It’s All About the Sex — Part 1

If you’re writing a novel for adults, and these days “adult” often means Young Adult, too, there’s a very good chance you’ll need to include some sort of sex scene. Many writers new to the craft approach this opportunity with mixed feelings, not the least of which is fear — fear of looking bad in a relative’s eyes, fear of kickback from friends or employers, fear of failure, etc. Sadly, little I say here will make those fears go away. BUT, I have a strategy you can use to make the process less difficult. Better still, that same strategy could vault your sex scene from something you had to write up to something you’re proud of.

For openers we need to look at the “why” behind the scene. There has to be a reason for it, even if it’s simply character development or procreation. If all the scene does is go through the motions like a stripper who’s done the same dance a thousand times, it’s unlikely to be memorable. It may not even have enough sensory value to make it worth reading. In these cases your best bet may be to settle for “…and they made love.” Or maybe “…and they went to bed.” Or, in extreme cases, “…unto them a child was born.” You can always just cut to the fireplace.

That all assumes there’s nothing else to be gained from the scene. If that’s all you expect from it, then make it short and forgettable — the written equivalent of wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Don’t waste your time, or the reader’s, with a recap of how they undressed, where they went, what they did, how long it took, or if there were any encores. It just isn’t necessary. The only folks who might care are likely not buying books, assuming they can even read (a fact not in evidence).

Ah, but what if there’s a secret to be revealed? What if one of the players isn’t who (or what) he or she claims to be? What if there’s a tell-tale mark visible only when disrobed, or seen under ultraviolet light? What it it’s not visible at all? What if it has to be felt or tasted? (Okay, I’ve written a lot of science fiction. <smile>)

What if the sex isn’t as important as where it happens — be it in the Lincoln Bedroom, the back seat of a limo, in the King’s closet, on the moon, or any place else for that matter.

What if it’s the timing that’s important? Maybe the encounter occurs between two people who aren’t where they’re supposed to be, at least, not at that particular moment. Say, when the king walks by, or the Publisher’s Clearing House people come calling? (“Mabel dear, just where were you on Super Bowl Sunday?”)

What if the sex is between estranged partners, old lovers, spies for different countries, or some other combination of good and bad, dark and light, plaid and stripes? Any such combination of character or circumstance can provide the angle a writer needs to make the ordinary interesting. Let’s take these one at a time and see what can be done with ‘em.

There’s a secret: Who doesn’t love this gambit? Let’s say the sex is merely a means to enter a certain room, one containing the top-secret Toilet Plunger of Death (sometimes referred to as the McGuffin — essentially an object or other motivating element which drives a plot). A bounty of potential actions and consequences can bloom from a motive like this: a theft attempt, an effort to hide the thing, a call for help, an effort to silence someone, etc. Now imagine any one of these options, or several, set against a backdrop of seduction. Suddenly, the sex isn’t just something happening between consenting adults, it’s a means to an end (no pun intended).

Place precedes passion: Consider the humble “Off Limits” sign, which is just as likely to be metaphorical as physical. “You can’t go in there; that’s the boss’s office!” Or the Queen’s craft room, the President’s boudoir, the mad scientist’s wine cellar, or the girl’s locker room. Wherever. It doesn’t matter. For some characters, there’s a profound and irresistible lure associated with almost any forbidden place or thing. Now, add the complicating factor of sex; make it the key to unlocking that untouchable domain. Or make it the reward. The point is, you have the chance to make it important.

Tick, tock: No, I don’t mean speed sex. (Besides, ick. And shame on you!) Under normal, non-marathon circumstances, sex requires a certain amount of time. This applies even unto really unsatisfying sex (about which I’ve only read, naturally). Point is, it takes time. And that time can’t be devoted to anything else, because, well, you’re busy. And focused. Sex tends to force both parties to keep their arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times and to remain there until the ride comes to an end. So, while your characters are doing the nasty, they can’t be doing something else, somewhere else. Once again, the number of motives which play to this theme are legion.

I’ll never forget ol’ what’s his/her name: What often begins as light-hearted amusement, just for old time’s sake, can lead to an emotional and/or psychological avalanche. In the case of enemies, it can have physical consequences, too. How many times did James Bond dally with dainties wearing black hats? Does this hurt? No? How ‘bout this? Whether you’re writing a thriller or memories from the old folks home, you have the opportunity to spice up the story or a relationship. In fact, handled skillfully, you can get enormous mileage out of one measly roll in the metaphorical hay. Consider the possibilities, not the least of which are offspring, guilt, shame, pride, boasting, lies to cover it up, lies to make more of it, maybe even failed memories. Who knows? It’s your story, after all.

