No Money in Our Sex
By Amy Lane
Way, way back, before I wrote for Dreamspinner Press, and before I ever thought I could write professionally, I threw all of my talent, heart and soul into the Bitter Moon saga.
From a professional standpoint, it was a piss-stupid thing to do.
My Little Goddess series was actually doing well. After three books, I was using my royalty checks to pay bills and to help us go on vacations (as opposed to my first royalty checks which I used to buy yarn) and given that self-pub was practically unheard of back then, and I was doing it and not entirely sucking at it, taking a break from my Urban Fantasy series was not necessarily the bright thing to do. Especially to write an epic fantasy series, when there is almost always a glut in the epic fantasy market, because everyone who has ever played D&D thinks they can write the next Silmarilion. (Yes. That includes me. I am not exempt from ridicule about delusions of grandeur. Ever.)
So stopping to write nearly 450,000 words about Torrant Shadow and the Moon family, setting out to change the world was probably not a very bright thing to do–money or career wise—but it’s a decision I made just the same.
And while I was looking helplessly at the lack of enthusiasm for the epic fantasy books, wishing (among other things) that I had decided to make them maybe just a leetle bit shorter a friend of mine sent me an article about how some writing is for sex and some writing is for money, and it changed my life.
I can’t find the article (just looked again) but the gist was, some writing you do for art’s sake. You indulge in flights of prose, and you fight the successfully marketable tropes and you don’t necessarily strive for a happy ending, and instead set out to carve an artistically balanced one. That is sexy writing there—that’s the kind of writing that makes other writers bite their thumbs and let out shaky orgasmic sighs.
That is not, usually, the kind of writing that sells like gangbusters.
Now, people who are not trying to put two young adults through college while paying off a new car and anticipating the next phase of college education in ten years might tell you to “Follow your muse wherever it goes!” However, when your muse is going into obscure places that nobody wants to follow, it may be time to take a break from the mental coitus of writing a “great” book, and to spend some time writing a book that other people would like to read.
And not to think about it like “selling out”.
Because it’s not.
Some of you are saying, “Oh, yeah, sure! You just told me you’re writing crap for money, isn’t that selling out?”
Well not if it isn’t crap it’s not!
There is a sort of myth about art that accessibility equals degradation, and it’s not necessarily true. I’ve pointed this out a lot but Shakespeare was considered the people’s playwright. He wasn’t as sophisticated as Johnson and he didn’t write the critic’s favorites like Marlowe. What he did write was consistently accessible stories that were familiar enough for people to recognize and freshly penned enough to make them feel exciting and new.
So, not crappy. Appealing. There’s a difference!
And the difference not only pays the bills, it often does that in a memorable way.
You want an example, I can tell.
How many people celebrate the winter holidays (whichever winter holiday) with The Nutcracker Suite?
I’m pretty sure I’d see a lot of hands, if this was an auditorium, right? The music, it pervades the soul! As does the icon of the creepy toothy nutcracker who fight mice and kidnaps little girls. (Okay, I know—he brings her back. But still.)
That ballet was not just written for money and for no other reason—it was dictated by the story itself. Petipa, the choreographer, asked for so many bars of music with a certain kind of mood for each scene of the ballet, and Tchaikovsky complied. If Deems Taylor is to be believed, it was the composition Tchaikovsky most loathed from his own canon.
And yet, the suite was the most successful part of the entire ballet when it was released, and we can’t stop listening to it now.
It wasn’t March Slav, which is dark and complex and historically significant. It wasn’t The 1812 Overture, which had cannons and explosions (always my favorite part of any performance) but it was appealing.
Never underestimate the power of appeal.
Now, it’s not like writers have a magic formula for what’s going to possess “appeal”—because that would be terrific, right? Especially because so many of us are striving to write a different, complex book every single time—even when we’re writing a short novella, we want it to be different. So we have no magic formula, but we do have an idea of the opposite of what’s going to sell, right?
So, you gotta figure a warning of the same kind of ending that happened in Titanic, that’s probably not going to sell. But a fit guy in his underwear with a cheerfully cheesecake “uh-oh” on his face and beefcake in the background? Well, that’s got a better chance, most assuredly. Since we know contemporary usually sells better than high fantasy, an obscure picture of a guy with a period costume and clockwork in the background is an uneasy bet. A dancer bowing in the shadows is probably going to a little better. We know that happy sells, so a cover with adorable animals in knitwear very possibly might go a little faster than two guys who look like they’ve barely survived the heartbreak of their lives.
So happy—well-penned happy—will sell. Contemporary will usually sell better than fantasy. (The exception is shapeshifter fantasy, always and still.) Long drama will sell—but only if the ending is uplifting enough to support all the pain that went before.
These are lessons I’ve learned the hard way, and yet their cornerstone remains the same.
There are still some books I write for sex, and some books I write for money.
I was pretty sure A Solid Core of Alpha was going to sell well—and I was disappointed. But I’d learned my lesson by the time I wrote Under the Rushes—and I wrote it anyway. I thought Mourning Heaven was a sure thing. But given that it wasn’t, I was prepared for modest sales with The Bells of Times Square.
And yet I wrote it anyway.
Because those books we write for sex—the sexy prose, the challenging storylines, the unconventional characters and/or endings—those are just so damned hard to resist, aren’t they? They’re muscular and they’ve got stamina and they just writhe in your brain sensuously, like a porn model on clean sheets with a bottle of lube and a hard-on.
They’re going to be so good!
They’re the lovers we’d do in a hurricane, the tricks we’d pull for free.
But that doesn’t mean we disdain our other tricks, the regular Joes with the big smiles and the playful touches. We still care for the broken boys who have the ultimate in HEA or HFN at the tips of their fingers and the drips of their cocks. We still treasure the holiday heroes, the sweet men with the crooked grins, the epitome of hope.
There is no shame in writing for money, if you love what you write.
But if you possibly can, indulge in that left turn, into an alley where the dark eyes of your choice of strange look at you with hot desire. The writing will be sensuous and charged with want, aching and dripping with indulgence—and every writer should experience that. Yeah, sure, you may be dancing in the shadows, your audience small and select, and only a few of them appreciative of the honesty of your journey off the beaten trope, but the writing will be for you, and you alone.
When it comes down to it, those of us who create content for a living have so little that is ours. Our decision to write for sex is among our most prized coinage, more precious than gold, more lasting than diamonds—the moment of intellectual climax that could make us immortal.
Amy Lane is putting two kids through college and another two through soccer. She has a Mate, two arrogant cats, two obnoxious dogs, as house that’s crumbling around her ears and more yarn than sense. She’s been publishing in one way or another for ten years, and has written in her own head for pretty much her entire life.
You can find her at www.greenshill.com , www.writslane.blogspot.com , at Twitter as @amymaclane and at Facebook as Amy Lane. If you do go to FB, don’t forget to look up her group, Amy Lane Anonymous, where she’d be happy to welcome you.