Thursday, August 22, 2019

On Walking Away (For Now)

I wasn't going to write this post. It didn't feel necessary. After all, it's pretty easy to slip away from a party when hardly anyone noticed you were there to begin with. But then I wondered if maybe someone else out there is quietly reevaluating a lifelong dream (for the time being, anyway), and maybe they'd want to hear this.

So, here it goes:

I am not writing anymore.

This is not a permanent thing, and I say that with a decent degree of confidence. Writing is something I've always done, since the moment I knew how to scrawl words in a notebook. But lately the joy that writing used to bring me has gone missing.

It's not something that happened all at once. I didn't wake up one day and say, "Screw it, I don't want to do this." It's been a slow unraveling, with quite a few contributing factors.

Last year I had two books release from two different publishers. To say it was a frustrating experience is an understatement. Nothing felt the way it did when LAST YEAR'S MISTAKE came out in 2015. The excitement people showed for my debut was nowhere to be found, including from my publishers. I know this is normal, but that doesn't mean it's right. Communication was poor, honesty was not a priority. There is so much more I could say here, but I'll leave it at this: I was devastated and disgusted by the time my books released, and unsurprisingly, both dropped off the radar immediately.

It didn't help that I had two launch parties, one in Georgia, and one in my home state of Connecticut, and the number of people who bailed on me was almost comical. Almost, if it hadn't been so hurtful. It was becoming a theme that people who used to care, people who were supposed to care, didn't. And as hard as I tried to shake it off, it still got to me.

In the midst of all this, I'd been revising a shelved manuscript that I truly loved. I'd shown it to my agent five years earlier, but it was a very different story from my debut and not a book that fit neatly into a particular genre. He hadn't shared my enthusiasm for it the first time around, so I put it away and forged ahead on other projects.

I couldn't forget about that ms, though. And so, years later, knowing I had an option book with one of my publishers, I threw myself into revising SHADOW PARK. I added some ten-thousand words and rearranged the majority of what I'd already written.

This time when I showed it to my agent, he was very complimentary. Far more so than he'd been the first time, and I thought, I got it right this time. But then he made it pretty clear that he still wasn't confident about how it would hold up in the market, and thought my best bet for getting it published was as my option book.

Well. Turns out it wasn't.

My editor loved SHADOW PARK, but felt that with it's paranormal and psychological thriller aspects, it was too different from my three previously published contemporary romances. I, on the other hand, didn't see why that mattered. My published novels hadn't exactly set the world on fire. BUSTED had under 200 reviews on Goodreads at the time. Why was I only allowed to write novels in the same vein as the ones so few people had read? It made me want to pull my hair out. And so, after a 45-minute phone conversation with my editor, 15 minutes of which included my then-4-year-old son yelling at the bottom of the stairs, I agreed to come up with a list of revisions that we could use as a springboard for compromise.

Less than 2 weeks later, my editor announced she was leaving the company.

In August of 2018, SHADOW PARK was given to someone else in-house to review. But when the weeks turned into months with no one getting back to my agent or me, we decided to withdraw the manuscript and move forward.

Unfortunately, my agent and I had two different definitions of "move forward." I was adamant that I wanted to go on sub with SHADOW PARK. He felt that it was a job best left to another agent.

And so, after seven years and three published books, I began 2019 unagented and down, but definitely not out. Not yet, anyway.

After I'd finished SHADOW PARK, I started working on a new contemporary romance. I was really enjoying it, too. But then I got stuck.

Every time I'd try to get the words flowing, a voice in the back of my mind would say, If SHADOW PARK gets me an agent, they're not going to want this. They're going to want a manuscript more like the one they're signing me for. I'm wasting my time writing this.   

I couldn't shut the voice up. So, 20K words in, I stopped writing. Instead I jotted down preliminary ideas for another book, one that made more sense as a follow-up to SP. I was actually pretty excited about it.

