Category Archives: Guest post

Mental Illness and Treatment in Urban Fantasy: a Guest Post by Power Surge Author Sara Codair

Today on the site we’re welcoming Sara Codair, author of Power Surge, the first book in the Evanstar Chronicles, starring a non-binary character who has Depression and ADHD. Here are some details on the book:

PowerSurge-fErin has just realized that for the entirety of their life, their family has lied to them. Their Sight has been masked for years, so Erin thought the Pixies and Mermaids were hallucinations. Not only are the supernatural creatures they see daily real, but their grandmother is an Elf, meaning Erin isn’t fully human. On top of that, the dreams Erin thought were nightmares are actually prophecies.

While dealing with the anger they have over all of the lies, they are getting used to their new boyfriend, their boyfriend’s bullying ex, and the fact that they come from a family of Demon Hunters. As Erin struggles through everything weighing on them, they uncover a Demon plot to take over the world.

Erin just wants some time to work through it all on their own terms, but that’s going to have to wait until after they help save the world.

Buy it: Amazon * B&N * Ninestar Press * Smashwords 

And here’s the post!

***

One thing readers might no get from reading the blurb of my recent release, Power Surge, is that for the main character, Erin, finding a way to manage their mental illness is as a key to their survival as defeating the demon that is hunting them.

When I started writing Power Surge, I didn’t set out to write a book about anxiety, depression, and ADHD. At eighteen, when I first dreamed up the characters, I didn’t know half of what I now. I certainly didn’t expect this book to be one of the things that lead me to actually get treatment for my own mental illness.

I worked on Power Surge on and off for more than a decade. With each revision, it evolved, growing into something more complex until it wasn’t just a book about saving the world from a demon apocalypse, but it was the kind of book I wish I read during the worst of my teenage years.

As a teenager, I never wanted to admit I could be influenced by anything whether it be friends, parents, teachers or fictional characters. However, as an adult, I can see that in spite of my drive resist all influence, my favorite characters had a huge impact on me. It’s no coincidence that I was constantly buying the longest sweaters I could find because they looked like Jedi robes while I was reading my way through the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

In addition to falsely claiming I was above the influence of everything, teenage me was also in deniable experiencing my first real depression.

During my sophomore year of high school, I was a mess.

My mom had cancer. I’d broken up with my first disaster of a boyfriend. My brain chemistry was probably disastrous. I was just as bad at fitting in and socializing with the students at a big high school as I had been in a tiny catholic middle school.

I hated myself as much as I loved myself. Loathing and arrogance ripped me apart. I ran knives over my skin, gently at first, then harder and harder until one day, I sliced my hand open and liked how it felt. I remember being happy people realized how much I was hurting, and then being terrified about what that would mean.

I needed help. I refused to get it because I fully believed in the stigmas around mental illness and its treatment. I was convinced antidepressants would change my personality. I thought counselors or anyone who practiced psychology would try to stuff me in boxes and give me advice that didn’t apply to me. I saw getting professional help as a sign of weakness. Friends and family tried to tell me none of those things were true, but I didn’t believe them. I didn’t listen to them. I should’ve.

This was also the time of my life when I fell in love with reading. It was a temporary escape from the darkness of my own mind, and far more influential than television, friends, and family.

Books made me listen in a way that no person ever could, so I often think that if I read enough books where my favorite, magic-wielding characters had positive experiences at therapy, I might have been more open to trying it. Unfortunately, I never came across a book with the message that inspired me to seek treatment.

I never saw my favorite characters seeking treatment for mental illness. The few counselors or therapist that did appear in my favorite urban fantasies were often obstacles people had to get around after saying something to the wrong person about the existence of the supernatural. Other times, the counselor was someone the main character visited when they were in the process of figuring out if some supernatural thing was real or not. It was never because the characters actually thought they needed to be there.

It’s hard for me to say how much better the rep is now than it was when I was a teen. When I think about what I’ve read in the past few years, very little stands out as having great rep of both mental illness and its treatments, but last year, I only read twenty-nine books.

Whether they are already out in the world or not, we need books that will fight those stigmas, especially for teens like the one I used to be.

I never found the messages I needed about mental health in my favorite books, but I did find it through writing.

Like me, many of my characters struggle with things like anxiety, depression, and ADHD. Like me at the time, those characters weren’t in therapy and they weren’t on meds, and it wasn’t working out well for them. Seeing how hard anxiety was making life for my character helped me see how hard it was making life for me.

However, there was more at play than that. Heavily influenced by the plot devices and stigmas I grew up seeing, I found myself using them in my own stories. In Power Surge, medication for ADHD and depression prevented Erin from seeing through glamours supernatural beings used to hide themselves from humans.

Yet, writing these tropes is what lead me to challenge them. I spent a lot of time researching medications for depression and ADHD so I could explain how and why they blocked Erin’s True Sight. That research is what made me first realize that medication might actually help me manage my yet to be diagnosed mental illness. It gave me the courage to talk to my doctor about what I was going through, ask for references for therapists and psychiatrists.

After finally seeing how helpful treatment could be, I revisited how it was portrayed in Power Surge. I chose not to remove it as plot device but to change the way it was viewed. Instead of narrative viewing medication as an obstacle, the lack of it becomes one of the things standing between Erin and their goals.

Erin is aware that they need therapy and the right medications to properly manage their symptoms. Not being able to take them because of dangerous side effects is a major obstacle – one that makes it harder for Erin to cope with everything else that is going on.

For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say how this plays out in book one However, I don’t think it gives too much away to say that in the sequel, Erin finally gets to experience being on the medication that is right for them, and it has no negative impact on their Sight or any of the powers they developed in book one.

I wonder if as a teenager, if I had seen a character I admired wanting help and wanting medication, could it have broken through my wall of stubbornness. Would seeing how hard it was for that character to cope in book one and then how much better they coped in book two on the right medication have made a crack in the ice that no friend or family member could break?

I’ll never have the answer to that question, but I hope that if a young, mentally ill person does read Power Surge it helps them in some way, whether it is by showing them that it is okay to need medication, or just by showing them that they are not alone.

***

winter headshot bwSara Codair teaches and tutors writing at a community college and has published over fifty short stories and poems. Their cat, Goose, edits their work by deleting entire pages. Sara’s stories appear in Broadswords and Blasters, Vulture Bones, Alternative Truths, and Drabbledark.  Sara’s first novel, Power Surge, was published on Oct. 1, 2018.

Find Sara online at https://saracodair.com/ or @shatteredsmooth.

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Queer Identity: a Guest Post by A Fall in Autumn Author Michael Williams

Please welcome to the site today Michael Williams, author of gay sci-fi detective novel A Fall in Autumn, which just released in January. He’s here today discussing Queer Identity vs. Queer Behavior, and how that conversation is relevant to his work. So before we get to the post, here’s the book info:

WELCOME TO THE LAST OF THE GREAT FLYING CITIES

It’s 9172, YE (Year of the Empire), and the future has forgotten its past.

Soaring miles over the Earth, Autumn, the sole surviving flying city, is filled to the brim with the manifold forms of humankind: from Human Plus “floor models” to the oppressed and disfranchised underclasses doing their dirty work and every imaginable variation between.

Valerius Bakhoum is a washed-up private eye and street hustler scraping by in Autumn. Late on his rent, fetishized and reviled for his imperfect genetics, stuck in the quicksand of his own heritage, Valerius is trying desperately to wrap up his too-short life when a mythical relic of humanity’s fog-shrouded past walks in and hires him to do one last job. What starts out as Valerius just taking a stranger’s money quickly turns into the biggest and most dangerous mystery he’s ever tried to crack – and Valerius is running out of time to solve it.

Now Autumn’s abandoned history – and the monsters and heroes that adorn it – are emerging from the shadows to threaten the few remaining things Valerius holds dear. Can the burned-out detective navigate the labyrinth of lies and maze of blind faith around him to save the City of Autumn from its greatest myth and deadliest threat as he navigates his feelings for his newest client, the handsome golem Alejandro?

