There Is No Pie

I wrote this article for the RWANYC newsletter a couple of months ago, and now seems like a good time to republish it.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for RWR about scarcity mindset. It was written in part as a response to a lot of bad author behavior I’d observed, including an author who wrote an article for a big publication arguing that J.K. Rowling should quit writing so that the rest of us could get a piece of the pie.

My response was basically: there is no pie. It’s a common misperception that there’s a finite number of readers and that one author’s success will thus signal another author’s failure. But this fails to take into account the vast number of readers out there, particularly for romance. And there are romance readers who buy and read hundreds of books a year. With a reading culture like that, the potential for any author’s book to be a bestseller is high.

The scarcity/abundance model is one often applied to personal finance, actually, but I think it’s a good model to apply to the way one approaches her career. Think of it this way: if you believe in scarcity, you are more likely to act competitively, be stingier with your resources, be selfish in your promotion. You assume resources are scarce, in other words, so you fight to get yours. If you believe in abundance, you know there’s enough to go around, so you’ll share more, be open to more opportunities, and share your knowledge. The abundance mindset is one where we all have the potential to be successful; indeed, if one succeeds, we all succeed. The rising tide lifts all boats, right?

My theory at the time I wrote the RWR article was that one of the things that motivates a lot of bad author behavior is scarcity mindset, the idea that there’s only so much success to go around, so if another author is successful, that means I won’t be. Which is BS, frankly, because success is not zero-sum. The vast number of readers and the vast number of books sold per year means that any given authors potential reader base could, in fact, be huge. Especially if one writes a great book that catches readers’ imaginations.

So here’s a thing I’m seeing lately that I find troubling: the idea that the success of diverse books means the established straight, white authors get a smaller piece of the pie.

But again: there is no pie.

When I get asked for publishing advice, I always tell people to act as though anything were possible. In other words, placing limits on ourselves is how we get in our own way. Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling had thought, “Well, no fantasy YA series with boy wizards exist, so this book is doomed to failure.” That’s crazy talk. Sure, New York publishing is conservative in what they except, careful to make decisions based on what they think will sell, but at the end of the day, a good book is a good book. And we all know how things turned out for Ms. Rowling.

A lot of diverse authors and authors of diverse books start at a disadvantage, which I think is important to acknowledge. I could go into details, but we’ve talked about them at RWANYC meetings, and a lot of these issues were highlighted by Jennifer Baker from We Need Diverse Books at her talk at the May Brunch. The highlight reel includes things like segregating diverse books in brick-and-mortar stores, ineffective marketing plans, and a mostly-white publishing industry that has struggled to branch out from what it knows to be successful. (To name just a few issues.)

But we are making progress, and that includes authors of diverse books who pushed to have them published, and who developed savvy marketing plans, and have earned accolades and broke sales records and proved that their books are worthwhile. The good news is that publishers are more receptive to a wider range of romance novels, and RWA has, over the last few years, made great strides in advocating for diverse romance.

I’ve seen a lot of remarkable changes just in the last seven years since I submitted my first novel for publication, and that’s a very short amount of time. Publishers who wouldn’t even look at books with LGBT characters seven years ago are publishing them to great acclaim now. An increasingly diverse slate of novels gets reviewed by Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly every month. Romance novels by non-white and/or non-heterosexual authors are getting more attention, and rightly so. The conversation we’ve been having about diverse books for the last couple of years has made tangible progress possible. We’ve still got a ways to go, granted, but the fact that we’ve come so far, I think, means we should continue to operate as if we can go farther. All things are possible.

Naturally, as with any kind of progress, there’s pushback.

