Monday, August 29, 2005

How the Erotic Readers and Writers Association Storytime list helps me to write

Those of us who continue to write, despite the time it takes away from other people and other things, mostly do so because not to write deprives us of something we need. It lessens who we are and diminishes our ability to become who we desire to be.

But writing can be a lonely thing. When what you write is not read, when the only interpretation of the text available to you is your own, writing can fold in on itself. Your voice becomes distorted by its own echo.

One of the persistent sources of happiness in my life is the Erotic Readers and Writers Association Storytime List. This list has been nurtured by Adrienne and her trusty staff at ERWA to become a place where a writer can be listened to, where they can learn and where they can share some of the strange in-the-closet aspects of writing.

Stories are posted to the list between Thursday and Saturday each week. Readers provide feedback on the stories throughout the week. Once a month there is a theme, posted well in advance, to help writers focus on a topic. The theme is meant to be useful practice for answer calls for submissions but I enjoy it most for the diversity of content and style that it delivers each month.

There are very few rules on the how feedback should be given on storytime. There are no quotas (to post a story you must feedback on at least x other stories first), no required format. You feedback on what you want to how you want to. It is typical of the style of ERWA that excellent guidelines are provided on how to criticise a story but only basic manners are required to participate.

Some feedback is a line or two. Some is very extensive. Some focuses on the craft of writing. Some talks about how the reader experienced the story. Some just encourages you to continue.

I owe a great debt to the feedback I’ve had from ERWA readers (not all of whom choose to be writers). In the end of course, the responsibility for the story stays with the writer. Writing is a about making choices. The feedback that I get from ERWA allows me to make informed choices, aware of how what I’d written has been read/experienced and coached on how to improve the craftwork.

One of the added bonuses of ERWA storytime is that some stories are selected each month to go on the ERWA website. I’m always please when one of mine makes it.

In September, I’m fortunate enough to have two stories on ERWA: “Burger Queen” which I mentioned in an earlier blog, and “Better than a cup of tea” which is a humorous but realistic look at one woman’s experience of sex toys.

If you are one of those addicted to putting words on paper, and you want to hear more than the sound of your own mind, I heartily recommend the ERWA storytime list to you.

If you are a reader who goes – oh, that was so good but I just wish the writer had… then what could be more rewarding than getting the chance to tell the writer that while the ink is still wet and his or her mind is still open.

If you are interested in becoming a member of the ERWA list, go here:

Thursday, August 11, 2005

On how long it takes to get into print and the circuitous routes for getting there

With the universe’s typically skewed sense of timing, at the very point when my work life is at the most precarious and stressful that it’s been in years, getting work published seems to be getting easier.

I explained on my last post that my first anthology of short stories, “Writing Naked”, went into print this week. I’ve also heard that I’ve had stories taken up for two other anthologies: “Santa Claws” a comic Christmas fantasy is in Susannah Indigo’s “Sex and Laughter”, coming out this month; and “I want to watch you do it”, another comedy piece for Maxim Jakubowski’s “Best New Erotica 5” coming out in January 2006.

It shows what a long term process getting a story published is. I wrote “Santa Claws” in 2002 as a fun piece for an ERWA Theme weekend. It was later used in a slightly modified form on Clean Sheets in 2003. It didn’t seem a likely anthology candidate to me: it’s about a devil (he wanted to be Satan’s Claws but there was a mistake on the paperwork and now he wears a Santa suit) sent to summon a (slightly overweight but carrying it well) super-heroin to Hell on Christmas Eve. But then Susannah Indigo manages to pitch a collection on “Sex and Laughter” (who can resist that combination?) and suddenly this story is mainstream.

“I want to watch you do it” is another example of story that was a long time coming. The humour in this story comes from the trouble that follows when a guy is told by his girl-friend that she wants to watch him masturbate. The original version was written in early 2004 and was much shorter – when the humour stopped, so did the story. I submitted it to Clean Sheets and encountered one of those editorial reactions that keeps me going back to Clean Sheets time after time: Bill Noble came back to me and said something like: “The opening to this is really funny. Wonderful. But then it just sort of collapses. How’s about you re-write it with a better ending?” This could have been my cue to through a tantrum and take the story elsewhere but I re-read it with Bill’s comments in mind and I decided he was right. On re-reading it was clear that I’d sort of run out of energy once the humour in the situation was explored. But the characters still had more to offer. They loved each other in a complicated kind of way and I wanted to know what would happen next. So I extended the piece, Bill accepted it and it went on to Clean Sheets in the middle of 2004. Susannah then chose it as the opening story for “Writing Naked”. By the time it makes it into “Best New Erotica” it will be nearly two years old.

