Sunday, October 27, 2013

Do you love your characters? . . .and . . . Announcing two brand new books from TAS

What should a writer’s attitude be towards his or her characters? Ernest Hemmingway once said, “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” I would agree, and add that believable, relatable living people will always be more than a writer’s playthings; more than faceless game-pieces to be moved about at authorial whim without respect to logic or credible emotion. A good writer seldom says “I created these fictions; I can do whatever the heck I want with them.” The best characters are endowed with free will, and the capacity to disappoint their creator. And yet, a wise creator lives to be surprised.

Do you respect—even love—your characters? As opposed to putting words in their mouths for the sake of plot-utility, do you give them the time to find their own unique voices—their own hidden depths and personal conundrums, out of which interesting plot is created? Can you write about the sort of person you despise without turning that character into a one-sided propaganda-poster-child? Can you discern the spark of good deep within a villain’s heart, or the creeping darkness in the soul of a saint? Do you allow yourself to be delighted by what your characters come up with, seemingly on their own, the things they may do or say without your say; things you might never have imagined for them at the beginning? How real do they become to you?

I take a long time to write, and so, spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. Being so close to them over months and years, I have the pleasure—sometimes the horror—of watching them evolve, often from nameless embryonic stock-entities occupying scenes for no particularly good reason, to fully developed, interesting, multi-faceted leading men and women, with whom I develop deep empathy and affection. I’m not sure, yet, if I’ve ever written a heroine with whom I haven’t fallen in love, at least for a little while. My male characters can sometimes be disagreeable, annoying, venial little wankers, but I am that rare friend who sees their other side, knows that there’s something more beyond the unpleasant surface, and am still willing to hang out with them. Even monsters have mommies who love them, after all. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I write and develop my characters, as this week occasions the release of not one, but two new stories with strong—and, I hope, memorable—central actors. Summer of ’69 is a mainstream literary coming-of-age narrative. Muse in the Neon Twilight is a short piece of literary erotica. Characters in both stories trace their roots back to my first novel (now withdrawn).  

Summer of ’69 began life as a simple erotic coming of age tale, little more than a couple perfunctory scenes about a sixteen-year-old boy and an older woman. But as time passed, I began to see that there was a good deal more depth and possibility to this story. Nate, the protagonist-narrator, isn’t simply another horny teenaged lad lusting after his spacey, flower-child “aunt”. It came to me one day that Nate once had a serious speech impediment, a stutter that isolated him from others, even members of his own family. In spite of the trouble he once had articulating his thoughts Nate is genuinely bright, introspective and funny. I also came to see that he cared about someone other than himself and his own agonizingly unrequited sexual desires. His older sister, Valerie, was, he tells us as he looks back on his youth, “the closest thing I had to a best friend,” and when she gets herself into trouble, Nate must find a way to rescue her, regardless of the difficulty. The rather unimaginative, too-too-conventional original plot took on more and more depth and complexity as I found more and more obstacles for Nate to overcome, based on the simple logical give-and-take of these characters, their desires, and motives, and the way they interact with each other. I have come to love this story and its characters, and I hope open-minded readers will discover it and love it as well.

Muse in the Neon Twilight is a very different, but no-less character-driven story. Ostensibly a simple, straightforward seduction narrative; man meets beautiful, young college student in bar, buys her a few drinks, and listens to her complain about a flagging long-distance relationship. The coed talks herself into going home with the man as a way of making her boyfriend jealous, and so on and so forth. It’s not so much the plot (such as it is) that makes this story interesting; it’s the way the characters talk to each other. I wanted to tell this tale as much as possible through smart, interesting, believable dialog. Doc, the male lead, is a hyper-articulate college professor, an unregenerate horndog, and a dwarf, repulsive and charming at the same time. Beauty to Doc’s beast, Julia is neither bimbo nor pushover, and has no intention of getting caught in the little man’s convoluted web of words. Yet, Doc counts on Julia's undisguised revulsion and dislike—her abject hate—to keep her off guard.    

I’m not sure I could ever write a genuinely stupid or unintelligent character. Though they may not always be likeable, or dazzlingly articulate, there’s always something reasonably interesting going on in their heads. Doc just happens to express more of his thoughts in fifteen minutes than most people do in a lifetime. I have to admit that when the man first came into my imagination about ten years ago, he simply would not shut up. Even when I tried to sleep at night, Doc was there, constantly talking his talk, filling my head with his odd ideas and endless stories of sexual conquest. I could probably write a series of short erotic novels based solely on his self-vaunted exploits, though I have no idea where this character came from. I’ve never met anyone like him—few flesh-and-blood people have ever fascinated or annoyed me quite so much. Still, I have come to enjoy the little guy’s company, and find difficult the prospect of letting him go once and for all. Eventually, I may give him his own collection of short stories, or the occasional cameo appearance in other works.


