…we're keeping our name but expanding our offerings!
I was offered a chance to talk about writing free stories, particularly writing for the Goodreads M/M Romance Group’s Love Has No Boundaries event this summer, from which my novel Nor Iron Bars a Cage was born.
For those who aren’t familiar with the group’s annual writing event, it begins with a whole bunch of M/M readers posting a favorite picture, with a little written prompt hinting at the story they envision coming from the image. For many posters, these are their favorite pictures and this is the story they always wanted to read, or write themselves, and never did.
Once those prompts are up, everyone who has a yen to write a story is turned loose to choose a picture to write for. I just love, and hate, jumping from thread to thread, seeing pictures of two guys kissing, or one guy and a baby, or one guy and a gryphon… The group readers unearth some lovely images of M/M (or one M, or three M/M/M, or in one case, a whole group of shirtless firemen…Mmmmmm.) This was the third year I’ve done this, and oh, God, there were 190 gorgeous, evocative prompts to choose from.
Some writers say they have to work hard for a story, searching extensively for the plot and the guys that will successfully come together as a finished work in their mind. I’m the opposite. Show me a picture of just about anything, from a man to a ukulele, and somewhere in my head, a plot-bunny leaps up waving its paw and saying, “Mine. That’s me! Write that one!!!” Not that all of those are good story ideas, mind you. But they are possible stories.
The picture prompts in this event fit my writing style. For me, every book I write actually starts with just an image—with one guy, or two guys, and a setting, or a line of speech. It might be Chris, looking in the mirror as he transforms himself into Robin, in Lies and Consequences. Or Mac, meeting Tony’s gaze in that high school hallway, in Life Lessons. My stories grow organically (and sometimes unexpectedly) from that first image. So these picture prompts are like a candy store for me. “I want that one… No, that one… Oooh, look at that one.”
This year, I was hoping to write a fantasy story. For one thing, it’s a genre I’d played with for my own amusement, but not one I’d published, other than a single short story. The free events are a wonderful chance to break out of the usual box and do something new. For another, I was determined not to have to do a bunch of research before starting to write this year.
Don’t get me wrong—I adored doing the research into WWII and beyond, for last year’s Into Deep Waters story. I read some really fascinating books about being LGBT in the WWII military, about Stonewall, and more. But I have a hard time putting the research down, and with just 45 days to research, write and finish, I ran out of time for the depth I’d hoped to manage. I’m proud of that book, but there’s no denying the second half is a little choppy. This year I was determined to plunge into the writing, to be set free by having only my imagination to consult for the underlying facts.
Choosing a prompt is a bit like a mating dance at a very well-attended party. Every writer is looking, considering what to pick, hoping no one grabs the “best” one before they find it. Or afraid they might commit to one, and then see another they like better. And so many of the prompts are just wonderful. I drooled over a lush painting of a young man in chains, protected by another with a sword; I considered two slightly older guys in leather harness in a modern locker room, their heads touching in a quiet moment; I really wanted the adventure-prompt of the guy in a priest collar on a mountainside, or the two army medics huddled together in a painful embrace. But in the end, what I chose was a contrast – a lush, sensual picture of a man’s mouth close to another man’s bare chest, just about to touch tongue to nipple, accompanied by a post that spoke of isolation, loneliness and stone walls. And the prompt writer said they were okay with a fantasy. *much rubbing of authorial hands*
I leaped on the prompt and claimed it, out from under another writer who posted just two minutes later. I let the voice of the prompt, let the phrase, “For so long, years that seemed to go on forever, I couldn’t bear to be touched. I put up not just walls but whole concrete bunkers to keep people out — not just emotionally, but physically as well…,” become Lyon’s voice. And started to write.
And ended up with 104,000 words in a month and a half. Well, when a story grabs me as this one did, it seems to write itself, flowing through my fingers without conscious planning, until I myself am sometimes surprised by the plot twists. This story was great fun to write, and almost fun to edit. (No story is fun to edit, but this was better than most.) The final result was a fantasy novel that I was pleased to turn loose for readers to enjoy.
I’m sometimes asked why write so many free stories, when I could charge for them. There are a lot of reasons. Free stories are low pressure. If someone doesn’t like it, they haven’t spent money on it, so I’m more relaxed about releasing them. They are fast gratification—something I can put into the hands of readers and watch their reactions soon after I write it, while I’m still excited about the story. The five to ten month lag between submission and release with pro publications is for editing and polishing, and necessary, but it does slow the momentum.
Free stories are good publicity for a writer too. I see new readers appearing with almost every freebie—sometimes saying in a review, “I haven’t read this author before, but I’m going to look up her back-list.” These stories reach more readers. My most recent release is a free collection of Young Adult stories, and although I have many reasons to publish it, I also hope to find a wider audience for some of my Young Adult writing with it. And maybe a wider audience for the genre. The best part is when someone says, “I didn’t realize this was M/M or LGBTQ, but now I like it, and I’m going to look for more.” SCORE!
And free stories are giving back. I’ve been so fortunate, in the two and a half years I’ve been publishing, to have wonderful readers who go out of their way to both interact with me and to promote my books to other people. I really like to be able to hand them a new story now and then, and to feel that, in this dance of writer and readers, we are both giving to each other, and having a wonderful time.