I’ve been smoldering all week.
Last weekend I started a new story, a dark and kinky paranormal tale that I’m planning to submit to the ERWA anthology Unearthly Delights. I made amazing progress on Sunday, but then I had to call a halt in order to deal with all the other demands in my life. I should explain that normally I reserve Sunday for Lisabet to come out and play. I devote as much of that day as possible to actually writing. The rest of the week, I have too many other demands on my time to do much more than check my email and maybe do a bit of marketing.
This story, though, wouldn’t let me go. I pushed everything aside on Monday to write 1500 words. On Tuesday I managed to squeeze in another 1000. Wednesday was tough; I had blocked out an hour, but was interrupted half way through. I almost screamed with frustration.
When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about the story. Snatches of dialogues would float into my head while I was exercising; I’d rush to write them down in my notebook as soon as I got back from the gym. I’d find myself pondering the structure of the tale while I was supposed to be grading exams or testing student programming projects.
I realize that other authors experience this sort of obsession all the time, but it’s unusual for me. I couldn’t manage my life without compartmentalizing. I divide my days into time slots allocated for different activities. I’m normally very skilled at concentrating on the current task at hand without being distracted by all the other items on my to-do list. It’s the only way I can escape the stress of over-commitment.
So, as important as it is, my writing normally has to stay in its own compartment. When I feel the urge to write, I suppress it until the appropriate time, when I can do something about it.
This story, though—it’s like a fire. It might die down temporarily, but then it flares up again, demanding my attention, threatening to consume me. I really don’t understand the phenomenon. It’s wreaking havoc with my life and my plans. Still, I find the experience novel and exciting. Now I can appreciate what my colleagues mean when they say that a book takes them over.
I’m writing this on Saturday night. Tomorrow is Sunday.
The story is calling me.
I can hardly wait.
Last month, I talked about the forgotten story of Audrey Munson, the supermodel of the 1910s, whose form inspired many of the famous statues that still grace New York City today. Audrey was unusual in her comfort posing in “the altogether” as it was called in those days of euphemism.
Audrey was a consummate professional and claimed that she could easily tell a real (always male) artist from a fake. The latter usually dressed poorly, had paint or plaster dust in his unruly hair and kept a cold, plain studio. The true artist was so focused on creating his work of art that he barely remembered to let her pause to stretch her sore muscles. The fake playboy artistes of course had plush studios decked out in Orientalist frippery and spent less time on sculpting than on seduction. Their models spent plenty of time relaxing on velvet cushions under the influence of champagne. Audrey shunned such men, but some of her friends earned diamond rings and fine dresses for their services, while Audrey took home a mere fifty cents an hour.
In spite of her insistence on the transcendent motives of both professional model and true artist, one particular part of Audrey’s story has stayed with me. That is, the moment when her world changed forever, when Isidore Konti first convinced her—and her mother—that Audrey should take her clothes off for the sake of art.
“There was nothing wrong, [sculptor Isidore Konti] argued, with Audrey imparting her beauty to create a beautiful object in marble or bronze. Indeed, it was the duty of every woman, he insisted, to ‘contribute what she could to art and loveliness.’” (James Bone, The Curse of Beauty, 40).
For Audrey, especially, disrobing in front of a man was not a sordid act. It meant stepping beyond the limitations of earthly womanhood to become an immortal work of art. Yet while Konti’s eloquent argument persuaded Audrey and her mother, a voice inside me was skeptical.
“He’s lying his head off with that ‘duty of every woman’ malarkey. He just wants to see her naked!”
Biographer James Bone supported my instinct by reporting that the artists who employed Audrey would gossip about the beautiful dimples in her lower back. This suggests that sensual enjoyment of her unclothed form was not totally lacking. Yet Audrey’s relationships with many of the famous artists working in New York was apparently above board.
So where did my mistrust come from? As writers will do, I let my mind wander, through images and stories I remembered when my awareness of sexual politics took shape way back in the 1970s. Memories rose up—the strongest was of the two photographs at the top of this essay, of the same nude woman, side by side. One posed, artistic and boring, the other showing the woman’s sense of violation as if the photographer had burst in when she was changing into her bathing suit. I remembered, too, joking advice on how to convince a woman to pose nude, and the clear message that the male photographer was conning his female model into doing something bad, even illegal. The name of the magazine where I read this article was also clear in my memory: National Lampoon.
The internet is a boon for recovering long ago memories. I browsed the tables of contents of the early issues of National Lampoon online. With the July 1970 “Very Bad Taste” issue I hit the jackpot: “Art or Porno? A Photographer’s Guide to Naked Ladies” by Geoffrey Mandeville. For just a few dollars, the images that haunted me were before my eyes again. The context came flooding back. Summer vacation at the beach. Lounging around the motel room, lost in my older sister’s cool college magazine. Neither she nor my parents were at all aware the afternoon’s reading would leave such an indelible impression.
Just as I recalled, the humor of the article was entirely based on the tension between a man claiming to be interested in the female form as art and his “base” sexual instincts.
For example, the author suggests some Dos and Don’ts for your photography session:
DO refer to your subject matter as “art studies” or “figure composition.”
DON’T call your finished work “pictures of naked ladies” or “hot stuff.”
DO use such terminology as “bounced floods” and “stroboscopic timer.”
