Friday, March 24, 2017

Nerd Love (a EuphOff Quickie) by TAS

This horrid little piece of tripe was composed for this year's EuphOff, a delightful "non-competition" that asks erotica writers to pull out all the stops on bad metaphor, shopworn cliché, adverbial excess, and prose as purple as plum lipstick stains on an Arrow collar in 500 words or less. Wasn't it G.K. Chesterton  who observed that one cannot truly understand how good they are until they've discovered how bad they can be--or something to that effect?

Nerd Love
(a EuphOff Quickie)
by Terrance Aldon Shaw

Gazing up from between his lover’s legs, Jesus-Horatio was utterly captivated by the sight of her preternaturally perfect orbs, huge, pendulous, rounder than round, floating haughtily above him like a double vision of the second Death Star as seen by a cross-eyed Ewok crouching on the surface of the forest moon of Endor at night.

“Those are no moons!” he murmured referentially as he zeroed in on the throbbing mushroom—agaricus bisporus—of Maggie’s desire, which, beneath the hyper-articulate ministrations of his Poindexterishly pornographic tongue, had tumesced like a well-nurtured robin’s egg, resting cozily in the soft nest of her venereal delta.

“Oh! Jesus-H—” Maggie moaned. “Eat me like a senior-citizen’s discount-Wednesday buffet!”

“Erumph!” Jesus-Horatio tried to speak with his mouth full, adjusting the angle of his lingual dart’s trajectory, the better to buff the already-glistening pearl of Maggie’s magnificent girl-ness.

There had been a great disturbance in the Force when they met, only moments earlier, at the sci-fi/fantasy convention downstairs. Resplendent as Obi-Wan in his youthful Phantom-Meance iteration, Jesus-Horatio was waiting in line to see a man about a tauntaun when he spied Maggie, stunningly attired as Gabrielle from Xena, Warrior Princess and hanging--not pervertedly at all--around the entrance to the men’s room, where she was waiting, so she said, for her scantly-endowed wheelchair-bound boyfriend to finish washing his hands. 

Thrilled for once to be hitting on a female humanoid whose boyfriend couldn’t actually beat him up, Jesus-Horatio was quick to compliment Maggie on the exquisitely detailed filagree-work gracing the left cup of her brazen battle brassiere. Impressed for her part that a guy who wasn’t obviously gay would notice such things, Maggie gushed like a soft-serve ice cream machine in a heat wave, whence, looking down, her eyes lighted on his light sabre, a burgeoning hummock rising from mist-gray folds of Jesus-Horatio's Jedi robes.

With uncharacteristic boldness, Jesus-Horatio then asked Maggie if she would like to come up to the room on the 37th floor he was sharing with five other nerds from out of town in order to see his impeccably-preserved first edition of the “legendary” graphic novel in which Luke and Leah never figure out that they’re brother and sister.

All else was forgotten in the next instant as Maggie agreed. The elevator doors closed with a ping, and, alone at last, the fevered fan-geeks fell into each other’s arms in a blazing frisson of unbridled concupiscence.

In the room, Maggie’s whole body convulsed with naughty plasmic bursts of orgiastic delectation as she wrapped a pair of shapely calves around her Yoda-quoting inamorato’s neck in a manner suggestive of a python contemplating the lugubrious strangulation of its victim du jour.

At this point, to Maggie’s undying dismay, Jesus-Horatio’s faithful R-2 unit malfunctioned, causing the premature deployment of a quarter-million storm troopers. Thus, her deep core remaining sadly un-fracked, the earth did not move,  and plans for a sequel were put on indefinite hold.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Emmanuelle de Maupassant interviews TAS on author influences

This week, you can read Emmanuelle de Maupassant's interview with me about my artistic influences here. A wide-ranging discussion focusing on the influence of music in my approach to craft and style, the interview features additional comments on film, literary fiction, poetry, the visual arts and dance.

Next week: a review of In Bonds of the Earth, Janine Ashbless' follow-up to Cover Him With Darkness (one of EftBB's "Best of 2015" selections).


