By Lisabet Sarai
So what is the difference between erotica and porn?
Oh no! Not that old chestnut again! I’ve been a member of the ERWA Writers list for almost two decades. At least once or twice a year, some newcomer resurrects that question. Those of us who have been around for a while roll our eyes and grin to ourselves, already knowing how the discussion will go.
However, as I was thinking about my ERWA blog post for this month, I had an insight on this issue, which relates to writing craft.
Porn is easy. Erotica is hard.
I’m not saying that porn is easy to write. Though some people believe it’s a snap to throw together a great stroke story, I know that’s not true. Getting people hot and bothered takes talent and work, skill and imagination. This is true of erotica as well, of course, despite the disdain lavished on our genre by the literary establishment.
What I mean is that in porn, things are easy for the characters. The focus is on obtaining sexual satisfaction, the sooner the better. Readers don’t want the author to put obstacles in the way of the characters getting off. Hence, porn rarely features any significant conflict. The path from meeting to fucking is smooth and direct, with few if any stops along the way.
Erotica (and especially erotic romance), in contrast, thrives on obstruction. Erotica authors are more likely to put their characters through an emotional or physical wringer before the final consummation. Meanwhile, erotica readers tend to be more accepting of deferred gratification than readers of stroke fiction, in return for a richer and more complex narrative in which the characters overcome internal or external barriers in their journey toward release.
Conflict creates dynamic tension. It prevents the characters from rushing headlong into a sexual connection. As conflict keeps the protagonists apart—or at least denies them complete satisfaction—their level of arousal increases. When the conflict is finally resolved, the resulting experience, both for the characters and the reader, can be far more intense than the problem-free hookup in a stroke story.
Classic theory categorizes fictional conflict as man versus nature (or God, or demon – super-human forces at least), man versus man, and man versus himself. I hate the sexist terminology, but agree with the general breakdown. I’ve read (and written) erotica that used all three categories.
K.D. Grace’s recent novel In the Flesh offers a wonderful example of the first type of conflict. Her heroine Susan falls under the sway of an evil but mercilessly seductive disembodied entity who uses her natural sensuality as a route to destroy her. In fact, the perilous lure of supernatural sex is a common theme in paranormal erotica. It would be all too easy for Susan to succumb; she fights her erotic urges because she recognizes the danger.
Daddy X exploits “man versus man” (or more accurately, man versus woman) conflict in his fantastic short story “Spy versus Spy”. Nicolai and Lilya have been sexual partners for years. Their long acquaintance and shared history means each is still aroused by the other. However, neither trusts the other—for excellent reasons.
Conflict internal to the character is perhaps the most ubiquitous type found in erotica. Characters are often torn between their own deepest desires and their beliefs about what is acceptable, healthy or normal. Remittance Girl’s controversial novella Gaijin illustrates this pattern in the extreme. Kidnapped and raped by a Japanese gangster, her heroine still finds herself aroused—and hates herself for those feelings. In Cecila Tan’s Wild Licks, we meet rock star Mal Kenneally, an extreme sadist who never has sex with a woman more than once because he’s worried he’ll do serious physical or psychological damage. Uncertainty about sexual orientation or identity—religious guilt—memories of abuse —fear of losing control—struggles with fidelity—sex is an emotional mine field.
We erotica authors regularly take advantage of that fact.
How is this relevant to craft? If you’re trying to write erotica (as opposed to porn), you need to consider the question of conflict. All too often I find that stories I read in erotica anthologies are really just vignettes. They may be well-written, but ultimately they consist of sex scenes and little else. They’re not really stories. (Belinda made a related point in her Editing Corner post a few months ago.) Other readers may enjoy these tales, but I find them flat and unsatisfying. When I read erotica, I want something more complex and challenging.
Please note that I do not mean to denigrate stroke fiction. In fact, my observation about conflict can be applied to this sub-genre as well. If you want to write one-handed stories (and I’ve definitely done so), you should probably avoid conflict. Your readers very likely do not want characters who agonize over whether or not to do the deed.
Actually, it’s funny. Sometimes when I set out to write stroke fiction, I don’t completely succeed, because my characters’ motivations become too complicated. A good example is my story The Antidote. I wrote this very filthy tale in reaction to the self-censorship required by my erotic romance publisher (hence, the title). I wanted to create something full of no-holds-barred sex scenes. Instead, I ended up with an arousing but rather heavy tale about sex, society and deceit. Erotic, but not the porn I was trying for!
The distinction, of course, is not clear cut. That’s one reason we veterans sigh when someone brings up the porn/erotica debate. There’s really no black and white answer, only (please forgive me!) shades of gray.
Whichever direction your writing leans, though, you should consider the question of conflict. Are you going to give your characters what they want right away, or make them jump through hoops? Your decision makes a big difference in your readers’ experience.
By Lisabet Sarai
I have trouble with endings. In fact, I’m having trouble right now, trying to complete my Christmas erotic romance tale so I can get it published before Santa comes down the chimney. The story is currently in the 7K range. I had the main conflict resolved almost 1000 words back, but I can’t quite figure out how to actually wrap it all up, tie it in a nice bow, and write “The End”. Every time I think I’ve got a smart closing line, the characters continue to yack on, and I get increasingly frustrated.
Given my current difficulties, you might suggest that I’m not exactly qualified to give advice about good endings. However, when it comes to an effective finish, I know one when I see one—not to mention recognizing when an author has not succeeded in bringing her story to a clean and compelling end. So let me talk about my observations. Who knows, this might even bring me some insight into my own problem!
The end of a story is arguably less important the initial hook I discussed last month. After all, by the time the reader reaches that point, she has already bought your book, and consumed most of it. On the other hand, the ending is what’s going to stick in the reader’s mind after she shuts the covers or turns off her e-reader. A poorly executed conclusion may convince her not to buy your next book.
An example: I adored Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It’s a thick, juicy, enigmatic novel full of unexpected synchronicities and challenging ideas. The last few chapters, however, left me deeply disappointed. Rather than shedding light on the peculiar and perilous alternative world he had created, Murakami simply shunted his main characters back to the “real” world. So many threads were left dangling, so many mysteries remained unsolved, that I wanted to scream. I dropped my rating from an enthusiastic five stars to a grudging four stars. And I started warning people away from the book, or at least cautioning them about its lame conclusion.
What lesson do I take from this experience? Your ending shouldn’t drop the ball. You don’t have to address every one of the reader’s questions (especially if you’re planning a series), but be sure you deliver on the promises you make earlier in the book.
Another no-no: avoid cliff-hangers. Readers hate them. Even if you’re planning a sequel, make sure that the ending gives readers a feeling that one episode has concluded.
I still remember (unhappily) the first book of a BDSM erotic romance trilogy I read three or four years ago. The novel was beautifully written, with a distinctive heroine and a dark, brooding alpha hero who somehow managed to avoid being a cliché. The whole thing was brilliant—until it suddenly ended with the Dom beating the sub until she lost consciousness. That was it. No further information. I was appalled. The Dom wasn’t an evil guy; his ferocity was due to the sort of misunderstanding that’s the common engine of romance. However, this was (in my opinion) a horrible way for the book to end.
I found out later that the trilogy had originally been a single long book. The publishers had cut it into three shorter pieces. I fault their editors, actually, for not realizing that the ending needed to be reworked after the surgery.
Then there are the books that just stop. No suspense, really, but you’re reading along, fully expecting more—and there isn’t any. Drives me absolutely crazy!
