July 23rd, 2010 | 2 Comments »

sign from a Turkish bazaar

I chose Sharazade as a pen name for several reasons: I like the way it looks, and I like the way it sounds. I travel a bit in that area of the world and the name reminds me of that. Principally, though, I chose it for its associations.

Sharazade, perhaps more familiar to Western readers as Scheherezade (the spelling Rimsky-Korsakov chose for his suite), is the princess of 1001 Nights (again, more familiar to some perhaps as the Arabian Nights), a collection of stories from the Middle East and South Asia, told as separate tales framed by the story of Sharazade.

The story goes (and here I refer to the Richard Burton translation; he spells her name as Shahrazad) that the Persian king Shahryar had been betrayed by his first wife. Convinced that women could not be faithful, he resolved to marry only a virgin; spend one night with her; and then behead her. The next day he would select a new virgin, and continue the practice.

He had gone through some 3,000 virgins already at the time Shahrazad’s father related the practice to her. She is horrified, and asks, “O my father, how long shall this slaughter of women endure?” She persuades her father to give her in marriage to the king, saying that either she will live, or she will at least serve as a sacrifice to spare another woman’s life.

That first Shar, now, she had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of by-gone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.

Shahrazad marries Shahryar, who abates her virginity. She asks for a chance to say good-bye to her sister, who is brought to the palace. There, her sister, as previously arranged, beseeches her:

“Allah upon thee, O my sister, recite to us some new story, delightsome and delectable, wherewith to while away the waking  hours of our latter night.”

“With joy and goodly gree,” answered Shahrazad, “if this pious and auspicious king permit me.”

“Tell on,” quoth the King, who chanced to be sleepless and restless, and therefore was pleased with the prospect of hearing her story.

She begins the story, then: The Tale of the Trader and the Jinni. Ah, but it is a long story, and she doesn’t finish it by dawn. She arranges to end on a cliffhanger, and King Shahryar is too caught up in the story to be able to behead her. He therefore spares for another day so that she may finish the story. Well, on it goes — each night she finishes the old story and begins a new one, which doesn’t finish before dawn.

After a thousand and one nights of this, the King either realizes she is faithful; or forgives women; or comes to love her; or has become addicted to her stories (accounts vary). But her life is spared and they live — well, you know. Happily ever after.

Now, isn’t that the mark of a good story? So compelling that you simply must return the next day to see what happens. It’s what makes a successful serialization of a novel or a television show; it’s what brings readers back to their favorite authors; it’s what inspires people to call a certain book a “page turner.”

It’s also an important yet overlooked quality in erotic writing, which those unfamiliar with the genre sometimes assume to be just a sex scene. Of course there are sex scenes in erotic stories — but it’s the plot, the story, that draws the reader in. Otherwise you have a movie made up of only the chase scene. A sex scene alone won’t bring the King back the next night; that sex must happen for a reason, to compelling characters, in a story we want from beginning to end.

And then… the next one begins.

(excerpts from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (Kitāb ‘alf layla wa-layla), translated by Richard Francis Burton.)

sign from a hotel in Libya

counter on tumblr

July 13th, 2010 | 17 Comments »

If you couldn’t quite tell from the title whether by ass holes I meant anuses or annoying people, then you already can understand some of my problem.

The broader concern is, What do we call sex organs and other sexy body parts? Clinical terms sound, well, clinical. Crude terms sound crude in a bad way to some people, crude in a good way to others, and crude in an “it depends” way to many. That is, no one wants to be called a cunt while on the phone with customer service; however, in the middle of a steamy sex scene, if a lover uses it with a partner, it can sound totally hot. To some people.

Whether a term for a body part is silly, puzzling, hot, a turn-on, insulting, or downright offensive depends on so many factors, mostly to do with one’s personal experience with the word and how one’s acquaintances react to it. Just as a carbonated non-alcoholic beverage can be pop, soda, cola, or a soft drink to different people, so too do penis and vagina go by many different names. Some writers like to use a wide variety, and others (like me) use just a few favorites.

