convention tips: don’t just survive, be AWESOME

RT is just under a month away, and I’ve seen a lot of blog posts about “how to survive a con.” Viewing a con as something to survive is looking at it the wrong way. It’s not a white-water rafting trip or a jungle safari or [insert other scary journey here]. It’s a con. A lot of people attend them for FUN, even. Crazy! So don’t just survive. Thrive!

I went to 5 cons last year, which is a lot. Whether you go to one or one dozen each year, I hope you can take something from what I have learned. So, without further ado:

Kate’s Tips for Making Your Con Experience Awesome

1. Tote bag.
Have a bag to put stuff in. Almost every con I have ever been to gives these out when you register, so don’t feel like you have to buy one, but definitely carry one. You can both carry the stuff you need and have a place to put stuff you accumulate throughout the day. This will save you trips back to your hotel room. I always make sure to have: my phone, money, my room key, a little notebook or something to write on, a couple of pens, Chapstick, a snack, emergency flats (see below), a cardigan if I’m not already wearing one (hotels get cold), aspirin or some kind of headache pill, my business cards, and a limited quantity of swag to hand out to people I run into.

2. Attire.
I love the recent JC Penney’s ads that are about finding that piece that fits well and makes you feel good. This is my personal approach to fashion. Now, look, I love clothes. I view conventions as an opportunity to pull some of my funkier pieces out of the closet. I bought a bunch of cute dresses to wear at RT this year. Having one attention-grabbing piece is a great ice breaker because people will walk up to you and tell you they love your dress/shoes/necklace and then you can chat about books/your writing/panels/whatever. But I always feel good about myself when I’ve got my best clothes on.

I get that not everyone is as obsessive about clothes as I am, so here’s my advice: wear clothes that make you feel good. If dresses and bright colors are not your thing, don’t dress that way. If you’ve got pieces in colors you like or that fit very well or that just make you happy, wear those. If you’re happy and comfortable in your attire, you’ll project confidence. That’s a good quality to have in a con. (But do put in a little effort. Particularly if you’re attending as an author, you don’t want to fade into the background.)

Also, I recommend dressing in layers so you can adjust to heat/air-conditioning/surprise snow accordingly.

3. Shoes.
Always carry emergency flats. I keep a pair of reliably comfortable shoes in my con bag at all times. I always hit a point in the day, even in my most comfortable heels, where I just can’t anymore, and having the flats handy is such a relief.

4. Snacks.
Pack something snacky. I like to have granola bars or trail mix handy, or something similarly portable. Sometimes you forget to eat or go a long time between meals or just don’t get enough to eat at a luncheon. If you feel yourself dragging, stop and have a snack.

5. Water.
Carry a water bottle. Nothing will dehydrate you faster than being in a hotel all day.

6. Planning.
Have a rough plan of what you will do before you leave for the con. Look at the agenda or schedule and decide which events you will attend. This will affect what you pack, first of all, especially if there are parties or events with costumes, but also it will give you an idea for what to expect. On the other hand, be open to that plan changing once you’re on the ground. Because it totally will.

7. Free stuff.
You will get a lot of it, especially books. “But I don’t plan to take any…” Doesn’t matter. You will. I swore up and down I would take home zero books from GRL last year and wound up with five. Leave space in your luggage in anticipation of this. You might also bring pre-addressed shipping labels so you can send stuff home. Check with the hotel in advance to see if they will ship things for you. Convention hotels usually do or can direct you to the nearest courier.

8. Socializing.
Cons are one place where it is cool to talk to strangers. We’re all there to meet other members of our tribe. There are definitely going to be people who don’t know anyone or who have never been to a con before and will welcome making friends with similar people. Breeze through the lobby or hotel bar, introduce yourself, talk to people. Talk about books if you need an ice-breaker topic—at a romance or reader con, that’s the thing we all have in common.

And let me just say, it is a great feeling to find people who are just as passionate about your interests as you are.

9. Have fun.
Cons can be stressful when you’re preparing to attend them, but once you’re there, relax and enjoy!

Tips Specific to Authors:

1. Swag.
The late comedian Mitch Hedberg had a bit in his stand-up about people handing out flyers. He viewed someone handing him a flyer as, “Here, you throw this away.” I always think of this when someone hands me swag unsolicited. If we’re talking about your book and I express interest, then sure, hand me a postcard. But if I don’t know you and you hand me something, it’s going in the trash. This is a peeve of mine, because I have so little space in my luggage and I’d really rather not ship stuff home, so I don’t need MORE stuff, you know? Offer swag and have it available for people to take, but don’t make them take it.

Also, don’t feel like you have to break the bank to be impressive with your swag. Work within your budget. If all you can do are postcards with your book covers, that’s a great start—the goal is to spread the word about you as an author and your brand, and you shouldn’t have to spend big money to do that.

