When Reviews Fail Authors
Much Ado about – Wow, uh, really?
Okay, so bear with me here… I’m mentally rambling on an concept that I want to chew on. Tangents will abound. My sincere apologies if you aren’t quite in the mood for it. Don’t say you haven’t been warned …
So I know people are entitled to their opinions. I know that those comments and feelings that they have on any topic is part of the game. I get that. Having spent a great portion of my life on the stage and having to deal with people’s opinions of the work on offer at the time is part of the gig that I signed on for.
But in this information age I think that it carries far more weight that it’s worth really.
And before anyone grouses out there about my going off on a tangent (you were warned, after all) we all best remember that trolling is a very real thing and can be very detrimental (if not outright scary) when it comes knocking at your door.
The problem is that everyone who isn’t a content creator thinks that their opinion trumps all who came before or after. And sometimes, shockingly enough, touted as being more profound than the creator who did the, uh, ya know: creating!
And I get that we want some sort of feedback as a creator. It is part of the cycle, isn’t it?
But then I read several reviews (and, to be clear, they aren’t all regarding novels, either) where the “review” is little more than a synopsis or a book report of what happened. If we all wanted to know that why would we read the book or see the movie or whatever?
I’ve always said I want an honest review of the work – with all of it’s blemishes and beauty marks as they may be. I am not afraid of criticism – as long as it is warranted. Haters who just love to bash something or do the equivalent of a “drive-by” assassination of the work simply for their own personal aggrandizement or back patting, is rather pathetic and will get an instant cold shoulder from me.
BUT, if you have a specific gripe or take on an element of the work that didn’t work for you – yay you! Doesn’t mean I have to buy into it as its creator – after all it is still my baby. My creation, my world.
So why the rant? Why the extolling and waxing prosaic on trolls, wanna be reviewers, and general haters?
Because I am sort of over the whole “what do you think about it.” At least on a personal level. I think Gore Vidal said it best when it came to the style of a writer:
“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” ― Gore Vidal
Great words. I’ve taken them to heart really. But then again, Vidal pretty much has been a beacon of intellect for me – it’s where I ground myself as a creator. So for me, as an author, I am really not so wrapped up in what others think to the point where it could cause me grief (especially if it appears they have an axe to grind with my work or are just generally mean spirited – that sort of muck rises to the top like floaters in the ocean from a broken sewage main).
What I do sort of grouse about is the terrible language that seems to permeate most of those reviews. In one I saw someone wrote that they didn’t like the vocabulary used (when it was clear that they meant dialog – I won’t cite the actual work out of kindness to its “author”). And they went so far as to confuse dialog with inner-monologue. These aren’t esoteric terms, people. And I re-read it several times to make sure that it was dialog that was the intended meaning. It was. But they used vocabulary – why?
Alas, sadly, that wasn’t the only instance.
In a very real way I sort of see the logic of why in traditional publishing they had that whole gatekeeping to qualify for publishing. Agents and inquiry letters were involved. There was a certain symmetry to it. And a real effort had to be made by an author to be heard. Now, not so much. They were there to ensure that the work was of, at the very least, a certain degree of quality. Experts who knew of proper story construct and characterizations.
Now, with the way things are anyone can (and often do) publish their works and are clearly in it for the adoration they think they so richly deserve. Most of the self-pubbed stuff out there is shit – poorly written, constructed and edited (Jesus, are there ever some crap-assed editors out there). And I am not saying this because I’m a Bitter Betty and want adoration coming my way. It’d be nice but it is NOT a requirement on my part. I will write either way. Why? Because I like what I am doing with it. I like putting worlds together, having characters grapple with it all. I love fleshing out their idiosyncrasies and foibles that have them blunder spectacularly to whip up the inherent drama (as a great opera singer friend of mine once said whilst we were backstage waiting to go on: no one ever comes to a happy opera – meaning: drama drives all).
And even in comedy, there has to be a small sliver of pathos or drama to create those peaks and valleys that allow us that a-ha moment of enlightenment that tickles both our funny bone and our intellect.
But for the most part, I think most reviewers voice an opinion to see their own name in print somewhere. Oddly enough, I actually read reviews. Not because I am envious of some other author being lauded upon to the point that brown-nosing is involved. Or as SJD Peterson once told me:
“…to the point where they are blowing so much sunshine up my backside that I get a sunburn from it.”
Yeah, I get that. There are those reviews where the audience member is simply enthralled with the idea that they are in some way interacting with the author on a personal level and need to praise them to ensure their being counted amongst the author’s favorites. And to a small degree, in some instances, that is sort of true (in a slightly, tilt-your-head-like-the-RCA-Victor-Dog sort of way). I mean it is no different than someone gushing over their celebrity crush or admiration for say, Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest work. I may applaud his performance, I may swoon over his choices as a fellow thespian – I may even be so lucky to have half-a-minute to converse with Cumberbatch himself and tell him so. Does that mean my opinion should be elevated because of this? No. I may have interacted with him but in no way does it mean I take whatever he created and say it has anything to do with me (other than a shared experience).
But with books, I dunno. I mean, they are a bit more intimate because it is just you, the reader, and the author who is imparting their imaginary (in the works of fiction) worlds to you. So in a very real way it is an audience of one. I get why so many readers feel a kinship with their favorite writers. But that line does get blurred by them an awful lot.
And let’s be honest here. Most of what is out there isn’t written for longevity in the populace. It isn’t written for posterity sake. It’s fluff – pure and simple. Most of it is written from the firm belief that “this one will crack through and become a big time best-seller.” It’s all about the sale, isn’t it?
