Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Friday, November 30, 2012

Voyeur or Body Thief?

One of the most intriguing parts of story for me has always been the way in which the reader interacts with it, more specifically the way in which the reader interacts with the characters in a story. I find that interaction especially intriguing in erotica and erotic romance.

To me, the power of story is that it’s many faceted and it’s never static. And, no matter how old the story is, it’s never finished as long as there’s someone new to read it and to bring their experience into it. Like most writers of fiction, I’m forever trying to analyse how a powerful story is internalised, and why what moves one reader deeply, what can be a life-changing experience for one may be nothing more exciting than window shopping for another.

In my own experience as a reader, there are two extremes. I can approach a story as a voyeur, on the outside looking in from a safe distance, or I can be a body thief at the other end of the spectrum and replace the main character in the story with myself.

One extreme allows the reader to watch without engaging and the other allows the reader to create sort of a sing-along-Sound of Music- ish experience for themselves. As a reader, I’ve done both and had decent experiences of novels doing both. As a writer, however, I don’t wish to create a story that allows my reader to be a voyeur of a body thief.

As a writer I want to create a story that’s a full-on, in-the-body, stay-present experience from beginning to end. I want characters that readers can identify with and are drawn to but don’t necessarily want to be. I want a plot that feels more like abseiling with a questionable rope than watching the world go by from the window of a car. I want to create that tight-rope walk in the middle. I want to create that place in story where the imagination of the reader is fully engaged with the story the writer created. That place is the place where the story is a different experience for each reader. That’s the place where the story is a living thing that matters more than the words of which it’s made up. It matters more because the reader has connected with it, engaged with it, been changed by it. In that place, the story and the reader are in relationship. Neither can embody the other, neither can watch from a distance. The end result may be a HEA, the end result may be disturbing and unsettling, but at the end of a really good read, the journey to get there is at least as important as the end result.

Erotica and erotic romance are by their nature a visceral experience. Though I think that’s probably true of any good story. I don’t think good erotica can be watched from a distance any more than it can be the tale of the body thief. While either will get you there, there’s no guarantee that the journey will be a quality one. And I want a quality journey. I want to come to the end wishing I hadn’t gotten there so quickly, wishing I’d had the will power to slow down and savour the experience just a little longer. I want to come to the end wondering just what layers, what subtleties, what nuances I missed because I got caught up in the runaway train ride and couldn’t quite take it all in.

A good read is the gift that keeps on giving. Long after I’ve finished the story, the experience lingers, and little tidbits that I raced through during the read bubble up from my unconscious to surprise me, intrigue me, make me think about the story on still other levels, from still other angles. When I can’t get it out of my head, when I find myself, long after I’ve come to the end, thinking about the journey, thinking about the characters, thinking about the plot twists and turns, then I know the story has gotten inside me and burrowed deep. There was no pane of glass in between; there was no body for me to inhabit because all bodies were fully occupied by characters with their own minds and their own agendas. The experience extends itself to something that stays with me long after the read is finished and makes me try all the harder to create that multi-layered experience in my own writing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What's A Nice Girl Like You Doing Writing Trash Like That?

Erotica writers get no respect. (Apologies to Rodney Dangerfield.)

I'm sure every erotica and erotic romance writer has been mocked for what she writes. (I'm using the feminine pronoun only because most erotic writers I know are female.) We are told a squirrel could write what we write since it doesn't take much talent, and that women of little intelligence read it. That sort of thing normally doesn't bother me since I have a cast iron resolve, but I posted in a forum recently where I felt like "one of the guys", letting everyone know about one of my erotic books making it to #18 in Amazon's free erotic Kindle books. That's the highest I've ever ranked, and I was proud of it. I wanted to let everyone know so they could pick up a copy of the book and drive me to #1.

Didn't happen.

Instead they ridiculed me, which took me completely by surprise. They made comments like, "An erotic romance novel? I'm so scared I think I just peed myself." I was quite miffed, although I shouldn't let that kind of thing get to me. Ridicule may be one of the professional hazards we take as erotic writers, and we deserve combat pay for it. I've heard of other women tsk-tsked by family members, laughed at by friends, and given the hairy eyeball by work colleagues when these people find out we write stories with hot, steaming sex in them. Too many people who have never picked up an erotic book in their lives think the prose reads something like D. M. Dunn's Dishonorable Mention Romance winner in the 2012 Bulwer-Lytton Awards contest: "Their love began as a tailor, quickly measuring the nooks and crannies of their personalities, but it soon became the seamstress of subterfuge, each of them aware of the others lingual haberdashery: Mindy trying to create a perfect suited garment to display in public and Sean only concerned with the inseam." Too many people who have never touched an erotic book or a romance novel think all of them contain words like "turgid", "throbbing man meat", and "burning slit".

What About Other Erotic Fiction Writers?

I interviewed erotic romance writers about whether or not those closest to them take their chosen profession seriously, and most had some horror stories to tell. I noticed common elements, such as ridiculing the writers by reading steamy passages aloud at family gatherings in order to get a few laughs at the writer's expense. Calling what they write "trash" or "smut" or "porn". Wondering why they "waste their time" if they aren't making much money at it, if any at all. After all, why aren't they making as much money as that woman who wrote "50 Shades of Grey"? Those from conservative or religious backgrounds bore a great deal of ridicule and tut-tutting.

Gina's ex-significant other did everything in his power to prevent her from working and he still does, although he's the biggest purveyor of porn she's ever met. Gina owns a small, independent erotic romance publishing company. She had no issue with his porn until he found it more preferable to masturbate than to have sex with her. Ann heard that one of her sisters had shown her erotic romance web site to older family members at a family gathering in the hope of shocking them and shaming her. She also read aloud snippets from one of Ann's steamy ménage romances, at the top of her voice, after dinner. This was not done in a supportive manner to promote her sister's books.

