Donna George Storey

The Writer’s Ultimate Secret: Making Magic with Words and Cookie Dough

Over the past year in “Cooking Up a Storey,” I’ve shared my secret recipes for creating unforgettable stories and mouth-watering cookies. In January, I discussed the power of sharing our experiences as artists with each other to get a necessary grounding in reality. In April, I talked about the one sure-fire way to make your work stand out—care passionately and give it your all. In July, I suggested we all look at the damaging myths of what “success” means for a writer. In the common understanding this is external validation like money, fame, and awards, which are bestowed on only a tiny fraction of working writers. In September, I suggested a cure for writer’s block: an undying curiosity about the workings of the human heart, mind, and libido. November brought a focus on the ridicule we face as erotica writers, and our secret revenge—getting in touch with pleasure by celebrating it, listening to it, exploring it.

While the writing life may seem glamorous to those who only dream of becoming the next Shakespeare or Tom Clancy, anyone who actually tries to write a good story knows how difficult and complex the task is. We often feel discouraged when our personal path does not fit the myths. Thus the final “secret” I’d like to share is this. In our media-saturated society, we are constantly urged to compare ourselves to world-famous celebrities, but holding ourselves to such standards can rob us of an appreciation of our own creative power. The truth is, we don’t have to have our own cooking show to bake something that will have diners smacking their lips in delight. We don’t have to win “The Voice” to sing a lovely song that will touch hearts. We don’t have to be followed by TMZ to be a worthwhile human being. And we don’t have to be E.L. James to write erotica that will put sizzle in our lives and arouse readers. We have the power to create something magical from the most mundane ingredients, be it a story from words or a batch of cookies from sugar, butter and flour. Let’s use it well and never let anyone take that power from us.

But to borrow some wisdom from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. One of the most appealing myths of publishing is that our most popular and/or revered writers are actually demi-gods, gifted by the Muses, who dash off their brilliant novels Kerouac-style in a week or two, then spend the rest of the day lounging by their pools giving interviews and signing movie deals. If fiction writing doesn’t come this easy to you, then obviously you aren’t a Real Writer. This same trick is more obvious for cookie bakers. The TV chef mixes up some ingredients, then reaches into the oven and immediately pulls out a tray of perfectly baked treats. But let me assure you, when you get a box of my holiday cookies, a dozen years of experience and dozens more hours of toil and worry come along with them.

Frankly, I’d rather not waste calories eating something that was mass-produced with an eye to maxim profit or my precious time reading something that was just dashed off for a quick buck, even if the author is a “famous” writer or celebrity. My life is already crammed with junk information and noise, and I’ve sworn off processed food long ago (except at Halloween when I life some fun-sized Mounds and Kit-Kat’s from my son’s trick-or-treat bag). The stories and food that change our lives are created with love, passion, and a search from something deeper. These creative acts don’t only make magic, they can change your world.

So, my fellow erotica writers, let’s keep on changing the world—one dirty story at a time!

In January 2008, when I sat down to compose my very first installment of “Cooking Up a Storey,” I was nervous about taking on the commitment of a column and unsure if I’d have anything to say after a month or two. Five years and dozens of recipes later, I’m writing my very last column. Looking back, I know that I’ve learned more about writing, reading and sensual pleasure because I had the opportunity to write “Cooking Up a Storey.” I thank you all for reading, although I will still be weighing in on erotica writing topics over at the lively ERWA blog on the eighteenth of every month.

I’ll leave you with perhaps the most popular, crowd-pleasing recipe in my files. These cute little cookie mice do take some time and dexterity to make, but the delighted response is worth every minute. Allow yourself a few practice mice to get the hang of it. Bon Appetit!

cookie recipeHoliday Cookie Mice
(Makes about 60 mice)
A miniature version adapted from DeDe Wilson’s A Baker’s Field Guide to Christmas Cookies with lots of tips for success from yours truly.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg

—Sliced natural almonds or jelly beans cut in half
Pull & Peel Twizzlers or licorice laces in red or black, cut into 3-inch lengths, trim off a triangle shape at both ends of licorice to angle them for easy insertion and tail-like appearance (pull off in two’s, then separate to minimize tearing)
—About 2 ounces semisweet chocolate bar or morsels, melted and cooled to lukewarm

Whisk flour and salt together in a separate bowl. In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar gradually, beating until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in vanilla, then egg. Add about 1/3 of flour mixture and mix at low speed. Gradually add remaining flour, mixing until blended. Scrape dough onto a large piece of waxed paper, wrap and refrigerate until chilled enough to roll into balls, at least 2 hours to overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Using a teaspoon-sized cookie scoop, make balls of dough and roll between your hands to form teardrop shapes (with slightly pointed noses, but not too pointed or they burn). Insert two almond slices about 1/3 of of the way back for ears. Bake about 6 to the cookie sheet, until light golden brown on the bottom about 13-14 minutes (depending on your oven).

When you remove the pan from the oven, straighten any almonds that have moved out of position, line up mice along edge of cookie sheet and insert a wooden skewer pointed end first into the rear end of two mice. Twirl the skewer, then insert blunt end and do the same. Insert a piece of licorice and push about 1/2-inch into soft cookie. Repeat with other mice in pairs. Place on a rack to cool.

