The best book I have ever read in my life was given to me as a beta read by a woman I will call The Big Sister. We are going to go a ways around in order to get to her, but I need to focus you on this woman. And the way her book was a shining beacon of hope to me. And how no matter how magnificent this book was, it and books like it are doomed from the start.
The Big Sister got all of us together in the bar at the hotel where the workshop was held in 2008. She was fun but stayed close to a woman she had come with. They were never parted, and though I will never forget The Big Sister, I cannot for the life of me remember the woman she traveled with.
We all got to the bar and it was not even kind of awkward. We dropped into each other as if we had known each other all our lives. See, we all had this one thing in common. All of us had fought with a manuscript, we had hammered at it, struggled with it, and finally found some peace with the story. And once you have done that, you can usually find a friend in another who has done the same thing.
First one I met was The Goth. She was writing a supernatural romance. I had never heard the name of the genre but was instantly aware of what she was talking about. She had a ghost lover and a vampiric lover in her book, and unlike many others of us, she had printed out postcards.
Her book cover was on the card along with her name and contact information. I was shocked to find a writer at this workshop so far into her game. She had bookmarks I think, and a few business cards, but she was a bit quiet and had to be pulled out of her haze of self-isolation to join the rest of us. Shadow was still in charge at the time. Had not been beaten and given over control to Prince yet, so he sat with her, got a bit crass with her, and asked her about her book enough for her to break free of self-doubt and bubble up a bit.
We were greeted with The Matron, and when Shadow first saw her, he decided he would hate her. She seemed to be the very image of a nemesis with her perfect hair, her perfect makeup, and her perfect outfit. She carried a very expensive leather briefcase, the kind with the logo out front so everyone knows how much she paid for it, and she smiled in what Shadow thought was a very practiced way.
He walked up to meet her and she smiled at him. He almost introduced himself but she held a finger up to him. “It’s been a bitch of a chore getting here and I want to hear your name after I get my fist around a beer.”
Shadow stared at her and she motioned him forward. “I’m buying.”
He got an MGD.
She ordered a Guinness. The bartender poured it out, thick, black, and frothy, and she downed it to half in one chug.
Shadow laughed. “I’m Jesse Teller,” he said. “We are going to be friends.”
“I hope so,” she said. “I need as many as I can get at this thing. I’m so nervous I almost shit myself before I got here.”
Yeah, The Matron and Shadow were going to be just fine.
The Crystal Pistol was not drinking. A few other writers showed up and laughed and drank. I had my MGD gone before I heard, “Where is Jesse Teller?”
In walked The Roller Derby Queen, but as I went to talk to her, I saw The Big Sister swing her gaze over to me and smile.
Four days and the bar has changed its atmosphere. This is no longer a place of hope and joy. Now this room is for broken souls to be put back together. There was a way this was done.
First breakfast and class. After about three hours of class, lunch then a two-hour break for socializing and meeting with editors. Then class, dinner, and a short class again before we are out at about eight to do as we wish.
After lunch if you didn’t have a meeting, or need a break to gasp and panic in your room, you came to the bar to wait for the broken. The Matron set herself up with her impeccable smile and her briefcase, and I sat with her and we waited for a broken writer to join us.
This is where we heard things like: “They just don’t see my genius.” Or, “He is just jealous of my talent.” Or my favorite, “Fuck that guy. I can’t wait for his business to fail so he can go broke and die in the street.”
Okay, that last one I only heard once, but Prince listened to all these comments and began to see through them. First, if you are a genius, then you will find a way to show it to the world. If you are not a genius, then work on your vision and you can get it out there. The second one about the jealousy played with him for a minute before he tossed it away. He never said as much, but it just didn’t make sense to him. This guy makes a living putting good books out into the world. He makes money off of brilliant people and has come to this event and things like this for the express purpose of signing geniuses. If we were as good as we thought we were, then we would have been picked up.
Jealousy is no excuse viable for why your manuscript did not get picked up. They want to make money. And turning away perfect pieces of fiction will not do that for them.
So The Matron and I put people back together again and they walked off for the bar to either join us or grieve. They had to get it all together because in a few hours we were back at it.
I met with an editor who told me they were all talking about me in the car on the way into Chicago.
“What?” Prince asked.
“We all car pooled from Springfield, and while we were in the car we read the five pages we had all been given out loud. Your five pages shut the car down. We all were kind of shaken by them and we stopped at a gas station to get it together. Listen, if the agent doesn’t like it, then it needs work. If the piece needs work, then do the work. This is a good piece. We, none of us, have seen much of it, but listen, do not give up on this. Get back to work. Don’t walk away.”
So I came back to the bar and The Matron sat waiting. She handed me a beer and a sad face and said, “Go ahead. Rage at us.”
