Do you write your characters’ stories or do they write their own? Or is it really a blend of both?
I have a hunch that any non author would shrug at this question, not even understand what I’m talking about. Why would any character, a fictional non-entity, only existing in the mind of the author, have any say about anything in the first place? Well, the easy answer is, “because you’re not an author”… So, allow me to explain how we, and our characters, interact. Disclaimer: I can only speak for myself. The creative process of every author is going to be different.
Here’s one of the last pictures I have of me, my son and my mother. This was taken just a couple of months before she passed away. A treasured memory, for sure.
Let’s start with your mother. I hope you’ve met her and gotten to know her well. If not, picture another kind being in your vicinity. To you, your mother is a real human being. Flesh, blood, you can touch her, hug her, you can feel the warmth of her skin, her breath on your face, you hear her words and you have countless pictures of her in your mind, memories, good ones, mingled with some other ones.
When my mother died, something extraordinary happened. She moved into my head, forever. In doing so, my mother became fictional. Her physical being transformed into nothing but neurons, synapses and bio-electrical impulses. Are you still with me? My mom is now a memory, a fictional character, because how can I know that the memories I have of her are accurate? What memories are false and which are real? This is a huge field in psychology and I won’t get into that here.
With my characters, it’s the opposite way. Rather than moving INTO my head, they emerge from my subconscious, and they manifest themselves. In doing so, the become neurons, synapses and bio-electrical impulses. I have no insight into my brain, and it is impossible to see which parts of my characters are made up from what (former) real-life people, other fictional characters or just plain new creations. I couldn’t know, and quite frankly I don’t want to. I’m sure there’s always a sprinkle or two of me in all of them. What, I couldn’t know. We are, after all, humans first and foremost, sharing much more than what divides us.
Therefore, I claim, my characters are as real to me, as much flesh and blood, as any real human being. No, I may not be able to touch them, hug them, but neither can I hug my mom any more. Doesn’t make her any less real, and to my brain, the distinction is irrelevant.
My characters and I get really close. This was an interesting coincidence where I found a cover model with an uncanny resemblance to my internal pictures of the character.
In my writing, I completely depend on my characters. They tell me their stories, I can’t make them up, even though, “legally” you could probably claim it is me. But I have no clue what they’ll do next or where they’ll take the story. On the other hand, I’ve also noticed that my writing has changed over the past years. While my characters, in who they are, how they act, still is beyond my control, what I can decide over more than ever before is the content, the scenes I’ll put them through. E.g., I can say “let’s do a wedding” or “what happened at Christmas?”, and they’ll take if rom there. I don’t have any control further than that, not yet.
I could tell you stories about “stuff” my characters pulled on me. One actually died on me, in the middle of the story! My main character! The name on the cover of the book. Needless to say I had no idea how to “fix” that. It righted itself because I just kept writing (after a couple of days break), but yeah, sometimes they pull some real stunts. But that’s never really been my main concern or worry. What really drives me crazy is when I lose one of my characters. Not all, of course. A villain who dies, or a tertiary side character won’t be missed much, like some of the aunts and uncles we lose in real life. It’s not the blood relationship that counts, but how close we were to those people. I have characters who mean more to me, who I love a great deal more than many relatives I’ve had in the so called “real world”. But alas, we aren’t entitled to loving them as much, because “figments of our imagination”.
Not sure any of this makes any sense to anyone but myself, because it’s really all crystal clear to me. I love my characters, their quirky ways, their incredible adventures, the depth of their emotions, the thrill rides they take me on. In that way they’re different from Mom, because with her, there are no new adventures. All I ever get to do is revisit memories. Nothing wrong with that, but memories fade and become bleak with time. The adventures my characters take me on are forever saved on paper. And they’re not just for me, but for the world to enjoy. That is what really makes us authors privileged.
Now over to you. How do you relate to your characters? What relationship to you have with your characters? Are they running you or do you have them run your errands?
Have a great and productive week, I sure hope I do, and if you like what you’ve just read, subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
PS: Today is the first day of the Big Gay Fiction Giveaway. You aren’t missing this, are you? Dozens and dozens of free books are waiting for you:
Go, claim your copy now and discover new characters to love and cherish!
For every day I wasn’t been writing, I felt worse. Writing again? Bliss!
The existence of a writer is not one you should envy, trust me. Most of my author friends have day jobs, and when I see their Facebook posts, scrambling home from work, jotting down plot bunnies, or writing this scene or that chapter late at night, I still often find myself feeling envious. Envy for their jobs and the social interaction in provides them with, envy for being able to sit down and write, no matter the hour of day. Seems my brain is wired differently.
I can’t. Sit down and just write i.e.. At least not fiction, certainly not a novel. When I began writing fiction, in early January of 2013, my writing was carefree, I think my entire existence was in a state of elatedness at the time. Pregnancy hormones flooding my system (we were six months pregnant then), I had managed to get out from under a psychopathic boss largely unscathed and yes, the story within me was literally bubbling under the surface. It was on file in less than two weeks. Book number two was finished as a first draft two weeks later.
Sometimes I look back on those days and wonder how I did it. How would I deal with the death of my main character halfway through the story today? Most likely very different from what I did back then: I kept writing, and my wondrous subconscious righted it all. Thank you brain, you’re the best (mostly!) Today, I realized at around eleven in the morning that I’d run out of errands to do, places to call, invoices to pay, posts to write and even my brand new Apple Watch was conspicuously silent. Traitor!
