Write more books (preferably ones that don’t suck).

I hate ninety percent of the books I read. Yes, yes I know: hate is such a strong word, it’s all a matter of opinion, what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander and other clichés, but whatever. Most books suck. (Either that or I’m terribly picky. The queen of finicky.)

Some are so bad I give up in the middle rather than slog through the whole thing. It’s as if the words on the page got together and decided that it would be fun to torment the reader: hackneyed dialogue, passive voice, adjective abuse. Sometimes the main character is so hateful or stupid or whiny I want to punch him or her in the nose.

Some are just meh (my vocabulary word of the week). My younger teen uses it to describe school. My older teen uses it to describe his younger brother. I also saw it in a book review recently. It’s the new “whatever.” It’s the kind of word that says: I didn’t have the energy to throw this in the trash so I might as well finish reading it. Meh books comprise the biggest portion of my ninety percent.

Some books are so godawful that I actively despise them. These I usually finish just so I can knowledgeably diss them to any friends/family/victims who happen to wander by. I say stuff like: OMG did you read [insert book title here]? It was WRETCHED. The heroine was a dog-walker who fell for her cousin’s meth addict half-brother/stepson! They boinked in the back freezer of a butcher shop in between sides of COW! (I try to make sure my voice grows more shrill with every phrase so as to press upon my listener the complete hideousness of the book.)

I’ve been reading for four decades (yes, frightening, I know) so I’ve read a LOT of horrible books. At some point I said to myself: honey, it’s time. Write a book and see if you can do any better. Since that elusive ten percent of absolutely brilliant writing happened so rarely (novels which are so excellent I cried with envy and despair as I read each delicious word), I decided I should write my own. I would write the book I wanted to read.

Uh-huh.

That didn’t go so well, as you can imagine. Do you know how difficult it is to avoid passive voice/hackneyed dialogue/adjective abuse? Filter words exist solely to pop up in the middle of any paragraph I write, laughing and giving me the finger. Then there’s the length issue. Do you have any idea how long an average novel runs? 50,000-60,000 words. Do you know how long I can sit still? [Insert unintelligible vocalization of derision here.] At one point I almost resorted to stapling my ass to my chair. I gave myself little rewards: chocolate if I finished a chapter (this did not help the size of my butt), more chocolate if I finished two chapters (butt still spreading), and chocolate with caramel if I finished three (yes, I know this is the opposite of what I should do if I want to be physically functional but too bad-I don’t need to walk to write). Eventually I got the hang of it and published some novels.

Unfortunately I still have the original problem: most books suck. Most books will always suck, especially those that seem fun to read at first. They will suck giant ass rocks and they will suck tiny little turds of poo. They will suck until the sun explodes and our planet collapses into a heap of molten carbon (at which point I’ll be like: Whoa. Fireworks. Then I will consume my body weight in chocolate until I explode. I mean, what the hell else is there to do when that happens?)

There’s only one solution to the “most books suck” problem: write more books (preferably ones that don’t suck).

 
Of course, I’m sure there’s someone out there who thinks my books suck.

 

 

That’s ok.

 

 

No, really. They can go write their own books.

 

That don’t suck.

 

 

 

Me? I’ll be eating a ton of chocolate while I type happily into the sunset (which looks really, REALLY BIG right now. And HOT. Um.
WTF?).

Dear Dude: here is your box. Conform.

The other day I read an article that talked about the pressure men in our society have to conform to an ideal of masculinity. (fyi, I’m American, so: western culture.) The author of the article claimed that girls don’t have any trouble being tomboys but guys have a great deal of trouble expressing anything that doesn’t conform properly to the masculine norm. Did I ever mention the GRIEF I got when I was a teenager for having short hair, wearing a baseball cap, and riding my bicycle as often as I possibly could? No? Well, now I have. Who says girls don’t suffer from pressure to conform to femininity? They do. So does everyone else.

Even so, the idea that we are finally able to talk about people and their obsessive attention to whether or not the dude in the cubicle next door is guy enough for them is a relief (substitute ‘garage next door’ or the ‘line opposite yours’ or whatever job you prefer for ‘cubicle’). As a writer of romance novels, I’m intimately familiar with the idea of what’s hot and what’s not when it comes to men and honestly? The possibilities are ENDLESS.

