Thursday, April 30, 2015

M/M Romance: The Next Big Thing?

Last Tuesday, the US Supreme Court heard arguments on a case that could allow same-sex marriages in all 50 States. I truly hope common sense prevails and that soon every American will have the right to marry, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

And ten years ago, we weren't even having this conversation.

Something happened last month that reflects a similar shift, but on the micro level (meaning, not nearly as important as the Supreme Court, but still telling). Three M/M romances were nominated for RITA awards. They were Fever Pitch by Heidi Cullinan, Bonds of Denial by Lynda Aicher, and The Bells of Times Square by Amy Lane. (The only one I've read - and reviewed - is Fever Pitch. Great book!) Before these nominations, there'd been only one LGBT story nominated for a RITA, Melt Into You, a F/M/M story by Roni Loren.

And ten years ago, M/M romance existed almost exclusively as fanfic or slash fiction. These stories were mostly written by women, for women readers, and most of them described the hypothetical exploits (sexploits?) of known movie, television, or literary characters.

Like, what was the REAL relationship between Harry Potter and Snape?

Yeah, I don't actually want to think about that one too hard. At some point between about the year 2000 and 2010, publishers caught on that the popularity of M/M fanfic meant there was a market for these stories, and authors started creating and publishing original works of fiction featuring gay men. (M/M is a shorthand for man-on-man, or thereabouts - jump HERE to read more about the evolution of the subgenre.)

Right here I need to make a short apology, both for using M/M in the title of this post, and for my focus on it as a subgenre. It's possible to find lesbian romance, and stories featuring trans and other LGBTQ characters. There's also a subgenre referred to as gay fiction, whose authors don't rely on romance tropes and endeavor to create stories set in more realistic, contemporary worlds dealing with the day-tot-day issues faced by people of a variety of orientations. (Jump HERE for a great post comparing M/M romance & gay fiction.) I don't mean to ignore anyone's preference or orientation or kink, but honestly, M/M is the big bear among LGBTQ romance fiction.
So how popular is M/M romance? While I'm pretty handy with a google search, I could't find any sales figures. However, in addition to the three RITA nominations,..

  • The Goodreads M/M Romance group has 17,468 members (and growing!), which puts it in the top four genre groups. That's right. Over 17,000 fans are part of this very active, engaging Goodreads group.

  • New groups like work to promote M/M and other subgenres of queer romance, along with a variety of LGBTQ fiction. New publishers like BrainMill Press are taking calls for a variety of gay fiction and romance, building on the foundation laid by Dreamspinner Press, Riptide Publishing, MLR Press, and other publishers of M/M. Perhaps even more significant, major publishers like Harlequin, Kensington, and Loveswept are seeking out and signing M/M authors.

  • This might be totally subjective, but I've seen a trend toward M/F romance authors slipping M/M books into their series. The Understatement of the Year is Book 3 of Sarina Bowen's Ivy Leagues series, is M/M while the other three feature heterosexual couples. Amy Jo Cousins did the reverse - the first two books in her Bend Or Break series are M/M, while the upcoming The Girl Next Door tells the story of a het couple Cash & Steph (though it does include a menage scene that just about blew my mind). And just this week, Christina Lee released There You Stand, the third book in her Between Breaths series, and the only one (so far) that's M/M. My view might be skewed by the corner of the internet I'm hanging out in, but I have to think these authors wouldn't be crossing subgenres if they weren't selling books.

One thing you might have noticed is that so far in this post, all the authors I've cited are women. While men do write M/M romance - Josh Lanyon, Damon Suede, Brad Vance, and Alexis Hall are well-known and fantastic at what they do - the majority of M/M romance writers are women, as are the majority of the genre's readers.

And isn't that a little weird?

Maybe yes; maybe no. I mean, the majority of romance readers are women, so it makes sense that they'd be attracted to stories that follow standard genre tropes, regardless of what was happening below the characters' belts. Women might like to read about men who are connected with their emotional side, but are some of the characters in these stories just "women with dicks"? Do they fetishize gay men, or even exploit gay sex?

