Becoming Unmarketable & Other Writing Philosophies
On drafting, writing sex scenes, and becoming unmarketable
It looks like it's time to talk again. How's tricks? How's your life? Is that shirt new? For this month's newsletter, I decided to step back from media criticism and personal essays to talk a bit about writing.
(And myself, but what else did you expect?)
This won't be advice or tips and tricks. There are plenty of people who offer that and I don't think it's a good use of my time to write prescriptions. I'll be going over two frequently asked questions about some of my processes and overarching philosophies on writing. I decided to do this because an article I wrote last year about my own processes (The Marriage of Theme, World-building, and Characterization during 2021’s Self-published Fantasy Month) seemed to be pretty beneficial to a lot of people, and I would like to throw a few more ideas out there for those who are curious enough to ask. Then, to close it out, I'll be talking a bit about some more personal things when it comes to writing.
Sounds good? Let's start off with the easy stuff.
How I plan and draft books
Or: Wherein I make the writing advice industrial complex mad at me
Conventional internet writing wisdom states that the best way to draft is to finish. I feel like, whatever corner of the writing world you find yourself in, that's likely the drafting advice you're going to hear. Write straight through the book, from start to finish, at as brisk a pace as you can manage. Don't stop to edit or tweak, that will just slow you down. The only thing that matters is that you cross the finish line. Whatever the state of the draft you drag with you, that can be dealt with later.
Write now, reckless and free, and autopsy at a later date.
It makes sense, right? You can't revise a book you didn't finish. A lot of people seem to draft this way, so it works well enough. But I don't find this approach particularly satisfying to undergo as a writer, because I feel like I come out the other side unable to really make sense of what I've written. Sure, it's finished, but in plowing ahead, never stopping to diagnose issues until the draft is complete, I'm often frustrated with the amount of work I now have to do to fix a deeply broken -- or worse, uninteresting -- book.
My established process for drafting is much more forgiving on myself and the work. It's designed to take the pressure off of me and let the work breathe as I learn how to write it. Because every story is different and requires different things from you to complete. I find that by accepting that every book is a learning experience, I come out of the drafting process much more confident in what I've written.
Let me explain how that works:
Step One: Planning
Every short story or novel begins with an outline. I create a highly detailed, chapter-to-chapter or scene-to-scene outline that follows every plot event in that segment, as well as the emotional arc of the characters within it. I'll sometimes scratch out some important conversations with key words or phrases and keep them in this document. This is to account for all of the action and emotion as I move through the piece. The outline document tends to be massive so that I understand every little detail and know where I'm going at all times.
I know that this involves a lot of work at the front end, which may turn people off. However, I find it to be necessary. Then I go into the drafting process knowing that I will throw half of my meticulous outline away, dumping all of that work in the metaphorical garbage and starting over at the midpoint of the book.
And that's okay, because plans are plans, not laws.
Step Two: Drafting the First Half
Following the outline, I begin drafting up until the mid-point of the book. The first half of the first draft is purely a learning experience: feeling out the tone, pacing, and character voices. How it moves from scene to scene and how it feels to read back. It's at this stage that I begin understanding the changes that I need to make to certain elements: what needs to go, what needs to be added in its place. How to make it feel more natural. Unseen problems and interesting new ideas reveal themselves through the process of writing.
These are things that the outline couldn't have accounted for, and will be lost if I strictly followed my plan just to get to the end. The outline is useful as a guide, of course. It maintains all of those beats and emotional through lines that I want to accomplish, and helps me take what I've now written and devise a new way to achieve those goals.
The draft is rough, often ugly, and frequently a bit of a mess in this state. But it's very educational in that all of the soft spots in my initial outline become clear in practice. Most importantly, it helps me shape the ultimate conclusion of the story based on all of the insight I gain from writing the first half.
Using that information, I return to my outline.
Step Three: Drafting the Second Half
At this stage, I revise the second half outline and write a new ending. I create a new guideline to follow based on my findings from the first half of the draft. The second half of the draft is much tighter and more precise in that I have diagnosed and resolved a lot of problems that I noticed earlier on.
