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)
Character creation has never really been an issue for me. Having played so many of them on the stage over my half-century of being on this planet, I have pulled upon so many threads of the people I’ve met and crossed paths with. My high school drama teacher taught me many things about the craft. But there was one he taught that has stuck more than any other.
The world will reveal itself to you if you just stop singing, stop dancing, stop talking and just … listen and observe.
Now, if you’ve caught me on the podcast I co-host, you know that my not talking is something of an issue. I love conversation and have little to no filter (yes, I recognize it’s a flaw – but I choose to run with it and hope others can keep up) when it comes into diving in on topics that crop up during the conversation. So it’s no small feat for me to stop, not make a sound, and listen.
Yet, there are moments in my past that it happened for me with very little input on my part. Magical people and events that would just trigger that stop all action and listen (and watch) what was going on around me. And I’ve always come away the richer for it.
In writing the Angels of Mercy series, I have two characters that appear secondary in the story (to the plotline – though, in truth they are very much first level characters for one reason only – I know them both. They exist not only on the page, but also in my books).
I knew them when I was in grade school through high school. La Presa Elementary right up through La Presa Junior High and then ending at Monte Vista High, before we all went our separate ways. When I crafted Angels of Mercy, I knew that my quiet unassuming gay boy, Elliot, would have only one real friend in school before he becomes involved with the love of his life, Marco Sforza. That guy is Greg Lettau. Greg is drawn from the guy I knew in school who I thought was incredibly brilliant and had the wickedest sense of humor. He was skinny as all fuck, pointdexterish in the extreme – horned rimmed glasses and gawkish looking as can be.
But here’s the thing: Greg was so honorable as a friend he’s stuck with me, in my mind, long after we went our own ways after high school graduation. The few times I’d spent at their house after school back in my youth provided me with more than enough fertile ground to plunder when I crafted my two snarky brothers as supporting characters for Elliot and Marco. The Lettau boys are solid guys. Obviously, I’ve not known what they’ve gotten up to since we parted ways so long ago, but the memory of who they were in my past had a profound effect on wanting to capture their spirit and their particular brand of living life that I knew I wanted to pay homage to them.
I know I run the risk of using their actual names in the work, but I think even though it may not be the kind of book either man would read, I think I’ve done right by them. Greg, after all, gets the girl of his dreams in the end. I wanted that for Greg, even back then. He will always be that quick witted, snarky guy with a heart of gold. The banter he had with his brother I recalled was epic. I’ve only barely scratched the surface with them – as in this scene from my soon-to-be released Angels prequel: Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Part One: King of Imperfections.
The first scene I had between the brothers had to be key in setting the tone for them. These were two guys who expressed their love by bagging the shit out of the other. The harder you bagged, the more love you expressed. It was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed before – completely foreign to how my world worked. And I remember loving the shit out of how they did it. They never missed a beat between them.
That is, until Greg gave me the greatest gift with his next words.
“Oh yeah. They live out on Oak Ridge Way out on the south-east part of town, up near the oak forest area – well, where the oaks and redwoods sorta mingle. Kinda the last house in town, if you know what I mean. You ever been out that way?” He eyed me for a second before turning the station on the TV to the science channel. This kid really was the quintessential geek.
I shook my head, “No, not really. Why?”
“Ah, well you just seemed the athletic type, being a jock and all.” He gave me a snarky roll of his eyes before continuing, “It’s fairly nice to hike up there sometimes. Hell, if I was half the friend to Elliot that I say I am, I should haul his ass up there for a bit. I know he could use the companionship. I sometimes worry ‘bout the guy, ya know?”
“Why? You think he’ll go all postal one day?”
“Nah, nothing like that. He’s to empathetic to go postal. He’d feel it way too much, ya know? But he’s definitely got a fairly lonely existence. Sometimes I’ve spotted him sitting out along the stands in the stadium – just drawing a bit in that sketchbook he carries around in his backpack while he eats his lunch. You know, way away from everyone. Serious loner stuff. And he’s a really great guy. I mean, I’m not going all gay for him, but he really is very smart and has a twisted as fuck sense of humor. I enjoy his company when we do get a chance to talk. I think he just is thankful that he has someone at school he can relate to a bit. I just can’t imagine how going to a school that holds nearly seven hundred kids and he’s only got pathetic me to chat up every now and then. Sad, really.”
