Tag Archives: writing

On Kicking My Own Ass, or Where the Hell I’ve Been

This blog has been pretty quiet for a while now, except for the sound of crickets. Little crickets. Little crickets that occasionally cricketed in my direction before sighing and going back to sleep. The quiet was a change for me. For most of the life of this site, I posted fiction or nonfiction at least once a week. I knew my blogging would slow as work on my collection progressed, but I didn’t anticipate the absolute halt. In hindsight, I probably should have. But then, I didn’t realize quite how hard I’d be kicking my own ass.

The ass kicking has taken a lot of different forms, most of them positive but, as in the way of all ass-kickings,  very often challenging. One of the biggest was the collection of linked short stories that I’ve been working on for the better part of a year, and which is finally going to release with Go Deeper Press Tuesday (!!!)

Roadhouse Blues started off as one thing and ended up being something else entirely. I’d been wanting to do a longer project for a while—nothing too serious or, you know, likely to kick my ass, but good and interesting all the same. Something that would explore a fluid variety of sexual experiences. Something I could be proud of and really happy to have done. So, that’s how the project started – as a fun creative challenge. Hooray! Terrific! All according to plan so far.

Then I started digging in, and the stories got more personal—never autobiographical, but definitely drawing from the complicated, sometimes murky, well of my own emotional landscape. That’s when my blogging started to slow down.

At first, I went from posting every week to every couple of weeks, because the collection was time consuming and so is my real life work. Then posts started coming even more sporadically because, hey, this workload is kicking my ass but what the hell, let’s see where it goes.

By the time Eroticon London rolled around in March, I hadn’t posted in ages. Since then, the only thing that’s gone up on my blog has been the notes from the talk I gave there, (which was an awesome experience, btw).

By then, I had to admit something to myself. It wasn’t the workload that was kicking my ass. It was the emotional digging I was doing. I don’t want to make it sound like the collection is full of awfulness and pain. My goal was always to give people a good read, not a horrible slog through horrible things, and, while there are some trigger warnings in there, I’ve stuck as close to that goal as I possibly could. It was more that everything I’d been putting in my posts was going into the stories, and my focus had to narrow to make it work.

The other piece to this, the much larger, harder-to-talk-about piece, is the fact that I’ve been going through a pretty difficult time personally. The writing of these stories has been directly linked to my own process of healing and recovery, so the more I dug into my history, the more immediate the stories became. It was a powerful experience, both as a writer and as a person. Unfortunately, the side effect was that I developed a deep and abiding need to get very, very quiet in almost every other way. Thankfully, I have very supportive, loving people in my life who understood this deep and abiding need, something I’m grateful for to no end.

I don’t feel comfortable making big, fat declarations of emotional commitment to my work—my commitment should be clear in my writing, and, if it’s not, I’ve done a shit job. In this case though, I’ll admit to the fact that this collection required more from me than I initially expected. The ass-kicking I gave myself while working on Roadhouse Blues was much harder than I could have imagined, and all the more valuable for it.

I have no idea how Roadhouse Blues will go over when it releases Tuesday. I have no idea if people will enjoy it, or hate it, or just not even care, and I’m weirdly okay with that. I can’t control how people read it, or if they like it, or hate it, but as much as I want to this book to succeed, I’m also very aware of how important it’s going to be to let it go.

I did what I set out to do. I wrote something that I’m proud of. I wrote a collection of twelve linked short stories that explore sexual fluidity and subversiveness in a seemingly traditional place. I brought everything I had to it and I didn’t leave anything out, even though I was tempted, once or twice, to take a less ass-kicking road. I’m glad I didn’t though. In the end, regardless of how Roadhouse Blues is received, for me, the ass-kicking was worth it.

Go Deeper Press has been awesome and released some excerpt from the collection ahead of time, along with the book’s introduction. If you want to check them out, you can click the links below. Rachel Kramer Bussel was also kind enough to post an excerpt on the Lady Smut Blog, so I’ll include that link too. Thanks! 

from the title story, “Roadhouse Blues”

from (my favorite story), “Marlboro Man”

from “Flash, Pop!”, the story that inspired the collection

Lana Fox’s (super brilliant) Introduction

Sex in Flash Fiction: The Session

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Thank you to everyone who came to Sex in Flash Fiction. It was lovely to put so many names to faces. For anyone who wasn’t able to attend, this is the presentation in written form, along with the slides that accompanied it. It’s fairly long, and I cherry-picked a great deal, so it includes information that didn’t end up in the session. Feel free to view the slides on their own, or read them in conjunction with the text. Either works

However you do it, use what works for you and ignore what doesn’t. My only agenda was to give you tools to help you to sound like you at your writerly best. This session was about skills—not requirements. Play with them. Experiment. Keep what works and ditch what doesn’t. Trust your gut. No one knows as much about your writing as you do.

SESSION GOALS

  1. The ability to make the most of a limited word count.
  2. A sense of how to use sex to convey meaning and impact.
  3. The ability to set up and subvert the reader’s expectations.
  4. Five concrete tools you can tailor to your own style.

 Erotica can be divided into countless subgenres, but when you boil them all down they tend to fall into one of two categories—stories in which sex is the point, and stories in which sex makes a point. While this session focuses on the latter, you can just as easily apply it to the former or any other kind of fiction for that matter. But, before digging into this skillset, I want to talk terms.

 WHAT IS FLASH FICTION?

Flash fiction is a story stripped of everything that isn’t fundamental to its story-ness. Picture a lush, fairy tale wood full of poison apples and snow queens and pretty ladies with long, long hair. That’s a novel. Now, picture a broken slipper on the forest floor. That’s flash.

Flash fiction takes a microscopic view. Because of that, everything counts. In flash, unlike in novels, what you don’t say means just as much as what you do. That’s why it’s such a powerful form for eroticism and sex.

