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. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Need a Good Movie Tonight? Try This One!

If you don't know me well, you might be surprised at what I would recommend amongst my top ten movie picks.

More than a decade ago, I discovered something that amazed me.  I stumbled into a fantastic and highly unusual book by an unlikely author. Michael Crichton is known to film fans, the television industry, and the publishing world as the author of science fiction thrillers, often dealing in medical themes. If you have seen the series ER, films The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, or Disclosure, or read the novels Sphere, Congo, or State of Fear - amongst many, many other works - you have tasted his special brand of genius.  Crichton was the all-around entertainer and entertainment industry mogul. His films have made millions, and his books are estimated to have sold over 200 million copies, many made into movies. This was a man anyone interested in entertainment can admire.

But that isn't all he was, turns out. He also was terribly knowledgeable in an area in which I share his interest: literature of the early medieval period, or what is rather erroneously known as the Dark Ages. Only those who know me well know that I am fully capable of waxing eloquent for hours about the history of early medieval Britain and Ireland, explaining the finer points of Beowulf and lesser Anglo-Saxon poems, and discussing unique features of the culture.  I'm sure my eyes light up, my cheeks flush, and I know my heart beats harder - nothing gets me more excited. Heaven help the person who has to listen to me.

So you can imagine that it was with great interest that I stumbled upon a film those years ago called The Thirteenth Warrior.  Not only did it seem to be set in the early medieval period, but well... two hours of Antonio Banderas is never a painful thing. I am a little unusual for a woman I suppose: you see, I love medieval epics. Bloody, no problem (in fact, I get a little offended if people are being slain on the battlefield and no one is bleeding. War was not pretty when all combat was face-to-face, hand-to-hand, sword-to-shield, eye-to-eye - nothing was anonymous, as it is now). Now don't get me wrong - over-the-top gratuitous isn't-this-fun violence is also offensive. But some realism is called for if a film is to earn my respect. The thing is, there are a lot of bad medieval-themed films out there (I'm talking to you, Ridley Scott!).  So I am conditioned perhaps to expect the inane when I sit down to view one. I am also a bit of a snob; years of university and my own study for the twenty-five-odd years since, have filled my head with too many historical details. I don't expect perfection, but I do like to see some real effort on the part of researchers, and when I see a film where they really seem to have gone out of their way to get it right, and cared about getting it right - I get all excited.

And it isn't just about historical accuracy in details of the period; it's about understanding the medieval mind. A film about the Middle Ages that is tinged with the political and cultural sensibilities of the 21st century (I'm talking to you, Ridley Scott!) is a failure. I like to see that a producer and director gets it: understands what the values of a culture were, and can convey them to the modern viewer with respect.

So it was with a little trepidation and a lot of hopefulness, that I sat down to view The Thirteenth Warrior, for what was to be the first of many times. The film is fantastically accurate in period details in terms of what we know about 10th century Norse culture (Vikings), and the bits that are missing from our puzzle are so deftly created by the filmmakers that there was, to my eyes, no lapse in logic.  I loved the film, and I still do.

Only one original copy of the
Beowulf manuscript exists.
But here is the surprise:  The Thirteenth Warrior is based upon a novel by Crichton (who quietly co-produced the film) originally called Eaters of the Dead (title later change to coincide with the film release). Actually, the full title is Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922. Evidently, Crichton was a very educated man. He earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard, and later a medical degree at the same institution. When a professor friend gave a lecture about the "Great Bores of Literature" and included the magnificent medieval saga Beowulf, Crichton was incensed (as I would have been). Only someone who hasn't the historical understanding of the background of Beowulf could believe such a thing.  The epic-length poem - which was written down sometime between the late 7th and early 10th centuries, and existed in oral form from about the 6th - is in fact not only important to literature, but our best glimpse into Anglo-Saxon society of the era. It is filled with historical detail about the daily lives of warriors and kings, and better, it allows us to see into their minds, and understand what made them tick. This is our heritage, these people. This is the foundation upon which the British built a civilization. The poem is written in the earliest form of the English language for which we have a record (if you have never heard Old English/Anglo-Saxon go HERE. You may be surprised - you'll understand perhaps every twentieth word, if you are concentrating hard!)  Anyway, Crichton disagreed that it was "boring", a  protracted argument ensued, and eventually Crichton declared that he would prove that Beowulf can be very interesting if presented properly. And he did just that, by putting the best of his genius into his most little-known novel.

