Confessions of a Craft Freak

Through whose eyes?

Image by Irina Gromovataya from Pixabay

Of all the craft issues that bedevil new writers, point of view may well be the most mysterious. Novices frequently receive critiques that accuse them of the dreaded sin of “head hopping”, without really explaining what this is or more importantly, why it can be a problem. Blog articles about point of view natter on about “deep first person” and “third person omniscient”, confusing things further.

Even experienced authors sometimes mess up, producing slips in point of view. For example:

Horrified by her faux pas, Maria stumbled through an apology, her cheeks reddening and her lips curving into an embarrassed smile.

What’s wrong with this sentence, you might ask?

The problem here is that Maria, who is the focus character – the character whose point of view we’ve adopted – would not be able to see herself blushing or smiling in an embarrassed manner. Only an outsider, another character, could perceive these details. The point of view has momentarily slipped away from Maria. I could have said that Maria felt her cheeks getting hot, without violating point of view. But as soon as the narrative steps outside Maria’s head, the POV has shifted.

Why is this undesirable? We’ll discuss that shortly.

You’ll find many technical discussions of point of view on the Internet. These may be helpful, but in fact the whole issue can be distilled into a single question:

Through whose eyes are we looking as the story unfolds?

Characters provide the emotional energy in a story. In romance, especially, we authors want our readers to understand and to identify with the protagonists. A common way to heighten this sense of identification is to show readers the world as the character experiences it, that is, to tell the story from the character’s point of view. Strong and consistent point of view can bring the reader into the character’s world, enhancing the sense of sympathy and connection.

Clean and controlled use of POV also supports plot development. Plots often turn on various sorts of secrets. If a POV character doesn’t know about a secret, neither does your reader. When events conspire to reveal the hidden information, your reader vicariously feels the same sense of surprise or dismay as the character.

Does this mean you should have only a single POV character? Not necessarily. Decisions about POV characters should be based on the story you are trying to tell and the reactions you are trying to evoke. A common strategy in romance is to alternate the POV between the hero and heroine (or between two heroes or two heroines – the different members of the romantic unit). This makes it possible to show how each character’s feelings are developing. It also helps reveal misunderstandings or differences in expectations, upon which the plot often depends.

In contrast, a story with a single POV character focuses the reader’s attention exclusively on that individual’s inner life. Other characters act as external forces. Their behavior and their motivations can only be understood based on the main character’s observations, assumptions and judgments.

If you do decide to alternate point of view characters, you should generally avoid switching the POV too frequently. This is what we mean by “head hopping” – when POV shifts from one character to another on the same page, or (heaven forbid!) in the same paragraph.

An extreme case of head hopping can introduce serious confusion. The reader loses track of what each character is perceiving and feeling. I’ve read books with such chaotic POV management that I truly couldn’t tell what was going on.

Even if the story flow remains more or less clear, head hopping usually has a negative effect on reader engagement. As noted above, we want our reader to identify with the POV character, to feel what the character is feeling. Frequent POV swings yank the reader from one character’s perspective to another, interfering with the development of empathy and understanding. This diminishes the depth and intensity of the reader’s experience – usually not something we want.

A rule of thumb is that if you want to switch to a new POV character, you should introduce a section or chapter break to signal this. Rules are never absolute, of course. If you have a good reason to violate this heuristic, then go ahead. However, it’s important to consider your intentions and goals when you make this sort of decision.

What about the question of first person versus third person narrative? Authors sometimes mix up this grammatical issue with the topic of point of view, but in fact the two considerations are mostly orthogonal. Just to clarify, a first person narrative uses the pronouns “I” and “me” (or occasionally, “we” and “us”). A third person narrative uses character names as well as pronouns “he”, “she”, “him”, “her”, “xe”, “hir” or whatever. The selection of first versus third person definitely affects the feeling of a story and possibly the level of reader identification, but you can have either single or multiple POV characters using either.

As an illustration, here is short passage from my erotic romance The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, in its original first person mode, then revised as third person. This novel is told in the first person with POV alternating between the hero and the heroine on a chapter by chapter basis.