I also began querying SHADOW PARK, determined to prove that this book deserved a place on shelves. Between February 11th and March 31st, I queried 12 agents. And when 6 of the 12 requested the manuscript fairly quickly, I was confident that I was on the right track.

This is where things get tricky. Trickier, I guess.

It's always been my preference to query in small batches, gauge the results, and revise either the query or the manuscript accordingly. With 6 requests from 12 queries, I knew the query letter was in good shape. But I also knew that if my requests turned into rejections, I'd want to revise the manuscript before sending more queries.

And so I waited.

Everyone knows that publishing moves at a snail's pace. Everyone also knows that it's useless to compare experiences, because no two are the same. But when I queried LAST YEAR'S MISTAKE, I had two offers of rep within 3 weeks of submitting the manuscript to the requesting agents. I thought there was a good chance that my track record would be at least *somewhat* similar.

Not this time. 10 weeks later, I had only heard back from one agent: a very kind rejection.

Now you'd think that in these 10 weeks, I would have been busying myself with the project I'd started outlining. You would be wrong.

Not only did I now have my 5-year-old home for the summer, I was also still stuck. I couldn't get a solid hold on my newest idea, could not work out the details in my head. I was stressing myself out, and beating myself up. Not only over the book, but over everything. I felt like I was doing a million things half-assed. Wasting hours trying to untangle the words knotted in my brain just meant there was never enough time for bills and cooking and dishes and laundry and errands and parenting, and I didn't even have anything to show for it.

I found that I honestly didn't want to write. And so, as the silence in queryland stretched on and my hope waned, I did everything but write. I even sat down and watched more than 20 minutes of TV for the first time in 6 years, which led to falling in love with Stranger Things. I hadn't realized how badly I just needed to do nothing, and doing it felt great.

What didn't feel so great?

Being 16 weeks out with querying, and still only having one response.

It didn't seem possible that in four months, only *one* of six agents had gotten around to reading my manuscript. So, on June 10, I sent nudge emails to the two agents who'd had SHADOW PARK the longest.

One sent a form rejection ten days later. The other ignored my email completely.

And so, as of August 22nd, nearly **TWENTY-EIGHT WEEKS** after sending my first query, I am still waiting on answers from 3 of those 6 agents, two of whom have had the manuscript since February.

By now, I'm assuming they're all passes. I'm assuming the manuscript needs more work, work that I haven't done yet in case I got feedback I could incorporate. But here's the thing: I shouldn't have to assume. The same way I shouldn't have to accept that sub-par treatment of smaller authors and their books is a publishing norm. The same way I shouldn't have to stretch myself paper-thin just to be told I'm still not doing enough.

And so, for now, I'm walking away from writing. I need to get back to a place where I can sit down and write simply because I want to. I enjoyed it once, and I want to enjoy it again. But in order to do that, I need to distance myself from everything that's ruined it for me. I have so much disgust and resentment weighing me down, and without a bright side to balance the scale, it just doesn't feel worth it to keep going right now.

I won't feel this way forever. Creating stories is a part of who I am, and it's a part that I need to make whole and healthy again. I'm not there yet. But when I am, I hope that some changes have been made in the publishing world. I hope the list of things that authors just aren't supposed to talk about it isn't quite as long. And I hope to see you all on the other side.

- Gina   

Sunday, July 28, 2019

What I Loved About Stranger Things 3 (And What I Didn't)

Hi there! It's been a while since I've blogged about books. It's been a while since I blogged, period.

I wasn't going to write a review of a TV show, but then I realized this is my blog, and I can post about whatever I want. If I'm going to take the time to sit down and write about something, it might as well be something that makes me happy. Lately that's a fairly short list, with the show Stranger Things very close to the top.


My sister has been telling me to watch this show for ages. But alas, I was one of the last people on the planet to get Netflix, and I didn't actually heed her advice until May of this year, two months before season 3 was set to drop.

