Of Plots and Pants (The Two Methods of Writing Fiction)


By Gamal Hennessy

Humans are predisposed to creating "Us vs. Them" dynamics. We’re getting a heavy dose of that in our current political climate, but we’ve always found ways to divide ourselves according to race, religion, nationality, ideology and dozens of other factors. None of these contrasts matter in the end because we all share a fundamental humanity, except when it comes to writing fiction. That is completely different story (insert sarcasm here).

The Two Travelers

In writing six novels, I’ve found two great paradigms in the craft of fiction writing. Each has its strengths and weaknesses that all aspiring writers should consider. 

On one side we have the “pantser” who writes "from the seat of their pants". They begin with an idea and a blank screen. Then they start writing. Their idea and their inspiration lead the way and to a large extent, the writer follows the creative inspiration until the end of the narrative. There are several well-known proponents of this method. Stephen King and Tom Clancy have published bestsellers in this style and quite a few independent writers I know also support it.

On the other hand, the plotter starts with an idea, but then builds some kind of road map as a guide before writing the manuscript. Some writers call it a plot. Others call it an outline or a script. Robert McKee explored this method in depth in his book Story and I have found that motion picture and graphic novel writers are much more comfortable with the plot method.

In short, a panster is like an archaeologist who "finds" their story as they write it, never completely sure of what they will pull from their subconscious until it’s done. They are like the traveler who takes a trip with the expressed goal of getting "lost" and reveling in the adventure of what they discover.

By contrast, a plotter is closer to an architect who "builds" their story out of models and plans, unwilling to begin construction until they know what the structure will look like. They are the traveler who takes a trip with a map, a GPS, a guidebook and an itinerary of some kind.

I'm not trying to advocate one method over another, because every writer has to find the method and the practice that works with their temperament and lifestyle. I can explain why I plot and how it helps me, in the hopes that this can help you understand your own method better.

The Method to My Madness

All my professional writing has included some kind of plotting. Creating contracts as a lawyer and understanding the development of comics or the production of films all required outlines of various sorts. Now that I publish independently, plotting enhances my structure and my timing in several different ways:

When I write from a plot I can work from the inside out. I understand how each character relates to the others and how the narrative will flow. I can build each beat within a chapter, each chapter within an act and each act within a story. A script might take three months to a year to write, but when I'm finally ready to write the book the writing goes very fast.

In my wild youth, I tried to write a novel by the seat of my pants. It took me ten years to finish and it was such a hot mess at the end that I tossed the entire thing. By contrast, the plot for my upcoming novel Dark Honey will be done in less than a year because I work from a plot.

My plots save me time in the long run because I avoid writing myself into a place I can't get out of. If the story doesn't work on the developmental levels of plot or pitch, it can be reworked or abandoned without much time lost. I'd hate to start something and then have to revamp the whole idea after a year or two of writing. It would be worse to write most or all of a story before figuring out that it needs to be chucked. I've got a lot of plots floating around that I can play with at my leisure. When one ripens, I know it’s a project I can actually finish.

The Map Is Not the Journey

Some might think that writing a plot before writing a novel is less organic and more formulaic. That might be true for some writers, but only if they are too rigid with the plot. As I write, it is normal for my characters and situations to deviate from the original script. I don't see that as a problem. It's a natural part of the journey. It’s like going on a trip; just because you have a map doesn't mean you can't take a detour. The plot is still helpful when this happens, because it will show me where I can regain the narrative thread and where previous material needs to be changed to conform to the logic of this new direction.

Creating a plot is writing by the seat of your pants in an efficient, low risk way. I can play with ideas and see where they take me without trying to manage setting, dialogue, grammar, description and sentence flow at the same time. It's like taking a trip and getting lost in a plane rather than on foot.

Being a plotter instead of a panster is not a superior writing method or a guarantee for success. No matter how you write the first draft, a manuscript still needs multiple rounds of editing and polish. But creating a plot can be helpful if it suits you. I don't think I would write any other way.

So how do you write your novels? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Have fun.



Are You in Love With Your Writing, or Are You In Lust With It?

By Gamal Hennessy

I’m coming out of my summer break from posting and I wanted to jump back into the craft with a few thoughts on a writer’s relationship to their writing.

Before I start, please understand that I'm not an expert on self-publishing. I don't even refer to my business as self-publishing. I call it independent publishing because it implies that I publish outside the traditional publishing system. ”Self-publishing” implies that I do everything myself and that's not true. I have a lot of formal and informal help with my books that make them better than anything I could do alone. I want to acknowledge that every time I talk about this business.(See What is the Difference Between Self-Publishing and Independent Publishing?)

Anyway, I've only been in the game for about two years. As of July 2014, I’ll only have one novel, eight short stories and one anthology to my name. Because I don't have a book publishing background, I spend a lot of time reading and learning about the business. Some of my education comes from research. Most of what I've learned comes from making my own mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes, so I guess I've learned a lot.

I share what little I know through my newsletter, The Independent Publishing Network. Every week I explore the minutiae of an industry that is changing every day. People have told me that information is really helpful, but if I had to boil down all the details of what I know into one piece of advice for a new writer, I would say treat your writing with love instead of lust.

Now what the hell does that mean?

When a person falls in love, they offer their time, energy and creativity to the loved one with enthusiasm. They bring the best aspects of themselves to the process. They make an effort to keep the relationship going, because they want it to last as long as possible. They are always looking for new ways to express their love. They are proud to display that affection in public. Part of what defines the lover is the person they are in love with.

A person in lust wants to get something from the object of their desire as quickly as possible. They are often single minded and ruthless in their pursuits. They jump from target to target, never taking the time to establish a bond or relationship with anyone. They often repeat a scripted pattern of behavior with each new target. They often act in secret or with a certain amount of shame. They are more defined by their hungers than their connections to others.

All this might seem very abstract, but the concept of love vs. lust has concrete applications for an independent publisher.

  • A writer in love with writing wants to publish as many books as they can in their lifetime. A writer in lust with writing wants that one book that will give them money, recognition, sex or whatever it is they are really after.
  •  A writer in love with writing writes about things that they are passionate about. A writer in lust with writing writes stories that they think are "hot" or take advantage of a pop culture trend.
  • A writer in love with writing takes time to learn their craft and find their voice. A writer in lust doesn't want to invest time and effort because they think writing is fundamentally easy. (It’s not.)
  • A writer in love with writing uses social media to make connections with readers and other writers. A writer in lust with writing uses every social media post to scream "please buy my book"
  •  A writer in love with writing reads a lot. A writer in lust with writing is only interested in other writers when he's trying to sell them his book.
  • A writer in love with writing will start on a new project soon after the current one is done. A writer in lust with writing checks the sales figures on their book every thirty minutes instead of writing, hoping they'll see a magical flood of royalties.
  •  A writer in love with writing will experiment and try new things to improve both their writing craft and their publishing business. A writer in lust with writing is looking for that one gimmick or magic bullet that will make his book sell.
  • A writer in love with writing takes pride in their catalog and tries to expose it to you as many people as possible in as many ways as they can. A writer in lust with writing will reject independent publishing as dead after the first book fails because their book isn't a bestseller.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

I'm not trying to imply that I haven't committed lustful thoughts and actions (both inside and outside of writing). As far as the writing is concerned, the things I’ve done based on lust have been some of my biggest mistakes.

