Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

FOUR is the number of 99-cent books by Amy Jo Cousins it took to get me to buy a full-price Amy Jo Cousins book.

I rarely buy full-price books. Which maybe is not something a published writer should admit to, but the discretionary/entertainment budget is meager these days (yay, homeownership) and I’m kind of zealous about thrift even in flusher times, and also interesting-looking books go on sale often enough (plus I’m a slow enough reader) that I can usually find something cheap that I want to read.

That’s meant to be context for this anecdotal data point. I’m sure some studies must exist somewhere, of the conversion rate for people who try an author at 99 cents, but here’s my experience anyway:


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Here’s a link to a no-holds-barred negative review of a book I haven’t read, Samantha Young’s On Dublin Street.


At the risk of coming off like a heartless jerk and a shoddy member of the sisterhood of romance writers, I have to say I love this review. I’ll try to unpack why:

1. Let’s consider the basest motivation: spiteful jealousy. It’s possible that some part of me is thinking, “Ha, take that, writer whose book is way more commercially successful than any of mine!” I’m not aware of that being a factor, but it seems hubristic to claim I’m completely above that kind of pettiness, so I’ll put that out there and let it sit.

2. Writing quality: the review is articulate, well-organized, and funny as hell.

Over and over, each time there’s a bad-review kerfuffle, I’ve heard the assertion that negative reviewers are just jealous failed novelists, or, less specifically, people who engage in destruction because they’re incapable of creativity.

Hogwash. A well-argued, entertaining review–positive or negative–is a product of skill, hard work, and creative spark, and it deserves our respect. Even a single snarky zinger takes talent and inspiration to craft. (Seriously. I’m a novelist, and I put a lot of time and work into what I write, and I can guarantee you I will never come up with as substantive a contribution to our culture as Dorothy Parker’s “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force.” Or Oscar Wilde’s  “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” Or Marion Adams’s observation that Henry James “chewed more than he bit off.” [Burn! Love that one.])

3. Catharsis. This is an example of the bad-review subset that I think of as the “Emperor’s New Clothes” review. I’m sure we’ve all had the discordant experience of reading a book and thinking “This made the best-seller lists / has three hundred five-star reviews / won a RITA / is what Salon.com bloggers deem worthy of praise? Are you kidding me??” When you’re feeling out of step with the majority (or prominent) opinion, there’s a visceral relief in finding a review that emphatically confirms your own perception of reality.

And like many cathartic reviews, this one derives much of its impact from…

4. Passion + outrage. What’s wonderful about the outraged review (see also Jenny Trout’s epic chapter-by-chapter gutting of the Fifty Shades books, for example) is that the outraged reviewer cares. The subtext of the outraged review isn’t “Oh, ha ha ha, let me exercise my wit at the expense of this subpar romance novel.” It’s “Dammit, romance novels need to be better than this. I expect more from romance.” There’s no way that’s not a good thing.

Demanding readers, whether they demand competent sentence mechanics, better representation of under-represented populations, more thorough world-building, or more progressive male-female power dynamics, are crucial to the continuing growth of any genre. The readers who step up and say “Not good enough. I expect more” are the readers who push us–however uncomfortably–to do better.

Being the embattled and frequently dismissed genre that we are, we’ve gotten pretty good at making eloquent cases for the value of romance. But sometimes these arguments go a little far in generalizing and flattening out the genre. “As long as people are reading, that’s all that matters” and “Quality is subjective anyway, so it’s really just a question of personal preference” are arguments I’ve seen more than once in these discussions.

I’m not crazy about those particular arguments because they seem to preclude real critical engagement. I’d rather work from the assumption that our genre is robust enough to withstand vigorous criticism of individual works. And “vigorous criticism” isn’t always going to come out tactful or constructive. Outrage and snark have a place in the big conversation.

