I started my local writers’ group a few months ago through my church. Though it’s a church-sponsored event, it is open to anyone and no one is required to write religious material. It is a writers’ group, not an evangelist group. People can bring whatever they want. We have a good time, most of the time. Even my pastor attends.
At our last meeting, we had a great turnout. Plus, everyone had made remarkable improvement since the last gathering. The stories were fantastic. The critique discussions were even better. The new tea selection I brought was awesome. But when it became our romance writer’s turn to read, things took a strange turn.
I could tell she was excited by the way she started reading it so I was excited to hear it. And it really was wonderful! Her scenes were “bumped out” with description and dialogue and the pacing was great and filled with intrigue. As the novel is written in the first person, we reached a section in the middle where the protagonist (female) is thinking about this guy she sleeps with on occasion. The arrangement is not a romance thing. The protagonist is happy with her career-centric life and is fine with being the occasional one-night fling. In fact, the protag is the one who leaves the hot, hunky beefcake in the morning! (I liked that little twist.)
As the protagonist is thinking about her hunky piece of man-meat, she recounts their last few steamy encounters in vivid detail. And as the author is reading this, I can’t help but notice she’s tripping over her own words, sounding less enthusiastic about the story and her protagonist’s explicit thoughts. Her voice is also a little quieter. In the back of my mind I take note that since there is no romance in this story (the protagonist is not interested in love) it’s not the romance genre. It’s technically erotica.
So we’re listening to a portion about this guy’s amazing body and the size of his member and the “motion of the ocean” and suddenly, wouldn’t you know, the author comes to a complete halt in the middle of a sentence.
The room went dead silent. No one made eye contact. We all just stared at our papers, trying to figure out what to do next.
Now keep in mind that I’m sitting between my pastor and the
romance erotica writer. My horror writer looked, well, horrified. His brother was sitting in the chair next to him, paper held high so his brother can’t see him (always awkward with family present). My pastor made no move. And me? Honestly, I just wanted to throw my head back and laugh. You have to admit, it’s kind of funny.
Finally, our intrepid author squirmed in her chair, breaking the awkward silence.
“I’m sorry,” she said while hiding behind her paper, “I can’t read the rest of that.”
No one argued with her. She skipped over the rest of the paragraph and dove back into the story, finishing with a flourish. Everyone heartily agreed that this was her best effort yet and gave our critique, but funnily enough, no one touched the naked bits. Not even me.
Maybe it surprised me so much that I couldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole and a condom. I needed time to think about what had just happened to us. It was too sudden. We were the victims of a naked drive-by.
First off, I don’t have a problem with erotica. I really don’t. (Yes, I’m pretty sure my Christian Card won’t be revoked.) It’s a book. It’s fantasy. It’s expression. Okay, it’s not my thing, but that doesn’t invalidate it as art. And it’s not like people don’t fantasize anyway. What, just because it’s on a piece of paper and not stuffed away in your imagination you’re going to Hell? I don’t think so.
Now that I’ve had a chance to think about her story, I’m pretty sure I know what bothered me about it. Sometimes, as writers (at least as fledgling writers), we want to insert self-gratuitous items. I know Stephany Meyer is picked on frequently so I apologize for using her as an example, but she comes to mind because a lot of criticism about her TWILIGHT series is that she is the protagonist and the stories are her “housewife fantasy” put down on paper.
Every writer has done it. In our heads, we know a certain sentence or paragraph has no business being in the story, but it’s a personal indulgence. As long as the story is only meant for the author to read, it’s fine. Once it’s meant for a wider audience, it’s for the reader. Some of that indulgence has to go the way of the dodo.
This experience has taught me a good rule of thumb. When reading a scene and something starts to sound a little awkward, it probably makes no sense being in there. Because, let’s face it, with the erotica genre, the naked bits all must further a plot. It screams out to be read loud and proud. (Pun intended.)
At least I’m guessing — erotica writers will have to weigh in here. I mean, I’m sure they all have critique groups, just like everyone else. My assumption is that they don’t hand out their work and let everyone excuse themselves, one at a time, to the bathroom where everyone can read in secrecy. They aren’t the lepers of the writing community, as far as I know. Their stories have plots and character development and everything has to make sense.
And that’s the tall order for a novel right there: Whether clothed or nude, every line must count. Every line must further the plot. There is no room for self-indulgence. And then, whether your characters are involved in espionage, a picnic, or dancing the naked mambo (I’m not an erotica writer, sorry), you will be able to read your work loud and proud. No apologies.