Hi! It’s MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. I haven’t posted in forever but I promise I have a very good reason! I wrote a book! Like, a WHOLE BOOK! (Note: I posted the first chapter below if you want to skip to that and ignore all of my IMPORTANT THOUGHTS about SERIOUS THINGS. Chapter begins under the picture of the key.)
Before I begin I wanted to take a moment to thank each and every person who has ever read one of my blog posts. If you read more than one and commented, I thank you. I cannot believe how many people my bullshit ramblings have reached. Thank you all for making the labor of love that was my Gilmore Girls reviews worth every second I spent writing them. I’m sending you all virtual hugs, which we all know is the best kind of hug because it requires no physical contact.
So, like I said, I wrote a book. Not just any book, I wrote a romance novel. I’m happy with it and I’m currently querying agents like “PLEASE PUBLISH ME I AM SO GREAT AND I WILL BRING YOU COOKIES AND PAGES FULL OF SMUTTY SMUTTY SMUT!!” Not surprisingly, it’s not working. I remain un-agented and wondering what my next step is – Do I keep submitting or do I self-publish? And that’s where you, gentle reader, come in.
One of the most difficult aspects of writing this novel was not having anyone to ask for feedback. I joined Romance Writers of America in hopes of landing a critique partner, but… I’m an introvert with social anxiety. Going into a room full of people I don’t know scares me. I withdraw into myself and sit in a corner counting down the seconds until I can leave. It’s a problem.
I did not meet a critique partner as I had hoped.
This may come as a surprise (or not), but for as much formal writing training as I have, for all the hours I’ve spent in classes and workshops and lectures…I’m not really open with the people I’m close to about my writing. I don’t think my parents have ever read a word I’ve written. My husband doesn’t read my work. I don’t have any friends that I talk to about my work. This is two-fold: I’ve always believed that no one really gives a fuck about what I’m scribbling in a notebook so it’s best not to bother them. And I hate bothering people with stuff they don’t care about. However, I know I need feedback. My work can’t improve without it. I shouldn’t even be querying without sending my work through several beta readers but I was getting impatient and tired of the seemingly insurmountable issue of my dumb social anxiety so I just started querying. Mistake? Yeah, probably.
All of that is a very long-winded way of doing two things:
- Announcing that I’m posting the first chapter of my ROMANCE NOVEL right here on this very blog (see below!) and
- Asking you to tell me what you think of said first chapter.
I know romance novels aren’t for everyone. That’s ok. But if you do like romance novels and you feel so inclined, I would really appreciate your feedback on the first chapter of my book. Please don’t feel pressured to give me feedback, if you couldn’t give less of a fuck about this, that’s ok! Thanks for getting this far!
So, without more bullshit about me and my myriad of personal issues, here’s the first chapter of my book. Yes, it’s a romance novel but don’t worry – there is no sex in the excerpt posted below because I’m a fucking lady.
Working title: The Key to Cabin Nine. Thanks for reading.
She should have printed out directions before she left. Avoiding the word “lost”, Valerie DiVecchio pulled the rental car onto the shoulder of the road, her useless phone clutched in her hand. Half an hour ago her GPS directed her off the highway to a two lane county road that narrowed as the forest surrounding it thickened. Ten minutes after that she lost cell service and was left to navigate on the flimsy memory of the map she’d glanced at before boarding the plane.
She looked at her phone again and grimaced. “GPS failure in a world where even refrigerators are Wi-Fi enabled. Whatever,” she muttered, dropping her phone into the cup holder. This is why she preferred living in New York to living in the middle of nowhere, which, if she had to guess, was exactly where she was right now.
Closing her eyes and placing her palms purposefully on her thighs, she took a deep breath in, her rib cage expanding to take up more space in an effort to combat the rapidly contracting cabin of the car. She held the breath to a slow count of five. While she counted she imagined a meadow full of lush green grass kissed by morning dew and peppered with wildflowers painted in vivid reds, shocking yellows, and brilliant blues. Her therapist-approved happy place. The only place she ever felt calm.
Steady once again, she opened her eyes to find the car was the size it should be, the terrifying feeling of the walls closing in on her retreating to the dark corners of her mind. Val guided the car back onto the cracking asphalt of the road slicing through the dense forest.
