Monthly Archives: November 2013
By K D Grace
I was bored. My flight had been delayed.
I’d already been traveling forever, and I’d reached that point at which I was
too tired to read, too tired to concentrate on writing, too tired to sit still
without being twitchy. I didn’t want to drink, I didn’t want to eat. I just
wanted to be done travelling. That’s when I began The Beautiful Experiment. I
was seated off one of the main concourses, which was a constant hive of
activity, of people coming and going, popping in and out of shops and scurrying
to make tight connections. It was the ideal place to people watch. But with a
twist. I decided to watch the masses to see just how many truly beautiful people
I could spot.
Okay, I know everyone has a slightly
different ideal when it comes to beauty, but we all know it when we see it. We
all know that look that turns heads, that look that makes us want to stare, to
take in all that loveliness just a little longer. I didn’t care if the real
lookers were men or women. I mean if we’re honest, we look at both, whether we
admire it, want it or envy it. So I sat and I watched. … and I watched … and I
watched. Since that time I’ve carried out my little experiment in pubs, in
museums, on the tube, in busy parks, and the results are always the same. There
just aren’t that many real stunners out there!
I was struck by that fact in the airport
that day, so I decided to add another dimension to my experiment. I decided to
look for people who were interesting. It didn’t necessarily have to be their
looks that were interesting, it could just as easily be their behaviour, their
dress, something, anything that made them worth a surreptitious stare. And wow!
Being delayed in an airport suddenly became a fascinating grist mill for story
ideas and intriguing speculation.
I’ve carried out this experiment lots of
time now, and the results are always the same. There are very few stunners out
there, and even when I spot one, even when I find myself sneaking glances at a
beautiful person, my eyes, and my attention, can always be drawn away by the
In erotica and, in particular erotic
romance, the characters are usually voluptuous, sculpted beauties and broad shouldered,
wash-boarded hunks. It’s fantasy after all. But how long can a story focus the
reader’s attention on washboard abs or perfect tits? Descriptions give us a handle.
Descriptions are like the label on a file. They might attract us to the file,
but if the file is empty, it won’t hold our attention. It’s what makes the
described beautiful person interesting that makes the story.
In our genre, sex is a large part of
what makes our beautiful people intriguing; how they think about sex, their
kinks, their quirks, their neuroses, their baggage – all of those things make
the fact that our beautiful people are interesting way more important than the
fact that they’re beautiful. Add to that
some seriously delicious consequences for that sex, some chaos and mayhem, a
few character flaws that catch us off our guard, that draw us in and voila! A
gripping story is born!
Perfection in a story, in characters, is
the equivalent of a literary air brushing. No flaws = no story; no rough spots
= nothing to hold our attention. Our characters’ beauty is only their handle.
Their flaws and their intriguing quirks are what catapult us into the plot,
what make us want to stay on for more than just a look-see and to dig a little
deeper, to really know those characters and become emotionally involved with
Last night on the tube in London, I
tried my little experiment again, just to make sure. More data is always a good
idea, and good science has to be repeatable, doesn’t it? Taking into account my
own preferences and prejudices, the results were the same. I can remember a
half a dozen really interesting people, people I could very easily write a
story about. There wasn’t a single stunner among them, which leads me to the
conclusion that we’re more interesting in our flaws than in our perfections.
We’re more interesting in our experiences and the way they manifest than in the
static beauty of the moment. It also excites me to think that I’m surrounded by
interesting people all the time. A story is never farther away than the next
intriguing person. Is this an ordinary-looking person’s version of sour grapes?
I don’t think so; I hope not. Truth is there’s an astonishing transformation
that takes place in the company of truly interesting people. Before long, right
before my eyes, those truly intriguing people become the beautiful people.
There’s always a story in that.
It came as no
surprise to me that writing is one of the top 10 professions in which people are
mostly likely to suffer from depression. According to a new Swedish study, “writers
have a higher risk than the general population of anxiety and bipolar
disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse. They were
also about twice as likely to commit suicide.”
A second recent study
from Austria found a tie between creativity and mental disorders. According to
this study, “creative professionals are a bit more likely than others to
suffer from bipolar disorder. The healthy relatives of schizophrenics tend to
enter creative fields. A genetic variant of some psychoses may be related to
creative achievement. Some dimensions of schizotypy–personality traits that
may make a person more vulnerable to schizophrenia–predict a person’s
I’ve suffered from
bi-polar disorder since I was a child, but I wasn’t diagnosed until my mid-20s.
I’m currently on medication that keeps the mood swings in check but I know the
moment I go off them I’ll dive into the pit of Hell and soar to uncomfortable heights
again, and neither is a pleasant experience. During these highs and lows, I
wrote and continue to write. I’ve also painted, drawn, and composed music, but
mostly, I put fingers to keyboard.
The tie between art
and mental illness is not something to be taken lightly. It’s not merely a
matter of having “the blues” and needing to pick yourself up by the
bootstraps and get on with your life. Depression and other forms of mental
illness can very devastating —and deadly.
madness go hand-in-hand. Hemingway committed suicide with a bullet to the head.
He’s not the first writer to suffer from mental illness. Virginia Woolf drowned
herself. Sylvia Plath stuck her head in her oven, but only after giving the
kids milk and cookies as a snack. Her colleague and friend Anne Sexton also
committed suicide. Zelda Fitzgerald was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and she
spent the last years of her life in an asylum. F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered
from depression and alcoholism. Hunter S. Thompson shot himself. Susanna Kaysen
stayed in a mental hospital and later wrote “Girl, Interrupted”.
Hermanne Hesse, who may have been bi-polar, attempted suicide and spent time in
several mental institutions. Another possible manic-depressive and definite
violent alcoholic, Malcolm Lowry, spent time in a mental institution and died a
“death of misadventure” combining booze and an overdose of sleeping
pills. Whether his death was suicide, accident, or murder remains unanswered.
