Today is release day for the second novel in my Dancing series, Enjoy the Dance, a follow up to my 2011 novel Dance With Me. When I re-released Dance With Me last year, I’d intended to write a quick short, or possibly a brief novella catching readers up on what had happened Ed and Laurie between when that novel had ended and 2015, because so much had happened. Enjoy the Dance quickly became one of those stories that got away from my original vision in ways that departed from everything I had intended it to be but took me on many wonderful, important journeys I do not regret taking. Thanks to a conversation with a friend this summer, I made the decision to not make this a continuation story but its own novel and to introduce a new couple, to make this a formal new series. The story is a romance, but it is more romantic fiction than a romance novel. It is definitely one of those stories that I needed to write for myself and for one particular person in my life. It was one of the more difficult stories I’ve written, but I don’t regret one word of it.
The one point that I wasn’t going to move from in the production of this story was that I would finish it. I had made a promise that part of the proceeds for the production of this book would raise money for an organization which has become very near to my heart: Avenues for Youth in Minneapolis. If you have read my Love Lessons series, you have heard me speak of this organization before. They raised money for it in Lonely Hearts, and it was vaguely referenced in Fever Pitch. I interviewed Ryan Berg from Avenues as part of my blog tour for Enjoy the Dance, and you can read that interview and its three parts here, here, and here, or you can read more about Avenues on their website. Especially with this book, where the themes of the story are so directly related to Avenues, I wanted to take an opportunity to raise money for them through my work. I wish I could tell you I had reached the point in my career where I could afford it to donate the entire proceeds of the novel even for a month or two, but unfortunately I am not there yet.
However. I do have a few opportunities for you to help me raise money for Avenues this week and this coming weekend.
Twin Cities Book Festival Sale: This coming Saturday, I will be attending the Twin Cities Book Festival in Minneapolis at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds from 10 AM to 5 PM. I will be selling copies of Enjoy the Dance and Dance with Me for $20 a copy, and all proceeds will be donated to Avenues for Youth. Should you choose to donate more than $20 for your purchase, you will be entered in a raffle for a full signed set of all my Minnesota books in paperback, plus a signed copy of Ryan Berg’s book, No House to Call my Home. Or, if you choose not to make a purchase that day and simply donate $20 or more, you will also be entered in the raffle. If you are in the Twin Cities area, I hope you are able to come by and say hello and help me raise some money for a wonderful cause.
Online Donation Raffle: Not able to make it to Minneapolis this weekend? Wish you could get in on the raffle at the very least? Not to worry. You can! All you need to do is make a $20 donation or more to Avenues for Youth between today and Sunday, October 16 at noon CST for USD$20 or more, and then email the receipt or some sort of proof of donation to email@example.com. You will then be entered into the raffle, plus you will have helped raise money for a truly wonderful organization. You may begin entering now. You may continue to donate after the raffle ending time, but you will not be entered for the raffle prize.
First Print Run Error Copies: This is perhaps the strangest fundraiser I’ve ever done, but in the attempt to make lemons into lemonade, I’m going to run with it. The preparations for production of Enjoy the Dance had to be jostled with some vacation schedules of my contractors, most acutely important the month-long out of country absence of my cover artist. In our earnest attempts to work quickly, and by focusing on the front copy and back copy, and in my decision to do the proofreading myself instead of showing my husband who is so much more detail oriented than me… Well, the long story short is that mistakes were made. Or rather one specific item of the print copy was not changed until I had ordered 66 copies of the book…with the wrong title on the spine.
Some of my patrons have chosen to receive these error copies as gifts. A few have chosen to purchase them. You may do so as well, and again, the bulk of the proceeds will go to Avenues. (The reason it’s “bulk” and not “all” is because of postage and because my budget plans for the Twin Cities Festival fundraiser did not include mistakenly ordering 66 books with the wrong cover before I ordered the same number of books again with the correct cover, but rest assured Avenues will still get well over half of the money collected for the mistake books, inasmuch as I can possibly afford to give them.)
Cost for the error books is $20, which will cover domestic shipping; international shipping will run an additional $5-10, depending on where you are. Please fill out this form if you are interested.
I am now off to have an anniversary dinner with my husband, because yes, that’s today too! I hope you enjoy Enjoy the Dance, and I hope I get to see you in Minneapolis this weekend, or somewhere else very soon.
This post is entirely for authors, or would-be authors of genre fiction. I wrote a nonfiction promotion guide with Damon Suede called Your A Game: winning promo for genre fiction. I’m going to tell you a bit about it, then give you a chance to win a copy. Three chances, in fact.
We wrote this book because, bottom line, we saw a need. Both of us kept getting questions from other authors about how to navigate this or that aspect of marketing and promotion. Sometimes we knew how to help them, and sometimes they gave us questions we wondered about the answers to. So we wrote down what we knew and researched what we didn’t.
But what we both believed more than anything was there was no way to write a one-size-fits-all guide, and the more research we did, the more passionate we felt about that truth. So we organized our book as something that could be personalized for each author at every stage of their career.
Here’s a bit of the information from the book and the website. Give it a gander, and if you’re still not ready to commit, peruse the content on our website, including interactive quizzes, and enter the Rafflecopter for a chance to win a copy of your own.
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Posted on March 14, 2016
I’m an outrage addict.
I want, really to say I’m a former addict, but like any addiction, the first step to being free of it is to acknowledge you never will truly escape its influence. So, let me begin by admitting I have a problem. I am an outrage addict.
I don’t take any comfort from knowing I have a hell of a lot of company. At any given day on every social media site and in the comments of every online article, there are usually at least seven or eight angry outbursts in all directions with roaming mobs with pitchforks to match. Sometimes the ire is more than warranted; it’s healing, or it’s alerting a community (sometimes the world) of a wrong too egregious to ignore. Sometimes our collective upset is as mesmerizing and ridiculous as reality television. Sometimes I open up Twitter and spend a solid five minutes simply trying to sort out who is mad at whom and for what. Sometimes I never quite manage to suss it out.
But I always try to know, because my addiction to righteous indignation short-circuits my rational brain.
I came to my addiction naturally. As a youth, I was the kid who always raised her hand, hungry for attention. Innocent enough, right? I was also the kid picked on, picked last, and picked over when I offered a convenient target. That’s when it really began, I think. When that’s your lot, you learn to look both ways before you cross a hallway. You watch for tells, and you reach for defensive weapons. When everyone’s planting landmines in your path, you boil down the incident and analyze every look, every word, every shove and burst of laughter in an effort to find a way to avoid enjoying this fate in the future.
I was primed, therefore, as I entered college for my first clean hit of undergraduate outrage. I joined causes. I opposed them. I wrote letters to the editor—and those missives elevated me from being a casual outrage abuser to being fully owned by my folly. All my years of wary calculation, my hours of study and anxiety, now had practical application. In those calls to action, I combined analysis with outrage and discovered nirvana: reader reaction. In three hundred words or less, I could—and did—disrupt an entire college campus. I started wars. I ended them. The power was intense, and it was mine to claim.
I indulged my love of outrage, using indignation to get things started, to strive for social justice…and sometimes used for things I told myself were social justice. I got expert at pulling the lever and getting things done…and yeah, giving myself a rush. I got better and sharper, and the hits got sweeter and more complex and satisfying.
And then I discovered the Internet. (cue supernal choir)
I flirted with forums in grad school, though this was treading water. No outrage on the web yet, but conditions were ripe. It wasn’t until I discovered Yahoo groups that I learned how far I was willing to go for my fix. Going without for too long left me with a queasy feeling. I wasn’t even conscious of how I manipulated a room. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, and sometimes the morality line only told me how to offend people the fastest. I just knew I had so much goddamned power in my hands I felt like…well, a god. All I had to do was pick up the pitchfork. And I knew nothing got people moving quite like pointing out something they could direct their anger at.
I told myself I was a good person, so it was okay. All that rage for a good cause helped make the world better, right? Revolution! Yes, a few people were hurt, but…well, they had it coming, right? I mean, everybody agreed with me. Everybody who mattered. And yeah, if things got too nasty, I backed off. Became more conscious. With great power comes great responsibility. Right?
Lying to yourself comes naturally to addicts. So easy to justify what you’re doing, to make excuses for needing something indulgent and destructive. Oscar Wilde said it: “I can resist anything except temptation.” It’s not like you’re hurting anyone really. You’re just speaking your truth. Maybe sometimes you humiliate and crush folks who disagree with you, but only the rabid dogs. Only the ones who’ve bitten someone. Or they looked like they were about to bite. You’re being proactive and making the world safe for folks like you.
