At last weekend’s Emerald City Writers’ Conference, I gave a workshop on how to use outlines not only to start your manuscript, but as a tool for adding depth and detail to your second, third, or final drafts. As promised, here is the slide deck from that workshop: I’ll post a link to conference audio when that is available as well. Enjoy!
1. Because I love my book.
In my subjective and unashamedly biased opinion, At His Countess’ Pleasure is the best and weirdest thing I’ve written. It’s quiet historical melodrama starring a dominant brunette social climber and a chunky earl with a mustache. There’s also pegging, and period sex, and at one point a 19th-century gynecological exam (or the nearest approximation I could get according to research). At one point the hero — have you got your pearls handy for clutching? — loses his erection during a sex scene. So subversive! Not as subversive as including an actually diverse cast of characters and writing about something other than British aristocrats would have been — but I’m taking baby steps here, pushing my own limits.
This book pushed a lot of limits. I launched into the writing of it with great abandon, and told myself I could break every rule I wanted because it was just to fulfill a contract clause and then at the end there was a story I loved and was excited to show to the world. So in one sense I was kind of fucked, but in another sense: hooray!
And I will be damned if anyone takes that away from me.
2. Because entering the RITAs means I get to judge the RITAs.
I’ve judged a couple of contests — including PNWA, for those of you in the Northwest — and I really enjoy it. But judging a non-romance-centric contest’s romance/erotica category can be a bit, well, dicey. One manuscript entered by one gentleman was basically wall-to-wall rape scenes, presented as titillation. Very difficult to read, even as an excerpt.
I want to know what the RITAs look like in process. I want to see the difference between the books I’m sent and the books that make the final list, the ones that get officially celebrated. And I’ve never had a chance to do it before.
As a published author and RWA member, I could qualify to judge the RITAs by joining the Published Author Network (PAN). In fact, I did try to do this last summer. I counted up my royalties and figured out that one of my books had reached the required $1000 mark to allow me to apply.
The only problem: I needed proof of those royalties. From my publisher, Ellora’s Cave.
You can laugh if you want to. I understand. (Most up-to-date masterpost here, if you can stand it.)
After many emails, I got a response: EC sent me an Excel spreadsheet with one year of royalties for that one title. Only numbers; no text. And it wasn’t even a locked spreadsheet. RWA quite naturally laughed at the idea that this could constitute proof of payment in any meaningful sense of the word. My only other option was to copy every single royalty statement for all my titles — two years’ worth of financial records — and highlight the book that qualified every time it appeared. I found I was uncomfortable at the thought of showing that much personal data to someone I wasn’t paying taxes to. There the matter rested — until RWA announced that all RITA entrants would be required to judge. It feels like a gift that I can finally do this.
3. Because I already paid for the print copies.
Three days before my publisher filed the now-infamous defamation suit against Dear Author, I spent over a hundred bucks out of pocket to get contest copies printed by Vlad at Third Place Press. (Disclosure: Vlad is both a friend and a bookselling wizard). While the books look incredibly beautiful — you can see them in person at this weekend’s Emerald City Book Fair, where I’ll have a few copies to give away — I would never have had them printed had the lawsuit been filed first.
Oh, I have a few noble reasons for that; anyone who tells you this case is not about free speech has not been paying adequate attention. But it’s also true that unless I enter the RITAs, I have to consider that cash layout wasted. I can’t currently promote this book for sale or for review, not without implicitly supporting a lawsuit that grates against every nerve I have. I’ve requested the rights back from EC — for Countess and for all my books — but Countess only came out two months ago. The print version is the only format I can do something useful with. I can’t sell it, but at least I can see how it stacks up as a romance elbowing around in the wild among other romances. This would be valuable to me, separate from any notion of sales or self-promotion.
Lastly, I’m entering the RITAs despite all the mess, because:
4. It’s my last chance.
This book is my last chance to enter the RITAs for the foreseeable future. I haven’t placed my next manuscript with another publisher yet — anyone who wants a sweetly steamy ancient Greek romance with a robot heroine feel free to let me know! — and my current manuscript is trending more romantic elements/sff/New Weird. Intertwining romance subplots! Semi-omniscient POV sections! Twists on monsters and myth that leave me giggling in fiendish delight! One detail popped out of my subconscious, slithered onto the page, and creeped me out so much I had to shut the computer and do something else. It’s super-fun and an ambitious experiment — but a RITA book it is probably not.
