I love fairy tale retellings, and I love gender-flipped stories, and I love musician characters.
That's the magic that combines in each of my Dunway Siblings books. They each have a fairy tale at the core (the newest, Margo of the Bells, takes on Rapunzel.) But I'm not putting the damsel in the tower when I want to write heroines who go out and get things done, so I flipped things around trapped Karl instead. Which leaves Margo with the job of figuring out how to get him to let down his hair and engineer things so they're both free to live fuller lives. (But first: obstacles!)
Check out what Margo and the other Dunway Siblings get up to and let me know what you think!
One of the ways I envision a novel is to create floor plans for key settings. When I was developing the Pier Three Coffee series, I used a site called Homestyler to create the titular building's images.
Pier Three Coffee was Pier Three Bait Shop, until the Wells siblings leased it from the retiring owners and converted it into a coffee shop with direct access to the beach in their (fictional) Northern California town of Surfside. There are racks at the back of the building where surfers can rest their boards after a morning on the waves. They can order through the side window and take their drinks and treats to the patio overlooking the Pacific. Most days the glass doors to the patio are wide open, allowing everyone inside to enjoy the ocean breeze and sea air.
(Did I mention I enjoy this process? When I was a kid, I created a scale model of my bedroom on graph paper and cut out carefully measured 2-D representations of my furniture so I could play with layouts before shoving the pieces around to the newly-envisioned places. I love a floor plan, y'all.)
In Mocha for Mateo, Book 1 of the series, Mateo pulls his bakery van into the space by the employee entrance and stairs up to Alicia Wells's apartment. In between parking and delivering the muffins and scones Alicia has ordered, Mateo may sometimes slip up those stairs with Alicia.
The apartment above Pier Three used to be an extensive storage space, but Alicia's brother Austin helped her transform it into a perfect little studio space. Sure, she has to be the one to get up early and open up the cafe, but the commute couldn't be better - nor could the views from her balcony. (Personally, I'm too much of a night owl for even this superb location to tempt me to be an early riser, but that's okay. I'm capable of imagining an early bird like Alicia.)
Are you a floor plan kind of person, too? Do you like to visualize settings when you're reading - or writing?
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Still social distancing this summer? Hide behind all our books after you win a Vera Bradley Sling stuffed full of your new favorite reads. (Enter by following my BookBub profile and those of other romance authors.)
Back in 5th grade when I decided Mrs. Heap was right, I was really very good at writing and should, therefore, make it my career (...that may not have been what Mrs. Heap meant, but I drew the only logical conclusion), I filled my head with visions of sitting at a typewriter and being Very Serious and having lots of pens and notebooks.
I did all that, no question.
(Have I told y'all the story of my 16th birthday - this was 1985 - when my parents got me a very fancy-new-tech CD player? And I asked them if I could exchange it for a typewriter. They let me, because they're the best, but can you imagine what a young priss I was?? Be sure your image includes my very large 1985 plastic rim glasses.)
Anyhow, my 5th grade decision to become a writer wasn't accompanied with visions of the actual books I would write. That didn't change until sometime in college, when I realized my real writing focus was on novels. (I've written some excellent short stories, but also some kinda dire ones. And we won't delve into my poetry or screenplays.)
So my adulthood writing career ambitions did always include the idea of novels to my name. (Okay, to my pseudonym. But still.) And yet: did I ever imagine I'd have written TEN WHOLE BOOKS? I did not.
But hi! That's what I did!
ON A ROLL is my 10th published book, and I am a tad verklempt about it, You can check out the first chapter HERE, and order it HERE.
Thanks for taking this trip down memory lane with me. What did you really want for your 16th birthday? Did you get it? Was it as unutterably cool as my Smith Corona Electric Typewriter with TWO DAISY WHEELS?? That's right: Courier AnD Script, my friends! I was - and remain - Very Serious Indeed.
