Article Archive


Walking the Trail

© 2011 KG MacGregor

This is KG's Keynote Address at the Seventh Annual Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS) Conference in Orlando, Florida.

I want to thank the GCLS for this tremendous honor. It scares the hell out of me to have to follow the moving address Lee Lynch dropped on us last year. To Lee and our other past keynote speaker in attendance - Karin Kallmaker - just to have my name on the same list as yours makes this one of the highlights of my life. I'm really very humbled to be in your company.

I have to confess, though, when Patty's note landed in my inbox last January, humility and gratitude for this privilege didn't last as long as I would have liked … because it turned into panic right away. If you were here last year, you may recall that I was hobbled with back issues, and one of the casualties of that has been my ability to concentrate. When I got the invite to speak, I was already eight months into an extended hiatus from writing and afraid to say yes to anything that involved a deadline. In fact, my last two books - Photographs of Claudia and Mother Load - were late getting to the editor, and I hated that because it put unfair pressure on the staff at Bella to get the books out on time. So when Mother Load finally slid off my desk last spring, I vowed not to promise anything to anyone unless I was dead certain I could deliver it on time.

And then I said yes to this, thinking surely I could write a few thousand words in five months. Of course they couldn't be just any bunch of words - they had to be worthy of this podium.

I thought I might get a reprieve with all that "rapture" business back on May 21st. Lucky for me, I hedged my bets and wrote the speech ahead of time, because clearly, Harold Camping was wrong. We're not smoldering in the hot fires of hell - we're in Orlando!

Speaking of the hot fires of hell, I heard the story of a lesbian writer who died and was given the option of going to heaven or hell.

Fearing that heaven would restrict her from writing books about lesbians, she decided to check out each place first. When she descended into the fiery pits, she saw row upon row of writers chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they toiled, they were whipped with thorny lashes and sprayed with rubbing alcohol.

"Definitely not for me," she said frightfully. "Let me see heaven now."

When she ascended into heaven, she saw rows of writers, chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. They, too, were whipped with thorny lashes and sprayed with rubbing alcohol.

"Wait a minute," said the writer. "How is this different from hell?"

An unseen voice answered, "Here, your work gets published."

I tend to use a lot of metaphors when I organize my thoughts, that is, to frame what I want to say in terms of things that are already familiar. If you've read any of my work, you've probably seen some examples of this: an earthquake symbolizes an unexpected shift in someone's sense of self; a mountain stands in for the challenges we face as we transition to a new phase in life; or a quirky golf shot signifies the chance for a do-over.

I began writing my remarks for today around the metaphor of home. As someone who grew up in a Marine Corps family, I've always had trouble with the question, "Where are you from?" We moved around so much that I learned not to get too attached to places, and especially not to people. Even as an adult, I've shuffled frequently from job to job, state to state, and relationship to relationship, all without ever feeling a true sense of permanence. To be honest, I don't think I knew what home felt like until about eighteen years ago when I met my partner Jenny. I'd spent my whole life making friends, and then moving away and losing touch. With Jenny, I learned once and for all that home doesn't have to be a physical place - it can be a state of mind; or in my case, a state of heart.

When you commit your heart to something, it takes on a sense of permanence. I feel that way about the lesbian book community, not only as a writer but as a friend to so many of you, and as an activist for the elevation of what we do. I feel at home in this room, and I know many of you share that. It's a place where all of us can relax and be ourselves; where we not only belong, but thrive; and where we're surrounded by friends who have proven they will step up for us when we need them.

So I kept writing around this theme - probably twenty minutes worth of related analogies and metaphors about home - personal reflections on why this community feels that way to me, and what I believe we all mean to one another. Then I had a revelation in the form of an imaginary conversation with my former editor Cindy Cresap. Cindy wasn't the sort to sugarcoat her comments. She would have taken one look at what I had written and told me it was overuse of expository narrative. Except she would have phrased it, "Stop beating this horse. It died of boredom."

She was editing one of my intimate scenes once, and I had described my character's nipples as red. She scribbled in the margin, "They can be pink or they can be rose, but if they're red, someone is going to the clinic."

