Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Great (Erotic) Conversation

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.


  1. Annabeth - I feel as though this says everything that can be said on this topic.

    I'm glad the genre gives you hope, though. I'd like to feel that way myself, but these days I really don't.

  2. Thanks so much, Lisabet.

    And as far as hope goes, I totally understand why you wouldn't feel it. I thought I might not either until I wrote this. This post made me feel better, and I thought of Socrates and his suspicions about poets. There is a way that poetry can sound wise when it isn't, and I often suspect myself of this. The difference between bravery and foolhardiness is harder to grasp than one might wish.

    And a side note: If I had this to write again, I would say more about heteronormativity and how I don't believe in it. When I list what the hero is supposed to be and say that he doesn't have to be that, I would include straight on the list. I would say we don't need to think only about heroes and heroines, straight and gay, that there are all sorts of shades of gender and orientation. I hope my position on that is clear from my writing, but I don't think it's fair to let it go without saying.

  3. Annabeth:
    I love the passion and the honesty in this post. It's inspiring, although I'd rather not have to wrestle with your demons. I share your laments about EC. In my case EC for Men. It doesn't look like they are taking new members to the club there.

    I love odd pairings too. I have a story that should be published next month about a surfer/beach bum who is smitten by a woman who is 6'7" tall.

    I have a very practical way of separating erotica from porn. Porn is the other guy's stuff you don't like.

    1. Thank you.

      Your surfer and tall woman sound interesting. As far as odd pairings, I'd submit that they're not all that odd. The pairings we see around us in the real world have a great deal of variety, which is something I'd like to reflect in fiction. Stereotypes in fiction can enforce an idea of "normality" that never was, I think.

      And I know you're joking about erotica versus porn, but there's truth in that joke, and I think an illustration of one reason we ought to be wary of that particular false dichotomy.

  4. Another beautifully cogent and thought-provoking essay. I can relate to some of the specific things you say (though this is the kind of piece that I would find strikingly enriching on its own merits, even if no shred of it resonated).

    I am always dismayed by the dichotomies brandished in our field, and we do seem to face them at every turn. Even the smartest people often seem to rely too much on the assumed dichotomies, imho, or posit new dichotomies that are likewise problematic; I suppose it's how we're trained to think (at least in the West?).

    I've also, in various ways, tried to show by example that characters shouldn't have to conform to narrow expectations. In my first novel, I made a point of including a major character in her fifties who was the most sexually adventurous person in the book, as desired by other characters (of various ages) as she was enthusiastic about seducing or being seduced by them. (As you well know, we can't credibly force characters into a book just to make a statement, so of course I didn't force; I simply recognized an opportunity to flesh out the story and cast of characters in a particular way that would serve several goals at once.)

    Finally: I, too, am the market (though not to the extent I used to be, I confess). My tastes are, I admit, narrow, so we're talking a small selection, not a comprehensive "keeping up." But I sit down and go through the anthologies I'm in, and have frequently read anthologies I wasn't in, and I've read many novels and story collections by assorted peers over the years. And usually the main reason is that I expect to enjoy these books. They are what I like to read—that's how I got here! And sometimes I've had the impression that, apart from our colleagues who double as official reviewers, not that many of us do this very much (for reasons I understand, of course—limited time, basically).

    1. I'm glad you liked this one! I agree with what you've said, and don't have much to add.

      As far as reading, I think it's important to read both within and outside of one's genre--within to be part of the conversation, and outside to maintain a fresh perspective. I also use it as a test. Losing my love of reading my genre has been an important burnout signal for me. If I can't appreciate what I'm reading, I'm pretty sure I can't write something worth appreciating. That said, limited time is of course an issue for us all.

  5. Can't think of better goals to be writing for, Annabeth. You have the best motivations concerning your craft, and that will serve you well.

    Your comments are always spot on, and often bring up things unexpected. I've learned lots from you.

    1. I really appreciate this. I had to work to summon this stuff, since I've felt worn out lately, but I was glad to hear this myself. (This was one of those posts where the writing felt a bit beyond me--things I needed to hear).

  6. Reverting to my editorial persona, I 'm sometimes disappointed by writers who try too hard to send me what they think I want. Admittedly I give fairly detailed guidelines, but I often say I like to be surprised. Sometimes I wonder whether people who send me bland, sweet stories have seen my profile picture on Facebook and drawn stereotypical conclusions according to how old they think I am (I'm really much older than that.) I turned down one writer three times--the last time it was a story about a real-estate agent showing a house, perfectly serviceable but, well, boring--until she sent me her own true story for Wild Girls. That one, about finding the butch Daddy she hadn't known she wanted, hit the bulls-eye. Not that there's anything wrong with a few sweet stories, if handled by a skilled writer, but never bland ones.

    And then there are the truly memorable stories that don't just surprise me, they startle me, and remind me just how complex, gut-wrenching, and exceptional erotica can be--like Annabeth's "A Prayer Before Bed" in Lesbian Cops (now reissued as Women with Handcuffs; not my faultt.)

    Sometimes even editors don't realize what their market is until it hits them.

    1. This seems like an important caveat for anyone writing to spec. And thanks for the kind words about "A Prayer Before Bed"!

  7. Annabeth, this is an inspiring post. Sacchi, you've said what I've often guessed: that even editors don't always know what they want until they see it, and no two editors think alike. (Maxim Jakubowski's claim that his taste is "idiosyncratic" seems honest and widely applicable.)

    1. Thank you! And you must be right—we must all have idiosyncratic taste, I would guess.


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