Get Published Today!: Lessons from the Submission Game, Researching from the Heart, and a Duo of Delicious Desserts

Is it possible the turn of a new year has already arrived? Throughout 2011, this erotic writing feast has taken us from the seeds of a developing story through the writing of first and final drafts, a pondering of the question of how much sex erotica needs and the giving and receiving of feedback. And just as no fine meal is complete without dessert, no discussion of the writing process is complete without a consideration of a sweet ending—receiving the news that your story has been accepted for publication.

As I looked back over the past year’s columns, I noticed a recurring theme that had not been part of my original conception of the feast, but that invariably crept into my essay every time I sat down to write a new installment. I’m speaking of a major myth of the writing life that both mesmerizes and mocks us at every step of the process, namely that for a “real” writer, it all comes easy. The path to publication is perhaps the cruelest of these myths, because most non-writers judge our worth by whether and how often we’ve been published. Naturally, talented writers will be published immediately and regularly in The New Yorker or at least Playboy. I felt embarrassed to call myself a writer for many years even when I was published because my accomplishments never seemed abundant or prestigious enough to satisfy the critics. Fortunately somewhere along the way, I finally understood that it is the writing itself that earns you the title. If you write with sincere effort, you are a writer. Welcome to the club!

Still I will not say that publication doesn’t matter. With nearly 150 acceptances, you might think I’d be a bit jaded, but the truth is, my spirit always soars when an editor informs me my story was chosen for a new anthology. And while I’m throwing around numbers, I’ll also admit that I stopped counting the rejections at about 500. Getting published is not easy, and I’ve suffered more gut-wrenching emotional agony in the process than I’d like to remember.

Publication is the part of the writing process over which the writer has the least control, which is why how-to articles and books on this topic are so popular. When I first started sending out stories, I devoured this advice, my fingers trembling eagerly as I reached for the next fail-proof way to woo editors. Yet, out of dozens of articles, I only remember one suggestion with any clarity. It comes from an issue of Poets and Writers back when it resembled a church newsletter of Xeroxed pages stapled together. This particular article promised a sure-fire way to get your stories picked up by an editor. What, you ask, was that secret?

“Write a good story.”


In case you’re expecting me to say that I now heartily agree that’s the only real advice you’ll ever need, I’m thankfully going to disappoint you. There no doubt that if you write a good story, whatever that might mean to a particular editor, your chances of publication will rise considerably. But I have a few more practical and collegial pieces of advice I’ve gathered from almost fifteen years of acceptances to increase the likelihood you’ll get published, perhaps not “today!” (my nod to the come-on promises of my past) but one day in the future. For indeed there is no sweeter finish to the writer’s feast.

1. Be Persistent
Writers will admit they’ve received lots of rejections, but few of them tell the whole truth about how long and hard the road to publication can be. One author I know spent eight years sending out stories before one was accepted. He now has a two-book deal with a New York publisher. Another won a prize with her first story, then didn’t get another acceptance for three years. Granted these are writers of literary fiction, a market much hard to break into than erotica, but the same spirit of perseverance is required in any genre. We’re not talking a few cute smears of mud on your cheek and an ornamental drop of perspiration on your brow. This effort may well take years, tears and plenty of real sweat. It will hurt you to your soul. You will want to give up many times.

But don’t. Keep trying. And trying. And trying. Allow yourself some period of time to feel hurt by a rejection, then award yourself one more experience point and send the story out again to an appropriate market (more on that below). Keep writing new stories. Experiment with style and voice and theme. Have lots of fun playing with words and being the creator of your own little worlds. Send out the new stories. And remember the people at the cocktail parties are wrong. Publication does not make you a writer. Showing up at the page and writing with your whole heart makes you a writer.

I once read a disturbingly fascinating book about how to pick up beautiful women. The pick-up artist counseled his students to practice their technique at least several times a week by trying out come-on strategies in bars, restaurants, airports, and so on, without any investment in the outcome. With time, he promised, the rewards of this persistence would arrive in the form of a beautiful woman in your bed (although the advice on what to do once you had her there was lean). Sending out stories is, in my opinion, a nobler endeavor, but the same advice holds true.

Never give up. There is only one certainty in the submission game: if you stop sending stories out, you will indeed never be published.

2. Be Professional
Publishing is a business, and you’ll do better if you act professionally and respectfully. Editors are not the handmaidens to your literary talent and potential. Yes, there was a time in the 1920’s when editor Maxwell Perkins perceived great genius in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first draft of Trimalchio in West Egg and expertly shaped it into the enduring classic The Great Gatsby. Those days are long gone.

Editors expect finished, carefully edited work. No matter how promising your talent, if you send hastily written, sloppily formatted stories, you will be not regarded as a serious writer. Remember also that editors often read hundreds of submissions and do not owe you a reason for a rejection. If they do bother, it is actually a compliment—although your non-writer friends will definitely look at you askance when you crow about your “nice” rejection.

On the other hand, if an editor and/or publisher doesn’t treat you respectfully—for example, they’ve had a story for a year, and don’t respond to polite queries as to the status—withdraw your story and move on.

I could spend a whole year of columns on specific advice for sending out stories, but fortunately, a very accomplished writer and columnist has already done just that. I highly recommend a series of columns in the ERWA archives by Shanna Germain: “How to Properly & Professionally Prepare, Package and Present Your Work To Markets.” Shanna approaches the topic from the standpoint of both writer and editor and covers query letters, researching markets, keeping track of submissions, graceful ways to deal with acceptances and rejections (yes, the former can be as challenging as the latter), working with editors and contracts. I wish I’d had this resource when I was first starting out!

3. Do Research—With Your Gut
“Please read our publications before you submit.” You’ll find these guidelines in almost every journal and many calls for anthologies. Back when I was submitting to literary magazines, I suspected this was just a clever way to sell more copies of journals with circulations of 500, and perhaps it is. Yet I now appreciate that this is excellent advice, especially if you trust your instincts as you read.

I highly recommend you research markets and read at least a few anthologies and online journals in your chosen genre, whether erotica, erotic romance or literary erotica. Editors are human beings with unique tastes, and while it’s always a crap shoot in that your fresh voice might enchant someone who doesn’t tend to publish your style, familiarizing myself with the range of stories they publish is one strategy that has seemed to pay off. Often a call for submissions will specify what an editor wants, and you should take it to heart. However, only by reading stories they’ve already published do you get a sense of what they really want.

If I’ve read several stories in an online journal and think—”Why would anyone publish this?”—then I know my tastes and goals do not match those of the editor. No matter how good I think my story is, he will probably not appreciate its merits. If I find I am enjoying most of the stories, even getting inspired by them, then the chances for a match are much better. Be sure to mention in your brief cover letter that you enjoyed certain stories by title—but only if it’s true! This is basic advice, but my twist on it is the importance of your gut feeling rather than admiring structure or diction. “Good” stories speak to the emotions, so judge them accordingly.

To return to our singles’ bar analogy, sending out stories without researching markets is like trying your pick-up line on every woman standing at the bar, starting left to right. Doing a little careful reading and responding from your gut is more like sauntering up to the one woman who’s been checking you out and flashing seductive smiles. The percentages are surely more in your favor with the latter.

