Monday, July 22, 2019

Review of 'Evil Never Sleeps' by Robert Fleming

The best of these stories flow with the hypnotic lyricism of cool jazz—think a laidback mid-50s riff on Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight,’ or Miles Davis and John Coltrane grooving on ‘Kind of Blue.’ Robert Fleming (also known to erotica fans as Cole Riley) transports us into smoky ex-pat jazz clubs in Paris, mob-run speakeasies in 20s-era Chicago, and crowded juke joints in Jim-Crow Mississippi, settings that come uncannily alive with the pulsing rhythms of popular tunes, the dangerous frictions of desire, and the ominous, ever-present undercurrents of racial tension, the weary dread of oppression and injustice at every turn. 

Fleming is adept at getting into his characters’ heads, finding out what makes them tick, and what makes them hurt: More often than not, these are the same things. He explores and illuminates inner conflict with sympathy and grace, clearly respecting his characters’ dignity as much as he feels their pain. These are people of color, but they are Everyman and Everywoman, too; everyone who has experienced the double standards of a system in which they will never be good enough; ever (as Langston Hughes put it) “sent to the kitchen when company comes,” though they may “laugh and eat well,” dreaming of their place at the table, invisible until they step out of line—a line so arbitrary and thin that only some capricious evil could have drawn it.

Fleming has carved out a long and distinguished career as a journalist, and his nonfiction roots are plain to see—though this is not always a good thing. Where journalism is about presenting facts in a succinct and straightforward format (as represented by the reporter’s inverted pyramid), fiction has a logic of its own, often less tolerant of irony or coincidence than real life. The journalist must always take care not to put words in his subjects’ mouths, or make assumptions about their unspoken thoughts. The writer who wants to tell stories through fiction needs to give his characters room to breathe, the freedom to move in the inner space of their own often-imperfectly articulated ambitions: he makes stuff up that would get a respectable journalist fired—stuff that is more powerful in its concentration and emotional impact than mundane existence, not necessarily real, but always true.

The best dialogue in fiction is seldom straightforward, precise, or on the nose; it draws out character even when those characters resist being revealed—as often as not by what they don’t say, those evasive silences between words that speak volumes. At times, Fleming’s dialogue can be stilted, wooden, an expedient device for exposition as opposed to an elegant vehicle for the revelation of unique, individual characters—this is a common pitfall when even the most expert nonfiction writers try their hand at fiction. If an author does employ a character to offer exposition or backstory, let the character be cagey—or, at least, colorful—about it; let the story unfold by poetic fits and starts, by moans and sighs, by interrupted questions, the allision of half-baked thoughts, by uncertainty, and wonder.  

Several of these stories felt like nonfiction pieces in transparent fictional drag: In his career as a journalist, Fleming has encountered or interviewed some of the real life characters who show up in his fiction: It may be that he has too much respect for these great and important figures to transform them into fully-realized fictional beings. Unfortunately this reluctance results in flat, fact-spouting ciphers, tightly buttoned-up beings, seemingly incapable of letting their hair down or speaking for themselves, ultimately nowhere near as interesting as their true-life counterparts. A few of these plots feel perfunctory and under-developed, resulting in something so arid and stiff as to be barely readable. Occasionally, settings can seem like an afterthought, with convenient props (furniture and food) miraculously appearing out of nowhere!  

But when Fleming creates a character out of his head—whether born ex nihilo in his imagination or based on something ordinary in his own true lived experience, those characters are always his most memorable, as are the finest stories in this collection.


Saturday, June 22, 2019

Review of 'Lust in the Dust: An Anthology of Post-Apocalyptic Erotica' (ed. Janine Ashbless)

The ten stories in this consistently engaging anthology take readers through a broad range of mood and emotion, from the sardonic to the heartbreaking, the breezily tongue-in-cheek to bullet-in-the-brain pan serious. Each and every one of them is finely-crafted, thoughtfully conceived, and damn sexy to boot! An embarrassment of riches, to be sure, yet no less a lambent example of something all too rare in our present throwaway age of planned literary obsolescence; an anthology that prioritizes quality over quantity: This is a credit to editor Janine Ashbless, whose introductory notes before each story lend a sense of unity to what could have been a rather rambunctious undertaking.

Every story, every writer, merits mention here. In In Pursuit of the Millennium, author S. Nano evokes the horror and the hope of a young maiden living through a hell on earth during the religious wars of the seventeenth century; when the horny “messiah” of the besieged city takes the young virgin under his wing, disillusionment and despair are sure to follow.

Elizabeth Coldwell’s Addicted to Disaster finds the self-absorbed participants in a reality TV show coming to grips (or not) with the end of civilization, which, contrary to popular belief, will not be televised.

