I am not what you would call a joiner. In school, I never played sports or participated in extracurriculars—save art club, but that was more of a drop-in-whenever sort of deal.
My parents signed me up for computer camp one summer, which I now appreciate, but at the time, I was less-than grateful. There’s an active kink community in my area of which I’m not a member.
So when the lovely Doctor J invited me to join Sisters in Smut, I’ll admit, I was hesitant. Having grappled with social anxiety my whole life, I’m used to the tense muscles and racing thoughts that accompany any sort of potential group event—including online interactions.
But something told me not to shy away from this opportunity…
I have to say, 2015 was a fantastic year for me in terms of writing and publishing. It was the year I got to hold my first piece of published work in my hands. It was the year I had three erotic poems and three short stories released in print and ebook anthologies, as well as online (plus a BDSM erotic romance short pending for early 2016 and another out on submission). I completed my first novel just under a year ago and my second in November, the latter of which I intend to begin querying by mid-February.
Side note: writing a query letter is hard, ya’ll. Dare I say harder than writing the book itself. But it can and must be done if you want to be trade published, which I do.
There’ve been some changes. Nearly all of my energy has been rerouted from short stories to novel-length works. I turned my “blog” into a “news” feed because I wanted to devote the majority of my free time to writing fiction. I put a flash fiction series on the back burner that may or may not make it to “The End.”
While I believe wholeheartedly that it’s important to finish what you start, I think it’s also important to stop and take inventory, to ask yourself if what you’re doing is bringing you closer to your goals or slowing you down. I want to write books. Short stories and flash fiction have served as invaluable stepping stones for honing my craft, but the only way to get better at writing novels is to write them.
So, whatever your goals, ambitions or resolutions—writing-related or otherwise—here’s to a productive 2016!
Rounding out at approximately 87,000 words, my novel-in-progress is no longer in-progress. It is done. Well, what I call the “first working draft” of it, anyway. It’s not quite a first draft since I’ve been editing and posting it on Literotica chapter-by-chapter since April 2014, but it’s still a bit rough around the edges—especially those first few chapters. While my ultimate plans for the story are still up in the air, I can say that I’m really, really glad to have finally laid down that last sentence. It took ten months to complete this story and with three anthology projects lined up for February, I’m going to need all the extra headspace I can scrounge up.
I don’t want to wax poetic about the process because, as a rule, I try not to treat my words as though they were precious. Yes, I live and breathe writing and storytelling, but if there’s one quality that I could giftwrap and ship to every budding writer, it would be ruthlessness. By that, I mean: don’t coddle yourself or your work, pledge to finish what you start (and then do that), and if cutting an 8k draft down to 500 words will make the story better, then by all means, snip away.
Having said that, I will concede that the post-I-just-wrote-a-book-high is pretty fantastic in a quiet, “Well, how ‘bout that?” sort of way. I tried really hard not to harbor any expectations as to how it would feel, but a few managed to slip in somewhere between the final chapter and the epilogue. I expected to cry a lot and maybe wind up on the floor for a while. That didn’t happen. In fact, more than anything, what I really want to do is get back to work: the consistent, comforting routine of sitting quietly and meeting the quota.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this story. I love the characters and the smutty romance and the weird little connections that weren’t intended but somehow found themselves lining up all pretty and semi-coherent on the page. I’m happy to have finally given my characters, and hopefully, my readers, a sense of closure and an ending that doesn’t leave them smacking their tongues like they’ve just tasted something cloying.Embed from Getty Images
Finishing this story has taught me a lot about both myself as a writer and novel-crafting in general. My hope is that these observations might be of some use to you, especially if you’re in the thick of your first big project. So, without further ado, here are five things I’ve learned from completing a first draft:
1. Writing fiction will make you more honest and compassionate. While our stories and characters may be imaginary, what we’re ultimately attempting to accomplish each time we put our words to paper is the tapping of some universal truth, something each of us can relate to. Striving to create authentic characters forces us to look at people—really look at them—and see them as they truly are, prejudices and all. It cultivates compassion. I once heard it argued that the best actors are those who, rather than judge a character’s actions or motivations, pause and take the time to contemplate, “How might I be different if I were subject to these particular circumstances?” Writing requires a similar suspension of cognizance. We pull people out of our brain-muck and then make them do things and sometimes those things aren’t so nice. It’s important that we understand why they do the things they do, not just so that we can make them believable, but so that we can make them sympathetic.