Once the second half of the book is finished, I return to the first and revise it based on what I now know from writing the ending. Everything that's wrong with the beginning now makes more sense and I can rewrite or rearrange whatever I need to get to that new ending. The draft halves meet in the middle, and then can be evaluated as a complete narrative in further revisions.
Does this process take a bit longer than a fevered sprint to the finish line? Sure, depending on the project and how many issues I diagnose along the way. It won't work for people who just need to get it all out on paper and revise from there. For me, this process feels much more organic. It allows me to assess issues as they become apparent and write toward the solution before they get away from me and cause larger problems.
I don't get so attached to elements or ideas because I go in knowing that everything is fluid. Nothing feels precious to me because none of it was guaranteed to make it to the end in the first place. For all my best laid plans, they're just a map to get me where I need to go.
In treating writing like a learning experience, I find it to be much more relaxed and enjoyable. Like putting together a puzzle or playing a logic game. I get more out of the writing because I come to it with more of an open mind, ready to see what I take away from it in the end. Maybe that won't work if you're on a tight deadline, but that's why I said I don't write prescriptions.
How I approach writing sex scenes
Or: Wherein I make the erotica writers mad at me
At this point, if you're reading this newsletter or follow my antics on social media, you probably know me to some extent or another as a romance and erotica writer. I find that to be a bit of a dicey set of terms, but I have my reasons why. Generally speaking, sexy stories and Magen Cubed go hand-in-hand. That's a safe bet. So, naturally, a common question that I get is how I go about writing those sexy stories and scenes.
To answer that question, I need to explain a few things first:
I believe sex, sensuality, and eroticism are important tools at an artist's disposal in both narrative and non-narrative art.
I'm asexual, so my interest in sex, sensuality, and eroticism is rooted in visual or aesthetic pleasure and emotional catharsis rather than titillation.
I don't think of sex as something that I engage with for my own pleasure or fantasy. The scene is not about me, but the subjects whose experiences I want to see realized. I engage with eroticism in explicit pursuit of that aesthetic pleasure and emotional catharsis. I want to see how other artists use sex to explore ideas, provide texture to their characters' inner lives, and create striking scenes through visual art or prose.
To me, the pleasure is the act of seeing or reading, but I feel the same way about a well-composed erotic scene as I do a romantic landscape or a beautiful portrait.
To put it very bluntly, I'm not getting off on any of this, and getting the reader off is the furthest from my mind. I may joke a lot on social media about how incredibly hot and sexy my work is (because it's funny to me, the living equivalent of a never nude Sim), but that isn't why I focus so much on eroticism in my writing. Which isn't to say that there's anything wrong with creating or engaging with erotic material for sexual gratification. It's the dominant reason anyone does it, I assume. People tend to take my thoughts on these things as being sex negative or shaming people who read dirty books to get off, but I don't think acknowledging our different experiences with these mediums is prudish. It's just a fact.
For me, sex is not about the act of receiving pleasure or acquiring the physical means through which that pleasure is achieved. The staging of scenes, of who puts what where and when, of what ticky boxes it all checks off in the reader's kinky shopping list, doesn't figure in. These things don't interest me.
The best way that I can think to frame it is to say that I conceive of sex scenes in terms of lack. The characters lack something they deeply need in this moment. They are at a loss and nothing else can fulfill their needs. Or, at least, nothing else they want to pursue. This lack could be anything. Affection, comfort, companionship, assurance, distraction from grief, a sense of control over their circumstances, a sense of belonging (or, at the very least, the opposite of being alone), or a place to put anger. In my work, it's often a combination of entangled feelings. The only way to fill this lack and receive what they need is through their physical engagement with one another, with the act of intercourse as a conduit.
Either their needs are met and catharsis is achieved, or they aren't and it isn't.
