Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Harris_Daisyby Daisy Harris

One of the hardest things I’ve had to grasp as a writer is how things that occur in real life sound unreal if you try to put them in a book. My life is a series of awkward missteps and Threes-Company-worthy misunderstandings, yet many of those—sometimes the ones I think will make the best stories—don’t translate in fiction.

For example, one time when I was young and still dating, I mistook an obscene phone caller for my ex-boyfriend. Worse yet, I labored under this delusion for a week until I confronted my ex-boyfriend who explained to me that it had not been him on the phone. If you wrote this into a story, it would seem totally fake. I, the heroine, would be dubbed “too stupid to live” because how on earth could someone hear heavy breathing and infer that the person on the other end of the line was the dude she broke up with six months earlier?

Well, the reason is because in life, crazy things happen. People misunderstand each other in ways so intense it’s like they’re not even speaking the same language. In fiction, though, your book is supposed to be cohesive. Even though we may be writing in deep third person, it’s understood that the author is always the narrator.

Take characters who say off-color things. In real life, good people make crass or tasteless jokes all the time. Hopefully, it’s rare, but I’m sure some of us know the sweet and cuddly brother or husband or uncle or grandpa who we love to death but who every once in a while makes us cringe.

That guy needs to be way toned down to sound right in your book. Real people are complex; characters, however, are simple. If you write romance, like I do, the goofy uncle or brother or father-in-law is going to be a side character, without a lot of room for detail. They can have foibles, they can even make mistakes, but they can’t be exactly like Grandpa Earl who drove little old ladies to church but also liked to terrorize the kids by threatening to kill the dog. In real life, this person exists. In fiction? Not so much.

downloadThe worst is when you write a setting or a character who is based on a real place or person. Hooyah, you won’t want to change your story even if your betas, your editors, and even your readers complain. I know I’m going to get blasted for my upcoming book, Nothing But Smoke, because my character’s Catholic mother is too religious.

Nicky’s mom in Nothing But Smoke is the kind of old-school Catholic who likes having statues of saints and angels all over the house and likes to watch mass on TV. I know she comes off like a caricature, but I can’t seem to stop myself because I wrote her based on a member of my family who was very important to me.

I can still picture the little, cherubic, hand-painted angels I got as gifts as a kid, and remember how terrified I was of the statue of St. Peter, especially once he lost his right hand in an accident involving my brothers roughhousing. Best, I remember a statue of the Virgin Mary with little doors that opened that I got as a teenager. When you closed the doors the whole thing looked disturbingly phallic.

You can’t write a dildo-shaped Virgin Mary statue into a novel. Or boys playing football with St. Peter’s head. You can’t write things that are simultaneously hypocritical and meaningful, holy and profane. Unfortunately, in fiction, you have to make choices and stick to a simple path.

In the end, I’m leaving Nicky’s mom as the person she is—because I knew that person in all her complexity. Maybe it’s bad writing, but I tried to do justice to a personality who was more than just the sum of her parts.

But don’t try this at home, children! Life doesn’t make sense but fiction is supposed to. In fact, that’s why we read fiction. To get the sense that everything falls into place. That funny thing that happened to you that you just can’t wait to put in a book? Don’t. I mean, you can try it, but don’t be surprised if the thing that sounds funny in real life just seems stupid once it’s committed to the page.

The trick in writing is to make sense of things. Stuff happens, people fall, but it all comes together in the end. If only life were that simple!

Daisy Harris is a retired party girl and science fiction enthusiast who spends most of her time writing sexy romance and plotting the fall of Western civilization. She is the author of multiple gay romance novels including From the Ashes, After the Rain, and the Men of Holsum College series. Visit Daisy’s website.

Alternative Medicine

Kimberling_Nicole_150x150by Nicole Kimberling

It’s a scene everyone has read. A weary soldier (we’ll call him Captain Brutus) returns from the war/prison camp/besieged lunar colony unable to cope with the horror/cruelty/massive decompression event he has just witnessed. Sick from experience and worn down by the weight of the world he does not know if he can ever return to the life he’s once known.

Captain Brutus even doubts he can get down with his beloved—let’s refer to this guy as Dr. Binky for now.

