Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Diction Plus Tone Equals Voice

I’m not a poet and I don’t even see myself that way, but I have the fundamental key I think to a poets nature.  I love words and language.  This applies to point of view. 

I’ve been studying a couple of craft books by Mary Oliver, a pulitzer prise winning poet.  She has several chapters which I need to read several times on the subject of voice.  In poetry it’s called “diction”, voice and tone.  Diction refers to your choice of words.  The overall effect of this choice of words is called “tone”.  The diction and tone together give rise to the “persona” of the person telling the poem or story.  In my opinion this “persona” is the key to your choice of point of view, and most especially if it’s the first person point of view.

Erotica more than other forms of genre fiction, except maybe horror, is a very physical and personal form of expression. I’m talking about literary erotica in particular.  I believe it should be written with some immediacy from the senses from the dark waters of the unconscious.  Some writers like Anais Nin can get cerebral about it and still make it work, but she’s an exception because of her ability to color it with the mysteries of a character’s inner quirks.  People should be able to feel what you’re describing physically and emotionally.  You do this partly by letting them fill in the blanks in your description, but also very often by speaking in the voice of experience of the deciding character.  The most common mistake I see in erotic writing, or at least the method I take issue with, is speaking  from the main character without giving them a specific personality in that voice.  That voice, when you get it right, can be the most fun part of reading the story.  A reader will forgive you for a lot if you can get that voice right.  And giving that voice a persona can really drive the story forward for you as a writer.  But it has to be a voice that matches the character.

In poetry, and I’d say also just as much in prose, the sound of the word, its accuracy and its meaning creates the atmosphere of a poem.  In old school horror writing like Lovecraft or Poe it seems like the story is 70 percent about atmosphere.  The author is making a slow hand build up to a final effect that rises from the gathered gloom.  In “Masque of the Red Death” the first half of the story is dedicated entirely to the description of the rooms in Prince Prospero’s castle, with almost no character description except to let you know he’s a selfish guy.  “The Cask of Amontillado” is a short expository blast about Montressor’s unexplained hatred of Fortunato and then therest of the story is his first person description of the cellar they’re going down too.  “The Tell Tale Heart” told from the first person is the obtuse and obsessive voice of a dangerous loon.  What is interesting about that voice is the immediate lack of self awareness in the speaker, his capacity for self delusion:

“ . . . TRUE! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses --not destroyed --not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story. . . .”

Poe was actually onto a great spiritual truth here about the nature of evil.  Evil does not know itself.  Evil is ego gone wild and refusing to see itself.  But what is also special about this voice is – it is a voice.  A distinct voice.  The voice of a dangerous loon.  You know this guys personality.  You know who he would vote for for president and why.   This is the carefully thought out effect of Diction + Tone = Voice.  You feel this man, wide eyed and self absorbed grab you by the collar, like The Ancient Mariner or a wino in an alley, and haul you away from what you were doing to make you listen to his story from beginning to end no matter what.  He’s your crazy Uncle at Thanksgiving dinner except this guy kills people and cuts out their heart.  This is ego gone boundless and is at the heart of true evil, the absence of empathy.

Here’s the First Person Present Tense voice of another evil maniac, very different from Poe’s:

“  . . . At the brownstone next to Evelyns a woman – high heels, great ass – leaves without locking her door.  Price follows her with his gaze and when he hears footsteps coming down the hallway toward us he turns around straightens his Versace tie ready to face whatever.  Courtney opens the door and she’s wearing a Krizia cream silk blouse, a Krizia rust tweed skirt and silk satin d’Orsay pumps from Manolo Blahnik. . . “
                        "American Psycho"  Brett Easton Ellis

Now wait – read that again.  He doesn’t just describe her clothes, he knows their brand, how much they cost probably and even what store they come from.  Throughout the book wall street master of the universe and human monster Patrick Bateman will do this with every person he meets, it will become his signature and an expression of his governing characteristic, a manic obsession with social status.  He kills a male friend with a fashionably expensive stainless steel ax  possibly for simply having a nicer business card than his.  This a great device.  The first time you read him doing that, you think its annoying.  The third time its really annoying.  After reading him do that every single time it begins to sink in for you - this guy is dangerously nuts.

And how about this distinctive voice, the narrator Mattie Ross from Charles Portis' great book "True Grit":

"  . . . People do not give it credence that a fourteen year old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen everyday. . . ."

The use of the outmoded word "credence" as a noun and the lack of contractions (did not) give it the 19th century parlor room formality of a daguerreotype.

