Category Archives: Life

Taking the Plunge

386200_2673280425520_1061443511_32785704_1832786642_n.jpgAs of this weekend, I am now a full-time author.  In other words, I’ve quit my day job.

It’s a little scary.

Although I didn’t do too badly last year, in terms of royalties, it wasn’t enough to live off.  And halfway through this year, I’m way behind what I made last year.  But one thing has become very clear over the past few months:  I can’t continue working full-time and still have the kind of writing output I had last year.  It used to be that I would write on my lunch breaks, then come home and write in the evenings until bedtime.  But thanks to staffing issues at my job, that all changed this year.  Everyone was taking on more and more work and I was just too tired to write, when I got home.  My writing output during the work week dropped to nearly nothing, and I spent the weekends trying to catch up, and trying to maintain my beauty by going to spas and having beauty treatments, and even taking supplements for the skincare such as amazon vitamin c serum and others you can find online.

Fortunately, my husband makes a decent amount and can afford to cover expenses for the next year or two, while I see if I can ramp up my writing income.  And New Hampshire recognizes our marriage, so I’m covered under his health insurance, which is perfect since I take many supplements, so I’m cover in case of anything happen, but I’m still choose to be prepared by reading about the proflexoral side effects, or any of the other supplements I take.

I’m excited about this, of course, but also a bit anxious.  What happens if I can’t increase my output significantly?  What happens if my publisher stops buying my stuff?  What if no other publishers are interested in my writing?  What if Erich loses his job?

On the other hand, this is probably the best time for me to try this “experiment.”  We’re financially stable.  I have a publisher.  I have a decent track record with five (soon to be six—Billy’s Bones is in editing) full-length novels out and five shorter works.  And I have a husband who loves and supports me.

So, holding my breath… 1… 2… 3…

 

 

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The first book that ever made me cry

I remember crying because of films, when I was young—Old Yeller, The Boy Who Talked to Badgers, The Yearling (I was a sucker for movies about animals).  I was upset about Ben dying in Star Wars.  But I don’t recall any novels that had any great emotional impact on me until A Separate Peace.  And that one devastated me.

I think it was 1982, when I was a junior in high school.  I was sitting in first period Latin class, bored and not particularly following the lesson (I flunked the class), so I started flipping through my English Literature textbook.  I feel bad for kids who are forced to read A Separate Peace as an English assignment, because few novels survive that stigma.  Who falls in love with something that they’ve been forced to read and write essays about?  (Okay, I still love Lord of the Flies, despite this, but that’s the exception—not the rule.)  I started reading and was immediately hooked.

And when I say hooked, I mean hooked.  I couldn’t put it down.  I kept reading through every single class I had that day.  In art class, my teacher had to order me to close the book and concentrate on the assignment.  Most teachers either didn’t notice me reading under the desk, or chose to ignore it.  I continued reading on the bus ride home and then immediately ran up to my bedroom and finished the book.  I’ve never read a novel of that length that quickly, before or since.

I was bawling by the end of the book.  The ending destroyed me.  I couldn’t fathom how Gene could still go on.  What was wrong with him?  I didn’t even want to leave my room to eat dinner.  I just wanted to lay there in the dark and cry.

So I did the only thing I could think of to do:  I picked the book up and began reading again from the beginning, where everything was peaceful and idyllic once more.

Why did A Separate Peace affect me so deeply?  I’m still trying to figure that out.  It’s definitely a good book.  I re-read it again this week and still loved it, though the ending is merely sad now.  I’ve read it too many times in the intervening years to be affected by it the same way I was thirty years ago.  Now, I see it through the eyes of not only an adult, but also a writer.  I can see that the prose is very good, if not particularly poetic.  The story structure holds together well.  And there is symbolism that flew over my head as a teenager.  My biggest criticism would be that Leper’s descent into madness doesn’t feel at all realistic to me now.  I’ve learned a bit more about mental illness in my adult life, and the way John Knowles portrayed it just didn’t feel right.  But that’s a minor criticism.  The characters are just as vividly painted as I remember them.  I still fell in love with Finny.

