Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Friday, October 18, 2013

Validation, Desire and Other Reasons to Write

By Donna George Storey

I haven’t written a new story in almost six months. Not that I haven’t had a few fallow periods since I first started writing fiction seriously sixteen years ago, but the break in the flow this time around has inspired me to listen to an inner voice that is usually drowned out by the word-rush of my latest story project.

Who am I writing for?

(Yes, I know, it should be “For whom am I writing?” but my inner voice is not particularly interested in proper grammar!)

“For my audience, the bigger the better”—that’s the first simple answer that comes to mind. Or “for myself,” which feels fleetingly self-empowering and bravely feminist, but doesn’t ring totally true. To be honest, although no work I’ve ever done has felt so personally expressive and revealing as fiction writing, from the beginning the driving force has been my desire for validation through publication. While an audience is implied, the images of success that come to mind are acceptance letters, contracts, books or journals to hold in my hands. Oddly no readers are in sight.

I publish, therefore I am a writer. That was my creed. Always an eager student, I immersed myself in how-to-get-published books of all kinds, scribbling notes on how to write a cover letter, how to hook an editor, sure-fire techniques of the selling writer (throw a lovable character into trouble, then deeper trouble to keep the pages turning). I’m not sure if any of this advice actually affected the stories I wrote, but it did reinforce my sense that ultimately I wrote to please an editor and, stretching endlessly beyond her, a faultlessly wise literary establishment.

Over the years, I eventually did get published—with over 160 credits to my name right now. Damn, even my cruelly judgmental inner voice has to admit that’s some form of validation. Yet, what inspired me to write before now seems a barrier. Perhaps it’s because I know too well what publication, after the first rush of pleasure and pride, means. Promoting your work is an endless, soul-draining task. Nor do the writing experts allow for resting on your laurels. Everyone knows a truly successful writer must produce a constant stream of novels to establish her brand and a deep backlist for new fans to explore. At this level, success is, of course, married to profit rather than a mere byline. But in order to make cartloads of cash in the gold rush of self-publishing, you must above all be savvy about what sells.

Trapped as I am in an attitude that has apparently given me what I wanted, when I think about writing another novel, I feel bored rather than inspired. Experience (or rather, feedback from editors over the years) tells me every chapter has to have a sex scene. The story or vocabulary can’t be too complex. My book has to fit into a well-oiled slot in the store (none of this genre-busting nonsense) and it has to be excitingly fresh, yet reassuringly the same as every other best-selling erotic novel out there. This is what “they” want from me. I ignore their desires at my peril.

But at long last, what I’d like to call the “real” writer inside me is saying enough. Enough of reading the market and second-guessing editors and thinking these skills are enough to satisfy my heart, mind and spirit. Write what fascinates you, she tells me. Write sex scenes only where they belong in the story and only at the level of explicitness that feels right, because sometimes suggestion is far sexier than a blow-by-blow. Write only for yourself at least once in your life. At the very least, the experience will teach you lessons you will never learn if you’re always looking to others for your reward.

It all sounds pretty sweet right now.

I can’t guarantee myself I’ll have the courage to do this, but after months of indifference, I’m finally getting excited about writing again.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

20 comments:

  1. I could not have put that better myself. I really couldn't - I 100% agree. I am in that place right now myself- tired and uninspired by the same old erotica. I try so hard to give people what they want- but there are only so many ways of saying the same thing. As the brilliant Terry Pratchett said, 'People think they want different things; but actually they want the same things over and over, but packaged in a different way."
    I'm genre stretching into contemporary romance at the moment- and I'm loving the freedom- but there is a novel in me screaming to burst out. It fits no genre, but it's plot is perfect in my head- all I need now is the time and- more to the point- the nerve -to write it and say "to hell with what I'm supposed to write." Good luck Donna- an inspiring post. Kay xxxx

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    1. Thank you, Kay! I can't tell you how reassuring it is to know that a writer I admire feels the same way. I mean intellectually I didn't think it was just my problem, but emotionally it's a different story. I suspect most of us get by combining the expected elements with some we really care about in a story/novel, and the passion for the latter sustains us. I do hope you find the time to try that "to hell with them" novel!

