Archive for category navel gazing

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.

The Pollyanna Principle

I am, generally speaking, an upbeat, optimistic person. I have dark moments—we all do—but for the most part, I try to keep a positive attitude.

But lately I’ve developed a complex about this.

This post is about to get kind of rambley, so apologies in advance.

First, an aside: A coworker of mine announced a few weeks ago that she was only going to read YA and not read literary fiction anymore. I am personally not a YA reader and have struggled to figure out why the genre is so popular among adults, but my coworker summed it up in a way I appreciated: YA is optimistic. Even in the darkest, most violent post-apocalyptic books, the teenage characters tend to have hope and optimism in the way only young people can, and my coworker liked that hope more than the sometimes depressing stories found in the literary fiction section of the book store.

And I said, “Why do you think I read romance novels?”

Romance is an optimistic genre. There are dark books and fluffy books and deeply emotional books and sweet books and basically anything that will hit your emotional sweet spot, but the key to the romance genre is the optimistic ending. Love will conquer all, the characters will end up together (at least for now), and good will triumph over evil.

I find that reassuring. There’s hope in the world, you know?

cheerleaderSo back to my complex. I’ve been working on an article that I want to pitch to a magazine about how having a positive attitude can help with book marketing. The gist is that getting bogged down in negativity—which publishing is rife with in the form of things like rejections, disappointing sales figures, bad reviews, and the like—could affect both your approach to self-promotion and how you come across to readers.

And I wrote a post for the new Rainbow Romance Writers blog about thinking bigger and LGBT romance breaking out of its niche to go mainstream, which I think a lot of people don’t realize is possible, but that I think totally is now in a way it never has been before.

But then I thought, Wow, do I come across as a ditzy cheerleader or what?

I believe every word of what I wrote. I believe that new opportunities for writers of LGBT romance open up every day. I believe that our little community does not need to be relegated to the ghetto, that readers are out there who want to buy our books in droves, that editors want these books.

But.

Just showing up is not enough. There’s still something of a disconnect between mainstream publishing and what indie/digital publishing has been up to for a while. The Big Five still aren’t really sure how to market LGBT romance, or aren’t sure how to acquire the good stuff. We’ve got a ways to go there.

I choose to view the fact that many editors I’ve talked to over the last few months are open to new things: Big Five publishers want LGBT romance; digital-first pubs that have only ever put out m/m are interested in the other colors of the rainbow. (Guys, a Big Five editor just told me this past Saturday that she’d love to see a good lesbian romance. For real!)

But maybe you are not so optimistic. And so I have a complex. Because I think maybe I’m coming across as the insane person, but I do believe, deep in my gut, that there are opportunities here for those willing to put in the effort to take advantage of them.

On the other side of the coin is the effort it takes. LGBT books won’t win major awards if none are entered in those contests. There won’t be LGBT panels at the big conventions if no one submits workshop proposals. The Big Five say they want LGBT romance but I get the impression some editors aren’t sure where to look for it, so we should bring it to them. It means pitching to editors or finding an agent, maybe, or taking a risk and trying something new. And, dude, I know, it’s not easy. Just writing a novel is a lot of work, and doing all this on top of it, putting yourself out there? That’s tough.

And, yeah, sure, for every editor on a panel at a conference who says she wants an LGBT YA book, there’s somebody in the audience who says, “Good luck with that. I hope you’re ready to lose readers and get threatening letters.” (This actually happened at a panel I attended. I was like, “Way to rain on the parade, lady.”) It’s also true, unfortunately, that not every writer who wants one can get a Big Five contract, that some writers will just never catch on with readers, that some books are too niche-y and weird to ever gain mainstream attention, or even that real life will get in the way of a budding career before it takes off.

So I guess my point is not to be all Mary Sunshine about this but to just say that these opportunities exist.

