thomasroche

Dec 152012
 
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As I write this, I’m in the process of answering questions for an interview with me due to appear on FearNet.com. If you’re lucky, maybe someday you can be as famous as me, and have the pleasure of giving your own interviews.

Since emoticons are generally frowned on in prose, let me clarify: That’s my sarcastic voice with the comment about me being famous (which I’m not), but not about interviews being a pleasure. They’re lots of fun to do. It’s gratifying to have someone read your work and propose questions based on it, or based on your life, or on your experiences searching for Bigfoot in Antarctica or whatever. youIt gives you a chance to reflect on your work and What it All Means.

Best of all, most writer interviews are now conducted by email, so you can give them in your underwear.

Hell, you can give them in your underwear even if you wear a kind of underwear considered outré for your particular century, gender or social class. You can give interviews with a butt-plug in nowadays, for all anyone cares.

Don’t get me wrong — you could give interviews in your underwear back when they used to do them by phone. But I always had this creepy sense that the person on the other end knew you were in your underwear. Assuming that, unlike me, such situations don’t cause you to be seized by the urge to scream, “I’m in my underwear,” it seems unlikely that the other person has a clue…but it just feels weird. Now it doesn’t even feel weird.

I don’t make this point just for LOLZ. There is a very real danger in giving interviews in your underwear, metaphorically speaking — that is, when you’re not mentally (or informationally) prepared for it. In order to maximize the purpose of giving interviews, you need to have a consistent message about your work.

Not to be too much of a bastard about it, that message needs to be part of a unified marketing message. Without seeming to be part of a unified marketing message, catch my drift?

You don’t want your interviews to seem too cynically marketing-focused because that’s not what an interview is for…or, to put it more accurately, it’s not what an interview does best. The best interviews are an opportunity for you to reflect on themes in your work, guided by someone who is both interested in and passionate about your work (whether they love it or hate it). Even if the interviewer is indifferent toward your work, you’ve still got the floor — so, with some practice, you can take an interview where you want it to go, especially if it’s by email.

I’m not just an enthusiastic interviewee; I’ve written up several hundred interviews over the years, in my tenure at the both-defunct Eros-Zine.com and 13thStreet.com. I’ve also done them as part of my public relations work. I know how deceptively easy they can seem, which camouflages the fact that giving good interviews is damned difficult.

That’s because the purpose of interviews is to make you, the writer, into a “real” person, in a way very different than prose can ever do. For most of literary history, the interview has been one of two primary ways that authors reach their readers (the other being their work). As such, interviews make you a “real” person by putting you in the role of instructor or authority — however personable you are, there remains a little bit of an authoritarian distance between you and your readers.

So how do you make yourself “real”? The thing is, social media now does that far more effectively than interviews ever have. Seeing an hourly Tweet or Facebook status from Tad Williams, Peter Straub, Laura Antoniou or whoever makes them into “real” people more or less on the same level that your distant cousin or housemate from ten years ago is a “real” person.

For that reason, interviews now occupy an interesting shadow-land where, in giving them, you’re not quite an authority but you’re not quite a peer. That’s why, to me, the things I say in good interviews are slightly formalized versions of the same sort of thing I might say on my blog in social media. I think the best way to approach interviews nowadays is as a starting point for a discussion with your fans, or — better yet! — people who have never heard of you before. In this age of social connectedness, the fact that you’re “real” should be a central part of your marketing message. (Unless, of course, you’re not. In which case you probably shouldn’t be giving interviews without the OK of your alien overlords.)

That said, though, the slightly formalized nature of interviews is what the format has going for it. Keep in mind that by agreeing to an interview, you’ve placed yourself in the position of being an authority. You’ve claimed to whatever journalist emailed you the request, “Why, yes, yes, I do know what I’m talking about.” Endeavor to make good on that claim. Don’t use interviews to bash other people, whether they’re Lady Gaga or your landlord. If you’re a fiction writer giving an interview, you’re there to bring something positive to the discussion of fiction — something that couldn’t be brought by a blog post, Facebook status or lengthy speech on a soapbox in the town square.

To assist in creating that sense of “realness” alongside a sense of authority, be sure to have a decent-looking photograph of yourself. And for God’s sake, please don’t go to J.C. Penney wearing an off-salmon jacket so you can look like somebody’s overgrown prom date. This is not a school portrait for your mother to hang on the refrigerator. You are not a realtor. (Unless you are, in which case you should use a different photo for your realty ads and your writing.)

If you don’t know a reasonably artistic professional photographer, then go down to the local boho café and meet one…or point a camera at yourself looking ominously into the lens at a famous local landmark, or just shoot thousands of pictures of yourself until you get one you can live with. Taking your own author photos isn’t ideal, but it has the benefit of letting you take a lot of them, fer-cheap, so you can eventually get one that works.

As a fiction writer, it’s better to look like a war correspondent than a Homecoming also-ran, so take a lot of pictures in order to get one where you look, you know, like, charming and romantic and evocative or something.

Don’t shoot them in the bathroom, incidentally. Yes, I know there’s a lot of light in the bathroom. Every fifteen-year-old girl in America knows there’s a lot of light in the bathroom. Resist the urge to shoot your author photo there.

And most importantly, do not ever make duck face in your author photos.

One last note about format: As I mentioned above, most writer interviews for blogs and smaller publications are conducted by email nowadays. The author will email you a set of questions; you will respond and email them back. Yes, since you mentioned it, this looks a lot like writing. In fact, it looks and feels a lot like writing a blog post. But in the same way that I suggest you should try to act like an authority when giving interviews, I must also suggest that you resist the temptation to treat interviews like the opportunity to deliver a manifesto. Get your “realness” out there early and often, and give your readers a sense of what your work is about. Remember that most casual readers quit reading after about 700 words…and since this blog post is well beyond that point, I’ll leave it at that.

Happy interviewing!

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Oct 252012
 
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When people ask what I  do and I  tell them I  write for a living, they’re usually eager to hear all about it; they have a million questions. I find this bloody strange, since so many people don’t seem to read books. Regardless, they often seem gobsmacked that they’ve actually met someone who writes. It’s not so much that they’re stunned to meet someone who writes for a living. I’m always necessarily vague about the details of that, because almost twenty years of being a sex educator has taught me that the last thing I want to get into a conversation with a new acquaintance about is sex, porn, and erotica. It would be like talking with someone I met on the bus about gun control– in my experience, it’s a path of tears.

Anyway, once someone knows that I write for a living, I find that our interactions tends to follow a certain very small number of trends. After ten minutes of asking me rapid-fire questions about what it’s like to write, let alone write for a living, the talk goes one of two ways. Either the person is an aspiring writer or they’re not. If they’re not, then we talk about something  interesting — paint drying, for instance, or shuffleboard. If they are an aspiring writer, then we talk some more about writing.

Taking as a given that talking to me about writing is like talking to a guy who pumps gas in Oregon about how Oregon made it so gas station attendants have to pump gas, conversations with unpublished writers are actually pretty interesting to me. I often get to hear about their works in progress — but just as often, I get to hear why such works are still in progress — that is, why they haven’t finished them. There’s a lot to learn in that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say there’s probably more to learn about the business of writing from an unpublished writer than a published one.

