Monthly Archives: February 2018
Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and her two cats. Visit her web site, her Facebook page, and her Amazon Author Page.
Her m/m erotic medical thriller Roughing It is a sexy cross between The X Files, The Andromeda Strain, and Outbreak. Read her short erotic story Babes in Begging For It, published by Cleis Press. You will also find her new novel No Restraint at Amazon. Enjoy a good, sexy read today.
It’s been a bit of an adventure for the past three weeks. I was sick with a nasty head cold for two weeks. Then, going into the third week, the car died. While my husband and I were driving on the highway. In traffic. At 60 MPH. I’d never been so scared in my whole life. Our old Honda Civic Esmerelda served us well but we needed a new used car. Fast.
We bought a 2004 VW Bug. I’ve always wanted a Bug and now we have a blue one we named Zhaan after the big blue bitch on the Australian TV show Farscape. This car is very nice and we’re blinging it up. I have crystals hanging from the rear view mirror. We bought a bud vase! You can’t have a Bug without a bud vase although the newer ones don’t include it. That’s a sacrilege in my opinion. I bought fresh flowers for the house and put one in the bud vase. Here it is, on the dash.
We have veteran’s plates, but if we ever get vanity plates I want one that says “Bugasm”. Or one that says “Feature”. Get it? It’s a Feature, not a Bug? LOL
So this got me to thinking about new beginnings. It’s the beginning of the year so I wanted to see how I could change this year so that it is better than last year. 2017 sucked. I’m going to make 2018 better. So far, I’ve submitted five short stories to submission calls. They’re about equal between erotic fiction and horror. Six if you count the one that I submitted two years ago and it’s still under consideration. I’m not pulling it because this particular horror anthology is like Ahab’s White Whale and I really want to be in it. It’s just delayed. The book isn’t getting published until 2019, but I’m very patient.
I’m working on a seventh short horror story right now as well as my collection of erotic fairy tales. I plan to release the fairy tale book during the summer. I need someone to create a Table of Contents (I don’t know how to do that for a Kindle book) and I need a book cover. I also need to do some pre-release marketing. Hopefully this book will sell better than the two books I released a couple of years ago. They tanked. I need some good news. Fairy tales do well so I have great hope for this book.
I also just received my final edits for a mystery/suspense novel I’m working on. I have a lot of work to do on it yet, but I have confidence I can finish it in a month or two. Then I submit that book to agents and a few very good top notch indie publishers. I’m very proud of this book and I have great hope for it.
I think I’m off to a good start. A handful of short story submissions and two books. As these works get published, I’ll write to tell my readers where you may find them. Keeping my fingers crossed I’ll have more good publishing news very soon.
by Jean Roberta
“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,/And palmeres for to seken straunge londes.” –
(When April’s sweet showers have demolished the drought of March . . . then people want to travel, and religious pilgrims want to visit strange lands.)
– Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, circa 1380s.
I’m currently making plans to go to Eroticon (annual conference of the erotic arts) in London, England, with my spouse on the weekend of March 17-18, 2018. This will require several plane rides through different time-zones because we live in the middle of Canada. I can’t afford to spend more than a week away from the classes I teach, even with capable grad-student substitutes.
There are too many writers’ cons held every year throughout the world for one writer to attend. Most of them, as far as I know, are held in the U.S., but I’ve heard scary stories about how hard or at least unpredictable it has become for people from other countries—even Canada—to be allowed in under the current regime. So I decided to go to England instead. I’ll probably go to more writers’ cons in the U.S. in the future, after the regime has changed.
Why go to a writers’ conference? Here are some obvious reasons:
– To network with other people in the publishing world, preferably with those who write, edit and publish in one’s own genre,
– To learn more about the crafts of writing, promotion, and negotiation, and to get first-hand news about calls-for-submissions, contests, jobs, and to get a feel for different publishers, trends, and writing groups.
– To promote a personal project.
– To add experience to a resume or CV. (This especially applies to academics.)
Here are some less-obvious reasons:
– To take a trip away from home! Why not?
– To socialize in person with on-line friends.