Buy it on Amazon

And here’s the post!

Valerius Bakhoum, the narrator and protagonist of my new far-future sci fi detective novel A Fall in Autumn, is what’s called an Artie: an Artisanal Human. His mom and dad made him the old-fashioned way, which is unusual in the far-future world I strive to depict. Most people are some sort of “plus,” designed to be perfect from the start and given the benefit of routine genetic tuneups and treatments to stay that way, or they’re uplifted animals, given just enough sentience and a purpose-built design to do a specific set of tasks. Unlike them, Valerius grew up on a reservation for unmodified humanity. Kept away from specific technologies, constantly told they were special and important in a way others were not, they were treated like the Svalbard seed bank for human DNA. Their culture keeps them there just in case the geneticists of that time manage to royally screw things up and, like a writer after a bad cut and paste job, need to restore from an earlier backup.

Valerius is also gay, and disreputable, and a former street hustler, and a runaway, but I really wanted his experience as an Artie to speak to that first one. I wanted to depict the queer experience as an identity and not necessarily as a set of behaviors.

They say “write what you know,” right? They’re wrong, but they say it, and I certainly drew on some aspects of my own experience when working on this novel. I grew up in a remote part of Appalachia surrounded by real instances of all the bad stereotypes.  Racism, misogyny, and homophobia abounded. From a very early age I knew I would have to get out and go elsewhere to make a life, and I did just that. It didn’t matter that they told me it was about what queer people do. I knew I had already transgressed by virtue of who I was. I wanted to talk in a very explicit way about that sense of being the semi-invisible other. I wanted that alienation – and the drive to find a place he can call home – literally written into his DNA.

That’s the thing about our culture’s growing awareness of identity, right? Queerness isn’t something we do, though it may light the path to one or another set of actions. There’s no sexual activity threshold we have to meet or exceed to be queer, as the aces among us have been trying to tell us for years. Being queer isn’t like getting a driver’s license or sitting the bar: no study guide, no test to pass, no lab results to confirm. I have friends who are bisexual and have only had experiences with a single gender. Their bisexuality is still valid because it’s who they are, not a curriculum vitae. We just are queer, and we know it deep in ourselves, and in my experience that has shaped absolutely every interaction and relationship I’ve had in my life.

The society of A Fall in Autumn is in theory an egalitarian one offering full citizenship and equality under the law to all the many forms humanity has come to take. In practice, though, it’s plagued with the same inequalities in privilege, access, political clout, and financial resources as ours. Mannies – human-animal hybrids – are kept essentially as slaves. Plusses get all the goodies. And everyone can spot Valerius as an Artie the second they see him. He has laugh lines. His hair is starting to gray. He has an old scar on his face. In Valerius’ world, normal people never have those problems. Everything about him pisses someone else off, and everywhere Valerius goes he is fetishized or reviled – or both. It doesn’t matter to them who he is. It matters to them what he is. The ones who love him have pigeonholed Arties as admirably quaint, like the genetic equivalent of evangelical virgins, with purity rings and chastity pledges and the sort of doe-eyed wholesomeness that describes the butt of a gag out of an old Looney Tunes cartoon. They’d like to freeze him in amber, like Jurassic Park in reverse, to keep him pure forever. The ones who hate him think Valerius is less than they are and way too big for his britches. Why do Arties get to live in their own place and have religious types coo and fawn over them? And why is Valerius wasting all that privilege and goodwill by running around out in the regular world with the rest of the herd? What’s a living religious relic doing working cheating-boyfriend cases for the sorts of clients who can afford to pay but not much?

As queer people, I firmly believe we’re in the same position. Look at the way our society treats us: they pass transphobic “bathroom bills” while they revive Queer Eye and Will & Grace. They have an idea of what we’re about, what our experiences may be, but that idea is something they received from a source other than us and is entirely about our outer lives rather than our inner ones. They pick up these opinions and pass them around, often without the benefit of actually knowing any of us. When they find out about us – when we share with them this most basic element of who we are, of our outlook on the world, the medium by which we receive ever relationship of ever type for the rest of our lives from the moment we realize it about ourselves – it changes us in their minds. Sometimes that change is welcome, sometimes not. Some of them would sentence us to literal death for the sin of tempting them to freedom; others to a life behind the bars of social expectation in a prison of forever being the Gay Best Friend & Neighbor. Neither take has a lot of room in it for the social and spiritual clutter of being a person who’s alive.

The ‘phobes will always try to emphasize that dichotomy between identity and action, of course, to justify themselves, but they’ll do so on the other side of it. From the Briggs Initiative to HB2, they’ll say they hate us because they believe we’re predators. I have a theory, though, and it explains why we don’t have to do anything at all other than make a cameo in their fevered imaginations.

They’re scared of our willingness to question the script we were given, to assert that who we are is something different from what we were told we could be. It points out their own failure to do the same. We and they all heard the same stories growing up, that there was one acceptable identity, one pre-approved future, and we waved that off and decided we could do better for ourselves.

What if things could have been better for them, too?

That is what they really fear. Our existence confirms other paths were available to them all along – other ways of living, other ways of thinking about themselves, other ways of relating to their own desires, their own bodies, their own presentation – and some of them will never forgive us for that.

That freedom and power of spirit is our greatest strength, though, and we should never forget that. Those bisexual friends who’ve always and only had relations and encounters with a single sex? By coming out, even if only to a few friends, even if only to themselves, they have made the world a little bit freer. Their queer children will thank them. Their queer hearts will beat longer and stronger unchained from fear.

By being true to ourselves we become beacons in the darkness leading others to their own truths about their own identities. And there are people for whom Valerius has been that, too. One of my publisher’s editors referred to Valerius as “tragic,” but to me his story is uplifting. Valerius knew who he was and what he wanted to be, and he took all the risks in the world to chase it.

Is there any better standard for success?

Does any other form of victory really matter?

***

Michael G. Williams writes wry horror: stories of monsters, macabre humor, and subverted expectations. He is the author of two series for Falstaff Books: The Withrow Chronicles, including Perishables (2012 Laine Cunningham Award), Tooth & Nail, Deal with the Devil, Attempted Immortality, and Nobody Gets Out Alive; a new series in The Shadow Council Archives featuring one of San Francisco’s most beloved figures, SERVANT/SOVEREIGN; and the science fiction noir A Fall in Autumn. Michael also writes short stories and contributes to tabletop RPG development. Michael strives to present the humor and humanity at the heart of horror and mystery.

Michael is also an avid podcaster, activist, reader, runner, and gaymer, and is a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi. He lives in Durham, NC, with his husband, two cats, two dogs, and more and better friends than he probably deserves.

Write What You Know (as Someone Else): a Guest Post by Lissa Reed, Author of the Sucre Coeur Series

Today on the site I’m delighted to welcome Lissa Reed, author of the Sucre Coeur series (which you can see from the cover of the digital box set that releases February 12 I  happen to be quite the fan of), to talk about one of queer lit’s hottest topics: writing from a male POV when you yourself are not male. It’s a complicated question, and one that doesn’t have easy answers, and here to discuss it with honesty and nuance is Lissa Reed:

“Write what you know.”

A common mantra. Writers hear it all the time.

“Write what you know.”

I know baking. I know anxiety. I know emotional post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Write what you know.”

I know that I don’t want to write about these things from a female perspective.

When I first began writing what would become the Sucre Coeur trilogy, I identified—however reluctantly—as female, and one who had a lot to process. I was a few years out of a very toxic relationship and still coping with the damage it had inflicted on me. And I was ready to be done with it, or as done as I could be, at least; some things, I knew, would be with me for way longer than I would want them to be, and there was nothing I could do about that.

But all the imaginary confrontations? The emotional conflict? My reconciling myself with my anxiety? I could do something with those, I could cough them up and out and try to make sense of them: I could write them. All of them. Get them all out.

As long as I didn’t write them from a female perspective.

I’d been drawn to writing from a male perspective for years, and truly enjoyed doing so, even as it baffled many of my friends. “But… why?” they would ask, perplexed. “You’re not a guy.”

