Monthly Archives: April 2014
By K D Grace
I’m just finishing up a major manuscript, a
labour of love that I’ve been working on for five years. That being the case, I
suppose I’m being more obsessive than usual because this manuscript is close to
my heart. Lately my routine has been pretty simple. I write. Actually I’m
editing in at this stage, but for me editing has never been a hardship. It’s a
part of writing and I love it as much as I do a first draft. I write all day
ignoring pretty much everything that doesn’t grab me by the ear and drag me
bodily, kicking and cursing, away from the laptop. My husband comes home in the
evenings and we have dinner together then catch up on the day’s events. After
that, I go back to work…writing. Several hours later, I shut down the computer
and shuffle off to bed already thinking about how soon tomorrow I can clear the
decks and get back to work…writing.
It hit me the other day that as this
manuscript has been a long time coming, and it’s something I’m extremely proud
of, maybe I should plan to celebrate its completion. Maybe we should go out for
dinner or have a nice bottle of fizz or go away for the weekend or something.
But then I think about the next project already tempting me like a bright red
cherry ready to be plucked off the Story Tree and devoured. Isn’t starting a
new novel celebration enough, I ask myself?
Celebrating can be so disruptive, and so
often not nearly as much fun as… well, writing. Okay, being on the final press
to finish a manuscript makes me even more obsessive than usual, but I’m just
having so damn much fun!
When I finish this manuscript, my husband
will, quick like a bunny, pack lunches into the rucksacks, make up a flask of
tea and prepare water bottles. He knows our window of opportunity is slim. He
has to get me slathered with sunscreen, dressed in walking clothes, and out the
door before I decide that next cherry of a novel just won’t wait to be plucked.
But he’s good. He’s really good. He has me kitted up and out the door before I
can give that novel a second thought. Of course by the end of the day, for the
last couple of miles, I’m thinking about… you know … writing!
I’ve been thinking a lot about the writing
obsession. People who don’t have it are always saying I should celebrate my
successes or I should take a break, or I shouldn’t work so hard. They just
don’t get it. Writing is NOT a means to an end. It IS the end. The story that
we writers are inspired to put down is never-ending. And it’s just as well
because what on earth would we do with our time if we couldn’t write? It isn’t
just important that I get on with the next project as soon as I get the last
one out the door; it’s essential. I get really twitchy, and very bad-tempered
if I don’t. It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey, and the
journey is every word I write, every idea that pushes its way out of my head
onto the written page, every rewrite, every edit, ever improvement. The journey
is about all of my characters and the unfolding of their stories, which always
involve the unfolding of the stories of the characters who affect them. The
journey is about the on-going back-story that is forever being revealed in my
head. It’s about all the things I know about my characters and their lives that
no one else knows – no one else will ever know because it never gets on the
page. But I know. I know secrets,
and I wait with bated breath for even more secrets to be revealed, whether I’m
allowed to share them or not.
Is it an obsession? Oh yes. Do I want the
cure? Hell no! Am I afraid I’ll run out of stuff to write? Never! What I am
afraid of is that I’ll run out of time to write the stuff that’s already in my
The truth of the matter is that what I do
to celebrate my writing successes is write. What I do for recreation is write,
what I do when I’m not writing is think about writing. Actually, you may not
know this, but you are all participating, right this very moment, in my
celebration party! So, grab a glass of wine, a pint, a Margarita, whatever the
drink of choice is and raise it with me as we toast, not the destination, but
the totally fabulous journey that is writing! On second thought, if you’re a
fellow writer, just grab a pen and paper or sit down with your laptop and write
something. If you’re an avid reader, grab the latest by your favourite author
and as you read, remember, you’re participating in their celebration, so cheers!
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
According to the late Elmore Leonard, never open a book with the weather. You want to hook a reader from the onset, not bore him or her with talk of rain. Then again, this famous hook sets the scene of a windswept London vividly in the imagination.
A hook is a literary technique in which the writer “hooks” the reader’s attention in the first sentence or paragraph so that he or she will keep on reading. When I first came to Facebook, writer Tom Piccirilli had an exercise where he asked his fellow writers to post their opening paragraphs or the opening line to their books. It was a wonderful exercise in learning how to write a great hook. When you see lots of other examples, you are more inspired to get right to the point and write something very catchy so you get most of the attention (and Facebook ‘likes’.). The same should apply to writing a hook for your books and short stories. You need to grab readers within those first few words or you will never hold them. Not only must you have an opening hook for your story, you must also have a closing hook for each chapter so that the reader is eager to continue reading, and you must have a hook for the opening of each chapter. Grabbing readers at the onset isn’t enough. You must keep their attention throughout your story. Hooks help to make that possible.
