May 082014
 
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By Elizabeth Coldwell

Whether you realise it or not, it’s all too easy for your writing to fall into a rut.

This might not be so much of a problem if your writing is more of a hobby or a distraction from the Evil Day Job than a career, if you submit to the odd anthology here and there, or if you’re slowly working on that first novel. However, if you’re aiming to make a living from your writing, the pressure to churn out book after book, to build up your backlist and never give readers a moment to wonder when your next novel is coming out, can lead to a certain feeling of déjà vu when you read through your work. Just as importantly, it can also make you forget that, above all, writing is something to be enjoyed. If you’re slogging through the pages, rest assured the readers will be, too.

Even if you don’t notice that you’re in a rut, your editor should. All authors have certain words they tend to overuse, usually without being aware of it, which in the aggregate can dumb down otherwise good work and give it a feeling of tiresome over-familiarity. And I’m not even talking about the dreaded ‘that’ and ‘was’ which so many editors are on a mission to eradicate from manuscripts. Use the same verb three times within a paragraph, or repeatedly refer to your heroine’s ‘wavy, dark hair’ long after this characteristic has been established, and a good editor will flag this up. Some line editors will even highlight these words, making it even more obvious how often they appear—a sure sign you need to start reaching for synonyms.

But even ruthless editing can still leave your readers feeling like you’re rehashing ideas from previous books, whether you’re aware of it or not. So what can you do to freshen up your writing? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Change your writing routine

This might not be possible if you’re one of those people who, due to work or family circumstances, can only allocate a certain part of the day to their craft—but if you’re able to write full time, then do something different for once. Don’t shut yourself away in whichever room you use as your office; get out of the house and write. OK, so the writer with their laptop in the coffee shop has become a cliché, but it can actually do you good to be surrounded by other people as you write. Maybe you’ll see or hear something that inspires a story idea, and it never hurts to be reminded of the many ways people interact in the real world. You might worry that you won’t be as productive as usual, but I can never stress often enough that meeting an arbitrary word count every day doesn’t necessarily make you a good writer.

2) Try another genre

A lot of writers are very reluctant to write in anything other than the genre for which they have become known. They are afraid that by doing so they will somehow alienate their readers, particularly if they write anything other than contemporary romance. Of course, this suggests that perhaps it’s the readers who need to more flexible, rather than the authors, but that’s a whole other topic… However, you don’t need to go so far as to start (or stop, depending on where you’re coming from) writing male/male stories for a change of pace. There are lots of genres you can explore—ménage, Rubenesque, cowboy—that are hugely popular and don’t require you to go too far out of your comfort zone. Or you could try something that will take more research than you’d usually put in, like historical fiction set in an era you’re unfamiliar with. Who knows, you might even learn something…

3) Shake up your cast of characters

If your hero is always the alpha male who has more money than he knows what to do with and women perpetually falling at his feet, try writing about a guy who has to work hard, both for a living and to get the girl of his dreams. (Lord knows it’ll spare us any more dreary Fifty Shades clones…) If you write exclusively from the submissive’s point of view, try putting yourself in the dominant’s shoes (or thigh-high boots) for once. Switching the focus helps keep your writing sharp and forces you to think about a character’s motivation in a different way, which is never a bad thing.

 

Elizabeth Coldwell is Editor-in-chief at Xcite Books, where the titles she has edited include the National Leather Award-winning anthology, Lipstick Lovers. As an author, she has 25 years’ experience in the field of erotica, having been published by Black Lace, Cleis Press, Sizzler Editions, Total-e-bound and Xcite Books among many others. She can be found blogging at The (Really) Naughty Corner – elizabethcoldwell.wordpress.com.

 

 

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Mar 172014
 
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By Elizabeth Coldwell

Writers are constantly bombarded with advice, much of it about marketing, promo and developing an online presence—to the extent that it can become difficult to focus on the thing they actually love: the writing itself (and if you’re not writing because you love it, then why are you doing it?) But here are three pieces of advice I feel all writers, whether published or not, need to hear more often.