Every once in a while, my outrage has definitely helped good to win out in the end; I’m proud of some of the work I’ve done. But I freely admit there have been times, either by ignorance or arrogance, I went too far. Hardly noticeable as would-be author and stay-at-home mom Heidi Cullinan, mucking about online, but as my profile as an author rose, as the reach of my blog and even my Tweets expanded, so did my potential to screw up on a global scale. If I didn’t watch every word that came out of my mouth or landed on my keyboard, the hurt was magnified. If I let my guard down and gave myself a bit of the pure stuff, the righteous outrage of my youth, free of filters or consequence? No guarding, no worries where it landed, just self-righteousness and the rush of knowing I could hit my target drunk, blindfolded, in pouring down rain? Yes. I could and did hurt people.
I have a lot of sins of outrage I should confess to, but there isn’t blog enough and time to number them all. Instead, I’m going to tell you the story of one, and let it be an example. It’s a good representative because it’s layered: there was a valid point buried in there. I didn’t exactly fart at a cathedral wedding and then end ass-up in the gutter with my pants down. But I did hurt someone, needlessly. Last week I emailed her to apologize, and I asked for her permission to tell the story publicly. She gave it to me, and here it is.
This transpired shortly after my hysterectomy a few years ago. I was tired, and I was angry about a lot of things, on and off the topic of uteruses and invasive surgery. I was scared, and confused, because having a major surgery and being thrown head-first into menopause wasn’t on my plans. I felt vulnerable and uncertain, and as it happens at those moments, I sat in my darkness and imagined everyone else was running in the light. It wasn’t fair, and it made me scared, and lonely. And bitter.
I wanted the illusion of safety that power gave me back. So I flexed my worst muscles.
I forget now the ancillary issues in publishing that had me so annoyed. Something about people not doing things right, or getting in my space—ridiculous, petty things born of sick thinking. The world was a dangerous cocktail of insults and mirrors; I lost the ability to tell where my anger was justified and where it simply fed my addiction so I didn’t have to look at myself.
Then I saw the tweet. Someone linked to a book that sounded interesting, but when I read the blurb, there was a word. A single word that shouldn’t be there. Preference. Sexual preference, not orientation. This was wrong. Not only offensive to me, my belief this wasn’t the way to write the word; it went directly against the GLAAD guidelines.
Someone was wrong on the Internet. Zing. Target acquired.
This is the anatomy of addiction, what I did next. The infraction was one word, something I could solve with a single link. I could have emailed the author and said, “Hey, you may not know, but that’s not a good choice, and here’s the research which explains why.” I mean, it wasn’t like I had to say, “Your word makes ME feel weird.” It was a simple matter of media parlance, and there was documentation. Over and out.
I didn’t email her. Which isn’t so bad in and of itself—it’s not necessarily my job to spend the day writing emails telling people to check the GLAAD website. I tweeted back to the person who had showed me the link that it was a bad word choice. Still not such a bad sin. Public, but I had a cue to stand down. People I trusted and respected gently suggested she hadn’t meant it to be offensive, hinted they could talk to her, but honestly they didn’t find it offensive. I got all the more upset, and I dug in my heels. I knew I was right: I’d found a molehill to climb like a mountain.
This was about justice, I thought to myself. My certainty was absolute. I was in the right. I knew I was. And you know, I actually was. Part of why I got such a bee in my bonnet is that I’d let the word stand once in a big way. It was during my tenure as RRW president, and RWA had capitulated on an issue so quickly I’d had whiplash, but they’d used the word preference. It’s a universally disliked term, no controversy in the community, but I didn’t feel like I could fight for it in that moment, not in that environment. From a political standpoint, I’d ceded the battle to not upset the greater victory. It was changed soon after, by work from Damon Suede, but I remembered that capitulation I’d felt I had to make. I hadn’t liked the feeling.
Here, however, was my chance to win all around. Down with preference! Yay, orientation! The word must go! I’d save the world in my spare time; I wasn’t worthless or lonely or sad. Right? Right? And though I would have told you otherwise, in the back of my unhealthy mind, I added the thought that changed my outrage from positive action into a hit of the drug.
I’ll do this good thing, and I will be the one to take it down. It’ll feel good to have this victory.
I opened my mouth and inserted my foot. I didn’t name the author, which I thought protected me from gaucherie, but everybody and their pet rock knew who I was talking about. I worse than named the author: I made knowing and shaming her a game, fun for the whole mob. Grab a pitchfork and a torch and meet me at the castle! I brought up appropriation, a conversation I’d wanted to have for a long time, but I yoked it to this use of the word “preference” in a way that didn’t help the argument and honestly, turned a minor gaffe into a thought crime. Did I ask friends to check the essay first? Hell, no! I didn’t want to be checked. Always a sign taking a hit of the outrage pipe.
I screwed up. I had an important conversation and the wrong way at the wrong time over an issue that didn’t need this kind of searchlight. I summoned the willing mob of thought police to help me whip myself into a lather. What made this incident of outrage different, however, is that I didn’t get my fix, the rush of exhilaration and power. I think even if I’d actually managed to not hurt someone and had only had an important conversation and done it well, I still would have felt like crap. Because the truth was, I was already empty.
Especially when the author wrote me, apologized to me for using the word, fixed the blurb, and offered me a copy of the book. No, I didn’t get satisfaction at all.
The author was Sarina Bowen, and the book was The Understatement of the Year. It’s a very good book, and if you love gay romance with aching, soul-bruising angst, drop what you’re doing and go lap it up. Sarina is a lovely, generous, kind-hearted woman, and she did not deserve to be dragged into my mess, even if it would have been better for her to use orientation at the start. But at the end of the day, she certainly didn’t need to apologize to me for using the word in her blurb. And yet she did. She took the hit, because I needed my hit.
That act of kindness by her—turning the other cheek and inviting me to slap it with utter humility and openness of spirit—was one of the most generous, undeserved gifts I’ve ever been given. It undid my anger and fear and helped lead me, gently, into the deep and bitter sadness I had been trying so hard to skirt in my own issues. It was important, because on the other side of my terror and fear and rage was acceptance. But I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to stay in anger, where it was safe.
I apologize to you again, Sarina, for my selfishness—and I thank you, again, for your selfless gift.
I’m not going to pretend I still don’t get angry. I do. Daily. But I try not to wallow in the indignation or reap anything from it. I do my best to put my egocentric pitchfork down and let the toxicity go.
Outrage addiction isn’t like being an alcoholic. You can’t put down the bottle and never pick it up again. You need anger sometimes. Outrage serves a terrible, vital function. Sometimes you have to raise your voice to get people to hear the house is on fire. Sometimes the only way to relieve the pressure is to scream. But I’ve learned, the hard way, that we feed that vicious cycle for selfish reasons. Sometimes we’re the ones starting the fire, and we don’t just injure innocent bystanders. We burn them alive, slowly, and on a public bonfire. And then that’s on our slate. On our soul. We have to carry their carcasses around, and look at them. We become their pyre, their prison, their grave.
I wrote this essay to confess, to memorialize the damage that outrage can do to you and the others around you. To invite you to look at your outrage meter as I continue to examine mine. Is the blaze is worth what it destroys? Are we letting go of our rage, or clinging to it so healing and progress is impossible?
We hate our flaws in everyone else, but that projection doesn’t release the feelings, only conflates them. I’m an addict, but I’m trying to quit. I’m trying to be brave enough to walk through pain and upset, to lead the mob towards something other than poison and pitchforks. To strive to be a light and a leader. To not turn myself into a dungeon or a pyre.
I’m staying in outrage rehab, facing my days one at a time. I don’t need twelve steps, when one will do: cooperate and reciprocate. I will play fair. Respond to slights, but make my goal cooperation and sharing joy and victory. I will never cheat my allies. I won’t get in my own way. I will treat other people as partners, not enemies. I will always be open to more partners, because I move faster to my goals when I have more help and less opposition. I will remember, in my dark moments, that my goal is not to burn or destroy. My goal is to cooperate and reciprocate. I only have use of pitchforks when I need to carry out dung.
I’m taking responsibility for my own weakness. I’m learning to trust I don’t need the sweet rush of righteous rage to feel catharsis. That the real power lies in dowsing my torch and calming any indignant mob determined to stifle honest conversation and real solutions. Maybe those folks can’t help themselves, but I can keep myself safe and make a place for others seeking shelter from the blaze. The place for me to battle injustice is at its root: in my own addiction. I’m trying to become the ex-rage-junkie I wish to see in the world.
I’m an outrage addict, but I’m committed to breaking the habit.
How about you?
Comments are closed.
A year ago today my favorite author, my greatest soul comfort when I retreat into a book, walked across the sand with Death.
I wrote about it that day. I also cried my eyes out so hard I almost threw up. My sister called from Austria in the middle of it and thought someone in the family had died, and she was a bit perplexed as to why I was this upset about an author. Especially since I hadn’t met him in person or anything.
I’ve cried several times since then—when my copy of The Shepherd’s Crown arrived, when we watched Hogfather at Christmas, when I was at a stoplight the other day and my thoughts went from a quote to the book and the reminder I have all the books I’ll ever have from him now. I wept in bed this morning when the hashtag #GNUTerryPratchett wafted into my feed.