The scene goes much like this one:

Brutus sat heavily in the worn armchair, face cradled in his hands, shoulders slumped in defeat. Binky hesitated at the doorway. He saw that now streaks of gray shot through Brutus’ dark hair. His uniform, though clean was patched and mended. It hung on his starved frame.

Binky stepped cautiously into the room, but quiet as he was the moment the first floorboard creaked Brutus’ head snapped up. In a split second Binky looked down the cannon-like barrel of Brutus’ blaster.

“It’s just me,” Binky’s voice shook in spite of himself. The expression on Brutus’ face was one Binky had never seen before. Blank, cold, staring right through Binky as though they’d never met.

Brutus blinked and then very slowly lowered his weapon. “I’m sorry. It’s your lab coat. I thought you were one of them.”

Binky didn’t have to ask who they were. He’d seen the streams. He’d watched day by day as the hideous truth had been revealed. The corrupt executives at LunarCorp has used the soldiers stationed at the Mare Tranquillitatis in bizarre and horrifying biological experiments. He wondered what scars Brutus hid beneath his now too-large uniform.

The scarred survivor trope is such a well-worn standard among romance heroes that he’s practically become mandatory for many readers. And there are lots of reasons why it’s a standard go-to for many authors. Scarred survivors are obviously experienced. In addition to providing ample opportunity for inter-personal conflict, their moodiness makes them seem deep.

Done correctly, the scarred survivor requires little additional characterization so a word-thrifty author can get a lot of mileage out of his grim silences and thousand-mile stares.

The author now has two options. She could use the hero’s interior conflict to tell us all something about life. She can painstakingly show that the love of Brutus and Binky is strong enough to weather all manner of storms.

Or she can, in a moment of weakness, take a short cut and cure all by a liberal application of sexual healing.

Despite the popularity of sexual healing in fiction I found scant proof that intercourse cures any ailment, physical or psychological. Though I did manage to locate some anecdotal evidence that suggests guys who are bummed out can experience some relief of symptoms by making a booty call. Witness the testimony of the legendary Marvin Gaye:

Sexual_Healing_posterWhenever blue tear drops are falling
And my emotional stability is leaving me
There is something I can do
I can get on the telephone and call you up baby, and
Honey I know you’ll be there to relieve me
The love you give to me will free me
If you don’t know the things you’re dealing
I can tell you, darling, that it’s sexual healing

I think we can all agree that Gaye really nailed it, in terms of establishing the parameters under which we can expect a positive therapeutic result from sex.

But there are always authors seeking to push the envelope and now we have stories where sex seems to be the only line of defense against a wide variety of psychological as well as neurological and even physical ailments.

And what is wrong with this? Well, to illustrate I’ll share an incident wherein Dr. Binky attempts the cure.

As per his morning ritual, Brutus sat at the breakfast table, leafing through the morning paper. Though in most respects an early-adopter of technology, he found that news itself felt more real when delivered on newsprint. A fit of coughing sounded from upstairs and Brutus glanced toward the bedroom.

Brutus’ beloved, Binky, had not been a joy to sleep alongside the previous night. His lithe and normally naked body had been hidden beneath flannel pajamas. He’d been hot, then cold, then at approximately four a.m. had commenced upon a snore so prodigious that Brutus was forced to don the earplugs he normally reserved for the firing range.

“You okay, babe?” he called.

Binky made no immediate vocal response. Then, from above came a thud, followed by a slight shuffling noise. Eventually, Binky slumped down the stairs. His face was puffy; his blond hair disheveled and matted. He held the duvet from their bed close around him as he crossed the kitchen floor, coming to stand, swaying before Brutus.

He said, “I think I have strep.”

“You’re not going to work at the hospital today,” Brutus pronounced. “Unless it’s as a patient.”

Binky shook his head, then winced as if the slight motion caused him almost unbearable pain.

“No antibiotics,” Binky whispered. “I found a better way online.”

“You’re not going to try and gargle it away, are you? I don’t know if there’s enough salt water in the sea.”

“Not salt water.” Leaning heavily on the back of the dining room chair on which Brutus sat, Binky lowered himself to his knees. “Open your pants.”