The majority of them don’t make it. In fact, most never will. I read somewhere that like the world economy, the author spectrum is that 5% of authors make nearly all of the money made in books while the other 95% scramble for monetary crumbs. Oh there’ll be those fleeting books who find an audience several years or decades later (some even finding their “mass” audience and adoration after its author has long departed this mortal coil).
But it doesn’t mean that the reader has any real claim on the work at all. They may invest themselves in the work, they may even draw analogies from it and liken the experiences of their beloved characters to their own mundane existence, but they are never really a part of the work. Not to my mind, at any rate.
Take my latest, Angels of Mercy. Marco, Elliot and the rest of the ensemble cast have no knowledge of the reader’s part in the story (even if Elliot feigns breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly – yeah, okay, that might’ve been a bad example on my part). They will continue to tell their tale the same way every time the book is opened and someone reads it’s opening line:
“My day at the Q went pretty much like any other day.”
Elliot will always begin the story this way. He won’t alter it for the reader because the reader may be in a particular mood. Those words will be the exact same thing each time the book is opened and read. Period.
Yet, as a reader, those same words can mean a great deal of things given the kind of day they are having. The reader does imbue a part of themselves into it on their part. So I get the connection to the work. But to my mind, and way of thinking, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change the dynamic of the work. Unless, of course, that the work was created with the sole intention of selling like hot-cakes. Then we’re talking a sell-out sort of arrangement and not a work that was created because its creator was artistically inspired to create something from a whole lot of nothing.
I get why audiences exist. I get that they will have a takeaway from the experience. But what I grouse about is that there are some pretty fucking stupid people out there who don’t have the life experience (some are born, live and die in the same patch of land they’ve been on their whole lives – how myopic can you get? I mean even a poor man can start walking one direction and be somewhere totally foreign to them within a day), they don’t stretch the meaning of their existence to grow and see what life truly has to offer. In most cases, they just have a general languishing apathy toward anything that would remotely give new meaning to their existence – save for the random book or movie they might experience.
Unfortunately, those are usually the same individuals who feel compelled to write about works as if they have something to offer in the conversation. I come to this conclusion because of people I’ve talked with who are avid readers but purposely do NOT review the books they read. Why? Because they either don’t have the time or the inclination to share their ideas with anyone else. They are in it (reading) for their own personal gain or pleasure from it.
So what are we left with? Book report reviews (seriously, I saw one that made a feeble attempt at a real review by writing a small and concise synopsis of the work before their actual review – thankfully they did their best to avoid spoilers for any blog/review readers who might happen upon the piece). Yet when they moved on from that brief book report, the actual review consisted primarily of expounding upon the synopsis they just wrote- thereby completely negating why they wrote the synopsis in the first place, leaving the last few sentences as bread crumbs on actually reviewing the work at all.
What are my author pal’s takeaways from it? “We don’t read them unless they’re great.”
Yeah I get that. It’s a lot of hard (and often very lonely) work that goes into them. Appreciation is nice if just for the – “wow, you really did that, didn’t you” sort of thing and not necessarily because it has any real entertaining value to it. Purely an appreciation of the mechanics and effort involved. And that’s a very good thing to feel from others – just an acknowledgment of the accomplishment of finishing it.
That’s great! Well done, you!
Fabulous words to hear, indeed. But the rest of it? Eh, not so much. Then there’s the added issue of authors who have padded reviews. Works that are reviewed by readers who just laud the work when it’s only been out for a day or so. Wow, uh, really? I mean when I released Angels of Mercy – Volume One: Elliot, one other author had 7 reviews ON THE SAME DAY OF RELEASE?! How in the fuck is that possible? I mean I know there are beta readers but seriously, this author writes a “book” every couple of weeks. I’ve read one of them – not much to get worked up over. Very thin plot, weakly drawn characters (despite how many fans were gushing about the powerful writing involved).
Seriously, is the bar that fucking low, now?
Perhaps that’s why the life-experienced deprived individual has a voice now. Because the works themselves are not very meaty to begin with. And the brevity of the works… what’s up with that? I can’t be bothered with a short novel. I know some love them. I am not of their lot. Not by a bloody long shot. Hell, I wrote HO’M,O – Henry O’Malley, Omega (a.k.a. – The Shrill of Sparrows (thanks Amazon for that clusterfuck of titles)) as a short novel and it KILLED me to be so damned curtailed in the writing. While I don’t think the story suffered from weakness in the prose because of this, it isn’t what I would’ve originally done. But it was a NaNoWriMo story so I knew it was going to be short as it was written in a month as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge.
But yeah, maybe the rise in mediocre reviews is because there is a lower standard of the works that are out there. I don’t know. I do know that by and large, I am somewhat disinclined to just buy a work because it’s on the cheap and got a boat load of 5 star reviews. Though I am just as guilty of playing the 5 star game. And it rankles me that I do. I struggle with it constantly. But I hired a mainstream promo group and they’re all about the self-promotion as my part in the game – I paid good money for it so I gotta be “all in.“ I bargained for that when I hired them so yeah, guilty as charged on that score. Actually, if it’s on the cheap that is usually a BIG red flag for me. Not saying it has to be worthy of competing with a bracelet from Tiffany’s where price is concerned, but a 99¢ priced novel or novella isn’t going to make me want to buy it on price alone. I played that game early on with my e-reader and have a ton of books I’ve tossed aside as unworthy of my attention.
Instead I’ll read crap-assed review after crap-assed review until I find one that I think is well written and THEY will be my barometer of whether it will interest me or not. In most cases I am simply disappointed that 95-98% of the reviews out there hold very little resemblance to an actual in-depth review that takes a serious look at the work at hand.
