Sneak Peek of the next Caitlin Ross novel!

So…I kind of accidentally started working on the eighth book in the Caitlin Ross series, The Sun and the Moon. Here’s a brief excerpt to pique your interest! Remember, if you’re new to the series you have SEVEN books to catch up on before you’re ready for this one.That should get you through a major portion of your Goodreads challenge for the year! Enjoy!

(From Chapter Two)
“Timber.”
The sheriff stops to clear his throat, and now he’s positively terrified. They’re on the last-name basis of male buddies, MacDuff and Bruce to each other, seldom more. That Bruce has strayed outside the lines of their well-defined relationship means something is amiss. Still, no good comes of jumping to conclusions; it may not be personal. Perhaps Bruce needs his input on a professional matter. He has, over the years, and sometimes, then, when he has to admit things happen beyond his ken, his habitual composure cracks.
He’s lying to himself, and he knows it.
“Hank.” He grips the other’s hand, hard enough to make him wince. “What’s going on?”
“I need you to come with me, Timber. There’s been…an incident.”
The sheriff’s tone destroys hope. Images flood his brain: a car flipped, Caitlin and the bairn bleeding, dead. His throat dries at once.
“What is it? Caitlin…Sammie, are they all right? Are they—?” Alive, he wants to say, but he can’t get the word out.
“Your daughter is fine. Caitlin is….”
“WHAT?”
He’s aware that, behind his back, every head on the site has turned to look at him. With an effort, he lowers his voice.
“Tell me. Tell me now, fast.” Make the wound quick, like ripping off a bandage, so you can’t feel the pain of skin tearing.
Bruce shoves his hat up to scratch his head. “She’s had some kind of episode in the park, I guess. Hallucinating. Started screaming. Babbling about vines. Or that’s what the mom who called the ambulance said. They took her to Triangle Hospital in restraints.”
His heart sinks when he hears the word “episode;” he knows what this is. What triggered it, though? Surely She wouldn’t have had call to work a great magic in the park. It doesn’t matter; She needs him. Before Bruce finishes the last sentence, he’s halfway to the truck, pausing only at the door to ask after his child.
“And Sammie?” His voice snags on his daughter’s name.
Bruce scurries to catch up. “CPS has her for now. It’s not my jurisdiction, you know, but I knew you’d be working up here. So…look, follow me and I’ll get you to Triangle fast. Full siren all the way.”
The drive to Triangle takes forever, and he can scarce keep his mind on the road. What could have triggered one of Caitlin’s mad events? And Her alone with the wean and him not there to guide Her? Praise all gods for the kindness of strangers! But maybe not the one god. That god whose name it’s better not to speak. He doesn’t know, exactly, what it is between that god and his wife, but he’d have to be deaf, dumb, blind and stupid not to know there’s something. And he knows enough about that god to make a connection between him and Caitlin’s odd spells. Hasn’t he seen them often enough? And hasn’t he seen what the god can do with a drink or a tap of his staff?
Knowing he couldn’t have foreseen it, could not have been there, he still blames himself. Whatever comes of it is on his head, and whatever has to be done about it is his to do.

Cover Reveal: The Well Below the Valley!

Those of you who follow the Caitlin Ross Adventures have been waiting a long time for the seventh book in the series, and I have news at last! As you may know, this was an exceedingly difficult book for me to write. Over the last two years, I’ve started and stopped many times, and discarded half a dozen potential plots and tens of thousands of words. Even after I stumbled on the right plot, I had to rewrite over and over to integrate all the various elements. Now I can tell you The Well Below the Valley will be released this coming August 2nd, which is, by strange coincidence, the date the book itself begins. Let’s see what it’s about.

Six months after the birth of her daughter, Caitlin Ross’s life is in a tailspin. Still suffering from what he endured at the hands of his former lover, her husband, Timber MacDuff, has drawn away. The gods have stopped speaking, except for vague hints in bad dreams. Unwilling to face reality, Caitlin goes about her daily routine as if nothing has changed while deep inside she longs for distraction.

