Muse versus Market

by | February 21, 2016 | General | 8 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

A few nights ago I woke from a vivid dream with an idea for a new story. Consumed with excitement, I grabbed the notebook I keep on the shelf in my headboard and scribbled down a synopsis, in the dark. When the next day dawned, I was delighted to find that (a) I could actually read my notes, and (b) the story premise still struck me as really promising.

Having just released a novel, I’ve been wondering what project I should tackle next. This new concept—a scifi tale that resonates with a lot of contemporary issues—really got my mental wheels turning. Though the dream was little more than a single scene, with hints of a back story, I could see how to expand it, and how to focus its harrowing emotional intensity. Tragically romantic—intellectually challenging—distinctly different—the idea really sank its claws into my psyche.

Then I realized that although what I’d envisioned was a love story, it definitely did not have a happy ending. So if I wrote and published it, I couldn’t sell it as romance. And at this point in my publishing carreer, romance is what I know how to promote. The readers on my 300-odd mailing list, the daily visitors to my blog, the people who enter all my giveaways, are readers of romance. They crave an ending where the characters ultimately get what they want, not a finale where the hero dies. Yet that’s the natural way my dream would play out, if I spun a story from it.

Could I make it into a romance with a HEA? Probably, though finding a believable solution to the hero’s impending demise would take significant creativity. As a romance, I suspect this would sell, at least among the readers who have come to appreciate my unconventional approach to romance tropes. Did I want to turn this notion into a happily ending tale, though? Wasn’t that a betrayal of my midnight vision?

I could always keep the original ending and market the book as erotica, of course. Although the thematic core of the tale is not primarily about sex, I expect it to contain a significant amount of carnal activity, since the hero is a prostitute. Even erotica readers tend to shy away from dark endings, though. They might not require the characters to make a commitment, but they like it when everyone ends up satisfied. Heartbreak, injustice, terror—these aren’t favorite topics in erotica.

In any case, I don’t know how to market erotica these days, at least not stuff that would probably be more literary than smutty. Blue Moon is gone. Cleis (and just about everyone else) wants romance. In the old days, Circlet would have been the perfect publisher for this tale. But even Circlet seems to have largely climbed on the romance bandwagon.

What about turning the dream into mainstream fiction? Tragic endings are always welcome in literature. Or genre science fiction? But then what would I do about the sex? Play it down? Leave it out? I’d probably need to create a new pseudonym, too, to avoid being tarred with the opprobrium of also writing “porn”. I’d be starting from scratch, in an environment about which I know very little, at least as an author.

Let me be clear. I don’t make my living from my writing. Heaven forbid. I don’t write primarily for the money. On the other hand, I have very limited time to write, so I try to produce books that I think people will actually read. That’s the payoff, for me—emails like the one I received a few weeks ago, from a guy who absolutely loved Rajasthani Moon, or gushing reviews like I’ve been getting for The Gazillionaire and the Virgin. I write to be read. So I don’t want to put effort into creating something that will go over like a lead balloon.

It’s a dilemma. Do I follow my muse down a barely-trodden path, or divert her onto a more well-traveled highway? I go back and forth about this. Is it principled or foolish to stick to my original notions? Or maybe a bit of both?

A lot of authors read this blog, so I’ll ask: what would you do? Which would you choose, the muse or the market?

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. cedric tan

    Perhaps its possible to have a heartbreak, injustice and tragedy but still have a happy ending where everyone is satisfied?

    Not a writer but personally, I like HEAs only mostly because it provides some sort of "feel good" closure that's relatively more comfortable compared to a tragic ending. An HEA can be effective even if there are plenty of emotionally intense and conflicting elements in the middle of the story.

    It could probably be like a Leo Tolstoy novel – many of the characters undergo a roller coaster of tragedy and dark emotions throughout the story and some of the main characters die in the end: Prince Andrei! But even Prince Andrei's death in War and Peace is not before a series of reconciliation, forgiveness, finding love again etc, and his death to me is a satisfying end to his story.

    I believe what makes it romance is still the usage of the medium, rather than the subject. Even war can still be romantic in fiction, I suppose, and if its all wrapped up nicely, even if the hero dies it can still be a happy ending.

    However, if there is a lot of philosophical material, it may override the erotic aspects of the novel and that may be a line that you may not want to cross if you are considering your target audience greatly. I imagine it has to be subtly intellectual, to the point where its not even visible on the gift wrapper – which will make it appear to be still erotica at its core. I think that would be really interesting to read.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hello, Cedric,

      I do think the story is romantic–very much so. And that would be the focus of the tale. However, romance as a genre has some very specific rules. One is that the hero can't die. He and the heroine (if the story is M/F) must end up in a relationship that endures beyond the end of the story. Meanwhile, for my hero, the fact that his time is running out IS the story. That's a huge part of what generates the emotional interest. It would be hard to avoid a HEA coming across as a deus ex machina.

      Personally, I can "feel good"–a sense of rightness or satisfaction–even when a story ends tragically. However, the market doesn't favor this sort of conclusion.

  2. Donna

    Cedric makes an excellent point about the happy ending "feeling." It's certainly harder to pull off, but the sign of a master storyteller.

    I remember as a novice writer feeling annoyed at people who said publication isn't the most important part of writing. We need external validation, especially at the beginning. Almost twenty years in, I understand better what the veterans were saying. If your imagination is calling you to go on a particular journey (obviously I've been reading one of those "mythic journey of the writer books" recently!) you can refuse the call because you know it's a bummer to be rejected by publishers. Or you can answer with a yes and see where it takes you.

    I'd vote for giving yourself over to the compelling story because as we all know, the market is kind of a bad boyfriend. Rich, self-centered, doesn't really care about our feelings. Writing well is the best revenge.

    Maybe I've shared this before, but I always liked the "flip a coin" method. Heads is write it, tails is don't and whatever comes up, you listen to your feelings about the fate chance dealt you. Great relief that you don't have to write it would be another kind of sign.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Flip a coin! Interesting solution! Since I do believe in serendipity and some sort of universal order, that might be a reasonable thing to do.

  3. E.B. Black

    My opinion is that it's a huge risk, but huge risks have the potential for the greatest rewards. People who are celebrated and remembered as authors are not authors who followed the rules.

    I am an author as well and I get where this pressure is coming from, but the people who set the trends are the ones who write different than everyone else, not the same.

    The Notebook and Romeo and Juliet are some of the most celebrated love stories of all time. They did not end with a happily ever after and they wouldn't be liked as much if they did.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thanks for this wise feedback.

      If I chose the HEA route, the book might be well-written, interesting, even popular. However, it would be far more ordinary.

      And Romeo and Juliet is exactly the vibe from my dream. Star-crossed lovers, doomed by their nature and history.

  4. Reuben

    Muse every time. To the enth. Rock it.

  5. Jean Roberta

    I love Donna's description of the market as a bad boyfriend! I agree with everyone here: follow your Muse, Lisabet. (And it has actually gained you a following, if not a fortune and movie options.) The photo in this post perfectly illustrates the choice of paths.

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