Concision doesn’t leave room for extensive description, which actually great because we all know how sex works—you don’t have to waste time on thrusts per minute. We get it. What we won’t get is why it matters. In flash, context is king—it’s much more important than sexual mechanics. I know that might sound limiting, especially for an inherently descriptive genre, but there’s actually a lot of freedom in that restriction. It pushes you to find eroticism in the mundane and unexpected, and that’s a good way to connect to the reader.

SEX IN FLASH FICTION

Sex is everywhere, from the bend of a neck to ice cubes melting in a glass. The pressure of a limited word count demands specificity. You’re aiming for maximum impact in a story distilled to its essence. So, how do you do that with sex?

Surprise the reader.

You’re not going to do that by describing a blow job step-by-step. Remember, this is erotica, not a how-to manual. The impact isn’t in the mechanics. It’s in the significance. You have to make the blow job matter. Mine the characters for motive and meaning. Find the erotic in unexpected places. Sexualize things that aren’t normally sexualized.  Set up the reader’s expectations. Then narrow your focus and twist the lens.

That’s how you make a story out of sex. Let sex seep into everything. Let it guide or subvert the reader’s expectations. That’s how you make a story out of sex. Make her horny. Break his heart. Anything goes, but first you have to assume the reader has a baseline understanding of how sex works, (and if they’re reading erotica, they probably do). The assumption will let you surprise them. That’s where the impact is.

THE FIVE TOOLS:

Details

Word Choice

Pacing & Rhythm

Negative Space

Imagery

All of these tools affect one another—Imagery leans on Details; Details lean on Negative Space, etc. There’s a lot of overlap, but details form the foundation the rest are built on, so that’s where we’ll start.

DETAILS

It’s not enough to paint a pretty, sexy, gritty, hot picture—the picture has to do something. The details can be as porny as Friday night on the Vegas strip, but they also have to reveal something fundamental about the story. If your details are generic, then your story is generic, no matter how well your characters get fucked.

Details are also a great way to subvert the reader’s expectations. Don’t tell me your protagonist is a “curvy blonde”. Tell me her nickname was Fuck Me Barbie in school…and then tell me she’s a virgin. Now, dig deeper. What if she’s hired an escort for her birthday? Does the escort know it’s her first time? How would that effect the experience? What if the escort was a woman? Would it matter?

Ask yourself questions and let your instincts give you the answers. Those answers are where you’ll find the details that give sex meaning in a story. It doesn’t matter if that detail has to do with a glass dildo or teacup. Details are the key to impact.

Example:

Kiss me a question, ask me again with your eyes and I’ll answer with my fingers, trailing reasons down your spine. There’s a theory behind your knees and postulate in that sweet spot on your neck, and I’ll respond to your query with a smooch and a holler, roll you up against the sink and wash your hair, make love till the plates fall off the shelf

-Lou Beach (from 420 Characters, p. 77)

Lou Beach is really good with details. The narrator is going to roll her up against the sink and wash her hair. What does that tell you about this couple? How about the smooch and holler? I get a lot more information out of that “smooch and holler” then I would from a “kiss and a smile”.

While it’s true that it would’ve been more efficient for the narrator to say, “I’m gonna to fuck you up against the sink,” that statement doesn’t tell this story. “I’m gonna to fuck you,” belongs to a different couple. This story and this relationship come alive in those falling plates.

WORD CHOICE

With a super limited word count, you just don’t have room for generic prose. The reason Beach pulled that story off is because every word had effects the whole. Just as with details, words give a story momentum and punch, but only if you choose them carefully. You have to make every word count.

And now, a note on euphemism.

Euphemism can be tempting, especially when you’ve already used the word “cunt” fifteen times on a page. But instead of sucking up word count with passion petals, try rephrasing the action. Whereas euphemisms yanks the reader out of the story, rephrasing is less likely to distract. As an added bonus, it usually results in tighter prose. And less cringing.

Moving on.

In her excellent post on flash fiction, writer, poet and editor, Adrea Kore, recommended that you “work your verbs hard” and she’s right. The same goes for nouns. Regardless of whether you’re writing a sentence or a novel, strong, specific words make tight prose. Hit hard with your nouns and verbs, and half your description is taken care of.

Muscled nouns and verbs also let you be sparing with adjectives and adverbs. I’m not saying don’t use them. All I’m saying is choose where and how. If every noun comes with an adjective, the picture gets muddy, but if you’re selective, the few that you do use make the details pop.

Another thing you can play with is reflective words. Think about your characters or situation. Is he trapped in a seedy hotel room? Or does he live in a seedy hotel room? Let his circumstances show in the words you use. Does he have “a nicotine grin” or a “church-lady grimace”? Reflective words show us who he is more efficiently than paragraphs of background.

Example:

it always comes back to you

boils

circles

itches

its way back to you.

– Rupi kaur, (from Milk and Honey, p. 114)

Like flash fiction, poetry demands concision. The poet, Rupi Kaur is a magician with concision because she wrings the most out of her words. Boils…circles…itches…. Her feelings for this person are not easy or comfortable, but she’s going to do it anyway because this person has a pull. It’s inevitable, regardless of how she feels about it, and we know that because of the words she chose to describe her compulsive attraction.

PACING & RHYTHM

Pacing and rhythm effect how your reader engages text on a visceral level. Play with rhythm and you play with the reader, but before you can do that, you have to jump start the story.

In flash fiction, there’s no room for build up, so don’t be afraid to start in the media res. It doesn’t matter if it’s an argument, seduction, an orgy, a date, a trip to the grocery store, whatever. Start in the middle of the action. Dropping the reader in gives the story urgency, and urgency is a very good hook…which brings me to rhythm. Rhythm is a great way to pull on that hook.