So I turned to a new metaphor, one that's firmly fixed in the lexicon of the GCLS - the trailblazer … because it was through our trailblazers that this all became home.

Over the years, we've had some really great moments here at GCLS. At our first meeting the Queen of Romance, Karin Kallmaker, pumped us up and made us proud to tell the stories that have long been maligned as "fluffy chick-lit."

Then at the 2006 convention in Atlanta, we had the privilege of hearing Ann Bannon, who described what it was like to write lesbian books at a time when not only the publishers - but also the US Postal Code - mandated a tragic end to our love stories. In subsequent years we heard moving accounts from stalwarts Ellen Hart, Katherine Forrest, Jean Redmann and Lee Lynch: how they worked in near isolation to add their voices to what was a tiny chorus of lesbian writers. And then came desktop publishing.

It's fascinating to contrast the stories of our trailblazers with the experiences of the past decade. By the time I started writing, the path to publishing lesbian fiction was wide and relatively smooth, thanks to a number of writers we've met here at GCLS … people like Melissa Good, Susan Meagher, BL Miller, Verda Foster and Lori Lake.

I was part of the bandwagon wave of writers that came to the world of lesbian books by way of Xena fan fiction. One of the show's many extraordinary gifts was the promise that Xena and Gabrielle would be entwined through the ages, rediscovering one another in all their future lives. For the storytellers among us, the possibilities for how that might happen were endless.

Just ask Mavis Applewater, who wrote nearly 200 tales for her Wednesday afternoon series of PWPs. For those of you unfamiliar with that acronym, it stands for Plot, what plot. We looked forward each Wednesday to Mavis's new installments. They gave a whole new meaning to Hump Day.

Together the Xenaverse writers posted thousands of free stories at our favorite sites like Tom's Fan Fiction, MaryD's, The Athenaeum and the Royal Academy of Bards. We were prolific because we were powered by the rocket fuel of reader feedback. We didn't have to wait two or three months for a publisher to reply to our efforts; our jury often came back within hours - and nearly always with effusive thanks and praise. The more we wrote, the more they wanted. It made for a very exciting trail.

It bears mentioning that we were also prolific because many of us didn't concern ourselves with inconveniences like grammar, point of view, characters arcs or any other rigors of the craft. We wrote our stories as best we could - often mimicking the styles and clichés of other Xenaverse authors - and then we passed our work on to friends for beta reading, which generally meant scanning for typos and occasionally offering a suggestion or two. Not much there to slow the creative process.

As the Xena community flourished, so too did its fan fiction community. Independent of the TV show and its formal marketing structures, readers and writers began to congregate on Internet sites and at our own conventions, where we gathered to celebrate the stories. Along the way, we found friends and lovers; we raised money for charity; and we supported one another at times of financial or emotional need. Whether you were a writer, a graphic artist, a web designer or a reader, you had a valuable place in this community. All the parts worked together in perfect synchrony, and it was one of the most amazing social phenomena I've ever seen. I sometimes get an aching nostalgia for those Xenaverse days, and I feel privileged beyond words to have been a part of it, and with so many of you.

Writers plus readers plus entrepreneurs took our brand of fan fiction to the next level - the commercial level - where desktop publishing, print-on-demand and self-publishing avenues promised to turn virtually any of us into a published author overnight. Niche presses could produce books with very little capital investment, which meant the lesbian book market was suddenly flooded with a plethora of tales about a tall, dark-haired woman with azure eyes and strong cheekbones, and her petite blond companion with emerald orbs and fabulous abs.

I think it's fair to say the quality of these books varied greatly, and it took book buyers a while to sort out the chaos. To be honest, taking money for what we did didn't always make us professionals. Still, the stories were precious to us and remain among our all-time favorites. They kept the magic alive after the show ended, and more important, they held us together as a community.

