Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Permission to Write Badly



I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of writing lately and what makes it work. Why is it that sometimes it flows and other times it just doesn’t? The first time I realised I might be able to exert some control over that flow, that I might be able to do more than sit in front of a keyboard and hope the Muse would take pity on me, was when I read Natalie Goldberg’s classic book, Writing Down the Bones. There I discovered the timed writing. It’s simple really. You write non-stop for a given amount of time. You write against the clock, and you don’t stop writing until time runs out. No matter what! You write whatever comes without fretting over whether it’ll be good. And when you’re done, some of the end result – even a good bit of the end result – might be crap. But mixed in with that crap might just be the seeds of something wonderful.

At the time I felt like I’d been asked to write with my left hand. Even writing for five minutes seemed like a daunting task when I made my first attempts. But Natalie Goldberg knew what she was talking about. I was amazed at what came out of the abyss between my ears! It was only after I read Writing Down the Bones that I began to write real stories. So why did one book make such a difference?

I finally had something I lacked in the past, something very important. I had permission to write badly. Every writer needs permission to write badly. Later Julia Cameron, in her book, The Artist's Way, called those off-the-cuff, devil-may-care writings morning pages, and she prescribed three morning pages every day – written without forethought; written in haste. From a fiction writer’s perspective, she didn’t give them the weight that Natalie Goldberg did. They were only a part of a plan to open the reader to the artist within. To her, they were more about venting, sort of a daily house-cleaning for the brain. In addition to morning pages, Cameron insisted that every creative person should give themselves what she called an artist date once a week. An artist date was a date with oneself away from writing.

I can’t count the number of times I stood myself up for my artist dates. I would have broken up with me long ago if I were actually dating me. But then I realised that an artist date didn’t have to be dinner and dancing or shopping or even visiting a museum. An artist date was a change of pace. It could even be ironing or weeding the garden. In fact the whole point of the artist date was to create space in which I could disengage the internal editor and give myself permission to write badly.

So many of us are under the impression that every word we write must be precious and worth its weight in gold. What I’ve learned since I discovered the pleasure of writing badly is that on the first draft, every word is most definitely not precious. On the first draft, every word is a crazy frivolous experiment. Every word is a chance to test the waters, to play in the mud, to let my hair loose and run dancing and screaming through the literary streets. Every word is a game and an adventure. Every word is eating ice cream with sprinkles for the main course. Every word is shit; every word is compost, and every word is the ground out of which the next draft will grow. I never know what’ll work until I try it. I never know what my unconscious will come up with while I’m writing like a wild crazy person, grabbing words and cramming them in and rushing on to the next ones – just after I’ve pulled the weeds in the garden. Without that bold and daring first draft, without opening the floodgates and letting the words spill onto the page, there’s nothing to work with when the next draft comes. And when the next draft comes, the words do get precious. Every single one becomes weighty and irritable and reluctant to fit anywhere but the place it belongs, the place where I feel it just below my sternum like the point of an accusing finger.

But by the time I get to the second draft, by the time I get to that place where every word has to be perfect, I’m up for it. I’m ready to slow down and feel what every word means. I’m ready to find all the nuance and all the cracks and crevices of meaning in between the words. I’m ready for it because I’ve been playing up until now, and I’ve been allowing the words to play. And now, recess is over!

The longer I write, the more I realise what else, besides Natalie Goldberg’s timed writings and Julia Cameron’s reluctant artist dates, get me there. And what gets me there is often totally being somewhere else, somewhere other than writing. Sometimes it’s playing the piano badly, or sweating at the gym, or weeding the veg patch. Sometimes it’s walking through the woodland not thinking about anything, Sometimes it’s reading something frivolous. Sometimes it’s reading something profound. All the space that taking time not to write opens up inside me makes room for that wild ride of the first draft. And when that first draft is finished, I have what I need to pick and choose, to sort through and sift, to change and rearrange until I find the best way to tell my tale. But up until then, it’s child’s play. It’s dancing naked. It’s shameless abandon and multiple verbal orgasms.

Writing badly? Permission granted.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Don't Wait For Your Muse To Strike. You'll Wait Forever.


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.

I recently read an article about the daily routines of famous writers, and it made me wonder about muses. Some writers, especially novice writers, occasionally say that they must wait for their muse to inspire them. The problem is that waiting for your muse to give you a kick in the pants means you'll wait forever, and you won't get any writing done. E. B. White said: "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a work on paper." The actual day-to-day routine of writing isn't nearly as glamorous as suddenly feeling a lightning bolt of inspiration from your muse, jolting your creativity awake and sending you to your computer, hands busily typing away until The Masterpiece is born. It requires setting goals, making a routine, and establishing a support network.

MAKING GOALS

Have you made yearly goals for yourself? What do you hope to accomplish this year in your writing career? You do treat your writing like a vocation, don't you? If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you must take writing seriously. Don't treat it as a hobby if you intend to make real progress. That means making goals and establishing a routine. Sounds dull? Maybe, but it works. That's the reality of being a writer. It's not all absinthe parties and movie contracts.

Make goals. List five things you want to accomplish this year as a writer. Which projects do you intend to finish? Are you aiming for specific markets and publishers? Would you like to self-publish? You need to pin down a few workable, realistic goals for the year. My workable, realistic goals for this year are to finish my erotic novel "Alex Craig Has A Threesome", write one human sexuality article every two weeks for a company that just hired me, write my blog posts (including my monthly one for ERWA), submit several short stories to good anthologies (both erotic and dark fantasy), and work on promoting my self-published books as well as write at least one more (for now). Those are laudable goals for one year. They are specific. You can pin them down. They aren't ephemera floating about your muse's head.

ESTABLISH A ROUTINE

Once you have goals, you must meet them. That means work. Establish a routine, even if your schedule seems impossible. It isn't. There is always a moment you can find for writing and achieving your goals.

Joan Didion's routine interested me because it's similar to mine. In a 1968 interview, she said the following:

I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I've done that day. I can't do it late in the afternoon because I'm too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes.