First Person Excerpt (Rachel)

I decide to drive myself, and choose the BMW for its aura of unobtrusive luxury. One look at my red Lamborghini, I suspect, and Theo Moore would run away screaming. Cruising up to his attractive but unremarkable building at exactly six, I pull into one of the parking spots labeled “Visitors”. My pulse, I’m annoyed to notice, is elevated, and my cheeks feel hot. Do I look as flustered as I feel?

A quick check in the rear-view mirror reassures me. My understated make-up enlarges my eyes and shrinks my rather prominent nose. Gold-plated combs sweep my unruly curls away from my temples into a semi-elegant cascade. Matching gold earrings dangle from my earlobes almost to my bare shoulders. My strapless gown of teal satin hugs my bust and hips like it was made for me—which of course it was. I practice a confident but non-threatening smile. Good evening, Theo. I’m so glad you decided to come.

The minutes tick by, but there’s no sign of him. Should I climb up to his door and ring? Or wait for him to work up the courage to come out by himself? Does he realize I’ve arrived? Is he watching out his window? Or cowering in his room?

I get more annoyed by the second. I am considering honking the horn, which I know will embarrass him, when he appears on the second floor landing. I recognize him by his height and bulk. Otherwise, he’s transformed.

In the custom tailored tuxedo, he’s distinguished and elegant. The sleek black trousers cling to what are obviously powerful, muscular legs. The jacket highlights his broad shoulders and trim waist. Not fat, oh no! He moves with unexpected grace, as if the formal clothing bestowed a sort of gravitas to subdue his usual gawkiness. With his dark hair slicked back from his forehead, he looks like some international man of mystery. The spectacles just heighten the impression of intelligence and sophistication.

Third Person Revision

Rachel decided to drive herself, choosing the BMW for its aura of unobtrusive luxury. One look at her red Lamborghini, she suspected, and Theo Moore would run away screaming. Cruising up to his attractive but unremarkable building at exactly six, she pulled into one of the parking spots labeled “Visitors”. Her pulse, she was annoyed to notice, was elevated, and her cheeks felt hot. Did she look as flustered as she felt?

A quick check in the rear-view mirror reassured her. Her understated make-up enlarged her eyes and shrank her rather prominent nose. Gold-plated combs swept her unruly curls away from her temples into a semi-elegant cascade. Matching gold earrings dangled from her earlobes almost to her bare shoulders. Her strapless gown of teal satin hugged her bust and hips like it was made for her—which of course it was. She practiced a confident but non-threatening smile. Good evening, Theo. I’m so glad you decided to come.

The minutes ticked by, but there was no sign of him. Should she climb up to his door and ring? Or wait for him to work up the courage to come out by himself? Did he realize she’d arrived? Was he watching out his window? Or cowering in his room?

She got more annoyed by the second. She was considering honking the horn, which she knew would embarrass him, when he appeared on the second floor landing. She recognized him by his height and bulk. Otherwise, he was transformed.

In the custom tailored tuxedo, he looked distinguished and elegant. The sleek black trousers clung to what were obviously powerful, muscular legs. The jacket highlighted his broad shoulders and trim waist. Not fat, oh no! He moved with unexpected grace, as if the formal clothing bestowed a sort of gravitas to subdue his usual gawkiness. With his dark hair slicked back from his forehead, he looked like some international man of mystery. The spectacles just heightened the impression of intelligence and sophistication.

As you see, I can describe exactly the same scene in either first or third person. In both cases, Rachel, my heroine, is the point of view character. Everything described is through her eyes. In particular, when she’s evaluating her own appearance, she can do so only while looking in a mirror.

Note also the way she describes Theo, the hero. She has theories about his feelings and the reason for his lateness – but they’re just that, theories. When he does appear, she doesn’t have much insight into his inner state – that can be revealed only when we switch to Theo’s perspective. On the other hand, she can explain how he looks and communicate her own feelings in response – an obvious attraction.

The observant among you may have noticed that there’s another difference between the original passage and the revision – verb tense. The original is in the present tense. We are in Rachel’s head, and she is describing her observations and emotions in real time. The revision is in past tense, which is a more traditional choice.

I personally like first person present for erotic romance and erotica, because I find it imparts a sense of vividness and immediacy. It’s tricky to write, though, and some readers object to stories told this way.