Online journals such as Clean Sheets, The Erotic Woman, and Oysters and Chocolate are good places to start your research at a very low cost—free! Another great resource is Maxim Jakubowski’s annual Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, which draws from many different publications and styles and is an excellent overview of the state of erotica publishing. When I like a story, I check out the name of the publisher in the index and keep an eye out for opportunities with them.

The very, very best place on the planet to research erotica markets is the Authors’ Resources page here at ERWA. That’s how I discovered the call that led to my first print publication, and it’s still my favorite spot for submission information today. Another supplementary resource is Duotrope, which is not nearly as comprehensive for erotica, but lists literary and some genre magazines that take stories with erotic content.

Two Desserts and a Whole Frickin’ Basket of Cookies

Congratulations! You lasted through the lecture, now it’s time for your reward! In honor of this double December-January issue, I’m offering two desserts: a creamy, decadent winter solstice treat for December and an austere, yet in some ways more satisfying, sweet for the start of the New Year.

The first, Eggnog Ice Cream with Hot Buttered Rum Sauce, has pleased many holiday guests at my table. With a Cuisinart ice cream maker—I keep the canister in my freezer for impromptu batches—it’s much easier to prepare than the crushed-ice-and-rock-salt ordeal of my childhood. Since my family likes a slightly lighter ice cream, I use 2 cups each of cream and whole milk, but I wanted to offer the original recipe if you like your holiday desserts rich. Believe me, this dessert is as luscious as getting an editor’s email of acceptance in your in-box!

When January comes, however, we’re all ready for lighter eating, and fortunately nature provides the perfect dessert at the perfect time—the sweet, easy-to-peel tangerine. In the past few years I’ve noticed many exciting new varieties appearing at my local greengrocer. The Satsuma, a nostalgic reminder of my years in Japan, has been joined by the Murcott (or Honey), a hybrid tangerine-orange. Clementimes are the most ubiquitous, with a thin skin and reliable sweetness. I enjoy doing a taste test of several varieties at one time. They’re small and low in calories, so why not? All of these juicy, jewel-like beauties have a peak season from December through March. This will tide you over until my next column which will begin a brand-new theme—my favorite secrets of writing coupled with a basketful of my favorite fancy cookie recipes for dessert all year long.

See you then and a Happy Winter Holiday and a Happy New Year to all!

Eggnog Ice Cream with Hot Buttered Rum Sauce
from Bon Appetit, December 2001 (6-8 servings)

Ice Cream:
3 cups whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
6 large egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1/4 dark rum (go a bit scant on this)
1/4 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg

6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup packed golden brown sugar
1/3 cup whipping cream
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup
2 Tablespoons dark rum

For Ice Cream:
Combine whipping cream and milk in heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add bean. Bring to simmer. Whisk egg yolks and sugar in large bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in hot cream mixture. Return mixture to saucepan and stir constantly over medium-low heat until custard thickens and leaves path on the back of a spoon when a finger is drawn across, about 5 minutes (do not boil). Strain into a large bowl. Mix in rum and nutmeg. Refrigerate until cold. Process mixture in an ice cream maker. Transfer to container and freeze. Can be made four days in advance.

For Sauce:
Melt butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add brown sugar, cream, and corn syrup and stir until sugar dissolves. Boil 1 minute. Remove from heat. Mix in rum. Cool slightly. Can be made one day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm before serving.

Donna George Storey
December 2011 – January 2012

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2011 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Sexy Writing Partnerships: Mastering the Fine Arts of Reading, Responding, and Roasting Brussels Sprouts

At first blush, it sounds so simple. You’ve nurtured your story into a polished piece and, to be honest, you’re quite proud of the result. But before you send it out to editors, why not have a beta reader or two give it a once-over, maybe catch a few typos, and certainly provide reassurance that Shakespeare and Hemingway had better make room for a timeless new talent?

Of course, if you’ve been a regular diner at this year’s Cooking Up a Storey feast, you’ve probably figured out that, alas, nothing comes that easy in the writing process. In my last column on self-editing, (Be a “Real” Writer: Slowing Down, Seeing Anew, and a Fresh Take on America’s Favorite Entrée) I’d initially meant to include a paragraph about writing groups and partnerships, because thoughtful feedback can be immensely helpful in the revision process. However, as I mulled over my own experiences with writing classes, in-person writing groups and online workshops over the years, I found myself reliving painful memories of thoughtless, off-target, and even intentionally nasty critiques. (I actually have had people insult me with “Well, you’re no Hemingway!”—which, for the record, has never been a personal goal). Add in my writer friends’ horror stories, and I realized this topic was no longer a matter of a few paragraphs. Tales from the Critique could easily unfold into a voluminous series with more peril and mayhem than Harry Potter.

I quickly had to remind myself that my writing has benefited immeasurably from generous feedback from early readers. Some were professionals, some amateurs with more experience than I had. Some were not writers themselves, but gave me honest, careful responses about parts of the manuscript that worked and parts that didn’t. Carefully critiquing other people’s stories has also given me a great education in the craft of storytelling. Writers work in solitude, but the ultimate goal is to connect with an audience. I don’t believe any writer can do her best work without honest feedback from a few trusted readers.

So, I got to thinking, is there any way to make this important step less painful for a sensitive new writer? What advice would I give to my fledgling self about writing teachers, groups and partnerships? It occurred to me that a relationship with a writing partner is not dissimilar to a sexual relationship. Because we make ourselves so vulnerable in our work, the most satisfying critiques involve partners who respect each other, invest themselves equally and respond with sensitivity to each other’s specific and often changing needs. In fact, I’d say it’s as challenging to find a satisfying writing partnership as it is to find a good sex partner! And while I consider myself fortunate that my husband is one of my two most trusted readers now, it’s taken us years and lots of communication to get to a place where the critiquing process is satisfying for all parties.

Of course in sex or critiques, no one starts off with perfect intimacy. Armed with courtesy, dedication, and good intentions, however, any writer can build his skills at both giving and receiving critiques.

I’ll begin with an outline of the main avenues writers can use to get feedback. The most formal would be to sign up for a writing class or workshop, either locally or at a conference. This could be an excellent choice for a beginner, because an experienced teacher can model good critiquing techniques. I also suspect that deep down most of us respect feedback we pay for more than free advice. However, as mentioned above, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories of famous writers who were lousy mentors, so keep in mind that just because someone is well-published doesn’t mean he’ll be the right teacher for you. Another downside is that classes and conferences can be expensive, and some might not be tolerant of erotic content.

Cooperative writing groups are another way to get feedback from a variety of readers. Unlike classes (I’m thinking of those in my creative writing program in college), these groups tend to be more respectful than competitive. Equality is built in because each member both receives and accepts critiques, and best of all, the only investment is your time and maybe the price of refreshments when you host the group. I’ve been involved in a few wonderful writing groups, but even a good group can break up if people move away or no longer have time to meet regularly. It can also be difficult to gather a supportive group together who are writing at the same level, and be forewarned, it will surely take a breaking-in period for all members to get accustomed to each other’s critiquing styles. Some strategies to start a group include continuing in an informal group with students from a class you’ve taken, asking friends if they know any writers who’d like to make a group, advertising for writing partners through a local writer’s discussion list, and trying to recruit writing partners with clever pick-up lines in bars. Actually, that last suggestion was a joke—but be open to possibilities. One friend had an enjoyable critiquing relationship with her mailman!

