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Say What?

by | October 21, 2018 | General | 6 comments

This book had a great variety of terrific sex scenes, but the author cannot write dialogue to save her life. They all end up sounding like wooden Indians.” ~ J. Mullally

The quote above comes from an Amazon review of my second novel, Incognito, published in 2002. Needless to say, the comment made me cringe, but I have to admit that when I started publishing, dialogue was definitely a weak spot for me.

Before diving into fiction, I’d written a lot of technical material: research papers, product specifications, user manuals, and a five-hundred page dissertation. I knew how to convey ideas in an articulate and logical manner, but I really had very little experience capturing the nuances of human conversation. Read some of my early dialogue and you’ll see the effects of my formal background.

* * *

Miranda, I would like to present Mark Anderson, our new lecturer. Mark will be handling the Dickens course for the summer session.”

Mark, this is Miranda Cahill, my most promising graduate student.” Miranda blushed, and Dr. Scofield’s eyes twinkled. “Miranda has chosen a rather controversial topic for her thesis: a new interpretation of the corpus of Victorian erotica.”

The newcomer’s polite smile expanded to a grin. “Really! That’s fascinating. Sounds far more—stimulating—than my dissertation on the metaphorical significance of orphans in Dickens and his contemporaries.”

Miranda’s blush deepened as she noted the double entendre. She met his teasing gaze, almost defiantly. “Yes, it is an intriguing topic, and I believe one of considerable literary and social significance, as well.” He had thick, dark hair, slightly tousled. His eyes behind the glasses were velvety brown with glints of gold. In his face, she saw intelligence, energy, and humor.

Miranda has championed an unusual theory: that the explosion of sexually-oriented writing during the latter half of the nineteenth century was a reflection of actual practices, rather than a reaction against repressive public morals.” Her advisor appeared to be enjoying the role of agent provocateur. “She believes that the detailed accounts of sexual adventure and aberration published during the era chronicled real experiences, not merely fantasies.”

Hmm.” Their bespectacled companion looked both amused and interested. “What evidence do you have to support this proposition?”

Well, to begin with,” said Miranda, automatically adopting an academic tone, “a significant fraction of these writings are first person accounts. And a surprising number are related from a woman’s perspective. If this were primarily a literature of fantasy and titillation, I would expect a male point-of-view to dominate, as it does in modern pornography.” Miranda was encouraged to see that her audience listened attentively and gave due consideration to her points.

Secondly, these tales are full of real-world details and commentary that would be superfluous and even distracting in fictional erotica. The protagonists discuss social issues such as poverty, child abuse, oppression of the lower classes, things that can only detract from a work intended as escapist fantasy. Even a hack pornographer knows better than to mention the unpleasant or the mundane: illegitimate pregnancies, unpaid bills, rising damp. Yet references to such items are common in the corpus.”

Finally, I find in many of these writings a thoughtfulness that conflicts with the conventions of the pornographic genre. The narrators are engaged in a wide variety of sexual activities, which are described in vivid and provocative detail. At the same time, in many cases, they reflect on their own desires and behaviors, sometimes justifying themselves in the face of the official morality, sometimes castigating themselves for weakness and sinfulness. Either way, there is a psychological depth that would be redundant in fictional erotica.”

So, what you are saying,” interposed Mark with a grin, “is that a fictional character would simply go ahead and bugger his maid, whereas an individual writing a clandestine diary would spend some time and effort wondering why he wanted to bugger his maid, before he got around to actually doing it?”

No, no, that’s not it at all!” Miranda, embarrassed and flustered, wondered if the new instructor had been reading her manuscript over her shoulder. Her eyes flashed. “You’re not willing to take me seriously, any more than the submission review committee for the Association for Modern Literature!”

Now, Miranda,” soothed her advisor. “Mark was just teasing you.” Looking again at the attractive stranger, Miranda saw that Scofield was telling the truth.

Sorry, I really didn’t mean to offend you, Miranda.” Mark held out his hand like a peace offering. “I really am delighted to meet you. I think your theory is unconventional and provocative, but who knows, it might actually be true.”

* * *

As it happens, these characters are all academics (as I had been for such a long time), but still, their formality sounds artificial.

In my first books, people spoke in full sentences most of the time. They didn’t use contractions. They never interrupted one another. Furthermore, they used each other’s names so frequently that one might wonder whether they were trying to reinforce their faulty memories.

Fortunately I was more adept at writing sex scenes than dialogue, or I might never have found any readers!

The problem is that dialogue can play multiple, critical roles in a narrative. It reveals character— immediate emotions and concerns as well as more persistent aspects such as class and ethnicity. Dialogue also advances the action; indeed, speech is action, and an entire plot can turn on a conversation. Conversations can also inform the reader about history or backstory, in a more subtle and less disruptive manner than unadorned exposition. Thus, poor dialogue can be more than just an annoyance. It can ruin an entire book.

