The Blank Page

I am jealous of readers because they get to see my work wholly divorced from its writing. A project will always be tied up with its history for me. Did I write quickly and painlessly? Was the writing a struggle? Did I “save” the project in revision?

When I reflect on my books, I prefer the hard ones. Because I am a slow and ponderous writer, and thus I tend to wander down many wrong paths, I haven’t had too many books go “well.” Those that have… I don’t trust. They’re some strange witchcraft; they don’t feel like mine.

But a reader doesn’t know any of that. There isn’t any noise around the book. It must be quiet.

Lately, I’ve struggled to write because there’s so much noise, I can’t hear myself. I have writer friends who can listen to the market, to their readers, and to industry trends and still have something outward to say. I’ve been trying to do that, to write books that might be for a more general audience rather than only for my little niche, to listen to the outward stuff and modulate my voice in terms of it. But I simply can’t.

I’ve been trying to tune out those outside noises–not because they’re unimportant, but because I can’t hear myself or see my work. I’m snow-blind.

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Art, Bare Life, and Fragmented Identity

(This post is for a friend who’s contemplating how the self can be divided between being an academic and writing fiction; it started as an email, but I’m publishing it here to balance out all the promo I’ve posted lately.)

Several years ago, I was half-finished with my American studies dissertation, and I requested a meeting with a literary theory professor to discuss an idea I had for a chapter revision. Specifically, I wanted to apply Giorgio Agamben’s theory of the politicization of bare life (as articulated in Homo Sacer) to an obscure periodical novel published in 1857, a book set during the American Revolution but which clearly comments on the run-up to the American Civil War.

Agamben is concerned with how bare life has been consumed by political life. He locates the dissolution of this divide in concentration camps during the Holocaust, when the bodies of inmates become sites for what he calls the state of exception. What happens in the camps is extra-judicial, outside even humane comprehension, and nothing like bare life is possible there. The only possibility for resistance Agamben imagines is refusal. In saying no (or better yet, “I would prefer not to” as Melville’s Bartleby does) we stake out ground for bare life.

There’s a lot of overlap with Agamben’s argument, Foucault’s theory of biopower, and Habermas’s discussion of public sphere theory, and also with the feminist critique of the personal as political, the work of scholars on the economics and culture of slavery, etc. I suspect that in the nineteenth century–when in an American context we moved from merchant capitalism to industrial capitalism and when the space between citizen and consumer identities blurred–bare life became impossible.

Why am I telling you this story? Well, because something else was burning a hole in my backpack during that meeting: a signed contract with Carina/Harlequin to publish The Easy Part series.

Continue reading “Art, Bare Life, and Fragmented Identity”

The Books that Write Well…and Those that Don’t

book cover reading "Private Politics, Emma Barry." It shows a door opening into an office. A couple in profile is having a heated argument in front of a window.

Last month was Private Politics‘ second book birthday, and next week is Star Dust‘s first. They’re a tale of contrasts. It took Genevieve and I approximately nine months to write the first draft of Star Dust. In contrast, while I started Private Politics during the summer of 2013, I wrote most of it in 6 weeks in September and October of that year. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book so well, so painlessly.

But does that mean Private Politics is better than a book with which I struggled?

There were moments when I didn’t think I’d survive Party Lines, for example. Of the four manuscripts I’m working on–by myself and with Genevieve–one of them is going splendidly. The other three…aren’t.

Continue reading “The Books that Write Well…and Those that Don’t”

The Everlasting Yea

As of this weekend, I have finished a book. On my own. As in it’s done and I don’t hate it.

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This was one of those things I had started to suspect would never happen again until it did.

Bear with me while I speak purposefully obtusely: for two years in my professional life (both with writing and my day job), I’ve heard no a lot. A lot a lot. To the point where it had begun to feel like all the doors weren’t merely closed, but locked.

I have no evidence the doors will open now, but finishing a book feels like scoring a point back from what Thomas Carlyle calls the everlasting nay (everyone’s read Sartor Resartus, right?); it feels like I’ve finally moved back toward the everlasting yea:

Oh, thank thy Destiny for these; thankfully bear what yet remain: thou hadst need of them; the Self in thee needed to be annihilated. By benignant fever-paroxysms is Life rooting out the deep-seated chronic Disease, and triumphs over Death. On the roaring billows of Time, thou art not engulfed, but borne aloft into the azure of Eternity. …This is the EVERLASTING YEA, wherein all contradiction is solved: wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him.

Romance is a genre that’s about the everlasting yea. And writing words, even when it feels small, is always optimistic, always hopeful. The world can use some positivity right now. We all need more yes.

