As creative professionals living in a chaotic world, we can feel a lot of pressure to complete every project, accept every opportunity, and allow our personal and professional lives to cross over more than they should. Today, I’m telling you that I can’t do it all.
I’ve been running this blog for a very long time. It’s a special place for me, a way to share my experiences and lessons on writing, books, the industry and the world at large. It’s come with me from Boston to New Jersey to Nashville, and I’m grateful to each and every single one of you who came along for the right. But right now, my journey is taking a little bit of a different direction.
As of August 31st, I’ll be starting a graduate degree track through the Harvard Extension School in the field of environmental sustainability. My intention is to marry my background in journalism and communication with a new science discipline and go into environmental reporting with a focus on intersectional feminism. It’s a lot. And while I couldn’t be more excited about this new path or grateful to those who have been supporting me as I make these big choices, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous too.
So I’m taking these few weeks before school starts to find some balance and to reduce the amount of responsibilities that call my attention away from my current goals. As it is, I will still be working as a full time freelancer, running a startup company, and keeping up with the demands of two author names. A lesson I often preach and do not follow myself—balance is key.
At this time, the hours I spent writing will be more valuable in my current creative projects and for school, when it begins. So I’m not saying good-bye. I’m saying au revoir. I’m saying I’ll be back on here sometimes, when I can and when it’s appropriate, but I won’t be spending as much time talking about writing. For now, my focus really needs to be on doing it.
I hope you won’t think me overly forward if I leave you with these writing lessons I’ve learned in my time as an author, journalist, and freelancer.
Truly, it’s been a pleasure running this blog as long as I have and I do look forward to the day when regular updates are able to be a priority for me. What I hope you’ll take away is that you’re all at the right place in your creative journey for this moment in time—and that I’m so grateful to you for reading my thoughts and hearing my experiences over these years. A few parting lessons for the road.
Your career is entirely your own. Don’t waste time by comparing it to other people.
Writing is a business. A creative business, but treat it like a business and you’ll find professional success.
A good editor is worth her weight in gold. Treat her well and never let her go.
Reading is as essential to writing as putting words to the page.
The first draft doesn’t need to be good. It just needs to be done.
And the last one, the one I’m taking to heart now as I begin this exciting new journey—you never know where writing will take you. Be open to new opportunities, embrace your passions, and don’t be afraid to take risks. Give yourself something to write about.
Cheers to the next amazing step in the journey and all the love in art and words.
I recently finished the novel Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, the story of Achilles’s and Patrocles’s eternal love that ultimately led to the end of the Trojan War. The story is brilliant, beautiful and incredibly told and when I was planning the next creative writing course for my students, it only made sense to bring up the great myths and legends of history.
Every society, civilization, and family has its own mythos. Some are grand–the story of Hercules’ Twelve Labors, Arthur pulling the sword from the lake. Some are important for their simplicity, a family tale that has evolved over generations, the memories attached to an item, a story of two people meeting in time.
Whether we write fantasy, folklore, paranormal stories or contemporary books set in the modern day, we will use the same devices and themes found in mythology, legend, and lore in our writing, albeit in different ways.
“A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence.” ― Rollo May
“Tell me, O muse, of travelers far and wide.” – Homer
Myths, legends, and folklore are used to explain the inexplicable, to provide reason and understanding to a world that offers very little reason and even less understanding and, to ultimately create a collective belief system by which a society operates. By definition, they are widely-held and false beliefs, traditional stories that often focus on earlier eras and are used to offer an explanation for social or natural events. They typically involve the supernatural.
Left from the definition, but something I’ve come across countless times in my own research and reading is that myths are often a telling of the danger of man’s own hubris. It is human fallibility that leads to death and destruction, though the Gods are often just as responsible.
We tell myths as a way of understanding things we cannot understand – the Plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament for example. Of course, the ancient people would have wanted for a celestial explanation for why the rivers ran red with blood and why their children died en masse. Today, we know that the red-clay mud of the banks turned the flooding waters into a stark and dramatic sight and that the epidemics of boils, dust storms and insects led to a high infant mortality rate. Science has a way of undermining many of the myths of olden times.
In addition to explaining, myths have been used to both entertain and caution. The printing was invented in the 1500s. Before which, very few written works existed and almost all of them were religious in nature. The average person could not read and oral histories and stories abounded.
