“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.”
— Raymond Chandler
“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.”
— Raymond Chandler
Here are some examples of how I revise, taken from The Moonlight Mistress.
Men stood and read the papers under streetlights and in the street itself, blocking wagons whose drivers cursed. Some men cheered, and some shouted angrily. Singing and pipe smoke billowed from the open door of a beer garden; rats skittered in the garbage in the alley next door.
Men stood and read the papers under streetlights and in the street itself, arguing vociferously, blocking wagons whose drivers cursed. Singing and pipe smoke, drunken cheers and angry shouts billowed from the open door of a beer garden.
[Rats seemed out of place; she wouldn’t be peering that closely into the alley, given how she feels. Folded a boring sentence into other sentences, created some parallel structure.]
“Run!” he said, so she grabbed her bag and did so, hearing the sounds of a scuffle behind her through the pounding in her ears.
“Run!” he said, so she grabbed her bag, her heart pounding, hearing the scuffling behind her.
[Cut dependent clauses; still a bit confusing, but better]
Original:”There aren’t so many places that will hire a woman as a chemist,” Lucilla said, sharply. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed.”
“There aren’t so many places that will hire a woman chemist,” Lucilla said, sharply. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed, France being full of them. Or no, I’m sorry–those women are cooks, aren’t they?”
[added more anger, to more realistically provoke other person to shut up]
It’s my first published novel, and though there are no paranormal elements, it’s set in a fantasy world. More accurately, it’s a land of Fantasy, of sexual fantasy. I thought the story would be best served by creating an alternate world, just enough different from our own world to free the reader’s imagination but enough the same so that she doesn’t have trouble navigating the story. Also, it was just plain fun to integrate real historical details with ones I made up completely, or borrowed from different time periods. It was even more fun to worldbuild in ways that would deepen the story’s meaning.
On the surface, the world of The Duchess looks a bit like eighteenth century Europe. I altered the clothing as I saw fit, and tied in elements of nineteenth century European clothing as well. The details of décor are hodgepodge–I used elements of Medieval and Renaissance and Beaux Arts and Art Nouveau and even some Art Deco styles. However, I chose those styles based on thematic elements of the story. For example, to emphasize that the duchess is trapped in her role and in her palace, I chose to have her avoid her reflection in a “full-length oval mirror, its wide frame like a tangle of golden brambles,” which could symbolize a barrier. Later, in her audience chamber, “the walls were hung with tapestries in lush twining, leaflike patterns of blue and gold,” again giving the impression of her being tangled, trapped. Finally, the motif appears more explicitly in the corridor approaching her private quarters: “gold sconces shaped asunearthly smooth disembodied feminine hands, braceleted in cruel red stones,” a more direct presentation of restraint. These types of décor come from three different time periods, but they’re all linked because they serve the same theme.
All the characters born in the duchy or nearby have French names; I kept that consistent to give the sense of a coherent society with a common language. The two eunuch characters and one other character, who’s genetically related to one of them, have names that originated in Eastern Europe. Hopefully, that fact subtly informs the reader that those characters come from elsewhere, or from an ethnic minority within the duchy. Eventually, I layer in that the eunuchs come from families who were politically at odds with the Duke, which reinforces the difference in their names. When the characters reach the coastal protectorate, a land whose economy is based on worldwide trade by sea, suddenly the names and appearances of people become much more varied: “She saw more dark-skinned people than pale, some so dark they appeared almost like shadows in the bright sunlight, others of various skin shades from olive to brown, and a few paler than Camille, theirskins freckled and tinged red by the sun. They wore an array of styles, from pants and boots to long, billowing robes with sandals to a group in billowing trousers and short collarless coats with high-heeled wooden sandals that rattled on the cobblestones. Some looked completely foreign except for their clothing and manners, and some groups were mixed beyond her determining their origin.” Names include Skeat, Kamah, and Captain Leung. To show a character who lives in one duchy but came from another, I gave a brothel keeper a combination name: Karl Fouet (“Fouet” is French for “whip,” implying that it’s a pseudonym). In addition, Karl has a tattoo of an octopus. Later, octopuses are a major decorative element in the coastal protectorate, implying that he was born there or lived there at one time.
