Folks, I have been mulling about writing this post for some time now. Thinking I really need to speak up about it, but then pushing it away for fear that I might offend some of my online friends. But I kept coming back to the fact that by not speaking out about it, I am basically doing the same thing that I am about to accuse others of doing. That is, standing by and being silent because it serves my own interest.

So I’m about to tell you what has been troubling me. Now first of all, I completely understand why writers use pseudonyms to protect themselves and keep their private lives private. I have no problem with that at all. There are crazy people out there and it is wise not to put all your personal information on the Internet. But what I don’t understand is how some writers of gay-themed literature are so ashamed of what they write that they keep it secret from everybody in their private lives. Online, under a cloak of anonymity they are as proud as peacocks of their literary achievements, but privately they keep it hidden, feeling that it would be so humiliating if anyone found out that they write about gay love. And then I read blogs from these writers (again under pseudonyms) fuming about the injustices to gay people. They rant and rave about every suicide, every anti-gay politician, and every anti-gay referendum. That’s great. But I have a morbid suspicion that these same writers, so bold online yet privately so ashamed of the novels they have penned, are saying NOTHING in defense of gay rights to their families, friends and co-workers. That really steams me. Those who oppose us probably don’t have a whole lot of respect for anonymous bloggers, but they would be forced to re-evaluate their opinions if someone they knew personally stood up and challenged them.

Perhaps some of this shame has to do with the stigma attached to romance novels in general, and I’m sure there are writers of straight romance who conceal their professions as well, so it might be that this shame was partially inherited.

Recently there was a big brouhaha when LiveJournal temporarily allowed cross-posting of locked posts. I remember one writer getting very upset and said if anybody at her job found out she wrote gay books, she could lose her job. Really? Of course everyone I work with knows what I write and publish, but if I were in her shoes and my employer found out I write gay books and then fired me for it, I’d get a lawyer (Lambda Legal is ready and willing) and sue his ass for discrimination! I’m sorry, but keeping silent in the workplace while your co-workers are freely spouting their anti-gay rhetoric because you might lose your precious job is, in my humble opinion, cowardly.

Okay there I’ve said it. Now if you are a writer who is closeted about what you write but are still vociferous about gay rights, then I give you a pass, though I still think if you are ashamed of your work, then why bother, unless it is just to pay the bills, in which case I’d have to say you are merely prostituting yourself. I hope I’ve given some food for thought and haven’t offended anybody. But if I did, I can’t apologize for it, because I truly believe it needed to be said.

*But were afraid to ask

1. How do you choose what to publish? (Or what makes author X’s book better than mine?)

It’s not as easy as you would think. First of all, the story really has to grab us, keep us enthralled, and present a world that we find fascinating. But it also has to have a unique quality to it. The publishing industry and Hollywood have this flawed ideology that if something is successful, you should make a hundred more just like it. We look for stories that haven’t been done before or utilize a fresh take. Give us something that’s not familiar.

2. Why do you specialize in certain genres? (Or what do you mean you don’t publish cyber-punk-paranormal-alternate universe?

Simple answer: It’s easier to compete in a small niche than it is to try and compete against well-established publishers in less specific genres such as paranormal romance, police procedurals, thrillers, or fantasy sci-fi. By specializing in gay historical fiction, that narrows the playing field and we can strive to offer the best product in our field.

3. How do books generate profit for the publisher? (Or if you publish me, I’ll be rich and famous, right?)

Well, books cost money to produce. There are many expenses that add up. Once a story is selected and the contract has been signed, we have to pay an editor, a cover artist, a book designer, and then there are set-up fees for the printer, cataloging fees and ISBN registration. It usually comes out to somewhere between $1000 to $2000 per book. Of course all that is paid for by the publisher and is not counted against author royalties. So when a book begins to sell, the author gets his contracted percentage from the sale and whatever is left over goes to the publisher to start recouping those expenses. If a book sells really well, a publisher can recoup his expenses in a few months, but more often than not it will take considerably longer before a book starts to show an actual profit. In any case the author earns royalties for each sale even if the publisher never turns a profit for the book. I’ll bet you’re wondering how much of that $14.99 retail price goes straight into the publisher’s pocket, aren’t you? Well after subtracting the retailer’s and distributor’s cuts, the printing and shipping costs, and the author’s royalties would you believe there is often less than $2 left?

4. How important is promotion for a small press? (Or once my book is on Amazon, it will automatically sell and because it is good it will soon be a bestseller, right?)

How important? Very. Without promotion your title wouldn’t sell a single copy on Amazon. I’m not kidding. Without reviews, a brilliantly-written synopsis, and eye-catching cover, no one would buy your book.

5. What is the most annoying thing aspiring authors do when they want you to publish them? (Or how can I get you to notice me without pissing you off?)