No GCLS keynote address would be complete without a horror story about a publishing experience. I could tell you about my first time around the block, but all the details have been redacted thanks to a non-disclosure agreement. In hindsight, I believe some of us had too-high expectations of our novice publishers, many of whom had even less experience as publishers than we had as authors. Most were under-capitalized and poorly positioned to edit, promote and distribute our work - and quite a few of them have now folded.

Never forget the difference between a publisher and a terrorist: You can sometimes negotiate with a terrorist.

I was lucky to recover the rights to my first two books, Shaken and Malicious Pursuit, as that enabled me to try self-publishing. Those details I can share, and while my experience may not fully qualify as a horror story, it certainly earned me some credits at the School of Hard Knocks.

I thought self-publishing would work for me because what I wanted most was control. I liked working with an editor, but I hated being strong-armed into making changes I didn't want to make. I was aware, though, and very concerned about the stigma associated with self-publishing - the perception that such books weren't good enough to attract a publisher's investment. I was determined - as I'm sure we all are - that my books would be among the very best out there.

The first thing I did as a self-published author was put out 2nd editions of the 2 books that had previously been released, gleefully undoing all of the demoralizing revisions forced on me by my publisher. I then contracted with the aforementioned Cindy Cresap to work with me on the other novels from my online backlist. She had edited a number of successful books that I had personally enjoyed - titles like Tiopa Ki Lakota and The Bluest Eyes in Texas - and I was thrilled when she agreed to take me on.

While it was true that now I had total control of my books, I also had total responsibility - the blurb, the cover art, the formatting, the print runs, the marketing and promotion, and the distribution. It reminded me of when I first started my research consulting business. I was trained in study design and statistical analysis - but the bulk of my time was eaten up with things like hustling business, accounting, payroll and contracts - none of which were fun. Self-publishing was a lot like that. Writing was my bliss, but I didn't have as much time to do it.

Yes, it paid better … at least the margins were higher. However, there was a cost to not being as productive.

Then the first shoe dropped: I began to notice that my checks from the distributor were almost always accompanied by a note that said stock was running low. That meant the check I was holding would ultimately end up back in the printer's hands to pay for a second run.

The second shoe followed - and I began to suspect this might be a centipede dressing out of Karin Kallmaker's shoe closet. The second run didn't sell as quickly as the first, which meant my profits from the first run were tied up in slow-moving inventory. I figured I could counter that by turning out books at a quicker clip. Within a year I released The House on Sandstone and, in a very limited run, Mulligan. In hindsight, I think both books would have benefitted from another editorial pass and line edit.

The third shoe was the most frustrating: My distribution was largely limited to Starcrossed and Amazon, and the ceiling on sales came very quickly. Just because Barnes and Noble could special order my book didn't mean they offered it to their customers. Nor did Borders, Books-a-Million, or for that matter, many of the independent bookstores that still dot most of our major cities. Getting shelf space in the bookstore meant working the phones with their book buyers - just what I needed - something else to do.

The fourth shoe was the most devastating. As I mentioned, I had all the control and all the responsibility. I also had all the financial risks. You may not believe this, but not everyone in this business pays their bills. Shocking, I know. There was a distributor based in Sacramento called The Open Book that not only sold books in their store and online; they also serviced brick and mortar accounts for some of the lesbian and gay specialty stores. All of us who had books placed there for distribution got a rude awakening one day when out of the blue, we received an email saying they were closing their doors - too many bills and not enough cash flow. With shameless gall, they thanked us for our investment in their failed business, which was another way of saying, "We've sold several boxes of your books, but we're keeping the money." The House on Sandstone was their top-selling book that week.

Around that time, Debra Butler, who ran a Canadian list that promoted lesbian fiction, put together an event in London, Ontario. I loaded up the car with books and made the trip, knowing that I probably wouldn't make expenses, but I had hopes of reaching new readers who might support me down the road.

What I didn't expect was to come away from that weekend with a whole new outlook on my future as a writer. One of the people in attendance that weekend was Linda Hill, publisher of Bella Books. From where I was sitting, Bella was the gold standard, thought of by many as "the old Naiad," the books that epitomized our lives in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Best of all, Bella had a distribution network that effectively targeted lesbians coast to coast, and around the world.