It’s interesting, I think, to examine your own likes and dislikes and think about where they come from. Books you’ve read? Past lovers? Or just the sound of the word? For me, my dislikes are often related to sound — I find I don’t like long vowel sounds for sexy body parts (although I have nothing against long vowel sounds in general). So, I prefer the short o sound of cock to the long e of penis. Pussy, with its short u, is a yes; vagina with its long i is a no.

And then just a few days ago, while traveling, this notice in the bathroom of my hotel reminded me of the one body part I always struggle with:

What can I call, in writing, the ass hole? To me, anus doesn’t sound right. It’s too clinical, and it also makes me laugh, for some reason. Predictably, I don’t like its long a sound. But ass hole, even when written as two words instead of one, sounds like a guy who just cut you off in traffic for no good reason. And then… I’m stuck for any other good synonym. I don’t like cutesy workarounds like brown eye or poop chute. I want something that sounds sexy! Is that too much to ask for a body part that gives so many pleasurable feelings to so many? So I’m soliciting suggestions. If you have one I like, I’ll use it in my next story.

counter on tumblr

July 2nd, 2010 | 7 Comments »

One of the sweetest moments in an author’s life (well, her work life, anyway) is that moment when the printed book arrives in the mail—perhaps an advance copy, or the weighty box of author copies, destined for friends and reviewers. From the signing of a contract to finished printed copy can take a year or more, depending on the scope of the work, and here, finally, is tangible proof that you did something. You can pick it up! Turn its pages. It’s a Thing, and you made it. Naturally, you want to show it off to some friend who might admire it and say appreciative things. It’s basking time, after all.

I remember such moment, with such a book, and such a friend. The friend asked to see the book, and I handed it over. Friend opened the book to a random page in the middle, glanced down, and said, “What’s a ‘hoilday’?”

Um…. that would be a “holiday,” mistyped. It wasn’t the book’s title, or a main character’s name. It was only a photo caption. But still I felt bad about it, and of course I was bummed that it was the first thing the friend had seen! Though somehow it often seems to work out that way. You want to say, “Yes, but look how many words are spelled correctly!” though that just comes off as desperate.

An author checks her manuscript before sending it in. Computer spellcheckers help, of course. The editor checks it too (depending on the size and nature of the work, perhaps several editors), and then so does a copy editor, and sometimes also a proofreader. Copy edited pages might come back to the author who can check them again. The process is different with different publishers, but several people look over every manuscript.

So how do typos get through? I know I was a lot more critical of typos when I was an enthusiastic reader who had never published herself. My gosh, I’d think, what boob let that slip by? Were the people all drunk or asleep? But now, while I can’t put into words why typos get by, I know that they do. They do even when several very competent, careful, caring people all check the same page. Whatever the reason is, it is not (necessarily!) that the people involved are not good at what they do, or that they aren’t doing their best. In terms of inevitability, typos are up there before death, but after taxes (because some organizations are tax-exempt, right, and some states don’t have sales tax… whereas typos happen the world over).

A better question might be this: Once the book is published, and someone spots a typo, should anything be done about it? Well, of course mistakes should be fixed when 1) it is possible, and 2) it makes sense. “Sense” usually means—you guessed it—financial sense. Was my publisher going to recall and then reprint 20,000 books because “hoilday” appeared in a caption? Of course not. The error was not worth the expense it would take to correct it. In the case of the cook book that advised adding “freshly ground black people” instead of “black pepper,” the publisher had to reprint 7,000 copies at a cost of US $18,000.

So no, if you spot one instance where Steven has been rendered as Stephen, firing off an indignant letter isn’t going to accomplish anything. If you spot a mistake on every page, then you might consider sending a letter to … well, to whom? Authors, unless they self-publish, don’t have the authority or the means to reprint books. Yet readers can sometimes more easily find an email or blog site or something for an author than an editor; and of course authors can pass information on to their editor.

The only downside to informing an author that his hero Victor on page 54 has been miscast as Victim is that if nothing can be done about the mistake, the author just feels badly. A book is such hard work, and you get so emotionally invested with it, that it’s a bit of a let-down to think your readers are primarily concerned about whether the stationary should have been stationery. Of course we care. Words matter, and spelling conveys their beauty as well as their meaning. But we probably care more about plot, character, setting, and those lustful sex scenes.

