Do you remember that scene in the movie Never Been Kissed when they’re at the mall? There are two sets of people on the escalators—one traveling down, the other traveling up—and the girl with the long, brown hair (or was it blonde?) looks at Drew Barrymore’s character and says, “Like, oh my god—there goes another lemming.”
Do you remember that?
I do. I so totally do.
I can’t remember the last time I saw the movie, and yet that scene has stayed with me for all these years. Perhaps it stuck for the sole purpose of being found in this season of my life; to remind me I don’t have to be another lemming. In fact, I should strive to be the exact opposite. Because, you see, it’s not just that one line, but the overall arcing concept of popularity and fitting-in versus being yourself, which was depicted in the movie, that left an impact.
Sure, the plot was set in a high school and I, along with many of you, haven't seen the halls of our high schools in over a decade (maybe two or three.) Nevertheless, if you’ve lived long enough, you know a lot of the challenges, the attitudes, or the contests of our adolescent years have a way of repeating themselves and manifesting in new shapes and sizes—disguised when they show up in various parts of our lives, even as we grow and mature. Let us not forget, Drew's character wasn't a high school student in the story, and yet she succumbed to the same tendencies a lot of us have to battle as we seek to climb one ladder or another.
Now, let's talk about sex.
I think, for me, writing sex was kind of inevitable. Not simply because I write romance, but because of how I write romance and what I strive for while developing my characters. (I'll give you more on that in a couple of weeks.) When I started writing, sex didn't have a place in my stories. When that changed, so did I. Only, the more open I was about the sex in my novels, the more disingenuous I felt. I don't think it was my writing about intimacy that distorted my brand, my image, my persona, or even my integrity—I think it was trying to use it as a selling tool that caused all the damage. Except, I was only doing what everyone else was doing. I didn't think I was sabotaging my own success. In fact, I was doing what I thought the successful, “cool” kids were doing. I was following the crowd.
Like, oh my god—there goes another lemming.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, (or maybe it doesn’t even really matter,) I started publishing my novels after Fifty Shades blew up and gave just about every woman who’d given up on reading a newfound desire to pick up a book and dive in. Not only did that series cause a huge spike in readership of the romance genre, but I think it also gave thousands of writers out there the courage and the incentive to start publishing their own stories. I’ll admit, I haven’t researched that. I'll also admit, I’m not going to - but ask around, and I bet you'll see I'm not that far off.
I know there are authors out there who write in the romance genre and have never read the infamous Christian Grey (*raises hand*); and there are authors who weren’t inspired to publish their steamy books because of Christian Grey (*raises hand*); but regardless of whether or not we intended on joining the game on the heels of a phenomenon, it cannot be denied that E.L. James opened a door no one else did—and some of us are reaping the benefits.
I remember when those books started gaining serious momentum. It seemed like everyone I knew was talking about them. (Like when I was a kid and everyone was talking about Harry Potter; or when I was in college and everyone was talking about Twilight.) I was stubborn and refused to read them—even to this day—but my friends and some of my family were reading them; and what they told me translated to one message.
I'm going to keep it real with you. The crowds I run with don't read romance on the regular. But they read these books. And the women who talked to me about the series each had their own varying opinions about the quality of writing in the stories—but they couldn’t put them down, regardless. Because sex sells. So, since before I published my first book, I’ve had it in my head that—sex sells. Then I published my debut.
The Promises We Keep is my first and only published PG romance. Everyone kept talking about how clean it was; how they’d let their daughters read it; how it was refreshing, and so very young adult. But I wasn't (and still am not) a young adult author. Furthermore, it wasn’t written about young adults. Even more, I knew who I wanted my audience to be (or, you know, generally speaking) and it wasn’t girls in high school. So I had to up my game a little. And I did.
The problem wasn’t that I was adjusting for my audience with my content. That, I believe, was smart. It also did me some good, challenging me to go deeper in developing my writing. (Again, we’ll touch on that in part three.) The problem was how I began to exploit the sex in my work for gain. Suddenly, the bits and pieces I was pulling out of my novels to try and sell them had little to do with the story at all.
I haven't really been hanging out in the romance community a lot lately, but something tells me things haven't changed much in my absence; which means what I'm about to say still holds some truth. The truth is, everywhere I looked, there were covers with shirtless men. Teasers with half naked women. Quotes about something dirty, hot, or sexy. And everywhere I looked, readers were gobbling it up. I wanted readers to gobble my stuff up, too, so I did what I thought I should do—regardless of how unnatural it felt. I studied and I mimicked.
Like, oh my god—there goes another lemming.
I must say, one thing I refused to compromise on were my covers. I’ve got 20—some have yet to be revealed, but they exist and are worth counting—and only two of them have naked man chests on the front. My most erotic novel has one of my favorite, softest, prettiest covers. In fact, I'd say it's not really sexy on purpose at all. Generally, I'm not into abs on my books. I can’t do it. I was going to, (I was encouraged to,) but in the end, that was a line I couldn’t cross. The two stories that do have man pecs on display, they made sense and felt right to me. In that regard, I don’t believe I ever sacrificed my artisitic integrity for a sale. But my teasers? My teasers are a different story.
I’m not going to stand on some soap box and tell you that sexy teasers are bad.
For some people, they work.
For me, they do not.
It's not because they don’t sell books; it's possible they may have helped me in the past. Mostly it's because, in my experience, they don't represent my books very well. They don't represent me as an artist very well, either. Yes, I write contemporary romance. Yes, there is often times sex in my novels. No, I don’t write sex for sex sake. I'm not an erotic author. I don't just throw it in because I think it'll sell better. Neither is it my intent to get you all hot and bothered. Just being honest here. While some might disagree and tell you I write smut, I really don’t. And I get to decide that, right? I am the creator.
The trouble is, if all you see are my teasers, you might not know that I don’t write smut. Yet, oddly enough, that’s what I was trying to sell. Because sex sells! So, I figured, if I could sell the sex, then maybe I could surprise the reader with all the other stuff I’ve got going on on the inside. Except—what kind of logic is that?
Like, oh my god—there goes another lemming.
Turns out, I like my romance sweet with a side of sexy, or sexy with a side of sweet—but at the end of the day, I’m all about the love. Love is what I want to sell, not sex. Not to mention, I don’t want to trick people into picking up my book. Talk about integrity. And you remember my definition of success, right? Doing what I love with integrity.
Over the past few months, I've had the chance to step back and look around, look at myself, respect my work, and heed the advice of one particular brilliant, loving, business-minded friend. It might sound so elementary from where you're sitting, but it was a beautiful epiphany to me when I realized I could be me—I could write sweet and sexy; I could write about love—love so deep—and simultaneously grow my audience authentically. It's refreshing. It's liberating. It's fun to embrace my voice and what I can bring to a story that no one else can. Some might think it risky; a few months ago, I might have thought it was risky—to go against everything my eyes see. But I don't have perfect vision. Not only that, it's time I gave my readers—the ones who are and the ones who will be—so much more credit. You deserve it.
Honestly, there's room out there for all of us writers. It might not always feel like it, but it's true. You don't have to fight dirty to gain the attention of your audience. You've just got to fight smart. But more than anything, you've got to be you. That's what I'm going to do.