Thursday, February 5, 2015

Film Review: The Riot Club

I have been looking forward to seeing this film for quite a while. It is based on an award-winning play, POSH, by British playwright Laura Wade. As did the play, the film has garnered some good reviews, and in particular, its ensemble cast of ten of Great Britain's best young male actors have received positive attention for their roles. As some of you know, I became a fan of upcoming actor and former model Max Irons, after seeing his performance as King Edward IV of England in made-for-cable miniseries, The White Queen. His performance has been one of those singled out for praise in The Riot Club. And so I was excited to see him in this film. Because I am a fan of stage plays, and fascinating by the art of writing for theatre, I am always interested to see how a play has been adapted for the big screen.

The Riot Club was released first in the UK, and subsequently across Europe from early fall until present. The cast and producers have put in a lot of time with personal appearances at various premieres, and it has been met with good energy everywhere, including in Canada where it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in November of 2014. Its U.S. release is set for late March. It was directed by Danish director/producer Lone Scherfig.

The film is well-produced and adequately filmed. Not one performance is lacking, from the least - lasting a few seconds - to those of the ensemble cast of eleven men and two women, each of whom plays a major role. I found the structure of the plot rather odd, and had to settle in a bit to it: this was no doubt a result of the adaptation from stage. I'm not certain whether editing could have remedied the feeling that the build-up was too short and the debauchery scene very long. It seems that the balance achieved was necessary to the success of the plot.

The story follows two freshmen at Oxford University, Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin). Both
Sam Claflin (left); Max Irons
are approached almost immediately by a mysterious underground by-invite-only "social club" known as the Riot Club - named after a 17th-century nobleman who engaged in abandonned and continuous debauchery, and was stabbed in the stomach for it by a cuckholded husband. The boys see this history as terribly romantic and exciting and use it as an excuse to engage in a carpe diem lifestyle while at school which includes playing various pranks that are so extreme that they are more disgusting than amusing. But these kids are rich, and it's old money. They simply pay their way out of scrapes with wads of bills from their pockets and the help of Daddy's lawyers.

I know, you're imagining the horror stories we hear coming out of frat house hazings, right?  In most countries, the children of the financial elite sometimes get away with horrible behavior, and pay and/or intimidate their way out of it. But forget all that: the antics of this crowd would make the most hardened frat boys' jaws drop. They are truly out of control. The viewer feels the situation veering out of hand from early in the film, and the thing is that it never really careens until all Hell breaks loose well past the hour-long mark - it just crawls slowly to an increasingly dark inevitability, and it keeps the viewer mesmerized. It is the horror show you can't look away from - even as you know you don't want to see it.

Stories came out of the set during production that the cast itself was often uncomfortable with the subject matter. The male ensemble discussed it together at length, took time to bond so that filming the worst would be easier on them mentally. Actresses Holliday Grainger and Jessica Brown-Findlay have spoken about struggling with the tension of the misogynistic scenes in the film. Max Irons has told the press a few times that when first presented with the script, he felt he would decline the role, feeling that he didn't want to do something "so disgusting". But he thought about it further, considered that clubs such as the one depicted in the film have been the stuff of university legend for years;  a few years back some of the elite in the British government were discovered to have participated in such behavior themselves, and there was quite the scandal at the time. Irons decided that it was "an important story" and "a discussion that needs to happen" in the greater social context, and he agreed to participate.

Much is made in the film, and during interviews with the cast and director, about this social context. Most of Europe is deeply entrenched in the realities of social class differences, to a greater extent than Americans and Canadians experience. It seems to infiltrate so much of the way of looking at life. I say this as one who has lived in Europe, and was married into a European family for near two decades. To understand - as we do in America - that a lot of money brings what is sometimes too much privilege, and to as a Brit understand it as a sort of wall built over hundreds of years that cannot be scaled, is two different sensibilities.  And so perhaps my appreciation of the film from that perspective was a bit limited.

I think that perhaps my experience of the film was also affected by my gender. Why is it that young men, when they assume their ugliest personas, have to be so damned ugly toward women?  It would be funny if it weren't so horrid: the notion that a male somehow raises himself in the eyes of other males by demeaning those most vulnerable to testosterone-out-of-control, is something I have never been able to understand. The scenes which depict this particular behavior are so vile, that Holliday Grainger describes a sort of dream state she entered during filming the worst, when the line between what was the set and what was real seemed to blur. At one point she describes how one of the actors laid a kind hand on her to ask if she were all right, and she shivered, unable to stand him touching her. She rushes to explain that all the male actors involved were kind people and spoke of their own disgust as well, but it didn't make the filming of it any easier.

Of all the heinous behaviors depicted in the film, perhaps this one was the worst: the harassment of
women. Let me describe what I mean: some of the boys are frustrated that a high-priced call girl they hired to perform oral sex on them all under the dinner table has told them where to stick it (er..them) and walked out without the boys getting their fun. Later, Miles' girlfriend - having been tricked into coming to the restaurant - stumbles upon the drunken orgy at hand. The male mob turns on her, openly taunting her with language meant to intimidate and then terrify her into believing she will be raped, as they physically restrain her (and restrain a horrified Miles, who has let it go this far before trying to intervene). The girl finally escapes, but of course, nothing will ever be the same for the two lovers.

Which brings me to the point of the film. The behavior of the boys escalates over much of the film - each time the viewer hopes that we have seen the worst - and many times it seems that it is in fact enough to get the point - it keeps getting worse. It is ratcheted up yet another notch. Is destroying a working family's place of business enough?  Destroying a treasured collection of artwork? Vomiting under tables? Breaking literally everything in a room?  Is humiliating an escort enough?  Or a young woman who means no harm, and comes into the room expecting no harm to herself? Is terrifying her in an intimately, primal sexual way for one's amusement enough? How about beating a man senseless, as a gang, because you can?

As I write, it's been one day since the world was horrified by the act of a terrorist gang of thugs in Syria burning a young man alive in a cage. This gang has, over a year, gotten more and more brazen in terms of how it tortures and kills. From hangings to beheadings. From stonings to throwing people off buildings. And now we are back in the Middle Ages, burning people alive. As one news pundit said today - we have to understand that these are young men who are enjoying what they are doing. They are enjoying the victim's suffering and they are enjoying the horror we feel at seeing what they have done.  I thought a lot about this as I watched The Riot Club.

I thought about the nature of power - whether political or monetary, by virtue of terror or by inherited wealth.  I thought about human nature too.  I thought about what Miles' girlfriend says to him, tears streaming and body shaking, as she throws cold water on his effort to seek her forgiveness, "You were THERE. You had a choice, Miles, and you chose to do NOTHING."

The ugliest behavior humans can engage in are wrapped up in the under two hours of this film. When intimidation and power is used to destroy another - whether by the horrible psychological torture suggested in this film, or by setting fire to a person - I have to believe that the gods weep for us all: both for those who do it, and those who stand by and do nothing.

In the end, what is really the difference between the minds of young men engaged in a gang rape or beating a man blind in the back room of a pub, and the minds of a Middle Eastern thug?  What are we going to do about these acts, in our own societies, behind the doors of our governments, and within our universities? How much is too much for us as a species to bear, before we stop turning our faces away and excusing it? Before we stop refusing to be emotionally present, before we stop doing nothing?

These are questions this haunting film leaves us. I didn't enjoy it. I never want to see it again. But I'm glad I did see it once, and that it made me think about things that perhaps we all should be giving thought to from time to time.  As Mr. Irons observed, the story is important on many levels, depending on one's perspective, and it certainly is a place to start a much needed discussion. The most relevant films are those that make us look in the mirror, and for that, The Riot Club deserves accolades.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Je Suis Charlie: What Does That Really Mean?

