by | February 21, 2015 | General | 21 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

I used to be such a good girl. I don’t know what happened.

In the old days, I followed all the rules. I got straight As. I adhered to the high school dress code. I was an expert at figuring out what people wanted and giving it to them. In every area of my life, I aimed to please.

How did I get so contrary?

I guess I got bored. Bored with the same old plots and characters, the same tropes, conventions and clichés. Overwhelmed by ennui when I looked at the best seller lists. The longer I spent in the world of publishing, the more frustrated – even disgusted – I became by the tyranny of genre and the overwhelming influence of whatever is Currently Hot.

Over the past decade and a half (has it really been that long?), I have become progressively less interested in pleasing the masses. Instead, I seem to have cultivated my own personal imp of the perverse.

In the first vampire story I wrote for publication, my hero is a blond, blue-eyed, Midwestern frat boy who doesn’t have Goth bone in his undead body. Unlike Lestat, Edward Cullen or the many recent incarnations of Dracula, he’s not in the least ancient or world-weary – he became a vampire just five years before the tale begins.

My soon-to-be-released paranormal romance The Eyes of Bast turns the traditional “shifter” paradigm on its head. The male protagonist was actually born a cat. A sorceress gave him human form in order to have a vehicle for satisfying her lusts. And if the heroine succeeds in freeing him from the witch’s curse, will he revert to his original feline nature? This is not a typical concern in a shape-shifter tale.

In reaction to the hundreds (thousands?) of gorgeous, athletic, thirty-something Doms crowding the BDSM genre, I have stories that feature a middle aged, overweight master and slave (“Never Too Late”, in my new D&S Duos Book 2) and a dominant who’s half paralyzed from a stroke. I’ve even started writing a tale where the Dom is a quadriplegic, though so far I haven’t had the guts to push that one very far.

Of course, dominant billionaires and submissive virgins are all the rage at the moment. Right now I’m working on a novel entitled The Gazillionaire and the Virgin in which the heroine’s the one who’s richer than Croesus, and the hero is a brilliant nerd with deep theoretical knowledge about sex but no actual experience. Probably it won’t sell any better than my historical novella Challenge to Him, about a filthy rich Gilded Age industrialist and a labor activist.

I can’t blame anyone but myself. I’m just too contrary to write what sells.

When I see a call for submissions that seems worth my consideration, my first thought is “how can I twist this into something different?” This isn’t always the route to getting my work accepted. For example, one editor just couldn’t see the Hindu goddess Parvati as a succubus, despite her consuming the sexual energy of the aspiring ascetic hero. I thought it was a great, original take on the theme, but hey, that’s just me.

One trope that’s been bugging me lately is the Natural Submissive. I’m sure you’ve encountered her. Despite never having had any prior experience with D/s, she surrenders immediately and completely to the charismatic Dominant. Without training, she kneels with perfect grace and wears her bonds without complaint. Oh, and she’s got incredible pain tolerance, too, just what the nasty Dom likes. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read recently where the dominant canes the sub in the very first scene, despite the fact that caning is quite an extreme form of discipline.

Now, I’m somewhat guilty of this cliché myself, especially in my earlier work. “You were born for this,” my slightly cheesy dominant Gregory tells Kate in my first novel, Raw Silk. It’s thrilling to believe that your Master can see through your everyday facade to the kinkiness at your core. To be known – accepted – valued because of one’s dirty desires – that’s intoxicating.

My subs are always conflicted, though, unlike the classic Natural Submissive. They’re shocked by their own behavior. Furthermore, they’re not ready all at once for the worst the Dom can throw at them (and of course the Dom knows this).

So now I’m toying with the notion of writing a story where submission most emphatically does not come naturally. I’m thinking about a female character who really does want to be a competent slave, but who keeps making mistakes – due not to lack of motivation but lack of aptitude and training. Maybe she has joint problems, so she can’t stand being on her knees or suspended from the ceiling. Or perhaps she’s just a natural klutz. Her poor Dom is actually embarrassed to take her to his favorite kink club. He loves her, though, and appreciates her sincerity, so he can’t bear to send her away.