Online writing workshops are both easy to find and free, except again for the time commitment involved in critiquing others’ stories. A big plus is that you can participate from your home at your own convenience. I was an active member of the Zoetrope Writer’s Studio for a few years. There you can workshop erotic stories if you include a content warning, and by carefully choosing authors with similar tastes, I was able to develop some supportive relationships. However, the anonymity of the site allowed for irresponsible and sometimes abusive critiques, and I feel I’ve moved beyond it at this point in my life. Literotica is a huge erotica site with a wide variety of writing styles, but it can require a lot of investment to find committed and compatible critiquing partners. For erotica writers, I’d recommend the informal writing workshop here at ERWA, Storytime, because the more intimate nature of the site requires accountability, plus your story could be chosen for publication in the galleries!

Last but not least is the generous spouse or friend who offers to read your work. While my two favorite beta-readers fall into this category, I’ve also had some regrettable experiences. However well-meaning these people might be, if they aren’t experienced critics, they can easily bring old grudges and power play into the mix and make it personal. Thoughtless criticism from a stranger can hurt, but at least the trauma is self-contained. With family and friends, you still have to maintain a relationship. For example, I will never show my unpublished writing to my sister again for the sake of family harmony—that’s at least one whole volume in my imperiled writer horror series! While a surprising number of amateurs take the opportunity to become imperious New York Times Book Review critics for a day, the other common danger is that your friend might feel she has to be nothing but supportive and tell you the story is perfect as it is, just like you. There’s nothing wrong with having a reader or two who cheers you on, but if you are genuinely looking to improve your skills, you’ll need people who are willing to challenge you when necessary.

Most people underestimate the skill involved in critiquing. It’s not just about reading the work and pronouncing it good or bad, Shakespeare or trash. If you truly want to help a writer improve, you must be keenly aware of your own response to the rhythm of the story, the choice of words and images, the believability of the characters and their motives, the arc of the storyline. A good critic gets better with practice and learns more about what works and what to avoid in his own writing from others’ examples. I do believe there are some basic rules of engagement that can help any writer improve at both giving and receiving critiques. What follows are some guidelines I would definitely give my novice self.

Tips for Giving Feedback:

1. Critique others as you would have others critique you
Yes, remember the Golden Rule and you’re most of the way there. Try your best to be respectful of the author’s vision, sensibility and limitations. Accept the story on its own terms, and don’t hold it to some universal or personal standard. You wouldn’t want your beta-reader to be comparing you unfavorably to Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Anais Nin or Danielle Steele, right? Nor do you want her to rewrite your story according to her personal preferences as a way to “improve” it. If the story is in first-person and you don’t happen to like that, be professional and overcome your prejudice for the moment. On the other hand, if it’s your first encounter with this writer’s work, and you realize you simply don’t connect with his style and interests, do your best under the circumstances, then excuse yourself from further critiques if you can. Both writer and reader benefit from a fundamentally compatible match.

2. Be honest, but compassionate
All feedback is inherently a subjective response, because there is no single “right” way to create a story. However, it is a gift to a writer to be honest about your experience—what parts of the story pique your interest or feel slow, what feels clichéd or fresh. If you’re worried that your suggestions have to be “right,” it will definitely inhibit you. Yet the way you present your feedback is extremely important. One approach is to play Important New York Editor and take the tough approach: “The first two pages are boring and pointless, so definitely cut them, because god knows, you’re no Hemingway.” I guarantee you, however, that you’ll communicate better with the sympathetic-peer style as in: “The story really took off for me on page 3. I think you could probably cut the first two pages without losing anything, and your opening would have more punch.” In the latter example, your critique also makes you more aware of the qualities of a good story and a better self-editor. In other words, giving the writer a “what” and a “why” benefits you both. And always be sure mention what worked as well as what didn’t!

3. Be specific
This is somewhat related to the previous point, but vague criticism is a common mistake, especially for novice critics. “This is boring” or “The character is too passive” or “I want to know more about the protagonist’s childhood” don’t give the writer any real direction for revision. Try your best to give him some “how’s” in precisely the places in the story where revision will strengthen the piece. This is another way to hone your own writing skills through criticism. Again the way you offer suggestions for change is key. What I’ve found useful as both critic and writer is to offer several possible options. For example, if one character’s motivation needs sharpening, brainstorm several possibilities either on the page or in conversation with the writer. This also gives the author a sense of where you are coming from and empowers her to make the final choice. We all react better to guidance when we have a fuller context.

4. Don’t be invested in the result
This has traditionally been one of my weak areas. On one occasion I spent quite a while doing a written critique of a story for a writing group, then a few months later was handed the same manuscript to critique without a single change I’d suggested, including typos and grammatical mistakes. Talk about a waste of precious time! Invariably a certain number of writers will approach you for feedback with an agenda of their own—basically rubber-stamp enthusiasm–and your honest critique will disappoint them. You do want to be particular about your partners going forward, but if you find yourself in that situation, remember that thoughtful critiquing of any kind for anyone improves your own writing skills. Offer your suggestions in the spirit of collegial generosity and self-improvement, and see any effect you have on the final product as icing on the cake.

Tips for Accepting Feedback:

1. Respect the critic’s time and effort
While critics shouldn’t do it for ego strokes or free sex, they certainly deserve thanks. We all live busy lives, and any reader who gives you the gift of her time, much less detailed feedback, deserve gratitude, even if you don’t find the suggestions helpful at first glance. The cult of the great writer is still a potent myth in our society, but gradually I’ve been converted to the cult of the grateful writer. Especially if you’ve approached someone for feedback gratis, remember this person is doing you a favor.

2. Let the feedback ferment
It’s not easy to take criticism, and even veterans can have a defensive reaction. I’ve found over many years of experience, however, that often the feedback that surprised and annoyed me at first could prove quite useful in the end. Read or listen carefully the first time, and take any advice that immediately clicks. Let the rest sit for a while, a week or maybe longer, then revisit the reaction. You’ll be able to pick out the useful bits much more easily the second time, probably because your memory of the critique will be much harsher than the reality!

3. Ask for what you want
Once again I’m reminded of the comparison to sex here. Somehow we get the message that sex should come naturally, and truly compatible partners have no need for verbal communication. That’s not true in bed, and it’s not true for writing partnerships either. As I mentioned above, the process of discussing the reader’s response can help both of you come up with the best way to improve the story. You can even put your questions up front when you hand over the manuscript. In one of my writing partnerships, we include a list of questions or particular doubts—”Is the opening too slow?” “Is the father believable?” We can thus pay attention to specific areas when we read. However, this doesn’t work with everyone. Some readers will immediately hone in on that area out of reflex, and treat it as a problem when they might otherwise not even notice. Each partnership has a special dynamic with unique strengths and pitfalls. That’s why writing partnerships take time to develop to their full potential. (For some more excellent advice on this, check out the ERWA Storytime guidelines.)