But publishing is not like a dinner table. It’s not like there are only ten chairs, and if we give a new author a chair, someone else loses out on a great meal. The industry doesn’t work that way. Readers don’t work that way. One of the best things about the increasing viability of self-publishing as a career path is that the potential exists for any book to find its audience, and as such, a greater diversity—and I mean that in all senses of the word—of books is available to readers. There’s nothing holding you back from putting your crazy idea, the one you’ve heard is not really marketable, out there to find out if it does, indeed, have a market. If you want to write about lesbian astronauts making scientific discoveries and falling in love in 1985, you can find a platform for that book now. (Hell, I kind of want to read that book, and I just made it up on the fly.)

And if you want to write about a woman who owns a florist shop and a man who works as a carpenter who find love in a small town, that’s totally cool, too. The lesbian astronauts won’t push your book off the shelf. If all things are possible—if we work within a mindset of abundance—these books can sit on the same shelf, even.

The romance genre is not a pie. We don’t divvy up slices among authors. (If we did, Nora Roberts would have that slice my youngest brother cuts every Thanksgiving that’s like, a quarter of the pie, even though he claimed to only want a sliver, you know?) New authors make the RWA honor roll every week. Books by all manner of authors with all manner of characters hit bestseller lists routinely. The success of another author has no impact on you unless you let it.

I’d like to think we can all work together to help each other succeed. We can share resources, experience, support, etc., working together to make the publishing industry better. It takes hard work, yes, and a career in romance writing is a long game, but I honestly believe we can continue to make progress together.

Creativity, Value, and Quitting Your Day Job

I wrote this post for the Rainbow Romance Writers blog and am reprinting it here by permission. Just some thoughts I had about a few articles making the rounds recently.

When I first moved to New York City fourteen years ago, I had a friend who lived in this tremendously terrible apartment in Brooklyn. She made more money than I did, and I lived in a decent apartment, so I thought it was strange that she lived in a building that was covered in graffiti and kind of smelled like urine all the time. It took me awhile to work out that she liked the cachet of living in a crappy New York apartment.

When you’re twenty-two, as I was at the time, there’s a certain amount of glamour in moving to New York City and living in squalor, especially if you’re a creative person. It’s the “starving artist” dream, right?

But I have long thought the starving artist archetype does all creative types a disservice, because it undervalues creative work. The real truth is that, while it is difficult to carve out a living from creative work, it is definitely possible. But we have to put the work in. And we deserve to be paid fairly.

I first started looking into becoming published over ten years ago, and there’s been a significant shift since then. At the time, the standard advice for most fiction writers was to submit short stories to magazines to get a few writing credits before you started querying agents, and by the way, don’t quit your day job because making any money publishing is something only a select few do. So I assumed I’d have a day job until I hit an important bestseller list and/or married a celebrity chef.

I am still waiting for both things to happen.

But then something shifted. A few authors I knew were putting out books so consistently that they were earning a somewhat predictable income and were able to leave their day jobs (with the support of their spouses). Their growing backlists ensured a certain baseline of sales every quarter. A couple of these authors are probably people you haven’t heard of, so they weren’t putting out runaway bestsellers, but they were putting books out steadily and earning a decent income.

Shortly thereafter, authors began talking online about how they were making money—real money—through self-publishing ebooks. Thus the conversation shifted entirely: financial success from writing was no longer rare but something anyone could achieve by uploading their book online.

The thing is, that level of success is rare. Sure, it’s possible to make real money from writing and publishing if you do it well. However, according to Bookscan, the average U.S. book sells less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 overall.

One book won’t bring you sustainable wealth, that much is clear. Fiction writer Meritt Tierce wrote an article for Marie Claire with the headline, “I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim—and Then I Promptly Went Broke.” In the article, she explains that she quit her day job two weeks before the book release. The book got killer reviews, but she’d been expecting higher sales.