So does this mean I’d enjoy reading a snarky takedown of one of my own books? Heck no; I’m not that thick-skinned. What it does mean is that I don’t begrudge anyone else their enjoyment of snark directed my way, and I don’t begrudge any reviewer’s right to write it. As long as you’re not emailing it to me (please don’t email it to me), it’s easy enough for me to stay ignorant of, anyway.

A couple (or four) things more–

1. If Samantha Young did see the review linked above, I think she’d have every right to feel hurt and angered by it. Not “butthurt;” not overly indulgent of her “precious fee-fees;” not any of those other terms we employ these days to de-legitimize someone’s emotional response. Presumably she invested a lot of herself into the writing of the book; it’s only natural that it would sting to see her work emphatically trashed.

It’s not reviewer Rachel (BAVR)’s job to consider Young’s feelings, but that’s not because Young’s feelings aren’t valid–it’s because that’s just the nature of the author/reviewer divide. I don’t think we need to look for evidence that Young (or E.L. James, or whoever) is a petty or malicious or otherwise undeserving person in order to justify the harshness of the review.

As long as she doesn’t air her grievances in a way that (intentionally or not) results in her fans harassing the reviewer, then I don’t think it’s my or any other reader’s place to suggest a poorly-reviewed author “pull up her big-girl panties” or “dry her tears with her royalty statements” (if she’s at the royalty-statement level of success) or anything of that sort.

1a. I think the whole “console yourself with your royalty statements” thing is a fallacy. If you’re the kind of writer who places a lot of stock in reviews, I don’t think there’s any level of commercial success that insulates you from the sting of the bad ones. Thus I don’t buy into the idea (which is maybe more common among authors who review than among readers who review) that it’s somehow ethically better to savage a wildly successful book than one by a little-known debut author.

Besides, if the reviewer’s goal (or at least one of them) is to warn readers away from bad books, then it shouldn’t matter who the book came from.

2. Is there such a thing as a “bullying” review? I don’t think so. I have a pretty stringent definition of bullying (one day, if your luck runs out, I’ll tell you the story of what grades 6 through 8 were like for me) and I don’t think a review, which the author has the option of not reading, rises to that level.

2a. Is there such a thing as a review that’s too mean, though? Yeah, I think there is, although I haven’t yet figured out how and where I draw that line. A while back I read a post by the author Sarah Rees Brennan in which she mentioned a YA author friend of hers whose first review on Goodreads–right at the top of the review list; the first one anybody browsing her book page encountered–said simply “Why are all YA authors fat?” I don’t think that’s bullying, specifically, but I do think it’s a BS usage of a review space, and I won’t weep for free speech if Goodreads takes a “review” like that down.

Similarly, that sneering New Republic Fifty Shades slam-fest of a few months back (which was technically a review of a book about Fifty Shades) crossed the line from fiery criticism to gratuitous nastiness in its generalizations about FSOG readers and its insistence on referring to E.L. James by her private-life name rather than the name under which she writes. It’s the New Republic’s right to print something like that, but doing so made me think a lot less of them.

On the other hand, a little while after reading the New Republic article I read a brutal NY Times review of the latest Adam Sandler film and didn’t find it objectionable at all, and I’m not sure how I’d make the distinction. It’s not just that the NR piece got into personal criticism, because there were some fairly personal jabs at Sandler in the NYT review too. So I don’t know. I may just be inconsistent in my positions.

And that’s enough out of me. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts. Do you enjoy bad reviews? Do you enjoy all bad reviews, or are there some that go too far–and if the latter, where do you draw that line? Do you think Adam Sandler is funny, and people should stop picking on him? Let me know.


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I know; I was supposed to be back with a post on why I think bad reviews are valuable and worthwhile. It’s about 2/3 drafted, but I keep thinking of new things or changing my mind about existing things, and so I keep tinkering. At the moment I’m thinking of scrapping what I have and starting over.

(Advice to beginning writers: don’t be a tinkerer. Take it from me; it’s a terrible way to write.)

