SA Collins

Words and Errata

Embracing the Improbable

Embracing the Improbable

It shouldn’t exist. I never intended it to exist, yet, there it is.

 

AoM_Phoenix_FINAL_2016_500px

 

What am I babbling about now? My next release – Angels of Mercy – Phoenix in the Fire (due March 2016).

The book ostensibly is a work of fiction in and of itself. Its evolution was predicated on a mistake. I’ve blogged a bit about it before. But here it is, in all it’s behemoth glory:

Clocking in at roughly 639 pages, and 218K words it’s an opus of a book that shouldn’t exist. But you know what? I’m rather pleased with it.

As I’ve stated many times before and on the podcast, I’m all about the headspace and how perceptions rule our world but we seldom give them credence and understand the prominence they have in our lives. Phoenix doest that, and I think it does it very well.

Angels, at it’s core, is really about dealing with the physical and emotional fallout from a heinous act of homophobic proportions and how the victim in it decides not to fold but rather rise from the ashes of that terrible beatdown. But in his evolving and climbing out from that hell hole the boys who beat him put him in, there are voices in his head that do their level best to protect him and try and guide him. He is comforted by that inner-gayboy voice that has always been there for him – warning him, throwing up red flags and cautionary flares whenever that inner-gayboy perceived a threat in Elliot’s world. It had served him well for most of his young gayboy life, but ultimately that voice failed him when he most needed it. Something had to change for him to evolve.

Elliot makes mistakes as he emerges, in this he learns to find a steely core in himself (personified by a new internal voice he calls Bitchboi). I use these competing voices (gayboy and Bitchboi) to demonstrate that evolution. What Elliot learns is that it isn’t just one voice over the other, but rather a learned and intentional concert of those two voices that enable Elliot to truly soar above his beatdown.

Elliot also surprised me as a character. I mean, I know his arc, I know what he’s made of – he is my invention after all – but he still found ways to take me on a journey as his creator. In that way, he came to life even more than I ever dreamed he would. I loved his new levels of vulnerability and how he learned to turn those feelings of inadequacy into defensive mechanisms that helped him cope with not only his rising from his attack, but how to turn the tables on those who became new threats to his already fragile world.

 

Angels of Mercy - Volume Two: Marco AVAILABLE NOW!

Angels of Mercy – Volume Two: Marco AVAILABLE NOW!

 

This book truly lives up to its name – it has risen in my estimation and in my love for the work. A simple mistake of my husband nudging me (erroneously) to redo Volume 2 in Elliot’s voice (instead of the planned POV of his boyfriend, Marco) and I have been completely been blown away by what came out of that. It was a book that, when I realized the mistake of writing it in Elliot’s voice, was doomed for the digital fire as a scrapped piece of prose. It was my husband who saved it – ironic, isn’t it? He said:

Why don’t you just release it as a companion book to Marco’s?

At first I didn’t see the brilliance or the possibilities that it would present. But now I do. Now I couldn’t be happier with this mistake of a novel. I only hope my readers do.

It isn’t a proper Angels novel. It isn’t a planned part of the Angels canon but it WORKS!

I couldn’t be happier.

Here’s hoping my readers agree with that assessment.

 

Until next time …

– SA C

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Angels of Mercy – Volume One: Elliot RELEASED!

It’s official

 

Angels of Mercy – Volume One: Elliot
(His Summer of Love)

 

is NOW available!

 

(Already labelled a BEST-SELLER in pre-sales!)

Cover artwork for Angels of Mercy - Volume One: Elliot

The cover artwork for Angels of Mercy – Volume One: Elliot

 

My first serious work that began over a year ago and I can’t believe it’s release is finally here!

 

You can find it at the following locations for purchase:

AMAZON

Barnes and Noble

AllRomance/OmniLit   (Best Seller Status)

Smashwords 

Scribd

 

From the cover of the book –

On the cusp of his senior year at Mercy High, Elliot Donahey, an out but terminally shy gay young man who keeps to the shadows – never wanting to be seen or noticed – suddenly finds himself in the arms of the highest profile jock on campus, local star quarterback, Marco Sforza. Their lives, and those closest to them will never be the same.

Set against the backdrop of competitive sports, this character study work deep dives into the lives of these young men who each must “play the game” so Marco can continue to play the game he loves. They are just trying to find some small slice of happiness to call their own amidst their hellish final year of high school.

Author’s Note: Angels of Mercy is first and foremost, a character study. A great deal of it is inner-monologue. Elliot will pause the action, will break momentum as he grapples with his world – all the while flipping a finger to the fourth wall. He knows you’re there. It was far more important to me as its author (and a gay man) that the reader come away with the whys of Elliot’s choices in how he navigates his often tumultuous world. The same can be said of Marco (his jock boyfriend) who will pick up the tale with Volume Two (due summer of 2015).

I’ve read much queer literature and what I find rather interesting is that for the majority of it, very little is written about the character’s headspace. When you live in a world where you constantly have to be vigilant as you navigate through, it can make for some very powerful storytelling. That is my goal in writing these boys’ lives. I want the reader who may not be queer themselves to come away with what it might be like to be in a gayboy’s shoes – constantly polling and pulse-checking your world because your very survival depends upon it. All of that while you hope, you secretly pray, that you’ll find someone who will see you too and find they can’t live without you in their world. A small slice of happiness to call your own. And though you do everything to keep to yourself, you may still run into those who find your very existence threatens who they are and how they think the world should run. I pull no punches with this work. They are hormonally charged eighteen year old young men who are sexually active. While the sex is present in the work it is not gratuitous in that the main character does evolve from his physical intimacy with his high-profile boyfriend. It is not a genre romance read either, though it has a very strong romance threaded in the work. These elements bring a light to their world that attracts all the wrong attention.