Spalding Grey long suffered from depression and he committed suicide after
leaping from the Staten Island ferry. Mental illness isn’t confined to writers.
Actors Patty Duke, Vivien Leigh, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Jeremy Brett were
diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. One of my favorite British actors committed
suicide. George Sanders checked into a small in a hotel in Barcelona, wrote a
short suicide note and took an overdose of barbiturates. He wrote, “Dear
World, I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I
am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”
seems to be a history of suicide in the Hemingway family. Another notable
Hemingway to kill herself was his granddaughter, Margaux. Despite the common
belief that Hemingway committed suicide, his wife insists he accidentally set
of his gun while cleaning it.
mentioned Sylvia Plath’s suicide. Some believed based on her note that she
didn’t intend to kill herself and that her actions were a cry for help. She
wrote the brief note, “Please call Dr. Horder.”
S. Thompson left a suicide note before putting a gun to his head. Thompson left
the “Football Season Is Over” note for his wife, Anita. He shot
himself four days later at home. He wrote: “No More Games. No More Bombs.
No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50.
17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun for
anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax This won’t
Henry was plagued by alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver. His final words
were: “Turn up the lights, I don’t want to go home in the dark.”
Esinen wrote his suicide note in his own blood, and he gave it to a friend the
day before he hanged himself. He wrote:
my friend, goodbye
love, you are in my heart.
was preordained we should part
be reunited by and by.
no handshake to endure.
have no sadness — furrowed brow.
nothing new in dying now
living is no newer.”
Virginia Woolf had
had a mental breakdown years earlier, which she feared was about to recur. She
committed suicide by stuffing her coat pockets with rocks so she wouldn’t
float, and then she drowned herself. She left the suicide note on the
mantelpiece of her home, for her husband. “Dearest, I feel certain that
I’m going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible
times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t
concentrate. So I am doing what seems to be the best thing to do. You have
given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that
anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier until this
terrible disease came. I can’t fight it any longer. I know that I am spoiling
your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t
even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the
happiness in my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and
incredibly good. I want to say that everybody knows it. If anybody could have
saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty
of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling you life any longer. I don’t think two
people could have been happier than we have been. V.”
With talent often
comes pain and sorrow. Creative people may be tapped into humanity’s foibles a
bit more than the average person, hence the acute sensitivity to what goes on
around them. I often wonder if I’m attracted to the Dark Side because I’m a
writer, or am I a writer because I’m attracted to the Dark Side? Writing is a
wonderful way for me to relieve stress and solve problems. When I create a
character going through similar ordeals as myself, I can detach and come up
with a good solution. I wonder how many other writers have done something
similar? I know writing is one way to gaze into our darker selves, although
it’s not necessarily a safe thing to do. As Nietzsche said, battle not with
monsters lest ye become a monster and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss
gazes also into you. I prefer to dive right in rather than play it safe and
hang around the comfortable edges. And I know many other writers do the same
thing. It makes them human.
by Jean Roberta
When I was in my last year of high school, I won a major award in a national contest for student writers, and then lost my boyfriend. This was not a coincidence. He accused me of being on the “bad trip” of focusing too much on my writing and not enough on Life, then he promptly found a new girlfriend. (Boyfriend had taken a few “bad trips” that were more chemically-induced.)
He and I had met in a special two-year Fine Arts program, and he had told me that he planned to launch a writing career after graduation. During our two-year relationship, I revised and typed his essays for our English classes; I hoped that he would love me better if I helped him get better grades. (His grammar was shaky, and he implied that this was because he was all about big ideas rather than trivial details).
Soon after our English teacher announced the contest, Boyfriend and I both mailed in our short stories. This time, he didn’t ask for my editorial help, and I didn’t offer it. Weeks later, I won $500 (worth approximately a year of university tuition) and a three-day trip to Toronto, headquarters of the financial company that had sponsored the contest. Boyfriend got nothing. He complained bitterly that the judging had been unfairly biased, and he expected me to agree with him. Even before I learned that he had replaced me, I knew our romance was over.
Why am I recounting this historical episode? Because the race is on. Several major writing contests are still open for a short time, and award-winners will be announced at annual conferences in the spring and summer of 2014. The results remain to be seen.
Let’s start with (arguably) the biggest awards for writers of romance fiction (including erotic romance): the Ritas, sponsored by Romance Writers of America and named after its first president, Rita Clay Estrada. There is an entry fee for members of the organization, and a higher fee for non-members, but the prizes are substantial, not to mention the fame involved. The categories have been controversial, especially when “romance” was defined as a genre that excluded same-gender relationships. That restriction has been lifted, but “romance” as a genre definition is still sufficiently arbitrary to trigger debate. For more contest details, go here: www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=528 before the deadline: January 2, 2014.
The annual writing awards that especially interest me are the “Lammies,” given by the Lambda Literary Foundation for the best works of the year (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama) featuring lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender content. The deadline for nominations is December 1, 2013, so if you are interested, you have a week to decide. Find “awards” here: http://www.lambdaliterary.org
The categories for the “Lammies” are debatable and overlapping, and I am always somewhat surprised to find work I consider erotic entered as “fiction” or “romance.” Of course, the fewer entries in a given category, the more likely it is that a particular title will win.
Then there are the “Eppies” and the “Arianas” (given by EPIC, the organization for e-published writers, for e-books and e-book covers). These annual awards have a summer deadline.
I looked in vain for information about the Rauxa Prize for erotic fiction and poetry, awarded by a Rauxa Foundation (apparently based in Englewood, Colorado) up to 2007. This prize seems to be a thing of the past.
Penthouse magazine used to give annual awards for the kind of sexually-explicit fiction published in its pages. The name of the award, the “Baudelaire,” was hotly debated in the Writers list of ERWA (possibly also in Parlor) on grounds that Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), an innovative French poet, would be appalled to have his name associated with the formulaic stories for which Penthouse was known. Even still, any writing contest which provides cash prizes for writers seems better than nothing to me.
