Monday, February 28, 2011
A human being is only breath and shadow. Sophocles
Breathing is an autonomic function. Like digestion and pupil dilation, it happens without involving the higher functions of the brain. But unlike the other autonomic functions, we have brief control over it. It may be that interrupted breathing is so expressive because it is a matter of life and death for us to eventually continue. Or maybe I over think it.
My characters sigh a lot. It may be because I'm a method writer, meaning that when my characters are distraught, I'm distraught with them, when they're elated, I'm over the moon, and when they need to express emotions too complex or nebulous for words, we sigh together. We sigh our unspoken regrets, our hopelessness, our resignation. We also hold our breath, for a moment, as if we can suspend time. Maybe something so wonderful is happening that we want it to last forever. Or we can see something horrible coming our way. It's a crutch though, one I'm trying to overcome. Too much sighing is like putting a character onto a fainting couch. Too many held breaths, and it begins to read like autoerotica. Maybe I should explore heart beats or perspiration.
Heart skipping a beat, I toss back the bedspread and sit up, scratch my hair into a sexy mess, and sheepishly smile at my sugar step-daddy.
Sweating seductively, I toss back the bedspread and sit up, scratch my hair into a sexy mess, and sheepishly smile at my sugar step-daddy.
Or maybe not.
Sunday, February 27, 2011
By Lisabet Sarai
It's the first word of my very first novel. "Breathe..." In this case, I was using the term literally. My heroine arrives in Bangkok and is immediately assaulted with the foreign smell of the place. I still remember my own debarkation, back in the eighties, before jet ways. Clambering down the metal stairs onto the tarmac, after midnight, I nearly swooned at the combination of diesel fuel, moist earth, night-blooming jasmine, and fried garlic.
If you write erotica, breathing is more than an autonomic process responsible for oxygenating the blood. Arousal reveals itself in our breathing. We pant, gasp, gulp air, hold it as we wait in anticipation or delicious terror for the next touch, the next stroke of the crop. I did a search for "breath" in the random subset of my stories I happen to have on my disk in text format. Here's a small sampling of what I found.
The song changed to something more upbeat. She shook her hips, did the same bumps and grinds as the other dancers, but the effect was totally different. She was listening to some inner voice. Every now and again her eyes would meet mine, and that luscious smile would light her face. I found myself holding my breath, willing her to turn again in my direction. ~ Butterfly
His beard was softer than it looked, tickling her. For a moment he simply held her, breathing in, inhaling her as if she were another drug. Suddenly there was shocking wetness. His tongue circled her navel, dipped inside. Her sex clenched in a sudden, delicious spasm. ~ Chemistry
All at once I wanted him. I grabbed him and fastened my mouth on his, grinding my pelvis against his hardness. He opened to me, held me tight as if he was afraid I would evaporate. “Where can we go?” I panted when we broke for breath. ~ Citadel of Women
Alan relaxes in his chair, enjoying Beryl's confusion. He's been in the film business long enough to recognize an act. Her flushed cheeks and quickened breath speak more clearly than her deliberately chosen words. She still wants me, he thinks with a hint of smugness, after all this time. ~ Old Flame
I bask in his gaze, proud and humble simultaneously. "You know what happens when you tease me. I'm sure that you remember the other night." Of course I do, and the memory leaves me wet and breathless: the binding, the beating, the final delicious buggering. My sex overflows. My thighs are slippery with my juices. I imagine he can hear the liquid squelch as I walk. His arm is around my shoulder now, guiding me along. ~ Wednesday Night at Rocky's Ace Hardware
"Much better." She flicks a lock away from my breast, almost but not quite touching me. "But I certainly don't want to hide those adorable tits." Seating herself on the chaise, she beckons me to her. My nipples are just at the level of her lips. She warms one with her breath, and it tightens visibly. I want to scream, to beg her to touch me. She's running this show, though. We both know that. ~ Velvet
I could go on, but I'm sure that I've made my point. The way our characters breathe tells our readers what they're feeling, as much as their facial expressions or vocalizations, their wetness or hardness. And in an erotic encounter, lovers use their breath as an extension of their will.
Breathing is more than just a tool for delineating emotion, though. Breath is also a powerful metaphor for life itself. Some versions of Genesis say that God animated the clay body of Adam by breathing upon it. "I'll never give in, while there's breath in my body," our dauntless heroes claim.
Breath is also used to refer to the spark of creative passion. The word "inspiration" derives from from the Latin inspiratus, past participle of inspirare "inspire, inflame, blow into," from in-"in" + spirare "to breathe". The connection to the term "spirit" is obvious. In fact the original meaning of inspiration was "under the immediate influence of a God or god".
"Inflame". How appropriate a term for a writer of erotica!
When inspiration strikes - when the words are flowing unhindered, the scenes in my imagination painting themselves effortlessly on the page - I do indeed have the sense that I've been touched by something divine. I feel it in my chest, a kind of buoyancy, as though I'd filled my lungs with helium. My poor body seems too limited a vessel to encompass the joy.
I wrote a poem many years ago about inspiration, called "metapoem":
it comes as the wind comes
and you can't change it.
you can only be patient
you have to be
go out and get drunk,
to find it.
Inspiration, the author's Holy Grail. It's mysterious and yet simple. As simple as breathing.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
An experienced author will tell you writing your story – devising intricate plotting, creating three dimensional characters (both heroes and villains) that readers will be affected by, motivation, setting the mood, building atmosphere, maybe even creating an entire new world - as daunting as it may be, is the easier part of your job.
Once the story is done, finished with edits, polished to within an inch of the author's patience and ability, the marketing, the job of telling readers and book buyers your novel is the next book they are dying to read, has just begun. And that can be a the most challenging task of all. I've spent the last seven years, eight novels and over 25 short stories trying to make that road a little easier to travel.
In all likelihood, you probably don't know my name. I am Laura Baumbach. I've been a published author for ten years with over seven different print and ebook publishers. I write primarily M/M erotic romance in many different sub-genres. I've won EPIC awards for my erotic romances and romantic suspense novels, RWA Chapters awards, been a Lambda Finalist for best gay romance, received numerous romance review site awards, top picks and recommended reads. I regularly present or sit on conference panels at writers events such as Saints & Sinner, Romantic Times and RWA conferences. I'm considered a bestselling, award author by some sources. Last October, Rolling Stone Magazine named me 'a pioneer of the M/M romance' in their What's Hot in Books for 2010 List. The road to earning that extraordinary compliment was part good writing and part creative promotional work.
When I started my career I learned quickly that writing in the M/M erotic romance genre limited my access to a lot of promotional avenues. Presently, this is one of the largest growing genre in romance with hundreds of authors writing it. Ten years ago that wasn't the case. It's hard to believe now, but then very few sites would even accept my work for review. Contests wouldn't accept my titles because they didn't have a category for it. RWA's official definition of romance didn't extend past 'one man and one woman' at that time. When I attended professional events within the romance community, it was clear both my work and I were considered to be the ugly stepchild. I was denied access to reviews when they were granted other authors joining the same groups I had paid to be part of, my books weren't ordered for autographing sessions and my promotional materials were removed from public access purely because they were mine, not because of any indecent covers or images. It was a fight just to be given the routine marketing advantages others took for granted.