Melt chocolate, let cool almost completely, then put into pastry bag with smallest writing/plain tip. Pipe eyes and nose onto mice with the lightest touch to avoid smears, let cool before storing in airtight tins.

holiday cookiesTips for Forming Bodies—Roll into smooth ball, then into oval; use scant teaspoon

Ears—Smaller almonds for ears are better; match similar pairs on a plate beforehand; angle at 90 degrees, leave a little space between ears; don’t insert into dough straight from the refrigerator, wait 2 minutes

holiday cookiesNut-free Jelly Bean Option—cut cherry jelly beans in half, use thinner side; insert into unbaked mouse, but don’t bake with jellybeans, insert beans again into indentations gently when mice come fresh out of theoven while still tender

Tails—Line up all six at edge of a rimmed cookie sheet, rest skewer on rim edge, angle skewer straight, low, with a slight upward rather than downward angle to prevent piercing “skin” of mouse

Donna George Storey
December 2012 – January 2013

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2012 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Creating Pure Pleasure: How to Change Lives with Erotica, Telling Truths, and Orgasmic Cookies

Writing erotic can be a very pleasurable experience. The hands-on research is the most enjoyable work you can do, it’s far easier to sell your stories than it is to break into stuffy literary magazines, and if you mention what you do to sympathetic strangers, you’re sure to elicit more curiosity than if you wrote monographs on obscure Japanese writers (I know this from experience). Of course, on occasion you will also encounter prejudice and ridicule. I’ll never forget one of the first times I dared to confess to a stranger at a party that I had a story coming out in Best American Erotica. He seemed impressed that I was published at all, but went on to say that while he doesn’t really read erotica (few people will admit they do), the things he has read are invariably poorly written. I had the wherewithal to reply that if he read my work, he would change his mind. But the fact remains, even people who haven’t read much erotica—perhaps especially people who haven’t read much erotica—are very sure it’s all trash simply because it’s sexually explicit.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people reach this conclusion without even reading what they condemn. The media is bursting with sexual images designed to stoke our desire to buy things, but rarely does it go beyond the salacious tease to the transcendental possibilities of a sexual experience or the profound satisfaction it can bring. In spite of a greater acceptance of the discussion of sexuality, in order to be considered worthy of polite company, it still has to be shrouded in scientific data or focused on problems, addiction or a definition of “normal” behavior. The expression of sex as pure pleasure is still mocked and ghettoized, 50 Shades of Grey to the contrary. The Japanese word for literary fiction, junbungaku or “pure literature,” is apt for my argument. Literary fiction in the U.S. as well still guards its reputation by focusing mainly on dangerous, adulterous or incestuous sex, the dark side of our libidinous urges. Those who celebrate the positive side of sex and who write with the intent to arouse rather than frighten or disgust are assumed to be dirty hacks who don’t have enough talent to write “genuine” literature.

Now, there are no doubt writers who crank out clichés for hire and despise their readers in the bargain, but I’m pretty sure if you’re here at ERWA, you are not one of those people. You write erotica because you are fascinated by sexuality, and you know that the body and the mind are not separate entities, with the superior intellect desperately battling to dominate our degenerate animal nature. On the contrary, I believe that with every story we write that celebrates the full humanity of sex, we are healing that ancient, but false, divide.

Writing erotica has definitely changed the way I see and experience sex, and I learn something new every time. With fifteen years of erotica writing under my belt, however, I sometimes worry I won’t have anything fresh to say. Yet each time I sit down to write a new story, I’m determined to include something true, better still a detail or insight that changed the way I experience sex and desire. I’d like to share an example of this from my story “Comfort Food,” which appears in Women in Lust, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel.

“With a sunny August sky cut by a cooling breeze, the weather was so perfect I could have ordered it off a menu. Thanks to the pudding and the fantasy blowjob, all of my senses were heightened. I reveled in the shapes of each leaf growing along the path, the sound of the birdsong, the clean scent of baked earth and oxygen-rich air. And of course, all the time I was thinking of Joseph. What was he doing now? What experience in his brief life made him wary of sharing his recipes? He was a cook who clearly enjoyed eating. Would his cock be as solid and sturdy as the rest of his body? And most intriguing of all—would his semen really taste like vanilla cream pudding?

Thirty years ago, I would have called these obsessive musings a crush, but I was wise enough now to know it had nothing to do with Joseph himself. It was all about me. I was a woman who could feel and want and enjoy life’s sensual pleasures. My desire made me more interesting to myself.”

What indeed is more fascinating than a person who cares and desires passionately? If we write erotica that speaks the truth of our experience, our readers will connect with our bravery, and perhaps, slowly but surely, strangers at parties will no longer assume all erotica is badly written.

This month’s recipe for pecan bars has much in common with good erotica. These small, nut-rich treats may just look like more empty calories, but time and time again I’ve gotten rave reviews from satisfied samplers. Made with high quality pecans, they not only explode with flavor on the tongue and palate, they inspire the type of eloquent praise that can only come from an engaged intellect. People have told me these cookies make them glad to be alive, that this may be the best cookie they’ve ever eaten, that they will remember this moment as the epitome of deliciousness. The palpable excitement is quite frankly erotic.

These are especially appealing with pecans fresh from the autumn harvest—bon appetit!

Pure Pleasure Pecan BarsPure Pleasure Pecan Bars
(Makes about 32 medium squares, 48 petit squares, depending on how guilty you want to feel about eating one or two or…)


1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) plus 1-2 Tablespoons chilled, unsalted butter cut into 1/2-inch pieces


1 1/4 cups packed golden brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
4 cups coarsely chopped pecans (about 14 1/2 oz.)—see note
1/2 cup whipping cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

To make the crust:

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 13x9x2-inch baking pan with foil, leaving a 1-inch overhang on all sides. Butter foil. Blend flour, powdered sugar, cornstarch and salt in a food processor. Add butter and process until the mixture just begins to clump together. The dough will be somewhat crumbly. Do not over process or it becomes greasy when baked. Pour into the foil-lined pan and press dough evenly onto bottom. Bake crust until set and light golden, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven. Let stand while preparing topping. Reduce oven temperature to 325F.

