TIPS ON WRITING GAY FICTION
by The Pecman
Maybe a better title for this piece would be how to write better gay fiction. God knows, there's more crap out there on the Net than you can shake a stick at. But a lot of the truly bad stories out there seem to exhibit the same mistakes over and over again. It makes me crazy, because I feel very strongly that amateur fiction does not have to be amateurish! As far as I'm concerned, good writing is good writing, whether you're being paid for it or not, and regardless of whether it's being read by 10 readers or 10,000,000.
Below is a list of my personal pet peeves in gay erotic fiction on the Net, followed by remedies and suggestions that I believe can help nip them in the bud. A lot of these ideas are intended for neophytes who write gay erotica featuring teenage characters, but many of the topics apply to characters of all ages.
1) Get your stories off to a good start. This is a particularly bad problem in the "gay teenage romance" genre (if that is an actual genre). You know you're in trouble when, in the very first paragraph, the character wakes up to an alarm clock or a knock on the door. Very clichéd, very predictable... and incredibly boring. Good fiction is like good filmmaking: the scenes often start right in the middle of the action, so we get rid of the preliminary, boring set-up, and cut right to the chase, to the heat of the battle. Start the story in an unpredictable way: hook the reader with the very first paragraph, preferably with some action and conflict, and make them want to read more.
2) Make the introductions of the characters interesting and unpredictable. Avoid the expected. Let the story dictate when the characters appear for the first time; don't throw them in arbitrarily. Whatever you do, avoid directly describing the characters' physical appearance -- especially the lead. Klaxon sirens go off the moment I read a story where the writer says, "let me introduce myself. My name is so-and-so, I'm this tall, I'm this old, and I look like this." BOR-ing! Let the reader find out what the characters look like through the eyes of other people. Or let us find out eye color, hair color, height, and all the other aspects of your characters' physical appearance naturally, through conversation, and as the story develops. There's a thousand different ways to do that if you think about it, and there's no need to rush it. If possible, avoid the trite routine of having a character look at himself (or herself) in the mirror and describe what they see, unless there's a damn good reason for it. And don't think that you have to have go out of your way to to give your characters cool, trendy names. There's nothing wrong with using ordinary names like "John, Mark, or Bill," as opposed to "Chaz, Toph, or Zephyr." Do at least make an effort to keep the names different-sounding from each other. For example, a story featuring characters named "Mark," "Marty," and "Marvin" might be a little confusing.
And when your lead characters meet for the first time, go for the unexpected. If I read one more gay teen romance where the two characters collide in the hallway, I swear, I'll shoot my computer monitor (and then maybe myself)! C'mon -- come up with something new! People meet in all kinds of ways -- there doesn't always have to be a "new kid in school," or the "next door neighbor who may or may not be gay." And if you go with the "guy falls in love with his best friend" scenario, at least try to put a new spin on the same old situation to keep the reader guessing.
3) Make every chapter count. I can't count the number of erotic stories on the Net where the chapters go on and on and on, ad infinitum, and very little actually happens in each installment. There are some stories out there (and you can guess which ones I'm talking about) that literally go on for 1000 pages with no end in sight... a veritable Lord of the Rings of gay erotica. And often, the story goes absolutely nowhere, without a real plot, no narrative thread, let alone a dramatic conclusion.
A good novel or short-story needs all the elements of plot, characters, and conflict to constantly propel the story forward to an inevitable climax. Noted writer David Gerrold, in his excellent book Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, said it best when he instructed, "put a surprise on every page." His advice works for all kinds of fiction, not just SF or fantasy. Here's an example for a novelist: write a short synopsis of each chapter you've done, made up of no more than two or three sentences. If you find not much is really happening in one or more chapters, then either cut them out, or edit them way down -- even combine them, if necessary -- to spare the reader the agony of having to read them. If you feel the story is getting bogged down and predictable, change it! Throw a new spin on things: don't go in the expected direction. Keep your reader off-balance, so that they won't be able to predict where the story and characters are headed.
And don't give me the excuse of, "oh, but this isn't just a novel. It's a serial, designed to happen over a long period of time." Bzzzzzz! Sorry, but that's the wrong answer. I don't buy the idea that amateur gay erotica doesn't have to follow the same basic rules of good story-telling as everything else. A good story is a good story, period -- straight, gay, sexual, non-sexual. And, yes, that counts for amateur fiction on the Net, too. That doesn't mean a good story can't be an epic: a recent hardbound edition of Stephen King's The Stand is 1200 pages, and J.K. Rowling's 2003 best-selling installment of Harry Potter was well over 800 pages; but those stories have tons of plot, oodles of character development, and lots of meat. I don't see much of that in comparable 1000-page Net stories.
