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.
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.
This weekend my family and I, along with a number of other like-minded folks in our little town, got together to help with an Adopt-A-Highway volunteer thing. Basically it meant we got to pick up garbage along the sides of the highway. We’ve done it the past three years now, and though it means we are attacked by starving black flies, survive a few harrowing near misses with vehicles on the highway, and usually sweat through our orange safety vests, we feel good about what we’re doing.
In three hours our little group of about twenty cleaned up 6 km of highway, bringing in 79 bags of garbage, 6 bags of recycling, 3 mailboxes, a tire, and a few other things I can’t recall at the moment.
Let’s think about that. Everything we picked up had once been considered useful. Those little plastic forks, pop cans, chocolate bar wrappers, bottles, construction materials - everything at one point had a function. If it weren’t for those forks, how would that person have enjoyed their meal? If they hadn’t had a wrapper on that chocolate bar, well, no one would have ever been able to eat it. So these little things were important. But by the time we dug the pieces out of shrubs and mud and gravel, they were nothing but forgotten items people had neglected to throw away properly. All they did was junk up the town.
When we write a story, we fill it with words that are deemed necessary at the time. If we don’t use a specific adjective at that point, will the picture be clear enough for the reader? If that paragraph describing the sunset isn’t there, will the reader know what time it is? Will they sense the scene properly? Or are all those words, once so vital to the story, simply extra bits that no longer serve a purpose?
When you read through something, do the words fill you with a sense of euphoria, kind of like when an elevator stops and your stomach does that little rolling thing? Because when I read something truly phenomenal, I feel that. If that same paragraph is crowded by unnecessary words, the sensation is gone. It’s just another bunch of words I am forced to wade through.
I cut 75,000 words from my first novel. It hurt like crazy, making those cuts. But the streamlined version was a completely different book, one that had something to say. The message was clean. Fresh and inviting, like the sides of our highway are now. The words which remained had been important in the original draft, but were still vital in the present. I went through them so many times, picked through what was garbage and left what belonged, and even then my agent said to go back and look again. There’s always garbage hiding in the grass, under a rock, stuck to the road. Dig it outta there.
One thing, though. When you’re doing your Adopt-A-Manuscript Clean-up, don’t throw it all in the garbage. We’re in 2011. Think Recycle. Some of those thousands of words that I cut ended up reappearing, popping up in bits and pieces in my next couple of novels. The words did have a function. They were meant to be included, just maybe not at that particular time.
Today my husband and I were driving to the gym, heading past the ditches and paths we’d just cleaned, and the odd hot dog wrapper, napkin, cup waved hello from the grass as we drove by. Wouldn’t it be nice if that didn’t happen? If we could continuously edit both the world and our books, keeping them clean and inviting as we go along?
I wish I’d thought of this blog for Earth Day, but it works just fine any old day.
Get rid of the clutter. Take pride in your work. Put in the effort. You’ll be glad you did. Everyone will.