To make the topping:

Stir brown sugar, corn syrup and butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves and mixture boils; boil 1 minute. Add pecans and cream; boil until mixture thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Stir in vanilla. Pour hot topping over warm crust. Bake nut-topped crust until filling is darker and bubbles, about 20-25 minutes depending on your oven. Transfer pan to rack. Cool completely (overnight is fine) in pan. The topping will harden as it cools.

Lift foil out of the pan onto a cutting board. Using a heavy, sharp knife, trim off about one half-inch around all four edges. Reserve these for family snacking. Cut the rest into four even sections, sawing through the pecan layer gently. Divide the remaining sections into squares of the desired size.

These cookies can be made up to one week in advance. Store between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight container at room temperature.

Serve in muffin cups for fancy presentation.

Note: The quality of the pecans does make a difference. I recommend mail ordering from Sunnyland Farms in Georgia, which is an excellent source for premium pecans and mixed nuts. You can get smaller one-pound bags for baking these cookies or load up for all your baking needs. The chocolate pecan turtles are pretty awesome, too.

Donna George Storey
November 2012

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2012 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Eternal Inspiration: The “How’s” and “Why’s” of Genre and Gingerbread

The theme of this year’s “Cooking Up a Storey” is sharing delicious secrets, and this month I’d like to go straight to the source of inspiration for our writing. When I first started writing some fifteen years ago, a fountain of ideas for stories came pouring forth, and my only problem seemed finding enough time to write them all down. I’d heard of writer’s block—and could even see my previous thirteen-year vacation from creative writing as an extended blockage of my creative spirit. But ever the worrier, I wondered if the new flood of inspiration would exhaust itself, and I’d be left with better-honed writing skills, but nothing to write about.

Predictably, the rush of ideas did slow down, and I have occasionally gone months without writing depending on what’s been going on with the rest of my life. Yet I no longer worry about profound writer’s block, because I’ve come to realize I’m in touch with a source of eternal inspiration. Which brings me back to secrets. And mysteries. As a reader, writer, and all-around person, I’ve always been very partial to the question “why.” My English conversation students in Japan complained that I was always asking “why” about Japanese customs which forced them to articulate things they’d simply taken for granted. I’m only slightly less intrigued by the question “how.” These questions have been my loyal allies in my writing journey because two simple words can give rise to an infinite variety of stories. Take the standard plot of erotica and romance, “girl meets boy(s).” Boring, repetitive and unoriginal to be sure. But add in the juicy details of “how” and the fascinating motivations born of “why,” and a writer is busy for a lifetime. Best of all, if you delve into the “why” and “how” with passion and open-mindedness, you’ll happily avoid the most dreaded question a reader can pose: “So what?”

Often enough I’ve written stories that are based on my own experiences, but pursuing a good mystery that involves something I haven’t yet explored will always get my creative juices flowing. I don’t necessarily mean the classic detective murder mystery who-done-it. My prompts are more along the lines of “how might a sensual photo session be sexy and empowering for a woman rather than objectifying?” or “why would a woman seek out the experience of bukkake (allowing a group of men to fondle her and ejaculate on her body)?” or “why might a man get aroused by sharing his lover with another man?” The voices of my fairly traditional upbringing suggest that such activities are strange and incomprehensible, even while they exert a tug of transgressive appeal. Yet by suspending that ingrained judgment and opening myself to the possibilities, I’ve written some of my most reprinted stories.

It felt odd at first to admit to myself that I want to write mystery stories. When I first started writing, I was an innocent believer in the purity of genre. Literary fiction was about life as it really happens. Mystery stories were about murders solved by clever detectives. Romance was about finding your one true love. Erotica was about desire—usually but not always of a sexual nature. Soon enough I became aware of the promiscuous possibilities of blending genres with my chosen area—erotic romance, erotic thrillers, erotic horror, literary erotica—but I still believed these labels defined and restricted the writing to certain themes, plots, and sensibilities.

Then I began consciously reading as a writer. By this I mean paying attention to what twist of plot kept me glued to the book, what conflict piqued my curiosity, what upcoming showdown made my pulse quicken, all with the idea of stealing this magic for myself. At the risk of oversimplification, what always keeps me turning the pages is “why” and “how.” This doesn’t just work on the reading side of the equation. When I’m intrigued by my story and characters, when I am motivated to discover their secrets, the writing flows.

So whenever I’m feeling my well is dry or I’m a bit tired of the cliches of erotica, I fall back on two effective strategies. First, look for a mysterious secret to explore, and second, plunder liberally from other genres for the tricks that seduce and entertain readers, while making sure to impart your own flavor. So far, I still have more ideas for stories than time to write them, and I still love asking “why.” Let’s hope it stays that way!