But there is more:  Crichton, for his novel, combined Beowulf and its legend with an ancient Moorish manuscript written by a Muslim traveler who left a record of his encounters and travels with Vikings. The novel is imaginatively narrated by a voice that combines the two sources to weave an amazing tale. The film, years after (the novel was published in 1976) brought Crichton's vision to life.  But think about Crichton's creativity as a writer. He took two ancient manuscripts, which he had no doubt studied at university, and wove them together into one story. He also used an interesting device: the narrator approaches the subject by describing and discussing the Moorish manuscript itself, as if he were a scholar. If you think it makes for a boring book, you'd be wrong.

Even the dog in the film (an Irish Wolfhound
 mix type lurcher) is authentic to the period!
I can't begin to list the richness of the details that pepper the film, from the speculation on the clash/mix of cultures, to the struggles to understand a foreign language, to the way in which intelligent people having no advanced scientific reasoning came to believe in the supernatural and to live every day by those beliefs. Here is just one example:  in the film, a dragon comes when the mist falls in the valley. The people call it the "FireWorm", for as it winds its way down the mountainside through the mist, the observer sees only a fiery serpentine trail of orange light. But when the heroes get close enough, they see that it is a cavalry of horsemen, carrying lit torches high, and from the distance and through the mist they look to be a dragon.

Especially interesting is a scene depicting the Moorish man's beginning to understand the Old Norse of his companions, or the scene in which - tired of the Vikings making fun of his little Arabian horse by barking at it like a dog - he charges at and jumps his horse over a line of war horses to prove a point. Our protagonists are thinking, reasoning, and - in terms of their own era - highly intelligent people, who use their wits to win the respect of fellow warriors, and to survive disaster.

(I want to take this opportunity to mention the background for the primitive tribe in the film. Many anthropologists believe that "relic Neanderthals", a race that was a throwback to early alternative human development, existed up into the early medieval period, in remote pockets. Even this, which at first glance would seem to be fanciful on the part of the filmmakers, is based upon legitimate theory.)

The film is full of great sets and costuming, intelligent thought, stellar performances (Banderas is great, and Dennis Storhoi as Herger is excellent), stimulating dialogue. And well, Antonio and some other sexy men in leather breeches, and sweaty after the occasional sword fight. The greatest beauty is its themes: tolerance of others' ways in a chaotic world, uniting in order to prevail for a hopeless cause, and foremost - the definition of manhood in a time when you had to face your enemy eye-to-eye and hope you could survive by your wits if not your physical strength.  These warriors are not without fear, but they are men who know that muscle is often not the greatest tool in battle.

I would encourage anyone who wants to watch a thought-provoking, moving film that offers a lot of suspense and a rollicking good story, to see The Thirteenth Warrior. And if you do, think about the ways in which we rather stupidly look down upon the people of the past, and what they might be able to teach us about ourselves and about real courage.

Both the book and the film, incidentally, received mixed reviews. I believe that a little background is necessary to fully enjoy either one, and I wanted to offer it here for what that is worth. There was no argument that they were both well-designed, but some reviewers seemed to find the subject matter baffling. Of course. The film grossed around $50 million less than it needed to break even, however in subsequent years and decades made it up in DVD sales. It has become a bit of a cult classic. The novel Eaters of the Dead can easily be had from Amazon and other sources - it is interesting reading and for writers a fascinating exercise in innovation. It is a novella actually - a quick read, despite the presentation.

Sadly, Michael Crichton passed away in late 2008. I would have liked to have seen what more he would have come up with and added to the world of film and literature.

WARNING:  The film The Thirteenth Warrior contains non-gratuitous scenes of extreme violence. Don't let that deter you from a great film, but it isn't suitable for pre-teens.

For a great documentary on Beowulf go here:

This is a great reading in modern translation of Beowulf:

Friday, June 27, 2014

Toward Better Writing Series. Part One: Writing a Great Sentence

This is the dog that ran up the hill. :)
I find that one of the greatest joys in my professional life - other than the satisfaction one feels upon finishing a great piece of writing - is teaching beginning writers to write truly well. Many people of average training and talent can write a book - if they have the perseverance. But not many learn to write above the average - to make the prose sing, to move the reader, to use language in innovative and inspiring ways in order to create greatest impact to the reader's mind and heart. Because I believe that the joy of writing lies in learning to do that, I am committed to teaching the craft of writing to the best of my ability.

