Monday, February 18, 2013

My crazy three years since "the call"

There's been a lot of behind-the-scenes author stuff happening these last few weeks. Most of it I can't talk about just yet, but suffice it to say, I'm lucky beyond belief to have the world's savviest, smartest, most dedicated, determined, and supportive agent on the planet.

A quick round of applause for Michelle Wolfson of Wolfson Literary, please?

It dawned on me the other night when I was exchanging emails with Michelle at nearly 1 a.m. her time (did I mention the dedicated part?) that it's been almost exactly three years since I got the call that Michelle had landed me a three-book deal with Sourcebooks for my romantic comedies.

It got me thinking about what's changed in my life and in the publishing industry since that time.

I've released two books and one active-fiction title. Making Waves hit shelves in August 2011, and was nominated for RT Book Reviews contemporary romance of the year. The Chicago Tribune made me all swoony when they wrote, "Fenske's wildly inventive plot & wonderfully quirky characters provide the perfect literary antidote to any romance reader's summer reading doldrums.” And if that weren't delightful enough, Believe it or Not came out in March 2012 to reviews like this one from Publishers Weekly: "Sexually charged dialogue & steamy make-out scenes will keep readers turning pages.” Meanwhile, Michelle landed me another deal with Coliloquy, which publishes active-fiction titles like my story, Getting Dumped (sorta like a grownup version of choose-your-own-adventure). And all those books are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what's kept me busy these last three years. Which leads me to my next point...

Being a published author involves a lot less book writing than you'd think. When I look back on the last three years, I've written two full manuscripts and two partials from scratch (none of which you've seen, but we'll cover that in another paragraph). That might seem like a lot, but compared with my former ability to churn out a completed manuscript in 3-4 months, it's pretty slow. So what have I been doing with my time? The answer isn't as x-rated as you might imagine. Promotion. A lot of it. At one point I was writing daily blog posts here, weekly posts for my day job, weekly posts for The Debutante Ball, and as many as seven posts a week for blogs the Sourcebooks publicist lined up during my release months. It hurts my brain to think about that. Then there was Facebook and Twitter and interviews for magazine and newspaper articles. I also spent a lot of time on editorial revisions, ranging from smaller copy edits to completely gutting and rewriting books from scratch. There was also travel – for book signings and conferences and speaking engagements. There's also the aforementioned day job, plus the fact that I do sometimes have a personal life. I'm flabbergasted I ever found time to poop, much less write new books.

Those new books I mentioned – the ones you've never seen? Yeah. About that. I was talking recently with a friend whose debut novel came out the same year mine did. Hers was wildly successful, winning oodles of awards and bestseller honors. But since then, she's struggled to write a book her publisher considers "the right next book." She's not alone, and this is something I wish I'd understood back when I thought a book deal meant the end of publication angst. If anything, it gets tougher. Editors and marketing folks use your previous reviews and sales records to determine "the right next book" for your career. Sometimes, it isn't the one you've just written. I learned that the hard way when the book I crafted as the third in my romantic comedy contract was praised as a wonderful, funny, well written story – but not "the right next book." Some of it was about tone, some was about perceived changes in the market, and some of it was just baffling editorspeak I can't possibly understand, but must respect and defer to if I want to succeed in this industry. I went back to the drawing board and wrote an entirely new book intended to be the third in my romantic comedy contract. And now we wait. And wait. Did I mention the waiting doesn't get easier? 

What the @#$% happened to the publishing industry? I'm dumbfounded by how quickly the industry has changed in recent years. It wasn't long ago aspiring authors would carefully craft query letters, lick their stamps, then lick their wounds when form rejection letters appeared in the mailbox from these mysterious, terrifying creatures known as agents. These days, agents banter on Twitter about Pop Tarts and queries with everyone from bestselling authors to those who've never finished a manuscript. Social media has leveled the playing field and removed a lot of fear for authors, and that's a good thing. Another dramatic change is the perception of indy publishing, small press, and self-publishing. I'll admit it – three years ago, I secretly saw those publishing avenues as the domain of writers who weren't quite good enough to land traditional book deals with larger publishing houses. But these days, mid-list and mega-bestselling authors are jumping ship with traditional publishers and going the indy or self-pub route. Does that mean it's the best choice for everyone? Nope, definitely not. But the fact that authors now have choices like these – and that they're regarded as legitimate career moves, rather than last resorts – is empowering and exciting.

Is this my life? If you're a regular reader of this blog, you already know my personal life has undergone some pretty major changes in the three years since my book deal. Back when I got the call from my agent, I had been happily married and happily childless-by-choice for more than twelve years, and I assumed I'd stay that way forever. But life threw me some serious curveballs that first year, and the divorce I never saw coming put a funny kink in my year as a debut author (and not the fun kind of kink). But things have a way of working out in the long run. The longtime acquaintance I tapped to be my "divorce mentor" turned out to be the most amazing, compassionate, considerate, sexy, fun, talented, kind person I've ever met. And his two kids have become a source of joy and laughter and daily amazement for me in ways I never could have expected. Is this the life I thought I'd have three years ago when I shrieked into my agent's ear over the phone line? Hell no. But it most ways, it's better.

So that's my roundup of what's changed in the last three years. What's yours? Please share!

Monday, February 11, 2013

The domineering male with spinach and dish soap

My longstanding critique partner writes heroes who are chauvinistic, knuckle-dragging jerks.

I can say that, since I write heroines who are unlikable, unsympathetic bitches.

We've critiqued each other's work for close to a decade, long before either of us had a book contract or a clue how to spot our own idiotic habits. We've gotten good at rehabbing each other's work so our editors aren't subjected to the ass-hat behaviors of our characters' earlier selves. By the time readers see the finished product, her heroes and my heroines have been transformed from douche-nozzles into quirky, imperfect-but-likable individuals.

