Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Friday, August 30, 2013

Sex, Chaos and Story

Happy Birthday to me! Well ERWA birthday at least! As of today I’ve been writing for ERWA for a whole year. Where has the time gone? So much has happened in a year, and yet it seems like only yesterday I wrote my first post about inspiration and mythology. Traditionally birthdays are a time to celebrate, let your hair down, wreak a little havoc and raise a little hell. Oh wait a minute … That’s writing I’m talking about, not birthdays. Writing, plot, story -- there’s no place better to raise a little hell, and we writers know it’s the perfect place to let our hair down vicariously.

In my opinion, there are few things a writer can do to a story that will kick-start it quite as much as creating a little chaos. A calm and happy life in the real world might be just the ticket, but in story, there’s one word for it – BORING! A story is all about upsetting the apple cart, breaking the eggs, turning the bull loose in the china cupboard and -- heart racing, palms sweating – seeing what happens, while we’re safely ensconced on the other side of the keyboard/Kindle/book.  Oh yes we do love that adrenaline rush -- at someone else’s expense!

One of the best tools for dropping the character smack-dab into the middle of the chaos  – and the reader vicariously – is sex. And the more inconvenient, the more inappropriate, the more confusing, the more SO not what the character was expecting, the more delicious the chaos will be.

The thing about those big brains that I spoke of a few posts back is that they like to make us think we can control all the variables. The thing about the biological housing for those big brains is that it doesn’t always want to be controlled. Oh and that big brain, well that means there’s all sorts of stuff going on up there that can lead us down the havoc-wreaking road to sex and chaos. It wants what it wants. And the ole grey matter can be so damned stubborn at times. Oooh! I get goose bumps just thinking about what happens when the big brain gets a hankering and the biological soup starts overheating and sex happens.

If we look at Western history from the point of view of religion and its effects on culture, there are few things the religious powers that be have made more of an effort to control than sex. And in story, in myth, there are few things that have caused more chaos than a little rough and tumble in the wrong place at the wrong time. Troy lost war and was destroyed over it, King Arthur’s realm fell because of it, David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed because of it.

The resulting chaos that sex unleashes in a story can be nothing more than to create self-doubt in a cock-sure character, which is always a delight to see. Or the resulting chaos can be world-destroying, and anything in between. Sex can cause the kind of chaos that will make the reader laugh, or the kind of chaos that will make the reader say, ‘if only they hadn’t done that.’  However, the one thing sex should never do in a story is leave things the way they were before it happened. Can it be used for bonding? Of course! But the tighter the bond, the more chaos can be caused if that bond is tested or broken. I shiver with delight at the thought.

And because our big brains don’t give a damn if our sexual thoughts and fantasies are ‘socially acceptable,’ nor is it discriminating about who we might have those thoughts and fantasies about, the resulting internal chaos can be almost as delicious as the external – maybe even more so. That lovely mix of guilt and desire and self-loathing and arousal and denial and shear over-heated lust. OMG! It’s a total writer’s paradise there for the taking.

I’m sure I’m like most writers in that I analyse what I read for pleasure in terms of what worked and what didn’t, what I would have done if I’d written it, and what I’ve learned from the author’s writing skills that can be used to make my own writing better. I have to say one of the biggies for me is how well the author uses chaos to move the story forward at a good pace; and especially how effectively sex is used to create chaos.  I’m sure I pay a lot more attention to how sex is used in a story (or not) now that I write erotica, but it’s the resulting chaos that fascinates me and keeps me reading in almost any kind of novel. The world is not a static place, and especially the world of story should not be static. Happy endings are called happy endings because they are at the end. They follow the chaos and happen when the story is finished. There is no more story, or at least none the reader wants to follow. It’s the chaos that pulls us in and keeps us turning the pages, and when that chaos is directly tied to sex, hold on to your hat!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Necessary Evil For Writers: Does Social Media Make You Crazy?

Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and four cats. You may find her on Facebook at

From the "Duh! Tell Us Something We Don't Know" department: a new study has found that Facebook may drive you nuts. According to the ABC News article "Facebook May Be Making You Sad, Says New Study", social media such as Facebook has a negative effect on our emotions.
"Everyday Facebook use leads to declines in subjective well-being, both how happy you feel moment to moment and how satisfied you feel with your life," says Ethan Kross, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the study, told ABC News. 
Kross and the other researchers analyzed the moods and habits of 82 young adults -- active Facebook users with mobile phones whose average age was 20 -- over the course of two weeks. They texted each participant five times a day, at random intervals, and got feedback about their feelings, worries, loneliness, Facebook usage and real-life interactions with other people. 
They found that Facebook users were more connected with their friends and acquaintances than those not on Facebook, but the more frequently people used Facebook, the worse they felt immediately afterward. Additionally, the more they used Facebook over the course of two weeks, the less satisfied and happy they were with their lives as a whole.
The social medium I use most often is Facebook. I'm on every day, and it's an easy way for writers and readers to contact me. I have found Facebook to be irritating at times, but not depressing. I don't feel lonely or sad from being on Facebook. Quite often, I find it boring. There are only so many updates about what's for dinner and baby's first poop I can take on a given day. However, I never get tired of cats. :)

That said, not everyone else has such fond feelings about Facebook. Writers who use social networking look at it as a necessary evil. We need to get word out about our works somehow, and that means tweeting about our latest release, updating our Facebook timelines about our backlist of novels, avoiding flame wars on Goodreads, begging for reviews on that vast wasteland that is Google+, and posting images of what our characters like on Pinterest.

I interviewed some writers on Facebook to learn if they found Facebook to be stressful.

In a word, yes.

It may not be easy for writers, who tend to be introverts, to be social in general. Facebook does offer some anonymity and distance since you're on your computer or phone, but the stress is there.

Aaron Smith said: "As a writer, I consider Facebook to be a necessary semi-evil. I hated it when I first signed up, as it seems to go against all the instincts of an introvert like me. But I realize it's needed for promotional purposes, especially for authors who don't have the support of major publishers. Over time, I've come to enjoy it and interacting with old and new friends as well as readers of my books. But it does get annoying at times, though I can't honestly say it's ever made me depressed. Perhaps the most frustrating part of it is that, due to the casual nature of Facebook, a post about something trivial like a Simpsons line or a baseball game can sometimes get more attention than something we, as writers, consider incredibly important, such as the release of a new book or a good review."

