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!