Can’t Get Excited About Your Scene?

I have done the worst thing a blogger can do.  Disappear.

Everything has changed.  Nothing has changed.  No one cares, I bet.

I think I have become a better writer.  I am still learning.  Maybe I can help you to become a better writer, too.  Or at least write something interesting here, mainly for the beginning writer like me.  Still beginning, though I have been at this for five years.

I am self-taught.  That means I don’t have a Masters in Writing.  I have taken classes.  I read books and blogs on writing.  I have subscribed to The Writer magazine all these years, and I study it, keep all the articles in appropriate files and refer to them often.  The Writer is one hundred twenty-five years old this year!

Notice how I wrote that number out?  Please do.  Unless your number is abnormally long, like 1,346, or a year, or . . . it’s best to check a good dictionary, which will tell you which numbers should be written out.  If you don’t have one, get one.  Get a good thesaurus, too.  Don’t depend on an on-line synonym guide.

Today the most important thing I learned was:  If you can’t get excited about writing a scene, don’t write it.  If you aren’t excited about writing it, your reader won’t be excited about reading it.  Why did it take me all this time to figure that out?

It’s important information I have to get across to the reader.  The character, in this case, She, thinks about a past instance that began her life search for information about her mysterious family.  She can’t her mom or anyone to talk about it, so she’s going to get her best friend, He, to help her.  Boring to write, boring to read–all those thoughts, and where do I put her while thinking them, etc., etc., etc.?

Put this stuff in the action, in the dialogue.  Bit by bit it comes out when She explains to He why She needs his help.  Simple, huh?

Readers like dialogue more than description.  Readers like action even more.  Add a little action to your dialogue.  Put some conflict in there, too.  Voila–it’s no longer boring.  It was fun to write, too.

Where do you put your boring stuff to give it punch?

Show and Tell

Remember Show and Tell from Elementary School?  It wasn’t Show versus Tell, or Show instead of Tell, it was Show and Tell.

Show, don’t Tell, is what the writer is continually told, and this is good advice . . . usually.  Do not tell us your character is afraid; show us his fear.

As P. Bradley Robb says, every rule has an exception.   Knowing when to show and when to tell is the sign of a writer who has learned her craft, of a writer who has found his voice.

One instance telling makes sense is when showing will slow down the pace when it is appropriate to speed it along.  It always takes more time, more words to show a thing than to tell it.  Sometimes showing can get wrapped up in unnecessary detail, relating a writer’s knowledge, knowledge that is not necessary to the plot, the scene or the character.

Another would be filling in background information, description or events that are not as important as scenes that you want to stand out, those which you will show.

It is always a case of:  Is this scene, description, character trait important enough that it must be shown? How will showing affect the tension and pace of the story?  If important showing slows down the pace too much, perhaps it is misplaced.

Back to my own novel now — hope I have shown everything at the right time and place.

More Joy of Writing Sex

Here is more from The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict, and whatever else comes to mind.

  • Narrate from with the characters’ bodies and minds and connect them with their physical surroundings.  A buttock in warm sand (or cold), the bite of a mosquito – something or anything that contributes to the mood you want to create.
  • They may not speak, but they might.  Dialogue can reveal your characters, create conflict, resolve conflict, reveal attitudes toward sex.  Perhaps a little humor?  Talk leading up to sex can be more fun and interesting than the sex, itself.
  • Be specific and add a little detail, but not necessarily explicit.  Use details that reveal emotion or distinguish one character from another, time, place, status.
  • Surprise!  Something about the scene the reader remembers, which is not necessarily a great orgasm.  What happened that was unexpected?

In writing about sex, remember the realities of the world in which you are writing.  Today we must consider AIDS, how the characters feel about it, safe sex – are they reckless, restrained, what controls their decisions?  There is a great deal of exploration to be done here when writing about the gay community, in particular.  As the author states, “Gay characters, and the primarily gay writers who create them, live in an environment in many ways defined by the ravages and repercussions of AIDS.  Illness and death have an inescapable immediacy and weight for the infected and uninfected alike; fictional characters, like their real-life counterparts, often exist in extremis, forced at every turn to explore the fusion of love, sex, mortality, and grief.”

Because of AIDS, the year and location in which you set your characters is crucial and will vary between gay and straight couples.

  • In our current time, most gays take practicing safe sex for granted.
  • You can use the preparation for safe sex between straight couples for further revelations about your characters.  Embarrassment about the condom?  Use it.