Here are some classic examples of fine literary hooks:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. [Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”]
Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. [D. H. Lawrence, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”]
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. [J. D. Salinger, “The Catcher In The Rye”]And my favorite literary hook, from Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting Of Hill House”:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone…
Sometimes a paragraph is too much. You have to grab ’em in the opening line. Don’t waste a single word. Here are some examples of good opening lines in romance novels.
“By dying now his father had won again. That old bastard.” [Ruth Cardello, “Maid For The Billionaire”]
“Hello, my name is Riley, and I am addicted to sexy lingerie.” [Lexy Ryan, “Text Appeal”]
“Where were her panties?” [Christine Claire MacKenzie, “A Stormy Spring”]
“The trouble with dead people today was they had no sense of decorum.” [Vicky Lobel, “Keys To The Coven”]
A good hook makes the reader want to know more. What is it about Hill House that frightens one so? Who or what haunts it? Riley is addicted to sexy lingerie. Well, hello there. 🙂 Humor always provides a good opening, as is evidence with several of the hooks named above.
Of course, the “dark and stormy night” quote was written by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton in “Paul Clifford”. His opening inspired the Bulwer-Lytton awards, which are given for the best “worst” opening paragraphs to fictitious novels. You submit entries you’ve created yourelf. You
have two sentences to work with. They are so mind-blowingly bad you’ll laugh your head off the whole time you read them. Here is the 2013 winner in the category of romance:
On their first date he’d asked how much she thought Edgar Allan Poe’s toe nails would sell for on eBay, and on their second he paid for subway fair with nickels he fished out of a fountain, but he was otherwise charming and she thought that they could have a perfectly tolerable life together. — Jessica Sashihara, Martinsville, NJ
Just for posterity’s sake, here are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing:
Never open a book with the weather.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
Keep your exclamation points under control!
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Same for places and things: Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.
Of course, break these rules as you see fit. After all, rules are meant to be broken. 😉
by Jean Roberta
Once in awhile, I read a book of non-fiction that pulls me in like a vivid story about desire, frustration, and ecstasy.
Recently I agreed to review Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger by Kelly Cogswell,* a history/memoir by a former member of an inventive group of women in New York City in the early 1990s. They performed public actions (including a circus act they learned, “eating fire”) to make lesbians visible, and to draw attention to homophobic and anti-woman violence. Mostly, the group existed to bring lesbians into the general cultural consciousness. For a short time, they seemed wildly successful, and spinoff groups of “Avengers” sprang up in numerous other cities and towns in the U.S. and Canada.
As they became publicly visible, however, the Avengers were seriously criticized, not only by conservatives, but by “allies” and fellow-members. The core group, a marvellously multicultural blend of New Yorkers with chutzpah, began to splinter. Discomfort with the in-fighting drove members away, and the group fell apart.
OMG. Although in some ways, Kelly Cogswell’s story seems characteristic of radical New York on the eve of the new millennium, parallel events were happening at the same time in places very far from there.
Hindsight provides a certain perspective, but it doesn’t erase the discomfort of yesteryear.
In the small city where I live on the Canadian prairies, I was pulled into two locally-famous conflicts involving “women of colour” in 1992-95. One woman had been hired to edit the journal of a federally-funded feminist organization, of which I was a board member. The other case involved a woman who had been fired from a research/writing position with a Canadian government department misleadingly named Secretary of State (usually called “secstate”).
As a supervisor (or part of a supervisory collective) of the editor, I learned almost immediately that any suggestion I could make about her work could be interpreted as an attack, and not only by the editor herself. Over a period of about two years, approximately thirty board members left the organization because of the tension caused by the editor’s ungrammatical writing, her apparent lack of an editorial policy or an understanding of the goals of the organization, and her refusal to accept direction.
I circulated an open letter to the rest of the board, explaining my conception of the editor’s job and asking for feedback from fellow board-members. None of them responded, but a representative of the union to which the editor belonged served me with a grievance claiming that I was attacking the editor’s competence by suggesting that she was “not a feminist.” (I had done no such thing. I had asked fellow board-members – not the editor, our employee – to respond to my own working definition of the term “feminist editor.” I wanted to know if we were all on the same page, so to speak.)
The editor then circulated her own letter to the board, in which she accused me of being the ringleader of a conspiracy to force her out of her job. Instead, I was forced off the board on grounds that my “personal” feud with the editor was harming the organization.
