Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review of 'Roadhouse Blues' by Malin James

Malin James had me from the first line of Skins, second of the eleven good, gritty, honest, bittersweet and beautifully-written short stories in Roadhouse Blues:

Cassie was born ten miles from the middle of nowhere in a town called Styx, if you can fucking believe it…

That line is keynote and key for this collection. All these stories are set emotionally, if not physically, in the same small place somewhere deep in the wilderness of the American psyche. Styx could be practically anywhere, and this, I think, is intentional on the author’s part. There is a sense of near-mythic wide-openness about the place, like the west Texas of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, or the windswept plains of the lower Midwest, an arch nonspecificity invoking universality:  

A curtain dropped over her mind as Cassie walked downstage. She wasn’t in the theater any more. She was in the ugly brown heart of the dust bowl. She could taste it like a film in her mouth…

We’ve seen these box stores, garages, and greasy spoons, strip malls, strip clubs, factories, bars, and bedrooms a hundred times before, wandered through the dusty streets of the same stifling chicken-fried towns where everybody makes it their business to know yours, yet are utterly incurious where the secret pain of the heart is concerned. Where same-sex attraction is still the ultimate scandal, and tenderness more taboo than rage.

James shows us what’s really going on behind those closed doors and drawn drapes, inside her character’s heads. She sets her scenes with a few well-chosen details to conjure atmosphere, but it is the characters’ emotional landscape that interests her and us, that sense of being lost in the only place you’ve ever known, of fleeing the past even as you fear the future, of being trapped in a world where you are free only so long as you don’t stand out too much…  

Leigh imagined her ugly underwear, her ugly comforting armor, and reminded herself to breathe. Fumbling fingers on blue cotton hearts, pink Sundays worn on Mondays, lying so still, mismatched days of the week…

Reminiscent of working-class portraitists like Richard Russo or Stephen King at their keenly-observant best, James’ characters are refreshingly real, down-to-earth, mostly blue collar, sometimes not quite as articulate as they’d like to be. The soundtrack of their lives is more often rockabilly than pure country western, but we recognize a lot of the same themes; infidelity, loneliness, nostalgia, regret, and desire. So much desire. An auto mechanic carries on a life-long affair with his boss, who also happens to be his sister-in-law. His wife’s longing for a baby ultimately leads her to desperate measures. Later, the new mother contemplates the passions that have been awakened within her. Another woman sets out to exact revenge on a faithless lover, only to have the tables turned, when her anger is sublimed into pure lust. The owner of the local diner comes out of the closet, if only for one glorious night. The lover of a fallen soldier is consoled by the soldier’s widow. A waitress's encounter with a creepy late-night patron triggers memories of being young and crazy-in-love with a bad boy, and the insanity that inevitably followed. A sad-eyed stripper comforts a dying man who appears like the ghost of her beloved father. The bartender at the strip club meets the woman who shares the passions he cannot confess.  Life goes on, little changes, but dreaming makes it bearable.

Roadhouse Blues is recommended without reservation!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review of 'Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction' by Benjamin Percy

There’s a new volume to add to the first shelf of books on the craft of writing. Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction is worthy to stand alongside such classics as Stephen King’s On Writing and Ursula K. LeGuinn’s Steering the Craft; books that not only offer invaluable advice, but ultimately expand the mind, inspiring us to question our most deeply-entrenched assumptions about literature—what it is, what it isn’t, what’s good, what’s bad—our prejudices about process—what works, what doesn’t—all the creative-writing-course clich├ęs and stultifying conventional wisdom that narrows our outlook and limits our potential even as it smothers the creative spark we hope to nurture.

