Apr 292010

Taking criticism is challenging for everybody. In the writing business, it’s a given that you’re going to get some; in the process of learning to write, it’s completely unavoidable. Personally, I was lucky enough to write with such single-minded obsession and singularity of vision for the first part of my life that I got virtually no negative feedback on my writing – adults in my life just sort of stared and said, “Um,” which led me to believe that I was some sort of genius. That kept me writing.

Then I enrolled in creative writing seminars at U.C. Santa Cruz, and somewhere in the mountain lair of mad scientist Dr. Critic, this saturnine villain rubbed his razor-nailed hands together and said, “Exxxxcellent. Finally we can end this meddlesome crusader’s pathetic scribbling once and for all — Release The Flying Monkeys!

Do you know the Flying Monkeys? Dr. Critic keeps them locked up in his mountain lair behind roll-up doors marked “Danger! Helpful Feedback” and “Constructive Criticism: Stay Back 40 Feet!” These flying monkeys are the Doc’s secret weapon in the quest for world domination; they are gene-spliced in subterranean laboratories out of the pilfered tissue of creative writing professors, Stephen King fans, mutant sociologists and people who think every book should be as good as As I Lay Dying or Atlas Shrugged – or, at least, incessantly compared to them.

Said Flying Monkeys may have had a go at you before, or they might just haunt your nightmares. They carry garden shears and find your main character unsympathetic; they swing baseball bats at your head and think you have too much exposition; they wear steel-toed boots and think your most poetic prose is uninspired; they throw their own excrement in great disgusting globules and consider your use of the present tense to be annoying and pretentious. I could go on; the flying monkeys have a million weapons, always ones you don’t expect. They have a billion pieces of “constructive criticism,” a trillion “suggestions” and a quadrillion “observations.”

If you’ve ever handed over a treasured piece of prose – or, worse yet, one you’re feeling insecure about – to a lover, teacher, friend, class or critique group, you may have gotten the Flying Monkey Treatment. And let me tell you: once those flying monkeys have a go at you, it’s tough to sit up straight for a while – maybe ever.

What they said is not important – or, rather, it’s not what this post as about. Their criticisms might be true; they might be false. No writer is perfect, and let’s face it, your writing might suck. But even if you’re a brilliant writer, the story in question might suck; everybody misses the mark once in a while. Some of us more often than not. It doesn’t mean you’re not good. The flying monkeys could conceivably be telling you something you need to hear.

But the flying monkeys don’t have to sit down and write the next story, and the next one, and the next one. Dr. Critic in his mountain lair with his infernal servants, his I.Q. of 260 and his improbable tinfoil headdress does not have to continue the novel after being told the first three chapters are mediocre at best. Your well-meaning friends and teachers don’t have to sit down in front of a blank screen and think, “What story do I want to tell today,” and come up with one. If you’re someone who writes, who has to write, then you do. And maybe your friends and teachers, if they’re also writers, do that too. But they don’t have to write your story. That’s your job.

And once you’ve been kicked in the balls by flying monkeys, that job can be goddamn hard to do.

How is it done?

Other writers will tell you they know; I will tell you I do not. Other writers, and other writing teachers, may be able to give you the most helpful feedback of all — how to survive “helpful feedback.” I cannot.

Because while I know I should welcome constructive criticism – and in fact, to this day I occasionally claim I welcome constructive criticism, I do not and never did. I just thought I was supposed to.

Unlike Peter Lorre in the Maltese Falcon, I never learned to “take it and like it.” I take it; I don’t like it. I will never like it. But after years of letting the monkeys have a go at me, I learned one thing that, to me, has been helpful, and I hope it can be helpful to you.

Your stories are not perfect. They do not need to be. They may not even be good. Hear me: They do not fucking need to be.

In the best case scenario, the point of constructive criticism is to make your writing better in terms of structure, prose, sensual detail, character development, inventiveness, plot, and all those other things that make good fiction a pleasure to read.

But the point of writing fiction is to write. In my view it is not, I repeat not, to write well.

“Writing well” is an admirable goal, and I strongly support it. But if you dropped dead three seconds after your last keystroke, would you rather have told a tale someone else enjoyed, or enjoyed the telling of it yourself?

Ideally, you don’t have to choose; everyone will love your writing, you included, and you’ll be signing options with Scorsese and jet-skiing in the Bahamas this time next year, or better yet having your self-published chapbook lauded by grad students in 100 years.

But when you sit in front of the blank screen and wonder if what you write will be good enough for the flying monkeys: Remember. You can never write well enough for the flying monkeys. And you don’t have to. Just write well enough to create that ecstatic sense of thunder on the keyboard, the rush of living large that comes from telling a story told with passion, not perfection.

