Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Erotica Meets Great Storytelling - And You'll Never Guess Where!

It has always been interesting to me to watch the ways in which various art forms change at the same time and in the same ways, in accordance with social mood of the moment. In the past year, I have had some fascinating discussions with other writers around the differences between graphic erotica and pornography. Without placing any moral judgement on either - that would only serve to put ideas into boxes and squelch honest discussion - I have come to the personal conclusion that there is an enormous difference. Considering the difference is inspiring to me because it suggests to me that various art forms are changing in an exciting direction. I see this metamorphosis in photography, film, fine art and literature.

Today I am particularly moved by something that most would not, at face value, consider a work of art - but I do: a "porn" film by CockyBoys director Jake Jaxson. Actually, it is the second installment in a series of three short films dubbed collectively The Haunting, and I would aggressively argue that they are not in fact pornography by definition, but graphic erotica. The difference? - many would suggest, along with myself, that erotica preserves a story, the humanity of the players, and respects such elements as innovation and consideration of aesthetic techniques. Pornography seeks to simply depict graphic sexual activity for the sole purpose of titillation (and again, at times this is a perfectly legitimate goal).  What Jake Jaxson has done with The Haunting - beginning with an extremely innovative first installment in an industry that is too often set in its ways, and even more strongly in the second of the series (subtitled Into the Woods) - is to combine graphic sex with some beautifully-made footage (check the lighting in the bedroom night-time scenes!), acting with some serious standards, costuming and props that make the viewer rewind for a better look, and a bang-up good yarn of a ghost story.

Aside from the unusually high quality of these productions and the raw, unapologetic creativity displayed in them, I believe that Mr. Jaxson is to be commended for the fearlessness alone with which he is raising the bar for an entire industry. CockyBoys is slowly and definitely building a reputation for continually inching into some uncharted territory in their videos: a little romance here, a featured real life couple there, models filming themselves, light bondage laced more with romance and seduction, than with the usual dominant/submissive smut. The challenge was already being hinted at months ago; now, CockyBoys is tossing down the gauntlet. You want to watch gay porn? There are many websites and video manufacturers that can give you that; some are more tasteful than others, some feature prettier men, some feature kinkier activity - but in the end there is precious little variation amongst them. You want a great story, where the sex scenes integral to the plot are detailed and graphic - adding to the strength of the story? Watch The Haunting.

What is so exciting for me as a writer is that these films mirror so closely the questions and considerations that have so often crossed my mind in terms of literature. As is true in pornographic film (and for the purposes of this article, I will confine my observations to gay porn; hetero porn strikes me as a different animal and frankly I can barely stomach much of it - so offensive is it in its very tone and intent - but that is an article for another day...), literature can by the same definitions be divided into pornographic, and erotica. Where erotica preserves the traditional elements of strong plotting and characterization required of quality mainstream literature, pornographic literature features graphic sex laced loosely together by some sort of story, its main purpose being titillation rather than the engagement of the reader in a deeper intellectual or emotional sense. The erotic novel is gaining ground in the world of mainstream literature (in the past, such novelists as James Joyce and Henry Miller explored the genre but were often severely censored and chastised in their own time).

As I wrote Gentlemen's Game - and as I near the ending of my second full novel - I thought often of these issues. My books contain graphic sex scenes as an integral part of the story. In Gentlemen's Game, the emotional journey of the protagonist Greyson Foster is made clearer and more understandable to the reader by the detailed descriptions of what he experiences as he discovers his own sexuality in ways that he never foresaw. Because some of the story could be morally objectionable to many readers, it was important for me as a writer to show why my likeable protagonist was making the choices that he was; in order to do this I needed to take the reader inside his mind, inside his experiences, his views on his world, his bed.

I am excited that we are entering an era when storytellers - whether through a book or on film - are telling the story behind the bedroom door. Sexuality is a fact at the core of human experience. Perhaps for too long we have avoided looking at it in the cold light of day - afraid of admitting to ourselves that we are often slaves to it. If filmmakers and novelists are now dragging the observer kicking and screaming into a realm where sexuality is presented as an unapologetic core part of human experience, not something near-inconsequential on its periphery, I say more power to them.  As we inch toward a day when we all stop apologizing, graphic sexuality in art is becoming more beautiful: this is the point I want to make with The Haunting. Here is an established porn franchise presenting sexuality as a core part of the players' experience within a larger plot, and doing it in an aesthetically innovative and pleasing manner. There is many a mainstream feature film that does graphic sex less honestly and tastefully, and pays far less attention to plot structure than has Jaxson.