Pratchett was, and is, all I wanted to be in life. That brilliant and varied an author. That stellar a parent. That sharp of a colleague. I did, a bit, want to meet him, but as his friend Neil Gaiman said, if you meet your heroes, they’re not your heroes anymore, they’re real people. Though part of my love of Pratchett was he seemed the most real of all the real people.
I still haven’t read The Shepherd’s Crown. I don’t know when I’ll be able to. I considered it briefly in bed, thinking perhaps that’s what I should do on the anniversary of his death. It was just a flash, though. The book remains on my shelf, waiting. I’m not ready for that goodbye.
I receive the clacks message, and I pass it on, not logged, to be turned around at the end of the line.
Sir Terry, may your name be spoken forever.
I had the pleasure this week of reading an advance reader copy of Beyond the Sea, a contemporary romance by Keira Andrews. It’s the story of two young men who crash on a remote Pacific island, help each other survive against the odds, and along the way fall in love. It also happens to be a novel where both protagonists are straight. Or at least, they identify themselves as such at the start of the story.
This trope—straight men falling for each other—goes by many names, has many subtle incarnations and flavors, and it’s far older than the last fifteen years of what is the modern gay romance market. From pulp novels to porn to sweet romances, straight men who “turn” gay is a popular fantasy for pretty much everyone, including (yes, really) straight men. Some people focus on the word turn, the fantasy being more about subjugating patriarchal insistence that only heterosexual men are powerful. The return on investment in this remix is luring a straight man to eat his words rather than anything else. Or more bluntly, the fantasy is to put the straight man on his knees, either in front of another straight man or before a gay man. No matter how it’s done, the straight man “turning” gay speaks to reclaiming power, or perhaps simply to watching that power be taken from those with the most reserves.
But the trope isn’t only about power, and as LGBT rights rise, more and more it’s not about turning anyone as it’s about freeing all of us. More and more young adults report they’re either bisexual or uninterested in being labeled as a specific orientation or gender. Straight men of all ages are admitting to gay fantasies and gay experiences, and many more men are identifying as bisexual than ever before.
Women are doing this too, but again, we’re a patriarchal society. When women say they’re bisexual, gender-fluid or pansexual, it doesn’t grab the culture’s attention in the same way. Despite the logistical ridiculousness of it (less women having sex with men=fewer babies in the traditional, caveman manner), men abandoning heteronormative roles still makes our culture shiver, either in terror or delicious anticipation. Fictional stories of straight men in gay relationships by extension become a celebration of that freedom in a way that resonates in our collective and individual hindbrains. It’s beyond simple orientation, and it’s not even about sex, not entirely. If the straight man can be freed from his chains, so can we all.
In Andrews’s Beyond the Sea, this freedom comes with a double dose of trope: two straight men on a desert island. No societal pressures beyond what they allow onto their shores, and no future repercussions, because they know they have almost zero chance of being rescued. The only way the slate could be cleaner would be if they’d both had amnesia, but that scenario wouldn’t have been as sweet. No, instead, we witness two men become each other’s whole world, literally. They must rely on one another. They must help each other, soothe each other. It’s easy to imagine that extension into love each other, emotionally and physically. All they have to do is let go of an orientation inflexibility impressed upon them by the patriarchal culture.
This phenomenon of straight men falling in love with each other isn’t fictional at all, and it’s not about convenience, either. New science has shown men of all orientations often fantasize about one another, and it’s quite possibly all down to progesterone. The hormone, found in both men and women, is crucial to forging alliances. It doesn’t require a physical connection, but it’s absolutely why anyone, male or female, who works closely with another human feels connected in ways which are resonant and powerful.
If a culture insists on no homosexual contact, or at least makes it seem undesirable, it’s easy to imagine those whose orientation is either fluid or more tacked toward straight to shrug and focus on the opposite sex. But when those cultural rules fall away, because they’re relaxing or because those meant to follow them are, say, abruptly washed onto an island, that fluidity is back in play.
In Andrews’s novel, both heroes are stranded on islands long before that’s literally true. One man is a reluctant part of a boy band, dutifully letting himself be shuttled through life in a glass hamster wheel, plastering on a smile while the paparazzo click away. The other is a celebrated pilot hero unable to process his survivor guilt, shutting himself off from the world to the point it’s almost dangerous. Neither one of them in any way is repressing their sexuality or orientation. Both have had relationships with women, and they’ve been real relationships, not disappointing attempts where everything felt wrong, especially once they opened up to the idea of being with a man.
This means when they do fall for one another, it’s all the more magical. Their relationship isn’t about orientation but about connection. It’s not about surrendering identity but shedding old lives to make new ones. About finding themselves and each other amidst a harrowing ordeal—talk about a tale of hope! A charming, heartwarming breath of fresh air, Beyond the Sea allows us to imagine we too can sail past our boundaries and into the ocean of our own happily ever after.
As a woman of fluid orientation herself, I love and cherish this story. It got me thinking, too, about other books in this vein I’ve loved and that I know a lot of romance readers love. And since I know several of those authors very well, and because I really wanted to talk about this book and this topic now that I was warmed up, I asked them to let me interview them. They obliged.
I started the conversation with my longtime friend and sometimes co-author, Marie Sexton.
Heidi: Marie, You’re credited with coining the phrase out for you, a remix of the often-disliked gay for you. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between the two phrases, at least in your mind?
Marie: This actually happened not long after Promises came out. A reader contacted me to tell me about a heated debate on an Amazon forum over whether or not Matt qualified as “gay for you.” He wanted to know if I’d join the conversation and weigh in. I didn’t, because that sounded like trouble, but I sat there for a while being confused as to why Matt would ever be called “gay for you.” In my mind, Matt was never straight. He just hadn’t ever allowed himself to explore his attraction to men. Falling in love with Jared gave him the courage to finally accept that side of himself, but it wasn’t like he suddenly switched teams or anything. I mentioned it to my husband, and he said, “Matt isn’t ‘gay for you.’ He’s ‘out for you.'” Not long after that, the same discussion happened on Jessewave, where I repeated the phrase, and suddenly it became a thing.
For the record, I only have one character I consider to be truly “gay for you,” and that’s Simon, in Saviours of Oestend. Like it or not, it has long been known that men who would otherwise be considered straight will resort to same-sex activities when there are no females around for extended periods of time (i.e., prisoners, pirates, sailors). This is sort of where Simon fits in. Simon is definitely straight, but forms a partnership with Frances that includes sexual favors.
Heidi: You’ve written several characters now who some call bisexual, some call straight, but from working with you on Second Hand and Family Man, I know your characters can be wont to reject labels altogether. I don’t think I ever actually said this out loud to you, but I really think reading your work in particular (and then working with you on those two projects) helped me come to terms with my own orientation, which I had never questioned as anything but straight before. Looking back, I can do some revisionist history, but it does seem odd to have to insist my perception of myself cannot change, that I had to have been “wrong” or “in denial” up until that point. Is this setup something your characters present to you and you go with it, or was this a deliberate artistic choice on your part? Does this have a resonance for you, possibly even beyond gay for you, out for you, or orientation in general?
Marie: I think my characters tend to reject labels because I tend to reject labels. I understand that for some people, a label helps. And if that’s the case—if a label feels good, or feels right, or somehow makes somebody feel more comfortable about themselves—then by all means, they should use it. But I also think there’s often too much emphasis on finding just the right box to shove people into. I also think that, especially for teenagers, we need to realize that being confused is okay. Being confused is normal. It’s part of growing up. It’s how we learn and grow. And yet, there’s so much pressure to pick a side RIGHT NOW.
I talked to a friend recently who told me about an incident her son had gone through in his late teens. He was mostly attracted to women, but occasionally liked to dress in drag. He started exploring online forums, and quickly found himself in a place where people were pressuring him to pick a label already, and then ACT IT, meaning he was told to stop any behavior that was contrary to the label, even if it wasn’t contrary to his nature. There were lots of people telling him he was just confused (of course he was!), or that he was in denial. He started thinking he needed to begin hormone therapy, even though he didn’t particularly want to be female, just because he was being pressured by so many people to transition. He was lucky enough to have parents who understood and supported him in every way, but he still spent more than a year in a severe depression, trying on different labels, trying to make his sexuality and his vision of himself fit into some perfect little descriptor until finally, he had an epiphany: it didn’t matter. He still mostly liked girls, although sometimes boys. He still liked to dress in drag, but not every day. He didn’t *want* to choose a label, and I think that should be okay too. Love who you love. Do what you like. It’s nobody else’s business.
Did I even answer the question?
I think most people aren’t 100% gay or 100% straight. That seems pretty obvious. Most of us are somewhere in between. I think a lot of that is how we’re born, but I also think that little gray-scale slider can be nudged one way or the other by all kinds of things. If I’d had a chance to explore my attraction to women more when I was in my late teens/early 20s, I’d probably identify more as bi. As it is, I’m mostly attracted to men, only occasionally attracted to women, and often attracted to androgynous people of all genders. But, I’m also old and married and have never been all that interested in sex. Whatever. I’m just not that concerned about finding the exact right label, and neither are my characters.