One big problem with Facebook is envy. You see others talking about their endless Silver Stars on AllRomanceEBooks, their latest five star review, their awards, and their great sales, and you - who may not be doing as well - feel the green monster creeping up your spine. The thing is, success doesn't happen out of the blue. It takes hard work and much rejection to get there.

I've noticed that writers on Facebook tend to not talk about the less successful aspects of their careers. You will always hear about an acceptance, but you may not hear about the ten plus times that same writer submitted that particular story to other publishers and was rejected. Tessa Wanton said: "Sometimes we get bound up in what we see out there and especially those who are so very confident when you feel so unconfident yourself. The problem I've found is that some people just constantly go on about how successful and brilliant they are, and I have no reason to disbelieve them. Even if I've found out later that what they're saying isn't true, the initial feeling of inadequacy still presides." I saw a comment, possibly at the ABC News article, stating that people who needed to constantly talk about how successful and brilliant they are are probably overcompensating for an extreme lack of confidence. Tessa agreed, saying "very true, yet even still the damage is done at that point. I would say artists in general lack confidence in what they do, seems to go with the territory I guess. Such a funny place social media, I do find I have to stand back at times, it can be utterly all consuming."

Kathleen Bradean discussed her experiences with envy on Facebook, and it's similar to other tales I've been told. "I know I'm making the huge mistake of comparing my writing career to another writer's.  We all have our own definition of success." She said. "So why do I make myself miserable seeing that someone sold their third short story this year when I haven't even written one? And I guess the answer is that I'm not seeing the success I want. It doesn't seem as if I'm making progress."

Angelica Dawson has avoided Twitter for reasons similar to Tessa's. "Either I feel inadequate, envious, or guilty and NONE of those help me." She said. "I will keep my twitter account as one of the easiest ways to get a hold of me, also because I'm in a number of very busy tribes when I get back to blogging."

Limiting time on Facebook is a popular way of dealing with being sucked in and occasionally sad.  Some have gone as far as leaving some social media sites altogether. Taking a break often results in better writing, better sanity, and sometimes more money since you spend more time writing than hanging out. Ashynn Monroe limits her time. "Face book makes me feel like that sometimes, that's why I disappear for a while." Gemma Parkes said. "I read comments and they are not very helpful and a bit bitchy sometimes and I let it get to me, it stops me writing and that isn't a good thing. Writers need to write." Tessa Wanton said: "I nuked my Twitter account for good, and concentrated on blogging a little more instead. And now, I feel a lot better and, I've had better results from concentrating on my website too." Noir writer Trent Zelazny has closed down his timeline on several occasions. He points out that some people say and do things on Facebook they would never get away with in real time: "It's depressing. Text is not the same as speaking, and things can easily be misconstrued." Zelazny said. "Add to that the people who love to attack others while from the safety of their home. People who would never have the brass to do it in person. An innocent statement, observation, or general feeling about the day, with one comment added, be it insensitive or simply misconstrued, can suddenly turn one's Facebook page into an unfriendly or even hostile environment." Publisher Warren Lapine recently temporarily left Facebook because it was interfering with his work. "For me it comes down to the fact that I like Facebook too much. I find myself on it when I should be working." Lapine said. "If I'm working on a particularly annoying or complicated book I spend time on Facebook avoiding the work. That needs to stop. I have a contract that calls for me to publish 400 books a year and that doesn't when I'm online interacting with friends. I've tried to tell myself that it's networking, but my income goes up whenever I get off Facebook and down when I spend too much time on it."

Not everyone is affected by Facebook in a negative way, though. I'm one person who has never really had a problem with Facebook. I enjoy posting in the mornings, and lurking later in the day, but I suspect I don't spend as much time on Facebook as some others do. Jacques Gerard doesn't let Facebook get to him. Neither does Linda L. Barton. Devon Marshall "stopped giving a rodent's behind what people thought" when he hit his 30s. Jacques Gerard doesn't let envy ruin his enjoyment of Facebook. He enjoys seeing others succeed. "Mainly I realized my life/journey is my own and should not be compared with anybody else's life/journey." He said. "I'm just happy with other's blessings and successes as well for my own. On the other hand give comfort and prayer for those who are experiencing a tough time or sickness. I learned very early in life that worrying about keeping up with others only creates unhappiness for yourself."

Social media sites like Facebook are a mixed bag. Depending on how you choose to look at Facebook, it can be the ninth circle of Hell or a great place to network with writers, publishers, editors, and readers alike. It may even be both on occasion. The key seems to be knowing your own limits, and pulling away when you feel yourself getting sucked in. Remember above all you are a writer, and writers write. However, writers also need to make themselves available to the public in order to be seen, and that includes engaging in social media as well as attending book signings, book readings, conventions, and the like. Could the key be balance? Although social media in general and Facebook in particular may be stressful, according to that new study, it is a fairly new medium. Once you master it, it probably won't own you any longer.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Dead Good Poetry Show

Hosted by Ashley Lister

The radio show is on every Saturday night - 8 until 10 pm UK time (we're currently operating to British Summer Time which is one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time).  The first hour is family friendly. The second hour has a more mature content and usually includes an interview with a poet.

It's fun. I have people tweeting poems in. I have people mailing in poems (which then get read out live on air). I play poetry and music and chat with poets. I had no idea I could do anything like this.

This is the page where the radio station keeps its links: The station is called Fylde Coast Community Radio and my show is the Dead Good Poetry show.

If ERWA contributors want to listen in and see how the show develops (and gauge whether or not they'd want their writing to be associated with the project) it would be great to know they're adding to the supportive audience. If anyone does want to record a short, original poem of their own (4 mins max), I would need it in MP3 format. I'm also looking into including Skyped poems at some point in the future.

