Tag: Writing Technicalities

Not In A Single Word

(The following blog post includes a spoiler for the musical Hamilton)

Bill Cosby once had a popular family comedy show in which he showed off his acting skills by playing a man who was not a serial rapist. In one particular episode of this show, this non-rapist character (Cliff Huxtable) is telling his daughter a story about wanting to learn to play the drums when he was a kid. He’d listened to some records, been blown away by the drumwork, and had eagerly rushed out to find a music teacher so that he could learn how to play the drums just as well as the professional musicians that he’d fallen in love with.

Here’s a 32 second clip of that story, which as far as I can tell will not provide Bill Cosby with any income if you watch it:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPF3qqO1qFA

Young Cliff Huxtable tells the teacher that he wants to (insert un-writable Bill Cosby impression of somebody playing the drums really, really well), and the teacher responds by telling him to take his drum sticks and practice hitting a wood block slowly, like this: Whack…Whack…

The point is that if you want to be great at something, you have to start out small, mastering the fundamentals and the most basic elements of that something. It’s only when you’ve gotten that stuff down that you can learn to put them all together into something great. This applies not only to playing the drums, but to most things, writing included.

This is why grammar and punctuation is important: they’re the fundamentals of writing. If you don’t learn to master those, then you won’t become great. This is because great things can often hinge on a mastery of basic elements.

Most writers want to skip ahead, just like young Cliff Huxtable did. They want to jump right to the fancy stuff, without putting in the years of practice on the fundamentals. I don’t blame them one bit, but learning the fundamentals is important not only because it allows you to avoid embarrassment, but also because it allows you to do amazing, incredible things, to communicate worlds of information with something as seemingly inconsequential as the placement of a single comma.

This is where we get to the Hamilton spoiler(s).

In the musical, Alexander Hamilton marries Eliza Schuyler. One of Eliza’s sisters, Angelica, moves overseas, and she and Alexander maintain regular correspondence by writing letters back and forth. Alexander always begins these letters “My dearest Angelica,” with the comma in the proper position, after “Angelica.”
Until one day he doesn’t.

In the song “Take A Break,” Angelica sings about the importance of that comma, because it changes position:
In a letter I received from you two weeks ago

I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase

It changed the meaning. Did you intend this?

One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days

It says:

“My dearest Angelica”

With a comma after “dearest.” You’ve written

“My dearest, Angelica.”

 

Here we have two characters who are in love, and who cannot be together. They cannot directly express their feelings for one another, due to sense of propriety as well as perhaps the pain of putting their feelings to words, when they cannot act on their feelings. Hamilton instead lets Angelica know indirectly how he feels about her, and he does it simply by moving a comma.

Angelica asks, “Did you intend this?”, but my impression from the musical overall is that she knows he did. She’s just experiencing the “I can’t believe he feels this way back” sort of disbelief that can happen when love is requited.

In her heart, she knows. She knows that he loves her, that he holds her in his heart in some ways higher even than his wife: “My dearest, Angelica.”

That one comma placement switches the meaning from a simple and polite expression, from technically expressing that of all the Angelicas that exist, that she is the most dear to him, to a declaration that of all the people in the world–presumably his wife included–Angelica is the most dear to him, the most loved, the most cherished. That slight movement of a comma is the difference between a prefatory acknowledgment that could be skipped over, to something that consumes a woman’s waking days.

It’s the kind of thing that a writer can only pull off if they know what they’re doing, if they have the right level of authority with their reader(s). If Alexander was always sloppy with his commas, sticking them routinely in strange places, Angelica wouldn’t have noticed the comma’s movement at all. Any deliberate message would have been lost in the general mess of Alexander’s writing.

Instead, because Alexander knew what he was doing–had mastered the fundamentals–and because he had demonstrated his knowledge of the fundamentals often and well enough for Angelica to know that he knew what he was doing, he was able to convey to her an entire world of emotion–not in a single word, but in a single goddamned comma.

