the writing process

Awkward writers anonymous

What is it about writing something in public spaces that makes people feel entitled to ask about your writing, or even to read it? This happens to me on a semi-regular basis and I’m still struggling with ways to respond that don’t outright alienate the person inquiring or somehow embolden them and make them even more persistent in their questioning. These people approach me in the hallway, in the break room where I write during my breaks and lunches, or even on one memorable occasion in the bathroom, and they bludgeon me with well-meaning but very annoying questions that I can’t answer to their satisfaction.

It’s so very tempting to print up a blunt FAQ and tape it to the lid of my laptop monitor.

FAQ for the Excessively Curious:

Q: What are you doing on your laptop all the time?
A: Usually one or more of five things – writing, editing, reading, watching videos, or procrastinating.

Q: You mentioned writing! I know someone who writes/I always wanted to write/I am someone who reads the products of writers. What do you write?
A: A variety of writing from short stories to novellas, in a variety of genres.

Q: That was awfully broad and didn’t really answer my question. Do you not want to tell me what you’re working on?
A: It was a shallow answer for a shallow question. At any given moment I am usually working on half a dozen projects*, all of which would take too much time to explain to you in the small amount of time I can spare in this, my personal break time, during which I would prefer to be writing. If this sounds surly, you don’t know many actual writers.

Q: Okay, maybe it’s none of my business. But what you’re doing sounds really interesting despite, or because of, the enigmatically limited amount of information you’ve provided. Can I read it when you’re done?
A: What I write is such a specific sub-genre of fiction it’s not only something you wouldn’t be interested in, you would be actively uncomfortable if I shared it, so in order to spare you embarrassment and awkwardness, I must decline. I have plenty of pre-readers at this time, thanks.

Q: I’m just trying to show interest in something that you’re doing which has nothing to do with me!! Why are you so secretive? TELL ME MORE! Seriously, what are you writing?
A: ARE YOU FIVE, GO AWAY. Consider that if someone doesn’t want to tell you about something, they are probably not being coy and have a good reason for not telling you. Besides the obvious: it’s none of your business.

* Current projects:
– Just wrapped galley proof for Body Option
– Awaiting second publisher edits for Klaxon at the Core
– Working on re-write for The More Plausible Evil
– Working on pre-submission beta edits for Dragonspire
– Working on pre-publisher edit draft for Castle on a Cloud
– Writing highly illicit** Appetite-spinoff novella
– Awaiting publisher first edit for My Sexual Superhero
– Awaiting publisher first edit for Like Stolen Pearls
– Germinating ideas for mistletoe fic for upcoming anthology call
– Germinating ideas for In Lesbians (working title), my lesbian enemies-to-lovers contemporary romance
– Back burner: Which Boy (working title), an uncommon paranormal love quadrangle
– Back burner: Beta edits to re-cut Casting the Bones into a YA novel

** I’m not supposed to be working on it, look at all the other stuff I have to do.

Huh, I guess that’s an actual dozen. To be fair I’m only actively engaged in four of those and waiting on the others, or they are waiting for me to have time to work on them.

If I were a less polite, diplomatic person, this would be easier. It’s very difficult to satisfy these prurient people while at the same time honestly answering their questions and not revealing the things I really can’t tell them: in short, I’m writing something that’s not appropriate to discuss in the workplace, but I am doing it on my own time on my own laptop.

Moreover, I write queer spectrum fiction. The substantial majority of my co-workers are Christian. They don’t just read Christian fiction on their downtime. Some of them sit in that room and read their Bibles. My experience with the typical Christian has taught me avoidance in terms of discussing queer culture in general. I’m not being down on Christians, here; it’s simply how things have gone in my personal experience. The revelation that I have a female partner, disclosed to a small and select few, has already gotten me treated like I have a disability we’re all too polite to talk about. (Two of my co-workers still refer to her as my “roommate.” I have never called her that.)

It doesn’t even matter that I write a sub-genre of fiction that none of these interested parties would ever want to read. There is a weird sense of entitlement in the people who’ve asked about my writing, as though they have a right to inquire and get answers simply because they know I write. When I dodge and deflect questions like “what are you writing” or “are you finished with that story you were working on?” with answers like “I write a lot of things,” or “depends on which one,” people get huffy that I’m not giving them straight-out answers. It’s as though they don’t recognize the social cue that a lack of answer means the answer is one they’re not entitled to. Because at the end of the day, what I write is none of their business, regardless of where I’m doing it. And I didn’t volunteer the information that I’m a writer–they asked, because they saw me doing it in a public space.

The most straightforward response would probably be to say something like “I prefer not to say,” but even then most people react poorly to being rebuffed … even when it’s something that really is none of their concern. It’s as though they think, by my act of setting up a laptop and writing in public, I have invited their engagement or solicited their interest somehow.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you get asked these or similar questions? I’d be interested to hear if you have any clever responses or alternative methods of handling the nosy but well meaning inquiries when they come up.

WIP Wednesday: Dragonspire

Sorry it’s been so long since the last one. I’ve had more busy than you can shake a stick at, between work, edits, a vacation that had precious little free time, and discovering renewed productivity with HabitRPG. (It’s a wonderful thing.)

Dragonspire began its life as my 2013 Nanowrimo project. I ended up finishing it in mid-January and its final word count clocked in around 150k. It’s a bit longer than I was hoping, but there was a lot of story to tell. It’s out for its first edit right now.

