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.
writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and
dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and
her tuxedo cat, Lucky. Lucky needs playmates, so two kittens are in her near future. Visit her web site, her Facebook page, and her Amazon Author Page.
This picture above is of me, doing the Happy Dance.
After two years of submitting, one of my erotic romance
novels has finally been accepted by an excellent small press. This press has
already published four of my short stories in four anthologies, so we weren’t
strangers to each other. I don’t feel comfortable naming the publisher or the
title of the book yet since the deal isn’t finalized. I need to get my
contract, sign it, and return it. I will say that I’m over the moon about this
acceptance. I sent this book to over 70 agents and all the good erotic romance
publishers. Everyone rejected it. If this particular publisher hadn’t accepted
the book, I was going to shelve it. I had nowhere else to send it, and I loathe
self-publishing. So to say I’m very thrilled is an understatement.
Now for the real work – preparing the book for publication
and preparing myself for publicizing it. I know the title has to change. Any
book with the word “Threesome” in the title will be slapped with the
“Adult” label by Amazon and other distributors and relegated to the
“Erotica” category where it will die a quick and lonely death. If any
of that sort of censorship happens, my book won’t sell because the publishers
would have hidden it from searches. My current and potential readers won’t be
able to find it. So I need a new title.
I want my cover to be sexy but not tacky. I’m not sure I want
any oiled male torsos on the cover. I like the cover of “Fifty Shades of
Grey”. It’s subtle and hot. I’ll talk to the publisher, but I’ll trust the
pub’s suggestions as to what kind of cover will sell the book.
I’ve already decided who I’d like to write the forward for
my book, but I need to ask her first. I hope she accepts. She’s an excellent,
award-winning erotic fiction writer who’s a great seller. She’d be perfect. I
also have a list of writers I’d like to contact to write blurbs for my book.
I’ll send an ARC of the book if they need it, or I could send a PDF of several
short stories in the likely event they want to read my works first but want
I’ll write a press release to send out to the local
newspapers. I’ve done this before for a charity anthology, so I know how to write
it. Now to get newspapers to write about me and/or the book.
I need to set up a list of reviewers to review the book.
I’ll send it to Night Owl Romance, Manic Readers, Dawn’s Reading Nook, and The
Romance Reviews, to start. I’m not sure where else to send it at this point,
but I do have a list of review sites buried on my computer somewhere. I’m also
going to get the book set up with NetGalley. I’m a member of Broad Universe, a
networking group for women writers. Broad Universe has a very good deal set up
where I can submit my book to NetGalley for a reduced price. I’m definitely
taking advantage of that. I’ll submit the book to Publisher’s Daily anyway. You
never know. I may get a review.
I also need to set up a newsletter. I plan on sending
newsletters out monthly and at times when something unique is going on, like
the release or special sales. I need to create or pay someone to create a
newsletter header. If I can’t do it myself, I’ll ask the woman who made my
excellent covers for my two erotic fairy tales, Trouble In Thigh High Boots (erotic Puss In Boots) and Climbing Her Tower (erotic Rapunzel). I’ve
subscribed to MailChimp awhile ago, but I’m not comfortable using it yet. Then
I need to get subscribers. How do I create a “sign up for my
newsletter” link on my web site and on my Facebook timeline? I need to
figure that out. If there are easier and better newsletter programs out there,
please let me know!
I need to plan live readings. I can go to Broad Universe for
this, since that group does group readings. I need to find the local erotic
fiction audiences and give readings to them. I could go to conventions like I
do every year, but the ones I go to are for science fiction, fantasy, and
horror. Smut wouldn’t fit in, although some local SF/F cons do include erotic
works. I need to find the romance and erotica conventions. Hopefully some of
them will be nearby.
I’d like to pay for some advertising, but I’d like the
advertising to give me results. I don’t want to throw away my money. I may buy
a spot on Night Owl Reviews’ web site and magazine. The Romance Reviews has
reasonable rates for advertising. I’ve had good results there when I advertised
my two erotic fairy tales. Is GoodReads advertising a good idea? What about
Facebook sponsored ads? Any other suggestions for good places for book
I need to set up one or two blog tours. I’ve done these in
the past on my own and while they’re a lot of work, I liked the results. I have
my old list of contacts and I’ll contact those people again for my blog tours.
Any other suggestions of promotions I left out? I don’t want
to miss anything!
I’m very excited about this acceptance. It comes on the
heels of one of my publishers closing its doors. That pub was supposed to
publish my first family saga/thriller novel in 2016, and now I have to start
from scratch again to find it a new home. More agent queries and small press
submissions. Sigh. That closing really discouraged me as have the usual
rejections I’ve received during this period. I haven’t written a novel in over
two years. I’ve had a handful of short stories published in anthologies though,
in both erotic fiction and horror categories. So my work is out there. Just not
my long work. I have several unfinished erotic novels sitting on my computer
that I haven’t felt like touching in all this time. I was very discouraged with
my writing career, so I haven’t had the desire to write much. Now, my mojo is back. I have a m/m erotic
werewolf novel to finish. That one is loads of fun. A food porn erotic novel
needs me. That one has a touch of magic
in it. Then there is the m/m erotic romance set in an exotic location. It also
has a touch of food porn. The novel I sold has food porn in it. I like food
So my writing career is looking up for 2016. Here’s hoping
the publisher treats the book well (I don’t doubt it will), and my promotions
give me lots of sales. That’s what I want and need – readers to buy and read
the book. I don’t want to lose my mojo. Not now, when everything looks so good.