You know how every conversation has a rhythm? Those rhythms are dictated by details, everything from how well the people know each other and whether or not he’s wearing knickers. The same thing goes with prose, except a story’s rhythm is dictated by details in context and narrative rather than by life.

You can play with rhythm in a lot of different ways, but one of the easiest is word choice. Use alliteration and assonance. Pay attention to the way a word feels in your mouth. Slither, crack, liquid. What does the sound imply? Good words set a tone. The reader won’t consciously know what you’ve done, but you’ll grab them by the brain stem if you choose words that establish and mirror the rhythm of the action.

Another good way to play with rhythm is to vary the length of your sentences. Use fragments, and long winding sentences. Punctuate long winding sentences with fragments, or even single words. If a character’s getting off, let the prose mirror the sex, her orgasm or her state of mind—long and drifting or hard and biting? Again, the reader won’t necessarily notice but, subconsciously, they’ll feel it as they read. That’s how you get under the reader’s skin.

Example:

 When she closed her eyes she felt he had many hands, which touched her everywhere, and many mouths, which passed so swiftly over her, and with a wolflike sharpness, his teeth sank into her fleshiest parts. Naked now, he lay his full length over her.

-Anais Nin, from Delta of Venus.

One long, rolling sentence, followed by a short, sharp one. That first sentence, with its dreamy build and “many mouths” cuts off with “wolflike sharpness”. Then she follows it with a straightforward statement of fact—“naked now, he lay his full length over her.”

That rolling rise to blunt statement mimics her emotional experience while they’re having sex, and it’s all executed through pacing and word choice. The rhythm lulls the reader right in—your there before you even know how it happened.

NEGATIVE SPACE

Negative space is subtext that functions on the same principle as rhythm—it forms a visceral connection between the reader and the story. Think of it as a doorway into the text, one you deliberately leave open. There are a lot of ways to do this, but two of the simplest are ambiguity and implication.

Casually speaking, ambiguity and implication do roughly the same thing—they allow for more than one interpretation, but they do so in two different ways. Ambiguity blurs the reader’s ability to draw a definitive conclusion, and implication sets the stage for multiple conclusions.

Ambiguity is all about the deliberate use of details. Unless it’s relevant to the core of the story, don’t waste word count describing her tits, or her hair, or her big brown eyes. Instead, use active description to invite the reader into her sexual response—the peaky, unfamiliar ache of the clamps on her nipples, or how she feels her heartbeat in her cunt.

Ambiguity is not about leaving details out. It’s about creating space for the reader in the details you give. Lack of specificity in some areas paired with great specificity in others leaves the story open so the reader can slide in, and that’s exactly what you want.

Implication, on the other hand, is about interpretation. It works off the same basic principle but, whereas ambiguity leaves a door open for the reader, implication sets up multiple doors, and then allows the reader to choose. This leads me to writerly kryptonite—the impulse to control and explain.

When I first started writing, I wanted the reader to completely understand EXACTLY what I meant, so I tried to explain everything.

Ages ago, I wrote a story about a guy who didn’t answer a text from his crush. I went on to explain that he’d just had a really bad break up with his ex, Michelle, who left him for his sister’s best friend, Tammy, who was from Wyoming, where they now live and raise llamas on a ranch next to a chicken farm and when they aren’t raising llamas and selling boutique llama wool, they’re having amazing lesbian sex that he can hear from three states away.

I put all of that in, just in case—even though it was supposed to be a 100-word story about regret. Needless to say, Tammy and the llamas did nothing to distill that story’s core. All I did was clog the negative space and spoon-feed the reader a pile of useless information. In trying to control the reading, I lost the point.

Negative space is an act of trust. You cannot control how a story is read. You can only control how you write it. So, basically, you have two choices. You can either make the reader complicit and let them interpret your story through the lens of their own experience, or you can fill the negative space with a single, magical meaning. Unfortunately, single magical meanings lock the reader out and risk losing their interest. That’s risky under any circumstance, but even more so when you don’t have enough word count to reel them back in.

Example:

They walk hip to hip, knuckles brushing, as they measure their potential in the rhythm of their feet

-“A Love Story in 18 Words” by Malin James

I posted this a few months ago. It’s an extreme example of negative space. The characters are unnamed and ungendered, all we know is that they’re trying to sort out whether or not to keep dating. The entire story takes place between the lines. My job, when I was writing this, was to create a frame for the reader to fill in. My priority was emotional resonance, so I wrote a story that was mostly negative space with that goal in mind.

IMAGERY

If there were one tip I’d give anyone on writing flash fiction, it would be the one in that quote—start with one, strong, central image and build the story from there. It can be an image from a dream, a painting, a photograph—any kind of visual prompt. A woman writing on her skin, a tall, narrow house, a girl on stage at an auction. Each of those images became a story that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Imagery is the culmination of all of the other tools we’ve talked about. It’s made of specific, telling details and painted with words; it propels the story forward and invites the reader in. It sets up expectations, and just as easily subverts them. It is, in fact, the distillation of a story to its core. So, how does it work, especially with sex?

Start with one, strong central image. With erotic flash, that image can be obviously sexual or, just as effectively, seemingly innocent. This brings us full circle, back to finding sex in everything. Find it, and you’ve got the germ of a story.

Take the obviously sexual image of a couple fucking in a hotel window. You’ve set the reader’s expectations right out of the gate, so now you’re free to mine the characters and situation for unexpected details. What if this isn’t their hotel room? What if they stole the key? What if she’s setting him up? What if he knows?

Dig into the details around that overtly sexual image, and surprise the reader. Take what they expect—exhibitionist sex in a window—and make it significant in some way. Take the reader’s expectation and turn it on its head.

Now, let’s take an image that has nothing to do with sex—like a pair of striped socks. Where is the eroticism in a pair of striped socks? Is it in the memory of the first time they fucked? Did he leave the socks on when everything else came off? Did his partner teased him about it? Or does she wear them under a pair of spiked, patent-leather boots? Are rainbow striped socks her clean little secret?