This month’s recipe for German-style honey gingerbread (Lebkuchen) is especially fitting because this recipe is still a bit of a mystery to me even though I’ve been making it for years. Most of the cookies I bake are butter-based and taste delicious for the first few days, then begin a slow, steady decline in flavor and texture. However, these Honey Cake Squares require at least a few weeks of aging to reach their potential and are still delicious and moist months later, in spite of the butter in the recipe. Gingerbread has been a popular treat for centuries, no doubt because it keeps well. Is this merely due to the magical preservative qualities of the exotic spices? Does honey give it more staying power than refined sugar? The fruit-and-nut-rich filling surely contributes to the age-worthiness, but the dry edges also grow soft and mellow with time. In any case, the best news is that you can bake a batch of these beauties right now, enjoy them at your leisure throughout the autumn, and still have some tasty treats in their prime to serve during the winter holidays. But don’t wait any longer than late November, or they won’t be ready by year’s end.

honey cake squaresBon Appetit!

adapted from Festive Baking by Sarah Kelly Iaia
(makes about 55 bite-size cookies)

Lebkuchen Dough:
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespooons honey
1 Tablespoon cinnamon 1 cup superfine sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves 1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon powdered anise

1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped unblanched almonds
1 cup raisins
1 3/4 cups apricot jam
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 firmly packed diced mixed candied orange and lemon peel

3 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Cover a rimless 15″ x 11″ baking sheet with parchment. Sift the flour into a bowl and the spices into another. Heat the honey, sugar, and butter together over low heat, stirring all the time until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved, do not let it come to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the sifted spices. Gradually beat in the sifted flour, added as much as needed to make the dough, when stirred, pull away from the sides of the pan. You will need most of the amount given, possibly more depending on the honey. Remove the dough to a large bowl and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Beat in the egg then knead the dough with your hands in the bowl. (Actually I’ve found it easier to cool the dough a bit and beat in the egg before I add all the flour, but the original recipes calls for this order). If the dough is too sticky, knead in a little more flour until it no longer sticks to your hands.

While Lebkuchen dough is still warm, divide the dough in two. Roll out one piece directly onto the buttered sheet (or onto parchment), making a rectangle approximately 13″ x 8 1/2″. There should be at least a one-inch rim left free to allow for expansion. Roll out the second piece the same size as the first on a piece of parchment. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350F.

Mix all filling ingredients together in a bowl, adding additional lemon juice if it is too thick to spread. Distribute filling evenly over the dough on the baking sheet leaving a 1/2″ rim around the edges. Reverse the other half of the dough quickly on top of the filling, peeling off the paper. Press the edges together well and trim evenly. While the cake is baking, make the icing by putting the lemon juice in a large mixing bowl. Gradually beat in the sifted powdered sugar, beating for at least 8 minutes to dissolve the sugar completely. Add enough extra lemon juice to make a thin icing of pouring consistency. While the cake is still warm, pour the icing over it, using a pastry brush to cover it evenly. Allow to sit overnight at room temperature. The following day, trim the outer edges. Cut the cake into 1 1/4 to 1″ squares. For the best flavor, store in an airtight tin, layers separated by wax paper, for several weeks before eating—they will still be delicious months after baking.

**Note: the freshness of your spices do make a big difference. Consider buying new, small jars of spice each year and grating the nutmeg fresh.

Donna George Storey
September 2012

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2012 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

The Perils of Publication: The Writer’s Pursuit of Validation, Veneration, and Venetians

The theme of this year’s Cooking Up a Storey is sharing my secret recipes for writing and cookies, and I’m happy to pass along all that I’ve learned so far in my dabblings in each of these fine arts. Of course, no words of wisdom can substitute for the deep-rooted knowledge that comes from personal experience. When I look back at myself as a novice writer and baker, I probably wouldn’t have been able to appreciate, or even fully understand, my battle-scarred insights about writing, publishing, and crafting cookies. I’d simply have wanted to dive in and try it my own way.

Still, even as a beginner, I did find inspiration and consolation from the advice of more experienced writers. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be published or face the luxurious dilemma of a contract negotiation with a publisher, but the fact that other writers had faced challenges and rejections made me feel less alone. While every writer’s path will be different in the details, the questions we ask as writers are common to us all.

Of course an exhaustive list would take up many columns, so I’ll skip right to the question at the core of the writer’s identity: what is a “real” writer and who decides when you achieve this venerable status? In an earlier column, I answered this question with the democratic assertion that a real writer is simply someone willing to put in the time to shape a raw first draft into a story where every image, scene and word has purpose and emotional power. I still believe this, but let’s be honest. The majority of people believe that only publication marks the difference between a real writer and a wannabe.

Yet once you’ve published one story or even a bestselling novel, another question immediately arises: what next? Is there a magic number of publications to secure your place as a real writer? One? Twenty? A few hundred? Some would argue income is a key factor—can you support yourself on your writing and how quickly does your agent return your calls, as in, are you supporting her, too? Another measure is critical acclaim, gushing reviews in the ever-dwindling book review sections of newspapers or the award of an major literary prize. Sself-publishing didn’t used to count, but what about now? Some selfpublished authors have thousands of fans and make more money than writers who succeeded by the traditional measure, with an agent and a boilerplate contract from the Big Five.

Even writers who’ve achieved the status of legends are not always secure. I’ll never forget an essay by John Updike, wherein he complained that his sexy novels were no longer dominating the racks in airport book stores as they once did in the 1960s and 1970s. Hardly a situation deserving of our deepest sympathy, and yet I’m sure Updike’s sense of loss at his faded glory was no less authentic than the twist in the gut I get from a rejection letter. For any writer, famous or humble, there will never be enough books, acclaim and reader adoration to fill that insatiable hole of self-doubt.

