Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Writing Exercise - Christmas Poetry

 by Ashley Lister 

 ‘Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
My partner was laughing
‘Cause I’m hung like a mouse

She was wearing black stockings
And wielding a birch
And I quietly suspected
We weren’t going to church

As the holiday season approaches, I thought it might be fun to try something festive. As there’s no traditional poetic form associated with Christmas, I figured it would be appropriate to pick a Christmas poem and use that form.

Obviously, the first poem that came to mind was ‘The Night Before Christmas’ (‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ by Clement Clarke Moore). However, because I have always perceived this form as four line verses, with an x-a-x-a rhyme scheme and variant syllable count, I figured that wouldn’t be a sufficient challenge for the regular readers of this blog[1].

A couple of other Christmassy ditties came to mind but it was only when I was contemplating the lyrics, I realized they were songs. Frosty the Snowman at first, then Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I was about to dismiss this form as being traditional song lyrics when I realized that the form was identical to my interpretation of ‘The Night Before Christmas’: four line verses, with an x-a-x-a rhyme scheme and variant syllable count.

She thrashed and she caned me
But don’t pity my plight
I knew it wasn’t just Santa
Who’d be coming tonight

I’d never before thought
She might like CBT
But now my balls are now hanging
From her Christmas tree

So, the challenge this month is to write something festive in this traditional form.
As always, I look forward to seeing your contributions in the comments box below.  And, I hope you enjoy the festive season, however you celebrate the holidays.




[1] The original poem is written in rhyming couplets and I’ve been perceiving the caesura as the end of the line.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Good-bye NaNoWriMo 2016! I Knew You Well


Well, today’s it, folks! The final day of NaNoWriMo 2016, and it’s been a good one. I’ve loved every minute of it. For those of you who just stepped outside your caves for the first time in awhile, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, the object being – you guessed it – writing an entire novel in one month. I’m an enthusiastic  participant every year that I can manage it. It’s a chance take risks, to write something wild and reckless. It’s the opportunity to take on something I’ve always wanted to tackle but have either lacked the time or the courage.  And it’s not just a dabble, it’s a whole glorious month of taking something risqué out of the writing ideas box and trying it on not just to see how it fits, but how it feels to live with it, intensely live with it, for a whole month. And intense is probably the best word I can find to describe the experience. 

Now that I’m looking back warmly at NaNoWriMo 2016 after trying my hand at science fiction for the first time, what I’m about to share with you may be bordering on TMI, but it certainly won’t come as much of a surprise to most writers. Creativity is a real turn-on. When I’m writing, when I’m in the zone and everything is really flowing, the experience is the hottest thing next to sex that I know. It’s the kind of endorphin rush I’ve had when I’m scrambling up a steep fell or when I’m discovering some exotic place for the first time. And yes, at times those most creative moments are like the best foreplay ever. 

Since I started writing romance and erotic romance, my tagline has always been that Freud was right. It really IS all about sex. I believe that more and more the longer I write. Our sexuality infuses every other area of our life, and in no place is it manifest more powerfully than in our creativity. To spend the entire month of November hole up with a new novel, a novel that’s a total stranger when I pen those first words, is intimidating. But it’s also incredibly arousing in a creative sort of way. I think of it as a writer’s version of Nine ½ Weekscrammed into thirty days, with a chance to get to know a total stranger – one I’m in the process of creating -- inside out. Yup! Intense.

For me, NaNoWriMo is about taking risks in a safe container. I know it will last only a month. That’s all! And then the rest of the world floods back in. I’ve always thought of November as a particularly short month. To me it always seems even shorter than February. Maybe that’s because it’s the last chance to breathe before the holiday season hits like a battering

ram and there’s no slowing until January. All I know is that if I’m doing NaNoWriMo, I love, love, LOVE November! If I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, I hate, hate HATE November. In the UK, it’s cold, it’s bleak, it’s wet and windy, and the days are short and dark. Even worse, once November blows in at gale force, I know with that sense of cold deep in my bones that summer is over, and even Indian Summer has had its last painful gasps. BUT absolutely none of that matters when November is my container, and I’m writing furiously.

Oh, and it’s gone by so quickly! Here I’m waving good-bye on the platform with a satisfied smile. I’m a better writer for allowing myself to be so completely seduced by the act of writing a novel in only a month. It might be just thirty days, but what a difference a month makes. 

