By Jean Roberta
[Note: please excuse me for missing my regular day to post, May 26. I hope this late post doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s.]
Have you written a story, a poem, a play, or some experimental hybrid that doesn’t fit any call-for-submissions or journal guidelines that you know of? Welcome to the club.
The divisions between erotica and other genres seem thinner now than ever before. Romance novels can be drenched with erotic tension and even include explicit sex scenes, although an unspoken rule in the “romances” of the past was that the wedding had to appear on the last page, and sex couldn’t take place before then. Speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, slipstream, steampunk, horror, etc.) can include sex that doesn’t have to obey the laws of the natural world we know. Suspense narratives, including murder mysteries, can include erotic tension as part of the suspense: Will the central characters solve the mystery and/or take their flirtatious partnership to the next level?
While the definitions of genres, per se, seem fairly fluid, every editor or editorial team has guidelines: lots of sex and magic, but no horror. Realistic character development and sex, but no magic. Elaborate world-building, including sexual traditions that would seem exotic to most readers, but no info-dumps. Horror required, but with minimal bloodshed. Violence okay, but no explicit sex.
And there are usually minimum and maximum word-limits which indirectly define the categories that will be considered. An erotic story of under 3,000 words can include one fairly detailed sex scene, but usually no more than one. A story of at least 10,000 words is pushing into novella territory, and therefore it needs at least two complex characters interacting in a plot which is about something besides– or apart from– sex.
It’s very easy to follow a plot-bunny down its rabbit-hole and write something that might appeal to certain readers, but which doesn’t completely fit the guidelines for a collection, website, or journal.
I still have a few orphan stories on my hard-drive which were rejected by the first editors to whom they were sent, usually for very logical reasons.
I know my weaknesses. The editor of a sci-fi anthology said she loved my story, but it didn’t include any technological revelations. (No surprise there. I’ve never had a very firm grasp of either modern technology or the nineteenth-century steam-driven type. I couldn’t explain to a visitor from another planet how I am able to transmit these words through a machine to people living far away from me. My version of the “sci” in “sci-fi” more closely resembles magic. )
Early versions of some of my stories resemble the feet of Cinderella’s stepsisters in the non-Disney version of the story in which they cut off their toes or their heels to fit into the glass slipper, then leave a trail of blood behind them. In a few cases, I’ve been able to prune a potential novel down to under 6,000, 5,000 or even 4,000 words. This usually requires leaving out something that needed to be left in: a character’s motivations or emotional responses, or the juicy details of a sex scene. Improving the story usually requires reattaching the toes or heels (or the heart, lungs, and brain, which is easier to do with stories than with human bodies), even if that means the story will no longer fit into a certain market.
Languishing in my “documents” are three different versions of an erotic lesbian story in which I experimented with viewpoint. The two central characters are so different (but complementary, I hope) that I didn’t simply want to describe one through the eyes of the other, so the story is divided into alternating sections told by the two narrators. This tends to interrupt the plot in much the way a supposedly true story is interrupted when someone offers a different version of events.
(“We met when you were still a barista at the coffee-shop.”
“No, honey, we didn’t really meet then. I first noticed you when we were in the same class at university.”
“You were so innocent. You weren’t a lesbian, and you weren’t into BDSM.”
“I didn’t have much experience, but I knew what I wanted.”
“You were so uptight because of the way you were raised.”
“Excuse me. My parents gave me everything they didn’t have, and they always encouraged me to think for myself.”)
Will any version of my story ever see the light of day? That remains to be seen. I like both the characters, and the way they resolve their differences. I think the sex is hot. I can also see why the divided viewpoint might prevent a reader (or an editor) from smoothly following the rising tension to a satisfying conclusion.
As usual for me, I probably need to expand the story into something longer, in which different sections or chapters wouldn’t look like unnecessary interruptions.
Occasionally, a story will be posted in the “Storytime” list in the Erotic Readers and Writers Association which includes great lines, great characters, great sex, and sometimes a fascinating plot, but something about the whole piece doesn’t gel. In some cases, character motivations look unclear or unconvincing to several of the readers who offer critiques, and in some cases, sex seems to be inserted into a plot without enough preparation. (The usefulness of lube in real life seems relevant here.)
Self-publishing offers a solution to the problem of where to place writing that doesn’t fit neatly into existing categories, and the Excessica site provides a marvelous combination of writer independence with technical support. However, I’m not willing to post a story for public consumption before it seems ripe enough.
I’d like to encourage all the writers reading this not to abandon your orphan pieces. Some of them probably have good bones. Leaving a first draft for awhile before coming back to it can enable you to see what it needs.
Think of it this way: there is no real failure. Some projects are thrown away, when they could have been recycled, and some just haven’t found the right home yet. Some are never finished, for various reasons. You had a reason for writing the first draft, and it might be calling you to come back to it.