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Hi, folks. Joe Stalwart here. I’m a PI, a well-motivated character who overcomes obstacles in pursuit of a goal. My old buddy Lloyd Meeker asked me to come by and talk about writing conflict because he’s sulking and doesn’t want to deal with it.

Nah, that’s not really fair. The truth is he doesn’t mind conflict as long as it’s an authentic part of the story. It’s when it just gets manufactured for its own sake and shoved into a story that he gets pissed off.

But I’d better start at the beginning. Like I said, I’m a well-motivated character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of the goal. That’s the essence of a story, and I make a great protagonist, even if I do say so myself.

It used to be enough that one of my stories would start when a gorgeous dame walked into my dingy office while a solo saxophone played slow, blue, and hot, the movement of her hips making the kind of sweet promises men might kill for. She’d sit at my desk, cross her legs with a whisper of silk stockings and blow out a sexy stream of cigarette smoke. She’d have my attention, that’s a sure thing.

She’d hire me to solve a problem and then I’d go ahead and solve it. The reader would get a decent amount of conflict along the way, as well as some entertaining wise-ass dialogue. Sometimes the dame liked my solution to her problem and sometimes she didn’t. Hell, once in a while she didn’t even make it to the end of the story. So sometimes I got paid, and other times, well, you can figure it out.

Nowadays, though, that’s not enough according to most of the writing coaches that shout on every street corner in novel-land the way crazy preachers used to in Des Moines during the Depression. Don’t get me wrong, some of those folks know what they’re talking about. Others? Well, not so much.

The ones that get under my skin are the ones who tell you conflict is more important than story. They’ve made a goddamn fetish out of conflict and they don’t seem to give a shit about what else happens between the covers of a book as long as there’s conflict on every damn page. I kid you not. They look for it, and they keep score.

It’s a writing rule of some kind now, like everyone has to cheer for the Emperor’s new clothes even though he’s nekkid as a jaybird. And before you get yourself in a lather, this isn’t a rant about clichés and stereotypes, so back off will you? I’ll get to them someday when I’m damn good and ready.

So where was I? Oh, yeah. Conflict on every page. I got news for you. Sometimes a well-motivated character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of his goal has to sit down and think. I hope you’re not disappointed. A protagonist who takes time to think or reflect actually gives you a better story.

I can tell you from first-hand experience, being chased down the street by goons shooting at you or being tied to the to a chair and pistol-whipped is not conducive to productive thought or reflection.

You like that word, conducive? Bet you didn’t expect it, comin’ outta my mouth, did you? That’ll part of our conversation about clichés and stereotypes, the one we’re not going to have today.

Some of the writing honchos say conflict reveals character, and they’ve got a point. But stop the presses—a character engaging in conflict that’s not necessary to the story shows he’s too stupid to belong to the story and you should stop reading right there. That cheesy technique also reveals the character of an author who laces his stories with gratuitous conflict. Cheap thrills, I say.

I mean, how many times do I have to be tied to a chair and pistol whipped, or thrown in a car trunk so I can kick out the taillights and jump out just before the car gets onto the freeway, or crawl out as the car is being crushed in the junkyard just because “I know too much,” or “I’m getting too close”? Gimme a fuckin’ break.

I tell you, the phony writing coaches are like drug dealers in a schoolyard. They’re trying to get everyone addicted to conflict for its own sake, and that’s just plain tragic. Stories are ruined through conflict abuse. And like an extra-thick coat of paint on the wall, conflict can be used to mask more serious problems hiding underneath it.

They’ve got this thing that they like to call terrible trouble. Well, I can tell you that my favorite sidekick is named Terrible Trouble, and he’s around a lot in my stories. But he’s never parachuted in like a commando just to give readers a better adrenaline rush.

If you want a satisfying story, read a good book. If all you’re after is an adrenaline rush, go ride a good rollercoaster or take up skydiving. They’re not the same thing as a good story, and you can’t confuse them. You’ve got to make up your mind what you want.