And let me tell you, I fell SO HARD in love with everything about Stranger Things.

Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, the warrior mom who refuses to be dismissed or mocked when her missing son starts speaking to her through lights? Give that woman every award on the planet for her performance.

The pure, sweet relationship between Mike and Eleven? MY FREAKING HEART.

The unexpected father/daughter dynamic between El and Hopper? You bet your ass I burst into tears when I saw Jane Hopper written on that birth certificate.

I could go on, but I'll just say that after six years of watching almost no TV at all, I spent my son's last week of school glued to the couch, binge-watching two seasons of Stranger Things, feeling things I hadn't felt about a TV show since Smallville. I never wanted it to end. But, of course, it had to.

Luckily the wait for more wouldn't be *too* long, since I'd been so late to the party to begin with. But when the season 3 teaser clips started to trickle in, I admit... I got nervous.

I mean, Mrs. Wheeler lounging poolside, making eyes at Billy?

I'm sorry, but that's a big bucket of NOPE. Dacre Montgomery may be 24 (and smokin' hot), but his character is supposed to be a recent high school graduate. It might have been funny and understandable when Mrs. Wheeler, fresh from reading a romance novel in the tub, got flustered by Billy's unexpected presence at her door, but hinting that something might actually happen between the two of them?


And then I kept seeing/hearing the word "bigger" being used to describe the new season. Bigger budget, bigger monsters, bigger romances, bigger bromances. That word "bigger" worried me, too. Here's why:

We've all seen shows that start off solid and well-written suddenly lose sight of what made them special when their popularity explodes. I didn't care about "bigger," and I didn't want that to be what the Duffer brothers cared about either. I started to fear that the things I loved about the show, the heart-melting relationships and the stories that had formed so organically in seasons one and two, would be played up to the point of being silly and played out.

The anticipation was terrible. It was like having a huge crush on someone, being in that stage when they're so perfect, and just knowing that it can't be long until the flaws rear their ugly heads.

So did they? Well.

Yes and no.

Let me say this first about Season 3: On the whole, I loved it. I laughed, I cried, I swooned, I gasped. I binged the whole damn thing in a day, even though I had a massive headache by episode five.

Here's what I loved: 

- Mike and Eleven
These two. They have owned my heart since the moment El asked Mike if he'd be like her brother and Mike said hell to the no and kissed her. That's paraphrasing, obviously, but I drove an hour in  traffic with a full bladder and a hungry five-year old just to get a glimpse of the room where that moment happened, so that should tell you how hard I ship them.

*More pics from my stalking of Stranger Things sites at the end of this post*

Finally getting to watch these two together and happy, even if it was only briefly, was everything. And wow, did they step up their kissing game.

- Lucas
Lucas has to be the most underrated member of the party. He consistently cracked me up in seasons 1 and 2, and season 3 was no different. Watching him bumble his way through his relationship with Max was gold, even if Max herself is not on my list of favorites. More on that later.

 - Hopper putting Mike in his place
I know a lot of people had a problem with Hopper's rage this season, and I'm one of them. I'll talk more about that in a minute, but how anyone doesn't think Mike wasn't a disrespectful little shit to Hopper in the opening episodes is beyond me. Teenage me would've been scared shitless of a big, loud, gun-carrying cop like Chief Hopper, but Mike flat-out mocks him when he's making a legit effort to speak calmly. And whispering in El's ear and laughing while Hopper is talking? Oh man did the parent in me want to smack him. So I admit, I very much enjoyed watching Hop explode once he lured Mike away from El. And the fact that he also referred to her as his daughter for the first time? Yes, I burst into tears.

 -Mrs. Wheeler backing out on Billy
For obvious reasons that I've already covered. Thank God they let this one die.

- Mr. Clarke
I freaking love Randy Havens as Mr. Clark. I hope they find a reason for him to open a curiosity door in every season, no matter how ridiculous it may be.

