For new romance readers, the stew of initials we use can sometimes be confusing and off-putting. Putting some kind of label on love is a cold hard necessity in this age of smart searching and tagging, though. The labels have evolved to the point where these initials are fairly widely understood:
- M/F or F/M: Heterosexual-coded romance (although both partners might not be heterosexual).
- M/M: Romance with two men: gay, bisexual or otherwise.
- F/F: Romance with two women: lesbian, bisexual or otherwise.
- M/F/M: Romance with two men and one woman without male/male eroticism (the F is in the middle separating the two Ms)
- M/M/F: Romance with two men and one woman with male/male eroticism (the M is in the middle)
An infinite number of combinations exist, but the five above are the most well-known. The lettering overlaps with orientation, but stays much more bound to gender, and unfortunately doesn't have any shorthand yet for nonbinary genders. In the future, I hope we'll start to see terms like “F/X” (that combo just looks awesome typed out, doesn't it?)
Some writers stick to one variety, with heterosexual M/F, of course, being the most prevalent. Others write different combos under different pen names for branding reasons, or else separate them by series. My own series, LA Doms, is a mixed-orientation series, however, and since a lot of other writers at Carina Press also have mixed-orientation series, I thought I'd interview some of my press-mates.
1. Could you tell us a little bit about your mixed-orientation series and what unites the books? Do they need to be read in progression?
Cathy Pegau: My books are science fiction romances set a couple hundred years in the future on a mining planet called Nevarro. All three involve "bad girls" who are on one side of the law or the other. The first book, Rulebreaker, is a lesbian romance. The second, Caught in Amber, is hetero romance. The third, Deep Deception, is another lesbian romance. They don't have to be read in order for the plots, but things happen to the characters that make a bit more sense if they are read in order.
Lynda Aicher: The Wicked Play series is centered around the BDSM club The Den, with each book focusing on one of the seven partners. Although there are varying elements of BDSM in the books, the stories really focus on the characters and the emotional journeys they take. The books do not need to be read in order; they are all stand-alone stories. However, the timeline does progress, and the characters from past stories reappear, so the entire world works better if they are read in order.
Alyssa Cole: My Off the Grid series is both apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic as it covers an unknown disaster and its fallout. I think the books should be read in order, but reading books out of order gives me hives, so I'll leave that choice up to the reader. In book one, our heroine Arden Highmore and her best friend John Seong trek to his family's cabin in the wake of a possible apocalypse, and sparks fly when she meets his hot older brother Gabriel.
Me: LA Doms is a loosely linked set of novels united by setting. They're all stand-alone. The heroes and heroines are searching for pleasure and love in a shadow Los Angeles, a place much more complicated than the Los Angeles we often imagine on screen. They're all multicultural BDSM erotic romances (that's a lot of labels) with a focus on bisexuality. The Dom Project is M/F, The Submission Gift is M/M/F and The Companion Contract is an M/F with ménage elements.
2. What were some of your inspirations for the series?
Cathy Pegau: I've always loved science fiction, and adding romance to it when I decided to try my hand at writing seemed natural. The "discovery" of lesbian fiction helped spur the series. To a large degree, Rulebreakerwas inspired by Sarah Waters's Fingersmith. The two books that followed grew from there because I wanted to explore the lives of the secondary characters.
Lynda Aicher: Everywhere. No, really, I can’t really remember specifics. Ideas jump out at me from so many places. I did go into the series consciously trying to cover different elements of the BDSM lifestyle in each book to provide a variety to the stories. However, not all of the books have BDSM in them, as it wasn’t right for some of the couples.
Alyssa Cole: Some of my inspirations were everyone prepping for the Mayan end of days and chaos, but I thought it would be much scarier if everything we had grown used to—electricity, plumbing, internet—just stopped working without explanation or prophecy.
Me: I knew I wanted to write a story about an Asian-American sex worker heroine, partially because I'm a very contrary sort of person and it seemed like the kind of story that no one would want to read. The romance grew from there. I challenged myself to write a story for her that would go through hard places but end somewhere beautiful and happy. Although I didn't base her on any singular woman, I did a ton of research to try to represent my heroine respectfully, and read accounts from real-life Asian porn stars who talk very candidly about their lives. The idea for the hero came to me in a dream, and I'll leave it at that.