It comes down to an individual preference, really. Personally? I want to know. If the mistakes can be fixed, I want to make sure that they do. (If you spot a typo in one of my blog posts, for example, tell me! and I will fix it). If they cannot, and there are a lot of them, I might want to let the publisher know in any case. To me, being informed is worth the feelings of disappointment I would invariably have.

I’ll put the question out to others, then. Authors: Do you want to know? Readers: How affected are you when you catch a typo, and what, if anything, do you usually do about it?

counter on tumblr

June 22nd, 2010 | 6 Comments »

I do a lot of my writing in coffee shops, little independently owned places with punny names along the lines of The Daily Grind, The Supreme Bean, Brewed Awakening, Higher Grounds, Brew Ha Ha, Java the Hut. (I wonder if British writers repair for refreshment to tea shops… and would those have cute names too? Tempest in a Teapot? Nooks and Grannies, for the older clientele? CeleBriTea?) The punishment (ha!) continues inside with the tip jars: Support counter intelligence. Afraid of change? Leave yours here! Feeling tipsy? Change is good. Show us your tips.

Erotic book titles often reach for the puns, in a way that Booker prize winners, for example, do not. Some of my favorites (for titles; I haven’t necessarily even read all of these, but their titles caught my eye):

Bottoms Up: Spanking Good Stories (Edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel)

Coming Attractions (S.L. Carpenter, Sahara Kelly)

Foreign Affairs: Erotic Travel Tales (Edited by Mitzi Szereto)

Good Cop, Bad Girl (Paige Tyler)

The Oy of Sex: Jewish Women Write Erotica (edited by Marcy Sheiner)

Rock My Socks Off (a novel in which rocking horses play a role) (Jeremy Edwards)

I don’t struggle so much with story titles; for one thing, it’s a shorter, more unified piece of writing to sum up. Thus, among mine, I have “Sales Pitch” for an encounter that takes place between a salesclerk and a customer; “Layover” for a meeting between flights in an airport; and “Schiphol” takes place in the Amsterdam airport, whose name is—surprise—Schiphol.

But naming a whole book is harder. Something too obscure doesn’t give the reader enough information; “Schiphol” for a whole book gives no indication as to what’s inside. And then, like smart sexy partners with no hang-ups, it seems like the good ones have already been taken. Foreign Affairs was gone, Wanderlust had been used (twice), and someone else had the simple Erotic Travel Tales.

Interestingly, titles of books cannot be copyrighted. So even if someone else has called her book Wanderlust, I am still free to do so. However, authors and publishers avoid this whenever possible, because it helps nobody to have your book confused with someone else’s. You look unoriginal, and your readers could be confused. If they buy someone else’s book instead of yours, you’ve lost your sale, and if they buy yours instead of the one they were really looking for, you’ve lost their good will.

I turned to my friends, thinking it might be easier to pick from a selection than to invent my own. Travel Sex? Too blunt. Jet Shagged? Too silly. Around the World in Eighty Ways? (“You could call your character Family Jules or Fellatio Fogg!” said the friend who suggested this one). And then finally…. Transported. It just felt right. It included travel, and it included sex without being too obvious. Definitions for transport range from “move something or somebody around; usually over long distances” to “ecstasy: a state of being carried away by overwhelming emotion” to “enchant: hold spellbound.”

Writers often use the metaphor of giving birth to explain how they feel about creating a book. I’d draw a parallel with names there, too. If you ask your friends what they think of your baby name before the child arrives, you might hear some negative opinions: “I worked with a Judy once; she was a total bitch.” “I had a cousin Judy—she died young.” But when you announce the birth of your child, everyone is supportive: “Oh, that’s a beautiful name.” “My favorite aunt was called Judy—a lovely, intelligent woman.”

Before its publication, I heard that Transported was too subtle a title, and also that it was too obvious. Once it came out, though, people just said that it was a nice catchy title. Thank you! It’s my baby, and I love her.