My entire life view really does boil down to this: Live and let live. Love who you love. To hell with those who don’t like it.
Still not sure if I answered the question.
Heidi: I ador your upcoming release, Trailer Trash. Nate seems to follow that pattern of not necessarily identifying as gay, only happens to fall in love with a man. Would you agree with my reading of that, or am I wishing my own perceptions onto your book? Do you think it changes the game at all that Nate is living in the 1980s, not 2016?
Marie: I think Nate is like a lot of my characters in that he’s somewhere in that range in between 100% gay and 100% straight. Falling for Cody (and falling hard) definitely forces him to face that side of himself. But yes, I definitely think it would have been a very different story if it’d been set in 2016. I think he would have had a lot more opportunities to question his sexuality as he was growing up. But growing up in the 80s, it was just assumed that everybody was straight. Only those weirdos in New York or San Francisco were gay. Certainly nobody in small-town America could possibly be gay! Denial is a powerful thing. (And porn was awfully hard for teenagers to come by in those days!) And so of course Nate has kind of assumed he must be straight too, despite the fact that he’s never been attracted to a girl.
Next, I spoke with Tere Michaels.
Heidi: Tere, Your book Faith and Fidelity is considered to be not only a seminal gay romance but also a story many readers have considered to be moving and meaningful on very personal levels. I have a bisexual male friend, in fact, who considers your work part of his personal awakening to his own orientation. Can you speak a little to this reader reaction? Were you surprised by it?
Tere: The reaction took me off guard, to be honest. I wrote a story in my head, I got it published and people responded so intensely to it—on the one hand your ego enjoys the attention! But then the personal stories began to come into my email and I was overwhelmed.
By and large, my fan mail was (is) from men. All ages—teenagers who wanted to find a love like Matt, older men who shared their personal journeys with me. Some of the letters made me cry, because the story of Matt and Evan sort…tripping into love with each other triggered feelings in people that were very real and honest. It made it a little bigger than “yay I published my first book.”
When the third book came out, with Evan’s internal narration about labels and expectations, the mail really picked up. Men in their 40s and 50s seemed to identify with that part of it very intensely.
I am SO grateful that people comfortable enough to share their stories with me.
Heidi: In Faith and Fidelity, the characters are very specific about not identifying as gay or even bisexual, and my reading was that they fell in love with each other, orientation be damned. Did you make this choice consciously, or was it character-driven? Why do you feel that aspect of their relationship is so important to their story?
Tere: I think it was character-driven, mostly because of the age of the characters. Labels are being used in a more positive and life-affirming way by younger generations but Matt and Evan grew up in a completely different time. They have stereotypical opinions as well as very specific thoughts about who THEY are. And those things don’t line up with what they perceive as “gay.”
It’s also a part of their evolution, as people and as a couple. By later books in the series, they’ve both done some soul searching and internal reorganization about who they are. But their reluctance felt organic in the first story.
Basically—I don’t think people wake up one day, slap a new label on themselves and feel completely at ease with it! And sure as hell not people like Matt and Evan, who haven’t knocked on that little dark box inside their soul for a very long time.
Heidi: I’m asking similar questions of Damon Suede regarding his debut novel Hot Head, which also features two straight men who fall for each other despite identifying as straight, but while your books are similar in popularity and influence in the genre, your book, while not shying away from sex, has a different type of emotional connection. Whereas Suede’s characters connect through a kind of denial, your characters are drawn to each other like moths to a flame, and the conflict is less about worrying about whether or not attraction is returned and more about how to negotiate this unexpected alteration of the expected path of their lives. Can you speak a bit on why you wanted to tell this kind of story this way? Was it an exploration of characters who appeared to you, or a deliberate choice?
Tere: That’s a different answer for each character, actually.
Matt’s emotional currency is sex—before he meets Evan. Even when he starts having feelings for him, they are expressed as sexual dreams. What really keeps him there—attracted to Evan and despite freaking out about it—is the fact that for the first time, he is absorbed into a family unit and
completely accepted. This is new for him. And that desire for family and inclusion is what drives him to make things work. He’s never had it and a taste of it is actually better than sex for Matt.
Evan, on the other hand, is not an overtly sexual being. In the current parlance, I’d say Evan is demisexual without ever realizing it. And his emotional currency is safety.
Evan falls in love with Sherri, his wife—and sleeps with her—because she makes him feel safe. This is something that very few people in his life have offered without it being a trap. Evan has sexual feelings for his wife because she moves past his walls and grants him a haven. And when he meets Matt, here is another person who just seems to honestly see Evan—and at that point, Evan is literally starving for Sherri’s safety. He doesn’t just miss her, he feels unbalanced. Matt walks in and boom, Evan finds his footing.
The sex is secondary in Faith & Fidelity—it’s an expression of their attraction and relief at finding someone who fulfills emotional needs more than anything else.
Heidi: Is there anything else you’d like to expand upon, either this trope or this series in particular?
Tere: I’d like to think that the Faith, Love & Devotion series is less about labels and more a journey. I honestly believe people can change over their lifetime—the Kinsey Scale isn’t set in stone when you’re born! The secret to happiness (in my humble opinion) is being open to change and open to love. So call it “gay for you”—I’d like to think of it more as “Taking a Leap for You.”
Finally, I kicked this conversation over to Damon Suede.
H: Damon, Hot Head is a balls-out, unabashed romance featuring two straight men. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose this trope for that story?
D: Hot Head is loosely based on a true story. My best friend went through a phase of dating married firefighters. One night her fuck-of-the-moment, a world class, charming-macho-shithead confessed in a drunken midnight conversation that he’d once been in love with a guy: his best friend. They’d grown up together, banged broads together, gone through probie school together, bailed each other out of bar fights, served in the same FDNY company together. Then one day he realized he was having these weird thoughts. And eventually his curiosity drove him into a summertime three-way with the best friend and the wife which went very badly. The wife flipped because of his focus on the friend. The friend flipped because he was acting “so fucking weird.” After twenty years as near brothers, they stopped speaking. A terrible rift that nothing could bridge. All he wanted to do was confess this impossible attraction/affection/longing, but it had divided them.
And then the World Trade Center came down, and his best friend died.
Before any explanation or confession could happen, he’d lost the person he loved most without being able to tell the truth, and it almost destroyed him too. When he told me his terrible secret, half-drunk in the middle of the night, it was still clearly killing him slowly.
When it came time to write my first book, I tried to think of the most romantic scenario imaginable, and decided to write their story but give them the happy ending they deserved.
So on the one hand, I chose that trope because it was the core of a true story with angst, pathos, and painful redemption baked into it from the get-go. But on the other hand, I believe that story was so romantic because of the ways that our society cages male desire and denies male vulnerability. The fact that they were both firefighters, the realities of 9/11 and homophobia in the FDNY only added dramatic grist.
But at core, the straight-men-in-love-with-each-other trope is about forbidden desire and redemption. To my mind, that’s the most hopeful, seductive thrilling notion in the world: that our pain has value and that we are forged in the fires of our own suffering, smelted and hammered into shape like bright swords.
Now, I think any obstacle can be romantic. But in gay romance in particular, in which gender expression and sexual norms often sit front and center, that hungry chasm between straight-identifying men affords all kinds of dramatic mojo to a canny author of gay romance. So too, the mythography of heroes involves their entanglement with villainy and weakness. Angels need devils to wrestle. No one would read Spider-Man if it was about an annoying adolescent who gets bitten by a spider. But make that spider radioactive and turn his puberty into an operatic spectacle of web-slinging and wall-clinging, and you create superhero gold.
H: Since your most recent novel, Pent Up, features two men even more adamant about being straight until they meet each other, you’re obviously a fan of this trope. Would you expand a bit on this?
D: Like many of my projects, Pent Up literally began as a thought experiment. I wanted to see if I could write two men who started out straight, who literally fell in love in front of our eyes. In Hot Head, the guilty longing and personal history predates the opening of the book, unrequited love playing out over a decade. I started Pent Up wanting to show the full journey from their freaky meeting to the HEA. I left Ruben and Andy nowhere to hide, from us or from each other.
Frankly, it’s too easy a reach to create straw dummies to knock over on a whim…gorgeous, lonely, erotically-charged men who live one cocktail away from fucking each other on every available surface. That just seems so facile and boring to me. Two hunky jocks get horny and hump sounds like a porno snoozefest. For me an HEA must come at a cost or it feels trivial.
Look, desire is complex and subtle and weird. Men aren’t baked out of Viagra and gingerbread. And two straight-identifying dudes don’t just fall head over heels casually. That shit takes time and compromise and soul-searching. Pent Up let me play around in dangerous waters. Romantic suspense is all about danger and proximity. Since the book was bodyguard/billionaire voyeurism, violence, covetousness, and extravagance would shape their interactions. And then they were both wrestling with addictions. The homoerotic tension wove through that. In a way the secretive crime elements ran in strict parallel to the hidden desire they felt for each other. Pressure cooker, right? Not for nothing is the book called Pent Up.
