An erotic story–indeed any story–is liveliest when spiced with plenty of conflict, mystery and the subversion of everyday expectations. While I’ve made it a special project to portray hot sex between longtime lovers, I have to admit that an illicit affair brings built-in tension to an encounter, making the writer’s task much easier.
Naughty sex is all the spicier if your story is set in the early 1900s, when “respectable” people assumed that “respectable” sex occurred only between a husband and his lawful wife, in their bedroom, in the dark, and preferably with as little enjoyment as possible on either side. With polite society watching and judging every move, women in particular could be “ruined” by even the appearance of impropriety. In Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, socialite Lily Bart’s chances at a good marriage are fatally compromised when she is observed visiting a male friend at his rooms during a two-hour stop-over in New York on her way to a house party. Naturally, disgrace and suicide soon follow.
Gentlemen were allowed more leeway with their indiscretions if they chose extramarital lovers from the lower classes and didn’t flaunt their affairs in the better part of town. The parlor house or brothel was always an option, but by the early 1900’s, the anti-vice crusaders had achieved significant success in dampening the traditionally lively urban sex trade. Besides by the early 1900s, young men and women of every class were taking advantage of vaudeville theaters, motion pictures, amusement parks, and dance halls to fraternize more freely than their parents, whose courtships were confined to the front porch or parlor. For the upper-class, the fancy “lobster palaces” in New York’s midtown, or Jack’s and The Poodle Dog in San Francisco, now welcomed respectable ladies for dinner when accompanied by gentlemen. In The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz quotes a study that showed men born between 1900 and 1909 were increasingly likely to have their first sexual encounter with a girlfriend than a prostitute—for this group, sex with prostitutes declined by 50% over earlier generations.
Seduction of the more modern-minded woman needed a proper setting, and for the wealthy men of New York and San Francisco, the restauranteurs of these glamorous metropolises provided a solution: the private dining room with accommodations for after-dinner indulgence. If you’ve ever seen Doctor Zhivago, you may recall that Komarovsky meets red-velvet-clad Lara in such a private room with both a table and a velvet daybed, one of many in a fancy establishment for the soon-to-be-imperiled Russian aristocracy. Funny Girl also makes use of this setting for the “You are Woman, I Am Man” number: “Isn’t this the height of nonchalance, furnishing a bed in restaurants. Well, a bit of dinner never hurt, but guess who is gonna be dessert?” (Apparently, both scenes stuck with me, because I’m gearing up to write my own version—sans Omar Sharif!)
In the New York of the early 1900s, gentlemen with money to spend and a hankering for a double life would woo a pretty chorus girl from a Broadway play and bring her to one of the famed lobster palaces such as Bustanoby’s, Rector’s, or Cafe de l’Opera (the drawing above is from the latter in Julian Street’s “Lobster Palace Society” Everybody’s Magazine, May 1910). If the man wanted to flaunt his conquest in the later hours when decent wives were already tucked in bed, the couple would stop in the public dining room for a “bird and bottle supper” of cold champagne and hot bird, a double entrendre as chorus girls were referred to as good-looking chicken or delicious squab (Lewis Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930). After dinner, if the chemistry was right, the actress and her suitor might then retire to a private rooms upstairs.
On the other hand, an established extramarital couple would more likely head straight for the private dining room. At Jack’s in San Francisco “men would have lunch with secretary upstairs and dinner with wife downstairs.” The fancier Poodle Dog’s top three floors held sumptuous suites where “wealthy patrons could easily indulge themselves secretly in whatever whims caught their fancy.” These secret pleasure palaces were reached by a side entrance with a private elevator. (Frances de Talavera Berger and John Parke Custis, Sumptuous Dining in Gaslight San Francisco, 1875 to 1915).
The American Menu, a fascinating blog for historical fiction writers, describes a turn-of-the-last-century “love hotel” called The Palette Hotel on West 52nd Street in New York City.
“A vice report in 1890 claimed that ‘only the misguided of the upper-ten (percent)’ frequented the hotel, succinctly describing its rich clientele as ‘women who in their homes, in churches and in society hold positions of honor and respect, and men whose loyalty to wife and family is believed to be absolute.’ In fact, getting into the hotel without being seen was important at a time when outward appearances greatly mattered. Following the typical pattern, a man and a veiled woman would emerge from the hansom cab as soon as it rolled up to the hotel. After running up the stoop, and quickly pushing the door bell (then a new electrical device), someone ‘almost immediately’ opened the door.”
With all of the talk of wealthy men and their mistresses, I was heartened at the suggestion that wealthy wives also explored the path of equality with regard to extramarital affairs. It would certainly make sense that fine ladies would shun the pre-coital public dining room display for a thoroughly discreet rendezvous. I was a bit surprised to learn that the same blog post assures us that hotels specializing in romantic encounters still exist. Keeping up a forty-year tradition, the Liberty Inn in the fashionable meatpacking district rents rooms by the hour for couples at a reasonable price. The photo gallery reminded me very much of the love hotels that are very common in Japan—fanciful and not a little tacky. Although who really is paying attention to the decor in such circumstances?
Although my novel only hints at erotic adventures in Paris, I can’t resist mentioning another example, mainly because of the title of the article: “Paris for Perverts: The Clitoris of Paris.”
“At Lapérouse, a romantic restaurant that still operates on Le Quai des Grands-Augustins, the tuxedoed maitre d’ took me upstairs to visit the original cozy chambres particuliers, private rooms where gentlemen could discreetly ply courtesans with champagne, delicacies, and expensive presents. The antique mirrors are still clouded with etched marks, when the ladies would test their diamond gifts by scratching them along the glass to make sure they weren’t being duped.”
Presumably, the “ladies” were determining whether their suitors had given them cut-glass or true diamonds (Remember “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, another tale of ruination? I vowed I would always ask the cost of the necklace first should the same fate befall me.)
