February 9, 2024

Birds AND Bees

Last week was a bit of a flop, sorry. It happens sometimes, and I’m trying to be better about not letting it throw everything off for a week. We’ll still talk about throwing things out, don’t worry. I’m rescheduling a bit, moving a few things back on the calendar

Speaking of the calendar… Valentine’s Day is next week! With all the fun indoor (and sometimes outdoor, if you’re daring) activities many of us associate with said holiday.

So I though, in the spirit of the day, it might be worth revisiting the sometimes awkward topic of… writing sex scenes.

Don’t worry. None of this is going to be too explicit or NSFW and it probably won’t get your work machine flagged. You know your boss better than I do. Move forward accordingly.

Like sex itself, a lot of writing sex is going to come down to our own personal preferences, comfort zones, and what works in a given situation. As such, it’s going to be really tough to offer any specific advice about when and where and how these moments should happen in your book.

What I wanted to talk about here is more the act itself, so to speak. Writing sex scenes is a skill, just like writing action or gore or anything else. It’s a balancing act of too much vs. too little, exciting the reader or maybe horrifying them, and it’s ridiculously easy to make people roll their eyes.

No, not like that.

So here’s a few things I tend to keep in mind when writing a sex scene.

One is that we don’t always need to show sex happening in order for sex to have happened in my story. Nuance and subtext are a huge part of sexiness—on the page and in real life. If Phoebe drags Yakko off into the forest while the rest of us are siting around the campfire, we can make an educated guess what they’re probably doing out there. Especially with context. If they’ve been flirting for the whole trip up to the mountain, whispering to each other while setting up tents, and they come back half an hour later with stupid grins, wrinkled clothes, and leaves in their hair… I mean, is anybody confused what they were doing out there?

So depending on the overall tone of my story, maybe I don’t actually need to write out my sex scene—I can just let my reader fill in the blanks themselves. And again, like so many well-done subtle things, this can end up being much, much sexier than actually spelling everything out. As an artist friend once pointed out, “nudity isn’t sexy. It’s what you don’t see that gets you turned on.”

Probably worth noting that, like any kind of subtext, there’s always the possibility it’ll slip past some folks. So depending on how important this particular hookup is to my plot or my story, I may want to be a little… y’know, less subtle. Just to help keep things moving. Still don’t have to show anything, but maybe drop one or two more clues when we return from our walk in the woods.

Two, if I’m going to show my sex scene, I want to remember that sex is… well, action. Not necessarily in “expending lots of energy and effort” (although that might be the case in this story), just that actual, physical things are happening in my story. And like any other action, it gets dull fast when it’s written poorly. Yes, it can get dull.

There’s going to be some exceptions, but I think most action shouldn’t take much longer to read then it would take to happen. Nobody wants to read about a three paragraph sniper shot or a four page fist fight. When I over-analyze or over-describe anything, I’m slowing the pace of my story, and I don’t want to slow things down to tell my reader how fast things are happening.

And writing about sex works the same way. I’m not saying every sex scene has to have the frantic intensity and enthusiasm of two college sophomores, but If I’m telling you these two people are eagerly ripping each others clothes off and it’s taking six paragraphs for it to happen… you’re probably going to start skimming. And that’s never good. Strong action trusts that the reader’s going to fill in a lot of the blanks and understand what happened between A and C.

Now, since we’re talking about describing all that action…

Three would be personal taste. I think the catch with writing explicit sex scenes is they essentially become porn. Porn, as a friend once pointed out, is when we see everything. And after a certain point, that’s pretty much exactly what we’re talking about with any written-out sex scene. And some people like porn, some don’t. No judgment either way. That’s just a simple truth.

But there’s more to it than that. Because even the people who do like porn don’t all like the same kind of porn. This particular act really turns me on, but you find it kind of quaint and almost routine. Reading about that might weird me out, this might be a complete non-starter for you, and that… okay, that seriously disturbs both of us. On a number of levels. It’s a pretty safe bet that the more explicit—or shall we say, exotic—my sex scene becomes, the less people it’s going to appeal to. And the more people it’s going to… not appeal to.

