We live in an age when gender is an ongoing question, not a comforting binary: boy or girl. My neighbor who lives a few houses down the street, Judith Butler, introduced the concept of gender as performance, or “doing” rather than “being,” in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.
“We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman…we act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or simply something that is true about us. Actually, it is a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time.” (Applications of gender performance, Social constructions of gender, Wikipedia)
Butler argues that gender performance is generally out of the individual’s control, but in some settings, a person may attempt to control gender performance quite consciously, as Butler acknowledges, most obviously in drag performance.
In my research for my novel, I came upon fascinating examples of gender as performance due to the popularity of cross-gender impersonation on the stage in the early twentieth century. This openly recognized “performance” entranced audiences who lived in a time when gender roles were already being challenged by mass media, the suffrage movement, and new technology. Let me add that behavior outside of society’s strict gender expectations most definitely did not elicit the same delight off stage, in particular male homosexuality and “fairy” boys. But in a strictly controlled fantasy environment, “men” acting as “women,” and “women” acting as “men” brought the house down.
In my novel, our charming, yet darkly mysterious love interest will take our plucky heroine to a vaudeville show, a form of entertainment specifically designed to be respectable enough for your sister or sweetheart—in contrast to the bawdy entertainment for men only that predominated during the nineteenth century.
In spite of its family-friendly aspirations, vaudeville was always pushing the limits of propriety, aiming to titillate just enough to keep the audience humming.
After much study of New York vaudeville, I’m certain that the playbill for the show our couple attends will feature one cross-dressing act, because this form of entertainment reached the height of popularity in the 1910s.
For a taste of what a cross-dressing act in 1910 might offer, you’ll find interesting information and even better photographs as seen here in Anthony Slide’s Great Pretenders: A History of Female and Male Impersonation in the Performing Arts.
Perhaps our couple will enjoy the talents of a male impersonator in the tradition of the premier such artist on both sides of the Atlantic, Vesta Tilley, known as “The London Idol.”
Tilley hailed from Worcester, England, and was born in 1864 as Matilda Alice Powles. She had an easy entree onto the stage because her father worked as the master of ceremonies at St. George’s Music Hall. Tilley first appeared in male dress on stage in 1869 at the age of five. In her 1934 autobiography, she explained humorously: “I concluded that female costume was rather a drag. I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.” (Slide, 62)
Actually, as someone who gets rashes from makeup, is allergic to metal jewelry and is crippled by high heels, I can relate.
While Tilley could sing a fine song, such as “Following in Father’s Footsteps” or “Jolly Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier,” her true genius was her jaunty carriage.
Will M. Cressy described her magic in The Green Book Magazine (March 1916): “If Vesta Tilley could not sing a note nor speak a word, she could walk her songs successfully. There has never been a player who could paint a character more clearly by word or note than she can by her walk.” (Slide, 61)
Tilley toured the US in 1906 and 1909, but turned down a 1912 offer because she didn’t want to work on Sundays. She retired from the stage in 1920 when her husband decided he wanted to be an MP, and it wouldn’t do to have a wife on the stage. For a better sense of Tilley’s performance, check out this homage, or get a sense of a male impersonator’s act in this clip of Julie Andrews from Star! (1968).
Or perhaps our New York-savvy hero will take his lady friend to see the greatest female impersonator of the day, Julian Eltinge, in his turn in the musical comedy, The Fascinating Widow, which was playing in Manhattan the fall of 1911. In a plot that prefigures Some Like It Hot, Eltinge begins the play as Hal Blake, but is forced to pose as the widow Mrs. Monte—I haven’t yet found a full plot summary, but one source described it as similar to Charley’s Aunt.
Eltinge reportedly took two hours to put on female makeup and costume, including shaving his fingers. When he performed vaudeville, he would remove his wig at the end of his act to reveal the trick to the audience, many of whom were taken by complete surprise.
Great Pretenders was published in 1986, and while I learned a lot from it, I do have a gripe about the author’s full support of the common wisdom that men can impersonate women more effectively than women can impersonate men.
“There is, of course, a basic problem, and that is that women simply cannot adequately disguise themselves as men. There are not only the obvious physical problems with the hips and the breasts, but, more importantly, a woman’s face does not lend itself to makeup as a man. Even the greatest male impersonators such as Vesta Tilley and Kitty Doner could not fool anyone away from the spotlights of the stage.” (Slide, 67)
Slide follows in the tradition of Japanese kabuki critics who maintain that the female impersonator elevates femininity to a higher level than any mere biological female could manage.
But how many drag queens can survive close scrutiny out of the spotlight?
Slide doesn’t seem to have met the decent number of biological females with boyish or muscled figures, deep voices and Vesta Tilley’s confident carriage. Besides, if you view this clip from later in Julian Eltinge’s career, I can’t say I’m fooled.
I do agree with Slide when he notes that a man dressed up as a woman is “always good for a laugh” because he is seen to be losing status, which is arguably the foundation of comedy. However, when a woman plays a man, she is “reaching above her station in life,” especially in 1910.
I agree even more with Carolyn Heilbrun writing in The New York Times (January 16, 1983), “Men playing women, if they don’t camp it, can be very moving, whereas women playing men is always a bid for freedom.” (Slide, 67)
Vesta Tilley and other popular male impersonators were among the few women of their time who could achieve both self-expression and popular acclaim while wearing male clothes. Women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were fettered by layers of underwear and corsets, petticoats and long skirts. In trousers and solid shoes a body can swagger, run, and take possession of the space around it without the same fear of exposure and danger as in a corset, skirt, and heels. No wonder a woman would enjoy such a show—to see one of her own move through the world with power and ease.
