Inside The Mind of a Writer
Here’s the blow-by-blow saga of me making it as a writer…
I’ve always been a good writer. Got mostly A’s on my papers in high school and that allowed me later in college where I was an English major to skip most of the basic essay writing courses freshmen are obliged to take. Yet ironically, when I took the creative writing class, I got a C+! Maybe the prof had the hots for me and was frustrated – who knows?
Later, when I went for my graduate degree at the University of Southern California in L.A., more to get away from my controlling folks than for its wild gay scene, I enrolled in its school of drama. Maybe because part of me, at 5’6, fantasized about being the next Dustin Hoffman, and part because I was interested in script writing, plays (Tennessee Williams was my favorite playwright), maybe even film.
As a kid, I thought movie stars never grew old, and even today I believe “film,” – in all its variations – is the closest thing we humans have to immortality. (Think about it: our collective fascination with old Hollywood lauded and energized by media outlets like TCM is based largely on people who are long dead.)
I did well in my playwriting course –seems I have a natural talent for dialogue – even had one of my one act plays mounted as a class production. But I realized quickly that writing for actors is a collaborative effort involving many people. And I’m a solo kind of a guy which is why writing fiction was the creative niche I was drawn to.
I wanted to stay in L.A., clinging to the hope I might somehow make it in the movie business, but my rude awakening came when I took the bus to Culver City, home of the fabled MGM, to apply for a “title” writer’s job at the studio. This was 1970 – Culver City was a ghetto, MGM’s glory days had long gone, and its property, like most of the mecca studios, was being sold off. So instead of being interviewed in a spacious Louis B Mayor kind of office, the HR guy met me in a small shack just inside the security gates.
He pondered my resume – remember, I had no experience since I just finished my master’s degree – and reacted positively to what he saw, then pointed to two bulging mailbags behind him. “You look good, but I’ve got a lot more applications to go through before I decide.”
That – and a 6.6 earthquake a few weeks later –put an end to my Hollywood fantasy.
Two months later I was back home living with my folks in suburban North Jersey, and working at my very first professional job as an assistant to the editorial supervisor in the public relations department at Blue Cross of New York on Lexington and 26th. (This was before Blue Cross and Blue Shield emerged.)
In the era before Monster.com and Career Builders, the only way to find a professional position if you didn’t go into teaching was to religiously comb the want ads in Sunday’s New York Times, and hit the pavement and check out the employment agencies in Manhattan. When the rep mentioned the job at Blue Cross in its public relations department, I slyly thought, “What’s public relations? Group sex?”
But, I’m a quick learner and Betty, my boss, taught me everything I needed to know to make PR my life’s career. Reflecting back, the office was a version of “Mad Men,” with Betty the only professional woman on staff, surrounded by chain-smoking, womanizing, liquored-lunch males.
That job was a stepping stone to the assistant to the community relations director at a hospital on Staten Island, the forgotten borough of NYC, where I moved to cut my commute to twenty minutes by car. Unlike many people who go through three or four employers in their work years, I pretty much stayed put, and moved up the ladder to eventually become the marketing and communications VP for had evolved into a multi-facility healthcare network.
The one problem was, after working a hectic sixty hour work week where I was on the computer writing reports, media releases, advertising copy, you name it, fifty percent of the time, the last thing I wanted to do was write in my precious spare time. Not a cop-out – a reality.
That would have to wait until decades later when I semi-retired to sunny, sexy Fort Lauderdale, which not only gave me the time to write but also a hell of a lot of experiences to write about.
My Baptism of Fire in the Writing Game
In 2002, having put my pennies away while I was making the “big” money in New York, I decided to leave The Big Apple and my corporate job, and semi-retired to sunny Fort Lauderdale where I had snowbirded for over a decade and already owned property. I was fortunate to line up a teaching job at a small private boy’s school; then, a year later, I gravitated to adjunct professorships at two local universities where I taught college writing. Compared to my staggering workload back in New York, teaching was a cake walk. Hell, I had all my lesson plans on Power Point, which meant I could walk in drunk and still teach the class.
