The Risk in a Read

As a young writer, say ten or eleven, I had dreams. Big dreams, that I’d write a book or fifty, would dominate the shelves at the biggest chain bookstores, would attend signings that were more like rock concerts (what can I say, I had just left behind my hair band days and was a little deluded about fame and that writers shared that kind of fame), and would pen the next ten blockbuster flicks people would rave over. I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to move people with my words.

The reality isn’t glamorous. It’s late nights where I’ve run my fingers through my hair so many times it could do a waltz on its own. Mornings where I literally stumble to the basement in my pajamas with a mug of coffee and don’t look up from my computer until late afternoon. Lunch, you say? Why no, it must have passed me by. Again.

I don’t have Hollywood knocking on my doors, and I don’t have shelves at Barnes & Noble prominently displaying my books. I haven’t heard from any book retailers interested in having me do a reading, and even if they did ask, I’d have to take some serious courage pills to be able to stand in front of strangers and do the reading/signing bit. I am not about to attend the movie premiere of any of my stories-turned-cinema, nor am I scouting for an agent to represent me in talks with a major backer out in L.A. Sad but true, I am living the dream, but now the dream is, “YAY! I can pay my bills with royalties! Hope there’s some left over for wine.”

So I’ve had to readjust some expectations. Justalittlebit.

One of them is the give and take between readers and authors. Every author wants five star reviews with a few one stars thrown in saying the book was well written but with this beloved character being killed off, the reader just couldn’t go on without them, they loved them that much. No author wants to read, “DNF chapter 1 because are you fucking kidding me?” (DNF = did not finish, for those who are new here.)

Let’s shift the expectations again.

Now, I will fully acknowledge I’ve been one lucky fucker since releasing Power Exchange three years ago. I know it’s flawed, and yet people seem to love Ben and Gavin enough to be forgiving of that other stupid thing Gavin does at the end that he really ends up regretting. I get email to this day about that book, telling me they didn’t understand BDSM until they read PE, that they appreciated the love story, and my favorite: that my writing moved them.

My writing moved them.

My writing moved them.

—record scratches and stutters with that itchy white noise—

I have moved people with my words.

Isn’t that one of the big ones I dreamt? Why yes, I believe it is.

People remember my stories weeks after they finish them. They’ve told me that themselves.

So, slowly but surely, I’m getting somewhere. OMG, I’m getting somewhere!

One of the things, however, I didn’t bank on, were the demands.

It is no secret the romance genre requires certain elements to qualify, and if you’d have asked me twenty years ago, when I was still dreaming of this life, if I’d be writing romance, I’d have laughed at you. No, thrillers are where my heart lies.

Except nope. As I grew up, my heart got squeezed by writing stories about people like me, in same-sex relationships, with problems other people have or if the problems are bigger, it’s not the gay characters who end up maimed or dead because that’s the only acceptable HEA.

So if I write what speaks to me, I’m told I fit in romance.

I call bullshit on that, but it’s a work in progress. While I always intended to write dramas or thrillers or mysteries or paranormal stories or horror, I read plenty of those where there was a love interest, too, and that didn’t automatically move them to romance. However, writing LGBT fiction with any kind of love story, it’s pretty much romance with a ton of identifying keywords so the right audience can find it in a search or bust.

Ugh, I hate being told I don’t fit somewhere I want to be.

It smacks of, “Kill the gay character or face the wrath of the readership who don’t sympathize with them.”

It reeks of, “The public isn’t ready for LGBT characters to have romantic interests that work out in a HEA. So don’t give them one.”

It’s heaving with, “People don’t want to read about two guys kissing or falling in love. Two women, sure, because that’s hot (and heh heh, can we watch/join in? Heh heh).”

So the last several years, m/m and the wider LGBT genre has SMASHED the thinking on that bullshit, and what do you know, acceptance for LGBT people as a whole is gaining ground. Are we writers of LGBT romance responsible for that? I’d like to think we have our slice of responsibility in that pie chart, sure.

But it takes open minds of readers, who are willing to challenge themselves in reading a book they’ve never tried before. Or if they’ve tried m/m before, maybe they give a shifter book, or a BDSM book, or a paranormal book a shot when that’s been outside their comfort zone before. The point is, the open minds behind it are required for the growth and furthering of the genre, and indeed, the growth and furthering of ourselves as humans with compassion and honor.

After all, opening minds through books is sort of a writer’s job, right?

So when I see discussions about labels, what are “required warnings” on storylines, is cheating in a plot deserving of a trigger warning, that a book contains a non-HEA, or that there’s multiple pairings within the book, I get upset.

It smacks of, “Kill the gay character or face the wrath of the readership who don’t sympathize with them.”

It reeks of, “The public isn’t ready for LGBT characters to have romantic interests that work out in a HEA. So don’t give them one.”

It’s heaving with, “People don’t want to read about two guys kissing or falling in love. Two women, sure, because that’s hot (and heh heh, can we watch/join in? Heh heh).”