I joined ERWA in 2000, not long before I wrote this novel. Since then, I’ve participated in Storytime and Writers, written nearly a hundred stories and edited a number of anthologies. ERWA has exposed me to authors who are true doyens of dialogue, especially Bob Buckley, Daddy X, and more recently, Belinda LaPage.

My characters’ conversations still can’t begin to match some of what I read, but I know I’ve improved quite a bit. I now understand that in order to write dialogue successfully, you have to hear the characters in your head. How can you get to the point where your characters talk to you? By reading effective dialogue by other people, and by listening to people actually talking.

If you listen to real world conversations, you’ll recognize that they’re very “messy”. People rarely speak in full sentences. They sprinkle their dialogue with exclamations, “ums” and “ohs”, filling the space while they thing about what to say next. They start one utterance then interrupt themselves to express a totally different thought. They interrupt the other speakers too. Because the partners in a conversation have a shared context, one or two words can convey meaning without ambiguity. Of course, one partner can easily misunderstand this sort of abbreviated utterance, also.

People make grammar errors, too. You have no idea how hard it has been for me to let my characters do that! Between my education and my experience editing, I have finely tuned detectors for faux pas like dangling participles, tense errors, incorrect pronouns and word misuse. Sometimes, though, that’s exactly what dialogue needs, to make a character seem real.

One useful exercise, I’ve found, is writing all-dialogue flashers. I learned how to do that from Daddy X, “the master of flash”. A flasher tells a complete story in 200 words or less. Trying to do this in dialogue is a fabulous challenge. You need to convey the characters, their relationships, and their actions, without any description at all (and ideally, without speak tags). I can’t begin to match Daddy’s expertise in the genre, but here’s an example that illustrates the technique:

Research

By Lisabet Sarai

Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”

Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”

No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”

But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”

To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”

Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”

We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”

I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”

All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“

Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”

But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”

Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”

You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”

Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”

* * *

Then there’s the question of dialect, that is, using speech characteristics to convey nationality, race, social class and so on. Robert Buckley does this incredibly well. Whether his setting is Irish Boston or the Civil War South, his characters talk like natives.

I’ve mostly avoided dialect in my work. It’s really easy to overdo, and can make your dialogue difficult to read and understand. Recently, though, for my novella More Brides in Vegas, I had to create a character who spoke with a very strong dialect – for the sake of my plot and for comic effect. I sought out a lot of help from ERWA folk on this one, in particular from a member whose father came from Glasgow:

* * *

A gruff, male, almost unintelligible voice interrupted her.

I wannae see the hoatel manager. Where’s the fookin’ manager, you little eejit?”

A giant of a man with a barrel chest and legs like telephone poles strode into the courtyard from the direction of the hotel lobby, dragging a skinny college-age boy with him. The kid—Chantal remembered she’d seen him behind the hotel desk when she’d picked up her key—cringed and silently pointed in Nan’s direction.

Gawn! D’ye think ahm buttoned up the back? That nekkid dyke?”

Cool as anything, as self-assured as if she’d been wearing a designer suit instead of a strap-on, Nan rose to her feet and confronted the newcomer. Though she was at least a foot shorter, the obviously angry man paused when confronted by her natural authority

I’m Nan Anderson, general manager of the Holiday House,” she said. “I’ll thank you to let Michael go.”

He glared at her from under bushy ginger brows. Nan didn’t flinch in the slightest.

Now, please. He’s just a part-time clerk. Whatever your difficulty, I’ll take care of it.”

He opened his ham-sized hand. Poor Michael almost crumpled to the floor.

Get back to the desk, Mike. I’ll handle this.”

The young man scuttled away.

Now, sir,” she continued, her voice cool and professional despite her nudity. “What’s the problem?”

Thae gormless tool said yer fool for the weeken’.” The foreigner scowled and waved a sheet of paper in her face. “Me an’ me mates booked an’ paid. Ye dinnae think we’re gonnae come all thae way to America fer a ternamen’ but nae reserve our rooms, did ye?”

Can I see that, please?” Nan scrutinized what was obviously a printout from some website. “I have to admit the dates match. But we’re closed for a private event this weekend. We blocked out the rooms more than three months ago. I don’t know why the booking site—”

Ah dinnae ken an’ ah dinnae cerr. Me an’ me chaps need beds. Been on a fookin’ plane for ferteen hours.”

Um—how many are in your group?”

The angry customer shook his head. “Aye, but yer stoopit, lass. Who doesnae know thae a rugby team’s fifteen men?”

Rugby?” Nan looked him up and down, as if that explained his stature. “Oh!”

The guy broke into a grin. “Glassgow Gladiators. City champs.”

And you are?”

He gave a little bow. “Ian Stuart, team captain. At yer service.”

* * *

I will admit, I’m quite proud of this bit. It’s encouraging to see I’ve learned something in more than fifteen years of writing.

