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.