In First Contact, Raven Sky portrays the clash of cultures, ancient and modern, where would-be lovers must learn to understand each other. Set in a remote wilderness far from the madness of the imploding cities, this story, related alternately by its two characters, delves their paranoia, mistrust, and cultural bias with writing at once stylish and enlightening.

In Ring of Fire, Sommer Marsden evokes a vivid, gritty post-apocalyptic atmosphere with a palpable sense of weariness and worry, the oppressive weight of responsibility versus erotic instinct too-long repressed when two guards in an isolated outpost keep watch against the coming zombie hordes even as they explore their deepest desires.  

Virtual Insanity by Carla Thereon finds a lonely, over-stressed soldier seeking refuge in her most brutal virtual fantasies, while in Hollywood by Jones, two lovers anticipate the end of their idyll as the flames of apocalypse close in on their dream home.

The zombie apocalypse gets its due in two very different tales: In Gregory L. Norris’s Mourning Doves in Limbo a man devastated by the loss of his lover looks back on their relationship and tries to see a way forward without him. In Better Than Therapy, Nicole Wolfe looks at similar tragedy through a humorous lens, with delightfully satirical musings on adultery and all the things we take for granted in modern society (like laws against murder and free coffee at the local bank branch).

Ashbless contributes a tale of her own: The Basque of the Red Death is a cleverly twisty-turny re-imagining of Edgar Alan Poe’s story of spoiled medieval nobles trying to hide from a ravaging plague by whiling away their hours in a secluded monastery—until self-absorption, debauchery, and hubris catches up with them in that dreaded black room with the crimson drapes…

Finally, Quiet Ranger’s Checkout Girl finds two strangers
sheltering from a world in which plants have gone rogue against humanity, waiting out the plague in the ruins of a supermarket. Soulmates find each other amidst adversity, but what hope is there for love when doomsday looms so near? Tragic, heart-wrenching, not to be missed.

Lust in the Dust is enthusiastically recommended!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Excerpt from TAS' story 'Hung Jury' (from 'The Sexy Librarian's Dirty 30 Vol. 3')

Lose yourself in these thirty risqué adventures, loaded with fabulous characters in provocative situations. Get ravished by flirty-frills and sassy petticoats in our hot bodice-ripper romance. Keep it strictly confidential as you fall in love with a dangerous undercover spy. Feel your heart quiver as you lust after two brothers on the lone frontier. The choice is yours in this library of sexy-sharp stories! 

Aphoristic and lively, these tales are perfect for a mid-day quickie or an evening kiss before bed. Do you have twenty minutes for a brazenly sexy jewelry heist? Or maybe take that once in a lifetime cruise vacation and discover that mermaids really do exist! You can savor the heat rising in your cheeks as you confess your deepest desires to the town priest, then finish-off your evening with a run in Central Park and stumble upon a house made of…gingerbread?

FEATURING: Ria Restrepo, Janine Ashbless, T.D. Rudolph, Kenzie Mathews, T.C. Mill, Alex Slaine, Lynn Lake, Kendel Davi, Terrance Aldon Shaw, Rachel Woe, Eddie Monotone, Romey Petite, Chase Morgan, Clare London, Silas Bliss, Dr. J., Sommer Marsden, Eliza David, Alegra Verde, Kiki DeLovely, Emma Chaton, M.P. Clifton, Emily L. Byrne, Saskia Walker, Jaap Boekestein. Maxim Jakubowski, Alexa B. Forde, t s cummings, Jaycee Amore, and Janie James.