You probably already know that there are a million reasons projects don’t get finished — whether they’re novels, short stories or freeway overpasses. For the occasionally-published writer or the frequently-published writer who has a project or two they never get around to, the reasons are often creative or structurally.

But for people who never get anywhere — not just who think they might like to write and never do, but who sit down and write, but never finish a project, or finish it but never get it published — the reasons tend to be far more amorphous. Novels are one thing — they’re long. Finishing one to the point where someone might like to read it is, in my opinion, a bitch.

But with the advent of e-books, you can self-publish a 3,000-word short story in about six clicks on Amazon.com. It bewilders me that people who want to be writers don’t do that, just to test the waters. I don’t care how wretched your execrable prose is, it’s a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff I’ve paid money for. And yeah, you might sell only one copy of your 3,100-word werewolf romance epic — to your mom, or maybe your therapist.

But If you’re even remotely serious about writing, letting people read your work — and, if they foolish enough, even pay for the privilege — will give you valuable information about what it feels like to have your work out there in the marketplace…being pissed on.

And that is the biggest reason that unpublished writers don’t finish even short projects, don’t share them or join writing groups, don’t send their work out to publishers, don’t go to open-mic readings and perform their work in front of a drunk audience, don’t take the self-publishing route just for shits and giggles.

They’re underconfident — by which I don’t mean to imply that their work is any good; it might be, or it might not be. But in today’s world of easy e-book publishing — not to mention free stories all over the web — what unpublished writers lack is something that writers who distribute their work, whether professionally or in fan fic forums, have learned to obtain.

The critical element for putting your work out there is the willingness to make a fool of yourself if it comes to that.

Unpublished writers might have a very good reason for not wanting to make a fool of themselves — their work might be nowhere near being ready for public consumption. But like I said, there’s some godawful dreck published in classy hardbacks. Sometimes it makes its author a million clams.

If you’re in this category, think of it like that open-mic reading I talked about. Be wiling to get up and make a fool of yourself.

The good news is the audience is drunk as hell — by which I mean to say that some of them are belligerent and obnoxious, and some of them are giddy. Others are half-asleep.

And the good news is that even if you do make a fool of yourself, you’ll know what it feels like. Maybe that’ll make you stop, but I doubt it. You might find it’s addicting. And, like Camus’s Mersault, you may find on the last page that all that matters in the world, for you to feel a little less lonely, is that there be a great crowd in the square, and that they greet you with howls of execration.

The really good news is, it’s kind of a great feeling. So be willing to make a fool of yourself. Trust me, you’ll survive.

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Sep 152012
 
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The Panama LaughThis week’s column is going up late partially because I had a big task this past week — making notes on my science fiction/zombie apocalypse novel The Panama Laugh for an audio narrator who just finished recording the book for Audible.com.

The narrator of the audiobook is an actor named Andy Caploe and he is a complete bad-ass. He was awesome to work with. He liked the book and wanted to make sure he got the characters right. To my — wait for it — horror, I realized as I dug down into the text that there were a hell of a lot more characters than I ever remembered writing. Because I’m that sort of writer, almost each and every one was kinda, you know…weird.

In short, there are lots of characters in this damn book, and every one has twitches. There is, of course, the main character. He’s Dante Bogart, a wisecracking California ex-mercenary and internet-famous viral video star who talks like his namesake was resurrected for a cameo in a Quentin Tarantino movie and was none too happy about it. There’s Dante’s best friend, Van Fish, an orchid-growing Sasquatch of a man with a bestial growl, who will rabidly lecture you on alien abductions if you’re not clever enough to fake a heart attack. There’s the woman they both love, Trixie Ferguson, MD, a former Peace Corps volunteer who will lecture you on how your failure to recycle that plastic spoon shows your grotesque disregard for children with cleft palates in Botswana. She will continue to do so even if you fake a heart attack; she’s a doctor, you see, and has learned how to make you feel bad about reifying First World privilege while she’s giving you CPR. Apparently they cover that in certain med schools nowadays.

Those three are just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally dozens of other characters in this behemoth — and “behemoth” is going pretty far, since it’s only 300 pages. I guess you’d say it’s kinda dense with the weirdness. There’s Alei, the native Kuna kid who learned how to speak English by watching Van’s bootlegged ’30s and ’40s crime movies and old VHS copies of The Sopranos. There’s Virgil, the decaying Christian patriarch of a sleazy pirate interdiction and military consulting firm that has become a de facto apocalyptic private army geared-up and ready for the End Times. There’s Luke, his son, who wants to turn Dante into the next Cara Hartmann. Then there’s a whole crew of hacktivists living in the San Francisco Armory, each of whom has dialogue rendered with particular tics that I heard in my brain when I was writing the thing.

How the hell does one person put all these voices on virtual tape? More importantly for my purposes, how does one writer come up with a way to describe them to a voice actor?

Lucky for me, Andy came up with a lot of his own ideas. He’s done videos for the likes of Funny or Die, so the book’s comic, zany, over-the-top nature appealed to him, and he just seemed to click with it. But he really wanted to make sure he was “true to my vision,” as they say. The novel came out almost exactly a year ago, so I’d mostly forgotten just how completely FUBAR my “vision” was. I’m still not entirely sure I was the guy who wrote this thing.

So, then, what did I take away from that experience? What’s my advice for how to mark up notes for an audio narrator? And in particular — because this is Write Sex, after all — how does one do that for erotica?

Well, the best answer is that you work with an actor who “gets” your work. This is one thing when you’re talking about horror/science fiction, even with a novel as weird as The Panama Laugh . With erotica, it’s even more important that the narrator is someone whose voice works for the novel or short story. In the case of Andy, he was both eager to hear my ideas and happy to wing it when he needed to. That winging it can go horribly wrong when you’re talking about erotica, however. In one case — quite a few years ago — I’ve had audio narration of my work done in which a voice actor took a work of mine that I found deeply erotic and sensual and made it totally not work for me. At the same time, other people listened to that narration and found it smokin’ hot. On the other hand, there was a pseudonymous story, also some years ago, where I found it agonizing to listen to the audio version not because of the narrator, but because of my own writing. Sometimes hearing stories read aloud makes you realize how many clunkers you’ve left along the way. The narrator was a lovely actress with a wonderful delivery and a hell of a smoky, sultry, provocative voice that I found supremely sexy. It was my writing that sucked. (The good news is that nobody who heard it seemed to agree with me).

The person who has recorded my erotic fiction more than anyone is Violet Blue, whose podcast Open Source Sex has featured several erotic pieces I’ve written, plus one story set in The Panama Laugh‘s universe that I wrote specifically for her because the character was based on her (although, admittedly, a her I never knew). She made a number of significant changes to the text, which I gave her full license to do — because I knew, having written a character inspired by her, that there was no way Violet wasn’t going to nail it. She did.

But then, she’s also nailed the audio narration on every erotic work of mine she’s podcast — partially because Violet and I are highly sympatico when it comes to our thinking on what makes good erotica.

For the erotic essence of a sexy story — or, for that matter, the terrifying essence of a horror story — the task of rendering story-to-audio is very much dependent on the chemistry between the work and the actor. The author may have input into that, in much the same way that some screenwriters may be consulted by actors. But they’re usually not, and that can sometimes be a good thing. Ultimately, on matters of character and voice, it is the actor, not the author, who is going to be delivering these lines. Writers would do well to trust the actor’s craft.

