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Five Overused Romantic Sub-Plots (And How To Fix Them)

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Being a self-professed romance fan, I know more about the intricacies of romantic sub-plots than most men would ever dare admit. I’ve consumed an absurd amount of romantic media over the years and I’ve noticed more than a few common themes, some more endearing than others.

However, by consuming so much romantic content, I’ve also seen certain themes get overused and badly mishandled. I could list countless instances promising romantic sub-plots collapsing because it fell into a narrative trap. Sometimes, it’s because of poor writing. Sometimes, it’s because the story has too many constraints. I’ve even cited a few famous cases that exhibit both.

Whatever the case, it’s not hard to screw up a romantic sub-plot. I’ve done that more than a few times with the stories I’ve written. Lately, though, there are certain types of sub-plots that have lost their luster. They’ve either been done too many times or haven’t innovated in way too long.

Overused or not, I believe there are elements of these sub-plots that are worth saving. They just need some refinement and polish. What follows is a list of five overdone romantic sub-plots, why they’ve become so bland, and how to fix them. I’ve covered some of these elements before. This is just the romance lover in me offering some tips for future romance stories.


Romantic Sub-Plot #1: Best Friends Turned Lovers

Why It’s Overdone

I think you can thank sitcoms like “Friends” and movies like “Clueless” for this sub-plot to fall out of favor. Personally, I blame Ross and Rachel for giving this theme a bad name. They took the whole friends-falling-in-love plot way too far. Towards the end, it was more annoying than compelling.

These days, this sub-plot isn’t as common as it used to be. I think a lot of romance fans were burned out on it in the 1990s and early 2000s. There’s only so many times a character can say in so many words “I didn’t realize that what I was looking for was right here in front of me” and sound genuine.

How To Fix It

Simply put, this sub-plot needs to shake up the setting. Too many times, a story about friends becoming lovers is built around one friend having had feelings for the other over many years. That can be sweet when done right, but it’s way too easy to be done wrong. These days, it almost comes off as a long con or stalking.

To fix it, the emphasis needs to shift towards two characters undergoing major upheavals. Perhaps they go through a tragedy or trauma that changes the way they feel about other people. It can’t just be restricted to their friend/lover, either. This upheaval should affect their entire world and from there, they come together in a new way.

It has the potential to show two characters go through major growth as individuals, which eventually turns into growth as a couple. That kind of growth can work wonders for any romance and could offer something more meaningful than old friends hiding their feelings.


Romantic Sub-Plot #2: Love Triangles

Why It’s Overdone

I’ve already made my hatred of love triangles very clear. I’ve gone so far as to cite one from the X-men as the worst of all time. Beyond the comics, though, it’s not hard to see cases of this sub-plot done horribly wrong. Even contemporary romance like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” have made this troubled trope more insufferable.

Simply put, love triangles reduce everyone involved to prizes or plot devices. It’s next to impossible to make every character in a love triangle feel like a real character. It turns romantic development into a competition and in the long run, nobody wins and certain characters lose badly.

How To Fix It

I’m tempted to say that love triangles should be abandoned and killed with a 12-gauge shotgun, but I’m not a fan of throwing away romantic themes, no matter how much I despise them. For this particular theme, I think it needs more than just a fix. It needs a complete overhaul.

By that, it can’t just involve two people competing for someone else’s affection. That gets old fast. If there is going to be a love triangle, then it should actually take the time to show why someone is torn in the first place. It needs to be clear that someone genuinely loves more than one person and there’s a reason for that love.

This is also a sub-plot that may benefit from shifting taboos. Non-monogamy is becoming more mainstream and there aren’t many real romance stories about that idea that aren’t bad pornos. A love triangle has to stop being an either/or plot and become a why/how plot. There needs to be a concerted effort to ensure everyone involved gets some sort of emotional resolution that doesn’t involve someone getting screwed over.


Romantic Sub-Plot #3: Destined Lovers

Why It’s Overdone

If you’ve gone through any high school English class or are just familiar with certain literary traditions, you’ve probably seen this in all kinds of media. “Romeo and Juliet” is probably the most famous, but it still shows up frequently throughout romantic media. It’s prevalent in movies like “Titanic” and comics like “Superman.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have a soft spot for star-crossed lovers who are destined to fall in love, but it’s a very bland sub-plot. There’s no real sense of conflict. You know two characters are going to end up together and where’s the intrigue there?

