This weekend I met family and friends at a local BBQ place for dinner. Let’s not name names, because for a little Southern girl like me, chain BBQ places rarely meet my high standards. Suffice to say, this place does not offer fried okra, their idea of “pulled” meat is more like “chopped and diced but still fatty,” and therefore does not merit a repeat visit.
Anyway. We can tell I have firm ideas about BBQ, can’t we? And I have firm ideas about writing and the other work I do for my day job, bookselling.
While we were waiting in the baking sun (in Portland, imagine!) for all our group to assemble, the topic turned to books first of all. The friends wanted to know what are my favorite books to read. My spouse, known as Boy Scout in these parts, answered for me because I was filling my water glass from the table pitcher.
“All of them,” he said.
Which isn’t far from the truth, but is a bit over-generalized. I said, “I actually read fewer books now that I’m a bookseller than I ever did before we bought a bookstore.” This is because I also read book catalogs, reviews, websites, and articles about books instead of actual books, and I spend a lot of former reading time writing.
The friend clarified. “But what do you prefer to read? Blockbusters? Literature?”
I read blockbusters because I have to talk to my customers about the latest big thing. So I’ve read books I otherwise might not have chosen for myself.
“Fifty Shades of Grey?” she persisted.
That’s everyone’s go-to book conversation-starter these days, just like a few years ago it was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or The Da Vinci Code.
A family member jumped in with “Mel’s also a writer. She’s got a book out with Harlequin! I read it, and I don’t even read romance! It was great!” I beamed for a moment, but then she followed up with the thing she always says: “Of course, I skipped the steamy parts.”
OF COURSE SHE DID. Because the steamy parts are somehow unworthy, will get you arrested, make complete strangers lower their [unformed] opinions of you, or will leave a stain that won’t come out. Something.
This is the thing, families and friends of writers. Our writing is not about you (except of course when it is). People won’t think poorly of you for having a romance writer in the family. If you can’t mention our books without a slightly ashamed disclaimer, please don’t mention them at all. Why are you apologizing for enjoying reading a book? Why are you governed by what you think everyone else thinks? Nobody asked about the steamy parts. When they do, that’s the time to talk about them, not when you’re pitching our book to a stranger as a way to help us out.
Me, what I think, when I hear someone disclaim, over and over, that they skipped the steamy parts, is exactly the opposite. They read them. Not only that, they read them over and over. Methinks the lady doth protest too much, to coin a phrase. But would I put that person on the spot and ask something as bald as “Was it the way I used the word ‘clitoris’ that turned you off?” Of course I would never do that. But I might, later, write a passive-aggressive blog post about it. Because our writing is not about you, except when it is.
But getting back to talking about writing with people who aren’t writers. Only rarely will a writer come across someone who’s genuinely interested in talking about process. Mostly, people want to dip into the surface just a little. “Oh, what kind of books do you write? Ah. I see. How about those Portland Timbers? Weren’t those three goals against Vancouver last week AWESOME?” Enough to be polite, then move on. Because writing is self-indulgent, selfish and ego-centric. That’s what makes it meaningful to us, and to you, when you read our books. If we didn’t mine our curious and convoluted inner landscapes, you’d be bored.
It’s when you’re out with other writers that the nitty grits come out. Or, if you’re lucky, married to someone like Boy Scout, who will sit through endless plot noodling discussions with deep interest and fortitude, and take rejection of his own ideas for my writing completely in stride. Lucky, lucky me. He did an hour of steampunk discussion on Saturday without breaking a sweat or making me feel devalued. Amazing. End shameless plug for my supportive spouse.
I’m lucky enough to have a day job that puts me in contact with other local writers fairly often. I see Carolyn Rose a few times a month, and we chew over books and structure, what works for us in various books we have in common, and why. I email all day long with my writing partner Lilith Saintcrow, or members of my tiny critique group (which includes the delightful and ever practical Grace Draven).
And then there’s shopping with writers. Because lunch out while shopping (usually for books…busman’s holidays are always the best) with my writing partner? Is tax deductible, since we always talk serious writer business, drafts, contracts, editors, agents, plots, online resources. And so are those dried mushrooms I bought at the gourmet shop with her, simply because the next book in the pipe has to do with wildcrafting and mycology. Or, as Lili says, “Of course those are tax deductible! Save the receipt! Because RESEARCH!”
It’s all in how you look at things.
Have a great day out there. Maybe even go buy a book! Mine, or someone else’s. It’s all good.