The tagline, summary pending:

    “He went up the mountain to save the maiden. He pledged himself to the dragon. And together, they set out to save both humanity and dragonkind from the greatest threat to both.”

Echo paced the terrace with his hands clasped behind his back, gazing with brooding eyes out on the grayed vista of the Crown as the purple and navy mantle of night wrapped around the spires. If he were in dragon form, his tail would be lashing, short irritated bursts gusting through his nose. He remained in human form partly on the prospect of Gideon seeking him out but also to lessen the damage that a lashing tail could do.

It had been so long for Echo that he had begun to think no one would arrive at the Wroughtspire to pledge to him. It was merely a waypost for all the humans seeking passage to another world.

Yet Gideon was already from another, and he had come seeking Echo. It was all too neat, and Echo fretted at the idea of it the way he would worry it with his talons if the problem had a physical shape.

He had put word to Chant and Blaze to join him at the heart of the Wroughtspire and they had agreed. That would take as much time as he’d allotted Gideon for rest and refreshment. It was more than enough time for Echo to pace, and overthink the matter.

There was no person better suited to pledge to him than someone carrying the Amicus Draconis. Echo brought a hand up and began to gnaw at the knuckle, looking up at the icy moon as she made her ascent. Gideon smelled interested, seemed suitable, and yet … and yet …

For the Callardans, it would be like an act of war. Taking their champion and accepting his pledge would be provocation on an order that had not been offered in centuries. Already Echo had been transferring many promising youth through the Nexus but they had been the dispossessed, the ones who did not belong.

Echo’s thoughts shifted to the political ramifications of the day. The high priestess herself had come to his spire to challenge him, bringing with him a champion who had indeed been armed with a sword that could have destroyed him—if he’d plunged it into the Nexus. The Amicus Draconis had been gifted to the humans so long ago as a sign of trust between their races.

Chrysania had been swift to flee when the tables had turned on her, but her schemes would stop there. Of that much Echo was certain. He could not hazard to guess her next move because she was human, and there were profound differences in the way they thought. He would have to consult with Gideon.

Gideon, Gideon … all his thoughts led back to Gideon, from the moment he had made that most startling pronouncement. In a single moment he had withdrawn his allegiance to the Callardans because he had seen something within Echo, recognized him. For his part, Echo had recognized it when the Nexus responded to the pledge.

He put aside those thoughts and turned from the terrace to return to his own human quarters.

The space within the spire was divided, dragon-sized quarters for the most part but they alternated with adjoining human-sized suites. Echo and his kind could take human shape, and diverse others. They preferred human shape for the books, as well as the nimble hands that made so many tasks possible. Even though the humans had reviled and turned on them so many centuries ago, Echo had been raised to respect them and treat all those who came through his spire with the same courtesy he would accord another dragon.

He possessed a wardrobe extensive enough to satisfy his vanity, and changed into green robes that complemented his eyes. Gideon had not seemed offput by the scarred one, looking fascinated as he met its gaze as easily as the other. That was a promising factor.

A flamelike tongue of light appeared near his head as he finished robing himself, tugging on boots of black minotaur leather and stamping them to a good fit.

Cousin, we are near, Blaze’s voice said near his head. We shall emerge beside the Wroughtspire’s heart within the hour.

Echo nodded and the messenger light dissolved into brilliant sparks akin to a candle blown out. He drew in a deep, steadying breath and went to the quarters he’d assigned Gideon—quarters adjoining his own human suite.

Before he could raise his hand to pull the cord, the opaque crystalline surface cleared and wavered like a drop falling onto still water. It vanished, leaving the doorway open with Gideon standing on the threshold. Their eyes met.

“Oh,” Gideon said, head lifting. “I did not expect—”

“A great many things, so you’ve told me,” Echo replied, and risked a smile. Relief washed through him when Gideon matched it. “My cousins are near. I see you found the clothes.”

Gideon smoothed his hand down the golden-brown shirt with its voluminous sleeves. It suited his coloring, and Echo wanted to draw him in and breathe his scent. He looked so much the better for having rested and bathed. His eyes crinkled when he smiled. They were brown with subtle golden flecks and Echo was fascinated by their uncommon hue. Most eyes were gem tones save the rare human and even those tended to be solid colors.

“Yes, thank you. I hope you don’t consider these to be mercenary clothes, too.” Gideon’s eyes crinkled again as he met Echo’s eyes.

Echo had to hold his breath for an instant and remind himself it was unseemly to ravish someone with lips and teeth when they’d scarcely met. “Mercenary? Why—oh, the Callardans.”

“Yes, apparently only mercenaries wear trousers.” Gideon’s mouth quirked, and Echo had a powerful urge to reach up and trace the corner with his fingers, feel the curve beneath them. “And you’re wearing robes as well.”

“I have a wider experience of the world than simply Callar-dune,” Echo replied with a faint smirk of his own. “As to the robes, I prefer the style. I’m accustomed to freedom of movement as a dragon, and the pants are rather more restrictive than I like.”

“I guess that rules out underwear, then.” The statement seemed to slip from Gideon unbidden, and his cheeks turned red while he rubbed at his neck.

“Under … wear,” Echo puzzled out the meaning through the words, and laughed. “Garments underneath? I’ve never seen the point of that.”

“Forget I mentioned it,” Gideon muttered.

“Why should I do that? It’s rather amusing,” Echo said. He stepped closer, tilting his head, observing Gideon with delight. “You’re blushing.”

“And I’d love to move on to other topics,” Gideon said with a trace of desperation. “You came to get me?”

