Rom-Coms: the Good, the Bad and the Mis-categorized

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I have a love-hate relationship with rom-coms. On one hand, they are lovely and sweet and much-needed female fantasy. On the other, they drive me crazy when they are overly contrived.

During the Memorial Day weekend I caught a marathon of Gary Marshal films on Lifetime. I started watching with Pretty Woman and then The Princess Diaries 2 came on. I watched until I literally couldn’t keep my eyes open (it was past midnight). These are the movies I love. They focus on the romantic and have (at least a little) themes of female empowerment. This is certainly true in The Princess Diaries, which ends with the proclamation *SPOILER ALEERT* that Princess Mia doesn’t have to marry to rule. And although Edward is the Prince Charming of most of Pretty Woman the nearly final lines of Pretty Woman hint at gender equality in a way that was uncommon when it came out in 1990:

Edward:” What happens after the knight rescues the princess?”

Vivian: “She rescues him right back.”

Last week I was trying to listen to a rom-com on audio (it shall remain nameless) that really had the potential to be cute, but was so OVER THE TOP (yes, so much so as to deserve caps) and ridiculous, I couldn’t finish it. The main character was utterly clueless time and time again. No one is that stupid or naive. And the author completely ignored how the real world works to point of pretending certain laws don’t exist and changing basic human behavior to suit her plot needs. Ugh!

Today, I read a review in USA Today of a much-touted soon-to-be released rom-com. This quote could so easily have been applied to the book I’m referencing above: “It’s a ridiculous plot that would never happen in real life − the perfect ingredient for an inherently idealistic rom-com.” Yet they still gave the book 3.5/4 stars.

I’m trying to figure out when this requirement for the farcical in a rom-com began. I guess I could blame Shakespeare (I mean, Hero pretending to be dead in Much Ado About Nothing is pretty out there.) But the movies of the 1930s and 1940s like and It Happened One Night (1934) were witty and intelligent. Now, I realize rom-coms have always had elements that would never happen IRL, from Bringing Up Baby (1938) to What Men Want (2019). That’s what makes them female fantasy. But nowadays its like you have to ignore the laws of life in a major way to be a rom-com, such as doing things that would actually get you arrested or that borderline on psycho.

When I was thinking about it, honestly, as much as I love the movie, I blame Bridget Jones’ Diary. Bridget is the first rom-com heroine (at least that I can recall) who was clutzy (which is fine–I totally am and I like being able to relate–but it has been taken to a terrible extreme). Plus as the movie went on (not to mention in the sequels), the plots became more and more outlandish. Because that was successful, that was the formula that was followed by authors thereafter.

Last night I watched the rom-com satire movie Isn’t It Romantic. It was really, really cute and it brought up some serious issues that I have with rom-coms. The biggest is that I HATE deception, especially when it could be remedied by a simple conversation that most normal people would naturally have–or you know, by not lying in the first place. But this has become a classic defining characteristic of the rom-com. So much so that when I wrote Been Searching for You, I purposefully didn’t include it and people told me I couldn’t call it a rom-com. Even screenwriting guru Micheal Hauge lists it as a must-have for the genre.

A few other pain points for me in rom-coms:

  1. Female colleagues must be mortal enemies; there is no other way. This is so stupid and does nothing for female-kind. In Been Searching for You, I never even considered making almost-entirely female agency have work enemies. We have plenty of other enemies and frienemies in the rest of life. I honestly think this idea came from male writers of early rom-coms who couldn’t conceive of women as good for anything other than bitchy cat-fights. Then again, I work for a non-profit and not a corporation, so maybe it is different there. Regardless, we should be building one another up rather than fighting with each other.
  2. You have to have a gay stereotypical sidekick who has no life outside of the heroine’s. And this is why Annabeth has two best friends, a guy and a girl, and Miles isn’t gay (Mia is bisexual, but that has nothing to do with her role in Annabeth’s life). I can’t suffer the disrespect of an outrageously gay male best friend character. Yes, I love very gay men, but to use them in this way is just wrong. Gay men come in all types, just like straight ones, and not all of them (or even most of them) want to be your fashion consultant/cheerleader/lap dog. And even if they do, they have their own lives. How about exploring their sub-plots a little and maybe even letting us see their happily ever after? The world is ready.
  3. The person you’re supposed to be in love with has been right in front of you all along. Yes, sometimes this happens in real life, but this is certainly not the case for every woman. I don’t currently have any close male friends, but when I did, ew, no! They were like brothers to me. Ick! This also reinforces the idea men and women can’t be just platonic friends, which I think is disingenuous. Just like not everyone marries their high school sweetheart, not everyone marries the guy they work with/live door next to/get their mail from, etc. Some of us actually have to go looking.