That keyboard thunder, that rage as you tear through a story with bliss and compassion and pathos and energy?

It scares the flying monkeys. It scares them. It makes them cry big monkey tears.

It’s why they hate you in the first place.

Apr 232010

This will be short but hopefully pithy. Here are five more tips.

1) Yet another method of getting more bucks for the bangs you write about is to link some of  your stories together into a series, and to write enough stories in the series to collect as a book.

This is a hallowed practice going back more than one hundred years. Books as diverse as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Cheaper by the Dozen were created just this way.

Terri Pray, who writes for Sizzler Editions, has a knack for writing novelettes about series characters, who are often captured and forced to be sex slaves and are sold and pass from the hands of one master to another — each owner or captor the subject of an individual story in the series –  and then bringing it all together at the end through a developing story arc for a satisfying conclusion complete with her own version of a romantic happy ending bdsm-style.

2) Or to make it easy, you can forgo story arcs and just write otherwise unrelated adventures of a single character like Sherlock Holmes and then collect them into a book. This way you avoid having to hassle out a plot arc or happy ending. You could write a book about a woman named, say, Fay, who has a series of post-college sexual escapades with different men, and the collected stories could be called The Adventures of Fay, or the Exploits of Fay, or Fay Discovers Sex, or whatever. Anyway, I understand it worked out pretty well for the Holmes author.

This way you are at least assured of being paid twice for each story in the series you write.

If the book does well, you may make many times over what you received for writing the original stories.

3) Here’s another tip for squeezing more income from your work: Participate in public readings of erotica. If you live near or in a metroplex there are likely to be events like the SF Bay Area’s Perverts Put Out and Queer Open Mic, where writers of erotica read their work. Often they receive some small remuneration, but even when they don’t they are allowed to sell copies of their work; and if they get a decent discount on their books from the publisher, these writers can make $35-$100 a reading.

To get in on deals like this you will need a) find them and b) network. Also volunteer to read your work free at fund raisers where other authors are doing the same. That way you meet writers and the kind of people who put on events, making it far more likely you will get invited to any paid reading gigs than if you just sit home and wait to be noticed.

Through this kind of local networking, you will be in the best position possible for learning about local workshops, group readings, writer’s conferences, and the like. If you put yourself out a bit and ask, you will eventually get paid, or at least fed, gigs reading, teaching, etc. You may also learn about magazines and anthologies that are looking for erotica.

If you network on the web too, you may learn about opportunities beyond the local for making additional income from your writing. I, for instance, will be participating in an on-line course in writing erotica later this month for which I will receive some small remuneration.

4) If you have any personal area of expertise, you can also profit from creating and teaching your own on-line courses in writing via Google or other sites. One male writer I know teaches courses in writing believable male characters to women authors of romance novels. Using Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, etc., and emailings to various writer’s groups, you can drum up quite an income once established.

5) Dream up an anthology idea and place it with a publisher. Anthologists traditionally get half the royalties, the other half is split among the authors. Use one of your own older stories in the anthology, and come out even further ahead.  Sascha Illyvich came up with an idea for an anthology of gay male romance stories set against a background of starships and the spacelanes. I accepted the book as soon as he described it. I once spent a week reading through old science fiction magazines and emerged with an anthology titled Future Eves: Classic Science Fiction About Women, By Women. I also put one of my stories in it. It’s a pretty standard practice among anthologists.

If you keep these ideas, and the ones in my previous blog on this subject, you will at least double your earnings from your writing. Work hard at them and you can triple or quadruple it.

Apr 152010

Writers are professional liars: it’s our job is to tell a story so well that the audience believes it’s the truth, at least for the course of the story. The technical term, of course, is suspension of disbelief – the trick of getting the reader to put aside any doubts that what you’re saying isn’t the truth, the whole truth, so help you God.

For erotica writers that means convincing the reader that you really are a high school cheerleader named Tiffany who likes stuffed animals and gang-bangs with the football team … or that you’re a pro tennis player named Andre who has a mean backhand and can suck cock like a professional. A writer’s job is to convince, to put aside doubts … in other words to lie through their fucking teeth.

As any liar worth their salt knows, the trick to telling a good one is to mix just the right amount of truth with the bullshit. You don’t tell your mom who went to the movies rather than church: you say you had a sick friend, that your car broke down or that you had a cold. The same goes for fiction: spinning something that everyone knows is a lie (“the check is in the mail”) is flimsy, but adding the right amount of real life experience makes a story really live. Rather than Tiffany and the football players, how about a young woman who really wants to do a gangbang but doesn’t know how to break it to her boyfriend or girlfriend? We’ve all had the experience of trying to find a way to communicate our sexual fantasies to someone, so that rings true … even though our character is a total fabrication.

