You’ll Never Know Unless You Try (Repost)

A few months ago, Bold Strokes did an amazing upgrade to their website. (Seriously, it’s awesome. You should buy all your books there.) Part of that included a new host for the BSB Author’s blog. Since that means the old blog is going away, I decided to snag my old posts for posterity. And since reading them made me smile, I thought I’d share them again here on my page.

A lot has changed since November 2015. The next Cape End Romance, Summer’s Cove, is due out in October. Oh, and I totally had just the right combination of encouragement, backup singers, and alcohol to try karaoke. You really don’t ever know unless you try.

“You’ll Never Know Unless You Try”

BY AURORA REY

A few years ago, I spent my free time baking instead of writing. I’d gotten a small, modestly profitable cake business off the ground and fantasized about fame, fortune, and Food Network. I even passed an initial screening and had the opportunity to submit an audition video to Cupcake Wars. While freaking out about the potential rejection, as well as the chaos that would ensue if I was chosen, my therapist at the time had some words of wisdom: you risk nothing by trying.

She’s a very smart woman, so I took her advice. Unable to fathom doing it in front of anyone, I set up a tripod in my basement bakery, filmed it, learned iMovie, edited it, and put it out there for the world to see (all over the course of a weekend.) I didn’t make it onto the show, but making the video was a blast. To this day, it’s a great conversation starter and my go-to random interesting fact. Sure, I’m a little bitter every time Cupcake Wars comes on, but I’m still glad I tried.

My first stab at NaNoWriMo was similar. A friend who’d done it the year before inspired me to take on the epic challenge of writing 50,000 words in thirty days. At the end of November, I had 50,279 words of novel that wasn’t terrible. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all that good, either.

Undeterred, I set it aside and gave myself permission to start from scratch. I also gave myself permission to write a book I’d love to read (a romance) and to set it in one of my favorite places (Provincetown). And, well, it worked. The result is my first complete novel and my first work with Bold Strokes Books.

Winters HarborWinter’s Harbor features Lia, science writer, and Alex, a pastry chef. Lia arrives in Provincetown after her ten-year relationship tanks. She’s on her own for the first time since college and is pretty sure a girlfriend is the last thing she needs. Alex lives and works in Provincetown. As far as she’s concerned, Lia might be the perfect distraction for the cold and quiet months of winter.

Like many writers, I wrote a ton of witty dialog and self-indulgent scenes and was pretty happy with myself. My editor, on the other hand, pointed out that I’d neglected to create truly meaningful conflict. I huffed. I put my hands on my hips. I whined. How dare some hot shot editor pick apart my perfect story? After about an hour of this, I admitted she was right.

My premise was that getting involved throws both women out of their comfort zones. They enjoy spending time together (spoiler: there’s a lot of cooking and baking), but neither of them is eager to put her heart on the line. It was only when I started to pick apart what that meant, however, that I got anywhere. When I thought about how much our deeply held insecurities drive us to avoid taking the kinds of chances that make life worthwhile.

Ultimately, that’s what it came down to. Lia and Alex had to grapple with the same little voices we all have. The ones that can make us feel content, but that can also keep us stuck. Clever banter and baked goods notwithstanding, Lia and Alex had to be willing to take a chance—on themselves and each other.

This is all starting to feel like a recurring theme in my life, and a lesson it’s taken me a long time to learn. I’ve still never been brave (or drunk) enough to sing karaoke, but I embrace the belief that the risks pay off. And even if I don’t always get what I want, I learn a lot and mostly manage to enjoy the ride. I think that’s what life is all about.

P.S. If you want to see the gem that didn’t win over the Cupcake Wars people, it’s still on YouTube. I’m still impressed with my editing skills. My fierce competitor face? Not so much.

 

 

For the Love of Gumbo


It’s February! That means a few things.

One: Crescent City Confidential is out! If you haven’t got your very own copy, what are you waiting for?Crescent City Confidential.jpg

Two: it’s gumbo season. Nothing warms a winter evening better than a bowl of Cajun goodness and a glass of old vine Zinfandel.

Three: those things are not mutually exclusive.

Crescent City Confidential is an Aurora Rey novel, after all, and it’s set in New Orleans. That means lots of food and lots of cooking. Oh, and a cooking lesson. Because who doesn’t love to flirt and make dinner with the woman you’re trying to get into bed?

Today’s lesson? Gumbo. Tess shows Sam how it’s done. And because I love y’all, I’m going to show you, too.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

1 chicken
1 lb. andouille sausage, sliced
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup flour
2 onions, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4-1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 T. apple cider vinegar
salt, pepper, and hot sauce to taste
gumbo file (optional)

  1. Put chicken in a pot with enough water to cover and boil until the meat begins to pull away from the bone (about 45 minutes). Remove chicken and separate meat from bones, discard bones and reserve stock. Note: You can take a shortcut (and not sacrifice much flavor) by using a rotisserie chicken and a few cups of purchased stock.
  2. Combine oil and flour in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Whisk over medium heat until the color of milk chocolate. This will take a while. Be bold, but don’t burn it!

    It starts out looking like this.

    Keep whisking so it browns evenly.

    When it looks like peanut butter, you’re getting close.

    When it’s the color of milk chocolate, you win.

  3. Add chopped vegetables and stir until they begin to soften.

    It will look scary. Fear not.

  4. Slowly add chicken stock and pepper flakes.

    It will look a lot less scary.

  5. Add chicken and sausage to pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer about an hour. Add vinegar. Add salt, pepper, and hot sauce to taste.

    Perfection in a pot.

  6. Serve over rice. Add additional hot sauce and a sprinkle of gumbo file, if desired. If you want to be authentically Cajun about it, serve potato salad on the side. (No, I don’t know why. It’s just a thing.)