Notice, however, that in all the examples thus far, sex actually takes place. There’s a whole gunny sack full of options available when little or nothing happens. I’ll address those next time.

–Josh

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Huge debate: Prolog or Prologue?

Actually, I’ve known writers crazy enough to get into arguments over nonsense like this. Toe-may-toe or Toe-mah-toe? Prologue or Prolog? Seriously? The awful truth is they’re completely missing the point. Either spelling is okay, but using either is not. At least, not in a novel. If you’re writing a handbook for hustlers or a cookbook for caring cannibals, then go right ahead. A prolog may be just what you need. But if you’re writing a novel, there’s a better than even chance that what you put in your prolog/prologue will be ignored by a serious chunk of your readers.

Do you really want to take that chance?

Just for giggles, let’s assume that whatever it is you’re thinking about putting in a prolog is critical information your readers will need to have in order to gain the proper appreciation for where your story is, where it came from, or where in the world it might be headed. Let’s further assume you’re actually a real, live writer who can string nouns and verbs together in a readable fashion. Fair ’nuff? Okay.

So, why not make the prolog material just as readable as the rest of your story? Why risk dumping it off to the side where some readers will zip past it like they do stranded rush hour motorists on the Interstate?

For many writers to whom I’ve offered this alternative, the suggestion is often received not as a useful tip, but as a sad reminder that they haven’t finished writing, and that they can’t simply pour out some historical background stuff in pseudo-scholar mode and get away with it.

That said, one needn’t go overboard the way Michener did in Centennial, where the first 80 pages or so dealt with the formation of the Earth, heaving seas of molten rock, the rise and fall of magma, and shifting tectonic plates, among other things. (Sorry Jim; that part sucked.) All of which merely justified the existence of a cave in Colorado. (I’d have been tempted to go with something like: “Look, Lame Beaver. It’s a cave!”)

When I was working on Under Saint Owain’s Rock with Barbara Galler-Smith, my writing partner at the time, we wrote a prolog explaining the existence of an ancient letter which spilled the beans on someone supposedly a saint. The entire plot rode squarely on the back of this tidbit, but it took place some 700 years before the rest of our story occurred. Fortunately, we had the good sense to recast that bit of data into a very short, but still interesting opening scene. A punchy first line helped a lot. See for yourself:


Llancerriog, North Wales
— August, 1307

Owain cover 2013Sainthood required more than a massive headstone and a dozen village idiots. Finally, Owain — Saint Owain — lay dead, and all Meleri could think was good riddance.

That didn’t mean the truth had to be buried with him. She wrote a letter of confession meant for the Abbot of Sant Dewi’s monastery, and for his eyes only.

Knowing her soul depended on its contents, she listed the name of every villager who had taken part in the affair and recorded, as faithfully as she could remember, the role each had played. When finished, she signed her name and affixed the family seal. All she needed was a safe place to hide the letter. If anyone asked about Saint Owain, she’d deliver it and let the world know the truth — though it ruin them all.

Kindly pardon the blatant plug, but the example is entirely appropos. If the material is good enough to include in your book, why not make it as compelling as the rest and include it right at the beginning? Yes, it’s backstory, but it’s essential, so treat it that way. Hook your reader with it! Make them drool to find out just exactly why it’s important. 

That’s the way to handle a prolog. Or prologue. Whatever.

–Josh

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The Curse of Backstory

Of all the story-writing sins committed by beginning writers, by far the worst consists of dumping a trailer-load of backstory on the unsuspecting reader. Fortunately, this error becomes clear almost immediately, at least to the reader. As an editor, this practice not only makes me cringe, it makes me wonder if the writer has ever actually opened a novel and read it. And by novel, I mean one written by someone with an actual story to tell, who can differentiate between the stuff that interests readers, and the stuff that puts ’em to sleep.

Believe me, it’s easy to tell the difference — just read a bad novel, and God knows there are plenty of them to choose from. Fortunately the worst aren’t in print. As much as I bad mouth the Big Five, the one positive thing I can say about the efforts of the “traditional” agent/editor/publisher/marketing cabal, is that they give a thumbs down to the truly bad along with the potentially good.

