In Which Te Takes Porn Very Seriously, And Tells You Why, How, And What-For
I take porn seriously.
I love reading it, I love writing it. I collect visual porn, and have fond memories of the porn that I honestly believe has shaped my life. There was the pulp novella I read as a pre-teen (lost in one of my periodic purges o' shame) that put a name to the wordless kink I had for the potentially twisted relationship between mentor and student.
There was 'The Story of O,' which gave validation to my burgeoning love for sadomasochism.
There were the countless issues of Hustler and Playboy I stumbled across and hoarded that really ought to have given me a clue about my sexual preferences. *rueful smile*
Still, it wasn't until discovering slash fandom that I gave serious thought to producing explicit erotica and pornography myself. What was it that caused this basic shift in perception? Was it a serious desire to subvert the media that fed Americans graphic violence by the bucketful but shied away from sexuality like the primmest of Victorian virgins?
Was it a prurient desire to strip the men and women of my newest fantasies and bend them in ways my old Barbie dolls could never manage?
Well, no, not really.
And I think that my relative success with erotica and porn has a lot to do with the fact that I can, quite honestly, answer those questions in the negative. More on that later.
The fact is, the *only* reason why the vast majority of my early stories had such a heavy reliance on the erotic is that I had somehow developed the idea that slash, in order to be 'truly' slash, had to be so. Did someone tell me this?
No. And frankly, it was quite the wrong idea. Anyone who has been involved in slash fandom for any length of time can tell you that a slash story is, no more and no less, a story in which two characters of the same gender are in some way romantically/sexually involved.
It can be as mild as one character musing on the beauty of another in the midst of a long, extensive case file of a plot, or as heavy as two (or more) characters rolling around gettin' sweaty in a field for no reason other than that they can.
I neither figured that out nor believed it until long after I'd written dozens of stories, most of which were heavily erotic and/or pornographic in nature.
A mild digression here: I define erotica as anything where the sexuality aspects of a given medium is either directly related to the plot and/or character arc, or is a relatively minor part of the whole. I define pornography as anything where the sexuality aspects of a given medium is either the entirety of the plot and/or character arc, or is a relatively major part of the whole.
Do I judge either as being 'better' than the other? Well, considering the fact that I write what I consider to be both, and that my favorite stories of my own work often contain elements of what I consider to be both... no.
I tend to listen to other writers when it comes to whether or not they define their own fiction as 'erotica' or 'pornography.'
So. I think that's enough of an introduction, don't you?
I. The Influences.
The very first piece of slash I read was on the old alt.sex.stories newsgroup back in 1994. The bridge crew of the Next Generation-era Enterprise somehow wind up watching Wesley Crusher getting raped by a random Klingon and a random Romulan. Er... let's just say I didn't go looking for more and leave it at that, shall we?
Three years later, I was doing a search for some Batman/Robin porn I'd also found on alt.sex.stories way back when, and somehow wound up on R'rain's old Trekslash archive. I was gobsmacked when I realized what I'd found.
People! Tons of people! Writing porn about a television show! Writing porn about Trek! Some of it looking literary! I babbled about it at length to my puzzled girlfriend, and went to see what they had in the Voyager section -- the Trek show I was most familiar with at the time.
The name 'torch' popped out at me. The title 'Too Dear For My Possessing' positively *screamed* out at me. I became a fan.
And yet torch herself wasn't precisely an influence. It took discovering the X-Files to find a fandom that really seemed to be the place for me -- and the timely first airing of The Red of the Black. The stories torch wrote there were wonderful, sure, but I couldn't feel them as deeply as, say...
Anna, Anna, Anna. How I loved to love Anna. How I loved to stalk Anna, more like. She wrote the sort of erotica I wanted to write. Crisp, dark, realistic for the characters, poetic, and blisteringly hot. She wrote a twelve page sex scene that never once bogged down in its own length -- unheard of at the time.
Said Te: "Someday, I'll write a sex scene that hot and that long."
Most of all? She wrote a tiny, viciously sweet little snippet called "Rain" in which Mulder's basic kinkiness was explored in a way I'd never even *considered* at the time.
Said Te: "Well, hell, if she can get away with *that*..."
A. Stories can and should have erotica/be erotic, if at all possible.
B. Sex scenes can and should advance the character and plot arcs of a given story while remaining basically erotic.
C. If the kink suits the characters, there's no reason it should be excluded and *every* reason for it to be explored in depth.