“Ah, yes.” Echo collected himself and stepped back. “My cousins approach. If you will take my hand, we can be waiting for them at the heart of the mountain.”

Gideon nodded and offered his hand.

Echo gave him brief, happy smile and clasped it. Gideon’s fingers were warm, his skin a golden hue unlike the darker tones of the Callardans, or the pale skin of most dragons whose pigment did not alter in the sun. Altogether he was pleasing in every aspect. Well suited, he thought but did not dare voice aloud.

He concentrated on the dark gray cavern deep within the Wroughtspire, the place that allowed access to the great black crystal itself. Between one moment and the next, they were there.

“How did you do that?” Gideon exclaimed, fingers tightening around Echo’s. “Oh, it’s dark.”

Echo willed a handful of spheres into existence, sending them out to the darker corners of the cavern. It was one place that remained a ragged chamber hewn by volcanic action, the fissures and cracks of pressure and time, and steady drips of water. He and his ancestors had not set their design to shaping the heart of the mountain, given it was the one place that sprang from the Motherdrake rather than their own making.

“Better?” Echo asked, keeping his voice even when it threatened to tremble with excitement. Showing Gideon to the very seat of the mountain was a monumental step. He could not fully articulate to any human, let alone one from another world, what a tremendous show of trust it was.

Five things I wish I could tell my pre-published self

I had grand intentions to write this earlier in the day, and post in a timely fashion even, but it got busy (a good thing!) and I found myself with no time. And of course, in my off time, I was doing important adulty things like adjusting my budget and looking at emails. Back to night blogging.

Though not very far in the process myself, I feel like I’ve already come a long way and there are a lot of things I’ve learned since I first started. First a disclaimer: this is all from my process, things that have happened to me, things I’ve learned and taken away. They may not be the same for you, and your own experience may vary–but these are the kinds of things people ask me, and you may find them helpful. And so, a listicle!

Five things I wish I could tell my pre-published self:

1. Getting a submission rejected isn’t the hardest part

For years, and years, and years, the one thing holding me back from submitting anything, anywhere, was fear of rejection. I saw very talented friends submitting their fiction through the process best known to be tried and true successful, querying an agent, and getting rejection after rejection. From this, I held up rejection as the absolute worst, and figured it was better to keep writing fanfic forever than it would be to risk my original fiction and have it turned down. I already knew that being turned down that way would be like having my own self rejected, so I was pretty much willing to avoid that prospect indefinitely.

It took a real kick in the pants to get me to the point of ever submitting anything, and a direct invitation from an awesome person.

And when I got past the amazingness of getting accepted, I came to realize there were worse things than the prospect of rejection. Which, in the end, is really the process of finding the best fit for author and publisher and nothing more. And that “worse” brings me to my next item, which is…

2. The first pro edit will rip your soul to shreds

I’m exaggerating. Slightly.

The day I got my first pro edit back, I wanted to hide in a hole, never write again, take my manuscript back from the publisher and light it on fire, cry (I definitely did that), yell, drink a lot (I probably did some of that), and wondered just what the hell I had gotten into.

It was, bar none, the most difficult edit of my life, not only because it had a lot of issues to fix, being my oldest manuscript (from 2003) but a lot of rewrites were involved, and I finished with a different editor from the one that I started with.

So I’m not exaggerating when I say the first edit is hard. It’s not like working with a beta reader (or maybe it is, depending on how intensely you work with a beta). They will catch things you never could have thought would still be in there, no matter how many passes you’ve already made. They will point out things you may disagree with, and it will be difficult to decide how to incorporate those edits. It might be hard to see the line where the edit is optional, versus highly recommended, versus required. Edits like publishing house style, of course, are always required.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it–I’m not sure if anyone has a good first pro edit experience. Maybe I’m wrong and someone will comment to prove that to me! The important takeaway is that it gets better, and easier. You get stronger and more confident, provided you learn from the experience and take that into each subsequent draft.

I’ve said before, Hemingway said write drunk, edit sober. I say read your edits drunk, incorporate them sober. It’s medicinal.

3. Be an author the editors WANT to work with

From the very first, uphill battle, though, my goal was to be an author that my editors would want to work with. After I was thoroughly tenderized from my first edit, I started to see the importance and merit in a lot of what I’ve begun to call their “tough love.”

It’s the editor’s job to see the forest for the trees. They have a bigger perspective, they have industry experience, and in many cases, they can spot the flaws and problems that are invisible to you and whatever friends have helped you get the manuscript to its second draft.

In order to be an author that people want to work with, there are some mandatory baseline items. You have to pay attention to your publisher’s house style. If they go by the Chicago Manual of Style, invest in a copy. Make sure your manuscript conforms. If they use emdashes, make sure to use emdashes–like so–instead of other formatting styles – like the space, dash, space, that I used to use – see what I did there?

Here’s the thing: your editor should not have to spend extra time on things that should already be done. Such as a single space between sentences, instead of the two spaces a lot of us grew up with. I think I just dated myself there. Microsoft Word’s find-replace can even fix that for you, so there’s no excuse.

Their job is to make your manuscript better. But first, don’t you want it to be the absolute best it can be before they ever lay eyes on it? Not only does it make their job easier, but they’ll see you’ve mastered the basics and they’ll turn their attention to places where your manuscript really needs work, content as well as line edits.