At least he doesn’t sound like a wooden Indian.

A Rich Man’s Paradise 1910: A Trip to the Finest Parlor House in Town

by | October 18, 2018 | General | 1 comment

Night has fallen, the gaslights are blazing, and pleasure inevitably calls a gentleman of carnal inclinations such as yourself to the part of town not spoken of in polite company. Shoulder your way through the drunken hoi polloi and step into the spacious receiving room of the town’s finest parlor house, quite like Madame Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, pictured above, the most famous high-class brothel in the most famous of American red-light districts, Storyville, New Orleans.

The furnishings are expensive, if more than a touch ostentatious, but a man of standing in the community will feel right at home amidst the luxurious carpets, gilt-framed oil paintings, and fragrant fresh flowers.

The maid will lead you to Madame, arrayed in silk, diamonds, and pearls, a sign that her establishment is thriving. She will welcome you warmly, knowing that you are a trusted regular customer or a friend of the same. Have no worry that news of your visit will reach the wrong ears. Madame is always discreet. She makes sure to provide the local police with a weekly “consideration” and keeps a doctor on call to spirit you away to a respectable location should you fall ill on the premises from your exertions.

Enjoy a glass of champagne and the toe-tapping ragtime tunes, courtesy of the “Professor” at the upright piano in the corner. While you chat with the gentlemen in your party, you appraise the lovely young women in attendance this evening. There are always pretty new faces to tickle your fancy, and the girls are sure to find you fascinating and admirably virile whatever your age. Their tongues are as silky as their negligee-clad forms.

Perhaps you are fortunate enough to attend on the night of a “circus,” which is much too vulgar to describe in words, although you can be sure young women of undeniable natural talent will sing and dance in various states of undress and perhaps make love to one another. Every act is designed to warm your blood for a trip upstairs after the show. For enjoying such entertainments, you may spend as much as fifty dollars.


Add a half hour in a bedroom upstairs with a girl of your choosing for five to twenty-five dollars, depending on her beauty. New girls demand a higher price. If you spend the whole night, it will set you back another thirty-five to fifty greenbacks. This luxury is denied to men at the humbler houses that cater to the lusts of the middle class.

Of course, money is no object for you.

Perhaps you’ve chosen a house that specializes in young things fresh from the countryside or “French” services involving unmentionable oral skills. According to its souvenir guidebook, the famous Mahogany Hall offers the attentions of charming octoroons, young women with one black great-grandmother and a white father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

If you’re in San Francisco, you might indulge in a bit of voyeurism in one of the French resorts on Commercial Street. The maid will lead you to a secret closet, where, for a mere five dollars, you can gaze through peep-holes to enjoy the spectacle of a greenhorn fellow deflowering a “virgin” for triple the usual full-service fee. Although the comely lass might seem shy and inexperienced, be assured she will repeat the same performance tomorrow as she did last night.

When you leave the premises well after midnight—your wallet much lighter or your running account with Madame well-padded with extra charges—you won’t bother yourself with plebian daytime considerations like honesty or authenticity. You understand that such establishments are like Carnival or Halloween all year round, a chance to indulge yourself in make-believe and express your forbidden desires.

You straighten your tie and toss away the boutonniere the night’s temporary companion pinned to your lapel to mark you should you stop at a saloon for a nightcap. The girls in the quarter watch out for each other, and even a high-class parlor house girl might as well save her poorer “sister” the trouble of flirting with a gentleman who has already been satisfied.

Your manly desires are indeed sated and you’re headed to your comfortable home in the finest part of town. It’s 1910 and life is sweet for a man in your fine leather shoes, if, to be honest, even a fortunate fellow like you can feel a bit melancholy in the wee hours of the morning.

A man brushes past you—a shopkeeper perhaps or a clerk by the look of his clothes—intent on his own escape from reality. Where is he going? Which girl will wrap him in her soft arms within the hour?

Join me next month to find out!

(This sketch of a well-heeled gentleman’s evening in the best parlor house in town was inspired by descriptions in Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, and Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918.

The photographs are from Storyville, New Orleans. If you’re interested in red-light districts in the early twentieth century, check out this evocative reference of a time gone by!)

Fallen Behind the Times

by | October 15, 2018 | General | 6 comments

Just a few years ago in this space a much missed friend and extraordinary writer made her farewell to erotica. Remittance Girl wrote of vulnerable, sometimes wounded characters, mostly in Asian settings so startlingly sensual as to evoke in one’s mind all the aromas, tastes and even the feel of the air that set the place and the time. I used to tell RG that while she was a hell of a writer, she was an amazing cinematographer.

Her stores weren’t so much about sex as they were about how the sexual drive, a human’s sexual needs drove their lives and their choices, even if they themselves weren’t aware of it. Her stories did not have happy endings, and loose ends were never tied up. They were far removed from what one would consider a stroke piece or romance.