What’s the difference between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, and are the two categories mutually exclusive?  The worst of genre fiction according to Percy “features formulaic plots, pedestrian language, paper-thin characters, gender and ethnic stereotypes and a general lack of diversity…” Literary fiction at its worst “features a pile of pretty sentences that add up to nothing happening…” A fairly grim, if acutely accurate, assessment; there seems precious little hope or redemption on either path, and even less possibility of reconciliation. “But why not flip the equation?” Percy asks. “Toss out the worst of genre and literary fiction—and merge the best…”  This is the extraordinary, some might say counterintuitive, premise of Percy’s argument, what makes ‘Thrill Me’ not only unique but indispensable. “If I’m going to align with anyone,” Percy declares, “it’s with … [those authors] who make an effort to be both a writer *and* a storyteller, someone who puts their muscle into artful technique and compulsive readability.”

And Percy shows us precisely what he means, offering generous examples of exceptionally well-written and  excitingly-told stories ranging across the literary/genre spectrum from Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Jackson, and Tim O’Brien to Michael Chabon, Ursula K. LeGuinn, and George R.R. Martin, not ignoring the rich vein of contemporary film and novelistic television. In each chapter, these examples are used to illustrate solutions to the problems every storyteller must face at one time or another; creating a sense of urgency in a narrative, finding the language appropriate to stage an effective set piece, dealing with issues arising from the portrayal of violence, employing setting and detail to “make the extraordinary ordinary’, designing suspense, knowing when to incorporate backstory (or not), the use of artful repetition…and so, so much more.

As in King’s On Writing, autobiography is employed as a vehicle for insight, a framework for instruction, the writer’s personal experience illuminating broader points about process in an engaging narrative that reads like the best coming-of-age fiction.  As a boy, the author relates, “I had too much empathy; it was a superpower (as a budding writer) and a disability (as a functional human being).” But Percy is wise enough to eschew the one-size-fits-all approach to creativity, the arrogant assumption that the experience of one individual somehow translates into universal truth.

Nor is Percy afraid to gore the sacred cows of contemporary fiction, fearless—and trenchantly precise—in his criticisms of semi-canonized writers like Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and Michael Chabon, yet also lavish in his praise of those same authors where praise is due.

Percy draws strong parallels between music and writing, citing Aaron Copland’s description of the listening experience (on the sensual, expressive, and purely musical or cerebral levels) and showing how the same principles can apply to a reader’s enjoyment of fiction. Like LeGuinn in Steering the Craft, Percy explains how types of punctuation may be equated to musical rests of varying lengths. He invites us to appreciate the rhythmic richness of language, the visceral effects of well-chosen words, and the natural sense of momentum in a well-crafted phrase: “Tone refers not only to voice, but to music, the foot-tapping rhythm of the words. Dialogue is typically staccato [fast-paced, marked] while narrative is typically legate [smoothly flowing at a more leisurely pace]...”

Chock-a-block with eye-opening insight and practical advice conveyed in a fresh, down-to-earth style, Thrill Me is a must-read for all aspiring writers of dramatic fiction and the next best thing to a refresher course for more experienced authors. Enthusiastically recommended!  

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Pacing an Erotic Scene

I was thrilled this past spring to have a story of mine accepted for inclusion in The Sexy Librarian’s Dirty Thirty Vol. 2. Recognition is always nice, but to be included in a prestigious anthology among some of the best-known names in the business goes far beyond simple affirmation. I was, to say the least, elated.  Editor Rose Caraway clearly ‘got’ what I was trying to do in A Polite Fiction; it’s not a conventional erotic narrative—I don’t do conventional—and I understood from the start that it would not be everyone’s cup of love-tea. I submitted the story, confident that the quality of the writing would be enough to get me in the door, though I was somewhat doubtful about whether it would be sufficiently sexy to make the final cut.
As an editor, Rose Caraway is gifted with an extraordinary kind of literary X-ray vision. She has the ability to see directly to the heart of a story and understand with acute precision what makes it tick, why it works, or why it doesn’t. This goes along with an aptitude for perceiving potential in a piece of writing, a talent for recognizing and identifying that certain inchoate element, that mysterious unarticulated something that’s lacking in an otherwise interesting, well-written story. She clearly saw the potential in A Polite Fiction, liked the characters and the situation, appreciated my use of dialogue, and loved the ending. But Rose also recognized the story’s most serious weakness: the tale wasn’t steamy enough. Out of 3000 words, I’d only spared 120 near the end to describe the consummation of my characters’ relationship.