That said, it’s also helpful to remember that an actor is only as good as his or her tools. The more details you can give a voice actor on WTF you were thinking when you wrote the thing, the more likely it is that their vision will match yours. This is especially true because of the economics of audiobook production. Whereas actors even in relatively low-budget movies may take weeks or months — part time — to think about their roles, audiobooks are produced pretty fast and furious. Recording audiobooks is a particular (some would say “peculiar”) skill, and one that some people have a knack for and others don’t. Quality voice actors get lots of gigs and need to lay down tape pretty quickly. The more shorthand you can give them, the better.

Some other things that are critically important if your work has any of these elements — which The Panama Laugh does, but most of my short stories do not:

  • Foreign phrases should be sounded out if the narrator doesn’t speak that language. You can record your own short MP3s with the proper pronunciation, or direct the actor to such pronunciations online.
  • Character names should be sounded out if there’s any ambiguity about who they’re pronounced. My character “Van Fish,” for instance, is named “Evan Isaiah Fish.” It is, however, central to the weirdness of the character that he pronounces his own name “Van Fish,” like “Van Beethoven,” as if he were Dutch nobility. Just one of those things, and probably not important to most readers. But it’s important to me, and so it was important to my narrator…and thus it was important to Andy, aka Vox Dante.
  • Place names should also be sounded out. This is important for names from foreign languages, but there are lots of other examples. For instance, I realized late in the process of marking up The Panama Laugh — after Andy had already started recording — that most people from the San Francisco area would know that “Gough Street” is pronounced to rhyme with “cough,” not with “dough.” Most people from outside the San Francisco area — and even some within it — would not know that. Luckily, Andy knew this, but he might not have. My narrating character is supposed to be from the area, so pronouncing it like “Go” would have been a significant factual error — small, perhaps, but now that you mention it…
  • …tiny factual pronunciation errors in the text can drive a listener crazy. I listen to a lot of audiobooks — literally hundreds thus far since I got my first MP3 player, and a few dozen before that. Factual pronunciation errors are very common. I listen to a lot of audio about the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and Russia, so there are plenty of place names that are mispronounced or pronounced with incorrect regional variations in books I’ve listened to. But then there are the truly egregious mistakes. One audiobook I listened to about 19th and early 20th century hunting in Africa had a British narrator who apparently didn’t know anything about guns. He mis-rendered the rifle caliber .30-’06 — possibly the most common game hunting round in history, and certainly so in the U.S. He called it “point-three-oh, point-oh-six,” which made my skin crawl every time I heard it — and I heard it a lot in a history book about hunting. It’s pronounced thirty-ought-six, and ABSOLUTELY NO ONE would ever pronounce a weapon’s caliber as point-such-and-such.
  • Technical terms like thirty-ought-six may not show up in erotica, but other pronunciation quirks certainly do. In addition to listening to a lot of audiobooks, I’ve attended hundreds of erotic readings over the years (and read my work at probably sixty or seventy of them).I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people reading erotic work — or delivering talks about human sexuality — pronounce “clitoris” with the accent on the middle syllable, rather than the first syllable. It’s “CLI-tor-is,” as far as I’m concerned, though Wikipedia lists “cli-TOR-is” as an acceptable variation. At least in the United States, 99% of the people who know what one is — or at least speak publicly about it — pronounce it CLI-tor-is. If your narrator is pronouncing it cli-TOR-is, I swear, I’m not going to complain. Frankly, I could give a damn; pronunciation quirks spice up an audio work. But both the author and the narrator should know why it’s being done. Mispronouncing something because you don’t know how to pronounce it will inhibit the professionalism of the production.
  • The same goes for all technical sexual terms, as well as slang terms, which vary hugely by region. In a famous episode of the television show Angel, David Boreanaz sarcastically refers to a purported scene of BDSM and references a “safety word.” He meant, as you probably know, “safeword.”
  • That said, sometimes you can go down a rabbit hole in trying to find out how to pronounce something that very few people will know how to pronounce in the first place. In The Panama Laugh one of the terms that crops up is “cachinnation,”a neurological term for pathological laughter. We eventually figured out how to pronounce it, but it probably wasn’t that important that it be perfect. The number of neurologists listening to the audiobook of The Panama Laugh is probably going to be small.

That’s about as much as I have time to spin at the moment, but I want to leave you with one final thought:

Writing for actors is a skill that screenwriters and playwrights spend their whole lives learning. In being a novelist or a short story writer, no matter what your genre, you would do well to learn some of its elements, whether or not you’re writing a story that ever gets recorded for audio.

Thanks for listening!

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Jul 202012
 
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It always stuns me how many writers and aspiring writers don’t read, don’t read very much, or used to read but don’t read any more. This includes writers who have had some commercial success.

For commercially successful writers, the “excuse,” — as if they really need one, which of course they don’t — is often one of two things.

First, successful writers often say they’re simply too busy to read books that aren’t their own.

Second, when they’re working on their own fiction, anything they reed tends to creep into what they write.

I’m going to add a third reason I’ve discovered in my own years as a published writer: if you read one friend’s book, you feel like you have to read every friend’s books. When you have thirty friends who write 3-6 books a year, well, that’s enough to make reading seem like a chore just on its own. There’s a reason that many professional fiction writers I talk to say their favorite part of the work is “research.” Calling it “research” gives you license to read what obsesses you at the moment, instead of feeling obligated to read all those books you long ago told someone you’d get to eventually.

In any event, there’s no point in my badmouthing the reading habits of writers who are getting published regularly and/or getting paid for it and/or having a satisfying creative experience. I assume they’re doing something right — by which I mean something that works for them creatively.

So I’ll contradict my headline directly; you don’t have to do anything to write, other than write. You can write a novel without ever having read a novel; I’m sure there’s some jackass out there who’s done it and rocketed up the Amazon best-seller lists. But if you’re a beginning writer, ask yourself this: why would you want to? If you aren’t in love with books, why do you want to waste your time writing one of your own?

I see it this way: Writing is a bit like conversation. You know those people who talk and talk and talk and talk and talk, and never listen? The ones who missed the “conversational turn-taking” part of child development (it’s sort of a package deal with potty training)? The ones who blather on about stuff  they don’t actually know much about — or anything about — but it’s so much work to contradict them that you end up just staring blankly at them and/or faking a heart attack? The ones who  never let anyone else get a word in edgewise, or when they do let you get a word edgewise, you can actually see the clockwork thingies going tick-tick-tick behind their crazed, dinner-plate Michele Bachmann eyes as they plan their next mini-rant for whenever you quit talking?

Aren’t those people annoying?

If you said “no,” then maybe you’re one of those people who never tires of hearing his or her own voice. In that case, mazel tov and keep writing. It’s certainly a common trait of writers, in my experience, that we have shitty filters. Oftentimes conversational turn-taking isn’t our strong suit, so, okay…whatever.

But if writing and reading are like conversations, it’s not just “politeness” that dictates you should shut up once in a while and let someone else talk to you. It’s psychologically meaningful to experience the words of others. And if you’re the sort of person who likes to write stories, then the more stories you experience, the easier and more fun it will be to tell them.