Perhaps our heroine will see in the male impersonator her own vision of freedom—not too many years before women would be able to wear trousers in public, at least the daring ones in casual settings.
For women in 1910, the road to freedom stretched from the vaudeville stage into the future. What a journey it has turned out to be for us all.
When you’re a writer looking for an editor, and you really don’t have much cash to throw around, it can be hard to know where to invest your money. As vital as editing is to the publication process, it is a big outlay for authors, whether they’re self-publishing or hoping to be taken under the wing of a traditional publishing house.
Let’s imagine that you’ve been saving like mad, not smoking, not drinking, giving the takeaways a hard pass, and now you have round about $500-$800 to invest in the business of launching your novel into the wild. How do you get the best out of your money?
If you’re laughing at the idea of having as much as $300 saved, let alone the range casually referred to above, then scroll down to ‘Join the Borg’ and read from there. I’m covering a range of options.
“Pay Peanuts, Get Monkeys” (PPGM)
Yep, this section is about the cost of professional editing.
I think most of us have heard the phrase before in one context or another. The gist is that a very low service cost is a warning sign of an inept operator with low-quality goods and limited expertise. In many areas of life, it’s a sage warning: if something is being offered suspiciously cheap, you’d be wise to ask some searching questions about how this retail price is even possible.
However, PPGM is also a phrase often used by relatively pricey operators to dismiss the quality or expertise of an operator who happens to have a more competitive pricing schedule. It’s all too often a tool applied by the experienced to disparage those who are new to the editing game, so take this phrase with a pinch of salt. There are a number of reasons why an editor isn’t charging as much as you’d expect:
Where might you begin your search for an editor? Here are some options:
Don’t dismiss anyone on a casual PPGM basis; for example, there are some very good editors on Fiverr who are finding their way into the market, who don’t happen to have publishing house experience under their belt, or who are doing this part-time having given a lot of voluntary time to editing to successful effect.
Found some likely candidates? Right. I’m going to go through this process like it’s a fishing expedition.
Stage 1: throwing out the hook
Stage Two: landing
Create a spreadsheet of what each editor says they will charge for editing the manuscript. Also look at non-financial elements such as how they came across on email or messenger. There may be a couple of people you just click with. Once you’ve selected a likely fore-runner, it is reasonable to ask for a sample of their editing, using your first chapter (and this is why the length information is important; don’t expect them to edit a first chapter over 3k for free. That could be up to ten hours of their time, free, while they’re working on incumbent contracts).
Stage Three: Serving or Gutting
It could well be that you’re a good financial fit and you hire the editor. But…
What if you really like how the editor works, but their prices for a full edit, however reasonable, still makes you sob? If you like what they’ve done for you in the sample, then here are some other options to negotiate:
Join the Borg
Yep, this section is about hive minds and crowd-sourcing your feedback. Writing groups, both live and online, can be worth their weight in gold. You can use Reddit, Facebook, Literotica, Dirty Discourse and a number of social platforms to get a readership going, and to get feedback on your work as it proceeds. ERWA has its own critiquing workshop, Storytime, for this exact purpose.
You’ll get a range of opinions, and it’s useful to know where a lot of feedback overlaps. For example, your dialogue might impress several people, but your opening scene doesn’t appear to have the strong hook that you hoped for. It’s all grist to the mill, as they say, and acquiring a sort of consensus on your strong and weak points can help you see your writing with fresh eyes.
ERWA’s Storytime is one of the friendliest and most constructive places to share your work. However, to get the best out of a hive-mind scenario, here are some gentle caveats:
Close-up and personal
You can use alpha and beta readers to get feedback on the delivery and shape of your novel. Alpha readers are involved throughout composition, giving feedback on a section-/chapter-by-chapter basis. It’s rather like having a free editor who only operates on a developmental-editing basis, but who will apply that level of oversight as your story unfolds.
A beta reader will give you an overview of the whole once completed. There are some paid betas out there (and they will cost considerably less than an editor), but seek them out based on the recommendation of people you trust, and find out in advance how quickly they’ve responded to others. To get the best out of a beta-reader, prepare a list of questions which will answer all and any concerns that you have. Don’t be shy about asking them to tell you about the good bits, too. It’s important to know what to do more of, as well as what needs repairing or adjusting.
All by myself…
Okay, there’s just you. You’ve been burned by toxic feedback in the past, and you have very, very little money indeed. In which case, your priority should be to focus on your story skills, not on your technical writing skills.
With the very little money you do have, borrow books on writing techniques, shaping your novel (within your genre) and which address the structure of your story as a whole. Use this resource for countless borrowings on books about dialogue, characterisation and plot movement.
There are hundreds of websites devoted to grammar rules, and you can get that advice for free, or through your local library or bargain basement books.
Work on your other skills (formatting, covers, blurb-writing, synopsis-writing) in the background to your creative work, and you might be able to arrange a peer swap to have the final product of your work proof-read in fair exchange for some assistance of your own.
So, that’s a fairly full range of options for getting an extra set of eyes on your work from the capacity to shell out cash (and what to look for), to how to make the best of your very, very tiny pennies. I hope you find it helpful.
By Ashley Lister
It’s a common mantra within the writing community that we don’t write: we rewrite.
This investment in revision is supported by Hemingway who is meant to have said, “The first draft of everything is shit.” Of course, Hemingway died in 1961 so he never got a chance to read any of my first drafts, which are far from shit, but I understand a lot of people put credence in Hemingway so I won’t dismiss his opinions here.
The need to rewrite is important. Few first drafts reach the giddy heights of what we wanted to do with our work and revision helps us to achieve our goals by producing a more accessible text. However, rather than look at Hemingway’s reductive (and scatological) observations, I find more value in considering George Orwell’s guidance from his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’.
