Queered Queer Romance and Narratological Geek-Out: A Guest Post by Sarah Frantz Lyons

We’re happy to welcome Riptide editorial director Sarah Frantz Lyons to Wonkomance today to talk about “queered” queer romance. Take it away, Sarah!


In my former life as an academic, I was a narratologist. I studied narrative structure, the whys and wherefores of a story’s scaffolding. Why was it put together that way? Why choose that narrator? What were the meanings and consequences of that particular narrative framing? What does it mean for representation of gender and sexuality and class and race and power that a story was, literally, constructed in that particular way?

This is something you can do on a book level (What is with the layers and layers and layers of narrative framing in Jane Eyre?) or on a scene level (Why did Jane Austen’s heroes never say “I love you” in direct dialogue to their heroines during successful proposal scenes? I answer that question in my article in this anthology, but please please please ignore that cover, OMG that cover makes me want to die.)

And as an editor, I use my training as a narratologist more now than I ever did teaching two sections of freshman composition a semester. Now instead of figuring out why a story is told the way it is, I get to figure out how it could be told better, more effectively. I not only get to take a story apart; I get to help put it back together again, in a different, stronger configuration. I love my job. I particularly love my job when I get to work on the kind of books I could have written academic papers about.

Prosperity_200x300Such are Alexis Hall’s Prosperity universe stories. (Disclaimer: I contracted these stories for Riptide. I edited these stories. I adore these stories to tiny bits and pieces.)

Currently, these stories, in publication order, are:

Chronological order in the story universe, however, is:

  • Shackles
  • Squamous with a Chance of Rain
  • Prosperity
  • Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies
  • There Will Be Phlogiston
  • Liberty

Actually, it’s more accurately:

  • First half of internal story told in Cloudy
  • Early parts of Liberty
  • Phlogiston
  • Second half of internal story told in Cloudy
  • Shackles
  • Squamous
  • Prosperity
  • Framing narrative of Cloudy
  • Rest of Liberty

However, reading order is closer to publication order: definitely read Prosperity before any of the Liberty anthology stories. And read Liberty itself last. But the other three Liberty stories can be read in any order. And Phlogiston stands almost entirely alone.

So on the macro-scale, the narratologist in me is bouncing in excitement. There’s an emotional order for the stories that’s utterly different from the chronological order. The framing narrative of Cloudy makes no sense without having read Prosperity, even though almost all of the actual story happens before Prosperity chronologically. But if you read Cloudy first, it’s utterly confusing. If you read it after reading Prosperity, you’ll sob with joy at the end of it. As a reader, you’ll have a completely different relationship to the main character in Phlogiston if you read Cloudy first, than if you read Phlogiston first. What does it all mean?

As a narratologist, I used to examine narrative structure and construction in order to try to understand the social construction of gender in particular. Even more specifically, I examined the way female novelists constructed their male characters—primarily the romantic leads in domestic novels—in order to examine the societal construction of ideal masculinity. But that’s not why I’m excited by the Prosperity universe, not least because Alexis Hall is, obviously, a male author. No, I’m excited by the Prosperity universe because not only are most of the characters queer in some way, but because that queerness is reflected in the narrative structure itself.

So yeah, these stories are queer romance. But they are themselves also queered queer romance. The actual structure of the story mirrors, echoes, reflects, speaks to the queer relationships and queer characters that the stories themselves tell.

How are the very narrative structures of the Prosperity stories themselves queer? Let me count the ways. :-)

Prosperity itself is narrated by Piccadilly: he’s black, he’s sexually omnivorous, he’s a guttersnipe, he’s delightful, he’s sweet and innocent and world-weary and wise and naïve. And although he doesn’t get his happy ending (in this book), as a reader I totally didn’t mind and still count this book 100% a romance. It’s Dil’s book, through and through, but I wasn’t disappointed that he didn’t get his HEA, because he narrated, beautifully, the romance of two other characters who get their HEA, one of whom is the disgraced priest Ruben (drummed out of the priesthood for preaching that God is love, you know), one of whom is Milord, a criminal mastermind. Dil is himself in love with Ruben—has sex with him, even!—and even that wasn’t enough for me to root for anyone other than Ruben and Milord. But Milord is seriously ill with dustlung—a kind of pollution-induced consumption—so even that HEA is compromised. And you don’t even care, because you just know that he’s too stubborn to die. So not only is the narrative structure itself queer—you only see things from Dil’s perspective and romance rules state that that POV character should get the HEA—the HEA the book does give is questionable and it still doesn’t matter. It’s an utterly, perfectly satisfying romance that breaks every single narrative rule it can break to tell its story, and it couldn’t be told any other way.