Finally, a personal request. Feedback is essential to the creative process. Indifference is death itself. If you buy or borrow these stories, if you like them, if you hate them; if you think I’m a genius or a hack, an artist or just another common garden-variety purveyor of dreckish vulgarity, a pornographer or a pedant, don’t hesitate to let me know what you think one way or the other. Reviews, whether positive, negative, glowing, scathing, warmly encouraging or coldly critical are always welcome and appreciated. Those of us who write erotica or fiction with strong erotic content are well aware of the need for some intelligent notice and affirmation--that, after all, is why I started this blog in the first place.  


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey

It’s probably no secret to anyone who visits this site on a regular basis; I loathe Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, loathe may be too weak a word for what I feel about E.L. James’ mega-best-selling trilogy. I did not reach this conclusion casually. Unlike Sam I Am, I really did make an effort to at least try the green eggs and ham. In the end, though, I found them not merely wanting, but indigestible. The awful writing has already become the stuff of legend, the inspiration for broad parody and snarky parlor games, as well as the sort of website one visits in need of a good laugh after a hard day’s work. My objections are deeper and more serious. I am a lifelong sex-positive feminist, my consciousness having been awakened in the early 1980s by reading Dr. Sheila Kittzinger’s Women’s Experience of Sex, and more recently, the work of Susie Bright. I believe passionately in equality, in sensitivity, in listening, in empathy, in gentleness and quietude. I have always aspired to relationships of strong, intelligent equals. In literature as in life, I most admire female characters who are smart and resilient, from the plucky pioneer women in the novels of Louis L’Amour (Westward the Trail and Hondo), to the irrepressible free spirited, independent young women in the YA novels of Phillip Pullman (His Dark Materials trilogy) and Madeline L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time series) and the animated masterpieces of   Hiyou Miazaki (Princess Mononoke, Porco Rosso, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service to name only a few). I despise James’ portrayal of Anastasia as a shallow, naïve, airheaded pushover. That she would allow herself to get anywhere near a sick control freak like Christian Grey, let alone fall under his spell, is, to me, bewildering if not downright disgusting. These books sell a fantasy in which codependance, sadism and psychopathy are equated with romance. Such a relationship in real-life would be nothing more than a recipe for perpetual misery, dysfunction and abuse. As far as I am concerned, the sooner this vile phenomenon passes from the cultural scene, the better.     


FiftyWriters on Fifty Shades of Grey

My attitude towards E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey is much the same as my attitude towards sports. I am not now nor have I ever been a sports fan. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the idea of sports, or many of the fascinating universally human stories that swirl around it. What an amazing, endlessly intriguing catalog of aspiration, endeavor and corruption, vice and nobility, folly and foible. Sports as an idea, and the issues it engenders, have inspired some of the most lyrical, insightful, funny and entertaining writing ever to be found, even if the games and players, fans and followers they describe are often venial, childish, banal, boring, and forgettable. I would far rather read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, or watch Bull Durham for the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth time than ever sit through one of the real-life games that inspired them.    

So it is with Fifty Shades. The execrable writing, the shallow, jejune characterizations, the idiotic pop-psychology, the ignorant misrepresentations of BDSM, it’s the literary equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. But even as much as I despise—even hate—these books, I am interested in the ideas they have inspired. While the writing in Fifty Shades is simply too awful to ever get past the vetting process for inclusion on this site—notwithstanding the books’ enormous popularity—I must admit that the trilogy has inspired a good deal of highly intelligent discourse, and this superb, engaging collection of essays, Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, offers a rich banquet of food for thought, some exceptionally fine, palate-cleansing writing, and many hours of reading pleasure.

To be honest, I have to say that some of my enjoyment was rooted in Schadenfreude. I most relished those pieces that supported or reinforced my own prejudices—the ones that put James and her trio of best-sellers down the hardest. And yet, I found a great deal of intellectual stimulation and even inspiration in many of the “pro-FSG” essays. There is a broad range of point-of-view, opinion, and style represented here, from scholarly monograph and high-brow criticism, to unapologetically treacley fan-girl fawning, and gossamer adulatory fluff. Fortunately, most writers have staked out an agreeably literate middle ground.