D. By God, I bet I can make this sex scene longer/hotter/better.
II. Learning and Growing.
I wrote a great deal of X-Files fan fiction. Something like one hundred and thirty stories -- still more than I've written in any other fandom. It's strange to think about when you consider how little love I have (and had) for either the show or the fandom itself, perhaps, but...
Well, my attitude toward writing in general -- not just toward writing sex -- has always been as follows: Get the story out and move on to the next as quickly as possible. Also; if there are flaws in the story you just wrote, don't waste time correcting the ones that take time and effort, but do incorporate the lessons you've learned in the next story that comes down the pike.
Slash fandom has been called the biggest, most effective writing workshop around for good reason, and I've learned quite a bit about writing thanks to my time in the slashy trenches. However, this means that I tend to warn people away from most of the things I've written before the spring of 1999 or so. *g*
In any event, there's really only so many stories one writer can tell about Mulder and Krycek before boring herself silly, so I was thrilled to take up the challenge when Pares asked me to write about the Lone Gunmen, instead.
How does this relate to smut?
Well, it's simple:
If you try to write the same (kind of) sex scenes for, say, Byers and Langly as you did for Mulder and Krycek, the results are almost guaranteed to be, at best, laughable. Hell, if you try to write the same sex scenes for Mulder and Skinner (or Skinner and Krycek, or Mulder and Scully, or...) as you did for Mulder and Krycek, you're going to get some funny looks.
X-Files fandom at its peak had some of the best all-around writers you could find in any fandom. However, even as a young fan, even before I was making any efforts whatsoever in the area of constructive criticism, I couldn't help but notice that some writers were simply better than others in terms of erotica.
And that some of those writers wrote better erotica for this pairing than they did for that pairing.
As usual, I have a theory or two. ::cues music::
Many writers, for whatever reason, tend to separate the erotic elements of their stories in their minds from the other elements. This is terribly, terribly wrong-headed and can lead only to pain and frustration. (Often for your readers.)
The fact is, the best erotica flows smoothly from whatever comes before in the story, be it an intense fight between enemies or a tender moment between close friends. The first move, that move that changes the moment from fight/friendship to sexuality, must be one that the character him/herself would make.
What does that mean?
Well, if you're writing a fight/fuck/fight Mulder/Krycek story where Krycek is a stone killer and Mulder hates him despite his powerful fascination... there probably shouldn't be a pause to set mood lighting.
Not only does it break the pacing and flow of the story, it tends to make the reader think about the writer's sexual preferences, as opposed to those of the characters. And really? Most readers could not care less about what you, as the writer, like to do in bed. More on that later.
In writing new pairings like Langly/Byers, Skinner/Krycek, and Mulder/Krycek, I learned (partially anew) one of the most valuable lessons any writer of erotica can:
E. Every sex scene can and should be different, and should reflect not just the circumstances of the story it's in, but the characters who are involved in the scene itself.
What does this mean? Well, what does it mean in terms of 'regular' fiction? Does Mulder use the same sort of vocabulary as Langly? Buffy as Faith? Do they move the same way? Dress the same way? When (if) they casually touch other people, is it with the same sort of subtext?
Obviously (I hope), the answer to all of these questions is almost always 'no,' with highly notable exceptions. In order to make your sex scenes both original and true to the characters within them, it is necessary to pay attention to the way the characters live within their respective universes, and extrapolate from there.
An easy example would be speculation about the kind of underwear Faith wears (or doesn't wear) vs. the kind Buffy does. And hey, think about the language they'd use. Is the character likely to refer to sex and sexuality clinically? Crudely? Archaically? Romantically?
I cannot stress enough how important this rule is to me, both in terms of writing erotica and critiquing it.
III. Growing Dissatisfaction
Every fan becomes more jaded as time passes. How many of you can speak of a time when you read every story in a given archive for your first fandom of choice, eschewing sleep, love, and food in the throes of your cheerful obsession?
How many of you know exactly what I mean when I speak of the 'first joyful flush of a new fandom,' and of how quickly it fades to bitterness at the fact that, once again, 98% of the stories posted in the fandom are utter shite?
A lot of you, I know. Most all of you, I'd wager.
The rules don't change for those of us who love smut. On the contrary, we're just as frustrated about the state of fan fiction as the rest of you. And some of us -- me, for just an example -- know exactly why.
Moving into the Buffy and Due South fandoms after leaving X-Files was interesting on a number of levels, most of which belong in an entirely separate essay. In terms of erotica...
Well, Buffy had and has the wonderfully unique mailing list and archive UCSL, an institution devoted to fan fiction that 'ships characters that 1) were never in a relationship on the show, 2) were in a relationship on the show at some point, but not at the point during which the story takes place, and/or 3) are/were in a relationship on the show, but the story either focuses on the erotic element of the story or is entirely pornographic.