But publishing with Bella came with a caveat, or so I believed. I'd heard the grumblings about their company: No unsolicited manuscripts; nothing over 60 thousand words; first love scene by chapter 3; etc. In fact - I am not making this up - I'd heard it said that Bella authors basically turned in their manuscript, signed over the rights, and never saw it again until Bella's editors had doctored it to fit their formula. I wish!

For a control freak like me, all of that was a deal breaker. So imagine my surprise - and suspicion - when Linda fielded questions from the audience, saying that Bella welcomed submissions from new writers in a variety of genres, and with no upper word limit. She went on to proudly describe the editorial process at Bella as collaborative, where authors had the final word. What Bella wanted, she said, was to build long-term relationships with authors where everyone was happy - especially the thousands of lesbians in their reader audience.

It sounded too good to be true, but I wanted to believe it, and I made up my mind that day that I wanted Bella to publish my books.

Unfortunately, that sort of thing isn't a unilateral decision. I needed to convince Bella that they wanted my name on their label. Some stalking was involved. In fact, it took place at the very first GCLS con in New Orleans in 2005 when I thrust all four of my self-published books into Linda's hands. "I'm in the Royal Academy of Bards Hall of Fame," I said … to which she replied, "What the hell is that?"

I decided not to mention the Swollen Bud Award.

But she indulged me, and after a couple of anxious months while she and others at Bella looked over my work, we struck a deal.

That isn't quite the end of the story. Thanks to my redacted publishing experience and the problems I'd had with self-publishing, my trust level with the competence of others was pretty low. I continued to obsess over details about things like the cover art, the blurb, the listings on all the distribution outlets, how quickly the books were moving and where - all those things I meant to give up when I signed with a publisher. I don't want to know how close I came to being kicked to the curb by Bella for trying to micro-manage all the staff jobs during those first couple of years. I'm grateful they held onto me while I learned just to let them do their jobs, so I could put that energy into doing my job better.

That's the trail I've walked to get this far. I know a lot of you are in the same place as I am today, settled in a situation that suits you, letting the pros handle the details so your creative side can flourish. Others are still getting the lay of the land, studying their options, and trying to get all the moving parts to work together. But what about our trail forward, the one we have to forge for those who follow?

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 and York, at readings and promotional events in local communities, and on a host of social networks, blogs and lists. I've already shared my feelings about the value of this community for those of us who sought to belong. 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 metaphor, walking the trail ... as if you have a choice. 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 and 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 and 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 and authors as well - that as long as a story is interesting, things like typos and 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 and 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 and 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 and hyperbole from your narrative; points out when your characters are acting out of character; complains about your plot lags, tangents and loose ends; and tells you when the horse died of boredom.

Photographs of Claudia was my thirteenth 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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.

I'd like to close with an erratum to correct a mistake I made during a presentation in Phoenix back in 2008. I had done a good bit of research on how to build an author website that readers would find entertaining and useful, an engaging platform to effectively promote books.

I advised those creating blogs to stick to topics that had to do with writing. Readers don't look up your website because they care about what you think or feel, I said. They want to know when your next book is coming out, what it's about and why you wrote it. Part of my reasoning was that readers ought to find a professional writer - not a personality - at the other end of the book they'd just read, but in truth I think it had more to do with being a military brat who thought keeping her emotional distance was a good thing.

I couldn't have been more wrong. With the personal struggles I've had over the past couple of years, there were lots of days I didn't even want to get out of bed. I knew I needed to step away from writing for a while and tend to both my physical and mental health, and I began sprinkling my blog posts with more personal updates, mostly to explain why I was canceling events and dropping off the book grid.

The response to what I posted was overwhelmingly kind and compassionate. Hardly a day went by without a note from someone sharing empathy, sympathy, advice, support, well wishes … or just asking how I was doing. It was the most amazing feeling to realize I had so many friends on my side. Not readers - friends.

It's a glorious feeling to know I write for people like that.

Back to Article Archive.