Cait Reynolds — Churn and Burn

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Churn and Burn
by Cait Reynolds

I work in the service industry. I write romance and erotica novels. It’s a nitty-gritty, churn-and-burn, volume-based business. It’s full of distribution schedules, box sets, compilations, planning for seasonal themes (Christmas romance with – surprise – an engagement ring under the tree!), and relentless blogtweetposting.

My soul yearns to write lyrical trapeze acts and Terry Gilliam-esque pieces with “deep thoughts.” I have a sad little fantasy of writing a slow, careful book, of having the time and income to work the crafting of it.

According to my business plan, I’m about five years out from that. I’m putting out a seven-book erotica series this year, and book one for a three-book YA paranormal romance series, and book one for a three-book chick-lit series. Next year, there’s another erotica series planned, though I’m still figuring out how many books it will be. I’m also doing two novellas to support this year’s erotica series as a back list, plus books two and maybe three of the YA and chick-lit series.

After that, there’s one more erotica series, steampunk, and another YA standalone. By that point, I hope to have enough recurring income that I can slow down to a book a quarter. Years four and five of the business plan include a three-book mystery thriller series, two works of nonfiction, and maybe one of my few treasured secret books where I dream of flexing my literary muscles a little. Years four and five may also require one or two erotica books each in order to keep backlist sales up.

That’s the plan. The business plan. The income plan. The pay-the-bills plan. The this-is-a-job plan. Like any job, 80% of it is shit you hate doing: editing, proofing, tweeting, blogging, tracking down genre Facebook and Yahoo Groups, pretending like you like participating in Goodreads, slogging through endless books in your genre to keep up with trends, watching bad teenage dystopian movies, tracking publishing trends, and making nimble plotting shifts to accommodate what’s coming up next as a big selling theme.

Like any job, you have to do the 80% to get to the 20% you love: the word sprints with friends, the sharing your work in progress with your cheerleading section, the quiet half hours of work that slip into an hour or two because you’re completely engaged. Working in your pajamas with your dog at your feet. Being able to take care of your family without taking time off work, because you happen to know your boss is a caring person (unless your boss is an asshole and guilt trips you, which, I admit I sometimes am/do/get).

Everyone (i.e. writers, journalists, professors, tutors, editors) talks about writing as a craft that you have to practice the craft to get good at it. This brings to mind scenes of midnights with hair-tearing, whiskey, and deep anguish of the soul. The reality is spreadsheets with word counts, timelines, tracking documents for plot consistency points, and Tuesday afternoons of looking at your screen going, “Fuck.”

To be a churn-and-burn writer, you have to work up to it, kind of like starting as a dishwasher and working your way up to line cook. Or as a lowly assistant account executive and making your way up the girl-eat-girl-in-Louboutins ladder of advertising to become an account manager, only to find that there are bigger, meaner, older girls with steel-toed orthopedic shoes above you, waiting to crush you.

You start with being able to write 500 words a day. Then, you work and push, and you get to 1,000 words a day. Eventually, you have made it to the promised land of 5,000 words a day, which is where you need to be if you have any hope of producing enough volume just to keep up with your competition (I’m sorry, I mean fellow author colleagues…there’s no secret competitiveness among authors at all…ever).

But, then, the big, mean, older girls reveal that not only they do write 5,000 words a day, they are in the constant process of pre-production with the book they just finished, plotting the next book, writing for their blog tour (does anybody actually follow a blog tour???), submitting for reviews, tweeting, posting on their Facebook page, blogging on their own blog, holding contests, and replying to comments on Facebook and Yahoo in real time. Suck on that, newbie. Oh yeah, they also actively participate on Goodreads and have huge mailing lists. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

You have just been schooled, amiga, by women who make 50k a quarter off their writing. So, fine. I can do this. I scrambled all through February to get a website up, get going with Twitter, locate the Facebook and Yahoo Groups I needed to belong to, set up an email opt-in service (I’m still trying to figure out how to get people to sign up), and finish the pre-production of “Blacke and Blue” – Book 2 in my Blue Moon series written as Fiona Blackthorne, available from Siren Publishing and Amazon (in April).