In this way, sex is a negotiation between the needs of disparate bodies, the same way a fight scene or a dance scene is a negotiation between different needs or goals. Yes, power figures into these negotiations as well, but power in sexual dynamics take on forms other than strict dominance or submission, sadism or masochism. (Although they appear in my work to varying degrees, as well.) All of these intersecting things -- what is given, what is withheld, what has yet to be received -- demands vulnerability of the characters. They must be genuine with their emotions, even if they aren't necessarily being honest with one another. Again, this is an intimate exchange and no one wants to get hurt.
The sex can be tender or brutal, indulgent or clinical, familiar or anonymous. It doesn't always come from a healthy place. Sex can be painful. Sex can be about saying goodbye or processing hurt. It can be about punishing oneself. Characters can be racked with grief or guilt or fear. They can find freedom and wholeness in the act of pleasuring, of receiving pleasure from, someone they shouldn't. Whatever form it takes, the sex is a response to the lack, shaped by the needs it is intended to fill.
(Yes, of course, people can have perfectly nice casual encounters that aren't rooted in profound and artful suffering. But they don't make for good opera, so I don't put those in my stories.)
It's sex that doesn't care if there's an audience looking on. There is a kind of innate pleasure in the descriptions of physical acts, the language of urgency, the crescendo of sensation on the page. Pleasure, pain. Skin on skin. Grasping fingers and bared teeth. The complements and dichotomies between bodies and how they fit together. But however aesthetically pleasing the presentation, this is the sex these characters, these subjects, are having whether you're here or you look away.
You are invited to look, and take from it what you will, but your pleasure isn't the point. This is why I have trouble calling my work erotic, but it's also why I find sex scenes so gratifying to write. They are deeply vulnerable glimpses into the inner lives of and intimate dynamics between characters. Because I don't think of sex as having to service the needs of an audience, I don't feel constrained by making it hot. I simply want to feel it.
When I read back a scene and I feel it -- the wrenching ache, the tenseness of negotiation, the finality of emotional release -- then I know I did my job.
(But my characters are still very hot.)
How I became unmarketable
Or: Wherein I make genre writers mad at me
It feels like a joke or a meme at this point to say that I have holes in my memory. (I've talked a lot about that already, if you've been around long enough to read my essays on the subject.) But one of the few crystal clear memories I have of my youth was the day that my thirteen-year-old self announced that I was going to be a writer. At the time I wanted to write for Marvel Comics, as it was my dream to move to New York City and write superhero books. So, in the kitchen one day, I looked at my mother and father, and said that I wanted to be a comic writer when I grew up.
My father scoffed, or perhaps sneered, as he was known to do. He said that there isn't any money in writing and New York City is expensive.
To which I responded that I would simply work a day job and publish things that I cared about on the side. Because I wanted to do it, even if I didn't make any money.
My father didn't appreciate that. All he cared about was having something to pin his name on, and I wasn't going to be it.
I bring this up now because I don't think there's a more perfect encapsulation of me as a person, let alone a writer, than that story. Given the general sort of state of things, it feels important to bring that up. Because, as of this year, 2022, I've been writing Dorian Villeneuve and Cash Leroy of the Southern Gothic Series for five years. I've spent most of the last six months working on Black Diamond, sequel to Leather and Lace, and planning out the third book in the series, titled Tougher than Leather.
And as of this month, June 2022, I've been publicly and privately having a complete crisis about the Southern Gothic Series for six straight months.
It's a simple story: The original Leather and Lace short story was published in a comics and prose anthology in 2018. I was too obsessed with the characters and their world to let them go. I shoved everything else aside to focus on them. Having already written another Dorian/Cash book that didn't get picked up by publishers, I put out the full-length Leather and Lace adaptation in 2021 after I determined that traditional publishing wasn't for me. I talked to editors and agents and it was clear that what I wanted to do wasn't marketable.
A queer romantic comedy urban fantasy horror (kinda) series about vampire and hunter best friends who fall in love and have to navigate a world of monsters and mayhem? It's not romance, it's not horror, it's not comedy -- it's Dorian and Cash. They're two of God's most perfect idiots who exist to discuss love, trauma, intimacy, trust, family, monstrosity, class, and poverty, all while looking good and cracking some dick jokes along the way.