And if this isn’t enough, until recently (I’m not sure when it changed, but I just checked and it has) the books that topped Amazon’s romantic comedy category where really erotica. I don’t know how that happened or why, but it was a thing for at least a year. Thank God it seems to have been rectified.

Yes, Amazon, these are indeed rom-coms. (Click to enlarge)

But it looks like their sponsored ads may still need some work. I kid you not, when you look Been Searching for You up on Amazon, you get these “related” sponsored books. These are what used to top the romantic comedy category and could not be further from what a rom-com really is:

And these are related to my sex-off-the-page rom-com how? (Click to enlarge.)

Anyway, all this to say I fail to understand why “it could really happen” or at least only slightly fantastic rom-coms aren’t a thing anymore. Are we that in need of escape that anything that smacks of real-life isn’t acceptable? Do we secretly like watching other women make fools of themselves? (Because let’s be honest, that’s a LOT of what the farce comes down to, even in Bridget Jones.) Or have we lost/changed our definition of romance altogether? (I could get on a 50 Shades soapbox here, but I’m really so clumsy I’d fall off of it.) It would be really interesting to hear a publisher/producer’s perspective on this issue.

I’m going to keep writing what I write (there are two more books in the Chicago Soulmates series that Been Searching for You started), and hope for the best. In the meantime, I can’t wait for The Princess Diaries 3–which might actually happen!

What are your thoughts on rom-coms, both books and movies?

The Difficulties of Prolific Writing

I wasn’t really sure where to start with this post. I knew I wanted to talk about the struggle of writing prolifically and living up to reader expectations and how unreasonable this has gotten. But I wanted to be careful not to sound angry or ungrateful. I figured the first thing I should do is figure out how many words I’ve written since I started writing seriously.

And that’s what sort of stopped me for a second. Once I got the numbers it kind of… killed something inside of me. Because it’s a lot. Especially when I tell you the time frame in which I wrote these words.

If you’ve been following along, a couple of us have mentioned the plagiarism scandal that plagued the Romance community this past month. An “author” claimed to have used a ghost writer to help her churn out books at the expected rate her readers had come to enjoy. Apparently using ghost writers to get a shit-ton of books written quickly has become a thing. Because, here’s something a lot of readers don’t know: most writers aren’t wealthy and they don’t become rich over the success of one book. Maybe not even a whole series. So the pressure to publish multiple books a year (even 1 a month) has become a real thing if you want to be financially successful as a writer. And don’t at me about doing it for art, you want multiple books a year from a writer, then the girl needs to get paid enough not to a have a day job.

If a writer makes four figures, they’re doing better than most. If a writer makes five figures, that’s considered very successful–not per year, we’re talking *ever*. But we only hear about the major names and people think they’re over-night successes (they’re not).

I started seriously writing around 2009-2010. It took me a long time to find my voice and that first book. I did what you’re supposed to do when you finish your book while you’re querying–I wrote the next. And the next. I was half-way into the third book when both my husband and I lost our day jobs and my first book hadn’t been picked up by an agent yet.

Facing unemployment is fucking terrifying. I was lucky at the time, in that, we had a little savings. Not a lot, but some. So we decided, together, that we were going to use the time to pursue our dream jobs. He began getting certified for his and I decided to self-publish my first series.

Because I already had the next two books written, I was able to release them quicker than traditional publishing would have. I spaced it out so I could finish the fourth book and give myself some time for the fifth. But I’d set that expectation of a new book every six months.

If I could go back and slap my 2011 self, I would.

Releasing five books in two and a half years was so stupid.

Some writers only write one book for their whole carrier. Others, just one series. So really, publishing five books could have been a lifetime of work. Then I started the next to build and keep the momentum of readership I was building.

To be self-published you have to do everything and it takes a lot out of you with each book. But I pushed on, because, I knew there was a chance things would really take off and explode and I’d get the readership I needed to be long-term successful. And I didn’t stop to realize I’d already accomplished more than most writers had in the past. I was supporting our household on my income. It was great.

