The True Meaning of Queer …
Humans love to classify things. We love order amongst the chaos. It’s just how we’re wired to short cut how we see the world. It gives us order and cohesion that is comforting to us. It makes the world easier to navigate.
But I write this as a queer writer. It’s a word that used to be hurled at us to open new wounds, add salt to old, and denegrate us to the point of tears or real physical gut-wrenching pain. As a matter of history, we, as a community, have used that classification to identify who we are and establish our voices in the mainstream political spectrum as we vied for a place at the table to establish and hold onto our rights. In that particular venue we needed to define ourselves so people not of the community could see us collectively as well as individually as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, etc. In the beginning Gays and Lesbians led the way, albeit with differing agendas. Men established their separatism by holding it close to the bone sexually. Whereas the Lesbian movement was more about poltical rights, personal well-being and emotional quality of life. They both realized in the early days of the movement saw that they needed to present themselves as the next door neighbor. Someone the mainstream knew.
It was important to our early movement to make us seem like any other neighbor. We were human after all. We ate, made a home for ourselves, paid bills, worked, sought personal relationships just like any other human being on the planet. The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitius did their level best to put us in that light early on. It started the national conversation on the right foot. Our best foot. That’s not to say that there weren’t detractors from within both those groups. As we’ve seen in We Rise, the mini-series that covered those early days produced by out academy award winner screenwriter, Lance Black, there was a healthy amount of discention from within those movements. Queerdom already had a propensity to refuse to be classified so rigidly. For many within who went along, it was a personal compromise they thought was worth it to gain some value and respect in the greater mainstream.
So why the historical recap? Because, as of late, I’ve seen quite a few of my queer brothers (I use queer purposefully – acknowledging that many of my generation have a visceral reaction to that term) across the spectrum as identifying as anything other than “strictly heterosexual,” commenting on works that don’t fit into the gay rigid classification. Where gay men are meant to be “just one way” with each other – much like how the CIS HET world tended to hold against us (why aren’t you dating a woman like everyone else?!). I think while we’ve asserted ourselves in the mainstream conversation we’ve lost sight that it was queerdom we were embracing. The specifics of where we fall within that rainbow laden spectrum is quite literally irrelevant. We just all can agree we’re queer – derisive commentary from close minded heterosexuals be damned. It’s what we are. Outside the perceived norm, which we ALL know doesn’t exist.
I watched as my gay identifying brothers derided Andre Aicerman’s Call Me By Your Name option into a cinema work as “not gay.” I withheld my own commentary on it until I both read and watched the adaptation. It is decidedly not “gay” by rigid classification for those that need it. I know. I used to count myself amongst them. It’s one of the reasons I hold a great ire for MM Romance which is certainly NOT gay, either. It’s gay in name only but is predominantly written for straight women by straight women who are more in love with men in general and choose a male/male pairing so they can have more of that man-pie they crave. It has nothing to do with queer men. I know some gay men who enjoy it. That’s their call. I personally don’t agree with it. I like stories closer to the bone of who we are. Not that they can’t have the romantic trope of a HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now) endings. Our stories can certainly ascribe to those hopeful ideals. But I like it going into our stories when I don’t know how it will all end. I love that churn I feel, that gut wrenching “no, no, nonononononono,” that happens when things go unexpectedly sour. Why? Because that’s how it happens. The best of circumstances, the best relationships, all hit snags. What I am after is what happens next. What do each of these characters, already maligned in life because of who they are or how they represent themselves rise to the occasion? Do they implode? Do they rise above it (much harder to do in this world – but boy howdy, it’s a great thing to see when they do!)?
At the same time I read K.M. Soehnlein’s The World of Normal Boys. Two works that couldn’t be more different in approach but both explore the exact same turf: “Normal Boys” who defy classification. Boys who find themselves in homoerotic relationships that push against what they expect out of life – the script we, as men, are given to us by society. The one gay boys say, “fuck it, that ain’t me …”
The World of Normal Boys has the main character, Robin MacKenzie, discovering why he’s different from other boys. It’s not because of the exposure to the museums and culture his mother brings to him in New York, though it is certainly part of it. Instead, Robin discovers his sexuality because he begins to crave the touch of those “normal boys” in the form of two non-conforming boys – outlaws – in his high school world. Todd Spicer is a stoner boy, born into a rich aspiring family, but bucking it all and playing a bad boy. Eventually, Todd and Robin find themselves in a sexual situation that Todd easily explains away as his being a free spirit, brought about by an inspirational film he saw about a guy doing whatever the hell he wanted to in life. There were no limits to life that way. His messing around with Robin sexually held no more meaning than smoking the cigarette they shared after their tryst. The other “normal boy” in Robin’s life is Scott Shatz. Scott is a lone wolf (Scott’s own label for himself – isn’t that how we all see ourselves in our teens?). But Scott soon befriends Robin and their relationship evolves to Scott and Robin messing around sexually as well. Scott keeps telling Robin “not to make a big deal about it” when Robin soon susses out that it IS a big deal but Scott and Todd don’t want it to be. What I find so interesting in this work is this is how it works for gay boys. We seek the comfort of other boys who are often not like us, but when pulled away from society expectations other things take flight in the dark, drifting through clouds of marijuana like dark birds who want something secretive that says they are their own man. Only to have the harsh light of day come piercing through their dark dreams and bring them all crashing to the ground of reality. So many gay boys have this story. I count myself amongst them. It was how my early gayboy days revealed themselves to me.
Conversely, though not all that different, Call Me By Your Name, explores the same territory. Men who discover something so revelatory and life shattering that they become swept up by it but find, at the end of the day (or summer in this case), must return to the world better and healthier for their experiences, but no less resigned to life in the rigid normalcy of a heterosexual life. Elio and Oliver meet over a summer of 1983 when Oliver, an American, is hired by Elio’s father (an archeologist) to catalog their findings from recent digs in Italy. At first the story moves about with both men, Elio’s late teen crush on a girl, and Oliver’s supposed romantic summer fling in the arms of another woman. Yet, Elio and Oliver soon start to spiral around one another. An epic dance of two men discovering each other in ways they don’t expect. Mainstream rules say they must reject those feelings at first. It’s part of that script should they have to run to the “troubleshooting” section of that heterosexual manual they all carry. But that troubleshooting doesn’t offer much in the way of hope as Elio keeps longing for Oliver’s attention. When the subject finally rears its head it’s outed under the guise of Elio wanting to discover what Oliver knows about being a man and navigating the halls of love. Hero worship. Oliver, for reasons not provided fully in the work, knows it is something more. He gently lets Elio pull close but eventually pushes him back with a clear, “we need not speak of it.” Saying that with the clear implication that they certainly won’t act on it. Only, they do. And thensome. Peaches, anyone?