Isn't that brilliant?
I fell in love immediately.
Due South was a more 'traditional' slash fandom, focusing on the romantic possibilities of the friendships between Fraser and both Rays. The prevailing lists and archives (when I entered the fandom) reflected this.
On the whole, I was far happier in Buffy fandom. While I didn't precisely need an apparatus like UCSL for most of the work I produced, there was definitely something to be said for a list that actively encouraged people to be as outré as possible in terms of their ideas.
Let's remember my major influence was Anna, shall we?
With Due South... well, I often found myself feeling as though my stories weren't precisely welcome. I chose to focus on the darker aspects I saw in the characters, and may have contributed to the rift that sprang up in the Ray K/Fraser part of the fandom over dark fiction.
I didn't stay in Due South fandom for very long. I stayed in Buffy fandom -- and later Angel fandom -- for quite some time.
That said? Despite the fundamental differences in the way the fandoms worked, I had the exact same problem finding satisfying erotica and pornography in both.
Put simply: Too many writers would ignore what I saw to be the elemental make-up of the characters to produce the sort of sex and sexuality they wanted to see, or, as I call it, The Barbie Syndrome.
In Buffy, it would come across in a variety of ways, from stories where Buffy abruptly becomes a Faith-loving leatherdyke, to stories where Xander is cringing, weepy, self-injuring bottomslut (yes, I know I'm guilty of this myself, to some extent), to stories where Spike's Daddy issues are so severe that he wants -- no, needs -- Angel to whip him bloodily into submission.
In Due South, it was usually a milder sort of awfulness to deal with, at least to my eyes. Instead of all the self-injury, blood-letting, and leather, you had the seemingly endless epics in which the course of True Love really does run smooth enough by the end, and never mind the canonical issues all the major characters had with romantic relationships.
Because Fraser isn't like 'that.' And neither is Ray.
And don't you forget it.
Mind you, none of the scenarios listed above are inherently evil. I'm of the opinion that one should never say never when it comes to ideas, because there's always some terrifyingly brilliant writer who can make it all make sense, if not make it all seem positively inspired and wonderful.
The problem is that most of the writers who work with these scenarios are either not talented enough to make them work or are too lazy to put the time in to make them work.
Fans are a forgiving, easy lot when it comes to our porn. Our sense of disbelief is usually already half-hanging by the time we open your story files. Most of us want to read porn about these characters, whoever they may be.
And the answer to the problem is in that last sentence: Most of us want to read porn about these characters.
Not people who bear a vague resemblance to the actors playing the characters, but otherwise have little in common with Xander, Buffy, Fraser, or whoever.
Not -- and this is important -- you.
Of course, there are some readers out there who get a kick out of anthropological, sociological, and mythological readings of fiction -- I'm looking at you, Spike. You're writing your essay when?
There are readers who enjoy fiction that I just wish the writers would hand over to their therapists, because as fan fiction the stories make great essays on the writers' personal issues.
Me? I'm not one of them.
As previously mentioned, I feel that erotica should reflect the sort of sex the characters would have with each other. Even if you're writing about two people who have never so much as met each other, it's perfectly feasible to extrapolate a reasonable idea of the sort of sex they would have.
You can extrapolate about their conversations, can't you? The way they'd relate to each other in other ways?
I can't tell you how many times I've become disgusted with otherwise wonderful stories upon coming to the sex scene, where it became obvious that the writer either didn't know or care to know how his/her characters would relate to each other sexually.
Buffy fandom especially, I've found, is rife with erotica and pornography in which the characters abruptly leave center stage to be replaced with doubles who proceed to perform acts the 'real' characters almost certainly would not -- at least not without quite a bit of buildup, change, and growth beforehand.
Buildup, change, and growth that, of course, takes place somewhere other than the story itself.
There is one piece of advice I always give new erotica writers (when they ask, that is), and it's this:
No matter how hot it is, no matter how much you want to; try to avoid writing sex scenes that express your personal kink(s) until such time as you have enough experience with writing erotica to know that you can control yourself while writing it.
I'm speaking from experience here. Of my earliest erotica, the scenes I consider most successful (in terms of both reader response and my own hypercriticism) were the ones that I, myself, was unable to view as 'hot' on a visceral level until long after I'd written them.
The scenes that were written purely to satisfy my personal kinks... well, the stories they were in suffered in a number of a ways, from being too rushed in general (in an attempt to hurry up and get to the PORN), to the Barbie Syndrome.