Next time you’re caught in a pack of writers and you’re not sure you’re if you’re talking to a conflict junkie, there are warning signs to look for. They got buzzwords out the wazoo. If it’s not terrible trouble its micro-tension, or maximum capacity, or raising the stakes, or some other goddamn thing. They just never fuckin’ let up.

A while ago a bunch of writing pundits proclaimed that the sequel was dead. That’s one of the stupidest things I ever heard. Because of that, story shit supposedly has to happen faster, more often, and harder—and usually making more noise in the process.

Then at the end of the story, when it’s all over you’re supposed to be satisfied as a reader as if the point of reading the book was the same as going to Knott’s Berry Farm. As if a well-motivated character isn’t adequate if he has to draw breath or, god forbid, stop to think. I’m here to say the story is not just about conflict. It’s a story, ferchrissakes.

More often than not nowadays, the story ends by pointing to potential terrible trouble just around the corner, just in case it’s a hit and there has to be a series. You probably haven’t bothered to count the writers who take that idea and trample all over their story with it. It’s not worth doing a body count, but it’s still a damn shame.

Still don’t see what I’m getting at? No problem. I can overcome that obstacle pretty easy.

Let’s say you got a protagonist supposed to drive up to Topanga Canyon to scatter his murdered friend’s ashes. He does it, with hardly a whiff of conflict in the whole damn scene. Protag’s had this guy’s ashes sitting in an urn on his coffee table through the whole damn story and now, just a few scenes from the end, he finally figures out where he’s supposed to spread them. And he does it. It’s a moment of completion, and part of the protagonist’s movement toward his big sacrifice yet to come. He feels connected to his murdered friend forever, knowing they’ll see each other again. Kinda mystical. Let’s say the whole thing is six hundred words. Two fuckin’ pages.

But if those conflict junkies get hold of that scene? Fasten your seatbelt.

The protagonist looks at the beautiful dame still sleeping in his bed, tucks the urn of ashes under his arm and heads for the door. He’s left her a note, everything’s cool. A floorboard squeaks.

She wakes up. “Honey, come back to bed,” she calls out.

“Can’t,” he says. “Gotta set my friend’s ashes free.”

The dame isn’t impressed. She’s got a different agenda—that’s how we set up conflict. “If you come back to bed, I’ll give you a vewy special treat,” she pouts, licking her lips. She looks like Marilyn Monroe, all tousled and luscious.

The protag is noble, in spite of the fact that he likes the dame’s special treats. A lot. “Thanks, but no. I got business to take care of.”

The dame is insulted. “If you don’t come back to bed I’ll smash your guitar while you’re gone.”

The protag is a sensitive guy. He loves his guitar. “Then you better be out of California by the time I get back,” he says, and closes the door too hard.

He stands in the garage, and has a moment of inner conflict. Should he take his motorcycle or his beat-up economy car? He’s torn. How would his dead buddy prefer to make his last ride? He opts for the motorcycle. Wild and free. He pulls on his leathers, rolls out of the garage, fires up the horse and roars away.

It’s a beautiful day, and he guns it. He’s got to be back in town in time for an appointment with someone who wants to hire him on a new case, and he needs the money. That’s called a ticking clock, in case you can’t tell the players without a program.

He’s partway up the Pacific Coast Highway, the urn of ashes in his backpack when he’s pulled over by a cop for speeding. Protag apologizes and tries to be nice, ease out of the problem because he just wants to do the right thing with his friend’s ashes. But the cop is being a real jerk. Rising conflict ensues.

This is going to cost him, as well as make him late. This is raising the stakes, one of those writing workshop terms I mentioned earlier. He doesn’t have the money to pay the damn ticket, and might not get the new assignment if he can’t get back into town in time for the appointment.

Back on the road with that high-priced citation in his pocket, the protag takes risks on the road to make up lost time. He hits some sand on a curve and spins out. He comes to, his arm is pretty badly banged up, and so is one leg. He sees the urn lying in the ditch next to his ripped up backpack.