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    2. Thanks Donna- you are most kind. And again you are spot on- it is the emotional issues that are the problem. I have three novels to write- then- maybe- I'll be brave enough! xxx

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  2. I guess, if I have to be completely honest, I write because it is the way I come to understanding things...by writing them. Great post. I do hope this different motivation will take you on new adventures.

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    1. If I were to be honest myself, RG, I also write to work through something that is a mystery to me. Or at least I enjoy myself most when I'm doing that. But I'm also always trying to fit the interesting part of the project into something that sells, and that's what's getting old. I really mean to try something new so, yeah, fingers crossed!

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  3. I completely understand how you feel, Donna (and Kay). So rock on with your talented selves, for your talented selves! (:v>

    I've pretty much been writing what I wanted to all along, I guess. I accommodate myself to guidelines, of course; but when the editor's parameters don't more or less coincide with some subset of the ways I like to approach erotica writing, then I just don't write for that project. (Of course, guidelines can also inspire me to do something I hadn't previously thought of doing, but find appealing once it's been suggested.)

    At the same time, the idea that I'm writing for some real and identifiable audience is essential to my motivation. I began writing erotica just for myself, but what transformed this activity from a few isolated, infrequent undertakings to a sustained, prolific métier was having my personal artistic fulfillment complemented by the privilege of connecting with readers.

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    1. I'm sure all writers care about an audience on some level, but the key is to do what you've done and keep a balance without feeling you've compromised. For me it's been a cumulative process. Or perhaps I'm too sensitive of a learner and the prospect of promoting a new novel has me exhausted before I've written a word?

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  4. I think you've articulated a feeling from which many of us have been suffering, Donna. Though I have eight novels in my backlist, as well as dozens of shorter work, I don't make much at all. I've resigned myself to the fact that my fiction is just too mixed and diverse for me to build a successful brand.

    I don't write series, though that is what sells. I like to try a different tack with each successive book. I hate reading (or writing) the same thing over and over. And I have a visceral resistance to the notion of "writing to the market", though I suspect I could do that if my bread and butter depended on it.

    So be it. I have a small base of readers who like what I do. I'll never be a mass success because, quite honestly, I'm different from the masses. And you know, I'm not really unhappy about that. I guess fundamentally I'd rather be versatile and original than popular.

    I'll never forget my mother's pointed question, when I complained that nobody else was wearing snow pants to school: "So what? Do you want to be a sheep?"

    No sheep for me!

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    1. That's so funny, Lisabet, I often use the sheep analogy with my kids as well as trends in literature, high and low. It's crucial to be aware of it and how it operates even in the best advice in all of those "how-to" books I consumed. I also wonder how it would change things if sales figures were more transparent. I can understand why authors and publishers would not want to share, but I'd guess a pretty small percentage of authors are getting rich from erotica, in spite of all the newcomers who say they're trying it to "make some money."

      In any case, you are one of my role models for a confident, intelligent erotica writer. We need more writers like you!

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  5. Donna - Your inner writer and mine should have coffee some time. It sounds as if they'd get along very well. The comment that resonated the most with me was about explicitness. I've become a sensualist through the years, where I prefer to write about being explicit or doing a thrust-by-thrust call.

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    1. I love that, Kathleen, I've become a "sensualist" as well. Maybe that's the real barrier, that blow by blow stuff. I end up skimming it to get to the "good" parts (the story) as a reader, how can I write it in any convincing way? And I'd love to send those inner writers out for some coffee :-).

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  6. This is a beautiful post, thank you.

    My favorite line of yours here sums up a major issue for writers, I think. You say, "it has to be excitingly fresh, yet reassuringly the same as every other best-selling erotic novel out there"—and this illustrates how contradictory and impossible much of the advice that's out there for writers turns out to be.

    To write authentically, I think we have to listen to others a bit less. I have a hard time even saying that because I immediately want to qualify it with protestations about how I will still be respectful to editors, etc.