When the county sheriff asks for help with a puzzling situation, Caitlin believes her prayers have been answered. A rancher has drowned in the middle of a desert, and the means appear supernatural. The case is right up Caitlin’s alley, but her interest pits her against Timber, who insists getting involved is too dangerous now that she’s a mother. Neither he nor Caitlin realizes a greater danger awaits. Strange events in Gordarosa have brought the area to the attention of a group known as Shade Tracers. Mundane mortals, they’ve taken it upon themselves to protect humanity from magic—with deadly force, if necessary. One holds Caitlin responsible for a personal tragedy, and will stop at nothing to see justice done.

Past and present converge in Caitlin’s darkest adventure yet. With her own life at stake, she must journey through time to uncover the truth behind the Shade Tracer’s obsession. Success could provide the key to solving the local mystery. Failure will doom her to a life on the run, forever hunted.

Artist Matt Davis* has outdone himself with the cover for this one. I know you’ll love it as much as I do. And here it is!

well002

In case that hasn’t got you excited enough, here’s a brief excerpt.

Just then, some odd flickers from the BLM land adjacent our property caught my eye. Shading my brow with my hand, I squinted into the distance. A flash. A beat, and then another. No regular rhythm. They seemed to originate from the low hill from which we often watched the moonrise.

Some kids dicking around with a mirror. BLM land was public property, and this section lay convenient to town. Bored local teens partied there. Timber and I combed the ground a couple of times a month, picking up the trash they left behind.

I bent to retrieve my basket. As I straightened, the light flashed again, this time with a distinctive quality hard to define. Less like a mirror. More like a flame. I’d just settled on the difference when something whizzed past my left ear, and a cluster of berries fell off the rowan tree at the center of the garden. A split second later, a sharp CRACK! rang through the air.

My jaw dropped. What the hell? I lifted my eyes from the rowan berries to the hilltop in time to see the light flash again. At the same time, panicked voice shouted not three feet behind me.

“Jesus Christ, Caitlin! Get DOWN!”

A heavy object struck my back, knocking me to the ground. My basket flew from my hand, spilling my harvest. I hit the earth with a shock that drove the wind from my lungs. An I lay there, cheek in damp soil, the intense, green scent of bruised tomato vines clogged my nose. A foot from my head, a pepper plant exploded. CRACK! Understanding washed over me, and I began to shake.

Someone was shooting at me.

Who’s shooting at Caitlin and why? And who may her mysterious savior be? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

*For more information on Matt Davis’s work, follow @GreyDevil13 on Twitter, or contact him at rockandhillstudio@gmail.com.

10 Novels that Informed my Paganism

Yesterday I stumbled across this post on Patheos. For those of my readers who don’t click links, it’s the first part of a list of 22 books that, according to the author, have influenced and defined Modern Paganism (Part 2 hasn’t been posted as of this writing). Having read all but one of the books included in this installment, I think it’s an interesting list so far. But it doesn’t resonate with me or my experience, so I decided to do a list of my own.

The following are books I discovered as a young reader (under the age of 25). Only one is specifically Pagan-centric. Mostly, they slip their Pagan themes into the margins and between sentences–in my opinion, a liminal space highly appropriate for such things–where they contribute to the way the authors constructed their worlds. It’s only later, reading as an adult Witch, that I look at what I absorbed, and laugh, and think, “Well, no wonder I turned out the way I did!” I recommend all of them highly, and I hope if you’re interested, you’ll check a few out, no matter what your religious bent.

In no particular order:

earthseaThe Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is the first of LeGuin’s books I ever read. I loved Fantasy and Mythology from an exceptionally young age and eagerly consumed all I could get my hands on. Earthsea had everything: Magic, a school for Wizards, Dragons, and numerous quests. It hooked me from the first page.