One last thing: a lot of cons have a swag room where people can peruse and take stuff. Take a tour yourself and see what great things other people are doing. You might get some ideas for your own swag.

2. Business cards.
All authors should have them. If we meet, I will likely ask you for one. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just give me a way to find you online: your website, your email, and possibly also your social media accounts. Most cons have badge holders with little pockets in the back that are ideal business card holders; I always stuff a bunch of my own in there so I can pull them out on the fly, and I put the ones I get in there, too. Also, don’t make these too glossy; you want something someone can write on. I will sometimes write a note about where I met the person who gave me the card so I can follow up with them later.

3. Don’t limit yourself to your own events.
Go to other author panels/readings/whatever. Take advantage of the opportunities cons present to network and learn things. If there’s a publisher you’re interested in submitting to, attend their spotlight. If there’s a panel on something related to what you write, go attend it. Support your fellow authors.

4. Signings.
Signings are not my favorite thing, honestly. I’m a small fish in a big pond at cons like RT, and when you’re competing for reader attention with Nora Roberts and Sylvia Day, you’re probably going to lose. Still, be friendly to people who stop by. Chat with readers. Smile. Put out some candy to lure people to your table. Have something generic planned to write in books that people ask you to sign. Be prepared for long lulls when you don’t get much activity. Make friends with the writers sitting next to you. Don’t get offended if someone tells you they only read ebooks and so won’t be buying anything. (Readers have apologized to me a lot at signings. “I’m sorry, I only buy ebooks.” Hey, that’s totally cool with me! Help yourself to any of my swag. But the fact that so many readers apologize make me think some authors are dicks about that. Don’t be a dick.)

Actually, “Don’t be a dick,” is good con advice generally.

Do you have other tips for making a convention an awesome experience? Please share them in the comments!

my writing process

I was tagged by friend and RWA NYC chapter mate Lena Hart on this chain blog tour thing about The Writing Process. So here goes:

1) What am I working on?
I always have several projects going at the same time, but right at this moment I’m focusing on two, both of which I’ve probably mentioned, which are:

• A contemporary friends-to-lovers with a really convoluted plot; I need to come up with a better elevator pitch for it, but the gist is, “two friends are never in the same place emotionally and struggle to define their relationship with each other until they reach a crisis point and have to decide to make a go of a romantic relationship or lose each other forever.” I’m calling it When the Planets Align. Right now I’m doing my last round of revisions before it goes off to my agent.

• A contemporary series about an LGBT amateur baseball league in NYC. The first three books are outlined and planned, so I think I want to try to sell it as a trilogy with room for more should that work out. Book 1 is done and going out to betas soon, and I recently started Book 2.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
That’s tough to answer. People have said I bring a New York sensibility even to my books not set in New York. I tend toward brainy characters. I like to play with old genre conventions. I also try to portray life as I know it, insofar as I am a thirtysomething single person living in a major city, so I feel like I have a bead on that in a way some authors don’t, or at least, I bring my own experience to the table, even when I’m writing about, say, professional baseball players or reincarnated Celtic deities. And I write books I’d want to read; I hope my love for this genre and my characters comes through in the books.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I’m writing this after having recently spent a day at an LGBT book fair at which I got asked this question a lot. (Or, I got asked specifically how I, a woman, got into writing gay male romance.) The short version is that I started reading gay romance at a time when there wasn’t a lot of it, and I loved it so much that I thought there should be more, so I tried my hand at writing book, and that became In Hot Pursuit. I’d been writing chick lit and het romance up until that point (and briefly pretentious literary fiction, because I think every young person in NYC is working on that book) so I was not new to writing or romance, but I hadn’t finished anything that I thought was publishable. IHP was the first thing I wrote that I felt really confident in. (Or confident enough in it to submit it to publishers, at any rate.)

It so happens that all of the story ideas I’ve had since have involved gay men. Those are the voices in my head, I guess. I keep expecting this to change, but it hasn’t yet. So I keep writing.

4) How does your writing process work?
This is roughly how it goes:

Step 1: Get an idea. Often these come out of left field, but sometimes they will be a reaction to something, either something I read or something I experienced. (Sometimes a negative reaction—Out in the Field was written almost entirely because I read a few baseball romances that had neither much baseball talk nor any people of color, and that was something I wanted to rectify—and sometimes just because—I wrote Show and Tell during a period of my life in which I was watching a lot of Pawn Stars. But The Stars that Tremble? I don’t know. I was taking a walk one afternoon and started thinking about opera and what if an opera singer couldn’t sing anymore and then I had a story.)

Step 2: Free write. I need to spend a little time with the characters before I can completely work out what their story is, so I’ll write a few scenes, some of which will be repurposed but most of which just get tossed because they’re too info-dump-y or else aren’t important to the story.