One of my favorite writers, Lester Bangs, said something about speed freaks that applies even more to writers: “Anyone who talks that much has to be a liar or they’d run out of things to say.”

The thing is, when you’re writing fiction you’re starting by being a liar; if you’re not making stuff up then you’re doing it wrong. But there’s supposed to be a narrative truth shimmed underneath the wobbly table on which you’re building your house of cards. It helps if you have a regular and positive experience of what that satisfying narrative feels like.

If you can’t find time to read because you’re so busy writing…mazel tov. But when those words run out and you need to clear your head, don’t listen to the crazed, book-hating devil-hippies who tell you to do something dangerous like meditate. Don’t listen to your psycho, anti-intellectual fiend of a so-called “doctor” and hop on the elliptical trainer or the treadmill.

Not without grabbing a book first.

If you want to be a writer, all you absolutely have  to do is write.

But I can tell you from experience: you’ll probably enjoy it more if you also read.

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Jun 012012
 
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Whether or not you believe in extra-sensory perception, precognition, channeling, telepathy or other psychic phenomena, in fiction those things all exist — and then some. And I don’t mean just in paranormal fiction, science fiction or fantasy; whether they like to admit it or not, most writers use them. They just might call these “sixth sense” cheats something different depending on what genre they’re writing.

Precognition, at the very least, is built into the fiction-writing equation. That’s because you, the author, are responsible for getting the story somewhere interesting — a burden The Creator doesn’t seem to share in the real world. Real life gets to be as boring as it wants to be. So when someone says, “I just had this feeling it was going to rain today,” and it doesn’t rain, you shrug and blow it off. In fiction, your reader throws the book across the room. Or, at the very least, Chekov’s “unfired pistol” provides a feeling of sloppiness in plot-based commercial fiction. “But that’s the way reality is!” is a pretty thin defense when you’re writing about larger-than-life hard-boiled detectives interstellar spies and the tentacle creatures that love them.

In plot-based fiction, if you aren’t dropping hints along the way as to where your story is going, you’re on pretty shaky ground. So in one sense, precognition is a given.

But characters relying on “received information” — things they “just feel” — can strain the boundaries of credibility. How explicit the “feeling” is depends on the genre. For instance, you’ve got a lot more leeway in paranormal fiction to explain that your character knows the bad guys are vampires because she’s receiving alien psychic transmissions or something. But “received information” is a hallmark of the detective genre, where the very best detective isn’t just the one who throws a mean right hook or hauls a pair of .45s out at the first hint of trouble; it’s the one who “just has a hunch.” How did he or she get that hunch? Duh, this is a detective! They always have hunches, right? They’re not always right, but the story is always furthered — in many cases, enabled — by the detective’s hunch, in one form or another. And in detective fiction, a series of red herrings will often lead a detective back to the very first suspect — or the suspect’s polar opposite. That provides a curious symmetry when the shamus realizes at the end that he was “right all along.” Even if the end result is tragic, the sense of symmetry in a detective novel makes it seem like “all is right with the world.”

If it all seems deceptively satisfying, that’s because heavily-structured novels exist largely for the purpose of making experience seem symmetrical — i.e., narrative. It’s not exactly the same thing, but they’re damn close.

In other kinds of fiction, a “sixth sense,” a.k.a. the “hunch,” “an educated guess,” or little hairs on the back of your character’s neck, can lead characters down a path that any reasonable person wouldn’t take. In real life, if anyone ever says to you, “I just have this hunch that there’s a great mystery to be uncovered at the Mountains of Madness,” kick them in the teeth and run like hell. In fiction…Hey, what do you know…turns out he was right, there was a great mystery there! What are the chances?

Detective fiction, again, is one of the genres guiltiest of wrapping this stuff up with a big red bow and claiming it’s something it isn’t. Detective fiction, after all, has given us the Sherlock-ism….a piece of information that a character has that no sane person would carry around in their hip pocket. This character has it, on the other hand, because the author had time to go and look it up. Real life’s not always so kind. Anyone who’s ever watched the last ten minutes of Monk knows that the Sherlock-ism is alive and well in modern detective entertainment.

And that’s probably as it should be. I’m as guilty as any writer of needing my characters somewhere and flat-out just getting them there, though any means possible. Any character in a book that just happens to have a knack for finding trouble is, well, at home in an adventure novel or any kind of commercial plot-driven fiction. On the page, we’re happy to spend a few hours with them. In real life, we’d show them the door.

So how does this all relate to erotica?

The good news is that in any kind of fiction, you’ve got a lot more leeway than you probably should. People come to fiction, especially genre fiction, for the sense of structure and the feeling of escape that a well-told story can give them. There’s magic in stories. That’s not just because stories can be about magic, or pseudo-magic like the detective’s “hunch.” It’s because there’s magic in the storytelling process; in fact, it’s some of the most potent magic I know. If a writer takes me someplace I wanna go, I’ll often cut them a fair amount of slack as to whether their character has an “inkling” that can’t be explained.

And the really good news is that you have even more leeway in erotica — where the point is bring the character to a transforming (even mildly transforming) sexual experience. Sex often provides the common ground between reality and bullshit. All you have to do is look at the porn industry, where every sorority house is a den of lesbianism and every pizza boy’s about to get laid. Even at its most mediocre, prose erotica requires a slightly greater degree of rational buy-in from the author. But the narrative energy you’re tapping into as an erotica writer tracks back to a common set of tropes toward which readers gravitate. Assuming they want to read the kind of erotica you’re writing…hit a few high points, work on the sensualism in your writing, and a character just having a hunch that there’s an orgy going on in that minivan or there are hot, sexy vampires in that sewer pipe won’t make your reader bat an eyelash.

This satisfying self-deception is not unlike — though far more harmless than — the kind of rationalization involved in sexual relationships. Narrative beer goggles, anyone?

The relationship between writer and reader in erotica is, when it’s done right, excruciatingly intimate and deliriously somatic. In fiction, readers believe because they want to believe, and you’ve convinced them your story’s worth believing. In erotic fiction, readers believe because their body as well as their mind wants to believe. Erotica readers want to believe in the symmetry that desire provides to the world. On top of writing about all the five senses the body provides, erotica writers get to write about the intangible, sixth sense that generates that deceptive, intoxicatingly erotic feeling of symmetry.

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Apr 132012
 
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Sensuality is critical in erotica, but what does sensuality really mean? For most readers, when it comes to erotica, it means touch. I left off talking about touch until late in my series on “the senses” because it’s the sense that most people think about when thinking about erotic fiction.

It’s also the most difficult for me to write about, believe it or not. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to it.

All erotica is about people touching. Sometimes it might be about people touching themselves. Sometimes the touch might not be physical — for instance, an erotic story about a man watching a stripper onstage could be hugely erotic. You need look no further than the film Tom Jones to see a complete sexual activity involving nothing but eating. In some cases (say, chastity or tease-and-denial erotica) the refusal of the physical touch takes on an emotional-erotic meaning, but even when it’s not touching it’s still about touching.

So how does the erotic writer describe touch? I’ve always struggled with this. We’re a largely body-negative culture — while still being totally obsessed with the body. We have lots of language for visual stimuli, for sounds, even for smells. Body talk is a little bit taboo.

