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.
by Daddy X
When I first started writing, I realized early on how difficult it is to get anyone to read erotic work. Friends proved somewhat less than helpful. Either they told me what I wanted to hear or I never heard from them again. After losing several friends, I abandoned that approach. :>)
So I took a few workshops with Susie Bright. She mentioned The Erotica Readers and Writers Association as the place to have our efforts read and commented on by those who know something about the subject.
IMO, Storytime represents the heart and soul of ERWA. Our critiquing process has long been acknowledged in erotica circles as one of the most effective means of taking the initiative to improve our craft.
There’s no set-in-stone requirement for participation in ERWA Storytime, though we do suggest an honor/common courtesy-based guideline: ideally an author offers two crits of others’ work for every story the author has posted for feedback. No one’s going to reprimand you if we have a slow week and not enough stories come in to fulfill the guideline. But over time, if it looks like all take and no give, expect a gentle reminder from our oversight staff.
Over the years, I’ve picked up some helpful tips about offering, and receiving, critiques:
The best way to start
It’s important to formulate your own critique before you read critiques on the same piece by others. You want to go into the read cold, without any prior expectations. Otherwise you’re likely to be distracted by the same problems others have seen. You don’t want to go into a read expecting something, and likely finding it. That will compromise your ability to see and communicate different problems or strengths. An honest reaction is your best guide and ultimately most helpful to the author.
What to look for
Has the author accomplished what they set out to achieve? In erotica, that goal is often of a sexual nature. I seldom critique erotica negatively for its sexual heat, or lack thereof. My thinking is that whatever produces sexual arousal in one reader will be another’s— “So what?” The amount I’m turned on, or not, is simply an indication of my personal response, not necessarily of the author’s writing skill.
Of course, if a story strikes me sexually, providing a-stirrin in me loins (boner) I’ll be sure to mention it (with enthusiasm). But a negative take on sexual titillation doesn’t afford much help, unless it’s a matter of style or ineffective chops used to produce the ultimately lackluster effect.
What pulls you from the story, for good or for ill? There’s that lovely passage that’ll make you stop and take a deep breath while you contemplate its structure, lyricism and impact. And then there’s the misspelling, tense jump or POV shift that yanks you abruptly from the flow.
When something confuses you, comment on it. Did the writer use enough dialog tags to make the characters’ conversations clear? Did we lose track of who was speaking? Did the author use too many tags? What was it that interrupted the flow of the story?
The author needs to hear what works and what doesn’t. In time, their level of expertise will improve, and your own critiques can become more precise.
How to present an effective critique
In most works, there are well-done elements, even in the most amateurish story. Mention those elements in your assessment. In fact, lead with them. There is no better way to create a receptive response than with a compliment. It tells the author that you respect their efforts and see value in their work.
Frame your comments so they can be readily absorbed by an author. Try to make every single thing you write clear, correct and effective. Make it second nature to consciously write to produce a predictable effect. It’s a good idea to get in that habit.
Simply voicing your opinion in a civil fashion can itself improve your own writing. If your tendency is to lash out, then make the extra effort to leaven your critique with courtesy. E-correspondence, often banged out in haste—unedited—has the tendency to come off as abrupt. A ‘critique’ does not imply a strictly negative response or focus only on the problems a reader encounters. Encouraging the author will help to soften the blow of whatever negatives you impart and provide more useful guidance.
Importance of staying objective
As you read more and more authors’ works, make a conscious effort to develop a sense of separating out your own pet peeves. Develop an awareness to discern elements outside your own squicks and preferences—mastery of which may take time, but is crucial to providing a valuable critique.
By integrating purposeful objectivity with innate subjectivity, your critiques can delve much deeper. When a seasoned subscriber has clear insights on story construction, tense, POV or declensions, that feedback can function as a professional editor’s would.
How to receive a critique of your own work
Everyone has an opinion. ERWA subscribers’ talents are spread over a vast range of literary achievement, from novices to professional editors. Because of that, ERWA opinions, taken as a holistic entity, tend to mimic the greater reading public.
While we understand that our writings are our children, nobody wants to hear that their baby isn’t perfect. Nobody at ERWA wants to make you feel bad. At least not intentionally. Of course, there are nearly as many styles of critique as there are subscribers.
We’ve already suggested those critiquing try for the positive approach. By the same token, authors having their stories critiqued should take comments with some degree of resiliency. We’re never done with the process of learning how to write. Being open to feedback, especially criticism, is crucial to that process.
