Jul 202012
 
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It always stuns me how many writers and aspiring writers don’t read, don’t read very much, or used to read but don’t read any more. This includes writers who have had some commercial success.

For commercially successful writers, the “excuse,” — as if they really need one, which of course they don’t — is often one of two things.

First, successful writers often say they’re simply too busy to read books that aren’t their own.

Second, when they’re working on their own fiction, anything they reed tends to creep into what they write.

I’m going to add a third reason I’ve discovered in my own years as a published writer: if you read one friend’s book, you feel like you have to read every friend’s books. When you have thirty friends who write 3-6 books a year, well, that’s enough to make reading seem like a chore just on its own. There’s a reason that many professional fiction writers I talk to say their favorite part of the work is “research.” Calling it “research” gives you license to read what obsesses you at the moment, instead of feeling obligated to read all those books you long ago told someone you’d get to eventually.

In any event, there’s no point in my badmouthing the reading habits of writers who are getting published regularly and/or getting paid for it and/or having a satisfying creative experience. I assume they’re doing something right — by which I mean something that works for them creatively.

So I’ll contradict my headline directly; you don’t have to do anything to write, other than write. You can write a novel without ever having read a novel; I’m sure there’s some jackass out there who’s done it and rocketed up the Amazon best-seller lists. But if you’re a beginning writer, ask yourself this: why would you want to? If you aren’t in love with books, why do you want to waste your time writing one of your own?

I see it this way: Writing is a bit like conversation. You know those people who talk and talk and talk and talk and talk, and never listen? The ones who missed the “conversational turn-taking” part of child development (it’s sort of a package deal with potty training)? The ones who blather on about stuff  they don’t actually know much about — or anything about — but it’s so much work to contradict them that you end up just staring blankly at them and/or faking a heart attack? The ones who  never let anyone else get a word in edgewise, or when they do let you get a word edgewise, you can actually see the clockwork thingies going tick-tick-tick behind their crazed, dinner-plate Michele Bachmann eyes as they plan their next mini-rant for whenever you quit talking?

Aren’t those people annoying?

If you said “no,” then maybe you’re one of those people who never tires of hearing his or her own voice. In that case, mazel tov and keep writing. It’s certainly a common trait of writers, in my experience, that we have shitty filters. Oftentimes conversational turn-taking isn’t our strong suit, so, okay…whatever.

But if writing and reading are like conversations, it’s not just “politeness” that dictates you should shut up once in a while and let someone else talk to you. It’s psychologically meaningful to experience the words of others. And if you’re the sort of person who likes to write stories, then the more stories you experience, the easier and more fun it will be to tell them.

One of my favorite writers, Lester Bangs, said something about speed freaks that applies even more to writers: “Anyone who talks that much has to be a liar or they’d run out of things to say.”

The thing is, when you’re writing fiction you’re starting by being a liar; if you’re not making stuff up then you’re doing it wrong. But there’s supposed to be a narrative truth shimmed underneath the wobbly table on which you’re building your house of cards. It helps if you have a regular and positive experience of what that satisfying narrative feels like.

If you can’t find time to read because you’re so busy writing…mazel tov. But when those words run out and you need to clear your head, don’t listen to the crazed, book-hating devil-hippies who tell you to do something dangerous like meditate. Don’t listen to your psycho, anti-intellectual fiend of a so-called “doctor” and hop on the elliptical trainer or the treadmill.

Not without grabbing a book first.

If you want to be a writer, all you absolutely have  to do is write.

But I can tell you from experience: you’ll probably enjoy it more if you also read.

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Jan 122012
 
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Hi Folks,

How has your new year started off? Have you made writer resolutions for more sales, more releases, more books to be read?  Or are you swamped like I am even though it’s only the first week of the year?  LOL!

My biggest news right now is that The Playground is released through Decadent Publishing!  The 1Night Stand series is apparently very popular and when I met Kate Richards and Valerie Mann at Erotic Authors Association Con in Vegas last year, they convinced me to write something for them.

One of the biggest factors writers need to realize when they start writing a new book is the time commitment to it . Usually I cover craft on WriteSEX but I think we should talk a little on the business side of things too for this article.  In a previous Authors Promoting Authors blog post I had talked about research and looking at things from the standpoint of ROI on TIME invested in a book.  Being efficient is key when writing because as we’ve covered before, true wealth can be had by a writer but it takes a LOT of work and so few writers actually amount massive wealth. I pointed out eh importance of education on topics such as BDSM or psychology in the APA blog so that once you sit down to write a story, you don’t have to stop and research, thus breaking your train of thought.