The work of editing allows me to do that task almost on a daily basis, and for that I feel very lucky. From the time I was a child, I found a thrill in the music of language - a well-turned phrase always gave me chills; when I was very young, the desire to be able to create such phrases myself was so overwhelming that it was nearly painful. A seventh-grade teacher saw my potential, and assured me that it was my calling. I still remember her with affection. I often think of her when I find a new writer with potential and I am moved to push them hard to turn out the best book that they are capable of writing.

The most popular of my blog posts seem to be the ones where I share writing tips - much to my surprise. I would think anything else would be more interesting to people, but apparently not! So . . . I thought it might be useful to present some very common situations I find as an editor when working with a beginning novelist or non-fiction writer. I hope that some of you find them useful, whether you are an experienced writer or just starting out. If you see yourself in some of these situations, and take some of these to heart in order to do better, you will be doing your readers, editors and publishers a big favor. Each situation requires some explanation, and so I am going to be presenting a series of blog posts. This first tackles sentence structure - one of the most important skills a writer can master!

I have a cardinal rule as an editor, as I edit as well as in advising the author:   Our goal is to enhance, enrich, and make enjoyable the reader's experience of your work. Any small error that hinders that is a problem that needs to be eliminated, in order that a smooth and enjoyable reading experience can be created and maintained. I often say to a writer:  "Hmmmm. I had a little reader hiccup there." I mean that something made me stop, hesitate, go back in order to re-read and better understand. In short, it interrupted the flow and thus my reading experience. These are the issues I target, and this why the little things are so very important in editing for a better book.

The following, then, are the most common things I run into again and again both with new writers, and writers experienced enough to know better but haven't properly self-edited before it got to me.

Run-on sentences.  This is terribly common as a problem in an unedited manuscript. Fortunately, it's an easy habit to break after only a little work with a writer. Cleaning this up can improve the quality of a manuscript tenfold!

In my mind, a run-on sentence is any sentence in which:

  • too much is going on - more than one or two actions at once, defined by more than one or two subjects. A big hint that this is happening is too many prepositions. 
  • there are so many personal pronouns (he, she, him, her) that the reader is confused as to whom is being discussed.
  • the sentence is so long that by the time the reader reaches the end, the point of the sentence is lost, causing the reader to go back and read it again to try to put some meaning together.

Some writers tend to write run-on after run-on, and I'm never sure why that happens. I assume that it is because either subconsciously the writer feels that a shorter sentence doesn't feel intelligent enough, or the writer doesn't understand the basic rhythm of good writing (we'll discuss that in the next section).  It's probably both.  Added to this, I think that part of gaining experience as a writer - and thus improving - is learning to "hear" your writing as the reader does. As the writer, you know what you mean, and put it down on paper. But will the reader know what you mean?  Learning to understand the enormous difference between the two, and learning to anticipate issues with reader comprehension of your prose, goes a long way toward making a better writer. Only experience (and maybe the aid of a good editor) can help you learn this.

I want to give some concrete examples of run-on sentences.

The spotted dog that was the same one from the village that the man who lives in the green house bought from the blacksmith the day before ran up the hill before he came back from the other village.

Because I hadn't read the book yet, I asked her when she wanted to have it back before I walked in the coffee shop where my brother worked and he was going to give me some coffee before I went home again.

Inside the castle where the guards were standing behind the door before they kept the people out was a wagon that had more guards but they were inside where they had tarps on top of it.  

Now, I know what you are thinking: she's exaggerating. But no, I read things like this pretty much daily! The thing is, these aren't written by incompetent people, not always by inexperienced writers. Rather, they are written by writers who are either writing so fast, caught up in the creative experience, that they just want to get it down on paper, or by people who just don't yet have the experience to know how to arrange a sentence to be clearer. In the first instance, the writer should have given the draft a read-through and correction before it ever gets to me.  (If I know they are experienced, I may tell them to take it back and clean up the draft and we will try it again!)

In both cases, the reader instinctively stops, goes back and reads it again, whispers "Huh?", and finally skips and and continues, annoyed.  Several of these experiences, and the reader simply puts the book down. You can imagine that paragraph after paragraph of this issue can give the editor a serious headache, and Heaven help the poor readers who purchase such an unedited version from Amazon!