Here are two of my voices, from stories (published) told from first person voices:

“ . . . The old prize fighters would bust your nose or your ribs.  A punch to the kidney that would make you piss blood for a couple days.  We sex fighters, we bust your will to live.  We take away your will to be free.  People look naked to us.  We see inside your mind.    You just think you know what you want, bitch.  I know what you really want, because that’s how I get you.  That’s how I take you down.  I look at you bitch - I know what you want way better than you do.  I know it even before you know it.  That’s because I see you.  I see you like God sees you. . . .”             
                            from “The Peanut Butter Shot”

Crude language.  Short punchy sentences like jabs to the face.  You don’t like this guy.  But you’re curious to find out what’s going to happen to him because you get a sense of what kind of a person he is.  Yeah, reader, that’s how I get you.  That’s how I take you down.

And then there is this paragraph (Sorry Lisabet, I know you’ve seen this paragraph about fifty times at least  by now, I just really like it) which begins one of my vampire stories

“ . . . . Blood has a range of taste, as scent has a range of aroma. Blood has a high level taste
and an under taste. It is a blending of elements like music. This is also the way of scent.
The under aroma will show you there is a trail and betrays to you the direction. If the
scent becomes fresher you are following the creature that produced it, so you must use
the under scent to know which direction is older and which is newer. It is as though the
air is filled with singing voices and you are picking out a single voice. The high scent
will tell you about the individual, the condition of the individual, if it is injured or sick,
horny or filled with fear. It will tell you how to catch him, where he is likely to run to. To
acquire the high scent the animal, or myself, must pause to commune with the air and pay
attention. Close the eyes. Hold the nose still and just so. Let the night air speak. It is the
same with the deep taste of blood, except that scent is on the move, and if you are tasting
the blood – well. It is no longer on the move. . . . .” 
                         (Opening Paragraph “The Lady and the Unicorn”)

There is a lot going on in this paragraph.  There is a deliberate styling of Diction + Tone = Voice.  This is the voice of a sensitive young woman while at the same time being the voice of a practiced predator and hunter of humans.  An affection for the night, an ironic humor.  An absence of empathy.  She never says she's dangerous, she never boasts, but by the end of the paragraph she doesn't have to.

People write things their own way.  But in my case what I love is language and the sound of language.  Its why I want to see characters get a voice.  It's how I love them.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Through Whose Eyes?

By Lisabet Sarai

When the police colonel walked into my bar, I knew it was a bad sign. I was pretty sure that I was up-to-date on protection money. I knew the documents proving that all my girls were over eighteen were stowed in my safe, and I'd done a drug check only yesterday, but I couldn't help worrying.

Police Colonel Apichat wasn't a bad sort. He was always polite, both to me and to my girls, when he came by to pick up the monthly envelope of cash. Occasionally, he'd even accept my offer of a drink. He'd sit at the bar, nursing a Chang beer, hungry eyes surveying the dancers as though he wanted to devour them.

I'd send over two of my prettiest employees to try and cheer him up, but with all their teasing and flirting, he rarely smiled.

That night, though, he looked even more serious than usual. And he was not alone. Behind his wiry, dark-skinned frame I saw the crewcut bulk of his lieutenant, Narongchai. The girls called him Kwai, buffalo, though he reminded me more of a gorilla.

I hurried over to Apichat, and gave him respectful wai. "Colonel, this in an unexpected pleasure. Please come inside. Can I offer you and your companion a drink?"

"Thank you, Madame," he said in English. He always speaks English to me, even though he knows that I'm fluent in Thai. "We are on duty. In any case, we come to tell you the terrible news."

Terrible news? Was the government on another morality and social order campaign?

~ Bangkok Noir. First person, past tense

Three years since I last saw him, and now his plane is late. I perch on the edge of the chair across from the American Airlines desk where he told me to meet him, tension winding me tighter with every moment.

It’s always like this. My chest aches. It’s difficult to breathe. My nipples are as taut and swollen as if he already had them wrapped in elastic bands. I try not to be distracted by the stickiness between my bare thighs. I glance at the arrivals screen. His flight has just landed. Ten minutes, fifteen at most, before I can expect him. I fill my lungs deliberately and try to slow my racing pulse.

