YA imprint Harmony Ink Press (which released my first YA novel, Seidman) has been getting off to a great start since kicking off in January! They’ve had nine wonderful releases so far (which means I’m behind on my website). New YA author Robbie Michaels talks about his experience getting not just one novel, but an entire trilogy, released!
Robbie Michaels grew up in rural upstate New York, the same setting as the beginning of The Most Popular Guy books. It was not always easy growing up thinking he was the only gay person in the world. He felt like a stranger in a very strange land for most of those years, always having to act a part, play a role, until he later met other gay folks and found out that he was not alone. He was teased and bullied when others suspected that he might be gay. But he survived those days and found that life does get better, even though at the time it sure didn’t seem possible. He wants first and foremost to tell others to hang on and to have hope for a better tomorrow. Life is a wonderful, marvelous thing to be embraced and celebrated. Don’t ever give up. You are the only you there is. You are not alone. There are many, many, many others like you out there and some day you will meet them and together you will change the world in a wonderful, positive way.
Is Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover your first YA novel?
Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover is my first YA novel. It is in fact my very first book, YA or otherwise. I had written another book and had submitted it to another press the previous year. That book was accepted and contracted for publication, but the YA book was the first to actually be published. The other book, although contracted many months earlier, was published AFTER Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover. So even though this wasn’t the first book I ever wrote, it was the first book to be published.
What inspired you to write Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover?
I never set out to write a YA novel. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to write a YA novel. It just wasn’t even remotely on my radar. The way this book sprang to life was that something made me remember an event from nearly thirty years ago. It wasn’t complicated. It was a very simple memory. But when it came back to me it hit me with such force that it was as if it had happened just yesterday, not thirty years ago.
Nearly thirty years after it happened, for some reason I suddenly remembered something that happened to me when I was a senior in high school. High school was not the happiest of times for me so I have deliberately not thought much about it in all the years since. I moved away and lost track of everyone I knew in those days – deliberately.
Enough time had passed that when this memory returned to me, I decided to try to write it down so that I didn’t forget it. I started to write just a line or two to capture the gist of that memory. Instead of stopping at a line or two I just kept writing and writing and writing. The first chapter all happened, nearly word for word like I wrote in the book. The rest is of the book is a fictionalized work that brings together a great many things that actually happened, just not in the sequence in which I record them in the book.
Is Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover much like your personal experience of High School?
Yes, very much so. I grew up in upstate New York, which is where this story is set. The story starts with something that really happened. It was a cold Saturday morning in the fall of my senior year. My class had been selling all sorts of things to pay for a class trip to Florida in the spring. Our latest ploy was to sell chocolate. I didn’t have a lot of relatives so I didn’t sell enough chocolate. Our senior class advisor offered those of us who hadn’t met our quota a chance to earn some “points” by helping to unload the chocolate truck that cold Saturday morning.
My mother dropped me off at the school super early. As I describe in the book, my mother didn’t like to be late for anything so she was always super early for everything. So I was outside the doors of the school before anyone was there to let me in. As I describe in the book, only four of us showed up that cold morning to unload an entire truck full of chocolate. To say that we were overwhelmed would be an understatement.
But it didn’t really matter to me because one of the four that showed up was a man I had lusted after for years. One of my absolute hottest classmates came in and, passing by the two girls who’d come to help, sat down beside me! I was floored that this god among men knew who I was and was sitting next to me, talking with me. This had never happened in all the years we had gone to school together but I was determined to make the most of the experience.
As I described in the first chapter of the book, Bill was dressed in torn, tattered jeans that had a few enticing rips that caught and held my attention as we worked to unload the truck that cold morning. Sadly that was where the experience ended. He wasn’t gay and he didn’t fall madly in love with me, even though he should have!
Once I had written the first chapter I found that I just couldn’t walk away from the story. It seemed to me that the two main characters were just calling out to me to tell their story the way it should have happened. Most of the different things in the story have roots in things that happened, just not in the sequence that I weave them together in this book.
Without giving away too much of the story, one of the characters in the book is an abusive parent to their child. Sadly, all of this part of the story is true and really happened. My mother and her siblings were abused by her father whenever he’d been drinking. When he was sober he was a wonderful man, but when he drank he became a monster. I was afraid my mother would be mad that I told so many personal events from her life, but when she read the book she said she love it.
Do you plan on making writing a career, or do you have other career plans?
Five days a week I drag myself out of bed in the morning and take the subway into downtown Washington, DC where I work in an office that’s about two blocks from the White House. I spend eight hours a day doing Information Technology project management. All that means is that people get an idea and some funding and they turn to me to translate their needs into technical requirements, help them find the best software fit for what they want to do, and then make it happen.