So I kept going. And I developed a pen name so I could write racier stuff and not confuse my YA readers. But I was constantly writing. Book after book after book. Only taking a week or two off between finish a rough draft before attacking the second draft.

Then, while the book was with my editor, I was outlining the next book so when edits were done I could start all over again, right away.

There were times where I wrote a whole 80-90k word book in one fucking month.

Eventually, by April of last year, I’d written the equivalent of 24 books (under my pen name I liked to write novels and novellas and short stories so the novellas and short stories were bundled into short novels).

So in less than ten years I’d written 24 books.

I was so done. I was totally and completely burned out.

I had a trilogy I’d been working on under my pen name and didn’t have the third book written, not even outlined, and I just couldn’t do it.

I’d run out of words. Out of ideas.

So I took some time off.

I didn’t manage to start writing that last book until November of last year (thank goodness for NaNo), having outlined half of it in October. But that was six months of complete radio silence from my characters, from my muse, from anything.

And I felt terrible.

I should have felt good about the time. I should have enjoyed it. Given myself permission. But instead I worried about my career and losing readers. But to be honest, that’s something I’ve been dealing with for the last couple of years. Because I couldn’t keep up the pace of 2-4 books a year readers slipped away. Or, and this is possible too, because I was putting out too many, readers couldn’t keep up.

I honestly don’t know. Maybe both are true?

So, write like the wind until your fingers bleed and you can’t think or take your time and let the words come naturally and there are going to be groups on either side that are angry. And, couple that with KPD Select and readers wanting books to be free or at least almost free and you realize how small the royalties are going to be, so you need a catalog of books to make it financially feasible to fight this and constantly dealing with pirates stealing your work. It’s a lot of pressure.

Every time I put out a book, no matter how fast, the first thing I’d hear from at least one reader would be: WHEN’S THE NEXT ONE COMING OUT I FINISHED THE BOOK IN ONE SITTING!

Now. Yay. Thank you. But also… I can’t.

I told you I’d tell you my numbers so here they are. Since starting writing around 09-10, I’ve written the equivalent of 25 books with a total of 2,134,547 words.

Two Million One Hundred Thirty Four Thousand Five Hundred Forty Seven.

That’s an average of 213,454 words a year.

I have been dying to start working on my witchy book. I’ve been talking about it for a year. And I have no bloody idea where to start. Nothing is coming to me. The inspiration, the excitement, the drive to write it, is gone.

It’s up there with those two million+ words.

This is what happens when we put pressure on writers to hurry up, hurry up, hurry up and expect the books to cost less than a cup of coffee so authors are constantly worrying about paying bills and keeping a roof over our heads. It takes a huge toll on us. We run out of ideas. We run out of words. I am terrified right now that I’ll never write something as good as my Ash & Ruin series again. I am terrified I can’t think of a new magic system.

But, mostly, I am tired. And I know a lot of other writers are too. We write more than a life time’s worth of words in such a short amount of time and yet, it never feels like enough. It always feels like we’re falling behind.

I don’t feel like I should end this here on such a melancholy note. So, if you’re wondering what you can do to help, other than obviously buying a writer’s book(s), you can spread the word about your favorite books. We say it again and again, but reviews are so important to our success that’s why we’re always almost begging for them. Go write a review, copy it and paste it to every retail website that carries the books, yes, even if you didn’t buy it there. Every review helps and every review makes us feel a little better.

Maybe your review will be the one that gives a writer her inspiration back.

Date Last Modified

November 30th you logged into the NaNoWriMo website and verified your 50k words to win the damn thing. And it felt good, right? To see that massive word count concurred in just a few weeks. That was a great feeling, both of accomplishment and relief.

Until.

It hits you.

The book isn’t finished.

Now, if you went into NaNo with a couple tens of thousands of words, winning NaNo might’ve meant finishing your book. Or if you were writing a Middle Grade book, that sucker is probably done. But if you didn’t and if you weren’t, rest assured, that book ain’t done.

50k does not make most books, I’m sorry to say. You’d see far less writers ripping out their hair, staring dead-eyed at Twitter, and drowning in coffee if it did.

The one bad set up of NaNo is the holidays come right after. December is often a whirlwind for most folks, trying to get things done, seeing family more than ever, friends and food and stress and cold and all the things. And maybe you told yourself it was okay to take a short break after such a big accomplishment. And you told yourself that’s okay because look! You wrote so much and have far less to finish, so you can get back to it totes easy. No worries.

