Conflict Resolution?

No, this isn’t a post about finding ways to deal with that annoying thing your partner does or the boss who mansplains. It’s your friendly neighborhood conflict-avoidant  writer having a moment.

If you know any published authors, you know the love-hate relationship most of us have with reviews. We know they’re part of the game; we appreciate when people take the time to write them. We feel giddy elation when they’re good. We go through the five stages of grief when they’re terrible.

My latest release, Summer’s Cove, is no different. I check Goodreads and Amazon far too often. I laugh. I do happy dances. I huff and roll my eyes. I do my best not to cry.

Actually, they’ve been more good than bad so far, which is nice. A few people have commented that they see growth in my writing (yay!). One called me her hero (blush, swoon). A couple dislike a character or the way I went about something (point taken).

But here’s the thing. No one has dinged me on my weak/non-existent/uncompelling conflict. No. One.

As a person and a writer who really likes everyone to get along, this is huge for me. (Just ask my editor.) It makes me feel like I really am growing as a writer.  That I’m doing something right. Maybe it’s a conflict resolution after all.

P.S. If you’ve enjoyed a book and want to make an author’s day, leave them a nice review. I promise they’ll appreciate it. And if they’re anything like me, they might even jump up a down a little.

It’s Gonna Be May

I said going in that April was the cruelest month. I didn’t want to, really, because April is my birthday and brings the first true tastes of spring. It also, however, brings a crescendo of admissions events, awards ceremonies, honor society inductions, and course registration. Oh, and crises. The students-who-haven’t-gone-to-class-since-spring-break variety.

I’m talking about my day job here. I still have one of those. I like it mostly, but there are a few times of the year that it takes far more out of me that I want to give.

Despite knowing this going in, I scheduled myself to finish the first draft of Spring’s Wake by May 1. This would give me a couple of weeks to do a read-through before sending it off to beta readers. I’d hit my weekly word targets every week since the start of 2017. I wasn’t about to fail.

Only I did.

I was mildly on track for the first half of the month, despite all-weekend admission events. It went downhill from there. Not all bad, mind you, but out of control. A couple of days of fun plus my ex’s wedding (notably non-traumatic) took up lots of time. Having a weak middle and a pacing problem in the manuscript made those last 15,000 words or so beyond painful.

In short, April made me her bitch.

It got so bad that I spent the better part of a Saturday morning in a crying, sniffling heap. Andie pet my head and reminded me that April sucked.

Right.

So, the manuscript still isn’t done, but I think I can whip it into shape. The end of the semester is in sight. I discovered the amazing *NSYNC play on May and giggled. A lot.

may

I’ve decided that, for next year, I’m going to do whatever it takes to have essentially no writing obligations in April. That way, anything I accomplish is bonus. For now, I’m just glad the worst is over. And May? You’re going to be my bitch.

The Glory of Love, Loser’s Edition

I promise this is not a post about Peter Cetera. Or The Karate Kid Part II. It is a little bit about love, though. And glory. And why I write.

I’ve reflected before about why I write romance novels. Of my delight in having readers. Fans, even. I’ve touched on how nice the money is and how much it has meant to me–as a writer and a person–to have found a home in the lesfic community.

But today I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’m also in it for the glory.

Perhaps glory is the wrong word. Esteem might be better, with a layer of recognition. But glory is definitely part of it. And I’d already committed to the Peter Cetera reference, so here we are.

Today, the last batch of finalists for the Golden Crown Literary Society Awards (the Goldies) were announced. Built to Last was not on the list. Nor was it on the short list for the Lammys that was posted a month or so ago.

I knew the list was coming, so I pulled up the page on my phone the minute my alarm went off. Names I knew. A few I didn’t. Not mine.

I was disappointed, but I got out of bed and took a shower. I told Andie and she said sweet things to make me feel better. I did my morning writing and came to work. I congratulated my colleagues, I commiserated with friends. I moped a bit, but not too much.