I hover between joy and terror. It has been so long, too long. What will he think of me, the strands of gray in my hair, the new wrinkles? What will he ask of me? Will I be able to give him what he needs? I remember other reunions, too few, too short. No time for more than a few kisses, a few playful swats on my bared butt. I remember lying on his lap in Golden Gate Park, my skirt flipped up around my waist. I can precisely recreate my shame and my excitement. I recall slouching down in the front seat of his car in a dark, sweltering parking garage, while he unbuttoned my blouse and dabbled his fingers in my cunt, naming me as his slut. A few hours every few years is all we manage, a country and my marriage separating us even as our history and our fantasies draws us together.

~ Reunion. First person, present tense

She's glad to be his slave. She's just not too crazy about being his housekeeper and maid, at least not these days.

When they first moved in together, he used to make her strip before she vacuumed the carpets or washed the floors. He'd watch her, sitting in the wing-backed chair that they bought together at the garage sale, as she strutted around in her collar and high heels, pushing the mop in front of her.

"Arch your back," he'd order. "Stick out your butt."

She'd struggle to keep her balance as she obeyed, her pussy liquefying as it always did at the sound of his voice. She could feel his eyes on her buttocks like a physical caress. He wouldn't miss the signs, the flush on her face, the taut nipples, the musky scent that wafted through the apartment. When he was paying attention, his powers of observation were astounding. Not to mention his powers of seduction.

~ Domestic Goddess. Third person, limited, present tense.

Kit couldn't concentrate. She tried to force her mind back to the list of enzymatic cofactors scrolling by on her screen, but her thoughts kept evading the task, slipping away to her damned annoying neighbor. Well, not to him, exactly, but to his hands and his tongue and the things he did with them.

She closed her eyes, rubbing her temples against the first twinges of a headache. She saw kaleidoscopic lights, smelled cinnamon, cannabis and male sweat. She felt the soft fur of his beard brushing over her bare pubis. A bolt of electricity shot through her, leaving her damp and breathless in its wake. Damn, damn, damn.

"Kit? Kit!" Jill was shaking her. Kit blinked stupidly at her friend. "Where were you, girl?"

"Oh, um, I was just working on the bilateral polymerization reaction. Trying to visualize how the radicals would align. What's up?"

"Lunch time. Want to come with me to the caf for a quick bite?"

"Um, I don't think so. Thought I'd go home for lunch. I left some notes there, and it's such a beautiful day. I could do with a walk." Kit couldn't meet Jill's eyes. There were no notes.

~ Chemistry. Third person, limited, past tense.

Once upon a time, in an old port city north of the capital where the clippers used to flit in and out of the bay like giant butterflies, there were three witches. Well, only two of them knew they were witches, at least at the start of the story.

Marguerite, who counted Portuguese traders and African shamans among her ancestors, sported a frenzy of lustrous black hair and was partial to silk. She had inherited a rambling clapboard house that perched on the hill overlooking Western Harbor, which she had filled with ancient Chinese porcelain, Colonial silver, Hindu carvings of entwined gods, and bright tribal hangings woven from alpaca wool or mulberry bark. She had no regular employment. Once or twice a year, shed invite the public into her museum-like abode, to sell a few artifacts with which shed became bored and scout out people who might be worth collecting.

Beryl hailed from generations of Boston Irish, as one might guess from her fiery curls and milk-white, freckle-dusted complexion. She ran an antiquarian bookstore on Main Street, on one of the few blocks that had not yet succumbed to chain drugstores and tacky souvenir shops, and lived in a bungalow at the end of one of the Necks tiny lanes. With her tie-dyed dresses, dangling earrings and hand-made sandals, she fit perfectly into the artistscolony. Her talents, however, lay in realms other than painting and sculpture.

Over their years together, Marguerite and Beryl had been responsible for much unexpected good fortune and not a little mischief. The townspeople didnt realize how much of the citys special qualitiesthe invigorating crispness of the breeze, on even the hottest daysthe crystalline sparkle of sunlight on the wavesthe welcoming sense of history that pervaded the narrow streetswas the work of their resident witches. However, duality limited the womens power. They were well aware that they needed a third to complete their circle and perfect their occult abilities. However, you cant simply conjure a witch into existence. You must wait for her to appear on her own.

~ The Witches of Gloucester (WIP). Third person omniscient, past tense.

"Which would you prefer, Sarah, the cane or the feather duster?"

"Is that a trick question?"

"Why do you ask? Don't you trust me?"

"Of course I do. But you do have a way of twisting things around in unexpected directions."

"I thought you liked surprises. In any case, as your Master it's my responsibility to add a certain - ambiguity - to our interactions. To keep you on your toes."