I firmly believe most novels submitted to agents, editors and publishers aren’t worthy of being put into print. Most need a significant amout of work just to become readable, and most agents and editors aren’t willing to put in that kind of time. I don’t blame them; it’s work. I know, because many of those writers come to me for help. I get to see what they’ve done, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why their manuscripts received a “Thanks, but no thanks,” assuming they got any feedback at all. That’s a different rant which I’ll discuss at a later date.

Along comes Amazon, and the old modus operandi is dumped on its head; Amazon made self-publishing not only economically feasible, but relatively easy. Print-on-demand utterly clinched the deal. Suddenly, anyone who could copy and paste their text into a computer-generated template could format an honest-to-God paperback book. The e-book versions were even easier. And as quick as a red neck can learn to say, “Watch this; somebody hold my beer!” crappy books flooded the market.

Please understand, I’m NOT saying all self-published books are crap. Far from it. I’ve published quite a number of them myself, and they’ve been well received. And, I’ve helped dozens of other people to produce books of their own. But they all have a degree of polish that’s often lacking in self-published work. In short, they’ve been edited.

And one of the first things I encourage (nag, berate, argue, comment, filibuster) is the elimination of backstory. If it’s truly worthwhile, it can be sprinkled in as needed. But a wholesale dumping of background material is almost never appropriate. I say “almost” not because I know of a case where it worked, but because I’m sure there’s probably one out there somewhere. I just haven’t seen it yet.

If you’re just starting your writing carreer, you can save yourself an astonishing amount of grief, to say nothing of time and energy, simply by eliminating every particle of backstory that isn’t absolutely necessary. Trust me when I say no one cares about Uncle Doober’s bowel issues, or whether or not Gramma Grundy ever used self-rising flour. What we do want to know is how Uncle Doober got elected Mayor and/or how Gramma Grundy eventually poisoned him. That’s where the story is!

That’s what someone, someday, might make into a movie.

–Josh

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Story as striptease

Despite being opposites–stories are additive; striptease is subtractive–one can still draw parallels. An ecdysiast (look it up) teases her (or his) audience by making them wonder how much farther she/he will go. Successful genre fiction does much the same thing, but it’s a question of what comes next, rather than what come off next.

17497765_ml-cutoutImagine a toddler waddling into your kitchen. She does that half stumble/half walk that propels all such kids, and she’s heading straight toward the stove. On the front burner rests a pan full of boiling water. It makes merry sounds, hissing and sizzling as water bubbles over the side and onto the burner. A steam cloud floats above it all. You’re standing at the front door watching the older kids play in the yard, and you momentarily forget the toddler. You don’t see her reaching up, directly over her head, to grab the handle of that pan. It’s so shiny and close. So… tempting. Her pudgy little fingers stretch up and up, closer and closer. All she has to do is stand on her tippy toes. And then….

20170218_105644On the next street over, a little spotted puppy–maybe eight or nine months old–races around at top speed, his little legs churning as he tries to catch the ball two boys toss back and forth. One of them is distracted just as he makes his throw, and the ball floats awkwardly, bounces off the curb and dribbles into the middle of the street. The ball doesn’t care about the pizza delivery guy zipping down the road. The driver is late; the pizza’s getting cold, and his boss becomes a total jerk whenever customers complain, and that’s a sure bet this time. He can’t find the house. Of course, that’s when the puppy races from the safety of the yard into the street. And then….

Despite only being in business a few months, young Gus has made great progress as an entrepreneur. His commercial painting business really took off when he cut his prices for work on multi-story buildings. Though he had to make do with crappy, used equipment, he’d soon be able to buy all new stuff. He’d also be able to afford insurance for his wife and three little kids. At this stage, cutting corners was just part of the process, exactly like hurrying to finish a job quicker than promised. That, more than anything, explained why Gus failed to notice the fraying ropes in his hanging scaffold. Sure, it was old and covered in paint drips from a thousand jobs, but he only needed it to last for one more: an ancient, ten-story building. He had just climbed in and begun lowering the scaffold from the roof when….

While the stripper removes a layer at a time, the storyteller adds one. But their goals are the same: keep the reader’s attention. The storyteller, however, has a gigantic advantage as the ending can vary drastically; the reader doesn’t want predictability. The stripper’s audience wants only the one posible outcome.

24-screenIt’s fairly easy to generate tension in a story, and readers not only expect it, they look forward to it. Consider the success of TV shows like “24” which first aired on the Fox network in 2001 and continued for eight seasons and 192 episodes. Viewers raved about it, and some, like my bride, watched it religiously even though she could never sit down except during commercial breaks. By the time it ended each week, she was worn out. The tension had been jacked up so high and so well, it took her a while just to settle down.

