Sunday, October 9, 2016

"The Seven Seductions" (Chapter 18) by TAS

NOTE TO READERS: this will be the last serialized chapter before The Seven Seductions is published (sometime in 2017 if all goes well). I've already done a fair amount of re-writing on previously posted sections, and the book will undoubtedly undergo still more changes before final publication. (If you'd still like to catch up on the novel, be aware that  I will be deleting all posts in the serialization at the end of this year.)

I have always been a restless seeker of perfection, much to my own  perpetual discomfort; but sharing the story so far on EftBB has helped to motivate and spur me on. With about 25 chapters completed to date (approximately 75,000 words) and at least 11 more to go, a point-of-no-return has been reached. There is no question remaining in my mind that Sister Mary Chastity's story must be told, and the novel that revolves around her life brought to a satisfactory conclusion. I may take my time getting there, but I promise it will be worth the wait. Thank you for taking this leg of the journey with me. Hopefully, we will meet again in the final chapter.

This post also offers the ultimate cover reveal for the novel. I've long felt that this is the perfect cover image, but have toiled to figure out a text placement that was at once infinitely eye-catching while 'safe' within the imposed limits of 'decency' demanded by the largest publishing platforms. Feedback on the cover, as well as the story are always welcome.

And, as always, enjoy!


The Seven Seductions

Chapter 18

“So, this is your place.”
      “Yep.” Magic held the door for her. “Welcome to Chez Melchoir-Parks, occasionally also known as The Hermitage—or, this summer, my Vacation Fortress of Solitude.”
“It’s really nice.” Mary Chastity turned around slowly to take in the scene. “The stone and the wood, the exposed beams—everything’s so natural and inviting. I love the French doors, and the open staircase in the middle of the room. It’s kind of rustic, but sophisticated, too, like an English country cottage combined with a 1920s-style bungalow. Very interesting. Very eclectic.”
“You have quite the eye, Chaz.”
      “I don’t know about that,” she said, “but House Beautiful is a big hit in the convent-school library, and, being assistant librarian, I get first crack at it every month. You said this was your folks’ place?”
“Mm hm. My family’s owned it going back quite a ways. Used to be part of this artist’s colony called The Settlement, built about 1880—that big stone two-storey was the original main building with these other smaller houses sort of clustered around it. The paths going between then all form a great big star pattern that’s visible from the air. Look! Here it is—”
He pointed to a framed photograph on the wall.
“Oh my—” Mary Chastity crossed herself.
“It’s called a pentacle,” Magic anticipated her question. “Just your perfectly-innocent ancient earth-united-with-sky symbol. Pretty sure this was a long time before the Satanists turned it upside down.”
“Uh huh?”
“And, if you look at the photo, you can see the way the trails along the lake shore join to form what looks like a huge stick figure. The big circular path going around The Settlement here is the head, see? Going south, the swimming area would be at the end of the short right arm, and the Russo’s place would be over here on the left—except it hadn’t been built when this picture was taken.”
“Oh, neat!
“Anyway, the colony itself went belly-up about the time World War I broke out, but the founding family stayed on, and a few of the artists were able to buy the smaller cabins and keep them as summer houses; passed them on to their kids and those kids grew up and passed them on to their kids, and so on right down to now. I guess I come from a long line of people who really like to draw.”
“That’s fascinating.” Mary Chastity took another look around the room. “Magic? The reason I came today is because we need to—”
“Talk? I know.”
“Do you?”
“About last night, yeah. And we will. But first, I want to show you my art.”
“I really can’t stay too—”
“It’s just upstairs in the loft.” He bobbed his head towards the ceiling. “Got my drawing board set up in the study area, along with my stereo.”
“You have records?”
“Oh yeah—and we are talking records, not CDs. I prefer vinyl. Warmer, more intimate somehow.
“What sort of music?”
“All kinds. A lot of older pop stuff: jazz, prog rock, electric blues. Most of my dad’s classical collection, too: Bartok and Stravinsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner—”
 “Wagner?” She brightened. “Like music from the Ring?”
“Yeah. I think there’s an old LP of orchestral highlights from some of the operas. Forest Murmurs is definitely worth a listen.”
“Really?” She tried to recall the corresponding Rackham illustration.
“Absolutely.” He ushered her towards the stairs. “Shall we have a look?”
“That would be fine. But then we really do need to—”
“Hey, there’s something I’ve been curious about.”
 “And what’s that?”
 “I always thought nuns traveled in pairs whenever they went outside the convent.”
      “A lot of the time, yes, that’s true,” she said, “for spiritual support, for physical safety—”
      “Or one nun makin’ sure the other nun don’t get none?”
      She ignored the joke.
      “I had to get special permission from the mother superior in order to be on my own for a while. I’ve been granted this time to study and write, to work, to reflect and pray—ora et labora as the Benedictine motto says—so long as I’m being productive and doing something for the greater good. Actually, there’s a tradition of cloistered religious going off by themselves to live as hermits. Probably the most famous modern example would be Thomas Merton, who wrote The Seven Storey Mountain—”
      “Uhhhh ... drawing a blank,” Magic said.
      “Really? So you don’t know everything after all?”
      “Never said I did.” His blue eyes twinkled. “Where were you?”
 “It’s quite unusual for anyone under 40 to be allowed this kind of dispensation—it’s almost unheard of in my order.”
“But why?” he asked. “I mean, what was it that made you want to be alone?”
“Lots of things,” she said. If I tell him the truth, he’ll never believe me.
