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.

Gay Bullying, Suicide, and the Aftermath

Okay, so I don’t normally talk about “real life stuff” in the blog here, but this week there’s just been a lot of thoughts jumbled up in my head.  Things I’ve seen, or things I want to say.

Dan Savage started this Youtube channel called the It Gets Better Project.  If you don’t know, he’s an advice columnist and gay activist, and the channel was something he started after hearing about the suicide of Billy Lucas. The idea, as the project title explains, is that it really does “get better.”  High school is not the be all and end all of life.

This was the story that really got to me, though.  It wasn’t just that Justin Aaberg had killed himself, or the fact that five students have killed themselves in the past year (three in part due to issues with sexual identity), the fact that a local on-air personality used his platform to advocate on behalf of those students being bullied, or that a candidate in Minnesota is campaigning against anti-bullying laws because the schools don’t have the right to interfere with his children.  It was all of these things.

Now, I’m not from Minnesota, but it’s not about any one place.  GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) says that 9 out of 10 LGBT teens experiences some form of harassment at school.  In my own state of Ohio, 4 students killed themselves in 2007 after being bullied through the course of the year (not all of them identified as gay, however), and a fifth wrote a suicide note but didn’t kill himself.  And the school has resisted acknowledging that they had any influence or responsibility for what took place in their halls.

I was harassed in school – I was never actually bullied (the advantages of being a big kid), but I went home more than once hating every aspect of my life.  And over the last year, I’ve read about students in Georgia, Florida, California and Wisconsin either suffering from bullying, or reporting it and having nothing be done, or tragically killing themselves.  It’s not just those states, either, but every state, and probably near to every country.

And I think we just don’t talk about it enough.  Bullying became a hot button issue for the YA community in the aftermath of Phoebe Price (another example of a tragedy).  But I think it’s just as important to show examples of kids who manage to rise above, to extoll the virtues of life after high school.  All the things that could make a difference to someone you might not realize you’ve helped.  Whether this is through continuing to talk and advocate for better anti-bullying education, writing LGBT characters that kids in flux can relate to, or just by continuing to spread the word and talk about things like Dan Savage’s new channel.

Suicide on the whole is a huge issue for me.  My best friend in high school killed herself.  Last year my uncle killed himself.  And I personally know of several others that have happened in my proximity – a friend of a friend, a cousin of a coworker.  So when I keep reading news articles about how students are killing themselves after being bullied for being (perceived to be) gay, it bothers me.

Every 100 minutes a teenager kills themselves.  More than 5,000 teens will kill themselves this year.  For every successful suicide, there are more than 100 unsuccessful attempts. It’s not just a gay or straight issue, it’s a people issue.

There’s a lot of causes, and a lot of things to fight for out there.  This just happens to be one of the ones that I feel strongly about.  If you want to do something, or get involved somehow?  There’s easy ways.  Subscribe to Dan Savage’s videos, and share them with people you know.  Check out GLSEN’s website and look at some of the facts.  Talk to your kids.  Talk to other kids.  Talk to anyone.