Once they come together they are fairly inseparable. Elio’s parents, both educated – delightfully displayed not only in the father’s line of work but also of the intimate moments the three of them share when their mother translates a german work into english as her husband and Elio listen louging next to her. Indeed, the film does this to brilliant effect by having French, Italian and English rotate – often within the same speech as the story moves along. These are not, say, the close minded parents of a similar film that takes place at the same time, Edge of Seventeen, where the parents are working class. Elio’s parents clearly detect that Elio and Oliver are involved in some way. It is the final sequence after Oliver’s eventual departure at the end of Summer that his father has a heart to heart talk that clearly separates European fathers from their American counterparts. While I recognize that not all American parents were close minded (mine weren’t, for example) and all Europeans are open minded, I would think that it is one place where Europeans are ahead of us and have been for quite some time.
What I love most about these works is that they informed me in writing my own. In Angels of Mercy, I quite literally fought against the twin brothers of my series as being rigidly gay. I should’ve known better. Hanging around my queer granddaughter and her queer friends, I know that the spectrum is vast and varied. Yet, I pushed back. I tried to force my boys to be gay and gay only to the point where it was literally strangling the story. I had to step back and have that same heart to heart Elio had with his father – which literally smacked me in the head when I saw it before my eyes. It is better to have the courage to explore love for love’s sake – whatever form that takes. Eventually I was able to let my previously defined gayboys as pansexuals – still part of the queer spectrum, just not wholly of the gay classification. Marco and Pietro discover that they fall in love with who the person is, not what junk they have trapped in their pants.
After all, isn’t that what we’re truly after? #LoveIsLove has greater implications. For me, I’ve learned not to be so craving for a “gay” story – whatever that is. I’d rather it be queer and let me discover it along with the character. It is their journey that brought me to them in the first place, not mine. I want to know what they feel and aspire to, not what I would do.
I’ve come to realize that all my works may focus on first person narrative, but they are essentially ensemble pieces. It takes a village and all that rot.
I am a queer author, writing queer works, and finding myself wholly embracing the term and seek the works of others who want to tell stories that explore that in all its infinite varieties.
Until next time,
– SA C
Mercy’s Little Angels – Episode 1, Part 1
Coming Up For Air …
The limousine moved quietly along the road into the long-abandoned property. Inside, Night Fever by the Bee Gees played softly from the more than adequate speaker system. The two occupants barely registered the tempo of the song by tapping their fingers to the lilting disco beat.
The car paused briefly at the gate. The driver, a young muscular man with devilishly good looks of dark auburn hair and verdant green eyes punched in the gate code to permit the limo to proceed down the long winding driveway to the house while the late afternoon sun played against the sunroof.
Marco Sforza, one of the two young occupants, glanced up at the glowing orb radiating against the heavily tinted glass before turning that glance toward his twin brother who only snorted in response before he turned his attention to the large moving trucks that already lined the long driveway to the Italian villa styled house.
“Well, it looks like most of the furniture made it here,” Pietro murmured to his brother.
“At least that’s something,” Marco replied slipping on his designer sunglasses in anticipation of moving from the limo to the house itself.
“Well, it means we won’t have to sleep on crates tonight, which will keep me from being cranky.”
Marco chuckled at his brother’s last. “When have we ever had to sleep on crates?”
“1863, in that hellhole of a town in Georgia during that unfortunate uprising of hunters and their ilk.”
Marco nodded, instantly recalling that rather bothersome moment in their past. “We didn’t sleep, though. It was more of a quiet repose before we responded.”
“Well, call it what you will, it was still uncomfortable as fuck.”
The car came to a stop. The brothers departed the vehicle and made their way past moving boys and the many crates and unpacked furniture that dotted the large foyer on their way to their final destinations within the spacious home.
Pietro stopped next to his brother, casting his eye to the large domed stained-glass piece that dominated the entrance to the house. Marco let his gaze match his brother’s. He frowned a tiny bit.
“It looks better than the photos led us to believe.”
“Well, it’s not as if we can’t afford buying the place and remaking it to suit our needs. But I have to say I do like the domed glasswork. Reminds me of home.”
They made their way from the foyer up the grand spiral staircase to take in their sleeping quarters.
“The construction people said that both bedrooms are completed and should be to our exact specifications.”
“Tinted windows and the lot?”
“Tinted windows and the lot …” Pietro confirmed.
The two master bedrooms were exact mirrors of each other, separated by grand pocket doors. Large California King-sized beds stood against opposite walls with a classically designed paneled oak headboard that exuded confidence in a very masculine manner.
The bedrooms still had a few crates of clothing and various items that still needed to be placed within the room, but all in all, they were nearly complete making the brother’s genuinely smile at their good fortune in finding things moving along as they’d hoped.
“Everything to your liking, sirs?” Angus’ warm baritone mellowed its way into the room behind the brothers. They turned to greet him.
“More than adequate, and what’s with this “sirs“ business? When were you so formal?”
Confusion played across Angus’ handsome face as he tried to come up with an adequate response.
“I merely thought that since we’d moved into a new town and the moving staff were about the place it might be prudent for me to take a more … conservative approach.”
“Ah, point taken,” Marco nodded in agreement. Pietro for his part didn’t seem to have a feeling one way or another about it.
Feeling a bit out of place Angus added, “I’ll just go down and see to the distribution of the crates and clothing items so we can get them all inside the house if not in their rightful place. Give me a holler if you need me.”
And with that, he turned and left them.
“You think he’ll fit in here?” Pietro asked as he moved from Marco’s bedroom through the pocket doorway into his own.
“In what way? It’s not like he’s socially inept, ya know.”
“True. But he can be rather … what’s the word?”
“Stodgy? Stick up his ass erect? Stickler for details?”
“Well, some of that but not nearly as bad as you’re making things out to be.”
By now Marco had moved over to a flat crate that contained the brother’s most prized possession: a painting of a young lad with the most beguiling looks that either brother had ever seen. The boy in the picture had long since passed on having lived four centuries earlier back in Ireland. But the Sforza boys never forgot to bring him, or rather the painting, along wherever they set up home.
“Now where to put you, my lovely …” Marco murmured.
“If it’s Cassiel you’re referring to, then he goes in the receiving room. Don’t think you can rob me of his beauty by sequestering him in your own room. You remember what happened the last time you pulled that particular stunt.”
Marco remembered all too well. It culminated in both brothers playing a world-wide game of keep away to the point where the damned thing nearly ended up in the Atlantic Ocean.
“I’ll leave it for Angus to decide where best to put it.”
“There’s a good brother,” Pietro called from his room.
“But I’ll pay him extra to make sure it’s more to my liking …”
“Preternatural hearing … I heard that!”
— *** —
Elliot turned up the volume on his small transistor radio, trying like hell to get the best signal from KIDD, the AM disco station broadcasting out of Monterey. The gang still hadn’t bothered to show up for the first day of school. Word had it that some new rich kids had moved into the area and everyone was dying to get a peek at them. His gal pal in crime, Cindy Markham, said she had it confirmed that they were twins and hotter than bacon sizzling on the grill pan, or something like that. She wasn’t very good with her metaphors. In fact, it was a damned good thing she was pretty because she came up woefully short with the smarts. But he supposed that’s why he led this rag-tag group of students he hung out with.
From the far edge of the parking lot he spied Danny skateboarding his way toward their usual hangout along the planter just outside the main entrance to the school.