 

1) You Don’t Have to be Writing all the Time

This probably goes counter to what you’ve always been told, that you’re not a writer unless you’re writing, and that someone who wants to be successful and improve their craft should be devoting every possible moment to putting words down on paper. That’s all well and good, but the danger is that you end up writing for the sake of it, in order to meet some self-imposed deadline in the rush to get the next book on the virtual shelves. And events such as NaNoWriMo, which encourage people to meet a certain word count in a certain time, can end up promoting the concept of quantity over quality. Sometimes it’s better to wrestle over 100 good words than churn out 1000 that will be deleted when you read them back, and forcing yourself to keep writing on those days when the words aren’t flowing can be counter-productive to your art. On those days, it’s better to go for a walk, listen to music, or spring clean the house. Recharge your batteries, and don’t let yourself feel like a failure if you’re not continuously bashing out story after story.

 

2) Reviews Don’t Matter

Of course good reviews can make a difference to your book’s reception, as can that endorsement from Oprah or the Richard and Judy Book Club. Before the ubiquity of the internet, reviews were harder to come by—a magazine or newspaper would only have space to mention a handful of books a month, and often only the biggest publishing houses had their product featured—but now you can offer your book to dozens of review blogs, and decorate your own site with the buttons and whizzo graphics they provide if you’re a top pick. But reviews can also be penned by people who may not even have read your book, routinely handing out one and two stars on Goodreads because they don’t approve of women writing male/male fiction, or whatever their particular bugbear may be. Don’t obsess over—or respond to—anonymous criticism of your book. Never forget that one reviewer’s opinion is only that, and don’t send out books for review expecting (or even requesting—yes, it does happen) only four- and five-star reviews in return. You are more than your Amazon sales rank.

 

3) Edits Are a Necessary Evil

I’ve yet to meet an author who genuinely enjoys the process of going through edits. Sometimes, it’s hard not to believe the “track changes” function was designed purely to cross out half your novel, or allow final line editors to make nit-picky queries about hyphenated words. Some editors, it’s true, are almost fanatical about excising what they see as every last extraneous “that”, “was”, or “she” from a piece of text, or seem devoted to removing the adverb from the English language. But, at heart, they all want to present your work in the best light, and even as you curse them beneath your breath, you may discover when you’ve gone through the dreaded edits that your work is sharper, less repetitive—and those typos you didn’t notice, even though you thought you’d polished your work to a sheen, have been removed. That, of course, doesn’t mean you should blithely accept every last change (if you’re a US author being edited by someone in the UK, or vice versa, there will often be legitimate points of language and grammar to argue over), but even though it not may seem like it sometimes, editors are your friend, not your enemy.

 

Elizabeth Coldwell is Editor-in-chief at Xcite Books, where the titles she has edited include the National Leather Award-winning anthology, Lipstick Lovers. As an author, she has 25 years’ experience in the field of erotica, having been published by Black Lace, Cleis Press, Sizzler Editions, Total-e-bound and Xcite Books among many others. She can be found blogging at The (Really) Naughty Corner – elizabethcoldwell.wordpress.com.

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Feb 062014
 
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By Elizabeth Coldwell

One of the first pieces of advice given to aspiring authors is “write what you know”. This maxim implies that if you base your writing on your own personal experiences or areas of expertise, it will give the work an air of authority and authenticity. For erotic writing, sticking to What You Know has an additional purpose: it helps you avoid mistakes in setting and detail that might turn a reader off, dragging them out of the moment you’ve worked hard to create. And then there’s basic sex-ed knowledge—if a writer lacks it when they first enter the field of erotica, they’d do well to catch themselves up as quickly as possible. Having had letters submitted to Forum from readers who seemed to believe that the penis can physically enter the womb, it seems sex education is sadly lacking in some areas.

That said, so much of erotica is based in fantasy that if we all followed this principle to the letter, a significant portion (and purpose!) of that work would disappear, much to the deep disappointment of a vast number of readers. There would be no paranormal or fantasy erotica, and the only books featuring serial murderers would be written from behind bars.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing from personal knowledge. When I receive a story set in, say, the theatre or the music industry, I can often tell without having to read an accompanying bio that the author has spent time in that profession. Equally, when I’ve put out a call for submissions for an anthology of historical erotica, it quickly becomes obvious that some writers have a deep love for a specific time period. Whether you’re writing about American football or the gods of Ancient Rome, you need to know enough about the game, mythology or whatever else to be convincing.