I built into the novel a sense of the romance genre’s history, though of course with an erotic twist. I love Georgette Heyer’s novels, so from her came the idea to have Sylvie, the maid, spend most of the novel disguised as a boy. While the duchess is in hiding, rumors abound, and I drew on my knowledge of romance novel plots to create those rumors: “The Duchess had gone mad from her barren state, fled the palace, and tried to amass an army of peasants to overthrow her husband and rip him to bits…the Duke had repudiated her and their marriage, declaring her insanity the same as death. He was now negotiating with a neighboring duke for his fourteen year old daughter, or for a princess of a tiny mountain kingdom who possessed an army of eunuchs and bare-chested women warriors, or planned to elevate a lowly concubine to be his consort. Or was it two concubines?”
Finally, I had quite a lot of fun creating variations on erotica tropes. The scene in which the duchess is pleasured by her two eunuch guards is original only in that the two men are physically castrated, and thus doubly subservient to her pleasure. A bondage scene is given a new implication when the subservientcharacter points out that he doesn’t need to play at being subservient, as that’s his role in real life; the dominant character must recast her demands. Other scenes are given a different angle through point of view. For example, the duchess is disturbed by watching her eunuch consensually flog the brothel keeper, despite clear evidence that it’s an enjoyable experience for both. In the scene between the duchess and her maid, Sylvie, the duchess is new to sex with a woman: “Something intangible was missing, like a scent or a vibration in the air. Or–not missing, but nearly so. Camille concentrated on the specific shape of Sylvie’s mouth,on her taste, on her petal-soft skin. After a few minutes, she was able to settle into enjoyment of the subtler pleasures of a woman’s kiss.”
I might have gone a bit overboard with the details, I admit. But I started out writing science fiction and fantasy; I can’t imagine writing without worldbuilding!My second novel for Harlequin Spice, due out December 2009, is set in 1914 Europe, at the very beginning ofWorld War One. I also included paranormal and pulp fiction elements. I hope readers find it interesting!
This post originated as a guest post at Deadly Vixens.
“Sunday Kind of Love,” Etta James
“Whatta Man,” Salt-N-Pepa with En Vogue
“Dance Me to the End of Love,” Madeleine Peyroux
“The Queen of Argyll,” Silly Wizard
“Trouble,” Alannah Myles
“Lover’s Cross,” Jim Croce
“No Ordinary Love,” Deftones (Sade cover)
“Love’s Divine,” Seal
“Baby, I Love You,” Aretha Franklin
“Love Lockdown,” Kanye West
“Train Song,” Eliza Carthy (DNA remix)
“Alla That’s All Right, But,” Sweet Honey in the Rock
“Ghost,” Indigo Girls
“Not Fair,” Lily Allen
“Layla,” Derek and the Dominos
“Jolene,” Dolly Parton
“Did We Not Choose Each Other,” Sophie B. Hawkins
“Fire At Midnight,” Jethro Tull
“Have a Little Faith in Me,” John Hiatt
Anyone can write smut. Whether they can write good smut is another thing entirely. There is no right answer to, “What makes good smut?” But I have opinions on what makes good smut. Several opinions.
1. It’s never just sex.
A story that only describes a sexual act is not a story.
It may be porn, which is fine, but it’s not a story. (Please note, I’m not referring to the fanfictional phenomenon known as the PWP, Plot, What Plot? or Porn Without Plot, because sometimes, because of the shared knowledge of the readers about the characters, there often is something going on besides sex.)
There needs to be a reason these two (or more, or fewer) characters are having sex. That reason does not need to be stated explicitly. The characters want something; if they only seem to want pleasure, then why now? With this person or persons in particular?
I always ask myself that at some point in either thinking up or when actually writing or editing erotica. Why? It’s best if the character has more than one reason. Again, you may know what those reasons are, but they don’t have to be in the story. The character might not even know what those reasons are. But they should be behind why, and also how the sex is taking place.
I’m saying, circuitously, that I think erotica stories need to have theme. Theme growing out of character, not plot. Because the plot in an erotica story is already set, in the most basic sense: characters meet or have met; they have sex; it goes well or badly; they will be together again or they won’t. It’s elements other than plot that make an erotica story good.
