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Writing Exercise – The Modern Cinquain

by | 12:01 am | Writing Exercise | 2 comments

 by Ashley Lister 

Dark, dangerous
succumbing, submitting, surrendering
We want this badly


We’ve looked at the traditional cinquain in the past, but I don’t recall us looking at the modern cinquain. Whilst the traditional cinquain is based on a strict syllable count, the modern cinquain is based on particular types of words, as illustrated below.


line 1 – one word (noun) a title or name of the subject
line 2 – two words (adjectives) describing the title
line 3 – three words (verbs) describing an action related to the title
line 4 – four words describing a feeling about the title, a complete sentence
line 5 – one word referring back to the title of the poem


long, slender
testing, touching, teasing,
delving deeper and deeper

Remember – you’re not counting syllables with this form: only words. As always, I look forward to reading your poems in the comments below.




When Your Press Goes Belly Up

by | 1:00 am | General | 2 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 three cats. Visit her web site, her Facebook page, and her Amazon Author Page. 

Her new m/m erotic medical thriller Roughing It is out! This book is a sexy cross between The X Files, The Andromeda Strain, and Outbreak. Read her short erotic story Babes in Begging For It, published by Cleis Press. You will also find her new novel No Restraint at Amazon. Enjoy a good, sexy read today.


Yet another publisher suddenly announced it’s going under. DarkFuse, a horror imprint, sent a generic form letter to everyone who either had outstanding submissions or contracts with them. DarkFuse always struck me as being a market to get into, but from what I’m hearing from those affected by the Chapter 7 filing, DF isn’t handling the whole mess in a professional manner. I had submitted a short story to DF and I did not hear anything until SEVEN MONTHS LATER when DF announced it was in hiatus. Suffice to say I was pissed. Granted, I knew DF could take up to 8 months to respond to submissions, but to finally get word and to know the press didn’t even open my file left me quite miffed. I could have sent the story out to other markets during that long period of time and may even have found a home for it. Now I have to start the entire process all over again – seven months late.

Remember when Samhain closed? Samhain was best known for publishing romances but it had delved into horror. This one was another market to aim for, and even it wasn’t immune to the changing publishing landscape. Everyone knows of the disaster that was Ellora’s Cave. EC did not do right by its authors. There are signs that a pub is going under. Here are a few:

  1. Does not respond to emails in a timely fashion or at all.
  2. Sudden non-communication.
  3. Publisher email bouncing or phone calls not going through.
  4. Dragging out the publication date for weeks or months on end.
  5. Press threatens writers who protest poor treatment.
  6. Royalties not being paid on time or at all.
  7. Web site is not updated.

If you run into any of these issues, beware. The pub may be in trouble. I don’t know what to do if you request your rights back when you get wind the pub is actually closing and it refuses to release them or you hear crickets. Some writers have hired lawyers to fix the problem but most writers I know do not have money coming out of their ears. After all, they are writers. Most don’t earn a living wage. Eventually the rights have reverted back but it may take awhile.

Here are some tips I’ve learned from watching one small press after another close:

*Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Submit to several publishers so you have works in more than one. This is to protect yourself. You don’t want to see all your works dissolve once your only publisher goes belly up.

*Have as many as a dozen short stories out there in circulation as submissions to numerous publishers.

I was told this trick from a writer who has had many short stories published. Submit to as many markets as you can. Look up Duotrope, Ralan’s, and of course the ERWA submissions page for submission calls. Go to your favorite publishers and see if there are any themed or non-themed anthologies calls. If you like the theme, write something and submit it. Don’t write one or two stories and hope for the best. Submit as many as a dozen stories. You’ll hear back more often and you may see more acceptances. The more irons you have in the fire, the more likely you are to see some good results.

*Think of yourself as blessed if your book was under consideration by a publisher yet it wasn’t published before the press closed.

