My SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA coming out story/review, reposted for posterity

Hi! Happy Halloween! Below, please find my review of Becky Albertalli’s SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, originally posted over three years ago on a book blog I’ve since deleted. I’d thought the review was gone, but I found it squirreled away in my computer today when sorting out old documents instead of finishing my manuscript like I should be. And since today is International, Intergalactic First Look At Love, Simon Day, I figured it’s a good time to re-share! For posterity, you know?

A few quick notes:

  1. I have no idea why I was kind of hard on this book that literally changed my life??? Like, no offense, seventeen-year-old Mark—I know I was pretty freaking emotional writing this—but what, pray tell, the hell? I gave this an A rating, not an A+? Am I serious?
  2. That said, I decided not to change any of it, even the parts that make me cringe. This is how I felt at the time, and though I now think SIMON is pretty much perfect, I’m honoring teen!Mark’s feelings.
  3. Can we just take a minute to laugh at how I called Becky, my now-good friend who I’ve since met in person and who I am currently texting as I write this, “Ms. Albertalli”? Seventeen-year-old Mark would’ve been catatonic if he’d known this review would lead to an amazing friendship with her. (I love you, Becky!)

Without further ado, here is how Becky Albertalli’s SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA radically altered my life for the better, reposted in all its glory:


Sometimes a book isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t matter because it’s real. Sometimes a book is not objectively the best thing you’ve ever read, but that doesn’t matter because subjectively it’s amazing. Sometimes a book gives you strength you didn’t know you had.

“Mark, you’re overstating this,” you say. “There’s no way this book, with its fun title and generally light plot and witty dialogue, impacted you that much.”

Let me tell you something: before I read Simon vs., I didn’t want to come out to my mom until I was in college with a job and a car and some semblance of stability and autonomy. When I finished the book two days after starting—which, incidentally, is extremely fast for me—I took a day to think, and then the next day I came out to my mom.

Why? Because this book helped me to say “So…I’m…gay…” Because this book isn’t perfect by any means, but it hit me in a spot that needed hitting. Ms. Albertalli is one hell of a writer—and, in fact, one hell of a human being—if for no other reason than because she managed to capture exactly what I felt at every part of the coming out process. (I’m still not out at school except to a select group of friends, but that’s a different matter—I don’t care about the people at my school like I care about my mom.)

So what about this book made it so amazing? The characters, really. Simon is scared, but he is not confused. He knows who he is and what he wants, and he’s unashamed about being gay without it being the only part of his personality. When I was about thirty pages into the eARC I got, I actually tweeted Dahlia Adler (@MissDahlELama), saying the following:

I try not to judge books too hard either way when I’ve only just started, and as a general rule, I do not discuss them in a public forum until I’ve finished and have my feelings in order. (What if my opinion changes halfway through? What if the book becomes problematic? etc.) But something about Simon made me sit up and say, “You know what, that is spot on.” And it remained that way throughout the entire book—I was in awe of how Ms. Albertalli, herself not a gay boy in high school, could capture the things I experience with such perfect precision.

Four days later, I tweeted this:

I’d love to say “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda gave me the strength to come out to my mom,” but it didn’t. I gave me the strength to come out to my mom. But Simon and Blue and their story and their world gave me the foundation to stand on, and I’ll always, always be grateful for that.

The one thing I could think of to critique about this book—the one reason I gave it an A, not an A+—is that I knew who Blue was almost immediately. If you’re paying attention, you should be able to figure it out too, but by no means did this curb my love for Simon vs. The wonderful thing, the thing that is a testament to Ms. Albertalli’s ability, is that knowing Blue’s identity didn’t matter. It didn’t make me love the book any less.

(Also, Blue’s identity isn’t the point of the book—at least not in my view. Granted, Simon’s main goal throughout the story is to find the boy behind the email, but if you go into this book searching for clues as to who Blue is, you’ll miss all the amazing parts.)

So would I recommend Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda? Yes, yes, yes. To LGBTQ kids especially, but also to their friends, their family. People curious about the inner workings of a queer kid’s brain. People who think they don’t know any queer people. Simon’s story is not a masterpiece, but it feels like it was painted just for me, and that makes it damn near perfect in my eyes.

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Stuff & things 3: the one with the things

This is an updates post, which is different from a News post because News posts are capitalized, but it’s still got quality content about my life and books and stuff. Also, things! If you’re curious, you can read more stuff & things posts by clicking “Updates” to the left of this post’s title.