I know now, of course, what I didn’t know then, that I identify as non-binary, that I do not adhere to labels at either end of the gender spectrum. And I think subconsciously, that had at least a little something to do with it, the voice of that stifled part of me trying to speak up. But that wasn’t all of it, or even most of it.

As someone then identifying as a woman, I could not write about being an abused, traumatized woman. I would never have been able to get all of my anger and distress out if the form it was taking wasn’t at least slightly removed from my own. I needed that step back, that distance. The character who was going to carry my issues couldn’t be me, or anything that resembled me, and at the time, the sharpest line I could draw between myself and my fictional counterpart was to make them male.

Alex Scheff, the romantic interest in Sucre Coeur 1: Definitely, Maybe, Yours, is not like me in a dozen other ways that go beyond gender—I’m not a professional photographer. I am not a college graduate. My parents are not lawyers. I’m not from Seattle. I’m not a lanky, freckled, skinny-jeans-wearing hipster with an unruly shock of hair and a frighteningly boisterous Russian-German-American family.

But Alex carries my emotional trauma, the way I flailed through an abusive relationship without knowing I was also dealing with a severe case of undiagnosed anxiety. Every panicked thing he does, every bad decision he makes in Definitely, Maybe, Yours, every time he takes two steps forward only to hustle one step ass-over-teakettle back – all of these were things I knew, so I wrote about them, and because this character was not me, I was able to write my way out of them.

If I had been writing a female character, she would have become me, and I would have just been mired in all of the darkness once again. Instead, Alex became a movie screen for me, a way to view everything that had happened through someone else’s eyes. And as I was writing him through his darkness, he was guiding me through the last stretch of mine.

So Definitely is of course an extremely personal book for me, even though I’ve otherwise never lived anything like it. No hot British baker has ever wooed me with cookies, my own closest cousin is not a thing like the dizzy, meddling mess that is Samantha. I’m not as close with any of my exes as Craig is with his. I am definitely not a dog person, no matter how adorable Yorkies are. And all of the people in that book are in and out of each other’s houses without so much as texting beforehand! In my circle of friends, that’s punishable by death.

But in every other way, I wrote what I knew – in a roundabout way.

***

Lissa Reed is a queer, non-binary (she/they) writer of fiction, blogs, and bawdy Renaissance song parodies. She traces her early interest in writing back to elementary school, when a teacher gifted her with her first composition book and told her to fill it with words. After experimenting with print journalism, Reed shifted her writing focus to romance and literary fiction and never looked back. She lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Sucre Coeur, her culinary romance trilogy about a circle of friends and lovers in a Seattle bakery, will be released as a digital boxed set on February 12.

LissaReed.com

Sucre Coeur on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43383568-sucre-coeur

How Secondary Characters Earn Their Own Stories: a Guest Post by Annabeth Albert

I’m very excited to have Annabeth Albert on the site today to celebrate the release of her newest m/m Romance, Rough Terrain, and to discuss secondary characters and how you know when they’re ready to get their own books! First off, let’s check out the new book, which is the final title in the Out of Uniform series:

Navy SEAL Renzo Bianchi has a soft spot for Canaan Finley, and not only because the man makes a mean smoothie. He’s the first guy to get Renzo’s motor revving in a long time. But when he agrees to Canaan’s insane charade—one all-access fake boyfriend, coming right up—he never expects more than a fling.

Creating a hot Italian SEAL boyfriend to save face seemed like a good idea…until his friends called Canaan’s bluff. Now he’s setting off into the woods with the very man who inspired his deception, and Canaan is not the outdoorsy type. The sparks are already flying when a flash flood separates them from their group, leaving Renzo and Canaan very much trapped…very much alone in the wilderness.

Working together to come up with a plan for survival is sexier than either of them expects. But back in the real world, being a couple is bringing its own set of hazards…

Buy it: Amazon | B&N | Kobo | iBooks | GooglePlay | Audible | Harlequin

And here’s the post!

Hi! I’m so delighted to be here as I celebrate the release of Rough Terrain, my latest Out of Uniform book, which stars a sexy navy SEAL  and a smoothie place barista in need a fake boyfriend fast.  In this book, both main characters made brief appearances in earlier book, Renzo, the SEAL, in Tight Quarters, and Canaan in On Point.  One question I get a lot from readers is “Will X get a book?” And as a reader, I know this urge because I ask it too! A great secondary character almost seems to demand a story of their own.

So, how do you know if a secondary character is ripe for their own book?

  • Are they single? This isn’t always a firm requirement as reunion romances, rekindling the spark, and post-breakup/tragedy romances are all possibilities, but it helps if your potential main character has a need for romance in their life (even if they don’t see it themselves yet!). Readers generally don’t like to see happy-ish couples split up, so one thing to keep in mind is reader expectations. If you show your secondary character in love with someone or crushing on someone, a certain segment of the readership will expect that pairing to get a book. (My example here is On Point—no way could I pair Ben and Maddox with anyone other than each other!)
  • Do they have a distinctive “voice?” Sometimes it only takes a line or two for a character to come alive. That was the case with Apollo from At Attention for me and Renzo in Rough Terrain—as soon as they opened their mouths in other books, I wanted to know more.  Sometimes, like with Apollo, you can just tell a juicy backstory is lurking, and you can’t wait to know more. As a writer, this is the best feeling in the world, when you start to see the potential for going deeper with a character, when they transition from supporting cast member to potential star.
  • Do they fit the tone of the series? This is always a really hard question for me to ask potential secondary character plot bunnies, but it’s necessary. With Off Base, which starts the Out of Uniform series, Pike and Zack both started talking in Connection Error, but I could tell that their book wasn’t going to fit the #Gaymer universe—not in LA, not as much nerdy culture, way heavier on the military romance tropes, and so I spun their story off to start a new series rather than try to shoehorn a book in. With Wheels Up, Dustin started talking to me in At Attention (he’s one hero’s brother and the other’s best friend) and said, “I get a book.” And my initial reaction was “Uh…” and then he revealed that he was bisexual and really, really wanted the last guy he should have, and I was all, “We’re in business” because I knew I could give him a military romance that fit the tone of the series and that would be the HEA he deserved. Likewise, Canaan started talking in his brief appearance in On Point, but I had to figure out how to give him the SEAL of his dreams—I didn’t want to do another spin-off.
  • Are readers asking about them? I tend to plot in terms of trilogies, so a lot of times, I know which secondary characters will eventually get books. But other times, a well-placed reader question can yield amazing plot bunnies. Reviewer Becky Condit asked me, “What about Wizard?” after she read On Point, and I immediately wanted a book for him and started plotting. (Message to eager readers—writers aren’t mind readers! If you’re desperate for a secondary character to get a HEA, tell us!)
  • Are they already “talking” to the muse? This is probably the hardest factor, but sometimes, you can love a secondary character, but no plot is really jumping out that would fit them. The plot bunny stable is empty and the muse is silent. As a writer, this sucks, and there are things you can do to coax a quiet character into talking—brainstorming, free-writing, character worksheets etc, but sometimes it simply takes time before a story presents itself for that character or until the muse cooperates. As a reader, it can be hard when I learn that a book isn’t planned for a secondary character I loved, but as a writer, I know how it important it is to feed and follow the muse. You simply can’t write a story that doesn’t want to be told (yet).

And thus, as writers consider all these factors, some secondary characters are indeed ripe for their own book and do amazing in a starring role. And series really come to life this way. No way could I have done seven books in Out of Uniform without some incredible secondary characters to work with!

How about you? Do you have a favorite secondary character in any series by any author that you’d like a book for? Share in the comments, and I do hope you check out Rough Terrain! Thanks for having me!

***

Annabeth Albert grew up sneaking romance novels under the bed covers. Now, she devours all subgenres of romance out in the open—no flashlights required! When she’s not adding to her keeper shelf, she’s a multi-published Pacific Northwest romance writer. Emotionally complex, sexy, and funny stories are her favorites both to read and to write. Her critically acclaimed and fan-favorite LGBTQ romance series include the #OutOfUniform, #Gaymers, #PortlandHeat, #RainbowCove and #PerfectHarmony series.