Setting your stories in a time, place or professional background which you know like the back of your hand is usually a wise move; your knowledge of these settings will impart richness, believability and fascinating detail to the rest of the story. But there are a couple of caveats: first of all, if you are writing about a subject that’s very familiar to you, it’s always important to try to avoid using too much jargon. Readers will usually know less about the setting than you do, and you want to make sure they’re along for the ride throughout your story or book. Second, if there’s so much focus on the background that the sex and characterisation become incidental to the loving description of a last-minute touchdown or the braking system of a specific kind of truck, however, then your story needs a rethink.

If you decide to write about unfamiliar subjects or places, then you’re going to need to put in some research, and there are plenty of tools that can be used to help you. You don’t have to go quite so far as Michael Shilling who, for his book about a band falling apart during a disastrous European tour, Rock Bottom, actually walked the streets of Amsterdam to see whether his characters could get from one part of the city to another in a certain amount of time. And you probably won’t be able to do the kind of research author KD Grace joked about conducting for the third book in her voyeurism and BDSM-themed Mount Trilogy series, From Rome With Lust, when she said with a theatrical sigh, “I suppose that means I’ll just have to take a holiday in Rome…”

Thanks to the internet, you don’t need to go any further than your couch or desk to find the information you need for colorful, believable settings and characters—resources like Google Maps enable you to write about a city you may never have visited, as a 360-degree panorama of almost every street in the world is now available with a click of your mouse. Libraries are also an important research tool, as they can provide a good variety of encyclopaedias and more academic or obscure reference works than you can easily (or cheaply) find online. And don’t forget TV: thanks to the many and varied documentary series available on almost every channel, you can gain insight into the lifestyles of people who do unusual jobs. Fancy making your hot, alpha hero a ghost hunter, an antiques restorer or a man who tickles catfish for a living? Then tune in, take notes and, most importantly, have fun with your writing…

 

Elizabeth Coldwell is Editor-in-chief at Xcite Books, where the titles she has edited  include the National Leather Award-winning anthology, Lipstick Lovers. As an author, she has 25 years’ experience in the field of erotica, having been published by Black Lace, Cleis Press, Sizzler Editions, Total-e-bound and Xcite Books among many others. She can be found blogging at The (Really) Naughty Corner – elizabethcoldwell.wordpress.com.

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Jan 242014
 
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By Elizabeth Coldwell

Many writers will say that the hardest part of writing an erotic story is the ending. Because the aim of the genre is to arouse the reader as well as entertain them, the climax you should be building to is …er, the climax. When the sex ends, so—in the majority of cases—does the story. However, as a writer you may have the urge to round off the action in some more organic way. One of the most common ways to do this, if the characters have just had their first sexual encounter with each other, is to suggest that their climax was only the beginning, and that there’ll be more sex to come, either that night or at some point in the future.

However, another type of rounding off beloved by writers in all genres of fiction is the twist ending. Think of horror stories where a character thought dead literally returns from the grave at the end of the tale, or the many detective novels penned by Agatha Christie and her ilk where the murderer is revealed to be the very last person you expected. Twist endings to short stories have always been popular, but they had a real resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s. First, many of Roald Dahl’s most macabre stories were televised in the series Tales of the Unexpected, then a number of new women’s weekly magazines appeared, particularly Best and Bella in the UK, all of which featured a one-page story with a sting in its tail. The twists in these magazine tales grew ever more bizarre, many of the stories having a narrator who appeared to be a human until the ending revealed they were actually a household pet or even some inanimate piece of furniture.

Naturally, this trend found its way into erotic fiction—in my time as editor of Erotic Stories, I published a short story in which the BDSM action appeared to be described by the slave of a dominant mistress, chained and compelled to watch as a punishment was dished out to someone else. Only at the very end did this slave turn out to be the domina’s pet dog. As a one-off, that idea worked very well, but if every story in that issue of the magazine had had a twist, its impact would certainly have been lessened.