Yes, that is a small plug for myself, because I have to sell about 60 books to pay for my domain name and web hosting for the year. I have to sell another 120 books to cover the cost of my going to AWP ’14 in Seattle. All of the expenses in my life are now translated into $3.00 increments. That cup of coffee? That’s a book. Putting $20 on my T pass? That’s eight books. I don’t even want to try and figure out how that all translates into an hourly wage.

I’m now at the point where I can consistent write 2,500 word chapters with it all being one big scene, or easily split into two 1,250-word scenes. It’s habit and instinct now to produce that consistently, so I can at least get out one chapter a day. My goal is (gasp, surprise, a tie-in!) to get to producing two 2,500-word chapters a day, or 5,000 words total.

That’s a lot of work. That’s a lot of sustained creativity, and yes, I maintain that it does take creativity to write these fast novels. It’s just creativity that has been directed and productized. There are rules for romance novels. There are percentages of story-to-romance-to-sex that you have to adhere to (inserting parenthetical comment so I don’t end the sentence on a preposition). There are rules about how good/bad/conflicted your characters can be. There are rules about the words you can and can’t use for sex.

Somehow, despite all of that, I have to come up with another variation of boy-meets-girl in a way that is relatable, compelling, and creative. I have to use and reuse words over and over again, like doing the prep work for all those diced shallots to be sautéed in butter, or peeling the ten billionth potato.

I have had to train my creativity to be rote, reliable and productive. I have had to tie my muse to a treadmill and make her run (her ass is looking great by now, thanks for asking). I have had to force my brain to get over the 3:00 p.m. hump and figure out the next paragraph. If that’s not being a professional writer, than I don’t know what is. Also, I’m kind of thinking it will be amazing when I do have the time and space to really let loose with some of my personal writing. It’s going to be like asking a trained marathon runner to take a power walk around the block.

That’s what keeps me going when I’m staring at my screen, muttering, “Okay, I’m 1,732 words into this sex scene. She’s had an orgasm, and he’s up inside her. I have 750 words left. What the hell do I do? Okay, I can bring her to another orgasm, but that might be too fake. He could bite her when he comes. That would give me about 100 words worth of erotic sex pain. That would leave 650 words. I can do 100 words for him coming. 550 words. He could do the usual tender kiss and ‘Baby, you’re amazing’ with the warm washcloth thing…and then 100 words of her reaction and falling asleep. Or, maybe I could have him get up and leave her there, tied up. Like really leave her there. Okay, that’s what I’ll do. That’ll be 100 words for his bite, 100 words for him coming, and then 550 words to describe him getting up and leaving and her being all flabbergasted and full of doubt and fear. Okay, good set up for the next chapter where I make her think he’s the killer.”

Did I mention the amount of porn I have to watch on a regular basis to figure certain…things…out? Some of that shit needs to be diagrammed out before I can write it. I’m talking stick-figure sex storyboarding. I will either donate my notes to the Kinsey Foundation someday or burn them.

Or maybe I will frame them as my badge of honor, showing that I spent my time in the trenches, that I was never too proud to do what it took through honest labor to be a writer.

Even better, maybe someday, someone will publish an annotated anthology of my early erotica works, complete with an academic analytical commentary that discusses the early influences of Anais Nin and Henry Miller, and the feminist perspective-flipping techniques I used to reinterpret rote scenes of double penetration from YouPorn. In fact, the introduction to the anthology will be an excerpt from someone’s thesis about the commercialization of romance as a proletarian economic support system for a literary publishing hierarchy derived from consumers from higher socio-economic strata.

Yeah. That. And I will laugh.

Transplanter. Writer. Lover. Human being. Not necessarily in that order.