There's a salacious book atop The New York Times Best-Seller List, and hold on to your shocked outrage -- it's about two people having consensual sex! If you guessed that I'm talking about the BDSM romance Fifty Shades of Grey, congratulations on being able to bring life into this world. But for the gentlemen, I'll explain.
The Fifty Shades trilogy began as erotic fan fiction entitled Master of the Universe. If that made you think of Skeletor magically separating He-Man and Prince Adam for some disturbing self-exploration, you'd be understandably wrong, but overstandably creepy.
No, Master of the Universe was actually a story about a couple in Seattle named Edward and Bella that the book's publishers want you to know was totally not at all about Twilight. OK, it was at first, but in a stroke of cynical genius, the publisher decided to disguise the horny fan fiction as an original universe using a new title and the least amount of effort possible. By the time it saw print as Fifty Shades of Grey, it was a totally different novel about virginal college grad Anastasia Steele and her rich seducer Christian Grey. The characters even have different names.
Preposterously dissimilar, when you really look at it.
Success did not come without controversy for the author, E.L. James. The fan fiction community vilified her, both for making money off a labor of love and for writing a second draft of her work. Critical review of Fifty Shades of Grey divides cleanly into women who love it, women who hate it, women who want to put way too much thought into whether it's feminist and men trying to figure out why anyone cares.
What all of these debates miss is the main point: James wrote a successful book by accident, propelled blindly by that nameless, universal desire to see famous characters bone. And hey, readers liked it! Only a Grinch would begrudge her that success, and that Grinch would then be sodomized against his will by the Cat in the Hat in the groundbreaking slash fiction Butter Battle Tales: One for All the Butter (Healing the Rift).
I interned briefly as a reader at a literary agency, meaning I read hundreds of submissions -- or rather, I read several submissions wearing hundreds of masks. And I'm going to share what I learned with you: Literary agencies are brimming with intelligent, beautiful women, and nobody comes into the office more than two days a week. I recommend you join one immediately.
I'll also tell you how to jump on this lusty women's fiction phenomenon that the media are treating like Harlequin romances haven't been popular for decades now. Below are six tips for marrying your personal eroticism to someone else's copyright for fun and profit.
Although we can't prove there aren't temple garments in Fifty Shades without reading it.
Every day at the literary agency I would open two dozen letters that explained how the story of the new girl in town who is fascinated with a mysterious, brooding bad boy was different from Twilight because he wasn't a vampire; he was a demon.
In my weeks as a reader, I learned to appreciate the otherworldly pain of such inhuman creatures as angels, aliens, faeries, Wayne Newton, half-bloods, hunky Frankensteins, werewolves, dhampirs, sexy mummies, mermen, skinwalkers, surprisingly few ghosts and the Wandering Jew. However, women do not like sex with trolls, zombies or robots.
Hand Grenade Serenade
Which would be understandable if they hadn't eroticized Frankenstein.
I still don't know what half-bloods are, but I'm pretty sure it's not racist.
Let's take a look at a typical revelation scene:
Tears ran down Emma's face as her crying eyes beheld Darren's perfect features in the full moonlight. Something was different about him. He seemed ... more alive. More powerful. As though he were somehow stronger at night. She shook off the thought tearfully. No, no that was foolish. That was impossible. That was foolishly impossible!! She was imagining these things because she couldn't play games of the heart anymore. Did he even have a heart?
"Why?" she asked tearfully, "Why do you hate me? I don't understand your distance!" She looked at him, though it ached to behold his dark beauty.
"It's not dat," his voice broke in reply.
She paused. For the first time since he had saved her from being mangled in a bowling alley pinsetter, he sounded vulnerable. "There's sumptin I nevah told yiz. Sumptin ... I tink youse already knows."
Emma's lip trembled tearfully. She had suspected! But it had been crazy to think -- dare she say it ...? She had to. For anything could happen tonight.
"You're a djinn, right? One of the 28 endless born of the world at the back of the North Wind?"
"Nah," he shook his head. "It's woise'n dat. But if yiz really love me ..."
Oh, but she did!
"... you'll accept me as I am. I'm a monster, Emma. Not even human. I'm ..." A tear ran down his lovely, perfect face. "I'm from Staten Island."
Emma threw back her head and howled with despair for their love, deep into the night.
There's obviously a market for clammy mer-sex, but there's also such a thing as ringing the metaphor bell too hard. James' best move was making the monster internal. Her Christian Grey isn't just your average kinky Seattle billionaire, he's also a poison in the life of everyone he meets. He's complicated, which we know, because the book tells us so. And he might not have a black heart, but it's hard to tell when it's buried under 49 darker shades of asshole.