I switched to past for the revision because third person present stories are rare and generally sound – well, weird. If I’d retained the first person, the excerpt would have started as follows:

Rachel decides to drive herself, choosing the BMW for its aura of unobtrusive luxury. One look at her red Lamborghini, she suspects, and Theo Moore would run away screaming. Cruising up to his attractive but unremarkable building at exactly six, she pulls into one of the parking spots labeled “Visitors”. Her pulse, she’s annoyed to notice, is elevated, and her cheeks feel hot. Does she look as flustered as she feels?

I don’t think this would be an effective way to tell a story, but I hope this demonstrates that not only is point of view independent of the first versus third person dimension, but it’s also independent of time.

Next time you’re worrying about point of view, simply take a deep breath and ask yourself: through whose eyes do I want the reader to be looking? Let the answer guide you.

Writing Good Sex Scenes

As a writer of erotic romance, I’m always trying to analyze the ways in which sex strengthens story. I’ve been very vocal in my belief that a story without sex is like a story without eating or breathing. Sex is a major driving force in our lives on many levels that I’ve dealt with in many blog posts. Because it is a major driving force in our lives it must also be a major driving force in story. Sex is a powerful way to create conflict and chaos in fiction. It’s a way of allowing our characters to interact on an intimate level. And it’s one of the very best ways to cut through our characters’ facades and get an honest look at who they are when their guard is down and they’re at their most vulnerable. With that in mind, I’ve decided to share a few points that I always find helpful when I write sex scenes. For me, going back to the basics is always a great way to sharpen my skills. And I love to share the things that work for me.

I would like to add that many of these points I have learned as much from reading bad sex scenes or gratuitous sex scenes as I have from my own efforts. But then every writer hones her craft through being an avid reader.

Three occasions not to write sex

1. While writing children’s books
2. While writing the definitive work on antique saltcellars.
3. When you’re not a writer, you’re a bricklayer. Even then …

Three important reasons to incorporate sex in your writing

1. Sex adds tension.
2. Sex adds depth and dimension to a story, and gives it more humanity.
3. Sex adds intimacy and transparency to the story and helps the reader better know the characters.

Three big no-nos in writing sex

1. Sex should never be gratuitous. If it doesn’t further the story, don’t put it in.
2. Sex shouldn’t be a trip to the gyno office. Technical is NOT sexy.
3. Sex should never be clichéd or OTT. (unless it suits the story)

Four suggestions for writing better sex scenes
1. Write sex unselfconsciously. No one is going to believe you’re writing about yourself any more than they believe Thomas Harris is a cannibal.
2. Sex scenes should always be pacey. Too much detail is worse than not enough. Sex should neither slow nor speed up the pace of the novel. It shouldn’t be used like an interval in a play. It should not serve as filler to bolster word count. It should always keep pace with the story being told.
3. Approach sex in your writing voyeuristically by watching and learning from your characters. Their personalities, emotional baggage and behavior traits will dictate how they have sex and how you write it.

4. You should always be able to feel a good sex scene in your gut. I’m not talking about wank material, I’m talking about The Clench. It’s a different animal. The Clench below the navel is for the sex scene what the tightness in the chest and
shoulders is for the suspense scene. Ya need to feel it.

The power of good sex can drive a story in ways that almost nothing else can. Good sex can be the pay-off for a hundred pages of sexual chemistry and tension, but the pay-off is even better if it’s also the cause of more chaos, sling-shotting the reader breathlessly on to the next hundred pages and the next.

Writing as Masturbation

K D Grace

Happy Masturbation month, everyone! I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am. Aside from the obvious, May is my favorite month for a lot of reasons. The flowers are blooming and the birds are singing … and mating themselves silly and everything is suddenly made new. As is always the case in this glorious month, I can’t keep myself from thinking about those new beginnings and the fact that many of them seemingly come from nothing. 

At the moment, I’m finishing the final rewrite of Blind-Sided, the second novel in the Medusa Consortium series. Like all the Medusa tales, it’s a big book and, as I work through the final draft, reading it out loud as I go, occasionally I find myself wondering how we writers can create something out of nothing, from the tiniest seed of an idea. And that’s all any novel I’ve ever written is in the beginning. Honestly, I’m amazed at what results. But this is masturbation month, so how can I not think about the absolute pleasure I take in creating something out of nothing, in the solo act of sitting in front of a laptop for months and hammering out a tale that didn’t exist before. Oh yes, my dear friends, for me, writing a novel is very much self-pleasure.