In a time where more queer youth are coming out to their teammates and their loved ones, I find that work of this nature is both timely and necessary to tell. I hope you’ll find it as interesting and provocative a read as I believe it is.

 

A BIG THANK YOU to Jay Brannan who was my musical muse for the project. Rob Me Blind is such a truly brilliant album and I couldn’t have my boys as deeply and emotively rooted were it not for this musical inspiration that came from the brilliant and talented bard of Jay Brannan. Please do search him out on the web and on iTunes. You will NOT be sorry you did!

 

Jay_Brannan_Rob_Me_Blind_Cover_Art

The album that inspired me to write Angels of Mercy.

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What is literature? And where am I in the mix?

What is literature? And where am I in the mix?

 

-or-

 

The art of crafting the next ‘Great American Novel.’

 

Cover to Look Homeward, Angel

My husband’s all time favorite literary novel – Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel”

 

So here’s the deal: Angels of Mercy is something I’ve been blogging about for a while now. It is a very long and involved work that when I first visualized it seemed like it was something I could crank out in little over a month.

Yeah, let me restate that so you get the fullest brunt of what I (now laughingly) thought:

A TRILOGY I could crank out in little over a month. Yeah, I’d set the bar way too high it seemed and had little common sense (at the time) about practicality and the effort it takes in this thing called writing or worse yet, even the audacity of remotely calling myself an “author.”

 

Angels of Mercy - Volume 1: Elliot

Angels of Mercy – Volume 1: Elliot

 

The thing is, I am unequivocally, an author. Writing is my game. But what kind of author does that make me?

For the record, here’s my signature from any email you would receive from me. I only present it here as Exhibit A as we examine this topic I am rather passionate about today:

 

SA Collins
Author of Gay Literature Fiction across multiple sub-genres

 

t.  | @sacollinsauthor
kik  | sacollinsauthor

 

“When I was born I was so surprised I didn’t speak for a whole year…” – Gracie Allen

 

So that’s how I put my stuff out there (emphasis is mine for the sake of clarity): “Author of Gay Literature Fiction across multiple sub-genres.” Rather lofty of me, isn’t it? I mean, even before I had anything published I was already touting myself as a literary writer. But that wasn’t from me, you see. That was my husband.

 

I should explain – the hubby has quite an amazing past. He’s been both a psychiatrist working with troubled youth and a quantum mechanics physicist that did work for NASA. He has books on our collective shelf that I call my picture books because even though I am a fairly bright guy, I can’t make heads or tails out of most of them – so I look at the pictures and graphs to sort it out. Penrose, Hawking and the like dot our book shelves along with Forster, Rice, Doyle, Shakespeare, Vidal and my hubby’s all time favorite book – Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. 

 

It is Wolfe’s work that I will use as a barometer for the sake of this blog post with regards to my own work on Angels of Mercy.

 

You see, he (the hubby, that is) says it’s straight-up literature. I didn’t know that was what I was writing. I just had a hell of a story to write and set about doing so. I knew what I wanted it to say and more importantly, how I wanted to say it. For me it had to be deeply rooted in an inner-monologue narrative. Or as the hubby says – it is a Character Study. Even though I come from the world of semi- and professional theater and I am well versed in character development because of my many years of trotting the boards of the theatrical stage, I knew I could construct well-fleshed out and engaging set of characters.

 

As for my husband’s opinion? I originally chalked it up to being a loving and devoted (because he definitely is all that) husband and nothing more. I realize now, how much I had short-changed his opinion in the matter that I present to you now.

 

It wasn’t like I didn’t know what true literature was, right? I mean, think about it for a second.
We all had those years in high school where some rather boring wizened owl of a teacher – who often appeared to be so old that they just had to know little Willy Shakespeare back in the day – made you read books that seemed rather droll and uninteresting. Surely nothing you as a hormonally charged teen would want to pick up to read on your own, right? Sure there might have been one or two of you who were into it for the actual literature, but let’s be honest, if let loose in a bookstore to pick up anything that held your interest, as a teenage boy or girl The Red Badge of Courage was not going to be that book. It just wasn’t. I know that and you know that.

 

But what is literature? The trouble is, many scholars and critics have their own take on this. But suffice to say that after all my research and distilling of article after article on the topic, and two very intense hours discussing my work in relation to all of this literary stuff I was looking into, my former psychiatrist hubby put it into a nutshell that I could wrap my head around:

 

“Literature is using words to artistically and expressively convey an intimate and probing look at the human condition and of human nature. It poses just as many questions as it attempts to answer that leaves each reader with their own take on what it all meant. By it’s very nature, it promotes discussion, debate and analysis because it is open-ended in what it is. It may attempt to leave you with an experience you might not ever have had, but it will do so in a very profound and engaging way. It is lasting and stands the test of time because it does one thing that will outstrip any marketed fluff work because it addresses the core of who we are as humans, regardless of the setting or the situation posed in it. The reader can transcend that character’s bindings and circumstances and evaluate what they would do or how they would feel in that situation – using all of their own life experiences to sort out what the character may or may not be able to do. That is what literature does beautifully. And it invites that level of deep examination.”

