Tag Archives: m/m romance

On writing (cisgender male) gay romance and Strong Female Characters

image by Jason Chan

image by Jason Chan

I just got the novel edits for Labyrinthian (my tropey gay retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur IN SPAAAAACE), which is a tad overwhelming – there is much work to be done, though most of it is cosmetic – but also exciting, because I love this book and I’m looking forward to getting it in tip-top shape for its release this coming January. My editor is a lovely person and graciously takes the time to make sure I know what she really likes – which always feels good – and she mentioned that she appreciated how many of the women in Labyrinthian are in positions of power and protection. That was very conscious on my part, because I try very hard to make my stuff rich in terms of diversity and positive representation, but it reminded me of a dilemma I ran into more than once while I was writing the book itself. It’s an interesting one, and it’s one I’ve had to deal with before. I suppose a lot of people who write this kind of gay romance have done so.

My two protagonists/kissy-face participants, Taur and Theseus, are cisgender men. The story is – at least in significant part – the story of their relationship, so they’re both very much the center of the book, and they are the only POV characters. Which means that Labyrinthian, simply by virtue of what it’s about, is going to be very male-focused. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing all of the time, but looking at the structure of my book and the characters in it, I realized that – given how much I care about making my SF diverse and also feminist – I needed to make sure they weren’t the only ones getting significant screen-time, and that they weren’t the only characters with depth.

So I made a lot of my other characters women. Most of my other major secondary characters are women. Phae, Theseus’s ex, is a queer woman of color. And yes, these women are physically strong, self-reliant, smart, competent, sexually independent. Yet all of those things have been used by writers to argue for their work being feminist, leading to the trope of the Strong Female Character.

And the problem with the Strong Female Character is that she’s a cardboard cut-out. She’s there to do a thing, not be a person with all the strengths and weaknessness and complexities that a person has. She might be able to beat you up, but odds are she won’t hold your interest. And in her way, she’s just as sexist a construct as the fainting flower who exists purely to be rescued by the dudely hero. She’s still there to be a Female Character, not a character who’s female.

What makes a strong character? It’s not physical strength. It’s not even necessarily attractive attributes. Consider, oh, 90% of the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire – most of them are at least sort of terrible people who have done many terrible things, and they lie and cheat and stab each other in the back, and some of them are outright cowards, but a lot of them are interesting. They’re strong characters because – at their best – they feel real.

An actual strong female character is real. I’ve seen it reframed as “strong character, female” and I like that a lot.

So I was putting the women in Labyrinthian in important, powerful positions, because I wanted them front and center as much as possible. But I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. I had to make Phae interesting, and I had to do it on her own terms. And I had to pack as much character development for her as I could into a story where she’s not the focus. I had to do the same for the others who show up, some of whom aren’t there for long. I had to at least try. I owed it to them, and I owed it to myself.

I’m not sure if I was entirely successful – I think I did all right, but I’ve learned that readers are very often better judges of that than authors are – but I hope I did. I love the women in Labyrinthian just as much as I love Taur and Theseus, and I hope that love comes through. I hope you enjoy them, even the ones you only meet briefly. I know they’re looking forward to meeting you.

Book news (spoiler alert: there will be one)

I’ve been wanting to share this news officially for a few days, and now I can: my queer science fiction romance novel Labyrinthian, which some of you may recall me talking about before, is going to be released (probably) in December actually now it looks like later in January by Samhain Publishing.

Yay.

A little bit about it, for those just joining us: A few years ago I got it into my head that it might be fun to write about the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, only in the distant future in space. It seemed like a cool idea, but I wasn’t equipped to do anything with it at the time, so it went on the back-burner. Years later, I found myself with some downtime between writing the sequel to Crowflight and rewriting the sequel to Line and Orbit, and I wanted to do something lighter and more fun than I had up to that point.

So I reached back into my dusty idea filing cabinets and pulled that one out. Less than two months later, it was a complete book draft.