DON’T use such expressions as “Chilly, isn’t it? Heh heh,” and “Watch the birdie! Heh heh.”
My young self picked up on the message very well—never trust a man if he asks you to take off your clothes for art. It’s a zero-sum game. He wins, you lose. And if he says high-falutin’ things about Art and beauty and duty, he’s lying.
In the decades between my first reading and my recent revisitation, I arranged for my own nude photo session—with a female photographer. I knew at the time I was attempting to take charge of the gaze, to define my own beauty. Would I have done so without that issue of National Lampoon and the conflict born then that I felt an urge to resolve?
Today I am certainly better able to take a mature and appreciative view of erotic art than I was in 1970. And yet posing in the nude still has its dangers. Consider the current scandal where nude photos of female Marines have been shared without their permission by male colleagues. The excuse for posting these photos is that the women “cheated” on their Marine lovers and exposing their erotic photos is their just punishment. Some wonder if it’s not pure sexual harassment, to keep women who dare to aspire to what was traditionally a male role in their sexualized, objectified place.
Of course, we shouldn’t allow the Marines or National Lampoon to have the last word. The nude human form—male or female—can be a transcendent work of art. A response that belittles and degrades tells us more about the viewer than he might like to admit. Perhaps we all have within ourselves the dueling artist/artiste—the one who wonders at and elevates beauty and the other who seeks to dominate through defilement?
Social media … Sometimes I wish social media had a face so I could slap the crap out of it. I think 99.9 percent of what gets transmitted through social media could be filed under the category of Who gives a ____?
Even the Twit-in-Chief has taken second place to a minor uproar over a non issue. It seems one of America’s sweethearts, a girl gymnast, Instagrammed a video of herself dancing in her undies.
Really? She wasn’t even naked. And even if she were, haven’t the effects of social media made showing and viewing pictures of naked people passé by now?
If we’ve learned anything since the advent of easily processed and even easier accessed media, is that people like to exhibit themselves and others in the nude. Especially if it’s easy to do.
You might cite the advent of video cameras being made available to the public. How long did it take average folks to realize that in addition to being able to record their kids’ birthday parties and graduations, dad could also tape mom in some provocative poses in her altogethers? Or, even nastier, set the camera up on an end table or tripod and record dad doing mom doggie style, or mom giving dad a blowjob.
How much cajoling did it take for dad to get the secretary of the PTA to carry on like a porn star? Ah, but that’s another question for another day.
Of course, the so-called sex tape became a status symbol once the ex-boyfriend of a certain hotel heiress sold a tape of her giving an inspired BJ. What followed was a cascade of stolen celebrity tapes. Seriously, if you wanted to remain a celebrity, you needed an allegedly clandestine sex tape in circulation.
Long before video cameras became ubiquitous, there were Polaroids. Anyone remember them? So-called instant pictures. When I was in high school they got passed around at lunch. Some lothario had coaxed his girl into posing naked, no doubt with the promise, “No one will ever see them but me.”
I’d like to think that someone, somewhere is going through their just-deceased grampa’s personal effects and discovering some racy old Polaroids of grandma in an old shoe box. Can you imagine the shock on a millennial’s face? Well, kid, how do you think you got here?
Watch out when dad passes away and you come across some old VCR cartridges, if you can find a VCR to play them on, that is.
Being seen naked used to be so shameful. Visualize the kid with the smarmy smirk brushing her forefingers together in that once universal shame-on-you gesture. Does anyone do that anymore?
Sexting – sending a naked picture of oneself via your phone – has become routine among teens and twentysomethings. And, once they’re out there, they’re likely out there forever. But no one seems to be concerned. Sure, a few celebs have cried that their private photos were stolen or sold without their authorization. But increasingly those situations are being met with a big so-what, which is why I’m surprised when the moralists take someone to task for it. That train left the station a long, long time ago.
A couple of keystrokes and images of naked people fill your computer screen.
And why be satisfied with just pictures? Just go to the nearest beach for an eyeful of naked girl. Oh yeah, there may be a piece of fabric stuck between her bum cheeks, but by any definition, she’s naked.
It’s kind of sad, really. There was a time when seeing a naked body, if only a glimpse, was like experiencing a flash of the divine. Still, I hope it never gets old.
In my last blog, I talked (okay, blogged) about the difference between a scene and a story—a critical difference if we seek to elevate our erotica above the merely erotic, to make it both satisfying and memorable. It talked about all the ingredients I collect for a story, like a main character, an antagonist, conflict and resolution.
‘Ingredients’ is a good word for these things, because it tells us what we need to get started, but not how to put it all together. For example, you wouldn’t introduce your bad-guy in the last chapter, right? Even when you have all the right ingredients, you still need to put them together properly to get a story.
Structure: A recipe for success
Ever heard of the three-act structure? It’s not new. It was coined by Aristotle, apparently, and is now a staple of modern screenplays. We can employ the same techniques to structure stories, even short ones. Rather than boring you with a long and dull description that I copied off Wikipedia, I thought it would be more fun (for me) to show structure in action by decomposing a well-known story (in this case, a movie) into some of its structural components to show you how it works.
Now it’s no secret that I’m Australian, and it’s also no secret that every last one of us is a knife-toting, crocodile-wrestling maniac. It should come as no surprise that I have chosen the 1986 classic Aussie rom-com, Crocodile Dundee, starring Paul ‘Hoges’ Hogan and Linda Kozlowski. I know you’ve all seen it; don’t try to deny it.