The essay itself is available on the internet and remains relevant and readable, even though it was written more than 70 years ago. It includes many valuable nuggets of wisdom and concludes with six rules that, for writers, are well worth living by. I’ve reiterated them here and I’m going to go through them in a little more detail below.
1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2.Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4.Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
This makes perfect sense as an editing rule. Readers don’t want to be revisiting tired phrases such as ‘she was as pretty as a picture’ or ‘he was working like a dog’. These are phrases with which we are so familiar that we don’t bother considering their content and simply come away from them think ‘she’s pretty’ and ‘he’s hard working’. Victor Shklovsky, in his essay ‘Art as Technique’, discussed the notion of defamiliarisation, suggesting that our readers can see things more clearly when they’re given an original description. Consequently, if we use alternative phrases such as ‘she’s as attractive as a tax refund’ or ‘he’s concentrating harder than a bomb disposal technician with shaky hands’, then our readers are seeing the world from a fresh perspective.
2.Never use a long word where a short one will do.
In an episode of Friends, Joey Tribbiani uses a thesaurus to help him write a recommendation letter for Chandler and Monica. His original phrase, that the couple are “warm, nice, people with big hearts”, has been translated into “they are humid prepossessing Homo Sapiens with full sized aortic pumps.”
This is a perfect example of why our personal vocabulary is usually sufficient for the task of writing, and a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of using a thesaurus to simply make our phrasing look cleverer. As the old joke says: if you use long words without being absolutely sure of what they mean, there’s a danger you might look photosynthesis.
3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Words like really and very are useless modifiers. You should be able to find stronger verbs or adjectives for whatever you’re trying to enhance.
Similarly, words like totally, completely, absolutely and literally are words that don’t add information to a sentence. For example, “The shelf was completely full of books.” reads the same as, “The shelf was full of books.” or better yet, “The shelf was crammed with books.”
4.Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. Also, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence.
5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
This is not Orwell saying that foreign phrases, scientific words or jargon are verboten or non licet. It’s simply his observation that the complexity of these words can sometimes be a barrier to clarity. I’d argue that some foreign phrases, scientific words and jargon need to be used: but this is only in cases where there isn’t an English equivalent that has the specificity of meaning I require. Other than that, I try to place a moratorium on vocabulary that might drag readers from the narrative I’m sharing.
6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
As I said at the start of this blog, we don’t write: we rewrite. Personally I find Orwell’s rules are a useful tool to help me when I’m rewriting. I sincerely hope they might be of use to you if you’ve read this far.
I went to a writers retreat hosted by Broad Universe in mid-March. Broad Universe is a networking group for women who write speculative fiction. I’ve been a member for several years. This retreat was held at Starfield Farm in central Massachusetts. There were lots of trees, birds, peace and quiet. I spent four days working on short stories, blog posts and part of a novel.
Everyone cooked in some fashion. I had brought cookies I had made at home. One woman made some delicious Mexican food. Another made scrumptious kugel. I was in gustatory heaven, which made the experience ever more enjoyable. During the evenings we socialized, drank homemade mead and sangria made by two of the women, and enjoyed a brief snowfall.
The isolation and quiet made for easy writing. The house dog (the retreat’s mascot) came to me often for petting (and hoping for table scraps), which was a nice break. I did finish a short story and I wrote two blog posts. The novel is coming along nicely.
I like writers retreats more than conventions now. For one thing, I think I get more for my money. I am not trapped behind a table in the dealer’s room for eight to ten hours at a time. I can rest whenever I want to which is important at my age. And I felt inspired by all the other women around me and by the locale. Writers retreats are well worth the money I spend on them for room and board, which was inexpensive for this one.
If you are a writer and are in the market for a writer’s retreat, here are a few to apply for that I’ve read are worthwhile:
Wellspring House Retreat – Located in Ashfield, Massachusetts, Wellspring is open year round. Rates per week are reasonable and vary depending on season and if you are coming along as an individual or a couple.
Yaddo – This one is an artist’s retreat that welcomes writers. You must apply to be accepted. According to Wikipedia, collectively, artists who have worked at Yaddo have won 66 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur Fellowships, 61 National Book Awards, 24 National Book Critics Circle Awards, 108 Rome Prizes, one Nobel Prize, and more. The name “Yaddo” rhymes with “shadow”.
Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Retreat – Can you imagine your muse inspiring you in the Rocky Mountains? Then, you’d like this retreat. This retreat spans three nights and often includes agent and author guests. Prices vary up to $399 for a private bedroom for the duration of the retreat. You may also stay for one day for $65 including meals.
Retreats located outside the U. S. that may appeal include the Himalayan Writers Retreat, Luova Retreats in Provence, France, and the women-only A Writer Within in Tuscany.
I may be going on another writers retreat near Cape Cod around Memorial Day weekend. This one is also hosted by Broad Universe. It is a bit more expensive, but that’s okay. It’s five days long and at a beach house. The rate is higher because it’s the beginning of the peak summer season. Once again, we’ll provide our own food and there will be plenty of peace and quiet. One thing I like about these retreats is I tend to see the same people over and over again since this is the New England chapter of Broad Universe, which is very active. I plan on soaking up some rays, walking on the beach, and getting lots of writing done. These retreats are a welcome part of my writing future.
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 two cats.
Web site: http://elizabethablack.blogspot.com
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/elizabethblack
By Larry Archer
I’ve never hidden the fact that we are in the Lifestyle and often use our experiences in the stories I write. Being a swinger has helped me write erotic stories because we’ve often been there and done that.