They stepped up into the attic-loft, a single finished room defined by the graceful geometry of the cottage’s deep hip roof, lending the artful impression of coziness and airy wide-open space without contradiction. Varnished book cases lined the lower walls all the way around, ingeniously built-in to accommodate the slope of the gables. Halfway along the west wall, a group of four old-fashioned casement windows illuminated the alcove of a hipped dormer, itself the size of a small room, dominated by an oak pedestal bed. Magic gestured towards a corner where a drafting table had been set up under a skylight. “I like the natural light in here,” he remarked.
“What are these?” Mary Chastity pointed to a clothesline anchored between two slanting rafters. A row of oversized white pages hung on wooden clothes pins.
“Story-boarding mostly—you can see that none of them have been inked yet—trying to avoid continuity errors and stuff. Ideas for different characters, conceptual doodles, daydreams translated to paper.”
“What about this one?” She gestured towards a particularly busy page that hung near the desk, a crowded study of undraped female torsos in the style of the Venus di Milo.
“Narrowing down my ideas for the heroine,” Magic said.
“Have you seen all these women... ”
“Nude? Yeah, most of them.”
      “Did they pose for you?”
      “Some of them. I drew a few from memory.”
      “Memory? Of what?”
      “Do I detect a hint of jealousy?” He stood close behind her a short way to the left.
      “Why didn’t you draw their faces?” She turned her head to glare at him across her shoulder.
      “That’s not what the study was for. I was trying to get a feel for the way a woman’s body moves when she’s walking or running or doubled over in pain. When she’s struggling or fighting or making love. It’s so my drawing would be consistent each time I rendered the main character—you’d be surprised how big a problem that can be in a graphic novel—but also to portray the other characters as distinct individuals. I mean, if I sit down and draw a woman’s breasts out of my imagination, they almost always end up looking the exact same way—I suppose I have a preconceived notion about what constitutes the perfect pair of tits—but that can get kind of boring...”
      God please! Her nipples had begun to tingle like someone responding to the sound of their name. Please, change the subject!
“So what’s your story about?” she asked.
      “Promise not to laugh? It’s about this woman being pursued by a sex demon. But it’s more than that—look; the story starts on the page down at this end of the line. This creature—this entity—has a serious hard-on for the heroine—her name is Kye—but she resists him, tries to run away from him even though he seems to be everywhere and always ends up finding her wherever she goes—”
      How is this possible? How could he know?
      “See?” he said. “Here’s the demon’s shadow. I don’t fully reveal his face until near the end—trying to keep things mysterious and scary, like—”
      “Who’s this?” Mary Chastity poked at one of the panels where the shapely heroine, stripped down to tank top and panties, was crouching on her ankles, slashing the air with a knife,  her ponytail twirling like a lasso above her head. “Who was the model?”
      “Oh ... Jims. You know? Jamie—”
      “I remember.”
      “She’s a natural,” Magic said. “A lot of fun to work with.”
This is not the conversation I’m supposed to be having …
Magic went on.
“So, eventually—see here?—Kye hooks up with a guy who teaches her how to fight the demon. Turns out the guy is a rogue angel named Variel, not good enough for Heaven, not evil enough for Hell, and he’s been stuck on earth for centuries. This woman—Kye—reminds him of his past love who was corrupted by the same demon back in the Old West. He tries to resist the urge to fall in love with Kye because he doesn’t want to see the same thing happen again.”
      “Sounds rather Biblical,” Mary Chastity said, “and sort of romantic, too.”
      “Could be.” Magic shrugged. “Gram’s the one who came up with the basic outline for the story. We tweaked it some, dialed up the sex a little and the action a lot, then I started drawing. The part I’m working on now is where Kye and Variel have to travel to Hell together to find a weapon that will destroy the demon once and for all. Lots of twists and turns.”
“Interesting—” If I tell him the truth now, he’ll think I’m making fun of him. “—you’re very talented, obviously.”
      “Thanks. I was hoping you’d notice. Could I ask you another favor?”
      “The worst I could do is say no,” she said.
      “Would you sit for me?”
      “Sit? You mean pose? Like those other women ... naked?”
      “Not necessarily,” he said, “though—gotta be honest—it would help me out quite a bit if you were. See, I need a model for Kye’s sister.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Magic—” Why am I even listening to this?
      “She’s an important character. Doesn’t show up often, but her part is essential to understanding what makes the heroine tick. She’s probably the only other person Kye truly cares about—”
Say what you came to say and leave…
      “—and it’s important to show Kye caring about somebody other than herself,” Magic said. “The story won’t work if she’s completely on her own and doesn’t need other people. Not to go all literary-snob on your ass—sorry—but the sister represents Kye’s heart.”
      “What?” Mary Chastity turned quickly—all the way around this time—staring up into Magic’s eyes with an intense, searching look. She inhaled sharply—lungs filled as if in preparation for some important pronouncement—only to think better of it and turn away again.
      “Spoken like an English teacher,” she muttered, “and I should know.”
      “Well?” he asked.
      You know better. And you’re only going to make things worse by pretending otherwise. Say what you came to say and get it over with! Tell him your not interested! Tell him! Tell him now—
“Wouldn’t Jamie’s cousin be a better choice?”
 “Bree? She’s already in the story as a set of identical triplets—part of the demon’s harem.”
“And what about your other friends?”
“Daffy shows up as a pole dancer in the club where Kye works. Melanie’s a streetwalker who spies for the creature. Seems like everybody wants to be a sexy minion.”
Maybe because nobody has any shame ...
      “What happens to her—the sister?”  