Sunday, March 12, 2017

How to Get Good (Part 1)

It’s probably safe to say that nothing you read here on EftBB will ever help you achieve outstanding financial success as a writer. For all the hard work I’ve done over the decades, the secret to authorial fame and riches remains maddeningly beyond my muddled ken. I have ultimately come to the conclusion that it is indeed possible to do everything “right” and still come up short. One can pursue a dream to the end, obdurately believing in the greatness of one’s vision, hoping with all one’s heart to strike that magic chord in the soul of the reading public, yet simply lack the luck to be in the right place at the right time, even as some demonstrably less-gifted writer strides the best-seller list like a snot-nosed colossus, snickering all the way to the bank.

This, alas, is life, arbitrary, cruel, perpetually unfair, and always out to lunch at the complaints department. We may whine and kvetch about talentless slop artists, ass-kissing arivistes, and upjumped hacks with more aptitude for schmoozery than literary sense, but, in the end, that’s just the way things work out. It doesn’t mean that we should not continue to work hard every day, dedicate ourselves to doing our best in spite of the odds, and strive towards greatness; it means we should probably develop a set of realistic expectations about life in general, and this, our chosen profession, in particular. What it all boils down to is; we do this work because it is the work we are meant to do, no matter what.

Here are a few thoughts on the subject:

(1) Nobody will ever care about your work as much as you do.

Oh, some people will certainly care, often quite intensely, about what you do; but, in the end, it’s not their life or their work, it’s yours, and if you of all people aren’t passionate about it, how can you expect others to be? A writer’s commitment and passion shines through on every page—readers can tell—and there’s very little that turns readers off more than a writer who clearly doesn’t have their heart in the endeavor.  Authors who write in genres they clearly don’t like—an all-too-common phenomenon in erotica—cheat their audience and themselves.

(2) It is futile (and self-destructive) to compare yourself with other writers.

Lawrence Block makes this point in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. We waste a lot of time and potential creative energy obsesing about our place in the scheme of things—why we’re so much better than this writer, or will never be as good as that one—always looking outward with envy or stubborn defiance, scorn more often than not mingled with self-loathing. The fact, whether we are willing to admit it or not, is that we are most miserable when we try to be something we are not. When we try to fit in, or change to please another person, or be like someone else instead of being true to ourselves. A writer needs to develop a balance between healthy self-love and honest humility.

(3) On the other hand, a healthy competition with oneself—comparing your present work with things you’ve done in the past—can be a key to growth.

To paraphrase Tolstoy: you can’t become a better writer if you already think your writing is perfect. If you understand that you are not in competition with other writers, you will be free to develop the self-confidence to perceive not only how good you are, but also how good you are not, and when you understand that, you will find the space in which to strive, grow, and improve.

(4) To be great at something, you must concentrate solely on that one thing.

This doesn’t mean that you can achieve greatness simply by setting your mind to it. Malcolm Gladwell famously posited that one must put in 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field—and that’s still no guarantee of one’s 15 minutes of fame. Talent and inspiration are not enough; you have to be willing and able to back those things up with real sweat equity and single-minded commitment, pouring yourself—your mental and physical energies—into this single endeavor, if only to see how good you can become.

Near the end of his life, Norman Mailer said that every book he wrote killed him a little bit more. And it’s true: we die slowly for our art. Writing is a less-messy form of self-murder, and the work we leave behind an elaborate suicide note.

I think, too, of  the film Quills in which Jeffrey Rush portrays the Marquis de Sade: imprisoned, condemned as possessed or insane, nothing stopped de Sade from expressing himself, to the point where, after having his tongue cut out and being placed in solitary confinement, he continued to write with his own feces... THAT is the madness that drives a true creative! THAT is the commitment that greatness demands.

Remember, though, that great things do not always have to be big or extravagant things. Nor is it necessary to be the center of attention in order to achieve a great thing. It is important, however, not to spread oneself too thin.

(5) To this end, cultivate a work ethic.

Anyone who says that writing is easy is a liar. If writing is easy all the time, you’re not doing it right. Indeed, what so many people don't get is that writing is genuinely hard work, often physically taxing and mentally draining. It can be frustrating as often as it is rewarding, and there are times when it's difficult to justify the input of labor and time by the usual metrics of conventional success. To optimize one’s efforts, treat writing the way you would any serious work; develop a daily writing schedule and discipline yourself to stick to it, especially if you have any desire to earn more than a hobbyist’s income from the endeavor.