Yeah, this is my work space while I’m in the zone in my author cave. The zone is a mental place, the author cave simply the place where I sit with my laptop, somewhere in the house, in close proximity to our espresso machine.
Carefully I opened the two Pages documents that contain the current WIP for Disease and the notes. In my MacBook’s split screen mode, they enable me to write and keep notes at the same time. Who needs Scrivener, right? It has been so long since I last opened the document that I had forgotten much of what I’d written, where I had stopped. The story is told from the main character’s point of view, largely as diary entries, but here and there, there are comments from someone else. You’ll see why in time, i.e. if I stick to that approach. I’m not 100% sure yet. Anyway, I had just begun to add those comments when I’d been interrupted by, well, let’s call it “life”?
The refurbishment of our bathroom took two weeks, while my husband’s career suddenly jerked upward and sideways, while I’m looking for a day job, while my neighbor is threatening us again… Needless to say, it’s been crazy hectic around here. Add to that my trip to New York three weeks ago, and household work plus a secret project I’m working on, which is taking up a considerable amount of time. I had moved away from the “zone” further and further. And the further away from the zone I moved, the scarier the prospect of writing again began to feel. I was scared shitless when I finally ran out of excuses and procrastinating didn’t work any more…
This, the remodeling of our downstairs bathroom, from a mere space for the washing machine and dryer to a real bathroom for Alex and I took longer and cost tons more nerves than I ever expected.
When I finally laid eyes on the text again, and after I had gotten reacquainted with it, I began to edit. One character had changed their sex/gender early on (no, nothing dramatic), and I needed to fix that throughout the entire story, plus you know, once you begin to fine comb a text you always find stuff… Once that was done, I’d already added five hundred words, I was writing again, and slowly but surely I felt this odd sensation as the corners of my mouth almost magically turned upward into a faint smile. I was back in the zone.
Writing again, but differently…
Yet unlike four years ago, when I’d simply type away, I jotted down some ideas, some things (plus bunnies?) I wanted to address as the story progressed. I considered the time line, thought a lot about the ending, and how I’d get there (had what I think is a brilliant idea, but we’ll see how it pans out once I write it), and just kept writing, scene after scene. In the end, just minutes before the family descended upon the house, I had written almost five thousand words, and I’m now at 19+K (as you can see from the screen shot above). Still far from done, but my fingers itch to continue, although I may not have much time tomorrow, as I need to go to town at nine in the morning (which is why I’m writing this blog post now, Thursday evening).
In closing, let me just say this about what it feels like to be back in the zone, the emotions I feel:
- I really want to write again, the fear I felt when I first opened the document is all but gone, and I wish my family had stayed away for a few more hours (or days) to allow me to continue uninterrupted.
- I felt elated when I was writing again, and I feel deprived now that I am not. But I just can’t focus on writing with my husband sitting next to me on his work PC looking at employee statistics, moaning and swearing intermittently.
- I was happy in my bubble, and I long to get back into it, to wrap that emotion of comfort around me like a blanket. Both of my characters were talking freely to me today, telling me their stories, from their two very different vantage points, and that is exactly how I like my boys (men in this case), talking to me. The plot itself is moving along nicely and the little plot bunnies will hopefully enable me to write more chapters, and right now it feels like this could quickly become a full-length novel, despite my earlier fears I might never actually finish it.
- I’m not as freaked out about having a 75% done cover for the book any more (and less than a 25% story…)
The weekend is upon me, and next week looks promising in terms of writing again. Who knows, if I keep this up, I might have a first rough draft done by the end of May. I really, really want to be able to focus on editing this time, and I know that I have to submit the manuscript to my publisher by August 1, to allow for all the edits, changes, typesetting, proof reading and publishing to take place in time for the late October publication date. And as we all know, time flies when you’re busy and having fun, not to mention with summer and vacations looming around the corner…
Jeez, I’m just glad to be writing again… You have no idea! (…or maybe you can tell from the above?)
Have a wonderful weekend, and if you like what you’ve just read, subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
PS: There are two ways you can make an author’s day: a) is to buy one of their books and b) to leave a short review of it on Amazon. Good or bad, books without (or few) reviews are generally ignored.
Social Media engagement is crucial, but what works and what does not?
Last week’s post about how I see my blogging numbers decline seemed to have hit a nerve with writers. It’s been very well ready by colleagues and several have made very valid comments. Many of you rightly point out that blogging alone isn’t a good strategy. Blogging needs to be part of a greater social media strategy. I completely agree, and I’ve mentioned some of the things I do. Yet here’s the challenge with social media: it’s a bit of a moving target, and I don’t see it move in any predictable pattern (am I wrong?), which makes it difficult to choose what to do and when. In this post, I’m trying to show what I do, what works and what doesn’t, while also asking you to continue to add your voice to the discourse, so that we all may learn and improve our approach to getting word about our works out there.
Why blog and use social media in the first place?
I began to blog and use social media long before I began to write professionally. Originally, for me anyway, my reason to be on social media were purely personal, and egotistical. I am a social being. However, as an author, I need to get the word about my books out to people, because I want my books to be read, not just because I’d like to make a buck off of it, but also because I actually (weird, eh?) believe that my books have a message and should be read. Yeah, I know, not very humble, am I?