Meanwhile, the woman who had been fired from “secstate” had a growing number of supporters who pressured the government to re-examine her case. I was completely in favour of this. I hadn’t seen her work, so I had no opinion of its quality, but I thought there would be no harm in getting it reconsidered by someone other than her former supervisor.
I wasn’t willing to say that the firing had been unfair, or motivated by racism. I just didn’t know.
(Postscript: the woman who had been fired won her case, but she passed away from cancer in 1995. “Secstate” was dissolved by the Canadian government.)
Looking back, I can see what troubled me most about claims made by the supporters of both these women. Even before I was targeted as a racist, elitist, oppressive anti-sister, I was told that it didn’t matter whether two women who were employed as writers could write well or not.
Apparently, writing ability was not the issue. Or worse, eloquence on paper was a sign of bourgeois privilege.
Since then, I have heard numerous variations on this theme. By now, I have taught mandatory first-year English classes at the local university for a quarter-century, and many of my students speak English as a second or third language. When I dare to complain to anyone outside a small circle of my peers that too many of my students (including some who were locally-raised) are unprepared to write essays in clear English, I am usually told that this must be very hard for anyone who didn’t grow up speaking it, and even for some who did, and therefore I should give all my students a break – which seems to mean a passing grade. I’ve been told not to be judgmental, even though evaluating student assignments is part of my job.
We live in an age when culture is largely transmitted in written words. The spread of computers hasn’t counteracted this trend. On the contrary. Written words can now be exchanged faster than ever before, throughout the world. The accuracy of written language damn well matters.
At the same time, no language is universal – except, possibly, the “language” of science or math. Written words evolve out of specific cultures. No writer or teacher of literature and/or composition can really avoid being ethnocentric.
Why am I saying all this? Because writers need to be aware that all writing is controversial, even aside from its content. (When it includes explicit sex scenes, it attracts a whole extra gang of howling critics.)
Skillful writing can transport the reader out of her current time and place, and Kelly Cogswell did that for me. An inarticulate witness could not have described the complexity of a movement for social change in a way that would resound so well with someone who never lived at Ground Zero.
Erotic writers have a reason to be social activists too, especially if they are any shade of queer. Freedom to tell the truth about feelings and lifestyles can’t be completely separated from freedom to live honestly. In some ways, however, writing is exactly opposite from social action. Writing is usually done best alone, in a quiet room. Public displays of protest or solidarity require groups that grow into crowds. Filling the streets in support of an idea is a statement in itself.
There is so much to do, and so little time to do it. Sometimes I feel as if I have missed a chance to be successful at any activity, public or private. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes feels perverse in the worst sense, doomed to be politically incorrect from every angle in every situation.
But then a book comes into my hands that shows me that others have felt the same way. That’s the strength of the written word.
The poet Percy Shelley claimed that poets are the uncrowned legislators of the world. I would say that writers are revolutionaries, even when no one recognizes this fact. May all the writers who read this take heart.
*This book was published by University of Minnesota Press. You can also find it on Amazon.
By Big Ed Magusson (Guest Blogger)
“She never mentions the word addiction in certain company.”–Black Crowes, She Talks to Angels
In 1991, I drove into Tucson a mental wreck. I was returning to an academic career in shambles. I’d driven 900 miles to propose to the love of my life only to have her first tell me about kissing a new guy. It was over a hundred degrees in my tiny apartment, I had no friends in town, and precious few anywhere else. I went looking for a place that was dark and cool and wouldn’t mind if I just sat for hours without doing much.
I found Temptations.
It was an appropriate name for a strip club and for what it offered. For a few dollars, I could sit quietly in the dark and have beautiful naked women pay attention to me. I had the cash. I had free afternoons. And after a while, I had more.
Solace. Comfort. Escape.
And then, over time, a life that narrowed to my trips to the club.
My story The Fix (on my site here and also in the ERWA Treasure Chest here) captures this slice of my past. There’s a pleasure that only the obsessed can understand—that pleasure of final attainment. At the same time, the obsession itself is an inward knife’s blade—constant stabs of nerves and fears and self-loathing.
There’s a saying in the twelve step world: the addiction is not the problem. The addiction is the crappy solution to the problem. Fix the underlying problems as I did (or become more mature), and the addiction either disappears or drops back to a manageable craving. There’s even some scientific backing to this (here).
But try explaining that to people.
