Pep Talk from Francesca Lia Block

Things were rough in 2015. I couldn’t sell a book, my mortgage was high and my health wasn’t great. But I had to take care of my family, and the teaching jobs I could get without an MFA weren’t enough. So my new agent suggested I try to make some quick (and, she promised, big) bucks by writing an erotic romance trilogy under a pseudonym and creating an online presence to go with it.

The pseudonym came easy: I’d come up with it years ago from an anagram of my name, missing six letters. The story came easy, too. I knew that I had to meet some requirements—beautiful, spunky but innocent younger heroine involved with wealthy, hot, troubled, slightly older man—and included a few of my interests: Los Angeles, fashion, and sex.

What I didn’t count on was how easy it was to lose my creative identity, even though I’d thought by that time it was pretty solid.

My agent made some suggestions about the manuscript, including changing the title by adding the word “His” because she said that’s what romance readers wanted—possession. That should have been my first clue that things were going to get weird.

For the cover, a friend did an elegant black-and-white photo shoot with a male model in a button-down shirt, but my agent thought it was too conservative, and said we had to use an image of a ripped, tan male torso. I found stock footage of a guy pulling up his T-shirt and hired a graphic artist to add a shower of red rose petals. At least the rose petals looked cool, I thought.

Then I had to start the promotion process. I created a web page as this new, young author with a fiancé she loved, an office job and a self-published trilogy coming out soon. Every day, and I mean every day, I was instructed to post photos of sexy men on my page. To try to manage this latest out-of-character onslaught, I only used black-and-white images because I thought they looked a little classier. Occasionally I added photos of pink roses and even a few cute kittens. I know, I know.

In the end, I earned a few bucks, though not enough to support my family. To the good, I learned about self-publishing, and I became familiar with the romance market, which has some cool aspects. It’s led by women, and not every agent demands possessive titles and naked torsos. But ultimately I felt I’d betrayed my readers and, most of all, myself. The books I wanted to write in my spare time were dark and literary and nothing like what my pseudonym had produced.

After my romance fiasco, I began teaching as much as possible, working seven days a week in class or at home. I researched MFAs, changed agents, and started a memoir/writing guide The Thorn Necklace: Healing through Writing and the Creative Process. To all you aspiring writers out there, I recommend the following:

  1. Get as much education as you can afford. Maybe that’s an MFA, maybe it’s a class at your local community college or writing group, or maybe it’s an online course. Take advantage of all the free writing resources and communities out there!
  2. Read and think critically all the time, even if you aren’t in school. Read the kinds of books you want to write, read books that challenge you, and books you love. Practice listening to your own voice.
  3. If you can, get a steady day job you don’t hate so you can…
  4. …devote a considerable amount of energy and focus to creative work you actually love.
  5. Have a pseudonym at the ready, just in case. It might come in handy…

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Francesca Lia Block is the author of more than twenty-five books of fiction, non-fiction, short stories and poetry. In addition to writing, she teaches fiction workshops in Los Angeles where she was born, raised and currently still lives.