I don’t know when I’ll have another book published to qualify for the contest, and of course I’m ineligible for the Golden Heart. I’m not saying farewell to romance as a genre — but I might be moving away from the RWA-approved definition of romance as established for the RITA contest.
I have this one chance, and I’m going to take it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent Dear Author post on books as commercial objects and now I’m going to try something ambitious. I’m going to talk about Amazon and Hachette and Authors United. I’m going to talk about Ellora’s Cave as an Ellora’s Cave author who’s published six short books with them in the past four years. But most of all, I’m going to talk about work: when we notice it, when we don’t, and what happens when we emphasize or downplay labor in the book industry. My Marxist credentials are, well, nonexistent, but I’m going on 15 years in the book business so that will hopefully compensate.
Should be fun, right?
We’ll start with the author, since that’s where books begin. Author-work is profoundly hidden, even in the midst of its occurrence. It makes for notoriously terrible television. Getting the words out on the page is only the start of it. There’s also research, revisions, and the inevitable but embarrassingly necessary craft technique of Staring Blankly Out The Window Until You Know How To Fix Whatever’s Wrong. Plus, once you have a manuscript you’re unafraid to call maybe kinda good if you read it on a Tuesday when the moon is in Sagittarius, then you have to send it out to agents and publishers — or get it properly edited and formatted and hire a cover designer, if you’re self-pubbing — all of which requires countless hours of hair-pulling, teeth-clenching mental mud wrestling, but all of which happens almost entirely out of public view. (Unless you’re on Twitter. I love you, Twitter.) And when it’s published, you have to market it and track sales and pay quarterly taxes — if you’re lucky, that is, you pay quarterly taxes — and pitch reviews and talk to readers and attend conferences, all while starting the whole process over with a brand-new book idea. Rinse and repeat.
It’s more fun than it sounds.
Author-work is made visible when authorial integrity is in doubt. For instance, relevant life experience is highlighted as a guarantee of quality fiction — which is why Clive Cussler is so often photographed next to classic cars, and why it was A Thing when pseudonym Robert Gailbraith’s military background turned out to be a backstory created by author J. K. Rowling. Author-work becomes most visible every time someone lambastes a reviewer because the author worked so hard and put so much effort into their book. Effort is unerased and presented as evidence of worth.
A publisher is not merely a channel for authors’ invisible labor: they have a lot of behind-the-scenes labor of their own. Two words for you: slush pile. I pulled submissions from a slush pile exactly once in college for the literary magazine and I still have Lovecraftian nightmares about it. And meetings — sometimes when I listen to editors and publishers at conferences I get the sense that a publishing house is just a large collection of meetings galumphing ever forward through time. Individual editors, too, perform much of the same kind of labor that authors do: revisions, reading submissions, presenting themselves professionally at conferences and conventions, etc. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen editors desperate to clear their inboxes or mentioning they’re taking work home for the evening.
But also: bookkeeping. And money. A publisher lives and dies by the numbers. The value they offer is tied to the accounting: they pay for editing, cover art, marketing, and distribution so that an author does not have to undertake all those as separate tasks by a new author unestablished in the network. They also track distribution numbers, returns, royalties, wholesale discounts, sale prices, etc. — I get hives just thinking about trying to juggle all those numbers, which is why I haven’t self-published.
This focus does lead to a certain amount of secrecy. Publishers generally do not tell the author how much they’re paying that author’s editor, or the cover artist, or the PR person. Publishers DO tell the author how many copies of her books are selling, and where, and at what royalty rate. Or at least, they SHOULD. Much of the issues authors have been having with Ellora’s Cave — issues which started at least a year ago and which therefore predate the ‘Curious Case’ Dear Author post and the now-justly-infamous defamation lawsuit — stem from a frustration with the invisibility of publisher bookkeeping work: the definition of “quarterly” versus “monthly” payments, the obfuscation of whether “May royalties” describes sales made in May or simply received in May, and so on. None of what I’m saying here is new: author Lolita Lopez’ post is an excellent and very strong take on this.