My first indie press closed before it published my book. Twilight Fantasies was one of several publishers that closed one right after the other in 2007. At first I was angry that the press had been stringing me along insisting my book was coming out in a month or two and then later not responding to my emails at all. When the pub folded, I was told it was a good thing my book was never published because if it had been, to resell it would have been quite difficult since it would have been considered a reprint even if it had been available for purchase for only a month or two. Or less. Once the pub closed my rights reverted back to me and I sent the book off to Dark Eden Press only to see that press fold. I then send it to a third press whose name I can’t recall anymore – and it (you guess it) promptly folded. Talk about a string of rotten luck! So I was able to show my rights had reverted back to me via an email TF sent me and finally Fanny Press later published the book. That book is my paranormal erotic romance An Unexpected Guest and you may buy it at Amazon. This was my first novel and the experience gave me a sour taste in my mouth that I never really recovered from.

*Get your rights back and send the work out again. Find it a new home.

Don’t be dismayed that your book isn’t going to see the light of day with a publisher that went belly-up. That doesn’t mean no one else will want it. Research other viable markets and resubmit. If you wish to do some further editing by all means do so but get that book back out there as quickly as possible lest you lose your nerve. I research several markets and I send my works to each one in order until one accepts my work. You can’t give up or get depressed about it. If you do, you’ll never see your books published.

The best bet when dealing with questionable publisher is to be wary and be informed. Research Ellora’s Cave, Twilight Fantasies, Dark Eden Press, Samhain and DarkFuse to see what all the closings had in common and what writers did to protect themselves. That way, you hopefully won’t be caught up in disaster should one of your pubs deep six itself.

Breast Intentions

by | 3:00 am | General | 6 comments


Did you know that breasts are out of fashion? Apparently Millennials have little interest in cleavage. As a result, restaurant chains like Hooters and Twin Peaks (hadn’t heard of that one!), where the main draw is busty waitresses in low cut blouses, are losing money, closing stores, and being forced to reevaluate their business strategies.

While I can’t say that I feel much sympathy for the silliness of “breastaurants”, I find the apparent shift in tastes for particular sorts of bodies quite intriguing. I could posit a variety of explanations. Maybe the increased cultural acceptance of LGBTQ individuals had led to a more androgynous physical ideal. Maybe, with sexting and other sexual instantiations of social media, the sight of naked tits has become so commonplace that it’s uninteresting. Could there be a Freudian explanation, a repudiation of the maternal principle as women choose careers over motherhood? Or perhaps this is simply a typical rejection by one generation of the values and preferences of its predecessors—a breast rebellion.

Of course, throughout history, we’ve seen cyclical changes in cultural norms about body type and sexuality. Perhaps we’re headed back to the days of flappers, with their slender, boyish figures. Hopefully we’re not also on the brink of another economic collapse, like the Great Depression.

Now there’s a topic for someone’s doctoral dissertation: the relationship between popular breast size and the health of the economy. After all, ample bosoms were exceedingly popular during the boom years of the nineteen fifties. Full-figured ladies were much admired in the prosperous Victorian period, when England reaped the benefits of scientific progress and a far-flung empire. If we believe the paintings, breasts were big in the Renaissance as well, with its flowering of trade, art and culture.

But I digress.

The article above reminded me of the link between sex and money. Sex sells. The fact that this is a cliché does not make it any less true. And when one’s marketing strategy is based primarily on sex, a change in popular sexual culture can spell economic ruin.

Have you checked out the latest innovations in sex toys? You really can’t get a simple vibrator anymore. Anything you purchase is likely to be USB-chargeable. It has a Bluetooth connection to your iPhone. To use it, you need to download an app. Innovate or die. That’s apparently the law of the market, even in the realm of sexual implements.

Which brings me to erotic writing. I have to ask myself: am I just as guilty of exploiting the Id for my own enrichment as tasteless and gimmicky places like Hooters? And if I am, do my personal sexual preferences, molded in the Golden Age of the sixties and seventies between the invention of the Pill and the advent of AIDS, doom my work to eventual obsolescence? Am I headed in the direction of Twin Peaks, scrambling to reinvent myself in order to sell my stories?