Quite frankly? They don't hold up well over time, despite being written, ostensibly, for me. It's very, very easy to tell when an inexperienced writer is just looking for a way to express his/her kinks.
Am I saying writers should endeavor to be like androids? No. First off, it just doesn't work that way.
Secondly... well, just no. What I'm saying is this: Even if you're writing a pairing where your personal kink would make perfect sense in a sex scene, I think you should wait until you have more experience writing erotica, and hell, writing in general, before you try to tackle the vaulting horses, Catholic schoolgirl uniforms, and Olympically uncertified water sports.
Why? Because it's extremely easy to get so lost in your own sense of lust (and oh, have I ever been there) that you lose sight of both the story and the characters. And even easier to, while the given story is in beta, be completely unable to understand your editor's problems with your latest bit of brilliance.
There's no shame in this -- it's human nature to lose your head when the blood goes rushing south. However, if you want to produce good erotica and/or pornography, you need to have your head screwed on straight.
So, what I learned (or learned anew) from being pissy in Due South in Buffy:
F. The sex in a given story can and should be one with the rest of the story.
G. The kink in a given sex scene can and should be appropriate to the characters in that scene, no matter how turned on you get thinking about doing it some other way.
Alternately, the kink in a given sex scene can and should be appropriate to the characters in that scene, no matter how turned off you get thinking about doing it the way your story has led up to.
If you can't write a sex scene appropriate to a given story, then the story either shouldn't have a sex scene (EEEK! BLASPHEMY!), or you shouldn't be writing that story.
H. Don't try this at home. Professional driver on closed course. Or: For the love of God, people, control your hormones while you're writing, or your story probably won't be much good.
IV. The Big Sparkly
The first time I saw Michael Rosenbaum's Lex onscreen, I knew I had a new show. The first time I saw his Lex and Tom Welling's Clark conversing, I knew I had a new fandom. I'd written my first story within hours of the pilot's first airing, and did my level best to pimp everyone I knew into joining me in my new love.
And so did a lot of other people.
Soon -- very soon -- Smallville slash was the latest eight hundred pound gorilla of fandom, pulling the cream from many other fandoms, luring in people who had never written and/or been very interested in slash before, and generally attracting the wild newbie to active internet life.
And, lo, there was fic. Everywhere. And within that fic, there was often porn. Lord knows I did my best to make every SV story I produced NC-17, despite the fact that I had gotten over my belief that 'real' slash was equivalent to erotica.
Hey, in my opinion? Smallville has one of the foxiest casts on television today, with so much pretty you just can't escape it. And the subtext is about as close to text as you can get outside of a Joss Whedon or HBO show.
However, I can't help but wonder how many people look at the show, read Omar's recaps on Television Without Pity (with his regular exhortations and shout-outs to slashers everywhere), and wind up with the same wrong-headed impression about slash I started out with.
Namely, that there is something inherently wrong with a slash story that doesn't feature explicit erotica.
There isn't. Really. I swear.
I say this even with my love of NC-17 remaining quite pure, even with the fact that I routinely save stories that aren't rated NC-17 to read in some nebulous 'later' while gobbling down the porn like the fiend I am.
I say this because some of you really need to stop writing porn.
Remember when I talked about how unbelievably easy it was to pick out those writers who were simply throwing their kinks down on the page for all to see in (oft ill-advised) acts of public masturbation?
Well, it's even easier to tell which writers have honest to God issues with sex, or certain kinds of sexuality. And it doesn't make for a happy, smut-lovin' read.
Am I saying that I've reached some sort of Nirvana-like state of sexual enlightenment, and only people who have reached similar states should be free to spam the world with their porn? No, not at all.
In other forums, I've ranted at length about writers who persist in producing fiction where characters who they either actively loathe or simply do not understand play a large role. These stories are also remarkably easy to pick out of the vast hordes of other shiteful fiction: They're the ones where one or two characters out of an ensemble bear no resemblance whatsoever to the people they're supposed to resemble.
They're the ones where, say, Riley abruptly feels the need to rape Xander with a gun, or Buffy feels the need to shun poor, misunderstood Willow for being gay.
Often, they're stories where the other characters are perfectly normal, and do perfectly in-character things -- making the actions of the one or two hated/misunderstood characters that much more surreal.
Are we on the same page? Good. You know the stories whereof I speak.
The advice I give to writers (when asked) about how to handle the difficult problem of writing stories about characters that simply flummox you is twofold: 1) Find yourself someone you know to be a fan of the character and quiz them relentlessly until such time as you know the character, too -- if not necessarily love him or her -- and can respect them as as much of a person as the other characters in your story.
