“My book is my baby.” You hear that a lot from authors, especially of novels, and as one of that number, I get it. Most of us don’t mean it more than a very loose metaphor, an image-intense description of what it’s like to create something out of almost nothing and have it become something much more. We imprint hopes and dreams on this creation, and we feel great affection for it. Ergo, baby.
While I won’t try to stop anyone else who insists on calling their books their babies, because it’s still a free country, etc, I am not one of those people. And because I just read something about books being babies that kind of made my eye twitch, I feel like clarifying why I am, in this particular instance, anti-baby.
When I write a story, there’s definitely a big stage where the thing is unformed, but it’s not an infant I’m teaching to walk or hold its head upright. I’m trying to find eyeballs and get rid of that weird third ear on top of its head. It’s clay, not flesh. Absolutely I talk to it and nurture it, but I also rip it apart, and kick it, and yell at it—if my books were my babies, they’d all be taken away by child protective services.
But even if I were to pretend that was all somehow okay baby-tending behavior, what I do next is even worse. I guess I could go with the editing and proofing and beta-reading as sending the kid to school, but…holy hell, I’m not letting it learn. I’m forcing it into a mold, making it acceptable to society in a way which, again, would probably get me arrested if I tried it with my actual flesh and blood child.
Because before I got to the force you into something respectable phase, first I turned it into some free-range hippie. In the drafting phase I let it run amok though the fields and forests, let it shit in corners and climb weird trees, and the whole time this happened I stood by with a notebook, not caretaking. “Oh, look. That made its head break open. Best not let it go there again. Ah, but look what happened when I let it run naked through city center! That was amazing. Let’s do that again, only this time with a big BELL.”
Let’s recap: for this baby, first I design its DNA and rearrange it while it’s alive on my mad scientist table. Then I let it tear around without much shepherding so I can see what it can and can’t do. Then I tie it down, force it into a box, or a series of boxes as I attempt to make it no longer a wild, free thing but an acceptable little Stepford Baby.
I’d love to end the analogy breakdown here, but alas. I’m not done torturing this poor child.
Because next, I abandon this baby and sell it to anyone who will have it. Dressed in a uniform, labeled and wearing enticing signs advertising what it can and will do. Give me the right kind of money, and you can have it for as long as you want it. And I want a lot of people to have it. I want them to enjoy it in whatever way works for them. I made this baby just for them, and I want them to get the most out of it.
At this point, honestly, the analogy is seriously making me want to skip lunch.
Still not done, though.
This selling my offspring wholesale is just one horrible outcome, and it’s the best one. Because sometimes I abandon the baby entirely. If it’s not working for me, I throw it away. Some I keep around for parts and use them on other babies. Sometimes I abandon them for years, leaving them in a limbo of will she finish me? Won’t she finish me?
Okay. Uncle. I can’t go any further. I’m grossing myself out more than I can stand.
Bottom line: my books are not children. Yes, there’s this sense of sending something I care about into the world in a wistful way that has a few shaded areas like sending a child to college. That, I will buy. There’s always a moment where I get the book back from its final proofing and I feel like I’m waving at it from shore. Good luck in the new world. I hope you meet nice people. I hope you do well.
But that is a very different metaphor. A baby implies dependence. Caretaking. Tending. Monitoring. Allowing it to grow but in this very loving way that allows it as an entity, a living creature, to become its own thing. Some of that, sort of, applies to the act of creating a book, but it breaks down really quickly. And, as illustrated above, painfully.
The problem with calling a book a baby is that it doesn’t allow it to grow up. To walk out on its own and succeed or fail. I will stand by the idea that books become their own things, that there’s a point where we can only control so much of them. How good their odds of survival are do come from us—that’s our skill, our instinct, our work ethic. But at some point they sail on, whether or not we’re ready, and we simply watch to see how it all turns out. We can wave signs saying the books are here, can answer questions about them, plaster them in front of people, offer free samples. But that’s it. Anything else is getting in the way.
Once my book is out, it doesn’t belong only to me. Legally, yes, it’s mine. But once you read it? It’s yours as well. My Sams and Walters and Randys and Vinnies and Adams and all of the characters I’ve written—once you read them, they also belong to you, if you choose to keep them.
Anyone tries to take my daughter, or say she’s theirs—well, to be quite frank, I will bloody you. Unless she says she wants to be yours, and then I will watch you very carefully. Because in about a billion metaphorical ways, she is not a story I am writing. She authors her own story, one I am privileged to witness.
I can see how some people might feel I broke the analogy down too harshly. I imagine some authors feel it’s their job to protect their work the same way I protect my daughter, wanting only kind eyes to behold her. Except even that isn’t good—for books, or for my kid. Much as it kills me, I have to let bad things happen to her. She is not an egg. She is no longer a baby. She has my heart, but she also has her own.
Letting the book-as-baby metaphor be more than a cute, clumsy shorthand for the creative process can lead to a kind of overprotection which helps no one, not author, not reader, and not the book. Books are meant to be read. To be reacted to. Hated, loved, ignored, treasured. That is their life. Coddling them, sheltering them, helicopter parenting them is not allowing them to live.
Publishing a novel is not a ticket-punch which ends with adoration and success. Publishing a novel is a chance. It’s an adventure. It’s a risk. It’s dangerous, weird, strange, and often psychotic. Babies should be nowhere near this process.
Pacifiers, though, should probably be purchased in bulk. And having said my piece about this book baby thing, I’m going to brew another of my own patented pacifiers and go back to watching my current book make a big mess in the middle of the second act. It’s a little stinky at the moment, I’ll be honest. But by the time I let you see it, I’ll have it all cleaned up and shining. Once it’s for sale, you can buy it and do whatever you want with it.
Including, if you insist, call it your baby. Just please don’t call it mine.
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.
Warning: this post is long and all about publishing. Possibly boring, do not feel bad if you skip or bail.
I have this thing I do where I troll online booksellers, the NYT list, the USA Today list, and every goddamn list there is out there to follow. I watch Bookscan (nearly useless for me since it’s print books and the majority of my sales are electronic and they don’t go there). Basically I read every tea leaf I can, doing everything in my power to distill the mist surrounding sales in book publishing. I hold the lists against events I do and try to decide if that step up on Amazon was because of that great ink I got, or I wonder why the hell the day I got great ink I fell. I watch the progress of my peers’ books and the people I wish were my peers. I absorb it all, drinking input like water.
Then I go back and look at my sales, compare it to everything I just learned, and every single time I say the same thing.
I have no idea how/why any of it happens, and though I wish it were otherwise, I don’t think anybody knows.
That is basically the whole point of this post. Everything beyond this will be me illustrating my firm belief there is nothing you can do to guarantee anything, no magic bullet, no marketing plan, no nothing that replaces the crazy-making cocktail of hard work and dumb luck. I totally understand if you’re not ready to go there, if you’re clinging to your Amazon top 100 or your NYT reports or that marketing scheme you just paid $9.99 for in ebook. Whatever security blanket you need to get yourself through the hell, I am totally down with. TOTALLY. Down. So long as it makes you happy not miserable, evens you out, not insane, you go girl.
For the rest of us? The cynics, the ones whose blankets are full of holes and our heads full of stats and numbers? Come on in. The bitter brew is lukewarm, and I’ve got a cauldron full. Read More
It is a sad thing that before I begin this blog post that I must give some education. I know any of my contemporaries already know what that post title refers to, but here is the sad truth, compadres: we are old, and the younglings don’t know what the fuck a Sprocket dance is. Younglings, go here. Yes, it’s long. This is how long skits used to be back when flat screen meant a window. If the greatness of Chris Farley, Mike Meyers, and Phil Hartman is too much for you, skip to 7:20 and watch the Sprocket dance. You probably will still think I’m a nutcase, but at least you’ll get my reference.
Because this, bitches, is TOTALLY the time on Sprockets when I dance.
After sixteen novels, I am starting to figure out how I operate. Not my themes and plot patterns–that I clocked at eight. Penchant for mild angst, epic scenes, set of six revolving archetypes, regular habit of my guys boinking by chapter three–nothing new to see here. But I am, this year, figuring out a nasty little trick I have. I think I may have even developed this habit, but I know I’ve done a version of it all along. It is this, Virginia: sometimes I don’t like dark moment. Sometimes I have too many feelz and don’t want to write the hard things, and so as soon as I see them I start padding the walls and blocking up cracks so maybe they don’t happen. Then I wonder why I get stuck, because the damn thing is so boring. I go back, rerouting back into actual conflict…and subconsciously I undo it all over again.
For as much as I’m a panster, the part of me wanting everyone to just get along has pretty good distance vision and likes to step on stuff well in advance, necessitating a lot of clean up later. I think my muses have cottoned onto this. Having indulged in a pout Saturday about what I’d realized was coming, I’ve been since pushing forward to get there. Now that I am at the doorstep of the dark moment and the ride to the climax, I am looking around at an antagonist which has appeared pretty much out of thin air, or rather from this sign on the wall I’d slapped up, a cardboard cutout in crayon saying ANTAGNIST IZ HRE. What’s coming out of the wall is pretty real, but it’s weird, like Romper Room (there’s another ancient history reference, younglings) holding up the mirror and The Walking Dead starts playing.
Today I noticed this and metaphorically frowned at my muses. They rolled their eyes and said, “This is why we don’t tell you things until the last minute. You’ll have to go back and retrofit as usual.”
This is true. This is as usual. Have you read Special Delivery? Remember how Randy was this ghost antagonist all the way through until he appears in the last third? (This isn’t a spoiler, Samhain even included him in the blurb.) Well, in draft one his first mention was on the CB, when I wasn’t even sure that WAS Randy. Sit with that a second. Imagine him NOT this sword of Damocles hanging over Sam and Mitch the whole time. Love Lessons got to 60k twice before I put in the Williams plot. Again, imagine that book without that element. (God, it was fucking awful. That was this time last year, me swearing my head off.) Every single book in the Etsey series did that to me. (If you’ve read that, book one? Timothy at the end? I HAD NO IDEA FIRST DRAFT. Feel that fact, as Damon would say.) More recently, I sent draft one of Tough Love to betas with a half-assed conflict, totally fucking over my antagonist. Why? Because to this day thinking about the antagonist of that book makes me nervous, like maybe I didn’t do him right. Sasha will attest to my essays in the comment section begging her to please call me on the carpet if I’m not bringing it for Gordy. Writing is hard, and a lot of times? I try like hell to get out of it.
Eventually, though, I have to go back in and dance. In Fever Pitch RIGHT NOW I’m at the moment where the antagonist I should have been using all book (but have been shipping out of state and in general ignoring the hell out of) is going to bring the hammer. There’s even TWO PARTS to the antagonistic element in this book, and guess what: I’ve ignored both of them. La, la, la, I can’t hear you, busy writing a cappella dance numbers and boys in love. It’s not boring, it’s beautiful, it’s…
It’s boring. It’s so boring without the antagonist.
I’ve given up pretending I will ever understand that on the first go-round, that just because I want to write boring slog about everyone getting along (Extra credit: who knows what I’m referencing if I say “wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice?*”) there’s no promise it will be interesting to anyone, even me. Apparently that is what I do. I pretend I can be a special snowflake with no antagonist, and then at the eleventh hour I go retrofit one in. That is what I’m doing now. Sprocketing my way to an actual book, backwards from the 80k mark. Hurrah.
And no. It’s not any fun, it’s crazy hard to shoehorn it in sideways. It’s how I roll every time. Every. Fucking. Time. Sixteen novels, twenty published works, six partials in the hopper: still hard at sticking my head in the sand and being surprised when everyone else can still see my ass.
Time to dance, bitches. Time to dance. Then the tongue bath.**
Super bonus: Look what I found when hunting down Sprockets. Man, we had better TV than I remember us having. Except in hindsight Romper Room was seriously weird.
*If it’s killing you knowing what I’m talking about, go here. Then start reading Pratchett already.
**Seriously. WATCH THAT FIRST YOUTUBE LINK. The whole thing.
Yesterday was not my best writing day, or day in general. It actually ended with me getting in at least minimum word counts on both NaNoWriMo novels, but the little bit I managed on Fever Pitch in particular was a huge battle. Sleigh Ride would have been a walk in the park, but I had to focus on the sticky one first, because as I have discussed, it is harder and due sooner. As I am wont to do, I vented my frustration over my day and lack of progress on Twitter and Facebook.
I was kind of taken aback by how many people replied at me, on and off social media, to thank me. The one that seemed to get everyone the most was this:
I thought about that again today in the shower, and I decided I wanted to write this post, because I remember when I was hungry for those kinds of declarations, especially from people I considered successful. It’s still strange when I realize that’s me–I’m always looking up and ahead, more mountain, more climbing, but the truth is yes, I do pretty well. I am moderately, comfortably successful. It’s less about money (though I do enjoy that) and more about where I am in my career. I like where I work, how I work, and who I work with. I know how to get work done and how to help myself when I get stuck. In a lot of ways I’m at the place I always dreamed I could be. Most days I feel like I show up at the mountain ready to climb better and in more interesting patterns, not learn how. That’s pretty awesome, and I’m going to make myself come read this paragraph on the days when I feel like the world’s biggest hack.
Here’s one of the few things I know for sure, though, that got me to that spot, probably the biggest things I had to learn, the staunchest flag I fly. I decide on my own what does and doesn’t work for me, and I consider my internal editor, my sense of caution and doubt, my most crucial writing partner.
I say this because we are in the season of National Novel Writing Month, where the byword is write as much and as fast as you can and kick your editor to the curb. This is an excellent exercise to try at least once, and many people I think will find out a lot about themselves and their work by giving it a try. Some people will find this is probably the best way for them to write.
Some writers, like me, will find out this is the kiss of death.
The thing about rules is they exist for a reason, and whenever presented with a set, I think it’s good to try them on and see how they fit. Rarely does any group or individual make a rule to out-and-out hurt the people who are meant to follow the strictures. No, dogma is generally an accidental or eventual consequence, when the rule isn’t a protective guideline but a fence intending to keep things “the way they’ve always been” or the way the rule-guardians are comfortable with. When it comes to writing, a lot of them are smart. I think writers would do well to not head hop unless they are using that as a tool or because they have the chops to pull it off. (See Nora Roberts, exhibits A-N.) Prologues and epilogues are usually where we step on our novels. Exposition dumps and lack of conflict are often signs of weak prose. Too much passive voice kills pacing, even when the author is skilled at making flat verbs dance. Adverbs are crutches, and so are a lot of adjectives.
I’ve broken every one of those rules except the head hopping, and I’d do that if I had to. Hell, with Marie Sexton I’ve mixed first and third POV in a novel twice. My pile of work rests on the back of many rules followed, bent, and broken in half. Some were wise decisions, some were foolish. All of them, though, were lessons.
The most important tool in my kit is knowing how to listen to myself. The only rules that matter are the ones I make for myself, the ones which suit me, my writing, and my career. Everything else is arrogance and noise, and none of it mine.
This is true for you, whoever you are. It is actually true for life, but today we are talking specifically about how to craft story, how to get over that horrible moment when we are “doing it wrong” and we feel like a failure, ready to quit. Especially if you are stumbling on this post because of a link or search, please take a moment to look at my list of works and my pile of accolades. I’m no La Nora, but I’m no slouch, either. If you want to get really objective, check out Goodreads, because the ones on my website are things I hand-picked. The point is, I have a respectable list of stories and a crowd of people saying they dig what I scribble. I don’t care if you buy any of my stuff or not–forget that for a minute. Look at that list. That’s thirty years of work right there. Thirty of practicing writing, twenty of applying myself to the study of what makes writing “good.” Four years of playing in the publishing industry pool. Look at what somebody did in that kind of time. And note all that time, all that thinking about writing, about trying rules on and discarding them, drawing some close for a decade and then releasing them back into the wild. About falling in love with authors and mentors and then falling away. The hours I have put into making those two pages are staggering. Since I really can tell you I have thought about or practiced writing at least two hours on average a day since I was ten, many of it more but let’s say average two hours a day, and let’s say a third of them I did eight hours or better: to get to where I am right now as a writer, I have put in at least 50,000 hours. It’s probably more than that, but I can safely vouch for 50,000 hours. This counts reading, English courses in college, teaching writing, actually writing, daydreaming about what I would write, reading about writing, conferences and classes about writing–the whole shebang. According to Macolm Gladwell, I’m an expert five times over.
A lot of you probably are–and if you can’t count up that high yet, then don’t feel bad if this feels hard, because you’re still putting in your time. Let me assure you, even after all those hours and all those books and reviews, this is still very, very hard. In fact it gets harder every time. No sooner do I master one level but the stakes get raised. I could never get bored at my job. Most days I’m lucky just to keep up.
This is a job. Even if you only write for pleasure, writing is still a craft, a skill you can take pride in and improve yourself with. Not all carpenters need to be paid workers of wood. To craft a piece for loved ones or oneself is as valuable if not more so than someone who makes deck chairs to pay the mortgage. No matter why you’re writing, you make the rules that apply to your work.
This is why doubt is your friend, because that voice isn’t some maggot living in your bowels. It’s you. It’s your experience, your sense of caution, your wisdom asserting itself. You need to listen to it, because if you don’t, it’s going to get mean. Listen early and often, because that voice has magic in it. That voice knows what your goals are, your strengths. That internal editor isn’t an enemy. It is you, speaking with your voice.
This is not to say your voice of doubt doesn’t need some training up. It’s not helpful when you’re writing your first novel ever and your internal editor tells you it’s crap. Retrain it. When your inner voice says, “This scene is garbage,” nod and say thanks, that’s about what it should be at this point. Ask your voice of doubt to work in the background so when you come back to edit it, you know how to make it better. Don’t wait for your doubt, either–sit with it sometimes, with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and ask what wisdom it has that you’ve been ignoring.
Because sometimes it’s actually not yelling. I remember very clearly my inner editor telling me in the early 00s that what I was writing was wrong. It was. I was writing heterosexual romance, going over the top emo but also trying very hard to strap myself into the lines–while also trying to fuck them from underneath. I had great voice but reading me had to be exhausting. I was a mess. And I was writing the wrong thing. Now, when I wrote my gay secondary characters that always, always seemed to show up? That critical voice turned into a cheerleader. Do this, it whispered, and sometimes yelled. Write these men. These are your people. Write them. I tried so hard not to listen. Who would buy those books? What publisher, what reader? Who was I, married stay-at-home mom in the Midwest who didn’t think she really knew any gay men at all?
If you know me at all, if you know my career, my journey of orientation and sexuality, what I write and what I am known for–imagine if I had ignored my doubts.
Writing is like teaching: both are careers and skills we’ve all witnessed, and we think they must be easy because we “know” them. We’ve been to school–teaching’s not that hard. We’ve read a book–not that hard. Try either profession and you’ll learn in a hurry that “knowing” makes the skill ten thousand times harder. Go ahead, knock off that novel this weekend, or even this month. Not quite as simple as you predicted, was it?
It’s work. It’s hard, hard work, and to do it well takes a lifetime. A lifetime of studying, practicing, and listening.
I am playing the NaNoWriMo game this year, with two different novels at once. I am not playing by any rules but my own. For the sake of the game and my own timeline, I’d like to finish both by the end of the month, but if I can’t? If my doubt tells me following that rule will give me a bad book or create more work? “Winning” goes under the bus so fast it’ll be dead before it realizes what went down. I already broke the rules by having one of my books being one I’ve been writing since May. You will note that’s the book that I’m at almost 20k on day four. I break NaNoWriMo rules daily. I delete all kinds of things. Before I’m done this month on Fever Pitch especially, I’ll probably delete twenty-thousand of new and old words. Yesterday I deleted five thousand words I’d written between Friday and Saturday and ten more that I’d written in August. This morning I opened Sleigh Ride, the one I legitimately started on November 1, and cut one thousand words and added another two. I condensed things I know my editor will ask me to later. I cut and expanded a section I realize I’d rushed.
Maybe you say, “Yes, but you’re published and you write all day and you’ve done this before, so you can break the rules.” I submit to you that I’m published and I write all day and all the exceptions because I break the rules. Or rather, I write my own.
It is not the case that if you write what you want and what you feelz in your precious special snowflake heart, the world will line up and behave like you want it to. Walking off the beaten path means you might not end up where you thought you would. You might, for example, write in a trope you didn’t know was even a thing, and though you originally wanted to be published in New York, you might be at the point that your agent is trying hard (and failing) to get you to submit things to New York houses which are begging for you. You might look like “a fast writer” when really you only average 3-5k during active writing periods, which aren’t often, and that’s when you write all day long and don’t do laundry or anything else, and that is absolutely overwriting a novel by 100-300%, with sometimes two of three novels’ worth of dead matter beneath your finished manuscript. It’s writing thirty thousand words and cutting twenty. It’s jumping down ten rabbit holes and routing through three plot lines and fifteen characters before you find the two people and one storyline that is right.
Being a successful writer is figuring out and owning the fact that your voice isn’t just in your story. It’s in how you write, when you write, and why. It’s every single part of what you do. It’s why unless they’re literally copying sections of your story, no one can plagiarize you, because let me tell you, twenty gay romance authors could write a cross-country May-December coming of age erotic trucker romance, and only one of them will be this. Your stories are yours because you are your story.
If you’re embarking on your first NaNoWriMo and it’s hard, and the rules aren’t working for you? Listen to your doubt. Not that you suck–it’s probably not saying that. Listen closely. Is it saying the rules are wrong, or that writing is hard? Is it saying this fast schedule isn’t good for your voice, your story? Then okay. You tried this way, and it’s not your way. You don’t jump off a cliff, you go find a new road. Is your doubt fixated on the fact that everyone else seems to be having success with something you cannot? What’s underneath that? What unique, amazing voice of yours are you squashing because you’re trying to be like everyone else? What bloom inside yourself are you missing because you’re so focused on one kind of goal you’re missing an even more beautiful, personal one?
I have known much doubt. I have sat with bestsellers and despaired I would ever be one. I have looked at publishing houses and feared I would never find mine. I have watched crowds of other readers and worried I’d never have any of my own. I’ve felt the horrible, aching pain of knowing I had important, powerful stories inside me I feared I would never be talented enough and strong enough to serve. I have felt like the red-headed stepchild, the lonely island. I have known doubt crippling and blinding, despair so deep I nearly gave up writing entirely.
I stand here today on this mountain of work I have achieved, this career, this life, these stories, hand in hand with those doubts. I’m a midlist author at best. I would be in trouble if I had to live entirely my own salary–or at least, I’d be a lot less comfortable. I may never tackle the mountains I originally set out to scale. Yet I’m happy. I’m successful, in my way. I write what I love and love what I write. I have readers and followers and awards. I got all this by listening to and honoring my doubts, the voice inside me. My friend, my advisor, my second set of eyes, my friend. My self.
If you want it, you can have your own mountain. It might not look like what you dream of. It will probably be better, even if it ends up smaller than you had hoped. Whatever it is, it will be yours, and that’s worth more than any rule, any dogmatic stricture that promises to keep you safe but really only holds you down. Listen to your voice, your doubts. Try on some rules. Throw them away, collect them back again. Listen, learn, try. Write.
Get out there and climb, however and wherever suits you best.
I had this vision when I began my summer of taking time at least once a week to blog, especially about writing process and about being a reader, because I pretty much walk around with essays on both topics blooming in my head constantly. The facebook page has been pretty good, actually, but I meant to get the blog going again as well. June, however, had other ideas for me. First I was busy trying to sort out my preteen’s crazy summer schedule, and at the same time my mother’s side of the family was in turmoil because my grandfather kept ducking in and out of the hospital, nearly dying several times. On June 13 he did pass away, and I took a week to mourn, spending three entire days making this movie for my family, then attending the wake and funeral in Cedar Rapids. That movie is twenty-three minutes long, so feel free to skip it, but if you want to watch it I don’t mind at all, because making it was my way ot saying I love you to him. I meant it to be something I could give to everyone in my family (I took almost fifteen copies to the funeral and have five more on my desk I need to send to my grandmother), but in a move Grandpa would have loved, the pastor of his church showed it in the sanctuary on a big screen on perpetual loop during the visitation, and the last segment of it was shown during his funeral service. My grandfather was an amazing man: a WWII vet, a husband, a father, a government worker, and a grandfather to what I can only describe as a horde. When you get to the grandkids section with the 1970s fabulousness at 11:11, the baby is me, and I’m there with most of my siblings until about 12:30. He’s one of the reasons I haven’t blogged until now, because writing about him was important to me, but it’s taken me this long to be able to say this much. He was ninety-three, and he lived an amazing life, but I’m selfish and will not be ready to say goodbye to him when I am ninety-three. If you want to skip the video and just peek at a picture, the one above and to the right is Grandpa Morton and I sometime mid-seventies.
That movie is actually a nice segue into the topic I’ve been meaning to blog about, because as I put the memorial together, my daughter Anna watched me work, and at one point said in frustration, “I don’t know how you do that, make those kind of movies.” She says this because she makes her own movies, and please don’t hesitate to visit her channel and leave comments, but she gets paralyzed by the idea of making the family montages that I’ve made for trips I’ve taken and more frequently for Christmas and New Year’s with her godparents. So as I made Grandpa’s movie, I tried to explain my process. The only thing I could come up with was that when I made a video or wrote a story or even put together a playlist in iTunes, I look for the spine.
I suppose you could use theme as a synonym, but it’s not the same thing at all as far as I’m concerned. Theme is umbrella-like: it has veins, but it’s static, and while you’re drafting something, theme is the ceiling that was always there but you often can’t see clearly until you’re done on the ground. The spine is the way up to that canopy, all the vertebrae connected to each other and every individual aspect of the story. It connects everything rather than covers it, and you can use the spine to find your way anywhere else. Also, if you break it or try and do something off the spine, everything goes to hell really fast.
The other cool feature about a story spine is that you can start anywhere. Top, bottom, middle–you can compose out of order, skip things, or start at one end and dutifully work your way along. When you’re lost in story fog, finding the spine will always get you back on track, because it literally is the thing holding your work in place. Sometimes you don’t realize you wandered off until you’re on a limb over a death canyon, but so long as you figure that out before you drop into the pit of death, you can wriggle back onto the track and continue on.
Anna’s next question, of course, was how did she know what a spine was. Naturally, that’s a bit trickier, I’ll admit. I don’t know that I have a pat answer for how to discover it, either. I guess if pressed I’d say finding it feels a bit like fishing. You have to have an active line, and enough good stuff on it to draw your prey to you, but you mostly have to be patient and watchful. Sometimes what you think is a story spine is an old boot, and sometimes what you think is an old boot is the through-line of your story you’ve been waiting for. More than once I’ve thought I was following one kind of spine only to have it morph on me as I reached the end. I don’t think the story altered half as much as my expectations, but it’s always a kind of breathless magic to me, watching it happen.
Spine is so important because it’s what you as a creator use to make your story, but it’s also what your audience will use to consume your work as well. As a reader, I get so cranky when I find myself in the middle of a hot mess and don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at, what story is being told. It makes me angry, makes me feel unsafe. When I read kindle samples, I’m trying to find that spine, to see if this writer has a nice path for me or if they’re an elephant clomping about in desperation. A good spine is like a train track, because story is a ride, and the track is what moves a reader through the story. As a reader, when I find one, I’m so, so happy. The best rides, of course, are the ones where I thought I was on one spine and at the end I have that same surprise I get sometimes while I’m writing.
I always try to make my story spine an easy ride, and I try to lay it out looking effortless. I will tell you that never, not once, is it actually easy to put into place. Even when the first draft doesn’t have the equivalent of weird backwards vertebrae and oddball nerve patterns, I always go back over the story spine obsessively, trying to smooth it out. Pacing plays a role here, but pacing like character and plot come out of this central nervous system. If I get to the point where I’m selling a book these days, it goes into submission with me knowing exactly what that spine is, with me having worked so many adjustments on that sucker I could tack a DC after my name.
This is also why, though, I can’t have an alpha reader. I’ve had a few on very rare occasions, but even when it was people I loved and trusted implicitly reading over my shoulder as I wrote, the mere presence of additional eyes made me feel like the house of cards was about to fall. Lately I’ve only done beta readers in rare circumstances: Dan and my agent are always first readers, but unless I’m in a real pickle, they’re usually all I use. It’s too hard to find that spine when I have people commenting on what I’m doing. I’ve written about Sealing before, but I’m more a disciple to it now than ever. Something important happens when I keep my work contained until completion, and so that’s what I do. Some of it is focus, and some of it, I’m convinced, is pure magic.
Finding and following the spine for me is a quest. Writing has very much become a job for me–this isn’t a hobby, it’s what keeps my family functioning, and I’m as serious as a heart attack about the business side of my career. When I’m following the spine, though, the door on that side is shut, and I’m hunting for luminescent threads in the dark, trusting they’ll be things I can weave into works I can sell. Those moments in the deep, though, while I’m searching, are precious. Maybe that’s why I’m so determined to go into it alone, because it’s holy, and things like that are best done alone, at least for me. Writing with a partner changes that slightly, yet when I’m writing my section of the work, I’m still down in that deep pool, hunting and gathering in solitude.
The nice side effect of this kind of composition means it’s very rare I’m able to fall into the conceit of trying to write to please, to serve my ego instead of the story. It’s a lot easier to see the difference between those things in the silence. I always have the shore in mind, and because I’ve been blessed to get to know some of my readers personally, I very frequently think, “So-and-so is going to love this part,” and bringing that part of the spine to life is a joy I do for them. Mostly, though, I’m communing with the story itself, trying to find the veins that will allow it to live.
Because really in the end, that’s what the spine does. It allows the structure of the story to stand without me. I can’t hover next to every reader and explain things when I’m unclear. I can’t fill in vertebrae once the copy is set and distributed–once it’s out, it’s out, but if the spine is there, if it’s strong, anyone who was ever going to take that ride in the first place will be able to, with the same magic I used to find it, fill in the gaps that are best for them.
I think that’s why I love books so much, even more than movies: there are so many spaces for the reader in a book. What one person sees and absorbs and projects is absolutely different than someone else’s experience, and yet they’re all happening at the same time. A movie too, I suppose, but not in the same way as a book, at least for me. The spine of a story is the gift I give it, the ladder, the track, the delivery system for everything.
If I tell a story about my grandfather, I think of the spine. In that video I wanted to tell the story of his life via pictures–all of it, as much as I can. I used what I had and put out a frantic all-call to everyone in the family. What resulted from that was an amazing Dropbox cornucopia of images spanning almost a century, coming in from around the world. I learned more about my grandfather and my family through making that video than I did in the forty years I’ve known him. I learned from watching people watch it. I know too that my family learned about me.
I’m less concerned that my readers learn about me through my books, but I do want them to have that kind of communion with the work, to feel when they finish something I’ve written that their life is clearer or easier or happier or richer. I love that each story can illicit seven different reactions at the same time. I love that though the magic for me happens quietly, usually a year before anyone but my smallest inner circle see, it blooms even brighter once it takes its own steps into the world. Though writing is lonely, I love that moment of sharing the most, lingering in the back of the room quietly watching people open presents I left waiting.
All that happens, though, through the spine. Spine is essential. It is the way in and the way out for both composer and audience. It connects the story. It connects it to me, connects it to you. And when we’re very, very lucky, it connects us to each other too.
Friday around 10:30PM, I finished a “truck draft” (if I’d been hit by a truck, they still could have published the book, though it’d have been a bit rough) of Better Than Love, and yesterday at around 9:30 I got done with the book placenta, which is all the not very sexy but very important stuff like making sure I polished all the edges, ran a spell check, etc happened, plus another read through to give everything one more look-see, and then after I fought Scrivener and its insistence on fucking over the chapter headings NO MATTER WHAT I FUCKING DO, I sent that bitch out to the betas. Last few books I haven’t done betas, but this one gets a big fat beta round. Before RT I’ll send it to my agent, and then it will be on to Samhain where it will begin its long journey to your hands, should you chose to purchase it.
All I can say is that I feel like I’ve been through a goddamned war. Twice I tried to put this bitch to bed and failed. This round sure started out well, but I kept worrying it would fall apart, and there was white hot terror behind that, because this time it had to happen. There was of course the great overwrite scare where I nearly lost the fucking flogging scene. Sometimes writing this draft I felt like this was the best goddamn thing I’d ever written in my life. When I wrote the end, I bawled my goddamned head off, partly because of something I wrote, partly because I have no shit been riding this horse since 2010, and I am fucking worn out. Now it’s done, which, thank you Jesus.
Of course, now I”m in EON, End Of Novel syndrome, and this one is bad. I had nightmarish, grisly dreams about trying to save my family from zombie-like aliens, which once they found out I was hiding the dead slimy tentacled corpse of their baby, they were really gonna get pissed. I woke feeling like I’d been on a ten-day bender, and I wasn’t even out of bed before the darkness swamped my head and I began to worry, sure the book sucked, sure nothing worked, that it had all turned sour, and the betas wouldn’t tell me because it would be SO HORRIBLY BAD they’d lie because they couldn’t bear to tell me how awful. (I confessed a shorter version of that in text to Dan while he was at work and he, who is already 15% into it said NO NO NO and proceeded to hand me my ass.) In the end I got out of it by letting a potential WIP talk to me and let my brain stew on new story instead of trying to tear down the old one.