Interning

Hi. I got another internship! I love working at Entangled and I’m excited to continue doing so, but I wanted to expand a bit—and interning for an agency seemed the perfect way to do just that. Even better, it’s an agency I adore: Stonesong!

The original plan was to stay in Jersey City with friends, but since I go in the office about once a week, I’ve been making trips to NYC from home via Greyhound. (The station is two blocks from the office, thankfully.) I love everything about my new internship—the agents I work with are fantastic, warm, hilarious people who got me bagels so really we’re friends for life.

Also, they’re super smart and excellent agents, but. BAGELS.

Editing

Did you know I offer sensitivity reading? I offer sensitivity reading! Check my editorial services page here for pricing and all sorts of goodies.

I’m booked solid on both sensitivity reading and editing clients through October—genuinely thrilled and humbled to get to work on so many promising projects! If you want edits back to you by early November, it’s best to book now. Freelance editors generally prefer you book our services a few weeks (or even months) in advance.

Also, in exciting news: Rachel Davidson Leigh, one of my first clients, has her debut up for preorder! Get a signed copy of HOLD and support an indie bookstore here! Or order on Amazon. That is also an option. (Notice the shift in punctuation as we go from indie to Amazon.)

Life

Friends. Friends. I got a cat.

A cousin I’d never met before (my family is partially Italian, which roughly translated means “supermassive”) had a baby and couldn’t give the kitty the attention she deserved, so we adopted her. Her name is Monroe, she’s one and a half years old, and she likes shoelaces, wires, those light pointer things, and being rambunctious.

Reading

I’ve only read a few published books/ARCs since we last talked since I’ve been buried in manuscripts, but here they are:

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson is a lot of fun—a bit darker than I’d anticipated, but such a fun take on heroes and villains and sharks! For fans of V.E. Schwab’s Vicious who like graphic novels. (This was actually one of my first graphic novels and now I’m itching to read more, so if you have recs, please leave a comment!)

Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa is one of those quiet contemporaries we often don’t hear much about outside of Quiet YA Roundups, which is a shame because it’s gorgeous. Lovely, layered writing; real, vibrant characters; teen angst galore. I really liked this—my agent suggested it to me since she felt there were some similarities between it and The Artwork Formerly Known As SWEETEST DOWNFALL, and I’m glad I picked it up.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: I GET IT, YOU ALL TOLD ME. Still, you could’ve told me MORE. (I loved this to pieces. Highly recommend the audiobook! Just got Crooked Kingdom in audio form like ten minutes ago and now I’m rushing a bit to finish this blog post so I can go listen, ha.)

History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera was loaned to me and I FREAKING LOVE IT SO MUCH. Preorder. IMMEDIATELY. It’s hopeful and heartbreaking and lyrical and I want to live in the worlds Adam creates, even though I cried four times at this book.

Music

New to me: Keaton Henson’s “Petrichor” (link goes to Spotify) is as beautiful as what it’s named after. I don’t normally go for instrumental music, but this is so, so my jam.

New to everyone: I don’t know what genre Tor Miller’s American English album (link goes to Spotify) is, but it’s incredible and I need someone to listen to it and talk to me about it. Try “Headlights” if you’re not sure—I am obsessed with that song.

Other stuff

Are you following me here on WordPress? I only have a handful of followers at the moment—used to have more, but then I moved this site from Blogger—and it makes my self-esteem deflate to a normal person’s level. We can’t have that. Click the follow button at the top of your screen and I’ll love you forever (and also follow you back).

That’s all, folks! Thanks for reading. Much love to you!

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My WIP minus my WIP

If you’re not familiar, Garfield Minus Garfield is one of the better things on the internet—an exploration of what Garfield comic strips are when the character of Garfield is removed. Hilarity abounds. I was thinking about it earlier, and I wanted to make a blog post—a short one—about what my WIP (retired code name: Overdue Hug; new code name: Roving Pack of Queer Teens) would be like if it weren’t a manuscript. What’s left when you take the book out of the story. Here’s what I came up with:

I’ll be awful sometimes

Weak unto my knees

But I’ll learn to get by

On little victories

from “Little Victories” by Matt Nathanson


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He let this fear sit with him, burrow into his bones, fester in his heart. It was a myth that bodies replaced their cells every seven years—stomach linings did so every few days, the skin took four weeks, the skeleton renewed every decade. Eventually almost all of them did—cell by cell you became a different person every day, every moment, every decision and indecision, never exactly the same as you were before.

But the brain didn’t change. Neurons in the cerebral cortex stayed the same, like the cells in the eyes. Chester saw fear, knew fear, from the moment he was born, torn from darkness and comfort and quiet into light and noise and color. He was afraid with the same brain he’d always had, the same eyes. The feeling had carved out a home in him.

