Sunday, January 30, 2011

Buttons or Clichés?

By Lisabet Sarai

A few months ago, I wrote a short story called "Like Riding a Bicycle". The story focuses on a long-married couple. They originally had a D/s relationship but over the years, their sexual interactions have become more vanilla, due to pressures of life and work, lack of privacy, and so on. The story involves a chance interaction that rekindles their old fantasies and pulls them back into BDSM.

Now, personally, I found this story very hot. It incorporates both physical and psychological elements that I always find arousing. On the physical side, it offers blindfolds, butt plugs, and flogging, leading up to penetration and mutual orgasm. As far as psychological turn-ons, there's the Dom calling the sub a kinky slut because submitting makes her wet - his forcing her to admit her deviant desires - the sub's articulation of her total devotion - the Dom's intuitive understanding of how to give his sub what she needs - the rough sex followed by tender caresses. By the time I'd written the last sentence, I won't lie - I was horny as hell!

As I mentally reviewed the tale, though, I was assailed by doubts. So many of my BDSM stories include similar details. Was I succumbing to clichés? Writing the same story again and again? At the same time, well-defined sub-genres (like BDSM) have conventions, commonly recurring themes and actions that exist because that's what readers enjoy and expect. The elements that I've described "push my buttons" and I assume that they have the same effect on my readers.

So how do I succeed in pushing my readers' buttons so that they find my stories sexy, without descending into sameness? I really don't know the answer to this question. I do know that the few times I've penned a different sort of BDSM, the reactions haven't necessarily been favorable. My novella Tomorrow's Gifts features some M/M BDSM interactions between one of the protagonists and a gorgeous but self-centered Dom who is a basically a stranger (actually, he's sort of a ghost...). I received a number of negative comments from readers about this aspect of the story - and that was after I toned down the gay gang bang (which the protagonist eagerly desires) at the request of my editor!

Maybe I'm more sensitive to the issue of repetition and clichés than readers are. I wonder whether most readers notice repeated plot elements or other details. I have to admit that I do, although noting some repetition won't necessarily make me like an author's work less. Still, I personally place a high value on originality. Thus, when I find myself falling into the habit of reusing ideas, even ideas that particularly arouse me, I get a bit nervous.

At the same time, Raw Silk remains my most popular work, possibly because it is the most nakedly personal, if not exactly autobiographical. To a large extent, it's a compendium of my fantasies, played out through my characters. And I'll be the first to admit that those fantasies are not necessarily all that unusual, at least not for someone who finds dominance and submission appealing. (Okay, the scene with the chilli peppers is pretty different. But that's not even BDSM!) Aspects of those fantasies appear again and again in my subsequent books. Are these clichés? If they are, should I be working to get rid of them?

I guess one mark of a skilled erotica writer is the ability to push your buttons without your feeling manipulated - to offer the satisfaction of recognizing familiar scenarios and emotions without the boredom that comes from excessive repetition. I recently read Training the Receptionist by Juniper Bell and was really impressed by her skill in this regard. At one level, this book is yet another riff on the common office BDSM/dominant boss/submissive secretary premise. Yet Ms. Bell breathed new life into this tired plot, partly because she introduced some original elements, but mostly because her tight, lively style and first person point of view were sufficiently - um, stimulating - that I didn't really think about all the other stories I'd read with similar plots.

I've learned from experience that if my stories don't arouse me, they won't have the desired effect on my readers. Either I need to expand the range of toys, activities and scenarios that turn me on - or else reconcile myself to some repetition in the pursuit of a hot tale.


  1. Excellent post, Lisabet.

    I think anyone in a creative endeavor fights this from time to time. I certainly do.

    The fact that we can identify a band within the few notes of a new song can speak well of the artist's identity. They have a sense of self, a unique tone and phrasing. They will offer new ideas, play with more jazz, play with odd tempos, darken the theme or whatever, but ultimately, their unique take on music shines through.

    Some performers do not have this, and either they are trying too hard not to repeat themselves, or they really don't have that inner flame, and are just regurgitating what they hear, and far too literally.

    Some repeat themselves so wholly that a new song is no more than a re-working, and obviously so.

    A balancing act, most certainly, but that struggle is half the fun in being creative.

  2. One other thought, to the statement: Maybe I'm more sensitive to the issue of repetition and clichés than readers are.

    I'd wager serious money (if I had any) that is true. As authors / artists, we are so much more acutely aware of our hot buttons, that we are likely to see them as redundant, whereas readers enjoy our work because we play those very hot buttons. Even if they are aware of the repetition, I think for the most part, it's in a good way.

  3. I'm with Craig on this one. I have personal hot buttons but they're not necessarily the same as the ones anyone else might have - readers, for example. And there are so many different possible hot buttons 'out there' that I wouldn't want to start cataloguing them so I can write specifically for different markets.

    I find it's more of a random process, in which I try to mix my own preferences, things I've come across and feel I can write about sympathetically, and ideas - about sex, plot, character, writing style etc. - I pick up along the way from all sources. I try to mix what I consider as the 'same old stuff' because it's well within my comfort zone with things I find intriguing to explore.

