I did the thing
Self-publishing a romance is the new pink
I am drafting this newsletter on Monday the 27th in an uncharacteristic show of pre-planning. Mostly because I am so, so nervous that this moment I’ve been working towards is finally here. But you all have been with me through some wild times, and it felt most appropriate to tell you first:
I’m finally ready to publish the romance novel I’ve been working on for what feels like forever.
It feels surreal to be at this point. I started writing it almost on a whim, and now it’s a real thing, with page numbers and a listing on Amazon. I laid it out in Vellum myself, and paid for a beautiful cover. It’ll be available to purchase for real money, albeit only in digital form (for now.)
Every writer struggles with the feeling of exposure—of sending your precious child out into the world to be judged. I don’t know if the sense of terror I feel is proportionate to the act. I guess I’m worried that after spending so many years being An Industry Insider, readers might take a look at my novel and say “Really? This is all you could do?”
When I started this newsletter I had no idea I would end up here. I wanted to share my knowledge and experience, and since moving into this new stage of my life I figured that I should just… keep on doing that. With that being said, here’s how I got here:
My computer tells me that I created the word .doc for the project (“untitled mafia hermit”) on July 13, 2022. The midsummer melange of all the TV I had been watching and books I had been reading gave me an extremely trope-y plot bunny that wouldn’t let me go: what if there was an extremely rich heiress to a mafia family who never left the house? And what if her dad made her get married? What would those two people do, thrown into close proximity and legally bound together?
Folks, I am an absolute sucker for an arranged marriage story. Arranged marriage, marriage of convenience, pretending-to-be-married, I love it all. That probably says something about me, psychologically. But leaving that aside, once I had the plot bunny I sat down to write. Thanks to a bet with my friend Moira I finished the draft in about four weeks. (The bet was I had to finish by a certain date or else I would have to donate money to Ted Cruz. There are no words to describe the depths of my dislike for Ted Cruz. It’s probably rivalled only by how much Craig Mazin hates him.) Thanks to this fuel I finished it and had a draft of about 70,000 words.
The problem with binge-writing the way I did it with this draft is that the draft scored very high on the Vibes scale, but not very high on Hijinks. That is to say, there were a lot of feelings and not a lot of plot. And there could be arguments made for that being kind of the point of a romance: you want the two people to end up together, and it doesn’t necessarily matter if the sequence of events that brings them together makes sense.
Except it totally matters. If you hang the wet laundry of your immaculate romantic vibes on a structure that won’t hold them up, your readers will stop believing in the relationship–or they won’t get started at all.
So instead of just concentrating on the burgeoning attraction between my two awkward weirdos, I had to figure out the external circumstances that were conspiring against their happiness and make them make sense. Irene, my heroine, has created a perfectly safe life for herself—at a cost. Henry, her new husband-to-be, has been chafing under his father’s tyrannical judgment his entire life, and views this marriage as an un-looked for escape. Those two strands had to manifest themselves in the plot as problems the two have to face, separately and together.
So I went back to the drawing board and revised it, with notes from two trusted early readers, Rebecca and Aarthi. Armed with their feedback I went back to the drawing board and spent a few months rewriting, finishing up sometime in September. I did this mostly by printing it out and rereading it, making copious notes by hand.
And then… I noodled. I did some more rewriting. Every step I needed to take to get this out in the world felt like it was happening in quicksand. I finally got serious about it in February and did a final rewrite, loading the whole thing into Scrivener and doing a reverse-outline to make sure I had hit all the plot points I needed to.
If you recall, I alluded to Scrivener back in February in my post on “things I am enjoying recently.” I decided to do my reverse outlining in Scrivener after talking with the amazing Ellen Kushner about her draft, and realized I could do something similar to get mine set up. I loaded the manuscript in, chapter by chapter, and using the “outline” function identified which POV the chapter was in, what stage of things it was at, and what needed to be done.
This helped me efficiently move through the revisions, with the added bonus of being able to check things off by moving the status to “done.” As a person who sometimes adds “shower” to her to-do list for the satisfaction of immediately crossing it off, this had obvious appeal.
Why did I decide to move forward with self-publishing instead of querying, you are well within your rights to ask as a reader of this newsletter! The short answer: I’m impatient. The longer answer: I don’t know that this book is suited to the traditional market at the moment. It’s not quite category romance, and it’s definitely not Emily Henry. And since I know very little about self-publishing, I also thought it would be an opportunity to learn and test new waters. Plus, I can hit a few buttons and then expose my fragile ego to the judgment of strangers, so that’s nice and efficient. I do feel like a massive hypocrite, though, concentrating on the Kindle ecosystem–Jeff Bezos being so bad as he is for the industry at large. But the readers are there, and I do want people to read my book, so it seemed like the right move.
WHY A PEN NAME?
I decided to publish under a pseudonym, Jennifer Stratton. (Stratton is my middle name.) I hope to get the fantasy published someday, and I’d like that to be under my real name—maybe because I spent so much time in the SFF world, I’d like to appear there as myself. But part of the fun of romance is getting to be someone else for a while, so a pseudonym made sense! Jennifer Stratton has a website and an Instagram and everything, though she might be worse at posting than I am.