“Maybe I should remedy that, then? I mean, if he’s as cool as you say he is.”
“Yeah, well, Elliot’s right on that score, bud. It’s one thing if the horn-rimmed math geek gets caught chatting him up from time to time. I mean, no one really pays any attention to math geeks unless its the jocks picking on ‘em because the gay kid ain’t around to bag on, ya know? For you, it’s a whole other thing. He’s right. It wouldn’t work out. Just the way it is.”
“Yeah, well, they don’t know dick about me.”
“Well, at the risk of pissing you the fuck off, it wouldn’t matter. This shit’s bigger than the both of us. Always has been, always will be. Ya know?”
I had to shrug at that. I knew the playbook about Jocks and inter-class social associations. The shrug was a requisite at this point if I was to maintain any credibility. Nothing but a pure acknowledgment of the rule book we both were playing by.
I had more than my fair share of intel on what I wanted on Elliot. Fuck me, when I thought on it, I’d hit the mother lode. I mean, now I knew where he lived. If it was where I thought it was, then I was in fucking hog heaven. I never drove out that way and I was kind of glad that the Impala I had back home wasn’t quite ready for her first run on the road since I’d rebuilt her engine. I still had a few things to fix on her before I got her that official armor of black paint to make her just as bad-assed as the Winchesters’ car on Supernatural. From the time I saw the first episode I was hooked and that car is what did it: full on classic muscle car. I could only hope Elliot would like riding around in it.
I looked at my watch; it was still early but I should head out anyway, didn’t want to over-stay my welcome. ‘Sides, I had an itch to scratch that had Elliot’s home address written all over it. I needed to get out there and see if I could sort out where he was. My heart was racing with just the prospect of seeing him this afternoon.
“Well, I better get going. I got some errands to run before I get home and hit the homework.”
“You leavin’ already?” Kevin asked as he came back from the kitchen. He had a grin on his face so evidently he was in tight with his latest conquest. And here I was, pining over the gay kid on campus.
How fucking upside down is that?
“Yeah, I think I better. I got some shit I gotta take care of.”
“Don’tcha mean, someone to take care of?” Kevin snickered and suggestively mirrored his younger brother’s salacious expression a few moments earlier.
Brothers, I got it, more than they knew.
“Jesus, Kevin, give it a break. Not everyone in this world thinks with his dick like you do,” Greg moaned.
“We’re teenaged men, dip-shit. Even you think with that pencil sized piece you’re packin’ ,” Kevin retorted.
“Still a heap bigger than the thimble-sized chubby you try to force on your latest conquest,” Greg volleyed right back.
“Really, guys? Is this gonna end with each of you marking your territories by pissing here?” I countered to the both of them.
They both looked stunned that I’d insert myself with this very familiar form of brotherly love.
“‘Sides, I’m the one with the monster cock in this room so I got you both trumped,” I said as I started to walk towards the front door.
“Yeah, right,” Greg huffed as he slipped back down onto the sofa. I reached the door and Kevin took the knob from me and held door open.
“No. He’s right, lil’ brother. Even with both our cocks, this guy would still beat us.”
I stopped at the door and just wiggled my brows at them both. Kevin chortled a bit. Yeah, I knew he’d seen the python I got going because of the showers. Hell, even Beau stacked up short against the stallion.
“Fuck me,” Greg snorted. “How’s a geeky brother gonna get laid if we got Godzilla dick out there banging around?”
“Wait ’til Marco roars. Then you’ll see ‘em run. That’s when we bag ‘em, lil’ brother.” We fist bumped as I ducked out hearing Kevin laugh as he started to shut the door.
I just waved a hand without looking back as I got to the family Audi. I had a certain someone I needed to find: a certain boy who had my heart, a certain boy who I was more determined than ever to find my way into his arms. And I knew, I just knew, that I’d gained an invaluable ally in Greg Lettau. He was my key. I only had to find a way to get him to help me out. But I’d get to that later. I had more pressing matters on my mind just now.