The same goes for dialogue, both external and internal. One of the worst cases I’ve seen came from, believe it or not, a mainstream book, where one character actually thought: I am happy with my homosexuality – and the intent was not humor or sarcasm. Orientation, like a lot of things in our lives, is something that’s just there, an integral part of our mental landscape: so integral that we don’t need to express it to ourselves as a thought.

While I do say that writing is lying, I don’t want you to extend that to professional identity. What I mean is that while it’s okay to be someone for a story, that falsehood should end with you who are as a person. Let’s say you’ve written a kick-ass gay men’s smut story – and you’re a woman: don’t send the story with a cover letter saying that you’re name is Stanley and you live in San Francisco with your life partner, Paul.

Get where I’m going? You can say what you want in your fiction, but when you cross that line to try and lie to the editor or publisher you’re not telling a story, you’re being deceptive. Now there’s no rule about using all kinds of different pseudonyms (I have three myself) but I’m also clear about who I am, and what I am, to an editor or publisher. There’s no reason to announce everything about yourself in a cover letter, but there’s a big difference between not saying something and trying to trick an editor.

There’s recently been a minor spate of this happening: men and women trying to be something they are not, for whatever reasons. Like I said, fiction is one thing, but anything beyond fiction is … well, weird at least, stupid at worst. The fact is we all talk to one another, us writers and editors, and eventually the truth will come out. It might not be a criminal offense, but I don’t mind being tricked by a story – but never in the real world of business dealings.

In short, it’s much better to be open and honest in a professional capacity, and leave the sex and lies for your stories where they belong.

Apr 082010

Hello everyone! I’m afraid that this is going to be my last post here at WriteSex. I warned Sascha that my life is crazy and that my participation was going to be short and bittersweet, and I’m afraid that my time here is at an end. That said, I’m glad I could help WriteSex find its feet, and I’m sure everyone will continue doing a great job with the site.

And don’t fret, I still have to blog at my own site, http://nicolepeeler.com, and I do tend to talk about sex a lot, over there. Probably too much. Luckily my mother can’t remember the name of my URL (it’s only the name SHE GAVE ME, after all), so she and my dad (who may have used a computer once, back when they had entirely black and green screens) are oblivious to the filth I churn out on a daily basis.

For my post today, I’m dipping into my own archives from my Emporium, where I discuss an issue close to my heart. Do I have a great big preternatural daddy complex?

Who’s Your Daddy?

Quite a few of the (awesome!) issues many of you raised in the comments to my post on the League of Reluctant Adults about sex in UF were about age. Which, in turn, made me think about about something that has always bothered me about many UF and paranormal romance love-matches. I know there are untold numbers of exceptions, but one common scenario is that in which the male love-interest is like a bazillion-and-five-years older than his female protagonist. That said, I am well aware that I quite obviously LOVE this setup. Not only is it the scenario at the heart of many of my favorite UF and PR novels, but I’ve DONE IT MYSELF. So I’m pointing the finger squarely at my own chest, here, people. Even so, I’m still bothered by it and it makes me wonder . . .

Do I have a great big supernatural daddy complex?

The irony is  that in real life I am single, very independent, rather commitment-phobic, and had I testes they would be made of a suitably tough and hard-wearing metal, albeit painted something shiny and bedazzled with rhinestones. In other words, I’m no wallflower, I’m ambitious, I’m successful in my own terms, and, if I’m honest, I’m a bit of a bitch.

So what the hell is up with my adoration of the alpha-male stud-muffin love interest, and with the obviously widespread  generic obsession, in general? As an academic who deals with issues of gender and power, my cultural studies whiskers’ twitch at the idea of an entire subset of literature in which women are literally hundreds of years younger than their lovers. Especially when it’s aimed, as in the case of paranormal romance, at a specifically female audience. This age gap between lovers raises my  Foucauldian  eyebrows, not least because of the inherent discrepancies that trickle down into other aspects of these relationships. For example, the sage and long-lived male tends to be outrageously wealthy. His great age make him vastly experienced, especially sexually, compared to his relatively inexperienced lover. He is often a cynical, world-weary soul pitted against the childishly optimistic and sparkling spirit of a fresh-faced young woman.