Too, stories like Aesop’s Fables and tales of the Faerie Folk offered warning–don’t fall prey to your own ego. Don’t go too close to the faerie circles.
Myths of the times were used to share socially accepted ideas and beliefs, often part of the religious lore and ever-changing. In fact, what I believed to be Achille’s Origin Myth–the dipping of Achilles into the River Styx by the ankle, thus leaving him with a sole vulnerability for which the idiom ‘Achilles Heel’ would originate, was actually introduced nearly nine centuries after the Iliad is believed to have been told. Within their own chronology and lore, myths and legends change time and again.
So how do we write our own myths and legends for our own modern, historical, fantastical and realistic stories?
Look for the reason why.
Why do leopards have spots?
Why are the moons and tides connected?
Why does lightning appear before thunder?
Why don’t we walk down Old Smith Road?
Why does my family keep a pot of coffee in the windowsill no one is allowed to use?
By the end of the myth you should be able to answer two questions:
What have we learned?
How has the hero changed?
Your hero may or may not look like Hercules or King Arthur. Your story may or may not include vampires, unicorns and dragons, Your tale tales may bear no resemblance to those told around the fire by traveling bards. They are still myths and legends, and lore.
Consider Jung’s archetypes as you approach your story.
The Orphan/ Regular Person
Every great story ever told has a hero. Look at your favorite novels and find these characters – Harry Potter, Aslan the Lion, Han Solo, the character of Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy. Think of them, not as stereotypes or cliches, but the moving pieces of a puzzle that, when you find the best way to fit them together, creating a lasting and eternal mythos.
Whether we write contemporary fiction, fantasy, folklore or anything in between, we are creating a pantheon of gods, heroes, antagonists, villains and victors of our own.
These myths become the greatest living history of times before our own. They record, in sense, the most fundamental elements of life that we will never experience first hand. If you want to know what a society valued, you need only look to the things they feared, the heroes they worshipped and the questions they answered.
What do the societies in your stories value? To answer truly, you must write their myths.
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Okay, moving into a new apartment has been great! There are a million things I love about Nashville and my partner and I finally have the chance to be on our own. No complaints at all about living here!
I’m like, way closer to the kitchen.
Here’s the thing. When I was living with my folks (my partner, my brother, my grandmother and our menagerie…) the house was big. We’re talking early 20th-century New York City elite big. (Literally. Our home was built as a summer house, meaning it was cold af in the winter, but I digress…) Snacking was intentional. I avoided keeping treats in the room, so I would have to head down a flight of stairs and commit to finding something to indulge in. Given that my dad and brother have both struggled with their weight and my mom is a health food nut, the options were usually limited, so it was hardly worth the venture.
Nah. That’s not to say we’ve gone crazy. I cook all the time. Recently, I made oat cups for breakfast and froze them, so now we can have delicious berry goodness every morning. I bake, but it’s still homemade, fresh and full of fruit (eg: the peach cobbler we devoured in two days). We have tons of fruits and veggies in the fridge and freezer, we usually buy wraps and turkey instead of bread and beef, etc., onward and upward. So yes, it could be worse.
But… I’m still about eight feet away from the snack cabinet as I write this. And I don’t need much of an excuse to snack. Stressed? Snack. Tired? Snack. Proud? Snack. Everything deserves a snack. For the most part, I can mitigate some of the damage by enjoying fresh blueberries or raisins or even a piece of turkey, which will at least fill me up. But when I do go crazy in the snack cabinet, here are my top favorites.
Peanut butter chocolate cups from Trader Joe’s
They’re so much better than Reese’s cups because the peanut butter has been melted and probably has a ton more butter in it and the chocolate is obviously higher quality. You don’t actually need to eat too many, but damn, they’re delicious.
These SOBs convince you they’re health food and it’s okay to eat two bags in a row because vegetables, right? No. Not vegetables. Not when they’re covered in enough salt to compete against the dead sea, but they’re SO GOOD.
Starbucks caramel coffees
I discovered these babies when we went to Orlando for the RWA conference a few years back. My partner is well-versed in the Disney experience and we stocked up on a ton of food before we left, which was a great idea because an iced coffee ending up being literally five dollars, so no thanks. These things are great though! They’re uber yummy and give me a (highly caloric) jolt in the middle of the day with no more effort than pouring a glass of water. If you’re going camping or adventuring, I do recommend.