Yeah, I know. Sounds like another best seller, right?

Ah well. At this point, I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I’ve reached official curmudgeon age, hence I have license to gripe with impunity about “the industry”. And as long as I’m writing – and enjoying the process – I’ll continue to seek originality over marketability. That’s just the way I am.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Annabeth Leong

    Lisabet, I love you. I'm sorry that originality hasn't led to great sales for you, but I love and appreciate it.

    The Natural Submissive! Not only do I find it to be an irritating cliche, I think the idea can be damaging in practice. (How many years has it taken me to speak up for myself and really negotiate from my own perspective?) In real life, the idea of the Natural Submissive has been used to browbeat me, and I've fallen for it. Eventually, I removed "sub" from my FetLife profile, and my skin often crawls when I read a story that seems naive about what the Natural Submissive concept can do to consent.

    Your ideas around this are really interesting. And there is, or ought to be, hope. Every conference I go to has classes on things like rope bottoming when you don't have much flexibility, adjusting ties for all body types, playing in a bratty way, etc. In real life, people are obviously interested in these things (probably because we're human beings!) I am always wondering about how the divide between real life and the common story tropes can be bridged, at least as a subgenre. I just know in my bones that people like to see themselves reflected in stories sometimes, and that there are plenty of people like the sub you've imagined.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      When I first encountered the notion of the natural sub, I had no idea it was a cliche. Like many overused notions, it persists because it satisfies some desire in the reader. It's similar to the trope of the mortal woman being the one person who can touch the cold heart of a vampire – a sense of being special and cherished.

      I'm curious about how the notion was used to browbeat you. Were you accused of being one? Or berated for not being one?

    • Annabeth Leong

      For not being one. A real sub would do x, y, and z, or a real sub wouldn't say that.

      I've also had the experience of people assuming I'm "naturally submissive" because I'm Asian, which I find really gross.

  2. Remittance Girl

    "I’ve even started writing a tale where the Dom is a quadriplegic"

    I'd really like to read this if you ever get finished with it. I think it's an amazing challenge because it gets to the very heart of domination – as a mental triumph of the will.

    I'm glad you've reached the age of curmudgeon, because I need stuff to read.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi RG,

      That's exactly why I'm intrigued by the idea. For me, at least, D/s has almost nothing to do with the physical aspects. It's all in the mind. This book would really emphasize that notion.

      I don't think of my hero as Hawking-ish. He's young, handsome, and very wealthy (not just because readers like the latter, but because he would need to be to enough power to influence the heroine and draw her to him). He used to be reckless – an accident is responsible for his disability.

      But there are SO many forces pushing me not the write this, not the least of which is fear of offending disabled people or being accused of being exploitative.

      I wrote about this a while ago at the Grip, in a post entitled "The Novel I Don't Dare Write"

    • Remittance Girl

      First, I don't think any honest and compassionate examination of a character is exploitative. He's not any quadriplegic, obviously. He's one individual, with a very un-mainstream form of agency. I don't think that's fetishistic at all.

      And there are some people, regardless of who they are, hell bent on taking offense where it is not meant. If we worried about that, we'd stop writing anything.

      Please, go for it, or I'm going to steal your idea. Heh.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      You're on record, RG!

      Anyway, I didn't say that it would be exploitative, only that it might be seen as such.

  3. Jean Roberta

    Lisabet, I can't help imagining your quadriplegic Dom as a version of Stephen Hawking. Clearly, a severely disabled person can accomplish the seemingly impossible in real life — with enough brains and will. Thank you for mentioning your publications — you have written so much that there's always something in the list that I can't remember reading about before. Challenge to Him sounds fascinating because it reminds me of an apparently true story in my family. My great-aunt was a fiery union organizer in Pennsylvania in the Gilded Age, and a local businessman with an interest in social justice offered to pay her way through law school. Her family persuaded her to turn him down because it would compromise her reputation, and she spent most of her life married to a man who treated her badly. I've always thought that someone should write a "what-if" story about how her life could have changed if she had seized the moment and accepted the offer. (I could even accept a romance between the benefactor and the union organizer, as long as she graduates from law school!) I suspect too many editors and publishers you've dealt with have underestimated your audience!