After all, train of thought in writing gets the words on the paper.  But if you have to stop and look up the term SAM, maybe you don’t know what it is and have no sense of which websites are reliable, so more time spent on research, which affects plotting and character development in the long run.  Everything as a writer that you do should be measured in terms of return on investment.

You are a writer, an artist yes.  but the truth of the matter is, many of you have this goal and desire to be a decently paid if not well paid author and the only way to truly meet that goal is with proper planning, self discipline and keeping your ass in the chair and pounding out the words.  Oceania, our Audio Goddess, did a post last year on deadlines and writer’s block that I think will help from time to time. Continue with your education to learn what works and what doesn’t.

So, set your goals, write them down!  Put them someplace where you’ll find them a year from now.

Sascha Illyvich

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Jul 012011
 
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From an original image by Ignacio Icke. Caption improvised by Bubba.

As I started to write this, a hippie chick sitting near me saw me pull out my ear buds and asked me if I’d heard “what I just told that other man…about the perfumes?”

There’s just no good answer to that question.

When I miserably sighed out the only real answer I could give — the honest one, since I’d been listening to Skinny Puppy and couldn’t hear shit the first time she ran through it — I was treated to about a five-minute lecture on the small business she apparently just started, importing body oils from a group of Sufi producers in Tangier, Morocco. “The Sufis believe that they brought scent to the Earth…and, now, whether that’s true, I don’t know, and I don’t really care, since I’m not a Sufi.” She gave me three of her flyers, “For you and your friends,” packed with velo-wrapped samples that look disturbingly like enormous ketosis strips. Since I doubt my new friend would be amused if I hauled that shit out and peed on them, the samples are currently stinking up my keyboard, while I try to write blog posts.

This, of course, is a bizarrely Sufi-esque string of events for the Universe to hurl my way. After all, I’d already decided that I would title my blog post “Smell, Don’t Tell,” because it rhymes. And that’s what The Cosmos whacked me with, as if to say “Oh, yeah, fucker? Smell THIS!” Right now, incidentally I’m more inclined to re-title it “The Smell from Hell,” because while I’m as happy as the next guy to huff a little of the Breath of Life, the overpowering scent of African black musk is a  little intense when one’s trying to operate a human brain on nothing more than a recoil starter primed by six liters of coffee.

Anyway, so that intense smell that I’m huffing right now? It makes me dizzy, and makes me think, “Whirling dervishes, harem girls, the Call to Prayer, teenage hippy chicks shimmy-shaking on my dorm room bed in the lyrical years before my friends and acquaintances all seem to get multiple chemical sensitivity.” Back in those days, stinking up a room was the Goddess-given right of every college student, and it was done with great prejudice: with body oils, perfumes, cigarettes, incense, pizza lifted from the Dining Commons, copious gurgling bongloads from hell, day-old burritos, discarded nitrous canisters, Jack Daniels, and Boone’s Apple Wine — plus a few scents far less pleasing. It was positively boner-inducing, though admittedly I was in my teens and early twenties, so what wasn’t?

One of the traps I think many erotica writers fall into is forgetting to describe certain sensual details of the scene. However, the opposite crime is also possible. Many writers in all genres can put too much sensual detail for my taste — or, far worse, just pick those sensual details out of a hat and describe them in hackneyed ways that have been done to death. When someone walks into their parents’ house and smells the comforting scent of Mom’s cooking, GAAHAHAHAHHAHA! I’ve heard it a thousand times. The scent is there to communicate information, supposedly, but it’s not real, because it’s been grabbed from the fiction writer’s paint-by-numbers set, not re-experienced and re-imagined the way sensual details, and particularly olfactory ones, should. But you don’t have to create the perfect sensory description for a scene to be augmented by olfactory details — in fact, your quarry just has to think he or she knows what the thing you’ve described smells like, which can be based on nothing more than your description. All you have to work with is words, so words get to stand for every sense you could possibly engage…accurately or inaccurately, and I’m not so sure it really matters.

In my opinion, nowhere is that more important than in erotica. Nor is there a more powerful tool in the erotic writer’s toolbox than olfactory details, freshly imagined (or…ripely, if you’re into that) and rendered in original terms. Smell is a powerful subconscious motivator when it comes to sexual activity, and if you can get across the scent of something that causes a sexual response — not so much in your reader, but in your protagonist — then you’ve got a live wire right into your victim’s backbrain.

Did I say “victim?” I meant, of course “reader.”

There’s a danger more subtle than just hacking out the same predictable phrases to describe the sent of a campfire, sea breeze, boudoir, French whore, weightlifting stud or stinky back alley, however. It’s adding details that shouldn’t be there.