“What? Now?”

“I’ll do it.” Binky lifted his shaking hands and began to paw ineffectually at Brutus’ fly. Brutus caught him by the wrists. He gazed down at Binky’s flushed cheeks, his glassy unfocused expression.

sex_rx“Have you taken your temperature recently?” Brutus asked. “I think you’ve got a fever.”

“No, I’m just horny.”

“No you aren’t,” Brutus said. “You’re barely awake.”

“Don’t struggle. I need sperm to kill the streptococcal.” Binky tried weakly to pull his hands free. “It has antibiotic properties and can also cure depression.”

“What the hell have you been reading?” Brutus pressed his hand to Binky’s forehead. His skin felt as if he’d just stepped out of a sauna.

“The internet wouldn’t lie to me,” Binky said. 

“Baby, I am not going to stick my dick anywhere near your throat.”

Binky’s expression crumpled with confused hurt. Then lit again, with weird hope, “Would you jack off on my face then? I’ll hold my mouth open like in a porno. I just don’t like to swallow pills.”

“I’m taking you to the hospital right now.”

Oh no Binky! Why would the cruel author force you to use semen dosing when better solutions were available? Doesn’t she know the efficacy of sperm versus penicillin is practically nil? And what about all those other Binkies out there who have been forced to treat their various neurological and psychological problems with a course of cock alone?

Don’t their authors know that in 2009 a Norwegian scientist (Dr. Bønky of the Kinsey Institute) performed a double blind study, which proved that dyslexics treated with cock injections actually fared slightly less well than those treated with a dildo placebo?

I’m not asking authors to stop using the natural life drama created by illness, both physical and mental, in their stories. Far from it. Illness affects us all in one way or another. But I suppose what I would suggest is that perhaps a little sensitivity would not be misplaced. Try to remember that things like agoraphobia and epilepsy are not imaginary afflictions invented solely for the purpose of creating tension in fiction. Make an effort to respect the real-life sufferers by not demoting their struggle to the equivalent of a case of blue balls.

Over and out!

Nicole Kimberling is the author of various speculative fiction titles as well as a contemporary romantic mystery series set in the Pacific Northwest. Her first novel, Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. She is also the editor of Blind Eye Books. Visit Nicole’s website.

Author Insights: Ethan Stone and Sara York on writing Trans* Romances

TransparencyStoneYork1500At our January 2014 Portland LGBT Romance Reader Group Meeting, we got the chance to talk with GRNW author Ethan Stone about his 2013 trans* romance story Transparency and about how well it was selling.

The story’s success seemed to counter arguments that there isn’t much of a market or demand for romances with trans* and gender queer characters, so we wanted to sit down and chat with him and coauthor Sara York about the story.

What prompted you both to write Transparency?

Ethan: The idea originally came to me at the GRNW meet up in Seattle. Several people said that there was a lack of stories with trans and lesbian main characters. The idea of writing a trans man started percolating in my brain.

Sara: I’d been thinking of writing a trans story but I didn’t really know where to start. When Ethan mentioned writing one together I said yes immediately.

Did you do research to help prepare?

Sara: I did do some research on female to male transfers. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding of transpeople. The reasons to change are as varied as the people themselves. Both MTF and FTM are individuals and want to be treated as such. I found that there are some basic rights that are missing that need addressing. It’s difficult for understanding to come to the mainstream if we don’t talk about some of the issues.

Ethan: I admit I don’t usually do a lot of research for my writing, but I did do some this time. I looked at some porn including the amazing Buck Angel. I looked at the use of dildos and how many men see it as an extension of their bodies.

Sara: Ethan introduced me to Buck Angel. It was a side of porn I’d never seen. I think the diversification in the LGBT community is broader than what the current writing community is embracing.

When you published Transparency, how was the response after?

Ethan: I was very pleased with the reviews and comments we got. I didn’t hear any negative comments about the story itself, except that it wasn’t long enough.

Sara: I’m very happy with the reception. I will be looking to include more trans stories in my books.

Did sales meet expectations? Surpass?

