Kaje Harper is best known for her novels Life Lessons and The Rebuilding Year. She is often found writing or on Goodreads where she monitors the YA LGBT books group.
What got you interested in writing m/m fiction?
I read The Persian Boy back when I was about thirteen, and I really, really wanted Bagoas to have a happy life. So first I rewrote his ending. And then I put together some of my other favorite pairs of guys (Starsky and Hutch among them.) Eventually I wrote original fiction too. I found that I loved the balance of two male characters, the added pressures of a gay relationship in a straight-centric society, and the depth of emotion when two men finally fall in love. I wrote for fun for almost 40 years, without showing anyone or intending to publish, just because I loved telling the stories.
How did you begin your career and how did you grow your fan base to be so humongous?
My first published book was kind of a fluke. My husband gave me a computer I didn’t have to share with the kids, and I started writing even more than ever. I had several finished novels on the hard drive, and he suggested that if I was going to spend all that time, I might at least try submitting one. So I picked one out, polished it up, and sent it in. I picked MLR Press, because they’d published a couple of my favorite M/M reads, and because they promised a critique with any rejection. Except they didn’t reject Life Lessons. I was thrilled.
As for the fan base, I wish I could take credit for being organized and great at promotion, but I’m not. I owe the success I have to word of mouth and some wonderful readers who write reviews and pass along recommendations to their friends. The one thing that probably did help at first, happened by accident, in a way. (Story of my career, come to think of it.)
I wrote a book – Lies and Consequences – which had the military Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy as a big part of the plot. I was polishing it up, while Life Lessons was still in edits, when it became clear that DADT would be repealed. I quickly asked if MLR wanted the book, because its relevance would decrease. They took a look at my way-over-the-top plot synopsis and said no. So I did another edit, made my own cover, and put it up for free on Smashwords.
Lies and Consequences is a bit rough in spots. I had no beta reader or editor or proofreader. I just thought people might enjoy it, and dumped it out there as it stood. (I really knew very little about the publishing business back then.) But I had fun writing my guys, Chris and Ian, and I think that shows. It was a free novel-length story, which got it some extra downloads, no doubt, and an early review was very good. So when Life Lessons came out a month later as my first pro book, I had some name recognition already going for me from the freebie.
In fact, that’s the one thing I have done intentionally to gain fans – I write free stories. I love doing it, readers like getting them, and no one thinks it’s too pushy or promotional of me. A win all the way around.
You write under a pseudonym. Why?
I write sexually explicit scenes in my books. For that reason, I don’t want people from my professional life doing a search for me, and landing among my books. I have told my boss, co-workers and family what I write. I’m fortunate not to have to be in the closet over it, and no one has a problem with the LGBT content. But I don’t want people who know me in real life to stumble over the sex and language of the books unless they’re already looking for it.
Do the Minnesota winters help focus you on writing more often?
I write pretty steadily at any time of year, but yes. If we had less cold in winter, and fewer mosquitoes in summer, I’d no doubt do a bit more gardening and less writing.
Who is the LAST person you’d want to discover you write m/m fiction and how do you think they’d respond?
I don’t care about anyone finding out about the M/M part of it. I think anyone who knows me, also knows I’m an advocate for LGBT rights. But the explicit sex… if my mother could still read and understand, she would disapprove of all the four-letter words. She used to set aside any novels that had real swearing in them. She’d probably tell me that if I’m so clever and creative, surely I could rewrite the books just as well without the bad language.
What was it like to have Life Lessons do so well that Mac and Tony have a following?
It’s extremely cool to have readers talking about my characters like they’re real people. I see discussions sometimes about Mac and Tony and their relationship, and it sounds as though readers are talking about friends of theirs that they care about. That’s amazingly gratifying.
It also made it a bit harder to cap off the series at the four novels and three short stories. I always aim for a real-life feeling in my stories, and in this series I tried to interweave the mystery and the romance. But there are limits to how many times a teacher can get involved in a murder, even when his boyfriend is a cop. I decided the fourth novel was it, at least for a while. I might come back to them down the road when it feels plausible again. But it was already hard to let go of Mac and Tony, and made even more so because readers say they will miss the guys.
