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Editing Corner

The subject of this blog post was suggested because my turn to contribute to Editing Corner came just after I’d finished writing a story about a couple who invite other men into their home. Or, to be more accurate, who invite other men into their home to have sex with the wife while the husband watches.

It’s certainly not a new theme for stories, and psychologists can explain for hours how this is something that goes all the way back to our primitive ancestors. They’ll quote theories about ‘sperm competition’ and sex-mad bonobos, and tell us it’s all perfectly understandable behaviour.

 

The aforementioned story involves a fictitious couple called Harry and Michelle.

In the prequel, Michelle discovered that she enjoyed casual sex with other men, and her husband Harry discovered (much to his surprise) that he actually enjoyed watching it happen. There’s nothing new in that plot-line, and it’s been a well-used template in works of erotica for many years.

So, the scenario we’re talking about is a couple inviting another man to have sex with the wife. But, who should she choose…?

If Michelle had driven a Fiat Punto for ten years and was offered the chance to take something else for a test-drive, she’d want to upgrade. Something a bit flashy, with more power. Something bigger.

So, Michelle found herself a man with more to offer.

 

 

Michelle had become a hotwife.

Hotwife – Definition: a married woman who has sexual relationships with other men, typically with the consent of her husband.

Another term often attributed to ladies like Michelle is a slut-wife.

Although the word ‘slut’ is a vulgar term used to describe a woman considered by others to have loose sexual morals, it has a less offensive meaning within the hotwife alternative marriage community, referring to women who have chosen a non-monogamous lifestyle. Slut-wives can openly take on multiple partners and are not shamed for this choice, and their husbands approve of their promiscuity. So Michelle is also a slut-wife.

 

Harry likes to watch, so he’s a voyeur, right?

Voyeur – Definition: a person who gains sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked or engaged in sexual activity.

But Harry is more precise than any normal Peeping Tom (there’s a joke about Tom, Dick and Harry crying out to be told here…)

Harry doesn’t get off on watching just anybody have sex: he gets off on watching his wife have sex, which makes him a wife-watcher.

Wife-watcher – Definition: A man who gains sexual pleasure from watching his wife have sex with another partner.

The term that’s most synonymous with this behaviour in erotica is cuckold.

It’s an old word, and this is what is says in the Oxford Reference:

Cuckold – Definition: The husband of an adulteress, often regarded as an object of derision, ultimately derived from Old French cucu ‘cuckoo’, from the cuckoo’s habit of laying its egg in another bird’s nest.

In fetish usage, a cuckold is complicit with the partner’s ‘infidelity’. But there’s more to it than that. As far as cuckoldry goes, the primary urge for the cuckold is to be humiliated. Psychology regards the cuckold fetish as a variant of sadomasochism. Freudian analysis sees it as eroticisation of the fears of infidelity and inadequacy. Some cuckolds don’t need to be present during the deed, and are happy to wait for their hotwife to return and describe her evening’s events in explicit detail.

The fetish only works if the cuckold enjoys the humiliation and degradation that accompanies his wife’s ‘infidelity’. If the husband doesn’t enjoy all of the humiliation and degradation, then he is not a cuckold.

 

Before the hotwife and cuckold can participate in their sordid shenanigans, they need something else. They need a ‘prop’. A big, thick, meaty prop. Yip, you guessed it. They need the person to have sex with the hotwife while the husband watches…

This man is known as the bull.

Bull – Definition: Within the context of cuckolding, a bull is a sexually dominant male who has sex with a married woman with her husband’s consent.

Bulls are typically good looking, confident, and well hung—which helps them satisfy women sexually in ways their loyal husbands can’t. Being a bull can be gratifying for men interested in sex rather than relationships. However, men looking for deeper connections may be disappointed and start feeling objectified by being a bull.

If you look at any cuckolding sites, the first thing you’ll notice is how many of the bulls are black. There are countless pictures of white women being pleasured by black men. The majority of these pictures have been taken by the husbands. Terms like BBC (big black cock) and Alpha are emblazoned over the pages of these sites.

 

 

Returning to my fictitious couple…

The hotwife has a loving husband and a series of ‘bulls’ to satisfy her womanly needs. For Michelle, life is good. She wants her husband to enjoy it as much as she does, and so she checks out cuckolding forums and chat rooms. She sees all the things that cucks love — denial, chastity, restraint, humiliation.

So she goes online and buys him a cock-cage, then informs him he’ll only be allowed to have sex when she thinks he deserves it. She lets him perform clean-up, which is exactly what it sounds like — using his tongue to clean up the mess the bull has deposited inside her during sex. Yip, Michelle is living the dream.

But for Harry, things seem to be going a little off-script. While there is no denying the thrill of watching his wife being used by the well-endowed bulls, he’s frustrated that she’s now off-limits to him. The cock-cage means he has to use a cubicle every time he takes a pee in the pub or at work, and he never gets the opportunity to give himself a four-finger-shuffle to ease the pressure.

And then there’s clean-up. He knew it was what she wanted—and he loved her—so he did it. Now she’s pushing him further; a pegging from her strap-on, contact with the bull, and worse.  What started out for Harry as a sexy, wife-watching adventure is becoming a bit of a nightmare.

Maybe Harry isn’t really a cuckold, after all…

So, what do you call a guy who enjoys all the voyeuristic pleasure of wife-watching without the humiliation part of being a cuck? He, I’m reliably informed, is a stag.

Stag – Definition: A dominant monogamous husband who shares his wife with other men without any humiliation. It turns him on to see her receive pleasure

The wife of a stag is called a vixen.

Vixen – Definition: A shared hotwife who does not degrade or humiliate her husband. Instead, she uses her play to turn him on.

Also, a stag/vixen encounter doesn’t preclude the husband being involved. As well as watching, he might eventually join in with his partner and another man rather than enjoying being excluded.

 

Before I started writing the second book, I contacted a couple of people who are in the lifestyle to ask if they’d answer some questions for me. The lady is a hotwife, and the guy describes himself as a ‘wife-watcher’ rather than a cuckold. They’re unrelated and, as far as I know, they don’t know one another.

I knew where I wanted my story to go and put forward the scenarios I intended to include, along with a lot of general questions about the lifestyle. Their willingness to answer all of my sordid questions has hopefully given my story a feeling of authenticity.

They were incredibly open with their answers, and it soon became apparent that they were at opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to the ‘hotwife’ fetish. But what was also apparent was how strong their relationships are. They’re both in normal, loving relationships with their respective spouses. Both have families and jobs and regular lives.

The only difference between them and millions of other couples is that every once in a while they spice up their sex-life by including a third party. There is no jealousy, no bitterness, and certainly no seeing the other man without the husband being told. Both relationships work on total trust.

 

There are numerous sites where couples and bulls advertise their availability, and also chat rooms for them to ‘meet’ and discuss their preferences.

 

 

Many hotwives wear an anklet as a way of letting people know they’re in the wife-sharing alternative marriage lifestyle. This piece of jewellery is designed to show that the married woman’s husband is giving other men permission to talk to her with the knowledge that she may go a lot further than just talking.

 

 

Others have tattoos in prominent places (ankle, wrist) or not-so prominent places. A Queen of Spades tattoo signifies a woman who is looking specifically for a black man to have sex with.

 

 

I think of cuckold/hotwife and stag/vixen couples as two different examples of wife-sharing. I’ve seen this term listed as being synonymous with wife-swapping (swinging), but to me, the two are different.

The primary driving force of wife-sharing is that the husband gets sexual enjoyment from seeing his wife with another man. He gets pleasure from seeing her pleasure. It’s like he’s so proud of his possession that he wants to show her off. With wife-swapping, the primary driving force is that both partners want to experience sex with someone else.