I'm not saying that writers in lust always fail and writers in love always succeed.  I am saying that when I started loving the process of writing I had less stress and more fun with the experience. You may or may not become the next Stephen King. If you love what you're doing, it won't really matter.

Have fun.

Levels of Conflict: Hitting Your Hero From All Sides

by Gamal Hennessy

The vast majority of all fictional plots boils down to a struggle to achieve a goal. A protagonist has an object of desire that is material or situational. To get what she wants, your heroine has to exert effort against everything that stands between her and her goal. The power and intensity of her obstacles will define both your heroine and the strength of your story. But where do those obstacles come from and how can we build them into the story in a way that tests the heroine in the most satisfying manner? One answer lies in playing with the different levels of conflict.

Three Levels of Conflict
A level of conflict is a source of antagonism that stands between your protagonist and their goal. Robert McKee's book Story defines three major levels of conflict:
  • Internal: where the thoughts, feelings or physical characteristics of a protagonist block achievement of the goal
  • Interpersonal: where relationships with other people or groups block achievement
  • Extra-personal: where institutions, natural phenomenon and situations block achievement

To put this into perspective, let's say you're writing a story about a boy named Adam living in Jerusalem. Adam has just seen a beautiful Arab girl and in that moment decides that he is in love. What obstacles does Adam face in his quest for a relationship? As a writer, you have several options:
  • Internal: Adam's shyness, lack of experience with women and unattractive features get in the way of his budding romance. 
  • Interpersonal: The girl might resist his advances for her own reasons, or she might have another suitor who wants to remove Adam from the picture. Also, Adam's parents could try to prevent him from getting involved with an Arab girl. The girl's brothers might threaten him with violence.  His own friends might reject him.
  • Extra-personal: The wider Arab Israeli conflict could also inhibit our hero. Hezbollah bombings into the settlements could disrupt Adam's life or create a curfew situation. A suicide bomb could destroy everything or even kill the girl. Protests, strikes or other mass social events could tear their relationship apart before it even gets started.

This is just a few examples of what Adam is up against. If he is able to win this girl's love, the obstacles he'll have to overcome could make an amazing story.

The Different Directions of Conflict

After you determine the conflict against your hero, you have three main choices when deciding on the direction you’d like to go with each one:
  • Broad: where the protagonist has to deal with conflict on each level, either at once or simultaneously
  • Deep: where the conflict is primarily on one level, but the impact on that level is this hammers at the core of the character
  • Compound: where the conflicts are both broad and deep and the hero fights intense battles on all fronts to achieve their goal.

The direction you choose is often a function of genre. An action adventure might have heavy interpersonal and extra personal conflict when the hero battles the arch villain on the top of a mountain in a blinding snow storm. A cozy mystery might have strong internal focus as the detective quietly strains her intellect to solve the crime. Every style of writing can tap into each type of conflict, but some genres lend themselves to specific conflict types.

Conflict as Spotlight

The best way I've found to develop conflict in my work is to focus on the aspects of my protagonist that I want to reveal and then creating conflicts that explore those traits. One of my main characters is a young woman named Nikki. She wants the affection of her mentor and lover Chris. To show her dedication to this goal, I put several obstacles in her path in the first twenty five pages of the book.

Nikki has to deal with the extra personal danger of spying on the Russian mafia for Chris. She has to face the interpersonal roadblocks of abusive teammates. The internal doubt she has about who Chris really is and her own feelings for him create the largest source of conflict. As the story progresses, each level of conflict deepens and interacts with the others to build a story that reveals Nikki's true character as the narrative unfolds. (See Creating Complex Characters)

The best stories have the strongest conflicts. While it's not necessary to throw every obstacle at every character in every story, a weak story is most often the result of weak antagonists. Pit your heroine against the strongest combination of antagonism that you can think of. Your readers will thank you for it.

Have fun.

Analysis of Story Structure Part 1: The Chapter

by Gamal Hennessy

Exploring the building blocks of story is a helpful exercise in the development of any novel. Writers who plot can use this technique to help map a story’s progression (See Building a Better Story Part 3: Plot Construction). Discovery Writers can use it during their rewrite phase to understand how the story developed. They can also use it to modify elements that might inhibit the flow of the narrative. (See Plot vs Pants: Which Road Do You Choose?) This essay will look at the second level of story structure, the chapter. I plan to discuss beats, sequences, acts and sequels in later posts.

Disclaimer: The foundation of this method comes from the screenwriting book, Story.  I've modified it slightly for my own personal use.

The Story within a Story

In an ideal scenario a chapter is a miniature version of a story. It has all the structural components of a full novel in a compact form (See Building a Better Novel Part 2: The Narrative Framework). The goal of these ”mini stories” two fold; we want to move the story forward and reveal aspects of the characters. These goals are achieved when each chapter alters the condition of the characters on some level. The change can be minor or major. The change can be positive, negative or a bit of both. The change can be internal, interpersonal or extra personal. But in almost all cases, we need to create some change that drives the overall narrative and shows us who the characters are (See Creating Characters We Want to Know)

Felt but Not Seen

When the structure of a story works well it is similar to the structure of a building. People can enjoy the effects without thinking about or even noticing the details. For example, I work in an office building every day. The only time I notice the structure of the building itself is when something doesn't work. The same concept applies in your story. If a casual reader is picking out each element in your narrative, then they are not fully engaged in the story. Of course, a fellow writer might look at your story structure in the same way a building engineer instinctively looks at the working of a building. The casual reader shouldn't notice those things.

The Elements of a Chapter

I identify five fundamental structural elements in any chapter in a story.
  • POV: This gives the reader the emotional perspective that you want them to follow and understand (See Managing Emotional Points of View
  • Situation: This orients the reader in time and space, giving them an understanding of the character’s relationship to their world 
  • Desire: This expresses what the POV characters want, whether it is their ultimate goal in the story or just a step that brings them closer to that goal. 
  • Beats: The sequence of action and reaction designed to dramatize conflict.
  • Turning Point: The action or revelation that changes the condition of the POV character
  • Outcome: The result of the character's pursuit of desire. The outcome in most chapters plays a role in the situation and desire of the next chapter.