Yep, some of them do. Some of these stories are the equivalent of the kind of lesbian porn that's aimed at sexually stimulating straight men.

But a lot more of them - and most of what I read - make an honest attempt to explore the love relationships between two characters who happen to be gay men. And some of that is erotic, and when it's done well, it's pretty exciting.

A few years ago, M/M author Alex Beecroft wrote this amazing post Why Do Women Write M/M Fiction - Answers for the Men. Among other things, she addresses the issue of whether M/M is exploitive, and if you've got a moment, her post is well worth reading (and so are her books, for that matter. My current fave is Blue-Eyed Stranger).

One of the most critical questions Ms. Beecroft asks is why it's considered bad form for women to get turned on by gay sex. (I'm going to quote her here, because she's so amazingly eloquent.)

Are straight women not allowed to have sexuality?

Or is it just that women are supposed to have such tight control over our sexual fantasy life that we can decide not to find something sexy even though by nature we do?  Are we, in short, supposed to stifle our sexuality because it makes men uncomfortable?

Hm.  That sounds like a very old form of oppression.  Men have put women in chastity belts and insane asylums in the past because they were uncomfortable with the fact that we too are sexual beings.  Stifling our writing is likely to be taken as one more attempt along the same lines.

Because shut up and stick to your heteronormative reality is kind of a harsh message, don't you think?

The other day, I got into it with my teenage daughter. She'd brought home a stack of books about different aspects of Native American life, "even though they were written by white people". In her view, only Native people could accurately capture the reality of their lives. I asked her what she thought about middle-aged white women writing M/M romance.

She didn't think much of that, either.

Taken to an extreme, her logic would say that only vampires can write paranormal romance. Which is kind of silly and reductionist, I'll admit, but I don't think you can put limits on what an artist chooses to create. If a writer has a story to tell, and makes an honest attempt at capturing the truth of that story, I don't think their plumbing should matter very much...although I acknowledge that there's been reams of blogspace taken up in debating this issue, in attacks and counterattacks and criticism of women who write M/M. I hope that won't happen here.

In a perfect world, readers will move on from M/M to F/F to trans to whatever else is out there. And in a perfect world, all these differing orientations will change from OTHER to just another way of being.

One final thought...the other day someone posted a query on the M/M Romance Reviews Facebook page, asking whether the people who follow the page get grief from their significant others for their reading/writing choices. The vast majority of the responses were along the lines of "my husband rolls his eyes, but is generally supportive", which is great. The query did make me think, though, because while my husband falls into the eye-rolling crowd, I haven't been real specific with my mother about the subject of my M/M romance Aqua Follies.

I mean, I'll tell her. Eventually.

In the meantime, I'll do my little bit toward bringing us all closer to the day when it won't matter who you read, and it won't matter who you love.

Because love is love.


If you've got a fave M/M book or author, or you want a recommendation for something to read, leave me a comment.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How NOT to End a Book

I discovered that I wanted to write when I was about 6 or 7 and my mum had just finished reading 'The Hobbit' to me and my brother in nightly installments, complete with an excellent Smeagol voice and sound effects for fish slip-slip slithering down Smeagol's throat.

I started writing around then and still do (if somewhat sporadically). I drew elaborate maps and plotted out stories and made character profiles, even then trying to whip my world into order by over-plotting. That hasn't changed, but the ways that I end my stories certainly have. 

Meet Pip, aged 8: Fantasy enthusiast with an obsession with knights, wizards and dragons.
TYPICAL ENDINGS: "And the knight killed the dragon and the princess escaped from the mad wizard and they found each other and they alllllll lived happily ever after. Except for the poor dragon that is. The End."
At the time, this seemed like an excellent way to end a story with the knight conquering his foe and marrying a princess. Disney loved it so I did too! NEVER AGAIN.