Some twists can ensure the story remains in the memory long after it otherwise might, but they can also risk jolting the reader out of the erotic, sensual mood you’ve worked hard to create. The wrong kind of twist can even leave them feeling slightly cheated. Whole novels have been written building up to a “shock” twist ending where, for example, the narrator turns out to be a different gender than the one the reader had assumed—and while there’s a high level of skill required to pull this gimmick off, that’s ultimately what it can seem like to the reader: a gimmick.

So do you always need a clever or surprising ending to a story? That depends. Some plots almost demand it, particularly if you’re mixing erotica with horror or suspense, but if you’re writing in the true confessions/readers’ letters style, then by definition you’re looking to get from point A to point B in the most straightforward way you can. And if you want to keep your work fresh and original, here are some surprise endings you might want to use vary sparingly:

It was All a Dream
Yes, this old chestnut still pops up in submissions piles everywhere, often with the coda that some element of the dream has found its way into the real world, like a feather that was used on the heroine, and which is lying on her pillow when she wakes. Leave this one to your school essays.

It was All a Setup
You know the score here. A master gives his submissive a spanking for flagrant misbehavior, or a woman walks in to find her boyfriend in bed with their best friend and is shocked at first, then so aroused she has to stay and watch the couple in action. The twist, of course, is that in both cases the situation has been engineered so that the naughty sub and the curious voyeuse get exactly what they wanted all along.

The Stranger was Familiar
A man is on his way to a job interview, when he’s distracted by a sexy woman flashing her panties on public transport and they find time for a quickie. A married woman in a hotel bar takes a risk and chats up the sexy man on the next barstool, ending up in his room for a passionate romp. Guess what? When the protagonist in the first scenario finally makes it to the interview, the woman conducting it is the panty-flasher, and the supposed adulteress in the second is just acting out a fantasy and the man she’s coming on to is her husband.

He was…a Vampire!
This one really needs no more explanation, but if you’re submitting to one of the many anthologies of vampire short stories that are published every year, come up with a more substantial storyline for your readers to sink their teeth into…

 

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Dec 162013
 
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By Elizabeth Coldwell

It’s often been stated that good erotica should be about more than sex, even if that is the basis of the genre. Writers need to be aware of the balance to be struck between the action taking place in and out of the bedroom. If a book is just a sequence of sex scenes with no real connecting plot, the reader may get bored or find themselves wondering why the characters don’t at least have a break for a nice cup of tea—and if there’s very little sex, they’ll wonder why they didn’t just buy the latest John Grisham novel instead. In erotic romance, where there’s more emphasis on the relationship between the two main characters—especially the way it grows and evolves over the course of the book—the writer knows they are working in an arc that will eventually lead to a happy-ever-after (or happy-for-now) ending, but needs to place this relationship within the context of a larger story.

So what’s the best way to plot a work—if indeed there is one? It’s a question of outlining, something some authors are very comfortable with, while others are decidedly not. In the days before the explosion of online publishing, authors were expected to submit the first three chapters of their novel, along with a detailed synopsis; the full work didn’t have to be ready before it would be accepted. They grew used to outlining, and giving an editor a clear idea of what they were planning to offer in the rest of the novel. Some online publishers work this way, but most will ask to see the partial submission, then request the whole novel if they think it will be suitable, while others want to see the whole thing upfront. The last of these options means that many writers never see the need to plot out a novel in advance, because no one—apart possibly from a beta reader or other critiquing service—will see it before it’s complete.

So what are the advantages of outlining? Well, in its broadest terms, it’ll give you an overall sense of what’s going to happen in each chapter, of the relationships and styles of interaction between the various characters, of the conflicts they will have to overcome and how the plot will end. It provides structure and discipline to a work, and cuts out the temptation to meander or fill the story with unimportant digressions. It also means you don’t have to write in sequence—if you’re itching to describe that juicy threesome in Chapter Six and go back to the boardroom squabbling in Chapter Three later, you can. And it can even help to prevent the likelihood of getting blocked, as you’ll never be left wondering “what do I write now?”—the outline will always let you know.

