By Amy Lane
I get them sometimes—on Keeping Promise Rock or Deep of the Sound in particular: reviews in which the reviewer doesn’t understand the central conflict of the story—because the central conflict of the story is a promise.
“Crick could have just told the army he was gay—that way he wouldn’t have had to serve!”
“I don’t get why Cal wouldn’t have sold his parents’ property for the money. Why wouldn’t you just cash in?”
The thing about these observations—the thing that many people do not get—is that when a character puts down their name on a contract, or gives his word to an elder, that means something very specific to a writer.
To a writer? That’s like a contract in blood. That’s the Little Mermaid inscribing her name on a magic document right there—you don’t even need lawyers for that shit, because the magic of that promise will shrivel her heart if she doesn’t come through.
Very few writers—and certainly not writers with a following—do not feel that a promise, even a promise made implicitly, is not a binding part of their soul.
There are a couple of reasons for this—some of them practical.
It’s common practice for writers to get an advance based on their first three chapters. That’s not how my publisher’s work, and I’m glad, because if someone dumped a shitton of money in my lap for a book I hadn’t written yet? Oh holy Jebus on a stress-cookie, I’d be a hot goddamned mess. I have enough problems when my editing goes close to the wire. My kids are late to school and we eat nothing but takeout if I’m even running near a “I told my publisher I’d probably have it done by—“ kind of moment. I have writer friends who live on coffee and tears for a week near a deadline, or who neglect to bathe until the stench drives them into the shower fully clothed. (No, that was not me. Maybe.) Writers live and die by their, “Yeah, I can do that!” word, and I’m telling you, the pressure you find yourself under when that happens is enough to choke a goat.
So yeah—from a strictly financial and professional standpoint, we take a promise seriously. But it’s more than that.
The, “Yeah, I can do that!” moment is nothing compared to the “Yes. I will do that, because my craft and audience demand it!” moment. Writers, you know what I’m talking about—I’m talking about the dreaded “Sequel Promise.”
Oh holy Goddess, do I know sequel angst.
A year ago, I’d say Forever Promised was my worst case of sequel angst. After interrupting the book twice for other projects, I just sat down and barreled through. It was hard. This was the last book in the series, dammit, and on the one hand, these characters and I had enjoyed a good run together and I was ready to see them all happy. On the other hand I didn’t want to say goodbye! Every damned word of that book was a piece of push-me-pull-you ripped out of my flesh, and still, e-mails, daily. “Is it done yet? Are you working on it? You’re not going to kill Deacon, are you?” (Not even tempted. That man deserved some frickin’ happy, I am not even kidding.) The end of writing that book was a four-day marathon in which I wrote 35,000 words.
You read that right.
35,000 words. (The book itself was nearly 130K, so, well, about a fifth of the book.) By the time I was done I had a bladder infection, pink eye (because I was sitting underneath dusty vents), and a chest cold. I crawled into bed at two in the morning, giggling and coughing and wondering when I’d have to pee again.
“You done?” my husband asked.
“Yep. Completely done.”
“Not like that,” I promised—as in, I wasn’t going to compromise my health to that extent again. But not like I was never going to do that again. I couldn’t promise that. As a writer I knew it wasn’t realistic—we have to write sequels. Sometimes, just the first book—or the first four books in the series equals a promise, and that promise needs to be fulfilled if humanly possible.
Sometimes it’s not. I just finished a book called Quickening--and it’s a book I never thought would be written.
My first series—the Little Goddess series—was originally self-published, in pretty much the worst way possible. The editing was shitacular, and for a while I was a walking amalgam of all of the worst ways for a writer to market her books. I learned (please, Goddess, let me have learned) and I was welcomed into the gay romance community with open arms—but my first M/M novel, Keeping Promise Rock, was released in exactly the same month as Rampant, the fourth book in the Little Goddess.
Promise Rock did really well. And at a time when I needed acceptance and props in the worst possible way, the M/M community was telling me, in no uncertain terms, that my writing was wanted and I was appreciated.
So I put off the fifth book in the series for a year. “I’ll write it!” I promised my readers cheerfully. “I’m just taking a year off to explore this other writing opportunity.”
During that year my teaching job was yanked out from under my feet, and suddenly writing was not just “a sideline”—it was about to become my sole source of income.
I had to look at things realistically—could I afford to write the fifth book in my urban fantasy series? I was supporting my family--I had made promises to them, as well, including things like keeping my house and providing as much as possible for college. I needed to choose my writing carefully, and the surer bet was gay romance.
I had to put Quickening off for another year. And another year. And another year. But I’d promised.
Answering those fan mails and FB queries took on the quality of climbing uphill in a sand quarry. “I’ll write it, I swear, just as soon as I get out of this hole. Soon. Just as soon as… I’m working on it, I promise. I’ll write it—I will. I just need to get out of that hole!”