Hung Jury
by Terrance Aldon Shaw

Lady lawyers!” District Judge W. Hardin Longfellow shrugged off his robes with a weary sigh. “I assume you both know why you’re here?”
“Your Honor!” The defense attorney raised her hand. “If I may? I’d like to—”
“Purely a rhetorical question, counselor.” The judge draped his robes over an antique hall tree that dominated one corner of the room like a set of trophy antlers. The chambers in the small county courthouse were on the shabby side, with cheap veneer paneling where fine oak wainscoting would have graced grander surroundings. “Let’s get down to it, shall we?”
“But, Your Honor!” The young woman persisted. “My client—”
“Your client is a single-celled organism with serious boundary issues, Miss Bubachevski. A fact which, your most valiant efforts notwithstanding, everybody on that jury is unquestionably aware.” The judge grimaced as he sat down behind the desk.
“Ah!” He raised a finger for silence. “The Constitution of these United States guarantees even a scraping of unregenerate pond scum like Mr. Enos ‘Rhymes-with-You-Know-What’ Reeks the due process of law—much as we’d love to ignore that pesky little fact.”
“Speaking of pesky little facts,” the prosecutor interrupted, “I must ask if Your Honor deems such language appropriate?”
“I was wondering when we’d be hearing from you, Miss Apple.  Were you always the quiet one in class?”
The prosecutor was not amused.
“Your comments are clearly biased, sir. Need I remind you that it’s our duty as officers of the court to avoid even the appearance of…”
Give a bimbo a law degree!” The judge rolled his eyes.
“…and that such remarks could be interpreted as sexual harassment…”
“Are you quite finished, Miss Apple?”
“What is it that leads either of you to believe I was, somehow, born yesterday?” Hizzoner spoke evenly. “Hell!  I was practicing law before your daddies discovered their peckers were good for more than just taking a whizz.”
“Objection!” The defense shot out of her chair before remembering where she was. “Oh…sorry.”
“Dumbass,” the prosecutor stifled a cough.
“That, however, is not the question before us this afternoon,” Judge Longfellow said. “The question is: why in blazes, given you two young ladies’ behavior, should I not immediately declare a mistrial?”
“Thought so,” he said. “In fact, I am well aware of these issues, Miss Apple. But, seeing how the two of you have both been caught with your tits in the proverbial ringer—in flagrante dilecto no less—I am inclined to call it even and move on. What the bar association doesn’t know won’t hurt it.”
“Huh?” The defense attorney seemed confused. “What are you—?”
“Oh, give it a rest, Bambi,” the prosecutor sneered. “Can’t you see he’s figured it out?”
“Screw you, Candi,” the defense shot back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Enough, you two!” Judge Longfellow pounded the desk with his fist in lieu of a gavel. “It’s already been a sow’s anus of a day, and the last thing I want to do is referee a cat fight. Got it?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Good.” The judge continued. “This simple, open-and-shut case is rapidly turning into amateur night at a demolition derby. And why should it be thus, aside, that is, from you two D-cupcakes constantly trying to one-up each other in front of that jury? You, Miss Bubachevski, batting those big brown eyes as you finger the top button on that blouse, virtually inviting the men to undress you. And you, Miss Apple, not to be outdone, pouting like a porn star just before the cumshot, all the while tossing those platinum locks back across your shoulder. Hell’s bells! You’d make a mockery of a mock trial. I haven’t seen shenanigans like this since law school. Speaking of which, the two of you graduated in the same class at State, am I correct?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Neither particularly distinguished?”
“No, Your Honor.”
“Dead heat for smack-dab in the middle, as I understand, which might explain these competitive antics of yours?”
“I suppose.”
“So tell me: how did you young geniuses finance your less-than-distinguished essay through the halls of Academe?”
“That’s hardly relevant!” The defense protested.
“And yet, I ask, Miss Bubachevski. So?”
“I worked as an exotic dancer.”
“And did you have a stage name?”
“There’s no shame in honest work,” Bambi insisted.
“True, my dear, but jury tampering’s another matter. So, how did they introduce you when you strutted out on that stage?”
“Foxxy Boob-a-licious.” She blushed.
The other woman snickered.
“And what of you, Miss Apple?” Judge Longfellow swiveled in his seat, fixing the prosecutor with a rheumy stare.
I worked my way through as a paralegal,” Candi said haughtily.
“Bullshit!” the former Foxxy Boob-a-licious muttered.
“All right!” Candi admitted. “I worked for an escort service on the side. Didn’t even have to change my first name.”
“Candi Apple… Bambi Bubachevski…” The judge smirked. “Hard to be taken seriously with names like that.”
“And, I suspect, both of you view this trial as a chance finally to break out of this podunk purgatory, do something other than standard contracts and wills for little old ladies the rest of your lives; get your pretty little behinds to the big city and real careers while the getting’s good. Or would I be mistaken in these rather clichéd assumptions?” 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

How to Get Good (Part 2)

When last we spoke on this topic, I mentioned a few things that have worked for me as a writer, ideas that have helped me improve the quality of my work and, thus, come closer to achieving my goals for authorly success. To recap:

·       * Care about your work—if you don’t who will?

·       *Don’t waste time comparing yourself to other writers.

·     *The healthiest form of competition is not you versus other authors, but you and your present work versus your younger self and your past work.

·      *To be great at something, concentrate on that one thing.

·       *Cultivate a work ethic and a regular work schedule. Stick to both as if your career depended on it.

·      *Don’t wait to be inspired; sit down and do the real, hard work of writing.

*Be the kind of professional you’d prefer to deal with.

Of course, as I mentioned at the end of Part 1, there are exceptions to every rule. What works for me may not work at all for you—and that’s OK. I’m not trying to sell self-help books or motivational courses here. All I want to do is share a few insights that have proven valuable to me—insights which you are free, nonetheless, to take or leave as you like.

Probably the most important, practical, helpful thing I’ve learned lately is this:

(1) Be mindful of the things that can distract you, and do your best  to avoid them. Work to control your own personal creative environment.