To find out what she’s working on next and other fun extras, check out her website: annabethalbert.com or connect with Annabeth on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Spotify! Also, be sure to sign up for her newsletter for free ficlets, bonus reads, and contests. The fan group, Annabeth’s Angels, on Facebook is also a great place for bonus content and exclusive contests.

 

Writing Gay in 2018: a Guest Post by Author and Memoirist Alan Semrow

Today I’m happy to bring to the site Alan Semrow, whose memoir, Ripe: Letters, just released in October! He’s here to share a little about the journey up to writing that memoir and how the current political stage has affected writing in general. Here’s the info on the book, and then I’ll let Alan take it away!

Funny, sexy, evocative, and brutally honest, Ripe is Alan Semrow’s ode to relationships with men. In this epistolary book, Semrow writes to the men who have impacted his outlook, reminded him of basic life lessons, surprised him in more ways than one, and left him reeling for days. Writing to one-night-flings, men he has never met, and men he’ll never stop running into, Semrow touches on some of the most constant human themes—love, lust, desire, and the yearning for connection. All the while, the book details a man’s journey navigating and blooming by way of the modern gay scene. Readers will find familiarity and hard truths in Semrow’s statements about the intricacy and explosiveness of the intimate moments we share.

Buy it: Amazon

***

The journey leading up to my new book, Ripe: Letters, was a hell of a long one. My first book, a collection of short stories called Briefs, came out in November 2016—a time when the world as I (and we) knew it seemed to turn upside down—a period paved with an onslaught of social and political upheaval. All the chaos made me turn inward. I was fearful, I wondered who I could really trust, I considered the things that truly mattered to me, the things I held most dear—ultimately, it was my relationships—romantic, platonic, etc., etc.

The stories in Briefs were incredibly dark, which seemed timely since it was such a murky period in American history. But the book was actually completed about a year and a half before its release—a darker period in my own personal life. While the characters in the book had next to nothing in common with me, virtually all of the relationships in that book were falling apart, as mine at the time of writing was doing just about the same. I didn’t realize it while putting together Briefs, but what I was doing with that book was masking how I felt, what I feared most, how distrustful I was, veiling things in the lives of these characters—these dark stories. I was trying to figure things out and come to terms by living vicariously through the characters. Once the book was finished, I got myself out of a bad situation. A year later, I moved to a new city with an open heart—a blank slate paved with possibility and more opportunity than I’d ever known before.

Because of the substantial period of time that had gone by between the initial writing phase and the ultimate release, I felt a discernible distance toward Briefs on debut day. While I was proud to have it published through a reputable publisher (Lethe Press) and remain adamant that the book contains some of my best fiction, I wasn’t putting it on a pedestal by any means and I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of promoting it the way I needed to. What I was mostly doing was looking at book two—what I wanted the follow-up to be. What I knew for sure was that I wanted it to be nothing like Briefs. I was now living in a new city and navigating, experiencing, having some very real, powerful moments with very different and beautiful people. I wanted to get introspective, which to me meant writing something more autobiographical—a concept I wouldn’t have even pondered while writing Briefs. Believe it or not, I once considered myself a private person. But that person was gone. I wanted to let it spill. I wanted to write something that was reflective of what it was truly like to be a gay man in 2016, 2017, 2018, with all the turmoil, with technology ruling the day and ruling our lives. At a time of uncertainty, I wanted to put something out that promoted positivity, that put a little sunshine in our worlds and could remind people that there are still good, tender, potent moments that happen to us in the relationships we find ourselves in and the moments we share.

About three or four books were written between the release of Briefs and Ripe. A lot of people don’t realize the hell that authors put themselves through to really figure out the follow-up. I’ll be the first to admit that I struggled with it. I’d finish a first draft, set it aside, return to it, and say, “No. There’s no way I’m putting this out. This has been done before. This is too negative. It’s not what I want to say.”

And then it was back to the drawing board. While the first drafts leading up to Ripe were much more autobiographical than my first book, they remained only semi-autobiographical. I was still doing a little bit of the veiling that I’d attempted with the first book, masking what I wanted to say in another main character who shared traits with me, but wasn’t me.

Ultimately, in order to tell my truth, to convey what I wanted to say, I felt my only option was to dive in head first and write in the memoir format. And while doing so, I wanted to celebrate my relationships with people—specifically, men—who had come into my life over the last two and a half years and made an impact on me—some in larger ways than others. Ultimately, I came up with the concept of writing letters to these men. It was a way for me to reflect on the power and complexity of relationships, while also telling a (hopefully) relatable story about my own growth and coming of age. The concept seemed much less pretentious than writing a full-blown memoir (my life is really not that exciting). So, that’s how Ripe happened.

Since it’s release, I’ve heard from people, strangers, from different parts of the country who have messaged me to let me know that the book meant something to them, that I put things into words that they didn’t even realize there were words for. Strangers, of all ages and sizes and orientations, were telling me that they could relate. And that’s how I knew I’d accomplished what I set out to do with my follow-up. To bridge the divide. To say it’s OK to feel this way, to be affected, to allow yourself to be impacted. To be truly vulnerable. To love. And it makes me so happy.

***

Alan Semrow’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been featured in over 30 publications. Apart from writing fiction and nonfiction, he is a professional copywriter, a monthly contributor at Chosen Magazine, and a singer-songwriter. Previously, he was the Fiction Editor for Black Heart Magazine and a Guest Fiction Editor for the Summer Issue of Five Quarterly. Semrow’s debut short story collection, Briefs, was published in 2016. Ripe is his second book. Semrow lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Wish Fulfillment in Queer Lit: a Guest Post by Queen of Ieflaria Author Effie Calvin

thI’m so pleased to welcome Effie Calvin, author of The Queen of Ieflaria, to the site today to discuss wish fulfillment in queer lit! I know it’s a topic that garners lots of discussion, so once you’ve checked out her novel, check out the post below it!

Princess Esofi of Rhodia and Crown Prince Albion of Ieflaria have been betrothed since they were children but have never met. At age seventeen, Esofi’s journey to Ieflaria is not for the wedding she always expected but instead to offer condolences on the death of her would-be husband.

But Ieflaria is desperately in need of help from Rhodia for their dragon problem, so Esofi is offered a new betrothal to Prince Albion’s younger sister, the new Crown Princess Adale. But Adale has no plans of taking the throne, leaving Esofi with more to battle than fire-breathing beasts.

Buy it: Amazon

And here’s the post!

I live for wish fulfillment. Specifically, I live for queer wish fulfillment. This isn’t a guilty pleasure thing, this is something I am honestly and openly passionate about. I think wish fulfillment is a positive thing that we should embrace! And I believe that there are so many unique possibilities for inclusive world-building in speculative fiction.

I love to see writers proudly inserting their own identities into stories where there’s often a kneejerk reaction of “but people like you don’t belong here!” Minorities of all kinds have been made to feel unwelcome in sci fi and fantasy. Ironically, these genres are the best places for authors to easily build worlds that reject bigotry at a fundamental level.

When I was a kid, I used books to escape into worlds better than the one around me. Adventure, prophesy, evil empires, magical beasts; all those things appealed to who I am. And yet, I was never fortunate enough to stumble upon one of those rare few where the main character wasn’t heterosexual. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken me until college to come out!

When I finally did begin to embrace my identity, I told myself that I needed to come to terms with the fact that people like me were never the heroes of the stories I loved. At best, they were quirky sidekicks probably destined for an early death. At worst they were monsters, Hays Code throwbacks that embodied every negative stereotype about queer people. But usually they just plain didn’t exist.

I knew I wanted to be an author, so I wrote a couple of books, always about heterosexual girls having adventures and getting the boy at the end. None of them sold. Exhausted and frustrated, I decided I was going to write something for me, something unashamedly gay. I remembered playing Skyrim, how I’d married Ysolda and adopted two girls and lived in a giant house and nobody cared. I knew there were games that opted not to implement homophobia in their fantasy worlds. Why not do the same in a book?