How To Fix It

For this sub-plot, I think a simple shift in context would help. Most romance featuring destined lovers emphasis how they come together, despite the obstacles in front of them. I think it might be more compelling to explore why these characters are star-crossed to begin with. Is it just destiny or are there other forces at work?

There are a lot of factors that go into romance, even those of the non-destined variety. Why not explore the concept of destiny, as it relates to love? Why not dig a little deeper into the intricacies of how it unites people so completely? That wouldn’t just offer a meta-perspective of love, as a plot device. It would give us all an opportunity to reconsider what it means to be in love.


Romantic Sub-Plot #4: Love At First Sight

Why It’s Overdone

This sub-plot is very similar to the destined lovers trope. It’s often a pre-cursor to two people finding out they’re destined to be together. For many of the same reasons, it’s pretty bland and basic. One character sees another, some sappy music starts playing, and the love story is effectively laid out.

We see it happen very overtly in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Titanic.” We see it manifest in some form in most romantic comedies. A character just sees someone they find attractive and that becomes the catalyst for their love. It’s sweet, but not very deep and it has just become too predictable at this point. When two people fall in love at first sight, what other story is there to tell?

How To Fix It

This one can’t be fixed with the same methods as the destined lovers sub-plot. This is one of those plots that doesn’t have to be radically altered, but definitely needs fresh nuance. Finding that nuance means injecting more than just love into the mix when two characters first meet.

The first encounter between two characters is always pivotal. It helps set the tone for their relationship, romantic and otherwise. To make this sub-plot work in new ways, characters need to intrigue each other in new ways. It can’t be enough that they’re attractive. There has to be something else about them.

Maybe the character has a skill that someone has never seen before. Maybe the character causes someone to re-think a past assumption. Maybe it sends them on a new journey that their love interest can join. There are many opportunities here. There doesn’t have to just be one.


Romantic Sub-Plot #5: Sex Complicating Love

Why It’s Overdone

This one is probably the most overtly sexual romantic sub-plot that also happens to be the most predictable. Ironically, it’s “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” that summed it up best. Things go from “Don’t worry, it won’t get weird” to “It got weird, didn’t it?” That’s every sex-complicating-love story in a nutshell.

This one also has the burden of being weighed down by long-standing sexual taboos. While it may seem like those taboos have faded in the 21st century, it’s still the slutty women and stud men who die first in slasher movies. Sex, even in a romance story, still comes off as something dirty that somehow undermines a romance.

Even though sexual attitudes have evolved a great deal, the idea that sex complicates/ruins a relationship hasn’t moved very far. It’s why sex tends to be an afterthought in modern romances. Sometimes, it’s ignored or assumed and that’s just a waste of quality sexual chemistry.

How To Fix It

As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I’ve been working on that for years. While I can’t claim to have a definitive answer, I have surmised a few ideas turn sex from a complication to a catalyst. It doesn’t have to be overly titillating or pornographic, although that can work. It just has to supplement the romance rather than subvert it.

Sex in romance is often treated like an endgame. It’s marks the culmination rather than the progression of a relationship. I believe that’s a missed opportunity. In any romance, sex should function as a progression, of sorts. It takes the relationship to a new stage, one where new opportunities for emotional and personal growth emerge.

When two characters have sex, it can be more than just a chance to depict genitals and female breasts. It can be an exercise of intimacy where two characters strengthen their bond, rather than sully it. That gives greater meaning to the sexiness and nothing makes romance hotter than genuinely meaningful sex.

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How To Do Romantic Sub-Plots Right (And Why Some Fail)

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This will probably surprise no one who regularly visits this site, but I love romantic sub-plots. In many cases, they’re my favorite part of a movie, TV show, or comic book. I’ve made my love for romance in general fairly well-known, but romantic sub-plots offer a special kind of appeal.