This is going to be one of those points where I want to have a very clear sense of who the audience is going to be for this story. And I need to be honest about that. What kind of sex scene I put in, and how I describe it, is going to have an impact, so I want to be sure it’s the kind of impact I’m trying for.

Four, last but not least, is something I’ve also talked about with my rules of love that I bring up now and then. Y’see, Timmy, for a long time Hollywood tried to convince us if two good looking people (or even average-looking people) ended up alone in an apartment, a car, an office, a cave, whatever… they’d have sex. It was just what people did. What else were they going to do? Talk? Watch television? Read?

And there are a lot of reasons to think this way. A fair number of people enjoy sex. A decent amount of folks have a phase in their lives where sex is a high priority. And crass as it may sound… sex sells. More than a few filmmakers sold an additional ticket or three (or four or five rentals) off the promise of skin and naughtiness.

But the truth is… most of us don’t have sex at the drop of a hat. And there are times and places that it’s just not going to work. For any number of reasons. Sometimes the reason that sex scene feels kind of forced and gratuitous is because… well… it is

So go forth on this holiday and write your sexy moments. But please consider if you really need to show them. And how they’re paced. And who you’re writing them for. And if they should be there at all.

Next time… I’d like to talk about the new tabletop game my friends and I have been playing. And how it relates to writing.

Until then, go write.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

August 24, 2023

It’s All Greek to Me…

About a year and a half ago, when the ranty writing blog was still out in the wild, I did a post about being a little cautious when I use made-up words in fiction. Y’know, words like cromulent or midichlorian or squale. In the comments, Oliver asked if the same would hold for real-world foreign languages as well. Should I be cautious using, say, Japanese words the same way I would be using Klingon technospeak?

Which is why I’d like to talk about paint.

I think we’re all familiar with the idea of slapping a quick coat of paint on something to make it look new or different, right? House flippers do it, painting rooms with the latest colors and shades. Not unheard of for a used car to get a fresh coat of paint on it either. Heck, if you’re familiar with Games Workshop, I’d guess 83% of their “new and different” armies are just a lot of the same models with different colored paint on them. Again, it’s not a new idea. It was blue, now it’s red. It was something we’d seen before and now it’s something cool and different and, y’know… red.

And sometimes… we do this with storytelling. It’s the same character, but now she’s a brunette instead of a blonde. It’s the same old capitalism, but now they’re credits instead of dollars. Same problems, but now he’s hooked on stimms instead of drugs. We slap on a quick coat of paint and whoa-ho! now it’s an alien future world with a different financial system and everything! Hey, those stimms are fifty credits each! Your Earth-dollars are no good here on our very different alien planet.

Now let’s talk about languages…

I want to be clear this is a “no easy answers” topic. Much like with completely fictional words, a lot of it’s going to depend on the story, my intended audience, and context. This isn’t something where I can say “only four foreign words per page and never do more than sixteen per chapter” and that answer will fit every scenario in every book by every other author. There’s just too many possibilities to cover.

There’s also that whole gray area of words I can feel relatively confident most people don’t think of as foreign-language words. Even here in the United States, where the majority of our paler citizenry famously only knows one language, most folks would understand words like bonjour, quesadilla, dosvidania, kaiju, aloha, or gesundheit. So should we be counting them? Do I need to explain what a quesadilla is? Or a kaiju?

Anyway, rather than give out any firm rules for how to do this, I’d like to offer you a couple of loose guidelines to keep in mind.

First off, why am I including these words? In a general sense, but also specifically this one and that one and those three on the last page. Am I trying to establish a setting or a character’s speech pattern? Or am I just slapping down that coat of paint to give my characters or setting a thin veneer of “otherness”? Yeah, look, we’re definitely in Cairo now– see, the guy said shookran instead of thanks.

I want it to be clear these words are necessary. They’re an integral, load-bearing part of the setting and the characters. And just in case you didn’t know… paint isn’t load-bearing.

Second, is it going to be clear to my readers what these words mean? Maybe not exactly crystal clear, but is there enough on the page, in context or subtext, for a reader to figure out this is a piece of clothing (maybe outerwear), that was her brother’s name, and that was an expletive (and definitely not one you’d use around your mother)? If there’s not enough there for my reader to understand it, is it going to get explained to them? And if they can’t figure it out and I’m not going to explain it… is it really a word I need?