4) Avoid excessive dialog. There's no easier way to make a story long, drawn-out, and boring than by using non-stop dialog for every single page. If it's possible to reduce ten pages of relatively-unnecessary dialog to a single page (or even a single paragraph) of descriptive prose, do so! For example: "The day went horribly wrong. I avoided meeting Tom at every opportunity, but just when I thought he wouldn't see me, there he was -- at the water fountain, at our usual table in the cafeteria, or in the back row of my math class." That short passage could easily replace five pages of the same situation told verbally through dialog, which would be no more interesting. Going back and forth occasionally from dialog to description helps break up the monotony of solid, wall-to-wall conversation, and also allows you to establish the mood, the location, the time of day, and the emotional feel of each scene.
And when you use dialog, make it crystal-clear as to who is speaking. Nothing is worse in a novel during back-and-forth dialog scenes when the reader gets totally lost as to which character is talking. One simple trick to make dialog-heavy scenes more interesting is to have the characters do something while they talk. For example, perhaps they have a heart-to-heart talk while jogging. That gives you the opportunity to describe the other joggers at a park, the weather outside, the trees and scenery in the neighborhood. Give the characters some action as they talk. In a movie, it's rare that two people just stand in a room and talk and do nothing else. During dialog scenes, think about the characters' physical movement, where they are in relation to each other in the room or outside, and give them something to do. And make each line of dialog count. Don't use three sentences to say something if just one will do.
5) Make the dialog realistic. Not a day goes by when I don't read a piece of amateur fiction on the Net and I yell out, "REAL PEOPLE DON'T TALK THAT WAY!" When you converse with your friends or your family, make an effort to listen -- really listen! -- not only to what they say, but the exact words they use, the timing of each phrase, the pauses between sentences, and all the other nuances that give their words personality. An easy writing exercise is to read your dialog out loud, in your own voice, and see if it rings true.
My personal pet peeve are writers who refuse to use contractions in dialog. "I cannot believe that we shall not be fucking tonight, Bobby." Uh-uh, no way! "I can't believe that we won't be fuckin' tonight, Bobby!" That's more like it! Making the dialog sound more true-to-life will help bring your story and your characters to life. By the same token, don't go crazy with accents. Be particularly wary of southern drawls or urban dialect; sometimes just a few words -- for example, an occasional "ain't" in conversation -- is enough to establish the nature of the character, their ethnicity, their social and economic background, and so on. By the same token, you can use a specific manner of speaking to give each of your characters a distinct, individual personality. No two people talk exactly the same way in real life; neither should your characters.
6) Show... don't tell. Practically every book on writing ever written repeats this like a mantra. What it means is: don't have your characters just talk about something that happened "off-camera." Make an effort to actively describe what actually happened, when it happens! Try to use all the senses -- not just sight, but also smell, taste, touch, hearing, even time-of-day -- when you describe the scene. Use action verbs. Make every effort to keep the description interesting, but be careful about being overly poetic. Be direct and to the point, and use simile and allusion sparingly. Paint a picture of the whole scene, and give us a clue as to the time of day, where it takes place, and what it looks and feels like. Give us enough detail so that readers will get a whiff of what it would feel like to stand there and watch it all happen. But don't go overboard and start describing the trees instead of the forest.
7) Be careful with adverbs and adjectives. I used to have a creative writing teacher in college who had a red pen with which she would brutally slash out every word on a page ending in "ly." Most experts agree that writers need to use descriptive adverbs and adjectives very carefully. (Ooops! There's an "ly" word right there!) For example: "Come here," he said seductively. Uh-uh. We should already know the guy's being seductive by the way he stands, the way he looks, and the way he acts. Don't use an adverb or adjective to prop up a weak sentence. The only time you can legitimately use words like this is when the actual meaning might otherwise be unclear; for example, "Oh, that looks great." Is the speaker being sincere, or sarcastic? Are they amazed, or are they bored? A well-placed adverb would work there.