In my opinion, scents in very tightly-written plot-driven fiction should be there to communicate information, rather than just provide window dressing. Humans do our thinking with our bulbous cortexes a lot — some of us more than others. If sensual details (of ANY sense — but smell is particularly important here) don’t communicate information related to plot, character or setting, then they’re just there to be there. In that case, to my way of thinking, virtually any sensual detail can potentially be one of Chekov’s many unfired pistols — it’s there, taking up space, for no good reason.

Maybe the author just decided to be a Smell Commando this week, describing how the scene smells because “it’s important to the millieu.” It might be, and it might not be, but the reader shouldn’t wonder. The description of a scent should either be so compelling that it creates a concrete response in the prey (er…”reader”) or it should be a piece of story information in addition to helping transport one into the scene.

The tendency to describe sense-experiences rather than information-experiences was one of the things that alienated me from poetry, actually, back when I used to be very interested in it. I was unsettled by the form’s tendency to focus on experiential details of sensual significance only insofar as they had sensual significance, rather than insofar as they communicate information. It made me feel like as a writer and a reader, I was wasting my time. Not all readers are as alienated by excess sense information as I am, so take it with a grain of salt. And I’ve also heard many prose writers who say they learned a lot of valuable descriptive techniques by studying poetry.

But as a bona-fide Brainiac, I grab information from the sensual world and stuff it into this mammoth computer I call a brain. Or, more specifically, a frontal lobe — and no, I don’t stuff it in the lobe you’re probably thinking of, perv. Yes, indeed, the “lobe” you might be considering is indeed wired pretty strongly to my other frontal lobe, about forty inches north. Yours may be too, whether your equipment includes a “lobe” or…whatever.

But humming deep in the chasms of your brain is a whole universe of non-verbal arousal cues that can be communicated through fiction over and above what a smell can communicate informationally. That’s because smells can do all three things. They can a) communicate information, b) draw a reader into a scene, and c) have no specific plot significance in and of themselves, but hold a significance within the machinations of the plot itself, in that they draw a parallel between an early scene and a late scene.

For instance…check it: This guy — I’ll call him “Bubba” — walks into an apartment and smells African black musk. That tells you that the protagonist knows what African black musk smells like. Bubba probably knows what African black musk smells like for a reason. That gives you an opportunity to hint at why Bubba knows, or leave it unstated. The place probably also smells like African black musk for a reason.  Ditto.

You can describe the smell itself, or not, depending on how evocative the term is, and how commonly known the smell is. Maybe the reader knows what African black musk smells like. Maybe not. I sure as hell didn’t until about fifteen minutes ago. But the term itself holds an automatic sensual significance for me, and not just because I’m huffing it right now. The very name is evocative. “African black musk.” Hello, beautiful. I think I know what African black musk smells like, even if I don’t. (Though, to be fair, I do. So will everyone who gets within 40 feet of me for the next 72 hours.) Terms might be less evocative or more evocative, but to my mind the evocation that the term and your description provide are far more important than whatever the stuff smells like.

So here’s what that does for the person reading about the guy who just walked into the stinky-musk apartment:

Information is communicated: Bubba knows what African black musk smells like. For some reason. The apartment smells like African black musk. For some reason. Bubba’s first love was an African musk ox! And the woman who lives the apartment, where Bubba is, say, delivering a Hot Tomato Pizza? Maybe she’s secretly an African musk ox, too! (Bubba’s pizza’s deep dish, incidentally with lots of anchovies…were-oxes love anchovies. Incidentally, it smells great, but we’ll cover that particular aroma in some other column, maybe.)

2) The reader is drawn into the scene: Whether or not the reader knows what the stuff smells like, just having the ol’ sniffer engaged may get a nosehook on ‘em, if you know what I mean. Plus, when Oxana says “Gee, Mr. Pizzaman, I don’t have any money to pay for my pizza,” it’s already been established that she’s having an anti-rational, pro-sensualist effect on Bubba, so when the funk music starts, the sex isn’t just, like, random.

3) …and, lastly, you’re provided with a fully loaded and primed Chekovian Blunderbuss…later, after his fervent tryst with the beautiful and mysterious “Oxana,” Bubba can stand there in her living room spinning with joy while holding his Hot Tomato Pizza red uniform shirt think “Gee, I wonder why this girl I’m falling for smells like African musk!?”

Then voila! It hits him! Full moon’s out, see, and out of the bedroom bursts this giant musk ox, see? And it spots Bubba spinning for joy and waving his red Hot Tomato Pizza uniform shirt, and…

What…you were expecting Gift of the Magi?

