The Cornucopia of Luuuuurve: A Guest Post by Amy Jo Cousins

Ruthie here — just a quick introduction to Amy Jo Cousins, a Friend of Wonk. We asked AJ to write this guest post for us after she shared an earlier version of these reflections with a number of the Wonksters. I’m delighted to be able to get her thoughts into the wider world, because I think what she has to say here about community and being a romance writer in the digital age is both important and interesting.

Take it away, AJ!


A while back, Cara interviewed the Wonkomancers about scarcity in Romancelandia, right around the time I had a long weekend writing retreat with a group of romance authors. Between that post, that weekend, and how Thanksgiving sort of rocked my world this year, I’ve been thinking about gratitude and plenty, about generosity and community.

When my first two books were published, almost a decade ago now, it was the most alone thing I had ever done. I knew exactly no one who had written a book. Although my family and friends were thrilled for me and supportive (bought me red boots and threw me surprise parties and let me dance in the open sun roof of the limo zooming down Lake Shore Drive), they had no advice or information about the process.

It wasn’t yet RT. I know this because I still have the two copies I bought at a B.Dalton Bookseller.

It wasn’t yet RT. I know this because I still have the two copies I bought at a B.Dalton Bookseller.

I talked to my editor a handful of times on the phone and I went to one regional conference, where I met her in person and we had about ten minutes of conversation. At that conference, I talked to a lot of very nice people, but didn’t make any connections that lasted beyond an email or two. That was mostly my fault, I think. I assumed that any published author would see my reaching out to them as an imposition on their time. The unpublished authors were even shyer than I was.

When my books came out, they were reviewed in Romantic Times Magazine, but that was pretty much it.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books started later that year. None of the dozens of book review websites existed. Goodreads didn’t exist, which is hard to imagine. I cobbled together a shitty website using HTML for Dummies and, wonder of wonders, four or five people found it and emailed me. I threw a party for each book that was mostly an excuse for my friends and family to get a drink & my romance novel for free if they donated a children’s book to the elementary school on Chicago’s West Side where I volunteered. I didn’t see any sales numbers until I got my royalty statements the following year. Amazon existed, but no one I knew bought books there. One of my brother’s friends posted a goofy review about how my book set his pants on fire.

AYS Amazon review

disco ballThe entire publication process felt like I tied parachutes made of Kleenex to my books and dropped them off a cliff into a bank of clouds that swallowed them whole. I hoped they landed okay. It was awesome and awe-inducing. It was the thing I’d dreamed about since I was a little girl sitting at a tv tray table in a corner of our damp basement (because the clatter of my used electric typewriter at midnight kept everyone awake.) I was giddy with excitement. I was also crushingly, heart-breakingly alone. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing most of the time (scratch that…ALL of the time), pretty sure that I was always two seconds and a coin toss away from making the mistake that would have Harlequin writing me off as Too Stupid To Live. If I could have wished for anything at all, it would have been to have one single person with whom I could share all of those emotions that were flashing out of me like I was a disco ball.

Any time a friend or co-worker mentioned wanting to write a book some day, I went into overdrive. “Have you read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones? Want to do NaNoWriMo with me? We can meet at coffee shops and write together! Please, please, please write a book!” I was desperate to know people who weren’t just writing in journals and thinking about a book (as I had done for the first thirty years of my life…hush, I was too thinking about being a writer from the moment they pulled me out with the forceps and smacked my butt), but were actively engaged in this magical and perplexing publishing thing.

So *clears throat* when I say that these past six months have been just the teensiest bit like someone took every birthday / first star in the evening sky / penny in the fountain wish I ever made and somehow managed to make them come true, I am maybe approaching a description of how overwhelmingly different my experience has been this time around.