I'm such a fan of the FATED MATES podcast, which spurred me to read Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series (squee!) and is such an thoughtful, sharp conversation about that series, about romance as a genre, and about being an author.
Its cohosts are Sarah MacLean (I just finished Brazen & the Beast - such deep longing!) and Jen Prokop (if you like romance & don't follow her work, change that now.) During one of their interstitial episodes of the podcast's first season they delved into the concept of bodily autonomy in romance, and I was thrilled they included ROLL OF A LIFETIME as one of their examples.
Anyway, it's an important topic to me (as you've guessed from reading me) & I loved being lumped in with some of my favorite fellow authors who are also creating characters with power over their reproductive choices. Give it a listen!
I'm honored to be featured in author Raimey Gallant's blog this week with my thoughts on actions individual authors can do to make romance and publishing more diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive.
As always, I'd love to hear and incorporate your ideas. Or just for you to share this post if you think it could help others think about the systemic problems in the publishing industry. Thanks!
I'm developing the next series I'll publish, after the Roll of the Dice books are done. It's called Pier Three Coffee, and it's about three siblings who co-own a coffee shop in a coastal Northern California town.
(Did y'all know I'm a graduate of UC Santa Cruz? Go, Banana Slugs!)
Anyhow, I entered the first part of the first book, Grind, in a contest for unpublished manuscripts, and it made the finals! (My dear pun-loving husband titled this series for me. The other two are Steam and Froth.)
I'll get the results at the Romance Writers of America national conference in Manhattan this July, so cross your fingers for me.
(A long post. Read it anyway.)
Last week, Romance Writers of America (RWA - an organization I joined as soon as I began my romance writing career) issued a public statement about the RITAs, their annual award for the best romances in several categories. The RITA ceremony is a highlight of the annual RWA conference—nominees and attendees dress up and cheer and celebrate their accomplished peers. Plus there’s dancing afterward! It’s a fun night… or it’s meant to be.
Recent examination by RWA of its award has brought to light a serious problem, one which many had breezed past, thanks, in my view, largely to the privilege white authors have to just not notice. From the RWA statement:
We’ve only recently started collecting demographic information on our members, and that is on a voluntary basis. But from what we could determine, the statistics for black author RITA finalists from 2000 to 2017 are:
• The number of finalist books by black authors is less than half of 1% of the total number of finalist books
• No black romance author has ever won a RITA
So. Now we’re aware. And it’s a facet of systemic racism. And we can’t go on without making serious changes to dismantle systemic racism within the awards process, and within romance writing as a whole.
We all know that there are dozens upon dozens of well-qualified books that don’t make the finals each year. We’ve probably written them ourselves! The problem is, the first-round judges (that’s us – romance authors who have also entered the RITA contest) have been shown conclusively to have a bias against books written by black authors. The problem is, there is no current corrective in place to work against this systemic racism.
I admire all the brainstorming geared towards mitigating racism with the RITAs. I’m pleased to see initial ideas grown and developed. This has been happening on public forums like Twitter, and in author-only private forums. This is an issue that’s being taken seriously, and the vast majority of people who I’ve seen speak about it want addressed ASAP.
As with any discussion of race in America, it can be uncomfortable. People have been defensive, or hand-wave-y, or resorted to talking about ‘niceness’ rather than the issues. I’m sure you’ve seen it all, if you’ve participated in or witnessed discussions of systemic racism, too. (Or spent time in any comment section anywhere, frankly.)
Being uncomfortable is fine.
It means you’re not brushing aside hard truths.
It means you are willing to ask yourself, “what now?”
I entreat my fellow white authors to lead the way to change—not just because of the RITAs, but because of how deeply racism has impacted our industry. Those of us who are cis-het able-bodied neuro-typical white women need to do some heavy lifting to broaden the playing field in our industry.
As Frances McDormand said as she won an Oscar this year: “Two words… inclusion rider.”