For instance, how many millennials find pubic hair arousing? Or chest hair on men, for that matter? Dangly earrings and long skirts, worn with no underwear? Sweaty sex in the back seats of automobiles? The sweet bounce of unfettered breasts under a loose tee shirt?

I really can’t imagine what sort of sex twenty-somethings find interesting. Given the general decline in literacy, it may be Millennials aren’t likely to read my books no matter what sort of sexual content they contain.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. My livelihood doesn’t depend on my writing—praise the Goddess. I love seeing the royalty payments bump up my PayPal account, but that’s primarily because it’s evidence that someone is reading my stuff. I am writing for fun, to explore new ideas and genres, to entertain myself and my readers, and yes, to turn myself on. If Millennial’s can’t connect with my characters, well, that’s too bad, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t claim to understand them. I’m not surprised if they feel the same about me.

I’d like to believe there are some universal truths about human sexuality captured in my tales, that I can tell a story that will resonate and arouse despite one’s background or generation. I am probably deluding myself, though.

For one thing, I like breasts too much.


Passion from the Past: When The Stakes Are Highest

by | 12:06 am | General | 6 comments

What is the difference between erotica and porn? The classic reply is “erotica is what I like and porn is what you like,” which underscores the inherently arbitrary nature of any judgment. Some might challenge the need for this question at all, and I understand the appeal of taking each piece of writing on its own merits, classifications and hierarchies be damned. Still I’ve always found it rewarding to contemplate what makes certain kinds of sexually explicit writing more personally satisfying to me than others—what makes it my erotica, so to speak.

My definition has changed over the years and is still changing. Today, my favorite definition of erotica is that you still have an interesting story left if you take away the sex. As in my own life, what intrigues me is not the physical consummation alone, but the people involved and what they bring to the encounter.

The latter sentiment is starting to sound more like “romance,” another genre that has negative connotations for many due to its association with foolish women. Truth be told, my current project was inspired by a gendered coupling: my reading about WWI on its hundredth anniversary—hmm, the politics are fascinating, but what was sex and romance really like at that time?–and an unexpected dip into Fifty Shades of Greyhmm, I understand why some love this story and some hate it, but what kind of romance would I write to please myself?

I like a good romance as much as anyone who likes a good romance, so I’ve enjoyed exploring the path my lovers take in deciding they must be together, despite obstacles of social background and religion. The values and expectations of an earlier time naturally raise the stakes, because romance and sexual intimacy had more serious consequences for one’s reputation and fertility than they do today. I’m especially interested in how courtship has changed—and remained the same—in the last century.

One of the pleasures of this project is hearing voices from the past through books written at the time and primary sources such as letters. James Joyce and his wife Nora, Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins and his fiancé Kitty Kiernan, Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenska, playwright John Millington Synge and actress Molly O’Neill, all provide insights into the passionate epistolary expressions of more-or-less famous artists and political figures. It should perhaps be no surprise that these correspondences have a bit more artistic panache than the emails between Christian Grey and Ana Steele. But the romances of ordinary folk are also revealing of their times. This month, I’d like to share a more humble sample from my archives, two letters exchanged by a courting couple, the first from John to Annie, shown at the beginning of this post. The text is as follows (my apologies for the quality of the scan as this blog won’t let me upload the highest resolution files):

McSherrystown, Pa.
April 25, 1915

Dear Friend Annie,

Hoping I am not taking to [sic] much liberty in addressing a few lines to you to ask you if I could see you some time reel [sic] soon to exchange a few ideas. Hoping you are not offended and if you wish to see me let me know if not please destroy this letter for old time’s sake.