“Well, at least one of them bothered to show,” he muttered to himself. As Danny drew near, Elliot finally found the best spot for his radio to pick up his favorite station; Diana Ross’ Love Hangover was prophetically playing from the tiny speaker. Indeed, Elliot noted, his summer had been woefully short of any real loving despite his family taking a trip to celebrate the Bicentennial of the country during his vacation. School was about to start full-throttle with the steady flow of students arriving on campus.
“Hey E-man, whassup? Good summer?”
Elliot snorted, “You should know … we ended up spending most of it together, dork.”
“Oh yeah, I thought you looked familiar. Mom said to have a great day at school, by the way.”
Elliot smiled broadly. He loved Danny’s mom more than anything. She treated Elliot like he was a prince and Elliot lapped that shit up. Danny provided no end of teasing whenever he spied their little mutual love fest.
“It’s school, numb nuts. Not like we really want to be here.”
“Ah! Except everyone wants to be here today … new kids hit the school. Seniors, too, from what Cindy said.”
“What she do? Hide in their bushes for the intel or what?”
Danny snorted, “Probably under their beds, more like. You know Cindy.”
They both knew that part about Cindy and her less than pious ways when it came to boys. Right on cue, Cindy’s step-dad’s MG sports car made its appearance and she quickly departed without so much as a goodbye to him before he drove off.
“Hey, girl. Lookin’ mighty fine there, sweetness!” Elliot called out to her bringing a warm smile for his affectionate welcome.
“I wore it just for you …” She did a quick turn from side to side, showing off the pale grey with pink piping short shorts, a low cut v-neck sweater in grey and pink and knee-high socks that matched down to her grey colored Keds. With her long curly dishwater blond hair cascading down her back she was a vision of female beauty. Elliot could appreciate that, even if he had little interest beyond friendship with her. She promptly took up her place next to Elliot with his arm wrapped around her.
“Are you sure it wasn’t for those new boys? I think Elliot’s just getting the benefit of your playing to the newbies on campus, no?” Danny raised a brow to goad her a bit further.
“No, I did not! I had this picked out three days ago. I wore it for my guy, Elliot. You all just reap the benefits of my stunning ensemble.”
“Oy, no one’s gonna buy that …” Danny added shaking his head in disbelief.
It was a stretch, even Elliot had to see that. Cindy may be tight with Elliot, but she was also opportunistic when it came to meeting and playing around with the boys who wanted to play back. She knew that wasn’t going to be Elliot no matter how much she wanted it to be.
Within minutes the rest of the gang had arrived with Marty and Enrique bringing up the rear of their little posse. The final bell of the summer vacation sounded as a fiery Corvette made its way onto the senior parking lot. Knowing they had only seven minutes to get to class, they all stood rooted to their spots to observe who was going to get out of the hottest fucking car at the school.
As if scripted from an ABC After-School Special, two strapping boys emerged from the car. Both were sublimely beautiful with wild manes of thick dark hair, stylish clothes that would make the richest kid at the school envious, and confidence oozing from every pore. These two boys moved from their stud muffin car to a side entrance of the main building while Elliot’s crew looked on. The gang didn’t need any further temptations to get them to rush indoors to watch where these two golden boys were heading.
“That’s them!” Cindy squealed quietly into Elliot’s ear but loud enough for everyone else to hear.
The boys made their way down the long hallway toward the main office to the right of Elliot’s little gang.
“C’mon, dudes, we gotta get to class,” Marty mentioned to them all reminding them of their current destinations. The group slowly broke up and went their separate ways with promises of gathering at the plateau for lunch.
As Elliot began to move off he caught the attention of one of the twins, who paused slightly, his gaze intensifying sharply, almost glowing through the tinted sunglasses for just a moment, before moving off to the administration office. If Elliot were being totally honest with himself, there was something wicked that passed between them in that moment. Elliot walked away from that little scene a changed man. He just had no way of knowing how much change was coming his way.
— *** —
Drama – easily Elliot’s favorite and constant elective class for as long as the Drama department and the instructor would have him.
In recent years, he’d made a name for himself as he possessed the triple threat – he could sing, dance and act without becoming stilted or phoning in a performance. Truth be told, he basked in the aura of the spotlight. He wasn’t the best dancer when he arrived at Mercy High, but his bestie, Danny, who was an accomplished ballet dancer, had improved his ability to move across the stage with far more grace than God had originally gifted him.
He saw the usual suspects, or what other people called students, who had been there the year before. Now that the previous senior class had cleared out, Elliot thought he would have a clear path to dominate the school plays this year. His day suddenly became quite a bit brighter with that thought.
As he took his seat along the perimeter of the staging area he nodded to a couple of the gay boys he knew congregated in the arts – safety in numbers was the rule of thumb when you were queer. Elliot knew that even if he were able to pass it off and confuse most kids with Cindy on his arm most of the time. It was all just an act. That’s why he was so good at this drama thing: acting for him was a way of life. In a town like Mercy, it was nothing short of survival.
The fall play hadn’t been announced prior to the school year. He supposed the drama teacher, Mr. Ray, had something special in mind and was playing it close to the chest.
A second or two later and the two queeniest guys Elliot knew, Terri and Randy, turned the corner. Proud, fierce and totally flamboyantly gay in a swirl of bright colors more appropriate for a nightclub than a high school, they floated in as only two balls-to-the-wall black drag queens could. Their grand entrance caught the attention of some frightened freshman. The duo took no notice and squealed so high when they caught sight of Elliot sitting by himself in the back row of the theatre-in-the-round set up Mr. Ray favored for improv class work. Elliot was sure that the candy glass props in the back room would probably shatter with the racket they were making over seeing him.
“Girl! Whatchoo doin’ hangin’ in the back row like some sad, sorry, freshman? Ain’t you got the memo? We’re upper-class girls now; we needs us some front row seats!” Randy wailed, bringing a warm smile to Elliot’s lips as he rose to meet them.
As much as Randy and Terri counted on Elliot’s protection as part of his crew on campus, Elliot lapped up their brand of fierce defiance in the face of constant adversity. But Elliot also knew these boys knew how to throw down. Randy may sport long nails and pitch his voice just high enough to play with people’s ears as well as their perception of him, but he cut his nails in such a way that a single side-swipe of his hand could slice you open like a knife through warm butter. And Terri was even more limber than Danny – which was really saying something – and knew more moves than Bruce Lee if it came down to it. Sadly, these queens had seen more than their fair share of horrid fights.
Elliot gave them tight hugs and blew soft kisses along each cheek – because you never messed with a queen’s face makeup. That was a sure-fire way to get your ass drop kicked in a New York minute. They took their seats with Randy and Terri choosing the last two in the front row with Elliot next to them.
“So, Mr. Ray hasn’t said a word about this year’s musical production, yet,” Terri began.
“Yeah, not even a word about the play for the fall either.”
“The nerve of Minerva … don’t she know we have a life outside this here joint?” Randy quipped. Terri leaned toward Elliot with crossed eyes, making Elliot chortle a bit at their perception of how Mr. Ray chose to run his department.