And that’s a big part of it, of course.  I fell in love with Finny.  To me, even a couple years before I’d come to terms with my own homosexuality, A Separate Peace felt like a gay novel.  I know the author, John Knowles, never intended that.  It’s a novel about two teenage boys who have such an intense, close bond between them that they feel like extensions of each other.  Gene’s struggle is, in a way, a battle with his own personal demons, manifested in Phineas.  When Finny is absent, there is a scene in which Gene dresses in Finny’s clothes and in his mind transforms into Phineas for a short time, and this bond between them is referred to several times in the novel. But to me, that bond felt like the bond between two boys who were in love with each other, even if they never acted on it.  Several times, the narrator (Gene) describes Finny’s handsome features and physical perfection in terms that might make a teenager uncomfortable these days, now that everyone suspects homo-eroticism in same-sex relationships.  Things were different in the 1940s, of course.  But even in the 1980s, I recall a friend’s father referring to the film Brian’s Song derogatorily as a “romance between a black guy and a white guy.”  (This totally killed my friend’s interest in a film that he’d previously enjoyed watching several times.)

The day Gene and Finny spend together on the beach, sleeping side by side on the dunes, with Finny doting on Gene the whole time… that felt really romantic.

This is perhaps a common problem for gay teens—seeing homo-erotic overtones in books and films, where straight teens see just friendship.  But then, of course, this disconnect often happens in their real lives.  Why should fiction be any different?

So the book that made me cry was, in the final analysis, not really the book I was reading, but the book that was taking place in my heart and mind.  And some of that passion now seems lacking, when I go back to re-read it.  But it’s still a great book.  And perhaps even a straight guy might cry reading it.

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Filed under Drama, gay, Life, Reviews, Writing, Young Adult

New Year’s Dreams and Resolution

My goal for the past couple years, ever since The Christmas Wager was accepted for publication, has been to become a full-time writer.  As I’ve discovered over the past year, there are three parts to this, and they aren’t necessarily connected:

1)  Write a lot.

2)  Sell your stories to a publisher.

3)  Sell your stories to readers.

Over the past year, I’ve knuckled down and begun writing in earnest.  Since the beginning of the year, I estimate I’ve written about 150,000 to 200,000 words.  That’s finished, polished words — good words — that ended up in final drafts.  Those words have been in two complete novels (50,000 and 65,000 words respectively) and a 23,000 word novella, plus finishing up other novels I started before January.  It isn’t the copious output of some writers I know, but it’s pretty good, especially considering the fact that I’ve done it on top of working full-time in the computer industry.  Basically, I was coming home most nights, having dinner with my husband, and then retreating to my office to write.  I say “most nights,” because there were periods when I just couldn’t do this — generally after I’d finished a month or so of work on a novel and just needed a break.  Then I played a lot of computer games, like CSGO, using the best gaming mouse for csgo I found online.  And there were nights when my husband and I spent time together, of course.  Making Erich wonder if he’d be better off married to a dakimakura isn’t part of the plan.

But overall I consider that goal to have been obtained.

As far as selling them goes, I’ve done well on that front as well.  I’ve sold everything I’ve submitted, which includes four full-length novels and that novella I mentioned.  This may not always be the case, of course — markets can dry up, publishers can decide your work simply doesn’t sell, all kinds of things can happen.  But that’s the case with all jobs.  There are no guarantees.  So for now, I’ll just say I’m doing well in that area.

The last one is the tricky one, at least for me.  I tend to get pretty good reviews.  Sure, there are bad ones mixed in here and there, but for the most part, I think I fare pretty well.  But good reviews doesn’t necessarily translate into good sales.  I had a couple really good quarters at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, in which We’re Both Straight, Right? was still selling very well.  That gave me a lot of optimism to start off the new year, but then my royalties started dwindling.  Not to nothing.  I’m still making more per quarter than I made for my very first quarter, when The Christmas Wager and The Meaning of Vengeance came out.

So on the plus side, I can honestly say that my earnings from writing have increased five-fold per year, since I began.  That sounds pretty impressive.  But in fact most of the money that came in this year — I’d say about four fifths of it — came from advances on my novels.  And the problem with that is, I probably won’t be able to increase my writing output substantially over the coming year, which means I can’t count on selling more than I have for this year.  Maybe.  But not all that likely.