Here are titles of following chapters:  “Losing Your Cherry and Other First times to Remember; Great Expectations: The Wedding Night and the Honeymoon; Life Sentences: Husbands and Wives; Three Cheers for Adultery; Your Place or Mine: Recreational Sex; The Illicit: Sex Forbidden by Law, History, and Politics; Solo Sex: Alone, on the Phone, and on the Internet.”

You get the picture.

We love to talk about it, don’t we?  Now write and have fun.  This can be the most fun writing of all.  Truly.

That Vexing Sex Scene

Many writers have commented on various sites about their difficulties with writing a good sex scene.  I have found the best book on this subject to be The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict.  She has authored four novels, one of which was a finalist for the American Book Award.  She knows from where she writes, and I highly recommend this guide for your writing book shelf.

She states that there is a difference between porn, or erotic writing, and literary sex writing.  “In pornography, consumers will demand their money back if the sex is lousy . . . or the girl cries when it’s over.  This other kind of sex writing thrives on all the things that nourish good fiction:  tension, dramatic conflict, character development, insights, metaphors, and surprises.”  The best fiction writing is not a sex manual of what happens, but who it happens to, the characters’ inner lives, and must engage the reader on all levels, not just the physical.

  • The orgasm is not what is important.  What is important is the connection or lack of connection.
  • Sex is in the realm of the mind.  What are your characters thinking during their encounter?  Robert Owen Butler’s recent book, Intercourse, is full of excellent examples of couples’ thoughts.
  • For many, “suggestion, suppression, and sublimation are more potent aphrodisiacs than the real thing.”
  • Set a tone of heightened erotic tension by using sensual description of your location and/or items within it.  Anne Rice is an expert at sensual and lush description.
  • Sex can be scary.  One person never truly knows what the other is thinking.
  • Do both want the same thing out of this encounter?  Always remember that a good character must yearn and yearn intensely.  Here is another opportunity for dramatic conflict.
  • I love this, from the book:  “Sex can be an expression of affection, love, fear, vulnerability, anger, power, rage, submission–or nearly all of these at once.  Sex strips us of our defenses, leaving us vulnerable to feelings that are often repressed.”
  • A good sex scene is not necessarily about good sex.  Consider what this means for your characters, how it might send your story off into an exciting new direction, how it might show something about each of them.  It might express your theme, be a symbol or a metaphor for something within your story.

There is more for next time.

I want to leave you with one of my favorite sex scenes from Barbara Kinsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer:

“Carefully she took both his hands off of her, raised them above his shoulders, and rolled over him and pinned him like a wrestler.  Straddling his thighs this way, looking down on his face, she felt stunned to her core by this human presence so close to her.  He smiled, that odd parenthetic grin she already knew to look for.  It’s that simple, then, she thought.  It’s that possible.  She best down to him, tasting the salt skin of his chest with the sensitive tip of her tongue, and then exploring the tight drum of his abdomen.  He shuddered at the touch of her warm breath on his skin, giving her to know that she could take and own Eddie Bondo.  It was the body’s decision, a body with no more choice of its natural history than an orchid has, or the bee it needs, and so they would both get lost here, she would let him in, anywhere he wanted to go.  In the last full hour of daylight, while lacewings sought solace for their brief lives in the forest’s bright upper air, and the husk of her empty nylon parka lay tangled with his in the mud, their two soft-skinned bodies completed their introductions on the floor of her porch.  A breeze shook rain out of new leaves onto their hair, but in their pursuit of eternity they never noticed the chill.”

Writing and Bowling

First, my sincere apologies for not having updated this blog for so long.  Last week we found out my husband has melanoma, and it knocked us both sideways a bit.  Today is exploratory surgery, and we will learn more.  Enough of that.

I have begun editing my Civil War novel, after letting in hide away for a couple months.  How interesting.  I word-searched the phrase “There is” for starters and received over two hundred hits.  Good grief Charlie Brown!  If there is anyone out there who does not know, this phrase, or any other form of the verb “to be” is not a good way to begin a sentence.  “There is a lot of rain blowing against the window” is so flat compared to “Rain blows against the window in torrents.”