If I have neglected to mention a currently-open contest that will accept sexually-explicit writing, I hope someone will fill in the gap.
Why do writers enter contests? The shocking, immediate side-effect of winning is that other writers (especially contestants who didn’t win) are likely to sneer. (If my ex-boyfriend is still alive and if he ever mentions my name, he probably remembers our art-student romance as one of the disillusioning experiences of his youth.) Before contest results are even announced, the guidelines, the restrictions and the judges can all be accused of bias. The problem here is that literature (published writing) must be subjectively judged, based on criteria which are specific to a certain value system. I can’t imagine how writing contests could be run otherwise.
Do writing awards result in increased sales? I don’t know of any wide-ranging surveys which show a correlation (or not). Common sense tells me that an award is likely to raise interest in a particular title–and to a lesser extent, in everything else the author has written. Experience tells me that winning a writing contest is literally its own reward, since nothing further can be expected. (The award that lost me a boyfriend did not gain me a single publication.)
It has been argued that because the judging of writing contests, like the evaluation of story submissions, is necessarily subjective, winning or acceptance doesn’t prove the merits of the chosen work. We’ve all heard this.
Yet winning, like acceptance for publication (or both combined) feels downright orgasmic. It shows that at least one person (outside the writer’s circle of intimates) read, understood and chose to honour the work. May everyone here whose work is nominated for an award be prepared for the outcome, whatever it is—and may hope and determination never fade.
by Kathleen Bradean
I’ve sold about seventy to a hundred short stories so far. I stopped keeping track several years ago, so I have no idea what the real number is. It doesn’t matter though because all that’s important here is that I’m somewhere between none and zillions and have some experience with the art form. Yes, experience, both as a reader and a writer, but I still think I barely know anything.
While reading an anthology last week, a short story that took place over a span of time– let’s say a week although I don’t remember– didn’t work for me. As I set the anthology aside, I decided the reason why was that short stories work best when confined to a short period of time, say over an hour or so. Hills Like White Elephants, I thought. But that’s just stupid thinking because A Good Man is Hard to Find.
It isn’t just short stories that send me into long bouts of contemplation. I frequently muddle over the problem of the erotic novel. Many readers want sex in every chapter. Pages and pages of sex each chapter, with more and more partners thrown into the mix and some kink as well, and oh what the heck, lets fall on our swords with that old trope that sex equals love, shall we? The problem with erotic novels like that is that the sex scenes tend to become skimmable. They’re wank fodder and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the characters in those sorts of stories tend to have as much depth as a hologram.The plot, what there is of one, is a thin excuse to string together sex scenes. To be mean about it, they simply aren’t good writing. Damn it people, erotica can be well written! We deserve better quality.
I look for something more contemplative and literary in erotica than a wankfest. Although, of course, I love to be aroused by a story. But because most published erotica tends toward a standard ‘let’s go on a sexcapade’ escapist fantasy, I often think erotica is at its best in short form where, strangely enough, writers seem to do a better job of addressing deeper issues and building dimensional characters than in long form.
But then I think of Donna George Storey’s Amorous Woman and Remittance Girl’s Beautiful Losers and change my mind. And oh, I wish the incredibly talented Teresa Lamai’s (ERWA veterans will correct her name for me) story set in Venice with the Russian dancer and American painter was available to readers because it was such an amazing work. It is possible to produce an erotic novel that’s literary, that’s art, that transcends. It’s just that they’re rare and don’t tend to find publishers because they are sensualist fiction rather then sexual.
This isn’t a terribly coherent post because this is one of those hamster on a wheel debates I have with myself. My thoughts run and run but only end up going in circles. Are short stories best confined to a short time frame? My thinking now is that confined, rather than time, is the operative word. Everything in a short story must be confined to the pertinent data. The story may occur over a long period but we only get the glimpses of things that matter, delivered in tightly written paragraphs where every word pulls its weight. The same is true maybe of erotic fiction in the novel form. No matter how long the work is, there’s no room for gratuitous sex scenes.
But you know, I’m not set on that. I could be easily convinced that I’m concentrating on the wrong things, that confined writing is the opposite of what’s needed, and that erotic novels work on a literary level more often than I think. Convince me. Give me examples.
Meanwhile, I’ll be puttering around inside my brain muttering “Hills Like White Elephants” and wondering how much I can leave off the page, as if writers can adopt the zen philosophy of art where we could make as much use of white space between as we do with words. Which is a different topic. Maybe.
I learned something new this month. I can do a lot more than I thought possible. And without sacrificing sleep, food and fun, too. If you saw last month’s post, you’ll probably already know that what I’m talking about is related to NaNoWriMo. I thought I was insane to sign up for it, and that I had only a slim chance of achieving it, but it turns out it’s not the case. I’m currently a few days over the halfway mark, and I’m still on track. I’m managing my 2.5k words a day, weekdays only, and I’m also running my business, walking the dog, doing boring household chores and sleeping the same amount. Last week, I even managed to write and submit a short story, THEN did my NaNo words.
I’m not sure how I’m doing it. I’m not mainlining coffee, as I don’t drink it. I’m not even mainlining energy drinks. I’m just doing it… somehow. I suspect it’s down to the pressure. Whereas some people crack under pressure, I get more focussed, driven, determined to succeed. I hate letting others down, and, turns out, dislike letting myself down. And so, even at this stage, I’m pretty damn sure I’m going to “win” NaNoWriMo. I’m even considering doing it every month. Imagine the novels I could churn out at that rate of writing… 🙂
What can you take from this? Firstly, remember that no two people are the same, and the things that work for one person won’t necessarily work for another. But it’s definitely worth giving pressure a try – give yourself a deadline, or scare yourself by pitching something to a publisher that you haven’t written yet. It’s truly amazing what you can do when you really set your mind to it. I can write 2.5k a day, EVERY weekday, dammit. Something I never thought was possible.