From your friend, I hope,

John A. Smith

This letter is from Annie to John:

Hanover, Pa.
October 7, 1915

Dear friend,

I received your letter which was more than a surprise to me, I surely thought you did not want to speak to me, but Johnie the way your letter read you do not want very much about speaking to me. I would like very much to talk to you, so if you care to see me and it is convenient for you please meat [sic] me on Friday evening after Service down at St Joseph’s, if not destroy this letter, if you please + excuse this writing and all mistakes.

I remain a friend,

Annie C. Hufnagel

I hold the originals in my hand, the paper yellowed and spotted, torn at the creases and fixed with Scotch tape. The ink is faded, and someone has traced over the writing in ballpoint pen with some indifference to the original. Perhaps some of the misspellings are the fault of the second writer? As for the content, my first response was amusement at the reserve in “see you sometime soon to exchange a few ideas” and the concern of both writers that their invitations might not be welcome, hence the pleas to destroy them, which I assume means burning them in the stove. Was this simply convention? Did courting couples in 1915 worry that an unwelcome written overture would be circulated among friends or posted in the town square to be mocked? Modern technology, Snapchat aside, can hold similar dangers of regret and discovery, but most people don’t beg recipients to delete texts. (Or do they?) I have also read that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century if a courtship ended, it was polite to either return the other party’s letters or assure them that you had destroyed them to save embarrassment. Perhaps we should revive that custom today?

Yet a second more careful reading of the two extant letters raised a new question. John’s letter is dated April 25, 1915 and Annie’s, which I initially assumed was a direct reply to his, was written on October 7 of that same year. Did she wait over five months to reply? Or were other letters exchanged in between? If so, there’s little evidence of the development of confidence in the relationship or ease between the two.

We might wonder if there was much of a future between these two people. Beneath the reserve, I do sense some yearning on both sides in those expressions of friendship. Fortunately, in this case as well as in my novel, I know the ending. John and Annie went on to marry in 1919, when he was 35 and she 29.

They had seven children; the girl on the right of the photograph standing next to John is their second-to-youngest, my mother. I am one of their 23 grandchildren. Thus in retrospect, the personal stakes for this relationship’s success are high, but we can assume John did indeed meet Annie after church on Friday and exchange some appealing ideas. The long courtship led to a marriage of sixty years, until my grandfather’s death at 95. My grandmother confided that on the morning of the day he died, my grandfather made a sexual advance, which I like to think represented a long and fulfilling life of romantic “ideas” between them.

It’s a nice thought for the future and an appealing inspiration for my novel set in the past. Whether you call it erotica or porn is your choice!

Place and Time

by | 12:52 am | General | 1 comment

As are most people in North America, I am anticipating a partial solar eclipse next week. Not eagerly anticipating, however. I’ve experienced a couple of partial solar eclipses in my life already. They are about as exciting as a cloud passing in front of the sun. One couldn’t even call it a dimming, no more than a fine curtain dims sunlight coming through your window.

Still, my neighbors are excited. They’re buying eclipse glasses so they won’t go blind looking at it. I expect they’ll be disappointed. Like me, they’re in the right time, but the wrong place. Ah, but that’s life, isn’t it?

The other side of that sad coin, of course, is being in the right place, but in the wrong time. That was kind of how I felt on my first visit to New Orleans, a city I always wanted to visit, but didn’t get the chance to until I was in my fifties.

As my bride and I strolled Bourbon Street on a Tuesday night, it was like the height of the weekend in any other town. It was March, and it was as warm as June in Massachusetts. Trees and flowers had bloomed and the air was redolent with floral scents and the aroma of liquor.

Young people carried glasses across the street from one bar to another congealing in one place before drifting back into the general current, with various eddies swirling amongst one or two establishments in particular.

Sex was in the air too. Young women baring their bellies and thighs and young men entranced, buzzing about like gnats swarming in a pheromone frenzy.

The thought came into my head, then out my mouth: “Damn, I wish I was here when I was single.”