      “We’re not completely sure yet,” Magic said. “The demon goes after the sister when Kye rejects him at the beginning of the story. Pulls out all the stops trying to get to Kye through her. Ends up driving the sister insane. She ...”
      “She kills herself—”
      Oh my God ...
“Throws herself off a tall building. It’s the thing that finally convinces Kye to seek Variel’s help.”
      How could he possibly know about—?
      “The sister shows up a couple more times either as a ghost or in a dream. Later, they meet her tormented soul down in Hell. She gives them clues about how to find the weapons they’re looking for.”
      It can’t just be a coincidence—
      “Gram and I have been going back and forth about the character. He thinks that when Kye finally defeats the demon, her sister is redeemed—restored to life the way it was before—”
      “What do you think?” she asked.
      “I don’t trust happy endings,” he said, “they always seem kinda phony and … forced to me. Sure, it’s tempting to bring a character back from the dead, especially one that you really like, but, ultimately, it’s pretty lazy storytelling. Dead’s dead and that’s life.”
      “And what’s the sister’s name?” Why? Why did you ask that question?
      “I’ve been thinking about that,” Magic said. “Can’t seem to come up with anything that works. I need a nice, sweet, ordinary-sounding name that isn’t too hard to spell and—”
      “How about Dawn?” she blurted it out, flushed with sudden embarrassment. 
      “Huh. Yeah. That could work. Definitely. So ... about my question?”
      You’ve already said too much. Stop this ... now!
      “I’ll think about it,” she said.
      “OK. That’s fair. Just so you know, though, I am under a deadline.”
      “How long do you have?”
      “I’d need to know in a couple days.”
      “Alright. I’ll consider it and let you know.”
      “Thanks, Chaz. I really appreciate it—oh! I nearly forgot!”
      “Hang on a sec.” Magic dropped to his knees like a man about to propose. He reached past the startled woman’s ankles, scrounging for something on the floor under the drawing board. “Here we go ...” He handed her a box.
      “Shoes?” Mary Chastity giggled.
      “Chic but not too terribly impractical.” He stood up. “In case you ever need to fit in. C’mon. Open ‘em up.”
      Mary Chastity lifted the lid and pulled back the tissue paper inside. She cuaght her breath at the sight, a pair of flat-heeled Mary Janes, understatedly stylish with blue sequins, a single strap over the wide-open top, and a decorative bow just aft of the toe. “They’re...” Beautiful! No one’s ever given me anything like this before. I love them! “… really nice.”
      “Thought you’d like them,” Magic said. “They’ll look really nice on you.”
      “Oh ... no, I could never.” She closed the lid and handed the box back to him. “It was a lovely thought, but I can’t accept them.”
“I think you know why.” Mary Chastity bowed her head, not daring to look at him directly. It was all she could do to quiet her breathing. A cold knot had begun to tighten in her stomach, a feeling—impossible to ignore—of slow disintegration from within. “I’m afraid I may have given you the wrong impression these last few days—and that’s my fault, for which I do owe you an apology. I ought to have exercised better judgment and not allowed things to happen the way they did ... especially last night—”
“No! Listen to me. The truth is, I’m not available to you—not in the way you want me to be. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you this afternoon. I can’t be casual and shameless and free like you and your friends. I’m not on vacation. I’m a grownup, and my mind needs to be someplace else.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Magic spoke gently. “I didn’t mean to come on so strong.  I get so into my head when I’m working on my art, it’s as if everything around me has to fit into the context of the world I’m trying to create.”
      Exactly the way I feel when I’m writing my story...
      “I like you, Chaz—”
      “Don’t, Magic. You mustn’t—”
      “Mustn’t what?”
      “It’s not right for you to feel ... that way about me—”
“What way is that, Chaz? I will not apologize for liking you. I definitely won’t apologize for finding you attractive. You don’t have to like me back, but don’t try to tell me I’m wrong to feel the way I do. And don’t take my feelings as some kind of insult. They’re not. They’re just my feelings, nothing more, nothing less. They’re not meant to inconvenience you.” 
“But they do,” she sighed.
“That’s not my problem.” There was no hint of reproach in his voice.
      “Please, Magic, try to understand: it’s not you. I’m just not used to somebody...”
“Liking you for you? Finding you attractive?” He stroked her cheek. “Chaz! You’re beautiful, you’re intelligent and you’re mature. You’re interesting to talk with and you’re fun to be around. What’s not to like? What’s not to be attracted to? Geez! If I thought even for a split second that you were interested ... that you wanted—” He nodded towards the bed.
Oh ...” She stepped back, mortified, blushing to her roots.
      “I wouldn’t hesitate.”
“Please don’t say that.”
      “Did I hit a nerve?”
      “Sorry,” he said. “Want me to kiss it and make it all better?”
      She smiled in spite of herself.
      “I like you, too, Magic, even though it’s wrong for me to say so. Part of me wishes things could be different. As it is—” she willed the words to her lips “—I don’t think we should see each other again.”
      “If that’s how you want it.”
      “It’s not what I want—”
      “Do you even know what you want, Chaz? Have you ever asked yourself what it is you really, truly want?”
      “Every day—” she tried to sound strong “—but it doesn’t matter. I made a promise. My desires are irrelevant.”
      “Which isn’t the same as saying those desires don’t exist.”
“All I know is that you and I come from different worlds,” she said. “I feel like a fish out of water in yours, and you’d surely drown in mine.”
      “So ... basically you’re saying that you’re the little mermaid?”
“I ought to be going, now, Magic.” She still could not look him in the eye. “I wish—no! I can’t ...”
“But you could still change your mind, right?”
“I don’t think so. Sorry.”
“Three days,” he said. “I’ll wait for you as long as I can. You know your perfect for this—”
“Goodbye, Magic.” She turned to leave.
“Later, Chaz.”