The ancient Egyptians believed masturbation was a creative act in its own right. In the Heliopolis creation myth, the
god Amen rises from the primeval ocean and masturbates the divine son and daughter into existence. Then they, of course, populate the world. Even the Judeo/Christian myth of the first two chapters of Genesis, in which God speaks the world into existence, is a solo act. And what writer of stories and teller of tales can’t identify with ‘the word becoming flesh,’ or with the ritual of creating a world using nothing but words alone.

If creation is, in the great myths, masturbatory, then it makes sense that so many writers I’ve talked to, myself included, find their work, whether it’s erotic or not, to feel almost sexual. That leads me to wonder if perhaps the writing of story is a form of masturbation, a form of solo creation. Certainly for me, when I’m in the throes of story, completely in the thrall of something that seemingly came from nothing, there is a physical response, and it’s quite often arousing. But then how could the visceral euphoria of being The Creator not be a total turn-on?

A writer friend once told me she’d had a novel rejected by an editor who said that, while it was beautifully written, there was no blood on the page. Every novel I’ve ever read that sticks with me has demanded something physical from me. I’ve felt the story in my body and not just had an awareness of it in my mind. That being the case, it’s not much of a leap to think the power of the written word, the power of story, comes as much from a writer’s body is it does from the mind. It also isn’t much of a leap to think that writing from the gut stimulates the libido. When I’m under the spell of story, the physicality of the experience, the way I feel it below my waist, is as much a part of the creative process as the hours spent in front of the computer. 

While I can completely see writing a story as a masturbatory act, even a curmudgeonly introvert like me needs the social connection with people, and the flip side of my masturbatory acts is that they’re also exhibitionist acts. Creation, from a writer’s point of view, may take place in solitude, but the resulting story is very much meant to be shared far and wide. While story telling is an act of love for me, it’s not complete until I can share my creation with someone else. What comes from my isolation is meant to be exposed for the world to see. I suppose like the gods of the myths, I want adoration. I want people to look and see and gasp in awe at the power of what I’ve created. (Can’t you just hear my sinister laugh as I plan world domination?)

Masturbation as a creative act, to me that’s what Masturbation month is all about. There are connections, deep connections to the Self and to the mysterious creative force curled at the center of all of us that, I’m convinced, can only be accessed through solo acts of exploration and pleasure. Those places within us are places only we can discover, and the discovery is, indeed a cause for celebration.

Confessions of a Craft Freak: The Elements of Short Story Structure

In this entry I propose to offer you:

  • The Definition of a Structured Short Story
  • The Two Basic Forms of Short Stories
  • An Introduction to the Elements of Structure, including –
    • The Exterior Elements of Structure (Narrative Arc)
    • The Interior Elements of Structure  (Character Arc)
  • The Artistic Challenge in Balancing the Exterior and Interior Structures for a Specific Effect

This will not be a pep talk. This is a music lesson.

You’d be right for wondering “He’s just showed up, who the hell does this hot dog think he is?”  Well.  You don’t have to be Chopin to give music lessons. Allow me to step forward with the frank and noble stride of a grenadier to exclaim that there are way more prolific and successful writers on this list that have way more talent and experience than I do.

This is of course the advantage I have had from the beginning.

Not having had all that much of my own talent to rely on, I’ve had to fill that abysmal abyss with hard study and dogged practice and asking people dumb stuff.  That’s what I bring you.  I’ve read a lot of craft books.  Most of them say the same basic things, but some of them have had a profound influence on me that helped me around my limitations.  Think of all this as a gesture of gratitude to all the people, including some individuals on this list who have helped me and continue to help me.  My opinions aren’t that interesting anyway, so instead let me share what I know for sure is true about the endless artful journey of storytelling.

The Definition of a Structured Short Story
A structured short story is a scene or a series of scenes during which a Deciding Character experiences   an initial Causative Event,  instilling in this Deciding Character a specific desire or a specific problem to pursue, and with the Deciding Character’s Governing Characteristic influencing the Deciding Character’s decisions, this person attempts to solve the problem or satisfy the desire.  After an escalating series of obstacles the story proceeds to a plausible conclusion.