At this rate, I’ll have subbed the book by mid-January. Watch this space…
Lucy Felthouse is a very busy woman! She writes erotica and
erotic romance in a variety of subgenres and pairings, and has over eighty
publications to her name, with many more in the pipeline. These include several
editions of Best Bondage Erotica, Best Women’s Erotica 2013 and Best Erotic
Romance 2014. Another string to her bow is editing, and she has edited and
co-edited a number of anthologies, and also edits for a small publishing house.
She owns Erotica For All, and is book
editor for Cliterati. Find out more at http://www.lucyfelthouse.co.uk. Join
her on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to her
newsletter at: http://eepurl.com/gMQb9
By Lisabet Sarai
In January 1848, James W. Marshall
discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, in what is now El Dorado County,
California. That event kicked off the now-fabled California Gold Rush
and changed the country forever. Between 1848 and 1855, by which time
most of the readily available gold had been exhausted, some 300,000
people arrived in California, from across the United States as well as from many other
countries. In seven short years, San Francisco grew from a small
settlement of 200 people to a city of over 35,000. It took only two
years for the United States to decide it wanted California as a state
and to pry the land away from Mexico, to whom the territory belonged
at the start of the Gold Rush.
An estimated 100,000 native Americans
died from disease or aggression as the avaricious newcomers pushed
them out of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Many of
the prospectors met equally dire fates at the hands of the Indians,
the elements or their fellow gold-seekers.
New wealth fueled new technologies and
new growth. At the same time, the Gold Rush destroyed much of value,
damaging ecosystems, ruining families, tearing society apart. The
boom town mentality rewarded short term greed and discouraged long
term planning. It left the mountains of the Sierra Nevada littered
with ghost towns. These days, a drive through the old gold country is
a meditation on the nature of transience.
Publishing, especially epublishing of
romance and erotica, seems to be experiencing its own gold rush. Book
sales have surged by several hundred percent annually since the
introduction of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007. The number of publishers of
ebooks has grown in proportion. Pretty much every week, I see a new
digital imprint announced on the Erotica Readers & Writers
Association list. Meanwhile, established print publishers, from
Harlequin to Constable & Robinson, have rushed to cash in on the
boom by developing their own lines of e-books.
On the plus side, this means more
publishing opportunities for authors. Unfortunately, the boom has
also made it possible for any individual who ever fantasized about
publishing a book to do so. As a result, the slush pile has exploded
by several orders of magnitude. For every work that I’d label as
quality fiction, there are now hundreds, even thousands of competing
titles that are, to be blunt, total crap.
It’s true that it’s easier to get
published now than every before. Desperate for profits, some
companies will accept anything that even remotely resembles a book.
Plus there is always the self-publishing alternative. In fact, the
burgeoning slush pile isn’t the most serious problem. One of the
worst aspects of the boom is the fact that it has become impossible
for quality fiction to get noticed. You could write a
Pulitzer-Prize-worthy novel these days and not sell more than a
handful of copies.
One can understand the aspirations of
would-be authors – no matter how lacking in competence they might
be. After all, who made me the gatekeeper? So what if I believe that
my erotica is better than 90% of what is available on Amazon today.
Most writers probably feel the same way. Maybe one really should let
the market decide. And indeed, with a sigh, I must admit I don’t know
what else we poor authors can do.
What frustrates me more than anything
else, though, is the get-rich-quick attitude of the publishers –
including some with long-standing reputations, who should know
better. In the past few months I’ve reviewed ebooks from several
well-known publishing companies that were close to unreadable due to
editing and formatting errors. If I had purchased these books as
opposed to having received free reviewer copies, I would have
demanded my money back.
In one case, the book was a reprint of
a classic erotic novel from before the ebook revolution. I believe
that the original print book must have been scanned and subjected to
optical character recognition (OCR) in order to create the electronic
form. Anyone who’s used OCR will know the process is rife with
errors. Careful editing is required to correct the guesses made by
the OCR software. As far as I can tell, the editor (if there was one)
did no more than give a quick glance to this book. It was full of
garbled text that seriously disrupted the reading experience. In
their haste to get some income from this novel, this company
apparently rushed it into “e-print” with zero quality control.
Does this company realize that, in my
eyes at least, they’ve completely destroyed their credibility? I’ve
actually had stories published by this company, but I’ll think twice
about that in the future.
If I were the author of this book, I’d
sue the company for breach of contract. And then I’d make sure to
spread the news far and wide via social media. As a reader, I’ll
certainly steer clear of any other titles in this series.
I wish I could tell you this was an
isolated case. It’s not. On the contrary, it’s an illustration of the
same sort of orientation toward short-term profits that made the Gold
Rush so destructive, and I see it in many places in the publishing
The Gold Rush reached its peak and then
faded away in a mere seven years. It has been just about that long
since the birth of the Kindle. What literary ghost towns will be left
behind when the e-reading boom subsides – or changes to something
unrecognizable? The rate at which technology and society change these
days is dizzying. Anyone who imagines that the ebook boom is here to
stay is as much a dreamer as the farmer from Pennsylvania who sold
his farm and traveled half a year across mountain and desert,
believing he’d make his fortune in the California hills.
I’ve been in this business since the
end of the twentieth century. I’ve seen the eclipse of print and the
rise of the ebook. I’ve done what I could to adapt, but I know
tomorrow will be different from today. I plan to be here long after
the get-rich-quick types have given up. Because ultimately for me,
it’s the stories that matter, not the money. That’s why I hate to see
the stories polluted by the greed of those who publish them.
[This post appeared a few months ago at the Oh Get a Grip blog. I apologize for double posting, but it’s the end of term, I have four sets of exams to grade, plus thesis proposals and project reports… so it was either this, or skip my spot this month. And I definitely didn’t want to do that! I promise fresh content next month!]
by Donna George Storey
Write what you want to write instead of what you think you’re supposed to write.
