You learn the most from writers who are considerably better than you are and you learn a lot from writers who are worse than you are. But if I were able to go back in time and meet someone I'd probably choose William Shakespeare, not the least because he spoke pretty good English so you can have a beer with him, but also I'd want to pepper him with questions about craft. Among other things I'd want him to show me how to cut a feather quill and write with it and ask him - considering how expensive paper is, do you revise, Will? Do you write drafts? Do you rewrite? Yes? How many times? Do you write asymmetrically like I do, or front to back with an outline? I don't have to ask him where he got his ideas, because the fact is I already know the answer to that.
He used the Tarot Spread and The Jazz Riff.
One of the finest craft books I've studied, and I've studied quite a few, is a book specifically about erotic writing by the venerable Susie Bright of "Best American Erotica" fame, called "How to Write a Dirty Story". If you've never read a book on erotica craft and want to try just one, try this one. Its full of scholarly analysis, feminism, business wisdom and nuts and bolts exercises that truly work. I'm going to explain a couple of her exercises plus one of my own invention based on something I read in Stephen King's book on craft "On Writing".
Could You Would You?
When men are sitting around in public places as I am at this moment pecking away in the back of my favorite coffee shop we play a game in our heads which I'm very sure women play too. You see a hot looking woman walk by in summer clothes, tiny shorts and flips flops, brasserie optional and your eyes follow her and imagine her naked. You ask yourself - If you could fuck her would you do it? The key word being "Could". Meaning if you could fuck her without totally destroying your marriage, breaking the heart of a good spouse who loves you, causing your kid to hate you with contempt and losing your job and good name just so you can stick your selfish little dick in there and hammer her a good one for a couple of minutes until you get off - yeah, meaning something like that maybe - would you? You survey the room, imagine a perfect world of no consequences and - that woman? No. That woman there? Boy Howdy. And twice on Sunday. How about that one? The interesting question is to explore what kind of woman turns you on and why they do.
Suzie Bright takes this game a little further and asks you to play with your fantasies and write them down in a series of three scenarios. You should stop reading this, get some paper and a pen and work this out.because if you take this craft exercise seriously this is definitely worth your time.
You still sitting there, bub?
G'wan, find a pen, get out of here. Scat.
Okay now -
Ms Bright writes:
"Give yourself two minutes to answer each question. When your time is up, stop, even
if you haven't finished your sentence:
- Write down an erotic fantasy about a sexual experience you would have in a minute if it were offered to you, no questions asked. It should be about something you would have no reservations or conditions about doing in real life.
- Write down an erotic fantasy about a sexual experience you would have only under certain conditions. You could give yourself up whole heartedly under these conditions, but otherwise not at all.
- Write down an erotic fantasy that is completely satisfying to you in your imagination but that you could not do either because it is physically impossible or something you could never bring yourself to do in real life. But in your imagination it is completely fulfilling.
I actually got a decent story from number 2 - would maybe do if you could. My fantasy was that I would like to experience sex and orgasm as a woman in a woman's body to see how it differs from the male experience of excitement and release, but only if I could magically be a man again afterward. That became "The Happy Resurrection of Gregor Samsa", Franz Kafka's character from "The Metamorphosis" who awoke to find himself changed into " a monstrous vermin", usually depicted as a huge cockroach. I imagined the Samsa-cockroach awakening now incarnated as a woman and then looking for sex. Lisabet helped me get the female sensations right with that one.
The Character Splits (Tarot Card Spread) Exercise
Another exercise that Susie Bright explains in detail, though I will not, is "The Character Splits Exercise". I've also written about this on the ERWA blog as the "Found Story".
Natural evolution has preserved life for 3 billion years in this world by incorporating random elements into the genetic mix, using sex to combine random genetics into constantly changing and adapting life forms. If God wants one thing for you in this world - it's to get laid. Then you die. This is how organic life responds to contingency, say, mega-volcanoes and big ass asteroids. You can write stories this way too.
Susie Bright describes the Character Splits exercise:
Take five scraps of paper and write one name on each, the name of a family member or a close friend:
- Uncle Tony
Take five scraps of paper in a separate pile and name five famous people:
- Yoko Ono
- Brad Pitt
- Justin Bieber
- Ernest Hemingway
- Count Dracula
Finally in a third pile take five scraps of paper naming simple events of the day:
- Eating Breakfast
- Walking the dog
- Waiting in a line
- Paying bills
Pick an element at random from each pile and combine them. Say, Lisabet and Brad Pitt and Showering. (In my way of thinking this is like drawing card images from a Tarot deck and combining them and then listening to your intuition to see what story they suggest)
Take this scrap pile of elements and compose it into an erotic fantasy, Say Lisabet getting it on with Brad Pitt in the shower, that's an easy one, or Yoko Ono running into Count Dracula one evening while walking the dog and having a tryst in the bushes. What would Yoko Ono and Count Dracula talk about in the afterglow? Do you really prefer virgins? Did you really split up the Beatles?
Your people. Your mundane activities. Your tarot cards. The key is to draw on random elements you normally wouldn't be thinking of and combining them into something that would not have occurred to you. You can do this with stories too. Take down a book of fairy tales, a book of war stories and maybe a book of poetry, things that have nothing to do with each other, rip random paragraphs from each and shuffle them and challenge yourself to turn them into something. The key is challenge.
The Jazz Riff
Modern jazz bands often have a front man who noodles off some kind of a spontaneous melody for a few measures and tosses it to the next player who noodles around off it, then tosses it to the next player and the next. So you have a central melody interpreted on different instruments by different styles.
Stephen King wrote a wonderful craft book and autobiography called "On Writing" in which he offers encouragement to us wanna-bes and some very practical tricks of the trade. One of the things he explains in detail that I absolutely took to heart is the lost art of "pastiche", the literary version of a jazz riff. When he was starting out he would take a paragraph from a favorite writer, some paragraph he especially loved and would copy it out it out with a pencil - not a keyboard - with a pencil slowly, so he could mouth the sounds of those words. So he could FEEL those words. So he could think in his head with that sound and that feeling. To BE that writer for a little while. Word for word I've patiently copied paragraphs on stacks of yellow legal pads from Ray Bradbury, Angela Carter and Vladimir Nabokov, verbal high wire walkers who can knock you on your ass with a single phrase. Trying to hear them in my head, trying to get that sound and keep it for myself. Trying to love words the way they do. I don;t understand writer's who don;t love language. If you want to improve yourself as a writer, don;t worry about style, learn to love words. Read poetry. Listen for the music. Pastiche the music. Play the notes along with poets you love. When writing an action scene I take down my Robert E Howard and his punchy fast moving descriptions of skulls being "split to the teeth" with battle axes. I want that sound. When writing a sex scene I fill my head with Anais Nin. Dialogue, I consult my Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard. Not for their words which belong to them - for their music.
When I get stuck I have a copy of John Updike or Angela Carter in easy reach, crack it open at random with my thumbs and riff off of the first thing I see:
"She sits in a chair covered in moth-ravaged burgundy, at the low round table and distributes the cards; sometimes the lark sings but often remains a sullen mound of drab feathers." "The Lady of the House of Love" Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories)
And I might go: "Nixie sat sullenly in the moth chewed chair, humped like a storm bedraggled raven, a sulking, sullen mound of feathers." Once I get that first sentence going the rest often follows. But you only get to do that if you love words and sentences. Love is the thing, always.