However, we can’t really blame the gentlemen for trying to cut corners. The American Menu points out that The Palette charged more for champagne than lobster palaces and first-class hotels. Secrecy came at a price for the illicit lovers of the past.
But for erotica writers, it’s all gravy.
Erotic writing isn’t any different than any other form of writing: you still need a plot, characterization, description, a sense of place, suspension of disbelief, and so forth. Thinking otherwise will only put training wheels on your writing, which – believe me – readers and editors can easily pick up on. If you sit down and try to write a damned good story, that happens to be about sex or sexuality, the result will generally be much finer artistically than an attempt that’s just tossed off. The instant you approach a story as just anything, you’ll demean yourself and the reader. The bottom line is that there really isn’t much of a difference between a great erotic story and any other genre’s great story.
One difference between erotica and other genres is that erotica doesn’t blink: in just about every other genre, when sex steps on stage the POV swings to fireplaces, trains entering tunnels, and the like. In other words, it blinks away from the sexual scene. In erotica you don’t blink, you don’t avoid sexuality; you integrate it into the story. But the story you’re telling isn’t just the sex scene(s), it’s why the sex IS the story. Something with a bad plot, poor characterization, lousy setting, or lazy writing and a good sex scene is always much worse than a damned good story full of interesting characters, a great sense of place, sparkling writing and a lousy sex scene. The sex scene(s) can be fixed, but if the rest – the meat of the story itself – doesn’t work, you’re only polishing the saddle on a dead horse.
Aside the lack of blinking, the other difference erotica and other genres is repetition: a lot of people preach that it’s poor writing to use the same descriptive word too many times in the same section of writing. In other words:
The sun blasted across the desert, scorching scrub and weed into burnt yellow, turning soft skin to lizard flesh, and metal to rust. Outside LAST CHANCE FOR GAS, the radiation of the explosion had turned once gleaming signs for COCA-COLA and DIESEL into rust-pimpled ghosts of their former selves.
Parked outside LAST CHANCE, there was a rusted pickup collapsed onto four flat tires, the windshield a sparkling spider web under the hard white light of the sun’s explosion.
That wasn’t terrific, but the point is – aside from the poor metaphor of the sun as an explosion – the word rust springs up a bit too much. It’s not that bad a description, but having the same word pop up repeatedly comes off as lazy, unimaginative, or simply dull. To keep this from happening, many writing teachers and guides recommend varying the descriptive vocabulary. Now you don’t need to change rust to corrosion or decay or encrustation once you’ve used it once in a story, but if you need to use the same kind of description in the same paragraph or section, you might want to slip in some other, perhaps equally evocative, words as well.
But let’s go onto that exception for erotica. In smut, we have a certain list of words that are required for a well-written erotic scene: the vocabulary of genitalia and sex. If you follow the Don’t Ever Repeat rule in a sex scene, the results are often more hysterical than stimulating.
Bob’s cock was so hard it was tenting his jeans. He desperately wanted to touch it, but didn’t want to rush. Still, as he sat there, the world boiled down to him, what he was watching, and his penis. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore. Carefully, slowly, he lowered his zipper and carefully pulled his dick out. Unlike a lot of his friends, Bob was happy with his member. It was long, but not too long, and had a nice, fat head. Unlike the rods his friends rarely described, his pole didn’t bend – but was nice and straight.
It’s another bit of less-than-brilliance, but, hopefully, you’ll get the idea: if you follow the non-repeat commandment, you’ll quickly run out of words to describe what the hell’s going on in your story. With women’s anatomy it gets even worse: I’ve read a lot of amateur stories that go from cunt to pussy to quim to hole to sex … somehow turning a down-and-dirty contemporary piece to a story that should be called Lady Rebecca and the Highwayman.
It’s more than perfectly okay to repeat certain words in a story – especially an erotic one – if other words just won’t work, or will give the wrong impression (is there anything less sexy than using hole or shaft?). My advice is to stick to two or three words that fit the time and style of the story, then rotate them: cock to dick, pussy to cunt, etc. Some words can also be used if you feel the story is getting a bit too thin on descriptions – penis, crotch, groin, etc. – but only if kept to a very dull roar.
One of the best ways to avoid this problem is to describe parts of the character’s anatomy rather than using a simple, general word. For example, lips, clit, glans, balls, shaft, mons, etc. Not only does this give you more flexibility, but it can also be wonderfully evocative, creating a complex image rather than a fuzzy impression of the party going on in your characters’ pants.
The bottom line is what while there is a core similarity between a good erotic story and any other genre, there are a few important stylistic differences – and, as the old saying goes: viva la difference!
by Ashley Lister
It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since I mentioned the Hávamál on this blog. The Hávamál is a Viking poem, but it is often called a book of wisdom. Written somewhere around AD 700-900, the Hávamál is one of the more well-known Eddaic poems and, amongst other things, it contains nuggets of universal wisdom that still apply today, more than a millennia after these words were first written.
Here is an example from the Hávamál:
A man needs warmth,
the warmth of fire
and of the shining sun.
A healthy man
is a happy man
who’s neither ill nor injured.
A typical Hávamál stanza usually contains six lines or two units of three lines each. The first two lines in each unit are tied together by alliteration, and the third is also decorated with alliteration. For those who’ve forgotten: alliteration is the repetition of similar sounds, usually the sounds of initial consonants, as illustrated below:
Better a humble
house than none.
A man is master at home.
A pair of goats
and a patched roof
are better than begging.
It’s also possible to look at the stresses used in the Hávamál but, for the purposes of this exercise, I’d prefer to see writers focusing on words of wisdom and the use of alliteration.
And that’s this month’s exercise from me: produce a six line poem in the style of the Hávamál, sharing words of erotic wisdom in the comments box below. Remember to keep a tie of alliteration between lines one and two (and four and five), and to ensure that there is some alliteration across lines three and six. This is my attempt:
flavoured with sweat
can easily excite.