I was reminded of this difference when I watched part of Suburban Swinger Club on Lifetime. I say part because I was interested in The Secret Sex Life of a Single Mom, which came on following Swinger Club. I ended up watching the last fifteen or so minutes of Swinger Club, so I got the ending portion first.
After watching Sex Life of a Single Mom, I started watching the Swinger Club movie which followed Sex Life. Lifetime was repeatedly showing these two movies back to back. Sort of pulling a sex story train gangbang to my way of thinking.
I could only stand a few minutes of Suburban Swinger Club because it was completely wrong and possibly based upon someone’s idea of what swinging is about instead of knowing what swinger’s parties are actually about.
I’ve based my opinion on the beginning and end of Swinger Club but don’t think watching the entire movie would change my opinion for a number of reasons.
Warning: somewhat of a spoiler follows. The movie seems to portray swingers and swinger’s clubs as some type of weird cult with people who would never get a second invitation to party at the clubs I’m familiar with.
First, the people were all young and attractive in general, which I guess is Hollywood’s idea of the typical suburban swinger’s club. When in real life the people you’ll encounter are a broad variety, young to older, plain to gorgeous, and everywhere in between. The only way you might be able to tell the type of party is the dress code. By and large, many women in the Lifestyle tend to be exhibitionists, and their dress code normally reflects that.
I knew that this story wasn’t based on reality was when everyone threw their house keys in a bowl. That was how you picked your partner for the night by plucking someone’s keys out of the bowl.
First, they didn’t go to the selected partner’s house, they went upstairs, so why the keys, other than it is something that may have happened in the 1950s with the original group of fighter pilot swinger’s?
When you are at a House Party (aka swinger’s party), your partner isn’t chosen by a lottery, it’s by personal choice. You meet and talk with someone; then if you hit it off, you ask if they would like to party (aka fuck and suck). At this point, if both of you agree, then you get together and do the nasty.
Another point that galled me was one of the guys assumed he could get with the new girl at any time he desired, even without getting reciprocal feelings from her, after they partied for the first time.
Just because you get together with someone, you don’t own that person or have more rights. You get together for recreational sex and not a relationship or ownership.
What you can’t expect is that your partner will stay quiet if you break the rules. Once I remember a new couple who showed up at a party and the husband immediately started inviting wives out for dates and nooners. I guess he thought that this would be like cheating where everything is on the down low. Boy, was he wrong and they were never invited to another party. I’m sure they were asking themselves, what happened? He had no idea that all the wives immediately started talking with each other about what had happened.
As hard as it may be to believe, swingers may have loose morals, but they don’t cheat. When we get together with someone else’s husband or wife, it’s typically in the same house and often the same room, not at Motel 6 with Tom Bodett.
Since swinging is not socially acceptable to the majority of the populous, we tend to not talk about our parties around the water cooler.
I got into writing erotica for two basic reasons, (1) I wanted to see if I could do it, and (2) it was a way to talk about our experiences that didn’t have our neighbors burning crosses in our front yard.
I admit that I made a bad choice in picking the names of our counterparts in my stories, Foxy and Larry. Originally, I started out by writing stories about us, but then fictional Foxy and Larry took on a life of their own. They have evolved into a couple, who are a lot like us but a little more over the edge.
The makebelieve Foxy and Larry own a strip club in Las Vegas, The Fox’s Den, and enjoy a hedonistic life of excess both in the money they make and the lifestyle they lead.
When I discuss the actions and emotions of Foxy or Larry, the story typically portrays how they actually are in real life. For example, in The Watchers, one scene portrays Foxy and one of our girlfriends Chrissy staring in a gangbang witnessed by a room of voyeurs, Foxy is apprehensive about performing for an audience.
Not trying to throw her under the bus but that’s exactly how my wife is. She hates to plan and while she’ll do the most outrageous stuff on the spur of the moment, will usually fail to follow through if it is planned and scripted.
I’ve seen her on the floor making out with another girl at a dance with hundreds of people watching, yet if I would have suggested anything like that, she’d flatly refuse.
I’ve learned never to push my wife and always let her take the lead as it typically works out better all the way around. Swinging has allowed us both to grow and the crowd we run with are the greatest.
One of my recent stories is based upon an actual event that actually occurred. We have huge New Year’s Eve Pajama Parties and once a couple from down the street crashed our party, creating the impetus for Crashing the Swinger’s Pajama Party.
You can imagine my shock and theirs when a straight “normal” couple walks into a party with over one-hundred naked or semi-naked people doing obscene things to each other.
Needless to say, our actual relationship with them cooled somewhat but exploded in the fictional version of the encounter.
This was another case of fiction imitating real life and while a lot of the story was a what if, it is based upon fact. Thanks to Lisabet for suggesting that I write that story, which ended up as an 80,000-word novel that’s been one of my best sellers.
I also feature a lot of the people we know in my stories. With the names changed to protect the guilty, naturally. People who are more than walk-ons are typically real people. In my stories, I try to portray them pretty much true to life.
We have a menagerie of friends that we run with and by and large are a great group. Our best friends, Pam and Jack, are a MILF Hotwife and cuckold cop couple we do everything with. And yes, even that, well except that Jack only likes to watch the three of us and abuse himself, while holding the camera.
Another thing I don’t believe in is using condoms in my stories, a topic I’ve railed against many times before. I believe using a rubber doesn’t add anything to a story and since stories are not safe sex lessons, I don’t use them. And I promise, once you can get an STI from reading, I’ll make everyone put on a rubber.
