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Reading Like a Writer

When I read as a writer, especially when I read fiction, the process takes on a whole different purpose. I realized this after reading a particularly fabulous short story that completely enthralled me for the course of several thousand words. And when I came back to the real world, I found myself not only analyzing what made the story so amazing, but analyzing how I as a writer read it differently than I would if I weren’t a writer.

 

I don’t think any writer can approach a story without viewing it, at least to some degree, on the level of the writing. As I analyzed my story reading style, I realized two things. First of all, I always think back over the story after the fact and try to figure out what made it work for me or not. That process within itself can’t keep from changing the story. In a way it becomes a story of multiple plots and constructs the writer never intended, but my mind can’t keep from creating. If in my analysis there are lots of changes I would make, things I would have done differently as the author, at some point it becomes my story, the one I’m writing in my head, and no longer the story the author intended.

 

For me, the big clue to how I esteem the story is the point at which I begin to analyze. If I’m analyzing the story as I read it, then it’s clearly not going to get five stars on the K D story critique scale. The sooner I begin my analysis while I’m reading, the fewer stars the story or novel rates from me, until at some point it becomes an exercise in editing and recreating it as my own story rather than reading for pleasure. When that happens, the whole process becomes a different experience than the one the writer intended.

 

If, however, I get totally lost in the story, then my whole internal landscape changes. The writer in me is temporarily replaced by the fascinated little girl who simply loves a good story. When I am pulled in, rough and tumble, to the world the writer has created for me, the story becomes multi-dimensional and experienced twice, sometimes thrice over, sometimes even more. When I’m in the queue at the supermarket, or in bed waiting to fall asleep, when I’m waiting for the bus, I can have the secret pleasure of reliving that story over and over.

 

Being pulled in is the first part of experiencing a great story. The second part, the analysis part, happens after the fact. When the story moves me, excites me, changes me, then my analysis of it is a different process. Because I don’t feel I can improve on it, analysis then becomes taking the story into myself from a write’s point of view. In other words, what is it that makes this story so fantastic, and how can I incorporate some of that fantastic -ness into my own writing?

 

A perfect story, a story that pulls me in and devours me whole is a lingering experience. I’m a firm believer that a good story should somehow change the reader. But a good story should also change the writer. A good story should be like discovering a view from a mountaintop that we didn’t know was there before, a view that changes everything, the waterfall we didn’t see, the storm we never expected, the castle that dominates the landscape. A really great story has the potential to make me a better writer, a better weaver of story, a better seer of nuance, a better wielder of my craft.

 

But a good story should change more than just my views of my writing world. It should touch and stimulate in ways I would not have expected. It should open up the landscapes in my unconscious and my imagination. In some ways, a good story acts as a Muse, and that is the pinnacle of what a writer can glean from a story. I won’t say that doesn’t happen with badly written stories as well, after all the Muse chooses her own time and place. But with a good story, somehow the appearance of the Muse seems more numinous, more dressed for the occasion.

 

For me, the most powerful element of any story is the key relationship and how it expresses itself. That expression is often sexual, and a well-written sex scene carries with it the weight of human emotion. It carries with it the drive to reach that magical point where two become one, where we are as close to being in the skin of ‘the other’ as it is possible
to be. The power of sex and relationship in story can hardly be overstated. Even in mediocre stories, the power of love and relationship can still pull me outside of the editor-me and into the roil of the archetypal story of human need. To me, that means we erotica writers wield one of the most powerful tools in the writing craft; sex in story. Use it poorly and it just sounds stupid and crass. But use it well and it will be the moment in the story that the reader remembers while in the queue at the grocery store, while drifting off to sleep, while waiting for the bus. And it will be remembered with that ache of commonality of all humanity, the driving force within us all. Keeping that in mind, I don’t think it’s any wonder that so many writers fear writing sex.

 

Happy Masturbation Month! In Praise of the One-Handed Read

I’m a bit like a kid at Christmas when May rolls around. Why’s that, you ask. It’s National Masturbation month, that’s Sex toy incentiveMG00625-20140322-1049

why! I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see something as healthy, life-affirming, and down-right fun as masturbation get a little much-needed positive press. So I decided that, as National Masturbation month draws to a close (not that the fun is ending, just the month) that I’d write a few words in praise of the much-maligned one-handed read.

I’ve always felt that just because a writer strives to give the reader a well-rounded literary experience with a story that’s gripping (no pun intended), pacey, thought-provoking and satisfying on some level; just because a writer tries to offer the reader a well-written, stonking good story doesn’t mean that  stonking good story can’t involve a little one-handed pleasure mixed in. Why the hell shouldn’t it?