Imagine your readers doing the same thing! It requires some planning, but you don’t need to be a modern day Machiavelli or channel Torquemada to do it. You just have to be aware of the opportunities that pop up naturally in the telling of a tale. If your protagonist hasn’t tripped over a wheelbarrow yet, then give some thought to how you might best put such a thing in his way.

The thing to remember about all this is that it only works if you leave the reader hanging for a scene or two (or more). If, at the end of your scene, you have the toddler fall over without grabbing the pan of hot water, the tension instantly ends. There’s no need to read further. [Yawn] “Okay, Mildred, I’m turning out the light now.”

Ditto for the dog in the street or the guy on the scaffold–or any such scenario you construct. It helps if you have more than one point of view character so that switching to an alternative person and/or place is so easy it becomes second nature.

BUT, you must wrap up all these minor issues before you get to the end of the book. Leaving readers hanging at that point can work against you. It may be tempting to cast your tension net beyond the covers of your epic, but I’ve found you’re just as likely to anger a reader as you are to lure him to run out and buy your sequel. There are other techniques for that, and I’ll explore them in a future post.

–Josh

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The Spice Rule

45716708_ml-txtOne of the many things those who are new to novel writing fail to ask is, “How much is enough?” I’m not talking about length; I’m talking about specific kinds of content, something that impacts all writers in all genres, even those engaged in non-fiction (and not just memoir).

Writing “rules” can be worrisome for those who are compulsive about “doing things right.” So when they hear (from folks, like me, who profess to know something about the craft) that they should avoid using adverbs and stative verbs (is, was, were, etc.) they tend to go overboard, eradicating all such critters as if they were spraying a house for some sort of infestation.

This is nonsense.

As I’ve said so often before, the “rules” for writing are malleable. They’re not a one-size restricts all. They exist as guides, or suggestions, about what works well for most readers. An age-old maxim, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that one should learn the rules before breaking them. And more specifically, before breaking them on purpose.

53191529_ml-txtIt’s at this point where the novice should employ the Spice Rule: “A little spice may save a dish; a lot may kill the diner.”

It’s true for many things one encounters in novels. Take dialog as an example. An occasional one-word sentence is fine; a steady stream of them isn’t. When using dialect with a character, be careful not to overload their speech with undecipherables like “you’ns” or “wud” or any other construction which reflects more on the writer than the character.

Southern accents, in particular, are often done in overkill mode, usually by Yankees and/or foreign transplants who simply don’t know any better. That’s not a valid excuse, however. For those of us who live in the South and have real Southern accents, dealing with such sloppy approximations is obnoxious and insulting. (Apparently, no one in Hollywood, and certainly, no speech coaches living there, have ever heard real Southerners speak. Thay nevah, evah, get it raht. Thay git this kine o’ she-it instay-yed. [snarl, heave])

When in doubt, don’t overdo it, whatever it is. Give the reader a break. To see the opposite of a practical application of this philosophy, spend some time on FaceBook. There you’ll be fed an unrelenting stream of cat videos and political rants, none of which interest anyone but the persons constantly posting the damn things. Where’s Emerson (“Moderation in all things”) when we need him?

Anyway, keep moderation in mind. Variety is the key–in dialog, sentence structure, subplots, characters, description, everything. Variety may well be the spice of life, but for everyone’s sake, don’t administer it with a shovel.

–Josh

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Chapters vs short stories

A writer friend of mine occasionally takes a chapter from one of her books and fashions it into a short story which she then puts on the market. She’s managed to sell several of those tales. And, since she has developed a following for her novels, it’s a great way to tease her readers about soon-to-be-released material. If only I could make it work for me, too. [Sigh]

Alas, I’ve had precisely no luck with this at all, despite spending a significant amount of time trying. I just can’t get it to work. My novel chapters typically weigh in at around four thousand words, so length isn’t usually a problem. Most magazines will consider up to 5K without too much hesitation.

The problem, I’m convinced, is that my novels typically have multiple storylines. So coming up with a single chunk of related material means carving scenes from various places and either sewing ’em, or just squishing them, together. The issue then becomes figuring out how to introduce characters and conflicts from scenes which haven’t been included. Snip, snip, paste, paste, and voila! The result is something snipped and pasted that has all the appeal of fresh poodle squeeze.

