Saturday, June 10, 2017

Mapping Smutty SFF - Part 1: Getting Started

A while ago I tweeted a thread that got a bit of attention that was about the distance between “pro” SFF and what I call smutty SFF and how frustrating and disappointing it can be writing in the chasm between those two perceived genres, especially as a queer writer wanting to write queer characters. It was about feeling like I have to make choices when I sit down to write what mask I’m going to wear—what market I’m going to write toward. If I want to write a fun and pulpy queer romp, do I try to make it fit into the mold of “pro” SFF or do I try to get it to fit into the smuttier mold of romance/erotica. These are creative decisions as well as financial ones, and apparently I’m not the only one who struggles with the same worries, insecurities, and rages—the same compromises and capitulations.

So what do I do? Well, I write about it! So welcome to a new blog series of indefinite length and scope that will be looking to examine more the weird intersection of SFF and queerness. A lot of what I’m going to talk about is anecdotal—there will be a lot of me talking about what I’ve done, noticed, observed, experienced, etc. There will be some advice and there will be some warnings and there will be information both general and very, very specific. I’m going to try with most installments to look at markets that accept queer content of various flavors and pay. I’m also going to go through some of my though processes for approaching these markets and stories and what I’ve learned from reading many of them for a number of years now. It’s weird because I feel like a new writer still, inexperienced and madly paddling to try and stay above water and mostly failing. Even so, I want to offer what I can because I know how alone it can feel for someone in this place between forms and genres and expectations.

For now, I guess we’ll see how response to this goes, but I hope you’ll come with me as I talk a bit about smutty SFF. As a reader and a writer, there’s a lot to learn, and a lot of great stories to create and discover. 

Getting Started

I will admit, when I first started out writing SFF, I was doing so with a very small group while isolated in the middle of Wisconsin. I had a shinny creative writing BA and no idea how to sell the stories I wrote because my professors didn’t view them as valid. They were all literary fiction and poetry writers and SFF was beneath the dignity of the classroom, or at the very least they didn’t feel qualified giving feedback or guidance on how to sell it. So me and my very small group went out looking for places to submit our stories to. It...well, it was something of an education. Even finding was something of a coup, and it wasn’t for a very, very long time that we discovered the Submissions Grinder from Diabolical Plots.