I learnt from “Santa Claws” that sometimes you just have to find the right anthology for a story to fit in. I’m hoping to do this with the upcoming “Aqua Erotica 2” which has pushing the boundaries as its theme. I liked the style of the first “Aqua Erotica” could resist a waterproof erotica book that you can read in the bath – and I’d like to have a place in the sequel. I’ve sent some of my favourite (though not necessarily easiest) stories through for consideration. I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, August 08, 2005

My first book of short stories is published this month

I said in an earlier post that I was moving towards becoming a Writer, with a capital W, and this month I sort of get my membership card: my first book is being published. It’s called “Writing Naked” and it’s available from Amazon at either of these links:

I thought I’d use this blog to work out what this means for me.

Well, the first thing it means it that I can now go to Amazon and see a book with my name on it being advertised. That brings a smile to my face. I’ve had my nose pressed up against the bookstore window for so long that it feels strange to find myself on the inside.

Of course, I’ve been in print before as part of an anthology and that is a wonderful feeling. I remember being stuck in the US on business just after “Deserving Ruth” was published in “Best New Erotica” and passing the time by browsing Barnes and Noble (I love how late book stores stay open in the US) and they had the book. I stood there holding it and realising that anyone could come in and buy it. I had no control over my story any more. It had a life of its own.

The other thing I realised was that I wasn’t going to tell anyone. Normally, being published is the kind of thing that you put on your CV/Resume, even if it’s only to show what a well-rounded chap you are, but saying “by the way, did you know I write erotica in my spare time?” doesn’t play well in the business world. In my case, it doesn’t play well at home either. My wife hates that I write erotica. She would be happy with me writing just about anything else but not this. If the erotica I write is too speculative then she sees it as a grubby attempt to get strangers off. If the erotica is too truthful, she sees it as too intimate to be shared with outsiders. True, none of my erotica is autobiographical but there is always a link between life and fiction, even if it’s only the things that the writer chooses to pay attention to.

So I won’t be going to book-signings any time soon and you won’t find my photograph on the back of the book – although that is no great loss. There’s joke that sums up this situation – skip the next paragraph if jokes bore you.

Rabbi Levi is a golf addict so when an opportunity comes to take a round of golf on his own on a course he’s always wanted to play, he takes it, even though it means playing on the Sabbath. He plays an extraordinary game, finishing the round with three consecutive hole-in-one shots. This is little short of miraculous and raises a problem of faith for the rabbi. Rabbi Levi falls to his knees, looks up at the sky and says, “Oh Lord, why, when I break your law and play golf on the Sabbath, do you reward me with such a magnificent score?” The sky darkens and a deep, God-like voice says, “So who ya gonna tell?”

But, jokes apart, I’m excited about having a book of my stories published. The fact that all of the stories are mine makes the choice of book by the reader much more personal. I mean, if someone buys “Sacred Exchange” or “Porn to Poetry” I have no means of knowing if they even read my story, but if they buy “Writing Naked”, then it’s because they want to read what I’ve written. And when they’ve finished reading it, they will have view, not just of the stories but of me.

I remember when I found Barbara Kingsolver’s first book of short stories “The Bean Trees”: I enjoyed each tale but what I enjoyed most was the idea that I’d found a new author who’s perspective on life and who’s use of language excited and refreshed me. In my most honest moments, that’s how I want people to feel when they finish reading “Writing Naked”. It’s a big ask, as my Australian colleagues say, but it’s one that gives me something to aim for.

Of course, with a book of short stories, it isn’t true to say that the book is all mine. I’ve discovered that the editor plays a crucial role here.

When Susannah first asked me if I’d like to put a collection of short stories together I was at a loss to know which ones to choose, so I sent her everything. I’d been writing for years by then and “everything” was a lot. Susannah had the distance and the skill to sort through them and find the best. Not just the best individual stories but the stories that would work best as a collection. She also gave me feedback on where a story might benefit from a re-write, and, as new stories came along, she changed the line-up to incorporate them.

By the time that I got the unproofed galleys to look at, the book had taken on a life of its own. Susannah had managed to sequence the stories so that the reader is constantly finding something new. She’d also turned a thin suggestion from me into a distinctive cover graphic.

So now the book is there. Too late to change anything. It is what it is and we’ll see what people think of it.

So what did I learn from this process?

Getting a book of short stories together takes a long time and you need support and commitment from a good editor.

You need a largish body of work to choose from and you need enough variety in what and how you write that when you pull the stories together they don’t all feel the same.

That it is tremendously helpful to spend the time going back over all the stories you’ve written so that you can see what works and what doesn’t and what underlies what you’ve written in terms of theme, imagery, language, characterisation and plot.

One outcome of the re-read for me was to question whether I’m writing erotica at all. In “Writing Naked” all of the stories have sex in them, usually multiple sex scenes that are, I’m told, hot to read. And yet, when I re-read the stories, what I felt best about was that these stories will make people laugh and cry. I think they will also put them in touch their own sexual experiences and fantasies. But they are not the best material for reading with one hand.

Which gets us into questions about the nature of genre writing. But they will have to wait for another day.

Thanks for listening.