“Sometimes that queen don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Now, if he’d just do a local production of The Wiz we’d all make bookoo-de-bucks and gain us a little fame in the process. He’d only have to cast me as Dorothy …”
“You as Dorothy? Your skinny black ass can’t pull off Stephanie Mills, girl. You bettah get yourself to the corner store and pick you up some sense, Miss Thang, ‘cause you is runnin’ woefully short.” Randy laughed his ass off just imagining skinny Terri doubling for Broadway’s Supreme Miss Mills.
“Oh? And you think you can pull it off? Girl, you know you got them Glinda wide hips that just demands that you play her. So, you can’t do Dorothy, neither,” Terri shot back.
“Okay, we’ll leave it to Els to sort it. Go on girl, you tell us who should play her,” Randy offered by way of a truce.
Elliot stammered for a couple of seconds. “I was thinkin’, maybe … I … should play her?”
They looked at Elliot as if he suddenly was struck dumb or something, then turned to each other with a snark-laden glance between them.
“Girl, now, we know you can sang with the best of us. Our little trio’s rendition of Diana Ross and the Supremes at last year’s talent show was legendary. We nailed that shit to the fucking wall. You know we did. And you know we love you like our luggage. But seriously, girl, there just aren’t enough starring roles for diva’s like ourselves as it is. What makes you think we’d let a lily-white assed queen like yourself take all the best songs? Might as well do the original if we’re gonna Ease On Down that road. Okay, chica?”
Elliot smirked at being schooled by them in the nicest of ways when they could’ve just given him real shit about it. “You’re right … of course. I suppose I could usher while y’all carry on in the spotlight.”
Randy gasped, “Nah, you ain’t gotta get all over dramatic nor nothin’ … a little darker foundation and you could pass for Puerto Rican or a high-yellow black.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? With my white ass? There ain’t a Max Factor foundation real enough to pull off that cultural shift. You know what I’m sayin’?”
They all broke out laughing and high-fived each other.
“Yeah, you were the whitest Diana Ross this world has ever seen. Even if she sometimes forgets who she is …” Terri added, laughing through tears.
“That diva has some serious identity issues,” Randy snorted, waving a hand to dismiss their perceived Ms. Ross’ cultural confusion.
“Mmm-hmm, can you spell passin’?” Terri readily agreed.
“Oh-kay …” they high-fived each other.
A few more students found their way into the classroom and started to fill in the empty seats, just as Mr. Ray entered, his bald scalp framed by long wisps of wild gray hair that was combed into a sweeping mane. Coupled with his salt and pepper goatee his appearance gave him a Shakespearean flair. He slammed his lesson book onto his desk at the corner of the room just as the bell rang to call class to order.
Elliot surveyed the current class makeup. For the most part, it was inundated with terrified wide-eyed freshman.
Cool, he thought to himself. It meant that he and his two besties sitting next to him would dominate the class and terrify the little runts into submission.
They should know who reigns in this class from the start.
Before Mr. Ray could say his first word of the school year two more students made their entrance and caught everyone off-guard. It was the twin boys Elliot and his crew spied this morning parking that hellacious Corvette in the senior lot.
“Fuck me running …” Terri whispered, fanning himself furiously as if the temperature in the room suddenly rose with these two boys making their appearance. He wasn’t far off the mark on that one. Even Elliot felt a bit flush eyeing them so closely.
“Girl, who are those two hunks of man-flesh?” Randy leaned in and asked.
“New boys. Rich boys, too,” Elliot offered by way of a loose explanation. Aside from that, he didn’t know much about them. Only now, as they gazed out among the classroom he found himself seriously cursing himself for not grilling Cindy on them last night when they had their nightly phone call.
They handed Mr. Ray their add slips. Their teacher couldn’t help but beam that the two most gorgeous boys on campus had signed up for his class. Their prospects of ticket sales just increased tenfold if not more. To say Mr. Ray was delighted at this turn of events would be akin to his being given carte blanc on this year’s budget. Given the boy’s perceived wealth, that just might be the case.
“Well, everyone, it appears we have two new seniors in our fold: uh, a rather handsome collection of brothers, Marco and Pietro Sforza. Gentlemen, if you could take your seats and welcome to the Drama department.”
“Ol’ Raymond is just giddier than shit at these two studs being interested in his class,” Randy quipped with a small knowing snort watching, along with everyone else as the brothers moved to the opposite side of the room and took seats along the back row, almost mirroring where Elliot sat before Randy and Terri’s arrival.
A crackle from the loudspeaker broke the whispers and murmurs among the class. A small smile graced Elliot’s lips in anticipation of the daily announcements only because Danny was the one to give the school the 411 on all things Mercy High.
“Yo, dudes, and dudettes! Time for the first daily Mercy High report of the school year. School spirit week is on this week. Discounts for school lunches if you wear school colors during spirit week so be sure to take advantage of your downward spiraling dietary needs by paying less for that round of botulism and show your school spirit in the process. Ouch! Jesus, what was that for?”
Principal Silverstein’s voice could be heard in the background.
“Just read the notices without the commentary.”
“Okay, okay. Geez! In other news guys and gals, before I was so rudely interrupted, the annual Halloween dance is a little over a month away. Any local bands wanting to audition for the dance are encouraged to show up this Friday after school in the gym. Let’s all hope they know more than four chords and sing in a key other than X, though we’re not holding out much hope if past years are any indication.”
“Yeah, yeah, moving on … aside from the new exchange students roaming the halls, we have new dudes on campus! I won’t bore you with the people who don’t really matter in life, but two new dudes have made a serious impression within a matter of seconds arriving this morning. Please welcome Marco and Pietro Sforza to the school. It’s not like you didn’t see them arrive in that hellaciously hot ‘Vette with the kick-ass sound system this morning. So, uh, welcome bros, you’re Mercy High Avenging Angels now. I bet you just can’t wait for the absolute dullness that is Mercy to permeate every facet of your lives now, right? Lastly, in other boring news, choir, band and drama auditions are being held this week if you’re interested and have no desire to gain a social life. Because we all know that talent reigns supreme in this here joint. And yes, Silverstein, I’m moving on. Details on the auditions are located on the main bulletin board outside the administration office and outside the music and drama rooms.”
What? I’m done already. Chill out, man. And that wraps up this edition of Mercy High news.”
Mr. Ray didn’t look too pleased with Danny’s slight against the Drama and Music departments, especially given that Danny was a bona fide artist himself. But Elliot got why Danny did such things and knew it flew under the banner of survival, just like Elliot did every time he pulled Cindy close and mocked their pseudo-relationship – a relationship that he knew Cindy wanted to become real at nearly any cost. It was a touchy part of his life that he did everything to avoid. Having Danny in his life only complicated matters more. He loved Danny with all of his heart and thought Danny felt the same. They’d even messed around from time to time and it got very heavy each time they did. Only Danny never seemed to want to commit to being Elliot’s boyfriend so they’d mutually decided to cool things a bit between them. But he saw that grit of Danny’s teeth each time Elliot pulled Cindy to him.
Why can’t he just admit we’re meant to be together? Elliot pondered for the umpteenth time.
“Sweetness, you aren’t still carrying a torch for that foxy-assed boy, are you?” Terri whispered as Mr. Ray began to write something on the blackboard for the class to begin.