Sara: Sales far surpassed my expectations. We really had no idea how many people would be interested in reading about Charlie and Taylor.

Ethan: I have been absolutely blown away by the sales. I think it’s amazing that so many people have read it.

Do you have any recommendations for other writers who want to write stories that focus on trans* characters?

Sara: Do some research and look at the community. Write from the heart, not just because you want to write a character for the novelty of it.

Ethan: Don’t be afraid to write it if you want to. Don’t let the idea of bad sales keep you from doing it. I think there is an audience for trans* romances. If the story is done right it will speak to all audiences. Some people may feel that because the character doesn’t have a cock he can’t be considered a gay man. However, it’s not the outside that matters, it’s the inside. Taylor is a gay man who happened to be born in a female body. He had surgery on his upper half but not on the lower half. This is a decision every trans* person has to make for themselves. The fact that Taylor doesn’t have a dick doesn’t make him less of a gay man.

Ethan Stone is becoming a duck once again. After more than a decade away from the soggy state of Oregon, he is back in his home state. He used to have a day job where he wore a sexy uniform to work; now he can wear whatever he wants to work as he attempts to see if this writing thing can support his Mt. Dew addiction. Visit Ethan at his website!

Sara York enjoys writing twisted tales of passion, anger, and love with a good healthy dose of lust thrown in for fun. Almost a quarter of a century ago Sara met her lover, falling for him after knowing him for ten minutes. Sara’s passion for him comes out in her stories, mixing with her passion for life, love, and good times, flowing onto the page and becoming tales from the heart. Visit Sara at her website!

How to be a better Beta Reader

AnnabethAlbertby Annabeth Albert

Who wouldn’t love a chance to read new books from a favorite author before they come out? Most people would jump at such a chance; however, the reality is that beta reading is much more intense and time consuming than regular reading. Over the last three years, I’ve been fortunate enough to beta read/critique for multiple authors, and I have had wonderful readers and writers serve as beta readers for me.

Whether you are already a beta reader or critique partner for an author, would like to be, or are just curious about the process, I have tips to make your beta reading experience more pleasurable and productive.

What is a Beta Reader?

First, the terms “beta reader,” “first-reader,” “critique partner ,” and “CP” are sometimes use interchangeably. The main difference is that critique partners usually trade off reading each other’s manuscripts while a beta reader or first reader usually reads without the expectation of reciprocation—indeed, many beta readers and first readers are not themselves writers. They are simply avid readers who have volunteered to help a writer advance his or her craft.

A beta reader usually reads an early draft of a book before it is submitted to editors or agents or formatted for publication. A beta reader or critique partner is not a substitute for an editor or proofreader—although many are very good at finding errors and typos, it’s not their primary job. Also, a beta reader is different from a reviewer—the ARC (advanced reader copy) that a reviewer gets is a final draft. While early reviews are awesome, feedback to the writer on an ARC usually isn’t helpful because often the writer is not in a position to make last minute changes. A beta reader reads during the early part of the editing cycle while the writer still has ample time to tinker with the story.

Getting Started

If you have been asked to do a beta read for an author, the first step is to communicate before you start reading. Make sure that you have discussed:

  • Timetable for the read. Ask the author for a deadline. Unexpected events and emergencies happen, but it is always good form to let the writer know if you won’t be able to make the deadline you discussed. As a writer, if you have a deadline for submittal, it is helpful to communicate that to your reader.
  • Genre and target audience. While not essential, it is very helpful to be widely read in the genre you are beta reading. If you are not familiar with the particular subgenre, you might spent a few minutes browsing the best-sellers in that genre so you can get a feel for what is selling and what is common in that genre. The more familiar you are with the genre, the more easily you can discuss how readers may react to the book.
  • What sort of feedback the author is seeking. Some writers simply want a very top-level, general impression of the book, while others may want more specific feedback. As a writer, it can be very helpful to give your beta readers a list of questions or concerns. Further, it can be helpful to communicate what is not a concern—i.e. some writers already know what things they won’t be changing and that can be helpful information for the beta to know.
  • What format feedback should take. For writers looking for general feedback, an email may be sufficient to provide impressions of the book and answer any questions the writer has. Other writers may prefer Word’s track changes & comment box features. Other possibilities include feedback via mobile device app (like iPad’s  or Quick Docs for Android), Google documents, or using skype/messenger to discuss the book.  If you plan to read the book on your e-reader or mobile device or lack Microsoft word, tell the writer so that she or he can get you an appropriate format.

