The other day someone sent me a Facebook invite to be in a NaNoWriMo group. This was my reaction.
Once upon a time I was all over NaNoWriMo. It gave me the novel Double Blind, which is still my favorite book of mine I’ve written. I loved the fever dream writing was that year, how intense and crazy-fast everything about that novel happened. I’d participated in NaNoMWriMo before, but that was my first year I joined a local chapter, and it was also the first year I was published. Everything was exciting and wonderful, and I swore I’d always participate in the novel-in-a-month adventure.
I did participate for several years–up until the last year, in fact. For most of that time, I was always the one in my region people chased, because I wrote so much so fast. But I have to tell you, with each passing year, the thrill fizzled and faded until participating became a chore. The rigid strictures of the program made my teeth set on edge, particularly since I knew a lot of them were bad ideas for me. It was difficult to organize my writing schedule so I could start a new novel exactly on November 1 and finish it by the end of the month. It played merry hell with my holidays, screwing up Thanksgiving and making Christmas a mad, insane rush.
There are so many things wrong with NaNoWriMo for me right now. To start, 50,000 is on average halfway through a novel for me. I don’t write short, so to finish the book I have to double-time it. Also, my muses have a decided preference for writing in fits and starts, putting down books sometimes for weeks or months or sometimes years. Sometimes I can push through, but that usually makes messes and always wears me out to the point I begin to seriously hate what I’m working on. The sprints never worked for me either, because sometimes sitting and staring at a screen, not writing for three hours, is the most important writing I do. The idea I could show up at a write-in and produce words on demand usually meant I only produced garbage or that I had to deal with angry, upset muses for three months after the close of the event.
But the above gif sums up how I feel about NaNoWriMo because I still want to participate. I love the camaraderie of a writing group. I love the little badges and progress bars. Most of all I really want to write my novels faster and in one sitting. So for me saying no usually means putting my head down and not looking while other people have the fun I wish I could be having but know I shouldn’t. Like everyone else is eating the birthday cake, and I know I really can’t, because it’s filled with allergens, but it still sucks to watch. And going to write-ins or “sort-of” participating feels exactly like being at a party full of wheat products. It’s hard not to eat them, even though if I do I know I’ll be sorry.
So I’m officially participating in NaNoNuh-Uh this year. I don’t have a badge or a progress bar. I also don’t have a plan besides writing a book I’ve been trying to write since August. I did my own kind of nudge, commissioning a cover, marrying a title, making a playlist. I even whispered an admission of my goal on Twitter, and now here. But that’s it. I want to have the book finished and out as soon as possible. But I might not get it out until March or later. I want to write all the series books on my to-do list, but I might not get to any of them next year.
I want to get the fire I used to have, able to write 50k in one week, sometimes. I miss that so much sometimes I cry about it. I’ve spent most of this year sick, scared, frustrated, and mourning things I didn’t know I needed to mourn. I’m weeding my way slowly through the truth that menopause is hard on creativity, that losing those hormones means learning a new brain, and that when those hormones are ripped violently from you in one surgery, the transition is brutal. I may get that production fire back, and I may have to accept I never will, that everything will be slower now.
There’s also the gnarly part that wasn’t there for the glory of NaNoWriMo 2009: back then, nobody knew who I was, and my published novel hadn’t come out yet. I have over twenty books under my belt now, and I’m blessed with a large following of readers. When I sit down to write, I can’t escape the knowledge of who I’m writing for, which means I always worry about disappointing them. I worry what other people are thinking about my work and my career, even though I know that’s not helpful. Especially when I’m not producing the way I want to and negative thoughts creep in. I can get those things out of the way, even when I’m not feeling my best. But that takes energy and focus too. And it demands its own schedule, it’s own pace. Which is pretty much never the pace of NaNoWriMo.
This November I’m writing. For thirty days I’m going to put my focus on Enjoy the Dance, a sequel to Dance With Me. I might finish it before Thanksgiving. I might only have a chapter by the first of the year. I will absolutely not write 1600 words every day. I will absolutely only work minimally the week of Thanksgiving so I can focus on creating a huge, wonderful celebration for my family. I’m not going to chart or report my progress anywhere, unless I feel like doing that will be okay for my production. I’m not letting pressure of what I should be doing or need to do get in my way. I’m just going to show up and write. Or stare at the screen, or listen to the soundtrack while I fold laundry.
If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, I wish you nothing but luck and good wishes. If you don’t want to participate, I wish you luck and good wishes too. If you want to participate but know it’s a bad idea for you, I give you luck, good wishes, a huge hug, and a space beside me at the NaNoNuh-Uh virtual write-in.
If you’re feeling down and overwhelmed about your writing or your career, give yourself permission to create at the pace that works for you. Remember the time you felt the euphoria, and accept both that you can have it again–and that it will very likely not look the same as you remember.
A career in writing is a caucus race. It goes round and round in circles. Sometimes you will laugh and twirl as you run, and sometimes you’ll be so tired you have to step aside. Remember the only way to win is to participate—at the pace which suits you in the moment you join the dance.
My Twitter stream just blew up in rage over this article, and I have to say, it made me wince pretty hard. I’ve read Lamb’s book, and there’s some good stuff in it, especially about how to approach social media. I have a lot of respect for her zeal in wanting to shepherd new writers. On this issue, though, I’m going to disagree pretty intensely with her post which says it’s everyone’s personal choice but is mostly a lot of cheeky-winking-elbow tsk-tsk at some straw men representing the idea of having a pen name. This is something of an interesting reaction on my part, since I do not have a pen name myself.
Here’s the thing about pen names, the simple truth you can take to the bank. Whether you adopt one (or two, or three) or not truly is your choice, and it’s an intensely personal one. Yes, your author name is completely and utterly part of your brand, so whatever name that is should be pretty deliberate. It’s also a huge part of your author identity, the thing you have to cart around in your head. It’s also something you need to live with in your daily life. But the answer of whether or not your personal calculus means you adopt a pseudonym or use your legal shingle is not simple in any way, and it really, truly can’t be boiled down to a few memes.
The Privacy Issue
It’s very true, pen names aren’t quite the privacy shield they used to be. It’s not terribly difficult to unearth someone’s legal name if you’re determined. Yet the reasons for seeking privacy aren’t entirely about escaping death threats and stalkers.
Most writers never quit their day job, which means using their legal name to write fiction (or nonfiction) will result in their writing showing up in online searches their employers absolutely will perform before hiring them or during performance reviews. Not a problem for some genres and topics. HUGE albatross for others.
Women who write sexually explicit material, especially regarding heterosexual couples, sometimes find themselves with passionate, devoted, a little bit too invested male fans…in prison. There is not an epidemic of female authors being harassed by felons, but knowing those fan letters come to a PO Box and not a home address, to a pen name and not a legal name, can be a comforting buffer.
Children and spouses, and possibly other family members can be affected by an author’s use of a legal name.The only times I’ve regretted using my legal name have been in these instances. I write sometimes very sexually graphic LGBT fiction. There have been several instances when my daughter’s friends’ mothers have been politely inquiring about what I do, my child has proudly declared I was a writer, and I held my breath hoping the friendship wouldn’t be terminated because of a Google search. My husband had to undergo a process to work out how to explain what I do at work and how to handle well-meaning coworkers’ requests to read my work. It’s not that he’s not proud of me or that my daughter’s friends have bigoted parents. It’s that if anyone was to have a negative reaction to what I do and judge my family for it, it’s an awkward moment. It’s one that would be easier to filter if I had a pen name. Because writing is my life, not my daughter’s or my husband’s.
I am fortunate in that my in-laws love that I use “their” name to write. They’re proud of what I do and have no compunction addressing anyone who might blink or look askance at their daughter-in-law’s subject mater. Not everyone, however, is that fortunate. Keeping the family peace might be a reason to adopt a pseudonym.
The Identity Issue
Even writing the most benign of topics in the most open, supporting families on topics which help one in the workplace, some authors may choose to adopt a pen name because doing so affords them a separate headspace. Many, many of my friends have pen names, and every single one of them speaks of their author persona by their pen name and as a third person. Jane Author and Jim Scribbler have their own wardrobes and manners of speaking. I’ve even heard some lament that they can’t be Jane Author in real life, and by that comment they mean they’re unable to adopt the same confidence and sense of identity as a layman as they do as an author.
As someone who has found a pleasure in doing drag, I can say I fully understand this power of a separate persona. My alter ego is Calvin Fine, a man who will dance with anyone, flirt with everyone, say and do anything. He will go into men’s restrooms and do photo shoots. He’ll push women and men against pillars and smile rakishly as they melt at the aggression. When I dress him, it really is like putting on a Calvin suit inside my head. Heidi is nothing like Calvin. And yes, there’s a huge comfort in that separation.
Identity doesn’t have to be that intense a reason to adopt a pen name, though. A pen name might be adopted for such a practical reason as being an accountant by day and feeling there is better bang for the identity buck by separating author self from number cruncher. The day job and/or the author gig might be better served by separate identities, on social media or simply in general. I would say identity is probably the biggest reason people adopt pen names.
The Brand Issue
I didn’t choose a pen name for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest was that I had managed to get myself quite a network under my legal name, and I wanted to make it as easy as possible to utilize that network. I also knew I never wanted to go back to teaching in a classroom, and publishing under my legal name put a nail in that coffin in a manner that suited my professional goals. Never look back, never surrender, etc.
For some people pen names are the practical choice, and not just for professional and personal conflicts. Sometimes pen names are important because the legal name would not help one’s brand. Jennifer Crusie is very open about her legal name being Smith, and as she says, “Do you have any idea how many Smiths are out there?” Having the same legal name as a politician, actor, or other public figure isn’t always a help either.
If I were ever to take a pen name, it would be to write young adult fiction. I’d be pretty frank about the connection between Heidi Cullinan and this second persona, but this young adult pseudonym would have her own website and Twitter handle and the whole works. Why? Because some of my works are so explicit and adult in theme they are absolutely not what I’d want a thirteen-year-old to read, and young adult works can and are read by children even younger than that.
My daughter is thirteen right now. There are books of mine I’d be happy to let her read, and there are ones I would say no. I’m not ashamed of what I write and we’re not shy about sex in our house. But I’m okay with saying thirteen-year-olds don’t need to read books about fisting or rough BDSM play. I’m willing to bet a lot of parents would agree. My goal with these YA books would be to make them accessible to LGBT teens. I’d adopt the pen name so it was clear which books were intended for youth and which were for a little bit later.
Marie Sexton did this same thing, though in the other direction. Her books aren’t sweet–in fact, they’re very sexy–but one series she wrote became quite dark and edgy. It’s a great series. It’s also completely and utterly off the Marie Sexton brand. So she chose A.M. Sexton as her edgy pen name, made it clear they were by her, and also made it clear they were not her usual fare. Many of her fans gave it a try, and many of them liked the books. Did it help that they went in with clear expectations of what they’d find from their favorite author? Many of the readers said, directly or indirectly, yes, very much so.
I know authors who are hugely successful under one pen name and who write other series under other pen names and never publicly connect the dots. Why? Lots of reasons, but the bottom line is it’s because it’s their career and their choice and their bus. It works for them. If it works for you, you can do it too.
If you do take a pen name, be smart about it. Google the hell out of it. Brand the hell out of it. Don’t make it something nobody can remember. Don’t make it something impossible to pronounce or spell. Despite Lamb’s insistence any name will work, most authors are not Janet Evanovich, and spelling their name wrong will absolutely land you in an empty Google sea. (This goes for titles too, but that’s another blog post.) Don’t poach–as in, don’t adopt a name incredibly similar to someone successful in your genre and hope for accidental spill. Don’t go to all the trouble of getting to craft your own name and turn into someone so common you’re lost in the meadow of Jenny Smiths.