Like, I know they’re not the best cracker in the world, but sometimes you just want a good old-fashioned savory crunch and they always show up. As one of the littles I used to nanny would always ask for, cracker stackers (cheese and crackers…) are a comfort food unlike any other.
Ice cream with bits in it
No, we don’t keep our ice cream in the snack closet, but the fridge is only another three feet the left. I love ice cream. I’m a baker by passion, but if I could only eat one dessert for the rest of my life, it would be ice cream. Ice cream with cookies. Ice cream with candies. Ice cream with peanut butter or chocolate fudge or whatever. I’m a major ice cream sucker.
So that’s what drives the creative soul. And right now, that’s what drives the creative soul into the kitchen, because all this talk of snacks has made me hungry…
Alright, I’m sorry I made that terrible title a thing. I love puns more than is advisable. This atrocity is in reference to my characters’ relationships with the cars they drive, or would drive, had they been invented yet.
I’m a dyed in the wool classic car enthusiast. By day, I work as an automotive journalist for my automotive startup company. We have been a car family long before I arrived, and I happily plan to pass that legacy on. There are many reasons to love cars, and I won’t go into all of them right now, but I see cars as witnesses to history, as the markers of political, social, economic and creative moments. They mark the changing of decades, ideology and consumer behavior. There is much we can learn about the way the world worked by looking at the cars of the past eras and who owned them.
The same can be said of characters. I have been in and around the business long enough to become familiar with the certain types that own the certain cars. (And the ones they wished they owned – often an equally, if not more telling detail.) Classic car owners run the gamut, from foreign sport car experts to the Volkswagen bug collector.
There are drivers and owners by country of origin, performance, style, or brand. Often, what a person values most – design, model, horsepower, papers, is a very noteworthy detail of their personality that they might not even realized they shared. As a fiction writer, working to develop fully rounded characters with quirks and personality traits that may never actually make it to the page, I find the question of what their favorite car might be, just as important as their favorite movie, book or sport. Perhaps more.
Because, as a car enthusiast, I see cars as extensions of who we are. There is something so fitting about an ex-Navy SEAL driving around in a big, black pickup truck. That fits the picture.
But if the big, hulking military man is caught in a Prius, it tells a different story, opens a different chapter into that character’s life – why does he care about the environment? Is the car even his? Did he buy it because of the gas mileage or the green impact? If I changed the SEAL’s car to a vintage Camaro, say a 1969 (cough, the car I want to own, cough)… that opens an entirely new set of questions. Can he work on the car himself? Who taught him? Did he bond with his father over countless hours in the garage?
Peeking, even just a little, into the garages of the characters I’m writing gives me an incredible amount of insight, as well as combining two of my passions. We don’t always analyze or understand why we pick and own the cars we do, but they matter nonetheless.
For instance, if a heroine is driving a Camry, we can make assumptions about her lifestyle – she’s stable, safe, practical. Or, she’s broke, depending on how old the car is. If a heroine is driving to her practical, upscale, professional job as a lawyer, but she’s doing it in a GTO, there’s a story there, a contrasting that might give the character more color.
The cars I’ve owned and driven in the past didn’t necessarily represent me, but when working with fiction I have a little more leeway. Would my CEO be a BMW driver, God I hope not – Businessmen who drive BMWs, on the whole, tend to walk with their noses in the air to better deal with the stick up their butts. Crude, but you’ve met a guy or two who does that. It’s almost like a whole other species. But say he drives a modern Alfa Romeo, right. It’s still European, still a little posh and upscale, definitely still powerful. But this CEO is attracted to the curve of the car, to the way the design gives the car a sensation of perpetual motion, even when it is parked. What makes a man value the styling of an expensive purchase, over the panache of another name brand?
Coming from different backgrounds and different expertises, I’m sure all writers have their own character interview questions. Where mine might be can this character change the oil in their own car, another writer might ask if their character can cook from scratch or what subject they teach in school. Cars speak to me, just as writing does. Combining the two provides insight and important details into the characters I’m writing and, ultimately, the story I’m telling. Cars may not play a large role in those stories, at least not on the main stage, but I’m back in the wings, and I know that my understanding of my main characters is all the better for asking these questions.