Step 3: Draw and outline. I keep paper notebooks for each of my projects because I like to draw, especially maps and flowcharts, and I haven’t found a useful way to do that on a computer or tablet yet. I am firmly on the Plotter side of the Plotter v. Pantser divide, but I keep my outlines loose enough to change my mind about the details later. They usually aren’t formal outlines, more bulleted lists of plot points and various other kinds of information.

For research-heavy projects, I keep files of references on my computer and I put lots of sticky notes in books so I can pull them out and find what I need quickly. I take photos of the real places my books are set. (I’ve got a huge folder of reference photos for Across the East River Bridge. I visited every place mentioned in the book.) And I’m insane about research, so that’s a big part of this step in the process.

For the baseball series mentioned above, I made a whole series bible, and it is extensive.

Step 4: Churn out a first draft. Here’s a thing I learned about myself as a participant in NaNoWriMo: if I edit as a write, I will never make any progress, because I could edit my work forever and never be happy with it. A far more effective process for me is to bang out a first draft, messy though it may be, and then revise later. This process goes pretty fast; it typically takes me anywhere from 1 to 3 months to write a first draft (depending on length and how busy I am otherwise).

I write in Scrivener, which I love because it makes it easy to keep everything organized.

Step 5: Revise, revise, revise. I write fast but revise slowly. I usually do a pass through the draft just to clean up typos and obvious mistakes, then I’ll go back and add missing scenes or do heavier revisions as necessary. Sometimes I change my mind about plot points and end up having to do a lot of rewriting at this stage.

This stage can sometimes be fairly easy—it was for The Silence of the Stars (coming soon!)—or it can be wrenching. Blind Items went through four major rewrites before it became the book it is today.

Step 6: Beta draft. I export from Scrivener and then read the whole thing again in Word which serves two functions: a) it gives me a chance to verify that the Word file has no formatting shenanigans, and b) it’s easier for me to spot typos, homonym errors, and other mistakes if I change the font and spacing because it’s like looking at the text anew. Once I feel like this version is clean, it goes off to my writers group or beta readers, who then send me back comments.

Step 7: Alpha draft. I read all comments, decide what I’m going to incorporate, revise accordingly. I have in some cases printed out a hard copy of the whole thing and put everyone’s comments into one place so there’s effectively a master edited draft, then I’ll use that as a reference as I revise. Sometimes I’ll just make a bulleted list of things I want to change based on feedback. It sort of depends on how extensive the comments are.

I also find it useful to read the whole polished draft quickly, because I catch inconsistencies better that way. It’s hard when you’re writing to even catch obvious things. There’s a tertiary character in The Boy Next Door who went by two different names until I caught that. Poor Mike McPhee from The Stars that Tremble had a dead mother in one of the early drafts, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to fix that everywhere. When working on edits for The Silence of the Stars I caught a weird instance of Sandy’s favorite book genre being biographies on one page but popular science on another.

Step 8: Send to agent/publisher.

So that’s the way I typically work. It seems to work for me, but your mileage may vary. This is basically a description of how I do things and is not meant to be instructive. Ask twenty writers about their process and you’ll get twenty different answers.

If you’re a writer and you’re interested in participating in this chain blog tour, let me know or go ahead and tag yourself. All I ask is that you link back to me.

Poll: Best in Swag

I’m going low-key on swag for RT this year, but I am doing a party for which I’m contributing items for door-prize bags, so I’m wondering, of the things I have on-hand, which of these would you most prefer to receive in a prize bag: one of my custom pin-back buttons (with the “smart • savvy • sexy” phrase on them), a postcard featuring the gorgeous cover of The Silence of the Stars, or an awesome Kate McMurray bookmark?

(NGL, this is also an excuse to try out this poll plugin for WordPress. Works pretty well, right?)

Rainbow Book Fair this Saturday, 3/29

I’ll be at the Rainbow Book Fair this Satuday, 12–6pm at the Holiday Inn on W. 57th Street in New York City. Stop by if you’re in the area! I will very likely be at the Rainbow Romance Writers table doing my chapter president thang, and I’ll have pamphlets and things on-hand for anyone looking for more info about the chapter. I will also have books for sale at the table hosted by myself, Tere Michaels, and Damon Suede. This’ll be my 4th RBF, and it’s always a good time. Hope to see you there!

Cover Reveal: The Silence of the Stars

Coming this May from Dreamspinner Press…

20140318-215505.jpg Sandy Sullivan has gotten so good at covering up his emotions, he’s waiting for someone to hand him an Oscar. On the outside, he’s a cheerful, funny guy, but his good humor is the only thing keeping awful memories from his army tours in Afghanistan at bay. Worse, Sandy is now adrift after breaking up with the only man who ever understood him, but who also wanted to fix him the way Sandy’s been fixing up his new house in Brooklyn.