Some authors fall into the opposite trap. They continue the story long after its natural end. They appear to believe they must resolve every open issue, tie up every loose end no matter how trivial, explain the fate of every minor character. The book drags on, after the crisis and its resolution, becoming more diffuse and less exciting with each chapter. (This seems to be the problem I’m having.)
To write an effective ending, I think you need to have a clear view of the narrative arc in your tale. Every story—well, most stories in the Western narrative tradition, anyway—have five main phases. In the exposition phase, the author introduces the situation, the characters and the fundamental conflicts that will drive the tale. During the rising action phase, the conflict(s) motivate characters to “do things”. The characters react to each other and to events in or threats from the environment. The climax is where everything starts to fall apart. The literary excrement hits the fan, and the characters make fundamental choices that will determine their future. After the climax, things quiet down quickly, during the so called falling action phase. This is the mopping up stage. Finally, during the resolution or denouement phase, the author brings everything together, to give the reader a sense of satisfaction and completion.
|From Annabel Smith’s Blog|
Stories that suffer from cliff-hanger endings stop the action too soon, in the climax phase. Stories that seem to drag on forever stretch the resolution phase beyond recognition. Stories like Murakami’s play bait and switch. They bring you to the climax, but then pull you down the slope of some different tale altogether.
There’s a symmetry to the traditional narrative arc, even though the earlier phases usually last longer than the later ones. I suspect that the best endings take advantage of this balance. Effective endings refer back to the starting point. They recognize and exploit the patterns of conflict and action from earlier in the book. Like a symphony that repeats a musical theme, but in a different key, the ending echoes or alludes to these patterns, but now they are transformed by the knowledge and progress that have emerged from resolving the conflict.
Writing this has helped to see what might be wrong with my own ending. At the point I am at now, the hero has disappeared off stage, back upstairs to his own apartment. The heroine is conversing with a secondary character, her daughter, who’s judging her for indulging in casual sex.
The story began with the heroine climbing to the floor above her apartment in order to investigate the racket emanating from there. I think it needs to end the same way, with her making her way up the winding stair to the hero’s place. But he’s not a stranger anymore. He’ll meet her at the door (naked, I’m thinking, except for maybe a Santa Claus hat), and draw her inside, where they’ll continue the carnal activities that were so rudely interrupted.
Yeah, that might work. At least it will get the daughter to shut up!
In any case, I think I’ve pontificated long enough on this topic. Happy holidays to all. May your days be merry and bright, and all your endings turn out tight!
By Lisabet Sarai
If you don’t grab your readers’ attention in your first paragraph, you’ve lost them.
Well, that’s what the experts say, at least. Like all absolute statements, this one awakens my critical side. Certainly, I’ve read, and enjoyed, many books that began with a whimper rather than a bang. On the other hand, an effective, engaging opening can make the difference between someone buying your book or moving on to the next author.
Here are the first two paragraphs of one of the best books I’ve read in the past decade, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern:
The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
I had heard nothing about this novel. Seeking a birthday gift for my husband, my attention attracted by the dramatic black and white cover, I picked it up from a bookstore table. As I often do, I read the first page to gauge the style. I was hooked. I had to know more. Later, I bought several other copies as presents for friends and relatives. I’ve recommended it to many other people.
An author’s dream. All because of that dynamite opening.
Of course that’s not strictly true. If the rest of the book had not been as amazing as its first page, I would not be singing its praises to all and sundry. On the other hand, without that hook, I might never have read it at all.
This incident occurred in a bricks and mortar bookstore, but the same phenomenon can occur online. Amazon and Smashwords both allow you to sample the first ten to twenty percent of the books they sell. I don’t know how often people flip through my first few pages on Amazon, but Smashwords gives you these figures. Many more people have sampled my indie books than have bought them.
Maybe I need better openings. Maybe I shouldn’t be giving you advice at all. On the other hand, I do feel that I’ve learned a few things since my first novel (which has a rather awful first sentence, based on my current evaluation).
So how can you hook your readers? How can you write more effective initial paragraphs? Here are some suggestions.
Stimulate the reader’s curiosity.
Your first page can and should raise questions in the reader’s mind. What’s going on? Where are we? Who are the actors? What are their relationships?
Here’s the start of my short story The Last Amanuensis:
My hands no longer tremble when I pierce his papery skin. I’ve learned how much force to apply, how to tilt the hollow needle just enough to fill the tiny wound with color without blurring the line. I know what he can bear. I can read the change in his breathing that tells me he needs a break.
Although this one paragraph reveals a great deal, it also makes the reader wonder about the scenario. Clearly the narrator is creating a tattoo, but who is the subject? Who is speaker? He or she seems to have done this many times—why?
Provide a lightning introduction to your characters.
We all know that great characters are the key to keeping readers’ attention. One way to open a tale is let your characters immediately speak up, so readers get a sense of their quirks, personalities, and motivations.
This is how my erotic suspense novel Exposure begins:
I strip for the fun of it. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It’s not the money. I could make nearly as much working at the mill and keep my clothes on, but then I’d have to suck up to the bosses. Here at the Peacock, I’m the one in charge, and I like it that way.
Only five sentences, but already we know quite a bit about Stella. She’s opinionated and self-confident, the total opposite of a doormat. She doesn’t care must about society’s judgments. She’s probably not highly educated, given her short sentences, colloquial vocabulary and marginal grammar. And she’s a stripper—a fact relevant to both the noir suspense and erotic aspects of the story.
Dump the reader into the middle of the action.
I learned this from Kathleen Bradean. Years ago she critiqued a short story of mine on the Storytime list. I knew something about the piece was not working. It felt leaden and plodding, especially at the start. However, I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
Kathleen suggested that I throw away the first couple of paragraphs, starting the story smack in the middle of a scene. I followed her advice. The story gained new energy and with it, new interest. I found the change wrought by a relatively minor edit quite astonishing.
One way to get the reader involved in ongoing action is to begin with a line of dialogue. I’ve been using this technique quite a bit recently.
Suzy might as well have stuck my finger in an electric socket. I forced myself to breathe.
(From The Late Show)
“Ginger? Do I taste ginger?”
“Uh—yes, that’s right, sir…”
“Ginger in coq au vin? That’s practically sacrilege, Ms Wong.”
(From Her Secret Ingredient)
“On the desk, Miss Archer. Arms out, palms flat.”
I should have realized Greg had something up his sleeve. Normally he hates big parties. His work requires him to interact with all sorts of people, but I know he finds it stressful. To relax he prefers more—how should I put it?—intimate gatherings. So I really should have understood he had some deviant plan in mind when he told me about the Halloween masquerade.
(From Coming in Costume)
Okay, so maybe I’m overusing this device!
Use short, direct sentences and pay attention to the prosody.
Readers have limited attention spans, especially nowadays. Hence, all else being equal, you should keep the sentences in your first paragraph as short and direct as you can manage. I’d never recommend that you dumb down your English to increase the size of your market, but first sentences are almost like advertising slogans. They should be brief and catchy.
To enhance the impact, take advantage of the fact that repetition and rhyme stimulate parts of the brain not involved in the literal interpretation of words. These elements of prosody give sentences more impact and make them more memorable.
Consider the example from The Night Circus. The first sentence —the first paragraph—is a mere five words. The paragraph break provides a breath, a beat. The next sentence is longer, but the repetition carries it forward: “No announcements… no paper notices …. no mentions.” The next sentence also uses parallelism: “It is… it was…”.
Here’s the first sentence from one of my personal favorite stories, Like Riding a Bicycle:
My wife is on her knees.
Okay, I’m probably my own biggest fan, but I get a little chill when I read that, especially when it becomes clear that this is not (at the moment!) a BDSM scene. The stress patterns (three iambs) seem to me to perfectly fit the meaning.