That means that describing physical experience within the body — as opposed to action or activity — can be more difficult than describing things experienced with other senses.

Let me back up here — because I think there’s an important point to be made before we talk about “how to do it.” Above, I’ve been talking in absolutes — I’ve been saying “how does the erotic writer describe touch” and “we have a visual language.” I’ve been talking in generalities — including the whole universe of humanity in my bold statements.

That’s probably because it’s easier to be God than to be a person — why else would anyone want to be a writer?

So maybe a better way to think about describing touch in my erotic writing is this: Why is it useful?

Describing touch is useful in my erotic writing for basically the same reason it’s useful in any of my other kinds of writing — horror, science fiction, crime:

  • When I write about how something feels physically, I place myself mentally in the body of the character feeling it.
  • When the reader reads about how something feels physically — if that writing works — then the reader is mentally in the body of the character feeling it.

When the reader is within the character’s experience as wholly as possible, they are getting what they came for.

I like to think about it this way — people don’t arrive at my writing because they want me to tell them a story. They don’t even — to use an old-school journalism dichotomy — want me to show them a story. They want to be in my story. They want to experience it. That’s why I write — not because I have something I want to say, but because I want to get the fuck out of my own head. How weird is it that I use something as brain-centric as writing to get myself in my body — or, more accurately, in someone else’s body? But that’s the way I experience most wholly — when I’m transported, utterly.

Joseph Campbell put it the best I’ve ever heard anyone put it. He wasn’t talking about writing, but religious experience. But it’s just as brilliant a statement on storytelling:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves.”

–Joseph Campbell

I’d go so far as to say that if Campbell’s comment was on religious experience, which in its cheapest form (in my opinion) looks for a meaning for life, then it’s worth transferring the same observation to the context of writing: They say what people are looking for is the meaning of your book — what is it about — but but what they’re looking for in your book is the experience of being alive. What does it feel like to be there?

In erotica, more than in any other kind of fiction, the experience of being touched and of touching — things as well as people — is critical to that transformation of reader into experiencer.

Focusing on touch can be a fantastic way of bringing the reader into the moment. But I find my language for how bodies feel is too often insufficient. I struggle to find the words to describe the physical sensation of an erotic experience. I find myself using the same words over and over again…which is fine; if the words work, use them. But often I hit the thesaurus or go to wordlists and other peoples’ blog posts to find words for a physical-touch experience that I just can’t describe, even though I’ve imagined it concretely.

I’m trying to translate an imagined sensation into words so that it can be translated back into the same imagined sensation in a reader’s mind.

I mean…WTF? Is that bass-ackwards or what? And what is this “language is insufficient” shit? Who am I, Jodi Foster in Contact?

Nine times out of ten, I struggle to find that physical experience within myself to describe it. But then, maybe 10% of the time, it just comes rolling out — and then, the words are beautiful, the writing effortless. I wish it could be that way more often.

But for me, it’s worth writing 9 stories to find the one that really transforms me through physical experience.

If describing touch isn’t easy for me, my guess is it isn’t easy for you. And if it is easy for you — you’re a very lucky writer. I believe that firsthand physical experience is the primary thing readers of erotica are seeking. They may rarely get it, and may satisfy themselves with a lot of other things, which may be very satisfying. But I believe the most complete and intense reading experience comes from being completely in the moment within a story, an experience that can most effectively be brought about by depictions of touch.

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Feb 162012
 
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I generally think of fiction as being made up of four elements: action, dialogue and exposition. Exposition is often used as a dirty word by writing teachers, but I consider it a very big category. Sensory description can be part of action, and it can also be mixed in with dialogue, or even included within it (as quotes). But most commonly, sensory description falls within the realm of exposition, if only because it doesn’t fit into either category…and for me, adding another category for it screws up my idea about everything in fiction coming in threes.

Audacious erotica can depend primarily on action or dialogue, but sensory description is usually going to be key to the reader’s experience. It may be an interesting exercise to build an erotic story from just action, just dialogue, or the two of them. Chances are, if you can make it work, you’ll have an innovative story, although I’d caution against trying to do that in anything very long. (Structural experiments and exercises usually work best with short pieces, in my experience – my general target is a couple of thousand words when I try for stylistic innovation, but highly stylized pieces have run to 5,000 words for me.) Most of the time, especially if you’re writing novels, you’re going to need to rely on all three elements.

So let’s keep talking about sensory description for a bit – and what may be the most important sense to engage in erotica – sight.

Remember, there are five senses, with the sixth sometimes thrown in – I’ll talk about that later. I’ve already talked about smell, taste and hearing. They’re all critically important, especially in erotica. But visual description is probably the most important element in any descriptive passage. Vivid descriptions of smells, sounds and tastes can evoke powerful feelings of “being there” in the reader. But most of the time, if the reader can’t “see” what’s happening, you won’t even get that far.

What do readers want to “see” when they read erotica? The answer is, whatever the author feels they need to see – honestly, the reader is in your hands. The expectations may be standardized, but that doesn’t mean you need to stick with them. You can do whatever you want to do in a story, obviously, and whether it works for an individual reader is less important than whether it works for you (as a writer, and when you read it later).

But if you’re looking to strengthen your erotic writing, think about how your characters’ visual experience is being related. In this first column about visual cues, I’m going to talk about describing bodies.

Now, erotic fiction isn’t just about bodies; I’d even go so far to say it doesn’t need to be mostly about bodies. It’s probably strongest and most memorable when it depicts the brains and minds and souls and interactions of the characters, rather than just their bodies and how they fit together.

But any kind of erotica gives the reader permission to think about bodies. That’s where it’s okay for them to read (and for you to write) all those dirty things you wonder about other people. More importantly, in erotica the body is the way characters express themselves. Most of the time you’re going to need to describe them.

When I say “bodies,” I’m including faces, incidentally.

Which brings me to a good point. In non-erotic fiction, there are certain areas of the body that are considered appropriate to describe. These include faces, hair, maybe shoulders, hands, arms, and attributes like height and weight – not to mention clothes.

Describing anything else, in most fiction, is often considered rude, in one form or another. Sure, you can get away with it. But for many readers of mainstream fiction, it’s like using the F-word; you’d better have a reason for it. If you’re writing a mainstream mystery novel and a narrator describes the size of a woman’s cans, it’ll generally get labeled as sexist. But in erotica, it’s perfectly appropriate. Similarly, not going to find Neal Stephenson spending time on the size, shape and leftward sweep of a male character’s cock; if he did, he’d probably need a good reason, or readers would be left going, “Huh!?”

(Many readers are left going “Huh?” when mainstream authors include explicit sex or sexual description – but often, other readers will be all over it. Keep in mind that a little goes a long way.)

Anyway, in erotic fiction, you have carte blanche to describe all those sexual bodily attributes in tasty detail.

But as an erotic writer you shouldn’t just describe those sexual attributes. Describing just “the basics” about a sexualized character is a porno cliche. Read a few pieces at the Alt Sex Stories Text Repository (Google it – it’s highly NSFW) and get a crash course in bad writing (along with some very good pieces – but they’re rare.) One of the things you’ll see is a first paragraph that looks something like this:

“My name is Candi Summers, and I’m a college Freshman. I’m five feet, two inches tall, I weigh a hundred pounds, and I have long blonde hair, blue eyes, straight, white teeth, a tight, firm ass, and 38D breasts.”