"These ridiculous spike heels do that well enough."

"If I hear any more complaints or excuses, Sarah, I will make you very sorry. And I don't mean something you'd enjoy like a spanking or nipple clamps."


"Sarah! Just answer my question. Now."

"Well... I choose the cane."

"Really? Why is that? You're blushing, you know. Tell me why you prefer the cane."

"Well - um - I think it will hurt more. And that it will please you more, to see me enduring that pain."

"But I asked what you wanted. Not what you think I'd want."

~ Trick or Treat. Third person omniscient? Present tense.

Close your eyes. Let your breathing slow and deepen. Feel the blood waking your bare skin. The moonlight teases, silvery silk against your eyelids. Don't give in. The dark is what you need, not the moon's caress.

Can you feel my breath, warm against your neck? Or is it only the autumn breeze drifting in your window? You sense my presence, but you are as always a skeptic. My lips hover above the pulse at your throat. You could swear you feel the heat, the vibration, the waves my fingers stir in the air as I trail them down the length of you.

~ Offering. Second person, present tense.

We make our choices, often blindly. Then we live with the consequences.

It's your fiftieth birthday, I'm half a world away, and married to someone else. I honestly don't know which is the bigger obstacle. No, scratch that. If today's experiment is successful, the distance will mean nothing.

I want to help you celebrate. To give you something special. Romantic and cynic that you are, I want to prove to you my enduring devotion, across time and space. I want to give back to you some of the magic you've shared with me.

~Limbo. Second person?? present tense.

For the next two weeks here at the Grip, we’ll be talking about perspective and point of view. As illustrated by the snippets above, I’ve experimented with a variety of different perspectives. Although strictly speaking, tense is not a part of the POV question, I tend to consider the two elements together because they interact. Together they combine to produce different feelings or voices. Suppose, for instance, that I’d decided to write my short story “Chemistry” in the present tense:

Kit can't concentrate. She tries to force her mind back to the list of enzymatic cofactors scrolling by on her screen, but her thoughts keep evading the task, slipping away to her damned annoying neighbor. Well, not to him, exactly, but to his hands and his tongue and the things he did with them.

She closes her eyes, rubbing her temples against the first twinges of a headache. She sees kaleidoscopic lights, smells cinnamon, cannabis and male sweat. She feels the soft fur of his beard brushing over her bare pubis. A bolt of electricity shoots through her, leaving her damp and breathless in its wake. Damn, damn, damn.

To me, these paragraphs feel more immediate, more driven by emotion and sensation, than the original. When you write in the present, even adopting a third person POV, you tend to pull your reader more into the action.

Switch to the first person and the sensations really jump out at you. You’re there with the narrator, feeling every sensation.

I can't concentrate. I try to force my mind back to the list of enzymatic cofactors scrolling by on my screen, but my thoughts keep evading the task, slipping away to my damned annoying neighbor. Well, not to him, exactly, but to his hands and his tongue and the things he did with them.

I close my eyes, rubbing my temples against the first twinges of a headache. I see kaleidoscopic lights, smell cinnamon, cannabis and male sweat. I feels the soft fur of his beard brushing over my bare pubis. A bolt of electricity shoots through me, leaving me damp and breathless in its wake. Damn, damn, damn.

So why didn’t I use the first person, present tense for this story in the first place? For one thing, the it didn’t fit with my character, Kit. She’s a workaholic, used to denying or ignoring her physical and emotional needs. The distancing effects of the third person past made it possible for me to reveal truths to her and to the reader simultaneously. I find that when my characters conscious and unconscious lives diverge, I often choose third person.

On the other hand, most of the time I actually don’t make a choice at all. A particular story “wants” to be written from a specific POV and in a specific tense. I have a sense of the sort of feeling that should accompany the story, its tone, before I write the first paragraph, and I begin to write in the POV and tense that best captures that feeling.

Occasionally, when I’m having trouble with a story, I will realize that the POV is the problem and I’ll switch from first to third, or vice versa. At least 90% of the time, though, I stick with what feels right at the start.

