Jenna Black's Blog Experiment

Wherein romance author Jenna Black plunges into the terrifying new territory of blogging . . .


Monday, February 27, 2006

Discovering My Theme

In an interesting coincidence, I've had two writing workshops this year--one at our local RWA chapter, and one in an online course--where I've been asked to delve into the theme of my writing. Exploring this issue has been a fascinating voyage of self-discovery for me.

I write in two sub-genres of romance--paranormal, and romantic comedy. I haven't sold a romantic comedy yet, though I'm still hopeful. It was easy for me to see a theme in the paranormals I'd written. Many of them (including Watchers in the Night, my October 2006 release from Tor Romance, and Embraced in Darkness, my free online read) center around a character's struggle against his or her inner darkness. Just this week, I realized with a jolt that that's why I love the Anita Blake books as much as I do--Anita is constantly struggling against the darker side of her nature, and it's a conflict that fascinates me.

However, as compelling as this fight against inner darkness is as a theme, I was looking for something broader, something that would also encompass my comedies. And I realized that yes, there really was a theme that would cover both: even the most emotionally damaged of us can find love. When I came up with this sentence, it resonated through my body in a way that told me that this is The One. This theme is more subtle in some of my books than in others, but it's always there, a core message of hope that I want to share with the world.

Even more amazing to me was that once I recognized that theme, I realized where in my psyche it came from. Without going into too many personal details, let's just say that I had a very damaging relationship with my first boyfriend, who I was with for four years. After we broke up, I didn't date again for about eight years. I thought I was open to having another relationship, that I was actively seeking my Mr. Right. But later experience proved that I had shut and barricaded the door around my heart.

When I met my now-husband, Dan, I'd added several locks and chains on that door, still not realizing that I'd done it. When Dan started to pursue me, I pushed him away with both hands. I said we didn't have that much in common, that there was too much of an age difference between us, and any number of other excuses for why we were "just friends." Luckily for me, Dan knew from the start that we were right for each other, and he refused to give up. He chipped away at those locks for about a year before he finally managed to open the door. And that's when I realized that I'd been so damaged by my first relationship that I hadn't been willing to risk my heart a second time. We were engaged within about a month after my emotional walls came tumbling down. We'll have our ten-year anniversary in July.

So, no wonder this theme of the emotionally damaged finding love is so important to me! I lived it myself. And it was such a life-altering experience that it had to find its way into my writing, especially when I started writing romances. (I suspect that before Dan came into my life, I wouldn't have been able to write a romance at all.)

It's amazing what you can learn about yourself from the experience of writing. Even when you're writing about vampires and fey creatures, it all comes from something inside you, some kind of personal experience. The fun part is trying to find that connection.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Magic of Books

I've often thought that writing is as close to magic as it's possible to get in the real world. And I don't just mean because authors create strange new worlds and people. It's the way books can suck you in and create emotions in you. To me, that's like a kind of magic, like a spell has been cast on me. And boy, do I ever love it.

My most recent experience with book magic was reading the Weather Warden series by Rachel Caine. I'd just gone through a dry spell, where I'd tried to read several books on my TBR pile and just couldn't get into them. They were all books that had gotten great buzz, and I was very enthused about reading them. But each one left me flat, that magic spark missing.

Then I picked up Ill Wind, the first book of the Weather Warden series. And by the first sentence, I was hooked. The first sentence is "Well, thank God this is about to be over, I thought as I drove--well, blew--past the sign that marked the Westchester, Connecticut, city limits." Now, this isn't one of those hook sentences that drew me in because it in itself was so extraordinary, strange, or exciting. It does have interest to it, because you immediately want to know what's about to be over, but I, at least, didn't feel the great imperative to keep reading because of a burning desire to answer that question. What got me from that first sentence was the writer's voice and the narrator's tone. I knew from that first sentence that I was really going to enjoy this book.

That to me is magic. I blew through the book, and as soon as I finished it, I put it on the shelf where I keep the books I read over and over again. As a writer, I should probably analyze what it was about that book that so totally engrossed me and made me put it on my keeper shelf. As a reader, I don't want to look too closely because I don't want to spoil the magic.

