Why romance novels are the perfect stories for our times.
I expected a lot of things to change after the last election, but one thing I didn’t expect to change was my reading habit. I had been a mystery and science fiction reader my whole adult life, and I thought I’d continue to escape into the genres I loved.
Instead, I found myself picking through my TBR pile, unhappy with the books I’d chosen. Even the “big idea” science fiction books seemed outdated, out of touch, and not what my heart needed.
So I switched to reading romance novels. It’s been almost two years and I haven’t looked back. My favorite romances are the light ones, filled with laughter and fun. When I open my kindle, this is what greets me.
At first, I assumed I was simply seeking comfort reads. When the real world is full of bad news and it seems to be getting worse by the day, who wouldn’t want a guaranteed happy ever after? Romance novels offer stories of humans changing for the better, becoming their best selves for the sake of another person. Love always wins.
The other day, I tiptoed back to my old pile of books in genres I stopped reading, and I thumbed through a few of them, wondering if it was time to give them another chance.
It soooo wasn’t. But not for the reason I assumed. It had nothing to do with the dystopian settings or dire predictions of the future or crimes and evil in everyday life. It had to do with violence. Specifically, violence against women and minorities and queer folks. Over and over, if there was violence in the book, a marginalized person would be the victim of it.
I realize that this is true to life. It’s so realistic that it’s not shocking to most of us. But it took me over a year—a year of reading something else—to realize how lovingly that violence is portrayed on the page, especially when it’s violence against women.
I always assumed I’d go back to my old reading habits someday. Later. When I could handle it. But now I’m realizing I may never be able to handle it. And why should I have to?
Am I saying that that books with violence against women and minorities shouldn’t exist? Absolutely not. I’ve read those books. I’ve written those books. I’m saying that right now, my money won’t be spent on those books. I’m reading for fun, and therefore, I’m reading other things.
Today, I want to read books where good things happen to women. Lots and lots of good things. Modern romance heroines don’t just find love. If they’re having career troubles, those get fixed too. Family issues? Done. Problems with friends? Solved.
It’s powerful. We have an entire genre where a woman’s concerns are front and center. Where her voice matters. Where what she wants is the important thing, and her happiness is literally the only way the book can end.
This is not news to women who have been reading romance novels for years, but it’s new to me. Until now, I thought romance novels were about women’s desires and women’s pleasure. Now I know they are about women’s triumph.
Those are the novels I need in my life.
My new book was published on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was free.
In this new world of ebooks, we’re used to seeing freebies. Indie authors put their books on sale for scandalously low prices, including giving copies away. Often, the first book in a series will be permanently free.
But those are older books, some of them years old. Certainly an author wouldn’t set the price of a brand-new book to free and then keep it there for five whole days?
Oh, yes, we would. My co-author and I released SLEEPLESS, our fourth “Detroit Next” book, on Tuesday. The book was free the very next day. It seems counterintuitive and backwards and flies in the face of all the traditional marketing advice we’ve been taught. So why would we do that?
One word: Amazon.
Amazon is really, really good at selling books. We are not good at selling books. If you judge by our reviews, we’re good at writing books, but we need Amazon’s help to sell them.
And Amazon wants to help us. It has sophisticated algorithms that are awesome at matching the right book with the right reader. But what the algorithms can’t do is guess. They need data. Lots and lots of data. The bots need to know who this book appeals to. What kind of reader likes books about near-future Detroit and a badass female PI and her hacker sidekick and a twisty mystery and nanotechnology run amok? Who buys such books?
We need to teach Amazon. We need to feed the algorithms a core set of interested readers so they use those readers as mirrors to find similar readers. Once it “learns” who buys books like SLEEPLESS, Amazon’s own marketing machine (emails and such) should kick in.
But we have to do this quickly. Amazon needs to understand readers of new titles within the first 30 days, or they’ll stop trying. And the best way to get SLEEPLESS into the hands of many readers quickly is to do a free run, and then advertise the freebie in reader-centric newsletters like Fussy Librarian and Freebooksy.
And it’s working! As of last night, SLEEPLESS was #3 in Amazon’s cyberpunk category and #4 in science fiction adventure stories. That’s amazing! Usually, books that climb that high in the charts have hundreds of positive reviews and we have none.
So that’s what we’re doing. I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a thing. This is the ebook world we live in now. And also? Honestly? We’ve tried everything else.