All too often, our culture forces a black or white model onto addiction. On the one hand, addicts are terrible people with destroyed lives. On the other, we celebrate the overindulgence of addictive acts—”we were so wasted” describes a good time on too many college campuses.
This is particularly true in erotica and porn. One of Marilyn Chambers’ big hits was Insatiable, about a nymphomaniac; an archetype regularly celebrated in male-oriented porn. Scores of erotica conventions and tropes draw on the power of sex and the human attraction toward it. We’ve “gotta have it.” Mainstream literary fiction is left to dwell on the question of whether that’s truly a good thing, even though mainstream fiction all too often portrays sex negatively or unerotically, as Remittance Girl discusses here.
So, do we dare go there? Do we dare portray sexual addiction in erotica in a realistic nuanced fashion?
There’s only one way I know to find out—write the stories and see. It promises to be an interesting experiment.
Big Ed Magusson has been writing erotica for the past decade. More of his work can be found at www.besplace.com and www.besplacebooks.com, including some of his Addictive Desires stories. He plans to release an anthology of the Addictive Desires stories later this year.
It seems like a simple thing. You make up a story. You write it. People read it.
Except that none of those are simple. Each is a painful task. We concentrate on the middle one here.
You Write It.
We talk about characters and technique and style, grammar, method, the senses. Each of these are important, but as Lucy Felthouse mentioned in her post, when you’re writing (first draft, I’ll assume she means), you have to let go of all that and just write. In the first draft, give your story good bones. Flesh it out from there. But even when you’ve written a technically fine piece, it may still lack that spark that makes a story live.
I’m rewriting the third book in a series. I thought I had it done, so I sent it out to beta readers. By a third novel, you’d think I’d be past the need for them, but I’m not. Two of my beta readers had some interesting things to say, things I needed to hear, things I already knew deep down but didn’t want to admit because I wanted to be done. And while Nan and Ali didn’t say this in so many words, what I was hearing – through my special filter that lets me hear things people never intended to say – was ‘What are you afraid of?’ Because both called me out, in their very polite ways, for backing off writing two scenes I found difficult to write. My characters talked about those events happening, but I couldn’t bring myself to show it to the reader. And here’s the part that makes me roll my eyes at myself – I knew that.
But enough about me. What about you?
Erotica is difficult to write. Everyone seems to think it’s so easy, but it’s incredibly hard (go ahead and giggle. I’ll wait). The first few times, you might be embarrassed to write those words, or to envision a sex scene in detail then rewind your mental movie of it and watch it all over again in slow motion many, many times until you’ve got every moment down. Having made that leap into the transgressive side of the street – as Remittance Girl might call it – you’d think we’d be able to boldly explore, to peel layers back and examine what lies beneath, to be frank and unapologetic. But I find it isn’t so. Nothing physical daunts me, but raw emotion is the stuff of my writing nightmares and I will perform all sorts of literary tricks to get around it.
What is the hardest thing for you to write? What would it take to make you face it?
As you know, lots of the other regular contributors to this blog pen some fabulous posts about the technicalities of writing, how to do it, how to improve, how to get inspired, and so on. A couple of recent examples being Three Workouts for Erotic Writers and Writing exercise – the canzonetta.
I don’t tend to write posts like that. I’m not one for the technicalities. Yes, I’ve got a degree in Creative Writing, I know how to write, I know how to spell and I know how to use an apostrophe (though I still occasionally wrestle with them). As long as I get to the end of a story, a novella or a full-length book and it’s correct and I’m happy with it, I don’t worry about anything else. That’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I’ve gotten to the stage where I have to trust myself, trust my ability to write. If I get bogged down in the technicalities, the many, many tiny elements that make up a piece of writing, I’m at risk of sinking into that bog and never finishing anything.
So I write what comes into my head, or from an outline I’ve sketched out, and I let the words flow naturally. Let my characters and the situation dictate what is said or done next. I put my backside in the chair, my fingers to the keyboard, and hope that what arrives on the screen isn’t a load of crap. And when it’s finished, I edit, tweak, polish and improve until it’s the best I can possibly make it. Then I hope like hell that someone will accept it.
So, what do you think? As long I’ve done my very best work, is it okay not to be worried about… everything?
Lucy Felthouse is a very busy woman! She writes erotica and
erotic romance in a variety of subgenres and pairings, and has over 100
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
[This blog is a repost from a 2010 item at my personal blog, but I thought ERWA denizens would also enjoy it. Certainly I think you’d enjoy the films! ~ Lisabet]
Last night my husband and I watched Radley Metzger’s 1972 film “Score”. We’d seen it before, in the nineties, when we first discovered a collection of Metzger’s work on VHS (remember VHS?) at our local independent video store (remember independent video stores?). The film was as lively and erotic as I had remembered, though some of the more dated references evoked a laugh or two.