Conventional wisdom says never turn in your first draft. Conventional wisdom is absolutely correct. No one’s first draft is perfect. There are always things to find. If you don’t have people who can do a good, hard edit for you, there are writer’s groups you can join, or you can even approach pro editors and ask if they’ll do a sample pro edit for you, to see what you’re getting into. Many of them will do that, all you have to do is shop around. And this is also important, I think, to see whether you can work with a pro edit, or whether your reaction is just “No!!!!” But there’s a major reason it is so important to listen to your editor and work well with them.

4. The things your editor says are the things the reviewers will say if you don’t do diligence with your edits

I learned this the hard way with one of my own novels. Many of some negative elements in reviews for From the Inside Out mentioned things that were an initial concern of one of my editors, or things where I had made a half-hearted stab at things she’d asked me to do, but hadn’t taken that as far as I should have. And I kind of wince at all of the reviews that say “needed more editing,” because, well, that’s my fault. It wasn’t that the editor didn’t point out those things–it was that I didn’t incorporate them, or didn’t do them as fully as I ought to have.

Every edit for any manuscript I’ve had since then, I have paid scrupulous attention to my edits, asked more questions if I didn’t understand an edit, and made sure the editor and I were both happy with the final draft before it goes for its line edit. And I stand behind every manuscript I’ve had since then. And in my own opinion, working with my editors has gotten better and better. I hope they feel the same way!

When the editor asks for changes, it’s not because they hate your manuscript, think you’re terrible, or are trying to make your life difficult. It’s because the changes will almost certainly make your novel better. And if you’re not sure about that and feel very strongly about your original draft, the head editor is usually available for questions if a tie-breaker is needed. You’ve (typically) got the option to override suggested changes, as the author it’s your novel, but don’t forget the editor’s name is on that book too, as the editor. They’re invested in the edits because it’s their job to make you look good.

And when you look good, the reviews are good … usually.

5. Take reviews with a grain of salt. Or a block. Keep writing.

Popular opinion of most authors you’ll survey is “DON’T LOOK AT YOUR REVIEWS.” But if you do, for the love of God, be prepared and fully braced for negative opinions. Maybe they have a point. Maybe it’s like they read a completely different manuscript from the one you wrote. But either way, they will have an opinion, they will express it, and it may not ping you the right way. It may sting, or it may outright hurt and make you want to throw your keyboard on the ground.

But, really, what’s a negative review (or ten) going to change? The manuscript is done, it’s published. Once it’s out there, it’s open to interpretation. Some people will like it, some people won’t. Reviews let other people know what that person thought. In a way, they’re not really for you, they’re for those other people, the ones who might read your book.

Take what you can from the reviews, hold the good close to you and cherish it, and shake off the bad. What else can you really do? Wait, let me answer that: for the love of little green apples, do not, DO NOT, do not ever engage with a reviewer if they’ve left you any slightest nuance of a negative review. You may be tempted to engage with them and correct them for something you think they’ve said that is “wrong” about your story. It is not worth the shitstorm that will rain down upon you from the masses. It’s not your job to tell a reviewer that they read your story wrong. The story needs to speak for itself. Once it’s out there, that’s it. You had your shot, now it’s their turn.

Some other authors have advised having a third party screen your reviews, and share the positive ones. This is not a bad idea, if you know yourself and what your reactions to criticism (you feel unwarranted) might be.

At the end of the day, no matter what, reviews shouldn’t stop you writing. An author is someone who basically has to write, after all. Or, rather, an author is like a shark. Keep swimming or something dies.

That’s what I’ve got to share this week! I hope it was helpful, or at least gave a few of you something to think about. This is all a work in progress for me. Next year, I’ll probably have five new things I would have told the me-of-now.

Next week: tackling effeminophobia. What the heck is that, why is it terribad, and where does it come from?

WIP Wednesday: My Sexual Superhero

By popular demand! Today’s WIP Wednesday brings you another snippet of “My Sexual Superhero,” which is very much a work in progress. The title, as I’ve already had to explain twice, is a bit of a misnomer as neither character is an actual superhero, though Jessan certainly thinks Felipe is talented between the sheets. I may end up changing the name just to avoid spoiled expectations!

At this point, I’m definitely fighting to keep the story throttled back under 20,000 words. I tend to do better character work, especially contemporary, when I have more room to stretch out and get under their skin. Will keep at it and see where these boys bring me!

    “Jessan Pierce would rather spend the night with his Doctor Who collection having tea out of the Tardis than go dancing, but his best friend Maria knows what he really needs is to shake off the doldrums and get out of his well-worn groove. Felipe de la Rosa is just his type, short, well-built, and as ready with a smart-mouthed quip as he is to take his shirt off. The chemistry that works great between the sheets seems to fizzle outside the bedroom, though, and Jessan may prove too chicken to take the chance to put himself out there with Felipe, as well as the other big leap he’s facing in his life.”

“Drinks?” Jessan asked, leaning forward to speak right into Marina’s ear. He did better not only with dancing but clubbing in general when he had a few drinks in him.

She nodded, altering course to head for the bar, which was packed and understaffed. There were only two bartenders, a dark-haired man at one end, a blond woman closer to them holding up a silver shaker and looking out over the crowd with a set, almost grim expression, the look of an overworked employee staring into the deep end of a long night.

“This is going to take forever!” Marina did an about face and shoved cash into his hand. “Get me a vodka cranberry, and I’ll find you!”

“Bullshi—” Jessan began to protest, but she was already gone. He cast his eyes up, caught sight of the dim mirror ball that was raised up unused for the evening, and shuffled forward to join the queue with a shrug.

