Nov 142013
 
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By Remittance Girl

I promised at the end of last month’s post that I would wander onto the topic of the sound of language and how, although of greatest importance in poetry, it plays a key role in the reader’s experience of prose as well. As a topic, it deserves its own book—and yet, very few writing-instruction books ever deal with it. Grab my hand and let me pull you out to look at the topic from a distance this week.

We’ll be thinking specifically about voices, because the way something sounds is almost entirely dependent on who’s speaking. In any given piece of fiction, there are always at least three voices present: the writer’s, the narrator’s and the reader’s. Often there are more because there are various speaking characters—main and secondary—who all have voices, too. On top of that, many of the characters have both the inner voices of their thoughts and outer ones expressed through dialogue.

The writer’s voice is seldom obvious in fiction these days, but it wasn’t always. Up until the mid-19th Century, authors addressed their readers directly and unashamedly in what is called the diegetic voice—where the writer and narrator are one. Very much like the voice I’m using right now to address you. It has, in fiction, fallen deeply out of fashion and is usually looked down upon as either quaint or pedantic.

More common today is the presence of the narrator’s voice, which is assumed to be fictional and separate from the voice of the writer—that is, a fictional character tasked with delivering the story to the reader. Narrators are classed as either ‘reliable’ (implying the story is being related in a fairly objective manner) or ‘unreliable’ (given to mean that the narrator has drastically subjective viewpoint). In truth, no narrator is completely ‘reliable’ because no narrator is completely objective. The very act of choosing what to tell the reader, what to focus on, which details to pay greater attention to, etc.—all of those decisions are part and parcel of a subjective point of view, and the narrator literally wouldn’t be human unless they made them. Without these subtle subjectivities, we, as readers, would find that narrator unbearable. But it is fair to say that some narrators offer more extreme viewpoints than others and the language they use—the way they “sound”—is an implicit indication of this.

Finally, of course, there is the invisible narrator: prose written in third person POV which can either relay the story at a great distance, giving us no direct insight into what any of the characters are thinking or feeling, or the more common “third person proximate”. This is the narrator who allows us to see the characters from a distance, but also allows us inside the head of one of them in any given scene. I would like to remind you that, although this voice is not as easy to hear as first person narration, it is there to be perceived. And again, it is the choice of words, their turn of phrase, their focus and their dismissals that embody the voice of this type of narrator.

Because I’m being terribly old fashioned and addressing you directly, I get the opportunity to tell you that one of my very favourite voices of all is called the heterodiegetic narrator (as opposed to a homodiegetic one). This doesn’t mean that I prefer to write straight erotica. A homodiegetic narrator tells the story in the first person and is also its main character. Like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, he speaks to the reader and he’s the star of the story.

Probably the most famous heterodiegetic narrator of all time is Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick. It’s a great voice because it allows a writer to create a secondary character who offers us a fine and clearly subjective portrait of the main character. It allows for the possibility of presenting two incredibly rich personalities and viewpoints at the same time. Not only do you come to know the main character, but you come to know the narrator even better by what he or she chooses to tell you about the main character. And this mode of writing doesn’t risk the kind of distancing that third person POV can sometimes create. There’s a lovely coziness to it, as if you are being invited to participate in a preexisting intimate relationship without all the awkwardness of a formal introduction. It also creates the effect of being allowed privileged, intimate information.

In any case, there are always major and minor characters and, if the author sticks to the rule of showing instead of telling, they often deliver the story to us through dialogue (and some very successful writers write appalling dialogue. I’ve always suspected that Dan Brown would be a rotten dinner companion; he doesn’t seem like a good listener). It is not unreasonable to say that although ‘talking the talk’ seems to be valued less than ‘walking the walk,’ I glean more about someone by listening to what they say, and how they say it, than by observing their gait.

Getting dialogue right entails knowing your character well enough to know how they express themselves. Although it’s a writer’s business to endeavor to be realistic in his or her portrayals, this is one of those odd exceptions of erotic fiction writing.

My experience is that, in reality, most people aren’t tremendously talkative in the moments just preceding, or during, sex. There are moans and grunts and groans and a fair amount of hyperventilating going on. But when I read an erotic story, I’m most likely to reach between my legs the moment the characters start talking nasty to each other.