And that’s a real shame. I maintain that I will always trade thinly written 5 star reviews for a single gay or questioning boy who decides what I wrote spoke to him and his world – that I made that sort of connection to someone else, who like me, was desperate for a voice to say – You’re okay kid. Things are gonna be okay, somehow. Confirmation that my world, as imaginary as it might be, gave him a bright beacon of light to find a way in his own. That review may not be the best written, but if I can get a strong sense that it’s written with heart and deeply felt? Yeah, that’ll get my vote every time. I look for those reviews. I may write for me. But I also write for that guy and it’s those reviews that matter to me most.
Until next time …
Don’t forget about the rafflecopter author giveaway (I am taking part in this event) – to benefit LGBTQ charities and causes. Adding our voices to combat bigotry and homophobia.
Displaced Queer Youth is at an epidemic level. We need to do whatever we can (if you can’t give money then tweet and blog the event to other social media outlets and networks). Do what you can to get involved and help these youngsters find some place safe and supportive to show them that their lives do matter.
Thank YOU for your support!
When Werewolves Go Lit(erary) –
This is a continuing conversation I’ve been having with an author pal of mine – Jayne Lockwood (who also writes under the pseudonym of Savannah Smythe) and is based in the UK. We started this as a means of exchanging ideas, listening to each others gripes and fears, sorting out what we do and why we do it, and how we can possibly market the damned things we produce. They are captured via a chat session on Yahoo so they are a stream of consciousness at the moment they happen. We realize that since we aren’t really editing for perfection, that we may “step in it” from time to time. We embrace that. We know we may mis-speak, may say something out of turn without much thought going into it. It is ALL part of the dialog. We want to look back at some point and see where this journey has taken us as we write what we write.
Jayne Lockwood: Okay, so you’ve had a few trials and tribulations recently with your work and the definition of the word “literature.” How would you describe your writing? I’m talking about in general, not just Angels of Mercy (AoM) … and why?
SA Collins: I think actually that my recent release of the “fluff” piece I did was the most instructive on what kind of writer I am. I mean, it was supposed to be a “fluff” piece about werewolves. How much more fucking non-lit can you get, right? Yeah, well, it seems I can. I didn’t know my wolves would go all “lit” on me. It was quite the revelation. I think it is because I am wrapped up in their headspace (I tend to write first person), regardless of the work I do, with the human condition in it. I find the inner-monologue to be of vast interest. It is where the most grey in all of us reside (50 Shades of Crap aside…).
Jayne Lockwood: LOL, let’s not mention that…
SA Collins: Oh, can we? *shudders*
SA Collins: And in a real way the monsters in my werewolves really distilled that for me. I mean, it has always been the ultimate metaphor in literature (esp. in the gothic tropes) to use the monster as a representative of the monsters in all of us, whether we choose to let them out or not.
Jayne Lockwood: The examination of the human condition is a great one, but I don’t think it is just the premise of literature. What I’m trying to say is that examining the human condition can be done in lesser books …
SA Collins: Sure, but the transcendency of the work is what I think is the dividing line. It was what I was getting at in the summation of my last blog post. A lot of works examine the human condition but very few of them invite that deep dive into why they affect us so. Tom Sawyer gave us many more questions than Twain ever attempted to answer. That is what I think Literature does. And to be clear it isn’t the easy questions we come away with that I am speaking to – I mean it is the hard questions we often don’t want to look at.
Jayne Lockwood: True. And so did John Steinbeck. To write great literature, you have to produce something of lasting artistic merit. And it doesn’t have to be a very long book to do that.
SA Collins: I don’t think the artistry is necessarily the key factor here though it is the art of prose that does ultimately sway an audience. I think that literature itself sort of brings the artist out more in the use of words. And to your point, that was also what I said in my summation – length doesn’t have anything to do with it. The Old Man and the Sea, for example.
Jayne Lockwood: I’m thinking of Of Mice and Men as a case in point. A very slight book, but packs a powerful punch. So you’ve got your piece of literature. It’s beautiful, perfectly edited, superbly crafted. How do you market it in this modern age?
SA Collins: I used Look Homeward, Angel (LHA) on purpose as a point of comparison. Why? Because by many critics and literature scholars it is considered one of the greatest American literary works of all time – and it was one of the reasons why my husband drew the conclusion about my work in Angels. Because there was a segment of the literary circles that agreed LHA was a literary work but it rambled. It meandered. It didn’t do what it did concisely. It also took nearly a quarter of the book before you even got to the main character. So there was some give and take on how it was perceived. BUT what it did do was that it presented a complete picture of a complex family that showed all of the foibles and follies of humanity in it and it did it beautifully.
Jayne Lockwood: I’m thinking of a comparable work in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
SA Collins: Absolutely. To answer how I would approach AoM – or do you mean any modern work of literature today? Hmm, I’m not so sure what you’re probing at here …
Jayne Lockwood: I’m saying any form of literature.
SA Collins: Oh I get you … hmmm, that is a hard one. And here’s what I’ve learned from my own journey: when I wrote Angels I thought I was writing a bit of fluff, a simple M/M romance genre thing. The problem is while I was writing it – it was all I had in my head. I just heard Elliot’s voice (probably because he is so near to my own – even if he makes choices I never would). I didn’t say, “Oh, I am gonna write the gay Gone With The Wind now.” It’s just not how an author approaches something that becomes literature. That wasn’t my perspective. I just thought I had a cracking good story and I wanted to get it down before it left my little ol’ pea brain. That was the impetus to write what I did. I think most authors approach it that way. It is only when the work is completed can you look at it and go – well, fuck me, what did I just do there?
Jayne Lockwood: I totally agree.