While he was musing over whether he let himself get suckered into things because he wasn’t assertive, or he lacked assertiveness because he was constantly suckered into things, a hard shoulder collided with his and Jessan lurched forward.

“Shit! I am so sorry, man!” Hands reached out to steady him, and Jessan turned, brow gathering in a glare.

His squint shifted to one of instant appraisal. From the impact he’d expected someone taller, more muscular, but his assailant was close to his height, and his type in all the ways he hadn’t seen in a while. He was short, dark, and brown, though his features had a distinctly Asian cast. Jessan schooled himself to disinterest; all of the Asians on campus tended toward aggressive Christianity, clubgoing or not.

“No worries,” Jessan said. “So long as you didn’t do it on purpose.”

Short and Dark leaned in closer, flashing a smile that displayed teeth in stark contrast as his eyes went up and down Jessan. “And if I did?” he asked. His hand remained a warm presence on Jessan’s shoulder. “And was looking for an excuse to make conversation?”

Jessan’s brain was forced to backpedal on his assumptions, and he stood gaping like a flounder as he tried to come up with a response. He shook his head a little, laughed and decided not to accuse the guy of a terrible method of coming onto someone, and managed the very with-it reply of “Uhh …”

“Nice shirt!” Short and Dark complimented him, smoothing right past Jessan’s awkward non-answer. His eyes skimmed from Jessan’s chest and upward until he made eye contact again, and smiled.

That put Jessan on more familiar territory. “Oh?” he said, somewhat wary. People had recognized the pop culture references before, but tended to think they looked cool or missed the thrust of the shirt’s design.

“Yeah, Captain Jack’s my favorite—and having him cosplay Captain Sparrow is about five kinds of awesome. Makes you wonder which would be more slutty.”

Jessan beamed at him. Whether Short and Dark had knocked into him on purpose or not, getting the t-shirt’s visual pun had endeared him to Jessan forever. “Right?” he said. “My friend says I wear too much Tee Fury stuff, but I’m kind of an addict.” He shifted in place, wondering if he should turn around and make sure he maintained his place in line, or introduce himself.

The dilemma was solved when a hand was offered to him. “I’m Felipe.” Warm, dark eyes surveyed him.

“Jessan.” He took Felipe’s hand and shook it, enjoying a glow that had nothing to do with the drinks he’d thought he needed. An insecure corner of his head told him exactly what Felipe was seeing: the skinny half-black, half-Persian kid with cornrows and geek gear, too insecure to wear any of the more flattering clothes his female friends attempted to push on him. He was in a t-shirt and jeans and combat boots, and got mistaken half the time for a butch lesbian. Jessan took the conscious initiative to tell that part of his brain to buzz off; adults were talking. And if he hadn’t misinterpreted the interest, adults might be hooking up.

“Not a fan of club gear, then, Jessan?” Felipe asked, stepping into his space and guiding Jessan along with the flow of the queue shuffling toward the bar.

The move reminded Jessan of dancing, and he was caught between that and the notion he was being subtly derided. There was nothing mocking in Felipe’s face, at least, so he treated it like a question with no mean intent.

“I’m not much of a clubbing person, no.” Jessan waved a hand around to encompass the noisy, dark interior and wrinkled his nose at the cramped dance floor. Before he could go off on a rant, he caught himself and hauled his remarks into politer territory. “Uh, but, yours looks good!” He allowed himself to look.

On Felipe, ‘club gear’ wasn’t doing it justice. It was more like he’d walked out of Jessan’s wet dream catalogue. Besides being in Jessan’s height range, short by anyone else’s standards but perfect for him, Felipe had dark hair gelled up into wayward spikes, brown skin set off to advantage by a silver tank that bared his arms, collarbones, and a glimpse of belly, and skintight patterned leggings that weren’t underwear, but left very little to the imagination. It gave Jessan brief flashbacks to David Bowie in tights and his early realization of where his attractions lay.

“Likin’ the angle of the dangle?” Felipe asked, cocking his head.

“Did you just … quote The Losers at me?” Jessan was stupefied. He’d never known a guy with Felipe’s attractiveness index to have anything to do with that movie; at least, not the gay ones.

Felipe’s faint smile widened. “Yeah, I did. It was a sneaky way of letting you know I noticed you checking me out.”

Maintaining Visibility: How Often to Publish?

Conventional wisdom from authors attending the Gay Romance Northwest meet-up covered the subject of how often an author should publish in order to stay on the readers’ radar. The answer surprised me: there’s a push to publish quarterly to stay on top.

I am a prolific writer myself, but the thought of putting out something every quarter seemed pretty exhausting. After all, the process involves brainstorming, turning out a first draft, going back for the first edit, submitting, doing another, potentially more extensive edit for pre-publication that might involve re-writes, and galley approval. All of that for one manuscript–then the prospect of juggling four (or more!) manuscripts a year can be overwhelming.

That led me to take a look at my own experiences over the past year and a half. I started out submitting three manuscripts right out the gate. By the end of the year I’d submitted two more and gotten them accepted. Fireborn came out last summer, Signal to Noise came out in autumn, From the Inside Out in December. This year, I’ve had the three volumes of Appetite staggered from March to May to July, and Courage Wolf Never Sings the Gorram Blues made its serial debut in May, and its anthology debut last week. Convergence comes out next week, and The Fall Guide will come out in December. In the meantime, I have Body Option, The More Plausible Evil, and Klaxon at the Core accepted and going through various parts of the editing process. And I’ll be starting Dragonspire next month! Not to mention, I have other short stories planned for anthologies or collections due at the end of the year and beyond.