And about the time Fifty Shades of Gray was moving through the genre like a tsunami of crassness, she refused to give an inch and fall in line with many who were saying maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing for the genre and its writers, since a rising tide lifts everyone’s boat after all.

So she penned a final blog post here in which she said her kind of story had become irrelevant as the genre became inundated with romance, with all its expectations and requirements and never-stray-from-the-path structures. So she said goodbye to all that.

Like RG, I’m feeling a bit irrelevant these days, too, for reasons similar to those cited by RG, but also by a general sense of feeling passed by.

I’ve never written the sort of story one chose as a masturbatory aid. While sex was always important it was not the whole story. At the time I wrote them, though, they were well received by folks I respected who found them erotic nonetheless. The only time I was nominated for a genre honor (a Silver Clitoride – seriously, you can’t make this stuff up) it was for a story that didn’t have a single sex scene. Some three years since RG took her leave, I’m beginning to see such stories have lost what allure they had and are even dismissed as not erotica at all.

I used to think erotica was a big tent, but there seem to be so many more gatekeepers these days who insist if it isn’t aimed straight at the genitalia it doesn’t belong.

Well, that’s one thing. Another is that I’m afraid I’ve made myself irrelevant in another way, by remaining in place. I’ve never embraced social media. I have no Facebook page. I don’t tweet. Instagram? I’m not even sure what that is. The greatest thing since sliced bread for me was email; that should tell you something. I don’t own a smartphone, so have never downloaded an app. And though I have a simple cell phone I rely mainly on my land line.

I am so far behind the times, I don’t think I could accurately write a contemporary story. There is another language at work, a truncated language full of abbreviations and acronyms and I have no idea what they stand for.

This feeling really hit home for me recently while I was riding on a commuter train. I love mass transportation. I used to get a lot of my inspiration watching people on trains and buses, reading their faces, putting stories to their expressions.

Now people don’t have expressions. They stare trancelike at their gadgets, faces frozen. Being on that train was like being in a coma ward.

Still, I’m not lamenting the brave new world. It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I haven’t kept up with technology and all its benefits that even my four- and seven-year-old grandsons master as second nature. It’s just, at this stage, it’s just too tiring to catch up. Or maybe I’m just lazy.

But if I can’t accurately depict the world I live in, I wonder if I should even try.

Setting, environment, topography… and other slippery customers

by | October 11, 2018 | Editing Corner, Writing Craft | 12 comments

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.

 

Cogito Ergo Sum – Characters

by | October 6, 2018 | General | 6 comments

by Ashley Lister

Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” And, whilst he wasn’t talking about the construction of characters in fiction, it’s fair to say that describing a character through their thoughts is one of the most effective ways of letting your reader know all about a story’s protagonist.

For the past few months I’ve been looking at the different ways we can represent characters in fiction. We’ve looked at speech, action and physical description. This month we’re looking at thought. I’m going to start by sharing the opening page to a short story I’ve written called, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl.’

Betty Swolenski was startled by the faraway clatter of breaking glass. Immediately she knew a robbery was taking place. She stiffened in her chair and glanced toward the closed office door. A robbery? Here at Dildo & Son? Who in their right mind would rob a factory that met orders for sex toys and sundry adult novelties?

She supposed the answers to those questions were self-evident.

Here I’m allowing the main character to give narrative information, but I’m trying to constantly do it so the reader learns more about who she is and how she is motivated. Betty is startled by the noise. She stiffens in her chair. These are, in fairness, physical reactions. However, with the next sentence, we move directly into her thoughts. A robbery? Here…? Who in their right mind would…?

These three questions give the suggestion that Betty is panicked by her situation, which tells your reader that Betty is in a state of panic. This is not to suggest she is someone who is always in a state of panic. But it tells your reader that she is panicking in this situation – and with short fiction we only care about the character in that particular situation. The opening to, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl’ continues with:

Times were hard. On an industrial estate where most of the factories were boarded and abandoned, and the remaining warehouses were decorated with battered signs notifying creditors of liquidations and bankruptcy orders, the success of Dildo & Son was proving to be something of a local anomaly.

An enviable anomaly.

Again, this is from Betty’s perspective. This is her interpretation of the local economy. This is her paranoia colouring the interpretation of local business owners being envious. We’re already getting a sharp picture of Betty, and none of this has come from blatant exposition. All we’re reading are Betty’s thoughts. This passage concludes as follows:

The Dildo & Son workforce were only a small number. But they each took annual holidays and most of them met their personal bills and none of them, to the best of Betty’s knowledge, had to run a second job to cover life’s additional expenses. Big Eric, the owner, was currently driving a fairly new Mercedes. And although Betty figured this added to the truth of what she believed about Mercedes owners, she knew for a fact that he’d managed to acquire the car without having to employ some shyster accountant to fiddle figures or cook books.