Maybe fear was so much a part of him it couldn’t scare him anymore.

—from Roving Pack of Queer Teens


Art is not what I create. What I create is chaos.

from “Colors” (stripped) by Halsey


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Brennan arched a brow, and Chester half-convinced himself that his heart revved for totally unrelated reasons—low blood sugar and a lack of vitamin D and politicians’ alarming refusal to address global warming. Everything in the universe other than blunt-force Brennan. He waved with his fingers, impersonating a functional human being who had definitely not Facebook-stalked him.

—from Roving Pack of Queer Teens


You taught me what a life is for

To see that ordinary isn’t

from “Light Me Up” by Ingrid Michaelson


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People were “an obstacle,” as his school therapist, Ms. Leland, would’ve put it. Ms. Leland thought of life in terms of a relay race—full of hurdles and hoops to jump through, but ultimately rewarding. A test of both patience and perseverance where honesty came without a cost and love was free.

Chester thought of life as an ocean he’d fallen in the middle of. He could swim and swim and search for land and swim and stumble and swim and fill his lungs to bursting, but he’d never find a place to rest.

Rest was for people whose blood flowed because that was its job—but Chester’s heart pumped because he asked it to, beat after beat.

—from Roving Pack of Queer Teens

Donate to Fox Benwell’s Medical Transition, Get a Critique!

[UPDATED July 2: Alex Yuschik is also offering critiques—see below!]

Howdy, friends! My knightly buddy Fox Benwell (who you know from his Twitter, site, and acclaimed debut, The Last Leaves Falling) needs some help. You can—and should—read his story here, but in summary: he needs a procedure done, but the out-of-pocket costs are ridiculous for one person to bear. He’s turned to fundraising on GoFundMe with a goal of ten thousand pounds, and I super want to help get him there—Fox is the loveliest, most compassionate friend, and he deserves this.

So! This is what’s going to happen.

I’m a YA writer represented by Heather Flaherty at The Bent Agency. I’ve been chosen for Pitch Wars twice—once in 2013 with author Laura Tims as my mentor, and once in 2015 with multi-published author Helene Dunbar. I’m also an editorial intern with senior editor Kate Brauning at Entangled Publishing, working mostly with YA at Entangled Teen. I’ve been involved in contests like Beth Phelan’s #DVpit, where I worked with dozens of writers on honing their queries and pitches. In short, I know my stuff, and if you donate to Fox’s GoFundMe, I’m going to help you with your stuff. I only ask that your work be middle grade or older in age category. That’s the only restriction I’m placing on this offer right now, and that’s only because I’m not super familiar with picture books, early readers, or chapter books. Any genre will be accepted.

Anyway, here are the goodies:

If you click here and donate £5 (or, for us Americans, $6.64), I will critique your query letter OR your first five pages, your choice. Email proof of donation (screenshot, link to your donation on Fox’s GoFundMe, whatever) to markobrienbooks at gmail dot com along with your query pasted in the body of the email or the pages attached in .doc or .docx.

If you click here and donate £10 (or, for us Americans, $13.27), I will critique your query letter AND your first five pages. Same instructions as above, but please include both.

If you click here and donate £15 (or, for us Americans, $19.91), I will critique your query letter AND your first ten pages. Same instructions as above.

If you click here and donate £25 (or, for us Americans, $33.18), I will critique your query letter AND your first twenty-five pages AND I will do another round with you. This means you’ll have as much time as you’d like to implement my initial edits, and I’ll provide the same level of feedback on your revised query and pages when you send them back. Same instructions as above.

If you click here and donate £50 (or, for us Americans, $66.36), I will critique your query letter AND your first fifty pages AND I will do up to two additional rounds with you. Same instructions as above.

If you click here and donate £100 (or, for us Americans, $132.73), I will critique your query letter AND your first hundred pages AND I will do up to two additional rounds with you. Same instructions as above.

If you click here and donate £200 (or, for us Americans, $265.46), I will critique your query letter AND your full manuscript AND I will do up to two additional rounds with you. Same instructions as above.


Alex Yuschik is offering critiques as well! She’s a freelance editor who works with Kate (#TeamBrauning ftw) at K&A Editorial and she’s represented by Bridget Smith. She’s completed two publishing internships, one with literary agent Mary Kole, and another with editor Theresa Cole at Entangled. She’s also a weirdo who’s doing math grad school, but that is neither here nor there.