The chapter structure does not require anything long, elaborate or convoluted. Consider this:

Jacob stormed up to the trailer with his Louisville slugger clutched tight in his gnarled fist. Lucky wanted to put his dirty paws on Ella? Let's see him try that with broken fingers. Jacob banged the handle of the bat on the flimsy door. It felt good to do that. If Lucky didn't open it and open it fast, it would only take a couple of swings to knock it down. Jacob had a mind to tear down the whole damn trailer.

Jacob never fired a shotgun before, but he knew the sound it made before it went off. His aunt Tee said it was a sound God created to drive off the spineless. Jacob wasn't spineless. He wasn't stupid either. The click clak of the shotgun on the other side of Lucky's door sent him diving for the mud. Splinters rained down on him. All the sound got sucked out of his ears. Jacob swallowed hard to keep his heart and his lunch from shooting up into his throat and choking him to death. Then he moved his ass.

Jacob scrambled away from the trailer on his hands and knees. He forgot about the Louisville slugger. He wasn't gonna get Ella back from Lucky with that.

My hope is that you can not only see the basic elements in that passage, but that you were also entertained enough to ignore the structure while you were reading.

Exposition and Non Events

If the goal of a chapter is moving the story forward and revealing character through conflict then there are two ways that a chapter can fail on a structural level. The first problem is referred to as exposition. This occurs if a recitation of facts is placed in a narrative for any reason other than the progress of conflict in the story. For example, in the recent series of Batman films, Bruce Wayne inherits a multi-billion dollar enterprise that seemingly built, controls and pays for most of Gotham City. No attempt is ever made to explain where this money comes from or even how much money he has. This wasn't left out because it's a "comic book movie". It's left out because it has nothing to do with telling the story. It is exposition that needs to be left out.

The second problem is the related issue of a non-event. This occurs when the condition of the characters in the end of the chapter is the same as it was in the beginning. These are the mundane events that provide no insight into the character and don't move the story along either. This is why as writers we leave out every shower, meal and bathroom break that doesn't directly impact the story. Sitting down to eat a ham sandwich often doesn't have a turning point, unless the meal is transcendent.

Stealing this for Your Own Purposes

If you want to look at the structure of your chapters, all you have to do is answer the following questions of each chapter in isolation:
  1. Who is this chapter about?
  2. Where are they in the story?
  3. What do they want?
  4. How do they try to get what they want?
  5. Who or what tries to stop them?
  6. Do they succeed or fail? What is the outcome?

Do you think this kind of analysis is helpful for your fiction? Do you already do something like this, or do you have your own method? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Have fun.

Building the Better Novel, Part Three: Plot Construction

I apologize for jumping between my essays on plot development (See Part 1: Foundation and Part 2: Framework) and independent publishing issues (See Finding an Editor and The Cost of Independent Publishing). In a perfect world,  I would write these as two distinct series and not mixed together. In the real world, I'm releasing one novel and plotting another while a third manuscript waits for editing. I write essays based on what I'm working on at the time, hence the bouncing from one subject to another. The world of an independent publisher isn't perfect,  but it is fun.

Before I got sidetracked, I broke down my plot development process into the foundation where the book is conceptualized and the framework where the broad outline of the book is laid out. The next step in my process is to add structure to the frame through the use of beats, chapters, and acts. By linking each one of these parts into the framework of the overall concept a plot can take shape.

The Beat
According to Robert McKee's Storya beat is an process of action and reaction. For example, a man and a woman are having a pleasant dinner when, he gets down on one knee and proposes marriage. The proposal is the action. Her response is the reaction.

Not all beats need to be that momentous or interpersonal. A woman who decides to hit the snooze button instead of getting out of bed. The alarm is the inanimate action and her snooze is the reaction. If a man washes his car and it starts to rain, it is an extrapersonal action reaction of cruel irony.

The Chapter
Existence is full of random beats, but writers who plot use the beats to move the story forward. A chapter is a series of beats that alters the conditions or situation of the characters. In our dinner chapter above, we have the action of the proposal and her reaction of saying yes or no. This sequence of events changes the situation of the characters and moves the story. She says yes and he experiences marriage. She says no and he faces rejection. She says maybe and he faces doubt. Any way you slice it, his situation changes and propels the story forward.

There one thing I have been taught about chapters is that the condition of the characters has to change on some level. In screenwriting I've heard this referred to as "turning the scene". If everything is the same for the character at the end of the chapter as it is in the beginning,  then the chapter does not move the story and is what's called non event that doesn't need to be in the story. For example, the shower that the man took before the proposal dinner and the ride he took to the restaurant don't move the story, so they are non events that can be skipped over. Putting in a non event kills the momentum and interest in the story in almost all cases.

Ideally, a chapter serves as a mini story with a beginning, a middle and an end. The characters are in one position at the start of the chapter. They move through beats and levels of conflict that are either internal,  interpersonal, extra personal or all three at once. The situation at the end of each chapter becomes the beginning of the next chapter. It is similar to episodic television,  where the overarching plot is broken down into smaller events that move toward the endgame. One of the reasons I started writing short stories before I tackled a novel was to get the feel of building a beginning middle and end in only a few pages (You can read some of my short fiction for here)

The Act
An act is a series of scenes that represent major milestones in a story. In the same way we discussed the beginning middle and end (See Framework), the acts can loosely represent this progression.

Story talks about absolute irreversible change between acts, where the level of conflict and the level of willpower and effort increases with each act, so that the protagonist can't go back to lesser effort or lesser actions in the pursuit of their desire. I don't know if this is true in all cases and genres, but I have adopted it for my use.

Most stories can be defined by the number of acts they have. A short story often has one. The novella has two. The novel has at least three. But some stories break this convention. Shakespeare's work often has five acts, Raiders of the Lost Ark has seven. You can have any number of acts that fit your work, but because of the beginning, middle, end concept, three is the norm for most novels.

How I Build a Plot
  • I layout my foundation and my framework in front of me to show where the acts are and where I'm going. 
  • Then I map out the chapters to show me how I'm going to get there. 
  • Next I build in the beats for each chapter with one sentence descriptions of action and reaction.
Once I've gone through the whole story I work backwards.  
  • I look at each beat and make sure it fits within the logical framework of the foundation of the story and its overall direction. 
  • I examine the structure of each chapter to figure out what goes where, what happens before or after something else and where the subplots, if any, need to go. 
  • Finally, I look at the acts and see if the pace and flow of the story works.
At that point I make myself a drink because I have a plot.

There are certain things that I put in the plot and things I always leave out. The goal of the protagonist in each chapter is explicitly stated in each chapter of the plot. Their emotions as the beats move also gets written down. Any research I need to do, hints or foreshadowing that needs to occur, and implications for other chapters is duly noted. Description, dialogue or other spontaneous details don't go in the plot. I save that for later.

