies without the crust, made in parfait glasses, could also be found on the dessert table.

Various cousins have lived with Granny over the years while attending school, or needing to save on rent while searching for work, or looking to buy a home. Granny had a habit of cooking an entire package of bacon at a time, instead of just what she wanted to eat, so when these tired grandkids came home from school or work, they would find that the Bacon Fairy had visited and left a container in the fridge.

She made this salad dressing with vinegar, milk, and sugar that I hated as a kid and love now, especially when drizzled over the fresh lettuce pulled from her garden. Right up to this past summer Granny’s victory garden thrived – she always ended up with more potatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries and rhubarb than she could eat herself, and you would be sent home with absolute bags of dirty veggies pulled from the ground that very morning.

Several years ago, Granny was cleaning out her closets and she had an absolute glory of a black dress coat that was as 1980s as it could possibly be. Hobble-skirt hem, big naval buttons, poofy sleeves, black velvet collar. Poppa had bought it for her to wear to church, worried that the community would think ill of him if his wife kept showing up in an old worn coat.  like he couldn’t afford to keep her in style. Granny told me she’d never worn the fancy coat, not once, because she was a farmer’s wife, and she was proud to be a farmer’s wife, so she was perfectly happy to look like one, too.

She and one of my aunts came over one afternoon to drop it off for me to have, as my love of cosplay and costuming was well known by then. They offered to take me out for lunch, but I decided to make a meal myself instead. I had the very great pleasure of introducing my Granny to Butter Chicken Curry and Roasted Cauliflower for the first time. And I wear that coat any time I have somewhere fancy to go – the theatre, the opera, and most recently, to my friend’s glam wedding.

Granny’s cookbook.

My aunt got all of our favourite Granny recipes made into a book a few Christmases ago, so I think I will be doing a lot of canning and baking in the next few months. And drinking rum and Pepsis.


Granny’s love didn’t end at blood relations.

She babysat, watched over, mentored, helped, or partially-raised pretty much half of the community. Including three young Japanese boys whose parents had moved to Puslinch, Canada in the 80’s. While Poppa and their father were in the barn, comparing Japanese and Canadian farming techniques, Granny helped the boys with their English home work.  I remember being absolutely thrilled to have my name written in Japanese on the inside flap of a backpack when I was younger.

Most of the family moved back to Japan eventually, and when I applied to the Japanese Exchange Teachers Programme out of my undergrad, I requested to be placed in a school on the same island that my Japanese uncles lived on, and was.

At my local train station.

With Yukio and Hasako, former neighbours.

I’ve never seen Granny prouder than when she was reunited with that family in Japan – she came to visit me with my parents while I was living there, and the family was moved to repay my Granny for the kindness and generosity she had shown them in Canada.  We were toured around, and feasted, and treated like royalty.

That was also the day my then-78-year-old Granny beat me up the steps to the caldera of a live volcano. And this was before the knee injury, because the bike I crashed in the accident was the one Granny bought me before she returned to Canada.

It was extremely moving to watch my Granny take in Hiroshima. Of course, her husband had been an aviator, and the bombing had happened in her lifetime. She remembered it, all of it, everything from the news, but she had never seen anything about it from the Japanese point of view.

Hiroshima A-bomb Dome Park, for those who have never been, is a brutally blunt experience. The building the bomb exploded directly above was the only one to survive for miles around – everything else was leveled. And they’ve left it leveled. There is a peacefulness to the place, a quiet promise made through clenched teeth to never let this happen again, and the monuments are inspiring. But there’s also a begging quality to it – please, please, please, this place says. Granny walked through all of it, stopped and read every plaque, with her hands folded behind her back and her mouth in a firm line.

She was taking it all in, thoughtful, respectful, and very, very moved. She was quite quiet for the rest of the day, and when we asked her what she thought of it, she had a few poignant words about what a tragedy it was, and how terrible it must have been.

Dad pointed out to me privately, later, that it was likely she was thinking a lot of those pilots who dropped the bombs, and how she and Poppa would have felt if he’d been part of the crew who’d been asked to do it.

The one thing Granny vowed when my parents invited her to visit Japan with them was that she refused to eat raw fish. She would not try it, and that was final. So I took them out to my favourite yakitori izakaya when they arrived, which was extremely traditional. Everything was written in kanji, and no one spoke English. The izakaya only served traditional Japanese booze too – sake, ume-shu, chu-hai, and Japanese beer. She was flabbergasted to learn that, after a bit of back and forth, the place didn’t even stock rum.

Luckily she’d picked some up at duty-free on the way into the country, like I’d advised my mom to do, because I hadn’t figured out where to buy any myself.

