Archive for February, 2009

I’m rarely surprised when I encounter writers who say, “I would never write a sex scene. Just fade to black.” I’m sometimes a little surprised by readers who say, “I won’t read anything with graphic sex.” (Because frankly, reading a sex scene is easier than writing one, let me tell you.) I’m not even that surprised when I come across an article that decries the tawdry new trend toward graphic sex in books.

Surprised, no. Disappointed? Oh yeah.

Who among us does not love sex? Oh, sure, there are those rare fern-like creatures who shy from the very suggestion of their genitals coming into contact with another person’s genitals, but aside from that, the vast majority of humans like sex. Love sex. Obsessivly think about sex. How to get it, where to do it, and what to do once they’ve got it.

We did not reach a global population of more than 6 BILLION people by saying, “Ew. No, thanks” to sex. Nor did we get there because everybody wanted a baby. We got there because sex feels good and people don’t just like it. They use it as the answer to all kinds of physical and emotional needs they have.

For that reason alone, writing about sex seems important to me. I think a lot of squeamish readers come to the idea with the presumption that every sex scene is erotica. Most writers who write sex outside the erotica genre, however, approach it as they do any other activity, as another opportunity to reveal character. If you look back on your sex life, you know it’s true. The way people have sex says volumes about what kind of people they are and what kind of relationship they have with their partner(s).

Sure, the goal of sex for most people is primarily pleasure, so a lot of sex scenes are arousing, but they can also be awkward, uncomfortable, sad, angry, humiliating, funny, just like sex is in real life.

I ended up having to tackle this issue a lot in my most recent project, because my main character has been in prison for seven years and five of that in solitary. Freed, he has sex on the brain. (Not that it’s exactly a departure from his personality before he went to prison.)

More difficult, he’s a beast. (Hence the title, Ugly and the Beast.) One reader said, “Axyl is Conan, only without the PG-13 rating. Dude is straight-up NC-17.” (One intrepid reader, whose personal life I wonder about, said, “Am I the only one who wanted to date Axyl?”)

Writing the beastly part was easy. Put him in a cheap motel room with a girl he previously deemed “too ugly to screw on a dare,” and he changes his tune: Honestly, from behind she was better than lots of girls I’ve fucked. Nice little ass and no ex-boyfriend’s name tattooed on her.

Easy enough to write a guy whose outlook on the world is this: In my book, a girl gets in bed naked, she’s open for business. I wasn’t so tired I was gonna turn down the invitation, but she slapped my hands away.

Except nobody is that guy all the way through and through. Axyl is an asshole, but he’s not some cardboard cut-out baddie. He’s fighting this feeling of worthlessness and an emptiness he’s been trying to fill up with sex. As much energy as he puts into getting laid, he’s rarely completely happy during sex.  Even with the ugly girl, he wonders if she really wants to be there.

I wanted to kiss her, but when I got the hair outta her face and got her mouth under mine, her lips were tensed up, closed. When I tried to get my tongue into her mouth, she turned her head away. Axyl’s first thought isn’t the obvious one: no one’s ever tried to kiss her before. His mind automatically jumps to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to kiss him.

These are all rather tame examples, since I didn’t want my blog to turn into a NSFW pr0n-fest, but they get at the heart of why I think sex, and explicit sex, is valuable in novels. If characters are going to have sex, why hide it behind a curtain? It leaves a gap as surely as narrative summary in the place of dialog can. Don’t tell me, show me what the characters are like in bed. I swear, it’s only about 19% prurient interest. ;o)

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As soon as I found out about it, I become a fan of the blog Shrinking Violets.  It bills itself as “Marketing for Introverts.”  Just what I need. I’m sure all the teenagers and felons who watched me do condom demonstrations over the years wouldn’t believe that I’m an introvert, but I am.  The condom lady–that was just a role to play.  Me, the real me, is a quiet, reserved person.

Shrinking Violets recently had a guest blogger, C.J. Lyons, who writes medical suspense novels.  She also has some interesting observations about identifying and solidifying your “brand” as an author.

We’ve all watched commercial properties go through branding changes with varying degress of success and failure.  Remember when Phillip Morris changed their name or when Coke changed their recipe?

It’s strange to think of my writing in this light, but it is a product.  I am trying to sell it.  It has left me wondering what my brand is.

Obviously, I’m not flashy, as you can tell from the plain design I picked for my website.  Nor is my writing flashy.  On occasion I engage in verbal pyrotechnics, but those darlings usually end up drowned in the bathtub of revision.  I like my prose to be solid, practical, and easy to understand.  Primarily, I think that’s because I want people to think about the ideas behind the writing instead of the writing.

My website design reveals another aspect to my “brand” that I haven’t given much thought to.  Apparently I’m a “regional writer.”  I’ve written plenty of stories that take place outside of Kansas and Oklahoma, but I do find that my best short stories develop out of the rather narrow locales of my childhood.