Add to that another troubling fact about seeking validation in the publishing world—success does not always go hand in hand with quality. Apparently at some point in my childhood, I got the idea that editors choose the highest quality of writing at their disposal and thus the published oeuvre represents the finest written work of our culture. I must still believe this deep in my heart, because I keep getting disappointed by contemporary fiction. If “publishable” doesn’t mean “smart, thought-provoking, fresh and just plain good,” then does that standard have any value at all, for me at least? But let’s say you aren’t beguiled by that foolish fantasy of Great Literature, you only care about what sells. Even that is maddeningly unpredictable, in spite of extensive market research and identifiable formulas for what the book-buying public craves.

Finally, although few writers of fiction attain the level of fame that results in mobs of fans, celebrity is the highest form of validation our culture bestows. Unfortunately, a glance at the magazines and tabloids at the check-out stand reveals the hazards of that prize. Extravagant success appears to be toxic to one’s work, one’s personal life and most assuredly of all, one’s sense of perspective. As the image or “brand” of the celebrity becomes more profitable, their genuine self seems to disappear into a sinkhole of obligations and expectations. Besides, do you really want the world caring deeply about how much you weigh?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that you prove your superior worth as an artist by rising above the need for any external validation whatsoever. I wish I could do that myself, but I know better. What I do propose, however, is to take a good hard look at your own version of the myths of what it means to be a “real” writer. Be honest, no one’s watching. Here in my hippie part of the world, it would be considered terribly crass to admit that supporting yourself with your writing is an abiding goal. But for me that is a dividing line between writing as a sideline and a real career. (My income places me squarely in the “sideline” category.) Only by taking a good hard look at the dreams and assumptions we’ve cherished, probably since childhood, can we deconstruct our long-held fantasies of The Writer and come to a more empowered perspective. I certainly like to think I’m a cynical sophisticate when it comes to the business side of writing. On an intellectual level, I firmly believe all the pageantry of publishing—agents, editors, critics, prizes — validates nothing but itself. Yet every time I hear of a great publishing “success” story (oh, say E.L. James, for example), I feel the emotional tug of ancient, magical beliefs about the power of the writer’s voice to define our culture. It’s as if female sexual curiosity and a desire to push the limits sensually didn’t exist before Fifty Shades of Grey.

Knowledge brings freedom, so every now and then, when I’m feeling unsure, I make a cup of tea, sit on the deck to enjoy the sunset, and take a good long look at all the images that arise when I think of a Real Writer Who’s Made It Big. How rich is she? (Very). How many bookshelves are adorned by her tomes? (Countless). How many hard-nosed critics have been softened by her luminous prose? How many of her novels have been adapted to the screen? (A key statistic because HBO and movie adaptations are what really count these days).

Interestingly enough, I soon find myself tiring of these naive beliefs and begin to focus on what this blessed creature will think as she lies on her deathbed and considers her brilliant career. Surely the only thing any real writer would care about is that at least some of her stories had made her readers lives richer, deeper, and sweeter if only for a few moments. That perhaps a character, a scene or an image lingered in their minds and inspired them to say, “ah, that’s true, that’s good.” Suddenly I realize that it is within my power to try to write a story that will touch even one reader in that way right now.

So I get up, go to my computer, and get to work.

Although this exercise doesn’t cure my doubts forever, it works every time. The craving for external validation will always be there, but the more we are aware of our own misguided expectations and assumptions, the easier it will be to get back to the writing and actually be a real writer.

Writing involves complex negotiations between our rich inner lives and the cold, cruel marketplace, but when we prevail, the rewards are sweet. It’s fitting then that I share my most complicated cookie recipe with you this month. They’re called Venetians, also known as “rainbow cookies.” I first tasted these cookies when an old friend from middle school sent me a box of homemade Christmas cookies over twenty years ago. I was enchanted by the miniature squares, layers of thin almond cake filled with apricot jam and glazed with chocolate. Later I saw similar cookies in Italian bakeries, but the commercial version was never as tender and flavorful as my friend’s recipe. Now Venetians are a staple of my winter solstice cookie boxes, and my family has chosen them as one of the top three varieties of cookie that I must never stop baking. Make that never ever.

Like writing, baking these cookies requires time, patience, skill, and nerve (plus you have to invest in three 13-by-9-inch baking pans which struck me as the height of indulgence), but oh do these elegant little gems delight young and old alike. In the spirit of sharing secrets, I’ve provided very detailed baking and assembling instructions based on years of missteps. Venetians are not for the faint-of-heart baker, but if you dare to take this artistic challenge, your courage will be richly rewarded.

(makes about 50 bite-size cookies)
1 can (8 ounces) almond paste* 10 drops green food coloring
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter, softened 8 drops red food coloring
1 cup granulated sugar 1 jar (12 oz.) apricot preserves**
4 eggs, separated 4-ounce semisweet
1 teaspoon almond extract chocolate bar, chopped fine
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

Venetians CookiesMeasure waxed paper to line the bottom of three 13x9x2 inch pans. Butter the pan, then put in the waxed paper. Grease again, making sure to butter about one-half inch up the sides. Separate eggs while cold and allow to sit at room temperature for about half an hour.

Whirl the almond paste in food processor with a few tablespoons of the sugar (or if you don’t have a food processor, break it up into small pieces with a fork). Cream the butter in a mixing bowl, slowly add the rest of the sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the egg yolks and almond extract. Beat with electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour and salt.

Beat egg whites in a separate bowl with electric mixer until stiff peaks form. With a wooden spoon, stir into the almond mixture using a turning motion similar to folding.