The plot is highly adaptable and fluid at this stage. New subplots and chapters can be added in. Many chapters can be split up, combined or thrown away completely. The beginning,  middle and end can change quickly and easily. Anything can change if it serves the story. Characters sit next to you and offer their opinions. 'I would try to do this', 'I would never say that.' New connections are made and seeds are planted not just for this novel but for other stories down the line. It is like building with Lego. I've got a good idea of what it's supposed to look like, but I'm free to add, subtract and adapt.

Controlling Ideas
As the plot takes shape, the theme or controlling idea comes into focus. The controlling idea is the overall statement describing what they story is about. It is not just a stated value like love, truth or justice. It is a statement that states why a value undergoes change. Once I understand this idea, it will influence everything that I think of as I actually write the manuscript.

Write the Damn Book Already
Once the foundation has been established, the framework has been laid out and the plot has been based on that work, writing the book can actually happen. This three part preparation often takes time, but it makes the actual writing much easier for me. For my last manuscript it took about eight months of working on it off and on to go through all three steps. Writing the actual manuscript took six months or about 3,000 words per week. I still altered the plot while I was writing, but I never had writer's block or wrote myself into a place I couldn't get out of. I plan to start writing the next novel in January. It should be ready for beta reading by May.

I know this process isn't for everyone (See Plotter vs. Pantser). Many writers are struck with a flash of inspiration and rush to the computer. They write for as long as the Muse guides them and the results are based largely on spontaneous creativity (See How Much Inspiration Do You Need?). There is nothing wrong with that. This is the process that works for me. It's not better or worse, it's just different. If you find something here worth stealing, please be my guest. If not, at least you got some idea of how the other half writes.

Have fun.

Just How Much Does It Cost to Publish a Book Anyway?

One of the growing clichés in independent publishing is that getting a book to market is cheap and easy. The reality can often be quite different, although it is certainly cheaper to go out on your own than it was five or ten years ago. The problem is I haven't seen many stories that define exactly what "cheap" means. Many of the comments on my last essay (See How to Find an Editor Without Going Insane) revolved around the cost of my editor. Since there might be a shortage of independent publishing economics out there, it makes sense for me to expand my costs beyond editing to the entire publishing process for my upcoming book Smooth Operator.

Disclaimer: Prices may vary. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Prices do not include tag, title or taxes. Check with your local dealer for details.

The Elements of Book Publishing
When I was in house counsel for an anime and manga company, the price we paid to sell comics and video (what real business people refer to as the cost of goods sold) were divided into five parts; acquisitions, production, advertising, sales and finance. I decided to break my costs down the same way.

Acquisition in this context means the creation of the manuscript. I set this cost at $0, even though there is a significant number of man hours put into the process (See Building the Better Novel series of posts). In addition there is an associated opportunity cost for lost wages that I could have made doing something else. I'm not smart enough to figure what that cost is, so I set it at zero to keep things simple.

Production has four costs:
  • Editing: $1,200 from Create Space (See How to Find an Editor). Other editors charged per word or per page for a 75,000 word manuscript and most of the prices were in this range.
  • Cover Design: $10 I do my cover design in house for the most part (because it's cheaper and kind of fun to do), but I get royalty free images from istockphoto.com and $10 covers the licensing cost of a decent sized image.
  • Formatting: $40 from a program I called Jutoh that can create e-books in most major formats. Because I plan to use this program for all my books, I could amortize the cost across all titles, but for the sake of this exercise, I'll count the entire cost here.
  • Printing: $250 Create Space offers printing on demand, but there is an initial set up fee for this service (Note: if you only release an e-book, this cost is zero. I'm only adding it in because vanity compels me to put my books on my shelf.)
Production Subtotal: $1,490

Advertising has two costs: 
  • Online Advertising: $50. This will be split between Google and FB ads for a week after the launch of my book to specific demographic groups that are interested in my genre (See the Secret Struggle for the Magic It)
  • Press Release: $60 through pr.com on the day the book launches. Again this will be a targeted release that will improve the SEO of the book as well as notify the relevant journalists and bloggers.
Advertising Subtotal: $110

Sales: $0 When people say independent publishing is cheap, this is what they mean. I'm planning to use Kindle Direct Press for at least one cycle, but even if you use Smashwords, Kobo or Nook, there are no upfront costs for registration, distribution, shipping, storage, returns, or all the other little costs that publishers normally deal with. Of course, online book outlets take a significant percentage the revenue from each sale, but everybody has to eat somehow.

Finance: $0 I have a separate account for my publishing company and there are fees associated with maintaining that, but I don't factor that in here because I'd be paying those fees either way and this is complicated enough already.

Total Cost to publish Smooth Operator: $1,600

Of course, each of these costs could be boiled down to almost zero or expanded to tens of thousands of dollars depending on the writer. The key is to find a cost that fits within your budget and helps you create the best book possible.

Profit, Loss and Breakeven
Once I know how much my book costs, I can figure out how many books I need to sell for it to be financially successful. A book breaks even when the number of books sold equals the cost of making the book. When I was at Marvel, they had a complicated spreadsheet (called a P&L or Profit and Loss statement) that laid this out in great detail. My method is similar, but not as fancy because again, my brain capacity is limited.

The formula is simple: Breakeven number of books = Revenue per book/ $1,600

If my book sells for $2.99 and my share of each Amazon sale is 70%, I make about $2 per book. If that's true, then I need to sell 800 books to breakeven. Every book sold after that is pure profit that I can horde in my basement and swim around in like Scrooge McDuck from Duck Tales. It also follows that the more I can reduce my costs the fewer books I need to sell to break even. A higher per book price also reduces that number, but you don't want to set the price so high that readers won't take a chance on you.

Business vs. Pleasure
Now, I don't have a basement. And I won't be swimming in a pool of money from the sale of Smooth Operator. In fact, the chances that the book will breakeven are quite small. But that's OK. By definition, independent publishing is not a cash cow. If I just wanted to make money, I'd invest in the defense industry or start a meth lab. There are many other reasons to publish besides money (See The Other Benefits of Independent Publishing), but that doesn't mean the profits and losses don't matter. Understanding the financial aspects of independent publishing are just as useful as learning to build web pages or understand social media. Publishing can become a vehicle for broad types of learning, even if you can't make a swimming pool out of the profits.

As always, please let me know what you think of my random rambling.

Have fun.

How Much Inspiration Do You Need?

My essay last week on plotting vs. spontaneous writing generated a lot of debate online (See Plot vs. Pants). It also raised a deeper question for me about ideas and inspiration; how much inspiration does a writer need to start creating a novel?