I need to find a way to promote effectively outside the roadblocks I was encountering, I studied my readership through my fan mail and the market opportunities available. Some I could afford alone, some I could not. I determined my target audience was made of both straight women and gay men and looked for ways to reach them. Romance readers, made up of mainly straight women, could be reached through online ads with review sites. While the review sites wouldn't review my work they would accept ads for it. That let me reach the existing romance audience but I wanted to go a step further.
To reach gay readers I began looking into events that were aimed just at gay men. I found small expos, magazines and pride events. If I couldn't afford an ad in a gay magazine but they ran short stories, I submitted one to them and more often than not, they were accepted. The stories had to be more erotica than erotic romance but it still got my name out in front of the readers. Plus I got paid a very nice amount for the story. Most asked that I use my initials instead of my first name but that was small even of a concession since my last name is distinctive. It's not a far reach for a reader to Google L. Baumbach and find Laura Baumbach an author of gay erotic romance and know they are the same person.
Most Pride events allow for sponsorships, so you can send them promo for a small fee (some are free) and they will hand out your promo or you can run an ad in their program or on their website for a reasonable cost. I also attend Pride events that are local, hosting a booth to sell my press's titles and make our name known out in the community.
Even though few writing contests had GLBT categories to start with, each year a few contests would add them. I enter every one I can from RWA to Lambda. Even if I don't win, my work gets read by people who had never considered reading it before. Often times, new fans are born. When you enter, your name is on websites, nomination committees, and if you win, broadcast over the Internet. You get to use the win for marketing all your work. You become an Award-winning Author. Or a Nominee. Or a Finalist. All for the cost of the entry fee. You were going to write that story anyway. Get all the mileage from it you can.
When I looked into expos and events I found the cost prohibitive for one person. A booth at Book Expo America costs $2000 in the very cheap seats plus hotel and airfare to attend and man the booth. A slightly better booth nearer the main traffic runs $5000 plus expenses. Small Gay Erotic Expos were more reasonable in the $500 range but they still include expenses and reach far fewer readers.
The only answer to affording these events was to have more disposable promotional funds and the only way to obtain more funds was to join forces with more authors. That's when I decided to create the Manloveromance.com advertising co-op for authors of gay erotic romance and fiction. Http://www.manloveromance.com
The idea was a simple one. Gather together like minded authors who are looking to reach the same audience and pool funds to afford the things we couldn't afford on our own. Not only do you increase your buying power but the variety of talent within the group becomes a marketing tool as well. I organized the first group of around thirty authors by just asking who wanted to join with me in the effort. I had access to a webmaster at no cost (my programer husband), the domain name was inexpensive, the server my own, and had friends with professional artistic talent who designed the website.
Within the group of authors we had a member who did documents for a living who helped create our monthly newsletter. A free private yahoo group let us communicate with each other effectively and a second public one became our announcement only newsletter. We now have over 770 members on this newsletter to date.
One of our authors works in film in RL and she created an outstanding video for us for the cost of the stock photos which runs on Youtube and has been seen over 72,000 times. Our own little commercial for our writing. I've even used videos like this to run as a 30 second commercial on a gay cable station with our increased buying power. The RL talents of our author pool became one of our biggest marketing tools.
As a trauma nurse, teamwork and organization is my strength I brought to the group. I set up a list of basic ground rules everyone agrees to on joining and collect a set fee from each member three times a year. That took our marketing power from one person's $100 to 30 times that amount for each advertising campaign. Suddenly we could do group ads in Publishers Weekly, purchased booths at events like the ALA and BEA, buy package advertising on reviews sites at reduced cost, purchase things like custom chapstick with our logo and url on it as a giveaway at events, buy and burn cds of excerpts from each author on the co-op to hand out, and run ads on pricier mainstream sites.
I'm always on the look out for a new avenue to market in. The state of publishing is changing rapidly. More online avenues need to be explored. Group blogging is a great inexpensive way to show case yourself and your current work without the burden of being responsible for blogging everyday yourself.
Set up year long ads with high traffic review site. Schedule monthly chats on popular loops. Do it alone or with a few friends. Some loops have over 3000 members. Spend the money on a well designed website and keep it updated. It's an author's face to their readers. Make the impression last. Donate gift baskets to reputable sites that put out calls for giveaways for readers. I found one of my most loyal reader that way. She just happened to own a major bookstore and started carrying my titles because of the gift basket she won at an RT conference.
Think out side the box. Look at where your audience is and find new ways to reach it. Pool your talents with like minded authors. Use the resources each author brings to the group. Be on the look out for unconventional avenues and don't be afraid to take chances. Promoting yourself doesn't have to be a budget breaker or a lonely road to travel.
Friday, February 25, 2011
I'd love to be able to wax poetic on how I have solved the problem of how to promo yourself - and your writings. But in all reality, I am still an amateur at the game that is promotions.
I don't do the mass postings ... because those just piss me off when I get hit with them on the lists that I am on.
I guest blog some, but really, I don't have that much to say on a normal basis.
I also don't have ads up all over the place ... because I have found they don't work for me.
Well ... I think part of it is I have one pen name, and my writings are all over the place. I write first to please myself. If I am happy with the result, then I polish it, and work to share it with others. I don't have a brand ... a signiture font ... or anything that makes a reader know they are looking at a Michelle Houston book.
Not to say that there aren't common themes in my writings ... I tend to write lighter stories. No real angst, other than emotional issues here and there. Despite the sexuality of the characters, and the setting of the story, they are all lighter reads.
I do have a website that I work to keep updated. I HATE, let me repeat that, HATE when I go to try and find an author's website and find that there isn't one. I also HATE when they do have a website, but it hasn't been updated in forever. Even if nothing new is happening ... make some changes here and there!
I also have a blog that I post whatever comes to mind on. LOL
I have the news groups ... I am a member of a few select groups, where reception has been good to my writings.
I also try different publishers, because each has a different approach to how they promo their authors. (As well as how they treat their authors).
So I guess in the area of self-promotion, I have performed an EPIC FAIL! But I am happy with where I am at ... I know I won't be a Nora Roberts, or Kay Hooper, or Nalini Singh, and I am happy with that.
I have had my own little moderate success ... and at the and of the day, I write what I am moved to write. And I promo when I can find the time ...
That said, if you are in the market for some kickin' Michelle Houston bookmarks, swing by my website and select the goodies page. I have some really nice ones available. I do love creating my goodies ...
Thursday, February 24, 2011
I'm an amateur writer. I'm fortunate enough to be able to make my living doing something else so I've taken the view that I don't need to be paid for what I write. Publishers get twitchy if they can't pay you - paying you is how they know they've bought something - so I sign a contract that donates any income to the Red Cross. So far they've been happy with that.
This is self-interest rather than altruism on my part. Not having to get paid is very liberating. It means that I only have to self-publicise to attract readers and let them know where they can find my stuff.
