How to Fail Miserably at Writing
© 2017 by Giselle Renarde
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
The essays in this collection were originally published on the authors’ blog Oh Get a Grip!
Cover design © 2017 Giselle Renarde
First Edition 2017
Let’s get all deep and psychological, k?
I’ve got two novels sitting at the back of my hard drive. I wrote them. It took aaaaaages. Now all I need is to edit the hell out of them before sending them out to publishers or, more likely, self-publishing.
Every so often I open one of the files, thinking, “This is it! I’m going at this thing, hardcore!”
I read one chapter, make some changes… and then I shut it down.
I like these books. I mean, I REALLY like them. It’s not like I’m putting off editing because I think it’s going to be difficult and time-consuming (though, realistically, it probably will be).
So, why am I procrastinating?
Because, once I’m finished with the edits, I’ll have to decide what to do with these manuscripts.
Do I send them to publishers I’ve worked with before? Makes sense. The possibility of getting a contract is higher at houses where I’ve already established roots. But maybe I should take a chance by sending them somewhere new. Is new better? The grass is always greener at that other publishing house. Oh, if I get in there, just image the distribution, the sales! Imagine finally being able to pay the rent AND eat more than oatmeal for every meal!
Except, it never works out that way.
I’ve been here before. I’ve sent my work to that perfect publisher, been accepted, and felt thrilled because this is it! This is the book that’ll hit the big-time!
And then… it doesn’t.
We authors have such high hopes, but they never seem to pan out. I’ve heard from writers contracted by the big publishing houses that they’ve never earned out their advances. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Regardless of publisher, once a book is up for sale you’ve got to market the hell out of it. Still, if nobody’s interested, they’re not going to buy. And if you’ve worked your ass off on a manuscript and nobody buys it, how do you feel?
That’s right—like a failure.
Take The Red Satin Collection as an example. My trans lesbian Christmas erotic romance won the 2012 Rainbow Award for Best Transgender Romance, but I won’t even tell you how few copies have sold. It’s too embarrassing.
So, do I feel proud that my book won an award, or ashamed because nobody buys it? I’ll give you one guess.
Or what if a book sells really well, but the whole world hates it?
I’ve been there, too.
My book Stacy’s Dad has got it Going On was an Amazon bestseller. It hit the ground running. And then the reader reviews came in:
“OMG so boring!”
“Worst book ever!”
Those might even be direct quotes.
I tried to put the negativity out of my head. Professional reviews were highly complimentary, but readers hated it. (Seems odd to distinguish between readers and reviewers, since readers are posting reviews and reviewers are obviously reading the books.)
And once that title became plagued by 1-star reviews, that was it. Sales dried up. The end.
It’s no wonder I’m procrastinating when it comes to getting these two lying-in-wait novels on the market. In my mind, they’re either going to sell and be hated, or be loved and barely earn me enough to buy oatmeal. Those are the only options.
And they wonder why authors are so neurotic?
I started writing erotica on a dare.
That was in 2006. I’d been downsized from my job in the business world, so I told myself this: I would send out three submissions. If one of them was accepted for publication, I’d go at writing full-tilt. If none were accepted for publication, I’d pack it in. I’d just watched a documentary about Canadian author Mavis Gallant, and apparently that’s what she’d told herself when she moved to Paris to be a writer. If it was good enough for her, it was good enough for me.
So I sent out my three submissions. I’m trying to remember where. One was an audiobook company in Australia. I don’t think they exist anymore. The other two… might have been an erotica website called Ruthie’s Club, might have been a Cleis Press anthology, might have been a subscription site like For the Girls or Three Pillows. I’m trying to remember who was on the scene back then.
I don’t remember who the rejections came from, but my one acceptance letter came courtesy of the Australian audiobook people. Recently, I came across the piece I sent them. It’s terrible. But that’s beside the point.
I kept writing. I kept submitting my work. I wrote a novella called Ondine, which was passed over by… gosh, I don’t even know. A lot of publishers. Who the hell wants a book about a bisexual ballerina? I wrote short stories that were bought by Ruthie’s Clue and Cleis anthologies and For the Girls and Hustler Fantasies and Oysters and Chocolate.
I’m queer. I wrote about queer chicks. I figured readers would like what I liked.
I started hearing that readers wanted MMF ménage—that’s two guys and a girl. Okay, well… didn’t appeal much to me, but whatevs. I came close and wrote an MMFF ménage story (two guys, two girls) called The Birthday Gift. It was snapped up by a new ebook publisher called Dark Eden Press.
And then my edits came in.
When I read the editor’s first comment, I could hear her sighing with exasperation all the way up in Alaska.
“This manuscript requires a complete overhaul.”
That was her first comment.
A million things were wrong with it. At the time, it seemed like EVERYTHING was wrong with it. The voice was too passive. That was the biggie. I didn’t even know what a “passive voice” was.
In that moment, I vowed never to write anything ever again. I felt like my brain was being devoured by fire ants. My ego was damaged. I was so hurt. I was TOO hurt. I would go through with the edits because I had a contract to fulfill, but after that? Never again.
Those edits were hard work. I learned a lot. My editor sent me resources. At the time, I didn’t I didn’t really know what POV was, let alone deep third and all that. I rewrote The Birthday Gift, and when my editor sent back the next draft it was every bit as marked up as the first. At least I didn’t have to re-write the whole thing again.
