By Brandon Smith
One of the most important parts of writing is making relatable characters. Characters that a reader could see in the mirror. The problem comes from writers being unwilling or unable to reflect those messy parts of ourselves.
Meryl Wilsner, author of “Something to Talk About,” “Mistakes Were Made,” and next month’s “Cleat Cute” understands that people make bad decisions, get confused, and sometimes do unlikable things, but that is what makes them human.
Wilsner is an author of queer female romance who lives in Grand Rapids with their wife. From their start writing fanfiction on the internet (where most writers start out today, honestly), Wilsner’s experience with Pitch Wars resulted in their first book “Something to Talk About” being published from Berkley Romance. It was the first queer romance that the publisher released in print.
Now, Wilsner has two published works, a third one releasing next month, and they are in the process of writing a fourth. The Collegiate got the opportunity to speak to Wilsner at the Grand Rapids Public Library to get an inside look at their journey writing queer romance.
What inspired you to start creating?
I have been writing since I was a little kid. I tried to write a murder mystery when I was 7 and had names like “Justin Time” and just ridiculous little things. In third grade, on Tuesdays we did “Night Writes” where we were given a prompt and we were supposed to handwrite one double-spaced page, just to get kids writing. My parents taught me to type- gave me a computer that was just a huge brick of a laptop way back then that only connected to Microsoft Word- so that I could type it. I would write it out, and if I decided I wanted to change something, I would erase like three pages of handwritten stuff so that I could put in one extra sentence.
So yeah, I have been writing since forever… I can’t remember a time that writing hasn’t been a part of my life.
Who were some of your inspirations?
Growing up, I always say that I was sort of indoctrinated in the idea that romance is bad, romance is trashy, which is basically just literary elitism.
I read a lot of fanfiction, and I wrote a lot of fanfiction. It was all romance, but I didn’t have the associated negative thing in my head for that because my mom didn’t know what fanfiction was… In terms of romance specific stuff that I was reading growing up, it was people on the internet.
More recently, the first sort of, like, contemporary romance, recent contemporary romance that I got into was “The Kiss Quotient” by Helen Hoang, and it just knocked my socks off.
There were also a lot of queer authors who I read. Not romance specific at all, but Malinda Lo specifically is somebody who has written F.F. (female/female), queer female, queer girls, for quite a long time and only really writes that, and that was the first person who I was sort of like ‘Oh, so I could write queer stuff that I want to write’ and that was more of a reflection of me and my surroundings and my life.
I like to make a joke that I’ve always written romance, I just used to center a white man so I thought it was literary fiction. But it’s always been about two people falling in love. And I’m so grateful to be able to write specifically queer romance and have people like Malinda Lo who I was able to look up to and see that it was possible to do.
What’s your writing process like?
A disaster. I always say that we never learn to write books, we learn to write the book that we’re writing, because the process changes from book-to-book. For “Something to Talk About,” that was my first book. I wrote that not on contract for anything, not on deadline for anything. When I got stuck on a scene in July, I did not move on from it until November, and that was fine because I had no timeline. Whereas now, if I get stuck on something, I either need to figure it out much more quickly or I need to jump ahead and write a different scene and come back to it.
The book that I’m working on now and my last book “Cleat Cute” that comes out next month, I wrote all the fun parts and then I had to go back and connect them. I was like, ‘Well this part isn’t fun!’
Being able to move away from something that I’m stuck on ends up giving me a lot of perspective on it when I come back, which is very helpful, so I do tend to leap around.
Where do your ideas come from?
Everywhere. I didn’t realize my brain was different from other people’s. I am constantly like ‘What if random situation I come up with in my brain,’ ‘What if these two people fall in love?’ I recently- not this past year but the year before- went skiing for the first time in like a decade and a half. Just at Cannonsburg, you know. Going up the chair lift, I was like ‘I could write an entire series of books… I could do a ski instructor and someone that they’re teaching. I could do a ski instructor and the parent of the kid that they’re teaching. I could do a snowboarder and a skier.’ My brain is just constantly doing that. It could be a whole series!
All the time I’m thinking about ‘What if these two?’ I’ll see two people on the street… and I’m like, ‘Look at that cute couple, I wonder what their lives are like?’
I have a Google spreadsheet where I keep ideas. This goes all the way from just writing ‘Ooh, a vet and someone who fosters dogs,’ that’s the whole idea, that’s all I have, to ‘Here are named characters, here’s the situation they’re in, here’s how it resolves.’ I slowly add to it as I come up with more ideas.
I came up with a lot of the plot (for “Something to Talk About”) before they were named at all. It was like ‘Boss Lady and assistant lady!’ and I was flailing to my friends ‘And then this happens! And then this happens!’ and they didn’t have names at all. Once I name them, I’m really done for when it comes to characters.
Do your ideas change while you write, or are there some ideas that you cling onto no matter what?
Probably a bit of both. Sometimes there’s scenes that I imagine, I build a lot of my book around like in my mind, and then sometimes those scenes don’t end up in the book.