If you have a kitchen scale, weigh the batter (subtracting the weight of the bowl), divide by three and remove a third of batter into two other bowls. Otherwise, measure out 1 1/2 cups batter and spread it evenly in one of the prepared pans. I distribute the batter with a tablespoon then smooth it with an offset spatula. Rap the pan on the table a few times, as air pockets can be a problem. Remove another 1 1/2 cups batter to a separate bowl and add the green food coloring; spread evenly in the second prepared pan. Add red food coloring to the remaining batter and spread in the last pan.

Bake the green layer first in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 13-14 minutes or just until edges are golden brown and the cake springs back when touched lightly with a finger. Rotate the pan after 7 minutes. Do not overcook. Cakes will be about 1/4 inch thick. Next bake the yellow and pink layers together, switch and rotate pans after 7 minutes. Bake the yellow layer 1 minute longer than the pink as it tends to be softer.

After removing pans from the oven, allow each layer to cool for five minutes. Run a knife or spatula around the edges and turn over onto parchment. Turn the green layer over directly onto jelly roll pan lined with parchment paper. For yellow and pink layers, place some parchment over the bottom of the empty baking pan so that it covers the sides and you can grip it while you lower it over the baked layer without the parchment folding under. Turn the pan over so that it rests on the bottom of the empty pan. Tap the bottom of the pan lightly and raise it slowly to release the layer. Repeat with next pan. This makes it easier to slide the layers onto each other. Remove wax paper from bottoms, if necessary. Cool thoroughly.

Heat the apricot preserves gently; strain through a wire sieve into a glass measuring cup. Spread 1/2 of the warm preserves over green layer to the edges. Trim the parchment to the edge of the layers with scissors and run a sharp knife under the yellow layer to loosen it from parchment and then turn the yellow layer over on top of the green; spread with remaining apricot preserves. Loosen the pink layer with the flat of the knife and slide it, right side up, onto the yellow layer.

Cover the stacked layers with lightly buttered waxed paper, then cover with foil, pinching it over the edges to cover completely. Weigh down the layers with a large wooden cutting board topped with a heavy saucepan lid. Place in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, take the layers out of the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to an hour to bring to room temperature (otherwise the chocolate will harden too quickly and become brittle). Melt chopped chocolate over hot water in a bowl or double boiler. Spread melted chocolate to the edges of the cake with an offset spatula, covering about 1/5 of the cake at a time. Let dry 30 minutes, but no longer as it will be more difficult to cut. Trim about ¼” of the edges of the cake with a long, sharp knife. (The edges are great to snack on). Cut into 1 inch squares. As the knife nears the end of the cake, gently use your fingers to keep the layers in place or they will slide.

These cookies will keep in a single layer in an airtight container for about a week.

*Love ‘n’ Bake is my favorite almond paste and notably superior in quality
**Bonne Maman apricot preserves are a good consistency for this recipe

Donna George Storey
July 2012

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2012 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Write Like a Rock Star: Making Magic on Stage, on the Page, and in the Kitchen

At first glance they look like a plate of plain sugar cookies. Granted the oval shape is unusual, and they are of a fancier design, two halves sandwiched together with red jam. But is that reason enough to bypass the brownies, which look like they’re made from a mix, but are all the more reliable for it? Yet, as you stand at the dessert buffet and ponder your choices, you realize there is something both appealing and intriguing about these small, faintly golden, obviously homemade treats. So you pick one up and take a bite.

Your eyes widen and you make a small, involuntary sound of surprise. The cookie seems to melt on your tongue in a burst of browned butter and Tahitian vanilla, spiked with the essence of sun-drenched raspberries. You take another bite, smaller this time to make the pleasure last, and again there’s the explosion of flavor, the impossibly smooth texture, the concentration of smell, taste and touch on this one extraordinary experience happening in your mouth. This is a cookie that will linger in your memory, and, if you happen to learn which party guest baked them, you will be eager to compliment her with glowing appreciation.

Cookies and stories have very different ingredients, but whenever I sit down to write a new story, I nourish the hope that my readers will react in just this way to what I’ve created on the page. (And, if you read my February installment of “Cooking Up a Storey,” Sharing Sweet Secrets, you’ll know that I gladly give out all my recipes.) Of course, the magic doesn’t always happen, even with the same recipe, but in this month’s column, I’d like to offer some observations—and reassurance—about the ingredients that help all artists touch and please their audiences.

I came to these freshly baked insights through yet another indirect route: attending middle school plays and music performances as a proud parent. When we pay money to see an adult perform, we assume auditions and years of experience and some test of stage-worthiness and feel perfectly justified in bringing a critical eye and ear to the experience. The audience at a middle school production, however, is almost solely family and friends, who lovingly excuse every mistake and applaud every courageous effort. It’s a marvelous, uplifting and inclusive atmosphere, and I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if all creative effort was so enthusiastically welcomed.

However, there is no question that some of the kids on stage have a certain presence that makes them stand out from the others, like a plate of home-crafted cookies mixed in with packaged sweets from Trader Joe’s (which sells very good factory-made cookies, but still). And the one who captures your attention is not always the prettiest girl or the tallest, strongest boy. She’s not necessarily the most technically accomplished musician or the kid who recites his lines without a single stumble. Yet, although inexperienced and amateurs by definition, these young performers exude a vitality, even a radiance, that transcends the need for parental indulgence. They are, simply, a lot of fun to watch.

And when I see these kids fill a stage with their magic, I can’t help but think that I’d like the stories I write to have the same effect on my reader.

Of course, some might say that you’re either born with a rich voice, nimble fingers and a charismatic stage presence or you’re not, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. Yet after watching a lot of these performances and paying close attention to what wows the audience, I’ve come up with a universal quality from which any artist can benefit.