Sister Mary Chastity followed the chalk-stone path that marked off the grounds of  the old artist’s colony like a circle of sacred protection. She had never taken a close look at the surrounding neighborhood before, and a long walk was as good a way as any to deal with the things that troubled her. The houses—“cabin” was an old-money misnomer—looked as if they’d been thrown down into the woods like dice in a titanic game of Yahtzee, sitting at odd angles from each other and the shore, about a hundred-fifty yards apart. A network of narrow walkways ran between them through the woods to form—she now knew—a great five-pointed star with the big house at the center. Things were close enough for friendly social intercourse, yet far enough apart to discourage neighborly incest. Solitude was as easy to find as interesting company in that obscure neck of the woods.
“This whole thing has been a huge mistake.” She repeated the phrase to herself like someone reciting the Rosary, as if saying the words often enough might inspire her to believe them.
But why is it a mistake? she thought. It’s not against the rules to have a friend...
Even a friend who thinks about you … that way?
“And what if he does? Should I shun him because he’s imperfect? Because he’s human?”
This one doesn’t need your help.
“But maybe I need his. Maybe there’s something he’s supposed to teach me.”
Dangerous ground, sister. Have you forgotten what happened last time you rationalized your desires like this?The last time you let your selfish urges drive you?The last time you couldn’t bring yourself to say no?
“I remember everything—I’ve never forgotten any of it. Life would be so much simpler if I could.”
 And was it worth it? The absolute certainty of a fleeting moment’s carnal abandon purchased with months of doubt and dread, years of guilt, a lifetime of remorse?
“That was all … a very long time ago,” she said. “And how has pushing the world away gotten me any closer to heaven in the meantime? How has being cold ever made me warm?”
Have you missed The Nameless One so much?
When was the last time the creature made its presence known? How long has it been?
“I don’t know … seven years?"
And do you think that’s a coincidence? Why does the beast choose this time, this place, to reveal itself again? What’s changed? Who’s changed? Tell me, sister! Admit it to yourself!
“I don’t know why … it … came back.”
But I think you do know, sister. Not one sign of that witch’s filthy spell-born abomination in all these years—nary so much as a brimstone fart—until you arrived here after begging to be allowed to go off on your own.
“What are you saying?”
Don’t you see? Isn’t it obvious? It’s you! You’ve reawakened this curse. You’ve summoned the demon.
“That’s impossible! That thing’s brought nothing but suffering and death to me and my family. Why would I ever want to bring it back?”
You’ve been calling to it—inviting it—with the lustful intentions of your heart. You’ve been secretly hoping it would find you again inasmuch as it has … unfinished business with you.
“I don’t believe that! Not for a second!”
Search your heart, sister. The intention has been there inside you all these years, growing in the dark like a tainted seed. It began to take root, not on that first night when the man-child carried you to his bed, nor on that afternoon  when you pretended to pledge yourself to him in that heathen ceremony. Nor even in that moment when Tyge laid his hands on you, branding your flesh with his bestial desires. No! It was in that fateful half-second when you first gave yourself to him in your heart.
“I know what happened. I was there.”
And only a few short hours later, at Weeping Rock, when you flaunted your body for all the world to behold…
“It was the last time I was ever going to… I knew I’d never have sex after that morning. And I did feel sorry after it was over—about the way I’d treated Pig. I never meant to hurt him—not like that. He really did love me in his own twisted way—”
You had a funny way of returning that love, didn’t you?
“What’s the point of bringing that up—or any of it—now? I had my dark night of the soul. I came to grips with what I’d done. I knew I couldn’t run away. I availed myself of the sacrament—emptied myself completely—sincerely confessed ...”
Truly? Everything?  No, sister, even in your soul’s hour of deepest peril, when your own salvation hung in the balance, you could not bring yourself to confess all. You knowingly held back the last full measure of truth, omitting any mention of the creature…
“And who would have believed me if I’d gone into the confessional with a story like that? Do you think Father Mark would have granted me absolution? I’d have been accused of making a mockery of the sacrament—told that I was crazy, or possessed, or both. They’d have chained me up in a cellar and tried to perform an exorcism. Under the circumstances? I told as much of the truth as I possibly could—”
Still conveniently leaving yourself a bit of wiggle room—keeping the door open just a crack. And now? The creature’s gotten back in just as you’ve known it would—just as you’ve hoped it would—all along.
“That’s not true!”
Admit it, sister: You are a liar and a fraud—a disgrace in the eyes of God.
“How can you say that?”
Shameless, impenitent, weak!
“I’m not!” Mary Chastity clenched her fists, eyes screwed shut against a rising rage.
No better than a whore!
“Don’t you dare say that about me!”
Why not? You said it about yourself, remember?
“Please! Leave me alone!”
Face the truth, sister. You. Are. Damned.
“No! I’m! Not!” The young nun cried aloud at last. “I’ll never believe that!” 
“Never believe what?” Someone tapped her on the shoulder.
“Oh!” Mary Chastity nearly jumped. She had been standing still in the middle of the path, oblivious to her surroundings as she carried on her ghostly debate.
“Chaz?” Jamie Rosenberg spoke with the mildest hint of a Texas drawl. “It’s me, Jims—remember from the party last night? And this here’s my cousin, Bree. Everything alright?”
      “Sure, I—”
      “Need anything?” There was a modish undertone of ennui in the other girl’s voice, deeper and throatier than Jamie’s. Some conscious effort had gone into rounding off the sharper edges of a typical upper-Midwestern twang. “We were just going for a swim. Thought we’d drop by Magic’s place for a little—”
      “Give him a hard time,” Jamie said. “He gets uppity if we don’t put him in his place every once in a while.”         
      “Wanna come with?” Bridget smirked. “It ought to be fun …”
      Mary Chastity gaped at the pair, still only half comprehending. Jims’ long slinky frame was brazenly shoehorned into a skintight cream-fluorescent one-piece suit, held in place as much by will power as the tenuous strap at the back of her neck. A plunging v-shaped vent ran down the front and center between her magnificent breasts, less protruding and pendulous than broad and almost too-perfectly round, like a giant pair of luscious funnel cakes. Her long black hair was gathered into a simple chingon that Mary Chastity recognized from Magic’s drawings. If anything, Bree’s tank suit was even tighter than Jamie’s. She was shorter than her cousin by several inches but no less shapely. The jet black of her maillot might have been chosen to match her vibrant dark eyes or the shimmering raven tone of her straight bobbed hair. No wonder Magic had multiplied her in his imagination.
“So,” Jamie said, “Magic rope you into posing for his comic book yet?”
“Don’t worry, he will,” Bree said. “It’s just a matter of time. Nobody’s getting out of here this summer without getting naked for him at least once.”
 “I hear Daffy was kind of pissed about being turned into a pole dancer,” Jamie snickered.
“I think she was more upset about not actually getting to do a pole dance for him.” Bree wrinkled her nose. “Mel’s the one who should really be mad—I mean, an evil hooker?—plus the fact that he drew her from memory and that’s what he came up with! On the other hand, what else was he supposed to do? She’s been coyly avoiding his yummy little tush ever since that topless make-out session of theirs last year.”
“I understand a highly-collectible Muddy Waters LP was employed as an aphrodisiac in that particular seduction.” Jims’ laughter was lusty, full throated.
“I hadn’t heard that.” Bree and Jims had begun to walk again, drawing Mary Chastitty along between them. “Magic’s just lucky Ian’s in Japan right now, otherwise I’d be avoiding him, too.”
“Ian’s Bree’s boyfriend, Chaz,” Jamie explained.
“At least for the time being,” Bree sighed. “I’ve told Magic in no uncertain terms not to get any ideas—”
“‘Cause that always works out so well.” Jamie poked her cousin in the ribs. “Exactly how many times has it been, by the way?”
This time I mean business,” Bree insisted. “I am strictly celibate this summer. A nun’s got nothin’ on me!”
Sister Mary Chastity covered her mouth, though neither of the girls seemed to notice.
      “You say that now,” Jims teased.
      “I do,” Bridget agreed. “But hey! A girl has to at least pretend to put up some resistance before she gives in to the inevitable. I admit it! All he’d really have to do is give me “the look” and I’d be saying ‘Ian who?’ before we dove into a little topless makeout session of our own—no offense, Chaz.”
      “None taken. What’s the look?”
      “Shall I tell her or do you want to?” Jims asked.
      “It’s this subtle—”
      “—but completely irresistible—”
      “—expression he uses to close the deal with his …”
      “Say it! His conquests.”
      “A combination of those melting baby-blue bedroom eyes—”
“—along with those gorgeous, sensual, half-open lips—”   
      “—and that’s all you’ll remember when you wake up beside him the next morning.”
      “Damn! I think I need a cold shower,” Jamie said.
      “Or a quick dip in the lake.” Bridget pointed south towards the swimming area. “Whatever it takes to stay focused. I need to get about six more canvasses painted before school starts—a lot of new stuff for my portfolio.”
      “And I’ve still got some serious youth to corrupt before the end of the week,” Jims let out a joyous whoop.  “I think today’s lesson will be all about giving head under water!”
      They had arrived back in the vicinity of The Hermitage.
      “I really ought to be getting home,” Mary Chastity said.
      “Aw! Come on in with us for a minute,” Jamie said, “help us get a good rise out of the magic man.”
      “Maybe some other time?”
      “Well, OK,” Bree seemed, if anything, even more disappointed than Jims. “But Chaz? Feel free to stop by the big house any time you’d like some company—”
      “—or some good, honest, just-us-girls conversation,” Jamie said. “It’s always fun to have another hen at the party—”
      “Nice fresh dirt on you-know-who,” Bree said. “Though, between us we can probably tell you everything there is to know about him—”
      “Whether you wanted to know it or not,” Jamie laughed again. “Whatever! A little gossip never hurt anybody.”
      “Buh-bye!” Bree turned to go, offering Mary Chastity a gratuitous view of her pertly packaged behind, wiggled ever so subtly, all talk of celibacy conveniently forgotten. The girls strolled off, arm and arm. Jims bumped her hips into Bree’s, setting off a curvacious chain reaction as the cousins disappeared around a bend in the trail.
And now you know why nuns travel in pairs.