The Birthday Gift went through three solid rounds of edits before it went to the proofreader. I probably spent three times as long editing that novelette than I spent writing it.
By the time it got to market, The Birthday Gift was considerably improved, thanks entirely to my editor. People actually bought it… and LIKED it. Wow.
So I didn’t quit the profession after all. That wasn’t exactly a decision. It just sort of happened. I kept writing. I didn’t stop. Some days I think perhaps I should have, but other days I consider how fortunate I am to work from home doing something I enjoy.
You can quit writing ten times over. The moment will pass.
I’m not big on technology. I’ve had the same cell phone since 2005. It doesn’t even have a camera. No biggie, because my camera has a camera. I own three computers, but no tablets or e-readers. In fact, work aside, I’ve never read a book digitally. I like to hold a book in my hands. I’m old-fashioned, that way.
Bad young(ish) person! Bad! Bad! Bad!
When I started writing erotica in 2006, I’d never heard of ebooks. They didn’t seem exactly legit, but I had trouble breaking into the print market at first, so… meh, ebooks it is. Beggars can’t be choosers. My first published work (aside from anthology contributions and stories purchased by defunct erotica websites like Ruthie’s Club and Oysters and Chocolate) was The Birthday Gift, which is now available from eXcessica Publishing. It was originally published by the now-defunct Dark Eden Press.
Hmm… I seem to be using the word “defunct” a lot. I’m kind of amazed I’m still here when so many publishers, websites and retailers have closed their doors.
Anyhoo, ebooks kind of took off, didn’t they? I have a lot of them on the market. 200? 300? I don’t know. I’ve lost track. I stretched myself a little thin, sending work to a number of different publishing houses. One of my absolute favourites, eXcessica Publishing, started out as a co-op. After a few years, it grew into even more of a co-op, meaning things like cover art and formatting became the author’s responsibility.
“Wha-wha-wha-whaaaat? You mean I have to figure out how to design a book cover? And format an ebook? I could never wrap my brain around something like that. Never! In a million years!”
But when the alternative is spending money on a cover artist? Well, you know me—I’m that delightful combination of cheap and impoverished, so time to figure out how to use technology.
Fortunately, I have a brother who’s good with tech stuff, so he taught me the basics of a graphic design program called GIMP. That said, he’s not a graphic designer and not a Mac person, so he didn’t know a hell of a lot about it.
But still… better than nothing.
I’ve heard other people say they tried GIMP and gave up on it. I hear you, writers! It is NOT a user-friendly program. I still struggle with it when I’m trying to do something new or something I’ve forgotten how to do.
To tell you the truth, I love creating book covers now… mostly because shopping for stock photos is really just a convenient excuse for staring at boobs and calling it work.
Everything’s a headache at the start. I had a list of formatting instructions from my publisher, but actually putting that information into action?
Everything is doable if you’re too poor to pay someone to do it for you. You’d be amazed at all the random things I can do because I live below the poverty line. (I really do!)
I’ll have to tell you about delving into another realm I swore I’d never enter—self-publishing—but that’s a post for another day…
Here’s something you should never admit when you work in this industry: I’m not a romantic.
But that’s my truth. I soured on romance early in life because I never felt represented in Disney-esque storylines. I’m queer and genderfucked and just generally weird. I was never a princess and I never wanted a prince. Romance as a genre did not speak to me.
Apart from being queer and not identifying with heteromance (which struck me as prescriptive and ridiculous in terms of what’s considered acceptable and appropriate behaviour in establishing a relationship), I also found the idea of the happy-ever-after a little… well, unrealistic. Fantastic, in other words.
Romance is a fantasy.
A couple months ago, there was a hashtag on Twitter that had something to do with romance readers’ guilty confessions. I noticed a lot of readers tweeting that they didn’t care how a story resolved itself so long as the lovers lived happily ever after. They didn’t care if the romance was realistic. They just wanted to feel warm and fuzzy at the end.
Of course, not everybody following the conversation agreed. Some readers want the plot to resonate, or at least to… you know, make sense. For myself, I’d rather watch everything fall apart. That’s reality. I’d rather see real, deep troubles between people—troubles that aren’t easily or ever fixed.
But the fantasy of romance must have wriggled its way into my writing brain. I happened to be writing a fluffy bit of erotica, at the time, called “Seducing the Sexy Celebrity Chef.” I intended it as a hardcore romp—a woman’s sexual fantasy of getting it on with a domineering TV chef.
But as I wrote my Chef story, its intention began to morph. I was trying to write a story that was all about sex, and suddenly it was infusing itself with romance. Suddenly, my famous chef wanted even more than my star-struck woman wanted. He wanted to see her the next morning. He wanted a relationship!
I tried editing out all that fantastic romance, even as I wrote it. For some reason, I couldn’t stop myself. Romance overpowered me. When I handed the manuscript over to my girlfriend, who is also my contract editor, I asked her, “Is this too far from reality?” I really hoped she’d tell me it was. I hoped she’d advise me to change the story and remove some of that gushy, far-from-life romance.
But she didn’t. She liked it.
What is it that’s so satisfying about the fantasy of romance? Even as I reread that story and told myself, “This would never happen—not in a million years!” I couldn’t change it. Maybe even the most jaded among us maintain the fantasy of an easy love, an easy romance, an easy life.