The most annoying thing is when writers feel the rules don’t apply to them. Publishers always post submission guidelines. Read them and then follow them. But also do yourself a favor and do a little research about the publisher first. Look through their catalog of titles and determine if your book is even remotely compatible. Submitting a raunchy, scandalous heterosexual memoire to a publisher that has only published gay historical fiction is probably not going to fly. And when you receive a polite rejection letter, don’t get all huffy and write back demanding to know what is wrong with your story.

Well this was going to be a top ten list, but I could only think of five.

17th Century

17th Century

By Mark R. Probst

My current writing project is a piece about a gay soldier in a famous historical battle. It is a unique challenge to write a fictional story with fictional characters and have them interact with real characters and true events in a historically significant battle, especially one as well-known as the one I have chosen. I have to envy fantasy writers as they have the liberty to completely invent the battles to serve their characters. However in my case I must delicately weave the threads of my fictional story into the tapestry of history while carefully avoiding collisions that would alter true history.

My first step was to thoroughly research this particular battle to see where my story would best fit in. I read a book written by an authority and I also dug up all the information I could find on the internet (isn’t Wikipedia great?)

18th Century

18th Century

In my case it was necessary to choose a specific real-life troop to which my soldiers would belong, and map out the logistics of the story based on all the known facts about this troop. If a battle is large and complex, a writer might get away with inventing an entire troop. I didn’t have this luxury as the specifics of this battle are rather well documented. Research can be either fun or a drudge. For me, reading non-fiction materials comes under the drudge category, while watching all the movies about this battle is definitely on the fun side. As a film buff, I like to pattern my writing style after classic movies. This particular battle was immortalized on film a number of times, and it is quite interesting to compare all the different interpretations. Though I do have to be careful, because some of the movies I encountered in this instance took a ridiculous amount of artistic license to reinvent history!

19th Century

19th Century

I found that with my one other published work, I had the most success by marketing it as a traditional romance since it did fit within those guidelines.  Now, writing about war, I’m making a departure from that genre.  Because I am striving for authenticity, it occurs to me that “happily ever after” rarely exists in war.  Sure, being away from home and under extreme duress, soldiers often found comfort in the arms of lovers.  But once the conflict ended, they returned to their wives or families and left these temporary wartime romances behind.

 

One problem I see in a lot of gay historicals, is what Erastes has coined as OK homo – the tendency to make it a little too easy for gay people to live and be happy in a historical context.  While it is certainly pleasant to imagine a happy idyllic gay couple living in the 19th Century, it’s just not realistic.  Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against these feel-good gay historical romances, after all I wrote one myself!  It’s just that my goal with this new story is to create a believable environment in which a soldier knows he has romantic yearnings for a comrade, and also knows that to reveal these desires would be fatal.

The whole subject of gays in the military became a rather conspicuous news story 17 years ago when President Clinton made a campaign promise to lift the ban; and then again as our present administration announced its intention to abolish “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that by the time President Obama leaves office, gays and lesbians will be proudly and openly serving their country.

For research purposes this book is essential

For research purposes this book is essential

So the fact that gay and lesbian military personnel have had to serve in secret throughout history makes for a rich landscape in which to cultivate stories. For inspiration, check out Randy Shilts’ wonderful book entitled “Conduct Unbecoming” that documents real-life gay and lesbian cases all the way back to the Revolutionary War. You will be astounded to know the very large number of dishonorable discharges that were processed every year for homosexuality as the U. S. military was actively entrapping and ferreting out gays and lesbians. Not to mention the cases of soldiers who actually spent years in military prisons after being court-martialed for sodomy. What is absolutely inconceivable to me is that in 1975 decorated Viet Nam war hero Leonard Matlovich was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force after publicly coming out. He sued the Air Force for reinstatement. While he was never reinstated, he did get his discharge changed from dishonorable to honorable. The Air Force did this mainly to rescue their eroding PR, but policy did not change and thousands of men and women continued to be ferreted out.

In closing I’d like to bring your attention to this submissions call. We are looking for good stories that demonstrate what life must have been like for gay and/or lesbian military personnel in a historical setting. Whether it’s 18th Century English Naval officers, 19th Century cavalry soldiers, the men storming the beaches of Normandy on D-day, or the draftees of the Viet Nam War, homosexuals were present and participated in these events and its time they got their due.

LGBT Military History Submissions Call

LGBT Military History Submissions Call

And finally please allow me to mention a few of the books that have been written with major gay characters in military settings: The upcoming Transgressions by Erastes (English Civil War) and False Colors by Alex Beecroft (One of those English Naval Wars), A Different Sin by Rochelle Hollander Schwab (American Civil War), Ransom and all its sequels by Lee Rowan, Captain’s Surrender by Alex Beecroft, and last but certainly not least The Charioteer by Mary Renault.

by Mark R. Probst

I think you may be surprised by the answer to that question. Truth be told, just about every historical out there uses some modern language. If not modern words themselves, then at least modern usage. Language has evolved over time, and the further back you go, the more foreign the language becomes to us. So a dedicated author could, in theory, write prose that is fairly authentic to his chosen period, but imagine what the poor reader would have to go through trying to decipher such antiquated language. I know of one such writer, Patrick O’Brian, whose meticulous research actually results in novels that very well could have been written in the 18th Century. While I admire O’Brian’s superior achievement in authenticity, I personally had one hell of a time comprehending Master and Commander, due to the language. There are a couple of writers here at The Macaronis who write age-of-sail with a decided shift towards modern language usage, and their novels are quite a bit easier to digest.