4. Trust yourself
Last but not least, keep in mind that you have the final say over your story, no matter how prestigious or experienced your reader may be. I approached one well-published essay writer, a “friend” at the Zoetrope workshop, for advice on an essay about my mother’s death. To my surprise, this person vehemently urged me to trash the entire essay as it felt too raw and personal at that particular point in time, not to mention the piece was boring and slightly hysterical. It wasn’t fun getting that feedback, but I took a step back, reconsidered, and finally decided this person was dead wrong. I sent the essay out to magazines, and it was picked up by the prestigious creative nonfiction journal, Fourth Genre. I trusted my story over the “expert” and it paid off.

The writing workshop environment can also be especially challenging because you might feel the need to incorporate all of the members’ advice into your revision. Writing by committee rarely leads to the most impressive and coherent story. The reason I say “trust yourself,” is because I’ve found over the years that I can feel in my gut when a criticism works for me. I sit with my feeling for a while to see if that little voice inside says “yes, this works” or “no, if I did that, I’d just be trying to please someone else.” That’s the voice of your story shining through—which is the entire purpose of this exercise after all. Next time, some tips on sending your stories out to the most influential readers of all—editors!

Well, this column was indeed almost as long as a Harry Potter book! It’s enough to make anyone hungry and for this month’s recipe, I’m offering up oven-roasted Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, especially fitting because these fascinating little cabbage-like vegetables start off hard and bitter, but can be rendered tender and sweet with the proper treatment, rather like a skillful critique.

Fresh, tasty Brussels sprouts have become much easier to find in markets in the past few years. It’s especially fun to carry home of those imposing stalks and cut off the individual sprouts. The following recipe appears on our table throughout the fall, but is a must at Thanksgiving and Christmas—and far lower in fat than many holiday side dishes. Bon Appetit and Happy Fall Festivals!

Low-Fat Oven-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts

(About 8 servings)

4 cups trimmed and quartered Brussels sprouts (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 1/2 cups halved bottled chestnuts or a bit more to use up the container
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon of water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place Brussels sprouts in a large bowl. Combine oil, water, salt and pepper in a small bowl and toss with the Brussels sprouts. Spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake for about 15 minutes, then stir the sprouts. Bake another 5 minutes and add the chestnuts. Bake for another 5 minutes or so, watching carefully, until the chestnuts are hot and the sprouts are tender and browned but not burned.

Donna George Storey
October 2011

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2011 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Be a “Real” Writer: Slowing Down, Seeing Anew, and a Fresh Take on America’s Favorite Entrée

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”
~James Michener, courtesy of The Quote Garden

Congratulations—you’ve faced down the Void and finished the first draft of a story that has plenty of hot, authentic sex in it. What do you do next? Naturally you send the story off to The New Yorker and start searching for a hotshot agent, right?

Alas, all too many new writers, not to mention those who yearn to write but haven’t actually done it yet, seem to think the faster you push your inspired masterpiece into marketplace, the faster you’ll achieve the fame and fortune that all “real” writers enjoy. But as our feast continues, I’d like to propose a model to challenge that potent myth. In fact, only after you have your first draft finished does the real writing begin. I’d even claim that a thoughtful re-vision and rewrite is the most crucial step in finding—in fact deserving—an audience for your work. I’m not just talking fixing the typos and commas, I mean stepping back and challenging every element of your story.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “slow food movement,” which is everything fast food is not—grown and prepared with care and an awareness of what nourishes the earth, our bodies and our spirits? The more I write, the more I’m coming to support “slow writing,” by which I mean a writer who cares about the conception and crafting of a story, thus offering a polished, powerful, richly-layered experience that respects the gift of the reader’s precious time.

Back when I first started writing, I often pondered the question of when I would be entitled to call myself a “real” writer. Was a single published story enough or did I need a hundred? Did I have to make a certain amount of money from my writing or was a prize or two enough? Even as I won some awards and began to pay taxes on my story sales, I still didn’t feel I’d earned enough external validation to call myself a writer without someone rightfully ridiculing my pretension. After all, had I won a National Book Award? Did my literary income rival J.K. Rowling’s or James Michener’s?

Yet even in those early days, I felt in my heart that I was using the wrong measure to determine what makes a “real” writer. Fourteen years later, I’ve come up with an answer that feels very right for me. A real writer is simply someone who is willing to put in the significant time to shape a raw first draft into a story where every image, every line of dialogue, and every scene has purpose and emotional power. I believe readers can feel this care and attention, even if they are not consciously aware of it.

All human beings are storytellers. We tell each other stories with every word we speak. We have a running narrative in our heads, whether we’re sleeping or awake. That’s why almost everyone—except those who’ve actually tried to write down a story—think it must be easy. However, anyone who has tried knows that taking a good idea and bringing it to life on the page requires lots of work and skill. Therefore, a writer who brings this attention to his work is a true member of the guild whether he’s made a fortune, won a genius award or never even published at all.

My reverence for revision has a very personal foundation. That’s because, truth be told, my first drafts are really, really awful. They’re pocked with wooden prose, clichés, unbelievable dialogue and actions. I would rather die than have anyone read them. When I first started writing, I might spend a year or more editing and polishing a story. Today the editing process usually takes weeks rather than years, but I’m still surprised and relieved at how different the final product is from its very embarrassing beginning.

This might be the sign of a detail-oriented temperament, but although I do enjoy the dreamy rush of creating a first draft, I find my greatest pleasures in the revision phase. This internal “editor” is very different from the abusive voice that tells me I have no talent and am always on the verge of being found out as a fraud or a has-been.

This editor is actually a better writer than I am. She is both a mentor and a friend who shows me how fun writing can be. She loves to play with words like pretty seashells or costume jewelry, choosing the perfect combination for a dazzling effect. She likes nothing better than weaving a pattern of images through a story, subtly, so a second reading is rewarded. This editor reads every line of dialogue aloud for rhythm and authenticity. She actually feels joyful and light when she cuts redundant scenes or lops off a few pages at the beginning or end to make a story lean and lithe. She also insists on getting to know my characters intimately, making sure every action and impulse—in bed or out—is believable and relevant.

Revision, literally looking at your rough draft with new eyes, doesn’t have to be a chore. It is the vehicle by which you imbue your story and your prose with your unique voice and sensibility. Stories with style and substance are the ones editors buy and readers enjoy reading so much, they’ll seek out more by the same author. And that, I believe, is what represents true success for a writer.

It is beyond the scope of one column to discuss the many steps and possible approaches involved in transforming an intuitive “discovery” draft into a craft-conscious “meditation” draft (to borrow the terms used by Robert J. Ray in The Weekend Novelist). However, I can share a few basic, practical tips for how to shift perspective from one phase to the next.