No wonder it feels like writing is its own part-time job, on top of my already full time employment.

So, without intending to or planning for it, I seem to have positioned myself for that ideal “publish quarterly, or around that” philosophy. At least for the first couple of years!

Now I ask the question: is it really necessary? Are readers so fickle or easily distracted that an author needs to keep up with the demand and publish quarterly, or lose their readers?

When I was younger, I remember waiting years in between books for certain authors. Most notably, I think the longest I ever waited for an author was Melanie Rawn, and her next published title was a huge break from her previous work. It was more of a contemporary urban fantasy, where before she had been working on otherworldly epic fantasy, vast in worldbuilding and political scope and, I think, a trilogy that will remain forever unfinished. That aside, authors worked in the framework of years as opposed to the go, spend, buy consumer culture we have going on today, and I was accustomed to waiting at least two years between books for the “big name” authors.

The landscape of m/m fiction seems to come with different expectations. Regardless of what the big name authors say, I think it’s good advice for someone getting newly established, like myself, to make a push to get something published on a regular basis to get your name out there.

At the same time, in my opinion I think it’s also important to pace yourself, and make sure you and the people you’re working with are satisfied with the quality of the material you’re putting out there. When you rush something to an artificial deadline, no matter the reason whether it’s keeping your name out there or just a determination not to change dates, it’s all too easy to make mistakes in the process, whether re-writes are part of it or not.

When you feel rushed, stressed, or under the hammer to produce, that’s also when the quality starts to suffer. And that’s definitely when it’s time to take a break. Whether you’re getting yourself established or already at the top, telling the best story that you can is what really matters. Everything else falls into place from that.

No Plot? No Problem!

My early days of productive writing took place during a proliferation of what people fondly referred to at the time as “PWPs,” short for “Plot? What Plot?” The stories were thinly-veiled excuses for the two characters to get together and do the deed.

And I was good at them! I’m not going to stand on false modesty, here. I had mastered the art of getting two characters together through a variety of creative means–one memorable instance involving a gun and a shot to the head–then delving into the erotica and leading out with a moment either poignant or humorous, hopeful or lascivious.

Over the years, the enforced regimen of Nanowrimo after Nanowrimo, and developing certain skills through project management work, I got better at adding in plot. My focus gradually shifted to telling a larger story where two people getting together were a part, rather than the driving mechanism of the whole. Conflict existed, deeds were done, tension flourished, and the fabric of the plot consisted of more than the relationship weaving two people inextricably together.

Casual fiction can be a great method for learning how to tell overarching story arcs. I wrote a five-part original series, After the Rising, over the span of several years where I started out fumbling through a relationship story focused on three brothers, and somehow by the time it was done, told an epic tale about demons versus humans, and the battle for a particular artifact that could shift the balance of power between warring factions. Looking back through those masses and masses of words I wrote, I can spot a lot of flaws. There’s a drag in certain installments–the middle child suffers that most horrible fate where a great deal of words were wasted to cover very little ground. And by the second or third book I finally realized not everyone can be gay men. At least I got in some good, strong females who were there to do their jobs, and diversity was a part of the story from the first installment.

Overall that casual fiction effort can’t be considered a complete loss. It was compelling enough that one of my friends asked me to send them the entire series, to see if they could help me work it over into a shape approaching publishable. (After having been through the editorial process with seven manuscripts now, and currently engaged in two more, I can say that particular original series needs a lot of hard work before I’d submit it.)

At the core of it all, however, no matter what deeds take place and however strong the world-building of the places I envision, one thing I’ve realized is I am still, at the heart of it, telling stories where two characters get together and do the deed. And that means I will probably always be considered a romance author, and I’m good with that.

To me, that’s where a great deal of the interest, the joy of telling a story, lies. It’s not only the plot twists, or the clever mechanisms. The heart of the story, the part that I love reinventing with every new set of characters that I write, is taking these two people (or more, if there are multiple couples) and finding out who they are, and how they come together.

Two people meet, and there’s something in each of them that reacts to the other, whether that’s positive or negative. Subsequent encounters, or repeated exposure, bring out more tension, whether it’s personality or attraction-based. I love writing the unfolding relationship, and I’ve seen mixed reactions from authors on this next item, but I love to write the erotica. My sex scenes vary from light to detailed depending on the story and what’s happening with the plot, but I look forward to, and enjoy, writing that part of the story too. If I’ve made my characters (and the reader) wait for it, then everyone deserves the payoff for sure.

Stories, especially novels, can’t subsist on sex scenes alone, however. I did learn to plot my stories around the bones of the relationship, starting with my very first Nanowrimo back in 2002. Knowing that I was going into a thirty-day writing sprint, expected to come out of the other end with a 50,000+ word manuscript, and determined to succeed, I approached the project with my first-ever comprehensive outline. Prior to 2002, I’d completed novel-length works before, both fannish and casual original fiction endeavors, but my approach was completely laissez-faire, totally by the seat of my pants, and typically took months. I would start out writing with vague ideas, and found out more as I went along. I invented everything the story needed in terms of world-building or supporting characters on the spot.

That wasn’t going to work for an endeavor like Nanowrimo. I needed to have enough material planned so that I could write through each and every scene and get through the day having met my word count by the end of it. So I penned out my ideas for “Not Another Regency Romance,” roughing out a cast of characters and two romantic storylines unfolding side by side: May, the novel’s heroine, and her younger brother Tor, who incidentally fell for the older man who was intended to be May’s suitor.

