Tuesday 23 April 2013

The Rules of Writing

Psh, nonsense! There's no such thing as rules when it comes to writing! Right?

Well, yes and no. As is the case with many creative pursuits, the "rules" exist in an incredibly grey area that's more of a three-dimensional spectrum rather than a list of checkboxes.

To some degree I believe that grounding your writing in a set of rules is what makes any author successful -- or at the very least, it makes a successful author even more successful. Almost every writer will believe certain literary conventions hold more weight than others, but very few believe in an all-encompassing set of principles that will work for any writer.
As a result, the "rules of writing" are less about discerning what's right and wrong and more about researching, understanding, and ultimately settling on a set of rules that are right for you.

Obviously the most commonly agreed upon rules relate to things like spelling and grammar. Presenting literature in one consistent, easy to understand format for a global audience is something that's hard to argue against. But even these things can be broken and tweaked by an author to varying degrees of effect.
I consider myself a very pragmatic person, and I have absolutely no qualms about using "incorrect" grammar/spelling at times if I feel it conveys my point better to a general audience. That's not to say that all of my mistakes are intentional (goodness, no. I still feel guilty about the amount of re-editing plenty of my old stuff needs), but I'll often do things like string two words together (like alright, or checkbox -- which my browser likes to underline in red) when the common usage sounds more fluid and direct than the dictionary entry. Spelling and grammar aren't set in stone. Language evolves, after all; but 99% of the time you want to ground it in the rules everyone commonly agrees upon.

But then you get to things like characterisation and storytelling. There is a very strict formula to these things, believe it or not, and understanding it is key to constructing a compelling piece of writing.
The important thing to understand about the structure of storytelling is that it isn't a guide all stories must follow in order to be satisfying -- it's a structure that forms itself naturally almost as a by-product of a good story being told.
  I've talked briefly in the past about structure and pacing, and the graph I included in that post is a pattern that will almost always apply to any good story as it unfolds. Tension builds, danger increases, action hots up, and emotions boil. There must be a constant increase of emotional engagement with the reader as the narrative progresses. If there's a steady decrease, stories feel unfulfilling. If you've ever read a book or watched a movie that felt like it ended with a whimper rather than a bang, it's probably a result of this engagement curve progressing in the wrong direction.
  If a story is all action, all emotion, all tension all the time, then it becomes tiresome, and the dramatic thrills cease to be impressive. This is what happens when you watch a mind-blowing hollywood special effects extravaganza and find yourself completely unimpressed when something explodes in a (non-)dramatic fireball for the dozenth time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a consistently low amount of emotional engagement results in something that feels slow and boring.

So with all we've learned about structure and pacing in mind, storytellers have come up with a pretty consistently engaging pattern for how to set out your story. You want emotional engagement to rise, peaking in a series of climaxes that increase in intensity until you finally arrive at the big dramatic conclusion.
Now, this doesn't always apply to every story, and you certainly don't have to plan out everything to adhere to this curve, but if you write with it in mind you will write an engaging story.

Goodness, this post is dragging on, and I've barely even talked about half of what I wanted to mention. I think this might be a blog post that warrants a sequel at some point in the future, where I talk about genre-specific rules, the line between the cliché and the bizarre, and the fact that you can count every single plot type ever conceived of on the fingers of two hands.

My overall point to conclude the initial segment with is this: Storytelling may have no hard and fast "rules", but what it does have is a series of observable patterns that are consistently applicable to many of the most successful stories we've seen over the years. A proactive author will study these patterns, understand how and why they work, and decide on how they want to use this understanding to shape their own writing.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Wild Consequences Published!

Two blog posts in one day, oh my gawsh! This one's just an announcement, though. Wild Consequences is finally done and available to purchase on Amazon and Smashwords!

Lyssa's wilful disregard for her Alpha's rules is about to catch up with her.
Alone in the forest with Thorne, what began as an expedition to reunite with her family quickly turns into a struggle for survival as the dangers of the savage wilds descend on the pair. With everything she cares for at risk, will Lyssa's instinct force her to give in?
The dangerous attraction between her and Thorne is intensifying, the urge to acknowledge it is growing stronger, and the consequences of survival may mean more than either of them is ready to bear.

11260 word short story featuring graphic descriptions of sex. Not for the faint of heart!

These chapters just keep getting longer and longer, but hopefully the next part won't take quite as long to come out.
Oh, and check out the book review I posted earlier if you missed it!

Book Review: Maia

One of my favourite books, which I may have mentioned once or twice before on this blog, is Maia by Richard Adams. It's certainly not the "best" book I've ever read in an objective sense, but it has a very special place in my heart as one of the few stories I've ever been able to completely lose myself in. I wanted this book to go on and on, and I've never felt so sad about coming to the end of a story as I was when I closed the cover on Maia.

So, what's it about? Like all good stories, it's the tale of a character going through her life. While superficially a novel somewhere on the Game of Thrones spectrum about the political machinations of a fantasy empire (though Maia is closer to -- and even drops some veiled references to being -- historical fiction rather than fantasy), the heart of the story centers around the titular character and her trials and tribulations as she grows from a teenage girl into a young woman. It encompasses elements of action, adventure, romance, and, our favourite, erotica.

Now, there are a lot of things one can criticise Maia for. Most notably the paper-thin romance subplot and the disappointing wind-down to the end of the novel after its climax, along with the unsatisfying resolution to the main antagonist's story contained therein. However, while these are pretty large problems in the scope of the novel as a whole, they're overcome by the endlessly compelling moment-to-moment storytelling and the endearing nature of the book's protagonist. Maia is one of those heroines I would've gladly stuck with for a thousand additional pages just for the joy of spending more time with her. Richard Adams is a master at creating varied, nuanced, deep characters, and it shines through more strongly in this book than in any of his other works, I feel.

