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.
...I just haven't had time / don't have the willpower or concentration / don't think it'd be any good / don't know what to write” ...
It's funny, the evolution of a writer. I started writing five years ago, and people kind of smiled and said things like “Oh, that's nice.” And when I started asking people if they'd like to read it, they usually would make a kind excuse or suggest they didn't read that genre, whatever it was. I wasn't offended. That's how I would have been.
But there were a few who bravely agreed to read what I'd done, and they were apparently * ahem * impressed. I told them I wanted to get better, so would they please tell me what they didn't like as well as what they liked. They asked me questions about what I'd written, found errors, questioned impossible plotlines ... and I surprised myself by being defensive and somewhat belligerent. This was my baby! How could they possibly find anything wrong with it? I folded my arms over my chest, huffed, and continued along the same line, determined to make it work.
And yet their ability to find fault showed me that they cared enough about the story to make it better. Their first impression every time was, “It was really good.” So eventually I started considering their suggestions (which, of course, I had initially requested) and began to work on them.
My husband was my first supporter, thank goodness. If he hadn't been, I would have felt guilty, spending so much time with this new “hobby”. After all, what did he have to compare to this? Because I love writing. I love when an idea grabs me and pulls me along, tosses me into the fray, grips me hard and makes me cry. I love watching my fingers fly when the characters tell me their stories.
So he started telling people “My wife's a writer. She's written three novels."
The response was always something like, "How interesting. Are they published?"
He replied (until recently), "No. Not yet. But she wrote them.”
Since it was he, not I, who was announcing this, people began to take me more seriously. And that's when I started to hear, “Good for you. WYou know, I've always wanted to write a book.”
Is it wrong for me to admit that I never wanted to write a book before I did? I had no idea writing would become my passion; I was never one for telling stories. My kids would ask me to tell them a story and I'd race off to the bookshelves to read – I never imagined making anything up from my own imagination. It was stories by other people that inspired me eventually to try my own hand, and I was relieved to find out that I didn't have to tell a story. It told itself.
So if you want to write a book, why don't you? No time? Five minutes a day. Really. Can you afford five minutes? Because if you start with that, the rest of the time will find you. But try really hard to do it every day or else you could be distracted by things-that-have-to-be-done.
Lack of willpower/concentration? First off, you should know that I, personally, have no willpower whatsoever. I could be entirely full from a ten course meal and still look at that chocolate bar as if it were the last food on earth. Secondly, concentration? Trust me. I can barely remember ... what was it I was saying?
Lack of confidence? Ha! Even the best of writers have that. And who's to know? Maybe you just write something but keep it to yourself. It's still writing. And never, ever throw anything out. Just put it away.
Don't know what to write? Some people say “write what you know”. Others say “know what you write”. I say “write what comes into your head.” Some days I might scribble about what the beach makes me feel. Some days I might vent about my day. Some days I might sink into my story and lose myself in history, adventure and romance. Just let it take you away.
I read an article awhile back in which an author was offended (as were most of the commenters on the site) by people comparing their desire to write with someone whose work was published. Well, I'm offended by the attitude of the article. Writing is writing. Of course the dream is to publish – if only so you can share what you've written with a wider audience. But if someone tells me they've always wanted to write, then my immediate reaction is ... Do it! Would you help me?they ask. Sure! Ask away.