– To check out a particular city as a possible place to live.
– To breathe polluted air for a weekend, the better to appreciate the fresh air of the Canadian prairies when one comes home. (This reason probably only applies to me.)
Of course, there are downsides to writers’ cons. I consider myself very lucky not to have experienced the kind of drama I’ve heard about from other writers. Here are some disadvantages of going to a con, in ascending order of importance:
– Expense!! It often seems that those who need the most financial help get the least. Academics, especially those who teach literature, composition, or creative writing in some form, can often get a trip to a writers’ con subsidized by their employers, and the more socially-conscious writers’ cons offer their own subsidies, but those who work outside the Ivory Tower and don’t know anyone who could take them in during a con can pay a considerable amount for travel to the site, accommodation, food, city transportation, conference fees, entertainment, and impulse shopping. The cost of a trip can cut into a writer’s writing profits, if any, without producing any quantifiable return on the investment.
– Isolation. This can take various forms, depending on the circumstances. Writers tend to be introverts, and newcomers can find it hard to connect with those who seem successful and connected.
– Ostracism, rejection, sarcasm, confrontation, turf war. This is the stuff of nightmares, and possibly the inspiration for one’s next horror novel. (When given lemons, writers often find ways to make lemonade.)
Writers in some genres vehemently reject other genres. Sex-writers, in particular, have been sneered out of rooms. Romance, which seems like erotica’s closest cousin, is both widely popular and still widely rejected by writers and institutions which claim to be intellectual, avant-garde, or unflinchingly honest about the hell of this world.
Professional rivalry and political in-fighting (of the more-woke-than-thou variety) are additional obstacles that have caused some con-goers to say they will never return.
– Unforeseen disasters. What insurance companies define as “acts of God” (extreme weather, plane and train crashes, accidental fires, epidemics) are more likely to happen to travellers than to folks who follow a routine at home. Deliberate sabotage in the form of bombings and shootings tends to happen more in large cities than in less-populated areas. (Where I live, “terrorist threat” means the possible contamination of the wheat crop.) I assume that writers who already live in large cities have developed a tough-enough shell not to find writers’ cons any scarier than everyday life. And again, lemons can be the raw material for lemonade, as long as one survives.
So there it is. I find the lures of writers’ cons to be more compelling than the possible drawbacks, especially since the university where I teach encourages “professional development” in the forms of readings and attendance at cons. I’ll probably keep going to them as long as I’m able to board a plane.
Chaucer would probably be amused.
A lot of authors have mentioned the concern they have of the self-publishing mechanics which may be holding them back from taking the plunge.
I realize that it’s easier to just type up your manuscript and send it off to the publishing house and let them deal with all the dirty work, but you may be leaving a lot of money on the table when you do this.
From what I can see, sending in your manuscript for possible inclusion in an anthology results in about a $50 payment plus a copy of the book. Certainly, you may be offered more or less, but typically you will be given a fixed amount of money for your labor.
Think about a possible alternative, divide the money you could potentially receive by two and that’s roughly the number of stories you would have to sell to break even. Then once you break even, it’s all gravy after that.
Assuming that your sales ranking for the story is between 500,000 and a million which is a decent figure for an erotic story that captures the reader’s eye. This ranking should result in sales of 5-10 copies per month at Amazon or $10 to $20 per month income and the same from SmashWords. Personally, I normally make two or three times as much from SmashWords, but let’s assume the same sales.
Before you start rolling your eyes, consider this. A sales ranking of 100,000 should result in the sale of 30 to 40 copies per month or $60 to $80 per month profit per published story.
When your ranking drops into the top one-hundred, you could easily be selling thousands of copies per month and be waited on hand and foot by nubile scantily clad servants who are busily stuffing grapes into every one of your orifices.