Doesn’t it seem strange and more than a little sad that some of the world’s best, most celebrated writers find themselves on the not-so-coveted short-list for the Bad Sex Awards? Is there some misguided, unwritten rule that states a story is only ‘worthy’ if it doesn’t make the reader squirm deliciously in her seat, if it doesn’t makes her need to engage one hand in areas far south of the novel in her grip? And where the hell did we get the idea that just that one act, in fact the most crucial act of the human condition, sex, should not be treated with the same weight, or the same tongue-in cheek irreverence or the same heart pounding delight or wonder or horror as any other part of the human condition?

If a writer gets the sex right, I mean gets it really right, then what other response should there be but for our bodies to books_xl_4571699tingle and our hands to stray?

Which leads me to another reason why a one-handed read should be praised and sought after by readers and writers alike. A well-written one-handed read engages the reader on a physical level that no other type of read can. A one-handed read takes the reader a level deeper than the voyeuristic experience that reading tends to be. A one-handed read allows and demands reader participation in solidarity with the characters, and, indeed, with the writer. The story suddenly becomes interactive in a literal sense. And even more than that, the story suddenly becomes a sexy ménage between the reader, the characters and the writer.

Okay, maybe it’s that feeling of exposure; maybe it’s that fear of being caught in the act, so to speak, that frightens writers away from making the sex hot and squirmy. But it’s a lesson straight from the pages of creative writing 101 that the place we most fear, the place we feel the most vulnerable is the place where the most powerful writing happens. Embrace the wank!

Those of us who love to read love a story we can be pulled into. I love a good adrenalin rush, a good heart stopper, a good brain teaser, a good tear jerker, a good happy ending, so why wouldn’t I like a good wank all in the spirit of a sexy story? Why do we think that good writing is negated if our stories make people want to go rub one out?

I’ve been involved in the world of erotica for enough years now to have seen the quality of writing go through the roof, enough years to have been gripped by heart-stopping, tear jerking, brain-teasing stories that STILL have fabulous, seamlessly-written, deliciously sensual one-handed scenes. Why can’t a good book be both a page turner and a one-handed read? We now connect with story on so many more levels than ever before. We read eBooks, we listen to audio books, we curl up with a good old fashion trade paper-back and a glass of wine. But really, was there ever a time when reading a good book wasn’t intended to be a sensual experience, wasn’t meant to make us FEEL things in our body that we wouldn’t otherwise feel, wasn’t meant to scratch an itch that nothing else could quite scratch? So why, oh why, should we exclude that best of, most intimate of — that even better than a nice glass of wine sensual experience of the one-handed read?

Oh no doubt there’ll always be a need for sexy snippets just long enough and hot enough to get the rocks off, and I like
those just fine too. But why should one-handed reads be reserved for just such works? Why shouldn’t the sex scenes in any type of novel or story be well-written enough, steamy enough, raunchy enough to send one hand straying? It seems to me that if a sex scene is well written, then we should at least feel something down in the genital direction. I’m not saying that everything written about sex should be a turn-on, but I am saying it should affect us in some way because sex affects us. It affects us powerfully, uncomfortably, sometimes disturbingly, and it often affects us the most because we don’t want it to and we don’t understand why it does, nor do we understand its power over us. But it most definitely DOES have power over us. It’s supposed to have, so to try to write sex that excludes and banishes the one-handed read seems absurd.america-artist-art-paintings-prints-note-cards-by-howard-chandler-christy-nude-women-reading-approximate-original-size-18x16

Without getting all mystical and goose-pimply and bringing on the sex magic; doing my best to keep it real and genuine, I have to ask; when is there a time that a writer doesn’t want a reader to feel her work, to experience her story as so much more than words on a page? Why should our sexual responses not be fully included in the experience of story? So I’ll say it again: let’s hear it for the one-handed read!

Happy Masturbation Month! I wish you all gripping, touching, deliciously squirmy reading. And writing!

(Parts of this post excerpted from my ERWA post May 2013)

 

The Dear Diary Navel Gaze VS the Novels that Keep Me Up all Night

Writing imageA huge part of being a novelist is analysing everything I read, everything I see, everything I watch on television, on YouTube, at the cinema. I do this to make myself a better writer. I do this because I need to know what works, what doesn’t, and why. Of course, what works and what doesn’t is all filtered through my own grey matter and my own life experiences, so it may not be the same for another writer, and certainly not for another reader. I find myself thinking about this analytical writers’ life most often when something really, really works, or really, really doesn’t. That isn’t to say that what doesn’t work is something I hate. That’s pretty obvious. But more often, for me, I find myself analysing the things that I walk away from feeling pretty much unaffected. If I feel meh about something then I want to know why.

I should never walk away from a good story feeling meh. In fact that’s the litmus test for me. A horrible story offers its own petty pleasures, but meh is forgettable, and forgettable is not acceptable for a novelist or a reader. We all want repeat performances of what we love most and we’re all anxious to be led to the next level beyond intimated by that experience.