So let’s have at it. Since I’m too lazy to actually describe the three-act structure, I’ll refer as I go along to some excellent infographics from www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com by K.M. Weiland, author of Structuring Your Novel.
Here’s a cinematic blurb for Crocodile Dundee that I pasted together from a few sources:
Sue Charlton, a New York reporter, heads to Australia to interview the living legend Mick Dundee. When she finally locates him, she is so taken with him that she brings him back with her to New York. How will the Aussie bushman cope in the big city? And how will Mick cope when he finds himself falling in love with Sue?
Now, this is my third go at writing this blog, and what I’ve discovered in two failed attempts is that breaking down the plot of even a simple movie like Crocodile Dundee into its three-act components is a monumental undertaking. I wouldn’t finish writing it, and you certainly wouldn’t finish reading it. I’m just not that interesting. Instead, I’ll try something briefer and hopefully more interesting, by pulling some of the key scenes out from Act One and trying to identify them in the Weiland infographic.
Scene: The Walkabout Creek Pub
It’s the third scene of the movie, where Sue accompanies Walter Reilly to the Walkabout Creek Pub to meet Mick. Mick sweeps in in a boisterous, raucous rush of hilarious larrikinism, wrestling a stuffed crocodile, when he spots Sue.
They lock eyes and there’s a long, sexually charged moment that lets every viewer know exactly why they’re there—to see these two fall in love. This is a critical moment for the movie, because not only does it introduce the title character, it lets us know his goal (get the girl), and it is the pursuit of that goal which drives the drama.
In a romance story, a scene like this is known as a meet-cute (or sometimes cute-meet), a cute, amusing, and endearing way for the love-interests to meet. Woe be to she who writes a romance without a meet-cute.
Sue, to her great credit, steadfastly sticks to her purpose and is not wooed by the charismatic bushman:
“Listen, you do understand I want you to take me out where you were attacked, show me how you survived.”
“Oh well, I don’t know, just the two of us there alone? I’ve got me reputation to think about.”
This is our first sniff of the movie’s central conflict: Mick wants the girl, but the girl wants the story (not to mention, she has a boyfriend). In this way, the story’s antagonist isn’t a bad guy, or a monster, or a volcano, it’s situational. If Sue wants the story, she must spend time alone with Mick, and in doing so, she will have to endure his country charms. Surely only the strongest woman could resist!
Let’s look at K.M.Weiland’s Act One infographic. That link should popup a new window. I’d love to duplicate the infographic here, but I’m too damn lazy to ask Ms Weiland for permission. If you’re too damn lazy to click the link (hey, I’m the last to judge), then you’ll just have to imagine a timeline that shows how Act One is broken up into The Hook, The Set-up, The Inciting Event, The Build-up, and The First Plot Point. Curious yet? Clickety-click … I’ll wait …
You’re back? Great. Now this infographic isn’t romance-specific, so we don’t see meet-cute there, but clearly the Walkabout Pub scene is part of the set-up; characters: check; goals: check; stakes: check.
But what about that Inciting Event? It’s supposed to be in here somewhere. It will be the place where the antagonist takes its first bite out our main characters. The Walkabout Creek Pub introduces the situational antagonist, but it hasn’t slapped either of them down, yet.
Lesson: Not all critical scenes are on the right-hand-side of the infographic.
Scene: Sue Strikes out alone
After a day and night of outback adventure, Sue is recording her impressions on a tape recorder when Mick interrupts. (Apologies to US viewers, this link is blocked to you and I can’t find the scene elsewhere on the Internet)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pl8rwEuPf84#t=25m15s (Apologies to US viewers, this link is blocked to you and I can’t find the scene elsewhere on the Internet)
“Yeah, but you’re not alone. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, but… I think I know how you must have felt… Or how I’d feel if I were out here alone.”
“You… Out here alone? That’s a joke. A city girl like you… You wouldn’t last five minutes, love. This is man’s country out here.”
“That’s right. I’m only a sheila. We’re heading for that escarpment today, right?”
“Okay. See you there this afternoon.”
You’ll have to watch the clip, because what the dialogue doesn’t show is the death-stare Sue gives Mick when he says she wouldn’t last five minutes.
This is our antagonist, out to play, teeth bared, saliva dripping from its maw. How could these two ever love each other? Physical attraction is one thing, but love between a chauvinist and a feminist? Not going to happen.
I think we’ve found our inciting incident. Their differences have driven a wedge between them, and it’s going to take a miracle to bridge the chasm it’s created.
Lesson: An Inciting Event is key to any complete story, not just a romance. We set a character onto a goal, but where’s the fun if we just let him succeed? Mick Dundee taking the city girl out into the bush, falling in love and living happily ever after is NOT a story. The Hook may be the thing that gets us reading, but the Inciting Event is the thing that makes us care.
Scene: Echo Lake
After the Inciting Event comes a series of scenes where Mick regains ground in his romantic quest for Sue, not the least of which being the one where he saves her from a crocodile attack.
Each of these plays on the same theme, Sue’s conflicted feelings for Mick, and the sense of safety she enjoys to be protected by such a manly man.
