Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Most Important Story I Ever Wrote

There was a story I read at age nineteen that was only about four or five pages long. I don't really remember the story very well now, but what I do remember was that it had a powerful emotional effect on me. The ending was so poignant that I sat for a full minute just absorbing it. "Wow," I said, and kept saying. "Wow."

When I finally came down off this bit of amazement, my first thought was: "If I can write just one story, which can make just one person react to it like I just reacted to this story...I'll count myself a success. " Of course, I imagined that someday I'd have some brilliant, earth-shattering idea for such a story, and, knowing how pivotal it was going to be, I'd spend years carefully crafting it into: the most important story I ever wrote.

Life being what it is, however, that isn't how it happened. Not at all.

Here is how it happened: I was chatting online with some romantic story readers and ideas were floating between us. The talk turned to romances between someone attempting suicide and the person who stops them. Such romances have always intrigued me, and I was captured by one thought of a girl on a bridge and a guy who stops her by asking her out on a date. Of course, she would have to accept or there'd be no story--but what would that date be like? And why would anyone step back from killing themselves to go out on a date?

Come to that, what had made the girl suicidal in the first place? I knew she had to be serious about this. Not depressed and attempting it, but intent on doing it with this pause in plans a mere day's reprieve, an interruption, no more. Otherwise, the story wouldn't really mean anything, at least not to me. Which led to the other question: what about the guy who stops her? Why not grab her or try to change her mind? What appeal could he, as a person, offer a bleak and desperate woman in the middle of leaving this world? And what appeal did she have for him? Why ask her out on a date? I asked this last question of one gentleman romance reader and got a very interesting answer. Interesting enough to get the creative juices flowing.

The story, as they say, wrote itself. I almost felt as if I was watching the characters go on their date, and that I was getting to know them as they got to know each other. The date was prosaic, predictable even in how it progressed, but the twist, the circumstances behind it and the two troubled people involved, transformed it into something more. On most dates the couple feels separate from the world, in their own little universe. These two didn't merely feel that way, they were that way. And the reader was right in that universe with them. Maybe that explains what happened next.

At the time, I didn't even think about any of this. I just wrote it. I liked the story very much and was especially proud of my double-entendre title: "Till Dawn." But I wasn't expecting anything special when I finally put it out for people to read.

Then I started getting feedback. Some of it was the usual: "Great story," and "Liked it, but..." etc. However, the majority of the feedback was completely different from any I'd ever gotten before. "I was that girl on the bridge--" one said, and "I'm Cal. I've felt exactly like him--" It seemed I'd found some universal truth in myself that I hadn't known was so universal. And then there were the ones that really stunned me....

"I'm going through a terrible time in my life; this story helped me decide to go on living..."

Oh. My. Gosh. Had I done it? With this little, erotic romance? I'd written it with care and thought, yes, but not as if I was writing something that would transform lives. Yet it seemed it had transformed lives. Was this it? That story that had readers sitting there for a minute afterwards just saying "wow"?

I couldn't say for sure. What I could say was that after seeing such comments, I totally understood what it meant to feel that one's work had come to life and walked away. "Till Dawn" no longer belonged to me, it belonged to all those readers seeing themselves in it, finding powerful meaning in it.

That's when I realized what "the most important story I ever wrote" really is to a writer. It's the story that people say is the most important story they ever read. And I...I had written one of those for at least some people out there. Much to my surprise.

I certainly hope I have more such stories in me. Though they may not start out that way, they become as pivotal and life-changing to the writer as they are to readers.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Getting Down to the Bone

This story started with a tattoo. That is, long before I decided to write this tale, I'd seen the tattoo that would be the inspiration behind it. It was at a casual gathering and on the shoulder of this one young gentleman. The tattoo was of a fish. Not just any fish. It was a Panderichthys. An extinct fish from the Devonian with extra fins showing an evolutionary transition (or at least the possibility of one) from fish to reptile.

