– on the perils of rolling with Cousin Id
Whenever I’m asked one of those ‘how did you’ questions about ‘writing sexy’ (which is never defined by the questioner, strangely enough), I often joke that if you can write about perfume or sex, you can write about anything.
This isn’t strictly true, but in an age that has a celebrated UK prize for Worst Sex Scene, I figured I might as well hedge my bets, especially in a book that has so darn many of them, each of them pivotal to the overall story arc, as I came to discover when I revised the book for publication.
The fact is, sex sells. As a favorite arch-villain says in a favorite TV series, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power. (Now you know!)
In this post-Fifty Shades age, the readers who might read my book are becoming more jaded, more blasé and demanding in their judgment of what constitutes a ‘sexy’ book.
Therein lies a treacherous peril. Because of that blasted, wretched, execrable piece of clit lit called ‘Fifty Shades’, its two sequels, the movies and the countless imitators.
Let me start by stating this first: I have an immense respect for the cultural impact of precisely what E. L. James has done: She got women thinking – and talking – about what turns them on to such an extent it’s become a cultural touchstone. I’m far less happy that she has hugely misrepresented the inner workings of BDSM, and in so doing given vast numbers of people all sorts of wrong impressions on how such relationships actually work. And really livid her heroine is such a passive, naïve nincompoop of a cardboard, two-dimensional ‘character’.
Worst of all to my literary mind is the woman couldn’t write it without hauling out the most tired, overexposed clichés in the Oxford English Dictionary. It may be effective, but it sure ain’t pretty… and I only made it through Volume One before I wanted those hours of my life back.
So it follows that any comparisons to that particular collection of prose curls my toes in all the worst ways. That’s not what I set out to accomplish.
I have my own idols of erotic writing and certain standards I try to live up to. Erica Jong, Anne Rice, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Colette, Apollinaire, Pauline Réage, certain passages of Huysmann’s À Rebours and À Bás, Baudelaire’s poetry… I could go on. All of these writers have inspired me to such an extent, they’ve become the gold standard for the kind of writing I felt I could send out into the world without blushing.
Yet in the reviews I’ve received and in the comments and emails that have followed in the wake of Quantum Demonology, that s-word keeps recurring. Sexy.
Thank you. I tried. And this is how.
To begin with, I’m not exactly a blushing virgin. A wide range of experiences has been much more of a bonus that I ever expected. (Thanks, guys!) Interpret that as you please.
Second – and I can’t emphasize this enough – the character of Dev as he’s portrayed in the published book is not based on anyone I know or have ever known. In the first draft, there were many references to a former (toxic) boyfriend I once knew, but you can bet your booties I took every single reference out when I revised it for publication.
Third, in complete opposition to Hemingway’s maxim of ‘writing drunk and editing sober’ and contrary to what you might think, every draft I ever wrote was written in a time of absolute celibacy. If it weren’t, I’d be far too busy to write… 😉
Celibacy does astonishing things to the creative imagination. As Anaïs Nin once noted in a similar context and I’ll paraphrase, when you’re starving on a desert island, you don’t dream of three McDs cheeseburgers, you dream of sixteen course haute cuisine extravaganzas with all the wines to match.
But the biggest caveat in writing ‘sexy’ is this one: it has to fit the storyline, suit the characters as they’re written and the overall arc. Because if it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong in the story to begin with.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, OK, you might think. But how do you write about it?
Thanks to my training as a graphic artist, I’m very keyed into the visual. In other words, I have to see what I write as a movie (NOT that kind) and choreograph it in my head with lights, mood, ambience. I also have to remember that it’s far more erotic to imply and suggest than to spell everything out in graphic and boring detail. The trick is to set one tiny cog in motion in the reader’s mind and watch the domino effect from there. That way, I’m not spelling out s-e-x-y, the reader’s imagination is. Which is far more effective than anything I could write.
Next, I have to write it out as I ‘see’ it in my mind. Most of what put the ‘sexy’ in Quantum Demonology was rewritten and revised a minimum of eight to ten times before I sent it on. Some were just skipped altogether at the time and finally knocked out two hours before the deadline in exasperated desperation and a lot of despair. All of them written with a great deal of pencil chewing, cursing in several languages, teeth gnashing, figurative banging my head on my keyboard and sheer, utter agony – not because I’m a prude, but because it’s the hardest writing you can do, bar none. And if it didn’t work for me, it didn’t work at all.
Strangely enough, one of my readers of draft three mentioned ‘the very depths of depravity’, which surprised me no end. I thought I hadn’t been depraved enough, debauched enough, sawed through that branch of a sure thing hard enough to freefall.
In other words, I felt that somewhere, I wimped out. I feel a little less so now the book is out to judge or condemn, but I do know enough to realize that I could have been far more depraved, except it would have been far less successful as a book if I had.
I’ve received many compliments on that ‘sexy’ book. But the two biggest compliments of all came from two male friends of mine – one a most excellent acknowledged writer himself – when they both said my words had turned them on…
Which means I finally got something right!