Giving Feedback

When you are ready to give feedback, keep in mind:

  • Always open with what you liked about a book or what you think the author did well. It doesn’t matter how many books someone has written, hearing what’s working is always nice and it makes any critique go down easier. If you are doing comment boxes, drop an occasional comment on something that really works well.
  • Conversely, don’t ONLY focus on the positive. Remember, the point of a beta reader is to help the author make this the best book possible. Think about what it would take for this to be a keeper shelf book for you. What things could improve to make this a surefire keeper? Don’t be afraid to toss out some suggestions.
  • Don’t rewrite. If you are using MS Word, feel free to point out misspellings and grammar mistakes if that is something the author wants. But don’t rewrite entire sentences or passages. Some authors may prefer you to not touch grammar or typos at all and just focus on the story as a whole.
  • Focus on what is fixable. For example, if you would love the story more if it were not set in France, that sort of change is probably not going to happen. But if you would love the story more if only you could understand why they were in France, that sort of change is totally feasible.
  • Be specific. Instead of talking in generics like “This character isn’t likable,” try to be specific about what isn’t working for you. “Rudolph isn’t likeable because he never tries to stand up for himself.”
  • Be flexible. Keep in mind that even if the author doesn’t take all of your suggestions, you have still done an awesome job by giving him or her a lot to think about. A writer may go his or her own route to fix the problem or may decide to leave things as they are. Don’t take it personally—your feedback is always valuable!

In the comments, tell me about your experiences with beta readers. If you are a writer, what do your beta readers do that you love? If you are a beta reader or critique partner, what helps you the most to give good feedback?

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. Please join her on Twitter, Facebook, and her website to learn what she’s working on and to join the pursuit of the perfect date-night movie, self-knitting yarn, and guilt-free chocolate.

Self-Publishing: The Dirty Truth

Harper_LouBy Lou Harper

Self-publishing is the latest gold rush. There’s news of riches to be made but the reality is far grittier. During actual gold rushes the most reliable road to prosperity wasn’t finding gold, but selling food, equipment, and sex to the prospectors. According to Galleycat almost 80% of self-published authors make less than $1,000.- a year, and only 5% make more than $20,000.- a year. Those are sobering numbers.

So who should self-publish? It offers the best profit-to-risk ratio to established authors with a large fan base. However, for the majority of first time authors it’s far more beneficial to go with a reputable publisher, but there are always exceptions. Between those two extremes there are a lot of authors for whom self-publishing can prove beneficial, possibly alongside the traditional route.

There are pros and cons both to going with a publisher and the alternative of publishing your book yourself. A reputable publisher will provide you with editing, cover, and at least some promo. They can also do many other things for you, like taking print copies of your book to trade shows, or making sure that your book is featured prominently on the home page of an online retailer. On the other hand, self-publishing gives you higher royalty rates and control over all aspects of your book, but it also means you’re responsible for everything.

Even if you don’t care if you make money on your books or not, you’re putting your book out there to reach readers, and your chances are far better with a professional quality book. There’s a very good reason why self-publishing has such a terrible reputation, and why so many readers refuse to touch self-published books. Before jumping into this endeavor, you need to know what’s involved in producing your own book. Nowadays anyone with a word processor can upload an ebook to Amazon—it doesn’t make you an author. That title demands commitment and professionalism.

There are four main stages in turning your finished manuscript into a book: editing, copy editing/proof reading, cover design, and formatting. They are all necessary and they all cost money. You might be able to do some of them yourself, but nobody can do them all.

Editing

There are many reasons to self-publish, and not all of them good. Possibly the worst one is: “I don’t need an editor to tell me how to write.” There are two things with this statement. Firstly, that’s not what editors do. Secondly, we all need help. Writing is a mostly solitary endeavor, but once that first or second draft is done, it’s time to solicit some feedback.