That’s why you have to Whack Whack, before you can dit-dit-ditta-dit while you ding-ding-dinga-ding.

How to Be as Sexy as a Dead Deer

Written May 6, 2014

I’m pretty sure that most people would agree that deer aren’t particularly sexy. “Pretty,” probably. “Beautiful,” maybe, in the way that nature and animals can be beautiful, but not “sexy.”

Likewise, it’s only a certain kind of twisted person who thinks that death is sexy. It’s not- it’s tragic and ugly, even with animals. Sometimes more so with animals than humans, actually, which is why pretty much everybody hates a scene where a dog dies, but they’re often indifferent to scenes where a human dies.

In their song “Hunter’s Kiss,” Rasputina creates a little story about a hunter killing a deer. It’s sexy. It’s also horrible. That’s one of the things that makes the song stick in my mind, that makes it haunt me. It is both horrible and sexy.

I actually find the song more arousing than a lot of erotica I’ve read. It’s not that the song is THAT sexy… it’s that one hell of a lot of erotica is THAT bad.

A lot of writers can somehow manage to take the most arousing sexual acts and experiences, and turn them into something flat, un-interesting, or even outright painful to read about. They can start with all the right ingredients, and they can fuck up the recipe so badly that it’s effectively inedible.

Rasputina does the opposite. They go take a piece of metaphorical roadkill, and turn it into a darned fine meal.

How the hell do they manage to do that? Let’s find out.
Follow the link and listen to the song, if you haven’t done so already.
Click here to read the lyrics.

Are you with me?

They tell you right off the bat that it’s a sad story. The deer’s death doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. So they lessen the shock of the death; you already know it’s coming. It’s been foreshadowed. Readers like twist endings… sometimes. Other times, especially with short erotic stories, a twist breaks them out of the mood that you’re trying to sex, I mean “trying to set.” (That was an honest typo, but I’m leaving it there for the ghost of Sigmund Freud.)

You want readers to be aroused when they’re reading your erotica or sex scene, and clouding things up with other emotions only dilutes the elixer that you’re trying to create. If the reader laughs, or cries, or lets out a startled gasp of the wrong kind of shock, then their arousal—the emotion that you’re trying to stimulate most—gets broken. Rasputina knows this. So they start diluting the negative emotions associated with a dying deer, beginning by bracing the audience to understand ahead of time that, yes, this is a sad story. Any sadness, that way, will not come as a real shock.

This is also something of a magician’s trick. While they’re telling you on one hand that the story is sad, they’re secretly using the other hand to turn you on. (At least, that’s how it works for me. Some people, at this point, might very well not know what the hell I’m talking about.) While you’re bracing yourself for sadness, for something Bad, they start giving you something good.

It’s about context, and it’s about expectation. If you expect something Bad (sadness), and in the midst of the Bad you get something Good (arousal), then the Good parts will seem all the better for the contrast, the same way a bit of salt can highlight sweet flavors in food. Rasputina starts off immediately by taking control of your expectations. They make you brace for the Bad, while their other hand prepares to do something Good to you.

Next up, they start adding the Good, the old-fashioned spice of “Romance.” They do this by setting the stage: “A romantic scene, from a lullaby.” So now we know that it’s not necessarily just a tragedy, it might be a tragic romance. They’re foreshadowing more, showing us that other hand, without telling us what it’s going to do to us. We know to expect the bitter, but then we’re set up for a bit of sweetness.

Then, Rasputina sets the point of view: the singer is the deer. The hunter is about to shoot her. We empathize with the deer, because Rasputina has given the deer anthropomorphic thoughts: “Then the fleeting notion, that my life he’d save.” Deer don’t really recognize the danger that a hunter’s bow poses, not as a rule, and certainly not to this depth. Deer don’t have the cognitive ability to think the implied thoughts, along the line of: “Crap! This guy’s pointing an arrow at me, and he can kill me! Maybe I’ll luck out? Maybe he’ll show me mercy?” It gives the reader something to identify with, though, puts us in the deer’s shoes. Well, “hooves,” anyway.

