Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Writing Integrity and Acceptable Compromise

Before I get into this post, and it's a long one, I want to first make my position very clear. This is not a post about slamming publishers. They have the right to publish whatever they want to publish, just as I have the right to write whatever I write, right? Left.

SO this isn't about the publisher, this is about me, and my desisions and choices, as a writer and as a human being, because more and more, I realize what I write is inextricably bound to what I believe to be right as a person.

If you feel the need to comment, and I do sincerely value people's thoughts and opinions, and encourage comment and discussion, be aware I will not tolerate flaming or slamming of publishers in general, or of any specifically.

So on to the point of the post. Today, I saw a post requesting submissions for a print anthology that I thought I might have the perfect, nearly finished story for. As there was no indication on the post who was publishing the anthology, I thought it would be prudent to ask, before I submitted anything, just to make sure my story would be suitable. Turns out, it was a good thing I asked.

The editor of the publication was prompt and polite to my inquiry, and even sent me a copy of the publisher's guidelines. In the guidelines was the following:

What we will NOT accept:

... We do not publish "alternate lifestyle" books;
no matter how "G" rated the author may feel they are. There are plenty of
publishers for such material. We aren't one of them.

That pretty much lets me out.

Which is fine. As I said, to each his own. But it got me thinking. The editor I spoke with, who, from the email exchange I had, seems like a decent kind of guy, did a bit of homework. He must have googled me, because I didn't supply any links to my website, or blogs, but he found out and asked about things I didn't mention in my first email. That's fine. The information is readily available on any of my blogs or my website, and I wouldn't put it there if I didn't expect people to find it. It was a pleasant surprise to find out we had a few things in common, and that he was interested enough in what he found to suggest that if I wanted to remove the allusions to the relationship between my characters, they would be happy to look at the story and consider it. Cool. But.

Always, there is a but.

I have to give this serious thought. The story's integrity would not, in the least, be compromised if I changed a few pronouns. There is nothing even remotely explicit. The two characters are rarely even in the same scenes together. Their love story is alluded to in comments and glimpses of the past. So, in theory, I could easily change the story to allude to a relationship between a man and a woman, or a friendship between two men.

But why should I? Just because it wouldn't compromise the story's integrity, would it compromise mine? Is it just a matter of changing a story to fit the market, or is it something deeper? I didn't ask the reasons behind why they don't publish GLBT stories. That's their choice, and everyone has the right to make those choices. It isn't my place to try and change anyone's mind, just to make up my own and live by it.

So I wonder if I am giving in to something more pervasive if I compromise my writing to fit this particular market. I suppose the issue is closer to my heart because I am a member of a community that grows tired of double standards. It isn't just that I write GLBT stories, but I identify with the label, as much as I try not to apply labels to anyone, including myself. The fact remains, I am part of a minority, I do identify with what I write in a very personal way, and it does matter to me that I not compromise, even in this small thing, because it is so easy to say 'just this once' and slide down that slope.

I'm not trying to change the world with my writing or my opinions, but I don't want anyone else to try and change my life with their opinions, either. I can't say that's what this publisher is trying to do, and I would never accuse them of it. I'm just trying to understand why this issue has struck such a cord with me when there are any number of plot and characterization suggestions editors and beta readers have made to me over the years that I haven't hesitated in taking. Why does this one matter so much?

Authors, what issues come out in your writing that bring out the stubborn in you when someone suggests you change it? Readers, do you choose books to read because they reflect something in your life that you identify with? Tell me what you think.


wanderingwidget said...

As a writer I've never really had to come up against anyone questioning a part of my story which I feel strongly about. Poor grammar or lack of plot and characterization, but nothing that really upset or irked me.

I think that what's hanging you up at this point is that the publisher has a strong view on gay fiction, and what you write is gay fiction, but this publisher is willing to let you re-write your gay fiction into straight fiction.

So far the lack of integrity comes from the publisher, who's saying that you're story is good enough IF you make it straight.

I'm not saying that if you shouldn't change the story because if you did you'd be a hypocritical so and such. I'm absolutely not saying that. Because the market is the way it is straight fic sells more, and I think that from a business standpoint the more of your work that you can get out into the public eye the better.

If you do decide to change the story then you can always do what slashers accuse writers the world over of doing: set up the relationship between the two characters so that there is just enough ambiguity to make their pairing plausible, but not so ambiguous that it's undeniable.

That, I think, would be a massive challenge of epic scale :P

Rivers Fic said...

I have had a few people (not publishers, but colleagues), ask if maybe the story could 'lose the complication of lesbianism' (when the whole point of the story was an obsessive love), or query that the gay character 'didn't seem to have a problem with being gay.' As though their lived reality was more valid as story fodder than mine.

My choice was to ignore their criticisms. I'm interested that the publisher you mention seems to think there are "plenty" of publishers interested in 'alternative' lifestyles, I'm not sure I agree, but, as you say, that is their prerogative not to publish whatever they want.