Nearly two weeks after the Jihadist-driven massacre in Paris that took the lives of seventeen sane, innocent people and a few monsters, the fallout has left me a bit baffled.

"All is Forgiven" ;  "I am Charlie"
It was no surprise, really, that as the staff at Charlie Hebdo rallied to get out it's scheduled issue on time - complete with the usual satirical cartoons - the likes of The New York Times and MSNBC refused to show the cover during coverage of the story, explaining that they didn't want to offend Muslims (translate: hurt anyone's feelings). CNN was even more disingenuous about it: they announced they wouldn't show it without reason, for about two days, then said they wanted to protect their journalists from Muslim attack. Baloney - have they not covered other controversial subjects with no such worries? And after all - what sort of "news organization" are you if you do not take risks? At least one on-air anchor openly stated disagreement with the decision.

Funny thing is . . . no one seems to understand what the cover cartoon was about. I read and understand French well, and it left me scratching my head. I had to laugh when news anchors asked French citizens what they thought it meant, and got everything from nervous chuckles to various lengthy theories.  (In the end, I think the meaning was super-satirical: a crying Mohammad as a joke that Muslims would never feel remorse for the violence they inflict on the West in the name of Islam.)

What is astounding to me, though, as a writer and sometime journalist, is that none of these entities seemed to appreciate what I was taught in Journalism 101: that free expression is sacred, and that it must remain so. Sure . . . they give it lip-service as they link arms and walk a few blocks in a parade/photo op, but how many national leaders, and sadly how many news network editors, really get it?  I had to realize that many really don't.

Back thirty-odd years ago when I was a student in the journalism department of a large university, I was assigned a major paper for a writing class. The idea was to learn to write a well-researched 50-pager. I chose to write on Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. He was a Russian writer and social critic. Born in 1918, just as the Russian communist revolution was at an end, he grew up in a world where he was forbidden to write much of what was racing around in his head. But Solzhenitsyn bucked the system and did it anyway. As a result, he spent some time in a Siberian prison camp (he got a good book out of it), and eventually escaped the U.S.S.R. and fled into Western Europe, and after some time, the U.S.  I was twenty-something, and it fascinated me that someone could be punished so brutally for simply voicing an opinion. It fascinated me, and he fascinated me. 

I also was fascinated with the few voices in Nazi Germany who spoke out against the popular regime. Let's not forget that Hitler's rise to power took over a decade . . . during which your average German citizen either was too busy living life to care much about the cancerous elephant in the room, or simply couldn't wrap their brains around the ugly truth of Hitler's aims. So they told themselves it wasn't all that bad, turned their eyes away, and their backs, and well . . . we know how that  turned out.  Those who spoke up, who refused to be silenced against mass opinion, generally ended up dead. But quite a few managed to mess things up for the Nazis a bit before they did.  I understood quite early in my life that these were the lives that mattered in this world - these were the souls that were strongest.  Each time one died, they managed to light a small candle first in a world of darkness - in the form of open speech.  Forbidden speech. 

In early 2012, a teen-aged girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, was hired to write a blog for the BBC, detailing her life under Taliban occupation.  She talked about their gradual occupation of the valley where she lived, how life became more restrictive and the Taliban patrols more feared. Most of all she talked about how things were changing for women, for girls trying to get an education. Malala loved learning and appreciated deeply the opportunities she had to go to school daily. She was punished for her courage in speaking out, in October of that year, when the Taliban stopped her school bus, boarded and asked for her by name, and shot the 15-year-old girl in the head. All for speaking out about her beliefs. After a long recovery, she continued to speak, even being one of few women to address the U.N General Assembly to speak on the rights of women to education.

There are hundreds of these stories through the time of our history as a thinking, writing, drawing,
photographing, painting, singing  race.  The people in our history who have introduced new ideas, who have spurred the rest of us to think, who have sparked the energy of change for the better, were all such people.  Change is rarely ever welcomed - it is human nature to push back against it; without these brave people to express ideas we have never heard before, ideas that demand thought and social progress, we would stagnate. 

Many of us watched the world leaders (minus our own spineless one) join the millions-strong march in Paris to support Charlie Hebdo and by extension freedom of expression. I had to believe that for many it was a photo op (witness the Saudi leader, having the gall to stand in support of freedom of expression even as his country carries out a sentence of 20 public canings against journalist Raif Badawi for daring to "insult" Islam in his work; or Putin - the thug whose regime murders journalists who get too mouthy). Others likely stood against Islamic extremism without making the connection in their brains that the two issues - Islamic extremism and free expression - were inseparable on that day.

I wonder how many in the crowd really understood it either.  France has a long proud history of fighting for freedom for the individual, and a long history of producing great artists and writers that introduced controversial ideas, and I have to say I'm not surprised that this social explosion occurred in France, of any of the western European countries. But, France has failed to protect free expression to the extent that it should have: it folded to the politically correct left and put in place "hate speech laws".  In the past decade, even Canada - that bastion of liberty - has made the same mistake.  The situation there is such  that an ex-Muslim, having fled the radical religion in his own country, cannot openly speak about his experience in Canada without some whiny leftist having him arrested for "hate speech". 

One day several months back, some worthless piece of dung posted an anti-gay rant on Twitter.  It was picked up by some in the gay crowd, who ranted back that he needed to be "banned from Twitter" for "hate speech".  I made the mistake of pointing out that, in my view, that would be wrong.  Several people threw back at me that what he said was "illegal" and "against the law".  I walked away from it - how to begin to reason with people in that frame of mind?  But he broke no law - he was expressing a free, legal, albeit vile, opinion.  People didn't seem to understand that in the U.S., where Twitter is based, it is not in fact illegal, and that in cyberspace there is no such regulation. 

But for me it was more than  that: this was an example of why free expression matters so very much. 
Let me say here that I understand well, as a journalist, that there are limits to free speech even in
Malala Yousefzai won the Nobel Peace prize at 17, in 2014.
the U.S., which arguably has the most free of speech rules in the world.  You may have heard the joke that you can't yell "Fire" in a crowded theatre, unless of course there is an actual fire.  You can't incite a public riot - posing imminent harm to people in a crowd (people in Ferguson, take note). Generally our speech laws reflect caps on speech which would cause immediate physical harm to people.  What we will not put caps on is more telling of American society:  we allow open criticism of government (people in New York, be grateful) in either public discourse or written form; we allow pretty much anything to be said in a novel including criticism and distortion of religions (Dan Brown);  we allow criticism of political ideas in the form of satire - comedy skits (you think SNL would fly in Saudi Arabia?), newspaper columns, and yes, cartoons.  We argue constantly about what to allow on prime-time TV and in feature films. These expressions of creation - good and bad, inspiring or debasing - spur discussion, they invite new ideas, new ways of viewing the world around us.  In this way they stretch our collective creativity and imagination. 

But what about the idiot on Twitter with the anti-gay slurs? What about those of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons that many deem distasteful?  What about the fact that SNL's skits are leftist-slanted?  What about when Solzhenitsyn, from behind the electrified fences of his U.S. home, ranted about the evils of the U.S. in much the way he ranted about the U.S.S.R. (the man was perpetually dissatisfied and angry, it turns out, genius though he probably was . . . )?  Do we have to tolerate speech that is . . . well, worthless?  Destructive?  

I would argue that we do. I would argue that we make a grave mistake when we fail to protect the vilest of speech and this is why:

1 - I truly believe in sunlight as the great disinfectant. Consider the person on Twitter - I suspect it was a 13-year-old trying to get a rise out of a bunch of gay porn stars and pro-gay activists, but let's say for argument's sake it was a 45-year-old business executive and respected member of his town.  I think it's good for us all to see what that man says, see it plainly for what it is, know the disease in our midst and then destroy it with education. If we are never permitted to hear it, after all, we never have to really look hard at its existence.   And. . . when it's out in the open, the person who spoke has to face consequences, has to defend an indefensible stance. That can only be a great exercise. 