Now having ragged on Suburban Swinger Club, I’d like to suggest that you check out The Secret Sex Life of a Single Mom. This great movie on Lifetime is about a Cougar divorcee dating a young guy, half her age, and becoming a submissive in a Dom/sub relationship.
While some things were missing as this is regular TV and not the Playboy channel, the story, in general, was good and should help in understanding why someone is a Dominant or submissive.
As always, if it’s the 24th, then it’s more erotica from the dirty mind of Larry Archer. Visit my blog, LarryArcher.blog for more of my ramblings.
Sometimes I think it’s more fun to flirt than to fuck.
Of course, I’ve always been focused more on the experience of arousal than on the ultimate release. That’s just the way I’m wired. When I recall my most intense erotic adventures, I don’t remember the orgasms, but rather, the inexorable upward ramp of desire, the thrilling anticipation of what was to come.
You get a lot of the same pay-off from flirting, without the attendant risks.
Knowing someone wants me—realizing the power I have over my partner’s body and imagination— it’s heady, almost addictive. Kick me out of the feminist union if you want, but I love being seen as a sex object. I don’t mind the fact that men (or women) might be watching and lusting after me. Quite the contrary. I do the same, after all, discretely ogling strangers, fantasizing about their hidden charms.
Flirting goes a bit further, but not much. Flirting requires an acknowledgment. A smile. A wave. An exchange of greetings, moving on perhaps to compliments or double-entendres. Underneath it all, there’s the excitement of mutual attraction, the pleasurable buzz of arousal that doesn’t need to be consummated to be enjoyed.
When you flirt, you don’t need to worry about practicality or propriety. I can chat up the lanky twenty-something barista at my local coffee shop, basking in the heat I feel in his gaze, despite the fact that I’m forty years older and happily married. I can shoot back some clever response to the burly construction worker who gives an appreciative whistle as I walk past, though I know we have nothing in common. I’ve brightened his day. He’s done the same for mine. Maybe he’ll fantasize about me as he’s jerking off. That doesn’t bother me. I might take the same liberties.
Flirting is most satisfying, though, with an intellectual equal. I remember a small party, years ago, with some university friends, hosted by a very appealing philosophy professor and his wife. We’d gathered to create homemade cheese tortellini. Christopher had dark eyes, the graceful long-fingered hands of a musician, a devilish smile and a delightfully agile mind. As we worked together—he cutting neat squares of pasta dough which I filled and twisted closed—we discussed politics, solipsism, and the works of Robertson Davies.
At one level, the topics of our conversation hardly mattered. The focus was the magnetism, the sexual tension that flickered between us. At the same time, the mental gymnastics in which we engaged added to the pleasure. If we were ever to connect, we knew the bond would be more than physical. Not that either of us really considered going further— well, of course, I don’t know in detail what was going on in his mind, but both our spouses were present, and I had no inkling his marriage was in any way less satisfying than mine. But reality was irrelevant. Flirting is all about fantasy, about possibilities that will very likely never materialize but which nevertheless excite.
The detail with which I remember this particular long-past incident of flirtation is testimony to how much it affected me.
I worry, however, that flirting will become a dying art. These days, flirting is often conflated with unwanted sexual attention. A respectful and well-meaning compliment is likely to be interpreted as inappropriate, offensive or threatening, while a friendly wolf whistle will get you roundly condemned as a sexual predator. I mentioned above that flirting involved lower risks than full-out sex, but in today’s hyper-vigilant climate that might not be true.
Where’s the line, though, between flirtation and harassment? How can someone distinguish between innocent innuendo and potential abuse? When does sexual objectification become demeaning or dangerous, rather than fun?
I don’t have an easy answer to these questions. It might depend on mutuality, or on the certainty that a lack of reciprocity would immediately put a halt to the unwanted attention. I do know that individual reactions vary. I’m sure that some of the actions that I’d accept as flirtatious behavior would be condemned as unacceptably sexist by some women.
At the same time, I’m certain that life would be far less colorful and entertaining if every expression of sexual interest between strangers were banned.
Given my appreciation of flirting, you’d expect it to show up frequently in my writing. In fact, I have very few stories that feature this sort of interaction. I know most readers aren’t like me. They’re looking for physical, not just fantasy, sex.
I did find a few prominent examples, though. Here’s one of my favorites, from the short story “Test Drive”, which appears in the altruistic erotica anthology Coming Together: On Wheels, edited by Leigh Ellwood and benefiting UNHCR.
“Hey there, pretty lady.”
His drawl rumbled through me, an avalanche of heat, melting everything in its path. My hair flew as I turned back in his direction.
I’d intended to scold him for his barely polite greeting. The words caught in my throat as I took him in.
He lounged in the doorway of the Indian motorcycle showroom, hands in his pockets, broad shoulders braced against the frame, one lean, denim-clad leg crossed over the other—six feet of loose-limbed masculinity. A sand-colored braid hung down across his solid chest, almost to his waist. The rolled-up sleeves of his plaid shirt revealed tanned forearms furred with golden down. His sun-bronzed face wasn’t classically handsome, but when his bright blue eyes snagged mine, I couldn’t look away.
Thirty. Thirty five at most. I could almost be his mother. Shocking that all I wanted to do was tear off my conservative skirt and blouse and throw myself into those obviously strong arms.
“Want to come for a ride, darlin’?”
“Ah—huh—what?” A master’s degree in library science, reduced to inarticulate mumbling by a bit of flirting. What was I, a teenager?
“Got a sale going on, through next week. Discounts of twenty to thirty percent on all our models. I have to say you’d look fantastic on a bike, Miss.” He unfolded himself from his casual pose and handed me a business card. “I’m Jack Taggart. Top sales associate in the Midwest, three years running. And you are…?”