But I did want to share the fun of a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant with my family at least once while they were there, so I had arranged for us to go to one for lunch after we toured the school I worked at. I figured Granny would order some noodles and salad. Much to all of our surprise, when I brought them into the restaurant and showed them how to take a plate, make yourself some hot tea, and where to stack the empties, Granny dove right in and popped some sashimi into her mouth with her fingers.

We were so proud of her for trying the cuisine, and for eating so much of it! It was a wonderful meal with lots of laughter. Of course, later we learned that Granny remembered nothing about that lunch. She’d taken some Benadryl to combat an allergy attack brought on by the fresh paint at the school, and it made her so foggy that she hadn’t even realized she was eating raw fish.

Oops.


Granny was also so very engaged in her community. She was part of the Ladies Auxiliary at church, was an usher and offering-counter, taught Sunday school, raised money for charity, baked for the Christmas Bazaar and Children’s Christmas Concert, and was a part of the Fireside Group, which had it’s 50th anniversary just last week.

This was a gathering of church members who would get together and share stories, read poems they’d written or articles from the paper they’d found interesting, and discuss the news of the day. I sang for the group once, when I was a teenager, and was so nervous I totally forgot the words to the song before I went up, and had to hide in the choir room writing them out on a paper to jog my memory before I could perform.

Granny had a whole talk prepared for the occasion of the Fireside’s anniversary, and was absolutely determined to attend despite her declining health. When her daughter came to take her to the event, Granny admitted that she couldn’t make it and sent along her speech (carefully re-constructed by said daughter from little hints scattered on tiny pieces of paper in an envelope) for someone else to read.


Granny helped to serve the food at funerals held at the church. It was always the usual spread of tiny cubes of cheese, carrot and celery sticks, cookies and coffee, and quartered sandwiches on white bread – salmon or tuna salad, roast beef and mustard, ham and cheese. When the grieving family had left the church, Granny and the other volunteers would pack up the leftovers and parcel them out to take home. Granny’s daughters jokingly called this ‘Dead Food’ when it showed up at the house to be eaten by the family. In my thirty-seven years I’ve attended a few of these church-catered funerals, and been sent home with my own packages of Dead Food, too.

One of my first thoughts after my aunt called with the devastating news that Granny had passed, was that someone else’s hands were going to arrange the sandwiches on those same church-owned platters for her funeral. That someone else was going to have to lay out the cookies. That someone else was going to have to wrestle with that massive old coffee percolator that is half the size of me. That someone else is going to wash those teacups. That someone else was going to have to take home the leftover Dead Food when my family and I have left to try to find some way to spend the rest of our lives without her.

While organizing the funeral, one of my aunts texted her sisters with the message “The Dead Food has been arranged.” And it struck me again that someone else is going to be in that kitchen. Not her. Not us.

I think, to me, that is one of the most difficult things to handle – that it won’t be Ev Winer in that kitchen on that day, like she always was. That she won’t be there, comforting the family of the recently deceased with nibbles, and shoulder-pats, and tiny quartered sandwiches.

That is what breaks my heart the most.

That I’ll be eating Dead Food she didn’t make.


My father called me last week, and told me it was time to come home. The last time I had seen Granny, she was tired but attentive at the family Thanksgiving. Our family comes together five or so times a year to celebrate the big holidays together, and we average around 30 to 40 people, so we can get pretty noisy.

But gosh is that house ever full of love when we all congregate.

Granny sat at the table and plowed her way through a plate with a sample of everyone’s dishes, and had a lovely little conversation with everyone who took turns sitting next to her.

The Skylark’s Sacrifice, book two of the Skylark Duology, had just come out a few weeks prior. I gave Granny a copy of all my books for her Brag Shelf as they were released, but this one was special. Book #1 was dedicated to my Poppa. Book #2 was dedicated to her.

For Granny-
Whose love and patience were always larger than I sometimes thought I deserved,
but who always made sure we all had more than enough.

Granny had mentioned before that she’d read some of my books, but that they weren’t quite to her taste. She preferred John Grisham, and Michael Chricton. On one memorable occasion, she showed me a Richard Castle novel she was really enjoying and didn’t quite understand when I tried to explain to her that the handsome man on the back of the book wasn’t the author, he was an actor named Nathan Fillion who played a mystery writer named Richard Castle on TV.

That Thanksgiving, I gave her a copy of The Skylark’s Sacrifice, and pointed out the dedication. She said she was looking forward to it, but I expected that she wouldn’t actually read it. One of my cousins had the brilliant idea to get Granny to record us all special messages to put into a Build-A-Bear last Christmas, and my message is:

Jessica, I love you. I’ll finish those books eventually. Merry Christmas.

I called Granny most Sunday afternoons for about nine months, just to fill her in on my life and to hear all about hers and the silly things a bunch of old-timers like she and her siblings got up to.

And she never told me she’d read the books. She never commented on them. I never knew.

