A Little Naughty…

Someone who heard I had a writer blog asked me if I was an expert.  Hell, no.  I’m not even that knowledgeable an amateur, but I do have opinions.  Some are more ranty than others.  Please, when you read my posts, remember that although I’m not Stephen King or Strunk and White (or Strunk OR White), I love to read as well as write.   I want to share what I’m learning, and I love to talk about what grabs me in a book or film and what doesn’t.

Speaking of grabbing, who doesn’t love a great sex scene? I’m not talking about emotion or love; I’m talking good old-fashioned crazy hot getting-down-to-it SEX, baby! A good sex scene is like a wolverine, seldom seen but fiercely commanding respect when it surfaces.

They’re harder to find in some genres than others.  I find them in horror frequently, but not so much in thrillers.  You’d think with all those guns going off and the threat of death behind every corner that people would be boinking right and left, but no, they don’t seem to.

I’m staying away from romance altogether with this post.  Since I haven’t read much of it, there might be some lovely scenes I’m not aware of, but I’ll leave that for someone more familiar with the genre.

A writer with delicate sensibilities might choose to skip over the act entirely.  Margaret Mitchell certainly implied it in Gone with the Wind, but alas, no one knows just what Scarlett and Rhett got up to behind that door after he carried her up the stairs.  You can argue that it’s better for the reader to use his/her imagination, but I think if the scene is well done and is part of the narrative arc, it takes nothing from the story and can even enhance it.

In examples, I’ll try to stop short of describing actual sex, for the sake of readers who are uncomfortable with that.

How to balance telling too much with not enough?  The best flow smoothly with the narrative, without reaching up from the page and shaking the reader:  “Hey! I’m a sex scene!  Hope you enjoy me!”  Some ways glitches happen are:

  • A change in the character’s internal point-of-view.  It’s distracting when the writer suddenly switches from, say, a hard-bitten POV to a softer focus within the same character.

Braun finished his rant and bit hard on his cigar, teeth clenching around the sodden stub.  Schoenberg stared at him, her eyes big shiny moons in the dark office.  She was no Nazi bitch, and he didn’t think she’d make it in this hellhole, with its ghostlike prisoners, cinderblock buildings and barren, frigid landscape.  She belonged in some damn hothouse conservatory.

Her silken hair tumbled to her shoulders as she stood, and she smiled coyly at him, tilting her lovely head into the light from the lamp.  He was borne away on a tide of love for her beauty and her determination, and he trembled as he clutched her to his bosom.  She sighed, fluttering her eyelashes and capturing his heart.  He was careful not to hurt her as he divested her of her garments, which tumbled in a tidy heap beside the desk, where they would make the memories that would last his lifetime.

See what I did there? Braun, a tough camp commandant, would never crush someone to his bosom or divest her of her garments.  No, he’d be more forceful.

Try this:

He grabbed her and she didn’t gasp, only shook.  He knew she wanted him and damned if he wasn’t going to have her.  She closed her eyes as he bruised her lips with his.

Couldn’t wait any longer.  He tore her blouse from her body.  The buttons popped off and one rolled under his desk.  Gotta get that; after.  Wouldn’t do to have the Colonel see it.  He would find it years later in a box of things he escaped with, after the war.

From his point of view, even if he loved Schoenberg, the act would never be as romantic and fluttery as she (or the writer perhaps) would see it.  Men like him just don’t think that way.  Maintaining the POV won’t thrust (sorry) the reader out of the scene.  Also, instead of making Braun overtly sentimental, I tried to show that Schoenberg meant something to him with the saved button from her blouse.

  • Too much detail when the rest of the narrative is rather sparse.  I see this one a lot.  When the reader gets to the sex scene, all of a sudden EVERY LITTLE DETAIL is magnified.  It’s almost as if the writer is trying to force arousal on the reader.  I wonder sometimes if perhaps the writer is having more fun with the scene than I care to imagine.

An example would take so much space I won’t even bother.  I don’t really need to see each and every mole, freckle, scar or drop of glistening moisture on everybody.  And when the story returns to post-scene austerity, I’m left thinking that perhaps I’m reading bits of two different books cobbled together.