Many of you are probably not familiar with Metzger. He began making sexually-oriented films in the late sixties and is responsible for ground-breaking efforts such as “I, a Woman” and “Therese and Isabelle”, one of the first films to concern itself with lesbian love. Later in his career, under the name of Henry Paris, he directed hard-core features including the classic “The Opening of Misty Beethoven”. The movies that initially made his name, however, skirt the edge between art and porn. They include nudity and simulated intercourse, but the attention to characterization and dialogue, not to mention the elegant cinematography and breathtaking locales (many of Metzger’s films were shot in Europe), move these films into a category all their own.
I don’t know how many of you watch modern “adult” movies. Based on my experience, most contemporary porn is pretty boring. The characters are primarily presented as bodies, who are largely interchangeable. They have no connection with one another beyond the physical tab-A into slot-B. There’s little or no conversation, no buildup of tension, no sense of transgression. One has no sense of any of the participants as individuals. Furthermore the sexual interactions tend to be annoyingly stereotyped and predictable. There is zero suspense.
Metzger’s work, in contrast, and “Score” in particular, focuses on the development of sexual attraction and the lure of the forbidden. Some of his films are more serious than others, but all are concerned with the experience of desire as much as with its fulfillment.
“Score” is one of his more light-hearted offerings. Jack and Elvira are a sophisticated, swinging couple who compete in their seductions. They set their sights on Eddie and Betsy, a pair of apparently innocent newlyweds. However, this is swinging with a twist. Elvira lays her snares to attract and corrupt angelic-looking Betsy, while Jack is determined to fulfill Eddie’s barely-suppressed homoerotic fantasies.
Neither Betsy nor Eddie falls immediately into bed with their pursuers. Elvira and Jack are gradual and subtle in their seductions. The characters are naked by the middle of the film, but it takes many sensual touches and intense, smoldering stares before the victims actually fall. Metzger vividly communicates the embarrassment and fear that mixes with Betsy’s and Eddie’s burgeoning lust. When they finally succumb to their hosts, the viewer feels a release of tension that goes far beyond the physical.
Metzger’s characters live in a permissive world where any sort of sexual activity might occur, including same-sex interactions. “Score” is cheerfully kinky in its acceptance of homosexuality, orgies, voyeurism, even a touch of S&M. It aims to arouse but not particularly to shock. Watching the film brought me back to the days when sex was fun, when it was relatively safe to surrender to desire.
Modern porn has much to learn from Metzger’s work. Even if you find porn offensive, you might well appreciate Metzger’s films. He has a healthy respect for his characters and their sexuality. In his world, sex is made to be enjoyed—and the chase is as exciting as the consummation.
It’s the 19th of April – the wettest month of the year in many locations. Today’s your chance to add to the general soaked state of the world by posting your Sexy Snippets!
The ERWA blog is not primarily intended for author promotion.
However, we’ve decided we should give our author/members an occasional
opportunity to expose themselves (so to speak) to the reading public.
Hence, we have declared the 19th of every month at the Erotica Readers and Writers Association blog Sexy Snippet Day.
On Sexy Snippet day, any author can post a tiny excerpt (200 words or less) in a comment
on the day’s post. Include the title from with the snippet was
extracted, your name or pseudonym, and one buy link, if you’d like.
follow the rules. If you post more than 200 words or more than one
link, I’ll remove your comment and ban you from participating in further
Sexy Snippet days. So play nice!
you’ve posted your snippet, feel free to share the post as a whole to
Facebook, Twitter, or wherever else you think your readers hang out.
by Donna George Storey
A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to an article entitled: “Why Is It So Hard for Women to Write About Sex?” by Claire Dederer (The Atlantic Monthly, February 19, 2014). I clicked the link expecting something along the lines of an article I read at the end of the last century when I first started writing dirty stories, this one by Jane Smiley, who confessed that she was writing a new book with explicit sex scenes and found herself blushing as she wrote. After all, ladies aren’t supposed to descend to explicit descriptions of sex that might arouse, even while they touch upon topics like incest for the sake of literature.