Of course, some people love to meander and let the unexpected happen, and they’re likely to run a mile at the thought of outlining. They’re the “pantsers”, flying by the seat of their pants as they write. They’ll begin with a vague idea of the story, but write it without planning first. This often means their characters are inclined to take on a life of their own, and the plot moves in directions they hadn’t intended. They may even start a novel without having any idea where it will end, or have the final scene in mind but no clue as to how events will reach that point. It can lead to thrilling writing, and cut down on the feeling that the author has had to manipulate the action to fit into an intended structure, but it can also frustrate the reader if they’re left with the impression that the author really is just making it up as they go along.

As an author, you’ll instinctively know whether you’re an outliner or a pantser, and neither method is inherently better or worse than the other (though it’s probably not wise for a procrastinating pantser to submit a partial novel and commit to a deadline they might not be able to meet, as editors are only flexible up to a point). But as a fun exercise, try using the opposite method for once. If you never start writing without an outline, just open up a blank document and see what happens when you have no direction in mind for your story. Conversely, if the thought of character profiles and bullet-point-by-bullet-point plotting makes you break out in a cold sweat, determine that, this time, you will write down your beginning, middle and end before launching into the action. It probably won’t change the way you write forever, but it may add the little bit of discipline (or indiscipline) your working practices could use.

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Nov 172013
 
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By Elizabeth Coldwell

Every writer has one—that unfinished novel lying in the back of a drawer, or in a file on their hard drive; the one that simply refuses to work. The idea may be solid, the characters well defined and the sex so hot it’ll melt your e-reader, but somehow you could only get so far into the action before you lost your enthusiasm for the story. Sometimes, the only answer is to rip it up and start again—and you should be able to find a home for the erotic scenes in almost anything else you write, unless they involve something particularly specific, like a shape-shifting puma or a steam-powered dildo. However, the fate of your unfinished work might be less doomed; it could be that one of the following aspects needs reworking to breathe life into that moribund manuscript:

Point of view
Is the right person telling the story? Perhaps you’re writing in third person, when what the novel needs is the immediacy of a first person POV. Or you’ve decided that the story should be written in alternating chapters from the perspective of the hero and heroine (a common technique in erotic romance, or books where two authors collaborate and take on a lead character each), when one of the characters actually has much more to say than the other. And of course, some novels work best with the classic Victorian omniscient narrator, commenting on every character’s life at a studied remove. Once the book finds its proper voice, you may find the words flying onto the page.

Length
Are you trying to spread a novella’s worth of action into a novel? Before the advent of e-publishing, authors of erotic fiction had two choices: they could either write short stories (usually up to 5,000 words in length) or novels of around 75,000 words for print publication. Now, for some e-publishers a novel begins at 30,000 words, while the popularity of the novella and the “quick read” as book formats means that storylines don’t have to be padded beyond their natural length to achieve publication. Conversely, if there’s too much going on to fit into a short story, giving yourself the freedom to expand the word count can give your tale a new lease of life.

Genre
One of the most radical overhauls involves a change of genre. This could be as simple as introducing some BDSM action into what’s  previously been a vanilla relationship. Exploring their submissive side could help your heroine—or, less commonly but perhaps quite interestingly, hero—discover more about their own personality and that of their lover, or introduce tension if their partner realizes they’re uncomfortable with the situation. More radically, would the story work better if the lovers were both male, or both female? Could the couple invite a friend (or two) into bed with them, turning this into a ménage tale? Or is the story crying out for an injection of paranormal activity, or a touch of steampunk? (Or is your book, at its heart, a vanilla tale set in the here-and-now whose fantastical setting or BDSM themes are only extraneous window dressing? —WriteSex Ed.)

An element of the unexpected
The classic advice for writers struggling to complete a book as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge is that if the action has come to a screaming halt, introduce ninjas. Of course, NaNoWriMo is more about writing an arbitrary amount of words in a set period of time than producing publishable works of literature, but introducing a sudden crisis or unexpected element into your story can kick-start its momentum. What if one of your characters is involved in a car crash, or receives an e-mail from the ex-lover they thought they’d never hear from again? If you want to add an element of fun into your writing, or just devise an exercise to hone your chops as an author, you could always keep a set of postcards on which you’ve written words like “pregnancy” or “zombie apocalypse”, and pull one out at random when your plot appears to be going down a blind alley.