There’s a bunch of ways to use words in my writing that my readers might not know. I want to remember that hitting an unknown, indecipherable word will break the flow of my story for a reader.

Also worth noting an important aspect of this—my chosen audience. We all want our books to be international best sellers with three or four million readers, but the truth is we’re probably going to be aiming at a specific group of people. Even if it’s just something like “sci-fi fans” or “religious thriller fans.” And hey– religious thriller fans might know a lot more Latin than the average reader. So I might not need as much context/explanation for some of those words.

Third, am I absolutely sure I’m using these words correctly? Look, languages are tricky, complex things. They all have their own subtleties and nuances and… look, this may come as a shock to you but Google Translate is not quite on par with the Federation’s universal translator. Especially now that they’ve plugged it into their half-assed AI. There are languages out there that do things English can’t even wrap its head around. Like, you may remember from high school that a lot of other languages have feminine and masculine verbs. Heck, y’know how English has singular and plural? Well, Arabic has dual. Yep, a whole way of dealing with verbs and nouns that’s specifically for two people. Spend a few minutes thinking how that changes how you write. And think. And if I’m using these words in the wrong way…

Or how about this–there are some words in English that have multiple meanings, but in other languages they’re actually multiple words. If you don’t know the difference, just looking up how to say this word in German could cause problems, he said, from personal experience. When I was writing The Broken Room, at one point in an earlier draft I’d unknowingly used the Spanish verb “shield” (as in, this lead vest will shield you from the X-rays) as opposed to the noun “shield” (the thing Captain America uses). Still can’t remember what made me check it again, but around the third draft I suddenly just had this weird, gnawing worry about it.

Anyway, those are my three personal rules-of-thumb for using other languages.

And I’ll leave you with this one other thing to consider. Benjamin Dreyer, reigning copy editor supreme at Penguin Random House (that’s his actual title) has suggested maybe we should stop italicizing foreign words. Italics generally mean emphasis, and we used to italicize words in other languages to highlight their difference. These weren’t normal words. They were Spanish words, words people used in some strange, different place.

We’re all past that, right? I mean, did any of you have a problem with aloha and gesundheit not being in italics up above? Maybe it’s time to admit words in another language are just… words.

Things to keep in mind when you write.

Speaking of which…

I haven’t had any suggestions or requests in a while now. I’m sure I can struggle on for a bit longer, coming up with ideas on my own. But if there’s something you’d like an answer to or some help with or just wondered what my thoughts were on a topic… please let me know in the comments. And if not, i guess next time I’ll just blather on about, I don’t know, creative writing classes I took in the past or something like that.

Until then, go write.

July 27, 2023

Devil In The Details

Hey, look! Lori made a request a few weeks back and we’re fulfilling that request. Because that’s how we roll here!

So, the question is details. How much is too much? How do you know if it’s not enough?

This won’t be great to hear but… this is pretty much impossible to answer. Mostly because writing is art and all art is subjective and a lot of the stuff we call “description” is a huge chunk of the art portion of this equation. Hypothesis? Theorem?

Anyway, my book isn’t going to be anything like your book. Your style isn’t going to be anything like my style. And we each probably have different ideas about how we want our respective stories to land. And that’s before we even touch on basic structure ideas, that different chapters and scenes are going to have different pacing and purposes and will need different levels of description and detail. Within the earlier restrictions I mentioned about our individual styles and all that.

Really filling you with confidence right now, aren’t I?

I thought about this a bit, and I think the best thing I can do is give you my own personal rules for how I tend to approach these things in my own writing. The sort of rules-of-thumb I use to decide if I spend a paragraph describing someone or something, or a full page, or maybe just half a sentence. And like any kind of writing advice, this is just what works for me, so it might not work for you. It definitely won’t work for that guy. But hopefully it’ll get you thinking and considering things in your own work…

So here’s my three guidelines for adding (or not adding) details/descriptions in my writing.

1) Are these details necessary

There’s an idea I’ve brought up once or thrice here before, Damon Knight’s information vs noise. Facts we don’t know are information. Facts we already know are noise. We like getting information and we pay attention to it. Noise is annoying, and we tend to ignore it whenever we can.