Listen to the guy telling you about this big fish he caught, or how his boss screwed him over at work.  There is structure there.  Listen to a little kid tell you about something that has just happened to him.  Dig up some old Bill Cosby records and listen to the Coz tell stories about his childhood.  Listen to his perfect pacing, dialogue and characterization.  It’s all right there.  We’re born with this stuff, the rest is typing.

Okay.  So.

The Two Basic Forms of Story
Most modern short stories can be divided into two forms – the Vignette or Lyric story, and the Plotted story.

A vignette follows the basic form of the structured short story except that it is confined to one impressionistic scene or event.  Most flashers are vignettes.  Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote both forms of story, defined a short story as having all elements strictly combine to form “a unique and single effect”.  That describes a vignette.  A one scene, one act story where the exterior and interior elements combine to produce a single focused dramatic effect.

You could care about this if you’re submitting to a publisher who is looking for stories of a restricted length, as most vignettes will be under 2000.  Writing a vignette will mean that you’ll be writing something like a prose poem, with a limited budget of words, character arc and narrative arc.  A lot of what is being said will be buried under the surface or off stage, the way Ernest Hemingway does in his vignettes “A Clean Well Lighted Place” and “Hills Like White Elephants”. The pacing will usually be immediate, moment by moment, without sub plots or jumps in narration.  If you try to do the pacing differently, you’ll be working in a form closer to  traditional fairy tales, which are usually plotted stories dwarfed into little bonsai trees with broad pacing and very thin character development (“The  princess languished in the high tower for ten years.  One fine day, a handsome prince was riding by and glimpsed the princess waving to him from a window in the tower.”)

A well crafted vignette can pack the emotional wallop of a gunshot to the face if it is based on a strong image or a unique premise.  My two personal favorites are Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts”, both of which I plan to reverse engineer here some day in a future entry.  “Masque” is a strong image story that begins with broad pacing which very quickly narrows down to the minute by minute events of a single evening.  It has essentially only one character of substance, Prince Prospero, surrounded by a nameless crowd and eventually a red figure with no speaking lines.  It is a masterpiece of description and atmosphere.  It perfectly achieves Poe’s ideal of a “unique and single effect”.  “Guts” has a unique premise it presents through a single narrator, telling a series of short vignettes, ending in a vignette of his own experience.  “Guts” is one of the most notorious short stories ever written, known for causing audience members to faint in horror during public readings – even when read aloud in foreign translation.  You can read either story in the time it takes to drink a Tall Latte at Starbucks.  In the case of Guts, you may not be able to finish your latte for other reasons.  “Guts” is a masterful example of pacing and description also.   The descriptions are sparse, reported as dryly as Hemingway and yet you’ll soon find yourself cringing.

You can read “Guts” for free courtesy of Chuck Palahniuk at his web site:

For an example of a vignette, I will also volunteer my own poor stuff, because that is the easiest for me to access.  Here is an example of a vignette I wrote from the ERWA Treasure Chest called “Fidelis”:

A plotted story follows Aristotle’s classic three act model of a beginning, a middle and an end.  Each act has a defined responsibility it has to accomplish before moving on to the next.  Most popular genre  novels and most movies and TV shows are variations of plotted stories.


The opening scene of a plotted story and to a lesser extent also of a vignette must establish roughly 11 items as quickly as possible:

  1. Time and Place
  2. Light
  3. Purpose of Scene
  4. Five senses:
    1. Sight
    2. Sound
    3. Taste
    4. Touch
    5. Smell
  5. Deciding Character
  6. Governing Characteristic
  7. Causative event

The first scene should draw the reader into the action.   It introduces the Deciding Character, reveals his governing characteristic, provides a panoramic view of the situation, eventually unpacks the causative event and presents the first obstacle or attempt by the deciding character to respond to this event.  That first obstacle usually marks the end of the set up and the first act.

For example, try this exercise.

Imagine standing inside of an old barn.  Look at the barn, and describe the barn.  Now describe the barn from the point of view of an older man or woman who has just walked in.  That’s the deciding character.  Now – have the character describe the barn during a passionate sexual experience – that is a causative situation interacting with a governing characteristic, depending on how they feel about sex.  Voluntary?  Rape?  Describe the barn from the view of walking in after the deciding character has received the news minutes ago, that a son or daughter has just been killed.  Sex.  Death.  Same barn.  Very different view.

