Friday, July 15, 2016

I've Written a Story. Now What?

Congratulations on completing your story. There is great satisfaction in having an idea and getting it all down on paper—or more likely, in a digital file. Be proud that you have achieved something that most people only talk or dream about.

Now what? You'd like the rest of the world to read your story. How are you going to get your masterpiece to readers? You have many choices, some of them the same-old same-old, others brand new. Conventional publishing has its ways and means, some of which we know from books and movies, some of which we only learn from writers' publications or through word of mouth. Query letters, writing synopses, writing loglines, pitching your story idea to an editor or agent directly online during a Twitter pitch session, or face-to-face at a writers' conference, entering writing contests, joining writers' associations, and more. We now can research agents and publishers online and join information loops or visit information swap sites that will hone our approach to getting published.

The advent of the digital age has changed many things, but the basics remain true. Money flows from a publisher to the writer. Never the other way. If a publisher wants money from you to publish your story, run away. That's simple advice, but many people, depressed by continued form rejections—now served up digitally and sometimes almost instantly—look for shortcuts into the hallowed halls of traditional publishing. Vanity presses cater to that sort of desperation even today. If we submit our manuscripts to traditional publishers, whether behemoths or small presses, they pick and choose what to publish. This has not changed. Vanity presses will sometimes pretend they are selective, but they accept any manuscript an author will pay to publish. An author should research a publisher to find out if it's really a vanity press in disguise. It's easy to get suckered into spending thousands of dollars to have your story printed and/or placed on online sales venues such as Amazon and Nook Press, but paying big bucks does not assure you of a quality edit, a professionally designed cover, or a properly formatted and printed book. So, writer beware. There still are sharks in the sea.

There's also the brave new world of independent publishing, in which the author is not only the creative artist, but also the hard-headed editor, the design-savvy art director, the deadline-conscious production manager, and of course, the brilliant marketer and promoter. Do you think you're up to this challenge? Are your organizational skills good? Is your design eye decent? Do you have sufficient recommendations from other writers for freelance editors, cover artists, formatters, and others to hire? If you decide to be an indie, a self-publisher, you have to wear all the hats, be your own general contractor, and there is no one else to blame if there are problems. At the same time, it has become dead easy to find the professional grade help you need to produce a book whose quality rivals that of the best traditional publisher.

Some authors who self-publish spend a couple of years and start by hiring an experienced developmental editor to help them shape their manuscripts. Others publish a book a month and rely on a team that could include pro editors but also might be relatives or dedicated fans who check grammar and look for typos. These authors often design their own covers, do their own formatting, and more. In today's competitive publishing world, authors are expected to do their own marketing and promotion no matter how their books are published for sale.

But selling your story isn't the only choice. There's also a thriving internet world of sites where authors post their stories to be read free by anyone. That doesn't involve collecting form rejections or going to the effort of DIY publishing, and you'll pick up readers and fans who are eager for your next story, and your next.

You've written a story. Now what? You have many options. Have fun!


Friday, June 17, 2016

What is a "Clean, Sweet" Romance?

Lately I've been researching this question, because the answers seem to be all over the map. You might not think this is important either to readers or the authors, but it happens to be very important to both. Here's why.

Let's say you have a soldier character in your romance, and like many a soldier (and apparently all sailors since the dawn of time), he swears a blue streak. If as an author you use the real words he says, you will offend the delicate sensibilities of some readers. If as a reader you are expecting a pleasant afternoon of reasonably genteel characters behaving in a polite manner, you will be unhappy to see those nasty words on the page. You might even be furious. In fact, some readers have been outraged, and have gone on book review sites and posted reviews just to excoriate books that contain language they didn't want to see. Such negative reviews make the authors unhappy, so everyone ends up in a snit.

There are ways to avoid such a confrontation between author truths and reader expectations (such as, "He cursed"), and they should be used if the book is to be considered in the "clean, sweet" category. Otherwise, the "clean, sweet" description of the romance should be dropped entirely even if there isn't a single smooch or anything bolder in the entire novel. People who want "clean, sweet" do not want to see swear words of any kind, anatomical or otherwise. 

A subset of those same readers are very serious about usage of words whose specific origin is biblical. My own mother told me not to use the term "jeez," which to my childish ears sounded harmless enough. She explained that it came from the word "Jesus" and thus was "taking the Lord's name in vain," that is, profaning or blaspheming. She didn't hold with her daughter saying bad words, but religious-origin bad words she would not tolerate.

Moving on from bad words, we get to sex. Until recently, a "sweet" romance implicitly and explicitly was a story in which the main characters did not make love unless they were married, and further, there were no details of such lovemaking (the "closed door"). This was an ironclad guarantee. It isn't anymore. Now, the term "sweet" has moved to "closed door" sex between committed partners who by the end of the story have explicitly or implicitly agreed to marry. And, this "closed door" sex doesn't happen more than once in the novel. Usually.

So sweet is not as sweet as it used to be, which is why "clean" has shown up. A "clean" romance promises there will be no sex at all, behind a closed door or not, and whether or not the characters are married. (If you've been reading Amish romances or evangelical romances and have seen anything different, let me know.) And by the way, in a "clean" romance, the characters usually have to make some overt statement about their principles to explain why they are not hopping into bed with each other. This often happens in a "sweet" romance, too, but without any heavy moralizing.

Authors don't want to offend their readers, and we readers definitely do not want to be offended. I've had to stop reading most Regency romances because so few are "sweet" anymore and I find it pretty unbelievable that heavily chaperoned young noblewomen would so frequently find the opportunity to run off the rails. Additionally, I find it unbelievable that in a historical setting whose society prizes virginity, these heroines are so freely giving theirs away. Not that it didn't happen, but in every era there are commonly held moral standards. 

Which is exactly why "clean, sweet" has popped up as a new category of romance, to try to account for the shift in the mainstream culture today about what constitutes moral behavior when it comes to swear words and sex. Confused yet? Or is this crystal clear?