By the same token, use adjectives sparingly. It's very easy to go overboard, particularly when describing a sunset, a large building, a picturesque home, or detailing a dazzling character with whom your hero has just fallen in love (or lust). I think there's a balance that has to be be struck between too many adjectives and too few, but it's the sort of thing each writer has to work out for themselves, depending on their writing style. For example, Hemingway's classic style was very sparse, yet also very clear, while Anne Rice provides extraordinarily rich details of every room, every character, and every scene. Each works well for the writers' own style.
8) Be careful with point of view. When you tell a story, you can choose to tell it through the eyes of a single character (1st person), or from an omniscient narrator (3rd person). Many beginning writers go with 1st person, so that the reader experiences everything through the eyes of the story's hero. If you use this technique, resist the urge to jump to the point of view of another character! This technique smacks of amateurism, because it can confuse the reader, causing them to subconsciously worry by whom the story is being told at any given moment. Stick with one character and one character only! (If you doubt my advice, show me a single best-selling novel by a major author that goes back and forth between different characters for 1st person.)
Writing from a 3rd person point of view sometimes takes more effort, but can be more rewarding, since it gives you the ability to describe a situation from different points of view. You can also reveal to the reader different story elements that your hero cannot possibly see or know about. Each technique has its pros and cons, but whatever you do, go with one method -- and one method only! -- and stick with it for the duration of your story. There are those who believe you can go back and forth between 1st person and 3rd person, even within a single chapter, but I say again: show me a single best-selling novel by a major author that does so, and I'll eat it. Using a technique this crude runs the risk of snapping the reader right out of the story, ruining the illusion that what they're reading is actually happening before their very eyes. (I concede that a handful of 1st/3rd-person novels do exist. But they're very, very rare, and it's a technique best attempted only by experts.)
9) Make the sex scenes believable. I'm bewildered by the number of gay stories out there showing young teenagers or virgins engaged in the sort of activities that noted porn star Jeff Stryker only dreams about. While fantasy is all well and good, I think good erotica has to be rooted firmly in reality. Don't have your characters do anything that's beyond what's really believable or possible. As advanced as young teens are today, what with the easy availability of porno and adult images on the Net, I think it's more interesting (and more realistic) to show neophytes struggling with sex. And don't assume that everybody in your story needs to have a body of Adonis, the face of Brad Pitt, and endowed with a foot-long phallus. Everybody's different in real-life, and I think the characters in fiction should be the same way. I don't mean your characters can't be attractive -- just keep in mind that sometimes, it's the flaws that make them interesting, not just their beauty.
And people, please try to make the sex scenes work with the plot! Don't just arbitrarily have your characters shed their clothes and start humping in every chapter, just because you feel like it. To me, the best gay fiction on the net are those that have a real plot and characters, along with the sex. Ideally, the story should still work even if somebody came along and snipped the sex scenes out. The stronger you make the story, and the more your readers really care about your characters, the more entertaining the sex scenes can be.
Finally, try to avoid making the sex scenes just one anatomical description after another. Sure, love, lust, and sex can all be different, and everybody has their own individual style and preference (and predilictions). But I find the key is to concentrate not just on what the characters see and what they do, but also how they feel. Think about Tip #6: use all the senses to describe the sex between your characters. And alternate what they do in bed -- hell, get them out of the bed, have them go at it in a car, at the beach, in an elevator, whatever and wherever's possible in your story. Going through the same motions in every chapter is as boring as a 20-year marriage. Variety is the spice of life, and this is never more true than it is with sex.
10) Keep the conflict going! Some writers out there insist on having nothing but "sweetness and light" in their stories. Nobody ever gets mad; nobody ever gets hurt. Everybody accepts the characters for who and what they are. It's a nice thought, but real life is a lot harder than that. Conflict is what makes drama possible; without conflict, a story just lays there, like a lox.
Conflict doesn't necessarily have to come from a villain, nor does it have to involve violence. Characters can clash with each other, or with relatives, or even argue with themselves. Many books on writing stress that the best stories deal with characters who have a moral conflict, where they have to make a difficult decision. That in itself can be a conflict. Every great novel has conflict oozing from every chapter; yours should, too.
11) Don't summarize the plot at the end, or at the beginning of the next chapter. Don't spell things out -- it's not necessary. Let the reader discover for themselves what's going on. Readers are smarter than you think. If something isn't clear, chances are they'll tell you about it. If they forget what happened in the last chapter, they can always go back and re-read it for themselves, just as they would with a printed book. By the same token, don't assume you need to list all your characters and describe them separately for your readers. Your story should be good enough on its own that the reader should be able to figure out who everybody is. If they can't, your story probably has bigger problems than just a character list can solve.