Ashley Lister

The Pleasures of Writing Promiscuously

by Jean Roberta

Anyone who follows the careers of celebrity writers knows that the great American crime-writer Elmore Leonard passed away on August 20, 2013. Amidst the eulogies, his ten writing rules have been trotted forth:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify “said.”
5. Keep your exclamation marks under control.
6. Never use “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great details describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Much as I would have liked Mr. Leonard to live past his eighties, the current media-storm of analyses of his writing style is timely for me. I am on schedule to teach a creative writing class for credit for the first time in September. Note that non-credit classes (such as the one I taught in the 1990s to senior citizens) are much different, more like hobbies; there are no grades and no pressure. This time, I will be expected to teach some useful techniques which might actually result in publishing contracts. Therefore I have been checking out “writing rules” of various kinds.

My senior colleague, experienced mystery-writer Gail Bowen (whose novels are all set in the town where we both live) has discussed Elmore Leonard’s rules with approval in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail:

Well, yes and no. My students all had to audition for my class by submitting samples of their writing to me. I have definitely seen some “Hooptedoodle” in the form of self-conscious writing that strains to be witty or memorable. It would probably be good for all my students to have to follow Elmore Leonard’s rules while writing one assignment. Writers, like singers, can benefit from expanding their range.

It doesn’t surprise me that Elmore Leonard admired Ernest Hemingway, who apparently developed his famously terse style as a journalist, pounding out news articles on a manual typewriter in various war zones. (It should be noted, however, that journalists did not always write like Hemingway. Nineteenth-century newspapers often combined floridly-written news articles with fiction, and at first glance it can be hard to guess which is which.)

I have nothing against the school of Hemingway, Leonard, and their many followers. Showing action rather than describing people and scenes can be an effective way to develop character and a plot at the same time. If dialogue sounds true-to-life as well as expressive, “said” is the only verb that needs to be added.

However, there are other ways to write. Writing about sex, in particular, lends itself to description. (“They met, they fucked, they came” doesn’t work for me as a climactic passage.) Even Hemingway resorted to an extreme metaphor when “the earth moved” for his central characters. A precious, overwrought, bejewelled and archaic style can be great fun to write – and to read.

“Purple prose,” the sort of thing that Hemingway and Leonard aimed to stamp out, is now associated with the famous opening sentence of an 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton before Charles Dickens had become a household name. Note the way this passage violates Elmore Leonard’s Rule #1:

“It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

This is not the sort of opening scene that appeals to a reader who wants to cut to the chase. In its way, however—like a lady of the evening in a corset and flounced petticoats--this long sentence is damn sexy. Notice what the author has accomplished, even before introducing a single human character. The reader is plunged into a sensuous experience, as though caught in a sudden downpour. The location has been identified. If even the housetops are “rattled,” the shelters that humans have built for themselves are clearly no match for the power of nature. And the struggling flames that fight against darkness suggest the brave fragility of human consciousness or life itself.

After this introduction, characters can be brought into an imaginary world that has already been set up. As a prologue or declaration of purpose, the opening sentence can be considered direct and concise, rather than too long. And every word contributes to the general effect.

I would like to give a “dark and stormy night” assignment, not as a joke (like the annual Bulwer-Lytton Award that offers prizes for the most extreme parodies of the famous sentence) but as an exercise in writing vivid description.

Writing "rules" can be useful in helping fledgling writers find the subjects, the styles, the genres and the philosophies that work best for them. Ultimately, however, good writing seems to me to be a matter of coherence and faithfulness to one`s own vision.

"Different strokes for different folks" is not only a snappy way to advocate acceptance of other people`s sexual tastes. It can describe a smorgasbord of different writing styles. Just as finding the best Significant Other can require kissing a few toads along the way, finding the best style for a particular piece is likely to involve a few failed experiments. And the journey can be more fun than reaching the destination.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Finding Your Writer's Voice

by Kathleen Bradean

I think I found my writer's voice years ago when we were in Taccoa visiting relatives. Seeing relatives is real easy in Taccoa as I'm blood kin to at least twenty percent of the population. It's a small town; my mother had sixty-four cousins; you do the math.

Oh, she didn't have sixty-four living cousins. There were only about twenty-eight of them. Living cousins, that is. A few got killt off in road accidents and that type of stuff. Many of the sixty-four didn't make it to their first birthday. Then there were the diphtheria and cholera years where whole branches of the family tree got pruned off in the course of a week, sort of like when a tornado goes through town and tears away tree limbs and sends them flying through your window or shattering your home and all you can do the next day is stare numbly at the damage until your eyes get itchy from tears. Then you drag the back of your hand across you runny nose and go on living because what else are you gonna do?

I only know about all the cousins that passed because there's a book that lists everyone in the family since we came over from England. One time I was real bored because it was my turn to be the person my sisters hated and they'd sneaked off to the creek without me. I knew where they were but the rules of that particularly nasty game were that you had to suck it up and take it so I had to make do until they forgave me for whatever sin they'd decided I'd committed. Seeing as Toccoa is surrounded by the southernmost crest of the Smoky Mountains and this was years before satellite, Grandma's TV only got snowy pictures and ghosts followed the actors. Besides, my grandparents belonged to the cult of 'go play outside' so after a long sigh and an eye roll that nearly got me in big trouble, I took the book out on the back steps and balanced it on my bony knees while I flipped to the page where my mother's name was listed, and my sisters and me with her, and that's how I found out about all those dead cousins. I counted them, even the babies who only lived a day. Then I crawled under the house to play with the barn cat's kittens.

My elusive writer's voice wasn't under the house with them.

We were driving around town-- We must have been on our way to church. Grandma was wearing those white cotton gloves and I had on a dress which was a miracle in and of itself-- and Grandma said "Mister L" -- isn't it funny how they called each other Mister L and Missus L instead of using their first names? Maybe because they flat out hated each other. Anyway, Grandma said, "Stop the car. I want to show the children this house." It was a big old dark green thing with a mansard roof that had seen better centuries. We said we could see the house fine from the car, but she insisted.

Grandpa didn't need to stop really. He always drove so slow we could have popped open the doors and stepped out like it was one of those carnival rides on a continuous belt, but he pulled off the road, which probably brought considerable relief to that blue Chevy that had been dogging Grandpa's back bumper since we passed the county high school.