These feelings come to a head at Echo Lake. Sue is resting on the bank and watching Mick spear-fishing. The look in her eyes and the backing score all say one thing: she wants this man. Problem is, Wally will be there soon to end their adventure, and then she’ll have to go back to New York alone and resume her normal life without Mick.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pl8rwEuPf84#t=38m12s (Apologies to US viewers, this link is blocked to you and I can’t find the scene elsewhere on the Internet)
“Mick. When I go back, why don’t you come with me?”
“Well, it would make a great wrap to the story… You in New York City.”
“Oh. For a minute there I thought you were making a pass at me.”
“Well, I might have been. Would you mind?”
This is a huge moment for Sue. She’s tried playing the assertive modern woman to Mick, and it almost got her killed. But even though she’s the one making the move, everything in the scene still screams that she is playing submissive Jane to his Tarzan, which is the drama that drives their romance.
More importantly, it opens the plot of the movie. We’ve had the city-girl-in-the-outback, now it’s time for the bushman-in-the-big-smoke, which—apart from the romance—is the real point of Crocodile Dundee.
Looking at our infographic, we see that this is our First Plot Point. We’ve had the set-up and the build-up, now it’s time to crank the handle and let the story fly into the second act, which is where all the real conflict happens.
Lesson: The Inciting Event is not the plot; it simply opens up the story for the plot reveal. Because of this amazing thing that happened (Inciting Event), now we must embark on this adventure (First Plot Point). The closer you can tie these two to cause and effect, the more compelling the drama.
What Have We Learned?
Crocodile Dundee is cheesy and formulaic, and yet every time it comes on TV (and in Australia, that’s a lot, and usually late at night), there I am:
I’ll just watch to the croc attack.
I’ll just watch to Echo Lake.
I’ll just watch to “That’s not a knife.”
The reason I keep watching until they land in each-other’s arms in the New York subway, is because it’s a tremendously satisfying story. And it’s tremendously satisfying because it keeps giving you what you need, when you need it.
This is no accident.
Sure, you could ignore structure. You don’t want to write formulaic fiction that ticks boxes, you want to write a beautiful, organic story the way it needs to be told.
Well sure, you can. Don’t let me tell you different. But if your goals are less lofty, if all you want is to turn a good idea into a great story that people will enjoy, then look into this structure thing. It really works.
By Ashley Lister
Both of us moaning
Above the wet sounds of our love
The Fibonacci Poem is an experimental Western poetry form, bearing similarities to haiku, but based on the Fibonacci sequence.
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…
A typical Fibonacci poem is six lines in length, although it can be longer.
I want you.
It’s late. And we’re drunk
enough to make some big mistakes.
As always, I look forward to seeing your poetry in the comments box below.
by K D Grace
Acquaintances of mine told me once that, while they had been friends forever, they’d made a pact. If neither of them was married by the time they were forty, they’d marry each other. This was long before My Best Friend’s Wedding. I suspected they were friends with benefits, but it would have been rude to ask.
The number one rule of friends with benefits is that you don’t talk about friends with benefits – at least not the friend with whom you have the benefits. That’s part of what makes those added benefits so sexy. You don’t fuck your friends … except when you do. And if you do, then the assumption is that the person you’re having sex with is not the person of your dreams, nor you theirs. But you’re still ,above all else, friends. If you go for it, then the assumption is that you’re both still looking for that special someone and you’re both okay with that, even encourage that. Friends with benefits involves a level of trust that might call for some secret keeping.
I got to thinking about friends with benefits on my walk today. There’s something really hot about having sex with someone you’re not supposed to, about finding that you’re attracted to someone you’re not really supposed to be because … well because you’re friend. And there’s something outrageously arousing when you discover that you just might be able to have your cake and eat it too. Friends with benefits is a delicious stop-gap in which friends get to admit while they’re not The One True Love, they’re a whole lot better than humping one’s hand, elevating the idea of friends taking care of each other to a whole new level.
I was in such a relationship when I was in Uni – a man I’d been best friends with since high school. During that time there were three of us who hung out together when we were in between relationships – which was most of the time. The other woman was also a long-time schoolmate. The two had been my best friends for years.
Suzie (we’ll call her that to protect the not-so innocence) confided in me that she had flat-out asked Tom one night when they’d both had a little too much to drink and they were bored and in between relationships, why he didn’t fuck her. He told her he didn’t want to ruin their friendship.
I kept it to myself that with me he had no such qualms. Later when he told me about it, he simply said that he trusted me. He knew our friendship was strong enough to take it. Funnily enough, while I was never jealous when he was in a relationship, I think I might have been had dear old Suzie been getting equal benefits from Tom.
That dynamic comes back to me in a lot of the stories I’ve written – the idea of finding a secret port in the storm, a temporary fix, a way of dealing with libido and ‘singleness’ that’s mutually beneficial. We talked a lot about the thin line we walked keeping our friendship safe in spite of having a physical relationship. That’s probably why it worked for us. We talked a lot. We had fun together. We looked out for each other on a lot of levels. And we were both very certain we weren’t ever going to be a real couple. The fact that it did work, however, means it certainly wasn’t good story fodder. Think When Harry Met Sally, Friends with Benefits, The Ugly Truth. The real story gets going when our lovely couples have sex and RUIN EVERYTHING! That’s why the idea of friends with benefits fascinates me as a writer.