It’s okay to show what is happening, but please, edit edit edit.  Cut as much here as you do in the rest of the book, perhaps more.  I spent more time editing the sex in my book than I did the fight scenes.

  • Forgetting that these are (usually) people with genuine emotions.  We’ll leave the zipless **** to Erica Jong. (WARNING: profanity in that link!)  Most characters are in the bedroom, shower, under a tree or wherever because they like or love the person with whom they are having an encounter.  Their emotion should permeate the scene.  I want to feel it with them.  A romantic assignation shouldn’t be too syrupy, but if the hero makes the heroine dream of a white picket fence and little blond babies, I want to know.

The tips of Gerald’s fingers caressed Livia’s face.  She loved it when he did that.  Her nerve endings were connected to her heart, and with each touch he cemented her bond to him.  His hair was crisp and wiry under her hands.  She held his head and kissed him.  His lips were warm, soft, unbelievably so.

In his heavy-lidded eyes she saw her future and knew that she wanted this man more than any other.  Berkeley the aerialist, Simpkins the hobo clown, all the others in the company, they could go to Hell.  She pressed her lithe body close to his and felt how much he wanted her.

Let’s just hope for Livia’s sake that Gerald feels the same way.  We could find out later, in a scene from his POV.  Or, if the writer wanted to keep his emotions ambiguous, he could stay with Livia, and Gerald’s behavior can keep her guessing.

I’ve been asked if writing sex scenes is fun.  It’s the same as writing any other scene.  It has to fit into the narrative as a whole, and I want my reader to feel what my characters are feeling.  That doesn’t mean it has to read like a letter to Penthouse.  And honestly, while I might have enjoyed it the first time I wrote it, by the time I’ve finished editing I might as well be writing about cleaning the garage.

If you would like to point to examples of well-written sex scenes (or really terrible ones!) fellow writers can learn from, please let us know in the comments.  Not too graphic please if online, or link to them with a warning.  Thanks.

Just Call Me —?

I’m at lunch and I just glopped bean burrito all over my touchpad.  Yesterday a cracker crumb went into my keyboard.  If only I could work away from food.  Ah, the life of a writer with a day job!

Just when you thought you had your characters down, their quirks and habits and backgrounds and appearances all in line, it’s time to pick their names.  The process is as difficult for some as choosing baby names.  How do you know what the right moniker is for your heroine, your sidekick or your villain?  What if you can’t think of a name at all, or only ordinary, unimpressive ones?

I’m lucky, I guess.  Names aren’t difficult for me; titles are.  I’ll write a post about that someday, if I ever figure out a way to come up with a great one.  I used to use baby name books (although I’ve lost the book someone gave me) or the name generators on the Internet.  Numerous websites abound with all kinds of ethnic names, traditional, trendy or bizarre.  But how do you actually choose one?

Baby name books usually contain a name’s meanings and all of its derivatives, so that’s one place to start.  You might want your character’s name to reflect her personality.  So a brave character, defender of the downtrodden, could be Richard, Old English meaning “brave one.”  Or you could use a name to show ironic character traits.  Try a bitchy, selfish woman named Charity, or an atheist named Faith.  Pick something that hasn’t been used a million times.  If I see one more plucky heroine named Kate, I think I’m going to scream my lungs out.

If you want something different or unusual, try a man’s name for a woman (Blair, Morgan).  A boy named Sue would be hard to pull off, but in the right story, who knows?  It could be great. In fantasy or science fiction, you will have to think up entirely new names.  Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins has a name that fits him perfectly and is completely unique to the story.

Some names have acquired certain connotations.  We expect someone called Sheldon, Herb or Bernice to be nerdy.  A person named Alice, Johnny or Susie may not be childlike and innocent, but we think they will be.  Tiffany or Britney conjures up a post-adolescent mean girl or pop princess-type.

Very elaborate or difficult names make readers tired.  In an old Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown asked Linus how he could read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with all those hard Russian names.  Linus replied, “I just bleep right over them!”  Well, it works, but it’s tough to keep up with who’s who.   Keep it simple, if you’re writing plot-driven, genre fiction.  You don’t want to distract your reader from the story.