The cicadas were buzzing like mad in towering, pale green trees behind the house. Gravel got in my shoe as we walked down the drive so I hopped on one foot while I dumped it out. Grandma stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door. When no one answered, my sisters and I shuffled toward the car, not in any hurry to get back in because Grandma and Grandpa had been bickering all morning about whether we'd go to the Methodist church (his) or the Baptist (hers) and we would have been glad to miss both. So when she called us over and tolt us to look through the windows so we could see the inside of the place, we climbed up on the porch with her. I cupped my hands around my eyes and looked into the parlor. Some guy was asleep on a couch in his t-shirt and I could hear a game on a television I couldn't see. I tugged on Grandma's sleeve and whispered frantically to her to move away from the window. Maybe I only thought I was was whispering because the man sat up suddenly. We yelped and lit out for Grandpa's car, but Grandma just stood there on the porch peering in like she never heard of a shotgun before. The door yanked open and the guy's hair, which was sticking up like he'd licked a light socket, I swear reached the top of the door frame. He stared at us sleep stupefied for a good moment. My sisters and I held hands and our breaths.

Turns out he was a cousin.

One of the living, of course. We may be southern but we aren't gothic.


Maybe you wonder how you develop your writers voice and maybe you don't. I went looking for it but got sidetracked and haven't bothered since. Supposedly, that's what an MFA program does for you. But I'm convinced that focuses on the wrong thing. If the story is first person, it has to be written in the character's voice, not the writer's. Otherwise, the writer is intruding.

I didn't find my writer's voice in Toccoa, but I can make it sound as if this narrator is me. It's channeling the way a story would be told by that narrator. It's cadence and vocabulary. It's judiciously ignoring grammar in favor of voice. I wouldn't suggest writing dialectics as a rule since they are often annoying, but those three words inform the reader about the narrator in ways that the rest of the text can't, so I did it anyway.

If you're a writer, you may have voices in your head. Let them speak on the page. Don't worry about your voice, because unless you consciously steer your writing to a different one, yours will shine through.


The Devil of Ponong series

Friday, August 23, 2013

Are Writers Obsessed With Word Counts?

by Lucy Felthouse

Are writers obsessed with word counts? I can't help but ask the question. At any one time, I'm working on several WIPs, and I have word count trackers in the sidebar of my website. They help keep me focussed, and also spur me along. I'll input the latest numbers, then check out the graph and smile as it creeps along, growing ever closer to my goal. Often, I change the goals, for example if a short story call for submissions has a minimum word count and I end up going over it, which I often do. As long as I don't go over the maximum, it's all good.

But it's easy to become obsessed. Some writers have a goal of writing a certain amount of words every day and get annoyed with themselves if they don't achieve them. Equally, if they exceed that goal, it's a cause for celebration. Many writers (including myself), take part in sprints, for example #1k1hr, which stands for one thousand words in one hour. It's a good way to push on, and if you're the competitive sort, you want to get lots of words down and try and beat the other writers you're #1k1hr - ing with. It's friendly, though, and a good way to get a chunk of words down.

I often find my gaze straying to the bottom of the page where my word count is displayed. I think it's become a habit now. Because I do so many things as well as writing, I don't set myself a minimum daily word count. I don't even write every day. But when I do, I more often than not write down my starting word count and my ending word count so I know what I've done for the day. Naturally, some days are much more productive than others, and I find myself massively productive when I have deadlines looming.

Whatever I'm writing, I'm always conscious of the number of words, which often is crazy. If I'm writing for a call for submissions, then of course I have to stay within the parameters. But if I'm just writing a story and seeing what happens, whether it ends up as a short story, a novella, a novel, etc, then I don't need to keep track of it. However, I still do! I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing, to be honest. I do like to see what I've achieved (for example I totted up my word count for the year and it exceeded 175,000 words, and that was several weeks ago now!), so maybe that's it. Maybe I'm governing myself.

I don't think that's a bad thing, then. As writers, we don't always know what's going to happen to our words, to our stories, when they're complete. They may get sent off to a publisher and rejected, then sent elsewhere. Or they may be accepted, and we then have to wait quite a while before we see them published, and even longer before we're actually paid for them. So really, it's no surprise many of us watch our word counts so scrupulously. After all, because we may have to wait months, even years, to see our work come to fruition, we need an instant boost, an instant sense of achievement, otherwise we might wonder what we're doing it for.

What do you think? Do you check out your word counts all the time? Or do you just write and don't worry about all that? I'd love to get your thoughts in the comments!


Lucy Felthouse is a very busy woman! She writes erotica and erotic romance in a variety of subgenres and pairings, and has over seventy publications to her name, with many more in the pipeline. These include Best Bondage Erotica 2012, 2013 and 2014 and Best Women's Erotica 2013. Another string to her bow is editing, and she has edited and co-edited a number of anthologies. She owns Erotica For All, and is book editor for Cliterati. Find out more at Join her on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to her newsletter at:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Defense of Romance

By Lisabet Sarai

As erotic romance becomes increasingly popular, I've noticed a trend among authors of erotica to denigrate the genre. ER panders to readers who aren't comfortable with “real” erotica, some argue, sanitizing sex by requiring that the individuals doing the nasty be “in love”. ER is tame and conservative, according to others, not to mention stereotyped. True creativity isn't possible within the rigid constraints of the genre. ER reinforces traditional cultural mores which favor monogamous, committed relationships, especially those in which the woman is subservient to the man, the social critics complain. The happy endings required by romance just aren't realistic, runs another popular objection, and they make romance too predictable.

Recently a well-known erotica author reviewed one of my novels on Goodreads. She commented that she would have given it five stars, but she dropped her rating to four because the book was too “romancey”. This is for a novel in which the heroine is boffing three different men, as well as a spare woman or two...!

There's a kernel of truth in all of the arguments above. I've read blog posts by authors of erotic romance who loudly protest that what they write is distinct from “erotica” (or “porn”) because they're focusing on characters and relationships instead of “just sex”. It may be that these individuals have never encountered well-crafted erotica, but the stridency of their tone suggests a level of fear or repulsion associated with sexuality. (Or maybe they're just afraid of the social stigma attached to being overtly sexual.)