Rank To Sales Estimator from David Gaughran estimates your sales as follows:
#1 to #5 = 5,000+ books a day (sometimes a lot more)
#5 to #10 = 4,000–5,000
#10 to #20 = 3,000–4,000
#20 to #50 = 2,000–3,000
#100 = 1,000+
#200 = 500
#300 = 250
#500 = 200
#1,000 = 120
#2,000 = 100
#3,000 = 80
#5,000 = 40
#10,000 = 20
#25,000 = 10
#50,000 = 5
#100,000+ = fewer than 1 a day
From what I’ve seen, this estimate is relatively close. A 100,000 sales rank should return sales in the 30 – 40 per month bracket, but your mileage may vary.
But let’s not get carried away here, the cold, cruel truth is that assuming you are a decent writer of material other people want to read, you’ll likely have a sales ranking around a million. At least that’s what you need to shoot for initially.
My point is simply that if you take the plunge and try self-publishing, then it is possible that with a number of stories published you could be pulling in a few hundred dollars per month. This would easily vault you past the single payment you receive when publishing in an anthology.
In an upcoming post, I’ll talk more about tools that can help you determine where you stand in the various rankings but I just want you to consider self-publishing.
Another benefit of self-publishing is that you have complete control over your story. When you deal with a publisher, then you have to first convince them to accept your work, and often beyond that point, there is a limited amount of control that you can exert.
A good example is search keywords to allow your readers to find you. Often these are determined by someone who may or may not have read your story and realized what a wonderful writer you are.
We all have a fear of the unknown, especially when it involves whips and chains, but that’s a whole different post. It’s sort of like a guy sitting at the bar, two stools over from a woman who is drop-dead gorgeous.
While he’s trying to build up his courage to talk to her, another guy slips in between them and sits down. The new guy leans over to the beautiful woman and asks, “Would you like to fuck?”
To which, the woman slaps the guy as hard as she can, calls him an asshole, and walks away.
While the cad is rubbing his cheek, the first guy says, “I bet you get slapped a lot with that line?” To which, the other guy replies, “Yeah, but you’d be surprised at how often I get laid!”
The moral of the story is you don’t get if you don’t ask. Your customers are not going to bang on your door and beg to buy a copy of your latest story.
For those who are hesitant about self-publishing, ask yourself this question, “What’s the absolute worst that can happen to me?”
Aside from the ones who write you and say, “You Suck!” or the old blue-haired lady who cancels your library card, that’s about the worst of it. It’s not like some guy with a broken nose is going to show up at your front door.
If you need further reassurance and cover, tell them, Larry, made me publish my drivel and then they can tell me that I suck! So now that you don’t have anything to worry about, dust off that manuscript and let’s see if we can make you rich.
After all, 50 Shades made millions and most of us would be ashamed to admit that we wrote crap as bad as that. Certainly, you can do better, can’t you?
Going forward, I’d like to help you with the process. Now, I can’t guarantee that I can help with your English, but I can help you package your story and get it out to your adoring fans.
See you next time and remember to stop stroking when you start needing glasses. Otherwise, you might find out that your Mother was right!
Now on a personal note, I’d just like to give a shout out to Lisabet Sarai, who I consider a good friend and inspiration. She and I published two stories concurrently at the end of last year, Hot Brides in Vegas and Nina, The Fallen Ballerina.
The two stories were well received and both were themed in Foxy and Larry’s world of swingers and strip clubs. It was fun and certainly interesting on how Lisabet portrayed the regular characters in my Foxy and Larry series.
I’ve published some 15 or so stories using these two characters whose roots grew out of our experiences swinging. Working with Lisabet taught me to make sure and flesh out your characters in every story to ensure your reader understands and can picture them instead of assuming they have read about the character in a previous story.
F&L series stories tend to flow from one to the other and characters are often introduced and built up from story to story. The whole chain of stories is sort of like a Roots or Godfather series except not on television. What I didn’t take into consideration was that readers may not have read all my books. Shame on you!
Another lesson in the road to becoming hopefully a better writer.
She’s helping me with one of my latest books based on an actual event where one of our neighbors crashed our annual New Year’s Eve party. While the actual event didn’t turn out quite as perverted as the resultant story, it could have. Lisabet has been instrumental in helping build a number of the chapters and helping to brainstorm the storyline. Thanks, Lisabet!