What a great present for the holiday season. I’m psyched!
By Lisabet Sarai
Last week a writer friend of mine included a wonderful excerpt from his first book in a blog post. I’d read (and loved) this book when it first released; perusing the post felt like meeting up with an old friend.
Then the author casually mentioned, in a post comment, that the book was out of print. I felt like shaking him in frustration. Why in the world, I wanted to scream, did you let that happen? Don’t you care about keeping your work available?
There’s so much in the world of publishing that we authors can’t control: Amazon’s latest tweaks to its ranking algorithms, payment schemes, and censorship policies; publishers being bought out or going bankrupt; out-of-the-blue bestsellers that have readers (and editors) clamoring for cookie-cutter copies. One thing we can control, however, is the disposition of our accumulated body of work. In my opinion, we owe it to ourselves to keep our backlog of books and stories out there in the world, where readers can access them.
Some of you may ask, why bother? Everyone knows it’s only new releases that get any sales (as demonstrated by the thirty-day cliff phenomenon). Who’s going to want to read a book that’s a year, or five years, or ten years old? Anyway, no publisher will be interested in a dingy old reprint. If some of your back list dates from before the ebook revolution, you might not even have the manuscript in digital form.
Examined carefully, none of these arguments (excuses?) holds up to scrutiny.
First of all, though your book may be “old”, there are undoubtedly millions of potential readers who’ve never encountered it. Sure, your fans (whether you have five or fifty thousand) may have read your earlier work, but for lots of readers, your book will be a welcome discovery. If someone picks up an old book of yours and enjoys it, he or she is going to want more. You need to make sure you can give these people what they crave.
Out of the 200 or so people who completed my survey earlier this year (http://lisabetsarai.blogspot.com/2015/08/reader-survey-results-part-2.html), 30% had never read one of my books, and another 25% weren’t sure. That’s over one hundred people for whom everything on my back list will be new and exciting. I want those readers!
Even for readers who know your work well, it’s important to keep your older stuff available. What if they want to reread one of their all-time favorites?
My brother’s birthday was yesterday, so last week I went to Amazon, looking for two books I read—and loved—decades ago: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin and Little Big by John Crowley. My copies of both books date from the eighties. They’re falling apart. I was delighted to discover new editions of both titles. I sent them off to my brother, and you know, I just might replace my tattered volumes with new ones.
Make sure that readers who love your work can do that, too.
You may be interested in re-releasing your out-of-print opus, but think publishers won’t want it. Think again. These days, especially, publishers who are trying to satisfy the market’s insatiable desire for fiction are more than willing to look at your back list titles. In fact, they may recognize that they’ll have to invest less time and effort in a previously released book because it will have already been through one or more rounds of editing.
My debut novel Raw Silk has been through three publishers. Ruby’s Rules (now retitled as Nasty Business) has had four, Incognito two, Exposure three. I’ve had publishers go bankrupt and others decide they didn’t want to publish erotica. In a few cases, I’ve reclaimed my rights because I wasn’t happy about my sales or the way the publisher was run. My goal has always been to keep all my novels available—whatever that required.
“But I write short stories”, you may respond. “Nobody wants those.”
Not true. I recently published a 5K tale (a reprint) through an indie publisher who was actively seeking short fiction. You can also self-publish your stories, either individually or as a collection. In fact, since most anthologies ask for only one-time rights, you may be able to publish a short piece in multiple places.
If you really can’t find anyone to publish your tale, you can still make it available free, using it to introduce readers to your published work. That’s better than letting it languish in the dusty recesses of your computer memory!
And what if your book was published so long ago that you don’t have the source in electronic form? As long as you have a physical copy, you can subject it to Optical Character Recognition (OCR), a process that uses image analysis to recognize typescript and turn it into digital text. OCR may produce a significant number of errors, so you will need to carefully review and revise the output. However, this process will allow you to create both ebook and print versions of a book that was previously available only in hard copy form.
Once your older work is available, you should spend time promoting it, at least occasionally. Last Sunday I posted an excerpt from a book published back in 2010. One reader told me in a comment that after reading my blog, she’d gone out and bought herself a copy. Talk about encouragement—I felt totally energized. I immediately added 3K for my current WIP!
In short, there’s no reason why you can’t keep all (or most) of your back list in print and available to readers. The only real barriers are emotional. These days it’s sometimes hard to muster the motivation to do anything related to publishing or marketing. The obstacles seem insurmountable. Don’t allow yourself to become discouraged. There are legions of readers out there, searching for great fiction. Help them find yours!