Now, when I say romantic sub-plots, I’m not referring to the stories built solely around romance, like many of my novels. I’m referring to stories that are primarily presented as another genre, be it sci-fi, fantasy, or a blatant “Die Hard” rip-off, but include a secondary romantic story that runs parallel to the main story.

Sometimes, that story is subtle. Sometimes, it becomes a major catalyst for other parts of the main story. Sometimes, it just adds a little melodrama in between all the bigger, flashier conflicts. Watch pretty much any prime time show on the CW these days and you’ll see examples of every kind to some extent.

As much as I love these sub-plots, though, they can also be frustrating. For every romantic sub-plot I felt was handled well, I can think of five others that were horribly botched. On one end, you have the rich, balanced love story of Han Solo and Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. On the other, you’ve got the inherently toxic love story between Penny and Leonard in “The Big Bang Theory.”

There’s so much variety and diversity to romantic sub-plots that I could spend an entire weekend going through all of them. However, for the sake of making a more concise point, I want to focus on what makes a romantic sub-plot truly compelling. Regardless of genre, medium, or scope, a good romantic sub-plot can really enhance the overall plot.

Like every other sub-plot or storytelling tactic, though, romantic sub-plots are prone to all sorts of tropes, cliches, and traditions. Some are more useful than others. However, some can create obstacles and pitfalls that derail an otherwise promising romantic sub-plot.

While I don’t consider myself an expert on all the mechanisms that go into a good romantic sub-plot, I do know plenty of others out there who are far smarter than me and far more capable of explaining the subject in a more comprehensive way. They may not be experts either, but they know how to get the point across.

That’s where wonderful YouTube channels like Overly Sarcastic Productions come in. I’ve referenced it before in previous discussions about strong female characters, but it also provides other extensive breakdowns of various tropes and does it in a colorful, entertaining way, sometimes literally.

One such video in their Trope Talk series covers romantic sub-plots and the breakdown here is the best I’ve seen to date on what makes a good and not-so-good sub-plot. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you watch it. If nothing else, it should put some of your favorite and least favorite romantic sub-plots into a larger context.

There’s a lot of fast-talking, broad-based breakdowns of this trope, which the narrator freely admits she doesn’t fully understand. However, she demonstrates that she understands enough to point out what not to do when pursuing a romantic sub-plot on a fairly basic level. I want to go beyond basics.

The video singles out a few TV shows and cartoons where the romantic sub-plot falls flat, such as “The Legend of Korra” and “Castle.” In both cases, the sub-plot is very shallow in that it’s built entirely on the fact that a straight male and a straight female character work closely together. As such, they become romantically entangled.

Therein likes the most glaring problem, though. Just being two characters who work together is seen as sufficient to justify the sub-plot. As a result, there’s no effort to build meaningful chemistry between the characters. In some cases, there isn’t even an effort to establish whether they’re romantically compatible with one another.

This is probably the most common, not to mention the most annoying, problem that arises when romantic sub-plots enter a story. The sub-plot is given the bare minimum in terms of depth, relying on the audience to fill in the blanks as to why these two should be together.

This happens a lot in the superhero genre. Romantic sub-plots and soap operas are the cornerstone of some of the most iconic superhero comics, TV shows, and movies. One of the most epic examples, the Dark Phoenix Saga, is set to become a movie next year. However, I would argue that the superhero genre is most guilty of this common shortcoming.

Take, for instance, the first “Iron Man” movie and the romantic sub-plot between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. Never mind the fact that these two characters don’t have much of a romance in the comics. The first movie and the two successful sequels that follow do plenty to establish Tony and Pepper as the primary romance of the story. However, it does little to show why these two belong together.

The same thing happens with Thor and Jane Foster in the first two “Thor” movies. Unlike Iron Man, the comics establish a more robust romantic history between these two. The movies, however, do little to drawn from this history. They rely solely on the fact that Thor spends a little time around Jane, she’s attracted to him, and that’s all that’s necessary for the romance to unfold.

Again, it’s shallow in that it relies too heavily on the audience to fill in the gaps of chemistry and compatibility. For any functional romance, those gaps are pretty big. Just getting together is only a small part of that process and the story around it. Movies like “Thor” and “Iron Man” give the impression that just being around each other long enough is sufficient. These characters don’t have to actually work on their romance.

