Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Fictional Orgasm

For the fictional orgasm, the sky's the limit

I often wonder if we aren't setting ourselves up for sexual disappointment when we read - or in my case write - stories where the characters always experience mind-blowing orgasms. Of course, admitting to a run-of-the-mill orgasm is not generally done, except for comic effect. The orgasm tends to be an unspoken event. You might admit to a friend that you had sex last night, even great sex. But you would be unlikely to start describing the ins and outs, so to speak, of your orgasmic experience.

We can categorize our orgasms on a realistic scale from:

1. Reasonable
2. Good
3. Great
4. Fantastic
5. Mindblowing

(You'll notice there is no negative scale for orgasms. Because, let's face it, no one ever has a BAD orgasm. Bad sex, perhaps. But any orgasm, however meagre, is worth a thumbs-up.)

In erotic fiction, orgasms on the 1-3 scale tend not to exist, unless it's a preliminary - and deliberately disappointing - sexual encounter before the main thrust of the book begins. No, most fictional orgasms will be firmly on the 4-5 scale of Fantastic through to Mindblowing. One exception to this is the literary novel. Within its pages you may find any orgasm from Gritty Urban Reasonable - often with an unpleasant aftertaste - all the way up to Stream of Consciousness Mindblowing - accompanied by a poetic description of waves crashing on the shore or a memory of naturally occurring patterns, such as furrows in a ploughed field etc.

Reading erotic fiction, a woman can become anyone, do it with anyone

It's vital, however, to differentiate between the fictional and the realistic orgasm. For although distant cousins, there is often little resemblance at all. For a start, most romantic heroes, including historical types, include at least a brief bout of cunnilingus in their foreplay, and always enjoy it immensely. Yet it is oddly rare for men in real life to express a strong yearning for such an activity. There are exceptions. But it was only recently that a fellow writer expressed a concern that a loving description she had just read of a Tudor lord going down on his mistress seemed unlikely in the extreme. But was it?

Did Tudor men prefer to eat out or just toss the dog a bone? And how can we be sure?

When it comes to the orgasm proper, we may indeed part company with reality. But I have to admit, I would be failing in my duty to my readers if I did not pen a stirring description of an orgasm to end all orgasms for my heroines, and not once, but every time without fail.

So what do you think of the fictional orgasm?

Is it time for erotica to 'tell it like it is' or should writers like myself continue pushing back the boundaries of the fictional orgasm, each one better than the last?

Elizabeth Moss is the author of WOLF BRIDE: Book One of LUST IN THE TUDOR COURT

Monday, 16 September 2013

Why We Love Reading Erotica

Jumping on a train the other day, I overheard two (male) station staff discussing Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James and pondering the reason why the book - and its spin-offs - had been so popular. Why liberated women, in fact, love to read erotica where a man is pictured as dominant.

I butted in - as you so often do when you're a writer - and told them I write erotica too. I explained my take that women lead such busy, complicated lives, sometimes they just want to be swept off into a world where they are desirable and adventurous, and where they no longer have to feel 'responsible' for everything.

We want to be heroines too ...
Modern women are 'responsible': for their everyday living, for their finances, for their careers, for their children, even for organising their love lives and contraception. And being the responsible one can weigh you down. We all love our independence, of course, and would never throw it away. Wishing to read erotica does not disguise some urge to return to the bad old days of the male head of the household, and the woman as silent partner.

But occasionally it feels fun and sexy to let go of our professional, business-like side, especially if we are 'in charge' in many areas of our life, including work. If our outer life is very structured, it can feel sexually energising to let our hair down, perhaps literally, and be the softer, less dominant partner for a few hours.

Some wrongly believe that reading erotica of the Fifty Shades variety means women want to be spanked, or tied up, or made to be submissive. Not necessarily!

Just because we love reading about the potential for such naughtiness does not mean we want the reality. We may be too stressed or too busy or too damn tired for hanky-panky in the bedroom. Some of us may not have a man willing to take charge, or have a man who would too readily take such kinky fun as a signal that we want to be dominated full-time.

By reading an erotic story, we can vicariously enjoy an insight into other people's sex lives, imagining how it would feel to be the heroine, bound to the bed, or bent over, awaiting a firm male hand on her upraised bottom ... but never have to do any of it ourselves, if we'd rather not.

