Why we write characters who are kind of jerks

room2014While Room 1024 was in production, our editor pointed out a place where one of the main characters, an older dom named Lou, came off as kind of a jerk.

“Well, she’s not wrong….” Erin said.

“Man, we always write guys like this,” I replied.

And while all of those observations are true, Lou (and a lot of our other characters) are people who are very comfortable with themselves, very outspoken, and inclined to be somewhat amused by what other people will do when they aren’t comfortable with themselves.

Depending on where you set the mix for these traits you get everything from Lou, slightly abrasive dom, to Victor, the not-actually-a-villain of our Love in Los Angeles series.

Why write characters like this? Sometimes, it’s because we know guys like this. Sometimes, it’s because we aspire to be guys like this. And sometimes, at least in some circumstances, we already are. Mostly, though, we’re interested in how someone who thinks they have everything under control, upsets the apple cart when they inevitably don’t.

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Writing sex work in your romantic and erotic fiction

Last night, as I was tweeting about my general dismay at Pretty Woman, Shira Glassman struck up a conversation with me. Not for the first time, her LGBTQ books have a heroine with celiac disease, which I have, so we’re buds. Anyway, Shira wanted to talk about sex work in romance and what I, as a former sex worker, do and don’t want to see in such stories.

There are a few things I want to say before I get into this topic (which is really complicated). The first is that I am mostly okay with whatever fantasies writers and readers want to have about sex work. Some of those fantasies won’t interest me. Some will offend me.  Some may concern me.  But I’m a big advocate of people being responsible for their own kinks and doing their own separating of fact and fiction.  I’m writing this not to say what people should and shouldn’t write, but to provide a somewhat informed perspective for people who do want to write sex work in ways that may be more accurate.

Why may?  Well, there are a lot of different types of sex work, and I have experience with several, which I have delineated in a number of published essays but don’t necessarily feel like going into here because sex work is one of those things that tends to overshadow everything else about a person, and that’s just annoying.

It’s also important to understand what I say about sex work in the context of me as a white, relatively well-off woman from a comfortable background who gender conformed when she worked and who chose to engage in the work for a range of reasons including financial need and personal challenge.  Many sex workers do not have the resources or choices I have and are more vulnerable to violence, drugs, financial exploitation, human trafficking, and general shitty working conditions. Legality of different types of sex work in different jurisdictions also has a huge impact on the safety of those working in it and their ability to choose to enter…or leave the profession.

Sex work is empowering for some people and destructive for others. For some, it’s how you get to take a nice vacation. For others, it’s whether you eat today. For some it’s a choice, other others it’s the only choice. Generalizing about why people do the work and the consequences of that work for those people is usually not a good idea.

Okay, all of that said:

1. A sex worker does not sell themselves. A sex worker does not rent themselves. A sex worker provides a service. This is true of all types of sex work done with consent, whether it’s phone sex, escorting, domination, etc. What that service is varies widely, and goes way beyond the sexual.  Some clients just want to tell you about their problems.  Some clients just want to hear about your life.  Some clients just want to know that they’re not alone, or weird, or damaged, because of how they fantasize or see themselves.

2. Most clients are men. The conventional wisdom behind this is women don’t ever need to pay for sex. The reality is that I often meet women who say they wish they could pay for sex because of the clear expectations and low demands for them as potential clients. But these women then tell me that even purchasing sex doesn’t feel safe or permissible for them, or that they can’t find men in the business who cater to women and reflect their personal aesthetic preferences. And, considering that many sex work establishments are male-owned or have male security, there are some pretty good reasons  many women do not feel comfortable purchasing sex from workers of any gender.

3. When female clients present themselves, sex workers investigate. Sometimes, a man will contract the services of a sex worker and have a woman with him that he will identify as his wife. Most sex workers will take a moment to get the woman alone to make sure she is okay with everything and find out her limits and concerns without the man in the room. 80% of the time, this is when we find out that she’s a sex worker too.  Another 5% of the time in relevant jurisdictions and activities, she’s an undercover cop.