2. Trust the stream-of-consciousness. This one took a while to embrace because, for a long time, I was an “edit as I go” kind of writer. However, while that might work for some, I find it to be crippling. You know that incredible feeling when the words just flow as though the prose was moving through you from some other-worldly source? Well, there’s no better way to quell that stream than to ask it to hold on a second while you perfect this description of a chandelier. It’s tough to look at a line of dialogue and know that it’s crap and leave it there anyway, but that’s the pain and pleasure of revision: don’t worry, you’ll be back…many times over. Just get the words down.
3. The show vs. tell situation is slightly different for Erotica and Romance writers. I wish someone had told me this sooner. Somewhere around chapters four and five of The Cabin, I started to feel like I was writing a technical manual. I was reading a lot of craft books that advised me to show, show, show instead of tell. However, what I didn’t realize at the time was that telling is actually an important tool for Romance writers, especially when writing in first-person. Love and sexuality are incredibly personal subjects. If the characters aren’t baring themselves both physically and emotionally, they can come off as cold, stiff, and unrelatable—the kiss of death for a Romance novelist. No, you don’t want to drown your readers in exposition and if I can convey attraction with a shy smile and a head-tilt rather than flat-out stating, “I think you’re dreamy,” I will. But Romance readers expect that inner monologue, and for good reason. It’s a staple of the genre that places the reader inside the protagonist’s head and then guides them throughout the rest of the story, helping them understand why the character might feel or react a certain way. Speaking of which…
4. If the characters are resisting, something might be wrong. I’m not talking about dragging them kicking and screaming into necessary hardships. I’m talking about recognizing a dead end when you see one. For a while I tried really, really hard to convince two of my characters to get friendly, but they wouldn’t have it. That I even needed to “convince” them was a red flag that I wasn’t being faithful to their motivations. Coming up with a great scene is only half the battle. Ensuring that all the pieces align to make said event happen the way you want requires forethought. You need to sow those seeds early so that each action a character takes makes sense.
5. You won’t know how good (or not good) it is until you get some distance. Now, this is another area where a lot of writers differ, but I happen to identify with the camp that needs to tuck a finished piece away for a while before they can effectively edit it. How long this period lasts depends on length. Short stories need maybe a few days to a week, while a novel would require significantly more time to breathe—at least a month. I like to use that in-between time to refresh my brain with shorter projects, like anthology submissions. Each new venture has the potential to stretch you that much further, improving your voice and strengthening your storytelling muscles. By the time you pull that old project out of the digital drawer, you’ll be looking at it with a brand new set of eyes.
Bonus: It really is all about finishing. There are few good reasons not to finish and sucking isn’t one of them. All first drafts suck. We hear it time and time again: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page” (Jodi Picoult). Granted, knowing when to abandon a project is a skill unto itself, but I’d venture to say that you’re better off at least finishing a first draft before making that call. Finishing is about more than just ending a story. It’s about resolve and proving to yourself (and others, but that’s less important) that you are capable of doing what you set out to do. If you can do it once, you can do it again. And again. And again.Embed from Getty Images
Shortly before the end of my first semester at college, I became acquainted with an English teacher who self-identified as “hard to please.” A polarizing force, students either loved or hated her—most often the latter—and for some mysterious reason, she took a liking to me.
I remember sitting across from her in the café of a bookstore that no longer exists on the corner of Church and Cherry. We ordered tea, chose a seat by the window, and chatted for a solid hour about various topics pertaining to writing and academia. A published author herself, she was remarkably encouraging.
At the time, I was writing a lot of poetry and personal narrative and she had asked me to bring along a few pieces she hadn’t already read for class. She noted that the majority of my poems were about love and then made the casual remark that love was a common theme amongst young people, as though it were something that one would naturally outgrow.
Seven years and two degrees later, I still think about this comment.
I went through an extended creative dry spell after transferring schools and switching majors, but on those rare occasions when I felt the tug of the elusive muse and put pen to paper, out would pour those old, familiar sentiments: love, lust, heartbreak. The phrasing was different (as were the subjects) but the desire to gather my emotions and translate them into something tangible was still there.
Love, passion, intimacy—these are the things that stir my muse; the forces upon which I’ve chosen to construct my creative foundation.
I’ve heard it argued that all writing is an act of love, whether it’s love of another person, an ideal, or a deep appreciation of story. By that logic, even hate mail can be construed as an act of love and most certainly an act of passion—albeit perverse—for what is hate if not the space between the way something is and the way we wish it to be? Hate requires a great deal of emotion and care, unlike indifference, which is arguably harder to stomach.
Perhaps all poems are love poems, in a sense.