So before you commit your story to werewolf breath, take a look around you, and you might just find a monster lurking in the closet, probably wearing a gimp hood and nipple clamps hooked up to a nine-volt battery. I call mine Mom. But don't worry! He's not actually my mother.
The shame is that most paranormal romance authors are better writers than Twilight author Stephenie Meyer and have been revising their books since before she ever put pen to paper. I really enjoyed reading some of those pitches, because good writing stands independent of the audience.
But only Meyer is a kajillionaire now, and one good reason is that she gave her monster-lover a completely normal name. Twilight got published while better twins of it flopped stillborn out of the womb of vampire fuck fiction because Edward Cullen is a real name, and Bella Swan is almost one.
Here are some common protagonist names so you can avoid them at all costs. A good rule of thumb is to not choose a name that stupid people think makes their babies sound special.
Sorry, that last one might be a porn star name. Anyway, you see the pattern: Either distort a normal name, or pull something out of the Bronze Age and combine it with an attribute.
Now for some love interest names. See if you can guess which monster is which:
You can still use Victor, but only if he's a normal person without any special powers. Again, look what Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey did. Edward's a neutral name, and Cullen's Irish, so according to the Book of Romantic Imagery Name Games (BoRING), he's literally "Volvo-driving-nice-guy Who-believes-sex-will-destroy-you."
See? No pressure. Teens can feel perfectly safe with this eerie centenarian who hangs around high schools trawling for strange. They can fling themselves at him all they want, and he'll put the brakes on -- not because he doesn't lust after you, girl, but because he loves you so much that he has to watch out for you.
The protagonist, Bella Swan, has a BoRING name, too: "Beautiful Former-ugly-duckling."
E.L. James did the same thing but for a college grad, now sexually active and deep into her bad boy phase. Anastasia Steele is "Lost-nobility Resilience."
Her lover, Christian Grey, is an older man whose actions may say "I'm a frightening creep," but look at his BoRING aptronym: "Redeemable-sinner Of-ambiguous-morality."
The BoRING formula always works. Why do you think I use the pen name "Brendan McGinley"? Because my real name, Thunder-Rex Pussysmasher, doesn't speak to my poetic nature.
I don't want you to think a woman's interest wanders if a guy runs out of money. You and I know that's not true even if Kanye West, Los Angeles and our ex-girlfriends prove otherwise. But somebody needs to tell all these women who write erotica that they're misogynist, because 70 percent of their fantasy men are dipped in gold, crusted with diamonds and think a pony is a customary third-date gift.
Compare this with men's erotic fantasy, in which 100 percent of women don't have enough funds to pay for a large sausage pizza.
Don't be mistaken -- the protagonist never needs the guy's money. In these books, it's not how successful he is, so long as he's more successful than her. It makes romance difficult for female Fortune 500 executives -- though such companies do have much higher rates of vampires per capita. The point is, his being rich is a test. His wealth exists for her to not need or care about, so she falls for him as a person (in order to deserve his fantastic wealth). Yeah, it's totally screwed up.
For many of these authors, a perfect date is discovering that a cloven-hoofed host has not taken undue advantage of her drunken state, but rather, lain her sweetly in bed and sent his butler on a midnight run to fetch m'lady fresh designer garments.
Lilith woke up. She woke up just before noon. When Lilith woke up, she yawned, and Lilith saw that she was lying under a white-tiger-fur comforter after drinking too much Chateau Lafite. The sun was streaming onto the duvet, which is a name for the top blanket, guys.
Rubbing Lilith's eyes, Lilith looked around the room, where she saw her clothes from last night hung with great care along the seams so they wouldn't wrinkle on a hangar, and the hangar was on a rail in the closet, and the closet door was open so she could see them.
"I trust mademoiselle slept well?" Lilith recognized the voice belonging to Bubastis, the butler with the strange, foreign, sexless accent. "I had the liberty of putting you in some very expensive pajamas with my eyes closed when you quite understandably fell asleep last night after not drinking too much, which would have been unlike you."
Lilith turned to Bubastis' doctorly voice, and yawned happily. "O, Bubastis! I had the strangest and most realistic dream about making sex."
"I understand that is quite common here at Shadowholme Manor, Miss Virtue. Lord Blaze regrets that he was unable to join you for breakfast, as he must go negotiate an end to war, but he has instructed me to make you breakfast."
And so saying, Bubastis presented her with poached rhino brains on waffles made from a grain that only grows in Elysium. Yum-O!
There's really no way to dial down being disgustingly wealthy, so James does the opposite: She shoots the moon and goes full-on billionaire. Anastasia Steele is in it for the sex, but it's nice to know there's an end-of-year bonus for taming a jerk with your charms.