SA Collins: I think that Wilde, Wolfe and the rest did what they did. It was for others to put that label on the work. I can totally see that now. I get that my work is “like” literature more than general genre fiction. Why? Because I do ramble. I let my characters ramble a bit – because we all do to varying degrees. That’s what makes it a character study body of work. I want it honest; I want it true. But I think most authors do – it is the depth of that character dive that I think that separates me from most general fiction writers. Think about it: if I wrote DaVinci Code (which I happen to have the movie on the TV right now), that book would be vastly different than the one that Brown released.
Jayne Lockwood: It might have been better… Although a lot of people dissed that book, I actually enjoyed it. People seemed to get sniffy because it was quite “light,” but that’s okay. I had to laugh when you said on your blog that you had given yourself a month to write AoM. I gave myself a year to write The Cloud Seeker (TCS)…
SA Collins: Aw, (regarding DaVinci) thanks for that! Well, that’s the funny part. When I dreamt it up I thought – oh, this is a simple little m/m romance thing with a bit of a thriller take on it. Simple enough.
Jayne Lockwood: Simple enough? HAH!
SA Collins: But you see, that’s where I was when it all began. Isn’t that fascinating to ponder a bit on? I had no idea (when I started) that Elliot was going to mentally and emotively vomit all over me. What happened very quickly was that all of those pent up things in my past started to pour out in the course of distilling them and reliving them. Elliot seemed to begin to lead me through his story. I’ve read the sample you sent me of TCS and I was really loving the prose you put there. Truly.
Jayne Lockwood: Thank you! That means a lot. I’ve been accused of being too “wordy” and “not literary.” But I think a true writer (controversy alert) cares deeply for their characters.
SA Collins: Sure they do. They are their creation. I would never assume that they don’t. But I think where I diverge from others is because of my theatrical training – as an actor I have to come up with why I would pick up that tea cup in a certain way and at a certain point in time (not just because the director said so – not good enough) … more of, was it because of an abusive grandmother who would slap my hands if I did it wrong? That sort of thing.
Jayne Lockwood: Got it. You self-analyse, so why wouldn’t your characters do the same?
SA Collins: Absolutely. Though I don’t think that your character question is controversial. I think it is germane to being a real writer. You have to care for the work and the characters in it. Just as in live performance, the audience will know the difference if you don’t (or as they say if you “phone it in”).
Jayne Lockwood: Absolutely. If you don’t care about your characters, why should anyone else?
SA Collins: Yes, it isn’t enough when the director tells you as an actor to cross to the left side of the stage on that particular line – you have to examine (or you should) why that moment in time evokes that response in your character. So it is those machinations and inner workings that I want to examine. I want to flesh that out for a reader in my works. I think this is the fertile ground for literature. The deep dive into the very essence of who and what we are as human beings.
Jayne Lockwood: I agree. If you want fluff, there is plenty of it around.
SA Collins: It is why Elliot revisits certain aspects in his life over and over in Angels of Mercy – to pulse check that he truly has the hottest guy on campus to call his own. To him it is beyond any hope he would ever have in life; therefore, it can’t be real. He has to keep mentally slapping it up on his emotive wall to see if the “experiment” he thinks it is will still hold true. He learns over time that Marco will never willingly stray from him. Marco is a fighter in their relationship. Elliot has never had that from anyone. Support, yes. Someone who will fight for his love? Not a chance (at least up until Marco enters his world).
Jayne Lockwood: It’s human nature to ask “why me” ?
SA Collins: I think it is, but I often ponder why more authors don’t really ask that question of their characters. Perhaps it is just me, but the “showing” gets rather banal after awhile. And let’s be honest, not many can actually do a good job of showing (which is why it is such an over wrought line used on newbie authors). As for my work, I couldn’t just leave it at that for the reader. I had to show by telling (through his inner-monologue) why Elliot felt that way. I had to lay it out for the reader why gayboys often deny themselves happiness outright.
Jayne Lockwood: Has the purpose of the book (AoM) morphed into an attempt to get people on the “outside” to understand the psychology of gay men?
SA Collins: To a very real degree, yes. I don’t think many authors tackle this (well, certainly not in the M/M Romance genre – it can be way too superficial for my tastes). There is so much speeding it along – and then, and then, and then. Jesus, why not explore why the “and then” exists in the first place and come away with a little more depth? For gay men, and I’ve spoken at length with my gay brothers on this topic many times over my half-century existence on this planet, it (happiness) is unusual for us. We don’t expect it. We can’t believe it when it is. We distrust it out of turn. Society has taught us this. We grow up like other children only to experience that when we feel differently then we are the broken ones. Elliot has to do this (poll whether he’s okay with everything when it happens or not) to protect himself. It is Marco who must obliterate that by example. Marco realizes very quickly that he has to man up and show (and tell) and demonstrate that he is unwavering. Every time Elliot doubts, Marco shows him how deep his feelings run for Elliot. And teens do this to a great degree – EVERYTHING is heightened, over-dramatic. Now add gay teenboy angst on top of it and there ya are = ELLIOT.
Jayne Lockwood: Because at its heart is a cracking good read.
SA Collins: I hope it is. The work took on a life of its own. I mean, my work will always be about giving a non-gay reader insight into facets of gay men as I create them. No superficial walks in my world. That is a very good question you pose there because I’ve only just recently come to the conclusion that Marco is not really gay at all. He is really pansexual. For him it is truly the person inside he falls in love with. But (and this is critical here to properly understand his character) he says “gay” for Elliot because he knows, in his heart of hearts, that anything other than that would hurt Elliot. Elliot wouldn’t be able to accept it and allow them to move forward. It would be too tenuous to him. That is a big part of the self-deprecation and denial that is often inherent in gay men. We’ve been taught that by society. It’s getting better and more men are accepting of who they are and that they DO deserve happiness. But there is a VERY long way to go. My work still has relevance in that regard. At least I think so.