I’ve found for myself that in order to see my story with fresh eyes, I actually need distance. Time is one way to separate. A good night’s sleep works wonders, although sometimes a story needs a few days, weeks or even months to age properly. I’ve also found that printing out a copy of the story, taking it to a completely different room, and pulling out my red pen, allows me to see and hear my words as a reader rather than a composer. My first drafts, which seemed quite serviceable on the computer screen, invariably turn into a preschooler’s arty mess of lines, arrows, scribbled additions and crossed out paragraphs. Yet each successive round of edits brings me closer and closer to what I want the story to be. Eventually, in keeping with the cooking/writing theme of my column, I came to see the first draft as the raw dough and the final piece as a fresh-from-the-oven baked cookie. I certainly love to lick the beaters, but a cookie baked to perfection offers a far more sublime satisfaction.

I began this column with wise words from James Michener, one of the bestselling writers of the twentieth century, but his message has been echoed by countless “real” writers before and since. While the revision phase might seem daunting at first, it is the one part of the writing process that will feel easier as you gain experience—perhaps because it is the time when the writer has the most control. Learning how to edit your own work is essential. However, it is helpful, especially for new writers, to get feedback from beta-readers to hone your skills. In my next column, I will discuss my experiences working with writing teachers, writing groups and some guidelines for writing partnerships.

Until then, remember the “slow” philosophy: taking your time and respecting the process increases the pleasure—whether you’re talking food, sex or writing!

The hard work of revising a story surely deserves a fun and delicious dinner as a reward. A few years ago I featured a recipe for homemade pizza dough in “Cooking Up a Storey“, but I recently discovered an interesting new dough variation—a revision, if you will—which uses beer (open an extra bottle for the cook!) and requires no kneading. Homemade pizza is a great family dinner, but it also makes for a festive, delightfully leisurely party for guests. Simply put out bowls of toppings and let your guests create their own masterpieces for a make-your-own-pizza buffet.

Bon Appetit and Happy Revising!

“Real” Revised Beer Pizza Dough
(2 medium pizzas; adapted from a recipe on the King Arthur Flour website)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups semolina*
2 teaspoons (1 package) instant (quick-acting) yeast
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups room-temperature beer (12 oz. bottle)

*Semolina adds an authentic flavor and texture but you can substitute unbleached all-purpose flour

Mix together all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the oil and beer and knead together by hand or mixer until you’ve made a smooth, soft dough. Cover the dough with Saran Wrap and let it rise in a warm place for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a 10″ to 12″ round. You can also make four individual pizzas.

If you’re going to use a pizza stone, place the rounds on parchment paper. Or place the dough on a lightly greased baking sheet. For thin to medium crust, bake the pizzas immediately. For a thicker crust, let the pizza rise for 30 to 60 minutes.

Transfer the pizza, parchment and all, to the pizza stone, or place the pans in the oven. Bake the crust for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven, top as desired, and bake for an additional 15 minutes until the bottom crust is crisp and the cheese is bubbly and browned. If you prefer less browned cheese, put sauce and other ingredients on after the first five minutes, then add the grated cheese during the last five minutes.

Suggested Toppings:

The Classic: Spread the slightly baked crust with jarred or homemade pizza sauce. An easy sauce can be made by draining a can of chopped tomatoes in a strainer and stirring in fresh or dried basil to taste. Sprinkle with grated mozzarella cheese—one or two ounces is sufficient for 1/4 of the dough. Thin slices of fresh mozzarella work well, too.

Low-fat Mediterranean: Spread the slightly baked crust with a light layer of tomato topping. Sprinkle with any combination of Kalamata olives, feta, Parmesan, artichoke hearts, and roasted or fried peppers. Fresh tomato slices work well, too. Go light on the cheese.

Berkeley Special: Fry some chopped onion in olive oil over low heat until caramelized. Sprinkle over the slightly baked pizza crust and top with small cubes of mild goat cheese and toasted pine nuts.

Pesto: Spread homemade or store-bought pesto over slightly baked crust. Top with mozzarella cheese.

Donna George Storey
August 2011

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2011 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Seduce Your Reader- and Yourself: Erotic Sex, Sexier Erotica, and Very Versatile Salads

Conflict is the engine of story. Although in my real life I usually try to avoid social unpleasantness, as a writer, I’ve come to understand the basic rule of seducing an audience: create a compelling character with a passionate desire, throw one or two monumental obstacles in front of her that she must battle, and end it in a gripping climax. Give them all that, and your readers will keep turning those pages with a spark in their eyes and drool on their lips.

Erotica writers are fortunate in that aching desire, built-in obstacles (like clothes), and rocketing climaxes are integral to the structure of sexual exploration. However, we also face particular challenges. In this installment of our writer’s feast, I’d like to focus on the elements of writing that give erotica its flavor. Namely, I’m going to tackle two classic questions of our craft—what makes erotica different from pornography and “literature,” and how much sex does an erotic story need.

Now I’m well aware that volumes have been written on the difference or lack thereof between erotica and porn. I certainly agree that in the end the decision rests with each reader according to his own taste and sensibility. Nor would I ever impose my definition on anyone or argue that erotica is “superior.” However, as a writer, I truly believe there are crucial differences in the nature of our creative task and its effect on the reader.

In my view, porn aims to lift the reader out of the ordinary world of limitations, rules, regrets. The characters exist mainly to engage in and enjoy sex, and the plot provides them with abundant opportunities to do so. The writer doesn’t want to distract the reader from this magical space with any unpleasant consequences or indeed too much engagement with the intellect, which is so much a servant to cultural values. When I’m in a certain mood, pornotopia is exactly where I want to go, and indeed often I incorporate pornographic fantasy into my stories.

In our current environment, literary fiction focuses on the aspects of human experience that are not easily spoken of in our everyday lives. Family secrets, neuroses, lifelong disappointments, social pressures, all the things pornography tries to escape, are examined under the merciless glare of realistic fiction. These stories are “character-driven” in that readers expect a flawed protagonist we come to “know,” if not necessarily like, and a plot that approximates real life. Rape and under-age sexual activity, forbidden in pornography where it is assumed this disturbing and taboo material will arouse the reader, are acceptable in literary fiction if portrayed in a way that emphasizes the negative consequences, and the fact that something as potentially pleasurable as sex can indeed be used as a terrible weapon against unwilling victims.

In my opinion, erotica occupies the hazy middle ground between literature and pornography. Like porn, sex in erotica is often pleasurable, and always important to the story. On the other hand, as in the literary genre, the characters tend to be more fully rounded, bringing their histories, emotions, and ambivalence to bed with them. They experience consequences when they have sex, mostly good, but sometimes less than rosy. I’ll admit that one of the ways I personally decide whether I’m reading erotica or a pornographic romp is whether I feel the sex scenes could actually happen in “real life.”

And while erotica is still looked down upon in many literary circles, or seen as a snobby feminist moniker for an old-fashioned dirty story from the down-to-earth pornographer, its in-between status not only allows it to embrace the best elements but transcend the extremes of both genres. In literary fiction, it seems, characters who have sex, and god forbid enjoy it, always suffer punishment of some sort. There is no room for a celebration of the pure pleasure, much less the sacredness of sexual union. Yet, pornotopia often leaves us feeling unsatisfied above the waist. We cannot deny that darkness, disappointment, and regret are part of the erotic experience. To repress this truth eviscerates sex of its full power as an engine of conflict and a mirror of character. Erotica provides a unique, and even revolutionary, stage to portray the honest impact of sexuality on our lives.