I was immediately struck by this tattoo and got into a long discussion with the gent, whose passion for science and evolutionary biology had led him to get that rather ugly fish beautifully inked onto his upper arm. I thought it was pretty cool. More on this later.

Jump ahead to the writing of this story. As is no doubt evident, I'm very fond of opposites attract stories and the most common such story is that of the geek and the "not geek." Like the nerdish boy who manages to take the most popular (and seemingly shallow) cheerleader to the prom, or the brainy and/or artsy girl who connects up with the star quarterback (equally shallow at the beginning of the story, but with a poetic soul she manages to draw out). In both cases, the geek usually gets a Cinderella-ish fashion make-over toward the end of the story so that their inner beauty becomes outer beauty. Meanwhile, the not-geek's outer beauty becomes inner beauty as they gain depth and empathy.

I had already more-or-less tackled the nerd and the beauty queen in "Exchange Value," but was motivated to try my hand at the jock and geek-girl if I could come at it from a different angle. There were a couple of things that bothered me about the brainy girl & the jock story, however. First and foremost the fact that it still held to the creaky old cliché that all a girl has to do is take off her glasses and let down her hair and the clueless guy will finally realize she's beautiful.

And people mock the fact that Lois Lane never realized Clark Kent was really Superman!

I know some very brainy girls (and guys) and most of them are far from fashion impaired. Some are very hip, with their own cool style, including piercing and/or tattoos (Hm. Tattoos). Any way, why couldn't the jock be attracted to the brainy girl just as she was, rather than only after she was given a make-over? One that usually made her look like every other pretty girl? Wasn't the point for the jock to evolve?

Evolve. Evolution. Hm.

And that was another thing. I didn't want whatever the jock learned from the brainy girl to be just window dressing--like an appreciation of art or poetry or astronomy. I wanted it to transform him, give him a different view of the world, like a fish gaining lungs. Likewise, his relationship with the girl needed to transform her. At the same time, however, these two had to remain who they essentially were. The fish who gains lungs is still a fish.

And wasn't that essential to the story? That the jock love the girl for being a brainy geek and she love him for being a jock?

It was at about this point that I remembered the fish.  I remembered it because tattoos are like x-rays: they tell us who a person is inside, what matters to them, what they care about and how they think. Like that guy with the Panderichthys on his arm. That he had that ancient fish rather than a trout or a shark told me an essential thing about him, something that, like the tattoo, wasn't going to change.

Evolution, after all, isn't just about our ability to change and adapt. It's also about those bone-deep qualities we have which make us desirable, the fittest to survive. That, I decided, was what I needed to explore if I wanted to mutate this story into something more, something better than the usual geek/non-geek romance. I had to get down to the bone, down to what made these characters who they were. Because we don't fall in love with another person because we know they'll adapt to us, we fall in love with them because they are special and different from us. Because however good we are on our own, we can become even better if we're with them.

And that is how a primitive fish tattoo evolved into this story, the story of a jock and geek who adapt and change even as they remain, in their bones, the same.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Full Disclosure

I got this idea while thinking about all men and women do to get ready for a date. The push-up bras and tummy flattening pantyhose, the make-up that hides blemishes. That's on the women's side, but the men do likewise with suits that slenderize or shoes that give them a bit more height. We all pick out the perfect "costume" that doesn't so much make us look our best as it hides our flaws and gives us attributes we might not naturally have.

We lie on first dates. Lie and lie and lie. We hide all the unappealing stuff, while pretending to have all the appealing stuff that might get this date to bite.

An obvious observation and true, but thinking about it, I wondered. Aren't we going about this the wrong way? With such tricks we might get short-term rewards, but won't the date be pissed off in the morning when they find out we're not so buxom or slim or tall? I know our hope is that if they just give us a chance, and find out how wonderful we are, they'll forgive the fact that we weren't quite honest with them. But it still seems like an ass-backwards way to go about finding a soul-mate, meaning someone who loves you for who you are, not what you appear to be.
So...what if we didn't pretend to be anything other than what we were? That question led me to write my, perhaps, most rawly realistic story: Full Disclosure.