The self that I promote - Mike Kimera - is an internet construct. He only exists as the guy who writes erotic stories and contributes to blogs. It's logical then, that his existence is promoted primarily through the internet.
More by luck than judgement, Kimera was born with a name that is not widely used, so if you google for him you come up with list like this full of links to his stuff. This makes him easy to find once you know you want to look for him.
I brought Kimera to people's attention by getting my stories on ERWA and Clean Sheets, excellent venues that are widely read and have a reputation for good quality. Getting Kimera published there made him visible to editors like Susannah Indigo, Maxim Jakubowski, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Alison Tyler, Lisabet Sarai and Seneca Mayfair, who have been willing to publish my stories, and in in Susannah's case, even to edit a collection of them.
I did this for about nine years and slowly Mike Kimera started to get some name recognition but I had no idea how many people read my stories or what most of them thought.
This is perhaps the ultimate self-promotion on the net. Vanity publishing of a kind. I invest in it because I can see the traffic I'm getting and which stories are being read and because some of the readers take the time to comment on what I write.
WordPress provides an impressive stats tool that lets me know that I typically get between 100 and 200 visits a day and that on some days, for reasons that I don't understand, I hit up to 280. I know that hits go up as I publish new stuff and that the more regularly I publish, the higher the average number of hits.
I also know what searches bring people to my site. Last month, for the first time, the top of the search list was no longer "Dominance and Submission" but "Mike Kimera". I was very happy about that.
The website changed things for me in ways I didn't expect.
I had to come up with a visual identity for Mike Kimera. Not just the Gravatar that comes after my name but a look and feel for the site that sets some expectation of its content. I had a lot of fun with this and it started to shape how I looked at my own work – here are a some examples:
I had to find ways of classifying my stories and tagging them to make them easier to navigate. This made me analyse my work and sensitised me to the themes that run through them.
I started to get comments from regular readers and I look forward to finding out what they think about a particular piece.
Once the website was up, I found my way to twitter. I'd never understood what twitter was for but I was intrigued to watch what Remittance Girl was doing there so I signed up. I discovered what fun it is to write twitterfiction live in little slices of 140 characters a time and I discovered that when I posted links to new stuff on my site, I got more readers.
Recently it has occurred to me that Mike Kimera now has a brand. People read his stuff with an expectation of what they will find. For the most part this helps me to have happy readers. Sometimes it means I disappoint. Clean Sheets posted "Sex With Owen" a few weeks ago. The title is perhaps poorly chosen because the piece, while graphic, is a kind of romance. One reader commented that the story wasn't up to my usual standards and that he preferred my earlier, grittier stuff.
Which poses the question, what happens when I want to write outside the Mike Kimera brand?
At the moment I have two thoughts about this: I'm adding catagories to my website to incorporate the mainstream and erotic romance stories into the brand and I'm setting up another website for stuff that is too dark or too violent for Mike Kimera.
I'm considering creating another internet construct for this: Kim Remaike an anagram of Mike Kimera but more sexually ambiguous, with a less Western background and a fascination with the beast within us and what happens when it runs free. The look of the website is edgier and pulls on the erotic images (copyright free) of Egon Schiller. Here's an example
The main thing that gives me pause is whether I have the energy for two internet constructs or whether I should just show people that there is more to Mike Kimera. What do you think?
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
I regard myself as an apprentice writer because it gives me a certain margin of freedom, just as if I were to regard myself as a child I might feel a certain amount of freedom. I’m a published writer as far as the technical term goes, but I think of myself more as an advanced amateur because it gives me the freedom to remain undefined and unbranded and seek out knowledge from others. I take some comfort in telling myself I’m still learning to walk and eat solid food and some day I’ll stop sucking my thumb too.
In one of the craft books I’ve studied, the author grumbled that her writing students seemed more obsessed with having a web presence than with the donkey work of actually writing something. They had a blog, they had an author’s site, promotions trailers, twitter - and big plans lemme tell ya - but didn’t exactly spend that much ass-in-chair-time crafting new work. It reminds me a little bit of an interview I read by Keith Richards. The reporter asked what went wrong with Brian Jones, one of the founding band mates who was kicked out of the Stones and came to a bad end. Richards said “He cared more about being a rock star than he did about being a musician.” These days there’s so many indespensible doo-dads out there I think this is becoming a problem for a new writer, even if you don’t want to be a literary rock star.
Self promotion or money in general is something the craft books never talk about, as though there were something unseemly about it. Writing for a living has always been the dream and even the greatest writers dealt with it. Shakespeare was a theater owner and he wrote plays for his own troop, "The King's Men", which he hoped would be popular and sell tickets. Not for nothing are his best stories filled with witches, ghosts, dirty jokes, cross dressing lovers and lots and lots of sword fights. Chekhov wrote short stories in the beginning to support his family and he certainly cared about the money. As soon as Dickens books began to move he dropped his day job and hit the American stage to give readings to packed houses. But according to Stephen King today in the age of the internet and the eBook only about 4% of working authors make a living solely from writing fiction.
Part of my motive for joining the Oh Get a Grip blog was to have a chance to expose more people to my name and my writing style and of course the ever changing little side bar there that shows what books we have out. But it really hasn’t translated into sales. It’s been mostly a wonderful creative experience, I like it here fine, but publicity wise not so much. In fact I don’t know anybody who has cracked this particular nut.
I think this weeks theme of self promotion is kind of a sore spot for a lot of wannabes like me, because really what we want is to write and learn our chops and let the promotion business take care of itself because we’re so effing brilliant or something we think people will discover us, or that our publishers will have an investment in our success and get our name out there for us without our effort. But what you find out is that to a large extent you’re on your own. Old school Minnesota boys like me tend to be a shy lot who don’t like beating our own drum.
My self promotion so far has consisted mainly of sending out stories, as anyone does, and soliciting reviews, and I find that these things are much like the experience of prayer. That is, your plaintive and carefully chosen words go out and there is no answer. I find people rarely say no these days. They just don’t say.
I think there is an added problem in the genre that we work in. Erotica is such a controversial media, it’s not something you always want to attract attention to. I envy writers who go on book tours, compared to some of us who scuttle about hoping not to be noticed under our real names. Most erotica writers work under a pen name because they don’t want people picketing their house much less a book signing. It’s always taken a certain kind of kamikaze guts to write this stuff even though things have changed a great deal in the last few years. I’m old enough to remember when you could get busted and even do felony prison time for coming through US Customs with a copy of Tropic of Cancer in the bottom of your suitcase or for even sending it in the mail to somebody. Hell, now you can read it free on Google Books. In fact you can peruse modern translations of the Kama Sutra complete with nude photographs not of swanky models, but of real couples having actual intercourse also right there on Google Books.
As an apprentice I can still find some shelter from these things by telling myself I’m still learning the ropes. But after a while you start to feel like a bit of a poser. When will you grow up? Do you know you're grown up when the act you found such pleasure in starts to become dull? I don’t think I could do this for a living anymore than I could make love for a living.
* "the obsessive fear of being ignored or forgotten."
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Take Tigerlily, for example. I went on a blog tour. I sent it off to every review site going. I talked about it on forums and twitter and I did a giveaway. In short, I did everything shy of walking around naked in the street with the cover painted across my tits.