However, to my surprise, The Atlantic article contained a new twist on the reason good girls feel shame when they write about sex. You see, Dederer is writing a memoir about sex, “specifically about having an awful lot of it awfully young—too young—as a teenager in the 1980s.” So far so good, in terms of a surefire hook for the publisher’s sales department. Yet Dederer’s difficulty with the writing process reportedly lies in the fact that she was and is ambivalent about sex, an experience of “doubt braided tightly with the desire.” More than that, apparently she actually thinks during sex and somehow got the message this is bad and she shouldn’t let anyone know that she does this. (I got that message, too, but have mostly moved beyond, thanks to erotica!)
Without going into a detailed summary of the article, what struck me most is that while Dederer acknowledges that female sexuality is seen as normal and real in our times, she worries that her attempts to express ambivalence, complexity or anything other than the sentiment that sex-is-awesome-give-me-more will make her “seem anti-woman, or anti-sex, or anti-sexual-woman (or just a downer).”
Moreover, according to Dederer, men don’t have this problem because their desire is visible in the uncomplicated form of an erection. Which, gentlemen, I hope you will agree, is a brutal simplification of the male experience of sex in our culture. Surely you feel ambivalence, know complexity, suffer pressure to speak of sex in certain accepted ways rather than challenge the cliches with honesty?
I’m not sure which bothers me more, the dehumanizing assertion that male sexuality is uncomplicated because we can see boners or the assumption that women are now allowed to write about sex but are only allowed to do so in positive and uncomplicated terms in order to affirm that women feel desire? As erotica writers, we are all aware of the restrictions of genre upon our writing, but I hadn’t realized it was this bad over in Literary Land. No wonder Dederer finds it hard to write about sex.
But for Dederer the landscape is not totally bleak. She has discovered a few female literary models that give her inspiration when she sits down to write about “giving a blow job to that creepy hippie Malcolm in the patchouli-smelling van in 1984.” One writer in particular, Lidia Yuknavitch, intrigued me enough to place a request for her novel, The Chronology of Water, through interlibrary loan. I liked the scene Dederer quoted from competitive swimmer Yuknavitch’s memoir about ogling the older female swimmers when she was a girl. At first she claimed to be horrified and disgusted, but in a humorous twist in the very next paragraph she confessed to being enthralled and aroused by their strong, hairy bodies.
Alas for the foes of sexual shame, The Chronology of Water yielded but another means to silence a writer taking tentative steps toward honest sexual expression. Allow me to share an extended passage from the introduction to Yuknavitch’s memoir written by her fellow writing group member, Chelsea Cain, the author of numerous best-selling thrillers.
“Chuck Palahniuk brought up the idea of inviting her. ‘She writes this literary prose,’ he told us. ‘But she’s this big-breasted blond from Texas, and she used to be a stripper and she’s done heroin.’ Needless to say, we were impressed.
I already wanted her to sit by me.
There was more. Chuck told us that some really famous edgy writer—I didn’t recognize her name, but I pretended that I did—had given a talk at a conference about the State of Sex Scenes in Literature and she’d said that all sex scenes were shit, except for the sex written by Lidia Yuknavitch. Maybe Chuck didn’t tell us that. But someone in the group did. I don’t remember. I think I was still thinking about the stripper thing. A real-life ex-stripper in our writing group! So glamorous.
Yes, we said, invite her. Please.
She showed up a few weeks later, wearing a long black coat. I couldn’t see her breasts. She was quiet. She didn’t make eye contact. She did not sound like she was from Texas.
Frankly, I was a little disappointed.
Where was the big hair, the Lucite platform heels? The track marks?
Had Chuck made the whole thing up? (He does that sometimes.)
How was he describing me to people?”
Wait, the great Chuck Palahniuk sponsored Yuknavitch for his writing group (even if he does stretch the truth a bit in introducing her)? Does it get cooler than that? But alas, I’m sure ERWA writers are all too familiar with Cain’s preconceptions about women who write about sex or have experience as sex workers or even have large breasts—we’re slutty exhibitionists who provide great material for characters in thrillers, never people with demure wardrobes and complex or even introverted personalities.
The most notable part of this excerpt, however, is the proclamation by the unnamed but famously edgy writer that Lidia Yuknavitch is the only writer on the face of the earth who can write good sex scenes. That’s right, folks, there’s only room for one voice to speak to us about sex in The Right Way!
Before we dismiss the unnamed famous writer’s opinion as a theatrical gesture—or a paid endorsement—might I point out that holding up some legendary stud or beguiling courtesan as a model against which ordinary mortals fall short is a time-honored way to shame people about their real sexuality. Allowing only a small elite of sexual superstars permission to express their experiences is another effective way of silencing the rest of us. Clearly the only thing worse than having ordinary sex is writing about sex in a way that doesn’t crown you as the bestest, coolest sex writer ever.