2 - Secondly, we cannot with good conscience say that we are a free society that respects varied points of view, and then silence some points of view.  It's hypocritical, and furthermore it is damned dangerous: the more tyrannical regimes in the history of the world did this - a few people decided what everyone should believe and God help those who spoke up with a differing opinion. When we silence any point of view, we imply that only some of us have the right to silence others. This is pompous, arrogant, and invites totalitarian ways of thinking.  If we are a truly equal society, then we don't silence views we don't agree with. 

3 - Silencing unpopular views destroys the possibility for one of those views to change the world for the better.  Does any of us really want to live in a society where everyone agrees?  How boring!  How impossibly bland!  How would we create anything meaningful in such a place?  How would any innovation be born?  As I have already asserted, necessary changes for the better often begin with the spark of an offensive idea - or an offensive political cartoon.

4 - The cool crowd is fickle and their preferences change regularly with the wind. Today, it's not cool to speak against Islam; however it's fine to bash Christianity. Tomorrow.. who knows?  Two decades ago it was risky to defend gay marriage out loud . . . today it's nearly chic. Do you want to gamble that tomorrow the cool crowd agrees with you 100 per cent - because if you allow the cool crowd to always determine what is acceptable expression, and you value being truthful more than being one of the crowd, you may find yourself muted. Defend those who aren't cool today so that tomorrow your voice is safe. Simple.

Some argue that we go too far if we insult one's very religion. Imagine . . . if we outlawed religious critique and discourse, how shallow our philosophical world would become.  The Pope - bless him - got it wrong. His predecessors had the moral courage in the Stalin era to speak out against what they saw as an evil ideology; they did it again in the Nazi era. He might do well to review history. As for pulling our punches when discussing religion and politics, so as not to offend the faint of heart, I am with Bill Maher - whom I generally dismiss as a brainless  twit mind you, but lately have become a bit fond of (I hardly recognize the old guy nowadays . . .) 

A few wise people have pointed out since the Paris march that "free speech" is not made for those whose views are acceptable, but for those whose views are repugnant. This is why Evelyn Beatrice Hall's quote lives on through the decades (no, it was not Voltaire!): "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."   I was deeply offended by the rant on Twitter against so many of the people I love in the GLBT community, but I do not want to see that account banned for the same reason I don't want the vilest of rhetoric from Jihadists using Twitter to recruit banned - I want it right out in the open to be seen for the filth it is, and I want us all to have to consider it in its existence, and form our own moral code accordingly. I value an individual's right to free expression only secondly to human life. 

A wise reader of the New York Times wrote a poignant note to the editor in the days after the newspaper's decision not to run the controversial cover. In it, Gael Mooney of New York wrote:

"If freedom of speech applies only to speech deemed inoffensive to anyone, including extremists, then the terrorists have, sadly, achieved their objective."

Indeed, as Gael pointed out, by doing exactly what the terrorists want the West to do, the Times, CNN, MSNBC and other cowards of the media, moved us all a little closer to the objective of extremists - to force us all to silence.

As Bill Maher so simply and succinctly puts it: "Opinions shouldn't be illegal."  Think about it. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical paper by its own definition. It has insulted every religion, many individuals, and frankly I see much better anti-extremist-Islam cartoons. I agree that most of the time, the cartoonists at CB were and are simply jerks when it comes to their work.  But I would hate to live in a world where their right to draw and publish them, and my right to see them, is denied.  Because I cringe to think about the arrogance of those who would dare to decree for the rest of us, what information is fit for us to see and hear.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Former Life of a Novelist, or Thoughts On Courage

Some have asked recently about my interest in politics - specifically the politics of international relations and radical Islam. I have tried for the three years I have been on Twitter to keep that part of my writing out of "Lichen Craig".  But...I find that passion takes me where it will, and more and more my interest in politics creeps into what began as a pro-LGBT account to promote my fiction. Judging by the inquiries, many would like to hear the story, so here it is.

In 1983 I made my first trip to France with the man who would become my husband for near twenty years. I was 21 years old, wide-eyed and curious about other cultures. I had lived in Denmark for a time, so wasn't entirely ignorant of Europe, but I had never had any interest in France in particular. I was pleasantly surprised; it was Christmas, and lights, French carols, family, people off work, holiday shopping, chocolate and great food, were everywhere. I fell in love with my adopted culture. My fiance's family was in many ways a traditional one: generations of French blood back to medieval times and probably beyond. My father-in-law had spent years in the French army fighting in Algeria - my fiance had spent time there as a child, playing with donkeys in the streets with his Muslim companions, and picking up Arabic.

One night Dominique and I decided to go to a local Middle-Eastern restaurant for couscous, and we invited his dad and stepmom along. His father flatly and unapologetically refused. He would not enter an Arab business. My fiance grumbled to me about how racist/ethnocentric his dad was, how hopelessly old-school, how stupid. We laughed and went to dinner and had a great time. Through the years his father would make many anti-Arab, anti-Muslim comments, causing us to roll our eyes. We were young - we knew it all.

I suppose it was about 1993 when I stumbled upon a book that changed my life. Journalist Jean Sasson teamed with a member of the Saudi royal family to write Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. The book has since been reissued (2010) and has become a sort of classic of the study of Islamic popular culture. For me it was an eye-opener; I had no idea that women were treated thus in the Middle East. Stoned? Walled up in rooms to starve and die? I was horrified and sickened by the book - and permanently fascinated by a culture that allowed such things.

I began to read everything I could get my hands on, first about women living in Islam, then about Islam itself, about the histories of Islam in various countries, in Europe. During one trip to France we visited the lovely city of Clermont-Ferrand in the French mountains (Massif Central), where we saw the cathedral where the First Crusade began. For the first time I understood that it began - three hundred plus years of warfare - as a result of Moorish Muslim invasions of the Holy Land and of mainstream Europe. Islam had been overrunning Europe by sword, since the seventh century when its founder prophet taught his followers that his faith was the only answer, that the rest of the world must bow to it ("Islam" means literally "submission"), and those who refused to do it had to be forced by violence.  I later visited Poitiers, where Charles Martel stopped the Moors, two thirds of their way into the north of France in the eighth century.

For many years, I worked in various jobs and wrote/edited for extra pay on the side. I never wrote politics - I dabbled at wildlife and ecology, education, social issues, edited a local newspaper. Nothing terribly controversial. Then came 9/11.

Those of us born before say . . . 1985 or so all remember that morning well. For me, a phone call came from a friend. None of the usual cheery hello, but just, "Turn on the TV. NOW."  I turned on NBC - I remember Tom Brokaw's voice. The first plane had just hit a tower. At that point, everyone was horrified but assuming an accident, an unfortunate, tragic accident. Then about five minutes in, the second plane . . . like many others I watched it aim for the tower and plow into it; my jaw dropped. I still remember my brain scrambling, desperate . . . trying hard to connect dots. The slow and horrible realization that this was no accident.  I remember Tom Brokaw going silent for what seemed like forever but was probably a full half-minute or more, while his brain - and that of his producers no doubt - did the same gymnastics mine did. After that I remember little, save spending the morning curled on the corner of the sofa with a Kleenex box and my heart heavy with indescribable grief, staring at the TV screen, my day's work neglected.

Most of us were changed forever on that day. I know I was. I started to reread the books that had interested me. And I read more. I began to talk to people . . .to Muslims I knew, to those who had left the religion. Life went on and years passed, and I continued to obsess and gather knowledge. I read the Koran, I read books discussing and interpreting it. I read others on Christianity and Judaism, trying to understand why this level of violence occurred in this one of the three faiths of Abraham.

