No More Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am

writing sex scenes
Photo courtesy of imagerymajestic on freedigitalphotos.net

Okay, it’s been awhile since my last post, and I apologize. I’ve been insanely busy editing, and for that I’m grateful. In fact, I should be editing right now, but this post idea on writing sex scenes won’t leave me alone.

Writing Sex Scenes

Sex scenes. Please, people. If you’re going to write them, and I know you’re going to write them, make them good. What is sex? At its most basic, it’s two people (or any two creatures, but how many of you write about sex between anything except people? Okay, there may be a few of you…) slapping genitalia together in the hopes of procreating. But that’s not why you write about it, is it? At its best, it’s about the emotional connection, not the physical one. Even if your readers are in it to get turned on, it’s the emotional connection that really seduces them. So, keeping that in mind, let’s talk about what will keep the reader on the page and not skipping this part to get back to the story. Yes, it’s true… this does happen. So before you write filler just to hop from one sex scene to the next, think about that for a moment.

Sex scenes should be about more than the mechanical motions your characters are going through. Let’s face it… there are only so many ways to do it. Who’s on top? Who initiates the act? Is someone submissive? Yada, yada, yada. Yawn.

Do we really care if it’s the most amazing love fest they’ve ever had? Do we care if she’s never gone down on a guy before but suddenly she’s an expert? Do we care if he’s rough and ready the moment she bats her eyes and sighs? Do we care that all he has to do is flex his muscles and her panties are wet? Do we care about her bounteous breasts and his six-pack abs? Meh.

Let’s delve into the emotional aspects. That’s what we’re really invested in with our characters, isn’t it? What is going through our main characters’ minds during that scene? Is she really into it and filled with mental fireworks or is she going through the motions and thinking about that deadline at work or the fact she’s worried that he’s cheating on her with her best friend? This is what really makes a sex scene interesting. Maybe she starts off being distracted, but he manages to pull her focus back to the moment, and they create some magic. That stroke along her cheek that sets her nerves singing and engages an old memory of their last anniversary that was so special (which started in a similar fashion), which makes her try a little harder, makes her more attentive to [fill in whatever he’s doing to her] and makes her respond by [fill in whatever she’s doing to him]. Now how does that make them feel? Add the other senses. Are there scents that trigger a response? Lighting? Sounds? Maybe he’s able to convince her through his actions and whispers in her ear that she’s the only woman for him, now and forever. Or if he did have a dalliance, that he’s sorry and it will never happen again; it was the worst mistake he’s ever made. Or it could be reversed. Maybe she’s the one who made the mistake and she feels guilty because he’s devoted to her completely, and with every touch, every reaction she feels, guilt colors it. Make it real. Make us feel what she feels. We want to feel her relief or her guilt. We want to feel his devotion or his pain when he finds out. That’s why we read.

If we’re taken along for the seduction, then find that we’ve been betrayed, we feel the pain. But if all we get is the mechanics of sex, we don’t feel the seduction or the love and/or pain. We might as well be reading the Penthouse forum.

When writing sex scenes, invest your characters in the scene. You can only say an orgasm was more amazing than ever before once, then it isn’t believable. And besides, how was it more amazing? If you can’t describe it, there’s a problem. You’re a writer… describing is your job! Saying things are wonderful or amazing may be okay for dialogue (occasionally), because let’s face it, most of us are pretty trite when we talk. But if you’re doing a first person narrative and your sex scenes are full of these adjectives, you need to delve deeper. Explore what you’re trying to convey. If that’s all you can say about the scene, do you really need it? Get back to the story. If your story must have sex scenes, make them count. Make them an integral part that is woven into the story so well that if you cut them, the story would be missing bits it can’t do without. If your story is fine without the sex, then they’re just added in as set dressing, kind of like what happens in HBO series. You’re doing it because you can, not because it’s needed. If you’re writing erotica, this is also important. Just because you’re in a genre meant to be about sex doesn’t mean the sex shouldn’t be integral to the story. Make every scene count.

Gearing Up for NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMoYes, it’s that time again! Writers everywhere are plotting and planning as they get ready to dive into the trenches of NaNoWriMo.