And it aint just
an appetite for
savoury tastes that it satisfies.
Have fun with this and I look forward to reading your words of wisdom.
While I’ve seen Wonder Woman twice, and no doubt I’ll see it again, right now I’m living in the world of another powerful woman from mythology, a woman whose story is much darker, a woman whose story doesn’t find its way into comic books and graphic novels as a heroine, but as a villain, her name taken on mostly by evil characters. I’m talking about Medusa. She is very much at the forefront of my thoughts as I finish up the final rewrite of Blind-Sided, book 2 of Medusa’s Consortium. It hit me the other day as I was out walking that these two women of myth and legend could easily be the opposite side of the same coin. While the darkness and grit of the Wonder Woman film is refreshing, making her story more three dimensional, more human, there’s no doubt she brings light and hope into a broken world. Medusa, not so much.
While Wonder Woman’s Diana is raised in the isolation of an island of supportive and loving women warriors, who train her and prepare her for a world they hope she never has to face, Medusa draws the unwanted attention and lust of a god who rapes her. Then she is betrayed by the very goddess who should have protected her in one of the most horrendous examples of victim-blaming ever.
Both mourn the loss of innocence, in their own way. Both pay a high price, Diana for the choice she willingly makes, Medusa for the choices taken out of her hands. Because Wonder Woman is Diana’s story, we see her evolution from an innocent to one who understands that there is darkness in the world and yet she makes the choice to stay on and fight that darkness. We know little about Medusa’s choices after her forced loss of innocence, other than that anyone who looks into her eyes turns to stone.
I find it very interesting that Patty Jenkins, the director of the new Wonder Woman film, was also the director for the 2003 crime drama film Monster about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a former prostitute who was executed in Florida in 2002 for killing six men during the late 80s and early 90s. While we embrace characters like Hannibal Lector and Dexter as anti-heros, half rooting for them, even as they terrify us, Aileen Wuornos, is the monstor. A woman super hero must be the bringer of goodness and light and love, while we rejoice in a male super hero who brings vengeance, even very ugly vengeance. Is it possible that a woman Hannibal Lector, a female Dexter, a modern-day Medusa, is just too disturbing for us to be comfortable with?
Both stories are tales of the archetypal woman. The Virgin Mary, who is allowed to bring the savior into the world, if you will, and Kali or Sekhmet, whose destruction, when called upon, cannot easily be controlled. Perhaps the inability to entirely control or predict what’s at the core of a woman’s heart is a part of what makes the negative anima such a terrifying beast. There is a part of each of us longing to be the bringer of light and love in a world sorely in need. But that we also rage at our core, long for revenge at our core, fantasize about making the oppressors suffer and pay is something fewer of us are willing to embrace. By embracing those parts of us, we run the risk of being labeled ‘monsters.’ And even we fear the results of allowing that negative feminine loose on the world. I find it very interesting that Medusa embodies what happens with the embracing of that inner darkness, pushed down, hidden away and denied. While it’s perfectly acceptable to embrace our inner Wonder Woman, we’d rather keep our inner Medusa’s raging revenge as far away as possible. Diana Prince wears a golden diadem. Medusa wears a crown of angry vipers – the golden reward for love and light or the poisonous sting for darkness and rage.
The dichotomy of who we are and how we see ourselves is the subject matter of a million psychology and self-help books. What we embrace in order to be seen as good women, and what we must push down into the dark caves of our unconscious and repress at all cost is the split we all bear. While we may be part Wonder Women, we are just as much Medusa, whether we like it or not.
While one is the daughter of a god and sent into the world of men to bring hope, the other is raped by a god, cursed by a goddess and cast out from all she knows and loves. While one brings a virgin’s curiosity and an innocent’s delight in all things new. The other brings rage and bitterness for what’s been done to her, for all she has lost.
The way in which the story of both women is tied to their sexuality is also perhaps a telling tale of the archetypes we, as women, find safe to embrace. While the Wonder Woman of the film is enlightened enough about sex, she is also an innocent in the love of men, and she is led to the experience by the love of her heart, Steve Trevor. This is the tale of true love embraced and then lost too soon. Medusa’s past, we see little of. Her story begins with an ugly rape in a place where she should have been protected, followed by a horrible curse. And now we see why the two women are the opposite sides of the same coin. While Diana’s story of love and loss inspires, Medusa’s story of rape and humiliation disturbs, and yet ultimately both women, hero and monster, stand alone, adored or feared from a distance. They are what we strive for and what we fear, they are, each alone, complete in themselves and yet broken in their completeness.
Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and her three cats. Visit her web site, her Facebook page, and her Amazon Author Page.
Her m/m erotic medical thriller Roughing It is out! This book is a sexy cross between The X Files, The Andromeda Strain, and Outbreak. This book is 30% off at JMS Books until June 30. Get your copy now! Read her short erotic story Babes in Begging For It, published by Cleis Press. You will also find her novel No Restraint at Amazon. Enjoy a good, sexy read today.
What inspires me when I write? I get my ideas from my personal life, the news, and my imagination. Positive feedback also inspires me. Nobilis Erotica recently accepted one of my short stories for a podcast. Thumbling will be available in audio format sometime in the near future. This story is my erotic retelling of the fairy tale Thumbling, which you may know as Thumbelina. The original involved a guy and not a woman. It’s a very sexy story that illustrates how versatile one can be as a lover when as small as can be. Thumbling can get into places no mere man can get into and what he does while in there will want you to take a cold shower after listening. Two other stories are under consideration for publication and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m also going to self-publish these erotic fairy tales plus several others in an collection.
My short fantasy story The Care And Feeding Of Your New Pet Dragon will soon appear in the FARK charity anthology, Through A Scanner Farkly. FARK is a news aggregator that specializes in weird news, current events, and sarcastic humor.
