TSTL: A Writer's Lifeby Dee Davis
The Internet Writing Journal, May 2002
Recently I was reading a book review where the reviewer described the heroine as TSTL. Because of this nefarious acronym, she couldn't recommend the book. I stopped reading, puzzled. TSTL?
Tempting Sultress Takes Life?
Tumultuous Seductress Taming Lions?
Tobacco-stained Slut Tasting Lemons?
Obviously being cut from the same cloth as said heroine, it took me awhile to figure out what the reviewer was referring to. But eventually the old light bulb flashed, and I had a major V-8 moment.
Too Stupid Too Live...
All of which brings me to the question of the day: Is a romance writer TSTL?
Every day it is estimated that 141 million women get out of their beds, make breakfast for spouses and children, hustle books into book bags, and papers into briefcases, children onto buses and panty-hosed bodies into SUV's and begin another day. Of these women at least 8000 of them consider themselves romance writers. And, among other parts of their day, they will find themselves missing exits, forgetting the dry cleaning, or opting out of a board meeting because they have a story to tell.
These women will put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, in the determined hope that what they are writing will somehow become the next bestseller.
Too stupid too live?
Quite possibly. The Romance Writers Association estimates that there are approximately 2000 romances published each year. Of those slots, less than a fifth will go to new authors, the rest going to writers who have already proved their mettle. So even before typing the word 'prologue', our woman of the hour has an uphill battle.
And it only gets worse.
Right of the bat she's got an obstacle. Only a very small percentage of all people saying they're going to write a book actually ever finish the thing. What seems like a lark -- an absolute cracker idea -- quickly turns into a nightmare when faced with the necessity of a believable beginning, middle and end. The idea that seemed so simple in the imagination suddenly develops serious problems on page 134 with another 266 to go. And characters who seemed charming in chapter one have turned into boring whiners by chapter ten, leaving the writer with no alternative but to kill them off in the most torturous manner possible.
The only problem being that the book was meant to be romantic comedy.
And even if our heroine overcomes all these problems and actually finishes her novel, the problems have only just begun. Our brave little lady will be facing a horde of other writers, tightly plotted and typed manuscripts clutched in their perfectly manicured hands. Each of them fighting for a chance at the only gatekeeper to the gilded cage of literary success -- the agent.
And, truth be told, literary agents are a rare breed indeed, and our intrepid authoress-to-be is about as likely to snare one as she is a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes at a half price basement sale at Target. But rejection doesn't throw our writer one bit. After all she is TSTL, and therefore, she pluckily ignores the odds and struggles forward, avoiding both the jabs and thrusts of other writers, and the innuendos and rumors coming down seemingly from the publishers on high.
She takes her historical, western set, time-travel with two separate sub-plots and a hero who successfully dodged all military involvement and sends it out again and again and again and again, until finally the Muses take pity on her and an agent offers representation.
Immediately the nay-sayers warn our heroine that her agent isn't A list, that Westerns are dead, and that a hero without a uniform simply will not sell. Being of the TSTL persuasion she smiles sunnily, signs a contract with said agent, and begins her new book, a comic romantic suspense set in Bolivia during the pre-Columbian era.
Time passes and our slightly addled heroine, who is cheerfully papering her bathroom with rejection letters, finishes her second novel and moves onto her third. (A paranormal shape-shifting romance based on Bridget Jones' Diary) Still no positive word from her agent. But one has to have hope. And fearlessly she forges ahead, ignoring the headlines of various publishing magazines swearing that the romance is dead and unhappy endings will rule.
Occasionally, as she stumbles over unwashed clothes or forgets to pick up her children, she wonders if she's made a mistake, trading certain success in the world of personal injury law for frozen dinners and carpel tunnel syndrome. Her sex life has disintegrated to a series of post coital interview questions --as she struggles to capture the magic of it all on paper. And her biggest joy in life is the day the Office Depot circular announces a sale on printer ink.
Still, being TSTL, she plows onward, certain that somehow, someday, she will have the intense pleasure of seeing her name on the New York Times Bestseller List -- right above all six of the latest Nora Roberts books.
And then one day, when she is knee deep in oven grit, the telephone rings. Her agent has news. Wonderful, amazing news. She's sold the first novel. To a real bona fide New York publisher. She starts to cry and then wheezes hysterically, oven cleaner fumes combining with her joy to create total ecstasy.
For an amount only slightly higher than her monthly house payment, our long suffering heroine has beaten the odds and sold her book. And being TSTL, she immediately goes out and spends the entire advance on a new computer so that she can begin to create bookmarks and promote herself.
The wise, and unpublished, shake their heads knowingly. She was just lucky they say. One book maybe..but a second book --- Never.
The euphoria still in full effect, our heroine immediately polishes the Bolivian epic and the shape shifting BJD saga and sends them off to her agent. The agent suggests gently that the warthog should be something more stately -- a panther or tiger. And, edits firmly in place, our darling girl sends in her second and third tomes and sits down to await her editorial letter for book one.
The lists and organizations tell her over and over that one book wonders are no oddity and that everything she's written about is unsaleable. She learns that royalties are a myth and that earning out is unlikely, that print runs are miniscule and that for every author published there are ten more waiting to take her place. She's told it's an editor's world and that she's living a day-dream if she ever expects to make it in the shark infested publishing pond.
But our word-driven heroine is TSTL, so she prints bookmarks and magnets, buys pens and teabags (the non-military hero is quite the tea drinker), joins chat groups and internet lists, and learns Front Page so that she can create a website.
Six months, and a forth book later, she holds the copy of her first book in her hands. Overwhelmed with it all she attends her debut book signing, selling a total of eight books -- which she deems a success (after all she read an article that said selling three was a miracle). She slides through reviews with only an occasional bad one.
The nay-sayers maintain that it's only a fluke, that her print run must be tiny, and that Amazon numbers reflect only the smallest of sales. But being TSTL, she continues work on her current story -- the tale of a virginal knife welding man lost in a harem of vampires at Disney World.
And soon word comes from the Almighty Agent on High that she has sold her second book. And this time, it comes with a multi-book contract including both the vampire harem and the shape-shifting panther.
Life is good, and her advance is sufficient for a long vacation in the tropics. But our erstwhile heroine ignores her husband and children yet again and plugs the money back into the franchise, buying a laptop computer and a color printer.
Her first book sells well, and word on the street is that the book has buzz. But her royalty statements sing out the sad truth that the print run was tiny and the book, now out of print, is dead.
Undaunted, because she's TSTL, our brave girl continues her plan, starting yet another book, this one a cross between Young Frankenstein and Prizzie's Honor -- the heroine being a wimpy woman with no spine and a harelip.
Her second and third books come out to much success critically, but alas not quite financially. She plugs forward, selling the forth and fifth books along the way. And it is while writing the sixth (an epic romance among Eskimos in Alaska) that our heroine finds herself at the top of the NYT Best Seller List. It seems the nation is mad for virginal knife-welding heroes.
When the fifth book comes out, one reviewer states that it is after all only a fluke... that our heroine's latest book has at it's heart a woman too stupid to live.
Said author, who can relate after all, smiles to herself as she slides into her Jaguar XKR and drives off into the sunset.
Too stupid to live?
**Dee Davis is the nationally bestselling author of After Twilight (Ballantine), Just Breathe (Ballantine), The Promise (Ballantine) and Dark of the Night (Ballantine). She lives in Texas with her husband and daughter. Her website can be found at deedavis.com.