There were about four other people with chairs pulled up to the table and I looked at The Matron and said, “Well he told me that in the car pool on the way here they had to pull over and regroup after they read my pages out loud. Said it was pretty shocking.”
“Those fuckers,” a guy said.
“No, in a good way,” Prince said.
“That’s it. God dammit, give me the pages,” The Matron said.
She seemed pissed and Prince didn’t know how to deal with it.
“The pages, I want to read them. We have been hearing about them all week and it’s about fucking time I see them for myself.”
I handed her the first five pages the guy had just given me and she read them. The whole of the table sat hushed, then she slapped them down and looked across the table at me.
“You’re a sick bitch,” she said. “This is alarming.” She shook her head. “It’s good, but alarming.”
“Yeah well, my first five pages might be great, but the rest of the book is a smeared piece of shit,” Prince said.
“You can fix shit,” The Matron said. “You have something. You may have to pound a little to get there, but you have it.”
I reached for the pages and they were snatched off the table by The Goth. She read them and her eyes got wild. “I thought I was disturbed.”
“It’s a book about a fairy, guys,” Prince said.
“This can’t be about a fairy,” The Matron said.
“Yeah, it is.”
The pages found another set of hands. More silence, then an explosion.
One woman tried to walk by and The Matron grabbed her arm. “We are reading Jesse’s pages. Check it out.” She handed them to the passing woman.
She read one and a half pages then set it down. Smiled and walked away.
“Not for everyone, for sure,” The Matron said. “Just us sick folk.” She pointed at the woman and shook her head. “You know what I think her problem is?”
I looked at The Crystal Pistol, then The Goth and said, “No, what’s her problem?”
“She is a decent person,” The Matron said. “Probably one of the best people we will ever meet.”
“Well, we don’t need that in our life,” The Goth said.
Everyone laughed. And another set of hands grabbed the first five pages of Liefdom to read.
At the end of the workshop, The Big Sister stopped us on our way out. Bekah had brought Rayph and we needed to grab my bag and get to the car, but The Big Sister stopped us. “JT,” she said.
She had largely ignored me for the entire workshop. Said a few things to me, but mostly she had watched me from afar, if at all.
“I would really like to read your book,” she said. She waved at Rayph and made a face at him.
“You want to read my book?”
“I’ll beta read it for you if you want me to,” she said. “I need to get a look at it.”
Now beta reading a book is like reading it with a critical eye before the writer does anything official with it. I am telling you this because when she said the words, Prince had no fucking idea what she was talking about. But someone wanted to read the book and he was not going to turn them down.
“I will send you a copy if you give me your address,” Prince said. He was having a hard time keeping his eyes off of his wife, who he was finding to be quite adorable. He had so many things he wanted to do to her when he got her alone but this had to come first.
“I want you to meet my wife and son,” Prince said. He paused. Not quite remembering what Bekah’s name was.
“I’m Bekah, this is our Rayph. He is one year old.”
“My name is The Big Sister. I have to tell you, Liefdom has been the star of the week. No one can stop talking about it and theorizing about it.”
“Except the agent, he is quite done with it,” Prince said.
“That’s great!” Bekah said.
“You guys have to go and I have a plane to catch,” The Big Sister said. “I will read it when you get it to me and get back to you with my comments.”
“I appreciate it,” Prince said. He turned to Bekah. “Now let’s get you home,” he said with eager eyes.
The Big Sister read Liefdom. She told me it was great, that I was going to be big one day. She said the world sounded pretty big. Then she told me to rewrite the entire thing. It had so many problems, but I would figure them out as I went along.
Prince asked for her book and she sent it.
The Big Sister’s book was a masterpiece. But it had one huge flaw that made it unsellable. I was pretty sure no publisher would touch it and no agent would want to represent it.
The Big Sister’s book is too good. That is to say, it is too expansive. It hits too many of life’s real problems, and because of that, it cannot be categorized.
It is a drama.
At times a tragedy. The book has heavy erotic sex scenes and in other scenes talks about child abuse and child abuse survivors. This book is way too expansive and way too undefinable to make it in the traditionally published world.
That is a problem the publishing industry cannot fix. Not self-publishing, not traditional publishing. The fact is that any book that straddles so many genres doesn’t have an audience. Those who can appreciate the romance, can’t get past the child abuse overtones. Those who can deal with the drama can’t get around the erotica. The book is way too good to be ignored by the public, but so many readers cannot enjoy all of it.
It stands as the very best book I have ever read. But even if she self-published it, marketing it would be an issue.
I call her The Big Sister because every now and then she swoops in, gives me a nod. Gives me advice, and calls me JT. I call her The Big Sister because one day after a final bout with Less and shoving her out of my life, I talked about having no family in my life that I could count on except Bekah, and The Big Sister yelled over the internet, “I’ll take you in. I’ll be your family.”
And ever since then, she has been.