Back in about 1998 I had made a visit to Paris, and during the course had to visit a magazine in the Muslim section of the city. I had visited there before, and had enjoyed the friendly street vendors and exotic products from the Middle East, spices in the air, colors and sights. I had loved the restaurants. I was looking forward to revisiting that neighborhood of the city. As I stepped out of the subway into the light, I was hit in the face by the unexpected sight of a sea of burkas - for blocks and blocks as far as I could see. I strained my ears to hear a word of French, but could detect only Arabic around me. Men stared as I stepped carefully around people on the sidewalk. I was petite, young, blond, white, dressed modernly - and feeling very vulnerable. I had heard that Paris had changed and that the Muslim population had established closed enclaves unfriendly to non-Muslims, but hadn't quite understood fully until I witnessed this. It saddened me. Not because it was a piece of multiculturalism but because it was NOT. It seemed to be intent on erasing Paris itself... in these streets there was no trace of the Paris I loved. I remember thinking to myself that Tehran was in the middle of Paris now. This was not multiculturalism, it was the denial of the host culture altogether. I took a cab out to avoid walking the sidewalk again.

By 2006 I was divorced. My ex let me know that my father-in-law, to whom I'd been close and who had been suffering from cancer for a time, had passed away in France. I thought back to his words, all his words, warning of the coming of Islamic extremism. The advent of the internet had allowed information to reach me and others in ways it never had before (my dad always calls it a library in the living room).  My knowledge of the subject through years had grown and ate at me. I felt a tinge of guilt at the times we had laughed at my father-in-law and assumed him outdated and ethnocentric. On the contrary, he'd obviously come to understand a few things from his years in a Muslim country. My brother-in-law had gone to live and teach in Algeria after about 1998, and after 2001 violence had risen in the streets there against all Europeans/non-Muslims. In the end, he barely got out by the skin of his teeth in the middle of the night. His lover, a young man who was Muslim but associated with Europeans and dressed and acted Western, had suddenly disappeared.

Denmark, which I had known well as a teenager, was under attack for publishing cartoons. This pained me not only because it was Denmark but because back in 1986 I'd earned a journalism degree and had the idea of freedom of expression pounded into me. The notion that anyone could be killed for expressing an idea was astounding for me. And now...Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh had been butchered on an Amsterdam street by Muslims for making a film about Islam's treatment of women. The extremist menace was growing. My ire had grown, and like any writer, I was driven to channel it into writing. The first article - and I used a pseudonym, a bit frightened of writing frankly about Islam - was about Denmark:  I felt out of my element; I had no formal education at university in politics, but I did have a brain. I saw so many around me so much smarter and more articulate. I worked daily and hard to learn from them. My article was quickly picked up all over the internet, I was paid, and best of all . . . a gentleman scholar from Denmark wrote to tell me how much he liked it and thought it was accurate.

I kept writing. I wrote on the growing enclaves in Paris. I wrote about Theo Van Gogh, about freedom of speech, about Islam and real history and the revision of history by apologists and liberals. I wrote it all - all that had eaten at me for years. Haters - yep, I heard from them. I got some death threats. I was careful never to mention where I lived. But I made friendships too . . . with people I never would have imagined. Like the young people who ran a website devoted to telling the stories of those who had left Islam at great peril to their lives and welfare. Or the scholar who worked to educate people about what Iran was pre-Islam (Iran, "Persia", was one of the last Middle Eastern areas to be conquered
by Islam). Once, he warned me about being lured to a meeting in Paris with a source who turned out to be a former soldier of Sadaam Hussein's inner guard; that man meant me harm. I talked with people who grew up in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and had left the religion. They passed information on to me for stories. I did a guest stint on a national radio show a few times to talk about the rise of radical Islam in the U.S. I felt safe doing it because no one could see my face. I manned a blog called ASKEW, focusing on the plight of victims of Islamic ideology - Muslim and non. I got thousands of hits a week. (I took it down two years ago, when the host went out of business.) I got letters in response to my articles that I will never forget - like the one from a physician in London, a Muslim, who said my articles often made him angry but that he could find no flaw in my arguments or research, to his frustration. In the end, after writing for a few years, I was asked to speak at a large conference in Florida, side-by-side with people I so admired. I was flattered and astounded that they considered me one of their own, an "expert" on radical Islam.

But I had to admit to myself - and it was hard - that I hadn't the courage my associates had. These people lived daily looking over their shoulders, lived daily with death threats from Islamists. Some lived under guard, behind electric fences that made a sort of prison around their properties, in Western countries far from their places of birth. Many had been rejected from their Muslim families for their truth-telling. I hadn't the courage to show my face in Florida and risk my safety.  And truth be told, it was all taking a toll on me, mentally and emotionally. It wasn't interesting anymore; it was damned depressing.

You see, the more you learn, the more you really look into the truth of radical Islam, the more you realize what it is. You hear the comments of people bent on being politically correct and you stifle laughter: if they only knew how out of touch they are, how astoundingly dark the truth is. How insidious the danger is as it silently creeps further into cracks in Western culture - cracks made up of naivete and of the political double-speak of politicians who have no idea what kind of threat they pave the way for. I became more depressed the more I realized and understood; I hadn't the spirit for it.  I am tough - I've lived a tough life and well - and it was the first time I saw a lack in my character, the first time I saw a limitation to my own courage. It was humbling.

I had to quit. I had to find my sanity again. I had to find light in the world, to balance the darkness I'd wallowed in for those few years. And so I turned to writing about animal training and animal husbandry, editing nursing journals, and finally, writing a novel. That was 2012.

Now...I see what is happening in the world, and in Europe, and I find my own lion awakening again. Once again, I am inspired by the courage of those working to disseminate the truth about Islam's most radical followers - radicals are actually the Muslims who follow Islam as it is really written. (While "moderates either delude themselves or struggle within themselves to find an alternate "interpretation" of a faith built upon the musings of a cold killer and his god.)

This time I have balance - I write on other things; I hold onto my emotional well-being jealously. I'm older, wiser, and I know the toll writing can take. But I find myself pulled back into that world I left - where top leaders of nations lack basic education on something so terribly important to our futures and consequently say the most idiotic things in public interviews. Where Shariah Law continues to creep into Western cities. Where most people blithely go about their lives talking about their latest job and love interest and post selfies on Twitter and never give a thought to the coming threat. Except in a week, perhaps, when 17 innocents are mowed down by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris. And then. . . like the masses do so many times, they pause, say "what a shame", then forget about it in a week and go back to their lives. But the Islamists . . . they aren't forgetting.  And increasingly, I find that I can't forget either, and more frequently I rejoin the conversation of those brave ones who refuse to forget it even for a day.

It's a struggle that goes to the heart of who I am. The written word has defined me since I was 12 years old, when I found my voice as a writer. To me, it represents freedom, the singing of a soul. The thought of it being silenced fills me with a dread and fury that I cannot adequately describe to you all. And so, I have to continue to pick up the pen, like those braver souls around me, and light my one small candle - and tell the unpleasant truth about an unpleasant subject. For indeed, JE SUIS CHARLIE.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Film Review: Getting Go: the Go Doc Project

Those of us who scour the film world for a decent gay-themed film are often frustrated. Many factors contribute to this. Most often, American-made films are a particular crap-shoot. If they have attained decent financial backing, their filmmakers end up bowing to the preferences of fat-cat producers who turn it into a replica of what they know sells and makes back the money with a profit: this usually means a cheesy goof-ball comedy. I think that competent filmmakers who want to make a great gay-themed film walk a fine line too often - at least in America - no doubt struggling to put together something with some quality and still appease the moolah gods.

Going the indie route can result in a little more creative freedom, but also comes with the challenge of raising funding; even if you can afford in the end to make the film the way you want to, and get everyone paid for their work, the real cost afterward of marketing it means that many a decent film never makes it in front of most people's eyes. Film-making is a tough world, but in the gay genre, it's near-impossible.

