Sunday, August 23, 2009

Selling My Soul

by Lisabet Sarai



It was great when it all began...

My first novel was a labor of love, a spontaneous externalization of my most cherished fantasies. I took my own experiences and desires and reshaped them into a fictional saga that had little in common with my objective history but was deeply revealing of my psychological reality. Of course, I was excited to be offered a publishing contract. Obviously I appreciated the advance. But the driving force behind Raw Silk was a feverish craving for self-expression. I wanted to get all those dirty scenarios out of my head and onto the page. I didn't think much about the potential readers, aside from the two men to whom I dedicated the book. Marketing? I hadn't a clue.

I look back on those early days with nostalgia. Now I'm a brand, albeit hardly a household word. I write for an audience. Sometimes I force myself to write, knowing that I've got to keep the titles coming or the world will forget me. Even more disturbing, sometimes I choose what to write based at least partially on what I think will excite my readers and “build my brand”. My inspiration, such as it is, is filtered though my notions of what will sell.

An example: I recently completed a M/M paranormal novel called Necessary Madness. One of the main characters is a young man devastated by violent, uncontrollable visions of future disasters. He's not actually psychotic, but he might as well be. His wild behavior terrifies everyone around him. He's homeless and alone, living on the street, trying to stay drunk in order to blunt the impact of his terrible power. (The other character is the older cop who picks up the young bum and ultimately falls in love with him.)

When the premise for this story first occurred to me, I saw the prescient, half-mad street person as a young woman. She was slender, dark-haired, raggedly dressed, apparently frail but with reserves of hidden strength. Her name was Keira. Having spent some time myself in psychiatric hospitals when I was in my late teens, I strongly identified with her.

Then Total-E-Bound released my first M/M romance, Tomorrow's Gifts. The Christmas short sold ten times as many copies in the month of its release than any of my other TEB titles. I was astonished, and sad to relate, excited by the larger than normal royalty check. I decided that just maybe, Keira could be recast as Kyle, and the story flipped into the homoerotic genre that appeared to be so popular.

I signed my contract with the Evil One and began to write Necessary Madness, shaping my picture of slender, dark-haired Kyle, a beautiful, tortured young man, dressed in rags, apparently frail but with reserves of hidden strength... and of course, seriously gay.

To be honest, once I got started, the book took on a life of its own. The M/M relationship gave me ideas and provided social nuances that wouldn't have fit in the hetero version of the tale. I'm really pleased with the way it turned out. I love Kyle and Rob and I'm even considering giving them a sequel.

But I still feel somewhat guilty. Instead of listening to my heart, I bent my ear to the fickle voice of fashion.

For money? Well, not exactly. Given the constraints on my time and on my ability to promote, I'm never going to make much from my writing. Sure, I love to see the royalties slipping into my PayPal account. But the real payoff is knowing that a dozen or a hundred or a thousand readers have enjoyed the products of my imagination. I'd rather get a stellar review than a hundred dollar check. (Though of course, the former may eventually lead to the latter.) I live for reader praise and those circulation figures.

I'm no longer writing primarily for self-expression. I'm writing “for the market”.

Now, there are tons of websites, blogs and books that will tell you this is exactly what you should do, if you want to be a successful author. Research what sells, then write to take advantage of the current trends. I don't buy it. I hate to see myself doing it. It feels dishonest and derivative. This is exactly the attitude that leads to the current glut of vampire and shape-shifter stories whose only virtue (with apologies to my fellow Grippers who write these themes) is that they are just like a hundred other stories in their genres. When I read, I crave something original, startling, unexpected. Yet here I am giving readers the same stuff as all the other authors who are out there clamoring for attention.

When someone asks me what advice I'd give beginning authors, I always say, “Write what you love; don't pay too much attention to what sells.” These days, I feel like something of a hypocrite. Sure, I do love writing about the erotic, in whatever guise. I'd written a few M/M stories before I realized how popular they were. I wrote F/F stories, too, but these days I tend to push my F/F ideas to the back burner if I'm targeting the romance market, because they (apparently) don't sell.