Some erotic romance is indeed tame and conventional, by my standards at least, focusing as it does on vanilla sex initiated mostly by the male. On the other hand, some folks enjoy vanilla erotica, too. And yes, I get annoyed with romances where marriage seems to be the ultimate goal in life, but these days there are plenty of ER stories where matrimony is never mentioned.

Predictability is a huge challenge for a romance author. In some ways, the HEA or HFN required makes crafting a romance more difficult than producing a tale construed as erotica, which is free to end ambiguously or even badly for the characters. Romance readers know, at some level, that everything will work out. It takes consummate skill to create narrative conflicts so compelling that readers will wonder just how a happy ending could be possible. It's tough, but it can be done. Erastes' M/M romance Standish sticks in my mind as a tour de force in this regard. Twenty pages from the end, I couldn't imagine how the protagonists could ever reconcile, yet when they did, I found the resolution completely believable.

A lot of the romance I read is boring – poorly crafted, with amateurish language, hackneyed premises, cardboard characters and implausible or sometimes non-existent plots. However, there's plenty of awful erotica out there, too. Those of us who hang out at ERWA don't tend to see it as much, but spend a little while browsing the self-styled “erotica” on Amazon if you don't believe me. The explosion of e-publishing and self-publishing has resulted in a flood of terrible books in pretty much every genre. There are probably more of them labeled romance than anything else, simply because romance is the single most popular category of books.

I write for both audiences. Based on comments I've seen on the ERWA Writers list, I think some erotica authors harbor some serious misconceptions about erotic romance.

Romance has changed – a lot. For a great discussion of romance then versus now, check out Sheila Claydon's recent post at Beyond Romance ( No longer are heroines wimpy and helpless, just waiting to be saved by the big, blustery alpha male. They're not shy or reluctant about sex anymore, either, worried about preserving their virginity or hankering to make a good marriage. The more realistic HFN (happy for now) is a perfectly acceptable alternative to happily ever after.

Today's erotic romance celebrates sexual pleasure every bit as enthusiastically as erotica, and includes many of the same activities – oral sex, anal sex, group sex, exhibitionism and voyeurism, sex toys, bondage, discipline, whipping, spanking, piercing, branding, knife play. You'll find casual sex in romance too, though the participants usually end up in a more enduring relationship as opposed to simply going their own satisfied ways afterward. And of course, these days romance doesn't have to be straight. Gay ménage is very popular, as is bisexual (M/M/F) ménage. The market for lesbian romance appears to be smaller, but still energetic and loyal.

Am I trying to argue that there's no difference between erotica and erotic romance? Of course not. However, the dividing line isn't sharply defined either. Several of my own novels, originally written as erotica, are now being sold as erotic romance. Indeed the erotica versus erotic romance dichotomy may be more a question of different target markets than clearly different content (at least in the aggregate).

Meanwhile, I believe that the popularity of romance has benefits for erotica. Erotic romance has helped readers become comfortable with stories about sex and has aroused their curiosity about more extreme or novel activities. Of course the publication of FSOG has accelerated this trend, but the drift in readers from pure erotic romance toward erotica has been going on for quite a while.

Erotica sales lag romance, but they've still grown phenomenally since the advent of ebooks. I think we're seeing significant spillover. When romance readers want a bit “more” - more extremes of emotion, more breaking of taboos, more surprises – they turn to erotica.

Some of you may be shaking your heads right now. You're wondering if an alien has slipped into the skin formerly occupied by Lisabet Sarai, because this post seems to contradict things I've written previously. It's true that in the past I have lamented the co-opting of erotica by erotic romance. It does bother me that publishers like Cleis, who previously focused on exceptional literary erotica, now targets the romance reading community with many of their titles. Black Lace flipped years ago, from “erotica by women, for women” to erotic romance. Eighty percent of new publishers who want erotic content also specify that they want a relationship and at least a happy for now resolution.

I'm starting to become a bit more comfortable with this development, however. Publishing is a business. The erotic romance audience is many times larger than the audience for “pure” erotica. It makes sense from a financial perspective to give those readers what they want. I'd much rather have readers introduced to explicit romance via the quality writing in a Cleis anthology than through some of the alternatives. And Cleis does still field calls for books with no romance elements required.

Some members of our community believe that the ascent of erotic romance is a dangerous development for erotica – that it is the essence of erotica to explore the edgy, uncomfortable aspects of sexuality that might send romance readers screaming and that romance is blunting those edges. I know I'm going to get some flak for this column from Remittance Girl and Donna George Storey, for instance. Look, though, at what these authors are doing in response to the romance boom. They're starting their own presses to publish more transgressive stories. They're self-publishing tales that don't end happily. And they're finding readers – perhaps not millions, but more, I contend, than they would have if erotic romance were less popular.

Which brings me to a final theory as to why erotica authors tend to diss romance. We're jealous. Heck, I admit that I'm jealous, and I actually publish erotic romance, though my books are apparently too far from the mainstream to sell zillions of copies. We resent the fact that our worthy literary endeavors remain obscure while sloppily written, derivative romance sells. We rail against the fact that the number of people who want to read happy endings far exceeds those with broader preferences.

That's not the fault of the romance genre. And I think we need to get over it, because bitterness and envy don't necessarily foster creativity.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

What Do Women Want?

By Donna George Storey

Now that’s a title sure to sell books. Especially if said book promises to answer that question with “the latest scientific research” by “paint[ing] an unprecedented portrait of female lust.”

I’ve mostly overcome my old bad habit of feeling compelled, for the sake of my professional development, to read every article about sex that catches my eye—from Cosmo covers offering secret bedroom tricks that fulfill every man’s deepest desires to more serious journalism like Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Yet an enthusiastic review of Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire proved just too provocative, so I put my name of the hold list at my local library. Granted I was equally wary and amused that the mystery of female sexual desire was to be answered by a male author, but the “science” in the title promised at least a certain amount of objective reportage and possibly some useful up-to-date discoveries.

After finishing the book, I think I’ll go back on the wagon as far as “read this and you’ll understand sex” come-on’s are concerned.