One has to admire Cory Krueckeberg, director/writer of Getting Go: the Go Doc Project, a film that hit Netflix just recently. I watched it a few nights ago. It was an interesting experience. Apparently, according to an interview Krueckeberg gave to Andrew Darley for Polari Magazine online, Krueckeberg set out to make a film that "didn't look cheap" with a budget of a mere $10,000. A scary prospect to be sure, but Krueckeberg thought outside the box: he figured that he could make a film about a guy making a documentary, shoot the whole thing with hand-held cameras, and depend upon a few good performances and a good story to sell it. I'd say he pretty much succeeded.

It is amusing to see how many of the customer reviews on Netflix call the film a "documentary". Obviously there are a lot of people who don't know the definition of a documentary, or maybe they really are that ignorant of film-making. Hard to tell. At any rate, the reviews are all over the board, although the overall average earns the film a four stars so far. One must, as always, look hard at these reviews and read between the lines; some will watch it too critically because they are gay and perhaps too familiar with the NYC night life, some will watch it too critically because they aren't gay and don't get it, some will be jolted by the R+ sex scene (which is beautifully done).

Make no mistake, this is not a documentary film; it's a feature film. The story involves Doc, a desperately lonely college student, not so conflicted about his sexuality as he is about figuring out how to go about finding a relationship. Because he lacks the social skills and maturity, not to mention the balls, to go out and find one, he depends upon an anonymous internet following, for whom he occasionally jacks off online and with whom he shares his most intimate thoughts.  As a joke, he emails his favorite idol obsession, a go-go boy who works the NYC gay clubs, about doing a documentary. To Doc's surprise and horror, the boy responds, and the momentum begins: Doc can neither walk away nor muster the nerve to confess his ruse.  It gets more complicated when the go-go boy expresses a romantic interest in Doc.

Matthew Camp.  Photo copyright Daniel Jack Lyons, 2014
Every moment of the film is shot through Doc's documentary eyes. It is occasionally grainy, frequently badly-lit, providing just enough of an amateurish feel to keep the viewer inside Doc's head and experience. The script is passable; I think that the filmmaker was trying to strike a balance, perhaps, between scripted lines and natural spontaneous conversation between the actors. It's an interesting approach but it makes for some terribly bland dialog in places. Added to this is the filmmaker's obsession with Warhol's realism phase - three minutes of someone eating is three minutes of pure torture. When Warhol did it, it was new and innovative. In 2014 it is damned annoying, breaks the pacing of the plot, and sticks out like a sore thumb. Some serious cutting in the editing room would have improved the film overall.

However, aside from these issues, Getting Go is a moving piece of work.  Much of this is due to the story itself and the performances of the two leads (the only speaking actors in the film). Doc is played by young, but veteran, actor Tanner Cohen, and quite competently.  The challenge of a film like this is that the entire film rides on the lead being engaging and likable immediately, and Cohen is easily that. Moreover, he knows acting and it shows. In this role, in which Doc starts out jacking off and then deceiving an innocent person into being filmed in private moments of life, a less talented and trained actor could have created an odious character and destroyed the film. But the viewer can't help but like Doc - with all his faults, his vulnerability is near-heartbreaking, throughout the film.  Newcomer to the screen but not to the go-go scene is former go-go dancer,more recently artist and perfumer, Matthew Camp. He was already a well-known heartthrob in the NYC gay world, and his performance in the film is spot on - a combination of scripted lines and his musings on his own life. While a few exchanges feel a bit awkward, he does create a character, and it is a believable one. His charm and looks make up for any misstep.

Tanner Cohen 
The story leads the viewer intimately into a unique relationship between a pair of characters who are ultimately lonely in their own ways - Doc in his inexperience and under-confidence, and Go in his isolation in the limited world of gay nightlife, one with which he isn't all that comfortable, it turns out. I have to be honest, I struggled to stay with this film in the first half-hour - the pacing was so messy, the dialog so dry, that I prayed it would have a point in the end.  And it did, in spades. I have to mention also, that having come to know many of the young men that work in exotic dancing / burlesque / gay porn, the character of Go and his view on life, attitude, and experiences, felt very true to me. Their often becoming involved with someone outside the sex industry, being lonely in their own unique ways even as they are adored by fans, being very free-spirited, sensual, and creative people, is exactly what I would expect.

I would greatly encourage everyone to read the interview with the filmmaker at Polari, after watching the film. Various interviews with the two leads can also be found online.  I am not one to be comfortable with star ratings for films - a viewing experience is intensely personal - but if I focus on technical aspects I would give it a 4/5, because its innovation and heart - not to mention the performances (particularly that of Cohen) - far outweigh any problems.

Interview with Krueckeberg for Polaris (Andrew Darley) :

Tanner Cohen (Doc) is on Twitter at @tarzancohen

Matthew Camp (Go) is on Twitter at @MatthewCampNYC

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why Hire a Professional Editor? Can't I Do it Myself?

I am continually astonished at the number of inexperienced writers who don't hire an editor. Even more astonished, perhaps, than I am at the poor quality of writing and abundance of grammatical and spelling errors in independently-published e-books. One is directly and inextricably related to the other, of course.

I don't say much about it. I guess that because I work as a freelance editor, I am a little shy about appearing to advertise in a fashion that is less than tasteful, by admonishing writers for failing to hire someone to do the final work. But darn it all, lately this is really getting out of hand. Too many sloppy e-books, and such an easy fix. Do you know why it bothers me so much? Not because I could have gotten some work (although...), as much as because when I see a really great concept that could have been a great book had it been cleaned up, it saddens and frustrates me for the author.

I wonder if the author thinks they can't afford it. Editors charge widely varying rates, and offer widely varying services. I tell writers that they might be pleasantly surprised should they inquire. Also, if you have spent months - or sometimes years - telling a story that means a great deal to you, why on earth would you not let someone help you present it all polished and shiny?

A book with errors is frustrating to read. Check out some of the comments on Amazon, around books that contain errors. People get very testy, and I can't blame them. But I truly believe that a book with errors does something else that is much worse than to merely frustrate:  it causes many people to subconsciously absorb the idea that the author in question is less than competent, less than educated, in over his or her head. When there are typos, spelling and grammar errors, you assume the research and the thought process may be sloppy too. Now, as an editor, I know that brilliant people are sometimes just not meticulous by nature. I don't connect misspellings to intelligence, but that is because my work gives me a lot of experience with new manuscripts from great people.

Worse is a book with plot-related structural issues, and problems with sentence structure.  An incoherent sentence, which I personally define as one that the reader feels obligated to read a second..third time, breaking the rhythm and music of the writing, is an unsuccessful one. Too many of these, and the book is unsuccessful because it does not easily penetrate the reader's understanding.

So... I thought it might be useful to everyone to have some specific reasons why hiring an editor is a good idea. A mandatory idea, in fact, if you are going to take your own writing seriously.