It’s none of your business who I am, I wanted to tell him. Fat chance. “Um—Alice. Alice Robinson.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Robinson.” Apparently helpless to resist, I accepted the large, calloused hand he held out. Lighting sizzled through me as our palms connected. “Or is it Mrs. Robinson?”
His cocky grin sent blood rushing to my cheeks. I straightened my spine and tried to regain some sort of control over my autonomic functions. “Mrs. My husband died four years ago.”
“Oh—I’m so sorry…”
He gave my hand a sympathetic squeeze. With some difficulty, I pried it out of his grasp. What if one of my co-workers came by? “That’s okay. He was sick for quite some time. In some ways it was a blessing.”
“Still, it must be hard for you—being alone and all.”
I shrugged. I missed Ben, but I had to admit I enjoyed some aspects of being single. Aside from work, my time was my own. I didn’t have to answer to anyone—except, occasionally, my daughter on the West Coast. I smiled up into those sky-colored eyes, noting the crinkles at the corners. Perhaps he wasn’t quite as young as I thought.
“What makes you think I’m alone?”
“Well, I admit that it’s unlikely a woman as lovely as you would be unattached…”
“Is this how you got to be the top-ranked salesman? Flattering the customers?” I flipped a lock of hair over my shoulder and smoothed my skirt down over my lap, very aware of the dampness underneath. It might be the purest bull, but that didn’t stop me from reacting.
“That’s not fair, Alice—can I call you Alice?” He continued without waiting for my nod. “First of all, it’s the God honest truth. You are the most beautiful woman who’s walked by the shop in days.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll bet you told the same thing to the last half dozen.”
“No way! Secondly, I’m the best because I love the bikes. I know pretty much everything about the full Indian line, from the Scout to the Roadmaster. I don’t just sell them. I can repair ‘em, too—did a six month mechanics training course in Minnesota. And of course I ride, these days a Chief Dark Horse. Started on a vintage 1950 Black Hawk, when I was sixteen.”
He paused his monologue to give me another appreciative once over. “You ever been on a bike, Alice? I know you’d love it.”
“I’ve never been that inclined to risk my life,” I replied with a chuckle. It was difficult for me to maintain an attitude of skepticism in the face of his enthusiasm and his obvious admiration.
“It’s no riskier than driving a car. And so much more fun! The speed—the freedom—the sense of control—there’s nothing like it. It’s addictive. Come on, Alice. Let me take you on a test drive.”
Of course, in this story, the protagonists do eventually have sex. But they have an awful lot of fun flirting first.
As part of my home organization project, I’ve been going through my heavily laden bookshelves. I’m donating books that don’t really fit my life right now. However, I’m also rediscovering some that definitely spark joy. Of course, I am keeping all the books in which my own work appears!
I came upon one such volume that was published a few years ago: Exposed: Hollywood Glamour Caught Off-Guard edited by Philip Krayna and Susan Kuchinskas. Susan approached authors who’d read at her Dirty Old Women series at the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland about working on this interesting project. Writers would take black-and-white images by the 1960s glamour photographer Edward Braslaff as their inspiration for an original story. I actually wrote two for the anthology, but “Scent of an Angel,” inspired by the photograph above, is the more erotic of the two. (And the model is holding a perfume atomizer, not a cell phone, although it certainly looks that way!)
I don’t think of myself as someone who likes to write from other people’s prompts, although admittedly writing for themed anthologies puts you in the service of the editor’s vision. But I have avoided writing games and dictated assignments because I feel I have plenty of my own sources of inspiration to keep me busy. And yet, I surprised myself with how enjoyable it was to craft a story of less than 750 words exploring the world of one of these photographs. The restraints actually proved to be liberating for my imagination, and I was able to bring some of my historical research on San Francisco nightclubs into the mix.
So if inspiration is flagging, you might consider taking out a book of art or photographs. Find one that speaks to you and weave your own story around that image. The experience is likely to be heavenly!
SCENT OF AN ANGEL
Eddie gave her the perfume the night before he shipped off to Korea.
“When you wear it, I’ll be with you,” he whispered.
It was a whirlwind romance, but Shirley had really liked Eddie. She liked his patience, the heat of his skin when he held her close, his deep sigh when he first slipped inside. And she liked his letters saying how he ached for those long mornings in bed together, laughing and loving her. He made her feel as if she really meant something to him.
He hadn’t written in some time.
Shirley studied the elegant bottle and wished that she remembered more French. A perfume smelled different on each woman, or so they said. Maybe she should give it a name of her own? Eau de Eddie?
No, she could do better than that.
The truth was, she didn’t mean to take Eddie along with her tonight. She just needed to smell nice for work. For the real work, after the show, when she had to make the fellow at the table feel that God had made her just for him, even if it was only for an hour. Men were better at putting reality out of their minds when the lights were low, but a girl could never forget the way the world worked. Put simply, if he won, she lost–unless she managed to get something out of it for herself. For Shirley, it was never money or perfume. She wanted a man to see her. A few did. Like Eddie.
A soloist in the youth church choir and the lead in the school plays, Shirley easily found a place in the chorus when she came to the city. But her agent warned her she’d have to work hard to get the starring roles. “You have the pipes, baby, but you don’t have the face. Now I’ve got just the gig for you at my buddy George’s place over on Kearny. You’ll have your own act, and you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Trust me, it’s high-class. Just remember to show him some of that leg of yours.”
George had given her a cool once-over, but after one verse of “I Wanna Be Loved,” he signed her on the spot. He didn’t mind that she had her standards. Shirley was his star. Half the boys in the place had tears pouring down their cheeks when she sang “The White Cliffs of Dover.” You’d think they wouldn’t ask for the sad old songs given where they were going, but they did.