After all, you never know when a Green Beret might drive up to a compound in his 1959 pink Cadillac convertible, and then you’re going to have some explaining to do…
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I tried to pick just one Juliet Marillier quote, I really did.
But as I scanned pages of her quotes, from books I’ve read and reread, stories that have stayed with me through the easy times and the hard, I found the task impossible. How could I narrow down a writer that has so fundamentally changed my life? How can I pick just a handful of words from stories unfolding through my own years, witness to my own heartbreaks and victories, my own difficult journeys mirrored upon her pages, my own coming of age, coming of life?
From the wilds of the Faroe Islands, to the rolling countrysides of Ancient Erin, Juliet’s tales have taken the fantastical and made it human, taken the human and made it fantastical.
But throughout her many tales, and she truly is a prolific, wild storyteller, certain themes rise to the fore time and again:
“We cannot know the future. All we can do is face it bravely. We should take heed of those we love and respect. But in the end, we make every decision alone.” (Seer of Sevenwaters)
We are the heroes of our own stories.
“Our family has survived a long time. We’ve weathered battles and transformations, enchantments and floods and fires. We’ve endured being sent away, and we’ve coped with evildoers in our midst. If I were telling a story of Sevenwaters – and it would be a grand epic told over all the nights of a long winter – I would surely end it with a triumph. (Flame of Sevenwaters)
“He and I…we share a bond. Not love, exactly. It goes beyond that. He is mine as surely as sun follows moon across the sky. Mine before ever I knew he existed. Mine until death and beyond.” (Son of Shadows)
Love conquers all.
“It seemed to me it would be better to die standing up to a tyrant than to survive as a tool of his will.” (Shadowfell)
Strength can come in many forms.
Juliet’s stories, for my mother, another lifelong convert, and I have long referred to her as Juliet, a friend, a witness to life’s lessons and foibles and successes, tells historical, folklore stories. But she also tells the stories of life, of falling in love, of sacrifice and the heartbreak we endure by opening ourselves to our families and our lovers. She speaks of good and evil, and the shades of grey that may turn an antagonist into a protagonist and hero into a villain.
Her stories may revolve around ancient tales, British, Irish, Norse, but that is because these stories, of first loves and last, of a mother’s love for her child, of a heart broken, but still beating, these are forever stories. These are anywhere stories.
Through all her words and all her pages, and I have laughed and cried through each of the many, many books she has written in my library, I have learned. I have learned about the strength of family and the strength of self. I have understood that heroes might wield swords or knitting needles, I have been taught that we do not know our own power until those we love are threatened.
Though I read my first Juliet tale on a plane from Boston to Amsterdam in the dead of winter over half a decade ago – I cried, if you were curious – I will continue to be changed, to be better, because of her words, and the messages she has shared with me. I hope we are all so lucky, readers and writers alike, to find a Juliet on our bookshelves.
“I saw that in him she had found her sun and moon, her stars and her dreams.”
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I don’t do it on purpose. I don’t sit down at the computer and say ‘hmm, what’s the important message of the day and how can I squeeze it into chapter three?” It doesn’t work that way, at least not for me.
The themes and lessons so to speak, that show up in my books—that I followed when I was working as a full-time childcare professional—are more a reflection of my own deep and fundamental values, things that I feel are important, beliefs that I have that I need my characters to share. These themes vary from book to book, but here are a few that show up time and again, the life lessons that I subconsciously put into my writing because they’re so important to me I don’t even have to think about them.
Value Yourself and Surround Yourself With People Who Value You:This is a pretty solid theme of most romance, but that’s because it’s important. Many of my stories involve heroines or heroes grappling with an unfaithful ex-lover. Though their friends and family tell them they’re worth more, these characters must come to terms with their own value before they can move on to find new and lasting love.
Go at Your Own Pace: I’m at the point in my life when many of my friends and acquaintances are getting married and having children. To me, it’s still too early.
Listening to all the voices that tell you what you’re supposed to do and the way you’re supposed to behave is a surefire way to be unhappy. My heroines often learn how to do things at the rate that they want to do them at, and not because that’s what’s expected of them.
Trust Your Intuition: Our little sensors, the ones that make our guts clench or shoulders tighten, they’re there for a reason, reminders of an ancient time when survival was only a matter of the physical and not the emotional or spiritual.
