Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are You Still Writing "Those Little Books?"

Interestingly enough, this question usually resurrects itself at some type of meeting, usually involving women only, and the deprecating “Those Little” refers to my bread and butter, the romance novel. Just as interesting is that this type of remark rarely occurs when the demography of the group includes men as well as women. Men, for some reason, find my choice of profession worthy and engaging. Go figure.

Because my personality tends toward the “scrappy,” my follow up includes something like this: “Did you enjoy Robert Waller’s, Bridges of Madison County, or Nicholas Sparks’, Message in a Bottle? (Not my cup of tea, but certainly popular with millions of readers and movie goers.) Have you read Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew, Pericles and Cymbeline, or The Tempest? What about Jane Austin and Charlotte Bronte? Can you claim to be educated and ignore the poetry of John Keats, George Byron, William Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold, all romances?”

This is where my misguided interrogator usually replies, “Those really aren’t romances, are they? I mean, they cover so many other areas besides romance.”

I enjoy what comes next because educate is what writers do. “Romance novels,” I explain, “are always about more than the relationship. Romance novels are meticulously researched, their plots formulated and shaped by experience and interest, travel and fact-checking. Romance writers span a wealth of professions. They are educated, sophisticated men as well as women, and their books appeal to educated, sophisticated readers.”

My own books deal with heady topics like Irish history and politics, Irish Lady, and Nell, the demise of the clan system, infantile diabetes and the possibility of DNA memory, Legacy, and Catriona, with the centuries old bias against left-handedness, (Aoife and Strongbow, a work in progress) with genetic mutation, heterochromia iridium, and witchcraft, Witch Woman, with horse racing and dressage, Irish Fire and Spellbound, with autism, The Lavender Field, with the making of wine in California, A Delicate Finish, with the French and Indian Wars in Canada, The Reckoning.

Romance, how to find it, keep it, end it, recover from it and find it again is the subject of songs, television, plays, movies, self-help books, therapy sessions and online matchmaking sites. Romance keeps us healthy and increases our life spans. We travel long distances, gather families together and spend large amounts of money to weep at our children’s weddings. We approve of new marriages, long marriages, remarriages and anniversaries, as we should. What a sorry world we would have without the possibility of new love.

Will I change the minds of women whose mindset is inclined to disparage the literary tastes of 25% of the fiction-reading population? Sometimes I do. Does it bother me when I don’t? Yes, it does. However, the good news is,  25% isn’t bad at all.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

To Live is to Embrace Change (even in publishing.)

The brand new world of publishing, online book tours, webinar seminars, the e-book explosion, editors who continue to select books for publication but no longer have time to edit, writers’ conferences where speakers are more likely to advise on promotion and website programs rather than writing strategy, the daily demise of book stores, independents as well as major chains, and the explosion of Twitter and Facebook can be downright overwhelming to the writer who would like to spend most of her taxable working hours actually writing.

It’s difficult to come away from all this technology and not feel weighted down by numbers, by competition and by the unbelievable amount of new information that can’t possibly be mastered in a lifetime. Can writers gain or regain a feeling of competence in their craft if they must constantly scramble for a foothold, if sales determine continued publication, if the general consensus is that sell through alone determines good writing? I think so. In fact, I think the technology explosion is a reaction to the merging of publishing houses and the shrinking of markets. Consider what has happened to publishing over the last decade: sloppy editing of established writers because sales were assured, book slots in high traffic areas like airports and grocery stores filled with novels written by the same eight best-selling authors thereby continuing their sales records at the expense of new authors who write equally well but have not yet established an audience thereby denying readers the pleasure of variety, readers searching for books with strong reviews only to be told they are not in stock and must be ordered from the publisher.

This new world of publishing has a great deal to offer writers. Self-published print or e-books now remain on the market longer than the typical three month period customary to a print publisher. In fact, they can remain on the market for as long as an author would like to see them there, reaping royalties at a 70% return instead of the 8% offered by major publishing houses. This is very important for the new author whose books are typically no longer available to readers who have had the book recommended to them. Promotion and its reward depends on how hard an author wants to work selling her book rather than depending on an over-worked publicist who, for reasons unknown, must spends his time working on advertising for authors who are already best-sellers. Deadlines, like the 72-hour shifts of interns, are relegated to where they belong, the dark ages. Today, a writer can spend as much time as she needs on research, phraseology, fact-checking and polishing, thereby sending her best effort out to the public.

Are publishing houses evil, out-of-date muckrakers bent on denying new talent their fair share of the pie? Of course not. A comfortable advance, manageable publicity, the security of a contract are the goals of most writers. However, reality means something different. If you’re a traditionalist like me who spent her childhood enraptured within the walls of the local library, it is unfortunate but the market has spoken. It tells  us there is more to entertainment than reading in the traditional sense and in order to do what we love, writers must adapt with the times. “To live is to embrace change.”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Hopeful Writer

            Writing, or publishing, has become more difficult over the last few years. Publishing houses have merged or disappeared altogether, e-publishing and print-on-demand have risen from the ashes, advances are low or even non-existent and fine, once-proficient, writers have gone years without a print contract. Some have migrated to smaller publishers which can be a very good thing; others have given up altogether, which is definitely not a good thing.
            And yet, I visited The Doubletree Hotel in San Diego, California last weekend and watched hundreds of hopeful writers tote laptops, book bags and conference schedules from room to room in their efforts to learn, sell and promote their manuscripts. A leap of faith? Certainly. Do many writers actually sell books at these conferences? Hardly. However, they do meet with editors and agents, mix with other writers, hear answers to their questions and quite frequently move their manuscripts past the deadly slush pile into the priority, requested-manuscript-to-be-read-relatively-quickly list.
            San Diego was nostalgic. Twenty years ago I, a fledgling writer unpublished in fiction, attended my first writing conference there. It was hosted at the university and the lodgings, a local motel, left much to be desired. Still the speakers were excellent, the information valuable, the conference organized and, as it turned out for me, invaluably worthwhile. I met the woman who would become my literary agent, although it would be six years and multiple books later before she formally represented me, as well as the two ladies who became my critique group for the next twenty years. This 2011 we celebrate two decades of meetings, moral support and personal wisdom, which brings me to this conclusion: despite the changes in publishing, writing continues to be a craft that lures interesting people, people who are attempting to step outside the box of their daily lives and do something more, people who are inspired by and desire to inspire through the medium of the written word. I was proud of those people who gave up their weekend, proud of their goals, proud to be among them.