Compare that to the much more developed romances in the superhero genre, such as Barry and Iris in “The Flash” TV show. In that romance, just getting together isn’t the end of the story. It’s just part of it. Barry and Iris actually work, struggle, sacrifice, and even argue at times, but that’s exactly what makes their relationship so meaningful.

Outside the superhero genre, there are other ways the romantic sub-plot gets derailed in a way that’s more annoying than entertaining. I think “Friends” was one of the worst offenders with Ross and Rachel because almost the entirety of the sub-plot was built around them struggling to get together. Sure, the process of two people coming together can be compelling, but that can’t be the whole story.

Movies tend to struggle with it even more, but mostly due to logistical reasons. There’s only so much romantic development you can squeeze into a two or three hour movie. However, it can be done. Despite being brief and tragic, the sub-plot of Sarah Conners and Kyle Reese in the original “Terminator” movie showed that it is possible for a romantic sub-plot to be meaningful within those limitations.

Far more often, though, movies try to rush a sub-plot or outright force it. That’s part of what makes any romance hard to take seriously. In a movie like “Jurassic World,” where you have two very different characters in Claire and Owen, it really has to be forced because outside the plot of the movie, it’s hard to imagine these two having a meaningful relationship.

In some respects, that’s a good litmus test for any romantic sub-plot. If you can’t see the characters involved functioning outside the plot of the movie, then chances are the romantic sub-plot is fundamentally flawed. It’s easy to imagine iconic couples like Superman and Lois Lane, Cyclops and Jean Grey, or even Allie and Noah in “The Notebook” enjoying a functional relationship past the final credits.

Even for couples where it’s harder to picture them outside a conflict, it helps when a romantic sub-plot still puts in extra effort to make the romance believable. While this is a challenge in movies, TV, and comics, I’ve actually seen this handled a lot better in modern video games.

Romantic sub-plots are important elements of popular games like the “Uncharted” series. What makes that sub-plot effective, though, is how much time and energy is put into establishing why a man like Nathan Drake would be with a woman like Elena Fisher. It even goes out of its way to show how these two characters create a genuinely functional relationship towards the end.

While it might be a bit of a stretch, I would also cite the “Mass Effect” series that I’ve praised before in how well it handles romantic sub-plots. Now, it’s a stretch because the game is structured in a way where the player can choose a particular romantic sub-plot or choose to not have one at all. That makes the story a lot more fluid than a movie or TV show, but it still manages to create depth for a sub-plot.

That depth shows, regardless of which romantic sub-plot the player chooses. Whether it’s Shepard and Liara, Shepard and Ashley, or Shepard and Garrus, the game provides opportunities for depth and development. If you follow the sub-plot through to the end, the romance has genuine dramatic weight.

In the end, that’s the most important impact of any romantic sub-plot. When done right, it adds greater weight to the overall narrative. It creates an emotional dimension that goes beyond just achieving a goal or surviving a conflict. It fleshes out the emotions, passions, and desires of the characters involved.

Conversely, it can really disrupt the plot when done wrong. I’ve already covered how the worst love triangle in history derailed the X-men movies. Talk to any “Star Wars” fan and they’ll probably say the poor romance between Anakin Skywalker and Padme was the most disappointing part of the prequels not named Jar Jar Binks.

To some extent, a romantic sub-plot is a gamble. It stretches the odds, but it also increases the payout. When it fails, it can fail pretty spectacularly. When it works, though, it can make for some of the most dramatic, passionate moments in a story. As an unapologetic romance lover, I say it’s a gamble worth taking.

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Publishing Efforts Update: ANOTHER REJECTION

A while back, I announced that I had submitted a manuscript for what I’d hoped would be my third published novel. I’d submitted it to the same publisher that had previously published my first two novels, “Passion Relapse” and “Rescued Hearts.” I hoped to continue building a larger catalog with them in the name of building a stronger partnership.

Well, I’m sorry to say that I heard back from them and the news was not what I had hoped. For the second submission in a row, I got a rejection letter. It wasn’t a mean one. The editors I work with are incredibly considerate and given all the submissions they get, they’ve been wonderful to work with every step of the way. Unfortunately, they just couldn’t get behind my story.