But it's about more than presentation: it's about honesty.  And here is where it begins to be inspiring as artists in both mediums - films and literature - begin to move toward a more honest depiction of sex. In some books it is enough that the reader is aware that a sex scene has taken place - a few well-placed phrases are offered to drive the point home, set the tone of the relationship, and suggest (suggest) anything important or unusual that took place during sex between characters. If it works for the story, no more is needed. However, what if we want to tell a story where the plot hinges upon the fact that sex itself changed the course of action of, and drove the motivations of a character? What if when we have the courage to describe this sexual experience, we offer the reader deeper understanding of a character?  Ideally, an erotic novel can do this: offer the reader deeper insight through the graphic description of sexual experience meaningful to the character's journey and to the unfolding of the plot. In this situation, graphic sex not only defines but can improve the quality of the book as literature, and can enrich reader experience.

Through The Haunting, Jake Jaxson has tread into this same uncharted territory: he has put the plot first, and presented graphic sex as integral to the plot. For example, the first installment features a protagonist who experiences in the course of a dream, intimate contact with not only his lover but a third person in the room - a specter that has stalked him as the two visit a cemetery and then a rented country home. Upon waking, our boy is not certain whether he has had a dream or whether it was somehow real . . .and then the fun really begins. (Hint - the last seconds of the film are terrifying and haunted me for days - well done, Jake Jaxson!) In this film, the graphic nature of the sex-laden dream is much the point: we as voyeurs experience what the protagonist does, and within the context of the story we then have to wonder what could be real. In the second film, Jaxson continues with steadfastedly connecting plot to sex scene - first offering a particularly aesthetically beautiful scene where the action jumps back and forth between our protagonist (now an investigator exploring the house to determine the nature of the mysterious disappearance of the former guests, the couple in the first film) and his fantasy of picking up a young man he saw walking beside the road earlier during his drive to the house. Through this sequence, we learn something about the thoughts and nature of our protagonist, and also get a healthy dose of foreshadowing - the young man on the side of the road is too intriguing for the reader not to guess he has more in store for the plot. A later scene between the protagonist and a ghost is eerily reminiscent of the first installment in that a guest in the house experiences a complete seduction in graphic detail, only to wake and wonder what was real. This scene is also aesthetically lovely - here is none of the stark lighting and cold close-ups of the usual porn video (and do we really want to see every public hair and zit?). Rather, the lighting - and the scene takes place at night in a bedroom lit only by very low lamps and the light of the moon - is understated and golden, complimenting the skin of the players and the ambiance of the scene; it is illuminating enough to see the extent of the sexual activity without seeming distracting in terms of the plot. The low light also preserves the dreaming-state part of the story. Throughout both films, camerawork is slick, reserved, and never intrusive upon the story.

Adding to the overall viewer's experience of The Haunting as something beyond a typical porn flick is the standard of production. Here, the filmmaker has employed atmospheric classical music, the careful lighting already mentioned (both inside and outside), a setting that is tasteful and beautiful and belies the anxiety that the foreshadowing creates (it is always creepy when everything looks lovely and calm, but the viewer knows it's a lie), some acting that is well beyond passable, props and set that allure and charm. It is a total experience: from the least elements of the props collection - an antique pocketknife and pocket watch, furniture and artwork, fireplace and antique textiles - to the enormous impact of a deftly-crafted plot.

Which reminds me - as a writer and reviewer, I need to say that the story is well done indeed. It is difficult to plot a successful story in the course of 30-odd minutes of film; it is rather like the tight, precise writing required of a short story as opposed to a novel. There is little time, and thus little room, to meander: in order to be successful the plot must be tight. In both installments, as one who crafts stories and analyzes story structure, I have been impressed by the story itself. The impact of the last moments of each story is dependent upon the successful introduction of earlier elements in the plot, and in these two installments - which Jaxson has written - he has handled himself well as a storyteller.

The price of a trial membership at is well worth seeing these two films for literary and film-making merit as well as for some beautiful men doing what they do best. Buy two months so that you can see the third and final installment of the series (unless we fans can talk Jaxson into more!), to be released in coming weeks. See a trailer of The Haunting HERE.

NOTE: For those interested in further discussion of this subject matter, I have already begun to talk Jake Jaxson and a few of his boys into a series of interviews this spring with Fireside With Lichen Craig - which launches at The GLBT Bookshelf in January.  (Now Jake knows what I was talking about!)  I'll bet he has some thoughts about the changing nature of porn and its future, and I have some ideas about how that relates to literature...

Visit CockyBoys at , where you'll find the trailer to The Haunting 2: Into the Woods.
See Jake Jaxson and CockyBoys on Twitter at @cockyboys .

