Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sex is Complicated, Even When You Write It

One of the highest compliments I receive is when a man - in particular a gay man - tells me the sex scenes are "hot" and realistic. Often I am asked how they come to be that way.

Let me first say that I enjoy writing them. Our sexual relationships reflect who we are at our core; what happens in the bedroom reflects our inner lives in and out of the bedroom. For that reason, when I am telling an emotional story about humans evolving I can't tell it without including that very important part of human experience. I can honestly say that, although my sex scenes are sometimes detailed, I have never written one solely to titillate: to me that puts one in the realm of pornography. Rather, I write them because they are integral to the story of a character's experience and evolution in the course of the book.

As to how a sex scene between men comes to be true to life, I have little explanation. I can tell you that I do research. I read - about fellatio from a man's point of view, about anal sex and gay men, about male experience. I have watched gay porn - but most of it is emotionless and stale. I read some gay porn; that sometimes gives me an idea or two. But after giving this some thought I have to say that the most important ingredient is that I envy men their sexual experience. I think that men take ownership over and enjoy their sexual experience far more - in general - than women do.

Part of the reason behind this is cultural: men are taught to be sexual and are considered healthy, normal and virile when they do. A woman who is overtly sexual is referred to negatively. Another reason is the inherent reality of pregnancy: sexual behavior is a two-edged sword for women - it almost never comes without physical and emotional risk.

But whatever the reasons, men behave differently than women, and as a writer I find that this has to come into play. I am a little surprised and disturbed by "gay romance" I have read where the roles of the two lovers are little different than that of heterosexual lovers in a Harlequin romance: the formula is the same, and one of them plays a decidedly submissive (translate: feminine) role. I don't find this realistic - and if the author of such a book has as her/his goal mere fantasy and entertainment that is fine. For me personally though, I always grapple with the feeling that I want to treat the community about which I am writing respectfully, and to that end I try to get inside men's heads as much as I can. The ability of men - heterosexual or homosexual - to grab sex by the horns, to behave as if lust and enjoyment are their birthright, is amazing and enviable to me.

The sheer unapologetic joy with which men seem to approach sex is inspiring to me. I believe that when writing a sex scene, I start from that joy and sense of entitlement, and write the scene around it. So far, it seems to be working.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Weighing Reader Sensibilities: "This Book Made Me So Mad!"

One way books get noticed by readers is at websites such as and These are non-commercial sites that function as social networking places for those who love books. Users exchange recommendations and reviews, and hold discussion about their favorite reads. The very nature of this type of site invites the formation of cliques.

Recently, I was cautioned that a specific group of people on one of these sites "don't like infidelity, menage, or anything like that". Over several days, I came to understand what that meant: this group likes a sweet little M/M romance, wrapped up in a neat bow, with no real drama, no real-life questions or struggles - at least not the type that are uncomfortable and for which there are no easy answers. And I don't want to knock these types of books. Heaven knows readers need a respite from the seriousness of their daily lives. But the attitude inherent in this clique discourages books that deal with heavier subject matter, and worse, the group dynamic discourages members from exploring such titles.

What is the job of a writer? First, perhaps it is to entertain. If the book isn't entertaining no one is going to be reading it. Beyond that though, it gets more complex. Sometimes the job of the writer is to offer escapism. Sometimes - maybe at the other end of the spectrum of reading experiences - the job of the writer is to challenge the reader to think. I personally think the best books accomplish both. What about a book that makes the reader uncomfortable? What about characters that do things the reader finds reprehensible?

I think that a book full of nasty characters is not entertaining. Not for me. Similarly, a book that offers a main character that is unattractive from an ethical or moral standpoint, is difficult to stick with. But what about the character who is pleasing, and commits a heinous act? Do we do away with the book?

Life is messy. Good people do things they shouldn't to one another. Sometimes they are forgiven. Sometimes not. There is a lot of gray area in real life; the black and white we find in fictional stories is not often realistic. As a writer, one has to decide whether a book is going to

- offer simple mindless escapism. This is not an unworthy goal. Bringing a little escape to a weary reader is always worthwhile.

- challenge attitudes and beliefs. If a writer chooses this path, one has to be prepared for some fallout: an angry reviewer here and there, people who just can't swallow the details of the story enough to bring themselves to a place of contemplation.

- do both. This is tricky. Because in order to do both you have to challenge in a very quiet way; you have to avoid interrupting the peace of escapism while subtly raising some questions in the reader's mind.

Again, I think the best books (and their authors) accomplish both. I am still working on it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

When Characters Come Alive

People often ask me if I write an outline before I write a book-length manuscript. Here is what I tell them: For non-fiction always. For fiction, no. Many fiction writers do write and follow an outline, but a minority find that doesn't work and I am one of those. I tend to be, rather, very character-driven. I have to form a character in my head first. By the time I start writing I know this character's background, personality, preferences, fears, joys. The stronger and deeper the character is the better I write. I find that a strong character tells the story to me and I write it down.