In my mind, describing objects, places, or processes that we all know is kind of a waste of my word count and the reader’s patience. Especially if these things aren’t somehow important to my plot or story. We all know what a smartphone looks like. And a grocery store. And how to pump gas. I don’t want to spend my precious words on things like this. I want to use them to describe the strange pendant that woman slipped into my pocket when she bumped into me. Or that alien in the middle of the road I might have just hit with my car.

What’s that in the back? Well, yeah, there are a lot of makes and models of phones out there. Very true. But honestly… how many of them look all that different, especially once they’re in a case? I mean, think of the BBC Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch. His smartphone was a huge part of his character and how he interacted with others, and the show itself changed how everyone does texting in television and movies.

Off the top of your head,…can you say if Sherlock’s phone was an Android or iPhone? You probably can’t because the truth is it’s completely irrelevant. It would’ve been a waste of time to make any sort of distinction.

In fact, as I’m scribbling this, I’d like to expand on the information/ noise idea a bit. I think the first few times we encounter obvious noise in a story, we tend to think there’s a reason for it. That the author has a purpose for describing something we’d otherwise consider not worth mentioning. I mean, they wouldn’t give us half a page of description of the waitress and give her a name if she wasn’t kind of important to the story, right? This has to be information. And that’s why this sort of thing can cause a lot of frustration, because at some point the readers realize the waitress is irrelevant and it doesn’t matter what kind of phone she uses and they’ve just been processing a lot of noise that isn’t necessary to the story.

Now, before anyone gets too grumpy, I want to move on to my next wishy-washy rule…

2) Do these details serve a purpose

A purpose? Wait, isn’t that what I was just saying? Am I having a stroke?

When I say a detail serves a purpose, I mean it might not be a necessary, integral part of my plot or story, but I still have a reason for including it. Maybe it’s helping me set the tone or the mood or it’s hinting at something about a character or location or an object. Whatever it is, if you asked I could explain the function of this bit of description.

For example, what color and model of car Yakko drives is probably irrelevant to my plot. It’s important that he has a car, but nothing hinges on him having, for example, an economy car vs a sport scar. The reader could picture either and nothing would change in my story. But if I call it his fire-engine red midlife crisis on wheels? That’s giving you piles of extra information, isn’t it? It’s not necessary, but it serves a purpose.

A few key things here. First is word choice. Since I’m putting in this description for a reason, I should really make sure the words I choose push that purpose. Like with Yakko’s car. It could’ve just been a red sports car, but describing it the way I did told you it’s a red sports car and about Yakko, and about how I (or maybe the narrator?) want you to view him in this story.

Second is not to go overboard. It’s easy to describe more and more and more and come up with a rationalization for all of it. Like, if I want to show how wealthy someone is, I could give lush descriptions of every item in their office and it’d all fall nicely under the umbrella of “showing how wealthy they are.” But I could also probably do this by focusing on just one or two things– maybe that painting or the weird glass sculpture of.. whatever that is. Friggin’ modern art. Costs a bundle and I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be a flower or a naked woman or maybe it’s just a shape? I don’t know. Some people have money to burn, right?

I’ve got one more details guideline for you. I really think this is the most important thing about including details. If you want to ignore the last two things, fine, but please consider this one…

3) Are these details affecting the pacing

Almost universally, things are going to get faster and tenser as my plot and story progress. That’s just basic narrative structure. It picks up its pace as it moves along. And I want my readers to feel that quickening of events, that rise of tension. I want it to carry them along like a wave carries a surfer.

Description almost always brings things to a halt. It can’t be helped. In the real world we can actually see/ hear/ feel things and absorb all those details almost instantly, but on the page we have to write them out. A single glance can take four or five paragraphs to cover everything we saw.

This means it’s very easy for details to mess up my pacing. If things are moving at even a mild pace, one or two paragraphs of description can slow things down and knock us out of the story for a moment. If we’re near the end and things have really picked up speed, hitting even a few lines of excess description can be jarring. So I need to be careful about where and when I deploy them.