Everett Blake seems to have everything: good looks, money, and talent to spare. He parlayed a successful career as a violinist into a teaching job at Manhattan’s elite Olcott School and until four months ago, he even had the perfect boyfriend. Now he’s on his own, trying to give his new apartment some personality, even if it is unkempt compared to the perfect home he shared with his ex. When hiring a contractor to renovate his kitchen sends Sandy barreling into his life, Everett is only too happy to accept the chaos… until he realizes he’s in over his head.

The sequel to The Stars that Tremble

on criticism

[Abstract: This is a really long post about the value of criticism. The point I'm getting at is that a) new authors should be open to it, and b) let's focus on writing really great books and less on what the Internet says. (This second point is somewhat obscure in the short treatise below, but it's good life advice—go write the book you want to write, not the book you think you should be writing. I think that's where real genius lies.)]

One of my favorite books of all time is William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I read it as a naive 17-year-old the first time and was captivated by it—the narrative voices of the characters especially. Then maybe five or six years later, I found the Norton Critical Edition for a couple of bucks at a used bookstore, so during a particularly boring temp job, I sat at my desk and read it again. (This was an example of the worst kind of nepotism; my dad got me a job at his company, but no one would train me or give me Internet access since I was only temping until they could hire someone more permanently, so I spent all day sitting at my desk reading books and occasionally answering the phone. For this I was paid $12/hour.) If you’ve never owned a Norton Critical Edition, they’re the fatter versions of classic novels, roughly half original text and half essays and historical documents giving the novel context. (I own a lot of these, thanks to my English degree.) There’s a letter in the back of The Sound and the Fury written by Faulkner in which he explains that he thinks the book is an inferior work, maybe his worst novel. This still astonishes me, because I think the opposite is true, and I’ve read enough Faulkner to judge.

I’ve been at this writing thing long enough to know that it’s hard to get perspective.

I took two creative writing classes in college. In the first, everyone was super nice, apparently afraid to every say anything too critical. In the second, there was a tremendous amount of talent, but each workshop became an exercise in how to tear each other down, and I often walked away feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. When I founded my own writers group many years later, my thought was that the most effective strategy would be something in the middle: definitely critical, because one can’t improve without criticism, but not mean.

I co-founded the group before I was published, before I was writing gay romance even, so probably 2006-ish. That it is still going is tremendous, although I attend less frequently than I once did. It’s been interesting to watch over the years. We’ve had success stories. We have members who don’t write much but attend regularly. We’ve had members who have quit the group after the first time their work was critiqued because they couldn’t handle it. We’ve had periods when the tone of the group did steer too much toward mean. (To be clear, by “mean,” I’m talking, “you’re stupid” not “this doesn’t work for me.”)

In addition to the writers group, I’ve got a small team of beta readers who rip my writing apart before I submit it to publication. I’m generally of the mind that a story should be as close to perfect as I can get it when I send it to the publisher. (My agent, in fact, encouraged me to keep using those beta readers to vet stuff before I send it to her.) The beta readers I use regularly are people I’ve known for years and trust and value their opinions, and they’re also people who are willing to say, “Ooh, girl, no” when I’ve done something that doesn’t work.

Here’s the thing with getting criticism: I think you do need to put some distance between yourself and your writing. A novel I’ve written is a product, and though a lot of my blood, sweat, and tears went into it, it’s not me and it’s not my baby. And probably once a year, one of my regular critique partners gives me a “kill your darlings” speech along the lines of, “I get that you love this part of the book, but no.” That’s hard to hear sometimes. It’s hard to hear that a character you love is unlikable, that a plot point you put a lot of thought into is implausible, that your writing falls flat in one section of the book or is too purple in another. But you’ll never improve if you don’t hear that, and you can’t fix a book’s flaws if no one points them out to you.

So criticism is absolutely crucial to the writing process. Actually, in the elementary school writing manual I edited at work a couple of years ago, there’s a whole section on peer review and how to do it effectively. (Again, not “you’re stupid” but “I don’t understand why this character acted this way.”) So that’s a fundamental.

(I think also sorting through criticism and deciding what’s valid and what you’re not willing to change is an art form that is incredibly hard to master. It’s good to listen to criticism and change what needs changing, but you can’t make every change or it’s not your book anymore.)

I will confess: yes, I do read reviews sometimes. I never comment, but I do read them. (Not all, and not when my self-esteem is fragile, but if I run into one, I’ll usually at least skim it.) Reviewers have said things that are so contrary to what I thought I was doing in a book that it highlights both that I have no perspective—perhaps what is on the page does not reflect my intentions—and that reading is highly subjective.