One interesting aspect of working in this fashion is that sometimes characters do things I don't want them to. Those who have read Gentlemen's Game will be interested to know that I had no idea what was going to happen in Chapter 14 until about Chapter 7. I woke up one morning and knew what would happen, and wrote 14. This is one of the few times I wrote out of chronological order. I also did not know what would happen in Chapter 21 - the last chapter of the book. I was in the middle of it when The Scene started (those familiar with the book know what scene I mean!) - I thought "Greyson what are you doing?" I was horrified.

But this is the thing: if I try to force my characters into an action or direction that they don't want to go naturally, my writing stinks. I have to give them a long leash and stay out of their way. A few different famous writers have discussed this phenomenon - that of the character taking over. Most memorably Stephen King wrote a short story about a character coming after the author with a vengeance - Johnny Depp starred in the film.

Has anyone written a strong character that then wanted to tell a story? I would love to hear about your experience!

Monday, February 13, 2012

What a Week!

My life as a novelist begins with a bang. Great comments and reviews, boost in sales in the first week. This all makes ones heart beat faster, the world seem a bit brighter. Then there are other comments - the book made a few readers angry (although both claimed to like it in the end), some have issues with the morality - not of the author, mind you, but of the characters. This is like a roller coaster ride. The trick is to keep your heart out of it and your focus on the original message.

It certainly does make me think: what constitutes a "good" book? What does "good" mean? Certainly there are technical aspects - language use, plot, characterization, pacing, flow. But beyond that, when we have the technical stuff down and we are just talking about reader experience, what makes up "good"?

I have to wonder if a book that 1)makes someone rethink life and morality and love, and 2) makes one ask questions they are reluctant to ask of themselves, and 3) haunts the reader afterward - is a success in the end. I wonder if a "good" book doesn't have to make the reader happy in order to leave them satisfied.

Perhaps that satisfaction comes hours, or weeks or months after reading. Maybe it doesn't come until there has been time to digest and perhaps reread. Maybe stirring up emotion in a reader no matter what those emotions are, and causing him or her to think in a new way, is in the end success?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Writer's Guide to E-Publishing: An invaluable resource for indie writers

If you are serious about getting a book out there, you have researched the changing trends in publishing. The days of traditional publishing houses holding writers by the throat are gone. "Independent" writers have taken advantage of the resources first offered by Amazon, and are changing the world of publishing to be more writer-friendly. What this means for the reader is that there will be access to subject matter and out-of-genre books that wasn't there before. My own book, Gentlemen's Game did not fit into a traditional genre, the sort of niche a publisher would demand. While it is a love story of sorts, it is not conforming to the "romance" formula publishing houses demand, and on top of that the romance is between men. The Indie route seemed the most logical for me. Beginning at The Writer's Guide to E-Publishing as a resource for information about the benefits of Indie Publishing, I became convinced that it would be more beneficial to me to retain rights and control of the work. Writers who are overwhelmed by various resources of information as we are entering a new era of publishing are encouraged to visit The Writer's Guide to E-Publishing to start your journey to publication with some great information from writers who are already doing it!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Library Thing - Disneyland for Avid Readers!

I have recently stumbled into a site called Library Thing that is a reader's dream come true. Basically, it is an online personal library in which you store reviews and recommendations of books you read, for other readers. You can store up to 200 books for free.

Seems to me this is a long time coming: here, a reader can browse by subject or genre and virtually eliminate the headache of searching out and/or buying bad books. The ability of a potential reader to check out a book's reputation ahead of time with other readers is exactly what is needed in a world where there are millions of books available.

In addition, the reader can connect to other readers with similar tastes through the site's sytem; readers have the option to post written reviews and star ratings. It's a great way to find books in your area of interest of which you are unaware.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Media Isn't Helping

Today Reuters reported that talkshow host/comedienne, openly gay Ellen Degeneres, is under attack by the group One Million Moms (OMM, a right-wing conservative organization that is truly to the extreme far right of even the right wing. The group is up in arms that JC Penney would hire Degeneres as the new spokesperson. Never mind that Degeneres is rather mainstream in terms of television, hilariously funny, and reportly unfailingly kind.

But what is really interesting about today's news is that it warranted coverage. Bigotry is not new, and I find it a bit disturbing that Reuters found this worth trumpeting all over the news wires. Not only is it likely embarrassing to Degeneres, but it encourages hate: from the far right because it advertises Degeneres' new connection to JC Penney, and from the far left who will find this all just another reason to bash conservatives. Never mind that many conservatives are not bigots, support gay rights, and in fact are occasionally gay themselves.

With all that is happening in the world, why does Reuters find it appropriate to put its journalistic energy into stirring the pot of controversy? While bigotry is always valid as a point of discussion, I have to question the appropriateness of this venue. It seems designed to do nothing but incite hatred and misunderstanding on both sides. I often wonder if - when we refuse to just stop talking about it and stop listening to it - the fuel that burns the fire of hatred just ... dies.