Some people who start off as swingers may realise that the biggest thrill for the husband is watching his wife with another man. Conversely, some couples who go down the wife-sharing route may find that once in a while, the husband wants to experience contact with another woman as well. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. Each couple is different, and they’re perfectly entitled to have a change to the routine every now and then. But for the most part, the husband in a wife-sharing relationship is monogamous. He only desires his wife.

 

Though aware that wife-sharing was a popular fantasy, I was surprised when I first started my research at the sheer number of people actually participating in the lifestyle. I’ve read that the divorce rates between couples within the wife-sharing community are much lower than those between regular couples, and I’m pretty sure that this is also true of couples within the swinging community.

I’m told that it is imperative that you are honest with each other, and that you have a clear understanding of each other’s desires and limits. For any couples considering dipping their toes in the wife-sharing pool, it would be beneficial for you both to talk it through and discuss what it is you’re both hoping to get out of it.

For Harry and Michelle, that lack of communication caused problems that could easily have been avoided. But then, all stories need a little conflict, so I didn’t have them discussing what worked for them until halfway through Book 2.

 

Basically, if you’re thinking about writing a story around a wife-sharing scenario, then you have to decide if the husband is going to be a cuckold or a stag.

The nice thing is, he can be anywhere between the two extremes. And since it’s your story, you can decide what each half of the couple wants out of the arrangement and give your story an interesting dynamic as well lashings of fulfilling sex.

 

 

First paragraphs demand a lot. Personality and clear perspective management. Unique visuals. A sense of setting and mood. A strong hook. Little wonder so many people either:

  • Base their entire novel off a golden first paragraph that popped into their heads at 02:03am
  • Bullet-point the first para and come back to it at the end of the chapter, or even when they’ve completed the first draft of the book.

Back in 2016, I wrote a short story called “The Way, the Truth and the Lifer”, which opens in a care home from which our intrepid hero, encumbered by early-onset Alzheimer’s, is trying to escape for the day. I posted it on our Storytime emailing list for feedback and I’m so glad I did, because my opening three paragraphs caused untold levels of bafflement. I thought I’d seeded multiple clues that Carlsbad House was a care home, but it was only my fellow Brit readers and writers who could visualise the opening scene without trouble. The feedback on the opening to my story gave me a golden opportunity to recast the order in which I presented the information about my hero’s environment, and to choose images which worked better for a transatlantic audience.

I think, up to a point, we all describe what we’re subconsciously familiar with when we’re deep in the flow of the story, or the perspective character’s mindset. As a professional editor, I have several US clients who base their stories in England, and find myself having to amend scenes where the perspective character performs all road manoeuvres as if in charge of a left-hand drive (but without all the conspicuous stress that this entails). I’ve made the same mistake, writing struggles with roundabouts (and other blatant Britishisms) into States-based stories. It’s extremely hard to avoid.

I must confess that until that valuable feedback on my “Lifer” story, setting had always been fairly low on my list of things to worry about when writing. Dialogue, POV management, choreography and emotional journeys seemed to fill my intellectual working space. I’d have to go back and fill in the details of where they were, and how that affected the atmosphere. Because I can’t hear, I often need help writing in the sound effects. I forget those, too.

These days, before sharing a story for critique, I add two more things to my self-editing list:

  1. How quickly have I shown where we are?
  2. Have I done this without presenting the reader with an info-dump?

With a little help from0 my peer editors, a collection of fine books, and a little personal experience, I thought I’d provide a wee list of techniques for setting up your environment while keeping the action moving. Towards the end (for a little light relief), I’ve provided a few examples of what to avoid.

 

If you’re not American, use your mother tongue conspicuously.

The little ‘s’ that I stuck on the end of ‘Towards’ in that last sentence would probably have made some of you flinch. This is how Brits say it, in the same way we say ‘sideways’. It’s not incorrect—just a case of using UK English.

If US English is not your mother tongue, then word choice can be a weapon in your setting arsenal, along with your Anglican spellings (organise, favour, dialogue, manoeuvre, and travelling). This provides thousands of opportunities to establish the use of UK English (and indeed dialect, where appropriate) into the perspective character’s or narrator’s opening lines. Establishing nationality can help to set location expectations. Here is a really handy link to summarise key US vs UK differences:

http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/british-versus-american-style.html

You won’t have this option with all publishers, of course, many of whom insist on US English being used, regardless of the characters’ nationalities. And this doesn’t help our Antipodean pals, whose spelling and punctuation rules have more in common with UK English than US English.

So, other means of establishing place (right down to country and continent), wherever you’re from, are:

  • closeness to (or distance from) well-known cities/landmarks
  • mentioning animal species
  • using place-focused driving language
  • slang
  • architecture
  • socio-demographic terminology
  • or any of the following options…

 

Cross-cultural comparison:

Often a nifty way of declaring a character’s location and his origins in one fell swoop:

They called Grab a ‘good-sized’ village, but you could’ve fitted four Grabs into the ‘one-horse town’ he called home.

 

Temporal comparison:

Harking back to the past when describing an unmoving/unchanging environment can be a succinct way of giving away location:

The ruin loomed in all its Northumbrian glory, the stark landscape giving the impression that the surrounding lands hadn’t been tended any more vigilantly back in the dark ages than they were now.

 

Hyperbole, exaggeration and other satire

Deliberately creating the most extreme version of the environment, and allowing the reader to recognise sarcasm (and subconsciously turn things down a notch), can be an effective way of getting your setting across succinctly. This is done a great deal in fantasy comedy, but if you remove the surreal element of the humour, you can apply the strategy across genres:

Cosy corners and gorgeous beams aside, Regan doubted that any part of the castle had ever been welcoming. He could imagine an unenthused Scottish Monarch trailing from room to room after a latter-day estate agent, reassuring him that the hills and ramparts kept the smellier of the Picts away, and that the tiny, north-facing dungeons kept prisoners nicely cold over winter.

 

Use the gift of environmental interaction

Make the topographical detail relevant to what the character’s doing in the action of the scene:

The cold almost cut through the car. Regan’s left thigh and calf were beginning to punish him for making his getaway in Missy’s stick-shift instead of heading for a garage to hire an automatic with cruise control. He tried not to think about the many miles of I94 between him and the next bathroom stop, the endless fields that would provide no windbreak when he finally had to pull over and rest, or the expression on David’s face when Dave caught him balls-deep in Missy. It was official: Bismarck could now be added to the list of places he couldn’t go without being shot at.

From here, the reader can add a little more history, linking it with the weather, the relentlessness of the journey, and the destination. But there’s a hell of a lot of information already in the paragraph above.

 

Bind the environmental details into the character’s state of mind

You can get an awful lot of information across when your perspective character is in a temper. This is used to great effect in Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’, and pretty much most of Bill Bryson’s travel diaries from ‘Down Under’ onwards. The following snippet has been bastardised (with kind permission) from a friend’s fairly long messenger rant about the joys of finding his way to London from ‘London Luton airport’:

I didn’t want to spend my first night bitching, but a little more travel information would’ve been good. Like, ‘London Luton’ is nowhere near f**king London. The airport’s barely in Luton. It’s like saying ‘San Diego, Hollywood’. Not accurate! So I dive on this train which goes to London via Tanzania, because a direct service at short notice apparently requires a second mortgage to be arranged, and then I get the Spanish Inquisition from the guards at the ticket gate about undershooting my stop. How is it a crime to not stay on the train as long as I’m entitled to remain on the f**king train?

Using character mood to colour the experience of the surroundings is the inverse of the Thomas Hardy Principle/Malaise, where the landscape is relentlessly used as a mirror for character mood. Given that Thomas Hardy wasn’t famed for his light-hearted scenarios or uplifted characters, just a little of that technique went a very long way.