So, following up on the recommendations above, is there anything you should avoid in your openings?
Well, there’s Elmore Leonard’s famous advice: “Never open a book with the weather.” I’ve broken that rule a few times, deliberately, when the weather was an essential aspect of the plot or the setting, but in general I tend to agree. Perhaps I can restate it more generally: do not begin with a long description of things that are tangential to the story.
Of course there are always exceptions. One opening strategy mimics the common cinematographic technique of the wide pan over the scene, focusing in on a character. For instance, you might show us a narrow country lane winding between hedgerows, the sun setting behind the purple hills, the freshening breeze starting to stir the trees. Then, as we look more closely, we notice a lone figure just coming over a knoll, trudging along, weighed down with what seems like a heavy knapsack. We cannot see his face at first, but as the walker approaches, we realize it’s actually a young woman, dressed in jeans and a ragged jacket, a tight cap crammed over her lank brown hair….
This approach works well with an omniscient point of view, when you want to keep some distance between the reader and your characters.
I have a rule of my own, born of reading a lot of romance: never begin a book with your character’s name. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read that start something like this.
“Anna Wilkins shut off her monitor, leaned back in her office chair and closed her eyes. If she had to review one more report, she’d scream.”
“The clang of an alarm woke Reggie Borden from a restless sleep. He was on his feet, pulling on his work pants, before he realized it had been a dream.”
This is a personal peeve, but I find this sort of opening (which is very common) really annoying. It’s even worse when the author feels inclined to tell us, in the very first paragraph, about the characters’ occupations, appearance, relationships, and so on.
“Anna Wilkins, CEO of Anastyle, Inc, shut off her monitor, leaned back in her office chair, ran her fingers through her blond curls, and closed her sapphire blue eyes. If she had to review one more report from Mark Reynolds, her ambitious Director of Sales, she’d scream.”
“The clang of an alarm woke veteran fire fighter Reggie Borden from a restless sleep. He was on his feet, pulling on his work pants and slipping the suspenders over his broad shoulders, before he realized it had been a dream—a dream about Linda and that terrible day two years ago.”
Rather than making the reader curious, authors who start their books like this seem to feel the need to convey as much information as they can, as early as possible.
Resist the urge to explain, especially in the first few paragraphs of a story. Make the reader wonder who these people are, what they are doing, and why. The reader doesn’t need to know, right away, your characters’ names or what they look like!
I’ve counseled brevity, yet here I am on the fifth page of the essay. Guess I should stop!
In fact, I often have trouble with endings. I’ll talk about that next month.
a novel is an heroic endeavor. It takes not only imagination and
creativity, but also more prosaic virtues such as perseverance,
discipline, and attention to detail. Anyone who can generate 60,000
to 100,000 words without giving up in self-disgust has my admiration.
I’ve done it myself, so I know how difficult it is. Yet many
novelists quail in the face of a far less daunting task: producing a
few thousand words for a synopsis of their work that is often
required by publishers.
think that one reason why so many writers claim to have trouble with
synopses is that they may have misconceptions about what a synopsis
is supposed to accomplish. Also, this may be a forest-and-trees
phenomenon. Novelists are so deeply involved in the complexities of
their fictional worlds, they may have a hard time pulling back and
taking a more generalized view.
is a Synopsis?
synopsis is a summary of a longer work—for
purposes of this article, a novel or novella. Publishers have
different standards for the length and format of a synopsis. One
common format is a chapter-by-chapter summary, with one or two
paragraphs per chapter. Assuming 200 words per paragraph and 10 to 20
chapters, the length of a typical synopsis will be in the same range
as the average short story: 2000 to 4000 words.
should of course always consult your target publisher’s guidelines
before creating the synopsis. Some publishers want more detail, while
others may ask for less.
a synopsis is of comparable length to a story, the similarities end
there. A synopsis does not need to establish the setting, set a mood,
or develop characters. Fundamentally, a synopsis is about plot. It is
a prose outline of the major events in your novel. Your synopsis
needs to introduce and identify your major characters, then explain
what they do or experience during the course of the novel. Given the
constraints of word count, your synopsis should not include much
description or backstory. It does not need to create suspense. It
should never contain dialogue.
purpose of a synopsis is to convey information to the publisher (or
editor or agent). The synopsis allows the publisher to evaluate
whether the action flow of your novel makes sense, and whether it
will be of interest to their target audience. If your novel is not
yet completed, the synopsis also demonstrates that you have worked
out the resolution for the conflicts and problems that you introduce
in your early chapters. (It’s sometimes possible to sell an
incomplete novel on speculation, based on initial chapters plus a
synopsis. In fact, I’ve sold four of my novels in this manner.)
synopsis is part of your marketing package, but it is not intended to
demonstrate your fabulous writing style. Your sample chapters should
do this. (Of course, the synopsis must be free of spelling and
grammar errors, but that should be true of every bit of writing you
show to the world.)
synopsis is also different from a “blurb”—the
few brief come-on paragraphs included on the buy page or the back
cover. A blurb is intended for readers, not publishers or editors.
Blurbs (which I find much harder to write than synopses) must be
clever and engaging. They’re designed to hook potential readers and
to make them want to read your book. A synopsis, in contrast, needs
does not need to be particularly snappy or creative. Rather, it needs
to be clear and comprehensible, communicating the essential structure
of your novel while leaving out extraneous details.
to Write a Synopsis
are a variety of strategies that can be applied to creating a
synopsis. They vary somewhat, depending on whether your novel is
already complete or you’re writing a synopsis for a speculative
submission. Different strategies might feel more natural, depending
on your cognitive style: linear and hierarchical versus non-linear
The outline approach.
strategy works well for linear thinkers. Create an outline of your
novel. Create a major item for each chapter. Within each major
section, list in order the most important events that occur in that
chapter as sub-items. Try to limit the number of sub-items to three
or four. Focus on the one chapter you are considering. Don’t go back
or forward in the narrative flow.
you have your outline, turn each major section into a paragraph. Each
sub-item should generate one or at most two sentences.
result of this process will be a synopsis, but it may be hard to
follow because it is missing transitions. Go back and add, as
necessary, sentences that link chapter events back to previous
you have tried this approach a few times, you’ll probably discover
that you don’t need to create the intermediate outline. You will be
able to move directly from a mental summary of the major events in a
chapter to the sentences of the synopsis.
variant to this approach is to use the scene breaks in your chapters
to identify the sub-items. In other words, one scene will become one
sentence in the synopsis.
The Post-it Note approach.
writers do not feel comfortable with outlines, either when creating
their stories or afterwards. Yet a synopsis is, structurally
speaking, an outline. For non-linear thinkers, the scene-based
strategy, in particular, may feel terribly artificial. For these
authors, the Post-it Note approach may be more natural.
down with a pad of Post-it Notes. Start thinking about your novel. On
each Post-it Note, write down one story point that you think is
important to your novel. Don’t worry about temporal order; just jot
down your first impressions. However, you should try to focus on
actions or events rather than characters or setting.
until you have twenty or thirty items on your Post-It Notes. Then go
back and arrange them into the time sequence in which they occur in
your novel. Next, survey your notes and satisfy yourself that all
items are equally important. Try to remove items that are not
critical to the plot, even if they illuminate the characters or
perform some other narrative function.
turn each of your notes into a sentence or two. Fill in transitions
as necessary. The result should be a reasonably coherent summary of
the major happenings in your book.