It’s not always easy to do that thing your instinct is telling you, but eventually, my heroines learn to trust their guts and—far more important—themselves. We very often listen to everyone around us, when we’re the experts on our own lives.
Be Your True Self: In the first book in my Triple Diamond series, The Lovin’ Is Easy, my heroine Madison thinks she’s in her dream job, and can’t fathom the idea of leaving it. But when her circumstances begin to change, she realizes that maybe she isn’t being honest with herself and when she finally faces that difficult truth, happiness isn’t far behind. It could be a career choice, like Madison, a sexual desire, like Isabelle in my coming re-release, Seduction En Pointe, a relationship change or any matter of things, but listening to that voice, though not always easy, is fundamental.
We Change and That’s Okay: In one of my stories, two characters reconnect after ten years and are, obviously, very much changed from the children they had once been. It is so important to acknowledge that things we like and the people are will evolve and grow and change and that’s just a part of life and trying to fight it will make you miserable. Instead, enjoy the ride and have fun re-meeting yourself along the way.
None of these are brand new ideas. I’ve learned them from my own experiences and from the books that I’ve read and movies I’ve seen and the lives of the people I love.
But whether romance or mystery, fiction or horror, they are themes that guide our lives. And romance is, at its core, a people, character-driven genre. It only makes sense that lessons in the books are life-learned. We are, after, just human. ♦
An MFRW Author Post — and check out the other blogs on the hop!
I make a concerted effort to broaden my range of romance novels, but it seems I keep finding myself back in the age of corsets, rakes, and scandal, in or around the Regency era. For many reasons, I love the Regency books, as both a reader and a writer. Scandalous behavior is far easier to come by, and the marriage of convenience/necessity/ruined reputation is a trope of which I will never grow tired. But there is another, even more delightful element that comes along with the historical romance novels – beauty.
Of course, romance novels are a delightful escape. For that reasons our heroines only have bad hair days when it suits the plot, and our heroes are disheveled, not because they slept through their alarm, but because they don’t give a hang for the strictures of society, or some such. Otherwise, curly hair remains in perfect ringlets, (as someone with wavy, oft frizzy-hair, I don’t buy that they’re living in England without conditioner, but I digress,) their fingers are slender, and the slope of their necks is positively enchanting. Yes, yes. It’s true, we enjoy a delightfully fuzzy version of beauty. (For heroines, at least. Our heroes are supposed to be as rock hard as they come.)
But if you add these fuzzed edges to the standards of beauty from two hundred years ago, the average reader can begin to feel rather confident that they, too, would have been the toast of the London season.
I’ll use myself an example – I’m pretty darn short, and on short girls a little more curve is entirely obvious. I exercise several times a week and do yoga, Zumba, jogging, and the like, but I simply don’t have a body type anyone would ever refer to as slender. Mainly, that means I can’t wear button down shirts, and if the skirt looks like it will be too short on me, my hips and rear will guarantee the truth of it. All in all, I love my body. I love my curves and my breasts, (though they often land me in trouble,) and I don’t make a habit of comparing myself to other body types.
But every once in a while, there will be a day when I feel a little squishier than normal. It’s a feeling we all know and it happens to everyone.
On these days, I call myself fleshy.
On these days, I think about the way I would write myself as a Duchess, (if we’re fantasizing, we might as well go all the way, right?) Duchess heroines aren’t referred to as squishy, writer me tells human me. Duchesses are curvy, with breasts barely hidden behind teasing corsets, and waists a man would long to run his hands over. Duchesses do not shield themselves from the gaze of their lover, they languidly stretch in the glow from the fire, as their estranged husband struggles for control over his surging loins.
I am often kinder to my characters than myself.
So now, I make an effort to reclaim the words that were meant to be disparaging, as I glimpsed my after dinner reflection, and I turn them on their head. I am fleshy because fleshy is delightful, sensual, all the more delicious for the more that it provides.
It applies to all body types. In the instance of Helene Holland, The Countess Godwin, in Eloisa James’ Your Wicked Ways, she considers herself stick-like. She is too thin, her cheekbones are too pronounced, she likely appears malnourished at points. And yet, by the end of the novel we feel as beautiful as Helene does, and all separate from the attention of her husband.