My Favorite Hookers
One of my all time favorite hookers is the beginning of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, that old thing they shoved down your throat in high school.  The first sentence goes:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish.”

Now that dry little sentence is one hard working hooker.  Break it down.  In stark sweeping lines like a Zen ink and brush painting he has given you the deciding character (“He was an old man) with a governing characteristic (who fished alone in a skiff) a panoramic view (“in the Gulf Stream) and a problem and a desire (“he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish.”).

Here’s the beginning of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”, my favorite novel of all time:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul.  Lo-Lee-Ta:  the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.  Lo.  Lee.  Ta.”

I defy you to read that and not want to know what happens next.


he middle act begins immediately after the causative event that ends the action of the first act, and the deciding character has been set into motion with a specific desire or a specific problem to overcome.  And there must be one, whether it’s a vignette or a plotted story.  Hear me.  A desire.  Or a problem. Or even better – both. By the end of the first act of a plotted story the reader must know what the deciding character is after and why.  I’ve seen so many stories up for crits in ERWA’s storytime that had an interesting premise but the deciding character was weak either because he/she wasn’t up against something or he/she was passive, acted upon instead of acting.  The deciding character doesn’t have to be the narrator, the deciding character doesn’t even have to be likable but the deciding character is the one who drives the narrative arc forward starting from the causative event.  I come from the old school of pulp fiction, along with many of my literary heroes.  With Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard the story always came first, and it had to come at you two fisted and fast.  The hero/heroine had to definitely be after something in a manner that kept you turning pages.  Whatever genre you write in, if the deciding character is passive or unmotivated, that story will fall flat.

Coming to Death or “Would you like cheese on that McGuffin”?

The middle act will usually begin by the deciding character trying to achieve the object of desire.  Alfred Hitchcock had a generic word for this thing, a “McGuffin”.  A McGuffin is whatever the deciding character is chasing after.  It could be his kidnapped wife and daughter, a briefcase with nuclear codes, a piece of ass, true love or just a little peace and quiet, but the McGuffin has to be there somewhere and someone has to be chasing it.  The middle act is about the McGuffin and the changes that are occurring to the deciding character and the people around him, including the villain, in their mutual pursuit of the McGuffin, whatever that is.  The obstacles and the scenes ideally should build in a rising crescendo of tension with increasing difficulties with the last obstacle leading into a very special moment.  Romance formula writers call this “The Come to Realize” or “Black Period”.  Adventure and thriller writers often call it the “Coming to Death” (no jokes please).  It’s that moment when everything is lost.  No hope.  Kaput.  Honked.  The two lovers hate each other’s guts beyond words.  The hero is fatally wounded.  The McGuffin is beyond any hope of reach.  It’s all failed and gone to shit.  That’s when act three begins.


Act three pivots on the turning point that ended act two.  The two lovers will “come to realize” that yes, they do love each other.  The hero will say “Yes, we’re going to die – but wait – what’s this button?”  Something happens, something legitimate, something plausible.  That’s why plotted stories are often hard to write well and easy to screw up at the ending.  A legitimate ending has to rise organically from things that have gone before.  You can prepare the readers but you can’t cheat them.

For an example of a plotted story I would like to offer “The Lady and the Unicorn”, again from the ERWA Treasure Chest.  This is a fairly long story that captures all the elements I have just described:

The Exterior Elements of Structure
When I read a story I notice the elements, an exterior shell or presentation balanced against the interior world or soul of the story.  This is where Poe’s admonition that a story should have a focused effect begins to mean something.   The exterior elements of a story generally gather around the narrative arc.  A narrative arc is just that, an arc of rising action reaching a peak and then dropping down.  A narrative arc is based on a balance of creative choices, like paints in a paint box.  These would include:

  1. The POV – first person or third person omniscient?  Is the narrator also the deciding character?  Why or why not?
  2. The pacing – moment by moment present, or broad stretches of time including jumps in pacing.
  3. Where should the story begin?
  4. Where should it end?
  5. Is there a back story?
  6. The tone – funny or sad?
  7. More telling or more showing?  (Don’t be so sure)
  8. Vignette or plotted?
  9. Premise and Designing Principle
  10. Is there a villain?  What is his/her purpose?