So I put the book out myself.
Done. Simple. Easy.
The thing is that, as I put out the book, in the process of marketing and researching and fine-tuning and talking to other writers about best practices, I made a huge mistake: I tried to become marketable, to make my work profitable. I had gained some minor traction among monster romance and erotic romance readers, and so I hustled to put out a novella and a short story in 2021 to try to capitalize on what seemed like forward momentum. To try to stay relevant. To make people notice.
Also, you know, it's yet another year of the pandemic. I was burnt out after years of working on all of these projects. I've been dealing with a lot of personal stuff in public and public stuff in private. The internet will drink your blood if you let it. Life under capitalism is a soul-deadening grind. The seas are rising and the shores where I live are eroding as I type this. Et cetera, et cetera.
Suddenly, it just…seemed really important to make the book count. To get a win for once. To catch a break. To feel like what I do matters.
Thus, in my mind, despite my best laid plans, Dorian and Cash were now a product. I was now a product. I put out a book, a consumable object for sale, and now I was responsible for making it successful. Dorian and Cash needed to crack niche demographics. They needed to check trope ticky boxes. They needed to be in multiple formats. They needed to be available to everyone, everywhere, all the time. They needed to be on BookTok. They needed to have a new book out every year (or faster, if possible) to remain relevant. They needed to get popular with other, more popular writers who would make the case that they're worth reading.
And because Dorian and Cash can't possibly do any of those things, I began to struggle.
I hated all the monster romance stories I was working on and abandoned everything. I felt like a fraud, trying to insert myself in places I didn't belong just to court readers who didn't want what I wrote. The next book? Third book? None of it was coming together. My initial plan for a 2022 sequel release slipped through my fingers as I realized I wasn't happy with where the book was going. I thought it should have been easier and faster to write, but it wasn't. It was harder and more tiring and nothing felt right.
This book, this product, was a failure. My book wasn't marketable and I was trying to force it to be so people would deem me worthy. And so I began to see my book only in terms of lack, the things that it wasn't. The holes in it that I couldn't fill.
All I could see was failed books, because Dorian and Cash weren't the cinnamon buns or bad boys or disaster gays or book boyfriends or good representation or wish fulfillment or whatever else people supposedly want. Every day for six months, I found myself filled with the sudden, panicked instinct to take down everything I've ever written and give up.
But the reality is...Dorian and Cash aren't a product, and I'm not an author.
An author is someone who writes books for money, who builds brands for themselves. Authors navigate the labyrinth of the publishing industry and all its complicated professional, social, and personal expectations to maximize profit. Profit for one's publisher and all the people around them or oneself if they choose the independent writer entrepreneur route. In either event, you are writing for the market to make money. Your decisions are mercenary because they have to be. These business decisions dictate what you write and release and how you write and release. Writing what you love might get you a sale, but the industry is a fickle beast and there are no guarantees that what you love will even make you money once, let alone sustain you.
Because writing is a business, honey, and you have to treat it like one if you want to have a career.
Unless you don't.
And then you have me.
Let me preface this next segment by stating that we're all doing art and I'm not here to litigate what is or isn't art. You do you, I'll do me, understand? I'm not here to fight you, debate you, or place myself on a pedestal. I am but a humble jackass on the internet. I will, however, say that I'm not a business or a brand.
I'm not an entity you come to for a steady stream of similar content. I don't write to make money. If I did, I would write different stories than I do now. I wouldn’t spend so much time on personal essay and things that don’t make me money because they don’t make money for other people. I know this, because that's what I've been told every time I've queried a book over the last decade. The topics, genres, manuscript lengths, identities of my characters -- everything falls out of bounds for what is considered publishable. Writer entrepreneur types have told me the same thing.
If I want to make money, I need to do, and be, something else.