I hesitated writing this. I didn’t know if it was too much a peek behind the curtain, but I feel like I can be honest with you guys. And I also feel like I can ask for your help. As I mentioned, SLEEPLESS doesn’t have any reviews right now, and boy, could it use some. If you read SLEEPLESS, please give it a review. Reviews can be as long or as short as you’d like, and they don’t have to be positive to be helpful.
SLEEPLESS is free until Sunday night. And it’s the fourth “Detroit Next” book but the books can be read in any order, so don’t let that stop you from reading and reviewing.
Who knows? Maybe this won’t even work. Maybe SLEEPLESS will fizzle at full price. If it does, then we’ll all have learned something—you the easy way and me the hard way. In any case, I’ll report back in two weeks and let you know.
In the meantime, thank you in advance for the reviews. And happy reading!
I have a new book out! My co-author and I have released Zoners, book two in the “Detroit Next” series.
Zoners continues the adventures of PI Aidra Scott. On a stake-out late one night, she sees her teenage son’s best friend jump a fence and head into the Zone–the ring of abandoned neighborhoods surrounding the now-thriving Detroit.
Officially, no one is supposed to live in the Zone. In reality, it’s the home of the hiding, the forgotten, and the criminal. Aidra avoids the area when she can. Tonight, she can’t.
Cut off from her high-tech assistant and all the resources of modern life, Aidra has to rely on her own wits to navigate the Zone. She finds unexpected allies in a larger-than-life reporter after the story of his career, an ambitious cop looking to prove himself, and a clever street rat just trying to survive. All Aidra wants is to find the kid she’s looking for and get out.
But it won’t be easy, especially after she makes an enemy of the local warlord who’s using the Zone to hide a dangerous piece of rogue technology.
Aidra is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Looks like her simple search-and-rescue won’t be so simple after all.
This book stands alone. Although it’s book two in the series, you don’t have to read book one first or have any familiarity with our world or characters. Does it help? Sure. Is it more fun? Absolutely. But trust me, you can jump in anywhere.
We were lucky enough to get the same cover artist as our last novel and we love how it turned out. The cover isn’t as “glowy” as the cover of Twisted, but we like the subtle 3-D effect.
The relaunch of the Detroit Next series.
I have a “new” book out! It’s a re-issue of a book my co-author and I wrote a few years ago called The Caline Conspiracy. Now it’s called Twisted, which is a way better title. It’s also got a better cover and we’re both listed as the author instead of relying on a shared pen name.
Twisted introduces PI Aidra Scott, who is investigating whether a genetically engineered dog killed its owner. The widow of the victim doesn’t think her pet is a killer and hires Aidra to clear her name. Aidra doesn’t want anything to do with dogs, genetically engineered or not. But the more she investigates, the more she’s convinced an innocent animal is being framed. And murder is just the beginning of the conspiracy.
About that cover… If the book is about a genetically engineered dog, why isn’t there a dog on the cover?
Because when readers are shopping for fiction, genre is their first consideration. It’s more important than plot and it’s way more important than the byline, unless the author is well known. This is an uncomfortable truth that was hard to accept. Most authors want some sort of illustration on the cover, a scene from the book. But that’s not what will catch a reader’s eye. Readers know what they’re looking for, and first and foremost, they’re looking for their genre.
Harry and I write cyberpunk. You can call our books near-future thrillers if you’re feeling fancy. We abide by the tropes of our genre, giving readers exactly what they want. The new cover tells readers that yes, this is the kind of book they are looking for. It’s up to the blurb and the first few pages to ultimately sell the book, but if our novel’s cover doesn’t scream “cyberpunk!” then the reader won’t even get that far.
Plus, the new cover just looks really, really cool. That glowy effect? It’s not just in the backlit ebook. The paperback has it too. See?
It takes guts to write something. It takes even more guts to delete it.
I recently got a new job working as a part-time editor for a small press. The first book I was assigned to work on was a memoir called Ginger Stands her Ground. It was written by the bravest writer I’ve ever met.
Ginger Ford has lived with polio for 66 of her 70 years. Her life’s story details the complexities of being disabled before the ADA. In the era before ramps and automatic doors, Ginger had to learn to adapt to a world not built for her. She recalls trying to hide her leg braces to fit in at school, the terror of learning to drive a hand-controlled car, the near-impossibility of finding an accessible college, and the worry that she’d never get married and have a family of her own.
But here’s the thing. Ginger Stands her Ground is not a downer. Ginger has a relentlessly cheerful spirit and she always, always looks on the bright side of things. It’s as if the word “resilient” was coined just for her.