She’s offering a single-pass full critique (100k words or less) if someone donates 100 pounds (or more). Up to two of these are available! Contact her at alex.yuschik at gmail dot com.


If you’re an author, blogger, intern, editor, or agent and have anything you could donate to this (critiques, books, ARCs, consultations, or pretty much anything else), please get in touch with me at markobrienbooks at gmail dot com. If we get significant interest, we’ll set up a more official page.

Thank you all. So much love.

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Stuff & things 2: revenge of the stuff

This is an updates post, which is different from a News post because News posts are capitalized, but it’s still got quality content about my life and books and stuff. I’m gonna try to make these posts a regular fixture on this blogamajig, so we’ll see how that goes.

ANYWAY.

The Manuscript (Code Name: The Artwork Formerly Known As SWEETEST DOWNFALL)

Well, Prince died, so I dunno if it’s okay to keep calling this The Artwork Formerly Known As SWEETEST DOWNFALL. Anyway, the only real update here is that we have a possible title for the time being. It makes me laugh every time I try to say it out loud, so there’s that. Don’t want to say what it is right now because there’s a strong chance it’ll change again, but it’s a goodie, trust me.

The WIP (Code Name: Fluffy Cereal)

I had a revelation about this one, thank god. I like to have first lines in place when I’m starting to write a project; I feel like they tell me as much as an outline could, at least in terms of tone and character. I spend a lot of time on them, too, and as a result they don’t normally change in a significant way in edits. With Fluffy Cereal, I originally had a half-baked line that was trying to be Artwork Formerly Known As SWEETEST DOWNFALL’s, and I was kinda-sorta happy with it for a while. About 10k words in, I had a better idea—the main character is drunk off his ass in the first scene, so I wanted to capture his goofy nature and his utter shitfacedness in one sentence. I thought I accomplished that! I was happy! Aaaand then I wasn’t.

I took a long look at it, thought some thoughts, wrote more of the manuscript. The story ran out of steam—like, quickly. I had just finished the first act, but the second act felt like it was the third.

And that’s how I realized I needed to start the story a month before where it is currently. Fun times! I’m rewriting now, which I’m annoyed about, but it’s a good thing for a few reasons:

  • I am cognizant of the major flaws and plot holes that were bugging me in the original draft but which I screamed “THAT’S A FIRST-DRAFT PROBLEM” at, and I get to correct them this time around;
  • I’m introducing new characters, which is great because my casts are usually SO TINY and I know that won’t fly with every book I want to write;
  • The MC’s revealing a whole new side of himself, and I’m getting a firmer grasp on his backstory.

The Shiny New Idea (Code Name: Overdue Hug)

Not much progress on this front, mostly because I was procrastiwriting this when Fluffy Cereal frustrated me, but now I have so much work to do with that one! So much. So. Much. On the bright side, I did find a singer who looks exactly like the love interest, so there’s that? (I totally made the character wear eyeliner because the singer does.)

Reading

Since we last talked I read a few pretty great books! I felt like the last person in the world to read Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, but I finally did and it blew me away. I’ve never been so awestruck by formatting.

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson is a gorgeous haunt of a book. Henry felt so real and honest, and I fell so in love with Diego. I want a Diego. GIVE ME A DIEGO, WORLD.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum is adorable contemporary romance that feels like a teen rom-com, which is the highest compliment. (Why don’t we have more teen rom-com movies? Get on that, film industry executive people.)

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead exemplifies fantastic middle grade. So, so smart in a way I don’t think people understand MG can be.

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. THAT IS ALL. (Read it.)

Music

New to me: Quietdrive’s whole The Ghost of What You Used to Be album (link goes to Spotify), which is so up my alley I’m a little shocked I haven’t heard it before. I like the first track, “Tattoo,” especially.

New to everyone: Fifth Harmony’s 7/27I don’t understand why I like pop like this, but I so, so do.

Other stuff

Julie Hammerle’s debut, THE SOUND OF US, comes out this Tuesday! It’s pitched as Pitch Perfect at opera camp, and it’s absolutely hilarious. I worked on it as an intern (and I have my boss’s permission to talk about this, worry not!). You absolutely want it. I know you. You’re that person. We’ve had a lot of laughs, you and me. PREORDER THE BOOK.

Also, are you following me here on WordPress? I only have a handful of followers at the moment—used to have more, but then I moved this site from Blogger—and it makes my self-esteem deflate to a normal person’s level. We can’t have that. Click the follow button at the top of your screen and I’ll love you forever (and also follow you back).

That’s all for right now! Thanks so much for reading. You’re a real pal, you know?