Ow!! Ow!!!! For the record, women do not walk around thinking about their bra size all day. Similarly, hair color and eye color are not going to show up in a narrator’s description. But it’s not much better to deliver the information like this:

“Candi Summers was a 19-year-old college Freshman. Five feet, two inches tall, she weighed a hundred pounds and had long blonde hair, blue eyes, straight, white teeth, a tight, firm ass, and 38D breasts.”

It’s still information dump. The license to think about bodies, particularly sexual attributes, is one things; the license to describe nothing else about a character is something else. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it makes for cheesy fiction.

A more vivid picture is painted by lacing the description throughout the narrative, but if all you care to tell the reader about Candi is her height, weight, hair color, eye color, the tightness of her buns and the size of her knockers, you’re not describing much about her. She’s beyond being a flat character; she’s nothing but a target for your fantasies.

Which is fine, in some cases. Yahoo Chat? Sure. Alt Sex Stories? Yeah, that’s what people go there for. Certain erotica writers can pull clichéd descriptions off just fine, and still bring home a hot read. But commercial erotic fiction strays far closer to the realm of “real” fiction than it used to. Sometimes, it almost gets…gasp…serious. Even, dare I say it…literary! (No…I dare not say it. Scratch that, it just can’t be.)

However much of a sexual fantasy your fiction is supposed to be, people will hopefully spend a lot of time in your universe. If women are walking around with nothing but knockers, butts, possibly a nice pair of legs and a flat belly, plus floating hair and a pair of eyes hovering about four feet, eight inches off the ground, with all of it poured into a tube top, skintight cutoffs and four-inch wedge heels – well, then you’re really not doing your characters justice, visually.

Of course, descriptions of men in erotic fiction are always highly complex…not. Writers may lapse into descriptive clichés. The male characters may have raven hair, piercing eyes, strong jaws, and muscles up the wazoo. Their bodies may be totally predictable, based on the expected sexual attributes of the alpha male. And rather than being poured into tube tops or tight skirts, male characters may be placed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and shirts that suspiciously disappear when it’s time to pose for the book cover.

Which is fine, in some cases. But as with female characters, male characters in erotica deserve the same visual richness that they get in truly vivid fiction when the book’s primary action is outside the bedroom (or dungeon, back seat, strip club, motorhome, psychiatric hospital, mud-wrestling pit, conjugal trailer, etc…)

Writing and reading erotica is a license to think about bodies; that’s awesome. And needless to say, to some extent bodies are going to be idealized in your erotic fiction. But the more creative, unpredictable and viscerally visual your descriptions of characters bodies are, the more readers will remember what they did with them, and how hot it was.

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Dec 082011
 
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With my next column, I’ll be continuing my series on the use of the senses in erotica. But for the time being, I want to talk about something dear to my heart — the line between erotic horror and dark erotica — or, to put a broader spin on the latter, science fiction, fantasy and horror (SF/F/H) erotica.

I consider “dark erotica” to be fiction where the “dark” element exists in service of the erotic element, and “SF/F/H erotica” to be a broader  category where the unusual or unreal element is not necessarily dark or scary — just paranormal. “Erotic horror,” on the other hand, puts the erotic element in the service of fear — in a sense, just the opposite.

Writing one or the other is a matter of personal taste, attitude, talent and strengths. In this week’s column on science fiction, fantasy and horror writing  over at The Night Bazaar, I talk about the aversion I once felt to writing action scenes. In writing fantasy and horror, I thought of myself as someone who invented complicated paranormal universes, not slam-dunk punch-in-the-face action. (I’m not sure why I thought that…it seems absurd in retrospect).

Here’s something I wrote at The Night Bazaar:

[T]he more I write, the less my strengths matter and the more my weaknesses do. That’s because writing a lot of fiction puts me face-to-face with every possible roadblock in my creative process, and every roadblock is a potential “debunking” of my strengths. It doesn’t matter how great I can write X type of scene, if Y type of scene keeps me from ever finishing my novel. As a result, all that my strengths do is allow me to get past the weaknesses, or manage them effectively. That’s great news, yeah, but if I take the time to celebrate my strengths, it only slows me down.

[Link.]

I think that’s important in considering what makes something dark erotica or erotic horror — as opposed to just horror with erotic elements.

Personally, I have a much easier time writing erotica than writing SF/F/H; it’s much less of a struggle to find what I want to say. All of my SF/F/H has a message; the message varies from work to work, but I have to know it before I can figure out which of my strengths apply to that particular story or novel.

With erotica, on the other hand I already know the message: sex is hot. There may be implications to that — especially in a BDSM or D/s piece — and there may be man complex subthemes to erotica. But ultimately it’s about the characters feeling pleasure, as concretely as a pulp action story would be about the characters having adventures.

That makes the composition a hell of a lot simpler, because I can skip the complex soul-searching that comes when I write about fear of the unknown, about the collapse of society, about the apocalypse, without the anchoring theme of “basically we’re going to enjoy this.” All those things tangle up my emotions when I’m writing non-erotic SF/F/H. Erotic action is a kind of storytelling solace to me, because it’s so straightforward.

So what do I have to say about explicitly and intentionally erotic science fiction, fantasy, and horror? I’m talking about works where the erotic elements have a clear intent: to turn the reader on — while, at the same time, the science fiction, fantasy or horror elements  are fully realized. This is the Holy Grail for many readers I know, who love kinky fiction but also read a lot of SF and fantasy.

One of the most common places the crossover of paranormal elements and erotica can be seen in the erotic marketplace is with vampire fiction — where vampirism is in many ways a stand-in for power exchange or for a surrender to the carnal, bestial elements of one’s nature, or to the unknown or to risk and danger. A similar connection can be seen in erotic fiction about werewolves, and (far less commonly) about ghosts, without the bestial element but with a more strongly developed sense of risk.

To me, what makes something SF/F/H erotica or dark erotica, as opposed to simply science fiction, fantasy or horror with sexual elements, is that that the fantastic or paranormal element has to be deeply connected to the erotic element.

Here’s an example of fantastic or paranormal erotica. In my story The Spiritualist (which I wrote as N.T. Morley), the main character Dr. Carny Keye is obsessed with exploring “union” with the denizens of the afterlife — not to put too fine a point on it, she wants to fuck ghosts. That’s not just because it’s a turn-on, but because it represents something beyond the world of the living, and sex is the method she uses to get there. It’s not quite horror; rather, the horror elements (ghosts) are used in the service of the turn-on, but within the story, the sex is used as a way of establishing connection with the ghosts. It’s a daisy chain. Most of the story is erotic action, but the “reason” for the sex is identical to, or maybe a mirror-image of, the “reason” for the ghosts. The ultimate message may not be simply “sex is hot,” but at the very least it’s “sex is a force for positive transformation.” Whatever other messages a reader takes away from “The Spiritualist,” this positivity is what makes it dark erotica in my mind, rather than erotic horror.