Shackles is queer because it’s less about the start and growth of a relationship between Ruben and Milord as it is about Ruben peeling away the layers of precisely how unredeemably evil Milord actually is. And still, as a reader, you root for Milord to escape his prison and his death-sentence, even as you come to learn exactly how much he deserves it. Everything you learn in Shackles shows precisely how much Milord doesn’t deserve his HEA, even as you know that he gets his HEA, because (presumably) you’ve read Prosperity already.

Squamous is queer because it’s told by Jane Grey as she descends into madness and heroin addiction, and yet this madwoman is the most reliable narrator you can imagine. Also, it’s an epistolary mashup of Rebecca, The Call of Cthulhu, and—I shit you not—The Sound of Music, and if that’s not queer, I just don’t want to know.

ThereWillBePhlogiston_200x300There Will Be Phlogiston (did I mention it’s FREE?! It’s FREE! 40,000 free words of free awesomesauce and a carnivorous mechanical horse) . . . oh, look at that cover. That cover is all the queer goodness of the story. Shirtless clinches and a (carnivorous mechanical) horse freaking out in the background. Phlogiston is a story about finding oneself by giving oneself away, about finding love in all the wrong places, about everyone deserving love, about a hero who is brought to his knees, not to beg for love, but after he’s already found it. Phlogiston is about drawing the Sedgwickian triangulation of homosocial desire with a bisexual hero, so everyone is not only happy, but fulfilled, in love, and highly sexed. :-)

And Cloudy, oh Cloudy. Cloudy is the connection between all the unconnected parts, the lynchpin of the series, even though it is, itself, the most fragmented of the stories. Cloudy is the story of Byron Kae, a genderqueer aethermancer who is mystically connected to the tall ship Shadowless that flies the kraken-filled skies. The narrative frame (told in deep third from Byron Kae’s perspective) is that Dil asks for Byron Kae’s origin story (told in Byron Kae’s first person perspective). In telling Dil—and the reader—how they came to be an aethermancer, Byron Kae finally seduces Dil, and they both finally get their happy ending together, floating in the skies above Shadowless. The narrative structure is as queer as Byron Kae—not one thing nor the other, literally ranging all over the chronology of the Prosperity universe, not sticking to one time like all the other stories, not sticking to one perspective (going from third to first), and Dil interpolating comments during Byron Kae’s story so that past and present are always combined. Byron Kae seduces Dil with stories-that-are-reality, by narrating their own past, by sharing the intimacy of narrative. And as Dil is seduced, so is the reader. Literally. Or at least, this one is.

LibertyAndOtherStories_200x300And Liberty is about the political and personal toll of imperialism and the arms race, about a man so deeply in the closet he himself doesn’t realize he’s gay and literally can’t yet have a romance—literally, in fact, can’t tell his own story—but who both helps make possible and also prevents the deployment of the steampunk equivalent of the nuclear bomb. You know, no biggie. :-)

And Riptide itself did something that I now realize is a little bit queer. We gave each of the Liberty stories their own cover and we gave the Liberty anthology an additional cover. So each of Shackles, Squamous, Cloudy, and Liberty has two covers. Queerness for everyone! Whee!

Working on these stories made all the parts of me happy: reader, editor, academic. I hope y’all love them too. (And hey, Phlogiston is FREE!)


AvatarSarah Frantz Lyons is Editorial Director of Riptide Publishing, a queer romance press (ie: a press that publishes queer romance, but yes, the press itself is pretty queer!). She can invariably be found procrastinating on Twitter: @sarahfrantz

Posted in Guest Post, Reading, Shameless Self-Promotion, Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | 15 Comments

Running for My Life

It’s not as hard as you’d think to lose a part of yourself.

Usually, for me, it works the other way around. As I get older, I add more to myself. I become larger, in the Walt Whitman “Do I contradict myself? Very well then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” kind of way. The older I get, the more risks I take, the more new skills I acquire, the larger my definition of myself.

But sometimes I lose something. Lose track of a part of my person that I had thought was mine for good.