The Interior Elements of structureI often don’t know what the soul of a story is until I’ve overhauled it from the bottom a few times.  The interior of a story, the soul of it, generally gathers around the character arc.  Many stories fall down at the character arc.  Even a vignette, with all of its technical limitations should have a minimal character arc.  A character arc means that the character is not aloof to the events that she is going through.   The exterior elements are pushing the interior elements through a journey of change.  The interior elements are responding, yin and yang, driving the exterior events that cause that change.  The decisions she is making are changing her way of thinking, making her a different person at the end than at the beginning.  More than any other thing I am convinced this is what gives dimension to a character.  As a general thing – not always, but generally – the hero of a story distinguishes themselves by their ability to be changed and arrive at the end as a different person in some way.  As a general thing the villain, the Antagonist, does not change.  Batman may be damaged but wiser by the end of the movie but the Joker goes out as unrepentant as he came in.

  1. How is the Deciding Character changed by the end of the story?
  2. Is there a self-revelation after the Black Period?
  3. Is there a moral decision by the time the final obstacle is encountered?
  4. Are there wounds?  Weaknesses?  Secrets that drive his/her decisions?
  5. What is the McGuffin?  What does this person want?
  6. Are they behaving actively or passively?  Acting or acted on?

These orchestral elements are creative decisions that you balance in proportions to each other to create an intentional result.  If you want tension caused by sensual desire or mortal danger you’ll make deliberate decisions about pacing, depth of description and point of view.  Next time you watch a thriller or horror movie see how the director slows everything down to a tight focus on detail when The Very Bad Thing is about to happen to somebody.  Think of the shower scene in “Psycho”.  It’s a very short scene, just under a minute.  But it seems to go on and on.  Hitchcock once described the art of suspense this way:“Imagine a restaurant where there’s a ticking bomb under the table, and we in the audience know it’s going to go off in fifteen minutes. Now imagine one of the characters knows it as well, but can’t reveal it. With this, the suspense ratchets to another level. Not only are we aware of the impending explosion, we share in the character’s anxiety to get away and the excruciating effort of acting totally unconcerned even as the bomb ticks down. The emotional connection we have to a character for whom this situation is a matter of life or death makes the suspense we feel that much greater.”

An exploding bomb you didn’t know about is a surprise.  A ticking bomb you know about is suspense.  That is a creative decision.

I had really wanted to go into some serious detail but this is already getting pretty long.  Let’s do this.  Next post will be “The Exterior Elements of the Character Arc” and it’ll have more detail.  The next post after that will be “The Interior Elements of the Character Arc” and then the next post after that one will come on that foundation as “The Narrative Arc” and the next post, by golly, on the foundation of those will be something like “The Art of the Critique”.  Right.  That’s my plan.  Unless the world gets hit by an asteroid.  You never know.  It happens.

As the Irish say, if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.

Or as my Aunt Myrtle used to say when I was a little kid and told her my big plans –

“Well bless your heart, dear.”

Till then, bless your heart too.

Confessions of a Craft Freak: Sex and the Apprentice Writer

I’m a craft freak.

My relationship with books, words and even wooden pencils is not normal or even especially healthy.

My car, my bedside, my jacket pockets are littered with little notebooks and odd scraps of paper. Alongside the books are piles of notebooks of all sizes and purpose. Pencils and fountain pens have a fetishistic fascination for me which can be disturbing and geeky to behold.  I have more fountain pens and pencils than I will ever use but not as many as I want.

Being a craft freak is how I make up for not being the world’s greatest writer.  Maybe you can relate, I don’t know.  It’s just how I’ve adapted. It’s an adaptation that has changed me.  I started out hoping to be a great writer.  Over time I am becoming the path itself. I am an enthusiast for language and for words well written.  A well crafted sentence makes me swoon with pleasure.  A passage from Shakespeare or Nabokov makes me mumble to myself with demented happiness.

I’ve come to the conclusion over time that writing is unique among the art forms in that literary talent is a precious luxury if you have it, but you can get by without it if you have sufficient enthusiasm. If you have to choose between talent and working very hard on the right things, choose hard work.  Pay your dues at the keyboard and the talent might find you.  If you want to draw or paint, you need certain brain wiring. If you want to be a musician you need certain brain wiring. But you can develop an ear for the written word if you read a great deal and if you teach yourself to read well.  Quality fiction writing is a thing that can be learned if you have audacity, observation, fanaticism and an iron butt.