This makes great sex dialogue very hard to write. I’ve only ever had three lovers who really were effective with their tongues in the linguistic sense. Very often, I have to ask myself: well, if he did have me in the shower with my wrists tied to the spigot, what would I want him to say? What words could he or she use to compel me to arch my back and generally make a slut of myself?

Even though, in reality, many people don’t say much during sex, it’s important to stick to the rules of good dialogue in your fiction. People have unique ways of speaking; make sure your characters phrase themselves differently to distinguish them. The words they choose matter. A man who calls his penis a cock during sex is a different man from one who resolutely calls it a penis, even when he’s about to get a blowjob: “Beg for my cock, you little whore!” is one sort of man. “Beg for my penis, you woman of loose morals!” is another man entirely. In fact, I do have a rather eccentric theory about fundamental differences between women who can call their vaginas cunts and those who can’t.

Good dialogue in BDSM erotica can be sublime. I don’t mean the stock vocabulary of the high-dungeon “yes, master, no, master, three bags full, master” stuff. Language has power. Word choice, phrasing and tonality all convey a powerful nuances of who’s on top and who’s on the bottom. “He put me in my place” refers to people’s linguistic abilities, not their flair for moving furniture around.

The last thing to keep in mind when writing dialogue is to keep the lines short. We seldom speak in long, informative monologues, and your characters shouldn’t either. A short phrase, effectively set on the next line, can be infinitely more effective than a long rambling exhortation to copulate.

“Yeah,” she said. “Fuck me.”

The hardest part of any writer’s job, and one that I only manage poorly and at my best moments, is anticipating how the reader will read. Here, in this little miracle of communication through prose, is the reader’s voice. One of the most concise ways I’ve ever read this explained was in the way Mike Kimera used to sign off his posts to ERWA: “What you read is not what I wrote.” Of course, what he was trying to underscore was that the reader is the final arbiter of meaning in any given story. But I would also argue that readers read to themselves aloud in their heads and the voice they use to read is unique to them.

This last voice is, I think, the one a writer has little control over, but it is foolish to forget it is there. To some extent, it is possible to anticipate it, to know it will be a vocal layer added to the ones laid before it. The most skilled writers give it room to live and breathe and fill out the sound of the prose. One of the easiest ways of doing this is simply not to over-write. To leave silences, let the odd phrase hang, don’t tie everything up within an inch of its life. Over-writing is essentially an attempt to dominate and quash the reader’s inner voice.

The reader, literally, has the last word. Fight for it at your peril.

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Oct 192013
 
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By Remittance Girl

When most people discuss punctuation within the erotica-writing field, they usually send out desperate pleas for it to be correct. I’d like to underscore that; good punctuation makes meaning clear. Bad punctuation compels the reader to stop, reread, and puzzle out the intended meaning before going on. This kicks them out of the storyspace; suddenly they’re no longer in the story, but trying to figure out why that sentence was so difficult to parse.

This emphasis on clarity and precision, however, only addresses one of the two distinct functions punctuation serves. Yes, correct punctuation will help you organize thoughts, group them, indicate associations between them, and so on. But, along with the sound of words and their syllabic beat, it will also drive the rhythm of the text, the cadence of the way the reader consumes the words. I think erotic fiction has more in common with literary fiction and poetry than with other genres of writing precisely because the poetics of writing matter so much to a good sex scene.

If you’ve been taught writing in the past 20 years, you’ve probably been told to keep your sentences short and snappy. You’ve probably also been told to eschew too much descriptive writing, or imagery in the form of similes or metaphors, and to show instead of tell. It’s all good advice for journalists. Excellent if you’re a postmodern author who believes that all readers read critically, with one mental foot firmly rooted in reality, and the other judging the work in the context of the author’s past oeuvre.

My own feelings are that this imaginary pedant of a reader is a mythical creature dreamed up by jaded academics and snark-sodden literary critics. When I read, I want to be swept away. I might return to the book later and think critically about it, but if I start doing that on the first reading, I’m not enjoying myself—I’m working. Fiction reading should be, at the very least, a pleasure—and, as the venerable Roland Barthes said, at best it should be bliss.

This is particularly true of erotica. A good sex scene should take you outside the social boundaries, outside time or space or the confines of your chair. It should take you into the bed, the sand, the pool, or up against the brick wall where the action is happening—and if it doesn’t do that, it’s not a really well-written sex scene.