Forbidden desire, and the anxiety/kink/danger/envy was a huge part of that attraction… wanting something and someone you’re not allowed to want in a blue-collar culture that simultaneously overvalues strength and courage (to the point of excusing violence and patriarchal behavior) and also undervalues it so much that these men can’t earn a reasonable living. Firefighters, bodyguards, cowboys, soldiers, pirates…these are not folks who run the world, but they resonate deeply across the spectrum. They are heroic in a primal, mythic way, possibly more for LGBT folks who have traditionally been barred from those roles in pop culture and pop consciousness.
Class and gender power also reflect economic barriers. In genre fiction, your body is your maleness, but so is your money, and your knowledge, and your authority, and your power, and your tenacity. And spiraling down under all of them is that secret beating heart of romance: male emotional vulnerability. We live in a culture that devalues male emotion and its expression.
Gay romance blasts right through all that. It rakes the patriarchy over the coals while playing out all the goofy macho bullshit that is so damn sexy. That right there is a cake-and-eat-it situation for a genre fictioneer. Pent Up let me unpack all those classic noir tropes: crooked deals, shady connections, divided loyalty, loving deceit, double-crosses and conspiracy, friendly violence, the collision of vast wealth and grinding poverty, and two shifty characters who were made for each other in the worst way. I learned so much writing that book, because I gave them nowhere to hide, but (as I learned) I gave myself nowhere to hide either: no flip flirtations, no cutesy banter, no candid declarations. Ruben and Andy thrummed with barricaded impulses, and writing them tested my mettle in a great way.
H: I know you also read and loved Beyond the Sea. I’ve had my say on how powerful it was to set a romance between two straight men on a desert island; what did that mean for you? What do you think this novel adds to the romance, gay, straight, or refusal-to-declare-an-orientation canon?
D: Well, for me Keira Andrews has a real gift for male tenacity. Her heroes often waver between fragility and relentless independence. That’s a super sexy strip of emotional terrain to mine as an author. Beyond the Sea let her play out all the meaty feelings that make two dudes falling for each other so seductive…but it sidestepped any porno reading of same. I can think of at least four books that use “studs trapped on desert island” to create sunburned shenanigans in the tropics.
That’s not Keira’s mode at all. I’ve loved her writing from her first book, Love Match. She always digs past the glib, facile connections between her characters, and that was what I dug so much about this book: it took it’s time so that these characters could find their way across the emotional landscape. She has a bright, deft hand that pulls characters into unexpected tenderness. Yes, please! For her, desert island proximity actually creates more problems than it solves, and THAT is the mark of a gifted writer, someone who avoids the groundfall pears in favor of the fruit hovering just out of reach. All my favorite books do that: eschew the obvious in favor of irony, subtlety, and meaningful anagnorisis. Aristotle knew his shit, yo! So does she.
H: Is there anything else about this trope you’d like to add?
D: Well, I’ll come right out and say that straight men falling for each other isn’t just a trope in LGBT romance: it denotes and describes something seductive and true about human desire. People are complicated. Love makes big messes, and sometimes a relationship can transform an entire community. As a part of our cultural moment, gay romance does all that and more. That’s amazing and inspiring to me.
On a personal, social level, that’s how actual men in the actual world navigate homoerotic impulses no matter how they identify. Secrets have a cost. Deception corrodes relationships. We have feelings for people and then we deal with them. That’s not fiction, that’s called COMING OUT. This is why we say sexual orientation and not sexual preference: people don’t turn their hormones and hearts on and off like a spigot. We don’t decide to lust after our straight buddy or choose to fantasize about people we know are unattainable. For real-life romance, the distance between experience and expectation is massive. This trope cleaves right to the marrow of LGBT romance: the power of love to transform us and the world so that we can participate in it. Powerful stuff for escapist fiction, and they’ll pry it from my cold dead fingers.
That’s one of the things I love about Marie Sexton’s refiguring of fanfic’s creaky, misguided tag “gay for you” as “out for you.” LGBT people don’t BECOME gay; they come out. Only someone who’s never experienced this kind of desire would think it turns on like a light. That’s childish and silly. We fall for people, and then we have to deal with the implications in the rest of our life.
Why is abduction and pursuit still so popular? Why do so many romances deal with dubious consent or extreme sexuality? Why do sociocultural tensions make for such intense drama? Because we’re fucking monkeys and we live in a state of rubbernecking voyeurism. We crave safety and adventure equally… and therein lies the delicious rub of all genre entertainment. Friction and fiction, baby.
I want to talk a little bit more about Pent Up before I close this essay, because it’s quite a bookend to Beyond the Sea on the shelf of the two straight men in love trope. Like Beyond the Sea, Pent Up is not about men who are out for you. They are men who considered themselves straight until, after developing a slow, powerful friendship, they discover they want that friendship to also be a romantic relationship. Whereas Beyond the Sea is all about innocence and isolation, shaking off the civilization in order to become free, the characters in Pent Up do this dance on the top of a high-rise in New York City, literally trapped by the city itself and the financial chicanery of one of the heroes’ past and family connections. They must step over the world around them to claim their HEA. Their connection is powerful, resonant, and shattering both to them and to the reader. Andrews sweeps you away; Suede slams you against the penthouse wall and winks wickedly as he pushes you to your knees.
Both stories are a valid spin on the tale. Both are important to the romance canon. So are the stories referenced above by Michaels and Sexton and countless others we ran out of time to discuss here. What I love, though, is that every single one of these stores in this essay is not about turning. It’s about setting characters, readers, even the authors free. It’s about opening up to possibility, not claiming. (Well, I acknowledge I did just suggest Suede wanted us on our knees. But it’s to let go and have fun, not to learn to behave.)
I love it when romance blooms in inclusive directions like this. I never want my stories (the ones I write or the ones I read and claim in my heart) to be LGBT romances. I want them to be romances which happen to include LGBT people. Sometimes we want to sit with Marie Sexton and throw all the labels overboard and just be.
Beyond the Sea is out now or coming soon to a retailer near you. I encourage you to let Keira Andrews sweep you away onto Golden Sands, and if you haven’t read the other books mentioned in this essay, pick them up too. If you already have them, perhaps bump them to the top of your reread pile. Remind yourself of the possibilities and wonders of romance without labels or boundaries, and let these talented authors wash you gently in the waters of hope.
Congratulations, Romancelandia. If you’re reading this, you’ve survived another hack piece on romance by someone who hasn’t read it and yet uses us for a foil for whatever nonsense has flown up their backside.
Bloggers and journalists outside our community have an inexplicable, psychotic compulsion to write dismissively and authoritatively about romance while at the same time proudly declaring they know nothing about it, except for these handful of random books they assembled as straw men to support their thesis. They might be academics, they might be mainstream journalists, they might be science fiction or fantasy bloggers. Sometimes they’re even industry blogs who should know better. We will likely never fully understand why this phenomenon persists, and we’ll likely never escape it entirely.
The first sin is often a conflagration of the current, defined romance genre, whose spearhead and focal point is the Romance Writers of America, with any book, movie, play, or matchbook including people falling in love and/or having romantic relationships. Sometimes within the same sentence the 1.4 billion dollar industry of novels featuring romantic storylines and a satisfying, positive ending are shoehorned with mystery/horror/fantasy/suspense/crime books, movies, and television shows where characters also have romantic relationships, all which is to somehow prove romance novels are ridiculous/injurious/insulting/whatever flavor of smackdown they wanted to embrace that day.
Another related fallacy is to treat the last forty-five years of publication (ninety if you want to begin with Mills & Boon, not Flame and the Flower) of romance novels as utterly static and homologous. At the center of their argument lies, somehow, the ironclad (or perhaps simply ignorant and lazy) belief that authors of romance in 2016 are writing exactly the same as their ancestral authors in 1930 and 1970. This results in incoherent treatises which make reveals about modern romance tropes by referencing fifty-year-old works, often which don’t meet the agreed-upon definition of romance by the actual romance community.
These lapses in cogent dissertation, however, are but the barest scraping of the surface, for what often lies beneath this laziness and willful illiteracy are darker and far more complex issues of institutional and individual misogyny, and often parallel issues of racism, homophobia, and cisgendered priority. They fear and/or fail to understand how a genre of books can so fail to meet the patriarchal standard of superiority and yet utterly dominate the market. It’s not uncommon for the midlist royalties of a romance author to meet or surpass all but the superstars of other genres. And where most genres are only a handful of laps behind the middle-to-lower range of romance earners, the crown jewel of the patriarchy, the literary fiction genre, can barely compete om terms of dollars even as a collective.