What’s NaNoWriMo, you may ask? NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and it takes place in November. Started in 1999 by Chris Baty in San Francisco, it soon evolved into a worldwide event organized by The Office of Letters and Light. You can join here.

The only real criteria is that you write 50,000 words in 30 days. There are forums to help you if you get stuck, if you have questions on a plot point, if you need a title, if you need inspiration, or if you want local support.

Our novel, Titanic Deception, started out as a NaNoWriMo rough draft. It’s a lot of fun, and if you’ve never written a novel before, it’s a great way to get started. If you’re an established writer, it can be a a fun way to get that rough draft written quickly. Writers of all calibers participate from all over the world, and for people who don’t care for the solitary aspect of writing, it offers a social aspect we don’t get the rest of the year.

Even if you don’t ‘win’ this year, it’s a wonderful writing exercise. Meeting a daily writing goal can be challenging, but it’s a good discipline to practice. If you don’t do that now, NaNoWriMo can be the perfect excuse to start.

Got your pencils ready?

Preparing Your Manuscript

preparing your manuscriptYou’ve finally done it… written your novel. It’s complete. All those words down in one place. And you’re no fool. You’ve got an editor all lined up.  But wait.

Is it really ready for the editor yet?

When you say it’s done, is this the best it can be or did you just finish your rough draft? If you just finished typing ‘The End,’ you’ve still got a lot of work to do before you’re ready for the editor. You’ve still got some revisions of your own to do after your rough draft. Maybe this scene isn’t the best it can be. Maybe Sally should have made a different decision after that first plot point, because if she did, the whole second act would have been so much more interesting. Maybe the climax of the story still needs some work because it’s good, but it’s still oh, I don’t know, it’s missing something.

Once you’ve wrestled with all of this and straightened it out, then it’s time for your trusted beta readers, or your mom, or whoever you feel will give you the best feedback. Once you get a copy back all covered in oil stains from your mechanic (because he has true literary insight, even though he messes up your manuscripts) and you hear his critique, you can go back, fix what you truly feel needs to be fixed, and then take one more look at it.  Are you finished preparing your manuscript yet?

When you think you can’t make it any better than it is, run it through spell check. I know it won’t catch everything (like words that are spelled correctly but used incorrectly), but it will save a few of the hairs left on your editor’s head. Look at it again. Have you dotted all your i’s? Crossed all your t’s? Do your sentences have punctuation and capital letters? If not, you may need to review some basics. If you know they belong there and just didn’t put them in, put them in. Do you really want to pay your editor extra to put them in for you?

Okay, now you can send your manuscript to your editor. Your editor will appreciate all of your hard work.

You know all those horror stories about editors? About how mean they are? How they’ll tear your manuscript to pieces? A lot of that stems from receiving manuscripts that were really rough drafts. That didn’t have sentences starting with capital letters. That didn’t have punctuation at the end of sentences. That had paragraphs that lasted for pages. Dialogue without meaning that went on and on. Missing plot points, garbled structure, cardboard characters, flip flopping between tenses and points of view, repetitive anything… After awhile, editors develop twitches. And headaches. And then they begin to morph into editing monsters that lash out uncontrollably at anything that passes by that even remotely resembles a manuscript. They can’t help themselves. They hoard red pens compulsively and growl at anyone who dares reach for one. (That’s MY red pen, damn it!)  Please, for the love of God, save an editor today! Prep your manuscript properly or we can’t be responsible for what may happen next! :::eye twitches:::

:::clears throat::: Okay. Sorry about that. But it had to be said. Writers, learn your craft. Hold your head high. Be proud of what you do. Step out and say, “Damn it, I’m a writer.” Own it. Be responsible for what you put on a page. Don’t get sloppy. It’s your name on the cover, not the editor’s.

It’s amazing what a difference it makes to get a manuscript that looks well prepared. Yes, there may be shallow characters, missing plot points, repetition, and flip flopping tenses, but presentation at least shows us that the author cares enough to make it look nice. Presentation can soothe a lot of ruffled editing feathers. Nice editor. There, there.

