When I was in college, very long ago, a respected professor said that my work was a “tour de force” even though it didn’t really have anything to say. That was perfectly true. It was many years before I got down to serious attempts at writing for publication (well, not counting that one early sale to a “true confessions” magazine, and that time I did have something to say, however mundane.)
Even though it sometimes seems as though I only began writing yesterday, I was, in fact, writing for publication so long ago that I had to use a typewriter, and mail my submissions on paper, including a stamped, self-addressed envelope so that the editor/publisher could mail back a rejection or rare acceptance. If we wanted our actual manuscripts returned, we had to send a bigger envelope with the proper postage. It’s a good thing we’d progressed a bit past the chiseling words in stone era, or the cost of postage would have been astronomical.
In any case, my early stories were mostly fantasy, with a little science fiction tossed in, and here we discuss erotica, so it makes the most sense to consider how my erotica writing has changed over the years.
My general feeling is that I plateaued several years ago, and may even be sliding downhill. My best ideas may have been used up, or even overused. When I see a market I’d like to write for, I find myself going back to characters from previous stories and giving them sequels of sorts, or even prequels. In a couple of cases I’ve even written entire stories that filled in parts of previous stories that I’d just mentioned in passing the first time because I had so much more to say. Maybe that’s my subconscious trying to make up for the fact that I don’t write novels, but mostly it’s laziness, or, even worse, a failure of the imagination.
I do think my writing has changed over the years. The technical changes came pretty early, as feedback from editors pointed out my beginner’s faults such as overuse of ellipses, and repeating words too often—“Do you really need to say ‘I’ five time in one paragraph?” and such glaring lapses. As an editor now myself, I pass along this acquired wisdom. But I’ve changed in other less definable ways. When I made my first sale to Best Lesbian Erotica, very nearly my first foray into erotica, the editor phoned me and told me that she loved my story because it was so different from what she usually saw. She was actually calling me about making some major changes, which were justified, but for a couple of years I kept getting the “so different” reaction from other editors. I think this was mostly because I’d started out in fantasy and science fiction, where story structure and plot were absolutely necessary. These days, as an editor, I look for the “different” work, too, but so much more erotica has been written by now, and so many good writers have been doing it, that the bar is set much higher. On the other hand, so many not-yet-good writers have been flooding the genre with work that seems intent on perpetuating the worst banalities of what they read that the bar seems to be set lower, as well. A conundrum.
In any case, (uh oh, I used that phrase three paragraphs upstream!) I think my best writing, or at least my best ideas, may be in the past. Once in a while sparks will fly, but they may not be as bright. Or original.
I’ve been puzzling over what examples to use. It’s not that I can’t juggle the words well enough to keep them spinning in the air, but that they don’t say anything new. Well, the best thing I can think of the moment is to show you a bit of a story I wrote back in, oh, 2001, fourteen years ago, and then a bit of one I wrote just last year that filled in a part I’d passed over in the first one.
Bull Rider [This first part is just included because it’s my very favorite piece to read out loud for an audience.]
Sin City of the 70's, still sizzling in the 80's. Cheap pot you could smoke in the coffeehouses, but that's not what lit my fire. Sex shows and leather-toy shops? Coming a whole lot closer; but what really ignited a slow burn low in my Levis were stories of the working girls displaying their wares behind lace-curtained windows. Something about the dissonance between elegance and raunch struck a chord. "Fine old buildings," ice-maiden Anneke had told some of the Australian riders, with her slight, Mona Lisa smile and a sidelong glance at me. "Many visitors tour the Red Light district just to view the...architecture."
[Quite a bit snipped]
"On the house, Honey." Her nametag said "Margaretha," but her accent said New York. "You look like you might liven this place up. Ever ride one of those?"
I followed the jerk of her head. Through a wide archway I saw, rising above the sawdust on the floor like some futuristic mushroom, a mechanical bull just like the one Travolta and Winger rode in Urban Cowboy.
I wiped beer foam from my mouth. "You mean, does my ass live up to the advertising of my Levis? Lady, you have no idea."
"Don't bet on it, darlin'." Her assessing look assured me that one way or another, a good time could definitely be had. Much as I appreciate older women, though—hell, one saved me from fratricide—my hopes for something else grew. If it wasn't the police she'd called, who on this continent but Anneke would have described me to her?
"Yeah," I said, "I've ridden those, and the snorting, stomping, shitting versions too. For another beer and some of those hefty pretzels, I'd be glad to demonstrate."
"Wait a while." She refilled my stein and slid me a bowl of pretzels and cheese-flavored breadsticks, and I did my best not to stuff myself. Some things are better on a less-than-full stomach. Bull riding is only one of them.
"So, where are you from, Toby?" she asked, chatting me up while keeping a close eye on the door.
"Montana." I definitely hadn't told her my name.
"They let women ride bulls in rodeos there?"