That’s what I’m hoping to do, as I discussed in my last column here at ERWA, but I know there’s no quick and easy way to make the big switch. It takes time to discard old habits, to trust inner voices, to take risks. As part of this process, I’ve been thinking back to the messages I’ve gotten over the years about “good” writing from teachers, how-to books, famous writers, literary critics. Or in other words, the specifics of my supposed-to’s.
Back when I first started writing seriously, about sixteen years ago now, I was talking with a friend who had signed up for a pricey writing workshop with the former editor of a national magazine that published fiction. She mentioned that this teacher’s highest praise for a student’s story was “this is writing that will last.” And indeed, he urged all of his students to aim to write “something that will last.”
At the time, I took this as simple wisdom from an expert. After all, wasn’t that the dream of every writer—to be so amazingly talented that we attain immortality like Shakespeare? That guy lived four hundred years ago and everyone still knows his name! Of course, as I became more familiar with what the writer’s life really involves in our commercial age, I realized that “lasting” means your book is reprinted many times or that it’s taught in high school or college classrooms year after year. Unfortunately, authors who achieve either of these goals are rare, and in the latter case, most are already dead. Gradually my goals became more modest. I was satisfied—in the best way–if someone told me that my story lingered for a day or so after s/he read it. Perhaps I would never be immortal, but whenever a reader confessed that s/he read a particular story of mine many times for erotic inspiration, I knew I’d made a true connection, the highest praise an erotica writer can hope to hear.
Yet I still believed that there were “important new voices” up there in Literary Land, penning gorgeous and unforgettable literary prose that would earn them a throne next to The Bard for all eternity. I didn’t really question this (I’m now somewhat embarrassed to admit) until very recently when I happened to read a book by Leslie Fiedler, a renegade English professor who both entertained and scandalized academia in the latter half of the twentieth century by embracing popular literature as worthy of analysis. (He is also credited with coining the term “postmodernism” among other things). I originally sought out his book What Was Literature? for an essay on Rhett Butler as a symbolic Black Stranger in Gone With the Wind, but I ended up reading the whole book with great enjoyment.
I was hooked at Fiedler’s opening redefinition of the classic distinction between literary (high) and popular (low) fiction. He wrote that literary fiction could in fact be seen as “minority” literature, read by few and penned by tormented, introverted male artistes to stimulate the intellect, whereas popular literature was “majority” literature, mainly scribbled by female hacks to drug us with cheap sensationalism. More amusing was his description of popular fiction as “optional,” whereas, for most readers, literary fiction was “compulsory,” as in school assignments that needed professional explication to be understood fully.
But what really struck a chord with me was Fiedler’s insistence that “writing that lasts” is not about the quality of the prose. It is what he calls the mythopoeic power of the story, with characters that live on in our minds long after the beautiful metaphors (if any) are forgotten. This got me thinking about which stories have indeed lasted over time, stories our culture returns to again and again in modern riffs and movie remakes. My Anglo-centric list would include the Bible, some of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth), Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, A Christmas Carol, Huckleberry Finn, Dracula, The Great Gatsby, and Gone with the Wind. Harry Potter, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey certainly define contemporary popular tastes, but I’d need to reconsider their lasting impact in about 30 years. By this measure, all the towering literary figures of my youth—Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Updike, Roth—are still reasonably famous as names, but rarely read except in class or by a small minority of literati with historical inclinations.
I know my particular list is open to argument—maybe you’d delete Macbeth and Huck Finn and add King Lear and To Kill a Mockingbird–but the specific examples are less important than the redefinition of “writing that lasts.” Because I now see it’s not about the world’s admiration for a writer’s brilliant prose, fresh metaphors, and carefully structured chapter breaks—although many of these works are beautifully written and a pleasure to read because of it. The immortality belongs to the story for its power to connect deeply with readers across cultures and time.
As a writer myself, I was also very interested to learn that Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin when she had a vision during a church service of an aged black slave being beaten to death by a cruel master. The image rose up in her mind, demanding a novel to be written around it. I also remembered that Charles Dickens was planning to write a political pamphlet about poverty and injustice in the fall of 1843. However, inspired by the rousing response to a speech he gave to a workingman’s club in Manchester, he walked the dark streets of the city, possessed by images of a redeemed miser. In a few short weeks of feverish work, he wrote one of the most retold stories ever, A Christmas Carol.
So what does this mean for a writer who seeks to create works that linger if not last forever? For me it means taking one more step away from writing as ego gratification, as proof of my worthiness or cleverness–because really, let’s face it, no one cares if I can turn a phrase or not. It also means taking one step closer to stories that move me, that draw me in to their magic, that beg to be told through me.
Which stories beg to be told through you?
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
My novella “The Color of the Moon” began about sixteen years ago on a yellow legal pad on the banks of
the Panama Canal, when I was still getting over a personal experience of obsession and haunting. I knew I wanted to find a way to put that experience into words, and I wanted to try my hand at writing fiction. Something exotic.
From the yellow pad to key board I wrote a fairly straight forward story set around the end of the Heian Period in
Japan, of a young Buddhist monk and itinerary musician – a “biwa-hoshi” – who meets a noble woman of the Imperial family. He gives her a private performance in a tea house, chanting the Heikyo-ku saga and playing on a biwa, a traditional Japanese lute, followed by naughty conversation and seduction by the noble woman only to find out later she is a ghost.