This January—five years after the fourth in the series debuted--I broke paper on the fifth book of the Little Goddess. On the one hand, considering the almost six year gap between writing one book and the other, the work on this monster went incredibly fast. Especially considering I was adding on to a cumulative mass of world-building and side works that amounted to over a million words. I wrote 205,000 words in four months—while simultaneously re-editing the other books for re-release, and that sounds like I rocked the house. (This process is a whole other post—but I need to wait to see if I survive it.)
But on the other hand…
I was writing this book for an extended timeline—this book is going to be released in 2017. To put things in perspective, the short Christmas novel that I finished afterwards is going to be released in on December 24th of 2015. On the one hand, it looks like I hauled ass—but on the other hand, I have a hole in my income stream gaping from early August to late December, and that gap pressed down in the middle of my chest for the entire four months. I would wake up, short of breath, thinking, Must. Write. Faster! I had tearful, machine-gun-snot-sobbing conversations with my agent, my editor, my publisher, and my best friend about how I had to get this novel done. I woke up every morning, thinking I’m writing to HERE today. I have no choice if this book is going to progress.
And every time I opened an editing file from either one of my publishers I had to do breathing exercises so I didn’t hyperventilate.
I worried myself into two ulcerative colitis flares, and my children were afraid to ask what was for dinner.
I finished the goddamned book—but yes, for those months I fully felt the weight of keeping that promise.
Now, I can hear some of you calling bullshit—and I don’t blame you. Deadlines? We’re famous for breaking them, mostly because we’re always writing to them. We can’t make every deadline, and if there’s anyone out there who’s never missed one? Well, he or she might be afraid to speak up for fear of being stoned to death with pens, pencils and USB drives.
Sequels? Authors walk away from sequels all the time. Sometimes the pressure clams them up completely—they need to either write something else or find another line of work. Sometimes a publisher will deem the whole enterprise unproductive and simply kill the series. Sometimes what seemed to be an endless well of sequel bait dries up, because the author simply cannot imagine another HEA in a limited pool of characters. (This is particularly true in gay romance, I think. How many gay couples can there possibly be in a town of 10,000? Someone run statistics for me, I think most of us have violated those probabilities.)
But it’s never done lightly. It’s never done without those five-zillion conversations between you and your writer friends and your publisher and your editor and your fans and your agent and other people’s best friends and other people’s agents and other people’s editors and your parents and your spouse and your best friend and her husband and your kids and… oh God. Is there anyone you haven’t talked to that might help you justify breaking this potentially career destroying promise to spend four months to a year writing the thing that might—quite literally—kill you?
Because here’s the thing about authors and promises, and it seems reasonably simple but it’s not.
Promises are made of words.
For an author, our lives our made of words. Our lifeblood, our world, our reality, our love, our passion, our pain, our demise, is entirely scripted with words. A promise is something real to us, like a concrete wall is real. It’s real like a piece of glass is real, or a splintered board or a knife to the throat. Yeah, we violate deadlines and we walk away from sequels, but it’s like crashing through the side of our house, breaking through a chunk of the world or crawling through a bug infested culvert.
Think about it—I chose the feeling of a five-month income gap pressing on my chest to get out of the terror of being buried alive under a gravel quarry. I chose pink-eye and a bladder infection and bronchitis over putting off finishing that sequel even one more week.
Every writer I know—and I do mean every one—who has ever made a promise to readers, to publishers, to agents, to printers, has some sort of battle scar to show for it.
Broken deadlines or lapsed sequels or not—promises are real to us. When Quickening comes out, that’s going to be the end of a seven-year commitment to the readers who put up with me through crappy punctuation and sheer desperation, and if I’m lucky? If I’m really really really lucky? The biggest reward I’m going to get from that book is that a whole bunch of people are going to ask me when the next one comes out.
And even I know it’s not good enough. That’s a dramatic example of the kept promise—to make up for the insidious gnawing privation of the broken ones.
And that’s why characters like Cal and Crick and Deacon. That’s why we’ll never quit writing about promises made, broken, and kept.
Because words are real to us. Our characters are made out of our words. And we may not be able to keep all our promises—frequently we’re haunted by the ones that will never see fruition.
But our characters are better than we are. They are smarter, they are stronger, they are the people we wish we were. Our characters will keep the promises we can’t. Our characters will make the impossible sacrifices for family when sometimes we need to hide from our family to stay sane. Our characters will make the noble choice to live with integrity instead of money when the very act of selling our artwork demands some sort of compromise between the two of them. Our characters are our best-kept promises—and we do not let them off the hook.
So I’m okay with the reviews that don’t get it. I’m okay with the people who don’t see their word as important, who see money or convenience as their due in a harsh world. Because sometimes, I’m just like them.
But in fiction, I want a world where our promises are important, and a world made of words is built to last.
If my characters have kept their promises, then some of mine, at least, have been kept as well.