As readers, we’re privy to Betty’s thoughts and get a shrewd understanding of who she is. There has been no physical description of her so far, but we already have some small sympathy for her and her plight (because we’ve all been in situations where we were a little bit scared). We’re aware of enough background for the story to begin, and this has been delivered through a nervous character’s iteration of facts, rather than narrative exposition. We’ve been given no dialogue up to this point but still, I think, we already feel as though we know Betty.

I’m not trying to suggest this is an exemplar for how quality fiction should be written. I’m not that arrogant. But I do think the opening to this story shows how easy it is develop a character by just using their thoughts.

As always, if you have examples of your own characters being portrayed through their thoughts, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.

Ash

Writer’s Block, Accomplishments, and Other Things

by | September 28, 2018 | General | 3 comments

Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and her two cats.

Web site: http://elizabethablack.blogspot.com

Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/elizabethablack

Twitter:http://twitter.com/ElizabethABlack

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/elizabethblack

Newsletter: http://eepurl.com/b76GWD

___

What do you write when you have nothing to say? Sometimes it helps to get out of your head. Step. Away. From. The. Computer. Go outdoors. Visit friends. Recharge your internal batteries so your writing will improve.

I don’t get writer’s block. One of my favorite writers of all time is mojo storyteller Joe Lansdale. He believes that writer’s block is largely a myth. I know plenty of people disagree with that, and that’s fine. I have my own issues with his view but I largely agree with him.

Lansdale says a major rule of writing is to stop making excuses. If you wait for your muse to inspire you you’ll wait forever. Establish a routine. Write a set amount of words each time you sit down – even if they are crap. You can edit later. Just get your thoughts out. You may surprise yourself.

I’ve recently tried my hand at crime writing for the first time. This is a brand new experience for me since I’m not familiar with the genre except for my love for cozy mysteries, whodunnits, and crime dramas. I’m not familiar with the markets, but I will be soon enough. I love Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Jonathan Kellerman, and many more writers in those genres. I figured it was about time I wrote something criminal. Not criminally bad, just criminal. 🙂

At first, I didn’t know what to write. I had some ideas, though. I found one of my Sisters In Crime books and read some of the short stories to engage myself. I highly recommend reading good fiction in your chosen genre if you feel stuck. Sometimes seeing things from another writer’s perspective can help you find your own way.

Lansale recommends reading when you feel a need to take time off. He wrote when you read, “you put fuel in the tank and you begin to better understand how stories are constructed.” I often read erotic short stories to inspire my own erotic writing. I’ve read erotic versions of fairy tales to prepare myself for my own upcoming collection of erotic fairy tales. It’s fun to read the usual stories from other character’s points of view. Reading a book that makes me go “Hmmm” always elicits a fun response from me.

Another thing I do when I write is to plan first. I’m primarily a pantser but when it comes to writing mysteries I need to plot. Mysteries are puzzles and I can’t just wing one. I need to know everyone’s story and who the guilty person it right out the gate before I begin writing. So outlining helps me. If you feel you are stuck, try writing a vague outline depicting where you want your story to go. You can always change things as you write. Don’t feel you need to stick strictly to your outline. Half the fun of writing is not knowing where things are going until you get to them. Some of my best work came from ideas out of left field – stuff I wasn’t expecting.

I love the feeling of accomplishment I get when I finish the first draft of a story or novel. I celebrate by sharing a bottle of Mumm champagne with my husband. We drink champagne all the time, but I get out the more expensive bubbly for these occasions. Mumm is special and therefore I drink it following writing milestones. Do you celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small? Remember Stephen King’s novel Misery? Paul Sheldon drank one glass of champagne and enjoyed a cigarette after finishing each novel. I like that idea – celebrate your wins. Give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it. Lots of people say they will write a novel or a short story. Lots of people never get any farther than that. Don’t give in to writer’s block. Find a way to turn the tables on it and own your writing and especially your accomplishments.

cuckold – Hotwife – Bull

by | September 24, 2018 | General, Writing This Novel | 5 comments

The cuckold, Hotwife, and Bull relationship is an interesting variant of swinging and sometimes is not even thought of as swinging. The wife is known as a Hotwife (upper case), who likes to have NSA (no strings attached) sex with men, who are typically well hung and known as Bulls (upper case). The husband is known as the cuckold (lower case to show subservience) and is often not well endowed or unable to satisfy his wife.

The 1950’s definition of a cuckold is a guy, who was often restrained and forced to watch his Hotwife have sex with other men. The husband is degraded and humiliated as his Hotwife takes on big cocked guys. The bigger their dicks are, the more it reinforces how inferior he is and is unable to satisfy his wife like her Bulls can.

The 50’s type of cuckold – Hotwife relationship has changed over the years to a somewhat different form. I can only speak to what I see as a swinger and the couples we know or have met who enjoy this type of play.