Last week, I arrived at the hospital straight from the bus station, and took her hand. She said, “I think it’s time for you to go.” My brother had been there for about twenty minutes at this point, and I guess she was talking to him. Surprised, I replied:

“Okay, if that’s what you want.”

She opened her eyes and said, “Oh, it’s you, Jessica. You can stay.”

My brother, Dad, and I settled in.

She bobbed between sleep and wakefulness, in pain and exhausted, but she eventually turned to me and said, “Did you find a roommate?” (During my last call I had confessed to her that I’d lost my dayjob and I was worried that if I couldn’t find a high-paying enough one to replace it, I’d have to get a roommate again and sacrifice my office/spare room.)

“I’m still looking for a dayjob,” I replied. “When I have one, I’ll know whether I’ll need a roommate or not.”

Dad made a joke about how Granny should come live with me in my spare room. “Sure,” I said. “That’s a great idea.”

“Are you going to Milton now?” she asked.

“I’ve just come from Milton; Dad picked me up at the bus station.”

“Oh,” she said.

She drifted off a bit, and when she had come round again I said, “So hey, I don’t think I got to tell you on our last call, but I won a pretty big literary award for one of my books.” (Or, at least, you know, I tried to say all that around the burning lump in my throat and my crackling voice.) She didn’t respond to that. I said, “Did you read the book I gave you at Thanksgiving?”

“Yes,” she said, and it sounded a bit like there should be an of course, you silly girl at the end of that.

I didn’t really believe her though, not sure she actually understood the question. But later, one of my aunts told me that Granny had powered through every single one of my novels in the last few weeks, including the Skylark books.

I expect she’ll be recounting all the stories to Poppa eventually. She’s a good storyteller, and always was. She gave great speeches. I come by my abilities honestly.

At the hospice, they had this art piece on the wall made of woven strips of fabric. You could write a message on a tag and tie it to this quilt. I wrote:

Thank you for passing all the best of you onto me.
I am so lucky to have been loved by you.
I love you overwhelmingly.

Our last photo together.

Keeping warm at Thanksgiving.

After dinner chats at Thanksgiving.


My Granny went exactly as she had always said she wanted to – between one breath and the next. In the 1970s, when her father could no longer care for himself, he moved in with Granny, Poppa, and the five girls. One night at dinner, he exhaled, leaned against the person sitting next to him, closed his eyes, and was gone. Granny had always said she wanted to go like that.

When Granny and Poppa retried from farming, they severed some of the property to keep for themselves, sat down with some of their daughters and a piece of paper and a pencil, and drew up a house. It had to have a basement big enough to seat everyone at one long table for Christmas, and lots of bedrooms to tuck sleepy grandchildren into. Poppa only got a few years in that beautiful home, spending evenings watching the pond from the chair at the big front window.

Mother’s Day was spent at Granny’s in the annual garden clean up – re-edging the flower gardens, putting up the flag, splitting and moving around the hostas, mulching the flower beds, repainting the porch columns and restaining the deck, putting up the canvas canopy, trimming the trees, and pulling up all the Hens and Chicks that had reproduced like mad and were taking over the garden. But we were rewarded with Chinese food, and beer, and a sunny afternoon spent together while the Sergeant Major walked around the property, inspecting, directing, and bestowing a kind word on every hard worker.

Granny lived in the house she built with Poppa for sixteen years after his passing, and had decided that she would not leave. And while cleaning help had to come in every once and a while, and ramps needed to be built, and sons-in-law and grandkids had to be employed to roto-till the garden and pick the weeds, and neighbours employed to blow out the driveway, Granny also spent her last days in that house, too.

She eventually agreed to go into hospital, assuming she’d get better enough to return home and pass in her own bed. Regrettably, from hospital she went to hospice, and we had only two days to make our goodbyes.

Granny waited until all three of her remaining siblings had come to visit, and while her baby sister was in the room, took one breath, let it out, and never took another.

Granny had these white and blue Corelle coffee cups and I remember them from all the way back at the old farmhouse. I wasn’t much of a coffee or tea drinker then, but I can vividly recall Poppa sitting in his chair with one of those cups. The chair was back from the table, against the wall and under the telephone shelf, and his strong hands wrapped around one of these mugs. He’d have just come in from morning chores and smelled of barn, and his fingernails were dirty as he warmed his fingers around the mug.

The coffee mug.

Granny kept those mugs, and Mom brought two of them to the hospice so she and Poppa could have coffee together again when everything was done.

My hope is that on this sunny morning, they are having coffee together. And that my Granny is saying, “Well now, hello, love. Here’s a cup. Let me fill you in on what you’ve missed.”


Granny, 1928-2019

Obituary for Evelyn Alexandra Winer

JM FreyMy Granny
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