Yet, that love they had for one another had to shine through, as evidenced when Greg moves off to grab his jacket and Kevin has a moment to speak with his teammate Marco giving Greg some Jock attention. Although, even in that, Kevin is clear that Greg can never know how he truly feels about it.
“What I said was that there was an opportunity to redeem yourself tonight. A few of us are going to the Hut for some pizza. You should come along. Make up for your serious fuck-up this afternoon.”
I scratched the back of my head considering it. I did have some homework to do, but it was a Thursday night. I guess it would keep until the weekend. I looked at Greg for a moment. His eyes kept conveying to me I had no way out on this one.
“Who’s all gonna be there?”
Kevin shrugged, “Beau, Willem and Mack and their latest squeezes, I guess. Fuck all if I know. I just know the guys specifically asked that you come along for dinner at the Hut.”
“How’d they know I’d be here?” I thought it was a valid question. It seemed to irritate Kevin a bit though.
“I don’t know. Maybe because they’ve seen you becoming besties with Greg here.”
Fuck, now I had the geek kid rep to deal with.
“On one condition.”
Kevin stitched his brow, unsure of what was going to come out of my mouth next.
“I want Greg to ride shotgun.”
Greg looked like he was about to shit a brick over that one. “What? Hey, you can leave me outta this …”
Kevin chuckled, “It would be a bit odd to bring my kid brother along. Might make it a bit awkward for him, too. ‘Sides, I get enough of his lip as it is …”
“Not an option,” I dug my heels in.
“Dude …” was all Greg said as he sighed and shook his head. I didn’t care. I needed an ally if I was going to walk into dealing with that suspicious crew.
I collapsed on the sofa between them both. “Sorry, bro.” I mumbled.
Kevin quirked an eyebrow at that. “You two want to get a room or something? I mean, don’t let me stop you from your budding bromance.”
Greg blushed a bit harder than I thought he needed to. Evidently, he was a bit sensitive about the whole being thought of as a fag thing. But I guess when you weren’t a jock, then you might have cause to be a bit sensitive about it. I observed Greg’s eyes darting to me to gauge my reaction. I didn’t have any, not really. I wasn’t one to harbor weird shit like oh don’t say that, it offends me …
Playing football or hell, any team sport, tended to thicken your skin pretty damned quick or you were out on your ass. Tom Hanks said it best, even if the quote was about baseball: There’s no crying, none. Well, maybe if you lost an important game, but even then you cried your ass off silently, under the shower where no one else could see. I knew the drill. A little bromance joke would accomplish nothing to get under my skin. Only Greg couldn’t leave a line like that dangling without a proper sibling response though.
“Well, at least I’m smart enough not to go out with the likes of you. Speaking of which, how’s things with Suzy, lately?”
Kevin’s smirk faded quickly. His gaze became far more pointed. I still didn’t know what Greg had done but whatever it was, it had to’ve been big.
“Whatever, little brother.”
“Uh-huh, that’s what I thought.”
I looked at my watch: five fifteen. “So what time are we supposed to be there?” I looked over at Kevin.
He shrugged, “I guess around six or so. No one really said.”
I chuckled, “Yeah, that figures.”
I spared a beat while we all watched Guy Fieri chow down on a sandwich that looked like it would guarantee a heart attack just by inhaling the fumes let alone macking down on it like there was no tomorrow. I slapped Kevin’s leg as I pushed off the sofa.
“Well, I’m gonna go home and get sorted. Meet ya there?”
I turned to Greg, “Wanna tag along?”
Greg’s eyes darted to his brother’s – a beat.
“I’m thinking of taking the Impala out for her maiden run.”
Greg face lit up with that. I’d been telling him about it from time to time so he was eager to see what I’d done so far. I already sensed that Greg had a hard-on for the muscle car I was working on. The fact that I’d even suggested that he could ride shotgun on her maiden ride seemed to put him to the edge of cumming all over himself.
I nodded, “Yeah, no time like the present, right?”