And it sold about three copies. Probably to Bertha, my best mate, and some random person who thought they were buying Peter Pan. Who then returned it, crying, and tried to sue Total-E-Bound for ever selling it in the first place.
But on the other hand, there is Past Pleasures. I did nothing for Past Pleasures. I didn't do a blog tour. I didn't talk about it that much on Twitter or anywhere else. Sue me- I was thoroughly disheartened by Tigerlily and felt sure, by that point, that I'd never be anything like an erotic romance writer. In fact, that feeling still persists today.
Though I have to say, it has been somewhat mollified by several rather astonishing things that happened to Past Pleasures. First of all, some pretty important authors apparently read it, and liked it. They did so in its first month of release, and talked about it a bit, and so the sales for my little futuristic menage were quite a bit better than Tigerlily's sales.
And then All Romance Ebooks chose it as part of its Twelve Days of Christmas promo, which basically made it a free read on their site for a whole day.
Now, I didn't do anything to encourage this. I didn't send it to them - my publisher did. I didn't write long, pleading letters, begging them to help me promo my book, though God knows I've thought about doing that very thing, often.
"Dear Fabulous Person,
Please look at my book. Go on. Just look at it. It's right there! I have money. My boobs are quite nice. If you'd only look at my book, I swear I'll show you my boobs. And my money. In fact, I'll pin the money to my boobs and maybe dance around for you a little bit. Would you like that? I don't even care if you don't like that, I'm doing it anyway. Here is the link to my youtube trailer for the book, entitled "Money On Boobs, by Charlotte Stein".
Nope, I didn't do the above. They just picked it, and put it up for free, and lo and behold I was a bestseller on there for about five hundred years. It actually hit the number one spot in their erotica chart- and not when the book was free. Oh no no no! It had cost actual real money for about two weeks when it hit number one.
I was flabberghasted. My ghast was well and truly flabbered. Here I'd done absolutely nothing, and just by chance I'd become some sort of moderate bestseller, with loads of ratings on my book both there and on Goodreads- most of them in the three to four range which as any expert on Goodreads knows is the equivalent of God coming down from heaven and saying hey, you did okay.
But see- here's the thing. Here's the real kicker about self-promotion. It only looks like I did nothing. When really, I did the best thing you can possibly do where self-promo is concerned.
I wrote a story that people wanted to read.
Now, I know what you're thinking. That I'm all arrogant and an asshole and up my own butt, playing the bongos on my own brain because my brain is so magnificent and look at this story that I created that's so orsum. Or maybe you know me and understand that the chances of me ever thinking that are about the same of me having sex with Armie Hammer's face.
But I digress. When what I really wanted to say is- it's not my writing. It's not this book I've written. It's the idea of the book, and how it's described in the blurb. Seriously. That's about ninety percent of what it takes to make it as an erotic romance writer. Just write a story about an idea people want to read about. It's not rocket science - well, it is for me because I seem to typically write the opposite of what my audience wants - because you can see just by looking around what most erotica and erotic romance readers like.
Threesomes, BDSM, alpha males and female submission are all popular. But more than that, when readers find combinations of the above by an author who can actually write really hot sex, these things begin to build a momentum. Maybe the author's first book doesn't do so well. But as they build a backlist and a reputation - not just as a brand, but as a reliable writer of a certain heat level - you can see their books getting more and more attention.
Take Selena Kitt, for example. She built a readership not on some brand, but on the power of her sex scenes. That's it for me, really. I buy her books not because she always writes about alpha males or always writes MM. I buy her books because her sex scenes are always the hottest, wettest, most amazing things ever. She could write about a chicken screwing a dog and it would still be hot. She writes about incest - one of my squicks, for sure - and it's still somehow hot.
So, the lesson is, I guess: write hot. Write often. Write about things people want to read about. And don't look back.
Monday, February 21, 2011
#3 It should go without saying, but first, you must write a book. Not just any book. A damn fine book. By that, I don't mean a literary masterpiece, because, frankly, if it weren't for assigned reading, most people won't touch a literary masterpiece. No, what you're aiming for here is a real page-turner, a ripping yarn. You know - something people enjoy reading rather than bracing themselves for like it's a bitter tonic. Think 'Harry Potter.' Of course, the critics are going to crucify you. We all know that the cardinal sin of writers is earning a living from your craft, but the close second is writing a story that people who don't usually read will buy and devour from cover to cover. So you can think of these three steps as the road to eternal artistic damnation. But at least your path there will be paved, maybe even in gold.
#2 Be extraordinarily lucky. I can't emphasize this step enough. If you're not willing to work for your success, you better have lotto winning level luck. Mega-millions lotto winning luck.
#1 Get your book into the hands of one of those readers who turns to strangers and says, "I just read this wonderful book. You should too. Let me write down the title and author's name for you so that you don't forget it." Hand selling, AKA reader recommendations, are the true driver behind sales. Out of the goodness of their hearts, and the desire to share a good experience with others, these people have the ability to push one book among millions into that one in a million category. However, you may need several thousand of those kinds of fans to put you on a best seller list. This is where step #2 comes in handy. You did remember to have extraordinary luck didn't you? *sigh* In that case, maybe you should try your hand at a little PR. Laura, and the rest of the Oh Get a Grip crew, will be along with tips shortly.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
By Lisabet Sarai
If you want to be successful in the highly competitive game of publishing (I'm told), you need to do more than just write good books and get someone to sell them for you. You need to “build a brand”. What does this mean? Here's a simple definition from Dummies.com:
When people hear your name, they conjure up a set of impressions that influence how they think and buy. Those thoughts define your brand.
For an author, having a “brand” means, first, that readers recognize your name and second, they have a clear and hopefully positive understanding of what you write that leads them to purchase your books. Popular authors like James Patterson or Stephen King have legions of readers who will buy anything they publish, sight unseen. Readers know what to expect from these authors. They'll pre-order a book before it's even released. The power of the author's brand trumps the quality of the actual writing.
In the world of erotic romance, Carol Lynne jumps out as someone who has been tremendously effective in building her brand. Carol specializes in steamy M/M stories, mostly contemporary and often with a western setting. She has a huge following of loyal readers although she has been publishing only a few years. All Romance Ebook's author of the year for 2007, Carol continues to put out best-sellers, month after month.
In the realm of erotica, I consider Rachel Kramer Bussel an example of effective brand-building. Pretty much anyone who reads erotica will be familiar with the dozens of anthologies she has edited, many focused on kink or fetishes. Rachel builds her brand not only through her publications but also through readings, parties and an amazingly active presences in the blogosphere. Just say “cupcake” or “spanking” to any erotica reader and Rachel's name is likely to come to mind.
So how does a poor aspiring author like me go about building a brand? The authorities I've consulted highlight three major issues:
Distinctiveness – Both your name and your work need to be sufficiently unusual to stand out from the crowd.
Value – You need to offer your readers good value for their money. You can't fake your way into effective branding, at least not for long. Especially when you're building your brand, every title you produce has to satisfy your target readers.