I haven’t run at all, really, in 2014. If you’d asked me how I felt about not running five years ago, I would have told you that not running was my general state of being. I had never been athletic in my life. I tried. I wished I was. I flirted with various sports like rock climbing or sculling or…well, that’s pretty much it. I ran two sprint triathlons in my twenties, and the 5k runs at the end of them almost killed me, but I was beyond proud of myself for finish those races. The markered-on race numbers on my arms and legs? Friends and co-workers marveled at how long it took for those numbers to fade.

I confess that I might have touched them up just a little. A dab of the Sharpie here or there…

This is NOT me.

This is NOT me.

Letting go of that feeling of being a total badass for completing those triathlons was hard, but let it go I did. I was not athletic. I was also a smoker. (Although triathlons are BRILLIANT for people who want to quit smoking, let me tell you. You can bullshit your way through a bike ride or a run if you’ve been cheating and sucking down Camel Lights out back behind the bar, but you cannot cheat on a swim. If you only have a split second with your face out of the water to suck in oxygen, you learn rapidly that the diminished lung capacity of smoking and swimming simply do not mix.) Running the triathlons was an aberration. Not really me. So they faded away, along with my race numbers (eventually).

Then, five years ago, my sister ran a marathon. Much like me, my sister had never been particularly athletic, and I was blown away by her accomplishment. By her commitment, which was challenged when she was injured during her training and had to spend weeks running on the elliptical machine instead of the road. By her strength, which shone out of the photographs I saw of the far-away event, like she’d swallowed the sun.

I wanted that. Wanted it badly enough, for once, to get off my ass and make something happen.

When my sister moved back to Chicago the next year, I asked if she’d run the marathon with me. We’d joked about it before, but I was serious this time. I don’t think my sister had any burning desire to run another marathon, but she loves me, so she said yes.

We registered. We trained. Separately mostly, although we did the occasional long run together, but work schedules (and my need as a single mom to find a babysitter every time I ran…hello, treadmill at the gym!) got in the way most of the time. In eight months I went from barely being able to run around the block to finishing a 26.2 mile race.

Best. Sister. Ever.

Best. Sister. Ever.

Not speedily, I should make clear.

There was a lot of walking on our dangerously hot race day, and that could realistically be called a life-saving decision. The wail of the ambulances taking overheated runners to the hospital was a constant background noise that day. I wanted to give up the entire time. At one point, I was running (barely faster than walking) next to a woman who burst into tears when she spotted a friend on the sidelines, sobbing, “I can’t do this anymore.” I wanted to slap her in the face. Couldn’t she see that I was barely hanging on to the will to keep going forward? Sobbing and carrying on about quitting was only making it worse. Sheesh!

I lack a little something in the compassion department around Mile Twenty, apparently.

One of the things you learn while training for a marathon, though, is that running a marathon is almost entirely mental. Putting in the miles is just putting in the miles. You do it and your body will get stronger, will gain endurance. It’s an equation: miles in training, miles out racing. But what makes or breaks you as a marathoner is your brain.

During those long runs every weekend, you have all the time in the world to build yourself up. To be your own cheerleader. To marvel at how you are running each week longer than you have ever run before in your life. To remind yourself that you can do it, even when it feels like you are maybe dying, like you can’t possibly go another two miles after having run fourteen.

That’s what you can do with all that free time.

That is not what I did. Not at first.

I spent the time on my long runs telling myself I was weak, I couldn’t possibly complete this enormous task, and I should probably give up. Getting to the point where I managed to shut off those voices and change how I thought about myself was a life-changing experience. Because you can do it and you are amazing and the magic thing about those messages from your body telling you that you simply must quit is that you don’t have to listen to them.

It’s a marvelous lesson to learn. And it directly impacted the rest of my life, jump-starting the writing which had been on the back burner since my son was born. Unfortunately, despite running three marathons and seven half marathons since that first long, hard race, it’s a lesson I’m having to learn all over again.

Earlier this year, I did something—something bad—to my back. For the first time in my life, I went to a chiropractor, which was only possible because my good friend Dr. Nancy is one, and she didn’t charge me for my visits. Healthcare, y’all. It’s a bitch. Thank goodness for friends with skills.

In any case, after sessions with the electro-stim machine, and heat therapy, and ice therapy, and adjustments, and stretching, stretching, and more stretching (god, I loathe stretching—give me a marathon any day), I finally got my back in order again. But for months I hadn’t run. Some weeks, I had barely moved. I spent sixteen hours a day at the computer much of the time and had taken to sneaking out on the back porch once or twice a week at midnight to smoke a cigarette, which really felt like giving up.