Your responsibility to the critquer
Acknowledge all crits. In addition to voluntarily reading your work, the person critiquing has possibly spent hours on your piece—unpaid. If you don’t answer those crits, the person at the other end may assume the effort wasn’t appreciated and may not comment on your work again. It would be difficult for any one person to critique it all. We pick and choose works to crit in direct proportion to how much the effort seems valued.
What you get out of doing a critique
Maintaining objectivity concerning our own work is difficult. But as we observe others’ work, we develop a sense of how to recognize similar failings, or successes, in our own efforts.
Writing more nuanced critiques can inform our writing, producing more nuanced effects. (How to shape a narrative without subjectivity for example—a virtual necessity for a believable narrator.)
Remember—your reaction is always valid. The author’s words, phrases, and punctuation are the elements that have informed your opinion as well as your own future efforts.
Bottom line? Reading and critiquing other authors is one of the most rewarding and effective ways to improve your own writing.
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 new 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. Her story Neighbors appears in the new lesbian anthology The Girls Next Door. You will also find her new novel No Restraint at Amazon. Enjoy a good, sexy read today.
As anyone familiar with me is aware, I love to spend time at the beach. I live in Massachusetts so it gets quite cold here but that doesn’t stop me from taking my nearly daily walks in the sand and surf. This time of year it’s far too cold to swim in the water, though, but that hasn’t stopped some crazy people (especially surfers) from doing it. My husband and I are used to the surfers dodging waves and the brave (crazy) locals who swim in 50 degree water, but what we saw this past weekend just astounded us at how stupid some people can be.
Not long ago, we were on Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts enjoying a warm bout of weather. He went swimming (crazy), but not me. That water is like ice. We went for our daily mile long walk, not expecting anything unusual but we were in for a scary surprise.
There is a small island about a half mile from shore. It’s called Salt Island and it’s basically a huge boulder in the water covered with vegetation and seagull guano. When the tide is low enough, the water recedes so much there is a sand pathway between the island and the shore. People, including me, love to walk that pathway and explore the beach side of the island. You can’t get to it during high tide or even normal tide. Most of the time the island is completely surrounded with water. This is what the sand pathway to the island looks like from the beach. Note the two people on the pathway. They give you a scale to judge how big this area is.
This particular day, we walked to the island end of the beach and saw four young people standing on top of the island. There was a serious problem – it wasn’t low tide. Water completely surrounded the island and it can be pretty deep. We thought they might have had a boat moored on the opposite side of the island, and they’d get off that way.
They didn’t. To our surprise and horror, the four climbed down the island facing us and proceeded to swim in the water towards shore. The shore is at least a half mile away and there might be riptides out there.
This is what the island and the beach look like when the tide is almost in. That’s Salt Island straight ahead.
This is the view from the side with Salt Island on the right and the beach on the left.
That’s a lot of water between the island and the beach.
These four idiots (three guys and one woman) swam in water that was way over their heads. We were afraid they weren’t going to make it, so my husband dialed the Coast Guard in case they needed a rescue. We had hoped they’d make it to the shallow area where they could tread water or walk with water nearly over their heads. The first two guys made it and we weren’t worried about them. We were more worried about the guy and woman bringing up the rear. They were slower and in the deeper water. However, they did make it to the shallow area and were able to walk to shore. We didn’t need to call the Coast Guard after all.
They were young, reckless, and had lots of stamina to pull off that crap. We left that side of the beach when it was clear the four of them were safe. Several people had stopped at that end of the beach to keep an eye on them and I saw iPhones out. It was tense and touch and go, but they did make it to go on and do other stupid things. Like kiss snakes. Skydive. Light bottle rockets up their butts and set them off. You know, like the thrill seekers they were.
I wrote a short sweet romance years ago about an idiot who walked to a similar island during low tide and got stuck there when he got drunk and passed out. He wakes up during high tide with the walkway gone and finds himself stranded on the island. With a Nor’easter coming. He knows damned well he can’t swim across to shore. What to do?
I never thought I’d see people actually try to get off that island during high tide for real. Truth is stranger than fiction.
If you’d like to read my story, it’s called The Storm and it’s free on my web site. While you’re reading it, keep in mind I saw four young people pull the stunt for real while on one of my beach walks. Wonders never cease.
by Jean Roberta
Netflix has changed my life. Not only can I binge-watch my favourite TV series from the beginning in order to understand plots and the appearance of new characters (Who’s he?), I can watch without the interruption of commercials. Watching a backlog of episodes of a currently-running series is somewhat like cramming for an exam, but much more fun.