Similar stories abound, especially accusations that what we write is porn as if that's a bad thing. Sex columnist and author Violet Blue describes the difference between porn and erotica for Psychology Today: "Porn is something that is a graphic sexual image that conjures up an animalistic reaction in you. You like it or you don't," she says. "Erotica also is graphic sexual imagery, but it has an extra component or several extra components that resonate with the viewer—be it artistic, be it passionate, be it something that emotionally engages you, be it something that parlays into a fantasy that you have about sexuality or the way that you relate to the people on screen." When the general public sees "porn", it views it as gratuitous sexual imagery without emotional connection that serves no useful purpose, and this view is a negative one when it doesn't have to be. As Violet Blue said, you like it or you don't. It'a a matter of taste.

A woman told Jerry, a male erotica writer, that she refused to read or write porno. He elaborated on his chosen form of writing, saying he writes stories with sex scenes but she probably refused to listen. Shawn, another man who writes erotica, was also told what he wrote was porn and he was wasting his time since he'd never make any money at it. He was also told it was illegal. His family told him he was an embarrassment to them. He wasn't fazed, and continued to write erotica. His girlfriend's family even went to court to get a judge to keep him away from her. That didn't work. His girlfriend's family has a very large trust fund she'll get when she turns 35. They think he's after her money, which isn't true.

Jean made a very good point when she told me: "It's the romance part that is the stickler, Lizzie. People don't take romance stories seriously. Somehow, they think romance is easier to write or less important or emotional or meaningful. And they are so wrong. But I don't bother trying to explain. I simply chalk them off my list." Drew told Jean she could always remind those people that "everything from Gone With The Wind to Romeo and Juliet to When Harry Met Sally are romances, and then tell them to shove it."

Religion plays a huge factor in disapproval, especially from family members. Shawn's girlfriend's family is extremely religious. They tell him what he writes is against God's will and he's tainting their daughter with his porn. (There's that word "porn" again.) Karenna told me: "At the church I used to attend, a woman I didn't know well asked me about my writing. She smiled and nodded when I said I wrote novels for teens. When I said I also wrote adult romance, her expression changed and she looked at me like she'd scraped me off the bottom of her shoe. My husband's grandmother and one of his aunts had similar reactions. The grandmother actually put her hands over her ears and said, "I prefer not to discuss that kind of thing. Times have certainly changed; that used to be private."

Creative Solutions

Not all is gloomy. I've heard from erotic writers who have very creative ways of handling the negative feedback they get. I proudly blurt, "I write smut!" when asked and I enjoy the shocked and stupefied expressions on people's faces. Then, once I have them off guard, I explain in plain, gentle English what I actually write. Interest in my writing is piqued enough for me to sell some books. Kendall's girlfriend constantly interrupts him when he's writing erotica. She looks over his shoulder, lets out heavy sighs, turns on the TV very loudly or has loud telephone conversations. It's very irritating and distracting, which is her intension. However, if he's writing something non-erotic like an essay or play, she leaves him alone. Gina had an amusing suggestion - the next time she sighs loudly, "grab her and toss her on the bed and do super naughty things to her. Betcha she won't bother you when you're writing erotica again for a while. When she does she'll do the exact same thing as she did last time, hoping for the same results - keep your ears open. Eventually it'll work out for you both. Trust me."

I am like many erotic writers in that I am very selective about which people I allow into my literary world. My parents and sister aren't supportive. They don't ridicule or give me the hairy eyeball. They simply have no interest in what I write, and they don't give me any support. I have a feeling if I discussed my writing at length they'd disapprove., but I don't want to test that theory. My writing never comes up in conversation, and I don't volunteer information. I also write horror, and even that is greeted with a blank stare. I've developed a close relationship with an older couple. They give me lots of support about my writing. My husband and son are also very supportive. I have writer friends online and in meat space I look to for conversation and advice I know I won't get from my family. One of my closest friends is a science fiction writer who is very supportive of my work. Laurie also is very selective about who she tells, as is Regina. Regina told me: "If someone brings it up I'm okay with it. But I never say anything on my own." Laurie replied that her husband will tell some of his friends that he wants to be married to a smut author. I imagine him saying that with a twinkle in his eye and a proud smile.

I work at home and I'm my own boss so I don't have a supervisor to worry about. Not all writers are that fortunate. Tessa cheekily asked how she should handle the fact that her day job boss knows about her extra-curricular writing job. Julez suggested she smile sweetly and give him a copy of her books. She would but she writes personal assistant/boss stories and she doesn't want to give him the wrong idea, something that could be very amusing.

It must be a work hazard all of us erotic writers must deal with at one time or another - negative feedback about our chosen profession from friends, family, and work colleagues. I also would bet my burning slit many of those who mock what we write have their own dog-eared copies of "50 Shades of Grey" shoved beneath their mattresses, hidden away as if they are teenagers keeping copies of Playboy away from mom and dad. Considering that erotica and especially romance novels sell like hotcakes - outselling books in all other genres - we may laugh at the ridicule and snippy looks as we deposit our royalty checks into our growing bank accounts. In the end, as always, success is its own reward.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sex-War in the Ivory Tower

by Jean Roberta

Years ago, my sister who has a Ph.D. in English, with a specialty in nineteenth-century fiction by women, claimed that referring to sex in a work of literary fiction is acceptable as long as the work is not intended to arouse lust. I was reminded of our mother’s amused response when I asked her (at age four, or thereabouts) why people in stories never go to the bathroom. Mom (who earned a Master’s degree in English during the Second World War) explained that it wouldn’t be appropriate to describe “private parts” in a story, and that I would understand it all better when I was older.

I am now approaching “normal retirement age” (as it is called in the university where I teach English), and I still don’t get it.

Let me revise that statement. I think I get it, but as I often remind my students, it’s never safe to assume. And even first-year university students should be striving to express themselves clearly and thoroughly in written words. A claim that certain subjects have to remain unmentioned – like Voldemort, the villain in the Harry Potter novels -- for reasons that shouldn’t have to be explained just isn’t clear or logical.