The dictation approach
lived with your novel for a long time. Now, tell the story of to
someone else. Record your narration. Then go back and transcribe your
oral recounting of the tale.
they tell a story out loud, people often discover a natural ability
to select relevant detail and to focus attention on the essentials. A
real audience will provide feedback, in their expressions and body
language, that will help you to realize when you’re getting into too
much detail and when you are missing connections.
strategy is particularly appropriate for unfinished novels. As you
tell the story, you may find yourself making decisions about the
course of the plot.
Common Problems in Creating Synopses
are a variety of issues that can arise when following the strategies
above. Some of these are general, while others are specific to
writing synopses of erotica or erotic romance.
The plot is not linear in time.
novels contain frequent flashbacks that reveal information important
for future events. Other novels (particularly in the science fiction
or paranormal genres) may include parallel time lines. The guidelines
above suggest that the synopsis should be linear in time; how can you
deal with these aberrations?
recommendation is to linearize as much as possible. Describe the
prior events that are contained in the flashback before the events
that they influence. For parallel time lines, try to deal with each
one as a separate thread, and then include coordinating information
that helps the reader to relate them. This approach can also be
applied to novels in which several characters pursue separate
activities which ultimately connect.
that your goal is to explain the events of your plot, not to build
suspense or gradually reveal the nature of the truth. The sequence in
which you describe events in your synopsis does not need to match the
exposition in the novel itself.
this being said, there are certain novels—for
example, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife—which
can be extremely difficult to linearize. Even this novel, though,
could be summarized by breaking its narrative into several phases:
Claire’s childhood, Claire’s married days; Claire’s life after
Many characters need to be introduced.
presenting the strategies above, I haven’t said anything at all about
characters. Yet characters are responsible for most of the events in
the plot; where do they fit in to the synopsis?
a novel will have a few major characters. Your synopsis should
introduce them as early as possible, as soon as they begin to act or
affect others’ actions. You will need to provide some description for
each character; try to focus on the attributes and historical
information that is critical for the story. Usually, you can sum up a
character in a phrase or clause. Once you’ve introduced the
character, get on with the action.
your novel has many characters, you may not need to mention them all,
especially not by name. Restrict your introductions to the characters
who serve as the engine for your plot.
Most of your novel is sex scenes.
many erotic novels, the primary action occurs in bed (or on the
kitchen table, in the shower, in the back room at the office, and so
on!) Clearly you can’t summarize the details of each scene, and
probably you wouldn’t want to:
sucks George’s cock until he comes. Then Roger comes out from the
broom closet and takes Lisa anally while George jacks off”…
if you don’t want your synopsis to read like a list of body parts and
sex acts, what can you do?
each sex scene, ask yourself: what changed because of this scene? How
did this scene modify the relationship between the characters, or a
character’s self-image? This is what you need to describe in your
synopsis; the sex itself should get no more than a mention.
may want to highlight salient points. If this is a character’s first
experience with BDSM, for example, the audience may need to know.
However, it’s better to say too little about the sex than too much.
Once again, you’re not trying to arouse your reader (the publisher).
You’re trying to convey information, as succinctly as possible.
Your novel isn’t finished.
can you summarize a novel that doesn’t yet exist? Clearly, you as the
author must have a plan for the plot, even if you haven’t yet
implemented it. This plan should be what you describe in the
worry too much that you may change your mind later about the details,
or even about major issues like the ending. Your synopsis is not a
contract or a commitment. Publishers understand that writers
sometimes have new ideas.
anything you write, your first draft of the synopsis will probably
need work. My synopses are always too long. I need to go back and
consider what can be cut. Another common problem is lack of
coherence. You need to communicate not only the story’s events but
how they are connected.
someone else to read the synopsis, then find out if he or she has any
questions. That will help you identify points that you might have
omitted, or areas that you have not clearly explained.
you want to spell check your synopsis and make sure that your grammar
is correct. With the synopsis, you are not trying to dazzle the
publisher with your literary brilliance. However, you do want to
impress the reader with your basic competence.
article is already much longer than it should be. However, if you’d
like to see some examples of synopses which have actually sold books
visit www.lisabetsarai.com/synopses.html. And please feel free to
comment or ask questions here on the blog.
By Sam Thorne, Storytime Editor-in-Chief
In everyone’s life, there is that special someone who makes you want to wring them warmly by the neck. In a good way, of course.
Of course, you can’t really throttle this person, drown them or have them forcefully emigrated. The legal system tends to frown on these things. That minor detail aside, you might be related to this person, or ‘owe them’ in some way. You might work for them. Or perhaps you’re under contract to share living space with them for the next six months. You can’t do much but survive these people, but you can put them to good use.
Your key characters (both protagonist and antagonist) need adversaries. I don’t mean villains; they’re in a class of their own. By adversaries, I mean secondary or minor characters who exist to:
- frustrate your main characters’ (MCs) aims
- show what’s important to your MCs by creating inner conflict
For example, our heroine—let’s call her Clare—has an anxiety about being late because she works in the dispatch office for the emergency services. To avoid the cliché of Clare having a jerk boss who will rip two strips off her if she’s late, let’s step sideways. We can create tension adding someone to Clare’s life who has this strange talent for making her late. I’m going to be mean, and give Clare a housemate called Lisa, who is a professional problem-haver:
Clare checked her texts for traffic updates and found one from Mark, sent just a couple of minutes ago.
Geoff’s off sick. Any chance you can get in early for hand-over?
She flicked a glance at the time—07:15—and bit her lip. So long as she got out now, and the A316 was clear, she’d have a few minutes alone with him before shift started. To hand over, of course. She thumbed back On my way and shoved her mobile into her back pocket.
Clare didn’t hear any movement from Lisa’s bedroom, but picked her way towards the front door nonetheless, treading only on the non-creaking floorboards. She passed the hall table, sliding her keys into her palm. She had her hand on the latch when she heard a sniff. Her heart fell.
Don’t look round.
‘Clare?’ Lisa’s voice had that tell-tale waver. ‘Have you got a minute?’
‘It’s just…I heard from Joe last night. He’s not doing well.’
Clare longed to be able to say ‘sorry to hear that’ and make a run for it, but Joe had been ill. And if it were her brother going in and out of hospital, she’d need a bit of support.
Suppressing the sigh, she turned and gave Lisa a hug.
This kind of sequence serves several purposes. Firstly, to show Clare letting her empathy get the better of her. To begin with, she’s a bit of a people pleaser. By the end of the story, she may find that she knows the difference between distress and emotional blackmail (in any context), and have a better handle on how to deal with it. Adversaries are good ‘showing’ tools. And they can be cathartic, too. Mix up the details of your irritating character enough, and you create a whole new person.
There are all kinds of adversaries. Your MC’s best friend could turn out to be an adversary, thanks to her pushy (but well-meant) lectures about following the head, not the heart. A brother could be over-protective. Perhaps there’s a colleague who’s unreasonably cheerful every morning, making the MC feel (and appear) irritable by comparison. Or maybe there’s a Dom who is only masterful in the bedroom, and hopeless everywhere else.
The extent and depth of the role these people have really depends upon the length of your story. But if there’s something getting in the way of your character getting what they want, perhaps let that ‘something’ be a person. There’s more opposition, that way.
So, how do you create these adversarial characters (ACs) without fear of being accused of writing someone specific into your story? Well, there are a few methods:
1) Next time you’re up at two in the morning, replaying an argument in your head and gnashing your teeth, get up and write down some of the things you wish you’d said. If nothing else, it might help you sleep better. Anger-induced insomnia is usually a sign of repressed resentment. Tap into that resentment more closely and you’ll find a golden stockpile of material for internal conflict.