By Lisabet Sarai
You’ve probably heard by now that Amazon has revised its payment system for authors in the Kindle Unlimited program. The new rules are vague, but the basic criterion for author payment is now the number of pages read, rather than the number of books borrowed or bought read and at least 10% consumed.
This change will dramatically reduce many erotica authors’ income. Amazon hasn’t actually released specific figures (more on this below) but based on the information that is available, award-winning author and ground-breaking publisher Selena Kitt has calculated that authors will be paid about half a penny per page.
Previous rates were based on percentage of the book read, not pages. So an author who published wildly popular short fiction had a chance to make as much as a less popular author who produced lengthy tomes. Under the new scheme, this is not longer true. The change tends to disproportionately hurt erotica authors because many of the sexy books out there tend toward the short side. (Keep the heat raised for too long and your readers might collapse!)
In response to this modification in terms, a group of erotica authors has launched a campaign called #releasetherate. You can read about it in detail at Selena’s blog. Basically, KU authors are encouraged to write to Jeff Bezos, asking two perfectly reasonable questions:
1. How many people are downloading our books?
2. How much are you paying us per page?
No business owner can be expected to survive without data on sales volume and market pricing. Yet Amazon is now withholding this information.
All we’re asking is a bit of transparency. (And maybe a bit of respect…)
This campaign can succeed only if both authors and readers step up to challenge Amazon’s secretive policies.
Selena’s post includes sample text for letters to Amazon, for authors and for readers, as well as suggested Facebook and Twitter posts to share info about the campaign.
If you want erotic stories to be distributed via the KU program…if you believe that the quality of a reading experience should not be measured in pages…take action!
By Lisabet Sarai
It’s early in May. I have just submitted the final manuscript for my latest Excessica book, entitled Fourth World. I’ve been planning this book, a collection of paranormal erotica, for quite a while, so I sent it off with no small sense of satisfaction.
Over the past two days I’ve been immersed in editing the seven tales that comprise this volume. As I read and re-read them, I was startled to realize that not one of them has an unambiguously happy ending. That’s very rare, for me. I generally consider myself an optimist, and I’d definitely label myself as sex-positive. So why am I suddenly publishing a whole book of stories where no character gets exactly what he or she wants? A book in which at least one character actually dies by the story’s conclusion, while others are irrevocably damaged—where the surviving protagonists live with grief, confusion, frustration or profound ennui?
You might surmise that I wrote these tales during a difficult time in my own life, that they mirror some negativity in my own soul. That’s not the case, though. The stories in Fourth World cover more than a decade of my career, a decade, as it happens, of great success and personal satisfaction.
Another theory might be that these stories represent a reaction to the relentless emphasis on happy endings in romance. There’s some truth to that notion. When I wrote “Renfield’s Lament”, about two years ago, I was feeling fed up with HEAs. I deliberately crafted the darkest tale I could imagine, just to see how far I could push the envelope while still arousing my readers (and myself). Some of the earlier stories in the book, though, come from the period before I began writing erotic romance at all, when I was blissfully innocent about the demands of market and genre.
Perhaps the ambiguity in these tales reflects my convictions about magic. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved fairy tales and fantasy, but even back then I understood that power always exacts its price. Miracles occur, but they require sacrifices. Wotan forfeits an eye in his quest for wisdom; Frodo Baggins loses a finger in fulfilling his quest. No one walks through the fires of the supernatural and emerges unscathed. Plus, one has to admit there is something seductive about the shadows, something hypnotic about evil, especially when it clothes itself in exquisite, responsive flesh.
Ultimately the why doesn’t matter. These stories are what they are. Of course, once I’d noticed the dark trend in the book, I started to worry. Should I throw in a couple of lighter tales, to balance the cruelty and violence (physical and emotional) in the ones I’d originally chosen? Would anyone actually buy this book without at least a few happy-for-nows?
I decided against that compromise. The seven stories in Fourth World make an organic whole. They represent some of the most intense erotica I’ve ever written—scalding, twisted, nasty, no-holds-barred lust, triggered and augmented by magic. I personally find the endings satisfying, at least from a literary perspective. They have an inevitability that feels right.
There’s something freeing for me about publishing this book. Readers who want happy endings can pick up some of my erotic romance or romantic erotica, which is mostly what I write. Fourth World is aimed at those of you who are braver, or more curious—people who recognize that when you have blood-sucking demons, someone’s going to get hurt.
To them, I say: come explore the shadows with me. Welcome, darkness.
by Donna George Storey
Just to bring closure to last month’s column, I did indeed see the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey and I enjoyed it just fine. No doubt Universal held back some extra sex scenes to add to the DVD release. I predict the movie will top $1 billion when it goes to instant download and DVD. Viewers who are too embarrassed to be seen in their local theater will indulge their curiosity—many of these viewers will be men—and if there are extra sex scenes, lots of people who saw it in the theaters will be back to see if this time Hollywood really, truly changes our lives forever with a choreographed show of two more or less naked people pretending to have sex. My fingers are crossed.