Sometimes I let it go, sometimes the criticism sticks with me. Readers seem less enamored with my more neurotic characters, for instance. (Examples: Seth in Kindling Fire with Snow, Jake in Four Corners, Dan in Show and Tell.) I always thought Adam in Four Corners was a harder character to like, but reviews have complained about Jake. One of my regular betas thought Show and Tell was among my best books, and I agreed, but reviews were more luke warm. Actually, one of my favorite negative reviews was of Save the Date; the reviewer found the whole premise unbelievable. I read it and then yelled, “IT HAPPENED TO ME!” at my computer. Sometimes you have to get that out of your system.

Here’s the thing with reviews, though. I’ve heard some authors say that they learn from them. I don’t know if I agree that’s the right approach. For one thing, reviewers are not betas and shouldn’t be treated that way. For another, once the book is out there, it can’t be changed. Critical reviews often respond to book-specific issues—plot holes or character inconsistencies or other things that don’t work—so it’s hard to apply that to other projects. The other thing with reviews is that there are some readers who will just never connect with your writing, and that’s fine, but that also means their reviews are not going to be helpful. (One of my other favorite negative reviews dinged Out in the Field for being a romance novel.)

(It helps to have a sense of humor about these things. Rather than freak that there would be a 2-star review on Amazon calling out the book for being a romance novel instead of whatever the reviewer thought he was buying, I found it funny, plus I figure having a range of ratings proves the reviews were written by real people and not sock puppets.)

And I’ll be honest, once a book is done, it’s usually not in my head anymore. (At GRL last year, someone came up to me and said she loved “the book with the rugby players” and I said “I wrote a book about rugby players?” because it took me way longer than it should have to remember that Tristan and his love interest in Save the Date had played rugby together in college.) It’s kind of like, once I’m done, I just shove it out to make space in my brain for other books. It’s why, until The Silence of the Stars, writing sequels was so impossible for me. So reliving the parts of the book that are less successful through a reviewer is not that useful an exercise to me. I mostly just want to gauge general reader reaction out of curiosity.

Anyway. What prompted me to say all this was a blog post I read about how many new authors are flooding the market, and it occurs to me that some things that are old hat to me because I’ve been writing since forever and have worked in publishing for almost twelve years are maybe not obvious to people just getting started. I work as an editor, as well, so I believe strongly that all authors should be open to changing their books to improve them. (When my first book went through edits, it was BRUTAL. I may have cried, a little. But the book was vastly improved by that process and I learned a lot. I’d like to hope most writers have that experience.)

The romance market is weird and it’s hard to figure out what’s driving it. If books start to feel same-y if you read too many in a row, is that because that’s what sells or is that what people are writing? If readers have general complaints about the genre, is that because they’ve fallen into a particular niche or are there just limitations on what’s out there?

I’ll admit, often when there’s a general complaint about the genre, I’m a little baffled. I get reader fatigue sometimes, but I’ve also become super selective about what I’ll buy, only trying new authors if a lot of reviewers whose opinions I generally agree with recommend the book.

I also struggle with myself, too, because on the one hand, I like straightforward contemporary romance and there are some bits in The Silence of the Stars that are sappy, but I wouldn’t change them because I like the book that way. But I also want to do something experimental, something no one has tried before. I’m never going to be the one writing the super dark books—that’s not my style, it’s not what I’m into—but I’ve got a novel out with my betas right now in which I played around with narrative structure and put in a couple of plot points that I think will be unpopular. My hope is that my writing will overcome that; this is the story as I wanted to tell it. The historical I’m currently shopping around is probably my darkest book yet—and it’s not that dark, really; there’s some violence, but it’s mild—plus it’s a historical, and that’s really different for me. I can’t keep writing the same book, and sometimes I think, “Fuck it, I’ll just write the book I want to write” and that’s actually usually when I come up with my best stuff.

I think there’s merit in trying something new. There’s merit in learning new things. I still buy craft books and attend workshops. I’m teaching such a workshop tomorrow, actually. (It’s on how to develop setting.) I read critically and pick books apart, analyzing what works for me and what doesn’t. I read reviews of other books both to get recommendations and because I’m interested to know what reviewers respond to. I want every one of my books to be better than the last, and I think I’ve become a much better writer in the four years I’ve been published. There will ALWAYS be room for improvement, no matter how gifted you are or how many books you’ve sold.

Anyway. I’m mostly writing all this because I’ve read a lot of books recently that read a little paint-by-numbers to me. One of my favorite things in romance is when someone takes an old trope and totally twists it. I love books that take old ideas or standard plots and do something different and interesting with them. That’s sort of the beauty of the genre—you know how the book is going to end (at least as far as the main couple getting together) but the journey is what makes the story interesting. So take that journey and do something different with it. Taking Chances is my mantra for this year.

some updates

This post is going to be all over the place, so bear with me, but updates!

• If you follow me on social media, you probably saw that my laptop finally bit the big one last week. I helped it along by spilling water on it, but it’s been on its way out for a while. It’s more than six years old. It was running super slow. I’ve been saving in anticipation of buying a new one this year. This just happened so suddenly that I was surprised and spent a whole day freaking out because I make my livelihood by typing on that stupid thing and… yeah. Not having a computer is a bad thing for a writer.