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How I evaluated agents when I queried

I am by no means an expert on how to select agents to query. I’m just this writer with an agent and an internship, you know? But I think I collected a solid list of criteria over my querying days, so I’m going to share it. (I didn’t actually have a list I’d consult—over time, I just learned how to look for these things without really realizing I was looking for them.) Anyway, yeah, this is not exhaustive, nor should it be your only resource.

With that said, here’s how did it. I’m not you, so your priorities may be different—keep that in mind! Also, all these resources listed are free. I don’t really recommend paying for a yearly QueryTracker subscription—I spent $0.00 on that site, used it daily, and learned all I needed to know—and Publishers Marketplace, while content-rich, isn’t worth the money if you don’t work on the other side of the desk.


  1. Find out about an agent. This could be on Twitter; Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Checks forum (I typically read the recently updated threads a few times a week, even and especially now); QueryTracker (regularly updated with new/new-to-QT agent listings on the bottom of the home page); AgentQuery; or through word of mouth, from critique partners or writer-friends, etc. There’s no best source on which to discover agents; they all have pros and cons and quirks—querying writers don’t usually air complaints with specific, named agents publicly on Twitter since their real names are attached; AW has the opposite problem, wherein almost every agent with an industry presence to speak of has an anonymous complaint lodged against them somewhere; QT has well over a thousand agents in its database, which can make it difficult to cull your list; AgentQuery is a bit of a hassle to navigate. That said, they can all be invaluable resources.
  2. Find the agency website, whether from one of those initial resources or via Google. Take general note of the site—is it professional? Relatively easy to navigate? Are the agents’ names given?—but don’t put too much stock in this. ICM, one of the biggest and most respected literary agencies, gives you barely any information whatsoever on their site. Frankly, they don’t have to. They’re ICM. Compare to The Bent Agency (which I am un-coincidentally represented by). TBA’s site gives detailed bios for each agent, a list of clients, a broad overview of what they do for their authors, recent agency updates, contact information, and other goodies. TBA and ICM are both perfectly respectable agencies with great sales and solid industry reputations. So what’s the difference here? You can relatively safely speculate that TBA agents are more actively building their lists (industry-speak for “signing new authors”) than ICM agents. This isn’t the case for every agency ever, and honestly, I’m taking an educated guess with that conclusion. But in a solid amount of cases, agents who are eager to sign new clients won’t make that process difficult for those potential clients.
  3. Get the agent’s bio, somehow. Occasionally I used Writer’s Digest as a last resort for this, since I think they require some sort of bio for agents listed on the site. Things to look for include: relevant publishing experience (working in trade publishing in some capacity, be it in publicity at a respected publisher or as an intern with established agents at their current agency or, in my agent’s case, as a scout); evidence of industry know-how (sales to big publishers are your easiest giveaway here); and clients (it helps in a big way if you’ve heard of/read even one of them for pleasure). You might only find client lists with names you recognize for established agents, but that doesn’t mean you should discount newer agents! Jennifer Laughran, a most excellent agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, breaks down things any agent needs in this blog post. (Her entire Tumblr and former blog are wealths of knowledge.)
  4. Look for sales. If agents are very, very helpful, they’ll list some of their sales on their website or blog—sometimes even in their bio. That’s not the only way to find them, though! You can search on Google, clients’ websites, or Twitter—usually in the form of Publishers Marketplace deal announcements under the Photos tab—for information. Ideally, agents I queried would have plenty of sales to big publishers, and this would be super easy to find out. Sometimes that wasn’t the case and they still ended up on my query list, though. Why?
  5. If lacking sales, look for: employment at an agency with good sales, experience at a well-known publisher, or a wealth of industry connections. This last one can be hard to discern, but if the agent has either of the first two, they probably have access to editors.

Other things:

  1. Subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly. Now. Not kidding. I get the PW Daily email every weekday morning and the PW Children’s Bookshelf email twice a week, and I read all of them. There’s usually a section in PW Daily with job moves, and this can be invaluable for finding out who joined which agency from where, who got promoted, and who’s leaving the business. PW Bookshelf lists new book deals with each issue, typically in the format of “[Editor] at [Big Fancy Publishing House] has bought Title, an [age category] [genre] [novel/nonfiction work] by [Author]. In the book, [quick plot summary]. Publication is slated for [season] [year]; [Agent] at [Agency] negotiated the deal for [world/world English/North American] rights.” (Sometimes the information is moved around, but usually it’s all there.) This is, 99.9% of the time, a source for legitimate deals to respected publishers with advances paid to the author. Sometimes a less-than-amazing small press will sneak its way on to the end of the list, but that’s pretty much negligible.
  2. Read up on terms you’re unfamiliar with. Don’t know what world or world English or North American rights are? Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency has a great explanation here—I recommend reading as much of her Pub Rants blog as you can. Need some examples of big or respected publishers? Here are some (not all) that publish YA, though the article is outdated (Penguin and Random House are now Penguin Random House, unfortunately not Random Penguin; and HarperCollins has purchased Harlequin and its imprints, for two examples that jump out at me). Wait, what are subsidiary (or just “sub”) rights? Surprisingly, Wikipedia has a relatively good breakdown, though obviously no analysis is given. Google is your friend here!
  3. Follow people who are involved with/work in the industry on Twitter. Agents! Editors! Authors! Interns! Publicists! Bloggers! Marketers! Sales people! Those brave souls in the contracts department! Me! We’re fun, hilarious, book-loving nerds. You’ll learn a lot by osmosis. And also, y’know, by the discussions we have on book-related topics.
  4. Seriously, follow me on Twitter.
  5. Do it.
  6. I’m waiting.
  7. *stares*
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Keep the spring

This post is another in my Love Letters to Strangers series, which I didn’t realize was a series until I knew I had to write this one. You can read the first here, although they stand alone.


Dear you,

I’m you, only I’ve been around the sun one more time than you have. I know you feel cheated that you’re getting a letter from yourself from only one year in the future, but frankly, take it up with the Bureau of Time Travel, bud. Oh, you can’t? It hasn’t been invented yet? Looks like you’re gonna have to deal. How unfortunate for you.

Well, not actually unfortunate. It’s true—I’m basically you with more facial hair and a dwindling supply of fucks. But I’m writing this for a reason, and the jokey nature of the above paragraph was because I know you wouldn’t take me seriously otherwise. You don’t take anyone seriously who takes themselves too seriously.

I know things like that, you know. I know you so well—the shape of your heartbeat and the sound of your tears, your first word and your last lie, who you’re angry with and why. And something I’m keenly aware of is that thing you’re burying and hiding and obfuscating beneath a Rube Goldberg machine of segues and smoke and jokes and mirrors.

Here is the deepest secret nobody knows: you don’t think you’ll ever be loved like you love.

Are you angry? That I’d acknowledge that, put it into words when you don’t even let yourself think about it too much? That I’d say it without sufficient warning? That I’d put it in public where someone else might see it and roll their eyes and look at you differently? That’s what you’re afraid of, after all—judgment. Beneath all else, this.

People are always going to judge you, buddy. But rarely like you think. Your mind goes from zero to catastrophe before your synapses can even transfer electricity. They think I’m the weirdest fucking person. They’re mad at me for talking or staying quiet or finding a nice in-between. They’re probably right to be upset, too—and god, what am I doing with my hands? Why does my voice sound all grating like that? Why did I leave the house when my hair’s a mess?

There’s a Mary Lambert song that goes, “I could make you happy / I could make you love me / I could disappear completely.” Listen to that for a second, okay? Hear that.

Even now, I don’t want to talk about this, not really—you can probably tell by my wandering subject matter. But sometimes we need to talk about what we don’t want to.

You conflate love with romance, whisk them together until the definitions are inseparable. You diminish the friendships you have—yes, those people are great, but they don’t count as love because of this (stupid, meaningless) reason. You think you’ve reached the quota of amazing people in your life, and none of them have loved you to the extent you’ve loved them, so what’s the point?

You’re scared because you’re eighteen and you’ve never had a boyfriend. You’re scared this is the way it’s always going to be. You’re scared.

I have news.

Later this year, you’ll get an idea for your next book. It’ll be about a boy who loves himself like he loves oxygen and a boy who thinks he doesn’t deserve love because his mental illness told him so. They’ll fall in love (of course—I mean this is a You Book let’s be real here). It’ll be from the point of view of the first boy, the one who loves every breath he can get, the one whose reality is so much more full of sunshine than yours you won’t think him realistic. And these boys are going to teach you something: you deserve love, and you deserve more than that, too.

Life is not something you sit back and wait for; life is something you happen to. The planet is your canvas, and you paint it with what lives in your mind. The stars are there for you to swallow whole.

You could limit yourself to love, sure. That’s not meant as a knock against people who want love above all else, either—for some people, that’s the most important thing. I’m not trying to pull an “I’m not most girls,” Cis Dude edition. I’m just going to explain to you why you want more.