Imagery taps right to the reader’s expectations—set them up, and then confirm or subvert what you’ve implied. It’s a way to directly engage the reader, give the story impact and distill the story’s core all at the same time.

 Example:

Here’s an example of imagery at its flash fiction best:

She pulled up my sleeve and bit me ‘til it left a mark. She left me a scent of giggles and a note on my skin saying: “Now you’ll remember me.” I walked around for five days with a bruise that had the backside of a rainbow and screams of My oh my. I’ve never been so angry before.

-from “Mine” by Szilvia Molnar, Quick Fiction)

This fragment illustrates how an image can pull all five tools together. A bruise that has “the backside of a rainbow and screams My oh my”…there’s our central image.

Given the playfulness of the bite (the scent of giggles and the “now you’ll remember me”), the reader gets a sense that this was a pivotal experience, laid over with the kind of unspoken eroticism you get with a first crush. But then that last line—“I’ve never been so angry before.” There are acres of negative space in that statement, which has double the impact because of that bruise—that bright, back-sided rainbow of a bite.

The story swings from Coca-Cola sweetness to confused betrayal in less than two lines, all because of details, word choice, rhythm, negative space and imagery hang in meaningful balance. Even more importantly, the author trusts the reader to find that meaning for themselves.

It’s a brilliant piece on all fronts and, while it’s not deliberately erotic, the image it centers on—the bruise—is deeply erotic. Even better, that eroticism underscores an overall effect that is complicated and deeply human. That is eroticism at its most powerful. Human complication is right at home with sex.

CONCLUSION

While the tools I’ve talked about have a place in all writing, flash demands a little extra focus in how they get used. But there’s no magic formula. Anyone can do it, especially if you’re willing to surprise yourself. Surprise yourself, and you surprise the reader.

Unlike long-form fiction, flash isn’t about dating the reader. It’s about giving them a hard, smacking kiss. It’s up to you, as the writer, to provide the chemistry. Sometimes it takes experimentation to get the balance right, but when it works it’s immensely satisfying.

Sources, Resources, Examples, Links, Recommendations & Two Prompts

Sex in Flash Fiction: Sources & Resources

Black and white photograph of a woman in a black dress wearing white glovesAs promised, here is a list of presentation sources, resources, links, recommendations and examples of sex in flash fiction. Basically, this is everything that wouldn’t fit on a PowerPoint slide, plus two bonus prompts. (ooh!)

I’ll post the full presentation in the next few days, but in the meantime, here are some rabbit holes to fall down.

Presentation Sources:

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Fielded. Tara L. Masih. Rose Metal Press, 2009.

Adrea Kore’s Guest Post on Flash Fiction. F. Dot Leonora, October 7, 2016.

“Short and Sweet: Reading and Writing Flash Fiction” by Amanda Christy Brown & Katherine Schulten. The New York Times, October, 3, 2013.

‘”Flash Fiction: What’s It All About?” by Becky Such. The Review Review, 2015.

Example Credits:

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2015. (p. 114) –> Word Choice.

420 Characters by Lou Beach. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. (p. 77) –> Details

Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. Harcourt Brace Jovanavich, 1977. –> Pacing and Rhythm

“A Love Story in 18 Words” by Malin James. People. Sex. Culture. February, 2017. –> Negative Space

“Mine” by Szilvia Molnar. Quick Fiction. (Out of Print). –>Imagery

Additional Resources:

On Implication by Malin James

Tell Me a (Very Short) Story: On Plot in Flash Fiction by Malin James

What You Owe the Reader by Malin James

Stories in Your Pocket: How to Write Flash Fiction by David Gaffney

Why Write Erotic Fiction by Emmanuelle de Maupassant

Flash Fiction: A List of Resources at The Review Review

FlashFiction.Net: For Readers, Writers, Editors, Publishers & Fans of (Short) Short Fiction

Recommendations & Examples:

F. Dot Leonora’s Friday Flash Meme (erotic flash fiction)

Remittance Girl

Adrea Kore

Dirty Little Numbers, ed. by Lana Fox & Angela Taveres. Go Deeper Press, 2013.

The Big Book of Orgasmsed. Rachel Kramer Bussel. Cleis Press, 2013.

The Big Book of Submissioned. Rachel Kramer Bussel. Cleis Press, 2014.

Gotta Have Ited. Rachel Kramer Bussel. Cleis Press, 2012.

Sudden Fiction, ed. Robert Shapard & James Thomas. Gibbs Smith, 1983.

Bonus Prompts!

  • Write a piece of erotic flash fiction, no longer than 500 words, about a mundane item of clothing. No corsets, knickers or ball gags. Think trainers and pajama pants. The challenge is to make something not sexy, sexy in as few words as possible. Added points if that sexiness gives the story resonance.

 

  • Take a tired, done-to-death trope, like the big bad alpha or the simpering sub, and turn it on it’s head. Twist the lens. Find something fresh and erotic in a scenario you’ve basically read to death.

ps – If you write or post anything based on these prompts, let me know – I’d love to read it.

Tell Me A (Very Short) Story

Black and white image of a woman with writing in black ink on her back

Skin Writing II by Matou Malin

Welcome to the second installment of my pre-Eroticon, I-Had-More-Material-Than-Will-Fit-In-The-Session series. This one is on flash fiction and plot. Or, more, specifically, does flash fiction need to have a plot?

Opinions vary (sometimes violently), but my answer to this question is yes. And no. Flash is a wily thing.

Before I can dig into my non-response properly, it’s important to look at what, exactly, “plot” means.

Generally speaking, plot is defined as a story’s rising and falling action, or what’s typically called a narrative arc. Implicit in that understanding is the assumption that a traditional narrative arc is one of a story’s baseline requirements. In other words, it needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. If it doesn’t, it’s something else—a vignette, a scene, a prose poem, but not a “proper story”.