Elliot shook his head, but couldn’t hide from either queen how painful that situation with Danny truly was.
Terri took Elliot’s hand and gently stroked it. “Girl, you know he loves you more than he can ever willingly admit. Just give him time to come around. That boy is fine as fuck and you two look so damned cute together.”
“No one has a finer ass than Danny. You can bounce a quarter off that shit,” Randy concurred, shuddering at the thought of having a little naked time with him.
Elliot appreciated his friend’s encouragement, but to be honest, Elliot thought that boat had now truly set sail. He didn’t know if Danny would ever come around like he wanted him to.
Besides, I got two fine-as-fuck boys sitting on the other side of the room to think about now. Danny can just stew in his contradictory juices for all he cared now.
Elliot eyed both boys who seemed to have a trained eye on Elliot as well. If Elliot were honest with himself he seriously felt like both boys were undressing him with their eyes, as if they knew what he looked like naked to the world. It was positively carnal the way they were looking at him as if he were fresh meat.
“But don’t look now, baby boy. It seems you have the attention of our newbie boys,” Terri added, letting go of Elliot’s hand and nudging him with his shoulder.
“They’s looking at you like you’re what’s for lunch. Ooh, oui! Yes, queen, they just want to eat you up,” Randy added with a hushed squeal for emphasis – as if it needed any.
Mr. Ray had taken a position in front of his desk, choosing to sit along its edge to get things rolling.
“Well, let’s all get acquainted, shall we? Let’s go around the room and say our names and let everyone know what you’ve done in the world of theater, if any, and don’t be shy. The theater is no place for shyness to have a home. We’re in the business of exploring the human condition and truth. If you’ve got issues with talking to a group, then you’re going to struggle in this class. So fess up if that’s an issue for you and we’ll talk after class. As a side note, I’ve posted the audition times on the board for our first production of the year. We’re doing a mystery: Any Number Can Die, a sort of send-up of Agatha Christie. It’s a comedy and I hope you all will be interested in auditing for it, despite what Mr. Jericho had to say about it.”
Elliot knew that Danny would have to eat some major crow with Mr. Ray over that first school announcement. A smirk graced his lips just imagining that scenario playing itself out. Danny often didn’t police his mouth when it came to such things and it never ceased to be a source of entertainment watching Danny verbally dance his way out of his own messes.
For the next thirty minutes, the class members introduced themselves. It turned out for a predominantly freshman-laden class, several of those fresh faces had actually trod the boards in community or semi-professional theater. There was one aspiring kid, Dana, who had even done TV commercials and union work in Hollywood during pilot season. Randy and Terri almost openly sneered at the list of accomplishments the wide-eyed boy seemed more than happy to announce to the class.
Even Elliot had to admit that the little twerp grated on his last throbbing nerve a bit too much. They were going to have to sideline the little beast before he got uppity with everyone.
Then it came to the Sforza boys.
One of them stood up with such cat-like grace that Elliot found himself flushing at just how stunningly beautiful the boy was.
No, not a boy at all. He was already a man. I can practically smell it, Elliot pondered as the man announced himself to the class. His brother remained silent but never lifted his pointed gaze from Elliot across the room.
“I am Marco Sforza. This is my brother, Pietro. We are both classically trained actors and performers. We’ve been active over the years in professional theater back in Italy, having performed at La Scala in a few operas and even spent a summer or two doing traditional Commedia dell’arte work through small villages and towns all over Italy to much acclaim. While we respect the industries of film and television, they hold little interest for us as we prefer the immediacy of live performance to those captured on film or video.” Marco eyed the freshman twerp with a pointed stare that did worlds for quashing the little upstart’s ego. “Fame is fleeting. Serving the work is what’s important.”
Mr. Ray nearly cried tears of joy just hearing Marco’s words. Elliot swore he ran a quick hand over his face before he responded to Marco as he retook his seat.
“Well now, that was very encouraging to hear you and your brother’s experiences in theater. I don’t know how we were so lucky to benefit from your experiences but I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you both here in our little classroom.”
Both brothers nodded at the same time. Almost eerily so. Something about these two unnerved Elliot a bit. He couldn’t put his finger on why that was.
“But the brothers bring up a valid point that I want to poll from each of you so I know where you are with regards to the history of theater. While we do concentrate on performance in this class and will be going through improvs and scene studies, we will also be covering the history of theater so this is not a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sort of elective. You will work in this class. With that in mind, I will be passing out a one-page pop quiz of sorts to see how much you know. This is not for a grade, so the pressure is off with this one. It’s more of a barometer so I know what areas I need to concentrate on as we move through the class over the semester. Take the next fifteen minutes to fill it out and leave it in the inbox tray here on my desk as you make your way to your next period class.”
He handed out the quiz and everyone began to write. Elliot, Randy, and Terri had the benefit of knowing most of the material by now as the range of topics never changed. Elliot scrawled out as concisely as he could the answers he knew Mr. Ray would expect of him. As he flipped the page over, he glanced up and found that both brothers seemed to have already finished their quizzes and were quietly chatting up Mr. Ray near his makeshift office behind several ornate dressing screens. Mr. Ray only seemed too delighted that he had such willing participants involved in his department now. He was practically glowing from the experience.
Elliot hastily finished his quiz, scribbling out something coherent but he had to see what the brothers had written on their tests. His curiosity was getting the better of him. That wasn’t always a good thing.
The bell rang just as he reached the desk to find he was the third test to hit the tray. He quickly pulled both sheets from the tray and began to peruse them with wide-eyed fascination. What he found was beyond his wildest expectations.
In the most delicate, but identical script, the brothers detailed every facet of theater history across the ages. Their handwriting belonged to another age entirely. Historical documents didn’t have the deft hand or delicate script these boys possessed. And the sheer number of words that they put down wasn’t simply possible given the amount of time they took to answer the damned thing.
He bit his lower lip just trying to put it all together.
You know … you can always ask if you want to know something about us … he swore he heard Marco’s voice color his ear.
Anytime … any place. We’re here for you, Elliot …
He flinched at the sound of both brothers whispering in his ear only to realize that neither brother was anywhere near him but that the class had also completely cleared out. He glanced at the clock and it was nearly lunch!
How the fuck had that happened?
He’d somehow been overwhelmed reading their quizzes; he missed the next two periods entirely! Didn’t anyone notice him standing there? Why didn’t Randy or Terri say anything to him to snap him out of it?
He hastily grabbed his backpack from where he left it at the end of Mr. Ray’s desk just as the bell for lunch rang out. He bolted from the confines of the classroom into the harsh light of a brilliant fall day. It took his eyes several seconds to adjust but he knew he had to get to his crew and tell them what happened.
“They’re just not going to believe this …” he whispered to himself as he moved among the throng of students idly chatting about random subjects as Elliot tried to cut a beeline to the school cafeteria.
Stay tuned for further episodes …
If you like these characters in this web series you might want to check out the original Angels of Mercy series that has the same cast of characters but in a completely different setting and time.
That Oppressive Script … How Angels of Mercy Changed My Queer Boy Perspective on Sports
(Reprint from Rainbow Gold Reads Review)
Jocks have it hard.