Being asked to do re-writes is seldom something to which an author looks forward with enthusiasm; the  request always comes at first as a bit of a gut-punch. But, deep down, I am a problem-solver. I see a request to do re-writes not as an affront to my ego or a repudiation of my “brilliant vision”, but as an opportunity.  I thrive on this kind of challenge; I actually love working an editorial problem insofar as it helps make a good story even better.

A Polite Fiction is set in the bedroom of a once-famous author, Dorian Hume. Summer, the writer’s young assistant, is helping her aging employer organize his papers. They face each other from opposite ends of a large waterbed where documents have been unboxed, spread out, and sorted into piles. In the bottom of a battered file box, Summer discovers an old pen-and-ink portrait of the author as a young man, and cannot help imagining what it might have been like to be with him in his heyday. Then Dorian makes a suggestion:

“I wonder,” he began, “would you…”

“Would I…?”

“Sit here?” The discard pile tottered precariously as he patted the mattress. “Be with me for a while?”

“Oh, Dorian—Mr. Hume—I…I don’t know.”

“I’d like to tell you a story,” he said. “Please?”     

She hesitated.

“We’ve been alone together before.”  His voice was a fine oak-barrel-aged baritone, rich and penetrating—like those eyes, she thought. Summer could not deny her attraction to this man, never mind their professional relationship or the fact that he was old enough to be her grandfather…

Summer wonders aloud how Dorian’s wife, Maude, might react to the knowledge of their being together. Dorian tells about the sexual adventures he and Maude used to enjoy in their youth, relating the story with a kind of wistful nostalgia. Then he reveals his true desire:

“It would be nice to know,” Dorian muttered.


“That I still had it in me… That my words still had power.”

“I don’t understand.” She put the drawing down. “What are you saying? What are you—”

“Let me tell you a story,” he begged. “Let me make love to you with my words.”

Summer hesitates, but eventually joins Dorian on the bed. He whispers the story in her ear—a kind of Lovecraftian gothic tale of a damsel escaping a tower in which she has been imprisoned "for the sake of her virtue"--arousing Summer with the sound of his voice. I won’t reveal the denouement, but let’s just say these two characters definitely experience a happy ending…

In going back to do re-writes, I realized that the story’s lack of erotic impact had less to do with scenario, setting, description or atmosphere than with the pacing of the narrative. The clue is clearly there in the synopsis: Summer hesitates… Both characters in the original version were too unsure, too shy, to make a first move, and so consummation was constantly being postponed. Not good when you only have 3000 words to work with, and only so much time to keep the reader engaged.

Pacing in erotica is something we don’t often think about unless there’s an obvious problem with it. So what makes for effective pacing? In conventional pornography there’s never any question about whether people are going to end up having sex. It’s only a matter of how soon. There are no obstacles to the act, seldom much time required to get into the mood, very little build-up or 'gradually working into it' beforehand, and precious little foreplay when it finally does happen. There's hardly ever anything remotely like internal conflict to distract the characters or delay the inevitable. In short, there’s  no such thing as dramatic irony in porn. Sure, one of the characters may play coy for a second or so; there may be a bit of flirtatious forestalling, but everybody watching the scene knows damned well what’s coming—and if it doesn’t come quickly, they're very likely to demand their money back. When the starlet bats her eyes demurely and sighs “Gee…I don’t know…” the average viewer is probably shouting “Get on with it!” at the screen.

It may seem like a contradiction, but in erotica, sex isn’t always a foregone conclusion, nor is consummation inevitable. Of course it wouldn't be erotica without a sexual situation, or, at least, an atmosphere conducive to sex. But erotica also takes the very unpredictability of the human psyche into account. Where pornography portrays a kind of mechanical function, automatic once set in motion, erotica elucidates the psychological and emotional variants that make each encounter unique—and uniquely human.  