It’s my own personal style, but I’ve mentioned before that I like action (as in fists and guns and swords and car chases action) to feel like it takes about as long to read as it would take to happen. As close as possible, anyway. It doesn’t sell a blinding-fast martial arts fight to write out each strike, each block, each counter. Same with running in sheer terror from the monster in the woods, which has two primary horns on each side of its head, three smaller curled horns clustered around them, and a sort of ridged brow over each eye, which are a fiery red. These are times when–IMHO–pausing to add a lot of detail can really kill the pacing or tension. It knocks us out of the fast-paced flow of the moment and suddenly we’re standing around counting eyebrow ridges instead of running for our goddamned lives.

Also, overall, I feel it’s better to describe things earlier than later. The pacing should be slower in the beginning of a story, so it makes a brief pause here or there fit in better. Plus, it makes sense to describe things when we first see them (or when we eventually stop running away from them)

And again, there could always be an exception to this. There might be an all-new element in the third act that has to be described in detail. But really, if you think about it, structure kind of demands these things be rare. If I’m introducing a lot of necessary stuff in my third act… something may have gone wrong somewhere.

So that’s it. Those are the three ways I tend to screen my descriptions and details to figure out if they’re good, excessive, or just completely unnecessary. Hope they help a little.

And if you’ve got a question or a topic request, please let me know.

Next time here, I’d like to talk a little bit about one of our planet’s great philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

It’s going to be so much fun.

Until then, go write.

March 11, 2022

I’ve Been Framed!

This week’s random topic is something that’s been gnawing at me for a while. I’ve been batting it around, trying to come up with a good way to explain it, and I think the catch is there really isn’t a good way to do it. This is one of those slightly-more-advanced writing things I either understand or I don’t. If I do… I probably already know to avoid it.

Anyway let’s see if I can stumble through some analogies and examples and hopefully make this a little clearer.

You’ve probably heard the term framing once or twice. It has to do with how I choose to present things in a story. If my character is talking about something, how they’re saying it is part of the framing. So is how people react to it—in both out loud and unspoken ways. How I choose to describe it in the text says a lot about it, too. Framing can involve a lot of subtext, and a lot of not-so-sub text.

(also, just to be clear, we’re not taking about frame stories which are something else altogether that I’ve meant to ramble on about for a while now)

So let’s jump storytelling forms for a moment and I’ll give our first example.

In moviemaking (and photography) people talk about framing a shot. This is a very similar idea. If I’ve got Phoebe on camera, it’s how I’m choosing to set up this shot. How are going to set the edges of the shot? What’s in the background or foreground? How close are we to her? What angle are we seeing her from? Is the camera static or moving? And if it’s moving, how is it moving?

How I frame the shot affects how we, the audience, perceive this shot. It’s an added layer of meaning. A sort of visual subtext, if you will.

Here’s an example I’ve given you a few times before. Let’s say our scene is the young lovers dashing up to the bedroom. One pushes the other down on the bed and then does a sexy, laughing striptease for them. Easy to picture, yes?

However… we’re going to frame this with a handheld camera, looking though the crack between the closet doors. As the shirt gets tossed and those pants are wiggled out of, the camera can tilt one way or another, so the audience can see as much as possible. Where things land, what state of undress people are in. But, y’know… all through that narrow crack.

And this has suddenly become different scene, hasn’t it? Not so fun and sexy anymore. Now we’re just waiting to see who—or what—comes bursting out of that closet. because there’s definitely something in that closet, right? They wouldn’t be framing the shot this way if there wasn’t somebody in there watching all this happen.

That’s kind of the key point I’m awkwardly getting at here. Things can get weird in movies when there’s a big disconnect between what’s going on in the scene and what the subtext tells us is going on in the scene. One of them will usually override the other, and since movies are a visual format, the camerawork—the framing—can override any spoken text pretty easily.

Now, a lot of time this is deliberate. That scene I just described above (and a few hundred just like it) is a pretty standard horror movie shot, especially for slasher movies. The unknown killer watches from the closet. Or maybe just that pervy voyeur they’ll yell at when he stumbles out of the closet (and then they’ll throw him out of the room and he’ll be the one who gets killed). Point is, the storytellers (in this case, the filmmakers) are deliberately subverting what should be a sexy scene by framing it in a way that make it very creepy.