The thought made her smile. The warm summer breeze caught the edge of her skirt, the fabric, wafted upwards, molding itself into the space between her thighs as if she were being groped by an invisible hand, gentle but insistent, and Mary Chastity was all at once aware of a subtle inkling of wetness there. The sensation drew her back into the moment, recalling her to herself, a reminder that she was present here, in spite of all admonishments, a woman, real and very much alive.

Monday, September 26, 2016

"For the Men and the Women Who Love Them" An Interview with Rose Caraway

Just in time for the release of the new erotic anthology For the Men and the Women Who Love Them on September 26, 2016, here is my interview with editor/narrator extraordinaire Rose Caraway. We talk about the project, about the editing process, about narrating audiobooks, and even a little about the future of the genre. Because of her unique position in the industry, I also wanted to ask Rose some questions that might be helpful to aspiring writers. I think you'll find it all makes for some fascinating reading. Enjoy! (TAS)

TAS: First, let’s talk some about this project, For the Men and the Women Who Love Them—of which I am so pleased to be a part! Where did the idea for an anthology of erotic stories for men come from?
Rose Caraway: The incredible listeners of my Kiss Me Quick’s Erotica Podcast have influenced every single anthology I’ve ever put together. They email and phone-in their appreciation, opinions, questions, and suggestions regularly. My Lurid Listeners have expressed not only their gratitude but their continued hunger for more stories that support masculine desire. The KMQ listening demographic was mostly male in the beginning, but over the last two years, I’ve been getting a lot more feedback from female listeners expressing similar sentiments. Couples started getting in touch, indicating how much they enjoy stories that appeal to both ‘him’ and ‘her,’ and would I be putting together a book? Well, once my husband, Dayv and I felt we were in a position to offer our audience what they were asking for, we took a hike. (Hiking is great for brainstorming.) As we hiked along the lake, we discussed how we’d curate an anthology that acknowledged the scope of male desire while at the same time appealing to our female audience as well. We needed to come up with a book for men, and the women who loved them. The title presented itself.
TAS: Around the time of World War II, the American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser used to say “See a need, fill a need.” (This maxim was borrowed for the delightful animated film Robots with Robin Williams and Mel Brooks a few years ago). Do you have a sense that you’re filling a need here?
Rose Caraway: The short answer is; yes. I absolutely do. I’ve spoken to male authors and what I’ve discovered is that many of them feel quite hobbled professionally; by Amazon, by other writers, and have actually been shamed for their fantasies. Male desire has been branded as too taboo. I didn’t want this anthology to be about fetishizing or exploiting men’s desire nor any particular fantasy. This project isn’t here to shock and awe. That’s not how it was conceived. It certainly isn’t here to represent all men either. For The Men represents a place where masculine fantasy is welcome within the erotica genre. It’s about putting men’s desires front and center in an anthology featuring well-crafted storytelling—both genre-based and literary based.
TAS: Emmanuelle de Maupassant—who also has a story in the collection—did an extensive survey recently, asking male and female erotic writers about their approach to their craft. Do you see significant differences in the way men and women deal with the erotic as writers and as readers?
Rose Caraway: I tip my hat to Emmanuelle for taking such a project on. Yes, I do see differences, but I also see tremendous similarities—tastes, tendencies, fantasies. And that is where my focus lies. I believe that male and female writers can write any gender they set their creative minds to. It doesn’t much matter the sex of the ‘pen.’ Gender, much of the time, has nothing to do with the how a character might behave. Instead of asking yourself, ‘What would a man think?” Take out the ‘man’ part (okay, that sounds ominous.) and give him a name. Instead, ask, ‘What would Kevin think?’ ‘What is Kevin’s personality?’