As we saw with authors, a publisher’s invisible work is underscored every time someone wants to give publishers rhetorical weight and authority. It’s why John Scalzi has often described the benefits he gets from being traditionally published, and why self-publishing advocates often minimize the work a publisher puts into a book’s development. EC founder Jaid Black’s blog post (DoNotLinkified) emphasizes the time and money EC has put into contracting and editing books to give her claims to contractual rights and steady payments more credence. What Jaid Black also does in this post is going to be important for the rest of this discussion: she states that some authors are also making public statements in service of a secret, selfish agenda to reclaim rights and revert contracts.
This is the invisible work of conspiracy. We’ll be coming back to this.
Distributors are possibly the most invisible part of the book industry, at least from the outside. When I became an author I was shocked at how many writers had never heard of Ingram, much less had the ability to check and see if their books were available through them. Brick-and-mortar bookstores order direct from publishers if they order in quantity, but for smaller presses and individual items they’ll go right to Ingram or Baker and Taylor or the others on this list. Sometimes I remember that there is a whole major subset of the book industry that never speaks to a single plain reader and I get a little stunned, I really do. Digital distribution is even more opaque and confounding: sure we have Amazon and ARe and Smashwords and Kobo and such (for now), but there’s also many smaller etailers that are easily mistaken for the equally ubiquitous pirate sites.
Amazon of course is both a publisher and a distributor. This gives me, a longtime indie bookstore employee, a serious case of the side-eye. Print bookstores track sales through physical copies: the store receives a certain number of books and returns (usually) some of them, then is charged for any unreturned copies whether they were sold, damaged or stolen. This is why some (horrible) authors are advised to do the (invisible, horrible) work of signing bookstore stock without asking so that it can’t be returned. (Short answer: sure it can, and fuck you very much.)
Digital sales cannot be tracked the same way: digital sales numbers are half-invisible to start with and therefore more easily obscured. Amazon is the only one who can know whether Amazon is fudging sales numbers. Amazon also keeps its notorious algorithm very close; this is no doubt a sound business tactic. Sometimes Amazon tweaks the algorithm (through invisible code-work — remember that time some French Amazon employee made all the GLBTQ books vanish from Amazon searches?). This too is probably a sound business tactic and prevents savvy authors from gaming the rankings. A rigged game benefits only the rigger, after all — and Amazon’s not letting anyone else have control of their roulette wheel.
So far so good. Except: Amazon is also a publisher, not only through their imprints but also through the KDP program. Most self-published authors are not self-published, but really published through Amazon; the term self-published used to stand as a euphemism for the initial exchange of cash that was the mark of a vanity press. Now it more commonly stands in for published through Amazon or Smashwords or another non-traditional content delivery system. Notice how it’s become a more respectable description when that initial cash outlay is erased — though you could argue that it’s only moved, that the paying of editors and cover artists upfront in self-publishing is not meaningfully different from paying a publisher to loan you their own editor and cover artist. Amazon has not actually invested resources in your book, after all, aside from the tech set-up of the Kindle system.
We’ll be coming back to invisible tech-work later, too — but for now …
The reason you’ve heard of The Night Circus and The Time-Traveler’s Wife and Boneshaker and Shadow of the Wind and China Mieville and Haruki Murakami is because of the invisible work of booksellers. People with boots on the ground who can collectively make or break a book’s success. People who have constant access to books and the enthusiasm to follow favorite authors across many years and genres. Murakami, for instance, is a literary writer of truly odd and dreamlike stories working in Japanese whose translated English editions now get midnight release parties with masks of the author’s face. Some of this is self-interested: booksellers generally like their jobs and want to keep bookstores in business.
But self-interest isn’t the whole story: most booksellers are avid readers.
