Ten years ago, after writing the first rough draft of The Vetali’s Gift, my supposedly serial tantric Buddhist vampire romance novel, and after web-publishing the first twenty episodes, I made a fateful mistake.
It occurred to me that novel-writing is a thing professionals do, and there’s probably some technical craft involved, and I probably ought to find out what it is, instead of just winging it.
You may be laughing at me now. It seems obvious in retrospect even to me. However, my school English classes had all mysteriously omitted the “creative writing” component, so I was entirely ignorant of this body of knowledge. In sudden shock, I realized I had better read some books about it.
So I did. They were hilarious—unintentionally. Hilariously awful. The total contents of one especially revered book boiled down to this:
Descriptions are the most important thing. To write vivid descriptions, imagine the scene in your mind’s eye, then write down what you see.
Well, yes. How else would you go about writing descriptions? And it’s not like he explained methods for better imagining.
Out of morbid completionism, I read half a dozen of the most-recommended how-to-write-a-novel books, plus innumerable web articles and blog posts. After each, I thought “if you need this advice, you absolutely should not consider writing fiction even as a hobby.”
So that was just a waste of time. It is mysterious and intriguing to me why there is—apparently—nothing non-obvious to say about the supposed “technical craft” of fiction writing. If there is any such craft, no one has explained it in writing. But that’s just how it is, and I was fine with continuing as an uninformed amateur.
The real mistake was doggedly continuing through the very last thing I planned to read. It was How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them. This one had the virtue of being intentionally hilarious. The authors provide an example of each error:
Suddenly Joe perked up. Down the dank hallway came a shapely girl. It must be the daughter of the prison warden; what other girl would be caught dead in a jail after dark, when all the other staff were asleep? She caught his eye and smiled guiltily.
“Hey, gorgeous,” he said.
“Are you talking to me?” She paused with a shy air. Then they both laughed.
“Well, I wasn‘t talking to Basher Jones, the psychopath incarcerated across from me! Anyway, he‘s conveniently asleep.”
“Conveniently?” she purred. From the way she cocked her head, Joe knew it would be no time before the ring of keys on her juicy hip—and the delectable girl herself—were in his possession.
After reading most of this book, it seemed to me that I had made none of the two hundred errors. If only I had stopped there!
A final chapter turned more serious. It said: there are three things you must not attempt as a first-time novel writer. They are extremely technically difficult, and must be left to highly-trained professionals. They are: sex, humor, and postmodernism.
This… was a problem. On all three counts.
Humor first. The novel couldn’t not be humorous, because it’s deadly serious. It’s non-serious in that it’s a desultory side project by an amateur with no experience, training, credentials, or ambitions for fiction writing. It is deadly serious in that it’s about tantric Buddhism and about The Problem Of Life And Death. Despite my protestations of non-seriousness, it has serious things to say about those, and for tantra death is funny, so taking tantra and death seriously requires joking about them.
In the West, the existentialists first recognized that The Problem Of Life And Death is absurd. In existential philosophy, “absurdity” is the contrast between our need for Life to be meaningful and the ultimate meaninglessness of The Universe. Absurdity is made most poignantly obvious by Death. Until recently, Life and Death were considered meaningful because God said so. Buddhism calls that eternalism and says it’s wrong. In the nineteenth century, God died and Christian eternalism ceased to be credible. What other ultimate justification for meaningfulness could there be? There is none. Therefore, some thought, everything is meaningless. That is nihilism, which is awful. Existentialism and tantra both say that nihilism is also wrong. Eternalism and nihilism, absolute meaningfulness and ultimate meaninglessness, form a false dichotomy. There are other possibilities. Existentialism tried to develop one, a subjective theory of meaning, which failed. Albert Camus, the last and best of the existentialists, recognized the failure, and instead advocated actively embracing absurdity.
I originally conceived of The Vetali’s Gift as an advertisement for Meaningness, which is also about meaningfulness and meaninglessness. Meaningness advocates an alternative to eternalism and nihilism that it calls the complete stance. It rejects “ultimate meaning” as meaningless and points out that mundane events like your fiancée dying in a plague or being stuck in a cave with an insane ogress are obviously meaningful, even if their exact meaning is nebulous.
Meaningness describes a particular flavor of humor as a “texture” of the complete stance. Recognizing that meaning and meaninglessness are inseparable is funny when it seems startling and paradoxical. For the complete stance, ambiguity of meaning—and outright meaninglessness—are unproblematic, and often actively enjoyable. They enable creativity and play.
Tantra revels in over-the-top absurdity as a humorous, creative, playful exploration of the freedom granted us by the nebulosity of meaning. For tantra, death is a problem, not a Problem. Sometimes the best response to problems is to laugh at them. That sort of humor is not separate from seriousness. “The Tantric Joke” is the depiction of the three aspects of Buddhahood (the “trikaya”) as three heads—an old skull, a rotting head, and a freshly decapitated one—impaled on a khatvanga (trident). That’s absurd, but it also adds a specific depth of meaning to the trikaya if you understand them as emptiness, energy, and form. Insight, playful creativity, and horror are inseparable.