They’ve got a lot to live up to as they pursue their passion in their chosen sport. This isn’t an easy thing to acknowledge on my part. I was one of those artistic queer kids that jocks loved to bag on. So why the change up in opinion?
Simple: I wrote Angels of Mercy.
When Angels presented itself (fully formed to the bitter end, mind you), I thought “Eh, I’ll bang this one out in a month.” I had the ending in my head already. I just had to write to that ending, right? Yeah, not so much it seems.
Here’s what I learned: you see, my main protagonist, Marco Sforza, is built upon my husband’s experiences playing football both at the high school level at Massillon, Ohio (the heart of high school American Football as we know it) and for Clemson U back in the day (admittedly a very different era than Marco’s present day story). So given the disparity in my husband’s and Marco’s timelines, I had to make some adjustments between my husband’s experiences and those that I was building for Marco. But what amazed me is that, at its core, very little has changed with regards to the institutionalization of homophobia within American football – be it, high school, college or pro.
We like to think “It gets better …” but in reality, has it? There are emerging stories about players in high school and college football that have appeared in OutSports where the players have come out to their teammates. In the cases that have been reported the response has been rather positive. Yet, we only have to bring up what happened to Michael Sam to understand that very little has changed with regard to players who hope to play openly and valued for their sportsmanship and not for who they love.
Angels taught me a lot. Not just about my characters and their road to happiness, but also because as I explored Marco’s having to follow that “jock script” all boys are indoctrinated to follow (bag the girl and draw some blood out on the field) Marco goes through some fairly difficult moments in his teenage life. In his desire to play ball and be one of the guys, he’s opened himself up to a major downfall that he can’t see coming – mostly because of the pressure to perform both on and off the field. That pressure is enormous. Yet, there’s a boy that has captured Marco’s attention in a way that no one, boy or girl, ever has. He finds himself on an emotional pendulum – swinging wildly from the life everyone else thinks he should have (girlfriends or friends with bennies, followed by marriage and rugrats), and the life he wants for himself wrapped up in a boy who requires darkness and shadows to survive another hellish day of high school.
It’s a ride my own husband had to play.
Simply put, hiding hurts everyone involved. No one ultimately benefits from that arrangement, despite how much comfort it may bring teammates in thinking that everything is cool, the dude is solid, a man’s man. Marco’s journey changed long held positions and baggage I carried from jocks that tormented me in my own past. I began to understand the pressures boys like Marco – who hide from themselves just to play the game they love to play – are under. But I didn’t want that discussion in my works to be so one-sided.
My granddaughter is queer and I spend a great deal of time with her and her friends. Queerdom is a very different monster with her crew. Just the fact that they embrace the word “queer” has changed my perspective on a word that used to torment me. So I realized that while things may not have totally changed, I also remembered the stories posted in OutSports of players who have experienced support from within their team. So while there is a clique within the team from Mercy High in my stories, I also balanced it with boys who really wouldn’t care if Marco was with a boy. I needed to show that line that things are changing. Maybe not at lightening speeds, but change is coming.
I am not kidding myself in thinking it will change in college or pro-ball in the next five, ten or fifteen years. That may be a long time in coming, but come it will.
With the release of Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part I: King of Imperfections and Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part II: Prince of Mistakes, I wanted to explore Marco’s journey. To be honest, while I started the main Angels of Mercy series from Marco’s boyfriend Elliot’s point of view, the story was really Marco’s to tell. He gets the lion’s share of the series (three books out of the six total).
I am thankful that Marco exists. He’s made me understand my husband’s past so much more. And I am far more sympathetic to athletes who take that courageous step to emerge and live a life out and proud. Their stories will always hold my interest.
I often wonder what I would say to my younger tortured teenboy self that would give my younger self context to understand what those boys go through. Don’t know if it would’ve made a difference or not, but I am glad I’ve grown enough as a writer and a queer man to give them a bit more of a pass and a modicum of understanding that many of them may not feel free enough to live openly and use oppression to express their frustration.
That’s what Angels ultimately explores. Here’s hoping that the trend toward acceptance keeps moving in a positive direction. I look forward to the day when it simply won’t matter.
Until next time …
SA Collins Store (support the author directly)
Taking Flight in 300 Words or Less
Mmmmkay. Guess this just sort of happened. So the folks over at Queer SciFi on Facebook decided to have another go with their flash fiction anthology. It was something I’d never tried. Flash fic and short stories represent somewhat of a dilemma for me. You see, it’s writing so, as a writer, there’s the draw. I love stories, plain and simple.
But short stories have never really been my thing. Being highly inquisitive from an early age, I’ve always wanted more. Probably why I consider myself the James Mitchner of Queer Lit Fic. My books are tomes – in the literal sense. All of them, with the exception of a single novella I wrote for a friend, are over 500 pages long. I write about headspace and perceptions – which I find to be a very fertile playground from which to write. So when the folks over at QSF announced a flash fic contest I don’t know why I became intrigued. For the most part short stories and it’s smaller brother, the flash fic piece, aren’t my cup of tea. So why’d I do it?
Perhaps it was so I could see if I could? I don’t know. My compulsory inquisitive nature, perhaps? Ma-a-a-a-ybe. Perhaps it just hit me in one of my rare “oh, what the fuck” moods. That must be it.
Regardless, I decided to take the plunge into leaner waters. But what to write? The anthology/contest gave only the theme of flight. Somehow I needed to incorporate the essence, if not literally, of flight.
I didn’t have anything to pound away on. Then a thought occurred to me. Why not use this contest as a writing exercise to play with a theme in a future SciFi work of mine? There’d been an element that I knew was a prominent thread in my story but I’d never actually written it down. But in 300 words? Are ya fucking kidding me?
But then I saw it as a challenge. “Okay, bucko,” (yeah, sometimes I use antiquated slang phrases to address myself) so I metaphorically stared myself down and said, “… let’s see whatcha got, kid.”
So the story deals with Mohawk Indians, amongst the other nations of the Six Nations confederacy, who are the super heroes of my tale. Not many know a lot about Iroquoian/Haudenusaunee history. Though we’ve been the most influential in US history. Jefferson, Franklin and Adams were very serious Iroquoian buffs. They steeped themselves in our form of governance to help shape America’s. Bundle of arrows in the eagle’s grasp on the back of the dollar bill? That’s us. The large wooden staff carried in on joint sessions of Congress? That’s us, too. Even the phrase, “We the People…” Yup, the same phrase that was in our Great Law of Peace hundreds of years before Jefferson penned it. But I digress.
Writing this was more than a challenge. I was writing a very important plot element to a series of books that mean the world to me. They are my attempt at my own Lord of the Rings. They are epic sweeping SciFi that first appears as pure fantasy only to sort itself within the series that it’s really Quantum Mechanics in play – not magic. I am quite literally taking Arthur C. Clarke’s quote to heart. Anyway, so there I was, trying to put something together, a scene if you will, to show how a hero (one of many) in my story – think Star Wars Jedi vs. Dark Side Darth’s – where the hero is converted to a villain. At one point in their collective past, my heroes were culled and changed through rather nefarious means into an army of bad guys – very much against their will. A raping as much as a culling. The process can only happen at the moment of death. It’s a very tricky thing to pull off.