From the brand new Twitter friend who I’d met once IRL before she took me under her wing at RWA and introduced me to everyone she knew, including authors around whom I was twitchy and mute with hero worship (I’m getting over this, I swear), to the members of a Chicago M/M Romance reading group who keep inviting me to meetings even though I can hardly ever make it…

From the writers “across the pond” with whom I talk about WWII research texts, to the group from Down Under who hosted a contest that introduced me to new editors…

From the #1k1hr sprinters on Twitter who keep me producing, to the Tumblrs who make me blush and inspire me…

You people have beta read my manuscripts and provided feedback both wise and geographic (“I think you mean either the Back Bay or North End of Boston. There is no Back End neighborhood…”). I boggle at the hours of time you gave up to do this. You have let me sit in on the equivalent of a Master Class in publishing, listening to stories of book deals gone wrong, cover art disasters, agents who tear down their authors and agents who build them up. You have mailed me cookies and made me Korean food and bought me drinks and turned my tweets into memes. You have shared your family’s Thanksgiving sweet potato recipe and emailed me your books before they were released when I was sad because our cat died. You have fixed my plots and punched up my synopses and found me the perfect cover art images. I am awed and overwhelmed and I never, ever feel alone in this journey any more.

*pause for eye-wiping and sniffing*

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Talk about a living, breathing repudiation of the idea that there is any scarcity at all in Romancelandia. You are wonderful people and I am so, so grateful to sit at your feet, metaphorically. Or dance on them, sadly less metaphorically.

Sometimes we don’t celebrate enough how generous and kind and helpful this community is. But I wanna share the love. Got any stories of awesomeness?


Amy Jo Cousins lives in Chicago, where she writes contemporary romance, tweets more than she ought, and sometimes runs way too far. She loves her boy and the Cubs, who taught her that being awesome doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with winning.

Find her on Twitter @_ajcousins.

Posted in Guest Post, Life & Wonk | 26 Comments

Mmph ~ Language, Charles Baxter, Serena Bell

I’m convinced that there is a wordless place inside of us that receives story.

In my imagination, it’s like an atrium, but more sentient and responsive. Maybe something like a heart’s atrium, which also receives what is vital and live.

I first had this thought, years ago, going to poetry and fiction readings. I’ve been to all kinds—commercial events held in bookstores, important ones with authors in the audience that rivaled the fame of the one at the podium, academic affairs filled with students who had to get a mandatory attendance form signed after, and then the dozens and dozens in homes and coffeeshops and bars and basements and the ones that were deliberately weird happenings where poetry was shouted in deliberately weird and uncomfortable places like abandoned malls or busy diners.

I had the thought that there wasn’t anything to say when we were in receipt of a story—reading or listening, that there was something else going on, seated in the body, and this is so obvious at a reading, in some room filled with humans, because we all act like the animals that we are.

I’m talking about the mmph.

It’s the same–if it’s Toni Morrison ending a passage where we’ve just come to know that Beloved is not who we might have thought she was, or if it’s some rough-eyed poetry undergraduate who found the turn we needed to hear in her otherwise uncomfortably unrevised epic poem. Together, we listeners vocalize in response, somewhere in our throats and above our hearts, and it is involuntary.

I will come back to this.

Few writers write all alone, or at least, the entire process isn’t borne alone. How much you work with another is some kind of continuum from many partners or a writing group looking at nearly everything you write along the way, to, I suppose, the writer who writes in an unheated shack in the wilderness and sends her manuscript to the publisher by carrier pigeon, and even she isn’t alone because she sent it, and there are readers.

Also, this process isn’t the same for every book even, sometimes you need the voices and signposts, and sometimes you need your shack.

Also, yes, engagement means influences, too, which is exactly right. Writers inside the same generation, writing with similar concerns, should influence each other. This has always been true, this has always created discovery for readers, both at the time and into the future. There are movements, there are salons, there are leading edges. As static as a book might be, the process hardly ever is, and really, whatever is published is simply where that process had to necessarily stop due to external demands for the manuscript.

What Serena Bell said about me, in regards to her process, in the acknowledgement of Yours to Keep was that I  provided “advice and reassurance at a key moment when my morale was flagging and panic was setting in.”

