Thursday, July 31, 2008

Revising the Novel - Writing the Sex Scene part 3

So then, the real question is; how much sex should one have in their novel?

The answer, of course, varies with the genre and style of writing, but in general terms, the title above says it all, sex sells. Now this doesn't mean peppering your legal thriller with scene after scene of hot doings in the jury box, but on the other hand, I have heard an agent say that if a book doesn't have sex, the implication of sex, or at least a strong romance, it won't sell.

People enjoy sex (not the physical act, well, yes the physical act, but also the story of sex). They enjoy both romantic sex and steamy sex. Sex that they'd do and sex they'd never dream of, as long as it's not offensive (a difficult line to draw, I know). They love the prelude to sex and the after effects.

And I do to. Particularly the character ramifications. There is very little you can do to affect a relatonship more between two of your characters than to put them in bed together. I love what happens to the characters during the act; the nervousness, the desire, the fear, the insecurities, the abandon, the neediness. It is a great way to explore character. But so is the character ramifications after the act and the way the characters see each other, grow with each other or apart. Trust me, sex can be very revealing.

The general rule that I follow is that there has to be a romance in a thriller. Even if it's not completely consumated, it has to be implied. In fact, just the tension of romance, the possibility that two characters will have sex, can be enough to up the drama in a scene or in the entire book. I can't ever see myself writing a story that doesn't involve love and romance. It just reveals so much of a character and is such a powerful motivator for character actions.

But that doesn't mean I'll always have sex. Again, following my rule, if I can fit a sex scene in, and it falls in a logical place (perhaps a surprising place) without disrupting the flow of the story, the pulse of the action, then by all means, I'll add it. But if the scene is added just to have a sex scene, if it feels unnatural or most importantly, if it slows down the action or disrupts the tension, then I won't have it. The main flow of the story always has to be most important.

So I guess I'm saying that sex is great, in the right time and place.

Hmmm, now I sound like a 10th grade health teacher.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Revising the Novel - Writing the Sex Scene part 2

Back on the subject of sex.

As I mentioned in the prior post, of utmost importance to me when writing a sex scene is to avoid cliche. There are only so many non-offensive euphemisms you can use for penis. Even fewer for a vagina. Most of these are so full of purple prose that I'm embarrassed any time I even think of using one.

Breasts are easy. The word "breasts" works fine. So does nipple. But when it comes to the male and female genitalia, "penis" and "vagina" seem far too clinical for our writing. So we improvise. That's how things like "pulsating member," get published. I've even read once about a "vibrating stinger." I'm still scared at the thought.

My advice on this sensitive topic is to use the real words, or the least of the purple prose euphemisms. It is unlikely that you'll come up with a term that hasn't been used before, or one that is so terrifically original that it will send your scene over the top. Usually, all that results is that you succeed in drawing attention to your poor word choice and away from the steamy sex happening on the page.

Just write it.

Use the words we're all familiar with. Concentrate on the action and whatever originality you can create in the scene. The mood, the background, the character's thoughts, their actions, unique fetishes, etc.

Don't get hung up on the words, or else a pulsating member may inadvertently make its way into your writing.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Revising the Novel - The Difficult Sex Scene

No one can deny it, sex sells.

Most mainstream fiction today will have at least one romantic interlude. How far that goes towards an actual sex scene is, of course, up to the discretion of the writer. And it raises some interesting questions.

Some writers may relish the thought of writing a sex scene. I'm not talking erotica here, but mainstream fiction. Writing a sex scene can in some ways be liberating. A chance to explore fantasies, dreams, ideas that you'd never have the chance, or inclination, to explore in real life. A chance to let the hair (and pants) down and get animal.

For others, the sex scene is the absolute hardest scene to write. The constant editor sitting on your shoulder screams and moans with each word you put to paper. What if your mother reads this? What if my colleagues at work or the writing club read this? Will they think I'm strange? A pervert? A sex maniac? Doubts, worries and fears can rage into the brain like never before when it comes to writing about sex. In many ways, Freud was right about this baby. We got hang-ups on top of hang-ups.

But no matter what your own personal opinions of sex may be, if you're to be a successful mainstream fiction writer (I include the genre of thrillers, like my medical thriller, as mainstream fiction) at some point in time, the subject of sex will come up. And like it or not, it's a river that must be crossed.

I read somewhere in a list of things to do to break writer's block (which I don't believe in, by the way) that one way to ditch the block is to write a sex scene. That writer's opinion was that sex is fun and fun to write about. So if you're stuck, then darn it, take the clothes off your character, throw in a good bottle of wine and have them go at it. While I applaud the thought, I personally take the opposite opinion. I think sex is hard to write about. Not because of my Freudian repression, but because it's hard to avoid cliche.