From the very beginning, the trilogy serves up a substantial helping of philosophy along with its engaging plot. The magical system is all about balance; in fact, this site’s header, “To Light a Candle is to Cast a Shadow” is a direct quote. The wizards can’t simply do anything they like. Taking energy from one place removes it from another, and every act has consequences. The protagonist learns this to his sorrow when he works a spell out of ego and unleashes a horror. This was my first introduction to the concepts of Karma and the Shadow Self, as well as the idea that sometimes the better part of wisdom for people of power lies in acceptance rather than action. Another bonus is that the main races populating Earthsea are Black and Brown people, although this is rarely shown on the books’ covers and never, to my knowledge, in any of the film productions of the novels.

facesTill We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

My 8th grade English teacher recommended this book to me to keep me busy when everyone else was working on a grammar program I’d already finished. It’s a retelling of the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, which has its reflection in many fairy tales, and it’s the first book I ever read that turned a familiar story inside out by telling it from a different point of view. In this case, the point of view is that of the usual antagonist, Orual, the ugly sister of the beautiful Psyche.

Till We Have Faces has a lot to say about the nature of the gods and the nature of knowledge and responsibility. It shows that everyone has a story and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard without flinching from the truth that individual stories can and do come into conflict. It also addresses the harm conventional ideas about beauty does to women, the tragedy that can result when people treat others as possessions, and the need to open one’s heart to both love and grief in order to gain true wisdom.

ExcaliburExcalibur by Sanders Ann Laubenthal

I read this book about the same time I read the previous two. It’s a marvelous adaptation of the Grail Quest to contemporary Mobile, Alabama, which contains elements of Gothic novels as well as Fantasy. Working with both the historical idea that Iron Age Welshmen “discovered” the New World and concepts of reincarnation, it reexamines the definitions of betrayal and redemption. It also has a large number of kick-ass woman characters, which was quite unusual for a book of its time. One of them is an eccentric aunt who lives in a castle and wears medieval garb on a daily basis because she feels like it. I wanted to be her.

This is the first book I read where active magic and Tarot cards played a major role, and I can say without a doubt that it led to my becoming a Tarot reader.

princessThe Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

George MacDonald was one of the predecessors of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, a Scottish Presbyterian minister and professor who was once driven out of his kirk for heretical ideas–or so the story goes. His original fairy tales are some of my favorites. This children’s book starts out in a familiar way with a naughty princess climbing a mysterious stairway, and proceeds immediately to turn every story of the type on its head. Princess Irene meets her “grandmother,” a virtually immortal woman who, with her spinning wheel and “moon lamp,” as well as a tendency to be young or old as it suits her, is a clear stand-in for the Triple Goddess. She sets Irene on a quest which will have repercussions for everyone around her and end a threat no one will talk about.

I love this book because it makes an eight-year-old girl the hero of her own story and shows that girls are brave, steadfast, and capable in their own right. Irene doesn’t sit around waiting to be rescued; she gets dirty and does the work even when the people around her don’t believe in her.

curdieThe Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

I didn’t initially like this book as much as I liked its predecessor, but I found a beautifully illustrated edition in the library book sale and read it for the pictures. It follows about a year after The Princess and the Goblin, and concerns the further adventures of Irene’s companion, the miner boy Curdie. At the beginning, things don’t look so good for him, but an encounter with the Crone in the guise of Irene’s grandmother teaches him the value of believing the impossible, and the task she sets him shows that scratching the surface of reality always reveals a deeper truth. More of a Hero’s Journey than its companion, The Princess and Curdie still features an array of important woman characters from all walks of life.

horseThe Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge is better known for her adult Gothic Romances than her children’s books, of which this is one. Set in Edwardian times, this is the story of the orphaned Maria, who’s sent to live with her eccentric uncle in a mysterious, cursed manor. Before long, she sets herself to the task of righting past wrongs and settling old grievances.