Seeing acceptances, especially two within such a short period of time, inspire me. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who craves good news regarding her writing. When I am in the midst of a dry spell – no good reviews, lackluster sales, rejections – I can easily get into such a funk I don’t want to write. When that happens I take time away from the computer to take care of myself. I garden, go to the beach, watch TV and movies, and ride with my husband around town just to cruise.
Events in my life inspire me. Something happened recently to my Dad and sister that is inspiring a short horror story. My sister was helping my dad with his phone when she found 83 old messages that he never listened to. He didn’t know they were there. These messages date back several years. So, they had to go through each one and delete them individually. One of the ones was my mother telling my father to turn on the TV and watch a channel she liked to watch. It freaked him out, since my mother has been dead for two years. He went to turn on the TV when my sister told him it’s a very old message. It’s not my mother calling from the grave. That message was at least 2 years old. He calmed down and erased it. The next message was from his sister (my aunt) who died several months ago. More creepiness. The messages are now off the phone and it’s in proper working order. There is definitely a weird story in this business somewhere.
Conventions also inspire me, although I haven’t been to any in a very long time. That is about to change. NECON is in a few weeks. That’s a New England writers convention. This is my first NECON and I’m looking forward to it. Many of my friends in the horror community will be there, so it’s not like I’m diving into unknown waters. Some of the talks sound interesting. Here are a few examples:
I plan to schmooze with the guests (including the Guests of Honor) and I’ll ask some of them to be a guest on my podcast, Into The Abyss With Elizabeth Black. That’s how I get my best guests – I ask them. There’s nothing magical about it. I just ask. Most of them say “yes”. Some of my guests have been very high caliber, such as Joe R. Lansdale (mojo storyteller and author of the Hap and Leonard series that appears on Sundance), Daniel Knauf (writer and producer of the TV shows Carnivale and The Blacklist), and Walt Bost (supervising sound editor for the TV show iZombie).
Finally, as anyone who knows me is aware, the ocean inspires me. I head there every day and walk about 2 miles. It’s not only exercise (which doesn’t feel like exercise), it clears my head so I may brainstorm about my writing. I’ve worked out plot holes while walking on the beach. I’ve thought out brand new stories while walking on the beach. I go to the beach with my husband and we talk, play in the very cold water (I live in northeastern Massachusetts. The water up here ain’t bathwater.), and crush empty crab shells with my feet. The last one is an obsession. I love to go for long walks on the beach, which sounds like a romance cliché but it’s true.
Everyone is different. What will inspire you will not inspire someone else. Find what inspires you and keeps you going. Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Live life and stay inspired. Keep at it and best wishes to you.
by Jean Roberta
For the past few weeks, I’ve been revising, reorganizing, and overhauling an erotic novel I wrote in 1998. What was once contemporary is now historical, or at least nostalgic. None of the characters have cellphones, and they don’t hang out on FaceBook, so they usually communicate face-to-face. When traveling, they are unreachable.
I decided to keep the period flavour, but what I thought of at the time as an omniscient narrative voice now looks like a dizzying road trip through too many heads that are not all in the same place at the same time.
The biggest challenge of the rewrite is the need to focus more consistently on one consciousness throughout most of the plot. I gave myself permission to devote a few chapters to the viewpoints of two important secondary characters, but since the story is really an erotic romance as well as a queer coming-of-age story, it needs to focus on the central character.
Viewpoint is never a side-issue in fiction. For every plot (a series of events based on a process of cause and effect), there seems to be an ideal narrator to tell it, or an ideal pair of eyes through which to view the world in which the story takes place. At the same time, focusing on one consciousness means excluding all others, except by hinting at other characters’ internal reality through action and dialogue.
Viewpoint can be a scary thing. Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories get much of their effect from the voices of narrators who reveal themselves to be irrational and out of touch with reality. Narcissists, while able to function in the world, do a horrible job of impersonating other people. For example, in one episode of the sit-com The Big Bang Theory, the chief science nerd Sheldon Cooper decides that he needs to learn how to act. He approaches his neighbour Penny, a struggling actor, for help. She tells him to improvise a speech, which he converts into a play about himself as a misunderstood genius. At one point, he pretends to be his actual mother, and says, “I’m just an ignorant Bible-thumping woman from Texas. I can’t understand scientific reality.”
Some of the worst stories I’ve ever read include equally unconvincing confessions, often written by male authors and put into the mouths of female characters. “Exotic” accents and “ethnic” humour can be equally cringe-worthy.
Attempting an “omniscient” voice, I hoped, would at least enable different streams of consciousness to balance and comment on each other. In real life, everyone involved in a situation has a viewpoint, and a truly omniscient (all-knowing) perspective doesn’t exist.
As I delete whole passages of head-hopping, I regret having to “murder my darlings.” Some of those unspoken thoughts can’t be rewritten as dialogue, since there are reasons why the characters didn’t speak them aloud in the first place.
Fiction would be boring if every writer stuck to first-person autobiography. Writing about characters who are very different from oneself is one of the joys of the game, yet we all do it at our own risk.
If John and Mary have a conversation in a story I’m writing, I want the reader to get a sense of both viewpoints. If John is the narrator, is Mary being shrunk to a relatively minor character? If Mary is the narrator, is she fairer to John than he would be to her? Do they need a witness, a cooler and more detached head, to tell their story? In that case, what happens to the passion that keeps a reader involved?
In reality, being able to hear the thoughts of every passer-by would produce cacophony in one’s own head. We would all want to turn off that magical power. As a writer and a reader, I like coherence, and therefore I strive to resist head-hopping. It’s a struggle.
How many erotic stories have I read, in the eighteen years since I formally entered the erotica reading and writing community? Five hundred? A thousand? For years, I wrote reviews for ERWA, as well as for the wonderful Erotica Revealed site. I’ve edited anthologies, too, which means I’ve done a lot of mucking around in the slush pile.