For this reason, romance novels have an even greater responsibility to include a wide range of body types and diversity. If the goal of escapist fiction is to blur the lines, so that the average reader may place herself in the heroine’s shoes, (and also so that we do not consider the general smell, state of women’s rights, or role of leeches in medicine,) why not push it one step further?
We are comfortable in the heroine’s body – thin, curvy, short, dark, pale, spectacled – why not allow ourselves to be comfortable in our own? If we are willing to see these character imperfections are not imperfections at all, but the very things that make us beautiful, we are equally as capable of applying the logic to our own selves. We must be as kind to ourselves as we are to the characters in our favorite novels.
There should be no character we love, or accept, more than our own selves. We are the heroines in our novels, after all. Think about how you might be written.
An MFRW Post – and check out the other blogs on the hop!
“I impaled my friend’s ex-husband on a fence post during a tornado,” Beverly Jenkins tells us. “He doesn’t know. He’s still walking around living and breathing like he hasn’t been dead and buried.”
The year is 2016 and keynote speaker Beverly Jenkins is telling the RWA audience that there is nothing wrong with putting real people in your books. And while the journalist in me must confess that the quote may not be exact, her point was made. Writing about people, in the roles of heroes, villains, sisters, brothers, neighbors, and teachers is not only allowed, but encouraged.
That’s not to say I’ve put my second-grade teacher or first boss or middle school crush into any of my stories, not exactly. While there are certainly exceptions, most of my ‘real-world’ characters become amalgams of the people I know, faces and personalities, verbal ticks, cute quirks, blending together to create a real person, a vision based on real people, a version of a real person that doesn’t exist in the real world.
The obvious examples that go counter to this are ones where heroes are based on real-life heroes, mostly celebrities. But I don’t know those celebrities for who they are outside of the limelight, and they’re just as unreal to me as any character I may make up. The only difference is that I know what the outside package may look like.
It’s far more natural to write characters from the people already in our lives than to build something completely brand new from clay and dirt. The famous–or perhaps infamous–idiom, write what you know, is the perfect reason why. In my mind, it often misconstrued, this damaging idea that we can only tell stories based on our narrow fields of vision.
But when we write who we know and what we know of the world, the vision grows far broader. We all have a friend who we can tell any secret. Perhaps there’s a brother or sister that irritates you in a very specific way. We write what we know of relationships, of love, hate, jealousy, respect. When we write who we know, variants and versions, the smallest details and the biggest ones, we are, in fact, writing what we know.
I’ve written myself into stories too. I know I shouldn’t say that, not really. But I’ve written journalists on the job, characters that drop a line I would undoubtedly say–or have said–in conversation. Most of my characters share my basic ideological values or have good reason not to. Every single person I write is, somehow, some way, a variant of me, the author, though some more than others.
Because there is no way to entirely divorce our experiences from the stories we tell. We could try. We could sit down and aim to write a character free of any personality traits, behaviors, beliefs or relationships we have ever seen before. We would fail. As people and as writers, we walk through the world absorbing, taking in information, storing it for later. Something, we consciously think about the person we’re putting into our stories, a best friend, a former lover.
But most of the time, we don’t.
We create them from memories, from walks through the parks, from airplane rides, from bus trips. We add elements from every person we’ve spoken to at a dinner party, sprinkle in something from the quiet girl in our lit class, add the quirking smile of a favorite celebrity heartthrob.
So yes, to give an incredibly long answer to a short question. I put the people I know into my books. Every single one of them.
I initially wrote this piece almost two years ago and, while a lot has changed in romance and in politics, far too much remains the same. I am no longer a member of the Romance Writers of America community, which saddens me deeply, but I am working to create more inclusive writing groups in my home town of Nashville and with author friends across the country.
I considered editing this piece to fit today’s environment, but I am going to leave it as is, since more is relevant today than not. I am happy to discuss resources, book recommendations and actionable steps we can all take understand our privilege and to help create a more inclusive publishing industry and world.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows me here on my blog or on Twitter or Facebook that I’m a progressive, liberal-minded person. I veer far left and I’ve never been quiet about expressing those values or discussing the differences I share with others in open discourse.
I’ve been professionally writing romance novels for over four years and this year’s Romance Writers of America conference was my third annual event. It didn’t take me all too long to realize just how political the romance genre can and should be.