So, given all that, what’s the difference between flash fiction, (which often doesn’t contain a clean narrative arc), and, say, a prose poem?

It’s a thin line, but the difference is in the fact that fiction, unlike poetry, is an inherently temporal form – it’s rooted in a particular time and place. By contrast, a prose poem is, essentially, an observation, which means that, as prescient as the observation might be, it has a universal quality that prevents it from anchoring itself to a specific, temporal space.

Stories, unlike prose poems, are populated by characters with needs and motivations, and those characters need to exist somewhere. That somewhere (even if it’s just an empty room in an unknown year) implies physical existence, the passage of time and changes in circumstance. Stories have characters and characters have needs, which means that something will change, or fail to in a meaningful way. That process is dynamic, and the dynamic movement from point A to point B is what forms a narrative.

This tinkers with the traditional notion of plot, but less so than you’d think. It doesn’t matter if the change happens on the grand scale or unfolds quietly in a single page. What matters is that the change is rooted in a character’s longing. It can be as broad as trying to save the world, or as subtle wanting to get out of bed and not being able to. If there’s need there’s change and that naturally forms plot.

And, in the end, that’s all plot really is—a character pursuing a need. Or, to put it more dramatically, plot is the portrait of a character’s desire—how they pursue it, how it’s  thwarted, and how (or if) it’s resolved. That resolution of a desire usually comes in the form of an epiphany—a realization that signals a pivot in the character’s outlook or circumstance. That pivot is the change that represents movement through a set of temporal circumstances, i.e.: the plot.

The journey from challenge to resolution has acres of room to breathe in novels. It has the opposite in flash fiction. But just because a character’s longing can’t unfold in epic or obvious ways doesn’t mean it’s not there.

While the brevity required in short, short fiction doesn’t often allow for a “fully developed plot”, flash fiction has the luxury of taking a microscope to the thwarted desires and revelations that drive traditional narrative forms. Flash fiction may appear to be inherently “plotless”, but if there is a character at the heart of it, and that character has a need, then that story has the DNA of plot and can, quite comfortably, be considered proper fiction.

Now, I’m going to be wild and crazy and say something that a lot of people would disagree with. I don’t think flash fiction has to have a plot, even in DNA form. That said, it also can’t just shuffle around without a point or purpose.

Monologues, vignettes, scenes and sketches, like prose poetry, are driven (generally speaking) by the universal observations I mentioned earlier. While some would disagree with my taking an inclusive view, I believe that these are also legitimate forms of storytelling because they achieve through observation what plot does through desire and conflict—they reflect an essential human truth or condition.

When you strip it down, that’s what fiction is, regardless of length. It’s a made-up story that reflects an essential human truth. That’s why characters in flash fiction are more important than a beginning, middle and end. The truth can be anything from desperately wanting to fuck your ex, to grieving the loss of a child. Whether it happens through observation, or the temporally specific plot movements, fiction reflects what it is to be a person in the world. Whether it’s a novel or a paragraph, that’s what fiction does.

So, does flash fiction need a plot?

It would be more useful to ask if flash fiction can accommodate a plot, and the answer to that is yes. But flash can also accommodate breathless observation, devastating reflection and humanity in all of it glorious, filthy complexity, and, in the end, they serve the same function as plot.

We are humans, and humans are driven by desire. Whether that desire is for a glass of water or the golden fleece, longing, wanting and needing are fundamental human conditions. As long as a story taps into what it is to be fundamentally human, it’s storytelling and it’s powerful, regardless of length.

Other Eroticon-Inspired Writer Posts

On Implication

What You Owe the Reader

On Implication

Repeating image of hands overlapping against a black and white back drop.

Hands, Hands…Horst P. Horst (New York, 1941)

It’s February, which means Eroticon is less than a month away (and shining like a light on the horizon), so I’ve started pulling my session notes together. The subject of my session is sex in flash fiction or, more specifically, how to write sex that turns the reader on reader on and lends a story impact, weight and relevance.

In writing as in life, sex is powerful on multiple levels. Knowing how to play with those levels makes for fiction that resonates—not just sexually, but emotionally and psychologically, as well. It’s one of my favorite writerish things to talk about, mostly because there’s so much to say—far more than I could ever fit into 55 minutes.

Rather than try to fit the ocean in a teacup, I figured I’d write a small series of posts on some of the things I’d flesh out a bit more if I were hosting a series of workshops, rather than a single session. It also has the nice, inclusive side effect of opening up the topic for those who aren’t going to Eroticon this year.

Side note: While the session is going to touch lightly on all of this, these posts are in no way a prerequisite. The only prerequisite I have is that you bring an open mind and a willingness to experiment in whatever way suits your style and interests.

So, back to keeping your writing tight. For this post, I want to talk about implication, which is as important in fiction as it is in flirting, (and, as any good flirt can tell you, worlds of filthy stuff can be said between the squeaky-clean lines). It’s part of something called “negative space”, which I’ll get into more during the session. For now, I want to focus on what implication has to do with connecting to the reader.

Sex and flash fiction were made for each other, largely because, like horror (or any other psychologically driven genre), the best erotic writing has a visceral impact. A restricted word count forces every element to count, which makes for a story that packs a hard punch. While a 250-word limit might sound crazy-pants, it’s actually an opportunity to nail your reader down on a deep, visceral level. But, in order to make that work, you’ve got to do something first. You’ve got to trust the reader. Here’s what I mean.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this:

They walk hip to hip, knuckles brushing, as they measure their potential in the rhythm of their feet..

I wrote that sentence in response to someone’s assertion that it’s impossible to write a “proper story” in less than 20 words because you can’t “trust the reader to get it”. Whether or not this qualifies as a “proper story” is a matter of opinion—some people like a clear beginning, middle and end, so if that’s what you’re after, it may not be your cup of tea. The idea of trusting the reader though, that’s something I have definite feelings on.