Pip aged 13 or 14 went through a rebellious phase: Keen on horror now and a lover of dystopian futures, all the endings changed. Dramatically.
TYPICAL ENDINGS: "And everybody DIED! Everybody! Even, no ESPECIALLY, the orphan girl begging on the street corner. Stone cold dead. Add a widow weeping over there in the corner. And how about a massacre? Happy endings? They're for the weak and predictable!"
I had read 'Ender's Game' and had been in awe of the boldness of the ending. I had read 'Little Women' and remembered the shock and impact that one little death had had on me and decided to magnify that shock tenfold! No one was safe because I was on a mission to surprise and affect my readers in the same way. NOT THE WAY TO GO.


At the grand old age of 23ish, there was a SLIGHTLY more mature Pip: A fan of the anti-hero and characters with heroic flaws. The endings became a little more balanced but still a bit glum.
TYPICAL ENDINGS: "And the hero saved the day at great personal cost to himself which he never really recovered from and he then led a lonesome life while the people he had saved lived out their lives happily, except for that ONE character that died and we still miss."
I had read 'Hamlet' at school and fallen for him. And don't even get me started on Heathcliff. My characters mostly lived but were doomed to an isolated and unhappy fate without hope of resolution. NO MORE.

And now at the even grander old age of something that shall not be disclosed, I finally feel happy with my planned endings and I hope my future readers will too. I hope to leave my characters (and therefore readers) SATISFIED. 
- I aim to at least have some closure on one part of the character's story and struggle, but to still have plenty more story left to live after the cover is closed, because that's life. 
- There should be a cast of varied characters who all have some flaw or other, because who doesn't but we can all work on them. 
- No one needs to shoulder the whole burden of saving the world all alone because that just makes them irritating. 
- No one is left ultimately happy but no one is left irredeemably broken either, because your reader needs a little sprinkling of hope but it must be hope that they can believe in. 
- Some people live and some people die but every character moves at least a little closer to a resolution. 

That's all I've learned so far - not particularly epic advice, but it's what I aim for.

I can happily say that I have at least never ended a story with "...and I woke up and it was all a dream!" 

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Rhythm of a Good Book

I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I just so happen to be a voracious reader. I'll read almost anything (well, mostly fictional unless study- or work related, but still).

My most recent conquest of the book kind is The Martian by Andy Weir.

It was one of those books one is almost compelled to pick up - not because of the author's world-wide  fame, or the books stellar reviews (no pun intended in this case, honest) - quite frankly it's not a book you've heard of as yet. One picks up books one knows nothing about under the influence of too much travel fatigue, a steadily growing level of annoyance and plain old boredom whilst waiting for a very, very late flight connection.

It has a bright cover, you see. Rather hard to miss amongst pastel-coloured book jackets covered in curli-cu-cute writing. So pick it up I did... and in the two hours I was at the airport, plus one hour on the plane, and then until 3am once I was home, I read this book.

I simply could not put it down. It's been a while since a book captured my interest like this, and oh, how I love that feeling!

Then a couple of days later I stumbled across a post on one of my favourite geeky websites ( that said The Martian is going to be a movie! OUT THIS YEAR!!! (yay!)

And then I went and read the comments to the post. There were many, of all shapes, sizes and flavours, but the one that really stuck with me (and which I shared with my fellow relentless writers earlier) is this one guy who said the book was boring because it was a simple string of problem-solution-problem-solution-problem-solution. Quite apart from the fact that I disagree, this made me think. 

Isn't that the basic structure of most books? Putting the hero through a series of trials, one feeding off the other, to bringe it all to a great climax? And then I realised the problem. This particular reader had missed the overall rising tension that permeated the story (probably because he missed the fact that the mere reading of logbook entries written by a protagonist does not prove that he or she in fact survived the whole ordeal). 