I know, it sounds like a grand endeavor when you’re sitting down to write a humble story, but it’s actually rather simple to accomplish this goal. How? Be authentic. Sure, sometimes “truth” needs to be sacrificed for a good story—how often do we actually seduce an attractive stranger on the subway?—but there are thousands of opportunities, large and small, to portray sexual desire authentically based on your genuine sensual experience rather than cliché. Each time an erotic writer tells the truth about sex, each time an intimate secret, whether joyful or shameful, is laid bare, good comes to the world.

On to the next question often asked of veteran writers—how much sex should an erotic story have? My first impulse is to reply “as much as possible.” This is due in large part to my own frustration with the fade-outs to candle flames in so many of my favorite classic love stories. Plus the answer always gets a laugh from my audience, too. But to be authentic and truthful here, I stand by that answer.

And I don’t.

Many beginning erotica writers, my novice self included, seem to believe that a series of sex scenes alone make a compelling story. Indeed for me, the very act of speaking the unspeaking was so exciting, I lost sight of the fact that there wasn’t much of a story holding the scenes together. Over time I’ve come up with another way to distinguish erotica from porn: in erotica, if you take out the sex scenes, you still have an interesting story left over. Perhaps a very short interesting story, but one that would intrigue a reader nonetheless. Thus, when I say “as much sex as possible,” I am not suggesting you hammer your reader with ten pages of in-and-out hydraulics.

However, there are other more crafty and subtle ways to insinuate erotic energy into the story, and I suggest you exploit them to the fullest. One of my personal preferences is to alert my reader right up front that they’re in the hands a writer who is intrigued by sex and not afraid to talk frankly about it. And there’s no reason not to start right at the beginning. Here are openers from some of my stories that have been reprinted numerous times:

I kneel down and you tie the blindfold over my eyes. (“Blinded”)

I’ll be honest. I like my sex a little rough. And very wet. (“Wet”)

Don chose the perfect moment to tell us about the cunt book. (“The Cunt Book”)

Assignment #4: Bring yourself to orgasm without using your fingers, hands, vibrator or other sex toy. Record the experience in your Masturbation Journal, following the usual guidelines. (“Dear Professor Pervert”)

Hotel rooms turn me on. (“Room Service”)

After all, I want to be honest with my reader from the beginning. With this writer, they’re in for plenty of sex. But not right away. After that little teaser, I usually back up and introduce my characters and their situation before I leap into the actual sex. Or more to the point, I don’t usually leap into the sex. I slither slowly and sumptuously into the sex. Again perhaps because I personally have a better time in bed with plenty of leisurely foreplay, I like to provide my readers with a similarly seductive build-up. Getting back to the power of authenticity and honesty in writing, I would like to ask you, dear reader, when looking back over the erotic stories that have stayed with you, which section moved you to “action”? If you’re anything like me, I bet it wasn’t the actual orgasm, but something slow and sly and wicked that came before.

So, when I say “as much sex as possible,” I really mean that I appreciate an erotic story where every gesture, every line of dialogue, and every word is chosen with consideration as to how it builds sexual tension and fuels the reader’s erotic experience. Sometimes this can involve pulling back and taking a breather to create yearning. Or it can involve describing something apparently unrelated to the sex in sensual terms—the feel of sunlight on skin or the flavor of a sweet carrot or the velvet of a night sky. While other writers are “allowed” to move their readers to such emotions as shock, fear, anger, sorrow, joy, triumph and satisfaction, they face criticism for reaching below the belt too openly. However, readers usually pick up erotica or porn with the expectation of sexual arousal. It’s not easy to accomplish this—readers in the Internet age are jaded and discriminating about their arousing materials—but the reward is awesome indeed because your words can become an intimate part, even the engine, of your reader’s most private pleasure.

Yes, this is another daunting challenge we face, but allow me to prescribe another fairly easy approach. Write about what truly turns you on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if my erotica turns me on. I suspect the question is meant to make me blush, but I always admit it does, intellectually and physically, at least in the early stages before I put on my no-nonsense editor’s hat. Without that genuine connection, I would merely be churning out someone else’s idea of sexy—and how boring is that? Not only can a reader can feel authentic excitement in the prose, it sure makes the writer’s life a hell of lot more fun!

So tell the truth, write on and get ready for some feasting!

This month we’ll be enjoying the salad course, which, like erotica, can span the spectrum from light and refreshing to hearty and substantial. I’m including below one of my favorite main course salads I offered in my July 2009 column [Naked Lunches: Picnics, Porn Stashes, and the Roots of an Obsession], which is perfect for picnics and potlucks. In keeping with this month’s free and easy theme, however, I also wanted to honor the in-between versatility of the homely, yet often transcendentally delicious green salad.

I rarely use recipes for salads these days, except for more complex dressings. I start with some fresh lettuce from my organic vegetable box as a base, then build up with seasonal goodies. A favorite for fall is lettuce with pears, toasted walnuts and dried cranberries dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. Summer is ideal for a main course Greek salad—ripe tomatoes and peppers, Kalamata olives and feta cheese. In winter, you can add citrus, like fresh orange slices and currants. Sometimes the answer to the question of the perfect salad of the moment is exceedingly simple: fresh greens, grated carrots, a few croutons and a tasty homemade dressing. Simple, honest, seductive, sustaining, and sexy. The following is one of my favorites, with a Japanese twist.

Bon Appetit!

Deliciously Light Miso Dressing

Combine the following in a bowl or dressing shaker.

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon ginger juice*
1/4 teaspoon mirin
1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons mellow white miso
3 Tablespoons low sodium and low sugar rice vinegar (such as Marukan lite)
3 Tablespoons olive oil

*You can either grate your own fresh ginger then squeeze out the juice or use a prepared product like ginger juice or minced ginger from The Ginger People (available at stores like Whole Foods).

Naughty Picnic Couscous Salad
(6 servings)

1 10 ounce package quick-cooking couscous
1 14 ounce can vegetable or chicken broth
2 tomatoes, chopped
A bunch of green onions, chopped
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and well drained
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch long julienne
1/2 cup dried currants
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup freshly toasted pine nuts

5 Tablespoons lemon juice
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
1 drop hot pepper sauce
Pinch of garlic powder
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring broth to a boil over medium heat. Add couscous (check package if more liquid is needed), off heat and cover. Let steam for five minutes. Uncover and cool, then fluff. Transfer couscous to a large bowl.

Add tomatoes, green onions, chickpeas, bell pepper, currants and chopped parsley and mix until well combined.

Blend lemon juice, olive oil, cumin, curry powder, hot pepper sauce and garlic powder in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add dressing to couscous and toss to combine. Refrigerate at least one hour. Can be prepared one day ahead. Mix in pine nuts just before serving (take nuts in separate container for a picnic).