Jayne Lockwood: I think you’re right. There is still a lot of homophobia out there as well. Define “pansexual.”
SA Collins: Pansexuals differentiate from bisexuals in that their attraction is inclusive of transsexuals – it is very pure in that it is the person inside that ignites and inflames – the sex/gender is almost irrespective of it all. I should add that there’s a lot of homophobia (self-hating) within the community believe it or not.
Jayne Lockwood: It isn’t a term I’ve heard before. Is it homophobia within the community, or snobbery?
SA Collins: No, there is an inherent homophobia (for lack of a better term) because they despise things within our own community, as if we’re all unclean. You only have to look at gays actively involved in the gay conversion therapy to see it. There is a gay friend of mine who is on FB (I am sure you know him or have seen him) but he holds himself up as a gay activist but he constantly berates others within the community that he thinks are unclean or not to the standard he holds for himself. I would say that it is snobbery but it transcends that because of the vehemence that he exhibits when he rants. There is a self-loathing if it doesn’t meet a certain degree of being perceived as normal or mainstream. And I find that troubling as a member of that community. As we strive for acceptance and equality, must we be so quick to cut others out or shame them into being like our heteronormative counterparts? I don’t think that is the way to go. We need to embrace all of it. The leather community, the people in the sex industry, whatever walk of life because let’s face it deary – those things exist in the straight community as well. In fact, the BDSM came from us and was adopted by the straight community (as we’ve seen – sometimes in the wrong way as with 50 Shades of Utter-Bullshit). But I digress. Getting back to your pansexual question, I think this is why Marco can have really deep seated feelings for Holly because it is who she is that he responds to – but when compared to Elliot, even she comes up short.
Jayne Lockwood: Which means, his love for Elliot is pure and true.
SA Collins: Yeah to your last about Marco and Els (Elliot). He comes to realize that it is truly who Elliot is that he can’t be without. I also think this is why Marco “lies” to Elliot about his being with a guy/girl at the same time in the first book. It isn’t true. He also isn’t wholly honest that the girl had no interest for him. We know in Marco’s book that isn’t true. He fucking loved being with Holly (literally, because he loved fucking her). It just wasn’t going to hold a candle to what he felt about Elliot. He knew he’d never be fully there for her in that way so he had to let her go. Elliot was more important to him. But his fear of rejection by Elliot (because he’s a jock) is what led Marco down a rocky road of questioning what his sexuality is all about. He gets his answer, and ultimately it doesn’t change his deep attraction and desire to bring Elliot to him.
Jayne Lockwood: To your last point, I have another author friend who says he isn’t popular with the gay community either because of what he used to do for a living. He’s such a lovely bloke. It’s a real shame.
SA Collins: What did he do for a living? Work with politicos who voted against us?
Jayne Lockwood: He did something that many would perceive as unseemly, just to make ends meet.
SA Collins: ‘Cause I gotta say that that is about the one thing that I have issue with – those who work against us. Other than that, not much else gets under my skin. If he isn’t working against us as a community then it won’t be an issue for me – tell him to look me up … not that I am looking to step out on the hubby – let’s be clear! *laughs*
Jayne Lockwood: I didn’t think for one moment!
SA Collins: I mean that I am very sex positive here. I have numerous friends who are IN the porn and sex industry (see Boomer Banks and Rocco Steele below – two prime examples of brilliant and dynamic men who have so much more going on for them – well beyond their porn star status), after all. I play fairly and respect (nearly – cause haters who are only about the hate don’t rate much in my book) everyone.
Jayne Lockwood: He’s happy with his partner. Everything has turned out ok so far. He’s an FB friend.
SA Collins: I treat them all as humans first and hope they love the crap outta me for it.
Jayne Lockwood: I don’t have a problem with anyone’s profession or sexuality either, as long as they’re not promoting hatred. Can’t be doing with that.
SA Collins: Totally on board with that. But yeah, to your point on literature, because it is our topic today, I think that when my werewolves started expounding or waxing on deeper psychological elements of what it meant to be a monster, then I knew I was using my Weres as something else altogether. I was actually calling back to what gothic horror really was – a proper examination of we humans.
Jayne Lockwood: Finally! At least someone is …
SA Collins: Actually it’s like the cable show Penny Dreadful (here in the States). I want my Weres to evolve to that sort of story. I think I’ve begun to lift it out of the fluff stuff and go after real gothic pathos here. Like right now, book two is actually from Hank’s father’s perspective. He has quite a bit on his mind, it seems about everything having to do with his son now in the pack. It’s taken on a different mantle. It’s become a deep dive into fatherhood, monsterhood, and husbandhood – his plate is pretty fucking full coming back home.
Jayne Lockwood: There’s definitely a market for more intelligent lycanthropic books (did I spell that right?)
SA Collins: Yeah you got it.
Jayne Lockwood: Which one are you thinking of carrying on from? Henry or Shrill? (Point of clarification – Amazon banned the original work HO’M,O – Henry O’Malley, Omega due to a dark thread in the plot so SA re-released a watered down version of the same story as The Shrill of Sparrows)
SA Collins: What I love about (John) Logan’s work in Penny Dreadful is that it is the monsters who can cope with the harsh realities of Victorian England. The humans are the ones who struggle and make epic mistakes. I sort of like that.
Jayne Lockwood: Because they are human.
SA Collins: Shrill will always be a standalone copy – the “werewolf-lite” version of it. So yeah, it is the human frailties that I think are really interesting to hold up to the monsters. I want my Sparrows series to examine that. I mean Cal is a father, a werewolf AND a husband whose wife has gone terribly long without her man giving her “what for …” in the bedroom.