The tension rises and rises, problems keep cropping up, solutions have to be clobbered together, and then, finally there's the BIG PROBLEM, the one that beats them all, the one whose solution (in the case of The Martian, at least) is a matter of life or death. It is certainly a matter of grave importance to the protagonist in most cases, perhaps for a whole group of people, or, for a real bummer, a question that decides whether the world will end or not. 

The climax is the moment the whole book works towards, either resolving a physical crisis or perhaps a crisis of conscience. The climax, that breathless all-deciding moment, is usually followed by an 'ah' moment of relief (if the resolution is favourable) or despair (if it isn't). Rarely do books get away with stopping right after the climax. Most readers REQUIRE a resolution of some kind, though it does not need to be a very long one (depends on your story). If you don't resolve the overall story problems, it's highly likely that the reader will feel cheated in some way. I know I do when I come across that sort of story (rabbit-out-of-hat solutions are also in some disfavour these days).

And you know what? I can't think of a single story that does not have this sort of basic rhythm. One problem followed by a solution followed by another problem that may or may not build on the first one (or perhaps the solution of the first). Actions have consequences, after all, in real life and in books. The overall issue weaves in and out of these 'temporary' problems, but it's always there, pushing the protagonist onwards, forwards, towards the climax and the eventual resolution of the story.

This, then, is the very basic rhythm of a good book. 

If you ask me, that is. Do you agree? Do you see stories as a succession of tension and relief, building up to the big bang that has us sitting at the edge of our seat, turning pages with nary a blink of an eye in between? Or are you of the opinion that one can't find such a basic structure in stories? Can you think of a (good!) story that does not follow this sort of rhythm?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Dealing With Negativity

Dealing with Negativity
(From the people whose opinions you actually care about)

I can’t tell you how many book dedications I’ve read where writers thank their family for putting up with them while they were in the throes of writing their book, their kids eating peanut butter sandwiches so mommy can keep writing and so on and so forth.

I think that’s wonderful. I also wonder (with a certain feeling of shame for doubting their veracity) whether their families really were as supportive as all that. 

Because mine is not.

My kids don’t care whether or not I’m trying to squeeze out time to write a book. They want dinner, and help with homework, they want clean plates to eat off and clean clothes to wear. Books be damned, they want mommy dates and snuggle time. My boy wants a chance to work through how some kids at school called him stupid because he has autism and is hyper-focused on Elvis, the king of rock and roll this month, and Elvis is Not Cool. My girl wants a chance to talk over how some little girl was her friend last week and this week hates her and is hanging out with some other little girl.

This is life-shattering stuff for them folks.

Then there’s my husband who thinks its all a waste of time, that I’ll never finish any of it, (except I did) and even if I do, I’ll never make any money off of it (probably true) so why not focus on something that actually brings in a living wage. Of course, I already make a living wage a different way, so then writing in his mind is a hobby. And hobbies shouldn’t take away from snuggle time and eating chips in bed while watching Supernatural with him, from doing “my Fair Share” of paperwork and dealing with crap all adults have to do but never want to like incorrect bills and disputes about who is responsible for replacing the air conditioning system. Hobbies are for doing in free time.

And you know what? They have a point.

Writing is a huge time suck. And my kids deserve all those things they need. My husband shouldn’t have to deal with all the crap of life because I want to—let me rephrase that—I need to write.

I get it. 

But I don’t get “free time.”  I’m not even sure I believe in this mythical thing  people call Free Time.

Any time I have is stolen--I get it by not doing something else I should be doing.

So how do you avoid this kind of negativity from the people whose opinions you actually care about: your close friends and family?  And if you can’t avoid it, how do you deal with it?

The question isn’t rhetorical folks.

I have no idea what the answer is.  I would have liked to quote that biblical verse about how a prophet isn’t respected in their hometown. But lets face it—I’m no prophet. Probably you aren’t either.  And to be fair, these people in our lives have a valid point. So what do we do?

For now, my answer is to try to prioritize. I try to meet my family’s needs as best I can (and buy paper plates so I spend less time doing dishes.) 

