Apr 102015

by Suz deMello

For a while now—since the Fifty Shades trilogy attained prominence—there’s been a steady stream of online bloggers and critics dissing the books…and for good reason. They’re poorly written and edited. Fifty Shades is basically a Harlequin Presents with sugar kink.

Let’s look at the main characters, for example. Ana Steele is a perfect Harlequin heroine: still a virgin while about to graduate college. So immature that she seems to have some sort of disorder. Even though male after male in her life is attracted to her, she’s so sweet and modest that she’s unaware of her sexiness. And she’s immediately, deeply and irrevocably attracted to the “hero.” This is also a characteristic of the typical Harlequin heroine, even though artificial conflicts are created to provide some kind of story line. Otherwise the books would be over before they’ve properly started.

The “hero.” Ah, Christian Grey. Volumes have already been written about his abusive behavior. He stalks Ana, forces her to ditch her friends, especially her male buddies. He pressures her into a kinky relationship she is too emotionally immature to handle.

Skimming only two or three Harlequins will reveal the strong similarities between Grey and the basic Harlequin alpha male: the macho guy who’s really a broken child inside, but also fantastically wealthy at an absurdly young age—has anyone else noticed how mere millionaires are no longer acceptable romance heroes? Billionaires only in this club.

When I was writing for Harlequin/Silhouette, I would go through the books and highlight what appeared to be necessary character notes of the H&H. Her virginity and innocence. His contrasting wealth and sophistication. Her blushing confusion. His Rolex, limos and private plane. I’ve employed all these tropes.

Perfect ingredients of a classic BDSM power exchange? NOT. Those of us honestly involved in safe, sane and consensual BDSM avoid an unsophisticated partner until that innocent has been educated.

Setting aside the clichéd characters, the writing is poorly edited, if it was edited at all. Here’s a discussion of one craft aspect with an analysis from one of my writing manuals, Plotting and Planning:

For many, creating paragraphs in fiction—that is, dividing parts of a scene or interaction into manageable bits—is such an obvious process that it doesn’t need discussion. (Non-fiction is completely different and beyond the scope of this treatise). In Starting From Scratch, Rita Mae Brown doesn’t discuss paragraphs in fiction at all. I also had thought it was fairly easy until I encountered Fifty Shades of Grey, which contained selections like the following:

“Very well, Mr. Grey,” she mutters, then exits. He frowns, and turns his attention back to me.

“Where were we, Ms. Steele?”

Oh, we’re back to Ms. Steele now.

“Please, don’t let me keep you from anything.”

Normally, when we write interactions between people, the actions, words, and thoughts of each person are grouped in separate paragraphs. When we switch people, we create a new paragraph. So this selection should have been written thusly:

“Very well, Mr. Grey,” she mutters, then exits.

He frowns, and turns his attention back to me. “Where were we, Ms. Steele?”

Oh, we’re back to Ms. Steele now. “Please, don’t let me keep you from anything.”

What’s the reason behind this convention? So the reader can know who’s thinking and talking, we place the identifying dialog tag along with the dialog. Often we may not need a tag at all, when only two people are interacting. The convention makes this possible. Readers know that when a paragraph ends, the next paragraph belongs to another character.

The bloggers and critics who slam Fifty Shades are mostly romance and erotica authors. And more than a little of our resentment is that old bugaboo, professional jealousy.

And who can blame us? It’s hard to feel all warm and cuddly about E.L. James’ success when she so obviously does not deserve the millions she’s raking in. The writing is so bad that she clearly did not spend the years that most of us do developing our craft. We feel she doesn’t deserve her success, at least not based on the books. All of us have an early manuscript that should never see the light of day, let alone publication. E.L. James’ has, and it’s a massive bestseller. It’s galling.

I once wrote about professional jealousy that it has at its root cause an unhealthy interest in others. I still believe that. I know nothing about E.L. James. She is completely irrelevant to me. Her success does not equal my failure—in fact, the popularity of her books could increase the popularity of mine.

And she could be the happiest person in the world or one of the most miserable. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that I have been the target of resentment because of my “success.” Imagine that! A floundering midlist author the object of professional jealousy! Blew me away, too.

It happens that the time I noticed that resentment was also when my father was dying. I was stunned that anyone would be envious of me.

The lesson? The woman we resent for her success may be the most distressed and tortured human being walking this planet. We just don’t know—it’s our nature to put on a brave face while inside we’re screaming in pain. It’s also our nature to compete, but we must learn to maturely deal with the emotions that result from competition.