It’s funny because I’m an introvert at heart and don’t actually like being the center of attention. But there’s something about awards, recognition of a job well done. I wasn’t raised to be competitive, but man do I love a pat on the head and a “job well done.” Literary awards are the pinnacle of that–positive reinforcement and an ego boost all rolled into one.

Not getting that recognition can be so…deflating.

I’m an optimist, though, and do my best to shoo away negativity before it gets too comfortable. So here goes…

I get notes from readers–unexpected bursts of joy that make me happy for days. I get royalty checks–quarterly reminders that people are willing to spend their hard-earned money on my stories. I get Facebook likes and retweets and mentions in reading groups. I get more good reviews than bad.

In short, I get plenty of glory. On top of that, it’s the kind of glory I care most about. And I love every minute of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I still aspire to a Goldie and a Lammy and, yes, even a RITA. But, at the end of the day, that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about the stories and the characters and the readers. It’s about love.

So for all you finalists out there, I send you heartfelt congratulations. For my fellow “also ran” friends, I’m with you. It’s okay to mope a little. For the writers still working to get published, don’t give up. And most importantly, for all you readers, thank you. You make it all worthwhile.

We’ll live forever
Knowing together
That we did it all for the glory of love

And just in case it’s not already in your head:

You’re welcome.

Reading (and Writing) Romance in the Time of Trump

If you follow me on Facebook, you know I’ve taken the leap to pitching blogs to HuffPo and some other mainstream outlets. I mitigate the sting of rejection by repurposing that unclaimed content here. Please pardon any redundant thoughts or things that might seem totally obvious to anyone who already knows or follows me.

(Disclaimer: No bodices were ripped and no pussies were grabbed in the writing of this post.)

Romance novels get a bad rap. We know this. They’re dismissed as trashy, fantastical, formulaic. Romance is a joke, not something to be taken seriously. That’s the argument against anything by/for/about women, right?

But now more than ever, women are standing up and refusing to be quiet. We resist. We persist. And now more than ever, romance should, too.

My grandmother gave me my first romance novel in 1993, when I was in eleventh grade at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls Catholic boarding school in south Louisiana. The sex was barely PG, but she gave me a warning anyway. “It’s a good story,” she said. “Just skip the dirty parts.” I tucked myself in my room and read it instead of doing my homework on the Sacraments. It was the closest I’d come to being a bad girl. I was hooked.

By the time I got to college, romance was my preferred guilty pleasure. I hoarded Harlequins to read between studying for organic chemistry and genetics. And after changing my major to English, I savored Nora Roberts in secret, far from the judgmental gaze of my literature professors and creative writing seminar classmates.

In grad school, I discovered Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance and learned the language of dismantling hegemonic patriarchal structures. But even as I wrote papers and pounded my fist about the importance of women-centered stories, romance remained something I sheepishly admitted to reading. Usually while blushing and saying something about how I alternated romance with “real” books.

That changed a few years ago when I finally gave myself permission to write the genre I loved. Suddenly, halting attempts and half-finished chapters gave way to a finished manuscript and a publishing contract. I met a community of readers and writers who not only love romance, but take it seriously. I got my first fan mail.

Now, I’m a college administrator by day who reads and writes lesbian romance novels by night (and early morning and weekend and the occasional sick day). I might still blush when people ask me what I write, but I’m much savvier in what I have to say.

Romance is hopeful, I say, and that’s a pretty radical thing. Name another genre where love conquers all and female protagonists—surgeons and Supreme Court justices and bounty hunters and CEOs—are front and center.

I make the business case. Did you know, for example, that romance makes up a 13% share of the adult fiction market? Then there’s the feminist angle. The romance industry is one of the few in the U.S. that is and has always been predominantly by women, for women. It’s also been quicker than other industries to embrace a host of diverse stories and characters—people of color and LGBTQ characters in particular.

But that’s my usual shtick. These days, there’s more to the story. Just like everything in the era of Trump, the rules have changed.