A big part of that fascination is because friends with benefits is a relationship so full of contradictions. There’s less
stress, more honesty with sex because the relationship is already set. But there’s more stress for fear of destroying the friendship both partners value. The person is not an unknown because the partners are already friends. But adding sex to the equation means discovering and uncovering things about each other that can totally change that dynamic. There’s openness and yet there’s subterfuge. We kept our relationship secret. To the outside world we were best friends. We both decided that was the most important part of who we were together. But seeing someone naked and vulnerable can’t help but change the way we view each other. And whenever sex is thrown into the mix, things can get complicated.
Within the delicious stew of friends with benefits there are a million sexy story ideas, a million minefields to be navigated and a million conflicts to up the chaos of the story. And in the midst of it all, there’s Forbidden Sex Lite. You don’t fuck your friends … except when you do. Then you do it at your own peril. How can that not be a serious turn-on in erotica and romance?
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. Read her short erotic story Babes in Begging For It, published by Cleis Press. You will also find her new novel No Restraint at Amazon. Enjoy a good, sexy read today.
Opening a novel or short story can be a bitch. Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty and other novels, had advised writers to avoid prologues and to refrain from opening a story talking about the weather. Marc Laidlaw, an author who also helped develop the game Half Life, once tweeted the following advice about opening paragraphs of fiction works: The first line of almost any story can be improved by making sure the second line is, “And then the murders began.”
Normally, a writer would not begin a sentence with the word “and”. Laidlaw purposefully included that word because it “gives my use of the phrase an extra florid, self-important note that puffs it up just enough to be suitable for narrative frivolity.” My husband and I had argued about the title for my erotic romance novel Don’t Call Me Baby. He thought I should call it And Don’t Call Me Baby. I didn’t want to partly because that word dangled and irritated me and for the same reason Laidlaw laid out. It ended up not mattering since the book didn’t sell and it’s now out of print, so there’s that. I’d always done much better with my erotic fairy tales, and I’m working on a short story collection of them right now. One of my best-sellers, Climbing Her Tower (erotic Rapunzel), lends itself very well to this exercise.
Climbing Her Tower by Elizabeth Black
The warmth of the sun glowed on Rapunzel’s face as she stood before her window, awaiting Mother’s instructions. And then the murders began.
I also write horror. This exercise doesn’t work as well with that genre because it’s dark and bleak to begin with. However, when coupled with romance novels, the fun begins. Here are some examples of best-selling romance novels with that particular sentence added to them.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. And then the murders began.
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught up by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. And then the murders began.
True Believer by Nicholas Sparks
Jeremy Marsh sat with the rest of the live studio audience, feeling unusually conspicuous. And then the murders began.
Dark Lover (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 1) by J. R. Ward
Darius looked around the club, taking in the teeming, half-naked bodies on the dance floor. And then the murders began.
50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. And then the murders began.
Bared To You (Crossfire Book 1) by Sylvia Day
“We should head to a bar and celebrate”. And then the murders began.
Gabriel’s Inferno by Sylvain Reynard
The poet stood next to the bridge and watched as the young woman approached. And then the murders began.
You may see the point behind this exercise by now. Many writers, in particular fledging ones, have difficulties with exposition and telling instead of showing when beginning their stories. They ramble about the weather or describing backgrounds or pontificating about a character’s history or inner thoughts without providing a hook for the reader. Without a hook, your reader won’t continue reading. She will get bored and toss your book aside like so much garbage. You need to grab the reader in the first paragraph – nay, in the first sentence. That’s why agents and publishers often ask for the first chapter or first five pages of your manuscript when you submit to them. They want to see your hook. If you don’t have one or if it is weak, that is one reason you likely won’t get that joyous letter offering representation or a publishing contract. You need action and vibrancy to pique someone’s attention.
Sometimes, a writer’s story doesn’t really begin until the third or fourth page. If that’s the case with your story, delete the first few pages and begin your story where the action begins. Not only must you engage the reader from the onset, you must keep that reader engaged throughout every chapter of your book. Books are like fractals. There should be a hook at the beginning and end of each chapter as well as at the beginning of the book. The beginning hook holds the reader’s attention and the end-of-chapter hook encourages that eager reader to continue reading into the next chapter. Clayton Purdom described Laidlaw’s exercise in his article for A. V. Club when he wrote “the sudden introduction of murder provides a contrast with tone-setting exposition or an unexpected development to its more direct action.”
“And then the murders began” is a funny and effective way to get the point across. Watch your reader jump out of her seat with excitement over your works. Don’t let her sigh and become bored with exposition. That way, you’ll both attract and hold readers.
Queers Were Here: Heroes and Icons of Queer Canada, edited by Robin Ganev and R.J. Gilmour (Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2016)
This book is a charming little anthology in which a group of “queer” Canadians answers the question: Who were your role models when you were “coming out?” One of the editors teaches history in the same university where I teach English, and I attended the local book launch.
In the introduction, the editors explain: “Our guiding purpose was the conviction that queer pioneers who challenged the dominant culture and fought for greater tolerance needed to be remembered and celebrated.” It seems that the 1980s were a crucial decade for most of the contributors, as they were for me. (I “came out” then too). Most of the contributors seemed to have been drawn to the “gay scene” in Toronto when they were young, and I recognized their references, even though Toronto seemed as far away from my prairie town as San Francisco or New York City.