And since I can’t afford to buy shelf-space at book stores or advertising space next to the New York Times bestseller list, I have to make due with other ways of reaching out to potential readers. Needless to say, I’ve tried most. I have tried advertising in literary magazines, I have paid for ads on Google, Facebook & even “Gollumreads”. The challenge for me has been (and is) that I can’t really see the ROI of it all. I’m shooting blind, because I’m not a self-publisher, and I can’t bother my publisher to give me up to the minute sales numbers to see how an ad is doing. I wish I could, but their time is at a premium, too.
One of the wisest things anyone has ever said to me, years ago, when I started was this:
Your next book is your best advertising for your latest book.
You have to be in this for the long haul.
I don’t have any data or insights to disprove of this. I’ve been writing professionally, more or less since 2013, so this is my fifth year, and while my very first book, Jonathan’s Hope still is my bestselling novel (which sort of proves point 1), I’m not sure I’ve been in this long enough to really know about point #2. Besides, in this very time frame, reading has continued to decrease, and particularly in my genre, reading has been slashed by several ugly fights on “Gollumreads” in Gay Romance related groups, which ultimately affect those of us who do not write mainstream even more, as gay fiction is a stretch to read even for avid gay romance readers.
Professional v Personal
When I began to write, I had a Twitter account, and I had a personal Facebook account, and I blogged. Most visitors to my blog came from my Twitter account, thanks to Triberr (a blog sharing aggregation tool). Over time, I added an Instagram account, a Pinterest account, and – finally – opened a dedicated Facebook page for my author self. I’ll briefly address the various channels separately, but one of the things I’ve always felt challenged about was the line between personal and professional, and how to use #hashtags properly.
I’ve always been very WYSIWYG, I have few secrets and my personality shines through. I can even discuss private matters without blushing, so my take on the above subheading has always been Professional AND Personal. I don’t see them as contradictions. I think you can be personal while still being professional, in how you express yourself. In this, I try to apply the age old adage:
if it’s not fit to be said publicly, don’t say it (online).
Sometimes I fail at that. I am only human, but overall, I think I do a pretty good job. Because here’s the thing, and I’ve said that to countless young people I’ve spoken to over the years: once posted online, it CAN become public at any given point. Just because you think you’ve sent it to a friend doesn’t mean they can’t share it, copy it or even take a screen dump. Heaven knows I’ve made quite a few screen dumps myself…
I also think that readers in general prefer us to be human beings rather than automatons who only share about the professional aspects of our lives, book readings, conventions, signings, writing. Readers, in order to connect with us, want to see that human aspect. Frankly, I can’t blame them. I am no different in how I relate to other public figures, actors, singers etc.
Facebook, the one social medium who rules them all?
I resisted Facebook for a long time, holding out because of privacy concerns. But when my husband turned thirty, and I tried to throw him a surprise party, I knew he had many friends on Facebook, from university etc, people I didn’t know. When I joined, I had over forty requests from old friends and people I hadn’t been in touch with for years. I was instantly hooked.
My use of Facebook has changed over the years. Nowadays, most of the people on my “friends” list are probably readers. I say probably, because I simply don’t know them. Mind you, I’ve become pretty good at vetting and no army major in Afghanistan and no plastic bosom passes by my argus eyes. However, when readers friend me, and I don’t know them, they are placed in one of my lists and unfollowed. Why? First of all, I only have so much time. I can’t be bothered to read about the grand-child or someone I don’t know, while I miss the death of a loved one to a real friend in my overflowing news feed. That happened once and it was awful.
When my writing turned serious, I resisted the Facebook page for the longest time possible. Many of my author friends have separate profiles for their author selves, and I just couldn’t. I don’t have a pen name (I do have a pen age instead, much smarter) and I would go nuts trying to keep the parts apart. Besides, it’s not really kosher with Facebook policies, and I’m one of those people who don’t really like to break rules unnecessarily.
Eventually, in order to see what posts “work” (i.e. are being read) and to be able to advertise, I did open up a page, but yeah, I’m not big enough to matter to people. I have almost 1,700 friends right now, but only 650 or so who’ve liked my page. For a while, I stopped updating my page, but recently I’ve been posting there again, to make sure it doesn’t wither and die completely. I’ve also done some advertising for my most recent novel, and had good “click through” results, but whether or not that impacted on sales I won’t know until July, when I get the numbers for Q2.
For me, Facebook is where I spend most time. I do so because most of my friends around the world are there, not primarily because of my writing. As soon as I start to think about “I should post a writing something”, I feel awkward and “salesy”, and that just isn’t me. But as far as i’m concerned, Facebook is at the core of my social media activities.
I once dubbed myself the first retiree from Twitter, and just possibly the first one to come out of retirement, too. Today, I’m approaching 8,5K followers, followers I’ve gained organically. I’ve never paid for followers, because I fail to see the point, even though such accounts follow me regularly. I rarely tweet directly, it feels a bit like standing on a mountain top, screaming into the void. Yes, someone might hear you, but yeah, the likelihood isn’t big. And at 140 characters, it’s just not my tool for discourse. It’s more a shouting and screaming match when things get heated, not really allowing for a balanced discussion. I had a wee shitstorm a while ago, when writing about minorities, and let’s just say I’d rather not do that again.