Why do you think so many women love to read m/m?
I think there are a lot of things about M/M romances that appeal to women readers. First, there is much more variety in the balance between the two main characters. Much of M/F romance falls into some version of the strong, masculine guy and the less strong although perhaps spunky woman who likes to be protected by her man. There are exceptions, but they are rare.
In M/M, the two guys may be both very equal, like two dominant active duty military men, or perhaps two flamboyant guys. Or perhaps the guy who is physically strong may be the softer, sweeter one. The wealthy guy may be submissive, the younger man may call the shots, the guy with the disability may be damned if he’ll let anyone take care of him. Because there are fewer stereotyped patterns to fall into, the relationships vary much more, and the stories feel fresher.
Second, just by being a gay couple in a straight-centric world, our heroes face a real obstacle and a source of pain that will not disappear and must be dealt with. Their path to love is never going to be completely smooth. Romance is about finding love against the odds. For our M/M couples, those odds are already set against them from the start. It also provides potential secondary conflict with family or friends that can be touching. This adds poignancy to the stories, and often helps prevent the sweetness from becoming saccharine, because that issue lingers even after the I-love-yous.
Third, because men in many societies are taught to be stoic and unemotional, there is more impact when a man expresses his emotions. This is true when the man in an M/F couple says “I love you,” and even more so when two men have to find the courage to say it to each other. The emotional intensity is heightened by portraying two men dealing with life together, handling pain, offering comfort, or affection, or love.
Fourth, the sex content appeals to straight women. Straight women have more interest in male bodies than female, so descriptions of two hot guys are often more appealing than a scene with a female body in it. The sex in M/M is often very physical, much more varied and less stereotypical, and carries less baggage. There can be a hot scene with no penetration at all, or either MC can top. The progression of M/M sex has emotional implications which add impact to the scenes. A male character can have a hundred partners in his past, and still be a plausible romance hero. Fast sex on a first meeting doesn’t imply either character is slutty (which should also be true in M/F, but often isn’t.) So the sex in M/M can be more plot-related and much less standardized.
The ease of mutual desire in M/M appeals to some women. Among female readers, there are probably some who are less easily aroused and satisfied by real-life sex than most men. For instance, far more adult women say they have never had an orgasm, or can’t reliably climax, than do adult men. Many women have to work harder for their own satisfaction. There is an element of wish-fulfillment to picturing yourself as one guy in a gay couple, having the satisfying, more effortless man-sex of fiction, (a possibility that isn’t contradicted by your own history, the way a romance heroine who climaxes at the touch of a finger may be). And yet that hot, easy sex is still happening with another desirable man.
So M/M is varied, conflicted, emotional, and hot. And reading it often engages us in supporting the LGBT community. What’s not to love?
What drove you to write Gift of the Goddess? The idea of an outside force must have been fun to write.
I saw the story call for an anthology about men with scars, and the idea of the Goddess drawing scars on a man’s skin came to mind. Then I had to figure out why that was happening…
What are you currently working on?
My current writing project is the sequel to The Rebuilding Year. I have a free Sci Fi paranormal novel, Laser Visions, coming out in July. The third Hidden Wolves book, Unjustified Claims, is in editing. I will release the second Finding Family book this summer – The Family We Make will be a longer novel, although not a freebie. Then I have two novellas, a WWII and a contemporary, in edits right now.
Tell me about your writing process from idea to finished draft? Do you rewrite to death? Do you outline?
I get inspiration in the form of an idea, or a scene, or a guy, and I sit down. And start writing. That’s basically it. When I’m done, I do three or four rounds of edits. I usually take out about 5% of the first draft, and add another 10% of new material. I probably should plan or outline or something, to have more polished result, but I don’t. For me, part of the joy of writing, and the reason I didn’t bother to publish for years, was that it’s like reading, only better. I don’t know what’s coming, and surprises reveal themselves under my fingertips. The subconscious is a wonderful thing.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel?