To me, I feel like there are MORE than plenty of writers out there writing about opposite sex relationships. I see no need to swell their numbers, especially at the expense of depriving the reading public of an alternative to that. Sometimes stories I write come out that way. But I am pretty sure I couldn't change the gender of a character to fit in with someone else's view of what they 'should' look like.

Which is in no way saying I think other people shouldn't do that. It's just how I know I feel about the matter.

Paul said...

I think this issue is striking a chord with you because it is at it's heart exclusionary. It is excluding an entire group of people. And it is unexplained as to why. Now, the publisher can certainly choose to exclude whatever type of stories they want and explain it or not. But because they don't explain and put us in the quotes ("alternative lifestyle") makes me suspect. They are excluding a whole group of people and no reason can justify that.

Sure, most of my stories would work if I made the character hetero. Never been asked to and hopefully never will. The GLBT experience is at the core of my writing. Changing the orientation of my characters would be like asking me to change my face.

Sure Kama would work with a woman and a man. Heck, so would Mahape. ALmost all my stories would. But those aren't thee stories I wanted to tell. And I venture that deep down you know that even though you COULD change the stories to fit the market with minimal fuss, they wouldn't truly be the story you wanted to tell.

Jaime Samms said...

Widget, you're right about getting the work out there. It's a business, and as a business, it makes sense to make a few changes. They're only words after all. But it's also CREATION, something of me, I suppose. So in a way, it's more than just changing words. Really, this isn't about what the publisher wants, but how I'm going to proceed, because at some point, I have to decide. I'm a notorious fence sitter. I can't help it. I'm bi and Canadian. It's nature and nurture.

Jaime Samms said...

You know, River, I used to tell myself I just write and it isn't my intention that the characters turn out to be gay or, on occasion, lesbian. It just happens that way. But there has to be something behind it, or it wouldn't be so pervasive in my work. So maybe it's time to admit, I write gay stories because they are gay stories, and it isn't an accident. Which puts me in a whole other catagory as a writer than the catagory I thought I was so comfortable in.

Jaime Samms said...

I think you're right, Paul, and at heart, I abhore conflict, and taking a stand implies the readiness to defend that stand. I've never wanted, and still don't want, my writing to be about "issues". I want to write about people because people are important. I want to tell stories because stories are at the heart of the human condition, and the main way to pass on what we know to be true about life. But I don't want to get into fights about it. Nor do I want to be told what I should or should not include in my writing, which this publisher isn't doing, of course. They're just saying what they will and what they won't publish, and it's clear they won't publish me. There's the fence, and I'm clearly on the outside of it this time, and I didn't chose to be there. Which kind of sucks a bit.

MJK said...

For my two cents, I'd avoid the publisher based on those guidelines. I've always tried to write and submit work that matches house guidelines as closely as possible - it is a business, and you need to research your market first.

Yes, it's their right to set those guidelines and, if they're willing to take it on a rewrite, that's your choice. But plenty of big mainstream publishers will now cheerfully take GLBT material without batting an eye. If I find someone that won't, and I've had to dig for details to find that, I'm just going to pack my baby back up in its bindle and walk away.

That's your right as a writer.

M.E Ellis said...

Ummm, I've had the same thing but with my content about murders. I tend to tamp the horror down now because people may not want to read such nastiness. The thing is, I know people would, because I look for just those kinds of books. However, I realise that to get me started, I've had to hold back. One day I'll be able to write the major gruesome stuff. for your dilemma, this is your whole genre being changed. I'm still able to write horror, so it isn't a problem, but for you to change your genre like that? Umm, no, imo. It goes against what you believe in, what you write, for goodness sake. That's like someone asking me to change my horror into a romance.

Excuse my French, but eff off!


Shade53 said...

Don't change a thing. I love your stories as they are and if you did change it - you would be so mad at yourself later. Don't do something you'll eventually regret doing just to make a sale. It isn't worth it in the long run.

If you're looking for markets - I probably have a few that would fit the story without asking you to do something you'll regret later. And I know you - you'd regret it! Think of it this way - if it was intented to be a bit of straight fic, wouldn't you have written it that way to start?

Jaime Samms said...

MJ, I didn't have to dig that deep. It's right there in the guidelines of the publishing company. All I had to do was find out who the publishing company was. They're right upfront about it, which is why I'm not all up in arms about them not wanting to publish it. I'm just questioning my own reluctance to meet their stipulation when I wouldn't be so reluctant if, say, they asked me to make the protagonist younger, or more attractive, or give him green hair, or if they asked me to make him the captain of a sailing ship rather than an space ship. (which really would change the genre). They just want me to make him straight. Or at least not mention that he isn't.

I suppose it's partly what Em says; I'd be changing the genre. Sort of. It's far more Sci-fi than GLBT. The romance is really a secondary plot in this one.

As always, Shade, you make it sound so simple and sane. Yes. If it was meant to be a straight fic, I would have written it that way. but I don't write that way, do I?