4. Most clients are married. Some are there with spousal approval. Most aren’t.  These aren’t people who can’t get laid, these are people who can’t get laid the way they want, enjoy the experience of sexual commerce, or want something with guaranteed low strings attached.  Most sex workers are very careful regarding business cards and promotional materials; no one wants an angry spousal call.

5. Sex workers look out for each other. I can’t emphasize this enough.  No matter how much drama or competition there is, safety effects everyone.  People who are able keep an eye out for each other.  If your sex worker fiction involves workers who hate each other enough to put each other at risk, it’s not necessarily plausible.

6. Professional and personal sex have different degrees of overlap for different workersThere are female escorts who fuck men at work and are lesbians in their personal lives.  Some sex workers are turned on by their work, some aren’t. Some sex workers go home to a spouse with whom they are monogamous. Some sex workers are asexual. Don’t assume.

7. In person sex workers have a strong familiarity with the range of physical bodies and sexual desires out there. They can tell you circumcision stats, what an average penis really looks like, and how appendix scars have become smaller as surgical technology has improved.  Once they’ve been in the business for a bit, it’s pretty hard to shock them for good or for ill. Outliers always exist, but sex workers see those outliers and have the ability to contextualize them.

8. Just like at your desk job, there are clients you hate and clients you can enjoy a beer with. In some ways, this is the most important thing.  It’s just like any other job.  Sometimes your day was awesome. Sometimes it was awful. Sometimes you’re sore. Sometimes you’re tired. Sometimes you want to talk about it. Sometimes you don’t.

9. In the U.S. traditional sex work can be a highly racist environment. If you’re not white, you’re specialty.  And if you’re specialty, that often means you are paid less and if you don’t work independently find it more difficult than white women to work in houses and services that represent bigger income and better working conditions. This situation also affects trans, fat, and disabled sex workers and like PoC sex workers can compromise income and safety.  I presume versions of these issues exist in other countries as well, but I am not knowledgeable enough to speak on them.

10. Yeah, everyone’s got a fucked up story, but if people at your desk job told you about their childhoods, you’d be just as appalled. Everyone’s damaged. Sex workers haven’t corned the market. Don’t assume workers are abuse survivors or drug addicts. Don’t assume they aren’t. Apply the same guidelines to every professional you come into contact with in every industry.

11. That stupid no kissing on the mouth thing is really overblown. Thanks, Pretty Woman. But yes, some workers keep some acts just for them and their partners.

12. Some of the most business savvy people you will ever meet are sex workers. You’ve gotta to be a brand, you’ve got to market, you’ve to read the desires of a potential client fast, you’ve got to not let your own bad day or distraction show, you’ve got to manage an unstable cash flow, you’ve got to deal with security and physical and medical safety, you’ve got to know the law.  Sex workers aren’t dumb.

13. Sex workers are not liars. Yes, the job often involves illusion. But sex workers don’t lie more than anyone else.  And when they do lie, it’s usually for reasons of safety.

14. Even high paid sex workers can be exploited, and they don’t make as much as you think. Yeah, someone working the street is often at risk and their pay can be low enough to shock ($5 truck stop blow jobs are a real thing).  But If you pay $200 an hour to see a dominatrix who works for a house, she gets $80 of that.  She also has to buy her own (expensive) clothes, pay fees to the house for marketing and locker rental, and pay for taxes and health insurance.  Seriously, don’t haggle with sex workers in non-haggling countries.  It’s tacky.

15. Please tip. Remember how this is a service? If you tip your barber or waiter, you should tip your sex worker.  If you don’t tip your barber or waiter, you should improve your choices.

16. Sex workers who choose the job aren’t looking to be rescued. Sex workers who are looking to get out and need or want help to do it aren’t keen on “rescuers” who are just someone else to owe something to.

17. If you want to help sex workers who want to get out of the business, replacement work of comparable or better income levels has to be a part of that package. Sex workers do not want to take a pay cut for your moral comfort or your savior complex. Don’t be the lesser of two evils, don’t assume sex work is evil, and just don’t be evil.

Basically this whole post comes down to just one thing: Sex workers are people.