What I remember is this—we were relatively new to the other, and like a lot of writerly relationships much of our relationship was made from words—emails—but we’d breached that and spoke on the phone and there was that kindred understanding that our concerns for books were similar.

I read Yours to Keep for her. Right away, from the beginning, here:

At some point, she’d let her shoulders drop from their usual spot around her ears and started to believe that maybe, just maybe, nothing too terrible would happen, as long as she kept her nose clean and didn’t break any rules.

She’d enjoyed living like a normal person. She’d lost that sense of peering around the next corner, anticipating the next challenge. And it had been a relief, like taking full breaths for the first time after wearing a too-tight dress.

Only now she thought it might not have been worth it, because the adrenaline of sudden danger packed such a vicious punch: nausea, trembling hands, tight throat. She spoke nearly flawless English, but authority figures could make her forget every word.

That is where the receptive atrium in my mind vocalized something inarticulate–mmph. It’s a passage that ignited that organic understanding that this was good, and necessarily meant I flagged it, because now, I would have to talk to Serena about it, and really, this is impossible.

I mean, I can. I can look at it again and show you that in every one of those paragraphs, this character is drawn from the animal’s reactions of her body. She wants her shoulders to come down from around her ears, her nose to stay clean, to stop peering around corners, to find relief in a deep unbinding breath (and what’s more, we learn she’s no stranger to tight dresses), and that she’s often perfused with adrenaline that nauseates her and shakes her and closes off her throat so that her brain can’t even remember language.

This is everything we need to know, and it is presented efficiently and plainly, invisibly and effortlessly.

Whatever any of that means, which is of course, secondary to what I really meant, which was mmph.

It makes me think, as I recently told another writer I work with, Ruthie Knox, what would happen if I gave writers one of these very cerebral kinds of descriptors of language like effortless, or lush, or intense, or gorgeous, or layered, or breathless and I told them to write a 250 word exemplar.

I think her answer was something like, “ha! You should,” because of course, I should, because it is interesting and impossible and shines a light on what it is we’re trying to do here, and what’s more, what’s most exciting, is that I have no doubt that what the writers wrote would be exemplar and we would all go mmph in our throats and talk about it and also, come no closer to what breathless means, which incidentally, is what I evoked writing Serena’s blurb:

Serena Bell delivers a fully adult romance with authentic characters, genuine stakes, and the kind of sweet, hot yearning that turns pages and stops your breath.

Blurbs are extraordinarily difficult because they are this kind of strange intersection of what I really felt in some tiny handful of definitive words, but also, they should be words meant to both convey something about the book that will be meaningful to readers looking to read a book like the book you are blurbing. At least, for me, I want readers who are looking for a book like Yours to Keep to find it, is the thing, and I suppose what I think of my blurb is a kind of rusty and flapping sign on an otherwise unmarked county road meant to get the reader there.

Breathlessness, then, to me was something in the language, because you need your breath to speak. Also, sweetness and yearning, to me, meant where that language intersected with the characterization and the pacing:

Waiting until Friday had made some sense at five forty-five a.m. on Tuesday morning but was making less and less sense as the week passed. Thursday afternoon, Ethan decided that he’d get home early and drive her to work again. At least that way he could kiss her, and hold her, and–he admitted to himself, grope her and manhandle her and talk dirty to her.

Serena Bell anchors her use of language in very cleanly presented narrative. I think there are many ways for a text to stop your breath, but here, it is absolutely the seamlessness of a clean narrative where first, our narrator gives us a desperate accounting of his time, time tied to his heroine, and then, the litany of what it is his body needs. Look also, nestled in between, is his decision to go home early and drive her to work–again. Breathlessness, achieved with language, and sweetness, and of course, yearning and hotness.

I can explain it, you see, but really–mmph.