The memoir she wrote was utterly fascinating. It had a problem, though. A big one. The manuscript she turned in was 235 pages long, but the story effectively ended on page 200. The final 35 pages were well-written, but they didn’t fit the current story whatsoever.
I paced the floor, agonizing. Could I really ask her to lop off the entire last section of her book? How would she take it? Would she complain to my boss? This was my first project with Fifth Avenue Press. Ginger was a first-time author. I saw so many ways this could go badly.
But I’m an experienced editor, and I knew my instincts were right. Those 35 pages had to go. So I wrote the most gentle editorial letter of my life, explaining what needed to be done, and then I held my breath, waiting to see what Ginger would do.
She cut those pages without a second glance.
It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a writer do.
Some people might think it wasn’t a big deal, but let me tell you something. It was. I’ve seen professional writers who’ve been writing for decades fight to preserve pages they know aren’t working. I’ve been one of those writers from time to time.
It would be one thing if I’d asked her to cut bad or ineffective writing. But I was asking her to cut pages that were very, very good. Later, Ginger took that section and submitted it as a stand-alone piece to the Writer’s Digest competition, where she won an honorable mention. But at the time, she didn’t know she could do that. For all she knew, removing those pages meant they were lost forever. But her editor asked her to remove 1/6 of her book, so she immediately ripped it out and didn’t look back.
That’s not just brave. That’s like, writer superhero brave.
And the thing is? She didn’t think she did anything remarkable. She approached the editing of her memoir the way she approaches everything—with cheerful good humor and the determination to make the best of the situation, no matter what.
If you want to check out Ginger Stands her Ground, it’s on sale now at Amazon and everywhere else. Ginger isn’t on social media, but she gave me permission to post this, and I’ll be sure to pass along any words of encouragement left in the comments.
Sometimes the best how-to books don’t look like how-to books.
On my other blog, I review how-to books for writers. I learn a ton from them, and I love sharing what I’ve learned. But there’s another kind of book I review: the ones not written for writers that writers can learn a lot from anyway.
Here are my five favorites.
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This book explains all the different ways humans justify our actions. Our brains can trick us into thinking everything from bickering with our spouse to going to war is perfectly rational. We all work very hard to maintain our positive self-image, and when we do something that’s not in keeping with the great person we think we are, we are quick to think up excuses that make perfect sense in our own heads. This book taught me how to write convincing villains who do all the wrong things for what they think are the right reasons.
The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney
Introverts may have the perfect temperament for writing, but we do not have the perfect temperament to deal with the rest of the world. Our culture values extroversion to such an extent, it’s considered the norm, and introverts are considered oddballs. We can’t quiet the whole world, but we can cope with it, and even thrive.
Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
This is a book about change. Most writers want to change something about their writing life, whether it’s working at a different time of day, trying a different genre, or simply turning off the internet and putting butt-in-chair. It turns out, change is driven by three different things: planning, motivation, and the environment. People can achieve remarkable changes by working on just one of these, but lasting success relies on all three.
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
I’m interested in anything that can help me be more productive, and cultivating better habits is the number one way to do it. I have often said that it’s not inspiration that makes a writer. Nor do you have to have a lot of free time, a set schedule, or a deadline. Those things help, but are nothing without the consistent output of words, day after day. In other words, what a writer needs is a habit. This book takes you through every step of habit formation, from initial inspiration to follow-through.
Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy
Years spent trying to cram writing into overstuffed days has led me to read dozens of time management and organization books. This is my favorite. It’s less a time-management book and more an anti-procrastination book. By focusing on priorities instead of to-dos, I’m able to get the most important things done without over-scheduling myself.
I love diving deeply into the craft of writing, and that’s where I focus most of my attention when reading how-to books. But these five books have helped me become a happier, more productive, and better writer, even though they had nothing to do with writing itself.
The world has changed, and so have my reading habits.
Until recently, the books I read looked like this.
I was a heavy science fiction reader. I think what I liked most about it was the challenge. Not that the books themselves were hard to read, but that the plots and themes always challenged my worldview. After all, the best science fiction shines a spotlight on today’s world. They’re either metaphors for current events, or asking a very specific question. And that question is always: “How would life be different if this one little thing was changed?”
I absolutely required this of my science fiction books. I wouldn’t finish a book that simply reinforced my preconceived notions. How the book made me feel was less important than how it made me think.