I believe strongly that no one’s job should be the sole and most interesting thing about them whether they are a famous actor or a street-based sex worker. Want to get sex workers right in your fiction? Write sex workers as people who are more than their jobs and who are more than their traumas.

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We’re going (ever so slightly back in time), with some posts we wrote about Room 1024 when it came out and that we haven’t yet put up on the blog here. To start: our guest post on Mychael Black’s blog, about the difference between the SSC and RACK schools of thought, and where Room 1024 falls:

room2014In the post-50 Shades of Grey era, writing BDSM stories has become in some ways remarkably complicated. For those of us in the kink community, there’s a lot of pressure to get it right, to show what “BDSM” really is, and to highlight how BDSM functions around consent and communication. In pursuit of this goal, most people reference the idea of “safe, safe, and consensual” as basic tenets of good BDSM practice.

But the reality is that SSC, and all that it has come to stand, for is not, in fact, the only way to describe responsible BDSM practices. Another popular acronym that is less known outside of the community is RACK: Risk Aware Consensual Kink.

In some ways, the difference between SSC and RACK is the difference between saying “safe sex” and “safer sex.” All sex, and all kinky sex, has risks. RACK, like the terminology of “safer sex,” acknowledges that all risk cannot be eliminated, but that all parties need to know about the risks involved before consenting. RACK is often used as a response to SSC especially by those who engage in forms of play some people consider to be never appropriate — such as blood or breath play — or play in conditions some people find unacceptable (i.e., when any amount of alcohol has been consumed). RACK also seeks to acknowledge that there isn’t a single standard of safe — what might be safe for one person, may be unsafe for someone else. Communication is key.

RACK isn’t inherently better, edgier, truer or anything else than SSC. And SSC isn’t inherently more ethical or responsible. But the terminologies and philosophies behind them may be better or worse fits for particular individuals and both have the goals of emphasizing consent and responsible play.

Read more at Mychael Black Books

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Seven things Pretty Woman taught us about the romance genre… despite how much we hated it

prettwomanErin and I resolutely did not start this thing where we watch romantic comedies to try to get a better understanding of our genre to skewer or make fun of movies.  While things about Bridget Jones’s Diary didn’t work for us, that film was an exercise in glorious perfection compared to Pretty Woman.

To be blunt.  We hated Pretty Woman. A lot. (Also we both love silver foxes and still don’t get the Richard Gere thing).

We disliked Pretty Woman not just for reasons of politics, feminism, and realism (I’m a former sex worker, odds were this movie was going to fall down for me fast).  We also weren’t sold on the characters; felt that the story started too early; and that the b-plot, while eventually useful, involved a lot of boring stuff.

There were things we liked.  The hotel manager character was compelling in his treatment of Vivian. (Why couldn’t he have been our hero?) We thought the inclusion of safer sex was great. And now at least we know where the ubiquitous billionaire trope originated. Hint: Not E. L. James.

So despite our strong negative feelings, here are seven things we learned about this genre from Pretty Woman:

1. Safer sex.  It exists.  And you can write it. And you can write it in a way than is more interesting than an obligatory sentence about a condom existing. It can be a character moment.

2. Sex can be awkward and silly and sweet, and that can work.  See the bathtub scene. Real people are awkward and it makes them easier to connect to.  Sometimes, that can even be hot.

3. Let characters’ backstories unfurl.  You don’t need to tell us everything at once.

4. Everyone loves a transformation. Too bad Pretty Woman treats the heroine like a feral child.

5. Everyone loves an underdog.

6. Romances are about being chosen.  Reading romance is about gaining access not just to those physical and emotional feelings but to the world they take place in.

7. The class and social experience differences that can be difficult in actual relationships are a real turn on to lots of readers in fiction.  But it’s a fine line between writing that in a way that’s compelling and lovely and writing that in a way that’s just offensive and peculiar.

We haven’t decided what our next movie will be.  But we hope it doesn’t go as badly as this!

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RainbowCon: Come Meet Us in Tampa!