I simply took that premise and ran with it. What if a couple decided to show and tell each other everything on that first date rather than hiding it? What if they decided to display their stretch marks and love handles rather than cover them up? And discuss their sexual habits, upfront and honestly, rather than fumbling with each other in the dark, playing guessing games? What if they took everything usually learned the morning after and put it on the table in that first hour, during that first evening together? What if they went on a "backwards" date?

Wow. I wanted to find out what would happen. So, I wrote up their story. As I wrote it up, though, something very interesting happened. I started to explore not only what honesty would bring to a couple, but why they (why anyone) would be dishonest in the first place. The "whys" of lies. We lie with each other fearing rejection, of course, and wanting whatever it is we want. But what about those times when we see the truth about someone we think we love or at least want to be with...and ignore it? When we lie to ourselves?

That's when the story started to become, for me, very uncomfortable. A writer can't expose the hard truths about their characters without exposing themselves. And I was asking some very hard questions. Like why men and women often date those who aren't good for them, and who they know aren't good for them. Like why they go back to such people--or pick others just like them rather than learning and going for someone different. Which was why, at this point, I began to worry. My hero and heroine were turning out to be the least heroic characters I'd ever created. They'd made bad decisions, and hadn't been honest or courageous enough to leave those mistakes behind.

As the story went on, however, and they revealed even more of themselves to me, I realized that they were also, simultaneously, two of my most heroic characters. Because they were willing to admit how un-heroic they'd been. Full disclosure. It wasn't just about characters revealing their naked selves to each other and finding someone who loved them for who they really were. It was about two, self-doubting souls standing naked before a mirror and learning to forgive and love themselves. It was about honesty, but it was also about renewal.

Fully disclosing ourselves to one another takes courage, but fully disclosing ourselves to ourselves...that takes heroism. I hope you'll find this story as revealing a read as I did--and as inspiring.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Gods of Romance

...and then there was the contest I did win. Well, I won second place. It was an erotic romance story in the most romantic of all short story contests: Valentine's Day Stories.

It might seem like a no-brainer for an erotic romance writer to come up with a story for Valentine's Day, but readers expect to see certain things in such a story: hearts, flowers, wine, poetry, cupids, candy and cards. Infusing new life into these old tunes is not so easy. Nor is coming up with a champagne-and-fine-chocolates' plot. A romantic tale celebrating the day of romance has to be a little more extravagant and delicious than the standard boy-meets-girl fare.

Which, in the context of how I came up with this story is a bit ironic, as the first thing that popped into my mind were those childhood candies (invented in 1860!) with text messages like: "luv u!" One can't get more plebeian. The other things that came to mind were treasure hunts and secret admirers. What, after all, is more "Valentine's Day" than a secret admirer? That idea took hold; I liked the thought of writing up a mystery that didn't ask "who done it?" but "who is it?" My initial image of a man or woman following a trail of candy hearts to their beloved, however, didn't seem feasible. Valentine cards with room for longer and more cryptic messages, on the other hand, could work very well. So I did a little research on valentine cards. Interestingly, the Victorian/Edwardian ones with elegant paintings and belabored poetry kept catching my eye.

It occurred to me that I found them fascinating because I'd never gotten or given such a valentine--so old fashioned, so romantic-era-romantic. Maybe...maybe that was the way to go with this story? Instead of trying to modernize the Valentine's Day staples, make them old school, so old school that they seemed "new" again? The valentines, the dozen roses, the chocolate candies, the wine, jewelry, poetry...even the gods of Love.

Once I hit on that, it all came together. I knew that my hero, for example, had to be so archaically romantic that he no longer felt he had a place in today's world. And I knew his journey, his hunt, had to be not only to find his one true love, but to learn that romance, even the sort considered passé, is timeless.