(One of the morals of this story, by the way, is try to never completely abandon an idea. If you can’t make it work at one point in time, that doesn’t mean it won’t work at some other point. A good idea now will probably still be a good idea five years from now. )

So what’s Labyrinthian? Per above, it’s an SFnal retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur, where the Minotaur is a genetically engineered supersoldier on the run from his creators and Theseus is the bounty hunter hired to capture him. Predictably, everything goes sideways, and running and shooting and makeouts ensue. Along the way they pick up Theseus’s ex-girlfriend Phae, who doesn’t think all that much of Theseus but has a weakness for hard luck stories and is good with a gun.

It’s set in the same universe as Line and Orbit, concurrent to the few weeks between that book and its sequel. The characters are not the same, and it takes place on the galactic frontier, so the actual setting is also quite different in some ways. The content itself is also different: it’s much more of a straight-up (haha) romance-adventure than Line and Orbit was, and it’s much less epic. Like I said, I wanted to have fun and do some lighter fare, so for the most part that’s what it is. That said, there are some deeper themes – guilt, self-acceptance, and the power of family being a few.

I think it’s a fun book. If you pick it up, I hope you enjoy.

Watch for more news as more news occurs.

LINE AND ORBIT giveaway update

Just a heads up: IF BY ANY CHANCE YOU WANTED TO GET A FREE PAPERBACK COPY OF LINE AND ORBIT that just so happens to be a thing you can now do in not one but TWO(!!) places. They are as follows:

  • HERE. This copy happens to also be signed by both me and my co-author.
  • GOODREADS. (sadly closed to anyone outside of Canada and the US)

Both end on February 4th, which is the date of the book’s release. And I suppose no law necessarily prohibits you from signing up in both places. Except maybe South Dakota. Might be illegal in South Dakota.

LINE AND ORBIT ~*~*paperback*~*~ giveaway!

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This time next month, the trade paperback edition of Line and Orbit will be available to purchase. Isn’t that exciting? But wait!! YOU DON’T NECESSARILY HAVE TO PAY FOR YOUR OWN COPY. Because I’m giving one away, you see (one of those pictured up there, oh they are so pretty). And even BETTER: it will be signed by me and my lovely co-author.

Want to enter? Simply fill out this handy form. I promise to guard with my very life, and completely forget, via extensive sessions of hypnosis, all of your personal information as soon as the contest is over. At midnight on February 4th, the contest will end, and I will select one lucky person.

ENTER HERE

So hey let’s talk about romance for a sec

Because I think it’s appropriate at this juncture.

Warning: This might be whiny, though I’m also trying to talk about what I see as a persistent and troubling issue in how genres are marketed and how Feelings in SF are seen by some. Skip if none of that sounds appealing.

A day or so on Tumblr I saw a post making the rounds wherein someone was begging for reqs for non-romance genre fiction that nevertheless had a romantic sub-plot (queer in nature). Like any good self-serving author I was tempted to jump in with HEY I HAVE THIS BOOK CALLED LINE AND ORBIT THAT FITS THE BILL MAYBE YOU MIGHT WANT TO CHECK IT OUT OKAY PEACE

I didn’t, partly because it seemed like it might be obnoxious, but also because Line and Orbit is a science fantasy/space opera novel that is both categorized and marketed as gay romance, and it would look like I was effing lying.

I find myself in this position a lot when it comes to trying to get more mainstream SF-crowd attention for this book, the position of feeling like I need to say LOOK IT’S NOT ACTUALLY ROMANCE DON’T GET SCARED WAIT WHERE ARE YOU GOING COME BACK. I hate the idea of saying that, partly because, while the romantic relationship between Adam Yuga and Lochlan d’Bideshi is not really the primary focus of the book, it is nevertheless very, very important, and it probably is fair to categorize it as SF romance. But I also hate saying it because it makes me feel like I’m complicit in the disparaging of romance as a genre, which – let’s face it – tends to be misogynist in a really gross way as well as being silly and baseless, especially coming from SF&F, a genre wherein no one should be putting on airs.

