If you want to write LGBT fiction

I wanted to parody If You Give a Mouse a Cookie with my blog title, but I couldn’t come up with a quippy way to pull that off.  So if you’ve got any ideas, feel free to make some suggestions.  (And no, I don’t know why I had this thought.  It’s late.  Cut me some slack).

With NaNo going on, and after having finished the talk about LGBT issues in YA on #yalitchat a few weeks ago, I’ve had some thoughts percolating in my head for awhile now.  If you’re considering writing a YA novel that heavily features gay issues, here are some things to consider.  For the purpose of definition, I consider a “gay book” to be one in which the gay characters are the main, predominant storyline.  The main character is gay, and that part of their life is a big part of the book.

1.  Expect a struggle

Honestly, this is the most meaningless thing I could say.  Getting a book published is hard.  Period.  Getting a genre book published is no less difficult.  First you have to write the book (and you ALWAYS have to finish the book, if it’s fiction).  Then you have to edit, revise, and polish that book.  Then you have to decide if you want an agent (I would recommend it) and start submitting your book to them.  If you find an agent, then you usually do ANOTHER round of edits.  Then another round of submissions: this time to editors.

Then, if the book sells, you’ll do MORE edits.  Maybe several rounds.  Maybe some will be severe.  Or they won’t be severe at all.  Then line edits, copyedits, pass pages.  Every step of the way, it’s a lot of work.  Be prepared to put in a lot of time and energy.  Oh, and amidst all this, you’ll do lots of waiting.  The publishing mantra seems to be “hurry up and wait.”  When things are needed, they’re needed ASAP.  And then you hurry up and wait for the next thing (which might not happen for months)

2.  Don’t limit yourself

I know I use the term “gay book” in this post, but don’t limit yourself by doing the same.  Most fiction featuring LGBT characters is more than just a story about their gayness – it’s a story about characters who happen to be gay.  It’s self-limiting to narrow your book down that far.  One of the things you want to do when you’re putting your book out there is that you want to give an agent or an editor as many reasons as possible to say YES, and as few reasons to say NO as you can.  The same way that you are more than your sexuality, so too is your book.

When I queried WITCH EYES, I was pretty clear that it was a paranormal book, and that it had a gay character/romance in it, but that wasn’t the focus of my query or my book.  It was just another element; I wrote a paranormal that just happened to have a gay character.  And that’s how I queried it.

I think if you narrow yourself down to “gay book” status, then you’re limiting yourself to agents that want to handle gay fiction, editors who want gay fiction, etc.  And there are publishing houses that exclusively handle LGBT fiction, but you want your book to have the longest legs possible – to go as far as possible.  The ideal audience isn’t just gay men, or gay women, it should be broader than that.  Keep that in mind when you’re writing, not just after the fact.

3.  What kind of writer are you?

There are really two categories here.  You don’t have to be gay to write a gay character.  You don’t even have to be gay to write a gay book.   But I think it’s important to figure out whether you want to write predominantly gay books, or if you want to write whatever you like, and one of those things just happens to be a gay book.

You might get pigeon-holed into that role as a “gay writer.”  People will see your name, and assume that your new book is another gay romance like the others.  If this is what you want anyway, then there’s nothing to be concerned about.  You’ll be building a brand.

And if not, you can break the mold, but just know that it’s there.  I get it all the time, and my book isn’t even out yet.  Even though I don’t write exclusively gay stuff, it’s one of the things people assume.  Just recognize that this might happen, and you might have to deal with it.  Plus, you’re kinda unofficially “out” unless you write with a pseudonym.

I don’t particularly like being “the gay writer” but I chose to write a gay book, so I’ll do what I can with it.  But that’s not going to stop me from writing stories about *gasp* straight people, if that’s what is in my head.

4.  Publishing is a business.

How does this affect YOU?  Because publishing is a business, that means that the focus is (to some extent) on the bottom line.  They are a business, that HAS to play a part.  You’re looking out for your own best interest, and the publisher does the same.  So why do I bring this up?

“Gay fiction” is considered a niche.  Just like boys won’t read “girl books” and certain people won’t read “issue books.”  “Gay books” are a niche, and there’s a belief that a lot of people WON’T read your gay book.  Being widely commercial is an asset to a publisher – commercial books have wide appeal, they’re expected to sell.  You may not get the kind of advance that Twilight got, or the amount of publicity that The Hunger Games received, especially starting out.  It may be assumed that the only market you will appeal to will be the gay market.