I don't wait for my muse to inspire me. I have a set routine that I try to follow every day. I work best in the mornings, being a lark (definitely not a night owl). I start my day by brewing a pot of coffee, turning on some ambient music like Brian Eno or nature sounds to music like Dan Gibson and Tony O'Connor, and I read and answer my email. Then I check Facebook. I stay there for about a half hour, reading, posting, promoting, and waking up as I drink my coffee. By that time it's about 7 am. I then work on either an article, a blog post, or a story for one to three hours. Sometimes I multi-task and work on all three, one hour each. By noon, I finish that portion of my day, and I enjoy lunch with the occasional glass of wine or champagne. Then I begin the second half of my day. Afternoons I devote to research, more article and blog writing, and sex toys reviews. If I'm working on a fiction story, I may go over what I had done the previous day. I, like Didion, cannot go over what I had written that morning because I'm too close to it. I need some distance. So 24 to 48 hours gives me enough distance so that my judgment isn't clouded when I look over my work. I then do the exact same thing the next day - I play Tetris with my writing; move things here, rewrite things there.

I'm aware of how lucky I am to make a living writing, and I know most writers aren't that fortunate. They have day jobs, children to tend to, spouses that need attention. They're exhausted and over-extended. Still, a writer must write. We're driven. Find a time every day to write, even if it's only for fifteen minutes. Use that fifteen minutes well. You'd be surprised how much progress you can make in a mere fifteen minutes.

Each writer's routine is a personal matter. What works for me most likely won't work for you, and vice-versa. You must find your own routine and become familiar with your inner, day-to-day clock. Carry a notebook and pen around with you, and write down any inspiring observations or thoughts that come to mind during the day lest you forget them by the time you are sitting in front of your computer.

Another way to establish a routine is to go by word count rather than time. I don't usually aim for a specific amount of writing time because my days vary. I aim for a minimum of 1,000 words per day in a short story or longer work and 300 per day in an article. Writing according to word count is one good way to get your voice out there. If you can't muster 1,000 words per day, try for 500. Or 100. Each writer sets different goals depending on the busyness of his of her life.

ESTABLISH A SUPPORT NETWORK

Part of a writer's routine that may be somewhat neglected is to establish a support network. Considering the volatile nature of writing and publishing, all writers need support, and that support may come from friends, online colleagues, and family. Not all erotica writers are fortunate enough to have supportive friends and families. Some of my Facebook colleagues have told me stories of how their spouses, children, and friends do not take their vocation seriously, especially because they write erotica and erotic romance. They have been judged and met with disapproval over their choice to write erotic literature. Find at least one good friend you can fall back on when you get yet another rejection, when your family snubs you, or your new book isn't selling. Please do not suffer alone. A support network is vital for your emotional and mental health. Also turn to your support network when things are going well. It's good to have someone to crow to when you get an acceptance, you win an award, or you finally snag that agent.

As writers, we often get so caught up in our daily lives and dreams that we don't set workable goals or take the time to plan ahead, meet deadlines, and treat our writing like the job it is. Once you break down your writing into goals, a routine, and a support network, you are well on your way to enjoying the path on which writing takes you.

ABOUT ELIZABETH BLACK

Elizabeth Black writes erotica, erotic romance, speculative fiction, fantasy, and dark fiction. She also enjoys writing erotic retellings of classic fairy tales. Born and bred in Baltimore, she grew up under the influence of Edgar Allan Poe. Her erotic fiction has been published by Xcite Books (U. K.), Circlet Press, Ravenous Romance, Scarlet Magazine (U. K.), and other publishers. Her dark fiction has appeared in "Kizuna: Fiction For Japan", "Stupefying Stories", "Midnight Movie Creature Feature 2", "Zippered Flesh 2: More Tales Of Body Enhancements Gone Bad", and "Mirages: Tales From Authors Of The Macabre". An accomplished essayist, she was the sex columnist for the pop culture e-zine nuts4chic (also U. K.) until it folded in 2008. Her articles about sex, erotica, and relationships have appeared in Good Vibrations Magazine, Alternet, CarnalNation, the Ms. Magazine Blog, Sexis Magazine, On The Issues, Sexy Mama Magazine, and Circlet blog. She also writes sex toys reviews for several sex toys companies.

In addition to writing, she has also worked as a gaffer (lighting), scenic artist, and make-up artist (including prosthetics) for movies, television, stage, and concerts. She worked as a gaffer for "Die Hard With A Vengeance" and "12 Monkeys". She did make-up, including prosthetics, for "Homicide: Life On The Street". She is especially proud of the gunshot wound to the head she had created with makeup for that particular episode. She also worked as a prosthetic makeup artist specializing in cyanotic blue, bruises, and buckets of blood for a test of Maryland's fire departments at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport plane crash simulation test. Yes, her jobs are fun.  ;)

She lives in Lovecraft country on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and four cats. The ocean calls her every day, and she always listens. She has yet to run into Cthulhu.

Visit her web site at http://elizabethablack.blogspot.com/
Follow her at Twitter: http://twitter.com/ElizabethABlack



Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Unspeakable

by Jean Roberta

Everyone who writes erotica and posts it in semi-public space, such as the ERWA lists, knows the basic rules: no non-consensual sex presented for arousal, and no sex of any kind involving characters under the age of consent in their jurisdiction. In North America, this is generally understood to be eighteen, the current legal age of adulthood. And “underage” sex in a story can include masturbation by a horny teenager who is clearly not being coerced or manipulated by anyone else.

Did your earliest sexual feelings take you by surprise long after you had reached puberty, had your first drink, learned to drive, developed crushes on a few other people, and voted for the first time? I thought not. The years between twelve or thirteen, when physical transformations change a child into a youth who looks more-or-less adult, and eighteen, when one’s adult status is recognized by the rest of the world, are full of new experiences. Whether or not these experiences include a technical loss of virginity, they are likely to include coming to terms with itches and urges that can feel like demonic temptation, especially if one has been taught (as I was) that “nice girls” never have them, and “nice boys” don’t act on them.