 

And on that note, some setting-relating phenomena to avoid

Countryfile Syndrome: wherein the author over-relies on lengthy strolls through the landscape while their hero mulls upon life’s little problems. There is a limit to which the perspective character’s life choices can be influenced by the pattern of bleak, chilly sheep gathering in the far field, whether or not that pattern is analogous to the cliquey behaviour of the perspective character’s family and friends.

Crap conversationalist syndrome: related to the issue above, except that the writer has forgotten that her perspective character was having a chat with a fellow character at the point where they lapsed into a moody silence in contemplation of the scenery whipping past the car window.

More IKEA, dear: scenes which take place in a relative vacuum, to the point that the reader has no idea if there’s even furniture in the room. This can make sexual choreography rather difficult to visualise.

 

The key point with setting is to keep the details as relevant to what’s going on within the action of the scene as possible. You can layer the details in those quiet, reactive moments where options are being reviewed and decisions made. So long as you don’t take your reader for too many detailed, brooding walks in the process.

 

…and the other one is playing a piano.

Alanis Morissette gets beaten up a lot over her 1995 hit, Ironic, which lists several ironic things (like a black fly in your Chardonnay, or the good advice that you just didn’t take) which just… well, aren’t. Ironic, that is. I’m going to give Alanis a pass on Ironic, though. (She’ll be pleased to hear that, no doubt). She nailed the one about the guy who was afraid to fly and died in a plane crash, and a few others were pretty close. That’s good enough for me.

Where we come to blows, though, is in another song from the same Jagged Little Pill album called Hand in My Pocket. Let’s check some more of those lyrics:

And what it all comes down to my friends, yeah

Is that everything is just fine, fine, fine

‘Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket

And the other one is hailing a taxi cab

I don’t think everything is going to be fine, fine, fine.

“Hop in, lady. Where ya goin?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t want a cab.”

“Well why’d ya’ hail me down?”

I didn’t hail you, it was my hand.”

“Crazy bitch.” The cab’s tires squeal as it peels away from the curb.

Do you see my problem? Alanis’s hand was acting autonomously. Right now all it’s doing is playing pianos and hailing taxis, but before long it’ll be pulling puppy dog tails and tripping grannies, and mark my words, all hell’s gonna break loose.

Autonomous Body Parts

You might say I’m being pedantic (“Belinda, you’re being pedantic”), but this lyric and the one about playing a piano never sat well with me, and that was long before I learned about Autonomous Body Parts in fiction.

It just sounds wrong. Hands don’t play the piano, people do, and it sounds weird when you attribute those actions to a body part.

What does this have to with erotica?

In erotica and erotic romance, we talk about body parts and their myriad delectable actions a lot. Kissing, licking, stroking, fingering, spanking, fisting—our body parts get busy, my friends, and we’re not always completely in control. We’re wont to see a lot of involuntary or reflexive actions, such as:

Her lower lip trembled.

Her pupils dilated.

His cock bucked and throbbed and exploded inside her.

And these are all fine. We would never say, ‘She trembled her lower lip.’

Indeed, it’s the conscious actions we need to watch out for.

Brittany’s hand reached for his cock.

His fingers clutched at her ample ass.

Her lips kissed his turgid member.

Sorry about that last one. I can’t bring myself to put prose that purple into my stories, so this blog is my only outlet. On their own, you might not notice one of these rogue body parts, but our erotic writings don’t contain single, isolated actions—they contain lots of them, strung together pages on end. Put three or more of these together and people will notice.

I haven’t got it all figured out just yet

Voluntary, involuntary, autonomous…I’m confused. How can I tell when it’s okay to attribute an action to a body part?

Brittany’s back arched, and with a piercing scream, she came.

Should this be, ‘Brittany arched her back’? If she’s in the throes of orgasm, is it involuntary, or is she doing it deliberately to increase the pressure on her clit? God, this is so hard! (said the nun to the vicar)

Brittany blinked.

Blinking is involuntary! Should that be ‘Brittany’s eyes blinked?’ And how about this one?

Todd’s tongue slid into her mouth.

We can be pretty sure that Todd’s tongue wasn’t acting alone, here, but the alternative, (Todd slid his tongue into her mouth), whilst not wrong, is not an improvement. In fact, the original for all three of these cases sounds just fine.

It can depend on the verb. Every verb has a subject—the person or thing performing the action. In the case of Autonomous Body Parts, the subject is a thing—Todd’s tongue, Brittany’s hand—but for the non-autonomous version, the subject is a person—Todd, Brittany.

Here’s a useful trick: try using the verb in both a ‘who’ and a ‘what’ question to discover the subject.

  1. Who slid?
  2. What slid?

If the sliding was happening on a ski slope, then option 1 would work fine, but we’re talking about tongues, so ‘what slid?’ is the more meaningful question, suggesting it’s okay for the tongue to be the subject when ‘slid’ is the verb.

What happens when we change the verb to ‘licked’?

Todd’s tongue licked between Brittany’s supple folds.

Well, let’s ask it as a question.

  1. Who licked?
  2. What licked?

In this case, both might seem plausible at first, but look more closely. If you were given an obviously pre-licked ice cream, would you ask who licked it, or what licked it? So, when it comes to licking, the subject of the sentence should ideally be the individual who owns the tongue, not the tongue itself.

Let’s go back to our first example.

Brittany’s back arched, and with a piercing scream, she came.

  1. Who arched?
  2. What arched?

Both seem to work. This suggests there are edge cases and they’re not uncommon. If you come across an edge case in your writing, use your gut, and perhaps fall back on the voluntary versus involuntary sub-rule above.

Everything is gonna be quite alright

Whichever way those edge cases go, most people won’t notice and pedants like me will cut you some slack. The important thing is you’re finding the obvious ones which are more common and far more overt: kissed, licked, blinked, nuzzled, reached, stroked, fingered, touched—if you want your prose to sound in any way erotic, these all demand a human actor.

Or a tentacled alien. I’m not judging, just don’t make it an autonomous body part.

Squirrel!

Looky there. It’s a flying rat.

I know you already knew it.

It was here that I knew that Colonel Plum did it in the bathroom with the pipe wrench and “WHAM!” That is how it happened.

I have some type of attention deficit disorder; however, I have not been diagnosed, but I do know…

SQUIRREL!!!

Write over it.

Ok. Wait.

Where was I?

I ain’t got no clues present to get me back to the beginning, but I don’t want to start at the beginning because it is way too long ago and I can’t catch you up to speed.

Anyway, this was to get you to understand that holding the audience’s attention, maintaining good grammar and the story structure are the three very important parts to writing a story. The audience is your fan base and beyond. You know not to tell your audience anything unless it will not come out. Your audience is who you write for and make sure that the plot moves along. Make sure that you’re writing for your intended audience instead of trying to please everyone.

We always talk about speech tags and their overuse of speech tags like “she hissed,” “he snapped,” “she stammered,” get irritating fast. Likewise, reading a character’s name too often in dialogue can be a turn off. Avoid more than the occasional “um” or “well,” or “er,” and keep dialogue realistic, but more coherent. Also, make sure the words that are grammatically correct. IF the language that you are relaying your story in is not your first language or you’re not completely fluent, make sure to get assistance.

Your writing style, tone, character motivations, or even plot might begin one way and, unintentionally, change at some point in the book. Be especially aware of small details like names, occupations, physical descriptions of people or places, which can all fall prey to inconsistencies over the course of 300+ pages. Something to look at for writing style is “Eats Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss and reading a few articles from Michael Hauge will assist in this category.

Make sure that when telling your story begin at a point that can be referenced back to in the story. Chronological stories are good, but there are some times the chronological order of the story will not bring the story to where it needs to be. If all the good stuff happens at the beginning, or if nothing exciting happens until the end, your reader will be frustrated with the rest of the book.