Maia also has the special status of being one of the first books that got me interested in erotic storytelling. While by no means a work of erotica in the modern sense, Maia frequently uses sex as a storytelling device, and manages to make several sections of the book disturbingly exciting as a result. It's a bit of a shock, coming from the author that gave us Watership Down, but Adams' ability to lace a story with so many erotic elements definitely speaks to his skill as a writer. Maia is a dark book, but it isn't grim. This is the key distinction I like to repeat over and over when I talk about all my hang-ups with Game of Thrones -- dark subject matter does not have to be bleak and depressing if the author utilises it correctly.
  Maia spends much of her time in the novel as a concubine, a pampered sexual servant to the rich and prosperous in the city of Bekla. This section allows the story to take on a very traditionally erotic style of narrative; the discovery and exploration of a young woman's sexuality.
  We're also treated to a handful of other sex scenes throughout the novel, one of which is the most telling and explicit exploration of a character I've ever come across in literature. Without spoiling too much; the fantasy of an all-powerful authority figure submitting to the most debasing humiliation possible at the hands of her slave is by far the most memorable scene in the book to me.

Maia is ultimately a very traditional story about a girl rising from simple beginnings to a position of power and status in society, and the trials and tribulations she faces along the way. The simplicity of this formula is what makes it work, and this book is a testament to the richness that can be wrung from even the most basic premise by a talented author. But what makes Maia so charming is that Adams takes this premise one step further: the heroine moves on from the pinnacle of high society to realise that all of the money and status in the world never make for true happiness by themselves. It's a fantastic arc of a young girl developing into a mature woman by realising that the fairytale fantasy is neither what she wants, or even needs, out of life. While the central romance is, as mentioned, relatively weak in itself, the thematic purpose it serves of allowing Maia to grow as a character in this way is utilised perfectly.

I could gush about a dozen different characters and scenes all day, but ultimately Maia is rich and compelling storytelling on its most fundamental level. It sucks you in, takes you on a journey, and provokes you in all the right ways without ever letting itself go off the rails. It may be a little rough around the edges, but if there's one goal I aspire to as a writer it's to some day write a book that's comparable in scope to Richard Adams' Maia.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Dark Fantasies

It's been a while since I wrote about anything specifically erotic, so today I'm going to go through some of my thoughts on a subject that's been on the back burner for a while now: dark fantasies.

All of us have probably had them at some point. Sexual fantasies that stray out of our comfort zone, into the realms of something that can be frightening, disturbing, or unsettling, and that leaves you feeling decidedly uncomfortable afterwards. But there's something compelling about these fantasies that draws us to them in the first place. They're the sexual equivalent of peeking through a gap in your fingers, or hiding behind the couch as you watch a horror movie.
As human beings we have an innate curiosity to explore our emotional extremes, and, while things like the cathartic appeal of horror movies and Stephen King books are relatively socially acceptable these days, the idea of dark sexual fantasies is most certainly still a taboo beyond the taboo.

The lack of social acceptance is probably a part of why we're drawn to these ideas and images in the first place (making anything forbidden is a surefire way to make it feel hotter and naughtier), but it's not their core appeal. BDSM and Master/Slave relationships are getting a lot of spotlight in the wake of 50 Shades, and they certainly touch on the disturbing side of an erotic dark fantasy. There's something very worrying about the idea of giving control of your life over to someone else. In the healthiest of relationships this ideally comes about as the result of a strong bond of trust between two partners, but it's almost more exciting if there isn't that bond of trust. After all, the whole premise of such a relationship is a game of make-believe where one person is forced to do things against their will. It ties in strongly with noncon/rape fantasies -- it's all about the emotional unburdening of having control completely taken away from you.
Master/Slave fantasies are one level below this, though. They have the safety net of knowing it's all still a game. A good Master doesn't really want to abuse and humiliate you; he's doing it all for your own pleasure as much as his.

But then you move up to the really dark fantasies. We're on the level of nonconsensual sex here (though some peoples' fetishes extend even further beyond that -- and that's a place even I'm not comfortable delving into!). For the longest time I didn't get this kink. It was very disturbing to me, and I couldn't see how anyone could derive pleasure from the idea of being forced to have sex against their will.
I think the key to understanding this type of dark fantasy is to underline the fact that it is a fantasy. The real life equivalent of this is harrowing, horrific, and absolutely not desirable in any way. For a lot of people (myself included, for many years), the distinction between the two is very difficult to make, because it's such an emotionally charged subject.
The best example I could give would be to equate it to fictional violence. I'm not someone who enjoys a lot of blood and guts in my movies, but I understand that many other people do. Whole subgenres have sprung up around it in years past, and it's become so socially acceptable that "torture porn" movies have even become a thing. I personally find these pretty distasteful, but, looking at them with an objective eye, I have to appreciate the reasoning behind why they exist.

As I mentioned at the beginning, we're creatures of emotion, and fiction gives us a safe space within which we can explore the most disturbing extremes of the human condition without having to deal with the consequences. Through dark fantasies we're able to explore the primal parts of ourselves that still crave something we've come to understand is wrong.

I can't see myself ever writing something as dark as a full-on rape fantasy, but I've certainly brushed up against the idea of dubious consent a few times (something that'll be recurring in my Wild Instincts serial). The wonderful thing about fiction and fantasy is that it allows us to do and experience things we wouldn't otherwise dream of. For anyone who enjoys taking the occasional dip into their darker side, the line between fantasy and reality is very important.
Just because you dream of being forced and taken by an unstoppable alpha male, it doesn't mean you want that to happen.