In approaching the critical final stage of my current novel, I’ve discovered that staying off the internet first thing in the morning helps me achieve a dramatic increase in productivity. Where my average daily output has always been somewhere in the neighborhood of 400-600 words a day, I find that, without the distractions of social media or my favorite on-line destinations, I’m now able to turn out a regular daily count of 1000-1200 words. The novel will be finished much faster than it would have been, and I will be no less enlightened for having forgone a few hours on Facebook.

(I am by no means the first writer to make this discovery; I am aware of several colleagues who recently took a challenge to stay off social media until they had produced at least 1000 words each day. Those who stuck with it reported not only marked increases in productivity, but better concentration as well.)

Cable news, too, can be a chronic source of distraction; it’s far too easy to get worked up emotionally what with all the seriously rotten news (and hyper-partisan editorial spin) we seem to be assaulted with on a daily basis. Guess what? The cable news networks want you to get worked up, because as your emotions intensify, you become increasingly suggestible, vulnerable to manipulation—ideological or otherwise—and that is a state advertisers gladly pay millions of dollars to have induced in their potential customers.

Years ago, I took John “Blow Up Your TV” Prine’s advice and got rid of all outside TV connections in my home; no broadcast, no cable, no satellite, no streaming; the only thing I use my forty-inch flat-screen for is watching movies on Blu-ray or DVD—at a time of my choosing. Television with its shrill and endlessly repetitive barrage of advertising effectively turns viewers into passive consumers. The quality of programming is seldom conducive to creative inspiration or originality—quite the opposite, indeed—and don’t get me started on what I think of talentless, lumpen couch-potato authors who spend all their time watching re-runs of Law and Order or other formulaic dramatic series; their lack of imagination or a single original idea is evident on every clichéd page they poop out. (Why? Because episodic TV shows are an absolutely awful place to learn anything about character development or effective story arcs that play out over a long-form narrative.) 

Now, understand, I’m not arguing for monastic asceticism or saying that distraction is always a bad thing. I don’t advocate sealing writers up in a cave and telling them they can’t come back into the light until they’ve tapped out at least 2000 words before lunch. Sometimes, when we are blocked, or have a problem with plots or characters our minds need to solve before we can move forward, it’s helpful to step away from the work for a while. I used to turn up my nose at the goings-on in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast; Papa and his fellow authors seemed to be doing an awful lot of loafing, aggressively doing nothing as they hung out in one sidewalk café or another, boozing it up with their creative colleagues, arguing over the most trivial matters. Yet, as I’ve come to see, these episodes represented part of Hemingway’s daily routine, his interactions with other artists—“mental health breaks” if you will—an essential source of stimulation, and, for him, an indispensable part of his personal process. The point being, that this sort of social routine worked for Hemingway, and he got his work done. Many of the people mentioned in that memoir weren’t as dedicated or hardworking, or lucky, or well-balanced, and some of them burned out well before their time.

It’s true that some of us are more susceptible to distraction than others; some writers have much higher tolerances for ambient noise or human commotion than those of us who require near-total silence and solitude in order to work. (The prolific western-genre master Louis L’Amour once claimed that he could have written his books in the middle of a busy freeway: I on the other hand cannot imagine trying to get anything done in a crowded coffee shop, though this seems to work exceedingly well for a number of successful authors I know.) The point is this: if you aspire to be a serious writer, you need to identify the types and intensity of distraction you’re able to handle. Some distractions have more power to disrupt our process at certain times of day than others; what stops me dead in my tracks at 8 a.m. may be far less of a problem a few hours later. Family emergencies nay be unavoidable, unexpected (uninvited) guests less so. Whatever you do, refuse to be passive; assert as much control over your creative environment, your routine, and your process, as feasibly possible.

(2) Learn the basics of copy editing

Publishers appreciate authors who submit clean manuscripts. “Clean” in this sense means that there are few or no grammatical or spelling errors, that punctuation is precise, and the text typographically pristine down to the tiniest diacritical dot or squiggle in any foreign words that might appear. Speaking of words, foreign or otherwise; it greatly aids a writer’s cause if their words make some kind of coherent sense on the page—if those words precisely convey the author’s meaning and intent. Such issues lie within the purview of copy editing, and it makes good sense for writers to learn the basics of the copy editor’s craft, to do as much polishing BEFORE a manuscript is submitted in order to improve its chances for acceptance.

This is not as difficult or tedious a task as it sounds. If you can learn and ultimately internalize a few basic principles (of grammar, of spelling, of punctuation, of style) so that you are able to apply them as you write, you will end up saving yourself and your publisher countless hours of needless nitpicking and migraine-inducing re-writes. (Of course, always follow the publisher’s guidelines for formatting—that is, unless you want to be rejected out of hand.)