Readers have expectations for romance books, and I get that. We all stick to our favorite genre because we love the comfort it brings, the thrill it induces, that we can reasonably expect entertainment.

But no one changed history by being safe. I wrote a story years ago, about a high school English teacher trying to pass his love on to his students. In that story, he said, “Words have moved nations, romanticized generations, caused and ended wars, corrupted the pious, converted the damned. There’s nothing more powerful than words, except maybe the pen used to immortalize them.”

Nothing more powerful than words, except the pen used to immortalize them.

As proud of that statement as I am, I know it’s not entirely true. It should read, “There’s nothing more powerful than words, except the writer who created and had courage to publish them.”

I am not patting myself on the back, here. That statement stands true even if I’d never written a single word.

But we’re not going to move people to rethink anything by neatly peppering every book’s metadata with safe little warning labels. No one will ever be struck dumb by an idea, then. No one will ever step outside their box, then. No one will ever take a fucking risk then.

What’s my point?

It smacks of, “Kill them, stifle them, make them behave.”

It reeks of, “Stick to romance, because the mainstream readership isn’t ready for two men in love.”

It heaves with, “Write what you’re fucking told and sit down and shut up. Behave yourself, writer.”

Well, I don’t fucking behave without a good goddamned reason. And if I have a story to tell, I’m going to tell it, without the warnings*, because if you’re not ready to face what’s in the pages of a book, which holds power but dude, you’re reading it on your couch, well.

You’re not ready to be moved by the words I’m risking sharing with you.

*I warn about the following things only: abuse themes, rape themes, sensitive mental illness topics such as PTSD. That’s it. If you expect more from me on that, I’m not the writer for you.

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0 thoughts on “The Risk in a Read

  • BRAVO! Imagine me giving you a standing ovation, from my office, at my desk, where I should be working, but your post popped up in my email and I can’t resist or delay reading anything you write. 🙂 Soooooo glad I read this right now. When I can form some coherent thoughts, I might reply again, but right now I’m blown away by your post, your writing, and you. Cheers to you!!

  • AJ:

    Thanks for the post. I like your work because you “go there”. Your work isn’t always hearts and flowers – Ben & Gavin – Craig & Dane are good examples. These characters were flawed. In other words human. They weren’t cute little bumbling characters who find love. They were strong brave flawed men who made mistakes. Yes they found love and it sustained them and supported them but it wasn’t the main focus of the book. They had to find themselves first and use that inner strength to catch a killer or rebuild a life.

    I like that your books are “gritty”. Life isn’t always pretty and tied up with a neat little HEA bow at the end of 20 or 30 chapters. The sad shame is if your books had “straight” couples you would be lauded and placed on the shelf with James Patterson. You are very good at the suspense/mystery genre. I read your work because it is good – with well developed characters and plots. Some of the “straight” women on Goodreads and their obsession with gay characters is frightening. Reminds me of your collector chick in The Anatomy of Perception. Their reviews can be a creepy!!

    Goodreads can be a good thing but it can also destroy people. I don’t know if I am qualified to rate anyone’s work. I could never be a writer but, I love to read and read a WIDE variety of books. It doesn’t make me an expert at reviewing – just a broke reader. The highest honor I can pay an author is buy their work. I fear that some people walk away from buying a book after reading a review.

    Keep being you. You have worked long and fought hard for the right to be AJ Rose and she is one hell of a writer.

    • <3 Let's take a trip together, shall we? Because I have a story for you!

      That's how I feel about reading: taking a journey I wouldn't have gotten to go on, and if it's predictable, I'll end up sleeping in the car.

  • Good for you. AJ. I don’t care what you write so long as you are true to yourself. At the end of the day all you have left is the integrity of the things you do. Good, bad or otherwise if you can’t be proud of what you do then why do it.
    I disagree with you on the book turned movie dream. I think that’s gonna happen and when it does I expect a red carpet pass lol. Your books are written for people who actually read. Own that cause it’s a good thing.
    So from those of us who actually enjoy reading and don’t think that every book has to have a HEA. THANK YOU.
    Remember those that can do and those that can’t just sit around and annoy the hell out of those of us who can. ❤

  • You *are* the writer for me! I hate warnings. HATE them. I don’t want to know what’s in a story before I read it. And bring on the stuff that makes me uncomfortable. Challenge me, as your reader, every chance you get. I’ll love you for it.

    • I think warnings are spoilers, but I recognize people have triggers and I don’t want to be inadvertently responsible for causing someone real pain. That said, I’m not going to shy away from the hard topics either. Read at your own risk. Or not. But don’t tell me I can’t write it or if I do, it should be labeled to death. Because I will ask you which is your favorite character and then kill them.