So I’ll jump ahead and talk about a smaller, more manageable subject: street teams.

Yesterday on Twitter, the author Lauren Dane asked what people thought of street teams, and helpfully storified the responses. There were a number that I felt some agreement with, but none that precisely articulated my own position, which goes like this:

I’m all for people feeling evangelical about a book, including any and all of my books. But the street-team model presumes that evangelical response for every book. And that’s just not how reading works. There are people who loved my first book, but didn’t care for my second. There are people who liked the first two, but were disappointed in the third. There are people who loved all three, and probably at some point in the future I’ll write something that lets them down, too.

And I’m sure most authors who use street teams are careful to say “You’re under no obligation to give a good review, or talk up a book you don’t feel enthusiastic about,” but human nature being what it is, I think it must be pretty awkward and difficult for a street-team member to accept the free books or whatever swag comes their way without doing some promo in exchange. I can all-too-easily imagine a street-teamer thinking, “Well, I didn’t love it, but it won’t kill me to talk it up a little.” Or even worrying, outright, that she might be dropped from the team, or might incur the wrath of other team members, if she decides to sit out a particular book’s promo blitz. (The wrath of street-teamers is no joke, as a number of review kerfuffles have now shown us.)

So even in its most benign form, with an author who actively discourages attacking reviewers and who articulates a no-obligation policy, I feel there’s just too much built-in motive for artificial enthusiasm. And that’s not what I want, as an author, as a reader, or as someone who cares about the integrity of our genre and of books in general.

(Steel-trap-memoried readers will recall that I gnashed my teeth some about promotion and integrity last summer, when a number of generous authors offered to promote A Woman Entangled–which at the time of the offer none of them had yet read–for me while I was laid low by my father’s very recent death. The question of how to balance one’s wish for commercial success with one’s concepts of integrity is a kind of rabbit hole down which a writer can spend an awful lot of time, it turns out.)


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Here’s what happened.

Two days after my father died, and six days before the release of A Woman Entangled, I had an email from author Anna Cowan. She’d been thinking about me, she said, and thinking about the fact that I had a book coming out and probably no time, energy, or heart to promote it.

Actually she’d been doing more than thinking. She’d reached out to some other authors, and, if it was okay with me, they wanted to shoulder the promo of this book for me. They’d already coordinated, among themselves, a schedule of blog posts and giveaways. But they wouldn’t go ahead with the plan unless I was comfortable with it.

I wasn’t, at first. I couldn’t help feeling like I’d be taking advantage of my father’s death, or at least profiting from it, by accepting this promotion that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It felt unclean.

Besides, at that time none of the authors in question had read A Woman Entangled. And I was uneasy with the idea of them plugging a book that, once they’d read it, they might not even like. I’m a book-buying reader as well as a writer, and when a writer plugs someone else’s book to me, I want it to be because they read and loved that book. Not because they’re friendly with the author, or feel for her on account of the difficult life chapter she’s currently going through, or even because they liked her previous books and think there’s a good chance they’ll like this one too. I want my word to mean something, when I recommend a book, and I want other writers’ words to mean something too.

So I wrote back to Anna, thanked her for her kindness, explained some of my reservations, and said I needed to think about it.

And I thought about it. And one of the things I couldn’t help thinking was that I’m not the only person with a stake in A Woman Entangled‘s launch. A whole team at Random House, from editor to copyeditor to cover designer to marketers to the person who put together the book trailer, had invested time, creativity, and money in making this book a success. Surely they, and their investment, needed to go into the balance scale along with my nice thoughts about principle and integrity.

Maybe more to the point, after I sent the email to Anna, I didn’t feel like a person of principle and integrity. I felt like an ungracious jerk. Here were these authors, all with careers and deadlines and promo of their own to manage, carving out time to help me, stepping up to lessen my burden in what way they could, as humans have done for one another since at least the invention of the funerary casserole. Shouldn’t my answer be, “Yes, thank you so much?” Shouldn’t I trust these people to decide for themselves whether they wanted to plug my book (and to be capable of staging a giveaway that doesn’t come with an outright recommendation, in the event they don’t like the book)?