Beta readers and critique partners go a long way to improve your book, assuming you listen to them. The good thing about them is that they are free. You can collect them from the ranks of your fans and fellow writers. A good beta reader is on a similar wavelength as you, understands what you’re trying to get across, and thus can tell you if you come short. They are not always right but you should consider every comment carefully. As Neil Gaiman said: “…when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Content editors are professionals, going on far more than gut reactions, and thus cost money. Their job is to make sure your story doesn’t have giant plot holes, character inconsistencies, awkward dialogue, and a bunch of other things affecting the story as a whole. Yes, the process is often painful, but in the end it can mean the difference between a good-enough and an as-good-as-it-gets story. Finding a good editor is like finding that vein of gold.

These days many content editors also do copy editing, i.e. making sure everything is factually correct, checking that foreign words are spelled right and mean what you think they mean, ensuring you don’t include anything that could get you in legal trouble, etc.

Proof reading

A proof reader, aka a line editor, checks the manuscript for grammar, spelling, typos, punctuation, homonyms, etc. Skipping this step is one of the worst mistakes a self-published author can make, yet it happens all the time. Readers will forgive the occasional typo, they occur even in novels from mainstream reputable publishers. However, too many errors will throw most readers out of the story, ruining their experience.

It’s easy to think that with all those content editing eyes on it, the manuscript must be flawless by this point, but it never is. The recurring story is: Author has checked the manuscript umpteen times and is convinced it’s perfect. Author publishes book, and soon reviews start flowing in with complaints about the errors. Author finally sends the book to a proof reader, and it comes back full of red ink. Author makes corrections and uploads the new version but unfortunately the damage is already done.

Cover design

Unless you have a background in graphic arts, don’t make your own cover. Professional designers have spent years learning things like composition, color theory, typography, etc. Picking up a couple of Photoshop tricks won’t get you the same results. Yes, you’ll think your design is beautiful, but it probably isn’t, and the friends you’re asking for their opinion on it won’t tell you the truth either.

Formatting

This is probably the easiest thing you can do yourself, assuming you’re at least a little bit technically inclined. Formatting might be as involved as making multiple ebook formats for multiple vendors, or as simple as making one format and uploading it to a single aggregator, like Smashwords and Lightsource. Both options have their pros and cons. If you like having maximum control, the former is better. If you want the least amount of work, the latter will fit you best.

However, if looking at the formatting palette in MS Word gives you a headache, you should hire a professional. There are many internet companies offering formatting services for a reasonable fee.

In conclusion, if you decide to go the self-publishing route, you should do it right, but doing it right will costs you time and money. Look at it as an investment in your writing career.

Coming Next: A Practical Guide to Self-Publishing

Lou Harper is an author with numerous m/m titles and A Rainbow Award under her belt. She has published several books with Samhain Publishing, but also puts out a few books on her own, and she intends to keep on doing both. Visit Lou’s website.

Brutus and Binky’s Holiday Spectacular!

Nicole Kimberling

Nicole Kimberling

By Nicole Kimberling

I know what you’re thinking: the holidays are over, right? Why in the world would I, or anyone be writing about holiday-themed stories now? Well, the fact is that ‘tis the season when calls go out for themed stories surrounding the big fall and winter holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas and New Year’s. In order to be ready for publication, next year’s stories will be conceived of, contracted and possibly even written in the next few months. Authors scramble to come up with an entry into the following year’s bonanza, pitching all manner of concepts to editors who are still sluggish from eggnog and bloated from gorging on gingerbread men.

Some of these ideas will turn out to be moneymakers and some will be flops. However some steps can be taken to ensure that your idea lands you in the black come next year.

Include Food

No holiday is complete without food and at least one—Thanksgiving—is pretty much solely centered on food. Food in holiday stories can practically be considered a supporting character, as well as being a reliable source of tension and even conflict. Observe:

Binky stood over the range and fretted at the large, pale dead bird sitting in its disposable aluminum roasting pan. Its clammy, rubbery skin glistened. Pink blood seeped from the carcass’ neck flap.