I’d only been reading traditionally published novels up until that point, so I didn’t know of any books that treated queer relationships as unremarkable. But I had read fantasy novels that didn’t have sexism, where women could own their own property or be warriors or mages or whatever. If worlds without sexism could exist, why not worlds without homophobia?

At the time, I’d only been reading traditionally published novels, so this was not a concept I’d ever encountered in the wild. Nevertheless, in February 2015, I began a story about a princess betrothed to another princess. I didn’t care if it didn’t make sense. I didn’t care if it was stupid. It was the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to see myself in a fairy tale setting.

And yet, as I began to design the world, I realized just how much of my preconceived notions of what “normalcy” was were influencing my writing. My concept wasn’t nonsensical. It was just…different. New. I was subverting every toxic trope I’d ever internalized about queer people and, by extension, about myself. It was freeing. I was letting myself exist without excuse or explanation, just as I do in the real world.

And that’s the wonderful thing about speculative fiction. We can design worlds where taboos against different sexualities or gender identities (or any other sort of identity) simply do not exist. And there’s countless ways to do it. Millions of worlds, millions of possibilities. We can be ourselves without suffering.

When creating a setting like this, one will inevitably come across readers whose suspension of disbelief stops short at the inclusion of minorities. Dragons, fairies, elves, space aliens, faster-than-light travel, sleeping off gut wounds = okay. Queer people or women or people of color living free of any traces of oppression? Now that’s a bridge too far.

The argument, in this case, tends to be that dragons, fairies, etc, belong in these genres, whereas queer people stick out as anachronistic. I’ve even seen this argued in non-earth settings. I’ve even seen it argued for my own work, which was designed specifically to be a queer utopia with no connection to our real world!

For the sake of argument, let’s say that queer people in fantasy settings is anachronistic. It’s not, but let’s just pretend that it is. The thing is, a lot of what we think of as ‘historical’ or staples of the genre is anachronistic. The reason that we fail to recognize the anachronisms is because we have grown up with them. Even if we know intellectually that Vikings never wore horned helmets, we don’t balk at the sight of them in fiction because we’re accustomed to them. In that vein, I see the objection to any kind of minorities in fiction as nothing more than an appeal to tradition. Just because we’ve always done it a certain way doesn’t mean we have to carry on like that.

But honestly, I’m not terribly invested in arguing with people who think I don’t deserve to exist in my own fantasy. I have things to do and chocolate to eat. It is my belief that people who don’t want to see queer characters in fiction don’t object to it for any scientific or historical reasons, regardless of what they claim. They don’t want to see queer characters in fiction because they do not want to see queer characters, period. Why should I waste my time trying to connect with someone like that when I could be spending it making my readers happy?

Is bigotry a fundamental and inescapable aspect of humanity? There’s no real way to know for certain, but I’d like to think it’s not. And even if it is, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with occasionally wanting to slip into a world where that isn’t the case. In a time where the world seems bleaker than ever, I like my storytelling to be optimistic.

Stories where queer characters have to struggle to overcome bigotry are extremely important and valuable, and I definitely don’t think authors should stop writing them. But I’m so glad to see so many writers coming forward with queer genre fiction. These were the stories I needed when I was younger. By writing them, I hope I can make the world a better place for those who come after me.

***

Effie Calvin is a lesbian librarian from the Philadelphia area. Her favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy of all kinds. When she isn’t writing books, she can usually be found taking pictures of her extremely spoiled cat. Her debut novel was released in February 2018 from Nine Star Press, and the sequel was released in November 2018. Her third book, The Queen of Rhodia, has an expected publication date of May 2019.

Getting Your Art Out Into The World: A Guest Post By Estella Mirai

Today’s the release date of The Stars May Rise & Fall, a queer retelling of The Phantom of the Opera set in Tokyo, written by the lovely Estella Mirai. But this is a book that almost didn’t happen, and after years of publishing hardship, it’s a day of bittersweet triumph that it did, so check out the story behind the story, and of course, the story itself!

Teru came to Tokyo with dreams of making it big in the glam-metal visual kei scene, but three SMRFcover.jpgyears later, all he has to show for it is a head of hot pink hair and some skill with an eyeliner pencil. He may look the part, but he doesn’t sound it, and constant bickering among his bandmates has him worried about his future. When he finds a mysterious business card in his bag, he’s willing to take any help he can get.

Help comes in the form of Rei, a crippled, disfigured composer whose own career was ended by an accident before it had really begun. With Teru’s voice and looks, and Rei’s money and songwriting skills, both of their dreams seem about to come true – but a forbidden kiss and a late-night confession threaten to tear it all apart. Now Teru, who has spent most of his life denying his attraction to men, and Rei, who vowed long ago never to love again, must reconcile their feelings with their careers – and with their carefully constructed ideas of themselves.

THE STARS MAY RISE AND FALL is an M/M retelling of Phantom of the Opera, set in Tokyo at the turn of the millennium. It comes with a healthy dose of angst and a dollop of nostalgia, as well as an age-difference romance, a physically disabled love interest, and memorable characters who will stay with you long after the pages are closed.

Buy It: Amazon

***

Today is the day I become a published author. Today is the day the book of my heart is officially out in the world.

That is 100% a cause for celebration, and I’m definitely going to pop open the champagne tonight. But a part of me will probably always feel a little sad for this book, for not coming into the world the way it almost did.

I’m not ashamed to admit that self-publishing wasn’t my first choice. It wasn’t really my second choice either. It is, however a choice that ultimately feels right, and maybe somewhat fated. So I’d like to talk a little bit about the story behind the story… how my book fought its way through a string of bad luck and the author’s anxiety to find a place (I hope!) on your Kindle.

I actually started writing The Stars May Rise and Fall with the intent to publish it as fanfiction in 2005. I’d been a fan of Phantom of the Opera in its various incarnations for over a decade, but when the movie version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical came out, my fandom, along with many other people’s, was rekindled, and I found a little group of fans, many of whom wrote and read fanfiction. The idea, and early versions of the first few chapters, were born.

I ended up putting the story aside, unfinished. There were a couple of reasons for this—pregnancy brain (it’s a thing!), for one, and the fact that I’d started writing with no idea what the ending would be, or even if it would be a happy one or not. Every once in awhile I’d remember the characters and wish I’d been able to give them the story they deserved. But I was busy with family and work and paying bills, and didn’t really come back to it until 2013. At that point, I was pretty sure that what I had wasn’t really a fanfic anymore. The people who had been the most enthusiastic about those early chapters had been a very specific section of our little fandom group (namely, the queer one), and I didn’t really think that the target audience was necessarily limited only to people who already liked other, very different, versions of the Phantom story. So I came back to it with a more general audience in mind, came up with an ending that finally felt right, and found a beta reader.

She loved it.

That remains one of the biggest validations I have EVER had as a writer. This total stranger, whose own book was so awesome it had me as nervous over her feedback as I was excited about doing my half of the swap, loved it and GOT it and… suggested that I query literary agents, as she was about to do. She also became one of my very best friends, but that’s a different story. 😉

I really hadn’t considered getting this book PUBLISHED published until that point. I thought I’d put it on Amazon or Wattpad, send the link to my little group of Phantom fans from eight years earlier, and hope other people stumbled upon it, too. But this total stranger had LOVED it. And while I knew it was a hard sell, I thought it might have a chance. So I sent out my first ten queries to agents, and got my very first request less than 24 hours later.

I got lots of requests. I also got lots of rejections. Eventually I cut the unwieldy 102,000 word draft I started querying with down to about 78,000 (it stands at around 88,000 now), and completely rewrote the beginning. But it was still a gay love story that wasn’t YA, but also wasn’t erotic. It was still a book with a 21-year-old main character back when New Adult was still big-ish… but it wasn’t set at college. I queried it as several different genres and categories. A lot of agents said nice things, but it took awhile to find someone who thought she could sell it.