Or 2) Avoid writing that character like the plague itself.
On the issue of porn, I've found in Smallville (and in some of the professional work I've been reviewing for zentertainment.com), a great deal of bad porn that puzzled me at first. It wasn't just that it was out of character -- and sometimes it even was in character.
It wasn't just that the kinks (if present) didn't fit the stories -- and sometimes they did fit the stories.
There was also a general sense of unease, an inescapable discomfort that seemed to transfer itself directly from writer to reader, bypassing any and everything going on onscreen. There has been, sometimes, a sense of distaste even, or, on the milder end of the spectrum, out and out bewilderment.
All of this has forced me to conclude that some people honestly do not like writing about sex -- if they even enjoy having sex.
Look, I've written all kinds of stories featuring all kinds of sex I hope to never have myself. And yet, very little of that squicky-to-me sex could be considered rape, or even the fuzzier area of 'non-con.' My point? The characters were having a high old time doing things you'd have to lobotomize me before I'd do them willingly.
And in the end, it's the characters who matter.
If, in the story you're writing, Lex and Clark cheerfully want to make with the chips, dips, chains, and whips, it is your duty as the writer to do the following: 1) Know what you're talking about. BDSM isn't Erotica 101, but there are plenty of websites that can give you an idea of what you should be saying, filtered through the lens of your characters.
2) Suck it up. You wanted to write this story. I, as a reader, don't give a flying fuck how you personally feel about BDSM (or whatever else they're doing) -- unless you can convince me that your feelings are analogous to Lex and/or Clark's own, in which case I still shouldn't ever be sure how you feel.
Or 3) Walk away. There's no shame in this. If you don't feel you can write a story which fairly, literately, and by God erotically explores the kink the story calls for, you shouldn't be writing that story.
In other rants about bad porn, I've discussed my horror of obvious virgins writing porn. Well, I take it back -- in part. I know a handful of virgins who happen to write excellent erotica and pornography of various stripes. However, they have a few things in common. For one, they've done their research. They know the balls don't go in first, that lube is a beautiful thing, and that a human tongue really shouldn't go through a clitoris, among other things.
For another, they all either know their limitations when it comes to the writing of erotica or are brassy enough to push through them with style. In other words: They remember that their own feelings must always come second to those of the characters, and that when they are unable to handle that, they must back away from the story in question.
And yet, there's a reason why the advice 'write what you know' has been handed down generation after generation.
I wish I could trust that all the virgin wannabe erotica writers out there would do their research and be self-aware. But... do you have any idea how much awful fiction I have to read in order to keep a large and active recommendations page?
Friends and neighbors? Ignorant virginity is just one more of those things that are painfully easy to pick out. I know who you are, you writers too lazy to research. All sorts of people do. We bandy your names about in the horror stories we tell to cheer ourselves up.
We quote relevant passages and wince. And laugh. A lot.
I don't tell you this to hurt you. I'm just letting you know the facts as I see them. What you choose to do with them is up to you.
So what did I learn (or learn anew) from my time in Smallville, other than that cynicism is something that creeps up on you with little cat feet?
I. The sex scene(s) in your fiction should only be there if you are emotionally up to the task of writing them. Look within yourself before beginning and ask: Can I tell this scene without undue authorial intrusion and/or judgment? If not, perhaps you shouldn't be writing it. If you feel the story requires the sex scene -- well, first, I applaud that attitude wholeheartedly.
As for practical advice: Consider taking on a co-author you feel could better handle whatever it is you're finding difficult.
J. How much do you understand about sex in general? While I would think that it's a rather small minority of erotica writers who can say, from personal experience, what sex feels like both as a man and as a woman (ah, Tiresias, where are you when we need you?), there's quite a lot that can be learned both from going out and *having* sex and from doing research. Before setting pen to page, consider your options.
Personally? I recommend screwing.
V. The (Not So) Big Finish
Well, I'm surprised I had this much to say about smut, even if no one else is. Still, like I said way back when we started, I take my porn seriously. Done well, it can be as much of an art form as any other genre of writing -- moreso because of the added visceral enjoyment of both reader and writer. That's wanking, for those of you who were nodding off.
In the end, all of my rules about pornography and erotica can be boiled down to one simple paragraph:
Unless you're writing something autobiographical, everything in your particular story should reflect other people. Their emotions, their language, their desires, their issues, their sex and sensuality -- not (necessarily) your own. If this isn't something you feel you can achieve, perhaps you should think about some other form of expression.
Does it sound like something I could be saying about any form of fiction?
Well, I certainly hope so.
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.