RT 2014 Wrap-Up

Well, I have my second RT under my belt. I had fun, I learned things, I’m still kind of a post-con zombie.

Highlights:

• I saw 3 panels (that’s 1 more than last year! It’s tough finding the time in that daunting schedule to see and do everything). The first was an LGBT panel moderated by Sarah Frantz featuring Suzanne Brockmann, SE Jakes, KA Mitchell, Marie Sexton, and Heidi Belleau. The third was also an LGBT panel moderated by Sarah Frantz, this one featuring Ruth Sternglatz (an editor at Bold Strokes Books), Christopher Rice, Heather Osborn from Samhain, Amy Lane, blogger Joyfully Jay, and Kelly Jamieson. Both were enjoyable and everyone had interesting things to say. I also attended a panel on multicultural romance moderated by RT editor Mala Bhattacharjee featuring Farrah Rochon, Alisha Rai, Jeannie Lin, and Sandra Kitt. That was also pretty great.

Someone asked me to compare RT and RWA panels. I think panels at RWA are more educational; panels at RT are mostly about seeing people you admire say interesting things. I’m not sure I learned anything new at any of the panels I went to, but I did really enjoy them all. Also I ended up winning the hardcover of Suzanne Brockmann’s new book at that first panel, which made me ridiculously happy. (I can fangirl with the best of them, too.)

• I helped out with Cinema Craptastique—if you don’t know, that’s basically live MST3K—and we had a lot of weird technical difficulties, but we got it up and running in time. I highly encourage everyone to fly in early to attend.

• I co-hosted a game party called Romance Pride Wheel of Fortune. The readers seemed to have fun and I will totally do it again next year, though it felt a little chaotic. It’s good to have these experiences and work out what will work better the next time.

• I won a fifth of bourbon playing bingo at a party I attended. I don’t drink bourbon, but that’s still pretty cool.

• I ran into someone I went to college with and haven’t seen since I graduated. Not only is she a romance author, we have the same agent. *sings* It’s a small world after all. (I figured it was only a matter of time before I ran into someone from my “other life” at a convention.)

• I got to wear a lot of cute dresses. Someone told me I was the cutest ever, and I considered changing my tagline. Would you buy a romance novel from “Kate McMurray, the cutest ever”?

• Then there was New Orleans itself! So much great food! So many things to see! It’s a wonderful city and I was happy to be there for the second time.

• I’m still working out my feelings about how the book fair went—you’ve heard about that by now, probably. The main point of contention was the separation of traditional and indie published authors into separate rooms, which I figured was mostly a money thing—indie books were sold on consignment, traditional books were sold through the book store. Other authors can probably write smarter things than I’m capable of writing on that. I was in the traditional published room. I sat next to Lindsay McKenna, who has been writing military romance for Harlequin for 30 years, and we had a really nice conversation about the progress of LGBT romance and digital-first publishing, and she’s a really nice woman. I met some fans, too, always the highlight of any signing.

• For me, the BEST part of RT is hanging out with old friends and meeting new people. I got to talk to readers and bloggers a lot more this year than I did last year, which I enjoyed. I miss you all already!

• LGBT romance was very well represented, which was awesome to see. This was true both in terms of ads on display and authors attending. On the plane home, my friend Stacey wanted book recs for gay romance, and I was like, “Any LGBT author you met this weekend.” It would be hard to go wrong with any of the attending authors, of which there were at least 25 at my count, all of them people you’ve heard of and adore, I imagine. (Actually, it was probably way more than 25, I’m just bad at counting, and when I mentally ran through everyone I talked to, there are also a bunch of authors who write a bit of everything, including het romance and gay romance and menage and all of those things.) If you’re a gay romance fan, this was a great conference at which to meet your favorite authors. I felt like it also warmly embraced writers of LGBT fiction.

So that was RT in a nutshell, for me anyway. I’m already looking ahead to Dallas in 2015! Thanks for putting on a great show, all of the RT staff and volunteers!

Next up I’ve got BEA next week and RWA in July. I just got confirmation that I’m all signed up for the Literacy Signing at RWA, so if you’ll be in San Antonio on July 23, come see me there!

Going to RT? Come to Romance Pride!

Spread the word! I’m co-hosting the Romance Pride: Wheel of Fortune event at RT, and it is going to be so awesome, you will be sad if you miss it.

Click to embiggen!

Click to embiggen!

Want more info? Check out the event Facebook page.

The short version is that we will be playing games and giving out prizes. So many prizes. You want a teaser? Well, as it happens, I live with a jewelry designer, so I commissioned some super cute McMurray-themed earrings. Here is one pair:

Bookish Earrings

The party’s at 10am Monday. Fortify with caffeine, then come play!

The Silence of the Stars, now available for preorder

20140505-071744.jpgThe Silence of the Stars can now be pre-ordered from Dreamspinner Press!

Extra Bonus: All of my books are 35% off from the Dreamspinner site as part of their anniversary sale. That offer is good until May 10. If you haven’t read The Stars that Tremble, now could be the time to pick that up, too.