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Mar 242011
 
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When I started this gig at Write Sex, the idea was to have me write about “taboo” topics in erotica or erotic romance. You know: sex with the dead, screaming banshees, and hotty-hot vampires. As the column has progressed, I seem to usually end up writing about the mechanics of creating fiction, because as I’ve written more and more fiction over the months I’ve been doing this, I find the mechanics become all-important. Therefore, my writings here often contain pretty straightforward writing-technique observations, though they maybe laced throughout with inexplicable glimpses of my own unique mental mise-en-scene (Goth chicks! Humanities grad students! High-end hotels!).

It must have dawned on the editor and proprietor Sascha by now that I have no real intention of telling you — or perhaps I just have no capability to tell you — how to write an exquisite vampire blood-orgy romance sex scene. Sascha has, just the same, kindly refrained from docking my pay. That’s because Sascha understands what all successful writers must sooner or later understand. Your muse is not a bitch. But neither is she easy. She will gut you like a pig if you don’t listen to her. But if you meep politely now and then and blurt lots of “Yes, Ma’am” and “May I freshen your drink, Your Majesty,” there’s a small chance you’ll walk out of this business — instead, I mean, of crawling.

That’s why built into my Write Sex column was a certain breadth of scope — and without it, I’d be sunk. I wouldn’t have written this column, or the last column, or the one before that.

Because living a writing life is all about disaster preparedness. And so, after all these months, I return to the taboo — perhaps the greatest taboo of all: when shit goes wrong. Disaster preparedness is something you’ll need if you’re going to have a writing career, just as if you’re going to run a country or a city or a nuclear plant in a tsunami zone, you should probably have a spare garden hose to cool down your spent fuel rods, and you might want to consider putting your diesel tanks underground.

In writing, as in life, disasters happen. The most common writing disaster is sitting down to write and finding nothing in your brain. Almost as common is getting shit down on virtual paper — called “the computer” by these newfangled tech types — and finding it’s an absolute mess. A third kind of writing disaster is sending something out to your very best friend, your first reader, your agent, your editor or your boyfriend or girlfriend or wife or husband — and getting an “Um…huh. Okay…” in response. Or an “it sucks.” Or the most disastrous feedback of all: “I read the first page and it really seemed good, but I haven’t had time to get back to it. Maybe next week? I’ve been so busy cleaning out my fridge and LIKE-ing photos of puppies on Facebook…”

Christ! How it hurts to hear that shit! To be dismissed! Forgotten! That feeling will ream you if you let it. It will damage your spirit beyond redemption; it’ll leave your soul a smoking ruin. It’ll melt you down and send molten uranium tunneling to China. It’ll flood your Gulf with oil.

But it hurts still more to hear nothing.

By which I mean not just to hear nothing from editors, agents, first-readers, and the like. Sure, that hurts. But for me, it hurts most on the days when I hear nothing from myself. It happens all the time. It’s when my brain just goes dead, and words don’t come, and I not only don’t give a fuck if the hero and heroine ever get together — I don’t care if they lived in the first place. On days like that, my characters could drown in a levee failure or be wiped off the map by a tsunami or lose their fishing business in an oil spill, and I’d leave the computer empty and spent with nothing to show for six hours of agony, and I’d prop my feet up and watch Serenity for the umpteen-thousandth time — and tell myself, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Please don’t think for a moment that I mean to make light of the fucked up crap that happens to people — whether through no fault of their own, or at least, to my mind, through no fault of the poor people, and no fault of the rich people except being so unwilling to pay taxes that cutting the budget for earthquake and volcano monitoring in somebody else’s state seems like a really good idea. In using this metaphor, I mean to minimize nobody’s suffering — real suffering, not this indulgent crap that we writers do. I don’t wish to imply that my writer’s block even begins to compare to slurping down radioactive iodine with your cornflakes, let alone taking 40 Sieverts of radiation on the chin.

On the contrary; on many of my days, writing an escapist zombie melodrama seems like a reeking load of bullshit considering how bad things are going in the world. Not having any ideas for my next warmed-over stroke fest is hardly the equivalent of having multiple cities flattened by earthquakes. I’m not suggesting that it is. Every day I’m grateful that I’ve the luxury of sitting my ass in a hard wooden chair and daydreaming about fairytales and moonbeams and whips and chains and werewolves. Every day I’m bloody grateful that a meteor hasn’t hit me — yet. Or an earthquake, a levee failure, a Mack truck, a catastrophic core meltdown…whatever. Even being able to blog about this shit is a gift from chance, or whoever. Just speaking for myself, I find that even on my worst days, my being alive to suffer so horribly is actually, God help me, appreciated.