Consistency – Your brand controls readers' expectations. People who purchase Carol Lynne's books expect explicit M/M erotic romance. Readers who buy Rachel's anthologies expect playfully transgressive, sex-positive stories in which pleasure trumps more serious issues. For a writer, brand consistency encompasses both genre and style. If a book doesn't fulfill readers' expectations, your brand will suffer.
And there's the rub, for me. Consistency. I write all sorts of genres and heat levels. I write both erotica and romance. BDSM fiction was my first love but I've deliberately diversified. I've written contemporary, paranormal, historical, suspense and even a bit of science fiction; heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and ménage; dark, playful and comic. When a reader comes across my name, he or she isn't likely to have immediate expectations about content or tone. About the only thing that a reader can assume is that my work is likely to contain a lot of sex―but even that isn't guaranteed.
I recently realized that I'm all over the map with regard to the length I write, too. I've published four full-length novels (60K plus words) as well as probably fifty short stories in the 2K to 5K range. Since I started to write erotic romance, I've expanded into what I'd call the novella range (although my publishers call these beasts "stories", despite the fact that they have chapters!), between 10K and 25K words. Carol Lynne's books are a consistent novella length. Rachel's collections typically include fifteen to twenty tales, with the maximum length almost always fixed at 5K. Readers not only know what to expect from content, they also know how long it will take for them to read a book.
Distinctiveness isn't a problem. I happened to choose a pen name that appears to be unique. (I was trying for something that sounded foreign and exotic, to go with the exotic setting of my first novel.) Google my name and you'll find pages and pages of references to me and my books. It appears that in cyberspace, at least, there's only one Lisabet Sarai.
I'd like to believe that I'm set as far as value is concerned as well. I produce quality work, or at least I try, with original premises and engaging characters. Most of my work has received at least moderately positive reviews.
However, if consistency is required in order to have an effective brand, I may never succeed. I'm easily bored. I don't want to write the same sort of book over and over. I'm contemplating sequels to several of my novels and I'll be honest―I'm not sure that I want to return to the same worlds and characters for the duration of another book. I'd rather try something different―to stretch my abilities.
Obviously there are common threads that run through my work. I tend to write stories that have a strong sense of place and I frequently use foreign settings. My characters tend to think a lot―they're not usually action-hero types. In my stories, sexual identity tends to be fluid; it's common for a straight character to discover homoerotic yearnings or vice versa. Sex in my tales is often a revelation as opposed to just recreation. This is particularly true of sex that involves dominance and submission. Finally, I think it's fair to say that my style is more literary than popular (though I'm trying to diversity in this area as well.)
These kind of abstract commonalities aren't enough, I suspect, to bolster a brand identity. I'd be really interested to know what readers think when they hear the name “Lisabet Sarai”. Most probably, it depends on what (if anything) they've read. The trouble is that any particular book they've picked up will likely give them mistaken expectations for the next one of my books that they choose.
I really don't know how seriously I should take this dilemma. Should I channel my writing energies into just one or two genres? If my goal were to support myself with my writing, I'd probably have to do just that. But really―I hate that notion!
So where does that leave me? Can I be a moderate success without building a brand? Can I attract a community of readers who appreciate diversity and don't mind having their expectations violated? I don't know. I'm curious to know what readers and other authors have to say on this topic.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
I like happy porn.
Before you throw rocks at me, I will quickly state that of course deep, dark stories possess merit. This is a personal preference. For the most part, I like my smut smiley. While the concept of being punished makes me wet—one of my biggest pet peeves is the genre of sex stories in which characters must be punished for what they like or what they need. 9 ½ Weeks is a perfect example. I adore the novella right up until the end. To me, 9 ½ Weeks is sexy sexy sexy sexy sexy sexy sexy oh, she’s off her rocker, let’s lock her up. Why does Elizabeth have to be institutionalized? Why can’t she and John make it work? (There’s a new ending I’d love to pen.)
Now, when I say I like happy porn some people get the wrong idea. I’m no vanilla cupcake. I take my coffee with quite a bit of kink. Tie me up. Spank me. Make me call you Ma’am. Use a crop or a fraternity paddle or those nasty alligator clamps. Leave me marks I can admire in my bathroom mirror—just don’t leave me without a silver ray of hope at the end. Especially if the hope is that I’m going to get another spanking!
The stories that thrill me most are the ones that make me care without tossing in a suicide pact or a dying spouse or a wound that will not heal. To this end, I offered a challenge (http://alisontyler.blogspot.com/2010/12/get-happy.html) about a month ago, asking smutters to post snippets of upbeat erotica on their blogs or websites. Check out this line-up:
Most of the writers I adore are ACDC. Well, at least they’re AT/DL. They can write they way I like for me, but they can do the dark literary work for other editors. What can I say? That makes everybody happy.
Why am I drawn to happy stories? Don’t I know that the world is an unhappy place? That sad things happen? That all we are is dust in the wind? Sure, but I never liked Kansas that much anyway. I’ve always been more of a Chili Pepper girl.
Am I happy all the time? (to steal a title from an author I worship, Laurie Colwin). Not on your life. When my man was diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago, I found myself starring in one of the very plots I would never publish in an anthology. How’s that for a kick in the ass? Did living day-to-day in a soap opera story make me long for sad tales? Hell, no. I reached for the dirtiest upbeat stories I could clutch in my hot little hands.
Avid readers could easily point out that I’ve written sad tales myself. But I’ve penned so many stories (about 1000 at this point) that some are bound to end with a whimper rather than a bang. Call 2% of my stories sad. My batting average is still grinning ear to fucking ear.
Jean Roberta once said about me: Her male characters sometimes mislead her female characters, or vice versa, but Tyler describes disappointment in a light and witty way. No one seems to get seriously hurt. If any of her characters have dark nights of the soul, these happen off the page.
That is me to an Alison T.
And Ashley Lister gave me my one of my very favorite quotes: “It’s part of the PTP trademark that the content of their books portray sex as fun and wholesome. Alison Tyler’s stories are invariably sex-positive and her commitment to this ethos shows in every title that comes out of her Pretty Things Press.”
I do my best to live up to this in everything I write.
Why? Ah, repeat my mantra with me, won’t you: It makes me happy.
P.S. Where I am not at all dismayed by death, doom, and dying is in memoirs. I can’t explain this either. You’d think I’d rather read about faux sadness than real despair, but you’d think wrong.
Alison Tyler is the author of 25 naughty novels and the editor of 50+ erotic anthologies. She’s been called “the mistress of literary erotica” by Violet Blue and a “trollop with a laptop” by East Bay Express. Her favorite color is scarlet, her (current) favorite perfume is RUSH, and she likes to wear an armful of retro ID bracelets and bowling shirts with other people’s names embroidered on the pockets. Visit her often at http://alisontyler.blogspot.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
I’ve never been good at happiness.
Maybe it’s the way I’m wired: serotonin seems to kick in more slowly with me.
Maybe it’s the way I was raised: to be suspicious, not to hope for too much, not to be surprised if I get less, never to let others know what I want in case they try to take it from me.
