Expect the Unexpected
Many of the resources “On Writing” I have partaken of during the last few years spend a lot of time discussing ways to spark creativity. Sometimes it’s couched as a way to fight writer’s block, sometimes it’s slanted more as a way to deepen a story, but really it’s all the same thing. One of the tricks these sources have advised is to take a point of your story–a moment of plot, a trait of a character, etc–and do something unexpected with it. Push yourself to look past the easy, logical steps and open yourself up to the unconventional ones because they are the foundations of great and memorable stories.
This makes perfect sense when you realize that real life isn’t easy and logical, and rarely does it follow a predictable pattern. We wish it was predictable and sometimes we turn to stories to fill that need. Some genres–or branches and subsets of genres at least–are built entirely on filling that need. Mysteries, romance, early pulp-scifi, etc, all have very predictable patterns and cliches that define them, and their customers expect this of them. It’s comforting to spend time in a world where you can enjoy being surprised by the details while still being confident that things will all turn out in a certain way.
And frankly that’s fine. But there’s a time and a place for that sort of writing, and there’s a time and a place for more creative, innovative works. Frankly I would rather spend more time in the latter realm. But how do you know when you’ve crossed the border?
On the ERWA listserve, we recently got to discussing cliches and how to avoid them, and a couple good sources came up. Strange Horizons, the online speculative fiction magazine that publishes a lot of work from aspiring authors, has an entire list of cliches in the scifi and fantasy genres that they have collected over their long history of reviewing stories. Clarkesworld is another spec-fic magazine that has a less-exhaustive but similar list (I am especially fond of, “Satan’s gonna getcha!”). And finally, getting back to erotica specifically, Circlet Press is a major publisher that only publishes spec-fic-themed erotica and they have a short but very specific list of cliches they are tired of seeing. Now, all of these publishers stress that it’s not necessarily that these cliches are bad stories, just that they have become too common, and commonality creates predictability. If you really, really, really wanted to write such a story there’s nothing stopping you, but do so with a note of caution because, as Circlet points out, “Even the readership says they are sick of them.”
And yes, I will admit that I have a couple story ideas that make some of these lists. Rather than find it discouraging, though, I find these lists exciting. These are the road markers I need that say, “You think you’re out pushing new boundaries, but really you’re still in your home territory. Be brave and keep moving, because there are even more wonderful treasures yes undiscovered out there.”