Valentines Day is fine. I’m single, I like it, and couples can enjoy their romantic dinners and trips to see Fifty Shades of Grey while I sit here with a beer and a veggie-burger sandwich and write about writing. That’s fine. I’m entirely positive about this Feb 14th, because it’s made me want to write a craft essay and share a little ‘romantic’ writing of my own. If you can call it that.
I reblogged Bookshelf Battle’s excellent complaints about romance writing earlier this week. Complaints are fun, especially when the blogger making them about romance books ironically has the kind of humour that I’d like in someone I was dating. No, I’m not asking him out. We’re a very large pond apart for one thing. I’m simply adding to his advice on how romance/erotica could be better.
Just so we’re clear, I KNOW romance and erotica are not the same genre and certainly not the same thing. I’m just doing them together because they cross over quite conveniently sometimes. Or at least I think they should.
A couple of hours ago I posted a comment on Bookshelf Battle about my last year’s NaNoWriMo project, Welcome to Sentago. Yes, I decided to dabble in sci-fi erotica to get 50,000 words in a month, trying to make sure there was more to the story than just weird, futuristic sex. 75k later the project still isn’t finished but still has legs. Will I finish it?
Absolutely, because here’s a truth for you: authors love talking about how bad they think Fifty Shades is, but not all of them dare to do any better. I read some of Welcome to Sentago and I wonder if perhaps really, I suck just as much. One star reviews may well be waiting for me. But at least I’m up for the challenge of sucking a little less, or perhaps even getting good. I’m not really on a mission to be better than another writer, just to do it my way and share in what’s hopefully wisdom. This post is about a few things I’ve taught myself, using a character I’ve come to quite like as my walkthrough.
So without further ado:
Let me to introduce Oscar
Oscar Murdoch is in his early twenties in the present of my story. His present mission in life: run away from his parents’ home against all their wishes for him and become a chef instead of a space craft pilot. His family were once filthy rich – his parents being co-founders of Murdoch and Lightfoot investment bank. Why aren’t they anymore? Because this beautiful young man with surfer’s scruffy white-blonde hair and boyish charm and sleek swimmer’s physique brought them and their entire bank to total ruin, and wound up with his parents virtually placing him under house arrest for his own good. How? It all starts with his love life, and the many affairs that take him from planet Carnathia’s heart Sky City to Ardoghtix University to cool, chilled out Tanamarg and eventually to Carnathia’s answer to Las Vegas – the titular Sentago.
Creating Oscar, and all the fine details that make him more than just the cliché every character begins as, has been a fun lesson in character building for romance/erotica purposes. In both love and lust, Oscar has become his own unique person as he cruises from one disaster to another. From the ashes of his life in Sky City, he goes to Sentago and meets Screft – a shape shifting alien who pulls fight scams for money and is looking for a business to launder his gambling winnings through. But before I reached that stage, I had to know what made Oscar work and what it was about him that created such a train wreck. Let’s get on the rails and take a ride through ‘What I learned’ territory with Oscar as our passenger.
Start with the familiar – making it your own will come
When I created Oscar, I gave him swimming as a hobby to precede how he escapes from the sinking wreckage of an ocean cruise liner. When I decided his family’s ruin was all to do with his sex life, I knew I was in good old familiar erotica territory. If I have to explain why sex and swimming pools go together so well to create risqué content, please just save me time and google it.
A teenager who senses he’s somehow ‘different?’ Been done. One who gets that sense shortly after joining a swimming club? Been done, I’m certain, although don’t ask me for an example. Swimmer who just looks so sexy in those speedos that the girls flock to him? That’s where I decided ‘Let’s not go there’ and went with:
Do the reverse
I see this advice in many, many writing columns, but there’s a reason: it bloody well works! Here’s my exercise in it.
The people in Oscar’s club do not worship him for his looks. Oscar is not frustrated by not getting noticed. He’s happy exploring what secretly becomes his fetish on his own.
Is it looking at his virtually naked peers that makes him love swimming so much? No – let’s avoid another obvious answer and go with something different. Like the smell of wet hair and chlorine. Or the poetry-in-motion of the people he watches swim with perfect, graceful technique. He works on his own obsessively. Being the best swimmer is better than being the fastest. Nobody switches Oscar on like someone good at the sport. Sometimes, the handsome people who could appear on a romantic novel’s cover are just crap at it and he wouldn’t give them a second look. Ugly can be beautiful if that bullfrog can swim.
Oscar is a nymphomaniac in the making, yet doesn’t lose his virginity at an early age, nor is he an alpha male. He loses it at eighteen, and quite unexpectedly, with a less than attractive poolside physiotherapist more than twice his age who none of his peers would touch even if she can give a damn fine massage. Not every teenager is desperate to get laid. Oscar does not belong to the cast of American Pie. He’s desperately secretive about how swimming does it for him because to reveal the secret would ruin his after-training ‘rituals.’