I find that the first person works particularly well for erotica, because of its intensity and immediacy. And despite its technical difficulties, I’m very partial to first person present. Two of my novels (Exposure and Nasty Business, both, alas, currently out of print) use that combination of POV and tense. In fact, Nasty Business alternates among three narrators, all speaking in the first person present,

What do I mean by technical difficulties? When you’re writing present tense, it’s hard to deal with time gaps. This may not be a serious issue for short stories, which often unfold over a period of hours, but most novels cover a longer span. In a first person present narration, you and the reader are inside the character’s head, watching events together as they occur. On the other hand, not every event is relevant to the plot. If you were to describe every moment of the character’s day - brushing her teeth, doing her laundry, walking to the bus stop, riding the bus, climbing the stairs to her office – the book would be incredibly boring. So somehow you need to skip over unnecessary details, without requiring that the character spend too much time unconscious! This is a definite challenge.

Still, I do love that combination. Probably 70% of my erotic work is first person present. In fact, sometimes I deliberately seek out stories to tell using other POVs and tenses, just to introduce some diversity into my literary voice. The witches story above is a good example. I’m putting together a lesbian collection and I thought I needed something very different from my other stories.

Of course, markets sometimes influence the choice of POV. When I first started writing erotic romance, my publisher frowned on using first person. Being a good sub and wanting to please, I adapted. The years seem to have somewhat eroded this prejudice against first person, however. I’ve read first person romance by a number of authors, and gone back to writing it occasionally myself. On the other hand, there’s a genre convention for alternating perspectives between different characters, at least in longer romance works. As noted above, this is easier to do in third person.

Some editors really hate first person. And don’t try to sell a story written in the second person! I’m not sure why, but many erotica editors will toss out a second person story without even reading it. I suspect that this reaction derives from the fact that so many amateur erotic fantasies are written in this mode.

You enter the room where you’ve shackled me to the wall, almost noiseless in your bare feet, but I know you’re there. The blindfold ensures that I can’t see you, but I smell your sweat and that evergreen cologne that drives me crazy. As you rummage in the toy box, I try to identify the implements you’re extracting by their sound.

I’ve heard many complaints about this style. “Why is the author telling ‘you’ what is going on, when the ‘you’ already knows?” I can see the point, but in some situations, the technique can be effective. For one thing, it emphasizes the separation between “I” and “you”.

Of course, this is not exactly second person POV. Similarly, my story “Limbo”, excerpted above, is mostly first person present, but the other main character is referred to as “you” rather than “he”. A true second person tale would not include any “I”. In fact, I’m not sure what that would look like. I doubt that second person would be sustainable over a long work. However, I could be wrong.

And what about the third person “omnisicent” point of view? This was common a hundred years ago, but rarer now. How does this differ from alternating third person limited? I guess the distinction is based on what is revealed. In an omniscient POV, the author possesses and shares information not available to the characters.

I could say more, but I’ve already run on longer than I intended, so I’ll shut up. I will leave further explorations to my august fellow contributors.

However you look at it, though, this is an important craft issue. Through whose eyes will your story be seen? Change the answer and you fundamentally change the story.

Friday, September 26, 2014

To Market, to Market

The first time I remember trying to write for a particular market, I was living in England with my parents and younger sisters for a year. (Many topics ago, I wrote a post here about how I missed a chance to apply for a writing job for the London Daily Telegraph during that time. Sigh.)

I was 22, and hoping to start a writing career. After all, I had won a major student writing award in my last year of high school, so it seemed I wasn’t completely lacking in talent.

I read magazines, hoping to break into that market. Several of them were aimed at women, and they were full of articles on cooking, fashion, home decorating, plus some fiction about “love” (courtship, marriage and childraising). I thought I knew what was expected. I wrote a story to send to a particular journal. (I can’t remember the title of my story or of the magazine, and that’s probably just as well.)

My story was written in first-person, and it featured a doormat devoted wife who is willing to do anything to save her marriage. She discovers that her husband is cheating, so she decides to work really hard to win him back. She doesn’t want to lose her Man, no matter what. She loves him desperately! By the end of the story, there is no evidence that the husband has given up the other woman, but the narrator is hopeful.

I sent this piece off. Several weeks later, I got a personal reply. The editor thought that since I came from Canada, I might try sending my stories to magazines there. She also said that her readers might find the narrator’s attitude disturbing and offensive. Editor said she would consider taking another look at the story if I revised it.

I tried, but since the crisis in the marriage (the husband’s cheating) seemed essential to the plot, I left it in. I also thought the editor would not accept a heroine who slams the door and starts a new life as a divorcee, so I had her stay, after struggling with her feelings and her options. The story was rejected again. It has never been published.