The story in that sentence comes more from implication than actual text. These two people are in sync enough to walk naturally together, but they aren’t yet sure of their potential as a couple. It’s a very specific moment in a relationship—the exploration of an unspoken line. Will they continue on together, or not? I know what I think is going to happen, but what I think isn’t the point.

That’s where trusting the reader comes in.

The reader’s only job is to read – not correctly interpret the “true” meaning of a story, as laid out by the author with loving precision. While I do believe that the author’s intention is important, I don’t believe the reader is obliged to treat it like the word of an authorial god.

What an author intends shapes a story. That’s why intention is important—it lends the writer direction and purpose. It is not, however, the only determinant of a story’s impact. Impact comes not only from the writing, but from how the reader engages it. It’s about making and maintaining a connection…sort of like flirting.

While you definitely don’t want your motives misinterpreted (flirting is one thing, but being a creeper is another), the best way to facilitate a natural connection is to be aware of the person you’re talking to. So, rather than trusting the reader to “get it”, it’s much more productive to invite their interest. Implication is one really efficient, really effective way to do that.

A writer controls the writing process. What a writer can’t control is how a story gets read because every, single reader will bring something different to it. And that’s okay. That’s how connections are made. That’s how you get a story that has a secret, powerful, visceral impact on someone other than yourself. All you have to do is leave a little blank space between the lines, and let the reader fill it in.

That’s how you get out of the way, and let the reader engage your work on their terms. When they do, it’s magic, like crazy chemistry on a first date. It means they’re trusting you enough to let you take them somewhere, anywhere, even places you don’t know about. It means they’re with you, no matter where it leads.

On Mining Yourself

Black and white pen and ink drawing of a young woman old woman optical illusion for Mining Yourself post by Malin James

Young Woman, Old Woman Optical Illusion by W.E. Hill (1915)

I’ve always loved this image. Is it a picture of a young woman or a crone? Even when I was little, I saw them fluctuate, like a portrait under water, equally young and old. It’s a powerful visual metaphor, one my brain seized on well before I could understand why.

I’ve always split my writing time between fiction and essays. Recently, though, the balance has tipped and I’m  leaning into fiction as I focus on a collection I care a great deal about. That said, project-love isn’t the only reason for the shift in focus.

While there is, inescapably, a lot of me in those stories, there’s a distance in the writing that I need right now. Fiction is, and always will be, fiction, no matter how much of the writer informs the narrative.

The nonfiction I tend to write, especially for this blog, doesn’t have that natural buffer. Everything I write here takes on an inherently personal bent, whether I’m ranting about sexual history calculators or exploring different aspects of non-monogamy. Even when I don’t draw directly from my own experiences, my opinions and history inform those posts to a massive degree. While I usually lean into that level of transparency, my boundaries are higher right now, which makes that transparency hard.

I’m going through an odd time. Things that are fundamental to who I am as a person are shifting and changing, like the young woman and the crone. I grew up affected by a trauma I couldn’t process, and the effects of that trauma unknowingly molded my childhood, my relationships and even my sense of self. Over the course of the past 10 months, I’ve begun to unpack the issues I’ve avoided for 35 years. As a result, my internal landscape is shifting, sometimes quite suddenly. It’s terrifically destabilizing – on some days. On other days it feels great. But the swing between the two is both constant and erratic, so I’m extremely hesitant to write about it. Yet.

In order for me to write well, I need distance and perspective. Venting feels good (oh, so very good), but if I don’t broaden my understanding I run the risk of ranting aimlessly or navel-gazing or, even worse, both. No one likes a ranty navel-gazer so I try not to mine myself until I’ve gained some insight. That’s why I didn’t write about this or this for more than a decade, even though I did (and still do) have plenty to say.

That’s the key, for me, to writing personal essays. While nonfiction takes a thousand different forms, my natural approach is to mine myself for material and (hopefully) create something that connects with a reader in some kind of meaningful way. This often means that the most immediate, difficult or overwhelming situations (the ones I tend to want to vent about) are best left alone until I understand the lay of the land.

At the moment, my emotional landscape is the sort of primordial jungle that guys in pith helmets get lost in. Except for scrawling in my journal, writing about any of it would, in the end, make me feel worse. The young woman and the crone might use the same hand, but they write from different perspectives. Anything I say now will very likely shift given time and emotional clarity. Writing is a way to pin my thoughts down. That’s a hard thing to do when they will very likely change.

Eventually, I’ll put enough distance between myself and this mine of material but, for now, there’s little I could say that would be of use to anyone but myself. I admire writers who produce beautiful, cogent essays in the middle of great stress. It’s a magnificent talent, one I quite notably lack. My strengths lie in hindsight, and hindsight takes time, so I’m leaning on fiction and quiet…at least, I am for now.

On Mining Yourself was inspired in large part by this post by Honey at Happy Come Lucky. If you’re looking for perspective and clarity, there are few bloggers as gifted as she is. I wholeheartedly recommend you check it out. 

4 a.m.

4 a.m.

4 a.m. (Photograph by Malin James)

I have a pretty serious relationship with 4 a.m.

It was 4 a.m. when I realized that God didn’t exist and that my parents were just people. It was too much, too fast for a six-year-old. I felt like an island, floating in the sky.

I was 4 a.m. when I woke up in my dorm room sure that something was wrong. My mom called a few hours later – my dad was sick. I had to come home.

It was 4am when I realized that the only way I could get out of a toxic relationship was to leave the city I loved.

It was 4am when I decided to come back, get out of acting, go to grad school. Maybe try to write for real.

My daughter woke up at 4 a.m. every night and it was 4am when I cried because she was smiling, and I was sick from needing sleep.