But either way, I do feel like – I could be completely wrong about this – I’m fighting a general probable reaction of “oh, romance, that just doesn’t sound like it’s for me.”

I also feel like I’m fighting a less general but nevertheless very existent reaction of EW LADYFEELINGS IN MY SF but you know what basically fuck those people. They aren’t my audience and I don’t want them. There’s plenty of stuff out there for them.

The thing is, I’ve read books recently that were every bit as heavy on the romance as Line and Orbit, but were marketed as SF, and I do feel like those books have an easier time of it in terms of attracting attention from that crowd. Which, duh, marketing counts for a lot and ends up meaning that certain things are on people’s radar and certain things just aren’t, and that’s mostly fine. I’m also aware that sometimes people just don’t like a book, and that’s fine too; I do not mean to suggest that I think that PEOPLE AREN’T READING MY THING BECAUSE SEXISM. But at the end of the day, I still feel like I’m in an uncomfortable authorial position brought about by relationships within genre that are intensely problematic and also unlikely to change anytime soon.

This is all to say: I wish lines between genres weren’t so damn robust sometimes. I wish it didn’t get really, really sexist. I wish I was less clumsy at promotion. I wish I had a million dollars and a pile of kittens.

But I do hope that writing these kinds of books might, in a tiny little way, help. There should be a place for romance in science fiction and fantasy (and also vice versa, because I also get the sense that a lot of romance readers – rightly – feel very unwelcome in SF and don’t tend to go there), and really I think the two are natural partners – it’s there already. There should be absolutely no shame in it. And people shouldn’t be afraid of writing it or talking about it or liking it or just checking it out sometimes.

I got an early Christmas present

Yesterday I received an unexpected package.

BcMg46DIEAAAsBE.jpg largeYes, that is what it looks like. I didn’t honestly expect to get my contributor copies until mid-January at the earliest, so this is fantastic. Just in time for gifting.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be giving away one of these babies, signed. Stay tuned.

Line and Orbit sequel news!

The news is that I’m rewriting it. Almost completely. Not going back through and changing some scenes around, not making some major adjustments. I mean I’m scrapping what I have and starting almost entirely from scratch. With the exception LineandOrbitof one subplot, and a few characters, it’s going to be a totally different book.

There are a number of reasons why I’m doing this. Some of it is that, on further consideration, there are  a number of aspects of Fall and Rising as the current version stands that simply don’t work as well as they could. I took on a lot in that book, and I’m not confident that I pulled all of it off as well as I might have. I’m not averse to failure, even in public, but it’s something that I also see no reason not to avoid if at all possible. A lot of Fall and Rising is uncomfortable, and I’m not convinced that all of it is uncomfortable in a good way.

Another reason is money. I want to sell this book and I want to get paid.

I haven’t had any luck finding a publisher for it as it is. This is a problem, and the problem is compounded by the fact that it’s a sequel, not a standalone novel. It’s also much bleaker than Line and Orbit, and while I love and value my bleak writing – my short fiction can be just brutal a lot of the time – I’m not sure that bleak is the right tone for this series. I don’t believe that sequels have to perfectly match their predecessors in tone, but I also don’t believe that they should be vastly different.

So while I dearly love Fall and Rising and while I’ve very proud of huge chunks of it, it’s going into the proverbial drawer and something else is happening. I view this as a learning experience. I don’t think it was a mistake, and I don’t think the effort I put into it was wasted. It just isn’t going to be what I thought it was.

The takeaway is that this never stops being an educational process.