But what I am suggesting is that when you find that creative empty, or end up with a mess of a not-quite-a-novel on your hard drive, or get yet another “It’s not for us” or “couldn’t the heroine be a juggler instead of a unicycle-acrobat?” from a publisher, it’s preparation that will save you. On those days, however bad it feels, even if it feels like the apocalypse — and oh, for fuck’s sake, some days I know it does — feeling bad about it doesn’t cool an emotional meltdown or get food or medicine to your characters who need it.

When emotional disaster strikes, you can say you never thought it could happen to you — despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. In no way, shape or form am I one of those pricks who’ll say in that case you have “only yourself to blame.” Creative emptiness feels like a tragedy, so it is a tragedy. Getting self-righteous about someone else’s pain is as reprehensible as mixing up “looting” and “finding supplies.”

But the first principle of disaster preparedness is admitting “it can happen to me.” If you’re riding high on creative success, or just pumped from drinking too much coffee, you can rest assured you’ll hit the skids at some point. If you’re the creative and spiritual equivalent of “high on life” at the moment keep in mind that life may have a special nightmare in store for you.  And if you’re one of those snooty hyped-up San Francisco weirdos nobody invites to their parties who has three first aid certificates (dog, cat, and human) and knows exactly what the liquefaction will be at the base of the Bay Bridge pylons, when disaster strikes you’ll know what to do.

You’ll be the one giving CPR to werewolves hit by runaway MacGuffins.

And that’s your chance to make a difference.

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Jan 062011
 
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Can you believe that it’s been a year since we started this blog? I’ve been so lucky and blessed with the company I’ve been keeping here, started new projects with some of them, worked with others for a more prosperous career and ultimately helped a ton of you to become better, more educated writers. The purpose of this blog was and is simple: Educate the writer on the craft of writing erotica in any form, be it a little hint of smut here or a lot of sex there.

When I chose the players, I had an idea in mind. Not only did I want to partner with other professionals, but I wanted to bring something different, a powerhouse of well rounded talent that you the writer would benefit from. Becoming a successful writer isn’t just about writing a great story. It’s never been just about that. Though that IS the secret to making money, right? Just cracked the formula, didn’t I?

Sort of.

A great story is one that not only reads well, is written well but reaches a broad audience. Using the proper words to create images in the readers mind helps define your style as a writer but it also gives you potential for an even greater opportunity to capture market share. We’re not competing against one another, but rather working towards a common goal of enjoyment and entertainment, albeit sexual in nature. Some of us want a little romance, others want a little kink, and still others are uncertain until they’ve been exposed to your work.

Having stories that fit an audio market capture that all important sense many of us miss out on. It’s important to understand what audio erotica is and why we’re talking about this.

A need to be varied and flexible with story craft is important too. So is the desire to crank out fresh material.

All of these things plus the rest of the previous blog entries all come down to one thing in the end. You, the author. What IS your author platform? What is the hook, line and sinker you’re going to use once you’ve written that great book to sell it to a publisher? Are you familiar enough with the marketing aspects of basic blogging so that once the work is released, you can effectively market it?

The problem for most new writers is still that they have trouble wrapping their heads around all of the above mentioned things. That’s why we’re here. WriteSEX adds value to your platform, helps your career grow. If you’ve questions, we’ve more than likely got answers.

Because a world without questions, only has answers. I will resume story craft on my next post. For now, we’ve solidified a unique group with well over 100 years of combined experience in writing. And it’s my sincere belief that 2011 will be the year of the writer.

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Oct 212010
 
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With NaNoWriMo coming up, it’s worth addressing the central conceit of the NaNoWriMo concept, which is — if you’ll allow me to take a few liberties that may piss off the punters — that you should just write, no matter what, without pausing — and without an outline. That’s the way to get a novel out of you.

I agree and I don’t. Personally, I like novels that write themselves. But not every novel wants to write itself.

Outlines are a critical part of the novel-writing process for most successful novelists. Their importance simply cannot be overstated. Writers who pump out book after book of quality prose about spunky ballerinas finding romance and homicide detectives hunting serial killers and winemakers solving crimes about cheese — those people almost all write with outlines, and tight ones, too. If it’s your first novel or your hundredth, you should do whatever works for you, but personally I wouldn’t trade the crazed madness of writing a novel without an outline for all the tea in Buckingham Palace.

That’s when the novel seems to write itself. It’s awesome. Writing a novel without an outline is the bomb.