I’m not proud to admit that most of what I’ve read, I’ve forgotten. Sometimes I’ll be digging around in my review files, looking for something to recycle for my blog, and come across a book I don’t remember at all. It’s a bit embarrassing.
Of course, a lot of erotica is pretty forgettable. Even when they are well written, erotic short stories tend to follow predictable plots and feature familiar stereotypes. I may enjoy a story—it may even arouse me—but after I’ve closed the book and written my review, the details all too often slip away.
Some stories, though, have stuck with me. I was struck by this recently, when reading Emily L. Byrne’s lesbian collection Knife’s Edge. This book includes her stunning tale “An Incident in Whitechapel”. I read this story a long time ago, no doubt in some other anthology. I found I remembered it vividly, and was just as impressed by it on the second (and third) reading as I’d been on the first.
That experience got me thinking about the stories that haven’t vanished from my memory, the ones that stand out for their originality, their emotional intensity, their craft, and their erotic heat. This post does homage to my “top ten” most memorable stories, which are listed below.
They’re not in any particular order, by the way. The fact that they’re here at all is sufficient testimony to their quality. I’ll also admit that many of them have been published in anthologies I’ve edited. I guess that’s not surprising. My memory for these particular stories may derive from the fact that I’ve read them many times. However, I still believe their quality earns them a place in my list.
So here, for better or worse, are my top ten most memorable erotic shorts.
“State” by M.Christian
I believe I first read this brilliant piece of scifi erotica in the author’s collection The Bachelor Machine, originally published in 2003, and then in several later collections. In this wonderfully ironic reversal of cyberpunk conventions, the protagonist, Fields, is turned on by the challenge of impersonating a sex robot: a blue-skinned, manga-eyed, perfectly proportioned Mitsui Class B Automaton. When a client asks for the house “specialty”, for Fields it is not just a trick. It’s a performance; it’s Art. Christian skillfully leads the reader to wonder whether Fields would enjoy sex as a human nearly as much.
“An Early Winter Train” by C. Sanchez-Garcia
This moving tale was originally published in the ERWA Gallery and later in Sanchez-Garcia’s charitable erotica anthology Coming Together Presents: C. Sanchez-Garcia. I edited that book, and I love many of the stories, but “An Early Winter Train” is probably my favorite. The main character is a middle-aged man caring for his wife, who has premature Alzheimer’s. I know that sounds almost anti-erotic, but when the couple manages to recapture the erotic heat of their youth, it’s both arousing and heart-breaking.
“An Incident in Whitechapel” by Emily L. Byrne
Though I first encountered it years ago, this dark tale of a cross-dressing knife and scissors grinder on the trail of Jack the Ripper has remained in my memory as one of the very best erotic short stories I’ve ever read. As thick with atmosphere as the notorious London fog, “Incident” combines intense and passionate BDSM with social commentary and a stunningly ambiguous ending.
“What Was Lost” by Robert Buckley
I found this story intensely erotic even though it contains no actual sex. A history grad student struggling with her thesis makes the acquaintance of an elderly man living in her building. He tells her about lawless days of speakeasies in the Roaring Twenties of his youth, tales of forbidden debauchery and perverse pleasure. He asks that she let him touch her, in return for cash to support her academic career. Though his touch is dry, almost asexual, the suppressed eroticism of the situation really affected me. You’ll find this story in Coming Together Presents: Robert Buckley.
“Willing” by Xan West
I’d encountered Xan’s devastatingly erotic story of a FTM submissive offering himself to a vampire at least once before when Xan submitted it to my collection Coming Together: In Vein. Every time I read it, I marvel anew at the way it explores the emotional dynamic between dominant and submissive. It’s an extreme story, more violent than the BDSM I usually enjoy, but the outer actions aren’t the focus. Rather, the author is concerned with the trust that binds the two participants in a power exchange, and the courage required to fully surrender.
“Butoh-Ka” by Remittance Girl
Remittance Girl’s tale of cross-cultural sex sticks with me at least partly because it’s so strange. An uptight Western woman living in Vietnam becomes entangled with a practitioner of the Japanese Butoh dance tradition. Everything about him seems bizarre but gradually the narrator is sucked into his alternative reality. I particularly loved the sex scenes in this story, which manage to be arousing even when nothing happens. If you’re wondering how that could work, check out the story in Coming Together Presents: Remittance Girl.
“Stairmaster” by Daddy X
This short piece is a poetic paean to a woman’s posterior, as observed by an old man working out in the gym. This may sound trivial, even silly, but the language in this story, its humor, and its brilliant ending all elevate this tale into my top ten. You can read it in The Gonzo Collection by Daddy X.
“Welcome to the Aphrodisiac Hotel” by Amanda Earl
Like “Stairmaster”, this story doesn’t have much of a plot. A woman sits in a hotel bar, observing the men and women around her, speculating about their erotic connections. Her fantasies arouse her, preparing her for her own lover, for whom she is waiting. I guess I like stories that manage to be intensely erotic without including physical sex. This one fits right in with my personal tag-line: Imagination is the ultimate aphrodisiac. You’ll find it in Coming Together Presents: Amanda Earl.
“Remember This” by Shanna Germain
I don’t think I’ve ever read a story by Shanna Germain that I didn’t love. This one, though, has remained with me as one of her best, though I can’t find information on where it was published. Some anthology that I reviewed, I’m sure.
Like many of her tales, “Remember This” is luminous with passion but edged in darkness. On her fiftieth birthday, a woman celebrates with her long-time lovers, one male and one female. The pleasure they share is overshadowed by the fact that the narrator is losing her memory to early onset dementia. She tries to hold on to every sensual detail, to imprint the experiences so deeply she’ll never lose them. She knows this time may be the last she’ll remember. In fact, she toys with the notion of suicide, before she forgets her beloved partners.