Now? Not so much.
In the last few months, we’ve all been bombarded with bad news upon bad news, and it’s getting worse. I’m worried about the future all the time. Books that once seemed like harmless thought experiments now read more like predictors of doom. Even light, funny science fiction has an edge I can’t deal with right now.
What I’m looking for in books these days is an intensity of feelings and a guaranteed happy ending. I think my mind wants to experience emotions in a safe way. I want to feel deeply without getting my heart broken.
So I wandered the library shelves, flipping through memoirs, reading the jackets of mysteries, looking at the covers of literary fiction, and avoiding the horror shelf completely, until I finally found what I was looking for.
A romance novel.
It isn’t just that I crave escape, because all novels offer that. Even my big idea science fiction novels are full of heroes and adventure and other worlds. But romance offers the specific kind of escape my heart needs right now. Romance novels are full of love and sacrifice and doing the right thing for the sake of another person. Every hero and heroine ends up a better person than when they started, and love really does trump hate. Every. Single. Time.
So now the books I read look like this.
The world is still crappy. I’m still fighting against the bad. But I’ve found a safe place for my emotions to go. Thanks to some wonderful authors who write about love, books have once again become my happy place.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. Her TBR pile is overflowing with love.
You. Yes, you. You’re doing just fine.
Have you seen this quote? It shows up around social media a lot.
It’s supposed to be funny…I think? I don’t find it so. O’Connor goes on to say that many a bestseller would have been prevented by a good teacher. Because how dare some people think they can write? In O’Connor’s world, not even a college degree is enough to prevent bad writing.
I find this attitude infuriating. I know there are more bad writers than good ones. I also know that some people think they are good writers when they are not. Or more accurately, they aren’t good writers yet.
That’s what bothers me most about the idea of “stifling writers.” It feeds into the myth of innate talent, as if pro writers never had to learn their craft but were born knowing how to write flawless first drafts.
Some people think the way to help new writers is to cut them down—otherwise known as “telling them the truth.” But writing well is hard work and the publishing process is soul-sucking. Why add to that misery?
I teach a class. I help new writers. When I read their sample pages, I tell them they are doing just fine. I tell them to to keep writing. Because you know what? That is the truth. The most important thing a beginning writer can do is write more. It’s the only way to get better.
I’m not patronizing or condescending. I give solid advice in addition to praise. I recommend books that can help with specific problems. And when it comes to publishing questions, I tell it like it is, with no sugar-coating.
But I don’t spend a lot of time trying to fix someone’s manuscript. Leaving my own fingerprints all over someone else’s pages won’t help them. It will only make them believe they can’t do it themselves. But what will help them is knowing that someone sees their potential, thinks they are on the right track, and is rooting for them.
That’s what other writers did for me. And that’s what I will always, always do for other writers.
And there’s no way anyone can stifle that.
What’s the purpose of a memoir?
I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately. These books occupy an odd space between fiction and nonfiction. They’re true stories, but they’re marketed like novels and the audience is mostly the same. I used to think of them as simply novels-plus. All the drama and entertainment of a made-up story, with the added emotional thrill of knowing that this really happened.
But why do people write them? Is it all just narcissism? Cheaper than therapy? And why do readers love memoirs so much?
Then it hit me. We read fiction to be entertained and we read nonfiction to be informed, but we read memoirs to be inspired. The unspoken subtitle for every single memoir is “the inspiring true story of…”
Wild by Cheryl Strayed is a memoir about loneliness. Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest trail by herself, while dealing with a divorce and the death of her mother and also kicking a drug habit. Reading about the way she dealt with her loneliness made me feel like I could also cope with feeling alone.
Heather Sellers has face blindness. She can’t recognize faces, not even of the people she loves, and the condition has no cure. Reading You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know was heartbreaking, but watching Sellers handle one deeply awkward situation after another made me see my own social blunders as no big deal.
Chris Gardner went from homelessness to running a successful brokerage firm, never losing sight of his dream, no matter how bleak things got. He never felt sorry for himself, nor did he let others feel sorry for him. Reading The Pursuit of Happyness showed me how to be strong, no matter what life throws at me.
My own life has been full of ups and downs. I’ve lived in interesting places, met a wacky bunch of characters, and dealt with some tough challenges. But I never had the urge to put my own life on paper. Memoir writing is not my thing. But I will continue to read memoirs, because finding that rush of inspiration between the covers of a book is like no other feeling in the world.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She finds other people fascinating.