I can see a lot of reasons for the popularity of this trope, not all of which are nefarious. I’m also well aware that, especially in the case of paranormal romance, these are supposed to be just fantasies. And yet, as Freud established years ago, it is often through examining our fantasies that we discover the keys to our greatest strengths, most startling desires, and deepest insecurities. Unfortunately for our psyches, and luckily for both psychoanalysis and cultural studies, these three things are almost inevitably squeezed together into a big ball of hot mess.

So what are the “problematic themes” that I would latch onto and turn into a paper for a cultural studies conference? Well, first of all, the preternatural sugar daddy taps into well established gender binaries. The female is tagged alongside instinct, purity, inexperience, vulnerability, youth, etc., while the male is shelved alongside reason, sexual experience, wisdom, cynicism, age, and the like.

So this age discrepancy utilizes recognizable gender dichotomies.  But, again, it’s just make-believe! Right?  As such, this big age gap handily lends itself to instant sexual-fantasy fodder. These guys, after all, have been around the block so many times they’ve left grooves. They leave their lovers gasping for air, not gasping, “Why in the name of all that is holy did you think THAT would be a good idea?” Experience is, quite frankly, sexy. I think it should be sexy for women, too, and I’m not as big a fan of the sub-sub-subset of the sub-genre that has super-experienced, millennia-old men and virginal women. I’m not going to dismiss such a book, and there are quite a few writers I enjoy who often have virginal heroines, but I feel this scenario does pander to cultural stereotypes that insist sexually experienced women (read: tramps) are not worthy of their own story while sexually experienced men are ranked as dream lovers. But what really bothers me about these scenarios is what it assumes about “good” lovemaking.  Don’t get me wrong, one of my own characters is this exact kind of take-charge, has-all-the-moves, supe. But the thinker in me recognizes that part of growing up in regards to sex and one’s own sexuality, especially for women, is learning to voice one’s desires. It’s true that most women probably don’t fantasize about sex scenes in which they’re saying, “Um, actually, can you maybe do this, instead,” or, “try that!” or, gods forbid, “Ouch!” And yet, these are the very conversations that both men and women must have when they take a new lover. Granted, you may want to use phrasings slightly more erotically charged than, “ouch!”, but the point is that communication is vital in the sack. We should pray our lovers, be they male or female, understand this and reciprocate. After all, not a one of us comes with an instruction manual, although we should. Our bodies are almost as fiddly as Dysons but, unlike Dysons, we’re all different models. And yet these alpha male characters pounce on their women, make sweet love to them, and all you ever hear are moans.  Occasionally we get a “harder,” or, “more,” but the instructions never get much more explicit than that.  Because they don’t need to be! These guys are masters of the hootchie-cootchie, and it is the role of their female opposite to lie back and enjoy it. Despite the fact that women have fought for centuries to have a role in their own pleasure; to have a voice in the bedroom as well as the boardroom; and, finally, to give pleasure–without being labelled as wanton–as much as they receive pleasure.

So this is where I throw off my third-wave feminist cap and don my masculinity-studies cap.  All of the men I’ve talked to regarding this subject have said the same thing: the idea of a woman who doesn’t communicate her desires during sex is terrifying.  There are so many possibilities, so many opposing pleasures, what is he supposed to do with a woman who doesn’t articulate what she wants? All of my male friends express relief about women who bring their vocal chords to the bedroom, not to mention the fact they find it dead sexy.  All of which leads me to wonder if, in creating these smooth-move lovers with their lolling heroines, I’m not only resurrecting decades-dead female stereotypes but also thrusting the responsibility for sexual pleasure back onto the only recently-unshackled shoulders of men. Which suggests to me that such old-fashioned female stereotypes are actually very much alive and kicking. And that men are still challenged by unrealistic expectations placed upon them by a society that devalues women’s sexuality even as it overvalues men’s. A point underscored by the number of spam emails I get offering to enhance the size and the performance capabilities of my (nonexistent) penis.

In other words, as a feminist, a woman, and an academic, I’m uncomfortable with the gendered scenarios that I apparently find titillating as a reader and that I, myself, indulge in and recycle as a writer. My affection for this disturbing trope implies an ambiguity about contemporary gender roles, and, although I’m horrified to admit it, about my own expectations as a woman, not to mention as a reader, writer, and critic.  I don’t know what this ambiguity means, or what I’m supposed to do about it. Besides write blog posts and maybe do an academic paper on gender roles in UF (hello, tenure!).

So what do you think?  Is my having a bunch of much older dudes hanging out with fresh young chicks a great big supernatural daddy complex? Is it innocuous? Is it really just a fantasy? But what does such a fantasy say, to you? Do I need therapy?