Do What Works For You
There is no right or wrong answer to taking a pen name or not. Your life will not be over if you keep your legal name. You aren’t spitting in the wind if you take a pseudonym. Your legal name and pen name might be easily linked, but they might also be easily and comfortably separated. You might feel invigorated and protected by your pen name. You might feel ridiculous over pretending to be someone else.
The bottom line is do what works for you. You wouldn’t let anyone tell you what to write or what not to. Same goes for your name. The only wrong choice is doing something that feels wrong to you but someone made you feel bad about in a book, blog post, or convention bar. Be loud, be proud. Whether you do it naked, in drag, or some point in between is entirely up to you.
How to Appropriate by Not Really Trying: An Author’s Guide to Writing Socially Marginalized Communities in Romance
I hate to start a post with a dictionary definition, but this topic needs every card laid out on the table. Let’s begin with the beginning. Appropriation is the act of using something that doesn’t belong to you as if it does.
Authors do this hourly. It’s practically our job: we’re professional pretenders. In my published career alone, I’ve appropriated more than I have time to list, but let’s tick off a few. Long-distance truck drivers. Pawn shop owners. Ballet dancers. Football players. Poker players. Italians.
Drag queens. Practitioners of BDSM. Persons with OCD and autism. Transgender women. Gay men.
Some of these things are not like the other. If a poker player reads Double Blind and feels I got something wrong, their personal injury goes no deeper than annoyance, possibly with a side order of irritation. The same goes for the truck drivers and football players and Italian families. None of these groups currently experience deep prejudice. If I screw up when I borrow them for my work, the egg is on my face alone, and they have every right to call me on it. They will do this from a position of if not privilege, at least a confidence in their semi-comfortable place in our common culture.
If I misrepresent the groups italicized above, matters change quickly. Every group listed have been significantly marginalized by the societies in which they exist, and by simply declaring themselves part of that community, the members experience prejudice, social stigma, and often outright abuse. If I screw up when writing about these groups, not only do I have egg on my face, I contribute further harm and insult to persons already bearing a full plate of social struggle. If they simply hear about it happening, that’s bad enough. But if they purchase my book to see themselves represented in a positive way, and I slap them in the face? That’s bad. That’s very, very bad.
Twitter is the world’s largest receptacle of appropriated persons crying into the wind. I’ve seen Indian-Americans despairing over the appropriation of namaste—I have to admit, it hadn’t occurred to me until they pointed out that namaste, bitches is horribly offensive and appropriating to Hindu culture, but I wince now every time I see a bumper sticker or shirt or whatever else some idiot wants to slap that on. I’ve seen readers who have epilepsy furious over poor research in a novel, where their condition is used as character color and science is discarded because it’s easier if meds and epilepsy worked a different way. (Point of order: I just looked up epilepsy as I typed this, unsure if I should call it a disease or not, and I edited out illness as a synonym too. This took me less than two minutes of Googlefu.)
This morning I was the frustrated person on twitter. Someone rec’d a gay romance, and I was all psyched because I’m always looking for a good book and this person never fails me–and then I read the blurb.
…hiding his sexual preference from everyone…
One of two things just happened. Either you read that little snippet and winced, hissed through your teeth, or were pissed, or you don’t know what I’m talking about. For those of you in column A, bear with me. Column B, come with me.
This is a link to GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide. Revisit it often, because stuff changes and gets added. Germane to our discussion at hand is paragraph three, which I will paste here:
Offensive: “sexual preference”
Preferred: “sexual orientation” or “orientation.” The term “sexual preference” is typically used to suggest that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a choice and therefore can and should be “cured.” Sexual orientation is the accurate description of an individual’s enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex and is inclusive of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, as well as straight men and women (see AP & New York Times Style).
When I objected to this on Twitter, it was suggested preference was okay because the character in question was deeply closeted. Actually, that makes me much more nervous. One, that term has zero place in a public blurb. If the character uses that term to describe himself within the story, that’s potentially permissible, but only if he is corrected and his schooling of appropriate terminology is part of the plot. The blurb is a no-go. Because what that ONE WORD did in that blurb was take me from a well-known author of gay romance possibly reading and rec’ing that book to writing a two-thousand word blog post on why that book is probably a very bad idea. That one word tells me the author hasn’t so much as glanced at the GLAAD media reference guide, let alone done any training. That the author is usually an author of heterosexual romance makes me further put on the brakes, because now I’m worried that word was a flag hiding deeper appropriation. That might not be the case—this author might be a huge ally who has done all sorts of research and that word was simply a fart. Unfortunately, all I have is that blurb and that word, and I’m not just failing to bite. I’m running and shunning, and I would actively discourage that book if asked what I thought. Based on one very unnecessary and poorly-chosen word.
I don’t hold the blogger who rec’d the book responsible for knowing this, as she’s a reader, and she’s supposed to be able to read good books and enjoy them. Apparently the book itself is great, and I’m sorry I’m having to pass. The faux-pas is utterly on the author, and it is a faux-pas, and it should be corrected. She should talk to her publisher TODAY about getting the blurb changed TODAY up to and including the backs of print books. She’d do well to submit the book to someone in the gay romance community and say, “Would you read this and make sure that’s the only terminology/community mistake I made? I really want to get this right.” For the record, I would make time to do that reading and would be honest and patient in any education attempts. But honestly, there are a lot of qualified and willing people on the ground. While it’s not the job of the appropriated to help authors avoid missteps, in addition to being generally open to education efforts, marginalized groups often publish media guides and leave easily Google-able clues as to how they’d like to be addressed and dealt with.
Unfortunately, I meant well is not a defense when appropriation goes wrong. I’m sorry is the lead, immediate correction is the next step, and contrition is the path forward. If you’re writing about any group who experiences prejudice, get your ducks in a row and your Google on. The problem is even getting a doctoral thesis in the appropriated community can’t stop some mistakes. I have made mistakes in appropriation. Even being a member of the appropriated community can lead to argument about how the group should be represented–but when we are tourists, we must always, always proceed with respect and prepare to defer, especially when representing them in fiction.
I am a woman. When I write gay men, I am appropriating. There’s no if, and, or but about it. I’m not a gay man. I’ve researched all day long, I mind my Ps and Qs, I have put in months worth of volunteer hours for LGBT causes and have donated to them for a decade, but
I do not have a penis and desire romantic relations with men, ergo, I am not a gay man.ETA: It was pointed out to me one can in fact, be a gay man without a penis. Sorry for my screwup, and thanks for correcting me, Heidi Belleau. See how easy it is to screw up? See how easy it is to correct and apologize?
As an author of gay romance, is my job to be careful and smart, and when I screw up, it’s on me to apologize and correct. I’m quite sure there are gay men who regard me warily, seeing my bio at face value—woman married to man—writing their stories. That’s fine–that’s my work to win them, or to allow them to decline. When I pitch/sell gay romance as a type of romance to women, regardless of their orientation, I am careful about how I speak. When I am interviewed by the media, I cram for hours in advance and if it’s radio, I take notes. Every time I write a gay character, every time I open my mouth or type words about gay romance, I carry the weight of men who have been abused physically and mentally over not only generations but centuries. I forget that at my peril, and at the expense of their experience.
This seems so easy, so basic—do your research. And honestly, that’s the only sin in the blurb mentioned above. Except there’s another elephant in the room when talking about women writing gay men, appropriating gay men, and this discussion isn’t complete without bringing it up: women are fighting their own appropriation. Women are marginalized too.
#GamerGate and #WomenAgainstFeminism are exhibits A and B, see also Gamora’s exclusion from Guardian’s of the Galaxy merchandise aimed at little boys. See basically all of western culture. Writing romance novels of any orientation is a feminist act, because every one is a middle finger at the male-centric idea of romance being silly and stupid and lesser. Men in romance novels fall in love too, profess devotion, and do all kinds of things they’re not allowed to do as freely in our messed up culture. In lesbian romances, the men are secondary characters not required for love and romance.
In gay romances, however, several things are going on. On the one hand, we have beautiful accurate representations of masculinity, of strength and vulnerability. We have gay men with agency. But, particularly when straight women write gay men, or men having sex with men, there is great potential for a subversion element, the seizing of power from men. Because gay men are still men, and men still have the lion’s share of the power in our culture.
It is easy to use man having sex with a man as not a representation of gay men but as a weapon against the oppressor. Subverting the idealized, monstrous, impossible yet socially dominating straight male ideal is a heady rush, and in heterosexual romance, I have to say, knock yourself out. But the second that monstrous man wanders over the line into gay man, everything changes. Gay men know the monstrous hell of that oppression in a different way than women, but they know it. Women wouldn’t like being subverted in gay male-authored novels any more than gay men appreciate it in the novels of women. In fact, even when women write gay romances, the women in the secondary roles are closely scrutinized for misogyny by male and female readers in the community. Some female readers of gay romance will say they only read gay romances because they have been so upset by the portrayal of women in popular literature and culture, including straight romance, that they would prefer to only read men falling in love with men. There’s a lot of work there to be done in romance, to help those women stop feeling so ostracized by their own gender. But absolutely that work isn’t done by subverting the male archetype via gay men without thought or care. In fact, that will only make things worse.
The bitter pill in all this is I want, very much so, for authors of heterosexual romance to include LGBT characters, primary or secondary, in romance. But it’s well-past time we started talking about appropriation, not just in LGBT but in everything. Write outside the lines of your experience, but do your research and your homework. For LGBT romance, it’s a lot more than a few episodes of porn and a YouTube coming out video. It’s reading gay history and volunteering at youth shelters and looking in the faces of girls and boys kicked out of their homes because they dared to declare who they wanted to love. If you want to understand why preference is an insult, that’s an excellent place to start.
But this applies to everything. Any culture or group of persons whose experience does not belong to you—do your research. When you get it wrong, correct, apologize, and learn. Because there really is something worse than having no voice at all. It’s someone using your voice to insult you.
Knowing they’re making a profit from it is a cruel kick in the teeth.
Today’s been a damn weird day, and every last second of it has been me bouncing like a BB between fear and instinct.
There are deeper layers than simply this, but today I was coming to Jesus on my novel due end of October hopefully end of November absolutely, and I was also accepting while I’m much better post surgery, I still have some lingering chronic pain issues, and I need to be aggressive to address them. Both were problems I needed to solve, but neither issue had a clear answer, nor a clear place to seek the answer. The novel was actually the easy part. I’ve been to this rodeo.
This is the part where it comes undone in my hands because I did it wrong, because it’s essential I first do it wrong. It’s how I roll. I write 40-60k, it starts to lurch, I look back and see holes and frayed bits, and I redo. I have no idea what other authors do, but for me it’s all about the conflict threads. The conflict comes out of character, and I only know so much of their character when I write the synopsis or outline or both. By 40-60k, I know all about them. I know who they are, I know how and why the lie and what their nose does when they do it. I’m pretty militant about a main conflict through line, individual conflicts for each character (conflicts coming out of their individual character) and then they all knit together at the end in a nice big bloom, or sometimes a firecracker. This is a firecracker book. My entire goal is for someone to put this book down and go OH MY GOD THAT WAS SO AMAZING. I want them to feel not that I am amazing, but that the book was so intense that it was its own thing and an intense, incredible, happy ride. That, grasshopper, does not ever happen by accident.