- Will's Heartbreak
It's not that I loved poor Will being tortured by the emotional abandonment from his friends, but I absolutely loved the believability of it. Noah Schnapp is so talented, and his portrayal of Will feeling lost and not being ready to grow up really struck a chord in me. I remember the pain of growing apart from friends, watching them become something I didn't recognize, and I thought this aspect of the story was done so well. If you're not crying when he's hugging Lucas in the finale, then congratulations, you have a heart of stone.

- The Scoops Troop
Maya Hawke is an A+ addition to the cast. Funny, witty, smart, taking none of Steve's shit. And Erica as a closet brainiac and queen of fearless sass is pure joy to watch, minus the rather unbelievable capitalism speech. The Steve/Robin truth serum scenes were hilarious, and the fact that Steve responded to Robin confessing her crush on a girl by telling her said girl wasn't nearly good enough for her just made me love Steve even more. The four of them together were so much fun, even if I had a very had time believing that any of them would've actually escaped this season alive, for reasons I'll get to shortly.

Dacre Montgomery performing his ass off as flayed Billy
Seriously, this man was a master class in acting this season. Watching Billy get taken over by the mind flayer was chilling, and unexpectedly heartbreaking.

I *hated* Billy in season 2, and I didn't think I'd care if such an inherent dickface got fed to a demogorgon. But then Eleven reminds him of who he was BEFORE the dickface, and years of anger melt off him right before our eyes. We see a tiny glimpse of the Billy underneath it all, and then he stands up and sacrifices himself to the mind flayer in Eleven's place. It was the redemption we all deserved, and yes, I cried. The impact was made even more powerful by some of Dacre's recent posts on Instagram, about his struggles as an actor. I respect and admire him all the more for it. Rest in peace, Billy.

- Mike accidentally admitting he's in love with Eleven
I'm sorry, I have to come back to Mike here. He is just so good to El, always looking out for her, defending her, protecting her. I fully agreed with what he said about the others treating her like a machine, because it's always been a personal theory of mine that because she bleeds and sometimes collapses when she uses her powers, maybe they're somehow damaging her. It seems so odd to me that he's the only one fearful of how situations affect her, or at least the only one who vocalizes it. And when he says "I love her" in the middle of one of those vocalizations and his expression immediately turns to "Oh shit," it's just the most adorable, priceless, classically Mike moment, and I could watch it on repeat.

- The Neverending Story Interlude
I know a lot of people had a problem with this sequence, but oh my God, I am so not one of them. I LOVED it. Erica's face when Dustin started singing was the best thing ever, and it was the perfect reprieve from the nail-biting intensity of episode 8. It made my heart soar. It reminded me of a song and a movie I'd almost forgotten, but never will again. And yes, things might've turned out very differently if this moment hadn't happened, but nevertheless, I am so glad it did.

And now for the things I was not so excited about....

Here's what I didn't love:

- Eleven getting a whole new wardrobe with no mention of how she paid for it
Yes, the mall sequence with Max and Eleven was cute. But how does a girl who's been squirreled away in a cabin for two years and never had a job buy herself a whole new wardrobe, PLUS get glamour shots done? And if Max paid, where did *she* get the money? None of them work. It's a small detail, but there are SO many inconsistencies like this in season 3, and viewers are just expected to forgive them. But here's the thing: we're already willingly suspending our disbelief for the big stuff. When the little details don't add up, it's irritating. And even kind of insulting. If I've already agreed to believe that a bunch of rats can explode and meld together to form a giant monster, please don't also ask me to believe that clothes were free in 1985.

And yet, your girlfriend just got a whole new wardrobe

-Mike's and Will's Hair
The 80's may be famous for bad hair, but how does anyone look at Finn Wolfhard's beautiful curls and think, "Eh, let's turn it into a toadstool?" And I'm sorry but Noah's wig was just cruel and unusual punishment.