Now, I hear you, my dear readers, we’re all sick of Fifty Shades of Grey. But I’m still reeling from all the hate out there, which seems so out of proportion to its target—a humble erotic-romance novel that, in spite of its purported BDSM theme, isn’t nearly as violent as most of the stuff we see on TV. I’m kind of taking the hate personally, to be honest, as an erotica writer, a woman and a person who believes all of this fear, shame, and anger around sexuality is harming the world. Thanks to the bullying curriculum in today’s schools, I know an honorable bystander is supposed to intervene when they see someone being victimized. So to finish up my Focus on Fifty Shades series (this is my last column on this topic and that’s a promise), I felt I had to stand up for five special victims whose rights and well-being are suffering from the phenomenon.
Victim #1: Traditional Publishing
All of us here write and publish erotic books. So how come people all over the world aren’t clamoring to write scathing reviews about how our work is stupid and badly written and people only want to read it to masturbate and also destroy Western civilization, so the reviewer didn’t actually read it, but recommends no one else does either? We wish. Of course, first we have to sell over a hundred million copies of the various books in our trilogy, become a household word, and thus draw the attention of the voracious and endlessly snarky media. In fact, I’d argue that one of the more important reasons for all the snark is that the traditional power structure of publishing is under attack by hoards of sex-crazed women, both menstruating and menopausal.
Alas, the traditional ways were so elegant and righteous. Aspiring writers would genuflect before teachers and agents and editors and marketers and publishers who would tell them if they were good enough, mess with their stuff to make it more salable, skim off a cut, and conveniently blame the author if money wasn’t made. In return, the power structure would give readers deathless prose, edifying stories about family dysfunction and sex that is always punished, and an endless supply of the “new voice of our generation.” This indeed gave us many first novels by brilliant young men who masturbate with the English language, thus assuring that the reader is too confused to replicate the physical act at home. Morality was thus preserved.
But along comes E.L. James with a built-in fan base and the negotiating power to avoid the usual slave-labor contracts and insist the “experts” keep their hands off of her story. Plus her fans are not behaving like ladies. They are refusing to be shamed. Best-selling popular novels are not new, but novels that get there without the midwifery of the establishment are far more shocking than whips and chains. No wonder everyone in the literary establishment is in a bad mood about it, archly observing in so many words, “Maybe E.L. James will learn to write well after the Revolution.” I wouldn’t predict that editors and publishers will totally disappear, but the power dynamics are in interesting flux and many are running scared. Let us bow our heads for a moment for the passing of the old ways.
Victim #2: E.L. James’ Control in All Things
There is an irony in James’ desire to “exercise control in all things” Fifty Shades, or so the news stories present her as protective of her story against those who want to “improve” it. However, once any story becomes this popular, it belongs to everyone. Although Fifty Shades is soundly criticized for the weakness of its prose, sometimes an author’s distinctive voice can get in the way of making a story our own. Few readers can maintain hours and hours of pure admiration of someone else’s wordplay (Finnegan’s Wake?). We want a story that comes to life in our own heads.
Recently there actually have been thoughtful articles about the book and movie, some even by men. The few males who aren’t compelled to slam both lest their testicles shrink to the size of chickpeas do something similar to what fans do. They explore how the story is personally relevant to them. A.O. Scott’s “Unexpected Lessons From ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” compares the movie critic’s role to Christian and the audience’s unpredictable tastes to Ana. Robert Hoatson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey is about the trauma of childhood abuse, not sex” empathizes with Christian’s shut-down emotions. And Richard Brody’s “The Accurate Erotics of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” points out, without contempt, that one thing Fifty Shades has that most movies don’t is foreplay. The story has taken on the stature of public myth, becoming much more than itself.
I’d like to talk about one of the ways I personalized the story. I’m a hopeless analyzer. I get through the superhero movies my kids choose for family outings by analyzing the arc of the fight scenes and measuring the contrived sentimental punch of the scenes with dying parents and lonely, but gifted children. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of my favorite parts of Fifty Shades, book one, is that much-maligned contract Christian presents to his submissives. Many people call it boring, ridiculous and unromantic. For me it was the first time I felt a real connection to the book and decided to keep reading. Some readers and critics have been outraged that Christian would seek to control Ana’s schedule, clothes, grooming, eating habits, and sexuality, including masturbation, and justify it all as being for her own good. Around the “Availability” clauses, it struck me through the legalese that all women must negotiate these issues as we take our place in a patriarchal society. Ana’s lucky enough to be able to negotiate directly, but the rest of us have to find more creative ways to say no, some of which bring dire consequences to our well-being. And the enforcers in real life—our families, our peers, our religion and, worst of all, women’s magazines–are often more exacting than boyfriends. Throughout history and across cultures, women are constantly under scrutiny to look right, eat right, and limit our sexuality to the proper partner. The whole series of novels is about Ana’s negotiation of a contract, which she never signs. In real life women don’t have to sign to be shackled in those handcuffs.