I will admit, I read the headline and thought, “Oh, boy, what kind of delusional nonsense is this?” but I do think Tierce makes a good point. Not having a job created so much anxiety for her that she couldn’t write. So she got a job as a letter carrier for the post office, but it had an unexpected consequences:

I made $16.65 an hour, which was enough to relieve at least some of the financial pressure. But the part of the loop that went straight from If I had money now to I could calm down and write something didn’t account for intense physical exhaustion. I walked eight to 12 miles each day, carrying a heavy satchel. I actually liked being drained that way, as if each piece of paper I put in a mailbox represented a small packet of my own energy. But at the end of the day, there wasn’t anything left for Second Book. I had the stamina to do the job and come home and recover from doing the job and then go do it some more the next day.

This is, I think, a really common problem for writers. We write because we’re passionate about it, but we gotta put food on the table, and sometimes that other job zaps all our energy.

Complicating things is the “myth of no effort” and the way arts are undervalued. As writers, we know it takes hours—months… years, sometimes—to write a novel. But we tend to assume artists are naturally talented and just kind of put our art out there. (See this article. Or this one, arguing that writing is not a job. I beg to differ there. Writing is as much a job as my day job is. And calling it “a thing you can do if you like it!” is just further undervaluing it. Society doesn’t think we should pay artists for art, but artists’ time and work has value.) I think this is related to the struggling artist archetype. We’re supposed to struggle for our art. We’re supposed to live in crappy apartments and eat ramen and channel our pain and frustration into our art. Except that level of anxiety, as Tierce points out, can be crippling to creativity.

So don’t quit your day job.

Or do quit. Remember my friends who did? Each of those authors has worked to write enough books to build a backlist, but they also put the work into a steady marketing plan. One author I know who is doing very well self-publishing has a killer social media presence. A lot of the authors I know who don’t have full-time jobs are also regulars at conferences and put in a lot of time and energy to reaching new reader bases.

It’s not easy. But it’s possible. You can’t just go at it willy-nilly, though. You have to strategize and plan. You have to write and publish books regularly. And you have to spend some time on the business part of your writing career.

It surprised me, then, when my friend Sara Humphreys made the announcement that she was quitting the business of writing. She’s not quitting writing, she’s quitting everything else. The pressure to produce more books—to build that backlist and to give books to her clamoring fans—was killing her creativity, and her social media efforts were eating up her writing time.

I both get it and don’t. Parts of the marketing process are fun for me. I love conferences. I love Twitter. I love interacting with readers online. But I do understand how much of a time suck it can be, especially during weeks when I only have a set amount of time for my author stuff. And, honestly, if I have to choose between writing and marketing, I almost always choose writing.

Historical romance writer Eloisa James told me once that she considered herself lucky because she had a day job she loved—she’s a college professor—so whether she made money from her writing didn’t matter. Although she does—her books have sold thousands if not millions of copies—she doesn’t feel the pressure to earn money from writing. It gives her more creative freedom, because if she writes a strange book and it tanks, her life will go on. I think about that sometimes. I do all right, writing-income-wise—I sell more books than the average, let’s say—but my primary source of income is still my “day job” (which I do freelance now, giving me the flexibility to write and travel to conferences).

The books are why I got into this business to begin with. I want to write and tell stories. And I want to make money doing it.

I think it’s important to take the time to focus on the why. You won’t get rich quick writing. And you’ll have days when banging your head repeatedly against your keyboard is less painful than putting words on the page. Making a writing career work requires sacrifices—TV watching, time with your family, chores left undone, etc.—and untold hours of work. On the other hand, if you manage your career well, you can be successful and live the dream.

I’m not really sure what conclusions to draw from all this, except that a writing career is a balancing act. All things are possible, but you have to put in the work. Overnight success is a rare thing in publishing, but a long-term career is something I think we can all achieve if we continue to hone our craft, work hard, and put out the best books we can.

Masculine Women, Feminine Men

I ran across this article today: In the Early 20th Century, America Was Awash in Incredible Queer Nightlife (Subtitle: Then Prohibition ended, and the closet was born.) It’s an interesting read while also tying in very well to some of the themes I’ve explored in writing my historical romances.