What all the contributors here seem to agree on is that Fifty Shades has become a “game changer” both for publishers and readers, though what this contagious little meme actually conveys is not always clear. In her introduction, Fifty Ways to Look at Fifty Shades, editor Lori Perkins refers positively to the trilogy, going so far as to gush, “I am awed to see the birth of a new erotic classic”, and hope “. . . that these books will usher in a publishing tidal wave of female-centered commercially successful erotica, giving women a new voice for sexual, political and financial choices.” In her essay, Fifty Shades of Change, Louise Fury claims that “. . . what The Vagina Monologues did for women and their vaginas, Fifty Shades has done for women and smut.” In a piece appropriately enough entitled The Game Changer, M. Christian seems reluctantly to agree, though he laments, “It would just be nice that the paradigm shift in literature and publishing would have been better written.”  He goes on to say;

It’s still a total and complete game changer. For one thing, it’s pretty much the final nail in the old school old school world of print publishing. Sure, that model has been gasping and wheezing for a few years now, but for a teeny weeny and badly written book to do what New York dreamt of doing shows once and for all that they need to burn down their old ways and finally begin to embrace the lean, mean, and cutting edge world of e-books.

It’s also another shovel of dirt on another corpse; the concept of old-school marketing. Fifty Shades didn’t succeed because of its brilliant prose, it’s immense advertising budget, or inspired publicity. It scored that coveted number one spot because “mom” E.L. James jumped right in, feetfirst, to social networking and viral marketing with a dogged persistence that’s, frankly, a bit scary. The only bad side of this is—sigh—that for the next five to ten years we’re gonna be bombarded not just with Fifty Shades knock-offs, but all those authors trying the same tricks James did.”     

“Some have wondered how a “classic” can be so “poorly written,” Perkins muses, “But I contend that it is not poorly written, but rather written in an everywoman’s voice, a necessary part of its success.”

This seems just a tad disingenuous, I wonder if a successful literary agent like Perkins would be so forgiving of James’ appallingly amateurish writing had the books not sold over 70 million copies. If something so poorly written—and I contend that it IS poorly written—by an unknown were to land on her desk, would Perkins be so quick to offer excuses for it—let alone anything other than a form rejection? Somehow, I don’t think so. Later in the collection, readers are treated to an apologia from no less a figure than Tish Beaty, the editor of Fifty Shades of Grey herself. Her “excuse” is that James’ already-established and rabidly protective cadre of fans demanded that no serious alterations be made to the self-published original. Beaty was, thus “under orders” from her publisher to treat James and her manuscript with kid gloves. So much for artistic and professional integrity.

The question of what Fifty Shades is and isn’t—softcore porn, “mommy porn”, "smut for women", BDSM erotica, erotic romance—is the basis for several of the collection’s most interesting and insightful essays. D.L. King’s Is Fifty Shades Erotica? Ask an Erotic Writer is particularly illuminating. While generally liking the trilogy—“. . . I had fun with Fifty Shades,” she says, “Anna’s annoying; she’s a little too naïve to be believable, but she’s patterned after Bella in the Twilight books. . .”—King readily acknowledges the books’ most serious flaws: “It’s two main problems . . . lay with a poorly drawn main character, and poor editing.”

“(Many) readers, critics, fans of romance—even erotic romance—see nothing but sex in the trilogy”, but, as King suggests;  

“Is it erotica? I say no. I say the Fifty Shades books are erotic romance, and there is a definite difference.

Because there’s sex on every page (actually there isn’t. There’s sex on the vast majority of pages) and because Christian and Anastasia fuck like bunnies, the books have been billed as erotica. But whether erotic romance authors, editors and publishers wish to admit it or not, it isn’t the amount of explicit sex that makes a book romance or erotica; it’s the plotline and the happily-ever-after contrivance.”

“Erotica . . . is more about the sex than the undying love. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be undying love in an erotic novel, it just means the undying love isn’t the reason for the story’s existence, as it is in a romance. In erotica the sex is the reason for the story’s existence . . .”

“Here’s a little secret about the difference between erotica and erotic romance: you can take the sex out of an erotic romance and the story will survive just fine (although it won’t be nearly as much fun to read), but you can’t take the sex out of erotica. If you do, you’ll be left with nothing to hold the story together.”   

Other essays trace the books’ literary antecedents through Twilight-based fanfic to the novels of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. (This is something I had not considered before.) In this context, the protagonist, Christian Grey, becomes the literary heir to Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, as Jennifer Sanzo argues in The Byronic Hero Archetype and Christian Grey: Why America’s Favorite Sadist is Nothing New. Sarah S.G. Frantz: A History of BDSM Fiction and Romance is one of the five or six essays here, which are, alone, worth the price of the entire book, and Andrew Shaffer’s Fifty Shades of Grace Metalious draws intriguing parallels between the author of Petyon Place and the furor surrounding that book in the 1950s, with some of the contemporary reactions to James and her trilogy.

