Friday, September 26, 2014

To Market, to Market



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 comments:

  1. Hello, Jean,

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

    I like this goal, and may adopt it for my own. Thanks for articulating this plausible solution to this fortnight's conundrum.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ditto Lisabet's comments.

    This phrase is so loaded: My story was written in first-person, and it featured a doormat devoted wife who is willing to do anything to save her marriage. (Sorry the strikethrough didn't copy)

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

    ReplyDelete
  3. I guess most folks on this blog have been writing all their lives and writing successfully to CFS's may come with experience. Mine needs honing. Since I started writing seriously six years ago, at age 64, obviously I have a lot of catching up to do. It's our responsibility to search for inspiration wherever we find it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This might sound pretensious but I find that in my contemporary writings it's hard to avoid the social inequalities suffered by some gays on a daily basis. Even though my guys are generally upwardly mobile and secure in their own skin, it would be naive to not introduce some kind of conflict within their lives. So commentaries on bigotry and the psychological effect on some of my characters is inevitable.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you for commenting, Lisabet, Daddy X & JP.

    JP, you've opened a can of worms which could be an interesting topic for us all to discuss. IMO, the worst "market-driven" fiction involves cardboard characters who never experience real-world forms of discrimination because the authors want to avoid being "political." I don't think good fiction can be written that way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I completely agree on this point. Jean, I've loved reading your thoughts in the past on an issue that seems related to this—I recall you talking about whether you wanted to do a sort of utopian writing or write stuff that reflects nasty social and political realities. I see a lot of utopian writing about LGBT people, and I can have mixed feelings about it. It's disingenuous to pretend all problems are solved and it's totally safe to come out in all circumstances, for example.

      Delete
  6. When I started writing lesbian erotica, back in 1999, about when you did, Jean (I think,) the markets were sparse. As more came along, more good writers turned their attention that way, or so it seemed to me. Early on I'd get comments from editors on how "different" my stories were, probably just because I'd started in science fiction/fantasy where strong story elements like plot were emphasized. That was a long time ago, as these things go. Now I see top-notch writers doing work easily on a level with any genre or even non-genre, and some of them submit to my anthologies. Markets seem to be dwindling, though, and while I appreciate what this does for for those that remain, like mine (although I don't have an active CFS out there at the moment,) I get worried.

    I was approached by an official from the Lambda Literary Awards a while ago and asked to try to get more lesbian erotica books nominated so that the category could still qualify as a distinct entity. I've been trying, but I don't see many out there in print. Of course the Lammies could step into the 21st century and start allowing e-books to enter, but even then I have my doubts.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I agree that erotica sometimes has too many rules, but then maybe all genres do. To write outside the expected parameters, for those editors who understand and appreciate something new, is very much its own reward.

    Many call for submissions have gotten some of my personal favorite stories written, only to be rejected by the original intended market and then finding a new (happier?) home elsewhere.

    Keep up the good fight,

    Roger Leatherwood

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sacchi, I have noticed the shockingly short list of lesbian erotica nominated for the Lambdas, but judging from calls-for-submissions, there still seems to be a market for it, and there still seems to be a community of writers who produce it.
    Roger, I've had the same experience: I'll write a story in response to a call-for-submissions, the editor rejects it, but someone else accepts it. Go figure.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "As a student of literature, I’ve noticed that the most successful (or most studied) authors of the past were usually stranger in their time than they seem to later generations, because they started trends instead of following them."

    I love this, and sometimes worry I'm not strange enough...

    ReplyDelete