Purchase Gentlemen's Game on this website, or at .

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Beginning Writers: 5 Biggest Mistakes!

Having been an editor and writer for many years, I often get a new writer asking if I will take a look at their work. I don't mind: we all started somewhere. I always feel that a beginning writer who is asking for help is a beginning writer willing to learn, and likely to improve. It's the ones who never ask for honest feedback - hungry only for empty nonspecific praise - that worry me, because they are more interested in being told they are good than in putting in the work and determination to really become good.

I always try to point out the things that a new writer is doing right. Knowing what you are doing right is as important as knowing what you are doing wrong. And it's the knowledge that you do some things well that keeps you striving for a better manuscript.

That being said, I do find that there are common areas where many beginning writers make mistakes. These problems are for the most part easy to fix, easy to learn, but they make an enormous difference in the overall quality of your writing. The bottom line for me, both as an editor and as a writer, is how hard does the reader have to work?  Reading should never be a chore; the darkest novel should be an enjoyable journey for the reader. Habits that get in the way of that happening are the habits that I encourage a new writer to break.

1 - Write a good opening.  There are many reasons for this, but the biggest are these: a good opening will grab the reader and hold him/her, and a good opening will grab a prospective publisher.

Editors at publishing houses who sort through new submissions will literally read your first paragraph - if you're lucky your first page - and make the decision whether to toss it.  I can't stress enough how important your opening lines and paragraph are. And well it should be, because readers won't read past a boring opening, as they stand in the grocery store browsing books, or sit at the computer reading Amazon samples. If the reader is bored by the beginning, the book does not sell. Period.

But how to do it?  Well, the opening sentence or two should say something surprising, something unpredictable, something unusual.  Which of these books would you like to read? :

A.  On a sunny Wednesday, Henry got into the car to go to the mall. He needed to shop for some new jeans.

B.  As Henry pulled into the parking lot of the mall, he swallowed his terror: walking into crowds was never something he could do without rising nausea.

In example A, Henry is doing something we all do. No surprise, nothing. Boring. We know nothing about him but his name. There is nothing to compel us to keep reading; no foreshadowing, no hint of a good story to come. We have two sentences, but have said little to nothing.  In example B, we have hinted at a story - and we have already begun to develop Henry's character. We know that he is terrified of crowds, and why? We know that he has decided that he either must go anyway, or he feels forced to go by someone or something else, and why?  The reader is already asking to know more.

I have heard it said that a good story should never be written starting at the beginning, but somewhere after the action begins - somewhere after the start.  I like that, although the beginning writer can get tangled in flashbacks, and that is another can of worms.

2 - Incorporate description into the narrative, and don't overdo it.  When I see this done badly, I can nearly hear the prose screaming "Amateur!" Never stop the story to describe a character. A description should never read as an aside to the audience/reader. It should flow naturally as part of the narrative. Let's look at our example B above. I could describe Henry this way:

As Henry pulled into the parking lot of the mall, he swallowed his terror: walking into crowds was never something he could do without rising nausea. He was dressed like a geek, and had thick glasses and an outdated haircut that he got at a barbershop. He had a plaid shirt.

Now that offers a little description, yes. But the problem is that it breaks the flow - and thus breaks the reader's concentration and enjoyment. Rather, we need to make that description a part of the story.  At this point, we already know that something is frightening Henry. His paranoia and fear is something ongoing, every time he walks into a crowd. That is a lot of information for a first paragraph. I would recommend to a writer that we leave it at that for now. In a later paragraph we can work in some more description if the writer feels it is warranted.

Let me say here that many good characters are never physically described in any real detail. It just isn't necessary. Some writers openly state that they like to allow the reader to form his or her own picture, and not let narrative interfere with that too much. But let's say that you just really want that plaid shirt and those glasses to be part of Henry. How to do it?

We could simply say:  As Henry pulled into the parking lot of the mall, he swallowed his terror: walking into crowds was never something he could do without rising nausea. He nervously pushed his glasses up on his nose, wishing he didn't wear them: they were thick and made him look like a geek. 

Here, the description is not offered as an aside, but rather as part of Henry's thinking about himself - it remains a part of the narrative. Plus, we have the added benefit of adding another character trait: he is nervous about his appearance.

As far as the shirt goes, it could be added later as part of the observation of another character regarding Henry's looks. Or, we could say something like Henry stopped inside the automatic doors to push the tails of his red plaid shirt into his trousers. Again, the description is offered as part of the narrative.

