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Monthly Archives: April 2018

I’ve been quiet about Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited Program, and self-publishing in general, for several years. Part of me just gave up. (It really does feel good when you stop banging your head against a wall!) I’m an old cynic about Amazon now, I guess. They have been squeezing authors, paying us less and less, since the program started.

Personally, I’ve removed most of my books from the program, even though I’ve left a lot of money on the table doing so. Why? Because it’s unethical. There’s no other way to say it. Authors are getting screwed by Amazon every which way in the program. I kept a few books in, hoping to entice those all-you-can-eat Kindle Unlimited readers into paying customers.

I am, however, now rethinking that. Why? Because any author in the KDP Select Program is now in danger of losing their account.

I’ve been accused of being “Chicken Little” in the past, and here I am again, screaming at the sky. But this is reality. This is happening.

I’m going to let my author friend, D.A. Boulter explain it to you in his open letter to Jeff Bezos. He explains it much better than I do.

And it happened to him. Authors, it can happen to you. Readers, it can happen to your favorite author.

Even if they did nothing wrong whatsoever. 

OPEN LETTER TO JEFF BEZOS from author D.A. Boulter

Mr Bezos:
 
I opened my email program and found I’d received a message from your company.
 
The mail came from ‘content review’, asking for my attention, and I got the immediate feeling that this would be bad. I didn’t know why I’d receive that message now; I’d done nothing with my account in almost six months, haven’t changed a bit of content at all. Thus, it was with no little consternation I opened the message and found that my account is in violation, and if it continues to be so, I’ll be faced with penalties up to and including the termination of that account.
 
What did I do wrong? Actually, nothing. Not a thing. Amazon claims that accounts suspected of ‘manipulation’ have borrowed my book and I therefore accrued ‘illegal page reads’. I’m told that Amazon doesn’t offer advice on marketing, but I’d better be careful because if this happens again, well, see the termination threat above. There’s only one problem with that: I don’t do marketing. I’ve never hired any marketer, and for the past year or more I’ve not even advertised any of my books. The only advertising I get is by word of mouth. Yes, I sometimes – but not always – put a notice in one of the infrequent entries in my blog, and I sometimes, but not always, make a mention of a new book in the two writers’ forums of which I’m a member. Other than that, nothing. I’m lazy, know nothing about marketing, and don’t want to spend the energy finding out about it when I could be writing.
 
So, because Amazon alleges that suspect accounts have borrowed my book through Kindle Unlimited, I’m in danger of losing my account with Amazon. I use the word alleges, because Amazon up front refuses to give any details on their ‘investigation’. At first I found myself just sitting there, stunned. Then I looked up my stats. I’d sold three books so far in April, and had 3000 page reads in nine days. What kind of manipulation was that? Like a fool, I asked.
 
Why do I use the words ‘like a fool’? Because we can rarely get any sort of a straight answer when dealing with Amazon KDP. I asked, “What sort of manipulation?” I got the reply that they rechecked my account and stand by their determination; I will not be paid for illegal page reads.
 
See what I mean? I didn’t ask them to assess the status of my account or to reinstate my page reads. For the leader of a multi-billion dollar industry, you can’t seem to hire anyone for KDP who can read and understand a simple sentence in plain English.
 
I keep daily records of my sales and pages read through Amazon-provided KDP reports. After receiving this letter, and conferring with other authors with whom I share certain authors’ forums, I discovered that the letter would refer to my March totals, not my April month-to-date. I checked my March figures. Of the 24,829 Kindle Pages read (from the daily reports), I find that Amazon has now removed 15,924 or 65%.
 
As the book which constituted over 80% of my previously counted page-reads contains upwards of 750 Kindle Pages, I have to suspect that your company believes that I contracted marketers to “read” a grand total of 21 copies during a 31 day span, grossing me some $72 (approx). You must think I engage the bottom of the barrel marketers.
 
Amazon has a great reputation with respect to customer service. In fact, I’ve enjoyed just such great service. Last year, a CD I ordered from one of your 3rd party suppliers in Germany failed to show up in the stated time – in fact, I didn’t complain until some weeks after that time had passed, wanting to give the CD every opportunity to show up. Within hours of my finally making a complaint, I received a choice of them sending a second CD or giving me my money back. I chose to receive the second CD. It took 8 weeks to arrive – but I don’t blame Amazon or the 3rdparty retailer, because the postmark on it showed that the German Post Office had received it only 3 days after my complaint (and one of those days was a Sunday and Monday was New Years Day, as well). It was marked Luftpost (airmail). So, I blame the Post Office – either the German PO, the Canadian PO, or both. (The first CD never did arrive.)
 
Yes, you are rightly proud of your company’s customer service. However, the concern that you and your company show to your customers falters somewhat when dealing with your content providers – those of us who write books and place them in the Kindle Store and especially in Kindle Unlimited.
 
When I began providing content to Amazon in 2010, things were simple. If someone liked the presentation of an author’s book, they bought it outright or read the sample and then bought it. The author then collected the royalty. If the customers didn’t like our presentation or the sample, they didn’t buy it, and we received nothing. And, finally, if the book did not live up to their expectations, they returned it for a full refund and again we received nothing.
 
There existed no way to scam the system to get more royalties than we deserved. Customers either bought our books or they didn’t. They bought short books, long books, epics. They either paid the price we set – or they didn’t buy. No one had a valid complaint over length or price; if they didn’t feel they got value for money, they didn’t buy the book or they returned it. The only scamming that occurred came from a very tiny minority of readers who bought books and then returned them on a regular basis. Some authors noted that book after book of theirs got purchased and then returned, in order. This suggested a multiple returner. We lived with it.
 
Then came Kindle Unlimited. KU started out and remains an irredeemably and irretrievably broken system. Its terms and make-up were almost created with the interests of scammers in mind, and it continues to provide them with the means and opportunity to – let us not mince words – steal money from legitimate authors. That went for the original iteration of KU and every iteration since then.
 