There are a lot of things that can spoil a fictive sex scene. As writers on this blog have mentioned before, impossible physical positions are one. Disorienting points of view are another. Comic euphemisms never fail to screw things up. Ridiculous asides that pull the reader’s focus to a distance also disrupt the experience. But one of the subtlest, least discussed elements—one that can either strengthen a sex scene or turn it into nothing more than a pile of explicit descriptions—is the sound of language and the flow of the writing.

There’s nothing wrong with short sentences if you’re writing a hard, fast, nasty sex scene. In fact, they can be very effective in that abrupt, jack-hammerish way that put one in mind of a dirty quickie. But if that’s all you’re offering your reader in a multi-scene story or novel, it can become unsatisfying—much like that boyfriend who never seemed able to last past getting his pants down and his cock inside. Too many sex scenes written in short sentences feel, to the reader, like desperate serial adolescent date-sex: it’s cute but not much of a meal.

To take readers down into the luxurious depths of erotic physicality for a longer period of time, you really need to think about using longer sentences. This is tricky. The reason writing teachers don’t like long sentences is because there are so many ways to fuck them up: readers can lose track of their object and subject; they can be disorienting if you hamfistedly tack on too many clauses; complex sentences can get mid-level editors riled up—they usually stick to what they know and cumulative syntax is unfamiliar, so they can freak. However, bear with me. As long as they aren’t confusing, long sentences can be wonderfully immersive, and they’re perfect for a hot, progressively built, sexy scene.

The technique for constructing good, long, flowing sentences is, as I mentioned above, called ‘cumulative syntax.’ Basically, this entails starting out with a root sentence and adding modifying phrases that help to build in more information, set up a rhythmic cadence, and strengthen your voice as a writer. Those modifying phrases can be tacked on before or after their root sentence, but readers tend to get a little lost with ‘left-handed’ modifying phrases (where the clause is put before the root). That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them, but that you should use them more carefully. It’s amazing how lush a sentence you can build with the careful application of either type, or both:

Paul cupped her ass. (root phrase)

Tugging up her skirt, Paul cupped her ass. (Left-handed)

Paul cupped her ass, his fingers digging into her fleshy cheek. (Right-handed)

Tugging up her skirt, Paul cupped her ass, his fingers digging into her fleshy cheek. (building up a little snowball of lust here)

Tugging up her skirt, Paul cupped her ass, his fingers digging into her fleshy cheek, his hips grinding into hers. (Now we’re getting somewhere.)

You can see how, if we tacked on too many more left-handed clauses, the reader could get lost as to what the subject was—but as long as you build this sort of sentence with a critical eye, asking yourself whether the root phrase is still clear, you can really go to town.

Frustrated, desperate, tugging up her skirt, Paul cupped her ass, his fingers digging cruelly into her fleshy cheek, his hips grinding brutally into hers.

Yeah, I know. There are adverbs in there and some editors don’t like the present continuous either. Fuck ‘em. True, I could use the word ‘gouging’ instead of ‘digging’ for his fingers, but I think that would be overkill, so an adverb is appropriate here. Same with ‘grinding brutally.’ I could use a more violent verb, but I don’t want my reader to think Paul’s performing an autopsy.

Frustrated, desperate for visceral contact, Paul tugged up her skirt and cupped her ass, his fingers digging cruelly into her fleshy cheek, his hips grinding brutally into hers, like a man at the edge of a precipice.

Here you can see that cumulative phrases no longer simply modify the root phrase, but drift a little. We’ve gone from his hand on her ass, to his hips, but the reader gets it. Like the final phrase, they refer to the totality of the act in the root phrase. That’s fine. As long as it doesn’t get confusing as to what is going on, feel free to break some grammatical rules here.

Of course, I could cut this up into a series of shorter sentences, but commas are a way of inviting the reader onwards. Periods tend to make them stop and think. At this point in the narrative, the last thing I want is for the reader to step back and gain distance. I’m seducing them. My characters are about to get down and dirty. I want to build the sexual desire, the tension, the need, the drive. I don’t want to give my reader—just like Paul doesn’t want to give the woman he’s seducing—too much time to think about it. I want them to succumb, just like she will.

Next time we meet, I’d like to talk about why the sounds of words and poetics matter when it comes to sex scenes.

 

Remittance Girl has been writing and publishing erotica for over ten years. She teaches creative writing and multimedia design. At present, she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, focusing on the possibility of eroticism in a postmodern society.
You can read some of her work on her site at remittancegirl.com.

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