 

Heady words on the topic, right?

 

It was however, his next words that sort of stunned me. “It’s also why I said your Angels is literature.”

 

My Angels of Mercy – literature? Nah, couldn’t be.

 

I never set out to do that. Indeed, I used to be guilty of editing the crap out of my stuff before I tapped out a single keystroke on the computer. I’d often say ‘no, you can’t do that’ or ‘show, don’t tell’ (ya know, that old standby which is for the true amateurs who don’t know what good story construction or proper character development is all about?). I’d edit the shit out of myself before I even put a damned thing down.  My husband said it showed in my earlier efforts. Efforts he would calmly say – “don’t worry about what it is, just write it down, we’ll figure out the rest.”

 

He really is my best friend. He looks out for me like no one else will. Probably why I married him and love the crap out of him, anyway.

 

But I digress, the point is that at the core of his argument was why my work wasn’t going to be anything but honest-to -God literature was what I needed to pay attention to – not all that lovey-dovey husband stuff I was babbling about. In a very real way, he should know more than anyone else around me (though to be honest, I’ve heard this unanimously from every reader who has previewed Angels V1 – they all say it is real literature). I just knew I had a cracking good story and I knew how it needed to be told.

 

Angels of Mercy - Volume 2: Marco

Angels of Mercy – Volume 2: Marco

 

You see, Angels does pose many questions that it never attempts to answer than your average generalized fiction. My works, by their very nature, don’t adhere to genre type tropes or “rules.”

As a sidebar: rules, for me, yeah, I tend to not like them. Let the story be what it needs to be, dammit!

Make no mistake: with Angels I put my boys through literal hell. Oh, they do get a big ol Ever After, Happily (my nod to my musical muse Jay Brannan who inspired the work with his brilliant and seminal album, Rob Me Blind), but not without going through some very traumatic and epic trials along the way – proving to themselves and to the reader, that they truly understand the meaning of what love is, what love ought to be, how love can get you past anything that comes your collective way.

Marco Sforza, the high profile jock at Mercy High, never wavers as the boyfriend of artsy out but terminally shy gay Elliot Donahey. Indeed, it is Elliot who constantly questions if what he has with Marco is real – despite how many times Marco proves to Elliot that he will never waver in his devotion to all things Elliot. That was an important distinction I had to make in the work. I was tired of the old trope that the “straight-acting” jock was the weak one. Marco is nothing if not strong and diligent in his devotion of Elliot. And gayboys constantly poll and reevaluate our worlds. I know I did as a teenaged boy. I constantly was throwing shit up on the wall of – is this right or not? Is this real or not? Constantly. There wasn’t a day in my hellish four years of high school that I wasn’t doing that.

Angels dives deep into these boys minds (each volume is told from their perspective) and is 70-80% inner-monologue, you hear every nuanced thought that they go through to establish where they are in what I throw at them. For Marco, it is the script that all jock boys have memorized of how to be, and who to date and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. But Marco isn’t like all the other teammates. He’s in love with a boy. And that boy is social toxin for a popular guy like Marco. Elliot even warns Marco away when Marco tries to befriend him (for reference sake in this scene I show below, the girl named Cindy is the head cheerleader in the class who warns Marco in a very biting way that Elliot is the “resident fag on campus.” And while not the most prosaic example, it does clue you into how Marco is starting to have his inner-monologue moments as he begins to embrace the boy who will fast become the love of his life) – Here is Exhibit B:

 

He sighed, and rolled his eyes.

“Look, I get that you’re still sorta new and need to make even more friends. Popularity at this school is a full-time business. Sadly, some of us aren’t allowed to open up shop, but that’s my shit, not yours. So let me spare you the angst that will rain down on you just by talking to me. I’m the resident fag on campus.”

His eyes roved over me again, bringing a new round of blush to my face, watching if those words would push me away all by themselves. Nothing doing, buddy. But keep talking. I just love listening to you.

I just shrugged. His eyes narrowed, unconvinced of my acceptance of who he was.

“Yeah, well, you’re not from around here, not really – a year’s time just doesn’t give you the historical context, so I get that you don’t understand what a catastrophic mistake you’re taking just standing here listening to me. Seriously, your school cred is bleeding out your backside while you just stand there. Misguided, if incredibly hot guy, that you are.”

I felt my face flush just at those words alone. He thinks I’m hot! Inside I was doing a happy dance! Fuck me, say it again – Please Elliot!

But he continued, “You should really listen to Cindy. She hates me. The feeling’s mutual. Thanks for trying, but it just won’t work. And I couldn’t take the pressure – or the additional torment.” 

His eye scanned the length of me bringing a new round of blood coursing along my skin. 

“So let’s do us both a favor and end it here while we’re still young and can bounce back from the emotional shock, shall we?”

I couldn’t think of anything more absurd. But his eyes… yes, I even got to see the other one at this point, just under the fringe of his bangs. Double the sensation of his watching me. I couldn’t say anything. I was speechless. He completely robbed me of my voice. I’d never felt this way about anyone I’d ever met. He stared at me. I wanted to say something, I did. Part of me was screaming to say something to refute what he’d mistakenly thought about me. But instead, I just stood there, probably just blinking at him. Cue the Bugs Bunny cricket soundtrack – such a fucking moron. What a fucktard.

“Oh-kay… yeah, weeeell, see ya,” and he skirted around the table. “Or not… “ he said over his shoulder and he was gone.