In the Beginning
The start of my own creative process is a mental Frankenstein. It could start with from a book, movie or video game (See Bloody Inspiration Film, Graphic Novels and Books).  Then add in something that I haven’t seen that I’d like to create. Throw in a real world issue that catches my eye and season it with my own philosophical perspective. Bake for several days or weeks and presto…I’ve got my inspiration.  

For example, my next novel Smooth Operator is definitely a cobbled together concept. Books like Rain Fall and 100 Bullets inspired the tone and the characters. My own interest in corporate spy companies and new forms of organized crime channeled my focus. The tactics and world view of Robert Greene and Machiavelli rounded out the message to create the Life and Crimes of Warren Baker.

But I don’t start writing a novel with just an idea. I spend some time developing it into a story. I imagine the beginning, the middle and the end (actually, the process works better when I think up the end, the beginning and the middle). I look at the characters, including their motivations, conflicts and resources. I cut the story into acts, the acts into chapters and the chapters into beats. I get a feel for the genre, setting, time period and the duration of the story. If all the idea can remain viable after it goes through that plotting process, then I start writing my novel. If not, it goes into the idea file to be played with at a later date.

Are Six Words Enough?
Writers who plot might recognize some of their own method in the process I described. But what happens if a writer creates by the seat of their pants? Several writers have told me that they follow an idea and start writing to see where the idea takes them. How much of an idea gets them going? Is it a detailed nightmare or a recurring dream?  Is it a photo in a magazine or an overheard conversation? Is it a character imagined over time or a phrase as simple as a woman walks into a bar? I know ideas can’t be measured like pounds of chocolate or gallons of whiskey, but I am intrigued to find out if spontaneous writers have a threshold of inspiration that guides them to creativity.

Can you share your idea to writing process? If so, please feel free to share.

Have fun.


Do You Really Need to Quit Your Day Job?

When I look at writer’s forums online, I often get the impression that every writer is striving for the day when they can quit their day job and spend the whole day with their craft. I know the feeling. I’d love to wake up around noon, write for a few hours and then meet friends for happy hours that would turn into late night drinking sessions and dancing. It seems like a natural goal to pursue.

But how realistic is it?

I came across this graphic today while I was wasting time on Facebook. I don’t know if it is true or not, but for some reason it made me happy. Maybe it validates all of us who write and work a day job. Maybe it elegantly separates the quality of writing from financial success. Maybe it’s a warning to any of us who think we’re going to get rich just by being good writers.  (See the Other Benefits of Independent Publishing)

I’m sharing this with you because I’m pretty sure you have a day job as you pursue your dreams as a writer. Congratulations. You are in very good company.

Have fun

On Writing: A Book Review

I've never been a Stephen King fan. Sure, I've seen The Shining, Misery, Thinner, Carrie and the first thirty minutes of the Tommyknockers but that's it. I never read a King book. I've never related to his genre, his characters or the small American towns where his novels seem to be set. More than that, his books are huge! I never found the incentive to invest that kind of reading effort on a story that was bigger than a college text book.

I carried all this baggage with me when I started to read On Writing. I picked it up because several other authors sang its praises. I normally ignore other people's opinions on things like books and movies, but without a formal teacher of my own I was willing to steal good ideas from anyone. King is successful, right? That had to count for something.

I realized that King is one of the most well known writers of the last century for a reason. He has a gift for telling a story and he knows a hell of a lot about the craft.

The book is broken into four parts; his past as a struggling writer, his battles with addiction, his insight into writing and a post script about the car accident that almost killed him. The first and final parts of the book capture King as a storyteller. I listened to the audio version of the book.  King became that eccentric uncle who can sit on the porch and hypnotize you for hours with his stories. The style was fantastic, even when describing the fear and pain he suffered being hit by a truck.

The third section touched on a variety of concepts around writing. Some of them made perfect sense to me. I stole those ideas. Others made no sense and I rejected them with more than a little malice. Because the book was written in 1999, it doesn't address independent publishing, e-books or social media. That aspect of the book made the whole thing feel dated, but not so much that it reduced the quality of the advice.

The second portion of the book felt like a cautionary tale. Like other celebrities, fame and fortune were followed by addiction. His struggle for success was replaced by a struggle to stay sober. I walked away from that part of the book understanding that there will always be something to struggle with as a writer whether it is in your craft, your finances, your relationships or your health. The type of struggle might change but successful writers have problems too. (See The Benefits of Rejection)

On Writing is not my favorite book on the subject; that title is reserved for McKee's Story. But King has given writers a great gift with this book. If you can only read one Stephen King book, make it this one.

Have fun.

Fictional Seduction in Five Easy Steps

Spring is (almost) in the air, and with it comes the traditional season of love and romance. I’ve been discussing the role of fictional seduction over the past two weeks, so this is a good time to walk through the seductive process and how it comes into play in writing.

Why Is This Important?

It is helpful for writers, readers and people in general to understand the elements of seduction in the same way they benefit from understanding the elements of story. Seduction, in fiction or reality, is a story with a distinct beginning, middle and end. It might only be a subplot of a story and it might not have any sexual component at all, but when it is well written, a seduction can be as satisfying as any good mystery, horror story or dramatic prose.

Sources and Methods

I’m not trying to suggest that I am an expert in seducing women. I have had far more failures than successes in my life. I have become a student of the seductive process and this essay is derived from some prominent writing on the subject including Robert Greene’s Art of Seduction, Ellen White’s Simply Irresistible, Erik Von Markovik’s Mystery Method and Ovid’s Art of Love. Each of these books approaches the process from a different angle, and this distillation is not an exhaustive description, but it’s a good primer for understanding the process.

Please note, that for our purposes the person doing the seducing is referred to as the artist and the person being seduced is referred to as the muse. Either person can be male or female. The time frame is open ended depending on the circumstances and the people involved.

The Seductive Process

Part 1 The Approach: Introduction leads to curiosity
In this element, the lovers do not know each other, or they know each other but do not see each other as potential partners yet. The key here is for the artist to stand out from the rest of the world in a way that captures the muse’s attention long enough to lead them into the next element.

Part 2 The Lure: Curiosity leads to attraction
Once a muse notices the artist, it is essential for them to find reasons to be drawn to and interact with them. The reasons can be artistic, financial, mental, sexual, social, spiritual or a combination of any of these depending on the lovers. The key is for the artist to find out what the muse wants and then showing that the artist can satisfy those needs. The primary connection here is intellectual because the lovers are engaging their imagination about what the affair could be.

Part 3 The Expression: Attraction leads to affection
At some point a love affair must feed the intimate needs of the lovers. This element often refers to sexual expression, but not every love affair includes sex between the lovers. Every form of expression does include an intense intimate connection that brings the lovers together while at the same time fulfills a basic emotional need. The primary connection here is sensual because the lovers are now engaging on a more physical level.