3 -  Keep dialogue realistic.  Obey this important rule to prevent your readers pausing to giggle, or worse, roll their eyes. Listen to the way people speak:  Too often a beginning writer will have Character A saying this, then Character B saying that. Both speak in complete sentences.  But in real life, Character A has gotten half a statement out and pauses for breath as Character B jumps in with another half-sentence. People struggle to be understood, search for words, misspeak. They speak in thoughts, half-thoughts, rarely in complex complete sentences.

I can't recommend highly enough that you read dialogue out loud as you write it. Read at the pace people speak, and think about how it sounds. If it doesn't have the rhythm of a real conversation, change it.

Another related element in writing good dialogue is that you want to write it using words and expressions that are realistic. First, consider the age, social class, even occupation and education level of your characters. Would a college professor be using a lot of slang that is popular in the local high school? Would a teen be speaking like a 30-year-old white-collar professional?  What era is your story told in? I recently read a novel set in the 19th century where someone said, "man". I was waiting for "dude". It was awful. A character in 1890 does not describe someone as "hot", unless they have had too much sun. Watch that your characters use expressions of their own time - doing so adds believability, and also adds a touch of authenticity!

A word about slang: One of my pet peeves is having teens with dialogue that is peppered with slang popular ten or twenty years ago. If you are going to use slang with young people - even with people in their thirties - make sure it is current. And know that even then, you may be dating your manuscript: what makes it sound cool now ("cool" being timeless by the way, haha) may sound silly and dated to the reader who picks it up ten years from now. Sometimes using as little slang as possible is wisest.

Watch the melodrama. "Oh, Henry!! I love you!" will have many readers throwing the book across the room. As in real life, when it comes to words, sometimes less is more - much more. Show with action what you leave out in words.

4 - It may be boring, but basic writing and language elements are important. Spelling errors, misuse of words, awkward sentences and bad paragraph structure, all turn a good story into a bad reading experience. Have you ever read a book where there were so many sentences that made no immediate sense - and you were so often reading and re-reading them to make sense of it all - that you wanted to give up?  Your reader does not want to have that experience.

Sentences:  Make certain that your sentences are clear. Make certain that they are not so long that they are difficult to understand. If they are, make periods of some of those commas.

Commas:  And speaking of commas, don't overuse them. If you have more than five, you have two sentences, or what needs to be broken up into two sentences!  Learn to use a dash - it can often take the place of a comma in a sentence, eliminating too many commas in one sentence. Learn the difference between using a comma and using a semicolon. Semicolons are wonderful tools - they allow you to build nuance into your sentence meaning. Learn to use them. Learn to use colons too. They will add richness to your prose.

Paragraphs:  Don't divide prose into paragraphs based on what it looks like. Paragraph divisions have nothing to do with appearance on a page: they have to do with change in subject/meaning. Learn how to construct paragraphs and break them properly.

Am I being too picky?  I don't think so. These tiny tools allow the prose to flow, make the reader comfortable, and therefore increase reader comprehension, enjoyment - and thus the quality of your book.

I don't have to say that you should watch spelling and grammar, right? And let me say here that we ALL have flaws in this area. The best editor does! Know your weak words and points of grammar.  Look it up if in doubt. Every single time if necessary.  Don't rely on the editor to clean up your mess of a manuscript.  It just makes them angry. Most editors - all of the good ones in fact - will send it right back to you, if you're lucky and they don't just toss it.

Invest in a good dictionary (collegiate level), a thesaurus (to provide alternate words if you tend to overuse certain words - as we all do), and a good style manual. The best of these for a general fiction/non-fiction writer are either The Chicago Manual of Style or The Gregg Reference Manual (of Style). These will contain fine points of grammar and usage of particular words.

5 - Don't stress over details. Don't sweat the small stuff. And you know what they say about the small stuff, right? In the case of writing, there is no room for perfectionism when writing a first draft. If you are a perfectionist, don't use it as an excuse to avoid writing that next chapter. Put the big boy/girl panties on and get rid of that attitude. The idea is to get the words down on the paper. Period. Only then will you really have something to work with later. Let me repeat: there is absolutely no room for perfectionism when you begin to write. It will kill your energy, your enthusiasm, and any fire the prose might have contained.

Worse, perfectionism by definition kills creativity. Perfectionism is really the stubborn determination to keep your thinking inside the box. But real quality writing/story-telling requires that you train your mind to think outside all boxes.