It is disappointing. I had high hopes for this manuscript. I wrote it with the intention of making it a real niche title that would’ve appeal to a specific segment of the erotica/romance market. I thought that would give it more appeal than the last manuscript I submitted. I guess I was mistaken.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with this or the other one they rejected. I’m still struggling to find other publishers who are willing to hear me out. However, I am not discouraged and I still intent to keep submitting.

As I write this, I’m putting what I hope to be the finishing touches on my next manuscript. This one is a bit more general and should appeal to more romance fans. It has many similar elements to “Passion Relapse” and “Rescued Hearts.” I have high hopes for it and hope to submit it soon. I also have another draft that I’m hoping to finish in the coming weeks.

In any case, I have plenty of sexy stories to tell, including more sexy short stories. This is a setback, but it’s not a defeat.

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On My Favorite Romance Movie: “Crazy/Beautiful”

When it comes to romance movies, most men will never admit they have a favorite. They usually won’t admit to ever having sat through a movie, unless they were with a woman they were desperately trying to bang. It’s just not a very macho thing to do, admitting you actually enjoy romance movies.

However, if you hook those same macho men up to a polygraph, strap a jumper cable to their balls, and threaten to shave their head with a brick, though, most will concede that they have watched a romance movie. They’ll even admit they have a favorite. Up the voltage on the jumper cables, they’ll even admit to getting choked up while watching it.

There’s no need to subject me to such torture. I freely admit that I’ve watched romance movies from beginning to end. I’ve even seen them in theaters by myself and without a date. I’m a romance-loving guy. I admit that with no shame. If anyone wants to give me crap about it, then they can kiss my romance-loving ass.

I even have a favorite romance movie, one that I think has inspired me in my efforts to become an erotica/romance writer. It wasn’t some big blockbuster. It wasn’t some shameless Oscar push either. It didn’t even have killer robots, explosions, or comic book characters. I’ll give everyone who has noted my love of comics a moment to stop gasping.

It wasn’t a box office smash. It wasn’t a critical darling either. I don’t care. It’s still the premier romance movie by which I measure all others. It came out in 2001 and it’s called “Crazy/Beautiful.” I’ll give everyone another moment to stop rolling their eyes.

This isn’t one of those romance movies that’s too cheesy or too dramatic. It’s also not overly serious or overly cynical, either. It’s just a sweet, sexy story about two young people falling in love, going through some upheavals, and coming together in the end. Again, it’s one of those concepts that gets the jaded cynics of the world to roll their eyes, but still feels undeniably real at the end of the day.

The story is somewhat basic, but mature in a sense. The characters involved are Nicole Oakley, played by Kirsten Dunst just before her fame peaked with “Spider-Man,” and Carlos Nuñez, played by Jay Hernandez, who is best known for his work on TV shows like “Nashville” and “Gang Related.” From the very beginning, there’s some very heated chemistry between both characters.

Like many other love stories, both characters are from different worlds. Nicole is the rebellious child of a wealthy, but broken family. Her mother is gone, but her father remarries a woman who she does not get along with. Being young, beautiful, and hormonal, she ditches the comfortable settings of her home and looks for adventure on the rougher parts of town.

That’s where she finds Carlos, a young Latino man with dreams of rising above his rough upbringing. He’s on the football team. He has dreams of becoming a pilot. He’s not some stereotypical bad boy that women get with for all the wrong reasons. He’s the kind of guy you actually root for to succeed. That’s what draws Nicole to him and the chemistry they create is pretty damn hot.

It doesn’t take some horrible tragedy or elaborate circumstance for these two to come together. Nicole and her friend are just out partying on the rough side of town when their paths cross. They flirt, they tease, and they fool around like actual, normal teenagers do in real life. It’s sweet, it’s sexy, and it feels so genuine and real.

That’s a big part of what appeals to me and what sets movies like “Crazy/Beautiful” apart from typical romance, many of which follow the same bland formula. Many romance movies feel as though the love between the two characters needs to be epic, intense, or tragic. Sure, that has created some pretty iconic romances, but those romances are iconic for a reason.