- Max
Before anyone throws rocks at me, I didn't hate *everything* about the El/Max friendship. I liked that Max gave El a boost in confidence and the all-important speech about there being more to life than boys. But speaking of boys.... does she even like Lucas anymore? Because it was kind of hard to tell. She spends most of her time annoyed with him and we learn that she's dumped him FIVE times since they got together at the end of season 2. I'm pretty sure if I was being serial-dumped by someone, I'd tell them to take a hike, especially if I knew they were calling me stupid behind my back every five minutes. But even that didn't bother me as much as when she accused Mike of being possessive and controlling for worrying that El might get brain damage by overusing her powers. Max said brain damage wasn't a real thing, that Mike was making it up, which, what? Brain damage had definitely been identified as a real thing in the 80's, so she was either being very ignorant or very mean, or maybe a little of both. I know she was trying to be a champion for El's independence, but a lot of the time she came across as a know-it-all, and it really bugged me.

- Ragey Hopper
Part of the appeal of Hopper's character is his flaws. His life fell apart with the death of his daughter and he struggled with addiction and anger. He gets scared, he blows up, he realizes he's gone too far, and then the tough guy facade crumbles and he comes through with a heartfelt apology. At least that's been the pattern before now. In season three, the anger never quite seemed to ebb, and he spent so much of the season yelling at Joyce that I kind of wanted to slap him on her behalf.

JOYCE! He's firing a machine gun at us! But
don't worry, not one bullet will hit us!
I was really hoping to see more of the father/daughter relationship with Hopper and Eleven in season 3, but he wastes all their time together hating on Mike. Yes, he more than redeems himself in the end with that devastating final look at Joyce and the letter to El that ripped my heart to shreds, but if Perpetually Angry Hopper was supposed to be funny, I wasn't laughing.

- Joyce going slapstick
To be clear, I am team Joyce 4eva. But season 3 Joyce was a shadow of the fierce, take-no-shit Joyce from seasons one and two. I fully understand that her obsession with her magnets losing their magnetism stemmed from a fear that Hawkins lab was once again up to no good. I get it. But having her pore over library books and then show up unannounced at Mr. Clarke's house for a tutorial was silly at best, even if I screamed with glee at Randy Havens' cameo.

My magnets are falling off my fridge, but my lipstick stays
in place the entire season!
I admit, it was nice to see her slightly less frazzled, and there were definitely moments when she had me laughing, but something was missing this season. Winona Ryder shines as mama bear, a role she didn't really get to play when the adults were separated from their kids for most of the episodes. Which leads me to my next point...

Why does no one except Joyce know/care where their kids are?
Erica in the Russian bunker was hilarious, yes. Supposedly her parents thought she was sleeping at her friend Tina's house, and she mentioned the ass-whooping that awaited her and the others if she wasn't back in time for Uncle Jack's party... which she wasn't.

So why was no one looking for her? Or Lucas, for that matter? Even when Joyce found Mrs. Wheeler at the carnival and asked where the kids were, Karen didn't have a clue. And I know that parenting was far less helicopter-ish in the 80's, but these people live in a town where a child went missing and had his death faked by the same government lab that raided their middle school. You'd think the 'rents would keep closer tabs, but apparently it's all water under the bridge? Come on now.

- Speaking of Russian bunkers... HOW WERE THERE NO SECURITY CAMERAS?
Let me get this straight. The Russians built their lair beneath the Starcourt mall. They access it via a loading dock that doubles as a secret elevator, and is guarded by hulking men with automatic weapons. Said lair is outfitted with top-of-the-line technology in order to open a portal to another dimension, but the one expense the Russians spared was... security cameras? Because how else does the Scoops Troop wander the halls for - as Erica says - THREE HOURS without being spotted? They should've been captured and killed in minutes, but I guess we were supposed to be so wowed by the bunker itself as to not care about this detail? Well, I cared.