Wifey and I still laugh about that episode. We try not to make friends with our neighbors as bad things can happen innocently. But we had become friends with this straight couple, who live a couple of houses down from us. Our lots are pretty big and they were a little over a block in distance from us, so not like they are right next door.
After every New Year’s, they would always comment on the number of cars parked around our house and we would excuse not inviting them because they had said they were going to another party.
Then one year, sometime after midnight the doorbell rings and I stupidly answer the door. I find the couple from down the street, all decked out in a suit and fancy dress. Keep in mind that these people are really straight!
Not knowing what to do, I invite them in. At this point, there are over 100 people in various stages of undress or modeling Victoria Secret underwear with an impromptu orgy going on in the living room.
I’m wearing a bathrobe and Foxy is in long johns, unbuttoned down the front and with the back flap open. There is a picture of her with some of the girls here. Voyeurism at these parties is worth paying for. LOL
They were standing in the entry foyer with their mouths hanging open looking at the pile in the living room. After leading them to a quiet corner, we told them that they were welcome to stay but not to talk about what they saw or experienced. Anyway, our shocked neighbors soon departed except I got the impression the wife wanted to hang around.
That’s a thumbnail sketch of how the idea for the story got started and you’ll have to buy a copy to find out who did what and to whom. The title is still up for grabs, “The Neighbors,” “Our Nasty Neighbors,” or “Crashing a Swinger’s Party.”
See ya next month,
P.S. If you have any topics you’d like me to opine on or any suggestions, email me: Larry <at> LarryArcher <dot> com. For a laugh, check out my Twitter ads: http://bit.ly/2FtFzpG
In what city does Fifty Shades of Grey take place?
I had to look this up. The answer is Vancouver, Washington, but does anyone care? Does the setting matter at all in erotic fiction?
Many authors (and I suppose readers) might argue that it does not. Certainly quite a lot of the erotica and erotic romance I encounter is set in a generic urban or surburban environment without any distinctive geographic or cultural features. These tales focus entirely on the characters and the action, which apparently could be happening anywhere. The background is an undifferentiated blur.
Personally, I prefer stories that provide a strong sense of place. I guess that’s because I read erotica for the total emotional experience, not just for the sex. However, I also find that a specific, vividly depicted setting can heighten the erotic charge.
One time-honored technique in writing erotica is to use all the five senses. Our bodies are located in space, and our senses bring us messages from that space. So the roughness of the cheap blanket in the seedy hotel room—the fragrant fresh-mown grass clinging to our sweaty bodies—jazz, drifting in the window from Bourbon Street—the sticky sweetness of the ice cream we shared, before you dragged me into the cool shadows under the pier (which smells of rust and seaweed)—the distant orb of the full moon sailing above as I lie on my back with you pounding into my cunt— all these sights, sounds, scents, tastes and textures combine to bring an erotic interlude to life in the imagination.
Of course, you can provide sensory details without specifying exactly where it’s all happening. As an author, though, it’s easier to conjure these details if you have a particular setting in mind.
Setting complements and enhances both character and plot. Where you come from, where you live, strongly influences who you are. A person from Boston thinks, speaks and acts quite differently from someone who comes from Los Angeles (not to mention Marseille or Singapore). Even when I don’t mention it, I almost always know my characters’ geographic histories. Not infrequently in my stories the major conflict flows from background or cultural differences between the protagonists.
Meanwhile, certain events can occur only in certain places. For instance, a devastating landslide is pivotal in my MMF tale Monsoon Fever, providing a catharsis that pulls the characters into three-way sex. That story is set in hilly Assam, India. It just wouldn’t work in Bangkok, or Venice, or Minneapolis.
I guess I’m known for my evocative and varied settings. My novels take place in Thailand, in Boston, in London and LA, in Pittsburgh, in rural Guatemala, in Paris, in Rajasthan, in Manhattan, in Worcester MA, and in northern California. I’ve written stories set in Provence, in Newport RI, in Nebraska, and in Amsterdam. I do tend to return in my writing to places I’ve lived or visited often, as I can describe them with greater ease, but I certainly haven’t been to every location that shows up in my fiction.