Read more widely. (The Ripped Bodice bookstore asked publishers three questions after this year’s diversity survey: Are you happy with your numbers? If not, how do you plan to change them? Where do you expect to see your numbers go in the next three years?) Look at your own reading—what percentage of white authors are you reading? Ask yourself those same three questions.
If you’ve got a blog or are active on social media, share your excitement about some of the diverse books you’ll love reading (this is a voyage of discovery with rewards that far outweigh the costs of whatever effort you put into discovering new-to-you black authors.) Invite authors of color to share your platform.
Do you have a good relationship with books bloggers or reviewers? Take the time to tell them about the black authors you love.
And if you’ve got power in your own platform, aspire to be a Frances McDormand. Ask your agent how many authors of color she represents. Ask her what she’s doing to diversify her list. Ask her if she’ll read the manuscript of a black chapter member whose work you admire. Ask your editor if there are black copyeditors or designers or formatters who work on your books. Ask what they’re doing to combat the documented whiteness of the publishing industry. Ask what books by black authors their house is publishing soon. Ask them to invite black authors to join you at the table during book signings.
(I am an indie; my knowledge of how editor / agent relationships work comes from family in the industry and friends who are traditionally published. I feel sure that you amazing writers with big platforms can brainstorm other ideas for asking for accountability from the publishing side of this problem.)
I came to romance writing after twenty years working in a male-dominated industry. Walking into my first meeting, and later going to my first conference, and being welcomed with supportive enthusiasm from so many women (and a few men) was a feeling that sustained me through lots of long solo nights at the keyboard. It breaks my heart and casts a painful shadow across those experiences, knowing that so many black women have been actively excluded from receiving the same welcome. I’ve seen the disparity from publishers and readers; now I see how deeply seated racism is within our organization. It can’t continue. The work to change it is essential, and we must do it.
I began reading Ijeoma Oluo’s brilliant book So You Want To Talk About Race while chaperoning my high schooler’s band this week. I’m not far into it, but already have SO MANY HIGHLIGHTS. It was published in January, and it’s an excellent synthesis of many issues. And, as the title suggests, it serves as a primer on how to begin having more—and more productive—conversations about race in America.
I think we’ve accepted that the absence of black RITA winners is about race. Just in case, I’m going to quote Oluo from chapter 1, because this an important baseline for everyone:
“If you are looking for a simple way to determine if something is about race, here are some basic rules. And when I say basic, I mean basic.
“1. It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.
“2. It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
“3. It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affect people of color.”
She expands on all of these points, and I encourage y’all to read her book.
Here’s another quote, from chapter 2:
“Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power.”
This working definition of racism is important, because too often conversations about race devolve into “but I personally didn’t mean that” or “I, too, experience (insert issue here) but I’m not black.”
She likens it to the approach you might take if you have cancer, and it makes you vomit. You can work to mitigate the nausea, which will make your days better, but you are still battling cancer. Improving a symptom (ensuring that you, personally, are woke) doesn’t stop the underlying problem (our world is built on systems designed to advance and celebrate white people, very often at the expense of black people.)
Another important quote:
“We cannot fix these systemic issues on a purely emotional basis. We must see the whole picture…. We can get every person in America to feel nothing by love for people of color in their hearts, and if our systems aren’t acknowledged and changed, it will bring negligible benefit to the lives of people of color…. But when we acknowledge racism as a part of a system, instead of being limited to our ability to win over racists, we can instead focus on how our actions interact with systemic racism. No, the problem isn’t just that a white person might think black people are lazy and that hurts people’s feelings, it’s that the belief that black people are lazy reinforces and is reinforced by a general dialogue that believes the same, and uses that belief to justify not hiring black people for jobs, denying black people housing, and discriminating against black people in schools.”