Only then did I move, shocked that I even found the wherewithal to begin to breathe again. I scrambled after him into the throng of students milling about, a thousand conversations adding to the din that was raging both inside and out of me. I tried to find him in the hall, no dice. Fuck!

I barely had two minutes to get to my locker, grab my next textbook and make it to class.

– Angels of Mercy – Volume Two: Marco (Chapter 2, Scene 2)

 

Before we get to the foul language thing in literature (a point I will most definitely come to because it was the first thing I raised when my hubby labeled my stuff “literature”), I just want to draw a line here that Marco already is trying to eschew his responsibility of that precious script the jock boys are supposed to follow. All he knows is that he is totally smitten with Elliot. He doesn’t know why at this point, but it just is. That much he is aware of. Now to be clear: Marco has experimented with another boy in his past (but the reader doesn’t know this at this point in the book – this is only chapter 2 of Marco’s take on things). But it’s something Marco has attributed to hero worship and nothing more.

Now for the foul language and literature thing. When my husband first said that my work was nothing short of literature, my first rebuttal were two points I didn’t think he could get around:

The language and the sex. You see, they are hormonally charged teenage boys (they’re eighteen so heads out of the gutters now, ’cause they’re legal).

My husband had two works for me: Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Catcher in the Rye.

Good points, that.

Because while I want my boys to examine their lives and their choices with inner-monologue, I also did not pull any punches with the sex or, as in the example above, the language. The sex and the language are what, for me, make the work actually, you know, work.

I recently got into a discussion about this very topic with other authors on LinkedIn. This was in regards to a YA work, but I thought as I was writing in that vein of New Adult (which is the logical extension of YA as those youngsters evolve into more mature themes) I thought I should chime in on the topic. My take? That language (whether foul or not) should only be used when it supports the nature and narrative of the story. The character and the situation has to support it. That is why it appears in Angels. It is indicative of how the teens are in the world today. My argument for swearing in books is that teens want to see the world as they see it reflected back to them so they don’t feel so out of it. As a parent, and a grandparent, I know that we do what we can to mitigate what our children are exposed to in life. We want to protect them. But as I said to these other authors – to what end? It was a fool’s paradise to think that by limiting it in our works we were somehow keeping it all from them. The simple truth is, we can’t be there to protect them every moment of the day. Shit is going to slip by us and they will be exposed to it. Often by their peers. The whole argument was balderdash in my mind. Didn’t mean the work had to be literally dripping with foul language to make its case either. As with all things, a judicious application of that kind of prose was called for. But to eschew it simply because it was vulgar language? Not on your fucking life!

Or as the hubby puts it:  Do you think back in the day when their parents or grandparents had sex in their small home in the mid-west that the kids didn’t know what was going on? Or that curse words or swearing wasn’t prevalent in the public discourse? It was. It has been that way. To deny it’s existence and to hold the truth from the printed page (whether in ink or in pixels on an electronic device of the day) I think is absolutely ludicrous. Ultimately, it serves no purpose and says more about the pent up Judeo-Christian guilt complex we as adults have over these types of words rather than anything a teen or tween would put on them. Make no mistake, they hear the shit every damned day.

But I knew my experiences were vastly different from those boys around me. As a gay teenaged boy, I found, quite by happenstance, John Rechy’s bold soul-exposing The Sexual Outlaw. I needed men like Rechy because I CRAVED another gay man’s voice to instruct me (even in a fictional or quasi-fictional narrative) on the nature of homosexual intimacy. I fucking literally – Ate. That. Shit. Up!

The Sexual Outlaw as I saw it in 1979.

The Sexual Outlaw as I saw it in 1979.

John Rechy became GOD to me. At least in the literary sense. I owe that man because he helped keep me sane and focused as I navigated the torrential and often unstable waters of high school in the late 1970’s and early 80’s when being gay was definitely NOT the thing that was done easily or safely.

John Rechy circa 1970's.

John Rechy circa 1970’s.

I needed Rechy. I needed him so fucking badly that I burned with it. For most of my high school years I burned for his words to soothe me. I needed him to calm my fears and show me that there was something out there beyond the hellish life of high school. Even if it was fraught with new dangers and hidden meanings, there was still something other than fear, death and abuse that was so prevalent in the media where gay characters were concerned.

The Hollywood glamor god looks of Gordon Merrick

The Hollywood glamor god looks of Gordon Merrick

His works also led me to Gordon Merrick. While Rechy is definitely a literary writer, Merrick was pure romantic fluff. One gave me confidence and knowledge, the other took care of my heart. These two men keep me going in those hellish years of high school. When the bullying became too much I’d pull those paper bag covered books (to hide what they were to others) and read them with tears on my face, licking wounds and letting these men soothe my battered soul. They were my bibles. I had them in my backpack every damned day over those four long years in high school. I didn’t feel safe if they weren’t with me.

 

Merrick's compelling and controversial Peter and Charlie gay romance trilogy.

Merrick’s compelling and controversial Peter and Charlie gay romance trilogy.

 

I put on a good face for my school mates and my family, but inside there was nothing but fear going on.

That is what I weave into Angels. I wanted to play with those tropes that I actually lived through. I also am weaving the collected experiences of not only myself but my husband and other gay brothers I knew out there who have shared their experiences. Angels is a massive work that addresses what it means to be a gay man. Now admittedly, it isn’t every gay man because no narrative could successfully capture that. But what I attempt to do is put to complete opposites together and watch explore how their choices, both good and bad, effect what comes out in the long run.