2) Make a list of love-to-hate characters in movies and TV. What makes them so infuriating? Can you transplant that behaviour/trait to a different context?
3) Read books on coping with idiots at the office. They feature long lists of aggravating behaviours which you can apply to just about any situation. Some good guides are:
Dealing with Difficult People (Drs Rick Brinkman & Rick Kirschner)
The Way of the Rat: A Survival Guide to Office Politics (by Joep P.M. Schrijvers)
4) Finally, watch and listen to stand-up comedians. They usually have some kind of routine that kicks off with some variation of: ‘I can’t stand it when…’ If they make you laugh, jot their point down. If you can identify with it, so will many, many others.
But we don’t want to read about two-dimensional ‘impossible’ people. You can dial them back a little by making them supportive of your MC at unexpected moments, or by giving them frustrations that most people can sympathise with. For example, a cliché AC might embark on a political/totally selfish rant; your AC might get unduly enraged about continually finding tiny cars hidden behind huge ones when trying to find a space in the car park.
Now, take a deep breath, summon your imagination, and write a character who’s going to irritate the living daylights out of your readers. In a good way, of course.
By Lisabet Sarai
My ninth novel comes out next week. I am, of course, excited. Publishing a new book is a bit like giving birth, without as much pain. I’m eager to find out what the world thinks about my new baby. My beta readers and my editor have been unabashedly enthusiastic. I can only hope the general reading public—okay, the few hundred of them that I manage to reach via my hit-or-miss marketing!—feel the same.
I’m particularly curious to discover whether this book (The Gazillionaire and the Virgin) is more successful than my previous work because this is the first novel I’ve written using the Character-driven Random Walk Method. When I began writing, all I had was a title and the two main characters (reflected in the title), Rachel and Theo. I really had no idea what they’d do, other than having sex and falling in love.
I did know this was going to be an erotic romance. In fact, although the book deliberately shreds romance stereotypes, it preserves the essential core of romance, namely, the characters’ journey toward a loving relationship. So I understood there had to be obstacles or conflicts that would stand in the way of the happy ending. At the start, though, I couldn’t have told you the nature of those obstacles. I didn’t plan. I didn’t outline. That’s not like me at all! I simply sat down at my computer, invoked Rachel and Theo, and let them interact. I can’t say I heard voices in my head, the way some other authors claim, but at each point in the plot, the focus character in some sense decided what would happen next.
I’d expected the book would be 20K at most. As I let Rachel and Theo lead me deeper into their story, I discovered I was wrong. They did not want to be rushed. It took four chapters for them to get to their first erotic encounter. The revelation that they shared kinky interests took another four. By the time I reached the book’s climax, the events that tear them apart, I had more or less figured out how they’d reconcile, but I couldn’t make them follow my script. Theo turned out to be far more stubborn than I would have guessed. Fortunately, Rachel’s imagination came to the rescue. Still, every time I sat down to write what I thought would be the final chapter (as I discussed last month), I’d come to realize there was yet another one needed.
When I finally wrote “The End”, I was seriously relieved. I wasn’t sure Rachel and Theo would ever let me finish their story!
So what were the results of this exercise? (Because I really do want this blog to discuss craft issues.) How does this book compare to those I’ve written using my usual technique, the TV Serial Method?
1. There’s not much plot
Don’t get me wrong. Gazillionaire is not boring (at least I don’t think it is). Things do happen in the external world. However, compared to my other novels, this book is far less “plot heavy”. My eighth novel, for instance, includes mistaken identity, kidnapping by an international crime syndicate, disguises and deception, infiltration into the bad guy’s headquarters, and a rescue involving a bloody shoot-out—as well as the usual intercourse, fellatio, cunnilingus, spanking and so on. My seventh novel includes abduction, secret agents, self-powered bondage devices, mysterious energy sources, exotic Asian ceremonies, a curse and the ritual to reverse it, along with plenty of kinky sex. Even my first novel had a plot trail involving industrial espionage.
In this novel, by contrast, the most significant events are those that change the protagonists’ feelings for one another. Indeed, there are very few secondary characters, compared to my other books. There’s enough movement to keep things interesting (I hope), but far less world building than I usually do.
2. Dialogue propels the book forward
The story is narrated in the first person present, alternating between the two main characters. Thus, we do get some insight into each of the characters’ thoughts. However, a significant part of the “action” is actually dialogue. Conversations between the two protagonists not only reveal their natures, but also cause real world changes.
I recently re-edited my first novel, written sixteen years ago, for a re-release. I improved the dialogue, but I couldn’t help noticing how stilted and wooden it remained, at least in comparison to the interactions I write now. I said earlier I didn’t hear voices when writing this book, but when it comes to conversations, that’s not strictly true. As these characters talked to one another, I wrote down what they said. The results feel much more real than any dialogue I’ve written previously.
3. The characters change
In any novel-length work, the characters have to develop and grow. If they have the same attitudes, beliefs and behaviors at the end of the book as they do at the start, the book will be neither engaging nor plausible.
However, Theo and Rachel change far more than any characters I’ve written previously, as a direct result of their interactions. Naive and socially awkward at the start, Theo matures into a genuine hero. Stubborn, bossy Rachel softens and becomes more flexible as she lets down her guard and opens herself to love. Their relationship involves more than just incredible sexual chemistry and complementary kinks. Each gradually brings out the best in the other.
Would I use this method again?
I didn’t consciously choose to use the Character-driven Random Walk method for this book. It just sort of happened. I do think that the method requires a very clear initial notion of just who your characters are. When I start a book, that’s not always the case. Many of the novel-writing methods I’ve outlined involve character discovery in the process of writing (but not, I think, the Dissertation Method or the Snowflake Method). My understanding of Rachel and Theo deepened while I was writing, but I had a strong sense of their essential characteristics before I began.
I found it was more difficult to make progress using this method. As I’ve mentioned, my plans didn’t always match those dictated by the characters. I’d often come away from a writing session frustrated that I hadn’t moved further along in my quest toward an ending.
At the same time, I’m very pleased with the result. Despite the lack of an outline, the book feels very “tight” to me. I managed to link a lot of the early details into the ending in a rather elegant fashion, I think. (These were suggestions from the characters.) And I feel that I accomplished my objective, writing a book that was both classic romance and anti-romance (in the sense that it breaks a lot of rules).
I do believe that we authors can grow through experimenting with new techniques, as well as new genres. The last thing I want is for all my books to feel and sound the same. People who’ve read my other novels will find The Gazillionaire and the Virgin a significant change. I hope they view that as positive.
By Lisabet Sarai
I’ve been working on my latest erotic romance novel for more than a year. It’s not that I’m an incredibly slow writer—my new 8.5K holiday story took me about sixteen hours to write, edit and format—but in the case of this novel (The Gazillionaire and the Virgin), life kept getting in the way. In fact, from May through October, I could scarcely work on it at all.
There’s also the fact that I didn’t really expect this to be a novel in the first place. When I came up with the premise and the characters, I figured the story would be 20K, tops. My characters did not agree, however. This is the first time I’ve tried the Character-driven Random Walk method for novel writing. I began with a moderately clear notion about the story arc, but Theo and Rachel kept taking time out from the plot to have sex. I mean, the sex wasn’t gratuitous—it developed the characters and helped define their emerging relationship—but it slowed things down, from both a productivity and a narrative perspective.
Figuring that a deadline might help me finish the thing, I reserved a publication date at Excessica and committed to completing the first draft by the end of 2015. I’ve made some excellent progress over the past few weeks (partially because some of the other demands on my time have relaxed). One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that the plot is moving faster as I approach the climax and conclusion. The characters seem less likely to dawdle in bed. That got me started thinking about the general question of pacing in a novel—how it impacts the reader’s experience and how we as writers can control it, or at least be aware of it.