There are lots of excellent resources for writers interesting in self-editing, everything from The Chicago Manual of Style (on-line or in traditional book form) to Renni Brown and Dave King’s classic Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, along with a wealth of superb articles on the subject to be found on-line (see EftBB’s Writer’s Resources page). I can enthusiastically recommend copy-editor extraordinaire Benjamin Dreyer’s recent book on the subject, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,  a tome brimming with practical, good-humored guidance. With a wealth of helpful information (along with a veritable trove of entertaining trivia) this is like a breezy refresher course taught by a cool professor who nonetheless knows his stuff.

(3) Then hire an editor…

…and don’t winge and kvetch about how you can’t afford it: because, believe me, it’s worth it! Even if you have done your due diligence in the form of a thorough self-edit, it is invaluable to have another professional pair of eyes on the text. No one—not even the most careful and fastidious among us—catches everything. This is all-the-more true when your own manuscript is the one under scrutiny. Writers always have tunnel vision where their own work is concerned—and I do not know a single exception to this rule. Not. One.

Myself, I’ve been known to go over novel manuscripts with what I consider my best fine-tooth-comb attitude forty or fifty times at least, invariably to discover (or have pointed out) dozens of blatant rookie errors still littering the text after the fiftieth pass! It’s enough to drive a perfectionist insane—assuming perfectionism isn’t a form of insanity already. Far better, I think, to treat editing as a collaborative process: The best results, I’ve found, come from doing as much self-editing as possible, then turning the manuscript over to a professional. Even then, I’ll go over the text again once it comes back, because the editor’s point-of-view can lend a surprising sense of focus, and help me catch even more—things even the pro may have missed. (It’s helpful to go over a manuscript with an eye to locating and rooting out one specific issue at a time—say, repetitive syntax in subordinate clauses, the overuse of semi-colons, or the chronic abuse of adverbs, or almost any use of the phrase “had begun…”—a kind of search and destroy operation with strictly defined mission perimeters.) Truth is, nobody in this business is infallible; the sooner an aspiring author figures that out, the better-equipped they will be to succeed.

Also, understand that the editor is not there to hold your hand or stroke your fragile ego, or be your bestest buddy, nor is it the editor’s job to finish writing your story for you; the editor is there to help you make your book the best it can be, and sometimes that means telling you things you definitely don’t want to hear. Get over it!

(4) Sweat the details!

Want to know what really annoys me? No? Well, tough, I’m going to tell you anyway: the laissez faire attitude—the casual indifference—of some authors to the quality of their work, people who say things like “I just write it and let the editor deal with cleaning it up...” (Yes, I’ve actually heard people say this!) What’s even more astounding—if hardly less disgusting—is that some of the most indifferent writers out there also happen to be among the most successful!

Maybe it’s my native-upper-Midwestern sense of practical self-reliance, but this attitude irritates me... a lot.  

Still, before we go crying about how life is unfair—which it most certainly is—perhaps we ought to consider the snickering that goes on behind those successful authors’ backs, all the snarkily dismissive whispers of “Look! The emperor really does have no clothes! Told you so!” or “I knew they were always overrated, but I never knew they could be this bad,” or “I figured they were bound to crash and burn sooner or later.” You can practically cut the schadenfreude with a butter knife and serve it up with a side of sour-grape jelly, especially if you’re with a group of writers. Fact is, when an author gets to a point in their career where their name is set in larger type on the front of the book than the title, said author could probably submit a dehydrated turd and have it published with nobody batting an eye. From what I've seen, some of the most egregious editorial oversights (outside of amateur self-publishing) appear in books by mega-best-selling authors, particularly those who have effectively franchised themselves. It may be that these authors are too busy enjoying their money to care, or have become so jaded that they simply can’t be bothered with “trivial stuff” like checking galley proofs or consulting with the copy editor when there’s a question.

While it's fun to imagine that we might someday reach a point in our careers where we wouldn’t have to take crap from anybody, or, better still, hire somebody to wipe our ass for us, thus literally making them take our crap, it’s sad to think that so many aspiring authors in this hyper-competitive marketplace are all too willing to sell their dignity for cheap.

I have worked in this business for a long time now, and I have kept at it precisely because I have not lost sight of myself or of my vision. It may be that I am, at last, on the cusp of success—though still a ways from getting bigger billing than the title—but I didn’t get to this point by being indifferent or shrugging off the tiresome extra-sweat-inducing chores that come with the job.  Never “farm out” the tasks for which you, yourself, ought to be responsible. If you recognize that writing is hard—often extremely tedious—work to begin with, be willing to go the extra mile to assure that any product with your name on it is ultimately something you can be proud of—something worthy of all your hard work.

(5) In the end, the key to writing well is to never be satisfied.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Music in a Writer's Mind

Author Emmanuelle de Maupassant conducted a series of e-mail interviews with fellow erotic writers several years ago. What follows is the portion of her interview with me on the subject of music, and how it has influenced my writing.