So that was stressful, and I haven’t replaced it yet for a few reasons, but things are okay. My entire hard drive was backed up on my external drive, so I haven’t lost anything (phew!) and I’ve got my tablet and a temporary loaner laptop to use until I can purchase a new one. This is going to slow me down a little, but I have so much going on in March I don’t have a lot of time for writing anyway.

• Barb put up a post Friday at Live Your Life, Buy the Book for her birthday in which she picked a sweet sixteen set of Loose Id books to celebrate. These same books are now on sale. They include Across the East River Bridge by yours truly as well as some of my old favorites including Duty and Devotion, Nowhere Ranch, and Long Tall Drink. She asked the authors of books she picked to write up a little something, so I talked about the ill-fated romance I found myself in when I was at a camp for overachievers at the University of Michigan when I was sixteen. I felt like that tied in nicely with the rival-academics theme of AtERB.

• I’ve got the final cover and blurb for The Silence of the Stars, so I’ll reveal that… soon. I’m not certain of the pub date, but I think May sometime. That’s the sequel to The Stars that Tremble, though it works pretty well as a standalone. This is Sandy’s story, and I put him through the ringer emotionally, but it’s actually not super angsty. More on that soon.

• Although if you plan to come to Liberty States in New Jersey next weekend, I’ll totally show you the cover. It’s gorgeous and I <3 it. (The big book signing is open to the public 4:30–6pm, so drop by if you’re in the area. A number of my favorite people will be signing books as well, including Tere Michaels, Damon Suede, and K.A. Mitchell.) Convention registration just ended, but the signing is open to everyone.

• I spent most of January and February reading books assigned to me because of contests or book club or research, so I finally got to read a book just for the hell of it this weekend, and it was glorious. (I find that, even if I’m enjoying a book, if I HAVE to read it, it feels like homework.)

I will say: reading books critically as a contest judge is tricky. It’s kind of like reviewing, I imagine, though for me, being an anonymous judge means I can be totally candid about how I feel about a book. Most of the contest books ended up being kind of middle-of-the-road for me: not terrible, but not that great either. There was competent writing and all the normal romance signposts, though some felt a little parboiled to me. (By which I mean: underdeveloped, not quite there yet.) It made me a little sad, actually; I guess if you read enough books that don’t really work for you in a row, you start to despair.

I think there’s value in reading critically in that you can analyze what it is that doesn’t work and apply those lessons to your own writing, so that’s my take away. But, for example, in a romance novel, I want that first “I love you” to be earned. I’ve read a lot of books lately where it feels like the characters are declaring their love for each other not because they actually are in love but just because we’re 3/4 of the way through the novel.

I want to write more on this topic—and on sex scenes, because I saw a few doozies in the contest books and in something I read over the weekend. (Short version: I’m noticing a lot of things that read to me as more “this is here because the author thinks it’s required” than “this is something the characters would organically do.”) I mean, romance is fantasy, no question, and there are things I can excuse in a story I’m enjoying, but a lot of what I’ve read lately doesn’t really match up with my own experience. (I have a lot to say on this topic, apparently, because I just wrote several paragraphs and then deleted them for fear I was getting too TMI, but suffice it to say we all bring our own experience to bear when we’re reading, and I have read some things lately that made me scratch my head and think, “Do actual humans behave in this way?” so.)

Anyway, this is a long enough post. Happy Monday!

embracing abundance

Can we talk about this Huffington Post essay for a moment?

tl;dr: The author is basically saying that, because JK Rowling already had her time in the sun and that every time she publishes something new, it creates so much buzz that it crowds out everybody else, she should stop writing. For example, of The Casual Vacancy, this essayist writes:

It wasn’t just that the hype was drearily excessive, or that (by all accounts) the novel was no masterpiece and yet sold by the hundredweight, it was the way it crowded out everything else, however good, however worthwhile. That book sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere. And I chose that analogy quite deliberately, because I think that sort of monopoly can make it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive. Publishing a book is hard enough at the best of times, especially in an industry already far too fixated with Big Names and Sure Things, but what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath?

The solution to this “problem” is to tell Rowling to quit.

This assumes that there are a finite number of slots available for all published books. It assumes that JK Rowling and the rest of us are competing for the same readers. It assumes that one runaway bestseller will somehow hinder every other writer from getting her voice out there.