In my experience, you can’t easily pick out a cuckold – Hotwife couple until you get to know them. Often the Hotwife is in her late thirties or forties and generally has an extremely sexy appearance, but as many women in swinging are exhibitionists, this is not always a tell.

Off the top of my head, I can name about half-dozen cuckold – Hotwife couples that I know for sure. There are also variations of cuckold behavior, which is probably the biggest variant.

The common type is a husband who enjoys watching his wife have sex with her Bull(s). Often he will stand or sit by the bed and watch his wife taking care of her lovers, while often jerking off.

Our best friends, Pam and Jack, are a hardcore cuckold – Hotwife couple. Pam is a medium height blonde with shoulder-length curls, about a D-cup, shapely body, and is in her late forties. Her husband Jack is about five years older, nice looking guy, tall, and in good shape.

At a party, Pam is usually the first one naked and is a textbook definition of a nymphomaniac. Her husband generally likes to hide or stand somewhere where he can spy on his wife. They are honest and above board on how they enjoy having his wife take care of her boy toys. At our house, we have a large closet in the master bedroom, and he likes to hide in the closet and watch his wife with her Bull(s).

He loves to watch and will often do things like suggesting that her Bull take her to bed if the action doesn’t start quickly enough. He loves to video us with his wife so that he can watch and jerk off later.

He has never touched my wife or made any attempt to do so. To my knowledge, my wife has never had sex with any cuckold that we know. For them, they enjoy watching their wife with another man and are not really interested in sex with other women.

We met a very attractive thirties couple at a swinger’s convention out of state, well actually our wives met for girl-on-girl fun. They are both extremely good looking, the wife is a fitness instructor, and the hubby was well built. We invited them to one of our New Year’s Eve Pajama Parties, and they drove in from out of state a couple of days early.

The first night, we were in bed together with the girls in the middle and making out while facing each other. I was banging his wife from the back while spooning her. He was behind my wife and only played with her boobs. To my knowledge, he has never touched her beyond that.

The several other couples we know are all variants of that typical scenario. In all the cases, the Hotwife is thirties to forties, with a decent to great figure, and very sexy in appearance and attitude.

This is all honest and above board, with both the cuckold and Hotwife being open in their relationship with others. For those in the Lifestyle, attitudes about sex are open and casual, which is difficult for “straights” to probably understand.

The husbands, who are cuckolds, are not stigmatized in any way or treated differently. Just as their Hotwives would be called sluts in any other context, they are no different, and no one thinks differently if they enjoy sex with other men or gangbangs while hubby watches.

For those who are interested, it is extremely popular and fairly common to find these couples in the Lifestyle.

For more on this, visit my blog at LarryArcher.blog. See you next month!

If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong

by | September 21, 2018 | General | 4 comments

Smiley balloons

About a week ago, I had an “aha!” moment. I’d been feeling terribly stressed due to increased demands at my job and my author commitments, plus some impending travel that will make it all the more difficult to fulfill my obligations. I was obsessing about everything, when it hit me: even though I have way too much to do, I enjoy almost all of the tasks on my long list —writing, teaching, research, making covers, reading, writing reviews, creating blog posts, entertaining friends, sending birthday cards, cooking, even exercising. When I asked myself what I’d give up, if I had to make a choice, I really didn’t have a good answer.

That realization flipped my thinking and drained some of the stress. First, I felt a surge of gratitude that my life is so full of meaningful activity and so rich in joy. Second, I understood that joy is a reliable signal as to whether you’re on the right path.

If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Am I talking about sex? Yes. Writing? Yes. Keeping fit? That too.

The Calvinistic/Puritan tradition views life as bitter and hard, an exercise in self-denial, a continuous series of trials one must endure in order to reach the promise of Paradise in the hereafter. I just don’t buy that. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t match my personal experience.

For me, life is something to celebrate, a continuous unfolding, a twisting and often surprising path. And when I’m wondering which branch to follow, I’ve learned to turn within first, to ask myself how the path feels. Does it feel right? Does it generate joy?

I remember when I got my first job in my second career. (I’ve had several since.) I had no prior professional experience in this field, just a couple of university courses. I got hired on the strength of my academic credentials. When I started working, though, something clicked. I really “got” the concepts. I found I had an aptitude that I would not have expected. The job tapped into my creativity and developed my interpersonal skills. It was definitely the right path at that time.

When I met my husband (at a technical conference), I tried to give him the brush-off. We lived on different coasts and I didn’t want a long-distance relationship. Besides, I was already juggling four lovers. When he persisted, however, I discovered that being with him felt inexplicably comfortable. We spent the first three weeks of our life together driving across the US, a trip that could strain even a well-established couple. We had a fantastic time—and despite the newness of our relationship, the whole process turned out to be incredibly easy and natural.

Thirty nine years later, I understand: it was so much fun because we were obviously doing it right.

