by Ashley Lister
One of my favourite writing exercises comes from Jose Silva and Philip Miele, reiterated in Julia Casterton’s Creative Writing, a practical guide.
Close your eyes and sit quietly.
Bring into your inner field of vision – a lemon.
Examine it closely.
It is porous, with a little green dot in the middle of each pore.
Feel the knobbly cool surface.
Imagine a knife.
You are slicing the lemon in half.
You raise one half to your mouth and sink your teeth into it.
What has happened?
Casterton bets that anyone reading the description, and investing in the content, will find their salivary glands pumping at the stimulus of the description. Personally, I think she’s right because, even though I’ve shared this exercise with dozens of classrooms, it continues to make me drool in response to that fictional acidic rush of citrus juice.
And this is what we should be aiming to do with each aspect of description in our fiction. Description should be an immersion for the reader into the physicality of the storyworld. If a character is wielding a whip, we want our readers to flinch from each snap that it makes. If a character is enjoying a sensual massage, we want our readers to shiver with the tactile frisson of skin touching skin.
Description is where the magic happens in writing and it’s a skill that can best be developed through practice. As writers, we’re involved in a contract with the reader where we’re supposed to facilitate their suspension of disbelief. This is greatly helped when we present them with a world that seems so real they can experience it through their physical senses. And we achieve this by using exactly the right words with specificity, detail and sound symbolism.
Specificity: don’t tell your reader there are yellow flowers at the side of the road. Describe them as daffodils or dandelions or buttercups. It’s not a fast red car: it’s a scarlet Ferrari. It’s not a jaunty nineties pop song: it’s Britney singing, ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time.’ Notice how, in each of these examples, it’s easier to see or hear the more specific description.
Detail: in the example at the top of this page, we are shown the little green dot in the middle of each pore. I had never noticed this feature until I read the description and now I see it on every lemon I encounter. If you’re describing buttercups, tell your reader about the silky sheen on the inside of each petal; talk about the way the petals sit awkwardly together; or mention the icing-sugar dusting of pollen that coats the stamen in the centre of the flower.
Sound Symbolism: I was once engaged in a discussion with a publisher about which word was most appropriate to describe a type of glass: the snifter or brandy balloon. Snifter is the US name for this type of glass whilst balloon is the UK name. Being a UK writer, balloon was my go-to phrase when I described this in a story. However, the publisher suggested I reconsider the word and use snifter. Their argument made sense. The fiction was going to be published in the US and, as per my point above regarding specificity, it made sense to use the word readers would most easily recognise.
But I wanted to argue for holding onto balloon. The vowels in snifter, a short i and a concluding uh, don’t reflect the full rounded shape of the glass I was describing. Balloon, with that full final vowel sound and the association of roundness we have when we hear the word ‘balloon’ seemed more appropriate to my ear.
Description is a vital tool in our writing arsenal that can make readers feel as though we’ve spoken to them on a very personal level. With the careful use of specificity, detail and sound symbolism, we can ensure that the description we provide helps our readers to immerse themselves fully in our fiction.
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.
Back in June, I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. We looked at appearance in June and I touched on dialogue in July and August, which means that it’s time to look at action.
In the ‘show don’t tell’ world in which we live, action is probably the best way to introduce a character. However, action in erotica doesn’t always have to be vigorous passion and Olympic sexual aerobics. In the opening to one of short stories below, the action is relatively static.
“He treats us like slaves,” Sarah hissed.
She had whispered the sentiment into her mobile phone but the words echoed around the haberdashery shop as though they had been bellowed through a megaphone.
Monica glanced at Sarah in surprise.
Old Mrs Higgins closed her eyes and shook her head in dismay.
Green, his eyes unreadable through his dark glasses, regarded Sarah with an expression that was thin-lipped, inscrutable and unsmiling. It was a moment that transformed the mood of the day into something lethargic and heavy with the threat of impending disaster. Each passing minute dragged like slow-motion footage of an inevitable car crash.
Monica’s chest was tight with the sense of anticipation.
An aeon later the church bell chimed six times to indicate it was the end of the working day. In the stillness of Greens’ Haberdashery the sound was like the champagne cork-popping promise of a long-awaited armistice.
Monica took a step back to watch developments. Old Mrs Higgins reached for her coat. Sarah was rushing to the doorway with unseemly haste.
“Wait!” Green snapped the single word as Sarah placed her fingers on the door handle.
