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Rejection, Romance, and Royalties:
The Wacky World of a Working Writer
All excerpts © Laura Resnick 2007


"Be still, my heart!  Laura Resnick's marvelous essays on writing are not only laugh-out-loud funny, but she does a wickedly accurate job of depicting the craziness of publishing—and the creative passion that makes it all worthwhile. Recommended to all writers."

—Mary Jo Putney, award-winning novelist

Quill
On the Reader's Mighty Pen...

Some readers are distressed by a novel and want to let the writer know. Bestselling novelist Nora Roberts once got a letter castigating her for killing a cat in Montana Sky. "No mention was made," Roberts says, "of the human beings who'd been scalped, sliced, and disemboweled [in the book]. But I'd killed a cat. I was a terrible person, and she was never, never reading me again." Novelist Tamar Myers received a four-page letter from a Canadian member of the Monarchist Society castigating her for making a joke (in one of her books) about Her Majesty's clothes. He sent a copy of the letter to Buckingham Palace where, he assured Myers, the likes of her will never be invited for tea. Award-winning romance novelist Jo Beverley sometimes hears from readers who think it's her fault that some of her novels are out of print and hard to find. One reader, in particular, wrote a comment along the lines of, "Curse you, Jo Beverley, and curse your publishers for your cruelty!"

And sometimes readers just want to share a little too much. My friend Lisa Ann Verge received a letter wherein a reader had experienced the same medical emergency which had occurred in one of Verge's books. "Her husband hadn't reacted quickly enough, however," Verge says, "and now she doesn't trust him. Divorce papers are in the mail." Another reader wrote to novelist Kristine Kathryn Rusch: "I was planning to fly to Oregon to take you out for a nice dinner. I think we might be compatible." However, the reader said, he'd changed his mind about wooing Rusch, based on the (erroneous) assumption that she was the "girl" of co-author Kevin J. Anderson. In an unrelated incident, Anderson received a letter from a young fan demanding the author send him several thousand dollars, explaining at length why he needed the money more than Anderson did.

Writer Lynn Flewelling hears from homophobic fundamentalists from time to time—who are usually astonished to discover that she's a church-goer (a background which they apparently don't associate with tolerance and compassion). And on one memorable occasion, Flewelling received a lengthy letter telling her she was threatening the fabric of American society with her books. It might have upset her more, of course, had the letter's author not been a prison inmate.

Speaking of which, what is it about prison inmates? Do they just have a lot of time on their hands? Or is prison where fanatic readers are all destined to wind up? Romance writer Cassandra Austin seems to have a genuine following in prisons, as did a bestseller I know who moved her post office box to another city after receiving dozens of letters from men serving time. My friend Lisa Verge's most ardent fan is a Nigerian prisoner in Thailand. He's a lifer in Bangkok due to trying to support his many sisters in a way the Thai government didn't like, and he's written to Verge several times about her various books.

 

On Passion...

As paid professionals with contractual obligations, commercial pressures, and financial needs, many of us know the feeling of the well running dry, the enthusiasm being smothered, the spirit getting withered. Maybe we've experienced it ourselves at various points in our career (I have, anyhow); or maybe you've only seen friends go through it, even if you've (so far) escaped it yourself.

Yet I remember writing my first three manuscripts in a fever, over a period of less than one year. I was so absorbed in the stories, I would sometimes cancel fun social things for the pleasure of staying home and writing more. I always looked forward to sitting down with my writing. I often completely lost track of time or reality, writing for hours after I should have gone to bed, or for twenty minutes past when I should have left for work.

I have never recaptured the innocent rush of delight I experienced while working on my first few manuscripts as an unpublished, unknown amateur. (As wise novelist Robyn Carr once said to me, "You can't be a virgin twice.") It was like falling in love. It was the pleasure and the fun of the work that kept me going in the absence of any obligation, encouragement, contract, money, kudos, or other external reasons to keep going. It was the passion.

Now, please note, I was writing with every intention of seeking publication. I specifically chose to write short series-romance because, at that time (the late 1980s), that subgenre seemed to offer the best possibility of selling something I thought I might actually be able to write: a very short novel about two likeable people falling in love. So even then, my writing involved ambition and commercial-world baggage. I did not start writing for self-expression (you can't seriously imagine that I have ever struggled to express myself in the normal course of events). I didn't even start writing for personal satisfaction. I started writing because I wanted to sell a book. So I can't ever say that the desire to be published is necessarily the wrong reason or a bad reason to write.