Then New Years comes along and you realize the date last modified on your manuscript is 11/30/18. And all those warm fuzzy feelings of accomplishment and relief are but a memory.

Trust me, kid, we’ve all been there.

But that doesn’t mean anything. It really doesn’t. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it doesn’t mean the book won’t ever get done, it doesn’t mean anything. It just means it’s time to pick back up where you left off and finish the damn thing. The good news (or maybe bad news?) is, there’s no countdown clock watching your progress now and you don’t have to do the next 50k or so words by January 30th. Of course, you now know you could, if you wanted.

So, cue up your playlist, fix yourself a nice cuppa, and put those fingers to the keys and hit your daily goal.

Now, for the rest of you. You know who you are: the ones who won your first NaNo, didn’t give up in December and finished your first draft and are so freaking ready to start querying this month.

Stop it.

Don’t.

Close that email and back away.

A first draft is never, ever ready for the slush. Do not burn bridges with agents by sending out queries premature. And if you’re going the self-publishing route, back away from KDP and BN Press and abort that upload. A first draft is not ready for that either.

When I finish a first draft I give myself a week at minimum and up to a month away from the book. I don’t look at it, I don’t print it, I don’t actively think about it (sometimes those thoughts sneak in though and usually for a good reason). Then I go back and read the whole thing from start to finish, making notes as I go, picking up on dropped plot threads, plot holes, inconsistencies, etc.

Then I make the changes I’ve noted. Or, worst case scenario, the total rewrite or massive edits.

Then I read it again. Yup, I get three drafts done before my editor or beta readers get it. And once they’re done, that means five drafts before I’ll call it finished. Sometimes more.

Your book isn’t ready. But it will be. You just can’t rush it. Rush that first draft, get that shit on the page, get it done. But now comes the work. Now comes the real book. Now comes the gold. Your work is worth the work. Do it.

Now comes the shameless self-promotion. If you’re a newbie writer and don’t have a circle of writer buddies you can go to for beta reading or content editing, I do offer both services and I do have some openings, so feel free to go to my website, have a browse, and hit me up. If you mention this post, I’ll give you 10% off!

The Road So Far

This Tuesday marks just one week until my debut novel, AMBER & DUSK, hits shelves! I couldn’t be more terrified thrilled to share this book with the world, but with that release day on the horizon I’ve been thinking a lot about the road that got me here. When I first started on this crazy journey to traditional publication, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But if there’s anything I’ve learned along the way, it’s that nothing happens over night, and the only real secret to success is perseverance. So–just in case it’s useful to any of you out there pursuing your own traditional pub deal–here’s how I got from scribbling story ideas in the margins of my college notes to seeing a real live book on shelves.

I’ve written my whole life, but it never really occurred to me that I could be a writer until near the end of undergrad. I started fiddling around with half-baked story ideas, and even wrote about 20k words on a very bad novel, but wasn’t super serious about it. The year after college, when I was living outside of D.C. and bartending 50+ hours a week while sending my resume to every non-profit in town, I bonded with my roommate at the time (erstwhile Scribe Emmie Mears) who was writing pretty seriously and beginning to send their work out to literary agents. I didn’t even know what a literary agent was, but a spark ignited inside me. What if this was something I could do, like for real? As a job? As a career?

In 2011, I moved to London where my fiancé was finishing grad school. My visa meant I wasn’t going to be able to work for at least 6 months, so I made a challenge to myself–treat writing like a job, and see if I could really do this. And so, 7 years and change from today, I started writing seriously. Buoyed by delusions of grandeur, I gleefully penned my first few short stories, and then I wrote my first novel, a deeply derivative YA fantasy set in a mythical Ireland. But it was my first novel! I had arrived! Visions of sugarplums (or more accurately, six-figure book deals) danced in my head. I sent out a deluge of query letters full of vague stakes and rhetorical questions (for a primer in how not to write a query letter, see below). I got back a corresponding torrent of form rejection letters. 