It might not have been completely terrible? A good handful of people read it, and at least one person whose opinion I trust told me it was well-told and they enjoyed it. I never ended up editing or trying to submit it anywhere, because I didn’t think the story would have a market. Too gay for straight romance, too straight for gay romance, and I had no interest in editing out either of the romantic storylines. Those dual storylines were what really made the plot.

The important takeaway from that early effort was how to outline, and it gave me the confidence that I needed to continue with that format. 2002 was like a writing exercise in which I learned which parts of my outline to stick to, which to scrap for the sake of the story, and where I could improve upon it during the writing process, always allowing for inspiration or characters becoming so much more.

That’s how I write from my outlines, in the end. The outline is the framework that the story is built upon, but I’m free to change or tweak as needed, add extra characters when they’re called for, accommodate a dramatic twist when the opportunity presents itself, and let the story play out the way it wants to be written. Sometimes the characters surprise me, and I like it when that happens–if I can get caught up in writing it, hopefully others will get caught up reading it, too.

For Nanowrimo 2003, I dove into it with the same mindset, but started with an unfinished outline. Little did I know, once November was over and I’d turned out over 85,000 words, without an outline or a clear path to the end I would lose momentum. It took me nearly ten years to finish From the Inside Out. When it was accepted for publication, the epilogue got axed, and many of the storyline details changed during the editing process. I believe this is partly because my outline, penned back in 2003, was weak in plot and the relationship story I tried to tell wasn’t right for the characters I developed. Since then, in my meager opinion I think I’ve gotten better at those elements.

In terms of the outline process itself, I always start with the characters first. I have a general idea for a story, which I may or may not write down right away. I form an idea of the main characters in my head: what they look like, their personalities, what they do. I’ll often use actors as character bases, but not always. Sometimes their names come to me easily; other times, I do research based on ethnicity/nationality, personality traits, when they were born and what names were popular at the time, and personal preference. Once I have their names down, I commit that to paper or electronic file and start jotting down ideas about them. At this point of the brainstorming process, I may or may not rough out a general idea of the storyline itself. “Convergence” started out as “Indiana Jones with vampires,” so you can see I had a long way to go from there. In fact, my original short story idea for the Proud to be a Vampire call was going to be something else entirely, then instead of shifting the scene I’d mapped in my head to the end of the story, I realized as the characters developed that the scene in my head wasn’t the right part of the story to tell, at all. I developed an entirely new story from there–and it’s one I like a lot better. “Appetite,” which ended up a sprawling three-part tome, began its life as the teaser sentence “competitive chefs with a passion for cooking…and each other.” I start with building blocks, and the idea grows until I have to write it all down. Usually the story name comes in at some point during my outlining process. Sometimes, the name is a placeholder and I change it at the end. “Body Option” and “Fireborn” both had different working titles; I can’t even remember what the original titles were anymore.

Right now, I’m at the beginning stages of outlining two new manuscripts, and the process is so different for each of them! “My Sexual Superhero” is a short story I’ll be submitting for a fiction call. All I know about it, at this point, is the two characters get together at a club, and one brief encounter ends up turning into something more when they actually open up and start learning about one another. One of the main characters is tentatively named Jaden, but I might change it. His best friend is Marina. The other guy would be Chris if I hadn’t already named another character Chris, in Convergence. I have a snippet of dialogue already written, but that’s it! Oh, and I know what they look like.

…and I came back from lunch and “Not Chris” became “Felipe” and all my nascent ideas about him have changed, and I like him even better than my original concept for him. I have more ideas about where the story is going, but not how it ends.

The other manuscript I’m plotting is going to be my 2013 Nanowrimo, and I’m trying out “Dragonspire” and “Dragon’s Nexus” for WIP titles. After searching for novels titled the same or similarly, I’m sure I’ll scrap those and come up with something else. The three characters I’ve got so far are Gideon Stahl, intrepid photographer engaged in a major life change; Chrysania Vallorum, high priestess and princess of Callar-dune; and Echo Glaive, a powerful dragon whose actions threaten the livelihood of Callar-dune’s citizens. Tagline for the story is “Gideon went to save the maiden. He pledged himself to the dragon.” At this point, I’m concentrating on the world-building details while the general storyline comes together in my head. When I start outlining things scene by scene, that’s usually when a lot of things start to shake out into specific form and structure. For longer stories, I tend to decide early if there will be different “parts,” or story arcs, divide the outline into those sections, and work on those. I think that Dragonspire will be two parts, possibly three, but I don’t want it to be much longer than 100k altogether, because I want this to be a standalone fantasy work. That’s going to help dictate the complexity of the outline.

Once I have all the general pieces, I start writing scene by scene. This varies from extremely general–“Jaden goes clubbing with his friend Marina”–to very specific, with some scene-setting or world-building details that may get incorporated into the manuscript. I outline in a relatively linear fashion, but jot down bursts of inspiration as they come. Often, I know how the story will end before I have the middle nailed down, for example. Or I’ll get a scene in my head that takes place in the story, and I write it all down and figure out a place for it when I’m going through the linear plotting.