  1. Experienced writers work with editors. They do not do it themselves. Because they know that one's mind reads a sentence and fills in that missing word, sees that word without the can't see your own work realistically. It's a thing. A real thing. For all of us. Trust me on this. When I was starting out as an editor, many years ago, I delighted in finding errors in Time and Newsweek, whom I thought should have better standards. It was good practice for me, but now I know that the best books contain an error or two - it is nearly impossible to catch them all. Top publishing houses (which can afford it) traditionally use three sets of eyes, in addition to the author, to go over a book. Even then, some errors get through the process! 
  2. A good editor will help you re-work bad sentence structure, fix paragraph breaks that are hurting clarity, and even repair the entire structure if the plot isn't working, or if your non-fiction doesn't flow. 
  3. A good editor will have enough knowledge about what constitutes good writing (including some formal education in both writing and in literature) to help you find your own unique style and voice and make your writing sing. 
  4. Speaking of singing, all writing - fiction and nonfiction - when well-done, should have a rhythm that enhances its meaning and thus enhances the reader experience. If you have no idea what I'm babbling about, make sure you hire an editor who does, and can show it to you. A good editor can help you make your fiction like music. A song that you alone could have written. 
  5. A good, knowledgeable editor, can make you a better writer. The first, second books, if you use a professional editor, should be great experiences for you, where you walk in thinking you have a pretty damn good book, and walk out thinking Oh my God, NOW I have an excellent book because I learned how to fix all the stuff I didn't know I was doing wrong!  You should feel surprised and pleased that you wrote such a damn good book in the end! 
  6. A good editor will tell you the truth. He or she is not your friend (at least in the beginning) but an outside objective observer, who will be able to suggest where you could be stronger and praise what you do right, without having any agenda as your buddy or family member. A good editor will be straight, but will never make you feel like the object is to tear you down. You should be able to trust your editor, to be someone who truly wants to show you the best path, the way to shine, for you
  7. A good editor will preserve your voice, not overwrite you with his or her own. In other words, the skilled editor will easily recognize what is unique about your style, tone, and voice, point it out to you, and work to keep that as changes are made.
  8. A great editor works with you, especially if you are a beginner. I tend to work in audio and screen share as I work with newer writers, and most of them really are most comfortable with that process. I can appreciate such a method on their behalf, because they get the opportunity to hear why I would suggest a change, and discuss with me their feelings about it. We have the opportunity to really compromise, collaborate, and the author has the opportunity to learn and improve skills. 
The best reason to hire an outside editor is because your writing is worth it.  Your book is in a way an investment, in two ways at least: 1) if it is well-done, it will attract more readers through word of mouth and make you more money, and 2) if it is well-done, it will set a standard by which prospective readers, and publishers, will measure your future work.  If you care about your reputation, if you want to be seen as competent and skilled, and if you want to set yourself up for financial success, why would you not hire an editor who can help you achieve those goals?

Pride and/or arrogance is your worst enemy when it becomes to being a serious writer. If you assume you are brilliant and don't need anyone to help you, go ahead. Hope that those readers overlook the inevitable errors (the best of us make them! - even editors in their own work) and don't get annoyed and put the book down, or make a mental note to skip your future releases. But if you are determined to be a skilled writer and a smart businessperson, you will realize that the cost of hiring a professional editor is one that you must budget. Along with a good cover, it is perhaps the best investment you can make.

Hear an informative podcast series that Dean Sage and I made about specific things an editor does and how to use one. These are well worth your time. :

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

50 Shades of .. What?: What Will Your Writing Legacy Be?

For a few years, many writers have kept silent about the phenomenon that is Fifty Shades of Gray, by E.L. James. The phenomenon is baffling on many levels, and frightening on several. While the general public obsesses, many in the writing world silently shake their heads and go about their own business; after all, criticizing another published writer is a tricky business - one doesn't want to look like an ass. But sometimes, a book is so bad, and its success such an interesting contradiction to logic, that one feels more comfortable discreetly expressing misgivings. And sometimes, some brilliant non-writer says what we are all thinking.

Consider a review of Fifty Shades that I read today. The reader who left this review on Amazon should really look into comic writing herself. She makes her points concisely, with examples, and finishes with a flourish of humor that Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde would have envied. I offer it here, because it touches on some excellent points, and can lead to some interesting discussion.

First I'd like to make the point that, regardless of the questionable literary merit of this book, the author is laughing all the way to the bank - as the feature film is finally in production. She wrote two books as sequels to this one. From a marketing standpoint, the entire thing - from the writing of a fairly badly-penned book, to its pre-sales publicity and continued marketing - has been a stroke of genius. I assume it was a sort of perfect storm of the ripe time for the subject matter from a sociological standpoint, the right literary agent who knew it would be sold, the right publisher who knew how to market it.

But various groups have raised ethical concerns about the book. Those who work for women's rights point out that it takes us backward. Those who advocate for victims of sexual violence decry its celebration of violent sex. Those who participate in the real BDSM culture worry that their ideology is grossly misrepresented in the hands of an author who apparently understood little about it (not to mention little about real human psychology). All of these are valid concerns. As a writer and former journalist, I had to take the position that the ethical tone of a controversial book should always be fodder for discussion (and I certainly was happy to see that happen when I released Gentlemen's Game) - one may criticize the way the writing was executed, but not the writer's thoughts. (Although perhaps we might point out her obvious inadequate research.)  So . . . I'd like to address the book's execution, in the interest of pointing out for my readers what she did wrong, and why it matters.  

I struggled through the book rolling my eyes, for many of the same reasons the review's author cites. It is structurally a mess (this despite the fact that the publisher's editors likely took a turn at spiffing it up for publication - you can't make a diamond out of mud). The author makes the point that the tone is very adolescent: this is a pet peeve of mine in "romance" and erotic romance. Writers, if you want your characters to feel like adults, you have to be narrating in an adult frame of mind. If you are uncomfortable in writing sexuality in an adult way, it shows. Be honest with yourself about your comfort level. When you shy away from real, adult sexual relationships, you might do what is common, and fall back upon speaking in an adolescent way as you narrate, tiptoeing around the subject, wincing. Readers will know it. And they won't respect the narrator's voice, or the story. 

Your characters, when you write romantic scenes, must be behaving according to their age group. Teens have a specific way of socializing with those to whom they are physically attracted; they have specific social activities, specific ways of flirting, specific ways of using language to relate to one another.  Adults do it all differently, due to a better sense of themselves and what they want, and more sexual confidence. Make sure that your characters as adults behave like adults, use words and phrases that adults would use.  

The writer of the review grew impatient with the many instances of the heroine's pointedly childishly coy behavior: blushing, batting eyes, biting lips, juvenile language. It was not only terribly repetitive (showing lack of creativity in the author) but it was something we have all seen before. Besides making the heroine play like a teen (and the reader subconsciously respects the teen less than an adult, simply by virtue of a teen having less of the kind of wisdom that only comes from having the time to mature), and a rather silly one at that, these behaviors should not be written because they are blatant clichés - we have heard them a million times in other badly-written books over decades.  What happens with clichés is that, as they are used again and again and again over decades, they lose meaning. The reader's mind skims over them, because they convey nothing new or interesting. Think of clichés as the murder of creativity, the evidence of lazy writing. As an editor, I'm tough about them - I recommend to a client that they rewrite the passage or chapter and lose the clichés and make an effort to use original language when describing a character's behavior. The result is inevitably a much more interesting scene. You want a character to be unique and interesting to the reader, and they just can't be if they are always aping some old behavior cliché. Someone should have told E.L.James all of this, and encouraged her to put originality into her portraits of characters - it would have added much more (badly needed) depth. 

The same would apply to clichés in descriptions of scenes. People tend to fall back on clichés when they are uncomfortable - as when writing violence, sex, or romantic scenes. (A client will giggle, "I just didn't know how else to say it!")  Part of learning to write well is to learn to call original imagery into your mind and put it on the page in words and phrases that are original. Some of the best scenes I have read that were sexual or scenes of intense violence, were not just descriptions of what went down, but rather passages in which the writer used original imagery (a curtain at the window wafting in the wind, a scent in the air, unusual words spoken), and/or metaphor to make the scene unforgettable. As a reader, which sticks in your mind long after you put a book down? - a scene with a simple description of the usual events in a sex act, or a scene like this one, a glorious sex scene by LAMBA-award winning writer, Erasmo Guerra. This is from his novel Between Dances:

Tonight, however, he felt the words rise from his tongue like spontaneous hymns and they gathered at the roof of his mouth. The words were as delicate and pure as pale Eucharistic wafers. Marco became Sunday School boy, make the signs of the cross, holy water and old marking head, heart and lips. He felt the heat of Jaime's breath evaporating his own, drawing it from out of his lungs and leaving him gasping, mouth dilating like that of a fish out of water.
Jaime lay under him, his face pressed hard against the pillow, moaning sweet sounds like a call to prayer. Marco came on bloodied knees, chest pounding under beating fists, fears burning away like incense. 