Lately, I’ve been catching up on the BBC serial Call the Midwife, a dramatization of midwife Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of delivering babies in the gritty East End of London in the 1950s and 1960s. As the viewpoint character, Jenny Lee, tells us in a reminiscent voiceover (in the mellow voice of Vanessa Redgrave) “midwifery is the very stuff of life.”
The birth scenes are certainly not sexy, but they show the natural consequences of sex in a time when it was only supposed to take place in marriage, and when married women were expected to spend most of their adult lives bearing and raising children. They didn’t always have a choice.
In Season 1, there is an episode in which Conchita, originally a refugee from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, is giving birth to her 24th baby by her English husband. He seems to dote on her, but he never learned Spanish and she never learned English. Their older children are fluently bilingual, and they translate the midwife’s questions for their mother, and their mother’s answers for the midwife. The proud father tells the midwife: “Conchita and I understand each other,” presumably without words.
This episode raises questions about sex in the context of a long-term relationship. Is it possible to have love without language? (I can hear the cynics in my life saying it probably works better that way.) Is it possible to enjoy unprotected sex, year after year, knowing that it will produce more mouths to feed?
As far as I know, few people in modern urban society experience heterosexual sex the way most people experienced it in past centuries: as part of a bond that was supposed to last a lifetime, and which led to pregnancy and childbirth, over and over. Sometimes pregnancy led to the death of the baby or the mother, or both. I can’t imagine maintaining my enthusiasm for the sport after the fourth or fifth or sixth baby.
Watching birth after birth, I’m profoundly grateful that most of my sex life has had no such consequences, wanted or otherwise. I’ve only been pregnant once, and that was by choice. For the past thirty-five years, my sex life has been with other women, and therefore I haven’t even had to think about birth control. It hasn’t been needed.
Much of my reading—fiction and non-fiction—during that time has involved sex and gender disconnected from reproduction. I’ve been sent review copies of books by authors who define themselves as “non-binary,” as “masculine” (if not born with a penis) or “feminine” (if not born with a vagina). Queer or “non-binary” writers who write speculative fiction often write about characters who also have a fabulous (in the literal sense) disregard for physical limits. Same-gender couples in these stories often have offspring in ways which don’t involve nine months of pregnancy and a painful finale. It almost goes without saying that male dominance, as crudely expressed by old-style men like Donald Trump, rarely exists in these imaginary worlds. Speculative fiction in our time, especially if erotic, is a great distraction from the here and now.
I would like to believe that the future of the human race is queer, bionic, diverse, and limited only by our imaginations, but I don’t see much real-life evidence to support a “non-binary” vision of the coming utopia. As a case in point, I sometimes have reason to explain to a binary male person (gay or straight) how the birth control pill works, and the only ones who seem to catch on are health-care professionals who already understand the term “ovulation.” In general, cis-gendered males have less reason to think about pregnancy than do females, and less reason to research various ways to prevent it. Even male couples who want to raise children don’t seem to dwell on questions about how babies are conceived, whereas female couples considering parenthood usually consider the possibility that one of them will develop a child in her womb. And this difference is visible in “queer” communities where gender roles are generally more fluid and less hierarchical than in the heterosexual mainstream.
So I watch dramatic representations of women giving birth in slum dwellings because it does seem to be the very stuff of real life, in the past and—for the majority of human beings—in the present. One hopeful note in Call the Midwife is that health care in Britain, since 1948, has been free even for the poorest, unlike in the U.S. and most Third-World countries. An American fan of the series wrote about how impressive the British health care system looks, even in a TV drama. As a Canadian, I’m able to take for granted the local version of that system, established in 1962.
I can’t help wondering what will happen to millions of Americans if Trump’s administration succeeds in destroying Barack Obama’s monument, the Affordable Health Care Act. The contrast of the apparent working partnership of Obama and his lawyer wife, Michelle, with the uncomfortable distance between Trump and his wife Melania doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Women tend to support universal access to good health care, and so do left-leaning men who can see beyond their own crown jewels. No guaranteed access to reproductive support correlates to powerlessness for women.
Do I think erotic fiction should include more references to birth? Not necessarily. As I’ve mentioned, scenes of poor women in labour don’t look especially sexy, even to woman-loving me. However, I would like to see more acknowledgment that sex between men and women is more than a form of recreation. It is literally the stuff of life.
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.