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.

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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.

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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?

Thoughts on Online Book Discussion

I keep writing and deleting this post. No one needs my thoughts on this matter; no one asked for them. Others have explored this topic much more elegantly and insightfully (see here, and here, and here, and here). This is little and it is late. But I can’t leave this unsaid.

Talking about books is the most important part of my intellectual life. When I was a freshmen in college, I was an English major, but considering changing to classical archeology (true story). Then I stumbled into the first half of the American literature survey. It was as if I had landed on a planet with more gravity. Everything shifted and settled around me; everything changed.

In that class, I found people talking about books in the way I did in my head except they did it out loud. And they did it better than I did: more insightfully, with connections to texts I’d never heard of, respecting theories I didn’t understand. So I kept taking English classes. I studied British literature and Irish literature and literature in translation. I analyzed contemporary popular culture and critical theory and linguistics. I wrote about Austen and Shakespeare and Marx. I fell in love with New Historicism. But thanks to that first college literature course, early American book culture stayed central in my heart.

For a while after college I did redacted things in Washington, but I missed books. I missed talking about books. So I went to graduate school to get back the feeling I got from the literature classroom. And now I do it all day.

When I started reading romance almost four years ago, the reason I kept doing it wasn’t how romance did deeply imaginative things related to gender norms and sexuality (though also that), it was the book culture I found online. Here were people talking about books in way I did at the university except without all the things that can come with academics–some of which had become loathsome to me. The online romance discussion seemed more radical, more subversive, and more democratic than what was happening in my university classroom.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I felt like I could start writing because of the online romance community. The academic world routinely makes me feel stupid and disempowered, but romancelandia does the opposite. The book culture around romance gave me permission to use my voice in a way I’m not certain I would have otherwise.

I don’t think this is about Kathleen Hale anymore. Not really. It’s about the fact that the book culture online has stopped feeling fun. Since I’m now writing and have a vested (albeit tiny) commercial interest in that culture and since I don’t review (related to my author role), I’ve mostly seen this from the sidelines. But the hype machine and its relation to book blogging seems qualitatively different today than it did 3.5 years ago when I started reading book blogs.

I have no solutions here, but it breaks my heart. Because every time I read a good book, I feel less alone. I feel more connected. I feel human and giddy and alive. And online book culture at its best networks those private reactions and feelings. Amplifies them. And it can be awesome.

I don’t know how to preserve it. And to the extent that my author activities may have taken away from anyone’s fun or just contributed to the blurring of public (in the Habermasian sense) and commercial spaces, I am sorry. Because if there’s no joy in talking about books, I don’t know what else we’re doing or why else we’d be doing it.

A Completely Biased Recommendation

Two years ago I had finished my drawer novel and Brave in Heart and had started writing Special Interests. I’d been telling stories in my head since forever, but I’d only been writing them down for about a year. But it turned out putting my ideas on paper was both harder and funner than my vague imaginings. And indeed I had realized I wanted to try and publish. So I decided to find a critique partner to help me become better at the writing part.

The process is sort of like online dating. You craft a profile, stress about it, and delete everything you’ve written. Then you rewrite the notice without the puns and close your eyes as you post it on different writer’s message boards and listservs. When you finally hear back from someone and parse her profile, you exchange chapters. You send notes, read the feedback, and ask yourself if you want to spend months reading this person’s work.

During the weeks I searched for a CP, I read a lot of good chapters and met several interesting people. But the only one I made it to the second-date stage with was Genevieve Turner. And her first book came out today.

Summer Chaparral Cover

I can’t be objective about this book; let the record show that I’m admitting that up front. I’ve read it many times and it’s a palimpsest for me. When I read Summer Chaparral, I see the book it was and the book it’s become and I filter it through Gen’s and my now long-standing partnership and friendship.

But let me tell you why I wanted to keep reading it during our “first date” and why I think you should too.

Summer Chaparral is a Romeo and Juliet tale about an American cowboy named Jace–seriously, the name gives me shivers–and Catarina, the eldest daughter of a Californio family. I’m a heroine-centric reader and Catarina was the hook for me. The closest cognate to her is Scarlett O’Hara, but I hesitate to say this because Gone With the Wind makes me stabby (I talked about that novel at some length here). She’s not beautiful and kind and self-effacing and delusional about her charms as some romance heroines are. She’s pretty and she’s knows it–but it hasn’t made her happy at all. She wants things. Little, normal things in her world, a home of her own and a family and a small measure of domestic power, but she hasn’t achieved them.

Jace wants things too. Like Catarina, the things he wants are small: his own ranch, a life that’s measured on his own (vs. his family’s) terms. And this beautiful, intriguing woman can help him get them. It all seems easy enough, but quite unbeknownst to them (except maybe not at all unbeknownst), they’re playing roles in old family and cultural dramas.

It’s a shot-gun marriage story, in which desire isn’t convenient and doesn’t solve the problems. But what happens after the marriage, and how this one couple must solve personal and sociocultural hurts, is what’s really fascinating.

It’s a story that’s deeply inflected by setting. Beyond Catarina, I wanted to keep reading because Gen is a beautiful writer of place. Her descriptions of the town of Cabrillo are breathtakingly specific and lovely. So between the vain but vulnerable heroine and the nature writing, I signed up for more. I’m really glad I did.

Again, this isn’t a review. I cannot fairly or objectively review this book and I want to support the Blogger Blackout. (Look at me, contradicting myself like a boss.) But, all that being said, if you like “unusual” historicals or spicy historical romance or Western romance or just plain old good books, I think you should check it out on Goodreads or Gen’s website or you can buy it Amazon, B&NiBooks, Kobo, and All Romance.

My Writing Process

Thank you so much to Margaret Locke for inviting me to participate in the My Writing Process blog tour!

1)     What am I working on?

At present, I’m finishing a contemporary novella, a romance between a good girl staffer and a bad boy rocker. It grows out of my series, The Easy Part, but it’s uncontracted so I need to get back to my other work in progress: the third, untitled book for that series. I don’t want to say too much about that project, other than it’s set on the campaign trail, the hero is a Democrat, and the heroine is a Republican. It should be out next year.

Oh, and I have a book coming out in April (Special Interests) and I cannot wait  for you all to read it. (Cannot wait! But also feel a little sick about it going out into the world. Now I need some chocolate.) And I’m on the cusp of edits for my second Easy Part novel, Private Politics, which will be out in September.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Most of what I’m writing now is explicitly political. The characters fight about policy and their pillow talk is about fundraising. Other romance writers have considered ambitious, professional women in love (see James, Julie) and there certainly have been political romances (Unfinished Business, The American President, Strange Bedpersons, Fatal Affair)–but in general romance writers have been told to avoid such potentially controversial matters.

Beyond my sort-of-kind-of-different subject matter, what I have to offer is voice: fresh, smart, and witty.

I mean I hope. Jeez, I’m bad at self-promotion.

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