We legitimate authors don’t know what to do. We can only complain, but that rarely gets us anywhere. We hate scammers even more than Amazon does. They steal our money, not Amazon’s. We hate the manipulation of rank that goes on. We believe in value rising to the top. We work very, very hard to provide the best reading entertainment we can. So, yes, we hate scammers. And, at times, we try to do something about it.
 
Example: One scam entailed putting up books full of repeated sentences, paragraphs, or short chapters – thousands of pages worth of repeated verbiage. A poorly-made cover and an enticing, though totally inaccurate description, accompanied the publication of these books. The authors in one of my groups spotted them, and we counted something like 40 obvious scam books in Amazon’s top 100. Eight “authors” with five books each. If a scammer had someone “read” one of these books (with 10,000 pages or more by my estimate), he’d make $50 for that one read.
 
I took it upon myself to report this to Amazon. All I wanted was an e-mail address to send the details to. Unable to find such on the Amazon site, I went the route of “Chat”. Upon discovering that I was not a customer who had been cheated out of money, nobody really wanted to hear from me. Over the next 45 minutes (I still have the transcript), I got passed through 6 different representatives, the last of which agreed with me and gave me an e-mail address. Those books quickly got taken down. I thought I had done my part. It took time, caused frustration, but a blow had been struck for justice.
 
You’d think that your company would be happy. I thought so, too. On my own time, I had investigated and presented the evidence. Amazon had struck quickly to maintain its honour. All was well with the world!
 
Then it occurred again just days later – the exact same sort of scam. Another 20-40 books. Annoyed with the scammers, I sent a second e-mail, only to get told that I should use “Chat” – they wanted to subject me to another 45 minutes of pass-along only to get told in the end to use the email address I’d just used? Not a chance; I then gave up.
 
So, if I’m a customer, I get treated royally. If I try to help Amazon prevent fraud in KU, I’m a nuisance. I’m a nuisance, because this fraud didn’t really hurt Amazon financially – they had already set aside the pool of money – it only hurt legitimate authors who would receive less for their page-reads.
 
We legitimate authors hate scammers with a passion. But then, Kindle Unlimited – as well as being a haven for scammers – is something of a scam in itself.
 
The contract we sign with KU gives Amazon exclusive right to sell and lend out our books; we can place them on no other platform. For this, Amazon undertakes that they will pay us per kindle-page read (present edition of KU). However, it turns out that Amazon does not have the ability to accurately determine how many pages get read. Scammers depend upon this weakness for their scams to bring in the money they steal from legitimate authors.
 
Authors have imaginations. You might consider possession of such as a prerequisite for the trade. We’re curious, inquisitive. Thus, when things seem just a little off, we investigate and talk among ourselves. At first we accepted Amazon’s word that they would pay us for pages read at face value. Then we noted strange things, and began experimenting. The result: we have determined that if someone borrows a book, downloads it to their Kindle reader and then turns off the wireless, bad things can happen. If that person then reads the book through – every page – but then returns to page one before again turning on the wireless and syncing with Amazon, the author gets credited with only one page read. This, in effect, is Amazon stealing from us. Amazon uses our content to entice readers to KU, promising to pay us for each page read, then paying us less than ½ cent for an entire book read – no matter how many pages.
 
I have often seen my page reads tick up by one page. [Let’s face it; I’m not a heavy hitter. I don’t sell a lot of books, and I don’t get hundreds of thousands of pages read per month – or per day – like some do. So, I can note this sort of thing better than more popular authors might.] And seeing my stats tick up by one page, I wonder if someone read one page of my book before putting it down, or if someone read through my whole book and then returned to the beginning before syncing with Amazon. Did I get my half-cent for one page, or did I get paid a half-cent for seven hundred and fifty pages? Did Amazon pay me justly according to contract, or did Amazon scam me out of three dollars? I don’t know, and Amazon relies on non-transparency to ensure that we don’t have more than the minimum amount of information useful to finding out.
 
KU’s lack of transparency doesn’t stop there.
 
When it became obvious that scammers were getting the monthly “All-Star” awards, and authors made this clear in blogs, in posts on forums, etc., Amazon’s solution to the problem seemed to be to make it more difficult … no, not more difficult to scam an “all-star” status, but more difficult to see the results of the scamming. Amazon stopped publishing the names of the winners, making it even less transparent.
 
When Amazon reacts to problems, it often uses a shotgun, where a rifle should be used – in other words, the solution often hurts the innocent as well as the guilty – often more than the guilty, because the guilty, if caught, simply abandon that account and start another. We legitimate authors cannot do that – or, if we do, we lose all books previously published.
 
Take this present situation. I, who have absolutely no control over who reads my books, find myself in danger of losing my account. Why? Because someone Amazon considers a scammer has borrowed them. I didn’t ask anyone to; I didn’t pay anyone to; I didn’t do anything. And my sales figures should show this to be the case. I had an average of 800 pages read per day in March (initial figures) of which you claim an average of 513 per day were scammed. No scammer worth his salt would try for a $2.50 per day payout.
 
I put in a lot of work to write a novel. It takes me a minimum of about 400 hours work to get one ready for publishing – I’m not fast. Sometimes it works out; other times I get a flop. One of mine (which I still believe is a fine novel) has sold 103 copies in almost 4 years. That’s $200 for 400 hrs work, or $0.50/hr. Not near minimum wage. A scammer puts in a couple hours work and nets thousands. We legitimate authors don’t think this is fair. But that’s what KU invites, what by its very composition it has always invited.
 
As I said, I don’t advertise – not any more. I did try AMS, but it gave me a very poor return on investment. And AMS has authors bid against each other to get what the Amazon algorithms once gave for free. The last time I tried for an ad, the bid went up over $1 per click. I think I got about 1 impression and no clicks before I gave up. At $1 per click, I would need a 50% success rate to barely break even. In fact, more likely I’d be paying Amazon more than my book is worth for the privilege of finding a reader. And Amazon knows that and still operates AMS like this. If I were to pay those readers a dollar each from my own pocket to read my books in KU, I’d make money – but that would be scamming, and I’d lose my account. So, doesn’t that make Amazon Marketing Services somewhat of a scam in itself as well?
 
