Other Eyes


Writing can be a solitary occupation. Sure, your characters may be clamoring in your head, haranguing you and trying to hijack the plot, but ultimately you’re sitting by yourself in front of the keyboard, making the decisions and turning those choices into (hopefully) engrossing and sexy prose. It’s your book, and when you’re stuck, you’re more or less on your own.

We’re all a bit in love with our own work – I am, at least, and I suspect if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll probably confess to the same feelings. To be emotionally invested in our writing makes sense. If we didn’t care about both the process and the result, why would we bother? However, this makes it very difficult to be objective about the stories we create.

We can edit from dawn to dusk, yet still might not see some of the glaring flaws in our masterpiece. No tale is so perfect that it cannot be improved. No matter how imaginative we are, no matter how experienced in the writing craft, we all have our blind spots. That’s why participating in a critique group can be so worthwhile.

Submitting your work to a critique group allows you to see it through the eyes of others. A story offered for critique must stand on its own. When you’re reading your own work, you can’t help being aware of the background: your intentions, the origins of the premise, the characters’ back stories, all the ideas you’ve considered but decided not to include. Someone reading to critique evaluates the tale solely on its own merits. For instance, a passage that’s crystal clear to you might be judged as confusing, because you have extra knowledge that didn’t quite make it into the text. No matter how ruthless you try to be in self-editing – no matter how willing you are to kill your darlings – you can’t completely separate yourself from the process of creation, a personal process that will never be accessible to your final readers. An insightful critique can highlight gaps where critical information exists in your mind, but is missing on the page.

In a productive critique group, members tend to have different foci and different skills. Some people excel at noticing typos, misspellings and grammar gaffes. Others are particularly good at pointing out problems with sentence structure: excessive repetition, awkward phrasing, run-on sentences, sentences that are too long or too short. One critique might highlight issues with pacing or continuity; another the use of anachronisms or terminology inappropriate to the time or setting; a third, “head-hopping”, that is, slips in maintaining a consistent point of view.

Members of the ERWA Storytime critique group also tend to comment on the sexual content of the submitted stories. Maybe the sex develops too abruptly. Maybe the erotic pace drags. Maybe the characters’ actions or reactions are not plausible. Perhaps some aspect of a tale has the potential to trigger readers’ traumas, or makes it more likely that a tale will be banned by more mainstream sales channels. Many crit groups won’t deal with sexually explicit content; the members are too embarrassed. Storytime may be unique in this regard.

Of course, every author wants to receive critiques that read like rave reviews. This is even more true for erotica than other genres, I believe, because authors of erotica can’t help but inject a lot of their personal sexual interests and emotions into their work. Storytime provides a unique opportunity to test the erotic appeal of our favorite sexy scenarios on a sympathetic and broad-minded audience.

Ultimately, though, objective criticism is more valuable than unbridled enthusiasm.

I’ve been a member of ERWA for more than twenty years, and during the first few was an active participant in the Storytime list. (Yes, Storytime has been around that long!) Then I stopped subscribing for more than a decade, mostly due to lack of time. I returned when we started working on the ERWA anthology Unearthly Delights, since we planned to use the list as the submission mechanism. I’ve stayed because I enjoy the diverse authorly talent represented in the group, and for the invaluable advice I’ve received on my own stuff.

I don’t have the time to read and crit every piece that comes through the list, and I don’t submit every story I write, but I try to maintain a good karmic balance. Meanwhile, I can say without reservation that every piece on which I have received crits has become much stronger due to the process.

Not that I follow all the advice I receive. Working with a crit group is different from engaging with an editor. With an editor, there’s a power differential, unless you’re paying out of your own pocket. The editor assigned by a publisher plays the role of enforcer. He or she is tasked with making sure that your work fits the publisher’s style guides and follows their content rules, in addition to correcting typos and grammaticos. I’ve had editors make some pretty ridiculous “suggestions”, which I was more or less forced to accept.

In a contrast, everyone in a crit group understands that a critique represents one person’s view, and should be viewed as advisory rather than prescriptive. We are a community of equals, dedicated to helping one another hone our craft.

I’m writing this on Sunday, 16 February, and feeling somewhat bereft, because Storytime has been offline since last Wednesday. The tech folks are working on the problem, but meanwhile, my Sunday is a bit emptier without the usual flashers. Indeed, I have a flasher of my own queued up, targeted at one particular member of the group whom I know likes this particular sub-genre. Alas, I’ll have to wait to share it.

I do hope that by the time this blog post appears, on Friday 21 February, the issue will be resolved. I can write and publish decent stories (or perhaps I should say “indecent”) without receiving crits, but I know my work will be both technically improved and more appealing to readers if I can have the benefit of other eyes.


The Post That Wasn’t

By Lisabet Sarai

Okay, so I was supposed to post today, not a week ago as I did, stomping on poor Garce’s post. These things happen. I was trying to get the post pre-scheduled, you know, getting on top of my To-Do List … Anyway, if you haven’t read that post, entitled Stories We Tell Ourselves, I invite you to do so.

Meanwhile, today’s my official posting day and of course I can’t keep quiet…!

I just want to remind all readers that if you enjoy the discussions on this blog, you might want to join the ERWA email discussion lists. On the Writers list, we share our thoughts and information about all sorts of writing-related topics. Recent threads have included: self-editing – when to stop; reality versus fantasy in the portrayal of BDSM; how to write convincing dialogue; first versus third person POV; how to motivate yourself to finish what you start.

The Storytime list is our on-line critique group. Members post works in progress as well as comments and suggestions on other authors’ submissions. It’s very civil and strongly moderated – even the tenderest ego will not be shattered, yet at the same time you can get some fabulous insights into how to improve your writing. As an added benefit, our esteemed editors select the best stories, flashers and poems each month and invite the authors to publish them in the ERWA Gallery.

The Parlor list is just for fun – chit-chat with other ERWA members about anything under the sun. (However, posts do tend to stray toward sexual topics pretty frequently!)

To join any or all of these lists, follow the instructions here.

Let me finish up by posting one of my own favorite flashers – from the old days when flashers were strictly 100 words. I especially like it because it’s about writing.

By Lisabet Sarai
Copyright 2001

“I like your poems,” she said, leaning closer across the cafe table, so that he could see the shadowed hollow between her breasts where the candlelight did not reach. “I like your images. I can taste them, roll them around on my tongue. They catch in my throat like unshed tears.”

He sipped his chianti, adjusted his glasses, pretended to ignore her stealthy hand on his thigh. Her fingers crept over his chinos, aiming for the swelling at his root. He thought of rejection slips, the dirty laundry scattered round his flat, the bills waiting to be paid. Useless. None of these mundane devices could prevail against her blonde adoration.

He stood like iron. Her triumphant hand claimed him. “I like the way  you can write ‘fuck’,” she said, “and make it into a poem.”

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