By now, my mother has passed away and my sister no longer speaks to me, but the defense of literary standards is still a large part of the business of English departments in universities throughout the world. There seems to be a widespread assumption among the conservatives who hate “porn” that 1) all educated people can recognize this stuff when they see it, that 2) educational standards are declining in the public school system (at least in Canada and the U.S.), that 3) there is a widening gap between the literati and the masses who are kept ignorant so they can be exploited by a corporate-government alliance, and 4) allowing “porn” (sexually-explicit writing) into the Ivory Tower would be the ultimate surrender to the muggles, an admission that literate culture is dead or dying.

At the same time, advocates of sexual freedom and sexually-explicit reading-matter (fiction and instruction manuals) have been invited to speak in reputable universities that pride themselves on being avant-garde. Some post-secondary schools that have creative writing programs offer workshops and courses in erotic writing that are taught by erotic writers who have probably been disowned by their blood relatives.

As a university instructor whose job is to force a captive audience of young adults to write analytical essays, I can cautiously agree with points 2 and 3, outlined above. Every semester, my notorious grammar quiz gets more complaints and a lower class average. Is this because modern society is as decadent as Sodom and Gomorrah (offensive to God Himself), or maybe ancient Rome, and teenagers are now reading about body parts instead of learning the parts of speech? And are these activities mutually exclusive?

The lack of communication between porn-hating conservatives and radical advocates of literature that dares to tell the truth about Voldemort subjects is truly amazing. I’ve seen conservatives and radicals rub shoulders in the halls of the university, greet each other with big smiles, and agree in department meetings that we all really have the same goals.

I don’t think so.

By now, I suspect that all my colleagues in the English Department know what I write, but I never feel a draft of cold air coming from any of them. They have known me for years. I’m a silver-haired grandmother who teaches grammar. I don’t wear stilettos or fishnet stockings to academic social events. When one of my colleagues jokingly (rhetorically) asked in a meeting if writing “porn” could be considered an academic accomplishment (expected of academics who must “publish or perish”), he didn’t seem to be aiming a dig at me. Apparently what I write is thought of as something completely different.

It seems that no one wants to admit that “academic standards” are a bucket that can hold oil and water, elements that don’t mix well.

Five years ago (November 2007), a serious journal, The New Criterion, published an article* on “the grotesque carnival of today’s academy” by Heather MacDonald, who claimed that university education (particularly in the U.S.) has gone further downhill since 1987, when author Alan Bloom thundered about low standards in The Closing of the American Mind.

As evidence that educational standards have descended into hell in the 21st century, MacDonald refers to a book she picked up in the library of the University of California at Irvine: Glamour Girls: Femme/Femme Erotica, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and published by the Haworth Press (now defunct). MacDonald claims that this anthology is “undoubtedly not what California’s taxpayers have in mind when they foot the bill for new university books.” (Did she run a public opinion poll?)

After referring to a story in the anthology which was “as much as I could take,” Macdonald explains: “The jacket blurbs from various erotica writers assert that the collection makes an important contribution to lesbian literature by presenting ‘femme/femme’ (feminine lesbians) couplings instead of the usual ‘butch/femme’ stereotype.” This type of breakthrough is clearly not what MacDonald hoped to find in any book housed in a university library.

Egad. I was one of the erotic writers who wrote a blurb for Glamour Girls, and I still regard it as a literary anthology. I was glad to read a collection of stories that combine hot sex with a feminist challenge to the kind of masculine/butch chauvinism that still seems entrenched in some lesbian communities, not to mention mainstream culture. I can’t imagine a good reason why this book should be thrown from a library window onto a bonfire on behalf of taxpayers anywhere.

Luckily, I haven’t heard of any book-burnings inspired by this article or by any other rant about the spread of “porn” into places where it doesn’t belong. Yet some academics casually refer to sexually-explicit writing as something that no one with talent or intelligence would write, or study, even as they claim to promote the pleasure of reading.

Like other academics, I am very concerned about government cutbacks to universities, especially the one where I teach. It concerns me that young adults graduate from high schools without knowing how to put the feelings and ideas that want to burst out of them into written words. It especially concerns me that too many students say “I’ve never been good at writing,” without adding that they were never taught how to structure a sentence.

Ignorance is such a bad thing that it might just be the root of all evil. So how is it related to sex, or descriptions of sex? I can think of several factors that contribute to low literacy rates, and sexual energy is not one of them.

I hope the English department where I hang out never becomes the site of an ideological war like the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s. If war breaks out, however, I don’t intend to claim there is no important difference between the radicals and the conservatives, or that I don’t believe in “taking sides.”

Sigh. I just hope to have lots of good company on this side of the barricades.


*”Another View: America’s Flaw or Bloom’s?” by Heather Macdonald, in The New Criterion (November 2007, Volume 26), page 24.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Writing This Novel, part I

     This is my first post for ERWA blog. Although I see that Lucy Felthouse is also talking about her experience writing a novel, I thought I’d write about the process as I’m working on one. Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows this is tricky. I might not finish. I might get bogged down in the middle and have no clue what to do next. And you’ll get to see me fail in real time! Oh, wait…

     Several years ago at a writer’s conference, Poppy Z Brite commented that you don’t learn how to write a novel. You learn how to write this novel (as you're writing it). I’ve written a couple novels since then and agree with her comment.

   Where do you begin? With the idea of a story. That sounds logical but I’ve seen people claim they sit down and ‘just write.’ I have no clue how that works. It probably doesn’t. Have an idea of the overall story you want to tell even if you don’t have the specifics, who the main characters are (I suggest you have a solid fix on them), and where you want the story to end so you have a goal to aim for. Sure, there are people who claim to be pantsers –- seat of the pants storytellers who don’t outline—but I’m sure they have an idea of what they want to do when they start. Otherwise it’s like entering a forest without a path, walking for several hours in whatever direction your feet lead, then the sun starts to set and you ask yourself where the hell you are and how to get out. That’s how people end up writing two hundred thousand word novels with no end in sight. That’s not the best use of your precious writing time.