So let's talk about sex. (Cue Salt and Peppa here)

1) Avoid cliche - It's not always easy to bring a fresh approach to sex (on paper, not in the bedroom. That's your own business and you won't find advice here.) We've all read or seen the extreme cliched version of a sex scene from smutty romance novels. There's a great scene near the beginning of the wonderful movie 10 Things I Hate About You (Heath Ledger's first film) were our heroine is called to the principle's office for discipline. Rather than reprimanding her, the principle is much more involved in writing her novel and it's steamy sex scene. The scene ends with our heroine suggesting the term "pulsating member," for our word-bare principle who's been struggling to find another juicy metaphor for penis.

That just ain't gonna work in most mainstream fiction.

In my writing group, there's a lot of sex going around (now, now. I mean in the writing, not the group.) It's been fun to watch each writer's varying approach to writing about sex, and believe me, the approaches are as varied as I'm sure the authors are in the bedroom. We'll talk about those approaches in the next few posts as well as more things to avoid and included in your sex scenes.

And always avoid the pulsating member.

As always, your comments, thoughts and suggestions about sex (writing about it) are always welcome.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Revising the Novel - Avoiding Overused Words

I'm moving along with the revision. After several weeks, I finally have a grasp on the final tweak I needed to get my antagonist's motivation clearer and stronger. Again, a testament to the success of writing groups as it was the combination of thoughts from different writer's that led me to where I need to go.

In the meantime (as I'm writing away furiously) I'm going to post this helpful little list of overused words. i came upon this list several months ago, on a number of different sites, and felt that it could add value to all of our writing. As we discussed in the Ten-Point Revision Strategy, weak words need to be discovered, isolated and excised like skin cancer. Hopefully this list will help you find your own favorites, words that we habitually rely upon. These words are weak and as descriptive or powerful as we'd like to think they are.


And by suggestion:


Any other words you'd like to add to the list? Let's make it grow of all those words we need to be careful of using.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Revising the Novel - Just an Update

Just an update today, as I try to finish this revision of my novel. I can feel my agent's breath on the back of my neck, steaming up my computer screen, prodding me to get this done. Remember, part of my idea for this blog was to share what I've learned about writing, but also to share all the steps along the way of having this book published. The good and the ugly. Today counts as the ugly.

My momentum was great a little while back, but has been ebbing recently. Have any of you noticed this before? Sometimes, when you take a break from writing, even just a couple of days for travel or other reasons, it becomes very difficult to get back in to it? I haven't touched the book in over a week, maybe two. For no good reason, other than I stopped while I was traveling. Now it just sits there like a lump of coal waiting for me turn it into a diamond.

Part of my distraction is that the music site is doing so well and really taking off. (The Ripple Effect, I'm spending too much of my novel writing time instead working on music reviews or contacting bands. I'm being contacted by record labels, PR Firms and bands everyday, asking us to look at their new albums. We've even got our first internet radio show scheduled for tomorrow night. All of that of course is fun. (for those of you who like music but don't like hard rock/punk/metal, you may enjoy the Sounds of Summer Special we posted, songs for your summer bar-b-Q's) Working on the 101st revision of this novel sometimes isn't quite as much fun. Particularly when I've decided that the motivation of a major character needs a bit of tweaking, which means more revising.

The other portion of my distraction comes from the atrophy of writing muscle memory. I wrote about this before (Writing and the Muse). In order to be a successful writer, it requires discipline and practice. It becomes like being a great athlete. The more you do it, the better you get. The easier it is for the words to flow, but just as important, the easier it becomes to just do it. Get yourself in front of your computer (typewriter, pad of paper) and write. That's why I wrote about how important it is to write everyday. Choose a time, sit down and write. No distractions for that time period, and no excuses. Just write. With my travel, my writing time got disrupted and now those muscles have atrophied. They're lingering, twitching slowly.

But I can do it. I've got my Ten Point Revision Strategy positioned on my desk, I'm going to re-read my points to refresh my memory and then jump back in.

A more intelligent, hopefully helpful post will come next time when we start talking about outlining. Now off for some character tweaking.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Writing Groups - Final, Final Thoughts (no, really)

As I mentioned, today I'll give some details on how my second writer's group works. The first group, Mimi's Boys, is a local group where we meet once or twice a month. Those are easy to put together and easy to find. Around here, the SF Bay area, a quick look through Craig's List can turn up any number of groups looking for new authors. The bulletin board at local bookstores is another good source to find a group. Or you can do it my way and form a group from the students in one of your writing workshops.