The Little White Horse features a host of amazing characters both human and animal, as well as a plot full of puzzles and magic. It’s gender balanced, with a thirteen-year-old female protagonist and many supporting woman characters. One of the things I like best about it is that, although there is a prophecy involved, Maria grasps her fate with both hands. She does what she does because it’s the right thing and because she wants to, out of love, not to fulfill some cosmic destiny.

valeriansLinnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

Linnets and Valerians shares a lot of themes with The Little White Horse, but it’s geared towards a younger audience. Once again we see the young protagonists–four brothers and sisters this time–abandon the conventional for the magical in the form of an eccentric uncle in a manor house with an equally eccentric staff. And once again, there’s an old wrong to be righted and dark magic to confront.

Both this book and the previous show how getting away from societal norms and opening the mind to magical thinking, as well as connecting with nature, can lead to changes no one ever expected. They do share a flaw, which is the trope of the “magical disabled person,” so if you read them or recommend them to children, this is something you might want to bear in mind. Since they were written in the 40s, I don’t mind it as much as I might in a contemporary work.

moonheartMoonheart by Charles DeLint

This is the breakout novel from the virtual inventor of Urban Fantasy. There are books of his that I like better, with themes that resonate more closely, but this was the first DeLint I read. Set in contemporary Canada, it explores the way lives are connected over time and the consequences of unintended action. It’s chock full of both Celtic and Native American mythology. (The latter is a bit appropriative by today’s standards, unfortunately.) One of the things that I love about it is the way it shows music and other acts of creation as magical in and of themselves. Most of the characters don’t have any special powers; they’re just ordinary folks in extraordinary situations. Along the way, they learn banding together and supporting each other is the best way to create the world they want to live in.

the king must dieThe King Must Die by Mary Renault

This retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of my favorite books of all time. Mary Renault was exceptionally skilled at tackling old stories from a sideways slant that both made logical sense and gave them new life. Here, she’s infused the Hero’s Journey with humanity and perspective to explore the nature of sacrifice and the power of consent.

One of the things that makes this book important from a Witchy perspective is the way it deals with the conflict between Matriarchal, earth-centered traditions and Patriarchal ones, showing the flaws in both systems. You can root for the hero at the same time as you cringe at some of his decisions. It teaches the importance of valuing people of all genders for themselves and not dismissing the identity of any.

avalonThe Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Since the revelations of Marion Zimmer Bradley as a perpetrator of and apologist for child sexual abuse, this book has become a controversial inclusion in any list. It’s still the book most responsible for my identifying as Pagan and claiming the word Witch. To my memory, it was the very first novel that took a male-centered mythology, in this case the Matter of Britain, and retold it from the points of view of the women involved. It was the very first book I read that came out and said “God is a woman, too, and women can be powerful in matters of religion.” In the mid-eighties, if you asked a Pagan how they came to the path, The Mists of Avalon was almost always one of the deciding factors.  Bradley herself later dismissed Paganism as hypocritical for various reasons–e.g., she thought a “fertility religion” had no business taking a pro-choice stance. But there’s no doubt she wrote a powerful paean to woman-centered spirituality here.

That’s my list. I hope you’ll check out some of the titles. Happy reading!

 

NaNoWriMo Wrap-Up

If you follow me on social media, you already know I participated in #NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. I swear I thought I had written a blog about my decision to do this, but I looks like I didn’t. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo (or just “NaNo”) stands for “National Novel Writing Month.” It’s an event that falls every November, not just in the US but around the world, in which participants set a goal to write 50,000 words over the course of the month (50K being the minimum length for a book qualifying as a novel). People don’t always stick to the novel idea. Some write essays, or poetry, or short stories–whatever takes their fancy. The only stipulation for “winning” is that one write 50K words of whatever.

Short story:

Print

I hit 50K last Friday. For me, this word count doesn’t represent a finished novel. At the moment, it looks like this is going to be a shorter work, more along the lines of She Moved Through the Fair than A Maid in Bedlam. So I have maybe 30K more to write to round out the plot. But okay: I did it.