     Stephen King, in his fantastic book On Writing, admits he doesn’t know where his stories come from. In the ‘writing is a talent’ versus ‘writing is a craft’ debate, I’m firmly in both camps.  However, I believe that the ability to imagine a story is a talent. You either have it or you don’t. If you have it, you understand why Stephen King can’t tell you where stories come from. He can’t, and I can’t. But I can tell you how this novel began for me.

     I had a vision. It’s sort of like daydreaming, like a snippet of a movie, but so vivid that I swear I can smell and feel things. These scenes hit me while my mind is wandering. I’ve never sat down and said, ‘I will now imagine something.’  This particular story idea came to me after reading comments by Remittance Girl on the ERWA Writer’s list as the group discussed what defined the erotica genre. She (I’m paraphrasing) said that the central question of erotica is how we (the characters) deal with desire. I mulled over that for a few days and this vision came to me:

(I’m not going to record this in any attempt at pretty prose since this would never go into a story raw. This is the way I would have jotted it down on paper.)

    Fog hangs heavily in the air. It condenses on the bare limbs of winter trees and splatters on cobblestones. It’s just before dawn, and even though my vision is in color, it feels like a black and white photograph, like the movie poster from the Exorcist with the priest under the gas lamp in the fog. Street lamps cast cold light on a small train station. A young woman in ratty punkish clothing paces the station platform and stomps her feet to keep warm. She wraps her arms around her waist and mutters to herself. I can’t hear what she says, but she repeats it over and over, so I know she’s losing her mind. At the far end of the station platform, a man appears. He’s been there all along, but she (and I) just noticed him. The young woman is suddenly ravenous and aroused. Her gaze lingers on the groin of the man’s jeans. He’s cold too, with his nose buried in a thick scarf and his hands shoved into the pockets of his thick coat. Just a guy, going to work on the early train. She walks over to him and asks in German, “Want to fuck?” (although I’m convinced that she’s American)

    That’s it. That was all I had to go on. It takes five minutes to write down, but in my mind, it was only a ten or twenty second movie. As I do with most of these visions, I immediately asked all the pertinent questions. Who was she? Clearly the main character. Where and when was she? The train station’s architecture said Eastern Europe. The gas lamps, black and white tones, and train travel suggested the past, but her clothes said 1990s to 2000s, so I knew that the story would be set in current times but have a timeless feel. I also knew from the lighting and the fog that the story’s tone would tend gothic and share genre elements with either horror or noir (a term which technically only applies to movies, but you know what I mean) Why is she at the train station? She’s chasing someone. Why was she losing her mind? Hunger. What was she hungry for? Sex.

    Where do those answers come from? Imagination. As I’m asking myself these questions I’m filling in details. They may change as I’m writing the story, but these are my characterization, setting and tone starting points. This is also where I ask myself: What is the story about? The answer is one sentence, hopefully under twenty words. I write it on a piece of paper and tape it to the wall above my computer so it’s always there to remind me as I write. I also get a summary idea of the story (which can and will change). This isn’t the same as plot, but it’s similar.

   I let my mind run with those answers for a couple days. I sensed a novel in it, but was so caught up in the intensity of the story that I wanted to get something down. Plus, I worried that a story about someone chasing a lover (or lunch, depending on where I went with it) wasn’t a big enough idea for a novel. So I threw myself into writing a short story which ended up on ERWA’s blog in October under the title It’s Lovely. It’s Horrible.  (If you missed it, the story has already been picked up by an editor for a vampire anthology even though it’s not what I’d call a vampire story.) Almost every critique on ERWA’s Storytime list stated that the idea was too big for a short story and I needed to expand it to a novel. So that’s what I’m doing.

    A note about titles. I either get a great idea for a title off the bat or I struggle. Orbiting in Retrograde – flash of inspiration. She Comes Stars – came from a line in the story. It’s Lovely. It’s Horrible – I settled on only after I mentally shoved bamboo slivers under my fingernails. And believe me, that was the best I could do after some truly awful ideas.  That wasn’t the title I wanted to use for a novel so it was back to the bamboo. Desire was my initial title idea since a discussion about desire sparked the story idea, but what the hell does Desire tell the reader? Not much. It could be a great title for another work, but not this one. I flirted with the idea of Consumed for a while but I recognize a yuck title when I see one. I think I was taunting myself with that one. “Pick a better title or you’ll be stuck with this one!” At that point I gave up trying to find a title and forged ahead with the story. You don’t have to have a title. It’s nice to have one, but you can work without one.
A couple chapters into the first draft I stumbled into a title. I’m still trying to decide if it’s The Night Creature or The Night Creatures, and if I’ll drop The, but it strikes me as a good fit. The Night Creature warns you that the work will be dark. It hints at horror. That’s the tone I want to set from the beginning.

Next time I’ll talk about how I decided where to begin the story.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Resisting Homogenization

By Lisabet Sarai

At the moment I'm in the throes of editing stories for my upcoming charity anthology Coming Together: In Vein. Despite my hatred of all things Microsoft, I've decided that using Word's Track Changes functionality (as all my publishers do) is the most efficient way to communicate my suggested modifications to my authors. Anyway, last week I was working on a submission from a well-known and respected writer and found myself breaking up her sentences: deleting conjunctions, inserting periods, and adding initial caps. My intuition (which I rely on at least as much as more analytical processes when I'm editing) told me her sentences were too long. Paragraph after paragraph, she would string three or four or even five independent clauses together with various conjunctions.