Jayne Lockwood: So, in order not to descend into chaos or make bad choices, we need to be more like werewolves? I haven’t seen Penny Dreadful yet, so I might be talking out of my arse.
SA Collins: Cal’s a busy boy in Quarrel of Sparrows (the follow-up to HO’M,O/Shrill). And no, you’re not talking out your ass (sorry, it’s the Yank in me) re: Penny. It is very well done. Full-on balls to the wall honest-to-God pathos going on in that show. What is interesting in it is that Logan takes side trips that you start in with – what the bloody fuck is this about now? Only to find out that the way ’round trip you just took for an episode informs you on the entire arc you’re on with the whole thing.
Jayne Lockwood: Getting back to your Weres, it sounds like he has his work cut out (in Sparrows Hollow, West Virginia – where the story is set), but does he think like a human or a werewolf?
SA Collins: Cal is most definitely human throughout. But he is constantly at war with his inner wolf. The whole cast of boys are, actually. What I am doing that is drastically different – which book two will explain – is that I am introducing a new type of wolf into the genre.
Jayne Lockwood: Does he have any Were traits at all?
SA Collins: Oh yeah he will “wolf out” – no doubts there – mostly because he has to train his boy in what they are. They are the only two of their kind. In this, I introduce a new classification to the Were’s genre – a Gamma (as opposed to Alpha, Beta or Omega). It goes back to that spell that Ruth cast when she was pregnant with Hank that didn’t succeed in separating the wolf from Cal/Hank but redoubled and instead bound the magic to them.
Jayne Lockwood: THAT sounds like an interesting read. When do you think it will be finished?
SA Collins: I want it out by the time the blog tour starts in mid-March, so I can promote the release of book two while I am talking up book one.
Jayne Lockwood: So they (Father and son – Cal and Hank) are unique?
SA Collins: Yes, the Gammas are not beholden to any pack law. They can be destructive as all hell and can go completely off the rails (Ruth, Cal’s wife and Hank’s mother (who is a witch), is the one who comes up with the term because of her cosmology studies when she was in college). So Cal and Hank are Gammas – they have a way to use their wolf talents and strengths and can even imbue that magic for a time into their pack to strengthen them. But it comes at a cost, as they shall soon see. BUT there is a wrinkle in this because Cade, Cal’s former lover in his old pack, has been doing his magical homework and has sort of created something like it himself during the intervening years since Cal disappeared and Hank was growing up.
Jayne Lockwood: Got it. Where did this idea come from?
SA Collins: The idea came because I wanted to do something about the heteronormative perception that the “bottom” was the weak guy in the gay relationship – believe it or not.
Jayne Lockwood: You have to have a wrinkle …
SA Collins: That was the impetus for my Gamma
Jayne Lockwood: Aah, now I’m getting it
SA Collins: Omegas in the gay Weres trope are the soothers of the pack life. They often are physical (to some degree) with most of the members of the pack – they ensure pack cohesiveness and common interests. The Alpha and Betas rely on the abilities of an Omega as they augment their strength in a pack. But Ruthie’s little mishap gave birth to something else in Cal altogether. And since she was pregnant with Hank at the time he also has the same trait now.
Jayne Lockwood: So is he the ultimate power bottom? Although I hate labels.
SA Collins: Yeah, kinda sorta. But the bottoms aren’t the weak ones. Think about it. It takes a helluva lot of courage to be there for your man in that way. A real top (that isn’t just trying to be a prick but actually gets that it is a mutual thing/pairing they’re after) understands that he wouldn’t get what he wants if he didn’t have a man who was willing to go there for him. Just sayin’… The thing is, I want to use the sex as a way for these boys to remain rooted in their humanity through all the gross bloodshed that is going to come their way.
Jayne Lockwood: I think people expect sex as part of the deal with werewolves.
SA Collins: Perhaps, but in my world it is also how I will bind Hank to the boys emotively. He will assume the responsibility for each of them. Right now he doesn’t know how much that is part of the deal. He’s still reeling from the fact that he has eight boyfriends. Yeah, it’s very specific in my Weres world. And with Cal/Hank – it takes on a whole new meaning – remember Cade’s comment at the end of HO’M,O where he said that movin’ in that boy was like dippin’ his wick in a very powerful force? Or something like that, well magic is involved in their sex.
Jayne Lockwood: I just wanted to touch on book covers, whilst you’re here as well.
SA Collins: Sure. Fire away
Jayne Lockwood: How do you decide on what to put on a book cover? We had another discussion about the cover for Angels, in which I said it wasn’t about American football, but actually, it is, or the game dynamics that can be applied to real life. What makes a great book cover, one that “pops” on thumbnail and makes people want to click on it?
SA Collins: It was interesting for Angels because the whole series actually came from an image I think I’ve told you before, where I imagined a couple of boys on the Bixby Bridge (which is on my site) and cop cars on either side with lights flashing and the entire scene bathed in a heavy fog. There is another boy falling from the bridge with his arms outstretched and the fall has created a draft of “wings” behind him. That was the image I had in my head when it first came to me. I always thought that was the final book image. But now I am not so sure. I mean, it is a very indelible image in my mind about the books, but I don’t know if it would make a great cover. What was core for me was what will POP? What will stand out? And then I started to play with metaphors. The only one that mattered to me was football in and of itself – because all of the trauma these boys go through stem from that singular point. Just look at what’s happened with Michael Sam in the sport. So unfair on how he was not assessed because of his true talent, despite what the commentators say. But let’s say what if Marco was a painter, or a runner or some other damned thing, I don’t know it would be just as pointed.