Being a romance writer, it’s a given that I want chemistry, that I want love, that I want sizzle and sass. But I could have
written those things in my diary when I was a teenager, and probably would have if I hadn’t been afraid someone would find it where I hid it under my mattress and share it with all the world. Heavens, I had so many deep dark secrets at the ripe old age of sixteen, and I wrote about them … ad nauseum, always with me and my feelings at the center. Me, me, me! In essence I could boil down most of my journals as being one long multi-volume navel gaze. Oh for me it was psyche_et_lamour_327x567endlessly fascinating to explore my inner workings, my inner feelings, my loves and losses and obsessive crushes, the fleeting glances, the anguished longing. But I’m pretty sure it would have been a real yawner for anyone else to read.

What I’ve discovered is that no matter how fascinating my own might be, someone else’ navel gaze is never as interesting to me. And there are plenty of romance novel navel gazes out there to be read. What I want, what I need is conflict and chaos. For romance in story to be more than a navel gaze there needs to be both. Two people dealing with conflict, two people thrown into a situation that demands something of them, that places them at risk or forces them to take a chance moves beyond the realm of the dear-diary-navel-gaze and into the realm of story.

The situation, the conflict, the action is the very best place to see how people respond to each other, the very best place
to watch them grow beyond themselves. It’s through conflict and action we learn who the characters in story really are. The Happy Ending is just that — an ending. Beyond that there may be endless navel gazing by readers, creators of fanfic, even we writers ourselves. But that’s a different animal. When I wrote my first novel, long after I’d written THE END, in my head, I was still creating new and different opportunities for my characters to gaze into each others’ eyes and to have hot sex. These were scenes that no one but me would ever know about. I still find myself doing that sometimes, and I hope that my readers will find themselves doing the same when they’ve finished one of my novels. I hope they’ll want to hang around with the characters long after THE END. But then that’s their navel gaze, their imaginations encountering my characters in ways that work for them. That means I’ve done my job in creating a story the reader doesn’t want to leave when it’s finished. In fiction, THAT’S the proper place for a navel gaze.

But the novels that keep me reading into the wee hours, the stories that I remember, that move me, the stories that I keep returning to in my head are the stories in which the hero and heroine are being acted upon by forces greater than themselves. In fact the very best stories are the stories that have a life of their own, a life which affects all that the characters do and who they become. It’s how the characters deal with conflict, and how that conflict brings them to their HEA that keeps me up all night racing toward the end even as I try to slow down to make it last.

I’m a tender critic, in all honesty. I do my best to find the good in whatever it is I read because my hat’s always off to Sleeping woman reading181340322466666994_IswNAb85_b
anyone who has had the discipline and the tenacity to see their story through to the end and get it out there to be read.
BUT I remember stories and respect stories that pull me in with an action greater and more important than two people being attracted to each other. Life is acted out in context of the people with whom we live in relationship. As writers, our characters may be actors upon a stage, but that stage can never be passive. That stage must also act upon our characters. If it doesn’t, then we’re probably really just writing in our diary or playing around inside our own heads. And that’s fine. Everyone needs a little navel-gazing. But navel-gazing is not story. While there’s a place for both, navel-gazing is not likely to keep me up all night.

 

Sex and the Big Brain

(Archive)

Bernini Hades and Persephone close uptumblr_lg4h59T3z31qe2nvuo1_500I had a sex blogger ask me once how I could possibly write about things I hadn’t experienced. My answer at the time, though accurate, was a bit flippant I suppose. I said that it’s fiction. It’s no more difficult for me to write about sex that I’ve not experienced than it is for Thomas Harris to write about serial killers when he certainly isn’t one.

I think I can write about sex I’ve never experienced, would never even want to experience in the real world because I have a big brain. Oh, not my brain in particular. All humans have ‘em, and we use them in sex even when we’re not having sex. The thing about having a big brain is that it adds a new dimension to a biological act. In the hormonal, pheromonal soup that drives us to fuck, we get the added pleasure of making it up as we go along. In our heads — anyway we like it. And this, we can do completely and totally without the help of anyone else.

Which leads me to wonder how much of fiction writing – any genre of fiction writing – is really our big brain masturbating – first for our own pleasure, and if we get lucky and our work gets published, then we get to be exhibitionists and do it for an audience. Is that yet another layer of our sexuality? There’ve been countless of books and essays written on the connection between sexuality and creativity, and I’ve experienced it myself. When it’s right, when I’m in the zone, the rush, the high, the incredible buzz of getting characters and plot to move together in just the right tango of conflict and passion and drive, the experience from a writer’s point of view is extremely sexual, and yet somehow better than sex. It’s sex on steroids, it’s free-falling, it’s roller coaster riding, it’s fast cars, mountain tops and touching the tiger all rolled into one. And it all happens in some nebulous part of our brains that only a neurosurgeon might be able to pin-point for us. And who cares? Who cares as long as it gets us there!