At least we hope so.

I woke this morning to an email from my critique partner with the first ten pages of her new manuscript and a request that I identify instances of domineering jerkitude before she goes too far with the story.

The irony?

In her effort to avoid creating a pushy pig, she'd gone too far the other way, crafting a man who urgently needed to grow a pair of love spuds.

The whole thing got me thinking about spinach and dish soap.

When I first began spending time with my gentleman friend, I invited him to dinner. He listened politely as I recited the planned menu – hazelnut-crusted halibut, steamed red potatoes, homemade bread.

"I'll make sauteed spinach," he said. "You have olive oil, right?"

I was taken aback. I love to cook, and I do it often for friends and family. When I invite people to dinner, most reply by asking, "what can I bring?"

Usually, I demur. "Don't worry about it," I insist. "Just bring your smiling self."

If it's a good friend, I might suggest a bottle of wine or a loaf of bread. But most of the time, I give in to my need to prove I have everything handled and my reluctance to issue orders. It's easier to tell people to arrive empty-handed than to feel like I'm handing out assignments.

Which is why my gentleman friend's offer of sauteed spinach caught me off-guard. He was assessing my needs and finding a way to contribute without requiring me to assign him something. I'll make sauteed spinach may have been a simple statement, but to me, it was akin to him saying, I will look for ways to be useful to you without waiting around for orders. He wasn't asking me what he could bring – he was telling me.

Pushy? Presumptuous? Maybe a tiny bit. But also the most successful form of foreplay imaginable.

It could have been a fluke, but it wasn't. A few months later as we bustled around the kitchen cleaning up after a meal, he watched me squirt dish soap from a plastic bottle.

"Why don't you use that built-in soap dispenser next to the sink?" he asked.

I shrugged. "I wish I could. It hasn't really worked right for years."

He grabbed me by the hips, pushed me aside, and crawled under my sink. "I think I see the problem," he called from the depths of the cupboard. "Got a screwdriver?"

I stood there dumbfounded for a minute. OK, maybe I was checking out his ass. And maybe I was also contemplating making an inappropriate screwdriver joke.

But I was also pondering how sexy it was to have a man who didn't just yell from the couch, "you need any help out there?" He anticipated the likelihood of me saying, "that's OK, I've got it," and bypassed my half-assed refusal by doing the job cheerfully and without making me ask for it.

And yeah, he pushed me around in my own kitchen. A little domineering, but holy-mother-of-hell, it was sexy.

There's a fine line when it comes to writing alpha males in romance or any other genre. On one side of it, you have the chest-thumping caveman taking charge because he's certain the silly little woman can't do anything for herself. On the other side, you have a guy who sees a genuine need and takes charge of fulfilling it without waiting around to be asked or listening to half-hearted refusals. It's a tough balance for a writer trying to create an alpha male who doesn't come off as a guy two steps from clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her by the hair toward his den. The trick, perhaps, is in showing your reader an intuitive helpmate, as opposed to a controlling misogynist.

Oh, and lest you think my gentleman friend reserved the sensitive caveman bit for those early months of dating, I'm happy to report things haven't changed. I spent the last week battling a nasty cold, which meant he spent most of that time ordering me to take care of myself and rest. On Saturday, he caught me in the kitchen trying to do dishes.

"Go lie down and relax," he commanded. "I've got this."

I agreed, then turned and began rummaging in the cupboard for a mug.

"Out!" he ordered. "Now!"

"But I need tea."

"I'll make you some tea and then I'll do the dishes," he said. "Just go lie down."

Five minutes later, he brought me a steaming mug of tea, accompanied by a filthy joke about teabagging

"You're a pig," I told him.

"You love it."

Very true.

Here's to men who've learned the secret of blending a touch of pushy, domineering attitude with the spirit of a sensitive helpmate. They're the ones who get laid in romance novels.

Deservedly so.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Three things I've learned being a judgmental b*tch

I'm armpit deep in a pile of romance novels as a result of volunteering to judge this year's RITAs (the romance novel equivalent of the Academy Awards).

I won't pretend it's a hardship to spend every waking moment reading romance novels. That's pretty close to my description of a perfect job, right behind "adult product tester" and "wine quality assurance manager."

But still, it's time consuming. It's also a good reminder of a few things we writers sometimes forget in our dogged pursuit of agents, book contracts, and joyous reviews from readers who had spontaneous orgasms upon opening our latest masterpiece.

Here are a few things I'm hereby commanding myself to remember:
  1. Amazing books get published every day, some that make me swoon over the quality of prose and storytelling while thinking, "I couldn't ever write like that." That's true, I couldn't. But it's also true no one could ever tell my stories the same way I could. And I couldn't tell your stories the same way you could. The great thing about books is that no two are exactly the same, and thank dawg for that.
  2. Lousy books get published every day. It's true, and as much as we all like to imagine that only quality material rises to the top, that's not always the case. But this fact neither detracts from nor builds my own experience as a writer. Pointing out examples of lousy writing that gets published just makes us look petty and snobbish.
  3. Every published novel I pick up to review for this contest has been rejected or ridiculed by someone at some point. Guaranteed. This business is subjective, and just because one agent, editor, or reader doesn't want what you're writing doesn't mean everyone will feel the same. 
That last point is significant whether you're a writer, an engineer, or a nipple-clamp salesman. Rejection is a fact of life, and there's always something we can take away from the experience. What's your takeaway?

I leave you with this gem I spotted on Facebook this morning. Amen, Mr. Maraboli. Amen.