This is what gets me. Knowing when and where to begin your story. There are some that say that you should begin your first major plot point within the first 25% of your story or you can jar the balance of how the story arc falls. Some say that you can start your story chronologically and then work backwards to the event. Within each set of “rules” there is always time. Time is a factor in everything. If you give the audience too much too soon, then there is nothing else to read. If you make the audience wait until the last chapter to find out anything, you may lose your audience. You want to provide just enough, but no one ever knows when to say when and that is why we have editors.

I have gotten better at finding a balance in the information that I do provide my readers; however, that is after a lot of help from people in ERWA who help hone my skills for writing. There are other resources that can assist you if you have not subscribed to our Storytime List and those resources are:

“Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative” by Chuck Wendig and “The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface” by Donald Maass.

There is a TedX video that brings in circularity, symmetry and a few other things to light for writers. That link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUT6GQveD0E (I do not own the rights to this video, I am just sharing it.)

All in all, in order to write something that someone else wants to read, make sure that you can capture and keep their attention, make sure your vocabulary fits your scenery, that you are aware of small detailed changes so there are no mix ups, and start at a good place in the story so that it can keep going and then finish it with something memorable.

SQUIRREL!

Made you look!

 

 

One of the indoor activities I do with my son is to print off the ‘disaster movie bingo’ card I have on my hard drive, and then watch one of the many daft movies floating around on Amazon or Netflix. Widely-ignored scientist? Check! Scientist separated from wife? Check! Heroine survives hurricane with hairdo intact? Check!

There are twenty-five items on our card, and I think that the highest marks are tied between 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and San Andreas.

We play this game as a chance to be creative. It’s fun to chat about what we’d change with the plot or characters to make the film more unpredictable. It helps us to think laterally. However, just as viewers expect certain elements of a disaster movie to be in place, readers have expectations of romance and erotic romance.

World and character creation is tough in any genre. But in romance or erotic romance, with so many story expectations, it can be really tricky to take a common partnership dynamic, a frequent sexual dynamic and a familiar setting, and make something completely new out of it.

I don’t believe for a second that anyone who’s writing for the joy of it writes a story where their main characters sound just like all the other characters they’ve read about and loved. There are inspirations, yes. But people write to bring their own characters to life.

Nevertheless, there are a group of recognised personalities who crop up all over the world of romance and erotic romance who will seem instantly familiar. I’ve summarised four such prototypes in the colossally exaggerated summaries below.

# # # #

The nearly  hard-hearted hero

His heart has been hermetically sealed and locked in a vault. He’s too tough for affection or conversation. You have to go at his immaculately-mortared walls with a JCB before he so much as cracks a smile.

  • But there’s always one way in, right? There’s always a tiny door through which the heroine/reader sees his very well-hidden soft side:
  • He may only speak to the rest of the world twice a year, but he makes a 100mph round trip three times a week to water his grandmother’s spider plants.
  • He’s in the ‘Big Brother’ programme and spends every other weekend giving his tiny pal lessons in how to ignore women and field-strip rifles.
  • He only roars at the heroine and knocks her to the ground to save her from accidentally stuffing her head into a woodchipper.
  • He has a pet bunny/ancient dog to whom he is unwholesomely devoted. He can also be trusted to leap over the fence and give his neighbour’s baby goat mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, or rear baby squirrels by hand.

 

The Helen of Troy tomboy

 Benjamin put down the chainsaw and whisked the little towel from her handy belt to wipe the sweat from her face. She shouldn’t have worn her size-six leggings, though they protected her legs from the flying splinters as she single-handedly took down the copse of dead trees at the far end of the football field. Sweat glued her blue tank to her body, drawing unwanted attention from every jock in the school, and that of a few nerds, all of whom silently admired her lack of self-consciousness. Lumberjacking brought her peace. Benjamin got back to work, ignoring the random taunts from the entire cheerleading squad, who’d gathered at the treeline in full make-up just to emphasise how unlike them she was. They didn’t intimidate her in the slightest; having grown up with sixteen brothers, all in the military, she knew how to handle herself.

Nuff said, I think.

 

Poor wee self-sacrificial sausage

This is the guy with such a tortured past that he thinks he’s good for nobody, despite the entire cast of the book trying to tell him otherwise on a page-by-page basis. Really, he just won’t be told. He’s on his way to hell, and he won’t take anyone with him. He spends hours alone in his garage, using mufflers to block out any attempts of other characters to so much as compliment him on the nifty paint job on his vintage Mustang.

When the heroine finally engages him in conversation, he gets out of telling her how he really feels by diving between a toddler and an oncoming SUV. Alternatively, he’ll protect her from his scumbag personality by taking her to a ball game, leaving her in her seat while he ‘gets snacks’, and then voices her personal flaws over the PA system. That’ll put her off him for life, thus preventing any hurt feelings in the long term. Because there is no short term for the sacrificial sausage.

 

The reclusive artiste, Mr Clam

He’s the most amazing thing that the public have never heard of. He’s a reclusive painter who came out of art college with plaudits coming out of his backside, but who gave it all up to care for his brother. Having abandoned his dreams he’s abandoned life, and has long since sent his muse packing with aggressive warnings not to show her face around him ever again, in case he’s tempted to follow his ill-fated dream. Being such a sensitive soul, he’s also got a fantastic palate, and could, if he put his mind to it, get some help to look after his brother while he entered and won the next series of Masterchef.

He’d love someone to love, but they have to genuinely understand his inexplicable paintings, and understand his need to cut himself off from the universe on account of the meltdown he’d encounter if anyone tried to coax him back to the limelight.

He probably wears a smoking jacket and/or a beret.

# # # #

Okay, I warned you about the colossal exaggeration! But I’m sure you’ve come across more than a handful of characters who fit these moulds.

In light-hearted discussion with other editors about these main character (MC) prototypes, a theory emerged about a general tendency towards layering traits. What am I on about, you may well ask.

Okay, let’s take the reclusive Mr Clam as our working example. A writer has decided they want their character to have heavy responsibilities, to be on the shy side, and to have almost savant levels of creativity.

It’s a tripartite starting block for the character, and that’s fine. But what can then happen is that the writer come up with a number of ways in which each of those character features are displayed in practice, and puts nearly all of them into use. For example:

Heavy responsibilities

  • Never has any time off and can’t get respite care
  • Doesn’t have hobbies outside his areas of genius
  • Has been battling depression for a number of years.
  • Works exclusively from home
  • Brother is very hard work and they struggle to get on

Shy side

  • Finds it difficult to start or sustain conversations
  • Avoids social media
  • Gets all shopping home-delivered
  • Turns down seminars and courses
  • Timid about critiquing other artists’ work because he’s suffering imposter syndrome after so many years ‘off the scene’

Highly creative

  • Is excellent chef
  • Brilliant artist
  • Harassed by mother into arranging flowers for church as a child
  • Used to enjoy doing the costumes for drama groups as a teen
  • Writes wonderful poetry.

It’s only when you get significant layering of traits under each element that makes up the MC that a painfully familiar character emerges. It’s not about lack of imagination (the contrary, in fact), but about raising the probability that the writer’s using traits which are often seen before because so many of them are being used.

So, how can this tendency towards trait-layering be taken down a notch once it’s been recognised?

 

Seek out the double-edged swords

In its simplest terms, this means focusing on one particular trait that a character has, and seeing how it works for and against him. Using Mr Clam again:

His work as an artist makes good use of his ability to focus intensely, but he’s terrible at multi-tasking, which means he invariably fails to preheat the oven. He may love home cooking, and have a fantastic palate, but his successes are somewhat hit and miss.