Long story short, I DID eventually find an agent for this book, and we revised it together and were about to send it out to publishers… when my agent announced that she was leaving agenting. I was devastated. She had been one of my biggest allies, and no one else at her agency wanted to take on my book… so I was back in the trenches.

Another long story short, I found ANOTHER agent, and maybe half a year later, we had an offer of publication from a small but reputable press, which had nice covers, returnable paperbacks, and did have at least some bookstore and library distribution. It wasn’t going to make me the next Rowling, but again, I knew my book was a hard sell, and they were offering the most important things I wanted and couldn’t do on my own. All that was left was to alert the other publishers and see if we got any other offers. My agent let the others know that an offer was on the table.

About a week later, I got a text: SUPER HUGE PUBLISHER WHOSE NAME EVEN NON-BOOK PEOPLE KNOW is calling me RIGHT NOW!”

I’m not going to name the publisher, but to analogize another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, it felt very much like poor Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard getting her call from Paramount.

Unlike Norma’s call, this one was actually an offer. Unfortunately, it was not the offer that Googling the editor’s past huge deals (bad choice, past me) had me trying very hard (and failing) not to hope for. Other than name value, they were offering less than the small press was, so we turned them down, and my agent began negotiating the contract with the small press. I was happy, of course, to be selling my book… but in a sense, getting that particular offer from an editor who I knew had gotten life-changing deals for other debut authors hurt more than any form rejection (even though I know the decision was likely not hers, or not hers alone).

Still, I liked the small press, and while my 12-hour-long conviction that I’d Made It Big™ was over, at least I was finally going to be published!

… but.

That small press was Samhain. And as you might already know, Samhain shut down, without much notice, with tons of pending titles in the works. My agent texted me “Saw the news about Samhain…” at 6 a.m. I got the details from Twitter. I’m still not sure if I’m glad or devastated that it was before the contract was signed… on the one hand, there were no legal complications, but I never even got to announce my deal.

It’s hard to explain how I felt at that point except to say I was… broken. This book had come so close, so many times, and this was how it was going to end? My agent offered to send it out again, or to see if the other publisher was still interested… but I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I was broken. I asked my agent to officially pull it from any publishers who hadn’t responded, and left the agency (for reasons not addressed here… my agent and I had different ideas about my overall career direction that came out during the submission process, but did not arise because of it), vowing to come back big with book 2.

Book 2 had LOTS of interest from agents… and none from publishers. And I was still broken. I would get feedback from my new agent, and where I had been so excited about revisions with the first book, every semi-major suggestion for the second felt like hitting a wall. I agreed with the feedback, but couldn’t see how to apply it. In the end, the thought of completely rewriting Book 2 (because it really did need a complete rewrite) made me feel sick. Never say never, but at least at the time, I didn’t love that book enough to write it from scratch a second time.

I was also just trapped in a negative spiral. I wanted to be happy for my friends’ successes, to be excited to read new books and to start writing something new, too. But it was getting harder and harder, and I didn’t like the bitter, angry person I was in danger of becoming.

So I stepped back. I cut back on reading. I quit Twitter, kept in touch with only the very closest of my writer friends. It was hard, but I think it was necessary. And it helped. I kept writing, but I stopped trying to get published, and after about a year, I started to enjoy it again.

And a couple of things happened that made me realize I still needed to publish this book.

The first was that I got back into fanfiction, in a different fandom, under a different name. The response I got, even as a total unknown, was positive, and helped me to feel confident about my writing in a way that I hadn’t in years.

A part of it also had to do with general anxiety over the global political climate, climate change, and everything else that’s going on these days. If the world were to end, in whatever sense, tomorrow, and I never got this book into the hands of readers, I’d regret it. I knew that by self-publishing, I’d be immediately pushing some readers and reviewers away. But if I put it out there at a reasonable price, there’s at least a CHANCE that someone will read it and love it. If it sits on my hard drive forever, that number is guaranteed to be zero. I started to think that it was better to take a chance, to reach even one reader, rather than lamenting that it would never reach millions. My gay glam rock Phantom retelling is hardly a masterful political treatise. But it might bring a few hours of enjoyment and escape to even one person who needs it in this messed-up world, and that would make it all worth it.

Then, I came up with a pen name. This probably sounds silly, but one of the biggest reasons I didn’t self-publish ages ago is because I didn’t have a pen name I loved. I’m basically Chidi from The Good Place, and not being able to choose was literally freaking me out. When the perfect name came to me, it felt like a sign.

And then I went back and read the book, and two things struck me. First, I still loved it. Yes, there will always be things I’m not completely happy with… but after thirteen years, I still love these characters. I am immensely proud of certain scenes and lines. I wanted this book to be my debut, and I am glad that it is.

And second… there’s a lot in this book, which I wrote before I ever considered publishing, that has to do with the idea of getting your art out into the world. My characters deal with losing members of their creative team, the way I lost my first agent and then my would-be publisher. They deal with the pride and jealousy and anger and joy that all come crashing in together when someone you love succeeds where you’ve f—not quite succeeded yet. And they debate (or, well, fight over) the pros and cons of a traditional record deal vs. going it alone.

I wrote a good three drafts of this book before I even started to learn about publishing. I had those ideas in me all along.

And one of the biggest themes of this story is that there’s always a way to get your work out there—that things don’t always turn out the way you want or expect, and that you might end up playing a different instrument, on a different stage, with different people to support you. But you can still do it. Your work can still touch people. My book itself was telling me to publish it. So I followed my heart, and I did.

I’d be lying if I said it’s all been easy. Self-publishing is hard work. And I probably should have saved up a little more money to do things like NetGalley, and done a little more research before I dived in. I guess those will just be lessons I’ll have to take on to whatever I publish next.

But the good has been amazingly good. I can’t begin to describe the chills I got when I saw my cover art, or when I saw my book on Amazon and Goodreads. So many people have been encouraging and welcoming—people I knew from my first foray into publishing, and people I’m meeting for the first time.  And most importantly, the world is finally getting to meet Teru and Rei.

And that’s really all I ever wanted to do. The story of my heart is in your hands, world. I hope you love it half as much as I do.

***

EstellaAvatarEstella Mirai lives just outside of Tokyo with her human family and a very spoiled lap cat. When she isn’t reading or writing, she works in editing and translation—which means that 99% percent of her day is usually words. In her minimal free time, she enjoys watching musicals, cooking (badly), and slaughtering power ballads at karaoke. 

The Stars May Rise and Fall is her first novel.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Keeping It Together by S.A. Winters

KeepingItTogether.jpgSian should be tucked in bed when she meets Alisha Hart—beautiful, talented, and the star of a band that’s on its way up.

Alisha doesn’t have to worry about curfews or homework or overprotective parents; in fact, she doesn’t seem to care about rules at all. She makes her own, and lives life her way—something Sian can only dream of, and which draws her helplessly to Alisha.

But love is complicated, and if there’s such a thing as fate, it seems dead set against them.

Amazon * Amazon UK * Less Than Three

***

I want to talk today about the upcoming re-release of a story I wrote a few years back. Keeping it Together is a novella originally published as part of Less Than Three’s Rocking Hard anthology. The original call was for stories about rock stars. Alisha is the frontwoman for a rock band heading for good things. She meets Sian, a 19-year-old college girl, after a gig in some dive bar. For Sian, this is her first relationship, the first time she’s felt this way about someone else, and it’s something of a surprise to her that that someone is female. But the promise of something real, something wonderful comes with the fear of her parents finding out about it.

Below is an extract from the book, and the chance to get your own copy for free.

Enjoy.

***

Alisha was lounging against the old smoker’s shelter, disused since the college faculty had stopped students from smoking on site. She wore a pair of dark denim jeans that clung to her figure and a dark green t-shirt. An unlit cigarette was tucked behind one ear, and her hands were shoved deep in her pockets.

Sian paused, watching her for a moment, drinking in the sight of her. Alisha was beautiful, with her cropped dark hair, pointed chin and well defined cheekbones. Her arms showed beneath the short sleeves of her top, muscle cording her upper arms like she lifted weights at the gym instead of dieting to keep herself slim. But, more than that, there was an art to everything she did—the way she stood, slouching against the shelter, the way she lifted her hand to brush her hair back from her face, the way she turned to look straight at Sian, a mischievous grin spreading across her face.

