Plotting and Pants-dropping

Oh, hey there weekend. It’s about time you showed up.

Today I am plotting the next chapter of my otherwise pantsed novel. I’m in need of some serious organization and deliberation that only a package of index cards arranged and rearranged across my living room floor can accomplish. That, or, Scrivener, but while there may be a fresh Douglas fir standing next to my fireplace, Christmas is still a few weeks away.

According to my Kindle, I am 82% of the way through Rachel Aaron’s book, 2,000 to 10,000: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. While I feel that some of her suggestions might not work as well for erotica and romance writers as they would for, say, science fiction or fantasy authors (Aaron is a sci-fi and fantasy author, herself), her advice on plotting has been helpful, as evidenced by the highlighted portions and notes on my device.

Consider this quote from her section on Story Architecture:

“In day-to-day terms, this means knowing what you’re going to write before you write it, but in the bigger picture of your life as a writer, it means understanding your story choices on a deeper level. If you want your writing process to be fast and reliable, it’s not enough to just trust your feelings for what works. You need to know why it works and how it works, if you ever want to make it work for you.”

My goal for this post isn’t to convince pantsers that plotting is the way to go because everyone approaches storytelling differently and there’s no such thing as the Eternal Correct Method for Everyone and Everything. I can even see the benefits of flexibility between projects. For example, a short story might pour effortlessly from one’s subconscious while a novel may be better served by an outline and character sheets. Experimentation is paramount.

Regardless of which style you subscribe to, rewriting is an integral part of writing. However, since I also happen to be posting the story chapter-by-chapter online, I have to be really certain about my timeline and events, because once they’re up, I can’t change them.

(I’d like to take this opportunity to state that I have no intention of publishing this story elsewhere, at least not in its current form. It’s generally a bad idea to post a book in its entirety for free on the internet, regardless of what route to publishing you intend to follow. I’ll go into the reasoning behind that some other time.)

While I’ll admit to being pleasantly surprised by my subconscious’ ability to tie certain aspects of my story together without much prompting from me, I’m at the point where there are too many loose ends to simply let my fingers fly and hope for the best. I’ve had an idea for how I would like the story to conclude for some time now, but I’m beginning to think that it might not be what’s best for the plot. When your characters refuse to do things, even fun things, like hook up, you know it’s time to sit back and ask yourself, “What am I doing wrong?”

Yesterday, I utilized one of Aaron’s tips for establishing motivation: character sheets. In her book, she suggests noting certain factors for each important player in the story, such as Name, Age, Physical Description, Likes, Hates, and Wants. Since my characters are already established, I skipped Age and Physical Description and went with this list:

Name:
Likes:
Dislikes:
Wants:
Knows/Believes:
Doesn’t Know:

Those last two are my own additions. At this point in the story, I’m attempting to keep track of who’s been lying to whom, who is oblivious, and who is secretly privy to sensitive information. It’s a lot to manage, hence the usefulness of things like timelines and character sheets.

What about you? Are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between? Do you have any tried-and-true techniques that keep you from getting and/or staying stuck? Share your wisdom!

All right, time to refill my coffee mug and make a mess on my living room rug.

For the Love of Poetry

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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?

Flash Fiction: Order Up

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I’m a big fan of free writes. When sitting down to work on a project, I like to start out with a fifteen minute free write. Anything and everything is acceptable, no matter how petty or trite. Skipping this process tends to result in fewer words written overall and a tendency to become distracted. Most of the time, what comes out is self-serving drivel: my plans for the day, a great meal I’ve recently cooked and/or eaten, a rant about well-meaning family members who just don’t “get it”. Sometimes I surprise myself by coming up with something coherent— and maybe even cohesive.

What follows is the result of my most recent free write. It’s clearly the beginning of something, though I’m still a bit fuzzy on exactly what. Mostly, I’m sharing it to prove that you can plant your butt at the page with every intention of kvetching about noisy neighbors and the ever-growing pile of dishes and still walk away with something that makes you think, “Hey, not bad.”

If you like what you read here, I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments.


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“What can I get for you?”

My ears pricked at the deep, Southern drawl.

“I’ll have a burger, medium, no fries.”

“Something to drink with that, sir?”

“Large coke.”

“And for you, ma’am?”

Yeah, it was him all right. I knew his family owned the place, but, I had no idea he’d still be around four years later. My chest tightened, among other things.

“I’ll have the meatloaf with a side of gravy.”

“And to drink?”

“A diet coke.”

“Great, I’ll have those cokes out for you in a few moments.”

“Thanks.”

I shielded my face with the menu as he stalked past the booth. His stride was just as I remembered: long and heavy, yet agile. He even smelled the same.

Shit.

The restroom door creaked and out marched Sarah, wiping her hands on her jeans.

“No paper towels. Fucking hick town.” She slid into the booth. “You okay, Callie?”

I peered over the laminate. “Yeah, fine.”

She opened her menu. “What’s good in this dive?”