PS I wrote the last 20K words of the book while listening to Julien Baker’s amazing album Sprained Ankle on repeat, specifically the track “Something.” If you like progressive folk/indie rock, give it a spin. The songs are sad, but lovely and insightful. I highly recommend it.

PPS Genevieve and I are going to send another newsletter on Wednesday that includes one of my all-time favorite deleted scenes. (Seriously, cutting it out of Earth Bound made me gnash my teeth.) If you aren’t on our mailing list, get on it!

PPPS Carina Press is running a 30% sale on all the books at their site, which includes The Easy Part series (my DC-set political romances). The deal is good through July 31; use the code RWA3016 when you check out. My Carina books rarely if ever go on sale, so if you’ve been waiting, get ’em now for less.

“How Do You Co-Write?”

I sometimes get questions about the exact mechanics of co-writing. Isn’t writing a book on your own tricky enough? How do you make something sound coherent when two of you are hacking away at it?

If you’re curious, I talked about my co-writing relationship with Genevieve Turner with the lovely Cobie Daniels in this podcast. (Also, Cobie’s debut novel will be out next week! How cool is that?)

Cobie and I talked about where the idea for the Fly Me to the Moon series, the research and co-writing process, the importance of critique partners, the state of historical romance, and Jello. Somewhat ironically, Cobie asked how Gen and I deal with conflict, but in early February when we recorded this, Gen and I hadn’t really hadn’t any conflict. But as we finished and did a first editing pass through Earth Bound, Gen and I finally disagreed about something: whether the possessive form of Parsons should be Parsons’ or Parsons’s. (Please weigh in on this important issue in the comments. And no, I won’t tell you which sides we were both on.)

If you’re looking for all the 60s recipes I made, they’re all here. And since we recorded the podcast, the Earth Bound cover and blurb have been released.

If thirty minutes of my dulcet voice and lucid reasoning isn’t enough of me, I talked to G.G. Andrew about my reading and the best kiss I’ve ever read.

Truth’s Superb Surprise

I try not to write about writing itself on my blog because such topics tend to only be of interest to other writers. Also, I don’t always (okay, I seldom) feel like I have something original or worthwhile to say about the writing process. But to break my own rule and be a little cryptic…

For a long time before I started writing fiction down, I was writing it in my head. I didn’t realize it, but I was carrying around a bag and I was putting all sorts of things into it. Jokes that I (and those around me) told. Words that I liked the sound of. Bits of description. Images. Smells. Fragments of motivation and psychology. And questions–so many questions. Why did he do that? Why did I say that? Could this have happened another way? What is she thinking? Etc.

When I started writing, I began taking things out of the bag. I recently re-read Special Interests and it amazed to me how much truth I told while lying. The bones of the scene, the things that were happening in terms of the plot or characterization, would be wholly fabricated. But every single detail of the scene would be true. The book is a patchwork quilt of my experience in and observation of the world.

For a long time in my writing life, I would take things out of the bag and tap them into my stories slant (sorry, Emily Dickinson, that’s one of those words). I mean to say that I used a trick not too differently from how it happened or where I had once seen that sweater or how that thing had tasted. I just sort of twisted a bit.

However, I’ve been writing something that is (for me) very different and crazy. But here’s the thing: I’m using just as much stuff out the bag as before. Maybe more. I’ve discovered whole other rooms, whole other continents, in the bag. So what I’m trying to say is that I am larger than I thought I was. And for the moment at least, that makes me less scared of my writing than I’ve been in a long time.

We, as writers, are told to develop a brand. To make a promise to our readers and to deliver on it in terms of voice and tone and story and setting. What I’m writing now doesn’t feel all that off-brand. It feels like me…but slant. And on the bias, there are entirely new ways of being.

Good. What else?

Without a doubt, the thing I say most frequently in the classroom is, “Good. What else?”

You always want the students to move from one point to the next logical step, from one example to another, from one intertextual connection to another. Learning is a constant state of dissatisfaction. You keep pressing onward, but you never arrive because it’s not about a destination. It’s about a journey.

Writing is similar. I’ve published four novels in 22 months, but my career is in stasis. I don’t have anything contracted or scheduled. I’m writing but I don’t like the words. And it’s hard to confront my own slowness and ennui because it makes it real. This business is an endless “Good, what else?” merry-go-round, and I feel like I’ve fallen off.

And as I’m sitting there in the dirt, watching the merry-go-round spin, and wondering whether I need to publish every three months, or is it five to six projects a year, or maybe one book a month would do it…I remember: it’s about a journey. I don’t have to have all the answers. Hell, I don’t even have to have completed projects or a five-year plan. Those things would be lovely, of course. But for now, it’s all very simple.

One foot, then the next. One word, one clause, one sentence. They build to a paragraph and then another.

Good. What else?