But the first thing that I would do is read the submission guidelines to try and figure out if they were taking what I was writing. This was before I read a lot of SFF short fiction except older things and so I hadn’t yet figured out the unspoken guidelines that exist in the “read a few issues to figure out what we want” language that most “pro” SFF publications lean on. There were some key take-aways. Namely, many said “No erotica.” Some said “sex is okay but no erotica.” And I just sort of scratched my head. Okay, babywriter-me thought, what the fuck does that mean?
Unpackable moment: Here’s part of why I dislike this “sex okay but erotica no” language. Look at television ratings. You can show some heavily sexual things on air and still keep a TV14 rating. But have a queer character just standing around being queer? Well, for a long time that necessitated a TVMA rating or worse. Having queer characters show attraction to each other? Kiss? Do exactly what straight characters are able to do? And this is television, which is still largely written, produced, and directed by straight white cismen for the same. Imagine if the actors, writers, and directors for a show were queer and just how strongly networks and parents and everyone would come down on that (the cancellation of Sense8 is a little sharp right now, for this reason). Now, this might be partly that I grew up when queer characters were just starting to be visible on television and maybe now it’s all better, but I doubt it. And the legacy still remains. There are different rules for queer content. Where does this or that publication draw the line for sex vs erotica? Because I can say it seems to me that most draw it differently for queer content than they do straight content.
But okay, at some point I started sending things out and reading more. And I got better at figuring out what to send where. Only that very process is one that brings with it some baggage. Because it means that I was being pushed away from many “pro” SFF venues and into the realms of queer romance and erotica. Which hey, I love queer romance and erotica. But mainly because it’s a place where a lot of stories that would otherwise be considered SFF get shunted because they’re too happy, too queer, too pulpy, too sexy, too cute, too funny, or too fun. This is not to say that all queer romance and erotica is happy and fun. But it is to say that if you’re looking for stories that are fun and pulpy and might have kissing or even more (gasp!) then you should be reading romance/erotica.
Anecdote time! I was trying to suggest a (straight) romance series to a (straight) friend of mine. He has ZERO problem with sexualized content (he plays a lot of video games that focus on little else). I described the plot (vampires and angels and a serial killer and explosions and vampire hunters and !!!). He seemed very interested. I told him the title/author. He froze, face soured like he’d just found the one awful peanut in the can. “That’s something my mom would like,” he said. Now, pause further. His mom got him into SFF. Lord of the Rings, Alien, on and on and on. She was further than him in ASOIAF, which he loves. But this, because it had a romance label on it/was written by a woman (a woman of color, no less) was NOT TO BE TOUCHED. This is why when people say “I just don’t read romance/erotica” I kinda get upset. Because they obviously still have VERY STRONG OPINIONS on romance/erotica and demand that those opinions not be questioned or challenged. And fuck that. (That is, assuming they are okay with sexual/romantic content in general, because I can understand the frustration with there having to be sexual/romantic content in texts, but as 80% of non-romance/erotica stories also have sexual/romantic elements, I'm just saying...)
There’s a fairly big complication to the idea, though, that you can just take your stories that aren’t getting any traction in “pro” SFF and move them over to romance/erotica publishers. Because they have two entirely different publications models. With “pro” SFF, publications tend to have submission windows (some just have open submissions most of the year) and in that time you can try to send them whatever based on their guidelines. Romance/erotica markets, though, operate much differently, in that for short fiction it’s pretty much all anthologies, and pretty much all of those are themed. So you have to be writing fairly specifically for the call in order to have a chance. Which might lead someone to ask “well then why submit to romance/erotica presses?” This question might seem even more obvious when you look at how the two avenues pay. “Pro” SFF pays by the word and typically on publication (or before even), where romance/erotica tends to pay a flat fee and/or royalties. But for short fiction (or at least the kind I write), that can be...pretty low. So again, “why submit?”

Well, if you’re like me, you want to 1. write awesome stories & 2. get paid for them. “Pro” SFF is incredibly competitive and can be crushing for new writers trying to tell stories that don’t necessarily “fit in.” So in the mean time you cruise open calls and themed anthologies and you see some romance/erotica calls that look cool. You submit. Surprisingly, you get accepted! It turns out that romance/erotica feels like the place you can have fun with your stories while still pushing yourself. Maybe it’s your catharsis from all the rejections from “pro” SFF, but you enjoy it and it seems it’s a little easier to get acceptances, which while they don’t pay as much as “pro” SFF, still feels good. But then you have to start making decisions. Do you focus on the romance/erotica stories (which are still SFF, after all) or do you keep bashing your head against the wall of “pro” SFF. This is still the place where I’m at. I try to balance, but I know that “pro” SFF pays more, and if I’d ever want to try and write a novel that might have a chance at a larger publisher, “pro” SFF will position me much better for that (hey, I can dream).
Market Spotlight: Circlet Press. Have I ever told you how awesome Circlet is? For writers and readers in that weird place between “pro” SFF and smutty SFF, Circlet is one of the few that does a very good job of putting out some amazing content. They were my first romance/erotica sale (for “Questing,” which appeared in the Hot Camelot Nights anthology) and they have put out some truly amazing collections of SFF erotica. You can actually check out some reviews I’ve done of their anthos here and here. I was so honored to get a story into a Circlet anthology, and I initially made $25 for the story (which is about 5,000 words). That’s...not great, but I did get an additional $25 when the anthology got a print edition (so about 1c/word, all told). And Circlet is one of those places that does have ties to “pro” SFF. Many writers of SFF short fiction have written for Circlet. N.K. Jemisin has a story in one of the anthos I reviewed. This means that Circlet is occasionally an exception market, meaning that while most small queer presses are shunned by much of “pro” SFF, Circlet maintains enough overlap that it might be something to put on a cover letter proudly. Sadly, it’s still overlooked chronically when it comes to the work it does and the value of its content. Which sucks. It also doesn’t put out a huge amount of content. But then, it pays its writers (to my knowledge) and it’s still around. That is rather key. For writers, check their calls. For readers, buy their books .
Meanwhile, trying to keep a balance is rather impossible. It’s difficult to pull yourself in two directions at once, especially when there are different expectations in “pro” SFF and Smutty SFF. The requirements don’t really meet up, and so I don’t end up fitting in all that well in either group. Plus I do reviews and various other things and basically I suck at branding. You may have noticed. I’m all over the fucking place. But trying to keep a balance means being aware of what’s coming up in both “pro” and smutty SFF. What’s going to be open when, what themes are going to be important, etc. etc. It means trying to promote in smutty SFF because sales are important but also trying to promote in “pro” SFF because what about best of lists and awards and and and and readers, I may be a neurotic mess. Just fyi.