I've continued to read the series since then. I read all three of the others last week, while I was on a business trip to Topeka, KS. They're all wonderful. These are urban fantasies, not romances, but there's a strong romantic element running through them. Here's the thing that struck me when I read the fourth (and, so far, last) book: much as I love this author, this series, and these characters, the magic is going to end for me eventually, and it's because of the romance.

In order for the tension and drama to continue, the heroine and her lover must be kept apart. However, eventually, that separation is going to become too frustrating for me as a reader. I'm so involved with those characters that I'm desperate for them to get together and live happily ever after. But for that to happen, the series as it is has to come to an end. What a conundrum, huh? I want more books, I want to be continually swept away, but I want to have my satisfying ending, too.

I think series are the most difficult magic to pull off. They're popular with readers because when you love one book in the series, you're hoping that the other books will affect you in exactly the same way. It's not that you want the same story over and over, it's that you want the same reading experience. But for me, at least, that kind of series strength is very hard to maintain. Eventually, they start to get repetitive, or the flavor changes, or something (like the romance) gets frustrating. But man, when the magic has you by the throat, it's a glorious thing!

I hope my Guardians of the Night series can cast that kind of magic spell on my readers. That's the single most important reason I write--to try to give to readers what other writers have given to me over the years. Only time will tell if I'll succeed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Alternative Publishing Venues

First off, let me say that I'm really excited to have received a comment on my very first post when I've made practically no effort to promote the blog yet. (I'm still adjusting to the idea that I actually decided to take this step!) I'm even more grateful that the comment sparked a thought about something to talk about, so thank you Amy.

Amy talked about publishing with rather than with a traditional publishing company. Although many authors will argue against taking this path, there are times when it can be helpful. You just have to know what you're going into. And, more importantly, why. So, here's my own story of publishing through an alternative venue.

Several years ago, my husband decided he wanted to start his own small press publishing company, publishing science fiction and fantasy (which, not coincidentally, was what I was writing at the time). He'd been editing my books (not the pathway to domestic harmony, by the way), and he'd seen how close I'd come without actually selling. He figured (correctly) that there had to be plenty of other writers out there like me, and he was going to help them out.

Thus Aardwolf Press was born. His first acquisition was a brilliant collection of short stories, called The Best-Known Man in the World, by Daniel Pearlman. Now if any of you read science fiction and fantasy, you know that story collections are a really hard sell, so Mr. Pearlman was unlikely to find a mainstream publisher. The book was a critical success (even getting reviewed in the Washington Post), but wasn't exactly a cash cow, because publishing a book in one thing, and marketing it is another.

After he found that first manuscript, my husband was eager to put out another book, even if he wasn't making money from the venture. But a year or so went by where he couldn't find a submission he liked enough to publish. And that's where I stepped in.

I'd written a dark fantasy novel, called Hamlet Dreams. It was my fourth novel, and at the time, I decided I'd search for an agent rather than sending it directly to publishers. And for about the only time I can remember, I got consistent feedback--this book was not commercial enough for a first novel. What's more, I could see why the agents thought so. The book was quirky. And my lead characters were both meek people. You don't see a lot of commercial fiction featuring meek characters.

I decided to let my husband publish Hamlet Dreams, figuring small press was the right place for it, and if I was going to go with a small press, I might as well go with his. I didn't go into this venture seeking fame or fortune. I knew that we wouldn't sell many copies. I knew I wouldn't make money off of it. But what I hoped was that I could get some good reviews that I could put in cover letters when sending other books to commercial publishers. I was looking for anything that would make my submissions stand out.

It worked. I got reviewed in Booklist, Library Journal, Midwest Book Review, Asimov's Science Fiction, and many other places. Did the book sell like hotcakes? No. Neither my husband nor I knew much about promotion and marketing, so figuring out how to get sales was not our strong suit. One thing I definitely did get was validation--hey, all these reviewers thought my book was great! That must mean that I'm not some pathetic hack who should give up on her unrealistic dream. It was a great feeling, and an infusion of hope.