In today’s cultural climate, there seems to be an enormous gulf between the general parental belief that teenagers can be persuaded to abstain from sex because it isn’t good for them and the teenage tribal pressure to “hook up.” Regardless of how an individual responds to that pressure, it’s hard to imagine how a teenager today could be as sexually ignorant as my grandmother (born before 1900) was said to be on her wedding night. Even the kids who aren’t doing it are thinking about it. This was largely true fifty years ago, when the “Baby Boom” kids, born just after the Second World War, reached adolescence. Our parents were usually vague about why they didn’t want us to listen to rock-and-roll, but we knew.

What everyone knows is still what no one can afford to say out loud. I am well aware that young people with little knowledge or experience of sex, and no legal rights, are more vulnerable to abuse than are their elders. This is why the legal concept of “statutory rape” (sex committed by an adult with someone not old enough to give meaningful consent) makes sense. But there is a huge difference between not wanting a younger generation to be hurt (if that can be prevented) and pretending that completely banning all descriptions of their sexuality can make it go away.

Two recent events illustrate the problem with the current prohibition on “kiddie porn.” A respected colleague of mine in the university where I teach was charged with downloading child porn on his computer at work. This case hit the local media in January, and the newspaper article claimed that someone in the university had reported him to the police. Since then, Colleague seems to have disappeared without a trace. No one I’ve spoken to knows any details – or if they do, they’re not telling. He was supposed to be tried in February, but no outcome has been reported.

This case makes my head swim and my heart ache. Considering that literary scholars have an interest in the early lives of the writers they study, and considering that Colleague has studied such diverse topics as the novels of Benjamin Disraeli (British Prime Minister under Queen Victoria, the first from a Jewish family), the stories of Oscar Wilde and the history of the detective novel, I wonder what “child porn” actually means in this case. I’ve been acquainted with Colleague for years; we’ve worked together on the organizing committee for gay/lesbian/bi/trans/genderqueer Pride Week and we’ve discussed strategies for teaching grammar to first-year students. He never seemed like a predator to me. Who reported him for what? And for what purpose?

In February, about a month after my colleague’s arrest, a conservative professor of political science at the University of Calgary gave a talk at another university which was recorded on a cellphone, then posted on Youtube. Tom Flanagan, the professor, was recorded saying:

“I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures.”*

Within a week, Tom Flanagan was notorious for supporting “child porn.” All the Canadian institutions with which he had been associated have uninvited him, cancelled agreements and generally distanced themselves from him.

I never thought I would agree with a conservative on anything, but I can’t help recognizing some common sense in Professor Flanagan’s statement. “Pictures” can include cartoon images or even suggestive drawings of young bodies. They can include sepia-toned photos of naked children taken in the nineteenth century by the likes of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, which were regarded as sentimental images of Innocence personified by a Victorian audience, but which look creepy to suspicious viewers now.

I don’t know if the material that attracted my colleague’s interest showed the actual abuse of an actual person. That question seems crucial to me, and as long as I don’t know, I can’t have a clear opinion on the case.

So far, both my colleague and Professor Flanagan have been stigmatized and ostracized; this is what I know beyond a doubt. I don’t know if any actual child or youth was harmed by either of these men. As academics, they both had the ability to influence a vast number of young adults, mostly over the age of majority. And university students have an obligation to evaluate what they hear, based on its merits.

As a university English instructor and an erotic writer, I can’t pretend I’m not nervous. Literature, even the stuff not labelled “erotic,” shows a spectrum of human behaviour, including some that my students’ parents might not approve of. I don’t mention my own work in class, but some of my former students have discovered it. So far, my academic supervisors have been incredibly supportive of everything I do. I hope their support never wavers.

In the current social climate, I would hesitate to write or post any expression of underage sexuality, including my own quirky fantasies and drawings from many years ago.

Braver souls than I have posted well-written, thoughtful work in the ERWA lists that seem to feature underage characters – but their ages are never clear and in some cases, they discover their sexuality in some other era or some other world than ours. It`s always tempting for erotic writers to sift through our own fantasies and experiences for ideas, and to consider the first spring buds of our current sexual identities. Writing about early lust shouldn`t be so dangerous.

There have been moral panics in the past about the supposed dangers of homosexuality or any sexual activity that becomes known to anyone besides the participants. Panic tends to obscure details and shut down debate.

In the case of the two profs accused of being defenders and consumers of “kiddie porn,” I really hope that cooler heads will eventually prevail and that the whole truth will come out. Enforced silence has never supported justice. Or creativity.


*For more information, see: http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/tom-flanagan-says-he-was-trapped-into-child-porn-comments-1.1180824#ixzz2OQWe6Yqo



Sunday, March 24, 2013

Writing this Novel Part V



by Kathleen Bradean

Now that you’ve let your first draft sit for a while it’s time to turn it into a second draft. Some writers produce such a clean first draft that the second draft goes quickly then all they have to do is copy edit and submit. I am not one of those writers. I wish I were, but it isn’t meant to be. Night Creatures took five drafts, but I had some unique problems that I’ll discuss later. The first draft is the time to throw everything onto the page. The second draft is when you cut excess or add depth and bring the story arc into its final shape. If you see copy edit level problems, of course fix them, but don’t get bogged down in that yet. 

In each scene, if your characters have moved to a different location, have you described where they are early on to anchor your reader? Good! But are you giving me too much detail? Not good. Your imagination might have constructed an amazing coffee house with the quirkiest baristas on the planet and fascinating regulars, but confession time – as a reader, I scan over this kind of stuff if it goes on too long. Give the reader a quick impression, not a blueprint. It’s an amazing trick of the human mind that with only a few details our imaginations can fill in the rest of the scene. Make your words count. Load them with atmosphere. Blonde wood and steel evoke not just d├ęcor but also a soundtrack and vibe, and it's different than what you'd imagine if I'd called the place dark and cozy.