When you feel at your worst, write anyway. Getting anything down on paper is productive: not only does it give you words with which to play later, but at a subconscious level it forces your brain to keep learning to write. I don't personally believe in "writer's block". I have written for twenty-five years under deadlines: I didn't have the luxury to be whining on about writer's block.  You either put your nose to the grindstone or you don't. Some days are better than others. To pretend that you are such the tortured artist that you are mysteriously "blocked" is pretentious and a cop-out, and it won't help you get a manuscript written.  Learn that the worst days can be made productive because you can learn to value the bad prose that comes out of you, as well as the great. Many times, something you don't like that ends up stuck away in a file can come out later, undergo some work with new enthusiasm, and be dropped into a manuscript where it fits nicely. There is no wasted time if you are writing.

BONUS! #6 - The biggest mistake a beginner makes? Talking about it! When you talk too much about your story, you lose the desire to tell it on paper - because it has already been told. Keep your mouth shut, and keep the fire burning. If people ask, tell them frankly that you don't want to talk about it too much, you'd rather write it.

People will always ask, "What is it about?"  Prepare yourself ahead of time to answer. Make it short, sweet and uninformative. "It's a mystery/thriller."  "It's a love story."  That's all you need - and probably all the inquirer wants. People don't want a synopsis, no matter how tempted you are to give them one. Keep the frustration to tell them all bottled up and use that frustration to fuel your fingers on the keyboard. Your prose will be better for it!

I hope I have given you food for thought, and some new enthusiasm! Sticking to these basic rules will allow you to come up with a decent first draft of your manuscript. The relief and sense of accomplishment that you will feel when you see that you have 80-100,000 words - a full novel length - is so enormous and encouraging that you will be more than ready to start refining your work into a final draft!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Review: Missing

by Drake Braxton
Genre: Literary Fiction (gay-themed)
Seventh Window, 2012
Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars (See Reviews Guidelines)
Recipient of 2012 Rainbow Award for Best in GLBT Fiction: Gay Mystery/Thriller Category

Drake Braxton's first novel has hit the GLBT publishing world running. I am at a bit of a loss as to how to discuss it in a review, because the plot is dependent upon several twists that will leave your mouth hanging open - none of which I want to ruin here for the reader. Let's suffice it to say that the book offers a few surprises that you will never see coming.

Imagine if you will a committed marriage of many years, not without its struggles and ups and downs, but loving nonetheless. Protagonist Blain and his husband Manny have established a comfortable life in the comparatively gay-friendly city of Boston. Blain decides to attend his own high school reunion in the small southern town where he grew up, and Manny agrees to go along for moral support. But in the middle of the reception, Blain notices that Manny has disappeared. As the minutes - and then the hours - tick by, his panic grows, especially when he finds a threatening anti-gay message on a napkin and experiences some hostile encounters with former classmates. His hunt for Manny begins the book with a bang, and invites the reader to share in his growing alarm and his frustration as he runs into the bias-induced roadblocks that impede the authorities searching while there is still time to save Manny's life.

Braxton himself says that he wanted to write a book that crossed genres, and he has certainly accomplished that goal. In fact, this book changes genre as the book progresses - it begins being one thing and ends up being quite another. The book is a joy to read - told in spare, straight-forward prose that sails easily along. Braxton understands the importance of a good opening, and the reader is hooked from page one. The first "Oh my God!" moment comes at the end of the first chapter, and that is only the beginning of the roller coaster ride.

By the end of the book, the reader has been treated to several themes and been given plenty of food for thought: about the nature of commitment; about the terror involved in becoming one's authentic self; of the struggles with self-blame that we all share in one way or another; about the ways in which our complex brains make sense of the senseless in order to preserve sanity; and most of all, about the importance of courage in making life choices after tragedy.

I sincerely cannot recommend the book highly enough as simply a damn good read. If you want a great story, a few shocks, and a lot of meat to sink your teeth into and think over for hours after finishing the book - don't let this one get by you!

Missing is widely available, on both electronic platforms and paperback.
Technical notes:  Every writer, even those of us who are editors professionally, misses errors in a book. We depend upon editors to catch them and help us improve the quality of the book. Even small errors in logic (if everyone in the room is standing, why are we saying, "he got up and went to the kitchen"?), confusion as to who is speaking to whom, typos, misuse of words, interfere with the flow and with reader comprehension and comfort. This book could have benefited greatly from some more aggressive editing, and it is a disservice to Braxton that it did not get that. Errors are frequent enough throughout the book that the reader can become a bit frustrated.

Additionally, the final one third to one quarter of the book is a considerably slower pace, and different tone, than is the first two thirds . . . the reader may be tempted to drift away and leave the story unfinished. But that would be a mistake, as - despite this structural problem - the deepest part of the story is very much in the final resolution of the plot.

by Lichen Craig for The GLBT Bookshelf .