When he finally does confess to Feldryn Lightfoot, who later becomes his ‘life partner,’ he does so with considerable embarrassment and fear of never wanting to get in a pool again. He won’t even admit his bisexuality and perhaps doesn’t actually know about it yet (more on this later), until Feldryn brings it out in him. Later on, he’s ashamed of nothing and learns how to work the moves on just about anyone, but not everyone spectacularly promiscuous wants to shout about it (at least not to begin with) – another mistake I think some romance authors make. At no point in Welcome to Sentago does Oscar want to go about with a shining aura of ‘I can have anyone I want and I deserve you.’
Take risks with your character – Dare to go there
I’m a good swimmer myself, because I had lessons and went to a club four nights a week in my early teenage. Anyone who knows me and has read this can’t be blamed if they’re now thinking ‘What the fuck?’ I can insist, quite truthfully, that Oscar’s fetishes are not my own, yet readers will probably not believe me. Fine. That’s the risk I take. I used something I knew about and did and turned it into futuristic erotica. When I eventually get this novel to an ebook shelf, the risk’s even higher. If I’m like Oscar in any way, it’s that sometimes despite a nagging voice saying ‘Don’t go there,’ I just do. Just like when I made Oscar’s nickname ‘The Otter.’
I like otters. They’re an admirable animal and good for wetland eco-systems. I’m a ranger by day, and when I was learning the trade I did a long project on otter conservation that got me a reputation among my classmates for championing the species. If any of them get their hands on this novel, I’m going to raise an eyebrow or two. Especially if they get to ‘Feldryn even called me otter-boy while he was fucking me.’ No, I’m not a furry. I’ve never contemplated wearing an otter suit. Yet again, there is bound to be someone who will insist that I do.
Fine. My friends probably thought I was a little weird anyway. I laugh at random stuff like this all the time. I often wrote in my head during lecture-induced daydreams and grinned for no apparent reason. Everything I do in real life makes me want to write something, somehow. I’m bound to go places that take a little bravery from time to time. And it means that my risque material is some way stamped as mine. It will at least make people say ‘Only Tommy would have thought of that.’ If you’re going to dabble in the most cash-happy, over-written genre on Earth, you might as well make it count.
People respect authors who are brave. You want a good example? Check out my review of Good Sex Great Prayers by Brandon Tietz and if you dare, buy a copy. You want to go for the ultimate in risk taking? Look up The End of Alice by A.M Homes. Seriously, I’m not even sure I can read that one. It takes an exceptionally brave author to go down those sorts of roads; and certainly one who makes me associating erotica with aquatic animals look like Sense and Sensibility. (Respect though, even Austen took risks that were of her time.)
While we’re on this one then:
Invert a cliché, and if your character must have a nickname, make it count
When I first nicknamed Oscar ‘The Otter,’ he was just a run of the mill human being. Then an odd thought crept in. What if he actually did have webbed feet?
Now here’s a can of worms to open. Anywhere in England that ever had an inbreeding joke made about it probably got some mention of webbed feet. The association with incest and webbed humans can probably never be broken, even if it’s not even true. (Is it? Do add to the comments on that one if I’m wrong.) So, let’s give Oscar webbed feet, even though his family do not inbreed and did not deliberately modify their son so he’d kick ass at a certain water sport.
There’s another idea: would Oscar’s anatomy get him bullied incessantly on every poolside and changing room? How about no? How about some of the people who were attracted to him actually started with liking those ‘neat feet?’ The line ‘I blame my feet for everything’ soon came in. Plus I couldn’t help but think of the foot-massage thing from Pulp Fiction.
But back to the otter. It’s a cute animal so some people say, so it’s a nickname for a ‘cute’ character. It’s also a predator that will plunder the fish stock in a lake and leave the bones on the bank for an exasperated gamekeeper with no apology involved. Is Oscar a ‘predator?’ The name implies he’s unpleasant in the way he finds his partners, and I don’t think he’s that sort of character, but he’ll certainly cause destruction and unhappiness for others as the story progresses. People may treat him like a predator, or a pest they wish they could eradicate who keeps coming back. And if an otter bites you, look out. You’ll be lucky to keep that finger.
Whatever Oscar’s nickname means, one thing is clear: he thinks it’s just to do with swimming and his feet, all the way through. Which brings me to:
Your good looking romance/sex magnet is not always self-aware
Bad romance writing comes from a protagonist who is all knowing and in control of their lusty adventure. Many of Oscar’s situations are anything but deliberate, and the reason I chose to write some of Welcome to Sentago with him as the first person narrator is for exactly this reason: the reader will notice what he doesn’t. Yes, I’ve just partly explained why he has certain characteristics I’ve inserted, but anyone who reads the story having not read this post will work it out without Oscar needing to make comments for me as the author.
Oscar can say that Feldryn Lightfoot likes his webbed feet, but won’t suspect Feldryn might be merely manipulating him by pretending to when actually they make him slightly edgy. Oscar truly believes his secrets are secrets. Big mistake. He’s perfectly obvious to many people.
Rather than driving every sex scene with a self awareness too good to be true, Oscar Murdoch is a victim of his inability to see his flaws, and to realise that having so many partners is a recipe for disaster even in a world where the science of fiction can cure just about anything…
(Coming up in Part II – ‘Romance Kills: Using the danger to up the stakes’, and ‘Your beautiful character is a train wreck waiting to happen’)