Another round of internal conflict—protag beats himself up for not being more careful. Then he argues with himself as to whether he’s able to go on to Topanga Canyon. An inner voice tells him he’s a quitter—a flashback to an old failure when under enemy fire he couldn’t drag his army buddy back to safety in time to save him. After moments of intense angst he resolves to go on to Topanga Canyon and to hell with his busted up body and the appointment in the city.

As he drags himself to the urn, a scorpion hiding under a rock stings him as he pulls himself along. Now he’s in terrible trouble, plus he’s got a real ticking clock. He’s got to dump the ashes right there in the ditch because he has to get to a hospital quick. He has a moment of self-loathing, apologizes to his friend and empties the urn, says a brief word. That’s the best he can do.
He’s beginning to feel the effect of the scorpion venom. He hobbles to the motorcycle, finds it’s still functional and jumps on. Sweating and semi-delirious, he weaves his way back toward the city (and guess what, no cop bothers to stop him now—how’s that for author fuckin’ convenience?) and collapses unconscious at the emergency entrance of a hospital.

That’s a different story, isn’t it? And you’ve already read or watched a scene just like it at least a zillion times. Paint by numbers predictable. Big fuckin’ deal.

But the original scene is about the friend’s goddam ashes, not the stupid motorcycle trip, which didn’t even exist in the first one. In the first there’s no ticking clock and no scorpion. The reader is just going to have to deal with a genuine quiet moment and try to stay awake all on his own.

Because here’s the point. Conflict isn’t the only way to reveal character. Remember that old saying, that actions speak louder than words? Well, that’s the essence of character. Character is shown through action. That action may or may not be in response to a threat or conflict, but it also might be the act of observing a scene, or holding vigil. It’s all meaningful action that reveals character.

He likes Donald Maass’ new book, Writing 21st Century Fiction, a lot. In fact, that’s his current favorite. One of the best pieces of enduring writing advice Meeker ever got, he told me, was from Jim Frey: “Just tell the story.” He’s got that sucker taped above his computer.

I approve.

Late last week I submitted my latest novel, The Companion, to Toby Johnson at Lethe Press. He’d said earlier this year that he wanted to see the full when it was ready, so off it went. I can attend GayRomLit in Atlanta next week with my desk clear (figuratively speaking only!)

Jim Frey, whose workshops I’ve attended for several years, is adamant about having a clear premise for a novel. I’m a believer. Somehow, having a one-sentence cause and effect statement describing the story keeps me on track while I’m writing. It’s my litmus test as to whether a scene is superfluous or relevant to the story: does it support the premise? If yes, then it belongs. If no, then I need to cut it out.

For The Companion, which is a metaphysical mystery/romance (how’s that for an obscure niche?! It seems to be the one I’m wired to occupy) I settled on “Courage leads to self-understanding and love.”

The story is about Shepherd Bucknam, Shepherd a daka (erotic coach) living in current-day Los Angeles. He’s haunted by recurring nightmares he believes predict his violent death. When his protégé is murdered he becomes involved with Marco Fidanza, the investigating officer. The trauma of his friend’s murder and the heat of his developing relationship with Fidanza plunge Shepherd deeper into his spiritual journey, forcing him to face the terrors following him from a past life before he can break free and love fully in this one.

I’m feeling pretty good about the story. I’ll find out whether Lethe feels it’s a good fit for them.

This year has been one of unprecedented productivity for me, and I’m thrilled about that. Two fiction titles in 12 months: Enigma, and The Companion. It took me nine years to complete The Darkness of Castle Tiralur, but that included about five years when I ignored it, first in favor of drinking and then in favor of recovery. Then Traveling Light took about five years from start to finish, writing in my spare time. After I retired from day jobs it took me only two years to write Blood Royal, and now these two titles in one year.

I don’t really think I want to produce faster than that, but if I can write one solid novel or a couple of short stories a year, I’ll be satisfied. I know some authors write a lot faster than that, and more power to them, but I’m not in a race with anybody.

Fellow author Jamie Fessenden wrote a very thoughtful post on his blog recently, about women writing M/M romance, which you can find —here—. It’s well worth reading and thinking about.

