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 feeling 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! (Well, only use one or two. Except batting eyelashes. For the love of God don't say that. Ever.)
  • 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 do 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; or explain to her that the stories come from imagination, and you would never actually do that stuff yourself.

The second situation I listed on 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 emphasize 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 readers, specifically those sharing your moral sensibilities, will appreciate it. But as many a Christian writer discovers, they are a small part of the market. Many will assume that 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, your income, and worst - 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 fake. 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 - a decades-old classic. 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, or my novella Quandary, 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 characters' 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 conflicts, fears, and 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 of the series, 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 speak - 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. Think about how real sex is - it's messy, occasionally humorous, sometimes embarrassing or clumsy. Adding those elements will make the scene real.
 - 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, which left echoes of their music long after the read was over. It was 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: