Congratulations to Ruthie and Alexis – Big Week for Wonkomance

We’re happy to announce that first, Ruthie Knox debuted on the New York Times Bestseller’s List at #22 for RITA nominated ABOUT LAST NIGHT. And second, that Alexis Hall is a LAMBDA Literary Award Finalist for his debut GLITTERLAND.

Congratulations Wonkomancers!!!

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 1 Comment

First, Make a Plan

My sister, who, like most of us, procrastinates out of anxiety, once hung a sign over her workspace that said, “Stick to the plan (First, make a plan)”

I always liked the sign, but recently, I’ve finally fully grokked what it means, and how to live by it.

It happened in January, when I hit a wall of sorts. It was the end of the period of time during which I had three releases in three months, during which I had, against my will, more or less, worked through both Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation, during which I had desperately tried to do everything I needed to do to have the career I imagined I wanted. Only it didn’t feel like what I wanted. It felt like a sheer, dead weight, a yoke, and an ankle chain.

It is the writer’s job to listen, to stay open and let ideas come to us, to entertain the possible and impossible, to let imaginary people tell us their stories and to be convinced by them so we can convince our readers too.

But this talent of ours, for staying porous to possibility, can become a liability when we come out of our caves into the real world. January was not the first time this year—by which I mean the year since I crossed the line from “aspiring” to “author,” that I have found myself so totally overwhelmed that my strongest impulse was to quit. Throw in the towel, open a chocolate shop, and revert to reading, not writing romances.

What all those moments had in common was that I had become too reactive—too porous—to everything around me. I lost track of who I was, what I was doing. I’d lost track of who was driving the bus.

In the first year of author-dom, you are barraged by new inputs. Everyone has an opinion. Up to the point when you first get an agent or sell a manuscript, you have been fully and completely in charge of your destiny. But that changes, almost overnight. Suddenly you have an agent, an editor, a copy editor, a cover artist, possibly a publisher, certainly critique partners and beta readers who care passionately about helping you have the career they want you to have—or, most generously, the career they believe you want to have. And that’s not all. Facebook and Twitter have an opinion, not to mention Instagram, Google+, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Reviews, of course, are nothing but opinion. Even deadlines, which seem in some way to be neutral, are an opinion.

Some of these opinions are explicit—This is your brand, Romantic suspense doesn’t sell, We want to grow you this way, We set up this promo opportunity for you. Bad reviews, of course, are explicit, as are good reviews, and no less destructive. Then there are implicit opinions out there in the community, as faint as smoke signals: The more books you write in the shortest amount of time, the better, If you want to Twitter to work for you, you have to be on it at least a couple times the day, Facebook is best if you make it really personal, Vampires are so turn-of-the-century, Write tropes.

There are the opinions that come hidden in conference opportunities, invitations to writer getaways, a request to critique someone’s book, the realization that someone else is doing something awesome—a giveaway, a Facebook party, travel to give a talk. The recipe for what someone else’s success looks like is its own opinion. And some of these opinions are buried so deep in our psyches, we don’t even recognize they’re there—leftover needs to please parents, a set of church teachings that oppose our own artistic impulses, the need for popularity, the desire to be tough, the conviction that artists stand up for themselves and don’t sell out.

And finally there are the darkest, most unwanted opinions, the voices in the lizard brain—Who’s on Twitter, Did I read everything, Did I respond, Am I a good friend, Have I done right by them? Is so-and-so selling better? Does so-and-so like so-and-so more?

That’s a fuckload of noise.

In the midst of all that noise, it is so hard, so terribly hard, to write a book, let alone a good book. It is very hard to revise it to make the best possible book, to decide who should publish it, to decide even whether it should be self-published or traditionally published, whether you need an agent, how much and where to promote your book, how far out to contract books, which deadlines to give, how much of your life to spend writing.

Under these conditions, you can’t stop reacting, because there is so much to react to, and you feel that you cannot miss an opportunity or take a wrong step.

But the reason you feel that way is not because there is any real danger of missing an opportunity or taking a wrong step. It’s because you are in all-out reaction mode, because you want desperately to stick to the plan, but you do not yet know what the plan is.

You need a place to come from, proactively, a yardstick with which to measure whether any given course of action fits what you—the core writer you, the one that got into this for all the right (and by right I do not mean morally or ethically, but spiritually, as in those that are true to you) reasons.

So. Shut it off. Shut it all off. Not forever, because living in a cave will make you even crazier than living in a circus, but shut it off long enough to make a plan. Make a plan that draws you back down into the core of who you are and why you are doing this—money, popularity, sheer love of writing, a compulsive need to tell the stories you hear in your head, a desire to please Uncle Joe. Remember what it is. Remember what you’re doing, and articulate a plan that will make it possible to do that, and only that, that core thing. Let that—your real reasons for writing—speak louder than everything else to you.

This is, of course, easier said than done. The noise is loud, and you have forgotten what the core reason for doing this really is. So I recommend you start by making a list of all the reasons you’re doing it, and then put them in priority order. Maybe Uncle Joe’s first, maybe money is first, maybe it’s that crazy, intoxicating flow state in which you don’t actually remember anything you’ve written. Getting on the USA Today Bestseller list is a different reason than having enough money to send your kids to college, even if, at first blush, they look interrelated. Whatever it is, acknowledge it, be true to it, be honest with yourself about it.

Just having this list will make it so much easier to say no to the voices. No, bad review, I don’t need to hear what you’re saying, because you are not relevant to what I do next. No, I don’t care that beta heroes aren’t selling. No, I don’t need to do that promo opportunity, because it doesn’t feed my soul.

It will also make it easier to say yes. Yes, that will help me make money, and if I am being honest with myself, money is big, bigger than I wanted to be. Yes, I want to be on Twitter today, because part of why am doing this is the people, the conferences, the camaraderie. Yes, please, I want to be your friend, I have always wanted to be your friend, even when I thought you were so much better than me that I didn’t think it was worth trying to get your attention.

Most of all, it will make it easier to distinguish between yes and no, because it will make it easier to remember what matters, and why.

So do it. Stick to the plan.

First, make a plan.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 34 Comments

When You’re Shaken to the Core of Your Being, Grab a Romance

A Guest Post by Amy

Amy and I met in 2007, when we were both downy fledgling designers in the same Boston office. In 2008 I started writing, and I’d poked perhaps one shaking toe out of the romance closet when all of my initial jitters were swallowed by Amy’s voice, shouting, “I LOVE romance novels!” And at that moment, we suddenly had so much more to talk about than our fantasy stock photo boyfriends. And I had my first beta reader! Fast forward seven years—I’m a romance writer, and Amy’s in Chicago, having risen through the design ranks to Art Director. And around New Year’s, I got an email that flipped my tidy perceptions of how life and fairness are supposed to work, and I asked Amy if she’d share her experience here…

I lost my romance novel virginity one lovely summer day in my thirteenth year. Much like an untouched Regency heroine, I found the experience rapturous from beginning to end. My partner was Julie Garwood’s “The Wedding”, stolen from my mom’s library pile. I hunkered down with the book in our backyard and OMG, was it more enlightening than the clinical sex ed classes or parental chats I’d had thus far.

Seventeen years later, I remain utterly devoted to romances, although my tastes have changed over time. In high school, my after-school job in the town library allowed me to hide in the stacks and tear through Bertrice Small (purple prose being NO problem for a teen girl) and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. In college I was introduced to SEALs courtesy of Suzanne Brockmann. More recently I’ve gravitated toward smart and unusual heroines of any time period, many of whom have been written by the illustrious authors on this blog [blatant fan-girling here].

Romances have been with me through highs and lows: city relocations, making friends/saying-goodbye-to friends, apartment joys/nightmares, meeting the guy/breaking up with the guy, winning that job/losing that job…and lately my romances have been working overtime, giving me a pick-me-up through breast cancer.

Oh boy, you guys, I know. I dropped the “C” word. But stick with me! I promise this won’t be too rough.

When Cara asked me if I’d like to post, I thought for a while about why I’ve doubled down on romance therapy in recent months. It came down to two reasons. The biggest reason, one that I am sure many readers can relate to, is that romances take me to a happy place where characters successfully hurdle all obstacles on the way to that HEA finish line. The other reason is just a very specific subset of that first reason: romance’s old trope of the barren heroine’s miracle baby. (Wow, that sounds like a good Harlequin title, doesn’t it? “The Barren Heroine’s Miracle Baby”. You’re welcome, authors!) More on that second reason in a minute.

Happy Place
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, but neither do otherwise healthy thirty-year-olds expect to randomly feel a lump. A cancer diagnosis is an intensely personal experience, especially in the sense that each patient deals with it in his or her own way. If the high school job in a library and love of reading didn’t clue you in, I have introverted tendencies which only intensified after cancer. My way of handling the unexpected was to withdraw into my own quiet headspace. And in that happy place…stacks of books!

Post head-shaving party. Reenacting the 2007 meltdown of a heroine for our times, Ms. Britney Spears.

Post head-shaving party. Reenacting the 2007 meltdown of a heroine for our times, Ms. Britney Spears.

Reading in general has always functioned as an escape for me, but only romances can do the job when I’m at my bluest. It has everything to do with the almost guaranteed happy ending and the hope of characters overcoming long odds to find their bliss. When I’m stressed and unsure of what’s going to happen in my reality, it’s reassuring to know that if I pick up a romance these two characters WILL get together and they WILL be in love. I just have to read to find out how they manage it. Even though the scenarios are fictional, such certainty is cathartic.

Or, if the promise of a couple riding into the sunset fails to pick up one’s spirits, then often there is a chance to feel better about a real, crappy situation by comparing your problem to the melodramatic backstories of the characters in Romance Land—especially if you’re into historicals. What’s that? The evil Baron next door burned down your castle and murdered your father before your eyes? Now you have to escape, injured, across a freezing moor on horseback or else succumb to his lascivious intent? Welp, cancer is no treat but at least my dad’s alive and my neighbor isn’t trying to pillage me.

The Barren Heroine
The thing that’s made me most angry about cancer is that it wrested control of choices that I had assumed would remain open to me for a long time. Being a single lady, I had no immediate plans for children, but always thought, “Yes, someday that’d be swell!” Within weeks of diagnosis it became clear that chemo would be in my near future, and that along with my hair, it would likely do a number on my fertility. Through the miracle of modern science, I took advantage of fertility preservation. Although that process turned out to be rather hellish. I’ve had to face my reproductive limitations very suddenly and that’s morphed my casual but generally confident attitude about potential children into something a lot more complicated. That complicated view has spilled over into my reading choices. I’ve started to look for heroines who reflect a slightly messier “reality.”

For years I’ve read romances which cap off the happily ever after in an epilogue that hints at a bundle of joy for the new couple or toddlers already bouncing at mom and dad’s feet. These offspring are a manifestation of how compatible and fruitful the hero and heroine are. And that’s great! I’m probably always going to enjoy a good epilogue with babies. Of course there are particular tropes that make me slightly eye-rolly these days, such as the previously mentioned miracle children.

We’ve all read this heroine. The one who’s repeatedly mentioned her barrenness only to magically discover at the end of the novel that the hero’s super sperm has defied the laws of nature and impregnated her. I recently reread “Ain’t She Sweet” by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and though I do adore that novel, it’s a primo example of this conceit.

Far more interesting and awesome is a newer trend of heroes and heroines where the author determines that they will NOT ever be having children but have a happy ending just the same. I’m thinking of, “The Countess Conspiracy” by Courtney Milan, “Not Quite a Husband” by Sherry Thomas, and “A Gentleman Undone” by Cecelia Grant. Whereas a fictional couple’s progeny used to not make much of an impact on me other than, “Oh good, that’s nice for them,” now children, or lack thereof, triggers a little something different. It feels refreshing to read characters that have an “alt” lifestyle when romance is concerned…where I’m actively pulling for these two to be happy with each other and their own limits rather than a magical and unlikely resolution.

AmyAtWorkThank You, Thank You
That said there are scads of romances on the bookshelves that don’t bring up kids at all and simply focus on the hero, heroine, and the infinite ways two people can meet and overcome barriers to their happiness. That’s the beauty of romance; there is a story out there for every sort of reader. This post is really my open letter to say, “Thank you, romance writers of the world!” Thank you for writing all those sexy, interesting characters whose worlds I can visit when my own is too frustrating. Thank you for stories with women of different backgrounds and difficult circumstances who manage to get the guy but keep sight of who they are and maybe learn something about themselves. Reading romance has always been a simple pleasure for me and never more so than now. When the going gets rough, therapy is only an Amazon One-Click away.

Final Note: I want to thank Cara for inviting me to guest post. Cara and I were once upon a time both graphic designers at Ye Olde Publishing Company. If you had told either of us seven years ago that in the future one of us would be a full-time romance writer and would invite the other to write about her IRL cancer diagnosis, I think we both would have said that sounded a bit fantastical. Like, well, something out of a romance novel.

Posted in Life & Wonk, Thinky | Tagged , , | 15 Comments