I don’t think I will ever outgrow love poetry insofar as I do not think it is possible to outgrow love. I’m not talking about infatuation, though even that has its virtues, if only to remind us that we’re still bleeding and breathing. No, I’m talking about the kind of love that seeps into your bones and lingers for years, even decades, long after the initial belly-flip has flopped and butterflies have flown. I also do not limit my definition of “love poetry” to romantic attachment, since one could argue that poetry pertaining to friendship and filial tenderness is just as valid and potentially longer-lasting.
The English teacher and I have since fallen out of touch. I like to think that she’d be glad to know that I’m writing again, even if my subject matter has only gotten—ahem—more explicit as I explore the deeper, darker corners of love and intimacy.
I’m curious. For those who write about love, sex, passion, attraction, etc., how has your work changed over time? Were there periods in which you found yourself veering away from these topics, consciously or coincidentally? What sorts of reactions do you provoke when you explain (or even show) you work to others?
I am at the ocean.
After a delicious lunch of lobster stew and fried calamari, plus a bite of my best friend’s salad (because, you know, gotta stay healthy) we went for a walk on the beach.
We walked the long strip of sand, all the way out to the jetty, with its jagged boulders and briny, anaerobic scents, and sat there until we couldn’t feel our noses.
On our way back to the hotel, we spotted an older gentleman in a gray sweatshirt writing something in the sand. I remarked to my friend how the beach often brings out our innate playfulness; memories of building sand castles, dodging waves, feeding seagulls (as opposed to chasing them; I love seagulls), and writing messages in the damp sand that will inevitably be washed away by the tide. As we marched up the stairs to our room, I noticed a woman in a red coat sitting on a lower balcony, smiling to herself. I didn’t think much of it.
Now, sitting on my third floor balcony, I see what the man has etched: a heart, shot through with an arrow, with the words, “Betty My Love” scrawled at the center. I attempted to capture it, but the camera on my phone just isn’t up to snuff.
Trust me, it’s there.
Just now, the woman in the red coat and the man in the gray sweatshirt are walking arm-in-arm along the beach. Upon further inspection, they appear to be in their late-fifties to early-sixties. She has a kind face and brown, shoulder-length hair. He is grizzled, with long, gray hair tied back in a ponytail. They seem content—as content as two vacationers could be, surrounded by blue skies and even bluer seas.
Only once have I stood beside the sea, arm-in-arm, with a lover. Most often, I find myself here on the cusp of heartbreak. Perhaps this isn’t a coincidence. I’ve been visiting this particular beach with family and, more recently, friends for about two dozen years. Maybe I can just sense when I need my negative ion fix; that annual or biannual meeting between Poseidon and me, when I let the icy waves wash over my naked feet and he reminds me that there are plenty of fish in the sea.
Yesterday, I arrived with a slight scratch at the back of my throat. After a heavy lunch of codfish cake Benedict (so good…too good), I felt a sinus headache creep between my eyes. By late afternoon, I was laid up with a full-on migraine and everything that goes with that, and spent the rest of the night in bed. I woke up early this morning feeling much better and made it my mission to spend at least a couple of hours journaling on the balcony.
Here’s a snippet of what I came up with:
One of the most pervasive phrases used in erotic and romantic fiction has to be, “waves of pleasure”. It’s so common, it’s cliché.
However, sitting here, watching the waves ebb, surge, crest, froth, crash, foam, and ripple, I cannot think of a better analogy for female orgasm.
I’ve written my fair share of orgasms and, if I’m both lucky and determined, I will continue to do so for many years to come. Coming up with fresh, unhackneyed phrases for pleasure can be daunting, as there are only so many nouns, verbs, and adjectives (not to mention euphemisms) at one’s disposal before they cross the line into purple prose.
That said, some things stick simply because they work.
Some days, an orgasm is like a day at the beach.
There’s the gentle rippling of the water, when it appears as though nothing of particular import is going to take place. Then, you have the slight upheaval, the shaping of the wave, a deepening in color—the signal that you’re doing something right.
You see the peak, the sharp edge of the wave as it rises from the surface, surging closer, then closer, until it crowns and there’s nowhere to go but down, over, tumbling onto itself.
It falls and froths, skidding and rippling to shore, as far onto the sand as it can possibly stretch.
Petering out, it thins, dilutes, and dissolves, slipping back into the deep.
And then, assuming you’re the sort that recovers quickly, you let the current drag you into the fray once again. (And again, and again…)
Tonight, I lie down beside the Atlantic. A cold and jealous mistress, she will wash away Betty’s heart.
But, wrapped in the arms of her gray, grizzled man, Betty will not shiver.