That’s not reality. Maybe that’s why we (yes, even the cynics and the pessimists) need a fictional shot of happy every once in a while.
I didn’t renew my opera subscription for next season. I’m just too poor.
An opera subscription sounds too decadent for a poor writer, and that’s probably why I’m such an apologist (“My seats are in the nosebleed section. When you break it down, I’m only paying like $20 per ticket. You spend nearly that much to see a movie, these days.”), but I’m glad I had the opportunity, this season, to catch the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome directed by Atom Egoyan.
Are you familiar with Atom Egoyan’s films? The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica and two I found particularly affecting. If you haven’t seen them, seek them out. They’re something else.
When I first started writing erotica, I wanted to create work that felt… Egoyanesque? Let’s pretend that’s a word. I wanted to write works that evoked that same impactful and sometimes carnivalesque dreamscape as an Atom Egoyan film.
I came into the world of erotic fiction very naively. And romance? What’s that? I’ve still never read a heterosexual romance novel. I tried once, just to get a feel for the form, but I gave up pretty quickly. I read a few lesbian romance novels, but they didn’t speak to me either. It seemed like lesbian couples were just superimposed on tried-and-true tropes of heteromance. Didn’t work for me.
But I’m not a romantic, and I’ve already admitted that to you. For a story to appeal to me, it’s got to be pretty fucked up. In Atom Egoyan’s film “The Sweet Hereafter,” Sarah Polley’s character is sleeping with her father. In “Exotica,” a father seeks solace in a stripper after the murder of his child. There’s a special fucked-up-ed-ness that is distinct to Egoyan’s work. I love it. I perv on that special brand of Canadian weirdness, and I wanted to replicate it in my own little way.
Unfortunately, weirdness doesn’t work. Basically, the fucked-up crazy-ass shit I’d most like to write is deemed unacceptable by most publishers and vendors in the erotic fiction genre. It’s all well and good to be Egoyanesque if you’re writing literature, but if you want to work in Pervtown, you’d better keep it clean.
Isn’t it weird that we have to sanitize our sex books? Crikey…
The first novel I wrote was a bisexual ballerina book called Ondine. Nobody would touch that manuscript. It was too lesbian. It was too strange, too full of lies and deception. It was too this-that-and-the-other. Too unhappy-ever-after.
One editor who passed on the novel gave me a whole list of insights, and I put her advice to work. I turned a hetero subplot into a leading lady. I changed the book so it ended in a proposal. Happy-for-now is about the farthest I can roam from my desire for pain and suffering. I write it because I have to. It’s almost always forced. The only exception I can think of is a trans lesbian novella I wrote called Friday Night Lipstick. That one ends in a wedding scene that makes me cry every time I read it.
But, for the most part, I’d rather see despair, or watch characters drive themselves crazy doing things they shouldn’t. Case in point: I wrote a novella called Adam and Sheree’s Family Vacation. It’s brother/sister incest—something I never considered writing until the plot came to me in an Egoyanesque dream state and took over my mind. I couldn’t not write it. And how could Adam and Sheree ever see a happy-ever-after together? They’re brother and sister. They couldn’t marry, even if they wanted to.
Thank goodness I have a publisher who believes in freedom of perversion, or Adam and Sheree would probably never see the light of day.
So, HEA? I don’t often write it. Maybe if I did, I’d be able to afford that opera subscription. Opera loves the delicious, the titillating, the wicked, and the heart-wrenching.
So do I.
For an erotica writer, I don’t actually read a lot of erotica. When I do revisit erotic fiction I’ve already read, it’s one of three novellas (that I wrote myself): Nanny State (lesbian ageplay), Adam and Sheree’s Family Vacation (brother/sister incest erotica), or Adam and Sheree’s Family Business (same brother and sister, but with a whole bunch of roommates thrown into the mix).
The truth is that my taboo work is my best work.
And my best work is the stuff that gets me into the most trouble. Nanny State always sold well, but it never really made waves (which is pretty incredible considering the adult baby angle), but Adam and Sheree… oh, those crazy kids—N O, NOT KIDS! Consenting adults! I feel like I need to work that in to every discussion around these books. Adam and Sheree are blood relatives, but they’re not children. They’re grown-ass people making a choice to fuck each other. Some would say that’s a misguided choice, but isn’t that the fun of fiction?
Amazon banned Adam and Sheree’s Family Vacation (and Family Business and Family Christmas) right off the bat because they don’t permit such filth to sully their site. There are a lot of ebook retailers that won’t carry these books. By now I’m sure you remember Kobo’s knee-jerk censorship of everything. That started because of the eeeevils Adam and Sheree—well, not them specifically, but characters like them.
Erotica is under fire, and every time this happens too many authors are quick to jump down the throats of those few perverts out there who are writing about icky topics like incest. Well, I’m one of those perverts, and I don’t care whether you call my work erotica, adult fiction, porn, smut, or even crap. I don’t care what you call it as long as you don’t tell me it should be banned.
Burn them books. No one should ever be allowed to get their hands on them.
What an injustice you’re doing yourself if you’re an author advocating for the take-down of other authors’ books!
My filth is good stuff. The dirtier, the better. The dirtier, the more resonant.