And if the takeaway from RWA18 is anything at all, it’s that we’re finally paying attention.
Recently, I hosted a panel on intersectional feminism in the romance genre. Though we only had ninety minutes, we delved into representation in traditional publishing, the crossover of religion and feminism, tokenism, exoticism and the fetishization of queer women in romance. While I would never purport that we have solved any of these issues, my experiences in romance allow me to justify the belief that yes, we are making strides.
This year’s conference started the move away from inclusive writing and diversity as a trend, God forbid and discussed it as a future we should all, writers, agents, editors, publishers, readers, be striving toward quickly and without delay. We had more than a single workshop on inclusivity, more than a single speaker on making room at the table and more than a passing glance for this fundamental issue impacting such a huge percentage of those already within our industry and those who – rightfully – feel they are not invited.
Romance writing is changing. RWA recently announced their decision to shutter the Golden Heart Award for unpublished writers – which stirred quite a massive blowback by many members who carefully adjust their vision in order to remain stagnant despite the times.
The truth is, the Golden Heart Award is no longer viable in an age when alternative and independent publishing is open to all. And, more specifically, when so many authors of color chose the route of independent and alternative publishing because they have been told for generations that there is no room for them or their stories in the mainstream. One does not have to work overly much to find a deep racial entitlement at the root of the Golden Heart fuss.
But that was far from the biggest upset. No, that title goes to Suzanne Brockmann, the queen, pioneer of victory and joy who brought Romancelandia to church with a smile on her face.
At the Thursday night RITA award ceremony – for which not a single black author was recognized as a finalist – Suzanne Brockmann was awarded the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her contributions to the romance community.
And she did not waste her opportunity.
In a speech globally broadcasted, she explained that her very first book, published in the early nineties, was edited to remove her openly gay sheriff. She explained that she knew at the time her son was gay. And though he was just a small child, she wanted him to one day look back at her books and know that she had supported him, written him, represented him since the very beginning.
She explained that she wasn’t allowed to do that.
And that was only the beginning.
Because Suzanne Brockman is an untouchable force. She has published over 50 novels, landed on the New York Times and USA Today bestsellers lists, won two RITAs and the Romance Writers of America’s #1 Favorite Book of the Year for three years running. She is not a woman who will be felled or derailed easily.
For us white allies, Suz Brockmann should be the standard. Yes, she has a massive following and a voice that many of us can only dream of, but she did not hesitate to use that platform to make room at the table and that is a takeaway universal to all of us at any stage in our careers. She did not pull punches when it came to calling out those who have benefited from their privilege without acknowledging it for years. She said, I have time on the stage tonight and I am going to address systemic racism, homophobia, and hate within our community. She called out 53% of white female voters in a room with so many white women, and she said:
[53%] of us are racist and some of us don’t even know it!!
Oh, wait, what’s that…? You’re not racist…?
Then do something. Prove it.
In November, vote these hateful racist traitors OUT.
It bothered a lot of people. To which I say, if you’re offended by being called a racist, perhaps it’s the time for self-reflection, no? (Read: You’re a racist.) But the truth is, no one else could have made that speech. Bev Jenkins, a leading author, and pioneer of African American romance gave an incredible speech last year, but if she had said, verbatim, word for word, what Suz Brockmann had, she’d be labeled the angry black woman and disregarded at face value. Brockmann knew her power and she used it without apology.
And if you’re one of that 53 % of white women who walked out of that speech, that’s okay. The old vanguard is the old vanguard and they’re not going to be around for much longer. If you’ve benefited from the systematic racism within the romance community and you’re terrified that making more space at the table will take away your success, Write. Better. Books. The very first step to being an ally is acknowledging that, though you have not asked for your privilege, you’ve benefited from it. In romance and in life.
Because then you have those voices that say romance isn’t political. Romance isn’t about race. I write characters of color.
The novelist equivalent of I have a black friend.
Here’s the deal: If you say you’re not political, you’re benefiting from the privilege of not having to be political. Number one. First and foremost. Only certain demographics don’t have to be political and they are, shocker of shockers, those in positions of social and political power. I know, knock me over with a feather.