Never before had he engaged dead poultry in its raw state and now he stood, shocked to consider that this bird may have given its life not to become the center of their feast, but to become, in his incompetent hands, inedible garbage.

Why, oh why had he agreed to cook for Brutus’ mother, Bertha?

Match the theme of the holiday

In trying to devise a new kind of holiday story, an author can be in danger of straying too far from the holiday’s central theme. Halloween without costumes or candy is just a waste of a good theme. Likewise New Year’s without the spirit of renewal is just another cold day in winter.

Avoid writing stories about holidays that you personally dislike or fundamentally disagree with

Scrooge, having been schooled by ghosts

Scrooge, now with the Christmas program

No reader purchases a Christmas story, for example, to hear a screed about how commercial and exploitative the holiday season has become. They want to use the power of fiction to keep their own hope alive and buoy their spirits through what is a stressful time for most everyone. There’s a reason that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the most popular and enduring Christmas story ever written. (I mean apart from the story of the nativity of Jesus that is. 🙂 ) In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge starts out a total dick, gets schooled by ghosts and eventually gets with the Christmas program. Readers would not enjoy this story nearly so much if Scrooge started off a dick and had his actions and opinions completely validated. That story would be labeled, in technical terms, “depressing” and rightly so.

Remember to make the holiday central to the plot.

The holiday itself should be essential to the events of the story. A guy in a Hannukah tale should not just be going along and casually note that he should be eating latkes with his Bubbie and then, decide he’s too busy and continue on as if there is no societal expectation during this time of year. There is no point to including a holiday if the characters are just going to ignore it.

But the fall and winter holidays are not the only opportunity for authors who enjoy writing themed stories to try their hand at incorporating holidays into the lives of their characters. I, for one, would love to see more multi-cultural tales. Why not set a story during Epiphany? Or any of the wonderful Pre-Lenten celebrations such as Germany’s Fasching or Brazil’s famous Carnival? Or Dia de los Meurtos?

Apart from Hannukah, non-Christian holidays have been almost completely ignored. Chinese New Year would provide rich material for any writer, as would Japan’s O-bon. And what about Diwali? Or Eid al-Fitr?

thanksgiving-turkey-st-stephanNation-specific holidays have also been given the short shrift. Bastille Day, Burns Night, Hangul Day, Independence Day, Anzac Day…

Heck, even Canadian Thanksgiving could do with a story of its own

But no discussion of holiday stories in romance fiction would be complete without at least giving a nod to Valentine’s Day.

Possibly the most polarizing of all holidays, Valentine’s Day is a volatile mix of potential tragedy and dizzying triumph. Risk and reward. Expectation and disappointment. Yet all the regular rules to writing a holiday story apply. Observe:

mehWhen Binky came off shift at the hospital at seven a.m. on Valentines Day the last thing he wanted to see was a dozen roses. In fact, he would have been happy to have gone red/green colorblind just to avoid having to see one more pink candy heart, balloon bouquet or any plush object embroidered with the words “I WUV U”.

Brutus rolled up in his mustang right on time and Binky flopped into the leather seat.

“You look beat,” Brutus said.

“I hate Valentine’s Day. It’s just a holiday invented by greeting card companies to sell products. It’s manipulative, shallow and stupid.” Binky didn’t like to rant, but in this case he felt it was warranted. “Do you know how many times I’ve seen perfectly good couples break up over disappointment of this one holiday? Not to mention the hundreds of children left outcast and valentine-less, humiliated at grade school? It’s like a holiday designed to shame and depress the singletons of the world.”

“You’re preaching to the choir, baby.” Brutus shifted into reverse and started out of the parking garage. “I’ve never celebrated Straight Pride Day before this and I don’t intend to start now.”

The pair went home, ordered pizza and avoided television for the rest of the night. The next day dawned fresh and hopeful and refreshingly free of artificially hurt feelings.

Oh, B & B, how disappointing are you two? Don’t you understand that Valentine’s Day is the day of public declarations of love? The day when physical evidence of love is presented to not only the object of affection, but to the whole world?

I’m sorry boys, but no one buys a Valentine’s Day story to read about how their two favorite characters didn’t celebrate.