“The Color of the Moon” is what I think of as a “riff”. A riff is when you take a well known and traditional thing and spin it in a new direction. That might be Anne Rice taking “Sleeping Beauty” and turning it into a series of erotic BDSM novels, or Neil Gaiman taking “Snow White” and turning it into a vampire story. “Color of the Moon” is a riff on the most famous of all Japanese ghost stories “Mimi Nashi Hoichi” or “Hoichi the Earless”. This ancient ghost story is one of hundreds of “Kwaidan“, a tradition going back thousands of years. Known collectively as “kwaidanshu“, generations of Japanese kids learned the crusty old spook stories on “dark and
stormy” nights at their grandmother’s knee and passed them on to new generations in different forms. In recent years kwaidanshu have spread to American cinema in such movies as “The Ring” and “The Grudge”. The Ring is an American remake of the Japanese film “Ring-Gu”, which is a modern Japanese retelling of “The Tale of Oyu”, an ancient story of a young woman who is cruelly drowned in a well and returns as an angry ghost. Like a Japanese equivalent of Shakespeare, kwaidanshu were preserved in elaborate Kabuki and Noh plays such as “Woman of the Snow” (a vampire story!), “Hoichi the Earless” of course, and the infamous “Tale of the Peony Lantern” which involves a sex scene with a decaying dead body. Yeah.
Having written my brave little story, I wanted to check it against the historical facts, through a book called
“Kwaidan” written by Lafcadio Hearn over a hundred years ago. Hearn was a writer living in Japan , and along with treatises on mosquitoes, took an interest in collecting local folk stories. In 1998 Amazon was still in it s infancy and I ordered a copy, noting it had been reviewed by a lady in Miyazaki Japan who spoke good English, named Mire Uno. In those more innocent times email addresses were included with reviewer’s comments and I was able to
contact her easily. I told her about my project and that I would be interested in getting her take on it. This was before I had ever heard of the idea of “first readers”. It turned out that kwaidanshu were a hobby of hers. She collected traditional ghost stories and even had a web page in English devoted to them. Perfect! We made a deal. I edited the English on her web page and in return she agreed to look at my stuff.
Mire was a sharp critic but polite, Japanese folks are nothing if not polite. But she let me know, it would not do, it would not do. It was ignorant, unmitigated oushikuso! Gai-jin san, it will not do. It will not do. When does my little tea house tryst happen? Around a hundred years after the fall of the Minomoto dynasty, I figure about 1185 AD.
A tea house? Tea houses had not been invented in 1185. Partly because tea had not been invented.
The Japanese were just learning about tea from China, and it was regarded as an aphrodisiac (as what has not?) and reserved for males only of the highest rank. The Emperor or local feudal lords might indulge in a cup to put some wood in their ink brush before visiting their consorts, but not a woman, much less of mid level rank such as Lady Dainagon. And with a impoverished Biwa-Hoshi? Not in your dreams, gai-jin san. For a woman of even so-so rank, a peripheral member of the Imperial family in a backwater place, to be left alone in the company of someone regarded as below common would be scandalous. (Aie-ya! Oushikuso!) Impossible. It would like Princess Diana inviting a homeless man to spend the night in her room. It will not do. So how would they meet if this thing were done right?
The woman would be ensconced behind a mizu screen, a partition made of reeds or silk. The Biwa-Hoshi would never be permitted to see her face and she would never see his. Ever. It would be an insult. There would also be an armed samurai hidden in the woodwork behind a screen or wall panel watching everything and his job is to deal harshly with insults. If the Biwa-Hoshi got even a little bit randy or suggestive, he was fully authorized to jump out, draw his blade and knock the guy’s fool head off without warning. Okay, and by the way, did I mention she can’t speak to the Biwa-Hoshi directly? That’s how far apart on the food chain they are. Another person, a personal attendant would sit next to the mizuscreen and play the part of a human telephone. Lady Dainagon would speak to the attendant, even if the Biwa-Hoshi is just a few feet away, and the Biwa-Hoshi would whisper his response to the attendant who would convey his words to the mystery woman behind the screen. Now – your job? With these historical obstacles – I, who had never written a sex scene before in my life, have to get these two people making the “Wind and The Rain” hot and heavy.
Here is the final version of the scene in the tea house, as published by Whisky Creek Press in 2007. They are alone, and Shoji has been summoned for the second night to play. The mystery woman is hidden behind a screen. He has never seen her, and she has found a way to get rid of the attendant for this night. As he entered the room , he has heard her voice for the first time singing a nursery song about an orphan girl, accompanying herself skillfully on a koto. The voice behind the screen addresses him, and he responds:
“August person,” he began timidly, “I am Shoji, the biwa hoshi of last night.”
“Who is your biwa?”
“My biwa is ‘Shoja’, the ‘Sound of the Temple Bell’.”
“My koto is ‘Tsuke-Kage’, and ‘Moon’s Shadow’ is delighted to meet ‘Sound of the Temple Bell’. As I am delighted to meet you.”
Shoji relaxed a little. “I enjoy your music more than my own,” he said. “I think you are the better musician.”
“That’s kind of you,” she said. “But I know you’re only being generous to me. Play something. Play from one of your stories.”
“Shall I play for you ‘The Battle of Dan No Ura’ ?”
He was surprised at how emphatic she was.
“Rather we should play that one for you.” she said.
“I have this opportunity to thank you for your gift last night. I have not carried it with me, but I treasure it very much.”
“Thank you. I may have a better gift for you tonight.”
“A better gift is not possible.”
“Play ‘Kenreimon’in’,” she said “The story of the Emperor’s mother.”
He settled the biwa on his lap again. Glancing down he saw the words he had begun to paint on the bachi, the waka he had composed in the sand. He struck a chord on the biwa. He drew a slow rising arpeggio.
“This is the empress
Whom we compared to the moon
In earlier days
But no radiance brightens
The lonely mountain dwelling.”
As he continued in the ancient traditional, he saw her stir behind the screen. A few reeds were drawn down and
he knew she was watching him.
“Did I ever think to find myself dwelling
Deep in the mountains
Gazing at the moon on high
Far from the royal palace?
Wave flowers! In full bloom
On the surface of the pond
Blossoms have scattered
From the cherry trees
Along the water’s edge
That is you cuckoo – raising your voice
Seeking the fragrance for the flowering orange
Remembering someone you lost long ago?”
He saw her eyes watching him from behind the screen, welling with tears. He began the poem he had composed.