“Twenty Minutes in the Eighties” by Alison Tyler
I’m not even sure this is the exact title of this early Alison Tyler story. I can’t tell you where I read it. I tried to find information about it on the web and failed, a situation that rather depressed me as it highlighted how ephemeral our work can be. Still, years after reading it, I remember the outlines of this tale as well as the fact that it really turned me on.
The funny thing is that, unlike the vast majority of Alison’s stories, this was not, overtly, a BDSM tale. A young woman (clearly an avatar of the author) gets picked up by an older man. She’s shy, awkward, sexually hungry but inexperienced. He brings her back to his lavish house in the Hollywood Hills and asks her to masturbate for him. In his eyes, for the twenty minutes in the title, she becomes beautiful.
I’d love to read this one again. Maybe the miracles of cyberspace will alert the author to this post and she’ll get in touch.
* * *
When I was growing up, there were books I read again and again. They were old friends, but with each reading I experienced new pleasure and gained new insights. The stories in my top ten are the same. I hope I can find copies of the last two in my list. Not being able to revisit them, I feel a sense of loss.
P.S. All the Coming Together books are charity erotica, supporting various causes. For more information, please go here: http://www.eroticanthology.org/p/store.html
“When you write, you illuminate what’s hidden, and that’s a political act.”
So said Grace Paley in a 1985 “Fresh Air” interview. I came across her quote in a New Yorker review of the new collection of her work: A Grace Paley Reader. It’s hard to get more hardcore literary than the New Yorker, but even as I held that august magazine in my hands, I thought, “She’s talking about erotica writers, too! Actually, not ‘too.’ Especially us.”
After all, who is best at illuminating what is hidden from polite society than erotica writers?
Sexuality is, even today for the most part, segregated in private spaces or specialized commercial venues. Writing erotica in any dedicated, and certainly celebratory, fashion (bad, uncomfortable, or punished sex is more acceptable for literary fiction than a good, contagiously hot sex scene) “cheapens” a serious writer.
But most human beings do have sex. It has meaning in our lives. It elates and confuses, embarrasses and enlightens, connects and exploits. To explore this aspect of our existence honestly in our writing is courageous, and indeed political, in the sense that it “speaks truth to power” by refusing to obey the rule of silence around sexuality.
Yet for me, erotica’s illuminations go even deeper. I speak now as a reader of erotica, the twin pillar of our association’s name. When I first encountered sexually explicit writing, through Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden and Penthouse letters, I was fascinated by the frank discussion of these naughty acts that I’d yet to experience myself. It was an education in the possible, and in some sense, even when I knew better, I took the stories at face value.
Once I began to write my own stories, I came to realize that a creative depiction of sex (or anything) involves choices and crafting, but also an intuitive understanding of what our culture considers compelling so we can connect with readers. Many readers probably believe we simply write what we personally find arousing or have done in our real lives, but I’ve written stories for calls that have drawn heavily from my imagination. I also came to believe that any erotic story, even one based honestly on actual experience, is a fantasy of a sort.
Many dismiss “fantasy” as second best to the “real thing,” but for me, the revelation of the sexual workings of a person’s mind is much more interesting and intimate than the most athletically orgasmic of physical encounters.
It’s also possible that I’ve read too much erotica to find entertainment solely in the descriptions of sex acts. There is as much pleasure to be gotten from considering what stories reveal in terms of power exchange—and I don’t necessarily mean just BDSM. Take a very common theme in erotic stories of sexual encounters between authority figures–teachers, doctors, policewo/men, bosses—and those with lower status such as students, patients, and employees. Polite society defines these relationships as public, proper, and untainted by sex, so just adding sex to the mix is in itself a transgression. But sexualizing a teacher or doctor also humanizes her and creates a kind of equality or even a reversal of status. Certainly during an orgasm, we are all equal in our transcendence of the civilized. Erotica of this flavor is thus an illumination of the humanity and vulnerability of authority figures.
In another example, the theme of exhibitionism can be taken at face value as the desire to perform sexual acts for another’s gaze, but I also see it as a way to reach for validation and acceptance of our sexuality. The illumination here is how suppressed and shamed many of us are or at least were when we had to deal with our maturing erotic selves with so little social support.
A deeper look at our own writing can be illuminating. Which dynamics fascinate us? What haunts us? What soothes? As I mentioned in last month’s column, I’m realizing that I must have internalized the message that a man “wins” when he has sex with me, and I “lose.” I don’t believe that rationally, but that zero-sum equation still has power emotionally. Yet in the fantasies, I “win” because the man’s desire for me and his “domination” lead to my pleasure. My erotic mind transforms society’s message into a win-win.
Respecting sexual fantasy as transformative, healing, revolutionary. Isn’t that a political act if there ever was one?
Sexual fantasy is not usually considered worthy of serious reflection. It’s a use-it-once-and-throw-it-away sort of thing. Perhaps if we’re really perverted, a doctor should be called in to analyze us, but otherwise, polite society says erotic daydreams are best kept private—even as variations of the same are splayed across billboards and movie screens. The first-draft writer side of me hesitates to spend too much time on analysis or the big picture. Storytelling uses another part of my brain. But the reader in me delights in the illumination of secrets, including my own, and the personal power it gives me to make or re-make stories, the food of our intellect and our souls.
That’s a political act, too.
The dust has pretty much settled since comedian Bill Maher’s flippant use of the mother of all racial slurs and his pro forma celebrity apology that followed. I’m not a fan of Maher; his smug, smarmy style brings to mind that of an obnoxious hipster irritating everyone at the party by showing how down he is by running his mouth.
The effusion of criticism, condemnation, indignation that followed was just as irritating as Maher, due to the wholesale use of the term N-word. I can’t conceive of a sillier construct contrived to avoid saying a word out loud or written full out. What? Are we not all hearing the actual word resounding in our heads? Or maybe it isn’t resounding in our heads, and that’s my gripe.