Maybe it scares you. Makes you feel a little awkward, thinking about it. Gives you a turn in the pit of your stomach. That’s okay. Seems like people sometimes forget that just because a book exists doesn’t mean they necessarily have to go right out and buy a copy.
Censorship has a funny way of slippery-slope snowballing—and not in a fun way. The very week my sock puppet author frenemy Lexi Wood released her stepdaddy/stepdaughter novella Dance for Daddy, Salome, Amazon started banning “pseudoincest” erotica. Yup. No blood relatives in this one. Just legal adults having consensual sex. But don’t look for it at Amazon. It’s long gone.
At the same point, Amazon started banning monster erotica. Then they went after virgins, teens and, according to bestselling author Selena Kitt, babysitters. Kobo took it five bajillion steps further and removed every book published through their Kobo Writing Life platform, regardless of genre.
You thought it would just be me and my filthy taboo smut getting burned?
There’s an interview question that typically comes up for authors:
“What makes your books different from others in the genre?”
It’s too bad you can’t answer a question with a question, because the first thing that always comes to mind is, “Which genre are we talking about, here?”
Although it doesn’t even matter because I don’t fit in anywhere.
I think a lot of are in the same boat. We’re not the popular kids. And we don’t want to be.
But I make my living as a writer. I don’t have an evil day job. Writing is my evil day job. It’s povertylicious! And I don’t say that jokingly, so don’t be offended or think I don’t take low income seriously. I literally live below the poverty line.
I never answered that interview question, did I? The thing that makes my work different from others’ in the genre is that I’m queer and I’m pretty genderfucked and, though there are a few men I find interesting, they aren’t anything like the Alpha Males who are so popular in erotic romance today.
The kind of erotic fiction readers want is not the kind of erotic fiction I write.
When I started writing erotica in 2006, I came into this venture soooo naively. I still hadn’t figured out that I wasn’t a “normal” person. I thought the stuff that appealed to me erotically would appeal to everybody else.
So…. yeah, that’s not the case.
I’ve mentioned before that editors and publishers advised me to stop wasting my time on fiction about lesbians or bisexual women. Instead, I wrote more. I wrote a trans lesbian novel that won a Rainbow Award, but awards don’t help sales. You’d think they would, but they don’t.
What’s a poor author to do?
Write a stupid book. That’s what I decided on.
Dark romance is popular these days—erotic fiction at its rapey-est. I really had to push myself into this project. Non-consent doesn’t appeal to me. But if there’s one thing I learned from writing my Adam and Sheree trilogy, it’s that writing a taboo topic can change my opinion of it. (I thought incest was really squicky before I wrote Adam and Sheree. Now it’s all I want to write.)
Actually, the idea for my novel Seven Kisses came to me as I was cutting through the grounds of a very Victorian-looking rehabilitation centre. I’ve lived in the same neighbourhood for over a decade but I’d never seen this place before. It was one of those magical realism moments where you think, “Where did that come from?”
I found myself wondering what kind of rehab this clinic provided. I had an image of two orderlies mistaking me for a patient and dragging me inside kicking and screaming.
As I continued my walk that day, a hazy idea for a dark romance formed in my mind. What if they locked me up and subjected me to strange “therapies”?
I hadn’t quite committed to writing this dark romance until I spotted this on my book shelf:
Beauty and the Beast by Madame de Villeneuve.
A book I’d bought and never read. A tale of capture and confinement. It’s the original dark romance!
I’ve had a soft spot for Beauty and the Beast ever since 1991, when the Disney feature came out. Writing this book as an adaptation made me more comfortable with the concept of dark romance.
Of course, it didn’t take long for my adaptation to run off the rails. Sure there’s a beast, but he exists under the command of the cruel psychotherapist Mme de Villeneuve.
Madame can see everyone’s follies but her own. She doesn’t seem to realize that she’s been repressing her attraction to women so long that it’s coming out in harmful ways… like binding our young beauty to an antiquated hospital bed and subjecting her to a turn-of-the-century fucking machine.
What just happened here? A book that was supposed to be strictly heteromance with a hard, unforgiving hero turned into an I-don’t-know-what romance (yeah, it’s still a romance) about a fairy tale wicked witch therapist with serious issues.
But don’t worry—I didn’t forget the monkey butlers.
Even when I try to write for the market, my books always turn into ME. That’s great news for my fellow erotic authors who appreciate my work. It’s bad news for my bank account (which currently has $53 in it. Canadian.).
Same thing happens every time I write “for the market.”
So do I regret trying?
Actually, no. Sure my frustrated code name for Seven Kisses was “Stupid Book,” but I really like the story I ended up with… even if readers might not be sold on my spin.
I’m not a “trained” writer by any stretch of the imagination. I have a degree, but it’s not in English or Literature, though I did take an English Literature course somewhere along the way. Been there, done that, got The Norton Anthology.
When I was in high school, there was a class called Writer’s Craft. It was a creative writing course. Some of my friends took it.
I wrote stories when I was a kid. I wrote a lot of stories, actually.
My Grade Three teacher told my mom I would grow up to be a writer.
I dismissed the idea.
I wanted to be a number of things over the course of my young life, but a writer was never one of them.
And yet here I am, a professional writer. Funny how that happens, huh?