When it comes to the bottom line, Adam and Eve will sell a lot more copies than Adam and Steve.  And that’s what the publisher has to consider.  Publishing is conservative because it has to be – because it’s a business.  Like with point number 2 – if you limit yourself to just a gay market, you’re not giving Publishing all the tools they need to sell your book.

5.  Challenges are inevitable.

Because of the last point, you may find your book harder to sell, or harder to find an agent.  You might have people suggest that Adam and Eve would be a lot more commercial, so maybe you could change the gay couple into a straight one.  Or they might want you to downplay the gay romance in favor of a gay guy/straight girl friendship.  There are a dozen different permutations that kinda boil down to “make your book less gay.”  Again, it’s partly just business.  They may like your writing, but the publisher knows they’ll never get in-house support for your particular book.  Or an agent might realize that the book is great, but the gay element will make it a more difficult pitch.

Note that I say you may.  You may not.  You might find the right agent for you quickly.  The agent might have the perfect editor who will love your book.  This happens, just as often as it doesn’t happen.

And I don’t mean to make it sound like the gay books that are released are few and far between.  They’re not, especially if you count all the books where gay characters take up supporting roles.  But expect to be challenged at some point.

So that’s all I can think of at eleven at night.  Any additional suggestions?  Leave them in the comments.

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13 thoughts on “If you want to write LGBT fiction

  1. Thanks for the advice, Scott. Really thoughtful. Sad that our society still believes that gay characters won’t sell to mainstream audiences. For what it’s worth, as a teenage girl, my favorite book was Katie Waitman’s The Merro Tree, which was an alien romance about two men. So I know from experience that many teenager girls will eat that kind of stuff up. 🙂

  2. These are really great points. I figure it can’t be *totally* impossible to get a YA LGBT novel published, since they do exist. I just finished a first draft of a YA novel with a lesbian protagonist, so I feel the need to be hopeful.

  3. Interesting post, Scott! I never intended really to write a “gay book” much as a love story and a coming-of-age novel, but these are some good things to think about anyway. In the YA I’m revising, the main character isn’t gay, but there are gay supporting characters, and I just recently realized that in the MG book I’ve started, the main character has two moms, lol. I’m kind of interested in the reaction to the LGBT angle of my book…especially as a middle school teacher writing under my own name. Like…there are other things in my book for people to get upset about, but I can see there being some reactions, and I’m not sure they’ll all be good. I dunno, though. (*comments at 11:00 pm*)

  4. This has been, sadly, very much my experience. I wrote what I think is a great book about a young man fighting his guardian, an ex-Marine, to get the life he wants rather than what she expects. It’s a great read, with lots of mischeif and explosions and such–but the catalyst to his standing up for himself is falling in love with another man. When I queried, I had a lot of great responses, mostly along the lines of “I like it a lot but I can’t sell it. What else do you have?”

    So I’m trying the self-publishing route. At least this way people will have the chance to read it, instead of the manuscript languishing under my bed.

    (Here via Colleen Lindsay’s tweet.)

  5. Excellent essay, with some very good points I hadn’t thought of regarding the dual meaning of being a ‘gay author’.

    On the ‘author of gay books’ meaning, I’ve written one or two pieces that have some gay content: supporting characters in a romance, the main characters in an action adventure, but I’ve never written what you (by your definition) or I would consider a ‘gay book’. They had gay characters portrayed in a positive light, but didn’t focus on the fact that those characters were gay or how it impacted their life. That said, I’ve already had books labeled as ‘gay romance’ by some readers.

    On the ‘author who is gay’ meaning, I’ve never actually considered that writing characters who are gay would imply that I, myself am gay. If someone thinks I’m gay it doesn’t bother me; two of my early role models are gay, so it never occurred to me that there are negative social connotations to the word in some social circles. Yeah, I’m a little dense. However, the idea that ‘only a gay person can write gay people’ boggles me. That’s like saying you have to be Jewish to write a Jewish character, or Canadian to write a Canadian character, or… I dunno, a barista to write about coffee houses. I offer this point to ponder for folks who believe that: if we can only write our own gender / orientation / whatnot, then all romance perforce must be gay fiction, because a writer cannot simultaneously be male and female.

