Walking the Trail

Freshly home from Orlando after attending the 7th Annual Golden Crown Literary Society Conference. The grumblings about the hotel — the Buena Vista Palace, for those keeping score at home — are all true, but that did little to diminish what we came for, a celebration of lesbian writers & readers. I had a special celebration on Saturday night after picking up this here Goldie Award forPhotographs of Claudia. If you knew what all I went through turning that story idea into a book, you’d understand why I got choked up on the podium. Special thanks to Katherine Forrest, Karin Kallmaker, the folks at Bella, my eagle-eyed triumvirate Karen, Jenny & Susan Meagher, the Goldie judges and especially all the readers that put this book on the radar. I was honored to share the Contemporary Romance award with Georgia Beers, whose Starting from Scratch also carried off the Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award, & newcomer Isabella, who won on her first outing with Always Faithful.

Thanks also to everyone who got up early after a wild night of karaoke to sit in on my keynote speech. As you noticed, I nearly lost it several times down the stretch as I began to express how important our books are, and how much this community means to me. But you did me in when I took off my reading glasses and found you standing, clapping and crying right along with me. I will cherish that moment until the day I die.

I promised last week that I would post some excerpts here on my blog, so I’ve narrowed that down to two sections. The entire speech, entitled “Walking the Trail,” will be posted in the next GCLS newsletter, and in the fall issue of Just About Write.

…..

When the historians examine this generation of lesbian literature, I think they’ll note three profound movements that helped define the age.

First, they’ll describe the rise of our community. Thanks to the Internet, we sit here today representing several corners of the world, all in celebration of lesbian work. We gather too in places like New Orleans, Provincetown & York, at readings and promotional events in local communities, and on a host of social networks, blogs & lists.[…] It’s a wonderful legacy for our generation, and I think we all should be proud of our role in creating and sustaining it.

Second, the historians will applaud the increased accessibility of our books. Not only did the Internet make ordering more convenient, it made it safe for those who feared consequences for publicly purchasing books with lesbian themes. Our books also became instantaneous, meaning readers were only one click away from downloading and falling into a story.

And third, they’ll document the explosion in titles, and the diversity that results when hundreds of authors add their unique voices to the literary landscape. Today we have books about cops, teachers, CEOs, artists, doctors, nurses, rock stars, ranchers, pirates, vampires, warriors and extra-terrestrials … something for every mood & whimsy.

But which particular books will the historians say defined our generation?

Last spring, Bella held an event called the Y-Tour in Ft. Lauderdale that included a reading at the Stonewall Library & Archive. Katherine Forrest kicked it off by reading this passage from the foreword she had written for Lesbian Pulp Fiction, an anthology of books from the 1950s:

The writers of these books laid bare an intimate, hidden part of themselves and they did it under siege […] because there was a desperate urgency inside them to reach out, to put words on the page for women like themselves to read. Their words reached us, they touched us in deeply personal ways, and they helped us all.

In my case, and with specific reference to Ann Bannon, they saved my life.

Katherine’s voice cracked with emotion in a way that silenced the room for several moments. Then a woman of about 65 stood and asked to speak. She told of once feeling hopeless, trapped not just in an unhappy marriage, but in a life that wasn’t the one she was meant to live. One day nearly thirty years ago she picked up a book – Curious Wine – and it showed her what was possible. She then thanked Katherine for saving her life.

The four of us who were there with Katherine – Karin Kallmaker, Amy Dawson Robertson, Dillon Watson & I – just sat there in awe. I can’t speak for any of them, but I felt small in the presence of a writer who had made a mark like that on someone’s life.

So what again of our trail? In a column on the general state of today’s fiction, Salon’s book critic Laura Miller asks: If the value of a voice lies primarily in the fact that it has previously gone unheard, then what’s it worth after it’s been talking for a while?

Will someone in this room write our generation’s Beebo Brinker or Curious Wine? Which of us might create serial characters as intricate & enduring as Kate Delafield, Jane Lawless or Micky Knight? Who’s working on 2011’s The Swashbuckler, the book that will paint such a vivid portrait of our time that people – 25 years from now – will say, “Yes, that’s exactly how it was back then.” And which of us will produce such a stunning pile of quality work that we become known as the Queen of our genre?

Look around. It could be the writer sitting next to you, or even the aspiring writer in the row behind. Or it could be you.

…..

Over the past year I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’d like to do next, not just in terms of which book to write, but where I want to go as a writer. I’ve come to the sad realization that one cannot simply decide to pen a classic.

But one can decide – as Voltaire would say – not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. I believe that while we can’t choose to write great novels, we can – and should – choose to write good ones.

We live in a time where anyone can call herself a published author, and for that matter, a publisher or editor. It goes, then, without saying that such labels are no guarantee of quality. Even if we have the best of the best in our corner, it’s still up to us as writers to be the gatekeepers of our collective body of work.

I hope you’ll indulge me while I drag you back to my [earlier] metaphor, “walking the trail.” Ten years ago this month, I set out on what would be the trip of a lifetime, my personal quest to hike to the top of Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro. Like my character in Worth Every Step, I did a lot of research before deciding which route to take. Most trekkers choose the Marangu Route; in fact, it’s generally referred to as the tourist route. It’s the shortest, most direct trail to the summit; it’s relatively wide and straight; and it even has cushy bunkhouses at each of the overnight camps. Not surprisingly, it’s the route of choice for those looking for the quickest way to cross one of the world’s highest peaks off their bucket list. However, it has a very low success rate to the top, because all that speed & ease means your body has less time to acclimate to the altitude.