I wonder if readers can tell which of my settings are based on real experience, which on research and imagination.
For me, the joy of reading is being pulled into a new world, rich in detail, intense and believable. So I want to know where a story is happening—even if that location is totally fictional. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series has the strongest sense of place I’ve ever encountered in a book. That’s one reason why I love it.
I try to offer my readers the same joy. I know some of you don’t care. I’m writing for those of you who do.
(If you’re one of those people, check out my new Asian Adventures series—short erotic pieces set in different Asian locales. The most recent title, set in Thailand, is Butterfly.)
Did you know, Dear Reader, that if you were writing erotica a hundred years ago, you could be sent to prison for sharing information about female sexual pleasure?
Of course, many still try to denigrate and silence our efforts in the twenty-first century, but we are, at least for the moment, allowed to practice our craft without immediate threat of arrest.
My historical research has introduced me to a woman who helped to make this freedom possible: Ida Craddock, a writer who dedicated her life to educating others about mutually satisfying marital relations. Since February is the month our culture has dedicated to romantic love–or at least lots of candy sales—it seems a fitting time to celebrate Ms. Craddock’s life and work.
Ida Craddock was born in Philadelphia in 1857 and raised in a strict, Christian fundamentalist household. According to her biographer, Vere Chappell, author of Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock, Ms. Craddock rebelled against her upbringing first by advocating for higher education for women and then teaching and writing a textbook on stenography, the one profession in which young women could earn decent pay. In her thirties, she became interested in the occult and theosophy. She also became sexually involved with two men. Both relationships occurred outside of marriage, a very radical act in the late 1880s and early 1890s.
Her first lover was younger man who took the “normal,” male-centered approach to intimate relations. Ms. Craddock might not have found her calling had she married this man. However, her second lover was older and so devoted to female pleasure, he trained himself in the art of delayed ejaculation. This man changed her world forever. Ms. Craddock’s discovery of the joy of sex inspired her to help women whose partners ignored their sensual needs. She felt that the general ignorance of human sexuality led to great pain and suffering and set out to share her knowledge with others. She toured the great cities of the United States giving lectures and produced pamphlets to reach a wider audience, specifically those constrained from attending a public event by modesty.
Ms. Craddock’s work came to my attention when I was researching early twentieth-century sex advice resources that the husband in my novel might consult in order to prepare himself for the defloration of his virgin bride. Being a considerate fellow, he procured a copy of Ms. Craddock’s pamphlet “The Wedding Night,” which provides advice that surely benefits my heroine:
“The very first thing for you to bear in mind is that, inasmuch as Nature has so arranged sex that the man is always ready (as a rule) for intercourse, whereas the woman is not, it is most unwise for the man to precipitate matters by exhibiting desire for genital contact when the woman is not yet aroused. You should remember that that organ of which you are, justly, so proud, is not possessed by a woman, and that she is utterly ignorant of its functions, practically, until she has experienced sexual contact; and that it is, to her who is not desirous of such contact, something of a monstrosity. Even when a woman has already had pleasurable experience of genital contact, she requires each time to be aroused amorously, before that organ, in its state of activity, can become attractive. For a man to exhibit, to even an experienced wife, his organ ready for action when she herself is not amorously aroused, is, as a rule, not sexually attractive to her; on the contrary, it is often sexually repulsive, and at times out and out disgusting to her. Every woman of experience knows that, when she is ready, she can cause the man to become sexually active fast enough.”
There is not one word that rings false to me in this excerpt, although it was written in the 1890s. Granted, each of us has her own sexual preferences, and some women may adore immediate penetration without foreplay and dick pics from men they don’t know (not any with whom I’ve spoken, but it’s a big world out there). Still, there are a lot of men today who could learn a few things from “The Wedding Night.”
Alas, a villain enters our story. A crusading U.S. Postal Inspector named Anthony Comstock decided Ms. Craddock was a menace to society after she publicly defended the belly dance show at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago as an art by which married women could improve their sex lives. Comstock almost single-handedly restricted access to “obscene” information in America beginning with the eponymous laws passed in 1873. The Comstock Laws enabled him to prosecute offenders for sending their products through the mail. “Obscene” material included not just pornography but pamphlets on birth control and sexual advice for married couples.