The contributors are both male and female, and none of them emphasize the differences between gay-male and lesbian culture, but the differences are clear. Much of the urban “gay culture” described by the men seems exclusive to them.
This book fits into a pattern of recent histories of LGBTQ life in Canada since 1969. All of them discuss the long-term influence of the Omnibus Bill that was passed that year (under a previous hip, sexy Prime Minister, father of the current one), a sweeping piece of legislation which decriminalized sex between men throughout Canada, among other reforms. And of course, no book on “gay” life could avoid mentioning The Plague: the trickle of AIDS deaths in the early 1980s that soon became a flood.
Both these events left lesbians fairly untouched, except as concerned bystanders. In that sense, these events were parallel to the U.S. government’s drafting of young men into a war of imperialism in the 1960s, which supposedly inspired the rebellions of the Baby Boom generation and motivated American families like mine to move to Canada. I was a teenager at the time, but I didn’t need to “dodge” the long, uniformed arm of Uncle Sam. I was a girl.
Here in Canada, the Omnibus Bill has been described as another thing that helped to define a generation. Like the Stonewall Riots in New York City in the same year, the bill paved the way for “gay rights” by modifying (not completely ending) the legal persecution of male-male sex in Canada. This change was groundbreaking, but it had no direct effect on women.
Female-female sex has never been mentioned in the Canadian Criminal Code, which had its roots in Victorian England. There is an anecdote that Queen Victoria refused to sign a bill which would have criminalized sex between any two or more people of the same gender on grounds that “ladies wouldn’t do that,” but I have my doubts. I suspect that the gentlemen who wrote that legislation simply thought that whatever sexual games women could play with each other were unimportant (even if unladylike), and should therefore remain unnamed, even as a crime. At that time, few women had the rights of adult citizenship, so the law-makers probably assumed that improper behavior among girls or women could be privately dealt with by fathers or husbands.
Regarding the Plague, various writers and lecturers in queer venues in the 1980s tried to frame AIDS as a threat to everyone on the margins of society. An earnest lesbian acquaintance once tried to convince me (during a long car ride) that we should all start using dental dams and gloves in bed with each other because transmission of the virus from one female body to another had not been disproved. While I admired her good intentions, I felt as though she were advising me on how to protect myself and my dates from hurricanes and earthquakes, none of which happen on the Canadian prairies.
The Plague reached my town several years after I first read about its effects in larger cities, and I was sincerely upset when it destroyed the lives of men I liked and respected. I was disturbed when I read about the effects of AIDS on heterosexual women (or those who couldn’t avoid unprotected sex with men) in African countries. In the 1990s, I joined a drama group, directed by my sweetie, that went into schools to perform educational skits about HIV prevention. I wished there was more I could do.
Nonetheless, the Plague didn’t seem any more universal in the world than a hurricane slamming into a Caribbean coast. Where were all the HIV-positive womyn-loving womyn? Where was the evidence that AIDS-related deaths were cutting a swathe through the Amazon Nation?
I came to realize that lesbian sex (not to be confused with lesbian life) is the free lunch that we have all been told does not exist. Women don’t get each other pregnant, except when this is mutually desired, and one woman wields a turkey baster. Even then, the sperm has to come from someone else. Women are less likely to spread sexually-transmitted infections to other women than any other sexually-defined population. Although lesbians, even in Canada, have faced discrimination based on gender identity and general nonconformity, sexual activity between women here has largely occurred below the radar of police intervention.
The relatively conflict-free nature of lesbian sex becomes clear to me when I am deciding what kind of sex to describe in a story. Conflict in some form seems necessary to move the plot along, and in some scenarios, it’s easy to find. Sex between men and women can result in unwanted pregnancies, as well as disease. Women have reasons to fear violence from men. Men have reasons to fear manipulation from women.
Sex between men seems much less stigmatized now than it used to be, but HIV is still around. Plus there is still a feral, homophobic, straight-white-male subculture which seems especially dangerous now that it is less socially accepted than before. I don’t want any of my gay-male friends to seem too obvious among strangers.
Conflict between women in an erotic story usually has to come from something other than their sexual orientation. A story about the seduction of an innocent maiden by an experienced dyke is likely to seem unbelievable if set in the current era. How many young women, fresh out of high school in the 21st century, are unaware that sex between women is possible? How many are inclined to faint when they figure it out? (Fainting from pleasure seems like a different thing.)
I sometimes wonder why more erotic writers, of various genders and sexual inclinations, haven’t focused more on lesbian sex as a set of activities with a high ratio of immediate pleasure to negative consequences. Maybe it’s because lesbians are still often seen (if at all) as a subset of some larger demographic.
I just returned home to Asia, after a two week sojourn in the United States. Needless to say, I have many concerns about what’s going on in my native country these days. Missile strikes and the mother of all bombs do not leave me feeling sanguine.
One aspect of my trip made me smile, however. In my wanderings through New England and New York, I visited a number of independent bookstores. I found them to be thriving, despite the influence of the eight hundred pound e-commerce gorilla we authors love to hate.
In Exeter, New Hampshire, we spent a happy half hour browsing at the Water Street Bookstore (http://www.waterstreetbooks.com/). Housed in a hundred year old building overlooking the tumultuous water of an old mill canal, this shop highlights the work of local authors. Though it was quite early on a Saturday morning, we were far from the only customers. I dawdled in the fiction section, while my DH perused the history table. I particularly liked the handwritten review quotes and blurb snippets posted on brightly colored paper beneath many of the volumes, which made it possible to get a feeling for a book without even picking it up from the shelves. Of course, there’s a deep pleasure to be found in handling a physical book—admiring the cover, flipping through the pages, breathing in the scent of fresh ink.