There are a few things to pick apart here. I mean, we can dispense with the argument about quality pretty quickly, right? The value of a book is subjective. This essayist admits to never having read Rowling. (I’m somehow still surprised to find people for whom this is true. I don’t read much YA or fantasy and yet have read every Harry Potter book at least twice. You can make arguments about them being derivative or childish or whatever, but I was highly entertained by every one. I haven’t read Rowling’s adult novels, so I can’t speak to those.) Still, it’s an argument that gets trotted out a lot: It’s inconceivable that _____ is so popular because s/he is terrible! And yet, there are some people that love the punching bag books, and there’s always at least one in the popular mindset. Before Fifty Shades there was Twilight or The DaVinci Code or [book you made fun of at parties with your well-read friends]. Something in each of those books resonated with readers, so even if the book didn’t work for you, it did work for thousands of others. And, let’s face it, quality and popularity are not synonyms.

But to the greater point that the popular writers should take a seat so that everyone else can get a chance: Nope. That’s a problematic argument. You can’t tell a creative person to stop, because they won’t, because creating is what they do, a part of who they are. But also, there is no reason why the continued existence of Rowling (or Stephen King or James Patterson or E.L. James or whoever) prevents anyone else from becoming a bestselling author.

But Kate, I hear you arguing, this is obvious. I need Rowling to keep writing so I can have enough fodder to complete my Hermione/Ginny femslash, and also, duh, obviously no one REALLY thinks Rowling stepping aside will suddenly create a gaping hole to fit all our books in.

Well, but, the thing is, I have seen writers treating the market as if there are only a finite number of books that can be sold. Just this morning, I fell into the rabbit hole of reading Goodreads reviews on which this one author was harassing reviewers who gave her books bad reviews. Authors still buy reviews to get the coveted 5 stars so they sell more. They also bash other authors, publicly put books down, treat the industry like a contest.

It’s not. Publishing is not a race. Especially if you write romance, there are PLENTY of readers. I believe that any of us has the potential to be the Next Big Thing.

One of my friends said on Twitter last night that this is a classic example of scarcity mindset. That’s the belief that there’s not enough of anything to go around. In this particular instance, the author of the piece on Rowling is assuming that success is somehow quantifiable and that there is not enough of it to go around. That there’s a zero-sum game such that if Rowling has all the popularity, there’s nothing left for anyone else.

That’s not true. Personally, I think there’s benefit in taking on an abundance mindset. (I like that post a lot. It’s a little new-age-y, but the gist is to give away instead of hoard, to not assume things are finite.)

For example, deep in my soul, I want gay romance to be successful. It doesn’t matter if it’s me making the Times bestseller list or accepting a RITA or someone else, I love this niche of romance and this community and there’s room for us to share in its successes. One of the things I love about the romance community generally is the willingness to share and talk about books we love.

This is part of why I personally don’t write negative book reviews. I mean, I have a degree in English lit and have worked as an editor for twelve years; BELIEVE ME, if your book has flaws, I can see them. Sometimes I can overlook them if I’m finding a book entertaining. Sometimes I can’t. I feel like such a Pollyanna on Goodreads sometimes, squawking about how much I love things. Books I don’t love don’t get rated, and I tend not to talk about books when I don’t like them, and part of that is selfish and face-saving, but part of that is I just don’t want to tear other authors down. (That’s me, though; your mileage may vary. I certainly don’t begrudge other authors adopting other policies in this regard, and you can say of my books whatever the hell you want. I actually think negative reviews are good because they show potential readers that plenty of real people read and reacted to the book. I’m personally leery of books that get all 5-star reviews.)

Over the weekend, I was playing around with this new Ken Burns app on my iPad and watched a segment from his documentary on the Shakers in which Burns talks about how the Shakers made a number of technological innovations and then shared them with anyone who wanted them. It led to a lot of other Americans taking Shaker technology and expanding and developing it, spurring some even greater inventions. Burns asked rhetorically if we could imagine current technological innovations being shared in the same way and how that might affect technological development. It’s an interesting thing to think about. I mean, it’s why open-source software exists, for one, but so much technology is hoarded and proprietary. If more people were allowed to play with and innovate these new inventions, would that change how fast new gadgets are developed?

Similarly, I think it’s important for writers to pay it forward. I teach workshops. I talk up books I loved. I want to embrace abundance because book sales aren’t finite and there is room for all of us. Sure, you have to figure out how to get heard above the noise—and there is a LOT of noise these days—but one author’s success does not translate to another author’s failure.

in which I have opinions

It’s been a weird week in which a lot of things have happened, and I got very

but somehow restrained myself when it came to actually speaking up. It’s the problem of being an author and being conscious of the fact that people are watching what you do. To be clear, I don’t feel stifled by potential readers, it’s more thinking, “Does acting this way or saying these things really live up to the image I want to portray?” and usually when I want to rant about something, the answer to that is, “No.”

