Is Your Sex Scene Worthwhile?

When working with beginning novelists and reviewing their work, I’m often tasked with reading their very first sex scenes. One might be tempted to say, “You lucky dawg! You get to jump straight to the good stuff.” But, one would be dead wrong. Reading these fledgling efforts rarely amounts to a privilege.

What I typically encounter are vague scenes loaded with tired, adverb-packed phrases. It often feels as if the writer thought using the word “passionately” would somehow make the scene steamy. Yet, there’s rarely any passion on display at all. No steam, not even a whistle. Worse still, there’s not much creativity, either.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating detailed descriptions of body parts, their dimensions, or their disposition. I’m talking about setting aside one’s fear of writing a sensual scene and instead, using the opportunity to develop both characters and plot. In most cases, the actual sex is secondary. And yet the very prospect of writing about it often leaves those new to the craft sweatier and more nervous than the typical young lovers they’re trying to depict. “What will granny say when she reads this?”

A good writer uses setting, emotion, and motive to give full-bodied life to these scenes. Why empty the toolkit simply because the story demands that one character must jump into bed with another? The bed, of course, is figurative. It could be a hayloft, the back seat of a Chevy, a kitchen counter in a Manhattan deli, or anywhere else. With a little creativity, where the action takes place becomes as important as who’s involved.

So, you’ve got two players destined to make the grand connection. Must they be housed in a nice, private room somewhere? Hell, no! Maybe their best bet is a church pew or a bench in Grand Central Station. Maybe it’s a semi-private hospital room: “Excuse me, Mr. Frobish, I’m just going to pull this curtain around my bed for a few minutes. This won’t take long, and then we can continue our conversation about your collection of vintage teacups.”

“Yes, Padre, I know this is a sacred place, but these pew cushions you had installed are truly awesome.”

“Oops! Here comes the conductor. Pull the blanket back in place and pretend you’re studying the timetable.”

There should always be a motive. Real people rarely do things for no reason (despite what your childhood sibling once claimed). The motive could be–and all too often is–infatuation. “My God, you’re gorgeous. Let’s make love right now!” That’s as silly as it sounds, but it ends up being at the heart of too many of the scenes first-time novelists write.

How much better would these encounters be if the players involved had some reasons other than unbridled libidos? This is hardly a new concept, and one can find a bazillion stories where one character uses sex to trap another, whether the trap in question is a pregnancy, an intimidating photo, the need to inspire jealousy or some other common plot device. Here’s where creativity and imagination come into play. Find a rationale that hasn’t already been done to death. (I’ve always been partial to the concept that if Character A is busy having sex with Character B, he or she can’t be simultaneously murdering Characters X, Y or Z. Unless, of course… Et voila! And we’re on our way.)

I’ve saved emotion for last because even if neither setting or motive comes into play, what goes through the mind of a viewpoint character should be explored. Such thoughts might be entirely coherent and focused on the moment, but they could also drift.

Sensory input isn’t blocked during sex, at least not completely. Textures, odors, tastes, and sounds are likely to be present no matter where the scene takes place. Use them, for cryin’ out loud! Maybe water is dripping from a faucet, and the rhythm mimics that of the couple. Maybe birds are chirping, or an ambulance screams by. Maybe the toast is burning, or the dog is scratching at the door. Maybe the radio is on in the neighboring suite, and mighty Casey is at bat in the bottom of the ninth.

Whatever you do, take the time to explore the options. Don’t settle for a clichéd bit of prose that will satisfy no one. Instead, be a writer!


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Revisiting thoughts from the past…

This has been a tough week, for meeting editing commitments and dealing with the loss of a beloved brother. So, rather than let the week go by without a post, I’m doing a remake of one I first cranked out five years ago. It may not be shiny new, but I’ve given it a good going-over, tightened all the loose parts, and run it through the wash. It may rattle a bit, and make odd noises at inconvenient times, but it’s still worth a read. So, here ’tis:

While digging through the digital detritus on my hard drive–the stuff never seems to stop breeding–I happened upon a book trailer produced for Druids, my first published novel. I somehow managed to forget about it, even though it features a young lady who is ever near to my heart, the lovely and talented Miss Alexis Langston (who is now twelve, and who retains all the charm and grace she displays in the video).

My favorite sales girl!

My favorite sales girl!

Here’s the link:

I can remember back in the early 90’s when my friend, Barbara Galler-Smith, and I were feverishly working on the first book in what we hoped would become a multi-volume series. One of the issues which bothered me at the time was how my mother would react to some of the racier scenes in the book. I was in my 40’s back then, and my own kids were off in college. Geez, I wondered, what will Mom think when she reads the–you know–steamy parts? Barb had similar concerns, but as a middle school teacher, she had other readers in mind, to say nothing of their parents.