Have you used at least three senses to make a scene come alive? Think about the coffee shop. Since your characters are probably talking you already have hearing, but add little touches such as an ambulance going by outside or the clatter of dishes as a table is cleared or that weird swooshy sound the milk steamer makes. If you’ve described the setting, you’ve already evoked seeing. Give it dimension by letting your characters react to what they see. Maybe they feel self-conscious when the teenagers two tables over whisper and giggle, or your characters are self-conscious teenagers who whisper and giggle. Since it’s a coffee shop it probably smells like coffee, but what else? If it's raining outside, coats are probably giving off that damp wool smell. If you're out on a patio, you could smell traffic fumes or the herbal scent of a planter or even the doggy smell of the Golden Lab at the feet of the woman two tables away.    

Read through your draft to make sure your characters are consistent. Yes, they change over the course of the story, but there has to be a progression. In the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is comfortable with slavery at the beginning of the story. His entire world tells him is right and he doesn’t question it. By the end of the story, he’s decided that even if it means he’ll go to hell, he’s not okay with slavery and he believes, strongly, that Jim is a man, a full human being, the same as him. That is a huge change. But from the opening lines to the end of the story, Huck Finn is a consistent character. Every action he takes and bit of dialog is absolutely believable as something Huck Finn would say or do.

Everyone comes from somewhere. They don’t spring to life as full grown adults when your story begins. (Well, yes, they do, since you created them, but to make them seem real, you have to pretend they existed before you started recording their story) They have a past that made them who they are and that’s probably important info to share with your reader. However, beware the dreaded info dump! Cramming all the backstory into the first chapter is a sure way to bore your reader. Insert clues to your character’s past along the path of the story and reveal those things only at the point where they matter. Occasionally this will call for a longer passage, but if you can keep it to a line or two you’re better off, because long passages can drag your story to a standstill and it’s harder to overcome inertia than it is to maintain forward momentum. (Law of physics as applied to storytelling)

Foreplay. I don’t mean with your characters (although that’s fun stuff to read) I mean your readers. Don’t just toss them into a sex scene. Seduce them first. Use your sensory writing to evoke a mood then mercilessly push buttons to get them hot and bothered. Tease them. Manipulate them. Make them feel the warmth of a lover’s breath just under their ear so they’ll shiver. Make them want a lingering touch next. Take your time. Do a thorough job of it. It will leave them with the impression of a great sex scene even if you never describe a sexual act.
 
While you were writing your first draft, your subconscious was lurking in the background. Occasionally, while you were distracted, it slipped ideas into your work. Sneaky. By the time you finished your first draft, you may have become aware of those ideas. Many works in erotica are voyages of personal discovery. The protagonist chooses to find what they want and seizes control of their sexuality and life. That’s an empowering message. I’ve also read stories that are about forgiveness, loss, faith, love, and despair. You name an aspect of the human condition and it can be addressed in erotica. Think about your work from the high-level view. A literary viewpoint. Do you detect an idea or theme? Think about ways to enhance it in the second draft (if it interests you).

Reflecting on your work will give you a lot to tackle in your second draft, and expanding on the ideas your subconscious seeded in the first draft will add depth to your story.

 
I knew before I finished the first draft of Night Creatures that I had to move a key scene. Talk about painful. If only it were as simple as cut and paste. But no, of course not. Events happen in sequence. One flows into another. By changing the timeline, I had to go through each scene and ask ‘do they know this yet?’ If not, I had to eliminate the reference. In the first draft, things can be wrong. Typically in the second draft, errors are fixed, but in my second draft, I was creating potential errors all over the place.

As if I hadn’t made things hard enough, I also decided to delete two characters from the story. A cast of thousands may be impressive on a big movie screen but too many characters are confusing as hell on the page. Although I already had a limited cast, by eliminating the additional characters I tightened the focus on the main two. A reader once commented that my stories sometimes make her feel like she'd been shoved into a wardrobe with two people and the air is running out. I take that claustrophobia as a compliment.

Deleting characters can cause huge plot problems. Let me restate that. Deleting characters should cause huge plot problems. Everyone on the page should be there for a specific purpose, like cogs in a machine. If you can remove one and nothing changes, they shouldn't have been there in the first palce. (I'm talking about main and secondary characters here, not the extras in the background)  When I removed the two from mine, a key part of the plot suddenly didn't happen, so I had to transfer their actions to one of the remaining characters. Different characters have different motivations even if they do the same thing. (For example: I eat sashimi because I like it. R will only eat it when it’s served to him and it would be rude to refuse it.)  That meant, yes, exploring the motivations of the character and making sure they made sense. That was a lot of work, and typically the kind of stuff you do as you're writing the first draft. Maybe instead of calling this one my second I should have called it First Draft version B.

Between changing the sequence of events and eliminating characters, the second draft left me with a lot of work to do. (Thus the five drafts.) I wouldn’t have made those changes if I hadn’t strongly felt they were necessary. Unfortunately, I can’t explain to you why I felt they had to be made or how you might sense that your story arc needs that kind of revision. (I hope for your sake that it never does. This is why I often say "This is what I do, but I don't recommend it to anyone.") Readers might feel that the way a story was told was the only way it could have unfolded, but writers know that there were many possibilities. More than one path can lead to the same destination. Part of choosing the path is talent, part of it is craftsmanship, all of it is the mysterious (wonderful) process of creativity.         


What are the areas you concentrate on in a second draft? Do you have bad habits you try to catch?

Next time: editing 

 ~~
This series has been reposted on my personal blog, as well as a few additional entries.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Importance of Getting Out and About

By Lucy Felthouse

As someone that works from home, and spends much of my time in front of a computer, I thought I'd write an article on the importance of getting out and about. It's easy, particularly when you have lots to do, to just keep pounding away at that keyboard, barely looking up until it's time for lunch or dinner. I know, I've done it myself many times, though admittedly I do also spend quite a lot of time looking out of the window, especially when I'm thinking, or if there's anything going on, which is rare.