Don’t answer that last one. Thanks! That’s all she wrote, on here. But she’ll keep ‘em coming at nicolepeeler.com. Including that euphemism post! As soon as I get this grading done… ;-)

Apr 012010

Last time we talked about eroticism of characterization we discussed two major points. Are the stories character driven or plot driven? Once we figure out that aspect we can concentrate on the proper lesson. For this blog we’re currently discussing characters and how they drive stories.

By the way when I say character driven stories, I’m talking about stories that focus exclusively on the characters and their growth. This is typical of most romance novels as we’re seeing a focus on the hero and heroine overcoming themselves in order to change. With plot driven stories, we’re talking more about books like Dragon Wytch by Yasmine Galenorn, which has strong character development but the focus is really on the plot. Urban fantasy and other genres rely on plot much of the time to satisfy their readers. But let’s get back to the erotic elements of character driven stories. We’ll cover plot driven stories in an upcoming post.

When we talk about erotic elements in any capacity, we’re really talking SEX. Remember in my previous blog post I mentioned movies? This is THE KEY that we want to mimic as writers in terms of structure and writing style. The reason is that the eye and brain pick up details VERY quickly and only through our logical reasoning do we misinterpret what we see.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that even though revenues are in decline for a variety of reasons, movies tend to remain the most accessible form of entertainment. That being said, ever notice how a scene occurs? Probably not because action happens so fast in a good scene that our minds hang onto what our eyes see. But what if we wrote those scenes on paper?

We would see the internal dialogue, thought and action that occur. Since sex is an ACTION between two characters, the same formula for writing it occurs. I know I’ve mentioned Morgan Hawke in previous posts and the reason for that is that she models her sex scenes after Angela Knight and Laurell K. Hamilton. The reason for this is not only because both authors are EXTREMELY popular but because they’re both DAMN GOOD smut writers. And remember, we’re not always modeling our writing not after literary quality but after what sells. True writers are results focused and when we cover promotions via my publicist and a guest blog, or my cohorts, we’ll discuss why we are results oriented.

You’re wondering what that formula for writing sex scenes is now, aren’t you?

Here it is: (shamelessly stolen from Morgan Hawke’s site)

Stimulus > Reaction > Perception > Emotion > Response

Something happens to the viewpoint character. Then he has an action. Then a thought. Then a feeling. And finally, he responds.

Then the other character begins the patter again ON THE NEXT LINE. Since SEX is ACTION, we use this formula here too.

What this looks like in action:

Morgan turned her head. (Morgan ACTION)
When their eyes met (SASCHA ACTION), Sacha wanted to stride across the room and do something (Had a THOUGHT). Anything.
This was his mentor, his love interest from afar. His biggest supporter in the industry. (Emotion) He swallowed hard. (Reaction)
She started towards him, taking quick steps to cover the distance between them. (Morgan ACTION)
He figured she’d walk past him. (Had a thought)
Instead, she stopped just beside him, setting a hand on his chest.
His heart throbbed loudly in his throat. (Emotional Response)
“Room 515. I got a good suite. Good to see you, babe.” She dropped her chin and fluttered her eyelashes at him.
He inhaled her scent, lush and rich, “Ten minutes okay for you?”
A wicked smile crossed her lips. “Yeah. Don’t spend what you promised me.” She lightly raked her fingers across his abdomen.
A shudder raced through him.
Morgan walked down the hall.
He snickered.

The scene was originally written in a different style but I still kept the two characters actions in their own paragraphs. This style looks choppy huh?

WHO CARES? The reader’s eyes won’t notice unless they take a break and actually look at the page, in which case you’ve not done your job properly. The key here is that we’re writing for flow.

I can hear some of you now talking about style. I’ll break it down for you. Style isn’t what sells. Good stories sell. If you’re so tied to your style that you can’t change, I suggest you reread this post on Flexing by M. Christian. Then reread this post by Jean Marie Stine on erotica and money.

This formula is not the be all end all to your writing and will take time to learn. What separates one writer from another is the words chosen to describe the actions, events etc. When I went back to redo this snippet I had a few things out of order due to my natural tendency NOT to write in this way but once I saw the smoothness in how it read I was willing to try to learn to write action/sex in formula.

What makes the difference is that our readers run through the story so quickly because you’ve crafted the scenes in an order that lends to helping the words fly off the page come alive to the reader.

We’ve covered a lot of information in this post and it’ll take some time for it to digest so when I have the blog again, we’ll not only repeat some of this material but explain in better depth. Until next time…