When I started writing, I knew NOTHING. Less than nothing, because I didn’t know the market, either. I’ve talked before about my first round of edits on my first ebook (The Birthday Gift) with my first publisher (the now defunct Dark Eden Press). It made me want to quit writing forever. It was in that moment that I realized how little I knew.
I felt really stupid. And I was really stupid.
I had no idea what point of view was. Seriously. I didn’t. I’d never thought about it. I pretty much started my career writing letter-style erotica for Hustler Fantasies and the like, so I guess I somehow knew enough to write a letter in the first person.
Maybe I just lucked out.
No, DEFINITELY I just lucked out.
The Birthday Gift was (and still is) written in the third person and I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d ever written a book wherein the “I” was instead “she.”
I was extremely not good at it.
Wish I’d known that at the time, but my editor was quick to enlighten me.
I’ve never been the kind of author who confuses tenses or head-hops, thank goodness, but my very first editor had to teach me about “deep third.” Did I have any idea what that was? Nope. But she helped me understand that in this genre you really need to get inside the character’s head. It’s a lot like writing in the first person.
Actually, I’ve spend the past three days revising a story that was originally published six years ago, which means I probably wrote it seven years ago. Yup, you read that right: THREE days revising a SHORT story. It was in rough shape, and I’ll tell you why: I learned writing on the job. And when you’re learning, you’re not always producing glorious prose.
Early in my career, everything I wrote in the third person was awkward and clunky and just… really really not good. Not that I realized it at the time. If an editor told me I needed to shake up my sentence structure, I’d go overboard and create sentences that were incomprehensible.
I was trying too hard. I needed time to relax into my writing.
I’ve always been more comfortable writing in the first person (past tense—present just keeps slipping into past which is why I’ve never written anything longer than about 2,000 words in first person present), and it’s kind of my default. I especially like the unreliable narrator aspect of it. It’s nice not to be the authority. The character can take over and misspeak and be wrong about stuff and that’s okay.
I also feel like when I’m writing in third I need to showcase MY voice, whereas writing in first person feels like slipping fully into the character’s skin. It’s a wonderful kind of escapism. This character steps into my life and I get to become her completely. Or him.
So it’s pretty well established that I had no clue what I was doing when I started life as a writer.
Do I know what I’m doing now, more than a decade in?
Well, I know what point of view is…
I guess that’s a start.
You can start close to your life, but that’s a starting place.
The question is, what’s the journey?
I spotted that quote on Twitter last night and it seem serendipitous. Lately, I’ve been thinking/fretting a lot about my writing career. (Have you noticed? I only blog about it every fortnight…)
All my life, I’ve always felt like I fit in. Even as the quirky queer genderfucked asshole I am, I’ve always been pretty comfortable anywhere I went. The schools I attended weren’t clique-y. People were who they were and they liked what they liked and everyone was friendly. Peer-wise, I’ve led a pretty charmed life.
When I started my writing career more than a decade ago, I felt at home once again. Erotica authors were all so helpful. Coming from the business world, I expected everyone to care only about their own interests. That wasn’t at all what I found. Furthermore, the erotica writers I met online were sex-positive, queer-friendly, kinky, open-minded, all that good stuff.
Lately, though, our precious erotic fiction field has been conflated with/shoehorned into romance—a genre that doesn’t much appeal to me even at its best and, at its worst, I find pretty problematic.
Suddenly we erotica people have been tossed into a world that is not our own. Sure there’s some cross-over between the two genres—erotica CAN end happily and nothing’s stopping our characters from being in love—but erotica and romance are not the same thing.
I’ve often said that I came to erotica totally naively, and I’ll repeat it again and again.
More and more, I’m starting to realize my writing career is a journey of discovery—a lot like life. When I started writing, I was like a child: I wrote whatever pleased me and took gleeful pride in my work. I never thought about things like formulae or tropes. I never considered that readers might not want social commentary with their fiction.
Never in a million years would it have occurred to me that readers would actively avoid a book because of a character’s sexuality or gender identity or race.
I miss my naivety. I want it back. There are some things you can never unlearn.
And once you learn them, you have to make a choice: do I keep on truckin, writing the kind of fiction I love and believe in even if it’s only read by five fervent fans, or do I whitewash my fiction and dull it down and create something that might sell a few more copies because it mimics what readers want… until they actually read it and realize Giselle is MESSED UP and obviously can’t inhabit the mind of your average cisgender heterosexual female reader?
Phrased that way, the answer seems pretty obvious.
I feel like I’m in high school again—except it’s a high school from American movies, where there are football guys and cheerleader girls and bullies and nerds and A-tables. My high school did not have those things.
Honestly, I’ve never felt this way before. I’m a teenager for the first time in my life. Suddenly I’m at a crossroads and I have this really important decision to make: do I repress the real ME to fit in or do I say FUCK ALL Y’ALL and carve out the path I want to take?
Never mind. I think I just answered my own question.
Money! I found 55 cents on the street last week. Okay, that’s a lie. Two of those nickels were on the floor of the bus. I am not above picking up bus floor change. I will pick up any change. It’s free money.
Two years ago I set up the Street Change Challenge. Sounds like a charitable initiative, but it’s not (except inasmuch as I am a charity case).
Here’s what happened: in November 2012 I received a royalty cheque in the amount of $1.90. Yes, one dollar and ninety cents. That covered three months’ earnings from one of the publishers I was working with at the time. They recently returned my rights on the three short stories they had under contract.