I hold up a mirror to gay men at their prime of youth as they step into their adult lives. It examines how the choices they’ve made in the past that seemed to make sense back then can have horrifying repercussions down the road that the character had no way of foretelling would come their way. It explores the societal roles and mores that are often foisted on men (both in general and on gay men in particular) that make nearly any decision problematic. I ask a great many questions of which my boys only answer a few – leaving the reader with making up the difference in their own mind about homophobia, it’s cause (in the case of my novel), the missteps or foibles my boys stumble into without intention of doing so, the family dynamics that are in play – even when they are the most supportive family around, how you as a gay man can feel so utterly alone in a sea of support.

Angels is not a simple work. I didn’t really know that going in. I see it now. And while it was always intended to be an unflinching intimate look at a young gay man’s psyche as he makes his way to find happiness, it was also meant to be an ensemble piece. I like ensemble pieces. It’s those complex relationships that provide the color and texture that my boys play against. They have to be real, they have to be just as multi-faceted. No cardboard cut-outs in my worlds. My dramatic training won’t allow it. I’ve read other works that moved in this type of vein.

Look Homeward, Angel (if you haven’t read it) is a massive work as well. Indeed, the main character doesn’t make his entrance for nearly the first quarter of the book. Instead you are informed and become intimately acquainted with the members of his family in the turn of the twentieth century North Carolina. On the onset you keep asking yourself (as a reader) who the main character is because the ensemble is vast but deeply engaging. I fell in love with Wolfe’s prose. Where Forster (my other literary love) was concise and eloquent, Wolfe was expressive and brilliant in extended and well-crafted words and artistic phrasing that bordered on if it didn’t outright succeed on genius. I often had a notebook nearby just so I could jot down and capture those brilliant words or phrases because they moved me so when I was reading the work.

To be honest, it would’ve been a book I would’ve hated as a teen. I am glad my husband introduced me to it as an adult. I can appreciate it now without any literary baggage from my youth.

In a very real way, I can see how Marco, Elliot and the boys from Mercy, California are in the same vein as Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel or Gore Vidal’s Burr, or Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Those works have numerous sub-text going on. My work does too. There have been very long discussions with both my husband (who edits my work – I trust no one else regarding the preservation of my voice in literature than him) and the beta readers who preview the work as I write, regarding how my boys progress in the story and how the secondary characters support the narrative.

I am constantly responding (when beta-readers prompt me when previewing the work (as it is unpublished at this juncture)) when asked by them: What do you want to know from me? What feedback do you want me to give?

For me it is simply this –

  1. Are the characters believable? (I think this is a given from any author in any genre or work)
  2. Is the progression of the story organic in nature?
  3. Does the character ever seem to go “off the rails” without cause?
  4. Is the main character (MC) engaging? Do you root for him?
  5. Are the supporting characters engaging?
  6. Do you find the MC likable? Do you identify with him (for any reason)?
  7. Is the character study narrative (which often breaks the fourth wall) of concern or does it detract from the overall story?

 

Now, granted, most of those questions would come from any author working on any piece. I’d have to concede that point. But, herein is the critical difference for me: whatever the reader says in return goes through very careful analysis by myself and my husband. A round of talks on the pros and cons of what came back is distilled and weighed against the full arc of the story (because only we know the entire story) and sometimes the nature of what is given back to us may indicate initially that there is confusion in certain areas – but those are probably intentional on my part and any confusion response would only serve to underscore that type of approach.

My husband did offer one critique in defense of my waving away that my work was literature. It came from my cousin. A mother of a gay son. A woman who had read many things but never read anything like I had written. Certainly, nothing with a gay protagonist. Amazingly (well, to me at any rate) she said that she identified with Elliot (the out, but shy, gay kid) because she too had been bullied by the popular girls in school and knew all too well what that felt like. She came to root for him because of that inward alliance she felt with him as a character. She also told me that the struggle that I have Elliot go through with his “nothing but supportive” parents was revelatory in that as a mother to a gay son, she always took on the mantle when they didn’t connect that she was doing something that made that happen. It wasn’t until she read how Elliot struggled to give his mother the proper credit for the absolute unwavering love and devotion she has for him – even if he ultimately doesn’t know how to connect with it. That is what my cousin took away from Elliot.

IT WAS EPIC to hear that!  As an author you have no idea if your work will ever connect with anyone. You just don’t. You think that you’re the only person who will ever find the work of value.

And to be clear – when I say value, I mean value more than the money that I collected from the effort. I’ve often said I would trade 10K five star reviews if I get ONE gay boy who finds my work meaningful. ‘Cause I am writing for him and guys like him. Guys like me at that age (or any other). Doesn’t mean I won’t be appreciative for any of my readers because I will be humbled by them all, but it is to those boys like me that will always tug upon my heart. I will always make time for them.

Before I wrap this up I have two more points to quickly make – even when I attempted to write fluff stuff for a “fan” of mine (my first real fan actually beyond family and friends – though now I consider him family) I found I couldn’t do it. Well, I mean I could write it – but it’s also heady and rife with inner-monologue.

“It’s a fucking WEREWOLF story!” I kept saying to myself. Fantasy, right? Yeah, as it turns out – even werewolves can be literary-esque. Who knew? I sure as hell didn’t, I can tell ya that!

