I attended a terrific workshop the other day, and I came home with a whole lot of thoughts. I’m not a workshop kind of person. I’m kind of an anti-meeting person altogether, so this was somewhat of an anomaly for me. I’ve always written on my own, albeit aided by invaluable words of wisdom from other authors on the internet and in books. I’m a bit of a hermit, and I’m also an insanely busy hermit. The idea of sitting stationary for a few hours, listening to other people talk, doesn’t always entice me. But I really wanted to meet these authors, since they’re all from my area. Plus, they’re all members of the RWA, and I’m not, so I wanted to get a feel for what I might be missing. I'm so glad I went.
What struck me the most was how different a lot of the perspectives were … and how different some were from mine. I had a couple of beefs, but I’m keeping those to myself, because really, everything in writing is subjective (except for grammar and spelling). Nothing I write is any more valid than something anyone else might write.
But I woke up this morning with a niggling thought—you know those? That little voice that won’t shut up long enough for you to convince it that you’re too busy to write a blog? Anyway, mine was insistent, and I did think it interesting, so today’s blog is about SEX.
Writing sex, anyway.
One of the questions put to the panel yesterday was by an author uncomfortable about writing graphic sex and/or violence. I can’t recall all the responses, but I got the general feel that the author should just do it, dare herself, be free! And yet … I’ve written a lot, and I still am uncomfortable writing either. In this day and age, where we’re relatively dulled to violence and hard to shock when it comes to sex, do we have to juice it up? Write such rip roaring scenes that you’ll get past the rest?
In my opinion, no.
I’ve written relatively sexy stuff (which I haven’t even considered publishing), and that includes a couple of wedding nights. And oh boy, I’ve written violence. My most controversial scene of “Under the Same Sky” was one of the first things I ever wrote, and it shocked me to the core. I had no idea I had that in me! I wrote absolutely everything my character saw, everything she heard, everything she felt. Through my words, the reader knew every little thing that was going on. Then I remembered that readers had brains and imaginations of their own. I cut, cut, cut, and in the end I came up with something a couple of people have called “Fade to Black” violence. I created the setting, built the tension, put up signposts and fences so the reader couldn’t avoid the scene, but I let the writing suffice. Did I have to indicate every kick, every punch, every thrust? Did I have to repeat the abusive language those creatures used? No. Absolutely not.
When I’m reading, two things will prompt me to set a book aside, unfinished. Predictability and Redundancy. Do I know just about everything about the characters and story within the first few pages? Yes? Not interested. Do I need to learn the details of how to tie a knot? The material on the chairs in a room? The weather? Unless these things are directly related to the storyline or are a central focus of the scene, I could care less. Touch on them, but let’s not dwell, people. I get bored.
The same goes—for me—with writing sex. I figure we all know how sex works, right? Insert Tab A into Slot B, create friction … Why do I have to include thrusting or sweating or groping or panting? And don’t get me going on descriptions of how she’s feeling during her orgasm. I can build to what’s going on through other actions, but once my characters are into it, they’re on their own.
On the other hand, I’m not going to just shut the door on what’s going on. Take this example from “Sound of the Heart.” It was actually pretty graphic for me.
He wanted her to love this, to feel the exhilaration he felt. He wanted her to want more. He certainly did not intend for this to be their one and only time. He tried varying his speed depending on the little purring noises she issued, then realised he couldn't stand thinking anymore. He closed his eyes as a familiar, delicious rumble began deep within him, taking ahold and growing, wave after wave, taking possession of his mind and body.
Not one thrust, not one unnecessary grab, though I’m sure there were plenty in his mind. I could have gone into the down and dirty descriptions, but in my heart, that was enough. I didn’t look away, but I didn’t take away from Dougal’s moment by over-narrating, either.
I think there are three distinct schools of thought on writing sex and violence. The first would be the hands-off, the author who wants nothing to do with writing more than a peck on the cheek. The second is the full frontal, go-for-it, no holds barred (or add in holds just for the thrill of it, if you’re into erotica). But the third is one that people often forget, and that’s Fade To Black.
What I want to say to readers is ... if you’re looking for more graphic stuff from me, it isn’t forthcoming. I am in my characters’ heads already. They deserve a little privacy now and then.
What I want to say to writers is ... if you are uncomfortable about writing sex or violence but it’s necessary for the story/scene, consider writing Fade To Black.
To Comma or Not To Comma. That is the question.
And to be honest, up until Penguin US sent back my first edited book draft—completely covered in tiny little commas—I had no idea the Oxford comma was such a big deal.
Turns out it is ... and it isn't.