Though we really didn’t have room in our luggage, I couldn’t resist purchasing a copy of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, which has been on my to-read list for a long time. It was the least I could do. After all, the shop not only boosted our spirits but also gave us a welcome respite from the cold April wind.
A few days later, we dropped in to The Bookstore of Gloucester, one of two indie bookshops on the picturesque main street of that historic fishing city, to join locals and tourists browsing there. This store specializes in books on maritime topics. I was very tempted by a volume about the great Boston molasses flood of 1919 but this time I managed to keep my wallet in my pocket.
Our voyage concluded in New York City. For us, no trip to the Big Apple is complete without at least a brief stop at the Strand. Three floors—reportedly, eighteen miles!—of books await you at this marvelous landmark.
I wandered dreamily among the stacked tables, noting titles and authors I’d never heard of, as well as many old favorites. I found it comforting, even uplifting, to happen on brand new editions of The Moonstone, Rebecca, and She. Thousands of new books may be published daily, but they don’t necessarily erase previously existing titles. They just add to the world’s literary richness.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, the Strand was packed. It was actually a bit difficult to make my way through the crowds to the cashier. Yes, even though our suitcases were stuffed full, locked, strapped and waiting to be collected at the hotel, we still purchased a couple of titles—new offerings from Alice Hoffman and Jonathan Lethem. Considering how much we paid to get to the U.S. in the first place, we figured we should take advantage of the opportunity!
I know many brick and mortar bookstores are struggling these days. Still, it’s clear that some are thriving, nurtured by their communities, welcoming those of us who love the written word. In these dark times, they are oases of light. Maybe I’m naive, but bookstores still give me reason to hope for humanity.
I admit it. I made a terrible mistake putting “Republican” in the title of my column last month. Could you choose any better word to dash cold water on a reader’s libido even if it was paired with the magically profitable and compelling duo of “Fifty Shades”?
I hope, however, to make up for my previous misjudgment this month by discussing a topic of timeless allure: a woman who takes her clothes off for the sake of art.
My inspiration for this column is Audrey Munson, the model for numerous artists and sculptors in the early part of the twentieth century. Interpretations of her nude form appear in New York City as Civic Fame atop the Manhattan Municipal Building, on the Maine Memorial in Central Park, as the Spirit of Commerce on the arch at the end of the Manhattan Bridge, and as Pomona in the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel. As James Bone writes in his biography of Audrey, The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous and Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, “Wherever you go in New York City, Audrey is looking at you.” (Bone, 3) In 1915, at the Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, she was even more ubiquitous. Seventy-five percent of the statues and murals adorning the fairgrounds were based on modeling sessions with Audrey. “’America’s greatest sculptors are ready to admit that she is the most perfectly formed woman who ever posed in an American studio,’ the San Francisco Chronicle gushed.” (Bone, 110)
James Bone’s book tells the tale of the life of this early-twentieth-century supermodel, but also of the familiar challenges faced by a female muse in a world controlled by men: artists who projected their own visions of perfection on her body, wealthy playboys who collected models like trophies, theater managers who punished actresses for rejecting sexual advances, and unscrupulous film producers who publicized but never paid lavish wages. Audrey’s subjective experience of these adventures and misadventures is captured to a degree in newspaper interviews and memoirs, usually ghost-written by a male author. But after a career as a chorus girl, model and early film star, she spent the second half of her life in a mental institution, receiving only rare visits from family members until she died in 1996. In Bone’s biography, as in the marble likenesses of her body, Audrey is there–yet she is not there. All around New York, we may indeed gaze upon Audrey, but in truth, her eyes are, and have always been, blank and blind.
Still many aspects of her story felt surprisingly relevant today. Sexual politics are as timeless as the appeal of a beautiful body au naturel. There is much to discuss in her life about beauty, power and art, but for brevity’s sake, I’ve chosen two of the aspects of her story that struck me in particular as a female reader: the significance of the moment when an artist first persuades a young beauty to pose nude and the possible reasons for Audrey’s popularity among artists in the 1910s.
The artist’s model has been a stock character in erotic fiction from nineteenth-century tales of Bohemia and Anais Nin to steamy stories in multiple recent editions of Best Women’s Erotica. Sometimes, the model is a woman of experience who enjoys her work, has many lovers and feels no shame. However, the initiation of the innocent has always had particular power in erotica. Seductions often begin with the man convincing a woman to pose for a painting or a photograph in artistic drapery and then, with further coaxing, in the nude. Bone’s biography, although not erotica per se, dwells upon that moment of Audrey’s transformation from respectability to, depending on your perspective, fallen woman or transcendent muse.
Audrey’s modeling career began when she was approached on the street by Felix Benedict Herzog, a photographer who asked to make studies of her face. Her mother Kittie accompanied her to his studio to make sure her daughter’s virtue was not compromised. Kittie had divorced Audrey’s father over ten years before. After running several boardinghouses in Providence, Rhode Island, Kittie and Audrey ended up in Manhattan where Audrey found occasional work in the theater. Herzog took “artistic” photographs, but Audrey was always properly draped in costume and cloth.