I wonder why.
Haha, no I don’t. They told me why and they weren’t douchey about it: I hadn’t sent them a new manuscript in years and old stuff stops selling after a while. Returning my rights made good business sense for me and for them. No hard feelings on my side, and I hope none on theirs.
A royalty cheque for $1.90 was nothing unusual for me, unfortunately, but that particular cheque got the cogs cogitating. You can’t even get a coffee (at Starbucks) for $1.90.
Writing isn’t a hobby, over here. This is my career.
But it inspired my tongue-in-cheek Street Change Challenge.
In 2012, I proclaimed that if I found more than $1.90 on the sidewalk in three months, I would quit writing and turn to picking up coins as a profession.
I never did report my findings, so I’ll do it now. Actually, it was a close call that came down to the question of whether or not Canadian Tire Money should count toward my total. It’s not true currency, but that red loyalty program bill was the tie-breaker. Without the 10 cents in Canadian Tire Money, my total came in just under $1.90.
The Street Change Challenge was kind of an exercise in ridiculousness. It doesn’t take any special skill to pick up change off the sidewalk. Does it not take skill to write a book? Shouldn’t a person who writes books for a living earn more than someone casually picking up nickels off the floor of a bus?
I love a good deal. I love getting something for nothing. I’m happy to go out of my way to buy stuff on sale. I regularly walk when a subway ride would be faster because the $3 fare is too high. Hey, if it’s more than $1.90 I can’t afford it!
My girlfriend often asks me, “Why don’t you pay the subway fare and spend that saved hour working? Isn’t one hour of your time worth more than $3?”
My initial reaction is NO, but I don’t tell her that because she’ll say I’m devaluing my time and thus denigrating myself… which is probably true. Sometimes when I’m chasing the lowest price on milk (keeping my eyes peeled for loose change on the sidewalk), I ask myself, “Would my time be better spent writing?”
I’ve decided there is no measurable answer to that question. When you’re a writer, you can’t calculate what your time is worth the way people with hourly earnings can.
Writing is a crapshoot. You can quote me on that, and I hope you do.
Writing is not a job—it’s a gamble.
It happens that I’m not a gambler (I don’t even buy lottery tickets), so it’s kind of weird that I do this for a living. There’s no way to predict whether a book will hit it big or sell ONE copy (the one you bought yourself). I like certainties. I like math. I want to be able to calculate the value of my time, but it’s constantly in flux because this industry changes so damn fast.
When I started writing erotica, I was a short story writer answering calls for submissions for print anthologies. If you’re an erotic fiction writer, you know what that world looks like these days.
You probably signed contracts two years ago for anthologies that are stuck in the queue of a halted production schedule. Generally speaking, contributors don’t get paid until after the book is published. That’s a long time to wait for $50.
Math is my friend. I can’t help calculating what I might earn self-publishing a short story in the time it takes a print book (that my work may or may not be selected for) to make it to market.
But, like I said, it’s a crapshoot. In order to do the math, you need to be able to count on something, anything… and you can’t count on anything in this industry.
Two years ago, my goal was to find $1.90 in change on the sidewalk.
Nowadays I’m concerned with paying the rent and putting food on the table. I’m working with fewer publishers. I only send work to houses that make me money, otherwise I self-publish—something I thought I’d never do back in 2012.
I realize now I spent too many years sending manuscripts to publishers that earned me next to nothing. I didn’t listen to the math. I felt a sense of loyalty because they’d taken a chance on me early in my career, or because they were nice people.
I don’t do that anymore. I know I sound like a total dirtbag, and maybe I am a total dirtbag, but who benefits if a book doesn’t sell?
A couple months ago, my mom bumped into a family friend she hadn’t seen in a while.
The friend asked, “What’s Giselle up to these days?”
My mom proudly replied, “Giselle is a self-published author!”
When she told my sister and I this story, we burst out laughing.
My mom said, “What? Self-published—isn’t that the good one?”
Classic Mom. My work has been published by imprints of Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins and even Oxford University Press, yet my mother goes around gleefully telling the world I’m a self-published author. “Isn’t that the good one?”
Self-publishing has generally been more lucrative for me than placing my work with small presses. That’s what my mom had latched onto, in conversation. My sister and I tried to explain the snobbery that still exists in the worlds of reading, writing, and publishing. If you go around saying you’re a self-published author, most people hear “I suck and nobody’s willing to publish my work.”
I won't speculate as to whether I suck (my opinion of my writing varies with mood), but over the past 10+ years my work has appeared in well over 100 print anthologies. That's in addition to ebooks placed at far too many small presses. I don't say any of this to brag, only to convey that I know for sure there are people out there who are willing to publish my work.
Or, there used to be.
So much has changed since I first started writing. Just today, I got word another anthology my short fiction was accepted for has been scrapped by the published. That’s FIVE cancelled contracts this year.
As I’ve mentioned, I never set out to be a writer. I started writing on a dare. I’d just been laid off from my job in the big bad business world and was having a bit of a quarter-life crisis. I felt like I needed to pick a career and stick with it.
Ten years ago, I couldn’t see this far into the future. I’d never have imagined I would self-publish my work. The erotica world seemed dominated by websites, magazines, smallish presses and largish presses. I wrote short stories to answer calls for submission. I’d never read an ebook, but I started writing them for small publishers.
