Friday, July 25, 2014

Writing Lessons from Porn

I can only tell you this if you promise to keep it between us. We're talking a Get Smart Cone of Silence, here: strictly top-secret. Pinky Swear? Okay...

I freelance as an [mumble mumble].

...What's that? "Speak up?" Fine. EROTIC GHOSTWRITER! There, I said it: I write lady porn.

There's nothing wrong with erotic fiction. It's not my particular cup of tea, but neither is lapsang souchong, and both sell just fine. And that's the key: erotic fiction sells well enough that people actually pay me to write it. Being a writer is a kind of prostitution, and this whore can't be picky about johns1.

The voracity of erotic fiction connoisseurs makes for a market where demand outpaces supply. Don't believe me? Go to any job board and browse the "writers" subheading. It's a porn-a-palooza over there, littered with whips, ball gags and actions the Kama Sutra would deem physiologically impossible. So, wanting to supplement my income, I took the plunge and accepted a few erotic gigs. What's the worst that can happen... I end up like E.L. James?

...Actually, on second thought, if I ever barf out E.L. James prose, you have full permission to euthanize me.

Jobs, and more importantly, their paychecks, rolled in. My inner Matthew McConaughey rubbed his hands together: "Alright, alright, alright.2" It was smooth sailing in the land of leather bodysuits and threesomes until one of my clients rejected a story with a brief note:

"Too mechanical. Rewrite."

What the WHAT? Erotica's main economic appeal was that it was, essentially, brainless work: 1) Describe tab A inserted into slot B. 2) Repeat. 3) Profit $$$. The note sat in my inbox for a week, reeking like sun-warmed fish guts. That is, until I swallowed my pride and re-read the rejected story.

Hot damn if the client wasn't right. All the necessary parts were there. The abs were rippling, members were turgid, porcelain skin was honey-warmed and apple red, but the story read like two robots doing the nasty3. Realization rushed in like a breeze through an open window:

Good Writing Requires Emotional Resonance.

I know, I know, this is etched on the Deceleration of Writers' Independence: "We hold these truths to be self evident: all characters must have emotion," but it took a terse rejection for me to reach Eureka! I don't care if it's poetry, a want ad in the penny saver or a PowerPoint slide during a Friday 3 pm meeting. Engaging writing NEEDS emotion.

Isn't that the mistake most of us make when we're getting our feet wet? Case in point: I still have a 3½ floppy4 filled to it's minuscule capacity with crappy teenage fiction. Billy Collins famously says everyone has 100 bad poems in them; for prose writers the number might be double that. Each of my adolescent yarns spun from the same thread: epic, reaching plots...populated by cardboard cutouts moving along rails. Not a single interesting character. Zero emotion.

Bad prose is like a ride through "Its A Small World," you move in a line, see some things, and get off with zero memory of what just happened. Sometimes we writers get so caught up in the plot, in the awesome shit that's happening, that we forget a plot requires characters, who in turn require emotion.

I re-wrote the offending story, focusing not on what the characters did, but how they felt (while doing it). I breathed emotion into the robots and resubmitted. My client came back with a rave review in one hand and a long-term contract in the other. Henry James wasn't whistling no Dixie when he demanded all stories be lashed around the stout stake of emotion. Kafka wanted his books to be an axe for the frozen sea inside us. It's all about eliciting feelings, even in porn.

Look at sci-fi; the best in the genre, Flowers for Algernon, Never Let Me GoFahrenheit 451, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the science and rayguns and robots all serve character and emotion. The rule holds regardless of genre. It's the same in Literary Fiction as it is in Lady Porn5:

Good Writing Requires Emotional Resonance.




1 Just no butt stuff, okay?
2 Sorry, couldn't resist another dig, aping E.L. James' word vomit writing style.
3 I actually have been contracted for robot sex stories, but alas, this wasn't one of them.
4 That's what she said.
5 Somewhere, in some dark corner of an MFA office, a Creative Writing TA just pulled their cardigan a little tighter, shivering to have Lit Fic invoked in the same breath as erotica.

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