I have my next title already, actually. But I’m keeping it secret.

counter on tumblr

Posted in • Entitled
June 13th, 2010 | 9 Comments »

When I was working on the manuscript that became Transported, I gave one of the stories to a male friend to read. He isn’t someone who normally reads erotica, or even much fiction, so I was interested in his reaction: could I interest someone who didn’t naturally gravitate to that genre?

When he was done, he handed the pages back to me and said, “You write about sex like a woman.” I was more surprised by my reaction to his remark than the remark itself—I mean, the remark itself is not startling, is it? I am a woman. I have sex as a woman. It’s quite reasonable that I would write about sex “like a woman.” But without knowing quite why, I felt just little bit insulted. What did he mean, “like a woman”? I tried to get him to explain it, but perhaps he sensed some of my defensiveness, because he backed off, as if I were asking him “Does this story make me look fat?”

Is it an insult of sorts? I don’t think he meant it that way at all, but think of similar statements: You throw like a girl isn’t a compliment, and neither is Women drivers! Not that men have it any easier; if a woman says, Typical man! it’s probably not because he did anything good. With erotic writing, though, gender is important. Most characters are one or the other, and the reader needs to be able to believe this. (As an aside, I can’t help but think of one of the best bumper stickers I ever saw, which said, as a nod to Bob Dylan, I brake just like a little girl.)

Three of the stories in Transported have first-person male narrators. As dedicated as I am, I did not get a temporary sex change to write them. How could I do it, then? At the time I was writing, I asked myself the same thing; and my answer was that I didn’t need to sound “like a man,” but rather like a reader would expect a man to sound. A subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

Do men and women speak (and write) differently, as genders? There’s no easy answer. For every study claiming yes, there is another proving that it isn’t really so. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to go into all of the intricacies, but as someone who has studied the issue academically, I’ll give you my conclusion: Yes, there are differences, but they’re more related to power. That is, a higher-status person will talk more, will talk more directly, will interrupt more, and so on. It is a sad reality that at least in the US, men still have more power in many situations than women, and that influences how they talk. But power is also determined by age, experience, job position, family background, level of education, demonstration of expertise, and other such factors.

If you think of the thousands and thousands of novels and stories you have read that were written by men, you wouldn’t say that they all sounded the same. Not all men sound the same; not all women sound the same. However, it’s also true that I can almost always tell on online bulletin boards and lists whether a writer is male or female before a name or gender is offered. It isn’t words alone, of course, but also point of view and choice of topic—but something in the way many people write indicates their gender.

Any author has the same task of making characters sound believable, whether those characters are men or women or transgender or werewolves or space aliens. If a woman could only write “like a woman,” it would be hard to write convincing dialogues between a woman and a man. Nor does a woman (at least this one) want to write like the same woman in every story. That, to me, is really the challenge of writing short stories—to write very different characters believably, who act, and talk, in different ways. I often have a certain person’s “voice” in mind when I create characters; this helps me keep them consistent throughout the story.

I’ll close with a link to a site, The Gender Genie, that purports to be able to guess the gender of a writer by analyzing a chunk of text.

The Gender Genie

You input a chunk (the Genie points out that it works best with chunks of 500 words or more), indicate whether the genre is fiction, non-fiction, or blog (is that a dig at the truthfulness of blogs?), and the Genie will guess. Most people I know who’ve been to the site amuse themselves for a bit putting in different chunks of their own writing, perhaps hoping to discover something about their own identity they didn’t already know. What’s interesting is that the Genie also tells you which words it has tagged as “feminine” and “masculine,” and some of the choices will surprise you, I think.

I don’t think for one minute that the Gender Genie has all the answers. I’m not convinced, actually, that it has any of the answers. But it raises interesting questions for writers about how our word choices affect the impressions we give.

This blog entry, by the way, makes the Genie think I’m male: I rated a Male score of 1604 to a Female score of 1038. So I write about sex like a woman, and blog like a man. But I’m OK with that.

Oh, and I brake like a lady

counter on tumblr

  • Facebook
  • Google+
  • Twitter