If he struggles with his relationship with his brother, then he’ll need an outlet. He will drive out to get his own shopping but only at one particular store, where the owner is so grumpy that there’s no danger of small talk. He also wants some contact with like-minded souls, so he does do social media, but only Twitter and Reddit. He also still helps the drama group with their sets, but takes items home to work on, rather than doing the painting in situ.

 

Evolve quirks and contradictions

Perhaps his hand-eye coordination is exemplary, but he has no sense of direction. So, he’s an excellent driver with good reflexes, but cannot for the life of him read a map (a source of endless embarrassment).

He’s shy until someone gets him on a topic which is a bugbear, at which point he has to be silenced with duct tape.

He’s intolerant over issues where he’d be expected to have compassion. Perhaps his brother’s condition and demanding behaviour have caused Mr Clam to emotionally associate immobility with impatience, because that’s what he puts up with all the time.

His dark and angsty painting is phenomenal, but his dark and angsty poetry puts people to sleep.

 

So, there are a couple of techniques to steer a character off the road oft-taken. I hope they’re helpful tips. To sign off, here are some extremely useful resources for digging into all peculiar corners of the character’s life and psyche:

https://www.amazon.com/Plot-Thickens-Ways-Bring-Fiction/dp/0312309287/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1525944745&sr=1-2&keywords=the+plot+thickens&dpID=51bKiLDnM%252BL&preST=_SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Positive-Trait-Thesaurus-Character-Attributes-ebook/dp/B00FVZDVS2/ref=pd_typ_k_rtpb_1_341689031_4/280-1884416-4836332?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=1YP15VRMHTNEZ873G6N2

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.

Ian Smith

ERWA Flasher Gallery Editor

  Pretty well every story has action scenes.

  Action scenes as in action and adventure stories?

  Well, yes, obviously. But I meant action scenes in their most general sense. Scenes in which the characters do things the writer needs to describe to the reader.

  It could be as simple as picking up a pen, or taking a sip from a drink. Or it could be a rather more complex act, like engaging in fisticuffs, enjoying an amorous engagement, or piloting a space craft which defies the laws of physics through a ludicrously busy asteroid belt.

  Think of a scene from a TV drama or a movie. How often do the actors just stand still and talk? They’re usually doing other things, even if that’s only sitting around a table. They might move around while sitting in a chair, turn towards each other, pull faces, pause for a second or two in a conversation. The actors show you more of the story with these actions than their words alone do. Hopefully, it makes the scene more believable to viewers, too.

  Actions can also help flesh out a character. A tough guy handling a weapon will seem rather more menacing than one just talking. And your readers already know about that weapon if you want to liven things up for your characters a little later.

  In an ideal world, your description of the action will include enough detail to convince your reader that the character did it (or is doing it, if you write in the present tense). It’s one of the times when “show not tell” can really work, even if it’s harder to write. You may have done some top-notch research, but think carefully. You don’t want to bog the story down, or tempt your reader to skip a bit, or worst of all, decide they’ve something else to read which will be far more lively.

  For simple things, you can use sneaky little “action tags” to describe what your characters are doing and show who’s talking. These may save you from the dreaded overuse of “said”…

  Inspector Jones pulled out a notebook and pen. “What did you see?”

  Sophie looked away. “Whatever.”

  Gregory turned to his computer. “Let’s see what the CCTV recordings show.”

  Where a scene requires more detail, you’ll have to rely on a more conventional mixture of narrative and dialogue to show the action unfolding.

  When thinking about a scene I want to write, I often try to imagine I’m watching it, as if it were a scene in a TV drama. Then I try to figure out the “choreography”.

  Choreography?

  I mean what happens, who does what, when, how, and with which hand or foot, and so on. Then there’s clothing, furniture, other people and objects around them.

  Once I’ve got all this straight (or straight-ish), then I’ll try to describe it in writing. And usually realise I need to think about it a bit more…

  One thing I’ve come across not infrequently in romance and erotica are confusing descriptions of what the characters are doing.

  Examples:

  • If there are two women involved, which “she” or “her” does the writer mean?
  • If a couple are getting amorous while sitting in a booth in a diner, how much could they do without removing the table? Likewise cars and steering wheels, or the cramped seats in a typical passenger aircraft.
  • A guy cuddling a woman only has one hand free, and that has a limited range of movement.

  In any action scene, there’s obviously a balance to be struck between details and the big picture, and keeping the scene moving is an obvious way to go.

  One approach I’ve come across for dramatic action scenes is for the character or narrator to be quite matter-of-fact. Len Deighton and Lawrence Block narrate their violence in such a way. Admittedly, with Deighton, it’s more plausible and realistic.

  One thing you might find helpful is to remember that unless your character has been very carefully trained, anything sudden and dramatic will be pretty confusing and they’ll probably notice specific details far more clearly than the whole scene.

  I’ve read two books which described conventional action scenes in quite different ways. Actually, they were both audiobooks.

  Incidentally, if you’re wondering if audiobooks might be a new outlet for your fiction, you may be right. I feel that while the right narrator can really bring a book to life, the wrong one can totally ruin it. I found Rosario Dawson’s performance of Andy Weir’s “Artemis” utterly entrancing. And after getting wound up enough to shout at my car audio system, I’ll avoid anything narrated by the British actor Martin Jarvis like the plague.

  Back to my examples…

  One was a period story I will refrain from naming. It attempted to be light-hearted and jolly, and the writer appeared to be trying to use a style which “felt” 19th century. There was a particular scene where the main female character was the cause of a major punch-up between two gangs, one protecting her from the other. Despite the furious action, the writer described this character picking her way between the combatants in an almost leisurely fashion, as if the fighting around her was in slow motion. I very nearly gave up on it, but I didn’t have another audiobook to listen to at the time.

  The other was “Stay Cool” by Elmore Leonard. There’s a point in the story where the main character is having some difficulties with two lots of gangsters simultaneously. With each unaware of the other’s existence, he manages to engineer them into a well-populated shoot-out in a nightclub, with him right in the middle of it.

  So how did Mr Leonard show us this scene of death and mayhem?

  The character told his girlfriend about it afterwards.

  As first person dialogue, we only had what he chose to relate, and only from his point of view. Like almost any witness giving a statement to the police, he’d be an unreliable narrator. Let’s face it, a noisy, dirty fight like that is going to be really confusing and you’d really want to keep your head well down.

  So, say your character is riding a horse, flying an aircraft, driving a tank, involved in a high-speed car chase, parachuting, firing a bow and arrow, or a firearm, fighting, fencing, wearing armour… Not all at the same time, obviously. How can you make your more lively action scenes more engaging and believable to your readers? Or get them to imagine that’s how it feels?

  Research.

  If you know of other people with suitable experiences, you could talk to them, read their accounts in books, watch interviews on TV, and so on.

  Or you could find out for yourself.

  Have a go at horse-riding, sailing, power-boating, flying, or driving a tank or fast car. Join a paintball game and find out how confusing a multi-party shoot-out can be. A fencing coach, martial arts or self-defence teacher can give you some pointers and hands-on experience. Archery or gun clubs may well let you shoot holes in targets (safely).

  So, think about what you want your characters to do, find someone willing to let you do something similar (at a reasonable cost, ideally), and go off and have some fun. Then you can use your experience to help convince the reader that your character’s doing it.

  The action, not the fun.

  Unless they’re having fun too, of course…

We all love stories. It’s in our genes. Humans have been spinning tales for thousands of years. From the sagas our ancestors told as they huddled around their campfires to the ebooks flying off today’s virtual shelves, stories satisfy some deep psychological need.