I do give some of my work away. As I said, I'm not really in it for the money. I've contributed stories to five of Alessia Brio's Coming Together anthologies, several of which I've written specifically for the theme of the collection and have not submitted elsewhere. I also offer many free stories on my website and my publishers' sites. I have to admit, though, that despite my sincere support for the causes Alessia has championed, I also see this as marketing.

Now I'm considering embarking on a new project, a sequel to Raw Silk. I worry, however, that I won't be able to create the same vibrant intensity I did in the original. Over the past ten years since that book was published, I've definitely learned a lot about writing. I have far more control over my craft. When I re-read Raw Silk, some of it comes across as clichéd and stilted. Still, the passion shines through—the thrill of sexual discovery, the breathless excitement of serious power exchange.

Can I duplicate that? Obviously not—I'm a different person than I was in 1999. Let me ask instead, can I suppress my craving for approval and popularity and once again write completely from the heart?

Only time will tell. I can only hope that document signed in my blood has an expiration clause.

20 comments:

  1. I'm delighted to see that A Necessary Madness is m/m, as I don't read m/f. As far as being swayed by fashion goes, I think (but I'm not a writer) that if you were not happy with the end result and if the characters and story had not, as you say, "taken on a life of their own", then perhaps a little residual guilt would be appropriate. *g*
    With a sequel in mind, can you not regard the change as a happy meshing of practicality, timing and a good story?

    Cheers!
    p.s. Any idea when ANM will be out? No sign of it yet at TEB.

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  2. Hello, H,

    Thanks for your comments and your encouragement.

    I've submitted Necessary Madness to TEB but haven't gotten any feedback yet. However, it is targeted for a December release, since it turned out to include (quite unexpectedly) a Christmas theme.

    I guess that you're right, I shouldn't complain if the tale worked out. Of course, only the market will tell if my intuitions about the story are justified...!

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

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  3. Hi Lisabet,

    Great post.

    At the back of my mind I kept thinking of Dr Johnson's words that "No one but a blockhead ever wrote for anything except money."

    I'm really looking forward to seeing everyone else's take on the theme this week.

    Best,

    Ashley

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  4. Dr. Johnson is an idiot. I write because I can't not write. I may even make a penny or two. Sure, I'd love to be paid for what I do and I do have two, no, three, books published.

    I write humor and nonfiction. My goals are to get at least one smile a day from someone and to leave something that lives after me.

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  5. Dear Unwriter,

    When I was younger and less jaded, I felt the same way. I've been writing ever since I was five or six, really. I just "had the urge" and couldn't deny it. Now though, my motivations seem to be more mixed.



    ----

    Hi, Ash,

    I don't necessarily agree with the old Doc. I think he may have been trying to be curmudgeonly anyway.

    But I agree, I'm very interested to see what the rest of you have to say about this.

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  6. As a long time reader and reviewer of erotic romance, particularly M/M, I appreciate contests and gifts. I choose authors that I like to review and have taken new (to me) authors, which has given me new authors to like, but I rarely have the money to buy ebooks. I hope to read/buy Necessary Madness but it would be great to win it or another like it.

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  7. Phew, Lisabet, I can see this is going to be one very interesting week.

    Reading your post, I sense a passion and love for 'Raw Silk' that still shines very bright in you. Yes, your writing has changed, your life has moved on, but then so can the characters in your new book. I also sense that when you write, you don't think much on promotions or craving approval. Instead, you let yourself sink into the story and the characters. If you write it, I"m very sure you'll be true to who and what they are.

    I am so looking forward to what everyone posts this week!

    Hugs

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  8. Hey Lisabet,

    Does Claire know you refer to her as 'The Evil One'? LMAO- Just kidding.

    I understand how you feel. My first novel was romantic suspense and I was so proud of it. I could hand it to my family and friends, put it on local bookshelves, do book signings, the works. Though it got some great reviews, it sold a mere handful of copies. I discovered soon after that, people want to read what goes on in the bedroom, not the closed door stuff.