Different people like different things. I have a girlfriend who adores long hair on a guy. I know another one who could care less what a dude looks like as long as he has a brain. Scientists turn her on. I have another friend who doesn’t like men who wear makeup. Another who does. The one thing my friends all have in common, however, is a severe hesitation and deep fear of telling other people what really rocks their world. Why? Because none of them like men who fit into society’s view of what a true man is/does/looks like.

This is tragic.

I don’t know why it continues to surprise me, considering that the human race has been knocking boots for, well, how long has the human race been a species? Yeah, that long. At any rate, what makes a dude masculine isn’t his hair length or what he likes to read or how fit his body is. It’s all of those things combined. And none of them.

Years ago I read a book by Jo Beverley. The hero wore heels. And powder. He was also ruthless, intelligent, and remarkably powerful. From that moment on I began questioning everything I’d thought about what it means to be masculine. As a writer I need to know what makes men tick (or any character, man/woman/child). I need to know what makes most of my readers tick. I also need to somehow preserve my sense of voice and write what I find interesting, amusing, and erotic. To do that, sometimes I stretch the boundaries of what my readers probably feel is comfortable. My job is to make those stretched boundaries believable. Some of my men have long hair and some have none. Some are white, some are not. Some of them are young. Some are heading for the wrong side of 40. It works because my headspace is delightfully flexible when it comes to attractiveness.

The tragedy comes in when we put our books down and surface back into real life. My husband likes to dance. He also likes to work on old cars. These two things are so completely opposite of what society says a guy should be that it amuses me to tell uptight people about his hobbies and watch them try to reconcile what they believe is right with what actually is (Don’t worry, I’m not an asshole. I only torment people who deserve it). He also has long hair. He’s not white. He’s crazy smart. All of these things sound like a recipe for a failed marriage, right? Uh-huh NOT.

The thing is, if you unpack almost any man or woman, you’ll soon realize that they’re not conformists either. People like and are many different things but what they’re willing to show you is only a very small part that generally matches what society says they’re supposed to be. The people I’ve met who suppress their deepest sense of self are usually miserable and tend to crack open violently at some point in their lifetime. The people who let it all out are happy, but often ostracized. The pressure to be and act a certain way is incredible, and not just for men.

So where do we get these ideas about what makes a man masculine? From each other. From what our parents say. From our peers. It’s a self-sustaining methane gas factory. If I wasn’t a writer I’d probably find this cycle of oppression/repression indescribably depressing. Luckily, I have the best platform in existence from which to seed change: fiction. Instead of writing reality, I can write what I wish was reality. I can make all my characters’ dreams come true. And if my hero has long hair and likes to wear eyeliner, I’m subtly encouraging every reader who falls in love with that particular fictional character that it’s okay to be who you are and like who you want.

If you can’t safely tell anyone who you are for real, that’s okay. If you can, that’s okay too. The most important thing is to stop drawing boxes around yourself. Free your mind. If you do that, all the boxes we’ve placed around other people will eventually disappear, too.

“Put some cupcakes in this freaking paragraph” and other nightmares…

So I know I shouldn’t crow about reader reviews, but screw that. I LOVE reader reviews. One of my favorites is a review I received on Goodreads from someone named Reza for Appassionato (Dream Marked #1):

“This was totally weird. And I usually like weird, but this was. . . weird. So weird, I don’t know why I gave it four stars. But I did really like it despite how weird it was. (Have I written the word “weird” enough times for you to get the idea?)”

Every time I read that review I laugh. I’ve felt that way about quite a number of books. That review actually makes sense to me and I love it. I mean, sometimes I don’t know why I like a book. Sometimes the novel is just, well, weird, but it’s still intriguing enough to finish it.

Novels that I thought were weird but liked anyway (spoilers ahead, be warned):

  • Guilty Pleasures by Anita K. Hamilton (Like, whoa. Pick up that shapeshifter wolf and take him home with you! And yeah, the vampire too!)
  • Prince of Ice by Emma Holly (Um, what the hell is that on his . . . That was weird. But HOT. Gimme more!)
  • Faith & Fidelity by Tere Michaels (Wait, severe depression, death, and kids? Seriously? This turns into a MM romance? Wow.)
  • Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind (Nice guy gets a sword. Nice guy is the MOST IMPORTANT DUDE in the land. Nice guy is GRAPHICALLY tortured? I was OBSESSED with this book. I love this book. I watched every episode of the crappy tv series based on this book.)
  • The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro (Oh hey! It’s a fantasy romance novel! Which totally is awesome right up until the CRAZY genetic math-type stuff I still don’t understand. But the novel is still awesome.)