Her sentences weren't exactly what I'd label “run-on”. Normally there was a close logical relationship among the clauses. However, they were certainly much longer than what I'd write, especially lately. (My earlier work tends to be a good deal more prolix.) Before long the pages of her story were a mess of red and blue, cross-outs and insertions.

I worked at this for a while, then went back to read over the edited text. When I did so, I realized my changes had done some violence to the rhythm of the author's prose. Much as the long sentences bothered me, they were part of her personal style. If she followed my suggestions and hacked the long sentences into pieces, that might make the story “better” in some formal, grammatical sense, or at least more readable. However, it would be less distinctive – more like my own work, and probably more like the other stories in the collection.

I went back and used “undo” to reverse most of the edits. In my opinion, variety as one of the most critical attributes of a successful anthology.

The experience started me thinking about all the other pressures toward homogenization we authors face. Genre conventions, for instance. Readers select a book in a particular genre with strong expectations about its plot, characters, and even its style. A murder mystery that ended without revealing the identity of the killer would generate a lot of reader complaints. Indeed, one could question whether the genre label even applied.

The conventions for erotic romance are equally if not more stringent, as I've discovered over the past six years writing in the genre. The main characters must be appealing individuals who are at least somewhat attractive physically. The narrative must focus on their relationship; the protagonists should not have emotional or sexual attachments to other parties. The story must hinge on some barrier, internal or external, to the characters' mutual love, and ultimately that barrier must be removed, so that the story ends happily.

I've got nothing against love, but I don't read many romance books, because honestly, I find too little diversity for my taste. (There are, of course, exceptions.)

Unfortunately, I feel that erotica has also become more homogenized over the past half decade. Genre conventions aren't so strict for erotica, but there are other forces reducing originality and variety in the genre. One problem is the fact that relatively few publishers command most of the market. Several of the more adventurous and controversial erotica publishing companies (e.g. Freaky Fountain, Republica) have folded. To the extent that new companies have arisen, they seem to be trying to imitate the few imprints that have remained solvent. I suppose this is a rational business decision, but it reduces the diversity of the erotica gene pool.

Naturally a particular publisher will produce books with commonalities of style and content. Thus, a limited set of publishers tends to push the genre in the direction of sameness.

Now, you may be jumping up and down right now, because it seems as though a new epublisher opens its virtual doors every week. So how can I say that the number of erotica publishers is limited? If you check the fine print, you'll discover that about ninety percent of these new companies publish exclusively or primarily erotic romance, with all the attendant literary strings.

Furthermore, rather ironically, this flood of new publishers seems to reduce rather than enhance diversity. Many are founded by refugees from other publishing houses. They bring with them the preferences, assumptions and house styles of their former companies, and tend to be rather heavy-handed in enforcing these styles, sometimes with limited understanding. I've had editors strike out every single use of “that” to introduce a subordinate clause; replace every single one of my semi-colons with an em-dash; insist on the total elimination of passive voice; require that I rewrite a first-person story in third-person. Sometimes I resist these changes, but many authors will not, especially the thousands of brand new writers who are joining the authorial ranks every month to feed the public's massive hunger for romance.

Market forces are perhaps the most powerful homogenizing agent. When a particular book succeeds, for whatever reason, publishers (naturally, I suppose) look for other, similar works. I remember the first couple of spanking anthologies, which were wildly popular. How many spanking collections have hit the shelves since then? I don't even bother to pick them up anymore, unless I'm working on a review. Give me something different!

But instead we see a flood of vampire books, or a slew of BDSM romances featuring naïve heroines and sadistic, damaged heroes. I encounter volume after volume of gay erotic romance, featuring well-hung young hunks who seem to live in a world where there are no heterosexuals and there's always lube close at hand. The same well-thumbed plots and characters appear again and again. I started posting a shape-shifter romance serial on my web site last year. After a couple of chapters, as an experiment, I asked my readers to tell me what should happen next. Reader after reader outlined essentially the same plot – the same story they've read in a hundred other books about were-wolves, were-tigers, were-bears, were-stallions...

Do I sound like I'm whining? If you think you detect a note of frustration, you're correct. I don't want to read the same thing over and over. And I don't want to write it, either. These days, though, sameness sells.

I know my work has some distinctive stylistic properties, but I consciously try to produce something new every time I sit down in front of my keyboard. I've written a lot of BDSM, yes – because that's what interests and arouses me – but I've also written gay and lesbian stories, menage and polyamory, science fiction, paranormal, historical, steampunk, fairy tales, even a bit of horror. I've never written a sequel or tried a series, at least partly because I don't want to revisit the same characters, setting or theme. I want to try something different.

Originality lies close to the top in my hierarchy of literary values. Nothing thrills me like a story with an uncommon premise or an unusual point of view. My favorite authors are the ones who surprise me, with their fertile and outrageous imaginations. And I dream that there are at least a few readers out there who pick up my books because they're looking for something new and different.

I'll continue to resist the pressures toward homogeneity to the extent that I can.

It's certainly a good thing I don't dream about being rich and famous.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Spiritual Sex and the Celebrity Vagina

I sometimes feel I read more Internet articles about what others think of hot-topic books than I read those books for myself.  But for once, I made an honest woman of myself and actually read a book I saw skewered all over cyberspace and blogged about here myself, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography.  My earlier blog post had to do with the tone of the reviews of the book by feminists, which were condescending not only about Wolf’s arguments, but sexuality in general.  I was curious about the source of their disdain.  Was it simply the usual mainstream approach to sex—fear mixed with fascination then liberally dipped in adolescent humor (see Remittance Girl’s recent provocative discussion here)?  Or was there something about Wolf’s discussion of vaginas that really did undermine the feminist project of taking women seriously as full citizens of human society?