    Currently, for what it's worth, that includes some strangeness like almost phonetic writing from the POV of an intelligent but almost illiterate person who lives their life substantially among drug users, alcoholics and the homeless, where sex is very much linked with HIV, STDs, hepatitis etc. and consequently I have to deal with a lot of the grungy realities of sex despite staying within the context of erotica.

  4. Hello, Craig,

    So basically you're saying that what I see as maybe cliches are really my personal style? I'd love to think that was true. (It would relieve a lot of anxiety!)

  5. Hello, Fulani,

    I'm not sure that I understand your point. I mean, yes, each of us has distinct hot buttons that don't necessarily match those of readers. I don't ask myself "what will turn my readers on" and go from there. I write what appeals to me - and hope that some other people feel more or less the same way.

  6. I would say that what you see as cliches are indeed a part of your personal style.

    No doubt about it.

    So relax, and go with that kinky flow!

  7. I was trying to say just a couple of things.

    One was that I get bored deliberately writing stuff over and over that's based on my own hot buttons, though I notice that hot-button material tends to reappear in stuff I write even if I accept random influences and move outside my own comfort zone (which is one of the ways I keep myself interested in writing).

    The other thing was that given the range of hot buttons out there, it seems pointless picking a random one to write about if I don't feel some connection with it (though again accepting random influences is a way of exploring what might be interesting to write about).

    Am I being a bit clearer now? Maybe not...

  8. Lisabet! Coming to this late because I'm traveling all this week and my schedule is connected to other people's schedules. I'm all over the place and sleepless.

    I think this is a very difficult and unavoidable problem that anyone who works in a creative field - especially one who succeeds and acquires a fan base - has to struggle with. Your fans want you to write what they like, and you want to pioneer something new. I was listening to an old recording of a concert by Jimi Hendrix when he was introducing a lot of new material and each time he got this tepid applause like people were confused about him. Then he'd play Purple Haze and everybody went crazy, but you could tell from his sarcastic stage banter he was unhappy.

    Sometimes I wonder if a solution is to do what Stephen King did and spend some time writing under another name where people don;t have notions of the way you "should" write. In a way its a happy problem.


  9. Hi, Fulani,

    Ah, now I see. But in my case at least, I really don't choose the "buttons" (or the cliches). They seem to find their way into my writing unconsciously.

  10. Yeah, Garce,

    You're right on the money here. People really seem to like my BDSM work more than anything else I write (except maybe M/M but that's because of the insane popularity of that genre). But I personally want to stretch my creative wings a bit.

  11. Hi, Lisabet,

    Here I am on a snow day, taking a break from the work I took home, just in case it was going to be a snow day, and I find myself popping into Oh Get A Grip!

    I'm not nearly as prolific a writer as you are, but my writing does tend to lean towards BDSM because that is what pushes my buttons. I find exactly the same thing when I'm writing what I consider to be hot BDSM. Of course, it's subjective, but I figure what turns my crank probably turns others' cranks as well.

    Unfortunately, that sense of "Am I going all cliche here?" descends upon me, frequently, when I'm writing BDSM. It's difficult enough to be original in a really wide genre, let alone being original in so narrow (relatively speaking) a sub-genre.

    Sometimes, I think it isn't so much the idea of *what* your characters are indulging in that is a turn-on, as whether or not your characters are people with whom your readers can identify. No matter what your genre, or sub-genre, there are only so many basic plots and in something such as BDSM there are only so many activities. I mean spanking is spanking and cuffs are cuffs. It's all just variations on a theme, so what is it that makes one BDSM story so damned hot and another one barely mediocre, if readable at all?

    I believe it is the expertise with which you write. Good, articulate writing is a plus. Characters, with whom the reader can identify is a plus. A plot, with conflict and resolution, and perhaps even a bit of mystery, that delves deeper into motives and psyches adds much. That human factor can't be downplayed because it is the characters and circumstances with which the readers identify.

    It's difficult, though, when writing a BDSM story, not to ask yourself, "Is this just the same old same old?" But I'm thinking that if you, as the writer, become horny *writing* the story, then, there's that much better a chance that a large number of readers are going to feel the same way about it.

    One thing to always remember is that any BDSM story you're writing could be the very *first* BDSM story someone is reading. What may seem to be the same old thing to you, is going to be brand new for them.

    The other thing is that what you've said is true, about how the very elements of BDSM are the fetish elements that turn BDSM fetishists' cranks. It is no different than the romance aficionados never being able to get enough of the hero/heroine/obstacle overcome/HEA or HFN ending. Those are the basic elements that turn them on and they don't tire of those elements. In BDSM and "D/S" stories, there are basic fetish elements that are simply turn-ons for the people who are wired that way.

    One other element that I think probably helps a story is original dialogue. I think that no matter how much someone can be turned on by the elements of BDSM, if the characters are speaking rote BDSM or "D/S" lines, with hardly any original *personalized* dialogue, the story is likely to fall flat. I was trying to follow a formula "D/S" story quite awhile ago, posted in chapters, and gave up on it. I thought, "If I read one 'yes ma'am' or 'no ma'am,' my eyeballs are going to start bleeding." I gave up on it because the repetition and lack of original dialogue was mind-numbing and the characters were cookie-cutter with no personality. They were boring. The BDSM and D/S action, in my opinion, couldn't survive the tedious dialogue and lackluster characters.

    I don't think you have much to worry about on that front.



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