"Not yet. Not officially. Except at small local shindigs where anything goes." I paid close attention to my beer and pretzels, not wanting to talk much about it. But there was no way I could keep from remembering the surge of wild triumph when I outrode them all, even my brother Ted. The pounding of my blood—the pressure building until I had to explode or die—and the revelation that, to achieve explosion, I needed to wrap myself around Cindy's full, smooth curves.
Back when we were twelve, Cindy hadn't minded a little mutual exploration. She'd been away for a few years, though, and this time, as I tried to pull her close, she twisted loose and ran around the grandstand to throw herself on Ted. Another revelation, that life was a bitch, seared me. No matter how much I could work like a man, even beat the men at their own games, their rewards were officially off-limits to me.
I was young and naive, and the shock filled me with rage. I leapt for my brother, and only the intervention of Miss Violet Montez, sultry lead singer for the intermission entertainment act, kept me from killing him.
"Hey, Tigrina, come with me." She pressed herself against me as Ted struggled to get up. "I have what you need. And what you don't even know you need." And she surely did, or close enough.
When I rode back to the ranch at daybreak, too drained to sort out the remnants of pleasure and pain and smoldering resentment, Daddy was waiting in the barn. He couldn't quite meet my eyes. "Looks like maybe you'd better go East to school the way your Mama always wanted."
Now for the newer story, filling in that particular interlude.
The Bull Rider and the Bull Whip
“Let me handle her, boys. This calls for a woman’s touch.”
The calloused cowboy hands trying to hold me back dropped away. Slender satin-clad arms wrapped around me, long dark hair smelling of sweet lemons brushed my cheeks, and my face was pressed against a scarlet blouse that barely covered the peaks of a magnificent pair of breasts. I had the sense to stop struggling.
“Come along with me now, Tigrina,” Miss Violet Montez, lead singer of the intermission entertainment act, murmured into my ear. “I know what you need. And what you don't even know you need."
And, as it turned out, she surely did.
Her trailer was dented and cramped, but I saw right away that it had a narrow built-in bed. She saw me eyeing it.
“Not yet.” Her voice turned stern. “Wrangling a bull is one thing. Treating a lady right is something else. Especially your first time.”
Well, there wasn’t much I could say to that. In fact, I couldn’t think of anything to say, and, while I surely knew some things I’d like to do, I didn’t know how to go about them with a gorgeous worldly woman like Miss Violet Montez. I’d seen her before at rodeos and such-like gatherings, and fantasized a bit like I did about movie stars and photos in the kind of magazines cowboys tucked under their mattresses in the bunkhouse, but never imagined I’d get this close. “Yes Ma’am,” I said, trying to sound polite with just a hint of cocky, but it didn’t come out right.
“You sit down in that folding chair and don’t stir while I change into something more comfortable.” I perked right up at that, but then she added, “and while you wait, give some thought as to whether you want things sweet, spicy, or downright nasty.”
I knew my preference, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but I’d got my brain working enough to know the right answer. “Whatever a lovely lady like you wants is what I want, too.”
“We’ll just see about that.” She scooped up some clothes from the foot of the bed and edged into the tiny bathroom, leaving the door open. I knew better than to get up from my chair, but I did crane my neck to see what I could see. It wasn’t much.
The low-necked satin blouse sailed out through the bathroom door, followed by her voice. “Never came across a girl bull rider before in a regular rodeo. Things must be changing for the better.”
"Not yet,” I admitted. “Not officially. Except at small local shindigs where anything goes." And where my dad was the biggest rancher around and chief sponsor of the rodeo association, but I didn’t say that.
Her short black satin skirt with rows of gold spangles followed the blouse, and so did her high-heeled sparkly cowgirl boots and a pair of nylon pantyhose. I wriggled in the chair to see if I could hook that last with my foot, with no luck, but I did get a glimpse of a bare shoulder through the door.
“Well, you can sure handle a bucking bull, but you need to work on self-control, ” she said over that shoulder. “And it remains to be seen how much else you can handle.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” It seemed like the safest thing to say. Now I could see that she was shrugging into a blue-checked shirt, which didn’t fit much with my hopeful notions of “something more comfortable.”
I looked idly around the trailer. It was dented and shabby, but with colorful pictures on the walls, mostly old rodeo posters, and some fancy duds hanging on hooks, along with…
I only just caught myself from bolting straight up. On one hook, coiled neat as a rattlesnake, hung one of the longest bullwhips I’d ever seen. I looked wildly around again at the posters, and there it was, in a corner of what looked like the oldest one: “Miss Violet Montez, Queen of the Bullwhip.”
Well, I don’t think I made any particular point here. The character from the first story is strong enough to carry the last one, and in both cases I did have quite a bit to say. The idea carries through, but it was born a long time ago. It’s harder these days to come up with new ones.
Or maybe I should just buckle down and write novels with my favorite characters.
[Bull Rider was originally published in the anthology Body Check from Alyson Books in about 2002, reprinted in Best Lesbian Erotica 2003 from Cleis Press, and reprinted a few more times. The Bull Rider and the Bull Whip was originally published in She Who Must Be Obeyed from Lethe Press and reprinted in Best Lesbian Erotica 2015.]