So, you can see that I don’t mind a review calling my book weird. I can deal with weird. I embrace weird.

My most recent reviews came for Risk Is A Four-Letter Word. I ADORE them. If I could snatch them up off the Amazon page and hug them, I totally would do that. Most of the time I’m positive my writing is complete and total crap. It’s so crappy it animates itself and tells me so: “Hey, what the hell are you doing, writing such repulsive dialogue? Make it snappy! Put some cupcakes in this freaking paragraph! Anything to spice things up.”

When my prose starts dissing me like that, I tend to get a wee bit paranoid about the quality of my work. Ask any writer. She’ll agree with me. We’re a bunch of neurotic, paranoid, depressive, manic, crazy chicks with brutal imaginations. So, when a great review for one of my books hits the interwebz, I tend to freak out celebrate.

My favorite part of those reviews:

“Erin hits it out of the ballpark again. This was a really fun, fast read.”

Even terrible reviews are useful, by the way. Lest you think I only appreciate good reviews, let me explain: I appreciate anything that tells me where I went wrong. If a reader says something that’s totally bizarre, mean, insane, that’s less than nice, I generally think to myself: “How do I avoid this confusion in the future?” I’m always trying to improve my work. I know that not everyone will enjoy the plot or characters, but I can at least craft the words so that my intention is clear. I’m not out to confuse readers. Rather, I want to AMUSE readers. For me, romance novels should be an escape from the trauma of real life. That’s what I’m shooting for with every word.

Oh, by the way, look at the cool banner that I totally forgot to brag about. Evernight is awesome.

Dreaming in color. About romance novels.

I dreamed about a romance novel last night. Specifically, an old romance novel with a pink cover. The spine was cracked and the pages were yellowed. The cover was mostly pink but edged into purple. I had no idea what the book was about, I just knew that I loved it and I’d read it many times. When I woke up, I had to dig through my collection. I  found a couple of old ones that I read over and over again when I was a teenager. (Yes, mom, I stole these from you. No, you can’t have them back.)

The cover of “Dark Before the Rising Sun” (by Laurie McBain) is gorgeous. Lush pink offset with bold yellow letters and an expression of devotion on the hero’s face. I must have read this book a dozen times. Here is the hero’s perspective:

Lingeringly, Dante pressed his lips against the pale transparency of her temple while carefully smoothing back a softly waving curl. Her golden head fell backward to fit snugly in the curve of his neck and shoulder. He closed his eyes, the sound of her quiet breathing filling him. And at last he was content to sleep, knowing that she would still be lying beside him when he awoke.

Yeah, ROMANTIC. I adore these kinds of passages, filled with gorgeous tenderness and a sense of hope and devotion. I’m a total sucker for heroes that can love so passionately. This particular paragraph occurs in the first quarter of the novel. And believe it or not, the book is 518 pages. Talk about indulgence! Published in 1982. Even so, this book is not the book I dreamed about.

I dug up another:

Pink cover—check. Gorgeous chick—check. Interesting title—uh, maybe not, but who cares? “The Lion’s Lady” by Julie Garwood was published in 1988. From the back cover: “The feisty and defiant Christina has no fear of him—or any other man.” Heh. Women’s lib, baby. A lot of romances from this era and earlier had fainting heroines and appalling heroes. Lots of trauma and a total lack of self-worth in the main character. I bet I picked this one up because the chick wasn’t a wilting flower. Even now, I remember the sense of awe I felt as I read it. The woman in this novel was one of my very first super-heroine crushes. I won’t give anything away, but suffice to say, she has a crazy, CRAZY secret and skills. SKILZ. I adored this book. In fact, I might reread it.

This is also not the book I dreamed about.

It took me the better part of an hour to remember that in my dream, the book I’d been holding was one that I’d written. At least, in my dream I’d written it, and it had been printed and read and been much-loved by someone, enough to crack the spine. This, of course, is ludicrous. I don’t have a book with a pink/purple cover. My books are generally read in digital form. Everything about this dream was wrong.

Unless. . . . .

Hmmmmm. . . . . .

Could I have been dreaming about the future?