I’m at the part, though, where I have to cut open my arm and saw through my own leg and all sorts of metaphorically wrenching things to find those lines of gunpowder. It’s work, it’s hard, and it’s stressful. So I’m pulling the book apart. I’m surfing the net and wandering around the house, and basically it’s existing above my head in some sort of multidimensional thing. It always looks like one of those expanding spheres they sell at science centers. It’s big, it’s crazy, and it’s where the story happens. It used to freak me out and make me feel like a failure, but now it feels like the midpoint. I’ll find the answer. In fact, I already got there this evening. (I didn’t let myself blog until I had the answer.) (I also had a marathon phone call. Multitasking!)
At the same time I was sorting through that, I was also problem-solving the pain thing. I’ve been going to the chiropractor a lot, and now PT, but I’m doing this big pingpong thing where I go back and forth between progress and fuckery. Pretty much I’m in pain all the time. The other day Dan said, “You seem like you feel so much better now that you’re not in pain.” I blinked. “Um, no, I hurt [rattled off about seven things, some pretty severe] and I took a pile of pills. But yeah, I’m a lot better, and I feel great. I just hurt still.”
I’m worried about the pills, however, and now that I don’t feel like I”m being dragged sideways into a pit of tar, I’d like to hammer this shit in the head and get better. I’m ready to climb out of this pit with my teeth if necessary. It’s on, it’s happening, it’s here.
Except how that happens has been really fucking hard to sort out. Because let me tell you. Nobody in medicine, traditional or non-traditional, knows shit about pain. They sort of know how to alleviate it a bit, but it’s all palliative. They have ideas on how to get rid of it. But they don’t know. Nobody knows but the person suffering, and they’re in pain and it’s hard to focus. And they don’t know what they know. They really want someone to just tell them what to do.
I’ve been trying to get someone to tell me what to do for a month. I keep asking, and they keep giving me their best answers. I try their way, and it doesn’t work, so I try somebody else’s way. Hell, I keep trying my way, and my way sucks too. Nothing seems to work. And then today I went to my MD and said, “Hey, you want to double check all these pills I’m taking? It’s a lot. I mean, it’s a lot of pills. Got any ideas for pain management?”
He said, “Yes, I have ideas. I want you to try Cymbalta.”
He’s actually suggested this before, but Dan had him go with Effexor, and it sort of kind of worked, and then I went off it because I couldn’t really write well. And I’d forgotten that part, somehow. I’d also forgotten how many people I’ve talked to who can’t write a word on Cymbalta. This afternoon, though, I remembered, and I dithered over the prescription I’d asked Dan to fill. I freaked out all over the place. Twitter is my witness.
Here’s the problem: if I take Cymbalta and it kills my creativity, it will screw me up. I have not just the above book but another book due by the end of the year. I have a third book due Feb 1. The last one isn’t contracted, but the first two are. And I can do all if it, totally. Free of my endometrial sludge, I’m on fucking fire. All I need to be able to do is sit in a chair without pain and get this shit out. Hell, I solved a problem that usually takes me three weeks and 50k of overwriting in one goddamned afternoon. I’m all over this shit.
Except if I take Cymbalta, I might not be. It might be okay! It might not. It might shut me down. And it’s not like I can just say, “Oops, it’s shutting me down. Better not.” It takes weeks or even a month to get on it, and double and possibly triple that to get off. Translated, failing Cymbalta could take me the rest of the year.
This would cost me three books. Two contracted. This would cost me my slots next year in the production schedule. I’d have to break my word. I’d miss out on that income and make it harder for me to sell on spec in the future.
That Cymbalta is a very, very expensive pill.
So that’s why I’ve been a fucking freak about it all afternoon. On the one hand, it might save my life. It might let me sit in a chair AND keep my brain, and there might be rainbows and puppies and everything happy and amazing in the world. It might not do shit for pain, might fuck my brain, and cost me three novels. Big, big risk. Big. And there’s no way to know except try. So I have to decide, am I trying, or am I accepting what I have going on right now, which is admittedly not great?
Except there’s one thing I haven’t factored into my choice. Instinct.
I put the brakes on my story and pulled it apart because a heaping backlist of published books has taught me when I’ve taken the wrong turn. I know it by the smell and the way the scenes start to shape, or fail to. I know what tool to use to fix it. I’ve got it down. With the health stuff, I’ve had years and years of listening to my body, but I didn’t have access to the one part that was actually fucked, so I didn’t really know the answer. I horse-traded a lot of getting by, but in the end there was one fix I didn’t know I needed.
Now I’m not managing chronic pain, I’m trying to recover. There’s nothing wrong with me. I just need to strengthen. But I have a lot of ground to recover, and unless I want to go into a bubble, some of the things I try to do are basically hurting me. It’s a really hard line to ride.
Every instinct I have lately is to run. I want to bolt down the street. Dance like a fool. I can’t–every time I try even a little bit, I get hurt. I have instinct then too. Not yet, something whispers. You need to go, but not yet. Every week I get a little stronger, and if I listen, really listen I can hear this far. Now stop. It’s an intensely delicate dance. I want to go, and that’s the push nudging me on, but I have to know when to yank back. It’s not unlike knowing where the characters are going and being excited for the story I know is there but using my smarts to slow down and do the thing right.
I was trying to do that with the Cymbalta thing, but fear kept getting in the way. In the same way as when I was more of a greenhorn I thought every fuck up meant not that I had work to do but that I was a big faking faker who sucked ass and not in the fun way. I’ve had instinct all week, but I keep slamming the door on it and asking other people. Smart people, even. They all mean well, and they’re giving me good things. But at the end of the day, this is my body, and they could have fifty degrees and not know it as well as I do.
My body is saying, go. Don’t walk for five minutes. Walk for twenty. Walk hard. Push. Go. Strengthen. Hurt a little, go a little too far, and recover. It’s saying not at all what anyone else is saying. It wants me to keep kosher with the gluten free and look at cutting out sugar again. It wants me to exercise, push, and go. Sometimes I catch myself inventing exercises, weird stretches in doorways and “yoga” positions on the floor. I start pacing back and forth or catching myself putting on tennis shoes and thinking about walking up the street. Not around the block. Through the neighborhood. But I’ve resisted, because everybody’s been telling me to go at this a different way.
In the same way I didn’t listen to anybody about outlines or synopses or flying by the seat of my pants, about writing without looking down or backing up–I need to do that with my body. Basically, anybody who tells me how to write gets a big smile and a fuck you very much. When I put a book out, it’s the best I can make that book at that time. Other people would write it differently, and they’re welcome to do that. I’m not going to please everyone all of the time, and that’s fine. But I am deliberate, and I know what I’m doing, and I’m one hundred percent driven by instinct. I’m very comfortable with it.
This afternoon, after paralyzing myself with fear of what to do about my health, I broke down and listened to my body. It said, “Put on your shoes and go. Walk hard, walk so fucking hard you lose your breath. Get a stitch in your side. Swing your arms. Fucking. Work. Go for at least twenty minutes. Go hard. Go really goddamned hard.” Figuring the only thing I had to lose was my Friday, I did it.
You know where this is going.
My body was right. That instinct was one hundred percent on. I didn’t need Cymbalta. I needed to move and to push. Did it fix everything? No. Am I in pain right now? Yes. But it’s manageable, and if I go walk, gently this time, it’ll feel good again. I haven’t taken any pills since this morning, so this is me without meds. I’m finding other ways to keep the pain manageable while I work on strengthening. In fact during this post I’ve shifted several times, gotten up once, and keep doing these cat-hunches and shoulder rolls in my chair. I also roll my hips and flex my glutes. Every time I do, it’s like I’m shaking off pain scales. It’s not all gone, but it’s less.
I can’t say I won’t take the Cymbalta. Dan filled the prescription, and it’s going to sit on my shelf. I may put it on my desk. It’s going to be my adversary, the thing I don’t want to do but have to if I don’t listen to my instinct. I may end up having to take it, because instinct isn’t infallible. But I’m going to try not to, because I don’t want to risk what i don’t need to, and also because I’d really like to win this on my own.
If you’re fighting chronic pain, a manuscript, or something else–listen to yourself, or learn to. This is actually a theme of my life, that while it would sure be nice for a fairy godmother to show up and make everything okay, usually you have to build your own carriage and cobble your own shoe. And it’s better that way. More work, yes, but not only is what you make just right for you, you also have the satisfaction of pointing at that pumpkin and saying, “I made that, bitches.”
I’m going to make myself. I’m getting my goddamned body back. I don’t need to look like I’m twenty. I’d settle for feeling better at forty than I did through my thirties, because basically that decade most fifty and sixty year olds outran me. I’m gonna do it, just like I’m gonna hit all my deadlines, and early.
I’ve just got this feeling it’s all gonna work out–and I’m going to listen to that feeling. All day long.
If there’s a frequently asked question I get which isn’t a variation on “How can a girl write boy sex?” it’s a riff on “How can I be successful as a writer?” I think I get the question a lot because I’m clearly mid-list, doing well but not even in the same zip code as people whose signing lines wrap around the building. I have the career a lot of people want, because everybody knows those megawatt stars are rare. But I’m making well more than a living wage as an author, and that seems an attainable dream. It’s just that nobody can figure out how to do it. How did I? How can others emulate me?
I can answer the question, but I’ll warn you right now a lot of people won’t like the answer, and even more won’t even hear it. Because how I did it is that I worked hard. I mean, I worked. Like a dog. Like a crazy person. Like a desperate freak. I struggled like I’ve struggled for nothing else, and I haven’t stopped. I stripped myself down and made myself understand who I was and what I could do, and then I did what I could to expand my limitations. I believe my struggle and pain, both personal and professional, define and make my art. I believe anyone, everyone, can do this too. Yet the short version of why so many people don’t make it even to a comfortable middle ground has nothing to do with the difficulties of publishing or whether or not we should all toss off publishers entirely, or the quality of the art, or whether or not Amazon is an asshole for bullying Hachette. Most people’s art doesn’t earn them a living because they cannot let go of the fantasy that all they have to do is show up with a product and the world will hand them cash. Most people cannot accept the truth that the work required to get money from art is so onerous it changes the nature of the art itself.
Art is not guaranteed to be successful. This is the part where I could go on about our entitlement culture being to blame, but I actually don’t mind the entitlement, because the confidence breeds hope, and confidence can take you a long way. I think where most people go wrong is the entitlement breeds with healthy self-doubt, and when insta-success doesn’t occur, it becomes evidence for why we suck and other people don’t. The truth is every single successful person either worked hard for what they have, or they got lucky—and in the case of the latter, that self-doubt often gets them shortly after the success becomes too great.
I think it’s hardest right now because it’s both never been easier to produce and share art and never been harder to be noticed. The death of the arbiters of culture means the gatekeepers are gone too, which is good in the abstract and hellish in the specific. While those gates were keeping your amazing work out, it was also keeping all the garbage out too. And sadly, the truth is your work, and mine, is garbage to a lot of people. The gatekeepers will come back eventually, somehow, because humans hate chaos. But right now that entitlement and disappointment are creating a shattering, terrible beauty of a sorrow. Because all you need is ten minutes to whip something up, the Internet to share it…and you too can discover that you’re not as inherently talented as your mother told you.