You want more because you want happiness. You want health. You want friends you can prop yourself up against when you need them and when they need you. You want a career breaking and remaking worlds for young people. You want memories. You want family. You want learning. You want the way the cherry blossom tree in your front yard always blooms just in time for your birthday. You want to build as much as you can as well as you can with the little tiny slice of time you’re gifted. When your gift runs out, you want to have done enough. There is no enough—not for you—but you chase it every day.

Pablo Neruda wrote, “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.”

In this, my friend, you are not the flowers.

Love,

Me

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Sensitivity reading is now a thing I’m doing!

Howdy, all!

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but author Justina Ireland started a database of sensitivity readers. Guess who’s in that database? Me! (Click on “Sensitivity Reader Database” and scroll down to find “Mark”—I’d tell you the row I’m listed in, but it will change regularly as the database is updated.)

So yes—I’m now offering sensitivity reading in the following areas:

  • Being gay
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicide/suicidal ideation/outpatient treatment
  • Abuse (psychological/emotional)

Some notes:

I am a cisgender guy. I haven’t faced sexism. I haven’t faced bi erasure or transphobia. There are other readers in the database who would be better suited to those topics, and I encourage you to seek out #ownvoices first.

I was not hospitalized for suicidal ideation. I went to an outpatient behavioral health facility. I know a little about hospitals, but not nearly enough that I should be your first choice if your project deals with inpatient treatment.

While my abuse was familial, I’m familiar with abuse in the context of romantic relationships. Again, I shouldn’t be your first choice for that, but I do have some knowledge and can answer basic questions about it.

If you’re interested, check out the form (link opens as a Google Doc) and get in touch! My email is markobrienbooks [at] gmail [dot] com—please do contact me if you have any questions at all.

Thanks so much—I can’t wait to work with you!

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Stuff & Things

Updates updates updates!

The Artwork Formerly Known As SWEETEST DOWNFALL

I turned in a round of edits about a week and a half ago and I’ve been on cloud nine since. This is the book I always wanted TAFKASD to be. Agent Heather is taking it to the next level, and I’m so thrilled to be working with her. Also, she’s fun to talk to. I never really expected agents to be funny or charming or approachable when I started querying back in the olden days, but Heather is all three—and also professional. I don’t know how she does it.

Also, we’re making progress on the title! We might not have to type out The Artwork Formerly Known As SWEETEST DOWNFALL much longer! Will update that once there’s news (titles are important to me).

BREAK THE WORLD, my WIP

As of right now, I have 14,177 words. I’ve been writing this one slowly—TAFKASD had first priority, of course—but ever since I turned that in, my daily word count has increased pretty steadily. I don’t generally keep track because I write in Word and I’d have to do math, but I think yesterday was a 1.5k day—yesterday I wrote more than one-tenth of this thing I’ve been working on for months. Yay!

BREAK THE WORLD is much, much lighter than The Artwork Formerly Known As SWEETEST DOWNFALL—the similarities pretty much begin and end at “gay contemporary YA set in New Jersey.” I don’t want to talk plot, so instead I’ll list some things I love about it:

  • There are three boys—Emory, the narrator; Jude, the love interest; and Peter, Emory’s best friend—and I am in love with all of them despite Peter being straight
  • It’s fucking funny
  • It’s from the POV of an extrovert falling in love with an introvert, which is something I’ve noticed isn’t super common in the YA romance I’ve read, so, yay!
  • Because it’s an upbeat and largely fluffy book, the playlist is mostly upbeat music. I listen to my current book’s playlist frequently, even when I’m not actively writing, and I’ve noticed I’m in a better mood as of late. I think these things are interconnected, somehow, in some small way—music has to have an effect on mood, if just in me
  • There is a sibling relationship (Emory and his older sister Rowan), and siblings are so fun to write
  • I don’t generally write to theme, but I realized over plotting that BTW has two subjects it tackles: the day-to-day of recovery and all its nuances and steps backward and little victories, and your sense of agency and how you reclaim it when it’s taken from you
  • BREAK THE WORLD has a “talking” Venus fly trap named Herbert; random, late-night, anonymous, illegal acts of kindness; a very, very subtle but present Hamilton reference; casual gay sex; a narrator who loves gardening; a love interest who loves poetry; a best friend who loves cereal; and a writer who could not be more in love with all of it
  • I want to share so many parts of this book with you so you can understand why I’m obsessed with it.

Interning

Obviously I can’t say a whole lot about the details of my internship publicly—it’s unprofessional and Wouldn’t Do. That said, I read a slush manuscript the other day and I loved it. Like, it blew me away, and my reader report was glowing. Slush works. Cross your fingers, friends!