However, that stark ambition did not interfere with my falling in love with writing and becoming compulsive about the stories I was telling. Indeed, had I not experienced all that pleasure, obsession, and satisfaction—all that passion—I doubt I'd ever have finished my first manuscript. I've never been the most disciplined person, and a book is very hard work, after all.

Eventually, after too many hours in this chair combined with too many demoralizing experiences in this business, I tried to quit. (Twice, in fact.) But I couldn't do it. The problem wasn't that I couldn't quit the business; it was always that I couldn't quit writing.

And the thing is, if I'm going to write—and I am, I can't give up that passion—then I want to be published. My passion isn't just for writing; I'm also passionate about my work being read. It's like cooking a five-course meal that you damn well want appreciative food-lovers to come over and eat; otherwise all your hard work, skill, and commitment just go to waste.

So I endure all the garbage that our business inflicts on me. Not just for the passion of writing, but also for the passion of being read. This is what I remind myself when I start wondering (sometimes every damn day) why I became a writer and why I don't just quit when I'm frustrated, unhappy, and demoralized. Passion is the source, the well, the font. It is ground zero. Without my passion, it would indeed be time to pack up and blow this popsicle stand.

But while I have the passion, it's still worth enduring all the shit that the writing life brings down upon me…even though the rational part of me wants you to hit me repeatedly until I come to my senses and blow this pop stand, anyhow.

 

On Copy Edits We Have Known and Hated...

A good copy editor—or even an inoffensive one—is like the relatives who send you a Christmas or Hanukkah card once a year and otherwise leave you alone; you forget all about how inoffensive they are when you're mired deep in primal rage over the relatives who never bring back the car they borrowed without asking—unless they suddenly return without warning one day because they've decided to move into your basement.

Perhaps the most volatile reaction to a copy edit that I ever saw was that of my father, science fiction writer Mike Resnick. He wrote a novel in which the narrative describes one character, a leprechaun, as having an Irish accent. The copy editor went through the entire manuscript and changed every single word the character spoke which ended in ing to in'. Showin' a surprisin' streak of practicality, Pop went out and had a “stet” stamp made at the local print shop, rather than writin' stet ("let it stand") a thousand times. And when he sent the heavily stetted manuscript back to the publisher, he phoned the executive editor and warned him that if he didn't make these (stet) changes, Pop would personally fly to New York and rip his heart out of his chest.

This would be a good example of why I am considered the nice Resnick. I usually just threaten to hurt editors badly. It's a rare editor who incites me to threats of actual homicide. But I digress.

A manuscript written by novelist Lisa Ann Verge fell into the hands of a similarly compulsive copy editor who added ellipses to the end of "every single damn sentence of dialogue," Lisa says…for three hundred fifty pages…(Lisa should have borrowed Pop's stet stamp...) Indeed, there seem to be so many copy editors with a punctuation compulsion that someone should really consider starting a Twelve-Step program for them. Bestseller Jo Beverley's worst copy editing experience was with "the obsessive semi-colon person," a copy editor who added semi-colons to prose the way Bill Gates adds dollars to his net worth. Jo stetted thirty pages before giving up in exhaustion and phoneding her editor about the problem. And fair warning: beware; it seems that this copy editor may still be migrating around the industry; you could be next.

I myself was once victimized by a compulsive comma lover in my seventh book, Celestial Bodies (written as Laura Leone). On virtually every page of the manuscript, phrases like "he sat in his favorite thinking chair" were changed to "he sat in his favorite, thinking chair." (I should, have borrowed, Pop's stet, stamp.)

Although the copy editor is expected to make little changes, some copy editors are evidently unaware that the little changes are meant to be (hullo!) corrections. In Alice Duncan's historical romance, Heaven's Promise (written as Rachel Wilson), the copy editor changed "footpad" to "footpath." Alice says, "I don't know anyone who's ever been attacked by a footpath, but I don't read much horror."

It's those little changes that can really get you if you don't carefully read every single damn word of your copy edit—particularly when you've been assigned a copy editor whose first language doesn't seem to be English. In another book of mine, the copy editor changed a description of horses as "animals born to a herd mentality," which I thought was a pretty standard phrase, to "animals born to a herd mentally." In Celestial Bodies (again), the copy editor changed "There was a sign in the window: Help Wanted" to "There was a sign in the window: help wanted." (I'm not making this up.) Failure to correct copy editor changes like these can convince your friends and family that your good education was completely wasted on you.