    • Donna

      I would love to read the story of the fiery union organizer going off to law school! The feeling between her and her benefactor need not be romantic or if so not consummated. Or it could be. It's all about what-if.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Jean,

      I agree with Donna. I think there's a fantastic story in that history.

  4. Donna

    Pleasing the masses is the worst reason to write. Putting a thoughtful and original twist on the human drama is a great one (imo). I'd love to read about the brilliant nerd and the unnatural submissive!

    Without knowing much about BDSM firsthand, I can still appreciate that "that book" got many things wrong. But I also wonder if the BDSM community really does manage to create as much trust and perfect understanding between partners as is suggested by those who try to counter the inaccuracies. Trust is the most difficult and rare of human bonds and I can't help but feel it would take time to develop that and that it wouldn't happen with every Dom/sub pair "naturally" or ever. I guess I mean to say that for outsiders, BDSM does have this aura of perfection around it, a world of sexual sophistication that the rest of us can't even imagine. So getting a human take on that would be fascinating.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Perfection is the goal of the submissive. Perfect surrender, perfect devotion. It's almost a religious yearning to please the Dom. (Okay, I am talking about my view here, not anyone else's. BDSM is a bit tent.)

      That in itself is an intriguing concept to worry at in fiction. I have one story called "Incurable Romantic", about a Dom who HAS a truly perfect sub, and who can't quite bring himself to accept such perfection.

    • Donna

      It sounds very, very similar to the religious vocation! I must say, all of these story ideas sound very intriguing. Again as an outsider, it also strikes me that the BDSM community pays more attention to the erotic relationship than ordinary folk.

    • Remittance Girl

      Hi Donna, Hi Lisabet.

      I'm really torn on this issue. Why should any piece of erotic fiction need to carry the obligation to portray BDSM in a happy and healthy manner? Isn't that the job of activists? Why should writers be expected to be propagandists?

      And yet there is good data to suggest that some readers used 'the book' as a kind of sexual self-help guide. And I can see how that is scary.

      I think the issue of intentionality is at the core of this. If the book in question sought to examine the conflicts that could arise from a character who is masking their rage under the guise of BDSM, and ignoring the consensual spirit of it, that would be an interesting premise for a drama. The problem is that the writer herself knew so little about BDSM, that she uses the plot to misrepresent it.

      So… it's about doing diligent research, isn't it? Nothing wrong with writing a novel about a bad BDSM relationship, but even if the characters don't realize it's problematic, the author should know.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      But would a book about a bad BDSM relationship be erotic?

      I suppose it could be. I'm remembering Freaky Fountain's Bad Romance, which fit the bill.

  5. Fiona McGier

    Lisabet, I, also, write the books I want to read. Seems like many of us are in the minority, vis-a-vis readers. But still the stories in my head are not influenced by the current "hot trend", or the latest genre or trope to make some lucky authors a big pile o' cash. Instead the characters grow inside of me, until they're "big enough" to live on their own and I write their stories.

    If I tried to write something not genuine, it would sound forced. I may not be the world's best writer, but at least the ideas are mine, and not copied from a thousand other books.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Fiona,

      But does seeing the latest trend just make you itch to write something else? ;^)

  6. Garceus

    Hi Lisabet!

    In the end its the way we have to be. We write what we love to read. And for some us we like to be surprised. I was talking to my kid about this and I said to him that the quality I value most in story telling is audacity. When you think you know where its going and it goes somewhere else. Or as Akira Kurosawa says "The artist does not look away."

    I like the idea of a submissive who doesn't start that way. Maybe that's the weakness in many of these BDSM stories around, these are too easy. No character arc. What we want is to be surprised.


    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Garce,

      Thanks for the vote of confidence.

      My notion about the anti-natural submissive (??) is more that she WANTS to submit, but she's just not very good at it, either physically or psychologically. I really do think I could evoke some sympathy in the reader with such a character.

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