Then a gulp, and momentary panic. Had I actually said that out loud? A sidelong glance at the wife answered that question. But she eyed me with wry grin.

I shrugged, grateful to be off the hook. She’d felt it too.

We stopped in to one joint and had a few drinks, chatted up some very friendly strangers, then strolled back to our hotel. Later we banged each other’s brains out, like a pair of kids on spring break (another experience I seem to have missed).

I haven’t gotten back to the Big Easy, though I’d like to. There are just so many other places I want to go, and I’m not immortal. At least, I don’t think so. Of those places I do get to visit, I expect some will be disappointing in some way, but letdown or no, it’s the journey, right?

And wherever you are, it might just be the right place, for that particular time.

Editor’s Corner: Why You Don’t Have Writer’s Block

by | 10:43 am | Editing Corner | 6 comments

Editing Corner banner

By Iris Perkins (Poetry Editor)

Most people that write know about the stumbling block that most call, consider or term “writer’s block.” Well, I am here to let you know that there really is no such thing.

Make sure that you’re writing for you, then for your readers. There is a story that you are trying to convey and you are trying to get it out. Don’t force it.

If there is a block, then that is from not surrounding yourself with creative people who can help push you or from being in a stagnant place for far too long. Also, something else could be requiring your attention, halting your creativity.

If you ever have that moment where you feel stopped, halted or blocked, think about what is the best way to push yourself—or even come up with a different storyline. Or even find something else to do like cook, read, watch a movie, go for a walk or rest.

Is it hard? May be for some; however, not impossible.

The biggest part of writer’s block comes from the writer him/herself. It is like you are trying so hard to make yourself do something when it is not time. It will not happen.

Forcing yourself to idly sit at a blank page/screen will not make words come to you; however, you can make yourself a word bank and keep that around to spark some creativity.

Go outside. Watch television. Listen to some music. People watch. Do something.

Doing something else may trigger a memory or provide something to write about in your so called “dry spell.”

The advice I was always given when totally stuck was to envision the one scene or moment that made me want to write the entire story. Capture the original spark and forget about how you get to that point, or what happens afterwards. Imagine you’re looking at that scene through a little hole cut in a sheet of cardboard and describe only what you can see in that shot. Forget being linear, or chronological or logical. Just go with the descriptive flow. Save (and print, if you like things visual) then move onto the next clear image. Eventually your brain might figure out how to link things up, and then those moments become the reason you wanted to write that story…

Don’t underestimate that dry spell though. That dry spell just may mean you’re on the brink of greatness!


Writing Exercise – The Kyrielle

by | 12:01 am | Writing Exercise | 0 comments

 by Ashley Lister

I’ve courted you for eons now
And still we have not done the deed
Without trying to be highbrow
I think you know just what I need


I’ve probably mentioned the French form of the kyrielle before, but it’s one of my favourites, so I’m coming back to it here.  Typically, the kyrielle is a four-line stanza form that has a refrain in the fourth line. It’s customary for the kyrielle to contain eight syllables per line, although this doesn’t have to be presented in a specific structure, such as iambic tetrameter.  There is no prescribed limit to the number of stanzas but three is the minimum.


We’ve both held hands on moonlit nights
And you have heard me beg and plead
To have a chance at your delights
I think you know just what I need


The rhyme scheme for the kyrielle can either follow an aabB pattern, or an abaB. Because this is poetry, other variations on this rhyme scheme will always be possible.


So here we are, together now
And from our clothes we’ve both been freed
You are the field and I’m the plough
I think you know just what I need


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



Divine Villainous Sex

by | 7:30 am | General | 2 comments

K D Grace

I judge a good villain by how badly I want to fuck him … or her and how serious the consequences would be if I did. I think bad boy antiheros are as popular as they are because they’re the next best thing to fucking the villain. Sort of villain lite, if you will. The consequences of sex with the bad boys aren’t as severe.