Which is why I’m still in this place of not knowing what to do or where I belong. Because even though I’ve had some good fortune in “pro” SFF and smutty SFF both, I don’t know what’s more important or better for me. I don’t know if I’m ruining some future because I can’t make up my mind now, faster, just fucking pick a thing because we’re all mortal and it’s publish or perish and why did I ever want to do this again wasn’t it supposed to be fun? And it is fun sometimes, is amazing and beautiful and I just want to hold to that but I’m sorry to say that for all this is an exercise in mapping smutty SFF the map is incomplete. There are gaps and some of them are just things I don’t know yet and am still learning. Some are because in smutty SFF like with most things there are places where Here Be Dragons and it’s best to avoid. And some are because there is no map, no topography to explore. There is just an absence where maybe some people and presses will try to fill but for now is a yawning chasm that probably I shouldn’t look into lest it also look into me.

Because the truth is that there is often NO PLACE publishing exactly the kind of story that I want to tell. At the moment, at least, either the stories are “too smutty” for “pro” SFF or “not smutty enough” for romance/erotica. There are options, obviously, like self-publishing, but I don’t think that’s for me. I see the advice of “write what you most want to write” but I will also say that there are concessions one makes in order to have a better shot at selling a story and it is not necessarily the wrong decision to make those concessions. But fuck if it isn’t draining and tiring and disappointing. I would love to see the gaps between “pro” SFF and smutty SFF filled in so that we could have this vibrant, complete picture of life and community and speculative fiction. I want that so much. I have nothing to prescribe for making it better really. Well, I kind of do, but I’m not sure how helpful it is:

Don’t shit on romance/erotica. Don’t refuse to read it because you feel it’s inferior quality or “doesn’t count as real SFF.” Try to find stories you like. Read them. Recommend them. Talk about them. That’s how the map is going to get filled in and all queer SFF stories are going to be able to find homes. By strengthening the connections. By not thinking that it’s okay that smutty SFF writers get paid less for equal work. By filling in the chasms in genre with awesome queer stories of all sorts and flavors.
Further reading: Lethe Press. Seriously people, Lethe Press. Steve Berman has actually written on smutty SFF and the challenges of stigma in this article at Strange Horizons . Lethe is another of those presses that manages to cross a lot of lines, attracting both “pro” SFF writers and romance/erotica writers and bringing them together in an amazing way. Finding Lethe has been amazing, because the stories are strong and the production is great and there’s a lot to see and find. Here we see that the press is very queer but not necessarily always erotic, and yet many of these works get pushed out of the SFF conversations because of where they came out. Still, Lethe is an amazing resource and put out fun pulpy SFF as well as dark heavy SFF. Plus their pay rates tend to be above average for romance/erotica. There’s lots of original SFF short fiction as well as reprint anthologies and really, I cannot recommend Lethe enough. Go browse the store or, better yet, sign up for a book subscription through their Patreon . I have and I have not regretted it!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. I can't wait to read the rest of the series.