Even then, Hank O’Malley and Riley Raintree and my other wolf boys of the Sparrow’s Hollow wolf pack are very literary too, it seems. I can’t seem to escape the heady prose of inner-monologue even when I am expounding on the trials and tribulations of being a shape-shifting man in the wilds of Appalachian West Virginia. It’s my style, I suppose. My author voice.

It’s as if that quote from Gore Vidal keeps ringing in my ear regarding an author’s style (as opposed to craft):

Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn. 

– Gore Vidal

 

Gore Vidal circa 1948

Gore Vidal circa 1948

Now THERE’S a man with style. I gained my love for Gore Vidal through my husband. And I relish the hell out of that man’s glorious body of work.

And here’s another little side trip that was recently posed to me by author pal, Jayne Lockwood (the inserted commentary is mine):

First off – I LOVE your cover as it is.  It pops when on thumbnail, and is instantly recognisable.
BUT
Your cover hides a literary work.  At first glance, it could be a book about American football.  Would that alienate some of the readership you are trying to woo?  
At second glance, it could be a piece of fun fiction.  The depth of the book isn’t hinted at.
Look at other novels of literature that you admire.  Do you see anything that links them?  (Genuine question – I haven’t looked either.)  John Rechy’s City of Night has a cool nighttime cityscape cover.
Angels of Mercy is about beautiful young men.  First love.  What goes on teenagers’ heads.  School social dilemmas.  Coming out.  Prejudice and homophobia.  Family dynamics.  
American football?  Nope.    <— (I disagree and I’ll come to this anon)
I’m playing devil’s advocate here, just making you think about it….

It was something to seriously consider. And better to do it now rather than after I had launched any marketing campaign.

Before I get into my take with what Jayne poses to me to reconsider my current novel cover iterations, but let’s take that with Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel throughout the years since it’s first publication, shall we?

Here is the cover my husband read in the mid-1950s (he’s commented that this picture from a Google Images search could just have easily been his dog-eared copy):

Look Homeward, Angel book cover circa 1959

The cover as my husband read it in 1959.

 

But this wasn’t the only version of the book cover through the years (as a matter of reference the very first picture in this blog post is what is the current edition – which my husband says is now his favorite):

From the 1940’s through 1990’s (though I will withhold one cover to make my counter-point to Jayne’s quoted comment above):

Look Homeward, Angel - an alternate cover

Look Homeward, Angel – an alternate cover


Or how about this one?

 

Another variant through out the years - Look Homeward, Angel

Another variant through out the years – Look Homeward, Angel

 

Or what about this take from 1929? Modernist much? Art Deco gone awry? How does this cover possibly relate a family in the mountains of North Carolina?

Another variant cover of Look Homeward Angel circa 1990

Just what does a modernist graphic have to do with this story? Hmmmm?

 

Now here’s the kicker to all of this book cover stuff – the PULP fiction cover from the 1950s:

 

Look Homeward, Angel - the Pulp Fiction edition

Look Homeward, Angel – the Pulp Fiction edition

 

My husband laughed at this one because there is NOTHING remotely reminiscent with regards to the actual story. As a matter of reference, it was originally published in 1929. He said the current iteration has elements that tie back to the metaphors in the story. That is what makes it a great cover.

So back to Jayne’s point and question, and even her thought on the potential to short change my literary work with the covers I’d designed myself.

My husband’s take on it (which I hadn’t considered) is born out of Jayne’s second sentence in what I’ve quoted above (emphasis is mine):

First off – I LOVE your cover as it is.  It pops when on thumbnail, and is instantly recognisable.

His point being that my cover does pop, it does what it is intended to do. And the elements do tie back to the metaphors of my story in a very direct way as well. It does garner attention on a grid of other books on Amazon or Barns and Noble. And as for the “is it about American Football?”

The answer is a resounding YES.

And here’s why:  While the story does not deal with the machinations and the ins and outs of the actual game, what it does do is that it uses the arena of competitive sports as the premise for these boys to deal with the dark topic of homophobia and the like.

So my counter is that the story does deal with football in a very real way – even if it isn’t deluged with play-by-play analysis. Indeed, my other author pal, Brad Vance wrote a masterfully brilliant novel that I fast-tracked onto my Desert Island Book List (meaning: a book I can’t do without). It too had football and competitive sports as the backdrop in how that field messes with men’s minds and hearts. That work is Given the Circumstances. If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage you to do so – post haste!

 

Given The Circumstances by Brad Vance

Given The Circumstances by Brad Vance

In fact, this work is what brought me to Brad himself. I began a correspondence with him that has happened on and off to this day. Indeed when I had a mini-melt down over this whole writing mess, he was very quick to swoop in and offer words of encouragement. Something I am deeply grateful for to this day. Brad is one of my absolute favorite people. Brad’s cover hints at the football connection but the work isn’t about the game directly but the mental and emotive things that swirl around the protags of his story. Like Angels, he uses the gridiron and the diamond (football and baseball, respectively) as backdrops to address the deeper psychological drama that plays out in men’s minds and hearts in these circumstances (see how I tied it back to your title, Brad?).

So in a very real way, my covers do EXACTLY what I want them to do. To get a reader to see them in a grid of other titles. They do look different, they do pop. They only serve the purpose to have someone pick it up to READ the synopsis blurb where I get to “pitch” the story to a potential reader. That is what the cover should do. Will some not bother, perhaps. No more than those who didn’t pick up Brad’s work either.