Strangely enough, that publication indirectly led to me hooking up with my agent. I'd exchanged books with a fellow romance author in my local RWA chapter. She read Hamlet Dreams and loved it, so when she went to the Romantic Times convention and met a hungry new agent just starting out, she recommended us to each other. And that's how I came to sign with Miriam Kriss, of the Irene Goodman agency.

The moral of the story: there's more than one way to skin a cat. I went into my small-press publishing adventure with a very definite goal, and focused my attention on meeting that goal. For me, it worked out. Each writer has to make these decision for him/herself. There is no one right way.

P.S. Aardwolf Press has gone on to publish three more wonderful books. It's still a project done for love, not for money, but if you enjoy literate, intelligent science fiction and fantasy, check them out at

Monday, February 20, 2006

Down with Self Doubt!

I am so not a blogger. I couldn't even keep a diary as a kid, no matter how many times I tried. There's something intimidating about it. I guess I'm just not big on talking about myself. However, I'm not a kid anymore, and blogging is incredibly popular. So I'm going to give it a try, despite my natural resistance.

This is truly an experiment. Can I come up with interesting things to say on a regular basis? Or ever? *Gulp* One thing many writers have in common is a deep well of insecurity and self-doubt. I've got a well and a reservoir that likes to overflow. Another thing we have in common, though, is that we're willing to attack that self-doubt. Otherwise, we'd never send our precious manuscripts out into the cold, cruel world. So, my battle-cry is: Down with Self Doubt!

In many ways, conquering my self-doubt was the key to my selling my first commercial novel, Watchers in the Night (coming from Tor Romance in October, '06). All you struggling writers out there, listen to this story and take heart!

I've been writing seriously for publication for 16 years. Damn, that's a lot of years! I started out writing science fiction and fantasy, and with my very first novel I got a serious nibble from a publisher who said he'd love to make an offer on the book, but he was being forced to cut down on first novels. (Thank God! I shudder to think what it would have been like if someone had actually published that book, which will remain hidden from human eyes for all eternity.)

You'd think from a response like that that I was well on my way to publication success, but such was not the case. I wrote book after book, sending each one out with high hopes that this would be the one that would get my foot in the door. And again and again, it didn't happen. I got other nibbles. I had an editor go to bat for me and pitch my book to the other editors in her company. But I never seemed able to take that final step, never seemed able to make that sale. Words can't describe how discouraging this all was, this constant cycle of hope and disappointment.

One thing, though. I never considered quitting. Quitting was always something that I'd think about "eventually," when all hope was dead. But hope was on its deathbed on life support, and the more years (and books) went by, the harder it was to keep it alive.

Then, I had an amazing, life-altering experience. I went to a writer's workshop where the teachers, both very successful commercial authors, truly believe that if you were a good enough writer and you didn't quit, you'd eventually get published. They told me that luck wasn't needed, that my hard work was the key. And that completely changed the way I looked at my writing career.

I decided that if hard work was the key, I was damn well going to work harder than I ever had before. So I changed from writing whenever I was "in the mood," to writing every single day. Seven days a week. And instead of telling myself that I was waiting for a lucky break--something I had absolutely no control over--I told myself that if I wrote well enough, I would eventually break in. And I had a leg up--enough publishers had nibbled at my earlier works to convince me that I was good enough.

At this point, I also shifted to writing romance, which I think turned out to be a more natural genre for me. (I'll have to talk about that in another post some day.) One year after I changed my entire writing regimen and attitude, I snagged a top-flight agent. And one year after that, I sold my first novel to a commercial, New York press. Watchers in the Night was my 18th completed novel.

So, I've overcome self-doubt before, with a herculean effort. I can do it again. It doesn't mean my blog experiment is guaranteed to work. I may find that it's too difficult to promote my book, my blog, and my website all at the same time. I may find that it's too much of a time-sink. I may find I don't have enough to say. But I'm going to give it a try, because otherwise I'll never know.



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