Once your book is edited, it’s up to you what you want to do with it. You can self-publish. You can submit your story to agents. If an agent accepts it, they will probably suggest their own edits and you’ll comply. Then when they sell your story to a publisher, they’ll also send you through another editing process.

Even so, it all comes back to you. You’re the one writing and preparing your manuscript. Do it with pride.

Different Approaches to Outlining

outlining mappingOutlining. For a lot of writers, that’s a bad word. It makes them cringe or run screaming for the door. Well, I’m here to tell you that outlining can be your friend. It wants you to scritch it behind the ears and to croon sweetly in baby talk. In fact, you could think of it as a way to get to know your infant story. Awwww. Isn’t it cute? Just look at that sweet little plot point. :)

Outlining will also show you when it’s time to change that sucker and flush that scene because it stinks to high heavens. Oh yes it will.

You don’t believe in outlining, huh? Because Mrs. Davis in fifth grade made you do so many outlines that your head hurt for a solid week trying to get all those levels right with the proper sentences to describe each part of your report and it hurt you so badly on such a deep level that it has scarred you for life. For life! No, you don’t have to show me. But I’m here to tell you that outlining not only doesn’t have to hurt, but it can be fun. Why? Because you don’t have to do that kind of outline.

Here are some more intuitive variations that can help you plot out your story.

Mind maps

Mind maps are intuitive and fun. You start with your central theme or event in the center and surround it with clusters of related subjects or scenes. It allows you to work spatially rather than linearly. Once you start playing with mind mapping, it can actually be a lot of fun. You’ll find that your ideas will start to flow, and then the ideas related to your central theme will sprout ideas of their own, and like the old shampoo commercial, it will continue, and so on, and so on, and so on. Mind mapping is great for overcoming writer’s block because it utilizes both the visual and subconscious. You can create your own mind maps with paper and pencil or you can use free software you can get here.

Pictures

What do they have a lot of on the internet? Pictures! Use them to outline your story. Gather images for your characters, settings, and important props and keep them in folders so you can refer to them when you get stuck. Sometimes looking at a photo will fill in gaps you were struggling with and get those writerly juices flowing again. Believe it or not, they may also help you find issues in your story so you can fix them before they bog you down in a later draft.

Maps

Draw a map of your story’s world. Maybe it’s a fictional town in the mountains or a fantasy world. Maybe you need a real map of New York City so you can plot your character’s route to work every day. Whatever you need, a map can help you put it together more realistically, even if your map is very cartoony. It’s okay. As long as it helps you with your story, it works. Some authors even end up putting a finished version of the map in the book, so don’t knock it.

Use one of these ideas, use them all. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is you start putting your ideas in some sort of order. Do you have to organize them formally on paper? No. Not unless you want to. But if it helps to keep character sheets so you remember that Jane has blue eyes and sandy brown hair instead of green eyes and dark brown hair, please do so to create a record you can refer to if you’re tempted to redraw her halfway through the book. No detail is too much for you to know. It may not make it into the book, but it’s important that you know it. That book is your world.

Using a Plan

outliningI just got a new book yesterday: Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. I’m really excited about this book and I’ll tell you why. John and I are starting our next book, and as much as I’d like to jump right in, I can’t. I have to plan it out. If I don’t, I know I’ll be barreling along and suddenly I won’t know what comes next. When that happens, I could be stymied there for months. I don’t want that to happen. I’m really excited about this story and I want it to be told. Heck, I’ve had a map of 1888 London staring down at me from above my desk for well over a year now, goading me.

Could I have planned our book without this new book to help me? Sure. But I’m always looking for new ways to streamline the process. I’d already taken Patti Larsen’s outlining course, and she got my brain juices flowing in many ways. I used her system to get the main story arc planned. But I stumbled across this little gem when I was adding K. M.’s Structuring Your Novel to my wish list. I had read about it on my friend Roz Morris’ blog, and anything Roz uses is good enough for me (Hi, Roz!). Besides, as an editor, I’m always adding resources to my reference shelf. If I can find books that help me explain issues to my clients, I recommend them.

