Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kindness and contempt

The whole issue of bullying has been in the news and on my mind a lot lately. It’s a social phenomenon that I have tried to understand for many years. My interest in social psychology probably originated with the experience of being bullied for a few years, and of trying to understand the phenomenon so I could get myself out of the victim role.

Bullying ties in with many other curious human behaviours, like misogyny, discrimination, war and other forms of oppression. I've struggled over all of these, trying to understand the mental processes that go into deliberate hurt inflicted by one person on another. Power has a great deal to do with it, of course. The acquisition and exercise of power has many rewards.

And who knows that better than us? One of the reasons this issue is central for me is that the dynamics of power and control of one person over another has always been a preoccupation. I spent years trying to differentiate actual oppression from the fantasies that aroused me. My excruciating empathy for genuine victims could be a stumbling block when it came to the sexuality that ruled me. The two are different – consent and arousal, if nothing else – but there are so many elements in common that the line sometimes blurs. And it’s good to know which side of the line one is on.

Power inequities, objectification, humiliation, loss of choice and freedom, sexual slavery – do these trigger arousal? Or dismay and disgust? Or both? Or does it depend on the context? Probably the latter, most of all. Still, when we cringe at some d/s scene that goes “too far,” is it that line that feels like it’s being crossed?

For me, one of the dividing lines is contempt. Do the oppressors really use their victims as objects without regard for their needs? Or is there genuine caring and respect in the relationship, beneath the trappings of inequality? There are any number of d/s books that I simply won’t touch, not just because they are non-consensual, but because of the contempt the powerful have for their victims. The few scenes I’ve stumbled over haunt me. Contempt is a terribly corrosive and toxic element in almost every context. I don’t say that no one deserves it – I can think of a few right now – but I save my contempt for people who act contemptuously toward those weaker than themselves.

Contempt is not a dividing line for everyone. There are people in the bdsm pantheon that get off on contempt, either inflicted or received. My guess is, however, that however powerful the fantasy may be, most of them want that underlay of caring as well, however subtly it’s expressed.

Kindness, on the other hand, is incredibly powerful emotionally, particularly coming from someone with the full ability to be cruel. (That good old “good cop – bad cop” routine.) How many gut-wrenching scenes can you think of, when some powerful dom allows a glimpse of the humanity and love beneath their hard exterior? How many books do you truly enjoy that don’t include an element of kindness and caring?

Is it the contrast that thrills us? Or perhaps the balance of d/s fantasies and the rational need for connection? What do you think?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Keeping it Vague

Today's topic isn't that sexy or kinky (forewarned!) but it's something that has a lot to do with romance and especially erotic romance. I'd like to talk about character and setting description, and really, description in general.

I've taken a lot of writing classes and learned a lot of general things about description from reading, but one thing I've come to realize is that authors use description in wildly varying amounts. I've also come to realize that for me, personally, there is a threshold after which it becomes TOO MUCH.

Nothing makes me start skimming faster than paragraph after paragraph of vivid description. It's kind of sad, because I know that the author probably spent many hours researching and crafting those descriptive passages. I also know there are readers who appreciate that level of detail. But for me personally, I feel more engaged if I can fill in some of the blanks myself.

For instance, if you tell me a couple is meeting in a cabin, that's not enough information. If you tell me they're meeting in rustic cabin in the woods by moonlight, that's just right for me. I can make the "rustic" look like my own romanticized idea of rustic in my head. I can see the woods and moonlight. It evokes mood.

But if you tell me the couple is meeting at a rustic, ivy-covered cabin in the woods with three rooms and a half-bath, with a tangle of weeds choking the front door and moonlight coming in the floral-becurtained windows and falling across the hand-hewn pine floors, then the eye-rolling will commence. Maybe the author researched carefully to picture this exact setting in her mind, but in describing it in such detail, she takes away my ability to visualize as I'd like to see it. Plus, I start skimming because I'm much more interested in what happens next, not the subtleties of hand-hewn pine.

The same goes for the hero and heroine. My personal preference is for them to be described in specific--but not minute--detail. I don't mind knowing hair and eye color, height and build and even the general character of someone's face, but I don't want to know about every feature and freckle, because I like to fill some of that in myself.

That's not to say there aren't readers out there who are hungry for character and setting detail...who really bask in it. There's a woman in my writer's group who's always nagging at me to add more detail about my hero and heroine's looks. She prefers to have a complete picture painted for her, which is a legitimate reader style.

I guess as an author it's safest to aim somewhere in the middle--providing enough detail that readers can see things in their mind, but not so much detail that it derails the flow of the story.

How do you feel about descriptive details? Are you the type of reader who wants everything painted like a picture, or the type of reader who likes to paint their own picture as you read?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Reading aloud

I met a terrific woman at the MsC conference who asked me to Skype into her kinky book group in November. Which of course I am pleased to do. I asked if she wanted me to read an excerpt, and apparently this hasn’t come up before, but she said yes. And this is something I’m really looking forward to.

For a while there, Pink Flamingo was working to arrange for their novels to be made into audiobooks. This was an exciting idea, and not just for the few bucks in additional royalties. I’m rather fond of audiobooks myself; I’ve listened to a great many, and the thought of one of my own books being in that format was almost as thrilling as seeing my first book in print for the first time.