Naturally, the sweet, cute romance I had planned informed me one of the heroes is a sex addict. Apparently my muses are sadists, but I’m a masochist, because after I whined this wasn’t what I wanted, they lifted the veil a little higher, and I said, oh… But we’ll see. Nothing is real until I have 30,000 words, and even then things can still go wrong.
The good news is that I only have two days and then I’m going to be in New York until the 10th. I can’t imagine there’s a better way to spend EON than hanging out with Damon Suede plotting our world domination.
I wanted to let you know, though, that the book really happened, and right now I have a sextet of angels reading and telling me what’s good and what’s not, and basically we’re on the road now, bitches, and thank God.
Here’s some show and tell for fun.
This is the collage I worked from. It was on my desktop the whole time and is still there, making me miss them already whenever I look at it.
This is a screenshot of the music I listened to. There was a lot of music, and a fuckload of JLo. Anna never wants to hear the Love? album again, and frequently said, “What is up with all this Spanish music?”
Finally, if you want an excerpt: I posted this on FB awhile back, and maybe I linked to it here, I can’t remember. But here’s that.
And now I’m going to go watch Doctor Who, fold laundry, pack a suitcase, and in general not write this book anymore. As a parting gift I leave you with a song never referenced in the book, but one that has been in the soundtrack since the very beginning and one which, were this ever a movie, I’d ask them to strongly consider working into a montage sequence somehow. Thanks for riding along with me, for being patient, and for being excited about this story even when sometimes it got the better of me and I wasn’t anymore. Because your letters, support, and love kept me together too.
Last week I only wrote a little bit, because I was prepping for a big fat sequence I would eventually take all day Friday to write. It was 5800 words. It was one of those gigs where I finished and thought, “This is possibly one of the best things I’ve ever written.” It was a very intense sex scene, but it also contained a full on BDSM scene written from the perspective of a sadist. I was so proud of those 5800 words.
I very nearly lost them all.
I write in Scrivener for Mac, and I have since Jenny Crusie introduced me to it in about 2005 or 2006–I’ve been writing in Scrivener a long, long time. I also use Time Machine and Dropbox, though I’d only set up TM again after a nine month hiatus after I got a new machine because of a need to move things from an old hard drive which hadn’t happened because of sheer laziness. I’d set it up, though, so I thought I was safe.
Until Sunday, I always kept my recent work in Dropbox. It would save to the Dropbox site and to my computer and my laptop, which seemed like a trifecta of backup. Scrivener also won’t let you open a file if you have it open on another machine. I had every contingency covered, it seemed.
Except for one big thing.
Dropbox hangs for a minute before it syncs when I open the laptop, and since I got the new iMac, the laptop has serious trouble hooking up to the network. It takes upwards of five minutes to load, and Dropbox then gets off its game, because normal laptops would be halfway through the internet while mine is still fucking around trying to find the router it’s ten feet away from. So there’s this pregnant moment where, if you open Scrivener (which defaults to opening up your latest work) before Dropbox syncs, it runs the risk of overwriting your current file with an older file.
Friday night, the same day I’d written the work I was so proud of, this is exactly what I did.
The moment it happened, I kind of knew, but I told myself if I had biffed, I had Time Machine. Except when I went to work on Sunday morning, I found that for no discernible reason, it had not backed up since Thursday. Theoretically it’s supposed to do its work every hour, even if I’m working, but it did not at all. I had no backup. None. Whatever this Time Machine issue is, it’s still happening, because it’s still only occasionally backing up with no pattern and frankly, no justice.
What this meant was that I had lost all my work. All 5800 words.
I flailed around trying to make Time Machine show me the twelve hours of backups it should have done on Friday, tried to dig through every recourse in Dropbox. I communed with my computer in every way possible, and then I began to cry. Not right away–my family tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t, I wouldn’t. Not until I called up Damon, who said, “Is everything okay?” and I said, “no” and started to bawl like a baby.
“Honey, I told you to get a better backup system,” he said, because he had, and I said, “I know” and cried harder. Later Dan asked, hurt, why I hadn’t cried to him, and I couldn’t explain at the time, but I think it was because only Suede knew how badly I had sinned. He’d told me his horror story and how he backs up, but I have this paranoia about opening the wrong file or saving over it, and so I kept to my little pattern that had worked for six years, until it didn’t.
Everyone was so sweet, so good. I found out how many friends I didn’t know I had–my daughter sent me sad little chats (I love you, Mom. I’m so sorry you lost your story.) Dan kept rubbing my shoulder and helped me dig through Dropbox how-tos. Marie sent supportive chats. The whole of the internet social media sent commiserations and offered tips as to maybe find a secret stash. Damon said all the right things about how I’d written it once, it was in me, it couldn’t die, how I’d write it again and it’d be better–different, but even better. I really did think it was gone, because it felt gone, like it had gone to the gods. I even remember feeling a weird (and inappropriate) peace as I’d realized what might have happened on Friday night.
I began to rebuild. I reorganized all my files and pulled everything out of Dropbox that mattered. If I had to leave it in, I made it a duplicate of a copy on my hard drive. I forced Time Machine to backup. I emailed copies to Damon, to myself, to the iCloud. I put a backup in Dropbox. Then I went to Scrivener to stop that auto-open, and to set up the backups again, because apparently they’d turned off, since I didn’t see them in my Dropbox anymore.
