Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What do characters talk about when they’re not talking about sex?

I’m writing at less than my usual snail’s pace – but at least I’m writing. Unlike previous books, however, it’s entirely possible that I’m going to throw out a lot of what I’ve done, because I don’t much like it.

Owned and Owner had virtually no conversation except between fellow owners discussing their slaves and their kink. One of the reasons Garid kept Etrin silent was that I couldn’t think of a natural way for the two of them to talk together.

By the time I wrote As She’s Told, I thought I’d figured out how to do dialogue: character-revealing content, lots of sentence fragments for the sake of realism, and judicious dollops of humour and self-deprecating irony. It seemed to work. A certain number of readers (all male) complained about an excess of character development, which they had to skip to get to the dirty bits, but that goes with the smut writer’s territory. (At least they liked the dirty bits. As an aside, AST just got its first review entitled “Sick.” God, I wish non-perverts wouldn’t read my books.)

Anyway, this time, I figured writing dialogue would be a snap. The problem is, I’m writing dialogue that comes before the couple ever approaches anything to do with sex, much less bdsm. They have to talk about normal things like their lives and interests. And they have to do this without boring my erotica readers to death.

What do our characters talk about, when they’re not talking about sex? I don’t know about other authors, but mine have a (possibly fatal) tendency to talk about social justice and the environment. Could anything be less sexy? “Oh my god,” I hear you say, ”we read erotica to get away from that kind of thing! How could you inflict it on us in your fiction?” I know, I hear you. Problem is, that’s what I’m passionate about. I don’t care about movies or contemporary music or fashion. Political machinations and Machiavellian intrigue (think Kushiel’s Dart) leave me both cold and irritable. My plots, such as they are, are very low-key. What on earth are my characters going to talk about over coffee?

Perhaps they need to be remarkably shy and tongue-tied.

It’s not that my own conversation consists only of social justice and the environment. I can gossip with the best of them. But gossip requires some world-building, which feels like such an overwhelming task that I’d rather read someone else’s book instead of writing one of my own. I’ve been reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series; now there’s a level of incident and drama that simply cannot be surpassed, except possibly in a Tintin comic. One such incident and its repercussions would be enough for most novelists. But there’s sure plenty for the characters to talk about!

Perhaps I need a shipwreck or two to liven things up. Do you think it would help?


  1. Anneke, just for the record there are some of us males who do care about boring things like storytelling and character development. Granted there are some BDSM publishers who seem to frown on such excesses. I once found this remarkable statement in the writers’ guidelines of a British publisher of maledom fiction:

    “As near as possible give them a thrill on every page! If you find you've gone for any more than a couple of pages without SM and/or sex: ask yourself what you're doing wrong."

    Fortunately my own publisher (which is also yours) is more open minded. As a new author I’ve struggled with this because the kind of BDSM novel which is just the same damn sex scene over and over again I find boring to read, and impossible to write. (Even now I have an idea for a novel where I’m worried there might not be enough sex early enough.) I feared my last novel, which contains digressive conversations about history, movies, music and other things that interest me (but plenty of sex too!) would never find a publisher. Amazingly it did, and there’s even evidence that some people who bought it have enjoyed it.

    Anneke, you’re in the enviable position where I’m sure people will buy whatever you write. So what are you worried about? Write what you want to write. If you write entertainingly about the things you’re passionate about, readers will enjoy it whether they share your interests or not. Maybe you’ll lose the readers who are looking for a thrill on every page, but do you really care?

    1. Steve, I'm sure you're right on all those fronts. Plenty of men enjoyed AST as it was, and I know more than one woman who skipped the conversations to get to the next sex scene (coughAnnabelcough ;-) ).

      I also worry about not enough sex early on, and have done various writing contortions to make sure there's sufficient to catch the eye. Let's face it, that is indeed what many of our readers are looking for. I may be able to sell some books based on previous ones, but a book won't sell for very long if people don't like it and recommend it to their friends.

      Anyway, good for you for writing about real people with more on the brain than sex. Those are the ones that last.