With Blindsided about to be released and Buried Pleasures not far behind, I’ve been spending a lot of quality time with my villains and thinking a lot about … well …sex with them. Sex with villains has been an ongoing theme in my novels almost from the beginning. Wouldn’t Freud have a field day with that?

Fucking a villain is only slightly less dangerous than fucking a god, though I would argue that in some cases there really isn’t much of a distinction. If sex with a baddie or a god were a doctor’s prescription, the listed possible side effects would include addiction, death, and major changes in personality, ability and worldviews. With those side effects clearly listed on the label, why would anyone even consider taking the risk? For a writer, sex with the villain offers a whole treasure trove of plot complications and chaos. Will the character who takes the risk survive, become a worthless addict if they do, or be transformed into something greater, possibly even more terrible, than themselves? What writer or reader, wouldn’t want to find out what happens when a character fucks the villain or the god?

I’ve often speculated what might have happened if Daphne wouldn’t have been so hell bent on preserving her innocence that she allowed herself to be turned into a tree. What would have happened if she had simply turned to Apollo and said, “take me, I’m yours.” Would she have died? Would she have become a worthless groupie or would she have been given a gift worth the risk? How many of us cheered when Buffy and Spike finally did the deed? But Spike didn’t stay the villain. How could he after sex with Buffy? That’s another fascinating element of getting it on with villain. Sometimes it’s the villain who is transformed, which raises a whole other world of psychological issues. Do we really want Spike defanged? Do we really want the villain tamed?

For me that’s another reason why Medusa’s story is so fascinating. When Poseidon rapes her and Athena curses her, she’s transformed with hideous power. The story of what she does with that power and the end result is pretty typical of myths from a male dominated, Bronze Age culture. If Medusa’s story were rewritten for the modern age, we might very well take a different view on who the villain is.

Fucking the villain is the ultimate in transgressive sex. It’s the ultimate wanting what we shouldn’t want and, most of the time, wouldn’t dare take if the opportunity presented itself. Warnings on the label tell us this is not a good idea. However, fantasizing about doing the dirty with the villain, imagining what it would be like to submit to a god, reading stories about what might happen when one takes in all that power at the point of le petit mort is risk free and hotter than hell.

Most of the time the fantasy doesn’t involve falling in love with the villain or becoming his colleague. The hero is always the better man, the love choice at the end of the day. Most of the time the dalliances with the villain are just an irresistible erotic encounter spurred on only by attraction. Mythology is full of such encounters. So is fiction in general. This is the other side of the coin. Who doesn’t want to be irresistible to the villain? Who doesn’t want to be the object of a god’s lust, the obsession that drives him to distraction. The conquest of the good girl, the virgin in white, the leaving of his mark on her, the sullying of her, is as repellant as it is attractive. I would suggest that this is why there are so many dream sequences in which the villain and the good girl, or boy, get it on. We want them to do it … but we don’t, because … well, the hero, and good and evil and stuff. I would also suggest that in the cases in which they really do have sex, the writers often go out of their way to redeem the villain or to at least make him not quite so villainous. After all, he’s literally been inside what’s good and light and pure. How can that not rub off? How can that not change him?

But do we want the villain redeemed? Do we want the good girl sullied? In fiction, that sexual encounter is often a way of reaching some sort of equilibrium, a way for both characters to see the world as less black and white. It’s a way to make the villain more human, more likeable to the reader. On the other hand, it’s also a way of muddying the plot, adding to the chaos with guilt and internal battles over inappropriate responses to inappropriate desires. Anyway you look at it, sex with the villain is a plot changer. It’s a story that titillates and intrigues, even as readers shout at their Kindles, “No! Don’t do it!” All the while they’re still thinking to themselves with all the bravado only a reader can muster, “Oh go on then. Let’s see what happens, cuz I’d do him if I were you.”