We know it’s sad, and we know that this deer is in jeopardy, and we identify human emotions and intelligence with it. We’re invested now, for bitter or for sweet. Or for bittersweet.

The next stanza serves something of the same purpose of the first line; it gets the Bad out of the way quickly. The deer gets shot, thinks (again, anthropomorphizing the deer creates empathy) for a second that it’d been missed by the arrow, but then discovers that, no, it’s been hit. The deer isn’t dead, but it’s dying and helpless. It also subtly starts moving that other hand again, the hand that slipped the word “romantic” into the mix earlier. This time, it uses the word “Dirty.”

“Dirty” has many connotations and uses in the English language, and while Rasputina is using it accurately on the surface, leaving the deer “lying dirty” as in “on the ground, with some dirt on it,” there are other connotations. “Dirty” also means “Naughty,” as in “Sex is Dirty.” The association between the phrase “sex” and “dirty” is so completely overpowering, that I doubt that any listener fails to somehow make the connection, suddenly and abruptly, with sex. The hand that Rasputina told you to watch is showing you a dead deer. Their other hand is showing you sex, subliminally. Just a quick flash of it, but you’re still getting flashed.

Then we get to the refrain:
I have never, felt like this before.
Felt my body sinking, to the grassy floor.
No I have never, known a love like this,
Felt the flaming arrows, of the hunter’s kiss.

This is where the hands change, where we suddenly realize that while we were watching the hand we were told to, Rasputina has slipped their other hand into our clothing, and it’s that other hand that suddenly gets all of our attention as they start to touch unexpected parts of us. The first line is a classic sentiment of both love and sex, of the romance that was foreshadowed earlier. It’s something that’s been said countless times, in countless ways, in a near infinity of tales of romance and sex.

The refrain is brilliant, because that’s where the bulk of the heavy lifting is done for the storytellers/singers; that’s the part that carries the weight of our sadness off of us in several ways. They’re still singing about a dying deer, but they’re also now clearly singing about love, and about sex. By using classic romantic imagery to describe the dying deer, they create an emotional association between love/sex and a dying deer. It’s actually a kind of pun: they’re using well-known words that typically mean one thing, and they’re using those words to mean something else. They’re playing with words, like when somebody steps in a hole in the ground, and somebody else says “You’re on holey ground,” manipulating homophones to connect a hole in the ground to a phrase associated with churches and places of worship. Even if there isn’t any church or other “holy ground” in sight, the combination of words is going to make the hole-stepper and any nearby listeners suddenly think of churches or other locations that they associate with the key phrase, with the pun. The same way that Rasputina just made us think about a woman lying in the grass, about to have sex with a man that she loves, even though they haven’t shown us anything of the sort in their song.

The second thing that the refrain accomplishes is confusion, at least the first time we hear it. This reduces sadness, because Rasputina just shifted gears from “Aw, poor dead deer!” to “Woman passionately in love!” That’s a pretty big WTF moment, and when people are thinking, “What The Fuck,” they’re no longer thinking, “Aw, poor dead deer!” Even though Rasputina continues to sing about a dying deer, that confusion lets the listener simultaneously see something else: a woman who is powerlessly overwhelmed by love/sex. The dying deer and the woman in love are the same, one image is super-imposed over the other, and it ends up being like one of those pictures where you’re not sure if you’re looking at a young woman or a hag. Or a candlestick or two faces. That confusion lets the listener pick, to some degree, which one they’re thinking of, and that choice allows the listener to listen to a version of the song that they prefer. They can, from this point on, either listen to a song about a woman who has fallen unexpectedly, completely, and powerlessly in love, OR they can listen to a song about a deer that’s being killed by a hunter.

The song is about both, about a deer and a woman, about dying and about falling in love. It’s a metaphor, and I’ve rarely metaphor that I didn’t like, not one as well-crafted as this.