When I started researching Such a Dance, one of the things that struck me was that history doesn’t move in a straight line. I mean, yes, there’s the linear march of time, but progress is more circular. This article outlines things like the drag balls of the 1920s—although drag performance had existed for long before that—and how they were part the mainstream to a degree.

Such A DanceI think we tend to think of gay rights as starting with Stonewall, but the truth is that, prior to World War II, it was possible to be openly LGBT to some extent (even if they wouldn’t have called it that at the time). But, of course, society always reacts to progress in a two steps forward, one step back fashion. So it went with women, too, incidentally; women in the 1920s had unprecedented freedom that was pulled back in the subsequent decades. What was called queer or pansy culture at the time followed a similar pattern. It thrived, and then sodomy laws were beefed up or enforced, pushing a lot of men (and women) into closets, shutting down the speakeasies and clubs where they had been allowed to flourish previously.

I find these patterns fascinating. I see a lot of reader reaction to LGBT historical fiction implying it’s hard for them to buy a happy ending, but happy endings were possible, even in America, prior to the 1930s. There were sham marriages, sure, but there were same-sex partnerships, too. (In Such a Dance, for example, I think the Mob is a greater threat to Lane and Eddie’s continued happiness than anything else. A gay couple in the 1920s could have built a good life for themselves in Greenwich Village or Times Square or Harlem.)

Also, unsubtle plug: Such a Dance is currently 99¢ if you haven’t read it yet but your interest is piqued.

on competition and opportunity

Or, Here’s that sweeping, inspirational post I promised last week.

I spent my formative years on my high school debate team. I mostly only joined because of peer pressure from my then best friend, although the very handsome coach was a persuasive argument as well. The funny thing is that my friend quit the team halfway through freshman year but I stuck it out. I don’t like to quit things. I still don’t think I ever had quite the right temperament for debate, but as the years went on, it certainly pounded any shyness I ever had right out of me and I learned a ton. I don’t regret the experience at all.

I imagine anyone who has ever done anything competitive probably has noticed this, but I found that debating against opponents who were better than me made me better.

In my four years on the team, I debated everyone from brand-new freshmen to national champions. By senior year, my partner and I were in the top 50 debate teams in the country—not the best, but definitely very good. In addition to honing my debate skills, one of the things I had to learn was how not to sink when faced with a weaker opponent. By that I mean that it was easy, when faced with a team I was confident I could beat, to sink a little, to play at their level, to get too cocky and not put the effort in. Some of my worst debating was actually against teams I should have handily beat and some of my best was against opponents who could handily beat me.

It’s about rising to the challenge. Eventually, I taught myself to always perform at my best, regardless of opponent, and that was really when I shone, but that was a tough thing to learn how to do.

Writing isn’t inherently competitive, but I think in these modern times, it’s hard not to feel like it’s a contact sport. We watch our Amazon ratings go up and down. We feel anxious and jealous when other books out-perform ours. We covet five-star reviews, contest wins, placement on bestseller lists. I think, too, that the anxiety that stems from this sense of competition is what brings out the worst behavior in authors. (I wrote an article about this for RWA’s Romance Writers Report that will be published in the near future. The thesis of that is that creative people operate under a scarcity mindset that assumes there is a finite amount of reader attention each author gets, so we all fight for it, but in fact, our reach is infinite.)

I’ve been following a lot of online discussions but not commenting on them, partly because I just don’t want to touch those discussions, but partly I think some of the drama and pettiness stems from this attitude, that we’re all competing with each other for readers. I think sometimes that one person can say something, can put forth an idea, and then everyone weighs in, and it becomes a sinkhole that is not unlike debating an opponent you should be able to beat in your sleep—you sink to their level instead of rising above.

I don’t say that to be superior. I’m just saying that I want to take those lessons I learned as a teenage debate nerd and focus them on my current writing career. I’m working hard and looking ahead. It’s tough not to get bogged down in all of it, from fretting about reviews and ratings and rankings to feeling like I should wade into whatever the big discussion topic of the moment is.