I hope you enjoy both the recipe and the book. I’d love to hear from you about either!

 

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.

Lessons and Leaving

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I just finished the final round of edits for Crescent City Confidential. Because the book is set in New Orleans, I decided to dedicate the story to the Southern women who taught me a great deal and helped me become the woman I am today. Grandmothers and aunts and cousins, teachers and nuns and neighbors. These women taught me about resilience and grace, perseverance, and not being afraid to be smart, or strong.

And then the election happened and everything about that felt cheap. I felt betrayed. Betrayed by some of those same aunts and cousins and neighbors and friends. But even in that darkness, I knew that the lessons I learned were still there. Things like believing in myself, social justice, and not being afraid to stand up for what’s right.

Perhaps more than anything else, they taught me it was okay to leave. That I needed to leave. It was a lesson I didn’t fully understand until much later—that staying was tantamount to a death sentence. Every single day of my life, I’m profoundly grateful for having left.

What started out as going away to college turned into a full and satisfying life in a place I didn’t know existed and with people I couldn’t even imagine as a kid.  I can’t fathom what my life would look like had I stayed. I may have never come out; I may have never taken myself seriously as a writer. I might have gotten married and had kids and aspired to a (little pink) house in the suburbs and vacations (down at the Gulf of Mexico).

Without these women, I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to imagine something else.

But they saw something more. And even though they probably never fathomed that I’d live in New York and be a dean at a college and write lesbian romance, they sensed that I was different, needed something different. They laid the groundwork and offered the encouragement that set me on my way to becoming me.

I think the process of becoming is at the core of all my books. As much as my characters find love, they find themselves. This is definitely the case with Crescent City Confidential. Both Tess and Sam have strong feelings on who they are and what they want. Their identities have been shaped by family and geography and life circumstances; they are happy, but not complete. They fall in love, sure, but they also become themselves—more authentic, more whole.

It feels ironic now that I set this story in Louisiana, the place I needed to escape from. As I write this, I’m here visiting my mother and godmother. I feel a bit like a stranger in a strange land, counting the hours until I go back to my life a thousand miles away.

But I like to think I’ve come full circle. I know I’ll never again call Louisiana home, but it will always be part of me–messy, contradictory, infuriating, enchanting. I’m not ashamed or afraid of it. It’s mine.

I like to think maybe there’s a little girl somewhere with a big bow and a feeling she can’t quite put a finger on, a feeling that tells her she doesn’t belong. She might not be the next lesbian romance writer, but maybe this lost little girl turned romance writer can show her there’s more to life than the world she knows.

In the meantime, you can pre-order Crescent City Confidential from Bold Strokes Books. Catherine, Claire, Dr. Rosser, Dr. Landry, Mrs. Kurtz, Sr. McFayden, Cindee, Laura Lee, Leslie, Sara and all the rest of you fabulous women, this one’s for you.

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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?

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.

 

The Power (and Brilliance) of Observation

Last night, we went to see David Sedaris. Every now and then, he’s almost too much, even for me. Mostly, though, he’s completely and utterly hilarious. Either way, he is perhaps the most brilliant master of observation I’ve ever read. Whether talking about the vagaries of mental illness or extolling the virtues of his Japanese culottes, Sedaris has a way of capturing both the minutia and universality of life experiences. And, damn, but that man can turn a phrase.

I can’t help but think of my own writing when I read (or listen to) something really good, David Sedaris good. I like to think I’m skilled with detail, that I string together a nice sentence. But sometimes I feel anything but skilled. Sometimes writing is slogging, flinging words onto a page to get through a scene that needs to happen. The hope of course is that, when it’s the latter, the revision gods will smile on you and the whole thing will get better, tighter, and more compelling.

Really, though, the hope isn’t good enough. Whether it takes five drafts–or fifteen, or fifty–good writers aren’t satisfied until the words work. And I don’t mean work as in fit together coherently. I mean WORK. Every paragraph needs to move the story forward, make the characters more real, make the reader laugh, make the reader think. (Fortunately every paragraph doesn’t need to do all of those things simultaneously.)

As I finish up the first draft of Crescent City Confidential, I’ve found myself doing a lot of flinging words onto the page. I’ve been whining a lot, too, about said flinging. I’ve made peace with the fact that this is part of the process. But I remind myself never to lose sight of the fact that it isn’t good enough. Sure, it’s a start. Good writing, though, is a lot more. I’ve sort of always known this, but it’s good to be reminded. Especially now that people put up time and money to read what I write. Not to take myself to seriously or anything, but it’s different than when I wrote for myself or friends or some writing class.

I’ve got a couple more weeks of slogging and then I get to dive into revisions. It’s daunting, but an exciting part of the process. Almost as satisfying as seeing that word count go up during the initial writing. And while I don’t think I’ll ever reach the level of David Sedaris, I can try to channel him now and again. Eavesdropping, taking better notes, reworking a page a dozen times. I wonder if Andie will buy me a pair of culottes…

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There’s a Pin for That

Capture

When I first drafted my author bio, I referenced my love of the South, my longing for a farmhouse (complete with goats), and my mild addiction to Pinterest. Lately, I’ve been so busy writing (and day-jobbing) that I’ve hardly had time for Pinterest, much less goats. I’ve decided this needs to be rectified, stat.

Sure, Pinterest has the potential to create unrealistic expectations of awesomeness. But it’s also full of fun ideas, delicious things, and hot lesbians. (I only discovered the latter recently.)

I also use it for book research. Character ideas, professions, places, rooms, outfits–you name it. It’s a great way to be on Pinterest and tell yourself that you’re “working.”

Do you Pinterest? If you do, I’d love to follow you! Let me know who you are (or follow me and I’ll follow you back).