Writers are very much split on whether doing so is a good idea or the most dangerous kind of antisocial lunacy. I tend to fall into the latter camp; writing a novel without an outline is definitely antisocial lunacy and should be avoided if you value your sanity, your interpersonal relationships, your job, the tendons of your forearms — and, most of all, your time.

But you’re not me, and therefore there are no significant consequences to my advocating that you do stupid shit.

Writing a novel without an outline is unquestionably dangerous — you could end up with a mess. The truth is, you’ll probably end up with a mess. If you make a habit of this, you may end up like me — the proud possessor of a hard drive packed with few dozen 20,000-word innovatively-cross-genre turds that steam so bad sometimes you gotta open the windows. But the experience of writing a big narrative with total abandon is something that I simply can’t give up. The problem is, that kind of muse doesn’t necessary come when you call her. She’s much like a cat in that regard. Nine times out of ten she knows you’re looking, and you can bite her.

What outlines can do for a novelist is force you to break your narrative into manageable chunks. When I write novels (or feature-length screenplays) to a tight outline, I lose the experience of sitting there tear-assing through six scenes in a sitting with no idea what’s coming next, which is a hell of a feeling. But like I said. I get that feeling a lot, then realize I have no idea what’s coming next. For this reason, I have many, many more half-novels than novels. Most novelists do.

But I also have many more outlines than novels. Hell, I have more outlines than first chapters! It’s easier for me to write an outline than it is to write a first chapter, and you know who enjoys reading them? Uh…no one. Not even me.

The point is, you can tear through an outline and think you have the framework for a novel. But from a reader perspective, there is no framework for a novel. The framework is the novel.

There’s no one answer as to whether you should outline, except to say that if it works for you, everyone else’s opinion is irrelevant. But it’s worth mentioning that most of the really accomplished genre novelists I know — I mean the kind of people who put out a book a year or more, and have been doing it repeatedly for a while — outline like fiends. Their outlines or “treatments” are incredibly detailed. Why, just this past week, science fiction legend Norman Spinrad, by way of crowdsourcing his novel queries, freely published a 113-page treatment of his next novel. James Ellroy of LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia fame writes novel outlines hundreds of pages long, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro once told me she outlines novels so thoroughly that she never has to rewrite (and, in my experience, her novels read tight).

If you’ve never written a novel, there’s a chance when it comes, it’ll just happen. You won’t need an outline because the thing will be winking at you from your computer screen, and you will have just typed END. Sure, everyone you know may think you’ve vanished off the face of the earth, and there may be an eviction notice on the door, and you may be about to get your power shut off because you haven’t paid the bill in twelve weeks. You may need a payment plan with the power company, but you still won’t need an outline. If this is how it goes down, mazel tov.

This sort of first-novel experience occurred with me on two separate occasions. That’s right; I received the lightning strike of having not one but two first novels just kind of explode out of me, in different decades, because they were in thoroughly unrelated genres. It’s an awesome feeling, a little bit like being high. High on life! High on life and six shots of bourbon. And the cocaine exports of Peru and Colombia put together. And these funny pink pills some weird guy in an overcoat sold you for $3 and a bus transfer over on 16th and Mission…

If that sounds like fun, great. If that sounds sustainable over the course of a professional career, you’re either more näive than I am, or you have way bigger brass ones.

If you’ve never written a novel and you’re trying to, or if you’ve written lots of them and you’re trying to write the next one, it won’t do you any good to bellyache about the novel that won’t write itself.

Sometimes you gotta make them write themselves. And then? An outline can be your best friend.

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Sep 022010
 
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In this post, I’m going to address in my own special way one of the recurring problems of a writer’s life. Many of us find that while we’re in a writing phase, we can’t seem to read. It’s not just about time, it’s about attention.

For what it’s worth, I’m going to argue that you gotta. Ignore me at your peril, but then, listen to me at your peril. Do what works for you, because when it comes right down to it, I don’t know shit.

All I’m trying to do is remind you — or maybe remind myself — why you sat down in that stupid chair to begin with. We all began writing because at some point writing something down seemed like a better idea than doing the dishes or emptying the litter box. Locked up in the problems of fiction, it’s way too easy to forget why it ever did.

Anyway, here’s the story:

Recently, while lost in a finger-gallop reverie in the virtual pages of my newest tender romance between a half-clothed young socialite and the crew of the HMS Bon Vivant, I realized something strange and wonderful.

All my recent first-drafts evince a familiar narrative rhythm — one I was completely unaware of during the writing of a considerable number of words.

The novels open with a conversation or interpersonal conflict that leads to an action sequence for which there’s clearly backstory that the reader doesn’t know, so that the resounding “WTF?” in the reader’s mind both intrigues them and troubles them.