N-word is childish: Johnny’s in trouble cuz his teacher told mom he said the N-word.
It diminishes the power and brutality of the word as well as little Johnny’s sin: Johnny called one of his little classmates a nigger!
Resorting to the N-word is like trying to ignore a pile of shit in your living room by daintily placing a paper towel over it, all the while carrying on in a calm and civil manner. But, it’s still there and it still stinks. Best you heed your nose and your gag reflex and deal with it.
The Maher affair also brought comments from numerous critics that white people have no business using that word. As a writer, that raises my hackles. Words are my tools. No one tells me which ones I can and cannot use. And like any tool, you apply it to the right job, to make a point, or advance an idea.
What idea does that word advance? Well, fear and intimidation, of course, and the notion that some human beings are less human than others. That’s the way it has been used for centuries and how over that time it accumulated its power. Today it’s a verbal hand grenade. But a deft mind can redirect its power.
John Lennon wrote, “Woman is the nigger of the world.” I think that speaks very plainly and underscores the plight of women in a way like no other.
Lennon said he paraphrased a remark by Irish revolutionary James Connolly that “Woman is slave of the slave.” And while the Irish patriot’s observation is powerful, Lennon’s packs a wallop.
Speaking of the Irish, their immigrant hordes were denigrated as white niggers by the American natives. Or even, niggers-inside-out. And well into the last century the Irish were called the niggers of Europe – at least until their economy kicked in and the Gaelic Tiger was unleashed on the global market.
The word continues to be applied to immigrant and ethnic groups. Sand nigger has manifested itself along with towelhead among ignorant cretins pouring their hate on middle eastern folks.
A powerful word, with a long and ugly history, and yet a writer can wield the word in a way that lifts humanity. Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is among the books most likely to be banned, or suffer attempts to ban in public schools, because it is rife with that word. Its story takes place in a time and culture when the word was used casually and without much thought. Yet Samuel Clemens, probably the most humane of human beings to ever walk this planet, guides his young hero to an epiphany that a human being is worthy of respect and dignity, no matter what one’s culture ordains.
Not to compare myself with Huckleberry Finn, but as a youngster I had a similar epiphany. I grew up in a predominantly Irish-Polish neighborhood in Boston. Diversity amounted to a smattering of Italians and Albanians in the mix. Protestants were rare, and kept quietly to themselves. It was a blue-collar working class environment of triple-deckers where the word nigger popped up in casual conversation just as often as “a”, “the” and “but”.
Yes, it was white neighborhood. The niggers lived somewhere else and stayed there, just as we stayed in our own tribal environs. The only place you might encounter a black person was downtown or on the subway or bus. Or perhaps on the job. Not at school, though. This was before court-ordered busing, so everyone in your neighborhood school looked pretty much like you.
The niggers were an amorphous concept for most kids in my neighborhood, and the word was applied derisively, usually in jest or mocking of one’s neighbor. A guy who bought balcony tickets to an event was said to be seated in nigger heaven. Or a guy who came into a bit of money and started showing it off was said to be nigger rich.
My dad was a devout Catholic who took Christ’s dictum to heart: whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
He had this thing for giving rides to total strangers and it didn’t make any difference what you looked like. I remember being in the backseat when he picked up a black guy hitchhiking. The guy told him he was trying to make a job interview, but he didn’t have even the fare for the bus. My dad dropped him off and gave him a couple of bucks. We feared my dad would be robbed or worse, one day, but he’d say he didn’t worry about that because any one of those people he picked up “could be Jesus.”
I remember Dad complained about the quality of American cars, saying it had deteriorated since Detroit was forced to “hire all those niggers.”
And yet, he made friends on the job with a black man who often came to our house. We also visited with him.
I was about five or six years old when I asked, guilelessly as a child is wont, “Dad, isn’t Charlie a nigger?” The next thing I remember was bawling my eyes out about five feet from where I had been standing and my Dad furiously warning me, “Don’t you ever call Charlie a nigger; Charlie is colored.“
It was a fine distinction lost on a little kid, but there it was. There was the amorphous niggers and the human being you took at face value was colored.
My mother made the same distinction between a “loudmouth nigger bothering everyone on the bus” and the “nice colored girl” she worked with on the job.
My epiphany came when I went to high school. In Boston there were neighborhood-based high schools where the student populations were all white or all minority. The exceptions were the so-called magnet schools. I went to one of those schools, out of my neighborhood, in the leafy Fenway area.
My school was pretty nearly fifty-fifty, white and black, with other minorities, particularly Asian. It wasn’t a place you’d want to toss that word around willy-nilly, for obvious reasons.
I was enrolled in college-oriented courses. It was the first time I came face-to-face on a daily basis with black kids. The first thing I noticed about them was they dressed a lot sharper than the white kids. Sport coats and slacks, and they carried their stuff in brief cases. I wore a tie because I had to and carried my books in my hand.
One day a week – I think it was Thursday – you had a free period at the beginning of the day. The black kids all played chess.
I made friends, they taught me to play chess, we exchanged jokes, talked trash, and carried on like any kid might with another.
Friends – that was the epiphany. Friends enough to meet downtown and see a movie or ballgame together, or ogle the college girls in the warmer months. Yet it still wasn’t wise to meet in each other’s neighborhoods, and we’d wryly chuckle about the way things were. Also, you never knew when you were back on your home turf that some knuckle-dragging cretin would challenge you, “Hey, I saw you downtown with a nigger.”
But these guys from school were my friends. Vernon, Rodney, Ralph and yes, Charlie. You don’t call your friend a nigger.
I’ve never used the word again, except as a writer.
It’s a word, a powerful word. Yes, it can be used deftly, if sparingly, in ways other than to hurt and humiliate. It can fortify irony, and even camaraderie among people who share an understanding and history others can only poorly imagine, and have claimed it as their own.
