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TODAY'S POST: I-Spy Writing the Gay Mystery…with Josh Lanyon
One of the least understood elements of writing is theme. The very word makes some writers break out in hives as they flashback to high school compositions on Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter. Theme is too often viewed as the stuff of literary fiction. Not something genre writers need to worry about.
But that's quite wrong. Every story has a theme, even if the theme is unconscious or not clearly defined. Theme is what your story is about. Plot is what happens. Theme is the point of it all. Or, if you can think of it as the moral of our story.
Now you might think that the potential themes of any given mystery novel are both obvious and limited: crime does not pay, good triumphs over evil, justice can be found in an unjust world. OR (if your taste runs to hardboiled and noir crime fiction) crime DOES pay, sometimes evil triumphs over good, there is no real justice in an unjust world.
It’s actually, or at least ideally, a little more complicated than that. Especially when it comes to the GLBT subgenre. Because GLBT fiction has to do with sexuality, it is inevitable that the gay or m/m mystery will differ from mainstream mystery in regard to the relationships and romance of your main characters. The themes you choose to write about reveal your personal philosophy about life and love. When you write about two people in love you reveal your own feelings and beliefs about relationships and society and sex and all kinds of things you may not have consciously been thinking about.
While it remains true that in our culture, to write about men loving each other openly is, in itself, a thematic statement, in a genre as crowded and competitive as gay mystery, you’ll have to come up with something a little more meaningful.
Potential topics for themes in gay fiction include:
Superficial values/material world
The power dynamic
There are other important and interesting themes to explore.
But let’s say you don’t have any interest in writing anything “heavy.” Maybe you just want to say something about the healing power of love. Your theme doesn’t have to be some big lofty PRINCIPLE. In fact, it’s generally better if you don’t put your message in flashing neon lights. Even readers who agree with you philosophically and morally don’t like having an agenda rammed down their throats. You don’t want to be heavy-handed or blatant. Your first job as a mystery writer is to entertain.
Ideally theme is not something that can be lifted out of one story and plugged into another. It should be integral to this particular story and these particular characters. Theme is, in fact, closely linked to character. Theme often develops through the conflict of your two main characters. Each man brings his own experiences, expectations, attitudes, beliefs and dreams to a relationship. When those different personalities collide it creates conflict, and through conflict we explore our themes about love and belonging and compromise and whatever else we think important in human relationships.
Let your characters argue out two sides of an issue that’s important to you. Allow your characters to be wrong once in a while. Allow them to learn from each other. Allow them to genuinely disagree. There are two sides to every story – and to every issue. Through the course of the story your characters will discover what is important to them, and that is the exploration and development of theme.
But keep this in mind: when you’re writing these themes, your own lack of experience and knowledge can turn something earnest and well-intentioned into pretentious or just plain silly sermonizing. Be sensitive to that. And remember that you’re preaching to the choir.
It’s okay if you haven’t decided on a theme before you start writing. Theme often develops organically through the creative process. Sometimes the most powerful themes gradually reveal themselves through the course of the story, through the journey the characters take. Sometimes your characters will surprise you; sometimes the theme of your story turns out to be something different than you imagined. Often the very best way is to let theme develop naturally out of the characters’ journey and the events of the story.
A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist.
FUTURE POSTS will cover:
Kindlegraph / the art of research / writing male/male romance / rejection and writer's block / building suspense / writing love scenes / anti-piracy strategies / audio books / interviews with editors and agents / using Calibre.
We welcome everyone's constructive comments and suggestions!