BOOK LAYOUT & COVER DESIGN
The book layout stage of things was, honestly, one of the easiest parts of the whole process. On the recommendation of a friend (Ella Fenn! Her books are lovely and you should check them out) I purchased a program called Vellum, which formats your manuscript for a variety of platforms. With about two hours’ noodling I got the book into shape, and now all I needed was a cover.
My sister’s good friend Peaches Harrison is an amazing graphic designer, and we had a series of conversations about what I wanted the cover to look like. Where the book layout process was easy, the book cover process was hard—mostly because I am not a very visual-minded person, and I had a very difficult time articulating what it was I was actually wanting.
The main problem was one of reader expectation. I have written a mafia romance that is, at best, mafia-adjacent. A soupçon of organized crime, if you will. That ruled out the current trend in covers for that niche, which tends to feature half-naked male torsos. (I’m not mad about the torsos: In fact, I am a fan, it’s just not appropriate for the book I wrote.) We wanted something with a little more mainstream appeal, and the first iteration was great—just not for this book. We focused on Irene as a creature of the indoors, but it ended up looking more atticwife. I am now moved to write an atticwife book so that I can use this cover someday.
What we ended up with was a fun combination of two images from the book—Henry’s tattoo of a morning glory that he got for his mother, and the ring he gives to Irene. It’s simple but effective, and looks great in a thumbnail (if I do say so myself.)
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Marrying In by Jennifer Stratton (my pen name) will be on-sale on Tuesday, April 11th, but you can preorder it right now. Currently it’s only available on Kindle, but if there’s interest I’ll put it up on other platforms. I’ll be sending out a preview of the first chapter next week. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll buy the book and leave it a review!
More broadly, I’m back to the salt mines on the sequel, which I’ve mentally been calling The Only Good Russian. (Title TK, as they say.) That will be available on . I’ve started keeping a writing log, so that when I write about the publication process for the next one I can be more specific about dates, steps taken, etc. (If y’all are interested in that kind of thing.)
Pals, this has been a really fun ride. I spent a long time not writing, or writing only fanfiction, or remembering the fact that I used to write and feeling wistful about it. Whatever happens with Marrying In I’m so, so proud of myself for actually sitting down and doing the thing (and sitting down and doing it again, day after day.) I hope that this is the first book of many. Thank you for being with me on this journey.
BUT WHERE’S THE COVER, JEN? WHAT’S IT ABOUT, JEN?
MARRYING IN (Tarquin Family #1) is a slow burn, arranged marriage, strangers-to-spouses-to-lovers romance with plenty of spice and a side of mob drama, perfect for fans of Mariana Zapata and M. O’Keefe.
Irene Tarquin hasn’t left her house in ten years, not since being kidnapped her freshman year of college. Going outside means danger. Since everything she needs is in the rooms her father, industrial tycoon (and former mafia boss) Gregory Tarquin has set aside for her, she doesn’t have to go outside at all. So when Gregory tells her she needs to do her part for the family, she’s ready to help out any way she can.
Unfortunately, what her father wants is for her to get married. His greatest rival has proposed an alliance between their two families, and she’s been engaged to his youngest son, Henry Gardiner.
Henry isn’t wild about this idea, either. He’s managed to keep himself mostly separated from the family’s dodgier dealings, but his father makes it clear: get into the Tarquin network and report their secrets back to me, or else. When Henry learns of Irene’s past, however, he only agrees to the scheme to try and put a stop to whatever his father has planned.
Can Irene grow beyond her trauma and let someone new into her heart? And will Henry have the courage to turn his back on his family, when doing so will almost certainly place him—and his new wife—in danger?
WHAT I’M READING
Folks, it’s been a banner few weeks for reading. I’ve finished both The Last Kings of Shanghai and Slow Days, Fast Company, as well as another fabulous Eve Babitz collection called Black Swans. I also grabbed Michelle Zauner’s fabulous memoir Crying in H Mart to read on the subway, which I had fully convinced myself I had read. In fact, I have not read it–I have read the titular essay, and had somehow transposed that + my purchase of the book into having read the whole thing. The rest of it is as good as that original New Yorker essay so far. I keep thinking about the Eve Babitz essays, though–she’s got such an astonishing way with words. My phone’s photo roll is replete with screenshots of my favorite quotes from both collections. It felt like every other page I was highlighting something. Even something as simple as the way she describes a beautiful friend feels delicious: “And there was Mary, lying on the sand like an ordinary person only better, because without her makeup she almost looked ordinary and it was secret, like having the Mona Lisa in the trunk of your car without the frame.” Delightful!
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
Capitals infant Ilya Samsonov – L’ilya to fans of You Can’t Do That – and his girlfriend have welcomed their first child! Babies having babies! Since the Capitals have essentially been eliminated from the playoffs he’ll have plenty of time to stay home and play Dad. I guess if the playoffs are coming up I should figure out who’s actually in contention!
I’m available to hire for freelance editing services via Reedsy. I’m active-ish on Twitter, Instagram, and the AFN Discord. Come say hi!
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.