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Mary Billiter

Mary Billiter

Alisa Cochrane, one of my good friends, is always posting funny memes on social media. I count on her posts to make me laugh. However, the other day she posted something so insightful, it made me go back to the post so I could remember exactly how the author she cited had phrased his sentiment:

“Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.”

Robin S. Sharman is a former litigation lawyer who developed a leadership workshop. His training approach and 15 global bestselling books ensure he’s not living the same year every year.

When December flipped on the calendar, I was grateful, even relieved, to have 2015 behind me. It was not my best year. Yet in some respects, it was. Sadly, the best career moments of my year weren’t celebrated, because I made a choice to hide in the shadows instead of live in the light.

I’m not going to make that choice again. I won’t live the same year, flip the calendar in 12 more months and call it a life. Because that’s not living.

So I’m taking a huge step forward. Last September, I received an email about three manuscripts I had sent to a publisher. The email read:

“Dear Mary,

Thank you for your submission. Are you willing to add heat to these romance stories? They have zero heat now and our focus is erotic romance.”

I was sitting on the couch beside my husband when the email pinged on my cellphone. I laughed out loud. Having a book with zero heat is basically the kiss of death for a romance writer. It’s like a mystery novel containing no whodunit.

No wonder my existing publisher passed on the manuscripts. That’s why I submitted them elsewhere. I didn’t recall submitting to an erotic publisher, but that wasn’t my immediate concern. I stared at the email and realized that I had allowed myself to be so concerned with other people’s opinions of me that, at some point, I had censored my work. And I knew the origins.

A reader in Riverton mailed their copy of my debut novel, “Not My Kid…,” to the Casper Star-Tribune newsroom because it contained extreme profanity. So in my next work, “The XYZ Affair,” there aren’t any strong curse words. A few readers emailed me that they thought the sex was too explicit and unnecessary in “The XYZ Affair.” So I made sure that in my holiday novella, “A Man For All Seasons,” the characters exchanged only a chaste kiss.

Without realizing it, I was editing out what would cause readers to respond negatively to my writing. In doing so, I was losing my voice as a writer. I had no one to blame but myself. So when I was offered a three-book contract, with the publisher allowing me creative control to decide what level of heat and how hot, I accepted. But I took cover. I became “Pumpkin Spice” -- a pseudonym that happened by chance, but certainly not one anyone would associate with me.

I let a handful of negative comments affect how my general audience felt about my writing. Still, I worried what readers would think if “Mary Billiter” added heat to her romance stories. And worse, what if they were published by Evernight Publishing, a publisher of “romance, erotic romance and urban fantasy?”

These questions would never be answered, because two days after I signed my first multiple-book contract, I was asked to write a special series on breast cancer for the Trib. One month later I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

By the time my first fairy tale, “Scarlett Hood & The Hunter,” headed into production, Evernight Publishing told me it had been selected as an “editor’s pick,” a huge win for a writer. I was over the moon, but who could I tell? I was recovering from a lumpectomy on its release day.

I was proud of my heroine when “Scarlett” became a reader’s choice finalist a month later. I even retweeted something Pumpkin had posted about the announcement. But despite having “Mary Billiter” sharing it on social media, my readers weren’t very interested in Pumpkin’s new book. Author promotion and publicity are key to marketing and selling a new release.

I chose to put my name on breast cancer. I chose not to put my name on erotic romance. And in making that choice, I allowed a disease to define me and I allowed sex to shame me.

There have been so many powerful columns I haven’t been able to write because of that choice. Imagine trying to add heat to a manuscript when you can’t even find your own heat after breast surgery. Or the creation of my pen name. That was a hoot. Or even wanting to live a different life because the year that passed is not worth repeating. I can’t hide any longer. Or be afraid.

Fiction writing is my escape. I step into a world I’ve created. Despite what many readers think, the books aren’t based on my life. I’m just not that exciting. So the books I write and the content they contain might not be for everyone. That’s OK.

This week, my second fairy tale, “Goldie Locks” launched. It has heat, humor and romance. My third romance, “The Hart Moment,” hits bookstands on Valentine’s Day. It also has heat, humor and romance. It’s not just heat. First, there was a love story. I just forgot to add the good stuff.

So my resolution for the New Year is simple. I resolve to step out of the shadows -- all of them. I may be one author with two identities. But in 2016, these worlds unite.

Mary Billiter can be reached at marybilliter@ymail.com.

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