This is an issue that has arisen on discussion loops and author blogs for years, often in some combination of complaint, disrespect, snark and defiance. Recent posts on the topic are less strident, I’m grateful to see.

I really appreciate Jamie’s approach, since it offers real commentary, and avoids the outraged “Women don’t write us right!” or “I write werewolves, does that mean I have to be one to write authentically about them?” arguments, both of which which basically miss the point.

“Who the heck is this ‘us’?” this particular gay man asks. The diversity even just within the European / North American gay male demographic is too fabulously far-ranging to function with an individual spokesman. And with werewolves, an author can make up their behavior to suit any whim. It’s a more complex issue when writing about a gay man, since, you know, we actually exist.

Frankly, I’m relieved we’re getting beyond the “You can’t do it right!” vs. the “Yes I can!” arguments because they’re neither helpful nor relevant.

I don’t think anyone disputes that women can write great romance stories featuring gay male characters. They shouldn’t, anyway, since it’s so very obviously true. So what’s the real issue?

Is it that MM romance stories written by men might be a little different from those written by women? When I read one of our stories, sometimes the gender of the author is obvious to me, and sometimes I couldn’t tell if you paid me a fortune. (And if you offered to pay me a fortune, believe me I’d try. I’m an author, after all, and need the cash.)

Just as there are significant differences between one author and another of the same gender or orientation, so also there are significant differences between female and male authors. Why is that a bad thing? I see that as something to celebrate. It means we each can bring something new to our stories if we take the time and effort to do it.

I accept that Fessenden is right in seeing current MM Romance as an extension of its origins in slashfic, but speaking personally, I want our genre to continue evolving into one offering more satisfying emotional depth than slashfic. The baby is growing up, and the evolution I feel coming will require MM stories written by authors of every gender identity and sexual orientation.

I also agree with Fessenden’s observation that while MM romance might be about gay men, it doesn’t really belong to gay men. In fact, I’ll hike out farther on that limb — the genre doesn’t belong to either women or men, regardless of author or reader demographics. It belongs to whoever has compassion and respect for gay men and how we love.

Stating the obvious, women and men are different from each other — completely different emotional, psychic and psychological creatures. I personally believe those differences are stretched more along a shared continuum than isolated into two separate camps, but using John Gray’s simplistic analogy, some men are from Venus, and some women are from Mars.

Even though it doesn’t tell the whole story, there’s some value to looking at a bell curve. The trouble with focusing on exceptions is the same as the trouble with anecdotal evidence. Whatever general observation might be offered, no matter how rational and relevant it might be, it can be contradicted by recounting a single exception. “Well, I know a woman who…” or “I’ve known a man for years who…” That creates a logical impasse that prevents us from exploring what I see as an important and necessary evolutionary threshold for our genre.

Still, there are some fundamentals that are inescapable. Research indicates that a female’s brain matures faster than a male’s, which takes until about age 25 to get there. One of my criticisms of many current MM stories is that they’re essentially YA or New Adult stories, even if the main characters are over thirty, because they behave with the emotional maturity of a 22 year-old. That makes the story New Adult, as far as I’m concerned. YA and NA stories are an essential part of our genre, but what’s the point of having a New Adult story featuring two 30+ year-old males?

While chronologically mature men sometimes do act in immature ways, painting male characters over 25 as having little more than 20-something communication skills, insecurities, angst, values and behavior pushes me out of the story, becomes boring to me, and maybe to other readers. I’ll go further and say it’s insulting to men in general to portray a thirty-five year old man with the emotional IQ of a twenty year old — unless he’s psychologically puer aeternus and that’s the key to his character arc.

Of course such chronologically mature/emotionally immature men exist, but their frequent appearance in our stories raises a question for me — why would any author repeatedly write such characters? What’s the message in that? Is it a form of sexism, saying that’s what men are like? I hope not.

I suggest mature masculine psychology offers terrific material for MM romances, and is seriously under-represented in our stories. I believe that writing main characters emotionally older than 25 will force us to address the depth and complexity of the mature masculine in our stories. The downside is that an emotionally mature male character might take more work from the author to realize than opting for some familiar character shortcuts to emotional conflict that are plausible for an immature protagonist.