To me what distinguishes the cute kid playing guitar from the “rock star” is the sense that the performer is throwing her whole self into the endeavor. There’s no giggling or self-consciousness. She is passionate and fully present. She totally believes in what she is doing. She holds nothing back. She’s genuinely enjoying herself. And this, more than technical expertise, is what enchants an audience and allows us to go beyond the daily limitations of our lives and fully connect with the joy and energy of song and play. I think we are sometimes misled by the media coverage of celebrities to believe that these people are famous because they are richer, more beautiful, and simply more well-known than we are. But if you think about it, watching a person who was merely superior in every way would more likely elicit envy and despair. In fact, what these performers offer us, at least when they are on the rise, is the projection of ourselves when we are most fully alive.

I believe erotic stories can do the very same thing. Readers come to stories to live life more intensely and to escape the social expectations to be “cool” and dignified and consistent and respectable and all those other things we’d like people to think we are, but know inside we are not always.

So, fellow erotica writer, how can we give a rock star performance in our humble, yet popular genre? First and foremost, believe in what you write. If you’re cranking out erotica because it brings in a little money, but deep down you think it’s trash, go find another kind of writing you genuinely care about. There are many other ways to show your full commitment and they all involve genuine caring and belief in your story. Give your characters your full attention and respect as fellow human beings. Allow them time to come alive for you in all their complexity. Give your reader the gift of your best descriptions and your freshest metaphors. Delve into the mysteries of sex that intrigue you in the deepest, darkest corners of your libidinous imagination. Hold nothing back. Write a story that teaches you something new about yourself, a story that makes you blush when you read it.

And then you will, by my definition, be an erotica rock star.

There’s no guarantee every story will touch every reader—erotica readers in particular often have particular buttons they want pushed. But audiences want to be touched. In the long run, they will respond to your passion and commitment and love for your art over any attempt to be cool and stylish and above messy emotion. Best of all, there’s no way to lose, because this approach will nourish and nurture you as an artist and a person as well.

Well, all this talk of rockin’ and passion is making me hungry! Perhaps it’s time for a cookie break? Here is the recipe for the cookie I described at the beginning of this column, which takes a bit of commitment to make, but is guaranteed to wow your audience.

Spoon CookiesSpoon Cookies
from Gourmet (December 2005),
a Finnish recipe adapted by Cecilia Barbour
(Makes about 30-32 sandwich cookies)

1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt, slightly rounded
2/3 cup fruit preserves (she prefers a mixture of cherry and strawberry)
A deep-bowled teaspoon (not a measuring spoon, use Grandma’s silver spoon)

To make dough:

  • Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
  • Fill the kitchen sink or a large bowl with about 2 inches of cold water. Melt butter in a 2-to-3 quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until butter turns golden with a nutlike fragrance and flecks on the bottom of the pan turn a rich caramel brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Do not let it burn. (Butter will initially foam, then dissipate. A thicker foam will appear and cover the surface just before the butter begins to brown; stir more frequently toward end of cooking.)
  • Place pan in sink to stop cooking, then cool, stirring frequently, until butter starts to look opaque, about 4 minutes. Remove pan from sink and stir in sugar and vanilla.
  • Pour entire bowl of flour mixture into butter mixture and stir until dough forms. Shape into a ball, wrap with wax paper, and let stand at cool room temperature 1 to 2 hours to allow flavors to develop. (Do not let sit any longer, especially in a warm room as the dough rises too much).

To form and bake cookies

  • Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment.
  • Press a piece of dough into bowl of teaspoon, flattening top, then slide out and place, flat side down, on an ungreased baking sheet. (Dough will feel crumbly, but will become cohesive when pressed/make spoonfuls medium full). Continue forming cookies and arranging on sheet. Bake until just pale golden, 8 to 15 minutes. Cool cookies on sheet on rack for 5 minutes then transfer to rack with an offset spatula and cool completely, about 30 minutes. The cookies will be tender until cool, so handle as little as possible.

To assemble cookies:

  • While cookies cool, heat preserves in a small saucepan over low heat until just runny, then pour through a sieve into a small bowl, pressing hard on solids. Pour back into pan and simmer 5-10 minutes to thicken. Cool to lukewarm.
  • Spread the flat side of a cookie with a thin layer of preserves, about a scant 1/2 teaspoon. Sandwich with flat side of another cookie. Continue with remaining cookies and preserves, then let stand until set, about 45 minutes. Transfer cookies to airtight container and wait 2 days before eating.
  • Dough can be made 12 hours before baking and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature to soften slightly before forming cookies, about 30 minutes. Cookies keep in an airtight container at room temperature 2 weeks.

Donna George Storey
April 2012

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2012 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Sharing Sweet Secrets: Cookies, Sex, and the Simple Power of Speaking the Truth

The New Year has arrived, which means it’s time to change the menu here at Cooking Up a Storey. For this year’s series, I’ve decided to go for something sinfully sweet and terribly self-indulgent—a collection of recipes for the cookies in my legendary holiday gift boxes, pictured below. Every December for the past eight years, I’ve spent a solid five days in the kitchen crafting hundreds of these bite-sized treats for friends, neighbors and teachers. Over the years I’ve refined my selection to six recipes complementary in flavor and texture. All involve a little to a lot more work than my usual fare the rest of the year. Inevitably I reach a moment when I curse my ambitious planning and annual servitude to custom, but the truth is, when the delighted thank-you’s start coming in, I know I’ll be signing up for another round of “Cookie Madness” next year.