So that leaves me with income from royalties.  And that’s a total unknown.  What sells and what doesn’t sell is something that not even publishers can predict.  My next release might be a huge best-seller.  Or it might languish in obscurity.  I had high hopes for By That Sin Fell the Angels.  It’s gritty, emotional, controversial, timely… That should be a formula for success, right?  Well, not so much.  Again, good reviews, but it doesn’t appear to be selling.  I could be wrong — I haven’t actually seen the sales figures yet.  But judging by the attention it got on sites like Goodreads, I’d say probably not.

This must sound like a huge pity party, but it’s not.  (Well, not much.)  I’m being confronted by a harsh reality here:

Even if my books sell to publishers, that doesn’t mean they’ll sell to readers.   

And if they don’t sell to readers, how long will they continue to sell to publishers?  Perhaps not long.  Publishers need to make back their investment.

It’s possible of course that my next book, or the one after that, will be the one—the book that suddenly strikes a chord with readers and lifts me out of obscurity.  But that’s impossible to predict, and I’ve never been the type of person who puts much stock in winning the lottery.  I’ve always pinned my hopes upon succeeding through skill and talent, which I do believe I have.

I know other authors who don’t hit the best-seller lists (meaning, in the M/M corner of the world, that they sell over 2,000 copies a month — something I can’t conceive of, right now), but have still managed to do all right by having a lot of books out and selling enough copies of each to make it worthwhile.  Perhaps I’ll end up falling into that category.

It’s also possible that I’m simply writing in the wrong genre.  This is something my husband has been pushing me to consider lately.  By That Sin Fell the Angels is really a fairly mainstream novel.  So is Murderous Requiem, if I took the sex out of it.  It seems that more and more, when people ask for books to include in this or that romance novel giveaway or some such,  I’m finding myself holding back, because my novels don’t really fit what they’re looking for.  I love the M/M genre, but perhaps I don’t really write M/M.  So perhaps I should start branching out to other markets.  But the one thing I refuse to do is turn my gay protagonists straight to please mainstream publishers.  That would quickly kill any passion I have for the craft.

So this is a sober New Year’s for me, in this regard.  The excitement I felt at this time last year, when my royalties checks were growing by leaps and bounds, has faded as they dwindled again.  I’m certainly not giving up writing.  I love it.  And I still find it immensely rewarding.  But I can no longer say with confidence that my future as a writer is particularly promising.  So my New Year’s resolution is simply this:

To continue writing and honing my abilities as a writer, so that I’m putting the best I can offer out there on the market.

And I’ll just have to see what happens.

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What does writing GLBTQ literature mean to me?

Part of the Rainbow Book Reviews bloghop!

When I first confronted the fact that I was gay as a teenager, after years of denying it, I began to seek out books that featured gay male characters.  In a very real way, I was searching for role models — for examples of gay men who managed to find happiness with other men.  Unfortunately, I seldom found that.  Instead, what I found time and time again were tales of raunchy sex, misery, and death.

This was the early 1980s and the local bookstores didn’t carry many books featuring gay men.  For the most part, all of the novels I bought during these early years came from Annie’s Book Swap, a local used book store.

There was Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner, which I still love, in which a college gym coach has a wonderful romance with his star athlete — until the athlete is shot in the head and killed when he’s competing at the Olympics.  I consider this to be a great novel, but it certainly didn’t give me hope for a happy future.

There were a number of other novels in which the main characters were killed, or committed suicide, or ended up alone and miserable.  So many that I began flipping to the last few pages of any novel I picked up before purchasing.   If there was no mention of a partner — a living partner — at the end, I put the book back on the shelf.

Then there were books like those by Gordon Merrick.  Now Merrick was a pioneer.  He was one of the first American authors to portray happy gay relationships that were still happy gay relationships at the end of the book.  I have immense respect for him.  But as a teenager, I had a problem with his novels.  They were full of musclebound men with enormous cocks who flounced around calling each other “Darling” all the time.  That was about as far from me as it was possible to get.  I was just over a hundred pounds, not a muscle on me, and well…my cock isn’t enormous.  I have also never mastered the “gay voice.”  You know the voice I mean — the voice every gay man is either supposed to use in his day-to-day life, or at least be able to put on for company.  I can’t do it.