Even when I step outside of Kansas, as I do when I write fantasy, I find that the dry pragmatism and deep passions of the place sneak into the cultures I make up.  The abolitionists who fought in the border wars and the people who stayed through the Dust Bowl crop up in places I never expected.

Also, I love intimacy.  (And by intimacy I don’t just mean sex.  Although I don’t shy away from including it where it fits and where it develops the characters.)  It’s more that I like stories told in close-up, to use a camera analogy.  I quickly lose interest in stories, reading and writing them, that are told in the long view.  Although I prefer third person to first, I like a very close third.  In stories of grand scale, I want the main action to play out in a narrow room with two or three people intensely interested in that moment.

There’s a dark element in my writing, too, that surprises a lot of people.  Betrayal, isolation, disappointment, and cruelty all make their way into my stories.  It’s what I always think of as the Peyton Place Factor.  In isolated places, people become dark, strange, secretive, and intent on their desires.  Yes, even the wholesome young men who stop to help when you have car trouble, and the little old ladies who cook at church suppers, and the nice neat Christian families who eat across from you at those same church suppers.  They’re all hoarding secrets: meth addictions, shameful lust, decades-old jealousies, crushing disappointment, daily revenges on petty slights.

In some ways, it all comes together in the novel I currently have out with a few agents.  I call it Ugly and the Beast on the days I love it.  Blackneck on the days I hate it.  Depending on who reads it, the book is perhaps urban fantasy that takes place in rural Oklahoma.  Or it’s literary with elements of magical realism.  Cormac McCarthy smokes a bong with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Despite my original intentions, it has a deep vein of politics on the issue of the death penalty and a parallel track of folkloric whimsy.  The Executioner’s Song meets  Snow White.

Its main character, Axyl, could be my half-brother: a boy who grew up isolated among well-meaning people, with a basic notion of decency that hasn’t stopped him from killing people.  Carrying secrets and longing to find someone to tell them to.  Trapped in a cycle of betrayal and always looking for the joke that will make it okay.

Austere, dark, funny, in close-up.

What’s your brand?

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Arriving home from the library, I came to this realization: of the twelve books I’d picked out, ten of them were written around themes of Otherness.  Not surprisingly, nine of those ten were young adult books.  I don’t typically read that much YA, but I’ve come to the conclusion that my new writing project is likely to develop into a YA story.  To prevent its being written in a vacuum of glorious ignorance, I went browsing for some recent YA books.

The heros and heroines…they’re all Outsiders.  Either they’re losers, or oddballs, or they’re aliens, or supernatural creatures.  However they’ve arrived there, all these YA protagonists are standing on the outside looking in.

The question that has been nagging me since I made that realization is: who writes for the Insiders?  You know, the normal kids, the regular kids, the popular kids.  The kids who don’t sit alone at lunch.  The kids who always have a date to homecoming.  The kids who do well at sports and listen to Top 40 music.  Who writes books for them?  And what are those books?  Seriously, I want suggestions.  I have a burning curiosity to read these books and learn something about their authors.

I don’t want to make sweeping generalities about writers, but I have to admit that almost every writer I know is…a little odd.  Or off.  Or downright strange.  Many of us are introverts, which has turned us into observers.  Others of us see the world from such a skewed angle that we’re always writing in an attempt to document the discrepancies between our world and the world.

The problem is that because I was always an Outsider, perhaps I simply never noticed the books on the library shelves that were intended for the Insiders.  They were invisible to me.

capt_awesome1Trying to think of possible examples of Insider novels, all I can think of is television.  Star Trek in particular, which despite its massive geek following is all about Insidership.  Think of it–the Federation is this massive, wonderful, just, lawful, all-inclusive entity.  The pinnacle of happiness on The Enterprise is to belong.  So many story lines are devoted to that idea that I can’t cite them all.  Consider that in the original series, most of the episodes were about triumphing over some evil alien, or triumphing over a crew member who had “gone wrong,” and at the heart of the episodes was this familial bond that everyone had to embrace.  Or look at The Next Generation: Data trying to become human to belong.  Repeated on Voyager, with Seven of Nine.  The goal of the stories always seems to be to bring everyone together, to make everyone part of this big, inclusive club.  Yet they hated the Borg…

So tell me, in the YA field, who writes for the Insiders?

PS: And I have to add…what the hell gives with the Holodeck?  If my microwave malfunctioned, took over my house, and endangered my life, I would unplug it an throw it away.  And I was never as big a fan of Star Trek as I was of the brief-lived Firefly, something of a mirror image of Star Trek, where the Federation is an evil fascist entity and the scrappy but criminal crew of Serenity are the heroes.  An Outsider tale at its finest.

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