“In heaven flies one
Crane, leaving fences behind
Remembering its loved kind.
Parting wind pierces the bone.”
There was a crash and breaking wood. The mizu screen was thrown down. “That is not how the song goes!” she shrieked.
He froze, staring at her. Though he knew it was only a dream, he still felt fear. He saw her for the first time. She jumped to her feet, tall and fierce, clutching the towering black koto upright to her chest. She wore an indigo kimono, with a field of golden butterflies, bound by a sash. Two ivory pins held her hair behind her head. Her strong beautiful face was aristocratic, arrogant, but bright with passion. It was the woman he had seen in the bucket water and her large eyes had pinked with tears.
“Don’t stop!” she screamed. “Why do you stop! I didn’t tell you to stop!” He continued.
“So it is when fate
Steals our hopes, the former
Lost but not forgotten
Comes to haunt us in our dreams
Though we never can return.”
She collapsed, still hugging the koto to her breast. She shook her head wildly. “No more. Please, no
* * * * *
So that was the pleasant tea house scene when Mire and I got done with it.
Along my journey from oushikuso, with Mire Uno as my scholarly guide, I began to really develop an appreciation for detail and the power of implied authenticity. Here’s another scene, near the end of the novella. Ichinori, an elder priest and exorcist has decided for reasons of personal glory to engage in a spiritual duel to the death with Lady Dainagon. Because of his contempt for women, ghosts or otherwise and court women especially, he completely underestimates what he’s up against. She traps him with birds and savagely brings him down:
* * * * *
He became numb to their deaths, their broken hollow bones, the smeared meat and gore that covered him from top to bottom. He only wanted it to stop. He tried to speak a mantra and a crow bit his lip, biting off a small piece of it. He hammered his fist on the hateful bird, and was shocked at the pleasure of seeing it die. Blood ran down his mouth and over his teeth. He crawled on his belly, wondering only when the steel would fall on his neck, ending this and leaving him in painless oblivion.
He felt dirt under his fingernails. The road. As he heaved himself forward a strong beak bit his crotch as if it would hold him there for the demon to come and kill him. He kicked out at it, screaming madly and tumbled forward into the free ground. He rolled onto his face, and his mouth was filled the taste of blood and sand. He smelled his clothes in the dim light, the stink of offal, feathers and blood. He vomited.
There were sounds approaching from behind, but he was too exhausted and revolted with himself to look.
“Demon.” he whispered to the dirt. “You have caused me to kill. Even if I die now, I will find you.”
He was aware of a pair of wooden komageta sandals standing in the road beside his face. Small feminine feet in white tabi socks. He smelled the scent of clove oil and saw the glint of the dying lamp shining off the polished tip of the wakizashi that dangled next to his nose.
“Damn you.” he hissed. “My spirit will find you in hell!”
The demon whore was breathing heavily above him, with either exertion or passion. The komageta sandals
scuffed angrily in the dirt and the wakizashi blade rose. He waited calmly, and prepared his spirit to receive death. Instead he heard it snick back into the saya in her sash. Her knees bent with a rustle of silk. The night breeze carried teasing strands of sweet scented hair into his face. Close to his ear he heard the demon’s soft, excited voice.
* * * * *
Ursula K. LeGuin said something about scene description which I have never allowed myself to forget. To make a
background vivid it’s better to bring out one unique detail, like a drop of water on a leaf. If a man is in a railroad yard in the dead of night with a full moon over head, don’t just say it’s dark. We know that already. The way you make it dark, is by describing the moonlight glinting off a single piece of broken glass in the dirt. That makes it feel dark.
I write first for my own aesthetic pleasure. There are little historically correct touches here that still give me
pleasure to read sixteen years later. The oil lamp dying in the background, yet bright enough to gleam off the highly polished blade of Lady Dainagon’s wakizashi. The scent of clove oil on the menacing blade tip next to Ichinori’s nose. The wooden geta sandals in the road. The description of tabi socks. The rustle of fine silk. I just can’t get enough of that stuff. Details like this make this scene breathe for me even after all these years. I just hope it breathes for the reader too.
Thank you Mire Uno, wherever you are. Thank you thank you.
The original publication of “The Color fo the Moon” is still available for a pittance at Whisky Creek Torrid:
Or as a Kindle book at Amazon:
If you’re curious about Lady Dainogon before the events of The Color of the Moon, this week at the Oh Get a Grip blog, where the theme is “Fairy Tales”, I’ve composed a Japanese fairy tale in which she appears with ladies of the court , back in better days:
And thank you for reading my stuff.
I seldom walk out of movies. When I find myself in a movie that doesn’t particularly draw me in, I tend resort to viewing it critically: identifying the story arc, the character arcs, the nuts and bolts of the construction of the story.
Two nights ago, I walked out of Ender’s Game. I’ve never read the book. Although I am a massive sci-fi fan, there are certain areas of the genre that don’t turn my crank. Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card just never did anything for me. Nonetheless, big budget, hyped marketing campaign… I bought my ticket, sat in my seat, and stuffed my face with popcorn.
At some point – about an hour into the film – I caved to the overwhelming urge to be out of the cinema. Later, when I tried to analyze why I couldn’t bring myself to sit through it, I realized that it was the way the theme of the story was being presented that I found almost suffocating.
Without a strong theme, stories are soulless. They feel fluttery, airy and insignificant. But when the theme of a story is so obvious and so constant that it eclipses the story, the characters and the plot, it becomes like treacle. It gums up everything. Theme can, if you let it, suffocate every other aspect of your story.
Recent cultural and literary theorists have had a very low opinion of theme. Post-modernism rejected the idea that stories have any responsibility at all, to anyone. Being a staunch modernist myself, I’m rather glad to see this era of the glorification of the totally meaningless pass. But when I sat in that theatre and choked hard on the dominant theme in Ender’s Game, I could see why they wanted to kill the beast dead.