Comstock brought Ms. Craddock to trial in 1902 for sending copies of “The Wedding Night” through the mail. The judge refused to allow the jury to read the pamphlet upon which they would be passing judgment because it was so offensive to morals. Without leaving the courtroom, the jury—all men of course–found her guilty. She was sentenced to the workhouse, a place that invariably ruined the health of its inmates with its cold, damp quarters and rotten food. Ms. Craddock refused an offer to escape the prison term by pleading insanity. She did not consider herself insane (and knew the madhouse was surely little better than prison).
Instead of serving her sentence, Ida Craddock committed suicide.
Her final note was meant for the public to read: “I am taking my life because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has declared me guilty of a crime I did not commit–the circulation of obscene literature. Perhaps it may be that in my death, more than in my life, the American people may be shocked into investigating the dreadful state of affairs which permits that unctuous sexual hypocrite Anthony Comstock to wax fat and arrogant and to trample upon the liberties of the people, invading, in my own case, both my right to freedom of religion and to freedom of the press.” In a long note to her mother, she wrote: “I maintain my right to die as I have lived, a free woman, not cowed into silence by any other human being.”
Comstock’s methods of entrapment and shrill dramatics had been privately losing him support for years. After Ms. Craddock’s death, he received a great deal of negative publicity. Biographer Vere Chappell saw this moment as a turning point for Comstock’s influence, although he lived on to torment other sexual progressives like Margaret Sanger. Few mourned his passing in 1915. The Comstock Laws were rescinded after World War I.
In 2018, Ms. Craddock’s goal of educating the public about pleasurable sexual relations has not progressed as much as one would hope. Speaking honestly about our sexual experiences—good and bad and from the perspective of any gender—still deeply threatens those in power. Our work as erotica writers still requires courage.
With that in mind, the next time you sit down to write a steamy story that will inspire and educate readers about this repressed, but vitally important aspect of our humanity, remember Ida Craddock. We walk in her shadow.
Toward the conclusion of Costa Gavras’ 1969 political thriller ‘Z’, an array of high-ranking military figures being interrogated by the investigating magistrate describe the attacker during a political assassination as “lithe and fierce, like a tiger.”
From the low-life thugs who carried out the killing to the highest ranking officer who condoned it, they all utter the same phrase. The magistrate takes it that all of them were in on it and all of them have been coached.
I’m reminded of Gavras’ bit of satire whenever I hear another phrase that writers and editors have become fond of using: It took me right out of the story.
It’s a phrase that spurs the suspicious chief magistrate in me to ask, did it really take you out of the story, or did you think it should have taken you out of the story?
ITMROOTS is most commonly applied to lapses in POV. Beginning writers are schooled in keeping their stories, or at least individual chapters in a single point of view. To fail that is to commit the cardinal writing sin of head-hopping. This is sound advice, as sound as grounding oneself in the basics of grammar and maintaining a single tense.
But I worry that sound craft is being turned into dogma, because dogma, after all, hinders not only craft, but art.
I was born right smack in the middle of the twentieth century. I enjoyed books, of course, but the dominating art forms of my day were movies and television. Perhaps for this reason, supposed POV faults don’t bother me all that much. Because the camera, for the most part, when it pulls back from a scene, it appears all POVs are covered. True third-person omniscient. Great directors – Hitchcock comes to mind – then could slice into a scene and pare the POV down to one single character. Hitch, however, usually kept it in our POV, the audience.
It bothers me when someone cites head-hopping that I just don’t see. How am I missing this?
ITMROOTS is also applied to other perceived faux pas in writing, and in all honesty I also have been taken right out of a story by any number of things, such as anachronisms in historical settings, a shift in tense, an action by a character inconsistent with what has gone before without explanation. That was a big problem I had with Gone Baby, Gone.