“Right on …” He got up and made his way down the hall to his room. “Give me a sec to grab a jacket.”
After he’d disappeared Kevin watched me with a greater interest.
“Greg. I bag on his ass a lot but, and I’ll kick your ass if you ever say that I told you this, but I love the little douchebag. It’s sorta cool you giving him some attention. It wouldn’t mean half as much if it came from me. Big brother n’ all.”
I stretched, then shrugged, “Nah, it’s cool. He’s a great guy. But dude, I so gotta do something about pulling him outta his math geek shell. Dude will never get laid if he keeps going the way he’s goin’.”
Kevin chuckled a bit loudly at that as Greg emerged from the hallway.
“What’d I miss?”
“Eh, it’s nothin’,” Kevin offered, a smirk still coloring his face. I couldn’t help but smile the tiniest bit as well.
Greg stopped dead in his tracks.
“Okay, what the fuck? Out with it. Somebody said something about me and now you both are grinnin’ like you just put one over on me. So what gives?”
I shook my head and approached Greg. I put a hand on his shoulder and started to guide him out the front door.
“It’s nothing, bro. Let’s get a move on before the team has another whine session about my blowin’ them off. Say good-bye, Kevin.”
Kevin shook his head and grabbed the remote from where Greg had unceremoniously dumped it. “Good-bye, Kevin…” he snorted at the two of us making our way out the door.
“Whatever, bro. You both are acting weird,” Greg murmured as I guided him out to the family Audi sitting in front of their house.
Greg could be like a pit-bull with a thought. As soon as he closed the door to the car he was on me with it. “So what did that fucktard of a brother really say?”
I chuckled, “That really does get into your shit, doesn’t it?”
“What? Kevin? You have no idea.”
He shook his head as he put on his seatbelt.
But it was more than just how they bagged on one another. You had to feel the thread of love that ran through it all. For that I had to stop, close my eyes and shut out the world and just listen to those moments I spent in their house, listening and observing them being themselves.
Greg told me that he was making a bit of progress with Elliot regarding the jocks on campus. I asked him to work on getting Elliot talked into going out for the tennis team like I’d overheard that one morning. That proved to be a little tougher to work out. Elliot seemed open to the idea of playing. He told Greg he would get into that part of it, even enjoy the tournaments he’d have to go to. All of that seemed okay. Only one thing he couldn’t get around.
“Being a jock. That’s what he can’t wrap his head around,” Greg admitted to me at one of my after school visits at his place.
He seemed particularly worried about how I took that update. I had to admit, it didn’t suit my fancy too much.
“Does that mean he’s not going to do it?”
Without directly answering, Greg flipped to one of the food networks where we watched some blonde chef boozing it up while throwing some cans of soup on a chicken breast and calling it cooking.
“What I want to know is, why is it so important that he go out for the team?”
“Uh, jock? Something in common between us? Any of this ringing a bell for ya?”
“Yeah, okay. I getcha there. I thought of it, too, ya know. But I dunno, Marco. Elliot’s got a weird streak when it comes to guys like you. And before you go off half-cocked, you gotta realize he’s been harassed and belittled for several years now by guys who became jocks. It’s a learned response. He sees the danger and rightly goes the other way. It’s how he’s survived. Of course he’s gonna rail against becoming one of you, even if it’s a game he really likes to play. It still involves becoming one. He’s having a real hard time getting around that.”
I sighed, running my hands down my face.
“Forget it. This whole thing is bat-shit crazy” I got up and began to pace around the living room.
“What’s bat-shit crazy?” Kevin walked in through the front door. “Dude, where the fuck were you?”
Confused, I looked around me, “Uh, I think that’s fairly obvious. Been here, pencil-dick.”
Greg snorted at that one.
“Yeah, I see, but you were supposed to be down at the cliffs with the guys, asswipe. We missed you out there. You know – some quality bud time? And I find you here, holed up with my geeky kid brother.”
“Wow, fucktard, way to feel the brotherly love…” Greg deadpanned.