“I don’t know. It’s all pretty much classic diner food.”

“Come on, you used to work here back in high school, right? Help me avoid food poisoning.”

“That was years ago. Things change.”

“Nothing changes. Just loses its shine, that’s all.”

“Hmm.” I glared at the Early Bird Special.

“Hot waiter, though.” She snickered.

“Where?”

“Over by the counter. I prefer ‘em clean shaven, as you know, but he’s perfect for you.”

“Right.”

“Aren’t you gonna look?”

“Nope.”

“Sheesh. What crawled up your butt?”

I scowled. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

“Well, either way, you’re in luck.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because he’s coming over here.”

“Fuck,” I spat.

His footsteps thudded on the old oak floors. I angled towards the interior of the booth.

“What’s wrong with you?” Sarah whispered.

“Have you ladies had enough time to look at the men—Callie?”

My heart sprang into my throat. The leather groaned beneath me as I rotated. “Hey, Josh.”

Dear, God, that lopsided grin.

Continue reading “Flash Fiction: Order Up”

My Lover, Poseidon

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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.

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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.

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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…)

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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.

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A Case for Wasting Time: Backstory

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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.

Ah, backstory.

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.


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Minding the Middle: How to Keep Going When There Are No Guarantees

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I’m someone who can’t stand being in the middle.

Whether it’s waiting for the doctor to call or the editor to respond or that guy I like to text me back, I am anxious, impatient, and filled with self-doubt. Constantly questioning, “Am I doing the right thing?” and “Is it going to work out?”

I just want to get to the end, dammit! I just want to know.

Of course, the only way out is through and when you are in the thick of it—which is most of the time—there are only two options: Quit or keep moving.

What the hell made me decide to pursue a writer’s life? A life most famous for its uncertainty, lack of guarantees, and no autopilot option. A writer must always be present. They must always be on.

Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

I try and make a trip to the local Red Cross every few months. Bleeding isn’t the problem. I’m a master bleeder. I can slice my head open and bleed all over the page.

Sometimes, I even bleed in patterns that make me think, “Yeah, this is what it’s all about.” You know that feeling.

I’m not talking about that feeling.

In fact, I’m talking about the exact opposite of that feeling: the stretches of time when you can’t even recall what that feeling feels like, and then you feel like shit.

The thing is, if you spend all of your time chasing the highs, you won’t learn to appreciate the lows. Hell, let’s not even go that far. What about the in-betweens? The middles. Those obligatory words sandwiched between “Once upon a time” and “the end.” When the phrases dripping from your fingers don’t hit the page or the screen in the right order and you find yourself thinking, “If only someone would just pat me on the head and say, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all be worth it.’”

But, of course, there are no guarantees. Not in life or art or love or anything else, for that matter. You don’t have to be an artist or entrepreneur to know that feeling or to have felt the absence of it. Writing just happens to be my thing, but for you, it might be something else. Perhaps it’s caring for children or baking pies or preparing tax returns (no, really). Whatever twists your noodle.

And when the in-betweens seem to stretch on forever, when you have no clue if the light at the end of the tunnel is an opening or a speeding train, you can do one of two things:

You can quit, or, keep moving.

Sometimes it’s okay to quit. There’s no rule that says you absolutely must see this project through. Some pieces are better left on the drawing board or as an incomplete word document in the badlands of your laptop’s hard drive.

The problem with quitting is that it’s really just another kind of limbo.

And it might be the closest thing we have to a guarantee: if you stop dancing, painting, writing, baking, singing, etc.ing, you can rest assured that you’re probably never going to experience that feeling again—at least, not from that particular activity.

For some people, that might be okay. Personally, I’ve come to prefer the agony of the middle to the sad certainty of a premature end.

Learn to love—or, at least, like—limbo. Make friends with the middle. Be grateful for being betwixt. There are no sort cuts and in the space between birth and death, all we have is the meantime. All we have is now.

Now is the time for mistakes and masterpieces but you won’t make either if you’re too busy mourning yesterday or obsessing over tomorrow.

Today, I finished the first draft of the 6th chapter of my novel-in-progress, which doesn’t sound very impressive until I clarify that there are only going to be 8 chapters, plus an epilogue. So far, this almost-book is the longest thing I’ve ever written and I’ve learned so much in the process of writing it that, when I go back and reread the first chapter, I cringe at all of the glaring mistakes (en vs. em dashes, adverbs galore, dialogue tags, etc.). At the same time, that’s how I know I’m heading in the right direction: the later chapters are noticeably better; therefore, I must be doing something right.

If you find yourself stuck in the middle, go back and take another look at where you started. Listen to the very first song you ever recorded; take a look at the initial draft of your business plan; go find a photo of the first wedding cake you baked—you know, the one that resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa covered in fondant. Sometimes it takes a bird’s eye view to give us a clear perspective on how far we’ve come. If your middle is in any way better than your beginning, then you know you’re heading somewhere.

And that somewhere might just be the end.

Keep going.


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