I am seeking representation for my young adult fantasy, DARKLING, complete at 88,000 words. DARKLING is Lloyd Alexander meets Holly Black, rooted at the crossroads between the contemporary world and ancient Celtic mythology.
Kyla didn’t ask for uncontrollable dark power for her 16th birthday. She got it anyway.
Orphan Kyla Quinn has built a happy, ordinary life–her biggest worry is whether the track star will ask her to prom. But when she ignores a headache in favor of a night of dancing, Kyla unwittingly awakens her hidden powers and blasts her carefully constructed normalcy to pieces. Guilt-ridden and haunted by memories of that night, Kyla spirals into a self-destructive depression.
In a last-ditch effort to save Kyla’s sanity and soul, her guardian moves them both to an Irish country retreat. In the land of her ancestors Kyla discovers that her destructive power is mysteriously linked to a fallen race of long-forgotten immortals known as the sidhe. Her very life hangs in the balance as she seeks the truth of her identity hidden deep within the myths. Will fickle warrior-prince Tam help her find the answers she needs? Or will he betray her to the shadowy figures stalking ever closer?

I had such unwarranted high expectations, and received only rejection in return. Little did I know, that would be the name of the game for the foreseeable future. I sometimes wonder–if I had known how hard the road to traditional publication would be, would I have stuck with it as I did? I like to think so, but sometimes I don’t know.

I’m still not sure what made me jump back in the saddle. But I did. I participated in my first #NaNoWriMo, and wrote the precursor for what would be my second novel, BLOOD KING, a YA urban fantasy set in London. I queried it through 2013 and early 2014, with no better results. After nearly two years of querying two different books, I hadn’t gotten so much as a partial manuscript request from an agent.

I then wrote my third novel, REVERIE, a YA genre-bender set in a futuristic world where dreams were banned. After several months of unsuccessful querying, I was fortunate enough to be accepted as an alternate in #PitchWars 2014 (the following year, they nixed alternates, so this still seems incredibly lucky to me). My pitch received positive attention, and I received my first partial and full manuscript requests. After an R&R (otherwise known as a Revise and Resubmit) that took me nearly 6 months, I finally got an offer of representation from an agent. In May 2015, I signed with my amazing agent Ginger Clark. 

It felt like such a big step forward. And it was. But despite all the times I’d told myself, “If I can just get an agent I’ll be happy,” it turned out signing with an agent was just the beginning of a new road, and not its end. After more revisions, we went on submission with REVERIE. While the feedback was positive, no one wanted to take a chance on it. We went on a second round of submission early 2016, with similar results. 

Autumn 2016, we went on submission with my fourth full length polished manuscript, AMBER & DUSK. No dice. I’ll be honest–this was the first (and hopefully last) time I seriously considered quitting writing for good. After 5+ years, four novels, countless short stories, and about a million bad words, I just didn’t think I could handle the soul-bruising stream of rejection anymore. I felt like I was pouring my heart into these books, and industry professionals either couldn’t tell or didn’t care. It was starting to hurt,and I didn’t think I could take it.

In early 2017, we got the news that Scholastic Press wanted to acquire AMBER & DUSK. I remember missing a call from my agent, then seeing a text from her that read, “GO CHECK YOUR EMAIL.” I broke out in full body shakes and had to sit on the floor for a while. But it was finally happening–my book baby was going to be on shelves! I was over the moon.

And I still am. But just like signing with an agent, publishing a book wasn’t the end of the road. In fact, I’m quickly beginning to realize it’s the very beginning of a whole different road, one that will hopefully be much longer than 7 years (albeit with a little less rejection along the way). 

I know a few authors who published the first novel they ever wrote. I even know a few who got there with their second. But nearly every other author I know with a traditional pub deal has a story very similar to mine–3, 5, 7 or even 10 trunked manuscripts and years’ and years’ worth of rejection. And on the flip side of that, the only writers I know who didn’t someday fulfill that dream are the ones who gave up. 

So carry on, my wayward sons and daughters.

Preorder your copy now!
Amazon
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Questions? Comments? Condolences for my wasted youth? The comment section is always open!

Ready for NaNo? Ten Great Writing Resources

A quick note: Yes, you’re getting a Spellbound Scribes email on Monday instead of  last Thursday. Life intervened. Sorry for the delay!

Recently a friend of mine tweeted a request for “favorite craft books”, which had me pawing through my kindle, looking for good books on writing. I came up with a couple, but her request made me realize I get as much writing-craft-related information from blogs and classes as I do from books.

*so many sources, so little time*

Since this is coming to you on 10/1/18, exactly one month before NaNoWriMo starts, I thought it might be helpful to make a post listing my favorite resources. Half of them are books, and the rest – with the exception of Margie Lawson’s classes – are blogs, so they’re free!