Donna George Storey holiday cookiesIt occurred to me early on that baking these elaborate cookies is not unlike the writing process. Most people are happy enough to chomp on an Oreo, and indeed certain segments of your audience might prefer it, but a decent percentage of the recipients will enjoy and appreciate a more personalized offering created with care.

Therefore, in the coming year, I will pursue this parallel by linking each cookie recipe to the ineffable qualities that make erotica memorably delicious.

Cookies, sex, secrets—there is another link among the three in my mind that I’d like to share as we begin this series. Thirty-some years ago, my mother and I spent Christmas with my older sister at her seventeenth-century farmhouse in the Virginia countryside. My sister’s neighbor brought over a tin of Christmas cookies: elegant wafers topped with a single, perfect pecan half. The cookies were exquisitely fragile with a hint of butter-pecan—brown sugar or browned butter, perhaps? Whatever made the magic, they were some of the most delicious cookies I’d ever eaten to that point, and I asked, politely, for the recipe. The neighbor frostily declined. It was an old family recipe, and she could never, ever share it with a stranger.

This is an unremarkable story on the face of it, but her refusal made a big impression on me. We were only talking cookies, but the message felt deeper. I knew I couldn’t force the recipe out of her, although I tried asking earnestly again a day later with the promise I wouldn’t pass on the secret knowledge to anyone else. Still she refused. It was then I realized there was something else I could do. And so, on that cold December day, I vowed I would always graciously share my recipes with anyone who paid me the compliment of asking.

So, dear Reader, my recipes are all yours.

The power of sharing pleasure and wisdom goes beyond cookies, of course. Recently I faced a daunting challenge in my own writing, and I took my problem to the Writer’s discussion group here at ERWA. The group immediately responded with advice, perspectives and encouragement. It truly made me appreciate how we writers can support each other by sharing our knowledge and experience. There are many myths about publishing that are damaging to the writer—that the quality of writing is directly linked to “success” so if you’re “good” you don’t have to work at it, that agents and publishers have your best interest at heart, to name just two. It takes a newcomer a while to figure these things out from the inside, but if we tell the truth about our experiences and respect others with the courage to do so, we will all benefit.

We have our food, we have our writing, what about the sex? For me, silence on this topic has had the most heart-breaking consequences throughout the world and down through history. We are all shamed about our sexuality in countless ways, whether it’s being called a slut or pervert for daring to write about sex or being held up to impossible standards of “beauty” and athleticism in bed. Think of all the human beings who’ve felt unnecessary pain because of the mere fact they have sexual urges or because they fall short of some absurd ideal? Beginning in the last half of the twentieth century, thanks in no smart part to the advent of modern erotica, there has been significant growth in the honest expression of sexuality. But there’ve also been plenty of frosty folks who don’t want the sweet recipe passed around.

It takes a great deal of courage to write about sex at all, much less honestly, beyond the clichés and stereotypes. But the writers at ERWA do this with eloquence and style. And so, as the New Year dawns, I’d like to express my appreciation to all the writers and readers here at ERWA for generously sharing your wisdom and your goodies in prose. Keep doing what you’re doing, and best wishes for a New Year of sharing and creating.

Ready to do some baking?

This month I’d like to start filling our cookie basket of pleasures with the simplest recipe I make, a brown-sugar drop cookie with a special twist–dried cranberries and white chocolate chips replace the classic semisweet chocolate chip. (These particular cookies are on the bottom layer of the cookie boxes, so they didn’t make the lead-in photo, but you’ll find a loving, not to say cookie-pornographic close-up below). Over the year I’ll be sharing all my personal baking notes, born of harsh experience, but the recipe was originally found in Dede Wilson’s A Baker’s Field Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies, a must-have for anyone who likes chocolate chip cookies both classic and innovative.

These are indeed a fancy variation of everyone’s favorite basic chocolate chip cookie, and yet a few small changes can make a huge difference in the cookie-nibbling experience. The intense sweetness of the white chocolate chips mixed with the tartness of the cranberries elevates these cookies to a new level of elegance, intensifying the richness of the classic dough. The eye-catching red of the cranberries makes them a good choice for Valentine’s Day as well. In baking as in sex, even a subtle variation can bring new excitement to the classic act, transforming the ordinary into something quite extraordinary. So why not get out the mixer and give it a try?

More sweets and secrets to come!

Truthfully Transcendent Cranberry-White Chocolate Chip CookiesTruthfully Transcendent Cranberry-White Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Dede Wilson’s A Baker’s Field Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies
(makes about 4 dozen)

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (12 3/8 ounces on a kitchen scale)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs at room temperature
2 cups white chocolate morsels (I like Ghirardelli)
2 cups sweetened dried cranberries

Whisk flour, baking soda and salt together in a medium-sized bowl.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add both sugars gradually, beating until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, and scraping down the bowl once or twice. Beat in vanilla, then eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl. Add about one-third of the flour mixture and mix on low speed. Gradually add the remaining flour mixture just until blended. Mix in cranberries thoroughly by hand. Next add the white chocolate chips and mix in thoroughly.

Chill the dough for at least 2 hours (I usually leave it in the mixing bowl and cover with a plate but you can wrap it in wax paper).

Preheat oven to 375F. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Drop by 1 Tablespoon scoops, six to a cookie sheet, and bake about 12-13 minutes. Light golden all over is perfect–some coloring on top is key, if still pale, it’s too soft–but do not let it become dark brown. Try one test cookie first before doing a sheet of six. The baking time is the tricky part of this recipe, and while they do soften up a little, if overbaked, they lose flavor.

Donna George Storey
February 2012

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2012 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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.

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