Sunday, September 7, 2008

Gay stories: the writer's triple dilemma

The writer inside me is in charge today: Keegan is along for the ride while The Writer has the bit between his teeth and is off at a gallop ... blame THE LORDS OF HARBENDANE. I get my teeth into a project and the writer takes over.

So this post is about (wait for it) writing. Not so much "how" to do it as "why" to do it, and all the ways it can be done. About a thousand choices are sitting ahead of any writer, the moment a new story idea pops into his or her brain. Sometimes there's no question about the "how and why," but just as often there's a bunch of decisions to be made before the first word it written.

You're probably thinking, "Gee, short story or novel? Fantasy or historical? Set on the east coast or the west coast?"

In fact, the decisions are more fundamental ... and if you're writing gay stories (or even thinking about writing them), three dilemmas loom up in front of you at once.

A story that has a mainstream, or close-to-mainstream, plot can usually be written gay or straight, or made into one or the other in the course of editing, without too much destructive impact on the plot itself. I'd guess we've all done it, for one reason or another. A good example is DEATH'S HEAD ... you might not believe it now, but the first draft dates from 1985, and there was no gay content. (Woah!) The reason was, at the time I was still chasing a big-time publisher, and when this is your goal, you write what they want to read, not what you might want to write. This is still true; more than 20 years ago, it was doubly true. (Needless to say, at the time I didn't nail down a big-shot London or New York publisher, and some of my best work went through various drafts and wound up being what I'd longed to make them in the first place: gay stories. Thank gods.)

So, here's your first dilemma: Follow your heart, or follow the money?

If you write a very good book and it's mainstream, you might score a very lucrative contract. But ... but ... but ... this plot is crying out to be a gay story. You desperately want to write it gay, even though you know it'll be a hell of a lot harder to sell it to a big-time publisher. You have to choose: your heart, or the money. Which often comes down to your mortgage, the car payment, that little vacation in Tahiti that's still sitting on the Visa. Yeah, that's the one. If you need the money, you might have to chase the big contract, though it breaks your heart to eviscerate the novel and rip the soul right out of it.

Let's look on the bright site for a moment: you don't have to chase the big contract ... and you've got an "in" with a publisher who's gay-friendly and would actually look at this book, even though you "did it gay" ... which possibly (probably?) means the publisher is playing to a "literary" marketplace where readers have broader, more liberal tastes.

Dilemma #2 is hovering, ready to drop like the sword of Damocles...

It's been said many times recently, "the crossover book is publishing's holy grail," or words along those lines. A crossover book is a gay book that delights hetero readers too. Speaking personally, I've written several titles that *almost* qualify, but not quite. They fail to pass the audition for the part of the holy grail in the last five percent ... the, uh, love scenes.

Science Fiction and Fantasy, particular, is a genre which has long been accustomed to gay and bi characters, and you can get away with gay references, coming right out and stating who's sleeping with whom; hand-holding, an embrace, kiss. Sure. But the "mainstream with gay characters" novel (right up to and including the much-lauded CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG, which is surely the "best of breed") don't go any further than this. Innuendo; sure. And scenes like ... "Dawn light is breaking through the bedroom casement, and Kristophe is leaving, framed in the doorway and gazing lovingly at the spill of honey-gold limbs in the bed; he tiptoes back and leaves a kiss on Jack's cheek." The message is clear: fill in the blanks yourself.

(There used to be a joke, back in the classic Star Trek era. Jim Kirk and some female character, Guest Babe of the Week, would be getting friendly, and the director would jump-cut to another scene with her in the background and Jim ... pulling on his boots. Fill in the blanks yourself. Okay, since they handed out the challenge, I will: Kirk's been on his bloody feet all day, his bunions and corns are killing him, he took his boots off to change the corn plasters, the woman fainted dead away at the effluvium, he called sickbay, Bones showed up with the smelling salts, and she's feeling much better by the time Kirk's changed his Odor Eaters and corn plasters, put on a fresh pair of Starfleet issue socks, and is ... pulling on his boots.)

In the past, Keegan's books were called raunchy, for being as sexy as a lot of hetero romance books. In recent years I've been toning them down, and down again, hoping to score the crossover, the holy grail. I think the nearest I've come to hitting the bulls eye is probably THE SWORDSMAN ... and even so, that one remains a heck of a lot more spicy than a routine, mainstream publisher would like, if s/he was going to aim a gay story at the general audience.

So here's your second dilemma: follow your heart and write the love scenes properly? Or follow the money and cut to the "Jim's Boots" solution? Well ... shoot. It's not a decision one likes to have to make, and frankly, even though I've toned down what I do by several miles, I'll still write a "proper" love scene, which is what lands Keegan, still, outside the crossover zone.

Let's say for the moment, you don't have to chase the money, don't know a publisher who would look at a nominally gay book so long as it was subtle to the point of "Jim's Boots." So, let's assume you're going to write the thing properly. The book can afford to be written from the heart, and it has the potential to be a beauty...

Dilemma #3 is dead ahead.

The story is finished. What now? The last dilemma in today's market is less about writing than about publishing. There are so many choices, it's an embarrassment of riches. You can try to get agented; a lot of top-line (gay) writers are agented, though I've also heard too many of the usual stories where agents reject gay material out of hand. I've never approached an agent with gay material, so can't comment here. (Maybe I should give it a whirl, for the experience?) You can also deal publisher direct -- obviously, targeting gay-friendly publishers. You can look at paper publishing or ebooks. You can hunt for a contract you can live with ... and ultimately, you can do it yourself, which an enormous number of writers are doing these days, with varying results. When POD publishing is done right, it's lucrative and the potential for success is enormous. When it's done wrong, it's a dismal failure.

So the final dilemma is -- publishing: how, when, where, in what form, with whom, for how much? And there's no answer to this one, without getting into the nitty-gritty, the soul searching part of writing: are you in it for the money? Notoriety? Fifteen minutes of fame? Immortality through your works? Fun?

Each of the dilemmas will inspire a different response, depending on so many factors. No two writers are the same, and the same writer will change again and again, over the years. Keegan is in flux right now ... inspired, busy, and looking forward to getting THE LORDS OF HARBENDANE out for Christmas this year, and HELLGATE finished for Christmas next year.

And on that note, I'm going to head back to work!


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