  1. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder – This is sort of my bible, a concise strategy for building a plot. The author is a screenwriter, and the book focuses on developing a 110-page screenplay, but the principals absolutely apply to writing fiction. I love how he pulls from familiar books and movies to illustrate his points.
  2. Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon – I need to re-read this one. And then maybe read it again. On the most basic level, Debra teaches how keep from writing scenes where nothing happens. She also – and this is where I still have trouble – gets into how to ground action in a character’s motivations. (True confessions: I’m forever solving plot problems with the equivalent of “let’s throw in a unicorn!” Yeah, that technique works about as well as you’d think.)
  3. Terrible Minds/ Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative – Here’s a one-two punch from Chuck Wendig. Terrible Minds is his blog where he addresses the issues of the day, along with occasional writing craft posts, all with a heavy helping of eff-bombs. His new book on writing craft, Damn Fine Story, does a great job of teaching how to create characters that readers will care about, along with useful thoughts about how to use story structure to draw the readers in. And without the eff-bombs.
  4. Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes – Gwen is an experienced editor, and in this book she gives an overview of how to put together a romance novel. Now, the idea might make you bristle, because romance gets bashed for being “cookbook”, but I think there can be a lot of freedom in a set structure – jump here for my post on tropes. If you want to write romance, this book is a great starting point.
  5. Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward – This is a timely, thought-provoking set of essays and exercises drawn from a workshop by the same name. (Here’s a link to their website, where you can find a list of current classes.) If your work reflects the real world, either contemporary or historic, you’ll write characters who are “other”, and it’s worthwhile to do some homework before you do.
  6. Marge Lawson Academy – Margie’s a great teacher who focuses on the “micro” end of writing – how to use words, sentences, and paragraphs to keep readers engaged and entertained. Her instructors are all experienced, accomplished writers – I especially love classes by Rhay Christou – and I’ve learned a lot from them. Margie’s Immersion retreats are well worth the money, and a whole lot of fun!
  7. Fiction University –  This blog by Janice Hardy is my go-to for writing craft questions. Seriously, you can search her site for just about any keyword – query, plot, editing, whatever – and you’ll find a bunch of posts on the subject. The posts are meaty, so you don’t waste time with stuff you don’t necessarily need.
  8. Real + Good Writing – This website and blog is a new discovery for me. Created by literary fiction writer Rachel Giesel, the site is full of good information. I especially liked her blog post Three Big Things to Know About Your Characters. I’ve signed up for her mailing list, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has to offer.
  9. Writers in the Storm – This blog is run by an accomplished group of authors and it frequently turns up on lists of the top websites for writers. They post daily, sometimes have guests, and they address a range of topics, from craft to promotion to writing life.
  10. The Fussy Librarian – I mostly Fussy Librarian mostly as a site for book promotion, but they also have a weekly email for authors and boy howdy are they awesome. Whoever’s putting the newsletter together scans the web for writing-related posts and groups them by subject: writing, law, grammer, career, marketing, and industry. This has been a fairly recent change – I think – but now they’re near the top of my “most anticipated” lists of weekly emails.

So there you have it! Are you ready for NaNo now? If you don’t see *your* favorite writing resource on the list, feel free to post it in the comments. I’m always up for learning something new…

Reflections on 19 Years and a Wild Dream Achieved

(Warning: I’m going to talk about myself in this post. A lot.)

This Saturday is a momentous day for me. Not only does it mark the publication of my sixth book, Mistress of Legend (Guinevere’s Tale Book 3), and a single-volume compendium of The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy, it is also the end of an era.

You see, 19 years ago Saturday is when I first heard Guinevere speak in my head. (Yeah, I’m one of those authors – wouldn’t have it any other way.) I tell the whole story in the Author’s Notes to Daughter of Destiny, the first book in the series, but for now suffice it to say she told me she wanted me to tell her story and that it would be unlike any written to date. I’ve always loved Arthurian legend, and Guinevere in particular, so I thought, “why not?”

That afternoon when I got home from school (I was a sophomore in college at the time), I sat down at the computer in my dad’s bedroom and began to type the words Guinevere was saying in my head: 

I am Guinevere.

I was once a queen, a lover, a wife, a mother, a priestess, and a friend. But all those roles are lost to me now; to history, I am simply a seductress, a misbegotten woman set astray by the evils of lust.