Success is what you decide it is. I cannot stress this enough–in fact, I say it to myself every day. Once upon a time you knew you were successful when you hit the New York Times Bestseller list or got a million dollar advance for a three book deal, or were sent on a book tour to Europe. No more. Every list can be rigged, and most are. Every deal can be unjustified, and once again, most are. No one goes on book tours but the megawatts. The pyramid of success has narrowed to the thinnest arrowhead point with a base of the triangle wide enough to include 70% of the creative populace.
Yet this doesn’t mean people shouldn’t write, shouldn’t paint, shouldn’t create. My daughter is twelve and obsesses about her subscribers on her YouTube channel, then gets angry when I say if she produced more content and took more time she’d probably get a better audience. She’s annoyed that I say it will take work to achieve her goals of YouTube fame, because while she’s somewhat interested in art, mostly she’s an adolescent and would like a hit of reassurance from the universe that she matters. We’re animals, and we want validation from our peers that we matter, that what we made and do and say is part of the human narrative.
Do not go to art for validation. Ever. You’re going to do it anyway, but when you’re sobbing and empty, remember I told you it was a bad idea.
You decide, forever and always, when your work is right and good. It’s perfectly okay, no matter what our celebrity-obsessed culture says, to create art for yourself and a few friends and family. My daughter’s art projects on my fridge are more precious to me than anything in a museum. I’d rescue my daughter’s work from a fire, but I’d simply feel sad for the Mona Lisa. Beauty and value are relative, and so is success. My love for my daughter’s work is success enough–her love of her work is success enough. If all you want is to see your name in print, then you can make that happen. If all you desire is to say you made a movie, this world is a wonderful place where you can do that with your phone. Creation is always beautiful and wonderful and should always be celebrated, and you alone get to decide when you’ve done well.
Creating art for public consumption is an art form all its own. This is the part of publication or any sharing of art everyone overlooks, and it’s where people’s hearts get broken. It is one thing to create a work, and it’s another level of emotional Tetris to ask for money and allow people to say whether or not they thought you did a good job. We read all the time about famous artists who asked for their work to be burned at their death or who stuck all their scribbles in a drawer to be published posthumously, and this wasn’t because they were shy. It was because they didn’t have media culture promising them they too could get a reality TV show because they filmed themselves having sex, didn’t have YouTube ads making it look like all it takes to be a hit Internet cooking show is a nice hairdo and a smile. It was because they knew the pain of rejection can and will color every aspect of art, and sometimes it’s not worth it.
This is where I should tell you about marketing and networking and researching your medium, except as soon as I start anyone who hasn’t done that research will think all they need to do is read this paragraph and they’ve got that base covered. No. You must do your own work. You must make your own contacts. You must read your own articles. You must join your own organizations, and you should get involved. If you join RWA or RRW or simply a local writing group and no confetti drops out of the sky, you should look into renting a party cannon for them and make the magic happen yourself. If you go to a convention and agents and editors and readers don’t swarm you, get off your ass and make yourself indispensable in whatever way suits you best.
The best example of this is how Damon Suede and I behave at Romantic Times Book Convention, and truth, at cons in general. When we go together, we have battle plans, and I’m not kidding. We will talk for at least thirty hours on the phone, send countless emails, and launch enough campaigns to take Waterloo by lunch. We plan parties, design swag displays, plot giveaways and conversations with everyone from our favorite readers to the head of a publishing company.
And yet I absolutely do not behave the same way as he does at a con, nor do I ever want to. He bounces around like a deranged BB, and I prefer to move like a knife through the crowd, taking in input, drinking in the moment and finding the right conversation, the right new contact. This year I made a point of decorating the hotel bar as much as I could, of lunching with people I hadn’t met before (hello, Isobel Carr) and hugging people who I’ve been flirting with on twitter (Donna and Bree and Vivian, I’m looking at you!). I was feeling good for the first time in five years, so I carefully plotted my outfits, making how I dressed and accessorized part of my con persona.
Damon and I make a good convention team because we are so different. We can help each other, but neither one of us is dead weight. We understand we have different experiences, different realities. I’ve seen his crazy fan base, and I don’t want it. Ironically a lot of our fans overlap, but how they present to me and to him is entirely different—and that’s good. I think we work together well also because I so adamantly don’t want that kind of attention, and he doesn’t want to be me, either.
This lesson is something all artists need to internalize. I can’t be Damon. I can’t be Tessa Dare or Victoria Dahl, and I should not be. Can you imagine if I was? I assume many of you are reading this post because you love my work. What if I stopped being me and tried to be one of those three people instead? I can’t write their work any more than they can write mine. I can’t have their career any more than they can have mine.
Everyone can have a place at the table, but you don’t just have to fight for it, you often have to carve the table out of stone after you drag the rock down from the mountain. Ten years ago there was barely any LGBT romance in the mainstream market at all. Now it is everywhere. I was a part of that. I’m still a part of that. And no, I didn’t just write down some nice stories, send them out and cross my fingers. My family will tell you how many hours I have worked (usually more than 70 a week), how much money I’ve spent getting myself to the right place at the right time, often to find I’d guessed wrong and all I got was a tax deduction and a lousy T-shirt. Before I was published I put in ten solid years of trying, learning, being frustrated. If you dig back through the archive of this blog you can see how frustrated and dejected I was. There’s a post about making a party in a treehouse that no one came to. That was how I felt for a long, long time.
I don’t feel that way now. I’m not settling in with a flag and calling my midlist seat my stopping point, but I am slowing down to watch movies with my family and enjoy my success. I’m making purchases and taking trips which are largely in part to tell myself how well I’ve done, to make myself see.
Make no mistake, though, that this place I’ve arrived at was won by blood and sweat and many, many tears. This is not a success I was entitled to or destined for. This is triumph I have earned. And cliche it may sound, but I treasure what I have made so much more because I made the success as much as I made the art. I did my homework. I did my time. I used my brain, made myself smarter. I made my mistakes and said my foolish things. I suffered and struggled, and I the story of my progress is an art as beautiful as the tales I sell for others to read. My path to this moment is a private tale, the pages of which only I can see.
Outside of my daughter, the story of my success will always be my most treasured thing I have made.
That statement contains three concepts: I write fiction. I write romantic stories. I write gay male protagonists. It is often assumed by my readership and my heterosexual peers that the greatest “shocker” in that list is that I’m a married female in the Midwest writing gay fiction. But the sad truth is that’s merely an eyebrow-raiser, usually begging the inquisitor to ask me more about why, and how that works. In fact, the “gay” factor in my declaration of what I do for a living is a buffer. Because when I say I’m an author, everyone gets excited. When I say I write gay fiction, everyone is intrigued.
When I say that I write love stories, noses wrinkle, and disdain is rampant.
The year is 2014, and we’ve come a long way, baby, but much as Cliven Bundy can tell you all about “the negro,” the international media and everyone at peace with our two-faced, condescending patriarchal culture, those romance novels are trashy bodice rippers. The men and women who read them write them, produce them, promote them, maintain a billion-dollar industry via them—they’re all silly, and sex-crazed, and if they aren’t fat spinsters in curlers eating ice cream in the middle of too many cats, they’re definitely that type of ridiculous person at heart.
Because today when it was announced that Harlequin Enterprises, who advertise themselves as “We Are Romance,” was sold to News Corp, we didn’t receive reporting on what such an unexpected, potentially industry-changing merger would mean, or what this did to the outstanding lawsuit against Harlequin. We didn’t get gravity and insight, or attempts at insight into what this might mean—not often, not overall.
The media, largely, regarded this as a women’s issue. Instead of reporting, we received jokes, insulting satire, and an umbrella reminder that despite what this might mean for the money and power and influence to the culture of reading in the twenty-first century, romance novels are about women, and women are ridiculous.
CNN photoshopped News Corp’s Murdoch onto a romance novel and talked about Harlequin hooking up with a billionaire. “Along with cheesy covers of chiseled men seducing women, Harlequin is famed for publishing a huge number of books — more than 110 each month. It also prints novels in 34 languages, according to the publisher.” Wow. Golly. Who knew cheesy covers of chiseled men seducing women could be relevant in so many languages? Hey, did anybody at CNN go look at any Harlequin covers to note that actually they don’t do that much at all, if ever? Did they mention the different lines, or Mira, or any of the awards and sales figures? No? Just the 1970s and 80s bodice rippers, right? Because it’s just women. Why bother updating any research. None of this shit matters. Though hey, if they wanted to attract more readers they should put chocolate and shoes on the cover next to the naked chests. Amiright?
Canada’s Globe and Mail thought it would be funny to pretend Harlequin was a woman and News Corp was her…pimp? I have a hard time reading it through without blood pressure medication. Reuters couldn’t resist the lure of saying Harlequin got married (because they were what, just shaking up with Torstar?) and saying OH YES BODICE RIPPERS, THESE ARE BODICE RIPPERS WITH BOOBS AND RIPPING BODICES whenever they could squeak it in around a few facts and figures. Same goes for ABC, who wanted to talk about sexy soldiers and steaminess! Sexy! Steamy! Girly! Yay. The LA Times shoehorned in this incredibly awkward non sequitur of Murdoch’s love life, because that’s totally relevant with BODICE RIPPING publishers, billion dollar industry or not.
There are some silver linings. Forbes managed to avoid saying “bodice ripper” and talked about things like money and sales and markets. The Wall Street Journal was equally salient and restrained. The New York Times came so close, but like a fart at a party, BODICE RIPPER snuck out. Bloomberg gets snaps for actually mentioning the lawsuit—reporting! OMG—but mostly it’s BODICE RIPPER BODDICE RIPPER BODICE RIPPPPPPEERRRRRRRR SEXY GIRLY BOOKS SEX STEAMY HEE HEE HEE.
I’m not surprised by todays general lack of journalism, but I’m not happy. The Globe and Mail’s piece especially disappointed me because several years ago they did what I thought was a great article on my work and also gay romance as a whole. But see, there’s the difference, right? Gay romance. I don’t want to believe the difference was because a dick was involved, but I think so.
Because it’s revolutionary, apparently, for me to write gay romance. Daring. Brave! Shocking. A woman is writing about a dick. Two dicks. At a time! Wow, there’s no bodice! Is this like, new feminism or something? Is this about equality? Is it just weird? Is this what women want?
The truth is a lot of why I began writing and reading gay romance is because our culture, our industries, our media is so polluted by insulting, patriarchal, sexist bullshit that I ran away. For almost a decade I didn’t read mainstream heterosexual romance at all. I do now: I read Lauren Dane, Vivian Arend, Tessa Dare, Kit Rocha—I keep branching out, slowly, carefully, and when I find authors of romance with females in I sip slowly, so I don’t run out. Even better are lesbian romances. I have Sarah Waters on a slow drip because her work makes me ache, frees my mind, heals my soul…and she’s not exactly whipping out a book every three months.
It isn’t that there were no good romances for ten years, either, don’t get me wrong. Definitely something happened when all the publishing houses ate each other and men in board rooms began to channel and package product. Definitely things got better when small press and self publishing gave authors more freedom again, more options, and those boardroom members weren’t in the driver’s seat anymore. Mostly, speaking for myself, writing and reading more than processed, restricted formulaic story designed to sit nicely next to the usual stuff in the usual way with another beach chair or big dress just in a different color—options and choices and challenges in my reading material and potential scenarios as an author freed things inside me. Through reading and writing I have always discovered much about myself and the world around me, but in the last five years especially? Wow. Every day is a revelation.
I write gay romance for a lot of complicated reasons, but one of the biggest and most important is it’s really hard to insert cultural norms onto a population the culture is still trying to figure how what to do with. The tide of popular opinion on gay marriage is shifting, and gay romances and LGBT romances in general feel like they’re part of a movement. No one wants to be on the wrong side of history about that.