Romance isn’t just legitimate; it’s relevant. I’d go so far as to say it’s essential. In these days of alternative facts and grossly unqualified cabinet picks, romance keeps me centered. It keeps me sane.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Take La La Land. Whether or not you’re smitten with the romantic musical comedy, it’s hard to argue with its record-tying fourteen Oscar nods. You’d be hard pressed to find another time when the drama-loving Academy picked an upbeat romance as its darling.

We’re living in a world where #lovetrumpshate is part of the vernacular. For every three articles or calls to action on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, there’s one about self-care. Resistance is exhausting, after all. Making the time to recharge is critical for the long game. I don’t know about you, but I’m in it to win it.

So I’m saying loudly and proudly: Romance is part of my resistance strategy. Because when women are repeatedly silenced and publicly reprimanded, romance amplifies women’s voices. When women are grabbed—literally and figuratively—by the pussy, romance empowers women’s agency, sexuality, and desire.

Romance is escapism, sure. But it’s also rebellion. I’d go so far as to say it’s a nutrient. Like vitamin D. And much like my pale, pale self in the throes of winter in upstate New York, I need all the help I can get.

What is luminous, really?

Before we get started, I need to warn you that this post might get a little catty. But I’m warning you. And I promise to throw in a “bless her heart,” so it will all be okay. (And before you ask, no, this does not make catty behavior acceptable in the real world.)

Whew. Now that that’s out of the way…

I just finished reading Emma Cline’s The Girls for a book club. I picked it up, and talked my way into this book club, because I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a reading rut. I’ve not been reading as much as I’d like to and, when I do, it tends to be lesbian romance. (Which isn’t bad. It’s good to keep up with the genre in which I write and I love the books. Love. That said, it’s not my only interest and I don’t want to have literary tunnel vision.)

Anyway, The Girls was the “it” book of last summer. Reviews called it “luminous.” (Not unlike the praise for Stephanie Danler’s much acclaimed Sweetbitter, which I could not bring myself to read).

I started reading and, for the first sixty pages or so, I was hooked. Cline is masterful at imagery. She wields adverbs in ways that make my hear flutter. She plays with the male gaze and creates a gaze of her own–female and unapologetic even as her protagonist acquiesces to the male (gaze and more). And she has a talent for evoking the mind and meanderings of female teenage existence and her regretful, middle-aged counterpart. I was at once nostalgic and uncomfortable, in that perfect mix of awe and envy.

After those first sixty pages, though, it started to grate on me. I couldn’t decide if it was the subject matter or the language. It was too…too. Too MFA. Overwrought. My partner really liked and I started to panic. I actually went online in search of reviews that might validate my ennui. Fortunately I found some. This made me feel better, enough so that I finished the book and sipped an IPA while discussing it with a bunch of really smart teachers who had interesting things to say about its strengths and weaknesses.

But, even now, I can’t get rid of this nagging feeling. Did I not love it because it wasn’t as good as all the hype promised? Or, much more worrying, has my reading palate become one-dimensional? Worse still, am I just jealous of all the attention? I don’t know. But the nagging has remained and makes me question who I am as a woman, a reader, and a writer. Not in an existential crisis sort of way, but still.

Part of me feels badly for even saying all this because the two authors I’m thinking of (Cline and Danler) are both young women writers and the world needs more amazing and wonderful female voices. Voices that evoke all sorts of things, demand attention, don’t apologize. Voices like theirs, bless their hearts. (See what I did there?) And here I am, aloof and nitpicking. But I go back to that feeling that I’m not critiquing their actual voices. My very problem with books like these is that they are processed and packaged to be young/fresh/ingenue. You know, luminous.

Maybe, at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with that. That specific packaging is simply not my cup of tea. The same way that romance isn’t everyone’s thing. Or fantasy. Or memoir. I just…I guess I’m just tired of the value judgment that seems to come with it. The fact that some (seemingly arbitrary) work gets picked up as the new luminous thing and is all over the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, the Slate Culture Gabfest. Are there really not enough great books that we all have to get on the same wagon? And for the love of all that is good and holy, does that wagon always have to be luminous?