Jayne Lockwood: Okay, but book one is from Elliot’s perspective, and he hates football …
SA Collins: Yeah so it was even more important to me that football be on that cover – weird, huh? But if you noticed I looked for a very specific image – that of a football player pointing to the reader, as if saying ”YOU.“ I’ll admit it isn’t everything I want in it, but it does the job. The color scheme is strong enough that it does standout against the other half-torsoed men on all the other covers. In a way – exactly – if someone thought I was being high browed from the get-go then I think they’d pass on it. Sad but true, that.
Jayne Lockwood: I get what you’re saying, and I LOVE the cover. It’s been around a while now and it’s what I associate with the book. If you changed it, I’d think WTF, but it got me thinking as to what the book is actually about. And someone else said on the blog that the book didn’t immediately say “literature” but is that a bad thing?
SA Collins: And can I stop and just say – do we HAVE to have half-naked men on EVERY cover – oh for fuck sake! But in this way I sort of straddle all of those tropes and cover ideas.
Jayne Lockwood: Ha ha! I do my eye-rolling thing when I see pecs and nips. Like, here we go again … So readers know from the get go they are getting something different?
SA Collins: It has an athletic male on it, it is colorful (even though it is rather monotoned), and more importantly (at least to my way of thinking), it isn’t what everyone else is doing. Well that is the hope – first get them to click on the damned thing because it does look different, then the write up is my gig – that’s where I better do my damned work to “elevator pitch” them to hell and gone to pick up the damned thing and BUY it.
Jayne Lockwood: I don’t do pecs and nips either … Just handsome men in suits. If they want pecs and nips, they have to READ THE FUCKING BOOK …
SA Collins: Yeah. And I appreciate that perspective of yours, believe it or not. In a very real way it gives balance to your erotic works inside. It’s very much the “less is more” or “let your imagination wander” sort of thing.
Jayne Lockwood: That’s it. The write up is crucial. I hate the write up ...
SA Collins: It’s funny because I’ve decided that self-pub is my plan B to get Angels out there. But if I really want it to succeed or have a real shot at it, I think I’ll have to really try traditional pub by going for a real literary agent. I think that it is the only real way I have a shot to get it out there. Given with the resistance I’ve experienced with HO’M,O and Shrill, I don’t think the promo- blog tour groups would be able to handle the violent homophobia that is at the core in Angels very well.
Jayne Lockwood: Yes, I’m with you on the self-pub/trad thing. You need backing. Some people make lots of money by self-pubbing, but they are in the minority.
SA Collins: I need deeper pockets and a bigger marketing team for this type of work. Perhaps that is one of the greatest deterrents to writing literature – because you really can’t self-pub or market it very well. Not on your own.
Jayne Lockwood: And from what I’ve seen (not that I’ve delved extensively) the blog tour thing seems to be the premise of romance. The deep pockets thing veers dangerously into “vanity” publishing – which I won’t do. People will either like my book or they won’t. The product is good, but spending ££££££ is not an option. Most people are scared rigid of Closer Than Blood when I’ve tried to pitch it … The trouble is, my books are too darned long (about 100,000 words) and it’s as if they are saying, “Oh, that’s so much time to spend on a book. Life is too short. Let’s buy a fluffy romance instead that I can read in a day …” Or as someone said, maybe my books just aren’t very good! Fuck that. They are!
SA Collins: No I think it is that there is so much shit out there (which was the nature of my emotive rant on my blog) that the good stuff is being lost in the mix.
Jayne Lockwood: So much shit. I agree. It’s hard to wade through it all …
SA Collins: I think this steady diet of fluff, and badly written fluff at that, that I think that the well-crafted work is just being missed.
Jayne Lockwood: The trouble is, no-one really sets out to write a crap book, but some don’t understand the time and effort needed to make it good. That might make me sound like an arrogant cow, but it’s true.
SA Collins: I don’t think it’s arrogant at all. But the thing is while self-pub has been a boon to new stories making their way out there, the problem is we have people who have no business pubbing doing so and really making it difficult for those of us who really can do what we do.
Jayne Lockwood: Yup
SA Collins: And I am not being snobby about that. I’ve a shit load of books I got through the first page and it went right into the “fuck it” pile on my e-reader.
Jayne Lockwood: Yeah, I have a few of those as well. I don’t review them because, well, it would be a bloodbath and it’s not up to me to squash anyone’s dreams. Some people think the same about my writing! Glass houses, anyone?
SA Collins: So many people don’t know how to craft a story or flesh a proper character out. Now I don’t toss something because it isn’t how I write. I mean, I’ve loved your stuff and Brad’s stuff and been totally fine with the characters and the plots in those just fine. So it doesn’t have to be anything like my work. But I do tend to write what I want to read. Don’t know if that’s how all authors write, but I know it’s what I do. There is one topic I did want to touch on briefly, if we can. Or we can hold off for a later time.
Jayne Lockwood: No, it’s cool. Shoot.
SA Collins: So when you decide on a story, what is the singular thing you fixate on? As a content creator I am always fascinated by what sparks another author to write about. Is it the character, an image, a situation you want to explore? All of the above?
Jayne Lockwood: It can be. With Lexington Black, it started out from another story I have in the pipeline, called Madison Blue. That hit the rails a bit, but I thought, why not do a series with those kind of titles? So I had the title, then I had to write the book! With The Cloud Seeker, I always wanted to write a novel around 9/11, but I wasn’t sure if I had the writing chops to do it justice. It took years for that to happen. In the end, it seemed obvious to base the novel around my village and weave the story through it. Sometimes it can be a picture, a single line of dialogue. Anything that creates a spark.