I certainly tried to read Vagina with an open mind.  I especially wanted to escape the trap of seeing anything sexual as “silly,” which was the favorite adjective critics used to describe the book.  As an erotica writer, I appreciated Wolf’s assertion that sexuality and creativity are interrelated, that body and mind are connected.  Because Wolf emphasizes the special nature of female sexuality, I can see why some might see this as a dangerous return to the days when women were valued for their reproductive powers and little else.  However, I believe Wolf was trying to challenge the traditional patriarchal view that the human mind can and should transcend our base animal physicality, and that men are better able to do this while women literally embody our carnal nature.  Anything having to do with sex is either disgusting or ridiculous, and any serious feminist wants no part of it.

We erotica writers know better than that.

I was also intrigued by Wolf’s personal story.  Due to a spinal problem, her pelvic nerve was pinched, which interfered with her sexual response.  She was fortunate that surgery restored sensation, although the lustful gleam in her surgeon’s eye as he insisted she needed an immediate operation was the scariest part to me.  Apparently—and it’s rather sad this should be worth arguing at all--sexual response is rooted in individual physiology. According to the experts Wolf consulted, our pelvic nerves have unique configurations, thus we each have personal preferences in the ways we like to be aroused.  Anyone who has had more than one lover understands this, but we are so bombarded with messages about the “proper” way to be sexual, as well as exhortations to control our eroticism with will power, that it was extremely refreshing to learn of a physical basis for differences in how we experience pleasure.

One more word in Wolf’s defense about the famous “cuntini” party that was invariably mocked by reviewers.  One of Wolf’s male friends hosted a dinner with a menu of vulva-shaped pasta, fish-n-finger-pie salmon and phallic sausages that so traumatized her, she couldn’t start writing Vagina for six months.  True, Wolf does claim that her deeply insulted “vagina” (her code word for all female genitalia including the clitoris, anus, and cervix) impaired her ability to work, and we’d all like to think a famous feminist is made of stronger stuff.  But again as a writer, I felt sympathy with her situation.  The “friend” offered to throw the party to celebrate her signing the book contract for Vagina, without mentioning the menu.  She showed up expecting to be feted for a professional success, but found herself in the middle of a sniggering practical joke.  Even those of us with less sensitive vaginal emotions might feel betrayed.  Sadly, female sexuality is still belittled in these ways even as it is exploited to sell the very book for which she obtained the doubtless highly lucrative contract.

Wolf does make some excellent points about the spiritual aspects of sexuality, but, unfortunately, I can also understand why the critics were so annoyed with their assignment to review this book.  I took four pages of notes on my own reactions, but they boil down to this.  Naomi Wolf has made the mistake of believing her own PR.  The copy on the inside flap assures us the book is “utterly enthralling and totally fascinating,” “exhilarating and groundbreaking,” “a brilliant and nuanced synthesis of physiology, history and cultural criticism.”  The problem is, Wolf continues this over-the-top promotional breathlessness in the book itself.  She describes her “journey of discovery” as if no person has ever had such brilliant insights, such transformational orgasms, such wise advice on how to solve the war between the sexes.  In proper journalistic style, she tries her best to seek support from “science,” by dialoguing with New York’s finest doctors on the yachts of mutual friends.  All in all, the book is less cultural criticism than a celebrity’s often shallow memoir.

I also found it interesting that the blurbs on the cover still mention Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which was first published in 1991.  At that time many readers, including myself, appreciated how intelligently Wolf articulated a strange paradox of the female experience in the late twentieth century.  We had supposedly achieved equality through feminism, and yet we felt imprisoned by an intensified emphasis on punishing standards of beauty that undermined our natural appetities and robbed our pocketbooks.  Typical of the media, Wolf’s actual message was nearly drowned out by the exclamations of surprise that Wolf herself was “beautiful,” and so should be sitting pretty with the status quo. The Beauty Myth made Wolf a celebrity, purportedly a spokesperson for third-wave feminism, but in reality known as much for her looks and persona as for what she actually had to say in any substantive way.  Her later books received media attention, but for better or worse, none supplanted her maiden work in acclaim.

In the end, I began to feel a little sorry for Naomi Wolf—but isn’t that always the case for celebrities?  They achieve glorious heights, then fall from grace, while we ordinary folk look on with a mixture of envy and disdain.  I’m sure Wolf and her publishers thought a book called Vagina would sell well, and it probably has on the merits of the provocative title.  But as a writer, I was sad that neither she nor the publicity machine felt that her words could speak for themselves.  Sex sells, but it can also be used to isolate those who attempt to challenge the deeply entrenched idea that sex is silly and stupid or a dangerous animal passion or both.  

And yet, I still hope some who read her book do come away with a belief that sexuality can be spiritual and that shaming female sexuality is itself a sort of "original sin" or fall from grace.  It will take more than one voice and more than one vehicle to get that message out there.  Those of us without the burden of celebrity have our work cut out for us.

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at or

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cocaine Love

By: Craig J. Sorensen

Recently, a good friend has been going through the sort of relationship that has more pivot points than a double jointed hand with six fingers.  It started before I left Pennsylvania in June.  It ended before I left in June.  Started again after I left, ended again.  Started, ended… well, you get the idea.

She’s a beautiful young woman, highly intelligent, very creative, and successful in a field that is not easy to be successful in.  They have a lot in common, and just one or two things where they differ.

But they are big things.

Each time relationship 2.0 and 3.0 and etc. ended, he gave me a post mortem of how wonderful it felt when the relationship started, how she was so understanding about his want to take it slow.  He described how quickly it changed toward the end.  As he described the cycles in the most recent release, it occurred to me what he was describing.  And maybe you’ve seen or felt it too:

Cocaine love.

When I described it in those terms to him, he practically screamed it out:  "That's exactly what it is!"

Cocaine love:  Quick on the uptake, full of chemistry and biology and euphoria.  More often than not this kind of relationships end with an equally resounding crash.

Ultimately, each time this cocaine love began with her accepting his position on a fundamental point.  By the end, the actions spoke louder than words, and this flexibility fell away like a mask.  And the principle he is operating on is one that really shouldn’t be asked to change.  Each time the relationship finished, he said how stupid he was, how he won't get caught in that trap again.