I recommend to all writers - no matter how experienced - that for the final draft of the manuscript, they read aloud to themselves. One is much more likely to find these sentences in one's own work when reading aloud: as your tongue actually trips over the awkwardness of such sentences, you are more apt to be startled into recognizing that there is a problem. So what do you do about it, when your sentences look like this?

  • Break it up into more sentences.  Keep one - at most two - things going on at once.
  • If pronouns are confusing, use names instead of pronouns (don't be wary of overdoing this: if it helps clarity, always err on the side of using names in place of pronouns). 
  • Watch the prepositions that lead into prepositional phrases: words like "at", "for", "to", "with". If you have more than just a few prepositional phrases, you need to break it up. Every time you change prepositions, the reader's mind has to shift perception. If the reader is shifting several times in one sentence, he or she will become very confused. 
  • See if using a well-placed comma or two might clean up the confusion. However, if you use more than three commas to separate phrases (with the exception of a list of items where you need several commas), you probably need to break it all up. 
Let's tackle the above sentences. 

The spotted dog that was the same one from the village that the man who lives in the green house bought from the blacksmith the day before ran up the hill before he came back from the other village.

Lordy. Are you confused reading that? I am!  Most of the readers will be as well! (The ones who aren't need to cut back on the recreational imagination-enhancing drugs.) Let's look at the sentence's problems. 
  • Too many actions at the same time. Look at all the prepositions: "from the village", "in the green house", "from the blacksmith", "before" (twice!), "up the hill", "from the other village". By the end, the reader has no idea who is doing what!
  • Too many subjects. Again, related to too much going on. Too many subjects means too much action! The reader is getting dizzy!
  • Grammar problem. (Yep - a common one. Do you see it?)
I am going to suggest that we establish "spotted dog" as the real subject of the sentence. So . . .what is the dog actually doing?  He is running up the hill, and this he apparently does before he comes from another village. That much we can work into one sentence. Let's do this:

The spotted dog ran up the hill before he came back from the other village. (Period, end of sentence!) He was the same dog who came from the blacksmith, and whom the man who lives in the greenhouse bought.

This is the suggestion I am giving the writer, and at this point I'm feeling pretty confident about the way in which we are untangling the mess. But then the writer pipes up and exclaims, "But WAIT! The blacksmith is the one that came back from the other village, not the dog!" Okay. But from the original sentence, the reader has no way of knowing which is being referred to - the blacksmith or the dog! A problem with personal pronouns.  So let's rearrange, in order to get to the meaning that the writer intended:

The spotted dog, which the man who lives in the green house bought from the blacksmith, ran up the hill. (This addresses the original grammatical issue - which is that the writer used "that" where "which" was more proper. We will discuss these in detail in a later post in this series. Cleaning up that detail already adds clarity to the sentence.)  The dog did this before the blacksmith came back from the other village. 

Here, we have broken into two sentences.  I believe we have successfully covered all the information that the writer needed to convey, and solved both the grammar issue and the pronoun confusion (for added clarity, I chose to begin the second sentence with "The dog" rather than "He" - both are correct, but if I had used "He" the reader may have been confused, since the previous sentence contained three he's: the dog, the man in the green house, and the blacksmith).

I am going to clean up the second and third problem sentences in the following ways. See if you can see what I did, and reason out why.

Because I hadn't read the book yet, I asked her when she wanted to have it back before I walked in the coffee shop where my brother worked and he was going to give me some coffee before I went home again.

Inside the castle where the guards were standing behind the door before they kept the people out was a wagon that had more guards but they were inside where they had tarps on top of it. 

Because I hadn't read the book yet, I asked her when she wanted to have it back. Then, I walked into the coffee shop where my brother was working. He had promised to give me some coffee before I went home again.  (This isn't so difficult: there are really two completely different actions here. One involves the speaker asking about the book. The other involves the speaker, the brother and the coffee shop. Two story actions, broken up logically.)