The road curved sharply and once she was back on a straightaway she saw it—an old sign emblazoned with the word “GAS” in large red letters. Even from her vantage point she could see the thick cracks marring what was once bright, cheerful paint. As she drove closer, she saw the station itself was not in much better shape than the sign. Calling the rickety clapboard structure a shack would have been kind. The battered siding and grimy windows looked more like a bomb shelter on the other side of a long war, and the analog gas pumps out front shell-shocked soldiers standing watch for an enemy they no longer recognized. Few things were less enticing than stopping somewhere that wouldn’t look out-of-place in a Tobe Hooper movie. But she was out of options and probably severely overestimating the odds that a crazy killer stood behind the crooked door of the gas shack waiting to murder hapless women who couldn’t be bothered to print out directions before they embarked on journeys into the wilderness. She would have to take the chance. Anything to get her off the winding road and pointed in the direction of Black Bear Lake.
She pulled into the dirt parking lot beside the crumbling clapboard building and threw the car into park. Her heart pounded in her ears as she eyed the station—The adverts in the front windows were so faded they were almost illegible, the cracking paint on the siding, the missing shingles on the roof. Val’s blood pressure ticked upwards.
“Stop being ridiculous.” She was a New Yorker. Her former apartment overlooked a busy alleyway favored by unfriendly drug dealers peddling wares a lot stronger than weed. She once found a drunk man passed out on her fire escape, his cheek pressed against the glass of her window, his breath painting puffs of condensation under his nostrils as he snored. None of that had fazed her. She could handle a creepy gas station in the middle of the woods. In fact, a gas station in the middle of the woods was nothing to a woman like her. She flung the door open and stepped out of the car.
There was no snow on the ground, but her chic flats and thin wool coat were no match for fall in Northern Maine. A gust of wind cut right through her as she clutched her coat tighter and she made her way into the building.
Inside, there was no killer dressed as a clown waiving a chainsaw like it was his job. Behind the surprisingly clean counter sat an old man as weatherworn as the station itself. To his left a white-haired woman was perched on a stool like a hawk patiently waiting for its prey. They were still as statues, their bodies as ancient and timeless as the forest outside. They could have been mistaken for rejects from Madame Tussaud’s had the man not raised one bushy eyebrow at her as she walked through the door. Without moving, he and his wife exchanged a glance. Val ignored it and approached.
“Excuse me, do you have any maps?” She kept her face friendly and her inflection as “Newscaster From Everywhere, USA” as she could. Stressful situations almost always undid all the work she’d done to lose her Staten Island accent. Her years in the news business had taught her two things—a lot of people don’t like reporters, and a lot of people don’t like New Yorkers.
“Back that a way,” the man said, gesturing with his chin. The woman beside him didn’t move. Val gritted her teeth and smiled again, pretending like she was too stupid to realize when someone was purposely being rude. She bit at the inside of her cheek out of habit as she made her way back toward the spinner filled with maps. When was the last time she tried to read a paper map? High school? Grade school? She pulled her phone from her coat pocket. Still no service.
Visions of being lost in the middle of the woods filled her head. Skeletal leaves stuck in her dark, wild hair; hungry thorn bushes clawing at her clothes, those bony fingers desperate to claim her; mud caked on her face like war paint as she desperately searched for her way home. One thing the scandal-plagued Mocker Media Network did not need was a reporter dying while on assignment. She could practically hear her editor’s exasperated sigh when authorities called to tell him they found the body of his reporter in the woods, frozen and half-eaten by bears.
She swore right then that if she were devoured by a bear she would come back to haunt her editor until his dying day—after all, it was his fault she was even here. This whole journey into the great white north was Raj Patel’s idea, part of a last-ditch attempt to save the floundering empire he’d built. Not only had he been her first and only employer, taking a chance on her writing when they were both still completing their journalism degrees, but he was her friend. She couldn’t let his company go under without a fight.
“Don’t give up on me, Val.” Raj’s voice echoed through her head as she thought back on all the choices she’d made leading to her standing in front of a spinner of wrinkled maps that had been printed decades before her birth. He had sunk into his chair as he said it, the movement rumpling the lilac cashmere sweater covering his rail-thin torso.
“I’m not giving up on you. It’s just…we’re broke.” She had absent mindedly tapped her fingernail on the spreadsheets scattered across his desk. He launched Mocker dot-com during their last year of college. Fifteen years after ushering in a cynical, snarky style of writing that had bled into the mainstream, and after numerous lawsuits and poor financial decisions, Mocker was almost officially insolvent.