To finish, I’m threatened with termination of my account for no valid reason; AMS doesn’t work for the author; KU is filled with scammers, and the innocent are tarred with the same brush by what? association? by the fact that alleged scammers may actually have read our books?; Amazon doesn’t seem to care who they damage with their shotgun attacks; Amazon actually scams us by not paying us for pages read – because they don’t know how many pages are read, and they knew they didn’t know this from the introduction of Kindle Unlimited. Yet they said that they did, and made a contract with us on that basis.
 
To protect my account, you have forced me to withdraw all my books from Kindle Unlimited when their present terms finish (one’s turn was up today – my best earner – and it’s out, the others should be gone by the end of the month). I can’t stop anyone from borrowing my books if I leave them in – I have no control over that aspect – and if the wrong people continue to borrow them, I may lose my account. I understand: your game; your rules (even though they are generally undefined publicly, and the internal definitions change at a seeming whim and without notice).
 
There is much more I could say, but this letter is long enough as it is.
 
So, if you can, sir, please tell me one good reason that I or any other legitimate author should endanger our accounts by maintaining any books in KU? (I already know why scammers should: they get our money – and in large amounts.)
 
D. A. Boulter.
 
 

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. 

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.

 ___

I recently celebrated my 25thanniversary of the day I met my husband. We’ve been married for 13 years. Our relationship is a bit unusual in that we lived together for over a decade before marrying for no reason in particular. We were living our lives and were too lazy and busy to have the ceremony and sign the paperwork. When we finally tied the knot, I joked I married him for his health insurance.

Long-term relationships are different from initial romantic attraction. I’m sure readers have noticed – and wanted – that most romances are about that initial romantic attraction leading to a HEA or HFN ending. Serials are popular because readers becoming invested in characters they grew to love when those characters first met.

Limerance according to Wikipedia is “a state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person and typically includes obsessive thoughts and fantasies and a desire to form or maintain a relationship with the object of love and have one’s feelings reciprocated.” The heart-palpating rush when you hear your shiny new lover’s name and how your pupils dilate when you see that person is limerance. Limerance is that infatuation stage you find in budding romantic relationships. It’s good to remember this fevered state does not last long.

Romance readers love that feeling of infatuation they get when they read about their favorite characters. They can live vicariously through the stages of the character’s relationship, from initial attraction to conflict to honeymoon phase to a deeper and satisfying longevity. It helps to remember that the fevered intensity of a budding relationship is a temporary thing, and that when the high settles that doesn’t mean you are falling out of love. It means the love is deepening.

Over the years, my husband and I have learned from each other and we’ve changed in ways that have benefited our marriage. Jealousy isn’t an issue for us. Jealousy is a common feeling in newer relationships. I’ve been jealous in some of my past relationships, even in one case of going out to dinner several times with another man to make the man I was interested in jealous. It didn’t work. That relationship did not last.

I see and accept my husband’s flaws, and he does the same for me. There is very little he does that gets under my skin. I certainly don’t see him as a knight in shining armor which may be a feeling you have for your partner in a newer relationship. Your love interest can do no wrong and you feel that person is perfect in every way. It’s the old rose-colored glasses phenomenon.

As you get to know the person you love, you will find conflicts in personal views, taste, habits, and even how to raise children. During infatuation you see only the good things about your partner. When the not-so-good things rear up, don’t panic. You’re only finding out your love is human.

When written well, romances depict all of these stages and in the HEA ending, the couple successfully deals with conflict and grows in the process. Conflict is necessary to grow. It doesn’t have to mean fighting. It means the characters are removing those rose-colored glasses and are seeing each other as they really are, warts and all. Accepting those warts (the ones that are acceptable – I’m not talking about abusive relationships) and not trying to change the other person are both important qualities in a healthy, long term relationship.

The whirlwind of romance is a wonderful feeing that can be experienced when reading romance novels. The reader puts herself into the main character’s shoes and experiences what that character feels. It’s a safe way of experiencing the ups and downs of a relationship without actually being in one. In your own case, just remember that although the passion inevitably dies down, a deeper love will flourish in the healthiest relationships. And that’s what matters most.

Rant for the day by Larry Archer!

Does Stephen King dismember his victims with a rubber knife? Did Jaws chomp up Captain Quint with plastic teeth? Did Maverick shoot down Russian fighters with a BB gun or bang Kelly McGillis with a dildo? What about Chucky and that delicious Jennifer Tilly (pant, pant, pant). No, No, No, No, and No!

So why do we have to put on a rubber when we bang out some smut story on our Underwood? This is not Randy “I can’t put my arms down” from A Christmas Story where we have to protect ourselves against our parent’s imagined fears, both seen and unseen?

I am continually amazed when someone says, “Your characters didn’t use protection in your story!” WTF?

Why is it that Dean Koontz can dismember his characters with abandon using a chainsaw, but I can’t have two people screwing unless they have a raincoat and rubber gloves on? You know, the big thick yellow ones that come up to your elbows and ensure you don’t get any of that icky “stuff” on you.

When you can get an STD from reading one of my stroke stories, then I’ll consider making my characters wear a rubber when they play hide the wiener.

In school, I had to read “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which was about some guy who dreamed of being different people; fighter pilot, doctor, and probably porn star in the Hustler version. He didn’t wear a rubber and probably didn’t put on his seatbelt either!

Fictional books are often a form of escapism for the reader. We get to imagine anything our little pea brains can conjure up. Like getting to bang Stormy Daniels, why should Donald get all the fun, not to mention watching hookers pee on the bed? Personally, I would have chosen the Playboy Playmate myself, but there is no accounting for taste. I’m more of a leg man than a boob man.

When you lust after your next door neighbor, the stripper who sat on your lap, or maybe the milkman, do you think about running to the drugstore or gas station to pick up condoms? I know that I don’t! The feeling of skin on skin is far better than with a layer of plastic in between and much easier to fantasize about.