But it's also important to get out and about. Don't worry, this isn't a lecture on health or anything, it's more of a piece about how staring at the same four walls isn't overly good for the imagination. I take my dog for a walk every day (granted, the walks are shorter when the weather is horrible), and I don't work weekends. During those times, I do my best to go and see something a little different, have some fun. Because it's those experiences that fire the imagination, even when you're not expecting it. Even if you don't get any inspiration while you're walking or visiting a place, you may clear your brain of the dull stuff and give yourself time to think about your next story. As putting one foot in front of the other doesn't take an awful lot of brain power, you can think about your characters, your storyline, your setting. Or, if you're busy chatting to someone or doing something exciting, you can rest assured that whatever you're doing may later spark a story idea.

I can attest to all of the above. Staring at the screen, or the four walls doesn't really help when I'm seriously stuck with someone. However, walking the dog gives me time to think up new ideas, or to work out how I'm going to start a story that's been floating around in my head for a while. This time is invaluable.

When it comes to visiting interesting places, be it cities, stately homes, ruins or stone circles, I just live for the moment, take lots of photos, and if something comes to me later about that place that I can write about, then that's just a bonus. I've written about tons of places after the fact, including London, Paris, The Peak District, various stately homes, and so on. It's great fun, but it does give me awful wanderlust!

I know that everyone is different and works in different ways, but if you do find yourself stuck, then I can highly recommend getting out somewhere. Go and walk in the countryside, explore a town or city with no particular aim in mind or visit a tourist attraction. You'll be surprised at what it can spark in your creativity. Even if it doesn't, though, at least you had fun. And fun is a valuable commodity in itself.

Happy Writing!
Lucy x

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Instinct

By Lisabet Sarai


I have a confession to make. I've never read any writing how-to book from beginning to end. Years ago, I started Susie Bright's How to Write a Dirty Story, but abandoned it about half way through, partly because I found the author's tone patronizing and partly because the smell of ink from that very early POD volume was giving me a terrible headache. The other classic writing texts that are supposed to be on every author's bookshelf – Stephen King and the rest – I've never even opened. I don't own a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White, either, though my paperback Roget's Thesaurus is definitely the worse for wear.

After reading Garce's post this month, I began to feel rather creepy about my basic disinterest in studying the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. I recognized the validity of the concepts he explains so succinctly – the narrative arc and the character arc, the “Coming to Death” moment. The questions he articulates, the inquiries as to what the character wants, where a story is going and how it should flower, are the sort of things I think about when I'm critiquing someone else's work. When I'm writing my own stuff, though, nothing could be further from my mind. Intellectual analysis has little to do with the process. I write from instinct.

At this point you're probably snorting with disgust at my presumption. “She thinks she's got so much talent she doesn't need to study the masters,” you might be thinking. Or, “Right, she was born knowing about characterization and conflict, suspense and catharsis. A regular Mozart of the written word.”

Honestly, I don't think that at all. I do believe I'm moderately skilled at the craft aspects of writing, but that's not due to some fabulous genetic endowment. Rather, it's the product of more than half a century's experience, reading and writing – plus a certain amount of early education.

My life was filled with words from its very first months. Before I could talk (hard to believe such a time ever existed!), my parents read to me, both fiction and poetry. All through my childhood, my father told us fantastic tales of ghosts and monsters and wrote delightful doggerel that he set to music. He and my mom taught me to read at four years old, and almost immediately I began creating my own stories. I was writing poems by the time I was seven. Nobody ever showed me how. I guess I must have been emulating what I'd read and heard. It just seemed a natural thing to do.

Reading was my absolute favorite occupation throughout my childhood. My mom had to force me to put my book aside and go out to play. I continued to write all through elementary school, high school, college and graduate school. And of course, I continued to read.

I adored the literature classes I took. There, we undertook the sort of analyses that Garce writes about, dissecting tales ancient and modern to see what made them tick. Although I majored in science, I tried to balance my schedule with at least one humanities course each term. I still recall the intellectual thrill I derived from the Shakespeare seminar in which I participated as a freshmen, the high I got from Russian literature in translation course in my junior year.

I still love to discuss great books. A few months ago I spent more than an hour Skyping with my brother (who lives half a world away) about Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. We specifically set up the call for that purpose, and I enjoyed every minute.
So even though I've never deliberately studied the art of narrative, at least as applied to my own writing, I seem to have acquired a significant amount of knowledge by osmosis.

When I sit down to write, I don't consciously identify the “MacGuffin” that drives my story, even though it must be there somewhere. I may or may not know at the outset when and where my characters will experience that moment of total despair, when all seems impossible. If I don't know, I simply trust that I'll recognize the crisis when I get there. The story unrolls in my mind, a journey along a road where some parts may be foggier than others, but with a structure that seems to shape itself around the premise, the setting and the characters, without much deliberate effort on my part.

I do spend a significant amount of mental and emotional effort on the prose itself, attempting to capture the elusive nuances of experience in mere words. I'm also focused on the big ideas that underlie the action, struggling to birth the sort of startling, original tale that transfixes me with admiration when I am playing the role of reader.

That's what I find most difficult about writing. All the craft in the world won't make up for a ho-hum concept. All too frequently, I have the uncomfortable sense that the story I'm working on has been written a hundred times before – sometimes even by me. I listen to Garce complain about his so-called lack of talent even as he produces tales so wild, terrible and beautiful that they bring tears to my eyes, and I try not to be envious.

That's something no craft book can teach.

Still, discouraged as I sometimes am, I don't stop writing. Through a combination of nature and nurture, it appears that I've absorbed the so-called rules of story structure. They're part of me now. I probably couldn't prevent myself from following them, any more than the Canada geese could abort their annual flight south.



Monday, March 18, 2013

Sex and Power, Night and Day

Dreams and fantasies—we treat them as if they’re night and day. Night dreams speak to us in inscrutable codes that require the interpretation of Sigmund Freud or a book on dream symbols. On the other hand, our daydreams, sexual fantasies included, are generally read as transparent, a simple expression of will and desire. If you fantasize about being tied up by a billionaire, your husband had better get nervous the next time Bill Gates happens to drop in on your monthly book club meeting.