So, as of right now, here are the things (I think) I know about this new version of the next chapter of Line and Orbit:

  • The focus is back on Adam and Lochlan. I love Eva and Kyle, and I think they’ll be showing up in a major way, but Adam and Lochlan were among the primary things that people seemed to fall in love with in the first book, and I think it makes sense to stick with them. That means that this is back to being primarily “M/M” (scare quotes because I am still not 100% comfortable with that categorical marker). There are a number of reasons why I think this is a Good Thing on the whole.
  • It’s not going to be as goddamn bleak. I think a lot of bad things will still happen, but not nearly to the degree that they were happening in the first version of the book.
  • Spoiler alert: For those of you who’ve read my story in Hellebore and Rue, you may see some familiar faces. I’m really pleased about this, and I’m happy that I’m doing this rewrite if only because I get to circle back around in that way.
  • Nkiruka, the would-be replacement for Ixchel, is still in the game.
  • The villain remains the same guy with  the same characterization. Because I love his perfect face.
  • It does essentially the same job as the first version. That is, setting up the third and final book in the series, in essentially the same way. We end at basically the same place, we’re just getting there by a very different route.

So that’s where things currently stand. I’ve started work on it and I don’t expect to blast through it nearly as fast as Labyrinthian (which takes place in the same ‘verse so will hopefully act as an appetite whettener), so we’re ideally talking a finished MS by the end of January at the latest. I’m also supposed to be writing Rookwar, the third book in the Casting the Bones trilogy, so Fall and Rising may get pushed back depending on what my priorities end up being. Oh, yeah, I’m also theoretically writing a doctoral dissertation. So there’s that.

Anyway, for those who are interested, them’s the haps.

Writerly updates

I’m planning to actually do a Sunday linkdump later this evening – shock! – but for the moment here’s a roundup of some stuff that’s been going on in the writing area of my life recently:

  • I’m writing yet another novel. More specifically, I’m over 45k words into another novel after less than two weeks of working on it. I have never worked this fast on anything except maybe my comprehensive exams. I’ve been yelling about it a lot on Twitter, and I worry that it comes off as bragging, and maybe it is a tiny bit, but my primary reasons are two-fold:

    A) I HAVE NEVER WRITTEN ANYTHING THIS FAST BEFORE WHAT IS HAPPENING
    B) I REALLY REALLY LOVE THIS BOOK

    It is, essentially, a book I decided I wanted to write in between the completing the second book in the Casting the Bones trilogy and beginning work on the third. I didn’t even originally intend for it to be novel-length; I thought it might be a novella, something easy and light and vaguely trashy based on an idea I had years ago and put aside until I could figure out how to approach it, namely: A (very) loose retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, only gay, and in space. Where Theseus is a bounty hunter and the Minotaur is the genetically engineered rogue supersoldier that he’s hired to hunt down. Working title is Labyrinthian.

    Having written three novels in very rapid succession that ended up having Serious Points, I wanted to write something for therapy, something fun and silly that might also, frankly, move some inventory. But it’s become a lot more than that. Honestly, I’m working so fast because it’s very hard right now to not work on it. I’m enjoying it that much. I aim to be done sometime in the next two weeks.

  • I had a story come out in Strange Horizons, “Event Horizon.” So far the critical response has been pretty great. Tangent sez: “This is a very self-aware piece, asking why people do awful things even as it tells a gripping story…the subtext is powerful and shocking.” Lois Tilton at Locus gave it a coveted “recommended”: “Of all the horror stories I’ve read this season, this one evokes the strongest sense of malevolence.”
  • “Across the Seam”, a story I wrote – in large part inspired by Rob’s own family history – about a Rusyn immigrant coal miner caught up in both gender troubles and a (true life) massacre of striking workers will be appearing in Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History in early 2014. I’m beyond excited about this.

Think that’s everything.

It’s been a majorly chaotic October and a lot about it has been difficult, but I realized a while ago that while I might get frustrated about things (agent-hunting has so far turned up nothing) and while I might experience doubt regarding specific projects, on the whole I don’t worry about whether I’m a good writer anymore. I know, objectively, that I’m good. Whatever else is going on, it feels pretty wonderful to finally be sure of that much.

Get your ladybusiness out of my dudes: M/M romance and the problems therein

First, a little preamble.