Okay. Rant over. Thank you for indulging me.

Ring My Bell

I admit it. I’m a sucker for positive reinforcement. And I don’t mean those grand rewards for hitting some major goal. I mean the most basic Pavlovian type system–small, frequent, consistent treats tied to specific behaviors.

Example: I love Scrivener. I love that I can see my whole outline. I love that I can move scenes around with ease. But I swear I’d use it if it offered nothing more than that little bar that goes from red to green as I reach my daily word goal. And the big bar of the manuscript total? Swoon.

I’ve decided I’m so into positive reinforcement, I should try to apply it to more areas of my life. Case in point: exercise.

A few years ago, I was in the best shape of my life. I wasn’t skinny; I don’t think I’ll ever qualify for that adjective. Still. I was a bit lighter than I am now. More importantly, I had stamina and flexibility. I did two to three dance classes a week, I walked more days than not. I felt fit and limber and it was lovely.

And then life happened. A bad ankle sprain kept me from dance class. A new relationship sent me into a state of happy nesting, complete with lots of great meals and wine. And I started writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And I love that writing has become an almost-daily routine. I’ve got three books published, a fourth written, and a fifth in progress. I’ve made friends with other writers and readers–a whole magical community of people I didn’t know existed a few years ago. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Not even for pencil skirts and skinny jeans and a strong core.

But who says I can’t have it all?

No one, but I’ve not actually been good at doing it in recent months.  But it’s January and a good time for leaf turning and all that. Which brings me to Pavlov. I decided that uber fitness goals, while nice, don’t have that Pavlovian je ne sais quois. I needed something more immediate. Small. Preferably shiny. Enter stickers.


You heard right, stickers. I went to the craft store (for another, slightly more legitimate purchase) and raided the scrapbooking aisle. I got stars and flowers and little owls. And now, each time I exercise, I get a star in my planner. I’m not going to lie, it’s almost laughably satisfying. I’ve got five stars and an owl (for weekly word goals) so far in January. Not to mention 15,000 words of my new manuscript and spaghetti arms from flailing around to belly dancing videos.

Laugh if you want. I am (laughing at myself, that is). But I’m not ashamed to take all the help I can get. But that’s another life lesson (and another post). What about you? What gives you that extra little oomph? Or, as good ole Pavlov would say, what rings your bell?

The Power Woman Paradox

I woundn’t say I’m a high-powered woman. I don’t run companies or cities or even the college where I work. I’m more middle management. In practical terms, this means I hear a lot of complaints and make a lot of consequential, if not earth-shattering, decisions. Like, so many decisions. All. Day. Long.

I would also say I’m a competent, relatively independent woman. I don’t change my own oil, but wouldn’t be afraid to try if needed. I enjoy being handy and have a decent grasp of most domestic tasks. And we all know I love to ride the tractor. 

And yet.

And yet, in spite of these things, I sometimes crave being told what to do. No, that’s not right. I’d argue it is precisely because of these things, I crave someone else calling the shots. 

This isn’t a foreign concept, really. I know many women who come home from ten hours of being the boss who are crippled by the question of what to have for dinner. I know others who seek out the role of submissive in sexual relationships because it’s the one place they can cede control entirely. (And doing so is a huge turn-on.)

This week, the college where I work is closed. It’s a magical chance to get a break from the office without having to use vacation time. I always have high hopes for the week. I imagine myself in this nirvana of perfectly balanced productivity, relaxation, and fun. In reality, I often find myself restless, yet lazy–lounging on the sofa, fretting about the fact that I haven’t accomplished much of anything.  

It’s completely unstructured and, apparently, I don’t do well with that.

I took to Facebook today in search of some direction. I wanted to write 10,000 words this week and had barely scratched the surface. Friends and fellow authors jumped in with a wonderful combination of motivation/encouragement/finger wagging. It helped. Public shaming/cheering can be super helpful. I banged out 2,000 and feel like I’m back in a groove.