And I know there’s been some criticism of romance’s “culture of niceness.” It’s not limited to romance; I think this is something endemic to spaces dominated by women. Perhaps in some cases it can stifle legitimate criticism—the pressure put on reviewers to be nicer, for example, which I don’t think they are under any obligation to do. But there is also something to be said for professional courtesy. I view it this way: I treat other writers the same way I treat my coworkers at my day job. I try to be polite and respectful, basically. I want to foster creativity and create opportunity, not tear people down.

So I don’t know. Perhaps what I’m trying to say here is that I’m aware of the challenges because I’m well-informed and not delusional (…as far as I can tell), but at the same time, I can’t help but be hopeful. So I’ll keep churning out these cheerleader posts and hoping that some of what I say will stick and we will enter a brave new world where gender and race and those kinds of things matter not a whit, when the majority of readers just want a good story and that drives the market instead of vague inaccurate perceptions of what readers are really looking for. (Okay, now I’ve gone over the edge with the optimism, but I think the point holds.)

Being the president of Rainbow Romance Writers gives me a platform, and I choose to use it to inspire others because I want to see LGBT romance (and multicultural romance and anything else that people want to write that is considered outside the “mainstream”) prosper and succeed, not even for personal gain but just because I think these are stories that should be told and deserve an audience. I want to see an LGBT book win a RITA, be a New York Times bestseller, be that book that everybody is talking about. I want us writers to be taken seriously because we work hard at what we do and we deserve respect.

I want a lot of things, I guess.

So… Go team!

controlled chaos

The theme of this week has been controlled chaos.

I cannot explain to you why this is true, but I seem to be the most productive and do my best work when I’ve got a million other things going on. I think part of it is that I’m so revved up from being busy that when I sit down to write, I channel all that energy into my stories. This week has been like that. I have so many balls in the air that I’m worried I’ll lose a few, but my writing stuff is going really well!

A lot of the stuff I’m working on now is stuff I can’t talk about yet or it’s minutiae you don’t care about, so it’s hard to really convey just how insane this week has been, but I can say that literally every day since last Thursday, I have received an email along the lines of “Remember that thing we talked about months ago? I need you to do something about it RIGHT NOW.” I got THREE of these on Tuesday. For the most part, it’s good: planning out what I’m doing at conferences this year, Rainbow Romance Writers business (I’m the president now, god help us all), cover specs for my next book, etc. This chaos is all on top of my day job, so it’s been… not the best week I’ve ever had. And yet I’ve somehow conquered the draft of the contemporary novel I’d been working and struggling with all last fall and am getting ready to send it out to betas. Crazy.

Or, as an example of how things are going: I must have entered a drawing for a book giveaway in December, and somehow I won—I never win, and I rarely enter giveaways, so when the blogger who ran the contest emailed me, I was genuinely shocked—and this huge box of books showed up on my doorstep earlier this week. [Aside: I live in a Brooklyn apartment. Space is not abundant.] Unpacking the box was fun because a) I remembered entering the giveaway once I saw what was inside, and b) it’s an interesting mix of authors I like, authors I’ve wanted to try, and authors I’ve never heard of but whose books look interesting. So that was exciting. But there were twenty books in that box, you guys. Where on earth will I put them? (If you answered, “On the floor of your bedroom,” you may be right. I tried to put them back in the box, but the cat had already claimed it as her new fort.) Then yesterday, I got my box of books for RITA judging. (The cat does not fit in this box, much to her consternation.) So that’s eight more books. If you’re keeping track, that is nearly thirty books that arrived at my home this week.

I love new books, but yikes.

It feels like a metaphor for how my life is lately. I have an embarrassment of riches in terms of new opportunities and exciting stuff happening, but doing all the work for it is tough. It’s hard to complain about, because most of this is stuff I want and that I willingly signed on for. Just… maybe it could not happen all at the same time?

So that’s about where I’m at right now and why I haven’t been blogging.