It was Isidore Konti, a sculptor from Vienna, who first persuaded Audrey to pose “in the altogether.” Konti was working on a sculpture called Three Graces for the Grand Ballroom of the Astor Hotel, but had encountered sculptor’s block. The very sight of Audrey gave Konti the inspiration to continue—he would use her figure for all three of the Graces. But first he had to convince Audrey to take off her clothes.
“It cost Konti a Herculean effort to convince the stubborn Kittie that her tender teenager was safe in his care. Every day, Audrey would arrive to pose with her mother in tow, and Konti would explain to Kittie why artists did the things they did. There was nothing wrong, he argued, with Audrey imparting her beauty to create a beautiful object in marble or bronze. Indeed, it was the duty of every woman, he insisted, to ‘contribute what she could to art and loveliness.’ In those studio sessions, Kittie, as much as Audrey, was being inducted into a new way of life. The life of art.” (Bone, 39-40).
According to Bone’s accounts, artist after artist would be struck at first sight by Audrey’s potential and use her form to produce a masterpiece. Konti introduced Audrey to Adolph Weinman, who immediately asked her to take her clothes off. Still a novice, Audrey stood shyly before him, eyes downcast. Weinman asked her to raise her arms as if she were fixing her hair and made quick sketches of her pose. These sketches later became the sculpture Descending Night—renamed The Setting Sun for the Pan-Pacific Exposition (and pictured at the beginning of this essay).
Bone emphasizes that Audrey insisted she only worked for professional artists and was no “natural” exhibitionist. “She developed a mental trick to help defeat her shame at appearing before a stranger in the altogether. ‘In position, holding a pose while a sculptor or painter worked, I thought of myself only as a model—a mere piece of human flesh,’ she said. ‘The moment the artist dropped his brush or mallet or modeling tool I became the human young woman again, ashamed to have my body seen.’” (Bone, 41-42).
Note, of course, that none of the art works for which she modeled is called “Audrey Munson.” They are named after mythological figures—Three Graces, Venus de Milo, Phryne—or abstractions—Maidenhood, Spirit of Commerce, Mourning Victory, Star Maiden. The erasure of individuality and subjectivity was the price of portraying the nude form in early twentieth-century America.
“Audrey learned the unspoken rules of thumb for posing in the buff. ‘No model posing undraped must ever smile. If she does the representation of her becomes common, disagreeable, offensive,’ she said. Even odder was the widely held belief that motion itself suggested sexuality. Censors allowed static ‘poses plastiques’ in the theater but balked at any moving nudity.” (Bone, 74)
Nevertheless, other details of her story suggest a more complicated dynamic. Rather than a passive object, Audrey was an active advocate for her career. She tirelessly visited studios throughout New York to offer her services. Recommendations from other artists as to her professionalism helped secure more work. She claimed to avoid being entrapped into affairs with the pseudo-artists of Bohemia, best identified by their luxurious studios and expensive clothes. Real artists wore dirty smocks; their workplaces were cold and Spartan. In her interviews and memoirs, Audrey insisted that her work had a higher purpose: “That which is the immodesty of other women has been my virtue—my willingness that the world should gaze upon my figure unadorned.” (Bone, 41)
If the classic erotic scene in the studio–with the artist invoking “duty to art” as he charms or bullies his reluctant, maidenly model into disrobing–is not totally accurate in Audrey’s case, what about the reason she was chosen by so many artists as the “It” Girl of the 1910s? The press would have you believe it was for a simple, objective reason: she had the perfect female form, no argument allowed. Syndicated health columnist Dr. Lillian Whitney attributed her popularity to Audrey’s ample bosom. (Bone, 74) In our age of breast implants, Audrey appears rather middling in that regard. As for timeless perfection, would Audrey receive a second glance from photographers and artists in our modern age?
They’d probably say she has to work on her thighs.
In fact, if you examine more than a few of these statues, the figures and faces are not exactly alike. Sometimes the breasts are full, other times they are smaller. Arnold Genthe’s photograph of Audrey above shows a different figure in flesh than in the stone of Three Graces. Might it be that the artist projects his own image of beauty onto the model? That “perfection” is an agreement between male artist and male critic rather than an objective measurement? If so, can we “know” Audrey through a sculptor’s image of her? Or can we only know something of the artist himself, the concrete representation of his fantasies?
Again Audrey’s professionalism is downplayed. She clearly had the talent of posing for long hours day after day, not a discomfort every person is able or willing to endure. The emphasis on the artist’s agency—persuading the woman to disrobe with invocations of duty to high principles, creating the work of art from his vision and skill—also undercuts the fortitude and attitude of the model. The sensibility of early twentieth-century America did not allow for any celebration of Audrey’s professionalism. We will never really know if she had appetite for transgression or “natural” exhibitionism. Audrey herself had to cloak her posing in high-minded abstractions: Beauty, Art and Timeless Immobility.
In conclusion, I am reminded that erotic writing by, for and about women only really came of age at the end of the twentieth century, around the time of Audrey’s death. In modern interpretations of the artist-model dynamic, the subjective desire of the model is finally given a voice—indeed the artist’s gaze can even be a female. Best of all, women eroticists don’t have to be cajoled, convinced or fooled. We create art with our eyes open. That is something to celebrate!