There’s an old story about a prisoner sentenced to thirty years in the federal penitentiary. On his first day behind bars, he sits down to lunch in the cafeteria with a dozen other prisoners. “52!” calls out a beefy, tattooed guy at the other end of the table. Everyone bursts out laughing. “176!” yells a skinny character with a receding hairline. The whole table convulses. When someone else pipes up “11!”, the man in the next seat bursts into a coughing fit, he’s laughing so hard.
The new prisoner is mystified. “What’s going on?” he asks his neighbor, when the guy has recovered from choking.
“Oh, they’re jokes,” the other man says. “We’ve heard them all so many times, we just give them numbers. Everyone knows what we mean.”
The newcomer eats for a while, trying to work up his courage. “23!” he calls out finally. Stony silence meets his attempt at levity. A couple of the convicts glare at him.
“What’s wrong?” he whispers to the guy beside him.
His informant shakes his head. “You flubbed the punch line.”
Writing romance sometimes feels similar. Standard plots and tropes dominate the genre. Everyone knows them; they even have common labels. Secret baby. Marriage of convenience. Second chance love. Friends to lovers. Billionaire and virgin. Tell me the tropes and I can summarize the book, without having read a word. Recognizing these familiar patterns, readers know exactly what to expect.
I’ve come to realize over the years that many readers do not find this predictability to be a problem. Quite the contrary. They like knowing what is going to happen. Presumably, they derive pleasure from anticipating the course of the story.
This astonishes me. Personally, when I read, I crave originality. I want to be surprised and delighted by the author’s ingenuity. I want to experience the joy of the unexpected.
To be honest, I find a lot of the romance I read (mostly for reviews) boringly predictable. I dearly hope no one feels this way about my books!
Hence, I try to write romance that will keep my readers guessing. I will deliberately take standard tropes and distort them until they’re unrecognizable. Or I’ll try combining familiar themes or plot elements in unusual ways.
Sometimes I flub the punchline. Some of my attempts at originality have fallen flat with readers. On the other hand, sometimes I get it right.
My most recent novel, The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, deliberately upends the wildly popular trope of a seductive, experienced, filthy rich hero who seduces an innocent and relatively impoverished heroine. The book also smashes the stereotype of the supremely confident Dom who can read the mind of his “natural” submissive. G&V breaks all the rules in the billionaire BDSM sub-genre. Possibly because of this disregard for convention, it’s far more realistic in its characterization and in its portrayal of D/s relationships than most such romances.
In G&V, the “gazillionaire” is a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur. Rachel Zelinsky is brilliant, bossy, and obscenely wealthy. The “virgin” is a reclusive, socially awkward computer genius who has fantasies about kinky activities, but zero real world experience. Theo Moore’s past battles with poverty make him deeply suspicious of the billionaire CEO. Far from being part of her appeal, Rachel’s money is a liability as she tries to earn his trust.
In writing The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, I finally seem to have accomplished my objective. Almost every reviewer has mentioned how much they enjoyed the twists and turns in the plot, and the unanticipated personal and sexual dynamics in Rachel’s and Theo’s relationship. Since it’s a romance, readers can rely on a happy ending. But they won’t know what else to expect.
The Gazillionaire and the Virgin by Lisabet Sarai
Excessica Publishing, 2016
Contemporary BDSM erotic romance (Five flames)
Approximately 62,000 words, 240 pages in print
She’s not what I expected. She’s soft and full, not lean and angular like most Californians. None of the gym-toned muscles everyone sports here in the land of sunshine. And she’s young, much younger than someone so filthy rich has any right to be. Her designer watch must have cost more than two months of my professor’s salary. On the other hand, I can hardly complain about her wealth, can I, since my pet project is the beneficiary of her largesse?
Hunkering down in the leather-upholstered back seat of her disgustingly opulent vehicle, I try to calm myself. I’m sweating like a pig, and my muscles are in knots. I gulp down orange juice from the bar I’d ridiculed and focus on my breathing the way Dr. Hopkins has taught me. I force myself not to count the telephone poles whizzing by. I know that will only make it worse.
When I pat my pocket, I can’t help grinning a bit. Two hundred fifty thousand! We can equip a new mobile development lab and hire two trainers for a year. Or take our outreach into junior high schools. Or even expand to some of the Rust Belt cities where the recession has hit particularly hard…
No, this wouldn’t be enough for that. But Dr. Zelinsky—Rachel—had indicated there might be more.
Rachel. Bringing up the search engine on my phone, I type in her name. I should have done this before the meeting, of course, but I was much too nervous. Up until the moment her limousine pulled up in front of my building, I still thought I might back out.
The screen fills with images and links. There’s even a Wikipedia article. I flip through the text, digesting the basics. Born in Brooklyn. An MBA from Harvard and a PhD—in physics!—from MIT. Looking Glass is her third company. She sold the first to IBM and the second to Microsoft.
A real high roller. And MirrorWorld is a huge hit—the main article on the virtual environment runs pages and pages. Since the Looking Glass IPO almost two years ago, the company stock has increased in value by an unbelievable 224%.
She can afford a quarter of a million for charity. For her, that’s petty change.
By the time we arrive back at my complex, I’m pretty much back to normal. At least what counts as normal for me. I nod at the uniformed driver who opens the door for me, trying to pretend I do this every day. The Vietnamese gardener is spreading new mulch on the flower beds in front of my building. Averting my eyes and ignoring his greeting—after all, I can barely understand his English— I hustle up the wooden steps to my second floor condo.
It’s quiet and cool inside. The soft hiss of the air conditioning soothes me. I flip on the stereo, something by Brahms, turn the volume down low, then stretch out on my bed, fully clothed.
I made it.
The money is mine, free and clear. I’ll ask my sister to deposit it tomorrow. I don’t need to see Rachel Zelinsky again.
I can’t stop thinking about her, though. I recall one of the pictures from the web article, a black and white photo of a skinny teenager with a mop of curls, standing in front of some science fair project. She didn’t have those curves yet. No, but I recognize the expression, that determined set of her mouth and those laser-sharp eyes under the dark eyebrows. She was going to win—there was no question.
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LISABET SARAI occasionally tackles other genres, but BDSM will always be her first love. Every one of her nine novels includes some element of power exchange, while her D/S short stories range from mildly kinky to intensely perverse.
You’ll find information and excerpts from all Lisabet’s books on her website (http://www.lisabetsarai.com/books.html), along with more than fifty free stories and lots more. At her blog Beyond Romance (http://lisabetsarai.blogspot.com), she shares her philosophy and her news, reviews books, and hosts lots of other great authors. She’s also on Goodreads and finally, on Twitter.