It turns out we were worried about the wrong audience. It takes so long to get a book published through conventional channels, that by the time Druids finally hit the market, my mother was gone, and I was concerned about what my grandchildren would think when they encountered my unbridled literary libido!

That still hasn’t happened, but it’s only a matter of time. I have a feeling, however, that little miss Lexi will be most forgiving. Besides, there are two other books in the series which are even worse, to say nothing of the dozen or so that have come out since Druids made its debut.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? Two things: book trailers rarely generate new sales, and publishing via traditional means hasn’t gotten any quicker. I’ve got too many stories to tell to wait for agents, editors, publishers, marketers, and bean counters to give me their blessing. Besides, I’ve got four additional grandkids who may someday want to read my stuff. I’d like it to still be available. That’s a guarantee traditional publishers can’t give.

So, I’ll continue to go directly to my readers on my own schedule. But no more book trailers, unless someone else pays for ’em.


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Taken By Surprise

I’m writing this the day after my brother died. I tell myself I’m doing it because I need to meet a deadline. I tell myself I need to do it because something positive surely will come of his passing. I’m compelled to make it so. I tell myself I’m fooling no one. I’m writing this for me in the hope someone will understand. I pray Lloyd will see it, and understand.

I’m a mess; no wonder this post isn’t clear.

I ask myself if I’ve ever managed to convey through any of my characters the conflicting emotions running through me right now. I don’t think so. I’m not very good at dealing with personal tragedy myself, much less forcing it on readers. But isn’t that what writers do? Aren’t we supposed to distill the emotions we feel into the characters we create?

My brother Lloyd, on a much better day.

I’m happy that my brother is no longer struggling for every breath. He’s no longer having to parse his words, two at a time, between ever thinner sniffs of air. Life no longer exhausts him, and I tell myself that’s a blessing. But I still grieve. He’s gone. I’ll never be able to tell him another off-color joke; I won’t have another chance to laugh at his. He’ll never read another word I write. I’ll never again hear his over the top praise. We’ll never share another beer or watch another ballgame together, never again join our voices in disgust at politics and politicians.

I tell myself I knew it was coming, we all did. He’d been sick for quite a while, and yet the end still held a surprise. Too soon, too damned soon. I wasn’t ready. I don’t know if we ever are.

And my question comes back to me: have I ever portrayed such thoughts in a character’s head? After all I put those players through, did I ever capture the disjointed and unbalanced set of emotions I’m experiencing now? Probably not.

Will I ever? I don’t know. I’d hate for anyone to feel what I’m feeling now, and yet I know we all will at one time or another. Can I put that in a book? Do I even want to?

I only know this: I miss my brother. I will for a long, long time.


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Change Your Story’s Clothing

Every writer I know has come up with a story idea at one time or another which they like, but which just doesn’t seem strong enough to warrant the effort needed to write it. Still, chucking the idea into the pooper isn’t an option; after all, there’s gotta be something really good in there, somewhere. How do you dig it out?

Before you flush it away, give some thought to changing the tale’s wardrobe.


Consider how the Romeo and Juliet story looked when set in contemporary New York City. They called it “West Side Story” in case you forgot. Now, your story idea may not quite compare favorably against the Bard’s, but you ought to at least see if there’s some potential for changing the genre.

Let’s say you’re itching to write a love triangle story, but the traditional romance venues are already full to bursting with similar stuff. How would it look if cloaked in Wild West garb? Or maybe it becomes a sub-plot in a space opera. “Star Wars,” anyone?

Toss in a spy, a secret code, or a missing atomic weapon, and your love triangle morphs into a mystery thriller, a spy novel, or a pre-apocalyptic page turner.

It’s hardly a new approach, as one can see from these examples. So why wouldn’t you give it a try?

Imagine your theme is a coming of age tale. Could it be made more compelling if set during the Revolutionary War? Or maybe the age of Roman conquest, or how ’bout the Crusades?

Maybe you’re writing a story about the love of a girl for her horse. You could push that idea back into the realm of prehistory and discover you have a blockbuster on your hands. But if cave girls aren’t your thing, consider a science fiction yarn wherein your young hero or heroine teams up with a creature of alien origin. Oh, wait–I think that was “E.T.”

But just because someone has already wandered onto your intellectual turf doesn’t mean you can’t continue to play there. We haven’t run out of science fiction, western, or romance stories. People still love ‘em! There’s a good chance they’ll love yours, too. But only if you stick with it and actually finish the story.