The third thing that this refrain accomplishes is just as important. What is perhaps the only thing that can take the sting of death away from the dying? Wanting to die. The hunter has just shot the deer, and it’s reaction is love. The hunter kills the deer, and the deer likes it, even if it still regrets what is happening. It’s a kind of rape fantasy, where the horribleness of the act being committed is made more palatable to most readers if the victim of the act enjoys it, if the victim’s thoughts of the attacker are filled with love. To other readers, it becomes all the more horrible.

The next line: “My life is not mine, like a dog or a wife.”

Is that a deer, lamenting the loss of it’s actual life? Or a woman lamenting the loss of freedom caused by her overpowering emotions for a man? Or about a deer lamenting the loss of both it’s life and freedom to a man who is killing it?

Yes, I think that it is.

“He has taken his time, he has taken my life.” Again, deer or woman? Is the fact that he’s taking his time foreplay, or ruthlessness? Or both?

In the confusion, we get to choose. Just don’t forget the whole orgasm/death metaphor that has existed for centuries (if not millennia), because that’s another key to this song, especially in the next stanza:
I could see the steaming, of his cloudy breath,
No, I was not dreaming, I was next to [orgasm].
As I lay there twitching, then my legs he tied.
There was nothing missing, on the day I [climaxed for the first time].

That metaphor switches the scene from that of a deer being gutted, to that of a woman being pleasured. Even those listeners who are not already familiar with the tried and true metaphor of orgasm as death, I think that they’ll likely make the connection.

I have used similar techniques in my own writings, albeit less eloquently. In my story “Satisfied By A Stegosaurus,” one of the obvious challenges was the question of how to make a dinosaur’s penis a point of arousal for readers not into bestiality. After all, I write to arouse more than to simply amuse, so my goal is to get the reader turned on, even when writing something absurd. I rose to the challenge adequately, I think. When the heroine, Layla, is wrestling with the enormous appendage, I insert this flashback into the scene:

When she was younger, new into her womanhood, Layla had once sat in the lap of a handsome warrior of her tribe, a man long since gone missing after a Rhino Men raid. They had kissed, their mouths merging, tongues intertwining, and Layla had allowed the man’s firm thigh to part her legs, so that she was straddling his bare leg. That thigh had been thick with muscle, and as Layla and the warrior had kissed and caressed each other, Layla’s intimate flesh was pressed right up against it, with only the thin layer of Layla’s animal skin clothing between them. Layla’s hips had started rocking then, pressing herself against that man’s strength, feeling the power of that thigh, even through her clothing. The sensation of the strength, of the maleness, of the power filling the space between her legs had been overwhelming. Layla had had her woman’s bliss, crying out her pleasure into the man’s eager mouth, just from riding that mass of male muscle.

Now, for those readers not instantly aroused by dinosaur cock, or by my previous descriptions of what a stegosaurus can do with his tongue, I have created a kind of backdoor for them to enjoy the scene anyway. I have given them this little story-within-a-story to enjoy. I have implanted it into their brain for my further use. I then connected that very human sex story with the dinosaur-on-human sex story that I was in the middle of telling:

Layla had always regretted that she had been too modest that day, that she had not simply pushed the crotch of her covering aside, that she hadn’t been able to feel his naked muscles with the bare flesh of her womanhood. She’d never had another chance with that warrior, never known exactly how it would have felt. Now, though, her entire body wrapped around a gigantic cock, Layla felt that she knew.

Now, for those readers for whom my technique worked, suddenly that dinosaur’s penis is also the penis of a handsome, muscular man. At least, when they read about the dinosaur’s anatomy, they’ll have some level of internal connection to the anatomy of a man, as well as to a mini-story that has already aroused the reader.