This literal view is often applied to erotica, sexual fantasy’s bookish sister, as well. Erotica writers (who we all know don leather corsets and thigh-high stockings every morning whatever their sex) write stories about their own experiences. Erotica readers in turn are highly disposed to act out these stories at home. I’ve been told by two different people that all the farm supply stores in Iowa sold out of rope soon after 50 Shades of Grey soared to fame. I suspect it’s an urban legend, but it proves my point. Our society is rather blinkered and literal-minded when it comes to sex.

This might be one reason why some people are hesitant to write erotica or openly share their fantasies. A woman who gets turned on by an aggressive lover obviously wants to be raped in real life and is ambivalent about sexual equality in society at large. If a man likes dominatrix stories, surely the only thing stopping him from signing on with an official domme is the cost. I haven’t yet seen a quick-n-easy explanation for the M/M boom of fiction by women for women (hmm, good old-fashioned penis envy times two?), but maybe that proves my point, too.

By simplifying sexual fantasy in this way, it may seem we succeed in transforming our uncontrollable, mysterious imaginations into something safe and explicable, while reminding us that unbridled sexual urges are weird, transgressive, and often illegal. In any case, it keeps people quieter about the steamy dramas in their heads.

Except erotica writers.

The apparent danger of a more complex, nuanced view of sexual desire is yet one more reason why sexually explicit writing must be denigrated as filth and trash. However, if you read an erotic story (which includes daydreams and fantasies) with a careful eye, I’m sure you’ll find it as rich and elusive and worthy of analysis as any literary short story. Freud already showed that can be done. But the recent attention to (and many would say misunderstanding of) BDSM got me thinking about how power infiltrates this process of reading and writing erotica at every level, even without rushing out to buy up the rope supply at your local feed store.

If you think about it, sex and power have something very important in common. From childhood on, we’re forbidden to discuss either openly. I hardly need elaborate on the fact that sexual information is deemed harmful to minors, but our society’s power structure is equally off limits. As children we’re not supposed to question the authority of our parents, teachers or other adults. Those who do are punished, if not physically as in the past, then by diagnosis of a behavioral problem and medication. And besides, we live in a democracy where everybody is equal, and if anyone is losing the race up the ladder, it’s their own lazy fault, so what’s to critique?

Nevertheless, in the media and our lives at school, home and church, we constantly witness the workings of both sexual feelings and power play, but we can’t acknowledge them honestly. At best, they’re hidden behind safe cliche. Thus, I would argue, these two forbidden elements of human interaction are forced below the surface, into the darkness of night, if you will, and can become suggestively entwined in our imaginations. Erotic stories break one taboo. Erotic power play stories battle two—which is why they may be so compelling.

Equally appealing, for me anyway, is the true pleasure of considering the possible “meanings” of a sexual fantasy and its power dynamics. There are no right answers in this exercise, of course. Rather the more possibilities you can come up, the better.

Take the ever-popular femsub story. The simple reading is that women naturally liked to be dominated by the superior male, and these fantasies are an honest expression of a timeless female desire. I’m a feminist, but to be fair, maybe there’s something to this (especially if you replace “female” with “human”). But take a closer look at someone else’s story or your own, and what else could be going on? Wow, the subordinate partner seems to possess power—less obvious but critical to the game. Because the dominating partner—whether boss or billionaire, duke or doctor—desires the sub and aims to know and please her.

But why stop there? I’m reminded of the controversial scene in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina where Bone transforms her step-father’s sexual abuse into masturbatory fantasies. Could femsub fantasies be a way to work through the subordination and repression women still face today? If the authority figure is ordering us to be sexual, then we can be obedient good girls by complying while also enjoying sensual pleasure. Could it be that a cool, distant dom also gives us permission to get off without the prescribed romantic relationship making us honest women?

For men, I’ve noticed that delayed ejaculation is a common power play device in erotic stories. What might be going on here? Might it recreate a man’s experience of sexual scarcity and helplessness, his satisfaction fully subject to the only important question on earth—will (s)he or won’t (s)he? Does it play with the reality that everyone, men included, are punished and ridiculed for sexual feelings outside of a very narrow scenario, and god knows exhorted to wait, wait, wait? Yet, doesn’t it also show a very macho self-control over a powerful desire? And the payoff is that we all know when the tension has been building for a long time, the release is all the more powerful.

Of course every fantasy and every story will have its own unique elements—my goal is not to endorse another form of simplification. Rather, I’d like to encourage erotica readers to enjoy power’s slippery lubricant along with the other more visible and tactile varieties. To me erotic stories are much more than a masturbation aid. They are windows to our unspeakable desires within and our complex relationship with our culture’s sexual values and myths without. The mystery of night and the intensity of day all mixed up together.

So bring on the billionare and let the fun begin.

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 www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

Friday, March 15, 2013

Confessions of a Craft Freak: The Elements of Short Story Structure


In this entry I propose to offer you:

     The Definition of a Structured Short Story
     The Two Basic Forms of Short Stories
     An Introduction to the Elements of Structure, including –
     The Exterior Elements of Structure (Narrative Arc)
     The Interior Elements of Structure  (Character Arc)
     The Artistic Challenge in Balancing the Exterior and Interior Structures for a Specific Effect

This will not be a pep talk. This is a music lesson. 

You’d be right for wondering “He’s just showed up, who the hell does this hot dog think he is?”  Well.  You don't have to be Chopin to give music lessons. Allow me to step forward with the frank and noble stride of a grenadier to exclaim that there are way more prolific and successful writers on this list that have way more talent and experience than I do.

This is of course the advantage I have had from the beginning.

Not having had all that much of my own talent to rely on, I’ve had to fill that abysmal abyss with hard study and dogged practice and asking people dumb stuff.  That’s what I bring you.  I’ve read a lot of craft books.  Most of them say the same basic things, but some of them have had a profound influence on me that helped me around my limitations.  Think of all this as a gesture of gratitude to all the people, including some individuals on this list who have helped me and continue to help me.  My opinions aren’t that interesting anyway, so instead let me share what I know for sure is true about the endless artful journey of storytelling. 