Donna George Storey
May/June 2011

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2011 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Ashley Lister talks with Robert Buckley

Coming Together Presents Robert BuckleyRegular visitors to ERWA will be familiar with the name of fiction editor Bob Buckley.  Boston-based, wise and witty, Bob Buckley has a background in journalism and a list of respectable publishing credits within the genre of erotic fiction that include The Mammoth Best New Erotica series, Bite of the Apple, Cream, Desires, Slip of the Lip, and, of course, ERWA’s Erotica Gallery.

This month Bob’s collection of short fiction is released as the latest title in Lisabet Sarai’s series Coming Together Presents Robert Buckley.  As with all the Coming Together titles, proceeds from the book benefit a worthy cause. Robert Buckley’s chosen charity is the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Ashley Lister: What first drew you to write erotic fiction? Who are your favourite authors within the genre?

Robert Buckley: I wrote my first erotic story, quite simply, because I wanted to see if I could. A friend had revealed to me that he was writing a serialized story along the lines of Terry Southern’s Candy for a pay Web site and that he had realized a modest but steady income from the venture. “You’re kidding!” I said, and immediately insisted, “I bet I could do that.” The story was formulaic, based on the kind of story I read in lurid little paperbacks that came into the hands of boyhood friends and fell to pieces from being passed around. The kinds of books with titles like Mary’s Painful Journey. It was a hoot to write, but when I read it back to myself I thought, “This isn’t half bad; in fact, it’s pretty good.”

It was sort of an epiphany. I got serious about writing erotica. Thankfully, I discovered ERWA and the opportunity to present my work to a forum of strangers for critique – strangers who quickly became some of the best friends I never met.

I had read a lot of classic erotica, Victorian era stuff, Lawrence, Nin – I loved The Story of O. But most of the erotic and sensual passages that remained in my mind over the years were from mainstream novels and short stories, not necessarily from erotic works. J.G. Ballard’s stories for example. The most sensual passage I think I ever read didn’t even have anything to do with sex. It described a man’s pleasure and joy at eating a roasted yam drizzled with melted brown sugar that he had bought from a street vendor in Harlem. That was in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Ashley Lister: Erotica seems to lend itself to the medium of short fiction. Do you find it’s easier to contain explicit interludes within short stories rather than the fuller context of a novel?

Robert Buckley: I haven’t written a novel … yet. I enjoy the short story form and I think it often gets – no pun intended – short shrift. A lot of erotic short stories are little more than a sex scene and can be pretty much summed up as: A wants to have sex, B wants to have sex, so A & B get together and have sex. I’ve been lectured on occasion by critics who told me that is the essence of erotica, a story solely about the seeking and obtaining of sexual release. But that bores the hell out of me. I prefer to hang the sex on the story, rather than make the story entirely about sex. I like character-driven stories, with a plot that may not have anything to do with sex, but when sex occurs in the story, it’s important to the tale rather than just insinuated.

Ashley Lister: The Coming Together titles invariably support a charitable institution that the author has personally selected. Which charity have you picked and why is this one so important to you personally?

Robert Buckley: I chose the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation for very personal reasons. My daughter, now 29, was diagnosed with the disease a few years ago. Everything I know about MS I learned the day my girl broke the news to me. No one in the family had ever had anything like it. It’s an auto-immune disease in which the body attacks its own nervous system. It has nothing to do with heredity. You determine someone has MS by eliminating everything else. My girl was lucky in a way, except for a couple of scary manifestations; she’s been leading a normal life with the aid of medication. The younger you are when the disease appears, the more likely you are to lead a normal life. People who get it later in life are the ones who usually experience its most devastating effects.

Ashley Lister: Do you have a favourite story within this collection? Could you tell us a little about the piece?

Robert Buckley: This is a collection of erotic noir with the addition of one story that, while noirish, leans into the realm of the supernatural. They range from historical settings to contemporary, and for the most part they involve average people who find themselves in extraordinary situations – another favorite theme of mine. But I suppose my favorite is a story called “An Excess of Light.” It’s a detective story set in the late 19th century in an unnamed city some might guess is New York and involves an American Civil War veteran who suffers from guilt stemming from his role in the war – a sniper. Today we might say he has a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. He is retained by a wealthy man to retrieve his daughter-in-law from the clutches of a notorious white slaver whom our hero used to work for. Of course, it’s noir, so things are not what they seem; there are twists and revelations. It’s a type of story I’ve tried to craft that, while obviously a short story, reads and delivers like a novel. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if I’ve pulled off that trick.

Ashley Lister: I know that Lisabet Sarai has been editing the most recent series of Coming Together anthologies and she seems to have selected writers who are eminently respected in the world of erotic fiction. The current (and forthcoming) titles include collections from M Christian, Remittance Girl, C Sanchez-Garcia, Shanna Germain and yourself. Is Lisabet an easy editor to work with? Have you encountered any unexpected problems in compiling an anthology of your short fiction?

Robert Buckley: I’m putty in her hands. She’s the prettiest girl in school – you know, the one you used to daydream about. My previous experience with Lisabet was when she put together the ERWA collection Cream. She has excellent editorial instincts. And, not to flog a … comely lass too much, but she’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve never met. Sigh …

Ashley Lister: What are you working on next and where else would readers be able to find more of your fiction?

Robert Buckley: Trying to get my new dog to behave… Oh, you meant what literary projects I might have in the works. Nothing specific at the moment, just writing, writing, writing. ERWA keeps me busy, and I’ve been looking into creating not a novel as such, but a collection of linked short stories.

Ashley Lister
March 2011

“Between the Lines” © 2011 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

From Void to Voice: First Drafts, Fecund Fears and Transformative Soups

Our writer’s feast continues this month with musings on an intimidating, yet indispensable stage of the creative process: transforming a juicy story idea into a tale that will engage a reader. Or in other words, writing the first draft.

One of the most dangerous myths for writers is that great or even plain old good stories come into being all at once as if by magic—Jack Kerouac typing out On the Road in one three-week marathon (although it took six years and some revisions to see publication) or Katherine Anne Porter beginning “Flowering Judas” at 7 p.m. and posting it to the publisher at 1:30 the next morning, where it is was immediately accepted upon receipt (or so she claimed in an interview with The Paris Review).

Even if some stories do come into the world so easily, it will help us ordinary writers to remember this is the exception, and most stories take many drafts, while novels can take years of revision. More to the point, I’d wager the majority of writers are unable to sit down before the blank page—or these days, blank screen—without a twist of fear at confronting the Void, that huge gap between the intriguing idea and the actual story. The specific voices of doubt that clamor to feed our fears might differ at various stages of our experience. When I began writing some fourteen years ago, I worried primarily that I didn’t have the talent to be published. With over a hundred publications under my belt, the worries have shifted a bit. Can I still grasp the storyteller’s magic or has my luck run out? Am I just repeating my favorite themes over and over? I’ll spare you the full list of cruel, self-directed taunts, but, although it does get easier with practice, pre-first-draft anxiety never fully disappears for many.

At such times, I try to remember an inspirational reminder that is posted on the drama bulletin board at my son’s school: “Fear is a window of opportunity.”