Ultimately, most stories can be deconstructed to a single element: conflict, and resolution of the conflict. Whether that takes place as relationship conflict, or external conflict through opposing forces, it’s all up to the author and what they want to achieve, and how they want to get there. Some people work best when they jump right in with those vague ideas, and work their way through it during the writing process. For me, the story works better when I start with those vague ideas, and work their way through it during the writing process. For me, the story works better when I start with the ideas and give them greater substance with the structure of the outline, however loose or detailed. We tell the stories we want to tell–the ones that want to be told. If you don’t have a plot at first, it’s not a problem. Put your characters down on paper, maneuver them into the same space together, and figure out what makes the sparks fly from there. Above all, don’t be afraid to experiment and find out what methods work best on an individual basis. I used to think that I had to have every single world-building detail figured out, and I was failing some criteria of being an author if I didn’t–then I discovered not everyone works that way! The great, fun, endlessly inventive thing about writing is that everyone does it differently. And we all find our best way.

Right-sizing your novel

Let’s call today “topical Tuesday,” and get right into it! My initial goal was to post around three to four times a week, now I’m scaling back to two, with on the spot updates as opportunity arrives.

Between tl;dr and brevity being the soul of wit, there’s a proper length for everything, from blog entries to listicles, from serial stories to traditional novels. In our modern society, where mass consumption and getting to the point often seems to be favored over a full-course meal and taking time to explore and develop ideas, I wonder if we’ll ever see a counter-movement from Tweets and reblogs back to engagement through discourse again.

Still, there is an optimal length for just about every message you’re seeking to convey, and it’s important to select the right tool for the story you’re trying to tell.

Conventional wisdom holds that novels ought to be around 100k-175k words, but it breaks down in trying to pinpoint the difference between a novel and a novella. National Novel Writing Month, in which I’ve been a participant since 2002, sets the bar for a novel at 50k or greater.

As a writer, most of my stories tend to be longer, with a slow burn relationship that unfolds over the course of the work. I like to show who the characters are separately before I throw them into a new dynamic that will hopefully reveal even more about them as people. On that basis, my novels tend to start at 50k and go on up. Sometimes, way up.

I find it really difficult to tell a complete story, plot and relationship arcs, and any important sub-plots, in 50,000 words maximum – that’s why that range tends to be my starting point rather than the end goal. Signal to Noise, one of my most tightly-plotted works to date, is 65k.

From the Inside Out, at 165k, falls in that “standard” range for a novel mentioned above, but one of the frequent critiques from readers is that it’s too long, and should have been edited more tightly. I could probably agree with that, but it also raises the question, what’s too long for a relationship story that starts from the ground up, and has its own plots and sub-plots, supporting characters playing important roles and standing on their own as characters, and the logical progression of a first-time relationship?

Appetite, compiled in its full weighty glory, is 192k words. And I really don’t think I could have told the story and done it justice and pared out any more than I did. (As it is, I trimmed out about 20k and added some new material at my editor’s direction.)

Conversely, when I try to keep a story down to brass tacks, I received an editorial opinion that, rather than trying to cut The More Plausible Evil below 50k, I ought to expand it by an additional 20k-30k to better flesh out and develop the characters and their relationship. Every story is different. And that made me pull my hair out, because the one time I tried to keep it lean and mean, that worked against it!

I’m going by my own stories as example because it all boils down to opinions, and discovering what works best for your story, depending on the genre, and maybe even the intended readership. What might work for a serialized story might be more frustrating and overmuch when compiled in a massive volume. (Though fans of Arthur Conan Doyle might argue.)

Sometimes I start out plotting a story, expecting it to be a certain length, and discover that the first draft ends up far more than planned. I started a young adult novel last November, and the first third ended up a hair shy of 55k. I had three arcs planned! I still haven’t finished that novel; it started out a promising idea, but ended up boring in execution for me. I think I need to revamp certain things about the story and the heroine before I make another go at it. At the rate it was going, each arc was going to be around 50k, and that’s not standalone. For a young adult audience, 150k as a single novel is definitely too long unless I tried to break each arc into its own individual novel and make them self-supporting enough for that to work.

It kind of comes down to attention span, doesn’t it? Young adults go for the shorter reads and slimmer volumes. “Serious” fiction is expected to be longer. As for gay and queer fiction, I suppose I’m still finding my way. Convergence and Body Option could both be considered novellas, I think; they’re around 20k each and I managed to get in there, tell the story and develop the romance, and conclude without making it any longer.

Then there’s others that grow tentacles and rise up out of the ocean to consume you. I tapped one of my old Nanowrimo stories to edit for potential submission, and was shocked to realize it’s around 160k. It’s a mystery/suspense with some horror elements, and takes place at a fictional boarding school. There are two relationship subplots. And I shake my head at my younger self, realizing here and now that I’m going to have to trim a lot of fat out of that story before I even think about submitting it to a publisher. (I already know I’m going to chuck one of the relationship subplots, which is going to make some of that story’s first draft readers very unhappy.)

What’s the optimal novel length for a standalone work? Does it depend on the subject matter? The plot? The author?

To me, it’s a combination of all of those elements. Genre and intended audience definitely play their parts. The simple, obvious example is the young adult genre–more than 60, 75k is pushing the attention threshold to keep your story marketable.

I’m starting to wonder if that holds true for a lot of m/m romance readers in that they want to keep their stories around 75k – get in, get the payoff, get it neatly wrapped before bedtime. For me, though, the thing that dictates the length of my story are how the story wants to be written, and I’ve always believed stories, as well as individual chapters within them, should be as long as they need to be.

As a reader, I seek stories on that basis, too. Long or short, it doesn’t really matter to me so long as I’m engaged and interested in the story that they have to tell.

As a reader or a writer, what’s your take on it?