Taking it Down a Notch
When people ask me what I write, I tailor my answer to the crowd. On the internet, or any time I’m going by my pen name, I proudly and gleefully state that I write erotic romance (or shorter: I write smut!). If my kid’s teacher asks, on the other hand, I just say, “Romance novels. Trashy ones. You’re not old enough to read them.” And when my mom’s friends ask me about my books as we’re sipping tea at the country club, wow do I get coy. Some of her friends are among my readers, and some are not, and you really wouldn’t want to confuse the two groups.
Anyway, it’s a long-running joke in my family that at some point I’m going to have to write something I can publish under my real name, so that my mom can show her friends (and I can show my kids’ teachers) something I’ve written…and nobody will get thrown out of the country club, or booted off the PTA. So when I started writing Gossamer Wing, the steampunk book I’d been planning for years, I decided it was time to take the plunge—or rather, it was time to come into the shallows from out of the deep end—and try my hand at writing a mainstream-heat-level romance.
Harder than you might think. Heh. And that “heh” right there is a good example of why it’s so difficult. When you write erotica, you grow accustomed to seeing the world through the lens of double entendre. Especially when you write BDSM erotica, way over there on the far end of the kinkiness spectrum. If all you have is a flogger, eventually everything starts to look like a tush. Since I started out as an erotic romance writer and most of my books are at least somewhat kink-oriented, I had virtually no experience with vanilla romance writing. If I was going to write the stuff, I realized I had to ditch the flogger.
For one thing, there’s the vocabulary to unlearn. I had an epic twitter conversation about this one day with several other writers of varying heat levels, discussing the words we could/couldn’t use for our various imprints. I rely heavily, for instance, on words that rhyme with “snit”, “wussy”, and “shunt” in my erotica writing. Another author couldn’t even get away with using the word that rhymes with “flock”. None of us liked to use the one that rhymes with “stick”, but the historical writers occasionally used that other one that rhymes with “stick”. Lost yet? Maybe you had to be there, but my point is that without those words, I felt kind of lost, and I had to get creative in a whole new way to keep my book’s sexytimes sexy without overdoing it (yeah, I totally still used snit and flock, though).
The other, and perhaps more important thing, was the shift from a sex-centric story to a story that just happened to have a lot of sex in it. In erotic romance, a lot of the story is told through the sex; that’s where the character development takes place, that’s often where the conflict arises, that’s the point of the sub-genre. In Gossamer Wing, though, the story involves a neo-Victorian North America that never was, a robotically enhanced French spy, a hero who builds astonishing gadgetry out of spare parts, and daring airship exploits by the intrepid heroine. They’re saving the world, and when they stop to have sex they’re stopping the action of the book. That was a big problem.
The key, of course, turned out to be using the sex just like I’d always used it—as a vehicle for character development. By keeping the characters’ arcs firmly in mind, I learned to weave the lovin’ into the story in such a way that it didn’t bring things to a grinding—heh—halt (at least I hope it doesn’t). And going through that learning process gave me a whole new appreciation for mainstream romance writers who strike that balance well. After several years of immersing myself in erotic romance, I’ve started reading mainstream romance again (for the first time since my teenage years) and adoring it.
I have no plans to stop writing the hot stuff, but taking it down a notch and going mainstream has been a surprisingly good experience for me both as a writer and as a reader. I’m already working on a sequel to Gossamer Wing, and this time my focus is on learning to switch back and forth between mainstream and erotica writing modes without going too nuts over those words that rhyme with flock, snit, and wenis (nobody finds that one sexy)!
For a peek at the hot stuff (since Gossamer Wing isn’t sold yet) check out Tangled Truth, my latest from Ellora’s Cave. Go ahead, read an excerpt! It’s the third of four books in my contemporary series, Truth & Lies.
Tangled Truth isn’t remotely mainstream, and it features shibari, Japanese rope bondage. Lots of fun! Rhymes with…nah, I got nothin’.