The best way to produce a steady stream of high-quality work, is to observe regular writing hours with defined daily starting and quitting times. Such a schedule can conform to the needs of your life, whether early in the morning or late at night, or in the middle of the afternoon, but it should ideally be the same time each day. Getting into the regular pattern of writing, the quotidian habit of work, does wonders to lubricate the mental mechanisms of craft. The difference between an amateur and a professional is that the former believes they can sit and wait for inspiration to pay a mysterious and unscheduled visit. The professional knows that inspiration is drawn from within by the regular exercise of one’s mental faculties.

It’s OK, by the way, to be a "difficult person" where defending your work time is concerned. Make it clear that you expect others to respect your schedule—but be just as adamant that you respect it yourself by sticking to the hours you have established.

(6) Don’t spend your royalties before you’ve finished the book.

I don’t care if you think you’ve got a story inside you. Come back when you have a dozen on paper—or, better still, fifteen or fifty. Get into the habit of writing everything down, and soon enough, you’ll have more stories than you can tell in a lifetime. Build up a body of work you can be proud of, and don't keep it to yourself.

(7) Be the kind of professional you yourself would like to deal with.

Believe it or not, editors, agents, and publishers like dealing with people who are easy to work and get along with. You can stick up for yourself and your work while still being agreeable, and, in fact, other professionals will respect you for being true to yourself; but you don’t have to do this by (1) putting other writers down, either overtly or passive-aggressively, (2) behaving like a spoiled prima dona, believing that you are above constructive criticism or too great to take advice.

Remember that a smart, thoughtful consistency is the essence of professionalism. If people have had good experiences with you in the past, and expect the same in the future, that is an asset more valubale than almost anything else.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule...

To be continued

Sunday, February 19, 2017

When Sex Is Not Enough

I’d hoped to share a book review with you this week, but that is not to be. The book in question was written well enough, had a promising premise and an ambitious erotic vision; I got past the first few pages without being terminally turned off or overly impressed. Things did not subsequently improve, nor did they become dramatically worse. In other words, ho hum. I kept myself reading page after page with the notion that, while the book was no great masterpiece, it was nothing I couldn’t slog my way through, and, perhaps, find something worth writing about in the end.

As it happened, I did discover something to write about, though it wasn’t necessary to suffer through to the end in order to find it. The writing had been putting me to sleep—notwithstanding a few pleasingly steamy episodes—and I was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain concentration with something like 400 pages left to go. Then the author gave me an out; made the rankest of rooky errors—the sort of thing any competent editor would have caught immediately, and, very probably like me, been inspired to throw the book across the room (though, with an e-reader, I am denied that visceral satisfaction). The author had carelessly allowed head-hopping to creep into a third-person narrative, probably not even realizing that they were doing it. Granted, this is a common pitfall, and a flaw I might have chosen to ignore had the story been more engaging or the language less simplistically third-grade level. But, given the other doubts that had built up in my mind, this issue was the proverbial last straw.

The author was counting on the novelty of their book’s premise to carry the story—basically, eroticism in ancient cultures—and was endeavoring to employ an antiquated “storybook style” of narrative. But the novelty was not enough. The sex, for all its vibrant plenitude, was not enough. One came away less with the sense of having been entertained than patronized. The auctorial attitude seemed to be that of a patient grownup telling a story to a group of children while greatly underestimating their intelligence.

Sexy content does not in itself absolve an author from the basic rules of writing. Telling a story for adults does not give one license to write like a dolt. It takes more than sex to write a sexy storyCharacters have to be more than pornographic pawns, with no other purpose than to be maneuvered into the next occasion to copulate. Readers looking for more than just a quick stroke—who might actually be inclined to read the entire book—need to recognize the elements of a good story; character, conflict, plot. A conscientious author owes their readers nothing less—a truly fine writer will give them infinitely more.