But here are some things I’ve been thinking about, in no particular order:

• I should know better than to read most “journalism” on the romance industry. So many of the articles take a “hey, look at what these silly women are doing” approach that I find kind of offensive. But the kicker is that I read two articles recently that made the argument that romance writers don’t aspire to be literary or romance writers aren’t concerned with the same things literary fiction writers are. I got into kind of a shouty argument with a friend, who countered that this was a good thing because literary fiction is soulless and concerned with writing the perfect sentence over plot and character. I disagreed because, as with romance, you can’t characterize a whole genre with such broad strokes. Sure, some literary fiction novels are soulless, and some romance novels are crap. But that doesn’t mean the whole genre is that way. More to the point, the connotations of the statement that romance writers don’t aspire to the same things literary writers do is that romance writers don’t aspire to be good writers. Which I take issue with. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time studying and working on my craft, with the goal of each book being better than the last, and to me, a great book is one that gets everything right: beautiful writing, a compelling story, interesting characters, emotional resonance, all of those things. The ONLY differences between a romance novel and a literary novel, as far as I’m concerned, are romance’s emphasis on the central story being a romantic one and the happy ending requirement.

Basically, the distinction between literary and genre fiction is one of marketing and expectations, not writing quality. For example, if I walk over to the fantasy section of a book store, I’m looking for a certain kind of book. I have expectations for what it will include. Literary fiction is much more broad. But otherwise? Sure, maybe there are some genre writers who are painting by numbers, but a lot of romance writers I have met over the years are genuinely invested in creating a great book.

• Although, perhaps disproving my own point, I read a historical romance novella earlier this week that was just rampant with factual errors. (Not m/m for what it’s worth. And no, I won’t tell you which book it was.) Now, I will grant you, I’m a dweeb and a history buff, so I’m going to spot errors that other readers may not. In this case, there were two that stood out to me: one was a bit about baseball that was so wrong I actually dropped the book in exasperation—and that was something a thirty second Google search could have rectified—and, without giving away the book, the other error is about something so fundamental that if you fixed the novel to correct it, the whole plot would fall apart. That is, the premise of the novel is based on something historically false, and this is not an alternate history. This is apparently a hard limit for me; the writing was competent and I liked the characters okay, but I just could not get past those historical errors.

• I did actually weigh in on an argument on an author loop, which I basically never do, but apparently I hit some kind of tongue-holding critical mass. I mean, I was nice and respectful. I don’t even necessarily think we all have to get along within the community, and some debate and disagreement is good, but it’s a combination of “am I putting myself in the best light?” and “is everybody going to hate me if I say this?” that pass through my mind whenever I type something to put on the Internet, even somewhere semi-private like an author loop.

• I’m reading a Beverly Jenkins novel right now in which the heroine is a whore—this is what she calls herself in the novel, and indeed, she is a woman who has sex for money and the hero is one of her clients—and I’m finding it so refreshing that this heroine totally owns her past and her choices and feels no shame about it! I’m really loving that aspect of the book. That is, the heroine has had a hard life and totally recognizes why a happily ever after with the hero from a prominent family is probably not possible (except it totally is because this is a romance novel) but there’s no effort on Jenkins’s part to make the heroine pure anyway—and I recently read a book with a virgin concubine heroine that was published in 2009, so this is still a thing we’re doing in romance—or regretful of her past life except as it pertains to her current situation and the novel’s central conflict.

I wonder sometimes if some of the reason LGBT romance sometimes feels like it has fewer limits is that the fact that there are two dudes or two ladies or whatever at the center of the book is already a barrier to entry for some readers, and if you’re already redefining a genre, you might as well go for it. Is it the same for multicultural romance? Does the fact that this Jenkins book has two people of color embracing on the cover keep some readers away? (I’m not so naive as to think that it doesn’t, which is a shame because this book is so fantastically trope-y and I’m finding it very entertaining.) If so, does that give Jenkins some room to write a different kind of heroine than what we’re used to seeing? I honestly don’t know; I’m just wondering if that’s what’s happening here, because it’s been a while since I read even a contemporary romance with a heroine who owns her sexuality in this way. (So far. I’m about halfway through the book.)

I’ll leave it there. It’s raining in New York right now, which is washing away the snow finally. I have high hopes that I will soon be able to go outside without wearing clunky boots.

Surprise Out in the Field Valentine’s Day Short!

Lots of big news this week if you’re a sports fan. There are Olympics going on. NFL-bound player Michael Sam came out of the closet. My beloved Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter announced he’s retiring at the end of the upcoming season. And today is not just Valentine’s Day but also the day that pitchers and catchers report for baseball Spring Training. So I thought, what better way to celebrate than a short visit with Matt and Iggy? So here you are! Enjoy!

Matt frowned at Iggy’s giant suitcase, half packed and laying open on the bed. Iggy hadn’t even left the city yet, but the apartment already felt empty. With a heavy sigh, he left the room and walked into the kitchen, where he put a half-hearted effort into making a sandwich.

He was half eating, half reading the sports news on his phone when a snow-covered Iggy blew through the door.

“Don’t go outside,” Iggy said. Read the rest of this entry »