My title for this story of an outmoded worshiper of Love and forgotten love gods? Valentine Prayers. It has since become one of my all time favorite titles.

I won second place, which was awesome--but what really blew me away were the thanks I got from male readers. It seems a great many were romantics, under-represented, they felt, in Valentine stories and happy to see an avatar of themselves as the hero of my tale. This was worth a great deal more to me than that second-place prize. In the end, however, the biggest prize of all was the one I'd discovered at the end of a metaphoric trail of silly candy hearts, flowers and poetry: this personal prayer to Valentine's Day. So, my fellow romantics, keep the faith, and remember this: it doesn't matter if you're given a hand-made card for the day or a diamond ring, a bag of pastel colored M&M's or a dozen wine-red roses...they all translate to the same, most wonderful message, the heavenly message of Valentine's Day: that you are loved.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Lighting the Way to Your Holidays

"...the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and think of [other] if they really were fellow-travellers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."
--Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.  

There was an erotic, holiday story writing contest and I wanted to win.

...I didn't win. I came very close to winning, but tales of naughty, toy-making elves and lusty Santas tend to have the upper hand in such contests. So I wasn't all that surprised when my old fashioned, holiday-spirit romance lost out to such a story. Nor did I regret for a minute writing it. I only mention the contest to explain why this particular stocking is so stuffed with holiday elements: from wreaths to chestnuts to colored lights.

I even made the story multicultural and interfaith to cover all the holiday bases. While this aspect of the story started out as part of my über-holiday trappings, however, it didn't stay that way. In fact, it turned out to be the story's shining star. You see, to me, the most important aspect of this time of year is sharing. Yet so many people get proprietary about the holidays, insisting that this or that celebration or tradition is theirs and theirs alone. No one outside it should be allowed to enjoy it.

That seems pretty contrary to the "good-will-toward-all" message of the season.

Thus, as I began to explore different seasonal traditions my goal changed from winning the contest to illuminating that shared center. The holiday spirit, if you like, which doesn't focus on what gifts are offered, or how they're wrapped, but on the wonderful wish we all have to give of ourselves.

I ended up with a fable, of sorts, a romance between a odd woman and a desperate man both looking for love, yet fearing themselves too strange or unworthy to give or receive it. It's a story about those lonely times we all go though--sometimes short, sometimes long--when we feel like outsiders. This is most keenly experienced during the holidays when everyone is gathering together; and it doesn't help if our relatives, country or culture has told us that we must be something that we're not if we want to belong.

As in this story, however, there are people out there who refuse to focus on our differences. They don't care if our appearance or faith or background isn't the same as theirs; their hearts are open, and when they look on us, they see a kindred spirit, someone to be invited in and given a place by the fire. Which is why we should never lose hope of finding a people, a neighborhood, a family...and someone to love. There is a lantern out there to guide us all home. And once we arrive there, we should make sure it stays lit to guide others home as well.

That is what this time of year is all about.

I did not win the contest with this story, but as often happens, I got something that mattered a great deal more to me. Which is why I'd want to wish everyone reading this blog a very happy holiday season. My thanks for the gift of your readership. Whatever my stories might mean to you, that you enjoy them means to world to me.

Have faith in each other, fellow travelers. We've more in common then you think.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Economic Theory

Now this is an odd one.

A fan of mine, PirotX, asked me to write another Romeo and Juliet tale. As you can probably tell, I've a soft spot for opposites-attract stories, so I had no problem with the thought of writing another. Pirot, however, was after a full-on "warring houses" R&J tale with the families or friends opposed to the romance. That made me scratch my head a bit because the current  cultural and religious differences that would create such a forbidden romance didn't interest or excite me. So what else was there?

I brooded on this for a while, and then it occurred to me that warring tribes, when not created by differences in culture or religion, were usually the result of economics. Rich and poor are always good Romeo and Juliet material, but there had to be more to this tale than that. Okay. How about opposing philosophies on the distribution of wealth and other such socio-political issues?