But because of the element of danger or jeopardy that exists in most science fiction or fantasy, and definitely in most horror, it’s a fine line between erotica and not-erotica. Therefore, even my description of dark erotica as being something where the erotic element is integral to the fantastic element doesn’t quite hold true — because that’s true, I believe, of good erotic horror as well.

Here’s another example. This one is of a story that, to my mind, is not erotica, despite having many sensual elements that are integral to the horror.

My zombie story “The Sound of Weeping” (this one written under my own name) is about internalized homophobia. In it, the zombies represent the homosexual cravings that the main character feels. He wants to be “eaten alive,” and through some (deliberately ambiguous) force of nature, his suppressed desire overcomes the barrier between life and death — resulting in (you guessed it!) a zombie attack. There are numerous sensual elements in the story, but it’s not “erotica.” Why? Because the intention is not to turn you on. That isn’t to say it won’t, but only in service of making another point. The ultimate message is not “sex is hot,” and it’s not “sex is a positive force for transformation.” It’s “sex is dangerous,” and maybe to make it more complicated: “Denying sexual desire creates explosive and hazardous emotional brokenness.” The story is about the main character’s internalized homophobia not being conquered, but indulged until it destroys him, and others around him. The theme is explored in the context of external homophobia in the story’s sequel, “Veggie Mountain,” which I don’t believe anybody could credibly call “erotica,” even though it also deals with sexuality. It’s unquestionably horror.

You might say my view is carried to the extreme in my novel The Panama Laugh, where the action inside a San Francisco porn studio is described in almost oblique terms, because the commercial sex itself is largely irrelevant to the main action of the story, even though the porn studio (which is also the home of a Wikileaks-style social activist network) is a central element. The novel is laced with throwaway lines that allude to the freakish and titillating elements within the porn studio, but there’s no narrative reason to linger on them. Whereas “Veggie Mountain” could maybe be called “erotic horror,” I don’t think anyone in their right mind would go so far as to apply that label to The Panama Laugh, however central to the action its fictitious porn company is.

Have I really established where the line gets drawn? Not by a longshot. The way I see it, the “supergenres” of SF/F/H and erotica overlap, in much the same way that the genres of SF, fantasy, and horror overlap, or the genres of crime and horror overlap, or the genres of BDSM erotica and D/s erotica overlap. Therefore, of course the subgenres of dark erotica and erotic horror overlap. Oftentimes the elements are integral to each other, and oftentimes teasing them out from each other is incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

To my way of thinking, that’s when the works get really interesting, because they challenge our perceptions. Whether the central message is “sex is hot” or “sex is dangerous,” or something far more complicated, there are endless shades of grey in between every perception of sexuality. That’s what makes writing every flavor of erotic fiction — from sex-positive erotica to erotic horror — such a pleasure for me.

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Oct 132011
 
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First things first: As I talk about describing sound in fiction, my erotic crime-noir story “Hell on Wheels” is about to be broadcast as an audio program on the BBC. It should be live on the website after it’s on the radio, so if you’re interested, check my personal blog thomasroche.com and my new blog about hardboiled, crime, noir and detective fiction, boiledhard.com, for an updated link once the program is available on the BBC.

Also, my alter ego NTMorley.com has a new blog live at ntmorley.com, with a visual bibliography and plenty of links to my work at Renaissance Ebooks. And in celebration of Halloween, I’ve just published The Spiritualist, a tale of bondage and ravishment by ghosts that has never been published in its full form, available for Kindle, as well as the obscurely-published bondage-ravishment novella A Night Without A Moon and my steampunk story Hysterical Friction, which is under my Thomas S. Roche “pseudonym.”

Also, did I mention I have a new horror novel out? The Panama Laugh is the first ultraviolent crime-noir pulp fiction zombie apocalypse about terrorism, hollow government, privatization of the public sector and LOLZ. I believe it’s also the first zombie apocalypse set partially in a BDSM porn studio…and if it’s not the first one to feature blimp combat, it oughta be. Find out more about The Panama Laugh here, or discover the viral nightmare at PanamaLaugh.com, Zombileaks.com and Z-Listed.com.

Sound and Voice in Fiction and Erotica

This post is part of my series on how to use descriptions that appeal to the five (or six) senses in erotic fiction. Today, I’m talking sound. Describing sound with words is always a challenge for me, but it can be one of the great pleasures of writing about music, which is one of my first loves. So I take the use of sound very seriously when it comes to erotica.

I’ve written several hundred music reviews over the years — but almost all of them more than 10 years ago. I’m a little rusty on the description of sounds…especially since, when it comes to erotica, I’ve always had a hell of a time incorporating “hearing words.” In fact, I struggle with this on an almost daily basis, because I like writing erotica from a very sensual perspective, and sounds always throw me for a loop.

Once upon a time, I wrote — at the insistence of my then-employer — an article about vaginal farts. I was quite sure that this was not a big enough topic to warrant an article, and in any event at the time I had no real interest in writing such an article. While I certainly acknowledge that such expulsions might cause unnecessary embarrassment for someone experiencing them, the whole topic seemed to me to warrant a mention in an article about embarrassing sexual situations or something — not an article of its own. But I was a beginning writer, so I wrote it. The best title I could come up with, given my utter lack of enthusiasm for the topic, was “The Sound of Love.”

Vaginal farts are not the sound of love.

So what is the sound of love — at least in erotic fiction? The sounds of sex are not really well-defined in most peoples’ minds. During real-life sex there are all sorts of sounds, from squeaking beds to slapping fuzzies to squishy sounds that are a little weird to think about. I remember being handed an urban legend as a kid that on one of the classic ’70s KISS albums, you can hear kind of a rhythmic squoosh that was supposedly “the lead singer” having sex with a woman. I thought such a claim was bullshit then, well before I’d ever had sex. (I’ve never been able to find a reference to it, so I can only assume that some dumb fourth-grader made it up.)

The sound of love — or, more accurately, the sound of sex — seems pretty obvious to me; it’s a lover’s voice. But describing a lover’s voice gets monotonous pretty damn fast. Especially in a BDSM or D/s context — where verbal orders and commands can intermingle with physical activity and with moans, groans, and sussurations — I’m often left with too few sensually pleasing words to describe someone’s voice, whether they’re uttering words or just yowling sounds to let the reader know that yes, in fact, the top’s hand did just successfully connect with the bottom’s bum, and ow! it hurts. (Without saying “Ow! It hurts!” which no one ever really says, or they get gagged.)

To my way of thinking, when you’re evoking the empire of the senses, sensual sound-words need to get used with abandon — and smoothly so. Prose that would be considered purple in other genres is standard in erotica, because the whole point is to conjure a kind of sesnsuality.

But when it comes to voices, there are far too few evocative words to use in an erotic context. “Said” just doesn’t work, and volume-related words like “whisper” and “shout” are for specific application. If a top starts whispering into a bottom’s ear, ther’es no reason to keep saying “whisper” for the rest of the scene…so you’re left with “said,” which implies a full-volume kinda speech, or leaving the words out entirely. There are many writers who will hand you their opinion about leaving out the “said” words. (Writers can be snooty as hell and will tell you they know what they’re doing — we don’t. Ever. EVER. Especially when we tell you we know what we’re doing. Rules are bullshit; in fiction writing, all that matter are observations.) Other writers will go on and on about “said bookisms” — “said” replacements that are unnecessarily descriptive or evocative, used to amp up the purple prose and overheated stylistic elements. Said bookisms are most commonly used in juvenile fiction to make the writing more vivid for easily-distracted tykes — and also to avoid using “said.” The technique also migrates into other genre fiction, often to the dismay of writing workshop participants. Most writing teachers despise “said bookisms,” and I don’t blame them, but I also don’t feel wedded to their prejudice. I need a level of purple prose. I’m writing erotica. It’s supposed to be overheated!