Whatever the cause, the effect is that happiness is not something that I have a lot of experience of.
This is not as dire as it sounds.
For me, happiness is like a favourite holiday: I’m always glad when it comes around, I look forward to it, I cherish the memory of it, but I don’t expect it to happen every day. Mostly, I’ll settle for not being depressed, afraid, lonely or miserable.
Over the years I’ve developed the habit of distancing myself from immediate emotional reactions. Partly that’s a natural pre-disposition; partly it’s a professional hazard. These days, the emotion most likely to penetrate my defenses is anger.
I’m really good at anger. I do the full range from the slow smolder, through vicious wrath, on to all-consuming rage. Anger, like luxury, comes as a guest to take a slave. Anger is the enemy of happiness: mine, the people around me and particularly the person that I’m angry at.
I started to write out of loneliness more than anything else.
I was traveling too much, alone too much, disliking myself and my surroundings too much. I needed an escape. Alcohol doesn’t work for me, I need way too much of it before it has an effect and the effect often leads to a clarity of thought and vulnerability to emotion that turns an escape route into a cage. Drugs have never appealed; there seems to be too much loss of control involved. I’m not a people person. I hate small talk and abhor rooms crowded with people that I don’t know.
So I turned inwards, not pursuing happiness, just inuring myself from life. To my surprise, I discovered happiness.
It turned out that, for me, writing is what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes as a “flow experience.” Csíkszentmihályi was one of the few psychologists who treated happiness as problematic. He felt that happiness needed to be explained. His research revealed that many people experienced joy, sometimes even rapture, when they could immerse themselves in a task that took their full attention, that was challenging but at which they could succeed and which required them to harness their emotions.
Some people get into the flow in sports or playing video games or dropping their bike into a perfect line through a curve. I get there through writing.
When I write, time slows, the world fades and there is nothing but me and my imagination. It is, in its way, a little bubble of happiness.
At first I thought that I had found a way to daily happiness, but the more time I spent in the bubble the more I realized that the activity was similar to masturbation: a pleasurable relief but not a sustainable source of joy. I began to understand that real joy, real happiness, required something more: love.
As the words produced by my time in the bubble spread out behind me like a snail-trail, I saw that, subconsciously, I was using my writing to tackle all those things that impeded me from living a loving life. My characters, like me, were largely not happy people. Unlike me, they all tried to do something about that: to reach out to others, to make a change, to seek a form of redemption, maybe even to achieve happiness.
Looking back, I realized that I was telling myself a story, sending myself a message. My emotions had found a way to send me an email.
Surprisingly, some of the emails they sent me where funny. I discovered that I could write about people who were witty and kind and offered each other love. It took me longer than it should have to realize that these were actually the most important emails of all.
The message was a trite truism: those who love themselves and open themselves to others spread happiness like a contagion. Love is the mechanism through which happiness is passed on.
O.K. You all knew that. I knew that. I just couldn’t bring that knowledge to be an active part of my life.
My writing, the content of it, the need for it, the inspiration behind it, slowly convinced me that I needed to love myself a little more and I needed to give that love to others.
Oddly, this resulted in me stopping writing for a while. I decided to get to know my wife again; to see if I could show her the love that I felt, rather than assuming that she knew it was there beneath my angry, difficult exterior. I wanted to centre myself on that love.
Of course, life is never so simple. We went through two years in the shadow of other people’s pain and death. But we went through it together.
When I started to write again, I let my subconscious play its established role and waited to see what message I would receive.
I smiled when I saw that I had started to write stories that were about love and perhaps even romance; about people who were pursuing happiness even though they knew that they might not find it.
I’m still deciding what to do about that. Maybe if I write some more, I’ll find out.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
In an essay called “Big Red Son” , David Foster Wallace interviewed some very devoted fans of hard core pornography. “Mooks”, as porn stars call them. Many of them it turns out found porno movies boring. Formulaic. Seen one seen ‘em all. So why watch? Because the sex in front of the cameras is genuine, one explained, what you’re really watching for are “the faces”. Specifically a very special and rarefied moment which you won’t even find in a legit Hollywood feature film. Porn stars, females especially, can fake just about anything with varying skill, but during the moment of orgasm, that most neural of facial expressions tears down the nasty girl veneer and if you look hard you can catch it as it passes by- the naked quivering soul of a unguarded human being revealed for just an instant with a heartfelt gasp and a grimace before the mask comes back on. For most of human history you had to accept marriage to see that raw moment pass over a human face. For that one instant – you see inside.
That moment of discovery is something I want to capture as a reader and a writer of stories. I think that is what suffering does for a character and for a writer, and it has to come from the writer first. We want to see the naked soul beneath the strutting and confidence. King Lear howling as he carries the dead body of his favorite daughter Cordelia. Humbert-Humbert as he makes one last rejected confession of love for Lolita even after he has destroyed her life. My own beloved Nixie, half insane and shattered, weeping blood tears at the end of “The Lady and the Unicorn”.
Happy characters can’t give us that raw, pornographic moment. Good erotica is well positioned to, though it usually fails to cross that line unless given a hard shove from behind.
I think that I have not suffered as much as others, in as much as most – not all - of my suffering, was in the abstract observance and disappointment with the world as I found it and the absence of God in the presence of human suffering. A person doesn’t lose faith in God suddenly. It’s a gradual, disease like process, like a garden being overcome with weeds of indifference. My faith went through a series of breakdowns and collapses over a period of many years. Each time I thought I had reached the bottom. Each time I found there’s always a bottom left you haven’t reached. Until you do. And then the next reveals itself. My most recent breakdown was a very public one when I was blogging on this very list, a post called “The Mook in Me” which you can read here.
A kind of epilogue exists now to that “Mook in Me” post. By some mysterious grace, its been given to me to come in contact with the object of my mook, with the very woman herself I wrote of. In “The Mook in Me” I imagined this woman living a life of personal authenticity and fulfillment, pursuing a career she was passionate about, in a solid marriage with a man who rightly adored her, cherished and helped her bloom like a wild flower sheltered by the strength of his love. My envy for her was humiliating, and in the glow of her life I felt my awful rage towards God blaze into divine hate.
I’m here to tell you, oh Friends of the Inner Sanctum – I could not have been more wrong.
No names. Respect for privacy. However, I’ll say this. Not only was she not living an ideal and authentic life, but she has endured a level of suffering and loss that was staggering to discover as she revealed only a little of it to me. Not only was she not living a life of marital bliss and creative fulfillment and prestige, but she and her four children have been homeless several times, impoverished, even living out of a tent on a campground, and twice in a homeless shelter.
And that’s not even the amazing part.
All this she endured with God and without bitterness. The bitterness certainly came to her, and she simply overcame it by force of will and faith. And she loves God with a passion I myself had never attained to. The mountain I fell off of, she scaled to the very crest and beyond. To me, that’s amazing. And out there in the wicked world, it goes on all the time.
I don’t share her faith, but I have tremendous admiration for it and the beauty of it. Not her beliefs or her god, but her faith alone is sacred and untouchable to me. How can one person, so sincerely devoted to God as myself, fall so far, just short of atheism? How can another, who suffered much more, arguably at the hands of her god if you knew her story, feel such gratitude and faith in God? How can she, unlike myself, keep her God’s hands so free of her blood?