Some Russian bunker sub-points that also annoyed me:
 - Robin taught herself Russian in a day using nothing but a paperback dictionary and Dustin's Cerebro recording. She then cracked their top-secret code in a matter of minutes. I don't care if she claims her ears are geniuses, I don't buy this for a second. 

Plus I can spend the night in a Russian
bunker, puke my guts up, and, like Joyce,
never have my lipstick come off
- Steve figured out that the Russian communication... which originated in the bunker BELOW ground... came from inside the Starcourt mall when he recognized the music from the Indiana Flyer horse.... which was inside the mall, above ground. Anyone else confused as to how the music traveled all that way?

- Hopper mowed down three Russian guards with a machine gun - A MACHINE GUN. And not only did no one hear/see it, but he, Joyce, and Murray then took the dead guys' uniforms and WORE THEM, even though they should've been soaked with blood and guts. But somehow weren't?

- Erica got involved because she was the only one small enough to fit in the vents. So how did Murray manage to maneuver through them so easily? Different points of entry, yes, but weren't they still the same vents?

Last but not least....
- Eleven losing everything
Not cool, Duffer brothers. You did my girl so, so dirty this season. You took away her powers, her dad, and the only home she's ever known.

Is that really the mind flayer flashing across her forehead??

If season 4 doesn't give this sweet child back everything she lost, and I do mean EVERYTHING (Hopper is not dead, DO NOT TELL ME OTHERWISE), I will boycott everything you ever do. Pettiness is my superpower and there is no compromise.

In conclusion, I really did enjoy season 3. Everything I loved about seasons 1 and 2 was still there, even if a little muddled by attempts at "bigger" that didn't always hit the mark. I just hope that the Duffer brothers realize that bigger isn't always better, and worry more about consistency than flash in season 4. The incredible cast and the relationships between the characters are truly what make this show shine, and I will tune in forever as long as that light exists.

Feel free to share your thoughts on Stranger Things in the comments, or on Twitter (gmc511) and Instagram (gmciocca)

Meanwhile, here are the pics from my and my son's summer outings to a few ST filming sites:

Starcourt Mall
This is in Duluth, GA about 30 minutes from my house. We visited twice, once in June and once in August, both times spur-of-the-moment. The first time we walked in as another production was being filmed for Netflix, a movie called Holidate that stars Emma Roberts. The whole mall was decorated for Christmas, and there were extras in winter clothes, despite it being 90 degrees outside and at least 500 degrees inside the mall.

Unfortunately, the Starcourt set was behind partitions and had guards stationed at each end who wouldn't let us stop and stare, let alone take photos. So even though I had a great view of the mall through the gaps in the barriers, these were the best pictures I could get of the interior:
(Damn right, we brought our Eleven doll)

That first picture of my son was taken inside the Beauty Master Store, which can be seen here (top pic is mine, bottom pic courtesy of Finn Wolfhard's Instagram:

The second time we visited, accordion doors still separated the Starcourt set from the Beauty Master store. But the view was no longer obstructed, and we could see they'd removed all the 80's storefronts and the collapsed pillars that had been there the first time:

Pics on the right are mine, pics on the left are screen shots from You Tube
The Wheeler/Sinclair Houses
The next site we crossed off our list was the neighborhood where Mike and Lucas live. These are real homes, occupied by real families, so even though it was a quiet neighborhood that would've been perfect for a walk with my son, I didn't want to linger. I did get these pics of the Wheeler house and the Sinclair house, though:

Hawkins Middle School
Our last visit was to Hawkins Middle School, and despite hitting the worst traffic I've ever encountered and thereby having to make an unplanned pit stop, I think this one was my favorite. We were able to walk the grounds and see the spot where the boys spied on Max, the gym where the Snow Ball was held, and the room where Mike and El kissed for the first time (from the outside).

(Top pic is a screen shot from ST, bottom pic is mine)