So I wrote back to Anna and said Yes, thank you very much; you’re absolutely right that I’m in no shape to promote a romance novel right now and I’d welcome your help.

This explains the links in the box at the top right of my blog. These are the authors whose kindness I decided to accept. Thanks to them, I’ve been able to spend time being sad with my family these past couple weeks, without feeling like I’m leaving my publisher altogether in the lurch.

Principle and integrity or no principle and integrity, I’m deeply grateful.


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Do you all read Anna Cowan’s blog? She’s a soon-to-be-published (spring of 2013) Australian romance writer who grapples wonderfully with all kinds of meaty issues on her blog. (I’m working on a year-end list of favorite 2012 Romancelandia blog posts, and having trouble deciding which of hers to include.)

Anyway she’s currently hosting a series of guest posts from writers, bloggers, and readers whose thoughts interest her. She invited me to do a guest post, and I did.

I’ve talked to Anna over email about how I use “Go big or go home” as a mantra for prodding myself out onto a limb when writing sex scenes, and writing this post was definitely a GBoGH moment.

In other news, lots of people are coming out with year-end Best Books lists, and there’s been a lot of gratifying love for both Lady and Gentleman. When a few other things have slowed down, I’ll post links.

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(*I hate it when stories I like turn out to be apocryphal. Legend has it that Winston Churchill, in response to an editor who corrected his ending sentences with a preposition, scrawled on the manuscript:  “That is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”  No documentation exists, though, and it’s a pretty good bet it never happened.)

1) The blog has been silent for quite a while, I know. I’ve been in head-down writing mode. I’d always sort of shaken my head and pursed my lips when I heard writers talk about being too busy to read, but I’m off that high horse now. I have not read a full-length book for over a month. I wish, wish, wish I were able to write faster. I don’t believe prolific-ness (prolificity?) is necessarily a good measure of success, and I do think there’s such a thing as oversaturating the market with your stuff, but I’m still slower than what I’d like to be.

2) I went to Paris in September. It was a wonderful Trip of a Lifetime thing, starring my mom, who’d never been off the North American continent before, and co-starring my sister, my brother, and me. Mom is artsy beyond any of our ability to keep up, so we divided up the museum shifts, and she and I spent an excellent, not-long-enough day in the Louvre.

I did some writing in Paris, so now I can say I’ve been to Paris and written there. Mostly I wrote in a minuscule office in the flat we rented, but one day I walked up to the oldest library in Paris, the Bibliotheque Mazarine, and wrote for a little while there.

Exterior of the Bibliotheque Mazarine

Bibliotheque Mazarine. You have to stop at the office to get a visitor’s pass, for which you leave your driver’s license or other ID.

You’re not allowed to take pictures in the reading room, but here’s a picture on a Wikipedia page.

Okay, stuff coming up:

1) This weekend I’ll be at the Emerald City Writers’ Conference, which is the annual conference put on by the Seattle chapter of RWA, in cosmopolitan Bellevue, Washington. In fact I should be packing right now instead of writing this, as the first workshop starts in just over an hour.

If you happen to be at the conference, there are two formal chances to encounter me:

  • Saturday I’ll be signing at the Book Fair, 4:30 – 6:00 on the 3rd floor of the Bellevue Westin Hotel. Actually this is open to the public, so even if you’re not attending the conference, if you happen to be near Bellevue then stop by! Lots of more-famous-than-I authors will be there, too. Oh, and I’ll have candy.
  • Sunday morning I’ll be on the annual “Chapter members who became published authors in 2012” panel, AKA “How Did They Do That?” It’s at 8:00 a.m., so I’m expecting kind of a sparse turnout, but we’ll do our best to make it worth your while. I’ll give away books, and try to have edifying advice.