But women? It’s still okay to mock them, apparently. It’s totally acceptable to knock off national stories about such a seismic industry shift with jokes about tits and ass and how silly and stupid romance authors and readers are. Writing gay romance, lesbian romance, or heterosexual romance, we are all little women, playing about with our laptops and dressing up at cons. We couldn’t possibly be making million and billion dollar deals, contributing significantly to the economy and the cultural conversation. We don’t have anything to say about sex and sexuality and orientation and gender roles and norms. If we have degrees, we’re wasting them. If we have intelligence, we’re draining it away with our silly little stories.
Like the ads lining this article show, women and the stories about them are jokes. We are stupid children. We are pieces of meat. We should spread our clean-shaven thighs, be beautiful and sexy and not wreck the car or stir up trouble—only dinner. We can read our little books, but they’re only bodice rippers. No matter how they change, no matter how many women’s lives are directly and indirectly affected by the lessons our novels contain, the economies they bolster, the careers and families they support—this is women’s work.
And apparently, we still have plenty to do.
A decade ago I sat with NYT bestselling authors at an RWA function, several of them friends, and one of them leaned over, held my hand and said, “Honey, treasure this time you’re not published. It’ll never be this quiet and easy once you start making your mark.” Another author from this same crew in a different venue smiled wryly when several of us unpubbed authors vowed we’d never send out inferior, unpolished work, that we’d always serve the story first, last and always. “Not once you’re under deadline, you won’t,” she said. I seethed during both conversations and vowed with the passion only the young and foolish can swear that I would never, ever believe either of those things.
Today I believe both of those things. I don’t long to be unpublished, but I sometimes think of the quiet headspace and room to create I once had and wish I’d enjoyed it more–which is what those authors had, somewhat clumsily, been saying. I even get now why their words hurt a bit–they were meant to, because those authors were jealous. Because nobody enjoys those days of anonymity. Nobody understands what a gift of space and time that is. Not until it’s too late.
Someone asked me the other day how many hours a day I write, and I had to shut my eyes a moment and hit rewind to calculate when the last time I’d composed story actually was. (Seven days, and now it’s ten.) When I say that, I think the general public assumption is I had to stop to do laundry, or binge-watched a show or gossiped with a friend. The truth is that I’ve put in minimum ten hours a day every one of those ten days. I have RT convention coming up, a proposal due, a book I’m editing for release, another I’m final proofing for re-release, a blog tour I’m running as soon as I get back from RT, and another re-release I’m five months late reformatting and editing. Though my average of releases a year is 3-4, this year I have seven: four re-releases and three new. I’ve also been to the hospital twice this spring, once for surgery, and I’m heading under the knife again at the end of July–and that convalescence must be accounted for in my work schedule. I’m prepping work for summer of 2015, which means by the time this fall comes I will have to have completed two more works–and honestly, I need to begin mentally mapping three more works for the rest of that year and into 2016.
And yeah, every now and again I have to push back the tides of all the above and actually write, to make sure the nougat center of the crazy author machine keeps churning.
My point of relaying all this is not to get you to play violins for me but to backdrop what goes on in my life on a daily basis, especially right now. I spend $24 a month on organizational software just so I can keep up with myself. My email inbox is an intricate system of colored flags and folders which are the only way I make sure no ball is dropped. I am CEO, manager, secretary, promoter, cook, janitor and accountant for a one-woman operation. This is not a state of being unique to me–many, many many authors have this kind of schedule. And yes, we have to get on social media and promote, and interact–and we do. We want to play and connect. That’s the whole point of why we killed ourselves to get published, right? To talk to readers? To have our stories be heard?
It is. It absolutely is.
Who I Always Want to Hear From, and How Best to Do It
Readers, I always want to hear from you. Email is best. Or, you know, twitter or FB wall is GREAT. I always see those, and if you’re okay with a favorite or like or quickie comment for me to hug you and say I heard you back, I can so meet you there even if I’m in line at the grocery store. If you need to email or PM? Go for it. Long as you want! It might take me awhile to answer, but I will. I love hearing from you. Always. Every time. Sometimes you move me so much I don’t know what to say, but that kind of communication? It always brings me home. Reminds me why I work the 80 hours. There are many of you whose comments in pixels and in person stand out like lighthouses for me when I get bogged down. Please, don’t ever stop.
Bloggers. I always want to hear from you too. Bloggers, you’re business. You’re my best promo going, you’re the way most of my readers find me–as much as I can be, I’m yours. I’d say you need to give me a little warning, but you know, I don’t have to, because you’re all so awesome you always do. Email is always best, ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS, because if I check my PMs in a store (often. Happens OFTEN) I won’t remember very well to go back and see what you said or that you spoke. I might, in the middle of the night, think I’ve possibly forgotten something. But that’s rare, and when you do PM me or something more casual, you follow up and walk me through. Because you’re professionals and you’re awesome.
Librarians. For you, I would walk over coals. Librarians, I wrote a book about a librarian which I dedicated to you because this is how much I love librarians. (Sleigh Ride, Samhain Publishing, out November 2014.) I can’t always give you a book, but I’ll try if I can, and I’ll always give you whatever I”m able as fast as possible. You are how I read most of my books until I was in my late twenties. You are what kept me sane and connected when I was a small child and young adult. Outside of my child and my cats, everything else you might ask for is a negotiable item. (You could have my husband with hello. He loves you even more than me.) However you can get ahold of me, do it, and I’m all over you so fast you’ll think I’m your shadow.
Family members, I’m really not dead, just an ass. This notation of “family” includes made family, and you know who you are. You can call me, PM me, email me, show up at my door. I know I have sucked epically at being available, but I still love you, and I’m still yours. Please beat me about the head if I’m ignoring you. Always.
These are the people I want, NEED to hear from. And really, I’m game to hear from anybody. But given how things have been going lately, I’m going to put this out there as public record, and I’m considering it fair warning. Here are some things I would like the world to know about getting ahold of me if you don’t fit one of the above criteria/scenarios. Here I have no idea how much this applies to other authors, but I’m betting I’m not exactly a unicorn here.
What Not to Wear When Contacting an Author
The worst way in the world to get my attention is in a PM of a social media service. The one medium which is mostly safe is twitter, because I am crazy careful about who I follow. If I’m following you, then you can PM me and I’ll pay attention. In fact if it’s important I’ll ask you to email it to me so I don’t forget. Twitter is also easy because I love it like chocolate and am on there all the time.
But everywhere else? Goodreads? Facebook? Possibly there are other places, but if someone has PMd me on Tumblr or Pinterest or Instagram or some such, I don’t even know how to access those, and I’m not going to learn. I cannot take one more contact point or I’ll blow up. As it is, Goodreads and Facebook in particular are getting bogged way, way down with authors PMing me as promo (????!!!!), people I don’t know asking for help/favors freebies, or especially on Facebook, creeping all over me. I’m really, really bitter about FB because I have friends on my author account I hug in PM, and there’s nothing like going in to snug on Leigh and having to sidestep a freak or someone trying to guilt me into becoming their promotional manager. And that’s a great segue to another point.
If you are a budding author, want-to-be author, lost and confused author and I do not know you from Adam, you should join RWA or whatever appropriate organization and learn the ropes there, not ask me. If you’re a reader of mine and we’ve already established a personal connection, or you’re a friend of mine, that’s slightly different. If you’re a friend, it’s different. If we’ve hung at a con, or had any kind of interaction that is moderately human, emailing me and asking for direction is part of the social contract, and I’m down. I might have to tell you I don’t have time or don’t have a clue. I might have to tell you to be patient or give you a quickie answer. But I can do that because we’re friends. We can grab lunch sometime or work in a phone call. Because what everyone truly needs in that moment is a mirror, someone to reflect themselves back at them. THAT is the secret to all writing advice: look at yourself. There is no formula, no bullet, no key. There is you and your path, which you alone must find. But you should totally lunch and dish with friends on the way.
And so if you are DESPERATE to become my friend, or any author’s friend, so you too can nosh and dish, you need to do the work. You need to go out of your way to associate with whoever it is you’re courting, and you need to be humble and patient. It’s like dating. Be interesting. Be compassionate. Be the thing that person needs, but please don’t be crazy because we’re all full up here.
I have about fifty great friends I’ve made THROUGH twitter. I got my AGENT via twitter. There’s a woman, a reader, on FB I haven’t met but when I do I’m hugging the hell out of her because she makes me really happy. I would do about anything for her, and I haven’t ever met her.
Authors–PMing your “news” or begging for (or hell, demanding) help form a stranger or even outright emailing it is not a strategy. The story of too much shit to do I told above could be told by any author working full time. It’s told with crippling agony by someone working a day job–because they have all that PLUS A DAY JOB, and occasional nuzzles with sleep. There is nothing endearing about cold messages assuming we have nothing better to do than abruptly go see your event, release, or stop everything and give you the secret of life.
If you are asking an author for a favor, be polite, prepared and patient. I’m always looking to promote, but I’m not a whore. If you’re a small blogger, I can get you an ARC as part of a blog tour. If your blog has medium to heavy traffic, probably my publisher already gave the book you’re after to you, but if not I’m happy to oblige. If you’re a small blogger and we’ve been cordial and friendly to each other, if the first interaction we had wasn’t “hey can I have a free book,” I probably will wink and slip you a copy. But if you basically email me–or god help us all, PM me and say “Hi I’m Sally can I have a free book” I’m probably not going to be answering.
If you’re an unpublished author, if you’re an author I don’t know and you want advice, a free book, a hug, a kidney–I applaud your efforts, I wish you luck, I direct you to organizations and my blog archive, but I can’t read what you send me, I can’t add another hour to my day to give you tips, and I absolutely won’t introduce you to my agent. Especially if you ask for all of this in your opening salvo.
If we have had casual contact, if I would know you if we passed through a conference hall, I’ll do my best, but I might have to regretfully decline. I think this is the hardest part about achieving any kind of authorial success, and as a former teacher, it pains me the most. I want to help. I want to give advice, especially to good people. I want to aid my peers. But when I’m choosing between getting my work done, meeting my deadlines, and carving out a moment with my family, I can’t add anything more in there. If we’re close enough for you to ask, we’re close enough for you to understand when I say, “I’m so sorry. I can’t right now. How about next month?”
I sit with this post ninety percent drafted and wonder about posting it, because I’m pretty sure the people I need most to see it won’t be reading my blog. Because the people reading my blog to learn about me aren’t the kind of people who would PM me asking for the moon. (You want to know who always, always reads my blog? The press. Every time I’ve been interviewed, every time someone has approached me for a media piece, they tell me they cite things from my website and blog.) Which is why I spent so much time talking about who I DO want to hear from, and I’ll close by reiterating that. Because I need you guys. I need your reactions to my work, your invitations to be author of the month, your follow-ups on that tour post. I need you too, family, more than anyone else.
I guess I’m hoping maybe someone reads this and rethinks about how they drown 800 strangers on Goodreads with promo or gets them to think maybe the best route to publication isn’t cold-calling a busy published author. Ten years ago when I sat in that RWA conference lobby, social media was a glimmer in everyone’s eye. In another ten years we’ll probably have a better system for it, but right now, I feel like it’s nothing but mess.
At least once a day I consider un-bookmarking Goodreads and not interacting there any more at all, and Facebook has started to become that too. I resist because I love chatting with readers in threads of novels on Goodreads and reading Leslie B’s snark on FB. I love anticipating a book by another author with other readers, of being a reader myself, and of actually letting my hair down and relaxing on FB. I’m reluctant to let all that go.