Alisha raised one hand in greeting, and Sian gave a small wave back, stepping off the kerb into the road, toward the patch of gravel and grass where Alisha waited.

“Coffee?” Alisha asked, her tone hopeful. “I could do with some.”

“Why? Just crawled out of bed?” Sian teased as they began to walk towards the gates.

“Yes, actually. Specially to see you, so some gratitude would be nice.”

Sian gave a slight curtsy. “I am most honoured, my lady.”

Alisha chuckled, and it made Sian’s heart skip, a smile she couldn’t hold back working onto her face. Sian wasn’t used to being the one to make people laugh, but now that she was, she found she liked it, and she especially liked the way it lit up Alisha’s face, made her eyes glitter like precious gems in the sunlight, teeth showing as she smiled.

 

Enter to win a copy of KEEPING IT TOGETHER here

***

S. A. Winters is a British writer with a penchant for the gothic. When they aren’t writing, they like to listen to heavy metal, watch horror films, or piss off down the pub, sometimes all at once.

S. A. Winters most enjoys writing paranormal, but likes to play with other genres from time to time and has been known to dabble in contemporary, steampunk and historical.

You can keep up with S. A. Winters through their twitter account (https://twitter.com/WintersSA) or their website (https://sawinters.com/).

 

Brave New Worlds: The Identity Possibilities of Speculative Fiction, a Guest Post by Leigh Hellman

Please welcome to the site today Leigh Hellman, author of Orbit, a cyberpunk sci-fi which released on September 18th and features pansexual and a-spec characters! They’re here to discuss identity in Speculative Fiction, but before we get to the post, let’s take a glance at the book:

Ciaan Gennett isn’t green, despite the brand of light hair that betrays her heritage: an Earth mother. A mother she remembers but doesn’t know, who left one day and never came back. Ciaan’s as metal as her home planet—cold and hard and full of so many cracks she’s trying to ignore that she doesn’t have time to wonder about questions that don’t get answers.

After one too many run-ins with the law, Ciaan finds herself sentenced to probation at a port facility and given an ultimatum: Prove that your potential is worth believing in. With help from her best friend Tidoris, Ciaan stays away from trouble—and trouble stays away from her. But when a routine refueling turns into a revelation, Ciaan and Tidoris find themselves forced into an alliance with an Earth captain of questionable morality and his stoic, artificially-grown first officer. Their escalating resistance against bureaucratic cover-ups begins unraveling a history of human monstrosity and an ugly truth that Ciaan isn’t so sure she wants to discover.

Now they all must decide how far they are willing to dig into humanity’s dark desperation—and what they are willing to do about what digs back.

Buy it: Amazon

And here’s the post!

Speculative fiction in its many iterations—sci-fi, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and all the sub-categories therein—has fascinated both readers and writers alike for centuries. For all the stratifications between “literary” and “genre” work, fiction as a tool for deconstructing and remaking our world has long been wielded; from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (considered to be the first science fiction novel) to the global phenomenon of fantasy epics like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, speculative fiction has proven itself to be a critical and popular mainstay.

So, what is it about the genre that inspires so widely? Well, in a broad sense, speculative fiction provides a framework wherein to imagine alternatives to our current reality—whether historically, futuristically, or running concurrent to our modern world. Crucial and ever-present issues like race, gender, sexuality, marginalization, and justice can be explored in proxy universes that are free from the constraints of (inherently biased) realism—or universes can be structured specifically to delve into certain aspects of these and similar issues, building parallels and contrasts for readers to consider as they think about the core themes of the story.

But for creators looking to tell these types of tales, there are often barriers that crop up during world-building—especially when it comes to entirely new fantasy worlds and/or futuristic settings—that have to do with what our baseline assumptions are going into a project. For example: in a fantasy setting that has no connection or reference to our universe, what are the assumptions behind structuring racist hierarchies that mirror Western, Eurocentric ones in their history of white supremacy? Or: in a future-set sci-fi world, does it make sense to have characters imposing the rigid sexual and gender binarism on each other (as though the dynamism of LGBTQ identities hasn’t been constantly evolving, even within the past decade or so)? If the story is meant to carry that type of metaphor and purposeful social commentary, that’s one thing—but what if it’s not? Why not build a world where the rules are different, or at least consider why you—as the creator—are not doing that?

I asked myself these questions throughout the process of writing Orbit, my debut new-adult speculative fiction novel, particularly as I was trying to solidify gender and sexuality identities in my near-future setting. Since the story takes place in a speculative future of our current world, it wouldn’t make sense to erase and/or ignore our history of LGBTQ identities and movements—but likewise, it didn’t feel authentic to me that this culture would conceptualize and label gender and sexuality in the exact same terms as we do now. Understanding sexuality as an identity marker rather than an activity-based habit was introduced into mainstream theory less than 200 years ago and the vocabulary of identities remains in constant flux across years, let alone decades and generations. The language of identifiers doesn’t just go in and out of popular fashion; the meanings of the words themselves can and do shift through denigration, reclamation, and basic linguistic evolutions. What LGBTQ people called themselves a century ago isn’t what we call ourselves now, and the cultural discussions around the LGBTQ experiences happen at different octaves with each new social milestone. The verbal identifiers therefore become the most obvious distinction, but the deeper and more complex developments come from the re-forming of socio-cultural norms and beliefs surrounding gender and sexuality.

So that idea—what does the culture that I’m world-building believe about gender and sexuality, and how many of those beliefs do I have to take from our current culture?—became a foundational stone for me. I could keep the same, or similar-enough, rhetoric and identities to signal a familiar cultural framework for the story, and more easily categorize my characters for representation tallies. But that felt disingenuous to how I was coming to understand this world I was building and to how I myself conceptualize gender and sexuality—which is to say, fluidly and running along multiple spectrums. In a culture where the most significant identity markers are pseudo-species (p-person, Earth human, Artificial)—and also taking into account the current growing acceptance of gender and sexuality diversity (not to say that acceptance is universal or equally-distributed, because it isn’t)—it made sense to me that LGBTQ identities would be both more prevalent and less explicitly stated. I tried to demonstrate that (in a story with no explicit romantic or sexual plots) in two subtle ways: 1) a main character’s casual reference to a side character being “alternative” before moving on in the conversation, and 2) ongoing and completely normalized flirting and intimacy between all of the four main characters (two implied cismen, one implied ciswoman, and one explicitly non-binary person). Rather than being read as pushing some kind of non-normative (non-heterosexual) environment that audiences could infer as an exception rather than the rule, I hoped to present this as-is—a world where intimacy and attraction manifest naturally across these spectrums, without needing to make any “no homo” caveats for my characters.

One of the most difficult concerns that I struggled with in this world-building choice was the nagging doubt that I was making a “safe” trade-off, that I was closeting my characters by not explicitly labeling them in our current cultural terminology. Is there still value in representation if it shares an experience but not a name? Honestly, I can’t say for certain one way or the other; what I do know is that my characters are not closeted. There were never moments that I edited to be more coded, nor were there relationships that I played up or down because I felt like that was what would be expected of them. All of my characters are authentic—and that extends to their genders and sexualities. The fluidity—the messiness—of human identities, the fact that for all our boxing and re-boxing we still seep out around the edges, is what fascinates me as a creator. The slippages between binaries—gay or straight, cis or trans, male or female, ace/aro or allo—are not mistakes; they are who we are. We’re reflected in those coloring-outside-the-lines moments, and we are forged in the fires of the struggle for answers that may never be as neat as we want them to be. That’s how I chose to speculate in Orbit, fully aware that there were a thousand different ways I could have gone and that each of them—if they’d been thoughtfully executed—would’ve been worth reimagining.