I’m an Apprentice Writer. Let me define that.

Many years ago publishers drew a line between “popular” fiction and “literary fiction”.  Popular fiction was the kind that people paid money for.  Literary fiction was that endangered species of everything else.  In my case I write literary erotica mostly. 

The fact is very few people, I think Stephen King said it was less than 5%, make their income exclusively from writing fiction.  These would probably be people who work in formula genres, such as television staff writers and most popular novelists.  Nobody ever earns a living from writing poetry or short stories no matter how good they are.  Writing literary short stories is for suckers; people who are content to write their hearts out for stuff very few people will ever read and for which you’ll usually get paid peanuts or nothing.  But that doesn’t mean we’re not the happiest suckers in the business.  Maybe you can relate, I don’t know.

Norman Mailer observed, and I agree, that you can’t learn much from only reading the immortals, guys like Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, or Nabokov, names to conjure with. They’re over your head for the time being, but they can give you an idea of how high you can reach. You’ll learn more craft-wise by reading people on your own level and aspiring respectfully to reach past them.  A bad story written by someone else is as valuable to your journey as a good story.

All those guys, Dostoyevsky and Nabokov, most of the time they didn’t know what they were doing.  They wrote shitty first drafts.  The difference is, they knew how to work around this and they did it by writing their asses off and ferociously overhauling their work over and over. Ernest Hemingway rewrote each of his short stories up to thirty drafts apiece with a wooden pencil. Dostoyevsky rewrote his novel “The Idiot” five times completely from scratch, from the bottom every time, using notebooks and a dip pen while struggling with epilepsy and a gambling addiction.  Nobody invited him to any Iowa Writers Workshops either.

It’s great to be a genius, but hard work is better.  Walk down the aisles in a used book store where the romance novels are; I guarantee there will be at least two aisles stacked tall with white and red Harlequin paperbacks that ladies of letters have been churning out in their spare time like hamburgers, writing in the kitchen when the kids are asleep, or at the laundromat or at their office desks during lunch.  A person with heart can definitely do this. 

We write erotic stories here. Erotic stories are the most ancient and universal genre of story telling, second only to religious mythology, going back to the Neolithic fires of people who hadn’t learned to feel shame, telling stories to each other of  nature gods who fucked lustily and gave birth to the world. Though often despised and banned, it’s a proud heritage.

We who write this transgressive genre are the literary equivelent of punk rockers.  Literary erotica especially has a unique satisfaction. It searches for a kind of truth in furtive midnight sheets.  A good love story should give love a bad name. A good sex story should give sex a bad name when it comes from licking your tongue in the dark wet spots of your soul and tasting and reporting about the human heart, and when its done right it stands for the ages, like King David seeing Bathesheba for the first time bathing nude on a roof top or Joseph being thrown in prison for refusing to fuck Pharaoh’s wife. People have been writing about sex for a very long time.

I’m a craft freak.  Maybe you can relate, I don’t know.

I don’t think that my opinions about things are all that interesting so in the next several months I’m going to share everything I’ve found out so far that I know for sure is true about the act of story telling, and then I don’t know what I’ll do.  God I wish it were more.  Don’t ask me how to get a literary agent, I don’t have one and if you’re not making enough money to be worth stealing you probably don’t need one. Don’t ask me how to get published. I’m published and it’s not as big a deal as you might think. Don’t even ask me about blogging and self promotion because I’m not especially good at that either.

What I know is a good story when I read one.  Also, I have a lot of faith.  I fiercely believe that I have some bombshell stories down inside and anybody reading this has those stories within also.  The problem I have, and maybe you have, is that these really good stories are buried under a big pile of bad stories.  You have to dig them out.  You have to dig down to where they are by shoveling shit with a keyboard faithfully and persistently until the day you hit gold. 

That’s what I have faith in.  I believe the gold is down there, every day I pay my dues at the keyboard.  This faith has gotten me this far and from this day I find myself in the company of writers here at this very blog whose stuff I was buying and devouring long before Iever imagined I’d get to share the same stage with them.


Next month:  “The Elements of Short Story Structure”

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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From Adam & Eve - Based on the Book by New York Times Bestselling Authors Selena Kitt



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