Monday, April 27, 2015

Leaving the Garden

By Lisabet Sarai

Over the next two weeks here at the Grip, we will be talking about how our writing has changed over time. Initially I was going to focus on craft issues. I planned to compare some passages from my first novel, written fifteen years ago, with text from more recent work, and highlight how much more skilled I’ve become at things like dialogue and sentence structure.

Instead, I’ve decided to talk about a more fundamental issue—my loss of innocence.

My early works were naive translations of my favorite fantasies into prose. I’d had little exposure to erotica as a genre. I wasn’t following any sort of rules. I wrote what aroused me personally, without worrying about whether it would have the same effect on someone else. My heroines were sexually voracious, unapologetically experimental, brave, curious and eager for new experience. I was like that myself in those days. The women (and men) in my books were more so.

As a consequence, my first three novels, especially (Raw Silk, Incognito and Ruby’s Rules—recently re-released as Nasty Business) feature all sorts of activities and couplings. Taken together, they include everything from cross-dressing to enemas—voyeurism and exhibitionism, homosexual and lesbian interactions, group sex, gang bangs, age play, fisting, golden showers, pegging, femdom, pseudo-incest, as well as spanking, flogging, bondage and the like. I wasn’t shy about writing it if it turned me on. And in those early days, before I’d read and written hundreds of thousands of erotic words, almost everything did.

I suspect that many writers of erotica began, like me, by exposing and exploring their own favorite scenarios of desire. The result is often searingly sexy. The author has poured his or her personal libidinous imaginings into the story, with all the accompanying emotions. Readers pick up on the emotional truth, and react to it. These self-disclosive stories are direct and intense. They hit you in the gut, or perhaps more appropriately, in the groin.

Even as I cringe at the quality of the writing, my early stories still have an intensity that melts me to a puddle of lust whenever I reread them.

As I became more familiar with the world of publishing, my work became less spontaneous, more consciously constructed. I began writing short stories to match anthology themes. I contracted with an erotic romance publisher and discovered that readers didn’t necessarily share my preference for pan-sexual diversity. Without realizing it, I acquired the knowledge of good and evil—or rather, marketable versus not.

My writing changed in response to this knowledge. I tamed my id to satisfy editors, reviewers and the public. At the same time, I was learning how to communicate more effectively through my prose, how to grab the reader’s attention and keep it focused where I wanted it. I moved away from writing as confession or self-gratification toward writing for an imagined audience. I acquired the ability to modify my style to match the preferences of that audience.

The market was changing at the same time. The readership for erotic fiction grew but I think the tolerance for extreme or unusual activities shrank. My pre-AIDs-era heroines who’d have unprotected sex with strangers if the mood was right began to seem shocking as well as old-fashioned. My occasional interest in enemas and golden showers would make the bulk of the reading community run away screaming—as well as getting me banned from Amazon.

Perhaps to compensate for the reduced sexual diversity in any one of my tales, I began to experiment with different forms. I wrote M/M, F/F, ménage, paranormal, historical, science fiction, steam punk, in addition to the BDSM that was my first love. As I’ve matured as a writer, I’ve gained the confidence to tackle new sub-genres. Just recently I wrote my first tentacle porn story as well as my first F/F fantasy piece.

My publishing history makes me proud. I may not be as prolific as some of my peers, but I’m a far more skillful and accomplished writer than I was in 1999, when Raw Silk poured out of me in an excited frenzy. Still, I can’t help looking back with a sense of nostalgia to the days when reading my own work would leave me breathless and damp.

I’ve finally given up on the notion of being financially successful with my writing, and so I’ve decided to try suspending the censor and critic, if I can, and writing once more from my loins. I’m not the same woman I was back then, though. My life-changing initiation into dominance and submission is thirty years behind me. Memories grow pale and worn with constant rehearsal. I’m post-menopausal, a state which gives me new appreciation for the power of hormones. And I’m pretty well sated from reading erotica by others. It takes an extraordinary story these days to make an impression.

I’ve been away from the garden for a long time now. The gates are barred by time and experience. I have to accept that I’ll never write my way back into that state of innocence.


  1. My sort-of-parallel-but-completely-different journey began (in the mid-1990s) with writing from my fantasies and general sensibilities—but in a style that to some extent mimicked what I'd seen in the vintage turn-of-the-century erotica that Carroll and Graf were reprinting (or perhaps in some cases simulating?). The result was a strange contemporary manuscript that blended joie de vivre, wit, language that was slightly artificial and overly hand-holding toward the reader, and lots of eroticized peeing by the female protags. I submitted a partial to C&G, who said it didn't quite fit in with either their "hard" or "soft" erotica categories. (:v> When I next submitted erotica for publication a decade later, I made the wise decision to write in my natural voice. I was still writing what turned me on and serving my preferences for wit, joy, and likeable characters (and I've never stopped doing these things, except insofar as I've mostly stopped writing altogether); but the big lesson I'd taken away from reading top-notch contemporary erotica in the early 2000s was to amp up the sense of psychological urgency a little, to help transform sexy fantasies into truly compelling reading. In other words, I made the erotic inner narratives of the protagonists a little more consuming and intense.

    (By the way, Amazon doesn't ban peeing erotica. I have a series there—my only books that have ever sold decently, by the way, even though they were the only ones released without any promotional push—and various other such works come up in the "also boughts.")

    1. Sounds like you *started* trying to write for a market, and only later began writing for yourself.

      And I for one am sorry you seem to have stopped, by the way.