Then there’s just bad or mundane writing. A late and much missed friend of mine used to say of some writers, he or she writes perfectly, but with a tin ear. Hey, you know it when you read it.
I suspect ITMROOTS originated in a creative writing course. It sounded okay and spread through the writerly community. Like all once-glib phrases, with time it has become set in concrete. Editors use it frequently, and it always makes me cringe, because I wonder if the dogma is perhaps quelling a new style or innovation.
New fiction is emerging that employs different, or perhaps no punctuation. Right now I’m enjoying Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, a western saga told in the manner of a rambling monologue without quote marks and what I can only describe as improvised punctuation.
I can also think back to Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga, in which white space was deftly used to convey great interludes of silence, or just the sounds of a vessel plying the seas at night.
Still, I worry that the dogma is hindering creativity and experimentation. Particularly when an editor says something or other assuredly takes the reader right out of the story. Really? Because I’ve never heard a pure reader use that phrase, nor seen any study that proved readers are ever taken right out of a story by anything other than bad or dull writing. My experience has been that readers don’t get into a story in the first place and so never get to the point where they get taken right out of it.
We who have been schooled in writing perhaps need to sit back and ask this: Does it work? And if the answer is yes, decide for ourselves why.
ERWA Flasher Gallery Editor
Pretty well every story has action scenes.
Action scenes as in action and adventure stories?
Well, yes, obviously. But I meant action scenes in their most general sense. Scenes in which the characters do things the writer needs to describe to the reader.
It could be as simple as picking up a pen, or taking a sip from a drink. Or it could be a rather more complex act, like engaging in fisticuffs, enjoying an amorous engagement, or piloting a space craft which defies the laws of physics through a ludicrously busy asteroid belt.
Think of a scene from a TV drama or a movie. How often do the actors just stand still and talk? They’re usually doing other things, even if that’s only sitting around a table. They might move around while sitting in a chair, turn towards each other, pull faces, pause for a second or two in a conversation. The actors show you more of the story with these actions than their words alone do. Hopefully, it makes the scene more believable to viewers, too.
Actions can also help flesh out a character. A tough guy handling a weapon will seem rather more menacing than one just talking. And your readers already know about that weapon if you want to liven things up for your characters a little later.
In an ideal world, your description of the action will include enough detail to convince your reader that the character did it (or is doing it, if you write in the present tense). It’s one of the times when “show not tell” can really work, even if it’s harder to write. You may have done some top-notch research, but think carefully. You don’t want to bog the story down, or tempt your reader to skip a bit, or worst of all, decide they’ve something else to read which will be far more lively.
For simple things, you can use sneaky little “action tags” to describe what your characters are doing and show who’s talking. These may save you from the dreaded overuse of “said”…
Inspector Jones pulled out a notebook and pen. “What did you see?”
Sophie looked away. “Whatever.”
Gregory turned to his computer. “Let’s see what the CCTV recordings show.”
Where a scene requires more detail, you’ll have to rely on a more conventional mixture of narrative and dialogue to show the action unfolding.
When thinking about a scene I want to write, I often try to imagine I’m watching it, as if it were a scene in a TV drama. Then I try to figure out the “choreography”.
I mean what happens, who does what, when, how, and with which hand or foot, and so on. Then there’s clothing, furniture, other people and objects around them.
Once I’ve got all this straight (or straight-ish), then I’ll try to describe it in writing. And usually realise I need to think about it a bit more…
One thing I’ve come across not infrequently in romance and erotica are confusing descriptions of what the characters are doing.
- If there are two women involved, which “she” or “her” does the writer mean?
- If a couple are getting amorous while sitting in a booth in a diner, how much could they do without removing the table? Likewise cars and steering wheels, or the cramped seats in a typical passenger aircraft.
- A guy cuddling a woman only has one hand free, and that has a limited range of movement.
In any action scene, there’s obviously a balance to be struck between details and the big picture, and keeping the scene moving is an obvious way to go.
One approach I’ve come across for dramatic action scenes is for the character or narrator to be quite matter-of-fact. Len Deighton and Lawrence Block narrate their violence in such a way. Admittedly, with Deighton, it’s more plausible and realistic.
