M/m romance vs well, it’s just a part of who they are

A couple of weeks ago I sent the first Shield novel and the synopses of the other five off to a publisher. I have no idea what they’ll make of it, but in between obsessively worrying about it (grins at all of you out there who will understand that feeling), I’ve been thinking about how I should classify my writing.

The mistake I made with FlashWired, I think, was to classify it as a m/m romance. And really, it isn’t. It isn’t at all. The m/m romance label means there are certain things the reader expects. They want to see two (preferably hot and sexy) men having an instant attraction to each other, overcoming some obstacle to being together, having sizzling, steamy sex as often as possible, never being unfaithful from the instant they meet. And there absolutely must, must, must be a happy-after-ever ending where the heroes stand hand-in-hand and declare their everlasting passion. Bonus points if one of them has adopted his dead sibling’s child and they can create an instant family.

All right, those were generalisations. But it does seem to me that m/m romance stories are defined the same way as their protagonists are – by their sexuality and the way that’s expressed physically. What’s important about the protags in a m/m romance isn’t that they’re an airline pilot, or a doctor, or a nuclear physicist. What’s important in m/m romance is that they’re gay.

FlashWired isn’t like that. In FlashWired, what’s important about Cal and Jeeze is that they are men who have an exciting job to do, who get pulled into what I hope is an interesting adventure, and who happen to be gay and in a relationship. The gayness is part of who they are; it’s not the entirety of who they are. They’ve both had het relationships in the past (Jeeze is divorced and Cal was a bit of a player). There’s very little sex in the story – I’m of the school of thought that sex scenes are pretty boring unless they’re doing something necessary to either characterisation or plot – and one little blow job does not a book of erotica make. And there most definitely is no happy-ever-after ending. The story ends on a very ambivalent note and it’s entirely up to the reader to decide if Jeeze ever does wake and accepts the hand and heart Cal is offering him.

Labelling it as m/m romance was, in retrospect, stupid. It’s a genre science fiction novella in which the protagonists happen to be in a gay relationship. Yes, some of the focus is on their relationship and how Cal reacts to what happens to Jeeze, but it doesn’t fit the m/m romance ‘criteria’. It’s science fiction, not romance with a capital R. Sort of how the Donald Strachey mysteries are mysteries, not m/m romance despite Donald and Timmy being together and married.

Taking Shield is this with knobs on, because it’s not a little 20k word novella like FlashWired, it’s six whole novels’ worth of story. It has a solid old-school science fiction plot—nary a vampire or werewolf in sight—that works through the six books. The relationship between Bennet and Flynn plays out against this background and it fits very little of the established m/m requirement. For starters, to have his few incandescent days with Flynn in book one, Bennet is unfaithful to his long term partner, Joss (Joss is a serial adulterer if that makes you feel better about it). Bennet and Flynn part at the end of book one, never expecting to meet again… and ditto they part at the end of book two and five… In one book in the series they don’t meet at all until the very last line, and Flynn’s barely in the book at all. No one gets any sex in that one. Bennet and Flynn meet and part, meet and part, until you think they’re like a couple of rubber balls bouncing at each other and away again. And throughout there are relationships with other people, some of them het. They do pine for each other, you understand, but they don’t *pine*. They get on with things: life, jobs, fighting the war, saving the planet, and sex (if not love). Only at the end of book six is there some hope they’ll have their chance. But it’s not assured. There’s no real happy ever after. There’s only the promise that there might be.

So, not m/m romance. Like FlashWired, the Taking Shield series is genre science fiction where the protags are gay men. No, where the protags are men who are (mostly) gay. No, not even that: where the protags are *men*. There is some sex in it, some of it graphic-ish.  But it’s all part of the plot, and not front and centre. The heroes of Shield are not defined by their sexuality and the physical gymnastics they undertake to show it. They’re defined by a whole lot more than that.

So, how to relabel FlashWired, and how to label Taking Shield when it eventually gets out there?

The problem is, that the majority of readers still blink at pairings beyond the bog-standard m/f. There’s a bit of me that says “Oh for fuck’s sake, Anna, it’s science fiction. Label it as that, because m/m romance it is not, and if the bigots snort into their cornflakes when they realise Bennet is in relationships with other men, then let’s hope that milk up the nostrils hurts.

At the same time, I don’t want to readers to feel misled. I want readers to care about Cal and Jeeze and my (much loved) Bennet and Flynn the way I care about and love them, and want them to eventually be happy. I want readers to enjoy the scifi adventure, to shudder over the Maess and what they’re doing to human prisoners, to feel it when the humans suffer a reverse in the long war. I don’t want them to be happily reading about the raid on T18, only to act like an old maiden aunt with a mouse running up her petticoat when they get to the sex bit. And I don’t want those readers who love m/m romance to pick it up and think they’re going to get romantic love and hot sex, with a laser and a space rocket thrown in as a sort of background decorative effect.

So. Maybe it’s predominantly science fiction with m/m relationships. And m/f ones for that matter… damn it. You see the problem? A clean definition is hard.

Taking Shield is science fiction. It’s science fiction with people in it. People with all their warts and faults, all their brilliance and intelligence, all their courage and loyalty and great hearts, all their beauty and all their ugliness. People who love other people, not gender. People who don’t want to be neatly labelled and defined. People who *can‘t* be neatly labelled and defined.

People like you and me, in fact.

And I still don’t know how to classify it.



  1. It is an interesting problem and I think that you have pegged what the majority of women expect when they think m/m romance. I’ll give you something else to think about. When I buy m/m books for the library, I also look for covers that have two men on it to make it clear what the book is about to shelf browsers. When readers know what they are getting in the way of sex, they don’t complain. They may if they feel they’ve been tricked and they don’t want anyone else to have the same unpleasant surprise.

    It would be nice if men and women didn’t care who had sex in a book but I live in a conservative area. It seems to be ok to have sex in books as long as the reader is forewarned a bit.


    • “When readers know what they are getting in the way of sex, they don’t complain. They may if they feel they’ve been tricked and they don’t want anyone else to have the same unpleasant surprise.”

      This, exactly. The value of having a book well classified is that readers can make reasoned (ha!) judgements about whether a book is likely to meet their expectations of that genre/classification and if it’s what they’re looking for. The problem I’ve got is getting Shield to that point.

      Interesting what you say about covers. Yes, if this was a clear cut m/m romance, then the cover could be explicitly so (sigh, naked male torso syndrome strikes again) but in this case? I started trying to write a brief for a designer and found myself struggling to see how the nuances of the relationships here could be conveyed on the cover. Two men, very close together, significant looks, no naked torsos…


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