3. Far-out question: could you have written this series in the publishing environment twenty years ago? And what do you think might be different in twenty years in the future?
Cathy Pegau: I don't know if I could have done this series 20 years ago. From what I can tell, the market for LGBTQ stories was VERY limited. It was hard to get someone to look at my non-erotic lesbian romance in 2009/2010 and know what to do with it. Having Rulebreaker picked up by a digital imprint like Carina Press saved it. Twenty years from now, I think there will be more equity in publishing LGBTQ. Society is ready to see more of the romance spectrum.
Lynda Aicher: I honestly have no clue. But if I was to guess, I’d say not within the traditional channels. Male/Male books have only recently been accepted as a romance genre and still have a lot of resisters. The BDSM subject matter itself has been shunned for years as deviant and wrong, even between two consenting adults.
Alyssa Cole: I don't know what will be different in the future, but I'm going to say I probably couldn't have had this published by a mainstream publisher twenty years ago.
Me: Twenty years ago there's no way a book like mine would have gotten published, by a division of Harlequin no less, and gotten reviewed in a mainstream place like Publishers Weekly. It's not that no one was writing these kinds of stories, but there just wasn't a book ecosystem in place that gave them any breathing room. Twenty years in the future, I also hope an even greater diversity of love stories will have become “mainstream”.
4. Did you decide it was going to be mixed orientation in the beginning, or did it happen that way organically?
Cathy Pegau: When I decided to write about Sterling (he's a secondary character in Rulebreaker) I knew it would be hetero because he was always hetero to me—though Caught in Amber is mostly Sasha's (the heroine's) story. In the course of writing Caught in Amber and introducing Genevieve, I immediately knew she and Natalia (who's in Rulebreaker and Caught in Amber) would HAVE to get together. Thus, Deep Deception was born :)
Lynda Aicher: That was all organic. I wanted variety in the series, though, and did work to create stories that would provide that. Some of them just came to me and others I struggled until I figured it out.
Alyssa Cole: It started that way organically. Although Arden and Gabriel are the couple in the [first] book, Arden and John's friendship and how it began is the first thing that came to me. John is gay, and so his book would have to be m/m, of course!
Me: I decided ahead of time, but it still feels organic, if that makes sense.
5. Were you worried you'd lose some of your audience, and if so, why?
Cathy Pegau: I was worried, but those who read Rulebreaker seemed cool withCaught in Amber and came back for Deep Deception. Though there may be some who only read Caught in Amber and some who only read Rulebreaker and Deep Deception. It was a minor concern that I'd lose readers because some people are just not into reading certain couplings, and I get that. I'd like to think the stories are strong enough and the characters interesting enough to have them read all three.
Lynda Aicher: Yes. I fully expected some people to skip the M/M book. I also got some backlash from my M/M/F, which I was expecting because, in general, ménages tend to be M/F/M without the guys touching each other. Not everyone was ready for two dudes doing it. *wink* What I wasn’t expecting so much was the number of readers who skipped my female Dom book. Apparently, some women don’t like to read stories with submissive men. To each their own, I say. On the flipside, I’ve also received compliments for providing a variety of stories throughout the series. You can’t please everyone, so in the end I simply write the stories I see.
Alyssa Cole: A little bit. I worried that some people would see book two is a m/m romance and pass on it, but I'm going to give readers the benefit of the doubt in the same way publishers should. I think as long as the story is interesting (and I really love John's romance) then people will read and, hopefully, enjoy.
Me: Not worried at all. I'm pragmatic—mine are not books with huge FSoG-type mass appeal, for better and for worse. I'm happy for whatever readers I get, and if I have them, I don't worry about alienating them—I figure they like me to take risks.
6. What was the most difficult part of "switching", and the easiest?
Cathy Pegau: Having written lesbian love scenes for Rulebreaker from the first person POV then getting into third from a man's POV... even in my earlier unpubbed hetero manuscripts, the love scenes were from the woman's POV. The actual act in Caught in Amber isn't in Sterling's POV, but the lead up and after scenes are. Yeah, I copped out :) The easiest part was simply being true to those characters. Liv and Zia in Rulebreaker were always bi and lesbian, respectively, as I wrote the first draft.