Monica is our narrative perspective in this story and the tension builds from her perspective. She glances at Sarah in surprise. Her chest tightens with anticipation. She is giving the readers cues for how to respond to the action in the story. As a narrating character she is going to remain relatively undeveloped in this story but we’re already aware that she’s someone trapped in an uncomfortable situation and, as readers, we’re trying to work out whether it will be best if she simply observes the action or becomes a participant.
Admittedly, I’ve got a couple of pieces of dialogue in this, so the example isn’t all action. However, the majority of character development comes from the action.
Old Mrs Higgins, closing her eyes and shaking her head, is clearly a been-there-done-that individual who has seen it all. She’s not going to be surprised by any development in this narrative – and I think it’s fair to say we all know someone with similar collected composure. We’re not told that Old Mrs Higgins is cool under pressure. But we can see that’s how she’s responding to the situation.
Green, is motionless – the antithesis of action – yet we get a sense of his character. We’ve heard Sarah say, “He treats us like slaves”. If we associate that phrase with this inscrutable, unsmiling individual in the dark glasses, the individual who seems to be causing the tense atmosphere that’s tightened Monica’s chest, we have enough action from this inactive character to understand that he is a powerful and dominant individual.
And then there’s Sarah. Sarah is the one who made the remark that’s caused the tension. Sarah is the one who spoke more loudly than intended. Sarah is the one who breaks from the pack and runs for the door. Sarah is clearly in a state of panic and dread: but there was never any need to mention that to the reader. The use of action has told the reader all they need to know about this character, just like it is action that has defined each of the other characters at the start of this story.
Action in erotica doesn’t have to be overblown descriptions of passionate interludes. As the example above shows, it’s relatively easy to introduce characters through their actions, even when they’re relatively motionless and trying to avoid the impending perils of one character’s wrath.
As always, if you have your own examples of introducing characters through action, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.
By Ashley Lister
Back in June, I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. We looked at appearance in June and I touched on dialogue in July. The wonderful Lisabet Sarai shared an example of her dialogue writing in the comments on that post and it’s well worth checking out as an exemplar of how to construct character through dialogue.
I want to briefly touch on dialogue again this month, just because it’s such an important element of what we, as writers, produce. And the message I want to share is: know who you’re writing for.
When we’re reading, and we grow weary with a text, most of us flick through the pages until we reach the next piece of dialogue. If it’s good, we’ll carry on with the story. If that bores us as well, then the story gets put aside.
Which suggests, if we want to make sure our readers stay with the story we’ve written, the dialogue needs to be intriguing, credible and engaging for the audience we want to satisfy. Characters chatting about the weather and engaging in the sort of banal exchanges the linguists describe as ‘phatic communion’ can be used to give a frisson of reality to your story. But keep in mind that some readers are reading your story to escape from reality.
Whilst this might sound like conflicting advice, what I’m trying to say here is: know your audience. Write short snappy exchanges that engage your reader, OR write slices of reality that allow your reader to hear the soul of your character – but always be aware of what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for.
The reader who wants snappy dialogue is going to grow bored with the banality of a real-world exchange, just as the reader who wants a true reflection of reality will not be content with punchy one-liners and witty comebacks. I try to write with one particular audience type in mind, as can be seen in the following exchange from the early part of my recent novel, Doll House.
Ben didn’t want to be intrigued but he couldn’t help wonder about the building.
“Where are you taking me?”
“You sound like a fucking kidnap victim,” John yawned.
“It worries me that you know what kidnap victims sound like. Where are you taking me?”
“I told you where I’m taking you,” John spoke with weary resignation. “For the next three months I’ll be giving you what every lazy writer needs. I’m putting you in my personal country cottage. You’ll have the solitude and the isolation necessary to finish your latest novel. I’m taking you back to your writing career.”
Ben stared out of the window. He scowled at the sign saying WELCOME TO SANDALWOOD.
As always, I look forward to reading your comments in the boxes below.
by Ashley Lister
Last month I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. As we looked at appearance last month, I figured this month would be a suitable time to consider speech.
The basic rules to writing speech in fiction can be summed up in one word: clarity. So long as your reader understands what your character is saying, you’re doing it right. And one of the most frustrating ways of messing with clarity comes when readers give their characters regional accents.
The following examples comes from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
‘What are ye for?’ he shouted. ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’
‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.
‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ’t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’
‘Why? Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’
The first and third line of dialogue belong to the broad Yorkshire character Joseph. Those who are familiar with Wuthering Heights will probably be familiar with the intrusion of Joseph’s dialogue in this otherwise entertaining tale.