This uncertainty is part of the excitement in an erotic narrative, the build-up, gradual or swift, of sexual tension, rising states of desire, the not-always-smooth progression of arousal, crescendo and plateau. At some point the characters arrive at what I call an erotic cusp, a point beyond which doubt is banished, the floodgates are opened, and turning back is unthinkable. In submitting my re-writes to Rose, I put it this way:

I wanted to preserve what I see as the essence of this story; that is, a professional/intellectual relationship between two very different people who like and admire each other seguing into something sexual. The pacing has to be such in the beginning that Dorian and Summer’s eventual getting over this sexual cusp seems natural, and that what happens afterwards is all the more powerful for feeling inevitable—something readers believe these characters truly would do. 

In a good deal of erotic writing, the ultimate sex scene takes on the characteristics of a genre set piece. The language describing the sex act sometimes assumes a loftier, more poetic tone, bordering, too often, on the purplishly effusive. What’s happening in the scene may not always be obvious, but it’s torturously clear that the author got carried away. To be sure, so many otherwise gifted writers fall into a syntactical rut when it comes to writing sex itself. This is especially evident where the use of subordinate clauses is concerned: “Doing x, John did y.” or “Jane did x, y-ing as she moaned in pleasure…” over and over and over again. Syntax has a significant influence on pacing. To employ a similar syntax, sentence after sentence, may create an illusion of speed, but usually only in the writer’s mind. This kind of regular repetition has the ultimate effect of desensitizing the reader and putting them to sleep, where, instead, they ought to be propelled deeper into the world of the story, excited to find out what happens next.   

Dialogue and internal monologue may be employed to break up these monotonous patterns. Ultimately, dialogue may be one of the most effective ways to regulate the pacing of a story. I like the way this little bit of back-and-forth flows along near the beginning of A Polite Fiction:

“I think Maude’s afraid of losing you.”

“Losing me? How?”  

“I don’t know. It’s in the way she talks about you.”

“What has she said?” The question was more polite than pointed.

“She said that you were a great man—”



 “Mm. And?”

And that it’s a privilege to be a part of your world. She told me I should feel honored to…” Summer paused again, uncertain.

“Honored to…?”

“…be the object of your interest, of your…desire.

Dialogue can be extraordinarily effective when used to reveal aspects of character. It deepens our understanding of the characters, making them and their story come alive in profound and wonderful ways. Yet, it is seldom nearly so effective when employed to deliver exposition. And nothing does more to impede the natural forward momentum of a story than the clunky, heavy-handed use of expository dialogue—putting information in the mouths of characters that could better have been related through narrative. It’s like tripping on a tree root along a trail, having to pick oneself up and double back in order to move forward. No fun at all!

Perhaps the best way to ensure smooth pacing is to master the flow of language, the art of the elegantly imperceptible transition from phrase to phrase, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. The last sentence of a paragraph ideally throws a switch, as on a railroad, effortlessly conveying readers into the next paragraph, and so on, to the end. If this series of switches is working smoothly and in precise concert, the story’s pacing will seem natural, vibrant, and, most importantly, inevitable. If the switches are too slow to open, or somehow out of alignment, the pace will appear to drag as the reader must negotiate gaps, drop-offs, fits and starts, between sections.  

In the end, Rose’s request for re-writes got me to think deeply about my craft, and that was well worth the time it took to do the work. By making careful cuts to parts of Dorian's "story within a story", while adding steamy stage business at strategic points along the way, I managed to bring the new erotically supercharged version of  A Polite Fiction in at just under 3,000 words. In my e-mail with the revised story, I wrote:

OK, after five full and extremely intense days, I think I’ve done all I can to this story—any more would very probably end up causing damage. A Polite Fiction may never succeed in turning readers into quivering puddles of inarticulate lust, but the eroticism has definitely been kicked up a notch or two, and, I believe, for those who can get past any hang-ups about May-December nookie, it will work very well indeed.

I hope it works for you, too!