Not every couple needs to be Romeo and Juliet or Princess Leia and Han Solo from “Star Wars.” In fact, trying to recreate those romances can underscore the actual chemistry between them. It happens all the time in comics, especially with couples like Batman and Catwoman. It happens even more in movies, especially when tragedy is a big factor, like “Titanic.”

Granted, these kinds of romances have their unique appeal, but they’re often lacking in depth and development. That’s where “Crazy/Beautiful” really shines. It gives amazing depth to Nicole and Carlos’ relationship. It actually goes through a process, not unlike the one actual people use when they fall in love.

First, they meet and feel an attraction. Then, they start exploring that attraction. They start learning about each other, from their hopes and dreams to their past and failures. They actually learn about each other and even help each other, something failed romances in the real and fictional world often fail to do.

Then, there are the sexy moments. Yes, there are many sexy moments in “Crazy/Beautiful” that men and women alike can appreciate. There are scenes where both characters get naked. It’s a time when Kirsten Dunst’s sex appeal was at its peak. There are scenes where she’s walking around in her underwear and it’s a true sight to behold.

It helps add to another important element in “Crazy/Beautiful” that stands out. It’s very sex positive. Throughout the movie, the sexy moments Carlos and Nicole share aren’t full of complications or reservations. They’re just sweet, intimate moments. Some are loving. Some are just two horny teenagers wanting to get laid. It’s never shown in a negative light. They might be the most sex positive themes outside of the “Deadpool” movie.

Beyond the sex and the chemistry, the biggest and arguably most important element that makes “Crazy/Beautiful” my favorite romance movie is how strong the romance becomes. It’s not enough that Carlos and Nicole share attraction and sexual chemistry. It’s how they actually complement each other, making one another stronger in the end.

What really makes that connection stand out shows towards the end when they each show that they’re willing to sacrifice for each other. They’re willing to step off the path they’ve laid for themselves, find each other, and forge a new path together. That’s the kind of sacrifice real couples learn to make, but are rarely shown in movies that don’t rip-off “Titanic.” I’ll give a moment for “Avatar” fans to stop gritting their teeth.

When all is said and done, Nicole and Carlos are both better because of their love for each other. It’s not just because they’re have someone to have sex with that they love. Their lives objectively improve. Carlos realizes his dream of being a pilot. Nicole develops a better relationship with her family. Their love, and all its sexy chemistry, is a net gain for everybody.

It may not appeal to those who think every love story needs to have an element of tragedy. There are moments in “Crazy/Beautiful” where the story could’ve taken a tragic turn. That doesn’t happen and that’s a good thing. It makes for a satisfying, genuine, heart-felt ending.

You can easily see Nicole and Carlos getting married, having kids, and still having hot sex. It’s a romance that feels truly complete. It has that Hollywood sex appeal, but it’s genuine enough that you can easily see it happening in the real world.

That’s a big part of why this movie appealed to me so much when I first saw it. It gave the impression that love could exist in the real and fictional world. It could be sexy, intimate, and powerful without aliens, robots, or super powers. To someone who had grown up on comic books and cartoons, that was a revolutionary idea for me.

While “Crazy/Beautiful” will never go down in history as an epic love story, its ability to be romantic, sexy, and real helps set it apart. It presents a romance that feels achievable in the real world. I believe that we all need that sort of thing every now and then. As fun as epic love stories can be, sometimes it’s refreshing to know that two ordinary people from different walks of life can fall in love and have hot sex.

Maybe there will come a day when I see another romance movie that tops “Crazy/Beautiful” in all the relevant ways. While “Deadpool” came close, “Crazy/Beautiful” still holds a special place in my heart and my pants. It helped influence me in my passion for writing erotica/romance. I sincerely hope its impact helps me craft something as romantic and sexy.

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“Passion Relapse” Release Just One Week Away!

This is just a friendly reminder that my first published book, “Passion Relapse,” is only one week away. That’s right! In just one week, I’ll be able to celebrate my first published book. I’m more excited than a fly in a shit factory. I hope to share that excitement with as many people as possible.

So please mark your calendar if you already haven’t. On April 18th, 2017, the first book by Jack Fisher will hit the stands. So stock up on clean panties, tissues, and lube. The wait is almost over!

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