The men had their types. Some went for the cover-girl beauty, some for the girls fresh out of high school. Some were too drunk to care who was at the table as long as she wore a cocktail dress. Shirley had her type, too: the ones that said what Eddie said the night they met, “My God, you sing like an angel.”
But would Eddie really want to be there at the table with her when her new admirer of the evening leaned in and cooed, “I love your perfume, sweetheart, don’t you smell pretty?” She wondered if the fellow tonight would write, too, and then stop without a word of explanation? Shirley decided she didn’t want to know why. She put all her feelings in her songs and let them float off into heaven.
When she went on stage tonight, it would be like heaven. She’d have no past, no burdens, no doubts. The voice of the piano would entwine with hers, like the bodies of a woman and man when it’s so nice between them. With the lights in her eyes, she couldn’t see the audience, but she would feel them intimately like her own breath. She’d give them everything she had then. She always did.
Shirley squeezed the bulb of the atomizer gently. The cool mist settled on her neck and shoulders. To her surprise, the fragrance calmed her. She knew she was strong enough to take Eddie with her and still touch each man in the audience with her own gift, lifting every last one beyond the yearning, the fear, even the awful war taking them so far away from home, maybe forever.
She had a name for his perfume now. She’d call it “Scent of an Angel.”
I don’t care what you do. Your severest critic is you. And if you are a writer, increase that severity to an infinite power.
We second-guess ourselves mercilessly. We fuss over minute details. We agonize over using just the right word. Some of us have trashed completed stories after a final read because our inner critic dismissed it as so much drivel. But while our inner critic can prove debilitating, for the most part it keeps us on the straight and narrow and doesn’t let us down as a rule.
But there’s another drawback to having such a strong inner critic. You can’t turn it off. We’ve so honed our critical eye that, if it’s not able to fuss and flail at our own creations it will turn on any target of opportunity. And so it’s gotten to the point that my inner critic has made it difficult for me to enjoy many popular entertainments.
I’ve become remarkably difficult to please.
I recently watched a very well-regarded movie. It had garnered a couple of Oscar nominations and wins, much critical acclaim. But after I viewed it I was annoyed. I just couldn’t buy many of the scenes and plot twists. One character who started out as a knuckle-dragging cretin morphed 180 degrees into a thoughtful, noble character in the space of one scene. A number of other scenes left me shaking my head mumbling, as if that could happen.
I’m not talking about a lack of willingness to suspend disbelief, something we all must do to get into say, sci-fi or fantasy. This was a contemporary drama throughout which I kept thinking this stuff just couldn’t happen.
I find myself finding fault with a lot of movies, books, etc. And I wonder if it’s just me.
I made my living as a copy editor. I’m retired, but misspellings and bad grammar still jump out at me. It was all I could do hold my tongue when I noticed pizzeria was misspelled on the awning of a local pizza joint I was patronizing. So, as you see, I’m already a bit hypercritical. But lately, it seems worse.
I’m beginning to fret whether I’ll ever be able to settle back and watch a movie, particularly one afforded critical acclaim without that voice interrupting, You gotta be kidding me. Who the heck wrote this? Are they serious?
It isn’t just me, is it. Please tell me other writers have been vexed by an overabundance of fussiness. And if you have, is there any hope for us?
This post is about how to avoid repetition in your writing, or to put it another way, how to avoid repetition in your writing (see what I did there?).
Writers sometimes use repeating elements intentionally because it’s a powerful tool for adding emphasis. Poets use repetition and anaphora to give rhythm and cadence to their writing. But what I know about poetry could be inscribed on the sex organ of a dwarf-ladybird, so I have no intention of trying to explain how repetition should be used to enhance your writing.
Here’s one of my favourite examples of intentional repetition, where the same phrase is used several times to emphasise the writer’s message.
This post is aimed at how to avoid the unintentional repetitions that find their way into our stories.
Repetition isn’t just about telling the reader the same information several times, overusing certain words or using the same word more than once in a sentence.
Avoiding repetition is about making your piece of work as diverse as possible, and you can do this by varying the word choice, the sentence structure and the paragraph length.
All writers have their own style and their own voice, and they also have their own repetitive quirks. It usually takes someone else to point them out to us – either our editor or readers offering a critique. Once you become aware of these quirks, you can use the ‘Find’ tool on Word and go through your manuscript to see if you need to remove or replace any of them.
This is referred to as a ‘Britney Edit’ (oops, I did it again).
The internet is full of help pages and tips on how to avoid repetition in your written work, and below are some of the ones I think are the most helpful.
Our eyes skip over our own words—especially when we’ve read them so many times. But by reading them out loud it gives a new perspective, and it makes it easier to hear you’ve used some words about twenty times in a chapter. Read slowly and listen to your words, then cut anything your hear too often.
Unique words are fairly easy to avoid. Once you’ve used antidisestablishmentarianism, it’s easy to remember you’ve already enlightened your readers to your brilliant vocabulary. It’s more likely to be the common words that are the problem. Apparently, five of the most frequently overused words are: so, still, though, very and well. Check your own stories and see how often you use these words, and then decide if you actually need them or not.
I was first alerted to my overuse of ‘realise’ by a guy in the US. Each time he saw my UK spelling, underlined in red, it highlighted the fact I had about ten instances of the word in each chapter.
If you intentionally have a character using a particular word or phrase in his dialogue to make him more recognisable, try to make sure you don’t overuse that word or phrase anywhere else in the story.