This is the image painted of me by subsequent generations, a story retold thousands of times. Yet, not one of those stories is correct. They were not there; they did not see through my eyes or feel my pain. My laughter was lost to them in the pages of history….

It goes on for a bit longer, but you get the idea. That prologue is mostly intact in the published version of Daughter of Destiny (though it was shortened a bit). I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote the first few chapters of the book (it was in the double digits for sure) as I learned to find my own voice as an author and developed a plot and style that was doing more than simply aping The Mists of Avalon (which was the book that inspired it). But somehow, Guinevere’s words remained.

(Some of you know this story, so feel free to skip down if you have heard it before.)

I never thought I would become a published author. For the next 10 years I played around with the book when I had free time from college, then grad school and my first two grownup jobs. But it was just a hobby.

Then in 2008 I started taking my writing seriously. The catalyst? Twilight. (Shut up.) By that time I was about halfway through what would become Daughter of Destiny and realized I had something worth reading on my hands. At this point, I still thought the book would be one doorstop of a volume (which is why I’m publishing the compendium). Upon researching the publishing industry, I realized it would have to be trilogy.

Fast forward another 10 years – past an agent, countless rejections (okay, I counted, it was like 40), three damn-near book deals with Big 5 publishers, self-publishing and three Book of the Year awards – and here we are, on the precipice of the final book being published. And I have to say I am very, very proud. It may have taken me two years to finish this book (much longer than I know my readers wanted to wait), but I think it was worth it.

I set out to give Guinevere back her voice and give her the fair shake I never thought she had from other authors (at least the ones I had read). In my mind, she was a full-fledged woman with hopes, dreams and desires, not the one-dimensional adulteress we usually see. In order to show that I set out to tell her whole life story, not just the part that involves Arthur. That meant dreaming up a youth for her in Daughter and imagining her heading into old age in Mistress of Legend. I feel like I’ve told the best possible story I could and did as much as possible to redeem her from the stain of sin past literature has laid upon her. 

Apparently others think so as well. I sent an ARC of Mistress to my friend and fellow author Tyler Tichelaar so he could review it on his website. He liked it so much, I ended up using the opening of the review as a blurb on the cover. But the part that brought tears to my eyes was this line: “She has given back to Guinevere, an often overlooked and derided figure, her dignity and endowed her with a true personality.” Mission accomplished.

Completing a trilogy is no small feat. There were years upon years where I wondered if I could do it and feared I could not. I remember burning with jealousy the day one of my friends completed her first series. But now all I feel is tremendous accomplishment and pride. I want to jump up and down and yell “I did it!  I did it! I did it! I did it!” 

More than that, I feel like each book on the series got better as I grew as a writer. One of my biggest fears was that my story would end up like so many other trilogies and peter out or go totally off track in the last book. (Breaking Dawn, anyone?) In fact, I feel like this is the strongest book in the series, and early reviews are indicating the same.

Now I face for the first time in nearly two decades a future without Guinevere. (Well, not totally. She’ll be one of the point of view characters in Isolde’s story whenever I get around to writing that.) I will  be forever grateful for all she as done for me. She was meant to get me started in my career, and I know she will gracefully cede the stage to the characters who come next. I just hope this trilogy is repayment enough.

PS – If you want to catch up, Daughter of Destiny and Camelot’s Queen are only $0.99 for a limited time…

PPS – For those who know of my obsession with the band Kill Hannah, the reference in the title of this blog to “a wild dream achieved” comes from their song “Believer.” 

Do Writers Have Worth Beyond Their Debut?

Are debut novels magical?
(Source: Adobe Stock)

It has long bothered me that the publishing world gives massive attention to debut authors. I know it is in keeping with they “hey look, shiny and new!” mindset of Hollywood and the world in general, but I feel like it is disingenuous to all other authors. Last weekend’s New York Times Book Review really irritated me because they devoted an ENTIRE issue to fall’s debut authors.

Oddly enough, the New York Times itself addressed the issue of the attention given to debuts in 2016. One of the contributors writes, “A debut novel is a piece of the writer’s soul in a way that subsequent books can’t ever quite be.” I don’t agree with that. Yes, the debut author was able to tinker with it without the pressures of business looming (more about this below), but I don’t think just because it is your first time doing something that means it has more of your soul. I care deeply about each one of my books, and each one is a part of me, no more or less on my sixth than on my first. If that ever changes, that is the day I need to stop publishing.

Why does the attention to debut authors bother me so much?

