Well, much of the gay fiction I'd read struck me as being a bit too formulaic and less than inspiring. I said to myself, "GLBTI readers, particularly those of color, must be hungering for something new and different." Subsequently, I got excited about crafting something fresh. Substantive. Assessable. Relevant. The idea was to entertain, as well as educate. But not preach.
Because I was positively bored with the main characters of novels bedding each other "right off the bat," I wanted to pen a story where both characters really got to know each other first, in various ways, before becoming physically intimate. My main protagonists, both openly gay, would be men of color--an African-American (Wesley) and a Latino (Antonio). Eventually, they would form a monogamous relationship.
Wesley (Wes) and Antonio ('Tonio) would be masculine and strong, as well as sensitive, and possess a richness of character. Of course, they would both have their own particular vulnerabilities and foibles. Wes and 'Tonio truly would be three-dimensional.
Wes would be a wealthy, influential, well-connected entrepreneur and entertainer, while 'Tonio would be his educated, very capable Chief of Security/bodyguard. Their lifestyle would be upscale and classy, not garish and "fab-u-lous."
I most certainly did not want this to be "ghetto" or "urban" or "street" lit, which is so popular and profitable these days--but can be demeaning to African-Americans. Much of this genre is filled with pimps and "hoes," and gratuitous, over-the-top violence and sex, without plausible meaning or purpose fueling it. Sadly, it appears that the bulk of this genre doesn't present a positive portrayal of Blacks.
Certainly, my novel would have its "urban elements." Additionally, I would explore and address such topical issues as the tension between Blacks and Latinos, the "down low," and partner abuse. And, I'd throw in a delightful twist: steamy, but tasteful erotica.
I committed myself to a completion date of on or before October 2004 (Mom's birthday month). Concurrently, I began the process of identifying agents and publishers who might be interested. However, I did not contact any of these sources during my writing process. For works of fiction, agents and publishers require a completed manuscript.
And now, the journey began.
Hey, Mom--Cake's Done!
In October 2004, Nothing Can Tear Us Apart (NCTUA) was born. NCTUA is the saga of Wes, the powerful and desirable openly gay African-American celeb, and 'Tonio, his accomplished, younger, deliciously muscular, openly gay Latino Chief of Security and bodyguard. Both men have failed miserably at love, and are very "gun shy" about taking another chance.
Soon though, that magical, irrefutable, and irresistible force known as chemistry completely and utterly engulfs the pair. And after discovering that they have much in common, they forge a solid, unique connection and bond. However, they're much too afraid to act on their escalating romantic feelings and sexual urges for each other.
Yet, events conspire to make the couple profess their love to each other. They celebrate their feelings in exquisite, red-hot lovemaking--which sweeps them away.
Unfortunately, tough challenges and obstacles threaten their monogamous relationship, not the least is Ruffkut. He's a conniving and deadly drug-lord, who has a major score to settle with Wes. After exploiting and preying on 'Tonio's insecurities, Ruffkut kidnaps and sets up Wes to make it appear he's been unfaithful.
As a result, the frenzied bodyguard physically batters his partner. The final blow is when Ruffkut reveals to the couple that he was behind the deception!
Does Wes forgive 'Tonio, the love of his life? How does 'Tonio cope with his guilt and the consequences of his despicable actions? And what of Ruffkut? What other nefarious plans does he have in store for the couple?
Even though my gut screamed out that I had a hot property on my hands (and I'm delighted that NCTUA is being well-received), I had questions about its prospects because of its genres: ethnic, gay, and erotica. And then, you've got two intelligent, highly successful gay men of color in a monogamous
relationship-- and who present positive images. However, I firmly and fervently believed in the force and appeal of Nothing Can Tear Us Apart.
But, I had no idea just how many obstacles I would have to face to convert my dream into a reality.
Selling The Dream
Before I approached publishers and agents, I worked hard to ensure that Nothing Can Tear Us Apart was top-notch. I retained a professional editor for a thorough evaluation of its merits. I attended writing workshops. After that feedback, I put NCTUA through a rewrite cycle.
Next, I created a focus group of about 50 persons of different ethnicities, genders, ages, and walks of life. I even included some heteros. Most importantly, the focus group was comprised of individuals who weren't personal friends or acquaintances because I didn't want bias in my favor.