But now I had run out of excuses on why I couldn’t write for the pleasure of it. And, with the advent of the personal computer and Microsoft Word ( I remember the days in my early career when my office floor was littered with “drafts” off an IBM Selectric typewriter), writing, at least technically, had become easily than ever. Yea, it was “shit or get off the pot” time. Either become a writer or stop wet dreaming about it.
As they say, writers, particularly beginning writers, should write about what they know, and over the next year I labored over a semi-autobio novel about my two opposing worlds back in New York – the one of a corporate executive working for a Catholic healthcare system, juxtaposed against my life as a leather/levi gay man, cruising the underbelly of the City’s West Village on weekends.
I came up with my pen name, RP Andrews, by scrambling my initials, RP, for my first and last name, and Andrews, a play on my middle name.
But in this BTW era – Before The Web – the only way one could navigate the world of publishing was to secure a literary agent, in my case, one who handled gay manuscripts, which narrowed the field of possibilities. So, I trotted over to Barnes and Noble, bought a guide to literary agents, canvassed which were gay-friendly, and started hustling my book which, depending on their specs, meant sending them (often by snail mail) anywhere from a synopsis to some sample chapters to the full manuscript. To protect myself, I took the poor man’s copyrighting approach and mailed the manuscript to myself so I had some evidence from the postmark when I had created it.
Well, the response I got from the twenty or so agents I narrowed my search down to was underwhelming.
Now, it’s one thing if somebody tells you your stuff sucks; it’s another if they never even looked at it, and in my case it was the latter. Their responses, whether terse or verbose, all came down to something like: “We get so many unsolicited manuscripts we can’t possibly look at them all, and yours is one of them. Sorry.” Some came as form letters, some as humiliating postcards with my name spelled wrong.
Okay, I guess my stuff wasn’t any good, but were all these literary agents relying on their established stable of writers who, sooner or later, would stop producing product? Were all their new prospects recommended by peers in the business which is what happened to Margret Mitchell, a former journalist, and her originally voluminous manuscript of “Gone with The Wind” done on one of those small portable typewriters? Originally begun as a project while her leg, injured from a horse riding accident healed, “GWTW,” using tales told to her by a Confederate relatives, was never intended to be seen by another human being. That is, until a friend of a friend at MacMillan came over for a visit and asked to see her creation. BTW, the original name for her protagonist was Patsy.
Publishing folklore says J.K. Rowling’s manuscript of “Harry Potter” was rejected numerous times until the secretary – secretary – of an editor pressed her boss to take a second look. And Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook” only saw the light of day when an agent just happened to grab the manuscript from a pile out of boredom.
So if agents – and publishers – who were willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts didn’t look at most of them, how were they ever going to discover the next Hemingway or Steinbeck? To say it was demoralizing would be like comparing the explosion that obliterated the Hindenburg to deflating a balloon.
Meanwhile, I was having a gay old time in sex drenched Lauderdale, and with it came a whole new set of experiences, perfect for molding into prose. So, the next time around, I took a different approach and two years later in 2008, with, “Basic Butch,” my anthology of edgy short stories, a done deal, I canvassed gay publishers and got a bite from the San Francisco-based GLB Press. Yea, he was interested in publishing my work. If I paid him. Eight hundred bucks for two hundred fifty copies (what I realized later was vanity publishing), which he promised to distribute in gay book stores in key markets. For the cover, I got a local photographer who lined up a couple of humpy bartenders for the shoot.
But there were two strikes against me from the beginning, First, my publisher was gravely ill and about to fold if he couldn’t find a buyer, so promotional support was minimal. Secondly, exclusively gay bookstores, an institution for decades, and, for that matter, exclusively gay publishers were beginning to fade away as mainstream publishing houses saw the profit potential including popular “LGBT” titles in their dossiers and carrying the books in their outlets.