One thing you might find helpful is to remember that unless your character has been very carefully trained, anything sudden and dramatic will be pretty confusing and they’ll probably notice specific details far more clearly than the whole scene.
I’ve read two books which described conventional action scenes in quite different ways. Actually, they were both audiobooks.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering if audiobooks might be a new outlet for your fiction, you may be right. I feel that while the right narrator can really bring a book to life, the wrong one can totally ruin it. I found Rosario Dawson’s performance of Andy Weir’s “Artemis” utterly entrancing. And after getting wound up enough to shout at my car audio system, I’ll avoid anything narrated by the British actor Martin Jarvis like the plague.
Back to my examples…
One was a period story I will refrain from naming. It attempted to be light-hearted and jolly, and the writer appeared to be trying to use a style which “felt” 19th century. There was a particular scene where the main female character was the cause of a major punch-up between two gangs, one protecting her from the other. Despite the furious action, the writer described this character picking her way between the combatants in an almost leisurely fashion, as if the fighting around her was in slow motion. I very nearly gave up on it, but I didn’t have another audiobook to listen to at the time.
The other was “Stay Cool” by Elmore Leonard. There’s a point in the story where the main character is having some difficulties with two lots of gangsters simultaneously. With each unaware of the other’s existence, he manages to engineer them into a well-populated shoot-out in a nightclub, with him right in the middle of it.
So how did Mr Leonard show us this scene of death and mayhem?
The character told his girlfriend about it afterwards.
As first person dialogue, we only had what he chose to relate, and only from his point of view. Like almost any witness giving a statement to the police, he’d be an unreliable narrator. Let’s face it, a noisy, dirty fight like that is going to be really confusing and you’d really want to keep your head well down.
So, say your character is riding a horse, flying an aircraft, driving a tank, involved in a high-speed car chase, parachuting, firing a bow and arrow, or a firearm, fighting, fencing, wearing armour… Not all at the same time, obviously. How can you make your more lively action scenes more engaging and believable to your readers? Or get them to imagine that’s how it feels?
If you know of other people with suitable experiences, you could talk to them, read their accounts in books, watch interviews on TV, and so on.
Or you could find out for yourself.
Have a go at horse-riding, sailing, power-boating, flying, or driving a tank or fast car. Join a paintball game and find out how confusing a multi-party shoot-out can be. A fencing coach, martial arts or self-defence teacher can give you some pointers and hands-on experience. Archery or gun clubs may well let you shoot holes in targets (safely).
So, think about what you want your characters to do, find someone willing to let you do something similar (at a reasonable cost, ideally), and go off and have some fun. Then you can use your experience to help convince the reader that your character’s doing it.
The action, not the fun.
Unless they’re having fun too, of course…
by Ashley Lister
Conventional wisdom tells us that we never get a second chance to make a first impression. Nowhere is this more true than in the opening line of a piece of fiction. Consequently, when Jane Austen writes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, we are immediately hooked and we want read on. There is humour in this line. There is intrigue. We don’t know if this statement is made in seriousness or in jest. But we do know we have to read on.
Or take Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
This is another of those lines that makes us want to read on. After this catalogue of dualities, a list of binary opposites that suggest good and bad and light and dark and heaven and hell, readers know there’s going to be conflict, and they settle back and wait for the ride.
A good opening line should do at least four things.
- It should arouse interest in your reader.
- It should relate to the rest of the narrative.
- It should introduce key themes of the story that’s about to unfold.
- It should make your reader want to read on.
And, as a short exercise, crafting a strong opening line can often be a useful way of kick-starting the imagination. The following are three opening lines I’d be keen to pursue.
For Jack, it was overwhelming all-consuming unbridled love at first sight. For Jill, the emotional connection was far more intense.
“Anyone can talk to the dead,” he grinned. “But Betty’s different. Betty knows how to get the dead to give up their darkest secrets.”
Once upon a time there were three women who all lusted after Fat Tony. This is the story of how they each got what they wanted.
As always, I’d love to see your opening lines in the comments box below.