Also of great interest are the viewpoints of therapists, healing professionals, and real-life BDSM practitioners. Hope Tarr’s eye-opening piece, Because Love Hurts and Debra Hyde’s Wanted Fifty Shades of Sexual Wholeness offer healthy doses of realism to counterbalance what is, at root, a twisted fantasy. Grey may well be a twenty-first century incarnation of the Byronic hero, but he is also clearly a sociopath, a control freak, and a self-absorbed, abusive monster, which no self-respecting woman would ever truly want to get near. Lawyer Sherri Donovan explores the books’ now-infamous (and never-signed) contract in The Legal Bonding of Anastasia and Christian; and experienced lifestylers Master R (A Requested Evaluation of the Mastery of Christian Grey) as well as Chris Marks and Lia Leto (A BDSM Couple’s View) explore the deeper, real-world ramifications of a mature, healthy power exchange relationship.

A pleasant and most welcome surprise is the inclusion of several short pieces of fiction in the book; Judith Regan’s Fifty Shades of Play, which very cleverly explodes the Alpha Male mythos with a masterful twist at the end, and Laura Antoniou’s delightful, hilarious send-up of the trilogy, Fifty Shades of Holy Crap. As to be expected, Antoniou’s skewering of James is fast-paced and razor-sharp, laugh-out-loud and utterly brilliant. It may be one good reason this collection will stay on e-readers and bookshelves for years to come—perhaps long after the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon has passed into blessed oblivion.  

In spite of my near-visceral dislike of the source material, I can (and do) enthusiastically recommend Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

You keep using that word . . .

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
(Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride)

In my extensive reading of erotic fiction, either as a Beta reader or as a reviewer, I come across a lot of troubling—or at least moderately bothersome—issues. Anyone listening to me while I read would hear lots of grunts, gasps, sighs, moans and curses, mostly of the tired, jaded, incredulous variety, frequency determined by the quality of the book in hand. Here are a few of the things that have bugged and annoyed me most in recent months.  

CRESCENDO versus CLIMAX. Originally a musical term, literally (and simply) meaning “getting louder” in Italian, CRESCENDO has been coopted, confused, and abused by so many writers of pretentiously awful fiction (and not just erotica), that it’s probably best to avoid the term altogether. The verb “to crescendo” is too often confused with the noun “climax” as in, They built up to a roaring crescendo. But crescendo is not the final destination, it is a description of the journey, as in, Their passion rose in a long, slow crescendo, culminating in a roaring climax, or Her cries crescendoed as her lover pushed her towards the brink. A crescendo is a loudening, an intensification, a rising; it is not an explosion or the grand finale itself. As always, use unusual or fancy words sparingly and with keen awareness of precise definition, the better not to be thought of as a pompous ass or a hack.

PRE-COME: While The Erotic Writer’s Thesaurus is not intended as a textbook on human physiology or anatomy, there are far too many writers who do not seem to understand the nature or natural behavior of pre-come (or pre-cum). This problem is especially prevalent among female writers, perhaps either because they do not themselves own a penis, or have easy access to one for purposes of reference and research. The term refers to those small droplets of fluid that form on the tip of an erect penis during the initial stage of arousal, usually slowly oozing out of the urethra, often so subtly as at first to be unnoticed. Not quite the same thing as COME (or CUM), its behavior is very different; pre-come seldom if ever spurts out or gushes forth, and almost never arrives in sufficient quantity to dampen anything more than the GLANS, though, over time, enough may build up to lubricate the entire shaft. Pre-come itself does not make a particularly effective or long-lasting lubricant, as it can quickly become sticky or tacky. Writers need to take such physiological niceties into account if they themselves wish to be taken seriously. Of course, it doesn’t help that there are almost no serviceable synonyms for PRE-COME, other than the subtly euphemistic or vaguely poetic (harbinger), or the downright clinical (“first inklings of arousal”, "droplets" or “fluid”).

And while we’re on the subject . . .

COME versus CUM (again): We’ve spoken before about the distinction between COME and CUM. My simple rule of thumb is that CUM should only be employed as a noun. Still, I see a lot of writers—even some otherwise pretty good ones—who use CUM as both noun and verb, either because they think the simpler spelling has a more transgressive, gritty or vulgar feel to it, or because they honestly haven’t thought about the distinction. Ask yourself this next time the issue arises; what is the past tense of CUM? Stumped? The word has no past tense precisely because it is a noun!