The result was my book didn’t go much anywhere, and I was about ready to reactivate my stamp collection as a diversion when a new player came to town.
His name: WWW.
The E-Pub Revolution
In 2010, swept by blogger fever, I launched “Confessions of a Str8 Gay Man,” my trice-a-week commentary on the highs and lows, triumphs and short comings of contemporary American gay life and the mainstream social and political firestorms that impact it.
Guys over the years have asked why I called it what I did; a few even thought it pretentious. But as I said in my inaugural blog, to my intended audience:
“I know you’re out there. Guys like me. Str8 gay guys, guys who are guys who want guys who are guys. Some bullshit at times – can two guys ever avoid it? – but Calvin Klein cologne, never. You’re out there in the urban jungles leading the gay solo life, or married in suburbia, sometimes with kids, checking out the gym sauna or that adult bookstore on the sly. You’re auto mechanics, teachers, lawyers, UPS drivers, corporate execs, clerks, jocks and beer guzzlers. Some of you still have one foot in the closet for whatever professional or personal reasons. Then there are those of you who’ve kicked the door off its hinges and don’t give a fuck what people think because you’re confident in your masculinity and feel that what it is to be a man has a lot more to do with what’s upstairs in your head than what you’ve got between your legs. Some of you like giving it, others like getting it, but while you may use terms like “top” or “bottom” in your conversations or web profiles to cut to the chase, you hate labels. You’re a homosexual – not a fag – because you’re a guy who just happens to want a guy and knows what a guy wants.’
‘Sure, being gay can be adventurous, but because we haven’t got a script like straights, it can also be a challenge. That’s why I think it’s time us guys had something to guide us and talk about what we want and think without all that fag fluff, glitter and gloss that the media and even our own sub-culture peddles. I’ve lived and played in New York City, L.A., and South Florida, hotbeds of gaydom, and traveled throughout most of the U.S., and what I try to do here, is give you guys a heads up on what it is to be gay in America and, most importantly, how best to navigate the invariably rough bumps all of us in this Life will encounter sooner, if not later. A gay fantasy with walks on the beach and hot showers this book ain’t (though there’s an ample amount of sex to keep you, well, happy).’
‘Unlike some gay propagandists that paint a rosy, cum-stained picture to sell their camming hunks, two-for-one drink specials, or stainless steel douches, I have no agenda other than to tell the truth as I’ve seen it. Some of you, when you read my unvarnished, highly biased observations, opinions and advice, sprinkled with a healthy dose of true confessions, will say “right on, bro!” But I’m sure there will also be just as many of you out there who’ll shout, “who the fuck does this arrogant queer think he is?” So be it.”
“Confessions” is now in its seventh year and when I started my personal Facebook page, I automatically had my posts appear there as well. Today, I have close to five thousand FB “Friends.”
My “Confessions” manifesto has been mirrored in much of my fiction, stories about men on the edge.
Doing “Confessions” has also had other benefits. Besides giving me a soapbox for my often unorthodox views, blogging has taught me to write faster. I was always a quick writer in PR where you’re constantly facing marketing and media deadlines, but my avocation as a blogger sped up my thinking process even more, a skill that I easily transferred to my fiction writing.
From a larger perspective, the web ushered a new era for us authors. No longer did we have to kiss the asses of literary agents or sublimate ourselves to publishers. If they didn’t like or want our stuff, hey, we could self-publish! And self-publish for pennies as e-books which, thanks to popularity of Kindle in particular which today dominates 80% of the market, are changing people’s reading habits.
(The publisher of my novel “The Czar of Wilton Drive” admitted that self-publishing is giving small publishers that cater to a niche audience like gay readers a run for their money.)