Also—and I’ve received confirmation that I can talk about this, so, yay!—I’ve helped out with or seen quite a few of the books on Kate’s list, so I’m going to name- and link-drop some I especially love (links go to Goodreads):

  • WHY I LOATHE SUMNER LANE by Ingrid Paulson: I’ve read a few iterations of this, and guys. It’s incredible. SUMNER LANE is like a YA romcom—it’s fun and snappy and adorable. You will love it.
  • 27 HOURS by Tristina Wright: Absolutely thrilling, in more than one sense. It’s fast-paced, full of action and conspiracies and battle scenes—and it has diverse characters at the forefront of that action and those conspiracies and battle scenes. LGBTQIAP+, disabled people, and people of color. 2017!
  • THE SOUND OF US by Julie Hammerle: Pitch Perfect at opera camp. YOU NEED IT. TSoU is so beyond adorable I’m getting butterflies thinking about it. Plus the cover is gorgeous—don’t you want that on your shelf?

#DVpit

I’m offering critiques for writers participating in #DVpit, a Twitter pitch party about and by marginalized voices! If you’re participating, feel free to send me your query and/or your pitches for critique. The instructions are in the “resources” section on Beth Phelan’s #DVpit homepage. I’ve been told I’m thorough, so there’s that. PLEASE NOTE: There is a backlog right now, and I’m working to get back to everyone with the attention their work deserves. Thanks muchly for your patience!

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Keeping and caring for your faith, trust, and pixie dust

I write gay character-driven YA contemporary romances. They’re not coming out books. The prose in my latest manuscript is experimental, which has led to a lot of my beta readers calling it “literary” (which I absolutely love but feel weird describing my own work as). They’re almost always dark in premise—SWEETEST DOWNFALL deals in part with a best friend’s suicide, and in my WIP the love interest is recovering from a self-harm habit—and lighter in execution. They have hooks, sure, but nothing huge.

All of this is to say I don’t write for money. I’m writing some pretty great stuff, if I do say so myself, but my books are not Red Queen. They’re not An Ember in the Ashes or All the Bright Places.

So maybe I write for awards? I mean, yes, it would be incredible to win something, but those shiny stickers on book covers have always seemed even less out of my control than the market. You can, to some extent, study and predict the market; you can’t study or predict what book will get what award, especially with rotating committees.

Prestige? Nope—as loyal readers are well aware, my ego’s big enough as it is.

To prove to myself that I can? Nay, good fellow. I’ve written six manuscripts. I’m represented by one of the top New York agencies. I know I can do it.

Stubborn determination? Well, I mean, probably to some extent—I am a Taurus, after all. When I really want something, giving up is not so much an option. Not even when I want to give up. But what’s underlying that? Why am I so stubbornly determined?

It’s not for me. It’s for you.

I work day in and day out to be published because I want my book to reach people who need it. Not in some “my book is the best, most sacred artwork ever composed and it will heal the sick” kind of way—I mean for whatever reason someone might need it, no matter what it is. If buying my very queer book that I will fight to wear a very queer cover might be a stepping stone for a teen to talk to his parents for the first time about a guy he likes, I want it to be there. If the back cover copy detailing how my gay main character falls for his demisexual love interest validates for a grown woman that she can, in fact, write about people who love the way she loves, I want it to be there. If reading about a queer teen with anxiety whose life has been impacted by suicide but who still manages to make his own happy ending helps literally anyone, I want it to be there.

Some parts of my book are very much #ownvoices—I’m gay, I have anxiety, and I’ve been suicidal. The thing about #ownvoices books—books about marginalized characters written by authors who share those marginalizations—is that they have significant cultural impact alongside personal impact. Every time there’s a Black man or a hijabi woman in the author picture in the back of the book, every time the bio ends in “She lives in New York with her wife,” that matters. Representation is absolutely vital for teenagers—not just inside the books they read; in the identity of the author too. I hid my grin every time I walked by David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing in Barnes & Noble when it came out a few years ago. I didn’t buy it until after I came out to my mom, but I remember going home, Googling David Levithan’s name, and smiling and smiling and smiling so much I came close to tears.

My manuscript matters. My book will matter. Maybe it won’t get the money or win the awards or hit the lists. Maybe I’ll be a midlist author for my entire career. Maybe I’ll sell a couple hundred copies.

Maybe it’ll mean the world to some teenager I’ll never meet.

Maybe that makes it all worth it.

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