Readers’ work, like authors, happens in private and in solitude. Not only the process of reading a book, but the process of becoming expert in a genre or subgenre, reading and writing reviews and doing any research that those reviews might require. Articulating feelings about a book is work, whether your feelings are good or bad or mixed. You also get the invisible work of dedicated hardcore reviewers, whose reviews are more critical (in the academic sense) and often require much research and expertise. Places like Love in the Margins and Romance Novels for Feminists and the new-to-me-but-awesome-for-everyone Cooking Up Romance. My own Feminism A to Z series of reviews took months of dedicated writing, reading, and link-hunting. (Worth it: I’m super-proud of those posts.) Even the Goodreads gif-heavy reviews that some authors consider too snarky take more than minimal effort to produce, and this effort is nearly always overlooked when authors choose to take issue with a review/reviewer.
What does get emphasized in those flare-ups is that a reader paid money for a book: money stands in for work in a way, as it often does in American culture more broadly. This is why we think rich people have earned their wealth: they wouldn’t have all that money if they hadn’t done all that work, right? Over and over again in author-reader conflicts we see the invisible effort of the author butting heads with the equally invisible effort of the reader, with money fluttering around the discussion like a musty green moth. Because of course the author’s objections to a negative review are financial as well as personal: reviews sell books, and many authors believe positive reviews sell more books.
Now We Smash All The Atoms Together. BOOM.
And now we’re (finally!) ready to look clearly at the Amazon-Hachette-Authors United tangle [egregious farting sound effect].
For background, I’m using this excellent Guardian post. It’s important to point out at the outset that this whole conflict centers around a secret: the actual contract terms in dispute have not been made public, as far as I know. We’re all chasing MacGuffins here.
The usually invisible labor we’ve charted shows up front and center in this conflict. We have publisher Hachette, who wants to retain as much control as possible over ebook pricing because their royalty rates and therefore their revenues are directly tied to that number. They’re protecting their accounting strategy because that’s where their value lies as a business, to authors who might want to send them future books to publish. They had support from the booksellers, whose often-invisible work was briefly in the spotlight as they rallied around Hachette authors caught in the corporate dispute.
We also have Authors United. Their letter emphasizes the importance of their invisible labor — hence that tone-deaf bit about “outsourcing.” While I sympathize with their position — more so recently, you may guess — I can’t muster any corresponding passion for their high-mindedness. Frankly, although there are big names on that list, I will be shocked if they turn out to have any effect on the results of this dispute. I get tired of the bombast just reading the first half of that letter. Especially when we have an actual on-the-ground free-speech case playing out in the romance genre.
And finally we have Amazon: a busy, secretive behemoth, who insists over and over again in this debate that they’re only looking out for readers’ interests. That their priority is the reader/customer experience. But in this system they have all the financial agendas and invisible work of a distributor, a publisher, and a bookseller — without, of course, the tax burdens to match. They choose each face as it suits them: they present themselves as a bookseller to readers, as a distributor to publishers, and as a publisher to authors. And that’s not even getting into their much-publicized Dickensian warehouse working conditions, which continue to appall. Because of Amazon’s lack of transparency and multiple agendas, I find it hard to completely trust them — and I’m not alone.
Remember that notion of the invisible work of conspiracy? There seems to be a lot of it in the book industry these days, depending on who you listen to. Certainly Hachette should be mentioned here, since they settled when the Department of Justice sued Apple for ebook price-fixing. I find it less plausible to think that Ellora’s Cave authors are colluding, not least because we’re all exhausted and busy and who has the time for conspiracy, honestly? I’m trying to finish a book and a workshop presentation before the Emerald City Writers’ Conference next weekend. In the immortal words of Allison Janney’s erotic romance author Ms. Perky: “I’ve got deviants to see and a novel to finish.”
But this is the most succinct distillation of my anxiety regarding Amazon: if they wanted to collude, they could so easily collude with themselves. (I know, it’s a little crude, but you follow, yes?) They have access to so many moving parts of the process, and they are so reticent to allow their inner workings to be examined. They’re a ready-made conspiracy waiting to happen.
It makes me uneasy. I just wish that I knew what to do about it.
As a palate-cleanser, this short essay by Mary Beard on the book business in ancient Rome is entertaining and will strike many familiar notes.