It comes down to a person who will “give everything” if he just “change one thing.”

But the essence of true love is not asking one to change their fundamental principles, especially when they are the same core values that make that person special.  And that is the case here.

There are many things that can lead to a cocaine love, but the bottom line is that it is hard to live on a steady diet of cocaine.  Maybe cocaine love can work, if both partners are committed after the high wears off.  And sometimes that means enduring the withdrawal.  Together.

The great relationships are like a fine meal.  Invigorating, and can be exciting, but sustaining as well.  A good meal doesn’t have the potential to emaciate the way that narcotics can.

Usually one person is the narcotic in a cocaine love, while the other is deep in the high.

Again, this is not to say that a couple truly in love cannot have an intense sort of desire, but there is a certain false-front that defines cocaine love.  And the essence of being able to see past it, is being willing to take a look at the relationship in profile.

The essence is seeing the difference between being high and being nourished.

I've used the dynamic of cocaine love in stories.  It makes great material, especially in erotica, but a lot better explored in fiction than lived through in life.

Just ask my friend.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

We Deviants. We Happy Deviants

In the past month, the subject of how to discuss what we write has come up an uncanny number of times, from diverse quarters.  I have a friend who writes erotic fiction, but never admits to it, because his wife doesn't like it.  Another fellow writer says that he is uncomfortable about admitting what he writes, because he has children and (this must be an American thing) worries that people will somehow feels he's an unreliable father if he writes erotica. I know many erotica writers who use a pen name because they fear an admission of what they write will imperil their careers.

When people, in everyday sorts of interchanges, ask me what I do, I say I teach and I write. They're never all that interested in what I teach; they ask me what I write, and I tell them. Since the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the next inevitable question is: oh, so you write stuff like Fifty Shades of Grey? No, not really, I say.

Their reaction - the knowing smirk, the sly wink and, occasionally, some far too TMI confession - constantly reminds me that what we do is still considered deviant and transgressive.

In the world of academia, it's even more interesting. As a graduate student, you spend a considerable amount of time going to seminars, interacting with other graduate students, and the question of your research comes up all the time. In the last 2 months, I have had to sit in a group and fess up to exactly what I write and what I'm researching over and over. From time to time, I will encounter a genuinely thoughtful response: wow, what a compelling area of study! Good luck with it!

But more often than not, after the initial, very studied attempt to appear unfazed, I am met with the same 'wink-wink, nudge-nudge' follow-up that I receive from non-academics. Frankly, it depresses me. I suspect, being an intellectual snob, I expected something more intelligent from my colleagues.

Eroticism is a dangerous subject; so dangerous, in fact, that our society consistently prefers to deal with it at arm's length by mythologizing it or turning its subjects into caricatures.  Either that, or they try to reduce it to anthropological study. Eroticism is not sexuality, although it is often expressed through sexuality.  It has more in common with religious ecstasy than it does with procreation.  It is so mysterious to us, that we try and explain erotic attraction by aligning it with animal mating displays and successful reproductive strategies in the wild: i.e. men are attracted to red lipstick on women in the same way apes are attracted to females in estrus with inflamed backsides, or, masochists like to be whipped because it produces endorphins that get them high.

Let me put an end to this nonsense: male baboons don't have fur fetishes and masochists are not drug addicts.

Eroticism is the story of our negotiation between self and other on a very deep, very visceral level.  We are born alone, die alone, and yet, in extremely special circumstances, we sense that there is a way to escape the gravity well of our hermetically sealed existences.  And very much like ecstatic religious experiences, profound erotic experiences offer us, if only for fleeting moments, that sense of there being something more. This is why, I think, so many of the French theorists, reflecting on eroticism, felt it was existentially connected to death - not death as a negative, but death as the greatest of all transformative experiences.  What makes eroticism more interesting, to me, is that you can live to talk about it.

And that's the challenge for erotic writers. It is easy to describe a sex act, easy to list the attributes of a person you want to fuck, easy to trot out the slang, the jargon, the tropes, the memes we have all come to recognize as signifiers for activities that lead to orgasm or ejaculation. This is the use of cliche in as much as we wave textual imagery in front of our reader that we know will predictably trigger the reader's arousal:  "He pounded into her tight, wet pussy."

But that is mistaking pleasure for eroticism. Pleasure is part of eroticism, to be sure, but not its entirety.

The erotic experience, at its zenith (which may be at orgasm, or may be at some other point) renders us almost without language. To attempt to approach it, in writing, will never be entirely successful.  Authors will often, at the height of an erotic moment, slew sideways into romantic love, as if that will do duty to fill the vacuum of language that the erotic experience leaves us with. I've certainly been guilty of this.

I don't have an answer. But what I have learned is that eroticism is best understood as the journey to a fleeting and liminal state rather than the destination. There is no end-game to eroticism. It is about our yearning, not really our getting. We reach, we think we've grasped that elusive prize, only to find out that what we're holding either is too slippery to keep, or is not the prize we were after.

Like pathos, like nostalgia, like joy, terror or sadness, eroticism is a way-station, not a terminus.  However, unlike those other human experiences, our culture has not found ways to explore its depths or heights comfortably or unflinchingly. We turn its subjects into objects and depersonalize them because the spectacle of the real experience is thriling, utterly intimate, and overwhelming. 

But our challenge, as writers of the erotic, is to take that on. Not to flinch, not to look away, not to cheat by reducing the acts or the characters we write to caricatures or myths, or take refuge in the more socially acceptable sanctuary of romantic love.  And that's why, unless our culture changes radically, we will always be transgressors in the literary world when we pursue the task of writing the erotic.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Confessions Of A Literary Streetwalker: What Makes a Good Publisher?

Before I begin (again), a bit of disclosure: While the following has been written in an attempt to be professionally and personally non-biased I am an Associate Publisher for Renaissance E Books. 