(Sorry Earth.) 

I cut writing time out of sleep time and reading time.  I deny myself so that I don’t have to deny them.

It means everything comes so much slower writing wise.

It means I’m tired a lot.

It means sometimes writing feels like a chore, not a joy.

But the words still come.

What do you guys do? Is there a better way?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Celebrate Earth Day with Print-On-Demand

Today is Earth Day, which is a perfect time to talk about  print-on-demand (POD) services. Aside from being a sustainable alternative to traditional offset printing, for an indie publisher with a small staff and limited resources, it makes sense. Much of my book production experience has been with Reputation Books. We chose IngramSparks because of its relationship to Lightning Source, which only works with publishers. The cost to produce a book is more than CreateSpace, but as a publisher, we want to get our books in front of booksellers, and booksellers are more likely to order books if they are available through Ingram’s catalog than through CreateSpace’s distribution channels.

As an indie author, however, CreateSpace is a very viable alternative. The options for POD are growing, but rather than comparing them all, I’ll share my thoughts on CreateSpace, which provides the most cost effective option to producing a book.  And since it is owned the world’s largest online retailer, CreateSpace offers the fastest and easiest way to get a POD book on Amazon’s marketplace.

Traditional publishing can appear to take quite a long time. It can take up to two years with some publishers, depending on their processes. With Reputation Books, we formally schedule the time it takes for our editorial, design, production, marketing and post-production processes. Each book takes us a year to produce, so I can see why some authors would choose to self-publish rather than go the traditional route. For indie authors, they are in the driver’s seat with these processes, so it can take considerably less time to self-publish their books.

Both IngramSpark and CreateSpace allow you to set up your account for free, and purchase your books at their production cost. The difference in costs are in their upfront fees. While CreateSpace does not charge to upload your book files, no matter how many changes you make, IngramSparks charges an initial $49 fee for book’s cover and interior file, plus an annual $12 “market access fee.” Any changes to a “completed title,” which happens when the official book proof is okayed for printing and/or distribution, IngramSpark charges $25 for a revised cover and $25 for a revised interior, so it's especially important to carefully and completely inspect the proof before approving it.  However, with CreateSpark, you can make changes to your book files at no additional cost, regardless if you have okayed the book proof for publishing. I also like that I can order a physical copy of the book before I actually release the book for publication.
I’d like to say that both IngramSpark’s and CreateSpace’s POD processes are equal, but I actually find IngramSpark’s easier to understand. That said, both require a bit of trial and error for the DIY author. Thankfully, there are some good tutorials on the internet that can help you get through the process.  But I found the most valuable resources were the PDFs of IngramSpark’s and CreateSpace’s submission guidelines. CreateSpace does a better job at explaining design and publishing terminology for creating submission files, which is important if you are designing the book or providing instructions for the book’s design. 

Both also provide cover templates to use, which I highly recommend. IngramSpark creates the cover mechanical template with your book’s bar code, while CreateSpace adds the bar code after you have uploaded your book files, so you don’t have the option of moving the bar code to another area on the cover.

Speaking of the bar code, both POD services require an ISBN for each book.  As a publisher, we purchase our ISBNs in bulk through Bowker Identifier Services, but  for the indie author who is self-publishing, purchasing an ISBN one at a time is fairly expensive. If you don’t want to spend $125 for an ISBN, CreateSpace has options for purchasing your ISBN through them from free to $99.

The one issue I have with CreateSpace is in connecting with an actual human being to get answers that weren't available on their website. With IngramSpark, I can call their customer service, while CreateSpace requires you to fill out their online form to get either an email or return call. When I’m in the middle of production and hit a snag, I like the quickness and ease of picking up the phone to get help.

For small publishers, IngramSpark still makes better sense than CreateSpace whether it is because of their distribution channels, customer service, or personal preference. For self-publishing authors who don’t mind a little DIY elbow grease, CreateSpace may be a better choice, because it offers authors more control, minimal up front costs and ease of use. 