Note that joy is not exactly the same as happiness. It’s not about pleasure or entertainment. Joy is something deeper, a spiritual quality, a sense of satisfaction, order and symmetry. Sometimes it’s a quiet, soothing warmth humming under your solar plexus. Sometimes it’s laughter bubbling up out of nowhere, an urge to sing or to dance. Joy can be wordless, or it can spill out in poetry or paint.

I believe we are meant to feel joy and that when we do, we can trust we’re being our best and truest selves.

The fact that something kindles your joy doesn’t mean it will be easy. Climbing a mountain, running a marathon, getting a degree, raising a child, or writing a book all take a huge amount of effort, but joy is the ultimate reward. And of course every life has its pain and its tragedies. But joy makes you more resilient.

Writing can be tough, frustrating work. We all complain when the words don’t flow or the characters don’t obey. We fight with incompetent editors, flinch at poor reviews, feel discouraged when our royalties don’t even begin to reach the level of minimum wage. In the face of all these negatives, why do we—why do I—keep writing? Out of love. Because of the joy.

Almost nothing compares to the sense of delight when I am in the groove, the words are flowing and the story is unfolding just as I’d imagined. It’s worth every bit of aggravation and every ounce of effort.

At least that’s how I feel. Your mileage may differ. But if you are truly suffering for your art, why bother? If what you’re doing doesn’t fundamentally satisfy you, give you that deep level feeling of rightness, maybe you are doing the wrong thing.

Not that I’m counseling my fellow authors to give up. Just stop and ask yourself: is it fun? And if not, what can you change so that it will be?

Double Obscenities 1910: America’s Dirtiest Secrets Revealed

by | September 18, 2018 | General | 2 comments

There are two main flavors of historical fiction writer: those who are thrilled to research every last detail of life in the past and those who are more easy-going and romantic about evoking the spirit of the time. I tend more toward the former, but when writing about the erotic life, a researcher-type faces some serious obstacles to getting those specifics down right.

There simply isn’t that much information about what really happened behind closed doors before the Sexual Revolution made these things acceptable to discuss publicly.

However, there is one area of sexual expression that is fairly well researched: prostitution. Accounts of prostitutes provide one of the few windows we have into sexual practices in centuries past—give or take a few daring amateur lovers who shared explicit love letters or confessed to carefully preserved diaries.

Prostitutes are “public women” after all, so the men of earlier days may have felt the institution was  suited to a relatively open discussion both as a “social evil” and in the form of guidebooks to the red-light districts that thrived in cities large and small until the early twentieth century in America.

This month, I introduce a series of columns about prostitution in 1910 and what several fascinating publications reveal about sexuality a hundred years ago. I’ll take you on a gaslit journey of New York, New Orleans and San Francisco, from sumptuous parlor houses to assembly-line “cribs” where working men sated their lust on Saturday night.

This buffet of after-dark indulgence is brought to you by scholars and journalists who guided me on my journey of historical discovery. I’d like to introduce them to you.

First there is Ruth Rosen who gives us The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, published in 1982. Rosen approaches her subject with the enthusiastic sense of discovery that animated feminist scholars in the early days of second-wave feminism. Until that time, prostitution had rarely been presented at all sympathetically from the viewpoint of women. Rosen introduces us to the voices of both prostitutes themselves and the respectable ladies who tried to “save” them. Alas, the latter’s effort to enforce a single sexual standard where men would be expected to be as chaste as women was a failure.

Next is a volume that has long been in my library: Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose. This book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of courtesans of the time by Ernest Bellocq. Rose conducted interviews in the 1960s, when many prostitutes and clients who gave Storyville its sparkle were still alive to tell the tale. Rose’s book is a true gift, a glimpse into the complex dreams and disappointments of real people. I want to thank those folks for sharing! One of his informants, “Violet,” provided the outlines for Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, starring a very young Brooke Shields as the child prostitute. But the interview with the real Violet is actually more interesting.

The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Asbury, who also brought you The Gangs of New York, is a raunchy tell-all about the sin city of the West Coast. Asbury makes San Francisco sound like one big, depraved, drunken debauch—and asserts that even the respectable citizens were secretly proud to live in the wickedest city on the continent (but don’t tell New Orleans). He is a bit cold-blooded in his descriptions of vice and exploitation—reminding you that Rosen’s attention to female subjectivity was much needed–but you learn a lot about human nature.

Finally, Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 immerses the reader in our cultural capital city’s pleasure districts. The author describes how Gotham’s thriving commercial sex trade gradually became increasingly invisible, thanks to the campaigns of religious reformers early in the century and urban renewal in our time. Every cigar store used to a have a girl behind a curtain, ready for a quick encounter with a customer who was so inclined. The cigar stores are fewer and the girls in their shifts long gone. Or at least as far as I’m aware.