During this review period, I was "sweatin' bullets." But after it was all said and done, three quarters of the group gave NCTUA the "thumbs up." I was relieved and very encouraged. And, I used some of the groups' comments--including some of those that I didn't entirely agree with--to refine and improve upon
In June 2005, I chased the "big sell." I traveled the agent route first. I queried nearly 80 agents, and received about 15 responses. Those agents, after reading synopsis and a few chapters, said, "Different. Gripping. Flows well. But maybe a bit too much of a hard sell for us."
All the while, I networked. Also, I attended writing conferences where I sat down with three agents--two gay, one a straight female--all of whom were Caucasian. Two of the reps--the female and one of the males--were visibly "out of their element" when speaking with an African-American. They passed on representation.
Now, the other male rep, who I'll tag "Mr. GQ," was quite at ease. After reviewing my sample chapters, he smiled, "Mr. Evans, you certainly can write. No doubt about that."
I said to myself, "Whew. I've made it to first base." At the end of our meeting, he took my entire manuscript. He would get back to me in about six to eight weeks, pretty much the standard response time.
I said to myself, "Damn! This could be the ticket." At week nine, Mr. GQ agent mailed me a rejection letter, one I'll never forget. Here's a portion of it:
"Gay lit, and most assuredly gay lit whose main characters are men of color, particularly the types that you portray, is a hard sale. White publishers/editors will have a problem with what you've got. And it's not really the erotica element, because what you're doing is not porn. You present a reason, a purpose, behind the lovemaking. White publishers/editors are just not used to seeing strong, positive ethnic characters in gay relationships. And, you present a level of sophistication white publishers/editors just aren't used to seeing. Too many of them, gay and certainly straight, seem to want to see 'ghetto lit.' That's just the way it is."
He added, "Yours could be a tough sale. And honestly, I don't think I have the energy to do you justice. But hang in there. With your determination and talent, I believe you'll find a home for Nothing Can Tear Us Apart. Never give up. I wish you well." And that was that.
Now, that was a kick in the gut. But I soldiered on.
As I continued to search for agents, I began to query publishers--small, medium and large. In the fall of '05, I went to Manhattan where I participated in a reading held by various gay editors and publishers, which included Donald Weise, former head honcho of the Avalon Publishing Group. Impressed with my reading, Don asked for the manuscript.
A couple of months later, Weise got back to me. He wrote, "Nothing Can Tear Us Apart is a great read, with great potential. It's full of rich drama, and fully developed characters. Mr. Evans, characterization is one of your strong suits. Because of its romantic elements, your story should also resonate well with straight women."
But unfortunately, he didn't buy the manuscript. He said that it "didn't fit his list." He also hinted at what Mr. GQ agent stated--that Nothing Can Tear Us Apart might not fit the comfort zone of white publishers and editors. Another blow. But my resolve was still unbroken, my fire refusing to be extinguished.
In April 2006, a female friend of mine approached Janet Hill, Vice President of Random House's Doubleday/Broadway Publishing Group (and E. Lynn Harris' executive editor)--and an African-American--regarding NCTUA. She was intrigued and asked for my manuscript.
In June, she responded. Part of her letter stated, "You have crafted a bold and compelling story in Nothing Can Tear Us Apart, but it's not quite right for my list." I must say that that was the nicest rejection letter I'd ever received.
Later, two Caucasian publishers offered me deals--if you want to call them that. Both called for me to drastically alter my main characters--so much so that Wes and 'Tonio would've been barely recognizable.
As well, each wanted me to rewrite the manuscript to appeal more to the--you guessed it--"ghetto lit" audience. The final insult was the lame royalty rate. Guess what my answers were.
As this activity was transpiring, I sought out other aspiring African-American authors, both male and female, gay and hetero, who were shopping their work around. To this day, only a handful of them have obtained deals with publishers.
Although they all confessed that they've encountered racism--some more than others--during their march towards publication, they refused to be quoted for this series.
The fact of the matter is that by speaking out, they feel they have far too much to lose, that whatever success they've achieved could be temporary--snatched or ripped away from them at any moment. At any time.
I can relate to that.
This is part of the series "The Cancer that Slowly Consumes Our Very Souls: Racism." Originally published in Qbliss, the article has been modified slightly for online readers. For more information on Wyatt O'Brian-Evans, you can visit his website or check out his Bilerico-DC bio page.