RainbowConIn less than one month, Erin and I will be in Tampa for RainbowCon running from Thursday July 16 – Sunday July 19th. We’ll be in the dealers room with paperbacks of Starling, DovesPhoenixBest Gay Romance 2015, Bitten by Moonlight, and possibly some non-fiction pop-culture books I have essays in (it really depends on the logistics of book stock and airplanes which is a little intense).

We’ll also be on the following panels:

Thursday, 2pm: Collaborations in Writing (Erin)
Thursday, 3pm: LGBTQ on Stage (Racheline)
Thursday, 4pm: Author Reading (Erin)

Friday, 1pm: Author Reading (Racheline)
Friday, 1pm: Crossing Genres in Fiction (Erin)
Friday, 3pm: Writing Bad Guys (Racheline)
Friday, 10pm: Naughty Bedtime Stories Reading (Racheline)

Saturday, 11am: Author signing (Racheline)
Saturday, 4pm: Author signing (Erin)
Saturday, 5pm: Making Safe Sex Sexy (Racheline)
Saturday, 10pm: Naughty Bedtime Stories Reading (Erin)

The dealers room will be open from and you’ll be able to find one or both of us (or one of our partners who are also along for the ride) there during these times:
Thursday: 1:00pm – 6:00pm
Friday: 10:00am – 6:00pm
Saturday: 10:00am – 6:00pm
Sunday: 10:00am – 4:00 pm

To attend RainbowCon panels and readings you have to register for the con.  Both full weekend and one-day passes are available.  The dealers room, however, is open to the public, so feel free to drop by if you’re in the area!

If you’ve got specific passages you’d like us to read, or specific issues you’d like us to tackle on our panels, or you’re just around and want to grab a coffee, give us a shout!

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Poll – what should the two queer chicks watch/subject themselves to next?

So over the last two days Racheline and I watched Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love, Actually. We had way too much fun in the process, and while we (tragically) can’t watch a rom com every night, we are planning to make this a regular feature. Thanks to y’all, and everyone on Twitter and Facebook, we now have a to-watch list that’s 60 movies long and growing. So:

1) Help it grow! Got suggestions? Or just want to watch us freak out about something? Drop it in the comments. Or on Twitter. Anywhere really.

2) Help us pick! We took 6 movies off the list at (somewhat) random and put them in the poll below. We won’t promise that the winner is the movie we’re definitely going to watch next, but we will takes votes into account when next we’re putting off edits and scrolling through Netflix.

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11 things Love Actually taught us about the romance genre (or, romance can be kind of creepy, but you can mitigate that with cute kids and adorable dogs)

loveLove Actually is one of my favorite movies, although until tonight I hadn’t seen it in years; Erin, meanwhile, had never seen it before.  So we decided to tackle it much like we tackled Bridget Jones’s Diary yesterday (are we procrastinating other tasks? Maybe). So what did this jigsaw puzzle of a film teach us about the romance genre?

1. If you write something filled with pop-culture references, it will get dated. That’s actually okay.

Love Actually  is intensely a testament to the moment it was made.  We open with a 9/11 reference and then we’re bombarded with the awkward of cell phones and national leaders with sex lives you might actually care about.  But over a decade after it was made, the film is still satisfying, and some of the dated stuff adds to its charm.  This thing where writers update their contemporary novels to keep them current — well, Love Actually makes us question how necessary that is.

2. Just because your story has more diversity than the average story, doesn’t mean it’s diverse enough.

London isn’t that white (and, for that matter, neither is Marseilles — but we’ll come back to that).  And while the film could have been less diverse, it really, really needed to be more diverse.  Not for any political agenda, but because sad white people aren’t actually that interesting.

Also, while it was super cool that Liam Neeson’s character doesn’t assume the gender of the person his kid is in love with, the film completely lacks for any LGBTQ love story in a way that’s actually kind of awkward.  London’s not only not that white, it’s also not that straight.

And the fat girl stuff was ludicrous and unnecessary.  Let’s have BBW heroines, and let’s be realistic about some stuff that BBWs face, let’s give these women heroes who love them (and don’t fetishize them) just the way they are, and let’s move on.

