**TCO is excited to welcome Kaje Harper to the blog today for a GRL 2016 blog post. Take a peek at what Kaje has to say about writing and publishing!**
Writing as a Passion, Publishing as a Career
I’ve always been an enthusiastic reader, as well as a writer. I enjoy hanging out in online groups with other readers, where we share a love for M/M romance books. (My own favorite-reads list is over 400 books long. Do not ask me for recommendations, unless you have a lot of time, and a place to take notes.) One thing that often comes up is the question of how to get started as a writer. I adore the way the M/M genre seems to inspire people to want to create their own stories.
The first think I ask is “Do you want to write for fun, and maybe have some people read it? Or do you hope for a writing career?” Because over the last five years I’ve learned that they’re definitely not the same thing.
I started writing… well, probably as soon as I started reading. My mom saved some little stories I wrote in kindergarten, a few pages of misspelled crayon words. My first M/M romance was written when I was fourteen (in 1974 for those keeping track.) Putting stories to paper was a satisfying private passion for 30 years― I typed a story out and then filed it, never letting anyone else read it, and that was great. I’m sure that even if I never sold another book after today, I wouldn’t stop.
There’s a simple joy in creation. For me it’s an escape from the real world— watching the people and events that only existed in my head begin living and breathing on the page. And, because I’m a serious non-planning pantser, the plot surprises as my story unfolds are almost as unexpected as reading someone else’s work. The characters talk to me. It’s pure fun. And that much anyone can do, anytime. Publishing is the next hurdle.
My husband has put up with me spending hours on a keyboard ever since we were married in 1986. In 2011 he suggested maybe, just maybe, I should submit one of my books to an actual publisher. You know, to go somewhere with it. Maybe raise my hourly writing income from zero dollars per hour to at least a few cents.
I agreed, mostly to keep the peace. I submitted my favorite story to a publisher known for their long and constructive rejection letters. Color me surprised when they accepted Life Lessons. I was thrilled, and nervous, and it seemed so unreal I didn’t even tell my husband for a couple of months. The publisher and I began editing. Fact checking things I’d glossed over, when it was just my for own entertainment. We began planning for release. And a cover ― I’d never bothered with a cover before. Do those look like my guys? Do I want to show their faces? Will readers like it? It was a whole new world.
As an isolated, tech-ignorant loner, I had no website. In fact, it wasn’t until the book was out and the publisher told me I’d received a fan letter— (fan letter *squeeee*)— which was sent to them because I couldn’t be found online, that I started the process of having Kaje Harper become more than just a name on a book cover. (This is backwards, BTW, if you’re planning a career. Do the website first.)
Then someone told me I should Google-search for reviews and I ended up at Goodreads. There, in the groups of like-minded readers, I first found community. I claimed my author page. I chatted about favorite authors and books. I even wrote some reviews, good and bad.
I got up the nerve to go to my first GayRomLit conference in 2012. There, I met favorite author Amy Lane, who told me how she treasured my one 2-star review of her work, as validating all my other 5-stars for her. It was a lovely gesture to put me at ease, and so cool that she knew my name and had read one of my books (wow!) and my reviews (ouch), and so embarrassing too. I realized maybe honesty wasn’t the only consideration in how Kaje Harper should present online.
Maybe my author persona maybe shouldn’t be just me with a new name. For a book in the genre I also write, my bad review might look like hubris, like “I could have done it better.” I began to think about what I chose to do as a member of the M/M writing community, not simply a reader. Since then I only put up my 4-5 star reviews— the 1100 or so books I love and want to encourage people to read. And sometimes, I don’t say the things that pop into my mind, until I vet them a little harder for both kindness and courtesy. I work to present my better self in my author voice.
Over the last 5 years, I’ve released almost 40 stories, ranging from 3,000 to 140,000 words. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve put out unedited freebies, just for fun, and heavily worked over pro-published novels with a decent price tag. My first royalty check made me fly so high! I almost framed it rather than cashing it. (It was only for about $7 so I could have. I did photocopy it…) I’ve had amazing experiences, and gained some of the most generous readers in the world, who go out of their way to support my stories. I’m luckier than I could have imagined, in the way it’s worked out for me.
But I still think publishing is not for everyone. I’ve seen excellent authors founder on the realities of sharing the work of your heart with strangers, and the even tougher realities of trying to live on the proceeds of it. Two of my favorite M/M authors just hung up their pens in the last couple of weeks. Others have vanished from sight.
Many writers (including me) are introverts, socially awkward, and over-sensitive to the opinion of others. (You should see a writing conference social hour – half the group is chatting in the middle of the room, the other half of us are hugging the walls, smiles firmly in place, wondering if we look dumb, wondering if we should be trying to start a conversation, wondering how soon is too soon to head back to our nice, quiet hotel rooms with a good book.) I think that the same things that make us good at sharing our characters’ emotions and minds on the page can make publishing tougher.
Writing itself is the joy. Well, sometimes frustration, and dry spells, and rewriting, and hair-pulling, but mostly joy. Publishing means sharing your creation with others, some of whom are going to hate it. Some of whom are going to insult it, and you. Some of whom will write reviews that make you want to never pen another word.
It’s inevitable. There is no book so good that someone didn’t write a bad review of it on Amazon, or Goodreads, or All Romance eBooks, or a blog. Check out your favorites. People say of Lord of the Rings, “This is among the most tedious books I’ve ever had the misfortune to read.” Or of Winnie the Pooh, “Milne talks down to his readers in a patronising way which makes me shudder.”
Bad reviews will happen. There’s also the chance your story may languish, without so much as one review for feedback or affirmation. Or perhaps with a couple of wordless stars, to leave you wondering what that was for.