WOLF BRIDE: Erotica meets the Tudors

Finally, the main thrust, if you'll pardon the expression, behind the sudden emergence of erotica as a popular genre for women has been the twin prongs of cover redesign and the e-reader. With generic covers, or a discreet e-reader in their bag, women need no longer feel embarrassed to be seen reading a sexy book. Though increasingly I see women on the train and in other public places thumbing merrily through EL James or Sylvia Day or any of the other erotic novels on the market, liberated from embarrassment by the knowledge that millions of other women are doing this too.

Maybe one day soon I'll see someone reading WOLF BRIDE by Elizabeth Moss. And carefully refrain from leaning across to ask, 'Any good?'

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Opening Pages of Your Novel: Part Two

Continuing on from Part One: The Opening Pages of Your Novel: Part One

On the first page you are setting out your stall. This is the magical world of my story: this setting and these people are what my story is all about. To return to the literary agent I mentioned in part one, Luigi Bonomi, 'the first page must pull them in - be indicative of the whole story.'

You may ask, how can I get my whole story into the opening paragraphs and pages of my novel? Not all stories are that simple. Or are they?

Theme is a kind of cohesive gel which brings together all the elements in your story. So if you can convey theme in your first few lines, you're onto a winner. Films often do this, using particular images or image-montages at the start of a film to suggest, either boldly or subliminally, the coming story and its overarching theme. And we live in a visual-rich age.

Readers also respond well to images and imagery, so don't be afraid to use them throughout your story, but perhaps most carefully in your opening pages, to suggest or underline theme, and thereby the entire story. Often this image will come naturally, without a writer even needing to think about it.

But if you're stuck, look at films you've enjoyed, or the openings of novels you recall very strongly. What images exist there? What clues about the coming story were you given in those first few vital moments?

Now consider your own story, and its general themes.

What kind of opening image - a place or an object - might subtly imply a theme of betrayal, for instance? Or a coming-of-age story? Or a love story?

Films can teach us plenty about the impact of an opening image. The key opening scene of the romantic comedy FRENCH KISS shows us the heroine in a flight simulation cabin, trying to cope with her fear of flying, as she is hoping to travel soon. Not only does this image - Kate on a plane - recur several times in the film, showing each time how she is developing as a person, but it also serves as a metaphor for her story.

At the beginning of the film Kate is trapped, 'grounded' in a failed relationship. By the end of the film, she is no longer afraid to accept the shortcomings of her old relationship: her new-found willingness to change has liberated her, and she can spread her wings and fly. The theme of being blind to true love is also emphasised by repeated comic instances of Kate just failing to spot the Eiffel Tower.

Think of your favourite novels. Which visual metaphors can you recall? Do they point to theme or shape a contrast? The opening scene of Margaret Mitchell's epic novel GONE WITH THE WIND introduces us to Scarlett O'Hara on the porch at Tara, her father's plantation. She is in her element, in her prime, queen of all she surveys, and we are shown her youthful arrogance in the first few pages so that we can later draw comparisons between our first glimpse of this fiesty southern belle, the hardships she is soon to face, and the woman she will eventually become. Interestingly, the opening scene of GONE WITH THE WIND takes place in the 'late afternoon' with these young 'aristocrats' of the south squinting into the sun: they are too blinded by their wealth and soft living to see that their world is coming to an end.

Be careful with the visual metaphors you choose though. Readers are cynical and sophisticated. They know when they're being suckered in. Try to make your imagery organic; let it spring naturally from the world of the story and its characters. If you know your story closely enough, such visual clues should come effortlessly. Many writers know instinctively whether to set their opening scene at twilight or high noon or in the dead of night, depending on the world of their story - and where it is headed.

Lastly, I'd like to go back to what I was saying about narrative voice and structure. Everything has structure. Even sound has structure. And your opening scene is no different. The accepted wisdom of scene structure is the same as for parties: if you want to make an impression, arrive late, leave early. But while incredibly useful when considering where to start and end, that dictum does not help people who need to learn how to shape a scene effectively.