So using a company in Colorado, Book Nook, that transferred my Microsoft manuscript into an e-book format, as well provide me an artist to create a cover, I self-published a compilation of my blogs under the title, “Confessions of a Str8 Gay Man” as an e-book in 2011 which I uploaded myself onto Amazon and Barnes and Noble. A year later, I came out with a second edition, and soon after self-published my memoirs, “Furry Man’s Journal,” which followed my life as a gay man from the dawn of gay liberation through the AIDS crisis to today’s web-driven lifestyle as told through my experiences with the dozen or so iconic furry men I’ve known in my life.
The main challenge of self-publishing is promotion. It’s the old story: it’s not enough to do something; you’ve got to let world know you’ve done it. I used my blog to promote my stuff and set up an author website, but not totally versed in social media, which frankly was not as expansive as it is today, I also tried more expensive venues. These included ads on the male hook-up sites or flyers distributed through the bars here in Lauderdale in an attempt to reach my demographics. One advantage living here is that Lauderdale is a gay vacation mecca, visited by gay men from across the country and around the world, so that distribution of my propaganda went way beyond the Florida state line.
But again, these cost money and generated mixed results (you know whether they’re doing any good from the sales stats generated weekly by Amazon and B&N).
The other challenge is that the number of gay and gay-friendly niche publishers continue to decline.
That’s why is was both helpful and affirming to have gay publishers agree to publish my last three books: “Not in It for The Love,” picked up by Britain’s Totally Bound Press; “The Czar of Wilton Drive” published by Kokoro Press; and “Buy Guys” released by Wilde City Press. Through them I was “adopted” by editors who not only pick up on typos but know what sells.
Recently, to supplement their limited PR resources, and my own promotion on my blog, author website and FB pages, I hired a publicist, Indigo Marketing and Design which, for a very nominal cost, has expanded my social media penetration through guest blogger opportunities on gay lit sites and reviews through lit outlets like Goodreads.
Now, I admit that not everybody loves my stuff, but since I’m not writing to make money, criticism, while bothersome, won’t kill me.
After all, if I didn’t like writing to begin this – for myself – why do it at all?
Dealing with Editors
If you’re lucky enough to have your manuscript picked up by a publisher, it ain’t over yet. The next hurdle is dealing with one of its editors, a necessary evil.
Necessary since your masterwork needs to follow the publisher’s guidelines (more on that in a second); the “Authors Style Guide,” which one of my publishers shared with me and covers everything from formatting, critical in this era of the e-book, and correct punctuation and grammar, to when to write out numbers; and good old proofreading. No matter how many times l read my final ‘script out loud (the best way to catch errors), I still miss a slew.
Then there’s the evil side of dealing with editors. That’s when they sadistly wreck your precious writer’s ego and “suggest” substantive changes to your stuff. Like one editor who found a scene between my two male protagonists/lovers where, while attempting to out a pizza place in an upstate New York redneck town, one leans over and eats the cheese over his lover’s beard. I thought this was fucken erotic as hell. My editor didn’t agree.
Guess who won. You have to pick your battles.
Now, virtually every gay publisher (and there aren’t a hell of a lot of them left since mainstream publishing houses have followed the money trail) has the same list of no-no’s: no incest, no pedophilia, no forced rape, no violence strictly to titillate, and no bestiality. A manuscript which pivots on this kind of stuff will get an immediate rejection. But if the stuff is only sprinkled here and there, well, that’s where the editor comes in to do the pruning and get you, the author, to bridge any gaps with new PG-13 material.
And since a significant portion of readers of male gay erotic fiction are women, selling romance between your protagonists is an absolute. If it’s there but in an understated way as two real gay guys might express it, you’ll be asked to beef it up till the saccharin comes out of their ears.
And so not offend, kinky shit some gay guys do all the time like fistfucking, rimming, and barebacking (it’s a myth more guys are using condoms – just look at the HIV rates) will need to be excised or toned down. We wouldn’t want that frustrated housewife in Des Moines who doesn’t know how to ask her husband if she can suck his cock throw up. Ditto overt infidelity, i.e., sleeping around. Guess only str8 romance can do that.