Now, having said that, my cousin (Remember her? The mother with the gay son?) did say that she probably wouldn’t have thought to pick up the novel to read it based on the cover. But she did say it was eye catching. So yeah, there is a balance to consider.

I’ll think about it. But really, if the whole “I’m searching for a literary agent to pick this up and sell it,” then it is really out of my hands at that point because a publisher will be making the marketing determination in addition to the cover artwork. So it all may be for naught.

So yeah, literary works. They’re definitely a tricky monster – whether you’re writing about geeky artsy gay boys (like I was) or their uber-cool and popular jock stud boyfriends (like my hubby did in high school and at Clemson), or they are werewolves roaming the forests outside a fictitious town in West Virginia circa 1956, you can still write literary oriented works. The topic at hand, the situation your characters go through are merely the vehicle. My takeaway from all of this is that what I do within my works are that I don’t shy away from very tough questions I want to reflect back to society. Especially those with a decidedly queer perspective like I write.

My hubby has the right of it. It isn’t the volume of what you write. It isn’t the prose you use (though it does help elevate it quite a bit), but rather it is the manner in which you tell the story. The voice you use and how you work with the questions you are addressing and giving an unflinching voice to walk a reader through those tough calls in life. Allowing them to answer questions your characters often can’t – even if it ultimately comes from their own experiences rather than anything you as an author have put down.

It begs discussion and analysis, because it ultimately holds up a mirror to ourselves. Even if the main character is a shy gay boy and you happen to be a 50 year old heterosexual female mother of a gay son. If you can see yourself as that main character, if you can draw some sort of conclusion to those questions that you as an author pose but never fully answer, then you just might have true literature.

But let’s be clear: Just slapping the word literature (whether in regards to your work or in a group you create on Facebook or in the social strata) on something doesn’t make it so. And I embrace that. It really isn’t for me to say what the work is. That’s for others to put on it. But I do know one thing: It needs to have a lasting commentary on the social structure before us. It needs to encapsulate unequivocally the human condition and nature with all of our faults and foibles as well as our joyous and tremendous gifts life has given us. It needs to be bold and unflinching and most importantly – it needs to have NO guarantees. This is where I think that general genre fiction fails to make the final step into true literature. Any guarantee in a given trope or genre impedes to a great degree anything that can cross over and become both timeless and timely all at the same time.

That is what I’ve come to learn is true literature. In that case, given what I know I’ve done with Angels of Mercy, I think my husband just might have something there when he says that’s what it is.

Even if I never started out to do that in the first place…

Until next time…

SA C

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Designing My Angels of Mercy

Designing My Angels of Mercy

 

The FINAL - FINAL version of the book cover for "Angels of Mercy - Volume One: Elliot"

The FINAL – FINAL version of the book cover for the first book in my series “Angels of Mercy – Volume One: Elliot”

 

Sidebar: S.O. to author pal, Kris Ripper who liked the first one I did of these, that I’d thought I shoot her another. Hope you all enjoy it too!

 

So let’s talk book covers, shall we?  I mean, I did it before. So it’s not like it’s the first time, right?

I’ve been busy. Did the NaNoWriMo event for the first time and I was really enjoying it (even if it was a bit of a slog to write on a deadline schedule – but it was good for me).

Been putting small tweaks on Angels of Mercy Volume One: Elliot and fleshing out Volume Two: Marco. Volume One is sorta waiting in the wings because it’s ends on a cliff hanger and several authors said that as a newbie writer I shouldn’t do a cliff hanger – soooooo, since my stories are what they are, I decided to forestall the first book and just get book 2 prepped and ready to go so they can be released in tandem. Book 2 ends on a cliff hanger as well, but I figure I’ll have them decently hooked by then (fingers crossed).

So here’s the small twist in this – Marco’s always been the meat of the entire series as far as I am concerned. Elliot and the third boy (who is our guide in Volume 3) are merely bookends to Marco’s tome. The story has always been Marco’s to tell. I just wanted you to get to know the love of his life first. Elliot in many ways is an extension of myself. That’s why it is a character study.

I’ve had betas read the pre-released work and I get universal high marks on grammar and structure (my author pals have universally praised me on the manuscript being so clean) – and that’s the hubby too. He’s been my sole editor. He’s never done it professionally (still hasn’t cause he’s on the personal payroll – wink, wink), but he comes from a LONG line of educators that specialized in English. So I am solid there. He also used to play football for Clemson back in the day so that’s where all the football motif is coming from (well, that, and I did have a fling in my Senior year with an actual HS quarterback). But as I said, the response from everyone I’ve given it to thus far have really been impressed. I am humbled and grateful more than I can say about this.

Angels has been both an easy work to write and incredibly difficult to write. It is a very personal work. It is a love letter to my husband as much as it is to gay men I’ve been blessed to know and have in my life. Truly blessed.

So why the second entry on the book covers? Because I’ve finally nailed book one AND I’ve completed the work on book two in the process! Yippee!!

And here’s the big reveal on the second book cover in the series (cue drum roll in your head, please):

 

The book cover for Volume Two of Angels of Mercy - Marco.

The book cover for Volume Two of Angels of Mercy – Marco.

And as with Book One’s design I’ll let you see how I did it…

First things first – as with all things Foodie, there is a recipe and of course the ingredients. I am a content designer (of sorts – previous life as a graphic designer for a theater company in San Diego (amongst other things)).