SA Collins: For me it is our human fears that I want to explore. It’s really interesting because let’s step away from my Angels or Weres for a moment and let’s look at Fae Wars – Fear the Feigr (which I’ve set aside while I wrote Angels). It is REALLY about male sexual insecurity. And I am using a trope to examine that with by using the Norse Feigr (which aren’t all that well-known in mainstream society (save for the eye candy Thor movie series of late)) and decided to really explore what makes human (straight) males afraid of their own sex and sexuality. My Feigr are massively scary to heterosexual human males because they challenge what it means to be a man on many levels.
Jayne Lockwood: This is where writers are very different. I don’t work like that, mainly because I’ve never had the schooling to think in that way. That came out all wrong. What I meant was I need physical triggers to create a story. Rather than emotional ones.
SA Collins: I see. That’s really interesting … For me it’s headspace.
SA Collins: I know you just went “duh” about what I said
Jayne Lockwood: Nope, I’m just thinking that maybe that is what literature is all about … no, that wasn’t what I mean! I was just thinking that literature is all about emotions, and my stuff isn’t.
SA Collins: It’s a fascinating thing when authors compare what they do and how they do it. It’s almost a cracking story in and of itself.
What is literature? And where am I in the mix?
The art of crafting the next ‘Great American Novel.’
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.”
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 CollinsAuthor of Gay Literature Fiction across multiple sub-genres
w. | www.sacollins.comt. | @sacollinsauthorkik | sacollinsauthor
“When I was born I was so surprised I didn’t speak for a whole year…” – Gracie Allen
“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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 –
- Are the characters believable? (I think this is a given from any author in any genre or work)
- Is the progression of the story organic in nature?
- Does the character ever seem to go “off the rails” without cause?
- Is the main character (MC) engaging? Do you root for him?
- Are the supporting characters engaging?
- Do you find the MC likable? Do you identify with him (for any reason)?
- 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
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.BUTYour 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):
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):
Or how about this one?
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?
Now here’s the kicker to all of this book cover stuff – the PULP fiction cover from the 1950s:
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!
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…
On the eve of Charlie Hebdo’s monumental 3 million copy release to the world, I find I am still saddened by the loss. As a writer, I can’t help but be moved by tremendous artists and writers being cut down when they clearly had so much more to give us.
I hate that we live in a world of gotcha’s and haters who just spew hate without an ounce of responsibility for what damage they cause in their blind rant. We’ve lost our ability it seems to have civil and reasoned discourse. That is a painful thing to realize. Words matter, the manner in which we use them matter. While I’ve been nothing short of a proponent for technology and the ease it has provided in bringing people closer, I can’t help but acknowledge how much it’s also driven us apart.
I don’t know if it is a good or bad thing. I suppose as with anything, it matters in how it is used.
I’d like to say the events of that horrible Tuesday haven’t affected my work, but it has. However small it might be, I write differently now. They are the same stories, the same sorts of characters, the same gay men’s lives I choose to write about. Only now, the stroke is more purposeful. The intent a bit more sharp. Why? Because I won’t be silenced, I won’t have our stories set aside because we may be in the minority.
So I press on. And in a very real way, I can’t wait to see how my work will grow from this shocking set of events. How it will color my perceptions as an author and as a human being in this world. I try to hold onto the light. I try to let it shine. In a world of ever closing darkness, I can only hope my works will reflect that ember of hope I want for my characters and my readers.
My men must shine – with all their faults, their strengths, their foibles. I want to show it all.
#rip #jesuischarlie #freedom #liberty #hope
Quick! The Stork Done Took My Baby!
Okay, not really freaking out too much here. I mean, there was no stork, even if there was a baby (of sorts).
What happened was, I bit the bullet. I grinned and bear(ed) it. I took a leap of faith…
I published my first work.
I’m happy with it. Even if it isn’t the type of work I normally do. Part of me was concerned with that — perceptions and all. You see this work is a silly piece of fluff. Well, not silly, more sentimental and erotically charged. And while I am not about censorship when it comes to gay men and our sexuality, it is rather strange that I have a very sexual book out there that my mother can read!
Okay, I should stop worrying about that. I am gonna write what I’m gonna write. It is what it is. Right?
Yeah, well, I ain’t so sure now. Only because the next work I am putting out there is the important one. It’s the series that I feel the strongest about.
Hank and my boys of West Virginia are great. I love them and they’ve given me a spark of interest in writing about werewolves that I didn’t know I had. I sort of love my furry beastie guys. And Hank’s a rather pretty boy in their midst. I mean, the picture I have of him as an inspiration says nothing but pretty (if decidedly, beefy) boy.
Oh, that ain’t the only picture of him, neither (as he’d no doubt say):
So yeah, pretty and beefy. Just look at them arms and them pecs, will ya? And I am not so much for blond guys – but, uh, yeah. He’d do — no kicking to the curb with that purdy boy! #jussayin
And Hank’s a lovely boy to write about. He’s caring, un-obsessed with his own good looks, genial and easy to get along with. Completely unassuming. And who’da thunk he’d be in the middle of a werewolf war that was about to break loose? Or that his mama and closest thing to a grandma he’s got are a pair of powerful witches? I know he sure didn’t.
Hank and his boys are near and dear to my heart. Which was sort of a revelation. I mean, as an author, you are deeply involved with your characters and your worlds that you create. That’s fairly a given — unless your completely dispassionate about the work then, why bother? But even if you are deeply in bed with them, it doesn’t always mean you have to like them much.
But with Hank, Riley, Tanner, Mike, Toby, Darby, Dylan, Maynard, and Spike – I am really already rooting for these boys to triumph over the likes of Cade Bowen/Talbot.
Don’t know who he is?
Yeah, well, go pick up the book, dammit!