Predictably, Bergner’s book left my raging intellectual curiosity about sex sadly unsatisfied. However, I did gain some valuable insights into issues of importance for erotica writers: namely, the constrictions on the way we’re allowed to write about sex in mainstream publishing and our endless human quest to seek a simple explanation for our very complex and powerful urge to merge (or the lack thereof in married women, which was Bergner’s unacknowledged focus, not to say obsession, in the book).

Let’s start with the writing style of What Do Women Want? Published writing about sex is generally divided into two comforting categories. First we have the “scientific” approach, which is deemed acceptable for review in the New York Times (indeed Bergner even nabbed a nonfiction spot in that venerable publication to promote his book). This is either a sex guide by a credentialed doctor or a journalist’s reportage of what’s going on in the underfunded labs of sexologists. The emphasis here is on the “facts” tastefully and maturely presented with the aim of helping us understand our biological drives. The tone may be humorous, like Roach’s, often pointing out the ridiculousness of sex, but there can never be any obvious intent to arouse lust. That goal is left to erotica and porn, where the author is at liberty to use every trick in the book—dirty words, loving descriptions of sex acts, vivid, taboo-breaking fantasies—to inflame the reader’s libido. The price for this freedom is that such works can’t be taken too seriously, even if some do prove wildly profitable.

I’d always wondered what would happen if someone tried combining these two forms, intellectual seriousness with vivid, evocative prose. Many erotica writers do so quite successfully in my opinion. Bergner makes a certain kind of attempt by juxtaposing reportage of scientific studies and the search for a “female Viagra” (which is apparently much harder since it requires a change in brain chemistry rather than just blood flow) with decidedly flowery accounts of women’s experiences and fantasies. The experiment derails because Bergner’s heavy-handed prose requires the reader to either submit equally to the reportage and the personal fancy or to doubt both. For me, What Do Women Want? has been falsely advertised as the kind of “scientific” book that we’re supposed to respect when there is a buried personal agenda at work throughout. Perhaps the book would be less of a con if it were advertised as memoir or creative nonfiction, but then again it would lose a good portion of an audience that craves “objective” answers to the mystery of sex.

Although an inquiry into what women want could result in a very long book indeed, Bergner’s main focus is stories of women who have lost desire for their sweet, loving partners, but feel excitement for men who treat them like, well, Christian Grey treats Anastasia Steele. Yet, rather than quoting the women in their own words, he freely indulges his own writerly impulses. In the following excerpt, he’s describing the experiences of a “real” woman named Isabel:

“Women who dressed with urgent, ungoverned need for the desire of men could set off, inside her, a flurry of disdain, like an instinctive aversion to a weakness or wound. Yet whenever she walked into a restaurant where Michael waited for her at the bar, his focus seem to pluck her from the air, midfall, and pull her forward. His eyes held a thoroughly different kind of constancy than Eric’s later would. Eric adored her. Michael admired her. She was a possession, the heels of the boots she picked for him taking her across crowded rooms toward her owner. The boots were like the frames and pedestals he chose for the photography and sculpture in his gallery. He had specific opinions about how she was best displayed.”

If the book were fiction, I might be more willing to allow myself to be carried along by the strongly flavored sensibility of Bergner’s prose. But in many cases I felt manipulated, as if he were imposing his voice on Isabel among others, making her into his character, for the mere sake of showing us he can write in a Best American Short Story style.

Now Bergner does describe some interesting results of studies—did you know that in speed dating whichever sex sits still is pickier about partners than the one forced to get up and rotate? But far too many studies he mentioned dealt with women’s boredom with nice guys. Basically Berger argues that traditional evolutionary biology got it wrong. It’s not the men who are the promiscuous sex, sowing their seed far and wide while women wait for a nurturing mate, but rather the women who are even hungrier for sex with strangers, thus explaining the much touted desire gap between married men and women. By the time he attributed Adriaan Tuiten’s search for a drug to restore female desire to a broken heart when his first girlfriend lost sexual interest in him, I suspected something else was at stake for the author as well. And indeed, turning back to the acknowledgements, Bergner rather wistfully thanks his ex-wife for the faith she offered for many years.

Whether or not Bergner’s ex-wife left him because her sexual desire for her tender mate faded, his choice of highly personal writing style and a notable focus on one slim aspect of female sexuality demands that he be honest with his readers about where he comes from on the issue of marriage and the loss of desire. Yet he maintains the opacity of the traditional journalist throughout, in spite of his revealingly biased choices in language.

Now is the perfect time for me to be honest. While I am all for revising the rigid story of a natural male promiscuity and the female preference for monogamy, in my personal experience, I have always had better sex when I know and care for my partner and he cares for me. Thus, I did not in any way feel that the book illuminated the mysteries of my desire. Which leads me to the second lesson of my reading. Bergner insists we have to replace the old story with an equally simple one—it’s not men who have insatiable appetites, it’s women (which is actually the view of earlier Christian philosophers, so it’s not exactly new). But what if we human beings, male and female, all have our own ever-evolving stories about pleasure and sexual desire? Might not we all have different reasons, genetic and cultural, for behaving and desiring as we do, narratives that might also change within a single person’s life course as well as varying among different people? What if there are no rock-solid eternal truths to comfort us about what is natural in sex (or any other human behavior)?

For inherent in these “scientific” studies is the assumption that there is a normal or correct sexuality. Yet I’ve never seen a real-life example offered of this envied normal state. (Therapist Marty Klein maintains in his book, Sexual Intelligence, that the only true normal is that most adults have sex when they're tired.) Bergner does not interview a promiscuous woman who has found happiness indulging her natural urges like the rhesus monkeys in the lab. Even one of the few sexually frisky married women Bergner mentions is not a poster child for happy monogamy by his definition:

“The abruptly, she mentioned something hidden. She was a baseball fan, and when she had trouble reaching orgasm, or wanted to make love with Paul but felt that arousal was remote and needed beckoning, she tended to think about the Yankee’s shortstop Derek Jeter. She smiled at the comedy of this confession. It was only sometimes that this extra help was required, she explained. ‘Jeter is the ultimate Yankee. Tall, all-American, everyone loves him—he’s it. He comes home to me after winning the World Series. He’s still in his uniform, and he throws me onto the bed and kisses me in a frenzy all over and thrusts right into me without me being really prepared for it. He just ravages me.’”