2. Smut is not a diagram.
An erotica story does not need to describe every single gesture in the entire act of sex. The story is not an engineering manual, nor an instructional one. I’ve read far too many stories that don’t leave out a single thrust or minuscule shift in position, and they usually don’t vary their tone throughout.
The sex scene has pacing and plot just like any other aspect of story. It progresses, usually to a “happy ending,” but not necessarily. It should ebb and flow and follow the feelings of the character; in a short story, it’s usually best to follow only one character, from the inside, so the reader experiences the story more directly. The slowing and speeding up can be linked to what the characters want, and why, and when, and how. It should all come together [heh] into one glorious whole, and leave the reader with a sense that she knows these people.
3. Let’s talk about length.
My speculative erotic stories are, mostly, short. Why? Because I don’t think they need to be longer. This is partly an artifact of my market, which is usually mainstream. Someone reading mainstream erotica doesn’t want to see too much worldbuilding, or at least the editor who’s paying for the erotica usually doesn’t. They want an intense sex scene, so that’s what I try to give them.
The trick in being short and intense, I believe, lies only partly in the strength of the prose style. Characterization is key.
I can hear the questions now from my imaginary audience–how do you establish a character in 2000 words and write a sex scene that is different enough to grab an editor and, later, a reader, oh, and also have plot?
In short erotica, I feel the plot is mostly a given. 1) The characters meet and exchange pleasantries (if they already know each other, we learn why they’re together now); 2) the characters fuck, with or without conflict beforehand (that’s Plot conflict, not necessarily personal conflict); and 3) the characters Climax. (Yeah, yeah, it’s funny to say “climax” with two meanings…I know, I know, get over it….) Optional ending 1) afterglow; 2) potential for future sex.
So, on to characterization. I think, for this sort of story, characterization reduces to want versus need. If you know what the character truly needs, and what they only think they need, you’ve got automatic plot, because usually there’s conflict between what a person wants and what they’re actually going to get. Just knowing that one fact (well, maybe it’s two facts) can be most of the plot, especially if you’re sticking to a single point of view. And in a story of 2000 words, it’s generally wise to stick to a single point of view.
The second character (and third, if you’re ambitious) can then be created simply as opposition to the first. His or her dialogue and action are there to thwart the pov character and, since this is erotica, eventually resolve into collaboration/compromise, resulting in Climax.
Simple example: POV character Joe is lonely, but afraid to sleep with Mary. So he needs sex, but doesn’t want it. Which leads me to ask why? Mary is really experienced, and Joe isn’t. Mary’s opposition could be that she both wants and needs sex with Joe. Why? Because she’s been in love with him for ten years, but thought he didn’t want her, but now can’t wait any longer and wants to push him one last time in the hope of achieving a lasting relationship.
I now have a starting point for the story. I only need details that link into and further that conflict. I don’t need to say that Mary likes to wear New Balance running shoes; I can use that word count to have her grab Joe in desperation and then tenderly brush his lips with hers, when he was expecting her to stick her tongue down his throat. Makes sense?
I always think I’ve really quantified techniques when I write them down like this, but in reality I’m not so mechanical. A lot of this activity takes place subconsciously for me, and the development of plot and characterization and the substance of the sex scene are intertwined tightly as a ball of twine. Your mileage may vary.
Preliminary Thoughts on Two Types of Erotic Novels.
Be Different. Be. Different.
I was talking about experimentation and difference in the last post. I think my attention to difference is one of the reasons I manage to sell stories consistently.
Erotica stories, by their nature, are somewhat the same. The gender or sexuality of the participants, and the sexual acts involved, are barely an issue in the structure. I will break this basic structure down into an outline. Your mileage may vary.
Basic Structure of an Erotic Story
1. Introduction of the characters to the reader.Are they an established couple? Have they known each other for a while, and this story shows a change in their relationship? Are they meeting for the first time?
2. Establishment of conflict.Some stories skip this part; I call those “porn.” This is, essentially, the plot’s fuel. What does one character want, and how will he or she obtain it? Will it be obtained? What obstacle is in the way of either consummation of the relationship or pleasant consummation of the relationship? Etcetera.
3. Actual sex scene, which mirrors classic plot structure: rising action, climax, denouement. Frequently, the denouement includes the possibility of the relationship continuing into the future.