Because of that lesson learned, I am now a huge Oxford comma freak, gleefully adding them wherever the situation calls for them. But the truth is, as you'll see in this HANDY DANDY INFOGRAPHIC (thank you, Online Schools), they're really only a big deal in the U.S. And only in some circumstances. Check the map at the bottom of the picture.I'm going to keep gleefully adding them, though. I like the way they clarify situations.
I would be happy to share with you the info about this, but, well, I already did! Yay! Here's the blog I wrote back in 2011 (trust me, nothing's changed). And *drum roll* here's the fabulous infographic. I wanted to just attach it here (so I did), but I couldn't make it any bigger, so here's another link to a larger version.* I cannot believe what a nerd I am. The idea of an Oxford Comma infographic is just so exciting to me.
This article was originally written for my favourite online writing site, Scribophile.com
. I highly recommend you popping over there if you're serious about learning about the craft of writing well. Using First Person POV
I'm writing this article in the First Person Narrative (Point Of View). That means I am going to tell you how this device is used from my perspective.
In contrast, I could write it as a Third Person POV, meaning I'd say something like, “This article is written from the third person narrative to demonstrate how the author uses the device.”
One of the first lessons I learned about writing effectively was that in order to engage the reader, I had to put myself directly in the story. Well, what could make a story more inclusive than by writing in First Person POV? After all, it's all about me! The prevalent pronouns used in First Person POV are: I, me, my, mine (singular), and we, us, our, ours (plural). The narrative follows the line of “I did this,” or “he held my hand.” That's why this method is often a favourite device for debut authors.
But while First Person POV is “all about me,” that isn't exactly true. It is not all about the author (unless you are working with a memoire). It's all about the character. It's up to the author to become that character.
First Person POV emanates from the main character of a book, or from a close associate (think of dear Dr Watson in Sherlock Holmes). Often it is used in memoire writing, where the story must obviously be told from one central perspective. First Person POV allows the reader to get deeply rooted in the character's head and thereby achieve a tighter emotional connection. To make the connection even stronger, the character lets the reader in on secrets that no one else knows.
The trouble is that when you decide to go this route, you and your readers are limited to that one perspective. It can be done effectively, but it can also become very insular. Writing in this style can easily evolve into “stream of consciousness,” and that is a tricky business. When done well, there is really nothing that can compare to beautiful stream of consciousness writing. I'm thinking right now of Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt (because I just finished reading it), though there are many other examples. When done poorly, stream of consciousness can fall completely flat.
With this POV it's important that the author narrate the story through actions as well as dialogue. Your character not only must stay involved and engaged with what's going on around them, but they must also stay consistent in their reactions. The problem is that if the author is inexperienced and not well enough acquainted with the “Show vs Tell” concept, the opposite can happen: the reader can become bored and feel trapped within the narrative.
For this reason, try not to overuse the word “I” when you're writing First Person POV. Especially if you are prone to using “I” at the beginning of a sentence. There are ways around this kind of repetition.
I love that particular flavour of ice cream … could also be written as
That particular flavour of ice cream is a favourite of mine.
I know this room … could also be written in the passive voice as
This room is familiar to me.
Even though the author is writing from First Person POV, a story can't be solely about one person. It's about how that person reacts to who and what is around them. The difficulty many people face when using First Person POV is including the other characters' thoughts and reactions. When you write in first person, you have to remember you are writing in your character's voice, NOT your author's voice. Your character cannot possibly know for sure what is going on in the other characters' head.
Not: He walked away from me, his head tilted slightly as he thought about my question.
But: He walked away from me, his head tilted slightly as if he were considering my question.
How could your character possibly know what the other guy's thinking about? Maybe he's wondering what to have for supper or what time it is. While the author might know the answer, the main character cannot.
Some authors like to switch from First Person POV to Third Person POV, and doing that can open up an even wider scope for both the author and the reader. But if this is done too often, or too close together (as in every other paragraph), the technique can drive a reader nuts. How can the reader connect to any of the characters if they are repeatedly yanked out of their heads? If you are drawn to writing in this style, separate the sections and label them. That gives the reader the opportunity to change their headspace before diving in again.
The First Person POV technique demands that the author keep the main character's personality in mind at all times. Think background, culture, education, etc. If you're talking from the perspective of a lobster fisherman, he's probably not going to wax poetic about classical music. I mean … he might, but only if he's an exception to the rule. If your heroine is prim and proper, she's probably not going to revel in the sight of muddy boots treading across her clean floor, and she most likely won't talk with potty mouth.
- The author must become the narrative character.
- Connect on an intimate level with your reader—share secrets.
- Be aware that “stream of consciousness” writing can be beautiful—or the opposite, if not handled with extreme care.
- Limit the repetitious use of “I” whenever possible.