As a gay man, I’m dull, dull, dull.  (I was once interviewed on a show that featured drag queens.  Talk about contrast.)

Also, the Merrick books had romance, but it was wrapped up in tons of raunchy sex.  It was better than the short stories in the gay porn magazines Manhunt and Torso, which I’d picked up under much duress from a convenience store and stop doing it after I found out this could cause problems in men’s health, as I read in an article of How does Porn-induced erectile dysfunction affect a man’s health?.  Anyways those stories were nothing but sex.  I wanted romance — someone to love me forever.  My church upbringing had claimed that gay men were incapable of real love, and these stories weren’t doing anything to convince me that this was wrong.

This was a miserable time in my life.  I’d been a devout Christian, as a teenager, until I could no longer deny that I was gay, whether I liked it or not and no matter how hard I prayed.  That realization made me feel cut off from my church, my family and society.  I turned to these books for some guidance and reassurance and what I found was depictions of a future devoid of hope and devoid of real love.  According to gay novels in the 80s, I had nothing but raunchy sex in porn theaters to look forward to, in between nights of loneliness and despair, until I committed suicide or died of AIDS.

Then I stumbled across The Catch Trap, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Here was a novel with very little sex in it, but a very intense romance between two men in the circus in the 1950s.  And at the end…they don’t die.  They may, in fact, have a future together.  It was amazing!

The Catch Trap had an enormous impact on me.  It was about this time that I discovered Maurice, another gay romance with a happy ending (In fact, it wasn’t published until after E.M. Forster’s death, because the happy ending was considered too controversial!), but frankly it lacked the emotional impact of The Catch Trap.  Looking back, I think it was probably twenty years before I came across another novel with a gay romance in it that really drew me in, although that one ended unhappily (The Herald Mage trilogy by Mercedes Lackey).

Over the past decade or so, M/M novels have finally come into their own.  You can now find gay romance (for men) in all genres, with happy endings, sad endings, or ambiguous endings.  There are enough on the market that you don’t have to peek at the ending to see if the book will end badly — you simply buy one that’s advertised to have a happy ending.  For those of us old enough to remember how things were, back when homosexuality was still labeled a mental illness, the change is miraculous.  There is still a long way to go, I think.  The sub-genre is dominated by M/M, which I prefer, but I’d like to see more variety:  more lesbian romance, more trans romance, more polyamorous relationships….

I write GLBTQ literature for myself — for that teenage boy who was desperate to find love and acceptance, and had to wait decades for it.  The world has changed for the better, for the GLBTQ community, but there is still a long way to go.  That’s not to say that I only write serious stories about issues facing the gay community.  I don’t.  I write whatever strikes my fancy:  Victorian romance, science fiction, silly comedies, psychological dramas.  But I write the type of stories I wish had existed then, when I needed them, to add to the pool of stories available to today’s teens and adults, for when they need them.  Because we need to find ourselves in the stories we read.

As part of the Rainbow Book Reviews bloghop this weekend, I’ll be giving away a free ebook copy of my novel, By That Sin Fell the Angels, which will be out on August 29th from Itineris press.  It’s a drama about how the suicide of a gay teen affects the people in his small town.  Just comment on this blog entry or send an e-mail to jamesfessenden @ hotmail.com to put yourself in the hat for a drawing!



It begins with a 3:00 a.m. telephone call. On one end is Terry Bachelder, a closeted teacher. On the other, the suicidal teenage son of the local preacher. When Terry fails to prevent disaster, grief rips the small town of Crystal Falls apart.

At the epicenter of the tragedy, seventeen-year-old Jonah Riverside tries to make sense of it all. Finding Daniel’s body leaves him struggling to balance his sexual identity with his faith, while his church, led by the Reverend Isaac Thompson, mounts a crusade to destroy Terry, whom Isaac believes corrupted his son and caused the boy to take his own life.