My second group is very different, since we've only met each other once, haven't seen each other since, but have been actively working as a group for more than seven months now. This is my internet based group.

The group came about at the end of an intense two-day advanced writing workshop with Bob Dugoni in Chicago. In hindsight, the emergence of the group seems obvious. Throughout the course, Bob often referred to the writing of four of the participants to give examples of plot, writing technique etc. As the course progressed, these four writers (one of which was me) were also the most vocal in asking questions and making remarks. That night, I met up with two of the guys and had a few drinks in the bar with several other participants and realized that we all had good chemistry.

The next day, I asked the two guys, Jeff and Paul, if they'd like to form an internet group to read and give feedback on each other's writing. After setting a few ground rules, they agreed. We did approach the fourth writer, a woman with a beautiful, mystical Celtic writing style, but she was already in two groups of her own. (so we're still shy on the female input, hint hint to any wonderful women writer's out there.)

So here's how this group functions. At first, we set the goal for submissions every two weeks, but we've been more flexible than that depending upon people's schedules. When I submit, I send about 30 pages of my draft to both guys. In the email, I include a very brief, one or two sentence, reminder of where the story left off. They guys then respond with their comments, copying everyone on their emails. One of them likes to email back the draft with line edits as well.

Typically, we return about one page worth of comments, good and bad, focusing mainly on plotting, character and other larger issues. I don't line edit because I feel my strength is the bigger picture. By copying each other on the return emails, we stimulate conversation amongst ourselves and explore deeper issues.

I've found this group to also be very helpful. Each of these two guys are good writers with different viewpoints than the writers in Mimi's Boys. Their comments have helped me to broaden my view on the story and I'm just about to incorporate a very small, but potentially major change.

This group works because I trust their opinions and we're all committed. Now, I met these guys in person first, but internet groups can be joined or formed by meeting other writers through online writing forums, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. Be careful who you join with. Remember my first two posts about what to look for in a group. And if it isn't working for you, don't be afraid to say so, or to quit. Also, if the group is good but there's one bad seed, never be afraid to trust your own judgment and ignore that person's comments.

So whether in person or over the internet, there are a wide variety of ways to be involved in a writer's group. In the end, it never hurts to have as many trustworthy eyes as possible on your writing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Writing Groups - Final Thoughts

A few final thoughts on the subject of writing groups, and I'd like to thank Beth from Writer-in-Progress for her insights. If you haven't yet, you should check out her blog and her website, both are full of interesting tidbits.

As you can see from her comments (see last post) the decision to join a group isn't quite as straight forward as you may at first think. Unfortunately, the wrong group can probably do more harm than good for your writing.

Having said that, I'm in two groups right now.

The first group, I'll call "Mimi's Boys," came about after taking a UC Berkeley writing course with Skirts author, Mimi Albert. While the course itself was fun and useful, what struck me the most was the quality of the critique I heard from my fellow students. Having been in other classes, I know that usually students are either too hesitant to be honest in their critique or too angry/mean/arrogant to be of use. This class had just the right balance, honest, well-intentioned critique. As the course ended, I stood up, told the class how much I appreciated their critique and suggested forming the group. About 7 people joined at first and we lost five through attrition but gained two new ones, and have been going strong for almost ten years (with a couple of years off for personal reason's amongst members.)

The nice thing about Mimi's boys is that we all know each other very well. We all have different writing styles, reading patterns and genres. We also are all committed to becoming successful writers and assisting our partners. Each member has an area that I'd consider their specialty, whether it's someone who picks apart dialogue well, grammer and wording, etc. I know, for example, which sections of my writing Gregg might have trouble with, but Les will love and vice versa. Gabe happens to be a very technical guy which truly helps the science in my story. I consider myself a plot oriented kinda guys and work best in helping to move stories along.

We meet once a month, but currently every two weeks as we're helping Les get his materials ready for his agent before the Maui Writing Conference. That adaptability is also a great feature of Mimi's Boys. We truly are there to help each other. If there's one drawback to the group, it's that we lost all of our women over the years, usually to motherhood concerns. As such, we're sorely lacking a female perspective, which we desperately need. With the majority of readers being women, we can never discount that perspective. Gregg tells me that we have a new woman getting ready to join us soon. Let's hope so.

My second group was formed after attending Robert Dugoni's course in Chicago. Again, I approached the two guys who's stories fascinated me the most and seemed the most serious in writing. Since they live across the country, this is an internet only group, and its working beautifully.

Next post, I'll give you ideas on how to make an internet writing group a successful venture.