In contrast, Kili’s western routes take two to three days longer, and they’re filled with hardships, like the rocks beneath your sleeping bag, the bitter winds of the Shira Plateau, and the 600-foot Barranco Wall. But if you’re willing to meet these challenges, your chances of reaching the summit are doubled.

Whether you’re climbing mountains or writing books, success is never certain no matter which route you take. But I firmly believe our odds are better when we take the tougher trail.

I’d like to put forward three challenges to the writers and aspiring writers in the room, not as a road map to success, but as a framework for thinking about which books will represent our generation, regardless of who publishes them, or in what format they’re delivered.

Readers, I’m not leaving you out, not by a long shot. It’s ultimately up to you to determine how well we meet these challenges, and I hope you’ll hold us – all of us – to a very high standard.

First, I think we must continually raise the bar on the technical quality of our writing. In preparation for today’s remarks, I began following a number of blogs & lists in order to learn what issues were important to those who make up the lesbian book community. I’ve seen a position put forth, not only by readers, but by reviewers & authors as well – that as long as a story is interesting, things like typos & grammatical errors will be forgiven.

Have we grown so used to poor writing that we’re now willing to overlook it? I hope not. We expect umpires to know the rules of the game; architects to understand structural engineering; and bank tellers to grasp basic mathematics. Shouldn’t readers expect us to master the fundamentals of our craft?

As for the stories … well, we aren’t just writing stories; we’re writing books … books that will be around forever, warts & all. We mustn’t squander our gifts of creativity with poor execution, especially when we have the chance to write a generational book.

The second challenge is to go beyond the basics of spelling, grammar & verb tense to embrace the editing process. Think of it as our program for continuing education. Are you the sort of student that seeks easy instructors who will ask little of you and still give you a good grade? Or do you seek tough taskmasters who will challenge you to work hard in order to be better?

Editing is more than striking extra commas and pointing out where someone shuttered when they should have shuddered. A good editor strips clichés & hyperbole from your narrative; points out when your characters are acting out of character; complains about your plot lags, tangents & loose ends; and tells you when the horse died of boredom.

Photographs of Claudia was my 13th book, so one might think I should be an old pro at writing by now. But I really struggled with it, so much that when I turned it in, I told my editor – who happened to be Katherine Forrest – that I wasn’t very happy with what I’d written, but I just couldn’t seem to fix it.

Each time I hear back from Katherine on a new submission, her notes always begin with something positive & upbeat. I know she does that intentionally in order to cushion the criticisms that will follow. This time was no different. She said, “You have such good instincts. I wasn’t happy with it either.” She went on to say she really liked the opening line, but as far as she was concerned, I could lose the rest.

My problems weren’t punctuation errors, misplaced dialogue tags or slippages in point of view. They were deep structural flaws that required a reconceptualization of the presentation, and a massive rewrite. But in the end, I produced a book I was proud of, and yes, just for Katherine, I kept the opening line.

Books, classes, writer groups & workshops like the ones we have here at GCLS will help you hone your craft, but nothing is as personal or relevant as the feedback you get from a good editor. Every mark on the page is an opportunity not just to fix something, but to learn it. Over time that sea of red that once bathed your work will become just the occasional bloody wound. Then you can pat yourself on the back for finally mastering the art of writing; or you can decide you’re ready for the demands of a new editor who can teach you even more.

The last challenge: We mustn’t shy away from taking our readers on difficult journeys.

Collectively, we seem to write a lot of books on the Marangu Route. The plots are relatively straightforward & predictable; the characters are beautiful and excel at what they do; their flaws are minor; and their conflicts are easily resolved. Yes, these stories can be very pleasing to the genre reader, and when they’re well-written, they can also be successful – winning awards, selling well & generating lots of positive reviews from readers who felt satisfied when they reached the end.

It’s very tempting as a writer to want those rewards every time, and there is certainly a place for books like that—a rather large place, in case you haven’t noticed. After all, popular means people read them, and we should be proud of how well we fulfill that need.

That said, I have a feeling the books for our generation will come from writers who took one of the more challenging, less traveled trails. What kinds of books am I talking about? Perhaps it is those which bring out more of the unheard voices – bisexuals, transgender, people of color, people with disabilities, people of different ages and body types.

Or we can incorporate more demanding subject matters into our stories, themes that will help our readers navigate the problems they increasingly face in their lives – things like grief, illness, addiction, crisis of faith, job loss, sexual dysfunction, depression and aging. These issues are universal, but as lesbians we experience them uniquely, often without family support or society’s safety nets. And we face them with anxiety, grace, melodrama and humor.

Readers love these tough stories and will shower you with praise and sterling reviews.

Actually, that isn’t generally true, and therein lies one of the reasons we find it so difficult to give up the comforts of the Marangu Route. Chances are you’ll take a public beating for any story that pushes readers out of their comfort zone no matter how well you write it, or how happily it ends. You’ll hear that real life is tough enough, that books are meant to be an escape. They’ll say they don’t like stories about – fill in the blank; the list is endless. So yes, it’s very tempting to play it safe.

But something marvelous can happen when you choose the more difficult trail.

It may come in the form of an email from an address you don’t recognize, a woman you don’t know. With great respect, she’ll begin Dear Ms. Spangler, Ms. Paynter, Ms. Beers, Ms. Ames, Ms. Badger, and she’ll apologize for the intrusion on your time. She’s never written a letter like this before, but felt compelled to tell you what your book meant to her. For the first time, she saw someone like herself, someone who felt trapped & hopeless, with special burdens she thought no one else shared. Your book showed her she wasn’t alone, and thanks to the brave words you wrote, she now has hope.

And perhaps twenty very short years from now, she’ll stand at one of your readings and tell you how your book saved her life.

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