Writing an erotic story, I don’t think about safety, and I don’t want my readers to think about it either. Getting laid with a rubber is not near as much fun as bareback so why would you want your characters to put on protection before doing the nasty? Just like Dean Koontz, I don’t worry about my characters as they are all fictional and impossible to hurt unless I allow it.

Well, other than the times Wifey has on her leather bustier, thigh-high leather boots, and riding crop that she uses to correct her slaves! Then I’ll stand back an extra three feet to be sure I don’t get anything splattered on my camera!

My erotica is not designed to teach you a safe sex lesson, just the opposite. If you wanted safe sex, then you can screw your boring wife or husband on the first and third Friday (let me check my calendar). We want to have sex in the produce aisle with that hot chick from People of Walmart. Just flip her skirt up and make mad passionate love amidst the cantaloupes while hoping the guard on his electric scooter doesn’t catch us! Afterward, we’d zip up our pants and join Wifey as she tries to figure out which detergent to buy to get those stains off the front of her blouse she bought from Monica.

Like in a story I’m working on. The husband finds out his wife was in a gangbang and asked if they kissed her. Her response, “Why would they want to kiss me, they just wanted to fuck me!”

I’m not sure why reading someone’s comment that your characters needed to wear a condom puts me over the top, but it always does. Like Walter Mitty, I want readers to imagine a situation they would never normally find themselves in and especially not in their normal safe, dull environment with their pipe and slippers.

Few of us are ever in a situation where they can do things like be in a gangbang or be the gangbang’ee, so literature is the escape mechanism to let our imagination fly free. Sort of like those rock climbing crazy people on a sheer rock face without a rope.

In the real world we have to make compromises, like not smoking when we fill the lawnmower with gasoline, but in our minds, we can be King (Queen) of the World. Sort of like ZZ Top when they sing, “We could have had Miss October, but we waited until November.”

That was the rant for the day, and maybe next month I can finally post the article I wrote like two months ago, which keeps getting thrown under the bus.

Remember that reading erotica does not cause STD’s but may create friction burns, kind of like the carpet burns you got in high school. Use lubricant as necessary and remember to stop when you need glasses.

As always, check me out at LarryArcher.blog or on Twitter at @Archer_Larry.

“Erotica from the Dirty Mind of Larry Archer.”

P.S. See Lisabet I can stay under 1,000 words!

By Lisabet Sarai

Can you control the flow of time? I’m not talking about managing your own time in order to be productive (though that would be a worthy topic for another article). I’m referring to managing the flow of time in your stories.

Authors of paranormal or speculative fiction, where time travel is a common element, might answer in the affirmative. Historical writers also need an acute appreciation of time. Those of you who write in other genres, though, might not have thought much about the question. You might be more focused on building compelling characters, producing vivid descriptions, or writing realistic dialogue. If you don’t consciously control the passage of time in your books, however, you may create problems your readers.

In most fiction, time provides the sub-structure for the story. The events that comprise the plot are associated with different temporal “locations”, strung out from the past to the present like beads on a string. A close author friend of mine uses the metaphor of a clothesline. He writes scenes as they occur to him and then “hangs” them on the line in temporal order. (See his example below. You can read about his method at the Oh Get A Grip blog).

Plot “clothesline” by C. Sanchez-Garcia

Aristotle advised dramatists that all the action in a play should occur within a single day. That approach might work for a short story, but novels usually stretch over a longer duration—anything from days to centuries. This expanded span introduces a variety of risks for the author.

The risk of confusing the reader. Your reader needs to understand when things are happening in order to make sense of the story. Thus, you need to clearly communicate the temporal “setting” of each scene (including flashbacks or scenes from the past that are described by your characters).

The risk of “losing” periods of time. If your story jumps from point A in time (e.g. Monday) to point B (e.g. Saturday of the same week), what happened during the intervening days? This might not be relevant to the story, and you don’t necessarily need to fill in the blank period in detail, but both you and your characters need to be aware that the gap exists. As a reader, I find it really irritating when a new chapter begins a month later than the previous one, without the author telling me anything about what occurred during that period. In general, as time progresses, things change. Longer time periods result in more significant alterations of people, situations, and environments. Keep this in mind as you write.

The risk of repeating periods of time. This is the flip side of (2). Make sure you don’t end up with two Saturdays in a row!

The risk of factual or celestial gaffes. Authors frequently use natural phenomena to anchor a story. Phases of the moon are a particular favorite of mine. If the moon is full during one scene, I need to actively consider what phase it will display a week later. Certainly it won’t still be full! Seasonal variations are another example. My novel Necessary Madness begins in late November, in New England, and continues through December until Christmas. I describe the weather as progressively colder and more inclement, as it usually is in Massachusetts during this period.

The risk of logical gaffes. Humans expect a logical sequence of phenomena, from cause to effect. A glitch in your fictional time line can create a situation where an effect is described before its causal event has occurred. For example, a character might mention another individual in the story, before the two have met or learned of each other’s existence. A reader might or might not notice this sort of error. In the former case, she’ll be confused. In the latter case, she’ll be critical of your skills as a story teller.

So how can you avoid these sorts of problems, especially in a longer work like a novel? One common technique is to create a time line for your story. The line should start at the earliest event you describe (even if that is in the past when your story begins) and should extend to the tale’s conclusion. As an example, here’s a time line I used as I was working on my M/M speculative fiction novel Quarantine.

Quarantine historical events timeline

Quarantine events timeline

Because this story takes place in the future, but is influenced by history, I’ve broken my time line into two parts. The first has a larger granularity (years) and shows historical events leading up to the beginning of the book, both personal to the characters (above the line) and public (below the line). I’ve included the public events because they are mentioned by the characters.

The second, more detailed time line shows the course of the story events themselves. Its units are days. The book takes about two months to unfold. As we get toward the climax, the days of the week become important because the “Freedom Crossroads Rally” event must occur on a Saturday.

The second half of the detailed time line reflects chapters I hadn’t yet written at the time I created these diagrams. I was not completely sure about how the end of the book would play out and that uncertainty shows.