Emmanuelle de Maupassant: Are there particular pieces, or musical styles, that stir you deeply, transporting you to an alternative (or enhanced) awareness of yourself?  Are you aware of particular musical pieces/songs/singers having influenced your writing directly?

TAS: I worked as a musician for much of my adult life, eking out a modest living as a singer and a classical composer. I was published (under my ‘other’ name) and had my work performed all over from New York to San Francisco and LA—and if I were to sit down and figure out my average income for those thirty years, I probably couldn’t have afforded a cup of coffee once a week.

But, yeah, of all the things that have influenced me as a writer, none is more deeply personal—intimate and elemental—or so essential a part of myself as music, and, particularly, classical music. (Don’t get the wrong idea, though; I’m not some sort of snobby elitist with a rod stuck up my pretentious ass. I like all kinds of music, from 70s prog rock to world folk, bluegrass and country (one of my short stories, Saturday Nights in the Middle of Nowhere features an aspiring country-western chanteuse) to grand opera, avant garde classical-influenced jazz, hip hop and rap.)   I’ve composed chamber music and symphonies, written sonnets and  poems in English and Hebrew that I’ve set to my own music, as well as not-very-good lyrics for country songs. I can say without hesitation that editing a symphony is a lot easier and far less time-consuming than editing a 70,000 word novel!

But, to get back to the point: there is nothing that equals the power of  music to express emotion, to evoke atmosphere, and establish mood. (This is why a film without a score often seems to fall short of its potential, lacking the full measure of visceral impact—just compare the scene in Jaws where the shark attacks the boat, first without John Williams’ music in the background, then with it. You’ll see precisely what I’m talking about.) Whether conjuring a sense of existential anxiety and dramatic tension, desolation or euphoria, claustrophobic horror or the sublime vastness of space, nothing comes close to music.

In talking about the way music has influenced my writing, here’s the thing: when you’re composing a symphony or an intimate piece of chamber music, you have to think multi-dimensionally; you have to conceive spatially and temporally as well as tonally, and you have to be able intuitively to discern structure. Plus, there are rules about spelling and grammar and syntax in music just as there are in prose. Melody, harmony, and rhythm all have to be coordinated to form a coherent statement. You can’t be a great composer if you only grasp what’s on the surface—even though that’s the only thing most listeners will ever hear. You have to appreciate the inner workings, the way these disparate elements all come together. You have to see it all from the inside.

Now, consider the added challenges of setting a text to music. You have to be mindful of the natural stresses of the language you’re setting—the way spoken phrases don’t always adhere to a single, regular meter (as so tortuously forced to do in far too many pop songs). You have to recognize the particular word or words that need to be given extra weight in order to communicate the poet’s rhetorical intent. The 20th century English composer Benjamin Britten was probably the most gifted  and fluent ‘text-setter’ who ever lived—and he was one of the composers who most strongly influenced me as a composer, and continues to inspire me as a writer. My little m/m story A Lovely Boy from The Moon-Haunted Heart was inspired by Britten’s setting of Coleridge’s Lines on a Child which appears in Britten’s song cycle, Nocturne Op. 60. I’d also have to cite Britten’s earlier song cycle Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings Op. 31 as a work of art that truly changed my life—his settings of Keats, Blake, and Tennyson are truly magical!

Great music has a sense of flow, an inevitable logic, leaving the impression in the end that every constituent element in a score is perfectly coordinated with every other element. I can think of a lot of possible examples here, but what comes most immediately to mind are the great operas of Wagner, particularly Die Walküre and Siegfried from Der Ring des Niebelungen in which the music never seems to pause even once to catch its breath. I want that quality of sensuousness—that inevitable sense of flow—to permeate my prose and animate my storytelling. 

Always—always!—whenever I sit down to write a story, I consider the musical quality of the words, the prose-melodies that are created by the artful combination of words and phrases gradually built up into the literary equivalent of a symphony (that word, by the way, means ‘sounding together’). The way the writing sounds when read aloud is important; if it doesn’t flow, if it doesn’t reach out and tickle the reader’s ear—if it doesn’t make music—it’s not ready to publish.

And how do you make music with words? A couple quick points. First, vary the length of your phrases, aiming for an artful asymmetry (like Mozart in his music). Never let your rhythms become too regular or predictable. Avoid falling into the same repeated syntactical patterns (it’s hard not to, but that’s what re-writes are for). Understand that each word (or each note) carries its own innate energy, like a charged particle. Each word has its own weight or mass that gives it more or less rhetorical value depending on syntax. If you arrange words carelessly, putting similar words too close together (apposition) you can end up draining them of their emotive power.   

Finally—and this is quite important, I think—don’t always play your music in the same key. Great music and great writing is enhanced by modulation. So, if one were to attend a concert or listen to a record where every piece on the program is in, say, C major, eventually the listeners’ minds will tire of C major and stop paying attention. In writing, what this means is, vary the mood and pace from time to time—especially in multi-chaptered works—occasionally, dark clouds need to roll in and, sometimes, the sun needs to break through the dark clouds, if only long enough to keep the reader interested.