As a college prof who taught academic writing, l often used Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature to note suggested changes or question material right in the margins of the copy on student essays. If you’re not familiar with it, get crackin’. Editors use it almost universally to communicate what they feel you need to change.
If you’re a decent writer or one accustomed to the publishing world or even self-publish, you probably looked at your “final” manuscript half a dozen times. And that’s before you let a trusted friend whose honest, unfiltered criticism you respect read your “Gone with the Wind.” And doesn’t like it and suggests major changes. Like an avid reader of male erotic gay fiction who my publisher put me in touch with who loved my novel, The Czar of Wilton Drive” but who thought my next manuscript l was only beginning to hustle to publishers needed major work. I listened and made just about all the changes he suggested, and l think it made my novella stronger and probably helped get it picked up by a publisher.
But even after all that, you got to be ready for the red ink. If you honestly feel the editor, who is taking orders from your publisher no matter how much the publisher (mostly female) initially loved your stuff, is compromising your message or writing style, you have two options:
Swallow your shitty little writer’s pride since you want the cache of a publisher’s Good Housekeeping seal of approval connected to your book, and make the changes; or
Pull out and either let your manuscript lie in USB drive purgatory, or self-publish.
After all, it’s your make believe name on your make believe story, damn it
Authors and Writing Styles That Influenced Me
To be honest, I’m not an avid reader of novels – magazine articles are more my game. Even in college, I fudged a bit and used Cliff Notes to get through the voluminous reading demands of an English major. And I rarely read someone else’s erotic fiction for fear I might subliminally copy them. Reading or writing fantasy, somewhat of the rage today in both books and film, doesn’t thrill me.
But there have been a handful of writers that have made their mark on me for their realism and their attention to detail. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Tennessee Williams for his earthy sexuality, Camus, whose novella, “The Stranger” is a masterpiece of profound brevity, ditto with Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and, of course, Virginia Woolf, who with “To The Lighthouse” crystallized the technique known as stream of consciousness.
But, hands down, the writer who most influenced me was Mark Twain and his “Huckleberry Finn.” Hey, I taught it when I was the one man high school English Department for my 65 member private boy school, the job I took in Florida after leaving New York and my thirty plus year PR career. It’s considered America’s first true novel, but what it taught me was the power of the rite of passage, episodic approach which enriches the plot with stories within the story, and explodes the opportunity for introducing new, fresh characters that help change the dimensions of your protagonist.
In fact, the plot and characters for my novella, “Not In It For The Love,” were inspired by Twain and Huck. My protagonist, Josh, begins as a kid of North Florida trailer park trash, a druggie dad and alcoholic mom, runs away (much like Huck) to work as a waiter at his uncle’s motel in Key Largo where he moonlights as a prostitute to spice up married couples’ sex lives. He impresses Bishop, a Wall Street investment broker checking out the motel for possible acquisition by a major hotel chain, who takes Josh back with him to New York to be his trophy boy where Josh continues his bunk hopping in the NY gay scene of the 1990’s. Content up to then with just the sex, Josh falls in love with Hylan, a young, biracial, wheelchair bound musician. But their plans to run away take a strange twist when 9/11 hits the city – and the world.
I adopted the same strategy with “The Czar of Wilton Drive.” Again my protagonist, Jonathan, is a young drifter, this time living on Staten Island, NYC, going nowhere as a Perkins server until he inherits two of Fort Lauderdale’s most successful gay bars from his late gay uncle who had been ostracized from the family when Jon was just a young boy.
Going down to claim his inheritance, Jon meets his late Uncle Charlie’s dubious leather friends, two of whom he falls in love with, and is swept into Lauderdale’s gay underbelly of drugs and deceit. By the end of the book, he is no longer the “wet-behind-the-ears” kid from Staten Island.
With “Buy Guys,” my latest novella, I’ve once more used the episodic approach to carry my two main characters, Pete and Blaze, again, young, pretty and nowhere, through their new “careers” as Fort Lauderdale hustlers, and right into trouble that threatens them both.