About the Author:

Best-selling, award-winning author Suz deMello, a.k.a Sue Swift, has written nineteen books in several genres, including nonfiction, memoir, erotica, comedy, historical, paranormal, mystery and suspense, plus a number of short stories and non-fiction articles on writing. A freelance editor, she’s held the positions of managing editor and senior editor, working for such firms Totally Bound, Liquid Silver Books and Ai Press. She also takes private clients.

Her books have been favorably reviewed in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, won a contest or two, attained the finals of the RITA and hit several bestseller lists.

A former trial attorney, her passion is world travel. She’s left the US over a dozen times, including lengthy stints working overseas. She’s now writing a vampire tale and planning her next trip.

–Find her books at http://www.suzdemello.com

–For editing services, email her at suzdemello@gmail.com

–Befriend her on Facebook, and visit her group page.

–She tweets @Suzdemello

–and posts to Pinterest

–and Goodreads.

–Her current blog is TheVelvetLair.com

Feb 272015

By M.Christian

“Dialogue can be tricky—”

“Whatcha mean ‘dialogue can be tricky’?  It’s just people talking, right?  How hard can it be?”

“You’d be surprised.  For instance, a lot of people think that dialogue should be … um … er … ah … accurate.  But if you wrote down how people actually talk it’s kind of … muddled … youknowwhatImean?”

“Okay, I getcha: you mean people should have distinctive voices, sound like human beings, but not cram those voices with the stuff real people actually say when they’re talking.”

“Bingo!  It’s also important to know some basic dialogue grammar and punctuat—”

“—like dashes for when someone gets interrupted—”

“—right!  Or when you…”

“Trail off, right?  What about ‘OK’?”

“Well, the jury is out on that one.  Personally I don’t like two huge caps in my dialogue.  I prefer the more natural ‘okay.’  The same with tags, some people think that you have to have at least one tag at the end of a line of dialogue, but others say you don’t need any as long as it’s clear who’s doing the speaking—especially if it’s just between two characters, like us.  Just be sure not to go too long without a tag as readers can sometime lose track of the characters.”

“I’m hip.  I heard someone say that you should know who’s doing the talking by their vocabulary or style, but not to be so obvious that it’s clumsy.”

“It’s tricky, to be sure, but it really helps bring a character to life.  Also, don’t hesitate to use typographic emphasis in dialogue, especially when it makes what a person is saying clear.  Just stay away from ALL CAPS—”

“Jeez, no need to shout.”

“Or too many exclamation points!!!!”

“Which just sounds weird.”

“It’s much better to use simple italics … just be sure and put them where they’re most needed and not just willy-nilly as, again, it comes off as … bizarre.”

“Right.  What also gets me is when characters talk all stilted-like.  I mean, come on: you can be loose and be hard to follow but too stiff and it’s like listening to two damned robots.”

“To be sure!  Try listening to your characters.  Pay attention to writers who do dialogue well, or to good movies or TV shows.  That’s how a writer learns, after all.  You can also use … what is it called?  Oh, yeah: grammar as a way of giving a character life like … pauses, like that.  Or (watch where you’re stepping, buddy) asides, like that, or [can you tell me the way to the train station], he said in French.  Stuff like that.  But, again, don’t try to be too clever ’cause it’ll just pull readers out of the story.”

“What about if you have someone who’s … what did Bob say? ‘Quoting from another character’?”

“Yeah, that can be tricky. Technically you just have to put a single quotation mark in there like you did, but I don’t like to have people directly quote another character.  It’s confusing, and unrealistic since we rarely remember what someone exactly said: kind of pulls the reader out of the dialogue.”

‘Then there’s the Brits—’

“Oh, yeah; that can be confusing: British copy editors often have single quotes for dialogue.”

“You know what ruffles my feathers?”

“Do tell.”

“When people think you have to have a whole new tag at the end of each line of dialogue, like repeating ‘said’ is some horrible rule to stay away from.  I mean, come on, it can get real silly real quick: people ‘said’ then ‘uttered’ then ‘proclaimed’ then ‘spouted’ … sheesh!”

“I hear ya.  The same goes fer people talkin’ way too much with whatcha might say is an accent.  Get with it, folks: if ya can’t understan’ it it ain’t gonna work—”

“Or when youse puts in whatcha think is ah poinsonal style a’ talkin’ and all da happens is it’s either confusin’ or insultin’—youse catcha my drift?”