Coming next week (no pun intended): review of Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review of "Extraordinary Deviations" by Raven Kaldera

The most imaginative fiction often defies easy classification, and this strange, eclectic, dazzling, haunting, weirdly lyrical, sometimes disturbing collection of short stories must certainly be among the most imaginative and original books to appear in recent memory. Challenging at every level, intellectually engaging and consistently diverting, Raven Kaldera’s Extraordinary Deviations stubbornly defies convention as well as any casual attempt to pigeonhole its contents.  

So, in which corner of a circular reading room would you put Extraordinary Deviations? Would it be shelved under High Fantasy, sci-fi or erotica? Historical? Paranormal? Horror? Neo-paganism? Genderqueer? It’s the kind of exercise that would drive an obsessive compulsive pedant mad. But sanity seems a small price to pay for the thrill of discovery, the pure narcotic rush of sudden illumination and deep insight to be found here. These eight well-crafted short stories bend genre and gender with equal virtuosity, running a sublimely eclectic gamut of mood and voice, time, place and theme, drawing on everything from ancient Greek and Norse mythologies to the far-futuristic limits of speculative fiction, virtual reality and quantum theory, which, in the end, seem an awful lot like magic. In some ways, this suggests a kind of closed circle; the same forces which have been at work since the beginning of time have not gone away, but are simply known by other names, manifested in new, more relatably-sophisticated guises and forms for each successive eon.  

Kaldera revels in the divine fluidity of gender. (If there is a unifying theme in the collection, this is probably it.) The gods may take whichever form they choose, after all. Theophany has almost always been portrayed as a very private, intimate phenomenon, whether it’s the constant horny-god-on-cute-mortal bed-hopping in the Theogony of Hesiod, Zeus impregnating Danäe in a mystical shower of gold, Odin seducing the maiden Gunnlöo to obtain the Mead of Poetry, or the angel-like nephilim referenced in the sixth chapter of Genesis, mating with the daughters of mortal men (a myth masterfully explored in Madeline L’Engle’s 1986 YA novel, Many Waters), the gods (and god-like) have always been a busy lot, though their trysts aren’t always purely celebratory. More often than not, these encounters come with a hard lesson, an insight into the nature of humanity and the divine itself. Kaldera picks up the thread of this tradition in his opening story, Only Fate, which transposes the ancient theophany narrative into the realm of dystopian-future sci-fi. And again in Lover of the Whore of Babylon, a mysterious god-like entity temporarily possesses human bodies to gratify the narrator and its own BDSM fantasies:

Whatever it is that walks in her flesh is big, bigger than her, a small, crop-haired butch. It seems to tower over me. He or she? I can’t tell. I can only stare, mesmerized, pinned like a butterfly on a paper . . . “I’m going to take you now,” says the Presence riding Devi’s form. The voice is deep, hollow, caressing in an overly familiar way that would make me bridle if it came from a human being. He—at least I think it may be a he—squats over my face, opens my mouth with a pinch at the sides of my jaw that makes me squawk in frightened indignation, and cuts off my squawk with a single thrust of that rubber cock inside my mouth . . .

That’s the thing about bottoming to an immortal, I suppose. They never run out of shapes. At least with him it’s not swans and showers of gold. Just my kind of lovers . . . his children. His beautiful children. Be careful when you look them in the eye, when you mock them. Any of them could be Him, staring out at you . . . and then you’ll never be the same again.

In Opening, Kaldera vividly imagines an alternate fantasy-verse constructed from Norse shamanic ritual, with a magical genderqueer twist. This is one of the most effective tales in the collection, along with (my personal favorite), Gallae, set in the frontier region of Dicia in the ancient Roman Empire, a richly researched and satisfying historical narrative, sometimes disturbing in its graphic descriptions, but powerful and deeply satisfying in its execution and resolution. Kaldera does not turn away from ugliness or blink at imagined deformities, as, indeed, he does not shy away from the honest appraisal of life in all its profound connectedness, its glittering splendors as well as its pain and filth. But with what captivating lyricism he portrays it:      

I whip him until he is a mass of welts, until his tattoos stand out like repousse work on an ancient stucco wall, painted with the delicate trickles of blood from the barbed wire. The stigmata of sacred perversion, all over.  

The author proves equally adept at punk-inflected sci-fi with a tinge of terror (Thief of Dreams), neat erotic horror-thriller (Jack-a-Roe), High Fantasy (One Hundred and Twenty Two Petals), and even humorous, graphic novel super-hero parody (Bridge Over Shifters Chasm), each with a unique perspective on gender and the nature of intimacy. This is virtuoso storytelling, short literary erotica at its best; pure mind-expanding pleasure, transcending genre. Enthusiastically recommended!