It’s sometimes said that those whom God loves most, he makes suffer most. I don’t know if its true of God’s creations, but its true of mine. I’m fascinated by the mystery of human suffering and how happiness comes to some and not others, equally or better endowed with fortune. The characters I love most are the ones I torment most. I want to sound the bottom of their depths. I want to see the dark corners of them. I want to know them at their most intimate, that raw moment of humanity.
What I know for sure is this.
When your soul hits bottom and there’s no place to go and you’re inhabiting the dark, if you suffer creatively a certain thing is revealed to you, like a porn star’s unprofessional monkey grin of pleasure. What happens is, you’ll see other people, really see them. It’s what Buddhists call “Boddhi chita” – Noble Heart. When you realize there is no babysitter, no security, nothing to grab onto, and that everybody else is having a tough battle and we’re all in it, people will look different to you. You’ll begin to see the unspoken courage, and faith and sheer beauty in the people all around you and their sheer stubborn determination to love someone. No matter what. Then, by god, you’ll have something to write about.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
But the thing is, I didn't steal his donkey, ok? I never actually steal the donkey. Someone just comes up to me and says I have, or tells me that I don't deserve the donkey, and then I'm on my knees crawling up Mount Doom with seven cement mixers and a small Jeep stuffed in my rucksack.
In other, saner words: it's a hard thing, being happy. I love Lisbet's point about deciding to be happy, but it is a long, hard slog. And sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees, and the trees are all pointed and jagged, and everyone's saying to you that you have it orsum - you have all these books published and all these stories, don't you - but there are times when those things feel like nothing.
If you've never truly believed that you're talented - if you're sure that most of your success has just been down to luck or some fluke - it's almost impossible to lean on your successes in times of need. They turn to snow and melt away, leaving you stranded and unsure and without a donkey.
Even worse than that, it's hard to lean on the very thing you've turned to all your life, when times get rough like this. When you've received one too many rejections, or one too many bad reviews, and it seems you'll never be the erotic romance writer you always hoped to be. The very thing I've relied on since the age of thirteen - writing - disappears on me as a method of happiness-making, and I'm left with The Simpsons or chocolate eating as a way of patching up my battered soul.
And unfortunately, they're just not up to the task. Because the thing about writing - the thing that heals me so effectively - is the ability to control a world and make everyone happy. I too am probably guilty of the old "I'm too kind to my characters", because by the time I actually get to a bit of writing, I don't want things to be as bad for them as things often are for me.
I want them to eventually get up the impossible cliff of neverending misery. I want them to get some sort of revenge on the people who've wronged them - even though revenge is never achieved in real life - and I want bad people to be sorry to them - because people are never sorry in real life - and most of all, I want them to love. Because sometimes, love seems so mundane, in real life.
Love in real life is "see you Saturday". Love is "oh, I got you that magazine you wanted". Love is someone who picks up their socks or holds your hand occasionally. It isn't Ralph Fiennes carrying Kristin Scott-Thomas up a mountain while crying, and there's something so misery-inducing about that as much as there's something misery-inducing about having no money or someone being mean to you or getting a rejection.
Or at least, there is for me. I want there to be love. I want someone to carry another person up that misery cliff, and cry while doing it. Just once, I'd like to see someone carried.
Monday, February 14, 2011
As a citizen of the United States, I have a Constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, but thankfully there's no imperative to actually hunt it down. Pursuit sounds a tad too strenuous for my taste. If happiness were to suddenly appear, I'd want to be looking my best, not all sweaty in my ratty workout clothes. Besides, one look at my handcuffs, and happiness would surely turn heel and flee.
Now, lying in wait, that I could do.
The biggest mistake, of course, is confusing other things for happiness. A truly fine piece of chocolate is momentary joy, but it isn't happiness. Money in the bank may be satisfying, but again, it isn't happiness. Unless it is happiness for you. Like three people looking at a shade of pinkish-purple and trying to decide if it's fuchsia, mauve, or orchid, happiness is in the eye of the beholder.
But assuming that I'd know happiness when I saw it, what kind of trap would I use to capture it? Do I want ferocious happiness? That calls for a tiger pit. Delirious happiness? I'm thinking maybe a high-powered dart gun and duct tape. Ethereal happiness? World's biggest butterfly net.
What to use as bait? Illusory happiness seems drawn to self-deception, while quiet happiness likes to curl up on a warm lap.
And where to store it? I know that you'll be shocked, but my house didn't come with a dungeon. Oh, the humanity! Not that I'd keep happiness shackled to a wall. No. Happiness is kind of like fireflies. Fun to run after in bare feet across the lawn at dusk, fun to trap in an old mayonnaise jar for a couple of minutes, but best just experienced in the moment and let go.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
"Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be" ~ Abraham Lincoln
I first encountered this quote when I was a member of the Twelve Step program Overeaters Anonymous. Twelve-steppers love brief maxims like this, sayings that are easy to digest and remember. They're something to hold on to when you're feeling lost and desperate, ready to jettison everything (your sobriety, your job, even your life) if it will just make the pain go away. At the time I was still struggling with anorexia, waking to anxiety attacks and palpitations, playing dangerous games with my food in the struggle to retain a balance between physical health and psychological comfort. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the happiest period in my life.
Nevertheless, the saying made some sense to me, even then. It helped me to stop focusing on the demons clamoring in my head and look around at my world. I was indeed fortunate. To start with, I hadn't died as a result of my obsession with losing weight. I had made it through college, despite the odds. I'd been accepted to a top grad school with a full scholarship, had left my parents behind and gone off to live on my own in a strange, fascinating city. New people had entered my life. New ideas and opportunities beckoned. If I could just let go of the fear, I might actually be able to enjoy myself. At some level, it was up to me.
Now, thirty plus years later, I am completely convinced of the truth of Lincoln's statement. Happiness does not depend on external circumstances. It's a habit of mind, a mode of perception. My mother, as I've shared before on this blog, was never comfortable or content. For some reason, probably rooted in her childhood, she expected to be unhappy. Her many accomplishments she dismissed as trivial. Her few disappointments loomed large in her mind as proof that the universe had cheated her. She had decided that she was going to be miserable and so of course she was.
I had an annoying experience the other day. There's a used bookstore not far from my apartment that I would visit once or twice a month. They'd buy back books you brought in and give you a credit that could be applied to new purchases. In December I carried in quite a pile and received a credit for $12. I didn't have time to book-shop that day, so I stuffed the voucher in my wallet. Last week I dropped by, intending to use the credit to beef up our bookshelves, which were looking a bit sparse. I discovered that the shop was under new management and congratulated the young women who'd bought it. Then I spent almost an hour browsing and picking out new books to buy. When I brought them to the register, however, the new proprietors informed me that they would not honor the credit from the previous owner. After arguing and pleading, to no avail, I finally stormed out of the store, vowing to never return and to spread the word of their customer-unfriendly policy all over the Internet.