So now you can open that drawer or click on that file, and look at your manuscript with fresh eyes. Maybe soon you’ll be submitting the book you thought you’d never finish.

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Oct 212013
 
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By Elizabeth Coldwell

That’s it—you’ve finished your story, you’ve given it a final read to root out any inconsistencies in the plot and you’ve checked for typos (you have checked for typos, haven’t you? If not, go back and do so now).

Basking in the satisfaction that comes from completing any piece of fiction, you immediately set about firing it off to any and every publisher you’ve ever heard of, whether or not you’ve read their guidelines. “I don’t need to waste my time with guidelines,” you may say. “Once they’ve read my story, they’ll be falling over themselves to take it on.”

Except that’s not quite how it works. All publishers of erotica have their own vision of who they are, what they’re about, who they’re marketing to and how their books are presented as a whole. Do they concentrate on niche genres such as male/male or BSDM fiction? Will they offer stories with a range of heat ratings from sweet to all-but-taboo or just concentrate on hotter stories? Will they class a novel as a book if it comes in at over 30,000 words, or over 50,000? These things might not matter to those writing a piece of fiction, but they certainly do to those selling and reading them.

As an editor of erotica and romantic erotica for a major publisher, one of my pet hates is receiving a submission from someone who clearly hasn’t read the publisher’s guidelines. Impossible as it seems, I regularly receive books for consideration which contain no erotic or romantic elements whatsoever, from sub-Dan-Brown thrillers to treatises on spiritual well-being and world peace.

I edit for an imprint which, at the moment, is not taking on any short stories—a fact which is stated clearly on its website’s Calls for Submissions page—yet at least once a week I have to explain this as I regretfully return a short story to an author. I’ve even received cover emails addressed by name to an editor at another imprint!

Reading guidelines, and submitting to whatever seems the most appropriate outlet for your work, prevents you wasting your own time—and that of whoever has to read the submissions (and most e-publishers don’t have the luxury of farming out their ‘slush pile’ to willing, paid readers).

Formatting is another step in the preparation-and-submission process where it’s crucial to check publishers’ websites for their specific guidelines and follow them to the letter. Most are happy to receive a manuscript printed in a clear, legible font such as 12 point Times New Roman or Calibri, but depending on where you’re submitting, you may have to adhere to US or UK spelling, single or double quotes around speech, and removal of tab characters or extra returns between paragraphs. As an author, this may not seem like a big deal—after all, it’s a matter of minutes to find and replace the offending items—but it can prejudice an editor against you and mark you as difficult to work with. If you can’t be bothered to follow those simple instructions, it can suggest you’re not prepared to put any time or effort into your work. After all, there are an awful lot of other writers out there, all trying to land that elusive spot in an anthology or two-book novel deal, and most of those will happily dispose of tabs before sending if required.

Along with general guidelines, many publishers also put out specific or seasonal calls for stories to fill anthologies (many of these can be found here at WriteSex, at the excellent Erotica Readers’ and Writers Association site or at the “paying markets” forum at Absolute Write). Having a narrow brief to fulfill—such as writing about bears on holiday for a gay anthology, or combining food play with erotic submission for a publisher of BDSM fiction—can be an excellent way of honing your plotting skills, or provide a new outlet for your creativity if you’ve become blocked on another story. Needless to say, pay attention to the details of these Calls and don’t submit unrelated, or only marginally related, work to them.

Somewhere out there, the perfect publisher for you is waiting to receive your book or story. You will find that publisher a lot sooner if you study and heed all posted guidelines and match your work to the publisher’s needs.

 

Elizabeth Coldwell is Editor-in-chief at Xcite Books, where the titles she has edited  include the National Leather Award-winning anthology, Lipstick Lovers. As an author, she has 25 years’ experience in the field of erotica, having been published by Black Lace, Cleis Press, Sizzler Editions, Total-e-bound and Xcite Books among many others. She can be found blogging at The (Really) Naughty Corner – elizabethcoldwell.wordpress.com.

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