My Time At Necon

by | 1:00 am | General | 2 comments

I returned from Necon this past Sunday. Necon is the Northeastern Writers Conference which is for horror writers but what I learned applies to any writer. The conference was held in a conference center in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

I was on one panel: Heroes Like Me: The Importance of Representation in Genre. There is more of a problem with representations of women in horror fiction and films than in romance or erotica. I’m happy to see that strong female characters who aren’t doormats or shrinking violets are much more popular in romance and erotic fiction now than they have been in the past. Women in these stories know what they want and they go after it. Sometimes, especially in the billionaire genre of romance, the heroine is inexperienced and rather naïve, but I’ve noticed she comes into her own as the story progresses. The hero often learns quite a bit from her. Hero and heroine are on equal footing in many of the stories.

Other panels included Guest of Honor interviews, Collections, and Editing. I was especially interested in the editing panel since I enjoy writing for anthologies. Some of the panelists were editing anthologies I had submitted to. I managed to snag some fine guests for my podcast Into The Abyss With Elizabeth Black. I took July off and I’ll start up shows again in August.

The best part about Necon was the same thing I liked about the Stanley Hotel Writers Retreat – socializing. Everyone was friendly and on equal turf. The casual atmosphere was very relaxing. I didn’t have to pay $50 or more to talk to an author and have him or her sign a book. There was a pre-Necon party I attended at one guest’s house. I saw old friends and made new ones. The BBQ ribs and chicken were delicious and I even had stuffed clams. You can’t live in New England and not eat stuffed clams. There were gatherings in the outdoor courtyard every evening with saugies, which are hot dogs well known in Rhode Island. They’re longer than most hog dogs and they have casings. They were delicious on the grill. I mingled and chatted which isn’t easy for me since I tend to be on the shy side. I talked to other writers about what they were working on. I did not ask the editors of the anthology I submitted to when submitters would hear back. That would have been in bad form. I know the rejections and acceptances will come soon enough. The networking opportunities were very good.

I liked Necon and I will attend again next year, money permitting. I do highly recommend writers attend conferences and conventions when they can. Some good ones are Viable Paradise, Clarion, Readercon, Arisia, and the RWA convention. Some of these cons include agents and publishers. The opportunity to pitch yourself is more than welcome.

Coincidence, Imitation, or Theft

by | 11:03 pm | General | 4 comments

by Jean Roberta

This past month, I’ve been thinking about similar book titles, among other things.

My erotic novel, Prairie Gothic (set on the Canadian prairies, where I live) was first written in 1998, when I had more enthusiasm for the game than knowledge of how to write a book-length narrative. During my year away from the classroom, I decided that I had to do something with the file, which had been gathering virtual dust in my Documents since 2006, when the only “publisher” (of the ebook) went bust. After rereading the novel, as though for the first time, I decided to rewrite and expand it rather than delete it.

I sent a proposal and the first three chapters of the revised, 2017 version to a publisher who has always treated me well (Steve Berman of Lethe Press), and he accepted the novel for publication. 

I didn’t consider changing the title, partly because no one advised me to do that. The “Gothicism” of local culture, IMO, is based on contradictions: Canadian politeness and co-operation on the surface, with an underlying history of violence toward the local indigenous population, and hostility to non-English immigrants. As in other parts of North America, rural culture has been characterized by a certain Protestant prudery combined with a roaring sex business on the “wrong side” of town and a secretive queer community. I tried to show all of this in my novel.

The new version of Prairie Gothic won’t be available for awhile. Meanwhile, the amazingly prolific and versatile Mitzi Szereto has launched a series of novels with “gothic” in the titles.  The first one, Florida Gothic, is scary, gruesome, and hard to put down. The local culture includes old Cuban refugees from Castro’s 1959 revolution, a variety of bugs, a variety of drugs (mostly illegal, and very lucrative for the sellers), retirees from other states, poor people with no access to health care, humid heat, and prowling alligators. And a zombie who might have been blessed or cursed by a Haitian trickster god, Papa Legba.