This last sentence is a bad one. I would first ask the writer: "What 'door'? Do you mean the gate of the castle?" I would need some clarification on this to make sure I was recommending a change that would preserve the writer's intent. I would also ask: "At the end of the sentence, what does "they" and "it" refer back to? Guards? Tarps?" Problem with pronouns being confusing here! Some more information would help this situation and also add a little description, and perhaps interest. After getting some clarification from the writer, I might suggest something like this:

Inside the castle, the guards were standing behind the door of the gatehouse (doing what?), listening silently, their heads cocked. They had been charged to keep out any people who might approach unexpectedly. In the center of the inner courtyard a wagon sat, wherein more guards were hidden, a tarp pulled over their heads.   (Here, we have increased the tension for the reader, clarified what is going on by adding some description, and cleared up the pronoun confusion. Three sentences work, where there was only one long confusing one to begin with.)

In the next blog, I will be talking about creating rhythm and pace within sentences and paragraphs, and why it is important to creating great prose. 


I have been approached by a few people about creating a sort of online university for writing instruction. I am flattered, and the idea does sound inviting. My vision is that I would help the "student" work on his or her own short piece of prose, improving skill. Several types of writing would be offered, as well as various skill levels. If you think you would be interested in such an offering, I would like to hear your comments. Write me at lichencraig at yahoo dot com, and put Writing School in the email header. Thanks! 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Revisting the Eternal Question: How Much is Too Much?

In a past piece, I talked about using as many words as one needs. I still get comments and questions about that question. I thought I'd try to give a little more perspective on it.  I once got an email from a new writer, who said this:

I notice I sometimes have trouble knowing when to quit. Like, when writing certain scenes, I fret about whether or not I'm saying too much, or not enough. Sometimes I'll write it real tight, but it will seem sort of truncated when read back. So, I'll add more, but find I'm meandering.
For example, let's say I wanted to describe a character's "wardrobe malfunction"...I could use this approach...
"When Bethany leaned forward, her generous bosom strained against the front of her imported Chinese silk dress. The dress, breathtakingly low-cut, was made from the same bolt of silk that her grandfather, an ex-British naval officer, had brought home with him after the war as a gift to the wife who, unbeknownst to him, had left him month's earlier to pursue a short-lived but torrid affair with the ne'er do well son of a disgraced Count who had lost his family's fortune to the Machiavellian scheming of a Viennese banker who just so happened to be seated right next to her this very evening, eyeing her dressfront and praying silently that it was made of one of the poorer quality silks that were often being imported today."
. . .  blah, blah, blah, you get the picture. Or I could say it like this:
"When Bethany leaned forward, her breasts fell out of the top of her dress and hung there like a pair of fried eggs."
Now, I'm just using Bethany and her dangling bosoms as an example, I'd never actually WRITE anything like that...It's just that it is often hard for me to figure out when to say less, and when to say more. I have a natural tendency to become long-winded in writing, and try to avoid too much of that. But I also don't want it to sound like a Twitter feed.

I guess I'll just keep working on it.

My reply to her was this:

Linda, I work as an editor besides writing myself, so I get a question similar to yours a lot. This is what I tell people: your narrative needs to advance the story. It might either advance the plot, or contribute to characterization/atmosphere. So in your first example, the story is not advanced by veering off the path into another story about her grandfather. I would say to an author "lose that!" - unless the entire plot needs to involved her grandfather and his history, in which case i would be justified. Does that make sense? So in summary: you never have too many words, IF they advance the plot, contribute to characterization, or contribute to atmosphere. I hope that helps. :) 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Moving in a New Direction

I am sitting here with pen in hand, a writer who has built a fairly respectable reputation as someone rational, and I am struggling to write something better than a mere fan article, but I'm finding it hard. Truth is, I'm tottering on the precipice of becoming .... the horror! ...God ... ahem! ... a Directioner.

But don't get me wrong. It isn't about how cute they are - I am of an age where I look at them and think children. It isn't necessarily even about their slightly-higher-than-usual-quality formulaic music - although I have to admit it is better than I ever expected it to be despite the often inane lyrics (thank God for electronic overproduction and autotune!). It's about something that has taken me by surprise: the sense of daring these five very young men convey, the fearless projection of the new values of a new generation. Values that may change the world for the better.

From the beginning, One Direction has - if not in their music, then in their music videos and stage appearances - played with gender stereotypes and with sexual stereotypes. The humor with which these very young people tease our perceptions is endearing and mesmerizing. The confidence with which they do it is the mark of an upcoming generation of youth that refuses to be boxed in.