1) It gives the impression that only debut authors matter. Yes, we all like to know what/who is new and up-and-coming, but there is a reason wisdom comes with age and experience. Rare indeed is the author who hits it big with their first (or even first published) book. Even publishing industry insiders admit they have no idea what will hit and what won’t. From the same NY Times article: “It’s impossible to know for certain whether the top picks will become huge stars or disappointments who never fulfill their extraordinary promise.” So why to they persist in that model? Her answer boils down to (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Hey, life isn’t fair. No one said publishing was a meritocracy.”

I get that. But still, the constant trumpeting of debut authors leaves everyone else in the shadows. “Oh, this your second/fourth/seventh/twelfth book? Yeah, no one cares…Who’s the hot new debut?” is not a mindset that helps authors who may have not been struck by lightning the first time around and had to write their way into learning how to produce fantastic novels (which is 99.5% of the authors out there).

Take F. Scott Fitzgerald for example. His best-known book is undoubtedly The Great Gatsby. It was his third book. If he had been one of the chosen debut authors today, he would constantly have had to live with This Side of Paradise, his debut, as the measuring stick by which all of his other books were judged. Paradise did well, but it wasn’t a huge money-maker. By today’s standards, it may not have earned him a second book, much less that fated third.

2) It puts enormous pressure on those debut authors to succeed. If they did well enough with their books to get major media attention, chances are good they also have large advances to try to earn out, which is enough stress. And honestly, especially in the area of literary fiction, most of those highly-touted debuts were meticulously workshopped in MFA programs, which gave the authors a chance to revise, revise and revise again, something they won’t have once they are under contract. To take an example from popular fiction, look at Veronica Roth. Divergent was FANTASTIC and it was her MFA book. The next two books paled in comparison. And she was one of the lucky ones who attracted enough of a following who stuck with her.

Many of these OMG prodigies disappear after their debut or second or third book because they were either dropped by their publisher when the next book(s) didn’t do as well or they burned out from all the pressure. Harper Lee is a great example. Now, I don’t know her story well, so maybe she was only ever intending to publish one book, but it seems more like she was stifled by her own success, a theory that The Telegraph seems to espouse. “Much more common is the writer who is effectively destroyed by a single huge success. The burden of fame and acclaim weighs down particularly on the creative faculties.” Or as my mom would say, “if you start out on top, there is nowhere to go but down.” Honestly, I feel sorry for these authors.

3) It gives the impression that your first book is the only one that will matter or is the best you will deliver. I don’t know about anyone else, but my books get better with each one (if I do say so myself). That is because I learn and grow and change and expand my skill set with practice. I mean, Daughter of Destiny was good and won a lot of awards, but when I read it now, even I can see how much my writing has changed and strengthened. I am grateful I didn’t have someone presenting me as the greatest thing since sliced bread back then because I wasn’t. I’m still not. Maybe someday I will be. But one thing obscurity has done for me is allowed me to make mistakes and grow and change at my own pace.

These highly-publicized debut authors don’t have that. They will always have to measure up to the bar set by that first book. And that bar often is not set by how good the book is, but by how skilled its publicist is. If they blow a crappy book out of proportion, then the author has to hope they will do the same for the next however many it takes for their work to not be crappy. Whereas if the same debut was treated like any other book, they would only have to live up to or surpass a realistic standard.

Don’t get me wrong – some debuts are totally worth all the press. Take J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter for example. But I don’t know that I would want my debut to be considered my masterpiece. If it is, then what else is there to strive for? What is the point of the rest of your career?

I could talk to the New York Times until I’m blue in the face and they wouldn’t listen. But I think the focus on debut authors is a relic of the old model of publishing that is daily proving itself in need of an overhaul. The same writer I argued with at the opening of this blog also noted, “Sometimes it is the case that a novelist, debut or otherwise, writes a great book that doesn’t reach the right readership and fails by sales standards, which makes her less appealing to publishers next time around. That’s a dangerous model.”

It’s an irony of the industry as well because as many new authors (and several of our Spellbound Scribes) can attest, publishing houses are reluctant to take on debut authors for the simple fact that they are unknown and untested. But yet, when they do, they make a big deal out of some of them being the next big thing. I know it all has to do with making money, but it makes no sense, especially in an age when we can choose to publish our debuts ourselves.

I have no answers. I just wanted to get this out there. What are your thoughts on the subject?