I’ve written more than one thing that’s been marketed as M/M romance – including Line and Orbit (and I’ve alluded to my slight disagreement that that 327038__safe_twilight-sparkle_image-macro_vulgar_equestria-girls_balloonsparticular book deserves that particular label). But in fact I’m not especially comfortable with the idea of being an “M/M” author. I don’t like that I have that discomfort, and I wish I didn’t feel that way, and I recognize that feeling that way is also sort of problematic, but nevertheless it’s the way I feel. And a lot of that has to do with what I’m going to talk about next.

Simply put, I’ve come to feel – perhaps unfairly – that the “M/M” label doesn’t capture the diversity of the writing that I think I do and hope to do more of. I’ve written about gay men, lesbian women, trans* people, bisexual people, pansexual people, genderqueer people, and I hope to write more in the future about asexual people. I’ve also written about straight people. I try to include more than one part of the spectrum in any given story, when doing so is appropriate for that story. I prefer “queer” fiction or “QUILTBAG” fiction. I don’t like borders. I don’t like expectations of what something should be, which mean that it’s always going to risk failure in ways that have nothing to do with quality.

I understand that it is, first and foremost, a marketing label. But I think we should all understand that how things are marketed has major social consequences. It affects culture. It affects culture in ways that are not necessarily okay.

Enter Jesse Wave.

Read the pertinent post here. Well, how charming: The post has been deleted, but here’s a screencap. I don’t want to go into a lot of depth about the post itself but instead to outline some of my own problems with what’s going on in it. Essentially, Wave takes issue with what she frames as a recent influx of review copies of books that feature “on-screen” sexual content involving people who do not have penises, which violate her review policies. She characterizes such books as “disrespectful” to the genre as a whole:

Why are M/M readers treated so disdainfully? Are we not on par with het romance readers? M/M romance has been around for a decade, so why can’t our authors get it right? Clearly we are not respected because if we were this wouldn’t happen, and so often. Would authors insert graphic gay sex scenes in het romances? Not f*****g likely, unless the book is a ménage or a bi romance.

I think that characterization is a huge part of what’s gotten some people up in arms. If she had said that the submission of review copies that don’t follow the site’s guidelines was disrespectful, I think there would have been less of a backlash.

But anyway. There was the usual THIS IS MY SPACE response, and WRITERS CAN WRITE WHATEVER THEY WANT response, and I’m honestly surprised that the word “censorship” never came up, except maybe I missed it.

Look, here’s the thing: I don’t think the primary issue is one of policies or guidelines or labeling. I think it’s one of attitude. And yeah, I think there’s some misogyny all up in here, along with a tasty helping of trans*phobia.

Wave’s problem is that she’s reducing this entire thing to body parts and what happens when they get mashed together. For her, it comes down to sex acts. She claims that she’s fine with straight characters (or, I presume, bisexual characters or various combinations featuring trans* characters) engaging in romantic activity – provided that she isn’t exposed to the details of said activities.

That is really not okay.

The thing about homophobia is that, while the core of it is patriarchy, its visceral component lies in the reduction of all the nuances and complexities of erotic love to sex acts and then finding those sex acts icky. Straight love is fine because – at least traditionally, though this is starting to change – the social legitimacy of heterosexuality allows us to accept heterosexuality in forms that go above and beyond sex. Heterosexual relationships are not only accepted but assumed. They are the default. Being gay is about penises, and that’s where homophobia draws a lot of its visceral power from.

A great example of this can be found in a study done by CBS/the New York Times wherein 500 people were asked via phone survey whether they supported the open inclusion of “homosexuals” vs. “gays/lesbians” in the armed forces. The results were dramatic.

“Homosexual” includes the word “sex”. We hear it and we immediately think of queer sex acts. Which – because they challenge gender identity, because they challenge heteronormativity, because they challenge patriarchy – make people uncomfortable on the level of the gut.

The reduction of complex human identities to sex acts is essentializing. It’s dehumanizing. I’m guessing that most of us have heard someone at some point say something like “I have nothing against those gays. I just don’t want them flaunting it or anything.” Which really means I want them invisible. I don’t want to have to confront the fact that they exist because they threaten me.