What do I mean by pacing? I can define the term as the ratio of the amount of action to the number of pages it takes to express that action. (Sorry—can’t get away from my engineering background!) In other words, pacing is the speed with which the story develops.
Many novels begin at a relatively gentle pace, as the author introduces the characters, the setting and the initial situation. It’s also fairly common for the pace to pick up as you get deeper into the book.
Not all books work that way, though. Some authors begin with an intensely active scene (sort of like the intro to a James Bond film), build to a minor crescendo, then slow down in order to provide the back story. This strategy can be very effective. It yanks the reader into the book, triggering all sorts of questions, which are then answered when things settle a bit and the reader can catch her breath. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books fit this model, as do the couple of books I’ve read by Carl Hiaasen. It’s also a favored style in science fiction.
There are some risks to this approach, though. If you extend the section with frenetic action for too long, your reader may begin to feel exhausted. The tension arising from unanswered questions can be pleasurable for a while, but if you don’t resolve the mysteries eventually, you’ll have a reader who’s confused, frustrated, or both.
The rapid-fire pacing one typically finds in some genres (e.g. thrillers, mysteries, horror) is a relatively modern phenomenon. Fiction a hundred years ago tended to be more discursive and deliberate, the action interspersed with frequent description. Nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction also tends to use more consistent pacing throughout the book.
Jane Austen epitomizes, for me, the effective use of slow and relatively steady pacing. Many twenty first century readers might find her novels too sedate, but I feel that her pace fits the stories she’s trying to tell. In the world and society she describes, change occurred gradually. Relationships took years to develop, and news (and gossip!) required days to circulate.
In modern erotica and erotic romance novels, things often happen more quickly. Characters may become sexually involved in the first chapter. Things then happen to threaten their sexual and emotional connection. Typically some conflict, internal or external, appears. The opposition of forces implied by that conflict propels the story forward, further ramping up the pace. Eventually the conflict will be resolved, and the story will slow down as it concludes.
It doesn’t have to be that way, however. A book may alternate between fast and slow paced sections, cycling between action and reflection. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife uses this pattern. In erotica, the pacing may tend to pick up during sex scenes and slow down in the bridging periods where the characters are getting on with their lives. On the other hand, as I’ve found in my current novel, the opposite can also be true. My characters get distracted by carnal activities, in some sense putting the plot on hold.
When I noticed the accelerating pace of events in Gazillionaire, I started to worry. Was I rushing the story too much, in trying to get it finished? After considering the question, I’ve concluded that more rapid pacing is what the novel requires at this point. The core relationship has been established; the conflict has been exposed and has temporarily torn my protagonists apart. It’s time to move forward in order to get them back together again.
There’s no one right way to pace your novel, of course. In fact it’s not an issue I think about much. Normally, I trust my intuitions, developed over decades of writing and more than half a century of reading. However, when something feels wrong about your novel—when you sense it’s not working the way it should, but you don’t know why—pacing could be the problem.
Earlier this year I reviewed a four hundred page BDSM erotica novel that, in some ways, I liked very much. It offered a much more realistic and nuanced treatment of power exchange than many books in the genre. It featured interesting characters and hot sex. Yet somehow it left me feeling flat. When I analyzed my reactions, I concluded that pacing was partly to blame. The novel was constructed as a series of episodes that unfolded over a fairly long period of time (at least a year). The pace of the book didn’t vary at all, over the full four hundred pages. There was no rise in tension (and consequent increase in pace). This even pacing somehow decreased my interest in the action.
Pacing is one component of each author’s individual style. You probably shouldn’t try to force your books to use a different pace than what comes naturally. Being aware of the issue, though, may give you clues as to how to make your writing even more effective.
By Lisabet Sarai
Many erotica authors get their start publishing short stories. Anthologies, webzines and more recently self-publishing offer many opportunities for selling short erotic fiction—possibly more than in any other genre.
I’d argue that it’s far more difficult to craft an exceptional short story than to produce a longer work. With only a few thousand words available, you must choose each one with special care. Short stories leave no room for sloppiness. The stories I love most are jewels, masterpieces of symmetry and clarity that shine with inner light.
For some reason, though, many erotic authors I know believe that writing a novel is somehow a more worthy endeavor than crafting short stories. Again and again on writers’ lists I’ve heard my friends and colleagues lament that they can’t seem to spin a story longer than a few thousand words. They feel inadequate, unfulfilled, second rate. Only when you see your name on “real book”—a novel—can you truly call yourself an Author, or so they seem to think.
Well, pish tush to that. Anyway, if you can write an effective short story, you can create a novel. You just have to go about it the right way.
Before you close your browser in disgust at my arrogance, let me reassure you that the title of this post is intended to be facetious. I do believe that if you want to write a novel, if you have a story deep and complex enough to support 50,000 words or more, you can do it. However, there’s no one right way to go about it. Different authors use different techniques. My goal in writing this article is to introduce some of the approaches I’ve encountered in my 15 years of publishing, and encourage you to explore them.
You can write a novel. You just need to figure out the method that works for you, personally.
When I went to Amazon, chose “Books”, and typed “How to write a novel”, I got 2,859 results, with titles like “How to write a best-selling book in 21 days!”, “How to write a novel: simple and powerful 4 steps to your first novel”, “Write good or die”, “How not to write a novel: 200 classic mistakes”, even (egads!) “Fiction writing for dummies”. It seems that if you really want to make it big—write a how-to book about writing novels.
I haven’t read any of these books, and I’m not likely to. Still, I’ve published eight novels and I’m halfway through writing my ninth.
I’ve listened to lots of successful novelists discuss their methods, and I’ve introspected on my own. That’s the main source for the observations that follow. I’ll talk about six approaches to novel writing: the Jigsaw method, the TV Serial method, the Character-driven Random Walk, the Dump and Sift method, the Snowflake method and the Dissertation method. In reality, these are abstractions. They’re not monolithic methods, but rather, points in a multidimensional space. What are the dimensions?
– Analysis versus intuition
– Linearity versus non-linearity
– Continuous editing versus staged editing
You may well find a method that works for you in some other region of this space.
People who write novels using this method write scenes as the story inspires them, without worrying about temporal order or connections. When caught up in the fever of an idea, they write furiously, trying to capture the images and events playing out in their imaginations. Often, though maybe not always, jigsaw people tend to visually oriented. They see scenes from their book, as if played out on an internal movie screen, then work to describe those inner films in words.
Creating a novel from these disparate chunks of prose involves fitting them together (like a jigsaw puzzle). Indeed, it can be quite puzzling trying to determine the relationship among the different segments of the book. Unlike a real jigsaw, the author may need to alter the shape of the pieces to make them mesh, or create new pieces to mediate the fit.
The Jigsaw method is located at the extremes of all three dimensions. It is highly intuitive, very non-linear, and requires staged editing to achieve consistency.
My good friend and crit partner C. Sanchez-Garcia mostly writes this way. He calls this the “clothesline method”, another apt analogy. There’s no way I could use this method, but for him (and for many other authors I know), it works.
TV Serial Method
This is the method I’ve used for most of my own novels. The TV Serial method is highly linear and uses continuous editing. It’s mid-way between analytical and intuitive.
This method builds a novel chapter by chapter. Chapters are like episodes in a TV series, each one featuring a minor conflict and resolution, and often, ending with something of a teaser to bring the viewer (reader) back next week. Each chapter gets polished (at least to some extent) before the author moves on to the next.