As I said, I’ve never participated before. I don’t think the reasons for this are important. I went back and forth about participating this year, and eventually elected to do it because my writing process needed a boost. I’d spent over a year muddling around with book 7 of the Caitlin Ross series, tossing plot after unworkable plot. All of them stalled out at about 25K; I got bored, or the book didn’t move, or some weird shit took control that detracted from the story. I think it’s possible that any of those stories could have been made to work with time and effort, and I’ve kept a lot of my notes. But I’m not good at making progress when I feel like I’m dragging a ton of bullshit behind me. Even though my brain said, “Just get through it and fix it in edits,” and even though a couple times I asked for outside (meaning not my husband) opinions and heard “It’s fine!” I couldn’t follow through. I kept going back to the beginning, over and over again, fiddling with the opening chapters and trying to pull them into some kind of shape that excited me. After doing this a number of times, I got lazy. I hate using that word–it has triggering connotations for me–but it applies. I used any excuse at all NOT to write: “Oh, I’m just not in the space,” or “I kind of don’t feel well,” or “I have to wash my hair.” And while I’d like to emphasize that ANY of these is a valid reason not to write and no creative person is obligated to be creative at any time, I recognized that, for me in this situation, they weren’t doing me any favors.

So I started over with NaNo, and I got through. The last few weeks of October I took some time to noodle around and rediscover my protagonist’s voice, which I’d lost. I found a plot I felt more passionate about (“more” being the key word here; my ability to feel passion for anything remains lower than I’d like). I wrote every day, even when I had a minor headache, even if it wasn’t any more than a couple hundred words. I passed the 25K disaster mark and went on. I relearned how to let the story unfold and how to keep out of my characters’ way. I stifled the urges to prove my worthiness through promoting a political agenda and write a bunch of tripe that served little purpose but to show I’d done my research on things I haven’t personally experienced.

What kept me going more than anything was the event website (and I hope next year, if I participate again, they have an app, because really). In the same way Weight Watchers has hooked me in the past with its charts and tracking widgets, NaNo hooked me with the ability to earn badges and chart my progress. I liked updating my word count every day. I liked posting my running totals to the Twitter hashtag. I have a more competitive nature than I like to own, and the website helped me compete with myself and push past all the little foibles that I’ve allowed to stand in my way.

I didn’t feel a lot of community support, but I think that’s mostly about the way I work. I didn’t participate in any events or frequent the forums. Trying to write in public, like at a write-in, distracts me. And when I’m working a plot, I prefer just to focus on it.

Before I started, I heard a lot about “You’ll feel so great when you hit your goal!” and “The sense of accomplishment is worth it!” I don’t feel either of those things. Some of that is because I simply don’t feel a huge amount of excitement or accomplishment about anything. When I do something, even something others think is amazing, at best I feel, “Okay, I did that.” It doesn’t seem any great cause for celebration. (And yes, this is something I’m trying to address in therapy.)

Right now, what I feel is tired. I worked on my new book every day for a month. I have a fair way to go. I’m not really looking forward to it. A few days ago, I saw a post to the Twitter tag that said (in essence), “The lesson of NaNo is not just that you can write every day one month out of the year, but that you can do it ALL THE TIME!” Um, yeah, for me not so much. As I said above, NO creative person has an obligation to be creative every day–in fact, I think the idea that we must create every day in order to justify our creative identities is harmful. I did learn that I can do more than I usually assume. And I also acknowledge that doing so takes a lot out of me and I need time to recover.

Was participating worth it? hard for me to judge, but on the whole I’d say yes. I’m closer to finishing an actual book than I’ve been in over a year. I need a day or two off, I think, but I’ll get there. Will I participate again? No idea. Depends on what’s happening this time next year.

For today, I’m resting on my laurels.