So why publish? Well, there’s also nothing like sharing the work of your imagination, and finding out it touched someone’s heart. I’ve had reviews and emails that said my story helped a reader understand why marriage equality matters, or got them through a sad time in their life, or distracted them from pain and illness, or reminded them of friends long gone. I’ve seen lovely, thoughtful discussions, where the men who’d only lived in my head are treated as real, live humans, to be appreciated and analyzed and loved and scolded. I’ve seen my stories recommended to others, as a source of light for their dark times.
That’s an amazing thing. It can make me walk with my feet ten feet off the ground.
What about the money? Well, the idea that you can earn a living, or part of a living, from writing books you love, is heady. But do note the words “part of a living.” I’m in awe of the M/M writers who make it a full-time career. That takes hard, hard work and productivity and promotion. It takes pushing past your comfort zone to sell your books, and a willingness to ride out lean times. And a bit of luck. I’ve stuck with my day job and the easier part-time road. But then, I have the luxury of a good job I enjoy, and a working spouse. Earning a living by writing is tough.
There’s a general idea that authors must make a lot of money off their books. “Just look at them selling like hotcakes on Amazon.” And fortunately for those of us who love to read, some authors do live well from writing. The Jessewave M/M blog once did a survey of M/M authors. I’m happy to say one in twenty of the authors made more than ten thousand dollars off their first book. That’s a decent return indeed, and if they can repeat it, book after book, with new books every year, it’s a career. But more than half of surveyed authors earned less than a thousand dollars, total, from their first novel. Given that a novel usually takes months to write, they earned a couple of dollars an hour for their work. If they paid self publishing costs for a cover and editing and formatting, they might not have made back what they spent, and the hourly wage goes into the negatives. Publishing stories, aiming for a full time writing career, is definitely a leap of faith in yourself.
Personally, I’m delighted that my husband pushed me into publishing my stories. (He’s such a good guy. I’m not sure he realized it would mean me spending more time on the keyboard, but he’s very supportive.) Releasing my M/M stories to readers introduced me to people who are now among my closest friends. It opened worlds and possibilities. Including actually meeting new friends in real life, at conferences.
I’d never have imagined, six years ago, that I would be looking forward to my fifth GayRomLit conference. Or how far I could come from that first one, where I went as a reader, sometimes flipped my badge over so no one could read my name, and hid in hallways. This year in Kansas City, I’ll be doing not just a Q&A session, but a talk on “Broken Men: Avoiding the Magic Healing Peen,” collaborating with two fellow writers, Ethan Stone and Carter Quinn, in front of a live audience. And I’m looking forward to it, (if somewhat nervously, because becoming a published author still did not make me an extrovert.)
Back when I wrote in solitude, on my old portable typewriter or my husband’s outgrown laptop, I never thought that I’d one day be holding paper copies of my own books, with my guys looking back at me from the covers. Or selling them for real money, at a table at GRL, alongside authors who’ve been my own favorites, like Jordan Castillo Price and Edmond Manning. Publishing snuck up on me, and it’s been an amazing ride so far.
Some of you may hope to take that adventure too. I highly recommend it, if what I described turns your crank. If you have the love of words, and the drive to create. And the willingness to ride the downsides and failures, the criticisms and difficult moments, for the incredible highs. (A bit like any other important risk you take in life, really.) And many of you will prefer to simply read. You guys are the valued, vital and fundamental reason for any of us to publish. An author without readers would be a sad thing indeed.
I do recommend GayRomLit as a conference, whether you read M/M, write it, or have a maybe-book simmering. There is nothing as inspiring, and warm, and fun, as sharing space with hundreds of people who love the same books that you do, and who share support for the LGBTQ community.
This is my tribe.
The group is supportive, celebratory, happy to meet others like ourselves. When two men, or two women, among us hold hands or kiss, everyone smiles. Some of us do retreat from the social press, here and there; others dance till all hours of the night, at parties where same-sex couples and het couples mingle in shared enjoyment. We talk about books and writing and stories and life. We affirm for each other the importance of telling these stories, and the joy of watching them go more mainstream with every passing year. And sometimes, we listen and try to bolster the pain of the dark moments, the losses, the times when the world isn’t yet accepting of the rainbow. The hotel is filled with readers, authors, narrators, publishers, and lots of M/M books. My kind of place.
I hope to see some of you at GRL in Kansas City, MO in October this year, or at other conferences other years. I hope all of you find new favorite reading, and some of you who haven’t put stories to paper before are inspired to write, for yourselves, for the fun of it. I hope some of you do go on to publish, and find success. We all win when this genre grows and steps forward into the consciousness of new readers, helping to teach those who read romance that love is love, and that two men together can be beautiful.
-Kaje Harper, September 2016
Kaje Harper grew up in Montreal, and spent her teen years writing, filling binders with stories. But as life got busy, the stories began to just live in her head. The characters grew, met, endured, and loved, in any quiet moment, but the stories rarely made it to paper. Her time was taken up by work in psychology, teaching, and a biomedical career, and the fun of raising children.
Eventually the kids became more independent and her husband gave her a computer she didn’t have to share. She started putting words down in print again, just for fun. Hours of fun. Lots of hours of fun. The stories began piling up, and her husband suggested if she was going to spend that much time on the keyboard she ought to try to publish one. MLR Press accepted her first submission, the M/M mystery Life Lessons, which came out in May 2011. Kaje now has many novels and short stories published, including Amazon bestseller The Rebuilding Year, and a selection of free short stories and novels in a variety of gay romance genres, available at most ebook retailers. Her most recent release is the Tracefinder thriller-mystery series. She currently lives in Minnesota with a creative teenager, a crazy omnivorous little white dog, and a remarkably patient spouse.
Goodreads Author page: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4769304.Kaje_Harper
Or you can find me moderating my Young Adult LGBT Books group on Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/49526-ya-lgbt-books