Triberr, used to be a great tool, to share great content with your Twitter followers and get our own stuff out. Today? Mostly broken. Fewer users, and people not sharing any more.
In conjunction with Triberr, Twitter used to be a great tool, but sadly, so many of my friends (some of the people I’ve met on Triberr years ago are really good friends now, and our relationship stretches far beyond just the T&T) having had their Twitter accounts blocked because of “suspicious automated tweeting” that many have given up on Triberr. Even I had my Twitter account frozen recently, while I was in the U.S. using my U.S. phone number so that I couldn’t immediately recover it. It’s annoying and I can definitely tell that fewer people use Triberr now than a year or two years ago. People share less, and yes, they post a lot less, too. I recently stopped paying for my Triberr account, after having spent over $1,200 on it annually. I just can’t justify the ROI any longer. For now, I’ll continue to use Triberr, and I have no reason NOT to use Twitter. It’s great for searches on hashtags and for special events like #ESC2017, to get really close to the action.
I began using Instagram because “everyone else” was. Or so it seemed. I have less than a thousand followers, and unlike Twitter where people seem to follow back to gain/keep followers (I’m being very selective), I only follow accounts when they have great pictures, i.e. pictures that interest me. Yes, I do see too many cats on Instagram, and I prefer to see nature photos, and I personally try to emphasize photos of natural settings, intermixed every now and then with a funny family photo. I just can’t with people who only post selfies. I just don’t have the time for it. Once every few months, sure, but daily? On Instagram, I get comments and loads of likes when I use great hashtags, more so than anywhere else. I try to not overdo it. Some people use 15-20 hashtags, and when they also share it to Facebook, it gets really annoying. But alas, I guess they have a reason to. I go on Instagram once or twice a day, more to relax for a minute than to post. I sometimes go days without posting, and I’m sure that’s “bad”… But hey, I have a life.
What for? I tried. I really did. I had many boards, and I pinned and re-pinned, and I still didn’t get it. This is the one social network that has always eluded me, and given that most of my author friends are in gay romance, the number of pins with half-naked men was just too much. I don’t regret not using it any more. I understand from comments that some people really love Pinterest, but it wasn’t for me. I loved the images of nature, but I get those in Instagram, too, and they’re not as tied to links and commerce as they are on Pinterest. And don’t get me started on all the memes…
Oh my… Why did I ever agree to replace my daily blog posts with a weekly YouTube video? But I try to keep it up, as difficult as it is, because of 2) above. But yeah, compared to fashion and make-up tips, the Author Cave isn’t exactly aimed at a large audience… LOL And yes, my book trailers are posted there. I guess YouTube is more a hobby than anything else. I just like to play with Final Cut and video editing. Does it sell books? I wouldn’t know.
Tumblr, Snapchat and others
I had an account on Tumblr for a month, to make a point to a young friend. But I never posted and I don’t use any other social media outlets, although there are dozens of them. I tried Snapchat once, when it was new, but yeah, it was more of a “show me your dick here” safely, because it’ll be gone in 24 hours, and I didn’t have that particular need. And when I see all the many filters people use, all the anus kissing faces etc, I realize I’m probably 35-40 years too old for that particular medium. I gave up years ago.
Goodreads, Meet your next favorite troll…
Same with “GollumReads”. I go in every now and then to approve new contact requests and check messages, but yeah, I don’t read reviews or engage. GR is like the darknet of writing and reading. So much hatred, so many trolls. I just can’t be bothered with it. I post reviews there for the books I read, but that’s it. Sometimes, I do a giveaway and I’ve recently advertised a bit on it, but alas, the results won’t be clear until Q2, and then the question is, will I be able to know how it relates back to GR?
I know many authors like it and that’s why I keep sharing reviews there, largely because I know most authors I review and Amazon is bitty about that aspect. I also have an account on G+, and if anyone ever figures out what the use of that thing is, I might use it for more than just spreading my YouTube videos there…
With social media you just have to focus. We only get so many hours to spend every day, and while it’s a generous amount, a third goes away for sleep (at least in my case), and I also need time to cook, eat, look after the house, family and work. My social media allowance comes partially from the “work” aspect, but also from my spare time, which is limited as it is. I’m not going to waste it on unessential stuff.
A moving target
Am I missing any great new medium out there? What’s the next big thing? It’s my impression that Facebook is still the “rings to rule them all”, and using the right hashtags on Twitter and Instagram is the way to go. It’s how I search for stuff, and I don’t think I’m that much of an oddity. But yes, using social media is difficult, and I was caught by surprise by the swift decline of Triberr and thus Twitter for my blog. While my blog posts used to be shared 150-200 times by other bloggers on Twitter, that number is now less than half. Even a post as successful as the one last week has only been shared 111 times. Well below the average I had a year ago.
So what’s next? Will Twitter have a resurgence? Will anus kissing selfies on Snapchat and floral hair filters be replaced by serious book snaps? Will Instagram flatline? Will the next update to the Facebook algorithm drive people away? Apart from my personal challenges in measuring my sales, not being able to tie them to a specific source, I also try to stay grounded and not focus too much on “likes”. Then again, without counting likes, how do you know what works and what doesn’t?