Like the hapless wife in my story, I struggled with my feelings and my options. Should I keep trying to gain some acceptance from a publishing industry that seemed completely oblivious to me? Was I a fool or a masochist? On the other hand, if I decided never to send another story to another editor, would I be acting like a bratty child?

Back in Canada, I got a few poems published in feminist poetry magazines, and eventually got a few stories published in locally-published anthologies. These stories were based on my own experience, and they undoubtedly had more of an authentic vibe than my story about the wife who wants to stay married forever, no matter what. My own marriage lasted less than three years.

Eventually, I read some sexually-explicit stories. I had already discovered that, strangely enough, editors generally seemed to prefer my writing when it was at least loosely based on something I knew than on my understanding of what would “sell.” However, I thought that “erotica” had to have a high ratio of sex scenes to plot.

A certain editor (who was/is known for being blunt) wrote on one of my printed stories: “Enough sex, already.” I thought about this, and realized that after I had thrown the characters together once, and given them umpteen orgasms apiece, the intelligent reader could assume that a pattern had been set. There was no need to beat it to death.

Like others here, I find calls-for-submissions inspiring. Could I write a story about X or Y that includes explicit sex? I’ve been surprised at how often the call acts as fertilizer, and the seed of a story sends out some tentative shoots, usually when the deadline is staring me in the face. I’ve learned that even when the story is based on a theme proposed by an editor, it won’t work unless it comes from somewhere deeper inside me than a perception that submissive wives or alpha males or vampires or billionaires are selling well this year.

None of us can really ignore the zeitgeist, so I’m sure I am influenced by what I read. I rarely have time to read just for pleasure, but I am often asked to review erotica, and I like doing that, so I usually have a TBR pile to tackle in my spare time between stacks of student assignments to grade.

The presence of standard tropes and clichés in erotica and erotic romance makes the exceptions stand out, and those are the books that continue to haunt me after I’ve read the last page.

So I continue to try to find a place among exceptional writers of erotica, the ones who can transform the clichés and pour unexpected amounts of raw feeling – and even social commentary and philosophical depth -- into plots that can be filed in recognizable categories (“paranormal erotic romance,” “urban fantasy”).

As a student of literature, I’ve noticed that the most successful (or most studied) authors of the past were usually stranger in their time than they seem to later generations, because they started trends instead of following them. Quite a few of them had their submissions rejected over and over before they found visionary publishers who were willing to take the risk. Even those authors were not completely original. They must have been influenced by the culture they lived in because it was part of the air they breathed.

So I continue to try to develop stories that originate in memories or dreams into something that an editor might accept. I’ve often been lucky on the second try. I sometimes ask myself whether I have sold out, but then the question is: sold what? My first erotic stories were written in response to calls-for-submissions. It seems that the market and I have worked out a compromise.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Great (Erotic) Conversation

by Annabeth Leong

I'm wary about our current topic because I think it invites a false dichotomy. There are all sorts of writerly arguments that can so easily become limiting traps. Is genre writing of literary value? Are you a sellout if you sell your work? What's the difference between erotica and porn? And the list goes on.

Do I write for the market or for myself?

Hell yeah, I write for the market. I write to spec all the time. I can't remember the last time I started a story without knowing where I wanted to send it when it was finished. As I said in the comments to someone else's post, I find writing to spec inspiring. I see it as a sort of poetic form, a set of constraints that set me free even as they limit me.

I write for the market because I want to sell my work, I want it to be read, and I value the contributions of others. I want to hear what the editor has to say, what the publisher has to say, and what the readers have to say.

I write for the market because I am the market. I spend almost all my disposable income on books. I spend it on books I want to read because they sound fun, and on books that seem important, and on books I feel I must read so I can understand the currents of the mainstream, and on books written by my friends, and on books that contain subjects or characters I want to see more of. Erotica makes up a huge part of what I read. I know what's going on in the field, and I'm writing from that context, to a readership that must look at least something like me, at least some of the time.

I write for the market because I have things to say to the market, in conversation with what else is in the market. I believe the market can be better than it seems and deserves better than it sometimes gets. When I write about a hero who is shorter than the heroine, I do that because I've got something to show people, if they can hear me. I recently heard a writer talk about the things her major publisher believed her hero had to be: tall, white, circumcised, wealthy. I am always writing to the market, a long letter of many thousands of words that say that's not what a hero has to be, that's not what a heroine has to be. Sex is bigger than all of that.