Oh, and yes, thank you! I did write my science fiction novel – all 95K of Piloting Fury. And yes, it was most definitely good for me.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Holiday Special: Literary and Media Figures and Their Favorite Drinks

Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and her three cats. Visit her web site, her Facebook page, and her Amazon Author Page. 

Her new m/m erotic medical thriller Roughing It is out! This book is a sexy cross between The X Files, The Andromeda Strain, and Outbreak. Read her short erotic story Babes in Begging For It, published by Cleis Press. You will also find her new novel No Restraint at Amazon. Enjoy a good, sexy read today.


For The Love Of God, Montresor!
Literary and Media Figures and Their Favorite Drinks

Since 'tis the season for festivities, I though it would be fun to not only write about famous literary and media characters and their favorite drinks, but to include recipes! During this holiday season, feel free to be like Phryne Fisher or Ebenezer Scrooge and toss back one of their favorite cocktails. I found some of these cocktails at The Cocktail Chart of Film & Literature at Pop Chart Lab.

These first three aren't meant to be taken seriously, but they're so amusing I had to include them. I'm not encouraging you to throw cigarette ash or downers into your drinks, but if you insist on doing that, at least be creative.

Moe Szyslak – The Simpsons

The Flaming Moe

Drops of various liquors
Cigarette ash
Krusty Brand non-narcotic cough syrup

Charlie Chaplin – The Adventurer

The Dregs

All leftover cocktails in the bar poured into one glass.

Alex – A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Alex and his cronies downed this drink before engaging in some wholesome, clean ultraviolence where they'd beat up strangers, rob stores, and the like. It's nothing more than milk and downers.

Moloko Plus

Milk and barbiturates - Vellocet, Synthemese, and Drencrom

The following are classics. I enjoy drinking Amontillado since I am a huge Poe fan. I could drink this stuff and argue with writers as to who is better – Poe or Lovecraft? That always ends up being a very heated discussion. When I went to the Stanley Hotel Writers Retreat in October, 2015, I passed on drinking bourbon on the rocks despite that being Jack Torrance's favorite drink since I detest bourbon. That said, I can't let this article continue without mentioning those fine beverages.

Montresor and Fortunato - The Cask Of Amontillado – Edgar Allan Poe

Amontillado.

Jack Torrance – The Shining – Stephen King

Bourbon on the rocks

Harry Potter – Butterbeer – J. K. Rowling

Butterbeer is generally thought of as non-alcoholic but there are boozy varieties of the drink. There is even a Starbuck's version. I'm here to give you both.

From Food52, the alcoholic version includes ½ stick of unsalted butter, light and dark brown sugar, freshly grated ginger, dark rum, ginger beer, and other ingredients. Go to the link for the full recipe including ingredients and instructions on how to make it.

Here's one of the many versions of a grande butterbeer for Starbuck's. Just save this blog post page on your iPhone and show it to the barista who will make the drink for you. Please don't do this when it's very busy because you may annoy the staff with a special order.

Ask for a Creme Frappuccino base. Don't skimp on the fat by asking for skim or 2% milk as whole milk is required for the right consistency.
Add 3 pumps of caramel syrup.
Add 3 pumps of toffee nut syrup.
Top with caramel drizzle.

Phryne Fisher – Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries – Kerry Greenwood

I have enjoyed Benedictine for many years, but I was sold when I discovered Phryne Fisher likes the liqueur. My husband's late father used to declare it on his taxes as medicine and he got away with it. Maybe it's because he lived in Europe. Ha! Kerry Greenwood, who created Miss Fisher, talked about Phryne introducing herself in the forward to her books.

Forward from Kerry Greenwood, about Phryne Fisher for the books Cocaine Blues, Flying Too High, and Murder On The Ballerat Train.

Thank you for buying this book. I have a wizard and three cats to feed. Picture the scene. There I am, in 1988, thirty years old and never been published, clutching a contract in a hot sweaty hand. I have been trying for four long and frustrating years to attract a publisher and now a divinity has offered me a two book conract about a detective in 1928. I am reading the ads as the tram clacks down Brunswick Street. They are not inspiring posters. I am beginning to panic. This is what I have striven for my whole life. Am I now going to develop writer’s block? When I never have before?