You need to decide from the outset, though this will also happen naturally, what kind of scene shaper you are. Then work to your strengths, which is another way of saying avoid your weaknesses. If you've been told your scenes lack cohesion or purpose, don't shrug and consider yourself a creative artist, be professional and shape them more tightly.

"If they were caught, Eloise thought, the penalty would be death." The opening of my novel WOLF BRIDE.

Each scene should have a vital reason to exist, a reason which pushes the story forward, preferably without which your story cannot stand, and this applies in particular to your opening scene. It may be the only example of your ability to structure a scene that an agent reads. Although it's important to get everything else working for you - sentence structure, word selection, tone, dialogue, character, imagery - if you cannot shape the opening scene in a workmanlike fashion, you will lack the page-turning quality so prized by agents - and readers!

One way to tackle shaping your opening scene is to think of it in the same terms as the imagery I mentioned above: the opening scene may be a catalyst for the action ahead; it may suggest or encapsulate theme; it may underline character, or explain how a character became that way; it should set up or indicate the action of the story, and introduce either one or more of the main characters or the situation in which they will shortly find themselves.

The page-turning quality!
Unless it's a prologue written in a different style, your opening scene should also be in tune with the narrative voice of the book, so the reader knows what kind of voice will be whispering in their ear - and whether they can trust it.

In addition, the opening scene should have a clear beginning, middle and end. Which means in real terms a set-up, a conflict, and a resolution of sorts. And if that structure subtly mirrors the main action of the plot, so much the better.

If an opening scene can do most of the above, and not be impossibly cluttered or heavy-handed, and you have also used your understanding of narrative voice and character to make the reader care what happens next, then you will have done a fine job.

Elizabeth Moss's latest novel is WOLF BRIDE (Hodder & Stoughton): published 29 August 2013, available NOW in both the US and the UK, and other countries, in ebook form.

Monday, 2 September 2013

How To Write: The Opening Pages

Get the opening pages right, and you'll not only hook your reader, you'll hook the story itself.

Elizabeth Moss has published sixteen novels under a variety of names, plus short stories and novellas, in the fields of both commercial and literary fiction.

I'm going to assume in these posts on writing that you are either a new and unpublished writer, or self-published and looking to get into traditional publishing. So do bear that in mind if those do not apply to you.


Most of the 'how to write' books I've read insist on a BANG or WOW opening. Something in the first few lines or on the first page which will capture a reader's attention and keep them turning the pages. And it's true that your first reader - apart from friends/family - is generally an agent or publisher, and since getting their attention is rather important for a new writer, getting the opening pages right does seem desperately important.

Luigi Bonomi of LBA, Literary Agent of the Year 2010, wrote in an online article on 'How To Get An Agent' that the first page has to be 'brilliant' and 'pull them in'. Due to the sheer volume of submissions handled by most literary agencies - around 5000 manuscripts a year is not unusual - Bonomi reckons 'you have on average around 60 seconds to impress an agent with your covering letter and first page.' Which sounds harsh, but is probably about right.

Professionals know what they're looking for in a submission, and deal with so many, it only takes a once-over with an experienced eye to make that initial yes or no. And you need to avoid the word no for as long as possible.

So try to ensure your opening is pacy, exciting in some way, and emotionally resonant. However, starting with a BANG or a WOW may not suit your story. Or your narrative style. But that does not mean you cannot hook a reader's interest in other ways.

You may have heard about 'voice' and how important it is to get one as a writer. And been confused, no doubt. Voice is something we use when speaking. How can it transfer to narrative technique?

The writer's 'voice' is the one we use when speaking, yes, but also the one we use in our own heads, when thinking. It's our dream voice. Our private narrative on life. I don't necessarily mean accent or dialect when I say 'voice', I mean intonation, significant word selection, sentence structure - all things we don't tend to consider when speaking, but which come naturally to us.

We don't think how our feet and legs move when taking a few steps, it happens automatically. In the same way, the writer's voice is the one we use automatically, without really thinking; the natural voice inside ourselves that has been developing since early childhood. All sorts of things may be muddled up in it. Nursery rhymes, sounds we love, structures we inherited from our parents or carers, snatches of poetry, songs, books, films, and the effects of external pressure - speaking a certain way because it is 'expected'.