Maybe you just need to dress one of your players in a suit of armor. So what? Maybe your tale of mistaken identity involves a fairy princess instead of a medieval scullery wench, a Viking shield maiden, or an Amazonian warrior queen.

Ideas are fragile things, but they can also be extraordinarily malleable. Don’t give up on a good one just because it doesn’t arrive fully equipped with bells and whistles. It’s your job to dress it up and add those. You might amaze yourself with what you discover.

And, if you’re still struggling, Consider taking a field trip to your nearest costume shop. There you’re likely to discover worlds you never knew existed. Maybe one of them will breathe some exotic life into your idea.

And while you’re there, why not try on something to see how it looks on YOU? I’ve done it. I even talked my bride into going with me. We pushed the clock back a couple centuries in nothin’ flat.

Now, quit foolin’ around and get back to that story of yours. I’m dying to hear how it comes out.

–Josh (Many thanks to my wonderful sister, Karen Boyce, for suggesting this topic. If only she could hang around more often!)

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Dude! That doesn’t mean what you think it means. Part Two

Writers of historical fiction occasionally find themselves at the mercy of an evolving language. Many words which once had common, non-controversial meanings, have changed over the years and now carry linguistic baggage our ancestors would have never imagined. Two words in particular fall into this category, though there are doubtless many more. I’m referring to “gay” and “chubby.”

I was quite well aware that the first of these had a decided shift in meaning. The “Gay 90s” had nothing to do with homosexuality nor did the phrase, “We had a gay old time.” Sadly, those older meanings will likely die off from disuse.

The revamped meaning of “chubby,” on the other hand, caught me completely by surprise. My son was kind enough to shed some light on the word’s contemporary role in verbal exchanges. Nowadays, it refers to an erection. Oh well.

What I find far more interesting are words which sound nasty, but aren’t. Though they’re unlikely to pop up in contemporary dialog, they weren’t all that rare a hundred or more years ago. Consider this gem: Clatterfart. You’ll have to go back a few hundred years to find the original definition of it. The word refers to a gossip or someone who simply can’t keep their mouth shut. Oh, how I’m itching to dish that one out at a dinner party!

Know anyone who has ever ruined a document of some kind by scribbling on it? There’s a word for him, or her, and it’s as delicious as it sounds. Such folk are common bumfiddlers.

One should take great care not to fall victim to a gallgroper. In more common, non-Tudor parlance, a gallgroper is a swindler.

If you’re off on a hike, you may want to fetch your knobstick before you depart. In the 19th century, the word was also used to refer to someone who takes the job of a laborer on strike.

Here’s one I’ve suffered from for as long as I can remember: peniaphobia. Now stop looking at me like that! It means a fear of poverty. Sheesh.

Then there’s the ever charming sack-butt, which comes with two meanings depending on whether it’s spelled with one T or two.  The latter refers to a wine barrel, while the former is the name of a musical instrument similar to a modern-day trombone.

The 17th century Scots have passed along an interesting member of this verbal caste: it’s tit-bore, or laid out in full, tit-bore-tat-bore, which is merely another name for peekaboo. In the same vein, hide-and-go-seek was once called hitty-titty. Charming, no? Perhaps this linguistic evolution isn’t such a bad thing after all.

I’ll leave you with a trio of polysyllabic monsters frequently heard in the 19th century. We’ll start with the common gallinipper. Give up? It’s a mosquito. If one finds himself needing to leave town with great haste, one might say he absquatulated. And finally, since my imagination has nearly reached this condition, we have exfluncticate which means to destroy completely.

I had hoped to end this with a witty compilation of several of these gems, but sadly, I’m just not up to the challenge. I have high hopes, however, that some of you may come up with something along those lines. Please feel free to leave them in the comments section. I promise not to be grum, let alone level a sockdolager your way. <smile>



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Dude! That doesn’t mean what you think it means. Part One

One of the many stories floating around social media these days details the content of a text message exchange between a mother and her adult son:

  • Mom: WTF, Bobby. The store’s open!
  • Bobby: Uh, Mom? You do know what that means, right?
  • Mom: WTF? Sure! 
  • Bobby: Okay.
  • Mom: Today’s Friday, right? The store’s open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

There is a larger issue, however, which writers may encounter, especially if they’re writing historical fiction containing dialog. I’ve done my share of stories set in the past, from the first century BC through the middle of the last century. There are issues to be considered for both the oldest and the more recent periods.

In the case of stories set in the distant past, the writer must take care to avoid anachronisms, especially in dialog. Unless you’re writing some sort of time travel yarn, it’s highly unlikely that a Celtic chief would check his wristwatch before sending his warriors into battle. And while that may seem ridiculous, the narrative which accompanies such a scene should at least use chronological terms the players in the story would comprehend. In this case, it might be the sun’s position above the horizon measured in fists. A reference to some guy’s five-o’clock shadow would be meaningless in a world without clocks.