Personally, I’ve resolved that life is too short to waste on books that bore me. The only thing I truly care about is good writing—I’m open to all sorts of stories, so long as the writing is exceptional, but I am done babysitting dilettantes. I’m done coddling the delicate sensibilities of amateurs who've never  heard a healthy “no”.  It’s time to grow up.   

[Next time: Things I’ve Learned from Reading (and Writing) Erotic Novels] 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review of 'Haven's Fall (Rebel Mage Book II)" by Elizabeth Schechter

Somewhere about the middle of Elizabeth Schechter’s Haven’s Fall it struck me: were one to remove the erotic elements from this story, there’d be a pretty fine YA fantasy/romance novel left over. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—YA offers some of the most imaginative storytelling and fine writing of these times, from brilliant authors like Madeline L’Engle and Philip Pullman to Suzane Collins. The point is, delightful as the sex scenes may be, if one can imagine a story without the erotic, it may be many things, but erotica is not one of them. Granted, there’s a beautiful m/m romance here, a budding m/f love affair and even a bit of bondage (consensual and otherwise), all fine and good. Yet, there’s something about the language, a kind of easy, placid flow that doesn’t make undue demands of the reader or challenge their cozy sensibilities—at least not too forcefully. Then there’s the nice, gentle way these characters relate to one another. All the main characters are so likable—so reflexively agreeable—the temperature of conflict barely rises above a mild simmer till near the end.

In Haven’s Fall, Schechter continues the story of Matthias, the reluctant mage, begun in Counsel of the Wicked (included on EftBB Best of 2015 list). Matthias possesses enormous magical powers of which he himself has never been fully aware, nor has he been trained in the proper use of his magic. At the same time, some sinister person or group, jealous of that power whether because they seek to harness it or destroy it altogether, has set out to capture or kill Matthias. But our hero has one great advantage. His friends: there’s his quiet, strong, patient lover Solomon, his kind and resourceful cousin Tam, Linnea the fearless foot soldier with the ability to track and locate sources of magic, and the wise Gryphon mother Dancer, as well as several new, equally likable characters who will no doubt make appearances in the projected third volume of the series.

Schechter understand that the way to keep people turning pages—and there are a lot of pages to turn here!—is to put her hero in peril and keep him there, never giving him a chance to breathe easy. This does result in a few too many scenes in which Matthias wakes up after having suffered some new and terrible injury, asking what happened to him, while Solomon, Tam, and the healer Illane are always right there to tend his wounds and rehash the events of the previous chapter in the gentlest of tones so as not to disturb Matt’s delicate emotional equilibrium. Magic is used to speed the hero’s recovery before he is invariably hurt in yet another new and horrible misadventure. It does get a bit repetitious in spots, and I came away from many chapters feeling less that essential story had been related than that time had been marked in an entertaining way, stringing me along in anticipation of some as yet unimagined Big And Exciting Thing to be revealed in the not-too-distant future.

Still, there’s a good deal to like and admire here. A novel of this length is not a casual undertaking to be treated indifferently, and Schechter proves once again that she is more than adequate to the task; the writing reflects a lively imagination, brought to the page with solid craftspersonship and practiced professionalism. Her characters may at times be a little too nice—stretching credibility to its curmudgeonly limits—but we are still curious to find out what happens to them. In the end, we are made to care for these people almost as much as they care for each other, and that is something that only a very skilled writer can do.  


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Fearless Fiction

Write for oneself, write what you yourself would most identity with, write honestly and unsparingly and fearlessly.

Lawrence Block
from Spider Spin Me a Web: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

Yes! Give me a fearless fiction! I have no interest in the nice, polite, easy, comfortable, comforting kind of story that lulls the incurious mind to sleep. No interest whatsoever in the opiate of happy endings, or the numbing oblivion of cozy genre tropes. I care nothing for the kind of writing that validates the childish prejudices of prudes and prigs, or coddles the self-righteous in their frigid cloisters. Spare me the company of writers who hire themselves out as glorified babysitters for the willfully ignorant and the easily-amused.

Picasso said that ‘true art can never be chaste’ and this is true, as well, for writing. Great writing bares all. A great writer cannot be body shy. Fearless fiction teaches us to face the things that terrify us most, even as we stand naked before the world in all our brazen brokenness, seared but unconsumed. For one cannot live a full and true and meaningful life in a state of fear. If we would use our past hurts and present fears as an excuse to self-censor, even as we would shrink from life, in the end we may find that we have never truly lived at all, let alone written anything of lasting value.