Anyway, I’m all revved up now. Got my notebook for my outlining (not the standard outlines we did in grade school). Got my book to inspire me. Got my husband (he’s the idea guy that keeps the stories going). Got my research to keep the historical aspects accurate. Now I just need to have the time. I’ll pull it out of somewhere. I have been gloriously busy with clients, which is how I like it. Lots of clients means the bills are paid, which means I’m happy. Heck, the kids may even get winter shoes. I may even get winter shoes. :) But I digress.

My point is, I get to plan. I want to plan out every scene. I want to know if I’m missing a crucial point before I begin writing. Are all my plot points in the right place? Are my subplots making sense? Do they weave in seamlessly? This story will have psychological elements, so it’s crucial that everything works perfectly. I’d rather do the work now than try to dig through the finished draft looking for my mistakes.

Of course, I know not everyone agrees with me. Some writers prefer to discover their story as they write. I feel I’m discovering the story, but it’s during the planning stage. Of course, I still get the thrill of discovery as I write, too. The plan doesn’t flesh everything out, it just provides me with a road map. The characters may still take a side trip now and then, but I feel like I have a guide to get them back on track. If you don’t want to plan ahead of time, more power to you. Every writer has their process. I just thought I’d explain mine today.

Another writer I admire, Chuck Wendig, shared his tips for editing and revising, which utilizes outlining later in the process, so it can be a good skill to master no matter when you use it. Check out his post and apply as needed.

First Person — Continued

MP900411783When you’re writing in first person, there are some things you definitely need to avoid. Like what?

Well, that’s just silly, I thought to myself.

Duh. Who else are you going to think to? Unless your character can communicate telepathically with others, this construction is a waste of time. Get rid of the ‘to myself.’ Same with wondered and any other word that describes what may be going on inside your character’s noggin. If your character is telling the story, it goes without saying that s/he’s doing the thinking.

My thoughts drifted back to that fateful day.

OR

I remembered the first time he kissed me.

Don’t do this. This is announcing what your character is thinking. Just have them talk about it. It’s much better for Sally to just begin the memory than announce it first.

An expression of horror crossed my face as I looked at the mess.

Don’t do this, either. The character can’t see their own face unless they’re looking in a mirror. Just say “I smiled. I looked in horror at the mess. I … you get the picture. Related to this is the ever popular “My cheeks grew red.” Again, unless they are looking in a mirror… just don’t do it. I blushed is more acceptable because the character could feel their cheeks growing warmer. Describing the sensation of warmth is even better. The trick is to think like the character and use the sensations they’re feeling rather than visual cues. First person, remember? :)

Dialogue

Now let’s talk about dialogue. Dialogue can’t help but be artificial in first person, but we include it anyway because it’s usually what people want to read most. If you have the opportunity for dialogue, go for it. Don’t recount a conversation as one-sided if you can help it (one exception that springs to mind is if your character is testifying in court). Readers want to witness all those lovers’ spats, conspiracies, and making up first hand.

Voice

Finally… the best part of first person. This is why we choose it in the first place. We want to write in the character’s voice. We get to act the part as we write. we get to choose their attitude, diction, thoughts, complexity, subtext… the whole nine yards. A character who is well-educated and likes to show that off uses big words and complex sentences. One who is simple may use short sentences and simple phrases. Your character can be sarcastic, both in word and tone. Whatever you choose, first person lets you revel in it. It reflects whatever you choose. A suggestion, however, for characters heavy in dialect… give it a flavor, rather than go heavy in phonetic spelling. A whole book spelled out in Cockney or Deep Southern could be rather difficult to read, not to mention condescending and probably inaccurate.

Distance

Usually distance is created by using third person, but it can be created inadvertently in first person by the phrasing you use.

I wondered if Billy would call.

This creates distance by subtly asking the reader to look at the narrator as she wonders. To get inside her head, you might try one of the following:

Would Billy call?

Maybe Billy would call.

Billy won’t call. He never calls when I want him to. Damn him!

Butterflies played in my stomach. Maybe Billy would call and ask me out.

I swore I’d never sit at home by the phone waiting for a boy to call. C’mon, Billy! Call already! God, I’m pathetic.

All of these not only eliminate distance, but they characterize what’s going on. Now we not only know she wants Billy to call, but each version adds more to the story.