Then she got onto the tram and sat near me. A lady with a Lulu bob, feather earrings, a black cloth coat with an Astrakan collar and a black cloche jammed down over her exquisite eyebrows. She wore delicate shoes of sable glacé kid with a Louis heel. She moved with a fine louche grace, as though she knew that the whole tram was staring at her and she both did not mind and accepted their adulation as something she merited. She leaned towards me. I smelt rice powder and Jicky. ‘Why not write about me?’ she breathed. And, in a scent of Benedictine, she vanished. That was the Honourable Phryne Fisher. I am delighted to be able to introduce you to her.

Ebenezer Scrooge -  A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

I can't let a holiday article about cocktails go by without mentioning Mr. Scrooge. This drink is served warm and it's perfect for curling up in front of a roaring fire and listening to Victorian Christmas carols with someone you love.

Smoking Bishop

¼ cup sugar
1 bottle red wine
Juice from several oranges
1 bottle port

Strain oranges
Prick oranges with cloves
Let sit for 24 hours
Serve warm

Edgar Allan Poe - Eggnog

I must mention Poe one more time, since he liked a classic holiday drink. Poe loved eggnog. He even used in in his classic tale The Pit And The Pendulum. Poe's West Point roommate recalled he also couldn't be found far from a bottle of Benny Haven's best brandy. Benny Haven was Poe's favorite place to go to drink. The jury is still out as to whether or not he was an alcoholic. Stories regarding the cause of his death range from rabies to being beaten to death after refusing to be used in vote rigging. The eggnog was a family recipe.

Eggnog

7 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
5 cups whole milk, divided
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 cups brandy
1/4 cup rum
Nutmeg

Combine the egg yolks and sugar in a medium boll and whisk until thick and pale. Set aside. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. Warm 3 parts milk over low heat. Whisk 1 cup of warm milk into the yolk mixture. Add this back to the milk in the pan. Stir over low heat until combined and thickened. Remove from heat and stir in the cream quickly. Place the saucepan in the ice water. Stir until chilled then add the brandy, rum, and remaining milk. Pour eggnog into glasses. Whip the egg whites into stiff peaks in a bowl and spoon over the eggnog. Top with nutmeg. Merry Christmas!

Topper – Pink Lady

When I first watched the movie Topper, I became very interested in Pink Ladies since Marion Kerby swore by them. I have yet to try one, but maybe this season I'll give one a try.

1½ -2 oz. Gin
1 Egg White
1 teaspoon Grenadine
1 teaspoon Double Cream
Fresh Strawberry for garnish

Directions:
Combine the ingredients with ice, shake vigorously. Strain into a glass. Garnish with ½ strawberry on a cocktail stick.

Variation:
White Lady:
2 oz. Gin
¾ oz. Each of Cointreau and Lemon juice
1 Egg White (if liked)
[Omit the grenadine and cream]
Directions:
Combine the ingredients with ice, shake vigorously. Strain into a glass. Garnish with ½ strawberry on a cocktail stick.

Carrie Bradshaw – Sex and the City – Candace Bushnell

I am not a fan of Sex and the City for reasons I won't go into here, but I must give Carrie Bradshaw kudos for popularizing the Cosmo.

Cosmo

4 parts vodka
1 part Cointreau
2 parts lime juice
3 parts cranberry juice

Shake and serve on ice

John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel – The Avengers

The reason my favorite drink is champagne is due to it being the preferred beverage of Steed and Mrs. Peel. It's nearly all I drink aside of red wine, Benedictine, Campari, and Amontillado. Those two drank it all the time, even when they were painting Mrs. Peel's flat. I recall they preferred Chateau Mouton Rothchild, but that's a bit out of my price range. I also like brut champagne. The drier the better.

FYI – Oscar Wilde also preferred to drink iced champagne. At the time of his death, he was drinking a combination of opium, chloral and champagne. He did say, "And now I am dying beyond my means."

Champagne

And now for the hard-boiled characters. You don't get much more hard-boiled than Raymond Chandler. Chandler was as much of a double-fisted drinker as were his creations. An alcoholic, he suffered blackouts and threatened suicide. He lost a job due to drink and began writing at 44. When his wife died, he dived further into the bottle. His alcoholism haunts his stories. He favored the gin gimlet just like his character Philip Marlowe. Still, if you want to drink like the heavies, go for it.