I’ve heard much advice about not choosing major characters’ names that begin with the same letter.  I did that in Rose’s Hostage.  The bank robber and serial killer’s names both begin with J:  Joshua and John.  I might have to change it later, but I’d rather not.  Those are the names I feel fit them best.  Sometimes the reasons for a name choice are not meaningful, but practical.  My heroine’s name is Libby Ann.  I had a very clear picture of her, but I couldn’t think of her name.  After making a long list, I chose it not as a permutation of my own name, not for any particular significance, but because it was easy to type.

I discovered an unusual names source at work:  spam email.  It had tons of names in all kinds of crazy combinations.  I copied the obviously-fake names and put them into a file on my computer.  I can mix them up later and come up with new pairings.  Also, keep your ears open when you’re in the mall, airports, anyplace people are talking, and eavesdrop a little.  You might hear a name that’s perfect for a new character.

Whatever name you pick, it should feel right for that person.  You can always change it later if you’re not happy.  But you’ll be more comfortable climbing inside your character’s skin if you know what she is called and how it relates to her vision of herself.

Get Off Your Tuchus!

Writing makes you fat.

Yes, it’s true.  Fat.  Corpulent.  Flabby.  Or rather, it can, unless you take steps to prevent or remedy the situation.   Think about it.  If you write during your free time, or full-time, your butt is parked in front of a computer for most of the day, right? Add a sedentary job to that, if you haven’t reached the full-time Nirvana, and you’re probably not getting a whole lot of exercise.

Everyone knows the basics of keeping healthy.  We’re writers; we can read, and we know how to look up information in the library, on the Internet, etc.  That doesn’t mean we do.  It doesn’t mean we take the advice we read, whether it’s about how to edit a paragraph or stay in shape.

Here are some ways writing can add bulk to your bod:

  • You’re sitting.  The only things moving are your fingers and your brain, and that doesn’t burn a whole lot of calories, even though it can take a colossal amount of energy.  I spent an entire day on the couch writing the very end of the first draft of my book and believe me, I was exhausted.
  • Sometimes people nosh when they write.  Even if you don’t write, if you spent any time in school cramming for an exam, you’re familiar with marathon study sessions accompanied by mounds of snacks.  I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t apt to eat a salad when I studied.  It was usually chips, pizza, sandwiches and sweets I could munch with one hand while I turned pages with the other.  Add a study buddy and the potential for fast food consumption rises exponentially.  Also, it’s easy to grab something junky if you’re anxious to get back to a chapter, instead of taking time to fix a healthy meal.
  • It does take energy to create.  When you get up after a long writing session, your bones creak, your muscles are stiff and you’re probably going to be tired.   The last thing you’ll feel like doing is exercising.  It’s much easier to not do it, so people don’t.

See how it’s easy for the pounds to pile up?

Hazards of being overweight include:

  • Low energy
  • A higher risk of disease such as heart problems and diabetes
  • Risk of blood clots from inactivity (I’ve had one, from a medication problem; believe me, you don’t want this.  It can kill you quickly.  Besides, it hurts like hell.)
  • Decreased mobility
  • Shorter lifespan
  • Depression
  • Breathing difficulties

Obesity is a huge problem in this country.  I’m not on a soapbox here, however.  I just want you to remember that not moving isn’t going to do you any good.

How can you counteract this?