So I plotted quickly to tell a small vignette – a slice of one such hero being culled from her Guardian brethren, into the world of the Flintlings (my bad guys). So I had Mohawk peeps, a death, the transference of my hero at the time of her bloody death, the raping of her soul and the enslaving of it for the Flintlings nefarious purposes, and I had to do it in 300 words. Oy! The scene may never appear in the actual story at all. It was the first time I’d transcribed it from what I had in my head the whole time I’d been penning the other parts of the book. I used characters that don’t appear in the works at all. Just something I dreamt up on the spot to get it all down. Well, not all down … I’d need more words for that. But as a framework it sort of worked.
Somehow I managed it. My little exercise completed I sent it into the contest, not really thinking anything would come of it. To be honest, I thought they’d reject it outright. “What the bloody fuck is this?” I imagined. It was my first ever flash fic. But somehow, and I can’t say why, it was accepted and they included it in their anthology. So now I’m a hybrid author. Who bloody knew?
My story Transcendent, appears in the Paranormal segment of the book. Not sure what qualified it for that categorization as it doesn’t have a paranormal element in the story because it’s definitely tech, but I’m happy it’s there anyway.
There are some marvelous pieces in the book. And they’re quick reads, for like when you’re in the doctor’s office waiting room. You can easily skim several of them while the nurses and medical office people occupy their time with who knows what while you sit there, having arrived way before your appointed time, and they don’t seem to bother with you until like ten or fifteen minutes past your appointed time. Okay, that came out like I have a bone to pick with medical staff, doesn’t it? Anyway, the book is seriously great for times like that. Or while your kid is wrapping up Lacrosse practice and you’re sitting in the car trying to keep cool on a hot day. Yeah, like that, too. You can easily knock out ten or twelve of them in one sitting.
Oh, sidebar note: I worked a small bit of Mohawk humor into it. We natives like to do that – smoke signal ourselves. But I’ll let you in on the small joke: The names I use for my lesbian characters actually have a funny sort of Mohawk in-joke. The Guardian woman who is dying – her name means “hunter/gatherer of fruit” and her wife’s name that I mention in the story means “low hanging fruit” – I couldn’t resist. It’s in our genes. We like to tease each other that way. Not that I think there’ll be a plethora of Mohawk readers of this book. But if there are, they’ll get the sexual innuendo reference. Oughta give them a small smirk or snort for their efforts.
So yeah, pick this baby up. Despite my usual pasadena attitude with regards to short stories and flash fic pieces, I found myself immersed in them nonetheless. Maybe I’m evolving now that I’ve written one? Nah, can’t be. I’d have to turn in my Mitchner fanboy card then. #NothingDoin.
Until next time …
– SA C
The 2016 Queer Sci Fi Flash Fiction anthology, “Flight”, is here, and I have a story in it! It’s a really cool concept:
A 300-word story should be easy, right? Many of our entrants say it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever written.
Queer Sci Fi’s Annual Flash Fiction Contest challenges authors to write a complete LGBTQ speculative fiction micro-story on a specific theme. “Flight” leaves much for the authors to interpret—winged creatures, flight and space vehicles, or fleeing from dire circumstances.
Some astonishing stories were submitted—from horrific, bloodcurdling pieces to sweet, contemplative ones—and all LGBTQ speculative fiction. The stories in this anthology include AI’s and angels, winged lions and wayward aliens. Smart, snappy slice of life pieces written for entertainment or for social commentary. Join us for brief and often surprising trips into 110 speculative fiction authors’ minds.
The book us available in eBook form (4.99), and will soon be available in paperback with b/w illustrations inside (12.99) and in a special collector’s edition with color illustrations (24.99).
Excerpt – From Transcendent by SA Collins –
Blood burst from my lips. Too much blood. Painfully, I tried to roll over; some small part of me accepted the honor of fighting hard and losing the battle. Tonight, I die with dignity.
Instinctively, I pulled upon the Dark. Feeble threads coursed through me, far too little to correct what lie beyond repair. I felt the enemy’s gaze upon me. I wished he would just finish the job.
My fingers pressed into the earth, sodden with my blood and the waters of the river. I coughed. I pulled myself, painfully, along the water’s edge. To where though, I knew not. Odd that, in the end, I thought not of myself but of Wahyawekon, my beloved wife. Inwardly, I wept.
A hand pulled hard upon my blood-soaked hair, turning me over to face him. A malevolent glee colored his face — his victory complete.
I felt my life slipping, like the slip of a fish when you think you have it in your hands. One last breath, coppery and wet, filled my mouth and lungs.
“Karhakonha, you fought well,” he said in Mohawk. “Your new life awaits.” …
(for more you’ll have to pick up the book … *snort)
Angels of Mercy – Phoenix In The Fire (Book Cover Creation)
PLEASE NOTE: This post assumes you have a general knowledge (or wish to gain said knowledge) of how Adobe Photoshop functions and makes no attempt to walk you through that process. There are numerous online tutorials (both written/blog versions as well as video examples) that can easily instruct on the basics of Photoshop.
Okay, this one I have to start out by saying I owe a certain photographer out there a book cover tutorial. He already knows the final product. I’ve shown him that much. But what I’ve struggled with is how to document my creative choices AND not permit anyone to steal his photography artwork in the process (he was kind enough to loan me one for the tutorial I proposed to him). So, here’s the lowdown on that little scenario:
I can’t sort out how to make the image non-downloadable. The issue is I know code to make it do that but the upkeep would be a nightmare because the tech keeps changing and thus at some point it would break and his image would be out there for free! I can’t risk that. So Paul, I did come up with a method of protecting your work BUT I also have never attempted to do what I am going to do so bear with me while I work out the kinks. It’s going to be my first screen cap narrated video! All these years involved in tech and filmmaking and I’ve never done one – I find that truly shocking. But there’s no way to lift a clean copy of the image from that and I won’t worry that tech has progressed enough to crack and allow stealing of Paul’s original image. In the interim – I do hope if you are ever in need of a licensed photo for your book cover, seek out Paul Henry Serres Photography … he’s an amazing artist/photographer and such a lovely man to interact with!
Basically I go from this:
So the video broadcast of using one of Paul’s images for a faux book cover as a tutorial will be coming soon.
Onward to this post in the meantime!
So for Angels of Mercy – Phoenix in the Fire, I needed to come up with the print edition. If you recall, I struggled even to come up with the front cover to begin with. I knew I was going to break from the football theme that had been consistent with the Angels proper series (Phoenix is a companion book and not part of the main series works). If you haven’t seen the evolution of that ebook cover you can find it here.
So the print editions always make me a bit queasy from a design aspect. I mean, I goof around enough with the front cover to get something that looks right. Now to spread that across a full print cover – uh, in a word – YIKES!
But tackle it I must.
So the first stab at it had me thinking since this book was not a proper Angels series book, more of a companion novel, that I could finally depart from the football theme I had going in the Angels proper part of their world. Also, since this book was narrated by Elliot I thought I should sort of mirror what I did for the Angels V1 book – use some artwork that I would create for Elliot and put it on the back cover.