But I'm not so condescending as to believe I'm the only one saying this to the market, or that I'm the only part of the market that wants this. I think this is a movement. I see what's happening in science fiction and fantasy and I feel excited. There is a battle going on, but there is a market demanding diversity and a variety of experiences and perspectives. There are calcified parts of our market, too, but there are parts that are moving, liquefying, swelling with a need I'm very interested in.

Last night, a friend said to me that she is amazed how often she hears that people read erotica because they need it. She said she rarely hears that about other genres. That's how I got into this market, too. I needed erotica, and I still need it. I'm writing for that market. Hell yeah, I am.

And for myself? You'd better believe I'm writing for myself. I've got continents of shame and desire that I'm trying to map, and often I feel I've only covered the shoreline. I'm writing because I have to understand these things, and the fact that I'm also writing for the market does absolutely nothing to dilute that.

Writing to spec helps me keep my head above the water in the mess of feelings I dive into when I'm dredging up my work. It keeps me from losing my way. Losing my way often feels like a danger. I am not the same person I was when I started writing erotica, and I don't want the same things. Honestly, the things I want and think about now would have shocked me when I started—and not because they're a trip to ever greater depravity but because they're strange and delightful and scary and not at all what I expected.

My writing is out ahead of me, as I've said many times. I think I'm inventing a character based on intellectual processes—Celia from Untouched, say, who fucks herself relentlessly but can't so much as hold hands with another person—only to find a message for myself once I dive into the story. I am writing for myself because I am my own undiscovered country.

I am writing for myself because I'm sort of coy with myself and my friends. There are things I need to say, but I can't just come out and say them. Instead, I make those things into stories, and I read them slowly once they are finished and try to come to terms with myself.

I write for myself because I turn myself on. I've never written an erotic story that didn't make me squirm. God, I love the warm sensation that floods my body when I think about these dirty things. I started renting space in an office, and one of the women there often comments on how absorbing my work seems. I love the naughty, inappropriate knowledge of what's got me so caught up. I love fantasizing about excusing myself to the bathroom. I love the breathlessness that comes over me as I get really excited, and I love the way the words begin to fly onto the screen. I don't know who's fucking who anymore. Maybe my characters are fucking each other, and maybe I'm fucking the reader, but probably I've reverted to one of my favorite things—fucking myself, until it hurts.

Fuck yeah, I write for myself. I've become my own lover, and it's only in doing so that I've learned what I can truly give to a real-life lover, and what I truly need to receive.

I'm making this sound beautiful, but I get my heart broken all the time. I break my own heart, and then the market breaks me, too.

Right now, I am heartbroken because I don't know what's going on with Ellora's Cave. They've published four of my books, and I love them all, and now I don't know what will become of them. I have another book, Turn Back Time, that's supposed to come out from EC around Christmas, and it's a story of reconciliation and radical acceptance that I care about a great deal. I have another story on submission to them, titled Challenge Accepted, a simple femdom love story, which I had to write despite having lost my editor. I didn't have enough cynicism in me to do a bad job, and it was bittersweet and heartbreaking to begin to love things about the story even when I didn't know if anyone would care about it once I got it to EC.

I break my own heart, too. I wrote down things in Untouched that make me feel terribly vulnerable. The story of one of my biggest regrets is hidden in there. I've uncovered my secret anger, and desires I can't quite admit to out loud. I cringe when I think about someone reading this book. I ache when I think about no one reading this book. I only managed to write it because I was willing to break my own heart to see what would come out. Then one recent day the Kindle edition went live on Amazon, a representation of my wide-open chest, carrying the weight of hopes and fears I never seem to be able to keep away from a book.

I haven't been participating in real time in the conversations here over the past couple weeks because I couldn't bear to. All this heartbreak is making me feel low, and I wasn't ready to talk about it yet. I spent a couple weeks resting, planning my next move, and I came up with a new project that's more personal and daunting still. I am leading with the chin. I don't know if I can pull it off, and I don't know what will happen if I put it out in the market. I can't keep myself from doing this, though—writing for the market, writing for myself.

I want you all to know that I always read your posts, whether I comment right away or not. The vast majority of the time, I comment eventually. Writing is a conversation, and I can't turn away from it, though sometimes I take long, silent walks in between sentences. I am in conversation with myself. I am in conversation with the market. I am in conversation with you.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Big Bucks!

by Daddy X

Looking forward to a big check from my publisher next quarter! Booya! Just had a big sale of the Halloween-themed “Witching Hour” by House Of Erotica! 