Having quietly crushed on his teacher for years, Jonah is determined to clear Terry’s name. That quest leads him to Eric Jacobs, Daniel’s true secret lover, and to get involved in Eric’s plan to shake up their small-minded town. Meanwhile, Rev. Thompson struggles to make peace between his religious convictions and the revelation of his son’s homosexuality. If he can’t, he leaves the door open for the devil—and for a second tragedy to follow.

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Farewell To An Old Friend

We had to put our old tom cat, Butterscotch, to sleep this weekend.  He was 17 and had been with me since he was a 6-month-old kitten.

Over the years, he’d certainly given me his share of trouble:  tearing up the wallpaper in some apartments, peeing on things — and houseguests — when he wanted to show his annoyance at not being fed on time or not having a clean litter box.  Once I was away on vacation for a few days and, even though I’d arranged for him to be fed, of course, the moment I came in the door, he ran right up to me and sprayed all over me.  How dare I leave him for that long!

But he was also the friendliest cat I’ve ever owned, immediately greeting strangers when they entered the house with a cheerful purr.  When we got a new kitten, Koji, who was terrified at being in a new place and refused to let anyone come near him for a couple days, Butter spent that entire time sitting peacefully nearby, inching gradually closer over a period of hours, then backing up when Koji’s hackles rose, only to start gradually inching forward again.  Eventually, Butter won Koji over and they became best friends.

I like to tell the story of when we first adopted Butter, as a kitten.  I already had a middle-age dog named Lady, at the time, who was terrified of cats.  But Butterscotch took one look at her and decided she was his new Mom!  Lady would curl up on her pillow to sleep and within minutes she’d have a tiny orange furball curled up against her stomach.  She didn’t shove him away, but she would watch him fearfully, waiting for him to explode like a hand grenade or do something else horrible to her.  But he didn’t.  All he ever did was lick her ears and her muzzle until she grew to trust him.  Right up until she passed away, the two continued to sleep together, and when she was gone, Butter was the only animal in the household who kept looking for her, clearly missing her.

When we adopted Kumar, a boisterous, black lab pup who outweighed any of the cats by about 65 pounds, Koji terrorized him, while Priscilla, the cranky female stray we’d taken in after Lady passed away, ignored him.  But Butter curled right up beside Kumar on his pillow in the kitchen or even in his crate and made him feel welcome.

It was incredibly hard for me, the day the vet called me to tell me that the routine teeth cleaning for Butter had revealed that he had cancer in his jaw.  The vet recommended that we not even wake him from the anesthetic, but I couldn’t make the decision that quickly and without having a chance to say goodbye.  Erich picked him up and brought him home with some pain-killer medication and for a couple months Butter seemed to be doing better than he’d been doing in over a year — more energetic, climbing the stairs that had grown difficult for him, more of an appetite.  My guess is that he’d started suffering from arthritis and the pain-killers were making him feel better.  I wished I’d known he needed them earlier!

But there was nothing we could do to stop the cancer, without removing a large portion of his jaw and subjecting him to radiation treatments that would have made his last days miserable.  Eventually, he started to fade.  The tumor grew to the point where it was visibly distorting his face and he could no longer eat without pain, even with the meds.  So I made the call to put him to sleep.

I’d never had to do that before, with any of my animals over the years.  Buffy had been shot by an asshole neighbor, when I was a kid; Dwan had been hit by a car; Lady had died of pneumonia, despite everything the vet could do.  But Butter forced me to make a decision.  If I avoided it, his suffering would continue to grow worse.  So I know I had to do it.  But unfortunately that doesn’t get rid of the guilt — not quite.  I held him as long as the vet would allow me to, and then Erich and I continued to pet him while he was on the table, along with our friends, Kristen and Claire.  I crouched down so that I could look directly into Butter’s eyes and try to tell him not to be afraid, but I still felt him shaking in fear for those last moments, and I will never forget it.  And I will always know that I had the power to say, “No.  Not today.” and take him home with me again.  And that knowledge brings with it another incredible wave of guilt.  But what would that have done for him, really?  A few more days, lingering in pain; a few more days of always being hungry, because it hurt to much to eat more than a tiny bit.

Afterwards, Erich and I went home with Butter’s collar and held each other while we cried, wondering how do you tell the other pets that he won’t be coming home again?

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