I read Serena Bell’s book and I kept thinking of the author and writing teacher Charles Baxter. Baxter has had a lot to say about language, which–defining what I mean when I talk about an author’s language–I restrict to how it is the author says or even sings the narrative. In Serena’s passage above, of a man obsessing about seeing his lover again, there are infinate approaches to the language. Serena restricts her language to what I’ve already called clean and would probably further define as naturalistic, without introducing spoken affect. It’s deceptive, however, in terms of skill. Achievement of clarity and naturalism within a deeper third person point of view, that reads effortlessly in that we don’t snag on the language for the sake of the language, is tremendously difficult, even as the reader merely receives it into that organic atrium of our minds. We simply feel it, feel his urgency, and let it ache, physically ache in our bodies.

Charles Baxter is where I was headed, and the reason is his generosity in considering the infinite number of approaches to this achievement. I have no doubt he would appreciate Serena’s fiction for its transparency and muscle, but none of this means that there’s aren’t other ways to sing. For example, in a question MaryAnne Kolton asked him about adverbs and adjectives, Baxter said:

“Thy turfy mountains here live nibbling sheep.” That’s Shakespeare, The Tempest. Philip Levine’s essay on his teacher John Berryman reminds us that it isn’t quantity in adjectives or adverbs that should bother us, but quality. Four words instead of one might be undesirable when you’re giving directions, but poetry and great fiction don’t depend on what is “sufficient.” They depend on what is eloquent and beautiful and true. Adjectives and adverbs give us gradations, qualities, shades of feeling. Language itself has its own glory, beyond the uses people put it to.

So Serena’s book makes me think of Baxter and his perspective on language because Serena’s work puts language to use. It is a study in how to use language to make us feel, even as her work taken on the page is objectively plain. Which is what I mean by skill, and also why it is difficult to discuss or cereberalize language, and why it is probably something that is natively located in the author herself. Also, its reception is likely natively located in the reader. What I find gorgeous for its decoration, may never be received by a different reader.

Serena believes that in some moment, reading and talking to her about her book, that I reassured her and offered her advice, when from my perspective, what I said was very much what I’ve said here, which is, I told her what it is I thought she was doing. Now, writing is not some magical fugue state, it is more a slog of dozens of decisions an hour, hour after hour, but it is also difficult, often, to articulate what you have done. I can point to a place where the narrative turns, where the language is tangled, where motivations are obscured, but until I have another, with similar concerns for what a book can do, simply tell me, my pointing isn’t effective.

Writers necessarily seek out, then, those with shared concerns and perpsectives on writing a book, because, well. You want to write your book, not the entire world’s book. In most cases, we ask other writers to just tell us what we’re doing already. What is this? hoping that what we are told is something close to what it is we were to be exploring and uncovering and writing.

We’re looking, too, to create that unnameable, wordless, animal experience in the reader–to make something that is both beautiful and true, where the language has intersected with our character and with narrative action in such a way that the only genuine response is from the throat of the reader, from the impulse of the reader to make a mark in the text, to read or to hear it again. Here, the heroine of Yours to Keep is walking through her neighborhood, working through her troubles:

She walked for a long time on the streets in her neighborhood. The kids were, for the most part, in school. Neighbors with jobs were at work or sleeping off their miserable third shifts, which left the streets in possession of out-of-work men. It had always been somewhat this way in Hawthorne, but it was worse in the last few months, with the recesssion. They were mostly older, grey creeping into their hair. They sat on their front stoops and porches; they loitered on the sidewalks in pairs. They watched her appreciatively as she passed, hooted and whistled sometimes. The ones that knew her called out her name.

Again, melancholy and obsession is achieved through the clarity of presented action. Look at the second half of the passage, imagining this character walking through her neighborhood–short sentances constructed in repeitition with “they” plus a simple past verb. A litany of langauge, then, reveals the litany of behavior and the unchanging nature of her life, how it’s trapped her. This is beautiful and true, and difficult to do, besides. To read this is a pleasure, to read it and have the opprotunity to discuss it with the author, and with the rest of the world, a privilege.


Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 7 Comments

Hearing Through the Static

I wrote in a blog post recently about how exposed parenting makes you feel. I said there were a lot of phrases out there to describe what it was like to be a parent — walking around with your underwear on outside your clothes, or letting your heart go traipsing about outside your body.

This is also more or less what it feels like to release a book into the world. So unless you are the sort of person who’s never been fazed by having your internal organs go on junkets, or who would just as soon give a speech in your underwear as fully dressed, you have to find some defense mechanisms for dealing with book releases — particularly if, as I did this month, you have two in rapid succession. My defense was to watch romantic comedies back-to-back on Netflix streaming.

It was pretty successful, both as a defense, and purely as a form of entertainment. I’m not sure I can even remember all the ones I watched, but two stuck with me, and both, it turns out, were at least in part about what it takes to be a writer and to expose one’s self in the world. Also, they were both exactly the sort of romantic comedy that’s perfect for streaming on Netflix—too offbeat to win over theater audiences, the kind of sweet-but-bizarre indie mess you have to either love or hate — in short, totally Wonktastic.

The first was The English Teacher, starring Julianne Moore and Greg Kinnear. It’s the story of an uptight, self-contained high school English teacher whose life has gone on unchangingly in that mode until one of her ex-students, a playwright, comes back to town. There is so much that’s delightfully surreal and downright wonked in this film — from a meet cute that includes pepper spray to a love triangle that would make diehard genre readers weep and throw the book against the wall.

Part of why I loved this movie so much was that it reminded me that not every story has to be a blockbuster. Sometimes there is a story that is just so silly and cute that it makes you smile. It doesn’t make everybody smile. It makes some people mad, even. But it makes you smile, and it improves your day, and this — I have always said — is why I bother to tell stories. So in the midst of all the release madness, this was not only a fun movie to watch, but also a reminder that telling a story has value that makes the stress of putting it out there in the world worth it—a thousand times over.

A few days later, I watched My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which incongruously (to me, a child of the 80s) stars Alyssa Milano. The premise of this movie is that a woman who has resisted love for too long suddenly finds herself meeting two perfect men in one day (one is a goofy aspiring writer, the other a handsome, successful businessman). This movie has a love triangle so thorny, you spend almost the entire movie wondering how it could possibly work out. I am here to tell you that it does, and that, as is Wonk’s wont, its resolution will make half of you smile and half of you scream. (Hint: They don’t live happily ever after as a threesome.)

When I first started watching this movie, which includes a disturbingly realistic agent rejection of the aspiring writer character, I didn’t think I was going to be able to hack it. I don’t watch romantic comedies to be reminded of the reality of my life. But it was just so cute, Alyssa Milano so surprisingly good at what she was doing, and one of the two romances so beautiful to watch unfold, that I forgave it for reminding me about the career I was trying not to think about. Plus — it contains a twist that maybe everybody else on earth saw coming, but that — as a writer — I just loved so hard.

Watching these movies on Netflix also reminded me of the long tail stories have now. Once upon a time, if you made a movie that no one watched, that was the end of it. But now stories have a long life out there—on Netflix, on Hulu, as indie books on Amazon, and of course, all the places pirates steal and hide them, for better or for worse. It’s like the sound we send out into the universe, hoping that long after we’ve recorded it, some form of sentient life on a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away will hear it, pull signal from static, and know it’s not alone.

Watching those two goofy, imperfect, romantic comedies, I was above all aware I had company in the universe. Deeply relieved. And suddenly possessed of a renewed conviction about the importance of pouring words out into the void, because when the scrap of a human voice reaches the right ear days or weeks, months or years or millennia later, it makes a difference. To one, single, solitary, you, at that one, perfect, receptive moment. You are not alone.

Everything else, all the difficulties, the stresses, the sense of exposure—it’s just static.



Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 4 Comments