I am a relatively slow-working writer. Sometimes I am in awe of those writers who can churn out veritable reams of fiction in a relatively short time. But—one final analogy from the world of classical music—there are two basic types of creative: there are the Mozarts for whom it all seems to come easily and fast, and there are the Beethovens who must struggle, sometimes for years, to achieve their equally-great ends. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, and—unless one has deadlines to meet—there really is nothing preferable about one or the other. I’d also point out that being a slow writer is in no way the same thing as being a procrastinator—I get so tired of people who try to turn procrastination into a virtue!!!—nor is being a fast-producer the same as being careless or slap-dash. We all want to achieve the same goals, some of us simply take the scenic route.

There's one more thing I'd like to mention apropos my writing. After college, I got into a Master's program in musicology (and, before you ask, yes the way musicologists are portrayed in Peter Bogdanovich's brilliant neo-screwball comedy What's Up Doc? is right on the money!) While I didn't go on to complete the Master's degree (maybe I just wasn't weird enough to fit in), I did take away some extremely valuable lessons, which have benefited me as a writer of fiction; most importantly, the technique of describing music in prose. If you can write about a piece of music with a reasonable level of technical accuracy but do so artfully, in a way that is elegant, engaging, and, ultimately, inspiring, you can pretty much do anything in prose!  So, here, to end, is an excerpt from my short story Viaticum from The Moon-Haunted Heart:

I ask you to change the record. The melancholy of this music is more than I can bear. Finzi has always tugged at my heart, evoking the sublime agony of a soul that pines to soar, though still not wholly willing to depart. It no longer seems real to me—not in this hour of truth—a poignant irony that strikes too close to the spirit. I fear I shall heed its call at last, though I cling to you and to this moment with all my fading strength.
“Find the Berg concerto,” I whisper.
“Subtitled to the memory of an angel,” you read casually from the liner notes.
“He wrote it as a requiem for... I can’t remember now...”
“Manon Gropius?”
“Alma Mahler’s daughter with Walter Gropius—”
“The famous architect.”
“Yes. She died of polio when she was only 18.”
“How do you remember that?”
The music is at once a bitter cry of anguish and a soothing lullaby, a rhapsody of shifting shadows, terror and grief, daunting dissonance and ineffable sweetness, a journey through the wilderness of ‘why.’ We seem to stumble half-blind through this arid landscape, the sound of the violin our only guide, going before us like an aspiring spirit glowing in the gloom. Somewhere, at last, from out of the middle distance, muted as if from behind a veil, we hear the consonant strains of a Bach chorale, Es ist genug—it is enough—intoned by a choir of solemn woodwinds, wistful and mysterious.
‘Do you hear that?’ the violin seems to inquire, ‘It is enough. It is... enough. Perhaps... it is... enough... Yet see? The bitter pall has parted. The setting sun bursts through.’

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Thoughts on 'Disability' in Erotica

NOTE: the following article is substantially expanded from one of the Notes on Usage in the The Erotic Writer's Thesaurus. I am presently considering the idea of collecting many of the articles and reviews that have appeared here on EftBB over the last seven years into a book. This will allow me to expand on certain topics of particular interest, while editing and sprucing up some of my best work, and possibly bringing that work to a wider audience. Comments on this endeavor, along with the ideas in the present article are most certainly welcome! (TAS)

Writing ‘Disability’ in Erotica


When the forty-fifth president of the United States stood before a cheering crowd and openly mocked a disabled reporter; when that same president ordered the removal of Braille labels from the elevators in his properties, stating as his rationale that “no blind person will ever live in Trump Tower…” can we draw any other conclusion than that in this infantile, petty, vindictive, disgusting little man’s turd-pebble of a mind, the disabled are not entitled to exist? And what are we to think when such a benighted, ignorant, culture-less, clueless, classless fool has the real power to enforce his prejudices, making his execrable atavistic attitudes “socially acceptable” again?

For me as a disabled American—and I’m sure for many others as well—Trump is the fire-breathing embodiment of all our worst nightmares. Every horrible memory we’ve ever had of being bullied, put down, spat on, excluded, segregated, stripped of our dignity and denied our right to self-determination. He is the smug-smirking poster-turd for everyone who has ever patronized and insulted us, made ignorant, prejudiced assumptions about our abilities and talents, barred the gates of opportunity and blocked the path to a better life. He is the steaming fecal coil that haunts our dreams, and the prospect of his becoming president was and still is beyond terrifying.