I’ve used diagrams for my time line, but a spreadsheet might work as well. One problem with using graphics is that there’s no obvious way to record details (like the phase of the moon or the timing of the tides) that might be ancillary to the tale but still important from a consistency perspective. With a spread sheet, each row would represent one point in time (one triangle, in my graphical representation). Then you could define columns for date, day of the week, scenes or events related to characters, external events, phase of the moon, or whatever, expanding the definition as necessary to capture the information you need.

Quarantine has a relatively simple, linear plot, and thus can be handled by a single time line. Some books, especially those with multiple point-of-view characters, may have multiple parallel time lines. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by Gordon Dahlquist (one the best books I’ve read in the past decade!), features three main characters, each of whom has independent adventures. Their individual time lines merge in certain scenes, then diverge again. I don’t know if Dahlquist used time lines (if he didn’t, I’d like to know how he kept track of such an incredibly intricate tale!), but I’d imagine if one tried to do so, one would need separate time-tagged event sequences for Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang, and Doctor Svenson, braided together like the multiple channels of an ancient river.

Handling time in Quarantine was relatively simple for another reason. The book is narrated using “standard” third-person limited, past tense. I’ve written four novels at this point using first person, present tense. It’s a tricky combination but one that I like for erotica because of its immediacy. Here’s a bit from my erotic thriller Exposure narrated by exotic dancer and (it turns out) amateur sleuth Stella Xanathakeos:

It’s early, and it’s Monday, slow. He’s the only one sitting close enough for me to use my stare, and it isn’t working. He’s good-looking in a clean-cut, straight-laced sort of way. Blond crew cut, blue-eyed, muscles that show even under his expensive suit. At least it looks expensive to me.

He has not taken his eyes off me since I strutted onto the stage, but his face is without expression. It’s like he has walls behind his eyes. I can’t see into him at all. Now it’s me that’s getting frustrated and hot under the collar. I’ve already stripped down to my pasties, boots and thong. I peel one of the tassels off my nipple and dangle it in front of him. He looks only at my eyes. He’s measuring me, sizing me up for something.

I prance around on my stiletto heels. I shake my hips, do a slow, sensuous shimmy, cup my tits in my palms and offer them to him. No reaction. I take off the other tassel and attach it behind, where my butt cheeks meet, a lewd little tail. There’s a whistle from a table in the back, but Mr. Clean just continues to study me.

First person present narration complicates the control of time because you can’t allow significant gaps. It feels odd if the narrator’s voice simply disappears for a day or two, then pops in again. The events in Exposure (except for the final chapter, which is something of an epilogue) take place over the course of a single week. Every moment of Stella’s time needs to be accounted for. Furthermore, she needs to give the reader clues when the time line advances without her providing a blow-by-blow description.

Three quarters of the way through writing Exposure, I discovered that I’d lost a day. I was tracking the days of the week because the plot required it. I realized that I’d skipped from Thursday to Saturday without Friday ever happening. This necessitated some temporal repair work on my part!

Perhaps the most complicated juggling of time I’ve done as a writer is my short story “Underground”, recently published in the ERWA paranormal anthology Unearthly Delights. In this tale, less than 7000 words long, I begin in the present:

So maybe it’s not totally sane. I’ve always been fascinated by madness.

As for safe, where’s the thrill in safety?

You can’t, however, deny that it’s consensual.

Ducking into a blank alley, one of thousands in this city, I make my way to the metal door near the end. The keypad gives off a faint green luminescence. I tap in the combination and the door swings open; my pulse is already climbing. My boot heels ring hollow as I descend the industrial steel steps, and the thump of the bass rises to meet me. Excitement wells up, flooding my cunt, even before I’ve buzzed the final door and been admitted to this most particular and perverse playground.

The techno soundtrack punches me in the solar plexus. My heart stutters like I’ve been shocked by a defibrillator. Delicious weakness sweeps over me, a premonition of what’s to come.

I give the readers a glimpse of my narrator’s personality and desires, just enough (I hope), to pique their curiosity, before shifting to a flashback:

The long years before I found Underground and Z seem like some bad dream—an endless series of fetish groups and kink clubs, personal ads and bar hook-ups, as I searched everywhere for someone who could understand and satisfy my particular needs.

S&M folk like to believe they’re tolerant and accepting. They weren’t ready to tolerate me, though.

The remainder of the story flips back and forth between past and present. Each brief section set in the present advances the particular scene initiated at the start of the story. Each flashback (there are three such sections) reveals more about who the main character is and what she really wants. The tale ends in the present, as the narrator reaps the consequences of her history.

This was a pretty ambitious time line. It took me several rounds of edits to get it right, to create the correct balance between flashbacks and current events, and to make sure the action was advancing consistently in the present. In fact I didn’t fully grasp my target temporal structure at first. The crits I received on the Storytime list helped me to clarify my own goals.

I’m tempted to warn “don’t try this at home”, but in fact, you need to follow your own instincts about the time progression in your stories. If you feel that you need a complex time structure, don’t ignore that insight.

My goal in this article is simply to focus your attention on the question. Maintaining awareness of time in your work can be critical not only for helping your readers understand your tale but also for creating special emotional effects as I did in “Underground”. Sloppiness about time can make your tales annoying, confusing, even unreadable.

 

“Have you seen Stella?”

It was a question everyone was asking on the streets of San Francisco during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair laid out like a glittering necklace across the Marina District from February to December of 1915.

Banners and lapel buttons added to the urgency of word-of-mouth dares (Laura Ackley, San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, p. 256). No red-blooded man could resist the temptation to gaze upon Stella’s charms. A reported seven million gave in to their curiosity and desire.

Stella was the surprise hit of the Joy Zone, or simply “The Zone,” as the midway of the Pan-Pacific Exposition was known. A dime got you a two-minute viewing of the fourteen-foot painting, displayed in a dimly lit room and gussied up with a bellows behind the canvas, which made Stella’s body appear to breathe.