On Critics...

One of the biggest changes we've seen in the world of book reviewing in recent years is the Internet making available an ever-expanding number of opportunities for readers to review books in public forums. The Internet has reader e-lists, reader bulletin boards, reader online fanzines, small start-up online magazines that publish reviews provided by readers, and online bookstores that encourage readers to post reviews of the books they read.

While this has been great for readers in numerous ways, it can be a mixed blessing for novelists. I myself very rarely read my reviews on Amazon.com, the online bookseller best known for its reader reviews. New York Times bestseller Teresa Medeiros perfectly sums up my feelings about it: "I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm a complete wimp when it comes to Amazon reader reviews. They cut me to the heart. They leave a lingering ache in my stomach. They suck the creative soul right out of me…I enjoy the good reviews, but sometimes even those are disconcerting, like having somebody watch you go to the bathroom. And it doesn't matter if a book has fifty positive reviews, it's that one negative one that will haunt me for days." Exactly!

Indeed, many writers struggle with the phenomenon of Amazon.com's reader reviews. What bothers writers about reader reviews are the same things that cause them to complain about professional reviews; writers wince when a review is deliberately vicious, but it makes them nuts when a reader, as Jean Ross Ewing a.k.a. Julia Ross puts it, makes accusations or statements that simply aren't true. As an example, Ewing cites an Amazon.com reader review of her award-winning novel Flowers Under the Ice, which this particular reader review describes as "creepy." The reviewer claims the book's love story is "sadistic," and she clearly implies the hero is sexually abusive, even a rapist. Ewing says, "I believe it unfairly misrepresents the book, as well as making horrendous implications about my sexual philosophy." (Having read the book myself, by the way, I find the reader's comments perplexing.)

Moving from the surreal to the absurd…A bad Amazon.com reader review for Patricia Bray's The Irish Earl complains the book was a disappointment because (wait for it!), "One literally had to read the entire book until the conflict was resolved." (Damn! All these years in the business, and I never knew I was supposed to wrap up the conflict halfway through the book!) An Amazon.com reader review slammed Mr. Perfect because, the book's bestselling author Linda Howard says, "I didn't write at least one paragraph about the heroine emptying the cat's litter box. Obviously litter plays a big part in this woman's life, and she was outraged that I didn't acknowledge it." Novelist Ann Chamberlin received a furious review from a reader who apparently doesn't know what a fantasy novel is, and who doesn't necessarily seem to know what fiction is. Speaking of fantasy, an Amazon reader says that I seem "to falter in the historical department somewhat;" the work in question is a fantasy novel, set in a make-believe world that I invented, so I still have no idea what "historical" flaws the reader could be talking about.

Accusing the author of bad research or historical inaccuracy is, by the way, a common habit of professional and amateur reviewers which many writers find particularly aggravating; especially since such critics very rarely present credentials for their "superior" knowledge of the author's subject matter, let alone make specific citations of the inaccuracies they claim to have found. A bookseller who writes reviews for the Denver Post reveals a strange reason for reading historical mysteries when he writes of three books he's reviewing (two of which are by acquaintances of mine): "All three provide just enough historical inaccuracies to make knowledgeable readers feel sufficiently superior to the authors…" Clearly, self-deluding reviewers will also feel superior.

Another common habit of critics which makes writers grind their teeth is that of claiming the author is unsuccessfully attempting to copy a given novel or novelist. One newspaper reviewer, for example, accused Linda Howard of stealing the plot of Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray, a novel she had never read and which she later learned, in fact, bore no resemblance whatsoever to her own. (Having read both books, I can testify that the reviewer's accusation is indeed inexplicable.)

Overall, the conclusion I've come to over the years is that nasty and sloppy book reviewers would probably go about their work very differently if they were victims of the sort of careless, ignorant, and scathing public commentary that we must regularly endure as novelists. Since that's not likely to happen soon, however, I continue to follow advice that an acting teacher of mine, years ago, attributed to Sir Lawrence Olivier: "If the reviews are bad, you can't believe them. If the reviews are good, you can't believe them. Your job is just to go out there and do your very best work every show, eight shows per week."

Sure, it's hard to face the blank page after reading a bad review; but at least it's not as hard as facing a live audience right after I read a comment like, "Resnick's attempt to make you like the characters failed miserably. Altogether a boring and unenjoyable book."

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