But after the initial thrill came the doubts. After all, I hear my own words as I write them, and the way I know when a sentence works is when it “sounds” right. Balanced, with the right rhythm, even with a bit of alliteration thrown in…. Could some stranger possibly say it the way it was meant to be said? Could they convey my meaning the way I wrote it? Or would the thing be agony to listen to?

My only experience in this regard is one Nobilis Erotica podcast of an excerpt from As She’s Told. The reader sounded young, nasal and as if she hadn’t read the excerpt ahead of time. She had clearly never heard the word “chattel” in her life and didn’t know how to pronounce it. Wince! Cringe! (All right, I’m a prima donna when it comes to my own words; I totally admit that. Sue me.)

Even a reader with a well-modulated voice can mess up when they lend their voice to the characters. I hate it when female readers drop to the bottom of their range for the men’s voices, and then have nowhere to go to vary the tone. The men come out speaking in gruff monotones. A whole book of that can pall, believe me. Imagine Anders unable to make light, outrageous, offhand demands as well as menacing growls!

And what about accents? Someone from Ohio doesn’t think they have an accent, but wow, do they ever! None of my characters sound like that. The wrong accent would grate abominably.

Really, I would so much rather do my own reading. I actually think I’d be rather good at it. My publisher dismissed this suggestion out of hand, however, and who can blame her? All things considered, it was something of a relief as well as a disappointment when the whole thing fell through.

But here I am, about to read a piece of As She’s Told out loud. I haven’t picked an excerpt yet. I must admit to feeling shy about reading a really raunchy bit (good thing it’s Skype and not in person!). Any suggestions?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Battle of the Kink Levels...or Finding a Book that Hits Your Sweet Spot

BDSM erotic and romance authors have always struggled with a problem. How hard, or soft, should I go?

When you join your local BDSM scene, there's a process to figuring out who plays the way you play, who plays hardcore, who plays softcore, and who's just there to watch. I think it's not that different in the community of BDSM readers. As new readers flock to BDSM fiction due to "gateway" books like Fifty Shades of Grey, even more confusion is added to the mix. All doms aren't like Christian Grey; all subs aren't like Anastasia Steele. What constitutes hot BDSM play is different for everyone.

How are readers to find the BDSM books that hit their sweet spot, especially when it comes to things like level of pain, degree of consensuality, and the balance of romance versus down 'n' dirty power exchange?

WELL! Lucky for you I have developed a simple classification system called the Mild-to-WTF BDSM Romance Rubric. I can't seem to make it post any bigger in Blogger...if it's hard to read you might download it and blow it up in your picture viewer. (Edited...someone told me that doesn't work either. Sorry, I tried...)

See, it's not that complicated. I hope this will make it easier for you to find the books that hit your "sweet spot." :-)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Flavors of BDSM -- Fiction vs Real Life

There are thousands of ways a BDSM relationship can manifest between two (or more) people. It can be mostly D/s with no S&M, it can be all S&M with no power exchange, it can be a combination of D/s and S&M. For those who flavor things with D/s, the submissive can be submissive only during scenes, or only submissive sexually, or submissive for everything. The levels of power exchange can extend from being mostly hands off with only a few rules, all the way to a TPE relationship where practically every minute of the day is micromanaged.

Various fetishes can also come into play -- objectification, medical play, puppy play, age play. These things can also make the relationship look completely different.

As long as there is consent, none of these things are right or wrong.

When we start talking fiction, multiply the possibilities at least ten-fold. Suddenly you can have a situation where money is no object and the slave doesn't need to work, can be isolated and trained, and taken to depths an actual human likely shouldn't be taken. Or you can have an almost all-powerful vampire who can bring the submissive to the point of death and revive them with blood. You also don't have to worry about those real life annoyances like your arms falling asleep when bound to the cross too long, or your knee caps not working if you kneel on a hard floor any time you aren't being used.

Authors can also play around with dubious-consent or even non-consensual fantasies. After all, it's just words on a page, no one is actually being hurt. It's a safe way to explore dark fantasies.

I enjoy reading books where things are taken farther than I can go in real life. I love books that push the envelope, the ones that challenge the boundaries I've erected in my mind. I don't mind the vampire stuff going way out of bounds, but I usually prefer the non-paranormal to stay at least semi-realistic. 

My Safeword series is all consensual, responsible, BDSM. I still head off into adventurous territory, but I want to show it's possible to handle edge play and serious power exchange relationships responsibly. I don't take things farther on the page than can be done in real life, though -- most of my submissives kneel on a soft surface, for instance.

There are some who disagree with me, who say that, as I delve into consensual-non-consent, I've gone beyond the boundaries of responsible. For a couple who doesn't know each other well, I kind of agree with them. However, for a long term relationship with lots of trust and communication? I know it can be done responsibly, because I've lived it. In some ways the reality sucks in comparison to the fantasy, but in other ways it far surpasses the fantasy. I hope to eventually show that dichotomy in a book -- likely the follow-up to Safeword: Matte, if I can ever finish my current WIP.

Eventually, I'll be exploring even darker subjects. Eventually, I'll take better advantage of the whole "fiction" thing, and delve into fantasy even more. For now, I've lots of ideas for stories that will keep everything realistic as I explore edge play.

Do you enjoy reading books that mirror your own preferences? Or you do enjoy reading books that take you farther?