What’s your take? Is there a next big thing in sight? Do you measure your social media impact on sales? Are you able to trace results back to the source? If so, willing to share how?
Thank you for reading this, and if you liked it, subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or feel free to interact with me on social media: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
When readers ask you difficult questions, they’re obviously onto something, aren’t they?
It began with an innocuous question about why so few people comment on my YouTube videos. My answer was simple: because almost no one watches them, and on average only one in twenty ever respond. Then they dropped the bomb, right in front of my feet:
“But some male authors, gay authors, sometimes give the impression they prefer to write for gay people. In a way as if they look down on the mm romance thing and their readers. […] As if they feel about the female readers as people in BDSM feel about the readers of 50 shades of gray.”
Image #1: M/M andF/F are only a fraction of all the available romance books available on Amazon
I understood the second I saw the question that I was in trouble. Maybe I was being “accused”? I am, after all, one of those “male authors, gay authors…” For those of you who are not following the little bubble of LGBT fiction, you may not understand what this is all about, so allow me to explain:
Amazon has many categories where they “stuff” books. If you navigate to the Romance section (image #1) on Amazon, you’ll find all the various sub-genres. There are screen shots taken from Amazon in this post if you want to have a look. (Self-)publishers obviously enter certain search words when they upload their information, but Amazon’s algorithm ultimately decides where books end up, and many of the books that are “romance” also end up under “Gay Fiction” (please note the complete absence of Bi & Trans as categories!)
Amazon’s genres aren’t making it easy
Image #2: there are a great many LGBT books on Amazon, even though it is the second smallest of all Amazon categories. Only test-preparation is slightly smaller…
As you can see, Gay Romance (and Lesbian Romance further down even less so) is just a fraction of the overall Romance genre, where contemporary and the more sizzling Erotica are the largest ones. Move over into the “Gay & Lesbian” section (Image #2), many of those same books will appear here, too. And this is where it becomes tricky.
If you drill down into the “Literature & Fiction” subcategory, you’ll see the third image further down to the right. And it shows that almost half of all the books in Gay & Lesbian Literature are in fact “Erotica” or “porn on pages”, and when I first started to look into publishing, I realized that even Romance novels these days are littered with sex, more or less on page. The difference between “Romance” and “Erotica” is often fluid, and many of the Erotica stories are of the darker and more violent variety (with frequent scenes of rape and physical abuse. I wrote about this
a bit over a year ago.)
Image #3: almost half of all LGBT literature is in fact erotica.
Fiction v Fantasy
It gets more complicated. When I was young and growing up, gay fiction as a genre didn’t exist. When I was a young adult, the only books you’d ever find about being gay were in the psych section of the book store or (“life style”, my favorite hate word, in the U.S.) Fictional books about gays were just to be searched for under literature, by author name, as was customary then. If you didn’t know what to look for, you didn’t find it until you virtually tripped over it. And the stories were not uplifting (watch my video from a couple weeks ago on this subject
), as we were often depicted as villains, sickos, freaks or child molesters, and later as “AIDS fuckers” who deserved to die. Lesbians? Well, their plight was worse, as female sexuality has always been treated as a non-existing thing, so why bother… That is still a problem, just look at the number of lesbian romance novels v gay romance novels. Bisexuals, Trans & Intersex? Yeah, exactly… But at some point in the middle of the last decade, some female authors of romance decided to branch out. I don’t know why, but maybe werewolves, shifters and paranormal story lines weren’t exciting any more, or titillating enough. I honestly don’t know. So they began writing romance novels about two men falling in love. And as is pointed out for everyone to see, every time a shit storm hits the genre, it was a “genre created by women, for women!” Not my words, hence the quotation marks. Romance is a huge genre in fiction, yet, overall it is less than a quarter as large as the total volume of “Literature & Fiction” on Amazon (image #4). In the LGBT space, the romance novels are the dominant force. I don’t know if they’re 80% or 90%. It doesn’t really matter, I haven’t looked at them all, but they are the vast majority. Per se
that isn’t a problem. LGBT people who read are as likely to like romance as their het counterparts. And there are quite a few, some very successful, gay writers of the genre.
So what’s the problem?
Image #4: Romance, in “general” fiction is a lot smaller than “Literature & Fiction”. In the LGBT space it’s the opposite, but a lot more pronounced.
Here’s my theory. Romance novels are primarily about escaping into a fantasy world, traditionally an Elizabethan or Victorian set drama where the damsel in distress is rescued and swept off her feet by a dashing hero (Mr. Darcy anyone?) And let me just say this, so I don’t have this thrown back in my face. That is okay. Escapism is great, heck I wish I’d had these books readily at my fingertips when I was a struggling gay teen (I’ve written about that, too
) Alas, I did not.
When I wrote my first books, I had read a couple of gay romance novels, but I didn’t know there was a thing called “MM” (and it’s Lesbian equivalent of “FF”) or “M/M” Romance, depending on how people prefer to spell it. What I did know was that the publishers in romance often expected sex, on page, at regular intervals throughout the story. I knew that my stories weren’t meant for those publishers, because I’ve always felt that sex, unless it furthers the plot, has no business in my stories. But that’s because I’m not a romance writer. I write gay fiction.
So what’s the difference, you ask?