Now, with that out of the way (again)...

The last time I wrote an intro like the above it was for my Streetwalker column Self Or Not? – about why I feel that, even though it can be very alluring, I still recommend writers work with a publisher rather than go the self-publishing route.

After writing that column I've been thinking, a lot, about what makes a good publisher ... especially these days.  Not to (ahem) brag but I've been in the biz for quite a few years and have worked with a lot of publishers – both when books were printed on (gasp) actual paper, as well as in the new digital age, so I think I can say a bit about what makes a good publisher.

As always, keep in mind that this is somewhat subjective: what I like in a publisher may not be what you like in a publisher ... but the somewhat is there because, tastes aside, it's a publisher's job to get your book out so, hopefully, people will buy bunches of copies.

The world – as I mentioned – as totally changed, and so has what publishers not just can do but should be doing.  It may sound a bit ... emotional, but I like a publisher I can talk to – and who talks to me.  Sure, many publishers are simply too busy to answer every email immediately but that they get back to me eventually is more than enough to keep me happy.  I've dealt with far too many publishers who I have to write, write, write and write again to get an answer to even the simplest question. 

Sure, I think its very important to work with a publisher who respects you as an artist but more than anything they should understand the business of publishing.  I've had some great experiences with very supportive publishers – only to be disappointed that even though they tell me I'm (ahem) The Greatest Writer Who Ever Lived they totally drop the ball in getting my books out.  These days it is absolutely crucial to hit as many sellers as possible: amazon is fine and dandy, the publisher's own site is expected, but if they don't get books onto places like Barnes & Noble – and especially iBooks – then that can mean a serious cut in revenue.  The same goes for print versus ebooks: the cold reality is that that print books do not sell as well as ebooks ... so a publisher that focuses on print rather than ebooks is, to be polite, way behind the times.

Publicity and marketing is a very sore point for a lot of writers in regards to publishers.  Not to kick a hornet's nest, it is very important to have a publisher that at least tries to get the word out about your book  – but that in no way means that authors should just kick back and complain.  Yes, you should be annoyed by a publisher that does nothing to promote your book but if they are working hard – or as hard as they can – then get out there and add to their efforts. 

By the way, if the only thing a publisher advises you to do – publicity and marketing-wise – is Tweet or join Facebook ... well, let's just say that there are a million other ways to get the word out rather than doing what everyone else is doing.  Yes, a digital presence is essential – if anything to give you’re a place to see, and so buy, all your books – but the simple fact is that your friends on Facebook are not the people who will be buying your books.  A good, smart publisher will be working to reach actual readers and buyers through not just traditional channels but through a wide range of alternative methods.   

More than anything publishers are businesses and, as such, they have to operate effectively, efficiently, and intelligently.  That means that they can't give their writers 100% of their time ... mainly because while they are trying to find new authors, getting books out, working on promotion and marketing, but they also always keeping an eye on the bottom line.  Sometimes I feel if a publisher is spending too much time with me – the flipside of being totally ignored – I worry that they should be doing more for the company rather than obsessing over just one book (even if the book is mine).

Experience in a publisher is essential, but only if that experience has been educational: if a publisher tells me that my book needs anything  –  (different cover art, new title, different marketing strategy) – I will do what needs to be done, but only if I feel that the recommendation comes from looking, and understanding, what sells a book.  I hate to say this but I've run into a few publishers that want to be PUBLISHERS (meaning they are in the business only to boost their ego) and not a publisher (who is trying to create a successful company): the former's advice is usually based on trying to look like they know what works rather than really understanding the business.

I could go on – and will in my next column – but this should at least give you some food for thought.  If you have any comments about any of this, or want me to chat about anything specific in regards to publishing, leave a comment or shoot me an email:  I promise to answer ... though it may take me a bit of time.

Just like a good publisher should ;-)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Writing Exercise

 By Ashley Lister

 Two naked bodies
Intertwined twixt midnight sheets
Slick silvered shadows

I can’t believe we’ve gone almost a year on this blog without discussing haiku as a writing exercise. The haiku is one of the most accessible forms of syllable based poetry. When used as a warm up device before writing, it’s a form of poetry that can help a writer focus on the essence of the words in her or his vocabulary.

As most people know, the traditional haiku is a three line poem based on a strict syllable count. Obviously there are some variations.

·         There’s the pop haiku, characterised by Jack Kerouac’s interpretation of the form.
·         There are senryu, identical to haiku in form, but with a content that is wry, ironic or whimsical.

But today we’re looking at the traditional haiku with its rigid format:

1st line = 5 syllables
2nd line = 7 syllables
3rd line = 5 syllables

It’s worth noting here the definition of a syllable. The definition below is taken verbatim from the trusty dictionary sitting on my desk.

syllable ►noun a unit of pronunciation having one vowel sound, with or without surrounding consonants, forming the whole or a part of a word; for example, there are two syllables in water and three in inferno.
Pearsall, J., Hanks, P., (2005), Oxford Dictionary of English, 2nd Edition, Revised, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

However, even with such an authoritative definition, there will obviously be anomalies in the words we select. We hit words like sure, fire and wheel and can’t decide whether the word includes one or two syllables. Is it 'shoor' or 'shoe-er'? Is it 'fire' or 'fie-arr'? Is it 'wheel' or 'wee-ell'? My usual response to such observations is: How do you pronounce the word? It’s your poem. Own the word.

And that’s all there is to this form. Obviously haiku can be studied in greater depth. There are some forms that demand the author should mention a season or kigo. There are some forms that require a break at the end of the first line and insist on the juxtaposition of two images in the whole poem. But, for the purposes of this warm-up exercise, it’s enough to craft seventeen syllables of serious sensuality into a single haiku.

After the climax:
Glossy flesh lacquered with sweat
Heartbeats race-racing

As always, I look forward to seeing your poems in the comments box below.