Yes, the secret is out, the wife “sometimes” has to cheat in her fantasies to feel lust for her husband! Both Bergner and the wife seem to find such fantasies embarrassing and comic, but more to the author’s point, the fantasy is described as “hidden” (But from whom exactly? She told him about it, should she advertise it on a tattoo on her face?) and conforms to the rape-by-a-stranger fantasy that several of the scientists he interviewed claim arouses women more than any other fantasy. Bergner does not really explore the wisdom of taking fantasies literally. He allows that these women probably don’t actually want to be raped, but he does seem to assume that a mere fantasy about another man is a form of infidelity and proves his case about women “wanting” lots of sex with buff, selfish strangers in alleyways.

Okay, I’m going to get personal again, but at least I’m being transparent about my point of view. I’ve never fantasized for more than two seconds about a specific person or celebrity, nor does rape, which we'll define as nonconsensual sex, ever play a role in my rich and varied married-woman fantasies, although the partner usually takes the lead because, damn it, I get tired doing everything out there in the real world. Still my preferred fantasy partner is a faceless drone, used and discarded for his sexual value alone. I like it that way. Does my fantasy prove anything more than that my imagination does not follow society’s rules for proper female focus on the man’s personhood? And how is it that Bergner’s list of women’s sexual fantasies, told with a sort of breathless titillation, can be seen as news decades after Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden shocked the world? Alas, the book is mired in not-very-unprecedented assumptions and judgments Bergner claims to be challenging. In the end he does admit it is “just a beginning,” in spite of the promotional copy's promise to a potential reader that he or she will get some interesting answers to the title question.

So, yes, the book is mostly a waste of time if you are expecting to find out what all women want. Yet even its failures remind us that there is plenty of room for a nuanced, clear-eyed inquiry into the stories we tell ourselves about sexuality and desire. Daniel Bergner has unwittingly made his own contribution, though not quite as he intended. His book does give us a coded look into the interests and passions of one particular man, but undoubtedly a more honest What Do Women Want?: I Don’t Really Know Either would not sell nearly as many copies.

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, August 15, 2013

The Palahniuk Effect

I'm going to introduce you to the most viscerally powerful short story I've ever read. Flat out. But - first I need you do a couple of things.

For your own safety, I mean.

From this moment on you should be sitting in an easy chair or maybe laying down is even better. Padding. So you won't hurt yourself.

A glass of water nearby. Maybe a small waste can and a roll of paper towels would also be prudent. Last, if possible, a spouse or a reliable friend who doesn't panic easily. Do not have someone read it to you aloud while driving a car or operating heavy machinery.

We will assume you have done these things and proceed.  Attend.

The last person recorded to have fainted during a public reading of "Guts" was on May 28, 2007 at the public library of Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. Strictly speaking he didn't faint as a result of the story but as a consequence of running for the exit, fainting in mid stride and hitting his head on the way to the floor. He was one of five who dropped during that reading. In Milan Italy a professional actor read the translation aloud in excellent Italian and entire rows went down as though they'd been machine gunned. Thus far a total of 73 people have officially fainted during public readings of "Guts" at least until people stopped counting. That's what stories can do for you folks.

Damn I wish I'd written it.

Stop reading this, I'm talking to you there, go to the link I'm going to give you and read "Guts". It only takes a few minutes, its not a long story at all. In fact here's how it begins.

Take in as much air as you can.
This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.”
            From “Guts” Chuck Palahniuk

Here is the link to "Guts" a short story by my literary hero Chuck Palahniuk. You can read it for free. Off you go, now. Come back after you pull yourself together.

From this moment on the blog will be divided into two camps. The readers with “Guts’, and the "Guts" virgins.

The readers are those who obediently went to the link and followed through and survived more or less intact. The virgins are those who did not take it seriously and didn’t check it out at all or those who did and found themselves unable to finish it. I fall into both camps. The first time I read it I couldn't finish it. I thought I was tough. I was not. I went back and finished it the second time, both times cringing in my seat, chewing my thumb and laughing my ass off insanely at the funny parts.

Now you Guts virgins - go back and read it. Please.  Go on. Get outta here. You're missing a thing of hideous beauty. Come back when you know something. You will note that I have not told you anything about the story premise or what it's about. Nor will I. But I would like to talk about the "Palahniuk Effect", how the great man does what he does so well.

The genre Palahniuk writes in and maybe some of us also write in without knowing it had a name, is “transgressive fiction”, written in a Minimalist style. This is a kissing cousin of pulp fiction which walks a fine line on what is forbidden in commercial fiction and often cheerfully vaults over it. This would include stories that are potentially offensive either on a moral level such as “Lolita”, which on its surface after all is a sexual affair between a man and a twelve year old girl he nightly rapes, or a publishable level such as “Guts” (The first time it was submitted to Playboy magazine it was refused as “too disturbing”. When the editor attended a reading at Union Square Library in New York during which a man was carted off in an ambulance, he reconsidered his position. It appeared in Playboy in 2004). Transgressive Fiction can also include gay erotica, BDSM stories, flagellation and so on. It concerns characters who feel confined by the moral conventions of society and in the course of the story break out by doing luridly illicit or in the case of “Guts”, incredibly dumb things.

"Guts" is told from the first person POV in a very specific way. Palahniuk has several essays on writing which have lately gotten attention in the ERWA writers forum.. He has a lot to say about the crafting of "Guts". Any story opens with a particular problem for the writer, which is the early establishing of authority with the reader. This is connected with the “suspension of disbelief ”. The reader has to trust where you’re leading them, no matter how weird or revolting it is, and be willing to give your characters the benefit of the doubt. This is especially true in the case of the first person point of view, with all of its intimacy offered to the reader right up front in the voice of the narrator. Palahniuk explains that this can be done by either heart or head.