Also, if you’re at the conference and just see me around, please say hi.

2) Author Susanna Fraser is going to be stopping by the blog on November 20 to talk about her upcoming release, An Infamous Marriage and to give away a copy. If you’re a fan of trad-flavored Regencies with a military emphasis, authored by someone who really knows her stuff, then you should be reading Fraser. And if, like me, you’re a fan of love stories that get off to the worst possible start, then you definitely need to read An Infamous Marriage.

Okay, I’m going to pack now. Will try to send updates from the conference!

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I’m visiting with Melanie at the Bookworm2Bookworm blog today, talking about deleted scenes. I share a scene I cut from A Gentleman Undone, and talk a bit about the decision to cut it.

Also, I’m giving away a copy of the book. Stop by and leave a comment for a chance to win!

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I’ve put up a deleted scene from A Gentleman Undone on my website. It makes me cringe a tiny bit, but there are things in it I like, too.

That’s all I’ll say. You can read it and see what you think.

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I’m at the Romance at Random blog today, talking about how a person who grows up without reading romance novels can wind up writing them.

There may be some mention of Shakespeare.

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I won’t lie: the Literary Lions gala was every bit as draining as I expected it to be. I was the only romance author there (there were a couple of formerly-romance-now-women’s-fiction authors, but I was the lone representative of straight-up R), and it was not a big romance-reading crowd.

However this just made it all the sweeter when people did buy my book. Which some people did, thank goodness. There were a few who bought it for a friend or relative who reads romance, and some who said, “I don’t usually read romance, but I think it’s great that you’re being included, so I’m going to buy your book.” And then there was Sarah, bless her soul, who had commented on my earlier, dreading-this-whole-event post to say she was going to be there, she loved romance, and she was buying my book.

(Seriously, that was the high point of the night for me. Meeting a romance reader in a sea of non-romance-readers felt like meeting someone from your hometown in a foreign land where nobody speaks your language.)

I met Lee Child, who just oozes charm and graciousness, and who gave a particularly resonant keynote speech. (He, too, came to writing late in life, but grew up as a voracious reader. He told a funny story about his family’s library addiction: their local branch had a limit on how many books you could have out at one time, so whenever they had a houseguest they’d make that person go get a library card; then they’d keep the card so they could check out extra books under the houseguest’s identity.)

At the signing I sat by Elizabeth George (author of the Inspector Lynley books); at the dinner I sat by Kristin Hannah, who used to write romance for Random House before switching to women’s fic. I was slightly starstruck but hopefully didn’t babble too much.

I also saw some gorgeous book covers that made me a little sad about the sameness of romance covers. I mean, obviously there are built-in limits because you want the book to be immediately identifiable as a romance, but when you see, for example, the diversity of what appears on nonfiction covers, it really sort of pounds home the nondiversity of the covers in our genre.

For instance, on the non-Elizabeth-George side of me was garden blogger/radio commentator/debut author Willi Galloway, whose book looks like this:

Book cover: Grow Cook Eat, by Willi Galloway

And down the table from me was a guy who’d written a natural history/cultural history of feathers(! I’m always impressed by the things nonfiction writers think of writing about), and his book looks like this:

Book cover: Feathers, by Thor Hanson

Here’s what’s even cooler about this: what you’re looking at is the spine + front cover. See that fine line that cuts through the “FEATHERS” letters? That’s actually the fold between spine & front. So the front cover, alone, looks like this:

"Feathers," front cover alone

Isn’t that just so striking and awesome? You know, I was thrilled when I got the cover for A Lady Awakened, but I bet *Thor Hanson was turning cartwheels the first time he saw this.

So anyway, the dinner was good (though I made the mistake of sitting down at one of the places with the yellow dessert instead of the chocolate dessert), I got to see a lot of people in fancy clothes, and it was just an all-around honor to have been included. And I hope it will be many months before I put on heels again :)

*FYI in case you ever meet him, the first name is pronounced “Tor.”

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