Vivian Sternwood Rutledge – The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

Scotch Mist

2 to 3 ounces scotch, bourbon, or brandy
½ cup crushed ice
lemon twist over edge of glass

Philip Marlow – The Long Goodbye – Raymond Chandler

Gin Gimlet

½ gin
½ Rose's lime juice

And now for the disasters amongst us. The Great Gatsby included drinking and excessive living. It was mainly about the downfall of the American Dream in the 1920s. Fitzgerald favored gin because he believed people couldn't smell it on his breath. He ad his wife Zelda were heavy gin drinkers. Another alcoholic writer, cocktails figured prominently in his fiction. He preferred the gin rickey, just like his character Jay Gatsby did.

Daisy Buchanan – The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Mint Julep

2.5 ounces bourbon
2 sugar cubes
4 or 5 mint leaves
Serve over ice

Muddle

Jay Gatsby – The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Gin Rickey

1 shot gin
½ shot fresh squeezed lime juice
lime zest
2.5 ounces bourbon

Here's to the rise and fall of rugged masculinity from Hemingway and Williams. Although Hemingway was fond of drinking, he did not do so while writing. Also, his favorite drink was not the mojito. He was diabetic and couldn't tolerate the sugar so it's unlikely he drank mojitos. He did drink absinthe and double daiquiris without sugar. His favorite drink was the dry martini.

Jake Barnes – The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

Jack Rose

2 ounces applejack
1 ounce lemon or lime juice
dash of grenadine

Tennessee Williams suffered from severe anxiety and drank to ease the pain. He often spoke of his love for downers saying that they enhanced and unblocked his creativity, although his critics disagreed. Downers did him in in the end when he choked to death on a bottle cap to his prescription barbies. Alcohol played an important part in the lives of his characters as well, Brick Pollett being an excellent example.

Brick Pollett – Cat On A Hot Tin Roof  - Tennessee Williams

Hot Toddy

2 tbsp bourbon
1 tbsp mild honey
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
¼ cup boiling hot water

Stir and serve warm

I can't talk about rugged masculinity without mentioning Bond. James Bond. While most people associate Bond with a martini, shaken, not stirred, it wasn't the only thing he drank. He enjoyed an Americano in Casino Royale. My husband and I are huge fans of Campari and vermouth. The Americano is similar to a Negroni, but it uses Perrier instead of gin. We could drink either one. To you, Mr. Bond!

James Bond  - Casino Royale – Ian Fleming

Americano

1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet red vermouth
Perrier

Stir

You can't go wrong this holiday season with all these cocktails at your disposal to drink. Celebrate Christmas and honor Phryne Fisher, Marion Kerby, and Scrooge with warmth and nostalgia. Don't forget to share with your friends. Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!








Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Real Wall

by Jean Roberta

So much has been said (even here in Canada) about the election of Donald Trump as President of the U.S. that I can’t think of anything new to add on a political level.

However, let’s consider how government by the “alt.-right” (loosely defined as a broad coalition of white male supremacists, proud gun owners, climate-change-deniers, Christian fundamentalists, and fans of robber-baron capitalism, unrestrained by unions or governments) might affect writers. The first thought that occurred to me was that new laws might criminalize erotic writing, as distinct from crude boasts about “grabbing pussy.”

My second thought was that legal censorship would not be the most serious threat to writers. The English writer Virginia Woolf came closer to the truth in 1928 when she gave a series of lectures which were later published as an essay, A Room of One’s Own, about how women writers are affected by a shortage of actual space and time in which to write. This argument could be extended to everyone who is socially and economically marginalized.

Thinking about my own past, I can honestly say there has never been a time in my adult life when I didn’t write anything. However, as a single mother in the 1980s, I always felt guilty about spending my scarce “free” time on any activity that didn’t involve tending my child or earning a living. I was also trying to finish a Master’s thesis in English, and this project – which is supposed to take a year or two at the most -- took me most of a decade, partly due to delays on the part of a supervisor who had other priorities, and partly due to lack of time, energy and self-confidence on my part.

The real wall that tends to keep marginalized or oppressed people out of “mainstream” culture consists of obstacles to self-expression. If you’ve been taught that your real purpose is to serve someone else’s needs (or that you have no purpose and might as well be dead), and if apparently random circumstances reinforce those messages, writing anything feels like an act of rebellion. Everyone has stories to tell, but the obstacles to telling them are likely to be internal as well as external.

As an instructor of low-cost, non-credit creative writing classes in the local university in the 1990s, I met students who wanted to express themselves in written language, but they were afraid of possible consequences. Several of them insisted that they would never write for publication because their relatives and especially their spouses would never forgive them. My students wanted to tell the truth about their lives, but they were afraid that their truth would offend everyone they knew.