Marketing in the Dark, aka Stumbling Around on the Interwebz

I began writing romance novels in 2010. To learn about the industry I read  the blog posts, reference manuals, submission guidelines, write-a-romance self-help books,  scraps of letters left behind by famous authors, and all of them agreed on one thing: the writer needs to be her own marketer. I would have to be responsible for my own promo. Oh, sure, some publishers place a few ads here and there on websites and in Romantic Times, but for the most part, the writer is expected to take on the bulk of advertising her work.

Fine, I thought. I can do that. I’m really determined. Stubborn. Obsessed with the desire to be an author. I designed my website, filled in all the tabs and dotted the i’s. I posted my favorite quote and came up with a witty saying that encompassed what I believed to be essential to a romance novel. I envisioned my blurb rocketing across the interwebz, a viral string of characters that made readers click all my buy links.

What no one tells you is that once you’ve got a book out there, you have NO WAY TO TELL if your promo/advertising/marketing is doing any good. Why? Because for the most part you can’t track real-time sales. Siren-BookStrand has a nifty author login that lets you track sales on their site, but to my knowledge, they’re the only ones that offer this feature. (Please correct me if I’m wrong and just functioning with a lack of information.)

As far as sales go at Barnes & Noble or Amazon or any number of other distributors, the only time you find out how many copies you’ve sold is when you get your royalty statement, SIX MONTHS later. Frankly, it’s enough to make me tear my hair out with frustration. You can track sales ranking (and we do, oh we do, obsessively) but they don’t really give you a lot of information about the actual sales. I assume the publishers know the numbers. Possibly the distributors, too. But the one person who needs that information the most, the writer/amateur-marketer, does not have it.

How does one figure out how to promo their book, then? How does one know if this ad was successful or that one was? Answer: you don’t. All you can do is work on your website, make friends with other writers (for support, so you don’t lose your mind), and connect with readers in any way you can think of. This might include email, newsletters, blog posts, rain-dancing, community chants, etc. And most importantly: write. If you don’t like the act of writing for its own sake, then you’re in the wrong profession. The writing sustains me when all else fails and I’m staggering around in the dark night of the interwebz, hunting for answers.

So, dear reader, the next time you receive an email about a new book or watch an author frantically posting on Twitter, cut her a break. It’s probably because she’s desperately trying to succeed in this crazy profession against impossible odds and invisible obstacles. And someone turned the light out on her.

 

ETA: Looks like things are changing. I just stumbled across an article that says Random House launched an author portal allowing “access to comprehensive sales, royalties, and subsidiary rights information.” Awesome. Now if only Amazon and B&N would provide information about ebook sales aside from the book ranking numbers (you know, like actual sales numbers) I’d be happy.

Happy Endings

When I was a little girl I loved fairy tales and nursery rhymes and short stories. My mother had an old set of encyclopedias and each one contained a story: Rumpelstilskin, The Little Match Girl, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Little Princess, and my absolute favorite, Beauty and the Beast, among others. Now, since this was sometime in the early 70s, these stories were often brutal—no guaranteed happy endings. Every time I read The Little Match Girl, I cried bitterly, miserable that she died at the end. I didn’t care that she was finally in heaven with her grandmother. And that’s what started my love affair with happy endings. I resolved to only read books that ended well and as I grew older, my fascination with romance novels began.

Of course, I couldn’t very well adhere to that resolve completely. I would never have enjoyed Macbeth or Cry the Beloved Country if I had. Even so, most of my leisure reading was still spent on romance novels (with a little sci-fi and fantasy thrown in for variety). Most of those ended happy. I read thousands of them, loving every minute of tension between the characters because I knew, without even peeking under the back cover, that true love would win out over everything. It always did.

Recently I’ve been wondering about happy endings in real life. Why do we spend so much of our time reading romance novels, enjoying the falling-in-love, the sexual tension, and the happy ending? It’s because what’s happening in the real world is anything but happy. Life happens. We read to escape, to laugh, to remember what it feels like when you catch someone’s eyes across the room and realize: oh, I want to meet that person. In Beauty and the Beast, love conquers all.

Every romance novel is required to have a happy ending. It’s actually specified in the contract when you sign it. As an author, I find that amusing. As a reader I find it comforting and wonderful. Those novels make me happy and when I’m happy I’m a better person. The people around me notice and because happiness is contagious, my reading tends to make them happy, too. So the next time someone tells you about how awful their life is right now, hand them your favorite romance novel. Tell them it’s good for the heart.