Reading this book, I noticed how differently gothic drama plays out in different environments, as well as in different genres. Mitzi Szereto’s series will examine it in different states; the next novel is titled New Mexico Gothic.  Apparently no book in the series will be named after a region (e.g. the prairies, the mountains, the coasts, etc.).

Mitzi’s series is categorized as horror fiction, and the sex in it doesn’t seem intended to be especially arousing. My novel is categorized as erotica, and the hypocrisy in it is not intended to distract a reader from the sex.

Readers probably won’t be confused by the word “gothic” in titles if they read the blurbs carefully. I just hope no reviewer claims to have been misled.

On a similar note, a fantasy story of mine (set in a desert where a local priesthood tries to appease a dragon-god who supposedly punishes humans for their sins by causing wildfires) has been accepted for a fire-themed anthology, tentatively titled “On Fire.” Meanwhile, writer/editor Rachel Kramer Bussel has been promoting an anthology she edited, On Fire: Erotic Romance Stories (Cleis Press).

I’m sure the editors of both books chose the same prepositional phrase as a title by coincidence, and because it sounds catchy. I suspect the two anthologies have very little in common. I hope the title of one of them can be changed enough to prevent misunderstandings.

I remember when two writers I admire (both fairly brilliant in the genre of m/m erotic romance) both named their novels Personal Demons, and the two books were released at approximately the same time. I’ve only read one, but from what I know of the other author’s work, that novel is probably a whole other saga, not part of a paranormal series.

These coincidences lead me to consider deliberate imitations, borrowing, theft, and misappropriation. Fan-fiction still seems to be a popular genre, and many recent books have been set in the fictional worlds of earlier writers: Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, George Martin. No one seems offended by this, unless I’m missing something.

On the other hand, cultural appropriation is an ongoing source of conflict. Here is a definition that seems fairly standard: “cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” This practice seems especially problematic when a member of a dominant culture (e.g. a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) “adopts” aspects of an oppressed culture: e.g, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, writing about the “history of magic” in North America before the mass arrival of white Christians.

This subject-matter necessarily involves writing about spiritual practices among indigenous peoples (and there were/are many cultures, not just one).  Even though Rowling is known as a writer of fantasy, the people she wrote about have actually existed for centuries, and many have responded to her work by tweeting:  1) We’re still here in the real world, like our ancestors, and 2) Our “magic” was/is as real as the “magic” of pre-Christian Europeans (vilified as “witchcraft” by church and secular rulers), and you got it wrong.

I feel some sympathy for those on all sides.

K. Tempest Bradford describes herself on Twitter as a “Science Fiction and Fantasy writer, media critic, and professional harsher of squee.” She has written a much more reasonable essay on cultural appropriation than I could hope to do. You can find it here:

K. Tempest Bradford

In my rambling through Twitter, I also ran across the link to an older interview in Slate magazine with the cosmopolitan writer Zadie Smith, daughter of Jamaican and English  parents, raised in London but currently living in the U.S.

Zadie Smith

In her article, Smith touches on “cultural appropriation,” and the false assumption that peaceful coexistence requires cultural homogeneity. She claims:

“My husband is from Northern Ireland, which is a completely racially homogeneous place, and was for hundreds of years, and they still managed to find the difference between which way you faced an altar, and then kill each other for at least 600 of those years.”

She has a point. Peace and solidarity usually appear somewhere else, or in imaginary societies.

Smith claims that cultural borrowing and mixing appear to be a subversive plot to some, while she simply regards these processes as a fact of life. She doesn’t seem especially concerned about cultural appropriation, and has no interest in trying to police it.

I offer all this material as food for thought. Do you believe there should be no limits on any artist’s imagination? Or does basic respect for other human beings require more self-control than some artists seem to have? Are certain words, titles or trends simply part of the general zeitgeist? Comments welcome.

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