Now this is a very good question. As I point out in my video, there is a significant overlap in the storytelling in Romance and Fiction. It’s about love (a human condition), relationships, parenting, failure, evil and what not. But there are differences, too. Because you won’t find “Catcher in the Rye”, “Lord of the Flies” or gay “A Single Man” in any romance section. Even though they deal with some of the above. Why? Romance, in my humble opinion is about “escapism”, getting away from reality, not having to think about your loser of a husband, the trouble your kids cause at school, the pain in your body, your drunk neighbor or the fact that you barely make ends meet. You look into the mirror and you see a woman (since 8 out of 10 readers of books are women) that wouldn’t make it on Heidi Klum’s Runway. She might be a little too old, a little too round, and a little too worn after multiple pregnancies. I think you know what I mean: real, live people. But you open that book and suddenly you are eighteen years old again, you’re the daughter of a count, you wear pretty dresses and you get to go on the adventure of a lifetime and you’re rescued (and fucked to the high heavens) by Mr. Darcy himself. Phew! For three or four hours you were someone else, laughing, crying, and ultimately riding off into the sunset of the obligatory Happily Ever After (aka HEA).
I can almost guarantee you that Christopher Isherwood had a somewhat different premise when he wrote A Single Man. His premise (as is mine) was reality, to describe the grim reality of what it was like to be a gay man in California in the 1950s. “But”, I hear you say, “romance novels deal with grim and harsh things, too!” And you would be right, of course, the difference is two-fold: a) the HEA and b) the way the story is told. A romance novel is all about the “romance”, i.e. how the characters get together. It’s the primary aspect of the story. Everything else takes the back seat. In fiction, it’s the opposite. There may be romance, but it’s in the back seat, and something else – whatever that may be – is the main driving force of the storytelling. Semantics? Maybe, and I am not sure that all romance authors would share my definition. And to complicate things further, there are many stories that are sold as either fiction or romance, but could easily fall into both categories.
So where does the question above come from?
Ah, right to the core after all this time, eh? Huh! Okay, say you would like to find a book about a gay or Lesbian couple raising children. I have at some point, when we were pregnant. You want books that are about parenting, the challenges you face as a gay couple in society, all the nitty-gritty details. I’ve found a few, but they weren’t primarily about the “raising” or the “parenting” aspect, the driving force behind those stories was the romance, and the books ended with the dads being a couple. That’s not what I was interested in reading. My questions “will the kid(s) be okay?”, “will the kid(s) be bullied?” and “how do you deal with this shit?” were left unanswered. After three or four such books, I gave up. I wrote my own instead. Remember: one hundred and thirty thousand books. How is anyone supposed to find anything in there? It’s like the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Personally, and in this post I can only ever speak for myself, I don’ have a huge issue with this. I tend to be on the side of “laissez faire”, rather than restricting people. But as far as I understand, some members of the LGBT community (and this post is primarily about gay men, because that’s where the frictions are) feel that the “hets have taken over our space” (which is complicated by the fact that gay men, too, write gay romance…), and that is sometimes expressed in angry and even hateful slurs. And that it is very hurtful to the authors and readers of gay romance books.
Allow me to infer a little parenthesis here. I call it gay romance. I really, and I mean really, dislike the acronyms with the two letters MM, FF etc. It’s degrading to reduce human beings like this, be it men or women. People are objectified beyond measure, they’re basically reduced to their genitals. You might as well say D/D (dick on dick) or C/C or D/C (you get the gist). Worst, in a genre so dominated by women, the het equivalent is still labeled M/F, the male is still mentioned first. If I ever use the acronym, I use F/M.
Back to our reader question. Picture a forest, it’s a huge forest with over a hundred thousand trees. The big trees, beautiful, proud and dark green spruces stretching to the sky, are our romance novels. They enjoy large numbers of readers (for many reasons: more women than men read, and there’s ten het women for every gay man), their success is propagated further by constantly being in the top sales lists on Amazon. Now in this forest there are also small saplings, books that sell maybe a copy a month, some less, some more. They struggle, because they’ll never really have any chance at a top 100 spot, because they are stories about the victims of AIDS, they are stories about being black and gay (Re Moonlight), there are stories about old men and women realizing they’ve lived a lie all their lives, and how this impacts their families. Some of these stories have happy endings, some of these stories do not. Some of these stories are based on things the authors have experienced themselves, fictionalized of course, but real. There is no escapism, there is no Mr. Darcy, no proverbial horse ride into the sunset. The covers of those books aren’t adorned by half-naked beauties with photoshopped eight-packs and unblemished faces, because that’s not what they’re about.
And that is where some gay male authors (the problem is worse for all other siblings in the LGBT community, but it’s different) have an issue, because they can’t find those stories, literally. And those books will never get a shot, because they just cannot, ever, reach a top 100 spot in a genre so humongous. It’s impossible.