Because I also believe that we all rise together. Writing isn’t a competition. In fact, a career is built on support, on colleagues and friends, on the romance community. And there are some great people in this community, people who are just a pleasure to be around, people who inspire me, people who have helped open doors for me, people who make Romance better.

I’ve spent this year as president of an organization whose sole purpose is to advance the interest of LGBT romance writers, which means I’ve been working to get more attention on LGBT romance, for it to gain more recognition, for its writers to have more opportunities. I feel really proud of the work Rainbow Romance Writers has done with our limited resources. There’s more work to do, but if we work together, we can accomplish a lot. We can make writing any kind of romance a viable career option. We can gain more readers, more sales, more respect.

It’s already an uphill battle. The general public doesn’t take romance seriously, dismissing the whole genre as being bodice-rippers or something silly, sex-obsessed women do or whatever. You’ve read the articles about the genre. LGBT romance has a steeper hill to climb by virtue of the fact that it’s a niche of romance about people historically marginalized. But it’s not an impossible hill to climb.

This was brought to you in part by this post by Chuck Wedig that expresses a similar sentiment.

Step away from the pit by recognizing that while you aren’t perfect, you can always do better. We can commit to improvement. We can challenge ourselves. In this great big creative RPG we can level up in a character class of one — the character class only we belong to.

Then he concludes:

I just wanted to say all this because we all go there. And we can all get through it. None of us are singular beings in this feeling. It hits some of us harder than others (and to those who manifest this as bonafide depression, I can only remind you again that you are genuinely not alone). But it’s something we all experience. Doubt. Frustration. Fear. The envy of others. It won’t do much for you. It’s a poison. Stop drinking it. Spit it out.

Step away from the pit.

Be you. Don’t be me.

And create the things that only you can create.

* * * * *

underdogRelated to this, viewing that hill as impossible is how we defeat ourselves as writers.

Nothing is impossible. Write that down. Repeat. “But I’ll never—” Nope. Your career is yours it can be what you want it to be.

Some examples:

At a recent meeting of my local RWA chapter, we were talking a little about book distribution. An author was frustrated because his publisher had limited distribution channels. The panel of booksellers basically said, “That’s something worth looking into before you sign with a publisher.” I absolutely agree, and I think it is essential to do your research before you even submit a manuscript. Just getting published isn’t enough—you want to work with a publisher who will able to get your book into the hands of as many readers as possible. And I get that it’s tough in certain niches and sub-genres—there are limited audiences, the big publishers aren’t quite sure how to market erotica or LGBT romance yet, etc.—but there are small presses and digital-first publishers that ARE doing great work. An unpublished writer at the meeting said, “Well, yeah, but that first offer you get, why wouldn’t you jump at it?”

You don’t have to take the first offer. Thinking that you have to take the first rope thrown at us is one of the ways writers limit ourselves and our opportunities. It can lead to rough going ahead—publishers who end up cheating us or agents we don’t work well with. If you keep at it, if you make your book as good as it can be, the right opportunity will open up. Your dream publisher could come knocking. An agent you click with could offer to represent you. That first offer could be the opportunity of a lifetime, but it could also be a shot in the foot, and it’s worth taking the time to make sure it’s your best move before jumping at it. And, hey, self-publishing has made this a buyer’s market. You don’t need a publisher or agent to get your book out there. So if you want one, hold out for the right one. Take a long view of your career and decide what you want, what’s right, and what will help you reach your goals and go after that.

We also throw roadblocks in front of ourselves by assuming what we want isn’t possible. We assume we’ll never get an agent and let that discourage us from trying. We assume we’ll never make a bestseller list and so don’t explore as many promotional opportunities as are available to us. We don’t put in the full effort or we let our doubts cloud our judgment.