I have a great office with great co-workers (well, mostly) but I’ve been doing the same thing now for years. Quite honestly, I’m bored beyond belief, but they’ve got me handcuffed in place because they pay me a lot of money, have fantastic benefits, and give me a lot of flexibility. In this economy it would be hard to replicate that. But, with all of that said, I dream of leaving my job and writing full time. Who knows? Maybe if I did that I’d come to view writing the same way I view my weekday job now, which would be a terrible thing.
A few months ago I made a list of all of my story ideas/thoughts/dreams. In some cases it was a couple of pages of notes with a lot of detail. In other cases it was just a phrase, a quote, or a memory, waiting to be fleshed out into a story. When that list went over 30 items I knew that I could easily keep myself busy if I made writing my full-time occupation. The only problem is that writing doesn’t pay enough to live on.
And then there’s that terrible problem of health insurance. I am legally married to my partner of 29 years. When the District of Columbia legalized marriage for same sex couples, we were one of the first couples in line to get a license. There was such a huge number of people applying that the usual option of getting married at the courthouse was off the table – the wait for three months long. So we found a really progressive church we knew of. I wrote to them and found that they had decided that they would take a stand and marry anyone to came to them with a license to be married. This puts them in direct opposition to the rules of their denomination, but the entire congregation discussed the issue and voted UNANIMOUSLY to put their beliefs into action in this way. A week later we were married by two wonderful United Methodist ministers in a small ceremony attended by a few friends, including another couple who have been together for 37 years.
So where am I going with this? Simple. We are now legally married but I cannot get my health insurance through my spouse’s employer since he is a federal employee. The option to even get insurance and pay for it is not available. The federal government is bound by one of the worst laws ever enacted by the United States Congress, the Defense of Marriage Act, otherwise known as DOMA. The real benefits of legal marriage are still unobtainable for same sex couples, although I believe that a challenge to DOMA will make its way to the United States Supreme Court in the next term starting in October. There are a number of cases making their way through the system and are all about to hit the Supreme Court together.
I dream of a day when DOMA is overturned and all couples, gay or straight, will be treated equally. At the moment, straight couples have a huge number of special rights. All I want is the same thing they have, I want all couples to have equal rights with no special exceptions or privileges for anyone.
So, this is a rambling answer to your question. Yes, I would love to make writing my full-time profession. Some things will have to change first before that is even remotely a possibility.
How long does it usually take you to write a novel?
I’ve heard some writers talk about laboring over a story for years. My approach is quite different. When an idea grabs hold of me and I start writing, the characters start talking to me, telling me their story. It almost feels as if I can’t type fast enough to get what they’re telling me down into words. What this means is that when I start writing a story I write very fast. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I typically take about 14-18 days to write a 150 page book. The voices in my head (my characters) just keep talking and I very much want to know what happens to them.
When I start writing a book I tend to shut out the rest of the world and simply write. I got to work as well and do my day-time job so that I can pay the mortgage and buy dog food, but time at home is devoted to writing. When I was writing Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover, my partner came to me at one point about a week into the project and said, “Are you mad at me?” I assured him that I was not mad, but just had a bunch of people talking my head. When he read the book he understood why the story grabbed me so completely.
What I really need is someone to be my beta reader. A beta reader is simply someone who sees a story in its most rough form and points out the problems. We’re not talking typos, but big gaps in sequence, characters who do something that is completely unbelievable. Basically, a beta reader helps you to make your first rough draft into a stronger second draft. Beta readers are an unbelievable asset to a writer.
The sequel to Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover, Go West, Young Man, has just been released (Congratulations!). Are you planning a trilogy or an on-going series?
Harmony Ink Press purchased the rights to publish a trilogy of books in The Most Popular Guy in the School series. Book One, Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover was published on July 15th. Book Two, Go West, Young Man was released on August 15th. And Book Three, A Star is Born, is scheduled for release on September 15th. A Star is Born ends with a number of lose threads still hanging, waiting to be pulled and woven into a new story. I can easily see additional books in this series, although I’m not sure if they will ever be published. If no publisher wants them I will still write them and post them free on my website.
How do you go about writing a trilogy/series of books? Do you write them one at a time, or do you write several at once?
I view the three books of The Most Popular Guy in the School as one story. It was written as one continuous story. The only problem was that the complete story was so very, very long that it couldn’t possibly fit into one printed book. So I broke it up into three books and that is the way it is being released.
Do you have a favorite genre?
