The Value of a Story

Transgressing the story I’d told myself about my own queer stories.

In between my college courses, student groups, and work in the early 00s, I wrote a lot of fanfiction. Fanfiction is the writing of stories about characters from one’s favorite media, and it can be found across the internet for any and every type of media — movies, TV, books, celebrities culture, etc., — or fandom that you can think of. Fanfiction sculpted me as a writer, perhaps more than a fancy Creative Writing degree.

I wrote about Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, the X-Men, Stargate: Atlantis, Grey’s Anatomy, and a whole host of media properties I loved. Writing is about practice. Fanfiction gave me a lot of practice.

While not every fanfiction author seeks to better their craft, that was part of my desire. I got to play with characters and worlds that were not my own, but as a queer person, I also got to transgress them.

My fanfiction was a lot of queer romance. It had a lot of sex. It reflected my own experiences in dating and romance, and sorry for the TMI, but in my book, getting naked together on the first date has never been ruled out because it was the first date like so much media plays out. Whether Meredith and Cristina had shower sex at Seattle Grace or Angel and Wesley joined the mile-high club (under special necro-tempered glass!), my fandoms were my playgrounds.

Even today, there aren’t a ton of queer characters on TV, my primary fanfiction outlet. But there were fewer in the early 00s, especially on network TV or programs. And even the softest kiss — fit for a Disney Princess between two queer characters — gets labeled “for adults” and put in a bucket marked “for queers only, so there is no market.”

As someone with a 15 years+ marketing career, I could spend many words debunking that notion.

But for me, the damage hit internally. For me, it was being told that the only place I’d ever have an audience would be the secret corners of the internet, writing based on a fandom, under a pen name, and I’d never make a cent off it.

(Making money off fanfiction is a whole other topic, and generally, you shouldn’t since you don’t own the property and you don’t want a lawsuit from Disney.)

A photo of Erica wearing a purple t-shirt and grey hoodie
Its me The illusive author of that erotic fanfic you read

But even if I created my own worlds and my characters, they’d have to be cis and straight. They’d certainly have to be white, and if they were to transgress, they could only push as far as the 00s favorite trope, the strong woman. (Spoiler: she was still written by a cis white man!) Only extremely niche publishers touched queer romance and paid pennies, despite their passion or quality.

The validity of my genre and audience focus was also questioned in my college courses whenever I climbed out of the bubble of whatever liberal arts college students were supposed to write. I still don’t know what that was. Nothing made me loathe writing more than my advanced creative writing class, where I found myself drained of ideas, trying to reverse engineer short stories that would get me the elusive praise and A from my professor. This never happened. I was also never given any guidance worth my time.

That was almost 20 years ago.

For Romance February, Goodreads created a list of their top 52 Romance novels published in the last three years. They used ‘to-read’ data from Goodreads users to determine this popularity. It has its flaws, but is still a powerful metric.

Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston came in at #1. This book, which I read and LOVED, features a Romance between a gay man and a bisexual man written by a queer, non-binary author.

Most of the rest of the list featured heterosexual romances by women authors with a smattering of BIPOC authors and lead characters and at least one other queer book from my cursory look. But the most popular one was the type of story I was told over and over wouldn’t sell. That I had to hide beneath the anonymity and shame of my Livejournal account.

Yes, there are lots of reasons why McQuiston’s story resonates beyond the queer Romance.

It was the timing. Published May 2020, Red, White, & Royal Blue tells the story of an alternative universe political timeline (sans a former reality TV star and a former First Lady) where the son of the first female POTUS falls in love with a remixed Prince of Whales. As a queer person, it was lovely to escape the US political hell to a place where the VP didn’t talk about how he wanted to hang you, and the POTUS wasn’t actively using a chewed-up eraser-head to remove your civil rights.

But it was the Romance too. It was modern. There was SEX (and it was hot). There was self-discovery and emails, texts, and tweets. There were references to both Star Wars and Vita Sackville-West. There were silly, over-the-top feelings and NDAs and hacking and Corgis and embarrassing parents. There was a motherfucking prince.

In other words, it had all the other things a zillion Romance novels — a billion-dollar industry — already have but feels new when you make it queer. When you bring a queer lens to the feelings and the experiences of your characters.

After over a decade of working on a novel — centering queer characters and featuring romance — I finished what I call a readable draft. In December, I sent it off nervously to my writing group and a small number of friends for feedback. I read Red, White, & Royal Blue as a celebration of that milestone and a break from my craft.

But I also realized how much I’d internalized the narrative that no one was going to read my novel. That they weren’t going to like the premise of my story, much less the execution. That in capitalism, I’d starve. That I needed a career that made me money. That I spent my energies being very good at my job — and even loving some of that — but did I love it as much as I loved writing my stories about queer characters who sometimes fell in love and sometimes fell out of it? No. I do not.

I have 45,000 words on the sequel. The sequel has much more Romance and is so much queerer. 15 of the 24 characters (so far) with some notable roles in the novel are queer. While I want my book(s) to be published, and I wish success the way an artist does, I don’t want it to be shelved in a dark corner. In that Gay & Lesbian section of a Barnes & Nobel where it will never have the chance to be #1 in demand on Goodreads or adapted by Shondaland. Or overlooked by a marketer who finds both the author and the subject less than. In the place where they can never be #1 at anything because they weren’t even considered.

What sort of queer joy have I denied myself for decades in service of a homophobic capitalist message I internalized? What sort of messages have I bought into about the worth of my art? If Red, White, & Royal Blue can be #1, then maybe my books will have a larger audience than anyone — including me — ever imagined.

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