These accusations, if posited to authors of specific instances of insensitive and incorrect articles, are generally met with shock, rage, and self-righteous and/or institution/genre-collective indignation. Many, if not most, of the authors of these poorly-constructed “think pieces” believe they are unfettered by patriarchy or have mastered its influence over their lives. The allegation that they have unwittingly been one of its pawns threatens to unlace so much of their worldview that they either recoil or lash out with a zealotry that treats each factual assertion as fuel for its righteous fire of conceptualized truth.
Romance authors and readers, in stark contrast, must acknowledge the patriarchy’s influence in their lives. Whether the stories they share or savor feature heterosexual, homosexual, cis or transgender, white, Black, Brown, North or South Asian, African, historical, paranormal or contemporary—subliminally or mindfully, each romance genre story will not pretend the patriarchy is anything but the dominant, overwhelming power in almost the entirety of cultures on Earth. Romance novels will either submit (while generally also subliminally undermining to a small or large degree) to the patriarchy or directly challenge it. Even cisgendered lesbian romances are influenced by patriarchy.
By acknowledging the existence and domination of the patriarchy at the core of their genre collective, romance novelists speak with power and persuasion to those who wish to escape, understand, or overcome this sociological pressure. As a simple matter of dichotomy, women are often the frequent marketing target and core consumers and producers of romance novels. Their work can (and does) speak, however, to anyone feeling overwhelmed by the patriarchy.
It speaks additionally to the white patriarchy, and also the white, heteronormative, cisgendered patriarchy. The white, heteronormative, cisgendered Big 5 publishing machine deals with this less in romance, but smaller, independent publishers and self-published or hybrid authors have, especially in the last fifteen years, become more dominant, meaning romance novels are increasingly non-white, homosexual, pansexual, bisexual, asexual, transgendered, queer, polyamorous—there are more diversions from the patriarchal-defined norm than I can name or know, because some are emerging at this moment and more will be revealed every single day.
Many will read romances with little to no comprehension they are in fact participating in patriarchal subversion, and yes, many romances’ patriarchal subversion is weak at best. Yet even those examples are stories glorifying and celebrating what patriarchy defines as a feminine and therefore lesser ideal: romance as the center of a story.
Not every human, even those disadvantaged by the patriarchy, will be interested in reading romance as a means to wrestle with the presence of patriarchy in their lives. It isn’t a sin, flaw, or defect to not enjoy romances on any narrative level. Romance novelists and readers are celebrants of the feminine ideal of inclusion and community over dominance and destruction. True, we contain the darker shades of feminine impulse as well; we can be guilty of tipping that community and inclusion into homogeneity and groupthink. We are not saints; we are human. But few will find evidence on
even minimal scale of the romance genre actively seeking out and destroying genre competitors, only responding angrily (or exasperatedly) to attacks. In fact, we’re more likely to welcome other genres into our tent, even if only to flirt at the fringes.
Those who either submit to or imagine they can rise above patriarchy itch on molecular levels when a feminine, inclusive, subversive and celebratory aspect of patriarchal’s lower caste not only thrives but overwhelms the power center of culture: how we tell ourselves stories. All fiction underwrites our human narrative, and when feminine-influenced fiction threatens the patriarchy, it lashes out, because the patriarchy cannot bear to be threatened. It will not accept challenge from anyone, men, women, or agendered persons.
Which leaves romance novelists and readers in a quandary; do we ignore the swipes at our joys, our creations, or do we rebut the patriarchal attacks, be they direct or accidental? We are not immune to the patriarchy either. When challenged, our patriarchy-trained instincts urge us to counter, to mock, to destroy. What is better, to ignore insults and carry on with our creations, or to engage and instruct (or even deconstruct)?
I have littered this post with images from the 2015 film Mad Mad:Fury Road because it is quite simply the most stunning, articulate, and subversive takedown of the patriarchy I have yet witnessed in story…and as a bonus, it happens to not be a romance, further destroying the dichotomy of us vs. them. I love that film because of its powerful women, its conscious and subliminal acknowledgement of patriarchy vs. the feminine. I love how it takes a masculine genre through a patriarchal production machine and weaves a narrative of women taking power from a dying, controlling patriarchy and redistributing it to the greater community. I know it has its flaws as well, but I love so much the way it shakes up what was expected and gives us instead at least a small vision of what might be a better way to be.
I began this post wanting to take down the most recent stray arrow in the side of Romancelandia. I was angry at the site which hosted it and the normally articulate and intelligent individuals who dug in their heels and turned militant and reactionary in the face of assertions that this piece was disjointed, unsupported, and insulting. I was exhausted and saddened to see the same insults against romance brought forth yet again, joining examples so numerous as to be ridiculous.
But I come to the end of this piece more saddened than angry, more disappointed than disgusted. Unlike the blogger who spurred this post from me, I am sorry. Sorry the patriarchy still holds so much power over us as a culture that almost everyone must be constantly reminded it isn’t clever, it’s cruel to demean the feminine and the discourses it chooses to explore. I’m sorry because every time I raise my head it seems so much of the humanity I share my time on earth with feels it isn’t only permissible, it’s good to decry or even destroy those the white, heterosexual, cisgendered patriarchy says are less.
We may not live in a post-apocalyptic desert hellscape, but there are days it feels like we are but a thin veneer from that reality. We may not have a decaying megalomaniac patriarch enslaving us and distracting us with thin pleasures and withheld necessities, with imagined rivalries and impossible, ephemeral promises of security and power…yet we have more shades of those elements than is pleasant to comprehend.
Romancelandia, we have joy and success in abundance. We are a large, diverse, powerful community. We have the money, the membership, and the readership. Yes, we have the disdain of the patriarchy and all who fall victim to its influences. But at the end of the day, we have so much, and we’re gleaning more every day. We’ve changed the industry so many times and we’ll change it more in the future, and we do this not because we want to crush anyone but because it was a natural consequence of our own explorations of story, of power, of agency, of community.
I will never scold a member of my tribe for standing up to fight, but I’ve come to a point where I would rather celebrate us instead and return to creating more stories as offerings to our community. I wrote this post today instead of writing story, because it was a rough pain day and I couldn’t focus on fiction, every little knife of the world further irritating and undoing my thoughts. The exorcise has done its job, because in writing this post I found my peace, my understanding, and my acceptance. And my joy.
I love you, Romancelandia. I love your power and your weakness, your quarrels and your celebrations. I love that I can pick up a book from any one of you and know I will be uplifted, acknowledged, and affirmed. Oh, yes, there are those among us with whom I disagree. There are those who would look down at me and exclude me for what I write, for who I am. I’ll admit I’m guilty of doing the same more than I would like. I’m sorry about that as much as I am the scathing articles, but I believe as only a member of Romancelandia can, that if we only sat at a table together and got to know one another, we would find we were indeed more united than divided.
Romances are the stories of love and unity carrying humanity out of struggle and into communal victory. Sometimes our vehicles of story cause distaste in others. But at the end of the day, we are all of us telling tales of happily ever after.
Patriarchy and its power-sodden squabbles be damned.
Since Tuesday of this past week I’ve been meaning to write a blog post to say, “Hey, I have a new book out.” I have a newsletter whose single purpose is to do this, and I posted one of those, but I didn’t blog. Haven’t blogged much at all, you’ll notice, for quite some time. In fact the last blog was an announcement of the last book out. Tuesday came and went; I told myself I’d write a post Wednesday. On Wednesday night I promised I’d put the post together after I went to yoga, something else I’d been lax on attending to.
I went to yoga, and the center I go focuses on very spiritual yoga. Usually when I go I figure things out, and this Thursday was no exception. I figured out a lot about why I’d been dragging my feet over everything about this book, why I kept forgetting almost I even had a book coming out. How I was doing rather a poor job of talking about it. As I sat doing one-nostril breathing and swimming in the dangerously deep places my practice can take me, I finally understood what I’d been telling myself ever since I started that book, and once I left for home I quietly told myself I could take as much time to blog about it as I wanted to.
Then today I started another book which came out Tuesday, one I’d been looking forward to and which others had told me was amazing. Beverly Jenkins’s Forbidden. I have admired Jenkins for a long time and had no small flutter when I was listed in the same article with her new book in the Washington Post. My friends and family were all impressed by the paper, but I was all about bragging getting to sit next to Ms. Jenkins. I tweeted that, and then she replied about getting to sit next to me, and I had to go lie down for a bit.
But today I finally had time to read the book. I began it while Anna was at the barn, and I already knew it was going to break me into bits. It was so lyrical and crisp and crafted. A dangerous book in that it made me feel a bit as if I had no business writing books if they weren’t going to be this good, except she would scold me for thinking that, so I decided I was just going to have to live up to her example as best I could. In the middle of reading, however, I paused to watch Beyoncé’s video for “Formation.” By the time I returned to my book I felt so raw and cut open I just gave in and let myself bleed.