Now, Guerra could have written this scene with straight description - which no doubt would have resorted to clichés: one lover talking dirty to the other, the other face down on the bed. It would not have been near as interesting; it would have taken the reader to a place they had been a thousand times. Yawn. But this... this is written so originally, that not only is the language itself as lovely as a song, but it stretches the reader's imagination, and conveys an image of the scene that stretches the reader's mind into a place he has not yet traveled in a book. That is the mark of an experienced, sensitive, and gifted writer. That is what all great writers strive to be able to do. 

E. L. James has made and will make, a helluva lot of money. But that is the end of the legacy. She won't be remembered as an exceptional writer, and may in many quarters be remembered as a very bad one. The book won't be quoted in years to come in literary discussion. It won't be used in classrooms. It will end when something else more daring comes along - one cultural fad inevitably replacing another. The likes of daytime talk show hosts proclaim it as the instigator of new discussions about sexuality. I would point out that erotica has been written for years - and much better. Surely we already have discussions about sexuality born of better sources. Maybe the biggest lesson is that many women (and some men) just need to get out more - and read a wider range of books. Or that erotic romance needs to break into mainstream book retail outlets more than it has. 

My point is, each of us must decide what sort of writer we want to be, and what we want the legacy of our hard work to be. Well-written books have the power to move the imagination in ways that E.L. James cannot understand. If Fifty Shades had been well-written, imagine what it could have meant to the future of erotic literature. And how many more readers would have enjoyed it, and how much longer it would last, long after the feature film is old news. Imagine what a better reader experience it could have offered. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Toward Better Writing Series, Part 2: Writing Passion and Sex

I'm currently having an interesting experience. I'm reading the second novel in a series by a writer of historical fiction. In this second book, she delves into an area that she stayed completely away from in the first: she has included two fairly explicit sex scenes. It's pretty entertaining to read the reader reviews on Amazon. A few are incensed by these scenes on moral grounds - one even claiming he skipped them, as is I suppose his prerogative. Others don't object to the sex per se, but to the explicit nature of the writing. Many readers are so caught up in talking about the sex scenes that they are missing the overall book - which has far bigger problematic issues than a few sex scenes!

In my work as a freelance editor, I often end up prompting inexperienced writers to rewrite love scenes - sexual or not. Experienced writers often complain to me that they are also uncomfortable writing them. Through the years, I have made a lot of observations and done a lot of thinking about these scenes, and I thought I would take the opportunity to share it here.

There have been entire books written about writing love scenes. Although some of those books are more useful than others, the best unfortunately focus on writing erotica, as a genre. But what about the writer who isn't writing in that genre, but wants to add a love scene or two, or a sex scene? There is precious little help out there. The common thread seems to be that many writers, whether experienced or no, fret about these scenes. The consequence is that they are often badly-written.  But I think these scenes, if done with the right attitude, can be approached with a sense of fun, and turn out to be a really good time for the writer. They can also turn out to be some of the best scenes in a book, for no matter how much or how little sex they contain, they can be enormously revealing when it comes to characterization, and can be made to be very emotional for the reader, very funny, or even hauntingly moving and unforgettable. The sensual can be a very good thing.

I have noticed some patterns that seem to recur amongst writers. It might be useful to talk about each.
  • The writer who when confronted with writing something romantic falls back on cheesy Harlequinesque language, ending up with the kind of scene that doesn't feel sexy at all. This is far too common.
  • The writer who wants to tell the story of an intense love story between healthy adults, but leaves out any element of sensuality (I didn't say sex, I said sensuality - which encompasses much more territory!). Even writers in the Christian genre need to learn to write romance well - and with the sensuality befitting adult characters. After all, every healthy adult engages in sensuality in some form. It's part of life! Unless you are writing for Disney, it's part of the lives of your characters.
  • The writer who throws themselves heart and soul into writing that sex scene, and goes overboard. You end up feel that you left the narrative of the novel entirely and took a side trip into anonymous porn for a few pages. Again, it feels smutty, forced, but not hot. It doesn't advance the story - the story has to pause while the reader gets through the boring but prurient sex scene. And again, too common.
  • The writer who writes the beautiful sensual scene, laced with original imagery and metaphor, and then complains that he/she just can't write a good sex scene. But.. what IS a good love scene, then?

The first of these is something I have seen a lot of as an editor. I have always been a bit baffled by it. Let me give you an example. Imagine that you are happily reading along, the story is good, the prose is slick and sophisticated, and then comes the moment when the hero and heroine confess their attraction to one another . . . and you read this:

He pulled her close as they danced and she put her arms around his neck. She knew she was being forward but she couldn't help herself. She lowered her eyes, batting them shyly, and bit her lower lip. She could feel his hot breath on her cheek as his lips brushed her ear. She didn't understand why her heart was beating so hard, as if it would beat out of her chest. She tried to say something but her voice stuck in her throat. 

His arms were around her waist and he pulled her closer so that he could feel her body up against his. His head was spinning as he smelled her perfumed hair. It was intoxicating. He didn't know why he was behaving this way, since he was usually totally in control. "I want you," he whispered. 

I can't go on. You get the idea. Are you turned on by this?  I'm not. I feel like I'm intruding on a moment in an adolescent infatuation. What's wrong with it, technically?  Why does it fail to move us, fail to sound.. well, adult?  Why does passion escape us?  This is the type of writing that makes so many of us despise the formula "romance" genre: it's full of stereotypes that seem to cheapen human experience. So why do people write like this?

When I see a scene like this, I am 99% sure of one thing about the writer: this is a person a little bit afraid of writing passion. (They may or may not be unable to express it in their personal lives to a lover, but that is beside the point here.) This is a person who shies away - on some subconscious level - from fully imagining a scene of passion between two adults and then expressing that scene through writing. A fellow editor voiced it very well once, "The writer is falling back on sugary clichés because they are afraid to write real passion." The clichés become a sort of cop-out, a crutch. He also made another point that I think is very often valid: "This writer has read too many bad romances."  Sometimes what we have seen (read) a lot of, is what first comes to mind when we are stuck for words.

There are a few big technical issues with this type of writing. And remember - its biggest failing is that the writer wants to convey romance, heat, high emotion, but the lack of quality in the writing from a technical sense negates those goals. So the writer, then, has failed to meet his or her goal in writing the scene, and has therefore failed the reader too.  Note also that the scene written in this way makes the characters sound immature. Because adult characters are suddenly relating to one another as teens would, the reader is as alienated from the characters' real emotions as the characters themselves appear to be.

First, consider the clichés (these being defined as words or phrases that have been used the same way a million times in other books):

pulled her close
couldn't help herself/himself
batted her eyes
bit her lip
hot breath
lips brushed
didn't know why / didn't understand why
heart beating so hard that....
voice stuck in throat (or any other take on "speechless")
head spinning
intoxicating perfume
God help us, how many times do we have to read "I want you" in a love scene?
And if you can't make them have sex, have them dancing.