Software usedAdobe Creative Cloud Suite (primarily Adobe Illustrator CC 2014 and Adobe Photoshop CC 2014)

Graphic elements –  images from iStock Photo (photos and vector art)

Fonts UsedScriptina (for “Angels” in the logo) and Copperplate Light for the subtitle and my author byline, and Jackport College NCV font for the football jersey number 7.

 

The original artwork in its raw form:

Illustrator Vector Line Art

The wings (I only used one half of them and duplicated them).

The wings (I only used one half of them and duplicated them).

 

The Footballer (Hi-res Photo JPG)

 

The footballer pic - Hi-Res XXL variety (so I could manipulate it and not lose resolution much).

The footballer pic – Hi-Res XXL variety (so I could manipulate it and not lose resolution much).

 

The fonts and logo work were borrowed from my Book One cover and adapted/modified to suit “Marco” in the title. Recycle whenever possible – it builds brand consistency and also cuts down on the design time and lets you get back to what we all REALLY want to do – WRITE, dammit!

So I’ll start with one element of this new book cover that kicked my ass on book one – the fucking footballer jersey has NO NUMBER! Couldn’t do a simple overlay – that would be too f’d up – it wouldn’t be right. So I hit the net and sorted through Photoshop tutorial after tutorial using crap assed terms to find what I was looking for – only because I couldn’t remember what I needed to really look for until I found it again – DISPLACEMENT MAPS. They are golden in my book now. And they proved a helluva lot easier to do than I thought they’d be – Win-Win in my book!

You can check out the tutorial that solved it for me right here.

So first things first – I knew my footballer needed his requisite wings so I had to separate the background (the troublesome gradient blue/black background) from the (footballer) foreground. Sometimes the graphics come with masked backgrounds so this is rather simple. NOT this time around. Sheesh! So I had to painstakingly (though I did save a small bit of time) using the magnetic lasso tool in photoshop to cut away at the background from around my mysterious “Marco” footballer.

Then slip a solid black background on a separate layer so I could manipulate at will what I wanted to do. Here’s the final with the broken down layers along the right side of the screenshot (click to enlarge):

My photoshop file in all it's naked glory.

My photoshop file in all it’s naked glory.

 

As you can see by the layers in the picture I post above, the background was solid black. The footballer sits just behind the jersey number layer and my author cred. The wings and the logo taking up the layers in between.

So I imported the jpeg I created from the Illustrator file and cropped the blue side of the wings (the ‘water’ wings) and duplicated the layers in photoshop once the first blue wing was imported and then sized them by freehand so while they are an exact dupe, they aren’t sized exactly the same – only a hint a being symmetrical. It was enough for my purposes. I didn’t want an exact dupe this time around.

The "water" wings imported, duped and resized by hand (freeform) so they aren't an exact match.

The “water” wings imported, duped and resized by hand (freeform) so they aren’t an exact match – a way to maximize your dollar.

 

I also angled them so they would be more upright (alluding to the same sort of position from my Art Deco wings from the first cover – see above). Added an adjustment layer above the two wing layers and boosted the hue and saturation to embellish and bring out the blueness of them.

Next up – Slipping my footballer back in front of the newly created wings.

Adding "Marco" back in to flesh out the "angel."

Adding “Marco” back in to flesh out the “angel.”

 

So now we get to the hard part – or what I perceived to be the hard part – the Displacement Map – to add the jersey number. The file I created for the displacement map I ended up using the black channel of the photo (when you get to that step) as it had the most contrast to build the map (I think in the tutorial link she used the red channel – use what looks best and has the highest contrast to work from – it’ll apply the best results).

I typed the number for the jersey (using the Jackport College NCV font) to create Marco’s football number – 7.  And I applied a white to black gradient to the number so it would fade out along the bottom of the cover like his shirt does in the picture.

I used the tutorial just as it is described above in the link I provided BUT I changed the displacement map settings from the default 10 to 5. This was the result:

 

Adding the "7" jersey number with the displacement map setting to 5.

Adding the “7” jersey number with the displacement map setting to 5.

Then I added the duped layers from my original Volume One: Elliot book cover (see above) and inserted the duped layers for the book title and sub-title (swapping out ONE for TWO and Elliot for Marco) so it would be inline with the finished cover I was after. Then did the same for my Author cred.

 

And voila!

 

The book cover for Volume Two of Angels of Mercy - Marco.

The book cover for Volume Two of Angels of Mercy – Marco.

But having succeeded in this I immediately was emboldened by my success with the displacement map that I went back to book one and FINALLY put the long missing Jersey number back on it!

 

The final cover artwork. Blood included.

“BEFORE”

 

The FINAL - FINAL version of the book cover for "Angels of Mercy - Volume One: Elliot"

“AFTER”

 

To paraphrase Darth Vader – “The Circle is (sorta) complete…”

 

I do still have to come up with Volume 3 (insert mystery character here – no spoilers this time).

 

Until next time… Happy Writing and Designing!

 


 

Shout Out to my musical muse – JAY BRANNAN! I constantly play his music while I do anything Angels related. He hasn’t steered me wrong yet. He might argue that he hasn’t steered me at all. I love the shit outta his work anyway.

 

BUY HIS SHIT NOW PEOPLE! I need this guy to keep working!

 

Always Then & Now Cover Art

Always Then & Now Cover Art

 

Jay_Brannan_Rob_Me_Blind_Cover_Art

The album that inspired me to write Angels of Mercy.

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