“No, not like that, dick scum. I mean that Marco knows what team building is like. We do some social stuff together, too. This was one of our days to blow off some steam and he wasn’t anywhere to be found. So not cool, Sforza. So …” he plopped his massive frame down on the sofa and grabbed the bag of chips Greg had thrown on the table between us, “…what the fuck, bro? How does my brother rate when your teammates are having a rather illegal kegger out along the cliffs?”
“Oh yeah, that’s a great place to serve alcohol illegally to a bunch of dumb jocks. Let’s give guys who are hormonely challenged and mentally deprived and have them imbibe along a precipice that’s only a hundred forty feet above the ocean. Yeah, sign me the fuck up. Fuckin’ YouTube heaven, that shit is,” Greg tossed out.
“We are not a bunch of dumb jocks,” Kevin groused leaning in toward his brother to press his point.
“I’ve seen your grades; your position in this debate is questionable.”
He grabbed the chips from his elder brother. I sat back down and watch the sibling rivalry play out, thankfully obscuring my social faux pas. Kevin had the right of it though. I should’ve been out with the guys. Only this whole Elliot thing really did a number on me. Even while I listened to Kevin and Greg verbally pound on each other, a small sense of gratitude moved through me that I had a bit of time to sort out my shit. It did give me some concern that I hadn’t handled all of this with any degree of grace. I needed to get my game face on.
It’s moments like that I tried like hell to capture about these two remarkable boys from my past. Vibrant young men, each of them comfortable in their skin, but they never made me feel less because I was the queer kid. It all just … was. So how do I not run the risk of pissing them the fuck off? Mostly because I did change up quite a few elements about them for the work. My Greg and Kevin Lettau are not the actual Lettaus by a long shot. There are very similar threads, but by and large they are of my own making. As I said, an homage to who they were/are from my youth.
So Greg, don’t know what you’re up to. Don’t know where life has taken you and how it’s all panned out for you, but just know, that some small thread of you, some essence I observed and committed to memory, lives on and bears your name. It’s not you. It was never intended to be you. It was simply my way of acknowledging to the world what great guy I thought you were back then. No page can truly capture your dry wit, and plucky bon monts. That part is wholly you. I’m just winking in your direction and saying, “Thanks, for all of it.”
Until next time …
– SA C
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:
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?):
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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.
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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 email@example.com or by leaving them in the comments below.
Until next time …
Writing is a strange business. There are so many reasons why authors write. For some it is because they have this burning sensation to get a story out there. Something that has germinated to the point of festering that if you don’t put it down on digital or physical paper then you’ll very likely go mad.
Madness is often a trait all writers share. We’re quirky people by nature. Mostly because we eye the world in a very particular way. Whether your write fiction or not, you job is to chronicle what we see and what we experience and what is possible in this world. We are stewards and documenters of the human condition in all its varied expressions – factional and fictional alike.
Some write because they hope they’ll hit the motherlode, the big pay-off and will be surrounded by the wealth and recognition that burning desire to write demands of their work. Actually, thinking upon it, that doesn’t apply to just some writers. I’d go so far to say that it goes for nearly 2/3, if not more, of the writing community that’s out there.
Recognition is nice. Money is nice (hell, money doesn’t hurt no matter what line of work you take on). All of those are very good reasons to write.
But that’s not why I do it.
Oh, to be sure, I have a burning inside to put a story (or seven at my current count) down in digital bytes and bits. That part is true for me. Their pseudo-fiction, too. While I weave stories with heightened drama, operatic in scope against a mundane landscape, the human elements are deeply rooted in real life experiences of my queer brothers (and sisters) that I’ve collected over the years.
It’s no small revelation. I’ve said as much before on the podcast, probably to the point of ad nauseum for some of our listeners (I do try to curb that, honestly).
I’ve even said as much in an earlier blog post. So none of what I’ve stated is new. What I have been asked (either by articles about the craft of writing that posed this question, or by other authors in our discussions on the WrotePodcast), is “who is your audience?”
That’s an interesting question. For me, the answer is far different I should think than my author pals I’ve come to know and respect. I write for gay men who, for one reason or another, are isolated from our community. That took me a while to sort out, too.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate other people who love what I do, because I do. But they are not my intended audience. I write for a fraction of a fraction of a readership. I am not aiming at the “sky’s the limit” stratosphere of recognition or wealth. I’d be nice, but I don’t kid myself that it’s going to happen.