The novel then proceeds to a chapter of backstory from the perspective of a single character, which tells you part of why the action sequence in Chapter 1 matters and what in the hell the characters were talking about.

Following that, there’s another conversation and another action sequence that both illuminates the events of Chapter 1, but you still don’t quite know WTF is going on.

You as the reader are more illuminated after the subsequent round of backstory, again from another character’s perspective — often a different character than the first backstory.

So on and so on — through about six or eight chapters, until roughly the midpoint of the book. After that, the narrative proceeds more or less unchecked as a series of conversations and actions sequences, to an ending that’s either a suckerpunch or a bitch-slap, depending.

Let me say here that structuring novels has always bothered me. I don’t do it naturally, which is why I’ve been more successful writing short stories. But as I wrote this round of longer works — about five of them since June — it all came to me as easily as a Cleveland drama teacher who’s mistaken me for Robert Mitchum. And for a time, I didn’t have the faintest idea why it was suddenly so natural.

Then I picked up a Jim Thompson novel, my tenth in a few months, and I realized I was aping  Thompson’s formulaic structure.

James Meyers Thompson, 1906-1977,  in case you don’t know your tough-guy literature, was one of the codifiers of redneck noir, and more importantly of the overall hard-boiled esthetic in the postwar crime thriller — and here I’m talking really hard-boiled, not the saxophone-drenched diaries of some trenchcoat-wearing wisecracker who handwashes his delicates and jots his crime scene notes in a cute little spiral notebook with unicorn appliqués and a glue-glitter “Detective Jake Fist’s Notebook” on the cover, and dots the I’s in “high-velocity impact splatter” with little pink hearts.

Jim Thompson, much like Hitchcock and Cornell Woolrich, raised misanthropy in the thriller to a high art — but, most importantly, Thompson was a consummate plotter. His books pound the pavement (or West Texas alkali dust) so tight and fast Raymond Chandler curls up in his grave and weeps, “Uncle.”

Many of Thompson’s short, to-the-point suckerpunch thrillers follow exactly the structure I mention above — some don’t, sure, but the commercial crime novels he sat down and cranked out while slamming down liquor in the ’50s and ’60s all follow a similar pattern. Thompson sure as hell didn’t invent it — really, the structure’s pretty standard. But you tend not to see it quite as evidently nowadays in category crime fiction, which today is thoroughly dominated by 400-page P.I. books and lawyers from Sausalito. With the stripped-down, 60,000-word structure in 12 or 15 or 20 chapters, it’s easier to see the moving parts.

And as far as I’m concerned, the structure works.

I don’t mean it works from a writer’s perspective — who gives a shit about writers? I mean it works for the reader. Remember them? That is to say, it works for me — I love reading it. Add to that predictable an enveloping sense of atmosphere, vivid characters, wonderful narrative language and an ear for dialect, and I’m as happy as a pig in shit as long as no one tries to talk to me while I’m reading.

With Thompson, specifically, he can stuff my peepers with an endless parade of corrupt Texas oilmen, L.A. grifters, slowly-coming-unhinged small-town sheriffs and St. Louis bellboys plotting the perfect murder of a corrupt politician’s cocaine-addled wife; I’ll always be convinced I’m reading a new book, even though I’m actually reading the same damn book over and over again.

That’s probably why I read about ten of Thompson’s novels in couple months — immediately before I started writing in exactly that structure, without even really meaning to do it.

Having found the style fantastically satisfying as a reader, I started pumping it out as a writer despite the fact that at the moment I’m not writing anything even remotely resembling crime novels. The supremely satisfying framework imprinted itself so thoroughly on me that I utilized it without even knowing it — after years of not quite “getting” novel structure.

What’s the point? You are what you eat. You have to read to write. If you are writing novels, you need to read novels; if you are writing short stories, you need to read short stories; if you are writing deconstructive poetry in Georgian — well, you get the point. And you need to read a lot of it, because the structural conventions of the genre you work in need to seem so completely natural to you that you can not only make it your own but make it your own without even knowing you’re doing it.

For years I have been telling people they need to write to write — and there ain’t a damn thing wrong with that assertion, either. But you also have to know what a work of art feels like to be able to do it with a depth of instinct that allows you to make it your own.

I should say that I’ve been somewhat inaccurate for the sake of clarity above; you actually don’t need to read obsessively in the genre or genre you’re writing in. You need to read in the genre(s) you’re most influenced by. In the same way that I”m influenced by Jim Thompson in writing erotica (an improbable marriage if ever there was one), you might be influenced by Robert A. Heinlein in writing gay werewolf romances.