Writing reminds me of learning to bowl when I was in high school.  My father taught me.  From the moment you hold the ball and look down the lane at the pins, you must remember to relax, let your arm fall straight down in an arc, release your held breath, left foot first, bend a little at the knees, lift behind exactly straight, look right at where you want the ball to go, keep your hand straight, thumb next to you, fingers on the side, the ball must just kiss the board, point it where you want it to go, etc. etc.  I am sure I forgot something.  Do it and do it and do it until those little synapses in your brains and arms and fingers are built and do everything automatically.  Lots of time and lots of practice.  Same with tennis, soccer, horseback riding, football.  Writing.

Scary Things and EBooks

I was not sure, but NanoWriMo is a good thing.  Once again, I have found that the things that scare me are the things from which I learn.  Things.  Such an all-encompassing word, one most of us cannot do without.  My things, your things, whatever you wish to put in that mammoth open bag, or box.  Imagine what you will.  That is why we write, isn’t it.

I am writing better.  Each day.  Pushing for those 1,677 words.  I knew it was true.  I declared so earlier on this blog, and I have proved myself correct, at least for me.  It gets easier, too.  After the sixth day I noticed a difference.  Write every day.

I was writing before, sporadically.  Trying to “get out” short stories for those magazines and epublishers.  “They” said, those who supposedly know, that a writer should include a list of all previously-published stories when submitting a query along with all the other information that agents and/or editors generally require with a sample of your novel.  They want to see that you are successful, that you have previously been published.   So I am trying.  Only I am not a short story writer.

Some are.  So many wonderful short stories out there, anthologies and all that.  All those literary magazines.  All those popular erotica sites on the web from which you can buy something to turn you on from one to five dollars.  How do I know about those?  No comment.

I love novels.  I love to get deep into a character and watch him or her grow.  I love to go somewhere else and live there for days or weeks.  I love to learn about other times, other places.  I practically never read short stories, never buy an anthology, even at the used book store.  I appreciate a well-written short story.  A few have amazed me; others have made me chuckle.  Only they are not my “thing.”

I am so much happier writing my NanoNovel.  I live it.  I think about the characters.  My writing is more fun and it is improving.

It remains to be seen whether a publisher will take a novel on its own merits.  Maybe this is another place where ebooks offer more possilities for us all, particularly yet unpublished writers.

Thoughts on NaNoWriMo

I have been going back through my files (mostly from Writer’s Magazine) and rereading Robert Owen Butler, From Where You Dream in preparation for NaNoWriMo.  Here is what I have found:

  • I will write first thing in the morning for two hours, before I am bombarded with all the words, other’s words, life’s everyday stuff, while I am still partially in the dream state, so I can more easily get to that intuitive place of true emotion and imagination.
  • Write every day.
  • Be fearless.
  • Some beginnings:  a line (poems, billboards, conversation you hear), a list (Who is making it?  Why?), a title (Does it suggest a theme?  Character?  Place?), a character, a situation (Is it troubling?  Does it make you wonder?), an event, an image, a subject (a drought, a flood, grade school), an oddity.
  • Get unstuck:  Write a scene where the character enters a new place.  Bring in a minor character.  Write a monologue for a character you would like to know more about.  You don’t have to write in order of your story.  Write a group of crucial scenes.
  • More getting unstuck:  Free-write on an emotion, a character, a place.  Free associate on a word, a character’s name, a place.  Write a list of possible character choices in a particular situation.  Why that choice?  Have another character make a declarative statement about your main character – does it surprise you? There is less chance of getting stuck if you write every day.
  • Trust in the writing process. The first draft is exploration and discovery.  It is an adventurous journey you begin not knowing where you will end up.  I read this by John Dufresne, and got even more excited:
  • “You have nothing to prove in the first draft, nothing to defend, everything to imagine.  . . .  You write the draft in order to read what you have written and to determine what you still have to say. . . . You may have a destination in mind, and you may well set off in that direction, but what you encounter along the way will likely alter your course.  This uncertainty, though daunting, is crucial to the writing process.  It allows for, even encourages, revelation and surprise, while it prevents the manipulation of character or plot to suit a preconceived, and usually ill-conceived, notion of what the story must be.  In writing the first draft, you begin to work through all the uncertainty and advance toward meaning.”
  • You may remove words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters in the second draft, but nothing is ever wasted.

The purpose of the first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written. John Dufresne wrote that, and he has completed two story collections, three novels and a book on fiction writing.  www.johndufresne.com.

Have fun on your journey, everyone.  I plan to have fun on mine.