Obviously, it can be done. My friend’s efforts prove it. I just don’t think it’s possible with my own stuff. Which kinda makes me grumpy. In fact, it tends to make me think I should write in a simpler style, say one voice and one point of view. Maybe just one storyline. So, okay: Joe goes here, Joe goes there. Joe gets tangled up with some babe from the hood, maybe while he’s tracking down a bad guy for a suspicious client. But then the hot babe from the bad side of the tracks turns out to be an undercover agent who’s actually looking for him. And then….

See the problem? I already want to know more about the suspicious client and the undercover gal. And why would anyone be investigating Joe, my point of view character, who’s really a sweet guy and who wouldn’t even think of breaking a law, except for that one time when….

psycho1And suddenly my personal MAC (Motive, Action, Consequence) hamster wheel is off on a vision quest of its very own, and will soon be careening into the unknown and well beyond anyone’s control. Joe’s story will become the basis for book one of a new series; there will be all the usual novelish stuff: violence, revenge, outrage, passion, sex, mistaken identities, ice cream binges, misplaced trust, etc., and my dreams of turning a simple project into a simpler one will evaporate like manners at a food fight.

All of which is to say, that if I need to write a short story, I’ll just write a damned short story. It’ll take a whole lot less time and effort than writing a novel I can break into marketable pieces. Clearly, my female writer friend is a genius, and I should never again be tempted to duplicate her literary/surgical successes.

Instead, I’ll stick to doing my own thing. There’s probably an object lesson in there for all my other writer friends. If you’re one of ’em, I hope you can find it.

–Josh

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Trigger Words? Really? Oh hell yeah!

Relax. I’m not going to talk about words which might have deleterious effects on certain 12765916_ml-txtoverly coddled college students who hear them. (This is, generally speaking, a non-political website. I don’t care who you vote for as long as you have a reason for doing it. That doesn’t mean I’m interested in discussing your politics, or my own. I’m not, ever. I only do that over drinks–lots and lots of drinks.)

The kind of trigger words I’m talking about are those that convey a sense of place. F’rinstance, let’s say you’re writing a scene (or a memoir) that takes place in your imaginary grandmothers’s kitchen (or possibly your imaginary great-grandmother’s kitchen. With any luck, you’re younger than I am). For me, that’s a kitchen built in the 1930s. Also for me, it’s located somewhere in suburban Chicago. Your granny’s kitchen may have existed somewhere far, far away, in time and/or place.

Now, when we attempt to describe that kitchen, we have a vast array of descriptors to choose from. For me, it’s a gas stove with white enamel doors covering the oven. Stark, wooden shelves bedeck the walls around the appliance. A variety of cooking tools hang wood-stove-2beneath them; there are no cabinets, no windows, no wallpaper, no decorations. There’s a radio on the plain, laminate counter top. The only warmth in the room comes from the oven. The best part is the smell of freshly baked bread, an aroma that permeates my soul and leaves me with my mouth open.

Your granny’s kitchen is likely very different. It could have a black, cast iron, wood burning stove. There could be a spindle-legged table in the mix, too. Lengths of firewood might be stacked in one corner; an apron might hang from a peg on the wall. There could be a farm calendar on the wall, or a bit of cross-stitched wisdom, maybe a psalm or a prayer.

wood-stove-1On the other hand, your great-grandmother’s kitchen may have been far more up-to-date, the kind one might describe as mid-century urban sophisticate. It might’ve had brightly painted walls, finished cabinetry and a butcher block table at ground zero. Her stove might’ve been electric, and her counters may have been crowded with lesser appliances–a toaster, a blender, and/or a coffee maker.

The point is, as a writer, you can’t be satisfied thinking your readers will imagine your setting exactly the way you see it. You have to paint the scene for them, and you have to make sure you’re using the right trigger words–words that provide a specific feel. The trick is to measure out only as many as you need to get the picture painted. Too much description is just as bad as too little; either will disappoint the reader.

One of the best ways to gauge whether or not you’ve overdone it, is to examine the pacing of the work. Does it still move along? Will readers have to struggle to hang on to the thread? Does anything really happen there? If not, all the description in the world won’t save the scene.

truck-vs-houseIf you find yourself in such a situation, consider doing something to the location. If it’s important the way it is, do something to change it! A fire, an earthquake, or a plastic bag full of frozen human waste hurtling down through the ceiling after being accidentally discharged by a passing airliner might just do the trick. (I would be gratified to see this occur more often in fiction than in real life, but I doubt a new meme is in order.) A falling tree or a bread truck bursting into the room from outside will definitely change things.

Make the setting you envision work for you. If it doesn’t, change it. In the process you might just discover something even more interesting than what you originally planned.

–Josh

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