Sometimes we want a familiar story, even though we’ve heard it a million times before. We anticipate and then enjoy the expected conclusion, which reassures us that all is right in the world. Often, though, we follow a story because we want to know what comes next. Suspense and uncertainty produce a particular kind of excitement., a tension that is pleasurably released when the uncertainty is resolved. Suspense is what keeps readers turning pages long after their normal bedtimes. They don’t want to stop reading until they see how it all turns out.

In genre fiction such as romance or mystery, readers know the final shape the story will assume. The lovers will overcome the obstacles that confront them in order to be together. The guilty parties will be identified, the mechanisms of the crime will be explained and usually the perpetrators will be brought to justice. Part of the reason readers enjoy these genres is that they provide the same satisfying reassurance as a well-known fairy tale or myth. A book that labels itself as romance or mystery then fails to provide the expected pattern of resolution will likely arouse readers’ ire.

This does not mean that stories in these genres should be predictable. As the story progresses, a skillful writer will make the reader question how the expected ending could possibly come about. You’ll lose your reader’s attention if he or she stops wondering what happens next.

Unfortunately, I find that a significant percentage of the romance I read is far too predictable, at least for my tastes. By the time I’ve finished the first chapter or two, I know the general path the story will take. I can’t presume to speak for other readers, but this definitely diminishes my own enjoyment.

As an author of erotic romance, I struggle to add suspense to my own stories. It’s not always a conscious process, but when I sat down to write this post, I tried to analyze the strategies that I use, or have seen others use, to avoid predictability. I identified four techniques that can be helpful in this regard.

1. Withhold critical facts

Even if you’re a pantster rather than a plotter, you’ll generally know more about your characters and their background than you tell your readers. Often there are things in a character’s history that are critical to the plot. By holding back and not disclosing these facts right away, you can heighten the level of uncertainty and make the final resolution more surprising.

I found an example in my ménage story Wild About That Thing. Ruby Jones, the heroine, owns a struggling blues club that represents her life’s dream. As the story opens, she has received a letter from the lawyers for the new owner of her rented building, indicating that her lease will not be renewed and that she must vacate the premises. Her anxiety over her impending eviction colors her reactions to the two men who become her lovers.

Quite late in the tale, I reveal the fact that one of her lovers, Remy, is in fact the building owner. This serves two purposes in the narrative, emotional and practical. First, it adds a sudden obstacle to the relationship (since Ruby is rightfully upset that he had not told her sooner) and also allows the second man in the triangle, Zeke, to come to Remy’s defense. Second, it provides a plausible solution to the problem of Ruby’s eviction.

Keeping important details secret from your readers can be an effective way to add unpredictability, but it does carry the risk of appearing contrived. The new information, when it is finally exposed, must be believable. It must not seem to “come from left field”. If you can, you should drop hints earlier in the story. When the revelation finally occurs, you want your readers to nod their heads, saying “Yes, of course, I should have known!”

2. Keep alternatives alive

Fiction, especially romantic fiction, frequently revolves around a character’s choices. Your heroine may be choosing between two potential relationships, or between a relationship and a life path that will make that relationship impossible. To avoid predictability, you need to paint the competing alternatives as equally attractive and plausible. You should also maintain the ambiguity concerning the character’s ultimate decision for as long as possible.

To implement this strategy, you can use trade-offs. No one choice is perfect. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Highlight those contrasts for your reader. Meanwhile, watch out for stereotypes. The handsome, arrogant, wealthy playboy; the smoldering, tortured bad boy biker; the sensitive, nurturing guy next door… You know what I mean. Stereotypes are a sure way to kill suspense – unless you set them up and then turn them on their heads. This is actually another technique for avoiding predictability. If, for example, the playboy is later revealed to be a submissive who wants to serve as the heroine’s 24/7 slave, you’ll definitely surprise (and possibly delight) your readers.

This strategy can apply to alternative explanations or scenarios, as well as decision alternatives. In my erotic suspense novel Exposure, Stella realizes that any of several people might be responsible for the mayor’s murder and the threats she receives: the mayor’s widow; his opponent in the upcoming election; the sinister mob boss; even the cop who’s Stella’s high school friend and current lover. I try to provide evidence supporting each of these hypotheses. I want to keep the reader guessing.

3. Allow your characters to change

A story is a journey taken by your characters. Events occur and the characters change in response. You can use these changes to make your story less predictable. As the tale unfolds and your characters develop, they will behave and react in ways your reader may not expect. In fact, their surprising behavior will reveal the nature of their inner changes.

The movie “Long Kiss Goodgnight” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116908/) provides a great example. Geena Davis stars as a suburban wife and mother who gradually recovers from amnesia to realize that she’s a former spy. Over the course of the film, polite, conventional, squeaky-clean Samantha morphs into wise-ass, slutty, violent Charly, the top secret agent now running for her life. The shift is gradual. Since you never know (until you see it) how far Charly has reverted to her old self, you never know exactly what she’s likely to do.

Most romance character shifts are less extreme. Just remember that static characters are easy to predict. Also, some change trajectories have become clichés. The uptight, authoritarian female executive who gradually realizes that she craves submission; the woman wounded by past relationships who must learn to trust a new love; the emancipated, free-wheeling chick looking for no-strings sex who discovers instead a deep need for commitment; these patterns have been been employed so often that they’ll kill any suspense – unless of course, you use misdirection, shattering the cliché to send the character off on a new and surprising path of development

4. Take advantage of strong emotion

Characters don’t just change over the course of the story, but moment to moment as well. Even the most stable individuals are not 100% consistent in how they behave, especially under the influence of strong emotion. Anger, grief, guilt, terror and shame can all induce people to behave in atypical ways that would be hard to predict based on their normal personalities. Since such emotions often occur at critical points in your plot, you can use them to introduce the unexpected into your tales.

For example, Kate O’Neil, the heroine of my novel Raw Silk, is a self-confident, independent professional woman. Her first full-blown experience as a submissive stuns and scares her. She actually skips out of work, jumps on a plane, and escapes to the safest place she can think of (in this case, Singapore). This is highly unusual for someone as responsible and career-oriented Kate. Even I was surprised when she did it! The episode contributes to the plot by providing her with an opportunity to reflect on her reactions – as well as a chance for readers to catch their breath.

I’ve been using erotic romance for my examples so far, but non-romantic erotica also has its predictable patterns. Ultimately, readers expect the characters to have some sort of sexual interaction—and more likely sooner rather than later! Readers are in it for the climax, sure, but the experience will be more pleasurable if there are some twists and turns along the way. That’s why I personally find a lot of “stroke fiction” uninteresting and unsatisfying. If there’s no suspense at all, just fucking, the story falls flat. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

Authors of genre fiction walk a tightrope. On the one hand, we must give our readers the pattern of resolution they expect – a happy ending, in the case of romance, an orgasm (or more than one!) in erotica.

On the other, we want to keep our readers turning the pages, wondering what is going to happen next. We must be faithful to the conventions of our genre while still ringing enough changes to be fresh and exciting. It’s a tall order. I hope that the suggestions I’ve made in this post get you thinking about how you can maintain this balance in your own work.

 

I think I was about six when I first learnt the whole ‘twelve days of Christmas’ song. Even at that age, the gifts on offer struck me as rather unmanageable in terms of frequency, quantity and accommodation. What sort of man, after all, sends their partner ten leaping lords?

And how does one convey one’s varying levels of gratitude for the continuous influx of peculiar gifts? By email, of course! The finely crafted email is the handwritten letter of yesteryear, and the means through which I intend to convey poor Donna’s yuletide saga…

Is there a learning point in this exercise?  Hmmm… yes, and no.

Yes, in that telling a story in the epistolary form is a good way of making the reader imagine all the chaos happening ‘off-screen’, so to speak.

No, in that it’s December, there’s shopping to do and nativity plays to attend, and I just wanted to write something fun rather than ‘educational’.