This is why it’s disturbing to me that branches of the ‘fix the RITAs’ conversation has gone down the coded ‘screen for good writing’ road. It’s the same reason it’s wrong that publishers hold to the ‘no one ever buys black romance’ line despite all the contradictory evidence. And why it’s wrong for white authors to say, ‘I’ve experienced dismissal or harm because I have X issue in my life’ without adding, ‘but I accept that X issue in the life of a black author complicates her life in deeper ways, because she is also trying to create HEAs in a world that tells her several times a day that she is not worthy and she is not welcome.’
For the most part, judges aren't setting out to deliberately give lower scores to books by black authors. We can’t aim to identify and root out (or retrain) individual judges and expect the problem to be solved. It’s not a problem of individuals, but a problem of systems.
As judges, we are a component of those systems. Every one of us needs to accept that, and accept the need to fix the system. And every one of us who is not an author of color needs to lead the charge, because like it or not, racism has given those of us who are white an advantage in this industry and in this organization.
We have to ask ourselves, “is there a part of me that thinks: this book about (for example) white people finding love in a small town is similar to what I write, and it fits the pattern of RITA winners, so my high score for it means I’m on the right track to win my own RITA some day?”
And, “when I’m planning my new series, am I looking at bestsellers that fit a mold, and shaping my story to fit that mold? Is that mold one that includes a diverse worldview and broadens the perception of what’s ‘okay’ according to readers?”
And, “am I resisting working towards the goal of fixing the broken RITA system and creating an organization that doesn’t fail our authors of color because the hard work means confronting uncomfortable truths about myself?”
And, “why do I think my own comfort is a higher priority than mitigating the oppression of my peers?”
And, “now that my rosy view of RWA as a place that embraces and celebrates female creators is complicated—or shattered—by learning of the power imbalance towards white women and deliberate exclusions of black women, am I content to go back to the status quo? If so, how am I fooling myself into believing that it’s truly a safe space for me when it’s not a safe space for them?”
I’m not suggesting every white author has to stop looking at market trends or loving small town romances or enjoying their royalty checks. I’m saying that we need to do so while aware that racism has played a role in our careers. Remember that this is not about individuals, but about systems.
The system now has predominately white employees of publishing houses and literary agencies choosing to publish predominantly white authors, marketing those books to predominantly white influencers, and selling those books to…all lovers of romance novels. It is designed to create an expectation that a romance is going to predominantly feature white protagonists. We are both writers and readers. We fell in love with romance novels that predominantly feature white protagonists, and began to write the same ourselves. Because that’s what the publishers wanted, because that’s what the readers ‘wanted,’ because that’s what the awards judges wanted, because that’s what the writers wrote. (I feel like I’m back at the Seder table!)
Many disruptors are at work to break this circular system. @WOCInRomance. The Ripped Bodice. Individual authors, blogs, reading groups. RWA. Fighting racism isn’t about your emotions, or defending yourself or the past. It’s about systems that must change, and what we can do individually and collectively to recognize those systems and support that change.
I don’t know how the RITAs will be fixed. It’s a bumpy road; we’ll screw up, and need reminding that it’s not about personally being right but about collectively improving. But it’s so much better to be on a road, progressing, than spinning in the same old cycles.
Thanks for reading.
After chasing my lost youth via the delicious medium of avocado toast (millennials know what's what!) yesterday, I wandered homeward along Buffalo Bayou. It's a couple of crow-flown miles, but I managed to stretch it to twice that long by following the curves of the bayou and by finding art and nature to explore as I went.
And because I discovered the once well-worn paths I was on were closed still due to flooding. If you remember much about Hurricane Harvey's hit to Houston in August, you'll remember that the bayous, especially the city's principal one, Buffalo Bayou, overran their banks for days and weeks. Although the water long since receded, many of the paths are still covered in debris, and there are areas waterlogged because of all the shifting soil. The dog parks close to the restaurant where I ate my toast are still buried. A couple of the pups I passed gave me looks that clearly read, "we're supposed to be able to go off leash around here, you know."
I know, puppers. I know.