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-Square

Seven Lines

Okay, I’ll bite. There’s a Twitter game going around, #7Lines. The rules: Go to page 7 of your current WIP (page 7 of chapter 1, for those of you who, like me, start a new document for each chapter). Count down seven lines and post the NEXT seven lines (i.e., lines 8-15). Then tag seven writers to do the same.

I went a bit over, just for context. But here are seven lines from page seven of The Mist-Covered Mountain.

“What kind of trouble?”

My steps had faltered and my stomach had dropped into my toes as his words caused the past months’ vague unease suddenly to manifest. I’d prayed it never would. He’d been doing so well.

“What happened last winter…it’s preying at my mind, ken. It’s gnawing at my soul.”

I’d noticed. In the six months since our daughter’s birth, he’d grown less spontaneous, more meticulous, as if making plans and following them to the letter reassured him.

I tag Jennie Davenport, S. A. Hunt, Louise Gornall, Krisitne Wyllys, Marie Hogebrandt, Luther Siler, and Katie Bailey.

What I Learned from a Big Bookstore

Last weekend, my husband and I went to Grand Junction on errands. This is a thing we do from time to time, because we live in a small town where certain goods and services aren’t available. When we first moved here, we went “to town” at least once a month. As the years have gone by, however, we’ve become more small-townish ourselves, and the trips are much less frequent. Our tolerance for THE BIG CITY (population 60,000, more or less) has also dwindled, with the result that when we do go, we’re apt to accomplish a few of the things on our to-do list, get overwhelmed, and give up. So some of the things we used to do for recreation have fallen by the wayside.

One of the things we used to do was visit Barnes and Noble. As of last weekend, we hadn’t set foot inside in years. It was always a dicey proposition for me. I love books– considering my chosen profession, I’d better. But when I was first struggling with writing and publishing and all the self-doubt those incurred, seeing the shelves loaded with titles by authors who WEREN’T ME often caused me more anger and anxiety than anything else. Lots of reasons for this that I won’t go into here.

I’ve been in a “not-reading” phase since the beginning of the year. Most years, I read upwards of 100 books. Since January, though, I’ve had a hard time maintaining interest in anything. I read a few pages or a few chapters, and go back to Twitter. Even books I can tell are good don’t hook me. I’m not sure why this is the case; maybe the endless lure of Internet click-bait, available at the merest touch of my phone, is to blame. But it bothers me. I feel like I should be reading more. So, while we were in town, I suggested we go to Barnes and Noble, figuring that being surrounded by books might inspire me. I might stumble upon some gem of the written word that would make me want to read again.

At first, I felt hopeful. When I walked in the doors, it smelled like a bookstore: that mixture of paper, dust, and imagination no other shop can imitate. After a brief cruise through non-fiction and a stop at the restroom, I headed for the Science Fiction and Fantasy section, my natural home. And that’s when I noticed the changes.

I’m kicking myself for not taking pictures to illustrate this post. Initially, I didn’t have any intention of writing about the experience. By the time I did, I was so overwhelmed that I forgot I owned a body, much less a camera.

I couldn’t find SF/F at first, because it had shrunk from seven full rows of shelves to three, one of them dedicated to new releases. This disturbed me A LOT. Following the writers and agents I do on line, I’d seen certain types of Science Fiction and Fantasy described as “tough sells,” but I hadn’t imagined the entire genre had gone into collapse. When I started looking at the shelves, I got even more of a shock. A great many people whom I consider masters of the genre–Charles De Lint, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sherri S. Tepper, Diana Paxson, and others–didn’t appear at all. I didn’t even see any Heinlein or Asimov. Yet I didn’t see an overabundance of new names, either. Rather, the bulk of the shelf space was devoted to a few authors with high name recognition, usually from popular culture tie-ins or cross-media presence (i.e., writers of both comics and “word books”**). I’d already noticed that store offered a LOT more than it had in the way of games, toys, and collectibles, but they were doing a pop culture promotion so I figured that was why. Checking out the shelves changed my mind.