I will often be like ‘You can pry this from my cold dead hands!’ but part of it is also something I always have to remind myself with every book is ‘I’m making this up.’ This doesn’t have to be the way that it is. With a certain scene in “Mistakes Were Made,” I was having a really hard time getting it, and it was during revisions. I was talking to my wife like ‘I can’t hit the emotional beats that this scene is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be intense!’ and I talked through it all, and she was like ‘Aren’t you writing a rom-com? Why don’t you just make it funny?’ and I was like ‘Oh… yeah, I can just change it!’
‘(My wife reads my work) sometimes. More often than actually reading them, she just listens to me talk about them. Sometimes she does solve things like ‘Just be funny, it’s not hard’ or just being like ‘You’ll figure it out,’ and I’m like ‘No, I need you to solve it for me!’
She’s very good at cleaning up what I’ve written and pointing out the things that I’m too close to see.
How did it feel having your work published for the first time?
It was kind of wild because it was during the pandemic. “Something to Talk About” came out in May 2020, which was both disappointing and I think kind of good? I couldn’t have a launch party, I couldn’t have any in-person events, anything like that… It was (disappointing) but at the same time… In publishing, there is a lot of stress on the debut. Like ‘Ooh, a debut author! Ooh, that’s who we’re gonna support, I’m gonna push this work that I like!’ and so your debut can feel like everything in the world. There was a part of it that was nice for it to be really into the pandemic and in the lockdown, because I was like ‘Next book!’ I didn’t feel like I was putting as much weight on it coming out as I might have otherwise.
When “Something to Talk About” came out, I was very much like ‘If you don’t like this, you don’t like me. I’ve done something wrong if you don’t like my book.’ Now I’m not like that at all… Obviously I want people to like my books, but I like my books, and that was something I had to go through publishing to figure out. As long as I like what I’m writing, that’s what’s most important.
Going through publishing has helped me separate my own worth from that of my work.
How does the debut compare to a new book launch?
It’s different because we’re not in lockdown, so I got to do a tour for “Mistakes Were Made,” I get to do a tour for “Cleat Cute,” which I’m very lucky to do, not just because we’re not in lockdown, but to get a publisher to send you on tour is nice and doesn’t happen for everybody. I’m very lucky for that.
I’m not a debut, so I don’t get to do all of the fun exciting things, but there’s other stuff that I think makes it even better. Just having people who have already read one of your books who are so excited to read the next one is really cool.
It’s just so meaningful that it’s not just like ‘You liked this one thing I did,’ it’s ‘Of all the books in the world, you have read mine and you love mine.’ That’s super meaningful.
The pressure that people put on debuts does feel very make or break… and now I feel on much steadier ground. I have “Cleat Cute” coming out, I have another book coming out that’s already under contract with my publisher, I’m hoping to sell more potentially this year, so I feel more steady and less like ‘Oh my god, my dream’s gonna be ripped away.’ Publishing for the first time is such a dream come true.
What is the publishing process like?
It’s a lot. The thing I think that people who aren’t in publishing don’t necessarily get is like how long things take. Because one, you have to write a book, which takes a long time. But then you have to revise that book, on your own, with the help of friends, and then you have to do something called “querying” which is sending it to agents.
I was actually very lucky in terms of querying because I got onto a program that’s not run anymore, unfortunately, called “Pitch Wars,” so I had a mentor who helped me. Over the course of like three or four months, I revised my whole book twice. It was a lot, but Pitch Wars had a very good reputation. Pitch Wars ended with an agent showcase where you would get a 50 word blurb… and then the first page. Agents could look at it and then request more from that.
Agents just get everything. Anybody who has any interest in publishing a book is gonna be querying agents, and obviously there’s gonna be not just different skill levels there, but also different agents represent different genres and age categories and things like that, and sometimes there are people who don’t do that research to send it to the right person. So an agent’s inbox, as they call it the “slush pile,” can be just really hard to go through and find things from because it’s just wide open, whereas Pitch Wars was just we had to submit and be chosen and then from that we then worked with that mentor who had already chosen our manuscript out of a bunch of them. We’d then work with the mentor to revise it a couple of times since then, so agents knew this was something that was good quality.
Even just finding an agent is so hard because it has to be something they’re interested in and feel that they have a good vision of how to help and how to sell, but also not necessarily compete with other people who they represent. It’s hard enough to find an agent, and so you’ve written the book, you’ve gotten through the querying trenches, you have an agent. You’re still not published.
There’s just so many considerations that come and I think that people outside of publishing think that it’s a meritocracy, and that’s definitely not the case. It depends on so much. So many people have to absolutely love it for an offer for a book deal to be made, so then you have the offer, so you accept it, you’re still probably like a year out from actually having a book on shelves because you have to edit it, you have to copyedit it, they have to get the art together… Everything in publishing takes so long.
Advice that I would have for other writers is to make sure that you do celebrate along the way. Sometimes even just getting a request from an agent to send them more of your book, that’s a great thing. There are plenty of people who don’t even get that.