Then there’s the quality and the way gays are described…
That’s not all though. I have read a lot of romance novels, because even though I didn’t set out to, that’s what popped up in my searches online. Allow me to make an example: anal sex. In reality, sex attitude research tells us that only about four out of ten gay men ever engage in anal sex. In romance it’s more like ninety-nine out of one hundred. In real life, when a grandfather is called to school, to pick up his grandson, who was bullied and beaten up, he’d be so shaken and worried about the child, that he’d spend the rest of the day in that child’s presence, making sure they were okay. Maybe watch a movie or whatever. And if the kid wanted to be alone, grandpa’d be on stand-by. In Romance (and I have read this in a book), the grandfather is driven to the school by his love interest (so far so good), and as soon as they’re home, the kid’s sent to his room by the author so that grandpa can be fucked senseless by his very manly former marine stud of a hunky-dory man. See the difference? Two extremes maybe, but alas. Then there are some authors (and this is true for ANY form of literature) who just don’t do their research. I know writers of gay erotica who didn’t know what rimming was, feces/santorum is hardly ever mentioned, not to mention the agonizing pain that anal sex can be, particularly for a newbie. Anatomic fuck-ups (a 69 with the ball sack slapping against the chin instead of the nose or maybe forehead if it’s a big sack?), or worse, those really, really bad authors who merely change the name and the genitalia on one of their protagonists and produce a girl with a dick. Gay men see that immediately, in the way they talk, behave, mannerisms etc. And we cringe.
Now before people come back and hit me over the head with this: no, most authors don’t write such crap. Some do, and it is hurtful when you, as a minority, which is already beleaguered and discriminated against, a minority still being exterminated (re Chechnya), still hated, not just within the safety of book pages, but in real life, today, when you are described like that, objectified like that. Does that make sense?
For my LGBT siblings, Lesbian, Bi/Pan, Trans & Intersex, the challenges are different. Their relationships have not been “usurped” by a majority group for their escapism; worse, their relationships, their sexuality don’t even matter (as one reader told me, “I just can’t FF. I can’t. The sex. They just don’t have the right parts”), and for Bi/Pan, how do you accurately describe the way they “tick” in a one-person relationship which the romance novel is about? Bi by definition means two at least, so if you want to accurately depict a bisexual person, you’d need to have two relationships, and my bi friends often complain that their ultimate choice effectively washes them gay or straight. For trans & intersex the challenge is different again. Their struggle is so complex that by the time they’re done with their transition, it’s time to wind up the story. And the trans books I’ve read were in the place where gay novels were thirty or forty years ago, focused on coming out, on being their true selves, transitioning. Parenting, relationships, careers aren’t the first thing on your mind when you can’t even go to the bathroom! Capish?
So what are you saying then?
My first novel ever published. For some odd reason, some romance readers took it to heart, even though the story at heart is a very different one, romantic, maybe, but not a romance at heart, Jonathan’s Hope is one gay man’s dream to start a family, a dynasty. It’s only at the end we see a glimpse of that, and it took me two more novels to flesh it out, befitting the first true “gay dynasty”.
Here’s my two cents. Yes, undoubtedly there are gay authors (although I’ve not personally talked to one who feels this way) who hate the fact that “M/M” hogs the limelight. I’m not one of them. Quite the contrary. I think it’s amazing that young gay teens can read all those stories that they’re legally not supposed to, with all that sex and all the bubbly happy endings. I mean who cares about age limits anyway? How old were you when you saw your first R-rated flick, huh? I was welcome into the community with open arms, I’ve made some amazing friends, too many, far too many to mention, I’ve read books from incredibly talented writers, mostly women, I’ve had the opportunity to partake in extraordinary life stories, women who aren’t as female as they seem to be, horrible back stories which have propelled their writing to great heights, and besides, the gay romance genre evolves. I can’t even recount all the discussions with authors who dream of breaking away from the rigid rules of the one true Harlequin novel.
They want to tell their stories, even if it doesn’t always end well, in that ride into the sunset with Mr. Darcy. I’ve met authors who do their research, authors who contact me to ask about things they don’t know, anxious to get things right. This is one of the reasons why I sponsor gay romance events like GRL, because they allow me to attend, make me feel welcome.
There’s also the amazing readers who’ve discovered my books, because yes, as tiny as my sapling is, I sold 736 books online last year, each and every one of those purchases by a reader represents a ray of the sun that nevertheless made it all the way down to me. Had it not been for my accidental affiliation with gay romance, who knows, I may have sold seventy books instead, because like all writers, nine out of ten of my readers are women, and some of them are now dear and close friends of mine, and they greatly outnumber my male readers and friends.
I can’t speak for others, and while I see their point, and while there is validity to their argument, my conclusion is a different one. Without gay romance, would there even be a “Gay & Lesbian” section on Amazon? Would we have the visibility we have today? I don’t know. Somehow, I doubt it. Had my novel Jonathan’s Hope
not been mistaken for a romance, my fledgling career might have flatlined before its seed had a chance to sprout into the tiny but proud sapling it is today.
If you have further questions, please let me know. If you have comments, if you feel you want/need to clarify or even correct me, the comments are open. My apologies for such a lengthy post. I wanted to make sure to get it right, and now I have to go back and re-read it, to eradicate the worst of my typos and grammatical errors. And I sincerely hope I haven’t pissed anybody off, because in this day and age, that can be accomplished in a single sentence, let alone thirty-four hundred words… <3
If you’ve read all this way, thank you, have a wonderful weekend, and if you like what you read, subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
PS: There are two ways you can make an author’s day: a) is to buy one of their books and b) to leave a short review of it on Amazon. Good or bad, books without (or few) reviews are generally ignored.