To avoid repeating words, a quick and easy solution (if you’re using Microsoft Word) is to right-click on the word and choose ‘synonyms’ from the dropdown menu. This will give you a few common alternatives. This is also useful when eliminating duplicated words within the same sentence. However, Microsoft don’t seem to have considered authors of erotica when they filled in the synonyms. For most of the common terms we use for body parts, they suggest we consult a thesaurus, but as alternatives for ‘cock’ they suggest raise, tilt, lift, incline or angle.
This is another area where reading out loud can help you find a good balance. Although you want the reader to be sure who is speaking, you don’t want to ram it down their throats (unless that’s part of the scene you’re writing).
Pronouns like he and she tend to be ‘silent’ words and hardly noticed.
But if you’ve ever written a sex scene involving more than one character of the same gender (for example, MM, FF, MFM or MFF), you’ll be aware how pronouns are much less user-friendly in those circumstances.
Try and introduce variety into the length of the sentences, with some short and some longer (though be conscious that overly-long and complicated sentences make it difficult for readers, especially if they’re only using one hand).
Vary the structure of your sentences, and make sure you don’t start each sentence in the same way. If every sentence begins with the same words or has the same structure, then the pace of your story will be the same and it will make it feel repetitive. It’s the same thing with paragraphs. These can be anything from a single sentence to five or more sentences. They’re there to give readers a break—but giving them breaks at exactly the same time over and again gets repetitive.
After you’ve finished your piece (be it a chapter or a full manuscript), quickly skim the first few words of each paragraph to make sure you’ve not repeated paragraph intros. It’s very easy to do without noticing it.
As mentioned earlier about pronouns being ‘silent’, another word that seems to slip by readers without them noticing is ‘said’. This is a word you can use many times, as opposed to characters ‘hissing’ or ‘snarling’ too often, which readers would notice.
I try to minimise speech tags when I write, but that’s a personal thing. I see lots of writers who use he said/she said on almost every line, and apparently that doesn’t really count as repetition. But I do think that making your character’s voice identifiable helps minimise the use of speech tags.
In conclusion, avoiding unwanted repetition is about making sure your stories are diverse at every level. This includes your words, your sentences and your paragraphs.
Once you’re made aware of your own particular repetitive quirks and the mistakes you commonly make, they become easy to avoid.
By Ashley Lister
Without wishing to sound like a neurotic writer, constantly begging for acceptance and validation, I think the question at the top of this blog post is one that we often ask ourselves: is it good enough?
I’m not talking about the worries we all have over our creativity. We have an idea for a novel or story. We love the idea. But then we begin to worry that it’s been done before. Invariably, because the nature of story gets the comparable from the parable, we realise our idea is similar to something else. And a lot of writers step away from the good idea at that point, bleakly confident that there is no place in the world for their slant on creativity.
These sorts of doubts are commonplace and are a typical part of the insecure writer’s toolkit. Originality is an abstract concept. Even if we’re so original we write an erotic story that describes a new and previously unchartered method of sexual congress, there will be readers out there who dismiss our genius as, “a horny story about a couple getting it on.”
Here I’m talking about the worries we have once we’ve produced a piece of fiction. Is it good enough for the marketplace? Is it good enough to be worth troubling an editor? Is it good enough to meet the needs of a readership?
Unlike those forms we can complete online, which tell us that we’re 58% of the way through the content, and there are only 212 questions left, there are no convenient guides that tell us when a story is ready for its audience. Because of the solipsistic nature of writing it’s common that the only person who knows when a story is ready is the person who wrote it. And a lot of us have barely convinced ourselves we’re capable of writing a story, let alone understanding when it’s ready to be published.
So, I thought it would be helpful to mention some of the tell-tale signs which let us know a story is ready for publication.
1. This is probably the most important one: are you happy with what you’ve written? You finished your story a fortnight ago. You’ve allowed a little distance between yourself and the text you produced. Now, returning to the story with fresh eyes, you’ve had a chance to read it and answer this question: are you happy with what you’ve written?
This is the point where you should be making sure it tells the story you wanted to tell. The characters are the characters you wanted to see in this story, and the whole piece has the cohesive feel you envisioned when the idea first struck.
2. Does this story do what was asked for in the Call for Submissions (CfS)? If you’re writing for a CfS, or to the remit of an editor or publisher, does the story you’ve produced do what they wanted? Is the word count correct? Does the vocabulary match other titles from this publishing house? Or, for example, if the story asked for steampunk themed stories, is your story sufficiently steampunk, or does that content need to be developed in the edit? If the story was for an anthology of lesbian vampire stories, are the main characters in your narrative lesbian? Is there some suggestion of vampirism?
I’m not suggesting any of us make these latter sorts of mistake regularly, but I do know editors who have received futuristic science-fiction stories when they’ve been asking for Victoriana, so I believe it’s always a point worth making.
3. How close is the deadline? I’m not saying this to be brutal or callous but, if you’ve been working on this story for the past six months, and the deadline is midnight tonight, the thing is ready to send. Stick it to an email and dump it in the editor’s inbox.
4. What do your beta-readers think? No man is an island (except for the Isle of Man) and a second set of eyes is always useful to appraise the manuscript we’re producing. If you’ve had a beta-reader or two go over your story, and they’ve given a green light, it’s time to hit send.
The French essayist, Paul Valéry, said, “A poem is never finished only abandoned.” This is a helpful way of avoiding responsibility for any of the poems we’ve ever written, but it’s an unhelpful approach to gauging whether or not our material is ready for the marketplace.
I sincerely believe, if a writer considers his or her responses to the four questions above, they’ll be a step closer to knowing whether or not now is the correct time to publish. And, if you have any other ideas for how we can tell when a manuscript is ready, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.