By the way, there’s an equally problematic version of the social/sexual contract for men, including expectations about work, emotions, sexuality and so forth. It would probably be more authentic for a man to explore this in detail, but Christian’s character is a decent illustration of these expectations and how they can mess you up.
Victim #3: The Pretense that Women Get Respect in our Society
Some of the loudest voices calling Fifty Shades a danger to society are those that argue it encourages women to pursue abusive sexual relationships and more damaging still, read bad prose. In an effort to save us from this fate, so many commentators have felt compelled to insult women and female tastes without restraint. One particular critique amused me. Basically this man said we all know Fifty Shades is written badly and the story is stupid. But we also have to figure out why it works so well so we can duplicate its success. Excuse me, but how can you expect to understand, not to mention bank on, something if you despise it?
Now I know one of the main ways we define ourselves as cool is to feel contempt for others. But as a recovering I’m-too-good-to-read-Fifty Shades snob, I’m really glad I read the books. At the very least, it means I’m not a total jerk for opining about something I know nothing about.
As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in “Men, stop lecturing women about reading romance novels” (a rebuttal to William Giraldi’s infamously misogynistic screed against Fifty Shades in The New Republic), “Romance novels are attractive not just because they are a gratifying escape but also because they sometimes feel like a respite from the significant hostility that a lot of literature shows women.” Isn’t it the truth? All too often female characters are ornamental girlfriends, the reason for the hero’s quest, or the evil castrating witch, but seldom a character we can relate to and respect. Okay, maybe if we look good in a black leather bodysuit, we’ll get the token female lead in the superhero buddy film. In any case, Rosenberg continues, “Romance novels are a tonic, a form of reassurance that someone is interested in ordinary women’s inner lives and is rooting for us to resolve our conflicts about work, love, and what we deserve from our relationships.”
So, yes, if you want women to buy your writing—and women are the fiction market by a big margin–you have to create a compelling story that treats female characters and their concerns with genuine respect. Should be easy for you, right, buddy? Now go get rich.
Victim #4: Christian Grey
We’re all familiar with the characterization of Christian Grey as a stalker who creepily appears at Ana’s side at whim, due in part to his vampire ancestry. Some insist that thanks to the popularity of Fifty Shades, controlling, abusive men will now have women lining up outside their doors.
If we allow that the Fifty Shades novels are guides to real-life relationships as these critics apparently do, I think we need to look at Ana’s behavior as well. In the first book and movie, she insists Christian show her the worst the pain can be in his playroom. He–though not very wisely for a supposedly experienced Dom dealing with a very inexperienced sub–whips her six times with a belt on her bare ass with no warm-up. She then calls him a sick pervert and breaks up with him. Did this bother anyone else? Not the belt part, because Ana explicitly asked for something that. But if you pressure someone you care about to make himself vulnerable then immediately recoil at his repulsiveness without any meaningful discussion or processing, this is emotional abuse. So, to all the young men out there, let this be a lesson—if a woman does this to you, it is not a promising foundation for building trust in the relationship.
Except of course, it turns out to be the right move for a continuing relationship because (spoiler alert!) Christian decides to let her determine the nature of their sexual encounters, thus giving up the sort of BDSM he was trying to sign her up for. Yet Ana is hardly more trustworthy emotionally in the later books. From a “realistic” view, Ana is in her early twenties and has never had a boyfriend. But Christian gets blasted for his possessiveness and jealousy, when she is just as guilty. Her deep love is supposed to be the salve to heal Christian’s damaged heart, but she is jealous of every woman past or present who even makes eyes at her handsome but romance-novel-loyal boyfriend, so jealous that she regularly contemplates leaving him. The second and third novels swing between Ana wanting to save his wounded inner child with every fiber of her being then wondering on the next page if she should dump him when the going gets even a teeny bit tough. Another shockingly thoughtless act is when she forces him back to the playroom because of her own curiosity, although he has avoided it like a recovering alcoholic stays away from booze. Christian’s life was ruined by a “crack whore” birth mother and a Mrs. Robinson type who seduced him into the BDSM lifestyle at 15. These are bad ladies to have in your life, but I wouldn’t be so sure his luck with women had changed all that much with Ana.
Our young men deserve more maturity and kindness in their relationships. I hope the guardians of our social order will speak up for their welfare when the sequels come out and it’s Ana now jerking Christian around by the emotional leash.
Victim #5: Me-Too Books and Movies
There are some benefits to getting older. I know when something is advertised as the sexiest book or movie ever, it won’t be. Or when a magazine promises to teach me the four tricks that will blow a man’s mind in bed, I won’t learn anything new. And I know that because of the success of Fifty Shades that New York and Hollywood will green-light many projects that won’t do so well. The decision-makers will not conclude that in their rush to cash in, the appeal of Fifty Shades was not carefully analyzed and respected. They will more likely say that women actually don’t like sexy stories as much as we all thought or feared. Having lived through several cycles of excitement over the profit potential for erotica followed by disappointment when a project that receives no support doesn’t sell, I sense we’re bound for another round of the same.