Ultimately, generalities prove insufficient in any real conversation, but there are any number of scientific studies that shed light on important psychological and emotional differences between women and men — the way we process images, grief, anger, forgiveness, sexual energy, relationship. Some differences might be cultural, others intrinsic to our basic sexuality. In some ways it doesn’t matter — they’re all important and wonderful. Diversity is a good thing!

If those differences are real and important and good, why then should the majority of gay protagonists feel the same way about trust issues, monogamy or marriage as the majority of straight women? Why should the familiar tropes of het romance dominate MM romance? Why should the story question, “Does she dare open her heart to love again?” be automatically translated into “Does he dare open his heart to love again?” Why should a gay man’s HEA look like a straight woman’s?

I’m not saying they can’t be the same — they certainly can. But isn’t there also room for more than that? What else might they look like? Let’s get adventurous! Some authors will dismiss these questions with the observation that this is how it always has been, and what “the market” demands. Those voices have every right to be heard in this discussion, but I personally don’t believe those voices are on the side of evolution.

I believe that MM romance is on the wonderful threshold of an evolutionary leap. Evolution is risky, however. The troublesome thing about change is that it brings change. I feel growth coming!

One of the most common impulses in a person who encounters unfamiliar diversity is to look for the common ground. In discussions of gay romance that’s led to remarks like, “gay men are just like other men except that they love men instead of women.” We’re not. Please accept that. Believe me, a man of some race other than Caucasian is NOT interested to hear, “You’re just like a white man except for the color of your skin.” That approach, while probably well-intentioned, is ignorant, and profoundly insults our differences.

In the most useful diversity training I’ve taken, I was instructed to first honor the differences just as they are without trying to smooth them down into comfortable common ground right away. There’s plenty of time later to find the common ground after the differences are acknowledged and at least partially understood.

The practice is first respect for the difference, and second for the gifts that the difference brings. That’s much harder work than the more naive (but usually equally well-intentioned) approach of claiming that we’re all the same. We’re just not.

I attended a writing workshop a few years ago with about ten other authors. During one session, the instructor gave each of us the same group of characters, same character agendas, the same setting, the same external events and conflicts. He had each of us write the scene, and later we read them aloud. Each one was completely different. I mean completely different. It was a revelation. I can’t write the same as my colleagues even if I try, and the same is true for every author.

In his post, Fessenden raises the startling question as to whether men can write MM romance. Of course they can. There’s a long list of wonderful male MM romance authors to prove it. Their stories aren’t — and shouldn’t be — the same as romance stories written by women authors. Is it politically incorrect to admit that the differences exist? It’s time to acknowledge and appreciate the differences for what they are, without bickering over which is “better” or “more real”.

So I’ve referred more than once to some looming evolution in our genre, and I feel obliged to get more specific about that. After all, I see it already occurring in the work of many authors I respect and follow.

I see us moving toward thematically deeper characters and varying-themed stories, moving away from slashfic-like work where a handful of familiar tropes, keywords, gimmicks and memes stapled to a slightly modified plot could pass muster. Every author has done that. Even though I’m still fond of it, I’m grateful my first book (a swords and sorcery effort) is out of print!

I see us expanding the parameters of romance beyond the rules inherited from het romance with its overwhelming emphasis on the story of deliriously happy monogamous dyads fading to black before the arguments about squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle begin. Not abandoning all the ground rules, necessarily, just expanding our scope. This also is already happening, through a healthy variety of authors.

I see us accepting that quality of story always trumps convention, and that well written stories with compelling characters will inspire most readers to enjoy the journey into unfamiliar territory. Those that take the chance, anyway.

Not every author will write transgressive romance, or even write chronologically mature protagonists. Not every author will write protagonists under 25. Each writer of each gender identity and each orientation brings something of value in her/zir/his best work, and one way or another it contributes to our genre’s evolution.

I believe this respectfully inclusive, “room for everyone” approach will take us forward into a fecund, more emotionally powerful genre than any of us can presently imagine.