By Lisabet Sarai
I’m starting to wonder whether craft is the enemy of heat.
My first novel poured from my imagination onto the page in a breathless rush of passion. Looking back, I remember the process as almost effortless. Nothing seemed to block the flood of fantasy. My heroine Kate was my personal proxy, indulging in ever more transgressive erotic scenarios as she explored her sexual identity. As she surrendered to her master Gregory, I was reliving and perfecting my own odyssey of submission and then moving beyond recollection to conjure the imagined scenes I never had the opportunity to try. I wrote the whole book in a peculiar state of arousal – not exactly on the edge of orgasm, but with an exaggerated appreciation of every sexual stimulus, both internal and external.
Readers of Raw Silk tend to get turned on. The book has been called “scorching”, “outrageous”, “intensely erotic”, and “explosive”. And when I reread my favorite bits now, they still make me wet.
At the same time, I cringe when I notice the many flaws in the book. My sentences seem too long and complex, overly influenced by my academic training. The dialog strikes me as unrealistic and wooden. (This was before I learned to allow my characters to use contractions when they speak!) Repeated words, phrases and sentence structures jump out at me. And I realize, with a sinking heart, that some of the interactions that have the most visceral effect on me are overworked BDSM clichés.
In the dozen years since that first publication, I’ve matured as a writer. My prose is far more polished, less flowery and more direct. My characters can converse without sounding as though they’ve been filtered through Google Translate. I have conscious control over issues I used to manage by instinct – foreshadowing, flashbacks, suspense, sexual tension, narrative flow. Originality in premise and execution have become critical concerns. When I address a theme or a subgenre, I deliberately try to find a treatment or a twist to distinguish my work from the thousands of other authors writing erotica and erotic romance.
I was an amateur back then. Now I’m a professional. All my self-conscious craft, though, seems to have smothered the spark that used to kindle my readers (and me) into vicarious flames.
It’s much more difficult now to write a truly sexy scene. There’s too much going on in my head. Instead of simply reveling in my personal perversions, I worry. Is this too stereotyped? Is this too raw for romance? Is this too tame for erotica? Haven’t I written this same thing a million times before? Sure, it pushes my buttons, but didn’t I just read more or less the same thing in someone else’s story? And what about that sentence? I used “cock” twice already – should I change it to “prick”? Have I already used a storm metaphor for orgasm in this tale?
As a result, all too often these days I seem to find myself in a state of literary paralysis. The horny flow of erotic ideas has dwindled to a trickle. Sure, occasionally inspiration will seize me and a whole story will pour out of me in a few hours. I treasure those experiences – especially since they’ve become so rare.
I know that part of the problem is hormones – or lack thereof – as I age. And how could I not have become a bit jaded? I’ve probably read a thousand erotic short stories since I turned “pro”. I admit I’m almost as critical about other authors’ work as I’ve become of my own. It’s inevitable, I suppose, that one’s first story about anal sex is going to be a good deal more exciting than the fiftieth. You’re only a virgin once.
Still, I sometimes wonder whether I should stop being concerned about craft and just write “Sucking Daddy’s Big One” or “Slave to the Cruel Professor” or “The Pirate’s Whore” – the type of books that Amazon tells me people decide to purchase after viewing my recent BDSM story collection. It’s true – the stories in that collection are more subtle, surprising and literary than Raw Silk, but they’re not as hot. I don’t know if I COULD silence the analytical voice in my head, or ignore my concerns for originality and freshness, but if it were possible, would I be able to recapture the glorious searing intensity of my early work?
I’m a snob – I know it. A while ago I read a BDSM novel for purposes of a review and was appalled by the poor quality of the writing. Glaring grammar mistakes, incorrect punctuation, inappropriate word choice, confusing and inconsistent point of view – the book broke practically every rule of craft. Meanwhile, the story trotted out all sorts of stock BDSM elements: the stern but voluptuous employer in her tailored suits and spike heels, the innocent “natural” submissive with an inexhaustible appetite for abuse, the male “assistant” called into service to train the new slave. It had bondage, spanking, flogging, suspension, butt-fucking, medical play, pseudo-Victorian costumes… I wrote a pretty scathing review, but at the same time I have to admit (as I did in the review) that some parts of the book turned me on. The awful writing ultimately did not prevent me from being aroused.
So maybe, just maybe, the craft doesn’t matter. Could that be true? I know it’s possible to produce a supremely well-written erotic story that also has the power to arouse me – some of my favorite erotic authors do it all the time. And yes, elitist that I am, I find wonderful writing exciting in its own right. Perhaps, though, that aesthetic thrill could be teased apart from my baser (and more basic) sexual reactions.
Then again, perhaps not. The aspects of BDSM that arouse me most have to do with the emotional and psychological currents flowing between the dominant and the submissive. It takes a certain skill to bring those dynamics to life. Whips, handcuffs and gags by themselves won’t do the trick, at least not for me.
Does too much craft interfere with heat? Are the two independent, addressing totally different levels in the reader’s psyche? Should I switch to writing pure porn? Could I?
I really want to know what you think.