So The Vetali’s Gift had to be a comedy. Not everyone likes absurd or black humor, but probably you do (or you would not be looking at a web site called Buddhism for Vampires). If, despite that, it’s not funny… the advice of How Not to Write a Novel was correct.
The book also proscribes ”postmodernism.” Unfortunately, though, it is no longer possible to write a serious modern novel. A modern novel tells a story that ends with a satisfying resolution that ties up all the loose ends, because it is told in an imagined world in which everything ultimately makes sense and happens for a reason. How Not To is about commercial genre fiction, which is mostly still modern—especially romance novels, in which Fate ensures that the heroine (who is actually the reader) finds Love because she deserves it. This is gratifying but unrealistic and non-serious. Life does not have some definite meaning according to which everything makes sense. Much of it makes no sense, which is absurd.
“Postmodernity” is defined as the condition of finding it no longer possible to believe in “grand meta-narratives”—overarching stories about The Meaning Of Life. Those beliefs are eternalism, so a novel that rejects eternalism can’t help being postmodern. It is impossible to write a serious non-postmodern novel now, not because of artistic fashions, but because we can’t take eternalism seriously.
Postmodern fiction displays awareness that reality doesn’t have a fixed meaning, so it is impossible to take seriously stories that assume one. Early pomo novels often fell into nihilism: the main character gradually realizes that everything is meaningless, and that life inevitably ends badly. These were not much fun and no one writes them any more. We enjoy novels because they do make sense, with a defined arc in which the hero and heroine overcome all the artificial plot obstacles and in the end get married and live happily ever after. So a better, alternative postmodern approach is for the novel to acknowledge the problem, directly or indirectly. It can comment on its own unrealism, which makes it more realistic. This is absurd, and therefore funny. Postmodern novels developed various technical tricks, often involving breaking the fourth wall, characters who recognize the story’s genre, or recursive stories within stories. Done well, these can inspire both vertiginous wonder and hilarity.
How Not To admonishes that they have become clichés that are too easy to use—badly:
For the purposes of this discussion, postmodernism will be defined as any conscious reference to the author as the author, the novel as a novel, writing as little ink shapes on paper, or anything else that underlines the artificial nature of fiction.
It should be immediately obvious that all these things are baldly inimical to the novelist‘s goal of writing a story that the reader can believe in.
Why then do people keep writing [them]?
Because, every year, someone gets away with it. That person gets scads of extra credit because it is really really hard to do well.
The Vetali’s Gift is a serious novel inasmuch as the text implicitly acknowledges its own absurdity. Can I get away with that?
I don’t know and don’t really care. I was not, in fact, bothered at all by the injunctions against humor and postmodernism, because I wasn’t making a serious attempt at writing a novel. I’ve never wanted to write one, and the whole project is a joke. The idea that I would try to write any fiction at all was absurd, and I made it as ridiculous as possible by choosing to write a romance (a genre I don’t read) about vampires (inherently campy) that is secretly a serious religious text (lol wut?).
I was, however, majorly intimidated by the prohibition on sex. I can’t now reconstruct why I felt that way, but it halted progress for a decade. To be fair, How Not To’s warning was memorable:
Giving a reader a sex scene that is only half right is like giving her half of a kitten. It is not half as cute as a whole kitten; it is a bloody, godawful mess.
Other sources confirmed that writing sex scenes is highly technical and extremely difficult. I lost all momentum in a crisis of confidence. And there were other reasons I dropped The Vetali’s Gift. When I began it, I expected to be able to write full time, and finishing an episode once every few weeks while working mainly on Meaningness seemed perfectly feasible. Due to circumstances, I’ve had only about ten percent of my time free for productive work during the decade, and other projects seemed more important than the novel.
Before today (May Day, 2021), the last episode was “Take me to the vetali!,” which I wrote in 2010 and published in 2012. That was the last, prior to “Sleeping with Sukhi,” the first sex scene in the novel, which I finished a week ago and published today.
I wrote “Sleeping with Sukhi” as a present to myself. The novel is the least important of my projects, but also the most fun. After a year of covid isolation, during which most of my time was spent dealing with unpleasant practical obligations, I got ten days free and decided to spend it frivolously.
Not including this scene was not an option.
Romance novels are, in some sense, all about sex. It’s not uncommon in the real world to fall in love with someone you have no sexual interest in whatsoever, but a novel about that sort of relationship would not be a romance novel. It would violate the romantic meta-narrative. Romance novels do sometimes leave the necessarily sexual aspect of the relationship implicit, but that’s a bit old-fashioned.
Buddhist tantra is, in some sense, all about sex. Again that may be only symbolic or implicit, so in principle one could omit it. However, for most Westerners, “tantra” means “pretentious sex with New Age glop.” A tantric romance with no sex would puzzle and disappoint readers.