If you’re okay with two gay guys walking down the street together but you freak out when you see them making out, yeah, I’m going to call you homophobic. Doesn’t mean you’re an awful person, but you do have some homophobia going on there and maybe you should look to it. By the same token, if you find lady parts viscerally icky – to the point where you say you want to be warned about it, to the point where you call it things like shocking – I’m going to go out on a limb and say you have some internalized misogyny happening.

By the way, that blew my mind: Some people in the comments in Wave’s post, including Wave herself, were talking about including warnings for non-gay male sexual content as though that content was triggering in the way that rape and excessive violence is. There followed a bunch of backpeddling and claiming that really it was just about labeling things for consumer reasons, but sorry, no: once the word shocking shows up, I don’t buy it.

[Addendum: It’s also worth pointing out something else that Wave doesn’t seem to understand at all, which is that sexual organs ≠ gender. You can be a man with a vagina. You can be a woman with a penis. You can be any permutation of any gender with any set of organs. So to assume that “gay” means “two penises” is just so cissexist that I can’t even.]

And no, claiming that it’s okay because the straights all do the same thing is not a good argument. It’s a stupid argument. It’s bad and the people making it should feel bad.

Of course, this is all problematized further by the fact that Wave is right about one thing: mainstream romance has been traditionally heteronormative, with gay relationships often made invisible or presented in ways that are less than positive. Because hey, that’s the entire culture. The culture is changing, and things are getting better in most respects, but there has indeed been a lack of space – for queer romance of all kinds, not just the gay stuff. So yes, the inclusion of straight romance in a book that’s focused on a gay romantic relationship isn’t quite the same thing as the inclusion of gay romance in a book that’s primarily focused on a straight romantic relationship. But you know? Anytime someone starts saying things like “keep your ____ out of my ____ because it SHOCKS ME” I get really uncomfy.

And you know what else? I think Wave’s attitude does readers of M/M romance a disservice. I think a tremendous number of them are way more open to variety and diversity than that.

I’m not saying that Wave has to change her review policy or that readers shouldn’t read what they want for whatever reasons they care to have. But again, we’re at the point where individual preference crosses over into the wider culture, and I think we need to have a conversation about it that rises above the level of I’M NOT A BIGOT I CAN DO WHAT I WANT. This is a great opportunity to be more self-reflexive than we really have to be, and to confront some difficult things. We’ll be better people for it. So will the genre. I want to be comfortable with the M/M label. I have high hopes that someday I will be.

For what it’s worth, a great response by Heidi Belleau can be found here. Sara York also has a good post on the problems with “disrespect”. LA Witt and Aleksandr Voinov weigh in and both are very worth reading.

Oh, PS: Wave – and others – don’t say “het”. Oh my God, do not say “het”. I immediately infer so much about you when you do, and none of what I infer is flattering.

Line and Orbit: The deleted scenes! In which Lochlan makes a new friend.

Some of you may – or may not – be aware that Line and Orbit used to be quite a lot longer. Specifically, it was almost an entire book’s length longer. A great deal LineandOrbitwas cut, some of which we loved, and it seems a shame to think those bits might never see the light of day in any form.

So something that I and my co-author will be doing in the next month or so is pulling out some of the scenes that were cut from the final edit of Line and Orbit, dusting them off a bit, and posting them here for your reading pleasure.

The scene below is actually a huge chunk of what was chapter three, before chapter three became the segment that introduces us to Lochlan and Ixchel. It should be understood to take place directly after the scene in which Ixchel reads Lochlan’s future. It’s significant in that it’s actually the scene that was originally supposed to introduce readers to Kae and Leila, whereas in the final cut Kae and Leila are introduced only after Adam arrives on Ashwina.

It also features Lochlan being his cocky, promiscuous self. And Kae’s full, glorious name.

For those concerned: There are no major spoilers for the plot itself. If you haven’t read or haven’t finished reading, do not fear. Enjoy.

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