But remember, this only works if we feel shame about our sexuality and our ability to express it. It probably sells a lot of books, too, this idea that one gifted individual has a special knowledge and skill in sex writing that no one else can match. We eagerly reach for enlightenment from without and, for me at least, always come away unsatisfied.
Given that the literati seem to buy that there are but a very few acceptable ways to write about sex mere decades after respectable people were finally given permission to write about it at all, a question bears asking—how much progress have we really made when it comes to the opportunity to express sexual experience with honesty, whether that be joyful, dark, or a combination of the two? In my opinion, ERWA writers consistently and generously illustrate how well this can be done, even if The Atlantic isn’t giving us equal time to talk about how fun and easy it is. At the same time, we do live in a sex-phobic culture that is very adept at twisting old weapons into new ones to keep too many people scared they’ll do it wrong.
Here is the dirty secret beneath all of this judgment and angst—if you want to write your truth about sex, you can’t do it wrong. There is room for many voices and many experiences, the more the better. Each of us can make up his or her own mind about what touches, amuses, arouses, angers or even shames us.
Start there and writing about sex becomes much easier.
And so I send my best wishes to all courageous writers who speak their erotic truth in spite of the cultural forces aligned against us. May you all, woman or man, find writing about sex inspiring, soul-expanding and challenging in the best of ways.
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
You learn the most from writers who are considerably better than you are and you learn a lot from writers who are worse than you are. But if I were able to go back in time and meet someone I’d probably choose William Shakespeare, not the least because he spoke pretty good English so you can have a beer with him, but also I’d want to pepper him with questions about craft. Among other things I’d want him to show me how to cut a feather quill and write with it and ask him – considering how expensive paper is, do you revise, Will? Do you write drafts? Do you rewrite? Yes? How many times? Do you write asymmetrically like I do, or front to back with an outline? I don’t have to ask him where he got his ideas, because the fact is I already know the answer to that.
He used the Tarot Spread and The Jazz Riff.
One of the finest craft books I’ve studied, and I’ve studied quite a few, is a book specifically about erotic writing by the venerable Susie Bright of “Best American Erotica” fame, called “How to Write a Dirty Story”. If you’ve never read a book on erotica craft and want to try just one, try this one. Its full of scholarly analysis, feminism, business wisdom and nuts and bolts exercises that truly work. I’m going to explain a couple of her exercises plus one of my own invention based on something I read in Stephen King’s book on craft “On Writing”.
Could You Would You?
When men are sitting around in public places as I am at this moment pecking away in the back of my favorite coffee shop we play a game in our heads which I’m very sure women play too. You see a hot looking woman walk by in summer clothes, tiny shorts and flips flops, brasserie optional and your eyes follow her and imagine her naked. You ask yourself – If you could fuck her would you do it? The key word being “Could”. Meaning if you could fuck her without totally destroying your marriage, breaking the heart of a good spouse who loves you, causing your kid to hate you with contempt and losing your job and good name just so you can stick your selfish little dick in there and hammer her a good one for a couple of minutes until you get off – yeah, meaning something like that maybe – would you? You survey the room, imagine a perfect world of no consequences and – that woman? No. That woman there? Boy Howdy. And twice on Sunday. How about that one? The interesting question is to explore what kind of woman turns you on and why they do.
Suzie Bright takes this game a little further and asks you to play with your fantasies and write them down in a series of three scenarios. You should stop reading this, get some paper and a pen and work this out.because if you take this craft exercise seriously this is definitely worth your time.
You still sitting there, bub?
G’wan, find a pen, get out of here. Scat.
Okay now –
Ms Bright writes:
“Give yourself two minutes to answer each question. When your time is up, stop, even if you haven’t finished your sentence:
- Write down an erotic fantasy about a sexual experience you would have in a minute if it were offered to you, no questions asked. It should be about something you would have no reservations or conditions about doing in real life.
- Write down an erotic fantasy about a sexual experience you would have only under certain conditions. You could give yourself up whole heartedly under these conditions, but otherwise not at all.
- Write down an erotic fantasy that is completely satisfying to you in your imagination but that you could not do either because it is physically impossible or something you could never bring yourself to do in real life. But in your imagination it is completely fulfilling.