We must venture to upset and unsettle. We must dare to disturb. And we must begin with ourselves.

One encounters far too many uninspired erotic passages with all the allure of a checklist for an oil-change or a pathologist's notes on an autopsy. I suspect that much of this clinically repetitive claptrap can be explained as nothing more than bad writing, plain and simple. But much of it, I think, is the product of people who are ultimately afraid of losing control, who fear the dark depths of their own sexual imagination—or, more likely, the disapprobation of others, and so insist on keeping their fantasies bottled up and under control. In aspiring to create a fresh, fearless fiction, it may be helpful, first, to write down everything—get it all out on the page, whether or not it's worth polishing or publishing—and once these fantasies have been brought up into the light—the bizarre, the weird, the dark, the perverse, the downright sick—once the writer truly knows themself and what they are capable of creating, there is a basis for something good, if not great.

Note that sincere creative courage is not the same as merely venturing to outrage or shock an audience. Many beginners, infatuated with the forbidden or the sheer novelty of naughtiness, assume that erotic writing is naturally extreme in its depictions and must be ‘over the top’ in order to stand out. But these are the illusions of a novice. What makes a story about sex interesting isn’t so much the act itself; it’s the characters who come together to have that sex. Before you can tell an exceptional story about sex, you need to tell an extraordinary story about people; their thoughts, their feelings and their fears, their histories, hungers, hopes and hang-ups; ambitions, jealousies, obsessions, eccentricities, perversions, machinations, nightmares, daydreams and despairs. And, above all, the way these things are imagined, conveyed in language and in gesture.

Eroticism is impossible without imagination. As a physiological phenomenon, sex is neither extraordinary nor particularly interesting—after all, human beings can only ‘fit together’ in so many ways. Fortunately, our sexuality encompasses a great deal more than what lies within the limits of our finite physicality. What makes sex glorious and unique and endlessly fascinating is the way humans apply the infinite power of their imaginations to it.

Writing itself is like sex in this regard: in theory, anybody can do it, but, in practice, relatively few are capable of creating art with it. Doubtless, any half-witted hog can master the basic mechanics of what goes where (and I suspect that almost anybody could write rudimentary porn were they to put half or less of a mind to it); but it takes an extraordinary, thoughtful, sensitive human being to make love or move the world with words.

No. There’s nothing unusual about the ability to write—there’s no great mystery about it at all. This is why people tend to think that writing is easy, and balk at the prospect of putting down a few dollars for a novel or a short story collection—‘after all,’ they say, ‘why should I pay good money for something that anybody can do?’ It’s true, anybody can write, but few truly write well, and only the rarest handful write anything worth remembering.

If our sexuality is microcosm and metaphor for life in its vast complexity and bewildering abundance, those who would write about sex with insight and power must know something of and about life. Indeed, too much ‘serious’ literature envisions a life without sex. At the other end of the spectrum, porn gives us sex without life.  Somewhere in the middle, erotica endeavors to show us a real, human world in which life and sex are unimaginable without each other.

Write sincerely. Write beautifully. Write hopefully. Write fearlessly!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bread and Fiction—A Recipe for Writers

Let’s have some fun, shall we? January is the blue Monday of the year, and this January especially, there are a lot of folks who need cheering up. As it will be several weeks before I can finish reading the first books slated for review this year, I thought it might be enjoyable in the interim, to do a few articles “off the beaten track” just for the sheer pleasure of it. Enjoy this one! (TAS)

To make pumpernickel rye, you will need the following ingredients:

4 cups lukewarm water
2 tablespoons dry yeast
2 tablespoons salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup caraway or anise seed (optional)
6 cups rye flour
4 cups white flour (with 1 additional cup held in reserve)

Place dry ingredients (yeast, salt, sugar, seeds) plus oil in large mixing bowl. Add water and combine. It is essential at this stage to make sure that all measurements are precise: the water must be exactly four cups—no more, no less—and it must be perfectly luke warm—if you place your finger in it, you should not be able to feel either heat or coolness. More than anything else you do or don’t do along the way, getting this fluid base exactly right at the start insures a satisfactory outcome.