I’m not saying everything I wrote just magically got published. Trust me—I saw my share of rejection letters.
I’d only been writing a few years when author acquaintances started opening their own publishing houses catering to niche markets. I liked the idea of getting in on the ground floor (worked well for me with eXcessica), and I also wanted to support fellow authors who were beginning their own ventures. So I submitted a few works here, a few works there.
Pretty soon, I had ebooks (short stories/novels/novellas) placed with… oh, easily 20 different publishers.
That wasn’t my first mistake, but it was probably my biggest.
I’ve never been an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket type, but Homer Simpson’s got a good point when he says, “What would you have me do? One basket for each egg?”
There comes a point where the baskets themselves become too much to carry. In writing terms, how do you keep sending new work to 20 different publishers? If you slack, you’re not going to satisfy fans at that publishing house. Putting out new stuff gets eyes on your backlist. Without those eyes, sales stagnate.
There was a point where I had a bunch of royalty cheques coming in for less than $10 each. And then less than $2 each. If I’d consolidated all those efforts with one publisher I really trusted, I think I’d have fared much better.
The trouble is, with the exception of a small handful of publishers, I wasn’t working with people I had a lot of faith in. That’s dangerous. Some publishers seemed to take their jobs less seriously than I took mine. That’s extremely dangerous. That’s when publishers don’t bother to send you royalty reports. Or payments. Because they just don’t feel like it or whatever.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you don’t need to be good at business to run a business. Just because you’ve decided to become a publisher doesn’t mean you’re going to behave professionally. I’ve witnessed more than one publisher treat authors like shit behind the scenes. I had a reader email me one time to say they were having trouble downloading a book and when they wrote to the publisher, the response was basically, “Are you some kind of idiot? You’re too stupid to figure out how to download a book?”
You think I’m exaggerating. I wish!
The real kicker was that this particular reader was also a well-respected book reviewer. Save me, Jebus!
When I first started out, I found publishers on the Erotica Readers and Writers Association website and then looked them up on Piers Anthony’s site to find out all the dirt. Of course, I couldn’t research the start-ups I hooked up with. They were too new. No data available.
I strongly encourage authors to do their research. Find out who you’re getting into bed with. If you trust no one, get into bed with alone. Like Alison Tyler says: “You’re not going to screw yourself.”
Wow, I sound really down on publishers. I’m not. I’ve found great success and incredible support with some. But not all. Most of the publishers I’ve worked with haven’t been jerks. They’ve done their best, just like I’ve done mine, but the money wasn’t there. Sales were crappy, so we parted ways. That’s business.
I’m not sure what the takeaway is, here. Do your homework? Don’t get into bed with acquaintances? Don’t spread yourself too thin? I don’t know. I still make too many mistakes to be giving anyone advice.
I don’t read reviews of my books.
In my mind, reviews are for readers. Write a review to tell prospective readers: here’s what I loved about this book. Here’s what I hated. It didn’t appeal to me because X. It did appeal to me because Y.
I don’t care it if you 1-star my book. Go ahead! Do it! I’ve heard a lot of authors talk about burying 1-star reviews or discouraging them because they’ll tank sales, but guess what? My books tank themselves! I am not a high-volume bookseller over here. How I make ends meet I’ll never know, because I certainly don’t sell a lot of copies of the books I write.
Please feel free to malign my work or review it with rabid praise—particularly if what you’re saying will help other readers avoid a book they’re not going to like or find a book they’ll love.
Here’s the thing: I appreciate every review posted about my books. That probably sounds strange since I don’t actually read them, but I do truly appreciate the time readers put into reviewing my work. I hardly ever review books, but I do sometimes review music I like. Frankly, there’s a sense of vulnerability about the whole thing. One of my sisters has a degree in music, but I sure as hell don’t. Sometimes I think… well, who am I to post this? What do I know?
I only know what I like, and I try to articulate as best I can WHY I like it and who else might enjoy it. Bravo to everyone who has the confidence to post a review online—to post anything, for that matter. Christ, there can be repercussions.
But not from me. Never from me. Don’t be afraid of telling the world how you really feel about my work. I’m not looking over your shoulder.
Last year I read V.C. Andrews for the first time and I was shocked.
Many moons ago, I found myself in the younger cohort of a Grade 5/6 split. This was in the heyday of V.C. Andrews’ fame. All the Grade 6 girls were reading Flowers in the Attic. They went through V.C. Andrews books like you wouldn’t believe.
So last year, when I picked up an old V.C. Andrews and found it culminated in incestuous child rape, I couldn’t believe this is what the kids in my class were reading back in the day.
That said, when I spotted another V.C. Andrews novel in the library, I didn’t exactly walk on by.
Something got me curious, though. The dedication to this book reads: For Gene Andrews, who so wanted to keep his sister’s work alive.
That’s a weird dedication.
So I read the fine print on the copyright page and found this:
Following the death of Virginia Andrews, the Andrews family worked with a carefully selected writer to organize and complete Virginia Andrews’s stories and to create additional novels, of which this is one, inspired by her storytelling genius.
Things that make you go hmmm, am I right?
Maybe this is all common knowledge. V.C. Andrews died in 1986. But it’s news to me because apparently I’m 30 years behind the times.