I may have missed a few. As you might guess, without these clichés to fall back on as a crutch, the writer would not have a scene!  If you want to avoid this situation in your own writing, do the following:

  • Make a list of common clichés in romantic scenes - be they words, phrases or situations. As you read other books, make note of any you catch. Call this the "Never Write" list! Then never use them!
  • Akin to the first rule, strive for originality. A good scene is a scene that conveys a common situation in a way that makes the reader look at it in a new way. Notice new things about this love between your characters. How are they different from other people and other loves? What is unique about the way they think? The way they speak? The way they move? What they fear, what motivates them? Each of these and more can be worked into your love scene to make it new and fresh - something the reader has not experienced before. What makes a love scene shine is the new and unique - a new touch, a new word, a new emotion. Find these and weave them into the scene. 
  • If you find yourself still struggling, dig deep and ask yourself what you are afraid of. Writing a love scene makes a writer very vulnerable. In effect, the writer is revealing to a world of strangers (and worse, one's family!) what he/she thinks about sex and intimacy and romance. But you are a writer now: claim your right to express yourself, decide that you are an adult and have a duty to readers and a duty to the integrity of your own creative voice, and just write it. Worry about your mother later.

The second situation I stated with writing romantic scenes is closely related to the first. Some people have a moral conviction that they don't want to get too sexy with their love scenes. That is their right, as a writer and as a thinking human being. However, the problems develop when these writers shy away from normal human interaction, and fall back on the cheesy clichés. Again, ask what you are afraid of, if you are this type of writer.  Are you concerned about the reaction of your spouse, friends, or your church community? Then use a pseudonym and choose whom you reveal your writing accomplishment to. Or better, just explain to people rude enough to comment on love scenes that you don't necessarily have the same beliefs your characters do and you don't always make choices your characters would make. They are just that - characters, not you. It's fiction! Sometimes you have to explain that difference to people - unfortunately all writers do.  The rule, however, stands: don't fall back on silly-sounding clichés because you are afraid of adult emotion. To do so cheats your characters, your readers, and yourself.

Writers in this second category also run into another issue: that of making the decision to include no sex/romance/sensuality whatsoever.  Again, I want to emphasis that no matter how silly it may seem to some, this is a valid moral decision that the writer can make. However, the problem becomes that your book will appeal to a narrower market - some writers, specifically those sharing your moral sensibilities, will appreciate it. But they are a small part of the market. Many will sense your reluctance to address sensuality between adults stems from immaturity or unfounded fear. Whether they are right or wrong is beside the point; the reality is that the notion will exist, and you will have to accept it. It will affect the quality of your book, the honesty of your story. It may also influence the opinions of prospective publishers.

So are you forced to write scenes of intimacy in order to sell? I don't think so. In fact, I notice many well-written books that clip right along, are a great read, and contain no sex. However, they do feature characters that can handle adult emotions. A book that avoids intimate emotion feels fakey. It's hard to write an honest book without honest emotion. But writing without sensuality or sex - if it's honest - can be done. I recommend a book here that is one of the best out there. The writer tells the story of romance between a devout man and a prostitute, and does it very well - well enough to land the book in the Christian fiction genre. Check out Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love. It is so well done, in fact, that I - a person who does not enjoy Christian fiction specifically because I find the flatness and dishonesty offensive and boring - love this novel. Make sure you don't make your characters all behave like twelve-year-olds because you must avoid intimacy. Even celibate adults relate to romantic interests as adults. They even, gasp!, feel physical attraction.

At the other end of the spectrum is our third situation: that of a writer who overdoes the sex scene. How does this happen?  Let me first say that I have no problem with explicit sex in writing - those who have read Gentlemen's Game know this. Sometimes it is necessary to the quality of a book to get very detailed and explicit when describing the sexual experiences of the characters, because it has to do with the character journey and development.  In Gentlemen's Game, this was the case. We needed to see into the heads of the characters and peer into their bedrooms, in order to grasp the story and fully understand their motivations.

I mentioned that I am reading the second novel in an historical fiction series, and that the explicit sex in it seems to be a problem for some readers. When I initially read the reader comments, I laughed. Many of them seemed to be people who didn't like any sex in any book nohow noway for any reason. I was a little surprised, since novels dealing with medieval or Renaissance-era subjects often get steamy. I think I muttered under my breath once, after reading a particularly upset reader comment, "You need to get out more!" Or have some sex. Last night I read the second of these "alarming" scenes, and I have to admit - many of them have a point. Not because the sex is too explicit - with that they are mistaken. But because the scenes are not well done. Specifically, they:

  • are smutty. Instead of falling back on the kind of cheesy clichés found in childish romance novels, the writer fell back on emotionless, cold clichés found in bad porn. If her intent was to convey sexiness and high emotion (and it was), she failed. In fact, she failed so much that later in the book, when the heroine recalls the sexual experience and talks about her emotions surrounding it, I said to myself, "Huh?" because nothing about that scene suggested any such emotion. The emotion was lost, swallowed up by overly-pornographic language. I would suggest that the writer was in a bit over her head, and if she had been skilled enough to combine explicit detail with original imagery and presentation of the heroine's state of mind, the average reader would have been more accepting of the scene as a whole. 
  • deviate from the tone of the rest of the novel.  The book is written in a sort of old-timey tone, to evoke an historical era. The reader is jolted away from this, and thrown into a very pornographic tone, and then back out again. The scene does not flow linguistically with the rest of the book. Again, I think the writer subconsciously fell back upon what she herself has read in bad erotica/porn, rather than to search for a unique presentation that would have made the scene original, steamy, and meaningful. 
  • To add to this deviation from tone, the scenes deviate from the established structure of the previous novel, in which sex scenes were treated very lightly or more often avoided altogether. This made these two scenes feel as if the writer made a conscious decision "I will write a really explicit sex scene by God!" and forced it.  Because they feel forced, the reader is further taken aback, and taken off-guard. The first of the two explicit scenes in this second book, is a scene between husband and wife, in a marriage of several years - a happy marriage. There is nothing in the story to indicate that this particular sexual encounter is different than others have been: thus, there was no real justification to suddenly writing this one as explicit. It probably didn't need to be done, speaking as an editor. The second is more important: it is a menage-a-trois; as distasteful as that may be to some readers, I feel it is justified in terms of the story. We need to be inside the heads of the protagonists. However, the behaviors of all three, during the course of the scene, are out-of-character, with no clear justification. Combined with the coldness of the porny language, the reader is left confused by the whole scene. I think - again, speaking as an editor - the scene needs to be there and making it explicit is a good idea. But it is explicit in the wrong way. More honest emotion, more originality, would have gone a long way toward creating a scene more in keeping with the writer's intentions (as they become clear later in the book).  
In order for an explicit scene to work, then:

 -  Explicit language is fine - describing specific anatomy, actions, etc.. But keep away from porn-born clichés - try to use description in a new, original way.
 -  Stay away from using dialogue that you hear too much in porn. Try to think about how real people talk - and how your characters would be speaking - if the situation were happening before your eyes.  If you can weave original dialogue, imagery, and thought, into the scene, along with the explicit nature of the writing, it will all come alive.
 - Finally, make sure there is a reason for the scene. As is true with any scene in any novel - the scene must have a reason for being. Just wanting to include a sex scene is not a reason: the sex scene must advance the story, show something new about the character, and/or show the evolution of the character, in order to be there. That is the golden rule of good quality writing. If there is a reason why it is there, and it sings - if it does not read as cheap porn or a cheap romance novel - your most discerning readers will forgive a lot, even a menage-a-trois.

Our final situation is one that I have occasionally run into, when writers I very much admire tell me they would like to learn to write sex like I do. I am astounded. I often have the same reaction: Why? I have read beautiful sex scenes that brought tears to my eyes, that I will not soon forget the music of.  Not because they were steamy, but because they told of the depth of emotion that sex can evoke in the human heart, and did it in an original way - not with explicit words or even explicit images so much as with metaphor and original thought in describing the soul of the sex act. In my mind - as an editor and as a reader - this type of writer never fails because they give the reader the gift of seeing human experience - and thus their own lives - in a new light. This is the goal of every exceptionally written scene, and the real talent of every exceptional writer.