Gods embody ideals, so when you're writing in a genre like fan fiction about a topic like sex, restraint isn't really on the menu. You'd better believe you're drawing from antiquity and beyond.
I didn't understand why this Adonis wanted me. But when he looked at me with his divine eyes, I felt like a goddess. It was like staring into the eyes of Apollo, if Apollo wasn't such a dick. He looked at me now, with a gaze that promised when we made a loving tonight, it would be heavenly. My inner goddess tingled up my spine, and she was hungrier than the most wretched, starving, bloated baby in Somalia. But this was no ordinary hunger, like poor people have. This was a goddess famine ... for sex.
Drop divine references no more than 42 times per chapter, but double down the rate of recurrence in any sex scenes. (Tip: They are ALL sex scenes.)
You're already writing about impossibly beautiful and successful people, half of whom can turn into a mist when the moon is full. You're going to want to ground your book in the vivid details of the scenes. Remember, it's important to put your reader right there in the scene, as deeply as you can. Then put them in deeper. That's right. Right there, baby. Oh God. Baby. Baby.
See if you can spot what's wrong with this excerpt that Publisher's Weekly called "Sizzling, the way an egg sizzles in a skillet," and then apologized, because they're supposed to come up with more quotable reviews than that:
The lush, full-bodied hair on Eros Blaque's naked tushy wafted sensitively in the bedroom breeze. Now revealed before his lady lover, Mary Sue Standynn, Eros did not shy from waggling his gifts nudely for her pleasure. She nodded at his offering of a penis engorged with blood, and accepted him into her musky cave.
"I am going to plow through you like a freight train," he murmured in her erect ear. And then they sexed.
Eros' godly hips rhythmed erotically as he love-thrusted the quivering, wet loam of his lady lover, Mary Sue Blaque (for so she thought of herself after marrying him in her head just now. She would tell them of their brain-elopement later. For now, it was adult-hug time).
Mary Sue groaned with an ecstatic agony that revealed heretofore undicked depths of agonizing ecstasy. She raked her fingernails across his back swiftly and with great speed, urgently scratching him almost instantly. Suddenly Eros looked her in the eye the way a man does when he is using his lady lover like a gym sock soaked in warm moisturizer but realizes that he loves her. This was pleasant to her, and she indicated such by continuing to have sex with him.
Suddenly, without warning, and much too soon, after a couple minutes, though it seemed like more, and anyway, it's a compliment, Eros' face twisted with unwanted delight. "Mary Sue, my loveeeee! I fear I am going to spend!!!" he howled, "Yes! It is definitely about to occur!"
And there, of course, propriety commands us to direct our gaze to the wafting curtains.
Did you spot it? That's right, for all this scene's gritty realism, the man never tied the woman up and called her -- oh my, the most terrible names.
If fear and eroticism thrive when the audience fills in the gaps for you, sleeping with the devil means your entire book should be whittled down to "I fell in love with my stalker, and the sex was good."
Love in books is irresistible and instantaneous. Love in reality is a long, drawn-out process of waiting for one party to realize it's out of the other's league. When that doesn't happen and two people do manage to trick themselves into falling in love, it's one of life's most beautifully obnoxious experiences. At last, a woman can have sex without worrying about her reputation, and a man can have sex without pretending to be a generous lover!
Yes, love is a beautiful thing, even if the guy is no longer free to shoot hoops because he has to go to brunch. But it's not as beautiful as what happens in books. In romance novels, that magical feeling of being special to the Most Amazing Person in the World happens in not only the lucky lovers' heads, but the world around them. And that's the kind of once-in-a-lifetime magic that we're going to sell to these dopes for as much cash as we can wring out of them.
To live -- to LOVE! To clasp another human being to thy pulsing breast in the blind of night! To flourish and be happy -- ah! Our happy lovers have found their purpose at last. The real question is -- why haven't you? Could it be that there's something wrong with you, Becky? Be sure to read the sequel to find out!
Right now, you're worried that you don't have what it takes to describe the miracle of lust and love the way Fifty Shades does. But just because James can bring herself to get up in the morning and feel emotions, that doesn't mean you don't have what it takes to write erotic fiction. Just do what I do: Fill the hole in your heart with money. Sweet, filthy, glorious lucre!
Anyway, you can score some serotonin for half the price of a first date. If by some chance you can picture yourself in love again, by all means, express that in a story about a domineering, rich bastard who abuses young virgins. For the rest of us, love is nice, but money doesn't break its promises.
How did these hyper-specific tropes spread so quickly?
The Hollywood rumor mill has been playing games with celebrity deaths for at least a century.
It's easy to work the system and win these awards even if you don't deserve them.