Have a great winter break folks, however you choose to celebrate.

 

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… a wanker with a spare key.

 

Dear Darling

I hope you landed safely in Riyadh and that you got a decent night’s sleep after the rough journey.

I found the sweet little note you left on the kitchen table—you have twenty-four gifts organised for me? Wow! One day at a time, eh? It’s a good thing I work from home; I can catch all those delivery men. 

However, as grateful as I am for the imminent arrival of lovely pressies, I would’ve really appreciated it if you could’ve warned me about ‘Spud’ (what’s his real name?)

I realise that you’ve served together and that he needs a place to stay for a couple of weeks, but he gave me a bloody great shock by arriving while I was in the shower. Literally! He apologised for needing the loo in an emergency, but he didn’t show much sense of urgency while washing his hands and face. That man cleans himself at the speed of a sloth giving himself a pedicure. Thank goodness for frosted shower glass! Let’s hope this has just been a case of first-day teething problems. I’m sure he’ll settle in.

Right – I’ve got dinner to make, so I’ll email tomorrow.

Donna

 

* * *

On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… two dirty gloves

Hi love, quick text to say thanks for the first pressie. I love the pre-loved gauntlets. They’re very robust. I’m sure that if I ever need to handle a batch of thermite cacti then I’ll stay very safe, lol. Are we getting a stove? I’d love a stove. Some of our neighbours have applied to have one installed and they keep going on about not having to pay for heating anymore. Warm nights by the fire sound ideal to me—especially with that dodgy door leading out to the roof terrace.

Spud made an effort to apologise for springing in on me yesterday by bringing home burger and chips from Tony’s Takeaway. It was a nice thought but—alas, like the gloves—the chips had clearly been ‘pre-loved’ between Tony’s place and my front door.

Hope you’re getting through your first day okay. I know it’s always rough when you go back on tour. xxxx

 

* * *

On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… three French hens!

Evening Dan

I hope you had a good day setting up and that you won’t get sent out to some grim fox hole straight away.

I now understand the gloves! The three French hens arrived in the early afternoon, and I needed the gloves to round them up and get them out of the kitchen. Damn their claws are sharp! They also move surprisingly fast once released from a cage. For the time being, they’re hanging out on the roof terrace. I had to nip out this afternoon to buy them a hutch (no idea what you call an enclosure for hens), and spent a good couple of hours trying to build it.

Spud isn’t hugely fond of the hens, I’ve noticed. He complains (without a hint of irony) that they’re ‘messy.’ Hmm. Sorry. I WILL try to stop complaining about my sudden house guest. If he could replace some of the red wine he’s been working his way through, then that would be grand.

Are the hens safe with pizza, by the way? I’ve noticed that pizza certainly isn’t safe around THEM.

Much love. I’ll try to call tomorrow.

Donna xxxx

* * *

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… four calling birds

Hi love

Just a quick note to say thanks for the calling birds. I’m afraid they turned out to be quite temporary presents. Spud left the door of the roof terrace open when he went for a smoke and the birds made a swift exit, stage left. The hens didn’t follow them, you’ll be glad to hear. Mind you, it’s probably a good thing that we don’t have seven birds roaming around the apartment. My neighbours slipped a passive-aggressive little note under my door this evening, asking me if the ban on pets had been relaxed.

You have the greatest imagination for gifts but I’m not sure our flat is really designed to accommodate quite so much wildlife 😉 (gentle hint).

Right, I’m behind on my work so I’d better spend a few hours catching up. Love you lots

D xxxx

 

* * *

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… five gold rings!

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… Six geese a-laying

Dan

I know things got heated on the phone, and I’m sorry we argued. But I did try hinting that I couldn’t take on any more animals. Goose eggs might be great for Christmas, but the bloody geese aren’t. They’re like miniature forces of destruction. I’ve already had to sell two of the five gold rings to cover the cost of repairing my furniture and getting the carpet professionally cleaned.

It’s all very well telling me to put the geese on the roof with the hens, but these geese:

  1. a) are unexpectedly murderous – we only have two French hens now
  2. b) aren’t having any of this sit-in-the-cold rubbish. They like being warm, it seems.

We managed to get all six of them outside, but after their streetfight-showdown with the hens, they lined up by the doors, giving us death stares through the glass. Even Spud was freaked out in the end. Sorry love, but tomorrow morning, those geese (and the hens) are going straight to the park on Millbank, where they can squawk, cluck and screech to their hearts’ content.

 

* * *

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me… seven swans-a-swimming

======================================================

OUTGOING TELEGRAM OFFICE: RAF_LN

DESTINATION OFFICE: SdA_Rh

Attn: Captain Daniel Forrester

======================================================

Stop it with the bloody birds STOP 

Swans are fucking evil STOP

Send me one more bird (or creature) and we’re finished STOP

======================================================

* * *

On the eighth day of Christmas, my weirdo sent to me… eight maids a milking

Dan

I’m tempted to email your CO and ask him to send you for a psych-eval.

What in the name of the fat noodly fuck am I supposed to do with these maids? WE DON’T HAVE ANY COWS! We don’t even have any room for them to sit anywhere, let alone stay here. They’re just wandering around the flat, clenching and unclenching their fists, looking lost, libidinous and weird.

Spud’s cheered up for the first time in a couple of days. He’s convinced he can get at least four of them to ‘milk’ him. He’s an annoying git, but I’ve seen the ‘goods’ and can understand why he thinks he’s a two-maid job.

I’ve spent the money from gold ring #3 on minibus hire so Spud can drop the maids off at various railway stations tomorrow.

I missed my publishing deadline, by the way. Thanks a bunch for keeping me so busy.

Donna

Ps: please, please tell me that there aren’t any cows coming? That should be a stupid question, but I wouldn’t put anything past you anymore.

 

* * *

On the ninth day of Christmas, my dickhead sent to me… nine ladies dancing

Dan, allow me to summarise. Nine ‘ladies’ dancing in the corridor = eight morally offended neighbours = 7 formal complaints to building management = six rude messages left on my voicemail = five equally irate messages left on their voicemail (I’ve blamed you, by the way) = four dancing ladies being arrested = three arrested ladies demanding I pay their bail = 2 hours sleep last night, and one furious EX-FIANCÉE.

 

* * *

On the tenth day of Christmas, my ex-dick sent to me…  ten lords a-leaping

You immature tosspot! The last thing I need while I’m packing is a bunch of drunken peers flinging themselves around the flat. I don’t know WHY I even answered the door.

I’ll be as glad to leave Westminster as I am to leave you. Spud was my hero today. Using a cattle prod, he persuaded all ten lords to make themselves useful by carrying all my boxes down to the moving van. It seems that Spud doesn’t like being leapt upon any more than I do.

 

* * *

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… eleven pipers piping

Joke’s on you, buster. When you get home, you’re homeless. We’ve been evicted. Spud has found a two-bed apartment in Lambeth. I’m moving in with him.

Have fun sweet-talking the bailiffs and reclaiming your worldly goods from SCARY_BLOKES_STORAGE.com.

 

* * * 

On the twelfth day of Christmas, your ex-girlf sent to thee… twelve drummers coming

Hi Dan!

Thanks for your call. I couldn’t make out much of what you were saying—you really ought to shout more slowly when calling overseas—but I gather that you objected to the early-morning bukkake shower.  Spud and I both felt that, after so many angry messages, we ought to try showering you with love and affection. I’m only sorry we weren’t there to see you receive your unexpected bounty. And in answer to your question, yes, the drummers will follow you around, alternately drumming and coming for the rest of the day.

I trust there will be no more Xmas gifts from you.