“Oh, yeah!  Nothing worse that a character you can’t understand, or one who sounds like a poorly constructed stereotype.   I understand wanting to show off someone’s character through their dialogue, but ya gotta do yer research and keep it down to a dull roar.”

“Like with historical characters.  Oh, man, that gets my goat: when you got this Roman legionnaire saying, like, ‘okay’ or something like that.  Or a Victorian British character using 21st century terms.  Sure, too much accuracy is just as bad … ’cause I doubt anyone would ever understand a word they were saying … but that doesn’t mean throwing a bunch of anachronisms into a story, either.  So, what about sex?”

“Here?  Now?  With all these people watching?”

“Ha-ha, Mr. Comedian.  No, I mean what about dialogue with sex scenes?”

“Oh, that.  Well, stay the hell away from onomatopoeias—”


Now who’s the comedian? Onomatopoeia: ‘the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named’, according to Webster’s.  In erotica it’s oooooh, aaaaah … stuff like that.  Sound effects, you could say.  Always horrible in erotica.  You can just write that someone laughed or moaned.”

“Oh, yeah, I know what you mean.  Like you said, too, I guess: make sure your characters use the right words for what they’re doing.”

“God, yes. And research is important but, again, don’t let it get in the way of being clear about what’s happening.  Back to the Victorians: they used a lot of slang for sex and body parts—so you can have fun there … just not too much or it can either get confusing or make you look like a show-off.”

“Okay, Mr. Expert: what advice can you give a writer about dialogue?”

“Well, for starters, feel your characters.  Listen to them.  Don’t worry about avoiding grammatical mistakes—you can always fix that later—just get their voices down on the page.  Use your own life: the way you and your friends talk … just don’t be too literal.  Try to push yourself: if you feel your dialogue could do with some work, read plays or listen to movies or shows with the picture off to get a feeling for how people talk.”

“Sounds good to me … but you forgot an important one.”

“Oh?  Enlighten me.”

“Write nothing but two people talking to each other.”


About M. Christian
Calling M.Christian versatile is a tremendous understatement. Extensively published in science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers, and even non-fiction, it is in erotica that M.Christian has become an acknowledged master, with more than 400 stories, 10 novels (including The Very Bloody Marys, Brushes and The Painted Doll). Nearly a dozen collections of his own work (Technorotica, In Control, Lambda nominee Dirty Words, The Bachelor Machine), more than two dozen anthologies (Best S/M Erotica series, My Love for All That is Bizarre: Sherlock Holmes Erotica, The Burning Pen, and with Maxim Jakubowksi The Mammoth Book of Tales from the Road).  His work is regularly selected for Best American Erotica, Best Gay Erotica, Best Lesbian Erotica, Best Bisexual Erotica, Best Fetish Erotica, and others. His extensive knowledge of erotica as writer, editor, anthologist and publisher resulted in the bestselling guide How To Write And Sell Erotica.

In addition, he is a prolific and respected anthologist, having edited twenty five anthologies to date. He is also responsible for several non-fiction books, notably How to Write and Sell Erotica.

M.Christian is also the Associate Publisher for Renaissance eBooks, where he strives to be the publisher he’d want to have as a writer, and to help bring quality books (erotica, noir, science fiction, and more) and authors out into the world.

He can be found in a number of places online, not least of which is mchristian.com.

Jun 102010

Ah, yes, dialogue: People talking at each other, right? Or are they, instead, talking to the reader, alternately revealing the plot in carefully-titrated installments, or providing “drama” as they “interact” and “character development” as they “reveal their foibles”?

Dialogue: it’s made out of wood, and you carve it with a chainsaw, right?

I’ve always despised writing dialogue. As one of my favorite essays on writing dialogue points out, it’s is one of the hardest things for beginning writers to get the hang of — but even seasoned writers rarely write good dialogue.

In any kind of fiction, conversations are often forced and unrealistic at best, laughably ridiculous at worst. Voracious fiction readers often barely even notice it, because they get used to it, which is probably why the biggest fiction readers, when they turn to writing, often write the very worst dialogue. They write it like they’ve read it, and it sounds awkward — because dialogue in most fiction sounds awkward.