Rejection sucks. No doubt. But it’s not the end of the world. If you really want an agent but fear of rejection is keeping you from querying, you’ll never get an agent. If you’ve written a weird book—and I think we all have that wacky book in us that we’re convinced no one but ourselves will want to read—but don’t submit it anywhere, it will never get published. You’ll never know unless you try. And, yeah, maybe it will get rejected. Maybe an agent will pass. Maybe your book isn’t right for that publisher. But you can’t get to that next step in your career without putting yourself out there. The worst thing that will happen is someone says no.

No is not the end. I’ve got a nice little stack of rejection letters to prove it. In a couple of cases, the novels I submitted weren’t really ready for prime time. I was able to revise and resubmit to the same publisher or substantially rework and send it elsewhere. I’ve got a story that remains unpublished because its submission was met with a form rejection.

My way of coping with that is to allow myself feel bad for a couple of hours but then to move on and figure out the next step. Because one rejection did not end my career, nor will it end yours. So if that’s the worst that can happen, what else is stopping you from trying? Probably only yourself. Because maybe someone will say no, but maybe they will say yes.

this and that

I’ve been trying to write the same blog post for a week. The goal was to be sweeping and inspirational, discussing opportunity and how to throw off the limits we place on ourselves. But this has been a tough week, and nothing I write seems right to me, and then sweeping and inspirational turns into angry typing and nobody needs that.

But I haven’t updated the blog since I got back from RWA, so I felt like I should put up something. So here are some updates/rambles:

It’s been a weird summer. There’s been a lot of uncertainty at my day job, starting with lay-offs at the beginning of the summer. I’m still employed but my role has changed a little. I started picking up more freelance work, which is taking time away from my writing, unfortunately, but I have an opportunity for more work in the event I get laid off this fall (which I’m anticipating), so after a month of stress, I’m starting to feel now like things will work out. (Freelancing full time has been my plan almost since I started working in offices. I love my work, I really do, but I hate being stuck at a desk for 9 hours a day.)

I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo in July, and I wrote about 52,000 words, most of which were the back 2/3 of the second book in the baseball series I’m working on. That went out to betas this week. I’m kicking around ideas for two historical novels (I actually literally just clicked “buy” on a couple of reference books for said historicals). I wrote a new adult book this spring that has already been to betas and back that has to be revised. I’m really excited about all the projects I have on deck, but there are a lot of them and I have to seriously get myself on some sort of schedule.

I have triumphed over the adversity of having a broken laptop, doing all my writing on 3 different devices until I can replace it (bless you, Dropbox). I’m finally almost able to replace the big white brick that used to be a MacBook, but if you see a crazy lady in the Apple Store petting laptops, it’s probably me.

It’s been a rough week, national news wise. I also read a couple of articles that really upset me. The context isn’t important, but I’ve been trying to write about some of these issues all week and getting nowhere productive. I finally sat my roommate down last night and said, “Okay, none of this is going to make sense to you, but I have to tell someone, so can you listen for a minute?” and she did because she is a good friend, and I feel a million times better today. I think it’s good to just talk sometimes.

And then I started reading a nonfiction book that, in retrospect, I think was a bad choice. It’s interesting but kind of depressing. This is a good Romance Novels to the Rescue! moment, but I have so many unread ones that I feel paralyzed looking at them. Which to choose next? Historical or contemporary? Favorite author or someone I’ve never read before? I mean, it’s a good problem to have, but my physical TBR pile is daunting.

The weather in New York the last couple of days has been beautiful. Sunny and warm. Usually in mid-August everyone is miserable. I’m going to revel in it.

Lastly, an administrative note: I emptied the comment spam without skimming the comments to see if anything legit got trapped in the filter. (So much spam!) If your comment got deleted, I apologize. If you do post a comment that doesn’t get approved within 24 hours, it’s cool to email me about it.

new life motto

I caught the tail end of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on TV the other night. Since I’m apparently old enough now that music I was profoundly influenced by as a teenager is now getting Hall of Fame recognition, I watched the Nirvana induction with some interest. (Well, also, I appreciated their choice to have lady singers in their performances, Joan Jett especially because I love her, but also how great is St. Vincent?)