Multiple First Person

I see a lot of manuscripts that make use of multiple first person. A recent mainstream example of this is Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles. The chapters alternate narrators. As the author, you get the fun of being inside the head of more than one character, with all the work that entails. On the plus side, you get more points of view from which to learn things, but on the minus side, you have to do all the work for each character, remembering who knows what and who doesn’t know what. This option works best when there’s a big difference between the characters.

 

Editing Before the Editor Gets It

rough draftI just read a terrific post on one of my favorite blogs… Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds. It was about the editing (revising) an author must do before the book gets sent for editing. If you don’t do this step, you should. Go read his post now: Laser, Hacksaw, Spanner, Hammer: A Post About Editing. I’ll wait.

I can’t stress enough how important this step is. No one spews forth a perfect rough draft of a novel that needs no revision. No one. Every single novel needs this extra step. Sometimes, heck–who am I kidding–most of the time, this step is actually many steps done over and over and over. And Chuck’s right… this is where the art happens.

Sure, it’s amazing to get all those words out on the page in a rough draft. Not everyone can do that. But to get those words honed and crafted… that’s where the actual skill comes in. Getting the rough draft done takes dedication, but revising that rough piece of writing into a real story is art. That’s what separates the wheat from the chaff.

Then, when you turn in your piece of word art to your editor, they can polish it so you shine like the celestial being you truly are. Now where did I put my sunglasses?

First Person – Deconstructed

first personYes, we already talked about first person, but now let’s really deconstruct it and examine what it means to write in first person. Let’s see what it takes to do the work.

Writing in first person, as we discussed before, means that we’re inside a character’s head. This could be your main character. It usually is in the books I edit. It could also be their best friend, their mother, the antagonist, an observer, their dog… you name it. Sometimes it’s fun to play around with perspective by altering who’s seeing the story unfold.

But what is first person? When we sit down with our family or friends and tell stories of what happened in our lives, we obviously don’t tell any that are novel length. We don’t recount dialogue word for word, yet in a first person novel, we do. So right off the bat, writing in first person is artificial. The narrator in the story must, by definition, already know how the story ends, because we’re holding the book, right? But we play along like he doesn’t, and we discover what happens right along with him. First person is just a device we can use and readers accept it.

Of course, it has strict limitations, too. Let’s take description, for instance. How many of you take a paragraph to describe your characters like they’re on the police blotter? Aside from the fact that you shouldn’t do that unless they are, in fact, being hunted by the police, in first person, would you describe people like that?

“Oh, yes, I’m dating a new girl… she’s 5’2″, has blue eyes, red hair, and weighs 120 pounds. She perfectly complements my dashing 5’8″, 185 pound frame, and her hair goes well with my coal black tresses.”

Yeah, right! No one talks like that, even in books! You have to work it in when it naturally fits.

I stumbled across the room to the mirror, running my hand through the tangled mess on my head. I couldn’t believe I’d overslept. Staring back at me were two hungover brown eyes with deep circles beneath them. Shit. How was I going to get rid of them before I met Jennifer’s parents for lunch in half an hour? I wanted to make a good impression. I glanced down at the rest of me. I sucked in my belly… nah. Too much effort. Work on the face.

While I used the mirror trick above, watch out for that. It can come across natural or it can come across as a cheap device. Even book characters do use mirrors…just don’t let them dwell on every aspect of their appearance while they’re there. In the example above, I only mention the hungover brown eyes. There’s nothing about hair color, lips, complexion. A cursory glance by the character down his frame is enough to let us know he’s not perfect because instead of complaining about his belly, he tries to suck it in. Actions speak louder than words.

While it can be more work to do it right, first person gives us a wonderful opportunity to really get inside the character’s head so we can see the character as he sees himself.

Actions also appear different in first person. They can reveal how the character feels about himself, the situation, and anyone else involved. Instead of describing how a character got out of a car and tripped over the curb, you can include how that made them feel. Did they blame the curb? The city? Did they immediately think about how it ruined their nylons? Did they scrape their shin? Are they worried that they’ll disappoint the person they’re meeting by their appearance now?