This is a tough question to answer. If I have to pick one, I guess I would have to say that my favorite genre is contemporary romance. A close second, however, is science fiction. I’ve read sci fi since I was quite young. Writing good sci-fi is a challenge. I dream of someday writing a science fiction novel with gay characters but at the moment I do not have any ideas and do not have any specific plans.
How would you describe your experiences working as an author with Harmony Ink Press?
Harmony Ink Press has been absolutely awesome! I absolutely love and adore all of the staff at Harmony. Doing three books space one month apart was an unbelievable amount of work. Not writing them – no, that was the easy part. The most work for me came with the editorial process. Harmony Ink has very high standards and puts every manuscript through several editorial reviews.
So, for months, every week I would get a new set of comments, questions, suggestions and the occasional compliment from another editor. I turned all of those around as quickly as possible, but it was a lot of work. The staff at Harmony was aware of this and held my hand all the way through the process. When I was over stressed one day, nearly having a panic attack, Lynn got me on the phone and talked me through the problem and helped me to take a deep breath and see that there really was a solution to what I was seeing as an impossible problem.
They are absolutely top notch in my book. Their cover artists, the blurb writers, the production people, the editors and the entire editorial staff are all first rate. They really care about getting your book to be the best it can possibly be. I couldn’t have picked a better publisher to start with than Harmony.
What advice would you give novice writers looking to break into the M/M Romance genre?
My advice is simple. Just do it. Start writing. Even if you only start with a single sentence, write it. One sentence can lead to another which can lead to another. It could also be just a single sentence. If so, write another one on a different topic. Look at something, describe it. Listen to the evening news to see what is happening to real people – real life is a great place to get hints of stories.
Watch people. Everywhere you go, watch people. Look at how they move, how they act, how they interact with others. Look at their body language, the way they dress, the way they carry themselves. Look at their hair, their face. Look at everything about them. Find good characteristics and write them down. Write a description of a person. It might be crap, but who cares. Just write.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If you want to write a story, you can write a story. I started writing slash fiction. For those who haven’t heard about slash fiction, what I did was to take characters from real TV shows where to me it was obvious that there was a strong homoerotic element that the producers were too scared to touch. I touched it. I took those characters, I took that suggestion of a relationship beyond a simple bromance, and I wrote it.
My first slash fiction story was probably terrible, but I wrote it and I uploaded it to a fan fiction community. There are A LOT of slash and fan fiction communities out there with lots of readers craving the same thing and all eager to read stories that go beyond the story they see on their television. I’d watch an episode and then take the episode to the things they didn’t address. I’d put two male leads into a relationship and let them do things that I thought they should do.
I wrote several dozen such stories, getting better with everyone of them. When I exceeded 150,000 hits on my stories, I knew that I had something working right, so I decided to try writing a story with my own characters that were completely and absolutely my own. And I did. And you should too. If you’ve got a dream, if you’ve got a story to tell, which we all do, give it a try.
Don’t Judge A Book by Its Cover (The Most Popular Guy in the School: Book One)
High school can be some of the best years of life—and some of the toughest. Mark Mitchell’s strategy for surviving is to emulate the mighty turtle: pull back inside his protective shell and keep a low profile to avoid trouble. And it works—nobody bothers him. Of course, nobody really knows him, either, even in a town so small it seems like everybody must know everyone else.
Mark certainly knows Bill Cromwell, whom he meets officially when his father volunteers him for manual labor at the school. Bill is his polar opposite: outgoing, gregarious, athletic. But when a massive snowstorm traps the two boys together for three days, Mark learns that being popular doesn’t mean you can’t be bullied or abused—or gay—and that bullying doesn’t stop at the school doors.
Mark isn’t naïve. He’s seen the news reports of gay teen suicides, and he’s determined not to become a statistic. But it’s not himself he’s worried about.
Go West, Young Man (The Most Popular Guy in the School: Book Two)
A few short months ago, Mark Mitchell was a shy nerdy kid who kept his head down and stayed off the radar. He had nothing in common with the in-crowd. But then he got snowed in with Bill Cromwell and learned not to judge a book by its cover. One thing led to another, and now Mark has a boyfriend. A popular boyfriend. A boyfriend who wants to go to prom with him. But Mark worries that Bill is risking too much—his popularity, his friends.
Then there’s graduation: caps, gowns, and a whole new world awaiting Mark and Bill in faraway California. They rent an apartment, join the workforce, start college. It’s the beginning of the journey of their lives, and they should be enjoying it—but amid uncertainty, temporary separations, and bad communication, Mark and Bill have to struggle to hold on to the fledgling relationship that grounds them when the outside world seems to move too fast.