Somewhere in all that time, I lost the part of me that had come to think of myself as a runner. As an athlete. It had taken me years to redefine myself, but it only took months to lose the belief that running was an intrinsic part of my life. So, I’m back at the beginning again, trying to get ahold of that part of myself I’ve lost because I’m not willing to let it go. And it’s hard. It’s hard, but I want it.

Last month, I released CALLIE, UNWRAPPED, an erotic novella about a woman trying to regain a part of herself, via one night with her ex-boyfriend and his current girl, that’s been lost for years: the sense of sexual adventure and play she had before her recently-ended marriage smothered all that. Writing that book made me think a lot about what parts of myself I needed to grab hold of again. So I’m putting on my running shoes and hitting the road.

More my speed now.

More my speed now.

You can buy CALLIE, UNWRAPPED at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play & ARebooks now.

Is there any part of your younger self that you wish you could get back? Or have you experienced that expansion of possibilities that comes with more experience and wisdom as you get older? Am I the only one who needs ridiculous challenges like marathons to get motivated?

Posted in Life & Wonk, Shameless Self-Promotion, Writing Wonkomance | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Hurt/Comfort Fic: Why It Appeals — A Guest Post by Bonnie Dee

Hi everyone! I’m happy to bring you a guest post from Bonnie Dee today on the appeal of hurt/comfort fiction. Enjoy!


One character is either physically or emotionally wounded in some way. Another character supplies nurturing and draws out the other’s pain. How many times have we all read this trope in one form or another, usually with a brooding hero who hides his sorrow under a stoic mask? Only a special someone can reach through the layers to the vulnerable man underneath. What draws romance readers to such scenarios over and over? Does it have something to do with the basic nurturing instinct in women—this is presuming that the majority of romance readers are women and that we all have a built-in instinct—or is there more to it than that?

I tried to do research on the underlying psychology of the subject, but all my searches mostly brought up definitions of hurt-comfort as it relates to fanfiction. In fanfic, an injury, wound or illness can serve as a catalyst to bring together two characters who might not usually come into proximity in actual canon. It’s great for shipping unusual pairings, or, on a more distasteful note, to bring in a Mary Sue character to do the “nursing”.

But fanfiction aside, this trope is well traveled territory in romance. Sometimes the damage is physical, ie. a wounded warrior, but at the core it’s the underlying psychological scarring only the lover can heal that appeals. The moment of the reveal of that bruised heart, when the lover finally breaks through the protective shell, is the peak of romance. It satisfies deeply.

If I was a smarter, wiser person, I’d share some scientific reasons why. But my uneducated gut instinct is the “mommy” factor. I believe women are genetically programmed to want to comfort and heal and fix. There’s something about having a strong, competent man laid low, vulnerable, completely exposed like a raw nerve that grabs hold of that instinct and tugs hard. Although maybe it’s not only females who respond that way. The hurt/comfort dynamic runs strong in gay romance as well, including those not penned by women.

Wild at HeartDigging a little deeper, maybe it has more to do with everyone’s common need to be needed. If the reader is identifying as the nurturing protagonist in the story, then the satisfaction in comforting has everything to do with their basic desire to feel absolutely vital to at least one other person in this world. To touch and move and affect someone no one else could reach—how fulfilling is that? Answer: supremely.

So maybe the hurt/comfort dynamic is egoistic at heart. Altruism becomes egoism if you scratch deep enough; love becomes self congratulation. “See what I can do? See how I heal with my magic love power?” Such an idea is deliciously empowering, isn’t it?

Or maybe that’s all bullshit. I am not psychologist nor have I recently stayed at a Holiday Inn Express so there’s nothing to qualify my rambling. What do you all think about the subject of hurt/comfort and why it appeals? Any particular favorite reads you’d like to share?

One of my perennial favorites is Wild at Heart by Patricia Gaffney, in which only the patient and loving Sydney can reach and teach the “wild man raised by wolves” Michael. It hits all my hot buttons with its touching comfort scenes, an uncivilized virgin hero, and the totally outside the norm premise.

Of course, the crux of hurt/comfort is that it’s never really one-sided. Whatever is lacking or damaged in the nurturer is also fixed by the nurturee. “You complete me” becomes “we complete each other”, and that’s what makes a love story.

Posted in Guest Post, Thinky | 3 Comments