Beyond that, however, is that romance is political. Romance is a multi-billion dollar a year industry and money is always political. Romance is the most-read genre on the market after fiction. If romance makes the changes that should have been made centuries ago, if romance opens its publishing houses and agencies and offers the same opportunity to authors of color as it does to white authors right now, we take away the excuse that it won’t work.
As romance novelists, we have the ability to change not only our genre but every genre of fiction, reaching out to movies, television, radio, music and more. We can remove the doubt that books won’t sell, remove the justification for causal bigotry and stand as a shining example that representing all authors, backgrounds, and identities isn’t just morally fundamental, but also a savvy business move.
Yes, we have miles to make up. There are so many elements of intersectional feminism and inclusive writing that have yet to be touched upon, let alone mended. But Suz Brockmann’s speech may have been the very first time some of the authors in our community ever looked their own bigotry and privilege in the eye. What they did with the knowledge is up to them, but her words, her eloquence and her unapologetic I am NOT NICE, is an invaluable lesson that we all needed to move forward.
And from the stampede of applause and declarations of joy on social media following her speech, Suzanne Brockmann will be leading the charge with an army of those ready to fight for change walking beside her. ♦
Authors Notes: The amazing pin in the top picture is for Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series which you don’t want to miss!
This panel was hosted in summer of 2018, before I moved to Nashville. I briefly considered making edits to this post, but the truth is that more remains the same than has changed in these years of fighting for equal representation, opportunity, and support, and so I left it as it was initially written.
I hope you’ll take the time to listen to what these incredible authors had to say and to apply their insight and experiences to your own position in publishing and in the greater world.
I have been professionally writing romance novels for about four and half years. In that time, I’ve come to appreciate romance as not only a feminist genre, but the feminist genre, complete with women in positions of power, healthy, supportive female friendships and a celebration of sex and sexuality at every stage – whether behind closed doors, as in the works of some of our authors today, or rich with high heat and erotic language, as with others.
Originally, this panel was intended to focus on that feminism. But as Elaine and I spoke, events were unfolding within the romance genre that made a truth many authors had faced for far too long, inescapable at both an industry and personal level. We considered ourselves a feminist genre but, apparently, only for some women, only for some heroines and only for some authors. And if we are not feminist for everyone, we are not feminist at all.
This was a short section of my script introducing five amazing writers on a panel this past weekend that focused on intersectional feminism. The introduction goes on to discuss The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report from The Ripped Bodice bookstore and the statistics on how many authors of colors have finaled in or won the annual RITA award in romance. These are not happy numbers to look at – and that is the reason I gathered this group of authors to discuss how we change the narrative and level the playing field.
Though turnout to the event was small, we had an online audience of over 500 viewers, with many replays in the days since the panel. The authors I interviewed are now discussing a potential retreat, where we can spend several days speaking on issues we tried to cover in a matter of 90 minutes.
And we covered quite a lot. Intersectional feminism means different things for different people but at its core, it is about identity, privilege, access and how the world views you.
As a white woman in the romance novel world, I am allowed through many gates, as a woman in the outside world, I am barred at the door. There are many crisscrossing levels of intersectionality, including race, religion, sexuality, legal status, and region of origin and yet, romance, a genre long accustomed to calling itself progressive and feminist, is still struggling desperately to give value, voice, and opportunity to stories that do not look like mine, to heroines that do not look like me.
Our panelists, five authors from the New York City chapter of the Romance Writers of America organization, discussed large ideas and actionable steps. We covered themes like solidarity between the queer author communities and communities of authors of color and how all stories from authors of color must contain a struggle or darkness that is never requested from white authors. We spoke about how readers, writers, and industry professionals must all make moves to seek out, support, review, and share these books and authors, and how we can make the genre better by making room at the table for everyone.
I invite you to watch the panel and consider how you might take these steps in your own reading and writing habits. The truth is that acknowledging privilege is uncomfortable, but looking back and knowing that I did nothing to make a change will be far worse. Women, as a whole, have long faced micro and macroaggression in everything from the workplace to the playground and it is time we understand and utilize that empathy to strive for inclusivity and representation for all.
If you are interested in hosting a similar panel in your own hometown or community, please be in touch with me. Otherwise, speak with the bookstore, libraries and book clubs. Host authors of color on your websites or in your newsletters. Share their new releases. Review on Amazon. Together, we can make a romance genre that is truly feminist for everyone.