Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Oh, so not a real book? Not a real college?

Not a real college?

I feel fortunate to work at a community college, where the majority of my colleagues not only consider themselves teachers, but announce that fact proudly. Ask a university professor what she/he does for a living, and she/he will invariably say "I'm a biologist," "chemist," "architect", etc. But not a teacher. 

Contrary to popular belief, the community college is not the step-child of higher education. Teaching at a community college wasn't my consolation prize for failing to have made it into the Ivory Tower. Like many of my colleagues, I was called to the community college because I believe in its democratizing mission--the notion that all individuals "should have the opportunity to rise to their greatest potential" (Cohen and Brawer, 2003, p. 10), that education should be made available to anyone who has the desire to learn. And to that end, community colleges remove their doors from the hinges and invite everyone in.

Yet, whenever I travel to conferences and answer the question of where I work, my university brethren give me that look--that "Oh, so not a real college" look.

It struck me this past weekend as I studied the slightly down-turned mouth of a Boston University professor who, with a hint of disdain, asked, "Is that a junior college?" -- that it's the very same look I face when I tell people that we wrote a lesbian romantic thriller.

"Oh, so not a real book," they say.

Not a real book?

The publishers of lesbian fiction give voice to the historically ignored. For decades, they have challenged the media's distorted portrayal of gays and lesbians as ungodly, sick, and perverted monsters. They have spun a new narrative of lesbians and of lesbian relationships that is positive and healthy.

When I was eighteen, I worked in a bookstore, in which the gay and lesbian section (notably one shelf at the time) was positioned just next to the Women's Studies section. Those shelves were mighty orderly during my tenure at the bookstore as I spent a whole lot of time there--pretending to peruse the Women's Studies books while surreptitiously reading the back covers of the lesbian novels when no one was looking. Like many small town lesbians in the early nineties, I was terrified to be gay because there were no images of happy, well-adjusted lesbians in loving relationships on television, in the movies, on the radio, or in mainstream books. In fact, gays and lesbians were regularly paraded on talk shows as freaks and given cameos in movies as demented, obsessed, killer roommates. So when I found those lesbian novels on that shelf, I cherished them. They gave me hope and they encouraged me to be who I was--no matter the consequences.

So, yeah, I write lesbian books.

I'm proud to be a writer of lesbian novels. In fact, it is as much a source of pride as being a teacher at a community college.

So, to you Mr. Stuffy Boston University Professor with the elbow patches, I say, community colleges are not only real colleges but they are vehicles for social change, and they are, in my opinion, staffed by the best damn teachers in higher education. They are colleges with heart--colleges with a conscience.

And to you Literature Elitists, I say, lesbian romances, thrillers, and mysteries are real books -- real books that have inspired and will continue to inspire social change, equity, and pride in one's community.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Book from Start to (almost) Finish

Imagine D and me floating in the pool, some fruity mixed drinks in our hands. I'm rattling on about some great lesbian suspense novel I recently read and D is only half-listening to me and playing with our pup, Maddie (AKA Maddie Bear, Pumpkin, Bear-bear)--holding her ring just out of reach so that she has to leap out of the water, Jaws-style, to grab it in her teeth.


And then D nonchalantly says, "Why don't we write one?" She just threw the question out there as if it were some comment about the weather or sunblock or needing an oil change.

And the idea was born.

Fast forward two months and D and I are plotting faster than I can type, shouting things like "Wouldn't it be great if...!" After a few months of some feverish writing, we have a complete draft.

We send it out to a very small press publisher and we get back a two-page email rejection--one of those really great rejections that encourage the author to fix some things and send it back. At the time, I didn't realize that there were different levels of rejections, so I just threw that one in the drawer with all of the poetry rejections I'd received through the years, thinking that our dream of publishing was a no-go.

So, life went on. I finished my doctorate, which kept me really busy with boring academic "scholarly" stuff, and D returned to school to pursue medicine (even more boring academic scholarly stuff--but with chemistry). And we forgot about the manuscript.

A couple years later, I unearthed that really great rejection. And having some time on my hands--post doctorate, I went to work on the manuscript, revising it in the ways that the publisher requested. By the time I was ready to send the now much-improved manuscript out again, though, the publishing house had closed. Damn!

So, as I was preparing to send it to the really small presses (you know the ones in the back of someone's van), D stopped me. "The publisher you most respect, send it to that one," she said. "And then work your way down the list." Occasionally, she can be very Spock-like logical, despite her artsy, creative self. The publisher was a no-brainer as my bookshelves were overflowing with Bella Books authors. My absolute favorites were (and still are) Karin Kallmaker, KG MacGregor, and Gerri Hill.

Following the Bella Books submission guidelines, D and I made some more revisions, adjusted the formatting of the manuscript, and sent it out (with fingers crossed). Then we waited. And we waited some more--for what we thought was going to be a "Thank you for your submission but your manuscript doesn't meet our present needs" or something equally devastating. Only it wasn't. We got another one of those fantastic rejections, telling us that they liked our story and would be happy to reconsider it after some revisions. And guess whose name was on the letter? Karin Kallmaker, the editorial director of Bella Books. I almost fainted on the spot. Well, we weren't going to make the same mistake twice so we immediately went to work on the revisions and turned it around in less than a week. And then we waited some more.

Fast forward three months and there's an email in my inbox from Karin Kallmaker (dear god!) asking if she could contact me by phone to discuss the manuscript. I, of course, had to be revived with paddles (it's a good thing D's studying medicine).

A few days later, the Karin Kallmaker called me (on my cell)! And I tried very hard to not sound like a giggling teenager completely infatuated with the woman on the other end of the line. Perhaps one day she'll tell me if I succeeded. :)

'So where are we now?' you ask. Well, we've worked with a fabulous editor--knowledgeable, experienced, smart, funny, and as nice as can be--the magical Medora MacDougall--who helped us to smooth out some of our rough edges and beautify the manuscript for Bella and the readers. And here we sit--with an August book release date looming large on the horizon.

The moral of this story is if you're floating in a pool right now talking excitedly about a book you just read and someone casually says, "You should write one," you should listen. Seriously. Write one. Write a good one. And send it out into the world.