The Definition of a Structured Short Story
A structured short story is a scene or a series of scenes during which a Deciding Character experiences   an initial Causative Event,  instilling in this Deciding Character a specific desire or a specific problem to pursue, and with the Deciding Character’s Governing Characteristic influencing the Deciding Character’s decisions, this person attempts to solve the problem or satisfy the desire.  After an escalating series of obstacles the story proceeds to a plausible conclusion. 

Listen to the guy telling you about this big fish he caught, or how his boss screwed him over at work.  There is structure there.  Listen to a little kid tell you about something that has just happened to him.  Dig up some old Bill Cosby records and listen to the Coz tell stories about his childhood.  Listen to his perfect pacing, dialogue and characterization.  It’s all right there.  We’re born with this stuff, the rest is typing.

Okay.  So.



The Two Basic Forms of Story
Most modern short stories can be divided into two forms - the Vignette or Lyric story, and the Plotted story. 
 A vignette follows the basic form of the structured short story except that it is confined to one impressionistic scene or event.  Most flashers are vignettes.  Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote both forms of story, defined a short story as having all elements strictly combine to form "a unique and single effect".  That describes a vignette.  A one scene, one act story where the exterior and interior elements combine to produce a single focused dramatic effect.
 You could care about this if you're submitting to a publisher who is looking for stories of a restricted length, as most vignettes will be under 2000.  Writing a vignette will mean that you'll be writing something like a prose poem, with a limited budget of words, character arc and narrative arc.  A lot of what is being said will be buried under the surface or off stage, the way Ernest Hemingway does in his vignettes “A Clean Well Lighted Place” and “Hills Like White Elephants”. The pacing will usually be immediate, moment by moment, without sub plots or jumps in narration.  If you try to do the pacing differently, you'll be working in a form closer to  traditional fairy tales, which are usually plotted stories dwarfed into little bonsai trees with broad pacing and very thin character development ("The  princess languished in the high tower for ten years.  One fine day, a handsome prince was riding by and glimpsed the princess waving to him from a window in the tower.") 
 A well crafted vignette can pack the emotional wallop of a gunshot to the face if it is based on a strong image or a unique premise.  My two personal favorites are Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" and Chuck Palahniuk’s "Guts", both of which I plan to reverse engineer here some day in a future entry.  "Masque" is a strong image story that begins with broad pacing which very quickly narrows down to the minute by minute events of a single evening.  It has essentially only one character of substance, Prince Prospero, surrounded by a nameless crowd and eventually a red figure with no speaking lines.  It is a masterpiece of description and atmosphere.  It perfectly achieves Poe's ideal of a "unique and single effect".  "Guts" has a unique premise it presents through a single narrator, telling a series of short vignettes, ending in a vignette of his own experience.  “Guts” is one of the most notorious short stories ever written, known for causing audience members to faint in horror during public readings – even when read aloud in foreign translation.  You can read either story in the time it takes to drink a Tall Latte at Starbucks.  In the case of Guts, you may not be able to finish your latte for other reasons.  “Guts” is a masterful example of pacing and description also.   The descriptions are sparse, reported as dryly as Hemingway and yet you’ll soon find yourself cringing.
 You can read “Guts” for free courtesy of Chuck Palahniuk at his web site:
 For an example of a vignette, I will also volunteer my own poor stuff, because that is the easiest for me to access.  Here is an example of a vignette I wrote from the ERWA Treasure Chest called "Fidelis":

A plotted story follows Aristotle’s classic three act model of a beginning, a middle and an end.  Each act has a defined responsibility it has to accomplish before moving on to the next.  Most popular genre  novels and most movies and TV shows are variations of plotted stories.
 FIRST ACT:
The opening scene of a plotted story and to a lesser extent also of a vignette must establish roughly 11 items as quickly as possible:
 1.  Time and Place
2.  Light
3.  Purpose of Scene
4.  Five senses:  sight
5.  Sound
6.  Taste
7.  Touch
8.  Smell
9.  Deciding Character
10.  Governing Characteristic
11.  Causative event
 The first scene should draw the reader into the action.   It introduces the Deciding Character, reveals his governing characteristic, provides a panoramic view of the situation, eventually unpacks the causative event and presents the first obstacle or attempt by the deciding character to respond to this event.  That first obstacle usually marks the end of the set up and the first act.
 For example, try this exercise.
 Imagine standing inside of an old barn.  Look at the barn, and describe the barn.  Now describe the barn from the point of view of an older man or woman who has just walked in.  That's the deciding character.  Now - have the character describe the barn during a passionate sexual experience - that is a causative situation interacting with a governing characteristic, depending on how they feel about sex.  Voluntary?  Rape?  Describe the barn from the view of walking in after the deciding character has received the news minutes ago, that a son or daughter has just been killed.  Sex.  Death.  Same barn.  Very different view.

My Favorite Hookers
 One of my all time favorite hookers is the beginning of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea", that old thing they shoved down your throat in high school.  The first sentence goes:
 "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish."
 Now that dry little sentence is one hard working hooker.  Break it down.  In stark sweeping lines like a Zen ink and brush painting he has given you the deciding character ("He was an old man) with a governing characteristic (who fished alone in a skiff) a panoramic view ("in the Gulf Stream) and a problem and a desire ("he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish.").
 Here's the beginning of Vladimir Nabokov's “Lolita”, my favorite novel of all time:
 "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul.  Lo-Lee-Ta:  the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.  Lo.  Lee.  Ta."
 I defy you to read that and not want to know what happens next.