A 1915 dollar is worth about $25 today, which means two minutes with Stella cost about $2.50. Ten cents could buy you breakfast at a workingman’s cafe. $2.50 might get you an inexpensive cup of coffee today, so I’m not sure the calculation is totally accurate. Nonetheless, the exhibitor, Edward A. Vaughan, priced his attraction just right. Investing $4000 to display a painting he had exhibited with limited profit for years, he netted $50,000 or $1.5 million in today’s dollars.

Stella is the work of a minor painter, Napoleone Nani of Verona, Italy, who created her in 1893. Critics judged the painting mediocre, remarking that Stella’s breasts had an interesting lack of relationship to gravity. Some observed that one could see more skillfully realized nudes on the walls of the official art pavilions or the statues throughout the fair for no extra charge. Audrey Munson’s lovely form was so ubiquitous that she was known as the Exposition Girl.

But, contrary to all common sense, Stella surpassed all other beauties in popularity.

Fifty Shades of Grey received a similar tepid evaluation from critics—and yet, the money still rolls in.

Indeed the millions who paid to see Stella were not interested in the artistic excellence of the painting. They embraced the anticipation, the titillation, the knowledge that every other man at the fair was partaking in the same experience, and a fellow mustn’t be left behind. A man paid for the dark corridor leading to the viewing room, the suggestively dim lighting, the ache of the two-minute limit, the illusion that Stella was a living woman displayed for his pleasure, not a distant figure, no matter how lovely and realistic, representing Beauty or Liberty or Patriotism. Stella allowed a man to gaze upon her with desire for those two minutes. She returned his gaze with an expression of accessible welcome (not to say vapid affability).

It would be almost ungentlemanly to complain that Stella was a con. She was part of the carnival atmosphere, like Coney Island, where vacationers knew they were being ripped off by the weight-guessers and barkers, but laughed it off as part of the experience. If Stella—and Fifty Shades of Grey—promised to transport us to a realm where we experienced sexual satisfaction that was unlike any before, but didn’t exactly deliver on its promise, well, we were all in on the joke.

Knowing what I know, I still want to see Stella.

As a woman in 1915, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed. A photo outside the attraction shows mostly males in fedoras and a few women, but I do wonder if any respectable lady would dare to be seen handing over a dime at the ticket booth? Perhaps at night, a brazen hussy might sneak in to be secretly disappointed yet emerge flushed with the thrill of transgression?

But I live in 2018, so I figured it would be easy to find a photograph of Stella online, now that Edward Vaughan is no longer around to demand his dime. Interestingly enough, it proved harder than I thought. After a bit of looking, I first found a postcard from a later exhibition on Pinterest and then a copy on a blog about San Francisco world’s fairs. The outside of the exhibit is different from the Pan-Pacific entrance, so perhaps it is from Vaughan’s later attempt to cash in on his treasure, hopefully calling Stella “one of the world’s masterpieces of paintings in the nude.”

I was disappointed in Stella the postcard. But again, the painting itself is not the point. What I really crave is the experience of viewing Stella in her fourteen feet of glory, her friendly face inviting me to dream of union with a fantasy (to be her if not be with her, to paraphrase Austin Powers). The rising and falling of her chest might make me wonder, in spite of myself, if she was alive and truly gazing back at me, unlike those cool, perfect paintings and statues outside. Best of all, I could tell others, with a twinkle in my eye, that I had indeed seen Stella.

I’m that cool and don’t you forget it.

Stella was a woman of a particular moment on the verge of destruction. World War I was raging in Europe during the fair. That war destroyed a way of life, and such innocent sexual diversions were outdated. But erotic titillation remained an important part of the fair experience. Sally Rand’s fan dance at the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress was the sensation of the Midway. The nudity was another illusion: Sally wore a body stocking, although little was left to the imagination. Her Nude Ranch on the Gayway at the 1939-1940 Golden Gate Exposition was again the most popular attraction at the fair, but there was real nude flesh to be seen. Scroll down for the most revealing photos of the Ranch I’ve found online. Again, the women seem so cheerful and friendly, like Stella.

Perhaps a naked woman with a smile on her face never goes out of fashion?

 

There was a time, not too long ago, when people would share books, furtively, often without any intention to read the entire book. In fact, they perhaps had gone to some surreptitious lengths to acquire and share with a small number of friends a book containing one or two passages, perhaps no more than a page or two in length. The readers didn’t care if it was literature, they just wanted to get off on an account of a sexual act. Kids in high school and proper housewives both got wind of such passages in works with D.H. Lawrence’s name on it. Word would get out, chapter and page. Screw the rest of the book, although, perhaps it might pique their curiosity enough to give the novel a go … just to work out the context.

For anyone born on the cusp of the century it must be near impossible to imagine such a time, when they live in a world in which hard-core porn is as easily available as the daily weather report.

I think of the lengths people went to to get their thrills from a snippet of literary erotica back in the day. After all, reading and possessing such books were once illegal, and even when the courts had thrown out the bans, a proper household could still be embarrassed if such a tome were found within its walls.

I got to thinking about that around the same time I realized I had begun to read past the good parts. It’s true. The last few erotica stories I read were written so well that I hurried past the sex scenes. I was really into the story, the plot, the characters, and I couldn’t bother slowing down for the sex. Of course, that got me to thinking why I even bothered to read a piece of erotica, if it wasn’t for the good parts. I even began to think that in some way I had let down that gaggle of high school kids gathered under someone’s back porch back in the dark old days arguing over which page contained the nasties.

I guess a good story is a good story, no matter what label you put on it. Maybe labeling a good story as erotica fetters it in a way a so-called mainstream story can’t be, no matter how many depictions of sex it contains. Maybe we should do away with labels and genres and … oh boy, my head’s beginning to swim.

Yeah, I think I think too much.

I received a plaintive cry for editing help from our esteemed ERWA Editor in Chief, Sam Thorne, the other day.

Hello oh wonderful soul of lasting genius1

I wondered if you knew how to search for words that were all caps and change them to lower-case italics, using the find-replace function.