    Okay, all romance writers could be hermaphrodites, but that could make for an even stranger situation. And now I’ve got a new plot for an urban fantasy romance novel. Which will focus on gay characters. Which is going to drive my publisher batty, I’m sure.

  6. Giving the agent/publishers as many reasons to say yes is great advice for all writers, regardless of their genre/niche. Thanks for the post!

    And like KD Sarge, I too am here because of a Colleen Lindsay tweet. She’s constantly hammering out similar good advice.

  7. I, too, have a book that’s been slotted as gay coming out (hidden, January 25, 2011.) So, I really relate to you comments, esp. as a cautionary tale. What I would add is this: “gay” is pretty generic (and I don’t intend that comment as an attack but observation.) There are so many variants on Adam & Steve (or, Eve & Eva, Or, Adam who decides he’s really a she, and then falls in love with Eve having become Desiree) stories, and the LGBTQ world is incredibly rich with stories of struggle that I see it as more of an opportunity than a problem. To my mind, it’s finding and telling the unique, compelling LGBTQ story that mitigates the finding an agent/publisher process.

    You touch on a book having legs ie., appealing to a larger demographic than LGBTQ people. That’s true, and really tricky to pull off, at least in my experience thus far. It helps knowing that going in: writing a story that isn’t so incredibly specific that it excludes. I wrote “hidden,” for example, with women and teenage in mind – straight ones, esp. What I’ve found is that while adult women bloggers are very resistent to “hidden,” teens have embraced it. I am curious to see how this plays out. Is it generational? Or, the nature of the story?

    I do know adult gay men have embraced “hidden,” and Ahmed/Ben, the protagonist, being a teenager hasn’t been an issue. Vogue? Not so much which is kind of disappointing because it suggests, gay men, while allowed a presence as visual mavens (stylists! makeup artists! designers! BFFs!), aren’t of interest, as people, narrative books being the most direct investment a person can make in another’s inner life, and experiences. This is another topic, but I think it’s less about battling blatant homophobia than challenging invisibility and disinterest.

    Another element that helps having a platform: before “hidden” was a novel, it was “hiding out,” an article about LGBTQ youth who escaped from gay-to-straight bootcamps into an underground network of safehouses. The article became a jumping off point for the safehouses (which have far more detailed stories than I could have ever told in an article, even a really long one.) I was hired by George Michael to make a documentary video about safehouses and – hopefully – will be releasing that vis MSM, for the first time.

    One element – which you don’t address, is crucial, and totally out of every writer’s control – are book industry reviews. Besides describing “hidden” as “exquisitely written,” the Publishers Weekly review noted, “regardless of sexual orientation … ” When I read those three words (well, five, including the first two), I felt like I had a chance to break-out: I had been 100% true to my queer struggle/journey, AND managed written something that (at least) one person recognized speaks to the human condition.

    That said – and it’s still early – neither ALA, or Kirkus have yet to review “hidden.” Will they? Unlikely. Their record of reviewing novels with LGBTQ youth as central characters is … uneven, at best. Sarah Schulman’s, “The Kid,” IMO one of the best novels about queer youth in the last three decades is absent from ALA. And neither “Dancer From the Dance” nor “A Beautiful Room is Empty” – two examples of universally acknowledged gay classics – aren’t archived on either ALA/Kirkus’ sites (though frothy beach reads ie., chick lit, are v. well represented.) I’ve been tallying searches of LGBTQ reviews on ALA/Kirkus and noticed that, unless one has several gay books under your belt (a Catch-22 given the built in invisibility), getting those crucial reviews seems to happen 3-4-5 books into a writer’s career. (Armistead Maupin’s “Tale of the City” ? Not reviewed, though his later books, are.)

    Those reviews matter, too, esp. at the beginning of a career, and the exclusion by ALA/Kirkus of LGBTQ books, for adults or teens, I’d think directly impacts not just sales, but the subsequent accessibility readers (esp. library users since ALA is a librarian buyer’s guide and how can you order what you don’t know about and/or hasn’t been endorsed by your peers?) have to queer experiences … And that exclusion is something nobody is talking about (except Brent Taylor, whose essay on the subject last summer was widely read and endorsed – by librarians – but didn’t seem to changed the reality on the ground.)

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  9. Pingback: #YesGayYA | Scott Tracey – Young Adult Writer

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