3. Creating a rich tapestry of characters is fantastic, but don’t be surprised when your reader can’t remember all their names.

Note how I don’t mention any of the character names here? That’s because I can’t remember 90% of them.  Erin and I know this is a struggle for some of our readers with some of our books, and Love Actually reminded us that we have a threshold for that too.  Sometimes, stuff is just too complicated.

4. Details really matter. Until they don’t.

Love Actually gives you just enough details about real things and charms you along the way, that you don’t really care when the details are all wrong.

Porn movies don’t use stand-ins; I’m sure everything about the Prime Minister’s everything was off; and if someone could please explain to me what was up with the Portuguese girl and the Marseilles airport and everything involving locations and language in the Sad Writer is Sad plot, I’d be really grateful (my shoddy memory had dumped all of that into Italy and so I was massively confused).

But honestly, while I can pick at those things, and Erin is completely like “why was everyone on the same plane at the end?” the truth is, I don’t actually care. Tell enough truths, and I’ll happily play along with your lies.

5. Know your tropes. 

This film is tropetastic.  From American girls swooning for British accents to the secretary swept off her feat by the powerful boss to the guy in love with his best friend’s wife, Love Actually tells stories we know.  And it doesn’t feel over-done, it feels like seeing an old friend.  Tropes are not the enemy, but they are a challenge.  Do them right, and you’re writing a love letter to our very genre.

6. In a huge cast of characters everyone doesn’t necessarily get an HEA.

But they should get closure. Love Actually mostly succeeds at that, but not entirely. (The point of failure, which is compelling, because I am curious about their process going forward is in the plot line with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman.  Frankly, her performance owns this movie).

7. In popular media there’s a fine, fine line between really romantic and totally creepy.

We know this because we are living in the age of 50 Shades of Gray, but Love Actually is also filled with stuff that would be troubling in real life — a public marriage proposal to someone you’ve barely communicated with while her entire community pressures her into saying yes?  Or the dude with the cue cards swearing he’s expressing his love “without agenda or expectation?”

Both of those scenes only work (and work fantastically) because we’re at the movies. In the first one the girl says yes and had been learning English so was clearly thinking the same things as her British dude; in the second one the guy gives himself a talk to let go and stop chasing.  So both those scenes manage to err on the right side of a fine, gorgeous line.  Try it in your writing, but don’t try this at home.

8. Keep an eye on your patterns.

Love Actually is often criticized for how it handles power dynamics and class issues. While not a problem we felt with the film, it was certainly one we could see.  If you tend to write certain types of stories over and over again, it’s worth being mindful of what you may inadvertently be saying with that persistence.

9. Farce still rules the day.

We suspect this will be a bullet point in any romance film worth our time.

10. Everyone deserves a victory march.

Sure, that’s harder to do without a soundtrack, but that feeling that Love Actually gives you when people finally get the thing they’ve been afraid to go for it romance gold. Absolute objective in terms of what we want to put on the page.

11. Never work with kids or dogs.  Actually, always work with kids and dogs.

That thing about never is an old acting cliche, but in writing romances always work with kids and dogs.  They’re sweet, they’re truthful, and they present opportunities to be reminded of why the adult characters deserve happiness too.

Now since our Bridget Jones post, we’ve gotten dozens of suggestions for which RomComs we should watch next to see what they have to say about writing romance.  So we’re going to keep this series up.  But with several novels, novellas, and shorts in progress, and a release schedule that has been positively terrifying, we can’t do this nightly.

So here’s what we can do:

Tomorrow, we’re going to post a poll of the films that have been suggested to us, and then you lot can vote on what we should enjoy (or subject ourselves to) next in a quest to understand what makes romance entertainment tick.  We’ll take the films that get the most votes under the heaviest advisement (look, we can’t promise we’ll watch the winner right off, mainly because there’s only so much Hugh Grant we can take). Then, once a week watch one and tell you what we learned from it about creating Happily Ever Afters.

Sound like a plan?  Good, then make sure you come back to vote.

Meanwhile, we’re still taking suggestions in the comments and on Twitter.

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