So my plan for the weekend is to follow up on the eight or so things that need my immediate attention (not exaggerating) but then I’ve got a ticket to a knitting convention. I’m almost hoping there’s crappy phone reception inside so I can just escape and pet yarn for a while. Sometimes you need to take a break. (My heart rates goes up every time the icon in the dock flashes that I have a new email. It’s a problem.)

It’s good. It’s busy. I hope that this doesn’t end up being how all of 2014 goes.

5 resolutions

I’m actually pretty good at resolutions. I think the trick to keep them both specific and realistic and for them to be things I actually want to do. Like, resolving to take up yoga this year is probably not a great idea, because although I think yoga would be a good thing for me to do, I have disliked yoga classes I’ve taken in the past, so I keep dragging my heels on signing up. (I have no excuse! There’s a yoga studio ON MY BLOCK, a thirty-second walk from my apartment, and the people who work there seem very nice! And yet!) But there was the time in my late twenties when I went to a classical music concert, thought, “I really miss playing the violin,” and then the following January resolved to do more of that. That very month, I went out and auditioned for an orchestra and signed up for refresher lessons. In 2008, I resolved to finish a novel, which I accomplished. The year after that, I gave myself until the end of the year to actually submit something for publication; I sent In Hot Pursuit to Loose Id that summer.

Basically, I’m the sort of Type A who does what she sets out to, most of the time anyway.

Here are my resolutions for this year:

1. Spend more time acknowledging what I’ve accomplished instead of fretting about what I have to do.

Here’s what I mean by that. At New Year’s, a friend’s husband asked about my writing career. “How many books have you written now?” I couldn’t even remember. I was like, “Uh, I think I have nine published novels now?” This blew my friend away. He said, “That’s a lot for a short amount of time.” Well, I said, these are the books I’ve written over 5 years or so. He pointed out, “That means you’ve written two novels each year! That’s incredible!”

It’s hard not to get caught up in the rat race. Publishing is a tough industry, and I’ve been working in it in various capacities for twelve years. Everyone’s always worried about what’s next. I’m always worried.

But it’s good to remember that one novel, let alone nine, is more than a lot of people will ever write, and it’s no small feat. Those books represent a lot of hard work on my part. I should take the time to, as Damon Suede often says, feel that fact.

2. Make a real schedule.

My whole life is in my iPhone calendar, and I wish the engineers or software developers or whoever at Apple would leave well enough alone, because I HAAAAATE the new calendar in iOS7. So, for the first time in probably five years, I bought a paper calendar. It has pretty vintage New York City photos on it. So far I have found a place to hang it and taken it out of the plastic.

Anyway. This is kind of more a personal growth thing, but I want to not get so overwhelmed by the great many things I have on my schedule in any given week. I think breaking it down into reasonable chunks and being prepared for what’s ahead is the key. Otherwise, I just look at all those little dots on the phone calendar and silently scream.

3. Be the best damned Rainbow Romance Writers president I can be.

Self explanatory, I think.

4. Finish reading all those damn books in the pile next to the bed.

I have a terrible habit with nonfiction, in that I very frequently start a book, get about halfway through it, put it down, and never pick it up again. I’ve got five of these on a variety of topics—namely, the American Revolution, Theodore Roosevelt, Greenwich Village, homosexuality in Victorian England, and personal finance—sitting in a pile next to my bed, and I do want to finish all of them. They are all really interesting! I will do that this year! I will!

5. Moar Reading!

I read about 70 books in 2013, if you count shorts and novellas, plus another 18 for contest judging, so I still fell short of the 100-book goal I set for myself. That’s not an issue per se. But I had a few months this year where I had so many other commitments that I didn’t really read purely for pleasure, which made even reading for my book club feel like a chore.

I’d like to set aside more time to just read for fun. That will certainly help with Goal #4.

This is on top of the usual “write a really good novel” and “learn something new” goals I usually set for myself.

So there’s a short list of what I aspire to in 2014. Do you have any resolutions?