TAS: I’d like to ask you about the editing process—something that I find endlessly fascinating. I noticed when we were communicating about my story, Making Hay, that you had a very clear sense of what I needed to do to make the story better and more satisfying to readers. You felt that something was missing; that I hadn’t explained one of the plot elements in a way that would sate readers’ curiosity. You actually asked me to add a few more paragraphs—and here, I’d been so careful to stay within the call’s stated word count! I have to tell you that I was extremely impressed by your perception—your sense of what makes a story ‘click’, as well as your desire to turn out a quality product. Your passion really does shine through in your work—and it is infectious.
Rose Caraway: My goodness. Thank you, TAS. You know, there are many fine elements to Making Hay that I adore. And, as a narrator that I greatly appreciated, but we will get to that in a little bit. The edit that I came back for you was well worth going over the word count limit for. It’s incredible what that one little bugger of a question, ‘Why?’ can do for a story. And that is what matters to me as an anthology editor. I love my work and I want readers and listeners to love it too.
You see, a few years ago, I learned the value of beta readers. I sent out my very first short story which I intended to publish, to a handful of carefully selected individuals who were competent, accomplished writers. And, they were all total strangers to me, save one. I asked them specifically, to be honest in their opinions of my work—to give me the double-barrel treatment if necessary. I truly wanted to know what they thought before I put the story up for sale. Well, only one beta reader didn’t hold back, just as I’d asked. He shot my ass with buckshot and. Yes, my heart sank. For something like 2 days, I trudged through every single bright-red Word-tracking notation he made. Tears be damned. When I got to the very end of my document I noticed that my generous, shot-gun toting beta reader had written a final note. It has stuck with me ever since:
Chekhov’s gun. Look it up!!

TAS: So, let’s talk a little about what makes a story work or not work.  Are there certain elements that successful stories all seem to have in common? What ultimately makes a story good or even great?
Rose Caraway: Boy, if I knew the answer to that…
What makes a story work?
Well, I can definitely tell you what doesn’t make it work.
Lack of trying. Giving up.
Does the story pull the reader in?
As much as I hate to vomit clich├ęd sentiments, I believe that this one holds true, but that doesn’t automatically make it ‘great.’ Good, probably. Hopefully. But not necessarily great. Beta readers are a great resource for this kind of thing.
To me, a great story is one that a reader devours. But what one reader considers great, another might think, ‘meh.’
I think greatness begins with relativity. Can the audience relate to the characters? In Sonni de Soto’s Odd Man, she writes from the second person point of view:
You’ll know the second she sees him, her eyes—sweet and soulful, a brown as rich and dark as the earth—will light up like they used to for you. She’ll rush through the crowd toward him, leaving you to be swallowed up by the throng.
But she loves you.

You’ll stand there—dumbstruck—as they make their way back to you, her hand in his. Your teeth will grind, a sharp screech in your head. Your nails will dig small crescent-shaped resentments into your palm like Braille as your fists form.

You’ll want to hit him. End him.
Shake his hand instead as she makes introductions.
He’ll have a stupid name, something fake-sounding that couldn’t possibly be real. Or maybe a bastardization of a given name. Like Deek or Fin or Wen. Or Rand.

He’ll be bigger than you. Of course.

Comfort yourself in the fact that, at least, you’re better looking.

You think.

He looks…expensive, you’ll think as you take in the muscled wall of black silk and leather. Tall. Dark. Tailored. Manicured. He’ll look like an honest-to-God, spitting-image, leather-bound Dom.

You’ll look like a CPA.

Automatically we are in the main characters head. We are him. The second we begin reading de Soto’s words, we see and feel everything her main character feels because she’s made us participants. To me, that’s a great story. Editors of anthologies are some of the most open-minded people. They have to be. Otherwise, you get a shitty anthology. So, writers should aim to captivate. Immediately.
TAS: How fine a line is there between competent-but-mediocre writing and truly great, memorable writing? Is there a gray area sometimes? What do mediocre writers ‘not get’ that great writers do?
Rose Caraway: I think it comes down to clarity. How clear is the writer’s narrative? A memorable story is obviously one that sticks. We all know that a writer’s craft develops over time if they exercise it. Some writers have a wonderful concept, but they can’t execute a well-developed, realistic, or convincing character, or a working world. The difference between mediocre and memorable writing is the balance of elements within the story. Take Allen Dusk’s contribution, Wayward Drift, for example. His narrative is very relaxed, yet direct. His environment is easily visualized. His character’s movements within the world are easily followed:
Daikyu was the largest gas planet I’d yet encountered. From my perch in the cockpit, I could see alkali clouds storming beneath gleaming lithium rings belted around the equator. Bettie skimmed the ionosphere, struggling against gravity wells to keep her nose pointed toward Nippon, the largest of Daikyu’s eight moons.

“Any Black Armada ships pissing in the kiddie pool?” I asked through a prolonged yawn while stretching my arms above my head.

“There are no vessels bearing the Black Armada call sign,” my ship replied with her breathy, synthesized voice.

“That’s guaranteed not to last long, but I’ll take it. Hail the Kyudo Station when we’re three clicks out, and send them the supply list.”

“Yes. I will complete those tasks.” Her voice was always devoid of emotion. The hull could have been ripping apart, and she would have responded with the same monotone announcement. “May I complete any other tasks for you?”

“Yeah, you can. How about a blowjob? I mean, like a dirty, sloppy blowjob with a lot of drooling and ball sucking.”