    2. Thanks, Lisabet.

      I think it was always a combination of "for myself" and "for a market" (except in the years between my 1995 attempt and my 2005 plunge, during which time I would occasionally write a little erotic something entirely for my own enjoyment). But in 1995 it was an ill-conceived, clumsy combination, and later it was a more sensible one. (:v>

  2. I have basically two periods in my writing-- B.E. and A.E. Before and after The Erotica Readers and Writers Assn. I had over a hundred thousand words written before I knew anything about the technicalities of writing erotica. ERWA enabled me to make the words make sense.

    1. I had no idea you'd written so much before your joined ERWA.

      Is it all short stuff? I'd love to see you tackle a novel.

  3. I noticed quite a while ago that stories my editorial mind would look down its nose at (what an image!) were sometimes the most arousing. I don't find it strange that those stories often sell better than those I think of as better written, but I do find it frustrating, since by the time I finally got around to writing for publication my mind was already set in editorial mode.

    1. I just finished reviewing a recent Cleis antho. I found that the only stories that aroused me at all were the ones where the language stood out as especially well done. Of course, that may just be because the more skilled authors did a better job at evoking emotion.

      However, I *have* read clumsily written stuff that did push my buttons. Not in a while, though.

  4. I'm reading submissions now for Best Lesbian Erotica, and realizing that I'll need to find a balance between stories that will push the readers' buttons in the ways they're accustomed to, and work that hits me with a zing of discovery and awe at how good and outside-the-box the writing is. Well. I always have to do that, but for this book I want to lean more toward the zingers and less toward the best-of-the-usual--if I can get them. So far I only have two that fill that bill, and one is a reprint.

    Maybe readers will be disappointed not to get a good dose of the usual, but I'll take that chance. If, as I said, I can get the material.

  5. Lisabet, I love every post you write that's like this post. I find it very affirming because I've come that same full circle. You're right--you can never go home again.

    1. Thanks, Giselle!

      I look back at my days of innocence with some nostalgia. At the same time, my literary range has dramatically increased. So I guess it's not appropriate to feel regret. (Anyway, regret is the most useless emotion out there.)

  6. What you're talking about, Lizabet, reminds me of the career arc of a new band. They spend years suffering for their art, then one album hits it big. It's a culmination of the desires and dreams of all of the band members. They make money, they tour, people love them. Then when they go to the studio to make album #2, they have no idea why the ideas don't flow the way they used to. But they're not the same people anymore. So each album gains new fans, but the ones who clung to the first album as representing their own souls, will always judge the band against that first album, and they'll be forever lacking in capturing that voice again. Success changes you.

    That being said, I'd sure like to find out how I'd change with monetary success!

    I've read a few of your books, Lizabet. You're right about having the craft parts of writing--I don't like BDSM, but I appreciate your work for the quality, even if they weren't hitting my "hot buttons."

    I don't write erotica, but romance. I always write the books I want to read. Unfortunately, most women don't think like me. I think that's a huge factor contributing to my lack of sales. That, and anonymity. Women in danger seems to be a huge draw, as well as overly-muscled military men/cowboys/Highlanders/billionaires. I don't find any of those types of men attractive. I prefer ordinary men who can be vulnerable at times, and intensely masculine during others. But are always sexy because of who they are, not the function they're supposed to fulfill--ie, rescue the damsel in distress. Sigh.

    1. Hi, Fiona,

      I think your comparison to a band is very apt. Once you've been "discovered", once you've become "professional", you have a whole new set of pressures to deal with.

      I don't only write BDSM, btw. Have you read "Bodies of Light"? "Wild About That Thing"? "Monsoon Fever?" All three are M/F/M or M/M/F menage romances. I think you might like them. No alpha males in attendance.

  7. Hi Lisabet!

    I understand what you're saying here, because your creative arc is my creative arc as well. These days Fifty Shades and "Mommy Porn" have made erotic writing as common and harmless as milk. The market is flooded with it. I think many of us here and at ERWA take a certain pride of having wrote this stuff back in the day when it was dangerous and could get you into all kinds of social trouble. We were edgy, we were the punk rockers of narrative fiction. Now we're what?

    It bothers me that I still feel like my best story was one of my first - "An Early Winter Train". I wish I could write another story like that. I think it was because it was all so new and I was so starry eyed that I was more open.

    Like yourself, I write better now, but I miss sometimes that craziness. That innocence you describe. How do we get that back?


    1. Hello, Garce,

      I love "An Early Winter Train". But I think "Pinkie" is a competitor. Your work has become more confident and competent over the years. However, I at least don't think you've lost the creative spark. You still make me gasp in awe.

  8. I think I've remarked on this before, but I could never have started out as innocently as you did, pouring out my fantasies onto the page. It's taken years of writing to get down to what my fantasies actually are, and I still only glance at them in my work. I have a partially finished manuscript where I'm trying to write actual fantasies, and it's very hard for me to work on. I always turn myself on when I write erotica, but it's so much more piecemeal for me. I'm awed by what you describe experiencing with Raw Silk.

    But then you say this:

    "so I’ve decided to try suspending the censor and critic, if I can, and writing once more from my loins"

    And I'm so excited to see where that will lead!

    1. Lately it seems to be leading me toward writing more F/F fiction, actually.

      And darker stuff. My upcoming paranormal collection Fourth World is full of shadows (though in fact many of those stories were written years ago).


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