Probably other authors are better at fielding weird questions and requests, but I have to say I suck at it, especially when it’s not in my email where I feel like I know how to manage it. Right now, this week, as yet another wad of weird hit, as I already have legitimate questions and needs from actual friends and colleagues I can’t quite get to–I don’t know how to react. I can’t ditch FB because I’m using it to promote RT stuff, and honestly, I can’t because I need to relax.
I guess I’m writing this post as a compromise. I’m going to have to cowgirl up and either ignore or face the awkward conversations, and I’m going to have to follow the advice I’ve given to another friend who’s fielded this kind of barrage for a lot longer and with more intensity: ignore it, don’t let it get in the way. It’s harder than I thought, though. It bums me out. It makes me uncertain and confused. And it totally fucks with my writing.
I think I’m going to go a little dark for the rest of the week, or try to. I still need to do the advance work for RT, and I cannot WAIT to meet so many of you there: fellow authors, friends, readers, and soon-to-be friends. When I’m on the ground in NOLA, I am all yours. That’s the whole point of the exercise: to promote, and to give back joyously to readers.
I only ask that you respect the time of me and other authors when we’re not promoting at a con or on social media. When we are trying to write you new stories or get the kind of wisdom and experience you’re wishing for a peek at. And for the record, authors who blanket-promote? Who cold PM everybody? It’s working on no one. Every reader has as much busy in their life as me. Everyone is barraged by crap. You want to stand out? Write good work. Do your time. Make your connections. Be a real human. Provide a service. And then maybe you too someday will be overwhelmed by people wanting a free lunch, and you’ll have to write this post.
When that happens, find me at a con, and we’ll have a toast to the weird circles of life. I’ll buy the first round.
On Facebook this morning, my husband linked to an article at The Daily Dot about the dangers of blogging/posting at work. Before I even clicked the link to read the post, I laughed bitterly and thought, “Yeah, if only my maxim could be that simple.” Because as an author, whether I talk about writing/publishing or not, everything I put on the Internet affects my work. All my words and pictures and links have the potential to affect my sales. My daughter, now making her first forays into social media, has been warned if she wouldn’t be comfortable seeing it on CNN Student News, she shouldn’t post it, but for authors and anyone whose public persona isn’t an outlet but a lifeline to a paycheck needs a tighter mantra. Every tweet, every Facebook post, every chat and private Instagram could elevate our profile, yes—and it could also stake us more thoroughly than any book we’ll ever write. Public posting for authors doesn’t simply risk getting us fired. Every word and pixel we put up for public consumption could tank our careers. And it’s well past time we started behaving that way.
I feel like so many posts I’ve written on my blog are variations on this theme, but this one matters enough to me that I’ll do it again and be more direct than ever. Authors: if you doubt for a second, don’t post on social media, don’t write that blog. If you’re trashing another author—of any caliber, any level of fame, you should not. You should use great caution and care when and if you review. You should be careful when you post tweets, status updates, and photos. You should behave as if every word you say is being heard by everyone in the entirety of the world, and everyone who loves them—but most importantly, you should assume the world is listening. And taking screenshots, and getting popcorn to watch in case you burn.
Somehow it seems a myth has been started that authors, big or small, are owed something. In the past few weeks I feel like this entitlement keeps coming up in various forms in all genres of publishing, at all levels. Somehow even the most obscure excuse me, who the hell are you? authors have no issue with standing loudly at their pulpit of choice decrying the unfairness of not being chosen for conferences or awards or whatever the hell crawled in front of them that day. Reviews—God help us all, reviews. Authors writing reviews trashing other authors, then acting as if they’re Joan of Arc when everyone turns on them. Authors acting as if every complaint from a reader hurts their poor little feeeeeeelings—which, actually, that happens every day. And it’s why I have my besties on IM and in DM and on speed dial. When a review manages to wound me, I go to a trusted, vetted private source and I snarl and cast aspersions on penis size and sexual prowess and throw enough shade to cast eternal darkness on my enemy’s soul. And then I get over it and move on, the Internet never the wiser. I don’t, ever, broadcast that crap even in a private blog. I sure as hell don’t attack or argue with readers or reviewers. I suck it up. I move on.
Any author reading: you should too.
Authors, what you are entitled to as a published, paid author is a paycheck for the works you sell. You are entitled to not being plagiarized. You are entitled to a fair market and fair pay. You are entitled to a level playing field. But what you are not entitled to is a special refrigerated train car for your very special snowflake. You are not entitled even to a car or a track to ride on. You are entitled to a chance. Everything beyond this you must earn.
I understand why this is such an unappealing concept, but I suggest anyone who wants to get ten feet in this business learn to swallow fast. Publishing has never been a graceful or kind affair, but right now, at this moment in time, it is nuclear war every single day. There is no safe house. There is no clear path. There is no Way to seek and follow. There is blood, terror, heart-rendering risk, and there is pain and betrayal. Those are your guarantees. Your promises I can make you as one who has been actively watching this stuff go down for almost twenty years and wading neck-deep into it for five.
What I can also promise you is that you will go nowhere without friends and allies, which means every word out of your mouth should be filtered to make sure you avoid making enemies.
I don’t think any author can be immune to hope and wistfulness, castles in the sky we wish to build foundations under—and those dreams are vital. But authors must remember, always, that other people are building foundations too, and if you steal other people’s stuff or hurl rocks at their heads, you will pay. If you build your foundations on the blood of your friends or while sniping and snarling at anyone who dares challenge you, your foundations will fall long before you get anywhere worth getting to. Every tweet you share, every Instagram you post marks your brand. It’s possible that it serves you to be a caustic, rotten asshole as your brand—possible, but even this must be polished and affected. And you’d better pray the risks of that approach pay off, because the odds are never in your favor.
I wish we could make a rule that every author or want-to-be author before they get WiFi access needs to read The Prince, and like license renewal we should ingest it again every so many years. When I first read Machiavelli, I hated him and his jaded view of politics. I still kind of hate him, though now it’s because I think he’s completely and utterly right and I wish he were not. What frustrated me about The Prince in college was this idea that the world was not a good, Disney-like place where nice people prevailed and everything, if we all worked hard and went to church and did good deeds, would be okay. This idea that people have to be calculating and sometimes nasty to get ahead made me sick.
The thing is, it’s true, and as authors? We need to stay well out of it, because no matter what our egos might tell us, we are not princes, not kings, not queens. We are barely courtiers. We are jesters every one. We are bards. We are servants, here at the whim and will of the populace, the public, and sometimes the prince himself. We are ruled by forces greater than we can control. We have moments of power, of fame, but everything we prize may be taken away at any time. Our great fame may be toppled by one ill-timed fall or misspeak. Our work will sometimes disappoint, yes, and sometimes our star will not shine as bright because of something we create, but we’ll be forgiven because everyone wants another tale. We are servants, always, and the princes and courtiers love to be served—but never scolded. The mob, the masses—they love our work, but as Twitter teaches us daily, the mob loves scandal more. It is transfixed by the public display of someone behaving badly, of being publicly burned for daring to step out of line. We may as authors, or even as possessors of souls, dislike this tendency, but we will have more luck attempting to roll back the ocean’s tide than we will quell this part of human nature. And as an author, we are in the worst positions in the world to do so.
The sense of entitlement luring authors is our trap, because too many of us want to be movie stars. Or twitter stars. Or conference stars. Who of us does not want to be Jude Deveraux and Julie Garwood at RT with all the fans and authors weeping like supplicants, so overcome by awe and nostalgia they can barely speak? We all want that, yes, but that adoration is not our birthright. Those ladies bought that status with grace, civility, and politic. They bought it with luck and perseverance and diligence. They did not stab their way to the top. They did not whine and cry their way or seethe about the horrible unfairness of it all. They worked. They behaved. They shone like stars. They earned that reverence.
Somehow though there is this idea that we may be all that by sockpuppet trickery, by flattery and bribes, by stepping on the necks of our fellows, by standing up and demanding we be honored. Somehow there is this idea that we may complain about bad reviews on Facebook—we’re all friends there, after all—and it will not taint us as soft-bellied complainers whose books no one wants to buy anymore. Somehow our personal blogs are an acceptable place to rant about any and everything we dislike in the world—and consumers should ignore the discomfort and dislike they feel in us now and still shop for our books.
I don’t think most people are thinking this deeply or even very shallowly when they post unwise things. Most authors mis-stepping in the social sphere are merely naive and untutored and foolish. The great irony for writers is that as a population we are the wallflowers, the outsiders who observe. The idea that we should also be media moguls is dangerous, and often leads to those melt-down blog posts we flock to like the trainwrecks they are: there but for a well-timed glass of wine and phone call go we all. No one is immune. Authors barely significant enough to float in a puddle drown in the same Twittercycle as decades-established bestsellers who could buy and sell us all on a whim. Sometimes these are momentary lapses in judgment. Sometimes the scandals are legitimate. Sometimes they represent deep philosophical struggles with no real answer.
Bloggers—book bloggers, readers, anyone not an author? They can have these public conversations far more safely. Scandal is lifeblood to bloggers more often than not. Controversy means hits. Negative reviews, even when authors foolishly firestorm, even when readers defy them as is their right (so long as they are not sent by the author), are good for blogs. Authors, you should not go here, and when you are compelled to do so anyway, you must be aware that every single word you say might lose you sales. You may disagree with me. You may burn and learn on your own. I certainly have done so, and many others have before me and many will in days to come. But this is my advice, and it comes from my heart, my soul, my being. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t be negative in public. Don’t snipe. Don’t disparage your fellows. Don’t diva. Don’t demand. Don’t assume. Don’t snarl, just don’t. Because while you think you’re digging yourself or someone else out, more often than not all you’re doing is carving out your grave.
Traditionally published authors, stop snickering or hating on indie. Indie, stop mocking traditionally pubbed for being codependent. Everyone, stop whining and kvetching about how you’re being held back, about how the system is against you, about how you’re never picked for the ball, about how someone is taking your spot in the show. If you want a spot in the light, earn it. If want to go to the ball, work. If you want to win, play the game. If you want to shine, work on your glow. Be kind or at least gracious to your fellow performers. Remember that you are allowed to perform at all only by the permission and pleasure of your audience. Remember that to create your art you must be vulnerable, which means you will need friends and support more than you’ll need a sharp sword.
Writing is hard. Publishing is harder. It is an arena you enter where the rules change and the efficacy of all your best weapons will abruptly, unfairly cease and you must build new ones while arrows come at your head. It is a world where nothing is real and seldom constant. It is a career where everything you have you will earn, and where gifts and luck and happy accidents, success stumbled upon, can be a greater burden than climbing the ladder. Publishing is a slog, and fame and success are not guaranteed. Never, not one time has waging war, from the mildest whine to the most vicious peer attack, advanced a career. But collectively and singularly, those acts have ended many.
Write books, authors. Write stories. Channel your emotions, your fears, your vulnerabilities into your work. Swallow the hurt and give voice to a song. In your books, which is what you are here for in the first place. Everywhere else? Post about cats and beards and the cupcake you had instead of dinner. Better to be banal than a bitch. Because readers will flock to the cats and the cupcakes and possibly bring you baked goods and collars with your cover art as collars to singings. But they’ll get a front row seat to watch the bitch go down.
Every. Single. Time.