Part 4 The Bonding: Affection leads to connection
After the intense connection created by expression, lovers often feel safer sharing more of their individuality. This moves the love affair beyond the physical. Communication between them increases in breadth and intensity. Bonding doesn’t occur all at once. Often it is a process that occurs over many types of communication over an extended period of time. The key here is building trust that is essential for a deeper love affair. The primary connection here is emotional because both lovers are more vulnerable once the lovers move past the initial expression.

Part 5 The Comfort: Connection leads to integration
In a long term love affair, the lovers become part of each other’s lives. The initial novelty and uncertainty is replaced with complexity and intimacy. It is important to realize that comfort does not mean complacency. It does not mean a reduction in effort or an assumption that the lover will never leave no matter what you do. If anything, both lovers have the chance and the challenge to pursue and explore each other in ways that they would never be comfortable with in the earlier stages. The primary connection here is spiritual because it is at this point where the lover begins to define themselves in relation to the loved one.

Seduced by the Seductive Process

I have been fascinated by the seductive process ever since my divorce nine years ago. My two upcoming books both explore the seductive process in different ways. Smooth Operator focuses on the way money, ideology, coercion and excitement can be used to seduce, depending on the muse. A Taste of Honey goes deeper into the seductive process and how it can be used to deceive both the muse and the artist. I hope both books will be enlightening about this fundamental human connection as well as being entertaining.

Stay tuned.

Have fun.

How Do You Define a “Successful” Writer?

The explosion of independent publishing has created a niche market of books all claiming to help you become a better writer. Some of them focus on the craft of writing. Others focus on the business aspects. All of them purport to transform you into being a successful.

But what exactly does that mean?

Is it defined by sales? I doubt that. A poorly written book could have great sales and a well written book could have poor sales for any number of factors that have nothing to do with the writing. There have been many great writers who died penniless. Does that make them failures?

Does it come from critical acclaim? Perhaps, but good reviews could come from friends, connections, reciprocal good reviews or sock puppets. At the same time, a great book might not have any reviews at all. There is very little direct correlation between good reviews and success.

Must a successful writer possess enduring value? Are you successful only if your work is used by English professors decades after your dead? Does your name have to rise to the pantheon of authors like Poe, Hemingway and Shakespeare? This feat surely marks you as a successful writer. The only problem with this benchmark is that you probably have to be dead before it kicks in. Who wants to wait for all that?

What if your book brings you a large amount of notoriety? That doesn’t make you a successful writer. You may simply be writing about a timely, controversial topic. You might have a magnetic, extroverted charm that the media is drawn to. Fame doesn’t make you a successful writer any more than it makes Honey Boo Boo a good actress.

So it’s not sales, reviews or notoriety. It’s not awards, volume of output or likes on Facebook. It’s not the ability to make a living as a writer, especially if you’re miserable. It’s not even the technical polish of a professional manuscript. So what makes a successful writer? Ultimately, every writer has to define this for themselves based on their goals and expectations, but I’ve come up with a definition that I plan to use going forward;

A successful writer has the ability to consistently increase one or more of their resources through the creation and distribution of their craft.

By “resources”, I mean your intellectual, financial, social or physical capital. So if writing broadens your mental horizons, increases your financial status, widens your social circles or improves the quality of your life over time, then you are a successful writer. I will admit that it is not the most measurable criteria in the world, but it’s better than waiting until English professors start forcing kids to read my books.

So how do you define a successful writer?

Have fun.

The Secret Struggle for the Magic It (How to Write Spy Fiction)

According to Robert McKee’s excellent book on screenwriting, you can’t write in a particular genre until you understand the conventions and elements that it demands. This is one of the reasons that writers who strive to improve their craft benefit from reading the work of others who have mastered a specific genre.

In developing the script for my own novel, I also created my own understanding of the elements of the spy fiction genre. I’d like to share this concept here (along with pertinent examples where I can find them) in the hopes that it will help increase your appreciation of both the spy fiction specifically and the creation of genre fiction in general.

The Elements of Spy Fiction
Based on my exposure to classic and modern spy fiction, there are three fundamental elements that can be described simply as the secret struggle for the magic it. I’ll break down these concepts to make them more understandable:
  1. The “Magic It”: There is a person, object or piece of information that drives the story. Whatever this “it” happens to be, it is so important that people are willing to kill and risk their lives for it. For example, in Skyfall the “magic it” starts off as a list of undercover agents (information). In Spy Game, the “magic it” is the spy held in the Chinese prison that is scheduled to be executed (person). In The Hunt for Red October, the “magic it” is a rouge nuclear submarine (very large object).
  2. The Opposing Groups: There are at least two people, agencies, or countries struggling to acquire whatever the “magic it” happens to be. For example, in Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy the opposing groups are the British Circus and Moscow Center. In La Femme Nikita the opposing groups are Covert One and Red Cell, while The Bourne Identity pits rival factions within the CIA itself as the opposing groups.
  3. The Secret Struggle: For reasons that are inherently logical to the story, the opposing groups need to keep their conflict hidden from the outside world. This is what separates spy fiction from most mysteries, thrillers and legal or police suspense novels. Both the protagonist and the antagonist work from the shadows, employing similar techniques of stealth and deception. In many spy classics, it is often difficult to tell who the “good” and “bad” guys are based purely on what they do. This gray area is one of the elements that make stories like The Gentleman’s Game, Rain Fall and Ronin so compelling. The definitions of right and wrong often boil down to malleable issues of money, ideology, coercion and excitement.

Applying the Elements to My Own Work

The premise of the book I am writing now involves a young spy who is forced to infiltrate an international smuggling ring by seducing the leader of the group. The “Magic It” here is information. The protagonist has to find proof that her lover is tied to arms smuggling. There are two opposing groups; the mercenary spies sent to infiltrate the smugglers and the smugglers themselves. Both groups need to use secrecy and deception, either to illegally ship weapons around the world or get into a position to stop those shipments. By creating a story that satisfies the elements of spy fiction, I can build a stronger narrative that can hopefully appeal to the millions of people who devour this genre every year in books, TV shows and movies.

The Dark Side

While understanding the conventions of any fictional genre can satisfy the expectations of the audience, writers must, at the same time, be very aware of the clichés that are particular to their genre. Avoiding these pitfalls is the difference between creating a classic story and a half-baked mess. Next week, I’ll try to define what the differences are between conventions and clichés and explain how my novel will try to rise above the ordinary.

So what are the elements of your favorite fictional genre? How do your favorite books capture or transcend the conventions of the genre and redefine them? Let me know what you think in the comments...

Have fun.

Is the Self-Published Book Always Inferior to Traditionally Published Book?

