A friend pointed me to a fanzine article about Donald E. Westlake‘s erotic writing from the sixties. Westlake speaks of it most disparagingly; the article’s title comes from his dismissive statement about the process of churning out a lot of pages for a deadline. As Allan Marshall, Westlake wrote at least in the range of 30 novels that decade. As Earl Kemp (no relation!) points out, there may be as much as three times that number mostly written by friends and family under Westlake’s guidance.
Kempe describes an industry that’s really a kind of boy’s club, a big poker-playing locker room kind of ambience, though he also says:
There were women writers as well, like Marion Zimmer Bradley, but most of them were kept rather well hidden. It was essentially a male thing to write those books, or so people assumed. In reality, the women wrote much better quality pornography than the men.
I wonder why that might be? Maybe because they told stories instead of approaching it as formula. I can understand the need to make money as quickly as possible with the least possible effort. But it proved to be deadening to simply write to formula. Too many people think that’s what we romance writers do.
Here’s (a slightly abbreviated version of) Westlake’s plots from Adios, Sheherazade:
1-A boy in a small town wants to see the world. He screws his local sweetheart goodbye and he goes to the big city. In the big city he gets a job and meets a succession of people, mostly female, and lays them all…2-The same as 1, except with a girl…3-La Ronde. Chapter 1 introduces George, who screws Myra. Chapter 2 switches to Myra’s viewpoint, and she makes it with Bruno. In Chapter 3 we follow Bruno as he climbs into the rack with Phyllis. And so on, and so on…4-A bored husband and a bored wife…If we make one of them, husband or (more usually) wife, the heavy, wife can finish with the heavy getting his (her) comeuppance and the good guy (girl) getting a better girl (guy). If we make them both merely confused and troubled but basically nice, they get back together again at the finish. Redeeming social significance either way, if you’ll notice….
You can see how that might be mind numbing. Plus churning out 50,000 words to fill the formula, 10 chapters of 5,000 words, often repeating the verbiage verbatim from one sex scene to another, using any means possible to pad out the story to the necessary 150 page manuscript.
What a way to suck the life out a story!
It’s the later stuff that Westlake wrote that people continue to read — what he wrote after his apprenticeship as a formulaic writer of “porno books” as he called them. There are so many cheap (or free) outlets of pornography for people who want just that kind of formula thanks to the internet. Most people want more and expect to get it. I know a lot of freelancers who write ad copy or filler for websites. I’ve never been able to bring myself to do that. I want to write stories that interest and entertain me first, and with luck an audience after.
Other than a happy ending — and that can be very much a “happy for now” with a lot of threats handing over it — there’s not much formula for romance and what interests readers are the surprises.