Death By Promotion: Getting Real About the Costs to Authors and Readers in the Current Marketing Environment
My name is Heidi Cullinan, and I’m here to write stories and publish books.
I’m not here to market. I’ll do a little of that because one must, because there is no cultural bulletin board right now my books can exist at, especially not mine as I’m a bit niche and still largely in my own pond. I strive to lift awareness of not just my work but works like mine, the whole LGBT romance pool, but even that is not the main purpose of why I’m here. I like to thank bloggers with ad purchases and guest posts and ARCs. I’ve made a forum for fans to chat, and if you link/@ reply me on social media and I’m able to see it, I’ll do my best to reply or at least like your post. I don’t buy reviews. I don’t ask people to buy books on a certain day at a certain hour at a certain place to game the system. I don’t send mass invites to “events” on Goodreads or Facebook. I don’t add people to newsletters who haven’t asked to be, and in fact I try to parcel out sub-newsletters for the truly die-hard to get ALL THE DEETS and those who just want release dates to not be spammed. I don’t cold-email other authors and ask them for pimpage or, even crazier, give them book recs. I don’t copy other people’s work because I can’t think of my own stories or hump sideways on someone else’s work because I’d sure like to scrape off some of their overflow. I don’t run around to ten million social media sites making sure I comment on every blog post, every review, every single mention of my work. I don’t join every new social media site and work up a huge presence there. I don’t stick my nose into reader conversations unless invited, and even if invited, sometimes I might decline. Because I’m a writer. I write books. I try to write a lot of books. That’s why I’m here. That’s what I do.
You would think, you really would, that such a declaration would be rather like stating the obvious. Except every goddamn day that passes, I feel more and more like the last unicorn, and even though I can’t find anyone actually turning the screws, I feel more and more pressure every day to market, promote, to be a flaming brand across the literary horizon. It’s killing me, and I think it’s eating a lot of our souls.
Once upon a time if you’d told someone all the nonsense that goes on in the book world right now, they would laugh and tell you that would never happen. But once upon a time, the world of publishing and the world of reading was a very different place. Seventeen years ago when I first began to say, out loud, that I wanted to be a published author, the road to that goal was straightforward and relatively simple. Write a book, submit it to an agent or publisher. It would take a long time to get one of those people to say yes, so you joined writing groups and RWA and SFWA and the like and attended conferences and kept trying. You improved your craft, you honed your skills, you did your time. Some people got lucky on one of their initial passes, but they never got it easy–everybody did their time one way or another. You hoped and dreamed of a nice midlist career, maybe even something a little shinier, but everybody knew you’d likely never quit your day job, and the sky was full of stars.
But that was 1997. The Internet was a thing college students and techie people did, and a few intrepid authors. There was no social media. As the century turned over we got Yahoo groups, which was definitely something, and ebooks showed up, but by and large the game was still the same. Getting published at all was a huge coup, and as houses combined and lines narrowed, new authors were chosen less and less. Promotion, if it happened at all, was cute. Maybe an author would get your name from some RWA list and mail you a bookmark. If you went to a convention you’d get some lip balm or a button, but none of this slick Vistaprint stuff and nobody had heard of Cafe Press. Mostly promo was books. Maybe you put an ad in RT. Probably your publisher did. Maybe, maybe you were big enough for a book tour, but that was rare. Promotion? Who has time for that? Who knows how to do that? Published authors were busy writing their next book, because my God, the publishers were cracking down! They wanted at least one a year. Who can possibly write that fast?
I’m not kidding. That was a big topic at an RWA national convention I went to in the early 00s. One book a year was killer pace. As Damon Suede says, feel that fact.
Now it is not 1997. Now it is 2014, and publishing is nothing like it used to be. On the one hand, readers have never had it so good. So many books. So many broken rules, so many bodices not just ripped off but chucked in the garbage because our heroines wear leather combat suits, baby, tits tucked safely away–except sometimes are heroines are taking a break because it’s two heroes on the scene, or the heroine is with two heroes, or another heroine, or there’s an orgy and orientation labels are so passé anyway, we just love and fuck who we want. Or there’s almost no sex and the heroine’s love is part of her faith in God. Or there’s not a lot of sex because she’s kicking demon ass and that takes work and time and sex is dangerous. EVERYTHING is here. Any and everything you could want to read. If not? Wait ten minutes. It’ll be up on Wattpad.
For authors? No more narrow path and gated door. Do we even want New York? Maybe, sometimes–but not always. Self-pub isn’t a mark of shame anymore, but an opportunity for those who know how to drive their own bus. For those of us who don’t even want to lift the hood, there are ten million small press, just like the old days, and odds are good if you sift through them eventually you can find one that fits your needs. Some even straddle the line between indie and NY like elegant rodeo riders. Some have forged new roads all on their own. The possibilities are endless for authors as well as readers. There’s almost no one left to tell us no.
But on the other hand. Holy shit, EVERYTHING IS HERE. The world of publishing is a big party, but three dance halls are competing and spilling drinks and lifting skirts not just to the knee but throwing off the whole kit and dancing naked saying LOOK AT ME I AM NAKED BUY MY SHIT. Everyone, everywhere, is trying to claim space, and readers wander around confused and helpless to figure out what’s going on. You can’t go to a bookstore, not was easily and not as well. You can’t read a bestseller list. You can’t even trust your Amazon recs—certainly you can’t trust Amazon bestseller lists, because they only report their sales and make no effort to hide the fact that they promote Amazon direct over traditional and small pubs. “Users also bought” isn’t bad. Goodreads is okay too–sometimes. For some people. Bloggers, thank God for bloggers, and friends who suggest recommendations. Unless your Goodreads/Facebook/Twitter notifications are awash with Who-The-Fuck-Are-You’s announcing Boring Book About Boringness, Part 6 is out! Which, they probably are.
The doors are wide open, which is great, but it’s terrible. Nobody can be heard, because we’re all shouting. And for the first time you don’t have to put in time to get a book into the world. All you have to be able to do is upload to some digital distribution service. You don’t have to proofread. You don’t have to edit. Granted, you probably won’t get a ton of sales, but to say “I am published” is easier than it has ever been.
Go to any dinner party and say you’re an author, and at least 50% of the room will tell you they too are writing a book, or thinking about it, and some weekend they’ll sit down and become Stephen King II. This is fine–it’s human nature. Everyone could be a teacher because they’ve been to school, everyone could be an author because they’ve read a book. But it used to be that if people tried to write a book they had to fight. And the truth is, that still happens, but the threshold guardian isn’t the agent/publisher: it’s the reader. Instead of ten million people trying to get through the door of publication, ten million—fuck, twenty—are exploding right into the reading pool. Everyone arrives expecting their wonderful work will by its inherent magic become a bestseller. Everyone arrives thinking “bestseller” means a quarter million dollars per book, per year. Everyone is shocked to discover getting your book into the hands of more than four readers takes work.
Some people see how much work is involved and quit–which is the same as the old days when they’d submit, get some rejections, and decide there are easier ways to make money and it’s just as fun to share stories with your friends alone. In many ways that path is a lot better than it’s ever been: some people never even try to get published. Some people simply want to share stories, and the Internet has a million was to do that. But not everyone gets off the road like that. A lot of people still want, really, really want to go all the way. And going all the way can happen. It takes skill, and it takes work, and it takes more than a little bit of controlled madness. There are so many better ways to make a living than being a published author. You have to love this nonsense to stick with the path that always aims at the brass ring of bestsellerdom. And it can be done. What you find is that you have to do more marketing and legwork than you want. You have to keep your ear to the ground and you have to balance the humors of paranoia and disinterest carefully. You have to work like a dog—you have to work so hard dogs wouldn’t do it, not for any master. You do it not for the glory but for some crazy love that smells of unwashed laundry and a garbage pail full of takeout.
But then there are the other people. They’re the people that used to have to redirect or give up because they couldn’t get over the door–or they had to grow up and learn to dance the dance the only way it was allowed. Now those rules are gone. Anything can be a book. And when it doesn’t magically become the Next Big Thing, some people don’t give up or alter their dream or knuckle down and put in their time. Some people decide they’re going to get that brass ring by absolutely any means necessary.
There’s a lot of psychological stuff that goes into writing, and a lot of people write for validation. Probably all of us do in some way. The world is a dark, angry, lonely place, and the only way to survive is to find something of meaning and cling to it. A lot of people decide that’s writing. A lot of people get the bit between their teeth and begin to feel they will only be okay if their work is celebrated publicly and with financial reward attached—significant financial reward, mind you. But some people, when the magic doesn’t happen, game the system. They buy reviews. They rig lists—or try to. I’m still not entirely sure that actually works. They spam people. They harass people. They fill every inch of the world with noise in the deluded belief that noise equals sales. My favorites are the blind recs of their own stuff on Goodreads or the Facebook launch invites. Really? Really? In all this noise you think simply waving your title in my face with a release date will make me buy it? Do you understand how many thousands of those I get a month? Do you know how many more legitimate recs I get from Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, bloggers—in one day? What in the world could possibly make you, someone I’ve never heard of, click through just because you poked my ass? Some of you multiple times?
I’m a little lucky because the LGBT reader/author community is very tribal, and I don’t get much spam from that quarter. New authors are more likely to strike up a conversation with me and find common interest. On Twitter I’m more likely to meet authors from all over the map, and most people are incredibly cordial and friendly and professional. I have and do read new authors who I find personally charming. I absolutely run from those who come off as rabid squirrels. And you know what? This is all true of readers.
I will get more readers from writing an honest blog post than I ever will from blind-spamming people. The closest I come to that is buying ads on blogger websites. Here: my cover. Hot guys. Good logline. That’s marketing. That’s the cover, which the marketing team of my publisher worked on. That’s the logline I suggested and my editor and marketing tweaked. That’s the slick ad production by my publisher. It’s just sitting there, an invitation. With a click-through link. No pressure. Maybe the cover sticks in your head and after you see it for the fourth time you decide what the hell. Maybe you keep seeing ME and so you try me. Maybe you find me witty/funny/something on social media and you think, why not. That’s how I found one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. I read his blog for years before I picked up a book. I figured, well, if I enjoy his blog so much, maybe I’ll like his work. It turned out that I did.
But I think sometimes there is too much social media. There is always another author group invitation, usually in six different social media sites. I get pressure every day from all kinds of people to promote other people’s work, usually people I don’t know. There’s a new social media site every day. There are people hawking their buy-a-review business and there’s stuff like this. For that last link she’s since added a retraction, and I totally applaud her for her professionalism and openness. I’ll tell you, though, that post still keeps me up at night. Because I know a she’s not the only person who feels/felt that way. I know that everywhere I go there are people who expect more of me as an author. I know this is just the thing that has floated to the surface, that beneath it everyone has an expectation of me as an author, of all authors, and I know who we have to blame.
Ourselves. We’ve all bought into this crazy-juice, we’ve all decided it’s okay for authors to never sleep and never engage unless it’s promotional and always be present on all the social medias all the time to see all the comments, to answer all the email and be at all the cons and still do enough outside things that we can post clever pictures to Instagram.
THIS IS MADNESS. We should stop. We should stop right now.
Authors, it’s okay to not promote all the time. It’s okay to say, “I’m really good at pinning, but that’s about it.” Go be a fucking fantastic pinner, and maybe work in a way to add some quotes from your book, or always post the cover art, or make your brand THAT, how well you use Pinterest. Maybe you are queen/king of Facebook or Tumblr. Maybe you write a great newsletter. Maybe you are so old school your schtick is that you write good books and that’s about it. Maybe you kill at the library. Maybe you ARE a book tour. What you aren’t, though, is Superman or Superwoman. What you are is human, and you need to sleep. Exercise. Do something that doesn’t have market value. More than once a month.