The Publishing Snob

I have come across a fairly persistent bias in my brief cybernetic wandering through the self-publishing world. There seems to be an idea that a self-published book can’t be as good as a similar book coming from an established publishing house. As a self-publisher, my first instinct is to reject this idea as propaganda from a desperate publishing industry and feigned elitism from those writers who can’t let go of the old 20th century model. But the more I think about it, the more I think that they might be right, for now.

What Does “Inferior” Mean?
Keep in mind, when I talk about the difference between an inferior and a superior book, I am not talking about the quality of the story. I have read quite a few books from prominent authors and released by prestigious publishing houses that were simply horrible when it came to the actual story. We have all read plenty of mainstream books with two dimensional characters, plots riddled with clichés and created as pure money grabs. There are also brilliant writers who are crafting beautiful stories and releasing the books independently. The quality of the story is not determined by who does or doesn’t publish it.

I’m also not sure that sales can be a definite indicator of a book’s superiority. It is a highly touted concept that most self-published books don’t recoup their costs. I think that is true, but I think it is also true that most books that come out of traditional publishing don’t make back the money spent on them. So if the majority of books on both sides fail financially, the potential profit of a book might not have any connection to how it got published.

The Publisher’s Advantage
I have dipped my toes in e-book publishing for six months now. At this point, I can see that there are clear advantages that a publisher brings to the table. The secret is expertise and division of labor. Here are some likely facts about a book that has been released by a publishing house:
  • It has been vetted by a series of professionals for its market potential
  • It has been professionally edited, proofread, re-written and positioned in the market
  • It has been professionally packaged in terms of cover design, copy writing and formatting
  • Someone was willing to take a financial risk in releasing that book

Self-published books can be released without any of these factors coming into play. With today’s technology and distribution channels, a passionate and inspired writer (or anyone for that matter) can release a book without doing anything to create a polished product. We can to everything ourselves, even if we shouldn’t. The result is hundreds of thousands of books that don’t look or read as well as a traditionally published book. That is where the bias comes from. The ability that we have to circumvent the old system has robbed us of the benefits of that system.

Change My Title to Change the Game
I have no interest in going the traditional publishing route because I believe artistic freedom and innovation are greater in self-publishing. But I do think there is something to learn and even steal from the old guard. I haven’t given up on being independent. I have given up on being just a writer. I have expanded my focus from the story to the book.

A writer has a limited set of concerns and skills. We deal in plot, character, subtext and all the literary building blocks of our craft. But the story is only the first step in the book. It has to be refined, polished and packaged for consumption. It has to go through the same process as it would in a traditional publishing scenario. The only difference now is that I have to be more than the writer. I have to be the publisher.

That means I have to create the publishing process. I have to test the market to make sure the concept is viable. I have to hire the team of experts to create the polish. I have to manage the process. I have to position the book and build the audience. I have to take the financial risk. I can’t just write the story. I have to publish the books.

Remembering the Goal
I don’t read books based on whether they are self-published or not. I pick them up when they catch my attention and make me curious. I read them because they hold my interest. I remember them because they made me think and feel something. That is what I want to create for you in the end. I want to create the stories that will stick with you. If I do my job as a publisher properly, you’ll appreciate my effort as a writer much more. You won’t be able to tell the difference between my books and the ones coming out of Random House. Then you can focus on the story, which is all that really matters in the end.

Have fun.

We Are Not United States

Our states are not, nor have they ever been, united. 

We are constantly at odds with each other over race, class, education, income, gender, health, sexual preference, sexual identity, sexual expression, religion, ethics, morals and culture. We do not share the same dreams, the same goals or the same fundamental perspectives on reality. 

The political alliances or connections we do make are often temporary and motivated primarily by our own self-interest. We have used this reality as both a collective strength and contentious weakness. But we are not together. We never have been together. 

The United States of America is not an honest name for our country. The Divided States of Discord is a much more accurate description.

Have fun voting (or not)

Should E-books Be Free (and have ads in them?)

I’ve got a lot of responses from last week’s article on using free books now to attract fans that will pay for books later. I started thinking more about the concept after the post and realized that in a lot of ways mediums like TV, radio and apps already have a model that makes money while giving the product away for free; ad supported content. Maybe this concept can work for e-books as well.

As a reader and an author, what is your position on ads in e-books? Do you think the business model of free books supported by ads is a viable? I know Amazon and Microsoft have explored this option on a corporate level, but do any of you have experience doing it on the self-published level?

Also, does anyone have any companies or advertising networks they could recommend if someone did want to explore the e-book advertising option?

Thanks in advance.

Selling Books Like a Drug Dealer: Free vs. Almost Free

How much would you pay for an e-Book?
In 2012, price is an amorphous concept in digital publishing. I read more than a few books for free. I have rejected a book priced at $4.99 because I didn’t think it was worth it. I have paid more than $10 for a book I really wanted. You can’t nail it down. It all comes back to a concept that I learned in Economics 101; as a seller, the “right” price is highest price that the market will bear for any particular item.
So how much will the market bear to read my short stories? This question has plagued me since I started publishing. At first, I thought that $2.99 would work, then I tried free on Kindle Direct Publishing, then I tried $1.99 and so on. After six months, these experiments have led me to a conclusion; the price of the story doesn’t really matter at this point.
Why? Because I haven’t found the audience interested in my style of crime thrillers and I haven’t proven to those readers that my work is worth reading. With so many self published writers competing with the publishing houses and other forms of entertainment, I can’t try to compete with everyone. I have to find my niche and focus on appealing to them. And since people only have a limited amount of time and attention, I have to prove that my work is worth the effort before my audience will read my stories consistently.
So I have come up with a new plan; I am going to target a very narrow segment of the reading population and offer them several of my stories for free. My theory is that once I find the right readers and expose them to my work without any financial risk, they will be more willing to pay for other books later. My hope is that readers become addicted to my style, like a crackhead who can’t get off the pipe. I don’t think people should spend their rent money to pay me or start stealing TV’s to buy my e-books, but I will take the royalty payment without asking a lot of questions.
I currently have three urban horror stories available for free on Smashwords for Halloween. Other stories will go online for free in the coming months on Amazon.com. Try them and let me know what you think. The first ones are free. After that we’re going to have to work something out…
Have fun.

Learning to Love the Bad Review

Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.” Bruce Lee

One of the milestones in your artistic journey is rejection. You spend months or years focusing your energy and imagination to create something and express an aspect of yourself. Then a critic comes along and tells you it sucks. This is not a small thing to most artists. It is a blow to even the strongest of egos. It is also inevitable. So how do you deal with a scathing review that rejects every aspect of your art? The tactic I have developed is an attempt to answer this question.