And yet.

And yet there’s a little part of me that wants something more. A writing dominant. That’s probably too suggestive, but you know what I mean. An external force besides my submission deadline to keep me in line. A stern voice to tell me to sit at my computer and not move until I’ve hit so many words. Someone to reward me when I’ve reached my goal. (And maybe even dole out some sort of punishment if I don’t.)

Perhaps I’ve over shared. But something tells me I’m not the only one. Being a woman in charge can be a lot of pressure. And while I’m sure some of my compatriots would be happy if someone simply decided what’s for dinner, I think  there are more than a few of us who wouldn’t say no to a nice bit of direction now and then. As far as this femme is concerned, it sounds like so much more fun than making a schedule.

The Gifts We Give Ourselves

Today, my friend Nell shared–eloquently, thoughtfully–her recent struggles with a pernicious variation of writer’s block. She talked about about a recent reading she did that involved a feeling of detachment from her writing. It was something along the lines of thinking: hey, that’s good/did I really write that/will I be able to write that way again? (She said it way better.)

My response to her was a lesson I learned from Minnie Bruce Pratt. I had the amazing fortune to take a course with her once and, in a meeting about my writing, I lamented the need to buckle down and write every day. She promptly corrected me, saying that writing should be a gift I give myself. No matter what else is going on in my life, no matter how unimpressed I may be with my words in the moment, writing is essential. It’s part of who I am. It’s something I should not–cannot–live without.

After sharing this nugget of wisdom, fate–in the form of Facebook memories–reminded me that five years ago today I danced at the Westcott Street Festival. And by dance, I mean belly dance. And by belly dance, I mean on a makeshift stage in front of an audience in broad daylight. No really.

My first reaction was to smile. It was an amazing day. And then I felt badly. I’ve not danced in earnest much since that day. It started with a sprained ankle, probably the worst sprain I’ve ever had. (I actually sprained it two days before the festival and probably shouldn’t have performed but really wanted to and likely made it worse in the long run.) So I took some time off to heal. Then A. and I started dating and we were living an hour apart and it became so easy to skip class if it was a night we could get together. Then I got a new job and moved to Ithaca. All good things. Great things. But they were such good things, I made less time for things like dancing.

I tried to get back to it a couple of times. My last attempt came just as I began writing in earnest. The forty-five minutes I had each morning devoted to exercise became my writing time. And, as noted above, I’m not about to give that up.

So exercise in general, and dancing specifically, fell by the wayside. And all my talk about getting back to it has come in the form of “I need to make myself.” Do you see where I’m going with this?

Here’s the thing. I was never a good dancer. But for a couple of years, and during a difficult time in my life, I was a dancer. It made me feel good–body, mind, spirit. It made me feel sexy and good about my body and brave and silly and quintessentially feminine. So I came home from work today and I danced. And I was painfully reminded that, while never really good, I was way better than I am now. But I did it. And I told myself it was a gift.

I don’t know if this will work, but I’m going to try it. It fits in nicely with my life goals of being grateful for the little things, self care, general sassiness, and Ann Taylor pencil skirts. (I know I shouldn’t be focused on the last one, but I have some really cute ones that are too snug right now.) I’ll let you know how it goes.

What gifts do you give yourself?

How do you solve a problem like Aurora?

My family dynamic is…unique. Without going into all the details, let me just say that, as a child, I often felt like I was being parented by committee. And even though I wasn’t a bad kid, there were many family meetings held to figure out what to do with me. These meetings were no joke. Our family meetings come complete with agendas and adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order. In hindsight, I know that I was fortunate to have aunts and uncles who cared for me, but the situation wasn’t without its challenges.

The most recent of these family meetings, which I didn’t attend, included discussion of the fact that my mother had requested and received a copy of my latest book. Since she lives in an assisted living facility and doesn’t possess much of a filter, there was some concern that she’d create an awkward situation by over-sharing. Since I had been more than a little hesitant to share it with her in the first place (a common sentiment among romance writers, I’ve learned), I swallowed my irritation that this warranted inclusion on the agenda. It was fine until I was copied on the self-congratulatory email my uncle sent about encouraging my mother to finish reading, then promptly throw my book in the garbage.