(1 That, my friends, is how you suck up)

The problem for an editor is pretty clear: we are editing a manuscript that over-uses CAPS for exclamations, which is poor form, and seek to re-cast the emphasis with … well, emphasis. Specifically, lower-case italics.

For example:

“For the hundredth time,” cried Tom, “I’M NOT FUCKING SHOUTING!”

Would become:

“For the hundredth time,” cried Tom, “I’m not fucking shouting!”

How hard could it be, right? Well, here’s the thing—I’ve spent more time than is healthy mucking about with features in Microsoft Word, and I’m no stranger to the finer points of the Find-Replace dialogue box—but changing case in Word? Man, that’s a tough one.

With the benefit of a mis-spent youth recording and tweaking Office macros, I knew this problem was bog-simple to solve in a Visual Basic macro. To that end, I wrote Sam a quickie macro and flung it off back to the mother country, but then just yesterday while I was scrying for blog ideas, it came to me—maybe it CAN be done with Find-Replace. Well, part of it, anyway. Read on; you’ll see.

Like any good overly-complicated solution, while it’s ugly to look at, it comprises some individual techniques that are really quite beautiful—ones I will definitely keep in my arsenal for solving other problems—and I thought it might be instructive to share the joy.

If you’re the impatient sort, skip to the bottom and watch the video demo. 

Disclaimer: I’m using Microsoft Office 2016. Your version may look different.

 

Changing Case in Microsoft Word

You might have noticed an inauspicious Aa button in the Home ribbon of Word. It contains a little pull-down menu for changing the case of text.

Problem solved? Not quite; Sam’s manuscript contains LOTS of shouting in LOTS of different places. Highlighting every instance and clicking lowercase is the labour-intensive process she’s trying to avoid.

Clearly, we can’t convert the entire document to lowercase. That Sentence case looks interesting, though. What if we convert the entire document to sentence case? Unfortunately, it only seems to apply changes if the first word of a sentence needs correction, otherwise it changes nothing. Here’s some sample I text I played with:

Original:

What the HELL, Microsoft Word? This is NOT how I imagined my Saturday.

Lowercase:

what the hell, microsoft word? this is not how i imagined my saturday.

Sentence case:

What the HELL, Microsoft Word? This is NOT how I imagined my Saturday.

Lowercase, then Sentence case:

What the hell, microsoft word? This is not how i imagined my saturday.

 

That last one was close, but it ruined the proper nouns like Microsoft Word, and Saturday.

Trying to manipulate the entire manuscript isn’t going to work. We need a way to focus only on those uppercase words.

We can do this manually by holding down Ctrl and highlighting all the words we want to manipulate.

Gives us:

And since those converted words are still highlighted, we can convert them to italic in a single click.

It’s not a solution, as such, but it’s progress. Now, if only there was a way to select/highlight all the uppercase words.

 

Finding Patterns with Wildcards and Advanced Find

How do you find stuff in Word? Do you hit Ctrl-F? Or do you use the magnifying-glass Find command on the Home ribbon?

BZZZT! Novice—or as gamers would say—You filthy CASUAL!!!

Find will pop up the Navigation window in the left sidebar, which is fine if you’re looking for some very specific text, but it’s not exactly feature-rich. When you’re seriously editing, this is like bringing a knife to a gun-fight, aspirin to a crack-den, edible underwear to a dinner party…

You get the idea.

When you want to find something tricky, like for instance something in all upper or lower case, you’re going to need something a bit more capable.

Enter the Find-Replace dialogue.

You can get there from the Find sidebar by clicking Advanced Find off the pull-down menu.

You can also get there with Ctrl-H, but that pops up to the Replace tab of the dialogue by default. Let’s take a closer look at that Advanced Find tab.

 

Doesn’t look too advanced, does it? Well, no—not until we click the More>> button.

 

There are a lot of fun-sounding features here, but the one we’ll be using is Use wildcards. I’ll leave the rest to your curiosity.

If you’ve heard of wildcards before, you might be thinking of the asterisk, meaning “match any sequence of characters”. For example, a search for the wildcard SLEEP* will find SLEEPY, SLEEPER, SLEEPLESSNESS, and even SLEEP.

The Advanced Find wildcard does indeed support the asterisk wildcard, but it does much, much more—way too many to mention here. Since I’m only interested in finding words in all-caps, I’m only going to explain two of the wildcards (or, as they’re known technically, Regular Expressions):

  • [xy] – Matches a single character in the range from x to y in alphanumeric order. Eg. [A-Z] matches a single uppercase character.
  • {n,} – Matches the previous Regular Expression n or more times.

In this way, the Wildcard search:

[A-Z]{2,}

will find any string of two or more capital letters. Let’s try it out.

Nice. Notice how it doesn’t match the single caps character “I”?

This isn’t perfect—it won’t capture some edge cases where a single character is orphaned by punctuation (e.g. I’M, F.B.I., O’CONNOR, TOM’S, ISN’T). This is easily fixed with a more complex expression, but I won’t go into a detailed description. Suffice to say it handles embedded punctuation.

<[A-Z][!a-z]@>

It seems like we’re almost done. Now all the all-caps are highlighted, surely we just his up that Aa button and convert them to lowercase, right?

Wrong. Although we managed to highlight them, they are not selected as far as Word is concerned. If we try hitting Aa, we’ll just change the case of whatever words we had selected prior to the Advanced Find.

What about Advanced Replace? I hear you ask. It’s no help either. We can do a lot with Replace—apply fonts, highlighting, paragraph spacing, even styles, but we can’t convert to lowercase.

It seems like we’ve hit a dead-end. We need a way to progress from finding the all-caps words to selecting them in order to then convert the case and italics.

 

Select All using Styles

Fortunately, there is a tricky work-around—there is one way to bulk-select all text of a particular type by using Styles. Try this: pick out a Style that you have examples of in your document, and right-click it in the Style Selector in the ribbon.

See that Select All option? Click it.

Word will select all examples of that Style in the document. Once selected, you can make all kinds of bulk changes, like formatting, deleting, changing style, and of course, changing case.