    I worked as a journalist for a long time and am familiar with what it means to write what I'm told to write. I don't know if it's possible (for me, anyway) to achieve that same sort of detachment with my fiction. I also think that doing as I'm told precludes at least to some degree writing something truly great (because that requires ultimate authenticity).

    Great writing always has a tinge of rebellion to it, I think. How ironic that we are here writing naughty stuff, breaking the rules, and yet also feeling constrained by the rules. I don't want erotica to turn into that. I love it for its transgression, and I love to write it for the same reason.

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    1. I so appreciate your perspective, Annabeth. The advice out there is totally contradictory, but we all so want to believe in the Great Work and the Writing That Lasts. Yet those few works absolutely rise above the rest in their authenticity and genuine freshness. For some reason I'm thinking of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," a Freudian story before Freud, made into how many film and play adaptations? A story each generation can make its own. Dickens was possessed by that story and wrote it in six weeks, and it was the perfect marriage of his passion and his experience as a storyteller.

      Few books will ever attain that connection with an audience, but at least it doesn't hurt to try lighting out for the territory to see if I can meet some new challenges.

      I also agree that one of the pleasures of erotica is the freedom and the transgression, but it is ironic that a whole new set of rules pops up. I remember discussing a story with a fellow writer where the author had spent about half the story describing a man that the protagonist never even had sex with. In this case it did seem a waste of story time, but the criticism points to an implicit rule that ultimately traps us into the same old boring pattern. And, not to go on and on, the only novelty people seem to crave is more "outrageous" acts--more partners, shocking fetishes, veering close but not too close to what is still taboo (bestiality, etc). There should be more interesting ways to break the rules within the rules!

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  7. Donna!

    Let me offer you some encouragement, because I'm going through a bad spell too and your encouragement has done a lot to lift me up.

    Hey! I'm becoming a fan of yours. Slowly I'm giving in to your seduction. I went to a used bookstore and found a copy of "The Best American Erotic 2006" and found your story "Ukiyo" snuggled in there right along with David Sedaris and John Updike. John Updike?? I WISH I could be in a book with John Updike. And that was such a great story, I loved it. You probably don't even remember writing it 160 stories ago. I loved the language and the way you understate so much, its exactly the kind of erotica that got me interested in the genre. "In spite of myself, I imagine her kneeling before one of those low faucets, her heavy breasts dangling like cones of white wisteria tinted dark rose at the tips."

    Wisteria? Rose? I wish I had written that line.

    " . . . grinding into him, soaring up higher, a witch on her broomstick."

    Another beautiful line. And what in the world is a "Tanizaki" novel and where can I get one?

    I don't know what you were thinking when you wrote that story but you have mojo in every word. It crackles and soars. Like a witch on her broomstick. Online in the New York Public Library ebook collection, in the Army's Online ebook library - you're everywhere in there, big time. I'm reading your stuff Donna. I'm looking for it. I'm yours.

    Garce

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    1. Garce, I am definitely encouraged (and blushing a bit, too!) Suddenly the reader on the other side of the story is very alive to me, and better still, he's a writer I admire right back. You've also reminded me that when I wrote Ukiyo back in 2004 or thereabouts, the very act of writing was still so fresh and every word did matter. Not that it doesn't now, and not that experience doesn't bring its own pleasures as a writer, but maybe that's what I'm seeking, the sense of trying something new without the niggling fear I'll "lose" the comfortable spot of being a predictable old-timer.

      The Tanikzaki novel I was referring to is "Some Prefer Nettles," about a Japanese man in the 1930's, caught between the allure of the past and the Westernized present. These two ways of life are of course represented by female characters, each with her own complicated appeal. I'd also recommend "The Makioka Sisters," and there are other more explicit novels of sexual obsession as well, ("Naomi," "Diary of a Mad Old Man") although Tanizaki remains more of a suggestive sensualist. You have to fill in the sex scenes, which is in some ways a lot sexier to have to work for it!

      Last but not least, I'm in the Army's Online ebook library?! There has GOT to be a story in that :-).