Anyway, Dave Grohl said something I really liked in his speech:

Because I think that’s the deal — you look up to your heroes and you shouldn’t be intimidated by them; you should be inspired by them. Don’t look up at the poster on your wall and think, “Fuck, I can never do that.” Look at the poster on your wall and think, “Fuck, I’m going to do that!”

Words to live by.

no defense needed

This is a real thing that happened to me this week:

Monday night, I was in SoHo for Lady Jane’s Salon, NYC’s monthly romance novel reading series. I got there early because things are slow at the day job, so I decided to stop at this coffee shop for a snack and a latte. I sat at the window and read The Windflower—a bonkers old-skool romance recently reissued that I seriously loved to bits—and so I was reading about pirate-y adventures and sipping my latte. This guy came over and dumped his laptop on the counter next to me and asked me to move over to make space for him, so I did. Before he even turned his laptop on, he said, “Is that a good book you’re reading?”

“Yes,” I said, because this book, I can’t even.

I will interrupt this story to say: 1) Ihis is maybe the third or fourth time some guy has hit on me by asking about what I’m reading, and it’s not a bad tactic as far as it goes, but usually this happens to me on the subway after a long day when all I want to do is go home. The guy who got the closest to picking me up this way was really cute, but then he told me he was a reporter for a right-wing newspaper, so he was disqualified.

2) This guy at the coffee shop was 20 years older than me at least and had the word “fuck” tattooed on both hands. On his hands. One letter per finger. So: not my type.

But he seemed nice enough and was not hard on the eyes. Not a creeper, from what I could tell. He said, “Oh, what are you reading?” and, because this guy did not look like the sort of man who would know about the magic that is The Windflower, I said, “A romance novel.” “Oh, darn,” he replied.

He got up to get coffee then, and I thought that was the end of it, but when he got back, he said, “Oh, I’ve got it. The most romantic movie I’ve ever seen.” He then proceeded to tell me, in excruciating detail, the plot of some movie from the 1930s that I’ve forgotten the name of, and it was charming of him to try, but his story ended with him saying, “Well, I guess it’s not really a romance, but I thought it was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen,” so that happened.

I walked out of the coffee shop not long after that, but actually, the interesting thing about this encounter is that he never once derided my choice in reading material (perhaps because he wanted to get in my pants?) and instead went a little out of his way to find common ground, which is admirable, but I couldn’t get past the hand tattoos.

I think this incident is kind of an interesting contrast to the myriad mansplaining articles that have come out recently in which dudes try to explain about romance and its readers and they are often baffled that women can be so successful while writing fiction they find beneath them.

It’s not really worth it to get outraged anymore. I mean, these are the facts: romance is the biggest genre on the planet. Its authors have achieved significant financial success. The books make people happy. Full stop. What more do you need?

I started reading romance again in my late twenties after a post-college, “I only read Literature” phase, and the first thing that struck me was just how much fun I had reading those books. And many, many romance novels are well-written, emotionally resonant, superbly-constructed novels. Some make you laugh, some make you ugly-cry, some are just thoroughly enjoyable.

So that’s it. The books are good. The authors are successful. That’s the bottom line.

And, hey, maybe some of these male authors writing trend pieces on romance will do the mental acrobatics the hand-tattooed guy did for me, trying to understand why I, a not-unattractive woman reading in a coffee shop, would find the genre so appealing. (This guy also asked me what a good romance novel was, and I suggested Flowers from the Storm, one of my favorite books of all time and my go-to, “So you are a lit fic reader who wants to try romance,” suggestion. I lend my copy out all the time to convert people. He said he’d check it out, but I don’t know if I believe him.)

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.

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.