Whether it’s IngramSpark, CreateSpace or another POD service, print-on-demand provides not only an economical alternative to indie authors and indie publishers, it offers a sustainable alternative to traditional offset printing. So on Earth Day, go green with POD. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Finding the Holy Grail—Blogging 101

Recently, I was involved in a twitter chat with WahibaChair, MBA of Simon Fraser University called: How to Get Results from Social Media.
In the course of events, the topic of blogging came up. The facilitator’s question was:
“How do you communicate in a way that maximizes conversation on social media?”

The comments proposed revolved around creating relevant and valuable content. Realizing this was the missing link, I wanted specifics. My reply was as follows:

“Ah yes, but how do you determine whether the content is valuable.”

The answer given was:

“That is the Holy Grail of it, Marissa! It's both an art and science, [and] takes lots of experimentation!”

Oh, the blessed and elusive Holy Grail. What is this relevant and valuable content of which they speak? Who knowst what the world wants to read? Who determineths what will be valuable and exciteth the masses?

Beats me!

I’ve been in the ‘blogging business’ for several years now, and I continue to wander about in relative obscurity, while other bloggers have hit the virtual jackpot. While droves of fans and subscribers flock to their timely and consistently updated content, my poor blog flounders in the mire of invisibility.

There are lots of measures an author can use to try and determine which content has roused their loyal readership to take action—a share, a comment, a like, or retweet. Site insights and analytics (think Google Analytics, Facebook Page Insights, Twitter Analytics) help authors determine which posts are engaging and interesting to their subscribers and which ones fall flat.

But where are these readers coming from? How do you delight and inspire people who haven’t even discovered you yet? How do you keep the content relevant and interesting for those wonderful friends and followers who do on occasion pop in to see what you’ve been up to?

Google tells us to write like the wind, keep refreshing content. The more you post (this also applies to Facebook, though Facebook also requires interaction—shares, comments, likes) the more you will rise in the rankings in search engines.

But what to blog about? If you’re a nonfiction author, you can perhaps blog about your favourite subject matter—something that is of keen interest to your readership. But what if you write fiction? What are your readers coming to you for?

If you have a book on the market and a loyal readership already, the task becomes easier. Many authors blog about their writing process, news and updates about their latest books, or they post images and videos of book tours and conferences … things that appeal to an avid fan base. But what of the debut authors? The authors who do not have thousands of followers and subscribers? What can we possibly do to get our voices heard?

There are so many authors vying for attention. So many writers toiling in the blogging trenches with little engagement, nonexistent shares, abysmal likes, or negligible follows. We keep throwing words at the wall, hoping something sticks, but until we hit upon that magical elixir, that secret to life, that mystical gold cup of relevant content our precious paragraphs and sentences fall upon disinterested ears.

So what are we to do? What is the Holy Grail?
I’m often reminded of The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. This wonderful little gem of a book started with a simple commitment—to jot down one awesome thing a day. The project turned into a blog that went viral, sparked a movement, and garnered a book deal, to boot.

In this blog post by Canva: Why You Should Design Something New Every Day: 20 Awesome Case Studies To Inspire You, we are encouraged to find strength in the success and endeavors of others who have embarked on similar creative paths. The post speaks to designers, photographers, and artists, but it applies equally to writers.

Can you find something to write about every day? Can you pick a theme? Can you hone a style? Can you hit upon a relevant topic that might appeal to your readers? Can you find a way to tap into your own exuberance and creativity to pull a blog post out of the proverbial hat on a more frequent basis? Can you find something to get excited about—something to keep the juices running and the passion flowing? Both reader and writer need to be intrigued and titillated by your posts.

If you can do that, my friends, you will have found the Holy Grail!

Unfortunately, I’m still looking. But do not fear. I am of stout heart and noble intentions. I shall never give up!

What do you think? Have you found the Holy Grail? Anybody out there have a good map? J
In gratitude,

Marissa xo