And, lulled to sleep by the song of my lover, Poseidon, neither will I.
As usual, I am up to greet the sun.
Today I am working on the bones of my next story, an erotic romance for Frisky Feminist Press’s coffee romance anthology call (I think I’ve mentioned this at least twice already, but I like to give credit where credit is due).
So far, I’ve spent the last hour researching the main character’s backstory: where she grew up, where she went to college, what program she transferred to, why she moved from Los Angeles to Seattle, and potential locations for her bakery/cafe (it’s a coffee romance anthology, after all). I love this part, before the tap-tap-tapping of keystrokes when the story is still green and gestating.
I recently read an article titled, “Kill your Backstory” by Angela Booth. In it, she talks about the importance of keeping the story moving, all part of that “show, don’t tell” mantra that many newbie authors (myself included) spend so much time fretting over. Looking back on some of my earlier pieces, I cringe at the number of words I devoted to exposition and background, things I could’ve explained through more efficient means: a roll of the eyes, pursed lips, sweat beading upon the brow.
Of course, when you’re submitting a story chapter-by-chapter to an online writing site like Literotica, it can be difficult to know exactly where you’re going to end up. In my first novel-length story, I introduced a handful of new characters into chapter 4, devoting a couple of paragraphs to each in order to provide proper context. I tried to keep it brief, telling just enough to give readers an idea of who these characters were and then did my best to flesh them out via dialogue and behavior. My biggest fear was that they would feel arbitrary, because they kind of were—I had no idea they were going to appear until after I’d completed chapter 3, plus a very rough draft of chapter 4.
(Side note: I don’t think I’ll be posting anymore chapter-by-chapter stories after The Cabin unless I know exactly how it’s going progress out or have completed a first draft in its entirety. Live and learn.)
Towards the end of the article, Booth briefly states that writers can inject backstory into their work via action and conversation, though I would’ve appreciated a bit more info on exactly how she recommends authors go about this. She spent so much time stating what NOT to do that I felt a little let down by the dearth of practical application beyond, “You are reading, aren’t you?…Pay attention to how authors manage backstory in your genre.”
I’ll fully cop to getting swallowed up in backstory, albeit mostly for my own fantastical pleasure. In order for my characters to feel real, I have to have at least some idea of who they are and where they came from, even if very little of that ends up in the finished piece.
I recently read Crash Into You by Roni Loren, an erotic romance that delivers backstory almost like a nested narrative occurring alongside the main story. For the first two-thirds of the book, each chapter alternates between “then” and “now”, providing depth and relevant insight into character motivation. At first, I thought I might find the back-and-forth a little disjointing, but since the focus remained squarely on the relationship between the main characters, it stayed cohesive.
While I agree with Booth that backstory can indeed bloat one’s fiction, I also think it’s a necessary component to crafting a rich story. When meeting someone new, one of the first things we do is ask questions.
We exchange histories:
“So, what do you do for fun?”
“Well, I’m a really active person. I like to be outside.”
“Nice, I spent the latter half of yesterday at the beach.”
“Oh, that’s great! I used to visit the lake with my family every summer.”
“Yeah? Just for the day or…?”
“A few days, actually. We’d rent a campsite and spend the week kayaking and eating s’mores.”
“Oh, really? Let me tell you about the time I went “Death Camping” with friends just before Thanksgiving.”
Real people have backgrounds. Real people have histories. Real people have backstories. If we want our characters to feel real, we need to see them as people, and that means knowing how old they were when they had their first kiss; the first time they went “all the way” with their significant other (or dreamt about doing so with their gym teacher); the awful, terrible, horrible event they witnessed when they were twelve that has shaped them into the people they are on the page today.
Some of that will end up in our stories. A lot of it won’t, and that’s okay. The mental aerobics alone will help to strengthen our storytelling muscles and help us to become more compassionate, empathetic writers. In order to write authentically, we must set aside our own biases and prejudices to understand why our imaginary friends feel what they feel and do what they do.
All of that requires sinking our teeth into their backstories.
So, no, readers probably don’t need to know our character’s favorite ice cream flavor—unless we decide to send them into a panic every time someone mentions, “mint chocolate-chip”—but having a plethora of information to draw from when you want to add quirks or explore their reasoning is invaluable. We may even find ourselves making connections and subtle references to things that we hadn’t originally planned, resulting in depth and complexity.
And the best part? Our brains will automatically make these connections when appropriate. It’ll feel like magic, like finding a whole sand dollar on the beach or $20 in your coat pocket. All because we took the time to do the prerequisite work.
All because we bothered to daydream.