75% of the books on offer in SF/F were by men. I caught a few well-known women’s names–Robin Hobb, Mercedes Lackey, a mouldy volume of Melanie Rawn. All the women represented were writers of Fantasy. I happen to know women both read and write Science Fiction, but Barnes and Noble doesn’t seem to share this knowledge, or recognize its importance. Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison, all authors of multi-volume series, were featured. In fact, they took up three whole shelves. This was the most presence given to women authors, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Paranormal and Paranormal Romance didn’t exist as genres the last time I set foot in the store. Harris and Hamilton used to be shelved in Mystery. They didn’t belong there, not really. But in my opinion, they don’t quite belong in Fantasy, either. Paranormal has a different flavor than either High Fantasy or Urban Fantasy, and I think it needs its own section.

Beyond this, I spotted another bothersome trend: Multiple editions of the same few titles. Particularly for titles with astronomical sales, it was usual to find two or three different trade editions as well as a mass market edition, and sometimes a hardcover. Many of these titles were shelved facing cover-outward, instead of spine-outward, which would have taken less space. George R. R. Martin’s books consumed more than an entire section of shelving in this fashion. I’m a Martin fan, myself, but how many editions of A Song of Ice and Fire does a person need? Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time received similar treatment, as did Tolkien. So did several straight Science Fiction authors, Larry Correa among them.

The multiple edition trend carried over into the Fiction and Literature section, where a large proportion of books offered a movie tie-in cover edition, a “classic” look edition, and something I can only describe as a “pretentious hipster” edition, meaning a book that will look cool when you read it at the coffee shop. I don’t like this trend. Showcasing multiple editions made me wonder how many lesser-known but deserving authors are passed over in the name of assuring space for so many different covers and trim sizes of bestsellers. The thing is, casual readers already KNOW about bestsellers. They’ve heard the buzz or they’ve seen the movie. These are books that people will ask for BY NAME. If they’re browsing, it’s likely they’ll know where to look. The same doesn’t hold true for lesser-known titles and what used to be called mid-list authors. Once you could stumble on them, hidden gems in a bestseller setting. Now bestsellers, instead of supporting new and different voices, hog all the space and there’s no mid list at all.

Fiction and Literature did have a fair share of woman authors, though. On the other hand, some genres that once had their own sections, such as Thriller and Horror, were now lumped into Fiction and Literature with nothing to distinguish them, so Stephen King appeared alongside Barbara Kingsolver and both shared the section with Jane Austen and T. H. White. This makes for a confusing browsing experience, and it also emphasizes how arbitrary a lot of genre distinctions have come to be, with authors mashing up elements like Time Travel and Romance or Procedural and History. Personally I think these mash-ups are great, by the way. And I understand the complications of figuring out where to put them without resorting to an infinite number of genre sections. However, I think it would be more helpful to the casual shopper at least to differentiate between Contemporary Fiction and Classic.

Some other things I noticed: Mystery has shrunk and Folklore and Fairy Tales has disappeared. Romance still has a substantial section, and contained the largest number of woman authors. (On the other hand, I have to wonder why Nicholas Sparks novels were shelved in Fiction and Literature when I found Jodi Picoult in Romance. Do you suppose it’s indicative of anything?) Graphic novels gained a section, as did books devote to Gaming, and there was a huge selection of Manga that didn’t exist before, almost as big as Mystery and SF/F combined. Joining the ranks of things non-existent at my last visit was a YA section very nearly as big as Fiction and Literature. Once upon a time, the few YA books available were located in the Children’s section. In this case, I was glad of the change.

I noticed topical and thematic trends as well as genre. Witches are big, both in Fantasy and YA. As a religious Witch, I have a hard time with this one. While some Witchy fiction gives a nod to difference in world view, most of it focuses on the light show (Paranormal does somewhat better here). Faeries and Fae-like beings are also big, and I also have difficulty with it. I admit to my attitude being the result of arrogance; I’m an amateur folklorist and I’ve studied Faerie lore most of my life. I also believe in the Fae. So seeing them portrayed as the latest incarnation of Elves, with little, if any, attention paid to the stories both disgusts me and strikes me as rather dangerous. In fact, I picked up a novel I’d seen people on Twitter raving about and put it down immediately when I read the back cover’s description of the Faeries involved. While I’m at it, I love “fairy tale” retellings. But really, how many interpretations of “Beauty and the Beast” does one need? (No offense to friends who have published retellings of “Beauty and the Beast.”)