These uncertainties plague the codified racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other systemic oppressions that are woven into our reality and then parroted back in fiction—if fictional perpetuation of these histories is not mandatory, is it necessary? And beyond that, how can we push for less restricted reimaginings without being hurtful and dismissive of the very real effects of these systems on (our, our readers, and our fellow human beings’) lives?

I don’t have all the complicated and messy answers—nor do I pretend to be an expert in any of this—but I believe that some guidance may lie in our commitment as writers to more nuanced world-building, with ongoing consideration for our (intended and unintended) implications as well as continued self-education and challenging of our internalized –isms. Just as my identity as a queer and non-binary person cannot be erased from my writing, neither can my whiteness or any of the other intersecting systemic privileges that I carry with me. But rather than be complacent with them—rather than say that these define what stories I tell—I try to push back and be purposeful in my narrative and world-building choices.

What is genuine for your characters and the reality they inhabit will always be more compelling than stock settings that rely solely on “but that’s just how it is” deflections. Not every story needs to be a meta deconstruction, nor should most stories be expected to be. But I think that not digging back at those impulses as both readers and writers—to fall back on stereotypes to fill out new worlds, to call out authentic interpretations of an identity experience that differs from your own, to cling to the belief that these systems that we were raised in are always immutable and universal—wastes the full “speculative” potential of our beautiful and vibrantly diverse literary nook in this wide and, all too often, rigidly unforgiving real world.

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Leigh Hellman Author PhotoLEIGH HELLMAN is a queer/asexual and genderqueer writer, originally from the western suburbs of Chicago, and a graduate of the MA Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After gaining the ever-lucrative BA in English, they spent five years living and teaching in South Korea before returning to their native Midwest.

Leigh’s short fiction and creative nonfiction work has been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, VIDA Review, and Fulbright Korea Infusion Magazine. Their critical and journalistic work has been featured in the American Book Review, the Gwangju News magazine, and the Windy City Times.

Their first novel, Orbit, is a new adult speculative fiction story now available through Snowy Wings Publishing. They also have a historical fantasy piece included in the SWP anthology, Magic at Midnight.

Leigh is a strong advocate for full-day breakfast menus, all varieties of dark chocolate, building a wardrobe based primarily on bad puns, and bathing in the tears of their enemies.

Love is Not a Cure: a Guest Post by Jude Sierra

Today on the site I’m pleased to welcome Jude Sierra, author of A Tiny Piece of Something Greater, to talk about a common but harmful trope in literature: love as a cure for mental illness. Before we get to the post, here’s the info on the book:

37830506Reid Watsford has a lot of secrets and a past he can’t quite escape. While staying at his grandmother’s condo in Key Largo, he signs up for introductory dive classes, where he meets Joaquim Oliveira, a Brazilian dive instructor with wanderlust. Driven by an instant, magnetic pull, what could have been just a hookup quickly deepens. As their relationship evolves, they must learn to navigate the challenges of Reid’s mental illness on their own and with each other.

And here’s the post!

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There’s a popular trope I see in media. Movies, books, and television shows often depict falling in love or starting a relationship as a catalyst for fixing or curing someone with mental illness. The burdens or struggles of a character’s illness cease in the light of love. This is a dangerously misleading and painful narrative to perpetuate for many reasons, including the implication that there’s “fixing” to be done. It implies that someone with mental illness cannot be loved as they are, setting up false and damaging expectations. It requires an alteration to an aspect of who we are to be worthy of love. As someone with mental illness who sought out stories with mentally ill characters for years, this trope really drove home several key ideas. Love never “fixed” or “cured” me. Even in love and loved, nothing went away. I constantly searched for myself in stories and walked away feeling more hopeless and broken. Love hadn’t changed what couldn’t be changed.

I was nineteen when I met my husband. It was my sophomore year of college and while I knew I was struggling, there was nothing about that struggle that felt unusual. I’d been low before. There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed. In my entire, perfectionist, over-achieving life, I actually came close to failing classes. I called in “sick” to work so often I almost lost my job.

But I’d been worse. I wasn’t self-harming. I wasn’t in an abusive relationship anymore.

On our one year anniversary, I remember turning to him and saying, “This has been the best year of my life.” It had; perhaps because feeling bad felt so normal that my bar for “bad” was set at a different level than that of others. What I remembered most that year was the way I was loved, the kindness and care, the sweetness we shared. Being loved like that was a completely new experience for me.

But when I said that, he cried. He tried to explain, but it was something I never really understood until years later, once I’d begun to understand the scope of my mental illness, and once I began working on recovery. That year was a test for him in a way I wasn’t able to appreciate; watching my depression, watching me navigate a strained relationship with my parents, watching me struggle with absolutely no self-esteem and very little self-worth.

We’ve been together for almost 17 years now, and in that time, we’ve seen and been through a lot. We were together for years before I confessed that I self-harmed, before I ever confessed to having suicidal ideations, and before I ever articulated what my highs and lows felt like. He loved me unconditionally through years when I suffered in silence; I never doubted that love, and it never altered basic truths about who I am. There was no way that any amount of love between us or from him that could have prevented the eventual mental breakdown I had in the wake of a serious postpartum depression.

In many ways, Reid’s story in A Tiny Piece of Something Greater is my own. While I was in long term psychiatric care I worked with a team of professionals in order to find a diagnosis, cyclothemia, a rare mental illness that can be very hard to articulate and see. I learned skills and how to fight, actively, for my own wellness. After I came home my husband and I had to learn to reorient and rework every aspect of our relationship.

There were many lessons and takeaways I can mine from these experiences, one which is very, very important to me. Love is not a cure.

When I first imagined Reid’s story I committed to writing a book about what it is like to live with mental illness, to work recovery, to relearn living, and also, to fall in love, I knew that writing about falling in love would be the fun part. But personally, one of the biggest draws to this story was the idea of exploring what it means to stay in love in these circumstances. In my own experience, navigating a mood disorder such a cyclothemia involves being attuned to subtle cues that my moods are going to swing or are unstable. As someone who works their wellness and recovery the way that I do (constant practice, willingness and strength) it can be chafing or irritating when others try to tell me what they’re seeing or perceiving. It feel like they don’t trust me to know what’s best. But the truth is that sometimes I cannot see the forest for the trees, and the tension these situations cause are very real.

These are moments I wanted to highlight for Reid and Joaquim. The reality of being in love in these situations is that there will be tensions and struggle, and that finding the right person—even the perfect person—for you won’t make those things go away. On the flip side, writing characters who cared for each other so much, for whom falling in love was so beautiful, that writing them learning and struggling to communicate was its own joy. A Tiny Piece of Something Greater was a balancing act: I tried my hardest to represent as accurately as possible the experience of everyday mental illness, but also, the realistic power of love.

A Tiny Piece of Something Greater is a love story, true, but it’s also a story about a boy learning to thrive and manage a new life and recovery. Falling in love with Joaquim enriches Reid’s life just as much as falling for Reid enriches Joaquim’s life. Their love story is just beginning. What A Tiny Piece of Something Greater tries to achieve is a depiction of the first steps of many that people in a loving relationship must take.

Seventeen years into my own relationship, I can look back at this life my husband and I have made made and understand that what we have is a love story and a relationship I am proud of. When I look back at my own life, what I see is a story about surviving my mental illness and right now, absolutely thriving. And that thriving? Our love is a part of that narrative, but isn’t responsible for it. It is not what my wellness hinges on. The most important factor in my wellness is me. In this book, it’s Reid. I can’t say enough about how wonderful it was to write Reid and Joaquim’s love story; but separately, how much it means to me to have written this story that reflects an honest truth. Love doesn’t cure or fix; it supports. It supplements. It enriches.

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IMG_3575Jude Sierra is a Latinx poet, author, academic and mother working toward her PhD in Writing and Rhetoric, looking at the intersections of Queer, Feminist and Pop Culture Studies. She also works as an LGBTQAI+ book reviewer for From Top to Bottom Reviews. Her novels include HushWhat it Takes, and Idlewild, a contemporary LGBT romance set in Detroit’s renaissance, which was named a Best Book of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews. Her most recent novel, A Tiny Piece of Something Greater was released in May of 2018.