It’s 4am when I run to steady my pulse.

It’s 4am when I write nonsense like this.

It’s 4am when the quiet falls like rain, and I imagine slipping through the drops.

This is about as un-sinful as a Sinful Sunday can get. While it was taken from above and not below (as per August’s prompt), for me, my face mid-insomnia is pretty damn revealing so I went with it anyway. If you’d like to see some fantastically sexy Sinful Sunday’s, click the pretty lips.

Sinful Sunday

On Validation

Black and white photograph of a woman's back as she looks out of a window, for Validation post by Malin James

Photograph, Malin James

There are things that I’m painfully aware of. One of them is my deep, long-standing need for validation.

It’s gotten worse in the past few years. I’ve always had it but, recently, it’s kept me from taking risks. The need for validation has drawn me away from projects that would further my career because long-term gains haven’t been able to compete with that short-term need.

That impulse has kept me safe in the cocoon of a loving community, which is a comforting alternative after years in the less friendly world of literary fiction, but at something of a cost.

It’s a strange thing. On one level, I give zero fucks what anyone thinks. This is the level I try to live on. But beneath that is the fact that sometimes I give way too many fucks, which is why I can’t say that I don’t need validation for my work. The brutal truth is that I do and the same goes for my worth in relationships.

I grew up having internalized the idea that my primary value was in my face and, even more toxically, that the value of my face was arbitrary because I relied on a choreographer, director or photographer to decide whether or not I was right for a call or a role. It’s a conviction that dogs me even now, and the result is an over-reliance on what other people think.

That need for validation shows up in all kinds of subconscious ways. It’s in how I engage social media and how I blog. It’s in what I write about and when. It’s in whether or not I compromise myself in relationships and for how long. It’s what drives my inner sadist – the one who loves to rake my inner masochist over coals.

The need for validation is natural. We all feel it. But the degree to which I’ve allowed that need to dictate my professional, creative and personal choices disturbs me. The primary reason I stopped acting was because my dependence on external (and arbitrary) validation wore me down. Unfortunately, I’ve created a similar framework for myself by reinforcing a comparable need in my writing and relationships.

I’m ok with wanting a certain amount of validation. Like I said, it’s pretty natural. But I’m not ok with needing it to the point where it compromises my emotional autonomy. Validation is, essentially, a salve – an illusory guarantee that everything is ok. In my case, this is what validation usually looks like:

Yes, your writing matters.

No, you aren’t wasting your time.

Yes, he still wants you.

No, you aren’t a disposable fraud. (This one comes with a nice dose of self-loathing. Self-loathing fucking sucks).

The real problem isn’t wanting validation, it’s misunderstanding what validation does. It’s like ointment on a cut – it’ll soothe the surface, but it doesn’t address the bleeding you can’t see. For me, the internal bleeding is the fact that sometimes I give too many fucks, and that those fucks aren’t even the right fucks to begin with.

What makes validation so addictive is that it acts as a short-term guarantee that everything’s ok. And sure, everything might be okay – for now. But what about the next now? And the next? Pretty soon, validation stops being a relief and becomes part of a feedback loop, one that slowly blows everything out of proportion and gets you stuck on a hook, one where your insecurities take over and drive your behavior.

So, when you put all that together, my need for validation is the subjective measure of worries that are way more existential than concrete:

Is everything okay?

Am I okay in the world? (Or this job, or relationship, etc.)

What the hell does okay even look like? I don’t know but please make it okay….

Those worries aren’t something that should shape your work or relationships because the only thing that can comfort them are guarantees, and the bottom line is that there are no guarantees. There is only the fleeting right now, and no amount of validation can get you off that hook.

It’s a big, ugly, exhausting tangle, but I can’t be a productive writer or a fully present person if I don’t stop chasing false guarantees – guarantees that, for me, define okay as the external validation of my value.

I will always need to feel valued, especially by people I care about and respect. That need is carved into me like grooves on a record. But for all that, the fundamental validation I actually need, the one I’ve been chasing my whole life, is my own.

My need for validation isn’t about the story or the editor or the relationship. It’s about me. And because it’s about me, it places pressure on situations and relationships that shouldn’t have to bear it. That’s why self-possession and emotional sovereignty are so important to me. The weight of that need is, ultimately, my responsibility. It’s up to me to decide (logically, rather than reactively) how many fucks I want to give.

Writer

Sepia picture of an old-fashioned typewriter with its ribbon unspooled for Writer by Malin JamesThings have been interesting lately – lots of things in lots of ways. The changes are fundamental and long overdue. Not easy stuff, but good all the same.

It’s a strange thing, feeling your internal landscape shift like stop-motion film. If history were anything to go by, I’d say that this should be a creatively exciting time. In the past, periods of violent transition have always led to a surge in my creative energy. But for the first time in my life, change and transition are affecting my ability to write.

Writing has always been my way in. It’s how I process everything, from emotional nuance to the world around me. It is, quite literally, how I make sense of things. Unfortunately, “things”, both internal and external, have shifted enough that writing taking a hit.  I feel dull and mentally paralyzed in a way that is vaguely terrifying. And, in the end, that’s probably good.

This has happened before – I hit a place of maximum pressure and catharsis becomes inevitable. The energy released by the catharsis usually channels right back into my work, which as been a pretty great silver-lining, especially as rabid creative focus has, more than once, given me the mental and emotional space I needed to deal with whatever I was dealing with.

This time was different though. This time, rather than helping me through a difficult period, writing was part of what ushered in the difficult period (and I can tell you right now that this was one hell of a motherfucking difficult period).

It’s funny – I didn’t see that connection until I wrote it out just now (oh, writing, you clever, wily beast). The story that rocked me (through a combination of timing and my masochistically gleeful tendency to myself for material) was called “Alice in the Attic” and it drew heavily on a trauma (and the resulting experiences) that have shaped nearly all aspects of my life.