In fact, over the years I have come to see this creative “fear” in a different light, at least in my wiser moods. Rather than simple self-loathing or insecurity, feeling scared before we start a new story can be seen as a sign of respect for the mystery of the creative process. It might be easier to fall back into my own comfortable formulas, but I owe it to my readers to take a risk and stretch my storytelling skills to the best of my ability. No doubt I will “fail” to reach “perfection” with each story, but it is the process of trying that is the magic of writing. As market-place minded as writers must be these days, we might forget that while the one sentence elevator pitch is the best way to sell a story to an agent or publisher, a story is more than a pithy tease. It must deliver.

I’ll explain what I mean.

When I first started writing, I had hazy ideas for wonderful stories I wanted to tell. The first draft was an annoying phase I had to pass through on my way to the glory of a polished piece admired and loved by millions, at least in the screen adaptation. Slowly—ever so slowly—I came to realize that the initial ideas that sparked my imagination were often barely recognizable in a story’s final draft. A detail or two might make it through untouched, but inevitably the plot took unexpected turns and the characters hijacked my plans. Sometimes even the language itself made decisions for me. I’ve learned to appreciate these detours and rebellions. A story doesn’t exist in the outline or plan, it comes into being sentence by sentence as I write it on the page. Perhaps it is no coincidence that my stories that intrigue and surprise me the most as I write garner the most enthusiastic response from readers as well.

Experience has also taught me ways to push back against the word-freeze commonly known as writer’s block. My favorite way to convert the Void of a blank page into a much friendlier first draft involves tricking those wily voices of self-doubt. “I won’t tackle the first draft today,” I say loudly to distract those naysayers who will settle for nothing less than perfection. Because of course, first drafts are not about perfection. They’re about discovering my characters and their dilemmas and generating lots of pages to further shape and polish. And so I vow to let the blank file rest for a bit while I head over to another file with my notes for the story.

There I simply begin to flesh out the outline with more detailed descriptions of the action within a particularly appealing scene, letting my fingers type as they will and letting go of any expectation of quality. Before I know it, I’m writing dialogue and responses. A half hour later I find myself with a full scene from the story and a lot more knowledge about my characters in action. Even if it’s not the opening scene—and it rarely is—I now have valuable momentum I can use to build the rest of the story.

Sometimes, as with the piece I’m working on right now for example, I’ll be speeding along nicely with my opening scenes, then suddenly everything sputters to a halt. I have to grind out each gesture and line of dialogue as if I’m pushing a heavy weight over rocky ground. I now recognize this as another danger sign. Ideally a story takes a reader on an engaging ride, with the characters as the body of the car and the plot conflict the engine. If the engine fails or the body collapses, the poor reader is left stranded at the side of the road.

Plot in particular can be a challenge in erotica. When I first started writing sexy stories, I was so blown away with shock that I was actually writing about the taboo topic of sex, I didn’t notice my “story” was nothing more than a description of an erotic encounter. On occasion I still make the same mistake, that is, losing sight of my character’s motivations in the midst of a hot and sweaty wrestling match between the sheets.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered a fix for this problem as well. Usually if I go back and clarify the conflict—that is, what my character wants and what is standing in her way—I invariably find myself back on track. I learned this lesson best when writing my first novel, Amorous Woman. I kept my story moving by giving my protagonist a large and impossible desire—to become intimate with the whole country and culture of Japan. Chapter after chapter she tried, and mostly failed, to do this, but her ambitious yearning kept the plot chugging along nicely until those satisfying words “The End.”

Each writer has his or her own tricks to face down the Void and keep the story flowing. I covered two of the most basic strategies here this month. First, just sit down and write something, even if the words aren’t perfect (I always think of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft” as outlined in her writing guide, Bird by Bird). Second, always remember a story lives by conflict, a character who wants something passionately meeting obstacles in pursuit of her desire. Keep sight of your conflict and the words will come. Conflict of any kind propels the author’s writing and the reader’s interest, it can be external, internal, dramatic or subtle. Fortunately in erotica, we always have sexual yearning to fuel the flames and a natural climax built into the story arc. In fact, in my next column, I’ll explore these specific challenges and perks of writing erotica, how to balance sex with story and how much sex is necessary to qualify as a good one-handed read.

I hope all this talk about Voids and writer’s block has made you a little hungry. Now it’s time for the soup course. Naturally soup can be a main dish in itself, coupled with bread and cheese for a satisfying ménage a trois. These days I seldom use recipes for my everyday main dish soup. I take a look at the vegetables in my weekly box from the organic farm and stir them all up into something seasonal and tasty. I usually start with olive oil and an onion or leeks, add in chopped hard vegetables like carrots, celery or potatoes and sauté them for a while. Then I add chicken or vegetable broth, canned tomatoes if desired, and a suitable blend of herbs. Basil, oregano and marjoram with a rind of Parmesan cheese make for a tasty Italian flavor. Cumin is good for a Mexican soup with corn and black beans. For an Indian flavor, I use toasted cumin seed and mustard seed or good quality curry powder, which makes an especially good lentil soup. A little later I’ll add softer vegetables like zucchini, green beans, chard or kale. Finally I add some cooked beans (if I haven’t added lentils earlier) or pasta, which I cook until al dente. This kind of peasant-style refrigerator soup is very much like a first draft, because I’m never sure how it will turn out—but usually the result is scrumptious.

The magic of soup is that it can also transform an ordinary meal into a fancy spread. One of my favorite meals for the early spring is asparagus risotto. If I whip up a batch of carrot dill soup as an appetizer, a fairly simple dish becomes a fancy company meal. I also recommend one of my favorite Indian-style red lentil soups, which can either be served as a main course, or part of a more elaborate Indian feast with home-baked naan and vegetable curries.

Bon Appetit and happy writing. Creativity is always delicious!

Carrot Dill Soup adapted from Bon Appetit, May 1998
8 servings

2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 lbs carrots, peeled and sliced, preferably sweet, fresh ones from the farmer’s market
6 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 Tablespoons Arborio or medium grain rice
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Heat oil in soup pot over medium high heat. Add onions and sauté until translucent, 5-10 minutes. Stir in carrots; add stock and rice. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered until vegetables are tender, about 35 minutes. Puree soup with wand blender or in batches in food processor. Stir in the dill. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Bengali Lentil Soup
Serves 6

1 cup red lentils
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 can of chopped tomatoes
2 T vegetable or olive oil
1/2 t cumin seeds
1/2 t yellow or black mustard seeds
4 cups onion (2 large), finely sliced
5 t garlic (3-4 cloves), sliced
A half bunch of fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

Mix lentils, broth and turmeric in a soup pot, bring to boil and simmer 20 minutes until lentils are soft. Add tomatoes and cook for a few minutes longer; reduce heat.

Meanwhile heat oil in a medium skillet. Add cumin and mustard seeds and sauté until fragrant, for just a few minutes. Cook on low heat, being careful not to burn seeds. Add onions and garlic and cook until golden brown, about 10 minutes or somewhat more.

Add onion mixture to lentils and cook a few minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, add cilantro, cover and let steam a minute. Serve hot.

Donna George Storey
March 2011

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2011 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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