My blog readership has been shrinking in the past twelve months
When I began blogging, most people around me didn’t even have Internet access. My first blog started way back in the late nineties, it was a “home made” (by my ISP) blog tool to enable me to write down my thoughts. In a way, my first blog was an extension of my diary writing, something I’d done regularly (more or less) through my teen years. After 1986, there was a ten plus year break from writing. Growing up, taking my first steps into the working life, studies at the university, travel, boyfriends… You know what that’s like. Life was too important to reflect on it.
In 2014 I celebrated this milestone on my Blogger blog. I moved to WordPress in an attempt to grow my readership, but failed.
This current blog is an extension of a blog I started a long time ago (although I don’t really remember when), on Blogger. I had my doubts to move from my own platform to one of the two large ones, but I took the plunge and it did me well for many years. My readership grew and grew with over a hundred thousand visitors on my top months. When I left Blogger I’d had almost three million visitors, starting out with a handful, ending it with at least two-thousand daily visitors. I moved to WordPress because Blogger’s ability to create pages, and the tools surrounding the Blogger ecosphere just wasn’t as versatile. On my WordPress blog I was able to create slick and beautiful pages, have my own e-commerce (which failed miserably), blog, integrate my social media feeds etc. And once I had gotten the hang of the back office of WP, I was good.
Moving from Blogger to WordPress
I lost most of my readership in the move. I can’t really blame Google. They promote their own more than they promote others. Fine. On the other hand, I believe the quality of my readership increased. Previously, most of the visitors to my blog were only in it for my pictures. I was/am well aware of that. Google doesn’t promote images shared through WordPress, judging from the search terms that show up on my dashboard. But thanks to tools like Twitter, Triberr etc. I was slowly able to grow my readership.
This past year has shown some interesting changes. Most of those are connected to Twitter. While my Twitter following has grown, organically, from a thousand to almost 8.5K and still is growing, the number of people who find my posts on Twitter and actually click on them is shrinking, continuously. While I might average 150-200 views on a good day, the average day would be around 75-100 page views. In the past twelve months, this has gradually decreased to 50-90 on a good day and 25-40 on an average day. Not much to write home about. Yes, I do have some days that are out of the ordinary, with almost 1,500 views. Those are posts that deal with exceptional things that happen in the LGBT writing space. However, those are luckily few and far in between. Most of my readers these days are either subscribers or come in from Facebook.
Is Twitter broken?
Twitter used to be the primary referrer. No longer. It seems Twitter isn’t working any more, and if most people use Twitter the way I do, i.e. to broadcast stuff, it’s no surprise. Almost never do I look at my stream. With so many followers I’d never see much anyway. I go and look at my mentions and followers, follow back if they’re of interest (although I honestly never look at the stream) and once a day peek at my following. That’s it. Had it not been for Twitter forcing me to see my feed every time I log on, I’d never see anything.
I wonder, am I the only one using Twitter like that? As a megaphone?
I’ve worked with hashtags and yes, every now and then, I will do a hashtag search when something extraordinary happens, but wise from learning from Gaddafi’s multiple death announcements on Twitter, I’ve become wary of trusting “news” on Twitter. But as a source for blog readership? Not sure it works any more. Certainly not for me, no matter how much you tweak hashtags.
Do people still read blogs?
Nothing to hide, and as you can see, the numbers aren’t “amazing”…
I read very few blogs. There are a handful I follow and I do read their posts when the first few lines peak my interest. Sometimes I stumble across a blog when I look for something. But regularly? Never have. I think I’ve never really seen blogging as much else as a diary turned marketing tool. I used to write about everything from politics to personal relationships. After loads of research I’ve limited myself, cut politics (mostly) and focused on my writing, reviews and LGBT issues (mostly). I even cut my travel writing. For some time, that worked, but yeah, I’ll never have the readership of a fashion or make-up blog. LOL
Blogging takes time. A lot of time. On average I spend three to four hours weekly on my blog writing, producing a couple thousand words of text every week. Then there’s the editing, finding adequate images, linking to relevant sites and pages etc. This takes time, and I wonder if it’s still worth it. I don’t think I could do it if I had a day job. I think I’d reduce my blogging to the irregular blog writing “when I have time”…
The next “thing”?
I’ve always viewed my blog as a marketing tool, to allow readers to find me, get to know me, and hopefully make them a bit curious about the guy behind “Hans M Hirschi” and his writing. I’m not sure a blog works that way any more. Question is what works in 2017 and onward. Is it Instagram? Or does that go down the same road as Twitter? Following everyone who follows you, with the consequence that your stream is so cluttered you no longer look at it? Or is it Pinterest? I’ve tried that tool, but never really liked it. Or is Facebook still the one that rules them all? I haven’t done a blog tour for a book in a year. They just don’t yield any tangible results. What does? Book sales are down year on year… I sell more paperbacks, which is nice, but ebook sales have declined drastically, and I lost (like many others) a lot (about 10%) in the ARe debacle last fall.
What are your thoughts? Is your blog still growing? Do you have a steady stream of readers on your blog? Have you stopped blogging? Are you considering it? Are you reading blogs? Or not? Where do you find new books, authors? What marketing works for you? Loads of questions, and I know that the readers I do have are smart, so let’s hear it…
Have a great week, and if you like what you read, subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.