12) Whatever you do, don't ever take criticism personally. When you post your stories on the Net and invite comments, people will sometimes react negatively. Outright nutcases, personal attacks, or spam can be a problem, but if a reader takes the time to raise some significant issues about your actual work, and they do so in a rational, thoughtful, honest way, don't just ignore them. At least consider what they have to say, and give them the courtesy of a reply. Remember that they're not criticizing you personally -- they're just criticizing words on a page. Don't overreact! Count to ten, relax, remind yourself that it's just one person's opinion, and get on with it. And you never know: maybe the reader has a point. If a single person is confused or troubled by one aspect of your story, maybe others will be, too.
Some writers that I've talked to in Email tell me, "you must be wrong. Why, I have a thousand readers who love what I do!" That may well be true, but just because you get a lot of accolades doesn't necessarily mean you're terrific at your craft. Look at your own work objectively. If you see any evidence of violating rules #1-#10 above, chances are, your work could stand some improvement. Bear in mind that there are always exceptions to the rules, and I concede there are situations where it might be possible to break one of the rules and get away with it, provided you do so in a way that's not cliched or contrived. But that takes far more skill than most amateurs have.
Again, amateur writing does not have to be amateurish! If your goal is just to satisfy a small audience of fans who read for free, more power to you. But if you really want to be a good writer, you've got to work at it. Chances are, you might be getting two thousand emails instead of just a thousand if you were a better writer.
Of course, all of the above tips are based on the assumption that the would-be writer is fluent in English and already knows the basic rules of spelling and grammar. If you don't, a terrific source is Strunk & White's Elements of Style, which has been the standard for all basic writing courses for decades. I also like The Chicago Manual of Style, which goes over the same material in infinite detail. And having a good dictionary and a thesaurus by your word-processor is always a nice idea; the ones built in to programs like Microsoft Word are very convenient, but are rarely as good as their printed equivalents.
I won't go into nitpicks, like whether or not you use HTML or text-only to post your stories. (I think HTML will at least more-closely resemble conventional typesetting, and that's bound to be easier to read than plain text.) Just think about putting the greatest effort into what you write. Some of the best stories I've ever read on the Net have been those that were just regular, dumb ol' ASCII; and some of the worst-written stories had fancy Flash-enhanced graphics, ten typefaces on every page, and erotic illustrations. I'll take good storytelling over fancy layout anytime.
HOW TO BE A BETTER WRITER
Damned if I know. If I knew all the answers, I'd be a best-selling novelist and live on the beach in Maui, sipping Mai-Tais at sunset. The three most-successful commercial novelists I personally admire most are probably Stephen King, Anne Rice, and J.K. Rowling -- not necessarily in that order. They struggled for many years to get where they are, and all of them started by taking writing classes in high school and college, reading good books on writing, and working night and day at perfecting their craft. Their persistence made them very rich (over a billion dollars, in the case of Jo Rowling), and got them millions of adoring fans -- and deservedly so.
As of Summer 2004, Amazon.com reports that there's over 1200 books in print on fiction writing. You could spend your life reading them and not necessarily become a better writer. That having been said, the three main books on writing that I've found to be most useful are:
THE FIRST FIVE PAGES
by Noah Lukeman
HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL
by James N. Frey
St. Martin's Press (two volumes)
ISBN #0312010443 and #0312104782
by Stephen King
Each book runs about 300 pages and costs under $10 each in paperback (half that if you pick them up used). Each one is useful to a point, with solid gold nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout, but none is perfect. I've read at least 25 or 30 books on writing (and have a shelf full of dozens more I haven't yet cracked open), I've taken a half-dozen college-level classes on writing years ago, and I made a pretty good living as a writer and editor for a half-dozen newsstand magazines for over two decades. I readily admit that I'm far from knowing all there is to know about writing. But the three books above taught me more about writing fiction than anything else I've seen, heard, or experienced.
Lukeman's book gives a good rundown on the top 25 things not to put in a novel -- specific items that will immediately turn off editors, agents, or anybody else who knows how to recognize amateurish elements. James Frey's original book (a classic that's been used in college-level writing classes throughout the 1990s) goes into great detail on how to build up the strengths you already have, and figure out what works and what doesn't. Frey's second book, How to Write a Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling, isn't quite as enthralling, but provides another dozen or so good ideas that can help any budding novelist.