This is because Southern Gothic is, at its core, not designed to make money. It isn't designed to give you a series of books that are more of the same every time, giving you a little shot of what you paid for in Book 1. Every book will drift further from the monster of the week formula that it promised, abandoning the "Supernatural but really gay" selling point I used in all the marketing. The characters will explore their weird and ugly world, getting deeper and deeper into that world until they come out the other side very different people. Dorian and Cash are designed to play with themes and tropes in that very Magen Cubed way, with a Magen Cubed sense of humor and melancholy.
These books are messy. They can get complicated where their emotions are concerned. They can't be written and released quickly to stay algorithmically relevant because they juggle so many feelings and moods and genres. They are shaped by my interest in speaking to love, trauma, and monstrosity, and they are not concerned with being anything else but a place for these ideas to run wild.
I write them for me, because I love them and I want them -- need them -- to exist. I have willed them into the world because they please me and I believe they have a right to exist, even if they don't get optioned by Netflix or picked up by a boutique publishing house. I believe they should exist and you should have the opportunity to read them should you so desire.
Because that is my sincere desire. They are not a product but an offering. And because they're not a product and I won't treat them as such, I will never have a career. Having been doing this for a decade now, that's fine. My debut, long out-of-print from a shuttered publisher, is a vanishing speck in my rearview mirror. I've managed over ten thousand individual unit sales since, under the name you know and one you probably don't, but my work will reach the exact number of people someone like me who writes the work that I do is going to reach.
Like that debut novel, I'm just a speck of dust.
I am unmarketable, and I am free.
This work is mine. It is me. The things that make me laugh and cry and hope for better and hate myself are in this work. The things I want to communicate to others about those experiences, about the depth of things that I feel from that wounded place, it's all there. And I don't want to sell it in the ways that I'm told to sell it because it is me in a way that I don't want to be sold.
As a brand. As a parasocial friend. As an expert to sell you advice on how to write and publish and be successful.
I consider myself an outsider to this world because that's what I am. Maybe not a Henry Darger kind of outsider, creating vast, intricate tomes of written and visual work hidden inside the crypt of my apartment. I don't think it's useful to assume an "outsider artist'' position or take on some tired “punk rock” affect, but I'm an outsider nonetheless. I don't consider myself part of the publishing industry or the nebulous idea of the writing community at large, because I'm...not. I'm just a person who writes books because I want to write books. It's a world that I don't belong to, wasn't built for, and that's fine. There doesn't have to be room at the table or under a tent for me and my work, because we don't belong there.
Dorian and Cash are wonderful. They are mine and I love them. I am talented, driven, and care about creating meaningful things. None of what I've said before negates the fact that I believe in myself and the work. I just don't really have much to say to people who want querying advice or to further their self-publishing career. It doesn't make me much fun in group chats and Discord servers because I don't have a script to follow or secret knowledge to share. It's kind of lonely sometimes, yeah, but that's what it means when you choose to sit outside the tent.
I am unmarketable. That's my choice because it's what makes me happy. It's what always made me happy, since I first announced my intentions at the age of thirteen. It just took me a while to get back to that, to ground myself in that reality, and accept what I've always known to be true.
Author's notes and citations
I think part of this process, these tumbling thoughts, arose from watching and pondering this video below by critic, musician, and author May Leitz. Here, May is introducing her transgressive horror novel Fluids (which I beta read and edited, by the way. Hi, hello, I've edited two indie novels this year), and discussing her reasons for writing and self-publishing the book. It resonated with me a great deal, both the book and her discussion about it. While I understand this book may not be your cup of tea (having worked on it, I can say that it is A Lot™!), May's words have helped soothe a self-inflicted wound, and I appreciate that.
And this is the kind of "community" I think I'm interested in cultivating, at the end of the day? People making things and putting them out in specific ways, for specific reasons, because these things can and should exist regardless of whether they are deemed acceptable or marketable. I feel like what I'm being asked to do as a creator these days is provide comfort and escapism from the soul-killing system we all live in, by satisfactorily performing my function as a commercial product that arises out of that system. I don't think that I can hustle and girl boss my way to success when that success is so bleak in the context that I'm given.
I'll drop a video essay by LitCritGuy about popular modernism because I feel that it's relevant to this larger discussion. It's definitely worth your time.