To establish authority by heart means to speak of yourself in a way that speaks straight to the reader, without putting on airs. You might do this by revealing early on something that doesn’t make you look all that good. Something which is more of the honest fool then the hero. You have to establish this as quickly as possible, in the first few sentences.

For instance this is how Mark Twain starts off Huckleberry Finn:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

The reader likes Huckberry's voice. He sounds like a straight forward kid.

Or this, from the opening of Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”:

“She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise”.

He sounds like a dubious character, but someone worth knowing. You wonder what the deal is with his mother too.

By showing your warts early on you are being vulnerable, holding out your hand to a certain trust and intimacy with the reader. You don’t have to be a good person or even a very nice person. Just somebody worth knowing.

The other way is “establishing authority” with the head. This is in fact the way Palahniuk starts out “Guts”. Now that I think of it, this is also the way in which I have introduced this blog entry. This is usually done by listing a series of details, either technical or emotional details that show the reader your narrator has been where he/she describes and knows what they’re talking about from experience and knowledge.   This is generally easier to do than the heart method, especially if you are using a dislikeable narrator.  Palahniuk admits most of his stories begin with the head method, in part because he almost always uses first person present narration and most of his first person narrators are dislikeable people.  For example, this is the opening paragraph of his novel “Snuff” in which a former porn star eventually commits suicide by way of exhaustive marathon sex:

“ . . . One dude stood all afternoon at the buffet wearing just his boxers, licking the orange dust off barbecued  potato chips.  Next to him, a dude was scooping into the onion dip and licking the dip off the chip.  The same soggy chip, scoop after scoop.  Dudes have a million ways of peeing on what they claim as their own."
          "Snuff"  Chuck Palahniuk

There are two things in that paragraph that are standard for Palahniuk.  The story is begun with the head method in what will eventually be a dislikeable but intriguing narrator (the maybe-maybe not son of the aforesaid porn star who is there in line with the other dudes to meet her for the first time) and he “buries the I”.  You don’t see the word “I” appear in the paragraph at all.  One of his rules which is certainly true is that when writing in first person present, which is a standard for erotica and other forms of transgressive fiction, don’t let the narrator babble on endlessly about him/her self and their precious feelings.  The reader will feel like she’s on a bad date.  Like any narrator he should direct attention towards the story and minimally to himself only when it regards his action in the story.  You will also find this is true of “Guts” which is first person present but you hear very little reference from the narrator to himself until the final scene of the story.

Now as Lynne Connally pointed out in the writer's forum you have to take this advice a little critically.  Romance readers want the feelings and thoughts gushed out as copiously and as purplely as possible.   More literary style erotic fiction tends to be the emotionally distant style Palahniuk is advising.  Take it for what it's worth.

The next is the establishment of pattern and motif. "Guts" is in some ways a long detailed list. It is a story in three acts, giving the details of three scenes or events of increasing . . . effect . "Guts" is also based on true stories. Palahniuk swears it. So it must be true.  I guess.  Palahniuk explains in the back story commentary that he acquired these stories over time while researching his novel “Choke”. He could have assembled them in any pattern, but arranged them in an ascending order. The motif of the story is actually based on the theme of holding the breath which begins the story. Holding the breath is a metaphor for things that exist between family members that are too awful or ridiculous to talk about, and waiting in suspense for those things to be revealed. This is the recurring pattern that keeps resounding after each event is described. Let’s talk about that description.

He has established trust, if not sympathy, between the narrator and the reader. The events unfold. The sensory description, which is also a critical element to erotica writing, is based on the minimal depiction of a single ultra-realistic detail. The kind of detail only the narrator would know. That carefully chosen detail is a note that brings the side elements into the light. Palahniuk advises “When a normal person has a headache, they take aspirin. When a writer has a headache, he takes notes.” You try to find a way of conveying the experience of a headache, not just the bland statement that a headache exists. You don’t say the beer was delicious. You describe the beer as malty and bitter and cold. The reader decides if that’s delicious or not, not you. If you are describing a desperate man crossing an unlit railroad yard in the dead of night, a man who is compulsively afraid of the dark – and I have written that story – you don’t say “It was dark.” Hell. We know that. Instead you describe the man dropping to the ground in a fit. Digging his fingernails in the dirt, until they hurt. Biting the dirt with his teeth and weeping shamefully. Describe how it feels to suffocate with brainless panic and then seeing just in front of his eyes the moonlight glinting off a single piece of broken bottle glass.



Specifically from a bottle.

One piece.

That makes it feel dark, and feel is what you want. Palahniuk says the line that seemed to send most of the fainters spiraling to the floor is the one with the words “corn and peanuts”. That’s a very specific detail known only to the narrator until he reveals it in a way that brings the scene home and viscerally nails it.

Now, if the image of corn and peanuts isn’t turning you green at this moment, and maybe for the rest of your life, it’s because you’re a Guts-Virgin.

Come over here, little virgin.

Come over here. Gonna tighten' up your wig for you.

Come sit close to me, baby. No. More close. Touching close.

Trust me.

Now. What we’re gonna do. It’s all up to you. Won’t make you do nuthin’ you don’t want. Good?

Let’s see that little mouse you got, sweetie.

Oh. Oh isn’t that beautiful. Your mama gave you the sweetest beautiful mouse. Look what you’ve been hiding from me all this time.

How is that mouse . . . There. Isn’t that nice? You like that?

Put your finger there on the left button. Just keep it there like that ‘till I say.

That’s the way. Feel nice? You like that? You bet you like it. Bet your mouse like that. Bet your mama like that.

See that down there? No, lower down. See that?

Well, that’s my URL. Ever seen one of those before? Yeah? You’re not so innocent like you look.

What you’re gonna do for me is put your little pointer there, baby, right there and give my URL a nice little squeeze. That’s how it’s done. Move it right down there. Do it just for me. Then I’ll know you love me good, sugar.

You’re going good. Oh that’s sweet how you do that. Oh that’s so good. I can watch you move your mouse all night long. You’re going so good at this already and you think you like it now, sweetie, you gonna love it later.

Don’t stop here. Down there’s where all the action is. Put your little pointer right down there. Oh, that's the way. Hold it there.



C. Sanchez-Garcia