Except in already popular series, vampires and shifters have fallen off, as has dystopia–though the YA section still had plenty of the latter.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I noticed while I wandered the stacks was the absence of authors of color. I did see a few, like Laura Esquivel, in Fiction and Literature, where Like Water for Chocolate made a bizarre appearance on the New Titles shelf. But in YA, in SF/F, in Mystery and Romance, ALL the authors were white. No N. K Jemisin, who has been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy awards. No Octavia Butler, who is widely recognized as one of the Grande Dames of Science Fiction. No Samuel R. Delaney. From the books available, one would suppose that no People of Color ever become detectives, or have love affairs, or dream of space travel or becoming wizards. It’s unconscionable.

This is the point where I lost it and had to retreat to Starbucks for a restorative latte and croissant. The small section of the store roped off for coffee addicts was surrounded with racks displaying still more mass market copies of A Game of Thrones and a table covered with various editions of Go Tell a Watchman. Looking at Harper Lee’s novel, I thought about how unlikely it would be, in today’s publishing climate, for To Kill a Mockingbird ever to have been written. As you may have read, the classic grew out of a few pages of flashback in Watchman. A kindly editor to whom Lee had submitted the earlier work told her the real story was in that flashback and she should “rewrite” the book and resubmit. Would this happen today? I think not. People do still get R & R (rewrite and resubmit) recommendations, mainly from agents. But I have to wonder if something requiring so substantial a rewrite would ever get farther than a form rejection.

Incidentally, if I’m wrong, I’d like to hear about it (please keep it civil). From where I sit, it looks like publishing today mainly exploits trends until they no longer sell and then moves on in search of the next big thing. Wish lists for manuscripts ask for things that are different, but not TOO different, paying lip service to the desire for diverse voices while not challenging the status quo in any remarkable way. Editors in the big houses often come and go; few have the leisure to nurture potential. Books are a market, a commodity, and authors lie thick on the ground. I hear all the time, “we WANT to like your work!” But mostly this seems to me like a polite way of saying “we want to find out that your work fits into a particular, salable niche.”

As disturbing as I found my Barnes and Noble visit, I learned something important from it: I’m glad I chose to self-publish and I’m grateful for the technology that has allowed me to do so. Sometimes, when I see contacts and acquaintances posting about signing with agents or being picked up by a traditional publisher, I am envious and regretful. I wonder all the things self-published authors wonder (many of them, anyway): Was I just too impatient? Too resistant to learning the ropes? Too cantankerous? Is my work itself flawed? Do I write less well than I like to believe? And if I answer these questions in the negative, am I lying to myself?

I believe not. I believe that really, I’m too idiosyncratic a writer, with too different a world view–not to mention life experience–for the traditional publishing world to make sense for me. I might have been able to hook an agent; once I figured out how to write queries and synopses and all the rest, I got requests on a regular basis. I might even have been picked up. But if my bookstore experience is any indication, even IF those things had happened, I would have been unlikely to find my work on the shelves at a major retailer.

I absolutely don’t dismiss out of hand the value of traditional publishing. Truth is, once I get through the current Caitlin Ross book, I’m going to excuse myself from that world for a while and work on some things that I think will do better in a traditional market, because that interests me. There are a lot of advantages to it, and it works for many writers. Even so, it seems clear to me that, despite its problems, self-publishing is home to most of the innovation in the field and gives a greater welcome to diversity. That’s important to me, so I’m glad that’s where I ended up.

**”word books” coined by Greta Ladson