Thousands of things that don’t work

People say that you should write what you know, and that has some truth in it. But you also learn by writing, because putting experience down on paper forces you to examine. You fictionalize experience by creating characters and a situation (or more than one) and then acting it out. But a good writer doesn’t just have characters go through motions. No, a serious writer wants to provide some insight into the puzzle that people provide. For instance, although many times we don’t act rationally, there is usually still some reason, some cause of our behavior — at least for those who are not mentally ill. The writers I enjoy can show that reason, perhaps not clearly, but they can suggest, convincingly, that the character is acting in a way that is, well, within character.

One reason I like writing erotica is that it provides a challenge that other genres don’t. I’m not speaking of erotic romance or stories with an erotic flare, but erotica with real heat — stories intended to arouse. While writing graphic sex in an interesting manner isn’t the simplest task in the world, if you are serious about the writing as well as creating a hot book, it can be a struggle to balance the two. The high emotional content can overwhelm the development of character and the writer’s probe into their motivations and desires, yet that is one of my major goals in writing fiction at all.

Thrillers can suffer from the same problem. There are a number of bestselling thrillers that don’t hold up as good writing. The characters are cliched, if not entirely constructed of cardboard, and the plot is THE THING, just as in erotica, SEX can become THE THING. Now I have nothing against hot sex scenes or plot-driven stories. Nothing at all. I am a reader, after all, not just a writer, and a writer can sweep me off my (metaphorical) feet with powerful action or a compelling plot. But the authors that capture my attention, the ones I want to read more of, always give me more than that. Sometimes a lot more. And that is the kind of writer I strive to be.

This has come to mind recently as I find myself starting to write what seems to be a great story and then abandoning it. I don’t give up on what I have written easily, but some story lines just don’t work out. Some have no juice. It isn’t that they don’t work, but that they tell us nothing about the people. No one learns anything. The motives are commonplace and uninteresting. I could finish them and put them out there, and for some readers they would be okay. But they are developing into the kind of story that I want my readers to know me for.

So I spend more time thinking through why someone does what the do or, more importantly, why they want what they want. Consider bondage. While many stories present a character who ultimately finds pleasure in being restrained — being at the mercy of another — for a sexual encounter, I find presenting them a challenge. What makes them realize that the idea turns them on? (Do they read it in a book? See it? Hear about it from friends?) What motivates them to try it? How do they find someone to try it with?

In many stories the situation is pre-existing. A couple who have that kind of relationship meet other people, or the woman’s master lends her to someone else…. Think of The Story of O The blurb reads:

O is a young, beautiful fashion photographer in Paris. One day her lover, Rene, takes her to a chateau, where she is enslaved, with Rene’s approval, and systematically sexually assaulted by various other men.

The point is that she is already is sub when the story begins. That story is about where that leads.

That is somewhat unsatisfying (EXCEPT for providing a platform to write about what happens next — a totally valid story, but different).  What intrigues me is how that relationship evolved.

I use bondage as an example, but it applies to any sort of sexual relationship. One book that bounces around in my head is Milan Kundera’s THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING. What is great about it is the way he explores how the characters feel and act. And that is quite a challenge. He avoids the kind of explicit sexual scenes I would include, but the story is still erotic.

Fortunately for me, being a writer means being an explorer. Not all the paths you strike out on lead to the destination you seek — some are dead ends. But then explorers are also looking and learning and mapping their territory, not just heading somewhere. I see my abandoned stories as the dead end paths. And when find myself at the edge of a sheer cliff and forced to abandon a specific path, it can make me feel like the inventor (another kind of explorer) Thomas Edison. When he was trying to find the best material to use as the filament in the electric light, someone asked him if he was making progress. He is reported to have answered: “Yes. Now we know thousands of things that don’t work.”

Me too, Tom.



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