I don’t want to end this column on a negative note by suggesting that all erotica writers will suffer when the publishing and movie industries make the same mistakes all over again. In other words, that we are victims of the Fifty Shades frenzy. I prefer standing up for the victim rather than identifying as one. Let’s just say I hope the clear evidence that women will pay good money to see their fantasies and desires portrayed in the media will create a permanent shift in our favor in the plans of the powerful scions of the Imagination Business.
In the meantime, we must keep writing what we love and support each other and a sex-positive culture. The fight for honest erotic expression continues!
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
by Jean Roberta
[NOTE: This blog was supposed to go live on January 26, but too much multi-tasking caused me to miss my turn. Please excuse me for posting late.]
Those of you who read this blog are probably aware that a writer’s mind is a busy place, somewhat like Hyde Park Corner in London, England, where random strangers can show up and argue with each other. (That’s the only real-world location I know of that is designated for such activity.)
Apparently there is a stampede among writers to self-publish and sell the work on social media, including the various Amazon sites. Even non-writer friends have advised me to do this and thereby make lots of money. Hence the following internal argument.
Inner Cheerleader: Jean, you don’t have to limit yourself to working with established publishing companies. They just want to make money by selling your work.
Jean: Yes, just as the university that employs me just wants to recruit fee-paying students to sit in my classes. Everyone has a financial motive, even charity organizations. They “just” need to make a profit so they can spend it on good causes.
You sound like various bystanders who have reminded me that I don’t have to limit myself to: 1) writing about sex, 2) writing about women, 3) writing about lesbians, gay men, bisexuals or trans folks, 4) writing about Canadians (or about Canadian settings), etc. (Sarcastically) Why don’t I expand my range by writing stories about White Anglo-Saxon male American billionaires who fall in love with younger, poorer women? Oh, that’s been done.
Inner Cheerleader: But you need to keep up with current trends. What sells? Why couldn’t you tap into the zeitgeist? You can’t depend on publishers to promote your work. They don’t do that any more. Your colleague knows a woman who claims she is planning to retire from teaching in a university because she can earn a living by writing about sex with Bigfoot. There’s a market for that.
Jean: I don’t understand the appeal. I don’t think I could write that stuff convincingly.
Inner Cheerleader: If sincerity is your thing, you could exploit it. Why don’t you post a series of articles about your experience in the sex trade?
Jean: That was in the early 1980s. I don’t want to become known as Ye Antique Harlot from Times of Yore. It’s bad enough that the local media sometimes contacts me when there is a change in the laws about prostitution – because they can’t find anyone currently making a living that way. I really don’t want to speak on behalf of marginalized people young enough to be my grandchildren, who are already silenced by legal threats and social stigma.
Inner Cheerleader: But people want to read about sex. You need to have more of a public image. Why don’t you have some sexy photos taken of yourself, and post them in every place that will accept them?
Jean: You seem to be forgetting my age. You have no solid evidence that thrusting my greyish-brown bush (surrounded by cellulite) or the thin skin of my cleavage in the face of the public at large would lead to sales of my writing.
Inner Cheerleader: Photoshop is your friend. And you could be mysterious about your age.
Jean: The birthdates of published writers appear in their books. It’s a way of establishing legal identity.
Inner Cheerleader: Well, why don’t you write a tell-all autobiography, focusing on sex?
Jean: That sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen. Besides, my actual life is less satisfying in several ways than the stories I make up, which I why I write fiction in the first place. Most people like a plot arc: character sets forth on a journey, encounters difficulties, dragons and orcs, but discovers inner resources, soldiers on, and reaches a place of resolution. That is not a summary of my life, or any actual life I know of. Metaphorically, a life journey can be like that, but we all live in the mundane world.
I like to discuss my life-experience indirectly, by writing: 1) fiction, and 2) non-fiction. Sometimes poetry, though that seems to attract few readers these days.
Inner Cheerleader: I give up. I tried to help you. Don’t blame me if you never become a successful writer.
Jean: Dear narrow-minded aspect of my psyche, your conception of “success” is not the one accepted by most of the scholars I know. Whether my words succeed in lasting longer than I do, only time will tell.
By Lisabet Sarai
I’m currently reading a book that should never have been published. Unfortunately, I’m committed to reviewing this three hundred fifty page novel, so I can’t just erase it from my e-reader and breathe a sigh of relief. I have to endure the run-on sentences, misspellings and incorrect vocabulary; the point of view that does a random walk from one character’s head to another’s; the verb tenses that shift from present to past and back again in the same paragraph.
I have to wonder about an author who sends a book in this sorry state out to the world. Did she really not know any better? Like many first erotica novels (including my own), the story (a moderately intense tale of extreme submission) feels like personal fantasy. I appreciate, from my own experience, the thrill that comes from baring your sexual soul, the rush one feels being brave enough to bring those filthy imagined scenarios into the light. It’s easy to get carried away. Still, even when writing for one’s own satisfaction, doesn’t an author have at least some responsibility to her readers? Shouldn’t there be some minimum criterion an author must satisfy, in terms of language skills, before he or she is entitled to ask other people to actually pay for privilege of reading?