MIDDLE ACT
 he middle act begins immediately after the causative event that ends the action of the first act, and the deciding character has been set into motion with a specific desire or a specific problem to overcome.  And there must be one, whether it's a vignette or a plotted story.  Hear me.  A desire.  Or a problem. Or even better - both. By the end of the first act of a plotted story the reader must know what the deciding character is after and why.  I've seen so many stories up for crits in ERWA's storytime that had an interesting premise but the deciding character was weak either because he/she wasn't up against something or he/she was passive, acted upon instead of acting.  The deciding character doesn't have to be the narrator, the deciding character doesn’t even have to be likable but the deciding character is the one who drives the narrative arc forward starting from the causative event.  I come from the old school of pulp fiction, along with many of my literary heroes.  With Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard the story always came first, and it had to come at you two fisted and fast.  The hero/heroine had to definitely be after something in a manner that kept you turning pages.  Whatever genre you write in, if the deciding character is passive or unmotivated, that story will fall flat.
 Coming to Death or "Would you like cheese on that McGuffin”?
 The middle act will usually begin by the deciding character trying to achieve the object of desire.  Alfred Hitchcock had a generic word for this thing, a "McGuffin".  A McGuffin is whatever the deciding character is chasing after.  It could be his kidnapped wife and daughter, a briefcase with nuclear codes, a piece of ass, true love or just a little peace and quiet, but the McGuffin has to be there somewhere and someone has to be chasing it.  The middle act is about the McGuffin and the changes that are occurring to the deciding character and the people around him, including the villain, in their mutual pursuit of the McGuffin, whatever that is.  The obstacles and the scenes ideally should build in a rising crescendo of tension with increasing difficulties with the last obstacle leading into a very special moment.  Romance formula writers call this "The Come to Realize" or "Black Period".  Adventure and thriller writers often call it the "Coming to Death" (no jokes please).  It's that moment when everything is lost.  No hope.  Kaput.  Honked.  The two lovers hate each other's guts beyond words.  The hero is fatally wounded.  The McGuffin is beyond any hope of reach.  It's all failed and gone to shit.  That's when act three begins.

ACT THREE
Act three pivots on the turning point that ended act two.  The two lovers will "come to realize" that yes, they do love each other.  The hero will say "Yes, we're going to die - but wait - what's this button?"  Something happens, something legitimate, something plausible.  That’s why plotted stories are often hard to write well and easy to screw up at the ending.  A legitimate ending has to rise organically from things that have gone before.  You can prepare the readers but you can’t cheat them. 
 For an example of a plotted story I would like to offer "The Lady and the Unicorn", again from the ERWA Treasure Chest.  This is a fairly long story that captures all the elements I have just described:

The Exterior Elements of Structure
When I read a story I notice the elements, an exterior shell or presentation balanced against the interior world or soul of the story.  This is where Poe’s admonition that a story should have a focused effect begins to mean something.   The exterior elements of a story generally gather around the narrative arc.  A narrative arc is just that, an arc of rising action reaching a peak and then dropping down.  A narrative arc is based on a balance of creative choices, like paints in a paint box.  These would include:
1.       The POV – first person or third person omniscient?  Is the narrator also the deciding character?  Why or why not?
2.      The pacing – moment by moment present, or broad stretches of time including jumps in pacing.
3.      Where should the story begin?
4.      Where should it end?
5.      Is there a back story?
6.      The tone – funny or sad?
7.      More telling or more showing?  (Don’t be so sure)
8.      Vignette or plotted?
9.      Premise and Designing Principle
10.  Is there a villain?  What is his/her purpose?
 The Interior Elements of structure
I often don’t know what the soul of a story is until I’ve overhauled it from the bottom a few times.  The interior of a story, the soul of it, generally gathers around the character arc.  Many stories fall down at the character arc.  Even a vignette, with all of its technical limitations should have a minimal character arc.  A character arc means that the character is not aloof to the events that she is going through.   The exterior elements are pushing the interior elements through a journey of change.  The interior elements are responding, yin and yang, driving the exterior events that cause that change.  The decisions she is making are changing her way of thinking, making her a different person at the end than at the beginning.  More than any other thing I am convinced this is what gives dimension to a character.  As a general thing – not always, but generally – the hero of a story distinguishes themselves by their ability to be changed and arrive at the end as a different person in some way.  As a general thing the villain, the Antagonist, does not change.  Batman may be damaged but wiser by the end of the movie but the Joker goes out as unrepentant as he came in.
1.       How is the Deciding Character changed by the end of the story?
2.      Is there a self-revelation after the Black Period?
3.      Is there a moral decision by the time the final obstacle is encountered?
4.      Are there wounds?  Weaknesses?  Secrets that drive his/her decisions?
5.      What is the McGuffin?  What does this person want?
6.      Are they behaving actively or passively?  Acting or acted on?
These orchestral elements are creative decisions that you balance in proportions to each other to create an intentional result.  If you want tension caused by sensual desire or mortal danger you’ll make deliberate decisions about pacing, depth of description and point of view.  Next time you watch a thriller or horror movie see how the director slows everything down to a tight focus on detail when The Very Bad Thing is about to happen to somebody.  Think of the shower scene in “Psycho”.  It’s a very short scene, just under a minute.  But it seems to go on and on.  Hitchcock once described the art of suspense this way:
“Imagine a restaurant where there’s a ticking bomb under the table, and we in the audience know it’s going to go off in fifteen minutes. Now imagine one of the characters knows it as well, but can’t reveal it. With this, the suspense ratchets to another level. Not only are we aware of the impending explosion, we share in the character’s anxiety to get away and the excruciating effort of acting totally unconcerned even as the bomb ticks down. The emotional connection we have to a character for whom this situation is a matter of life or death makes the suspense we feel that much greater.”
An exploding bomb you didn’t know about is a surprise.  A ticking bomb you know about is suspense.  That is a creative decision.
I had really wanted to go into some serious detail but this is already getting pretty long.  Let’s do this.  Next post will be “The Exterior Elements of the Character Arc” and it’ll have more detail.  The next post after that will be “The Interior Elements of the Character Arc” and then the next post after that one will come on that foundation as “The Narrative Arc” and the next post, by golly, on the foundation of those will be something like “The Art of the Critique”.  Right.  That’s my plan.  Unless the world gets hit by an asteroid.  You never know.  It happens.
 As the Irish say, if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.
 Or as my Aunt Myrtle used to say when I was a little kid and told her my big plans –
 “Well bless your heart, dear.”
 Till then, bless your heart too.