Beyoncé’s video and Ms. Jenkins’s book both affected me in ways I didn’t expect, but both are powerful art, and art moves us in the way it wants to. At first the video in particular had me breathless and humbled by the artist’s grace, power, and beauty. I couldn’t stop watching it, and I felt a little awkward, because this video felt like such power, such, as I have seen so many write, black girl magic. I felt clumsy amidst grace and beauty and had already been half undone already by my reading.
But I couldn’t stop watching, and the music rang in my head. Then I went back to Forbidden, and I kept crying even though it wasn’t a crying of part of the book. Finally I stopped, sat with myself a minute, remembered yoga, and figured it out. I finished the book, cried a little more, and then came down here to write my post about my own damn book. Or rather, the post about why I was (and still am a bit) reluctant to talk about this book, something I had managed to hide even from myself.
I’m not sure why it took me eighteen months to figure out the correlation between having a major surgery ripping out three precious organs from my body and writing a steampunk where in the very first scene a soldier has more than half his body cut away because it was the only way he’d survive, but it did take me that long to suss it out. Just like it was a mystery to me why I got to the point in drafting the story where Johann had to face the knowledge of how much he’d been altered and how much it upset him, and I stopped writing for months and months until I couldn’t wait any longer and make my deadline. In fact, for the first time at that publisher, I moved my deadline. But no, during none of that time did I put two and two together and get four. I denied the existence of math. That’s my subconscious though, for you. Always ready so I can cut myself off at my own knees.
I’ve spent the better part of the last year and a half trying to process a loss I didn’t know I would really feel. I still don’t fully understand it. I think it upsets me so much because it comes in so many waves. It’s just never done. I very much like to identify my struggles, beat them within an inch of their lives, bury the carcass and move on. This is not a carcass I can bury, because it’s my own. I’m more than a little flustered as I admit I really don’t know how to function with something like this. I can’t ignore it, I can’t abandon it. I can only carry it. I have to stop myself constantly from being annoyed with myself. I say things to myself like, “Why are you so upset? You know you’re still a woman, for crying out loud. You didn’t really want more children.”
Well, the last one is a little bit of a fib told to make myself feel better. I had, in fact, wanted more children, but since I was always sick and worn out, not wanting more seemed an easier thing. In fact there was a moment I thought I was pregnant, then burst into tears in the shower and whispered, “I can’t, I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t.” Then knew in another day I was not, in fact, pregnant. I carried shame for that for years, and I still have sorrow, though I did nothing more than wish and whisper. I had wanted a lot of children. I’d wanted to be active and do all kinds of things. But I was decidedly not active, and I didn’t do a lot of things. I remember Anna drawing a picture once when she was young. I was on the couch. “Because you’re always tired.” It wasn’t meant to be cruel, but it made me sad. I look at her now, fourteen, and I think of how I didn’t play with her as much or do as much because I was tired. How I escaped into writing because it was being in my head, not my body. That will make me sad forever, and now if she wants to do something, I’ll throw over almost anything. It’s not playing horses like she wanted. But it’s what I can do now.
When I’m able, I acknowledge what I’m actually mourning is not organs or even children but life. It wasn’t as if I was in a coma for ten years, but it’s absolute those damn cysts bled life out of me. In another era they’d have taken it wholesale. My teenage daughter would grow up without me, and then she’d likely have been bit by it too. It’s a celebration that I’m here. It’s a gift. But it’s also a lot of loss, and a lot of pain.
People have long told me they admire how I fought (and still fight) chronic pain. They act as if I am a woman as powerful as Queen Bey in that video. I think that’s why that video got me so hard, because I watched and knew I was not her. I have never felt that powerful. I don’t know how to explain to people who haven’t been hit with heavy tar fingers trying to drag you down into hell that it was all running. There wasn’t any claiming. There was just desperation and dogged determination.
What there is now is quiet. Healing and quiet, and weeping. All the fucking time, the weeping. Over stories, over songs, over light in the damn trees. Because as I have been trying to say, I wasn’t claiming power. I was running. And now I don’t have to run. And I have time, finally, to feel all that pain. Or feel rather what it cost to fight it. Babies. Smiles. Laughter. School field trips. Sex. Happiness. Life. I didn’t let myself look at what I was spending because I knew it would hurt. What I didn’t know was that it would keep hurting for so long, that it would be so hard to stop carrying it around.
On Tuesday I released a book about a soldier being rescued by a surgeon and given new parts. They fall in love and have fantastic adventures on land and in sky. They have great sex and terrible peril and save each other in the end. They grieve and they triumph and they carry the day. I wrote the book to be all kinds of fun, and it seems people think that’s what it is. But I guess I wrote it also to begin the complicated, messy process of talking to myself about what it means to have loss. To have life taken away. To have that happen and still believe everything can be okay.
Beyoncé’s message is more complicated for me to process because I’m feeling like the bedraggled ugly girl sliding into the back of a beautiful theater hoping nobody notices me and will just let me listen. I don’t know why that’s what it makes me feel, but I’m going to confess it so I can keep talking about it. Because in the back of the theater what spoke to me was that female power. The way she moved and the way she just owned everything. I watched it with my neck hurting and my body too heavy and weight never coming off, my abdomen still numb and uncooperative after all this time, and I felt as I watched her I could be sexy too. I could be beautiful too. If I kept watching and letting her be queen, I could feel just a little bit of that too.
And then I finished Forbidden, a story about accepting self and loss and building things anew, and I healed a little more. I believed a little more. I fell in love with Eddy right along with Rhine, and when he looked at her with desire, I felt pretty too. Then I thought about my own book. It doesn’t heal in the same way because I wrote it, but your own books are handy for making yourself look at what you told yourself, accidentally or on purpose. In Clockwork Heart I told myself a man could be missing parts and given new ones and have a better life than the one he’d led before. That he could be desired and loved, not despite his missing pieces but for the man he was with his clockwork parts. Then I thought about how much fun the book truly had been to write, how proud I’d been of it even though it had been hard. And I healed a little bit more.
It has been very tough for me to write lately. I am writing, but everything is so incredibly slow and difficult. It’s because, I know, of that body I’m carrying around, which is not the shell of an enemy but the wreckage of myself. Bit by bit I’m putting new parts on, and I’m getting better at using them. It’s slower going than I’d like. Clockwork Heart is out and I have nothing for preorder. I don’t have another piece of fiction finished and on deck with a book just published, which is the first time that’s happened in a terribly long time.
What I have finally figured out, though, is that the only way to get to the writing part and the healing part is to cradle that poor self and feel sad about it, and angry about it, and lost and confused about it. This is, I can assure you, ten thousand times harder than shouldering very bad endometriosis without even knowing you have it.
This is also all a good reminder to me and anyone else who needs it that all stories and all art move us, and it doesn’t matter who is in the story or in the art. It’s very foolish and silly of me to feel unworthy of watching “Formation.” It’s art; it’s for whoever is moved by it. Just as Forbidden isn’t only for black people and Clockwork Heart isn’t only for gay men. I still feel in awe of Jenkins in particular because she’s so talented, and I’m very sure I’ll make a mess when I have the pleasure of meeting her, but I know that her story was absolutely for me. Just as any story I write, if it moves someone, is for them. Whoever they are.
We are all of us torn into pieces by the hazards of life. We are all praying for someone to help us put ourselves back together. Clockwork Heart was an attempt I made for myself and an offering for you, if you’d like to try it.
Honestly, I think you need to give Jenkins and Beyoncé some sampling too.
Winter Wonderland, book three in the Minnesota Christmas series, is out tomorrow, November 10. There’s a tour and a giveaway you should check out. But what I want to tell you today is the story of Linda Lytle, the woman to whom the book is dedicated.
I met Linda in 1995 when I worked as overnight staff at a residential care center. The above photo is from 1997 when she and several other residents came to my bridal shower. I hadn’t worked there for quite some time, but Linda and many of her friends remained dear to my heart. Between the time I left Orchard Hill and this photo I’d done work with the younger generation of the care center residents’ peers, and on the whole, I learned firsthand why integration and advocacy are vital to the health and wellbeing of children and adults with special needs. What I learned more than anything, though, was that there would never be anyone on Earth as heartwarming and glorious as Linda Kay Lytle.
When Linda was born, it was common and in fact encouraged for parents to put their children with Downs syndrome into institutions and sever all ties with them. Linda’s mother, unable to have more children, refused. Grace was scolded by her doctor and warned everything that happened would be on her own head. Well, everything that happened was Linda grew up to be amazing.
You never met anyone as full of life and love and pure, unfiltered joy as Linda Kay. She knew so many crazy things, and had more opinions than the Supreme Court. She took deep pleasure in simple things like going for ice cream and made you happy to have those moments too. She was loyal to her friends and fierce to her enemies. She posed for photos like a boss.
Above all, though, she loved musicals, and she would break into song at any given moment. Usually you couldn’t understand what she was singing, and there was no key of any kind. Her favorite song, however, was “Bali Hai” from South Pacific.