Therefore, because the structure is very similar across the board, the differences–the more salable differences, that is–are other than plot.
Characterization is my favorite. Write about people with problems. They’re more interesting, and more memorable.
The other choice, especially applicable to genre writers, is setting. Two people meet in a bar is a common plotline, but if the bar is in, say, a spaceship, or in Napoleonic France, it’s automatically standing out from the crowd. This technique can be especially useful when submitting to themed anthologies, because standing out is more difficult when not only plot structures but themes are already set.
Working on Difference
The writing process starts with an idea…well, if you want to be philosophical, the process really starts with the desire to write…or perhaps the writer’s birth. Or conception. But anyway. My ideas sometimes come out of my head, randomly, the desire to write about a particular action in an interesting way, or a particular sort of character, or a particular setting. More often, the desire to write and thus the idea are sparked by a call for submissions. When I said I sold most of what I wrote, part of the reason is that I am often writing to a specific market, which helps improve my chances. Taking that initial idea and identifying the approach that will make it different from most of the other submissions, or at least more appealing to the editor, is the harder part.
Setting is one thing, as I mentioned before. So far, I have written and sold stories set in a spaceship in the middle of a war; a futuristic prison planet inhabited by giant people-eating turtles; an aid station in World War One; a fairy tale land with sea monster; and a pseudo-historical version of France.
Whenever I see an opportunity to write a genre story, I take it. I could write a story about a girl on vacation, or I could write it about a girl on vacation In Space. Easy decision. If I happen to be doing research for a bigger project, as I am with WWI, why not use that research for a short erotica piece? In fact, why not use it more than once?
As for characters, I like to vary them in their basics as well as in their more esoteric qualities. “Twisted Beauty” features a man with paralyzed legs; “Worship” an older couple, one of whom is becoming crippled with arthritis. The story can be more intensely involving if the characters have something specific to overcome. It needn’t even be the obvious. In “Worship,” declining physical condition was part of the problem, but the protagonist’s own doubts were even more so. Trusting her partner, and herself, was the solution. In “Twisted Beauty,” the protagonist’s paralysis wasn’t the issue for him as much as continuing with his sex life as it had been before, finding someone who would see him not as a cripple but as a man, who, incidentally, enjoyed a little domination.
I’m Too Sexy for This Story
Another way to make stories stand out from the slush is style. The problem is identifying which style will work in a given story and for a given editor; there’s no absolute method of quantifying style factors. I can talk about style, though, as a method of making stories different.
In “Worship,” for example, I was trying to indicate the character’s distance from her own crippled body and from her own life. I think the presentation of the story was at least or even more important than the events of the story.
I’ve tried first person several times. “Free Falling” was the first. Since I wanted a lighthearted, breezy story, that’s the voice I used. Also, the narrator could use sfnal slang to aid in the worldbuilding. In “Poppies Are Not the Only Flower,” first person enabled me to mimic early twentieth century formality, integral to the story’s setting during World War One.
“17 Short Films About Hades and Persephone” is laid out in small sections partly because of the disparate nature of the myths about Hades and Persephone. There’s not much continuity involved in the original sources, so writing an uninterrupted narrative would’ve been difficult and involved transitions that I didn’t really think were necessary. Some of the sections are only a couple of sentences long, adding rhythm to the narrative and serving as summaries of intervening time, for instance showing that things hadn’t changed in the relationship, or briefly recounting a failed attempt at change for humorous effect.
Right now, I’ve had to put short stories aside while working on novels for Harlequin Spice, but in the meantime, I’ve continued marketing my unsold short stories as well as reprints. I hope to write more short stories in the future. In the meantime, keep your eyes out for The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover and Moonlight Mistress by Victoria Janssen.
Related posts: Pithy Writing Advice.
How did it begin, that I became a writer of erotica?
I sent my first story, “Water Music,” off to an anthology edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj called Aqua Erotica. Alas, it did not sell. Later, when I saw the anthology, I realized why; my story was considerably smuttier and less literary than what was chosen.