TAS: Along the same lines, is there a difference between a great story and a commercially successful one? (Do you sometimes find yourself having to reject a good—or even a great—story because it doesn’t fit in with the commercial aims of a project?)
Rose Caraway: To me, if it’s a great story, it’s valuable. If it effortlessly conveys its reason for existing, its good. If a story is easy, ‘brain candy’ I like that too. Sometimes readers just want a nice easy (wank) escape. I don’t want an anthology chalk full of stories that challenge me. I like to cruise too, man. Commercially speaking, ‘easy’ seemingly works, but there’s a lot of those for sale. How many paranormal romance shifter books are out there are killing it right now? It feels like too many, good for them. There are writers writing literally for the consumer. I’ve never rejected what I would consider ‘a great story.’ If a submission didn’t quite fit my call, but it blew my socks off, I like to think that I would try to make it fit in the anthology, or save it for another call, or hell, offer to publish it myself. A great story is a great story is a great story. And it wants to be read, but that doesn’t equate to being a commercial success.
TAS: Beyond the stated parameters of any call for submissions, what do you look for first when deciding on what stories to include in an anthology? Is there a sort of instinct you have or a ‘gut feeling,’ or is it something more tangible—more measurable in a conventional sense?
Rose Caraway: This is a great question. The first thing I look for is to see if the writer has followed my call’s guidelines. It’s really the simplest thing, and has no bearing on the craftsmanship of the author, but if a story is posted in the body of their email, I sadly, automatically, pass it by. I dislike doing that, but have and will do it every time. My time is precious. Then I examine the story’s opening. I can tell immediately how well a story is going to be written. But it’s that first page that really determines whether or not I can make it to the end. If the story is going to be worth the public’s time. That opening determines whether a submission is going to be a ‘yes’ or a ‘possible’ or a ‘no.’
TAS: What are some of the things that an aspiring writer can do to ‘stand out’ in a submission call? What makes an editor sit up and take notice?
Rose CarawayFollow the guidelines. Get beta readers.
Before sending off your submission, get your story read by at least 5 beta readers. Sure, you can ask friends or family, but if you really, really want to be a good writer, then you need to bite the bullet. Ask for double-barreled honesty. It’s ridiculously easy to find a beta reading group these days. But you must tell them what you need from them. I personally recommend the Facebook group, The Slush Pile. I CANNOT stress how valuable beta readers are.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, how many publications you already have. Even Stephen King fucks up. Things get missed. Eyeballs, other than your own are essential. You don’t have time to dick around. When you are ready to email your submission, highlight to the editor, let them know that you utilized beta readers for optimum story quality. I also recommend that you beta read for others.

TAS: Let’s take a few minutes to talk about audio books and the spoken word.
Maybe because I was read to quite often when I was little, the spoken word is extremely important to me. Later, when I was in high school, I listened to a lot of the Talking Books for the Visually Impaired (Gosh! Could I go all fan-geek about some of the amazing narrators on those old phonograph records! Great voices like Arnold Moss and Alexander Scourby reading Don Quixote and Edgar Allen Poe…) and that made me conscious of the importance of the quality of the spoken word. I know that now when I write—and especially when I revise—I try to be very conscious of the physical effects of my words, a quality of rhythm, euphony and flow in the language.
Rose Caraway: I could tell immediately, TAS, that Making Hay was going to be a smooth narration. (My favorite storyteller voice was, Boris Karloff in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I loved David Attenborough and Lawrence Olivier too! Last year I found, Grover Gardner’s narration of Bury My Hear at Wounded Knee. Today, my favorite narrator is Kate Mulgrew. Her narration of NOS4A2 is fucking stellar.)
TAS: My question to you, as someone who wears both the editor and the narrator’s hats, is this: what do you look for—or listen for—in a story? Are there particular elements that ‘speak to you’—as if the story were begging to be read aloud?
Rose Caraway: When I go through the editing process, its automatic that I look for potential narrative hang-ups. I always have an audio audience in mind while editing and writing. The fact is, reading a story is a different experience than listening to one. But it all starts with the words. The better the writing craft, the easier the narration. The better writers don’t usually hear anything from me regarding audio fixes. No matter what, a story must flow easily through its scene transitions. Word repetition and sing-song narrative is bad form in writing, and it is horrendous to narrate (particularly in erotica) because listeners hear it, and it sounds silly, unprofessional. Unless it’s Dr. Seuss, there shouldn’t be anything sing-songy in the text. When we read to ourselves, those types of clunky moments are easier to miss, because inside our minds everything is silent. When a narrator gets hold of the script, we can find some whoppers. Keep in mind as you’re are writing that listeners will hear every cringe worthy rhyme. It’s why I recommend that writers read their work aloud. Another easy tactic for finding this kind of trouble spot is to use the ‘Control F’ function. You might even be interested in trying You shouldn’t have, for example, the word ‘pussy’ eight times in one paragraph. It really shouldn’t be in there more than once. Twice is the absolute limit.
Our dialog should occur seamlessly—naturally, without confusion as to who is speaking. It would surprise you how many times I’ve had to get in touch with an author to ask who is shouting “Fuck!” during orgasms. Internal dialog can be the most challenging to convey through narration, especially if it’s an extensive portion of the story or if it occurs every other line. Between character voices and narrative, if listeners aren’t obviously informed which character is actively thinking, the scene becomes muddied—worse, it loses the listener’s interest. There aren’t italics in narration. Listeners shouldn’t have to work to understand. Concise, clear writing is essential for narration. Generally speaking, when someone is listening to an audiobook, they are doing something else at the same time. They may get distracted while choosing the appropriate washing machine setting to use for their delicates. The point is, we want it to be easy for listeners to slip back into the story. That’s something you did really well in your story, Making Hay, TAS. Your dialog was natural—seamless:
Her brothers called me Blindy because of the patch over where my left eye used to be. Little berserkers were always pestering me, following me around the farm like month-old puppies chasing their own tails, watching without lending a hand, leaning on the fence-rail as I cleaned out the hog pens or tinkered with one piece of machinery or another.

“Blindy’s sweet on Gunni!” The oldest made kissing noises, and the other two joined in on the chorus, trying to get a rise out of me.

“Your sister’s one mighty fine filly,” I allowed. “Don’t know how she ended up being related to you homely little mouth-breathers.”

“Told ya he was sweet on ‘er!”

“Yeah! When’s the weddin’ gonna be, Blindy?”

“Who needs a wedding?” I pitched a shovelful of muck in their direction just to keep them on their toes. “Besides, a good little worker like Gunni could do herself a lot better’n some old one-eyed rambler.”

“So how’d you lose that eye anyway?” the youngest brother piped up.

“What else?” I said. “Got into a fight over a woman.”

Bull! That’s not what you told us last time!”

“Oh? And what did I tell you?”

“Said a crow come and ate it right out o’ your head—”

“‘Nother time you told us you lost it in a dice game—”

“Other fellow cheated,” I said, half under my breath.