In casting my gaze over this repast of erotic history, I notice one interesting commonality. Each book begins with a tour of the most luxurious bordellos frequented by rich men then gradually descends to the functional cubicles of the low-end trade, the descriptions of which are oddly compelling in their pathos. It occurred to me that this tour of the different levels of sex for sale offers the American audience a double obscenity. Just as prostitution is a bald revelation of sexual need that polite society prefers not to see, the blatant class differences of the commercial sex trade likewise expose another part of human behavior our democratic society regards as unmentionable.

Yet in one respect, both the fancy bordello and the miserable crib had one thing in common for a man on the town—at the end of the evening your wallet would be empty, no matter how much or how little you had at the start.

I promise, however, that you will feel richer in the end after our many nights on the town in America 1910. Join me in October for an evening in a rich man’s paradise!

Suffering and Art … puhleeeze

by | September 15, 2018 | General | 7 comments

Recently, over on the Oh Get A Grip blog, Lisabet Sarai noted a preponderance of famous artists who suffered from some sort of mental illness, and wondered if suffering for your art was essential to creativity.

I was reminded of that as I underwent the new protocol for screening for depression. If you haven’t had your annual checkup, be prepared to be asked a series of questions ranging from the softball – have you been feeling down lately? – to the startlingly hardball: have you tried to kill yourself?

 My interrogator was a bit taken aback at my response when she asked me if I’d felt depressed anytime during the past few months. First I said yes. Then I laughed, out loud and heartily.

I quickly assured her I wasn’t off my rocker.

“C’mon,” I said. “You know what I’ve been through. If I wasn’t depressed, I’d be afraid there was something wrong with me.”

This time she laughed; after all, she had my recent medical history in her hand.

As the end of last year approached I was contemplating an easy slide into retirement, which was to include a nice chunk of change in the form of a $50,000 severance. Around Christmas time, the place I worked for declared Chapter 11. Kiss that severance goodbye. Not to worry, though, as I had squirreled away enough for a decent nest egg. But damn, that 50 grand was going to be my European river cruise money.

About five weeks after that great news I was hospitalized for seven days and diagnosed with a scary auto-immune disease. Today I’m taking about 15 pills for breakfast, some of which come with vexing side effects.

Then, just to drop the hammer on the bump left from the last brick that fell out of the sky, I came out of the hospital with a crippling sciatica that I blame on the bed and which I still haven’t shed entirely.

By that time, I was beginning to understand how easily people came to believe in witchcraft and such, because I was convinced someone was going bat-shit crazy with a voodoo doll of me. Talk about a series of unfortunate events.

So, yeah, I was depressed. But I had reasons to be depressed. And I wasn’t at all uncomfortable about being depressed.

In fact, I embraced my depression, got crabby and enthusiastically vented my irritation. And while I cursed my fate with gusto, in no way was I going to trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries. After all, I am the son of an Irish mother who often advised, “Might as well go ahead and feel sorry for yourself, because no one else is going to.”

Yup, just a waste of time.

Meanwhile, I had come to detest th0se awful pharma commercials where they list all the god-awful side effects of whatever overpriced miracle drug they are trying to flog. Don’t talk to me about goddamned side effects.

Nor could I stomach any more of those uplifting and inspiring stories news shows feel obligated to feature these days about folks who have overcome some debilitating disease.

The commentator would always gush at the conclusion, “Oh, that’s so inspiring.” To which I would grumble, “Aw, fuck you.”

See, when I’m hurting and miserable, I don’t need to be faulted for not founding a university.

On the other hand, I recalled the sage words of a lonely but brilliant man, an outstanding grammarian whom I considered a mentor at a Connecticut newspaper I worked at a century or so ago. In a voice that made you wonder if he gargled with gravel, he’d lament, “No matter how bad things are, no matter how fucked up you might be, some asshole will always come along and say, ‘Well, things could be worse.'” Amen.

I know there are people more afflicted than I; so what? Geesh, don’t turn it into a competition. Is there such a thing as suffer-shaming?

Don’t misunderstand me. I would never diminish another human being’s ordeals or sufferings. Particularly, folks who suffer from clinical depression. I have lost friends to that accursed ailment.

Maybe some writers and artists have been able to channel their suffering into their art. I did attempt to get my mind off my woes by plopping myself in front of a keyboard and managed to eke out one story. But practically speaking, when you’re hurting, and you’re a normal human being, you can’t really think of anything else.

Any advice to the contrary brings me back to some bad old days of my childhood when fat nuns who looked like they never wanted for anything in their lives would tell us poor kids, “Offer your suffering up to God.”

Huh?

As for just being crazy, and not even realizing you’re suffering, I have no experience with that … yet.

So, don’t bother me about suffering artists. And when the storm of slings and arrows blows your way, remember it’s your right as a human being to gripe and get crabby. You’re not obligated to inspire anybody. Piss, moan, and persevere … the art will take care of itself.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica

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