My attitude has in no way changed, nor my apprehensions diminished, since the vile cretin assumed the office despite a resounding loss in the popular vote of 2016: That a substantial percentage of the population continues not to have a problem with any of this is an even greater cause for despair. So, the question must be: what can I as a writer of erotic fiction who happens to live with disability do to change those attitudes? How do I define the sphere of my own influence and power? If I speak who will listen? Other writers? Readers? And if these people do happen to listen, will they be moved to change and inspire others, in turn, to change?


The notion that people with disabilities can experience and enjoy full, even rich erotic lives—cerebral, visceral, and emotional—is even today somewhat novel to many in the broader “abled” community including a lot of writers. A dilettante eroticist once suggested to me that “if dinosaur porn can sell, why not disabled porn?” One is left speechless by the unfathomable ignorance reflected in this question, the sort of attitude—all too common—in which the disabled are doubly objectified, reduced to the equivalent of attractions in an erotic freak show.

It certainly doesn’t have to be that way. Effectively ‘writing the disabled’ is like writing anybody else. First, recognize that there is no monolithic ‘experience of disability’; we, too, are individuals experiencing life from our own unique points of view. Treat a disabled character as you would any character in your story. Eschew sentimentality and pity—especially pity—and strive to write interesting, complex, fully actualized individual human beings, people with vibrant colorful inner lives who simply happen to be disabled. Such characters should never be wholly defined, and certainly never judged, by their perceived handicaps or physical shortcomings, nor portrayed as cartoonish, two-dimensional ‘things’ to be talked past in the third person—there’s far too much of that in real life. They can be just as funny, witty, playful, brilliant or stupid, bad-tempered or sweet, gullible or stubborn, boorish or sensitive, naïve, willful, skeptical, extraordinary or common as any ostensibly ‘abled’ character. In any case, no character should ever be regarded as a mere object on which to project naïve notions of purity or helplessness, or as a kind of sentimental prop for a story—not, at least, by the author. Other characters within a narrative may display irrational prejudice, treating the disabled character with pity or scorn; but authors cannot—must not ever—condescend to any of their characters in such a way.

Pity precludes a relationship of equals, because,  as I put it in my short story Blind Date (Part 2): “the pitier always feels somehow superior to the pitied. The object of pity is just that, an object, a kind of pet, like a dog or a cat the master can project his own shallow, manipulative notions of dominance onto, his own imaginary nobility and righteousness.” In the mind of the pitier, the object of pity is forever fixed in its inferiority, and nothing said object may do—no matter how astonishing or brilliant—will ever alter that image. 

Some authors will shy away from erotic narrative, largely for fear of ‘ghetto-izing’ disability, debasing its rich narratives, and turning them into pulp for yet another subgenre. “Abled” people (who always seem to believe that they have our best interests at heart without ever once bothering to find out what we think our best interests are) seem enamored of the belief that people with disabilities are incapable of doing anything on their own, let alone succeed at the game of life without some form of paternal assistance. (In golf, they call this sort of special treatment ‘handicapping,’ giving a less-skilled player a few points at the outset of the game; the irony of which I find delicious.)  Thus, we are shunted into dead-end programs with feel-good names like ‘Very-Special Arts [insert name of your community here]’ or the modern-day equivalent of a Dickensian workhouse, where we are conveniently segregated from the professional mainstream, kept out of sight and well out of mind, ignored and ultimately forgotten.

One of the best decisions I made early-on in my professional careers (first as a classical composer and, later, as an author) was to insist that I would always “sit at the grownup table.” That is, my work would be judged alongside everybody else’s, rising or falling on its own true merits without any sort of arbitrary handicapping. I would compete with the top professionals in my field, and earn praise or approbation based on the quality, originality, craftsmanship, and professionalism of my work—not on other people’s prejudiced beliefs about what I was or was not capable of achieving. Whatever success I’ve had has been attained without benefit of special treatment.  

But even in the so-called “disabled community” there tends to be a certain amount of intramural nitpicking—more like pot-shot-taking—at authors who try to relate authentic experiences of sex from their individual points of view. Some people take strident umbrage at what they see as intentional mischaracterization of their erotic life—“that’s not how we do it!”—as if theirs is the only authentic experience worth writing about. But this kind of attitude is just as harmful as the rank, pity-steeped paternalism of the “well-meaning abled,” for both, in the end, would silence the individual.

Ultimately, if you write from a point of view that is uniquely your own—if you are the only writer in the world who can tell a particular story in a particular way in a voice like none other, the quality of your writing is all that ought to matter. If your experience of the erotic in the context of disability does not happen to jibe with other people's expectations, so what? The same could be said of every original erotic narrative ever written by abled and disabled alike. Those who snipe and nitpick and criticize, or complain that your experience isn’t like theirs and therefore cannot be true have one viable recourse; they can write a better book. The alternative is to embrace a narrow and almost-comically ineffectual form of identity politics, a futile waste of energy that ultimately empowers no one.