The art along Buffalo Bayou Park has survived, and it was nice to get up close to much of it as I walked through the gray and brown and green landscape. The Wortham Fountain - or The Dandelion as I always called it growing up - is fun to circle, even on a day too chilly to get close enough to be hit by the spray. And the Tolerance statues (the bodies are constructed of alphabets from around the world) are great to explore up close, instead of my usual glimpses of their large graceful forms as I drive past.
Once I reached Glenwood Cemetery, I ducked in through a side gate to look around. I've lived near it for about 18 months now, but have never really explored it, other than glancing in while walking by the bayou. Turns out Gene Tierney is buried there, and Howard Hughes, and so many well-known figures from Houston's arts, business, and governmental history. Plus, it's super-pretty. I'll be heading back to explore more deeply when the weather gets a tad friendlier.
Yesterday, I just headed up Sawyer Street to home. I always enjoy the street art in this part of the city. I often get stopped at train tracks here, and get to contemplate the colors and patterns, but walking beside it and realizing the scale and vision of the creators is even better.
I hope you've had decent enough weather to explore some beauty around you lately, too! And if you can't get outside, may I recommend you settle in at home with a nice plate of avocado toast?
I'm that rare(ish) creature: a 5th-generation Houstonian. When I went to college in California, my assurances I'd rather live in a place that gets hurricanes than a place that gets earthquakes was met with disbelief. (And soon, along came the 1989 Loma Prieta quake - you may know it as the World Series Earthquake - to test my theory. I stand by my original statement.) (Go, Banana Slugs!)
So long before this summer, I'd lived through evacuation traffic snarls, and days without power, and 2 a.m. wind that ripped a branch off an oak tree and plunged it through my bedroom roof, and rising water, and the eerie silence of the eye passing overhead after hours of being on the dirty side of the storm.
In a thousand small and a dozen large ways, Harvey wasn't the worst hurricane I've been through. We never lost power. Our water sources stayed clean. Our cars never risked flooding. The roof is as intact as ever. And though we watched the bayou 400 steps from our door rise and rise and rise until it was 4 steps from our door, we stayed dry.
But, oh, what a mess. The water flowed like a river down the cross streets, fish leapt about in the five feet of water where we usually parked, and mainly, as we texted and called and checked in and watched the news and generally worried about our friends and loved ones across the city and region, we knew this - this was going to be an ongoing mess.
My son's senior year is delayed by two weeks; teachers across the city are scrambling to get supplies for their flooded-out students and adjust lesson plans to account for lost time and storm-shaken kids. Still-flooded roads cause mind-boggling jams as drivers seek north-south corridors that their phones don't tell them are closed or dead-ends. Sidewalks teem with sheetrock and carpet and molding debris while the city attempts to deploy enough waste management to handle it all. People who have met with their insurance agents and can't do much until FEMA and local contractors are available are signing up to serve food or move boxes or fill out forms at the shelters.
It's obvious, I think, that I adore my city. I set so many books here because I love the diverse community, the international cuisine, the vibrant culture. I'm proud of how welcoming and big-hearted and accepting a place it can be. It has taken a hit - a big hit - from Harvey, but I know it will recover, in time.
A group of my fellow romance authors have pledged to help Houston with the relief efforts. Each author has chosen a cause or two and is donating royalties from their book sales during the Sept 4-17 period. I picked Interfaith Ministries Greater Houston and the Houston Food Bank, two local charities I volunteer with, which do great work feeding Houston's seniors, refugees, and children, and which have dedicated resources specifically to helping Harvey victims. I'm not the biggest selling author out there (yet!), so to increase the impact of my donation, I'm dividing the proceeds from all my September through December 2017 sales between these two charities.
Please check out the Authors Helping Houston page, and my chosen charities, and thank you to everyone who has reached out to me in the wake of this hurricane. The world is a scary place, but your love and support of us, and of the Gulf Coast region, brightens us all.
Writing is a journey undertaken by the mind in conjunction with the soul....