I use similar techniques in my story “Cornholed,” where a woman has sex with an animate scarecrow whose penis is an ear of decorative dried corn. Once I decided to write a scarecrow story, you see, I had to decide what the scarecrow was going to use instead of a penis. Real-world scarecrows don’t have them, after all; if they did, then they’d scare more than just the crows. I was going for a Halloween theme, so I eventually settled in on the decorative corn idea. It had the right shape, after all, more or less. That left me with the idea of how to make corn-on-the-cob sexy. Not only corn, but dried corn. Dried corn simply isn’t sexy. It’s almost as un-sexy as a dying deer, in fact

Keeping my magician’s hands busy, I described things in such a way that I downplayed the downsides, and I up-played the upsides. I didn’t really mention the “dried” part during the sex scene. The rough surface of the corn would most likely be painful in real life, but I decided to spin it. Don’t think “rough,” think “ribbed”:

The scarecrow grabbed her by her hips, and slowly, kernel by kernel, slid himself into her. His painstakingly slow speed gave her body full time to adjust to the sensation, to feel every ridge of the strange member that was slipping between her inner labia, starting to stretch the muscles that guarded her inner anatomy.

Slip. Slip. Slip. As each ridge, each row of hard corn slipped into her, her body tightened again to grasp at the groove between kernels. Sarah had heard of condoms that were “ribbed,” supposedly “for her pleasure.” 

She had never experienced the use of one, the feel of one, but Jack’s unusual member was naturally ribbed, and he was certainly using it for her pleasure.

In real life? Probably unpleasant. In a fantasy story about a magical scarecrow coming to life on Halloween, in order to have sex with a woman? I think I made it work for most readers; I’ve only received a few complaints about that point, and any number of compliments. By making the connection between the corn and the condom, I made things a bit easer to swallow.

Language helped too. I use the word “slip,” because it’s a nice, easy, non-rough word, and I used this word to reassure the reader subconsciously that although the surface of the corn might be rough, things are actually going very smoothly in the story. I also describe the girth of the corn as follows:

It was wider than anything, than any cock or any toy, that Sarah had allowed inside of her before.

See what I did there? I compared it to human penises, and to sex toys. I take the potentially unpleasant, and I compare it to the pleasant and familiar. I take the un-sexy, and I compare it to the sexy. I make a connection between the Bad and the Good.

Also, once the nature of the scarecrow’s phallus is established, I backed away from mentioning that it was corn. The readers already knew, and didn’t want to keep their minds thinking about dried corn. So once the sex really starts, I simply refer to it as the scarecrow’s “cock” or his “shaft,” not his “corn-cock,” or his “ear of dry, rough corn,” or anything else that would bring the focus back around to unpleasant things.

Metaphors are quantum entanglement. Metaphors are voodoo. Metaphors join two different things, and they allow a good writer to manipulate one thing by manipulating the other thing.

A dinosaur’s penis is a warrior’s muscular thigh.

An ear of dried corn is a throbbing erection.

A dying deer is a woman having sex.

Metaphors are power. Learn to use them to their fullest.

The Nature of Storytelling

Written January 13, 2015

I’m not going to start in with elemental structures about plotting. I’m not going to go over stuff like story arcs, character creation, or “Show, Don’t Tell.” I’m going even more basic than that with this entry. The entire point of this entry is accomplish two simple things:

1. Explain briefly what storytelling is.
2. Explain why it is important for writers to understand what storytelling is.

This sort of thing is so basic that you might be wondering why I’m bothering even writing it. If somebody is an author, then surely they MUST know these things already, right?

Unfortunately, no. I occasionally find ebooks and authors that seem to miss these fundamentals in some important ways, so many in fact that I decided to write this blog post. If you already know everything that I say in this post, that’s great! But if you run into other people who DON’T seem to understand it, feel free to direct them this way.

Stating the obvious here for those who might miss the obvious:
“Storytelling” is simply telling a story.

A “Story”is simply a series of events. If you write something that has absolutely no events (implied or actual), or only one event, then what you have written is not a story.

“Telling” is the use of words to convey information.

What this adds up to is that Storytelling is “communicating a series of events” to an audience.

Are you with me?

Here’s why that’s important:
The nature of storytelling determines to a large extent the quality of any story that you write, because it also describes your goal when writing, to communicate.