My advice might have seemed contradictory on the surface. I encouraged them to write down their most shocking (to themselves) feelings, suspicions and experiences in very private journals that they never had to show anyone, including me. This was Step One. After letting this raw material cool for awhile, students could continue to Step Two: rereading the secret diary, and pulling out sections that could be reshaped to form poetry, fiction, drama, or creative non-fiction.

Turning a spontaneous rant, a rambling journal entry or a masturbation fantasy into a coherent piece of writing makes it more comprehensible to others. It’s the beginning of a conversation. And a conversation that includes enough participants can change a culture.

In the November newsletter of Circlet Press, writer and publisher Cecilia Tan defended what she does so brilliantly (IMO) that I can’t resist quoting part of her editorial:

“It was a tough night here at Circlet HQ as the election results rolled in and I probably don't have to tell you why--but I will. This wasn't about Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump for us. This was about the fact that the Trump campaign and the Republican platform are serious threats to our existence as marginalized people. Gay, lesbian, trans, bi, gender non-conforming, minorities in sexual identity of every kind, including survivors of sexual assault (and not to mention women and people of color in general) are all seen as less than human by the Trump camp. Literally.

So I thought it might be a good time to remind you all what Circlet Press stands for, and why even in the face of a difficult uphill battle, we're not giving up, and why even in the face of massive global upheaval, erotic fiction still matters.

1. Writing matters. All writing is a declaration of humanity.

The act of writing is self-expression in a declarative form. Whenever we make words, even if they are tweets, at the most basic level we are saying "I am here!" Unlike vocal speech, writing is a deliberate act, one that combines cognition with communication--with intent to communicate to an imagined other who is not present. It's a powerful act whether one is writing a personal blog, an article, a story, a letter, or even a diary entry. It might feel right now like putting down words doesn't matter. But it does. It does because you matter, your voice matters, your personhood matters.

2. Erotica is a claiming of sexual identity.

The extension of the fact that writing matters is that writing about sex matters in particular. Not only do we write "I am here!" but "I am queer!" (or whatever flavor of non-standardized sexuality or sexual identity you declare) No matter what your sexuality is--even if it's vanilla heterosexual--society has judged you for it and wants to tell you how you can or should do it. If you cannot be yourself in your private thoughts, you cannot be yourself anywhere. In our sexual fantasies is where some of us first discover our true selves, and then through that act of putting down words, of putting that fantasy to paper as if communicating with another sentience, we express that truth. There are those out there who literally wish death on us for being queer or sinners or 'liberated women.' Declaring our existence as sexual minorities and celebrating our sexuality with joy through erotica is an act of courage and an act of self-preservation, too. The more we are seen, the better we are known, the more space on the stage we take up, the more difficult it is to marginalize us.
"

There you have it. The whole editorial is much longer than this, and it was intended for wide circulation. You can read it here:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/some-post-7202497

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Perilous Day

by Kathleen Bradean

Apologies in advance to non-US readers for the nation-centric post. Insert your own national holiday.


It sounded like a nice idea. Have a bunch of friends and family over. Eat a ton of food. Sit around the fire and tell ourselves a feel-good myth about our origins...

And then it happened.

Oysters in the stuffing.

Oops. I should have posed a trigger warning. I can envision you recoiled in horror at the very idea of oysters inside your bird. I mean, awful, right? Don't get me wrong. I love oysters. Fresh and briny, or cooked with spinach and bread crumbs, or even Acme Oyster House's woodfire grilled oysters topped with Parmesan cheese (note to self - get back to New Orleans ASAP),  but NOT in stuffing.

Maybe you're thinking, "That sounds kind of good," or "I shall toss a virtual gauntlet at her for insulting great aunt Mildred's famous oyster dressing!" or perhaps "I've had worse. Apples. Chestnuts. Craisins, for the love of god!" And you'd be right. And wrong. Heck, even I'm wrong for being anti-oyster stuffing. (Not really, but I'm playing my own Devil's advocate) Because what you're eating isn't just stuffing. It's never just stuffing. It's a forkful of the past. Your past. And no matter if it's oysters or apples or chestnuts, what you really taste is memories.

Thanksgiving isn't just the bird, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. It's so many side dishes and desserts. Some are regional favorites; some reflect our ethic background. Others were created by a home economist in the 1940s for the war effort or for a brand, printed in a magazine ad, and recreated faithfully every year since. (Green bean casserole, I'm looking at you.) It's a complex amalgamation of who we were, who we are, and who we desire to be.