    I started a sequel to the first novel and honestly, have never finished it. If I thought it could find a good home and sell a few copies, I would try. But right now, I'm so busy smutting it up I don't have time for something that might not sell. *G*

    Great post.
    Jenna

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  9. Lisabet - I always love your posts. They get me thinking. I write every day so it's a job to me. The money comes in in dribbles and in the form of Royalty checks but I need to tutor and do College-Essay writing seminars to financially bulk up. Do I give my work away? Yes, I have. To reviewers. To people on the street. I carry copies of my book in the trunk of my car just in case I meet that editor from Vogue or Vanity Fair or Oprah (like they're gonna be walking around San Jose, but ya never know!) I value what I do. It's hard work to be really good, like it is in anything you succeed at. I love writing and am so addicted to it now, like the writer Kate Braverman who once said this, I think I really have a raw need to continue doing it. I love inspiring other writers, especially the young newbies. I love being a contest judge and getting up on stage to praise the winners. Do I wish I got paid more. Hell, yes. But I'm not done yet. Keep the good work and posts coming Lisabet...Mary Kennedy Eastham, Author, 'The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget' and the upcoming novel, 'Night Surfing'

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  10. Wow Lisabet, this is very very honest. I don't have anything insightful to add to it because I think you've pretty much said it all. What can we do? Money in its way equals approval.

    Garce

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  11. Hi, Marcy,

    Thanks for dropping by. If and when NM gets published, I'll definitely have a giveaway contest. And hopefully lots of copies for reviewers, too - just email me and ask!

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

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  12. Hello, Jude,

    I wish/hope that what you say is true. But I find myself doing self-censoring as I write, thinking, "Hmm, will the readers like that? Is that too raw? Too far away from the main relationship?" Is this part of the craft, or pandering to the market? I really don't know.

    I have a post up on the ERWA blog called "Jekyll and Hyde" - about my split personality writing both erotica and romance:

    http://erotica-readers.blogspot.com/2009/08/jekyll-and-hyde.html

    Cheers,
    Lisabet

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  13. Honestly, Jenna,

    I was not referring to Claire! The idea never crossed my mind!

    No, we make our own devils.

    Best,
    Lisabet

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  14. Hello, Mary,

    I envy you. I'd love to just write and not worry about whether it will sell. Of course, you're more in the literary world. I suppose that there's just as much competition, but when you're writing erotic romance, you've got the competition thrown in your face daily.


    Thanks for your comments.
    Hugs,
    Lisabet

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  15. Hi, Garce,

    Probably I shouldn't be so honest in public ;^) But there's something about a blog that encourages self-disclosure.

    You should check out my post on the ERWA blog.

    http://erotica-readers.blogspot.com/2009/08/jekyll-and-hyde.html

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

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  16. Hi,

    Great Post, enjoyed it. :)

    I write because I have to write, it means everything to me. It's my escape and my way of expressing interests that I can't express via any other avenue. I love creating new characters and inventing scenarios for them. Last year I began to self-publish my work because I needed a challenge and I felt I owed it to myself to put the stories I'd written into book form. I'll never be a best seller, but I get a thrill each and every time I complete a book and hold it in my hands. I know self-publishing isn't the same as being published by a 'real publisher' it doesn't have quite the same kudos, but I'm not bothered because I achieved what I wanted, I've published several books, yes, and even sold some in my particular kinky corner of M/M fiction. :-)

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  17. Guess I'm a blockhead, then. Because I always write for love. That doesn't mean I don't seek money for a large portion of what I write (not all of it...I give away stuff for free to drum up sales and to gift readers), after the fact, but I write because the muse is killing me. Grinning... I wrote for YEARS with no monetary interest. Later, many of those poems and stories went out for sale. But if we're talking about your driving force, money is not my primary one. It's a nice side effect and sometimes pays the bills, but if I'm ever writing just for that...I'll quit.

    Brenna

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  18. Hi, Libby.

    These days, I don't think that being self-published versus published by a "real publisher" means anything. There are so many "real publishers" out there - their standards vary widely. Some will accept and publish pretty much anything. Some put out books with painfully amateurish covers and horrible editing. If you can build up a readership--if you have people who can't wait to read your particularly kinky M/M fiction (;^) -- I count that as a huge success.

    Good luck!

    Lisabet

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  19. Hi, Brenna,

    Thanks for chiming in. I know what you're saying. I envy you your gushing fountain of ideas!

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

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  20. It was rather interesting for me to read that blog. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more on that blog soon.

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