Don’t veil its power with a silly, childish truncating. That accomplishes nothing. Say it, write it. Because, even when it’s used in its most hateful way, its power needs to shake us all to our cores.
Let’s open with a joke: a guy pleads with god over and over: “Please, Lord, let me win the lottery.” Finally, god answers: “Meet me halfway – buy a ticket!”
Back when publishers only put out – gasp – actually printed-on-paper books I was known as a writer who would give anything I did that extra mile: readings, interviews, PR events, press releases … you name it I’d do it. To be honest, I’ve always had a small advantage in that my (unfinished) degree was in advertising and I’ve less-than-secretly really enjoyed creating all kinds of PR stuff. I’ve always felt that a good ad, or marketing plan, can be just as fun and creative as actually writing the book itself.
Sure, some of my PR stuff has gotten me (ahem) in some trouble … though I still contest that the “other” M.Christian who staged that rather infamous plagiarism claim over the novel Me2 was at fault and not me, the one-and-only; or that my claim to amputate a finger as a stunt for Finger’s Breadth was totally taken out of context…
Anyway, the fact is I’ve always looked at publishers as people to work with when it comes to trying to get the word out about my books. Sure, some publishers have been more responsive and accepting than others and, yes, I still have bruises from working with a few that could care less about me and my books, but in the end most of them have been extremely happy to see my excitement about having one of their editions hit the shelves.
Duh, things have changed a lot since then – but in many ways things haven’t changed at all. Books are still books, even if they are now digital files and not dead trees, and bookstores are now Amazon, iBooks, and Kobo instead of brick-and-mortar establishments … and publishers still want to work with authors who want to work with them.
Not going into the whole publisher versus self-publishing thing (in a word: don’t) one thing that has totally changed is the importance of marketing, social media, and public relations. Simply put, it’s gone from being somewhat necessary to absolutely essential.
But this post isn’t about twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, blogs and the rest of that stuff. Instead I want to talk about how you work with a publisher: what they do, what you do, and how to make it all work for the best.
A very common myth is that publishers are hand wringing, mustache-twirling villains who pay for their volcano lairs and diamond-collar wearing Persian cats with the sweat of writers. Okay, a few do, but the good ones started as writers and have simply worked their way up to being in a position to try and help other writers – and, sure, make some bucks along the way.
Another common myth is that publishers don’t care about their writers. Okay, let’s be honest: a writer who sells a lot of books is definitely going to get the lion’s share of attention, but a good publisher knows that any book in their catalogue can be the one to go from one sale a month to ten a day.
There’s a very important factor: publishers deal with a lot of writers – some of whom have written dozens of books while others have two or three … or only one. With that many titles you can’t really expect a publisher to be able to give you 100% attention 100% of the time. Yes, they want you to succeed – it’s in their vested interest after all – but they have to try and make as many books as they can also succeed.
That does not let them off the hook with what they should be doing. A good publisher, most importantly, knows the business of publishing. Often this means they have to do things that authors don’t like: saving money on covers, asking for changes to books or titles, requiring authors to think about social media and audience, asking for copyedited or clean manuscripts … and so forth. They do this not because they have sharks with lasers on their heads on order but because they have lots of experience with what won’t sell, what might sell, what is worth a lot of time and what isn’t.
Believe it or not, publishers are also people: they work very hard – too hard in some cases – to be the publisher they, as writers, would want to work with. As such they want not just to make a book a runaway bestseller but also with a writer who is excited and happy about their work.
Personal disclosure time: yes, I am a writer but I have the honor of now being an Associate Publisher for Renaissance E Books. To put it mildly, it has been an eye-opening experience to start out looking out at publishers as a writer to looking out at writers as a publisher.
During all this I try to remember my own excitement of when my books came out, and all the plans and strategies and so forth I had the pleasure of putting together. It was stressful and depressing, more often than not, but then there were the wonderful moments when I felt the publisher was also thrilled about me and my work. As a publisher, I’ve tried to return to the favor to other writers.
Did you feel a “but” coming? Well, you should because sitting on the other side of the fence I’ve noticed that a few – not a lot, thankfully, but still far too many – writers want to win the lottery but won’t buy a flipping ticket.
Okay, I promise I won’t turn this into a “get off my lawn” rant but I do have a few words for advice for dealing with publishers – and how to step from Just Another Writer to A Cherished Author.
For one thing, always remember you are just one of many writers a publisher has to deal with. Yes, you have rights and a publisher should always respect and care about you and your work but being demanding or a prima donna will get you nothing.
A good publisher will work very hard on marketing, promotions, exposure, new ways of doing anything, etc. – but, and this is extremely important, you need to as well. In short, buy a ticket!
Don’t have a Web site? Make one! Don’t have a Facebook page? Create one! Don’t have a Twitter feed? Sign up! Don’t have a Goodreads, RedRoom, etc., presence? Get moving!
The same goes for following your publisher’s social media links and such. Sign up and friend and favor them so when your book comes out let your publisher know that you are excited and happy about it. Tell them of your marketing plans, send them your press releases, talk to them about the ways you are working to reach your audience … don’t just sit back and wait for them to do all the work.
Social media is timeless: your book might sell tomorrow or next year, which means that your marketing and such should also never stop. It breaks my heart when authors decide that their book is a failure when they don’t immediately see a fat royalty check – when the fact is the book is a failure because it is they who have given up on it. Publishers feel the same way: none of them want to hear that they screwed up by not making a book a bestseller when the author walked away from the title after a few months.
I could go on, and I will in more columns, but let’s wind down by restating the point of this installment: working with a publisher is a partnership. They have duties and responsibilities but you, the author, have to step up and show enthusiasm and social media excitement — that you, too, want to make your book into a magical, hotter-than-hot, golden ticket