Be well

Your ex, Donna xxxx

 by Daddy X

One of the most valuable reference books on food is the perennial Joy of Cooking. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you use their recipes, which are far more complicated than a cookbook should be. (They’ll have you sifting brown sugar.) Rather, I’m talking about the section: “Know Your Ingredients”.

Knowing the ingredients of a dish, and, depending on the ways these ingredients are prepared, combined, cooked and how they compliment one another in the finished product, is 95 percent of the cooking battle.

We can extrapolate this theory to our writing. To write effectively, we must first know the ingredients—parts of speech, phraseology, a good vocabulary and how punctuation separates words into categories so they make sense. Style guides, and other dedicated works on various aspects of writing, come in handy for this.

I have purposely not named the authors in several of the guides due to the fact that they are standardized works begun over 100 years ago, then adapted and revised by other authors over decades. Others have been compiled by numerous contributors, such as the literary department at the University of Chicago. If I acknowledged them all, this post would be a lot longer. :>)

You likely have your own trusted teaching guides. We encourage you to comment and put us hip to them. For instance, I’ve not read Stephen King’s On Writing, which comes with its own proponents. I would encourage somebody familiar with it to give an assessment

A few personal favorites to consider:

Elements of Style

The old saw. There have always been challenges to Strunk’s opinionated delivery. It’s not the last word on all aspects of modern writing by any measure. But it just may be the first writing guide a fledgling writer should become familiar with.

Without a working knowledge of the basic information you’ll find in this slim volume, you’ll likely not get far as a writer. You won’t play like Coltrane unless you can first play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. Backwards. Perfectly. Instinctively, without the benefit of written music.

Same with writing. We crawl before we walk. Or run the mile. Or jump hurdles. Just as John Coltrane broke rules, we first need to know the rules inside out, upside down and backwards before we break out on our own.

There is a new edition, which takes into consideration modern conventions, but a copy found in a used bookstore will likely serve as well.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Shows by example how punctuation determines what the words in a sentence actually mean. A fun, clever, deceptively competent work that establishes an easily understood system regarding the nature, logic and nuance of punctuation. Indispensable.

I’ll simply repeat the author’s little yarn that serves to illustrate the concept of this book:

A panda walks into a café, orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes toward the door.

The panda produces a poorly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “Look it up.”

 The waiter turns to the relevant page, and, sure enough finds an explanation:

 Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal. Native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

So it really does matter what little marks we put between our words. Like Count Basie said about music: “Notes are simply notes. Music is what happens between the notes.”

The Essential Writer’s Companion

This and the following work would be the most likely to keep near at hand while pounding the keys. (Useless for pounding one’s pud.) Both feature a quick reference guide on the first few pages, allowing you to find an easy answer to your question as to why a red line appears under your work. Basic and easy to use, but not very nuanced.

Barron’s Essentials of English

See above. If you have one, you’ll probably not need the other. Both address aspects of writing essays, papers, letters, aesthetics of the finished product and illustrate common misuses of parts of speech. Both use examples to illustrate these lessons.

Self-editing for Fiction Writers Brown/King

This is the book I recommend most often on ERWA Storytime. While the above works provide general information on the English language, Self-editing focuses on the craft of fiction writing in depth. POV, tense, dialog dynamics, tags and beats, active v passive, show v tell, internal monologue, general sophistication of voice, it’s all covered.

Probably the one style guide a fiction writer should read cover-to-cover once a year. Also includes either-or lessons, examples of misuses and exercises to drive home points. (I simply looooove driving home my point.)

The Chicago Manual of Style

If Elements of Style is the first word on the subject, Chicago just may be the last. Most fiction writers will probably never need all the information contained in this massive tome, considering the broad scope of the business writing areas. Having said that, Chicago is the go-to choice for most editors and publishing houses. If a writer could possibly read (and retain) all the information in this book, they would have everything they need to know about most aspects of general writing, journalism, publishing and book production.

I’m still working with the 15th edition, (published 2003) but I see they’ve progressed to the 17th, likely incorporating more advanced aspects of the ever-changing world of modern writing and on-line publishing.

How to Write a Dirty Story by Susie Bright

Though the books mentioned above contain all you need to write effectively in the English language, those that bring up sex at all will advise to keep it behind closed doors. This, obviously, is antithetical for those of us who write erotica.

Ms. Bright has gone out of her way to show us how erotica writing differs from general fiction writing. From conception to submission of the finished product, we’re exposed to her vast first-hand experience. No pun.

Beyond delving into the literary elements that make for effective erotica, unlike the other books noted, Susie includes process and how it relates to the craft. For instance, she offers advice in avoiding libido burnout when, for hours on end, day after day, we’re writing about sex. She admonishes writers of all stripes to make sure to eat well, to exercise regularly, even get up and take walks outside every few hours, both to get other perspectives and to get the blood (and other juices) flowing. You’ll be surprised how many new ideas come to the fore while walking outdoors.

Reading for your own pleasure

You’ll notice that many of the above guides and reference works include before/after examples to illustrate their respective lessons. There’s no reason to limit the concept of learning by example to reference works.

Of primary importance in my antiques business is recognition. Recognizing the good from the bad, genuine from fake, is essential. Same with writing.

Read the best writing, fiction or not. The weekly NYT Book Review is a good start. Pulitzer and Nobel prizes in both fiction and non-fiction are announced every year. Pick and choose from whatever your interests may be; the possibilities extend back for years. Reading the best stuff, whether fiction or not, allows us to recognize and appreciate the best. And to perceive at a gut level how and why the best differs from the lesser.

Take for example T. C. Boyle, who has received as many literary acknowledgements of any living writer. Whether novel or short story, Boyle’s the kind of writer whose range of subject matter encompasses something for just about everyone. In my opinion, his prolific masterpieces are the very pinnacle of literary arts. I don’t think he structures any two sentences alike. His command of longer sentences is enviable— structured, complex, yet easy to read. Unless you are already a literary scholar, Boyle will add to your vocabulary every sitting.

Donna Tartt is another. The Goldfinch won a Pulitzer a couple of years back and may be the most perfectly constructed novel I’ve ever read. Norman Mailer made Harlot’s Ghost, his 1400 page fictional (?) treatise on the CIA read like a breeze. It was quite easy to go through 40-50 pages in a sitting, not because it wasn’t sophisticated or complex, far from it, but because of the fact that Mailer’s prose flows effortlessly.

I’m sure you have your favorites. Please comment on them below. Let’s hear about your go-to authors and your take on why they write so well.

If we become accustomed to reading the best in every type of writing, we’ll not be satisfied with anything less in our own work.

We can use these wonderful books as further examples to improve our work, just as we would the examples in the style guides. How our favorite authors successfully compile their work. How they vary (or not) the length and construction of sentences. How their paragraphs and themes weave together. How they approach and allow for vocabulary, POV, modifiers, characterization, atmosphere, time and tense. How and when to use our knowledge and finesse to break the rules, because, after all, isn’t breaking rules what the best writers do?

As a chef in the restaurant business, I was expected to go out and dine in competing restaurants, basically researching other chefs’ ways to make food taste good. Luckily, when I first started in a professional capacity, I worked under a chef who would make me taste a dish then tell him not only what the ingredients were, but how they were prepared, what type and level of heat was employed and whatever presentation would offer the best appearance on the plate. It’s not like the finished product I created from these sojourns was stealing an actual recipe (which literary parallel would be plagiarism) but rather some version that comes of one’s individual take on the corpus of information previously absorbed.

Now, when I have a main ingredient, whether vegetable or meat, fish or fowl, I’ll consult several cookbooks and see what recipes they offer featuring that ingredient. Then, knowing what I already know about a myriad of ingredients, I’ll close up all the cookbooks and do my take on what I’ve absorbed.

See? Writing is a lot like cooking. Joyful—as long as you know your way around the ingredients.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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