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  8. I alternate between the high of finishing a new book, and feeling proud of my newest creation, followed by worrying about whether or not anyone will want to publish it. Then when I get a contract I'm over the moon! When the book actually comes out, it's icing on my cake of joy. Then I spend money I earn at my other jobs that's supposed to go for bills, and I buy ads, schedule promotions, etc. Then I get puny royalties checks that send me deep into depression, where i question my ability to interest anyone. I'm just not a good writer. No one wants to read about my characters. I'm only good enough for my crappy minimum wage jobs. I become resigned.

    Then I have another dream, or a group of characters who begin to whisper, then talk, finally yell in my head, demanding that i write their story. Then the whole process starts again.

    But my writing is the only part of my life right now that couldn't be done by a trained monkey. Only I can bring those characters to life. I try to tell myself that's got to be good enough. Sometimes I even believe it.

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    1. Fiona, I can't tell you how helpful it is to hear the (very familiar) experiences of other writers! Intellectually I knew I was not alone, but it's the emotional part that feels pretty lonely, especially when it comes to "success," which is often tied to a title with "orgasm" in it or an especially effective cover image. But I appreciate the reminder that writing IS the one thing where my full self is engaged, pushed, sparked. I mean, "they" try to tell us that make-up or cars or Jack-in-the-Box's latest special sandwich can do this for us, be we know it's not true.

      Let's keep writing!

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  9. Donna, I can so relate to this! In the beginning, erotica was more open to different kinds of writing, to experimentation. Plus, it was easy to get published because not that many good writers were writing erotica! (and like any writer, I do love being published!) Now things have changed, in ways both good and bad. The good part is, there are more excellent writers doing erotica, and more competition so that getting published really means something now! But the bad part is, rules have developed, as you say. More sex scenes are required, whether or not they make artistic sense. And those themed anthologies! It's all fairy tale erotica, or lesbian, or straight, or S/M, or vampires, or zombies . . . This is so limiting, both to write and to read! I loved the old anthologies, like Susie Bright's "Best American Eroticia" series, which included everything, from the familiar to sexual desires you'd never thought of. When I write or when I read, I want to enter unfamiliar territory, to push the envelope! I started feeling, when writing for these new anthologies, like I was writing assignments for school.

    So, thinking about this, I decided my main audience, the one I want to please, is myself. I write sex scenes when they make sense. Sometimes (shock!) I even write stories with no sex in them at all! I did try a zombie erotica story, but no one seems to want to publish it. Perhaps it's a bit too much of a parody to fit anywhere. But I no longer care because I'm writing for me. I still send work out, which occasionally gets published, but publication is no longer my aim--what I want is to do the best writing I possibly can, and submit it to invite others to read, but I no longer want to follow the rules.

    Come to think of it, the best artists don't follow rules, do they? And sometimes their work isn't really "discovered" until after their death. So I think what my aim is now is to try to join that group!

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    1. Wow, Susan, now I know I've told you this before, but one of your stories in Libido was what made me realize I wanted to write erotica. Someone could write about sex like this?! All I'd known was Penthouse and the Sonny-Lucy scene from The Godfather. Things have definitely changed for the good and the bad. Maybe I'm romanticizing the early days of the revolution, but back then it did seem revolutionary, speaking out feelings and truths long silenced. Now many aspiring erotica writers say they're doing it, sure, for the excitement, but also, certainly, to make some money. Maybe they will?

      I agree that writing for themed anthologies comes to seem like a school assignment. I try to find something in each story that means something to me, something genuine (hence I've avoided steam punk and vampires), but that could be part of it, that feeling of drudgery. Maybe that's why I avoid those little writers' games and contests--use these five words in your story, etc--because I don't like to be told what to do. But on a broader level, I am still trying to get that "A."

      You are already one of the Founding Mothers of Erotica, but of course, to write is to live. I do think we can feel when a writer is faking it, so we owe it not just to ourselves but to every reader (even if it is just a few) to write something worth reading. Something that doesn't feel like a waste of time to all parties involved!

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