I have to tell you, it was years before I knew the actual name of the song, and I think it was my husband who figured it out. Because she ran around Orchard Hill singing, very distinctly, “Valley High, I call you.” She would stick out her lips and say YOOOOUUUUU like something out of a cartoon, but we never dared laugh, because this was Linda’s heartfelt singing, and it was not to be mocked. She would put her hands over her heart, lean into your shoulder, and sing into your eyes as if she were on the Broadway stage. And I have to tell you, cartoon lips and all, I was always moved.
Linda went into residential living by request; she lived with Grace, but when she saw the other residents around town doing activities, she would burst into tears at not being allowed to join in. She went home often on weekends with her mother, and Grace was her fiercest advocate. There were many residents no one ever visited, but Linda’s mother made it clear if there was so much as a hair out of place on her daughter’s head, she’d be right there to ask you how that happened.
Grace’s most passionate wish was that Linda would pass away before she did, because she knew it would devastate her child to watch her pass away, and because there would be no one left to advocate for Linda. Linda’s mother did get her wish; I attended Linda’s funeral before we moved away from eastern Iowa, and Grace was able to pass on herself a few years later with an easy heart, at least on the matter of Linda.
I still think of Linda to this day, which is probably why she ended up in a book. Linda Kay Parks is one hundred percent Linda Kay Lytle. Many of the quips and quotes are hers, and the rest I could totally see her saying. And she would have absolutely loved being Kyle’s older sister.
I miss Linda, a great deal. I’m sad I didn’t go visit her more when I had the chance, and if she were here now I absolutely would do so. Whenever I think of her I’m filled with joy at the memory of our times together and sadness over the fact there will be no more new ones. But now she will live forever in a book.
I hope you love my fictional Linda as much as I love the Linda who inspired her. And Linda, wherever you are now, I hope you’re still singing “Valley High” at the top of your lungs and nowhere near on key.
Finding Mr. Right can be a snow lot of fun.
Paul Jansen was the only one of his friends who wanted a relationship. Naturally, he’s the last single man standing. No gay man within a fifty-mile radius wants more than casual sex. No one, that is, except too-young, too-twinky Kyle Parks, who sends him suggestive texts and leaves X-rated snow sculptures on his front porch.
Kyle is tired of being the town’s resident Peter Pan. He’s twenty-five, not ten, and despite his effeminate appearance, he’s nothing but the boss in bed. He’s loved Paul since forever, and this Christmas, since they’re both working on the Winter Wonderland festival, he might finally get his chance for a holiday romance.
But Paul comes with baggage. His ultra-conservative family wants him paired up with a woman, not a man with Logan’s rainbow connection. When their anti-LGBT crusade spills beyond managing Paul’s love life and threatens the holiday festival, Kyle and Paul must fight for everyone’s happily ever after, including their own.
Warning: Contains erotic snow art, toppy twinks, and super-sweet holiday moments. Best savored with a mug of hot chocolate with a dash of spice.
The other day someone sent me a Facebook invite to be in a NaNoWriMo group. This was my reaction.
Once upon a time I was all over NaNoWriMo. It gave me the novel Double Blind, which is still my favorite book of mine I’ve written. I loved the fever dream writing was that year, how intense and crazy-fast everything about that novel happened. I’d participated in NaNoMWriMo before, but that was my first year I joined a local chapter, and it was also the first year I was published. Everything was exciting and wonderful, and I swore I’d always participate in the novel-in-a-month adventure.
I did participate for several years–up until the last year, in fact. For most of that time, I was always the one in my region people chased, because I wrote so much so fast. But I have to tell you, with each passing year, the thrill fizzled and faded until participating became a chore. The rigid strictures of the program made my teeth set on edge, particularly since I knew a lot of them were bad ideas for me. It was difficult to organize my writing schedule so I could start a new novel exactly on November 1 and finish it by the end of the month. It played merry hell with my holidays, screwing up Thanksgiving and making Christmas a mad, insane rush.
There are so many things wrong with NaNoWriMo for me right now. To start, 50,000 is on average halfway through a novel for me. I don’t write short, so to finish the book I have to double-time it. Also, my muses have a decided preference for writing in fits and starts, putting down books sometimes for weeks or months or sometimes years. Sometimes I can push through, but that usually makes messes and always wears me out to the point I begin to seriously hate what I’m working on. The sprints never worked for me either, because sometimes sitting and staring at a screen, not writing for three hours, is the most important writing I do. The idea I could show up at a write-in and produce words on demand usually meant I only produced garbage or that I had to deal with angry, upset muses for three months after the close of the event.
But the above gif sums up how I feel about NaNoWriMo because I still want to participate. I love the camaraderie of a writing group. I love the little badges and progress bars. Most of all I really want to write my novels faster and in one sitting. So for me saying no usually means putting my head down and not looking while other people have the fun I wish I could be having but know I shouldn’t. Like everyone else is eating the birthday cake, and I know I really can’t, because it’s filled with allergens, but it still sucks to watch. And going to write-ins or “sort-of” participating feels exactly like being at a party full of wheat products. It’s hard not to eat them, even though if I do I know I’ll be sorry.
So I’m officially participating in NaNoNuh-Uh this year. I don’t have a badge or a progress bar. I also don’t have a plan besides writing a book I’ve been trying to write since August. I did my own kind of nudge, commissioning a cover, marrying a title, making a playlist. I even whispered an admission of my goal on Twitter, and now here. But that’s it. I want to have the book finished and out as soon as possible. But I might not get it out until March or later. I want to write all the series books on my to-do list, but I might not get to any of them next year.
I want to get the fire I used to have, able to write 50k in one week, sometimes. I miss that so much sometimes I cry about it. I’ve spent most of this year sick, scared, frustrated, and mourning things I didn’t know I needed to mourn. I’m weeding my way slowly through the truth that menopause is hard on creativity, that losing those hormones means learning a new brain, and that when those hormones are ripped violently from you in one surgery, the transition is brutal. I may get that production fire back, and I may have to accept I never will, that everything will be slower now.
There’s also the gnarly part that wasn’t there for the glory of NaNoWriMo 2009: back then, nobody knew who I was, and my published novel hadn’t come out yet. I have over twenty books under my belt now, and I’m blessed with a large following of readers. When I sit down to write, I can’t escape the knowledge of who I’m writing for, which means I always worry about disappointing them. I worry what other people are thinking about my work and my career, even though I know that’s not helpful. Especially when I’m not producing the way I want to and negative thoughts creep in. I can get those things out of the way, even when I’m not feeling my best. But that takes energy and focus too. And it demands its own schedule, it’s own pace. Which is pretty much never the pace of NaNoWriMo.
This November I’m writing. For thirty days I’m going to put my focus on Enjoy the Dance, a sequel to Dance With Me. I might finish it before Thanksgiving. I might only have a chapter by the first of the year. I will absolutely not write 1600 words every day. I will absolutely only work minimally the week of Thanksgiving so I can focus on creating a huge, wonderful celebration for my family. I’m not going to chart or report my progress anywhere, unless I feel like doing that will be okay for my production. I’m not letting pressure of what I should be doing or need to do get in my way. I’m just going to show up and write. Or stare at the screen, or listen to the soundtrack while I fold laundry.
If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, I wish you nothing but luck and good wishes. If you don’t want to participate, I wish you luck and good wishes too. If you want to participate but know it’s a bad idea for you, I give you luck, good wishes, a huge hug, and a space beside me at the NaNoNuh-Uh virtual write-in.
If you’re feeling down and overwhelmed about your writing or your career, give yourself permission to create at the pace that works for you. Remember the time you felt the euphoria, and accept both that you can have it again–and that it will very likely not look the same as you remember.
A career in writing is a caucus race. It goes round and round in circles. Sometimes you will laugh and twirl as you run, and sometimes you’ll be so tired you have to step aside. Remember the only way to win is to participate—at the pace which suits you in the moment you join the dance.
We’re in the last days to order/send books for the virtual signing!
A few quick answers to common questions: don’t worry, your books don’t have to BE here by October 1, just that you have to have filled out the forms saying they’re coming. Also, people are wanting Sleigh Ride, which won’t be out until after October 1, and that’s okay. We’ll wait for the books, so long as you tell us they’re coming.
You can find out everything you need to know about the signing here, with links for the order/notification forms. We’ll be sending shipping invoices starting next week, and we’ll start shipping the books shortly thereafter!
In the meantime…would you like to win a paperback?
Three winners will get to pick a book from my stash. You don’t have to have a book in the virtual signing to win, but if you have ordered books, you can add an additional one to books you’ve already ordered (I’ll cover that part of the shipping). Patrons will get two additional entries ($20+ patrons will get three) and anyone who ordered books for the virtual signing will get one additional entry. That means if you’re a $20+ patron who ordered books, you get four additional entries.
Enter the Rafflecopter here. It’s open until October 1. Good luck, and I’ll “see” you at the signing!