  • If you have a regular exercise routine, good for you.  Don’t abandon it if you get deep into a project.  Exercise is great for thinking; Beethoven used to ramble for hours in the woods around Vienna, Austria, and he often said he was inspired by his long walks and the time spent communing with nature.  He certainly produced some of the world’s best music, so I’m inclined to listen to him.
  • If you start a routine, begin slowly.  You should always see a doctor before starting a fitness regimen, to make sure you aren’t overexerting yourself.  If you can only walk for fifteen minutes, or do a few reps of an exercise, that’s fine for a start.  Build up gradually.  You’ll get there if you just keep at it.
  • Get rid of the junk food.  Keep plenty of fruit and / or cut-up veggies (watch the dip!) around to munch.  If you have kids and you’re in the habit of making these for them, simply prepare extra for yourself.  When you break for lunch or dinner, have fish, lean meat or poultry, veggies, whole grains and drink your milk and water.
  • Eat regularly.  Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast!  People who eat breakfast jumpstart their metabolism in the morning and this helps them stay thinner than those who don’t.  It also helps you stay away from the crap food before lunch.  Three meals and two healthy snacks should suffice.
  • While you’re writing, get up and stretch every once in a while.  A good time to do this is when you take a bathroom break.  Take a few moments to reach for the ceiling, touch your toes, do a few jumping jacks or go outside for a moment.  Get the circulation moving and blood will not settle and clot.  Your brain and heart will thank you.  It will keep you awake too, if you’re working on something less than exciting.
  • Get plenty of sleep.  Learn to structure your time so you can fit a bit of writing into your day if it’s very full, or use your time wisely if it’s not.  Recent studies have shown a link between lack of sleep and weight gain, and it’s much harder both to exercise and think if you are tired.

All of the above applies to studying too, so if you’re a college student, remember to take frequent breaks, eat healthy snacks, and get plenty of rest.

If anyone has any tips on staying healthy for writers, please share them in the comments.



Patience

So sorry I made you wait for a new post.  It’s been a busy week.  Sad to say, I haven’t gotten a great deal of writing done, but Life intruded.

This weekend I flew out of state to visit a new friend.  Trying to save a little money and maximize our time together, I decided to leave from a larger airport and to do so very early in the morning.  I figured at five a.m. no one is likely to be going anywhere, right?

Wrong!  The line going through security was incredible.  It began at the bottom of the stairs and stretched around the corner and all the way down an interminable hallway, where it snaked back and forth for a few roped-off sections before spilling out into the security area.  I was frustrated beyond belief, glancing at my watch and shifting my feet, about to cry.  I had not only packed properly, but limited myself to one carry-on, my purse and a gift bag.  I wasn’t even checking a bag and still got caught in this mess!

I made it through security in thirty seconds flat, jammed my shoes and jacket back on and ran to my gate, only to find my flight had closed ten minutes before.  After a reroute, an extra changeover and a couple of infuriating weather-related delays, I made it.  I only lost four hours with my friend instead of the entire weekend.  That was a long four hours though, especially the last delay.

Patience is a great virtue for a writer.  You have to wait to hear back from a query (if you ever do), wait for research subjects to get back to you, fight the frustration of writer’s block or the race to finish a piece.  I hear tell money can be slow coming in.  Any freelancer knows about that one.  And then there is the long, slow slog toward being published.  For most people, it can take years.  That’s where patience really comes into play.  If you’re the type to give up easily, this is not the career for you.

I’m easily frustrated and impatient as hell, but when it counts I can stick to it like nobody’s business.  No matter what, I’ll keep trying.  If I truly enjoy someone’s company and the feeling is mutual, then I’ll hang through thick and thin.  If I like what I’m doing, I’m much more likely to keep doing it.  That’s not a problem here.  I love writing, so I do it even if no one reads it.  Of course, after years of keeping it to myself the time has come to put it out there.  And so another round of patient waiting begins.

Unlike waiting for a plane, waiting for a break in writing is an evolving thing.  While you exercise that patience there is much to do.  Practice makes perfect.  Your craft demands that you continually improve.  Lessons and exercises, journal entries and posts, editing and drafting and scouring agent websites and synopses and queries will fill your time.  And of course, writing.  Always writing.

Keep doing it.  As you wait and write, you will build an oeuvre, a body of work that even if unpublishable will show you how far you’ve come.  You’ll go back and look at your old stuff and laugh, perhaps cringe at an awkward POV or lack of scene breaks.  You’ll come across a phrase or passage so good it inspires something new.  You’ll read the work of others and growl jealously even as you feverishly thumb through white-hot pages, or laugh delightedly at a fresh turn of phrase.  Then you’ll hit the page again yourself in a frenzy of creation.  The wait is its own reward.