So what the historical writer should strive for is a delicate balance between the authentic and the modern. It is desirable to use enough words and phrases that the reader will recognize as being appropriate to the era and therefore be sold on the illusion of authenticity, but at the same time blend in enough modern language so the reader will comprehend what he is reading. Of course it is the personal preference of the writer and editor how far to tip the scale in either direction. Some writers, like O’Brian, will prefer to be heavily weighted on the authentic end, while other writers may choose just the opposite and go way towards modern.

For The Filly I tried to discard anything that I knew readers would clearly recognize as anachronistic, as that is the first thing that will break the illusion, but rather than use 100 percent authentic language from the real Old West, I tried to emulate the language of the old Hollywood Western movies. But for the discussions between my two protags regarding sexuality, of course there was no point of reference from the old movies as the subject was taboo, so I shifted to what I imagined real people in that time and place would say to each other and how I though they might say it.

Now, the next subject I’d like to bring up is translation. If, for example, you are reading War and Peace or Les Miserables, the only way for you to authentically experience the language is to learn Russian and French and read them in their original text, otherwise you are reading a translation that is of course an approximation of what was originally written. If one were to write about ancient times such as the Romans, English as we know it didn’t exist back then so of course everything written will be an interpretation anyway. So if a writer naturally tells an ancient story in modern words, who’s to say he can’t write a not-so-ancient story in modern terms as well, and just consider it a “translation” from the old words that would have been used into modern words that today’s readers can fully understand? Hey, the Bible’s been translated into modern English, so why can’t an historical be written that way? There is no reason it can’t. In fact a few of the recent historicals I have read do just that. But I will warn the writer that if he does take that approach, he should be prepared that some readers just aren’t going to tolerate it.

It’s really all a matter of personal choice, but what makes the historical something special is that it creates an illusion for the reader that he is witnessing the past, and it is up to the writer to maintain that illusion, and the words he chooses can make all the difference.

My first post here at The Macaronis will be both an introduction and a few words about my writing process.  First of all let me say I was thrilled to be asked to be a contributor to this new weblog and I hope I will be able to add something interesting and useful to both readers and writers of gay historical fiction.

 

My debut novel, The Filly, was published last October.  It’s meant to re-invent the classic Hollywood Western with a pair of cowboy lovers.

 

I’ve had an interest in writing all my life, but I only seriously took it up five years ago.  For the past 20 years, I had it in the back of my mind that I was going to write a novel, but I just couldn’t come up with an original idea.  Then I finally had a revelation.  Why not write a Western?  I had literally watched hundreds of Western movies and countless Western TV shows.  My devotion to the genre had practically made me an aficionado.  Mix that with my true-life experiences of being a gay man, and I had something.  Thus, The Filly was born.

 

For me, the process works best, when I have a well-constructed outline.  I find that without one, my writing gets bogged down and tends to meander all over the place.  A strong outline of the plot is like the spine of the story.  Later, in the writing process I am able to brainstorm all the little details that become the “meat” of the story.  Research, I tend to do along the way.  I’ll find that I need to verify certain things, so I’ll scour the internet looking for tidbits of information that will bring authenticity to the details.

 

I find that the most thrilling thing that can happen during the process is discovering a new angle that was not originally part of the plan, yet fits perfectly into place.  One of the character turns in The Filly was just such an example.

 

Once the first draft is complete, I share it with my family and friends to get some feedback, but more importantly, I set it aside.  It is necessary to gain some distance and perspective that only time can provide.  For The Filly, I didn’t start working on the second draft until a year had passed.  With all the cobwebs cleared out of my mind, I reread it and could see its weaknesses.  There were sections of the book that were much too thin and needed some serious beefing up.  Draft number two was quite a bit longer and I also delved deeper into the psyches of my characters.  Once again, I shared it with my friends and set it aside.  The third draft was really not a rewrite, but simply polishing and making small changes based on comments from friends.  Then I began working with an editor, but that is a whole other story.

 

My current writing projects are a Filly pre-quel, which is an earlier story about Travis before he meets Ethan; a tentative sequel that takes place some 20 years after The Filly; and I also have plans to write a fictional biography along the lines of Miss Potter, but with a real-life character of my own choosing.

 

Stay tuned for my next post.  I’m calling it “Writing a Western:  Historical Accuracy Vs. the Mythical Old West as Rhapsodized by Literature and Cinema of the Early 20th Century.”

 

Happy writing, everyone!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 858 other followers