I stood on the side walk, my heart pounding, so upset I was practically in tears. It wasn't just the money that bothered me, or their unfairness. I was most unhappy about the time I'd spent book shopping, time that I could have devoted to writing or marketing, time that was forever lost. I tried taking deep breaths to calm myself, but angry thoughts kept intruding. Just wait till I get home, I grumbled to myself. I'll get on Facebook and my other forums and trash the bitches!
Then it hit me. I was making myself unhappy. I could choose to let the whole issue drop, if I really wanted to. Just forget it, put it behind me. The time was gone in any case. Nothing I did would change that. Instead of wasting more time on vindictiveness, I should simply go home and put the time I did have to good use.
I'm not trying to set myself up as some kind of saint or anything. I have my unhappy periods like everyone else, though they tend to pass fairly quickly. I do sometimes wonder whether I'd manage to hold on to my conviction if I were less lucky. What if I contracted terminal cancer? What if our apartment was gutted by fire and we lost everything we owned? What if my extreme myopia actually resulted in blindness, as my doctors have warned is possible? In the face of misfortune, would I still be able to choose happiness and make it real?
Of course I don't know. Still, I have numerous concrete examples in my life the demonstrate how thought creates reality. I'd like to think that I'd remember those cases if misfortune struck. Only time will tell.
One of the questions Mike asked when he proposed this topic was "Does happy make good fiction?" Sometimes I think that my personal happiness leads me to write fiction that is superficial or ephemeral. I don't have a deep well of angst to draw upon in my work. Garce tells me that I'm "too nice to my characters". Darkness doesn't come easily to me in my writing because, quite honestly, I haven't experienced all that much.
There's a common notion that you have to suffer to create, that great art is the product of personal pain. I'm not sure that I buy that, but I can sort of see the logic. How can you write of heart-rending conflicts if you have not experienced them?
Well, maybe I can't write truly tortured characters. Perhaps, though, I can capture true joy. That might not qualify as great fiction - but if it helps my readers toward happiness, I can't complain.
"If you are not happy here and now, you never will be." ~Taisen Deshimaru
Saturday, February 12, 2011
In sixth grade, I learned about sex from a girl classmate who told me how babies are made. I repeated the story to my mother, half expecting her to refute it. My parents had three daughters, but the idea that they had ever done that seemed to blind my mind's-eye. I couldn't picture it.
My mother told me to wait until my baby sister had gone to sleep. Then she explained, with obvious discomfort, that the story was true, and that men and women should only "do it" if they’re married and in love. She said I wouldn’t really understand how it all worked until Mr. Right appeared in my life to propose marriage. Uh-huh.
Years later, when I was rummaging among old clothes in the basement, looking for the makings of a Halloween costume, I found a large envelope that contained old photos.
The photos were from 1944, dated on the back in my mother’s neat handwriting. I knew that was the year of my parents’ wartime wedding, when Dad (Art, newly-promoted to the rank of lieutenant) wore the snow-white uniform of the United States Navy and Mom (Jane, newly-promoted to the rank of Master of Arts, University of Oregon) wore a military-looking blue suit, incongruously topped off by a ladylike hat with demi-veil, as they posed for pictures outside a church in New York City, where Dad was conveniently stationed and Mom had family.
I couldn’t remember the first time I had seen the wedding photos, the official record of my parents’ union.
I had never seen the others. In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined them.
In approximately six shots (I can’t remember the exact number), Jane and Art each smirked into the camera. They were stark naked.
Their energy was almost palpable. They had clearly taken turns capturing each other's images as mementoes of what couldn’t be shown. And like a stunned Victorian explorer in the ruins of an ancient whorehouse or temple, I had found the fetish objects.
I had just reached puberty, and the couple in the photos (I couldn’t bring myself to think of them as my parents) barely looked any older, though I knew that Jane had to be 25, and that Art was 22. Art had grown up on an Oregon farm, where his knowledge of sex (if any) must have come from watching animals. Jane had travelled by train (for five days!) to enter graduate school on the opposite coast from the island of Manhattan, where she had grown up. In her teens, she had listened to jazz in Greenwich Village and considered herself Bohemian.
Jane and her accent must have seemed exotic to the local westerners. Art had apparently fallen under her spell. I had heard the story of the "friendly" rivalry between Art and his male friend for Jane's affection. She had made a choice.
Jane was five feet tall and weighed less than a hundred pounds, but she must have represented whole realms of knowledge and mystery to young Art. And she must have been charmed by his country innocence, his apparent incapacity for deceit. He was descended from Daniel Boone, and his white-bread pioneer ancestry probably added to his appeal for her. He even had a family name that sounded like “hillbilly,” his childhood nickname.
Those photos were the forerunners of the wartime porn I discovered later: cartoon images of eager-looking young men in (and out of) uniform with their red-lipped, knowing-eyed gals from port cities.
Holding the shocking photos, I was torn between impulses: to put them back where I found them, to keep them hidden in my room, or to show them to someone else. The arrival of my six-year-old sister settled the outcome.
I couldn’t keep her from seeing the naked people in the photos, so I told her who they were. In a flash, she grabbed a few of them and ran upstairs, where our mother was having coffee with some women friends.
To say that our mother was aghast would be an understatement. I heard “Where did you find those?” in her furious stage-whisper before I entered the room. Under cover of telling me to keep better control of my little sister, Mom sent us both out of sight.
Once her guests were gone, our mother told me that I wasn’t supposed to see those photos and I certainly wasn’t supposed to show them to anyone, ever. She told me several times that photos like that were not meant to be looked at. But then what were they for? Arguing with either of my parents on this subject was guaranteed to produce fireworks, so I simply left it alone.
In the following years, my knowledge of both sex and war increased, along with a certain intuition that the two subjects were related. Who would be reckless enough to get married and fuck (not necessarily in that order) during a war that engulfed the whole world? Maybe that was why. Jane and Art were probably among the giddy lovers who didn't want to know that “until death do us part” could mean months, weeks or days.
My mother’s New York friends, almost all Jewish couples with children my age, visited us regularly. I became vaguely aware that their extended families in the Old World had all died off during the war, although the word everyone applied to this event was "exterminated," which also meant ridding a house of bugs or mice.
I didn't begin to grasp the obscenely sexual reality of torture and murder on a massive scale until I saw the appalling photos of skeletal survivors taken in 1945, when the concentration camps were opened by victorious armies.
Love and death, the combined subject of most operas, had apparently filled the world in 1944. Art and Jane had clearly wallowed in sex as though they had discovered it, and took turns seducing each other with a camera while so many were stripped of everything they owned, including their warm, pulsing lives. I was the post-war result of Art and Jane's folly. As a morally-righteous teenager, I could hardly stand it.
As I grew still older, I felt increasingly moved by the "dirty pictures" in the basement, long after I lost track of them. How beautiful Jane and Art had been, like Adam and Eve before losing God’s approval. How lucky I was to have had the chance to see them before they took on the roles of Mom and Dad.
In time, my parents' bodies aged and failed, as all must do. Now that they've passed on, I hope they have rediscovered a bliss that doesn't need to be hidden. Or given up.