Yep, Annabeth- you’ll see a big jump too, for your fine piece “If I Ask”, the story right before mine: “Overscratch” in that same anthology.

So here’s how it goes— Last week, I went out and bought twenty copies, then took ‘em around to the various sex shops in the SF Bay Area. Obviously, I couldn’t hit all the stores, and I didn’t go for the sleaziest of the bunch (Heheh. maybe one or two, just … y’know, for research purposes?) but I think I may have given enough away to maybe stir a little interest during a Halloween season. Isn’t that how promotion is done?

Could be that makes me the biggest buyer yet.

Of course, the “law of diminishing returns” impacts a project like this, seeing they cost me 10 bucks apiece, and I’m giving them away, spending gas money too, but it’s the way I know to promote myself. Coming from the business-card/personal charm school of advertising, at 70 years old it doesn’t go as far as it used to. Umm … as I’m finding out.

Take marketing, for instance. I know that today, an author has the greatest potential for exposure in history. However, a corked bottle with a note inside, thrown into the ocean, gets a lot of exposure too. Just not that likely you’ll hit people who you’d want to find the bottle and see inside: BUY MY BOOK.

So what’s an old hippie burnout to do? As others here have said, we seem to write for ourselves—other writers of the genre. Many of my finished works can be found in the ERWA archives, a readership consisting mostly of writers. Luckily, that’s enough for now. I’ve made a mark in a genial but competitive endeavor. A medium-sized fish in a small pond. A pond full of erotica writers. Agreed, these readers/writers/critiquers vary vastly in experience and skill, (and we tend to be sensitive folks, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings) but we all know what we like. Sometimes we hit the nail on the head. Sometimes we miss the mark for one and please another. Sometimes we simply miss the mark.

Critiques of my stories can vary, but in general, I think my readership does like the work. But where to take it from there? Success, for most, is measured in money. Having people go into their pockets and hand you cash. That’s where I get lost. I’m past the “growth industry” stage of my life, comfortable in retirement, and not expecting much monetary recompense for my efforts. That’s not so bad. It’s like a ticket to freedom.

When I sit down to write, I generally don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know if what I’m beginning would fill a particular editor/publisher’s niche or not. If lucky, I may have the first sentence and a vague idea for a character. Or for a sex act. It’s enough to be absorbed in a story that’s expanding—often, it feels—without my input. I just push the keys. My characters blaze the way.

Much of my stuff may not be easy to categorize. A typical story begins appearing within a fairly staid, easy to comprehend, even lazy, conversational approach. I build slowly to a gonzo pitch, finally encompassing quite bizarre situations that would be difficult to pull off without the fallow start. I like events to occur that I hadn’t planned, that my characters hadn’t planned, pumping out words as the characters pump each other. The characters go over the top, delving within themselves, losing their minds and bodies and sense of discretion for love. In turn, my fingertips attach themselves to my basest brain-cords, bypassing the conscious mind.

Difficult to go off half-cocked with the weight of a submission call for something specific, and a happy ever after, which editors tend to want. I can’t always guarantee which way that wind’s blowing.

It’s enough that an erotica writer has about the most restrictions on their writing as those of any genre. We have to bow to convention regarding age, content, consent, relations or ad nauseum if we call it erotica, but not if it’s a mainstream novel. A Phillip Roth or Nicholson Baker can get away with what we can’t. So it isn’t that readers don’t want the stronger stuff; it’s just that it’s not supposed to stimulate, exactly what the best erotica blatantly (read heroically) attempts to accomplish. No mean task.

We get into personal squeals and squicks. No doubt there’s as much complex variation of what details turn people on or off sexually as there are people. Remember those scenes and lines by your favorite stroke authors?  The ones that can dependably hooray places between your thighs every time? Your best friend may never respond to N.T. Morley.

Of course, sub-genres within erotica allow for some general classification, but when it gets down to individual readers, who knows? The combinations and requirements are limitless, even to a mood or time of day. This is where the treasure of erotica can be excavated, if we can keep it alive and spontaneous. Trick is to come up with something new. In my opinion, it’s counterintuitive to come up with new ideas when writing to spec. Maybe that’s where I fall down as a writer. The real pros can work within convention and still shine.

Or is it all just a crap shoot lottery, popularity no more predictable than the shape of a snowflake.

In other words, I don’t have much experience in marketing myself as a writer, but I’m trying.

Writing to a new topic every two weeks at Oh Get A Grip has sharpened my confidence, improving my ability to write to spec without feeling nervous or negative about it.