You may be wondering what this has to do with writing. It has a lot, actually. Since I'm the main cook, to me, Thanksgiving is a day centered on the kitchen. It's a constant game of Tetris - trying to get the food to fit in the fridge as well as trying to bend time to my will so all these disparate dishes come together at the same time. To my sister-in-law, the day centers around the family room and making sure guests are having a good time. For the kids, the day is about finding out that yes, their cousin Perry really is a jerk who would lock the four-year old in a dark closet in the basement and leave her there until much later when someone else notices she's missing. (true story). There are as many points of view on what happens that day as there are people sitting around the dining table, and just because I see it as an oyster-free stuffing day doesn't mean that those who ate the oyster stuffing see it incorrectly. Sometimes, conflict comes from equally valid points of view. That doesn't mean there has to be a hero and a villain. There just has to be oysters, and those who have the good sense to leave them out of the bird.




  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Hooking the Reader


By Lisabet Sarai

If you don’t grab your readers’ attention in your first paragraph, you’ve lost them.

Well, that’s what the experts say, at least. Like all absolute statements, this one awakens my critical side. Certainly, I’ve read, and enjoyed, many books that began with a whimper rather than a bang. On the other hand, an effective, engaging opening can make the difference between someone buying your book or moving on to the next author.

Here are the first two paragraphs of one of the best books I’ve read in the past decade, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern:

The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

I had heard nothing about this novel. Seeking a birthday gift for my husband, my attention attracted by the dramatic black and white cover, I picked it up from a bookstore table. As I often do, I read the first page to gauge the style. I was hooked. I had to know more. Later, I bought several other copies as presents for friends and relatives. I’ve recommended it to many other people.

An author’s dream. All because of that dynamite opening.

Of course that’s not strictly true. If the rest of the book had not been as amazing as its first page, I would not be singing its praises to all and sundry. On the other hand, without that hook, I might never have read it at all.

This incident occurred in a bricks and mortar bookstore, but the same phenomenon can occur online. Amazon and Smashwords both allow you to sample the first ten to twenty percent of the books they sell. I don’t know how often people flip through my first few pages on Amazon, but Smashwords gives you these figures. Many more people have sampled my indie books than have bought them.

Maybe I need better openings. Maybe I shouldn’t be giving you advice at all. On the other hand, I do feel that I’ve learned a few things since my first novel (which has a rather awful first sentence, based on my current evaluation).

So how can you hook your readers? How can you write more effective initial paragraphs? Here are some suggestions.

Stimulate the reader’s curiosity. 

Your first page can and should raise questions in the reader’s mind. What’s going on? Where are we? Who are the actors? What are their relationships?

Here’s the start of my short story The Last Amanuensis:

My hands no longer tremble when I pierce his papery skin. I've learned how much force to apply, how to tilt the hollow needle just enough to fill the tiny wound with color without blurring the line. I know what he can bear. I can read the change in his breathing that tells me he needs a break.

Although this one paragraph reveals a great deal, it also makes the reader wonder about the scenario. Clearly the narrator is creating a tattoo, but who is the subject? Who is speaker? He or she seems to have done this many times—why?

Provide a lightning introduction to your characters. 

We all know that great characters are the key to keeping readers’ attention. One way to open a tale is let your characters immediately speak up, so readers get a sense of their quirks, personalities, and motivations.

This is how my erotic suspense novel Exposure begins:

I strip for the fun of it. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It’s not the money. I could make nearly as much working at the mill and keep my clothes on, but then I’d have to suck up to the bosses. Here at the Peacock, I’m the one in charge, and I like it that way.

Only five sentences, but already we know quite a bit about Stella. She’s opinionated and self-confident, the total opposite of a doormat. She doesn’t care must about society’s judgments. She’s probably not highly educated, given her short sentences, colloquial vocabulary and marginal grammar. And she’s a stripper—a fact relevant to both the noir suspense and erotic aspects of the story.

Dump the reader into the middle of the action. 

I learned this from Kathleen Bradean. Years ago she critiqued a short story of mine on the Storytime list. I knew something about the piece was not working. It felt leaden and plodding, especially at the start. However, I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.

Kathleen suggested that I throw away the first couple of paragraphs, starting the story smack in the middle of a scene. I followed her advice. The story gained new energy and with it, new interest. I found the change wrought by a relatively minor edit quite astonishing.