Those moments don’t happen often, but it doesn’t matter. They happen often enough to push us forward, to keep us going and writing and longing and digging deep for the next wild brain-gasm. I just came off of one of those experiences while racing to finish the draft of The Exhibition. It was a
late-night write, a dark, dangerous sex scene in which the characters staged a coup and completely took control of the action. I came away staggering, looking down at my hands, wondering how the hell I wrote that. I was too hyped to sleep, too creeped out to think about who might be america-artist-art-paintings-prints-note-cards-by-howard-chandler-christy-nude-women-reading-approximate-original-size-18x16waiting for me in my dreams after what I’d just written. And yet … And yet I felt stretched, expanded, like for a second I’d seen sex at the core where the dark and light meet and swallow each other up. And what’s left is a wild, crazy pull to translate what just happened into some kind of written account that will convey that feeling, that sense of being beyond myself, yet deeper into the dark recess of myself than I felt really comfortable going. And as any writer would, longing to drag my reader right in there with me, into the dark, into the fire.

It was a long time before I could sleep. It was a long time before I felt quite like myself again. And that’s what got me thinking about my big brain,
which at times, seems so much bigger than just the space in my head. And I guess maybe I do have to experience something in order to write about it. But the big brain creates that experience in the privacy of my own head. That being the case, how could I not keep going back for more? How could I not want desperately to write what my big brain allows me to experience? How could I not want to bring it out and flaunt it for the reader’s full participation?

 

Voyeur or Body Thief

(From the Archives)
One of the most intriguing parts of story for me has always been the way in which the reader interacts with it, more specifically the way in which http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-abstract-black-white-writing-pen-image20156020the reader interacts with the characters in a story. I find that interaction especially intriguing in erotica and erotic romance.

To me, the power of story is that it’s many faceted and it’s never static. And, no matter how old the story is, it’s never finished as long as there’s someone new to read it and to bring their experience into it. Like most writers of fiction, I’m forever trying to analyse how a powerful story is internalised, and why what moves one reader deeply, what can be a life-changing experience for one may be nothing more exciting than window shopping for another.

In my own experience as a reader, there are two extremes. I can approach a story as a voyeur, on the outside looking in from a safe distance, or I can be a body thief at the other end of the spectrum and replace the main character in the story with myself.

One extreme allows the reader to watch without engaging and the other allows the reader to create sort of a sing-along-Sound of Music- ish experience for themselves. As a reader, I’ve done both and had decent experiences of novels doing both. As a writer, however, I don’t wish to create a story that allows my reader to be a voyeur of a body thief.

As a writer I want to create a story that’s a full-on, in-the-body, stay-present experience from beginning to end. I want characters that readers can identify with and are drawn to but don’t necessarily want to be. I want a plot that feels more like abseiling with a questionable rope than watching the world go by from the window of a car. I want to create that tight-rope walk in the middle. I want to create that place in story where the imagination of the reader is fully engaged with the story the writer created. That place is the place where the story is a different experience for each reader. That’s the place where the story is a living thing that matters more than the words of which it’s made up. It matters more because the reader has connected with it, engaged with it, been changed by it. In that place, the story and the reader are in relationship. Neither can embody the other, neither can watch from a distance. The end result may be a HEA, the end result may be disturbing and unsettling, but at the end of a really good read, the journey to get there is at least as important as the end result.

Erotica and erotic romance are by their nature a visceral experience. Though I think that’s probably true of any good story. I don’t think good
erotica can be watched from a distance any more than it can be the tale of the body thief. While either will get you there, there’s no guarantee that the journey will be a quality one. And I want a quality journey. I want to come to the end wishing I hadn’t gotten there so quickly, wishing I’d had the will power to slow down and savour the experience just a little longer. I want to come to the end wondering just what layers, what subtleties, what nuances I missed because I got caught up in the runaway train ride and couldn’t quite take it all in.

A good read is the gift that keeps on giving. Long after I’ve finished the story, the experience lingers, and little tidbits that I raced through during Sleeping woman reading181340322466666994_IswNAb85_bthe read bubble up from my unconscious to surprise me, intrigue me, make me think about the story on still other levels, from still other angles. When I can’t get it out of my head, when I find myself, long after I’ve come to the end, thinking about the journey, thinking about the characters, thinking about the plot twists and turns, then I know the story has gotten inside me and burrowed deep. There was no pane of glass in between; there was no body for me to inhabit because all bodies were fully occupied by characters with their own minds and their own agendas. The experience extends itself to something that stays with me long after the read is finished and makes me try all the harder to create that multi-layered experience in my own writing.

 
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The Romance Reviews

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