Unfortunately, this book is far from unique. At least twenty percent of the ebooks I read appear to have never been examined by a (competent) editor. Some have dreadful formatting problems as well – text that switches from one font to another in the middle of sentences, negative leading between lines so that one overlaps another, and so on. Furthermore, these issues don’t appear just in self-published books.
Now, I’m a bit of a geek. You may or may not be aware of the fact that text processing software capabilities have become extremely sophisticated. Programs can analyze text in order to determine whether it was likely to have been written by a male or female; whether it was plagiarized; what emotions were experienced by the author; even whether it has linguistic characteristics shared by best-sellers. Software exists to grade essay questions in college entrance exams and make suggestions for how the author can get a better score. It recently occurred to me that someone (not me – text processing isn’t my specialty) could write a program to screen out books with egregious grammatical and lexical problems.
I have no doubt that Amazon has the resources to commission this sort of computerized gatekeeper. Think about it. Before an individual, or a publisher, could finalize submission of a book for sale, they would have to run it through the Automated Editor. The program would flag potential problems for attention. If the number of dangling participles or sentence fragments or run-on constructions exceeded a threshold, the book would be rejected. In other words, it would become impossible to publish a book like the one I’m wading through at the moment. The base level quality of available books would improve dramatically.
(Of course, Amazon would never do this voluntarily, only under pressure from readers. The company has zero incentive to reduce the number of books it offers for sale.)
But then, an artificially intelligent text analyst could do a great deal more than simply check for basic grammar. It could flag repeated words, phrases or figures of speech. (How many references to an “inner goddess” should be allowed before a book was rejected?) I believe that existing linguistic analysis software could also be trained to detect clichés, simply by providing an extensive database of example phrases. Purple prose would also be sufficiently distinctive, I think, to be identified with some level of accuracy.
I’m starting to imagine a multi-level application that could analyze a wide range of textual and stylistic characteristics in order to assign a “publishability” score to each manuscript. Why stop with the superficial problems, though? Automated language understanding systems have made great progress in the past decade, due to faster hardware and new algorithms. So why not look not just for clichéd language, but clichéd plot elements as well? That may be beyond the capabilities of today’s software, but not tomorrow’s. Using tired, overused story lines as models, the program could decide that the world did not in fact need yet another vampire-turning-his-lover-to-save-her-from-death or billionaire-seduces-virgin tale.
We could also use our gatekeeper software to determine how well a book purporting to belong to a certain genre in fact fit the conventions of that genre. If the program found evidence of lesbian interaction in a heterosexual erotic romance, for instance, it could reject the book as inappropriate for the targeted readers.
In the brave new world I am imagining, almost any aspect of a book’s content or presentation could be quantified and used to make publishing decisions. Sentences too short or too long. Overuse or underuse of adjectives. Too many characters of particular ethnicities. Focus on uncomfortable, politically incorrect or otherwise controversial topics. Mention of specific individuals, events, places, companies, products… the possibilities are limitless.
Think of how much more pleasant reading would become when you didn’t have to worry about ever encountering run-on sentences – or depictions of rape. You’d be shielded from both bad grammar and bad ideas.
Sure, this might homogenize the reading experience a bit, but that’s happening anyway, isn’t it? You’re right, Hemingway and Pynchon and Palahniuk and Joyce might not make the grade with our gatekeeper, unless they were grandfathered in as previously published. I’ll admit that some promising new authors would be prevented from making their work available to the world, but that happens with human editors too. At least our computerized literary gatekeepers would be objective and impartial.
Hmm… Maybe this needs some more thought
Meanwhile, I’ve got to go read a few more painful chapters and then figure out how to write this review without totally demoralizing this poor, benighted author.
by Jean Roberta
During the winter holiday season, when occasions for partying abound, I feel a rant coming on. Lest I sound like a perpetual complainer, I will put my discontent in perspective.
I’m sure I’m more privileged than most people in the world, and probably more than most readers of this blog. Looking over the events of 2013, I’m grateful for my blessings, and relieved that my misfortunes were no worse.
In the summer, I moved years worth of books and papers into my new office in the university English Department where I teach first-year classes. My new home-away-from-home has an incredible amount of shelf space for my books, plus a window to the outside world so I can see the weather before I step out in it.
In September, I taught my first credit course in creative writing. This favour was granted by the head of the English Department, even though it is a second-year class usually taught by scholars with Ph.D.s (something I never managed to get, for various reasons). Teaching a small class of eager young writers was an adventure that helped refuel my enthusiasm for my job. My usual first-year classes are mandatory for most students, and therefore I get many recruits who would rather avoid writing essays about literature.