Perhaps I’m biased here. I grew up in Yorkshire and Brontë’s representation of Joseph’s accent strikes me as being a long way from what I encountered from friends and family. But, more importantly, I find this to be a distracting piece of text. Instead of concentrating on Joseph’s message, I’m trying to work out how to pronounce ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.’ This is a novel and I’m supposed to be engaged with the story and the characters. I shouldn’t be trying to work out how to say words.
Elmore Leonard in his 10 Rules of Writing says, “Use regional dialect and patois sparingly” and it’s a rule I would fully support. Dialogue is intrusive and, regardless of how much fun the author things the reader will have in decoding a phonetic transcript, the truth is most of don’t want that added nuisance.
If it’s important to your character to have some regional flavour in their speech, allow them to use the vocabulary of an area rather than the dialect. For example, in the extract above, Brontë could have written, “The maister’s down in the fold.” We’ve got that single word ‘maister’ which suggests a Yorkshire accent, but is sufficiently close to ‘master’ so we’re not puzzled by the content. And we know that Joseph isn’t going to simply utter one word in this dialect and then articulate the remainder of his speech in BBC English. To my mind, this is a more effective way of conveying regional difference without interrupting the reader’s suspension of disbelief and their immersion in the narrative.
This is not to say that no one should ever write characters with a regional accent. I’ve just come back from a writing conference where a very clever lecturer explained that no writing rule is an absolute and there will always be scope for subverting rules under some circumstances.
I agree with what he said and I believe, if you’re writing a piece and it’s essential that your character says, ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him,’ then you should follow your authorial instinct and produce the story in that distinctive fashion. However, if your beta-readers and your editor say that some parts were a little confusing, or dragged them out of the story, I don’t think it will take long to work out where the problem is.
I’ll talk more about creating characters through speech next month but for now, as always, if you want to share any of your dialogue in the comments box below, I’m always happy to read and respond.
By Ashley Lister
Over the past few months I’ve used this space to look at point of view. As an essential for writing, I think point of view is one of those things that needs to be right from the first line, which is why I looked at it early on here. However, there is one thing that most writers agree is more important than point of view – more important than any other feature of fiction writing: character.
Character is the reason why most of us pick up stories. We want to read about new and exciting people doing new and exciting things. We want to meet someone with whom we can fall in love, share an adventure, or solve a mystery. We want all of these things so badly, it’ fair to say that characters are vital to fiction.
There are four things that we use to create characters in fiction: appearance, speech, action and thought. I’m going to cover these individually over the next few months and the first one I’ll be looking at is appearance.
As human beings we’re very visual creatures. Appearance is important to us because this is how we quantify the world. We pay lip service to the idea that ‘you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’, and yet this is how most books are judged in bookshops. We insist ‘it’s personality that counts’ yet we exist in a culture where potential partners are matched or discarded by a right or left swipe, and you can guarantee that no one is saying, “I didn’t like the look of his/her personality.”
This is the physical description of one of the characters from my latest novel: Doll House.
John pulled the car to a halt outside a pair of tall, imposing gates. He stepped out of the vehicle and stood illuminated in the headlights as he fumbled with a lock and chain. He was an angular man: tall and slender and unnatural in his gait. In his corduroy slacks, sports jacket and a Harris tweed flat cap, he looked like a man who knew how to dress for the countryside even if the environment seemed not quite right for him.
I’ve done this deliberately, to make John look like a man ill at ease in his surroundings. He’s an agent, so it will be difficult for writers to like him anyway. But, in the description, we’re treated to an image of a man that we don’t fully trust because he seems uncomfortable and false in his surroundings. To my mind that’s good, because this is a character that I don’t want my readers to trust.
This is how I introduce the romantic lead in A Taste of Passion.
Her vision was beginning to adjust to the lack of light in the room and she could see the lines that weathered his face. His eyes were wrinkled by the suggestion of constant smiles. She could see he had raised one steel-grey eyebrow, as though encouraging her to continue. She wanted to believe he was grudgingly impressed with her abilities but the lighting in the dining area was too dim for her to read much from the shadows that cloaked his face.
This is Trudy’s first encounter with Bill Hart. I wanted to make him seem like a mysterious character, which is why she’s meeting him in the dark and only getting glimpses of his features. He’s not a youthful character but he’s wearing his age well. The fact that his eyes are wrinkled by the suggestion of constant smiles suggests a pleasant disposition.
Which leads me to a brief writing exercise that I use in classes occasionally. Write a character in a single, short paragraph (no more than three sentences). Give us an idea of the physical, make it so your reader can see that individual, and try to make them distinctive. It’s a tall order but it’s not impossible.