When I begin a novel I’m writing this way, I have in mind a set of characters, a premise, a setting, and a rough trajectory for the overall book. I will usually have some notion of how the book will end, but I don’t necessarily know how the characters will get there. I’ll also have a scene list (sometimes written, sometimes in my head), high points I want to hit over the course of the book.
I then sit down to write the book, from beginning to end. I try to finish each chapter in one sitting or at most two. I polish and edit as I write. Then, when I start my next writing session, I first reread and do further edits on the previous chapter.
If I finish a chapter with time left, I often will move to some other project rather than starting a new chapter, in order to preserve the structural integrity of the units.
As I write, my imagination fills in the details. I learn more about my characters. Occasionally, I have flashes of inspiration that dramatically change the course of the story. The final result is never exactly what I’d envisioned. It’s almost always better.
I suspect that this is the way Joss Whedon wrote Buffy. He began with a fairly superficial high school girl killing vampires. He ended up with a dark, twisted world where the characters lose as often as they win.
Character-driven Random Walk
When I ask many of my author friends how they approach the process of writing a book, they respond, “My characters talk to me. In fact, I can’t shut them up.” It’s an old joke—we writers are crazy, because we have voices in our heads. All humor aside, though, many authors’ process is completely driven by their characters. They don’t have an outline or a scene list. They simply listen their characters, following where they lead.
Of course, to do this, you need a pretty clear vision of who your characters are and what they want. Still, I gather from listening to my colleagues who use this method that characters can be a surprising and ornery lot. One friend had the experience of starting an erotic romance with a hero and heroine, only to discover a quarter of the way through that what she really had was two heroes.
The Character-driven Random Walk is almost totally intuitive, but unlike the Jigsaw method, it is usually linear. Characters act and react, while the author writes everything down. Gradually the story unfolds, from start to finish. The story line corresponds to the characters’ life lines.
I’ve been experimenting with this method in my current WIP. I’m not sure how effective it is for me. I seem to be having a great deal of difficulty moving the plot forward. My characters keep stopping the action to have more kinky sex. At some level, that’s what the novel is about, the development of their D/s relationship as they come to know and trust one another. I know that I need conflict, though, something that challenges that trust. While I have some ideas, my hero and heroine are resisting.
This method can be used with both continuous or staged editing. As usual for me, I’m on the continuous side. However, one could also write the whole book, following the characters without editing a word, then go back to revise.
Dump and Sift
The Dump and Sift method is just what it sounds like. You sit down and write whatever comes to mind, freely and uncritically. You stop when you’ve reached a pre-decided word count. Then you go back to select, analyze, polish and rearrange the raw material from the “dump” stage.
Dump and Sift is the model behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It’s an antidote to over-thinking and perfectionism, and can get you past bouts of writer’s block.
I’ve occasionally used the Dump and Sift method (sometimes known as Write or Die, supported by a fun application that forces you to do so), but only for short sections of prose. I’m too analytical a person to just let the words flow without some selection or editing. The Dump phase of this method requires a level of intuition that comes hard to me. Dump and Sift is usually linear (though it doesn’t have to be—you could dump your scenes in any order). And the method is pretty much defined by its staged editing, where stage 1 involves no editing at all.
The Snowflake Method was introduced by Randy Ingermanson. I haven’t read his book. What I know about the method comes from an excellent blog post by Kathleen Bradean, about her attempts to apply this method. (A post, alas, which I now cannot find!)
As I recall her discussion, the method is hierarchical. You begin with a single sentence that summarizes the point of the book. You then expand this to a paragraph, something like a blurb. Next you write brief character profiles, focusing on goals, motivation and resolution. Eventually you get to the level of an outline. You then expand the outline into chapters. And so on. You iterate back to earlier levels as necessary, when your explorations lead you to the conclusion that some change is required.
You can find Ingermanson’s own description at his web site.
Ingermanson is a scientist by training. He treats the process of writing a novel as a process of systematic design. As a software engineer, I find this process very familiar. However, I’m pretty certain I couldn’t manage to apply it to my own writing. For me, when it comes to fiction, discovery trumps intention.
However, for some authors, it may be the perfect approach. Indeed, this fairly simple breakdown of steps might be useful to two very different types of authors: authors who already take a highly analytical approach to their work, and authors who crave discipline and structure but don’t know how to get it.
The Dissertation Method treats a novel like a doctoral thesis. It involves extensive research, copious notes, pages of character profiles, multiple level outlines and chapter summaries. Authors who favor this method may create timelines of their fictional world history, glossaries of terms, genealogies, maps, and a raft of other documents to support their writing.
For some books—I’m thinking of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy—creating this level of background documentation may be necessary. And I know some authors really enjoy investigating period details and assembling supporting material, almost as much as the writing process itself.
That isn’t me. I’ll do the research that’s required for a particular book, but no more (although I have sometimes spent significant time doing research for books I decided not to write). I’ve tried once or twice producing detailed character profiles. I found it an interesting exercise, but once I began the actual story, I pretty much ignored the profiles.
That’s just me, though. You may be the kind of writer who gains confidence and clarity from having a wealth of background material and supporting detail at her fingertips, should she need it.
I do appreciate reading books set in a historical or fictional world so fully imagined that it feels real. Frequently something like the dissertation method will be required to create such books.
I haven’t covered all the options here, but I hope that I’ve accomplished three things.
First, I hope I have demonstrated that there are a wealth of different alternative techniques for writing a novel.
Second, I want to emphasize that there is no one “right” way to do so. You need to find a method that matches your cognitive and emotional styles and that fits with your available time and writing schedule. If your current method isn’t working, though, perhaps you should experiment with something different.
Finally, I want to encourage you to write that novel you’ve been turning over in your mind, if that’s what you really want to do. If you have a story to tell, don’t be intimidated. Let it expand to fill the pages, in whatever way is most natural for you. Then send it out to the world.
Hesiod et la Muse by Gustave Moreau (1891)
By Lisabet Sarai
When I was younger, I was bound to Erato, the muse of erotic poetry —and occasionally Polyhymnia, who governs sacred verse. Producing poetry was as natural as breathing. Any powerful emotion could trigger the urge to set pen to paper and capture the moment, but most of my poems dealt with love and sex.
I didn’t think about them. I would simply sit down, and they happened. Here’s an example, from 1979:
Is is tides, stars?
This wordless urge
timed to the night,
like circadian clocks?
pure and irrational—
out of telephone wires
and strange desires
over two thousand miles.
burning and blind,
making me wild.
The wires whisper
and reasons whither,
as I hurl myself
from the Santa Cruz cliffs.
In general, these poems didn’t follow any rules. They had no formal structure, though they chime with alliteration and internal rhyme. They were pure expressions of the need, lust, confusion and joy that swirled inside me.
After I married, the flood of poems mostly dried up. I think this was largely due to a deficit of erotic angst. I was fulfilled, happy, busy with real world adventures. I had neither the leisure nor the motivation for poetic introspection.
In the last few years, though, I’ve started creating new poems, in response to Ashley Lister’s monthly writing exercise on this blog. In case you’re not aware of this feature, on the 6th of each month, Ash explains and gives examples of a different poetic form, then challenges readers to produce their own instances. Curious to see if I still had Erato’s attention, I’ve tried my hand.
Here’s a piece from 2013, a form called a quatern.
The line between delight and pain
you’re teaching me to tread. Again
your leather licks along my spine,
your fingers in my hair entwine,
your blades their bloody trails incise;
the line between delight and pain
grows blurry as you kiss my eyes
and dive for pearls between my thighs,
splayed and shackled. Now your cane
paints ruddy stripes across my flesh,
the line between delight and pain:
ecstatic, luminous, insane.