Every story has some form of exposition. In first person, it usually is found in the character’s thoughts. There are several ways to handle it. First, you can ignore it and treat it like any other exposition you might write, regardless of whether someone would really think that way or not. This is fine if it’s more important to you to get the style and image across.

You could also limit the exposition to the style your character would use, thus exploiting the first person point of view.

You could also leave out almost all exposition altogether, confining your story to only what your narrating character thinks about in the story.

And the final option would be to have a dual first person point of view. This is where you also have an older version of your narrator who can recall the story that has already occurred. This person would have the advantage of time to think about the what if’s and the repercussions of what happened and bring them into the story.

No matter which you use, be sure to include your character’s attitude. Why use first person at all if you’re not going to include the character’s attitude and opinions? It’s the attitude that makes the character more real. It fleshes him out, helps us identify with him or want to dislike him.

We’ll continue this discussion on Friday.

Unusual Points of View

unusual points of viewSo is that all I have to say on point of view? No. Today I want to talk about unusual points of view. You don’t see these often.

Out of these rarities, probably the most common is the epistolary.  A dear friend of mine, Jodi Cleghorn, collaborated on one of these with Postmarked: Piper’s Reach, which you can read online if you’re quick… they’re taking it down at the end of July as they prepare it for traditional publication. The entire story is told through letters. These days, you can find the epistolary form to include diaries, memos, emails, interviews, and all sorts of written communications.

Second person puts the reader as the protagonist. It can be unsettling for the reader, and it’s hard to pull off because the reader’s first reaction is usually to resist.

You step up to the monument, scanning the list of names, looking for the one with meaning. That should have meaning. There it is. You run your fingers lightly over the embossed letters.

As the reader, it’s a bit strange at first, especially when the character does something you personally wouldn’t do. Your natural inclinations want to resist, which pulls you out of the story.

First person plural uses “we” as the viewpoint, while third person plural uses “they.” These points of view are usually limited to works of experimental science fiction because they are most suitable for hive mindsets, like the Borg from Star Trek.

For fans of children’s books and fantasy/science fiction, you may run across nonhuman POV. Usually, we find they talk, think, and act just like we do. Not only does that help us relate to them, it helps us understand them. If they didn’t, we might have a difficult time understanding what they were doing and why. One of my favorites that deals with nonhuman characters is Watership Down by Richard Adams. The complex lives of the rabbits in the warren hooked me completely.

 

Omniscient Point of View

omniscient POVOmniscient POV gives the power to see and know all. It was used much more frequently in the 18th century than it is now, though many beginning writers use it without realizing it.

Writing in omniscient point of view allows you to pop into the mind of any character you choose when you choose… once, or repeatedly. As the author, you may also include your own observations or opinions on the action, even to the point of addressing the reader directly.

Some books written in omniscient POV include The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and Howards End by E. M. Forster.

Cynthia scowled. “You don’t know anything about it,” she said, trying to hide her true feelings on the subject.

“Says you,” her cousin retorted hotly, hoping to read between the lines. He scanned her face for clues, then plopped on the grass next to her in defeat. “Tell me, then.”

In the example, we’re sent to both Cynthia’s mind, who’s trying to control her true feelings, and her cousin’s, who is hoping to read between the lines, then plops next to her in defeat.

Some readers don’t like omniscient and will accuse the reader of head hopping. Others say it creates distance. Beginning writers may write like this unintentionally because they want to include descriptions of how everyone is feeling in a scene, not realizing they’re actually popping into everyone’s heads to do that. So it must be easy, right? Nope. Writing omniscient well is far from easy. While it’s true that one of the strengths of this POV is that it allows these things to be revealed, there are some problems with this POV as well, such as:

  • Omniscient POV loses the willing suspension of disbelief that we cultivate in a work of fiction.
  • It destroys the sense of reality we try to create in our new world because the author can insert their own opinions.
  • It creates more distance between the reader and the characters.

So, if the drawbacks are so bad, what are the strengths of omniscient POV?

  • Reminding the reader that this is a work of fiction can be a terrific device by highlighting the artificial nature of the story.
  • By increasing the distance between reader and character, the reader gets an entire panorama of reality itself.
  • The author has more control in steering the story and its meaning where s/he wants it to go.