Writing “Alice” was difficult, but it poured out of me in a sort of fevered rush. Sitting down at my desk to work on it was, in and of itself, so cathartic that it emptied me out and left me hollow by the end.

That said, I don’t want to misrepresent the situation. This particular pressure had been building for years and the writing of that story was just one of many things that ended up twisting the valves. And yet…I haven’t been able to settle into a larger project since November when it was published.

I am gun-shy like I’ve never been and I’ll be honest – it’s pretty galling. Shorter pieces still come fairly easily (the shorter the better), but I’ve got several longer projects that I just can’s sink into. In fact, I seem to freeze at the prospect of writing anything longer than 1000 words. I think I might be afraid. I wish I knew what of…

I suppose that it, right there. I’m afraid of something, and writing is connected to whatever it is. Maybe I’m afraid of triggering myself again; maybe I’m afraid to trust myself again; maybe I’m afraid of something else. I don’t know. And, in the end, I’m not sure I need to know.

I suspect all I really need to do is acknowledge that I’m scared and write anyway. Because fuck it. I’m a writer. That’s what I do. I’m good at it (sorry – not a humble moment) and I love it and no amount of difficulty is going to keep me from doing what I fucking love.

The Goblin Market

A pre-raphaelite painting of a woman holding a pomegranate for The Goblin Market by Malin James

“Proserpine” or Jane Morris & the Pomegranate by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1847)

I’ve been sick the past few days, which has given me an unusual amount of time for listless thinking and wool gathering. In and amongst the drift of fairly useless thoughts came the realization that, for me, there are two kinds of erotic reading – stories that focus on sex, and stories that achieve a raw, nearly sexual intimacy, despite the absence (or near absence) of sex.

The first sort of reading is pretty obvious. It’s best characterized by stories like this and this. In fact, a lot of what I write for this site would fall into that category. The other kind of eroticism is harder to qualify, but it shows up in pieces like this, as well as in many of my non-erotic stories, which is why they’re often read with a sexual undercurrent, even when there’s no sex in them.

Instead of being expressed in an overtly sexual way, the intimacy in those stories comes out as a sort of shared ache – a sympathy between characters that is, hopefully, transferred to the reader. That affinity triggers something like an erotic response, one that’s subtly sexual and emotionally intimate. The latent sexuality in that response is what comprises the second sort of eroticism – one that’s emotionally sexual and not obvious in the text, but simmering beneath it.

“Goblin Market”, by Christina Rossetti, drips with limpid, super sensual imagery and includes a final scene that could be a portrait of sexual ecstasy, except it isn’t. The ecstasy isn’t sexual. It’s the culmination of devotion, sacrifice, and love between two sisters whose affinity is so strong it pushes their bond to lover-like levels of intimacy while remaining uncompromisingly platonic.

How Rossetti managed to blend the sensual with the sisterly is a bit of a mystery to me, even now. There’s nothing concrete that I can point to in the poem, no line on a map marking the territory between sexuality and emotionality, but it exists all the same, which is why I think of that shared territory as the goblin market. The goblin market in narrative creates a tension that works on the reader without any conscious effect, yet you put the book down feeling lush and keenly aware, like Persephone when she finally gives in and eats the pomegranate’s seeds.

For me, one author achieves the goblin market better than anyone else. If you read anything by Angela Carter you’ll feel it, but it’s especially effective in her collection, The Bloody Chamber, which I’ve pushed mentioned before. The title story is fantastic I’ve already fangirled all over it so I’ll focus on a different story from the same collection – “The Tiger’s Bride”.

“The Tiger’s Bride” is one of the sexiest stories I’ve ever read, yet it contains no sex.  What it does have is massive amounts of emotionally charged intimacy unpinning a story in which masks and identities are stripped away. It isn’t until a tacit understanding is reached between the tiger and his captive that a shared ache develops, but when it does, it makes something that should have been ghastly, (the tiger licks her human skin away, revealing golden fur), unbelievably erotic.

The narrator’s affinity for her captor can’t be expressed in words (he speaks in low growls, translated by a simian valet), which is just as well. It’s the silence of their understanding that transforms what could have been yet another variation on “Beauty and the Beast” into a story steeped in animal sexuality. Its lack of obvious eroticism heightens, pretty fantastically, the latent eroticism of the text.

I’m finding more and more that I need this second, more subtle, emotional component for the erotic aspects of a story to work for me. While I still love straight up filth, it doesn’t tend to stay with me. It’s the stories that weave tapestries of sex and emotional intimacy that I come back to again and again, whether they’re called erotica or something else.

This shift in my reading is something relatively new. While I appreciated the goblin market from an intellectual perspective when I was younger, it never touched me the way that raw sex did. Now it’s quite the opposite. It would be easy to say that this shift is the result of getting older, but I suspect it has less to with age and more to do with me. I’ve always had an emotional intensity that I was never completely comfortable with, especially in conjunction with sex. I suspect that my growing attraction to stories steeped in this kind of emotional sexuality is, more than anything else, a sign that I’m finally comfortable with my own goblin market.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite goblin market stories, along with links to where you can find them (some for free!). And if  you have any books you love for this kind of read, tweet me or leave them in the comments!

POETRY:

“Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti

COLLECTIONS:

Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen – “The Invincible Slave Owners” and “The Heroine”

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – “The Tiger’s Bride” and “The Bloody Chamber” (and most of the others, to be honest).

Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor (The first story is a really subtle, really sexy adaptation of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”).

The Lure of Dangerous Women by Shanna Germain

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

NOVELS:

Atonement & The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (I fangirled the film here. And to be fair, there is fairly explicit sex in this book, but its punch lies in the emotional intensity behind it).

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Angels and Insects & The Game by A.S. Byatt

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (courtesy of Tamsin Flowers, who was lovely enough to give me a copy!)