With blood and tears, with spunk and sweat
you baptize me. Appalled and wet
I teeter on the edge again,
the line between delight and pain.
Very different, indeed, though I’m still dealing with the same themes. The experience of writing these new poems is radically different as well. This verse doesn’t well up naturally. It must be coaxed, massaged, manipulated. Craft dominates inspiration. And yet, the final results still surprise me with their ability to evoke emotion.
A similar transition has occurred in my prose. I’ve written in the past about losing my innocence as I gained experience as an author. Like many first erotic novels, my Raw Silk represented an outpouring of very personal fantasies. My characters’ passions closely mirrored my own. Blissfully unaware of genre constraints, I let my imagination flow uncensored onto the page. I wrote to arouse myself, first and foremost, not for an audience. Yet that novel remains my most popular, largely, I believe, because of its authenticity.
Certainly it’s not the writing that’s responsible for its five star reviews. I cringe a bit when I reread the book, noticing the excess adverbs, the overly long sentences, the repetition and the stilted dialogue. Nevertheless, readers respond (I believe) to the erotic energy in the tale, the confessional tone and the realistic emotions (realistic because they were my own).
Over the years (sixteen now!), my work has become less naive, more conscious, and more polished. Though it’s abundantly clear that most readers couldn’t care less about style and craft, I get personal satisfaction knowing that my recent books are far better written than my early ones. I’m still wistful, though, remembering the days when I wrote without thinking about markets, reader expectations and word count—when I wrote whatever turned me on, regardless of how raw or transgressive or over-the-top it might be. These days it’s nearly impossible for me muster that electric thrill that propelled me through 80K+ words in six months.
Perhaps in compensation for lost spontaneity, however, I’ve gained a measure of control. At this point in my career, I can decide when I start how I want a story to unfold, and much of the time, the results will closely match my intentions. I’m not waiting for the muse to tap me on the shoulder. Lately, I find I can often summon her at will. I can place my order with her—a story of roughly N words, with such-and-such a tone, aimed at a specific theme, with a desired level of sexual intensity—then let her take over.
Some of my favorite stories in recent years—“Fleshpot”, “The First Stone”, and “The Last Amanuensis” in particular come to mind—so perfectly fit the images I had for them before I began that it feels like magic. They are exactly the stories I wanted to write. And despite my comments above about writing being a more conscious and deliberate process now, I’m really not sure how that happened. Of course, that’s the nature of expertise; you internalize the skills until they are more or less automatic. You set yourself a goal, then let your inner knowledge move you in that direction.
With poetry or prose, I am no longer the mad, magic-inspired oracle I used to be. Perhaps, though, I am more of an artist.
Now I’m facing a fascinating dilemma. I’ve agreed to edit and expand Raw Silk for re-release. At last I’ll be able to fix all the awkwardness in the prose, all the overwriting. But in the process of editing, will I lose the spark? I’m not the same person I was when I wrote the novel. For better or worse, I’ve changed. Can I preserve the heat and authenticity, especially in the new chapters?
I’ll summon the muse to work with me. I expect to need all the help I can get.
By Lisabet Sarai
Revealed wisdom – or perhaps unsupported mythology – states that it takes time to become an accomplished author. I wish I had a dollar for every blog I’ve read where the writer claims his or her first efforts were pure unadulterated crap. Not having been privileged to read these early tales, I can’t judge whether this is the truth or merely misplaced humility. However, I’ve been noticing recently that in erotica, at least, an author’s first novel often possesses a special quality that’s hard to recreate in subsequent work.
From a craft perspective, that first book might be flawed. Somehow that doesn’t matter. First erotic novels have a life, an intensity, that’s unique. They offer a riotous explosion of lascivious fantasy, unchecked and uncensored. The scope of imagination compensates for less than perfect execution. Passion carries these books, overwhelming other considerations.
I realized this anew when I read K.D. Grace’s post last month here at the ERWA blog. She was celebrating the four year anniversary of her first novel, The Initiation of Ms Holly. I’m a huge admirer of K.D.’s writing – check out her steamy contribution to the current ERWA Gallery to see why – but I found Ms. Holly particularly arousing. It’s full of offbeat characters involved in creative and kinky carnal activities. A delicious sense of sexual license pervades the novel. Reading it, I knew the author had not held back, that she’d poured all her personal desires and fantasies into her lovely fable.
In some ways, it’s hard to believe this was K.D.’s first novel. Certainly, I didn’t realize this when I read it. At the same time, the heady mix of prurience and innocence in the book is typical of first timers.
The book that inspired me to publish erotica has some of the same characteristics. Portia da Costa’s Gemini Heat aroused and delighted me with its diversity and sexual creativity. I became an instant fan, and I’ve read many of her other books, all good, some brilliant. Still, none of them, except perhaps Entertaining Mr. Stone, can compare with Gemini Heat, in terms of its effect on me.
Despite having a happy ending for everyone involved, the book totally shatters romance conventions. (Of course, it wasn’t written as romance, though it’s marketed that way now.) Everyone has sex with everyone else. Both gender identification and power exchange are fluid. The hero is half-Asian, slightly androgynous, a total sybarite who’s nevertheless ferociously intelligent – almost the opposite of a typical alpha male.
Just recently, Portia mentioned to me that Gemini Heat was her first attempt at erotica. If I’d known that when I first read the book, back in 1999, I would have been astonished. Now I think I recognize the hallmarks of one’s first time, the erotic charge released when an author bares her sexual soul and dares to write what pushes her own buttons.
My own debut novel has some of the same characteristics. Like many new erotic authors, I didn’t really have a clue about the publishing business, about writing for a market, about genre conventions. I’d read some erotica, mostly classics, but nothing (other than Portia’s book) that could really serve as a model. Mostly, I was burning up with self-generated arousal. I wanted to share my fantasies, to vicariously explore what would happen if I extrapolated on my (not insignificant) real life sexual experiments. In the previous decade, I’d had life-changing experiences with dominance and submission. I wrote the book to capture that intensity, and amplify it with what-ifs.
The creative process was intuitive and close to effortless (especially compared to writing now). I’d sit down at the computer and the words would flow unobstructed from my dirty mind onto the page. I penned 72,000 words in my spare time, over the course of about six months. I wrote an additional 10,000 words in a single weekend, after the publisher complained that I hadn’t honored my contract, which called for a minimum of 80K. (Newbie that I was, I thought that clause was just advisory!)
The result, Raw Silk, has been released by three different publishers and is still in print. I can’t say it’s a best seller, but it’s the only one of my books that ever earned out its advance. And apparently, people are still reading it. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting erotic romance legend Desiree Holt. The first thing she told me was that she had loved Raw Silk. (Needless to say, that was one of the high points of my so-called career as an author!)
Depending on how you count, I’ve written seven or eight novels since Raw Silk. From a craft perspective, all greatly improve on my first effort, which suffers from wooden dialogue, an overabundance of adverbs, excessively long sentences and word repetition that makes me cringe. Still, I have the uncomfortable feeling none of my later novels can compete, in terms of genuine passion.
The more I write, it seems, the harder it becomes to tap that well-spring of pure sexual excitement that fueled my first attempt. At this point, I’ve read and written so much erotica that I’ve become jaded, I know. I’m sure the ebb in hormones as I’ve grown older has an impact, too.
As I continue to write, I hope that other factors compensate: original premises, surprising plots, engaging characters, polished and evocative language. Still, I look back wistfully on that first novel – so fully of naive sexual energy.
I wonder how many other erotica authors feel the same.