I recall reading Stephen Pressfield’s bestselling Gates of Fire and coming away disappointed by much of his dialog, a great deal of which is between Spartan warriors and their leaders. The language Pressfield used comes straight from a 1960’s Marine basic training camp, and it’s replete with contemporary expletives and curses. I’m sure the ancient Greeks had a rich vocabulary to lean on when swearing, but I doubt it sounded anything like what a drill instructor during the Nixon administration would say. Pressfield makes no effort to cast this dialog in terms that come across as authentic to the period. Aside from this, I found the rest of the book to be spot on historically and absolutely enthralling.

It wasn’t all that long ago that when someone said they were wearing thongs, they were talking about sandals, or more specifically flip-flops. Mention that today in polite conversation, at least with anyone under 30, and you’ll get a forest of raised eyebrows.

And while we’re talking about footwear, the discussion wouldn’t be complete without mention of rubbers, nifty devices for keeping one’s shoes dry when puddles are present. In Britain, rubbers are designed to erase chalkboards. Try throwing that one out in front of a crowd younger than 50.

The word “fizzle” once described a silent breaking of wind (more commonly referred to as an SBD). Once the college kids got ahold of it, the meaning changed radically. Something that fizzles these days is a failure. Whether or not it has an aroma is left to the imagination.

Next time around we’ll focus on phrases in American English that have fallen completely by the wayside. If you’re working on an historical piece set in the 1800s, be sure to come back for Part Two.


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Gender vs World View

I had no idea gender could impact something as common and ordinary as giving directions. I now realize, it does. Though I’ve always claimed to know that men and women see the world differently, it never occurred to me such differences would cause me any grief.

Sadly, I was wrong.

In order to visit a friend who had recently moved to a town about an hour and a half away (by Google Map reckoning), I climbed into my <cough> trusty, 1991 Miata, lowered the windows and headed north through the pastoral wonder that is rural Georgia. I also lowered the rear window, since the car is a convertible and the window unzips. This is a must on trips of any length since the window is made of plastic, and it has contracted some sort of malady rendering it nearly opaque.  Opting for safe vision, I dispensed with comfort and noise control. I thus had an unobstructed view in all directions, something any driver of a tiny car will appreciate. After all, I was entering the land of the pulpwood truck.

These gigantic vehicles are often operated by folk who appear to have lately escaped the 19th century and who have little if no regard for those of us driving cars which could easily nestle right alongside some of the logs they haul.

Having dodged numerous such monsters en route to the meeting place, I kept looking, when possible, for the landmark indicating my final turn. Understand, I’d been dodging pulpwood (pronounced “pup-wud” locally) trucks all morning along with an assortment of grunge haulers, flatbeds loaded with earth moving equipment, and other more common but no less sizeable 18-wheelers. In short, I was in need of a beer and a quiet place.

The landmark? A Super-duper Walmart. I was told, “It’s on the left. You can’t miss it.”


Women, apparently, have a sort of built-in mechanism which alerts them to the presence of large stores offering discount shopping opportunities. They can ferret out these mercantile masterpieces with virtually no effort whatsoever. An internal light clicks on and automagically, some sixth or seventh sense guides them effortlessly to shopping Mecca.

Men have no such gear; we must rely on lesser senses.

So, as I made my way through the swarm of trucks, I concentrated on finding the alleged Wally World. Needless to say, it never appeared. I suspect it may have been hidden by one of the multi-wheeled behemoths with which I shared the road, but I later discovered this wasn’t the real problem.

It turns out, the Retail Land O’ Plenty actually does exist. It lies at the far end of several acres of pavement devoted to parking space, most of which is hidden by a Verizon cell phone store and other assorted retail businesses. My generic blinders kept me from seeing through the stores located immediately next to the road on which I traveled, rendering the gigantic Walmart building invisible. After zipping by the heavily camouflaged landmark, I drove blissfully on for another several miles until alerted via road sign that I was about to enter a different time zone.

My ensuing phone call, questioning the existence of the Walmart did not go well. But, I was given yet another landmark for my southbound travels. I located it and arrived right on time. No harm done.

I’m not blaming my friend for being female, or for having her God-given abilities to know where things are. I’m just guessing that had my friend been male, he’d have told me to watch out for the big damn trucks and look for the Verizon store.


Now, what does this have to do with writing? Absolutely nothing, unless I intend to continue writing stories offering a female point of view. Alas, my confidence in such efforts has been shaken.



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