A story that communicates successfully with its readers is, in a very fundamental way, a better story than a story that doesn’t communicate very well with its readers. As an author, you have something in your head that you wish to convey to other people. You have an imaginary series of events that you construct while plotting or writing a story, and the entire point of storytelling is to get other people to understand what’s inside your head, as best as you possibly can.

If you’re describing a character, you want the audience to imagine a person exactly as you imagine the person. If you’re describing a sequence of events, you want the audience to be able to understand exactly what is going on in that scene. And as a general rule, especially if you want to make money writing, you want as wide of an audience as possible, which means that your communication needs to be structured in such a way that a wide audience will be able to read what you have written, and to get the same story in their heads as you imagined in your own.

What this means is that very often a storyteller needs to set his/her ego aside when dealing with feedback from readers, because that feedback is telling you how successful your communication with the reader has been.

If a significant percentage of your readers are confused by a passage that you have written, then–no matter how crystal clear you think that passage already is–you should probably look at it again, to see if it can be made any clearer. Likewise, if you are using any writing technique that you find personally appealing, and you find that that technique interferes with communication with the reader, then you should re-assess the value of that technique in your writing.

Size is Everything

Written February 11, 2015

Something that I see in both erotica and in other genres of fiction–from sci fi to horror to literary–is authors who have a tendency to use specific measurements in descriptions.

I tend to think that straight measurements in description are usually a bad idea.

When audience members aren’t familiar with the measurements being used, details like “5 feet” or “8 inches” or whatever are useless, because the readers cannot visualize what is being described, and the entire point of description is specifically to get readers TO be able to visualize things.

On the other hand, when readers ARE familiar with the measurements and the kind of thing being described, then you risk them second-guessing your measurements if you’re too specific.

In erotica, for example, I never describe a man’s penis as being a specific number of inches long. Some readers won’t be able to accurately visualize the size. Other readers won’t be impressed by whatever number is used. Still other readers will find whatever the number is to be too high.

Same with a woman’s breasts- I never refer to her bra/cup size, because it ends up either being meaningless, or implausible, or unimpressive.

Instead, general and relative descriptions work best.

A penis can be “thick,” “long,” or “massive” without any specific measurement, and the description is vague enough to be meaningful to everybody. One reader might picture an “enormous” erection being 7″ long, and another reader might picture it being 13″ long, but they’ll probably each picture something pleasing to them specifically, without getting caught up in numbers.

Same with breasts.

Same with almost anything else.

One good (and obvious) alternative to specific numbers is to have loose numbers. Instead of “three and a half feet,” try “several feet.”

Instead of “twenty minutes,” go with “Many minutes .”

Most of the time, whichever character we’re viewing the story through isn’t going to know the specific measurements anyway.

An often better alternative to loose numbers is to use relative measurements. If a woman is reaching out to grab a man’s erection, telling the readers his exact length and circumference in inches isn’t nearly as useful to the readers as comparing the man’s erection to the woman’s own body. It’s an easy visual, and it’s right in the mind of either the man or the woman, assuming that they’re watching the action.

It also means that you’re being vague twice, which gives the readers more opportunity to insert their own experiences and tastes into the equation.

For example:
“As I hesitantly wrapped my fingers around him, I realized that his erection was as thick as my wrist.”

How thick is his penis in inches?

There’s no way to know, but there’s no reason to really care either.

All we need to know is that it’s impressive on the scale of this particular woman’s body, and that’s really the only scale that matters. Maybe she has really tiny, dainty wrists.

Maybe she’s got thick, meaty wrists.

It doesn’t matter either way, because every reader is going to visualize the scene in proportion to itself.

Same with breasts.

“Her breasts were so large that I could barely fit them in my hands” is far, far more interesting and useful than “Her breasts were 38DDs.”

It puts an image into our heads, an image of action. We can visualize his hands on her breasts, and that’s one hell of a lot better than trying to visualize a bra’s dimensions.

Same with almost anything else.
“His fist was the size of a grapefruit”
“My gun lay a coffin-length away.”
“It was only minutes until dawn.”