Vampires are, in some sense, all about sex—specifically, transgressive sex. The job of vampire novels is to help you work through shadow aspects of sexual experience: ways it is never completely divorced from horror, pain, shame, rage, disgust, and power. They explore our intense, suppressed desires to violate norms of conventional sexual conduct.
A tantric vampire romance without explicit sex seems impossibly anomalous and unacceptable. And it would be a cowardly way out of confronting the technical difficulties. But anyway, that wasn’t something I even considered, because the scene is necessary to the plot, not just a box-ticking genre requirement.
Risking duplicating my decade-old mistake, I began work by reading “how to write sex scenes” books. These were even more hilariously awful than general fiction writing advice. It seems there’s much demand, presumably from people who enjoy reading romance novels, and/or have noticed they are the most commercially successful genre. But again, apparently there’s nothing non-obvious that can be said.
I concluded that writing sex scenes is just writing, and as with fiction in general, you just write. There’s really nothing to it. This “sex scenes are highly technical” thing is probably a lie to keep competitors out of a lucrative market.
For erotica, the function of a sex scene is to get the reader hot. That’s secondary and optional in a romance. For romance, the main function is the same as for any other scene: to further the plot, to give the reader insight into the characters, their emotions and relationships, and to show what sort of world the novel is set in. That may sound like three functions, but they’re all one. The plot is what the characters do, their clashing personalities determines how they act, and the sort of world they inhabit shapes what they are like.
For the first eighty percent of a novel, you further the plot by making the main character’s life more and more complicated and difficult. Then in the last bit they sort out all the problems you invented for them and get a happy ending, which in a romance novel is a wedding.
“Sleeping with Sukhi” will make Surya’s life much more complicated and difficult. You can probably guess some of the reasons. But these two people couldn’t not have sex, because of who they are, and even more because of their sort of world, in which sex has functions that do not feature in most romance novels.
(In case you are worried, I assure you that The Vetali’s Gift is a romance novel. It has a wedding at the end. It also has a coming-out at a royal dance ball, which I gather is obligatory in romance novels.)
I did make one rookie mistake. “Sleeping with Sukhi” furthers relationships among nine different characters (although only two of them are physically involved in the event). Some are explicit: the relationship between the young monk and Surya as the old man deepens, and we learn a little more about their future Quest together. The episode mentions other characters only in passing or indirectly and mysteriously. These developments are also non-optional given the plot arc and the nature of the world. They need to be adequately foreshadowed, but without giving away too much of the overall story, or distracting too much from what is, supposedly, a sex scene.
So the contraption had many moving parts. I resorted to a spreadsheet, because I am an engineer, not a writer. If I were a writer, I’d probably have been more intimidated by the episode even than I was. It’s ludicrously technically complicated. On the other hand, presumably no competent professional would let themselves get backed into a situation where they had to cram plot points for seven extra characters into a sex scene. Fortunately, I am a clueless amateur, and so could simply press on, guided by oblivious enthusiasm rather than correct literary technique.
Based on the terrible books I read, it seems the typical “technical” difficulty in writing sex scenes is making them erotic rather than ridiculous. Luckily, I was saved from this problem by taking my religion seriously. For tantra, death and sex are both funny, so the scene had to be ridiculous. (If making sex scenes non-ridiculous is difficult, maybe it’s because tantra is, you know, correct? Perhaps sex actually is funny?)
On the other hand, I faced a “technical” difficulty few romance novels do, because they are written for women and focus on a female experience of sex. The point-of-view character in The Vetali’s Gift is male, but descriptions of sex from the male point of view are usually pornographic rather than romantic. Ideally, the book would appeal to men and women equally. I tried to write something realistic enough to feel vaguely like sex to men without being monstrously offensive to women, which I suspect is “technically difficult.” The “how to” guides had nothing to say about that, so I just winged it. Since The Vetali’s Gift is a vampire novel, which is a species of horror fiction, the sex had to be horrifying as well as funny. I’m not sure whether the touches of deliberate non-erotic horror make it more or less offensive, or its writing more or less technical and difficult.
The dodgiest bit of the episode is the comparative linguistics lecture. I really don’t know what it’s doing in there. Probably it’s postmodern? Postmodern novels always have pretentious passages where the author tries to show off. “Look at me! I am being postmodern! I am very smart! You can tell I have read modernist advice about sex scenes, like about how you should never describe body parts specifically, and I am subverting the tropes! I have also read the Wiki page on Derrida’s Of Grammatology! I am making grammar itself erotic, which is extremely self-referential and technically difficult!” I hate that kind of stuff. It’s baldly inimical to writing a story that the reader can believe in.
Otherwise, making the sex scene erotic was a strictly secondary goal. So long as it’s absurd and horrifying, it’s doing its job. However, it would be very funny and slightly horrifying if anyone does find it erotic, so I hope it got you hot.