Mazel Tov! The more unlikely your influences, the more likely you can bring a new voice to a given genre, to which — assuming you learn to do it well, or well enough — your readers will say “Thank you, Ma’am and/or Sir, may I have another?”

Now, please don’t take that as an engraved invitation from me (like you need one?) to write “A multigenerational epic fantasy inspired by The Daily Show.” Wacky ideas are one thing. But as a cynical son of a bitch who has heard — seriously — just about every undercooked idea possible come out of writers’ mouths, nothing’s more tedious than writers who intentionally look for improbable concepts in order to impress you with how “original” they are (Hot Tub Time Machine, anyone?), I’m telling you to keep your self-satisfied precocious inventiveness down to a dull roar and leave the truly contrived mash-ups to people with absolutely bloody well nothing of their own to say. The point is not to blow people’s minds with your half-assed ideas, but to blow their minds with the vividness, genuineness and personal flavor of your writing.

You want to give readers That Barton Fink Feeling, for the simple reason that if you don’t, no one else can. How do you do that? You give them what you love — what you really love, not just what you pat yourself on the back for having come up with a sentence-long summary for.

What I’m trying to get at here is that a writer must find what books he or she enjoys reading — or, preferably, LOVES reading with a passion that makes her or him sacrifice sleep and risk life and limb to squeeze in a few extra pages while walking down the street.

I discovered that in spades this year. I spent a decade or more of being sort of lukewarm on all the fiction I read. Therefore, I didn’t read nearly as much of it as I should have. Then I started reading fiction aggressively, and I realized that the experience of reading a book that blows you away is what all this ludicrous self-torture is about.

You do have to write to write — that fact is as unassailable as the meaning of the word is being, well, “is.”

But you are what you eat — so go read something that reminds you why you ever sat your ass down in that stupid chair to begin with.

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Apr 292010
 
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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.

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Jan 072010
 
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My name is Sascha Illyvich and with the help of M Christian, Oceania, Jean Marie Stine, Dr. Nicole Peeler and Thomas Roche, we’re going to explore the daunting aspects of erotica in all its forms. This blog will discuss every aspect of writing sexy fiction from what makes a story erotic even if there is little to no sex involved. Writers will come away with writing tips that will benefit their careers. We’ll cover author marketing, what defines a story as erotic, things new writers need to consider and the business angle of writing erotica.

I’ve been writing for almost ten years, starting out with erotica before I made the transition to erotic romance. I’ve written everything from the 100 flasher to the 100,000 word novel and am with two very successful publishers. I have a few stories with other publishers; teach courses on BDSM to romance writers as well as my famous Writing from the Male POV course which has been a success with local RWA chapters. I write full time and host the UnNamed Romance Show on Radio Dentata Mondays at 1 PM PST.

Every week we’ll focus on a different aspect of writing erotica. Our other authors will do own introductions. Some of them have a rather unique way of letting you know who they are! I’ll be covering writing style in general for starters.

Beginning with technique, I’m going to break down what makes a story erotic and how we craft those scenes that leave us squirming in our chairs. Let’s start with the story idea.

We have basic components to every story.

Characters – Who the story is about
Plot – which happens TO the characters
Setting – Where this all takes place
Conflict – Part of the plot that makes the story interesting. This is really the driving force behind the plot.

In ANY given setting we can add erotic elements. Let’s define what makes an element erotic.

Word Web defines erotica as Creative activity (writing or pictures or films etc.) of no literary or artistic value other than to stimulate sexual desire.

This definition is a little harsh. Let’s pair it down a bit.

Erotic: the act of being stimulated sexually through the senses of taste, touch, sight, smell and audio.

With this broader definition, we can now begin to understand that our brain is our largest sex organ truly as what arouses me will differ from what arouses you, but our bodies respond to the stimulation the mind finds erotic.

In a scene, we have setting. With characters, we have actions. With plot, that’s a little more complex.

With the scene, we can utilize descriptions by just giving enough detail to create a picture in the mind of the reader while giving them license to view it their way. Since our stories in any genre don’t rely precisely on location in most cases, then we want to limit our scene descriptions. The mind focuses on what’s right in front of it anyway.

Meaning, the mind focuses on the characters and their interactions. Tell me, do you pay attention to the breeze in summertime OR do you pay attention to the cologne/perfume wafting towards you from the attractive person that caught your eye?

The day may play back in your memory later on when you’re telling your friends but the real question is going to be about the person, not the scene.

Next time we talk, we’ll go into the characterization part. There is a lot to be said about characterization so that will take up a few parts. I leave you waiting for next week’s installment with our next fabulous author!

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