What a bad review does for you:

First, let’s accept that no matter how a bad review makes you feel, it does serve useful purposes. Critical analysis helps your art (and art in general) evolve by:
  • Counterbalancing possible review bias: There are several reasons why you might get a good review that have nothing to do with your book. It could be based on the reviewer’s relationship to you or for work you’ve done in the past. If you only get good reviews your ego will swell and your growth will stagnate.  It’s true that you could also get bad reviews for reasons that have nothing to do with your writing. It could be based on the readers need for ego gratification or traffic (as a Yelp reviewer, I can confirm that bad reviews get much more attention than good ones). But if you get bad reviews that have constructive criticism you can learn from your mistakes and you will improve your craft. 
  • Evaluating your story from a new perspective: You know your vision and what you’re trying to say. You’re sure that what you put out conveys that message. But a negative review might point out that you’re not getting your message across. Or it could point out that people don’t embrace or agree with your vision. Either way, you find out just as much about yourself and what you’ve created by a negative review as you do from a positive one. You might learn more from a negative review.
  • Tests your resolve to write: Some bad reviews are nothing more than personal attacks or desperate cries for attention masquerading as constructive criticism. But if the opinions of other people are enough to stifle your creativity, then it might be better for you to not write at all. There will always be people who try to project their failures and discontent onto you. Don’t let that stop you from expressing yourself.

Other advice for dealing with a bad review
There are many methods for dealing with the inevitability of bad reviews. The best one for you is the one that fits your personality and writing style. Here are to good examples that I have found:
  • Realize that everybody gets bad reviews
  • Don’t let the bad comments outweigh the good ones
  • Don’t look at the reviews
  • Think about what the critic is saying.
  • Don't read reviews:
  • Stay cool.
  • Remember, it's not personal.
Both these methods include a suggestion to avoid reading any reviews, but that sacrifices a chance to learn. My alternative attempts to get something useful out of a review.

My method for dealing with a bad review

The inspiration for this is the same type of intelligence analysis my characters go through in my stories.

Step 1: Review the review: When I get a bad review with specific criticisms, I break down the review into discreet parts and figure out if there is anything there that I can use to improve my writing. This gives me the sense of taking control of my work back from the critic. It also helps me separate useful criticism from useless posturing.

Step 2: Get independent confirmation: Single source information is never as reliable as corroborated information. Once I find potentially useful observations of my work from a critic, I take that information to other reliable sources to see if they can confirm or deny the critical findings.

Step 3: Act upon the conclusions: If you find constructive criticism and confirm that it is useful from third parties then incorporate it into your future work. It is natural to make mistakes when creating art, but you don’t have to keep repeating the same mistakes.

Step 4: Keep writing: Don’t obsess over a bad review (or a good review). Remember the reasons you are writing and maintain the resolve to keep writing in the face of criticism. Your art can grow and thrive in the midst of critics. It can’t grow if you give up.

Have fun.

Read a Little Urban Horror and Your Train Ride Will Never Be the Same

A new urban horror story from Nightlife Publishing goes on sale this week. Here is a look at the cover and a preview of the special story I’ve written for Halloween.

Martin is young, arrogant and drunk when he decides to harass a homeless man on the train. But he doesn't realize the power that the old man wields in the tunnels. He can't escape from the wrath of the deranged torturers who want to punish him for the sins of everyone who has ever abused them. Will he be able to live through their brutality and see the outside world again?
Authors, book reviewers and bloggers who want to write a review for this or any other Nightlife Publishing title should contact me directly at gamalhennessy@gmail.com for press copies.
Have fun.

Erotica as the Literary Pariah

“Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand -- a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods -- or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values.”  - Willa Cather
My writing has not generated much interest or discussion over the past four months. I haven’t yet figured out the proper marketing methods that will allow the eager masses hungry to read my masterpieces. But what little discussion my writing has generated has all been about my erotica. I can write about conspiracy, murder or torture and there is no ripple within my social circle. Stories about sex on the other hand, forces people to turn away in silent rejection or (I think) alter the way they see me as a writer and a person. The reaction that I’ve received has inspired me to think more about what I am writing and why in relationship to the mind of my potential audience.
The American Relationship to the Erotic
In spite of the summer flurry around Fifty Shades of Gray and the deluge of BDSM erotica that tried to ride that long tail, erotic writing is still a repressed art form in America. We are trapped between our Judeo-Christian Protestant morality and our obsession with sex as a tool of commerce and power. We willingly exploit the concept that “sex sells” but reject any insightful public discussion about seduction or sexual expression. Our collective response to sincere sexuality is avoidance, disdain, ridicule, silence or backhanded suggestions of mental imbalance.
Thankfully, the reaction to my erotica hasn’t been that aggressive but it is disconcerting to discover the people in my life conform, to one extent or another, to the same attitudes towards sexual expression as the rest of society. This makes sense. They are functioning members of the community they live in. It is understandable that they share the beliefs of that group. I had no reason to expect anything different but somehow I hoped it would be.
Controlling the Image
I don’t have illusions about the way people interact with each other. I know that each of us holds onto an image of every person in our lives. We project attributes, titles and values onto the people that we know and then assume those qualities will be fairly consistent over time. Any information that alters or upsets the image we create is resisted and rejected. If a revelation doesn’t conform to our defined social relationship then we don’t want to hear about it. By and large, most of your family, friends and co-workers don’t want to know anything about your sexual expression because it upsets their image or you and falls outside the realm of acceptable information. Writing erotica, whether it is autobiographical or not, is a revelation about your sexual expression and your sexual philosophy. That makes it a subject not to be discussed or explored. Living in this world, only a total stranger or an intimate confidant is willing to learn about you that way. No one else you know has any interest in the subject.
I’m not trying to invite everyone I know into every sexual moment of my life or warp their image of me so much that they go insane from over exposure. At the same time, my sexual expression is a large part of the definition of who I am as a person. To push that part of me away or to repress it would be rejecting a facet of my life that I’m not ashamed of. Inserting erotica into my work makes as much sense to me as including humor, wit or complexity. It is fundamental to my art and to my life. If I didn’t put it in because other people weren’t comfortable with it, then my writing wouldn’t be mine any more. My life wouldn’t be mine any more.
Pushing Boundaries through Art
Just before I started releasing my work, I read a book from Susie Bright called How to Write a Dirty Story. The book was quite good partially because it helped me see my role as a writer both in terms of erotica and in terms of other aspects of writing. Her advice, like Ms. Cather’s above, was to use my craft to push the boundaries of society and not just relax within the comfortable framework of acceptable commercial work. I have no interest in writing the most shocking, perverted or controversial book ever. Marquis de Sade already did that. My goal is much more insidious. I want to embed the erotic in other types of stories so deeply that one can’t be separated from the other. I want to construct scenes that are arousing not because of their graphic explicitly, but because of their realistic intensity. Hopefully when I’m done, the erotic elements of writing will be as engaging as the conspiracy and murder. Until then…
Have fun.