And, if you feel like sharing your work, please post your results in comments box below.
By Ashley Lister
It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who said, “There is nothing insignificant in the world. It all depends on the point of view.” These thoughts were echoed by Harper Lee who noted, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” And, it is following these thoughts on the importance of point of view, that this month’s writing exercise looks at this most vital subject in the craft of writing.
There are four distinct points of view that a fiction writer can use. These include first person, second person, third person and omniscient narrator. There are some people who will tell you that there are disparate types of third person narrator – suggesting there are objective, omniscient and limited third person narrators – but these nuances are more academic than practical, and these writing exercises are all about practicality (which is my way of saying I’m going to ignore them here).
I’m going to tackle one each of these over the next four months, starting with my favourite: first person.
We’d been drinking vodka…
Isn’t vodka brilliant? The best stories I’ve ever told always start with the words, “We’d been drinking vodka…” and this one is no exception.
We’d been drinking vodka. Mel had found the bottle in the kitchen cupboard of my third floor apartment. It was next to a mouldering loaf of bread and a rusting tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce. The bottle wasn’t anything special – one of those made up Russian names (Glasnost, Prada, Kevorkian, or something) that are meant to make it sound authentic and as though it has been shipped direct from behind the Iron Curtain. The main thing I remember is that it was cheap, the aftertaste wasn’t too unpleasant, and it mixed well with the dregs of the Dr Pepper Mel had brought to our impromptu girl’s night in. The washing-up situation meant we had to drink from clunky coffee mugs rather than elegant glasses but neither of us was in a mood to be concerned by such trifling details. We had more important things on our agenda.
“Here’s to becoming lesbians, sweetie,” Mel toasted.
She raised her mug.
I clinked mine against the side and we both drank greedily.
I wasn’t sure if we were genuinely going to become lesbians, or if the toast was meant to signify that we were both pissed off at our boyfriends. Mine had elected to spend the night with drinking buddies, playing pool and watching the game on a fifty-inch screen at the local bar. Mel’s latest boyfriend had clearly upset her in some serious way because she had scoured the house like a bloodhound in her search for the vodka. When she found the bottle she had whooped in delight, made some disparaging remark about booze being better than blokes, and popped its cap with unseemly haste.
“Are we really becoming lesbians?” I asked doubtfully. “What does that involve?” I sat next to her on the settee and warily sipped my mug of vodka.
These lines are from the opening of my novel Once Bitten – an erotically charged tale of vampires and sexual intrigue. I decided to use first person for this particular story because I liked Tessa’s voice. She sounded carefree, not particularly bright with her obvious sexual naivete, but sufficiently savvy to know her own mind. I thought it would be fun to hear her tell the whole story.
The first person narrator, as we all know, is a character-narrator who is telling a personal story. It’s easily identified because we recognise the use of personal pronouns (I, we, my, me, etc.) and the viewpoint shows us the world through the eyes of a single person. As a bonus, this allows us to get to know the character-narrator in more depth than other characters because we (the readers) are inside that character’s thoughts.
This is a point of view commonly seen in diaries and personal exposés and it is this sense of being told secrets that makes it an ideal voice for a narrator of erotic fiction because, what could be more arousing than the idea of being inside someone’s thoughts?
As always, it would be good to see a few lines from your first person narratives in the comments box below.
By Ashley Lister
I’d never say anything graphic
And I don’t want to be pornographic
But does your bum only do one way traffic?
As I’ve mentioned before, poetic triplets excite me. The idea of putting three rhymed lines of poetry together always strikes me as innovative. Couplets are good for a rhyme scheme. They provide a solid structure. But, to my mind, triplets increase the speed and allow for a bigger build to the conclusion of a stanza.
See I’d love to get into your drawers
And I’m sharing this honestly because
I like entering through exit doors.
Technically, I know, ‘drawers’, ‘because’ and ‘doors’ don’t rhyme. There are subtle variations in the vowel sounds and, although I can perform this one and make ‘drawers’ and ‘because’ sound like exact rhymes, this is only because I force the pronunciation.
I’m not so vulgar that I’ll mention pooh
I’m a gentleman, as I’m sure you knew
So, please let me push a stool in for you.
Your reputation will not be besmudged
Cos I’m sure you’re not going to begrudge
Me – the chance, to help you pack some fudge.
As always, I look forward to seeing your poems in the comments box below.
by Ashley Lister
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
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.
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.