But in a way B & B’s terrible scene hasn’t gone that wrong. It just needs a few tweaks to be a real Valentine’s Day story.

“I hate Valentine’s Day. It’s just a holiday invented by greeting card companies to sell products. It’s manipulative, shallow and stupid.” Binky didn’t like to rant, but in this case he felt it was warranted. “Do you know how many times I’ve seen perfectly good couples break up over disappointment of this one holiday? Not to mention the hundreds of children left outcast and valentine-less, humiliated at grade school? It’s like a holiday designed to shame and depress the singletons of the world.”

“You’re preaching to the choir, baby.” Brutus shifted into reverse and started out of the parking garage. “I’ve never celebrated Straight Pride Day before this and I don’t intend to start now.”

“Straight Pride Day?” Binky had heard men—mainly cynical ones—use this term before, but hadn’t thought Brutus would be one of them. “I don’t think that’s necessarily it.”

“Sure it is.” Brutus pulled out onto the street. “Any other day I can go out to dinner with you and we’d just be two guys who happened to be simultaneously hungry. Valentines Day comes around and suddenly we’re a spectacle.”

“Because we’re obviously on a date?” Binky found himself staring down at his folded hands, trying to grapple with the sudden surge of hurt and anger that welled up at Brutus’ words. “Are you really that embarrassed to be seen with me?”

“I didn’t say that.” Brutus stole a troubled glance to Binky.“See this is why Valentine’s Day is evil.”

“Valentine’s Day doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“Yes it does.”

“No, it doesn’t. I’d understand if you thought that Valentine’s Day was too commercialized and superficial.” Binky glared at Brutus. His lover stared straight ahead, jaw clenched, muscles working beneath the whiskers that Binky normally found handsome but today just seemed slovenly. “But I can’t believe that your reason for hating it is that you’re uncomfortable being out of the closet.”

“I’m perfectly okay with being out of the closet. I marched in the fucking Pride Parade, okay.” Brutus savagely shifted gears. “Speaking of spectacles.”

“It was hardly a spectacle, and you barely stood out from all the other buff, shirtless dudes…Come to think of it, you were basically hiding in a crowd,” Binky said, flabbergasted. “I guess I never realized it until now.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth, and you know it,” Brutus snapped.

“Then prove it. Take me to dinner tonight.”

“Can’t you see you’re just playing into the hands of the military-industrial-greeting card company complex?” Brutus asked.

They neared Binky’s condo now, and Binky could not help but fire one across the bow.

He mumbled, “Scaredy-cat.”

Brutus pulled over to side and slammed the car into park. He leaned across the bucket seat till his face was inches from Binky’s. “Are you really gonna yank my chain over this?”

“Are you really gonna be such a big chicken?”

A long, silent moment passed while they locked eyes, waiting to see who would blink first.

Brutus said, “Okay, I will. I’m going to go home, take a shower, reserve a table at the swankest, busiest, most public restaurant I can find. And I’m going to take you out.”

“Fine. I’ll be ready at eight.”

“You better be.”

A gift from Brutus, the World's Ugliest Stuffed Animal

A gift from Brutus to Binky, the World’s Ugliest Stuffed Animal

And they’re away! In an effort to irritate Binky while proving him wrong, Brutus could arrive with trite flowers, a tacky balloon bouquet and the world’s ugliest stuffed animal. In retaliation, Binky could hire roving musicians to serenade their table. As the situation escalates, they both realize that they’re having the Best Valentines Day Date ever.

Till the terrorists show up, that is. (I mean, Brutus is a secret agent after all.) Then the tasteless gifts and mariachis can come in handy in the ensuing fight scene!

This scene provides a fresh take on Valentines Day—going out to dinner as a game of chicken—while keeping true to the spirit of the holiday as the lovers’ bond is renewed and strengthened by the end.

So I hope you’ve enjoyed Binky and Brutus’s Holiday Spectacular.

Till next time I remain,

Nicole Kimberling

Nicole is the author of various speculative fiction titles as well as a contemporary romantic mystery series set in the Pacific Northwest. Her first novel, Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. She is also the editor of Blind Eye Books. Visit Nicole’s website.