I teach writing at college level, and theme is one of the hardest things to teach. It is easier to say what theme isn’t than to say what it is. And, of course, there are stories with more than one theme. Time and culture can deeply influence the themes that come to the fore of a story and how they are perceived.
No matter what the story structure, the theme should be what the reader takes from the story as its overall message. In archaic structures, such as fables, the theme is the moral of the story. In parables, the theme is the ‘wisdom’ it imparts at the end. Old story structures demanded that the theme was an answer to a universal question. In more modern, adult story forms, the theme shouldn’t offer answers, but encourage the reader to a deeper consideration of some serious and universal question.
Because of its broadness of scope, erotic fiction has the capacity to offer a valuable exploration of many aspects of the human condition in depth and at a very personal, concrete level. So often, themes in erotic fiction deal with issues of ethics and morality, of embodiment, of identity, of loneliness, of abjection, of mutuality. Deep, deep stuff.
Erotic writing represents an entirely culturally constructed part of humanity (our sex drive is animal and focused on reproduction but, as cultures we have abstracted and reinterpreted that drive to the point where the things that trigger our arousal are entirely constructed. Horniness may be biological, but eroticism is the meaning we’ve layered on top of that biological imperative). So it would seem that erotic fiction is a great place to explore theme. We bind our sense of the erotic to so many elements that don’t have a biological foundation. Here, in the rarified air of lateral and obtuse relations between intellect, the emotions and groin, theme can run riot. That’s a wonderful garden to explore.
Choosing a theme can help you make decisions as to how to carve a peace between your characters and your plot. It can guide you to where a story needs to go. And yet, if you let your theme dominate your story, it will leach all the colour, all the texture, all immersive ‘hereness’ from your story. Themes are abstractions. They should sit at the foundation of the story, but never on the surface.
Let me give you a very simple, obvious example: I want to write a story with trust as a dominant theme. BDSM seems like a perfect fit. My characters are going to learn that the only way they can explore the outer reaches of their erotic imaginations is to trust each other.
However, if I keep bringing up ‘trust’ in the story. If I keep placing the words into the mouths of my characters, into their brains, if I keep bringing something as abstract as ‘trust’ to the fore of the story, it will lose every ounce of heat it might have had. You may end up with readers nodding their heads in agreement, but you’re preaching to the choir. You’ve just produced a piece of rhetorical propaganda, not a story.
Of course, the issue of trust needs to be there. But it needs to operate below the surface, like a current in the river, driving the story along invisibly. You can show your reader the ultimate results of a lack of trust. You can show your reader what its presence can enable. But if you bring it directly into the text of the story, you treat your reader like a child. You don’t allow them to discover the theme and its implications on their own. You need to let your theme inform your story, but not dominate it.
If you do, your reader will come away from your story not only having had a good, immersive erotic experience, but also with a head full of ideas and questions. For me, this is the ultimate goal of writing anything.
When you start thinking about a new story, do you consider its theme? How do you weave it in?
before writing about the sex in a sexy story you have to set the stage,
decide where this hot and heavy action is going to take place. What a
lot of merry pornographers don’t realize is that the where can be just
as important as the what in a smutty tale. In other words, to quote a
real estate maxim: Location, location … etc.
Way too many times
writers will makes their story locales more exotic than the activities
of their bump-and-grinding participants: steam rooms, elevators,
beaches, hot tubs, hiking trails, space stations, sports cars, airplane
bathrooms, phone booths, back alleys, fitting rooms, cabs, sail boats,
intensive care wards, locker rooms, under bleachers, peep show booths,
movie theaters, offices, libraries, barracks, under a restaurant table,
packing lots, rest stops, basements, showrooms — get my drift?
know I’ve said in the past that sexual experience doesn’t really make a
better smut writer, but when it comes to choosing where your characters
get to their business, it pays to know quite a bit about the setting
you’re getting them into.
Just like making an anatomical or
sexual boo-boo in a story, putting your characters into a place that
anyone with a tad of experience knows isn’t going to be a fantastic time
but rather something that will generate more pain than pleasure is a
sure sign of an erotica amateur.
Take for instance the wonderful
sexual pleasure than can come from screwing around in a car. Haven’t
done it? Well you should because after you do you’ll never write about
it — unless you’re going for giggles.
Same goes for the beach.
Ever get sand between your toes? Now think about that same itchy,
scratchy — very unsexy — feeling in your pants. Not fun. Very not
Beyond the mistake of making a tryst in a back alley sound
exciting (it isn’t, unless you’re really into rotting garbage), setting
the stage in a story serves many other positive purposes. For instance,
the environment of a story can tell a lot about a character — messy
meaning a scattered mind, neatness meaning controlling, etc. — or about
what you’re trying to say in the story: redemption, humor, fright,
hope, and so forth. Not that you should lay it on so thick that it’s
painfully obvious, but the stage can and should be another character, an
added dimension to your story.
Simply saying where something is
happening is only part of the importance of setting. You have to put
the reader there. Details, folks. Details! Research, not sexual this
time, is very important. Pay attention to the world, note how a room or
a place FEELS — the little things that make it unique. Shadows on the
floor or walls, the smells and what they mean to your characters; all
kinds of sounds, the way things feel, important minutiae, or even just
After you’ve stored up some of those unique
features of a place, use special and evocative descriptions to really
draw people in. Though quantity is good, quality is better. A few
well-chosen lines can instantly set the stage: an applause of suddenly
flying pigeons, the aimless babble of a crowd, rainbow reflections in
slicks of oil, twirling leaves on a tree, clouds boiling into a storm
… okay, that was a bit overdone, but you hopefully get my gist.
again: location is not something that’s only important to real estate.
If you put your characters into an interesting, well-thought-out,
vividly written setting, it can not only set the stage for their erotic
mischief but it can also amplify the theme or add depth to the story.
After all, if you don’t give your writing a viable place, then a reader
won’t truly understand where they are — or care about what’s going on.