Slowly, carefully, one cup at a time, add six cups of rye flour to the fluid base. Stir and combine. (I like to whip the batter at this point, as it results in a nice, fluffy texture when the bread comes out of the oven.) Then, slowly, gently, one cup at a time, add four cups of All Purpose flour. Note here that the stirring gets tough; the dough is thickening and coming together. (Optionally, you may imitate a dalek from Doctor Who exclaiming “Agglutinate! Agglutinate!”). The dough will begin to adhere into sticky clumps: with the mixing spoon—or clean bare hands as need be—work these clumps into a rough mass. Spread a little extra flour on the bench or table before turning the contents of the bowl out onto the bench. Cover the dough with the dome of the upturned mixing bowl, and allow the dough to rest for ten to twenty minutes before kneading.

Once the dough has had a chance to rest, it’s time to knead it. This manual process squeezes voids and air pockets out of the dough. Depending on conditions of ambient temperature and humidity, the dough may be quite sticky at this stage. Use some of the reserved “bench flour” to apply to these sticky areas. Slowly turn the dough and press at it with the heels of your hands—not your fingers!—turn, press and fold, sprinkle flour as needed, turn, press and fold, until the dough surface is consistently smooth and “silky” to the touch.

Press this nice smooth chunk of dough into the bottom of a clean mixing bowl. Cover the bowl and set it in a warm place. The best weather conditions for bread-rising are hot, muggy summer days, but you can simulate these conditions at other times of year by placing a pan of hot water under the mixing bowl, and covering both with a heavy towel. Let the dough rise—that is, allow the yeast to do its work—for one hour and thirty minutes.

When the bread has completed its first rising, dump the risen mass onto the bench, after putting down a little flour. With a clean serrated knife, divide the dough into four equal parts. The dough may, once again, have become sticky in places—as before, use small amounts of flour to “heal” and dry out these areas. Form each quarter into a small round loaf, rolling it steadily in your hands, tucking the dough underneath so as to form a beautiful smooth top. Set these quarter loaves onto a greased metal cookie sheet, cover with a heavy towel and allow to rise one more hour. (The pan of hot water is no longer needed.)

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. After the second rising, place the sheet with its loaves into the oven for forty (40) minutes. Remove the baked bread and transfer the loaves to cooling racks, baste the tops with butter, and allow to cool before cutting yourself a nice warm slice…

Some of you may be asking what any of this has to do with writing fiction … and I’m going to tell you. The recipe I’ve just shared can be seen as a pretty good metaphor for the process of writing fiction. Let’s explore. Remember how I said that the fluid base needs to be just so in order to ensure that something good ultimately comes out of the oven? In writing, too, you need to have a solid grasp of the fundamentals, grammar, spelling, punctuation. The more precise you are—the greater command you have of the fundamentals—the better your work will turn out, regardless of what kind of story you wish to tell.

The flour is like the idea for a story. In fact, several ideas may come together to form the basis for an interesting tale. If skillfully, thoroughly and thoughtfully combined, this mass of ideas, while a bit rough to begin with, will show a great deal of potential. But, just as the agglutinated mass needs a little time to rest before you knead it, so too, the writer needs to be patient in letting their imagination begin to do its work.

Some ideas need more work than others in order to form a solid story. Some disparate ideas resist coming together—make things ‘sticky’ as it were—and a bit of extra attention is required to work them in smoothly.  Patience again, as the dough rises or as the story expands and becomes more vivid in the writer’s imagination. The story is first told inside a writer’s head—it remains only for the author to write the story down…

The dough, formed into loaves is like a first draft. Many writers—Stephen King comes immediately to mind—say that it’s important to set aside the first draft for a time before doing re-writes. And so it is with the process of waiting as the dough rises to maturity. Eventually, you get in, do the necessary re-writing, revising, and editing—incidentally, “edit” comes from the Latin verb meaning “to eat”—and you turn out the kind of book that people will want to read, just as that lovely brown bread comes out of the oven, smelling heavenly, and looking delicious.