So, first rejection in hand, I went to Cecilia Tan (whom I knew already through a friend who’d sold to her) and asked her where I should send it. Cecilia suggested Best Lesbian Erotica, edited by Tristan Taormino. I can’t remember when I mailed the submission, but it was probably the winter of 1999. On June 30, 2000, I received this email, which astonished me:
TO: Elspeth Potter
FROM: Tristan Taormino
RE: Water Music
Thank you so much for your wonderful submission to BEST LESBIAN EROTICA 2001. I AM EXTREMELY PLEASED TO TELL YOU THAT YOU ARE A FINALIST IN THE SELECTION PROCESS…So, what does this mean? It means that you have made the final cut; approximately 50% of the pieces from this group will end up in the book.
Then, on September 11, 2000:
CONGRATULATIONS!! You’ve been selected as a contributor to BEST LESBIAN EROTICA 2001.
Next, I got serious.
Having sold one story, I was afire to sell more. Also, since at that point I already knew writers and editors, I wanted to sell more stories as efficiently as possible. So I researched, using several methods.
1. Asked people. First Cecilia Tan, as I said, and also various editors I knew through friends and from science fiction conventions.
2. Read calls for submissions. The one I use now is erotica-readers.com, but it took a while to find it and decide that was my favorite over some other sources. Reading calls for submissions is more educational than it sounds. You get a picture of how the market might be shaped in the future as well as familiarity with ongoing series of anthologies and prolific editors, plus the more basic knowledge of what kind of story is in demand and what kind isn’t.
3. Read current anthologies. I can no longer remember how many anthologies I read, some in their entirety and some skimmed. I learned this way what had actually sold, and tried to figure out why, and compared what one editor had bought to what another editor might have chosen. I didn’t come to systematic conclusions in a formal list, but I formed valuable impressions. Then I got tired of reading erotica. Today, when I receive a contributor copy, I rarely read the whole thing. Sometimes, I read none of it, though I usually glance at my own story to make sure no glaring typos snuck in.
4. Made [more] contacts. Finally, I learned about the market by submitting, and editors could learn about me the same way, or at least become familiar with my pseudonym. Whenever there was a reading for an anthology I was in, and it was affordable to get there, I went, and met other writers and editors. I met Sacchi Green this way, at a Best Lesbian Erotica reading in New York. Years later, contacts like this began to pay off as editors to whom I’d sold something, or whom I’d met at a reading for an anthology, sent me private calls for submissions, or asked for reprints of my stories. Not that I knew at the time that this would happen. I just wanted to meet other writers.
So, while acquiring all this knowledge, I worked on more stories and tried to apply what I’d learned.
Applying the Research
Now I knew I could sell, and I had a good idea of what markets were out there and what they bought. I decided that I wouldn’t try to sell to every available market; writing doesn’t support my basic needs, it’s something for the soul. So if what I wrote wasn’t fun and challenging, what would be the point?
A call for submissions for something called Tough Girls attracted me. It paid the same as the anthology to which I’d already sold, and I quickly saw that, with a theme, a different kind of story like sf would be more likely to sell, so the editor could avoid repetition. (At the time, I didn’t know that the editor, Lori Selke, liked sf; I didn’t find that out until long after.) Thinking of tough women, I immediately decided I would write about a soldier. In Space! I love space opera.
I had a plot, and I finished a draft, but the story just wasn’t right. It felt flat to me, unconvincing. My third person limited narrative voice didn’t have the toughness and coldness I felt it needed, and I didn’t know how to make it happen; my own personal voice is nothing like that. I needed distance. For once, inspiration struck. I didn’t trust it at first, but it persisted. Make it second person present, my mind insisted. It’ll work. At least, I finally decided, I would be able to say I’d tried second person present!
So I started rewriting, a few pages on in the same notebook. And it did work. I immediately noticed how much wordage I was able to leave out, how sharp and punchy the prose became. I was more distant, in a way, so I could write the character more as I meant her to be, hard and a bit isolated from other humans. What a rush! I titled it “Camera,” thinking of the point of view, and the weird voyeuristic feel it gave. I typed it, edited on paper, edited again, and mailed it off, both to Tough Girls and to the next Best Lesbian Erotica, which accepted reprints.
Both bought “Camera,” and since then it’s been reprinted more than once. I’m still very proud of that story. I was so happy with it then that I decided experimentation and difference would be my approach to writing erotica from then on.