Readers actually don’t want us to be crazy. Oh, there are always some who truly are Annie Wilkes, but most readers only go there because we send out an invitation. Many, many readers just want more books and would prefer we shut up and wrote. All kinds of people love talking with us, but never at our expense, and they’d never want interaction to come at the expense of our sanity or family. Most readers are incredibly generous. Since I’ve begun blogging my food struggles, it’s become a thing to send me food in the mail or bring it to me at cons. People go out of their way to share recipes with me. They want to help. They love us, and they want to buy our books and just hang with us a bit.
I think as authors we have to start respecting that. In the same way we would tell close friends we’re too tired to see a movie, sometimes we need to say, “Hey, I gotta go dark for awhile.” We need to stop thinking that every action and every sentence is promotion. Well–it is, but we don’t have to promote all the time. Because the truth is nobody can be Stephen King or Nora Roberts. Not by work or design, and certainly not by losing our minds to marketing. We need to cop to some uncomfortable truths. What is a “good career” in publishing now is not what it used to be, and that’s not going to change. The waters are more diluted, which is fantastic for readers who want variety and bad for monopolizing focus and maximizing profit. It isn’t 1997, and it never will be again. That’s not even a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just truth, and it’s not going away.
I lost my shit this week when Facebook stopped letting me unfollow posts. It’s been hard push after hard push for over six months for me, and I keep trying to do things I don’t actually have the energy or focus to do. My health is fragile and I’m not managing it because I’m too busy trying to promote correctly, to be present and available, and it’s killing me, and it’s making me mentally unhealthy. Because Facebook took away the ability for me to not get notifications all day when someone tags me in a huge post or closed group, or at least made it difficult, and it made me lose my mind—and that’s not right. Or rather, that’s not the actual issue. It was the last straw, the one that made me nuts. It really wasn’t that big a deal, in hindsight. Twitter @ replies are kind of the same, but I like Twitter. Twitter doesn’t fuck with my head the way Facebook does. I’ve never liked Facebook, ever. I love the people, but the interface is bad for me. But all the data says people are there, not Twitter, so I felt compelled to go. I feel compelled to go EVERYWHERE, because I want to sell my books and take my career to the next level.
Except In a given day I receive 50-200 emails, personal and professional. I receive 15-50 notifications on Facebook, 20-100 on Twitter. When I actively pin or use Tumblr those notification numbers go up, but I don’t use them much so I’m pretty safe. When I instagram it’s one of my cats and I think I follow twice the people that follow me–and I think I follow 40 people. Or less. I forget. I have four Snapchat friends and all but one are related to me by blood. I made a forum so I could do concentrated promotion for fans–and I love it–and they help me by picking favorite quotes and giving me ideas and helping me brainstorm. There aren’t a ton of people there and we don’t post all the time. But all these things add up. All this noise is not writing. It might be promotion…but if I’m too stressed to write, if I’m too overwhelmed to work, if I can’t get my dishes done because I’m making sure nobody send me a PM on Goodreads—what is this all for?
I get caught up because I enjoy it. Sometimes I like to go pin stuff. I love reblogging stuff on Facebook. I absolutely worship at the altar of twitter. The problem is, when I show up on social media I haven’t exclusively reserved for personal use, I’m also engaging. I can’t ever let my hair down. If I pin something offensive, I could lose sales. If someone has sent me a message on Facebook and I read it, they will see that I’ve read it–damn your ass, Facebook–and if I don’t respond, they don’t necessarily know it’s because I was reading in the grocery store and now have to go to the doctor and when I get home there are fifty more emails. And they shouldn’t have to know that. It’s not a reader’s job to make my life easier. It’s mine to set boundaries, to make limits for myself and to protect my sanity and my work and my family.
So I’m trying something new. I took Facebook off my phone. Or rather, I logged into my personal account, not my professional one, and I shoved the app into the back forty on my home screens. I’m not allowed to go to either account but twice a day, and never on the fly unless I know I’m interacting with someone who doesn’t send email but only uses Facebook message. If I never pin or Tumble again it’s okay. If I blog once a month it’s okay. If I only read my email once a day unless I’m at a crisis moment of a project, it’s okay. It’s all okay, because what I need to do is write books. I keep Twitter open because I really, really love Twitter, but when I’m writing I close it. I might adjust my boundaries and change my own rules, but I’m setting them. I’m drawing a line in the sand, and if I miss an opportunity because I was protecting myself? So be it.
We all need to do this. Every author needs to be free to be sane. Every author should put creation over promotion. Every author needs to set their own scales of balance, but they need to be set and they need to be reassessed often. We need to trust that it’s better to promote our works with the same quality we create them—we need to get rid of the idea of quantity and omnipresence. We can’t be everywhere. We can’t do everything. We can’t be everything. In this new world of publishing, everything is possible, but runaway success is much less probable. We are more likely to alter those odds by writing more good works. Not by checking our Facebook notifications or posting another tweet.
My name is Heidi Cullinan, and I’m here to write stories and publish books. I think I’m going to have to tell myself this every day for six months to get it through my head, but I’m going to repeat my mantra, because I’m worth it, and so is my work, and so are my readers. Come back to the quiet corner with me, authors. The WiFi sucks, but man, the peace of mind can’t be beat.
I’m writing this blog post as a running start as I finalize the last drafts of Sleigh Ride, Book 2 in the Minnesota Christmas series. It’s due in a week, and its completion comes on the heels of turning in Fever Pitch, which I’d wanted completed by December 1 and turned in January 10, only five days before the absolute last second deadline. Since December 27, I’ve been putting in regular 10-15 hour days with no weekends, only occasional stops to start a load of laundry or watch some TV with my family. To say the very least, I’m tired. I love Fever Pitch a lot, and I adore Sleigh Ride too, but the latter in particular, right now? I would rather scrub a toilet.
This is a problem, of course, because who wants to read a book someone wrote with their teeth set? In that first you’d-have-to-be-drunk-to-read-it draft, that kind of balls-to-the-wall force doesn’t hurt anything, because whatever it takes to get a draft on the page is worth doing. But now I’m trying to make this a fun, happy Christmas book, something to look forward to. This means I need to not hate it. I’ve taken the surface precautions: great Spotify soundtrack, a good night’s sleep, a Keurig carousel full of coffee. But there’s one element more important than any other, and writing this post is my way of reminding myself of that fact.
I need my lighthouse.
Lighthouses are the people you write for, the audience or person you see when you look up from the mess and you need to remember where you’re going. They have nothing to do with whether you’re a plotter or a pantser (if you write with an outline or set off merrily into the wilderness without a clue), because the lighthouse is the final destination. God knows it’s easy to wander into the weeds, to go up your own ass, to sit back and marvel at how tidily you’ve summed up the meaning of life or how utterly you have failed humanity. The lighthouse is what you look up at in those moments.
The people in the lighthouse are waiting for you. They’re hungry for your story, desperate to embark on the journey you promise to take them on. They’re the people who keep you humble, keep you real, and keep you going.
What was most fun about me in writing Sleigh Ride was that as I tackled the bulk of it, you were all reading Let It Snow, the first book in that universe, and my lighthouse felt really strong and bright. One of the things I love about writing series, which I’m doing a lot of at the moment, is drizzling in gifts for the people in my lighthouse. Bringing back favorite characters, hinting subtly to parts of a previous book in a way that would go unnoticed by a reader starting out of order but that is a wink to those in the know. I also like taking accidental/subconscious things from previous books and building a book around them, so what was me reaching for something handy becomes a seed of something greater. Like the casual mention of a librarian in Let It Snow becoming one of the heroes in book two.
Sometimes I have specific people in mind when I’m writing and I leave them little jokes or winks, but sometimes I leave presents for strangers to discover. And you all find them! I got big love from Brits for the Doctor Who and Saint Etienne references in Love Lessons, and I got some passionate dissertations from people all over the world for the John Inman discussion in Let It Snow. I do my best to make the on-the-ground maps for both real and fictional cities as accurate as possible, which leads to things like people taking pictures of what they’re sure is Laurie’s apartment in Dance With Me…and they’re right.
At this point in editing, though, the lighthouse is how I find my way. One of the biggest parts of laying down a first draft is finding the theme, and when I go back through the story I do my damnedest to make it resonate like a tuning fork. I want a reader to have a subconscious idea of that theme in the first scene and have that sense validated all the way through. In a short Christmas novel (short for me: 60,000 words) everything should snap, move quickly, and while the themes can be important, nothing is too deep. I don’t want this to be a book that feels heavy. I want people to pick this up and sink into a bubble bath. I want them to have big feels, to laugh, to feel vulnerable…but safe. And in the end I want them to feel all wrapped up and hopeful, filled with a renewed sense that the world really will be okay.
Sometimes my lighthouses are specific people. I wrote Fever Pitch for someone very particular, and I kept angling it trying to please him, because I wasn’t sure he’d actually like the book when I started, so I kept challenging myself. But as I finished drafting, I had someone else in that lighthouse, a beta whom I love and who I wanted to give it to right away, to please her and make her happy. I would write parts thinking, “I bet she’ll like this,” or I’d hope she would. I always write a little bit for my husband too, because I know where I’ll hit him in the solar plexus or make him go download a song because it sparked a memory or sense of curiosity.
Mostly though when I get to this part of creating a novel and I’m tired and whiny, I think of the loyal lighthouses. Of the fans who have been there since day one, who are the first to buy and leave reviews, who read every blog post and like every tweet and enter every contest. People who come up to me at conventions and gobsmack me with stories about what a book meant to you, or send me emails. Who remind me that when I write about a stammerer or a sufferer of OCD and I get it right, I don’t just move you, I hear you and make you feel validated on a very public scale. Who remind me that when I have the guts to put my own chronic pain on the page you use it to fuel your own fight against illness and suffering. Who remind me that sometimes a simple book about bears and blizzards can be an escape, a light, a refuge after a weary day or harrowing night in the emergency room.
For me the people in my lighthouse remind me that for all the ego that goes into this business, for all the seriousness that is making a living doing a job, what I write for more than anything else is you. I’m a servant, not a star. Cute blog posts are nice, and self-depreciating tweets and links on Facebook might make you laugh, but why I’m really here is to write you a story. You want a light to follow for a few hours. Something to entertain you, to take you away. You might empathize that I’m up against a deadline, but mostly what you want is something to read. You want to put a quarter in and get a story, and I’m fortunate that a number of you have said, essentially, “I’m pretty much open to whatever story comes out of you. Just write something, okay? It makes me happy.”
That’s my job at this point in writing Sleigh Ride. I slopped some stuff together, dug into my experience and my ego, did my diligence and behold, there is story. But now I’m looking at you, shining on that hill, waiting, and I’m thinking, I could make this better. I could make this shine brighter, sing louder, ring clearer. If I get out of my own way, if I do my homework and keep myself honest, if I remember what the goal of this story is and what makes you happy, I could make this not just some story but a great one. One the people who keep me going, who lift me up when I’m down, deserve.
Is it gonna be tight to do it in a week? Yeah. But there’s more editing to come later with someone I trust, and when I think of her, and I think of the joy I could maybe give you, it doesn’t feel like work so much anymore. It feels a hell of a lot like a privilege.
Here’s to you, lighthouses. Thanks for shining bright. Can’t wait to show you what I’ve brought home this time.