In 2013, I also saw more of my words in print than in any previous year. On the scholarly front, I co-edited OutSpoken, a collection of articles and creative work based on a series of presentations on queer (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) topics by faculty members. The co-ordinator of the series (also head of the Theatre Department) had been invited by the university press to put a book together, he graciously invited me to co-edit, and I accepted. I also had an article accepted for a book about teaching vampire literature which was edited by Dr. Lisa Nevarez of the English Department of Siena College in New York state. I’ve been told that Teaching the Vampire will be released by McFarland Press at any moment.
My historical erotic novella, The Flight of the Black Swan, appeared early in 2013 from Lethe Press. (The cover art is by Ben Baldwin, who was nominated as best fantasy artist of Britain.) A few months later, my collection of erotic stories, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past, also appeared from Lethe Press. Both books got a few glowing reviews.
However, during two family gatherings in the cozy house I share with my spouse (Christmas Eve for immediate family, Christmas Day for two old and dear friends, their grown children, their spouses, children and their friends), I didn’t mention my publications. It was understood that the non-fiction was too academic to interest anyone I know outside the Ivory Tower, while my fiction is too raunchy to be mentioned in the presence of children. I wonder how many writers, particularly erotic writers, are in this predicament. (In all fairness, I had already shown my new books to those closest to me. They don’t read my books or stories, but they accept my writing hobby as less harmful than most other addictions.)
On both occasions, I was encouraged to show off – guess what? – my new surgical scar. On November 4, the first snowy day in the town where I live, I slipped on the ice and broke my left wrist in several places. Thanks to the Canadian health-care system, I was rushed into surgery within 24 hours, and had my wrist repaired and reinforced with a long metal plate that shows up clearly in X-rays. (I will set off metal detectors in airports for the rest of my life.) During my short stay in the hospital and my longer convalescence, my two stepsons and my spouse were an impressive source of support. Later, when my cast was removed and I was shown X-rays of my damaged and repaired wrist, Spouse took photos of these images her cell-phone, and circulated them among the assembled crowd during our holiday suppers. Everyone commented that my incision has healed well.
On Christmas Day, before the second flock of guests were due to arrive, our furnace stopped working after keeping us toasty-warm during a week of very cold temperatures. Although the outside temperature had risen, we couldn’t welcome our guests into an unheated house, so we had to pay a repairman for his labour and a new furnace motor. He was honest enough to tell us that if we could have waited another two days, the bill would have been $100 less. But such is life. Luckily, we didn’t have to choose between warmth and food.
Medical and home-maintenance issues were not the only topics of conversation, but they seemed to be of general interest. Well, of course. Everyone lives in a body, and most folks (especially in Canada in the winter) have a dwelling-place.
I couldn’t help wondering how many other writers can only discuss their writing with other writers, or with any readers who can be found. And how many erotic writers must go far out of their way to prevent relatives, “friends”, coworkers and bosses from finding out that they write about sex, the stuff of life. (Note my previous comment about the universal human condition of living in a body.) News items about the inconsistent and fluctuating policies of booksellers regarding “obscene” material show that there is not (and never has been) any real consensus about what this is. In the current cultural climate, I’m well aware that I’m probably luckier than most.
My employer is exceptionally tolerant of everything I write, and for that I am truly grateful. My holiday wish is for peace on earth and good will toward all the writers who are brave enough to write about something that really (let’s be honest) interests everyone. The impulse to write anything seems to be a certain kind of craziness, and a desire to write about subjects formerly considered “unspeakable” still requires courage. I’m glad I live in a world where so many have felt the bite of that bug.
May the Deity of our choice bless us, every one.
Wow, my last post of 2013. How did that happen?! This year seems to have flown by, but I guess it’s because I’ve been so busy. And I’ll definitely never complain about that – business is good, I’m writing and publishing lots of books, nothing to complain about!
So now I look forward to 2014. I already have releases lined up, which is awesome, and there are other books out for submission which I have my fingers crossed for.
So what are my goals?
- To finish and submit The Persecution of the Wolves to a publisher
- To submit to four specific annual anthologies which I haven’t yet been published in – and no, I’m not going to name them, I don’t want to jinx it!
- To finish two co-author projects
- To write at least one solo novel
Hmm, it looks pretty doable when it’s listed in four bullet points, but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. Some of that depends on other people as well as myself, so I just have to hope the stars align to get all that done. And, of course, these are just my larger goals – I’ll also be writing for anthologies, editing at least three anthologies, and I already have a couple of novellas I’ve promised to write… looks like it’s going to be a busy 2014 – woohoo!
Happy Christmas, everyone, and best wishes for 2014.
Lucy Felthouse is a very busy woman! She writes erotica and
erotic romance in a variety of subgenres and pairings, and has over eighty
publications to her name, with many more in the pipeline. These include several
editions of Best Bondage Erotica, Best Women’s Erotica 2013 and Best Erotic
Romance 2014. Another string to her bow is editing, and she has edited and
co-edited a number of anthologies, and also edits for a small publishing house.
She owns Erotica For All, and is book
editor for Cliterati. Find out more at http://www.lucyfelthouse.co.uk. Join
her on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to her
newsletter at: http://eepurl.com/gMQb9