Bodice-Ripping for Fun & Profit

An Ask E. Jean Classic

Dear E. Jean: 

I'm a writer, as yet unpublished; but I'm a writer by blood, bone and nature. I'm presently working on several projects, one of which I consider to be my "starmaker," the book that will launch me to the bestseller heavens. However, I procrastinate, I loaf, I let my completed works gather dust on the shelves.

Why? My psychic said "because you're afraid to succeed." True, perhaps; but my every waking moment is consumed by imaginings of how I'll handle the book tours, what I'll wear on Colbert, etc. I know beyond all doubt that this is my destiny. So why do I dither so?

My husband has remarked more than once that he's afraid I'll leave him when I'm rich (and famous), a confession which left me feeling that he can read my mind. We've been together for five years and have an excellent relationship. The sex gets better, I'm more grounded in myself than ever before, yet I fear that my longing for a new, free, single life will eclipse my desire to remain married. I'm loathe to hurt him or prove him right, but if I have to spend another penniless year in retail, I'll throw myself in front of the next outbound train.

This isn't a choice between him or me, is it? I think if I had everything I wanted, I'd go hog-wild. How can I make peace with my ambition? How can I know that doing for myself won't do him in?—Brilliant Author

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Brill, My Begonia:

I love your husband.

And I love you, Brilliant, honey, but finish the goddam thing, line up an agent, send her the manuscript, and write to me when you're actually on the bestseller list.

The choice is not between you and him. It’s a choice between you and the woman you want to become; and if you ever want to become that woman, sit down and finish your book, woman!

Meanwhile, get rid of that nutball psychic and her annoying canard about being “afraid to succeed.” That’s cockadoody talk for being “afraid to fail,” and the Conflab [see below] is about to tell you many brilliant ways to avoid doing that.

P.S. Re Best Sellers:

The three All-Time best-selling fiction writers in the world are: William Shakespeare (2-4 billion books sold), Agatha Christie (2-4 billion), and Barbara Cartland (500 million—1 billion). To put those numbers in perspective, today only 0.01 percent of books in the United States sell over 100,000 copies. I repeat, Ms. Brilliant:

0.01%.

96% of books published today will sell between 0 and 1,000 copies. (Hilariously, these stats come from Elle Griffin, a woman who has recently decided to publish her first novel in installments on Substack.) Stephen King, author of Misery, which became the greatest movie ever made about a writer, and won Kathy Bates the Oscar for Best Actress, is merely the 21st best-selling fiction author on the list.

As you are staring at those statistics and, no doubt reminding yourself that you can self-publish your “starmaker” on Amazon, I will tell you about my meeting with Number Three on the Best-Selling Fiction Writers List.

I was working on a story about romance writers for my book, Female Difficulties, and had rolled across America—from LA to New York—on “The Love Train,” an Amtrak chockfull of the biggest women in Romance.

As romance-and-erotica has always sold more books than any other fiction genre (science fiction, mystery, etc.,) the train also carried a shitload of very rich authors; and when we pulled into New York and were met by a tremendous mob of fans and reporters, there was the Queen of Love herself awaiting us. In a hot pink pillbox with two sprays of ostrich feathers coming out the top, a fur around her shoulders, hot pink coat, and red roses in her arms, she condescended to greet the authors who approached her in single file singing, “Well, hello, Barbara.”

“Miss Cartland!” I shouted.

She shifted her head.

“HOW DO YOU CATCH A MAN?” I shouted.

This was back in 1983 when women were still interested in men.

“You find out what he wants and give it to him,” said Miss Cartland.

She was a gigantic Brit, tall, big-boned, big-breasted, broad-shouldered, short-necked, square-jawed, 83 or 84, and step-grandmother to Diana, Princess of Wales. She wrote 24 books a year. She later said: “The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren't terribly good for her.”

“Who is the sexiest man in America?” I shouted.

I was shouting because the press was making a such noise.

“I haven’t met them all yet,” said Miss Cartland.

I moved closer.

“Your heroines are perfect,” I said. “What is the most striking flaw in your own character?”

“I have none,” said Miss Cartland. “I admit to none. I absolutely have none.”

“Are you sexually active?” I said.

A hush fell.

“I am still—”she fluttered the baby possum eyelashes —”active.”

I tell you this little story, Ms. Brilliant, for two reasons: A) to remind you that promoting your book will require nearly as much determination, stamina, and genius as writing it. And B) all the best books are bodice-rippers—War and Piece, Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment, Alice in Wonderland—they grab you at the start and never let you go—so what are you waiting for, woman?

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P.P.S

If you happen to become a famous novelist named Paul Sheldon who wrote Victorian romance novels featuring a character called Misery Chastain, I advise you to stay off the icy roads of Colorado, else you might be saved by your biggest fan:

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Because I know that I don’t know everything, and because readers rule around here, and cuz commenters gotta comment, here’s the Conflab:

The Conflab School for Famous Writers

The Conflab is where we hash over the questions sent to Ask E. Jean—and where our boisterous community saves mankind. Today we are advising Ms. Brilliant on how the hell to finish her damn book.

I have one tip:

Ms. Brilliant, join a writing group. You have been working in the dark. Nothing is more exciting or energizing than hearing a fellow writer tell you that she loves a paragraph or a page of your work. A writing group will improve your “starmaker,” and help you set deadlines so you will actually finish. Deadlines are good. That’s two tips. And now I’m turning it over to the Conflab:

What do you do to get your projects done?

How do you get yourself to sit down and start?

What foods do you eat when you’re working? And what do you wear? And where do you write?

How good are you at taking suggested edits?

How fabulous are the excuses you tell yourself to put off writing?

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Top photo: a still from Outlander. Photo of Barbara Cartland: UK Press/Getty Images.Photo of Joshua Matz, E. Jean, and Robbie Kaplan walking into Federal Court: Jefferson Siegle for The New York Times.