That was when the magic happened. That was when I found out how wonderful Scrivener is, how they have saved my ass, and when I decided I was giving a huge on-my-knees thanks to them in the acknowledgments. Because when I went to the backup settings, I found out they’d been backing up for me after all–and they’d moved them to a secret file in my Library.
Breathless, afraid to hope, I went to the Library. I saw, as the last file about to go away, a Friday afternoon copy of BTL. I opened it—and saw my missing 5800 words.
I shouted. I cried again, and with shaking hands I saved it in six different places. I emailed it to myself. I called Damon back, and he said before anything else, “EMAIL IT TO ME RIGHT NOW,” and I did. Because why not have seven backup copies.
It took me until last night to be able to write in the file again, in fact, to write at all. I had a huge headache all day Sunday, and even though I had the file back, I felt wrecked. I still twitch when I open the file. I’m having to walk through work like I’m going through a pile of corpses, even though everything’s fine. I still fear I’ll overwrite something by accident, but I “save as” at the end of every writing session and give it a new name, so now I’ll have literally sixty copies of the file before I finish. And two hundred if you count the backups. Because I turned on the feature to save all Scriv backups in that library, I save to Dropbox, I email it into various boxes, and I’m looking into more reliable online backup with tech support (still haven’t received any feedback from Dropbox). I’m remembering now why I was so reluctant to “save as” with a new version: for a period of time around 2010, Scrivener took away that button, and you had to duplicate and rename the file. I always feared I’d fuck it up, so I moved to the Dropbox method. The downside is I’m going to have to be more deliberate about moving and fetching my files between my iMac and laptop, which is a huge pain, but I’d rather not be able to work sometime because I forgot to transfer an update than to lose my work entirely.
So, this Mercury Retrograde, go back up your stuff. Get a system if you don’t have one, and if you have one, double check it. Let me be your horrible warning so that you never, ever have to feel what I felt on Sunday morning. Back up your work. Back it up, back it up, back it up.
(I’ve listened to too much JLo, and it’s killing me to not add, “like a Tonka truck” after “back it up.” See below to understand why.)
Yesterday on my Twitter stream, someone posted what appeared to be an auto-reported update from an app describing how many follows and unfollows that account had received in the last twenty-four hours. The poster was a book blogger, one who takes her charge very seriously, and I’m certain she’ll find the app a useful tool for measuring the success of her venture, or that if she doesn’t she’ll discard it as a nice idea that didn’t pan out. She’s a smart, savvy cookie, that blogger, and I’m sure she didn’t lose a minute of sleep last night over finding out a few people who had been following her no longer do.
Having said that, I feel fairly confident in saying that most authors who tried to use that app would find it to be a gateway to the deepest circle of hell.
I’ve been an active part of professional author communities since 1999, and in those fourteen years I’ve only deepened my conviction that by and large authors are the most beautiful hot mess of ego and self-consciousness that has ever walked the planet. As a friend of mine once pointed out—we slave (alone) for months and years over a work, crafting and honing and sweating and weeping, and then we not only share it with the entire human race but ask to be paid for it. There’s no escaping the ego, no matter how humble we are. Yet at the same time, to be able to successfully access the stories of the human condition, we must be humble, we must put ourselves aside and reach into truths where ego must be stripped away.
Maybe it’s a bias, but from where I sit writing romance is even more of a schizophrenic split. It is and likely always will be the best-selling sub-genre of fiction, the Big Kahuna of publishing, and yet it isn’t just the story of the human condition but a chronicling of humans at their most vulnerable: falling in love. Even if we try to shut out the world, we know our potential audience is huge, and as we strip ourselves away to write emotionally vulnerable stories, we find ourselves that story’s biggest champion, wanting it to become the biggest story ever, not for our ego but for its own sake. To give it that boost we often must gird ourselves and send the introverted writer out into the void, to be the shill and the advocate and the ringmaster for our book’s success.
Nothing, nothing feels more horrible than rising out of that selfless pit of story, putting on ego we didn’t want—and finding the story not only missing the goal posts but sometimes failing to even get out of the sidelines. Did we do something wrong? Did we not promote enough? Too much? Did we burp in public at a conference and that killed the book forever? Did we make a stupid comment on a blog post or social media and now our stories must suffer for our foolishness? Did we not give it a strong enough editorial pass? Did we edit too much and stripped away the soul? Why, how, did this work we slaved over become passed over? How did we see such a beautiful gem and fail it so completely?
Put a few books under an author’s belt, and this kind of nail-biting ego soup/self-consciousness spirals to wild and crazy heights of hysteria, and usually it isn’t allowed to bleed out until something random makes us spill our carefully guarded jar of crazy. It might be a review. It might be a reader’s random comment on Twitter. It might be the failure of a book to hit a bestseller list. It might be a disappointing paycheck. It might be a failure to be mentioned in a magazine citing several of our genre peers—but not us.
It might be hearing that a conference will extend pre-invitations to a small number of high-profile, reader-requested and bestselling authors—and we must now get a bigger crock for our crazy juice, because now someone will make a judgement, a call, our peers will make a call, and we if we don’t make that list, it will cut us, it will send us so deep into that hysteria that we may not write again, because we’ve been wondering this whole time if maybe we really suck, if those lower sales numbers and meh reviews are tea leaves, if this is the final Tarot card that says, “Jesus, you fool, give it up already and go back to the accounting job.”
Don’t. Don’t you ever, ever let anyone, anything, any list or invitation or blog or review site or magazine article define you that way. Don’t let any outside force, anything of any kind tell you who you are, what your stories mean, what potential your career has. Don’t, not even for a minute let anyone but you define what success means for your career. Read More