So, with that in mind I toyed around and around until I came up with this little ditty:
While the idea of using another piece of Elliot’s artwork as a way of tying it back to the first book he narrated, the violence he had to claw his way back from didn’t come across in this version. Even with the fire and blood splatters, it just wasn’t where I needed to go with it. People liked it well enough, even I did, to a point. But it seemed I was settling in drafting it. I could do better to represent the story plot line.
So I let it percolate a bit, stewing in its own unsettled sauce, as it were. Then I became inspired – why not go with Elliot being shown as rising (sort of the next step from the front cover of the book – only this time more fully formed and capable – it is what happens in the work) from his adversity? So I decided to start combing the stock photos out there, searching for a teen-ish looking boy that I could put up for Elliot (who also had to fit the way I’d always envisioned him). My budget for this cover wasn’t substantial, so I had to stick to stock photo sites I already had subscriptions to … which can be limiting at times. This time though, it paid off.
Here is the original image I started with (I purchased the license for the actual work – just showing the comp for the purposes of this post).
Two things were against me in starting with this – 1) the background setting and 2) the lighting. Both of which could be addressed but it was a consideration going in.
I also needed angel’s wings … to keep with the phoenix/angel motif I had from the front cover.
And believe it or not, there is actually a background in the final product – though, what I did to the whole piece did sort of obscure most of it. Ah well, the price of art, I suppose.
With my pieces in hand I began to work. The first thing I started off was the composition of elements to see if what I wanted to do would work. After I hastily placed items I twitter messaged my go to for all things Angels and asked him what he thought. He gave me the thumbs up on my little mock up:
It was a start. But I needed to start mucking around a bit to get it closer to both the theme of rising from your own ashes to something greater AND keep to the color spectrum of the original ebook cover.
First up – I needed some action! Photoshop actions, to be precise.
Of course, this begs the obvious that you have to have Photoshop to begin with to attempt to do what I show here in this post. So for those that don’t – might I suggest that if you are a self-pubber wanting to save a bit of cash over time (won’t be an immediate savings) that you subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud (TODAY) and start to dive in and sort it. It’s not all that hard to do. Yes, it will take you away from writing, but if you want to be in control of your creative destiny by self-publishing, then this too, is part of your craft/business. If you can gain these skills and add them to your talent coffers, just think of the money you’ll save on designs for swag, promotional banners/ads/bookmarks and the like? Design once, distribute multiple times (be sure to understand your licensing of the graphics before you do … a very important point I can’t stress enough). You don’t have to have a big time eye for art … look at what attracts you and mimic it for a bit (not using it for commercial purposes, but more to hone your creative eye for placement, typography, and marketing). Learn from those that seem to work and gain your interest – start to cultivate a discerning eye on why it works for you. Then go and make the attempt yourself. Use comp images for that – the intent is not to publish but to perfect your design capabilities. With the subscription price of Creative Cloud at various levels, there is a path to get Photoshop on your desktop fairly easily.
So, enough of my – hone your craft – speech, back to the book cover:
With my photoshop actions tucked into my design arsenal I began to work on the individual parts to bring the whole book cover together.
First up I had to address the male model and the background I didn’t need. Easy enough – using the quick select and magic wand tools I quickly selected him and cut and pasted to a new layer in a new doc (or you can place him in a new doc on a new layer – your choice). After putting him on his own layer I went back to the background layer and filled it with a solid color. To properly begin to compile you need to isolate all of your separate images to solo pieces that you can begin to manipulate into your composite artwork. One word about cutting the model out of a background – sometimes precision is required so that every stray (unwanted) pixel needs to be cleaned up before you can proceed to compositing your final image. In my case I knew I was going to throw a helluva lot of graphical elements and adjustments to it do precision on cropping him out of the original background wasn’t so essential. The actions I’d be applying would more than likely obliterate any odd pixel hanging out there that I didn’t have to be so precise this time around.
In this revision, I also had to find a way to use the Mercy High Avenging Angels football logo that I wanted to tie this book with the main series (the team logo appears there). Since I discarded the previous artwork from my first draft I decided to repurpose it as a piece of clothing. The male model luckily had a very neutral hoodie on that had absolutely no graphic or artwork of any kind – BINGO! I’m in.
So how do you do that?
DISPLACEMENT MAPS (learn all you can about them – brilliant little nugget that will allow you to modify standard fair stock art into something a bit more unique)!
For a decent tutorial on them I would start here (though googling “Photoshop Tutorial Displacement Maps” brings up a ton of tutorials out there to guide you along. Long story – short, I got the logo placed on my guy and it bent and folded along the warps of the hoodie with no problem. I was quite pleased with the results. To compare look at the image above this section and then scroll back down to note the addition of the football team logo on the hoodie with the lower image.
This was the end result (obviously sans the “SAMPLE” stamp across it):
The wings and desolate background with the cloudy sunset were fine as they were – the only thing I needed to address was to separate the two wings into two separate images that I could manipulate on the final composite image.
Next up – The wings … I wanted them to have a specific shape (other than the form they came in).
The default layout of the wings from my first attempt (two images above) have them outstretched – the way I bought them. But I wanted them to be more in “flight” mode. Thus I needed to distort each wing to give them that sort of look. To do this you have each wing on it’s own layer and then select the wing and choose EDIT –> Transform –> Distort. Then you pull the handles surrounding the selected image to manipulate the wing into what you want it to do. You can alternatively use Skew and Perspective or Warp should Distort not completely satisfy.
Remember with Photoshop you can always roll back to a previous action via the History panel so feel free to experiment. Don’t like the adjustment you just made … simply click the history level one level (or as many as you like) to roll back to a good starting point and go at it another way.
Once the wings were in the position I wanted them in (see below) I duplicated the layers and placed them in the composite image for further manipulation:
I realized I wanted to make them a bit translucent as your eye traveled from the frame bone structure along the top of the wings to the lower extremities.
So I now compiled the separate elements so I could use the first Photoshop action by Seven Styles (footnote: they’re extremely powerful actions that will save you oodles of time, look great, are easily modifiable, and the best part – they’re super inexpensive!). In this case, I started off using the STORM action from Seven Styles. An example of how it works can be found in the following video tutorial (don’tcha just love his Aussie accent?):
After applying that action it turned out like this …
As you can see with the video each of these actions can be altered and modified to suit your needs. With the above action the color scheme started to skew toward matching the front cover. Next up I needed to add the fire and brimstone look to it so I could match the front cover’s fiery theme – the big difference? I wanted the back cover to be more hopeful. The front cover has Elliot soaring out of the fiery hellish hole his boyfriend’s teammates put him in. It’s ragged and meant to be representational of his slog to get out of that hell.
So with the Fire action (see the video below if you want to know more), I finally started to see things come closer to what I wanted – a more hopeful vision but still with the grit and determination to find his way back to the love of his life.
After running that action my photo now looked like this:
I played around with the various layers and adjustment layers to set the right tone I was looking for, getting it as close to the color and tone of the front cover, and then added the blurb to match the author byline on the cover. And, voila! The work is complete.
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions you might have concerning this by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by leaving them in the comments below.
Until next time …