“Maybe you should consider Viaduct’s offer.” Val had said it gently as she knew how. The end of Mocker was a sore spot for him and Val’s heart broke for her friend when she thought about how much he had poured into this endeavor over the years. The blog was his life. The blog was their life. She didn’t want him to sell it, but she couldn’t see a way around the financial hole they were about to tumble into.
“Look at me. Watch my lips. I. Am. Not. Selling. To. Viaduct. Savvy?” He growled the word “savvy” at her, an inside joke born when they snuck cheap wine in to see the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie at that terrible theater in Times Square.
“Well yo ho ho and a bottle of we’re screwed.”
“You aren’t funny.” His British accent sounded even more posh than usual when his nose was in the air.
“Debatable.” She’d crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair.
He’d sat up and leaned towards her, the artificial lighting catching on a few of the brilliant white strands buried in his thick black hair. “We can still turn this around. All we need—”
“Don’t say it.” She’d dropped her head dramatically for maximum comic impact.
Raj, used to her tendency to turn everything into a joke, had ignored her completely. “A white whale!”
“You said it.” She said flatly, mock defeat in every note.
To Raj, a white whale was the ungettable get. It was the story that no one could seem to pin down, the one that would generate interest from more than just their core readers, and maybe even generate offshoot posts on other media sites, which seemed to be how journalism worked these days. A recap of a recap of a recap of the original article had become the gold standard.
“One white whale isn’t going to save us,” she had pointed out. The marketplace was flooded with content and people were locked into their information bubbles. Those factors made luring new readers increasingly difficult. Add Mocker’s reputation for scandal…
“What do you call a grouping of whales? A fleet? A herd?”
“A pod,” Val had answered.
“Yes! That’s what we need. A pod of white whales. If everyone on staff gets one, and if those stories drive the click-through rates they have in the past, we can keep this place independent for the next year. At least.”
“The entire premise of white whales is that they’re rare.” Her voice had been flatter than Kansas as she played her role of reasonable, yet exasperated, friend.
“Think of all the money a pod of them would bring.”
“Raj, the odds of everyone on staff landing a story that could generate enough traffic to keep the company independent, is…unlikely.”
“Everyone is going to do their part, including you. And I already have a story in mind for you.”
“An assignment?” She had been taken aback. She hadn’t been given an assignment in years because Raj trusted her instincts. Or she thought he did.
“Remember John Henderson? Big shot hockey player who stopped playing with no explanation? He’s never spoken publicly as to why he quit.”
“I’m not a sports reporter, Raj. Send one of the SportsSpin guys.”
“I’ve got things in mind for them. This one is yours.”
“I’m not qualified—”
Raj laughed; a quick, bitter spurt of sound lost somewhere between amusement and annoyance. “As we learned during our last election, qualifications mean dick.”
Val had opened her mouth to speak before thinking better of it.
“No one is going to give half a fuck about some washed up hockey player they don’t even remember.”
“Your job is to make them give an entire fuck. Your job is to make them care enough to click and share and click again. Understood?”
Now she was lost and freezing all in the name of a few extra clicks. Hopefully whatever she found would be enough to get them to January, though the odds of landing an exclusive with the elusive and notoriously anti-media John Henderson were slim. Why this specific story? She could have failed at landing a white whale much closer to home. Why did Raj think hauling her ass to Northern Maine—in late October—was a good idea?
A blast of cold air from the opening door ruffled the maps and sent her thick curls swirling around her face. She shivered and pulled her coat closer. Mistake number one—not printing out directions before she left. Mistake number two—leaving her heavy winter coat in New York.
“Mornin’ Amos, Janet. Nice day,” a deep male voice said to the two wax statues behind the counter.
“Ayuh,” Amos replied. “Still no snow.”
“We might get a dusting tonight.” The man bantered with Amos as Val stared at two different maps of the area. There couldn’t be that much variation between them. She should just pick one and be done with it. But what if they were different and she chose the wrong one? Stupid maps. Stupid GPS. Stupid Maine.
“Came in lookin’ for maps,” Amos said.