This syndrome perpetuates for a good procedural reason in addition to just plain habit: In plot-driven fiction, dialogue’s purpose is not to portray how people really talk, but to move the plot forward and establish character. It is a very rare writer who can have her or his characters do those two things and also sound realistic. It’s a rare writer, actually, who can have characters do that and not sound just plain weird.

When we start talking about erotica, it gets weirder still. How does one portray people talking dirty without sounding dumb? When most people think about talking dirty, they imagine dialogue like “Give me your long hot cock!” or “You want it? Yeah? You want it? Yeah? You want it?” that seem to be copped from porn movies.

Evangelists for “talking dirty in bed” often encourage practitioners to do exactly that sort of thing, if that’s what’s hot for them. And that’s awesome if you’re trying to turn on yourself and your partner, verbally. Much of the instruction around learning to talk dirty in bed has to do with losing your inhibitions. Say “give me your long hot cock” if that’s what works for you, and/or your partner.

To be an effective dirty-talker in your private life, on some level you need to not be afraid to sound ridiculous.

But if you’re a writer, it’s your job not to sound ridiculous. Characters in your erotic novel or story shouldn’t spew porn-movie clichés in dialogue any more than they should order a pizza with “extra sausage” without any way to pay for it.

Writing teachers and in how-to articles often suggest that a writer should learn to write convincing dialogue by listening to how people talk. Which is a great piece of advice, but to learn how people talk dirty, do you have to be a big fuckin’ slut?

That certainly helps. If you’ve had sex with a lot of people, you might have a better sense of how people act in bed (or the back seat, or the restroom of a 747 on the polar route to Helsinki, or bent over the railing at a football game), which includes how they talk. That may also be true if you’re a sex worker of any flavor, or if you’ve done any other kind of professional communication about sex that puts you in contact with people and their foibles. If you’re the sort of person who can go to public sex parties or BDSM events, and you’re in the sort of locale that has them, you can certainly learn a lot about how people interact sexually by attending such a thing.

But it’s not necessary to be a big-city perv in order to write erotica (as I hope you already know), and you don’t have to fuck people to know how they talk about sex.

The truth is, finding out how people talk about sex isn’t all that difficult. You simply ask them. If you’re not comfortable talking to your friends about sex, you’re going to have a harder time writing about it.

On the other hand, if you’ve really decided that people in your social circle aren’t up for talking about it, then you can also turn to online communities — because while the language people use when posting or chatting about sex certainly isn’t the same as they’d use in person, verbally, it’s a hell of a lot closer to what they’d say in bed than the dialogue in most erotic fiction. Or, for that matter, in the quotes in “nonfiction” articles you’ll read in Cosmopolitan, all of which I’m convinced are made up by the authors, or at least heavily paraphrased.

Another way to spice up your erotic dialogue is to read quality nonfiction about sex. For instance, one of the very best books you can read for learning how women talk about sex is Nancy Friday’s groundbreaking My Secret Garden, a series of interviews with women about their sexual fantasies. Its companion, Men In Love features Friday interviewing men. The books are very out of date nowadays — but they’re still among the best, freshest documents out there for exploring how people talk and feel about sex. Even though the interviews aren’t in the form of dialogue, these books are a great place to start.

Keep in mind that dialogue should, ideally, move the plot forward and reveal character while sounding fresh. If it sounds realistic, more’s the better — and fresh often equals realistic. But it’s better to write unrealistic dialogue that’s a joy to read than to write dialogue that’s realistic, but doesn’t work in story terms, whether your characters are in the bedroom, boardroom, hotel room or on a surfboard.

Last but far from least, work on your dialogue outside the bedroom as well as inside the bedroom, with all the tools that you can find. Read plays and screenplays, which often have more finely-honed dialogue sensibilities than fiction. Listen to people talk on the street, in cafes, in classrooms, wherever.

Unless you’re writing pure-sex vignettes, then as an erotic writer you’ve got to engage readers the same way any other commercial writer does; you’ve got to keep them reading long enough to get your peeps to bed. You can write the hottest pillow-talk in the world, but if you’re lost your reader before the protagonists even make it back to her place, then your heroine’s cries of “Extra sausage? But I ordered anchovies!” will go unappreciated.

And did I mention listen? Too many of us sit around in conversation waiting to talk. As a writer, you get to express yourself on the page. So, if you don’t already, start to listen, not just to what people are saying, but how they are saying it. Getting a real knack for dialogue in general will mean that when it comes time for you to undress your characters, they’ll be as fully-formed as you can make them — or, at least, as they need to be for the story.