Thing is… it isn’t always that way. If you’ve ever followed along with Saturday geekery on Twitter, you know one of my common complaints is when inexperienced filmmakers try to copy a shot from another movie without really understanding why it worked in that movie. I’ve seen folks do the “peeking out of the closet” shot or the “looking through the window from outside” shot and they did it because, well, that’s how you film sexy scenes in horror movies, right? Wasn’t it super hot when she was swaying at the end of the bed and pulling open her…wait, what? You thought it was ominous? Why? Now suddenly the film is stumbling because the sexy scene is creepy as hell but it was supposed to just be… well, sexy.

And the audience will sense this screw-up. Even if we don’t always know the syntax or conjugation, so to speak, we know enough filmic language to realize something wasn’t landing right there. We’ll figure out eventually from context (y’know, when something doesn’t come out of the closet), but that stumble is going to break the flow and throw us out of the movie as we try to figure out what’s actually going on. Was this a creepy scene or a sexy scene or what? How were we supposed to feel about it?
And we can frame things in our writing, too. We can layer in that subtext through our characters and their reactions, our story structure, even just with with our vocabulary choices. We can make insults sound like compliments, word something innocent so it could be flirty, make it really clear how weak that guy making the loud, angry speech is.

But…

If we’re not careful when we do this, we can end up with that same stumble I was just talking about inexperienced filmmakers causing. If Yakko just insulted Phoebe but my word choice makes it sounds a little too much like a compliment, even though we know Yakko wouldn’t compliment her… well, wait, what’s going on? Or if everything structure-wise says this is when I learn if Phoebe is the super-werewolf or not and instead it’s revealed that we first went to the Moon in 1969… I mean, that’s not remotely the answer we were looking for. It’s not even really an answer. It’s just a random fact. Is it even relevant to this story? And why is it in italics? Why are we emphasizing it? Did somebody think the Moon landing was in some other year?

I know this is one of those things that sounds kind of silly and self-apparent, but I’m surprised now often I’ll come across it. A writer pretty clearly trying to do X, but they’ve set everything up as Y. Unusual framing. Odd vocabulary. Weird emphasis. Things that feel like they’re meant for a different version of this scene. And like with the films, I think these writers are trying to copy something they saw work, but haven’t quite worked out why it worked.

And that’s why this is a tough thing to explain. It’s hard for me to say “make sure you’re using the right subtext for your scene” when I don’t know the scene or the subtext you’re currently using or the effect you’re trying to create with it. It’s going to be different for every writer, every project, every scene.

Okay, I know this hasn’t been super-helpful, so let me toss out a few last suggestions that should make it easier to avoid this issue.

1) Know what words mean—This should be a serious basic for any writer. A bad habit most of us start with is running across words we don’t know and kinda getting their meaning from context, and then using them as we kinda think they’re intended. Which, no surprise, can cause real confusion for people who actually know what the word means. And that’s not even taking into account that I might spell it wrong and spellcheck swaps in some other word altogether. Which I also don’t know.

2) Know how this is supposed to make my readers feel– is this a sexy page or a scary page? Funny or creepy? Should my readers be tense or fascinated? If I don’t know how this bit’s supposed to make them feel, how can I get any sort of emotion across on the page? Bonus—knowing this should also help me figure out if any moments are particularly jarring. Not in the way I might want.

3) Work on my Empathy– I’ve said it before and it’s still true. I need to understand how other people are going to react to things. If I don’t have a good, honest sense of how this character’s going to be received, how that line of dialogue’s going to go over, how my readers will react to this beat or that reveal… well, it’s going to be tough to tell a story. I need to be able to put myself in other people’s shoes so I can take a look at my work and say “Wow… if I do it like this, the readers are totally going to think someone’s in the closet watching Chris and Pat.”

Anyway… this was a little rambly, but hopefully you got something out of it.

Next time… look, I’ll be honest. I’m not sure there’s going to be a post next week because I’ve got a four or five hour drive on Friday and then a talk about worldbuilding. Plus—if you hadn’t heard– I had a new book come out last week and I’ve been a bit overwhelmed. Which means now I’m playing a bit of catch-up. But I’ll try to get something out, if time allows.

Until then… go write.

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