Even once you’re published, you’re like ‘Okay, now I want to get a star review or make a bestseller list.’ It’s very easy to move the goalposts. And I think that it makes sense to dream bigger every time because when your dreams come true, you want to do the next thing. But it can be easy to forget that you’ve done a lot so far. There are plenty of people in the world who don’t ever finish (writing) a book.
Anything you had to do for marketing or monetization?
It greatly depends on what publisher you’re with. The only hard and fast rule is don’t go with a publisher who makes you pay to publish your book.
Depending on how you publish your book, or just even the size of the publisher… I get to be sent on a book tour, which is wonderful, but some people don’t ever get that even if they are at a bigger publisher. What you do kind of varies based on that. But also, money moves books.
You feel very responsible for selling your book because obviously you want your book to succeed, you want people to buy it, but success comes from publishers putting money behind books. Yes, word of mouth is a huge deal especially if people really love a book and talk it up, that obviously helps a lot, but just to get that book in front of people takes money.
My job was to write the book and I did that, but I wish publishing as a whole would put less pressure on authors. Publishers can sometimes not put money behind a book and then be like ‘You have low sales so that’s going to be an excuse for us to put less money behind your next book.’
Do the things that you like to do, basically. I have friends who are great at TikTok, so they do a bunch of book-related TikToks, and I love that for them. And sometimes, that TikTok might blow up and go viral and help them out, but it’s not everyone’s responsibility to do that. I’m not good at that… Do the things that you enjoy doing, and that’s sort of in terms of writing the book that you want to write, too.
Bonnie Raitt inspired the title of “Something to Talk About,” but what inspired the characters of Emma and Jo?
When I was first coming up with this… I was flailing at my friends about ‘Boss lady and assistant lady!’ even before knowing it took place in Hollywood.
Something that I like to do is take a trope and twist it a little bit. Fake dating is a huge trope in romance, and I love fake dating, where two people pretend to be together but they’re not, really. So I took that idea and twisted it a little bit and just loved the idea of mistaken for dating… I liked doing the opposite of fake dating. And so that’s where I started.
In terms of like characters themselves, I often learn them through writing. I might have ideas about them beforehand of course, but then as I’m actually writing them, I realize like ‘Oh actually this person would do this thing.’ I discover things about them as I’m writing.
A lot of it comes from looking at the idea that I have and seeing how different characterizations would affect it.
What would you say is the importance of queer presentation in literature?
There have always been queer creators. So “Something to Talk About” was that publisher- Berkeley Romance- it was their first in-print female romance. They had an e-book only, but in print they had never done two women in a romance together.
I always go out of my way to be like ‘I am not the first.’ This is the first that this publisher chose to take and go forward with, but “Something to Talk About” only exists because of decades of queer creators before me pushing the envelope and indie publishing and demonstrating that there’s an audience for it. Unfortunately making publishing willing, they have to think that they can make money off it before they’re gonna do anything.
I’m very close with Ashley Herring Blake, who has written the Bright Falls series which started with “Delilah Green Doesn’t Care,” which is huge… Casey McQuiston, who writes a variety of queer romance, and Anita Kelly who also writes a variety of queer romance. There’s so much more of a community now. Alexandria Bellefleur is gonna be one of my conversation partners on my tour. “Written in the Stars” was the first in her trilogy of queer romance, and that’s so wonderful. I think that YA moves a little bit faster than adult publishing, but it’s very nice to have a community within mainstream publishing, and I hope that I’m sort of extending the ladder down as well to bring more people to it.
It’s nice that we’ve gotten to a point where we’re moving toward or in the right direction of queer representation not having to be perfect, that queer characters get to be just as messy and f**ked up and unlikable and stupid as cishet characters do.
What advice would you have for writing LGBTQ+ characters?
I don’t know that I do want to think that it is the same as writing a straight couple because it’s like saying ‘Oh, I don’t see race.’ That’s nice, but it doesn’t help the people that are experiencing racism. I don’t necessarily want my queer characters to be cookie cutter.
All of the characters don’t have to be perfect. They can be just as f**ked up as anybody else. I think that focusing on making your characters real is more important than the ‘Let’s just treat it as we’re writing a straight couple or a straight person’ or whatever. Each character needs to be their own person… Whether it’s happy cookie cutter things or stereotype cookie cutter things, you just have to write real people. That’s what’s more important, I guess.
What advice would you have for new writers?
I think it’s most important to find and build your community. Writing is often such a solitary thing. That can be hard and lonely.
Find your community because you don’t want to be lonely, but also find your community because (you can) find people who are better than you at things. You might be so good at writing dialogue and terrible at writing plot, so by reading a bunch and finding other writers and finding people who excel at things that you don’t, they make you better. Your friends and your community make you better as well as just providing support.
I came from a fanfiction world where I was able to flail over characters with other writers and hype them up and love their writing so much that that was how we were able to connect… Just getting and finding your community and your friends changes the whole game.
Meryl Wilsner’s “Something to Talk About” and “Mistakes Were Made” are available at Barnes and Noble and other booksellers. Their third book “Cleat Cute” is scheduled to be released on September 19, 2023.