- When writing, always imagine you are the character. Reflect that in their actions and words. Be consistent
- Be particularly aware of using “Show” rather than “Tell” in order to avoid dull narrative.
- Don't let your main character guess at the other characters' thoughts or emotions.
- Don't change characters' perspectives within a chapter or paragraph.
When done right, First Person POV can create a compelling, emotional story—sometimes even stronger than a story written in Third Person POV—because the character and reader are connected through an intimate, one on one communication. The most important—and most difficult—part of writing in this style is creating a character who is deserving of the readers' attention. If you don't, it's easy for a reader to get bored and set your book aside. If you do, it can be magic.
You know me. The first thing I’m going to say about presenting your book to the public is to make sure it’s something they will want to read. That means you must make sure you hire an editor before you put it out there.
Now on to the subject of this blog. Appearance matters. What you see when you open a book makes a direct impact on your perceived enjoyment of the book. For example, if you open to the first page and discover it is made up of one long, long, long paragraph, well … I don’t know about you, but in most cases I close the book without even bothering to read, feeling suddenly exhausted.
The opposite is true as well. A page offering nothing but short points of dialogue or exclamation, like little bullets, seems flighty, unengaging.
So it is important the writer consider the appearance of the page, not just the words on it. Consider these points: Sentence Length
Vary the lengths of your sentences. While short bursts can be used effectively to make a point, they can also feel like you’re stuck in traffic. Hit the accelerator, then slam on the brakes. Too much stop-and-go traffic is annoying whether you’re in a vehicle or reading on your sofa. Longer descriptions are sometimes necessary; however, be careful of droning on ad nauseum. A good mix of sentence length helps the flow of the work. TOO SHORT
She walked in. He glared with contempt. The tension burned between them.
She stepped with caution into the darkened room, uncaring of the sound of her feet on the old floor. The wood-paneled walls provided no cushion for the fury she felt upon witnessing his unrelenting glare, directed like lasers in her direction, unwilling to look away. The burning tension between them, strung like a violin string across the silence of the room, twisted the air in the room into a place hot with fury, and though breathing was somewhat difficult in that kind of atmosphere, it was obvious neither of the two would consider taking the submissive step of moving away, giving way to the other.
A MIXTURE OF LENGTHS
When she stepped through the door, he was there, glaring with contempt. The air burned with tension.
A paragraph should contain subject matter which is related to itself. Don’t change direction mid-paragraph. Use a variety of sentence lengths to make up the paragraph, then make sure your paragraph lengths vary as well.
“Did you see him?” she asked.
“No, but I didn’t look.”
She glanced away.
He kept staring.
It was she who took the first step, it was always she who bent the invisible line between them, curving it with her soft, cold voice. “Did you see him?” He chewed furiously on his lower lip, a sign that a decision was being made in the back of his mind. It would take a minute for it to move forward, she knew, for it to reach his lips, then meet the air. When it finally did, he matched her tone. “No, but I didn’t look.”
Confusion washed over her. “Why?” she demanded. Wasn’t this what they’d talked about? Dreamed about? Wasn’t this the answer they’d agreed upon? And yet there he stood, consumed with his own egotistical righteousness, determined to be the one in charge, determined to play Alpha to her Beta. Enough was enough. When he replied, “Just didn’t,” she grabbed hold, determined to make him explain. “But—” And yet her questions, as always, were cut short, terminated before they had the opportunity to make any sense. That was his intent, of course. “Leave it.”
Frustrated beyond belief, she folded her arms and glanced away, always conscious of his stare.
A MIXTURE OF LENGTHS
It was she who took the first step, always she who bent the invisible line between them, curving it with her soft, cold voice. “Did you see him?”
He chewed furiously on his lower lip, a sign that a decision was being made in the back of his mind. It would take a minute for it to move forward, she knew, for it to reach his lips, then meet the air. When it finally did, he matched her tone.
“No, but I didn’t look.”
Confusion washed over her. “Why?” she demanded. Wasn’t this what they’d talked about? Dreamed about? Wasn’t this the answer they’d agreed upon? And yet there he stood, consumed with his own egotistical righteousness, determined to be the one in charge, determined to play Alpha to her Beta. Enough was enough.
When he replied, “Just didn’t,” she grabbed hold, determined to make him explain.
And yet her questions, as always, were cut short, terminated before they had the opportunity to make any sense. That was his intent, of course.
Frustrated beyond belief, she folded her arms and glanced away, always conscious of his stare.
That reminds me to remind you to separate pieces of dialogue. Don’t make a habit of sticking conversation pieces together. If he says something, separate it from what she says. If he makes a gesture, separate it from the comment she’s about to make. I illustrated that in the above example.