  • Great post. I never look at labels…ever. In fact before I ran into discussions about them on FB I was barely aware of their existence. If a blurb can’t give me a good indication of what the book is going to be about, I don’t trust the writing ‘inside’ to be good enough to hold my interest. I’m a mood reader and I know I can’t read certain books at certain times, which means they go on the back shelf until I feel stronger/happier/more secure/…. I admire you for writing the books you ‘need’ to write rather than stick to a formula which has worked for you in the past. I can always tell when an author is milking what they consider a successful theme or story-line not because there’s more story to tell but only because it might sell on the strength of previous success. While you created certain characters I’d love to read another 100 books about, I’m grateful you didn’t push it and left them and us on a high. So, continue to do your own thing. That’s one of several characteristics of yours I admire. Meanwhile I’ll continue reading your books, even if some of them may have to spend some time on that back shelf 🙂

    • <3 Helena. When you're ready to read Anatomy, I promise I will be around in PMs if you need me for any reason.

      Ladies and gentlemen, THIS WOMAN is the definition of a risky reader. She knows how hard life can be and she knows how beautiful it can be. More importantly, she knows the beauty often comes BECAUSE it's hard. And she doesn't shy away, nor does she expect anyone to pave an easier way for her. True strength, right there. I admire YOU, Helena.

  • Someone had to warn me that I am going to read such an emotional post *sighs*. As I have committed the terrible mistake of not having read any of your books, I’ll be at it first free day I have. I hope you misbehave a lot in future and move everybody that way you just did with me.

  • I’ve only read one of your books (The Anatomy of Perception). It moved me so much — moved me *toward* my life and not away from it. I feel like I understand myself better now, because in some ways I identified with Dane. And it gave me the courage to keep fighting for the life I deserve. Maybe all your books won’t move me as deeply as Perception did — who knows? But I have so much respect for you as a writer — and the courage you have in writing the Truth as you understand it.

    • Thank you, Matt. You’re one of the bravest people I have ever come across, both you and Brad, and that you feel my book helped you find a boost on your own journey humbles me to the point of tears. <3 <3 <3

  • Aj, I hope you listen to your muse, your inner voice, or whatever else that guides your writing. I’m one that doesn’t mind not having an HEA or HFN, or whatever acronyms associated with a happy ending. Your books are brilliant, full of angst, love, raw emotions and of course filled with great stories. And yes, you move us with your words, make us curse you, make us worried for your characters, make us wonder how your characters would act in certain situations.. You definitely are an auto buy for me. I can’t read all your books right away, I have to wait for the right moment. But I’m always so glad after I read one of your stories. So thank you!!

    • Thank you, Kari. I’m so glad to read these comments because there’ve been many times when I was worried I’d pushed too far or had made a mistake going for the raw story, thereby crushing any potential for marketability. I want you all to have something you look forward to reading, but I also want to go to the rough places. That’s a delicate balance and I don’t want to scare anyone off. But I don’t want to sugar coat it either.

      Now the next series, I think, is more commercially viable because it’s an apocalypse story. Harder already for readers to put themselves in the characters’ shoes. But I’m trying to make it about the characters in the situation and not about the situation with just any characters thrown in. We shall see if I pull it off. 🙂

  • I’ve read all your books and you’ve never left readers hanging but you’ve left us wanting more. To me, that’s the perfect way to write and I thank you for that. If I could name just one warning I’d like to see, it would be whether or not there’s a cliffhanger. I hate those with a passion.

    • Thank you, Andrea.

      But nope, nope, nope. Warnings are for things that could trigger a genuine panic attack for a reader: a rape survivor reading a graphic rape scene, someone who’s got PTSD reading about a PTSD sufferer having a mental breakdown, a domestic violence survivor reading about a man throwing his boyfriend down the stairs. Genuine trauma that can induce flashbacks, cause nightmares, or otherwise upset the balance those survivors walk every day. A cliffhanger angers you, but it’s not going to set you off with mental fireworks. Ergo, no warning from me. And I haven’t done a cliffhanger in the past; but that doesn’t mean I won’t. If the story calls for it, I will. Hollywood has been doing cliffies forever, and viewers have to wait months, sometimes years for the payoff. Hell, every tv show season finale is often a cliffhanger because it makes people remember they wanted to know how a story goes over the summer TV lull. Hate them or love them, they have a purpose. But no one was ever hurt by one. Sometimes, a story arc falls in such a way that the only option to end a book and start the next one is with a cliffhanger. I haven’t yet had a cliffie happen like that. Yet.

  • I think we all know that when we open one of your books we need to take a deep breath and pull our big girl pants up. I hate reading your books because if the emotional turmoil they cause, but love having read them as soon as I’ve finished. I confess to raging at you whilst reading your work because you create characters that are real and then do terrible things to them. BUT…two years down the line it’s those characters and your books that we remember.
    Please don’t ever change. Xxx

  • Your writing has such power. I feel fortunate that I have had the opportunity to share in your vision through the reader-author compact, without prejudice. Thank you for this post. I’ve rebloged it.

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