My first instinct was to quietly acquiesce. The intent, surely, was not malicious. And the last thing I want is for my mom to find herself in a difficult or awkward situation because she was trying to be proud of me. That gave way to anger and a desire to hurl pithy insults. Tempting, but not really my style. I settled on a terse request to have the book sent back to me, complete with an offer to pay the postage.

All of this unfolded over the course of a weekend during which two members of our local community died suddenly. I wasn’t close to either of them personally, but both their lives were cut tragically short and the impact of the loss will be felt for a very long time. As a result, I was left feeling selfish and petty for letting such a trivial thing get to me in the first place.

This morning, I had a conversation with a colleague about the death of one of the individuals and he noted that seeing the outpouring of memories and love made him think about his own work and his legacy–how important it was for him to do something that made a difference.

That conversation gave me a much needed moment of clarity. It helped me to see that, while my own indignation may be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, the issue itself isn’t. There are people–people in my own family–who believe that stories of love between two women are unseemly, if not downright dangerous.

And for every one of them, there is someone else who still lives in secret, or in shame, because those other people exist and are vocal about their disdain. This morning, I was reminded of why I write. Those are some of the people I’m writing for.

I write to celebrate love. I write to give myself and others happy and uplifting stories that mirror our lives (or maybe slightly idealized versions of our lives). I also write so that those who are still living in secret or fear might read my books and feel a little less alone.

I refuse to let good intentions or rationalizations diminish the meaningfulness or legitimacy of my work. I also refuse to let them bring me down. This weekend also reminded me that life is short and never certain, and that living with joy is the best thing we can do for ourselves and each other.

I decided that, when I get my mom’s copy back, I’m going to donate it and a copy of all of my books to the public library in my hometown. Boom. Instant joy.

Represent (-ed, -ing, et. al.)

One of the many (many) awesome conversations I had at the GCLS con included the ups and downs of joining and participating in Romance Writers of America, a.k.a. the RWA. It can be a bit of a sensitive topic. As vocally supportive as the organization is of LGBTQ romance, many of its members are not. And of those who don’t object to us, many would never consider reading our work. Even on a good day, it can feel like an uphill battle. That can feel even more daunting from the warm cocoon of GCLS, where lesbians and queers and our stories are front and center.

But even then, or perhaps especially then, we need to show up. If we want to be visible in the mainstream arena, we have to be there. We have to climb on and go for a spin, arms in the air, for all the world to see. It might be uncomfortable, but we must. They aren’t going to come looking for us. If we want to be represented, we need to represent.

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Not a week later, I got my copy of the Rochester Review, the alumni magazine of the University of Rochester. My second novel, Built to Last, is included in the “Books and Recordings” section in the back. As an undergraduate and young alum who spent more time daydreaming about writing than actually writing, seeing my name–my book cover!–on those pages was a dream come true.

And yet. And yet, had it not been for a chance conversation with a former colleague who is now one of the magazine editors, I’d never have submitted it. Don’t get me wrong, I’d wanted to. But I was squeamish, a little embarrassed. There were serious books there and mine was just a romance. Just. A. Romance.

For all my carrying on about the importance and legitimacy of romance in literature, and the importance and legitimacy of lesbian stories in romance, I can still be my own worst enemy. I still giggle and break eye contact when I tell someone what I write. I talk about how important it is to represent our lives and our stories and our genre, but I still chicken out.

Sometimes. I’ve gotten much better. But there’s still more to do. Of course, if the people I met at GCLS are any indication, we’re in good shape. Talk about represent. I’m still a little giddy to be in their ranks. And, as we’ve already discussed, far braver than I used to be.

P.S. If you can, but haven’t, send your book covers and blurbs to your alumni magazine. You might be the first, but I’m absolutely certain you’re not the only.