Though Val wasn’t looking at him she was certain he had gestured to her with his chin. Jerk. She pretended not to notice that she had become the subject of the conversation between Amos and his local customer, a skill she had honed after a lifetime of pretending her grandfather wasn’t saying terrible things about her to anyone who would listen. If she didn’t need the map so badly she’d put it back and walk out. Thinking of leaving calmed her nerves and tampered the anger growing in her chest. Dr. Chen, her therapist, would be proud of her progress.
“Can I help you, miss? I know these parts pretty well.” The man came closer to her.
She nearly let out an unladylike guffaw at how ludicrous the word “miss” sounded to her now. She was thirty-six but she hadn’t been classified as a “miss” since she was a teenager. She had been firmly in “ma’am” territory by her nineteenth birthday, one of the many odd benefits of always looking older than her actual age.
“I’m trying to find—” She looked up and almost dropped the maps as her gaze locked with two of the brightest blue eyes she’d ever seen.
They were cerulean blue, the color of the sky through an aggressive photo filtering app, unreal and utterly arresting all at once. He smiled wide, his white teeth almost blinding, and the entire room sparkled along with him. A lock of sandy brown hair fell across his forehead. Standing before her, looking every inch like he had stepped out of the pages of Rugged Man Magazine, was John Henderson. And if she was honest, his pictures did not do him justice.
“I’m looking for Black Bear Lake.” She hoped she didn’t sound like the surprise of seeing him standing in front of her had knocked her flat on her ass. Was this really the former hockey player who set the sports world on fire before walking away without a second glance? He was…
“You’re close. It’s about ten miles up the road.”
“And that’s near—” She looked at the notes app on her phone for the name of the town. “Mile-ten-ket?”
He smiled at her terrible pronunciation. “Millinecket.”
“Right.” Val tried not to smile like an idiot. She had looked through old pictures of him from when he was playing hockey for the Carolina Hurricanes. He’d been attractive then in the way of most young people—new, full of life, blood running so hot it was impossible to control the zeal coursing through the body. Now, he had settled into his features. A broad forehead, wide cheekbones, and a jaw so square it could be used to measure right angles. His nose was the only thing actively rebelling against the mathematically straight planes of the rest of his face. It was playfully crooked, probably from being broken more than once, and it made Val’s heart flutter in a way it hadn’t in years.
“I’m headed that way. You can follow me up if you’d like.”
Instincts warred within her. The reporter in her was overjoyed. The Italian New Yorker part told her following a man into the woods never ended well.
If she disappeared there would be witnesses to their meeting, though she doubted good old Amos, still sitting behind the counter with a stillness the dead would envy, would say anything as long as he got one of her dismembered legs to toss into a stew.
“Would that be okay?” she asked, the reporter winning out again.
“I offered, didn’t I?” He smiled and her knees turned to jelly. “I’m John.”
She took his hand when he offered it, shaking firmly even as bright stripes of electricity shot from her palm and bounced through her body.
“Val.” She paid for her map, Amos’s beady eyes fastened on her skeptically as she handed his wife the money. Fighting the urge to glare at Amos before following John out into the cool October day took Herculean effort.
“Where you headed once you’re near the lake?” he asked.
“The Black Bear Lodge.”
“So you’re the guest who begged to stay past the end of the season.” He rested his hands on his narrow hips as he towered over her.
Feeling short had never been Val’s problem. She was five foot ten in her bare feet. Old women frequently stopped her in the grocery store to ask for assistance reaching items on high shelves. But where she was a hill, John was a mountain. He jutted skyward and stretched over the landscape, his summit insurmountable. His shoulders were cliffs, his body a flat, smooth face offering no purchase to desperate climbers. If she remembered his stats correctly from all the old articles she’d been reading about him, he was six foot three and a half, without the skates.
“You work there?” She tried to ignore his perfect shoulder-to-hip ratio, that alluring upside down triangle that made her wish she had majored in mathematics.
“Sort of. I own it.”
That answered the question of what he’d been doing since he quit playing hockey. Val made a mental note to check the public records for details on the sale. She also made a note to not be an idiot—broad shouldered men with narrow hips always made her stupid. Tall, broad-shouldered blue-eyed men? She was surprised she could string two words together. This particular man was big and broad and didn’t look liked he’d lost that athlete’s body even all these years later.
“I’m looking forward to seeing it.” Her inability to make small talk with men was rearing its ugly head. Her grandfather would be cackling right now if he weren’t dead.