The writer's voice is about rhythm and selection. The way we choose to balance sentences, and the words we choose to balance them. See what I did there? That's my voice. But it's also a voice I can put on, like an overcoat. Because the writer's voice is not fixed or singular. It's fluid and multiple. The core of it, the essence of the voice, remains the same. But it can be manipulated or tweaked to achieve different effects, depending on what kind of writing is required.

The opening page is like an introduction at a party: it's about making a great first impression!

Which leads me to character. Because character is what forms the structure of the writer's voice in each new story. The narrative voice in a novel may not be - in fact, almost never is - the same as the writer's internal narrative voice. But it is based on it because it has to be. Write what you know, experts tell us. And what we know best is ourselves.

So each narrative character is a little bit like you. Even the serial killers.

A narrative character is the one who shapes the story for the reader at that moment. To let that character 'speak' to the reader, you need to enter into their narrative voice, using your own like a rope wrapped securely about your waist. They may talk funny. They may not fully understand themselves or their predicament. The reader may feel superior, having to read between their lines to get the gist of what's going on. That's dramatic irony. Or they may know more than the reader. They may withhold information. Trick the reader, shock them, make them pull up in surprise ... and re-read.

Voice and character are inextricable.
So sketching out character in your opening pages is also the act of setting out your narrative voice. Voice and character are inextricable in most fiction. They are the front and back legs of a pantomime horse. Look after the one, and the other will look after itself. Voice reveals character, and character defines voice.

You can start with dialogue. If you do, make it reveal character. That is, if the narrative character is speaking, give him or her only words to say that reveal character, not merely point to plot.

'There is a bomb in my knapsack,' suggests a cool character, someone hard, determined, unruffled by the threat of imminent death, probably very dangerous.

'For god's sake, help me. There's a b ... bomb in my knapsack!' gives the opposite impression. You don't always need to add a qualifier: she said coolly, softly, loudly, in a terrified voice.

Or you can start with narrative prose. Only remember that someone else is behind it. Not you. If it's fiction, it's never you. He looked down from the hilltop. The town under enemy fire was lit by a thousand points of light, like a Fourth of July firework display is a very different opening to He stared down from the hilltop. The town was under enemy fire, houses ablaze, people screaming as they ran for cover.

Each of these opening lines should arouse a different emotional response in us as readers. It should also make us wonder about the narrator, and their emotional response to the situation.

Writing character revolves around such emotional responses to action and situation, or a lack of them. We as readers are emotional creatures. We latch onto emotion in the narrative voice and think, yes, I know how that feels, or would feel the same if that happened to me. We begin to trust and open up to what is being narrated. We begin to care.

We ask silent questions as we read. What will happen to this person with the bomb in their knapsack, or the innocent people in their immediate vicinity? Who put the bomb in the knapsack? What is their motive in blowing everyone up? Why did they use the word 'knapsack' instead of the more usual 'backpack' or 'rucksack'? Where is this town, why is it under fire, and how many of these people are going to die?

As soon as we have no further questions, or none which engage us emotionally, we stop reading. As soon as a character ceases to arouse an emotional response in us, we stop reading. Your job as writer is to prevent us from doing that. To keep us reading, keep us turning the pages. Keep us caring about your story.

Believe in your story.
Emotional response is what we need to evoke when we write. That's what keeps the pages turning. We also learn to manipulate emotional response when we create a slippery or untrustworthy narrator, a narrative voice that cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

That too is part of the art of writing: being a confidence trickster, getting the reader to believe in what you have written, to trust your narrative character implicitly. If they do and then later discover the narrator was lying, are you prepared for the backlash? The book thrown across the room, the manuscript put through the shredder, the pithy email rejection?

Don't use false mystery or untrustworthy narration to hook a reader unless you have a plan to back it up, and a damn good plan too, or you will lose their trust. Not just in this story, but in all your stories.

Fiction is by definition untrue - even when based on a true story. Yet a good writer makes the reader forget that and 'believe' in their characters and their story from the very first line.

... Continued in Part Two: The Opening Pages of Your Novel: Part Two

Elizabeth Moss's latest novel is WOLF BRIDE (Hodder & Stoughton): published 29 August 2013, available NOW in both the US and the UK, and other countries, in ebook form.

Paperback due November.