You can also add the book on Goodreads.

A Spin-off of The Stars that Tremble

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

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

Available May 30, 2014!

Announcement: For Love and Liberty anthology, June 2014

LLCoverSoon3Here’s what happened: Alyssa Cole and I are in the same book club, and last summer, we read a couple of Revolutionary War romances. What we liked about both books was the “not Regency England” setting; we’re both historical romance fans, and it was fun to read books set in a different historical era. (And, I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still love Regencies, but you gotta switch it up sometimes.) Still, the books had flaws, so we started talking about what we would have done differently. And, literally, as we were walking out of the library that night, Alyssa said, “We should write Revolutionary War romances. Hey, what if we did an anthology?” And thus the For Love and Liberty project was born.

The other thing to know about us is that Alyssa writes multicultural romance and I write gay romance, and pretty early in our thought process, it occurred to us that we could write stories featuring, let’s say, underrepresented characters. So that became our anthology theme. We’re calling them “untold stories,” which means these are stories from the sorts of characters you don’t hear from very often in historical romances, or in historical narratives generally.

We asked our friends if they wanted to contribute and eventually put four stories together. Mine is The Gay One. I’ll talk about it more below. Alyssa’s features former slaves and the British army’s promise to emancipate any men who signed on to fight for the Crown. Lena Hart has written about a woman who is half-African, half-Native American who falls in love with a white British officer. And Stacey Agdern has written about the Jewish community in New York and how they were affected by the war.

So here’s the deal with my story, “Rebels at Heart”:

Charles Foxworth is a dandy. I wanted to write about someone fashion obsessed. I spent some time looking at gorgeous period clothing in a number of different books on the history of fashion. In the nineteenth century, there were dandies and then there were their even more flamboyant cousins, the macaronis. Macaronis were known for their elaborate fashions with lots of stripes and rosettes and embroidery as well as their tall wigs. They wore fashions in peacock colors and added feathers to everything. The best thing I learned while researching is that this is the origin of the line, “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni,” in the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

At the time, fashion did not have a gay connotation per se. In the opening scene of the story, Charles puts on a pink frock coat. The coat is based on gorgeous one I found in a book on the history of fashion, a British design from the 1770s, and there’s nothing feminine about the coat. The macaronis were parodied in drawings and comedy of the era, and while there are some gendered considerations, the fashionable men of this era wouldn’t have read “gay” to the society at large as fashionable, flamboyant men do today (stereotypically speaking).

The eighteenth century did have a culture of mollies, male prostitutes who serviced male clients. Sodomy was a hanging offense and was considered a “crime against nature.” But there was no real vocabulary, no concept of homosexuality the way we think of it now. A man like Charles could parade around Colonial New York City in his finest clothing and his powdered wigs and he wouldn’t have projected his sexuality, and I glean that most people wouldn’t have read much into it (beyond “Wow, that dude’s ridiculous”).

Isaac Ward is a freedman, an emancipated slave who came to New York after being granted his freedom. He worked as a blacksmith’s apprentice until an accident cost him his job, and an intrigued Charles offered him a position. The job is really a pretense, though; as Charles and Isaac carry on a sexual liaison, to the world they are master and servant. But it’s only when the war arrives in New York that they have to evaluate what their relationship really means.

Here’s the official (for now) blurb:

Charles Foxworth is among New York City’s most fashionable men, though he is only pretending to be a dashing British aristocrat. Still, he is content with his role and has little interest in the war. His companion, Isaac Ward, has more invested in the coming conflict; Isaac was born a slave, and though he is now free, that freedom could be guaranteed if he chose to pick up arms. Then war arrives on the shores of the city and Charles’s idyll is over. He quickly realizes that the war could take from him the very thing he holds most dear: Isaac.

And the anthology blurb:

In BE NOT AFRAID by Alyssa Cole, a black Patriot captured by the British falls in love with a headstrong runaway determined to leave the colonies… while a wounded British soldier discovers the healing power of love in the arms of a gentle native woman in A SWEET SURRENDER by Lena Hart… yet in REBELS AT HEART by Kate McMurray, two men must make hard choices if they are to stay together when war arrives on the shores of their home in New York City… at last, in HOME by Stacey Agdern, a young Jewish couple must decide what can hold them together before war and geography tear them apart.

We’re self-publishing and aiming to have the book up in mid-June from various ebook retailers (and also in print, if all goes to plan). You can add the book on Goodreads.

Also, BONUS: You can see all four of us yak about our research at the upcoming Romance Festival that is to be held at the historic Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City on June 14th!

convention tips: don’t just survive, be AWESOME

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

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

Kate’s Tips for Making Your Con Experience Awesome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips Specific to Authors:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my writing process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 8: Send to agent/publisher.

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

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

Poll: Best in Swag

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

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

Rainbow Book Fair this Saturday, 3/29

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

Cover Reveal: The Silence of the Stars

Coming this May from Dreamspinner Press…

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

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

The sequel to The Stars that Tremble

on criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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