In erotica, I think those “said” words are important, and it’s better to have a bothersome “said bookism” than nothing at all. The reason is that I’ve had far too many alpha readers tell me “I lost track of who was speaking.” The same thing happens in every genre, but the modulation of voice — in volume and style — is less critical when your characters are throwing punches or bisecting zombies with chainsaws than when they’re spanking the hell out of each other and tweaking nipples. Then, whether someone whispers, whimpers, purrs, moans or growls is absolutely critical to WTF you as a writer are trying to communicate.

But the English language just doesn’t have the words to describe how a lover’s voice will vary from line to line in a dynamic situation like a spanking, swatting, consensual subdual, Friday-night baby-oil wrestling match or forced-femme strip poker match. In the real world, a lover’s voice should ideally communicate some combination of menace, craving, affection, anger, pleasure, threat, chiding, gentle prodding and a million other things. But in fiction, voice simply can’t be described with all those variations…not easily, at least (which is probably why they pay me the big bucks).

In most other genres, a good policy is to keep it simple, because going on and on about the sound of a character’s voice and the modulation of their words is seen as “telegraphing,” or dictating what the reader is supposed to feel. But a certain amount of telegraphing is almost required in erotica, because the direct involvement of all five senses is right there in the game plan. And it’s with sound that everything falls apart for me.

Voices are tough, whether we’re talking moans or dialogue. A submissive or bottom character can be described as “whimpering,” “moaning,” “whining,” or even “bleating” or “chirping,” those latter words being ones probably no self-respecting erotic writer would use (except me)….but all of these have limited utility. When it comes to a dominant partner, the choices are limited. Female Dommes can “purr,” maybe “hiss,” maybe “bark” or “growl” or “snarl,” and male tops can do a few of those things too, with a few said bookisms on top of those that belong in a detective novel. But overall, the problem becomes one of repetition, and it has to be solved individually for each story, scene or novel.

When it comes right down to it, I’m pretty happy with the English language. But the sound of the human voice is one place where it often feels like I’m left wishing I had another language to draw on.

Of course, if you’re an audio artist or audio book publisher, you avoid some of the problem by introducing actual sound into it. But I remain, at heart, a wordsmith, and sound is one of those areas where I wish I had more words.

How do you deal with the challenges of describing voice in your work? I’m always looking for new ideas, and I’m curious if other writers have this problem. Sound off in the comments!

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Aug 182011
 
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When people write of erotic fiction and bad taste, they usually aim their poison pens at purveyors of writing who prove themselves from page one-and-a-half to be foul-mouthed and boorish savages whose idea of a seductive setup is a pizza boy asking, “Did one of you cheerleaders order extra sausage?”

But that’s not the topic today. This article is the second in my six-part series (you do the math, Bruce Willis) on the senses in erotic writing. Last time around I talked about the delights of the schnozz. Today it’s the mouth that concerns me — I’m writing, literally, about taste.

For a genre where so many book blurbs offer “gustatory delights,” “mouth-watering offerings,” and crap that’s “lip-smacking good,” supposedly, one would think we eroticists would have far more common with food writers than, in fact, we do. The connection between food and sex is nowhere more evident than in the way that erotic books are marketed, far more than in their content. While erotic stories about food are a solid aesthetic sub-genre, it’s also true that even erotic stories apparently unconnected to food per se require some kind of vivid description of taste to truly bring the reader in to the moment — during oral sex, for instance, or even a kiss, or a romantic meal at a zillionaire’s mansion before the orgy starts, or in the moments of burn following a shared Scotch consumed before balling fervently in a dive bar bathroom.

Erotic stories rarely get the vivid descriptions of taste that would do them justice. That doesn’t make them bad stories at all — erotic tales have a lot of fish to fry, in sensual terms, and not knowing what the character’s fourth margarita tastes like probably isn’t going to inhibit the reader’s appreciation if the point is to get the characters into bed together. But at some point in most erotic stories more than a very few thousand words, someone is tasting something where most of us have only a vague idea about what it tastes like — a body part, body fluid, leather boot. It may not get described at all, which is fine for most stories, or writers may use some stock phrase that doesn’t really tell the reader anything. Taste is a tool in the writer’s tool kit that is not always critical — but provides endless creative possibilities once you really start thinking about it.

The description of sensory pleasures in general is one of the hallmarks of vivid writing — and in erotica, the sensual details can set you apart from garden-variety Alt Sex Stories fare (which I do not mean to badmouth, mind you) and writing that is truly evocative. Most evocative descriptions of sexual encounters contain some reference to taste, and for most of us, taste is a key ingredient in real-life sensuality. Food and sex are inextricably connected, and taste and sex still more so.

Yet if you google “taste in erotica,” you get some hits that are at best distantly connected to the topic at hand, like a Nyotamori restaurant in Denver called “A Taste of Erotica,” Nyotamori being the practice of eating sushi off a naked female (or, presumably, a naked male, though I’ve never heard of that). There are any number of books that promise (and, in some cases, deliver) the connection between the sensuality of taste, in the literal sense, and the sensuality of, you know, sensuality, in the euphemistic sense.

Many very good erotic stories engage the senses at the kind of level that’s expected from the very best food writing. Sex writers can learn a lot from reading very good food writers — and surely the reverse is also true. Many anthologies have sought to mine the connection between food and sex, and not just for their marketing copy.

In fact, I contributed to one of them recently, the anthology Torn, edited by Alison Tyler, in which I waxed philosophic for some lengthy pages about the musky taste of the Cherokee Purple strain of heirloom, from the point of view of a character who doesn’t like tomatoes.

Now, my reason for making the character not like tomatoes was twofold. First, it created tension between the two characters, since the other one really liked tomatoes, and in fact grew them in great quantities. Thus, the experience of taste became a dominant/submissive exchange between them. But my second reason was that, by not liking tomatoes, the viewpoint character was forced to experience them with a certain lack of expectations. Tasted in an erotic context, tomatoes proved way sexy, and the endless variations of different varieties at different points of ripeness proved fertile ground for what I found to be a deeply sensual experience (writing about it, that is). Since I don’t usually write about food much, this was particularly cool; like the main character, I was experiencing something for the first time. Or, if not for the first, at least without the jadedness that comes from having done things the same way a million times.

What’s more, I like tomatoes a lot. But I also turn out to be mildly allergic to certain heirloom varieties.

Therefore, tomatoes carry a certain charge of danger,  a certain taboo appeal…just like the other tastes one might encounter in erotica.

The best thing about writing erotica is that as one does it one also gets, ideally, to learn about writing everything else. Every sensual detail brought into a story helps the reader connect with the characters and the fictional world you’ve created.

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