My husband said early on:
“You know who you’re writing to. You’ve already figured it out, even if it hasn’t made itself known to you.”
He’s a retired psychiatrist (as well as a quantum mechanics physicist that worked for NASA and JPL) so he tends to give me Gandalf-like tidbits of wisdom when I least expect it.
What is different with this blog post is that today is the birthday of my very first fan.
Michael and I met via a website that was set up to foster those people, who, for one reason or another, felt disenfranchised or removed from the greater GLBT community (either by circumstance (they are still closeted or physically remote enough that finding others of our community is simply not possible). For the most part there are a lot of young people who populated the site. It’s a cool place and a valid resource as the moderators there try to keep people of our community connected to resources that can provide assistance and a place to congregate online so they feel a little less removed. This has always been a passion of mine, to connect with others who don’t feel connected. To say, “I see you. Let’s become friends.”
Michael was one of those men who joined the site.
I can’t say why I reached out to him. I think it was that I had reached a point writing Angels of Mercy where I wanted some feedback on the work and I opened it up in one of the forums on the site for queer people to inquire about it and to read it and give me feedback. Michael was the first to do so.
We struck up a casual conversation via the message board/forum and quickly migrated to email correspondence. Eventually this progressed to exchanging phone numbers because some of what we talked about just would’ve been easier over the phone rather than long winded emails.
When I met Michael he really felt the need to connect. To be honest, by his own admission, he hadn’t been a reader much in the years he spent in a hetero marriage, with kids, too. He’d gotten a divorce, moved to CA and spent some time getting to know some people in the GLBT community. Family matters brought him back to the country of Michigan (where he is when I met him and where he is now) and pretty much removed him from queer life. In many respects Michael needed contact. He needed to talk about stuff. But Michael was also intrigued by my work. So I gave it to him.
I waited and I sat on egg shells while he had it. He came back to me a couple of days later. I was on pins and needles (as the saying goes) to find out what he thought.
Because, you see, he was the first person outside of family and close friends who read the work as I worked on it. So his opinion mattered in so many ways. He fell in love with my boys from Mercy High. I was beyond elated. I’d made a connection. One that truly mattered because not only did he like what he read, but over time he’d progressed to reading quite a bit of queer fiction. I’d put books back into his life. That was truly the most awesome gift I could receive. Greater than any five star review, greater than all the blog posts and adulation my work could receive, that singular conversation after he’d read the work and wanted to talk about Elliot, Marco, Danny and the rest had me soaring for days after.
It was then that my husband’s words about the work before I’d handed it to anyone came back to me. I was writing for Michael. I write for those men who feel remote, removed and crave some reflection of their lives and loves.
I’ve been enriched by my continuing conversations with him. We’ve not had the pleasure to meet in person. It simply hasn’t been possible for quite a few reasons. But we stay connected. Whenever I am in doubt, I seek out his opinion on things. Over time he is not the only queer man who has come to me and said that Angels gave them something, made their world a little less remote. They felt connected to my boys, they talk about them as if they’re real. I know the feeling.
I even wrote a short story about werewolves during the NaNoWriMo event back in 2014, going so far as to write him in as one of the characters. Michael loves werewolves. It’s a series I started just for him. (Yeah, yeah, Michael, I know, I need to get the next one out there … I’m working on it!)
But Michael was the first. He is my goto whenever I want an opinion on something. I value his thoughts and his attentiveness to what I do.
So Michael, on your special day, I wanted to acknowledge that I see you, I am so proud to call you my friend. I am thankful for the conversations we’ve held – both book related and about life in general. I value each time you look my way and have something to say – even if it’s just “hey …”.
You’re a treasure, Michael. My first fan. My good friend. Happiest of birthdays. I wish you nothing but the best. And yes, one day we’ll find an Elliot to call your very own.
Count on it.
Until next time …
– SA C
It shouldn’t exist. I never intended it to exist, yet, there it is.
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.
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