Hmmmm. Now there was crazy idea. An erotic romance centered around economic theory. What a daft idea! Even with research how could I make that work? I couldn't. No way, no how, no....And then it hit me. A single image, a scene, an enticing situation...Ohmygod! It could be done. (Stunned silence here.) Economics. Yes. There was a way to make it interesting. Opposite philosophies, different types of wealth and poverty, families at budgetary poles driving at least one side to....

Whoa. This might be fun.

It wasn't, of course, that easy. First, I had to bone up on economics both history and theory (ack!). And then it turned out that the scene that had gotten this ball rolling, which I thought would start the story wasn't working out, not until I realized it had to be the (sic) balcony scene for my Romeo and Juliet. And when the story finally came together it still remained in limbo while I spent days digging through Karl Marx in hopes of finding a title (kids, don't try this at home! It takes years of training to know how to search for creative inspiration in the writings of a revolutionary socialist).

It all paid off in the end, but it was hard going.

Done at last, I began to doubt myself. Was anyone going to even want to read this romance outside of economic/poly-sci students?

To my utter amazement, those who read it loved it. In fact, they were downright enthusiastic and PirotX, the instigator, waxed rhapsodic. He thought it my best story yet. Even so, when Jayha requested it for BT I did a double take. The story where Romeo and Juliet fall for each other while discussing economics? She wanted that one? Really? Talk about risky publishing. But fans have been peppering me with messages, wanting to know when it'll be out so they can have it.

Sometimes the wildest, weirdest ideas pay off. This one, among the strangest I've ever had, is proving to be of inestimable value.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New Name, Small Relaunch

Greetings Friends and Readers! You may note a small name change to this website. When I started it, I thought this blog would serve for both myself and my collaborator on the book "Irish Eyes." Given my writing partner's nom de plume (Tom Collins) I thought "Erotic Cocktails" to be an apt if a bit naughty pun. Very soon, however, this blog became mine alone, and I've been feeling that the name isn't representative of me or of what I've been publishing with Beautiful Trouble. So today marks a retroactive name change to the blog and a minor relaunch. 

Welcome to The Erotic Café.

Why Erotic Café? And if "Café" why the books in the background? Let us start with the famous painting at the top, "Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper. I adore Hopper's spare style. His paintings are always of pauses in life where the viewer can imagine what has been and what will be after that moment ends. Most viewers of this painting tend to think the occupants of the diner sad and lonely. Hopper, himself, had a bleak view of this picture--yet also an oddly optimistic one as it was 1942 and he saw diners, like the one in the painting, as the remaining lights of civilization in a darkening world. That is how I've always seen it. Others may think the stories in this picture tense, existential and even scary, but to me they are lights in the dark. 

To me, these four "nighthawks" have made a connection there at the counter. Because they are up and the rest of the world is asleep. Because they are seeing the world as others do not. Because they are sharing that quiet moment. I see that diner not as a cage of loneliness, but as a refuge from it. An illuminated interior with company, coffee and a perch to rest on before flying off into the dark once again.  
That fellow with his back to us has a writing pad and pen in his jacket pocket, by the way. At least, I think he does. When I think café, this painting is one of the things that comes to mind because, to me, diners are the American equivalent of Paris cafés. Here's another image that I connect with cafés:

Cafés are for reading as well as thinking, a time to focus and absorb. Which is why mine has all those paperbacks in the background. That, to me, is the perfect café, one with books and chess games and newspapers as well as late night coffee and good conversation. 

Hence, the name change. "Erotic" remains to indicate what kind of books you'll find on the shelves and what discussions you'll hear at the counter. "Café," however, takes the place of "cocktails" to expresses how you ought to feel about this blog. Like you can pause life and take your time over a cup of coffee. In that pause there are stories to be read, or seen, or experienced.