In GLBT literature we are beginning to see the trend emerging as well. Perhaps more than any other creative medium, written literature demands the open display of ideas - words may be vague, or cloaked in multiple meaning, but at their core they are more naked than say, paint on a canvas. Words can hide behind simplistic rhymes, commercialism, and the overshadowing of a heavy pop rhythm that a song offers.  But words in a book most often address the realities of social psyche of a given era. Today, we see literature written by individuals who are now enjoying the latter decades of life, and this literature often speaks of past realities such as the horrible isolation of gay individuals even a few decades ago, consequences of coming out in a largely hostile family environment or greater society, of AIDS and homophobia-bred violence.  These elements are still there in the upcoming literature of a new generation of GLBT literature, but to a much lesser extent. Now we see new trends in conversation emerge:  thoughts about the nature of gender, the oppression of traditional roles, of carving an identity as a GLBT community.

This trend toward new questions being asked through art is evident across mediums. Take a look at the world of fashion and the current embracing of androgyny-inspired designs.  Take a look at music, where more lyrics lend themselves to various interpretations across gender lines - it's no accident that "I Kissed a Girl" launched singer Katy Perry into the stratosphere with her first album: it spoke to a generation that is tired of boxes and labels. Take a close analytic look at the art of the music video - my own favorite growing art form - where increasingly we see experimentation toward challenging the presumptions of viewers. Nowhere is this trend more obvious, perhaps, than in one of the videos by the Ukranian pop music act, Kazaky (below).  Here, images stretch gender and sexuality perceptions to the limit and challenge the viewer to a new way of thinking.

One need only glance briefly at YouTube videos posted by teens, or take a look at teens on the street, to see this trend.  But it goes further than appearance. Teens and young adults, feeling the first pangs that something is truly different about their own sexuality, are less and less willing to hide from the larger heterosexual community as every decade passes. But more than this, they are less willing to allow the larger GLBT community to force them into a box. These are kids who refuse a label, who experiment with sexual and gender ideas without apology - and increasingly without shame.

In Gentlemen's Game, I stretched some of the assumptions about sexuality. Although response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive - something for which I have been rather surprised and always grateful - it was sometimes met with some hostility. This came from both the straight community, where a true depiction of the variety and nuances of male sexuality was perceived as threatening, and the gay community, where a character refusing to accept a "gay" label was seen as an unacceptable betrayal of an ideology that has long struggled with legitimacy.

But I feel a certain spirit in today's upcoming generation - an exhilarated freedom and embracing of one's true self in all its shades of colors, that is for me exciting and so long overdue. And so I have to smile when I see that figurative open, unapologetic wink in a One Direction video as they tease their audience's perceptions. It's a myth that their core following is made up of only twelve-year-old girls; I see older teens, moms and dads, and young people of both genders openly enjoying their music (let's not forget those male fans in the gay community!).  I have a feeling that many more are in the closet with their favorite One Directon CDs. Below is the video from "Kiss You" - watch closely for the surprising gender/sexuality-challenging gags.

The five young men of One Direction enjoy the game and the tease, and do it with a lot of humor. These aren't young people who take themselves too seriously, and that betrays an unusual streak of maturity. The very fact that they insist upon these delightful antics despite their handlers - whom I would guess at the first were less than enthusiastic about it until they saw that audiences loved it - speaks to their confidence.  And it also speaks to their membership in a generation that is destined to finally turn a corner for society that has needed turning for some time.  It's a new destination in which all of us - in both the straight and the gay communities - are challenged to look beyond the safety and the inevitable oppression of the labels in which we have in the past found solace, and stretch our minds into a new direction.  Kudos to young people like the guys in One Direction, who are leading the way.

Watch some more serious gender-bending by One Direction below:

And here, a blog illustrating exactly what I just said :

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Love This Idea!

I don't post advertisements, unless I'm talking about a book or film. But I have to talk about this. I recently got a prepaid debit card with Pride colors.  How fun is that?  Plus, it makes a statement when I use it. Interesting how many people comment about it and don't get the meaning, so I get a chance to do my soapbox a little bit. 

If you have never had a prepaid debit card, they are very cool. The idea is that you load it with funds you already have. You can have your employer put your paycheck on it, you can transfer funds from another account, or load it with Paypal.  There is no application or denial.  It's like carrying around a portable savings account. I add a little to mine every month for an emergency pet fund - that way when one of my dogs gets injured at 11 p.m. or on a Sunday, and I end up in animal emergency, I don't have to panic about what's in my account. 

For more info about this card, go to Gay Pride Visas