I didn’t find it that hard at all. I can get into a character’s head quite easily, and once I’m there, the story flows no matter the gender or orientation. The ménage was by far the hardest to write of all the books, because I was dealing with three people who didn’t have a prior history. Developing an equal relationship between all variations of the couples was tough. I swore I’d never write another ménage when I finished that book.
Alyssa Cole: I thought John's book was going to be difficult, because I wondered if I'd be able to write first-person authentically as a gay Korean man. I'm none of those things! But John came to me pretty easily—we're both human after all (or he would be if he were real, that is). I think I've represented him well and hope that readers connect with him as they would any other hero. If not, people can tell me where I went wrong, and I can learn from that.
Me: The Companion Contract is the first novel I wrote entirely in first person, and getting the voice right was hard at first, but got progressively easier. My hardest goal was that I committed to writing a ménage-type situation that did not end in a ménage... without writing a tragedy.
7. Is your series completed, or do you have more books in store for it? If it's completed, what are your current plans?
Cathy Pegau: The series is pretty much complete as is. I may do something with the characters in the future, but it's hard to say. At the moment, I'm working on a historical mystery series with just a touch of a hetero romance and a small hint of bi-ness on a secondary character's part ;) I do have WIPs with lesbian romances at the forefront. They're on the back burner while I finish this series.
Lynda Aicher: The Wicked Play series end with book seven, Shattered Bonds, which released last September. It was bittersweet to write, but I still feel it was the right thing to do. I’m currently working on the third books in my spin-off Power Play series. These are erotic romances based around a hockey team that was featured in the Wicked Play series. I’m having a lot of fun with these books digging into the men behind the players. The first book in the series, Game Play, releases February 15th.
Alyssa Cole: I'm currently finishing up what is likely the last book, and then working on two historical projects: revising a Civil War espionage romance and writing a 1960s-set novella that will be out this summer.
Me: I'd love to write the continuing story of two secondary characters in The Companion Contract, but right now I'm working on a science fiction novel. It might be a long time before I can get back to them. And in a way, I'm glad, because those characters also need time to grow as people.
Thanks to the writers for giving their feedback! Here are a few points to wrap it up:
For various reasons not all people will want to read all combinations, but there's a big and growing readership out there for mixed-orientation romances.
Although there's plenty of overlap, so you have books that are both, it's important to remember that M/M is not the same as gay, F/F is not the same as lesbian, and mixed orientation is not the same as bisexual. I'm not saying this to be prescriptive in the slightest, just descriptive of how I see the genre in 2015 and how the labels work to help the books find their audience.
Sometimes LGBTQ+ readers aren't served well by these labels, and don't find the books they're looking for. For example, some readers find that doing searches under the umbrella of “f/f” gives them too many books that aren't designed for them—stories that engage in fetishization and exoticization. However, writers who aim to keep the focus on lesbian relationships will get filed under f/f whether they want to or not. Others, especially people who come to the genre from fanfic internet searches where f/f is a common term, prefer f/f as an umbrella because they find it more neutral and informative. Both terms are evolving—language is a river, never a rock—and LGBTQ+ readership should, for obvious ethical reasons, be at the center of this labeling evolution. Cisgender, heterosexual writers (including me) have an extra obligation to respect that.
Trans readers aren't served at all by the current system in any formal way. Ideally, trans romances would fall across every combination, but be discoverable with an extra “trans” tag. In practice, sometimes stories end up misgendering their characters with wrong retailer filing. Nonbinary readers aren't served at all, but like I pointed out above, they could be with a new letter X.
Ménages are hard as hell to write from a craft perspective! If you're really aiming for psychological depth, adding that extra point of view can be a killer. I found that out writing The Submission Gift, an MMF/polyamory romance. Readers do notice and appreciate the extra effort, though.
Romance is often brutally honest about where the money is. M/M sells much more than F/F, for example, and in erotic BDSM, maledom/femsub more than femdom/malesub. But it's also a genre where imagination is pretty much unbounded, and even if something “doesn't have a market” according to popular wisdom, that doesn't mean we won't write it, because someone out there wants to read it.
Writing from the point of view of someone who doesn't share your orientation, or your gender, or your race for that matter, doesn't have to involve a full-blown existential dilemma or great gnashing of the teeth. As with everything in writing, there are risks and rewards. And work. Lots of work! Otherwise, it wouldn't be worth it.
The Companion Contract releases today (February 9th, 2015) from Carina Press. I hope the story sings for you.