I gave this book a chance (it’s called Sage’s Eyes, if you’re curious) because the blurb seemed intriguing. I hate giving up on a book, so I worked my way through half of it before deciding life’s too short. This novel is repetitive as fuck and focuses on minutia that might possibly be interesting to preteens but not to adult readers. The characters are supposed to be contemporary teenagers but they all talk like it’s the 50s—the 1850s. heh
Anyway, tastes vary. I don’t want to yuck anyone’s yum. But it did get me thinking about author estate planning and literary wills.
As an author, do you care what’s written in your name after you die? Do you want someone else to pick up where you left off? Complete your works in progress? Do you want your devoted readers picking up a book by someone else and thinking it’s by you?
Maybe you don’t care. After all, you’ll be dead. But if you’re beginning to wonder what measures you should be taking now to protect your interests after your death, have a listen to a great episode of The Creative Penn podcast called “What Happens When An Author Dies. Estate Planning With Kathryn Goldman.”
It’s a start.
It always bugs me when I rant to a friend and they tell me to “look on the bright side.” I don’t want to think about silver linings when I’m ranting. I just want to rant.
But after a few weeks or months or years go by, I can usually look back on whatever I found rant-worthy and realize I learned something from the experience. That’s especially true of business affairs.
Like most writers, I’ve been on the receiving end of quite a few rejection letters. I’ve never been one to rant about rejection. When you’re a creative, rejection’s part of the profession. But it used to make me sad. Of course it did. Doesn’t anymore, by the way. If you’re just starting out in the writing business and you’re wondering if the sting of rejection ever lessens, well, yeah, it does. At least, it has for me.
That said, I don’t send manuscripts out to publishers as much as I used to.
I was browsing through a calendar from a few years ago, and I found there was a period when I was sending out one manuscript per day. These weren’t all novels, obviously. There were lots of websites that published erotica back then. And I submitted short stories to erotic anthologies, when I tend not to do much anymore.
Now I self-publish most of my work. Why, you ask? Not because I can’t get published. My work has appeared in nearly 200 short story anthologies. I’ve been published by two of the Big Five. I’m nothing special, but I have accomplished that much.
Did it pay the bills?
Not so much.
Does self-publishing pay the bills?
Well, actually, it does.
It isn’t easy. In fact it’s a lot of work. I’ve had to acquire a multitude of new skills. So the money aspect is a big one, but you know which other factor is up there with money?
I just don’t trust most publishers anymore. I’ve been shafted too many times, by presses large and small.
When I started writing, I submitted work to every call for submissions I saw. I’ve had poetry published, and an academic paper, and a touching anecdote in Chicken Soup for the Soul. If they were offering money, I could whip up a story. (Although I never was paid for that academic paper, come to think of it.)
Over the past decade I’ve been published by… you know, I’ve lost track. Probably a dozen websites, more than 20 small presses, the aforementioned big wigs, Hustler Fantasies. One of the biggest reasons I publish my work myself instead of taking my writing to publishers is that… well, first of all, most of the small presses I used to work with went out of business. Almost ALL the websites closed down.
Of the few publishers who do still hold rights to some of my books, three no longer pay me. And not because my books don’t sell! Deadbeat publishers come up with all sorts of reasons for falling behind on author payments. “Oh, I’m so disorganized! I don’t have time to keep track of these things! I’m terrible with spreadsheets!”
Alternately, there’s: “What are you talking about? I don’t owe you money.”
Or my personal favourite: simply failing to respond to any email I send over the course of YEARS.
I won’t name names because the funny thing about deadbeat publishers is they can always seem to find money for lawyers.
There’s one publisher in particular that has been incredibly litigious and very much a deadbeat press, and I can’t help remembering being so disappointed, many years ago, when I submitted a book to them… and it was rejected.
A close call indeed.
Giselle Renarde is an award-winning queer Canadian writer. She was nominated Toronto’s Best Author in NOW Magazine’s 2015 Readers’ Choice Awards, and her book The Red Satin Collection won Best Transgender Romance in the 2012 Rainbow Awards. Giselle has contributed erotica and queer fiction to more than 100 short story anthologies, including Best Women’s Erotica, Best Lesbian Erotica, Best Bondage Erotica, and Best Lesbian Romance. She’s written dozens of juicy books, including Anonymous, Seven Kisses, Bali Nights, Ondine, and Nanny State. Giselle lives across from a park with two bilingual cats who sleep on her head.
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Let’s all join hands and fail together! Giselle Renarde is an award-winning author who’s been failing at everything since 2006. Her erotica and queer fiction have appeared in nearly 200 short story anthologies and published by two of the Big Five publishing house, but don’t let that fool you. Giselle is a writer who knows how to fail—consistently and thoroughly! In this collection of short musings from the erotic writers’ blog Oh Get a Grip, Giselle treats readers to a veritable smorgasbord of anecdotes about moving forward in the industry one fail at a time. Have you ever had an editor tell you your entire manuscript needs to be rewritten? Three times? Giselle has. She’s experienced rejection letters, bad reviews, banned books, crappy sales, and painful missteps. If you’ve ever written a book that earned you neither money, fame nor respect, come sit by Giselle. If you have no idea what you’re doing in this business, neither does she! Giselle’s done everything wrong so you don’t have to!