The fastest I’ve done from writing the first word to final edits was 45 days for Nor Iron Bars a Cage. Usually the rough draft takes 2-3 months, occasionally longer. Then there’s editing and whatever time it takes to get it published – from 3 to 10 months with my pro publishers so far.
Do you think that Lies and Consequences would have done differently if the DADT subplot was left intact?
Well, the subplot was still there, just de-emphazised a bit. It would have been a slower, more emotional novel, maybe, in the original form. That might have actually been a better book, less of a madcap action romp. But this version was fun to write.
What advice do you have for those thinking about writing gay romance and what advice do you have for those who are trying to build an audience from scratch?
First, you have to write because you enjoy the process, not because you expect to make a living at it. There was a survey on Jessewave, and I think over half of the M/M authors who responded earned less than $10,000 in the previous year from their writing, with quite a few less than $2000, despite releasing completed novels. Almost all M/M writers keep their day job.
So it follows that you should also write the type of story you love. Don’t write for the expected readers, write for yourself. The readers of M/M are a diverse group, and every story will have both fans and critics. If you don’t believe in and care about your own guys and their story, it will show in the writing. Do your homework, do your research, and keep it real. There are lots of places to go for information of any type, from divorce law to the ins and outs of anal sex. Respect the gay community you’re writing about and avoid stereotypes and assumptions.
Write a lot. The best way to write well is lots and lots of practice. Take any chances to write snippets and shorts for other people to read. Find a good beta reader if you can, perhaps someone to trade stories with. Remember that betas and editors are not teachers grading your work where you want a perfect score. They’re like co-workers on a group project. Getting a lot of comments and red ink back is a good thing – it gives you a place to start working from to improve the story. There’s actually nothing more disheartening than to get a beta read or edit back with almost no changes.
Remember you can write and have fun without publishing. I love doing both, but not everyone does. Deadlines can turn creative joy to drudgery. You may have to make compromises with your story to fit to your publisher. If you plan to publish, be ready for some critics to tell you how awful your stories are, and how you should quit writing, and how insulted they are by your work. It’s going to happen. Check the ratings of any of your favorite books and see their one-star reviews.
You have to be able to handle that, and handle it graciously. You have to not be destroyed by the thoughtful one-star review that finds all the flaws you just knew your story had, but hoped no one would see. Every author sometimes doubts their writing, because we all have this ideal of the perfect book in our heads that we didn’t quite accomplish on paper. Some comments are going to hit you right in your insecurities. You also have to be able to not answer back when a reader hates your book because of the color of the MC’s socks, even if your MC never actually wears socks. They have the right to their opinion and it only has to make sense to them.
Publishing is wonderful, fans are great, and positive reviews can make a whole week brighter. I’m really grateful for everything that publishing has brought me. I have some wonderful readers who support my writing and whose enjoyment of my books has made releasing them more than worthwhile. I cherish some of the comments I’ve had. I’ve made wonderful friends as an author, and had the privilege of knowing that something I wrote touched another person deeply. But the downsides still have to be something you can handle, in exchange for all the joy you get out of seeing your work in print. So write first, think about publishing afterward.
As for building a fan base, as I said, mine kind of happened, to my joy but not my credit. The one thing I would say has helped me was to get some free stories out there, that are as high quality as any of my published work. I know those bring in new readers. And if you are out and about in your author persona on social media, be aware that everything you say reflects back on you and your work. I’ve seen authors in the middle of flame wars over thoughtless comments they made somewhere. I’ve also seen authors on do-not-read shelves for shameless over-promotion. So… if you want promotion advice, maybe go ask one of the authors who are really good at that part of the game?
Good luck to anyone who decides to take the plunge with writing. It’s fun, the community is a great place to hang out, and we always need more good M/M books. I’d hate to run out of new stories to read. 🙂