“—time ‘fore that you said it got shot out in the war—”

“Naw! I swear fellas, this time, I’m tellin’ ya true. It was in a knock-down drag-out over the finest pair o’ jugs anybody ever saw.” Except maybe for your sister’s, I thought.

TAS: Can you talk a little about the place of dialogue in an erotic story that’s meant to be read aloud? How important is it? What makes it good—or not so good?
Rose Caraway: It really depends on the story. I personally love dialogue and think characters should speak as often as necessary. What makes it good is if it accentuates the scene or the moment. Especially in erotica where sexy talk is a major turn on. The not so sexy kind of erotic dialog is when it’s ill-fitting or forced. When it has no business being in the story. I will cut dialog if it’s useless. Whether I’m writing or editing, I run a test. If I feel inclined to cut any dialog out, I reread the text without it, to see if it makes any difference in the story. Sometimes, dialog does nothing but hold a story up. If it isn’t informative or if it doesn’t move the story forward, why is it there? If you have a really great line in your head that you absolutely must have your character speak, then make the character and the situation call for it.
In Tamsin Flowers’, Rope Burn, the female character answers with ‘yes’, repeatedly. Ordinarily I advise against that kind of thing, but Tamsin Flowers has been doing this a long time. She sets up her narrative so that it’s obvious that there is tension building, and that her male character’s questions are escalating, so I know exactly how each of those responding ‘yes’s’ should be narrated. No dialog tags required:

I closed my eyes, and he laughed. Gently, and slowly at first, he stroked my inner thighs and the rise of flesh below my belly. His fingers traced a path down one side of my labia and up the other; he teased me until I was panting for him. My hips pushed down against his naked lap and I nuzzled at his neck with my mouth. And as he explored me with eager fingers, I was rewarded with the feel of his cock getting hard again underneath me.

“Will you let me take you out riding and make love to you in the forest?”


“Will you let me eat your pussy in the back of my truck?”


“Will you let me tie you up again, Cally?”


“Will you let me tame you, wildcat?”

“No. Never that, Ray.”

TAS: Can dialogue mechanics—so essential in a printed story—sometimes get in the way of effective narration?
Rose Caraway: Dialog should only be considered essential if it is indeed, essential. Some stories have minimal dialog. Others are nothing but the exchange of dialog. When I’m narrating I should have a solid idea of a character’s tone. When dialog gets in the way it’s usually indicative of lack of writing skill. Writers should consider why their characters are saying what they’re saying. Again, ‘Why?’
TAS: How do you deal with characterizations, especially in a dialogue-heavy story? If you’re going back and forth a lot between a male and a female character, for instance, how to you effectively differentiate the voices?
Rose Caraway: If the writing is good, my part as a narrator is fairly easy. My ‘performance’ should never be distracting, nor should it overshadow the author’s story. In narrative, there is such a thing as over performing. It can be downright obnoxious. Male and female character’s voices are determined by what’s written. Their traits and personalities. While I don’t possess the vocal range of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, I can alter the tempo and texture of my voice. I thank Kate Mulgrew for teaching me that. My goal is to work within my range, and never distract. To perform a cast of characters in such a way that the listener clearly understands who is speaking.
TAS: So, assuming For the Men is a success—and let’s hope so!—do you envision a sequel, or even a series?
Rose Caraway: “Yes. A thousand times yes!”

TAS: Penultimate question, and it’s a great big messy one—sorry! At a time when many experienced and extremely gifted erotic writers are becoming discouraged, sometimes even to the point of dropping out altogether, what future do you envision for erotica as a literary genre? Where are things trending?  Where do you hope they’ll go?
 Rose Caraway: I really appreciate this question, and think it well worth asking. To any discouraged literary writers of the erotica genre; please, don’t give up. Please. And definitely don’t lose heart. Your ‘hearts’ are what make your ability to express the human condition so valuable. You show us strength and vulnerability like no other. I enjoy putting together anthologies that provide both the literary and genre fiction style stories. I specifically look for plot, theme and character driven stories. For me, variety is key.
Sometimes theme grabs me. (Breasted by Landon Dixon):

I clutched Samantha’s huge, creamy-white tits. Squeezed them. Kneaded them. Sucked on the rigidly pointing pink nipples—filled my hands and my face. The babe was stretched flat on her back, on the bed—me on top of her, all over her tits. I’ve got a raging penchant for stacked broads, and this one was double-decker material.

Sometimes a character does. (Labyrinth by Emmanuelle de Maupassant):

Under the moon, he guides her through the garden, towards the tall hedges. The shadows stretch out of sight. She moves as quietly as he, neither wishing to disturb the silence, so laden with possibility.

“All paths lead to the heart of the labyrinth,” he had told her. “There, you’ll find your true desire: what you covet most, or the inhabitants of your nightmares…”

“I’m not afraid,” she’d said. “I know my monsters.”

“If we go in together, you may meet mine.”

As far as trends go, they are like the tide. They are in, they are out. Then, they are back in again. I can say with utter certainty, that through my anthologies, literary erotica will always have a home.

TAS: Last question—the one I ask everybody and never get tired of hearing answered—what advice would you have for new writers, especially aspiring writers of erotica?
Rose Caraway: Reach out to other writers who’ve been in the business a while and whose tastes are similar to your own. Even if you are afraid to, ask for advice anyway, and ask more than one person. (What works for one writer may be total crap for another.)
This goes to new and aspiring writers: It is essential that you get your work out to reliable beta readers. Read your story out loud before submitting. If you are able, get your work copyedited. Follow your editor’s submission guidelines to the letter. Expect rejection. Submit again. And again. And again.
If you are an aspiring writer, start small. Something in the neighborhood of 3k words or less. Start with a short scene, or better yet—build a character. Strive to utilize and understand “the economy of words”. Invest in and read a few anthologies that interest you. It will help you with POV and guide you to finding your own voice. Put time into developing your craft. Social Media is a HUGE time suck. Be picky about which Facebook groups you belong to. It’s okay to say ‘no thank you’. Most groups out there are just noise and distraction—someone else’s agenda. Block that shit out of your life. Don’t worry about jumping into the water and trying to win the race. A good story is a good story is a good story. Get it written.