In the comments to Michelle Sagara’s thoughtful and thought-provoking piece on alpha males at Dear Author, commenter Charming points to the term’s source in animal behavior studies (most notably from Rudolf Schenkel in 1947 and David Mech in 1970). These studies, it must be pointed out, have since been thoroughly debunked: it turns out that wolf behavior in captivity is not at all representative of wolf behavior in the wild. I recall reading once that comparing wild wolves to captive wolves in scientific studies is like trying to draw conclusions about general human behavior from prison populations (and then I found the citation! Hooray!) But by the time scientific literature caught up with the facts, the myth of alphas and pack dominance dynamics had spread far beyond animal behaviorists and had been eagerly grasped by the culture at large.
Including, and perhaps most particularly, romance novels.
The idea of the alpha wolf in animal behavior studies turned out to be a fantasy: it happens in an artificial environment, something deliberately walled off from the larger, wilder world wolves usually inhabit. People have created the space in which the alpha wolf appears (or appears to appear, but let’s not get ourselves more tangled than we have to). But like wild wolves, captive wolves still need to eat — and that food comes from the real world. The real world feeds the fantasy.
A book or trope or genre like romance is also an artificial environment, and like wolf sanctuaries or zoos it is an environment created by people. Though we call it a fantasy, we can’t simply declare it walled it off from real life: we have to feed the fantasy with real stuff. Sexism, gendered social roles, abuse dynamics, personal politics, religious beliefs, axes of oppression and resistance — these things and others have a way of sneaking in. You may disagree, but you must first explain why else none of Charles Dickens’ characters ever uses a telephone or sends an email. Our real world is inevitably tied up with our fiction.
“I write fantasy,” says Michelle Sagara. “I write about dragons and magic and flying, winged people. I can obviously suspend disbelief when I write, because I do not actually think any of these things can exist in the real world. But when I write, I believe. To read a book, I have to be able to believe in the same way.” It’s true we have no dragons in our world. But we have fire, and birds, and large animals both on land an in water. You don’t have to believe dragons are real to know that burns are painful and that large animals can be dangerous.
Another quote, worth unpacking:
As I said: the alpha male is idealized. Because he is a fantasy. But it’s the confidence and the commitment and the lack of feminine (the heroine’s) responsibility for another person that makes the trope attractive. If the heroine suffers from lack of confidence, it doesn’t matter; he has confidence. If she’s uncertain, if she desires him but she’s afraid to commit to more, he’s certain. The decisions and the mess are not actually hers to clean up.
The idea that the alpha hero has power in the world, therefore the heroine has power through her power over the alpha hero, is precisely what many object to about alpha heroes in general. Even the nice ones, the so-called caretaker alphas. I like the caretaking when it happens on the page. I like it in real life when Mr. Waite makes me soup when I’m sick. But I also like it when my friends do those things — or my parents, like the time I had the flu and my mother brought me over a whole roast chicken. And I like being able to do these things for Mr. Waite and my mother and my friends, because that is what balanced relationships require and it feels nice to be nice to someone else. The alpha male trope in romance, though, seems to rely on the heroine only finding comfort and power and support through this one intense sexual relationship — and this relationship becomes the conduit through which she must relate to the world thereafter. To use one of my favorite romance plots as an example, Cinderella is not a princess unless she marries her prince. Ana becomes Mrs. Christian Grey and through him makes things happen. If the alpha male is a purely escapist fantasy, as Sagara suggests, then it is an extremely specific and limiting one. And why one specific and limiting fantasy should be so overwhelmingly popular is precisely the point that critics like myself keep coming back to.
Note also what is being escaped here, according to Sagara:
I don’t think it’s the conditioning that makes romance alpha males work for readers. I think it’s the rest of real life. It’s having to raise children and be aware of their needs and their emotions constantly. It’s having to deal with failed relationships or walking away from those that are just draining because of incompatibility, etc. It’s having to be responsible, always, for other people. It’s having to make nice and to be someone else or be something other than we actually are for so much of day-to-day life.
Social conditioning is what makes us feel like women have a greater responsibility than men do to raise children, to be the responsible nurturer in defiance of our own needs and wants. To be something other than what we actually are. What Sagara is describing here is patriarchy, in a very fundamental way. Patriarchy is the symptom, and the alpha male is an anaesthetic, that comforts without curing.