One way to get the reader involved in ongoing action is to begin with a line of dialogue. I’ve been using this technique quite a bit recently.

Haley’s back.”

Suzy might as well have stuck my finger in an electric socket. I forced myself to breathe.

(From The Late Show)

Ginger? Do I taste ginger?”

Uh—yes, that’s right, sir…”

Ginger in coq au vin? That’s practically sacrilege, Ms Wong.”


On the desk, Miss Archer. Arms out, palms flat.”

I should have realized Greg had something up his sleeve. Normally he hates big parties. His work requires him to interact with all sorts of people, but I know he finds it stressful. To relax he prefers more—how should I put it?—intimate gatherings. So I really should have understood he had some deviant plan in mind when he told me about the Halloween masquerade.


Okay, so maybe I’m overusing this device!

Use short, direct sentences and pay attention to the prosody.  

Readers have limited attention spans, especially nowadays. Hence, all else being equal, you should keep the sentences in your first paragraph as short and direct as you can manage. I’d never recommend that you dumb down your English to increase the size of your market, but first sentences are almost like advertising slogans. They should be brief and catchy.

To enhance the impact, take advantage of the fact that repetition and rhyme stimulate parts of the brain not involved in the literal interpretation of words. These elements of prosody give sentences more impact and make them more memorable.

Consider the example from The Night Circus. The first sentence the first paragraphis a mere five words. The paragraph break provides a breath, a beat. The next sentence is longer, but the repetition carries it forward: “No announcements... no paper notices .... no mentions.” The next sentence also uses parallelism: “It is... it was...”.

Here’s the first sentence from one of my personal favorite stories, Like Riding a Bicycle:

My wife is on her knees.

Okay, I’m probably my own biggest fan, but I get a little chill when I read that, especially when it becomes clear that this is not (at the moment!) a BDSM scene. The stress patterns (three iambs) seem to me to perfectly fit the meaning.

So, following up on the recommendations above, is there anything you should avoid in your openings?

Well, there’s Elmore Leonard’s famous advice: “Never open a book with the weather.” I’ve broken that rule a few times, deliberately, when the weather was an essential aspect of the plot or the setting, but in general I tend to agree. Perhaps I can restate it more generally: do not begin with a long description of things that are tangential to the story.

Of course there are always exceptions. One opening strategy mimics the common cinematographic technique of the wide pan over the scene, focusing in on a character. For instance, you might show us a narrow country lane winding between hedgerows, the sun setting behind the purple hills, the freshening breeze starting to stir the trees. Then, as we look more closely, we notice a lone figure just coming over a knoll, trudging along, weighed down with what seems like a heavy knapsack. We cannot see his face at first, but as the walker approaches, we realize it’s actually a young woman, dressed in jeans and a ragged jacket, a tight cap crammed over her lank brown hair....

This approach works well with an omniscient point of view, when you want to keep some distance between the reader and your characters.

I have a rule of my own, born of reading a lot of romance: never begin a book with your character’s name. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read that start something like this.

Anna Wilkins shut off her monitor, leaned back in her office chair and closed her eyes. If she had to review one more report, she’d scream.”

The clang of an alarm woke Reggie Borden from a restless sleep. He was on his feet, pulling on his work pants, before he realized it had been a dream.” 
 
This is a personal peeve, but I find this sort of opening (which is very common) really annoying. It’s even worse when the author feels inclined to tell us, in the very first paragraph, about the characters’ occupations, appearance, relationships, and so on.

Anna Wilkins, CEO of Anastyle, Inc, shut off her monitor, leaned back in her office chair, ran her fingers through her blond curls, and closed her sapphire blue eyes. If she had to review one more report from Mark Reynolds, her ambitious Director of Sales, she’d scream.”

The clang of an alarm woke veteran fire fighter Reggie Borden from a restless sleep. He was on his feet, pulling on his work pants and slipping the suspenders over his broad shoulders, before he realized it had been a dreama dream about Linda and that terrible day two years ago.” 
 
Rather than making the reader curious, authors who start their books like this seem to feel the need to convey as much information as they can, as early as possible.

Resist the urge to explain, especially in the first few paragraphs of a story. Make the reader wonder who these people are, what they are doing, and why. The reader doesn’t need to know, right away, your characters’ names or what they look like!

I’ve counseled brevity, yet here I am on the fifth page of the essay. Guess I should stop!

In fact, I often have trouble with endings. I’ll talk about that next month.