If only we had a way to apply a special style to those all-caps words we found.

Hopefully you’ve connected the dots by now. “But what about the Replace function?” you ask. “Can we use it to find the caps, apply a style, and then use Select-All to snaffle them all up and convert to lowercase?”

You betcha! And here it comes.

 

Find Text and Apply a Style

Using the Find-Replace dialog again:

  • Ctrl-H to open Replace dialogue.
  • Find what: <[A-Z][!a-z]@> (finds all-caps words of two or more characters)
  • Replace with: (leave blank—open the Format->Style button and choose a Style you have not used elsewhere in the document, such as “Strong”)

  • Hit Replace All

Obviously, we’re only halfway there. The caps words are still caps; they’re bold as well, of course, because we chose the “strong” style, which is a bolded style. We could equally have made our own custom style that didn’t change the font style, but the bolded text makes it easier to see that it worked, so I like it.

Now, to convert to lowercase:

  • Right-click the Strong style and Select All

  • Use the Aa button to convert to lowercase, or even better, Sentence case.

  • Optionally use the Italic button to convert to italics (this is what Sam wanted instead of caps to emphasise the shouting).

Fantastic! We’re done.

Or are we? The words are lowercase now, but they’re still bolded. That’s because they still have the Strong style applied. We have one last step to complete.

 

Stripping a Text Style

If we click on one of those bolded words, we’ll see the Strong style highlighted in the ribbon.

 

Whereas if we click on the paragraph as a whole, it will still have the default style of the paragraph (usually “Normal”).

Microsoft Word calls these Text Styles and Paragraph Styles respectively. The Paragraph Style defines the font, size, colour, etc for the entire paragraph, but it can be overridden for selected sections of text using a Text Style.

We can strip the Text Style, returning the converted words to the paragraph style.

  • Right-click the Strong style and Select All Instances to highlight all your converted text.
  • Pull down the Styles toolbox using the small arrow in the corner of the Style selector in the Home ribbon. Make sure the Strong style is highlighted.

  • Open the Style Inspector dialogue by clicking the middle of the three buttons at the bottom of the Styles toolbox (the one with a magnifying glass).

This dialogue shows the Paragraph Style and the Text Style of the selected text.

  • Now click the eraser button next to the Strong style name in the third box. It will return the highlighted text to the default Paragraph Style, removing the bold highlight from the text.
  • Note that if you had added italics above, this will appear in the fourth box, but will be conveniently preserved by the removal of the Text Style.

 

Summary

That’s it! You’re done. All your uppercase words are now lowercase (or Sentence case, if that’s what you clicked). Those steps again:

  • Use Advanced find to identify all CAPS words (Wildcard find: <[A-Z][!a-z]@>)
  • Use Replace to apply a style not used elsewhere in the document (eg. Strong)
  • Highlight all examples of the Strong style using the Style selector
  • Convert to Sentence Case
  • Optionally convert to italics
  • Strip the Text Style using the Style Investigator

More of a visual person? That’s okay, here’s a video demonstration.

Happy editing.

By Ashley Lister

Following on from last month’s cursory glance at the perennially popular first person point of view, it’s time to look at one of the least used perspectives in the writer’s armoury: second person.
Whenever I’m teaching point of view in the classroom, I always mention that we’re already familiar with second person perspective because it’s at the heart of so many written recipes and a good number of instruction manuals.

‘First you preheat your grill to high, and then put on a large saucepan of water, with a pinch of salt, to boil for the pasta.’
Or
‘You can customize the length of the power cord so that it is the exact length you desire.’

Note, with both of these examples, YOU are in the centre of the action. This is the genre that’s defined by the predominance of second person personal pronouns and it puts the reader in the heart of the story.

If, last month, you thought things couldn’t get more intimate when you’re sitting in the thoughts of a first person narrator, it’s time to think again. You’re no longer in the thoughts of the story’s hero: with the second person point of view, you are the hero. It might sound as though I’m exaggerating but remember that the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks were often marketed with the suggestion: you are the hero. And it doesn’t get much more intimate than reading a story all about YOU.

I’ll hold up my hand at this point and admit that I’m not a huge fan of second person. I’m a curmudgeonly old bastard nowadays and, whenever I encounter second person narrative, it often brings out a spirit of belligerence and contrariness, so I’m inwardly arguing with the story:

‘You sauntered lazily through the door…’
  No I didn’t.
‘…and poured yourself a generous measure of bourbon…’
I don’t remember doing this.
‘…before giving your lover a slow, sultry grin.’
That doesn’t sound like me. I’d just be necking the bourbon and turning on the TV.

Too often, these internal arguments continue until I decide to abandon the book and read something written from a less contentious perspective. That said, I have written a short story in second person and these are the opening lines:

 

You are one of several people sitting before a solicitor. You are in the room that was your late Uncle John’s home office. It’s a sombre day because you’re attending to hear the reading of Uncle John’s will. Uncle John was one of your favourite relatives. He made his vast fortune from writing Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories.
Do you attentively reflect on your surroundings and the incongruities and peculiarities of all the other beneficiaries? (GO TO SECTION A). Or do you tell the solicitor to hurry the fuck up? (GO TO SECTION B).

SECTION A
The walls bear framed covers from Uncle John’s many adventure stories. The room is dominated by a large old-fashioned desk that takes up half the room. Behind the desk sits the small, bespectacled solicitor.
The other half of the room is crowded.
Aside from being a popular writer, Uncle John was something of a ladies’ man. It’s been suggested this is what probably killed him. Your parents had always advised you to never eat at his house, especially not anything from the fruit bowl. Your mother always said he had more STIs than readers – and she made this remark after Uncle John had been on the NYT Bestsellers list.

From ‘Buried Treasure’, Ashley Lister

Second person is not a particularly popular point of view, and it can be sufficiently unusual to stop your reader from getting into the story you’re trying to convey. However, as with all the tools at our disposal as writers, it’s well worth trying this point of view to see how it works for your narrative voice.

As always, I look forward to seeing your work in the comments box below.

Ash

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