Not every piece of dialogue needs to have a tag, but I discourage writing more than four consecutive lines without at least interrupting or colouring it with something: a gesture, a sound, a smell … something. And when you start up again, make sure you make it clear who is speaking.
12 Editing Tips
It has long been my policy to Underpromise and Overdeliver … and it appears I have done entirely the opposite this time. There's no way I'll be able to squeeze in all the editing tips I'd been hoping to share - not in detail, anyway. I have a whole heap of excuses, but who needs to hear all that? So please forgive me, and I will do my darndest to get back to that policy in 2012!
Okay. Here we go with the final 7 tips:
Get rid of words you don't need. These lists a few of the top "most used and unnecessary" words and phrases. Do a Search for them when you're done your manuscript and cut or alter when you can. Too many words make your reader yawn. Sometimes the words can just be deleted, sometimes the whole sentence needs to be rearranged. And sometimes the words are perfect and you should just let them be. Read these sentences aloud, first of all using the unnecessary word, then trying it without. Smoother?
- That … "She told me that it would be possible"
- There was … "She told me there was no way it could be done." (makes it a passive sentence) "She told me it couldn't be done." (active)
- Just … "I just wanted to do it."
- Really … "I was really glad she'd said that." or use a better word: "I was thrilled she'd said that."
- Was … "The problem was being discussed by management." (passive) "Management discussed the problem." (active, and usually preferred)
- Quite … "Everything about the problem was quite difficult."
- Very … "Everything about the problem was very difficult."
Acknowledge your characters' traits.
He's not just "John". He's a man. What kind of man?
He's a somewhat stooped, tall man whose shirt is constantly ironed but gives the impression it fought him all the way. He has a voice that makes you want to clear your throat when he's speaking, if only to help him clear that "ahem" trapped in there. His dull brown eyes are either downcast or looking away, suggesting disappointment in himself, lack of self-confidence. Though he shaves every day, he always misses that little patch under his right ear. He takes short steps and watches the ground as he walks.
Don't combine "And" with "Then". Choose one or the other.
- "She buttoned up her coat, and then reached for an umbrella."
- "She buttoned up her coat and reached for an umbrella." (this is weak because it suggests she's doing it simultaneously. Notice the comma disappears because the second phrase is dependent.)
- "She buttoned up her coat then reached for an umbrella." You can see her doing it now, can't you?
"She opened her tiny suitcase and stared fearfully at the pile of clothes she'd have to squeeze in. She'd have to make room for ten shirts, four pairs of pants, socks, underwear, a skirt for the party, three different kinds of shoes, her mousse and hair products, make-up, and a winter coat."
"She opened her tiny suitcase and stared fearfully at the pile of clothes she'd have to squeeze in. Besides the mandatory socks and underwear, she'd have to make room for ten shirts and four pairs of pants. Those were obvious. She'd need a skirt for the party, and that meant she'd have to fit in not only her two regular pairs of shoes, but a fancy pair as well. With resignation, she puffed through her lips, sounding somewhat like a horse. She'd have to make herself presentable, so she'd need all her hair products as well as make-up. And crowning it all, she'd have to stuff in her big, fat, down winter jacket. How was she going to manage all that?"
Avoid "I feel" or "he felt".
That's way too easy, and way too boring. Instead of
"He felt the night descending"
put him right out there and experience it with him.
"His skin prickled as darkness shadowed the woods; the lack of sunshine sent shivers of uneasiness tickling down his spine."
Explore all the senses.
It doesn't all have to be in one sentence, because that can be overwhelming, but you can try. This first example is a clean but dull example. The second takes in all—or most of—the senses, brings your reader into that room with your character.
"Jenny stepped acros the room and smelled Clara baking a birthday cake."
"The worn grey planks creaked as Jenny's bare feet shuffled across the floor, and she shivered at the chilling evidence that it was mid-January. She should have taken the time to search out her cracked old moccasins, hidden somewhere in the dust beneath her bed. From under the kitchen door seeped an almost sickly sweet aroma of vanilla, and she realized Clara had remembered her birthday. The clanging of pots and Clara's muttered curses confirmed it."
Enjoy what you're doing
If you're writing for the money, you've chosen the wrong career path.
The dream of writing, of expressing oneself through words, comes from something much deeper than your wallet. Write to open your spirit and let your imaginings fly. Write to lose yourself in chills and tears and laughter that come purely from your own imagination. Write to feel the pride of accomplishment and see proof of what you've created on your screen or page. Write because the thoughts are trapped in your heart and need to be set free.
Sure, being published may eventually become a priority, but never make it the priority. Writing is for you, not your bank account. Let it set you free.
Have a wonderful holiday, and
take time for yourself.
See you in 2012!