Stephen King's book is more a general philosophy on how the process works; the first half is a biographical essay on how and why he came to be a writer, and the second goes into the nuts and bolts on writing. King also gives the very good advice that to be a good writer, you also have to read -- a lot. And by that I mean published books with solid literary merit, not just amateur Net fiction posted for free. I find a steady diet of the latter can actually hurt you in the long run, simply because most of the truly good fiction out there are those you have to pay for.
I've also gotten a good deal of useful info from the Writers Digest "Elements of Fiction Writing" books, particularly Monica Wood's Description, Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint, and Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure. Each of those is under ten bucks in paperback, and helped to shed light on the specific topics covered. David Gerrold's Worlds of Wonder (mentioned above) was also useful, and David's experience as a storyteller and writing teacher will be beneficial, regardless of your story's genre.
Another good (and free) resource is Lars Eighner's Lavender Blue, which is available for free here on the web:
Lars Eighner's Lavender Blue
While it purports to be a short document on how to write gay fiction, the reality is that Lars stresses a lot of good, solid writing principles that will work for all types of fiction. Many of his concepts are echoed in the other books I've read, and if nothing else, the price is right. Lars wrote many fine erotic stories in the 1980s and 1990s, including work for some of the biggest gay publishers in North America, and his comments are earthy, precise, and to the point. (Although Lars' online book is free, I strongly encourage readers to send him a donation through the Paypal link on his site.)
Since initially writing and posting this document in May of 2004, I received many dozens of comments, most of which agreed with many of the points I brought up. My friend and fellow author Nick Archer came up with a complimentary list that's as funny to read as it is incisive, titled Jumping the Shark in Gay Fiction:
Jump the Shark on Keith Morrisette.com
While Nick's approach is humorous and tongue-in-cheek, many of his points are absolutely dead-on. I confess to having used a couple of them in my own stories — such as having a romance between a jock and a geek, or setting tales in Florida or California — but I like to think I threw enough of a spin on what I did to get away with it and avoid the cliche. So again, there's always exceptions to the rules, but I think Nick's points are nonetheless valid and very useful, particularly to neophytes.
Also good on Keith's site is the Best of Nifty List, one picked by a team of writers and fans who vote on their favorites every few weeks. Founded by noted critic Richard Lyons, the list has recently expanded to include gay fiction from many other sites on the web, and is provided without charge here:
The Best of Nifty List
Those who are concerned about dialog can read Felix Lance Falcon's excellent (and very funny) Dialog and Writing Lesson, which is on Nifty's website:
Felix Lance Falcon's Dialog Lesson (on Nifty.org)
A lot of what Felix has to say actually applies to many types of fiction writing, but it does at least provide a basic run-down on where to put punctuation (inside or outside of quotes), how to differentiate between different characters in the same scene, and other valuable tips to writers.
As to sexual content, a group of gay teenagers got together wrote a piece for Nifty titled Memo to Writers About Teens, which is also on Nifty:
Memo to Writers (on Nifty.org)
Their comments, originally written in June of 2003 and updated in December of that year, brings home the fact that many older writers are living vicariously through their stories, and come up with sexual situations that make absolutely no sense to actual teenagers living today. They were sharply-critical as to the types of activities that occur in many teen-oriented stories. On reflection, I think a lot of what they have to say expands on my note #9 above: Make the sex scenes believable. I think this is particularly important with stories featuring young characters.
Finally, noted gay author Ronald Donaghe's website has an irregularly-posted newsletter intended to provide resources and information for gay authors. His newsletter is here:
The Independent Gay Writer (on Ron Donaghe.com)
The site reviews contemporary gay fiction, discusses the many challenges facing gay authors around the world, and also provides a way for gay authors to promote their books, along with links to other writers and resources. It's highly recommended.
I hope by offering these general comments, those of you who are thinking about writing gay fiction, or want to improve the quality of your work, will find what I have to say to be useful. At the very least, I hope my ideas will stop writers from making these same mistakes over and over again.
God knows, I don't profess to see-all, know-all. But I figure if I can stop even one more bad erotic story from being posted on the Net, and help the author find a way to improve their writing, my life will have served a purpose!
last updated 25 June 2004
Feedback and constructive criticism are welcomed at ThePecman@yahoo.com.