I actually got a decent story from number 2 – would maybe do if you could. My fantasy was that I would like to experience sex and orgasm as a woman in a woman’s body to see how it differs from the male experience of excitement and release, but only if I could magically be a man again afterward. That became “The Happy Resurrection of Gregor Samsa”, Franz Kafka’s character from “The Metamorphosis” who awoke to find himself changed into ” a monstrous vermin”, usually depicted as a huge cockroach. I imagined the Samsa-cockroach awakening now incarnated as a woman and then looking for sex. Lisabet helped me get the female sensations right with that one.
The Character Splits (Tarot Card Spread) Exercise
Another exercise that Susie Bright explains in detail, though I will not, is “The Character Splits Exercise”. I’ve also written about this on the ERWA blog as the “Found Story”.
Natural evolution has preserved life for 3 billion years in this world by incorporating random elements into the genetic mix, using sex to combine random genetics into constantly changing and adapting life forms. If God wants one thing for you in this world – it’s to get laid. Then you die. This is how organic life responds to contingency, say, mega-volcanoes and big ass asteroids. You can write stories this way too.
Susie Bright describes the Character Splits exercise:
Take five scraps of paper and write one name on each, the name of a family member or a close friend:
- Uncle Tony
Take five scraps of paper in a separate pile and name five famous people:
- Yoko Ono
- Brad Pitt
- Justin Bieber
- Ernest Hemingway
- Count Dracula
Finally in a third pile take five scraps of paper naming simple events of the day:
- Eating Breakfast
- Walking the dog
- Waiting in a line
- Paying bills
Pick an element at random from each pile and combine them. Say, Lisabet and Brad Pitt and Showering. (In my way of thinking this is like drawing card images from a Tarot deck and combining them and then listening to your intuition to see what story they suggest)
Take this scrap pile of elements and compose it into an erotic fantasy, Say Lisabet getting it on with Brad Pitt in the shower, that’s an easy one, or Yoko Ono running into Count Dracula one evening while walking the dog and having a tryst in the bushes. What would Yoko Ono and Count Dracula talk about in the afterglow? Do you really prefer virgins? Did you really split up the Beatles?
Your people. Your mundane activities. Your tarot cards. The key is to draw on random elements you normally wouldn’t be thinking of and combining them into something that would not have occurred to you. You can do this with stories too. Take down a book of fairy tales, a book of war stories and maybe a book of poetry, things that have nothing to do with each other, rip random paragraphs from each and shuffle them and challenge yourself to turn them into something. The key is challenge.
The Jazz Riff
Modern jazz bands often have a front man who noodles off some kind of a spontaneous melody for a few measures and tosses it to the next player who noodles around off it, then tosses it to the next player and the next. So you have a central melody interpreted on different instruments by different styles.
Stephen King wrote a wonderful craft book and autobiography called “On Writing” in which he offers encouragement to us wanna-bes and some very practical tricks of the trade. One of the things he explains in detail that I absolutely took to heart is the lost art of “pastiche”, the literary version of a jazz riff. When he was starting out he would take a paragraph from a favorite writer, some paragraph he especially loved and would copy it out it out with a pencil – not a keyboard – with a pencil slowly, so he could mouth the sounds of those words. So he could FEEL those words. So he could think in his head with that sound and that feeling. To BE that writer for a little while. Word for word I’ve patiently copied paragraphs on stacks of yellow legal pads from Ray Bradbury, Angela Carter and Vladimir Nabokov, verbal high wire walkers who can knock you on your ass with a single phrase. Trying to hear them in my head, trying to get that sound and keep it for myself. Trying to love words the way they do. I don;t understand writer’s who don;t love language. If you want to improve yourself as a writer, don;t worry about style, learn to love words. Read poetry. Listen for the music. Pastiche the music. Play the notes along with poets you love. When writing an action scene I take down my Robert E Howard and his punchy fast moving descriptions of skulls being “split to the teeth” with battle axes. I want that sound. When writing a sex scene I fill my head with Anais Nin. Dialogue, I consult my Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard. Not for their words which belong to them – for their music.
When I get stuck I have a copy of John Updike or Angela Carter in easy reach, crack it open at random with my thumbs and riff off of the first thing I see:
“She sits in a chair covered in moth-ravaged burgundy, at the low round table and distributes the cards; sometimes the lark sings but often remains a sullen mound of drab feathers.” “The Lady of the House of Love” Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories)
And I might go: “Nixie sat sullenly in the moth chewed chair, humped like a storm bedraggled raven, a sulking, sullen mound of feathers.” Once I get that first sentence going the rest often follows. But you only get to do that if you love words and sentences. Love is the thing, always.