That sentence was fairly inflammatory, so let me make myself more clear: the alpha male as described in this piece is an anaesthetic. This alpha male, however, only appears here. We can recognize that he is an echo of other alpha males we’ve seen in romance over the decades, but we’re not talking about any one specific fictional character here. Sagara’s post is written in response to newly minted Hugo winner Kameron Hurley’s equally thoughtful and thought-provoking piece where she was asked about the appeal of alpha heroes. In the process of coping with (though admittedly not answering this potentially unanswerable question), Hurley describes her fiction as a way of breaking down too-broad categories:
I’m here to challenge assumptions of normal, of hierarchy, assumptions that humans will always be bullies, or assumptions that “man” and “woman” are anything but poorly constructed language boxes created by humans to organize what is, in truth, a fantastically messy and diverse and incredibly non-binary world.
Sagara’s piece instead very deliberately builds the kind of language boxes Hurley rejects. Sagara constructs an Ideal Alpha and then explains his appeal — but this Ideal Alpha is her own invention. She cites one example of such a hero in the comments, but it’s important to note that she doesn’t base any of the post itself on any individual text or group of texts. She is not so much explaining the appeal of any particular existing alpha male hero, as she is constructing one in process while we watch and then declaring him good.
Her Ideal Alpha is a pure fantasy. He doesn’t exist in a world, even a fictional one. If he did appear in a book, we would have behaviors and actions we could discuss and debate for their worth. But we don’t have anything like facts — which explains the mess in the comments thread, where some are invoking abusive heroes and others are talking about how alphas are “exciting” and “dramatic.” The conversation is hugely unmoored, and therefore fairly unproductive. This is why I describe this Ideal Alpha as an anaesthetic: he is a broad generalization, a hypothesis rather than a dataset. He doesn’t even have a name.
Writing feminist pieces about romance means standing on a tightrope stretched between These Trashy Books Rot Women’s Tender Brains on the one side and I Like It So That Means It’s Morally Good on the other. I’m not really interested in telling people they shouldn’t read or enjoy reading alpha heroes. I am very, very interested in why we have alpha heroes coming out of the woodwork, but the number of alpha heroines can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. This is an extreme imbalance and well worth figuring out — unless you take the tack that men are just naturally alpha, and women are just naturally not alpha. In which case I am not going to talk feminism with you until you get some of the 101-level reading done. (Great place to start: Cordelia Fine’s excellent Delusions of Gender.)
There are real-world conclusions to be drawn from romance reading, more nuanced than what we normally see in the press. Because the road between fiction and the real world is a two-way street. Wolves have to eat, and they also have to poop. (This metaphor just got much less elegant, didn’t it?) If alpha heroes in all their multitudes are read purely for comfort, what does it say about our culture that we as women need so much comfort, so badly?
I hope this does not count as me “decrying the need for comfort.” The problem I have is not choosing between comfort fiction and challenging fiction, because like many humans I enjoy both. The problem I have is the gap between the specific and the general. Are romance novels feminist or conservative? Are alpha heroes good or abusive? These are broad and therefore useless questions. (#NotAllAlphaHeroes?) Writing a defense of alphas in romance without reference to specific alpha heroes is a recursive exercise only. Defending one specific type of fantasy while labeling it “comfort reading” without qualification erases the fact that for many women, myself included, comfort reading happens when we find a story that does not feature overbearing, belligerent dudes trying to take decisions away from us. I don’t want a man to “dress me,” as one of the supportive commenters does — though I’ll admit I wouldn’t mind if a billionaire handed me a credit card and told me to just go nuts with the Modcloth orders. But is the fantasy there the man, or the money?
“Comfort requires trust,” Sagara writes in conclusion. I agree entirely. But my trust is based in my real-world experience, even with my disbelief suspended. I can believe in dragons, easily, but I will be wary of their teeth.
For some reason, all this talk about wolves makes me feel as though I am somehow exploiting the wolves for personal gain — so let me point any readers in Washington State toward the website for Wolf Haven, which does marvelous work and is a truly great place to aim a visit or a donation. Their website does auto-play wolf howls, but I had my volume quite low and found this strangely soothing and perhaps the only time I’ve ever actually found autoplay enriching to a website visit. I will always remember visiting as a child and being instructed to howl at the wolves. They howled back, all around us, and I got chills.